Mercy There Was Great, and Grace Was Free…

How big is God’s forgiveness? I know the Biblical answer: “As far as the East is from the West, so far does He remove our transgressions from us” (Psalm 103:12 ESV); but sometimes, I add subconscious limits to God’s Grace. Sure, I know He can forgive my sins. And your sins. And even sins that make me shudder. I know that He offers forgiveness to all who call on His name in Faith. But sometimes, I question. I add qualifications–“if only..”–because sometimes, it’s overwhelming to think about the enormity and scope and freedom of God’s Grace.

Often, we see God as the great Judge– and He is–the only one with final authority to judge what is right and wrong; who “deserves” punishment or reward. But Jesus came, not only to be the perfect sacrifice for our Sin, but to demonstrate how much God desires to have us be reconciled to Him.

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The Cross is a stumbling block to many. I have some friends who find the cross offensive. They say that if God were truly merciful, He would simply forgive our sins without Christ’s sacrifice–just snap His fingers and say, “we’re all good.” They claim that God is harsh, that He delights in sending people to Hell, or He would’ve found a “better” way so that no one would have to suffer (or repent). But Sin isn’t just a trifling matter. It is not just a “boo boo” or a “whoopsie” when we defy the Sovereign, Eternal God. And it isn’t just a trifling matter to bring justice to a fallen world. Absolute justice without mercy would require that we die in the first instant of our rebellion–the moment we tell a lie; the instant we think a lustful thought; in the very act of taking the Lord’s Name in vain. Harsh justice would mean eternal separation with no second chances; no possibility for atonement; no hope of redemption. And Mercy without Justice is not true mercy. It is a cheap imitation. It offers temporary relief from guilt, without effecting any change.

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36 One of the Pharisees asked him to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and reclined at table. 37 And behold, a woman of the city, who was a sinner, when she learned that he was reclining at table in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster flask of ointment, 38 and standing behind him at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears and wiped them with the hair of her head and kissed his feet and anointed them with the ointment. 39 Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner.” 40 And Jesus answering said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” And he answered, “Say it, Teacher.” 41 “A certain moneylender had two debtors. One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. 42 When they could not pay, he cancelled the debt of both. Now which of them will love him more?” 43 Simon answered, “The one, I suppose, for whom he cancelled the larger debt.” And he said to him, “You have judged rightly.” 44 Then turning toward the woman he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. 45 You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not ceased to kiss my feet. 46 You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. 47 Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.” 48 And he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” 49 Then those who were at table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this, who even forgives sins?” 50 And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

Luke 7:36-50 ESV)
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The Pharisee in the above story wasn’t looking for forgiveness– nor did He receive it. But the woman who came to Jesus received both forgiveness and blessing. She did not receive it because of the expense of the ointment she used to anoint Jesus’ feet; she didn’t receive forgiveness because her need was so much more pressing than that of Simon the Pharisee; Jesus simply said her faith had saved her. Jesus didn’t refuse to forgive Simon–it’s just that Simon never asked for forgiveness. He wasn’t looking for it. He wasn’t looking for a relationship with Jesus– He wasn’t even really interested in hearing what Jesus had to say. Simon had invited Jesus to show off his own righteousness and get Jesus’ “stamp of approval.” And he didn’t pass muster! The short parable that Jesus told seemed to pass right over Simon’s head. Simon merely “supposed” that someone who had been forgiven more would love more. He didn’t know from experience, because He had never seen a need for mercy or forgiveness– nor the need to extend it to others! He didn’t value Mercy, because he had never desired it. Yet all of the Law and the prophets that Simon had spent his life studying pointed to the very great need we all have to be cleansed from our sins. Simon should have known that God desired “mercy rather than sacrifice” (Hosea 6:6), and that the “righteous will live by faith” (Habakkuk 2:4) Instead, he was trying to live by condemning others and comparing his efforts to theirs, instead of to a Holy God. The sinful woman, in contrast, desired mercy and craved forgiveness. And she got them! Forgiveness from Immanuel Himself, who would soon die to provide complete Mercy and Grace to all!

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The Cross shows us the high cost of God’s Mercy– and yet He gives it freely to those of us who don’t deserve it and can never earn it. And He does it without condition. When I ask for God’s forgiveness, there is no form to fill out; no waiting list; no qualification test. And no label, identifying me by what I have done or failed to do; by who I was or who I thought I should have been, or what others told me I was. I am redeemed! I am cleansed– thoroughly renewed! Every time! There is no limit on how much or how often God will forgive me–NONE!

