Praying from Nineveh

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.*

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*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!

Any One Who Is Without Sin…

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).

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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.”

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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.”
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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.

In the Presence of My Enemies

“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.

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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!

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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.

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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!

Vacant “Lot”

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.

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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.” 2Abraham 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.

(Genesis 18:17-33 ESV via http://www.esv.org)

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Whom Shall I Fear?

Psalm 27

Of David.
The Lord is my light and my salvation—
whom should I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold of my life—
whom should I dread?
When evildoers came against me to devour my flesh,
my foes and my enemies stumbled and fell.
Though an army deploys against me,
my heart will not be afraid;
though a war breaks out against me,
I will still be confident.
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.
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.
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.
Lord, hear my voice when I call;
be gracious to me and answer me.
My heart says this about you:
“Seek his face.”
Lord, I will seek your face.
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.

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Psalm+27&version=CSB
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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…

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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)

Listen to this message that I am singing for you, a lament, house of Israel:
She has fallen;
Virgin Israel will never rise again.
She lies abandoned on her land
with no one to raise her up.
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.

For the Lord says to the house of Israel:
Seek me and live!
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.
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.
Those who turn justice into wormwood
also throw righteousness to the ground.
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.
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.

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Amos+5&version=CSB
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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!

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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.

Why Do the Wicked Prosper?

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:

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  1. 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.
  2. 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.
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When tempted to dwell on this question, there are some wonderful alternatives. See some of the links below.

https://billygraham.org/decision-magazine/march-2013/when-the-wicked-flourish/

https://bible.org/seriespage/lesson-7-what-do-when-evil-prevails-malachi-217-36

https://www.desiringgod.org/messages/job-the-revelation-of-god-in-suffering

https://www.ou.org/torah/machshava/the-god-papers/righteous-suffer-wicked-prosper/

https://www.biblestudytools.com/bible-stories/bible-story-of-zacchaeus.html

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.

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“Thoughts and Prayers”…Revisited

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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

On The Witness Stand

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

The Just and the Unjust

“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.

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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.

 

 

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