There is a line in a song by Billy Joel (Only the Good Die Young) which reads, “I’d rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints. The sinners are much more fun.”
There is a myth about sin– that sin is fun and obedience is drudgery. Sinners laugh and live carefree, happy lives, while “saints” lead gloomy lives filled with tears, worry, and anguish. Heaven will be filled with sour-faced do-gooders playing harps, while Hell will be an eternal party.
Nothing could be further from reality. While sin gives momentary pleasure and temporary laughter, it also leads to devastating pain and haunting regret. Broken families, lost relationships, stress, and guilt are just some of the consequences of sin. The idea that “I’m not hurting anybody– I’m just doing what makes me happy” is a false comfort.
Similarly, while obedience may require us to make sacrifices or suffer momentarily, it also leads to great reward–discipline, wisdom, integrity, and a legacy of hope and help. The idea that “I’m missing out on the fun” is also a false one. “Saints” may cry, but often their tears are for the misfortunes of others!
Unfortunately, the common stereotype of sinners laughing while saints cry or, more often, sit in judgment, is based on observation. I have known some very sour Christians. They may not be crying, but they frequently make others around them cry! They nag, scold, wag their fingers, consign their neighbors and family members to Hell, and act as though they are too good for everyone else. When challenged about their negative attitude, sometimes they suggest that they are just “waiting for Heaven.” Others plead a genuine concern for others, and they worry that the laughter they hear now will turn to mourning in the future.
But I have also known joyful Christians– laughing, singing, encouraging others, whistling while they work, even laughing in the face of suffering and persecution! They, too, are “waiting for Heaven.” But in the meantime, they are celebrating their new and abundant life in Christ. Their attitude and actions attract others, and reflect the love, joy, peace, and hope that transcends the mere “happiness” of a moment’s sinful pleasure.
The Bible says much about the value of both laughter and tears; of joyous celebration and sober reflection. In the end, ALL of us are “sinners”–no one is righteous on her/his own. Jesus, when He walked the earth and interacted with people, wept and celebrated with them. The Pharisees reprimanded Jesus and His disciples for their “feasting” and spending time with prostitutes and tax collectors. And yet, Jesus had harsh words about sin and Hell, and often spent time alone and in anguish of heart.
The crying of saints is not, in itself, of any more value than the laughter of sinners. But laughter and happiness in the moment cannot save us from the sting of death or the yawning emptiness of an eternity without God. And that is no laughing matter! Unfortunately, the song is based on an empty myth. Death comes to all of us, young or old, “good” or “bad,” gloomy or exuberant in life. What makes the difference is not our laughter or tears, or even our efforts to obey or live “good” lives– what makes a difference is GRACE and FAITH. And I’d rather live with the redeemed than die with the defiant!
whose sin the Lord will never count against them.”
Romans 4:7-8 (NIV) via biblegateway.com (See also Psalm 32:1-2)
Ask me about my most embarrassing moment, or my greatest failure..better yet, ask one of my friends or relatives! We tend to hang on to our past, especially our mistakes, our hurts, our missed opportunities, and our shortcomings. When I taught public speaking in a local high school, I heard horror stories about why “I can’t get in front of people and talk.” The fear of public speaking rates higher in some studies than the fear of Death! And often, the fear is based on an incident from early childhood of people laughing at a small, but very public mistake. Such moments haunt us.
As we grow older, we let our regrets live large– those things we “would have, should have, could have” done, or the things we shouldn’t have said, but can never un-say. And even if we try to move on or forget the past, there always seems to be someone who cannot let go, cannot forgive, or cannot forgive. Lives have been stunted and ruined by the ghosts of “what happened” when…
God is all-knowing. There is nothing we’ve ever done, said, or even thought, that He “missed,” ignored, or “lost track of.” God has total recall over all the centuries and eons of time– past, present, and even future! And yet, God offers to forgive ALL our sins, and to “remember them no more.” God will never bring up “that time when you disappointed me…” God will never look at you with condemnation over anything you have confessed and repented over. It’s not that God will never be able to recall what happened; but He will no longer “charge it to your account.” He has chosen to pay the consequences in His own Blood, so that you can be debt free.