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Except. “Aha, here it comes. I knew God would have at least one limit,” my friends would say. It’s not a limit of God’s love or willingness to forgive, but our limit in accepting and passing along God’s forgiveness. God will forgive us. Will we forgive ourselves? Will we withhold forgiveness from someone else God has forgiven? Are we a greater Judge than God? Are we more just? Holier? Harsher?

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Today, I want to spend time trying to grasp just how wide and deep and huge God’s Grace is toward us; how free and limitless His Mercy; how infinite His willingness to pardon and cleanse even my chronic pride and selfishness; and His passion for reshaping me and restoring me to be all that He created me to be! I hope you will join me.

“What Must I Do?”

18 And a ruler asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 19 And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. 20 You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery, Do not murder, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother.’” 21 And he said, “All these I have kept from my youth.” 22 When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “One thing you still lack. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” 23 But when he heard these things, he became very sad, for he was extremely rich. 24 Jesus, seeing that he had become sad, said, “How difficult it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! 25 For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” 26 Those who heard it said, “Then who can be saved?” 27 But he said, “What is impossible with man is possible with God.” 

Luke 18:18-27 ESV via biblegateway.com

I love that Jesus didn’t just give pithy answers to questions, but often went in roundabout ways to explore the motives behind them. I also love how He would use others’ questions, mixed with parables, metaphors, or other figurative language to stimulate further thought. And His parables and word pictures, while short and simple, have layers of meaning that cause us to ponder deeper issues.

The “Rich Young Ruler” in the above story came to Jesus with a question. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Instead of answering the question, Jesus seems to get distracted by the young man’s greeting. “Why do you call me ‘Good?'” Did the young man really think that Jesus was better, or wiser, or more righteous than the religious leaders of the day? Or was he trying to flatter Jesus? Or did he think that Jesus would see him as an equal (or even superior) when he found out how righteous the ruler was? Jesus got to the heart of the greeting– “No one is good except God alone.” And therein lies the true answer to the ruler’s question, as well. There is nothing anyone can do to be “Good” enough to inherit eternal life.

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Jesus could have said this, but would the young ruler have accepted this answer? Probably not. His question betrays an assumption that he WAS good enough– that he had already done all that was required and that Jesus would surely be impressed and announce to the crowd that here was an example of someone who was worthy of eternal life. Instead, Jesus led the man through his pride by naming a few of the commandments– the very ones the ruler was so sure of. Indeed, this seemed to be exactly what the ruler was hoping to hear– proof that he had “passed the test.” Ironically, he was addressing Jesus as “Good teacher, ” but seemed to miss that fact that he was also addressing the only One who is truly Good! Jesus–God in the flesh — the very one whose death would guarantee that anyone would “inherit” eternal life. This young ruler doesn’t want Jesus to be his “Lord” and “Savior,” he just wants Jesus’s opinion.

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But then, Jesus pulled the rug out from under this man’s assumptions. “One thing you still lack.” One thing…I’m sure the young ruler thought it would be a fine point in the laws or traditions he know so well– some minor point that could be cleared up with a gift or a small offering. I find this a fascinating statement, because it is followed by “sell all you have and distribute to the poor…” It seems like such an oxymoronic statement. You lack one thing, therefore, you must give away all that you have. How is that possible? Because the “one thing” the rich man lacked was not an object; not something he could check off a list of “things I can do to impress the religious leaders.” This man lacked humility; he lacked a self-awareness of his own need. And he lacked the understanding of what it means to “inherit” eternal life. No one “earns” an inheritance. Even someone who is rewarded with an inheritance must trust in the goodwill of the person writing the will, and will only inherit under the terms of the will. Jesus’s “terms” were not that the man had to become destitute or spend the rest of this life as a beggar. But faced with the choice of his comfortable life in the here and now, or eternal and abundant life in heaven on God’s terms, this man chose earthly wealth and spiritual poverty.

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Almost lost at the end of Jesus’s surprising answer are the last two phrases, “and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” This man wanted eternal life as an extension of his comfortable life on earth. He did NOT want eternal life enough to sacrifice his present comforts or his preconceived notions of “goodness.” He did not want to follow Christ– he only wanted to consult with Him.

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I find it uncomfortable to hear about the young ruler’s rejection of Christ. I understand the initial shock of the disciples as Jesus uses the illustration of a camel going through the eye of a needle to compare with a “rich” person coming into the kingdom of God. Wasn’t Abraham wealthy? Wasn’t Solomon rich? What about King David? If riches make it impossible to follow Christ, who can gain eternal life? Thankfully, Jesus redirects the focus– it’s not about the riches; and it’s not about what we “do”– it is God’s “Good” pleasure to give eternal life to those who choose to “follow” Him.

