How Can You?!

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14 But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, 15 but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, 16 having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame.

1 Peter 3:14-16 (ESV) via biblegateway.com
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I was approached years ago by an angry non-believer, who asked me in disdainful tones how I could possibly believe in God, Jesus Christ, heaven and hell, and other Biblical tenets. At the time, I was taken aback by the vehemence and anger. I stammered an answer, heart-felt and, I hoped, theologically “correct”–I think I quoted scripture and gave a short version of my personal testimony. The other person was not impressed or convinced. I felt like I had failed. The other person sneered at my belief–and at God!

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I spent weeks going over in my mind what else I might have said. I came up with clever arguments, gripping counter-questions, self-deprecating “homey” zingers, I read books on apologetics, and studied the words of great thinkers…I would be ready next time. I would not be left looking or sounding naive and unprepared. I would have the tools to “win” the argument, and God would be proud of me.

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But in the years since, I have done more thinking (and reading, and praying!) And this past month, as I’ve been reading through the Old Testament prophets, I have found a new perspective. Prophets like Isaiah, Habakkuk, Amos, and Malachi spoke the very words of God to people around them. They spoke to ordinary people, and to the religious and political leaders of their day. And almost none of them listened! In fact, the prophets were hated, sneered at, smeared, imprisoned– some of them were even killed.

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These prophets were prepared. They were not being ambushed with “gotcha” questions, because they were the ones presenting and challenging people with the truth. The truths they spoke were often harsh and offensive. They were truths about coming judgment and destruction, followed by restoration and revival. There was nothing “welcoming” or attractive about their message. But the people remained stubborn, sinful, and unimpressed.

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We live in the post-Resurrection age. Our message contains warnings about judgment and destruction– but unlike the prophets of old, we have a message of immediate and eternal Hope and Salvation. We have centuries of prophecies that have been fulfilled; of testimonies to the power of a risen Christ and the Holy Spirit. Yet even Jesus warned us that “..in the world (you) will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33b ESV)

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We often feel that if we cannot “win over” those who challenge us–if we cannot prove to their satisfaction that we are “right” in our beliefs–that we have failed. Yet we have so many examples of faithful witnesses who suffered and died without seeing the results of their faithfulness. God does not ask us to “win” every battle in convincing and decisive fashion. That’s HIS job! What He does ask is that we should be prepared to give an answer– and that we do it with gentleness and respect.

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I don’t have to silence the critics. I don’t have to have “mic-drop” moments. I don’t have to “win” every debate. God calls me to be faithful, honest, and humble. My words may not change someone else’s mind. But my changed life and God-honoring attitude may plant a seed that someone else’s words and life, and the power of the Holy Spirit will cause to grow into faith– even if I never live to see it!

In answer to the question, “How can you believe?” The answer often lies, not only in what we say about our belief, but how we live it out!

Fitting In

Matthew 5:1-12 (NIV via biblegateway.com):

Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them.

The Beatitudes

He said:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
    for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
    for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
    for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful,
    for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
    for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
    for they will be called children of God.
10 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

11 “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

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No one likes to feel “left out.” We have a deep desire to be accepted, liked, loved, respected, and needed. We want to “fit in.” But sometimes, acceptance and inclusion are not possible. Sometimes, they are offered, but at a price too steep. Sometimes, we make unhealthy compromises in our efforts to avoid conflict or to win respect.

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In His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus gave us at least seven principles/actions that will bring us blessing. But they are in opposition to human nature– NOT designed to help us “fit in” with most of society. Elsewhere in scripture, we are told to stand apart from what others are doing or saying. God wants people who will follow HIM, not the world.