Imagine if you had no bills. If all your mortgages, utility payments, credit card debt, medical bills–everything that you were responsible to pay– all were stamped “Paid in full.” You never had to worry about interest payments, late fees, repossession, evening phone calls from bill collectors, credit scores, etc. What a weight off your shoulders! Imagine if you had no reason to fear getting in front of a room full of people to speak or sing or give a presentation– no fear that others would judge your every hesitation, or whether your tie was straight, or your hair was mussed, or you stumbled over a word or phrase or tripped on the steps leading up to the podium. Imagine being accepted and embraced by the very one who, by rights, should be your most severe critic.
Sometimes, when we see God as our critic, our judge, or our opponent, we’re not seeing God as He really is– we’re seeing a reflection of ourselves– harsh, judgmental, unwilling to forgive others; unwilling to forgive ourselves. The very first deception of the Enemy was to distort God’s image from Creator and Sustainer to Judge and Tyrant. Yet Satan is called “The Accuser,” not God. God’s Holy Spirit may convict us of Sin– causing us to see that we have done wrong– but His purpose is always to correct and restore us, not to haunt and condemn us. Even the “worst” sins are not beyond God’s ability or willingness to forgive. Jesus forgave His accusers, His betrayers, and His executioners from the Cross!
Forgiveness is not easy. Sin is real; it has real and terrible consequences. Sin hurts, humiliates, victimizes, and traumatizes. And its effects do not simply vanish if we say, “I forgive.” But hanging on to the pain and anger keeps us from finding and experiencing the healing and wholeness that Jesus offers. Forgiveness does not mean that the sin, or the pain, never happened– God will not “forget” injustice just because we forgive the unjust. Forgiveness means that we no longer need to try to collect the debt from someone else– because God has already promised to pay it back with interest! And forgiving yourself doesn’t mean that your past actions didn’t happen or didn’t cause pain. In fact, whenever there are opportunities to atone for past actions, or ask forgiveness from those we have wronged, we should take them. But where such opportunities are impossible for us, even when we cannot see how such pain could be redeemed or relationships restored, God has promised that we can move beyond our past mistakes and live a new , blessed, and debt-free life.
When we approach God in prayer, we come as we are– people with past mistakes, very human emotions, including doubt and fear, and unworthy to stand on our own before a perfect God. But it is God who invites us to come to Him– debt free and embraced by His limitless Grace!
9 With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in God’s likeness. 10 From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. It should not be like this, my brothers! 11 A spring cannot pour both fresh and brackish water from the same opening, can it? 12 My brothers, a fig tree cannot produce olives, nor a grapevine figs, can it? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water.
James 3:9-12 (International Standard Version) via biblegateway.com
We live in a culture of complaint and condescension. We pass judgment on people we’ve never met, based on stories we read second- or third-hand on Facebook or in a magazine, or hear on a gossipy talk show. We complain about situations we’ve never been in, on behalf of yet more people we’ve never met. We take pleasure in tearing down the reputation and character of people who don’t even know we exist.
And then we pray…
“Our Father, who art in Heaven…”
I have caught myself in the middle of criticizing someone, as the Holy Spirit reminds me that God LOVES that person. Jesus DIED for that person, just as He died for me. Even if my criticism seems “valid,” it is not for me to pass judgment– especially to others and behind their back.
James (the brother of Jesus) wrote about our words coming out of our mouths like water pouring forth from a spring. We cannot pour forth pure, fresh water and brackish, salty water from the same spring. Similarly, we cannot pour forth praise and wholesome words, and turn around and trash-talk our neighbor–people will “taste” what pours out, and judge the whole spring.
This seems like such a small thing in our culture–surely a sarcastic comment about someone “everyone” dislikes can do no lasting harm, right? Yet an old proverb my parents taught me still rings true: “If you can’t say anything nice about a person, say nothing at all.” Imagine the difference it would make in the world if we all followed that advice. The silence would be deafening!