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“Good Teacher and Lord, help me to remember this lesson as I come before you in prayer. You have not asked me to ‘earn’ my inheritance. It is your gift to answer my prayers as you see fit; to be the Lord of my life; to be merciful and gracious to me; to prepare a place for me to live with You for eternity. What you ask of me is that I ‘follow’ you– that I listen to your call; that I accept Your “terms” of inheritance; that I share Your Grace and Mercy with those around me.”

Why Should I Pray for My Enemy?

But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,

Matthew 5:44 (ESV)

The obvious answer to the question in the title is that Jesus commands it. But what practical and spiritual reasons are there for such a counter-intuitive action? Jesus himself continues:

43-47 “You’re familiar with the old written law, ‘Love your friend,’ and its unwritten companion, ‘Hate your enemy.’ I’m challenging that. I’m telling you to love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst. When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the supple moves of prayer, for then you are working out of your true selves, your God-created selves. This is what God does. He gives his best—the sun to warm and the rain to nourish—to everyone, regardless: the good and bad, the nice and nasty. If all you do is love the lovable, do you expect a bonus? Anybody can do that. If you simply say hello to those who greet you, do you expect a medal? Any run-of-the-mill sinner does that.

Matthew 5:43-47 (The Message)
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If we are following Christ and asking His Spirit to help us grow in Godliness, we should be acting– and reacting– like God. God makes the sun shine and the rain to fall on everyone. He is Mercy and Grace personified. That takes away nothing from His ability to exact justice. But His true desire is to show mercy– and that includes mercy THROUGH us!

But there are other good (and related) reasons to pray for our enemies.

  • Such prayers put things in perspective. If I focus on the injustices that my enemies have done (or continue to do), they become larger than God’s power to restore and redeem. If I focus on God’s power, the injustices, while still real, take their proper place. God is bigger; God is greater; God is wiser; God is Sovereign.
  • Such prayers remind me that I am not immune from causing pain and distress to others. It is natural for us to see our enemies as completely different from ourselves. “They” are evil, callous, and deserving of punishment. But, if we are honest– we are also deserving of punishment. We, too, have been callous, careless, selfish, angry, or bitter with someone, somewhere, at some time. God has dealt with us mercifully. How can we be grateful for His mercy and fail to pray for others who need it?
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  • Praying for our enemies may not change them, but it will change US. Praying for my enemies forces me to release my anger and bitterness, so that I don’t become trapped in a cycle of letting my enemy become my obsession or even my role model. I say this from negative experience; NOT praying for someone I considered my enemy led to me say and do things that were unkind and vicious– because I thought she “deserved” the same treatment she had given me and others. One day I woke up and realized that I was slowly becoming like her– letting her behavior determine who I was in return: suspicious, hard-hearted, critical, and vindictive.
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  • Praying for others reminds us that our true enemies are not other people. Once again, it is easy and natural to create a monster out of the person who is our “enemy.” They have often caused very real and very intense pain and suffering– personal, physical, psychological, emotional, financial, and sometimes chronic and catastrophic–sometimes, they show no remorse; sometimes, they refuse to accept responsibility for their actions. God knows all this. He sees all this. He aches for our pain– and for their rebellion. But the root cause is not a person– no matter how involved they are in delivering the pain. The real cause is Sin and Brokenness. That’s why WE can’t fix it. That’s why WE don’t have the power or authority to administer righteous judgment over it. And that also means–
  • Such prayers can free us of the burden of guilt, shame, bitterness, and hurt of the past. That doesn’t mean that we must deny the very real hurt we have felt. But we no longer have to be bound and shackled by it. When we can lift up our enemies and our past, and give them to God– really let go and give them to Him–He will carry that load, and let us run the race before us.
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One caveat here. Loving your enemy; praying for them– these are not the same as believing their lies or consenting to their abuse. There may be people in your life that you must pray for– from a distance! You can love someone, and still set clear boundaries to protect yourself and others. God will never abandon us. But He doesn’t call us to enable others in their evil actions. This is especially true in cases of domestic violence. Love your enemy, but get help and healing. And continue to pray!

“I Would Prefer Not To..”

Years ago, our high school class read a classic short story by the American author, Herman Melville. Bartleby the Scrivener tells the story of an unusual clerk– one who begins as a good worker, efficient and conscientious, but ends up dying in prison, hopeless, ruined, and broken. His tragic downward spiral begins one day when the lawyer for whom he works asks him to examine a short document. This is a commonplace request, much like asking a writer to proofread her final draft before submitting it to the editor. However, Bartleby responds by saying “I would prefer not to.” The startled lawyer decides not to force the issue, and gives the task to someone else.

