“Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of my enemies..” (Psalm 23:5a)
I don’t like confrontation. I don’t like dealing with opposition. I don’t like having enemies. However, God’s word is very clear– I can’t avoid them or deny their existence. No matter how hard I try to make peace or stay on good terms with others, there will always be some who disagree, who dislike me, who stand against me.
So it should not come as a great surprise that God, the Good Shepherd, promises that He will prepare a table before me in the very presence of those enemies. He does not expect me to stay hidden; He does not give His blessings in secret. Instead, He allows my enemies to see that I am never alone or abandoned to their power. He showers me with blessing, meets my every need, binds my wounds and comforts my sorrows right before their eyes. They may have limited access to hurt me or frighten me, but God will bring His justice– and they will be made to see it. (see Psalm 37 https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Psalm+37&version=HCSB)
But more than that, God invites some of those very enemies to see His peace and blessing. God’s desire is that we would all share in the wedding feast of the Lamb; that the table He sets before us would be a chance to turn enemies into brothers and sisters. And He gives us the opportunity, through His blessings, to extend that invitation of Grace and inclusion–to Love our Enemies!
Not all will accept this invitation– some will choose to watch in resentment, rebellion, and pride as we enjoy communion with our Shepherd; but they will be unable to disturb or destroy the joy and refreshment He brings. And not all “enemies” are the people who oppose us. God blesses us in the presence of those enemies who oppose Him. They may seek to hurt us, and turn us away from our Shepherd. But He will never turn from us. Even when we turn away, or doubt His presence or His purpose– even in the presence of our enemies–God is with us.
In troubled times like these, that is especially comforting to know. Chaos, disease, doubt, fear, guilt, and in the “valley of the shadow of death:” our enemies may be present and looming, but God is laying out a table, preparing to anoint our heads with oil, and showing us with Goodness and Mercy, Justice and Righteousness– all in their presence. And they are powerless to stop Him!
I’m continuing to explore the life of Lot in the Biblical story of Genesis. Lot, the nephew of the Biblical patriarch, Abraham, chose to live near, and then in, the wicked city of Sodom. His circumstances have made him wealthy, but they have also made him a pawn and a victim of greed and war all around.
When we left Lot (see Friday’s entry), he had been rescued by his uncle Abram (later renamed Abraham), along with all his possessions, after being kidnapped from Sodom. This might have been a good time for him to move on with his life, make a fresh start, and get away from the wars and wickedness surrounding him. But he didn’t. Nor does he seem to have had any kind of positive impact on his neighbors and friends. The Bible doesn’t mention whether or not Lot joined in any of the wicked behavior of his fellow Sodomites, but he seems to have turned a (mostly) blind eye to it.
The Biblical narrative leaves Lot for a few chapters, to concentrate on the life of Abraham, the changing of Abram’s name to Abraham, the birth of his son, Ishmael, and the promised coming of Isaac. But at the end of chapter 18, the LORD speaks to Abraham about the impending destruction of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah:
17 The LORD said, shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, 18 seeing that Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him? 19 For I have chosen him, that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the LORD by doing righteousness and justice, so that the LORD may bring to Abraham what he has promised him.” 20 Then the LORD said, “Because the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is great and their sin is very grave, 21 I will go down to see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry that has come to me. And if not, I will know.” 22 So the men turned from there and went toward Sodom, but Abraham still stood before the LORD. 23 Then Abraham drew near and said, “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? 24 Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city. Will you then sweep away the place and not spare it for the fifty righteous who are in it? 25 Far be it from you to do such a thing, to put the righteous to death with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” 26 And the LORD said, “If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will spare the whole place for their sake.” 27 Abraham answered and said, “Behold, I have undertaken to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes. 28 Suppose five of the fifty righteous are lacking. Will you destroy the whole city for lack of five?” And he said, “I will not destroy it if I find forty-five there.” 29 Again he spoke to him and said, “Suppose forty are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of forty I will not do it.” 30 Then he said, “Oh let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak. Suppose thirty are found there.” He answered, “I will not do it, if I find ththirty there.” 31 He said, “Behold, I have undertaken to speak to the Lord. Suppose twenty are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of twenty I will not destroy it.” 32 Then he said, “Oh let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak again but this once. Suppose ten are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of ten I will not destroy it.” 33 And the LORD went his way, when he had finished speaking to Abraham, and Abraham returned to his place.