Yes, it’s tempting to add our “two cents” to a conversation that is filled with criticism and complaint– but the price we pay in the long run is just not worth it! When we give in to temptation, snarling and sniping and slandering others, we ruin our own reputation. We become known for gossip and sarcasm, and ill-will. Like saltwater flowing from a spring, we bring a bad taste– and bad results to everything we touch. God wants us to bring forth pure water– encouragement, truth, and justice– when we speak. God knows each person — there is no hiding from HIS judgment. But He will not be snide, or clever, or nasty. He will be righteous and Holy in His judgment, not petty or vindictive. As followers of Christ, we should strive to do the same.
Father, guide my tongue. Purify it, so that I speak words of life and healing; words that honor you AND those you have created in your image. Help me to remember that words matter. Words hurt, and words heal– words give life and hope, or they bring darkness and dissension. May my words reflect the True Word–Christ– in me. Amen.
I was struck the other day by the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man (Luke 16: 19-31). I’ve heard sermons and talks and done Bible studies on this passage, and the focus is always on the rich man. In life, he did nothing to help the poor beggar who was literally on his doorstep. In death, he ends up in torment, and seeing Father Abraham with Lazarus in Heaven, he tries to strike a bargain with Abraham to ease his own tormented soul.
But I was struck by several things I had never considered:
Jesus named Lazarus, but not the Rich Man. This is a parable– a metaphorical story– so Jesus did not need to have specific names for any of the characters. He often told such stories with no names. This one contains a specific person, Lazarus, and very specific details about his earthly life. He was not just a beggar, but a beggar covered with sores and starving. Jesus even related that the “dogs came and licked his sores” (v.21). And Jesus makes it clear that the rich man recognized and knew Lazarus by name. Yet he had done nothing to help Lazarus when he had the chance. We never hear in the story whether or not Lazarus was ever cured or helped; we don’t know if he had been a wealthy or prominent man at one time, of if he had always been a diseased beggar. The point is that Jesus, and Abraham, and the rich man all KNEW Lazarus. He mattered enough to call by name. The Rich Man in this story also had a name. He probably was well-known in the town or city where the story took place. And we know that he had five brothers who were likely well-known and highly respected. But NONE of them are named in the story. Only Lazarus.
The Rich Man looks up into Heaven. He can see and recognize Lazarus and Father Abraham. But he never looks for, sees, talks to, or wonders about the Heavenly Father. He never asks for comfort from God– he doesn’t even ask a favor of the Patriarch– he only considers that someone like Lazarus should be made to help him and/or his brothers.
Abraham explains that Lazarus cannot and will not be allowed to do as the Rich Man requests– but the parable does not tell us that Lazarus can either see the Rich Man or hear his requests, nor does it say that Lazarus is unwilling to help.
Jesus tells this story in a straightforward manner, even though it is a Parable and has hidden meanings. The Rich Man wants help in his hour of torment, even though he was unwilling to help others in their need. But he isn’t without feeling or pity– he loves his brothers enough to try to warn them. Jesus could have used this parable to say much more about Social Justice, and the plight of the poor and the wealthy. He could have said much more about greed or apathy. He could have pressed the point about loving one’s neighbor. He did NOT make some of the connections we add to this story. We often assume that the Rich Man is in hell only because he did not help Lazarus during his lifetime, and that Lazarus is in Heaven solely because he was oppressed and afflicted in life. But is that really what Jesus says?
What struck me the most about this story is that I always look at it as an outsider. I don’t relate with either of these characters. Of course I don’t want to think that I am cold and selfish like the Rich Man in this story, but neither do I think I am Lazarus. So who do I think I am when I read this parable? Do I pat myself on the back for sending a check to a charity a couple of times a year, or speaking up for the poor or marginalized in my community? Do I indignantly point out all the “others” who are not doing their part to help? Do I see myself, not as a poor diseased beggar, but as someone who has been “oppressed” by nameless, faceless rich people– someone who deserves to be rescued and comforted while “they” suffer through eternity?
