I love revisiting the promises of God. But I have to be careful not to make God’s promises into something they are not.
In Matthew 11, Jesus gives a promise– “I will give you rest.” But sometimes, I read more (or less) into this promise than Jesus meant.
28 “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
Matthew 11:28-30 (NIV) via biblegateway.com
First, Jesus bids us come to Him. There are times I want rest, but I want it on my terms– I want ease, comfort, rest, and renewal in the middle of my own plans, activities, and even rebellion. When we pray, we need to come to Jesus, not demand that He come to us.
Next, Jesus offers rest to those who are weary and burdened. Similarly, Jesus said He came to save those who were lost, NOT those who already saw themselves as justified. If I come to Jesus asking for perpetual rest– never willing to trust Him when He asks me to exert myself or carry a burden–I will never know complete rest or fulfillment in Him.
In the very next verse, Jesus offers a yoke– certainly not a symbol of rest for most of us!–and He offers to teach us to find rest. Rest is not a gift like grace or love, even though Jesus “gives” it to us. Rest is a reward. And Jesus makes it clear that He will be with us every step of the way as we work and rest in Him. A yoke has many bad connotations– slavery or bondage, burdens, toil, and hard labor in the hot sun–but it can also have a positive meaning. Oxen who are yoked together share the load– with the lead ox taking the brunt of the burden, and the yoke-fellow carrying a lesser share. Imagine one ox trying to pull the load alone! Yet that is what many of us are doing– trying to carry the weight of the world on our shoulders and pushing away the One who wants to share our load and lead us in the best and most restful paths.
We don’t do much work with teams of horses or oxen in my community. We have powerful machines that make quick work of heavy loads– our burdens have less to do with loads of grain or logs, and more to do with mental and emotional stress. But Jesus reminds us that He is “gentle and humble in heart”–that the rest He promises is rest for our souls.
What a wonderful promise in these turbulent times! Will we take up this offer? Will we claim this promise of our Loving Father to share our burdens and bring us to a place of rest?
I know some people who refuse to pray aloud in groups. Some of them are just modest or shy, or they get tongue-tied and feel awkward. But some of them refuse because they feel their prayers are “inadequate.” They wish their prayers were eloquent or flowery, righteous-sounding or inspiring, but they don’t believe their prayers are “enough.”
But God listens with perfect ears. He hears beyond our words. Simple, humble prayers– spoken or silent–are His favorite kind!
We often waste our time trying to impress God (or others) with our words. But God isn’t waiting to be impressed– He’s waiting to spend real time with His child!
When children are first learning to speak, we delight in their coo-ing and lisping. As they grow, we sometimes tune out their babbling, their stories, their griping, and their whining. But as the years go by, we miss hearing their voices, and we long to have them call and talk to us– even for a few minutes.
God never tunes out our babbling, but when we don’t pray, He misses the sound of our voices and the sharing of our thoughts, just like any parent would.
Never discount the power and the value of simple prayers. God doesn’t!
5 Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, 2 and he began to teach them.
3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 4 Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. 5 Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. 6 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. 7 Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. 8 Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. 9 Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. 10 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11 “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
No one likes to feel “left out.” We have a deep desire to be accepted, liked, loved, respected, and needed. We want to “fit in.” But sometimes, acceptance and inclusion are not possible. Sometimes, they are offered, but at a price too steep. Sometimes, we make unhealthy compromises in our efforts to avoid conflict or to win respect.
In His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus gave us at least seven principles/actions that will bring us blessing. But they are in opposition to human nature– NOT designed to help us “fit in” with most of society. Elsewhere in scripture, we are told to stand apart from what others are doing or saying. God wants people who will follow HIM, not the world.
People who are poor in spirit— this can be taken at least two ways: those who consider themselves poor in a material sense, and hold their money and possessions lightly; or those who are aware of their spiritual poverty, knowing that they need guidance and wisdom from above. Such people will “possess” the kingdom of heaven– not by fighting and straining and striving and grasping for sole ownership–it is God’s gracious gift to be shared by all who are poor in spirit.