The Bible is not explicit in describing the evil that occurred in Sodom and Gomorrah. But two things stand out in this passage. The LORD speaks of “the outcry” against these two cities and the gravity of their “sin.” Some people have suggested that there is a single egregious sin– “sodomy”– that roused God’s especial judgment. Certainly, in chapter 19 (https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Genesis+19&version=NIV) the men of the city demand that Lot’s “guests” be brought out so they can have sex with them. Lot offers his virgin daughters, but the men refuse and become so violent that the “guests” have to intervene. However, a parallel story is reported later in the Old Testament, this time in the city of Gibeah in the region of Benjamin. (https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Judges+19&version=NIV) And, while judgment is delivered to the city, it is not singled out for especial judgment by fire from heaven.
Whatever the evil in Sodom, it included rape, sodomy, and likely human trafficking and human sacrifice (see the end of Genesis 14, where the king of Sodom offers Abram all the material spoils of war, in exchange for all the people). It was not just the evil of sexual promiscuity or occasional violent practices, but something that caused an enormous “outcry” from victims, and possibly even angelic messengers reporting on the level of depravity, destruction, and oppression involved. Yet Lot lived there for years, raising his family, going about his business, and ignoring or excusing the evil all around him. There is no record of him making any positive difference, any positive contribution; no record of Lot doing anything to stand out from among his neighbors.
And when judgment comes, it is swift and terrible. The Angelic messengers must drag Lot and his family away from their home and possessions. They urge him to flee into the mountains, but he balks and asks to be allowed to flee to the small town at the edge of the destruction. (More about this at a later time…) Lot has lost almost everything of value– he ends up bankrupt; materially, and spiritually. Lot is a vacant shell of a man–fearful and snivelling, weak and empty.
What evil occurs in our neighborhoods today? What are we doing to alleviate it? Combat it? Excuse it? Enable it? If God were to bring judgment to our city or country, would He have to send angels to drag us out of the fire? Would he find even 10 righteous people on our block? In our apartment complex? God didn’t find 10 righteous people in Sodom…In fact, the Bible doesn’t say that he found ANY! Lot and his daughters were spared, but the stench of Sodom and Gomorrah lingered in this family to their ruin.
Lot’s legacy is one of emptiness, loss, and depravity. But there is one bright spot, which we’ll look at next time. God is slow to anger, and rich in mercy. His redemptive plan will include even Lot with all his flaws and weakness. And it extends to each of us, regardless of where we’ve lived, or what we’ve experienced. God didn’t find any righteous people in Sodom; He knew He wouldn’t! More than once the Bible tells us “there is no one righteous; not even one; there is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one.” (Romans 3:10-12; Psalms 14:1-3, others…) God’s plan is not to find people who are already righteous– His plan is to rescue people like Lot; people like US! And His plan is to include us in the rescue effort, too.
I’m learning a “lot” from Lot. There are a couple more things I want to explore in the coming days. I hope you will join me.
Of David. 1 The Lord is my light and my salvation— whom should I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life— whom should I dread? 2 When evildoers came against me to devour my flesh, my foes and my enemies stumbled and fell. 3 Though an army deploys against me, my heart will not be afraid; though a war breaks out against me, I will still be confident. 4 I have asked one thing from the Lord; it is what I desire: to dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, gazing on the beauty of the Lord and seeking him in his temple. 5 For he will conceal me in his shelter in the day of adversity; he will hide me under the cover of his tent; he will set me high on a rock. 6 Then my head will be high above my enemies around me; I will offer sacrifices in his tent with shouts of joy. I will sing and make music to the Lord. 7 Lord, hear my voice when I call; be gracious to me and answer me. 8 My heart says this about you: “Seek his face.” Lord, I will seek your face. 9 Do not hide your face from me; do not turn your servant away in anger. You have been my helper; do not leave me or abandon me, God of my salvation. 10 Even if my father and mother abandon me, the Lord cares for me. 11 Because of my adversaries, show me your way, Lord, and lead me on a level path. 12 Do not give me over to the will of my foes, for false witnesses rise up against me, breathing violence. 13 I am certain that I will see the Lord’s goodness in the land of the living. 14 Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart be courageous. Wait for the Lord.