I don’t have any answers as to how I “should” see myself (or others) in this parable. But I think Jesus wants us to grapple with some of the realities it presents:
Our world is filled with situations like that of Lazarus and the Rich Man–situations of injustice, struggle, disease, poverty, inequality, suffering, and luxury. And while it is clear that we should do what we can to help others, and to bring justice and mercy, and to reach out and connect with our neighbors in love, it is also clear that such situations are not for us to make blanket judgments. I know many who see poverty as a judgment– those who are poor are lazy or unworthy. And I know others who see luxury and wealth as a judgment–those who are wealthy are greedy and selfish and unworthy. God will not judge us by our circumstances or the injustices done against us. He WILL judge us by our response to Him– when we look toward Heaven, do we see Him, or do we see the place we think we deserve to be?
Our ultimate situation has very little to do with our earthly circumstances. Are we sick, poor, suffering, grieving, or in pain? God is aware, and He offers eternal comfort. We can endure and hope because we know that this is not all there is to life. Are we blessed with comfort and ease right now? We should not take our circumstances for granted, but be willing to share in our abundance, knowing that our future is sure, and that God will care for our needs as we care for others. But wealth or poverty, status or shameful circumstances, do not predict our eternal destiny.
God sees us! He sees our circumstances, and He cares! He sees our heart and our motives. He knows our every thought.
We need to look with God’s eyes. The Rich Man in this story thought he was important– in life and even in the afterlife. He thought Lazarus was worthy only to serve him or stay out of his way as he enjoyed life’s luxuries. But he also thought he was more important than Heaven! Sitting in eternal torment, he was not humbled or repentant– he was still trying to see the world through his own self-importance. Lazarus may have spent his life thinking that he was NOT important– a beggar, alone, forgotten, and unwanted. But God knew his name and saw his suffering. Lazarus could have been bitter, cursing God for his circumstances, or spending his days trying to steal or take revenge on the Rich Man.
I need to look with God’s eyes, not only at who I am in relation to God and others, but at OTHERS in relation to God and to me. I may see someone like the Rich Man– selfish, pompous, self-important– and dismiss them as unlovable and unworthy of mercy or grace. But God sees someone He created; someone who is needy and lost– someone He loves enough to die for. I may see someone like Lazarus–hurting and forgotten– and think they are a lost cause or fear that they will prove to be “undeserving” of my help. But God sees someone He created; someone He aches with; someone He loves enough to die for!
There is a quote, often attributed to the late great apologist, Ravi Zacharias, that I keep posted on my refrigerator. The actual author appears to be another great apologist, Edward Musgrave (E.M.) Blakelock, an Australian who lived in the 20th century. The quote goes like this:
God alone knows how to humble you without humiliating you, and how to exalt you without flattering you.
E. M. Blakelock
It is at once a simple and extremely profound statement. God knows us so well, He knows exactly those areas in which we tend toward pride and disobedience. But unlike our accuser, Satan, God doesn’t stand around saying, “AHA! AHA!” and pointing out our faults with glee. His loving discipline will cause us to be confronted with our errors–and our own pride and failure to obey may cause us to be humiliated by others–but God’s purpose is to bring us to repentance and transformation, not shame and dishonor. God wants us to learn from our mistakes, not be imprisoned by them.
In the same way, God knows our strengths and glories in our wise use of His gifts. But He loves us far to much to flatter us and lead us to improper pride. If we go there, we do so led by our own temptation. God may choose to do great things around us, for us, even through us– but they are God’s great deeds, and we are blessed to be part of the process.
One of Satan’s greatest lies is that we must be “like God”– knowing good and evil, and able to always choose the right course in our own power and wisdom. Such thinking leads us to wonder if God will be unable or unwilling to forgive us– that we must never falter, totter, or doubt. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God…” (Romans 3:23 NIV). But that is NOT the Good News of the Gospel– merely that reality of our lost state. Guilt without remedy is hopeless and dead! Such a picture places God in the place of prosecutor. But God is both our just judge (rather than an unforgiving one), and our faithful advocate!
God WILL humble us; and He WILL exalt us according to His wisdom. But God is more concerned about our ultimate well-being and redemption than in our temporary feelings.