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Bartleby’s refusal to do what is expected of him escalates until he no longer does ANY work. He refuses to work, refuses to leave the office, and refuses to eat. He isn’t angry or violent, but he remains defiant until the very end.

So it is with us when we are living in sin and rebellion against God. It may start out small– some little habit or attitude. We know it is wrong, but instead of obeying God’s word, we calmly say, “I would prefer not to…” not to tell the truth, not to turn away from porn, not to help my neighbor, not to agree with God about my behavior.

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8 The Lord is merciful and gracious,
    slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
He will not always chide,
    nor will he keep his anger forever.
10 He does not deal with us according to our sins,
    nor repay us according to our iniquities.
11 For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
    so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him;
12 as far as the east is from the west,
    so far does he remove our transgressions from us.

Psalm 103:6-12 (ESV)

God is patient. He is gracious and kind. He does not treat us as our offenses deserve. He gives us the chance to repent. He offers forgiveness. But every time we say to God, “I would prefer not to,” we get a little more like Bartleby– isolating ourselves, wasting our potential to be all that God created us to be, growing more defiant and more rebellious, until we waste away into a prison of our own making, and, finally, death.

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One of the things that makes Melville’s story so disturbing is that the narrator keeps trying to explain away Bartleby’s defiance–perhaps he is having trouble with his eyesight and doesn’t want to admit it; perhaps he was traumatized at a previous job; maybe there is a reason for his passive aggression. But in all of his attempts to understand, the narrator cannot save Bartleby from prison and death.

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Understanding sin cannot change us. Excusing sin does nothing to stop its consequences (see Romans 6:23). No one killed Bartleby, yet he died because he “would prefer not to” do the things he needed to do to live. His small act of defiance, which starts out singular and almost heroic (after all, who wouldn’t like to tell the boss, “I would prefer not to,” every once in awhile?), sounds innocuous. Such a little thing to refuse. Surely God would not punish us for so small a thing…until one small thing leads to another…and another; a bigger rebellion; a numbing complacency; loss of perspective; a heart of stone; isolation; starvation; imprisonment; death.

What am I refusing to do for God today? What am I refusing to give up? Refusing to admit? Refusing to listen to? Am I excusing myself? Do I tell myself I am not in rebellion because I have been polite in my refusal to obey? Do I comfort myself that my rebellion is really just a matter of “preference,” and will not be consequential? That God’s Holiness is less important than my comfort or convenience?

Many people coast through life in the belief that God is SO merciful and SO loving that He can’t also be Holy and Just– that His commands are really suggestions; that His wrath is mythical; that our own wisdom is sufficient for living a “good” life and pleasing Him. But God isn’t concerned about whether we live a “good” life– He wants us to have an abundant life– filled with joy and peace, love and relationship, both now and forevermore. In fact, He would “prefer not to” punish us. He is not “willing” (i.e. desirous) that any should perish (2 Peter 3:9), but that everyone would some to repentance. That doesn’t mean that He won’t punish those who refuse to obey Him, or those who refuse to turn from their rebellion and trust Him; only that He will continue to give us the opportunity to recognize our need for forgiveness.

10 If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. 11 These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.12 “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13 Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command you. 15 No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.

John 15:10-15 ESV– taken from biblegateway.com

God has made it possible for us to be more than servants. We don’t have to respond to God as Bartleby responded to his boss– though God has the ultimate authority to demand our loyalty and obedience. Through Jesus, we are sons and daughters and friends! When God gives us commands, like “Love one another,” they are still commands. But His heart is that we should trust that all of His commands are righteous, life-giving, and in our eternal best interest. But some of us are still saying, “I would prefer not to.”

The “Curse” of Proverbs 31

If you are a woman who has grown up “in the church,” you are probably familiar with Proverbs 31. It is the chapter about a virtuous woman. She is the role-model that is held up for young girls and older women alike. And she is, like Mary Poppins, “practically perfect in every way.” She gets up before the sun, stays up late into the night–always busy, always productive; she never slows down. She never has a bad hair day, never loses her temper, never forgets to pack a lunch or fold the laundry. She never nags, never scolds, never pouts, and never has to raise her voice.

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It helps that she has serving girls to do her bidding, and has her own business. She appears to be independently wealthy and active, yet she has time to raise children who “rise up and call her blessed,” and satisfy her husband, who “lacks nothing of value.”