People who mourn–not people who are eternally gloomy and depressed, but those who mourn the loss of innocence, the injustices of the world, the suffering and grief of others. Such people also rejoice at the sight of a glorious sunrise, or laugh to see children playing– but they do not deny or circumvent the realities of a fallen world. Such people will be comforted, even in the midst of mourning, by God’s sovereignty and righteousness.
People who are meek (humble)–there is a difference between being meek and lacking confidence or being a stooge or a fool. Meek people still have boundaries– and they respect the boundaries of others. They stand up for what is right, but they don’t insist on always being “right.” Such people will not stake a claim on the earth or try to grab their “fair share.” Instead, they will inherit all that God has in store for them!
People who hunger and thirst for righteousness–hunger and thirst are natural and ongoing processes. There are people who want “justice” or “righteousness.” They want it NOW. They want it to be retroactive. They want it to be a foregone conclusion. And they want it to be eternal. But they don’t long for personal righteousness, and they don’t want to feel hunger or thirst for it. They don’t want to seek after true righteousness; they just want the results. They just want the world to spin righteously all around them. But for those who hunger and thirst– Jesus is both the Living Water and the Bread of Life. He brings a daily portion of all-sufficient Grace, wisdom, and forgiveness to keep us filled.
People who are merciful–I was struck as I read this again by the term merciful. We spend a lot of time and energy talking about God’s Grace– the fact that God gives us untold blessings that we don’t deserve. But here, Jesus is talking about the merciful– not giving others the condemnation or punishment they deserve. I find it much easier to be Graceful than to be Merciful. It is easy to bless others; to be charitable, or charming, encouraging, or bountiful. It is much more difficult to bite back an insulting or critical retort, to forgive a debt, to let go of a grudge, or keep from passing on a juicy morsel of gossip. It is easier to focus on the Golden Rule of doing unto others as you would like them to do unto you, than to Love your enemies. Jesus asked us to do both– but the blessing here is for those who show Mercy!
People who are pure in heart–not just shiny on the surface. I can say all manner of spiritual-sounding things; I can do all kinds of good deeds; I can even write blog entries on scriptural truths– but God looks on my heart, to see if it is pure. And if I haven’t covered my heart in posturing and false rituals, justifications and excuses, denials and rebellion, I should be able to “see” God– to have a clearer picture of who He is, what He is doing in the world around me, what He wants me to do and say and become…
People who are peacemakers–not just people who “go along to get along,” but people who are willing to help bring about peace, and who will create an atmosphere of unity and respect–at home, in the workplace, and in their neighborhoods. When we bring peace to a chaotic relationship, or create a peaceful atmosphere, we are doing the work of reconciliation, and we are showing others the nature of our Father.
When we cultivate (or allow God’s Spirit to cultivate) these characteristics in our lives, we will not “fit it” with the world around us. We will stand out and stand apart. And that will make us targets for persecution, abuse, misunderstanding, insults, and false accusations. But we can be encouraged, not only because of the blessings Jesus promises in the Beatitudes, but in the reminder that we stand in very good company. We may not fit in at the office; we may be ostracized by our family; we may be targeted in our community– but we fit in with a host of prophets, apostles, saints, and with Christ Himself!