There are a lot of scary things in our world– war, disaster, taxes, death, violence, injustice, disease, uncertainty, evil, darkness, even supernatural and spiritual darkness–enough to keep us frightened and sleepless every night! And we spend a lot of our time fearing the unknown–worrying about the future; worrying about things that have not happened, and may never happen! We worry about things that matter– the health and well-being of our loved ones, uncertainty about our job or home, crime and civil unrest in our nation or neighborhood, difficult decisions with serious consequences. We worry about things that are less urgent–someone laughing at us, hair loss, dropping a phone call, running out of gas, losing a game or an argument…
David had some real reasons to be fearful as he wrote Psalm 27–evildoers, enemies, war and armies, false witnesses, and violence. Yet, he found safety and strength in the Lord. We can take comfort in the message of this Psalm–God is faithful. He is strong. He is eternal and unchanging. He is a stronghold we can trust.
But before we get too comfortable, let’s take a closer look. David’s trust is not based on a superficial knowledge about God. David’s trust comes as a result of seeking God’s face and following in “your way” (v. 11). David’s life was proof of God’s strength and protection, because David’s life was filled with fearsome adversaries!
Many generations after David penned this Psalm, the prophet Amos wrote to the people of Israel– people who knew this comforting psalm, but had lost their fear–people who no longer sought the Lord’s protection or His ways.
Amos 5 Christian Standard Bible (CSB)
5 Listen to this message that I am singing for you, a lament, house of Israel: 2 She has fallen; Virgin Israel will never rise again. She lies abandoned on her land with no one to raise her up. 3 For the Lord God says: The city that marches out a thousand strong will have only a hundred left, and the one that marches out a hundred strong will have only ten left in the house of Israel.
4 For the Lord says to the house of Israel: Seek me and live! 5 Do not seek Bethel or go to Gilgal or journey to Beer-sheba, for Gilgal will certainly go into exile, and Bethel will come to nothing. 6 Seek the Lord and live, or he will spread like fire throughout the house of Joseph; it will consume everything with no one at Bethel to extinguish it. 7 Those who turn justice into wormwood also throw righteousness to the ground. 8 The one who made the Pleiades and Orion, who turns darkness into dawn and darkens day into night, who summons the water of the sea and pours it out over the surface of the earth— the Lord is his name. 9 He brings destruction on the strong, and it falls on the fortress. 10 They hate the one who convicts the guilty at the city gate, and they despise the one who speaks with integrity. 11 Therefore, because you trample on the poor and exact a grain tax from him, you will never live in the houses of cut stone you have built; you will never drink the wine from the lush vineyards you have planted. 12 For I know your crimes are many and your sins innumerable. They oppress the righteous, take a bribe, and deprive the poor of justice at the city gates. 13 Therefore, those who have insight will keep silent at such a time, for the days are evil. 14 Pursue good and not evil so that you may live, and the Lord, the God of Armies, will be with you as you have claimed. 15 Hate evil and love good; establish justice in the city gate. Perhaps the Lord, the God of Armies, will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph. 16 Therefore the Lord, the God of Armies, the Lord, says: There will be wailing in all the public squares; they will cry out in anguish in all the streets. The farmer will be called on to mourn, and professional mourners to wail. 17 There will be wailing in all the vineyards, for I will pass among you. The Lord has spoken.
18 Woe to you who long for the day of the Lord! What will the day of the Lord be for you? It will be darkness and not light. 19 It will be like a man who flees from a lion only to have a bear confront him. He goes home and rests his hand against the wall only to have a snake bite him. 20 Won’t the day of the Lord be darkness rather than light, even gloom without any brightness in it? 21 I hate, I despise, your feasts! I can’t stand the stench of your solemn assemblies. 22 Even if you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; I will have no regard for your fellowship offerings of fattened cattle. 23 Take away from me the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. 24 But let justice flow like water, and righteousness, like an unfailing stream. 25 “House of Israel, was it sacrifices and grain offerings that you presented to me during the forty years in the wilderness? 26 But you have taken up Sakkuth your king and Kaiwan your star god, images you have made for yourselves. 27 So I will send you into exile beyond Damascus.” The Lord, the God of Armies, is his name. He has spoken.
The people have an outward confidence– they believe themselves to be under God’s protection and blessing. They offer sacrifices and sing worship songs and revel in their success and peace. But God’s words are frightening and urgent. Those who arrogantly call for the “Day of the Lord,” expecting God to pass judgment on their enemies will find to their shock and horror, that God’s wrath falls on them as well. Their confidence has been misplaced, because it has rested on a false picture of God, and an exaggerated sense of their own righteousness. God warns them that judgment is coming– and even as He does, He issues an invitation– “Seek me and live!” (v. 4– see also v. 6 and v. 14). God has withheld judgment, He has given His people opportunity to follow His way. Instead, they have followed the ways of the very enemies they used to fear! Their feasts and festivals have become nothing but a mockery and an affront to God–the same people who claim to worship Him are perverting justice and oppressing the poor. They cheer for evil and refuse to listen to the truth.