My prayer for today is two-fold– first, that I would seek God’s opinion and His just judgment, so that I can confess, repent, and adjust my heart accordingly. Second, I would pray that I might seek to see others as God does; that my love for others would cause me to encourage and admonish with pure love, and not selfish ambition or spite.
It was almost 160 years ago, during the darkest days of America’s Civil War, that Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote a poem “Christmas Bells” that would become the Christmas Hymn, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” His son had been badly wounded in battle; his wife had died just a few years earlier, and the nation was in ruins and chaos. No one knew how much longer the war would continue or what the final outcome would be; Longfellow did not know if his son would live, or if he would be paralyzed for life. As he listened to the bells of Christmas ringing from church towers, he poured out all his doubts and fears in verse. Yet he concluded, “The Wrong shall fail, the Right prevail, with peace on earth, good-will to men.”
Christmas is not just a celebration of “comfort and joy” that comes from tinsel and lights, cozy fires, or gifts under brightly lit trees. Christmas is about Hope in times of darkness. It is about promises kept; prophesies fulfilled, victory assured, even when it looks as though the Enemy has the upper hand.
It is horribly tempting in troubled times to wonder and question God’s ways– does He hear? Does He see? Is He asleep? Does He exist? How can a “good” God allow such suffering and pain? And like Longfellow, we listen to our circumstances, and they seem to drown out the message of Christmas– “For Hate is strong, and mocks the song of peace on earth, good-will to men.” The cannons of yesteryear may have been replaced with 24-hour news cycles or Facebook news feeds, with protests and lock-downs, COVID counts and contested elections, but the noise is still the same. There is hatred, deceit, destruction, and doubt in our world–it was present during the Civil War; it was present during the Roman occupation at the time of Christ’s birth. But that birth brought a singular hope– one that has become so familiar, and so casual as to be almost forgotten amidst the immediate urgent noises of the day.
The trappings of Christmas sometimes hide the very Glory of Christ’s Advent. God CAME. He LIVED AMONG US. He was humble. He felt the cold and heat of long days and nights; his feet got dirty from walking. He laughed and cried. And, He DIED. He felt agony and shame and fear as he gasped for breath, naked and bloody and facing sneers and anger from the crowd. But God IS NOT DEAD–He conquered death; He rose again victorious. And He did it so that our suffering is not in vain– our suffering is not the end of our story.
GOD IS NOT DEAD. Hope is not in vain. Nor does He sleep–even in the silence of our lonely nights, even in the noisy chaos of life in 2020–God has not stepped off His throne; He has not turned His back on mankind. “The Wrong shall fail–” though it may seem strong and strut arrogantly through the streets, shouting and threatening–God is the final authority. Nothing is hidden from Him. He sees every injustice, every secret sin; He hears every lie, every twisted truth, every deceit. And He has no favorites– there is no excuse, no “religious” exemption– ALL have sinned, and all will be held to account.
EXCEPT– because of that one birth and death and resurrection–the debt is already paid. “The Right (shall) prevail with peace on earth, good-will to men.” For those who listen beyond the noise of battle, the bells of Christmas ring “more loud and deep” with the hope and joy and strength that overcome our pain and struggle. Longfellow found that truth– and I’m so glad he shared it. I hope his words will continue to remind us to listen through this season for the true message of Christmas.
The prophet Micah gave us three “requirements” to please God– to act justly (do justice), love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God (Micah 6:8) I looked at the first of these more closely last time. I want to look at the second requirement today– Love Mercy.
Just like “do justice,” this statement seems simple and self-evident on the surface. We know God is merciful; we know that He delights to show mercy. In fact, throughout Psalm 136, the refrain is repeated, “His Mercy endures forever!” We also know that God is loving and faithful. It is reasonable to assume that God wants us to show mercy to others, and rejoice in His mercy toward us.
But unlike the first “requirement” of “do justice,” this is not primarily an action statement. I believe God is still pleased when we practice mercy, but the “requirement” is that we love mercy. That we embrace mercy; welcome it, and cherish it. And this is not always easy or straightforward.