8 In the sixth year, in the sixth month on the fifth day, while I was sitting in my house and the elders of Judah were sitting before me, the hand of the Sovereign Lord came on me there. 2 I looked, and I saw a figure like that of a man. From what appeared to be his waist down he was like fire, and from there up his appearance was as bright as glowing metal. 3 He stretched out what looked like a hand and took me by the hair of my head. The Spirit lifted me up between earth and heaven and in visions of God he took me to Jerusalem, to the entrance of the north gate of the inner court, where the idol that provokes to jealousy stood. 4 And there before me was the glory of the God of Israel, as in the vision I had seen in the plain. 5 Then he said to me, “Son of man, look toward the north.” So I looked, and in the entrance north of the gate of the altar I saw this idol of jealousy. 6 And he said to me, “Son of man, do you see what they are doing—the utterly detestable things the Israelites are doing here, things that will drive me far from my sanctuary? But you will see things that are even more detestable.” 7 Then he brought me to the entrance to the court. I looked, and I saw a hole in the wall. 8 He said to me, “Son of man, now dig into the wall.” So I dug into the wall and saw a doorway there.9 And he said to me, “Go in and see the wicked and detestable things they are doing here.” 10 So I went in and looked, and I saw portrayed all over the walls all kinds of crawling things and unclean animals and all the idols of Israel. 11 In front of them stood seventy elders of Israel, and Jaazaniah son of Shaphan was standing among them. Each had a censer in his hand, and a fragrant cloud of incense was rising. 12 He said to me, “Son of man, have you seen what the elders of Israel are doing in the darkness, each at the shrine of his own idol? They say, ‘The Lord does not see us; the Lord has forsaken the land.’” 13 Again, he said, “You will see them doing things that are even more detestable.” 14 Then he brought me to the entrance of the north gate of the house of the Lord, and I saw women sitting there, mourning the god Tammuz. 15 He said to me, “Do you see this, son of man? You will see things that are even more detestable than this.” 16 He then brought me into the inner court of the house of the Lord, and there at the entrance to the temple, between the portico and the altar, were about twenty-five men. With their backs toward the temple of the Lord and their faces toward the east, they were bowing down to the sun in the east. 17 He said to me, “Have you seen this, son of man? Is it a trivial matter for the people of Judah to do the detestable things they are doing here? Must they also fill the land with violence and continually arouse my anger? Look at them putting the branch to their nose! 18 Therefore I will deal with them in anger; I will not look on them with pity or spare them. Although they shout in my ears, I will not listen to them.”
Ezekiel 8 (NIV) via biblegateway.com
We make a big fuss in our culture about privacy. What I do in my own home, with my own life, in my own time, is private. And, for many of us, our privacy is sacred. We rage and fight and panic about who may be invading our privacy– listening in or watching us when we least expect it.
I must admit, I don’t like the idea of anyone spying on me or listening in on my private moments. I especially don’t like the thought of someone manipulating or using my private words, images, or ideas without my knowledge or consent.
But there is a danger in our quest for privacy– we are inclined to believe that anything we do in private CANNOT ever be discovered; that we are safe to do whatever we please, regardless of the consequences. The internet has made this idea even more dangerous–we can be private and anonymous behind the screen. We can say things we know we shouldn’t; we can view things we would be ashamed to acknowledge watching; we can explore fantasies, mask our inadequacies, pretend to be who and what we are not; all behind the “safety” of the screen.
And this is nothing new. In Ezekiel’s day, the moral, legal, political, and religious leaders of the day thought they were “safe” to indulge in idol worship behind closed doors. But more than that, they believed that God would never see as they practiced divination, witchcraft, ritual prostitution, violent orgies, even child sacrifice! They had built hidden rooms where they practiced vile rites and indulged in the very behaviors they taught others to avoid. Worse, they condemned and vilified others when they “got caught” doing the same things they practiced with impunity. And when prophets came to them with warnings–the very words of God– they had them ruined, imprisoned, tortured, and killed.
In the eighth chapter of Ezekiel, God shows his prophet a vision. He allows Ezekiel to “go behind closed doors” and see the priests and leaders at their worst–over and over again–secret rituals, detestable practices, flagrant disobedience, arrogant rebellion…And all of this was happening as the nations of Israel and Judah had collapsed, and many thousands had died from war, disease, and starvation. People had been sent into exile– defeated, starving, enslaved. Yet their leaders were keeping up an image of righteousness and proud endurance, instead of turning to God for help and hope.