God is a stronghold and a light to banish fear and darkness–but a stronghold or tower cannot protect you if you are wandering alone and unprotected or worse yet, if you are leaving the tower to embrace the enemy in the dark! God doesn’t just want to be a light at the end of the tunnel– He wants to be a light to show us the road right in front of us, and a light to banish the darkness where our enemy hides! When we have a proper “fear” of the Lord– when we recognize His wisdom, strength, and sovereignty– when we seek Him in humility and awe and need, and dwell with Him, we need not fear anyone or anything else. When we make empty boasts about God’s favor and protection while ignoring His ways, we drown out His loving warning and His call to return to safety…we should be afraid– very afraid!
Father, may I find my confidence only in You. I want to dwell in Your house and seek Your face today and every day. Thank You for being eternally strong, righteous, faithful, and merciful! Thank you for giving us warnings and providing restoration, hope, and salvation. In Jesus’ Name, Amen.
There is no way I can give a definitive answer to the above question. In a thousand blog posts or three volumes of analysis, I could never cover all the issues this question brings up. I offer the question today for two reasons:
This question is raised in the Bible. Asaph raised it in Psalm 73 https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Psalm+73&version=ASV; Habakkuk and other prophets also asked it. Solomon pondered it in Ecclesiastes, and Job cried out against it. God is not afraid of such questions, but He doesn’t give glib answers, either. The psalmist received no immediate answer directly from God, but when he entered the sanctuary of the Most High, and considered the eternal destination of the wicked, his attitude changed. His envy, anger, and bitterness melted in a flood of awe and worship. God does not want us to be bitter, angry, or envious of the wicked; nor does He want us to be apathetic toward injustice, abuse, and inequality. There is something profoundly disturbing when we see the wicked prospering at the expense of the righteous and innocent. It should cause us to turn to God and seek His help.
That brings me to the second reason I want to grapple with this topic today. I need to! I have the tendency to want an immediate answer, and to see the wicked suffer– until I am in the presence of a Holy God. There is no wickedness that is outside of God’s justice, or of His grace. God WILL bring complete justice– in HIS time. But His primary goal is to bring redemption, restoration, healing, hope, and salvation– even to the wicked; even to ME. God’s justice is not just reserved for those I deem to be wicked and prosperous. God’s ways are not my ways. What if, in my eagerness to condemn the wicked, I miss God’s plan to change the heart of a Zacchaeus, or an Ebenezer Scrooge, or a sinful King David or arrogant King Nebuchadnezzar? No amount of wickedness can overwhelm God’s love and mercy, or His ability to make “all things work together for good” (Romans 8:28) for those who love Him and are called to serve Him.
When tempted to dwell on this question, there are some wonderful alternatives. See some of the links below.
Lord God, today I pray for eyes that see Your face, even in this broken and fallen world. May I look to see Your patience, Your mercy and Your grace, as well as Your Holiness and Justice. May I be an instrument of all these aspects of Your character as I live in Your grace today. Thank You for Your great mercy toward me, and to the promise of Eternal Life with You. Amen.
One of the reasons I began a blog about prayer over eighteen months ago was in reaction to a scathing op-ed article about prayer written in the wake of a mass shooting. Well, here we are again. Two highly publicized (and several “smaller”) mass shootings occurred over the last week in the U.S., and the outrage and anguish is overwhelming and completely understandable. The senseless violence and subsequent loss of life stops us in our tracks. Why? Why would anyone do this? How? How could this happen? In the wake of such evil, millions of people rush to distance themselves from such evil; many of them resort to angry protests and calls for action. Many point their fingers at this leader, that group of people, that philosophy, that industry–any entity (other than oneself) that can be held responsible and made to “pay.” Many offer earnest condolences for the families of the victims– often with the phrase “thoughts and prayers.”