I would love to say that I am just like that woman. Most days, however, I feel nothing like her. I don’t have money to buy a new field. I don’t get up before the sun and my hands are not eager to work. I don’t make and sell linen garments. No one is running around calling me “blessed” or singing my praises… I can never measure up to this woman. I feel cursed.

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But a closer reading of this chapter makes me think again.

While the woman described in this chapter is a model to emulate, she is not the norm. Nor is she the standard to which I must adhere to “earn” my way into God’s good graces. Indeed, God’s Mercy is the richer and His Grace more precious for knowing that I cannot “measure up.”

Instead of using Proverbs 31 to beat myself up for not being perfect (or using it to discourage or intimidate others), I need to learn from it. Here are a few things I’m hanging on to as I read through it this week:

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  • “She brings him (her husband) good, not harm…” (v. 12) What are some ways I can bring good, not harm, into my home and marriage? How can I listen more, nag, less, be more available, and otherwise show love and care? I won’t be perfect, but I can look for ways to improve!
  • “She works with eager hands..” (v. 13) “She sets about her work vigorously…”(v. 17) I may not be spinning wool or flax in the early light; I may not have serving girls to order, but I have hands and work to do throughout the day. How can I do a better job of seeing chores as opportunities, rather than oppression and drudgery? How can I bring a greater sense of purpose to my tasks? I may not have serving girls, but I have appliances–am I “ordering” them properly by taking care of them, instead of just taking them for granted? And am I grateful for their help?
  • “She opens her arms to the poor and extends her hands to the needy…” (v. 20) What can I do to “give” more–donate, volunteer, provide hospitality and encouragement? How can I keep in mind that during various seasons of life the “poor” and “needy” may be in my own home and family–children or grandchildren needing nourishment and discipline; parents needing care and support…How can I be more available to those outside of my home, or during my work hours? Can I send an e-mail or make a call to offer encouragement? Can I share a recipe with a friend, or invite them to come with me shopping or to church? Can I make time to pray with a neighbor? Can I clean out a closet and donate clothes or linens?
  • “She speaks with wisdom, and faithful instruction is on her tongue..” (v. 26) What a challenge!? What is “on my tongue?” Gossip? Criticism? Complaining? Idle chatter? Do I speak too much? Do I remain silent when I could offer needed instruction, encouragement, or correction? Do I speak with gentleness and compassion? With conviction and truth?
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  • “…she does not eat the bread of idleness..”(v27). Ouch! Everyone needs to rest– even the seemingly indefatigable woman of Proverbs 31! But am I becoming “fat” on leisure time? How much time to I waste on distractions and entertainment that could be put to better use?
  • “Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting, but a woman who fears the Lord will be praised..” (v30) I may strive to be an “accomplished” woman– someone who is poised, talented, successful in business and society, with a picture-perfect house and garden, children on the dean’s list or the winning sports team; I can be will-traveled and well-educated, someone who seems to “have it all”–and still NOT be a woman of noble character. God isn’t impressed by my clothes or my achievements; He doesn’t give me credit for being “better” than my next door neighbor, or having the best kitchen on the block; God will not love me any more for being more successful or productive than anyone else. If my house is cluttered, my hair is untame-able, my kids have public melt-downs, and I don’t belong to the “in” club; if my business fails, my car is rusty (or I don’t have one), and my husband and I wear second-hand clothes, God still sees my heart. I can still be a woman who fears, trusts, and serves the Lord– one who is loved, accepted, and even “praised” by the One who matters most!
  • Finally, I can Pray to become a woman/wife of noble character (v.10), striving for good habits, rather than fretting over and wallowing in bad ones. I can trust God’s willingness and ability to transform my life and my attitudes. In fact, I am reminded of a seemingly unrelated portion of scripture from Philippians:

8-9 Summing it all up, friends, I’d say you’ll do best by filling your minds and meditating on things true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious—the best, not the worst; the beautiful, not the ugly; things to praise, not things to curse. Put into practice what you learned from me, what you heard and saw and realized. Do that, and God, who makes everything work together, will work you into his most excellent harmonies.

Philippians 4:8-9 (The Message)
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I need to spend less of my time worrying about getting things “done”, than getting them done God’s way! I don’t need to fear the “curse” of Proverbs 31– failure to measure up to a model– instead, I need to see the opportunity to become a woman after God’s own heart– one who accepts God’s help and wisdom to become the woman HE wants me to be. I pray that God will give me the chance to develop–and help others–today and each new day.

No Condemnation…

Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death.