God was very clear–Jerusalem WOULD be captured and destroyed. Babylon WOULD take God’s people captive and send most of them to the sword or to exile. Defiance and pride– especially relying on the great victories of the past– would not save them. Rebellion and violence would not hold back God’s judgment.
The same is true today. It is easy to write about praying and walking closely with God–I’m hidden behind a screen. I can sound righteous and Godly for a few minutes three times a week. And it is easy to point fingers and call out the bad behavior of others behind the anonymity of a computer screen. We need to speak up, speak out, and defend the cause of those who are oppressed, abused, enslaved, and silenced. But we also need to beware that we are not crying, “Shame on you!” from a locked closet, while waving banners or buying merchandise supporting the abusers.
And God sees all of it. What we may find shocking and reprehensible, God has already seen through to its conclusion! God WILL bring judgment and punishment for those who shed blood and bring violence and injustice. But God also sees what I do in the watches of the night; when I’m alone with my thoughts; when I’m not on my guard against what I view on Facebook or YouTube. God knows what celebrity gossip I crave, or what I’m “watching” on eBay. He knows if I am ignoring or justifying evil happening all around me. He watches over my shoulder when I’m reading that new novel, or I’m driving down the road (hopefully not at the same time!), or when I’m wallowing in self-pity or jealousy or anger.
When I read about Ezekiel weeping over the behavior of Israel’s leaders, I am convicted. How often do I weep and seek God’s mercy over the behavior of our leaders–all of them, and not just the ones I voted for? Or do I just fume and post about how awful “they” are (whoever “they” my be) and how “they” need to be punished? How often do I ignore my own bad behavior? I may not have a “hidden room” filled with detestable images and idols, but God is still watching how I react to challenging times. He knows if I am obeying His voice or merely pretending to follow Him while leaning on my own understanding or my own image of self-righteousness. He knows if I have made money, politics, status, safety, health, or even “religion” into idols, hoping that one or more of them will carry me through tough times. He knows if I am condemning others for their bad behavior, while hiding or justifying my own.
I want everyone to see me when I am noble and righteous–but I need to see myself as He sees me every day–His much-loved, and ever-needy, child.
Father, may I be quick to remember that You ALWAYS see me– and that You ALWAYS want me to see You as well. Help me to see You in the middle of challenging times. Help me to see You when I interact with others. Help me to obey You in the private moments when no one else is watching.
When I was just a girl, many of my cousins and playmates were fans of comic-book heroes: Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, X-Men, Spiderman, and many others. In fact, in second grade, we had a “superhero” club that met at recess and played out scenarios. Most of us got to be heroes; a few had to take turns being villains. We ran as fast as we could; we pretended to fly; we pretended to save the world!
Each super hero has a special super power (or several super powers), and each one has a “fatal flaw”– some weakness that could keep him (or her) from easy victory over a villain. Superman can fly; but he cannot overcome the effects of Krypton. Batman has a seemingly endless array of cool gadgets, but they are not always enough to counter the cool gadgets of his foes. Spider-man can spin webs, but being a superhero doesn’t pay his bills. Wonder Woman has a lasso of truth and an invisible airplane, but she must struggle between promoting peace and fighting to stop violence and war.
I was reminded recently that we often confuse Biblical characters with comic-book superheroes. Abraham had extraordinary faith. Moses had his staff. Samson had great strength. David wrote poetry and killed giants…and so on. And each “hero” of the faith seemed to have a “fatal flaw”– Abraham did not wait for God’s promise of Isaac. Moses had a temper. Samson was arrogant and forgot the source of his strength. David was tempted by lust, which led him to commit adultery and murder!
There is nothing wrong with honoring men and women of faith and courage and obedience. The entire eleventh chapter of Hebrews is devoted to “heroes” of the faith, and the faith of Godly heroes.