But what good are any of these responses? Nothing we say or do can turn back time and undo the events of the past week. No amount of protesting, legislating, avenging, or moralizing will guarantee that everyone lives in peace and safety as long as evil lurks in human hearts– whether by vigilante gun violence, war, terror attacks, economic and political unrest, rioting, looting, domestic violence, brutality, assault, murder, or suicide. “Banning” guns (or “assault weapons”, “military-style” weapons, etc.) sounds like a sensible action to take, but it is not practical in the face of evil people who will not follow the law, and corrupt governments who will not enforce the law, or worse, who use their power to oppress their own citizens.
Finding, and even punishing a scapegoat may make us feel morally superior and bring a false sense of closure, but it will not break the cycle of anger, hatred, injustice, or lack of respect that is at the root of violence.
But there is something equally repugnant about hearing the phrase “thoughts and prayers”, no matter how earnestly it may be expressed, in the wake of inhuman tragedy. The “thoughts and prayers” of strangers have no warmth, no solidity, no promise, and no strength. They are wisps and vapors of selfish and graceless bystanders, who want to ward off the evil that has befallen someone else. They are nothing more than a pseudo-spiritual appeasement offered to the nameless, faceless fates.
And the greater tragedy is that such empty phrases, expressed as reactions to great evil, cheapen the very real power that should be found in the pursuits of thinking/meditating and praying.
Prayer is not a knee-jerk reaction to bad news. It is not a gesture meant to signal to others that you are beyond the touch of whatever forces have just hurt someone else, or that by your thirty second of piety you can alter the consequences of a catastrophe or change the course of the future.
Where were the “thoughts and prayers” of others two weeks ago? Where will they be tomorrow or next week? What quality of “thoughts and prayers” go out to the families of victims whose names we have not even bothered to learn? Such superficial public expressions, sent with seven teary-eyed and five or six high five/praying hands emojis, mean very little to anyone except the sender. They change nothing from the past, and offer nothing going forward.
I am as guilty of this kind of meaningless virtue-signaling as anyone. I want to feel as though I can, by such empathetic expressions, encourage and strengthen those who have been touched by horror, tragedy, survivor’s guilt, trauma, grief, etc. But I can’t. Nor can my anger, frantic attempts to “fix the world”, or brilliant analyses of all the root causes of violence prevent the next bombing, drive-by shooting, hijacking, arson, political uprising, or disappointing election result. I cannot change the hearts or minds of those with whom I disagree. I cannot “make” a better world.
But that is why I write this blog. It is through a lifestyle of prayer– real prayer, difficult and sometimes agonizing prayer, joyful and grateful prayer, pleading and gut-wrenching prayer, consistent and obedient prayer–that I engage with the only One who CAN bring hope, justice, change, renewal, and salvation to this world. And it is through a lifestyle pursuit of prayer–daily seeking God’s face, asking for His wisdom, accepting His mercy when I fail, reflecting on His character, acting in obedience–that He can change me. That power, that hope, and that renewal is available to ANYONE who will ask. It sustains us when tragedy strikes, and it empowers us to offer far more than empty “thoughts and prayers”– it causes us to pray, not just after a tragedy, but unceasingly– not just for our own comfort and safety going forward, but for the well-being of our enemies, not just for those who look like us or think like us, but for those who scream at us and tell us to stop already with the “thoughts and prayers!” That power causes us to seek peace where there is hatred, justice where we find corruption, and humility when we are surrounded by narcissism.
And if we are not doing those things– if we are not tapping into that power– we should be taking a closer look at those “thoughts and prayers” we are hiding behind.
The prophet Jeremiah lived in violent times. His city was besieged by the Babylonians, and his king was a prisoner in his own palace. God had sent messages of judgment and punishment for the entire nation. Jeremiah prayed diligently, and spoke out against the injustice, pride, and idolatry all around him. In response, he was arrested, beaten, thrown into a pit, and abandoned. God even told him to stop praying for his countrymen, because they were unwilling to accept the truth about their condition, or prepare for the punishment to come. But in the middle of the violence and bad news, God offered hope and promises of restoration, justice, renewal, and peace. He also gave this warning to Jeremiah, that he should stand firm– he should, by his example of consistent obedience and hope– influence others, NOT let himself be influenced by the anger and arrogance of those around him.
Lord, I need to stop offering cheap thoughts and empty prayers that do nothing to honor You and little to help others. Give me the strength and grace to stop reacting to tragedy by reflecting the anger and self-righteousness around me. YOU are my hope, and the best hope I can offer to anyone else. Help me to serve others in truth and love, not judge them, dismiss them, or honor them above You. Help me to seek and stand for justice that is consistent with Your character and Your word, even if I stand alone.