Romans 8:1-2 (NIV)
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I looked in the mirror this morning.
There it was again, right in the middle of my forehead…
“Failure.”

The label peeled off. But some residue was left behind.
I could feel it.
Every time I knit my brow,
Every time I tried to smile,
Every time I tried to look up.

I cried out,
“God forgive me. I’m a failure.”
But I thought I had been forgiven before.
Why was I still wearing the label?
Why did it keep coming back?

I looked closer at the label I had thrown away.
“Made in USA.”
Not “Made in Heaven”
Labels are made on Earth.
By other people.
In my own mind.

This time, when I looked up, I couldn’t feel it.
But I saw the others–
Wearing labels, just like me.
“Failure”
“Hateful”
“Unwanted”
“Used”
“Unworthy”

And the labels were all made somewhere on Earth–
“USA”
“Pakistan”
“China”
“Zimbabwe”
“Honduras”

The labels were hard to ignore.
Someone had put them there for all to see.
But what if I could look beyond the labels
And just see the faces?
Look into the eyes of my sister,
And see the beauty God had intended to be there.

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Father, Help me remember that there is NO Condemnation for those who belong to you. Condemnation comes from others. You are the righteous Judge, NOT the prosecutor. You have the authority to condemn– yet you offer Grace to anyone who will repent. Your only label is a banner of Love that says “Precious to the Lord.” Help me see Your label– whether in the mirror on on the street– whenever I look around.

Everyone’s a Critic!

Social Media can be a wonderful thing– it connects us, and helps us share good news, prayer requests, events, photos, and more. It can help us make new friends, get re-acquainted with old friends, learn new skills, and be more informed.

Sadly, though, social media can also bring out the absolute worst in us. Social media is immediate– we see or hear something, react to it emotionally, and respond without taking time to think. But social media is not really social. It is social only in the “virtual” sense. And that creates problems. There is nothing like being anonymous behind a computer screen to turn us into the biggest bullies, critics, and self-indulgent know-it-alls. Worse, we find it easy to spread vicious gossip, misinformation, and negativity by pressing a single “share” button…we didn’t even say it!

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But we DID send it out. And others saw it, heard it, felt it– for better or worse. Even the “good” responses– followers, “likes”, smiling emojis, and such–can feel impersonal or even forced. But what about the comments that reveal contempt, anger, sarcasm, or hatred? Critical, biting, self-righteous, self-gratifying, smug comments and posts.

“Oh, but I would never do that…” Really? I have been guilty of passing along posts (or even creating posts) that drip with sarcasm, or gleefully correct people or groups I feel have said something “wrong”. I’ve even passed along Bible verses with smug captions.

“Well, everyone is a critic.”
“I’m only saying what is true.”
“Doesn’t the Bible tell us to warn others and speak out against sin?”

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There are many “gifts” of the Holy Spirit–teaching, preaching, healing, even prophecy– but nowhere in the Bible does it say we are “gifted” to be critics, nags, or to speak out in contempt, anger, and malice. In fact, the Bible contains several warning against such behavior:

Judging Others
“Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.
“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Matthew+7%3A1-5&version=NIV

Galatians 5:15Verse Concepts
But if you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.
Philippians 2:14-16
Do all things without grumbling or disputing; so that you will prove yourselves to be blameless and innocent, children of God above reproach in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you appear as lights in the world, holding fast the word of life, so that in the day of Christ I will have reason to glory because I did not run in vain nor toil in vain.
James 4:11-12
Do not speak against one another, brethren He who speaks against a brother or judges his brother, speaks against the law and judges the law; but if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge of it. There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the One who is able to save and to destroy; but who are you who judge your neighbor?

https://bible.knowing-jesus.com/topics/Criticism,-Amongst-Believers

For more, visit: https://deeptruths.com/bible-topics/criticism.html

This does not mean that we are to stay quiet about evil, or excuse sin. But we are to do so in love, not with contempt for others, or pride in our own understanding.

Moreover, God, who has the right to be critical and pass His perfect, Holy judgment on us, is the very one who offers us Grace and Mercy, encouragement, and hope!

Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you[a] free from the law of sin and death. For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh,[b] God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering.[c]And so he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. (Romans 8:1-4 NIV)
https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Romans+8&version=NIV

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God is NOT our critic– He is our Savior, our advocate, our Father.

Lord, may I honor You by my words and deeds today–including my activity on Social Media! May I demonstrate Your love, encouragement, mercy, and goodness today.
Amen

The Ones Jesus Didn’t “Save”

“For God so loved the World, that He gave His only Begotten Son, that Whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting Life.”