But we can turn heroes into idols, and that leads us to false thinking. We falsely believe that God only calls those who are already heroic and strong. We sometimes feel that God cannot use us unless we first show that we have some super power. We also carry a false guilt about our “fatal flaws,” feeling that we have somehow ruined God’s plans or let the enemy “win” whenever we stumble. Finally, we fail to see that our ordinary obedience–even our shaky and stumbling faith– IS heroic.
Superheroes are not Biblical, and Biblical characters were never “super” heroes. Most of them spent their lives doing mostly ordinary things– farming, fishing, carpentry, tax collecting, herding sheep! There is only one “superhero” in the Bible– God himself–and He has no fatal flaw. Instead, He chooses flawed and ordinary people to obey Him as HE does extraordinary things through them.
One consistent thing about the people we celebrate as “heroes” in the Bible– they all prayed! They all knew that real power (and wisdom and help) comes from God alone. Prayer and obedience are not guaranteed to make us famous or heroic. But God can use the simplest acts and the smallest measure of true faith to do great things in, and around, and through ordinary people just like us!
We like to point out scripture that assures us that God will hear (and answer) our prayers. We like to remember God’s promises of blessing and peace and grace. And we tend to ignore or forget that there are some prayers that God has said He will not hear or answer.
God will not answer prayers that are selfish, or hypocritical. He will not answer prayers offered in pride, self-righteousness, or unbelief (see Luke 18:9-14, and Hebrews 11:6). He will not listen to prayers offered by those who oppress the poor, those who worship idols, or those who practice violence. And He will not listen to the prayers of those who reject Him, and remain in sin. https://www.gty.org/library/questions/QA160/does-god-answer-the-prayers-of-unbelievers (Please note: I don’t totally agree with the general conclusion here, but there are several great references for the individual points..)
Please note that God does not say that He will not answer prayer based on WHO a person is–God does not refuse to answer prayers based on a person’s age, nationality, gender, physical health, mental health, height, weight, social status, or any other label, including their past religious affiliation! This means that a sincere prayer of a person who is seeking God may be heard ahead of (or instead of) a prideful prayer of someone who claims to be a Christ-follower.
God is sovereign and omniscient– He knows what is in each heart, and He answers, not according to who we are, but according to who HE is. And just as He can separate our sins “as far as the east is from the west” (Psalm 103:12), and “remember (our) sins no more”(Hebrews 8:12), He can choose not to hear prayers that are offered with wrong motives or offered in defiance of His sovereignty and holiness.
None of this takes away from the fact that God DOES hear and answer prayer…God LOVES to hear from anyone and everyone who seeks His face. Nothing external can separate you from His love. Come with your anger, questions, sorrows, pains, gratitude, hope; bring your failures, your fears, and your triumphs. But God, like a wise father, doesn’t suffer fools and fakers. Even if you can fool your neighbors, friends, family, or yourself, you cannot fool God. He doesn’t want a false narrative– He wants you as you really are. And He will listen with an everlasting love and compassion to all such prayers!
Does it ever feel like you spend your days “putting out fires?” Taking care of little problems before they become bigger problems? Never getting a chance to rest or relax before the next crisis hits? Trying to put out a fire that keeps getting out of hand?
Fires can become very dangerous very quickly. Experts advise that we shouldn’t try to stay and fight a fire for which we are not equipped–it puts you and others at far greater risk. There is a simple phrase that can help people survive and escape a house or building fire: Stop. Drop. And Roll. A similar phrase can be helpful in facing the spiritual and emotional “fires” we face: Stop. Drop. And Pray!
Stop! Often when we face trials, our first reaction is to rush in and try to “save” things– ourselves, our loved ones, our possessions, our pride…the list goes on. This is a natural reaction, but not always the wisest course. In the initial panic, we are likely to make poor judgments, and miss warning signs. With the best of intentions, we can make situations worse: maybe we don’t have the skills, the equipment, the authority, or the knowledge to offer salvation or safety. That doesn’t mean that we must walk away from danger, or fail to offer help when we are able to do so. But it means that we must remember that Salvation and Wisdom come from God.