Last week, I was called upon to give testimony in court as a witness to a crime. The crime itself occurred months ago, so I was very nervous, trying to remember the sequence of events, and trying to make sure I didn’t add or leave out important details.
There is a reason the judge asks for “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” It is very easy to exaggerate, to leave out details that may reflect poorly on us or on those we know, or to add commentary or opinion. Even the way a lawyer asks a question can evoke a certain memory or reaction that is more or less than the original event warrants.
As hard as I tried, I couldn’t tell the entire “truth”–not because I lied or withheld evidence, but because I only witnessed a portion of the crime, and because I don’t have total and perfect recall. No one does. Three witnesses may testify and get certain details “wrong” or mix up the sequence of events, or be confused or hazy months after the event. Even seeing the same event from a different perspective can alter one’s testimony. One person hears a conversation clearly, but cannot see one speaker’s facial expressions or gestures. Another sees the event close up, but cannot see what is happening “behind the scene.” One person’s personal biases may come out in the way they give testimony, even if they are unaware of it. While I hope and believe that I told the truth as I witnessed it, my witness alone is not enough to determine the defendant’s guilt or innocence–nor should it be.
The ninth Commandment (in Exodus 20) warns about giving or “bearing” false witness. We usually equate this with lying, but it is more than telling “a whopper.” Bearing false witness includes spreading rumors, “sharing” questionable posts, omitting facts, and even “faking it” until you make it– pretending to be what we are not; hypocrisy, and false appearances.
As a follower of Jesus, I am a full-time witness. This is far more important even than being a witness in a court case. I should always speak and behave as if I am “under oath.” Not just when I know all eyes may be watching; not just when I’m with other “witnesses.” Always. This doesn’t mean that I aggressively volunteer my opinion and beat people over the head with commentary everywhere I go. It doesn’t mean that I smile and say only what I think others want to hear. It means that I speak less than I listen, but when I speak, it is truth–loving, sometimes harsh, spoken with the intent to help, heal, encourage, challenge, and bring justice.
In prayer, it means that I repent of falsehood, pride, envy, anger, and bitterness. It means that I acknowledge God for who He is, and myself for who I am in Him. It means that I ask for wisdom to seek and see truth, and to see through deception and falsehood–even in my own heart and mind. And it means that I thank God for His Truth, which is perfect and victorious. I pray that the Truth will shine in, around, and through my life and my words, and in the lives of others.
Many people will point out when I get it “wrong.” They will point to other Christ-followers, other “witnesses” whose lives may look different from mine, who speak differently, act differently, vote differently, even worship differently than me. And I need to trust that the “whole” truth will come from each of us bearing honest and full witness to what we know and experience of God’s goodness, His power, and His love. I don’t have the “whole” truth– but I am a witness of the one who IS the whole Truth!
“God isn’t Fair!” I hear this often from angry and bitter people who have suffered losses or disappointments in life. Some of their losses are heavy and come with great pain– loss of a child, loss of a home, loss of health…these are legitimate losses, and there are no conclusive, comprehensive or comforting answers. In fact, in many ways, God is NOT “fair”– as we usually define “fair.” God sends life, health, happiness, sunshine and rain to both the “just” and the “unjust”; to both rich and poor, tall and short, ugly and good looking, gracious and annoying, kind and cruel… Tragedy strikes at random, some are touched by it, others seem to be plagued by it, and still others skate through life unscathed.
God may not seem “fair”, but let’s look at it from another angle. God sends rain and sunshine on the just and the unjust. He sends gifts, and we use, abuse, accept, or reject them. Circumstances and outcomes are not always pleasant, but does this mean they are “bad?” And when they are easy, and comfortable, does this always make them “good?” Good people have to endure tragedy– this is usually what we focus on when we talk about God being “unfair.” And we generally put ourselves in the “good” category. Why should we have hardship and pain, while “bad” people seem to get a “pass?” Shouldn’t bad things only happen to bad people, while good people enjoy only good things? Sounds “fair”, doesn’t it?
But what happens when the world operates on that principle? If “bad” people are the only ones who get sick, then they deserve to be sick– not healed. If “bad” people are the only ones to experience poverty, then we don’t need to help the poor or the needy. Good people should be rich and healthy. But what if we are sometimes good, and sometimes selfish? Do we deserve to keep all that’s good if we misuse it, or lose all that’s good if we go astray and then repent? Is that fair?! Where is the motivation to cure diseases, share resources, or enforce laws? Who decides whether your “good” idea is “good” for everyone around you? Who can ascend to heaven and tell God what is “fair?”