I am to love mercy when it is shown to me. I am not to cheapen it by trying to pay it back or “earn” it, or disparage or refuse it. I am to love mercy as I show it to others. I am not to give it grudgingly, or keep a ledger. And I am to love mercy when it is shown to others who don’t “deserve” it.
This is difficult. I want to love justice and do mercy; not the other way around. I don’t want to see others experience mercy when I think they’ve done wrong to me. I don’t always want to rejoice with those whose sins have been forgiven. But until I can do all of this, and learn to love mercy, I cannot fully please God. My grudging show of mercy does not earn God’s approval. My arrogance in deciding who “deserves” mercy does not endear me to my Maker and Judge.
Lord, have mercy on me for begrudging mercy to others. Help me to show mercy freely and joyfully. Help me to love mercy as You do–to rejoice in Your faithfulness, forgiveness, and love.
I’ve been reading through the prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, etc.), and there are many references to altars and sacrifices–both the ones built to honor Jehovah God, and those designed for idols.
Israel and Judah were guilty of building thousands of altars and shrines to false gods. Some of them were found even inside the Holy area of God’s own temple! As part of God’s judgment, He repeated that He would no longer accept the empty sacrifices of His people–He would no longer hear their prayers, unless they repented.
I read these words and wondered– Where are our altars today? When I was a child, many of the older churches had what we called an Altar. It was usually a raised platform, with a podium for the minister, and possibly a “host table” for communion. My childhood church also had a small table that held a large Bible. Sometimes, the platform would have a railing around the edge, with a couple of stairs on either side. And, while many churches “passed the plate” for offerings, some had a special plate on the railing of the altar, where people would march up and place their offerings for the week. There it would sit for the rest of the service–random dollar bills of random denominations in random states of being crumpled, folded, and worn, along with checks, and, sometimes even coins. All of them brought forward and placed on the altar.
Today, many churches have stages, like any large theater or event center. There is no railing, but there are hundreds of spotlights and fog machines. There is no podium for the pastor–just a headset and maybe a small stand for notes. Sometimes, the pastor reads from a teleprompter. Often, he or she is joined by a full band or orchestra, and dozens of singers, actors, or other assistants. No one from the congregation approaches the stage– why would they get up from their comfortable reclining padded seat? No one even “needs” to bring a Bible– the sermon text is printed out on the giant screens hanging above the stage. Our worship is comfortable, and entertaining.
But we have no altars. There is no place for someone to lay their offering before God; no place to meet with Him in repentance or revival. There is no place to remind us of sacrifice and atonement. Oh, to be sure, many churches have a large cross on display somewhere. Some even have the “host table” for communion– somewhere in the wings, just in case–but the concept of an “altar” has all but disappeared from churches in the West. It is an anachronism–something ancient and uncomfortably part of the distant mists of tradition.
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.
God keeps calling my attention to the book of Jonah. It’s not a very lengthy or in-depth book. It has only four chapters, and it tells a single story of the prophet Jonah and his mission to preach to the people of the Assyrian capital of Nineveh. But it is filled with lessons about prayer, obedience, gratitude, repentance, and Grace. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Jonah%201&version=NIV And we learn four important things about God: He sends, He saves, He sustains, and He suspends.
FIrst: God sends. The book of Jonah reminds me of reading Ernest Hemingway. It is compact, terse, and to the point. The very first verse reads, “The word of the Lord came to Jonah, son of Amittai.” There is no other intro, no back story, no conversation between Jonah and God… Yet there IS a back story: elsewhere in the Bible, Jonah is mentioned as a prophet of God. Jonah wasn’t an unlikely choice to take a prophecy to Nineveh. He wasn’t new to the whole “prophet” gig– he wasn’t a farmer or a fisherman or a young shepherd boy. He was an experienced seer and prophet. I mention this because God sends who HE wants to send. He didn’t have to give this message to Jonah. And when Jonah ran away, God didn’t have to chase him down and give him a second chance. There were other prophets who might have delivered the message without any fuss or drama. There were priests, soldiers, merchants, and shepherds who could have done the job (and likely done a better job!) The book of Jonah reminds us that God’s purposes are often multi-faceted. God’s purpose in sending Jonah wasn’t just about the Ninevites– He wanted to work in and around and through Jonah to reveal His character. He also sent the big fish (the Bible never says it was actually a whale), and later a gourd vine and a worm– all to minister to Jonah. They all appear in the story, but only to Jonah, not to any of the others! God will send us–or He will send people (or big fish) TO us. He will send people and things to bless us; and to test our patience! But God sends us what is meant for our good and His glory.