Drop. Fire is an obvious danger, but smoke is a silent killer. We can see fire; we can feel the heat of it. But the smoke can immobilize us long before the flames reach us. Spiritually, we may be able to see obvious sins in others, but ignore the smoke of compromise and apathy in the air all around us. Smoke rises– just like pride, and arrogance, and denial. We need to be “on our knees” –lowly and humble– if we want to keep from getting choked and suffocated.
Pray! Pray with a heart to listen for good advice and obey. Sometimes, we need to stay still and wait; sometimes we need to flee! Sometimes we need to get involved; sometimes we need to walk away. We don’t need to know the next seven or eight steps, however. We need to do the next right thing– even if it seems insignificant in the face of the threat. What we can see is not always where the danger is greatest, nor where the help is most available.
Finally– Don’t wait until you are in danger to practice these steps or prepare for what may lie ahead. There is a popular but unbiblical phrase: “God helps those who help themselves.” But this is NOT what God says! God says that He will help those who humble themselves (Luke 14:11; James 4:10); those who seek Him (Psalm24:6; Amos 5:4); and those who believe (Mark 9:23; John 20:29).
It’s depressing to watch the news, lately–the reports include the COVID-19 pandemic, rioting and violence, injustice, crime, natural disasters…there is very little to celebrate. And yet, my nation just recognized the 244th anniversary of our declaration of independence from Great Britain. In that declaration are the immortal words, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness..” America has never realized perfection of these truths. No nation can claim perfection, just as no individual person can claim perfection. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23). But the truth still stands. All men (and women, children…human beings) are created equal, and are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights. God does not favor the rich or the poor, men or women; He doesn’t favor one skin tone over another; He doesn’t love Baptists more than Catholics, or agnostics! He is not partial to citizens of one nation over another; He doesn’t favor Republicans over Democrats. Governments and individuals may deny or withhold these rights; they may pervert the truth or twist and shape circumstances to their favor at the expense of others. But the truth still stands.
Long ago, there was an empire called Assyria– powerful, ruthless, domineering. They were not governed by principles of fairness, equality, or justice. They conquered and slaughtered other people at will. Their capital city was Nineveh. The prophet Jonah, a man thoroughly familiar with their cruelty and lack of justice, was dispatched by God to warn the people of their coming judgment. Instead of obeying, Jonah fled. It would seem understandable that Jonah might fear the people of Nineveh. Delivering such a warning could put him in danger. But that wasn’t why Jonah fled.
The story of Jonah is well-known. After fleeing toward Tarshish on the first available ship, God sent a storm. Fearing that the ship would sink, the sailors cast lots to choose a human sacrifice to appease the sea gods. Jonah volunteered, saying it was his sin that “caused” the storm. Reluctantly, the sailors threw him overboard, and the storm ceased immediately. Jonah was “saved” when a giant fish swallowed him. From the belly of the fish, Jonah prayed, and God rescued him again, causing the fish to spit him out onto dry land. Jonah took advantage of his second chance, and went to Nineveh, preaching the message of destruction.
But when Jonah’s message results in mass repentance and a “second chance” for the Ninevites, Jonah is disgusted. THIS was why he didn’t want to go to Nineveh– because he did not want them to receive a warning and a potential reprieve! He knew that God was sending him, not with a message of doom, but with a message of hope! There was a chance to repent– to try again–to seek justice and avoid destruction. They didn’t deserve it. Certainly, they had never given mercy to any of the peoples they had already conquered. God had every right to destroy them without any warning– and Jonah had counted on it.
I almost always focus on the character of Jonah when I read through this story. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Jonah+1&version=NIV (follow this link to see chapter 1 and use the site to read the other three chapters). But what about the people in the city of Nineveh? Imagine a stranger walking around one of America’s major cities– Washington, New York, Seattle (in light of recent events there)… His face and skin are unnaturally white and blotchy; bleached by stomach acid from an enormous fish. He looks like a zombie, and his message is delivered in utterly horrible assurance–“yet forty days, and this city will be destroyed.” Not by a spike in COVID-19 cases; not by looters or protesters tearing down a couple of buildings here or there–total destruction by the hand of God.