God created us in His image, and that means that we have a spirit that longs for justice and fairness. It’s how we recognize evil and injustice. But sin clouds our eyes, and poisons our world–pollution doesn’t just hurt the people who pollute; arson doesn’t just burn the arsonist; drunk drivers don’t just hurt themselves; and so on. We don’t look at the evil or thoughtless or “unfair” things we have done or said that went unpunished or unnoticed. And we discount all the unmerited blessings that have come our way– God is often “unfair” in our favor! We don’t complain about that.
God is not the author of “unfairness”, though He allows it. And, while I can’t explain away pain and suffering when they occur, I know two things:
God is Gracious– If God’s justice were not tempered by mercy, every mistake, every sin, would be unforgivable and eternally ours to bear. Every random thoughtless action, and all its consequences, would weigh us down forever.
God is Just–Jesus’s death was about redemption and restoration– He didn’t just die to “save” you from hell– He died to restore you to the person and position for which you were created– whole, pure, unstained and uncorrupted. This wasn’t “Plan B”– this was His eternal plan, and it includes perfect justice and perfect restoration.
Knowing these things does not take away the pain of the present. It does not make suffering easy; it does not erase the loss. But it can allow us to take the next step, and the next, on our journey. Rain or shine.
Several years ago, singer and songwriter Billy Joel created some controversy with a song he wrote, called “Only the Good Die Young.” The song was about a young man trying to convince a young catholic girl to give up her virginity. Many were offended by some of the lyrics, and by the general tone of the song, which was sacrilegious; sneering at the notion of sexual purity and waiting for marriage. One of the lines in the song says, “I’d rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints..The sinners are much more fun.”
It may seem that way to many– Christians (along with many Jews, Muslims, and others who are sincere and spiritually-minded) seem stern and sober in comparison to free-living, fun-loving heathens. Why should this be so? Shouldn’t those who are closer to God experience more Joy and happiness than those who do not know Him? Why are saints and prophets so often shown crying, wailing, and weeping bitter tears?
The author of Ecclesiastes (assumed to be King Solomon) writes:
Ecclesiastes 7:1-6 (Revised Standard Version)
7 A good name is better than precious ointment; and the day of death, than the day of birth. 2 It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting; for this is the end of all men, and the living will lay it to heart. 3 Sorrow is better than laughter, for by sadness of countenance the heart is made glad. 4 The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth. 5 It is better for a man to hear the rebuke of the wise than to hear the song of fools. 6 For as the crackling of thorns under a pot, so is the laughter of the fools; this also is vanity.
This doesn’t mean that God wants His people to be depressed, hopeless, and constantly weeping. But God DOES want us to be aware and to see the world as it really is– fallen, chaotic, filled with needless suffering and injustice. Why? Because He calls us to think about the consequences of our actions, and also to have compassion for those who are hurting. It may be more “fun” to ignore the consequences of sin and to “live it up” if you are young and healthy, but it is not at all true that “only the good die young.” Death comes unexpectedly and randomly– taking both good and evil, both wise and foolish. The difference is that fools get cut off and caught off-guard. The consequences of their actions find them unprepared and filled with regret or bitterness and pain– all of which might have been prevented if they had not ignored reality.
I think the song DOES have a message to Christians–while we shouldn’t be fools chasing after fleeting pleasures that leave a large wake of pain and regret and filling our lives with empty laughter, we should not “die young” in the way of the Pharisees of old. Jesus called them “white-washed tombs” for good reason. Their “goodness” came from self-righteousness and piety. They shunned sinners, and chased others away with their long lists of rules and disdain for anyone who didn’t keep up appearances. Such “saints” never cry– they are more likely to crow about their own “goodness” with dry eyes and closed fists. Jesus attended feasts and parties with the sinners– but his heart was not for the “fun” they were having. It was for them– for their lost souls. Jesus wept! Jesus wept for the loss of his friend Lazarus; he wept over Jerusalem; he even wept tears of blood in the Garden of Gethsemane!