John 3:16 (KJV)
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This is probably the most well-known verse in the Christian Bible. It has given hope to millions, as it explains that the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ allows anyone to find forgiveness, faith, and new/eternal life. But what about those who don’t believe; those loved ones (and others) who die without the hope of salvation? Doesn’t God care about them? Why does he let them die without hope? Why do they go to eternal suffering, instead of being forgiven?

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I can’t give a complete answer to those questions…I don’t comprehend the entirety of God’s plan or His mind. But I do know this– God understands our heartbreak and our grief over our unsaved loved ones. After all, Jesus spent three years preaching and announcing the Gospel, yet He was betrayed by one of His closest friends. Jesus– God in the Flesh; Emmanuel; the Perfect Son of God–didn’t “save” everyone He knew. We have the wonderful story of the conversion of Saul on the road to Damascus– what about others who didn’t “see the light?” There may have been hundreds, even thousands who heard Jesus preach; who watched Him hanging on the Cross; who heard the rumors that He had risen, only to reject His message–what about them? Jesus had met them. Maybe He had healed them, or eaten at their house, or studied with them at the Temple when they were younger. Some may have been His brothers, or cousins, or mentors and teachers.

On the night before He was crucified, Jesus was in agony in the Garden of Gethsemane. He was in anguish about what He would have to face, but some of His anguish and grief had to be in knowing that, while His death and resurrection would save so many, there were still others who would choose to turn away and reject the Life and Hope and Peace that He suffered to bring.

Even during His ministry, Jesus didn’t heal everyone who was diseased or lame or blind. He even made reference at one point to the kinds of disasters that often leave us questioning God’s mercy:

There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”

Luke 13:1-5 (ESV)

Jesus could have “saved” those Galileans from having their sacrifices desecrated; He could have provided a miracle to save those who were killed by the tower that fell in Siloam. And just as we grieve today for the senseless loss of life in places like Afghanistan and Haiti, or New York City on 9/11/2001, Jesus felt the loss of innocent strangers. Just as we plead with friends and loved ones to repent and seek God’s face, Jesus preached the need for all people to confess and seek forgiveness.

Jesus could have forced Judas to turn from his plan to betray the Master. He had the authority to cast out demons and demand that angels come to honor, protect, or comfort Him. He has the authority to make every knee bow down and every tongue confess that He is the Sovereign Lord of the Universe. And someday, He will! But Jesus won’t save people against their will– even those close to him. He doesn’t compel grudging obedience, or demand abject servitude. There are some who choose to serve Him in that way, but that is not His desire. Instead, He compels us with His mercy. We choose to love Him because He first Loved us– sacrificially, unreservedly, without limits or conditions. (See 1 John 4:19)

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Jesus patiently spoke to Nicodemus in the dead of night. He chased Saul down on the road to Damascus and gave him three days of blindness to reconsider the direction of his life. He called His disciples and asked them to Follow Him– even Judas. He invited Himself to the house of Zacchaeus. He spoke with compassion to those who were broken, and outcast, and lost. And just like Judas, they had to make choices– some of His friends and followers abandoned Him when He needed them most. Some of them stumbled. But they HAD followed Jesus. They had learned from Him, and they came back and persevered.

Being loved by God comes without conditions and without reservations. Being “saved” by Christ’s atoning blood comes with a price–not just the price He paid on the cross, but the price of our repentance and acceptance of His Lordship, and yes, even the mysteries of His Grace.

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As Jesus hung on the Cross, He was positioned between two convicts who were justly condemned. Both were sinners; both were paying the penalty for their crimes. One cried out to a dying Savior, and was saved. The other mocked and cursed. Jesus had the power to save him. He did not desire that the other man should suffer. But the other man chose to reject who Jesus was, and so rejected all the mercy and power He could have shown.

Jesus died to save “whosoever” would believe. He did not die to save “howsoever.” We may not fully understand why He chose to offer Salvation in this way, but we believe it to our everlasting joy, or reject it to our everlasting anguish.