What might we do differently if we had forty days to convince God to stay His hand and give our nation a chance to repent. We claim we are not like the Assyrians– we were founded on truthful principles and ideals. We “hold” these truths, but we do not live them out as a nation.
The Ninevites did not have time to amend or rewrite a Constitution. They did not have forty weeks or forty years to “reconstruct” their empire or implement social justice legislation.
But they had time to pray. They had time to fast, and repent, and seek the mercy of God. From the least to the greatest, they fasted and prayed. Even their animals fasted! They stopped frantically trying to grab power, and turned their eyes toward their Maker and Judge. And God listened! God forgave! God showed mercy!
May we pray– in every nation, region, city, village, or settlement– for God’s mercy in these times, and at all times. God is not waiting for us to “get it right.” He is waiting for us to come to Him. May we be humble and hopeful and turn to Him today. And may we learn from their example.*
*Spoiler alert– while the Assyrians in Nineveh repented after the message of Jonah, they quickly forgot God’s mercy and returned to their wickedness. Just a few decades later, God DID bring destruction on the entire empire– this time without warning!
Social media is a dangerous place these days. Everyone is an expert on something– pain, medicine, race relations, politics, religion… I’m an expert, too. I am an expert in my own opinion! I know all I ever need to know about how I feel, what I’ve experienced, how I would solve all the world’s problems, and what everyone else should know, do, and think.
And when I pray, I am an expert in what I want, and what God should do–right?
Turns out, the Bible disagrees with me. Prayer is not about telling God what I think He should do. And one of the things He doesn’t want me to do is go about telling everyone how much I know and how right I am about everything.
I know– it flies in the face of common thought and practice. But my words are not to be about how good I am, how smart I am, how righteous I am, how “woke” I am, or how tolerant I am. My words shouldn’t be all about ME. When I do speak (or write), it should be for one of four reasons:
To praise– to bring honor and glory to God for who He is and all that He has done. To rehearse and proclaim His good deeds and righteous acts so that others may hear and praise Him, too.
To encourage, build up, edify, or heal others. Words have the power to bring hope, energy, confidence, light, and love. They also have the power to destroy, devalue, and discourage. Finally, words have the power to suck energy, waste time, and bring confusion and chaos. When I speak carelessly, selfishly, or foolishly, it does nothing to build up others. (And it probably doesn’t do me much good, either!)
To speak truth and stand up for righteousness–not in an arrogant way, and not to win “points”, but to honestly and firmly defend what I know to be true. I must realize that there will be others who will stand in opposition to the truth and refuse to hear what I say. Others will misconstrue and misrepresent the truth. It is NOT for me to make them believe– only to stand up and give voice to the truth when I see it under attack.
To express unique and creative thoughts, which is part of praising my maker. Everyone has SOMETHING to say– something that expresses their inner thoughts and unique perspectives. That should cause me to take great joy. And it should cause me to take the same joy in helping others find their voice and share their stories and ideas. Not because I’m “right” about the world, or because they are “right” in their ideas. But because God gave each of us a voice. I can listen and not agree; they can do the same. But sometimes, in the act of listening, we do more to come to understanding and agreement than we ever do by speaking. And in being allowed to speak freely, we might listen to ourselves more carefully, too.
Jesus spoke wonderful parables, deep and thoughtful prayers, piercing sermons, and tender words of encouragement and love. But He also listened–not only to the critics and enemies, but to those who hid in the shadows; those who were outcast and oppressed; those whose voices were drowned out by the crowds. He was RIGHT! More than anyone ever, He had the right to be heard…He chose to listen as well as speak. Jesus was more interested in being Himself than being “right.” More interested in showing love than showing off. More interested in understanding than overpowering. Jesus spoke–but He also laughed, and wept, and lived, and listened.