God saves: Each chapter contains an example of God’s salvation– In chapter one, God not only saves Jonah from drowning by sending the big fish; He also saves everyone else on the ship. An entire crew of hardened seamen are stunned by God’s power and grace. In chapter two, God rescues Jonah from the fish’s belly, and gives him another opportunity to fulfill his mission. In chapter three, God sees and hears the pleas of the Ninevites–He withholds His judgment and showers the city with amazing Grace. In the final chapter, Jonah wants to die (twice!), yet God provides comfort, compassion, and correction in response. At the end of this book, in spite of storms and raging seas, prophecies of doom and destruction, dangerous journeys, scorching sun, and disobedience, rebellion, and evil– NO ONE DIES!
God Sustains: God could have rescued Jonah without the “whale.” He could have calmed the storm. He could have caused Jonah to walk on water. He could have created a path of dry land for Jonah to walk on… But God caused Jonah to be in the belly of the fish for three days– a circumstance that Jesus used to foretell His own death and resurrection. God sustained Jonah even in the midst of his bitterness, anger, depression, and rebellion. He gave Jonah a miraculous rescue– one Jonah could have shared with the Ninevites to illustrate God’s Mercy. I find it curious that the King of Nineveh invites everyone to fast and pray, saying “Who knows..” Jonah KNEW! He was a living example of God’s Grace and Power. He could have shared this wonderful news with the people of Nineveh, yet he chose to share only the message of God’s wrath. Jonah had the biggest “fish story” in history, and he chose to keep it a secret! In spite of this, God sustained Jonah’s life– against Jonah’s own wishes! How has God sustained us in moments of crisis, doubt, and infidelity?
God Suspends: What does that mean? Well, in this book, it means several things. God suspends His judgment against the city of Nineveh–in later Bible books, we see that the people of Nineveh and Assyria return to their evil ways. They do not turn completely from their worship of idols and their detestable practices. Within a couple of generations, they experience the total destruction that Jonah predicted. God is Gracious and Merciful; He is also Righteous and Just. Jonah’s mistake was to despise God’s Mercy toward his enemies; the Ninevites’ mistake was to forget God’s Holiness. But God also suspends Jonah’s life– three times Jonah expresses a passive desire to die: he asks to be thrown into the sea (he does not know or expect that God will rescue him); he asks to die after the Ninevites are spared; and he asks to die when the worm destroys the gourd vine. But Jonah’s desire to die goes unfulfilled. God’s purpose is not that Jonah should die, but that Jonah should learn to LIVE and love: love his life; love his God (better); and love his former enemies. Sadly, we never find if Jonah ever learned his lesson. The author of Jonah leaves us “suspended” as well.
Our God sends “whales” to rescue us from our rebellious wandering, and “worms” to take away those comforts that keep us from seeing our real needs. He saves us, even though we don’t deserve a second (or third or thirtieth) chance. He sustains us, even in times of failure. And He suspends us, withholding His wrath and giving us loving compassion and correction. Jonah is not a very lovable character– and that is a great comfort to me in times when I am faced with my own failures and missed opportunities. The people of Nineveh were despicable! They deserved justice and judgment. But God loved Jonah; and He loved the people of Nineveh. And He loves us– more than we deserve; more than we can imagine. He loves the unlovable. He loves the despicable. He loves those who cannot love themselves, and those we are convinced we cannot love.
May we learn a lesson today from the “whale” and the “worm”– we can trust God for Mercy and for Justice. We can trust Him to save and sustain us; to send us and suspend us. And we can rest in His love and care–whether we find ourselves in a raging sea or caught in the scorching heat, or sent on a mission that tests our heart and soul to its limit.