The “Good” have many reasons to cry– millions of innocents suffer needlessly every day–abuse, slavery, genocide, abortion, bigotry, war, starvation, murder, theft, addiction, homelessness, disease, natural disasters, man-made disasters, and more fill our world. People waste time angrily shaking their fists at Heaven or at governments, but so much of the suffering is a direct result of sinful actions on the parts of individuals. In my own country, in my own lifetime, over 50,000,000 babies have been aborted–without legal consequence, but with a terrible consequence on the soul of our nation. If we could shed one tear for each life lost it would equal over 660 gallons of water (here’s how I got that number )– just one tear for each life, and those are only the abortions that have been recorded in the past 45 years in the U.S. If we were to shed a tear for every broken marriage, every rape, every life lost to addiction, suicide, murder, or war, every violent assault, every broken promise, every lie, or every corrupt deed in our world over the past 50 years, we could fill an ocean! The power of tears, or of any running/falling water is so great, it could generate electricity to light the nations! ( Here’s an interesting article on the power of a drop of water!)
I would far rather “cry with the saints.” But more than that, I would rather pray with the saints, and arise from both to work with the saints–the power of tears pales in comparison with the power of God’s mercy and grace!
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–Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson (July 4, 1776)
We’re getting ready to celebrate our Independence Day in America. There will be parades, cookouts, parties, fireworks, and a host of other celebrations. There will be a lot of flag-waving and patriotic displays. At some gatherings, there may be readings of our Declaration of Independence. This document was drafted to outline, not just a list of reasons why they should rebel, but what they hoped to build as a result of their struggle for freedom.
Over 240 years later, this document, and what it stands for, is still relevant and calls us to a high standard– one our nation has not fully achieved. In spite of the great strides we have made and the example we have been to the rest of the world, in recent decades, we have left behind many of the very truths we aspired to hold.
First, there is a dangerous belief that “truth” is no longer self-evident, nor is it timeless. We don’t hold beliefs and truths anymore. We shift with the tide of public opinion and the shadowy promise of “being on the right side of history”– which just means being on the winning side of the current debate within our lifetime and hopefully into the next set of history books.
Second, we have spent countless hours, shedding blood, sweat, and tears over the phrase “ALL MEN”– struggling to reach the promise of equality for all humankind. We have fallen short of this vision, and twisted it into a grotesque parody of itself. Instead of working together in unity and inclusiveness, we have devolved into factions each fighting to be “more equal” than others. Instead of looking at the equal value and humanity of all our people, we point fingers at all the people who are “less worthy”, “more privileged”, “entitled”, “marginalized”, “intolerant”, “judgmental”, who “need to be silenced”, or “need to be kept in their place”…how can neighbors and fellow citizens be so vicious? One answer may be found in the very next phrase…
ARE CREATED equal, and are endowed BY THEIR CREATOR…Usually, this phrase is emphasized in the exact opposite places– the emphasis is on EQUAL and ENDOWED. We have lost the “truth” of being “UNDER GOD”. We have lost the truth of being created. We have lost the truth that our worth, our rights, our values, are not a product of our own opinions and observations.
It is easy to point to others and say, “They are ruining our country– They are not living out these truths.”
The harder lesson is to look at my own assumptions, actions, and beliefs. Do I TRULY believe that all the people around me– of every creed, gender, race, political party, nationality, educational achievement, or economic level are created equal and endowed BY THEIR CREATOR with value, and inalienable rights? If, at any point, I make assumptions about the worthiness of “those people”, assuming that God loves me more, or will have more mercy or grace toward me because of who I am or how I behave; because of the color of my skin, or where I live, or who I voted for; because of the things I know or the good deeds I have done–I am part of the problem. Christians, if we bear the name of Christ who created all mankind, and we hate those whom Christ created, the love of Christ IS NOT in us.
That doesn’t mean that we ignore sin and compromise our character, and pervert justice in the name of a comfortable facsimile of equality. But it also means that we must stop whitewashing hatred and injustice in the name of morality. Morality without love cannot heal our nation. Nor can rewriting our history. Nor can declaring our Independence.
The Declaration of Independence is not a stand-alone document. It had no authority on its own. If our founders had lost the Revolutionary War; if they had abandoned their vision of a government “of the people, by the people, for the people”; if their descendants had failed to bring a divided nation back into unity; if our parents and grandparents had not struggled and fought to make our nation live up to its principles; and if our generations fail to come together and work toward that same vision– Independence will not be something to celebrate, but something to detest.
While it is called the Declaration of Independence, it is a spirit of dependence– on God, on His truth, and on the goodwill of our fellow Americans, that keeps this document alive and full of promise.
We need to pray for our nation– and for our own revival– if we are to truly celebrate this Fourth of July.