I was re-reading a familiar passage in the gospel of John recently, and I was struck by a truth I had missed before. In the first part of John 8, there is a story about a woman caught in adultery https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=John+8%3A1-11&version=NIV I have read this story many times, and even heard sermons preached on this passage. What struck me this time wasn’t exactly new material, or a new reading, but a new understanding of a detail that was there all along.
The story begins with Jesus teaching a crowd of people in the temple courts in Jerusalem. His teaching is interrupted by a group of Pharisees and teachers of the law. They have a woman caught in the act of adultery, and they come to Jesus asking his opinion about stoning her. They obviously know the laws of Moses, because they cite them. But they cite only a certain portion of the law, and they want Jesus to weigh in (so they can use his own words to trap him).
Jesus turns the tables, and passively bends down to write letters in the sand. He says only, “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” One by one, the accusers and the crowd– everyone except Jesus–melts away. Finally, Jesus asks who is left to condemn the woman. There is no one. Jesus refuses to condemn her, and sends her on her way, telling her to “Go, and sin no more.”
Four details I want to highlight in this story:
There was already a crowd around Jesus before the Pharisees and teachers arrived. They did not bring this woman to Jesus to get an honest answer to a question, or to bring about justice (for that, they should have brought both her AND the man involved!); they brought her to a very public spot to humiliate her and trap Jesus. She was a pawn in a political and religious game, and she was guilty of a crime that was punishable by death. She was accused and forced to stand before a crowd to be condemned without a trial. So often, I read this passage, and my focus is on Jesus and the woman and the Pharisees– I forget that there is a crowd of ordinary people being “played” by the Pharisees for their own purposes.
Jesus never answers the question at hand. According to the laws of Moses, the woman should be stoned. That is the point the Pharisees want Jesus to address. They have set him up. If he agrees with their interpretation of the laws of Moses, he should insist that the woman be stoned. But this will be in violation of the Roman laws, and will lead to Jesus being arrested by the Romans. But if Jesus upholds the Roman law, he will be turning his back on centuries of Jewish tradition dating back to Moses. The problem is that the Pharisees have resorted to some half-truths. The laws of Moses DO speak of stoning; they speak of adultery being punishable by death– for both the man and the woman involved. However, the Priests and leaders of Israel have not followed this practice. King David committed adultery with Uriah’s wife. Neither one was stoned or condemned to death. There are no records of other adulterous couples being stoned throughout Israel’s history. So it is rather disingenuous for the Pharisees to bring this case to Jesus and ask him to speak judgment where they will not. Jesus knows this is not about actual justice; it isn’t really about the law of Moses– because they are not following it themselves! By turning the tables back on them, Jesus exposes their hypocrisy and failure in front of the very crowds they are trying to impress with their clever plans.
One by one, the woman’s accusers melt away. But it’s not just them, it’s the crowd of ordinary people– the ones who were likely riled up by the Pharisees and teachers. Think about the mob mentality–a guilty woman, caught in the act and brought before a teacher with moral authority–there is nothing like scandal to get a crowd of anonymous bystanders worked up and ready for blood. Yet, Jesus’ gentle reminder that any of us could be found “guilty” of something and condemned to shame and punishment puts out the flame of anger and resentment, and causes the mob to evaporate. No one is left to accuse, to curse, to insult, to humiliate, or condemn.
Finally, it’s down to Jesus and the sinful woman. There IS one person there who is without sin– one person who has the right to throw stones, to judge, to punish. Yet he reaches out with compassion and mercy. He is still righteous– he doesn’t shrug off the woman’s sin. He doesn’t say, “Well, that’s no big deal. Let’s just pretend that never happened.” or “I think you’ve learned a valuable lesson here today, young lady.” He simply says, “Neither do I condemn you. Go now and leave your life of sin.”
Next time, I want to address each of these details from a practical standpoint in light of modern circumstances, and what lessons I am taking from Jesus’ actions.