Qualified

Recently, we’ve been dealing with a lot of bureaucratic red tape. There are forms to fill out, forms to gather and certify, appointments to make and meet, and various qualifications. We must file paperwork for our business, for our income taxes, for our vehicles, our health insurance, our banking, –even a fishing license! We have to fill out paperwork to prove who we are, where we were born, where we live, how much money we make (or don’t make!), what we own, how much it is worth, how much we spend, whether or not we are ill (or have been ill, or might become ill!), whether we are legally married, etc.. Some processes are simple, only requiring a few questions and proof of ID, but most are not. Forms to be filled out on-line are often confusing, and there is no one to help explain the terminology. Forms that must be submitted often require supporting evidence that must be gathered from several different agencies and locations, signed, printed on certain paper, notarized, stapled (or NOT stapled), and sent by mail, faxed, delivered in person, or scanned and e-mailed. And if any one of the steps is not followed to the letter, we are not “qualified” to do business, receive payments, be properly licensed, receive medical treatment, etc. Regulations often run to hundreds of pages, and while there are experts who understand all (or most) of the fine details, most of us are overwhelmed by the “red tape” involved in living from day to day. We are not “qualified” to prove we are qualified to exist!

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I’m so glad I don’t have to make an appointment and prove that I am qualified to talk to God! The bottom line is that I KNOW I’m not qualified–not in my own power or wisdom or achievements. Instead of trying to prove something so impossible, God invites me to come– just as I am!– to meet with Him. He qualifies me through the shed blood of Christ. Jesus Christ fulfilled every qualification I could not– He lived a perfect life, never breaking God’s just laws, never falling short of God’s standards. And then, He paid the price of my failures by taking the death that should have been mine, and defeating it! All the “red tape” has been handled, all the forms filled out, the I’s dotted and the T’s crossed– my name is written in the Lamb’s Book of Life, with no need for me to re-apply or be approved all over again.

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There is only one thing I must do to be “qualified” for a right relationship with God– with all it’s privileges and benefits–I must accept God’s terms for the qualification process. I must accept that I cannot qualify myself; I cannot earn God’s acceptance through my own efforts, I cannot buy my way into His good graces, and I cannot inherit the qualifications from my parents, neighbors, ancestors, or countrymen. I must also accept that Christ’s life, death, and resurrection are sufficient– even extravagant–to meet the requirements. Finally, I must trust that God’s ways are true and right and better than my own. I cannot accept Christ’s qualifications, and still do life “my way.”

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In this life, it can be very frustrating to get “qualified” to do the things we wish to do. But we can be qualified for eternity through Jesus Christ. We are pre-approved to visit any time, to speak to Him– even pour out our sorrows and frustrations and failures. And there is no need to wait for an appointment!

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Blessed Are the Merciful

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy” (Matthew 5:7).

Am I merciful when I pray? That’s not a question I normally ask, but I’m looking at the Beatitudes, and how they relate to my pursuit of prayer. I pray for justice; I pray for healing; I pray to be more Christlike, but do I specifically pray about mercy? Certainly, I thank God for HIS mercy toward me, and I hope I show mercy to others, but does it enter my prayer life?

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It’s easy to pray for mercy for ourselves, when we know we deserve justice (and punishment). It’s easy to ask for mercy for our loved ones. But do I pray to become more merciful? Do I pray for a greater love of Mercy? In Micah 6:8, we are told that God requires three things– to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with Him. Often, it is easier to love justice, do mercy (when it suits us) and walk in our own way, asking God to follow US as we go through the day– bless me, bless my work, bless my travels, etc..

Mercy requires a knowledge of justice and a humble acceptance of God’s sovereignty. Justice is NOT whatever we think is “fair” or “equitable” in a certain set of circumstances. Justice is defined by God, and the only way to “do justice” is to obey His will. We will not “love mercy” until we experience it at God’s hands.

That’s really what this Holy Week is all about–God’s justice, God’s Mercy, and His Victory and Lordship. As we go through this week, in preparation for Easter, it is vital to meditate on what Jesus DID for justice to be satisfied, the depth of His Love that caused Him to suffer and die to provide, not just mercy, but Unspeakable Grace, and the humility He demonstrated in His time on earth– serving, sacrificing, even dying the painful and humiliating death on a cross–all for me; all for you.

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And we must be careful about making Mercy all about us and all about the here and now. We live in a culture of “instant gratification.” We want God’s mercy to “fix” the immediate problems we see around us. Those who are merciful WILL be shown mercy– but we may not see instant ease and comfort in a situation where others hold a grudge, or where the natural consequences of our sin still exist. We have been justified before God– He will not count those sins against us–but we still live in the fallen world where sin leads to death and destruction. God will redeem all things in His time, and we can trust that His mercy will triumph over even the worst of circumstances, but we may still have to endure suffering for a season.

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When we come to God in prayer, we have no right to withhold mercy– either from those who may have offended us, or from ourselves for things we did in the past. Mercy is a gift– one we cannot give without having received it, and one we cannot hold on to without sharing it freely. When we pray for our enemies, we must pray with a heart of mercy– not because they deserve it, but because God’s sovereignty demands it.

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