  • People who are poor in spirit— this can be taken at least two ways: those who consider themselves poor in a material sense, and hold their money and possessions lightly; or those who are aware of their spiritual poverty, knowing that they need guidance and wisdom from above. Such people will “possess” the kingdom of heaven– not by fighting and straining and striving and grasping for sole ownership–it is God’s gracious gift to be shared by all who are poor in spirit.
  • People who mourn–not people who are eternally gloomy and depressed, but those who mourn the loss of innocence, the injustices of the world, the suffering and grief of others. Such people also rejoice at the sight of a glorious sunrise, or laugh to see children playing– but they do not deny or circumvent the realities of a fallen world. Such people will be comforted, even in the midst of mourning, by God’s sovereignty and righteousness.
  • People who are meek (humble)–there is a difference between being meek and lacking confidence or being a stooge or a fool. Meek people still have boundaries– and they respect the boundaries of others. They stand up for what is right, but they don’t insist on always being “right.” Such people will not stake a claim on the earth or try to grab their “fair share.” Instead, they will inherit all that God has in store for them!
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  • People who hunger and thirst for righteousness–hunger and thirst are natural and ongoing processes. There are people who want “justice” or “righteousness.” They want it NOW. They want it to be retroactive. They want it to be a foregone conclusion. And they want it to be eternal. But they don’t long for personal righteousness, and they don’t want to feel hunger or thirst for it. They don’t want to seek after true righteousness; they just want the results. They just want the world to spin righteously all around them. But for those who hunger and thirst– Jesus is both the Living Water and the Bread of Life. He brings a daily portion of all-sufficient Grace, wisdom, and forgiveness to keep us filled.
  • People who are merciful–I was struck as I read this again by the term merciful. We spend a lot of time and energy talking about God’s Grace– the fact that God gives us untold blessings that we don’t deserve. But here, Jesus is talking about the merciful– not giving others the condemnation or punishment they deserve. I find it much easier to be Graceful than to be Merciful. It is easy to bless others; to be charitable, or charming, encouraging, or bountiful. It is much more difficult to bite back an insulting or critical retort, to forgive a debt, to let go of a grudge, or keep from passing on a juicy morsel of gossip. It is easier to focus on the Golden Rule of doing unto others as you would like them to do unto you, than to Love your enemies. Jesus asked us to do both– but the blessing here is for those who show Mercy!
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  • People who are pure in heart–not just shiny on the surface. I can say all manner of spiritual-sounding things; I can do all kinds of good deeds; I can even write blog entries on scriptural truths– but God looks on my heart, to see if it is pure. And if I haven’t covered my heart in posturing and false rituals, justifications and excuses, denials and rebellion, I should be able to “see” God– to have a clearer picture of who He is, what He is doing in the world around me, what He wants me to do and say and become…
  • People who are peacemakers–not just people who “go along to get along,” but people who are willing to help bring about peace, and who will create an atmosphere of unity and respect–at home, in the workplace, and in their neighborhoods. When we bring peace to a chaotic relationship, or create a peaceful atmosphere, we are doing the work of reconciliation, and we are showing others the nature of our Father.
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  • When we cultivate (or allow God’s Spirit to cultivate) these characteristics in our lives, we will not “fit it” with the world around us. We will stand out and stand apart. And that will make us targets for persecution, abuse, misunderstanding, insults, and false accusations. But we can be encouraged, not only because of the blessings Jesus promises in the Beatitudes, but in the reminder that we stand in very good company. We may not fit in at the office; we may be ostracized by our family; we may be targeted in our community– but we fit in with a host of prophets, apostles, saints, and with Christ Himself!

These Three Remain–Love!

I’ve been exploring the Apostle Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians; specifically chapter 13, verse 13. Paul states that there are three virtues that remain, after all else has passed away or been lost: Faith, Hope, and Love. And, while the other two are great and necessary, the greatest is Love.

So much has been written about Love– poets and prophets, songwriters and storytellers. most would agree that Love is the greatest virtue. But they wouldn’t all agree on what “Love” is. The Greeks have three different words for love– in fact most languages have more than one word– English has dozens of synonyms: Love, adore, desire, passion, enamored, infatuated, devoted…you get the idea. Except there are several ideas, so how do we know which kind of love remains? What kind of love endures beyond life and time and against every obstacle?

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Human love is fallible; it is temporal (and sometimes even temporary). It doesn’t last forever– in spite of poetic promises and sacred vows. People “fall in love” and they fall out of love. Human love grows deeper; but it can also grow cold. It can be conditional, and manipulative; selfish, and shallow. Human love is often based on feelings that change with the seasons. We “love the whole world” when we are feeling good–we love mankind, but can’t stand our next door neighbor!

God’s love is eternal and unconditional. It never depends on His “mood.” It never depends on who we are or what we have done. God loves because it is His nature. He IS Love. He is the definition of enduring, everlasting, boundless, endless LOVE. This is the Love that endures. It is the Love that changes us from the inside out, and changes the world around us.

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We are living through chaotic times, filled with raw and dangerous emotions– anger, hatred, pride, despair, resentment, greed, grief, and fear. God’s love is more than just another emotion. I cannot love my enemy with human emotion– nor does God ask me to. God loves through us– it is His Love that we need to access and carry with us into the darkness. I want to bring Love into the world– and I want to be seen as a Loving person. But God asks me to Love even when it is rejected; even when I am seen as the enemy; even when I get hurt in the process. That doesn’t mean that I invite or tolerate abuse because I think it makes me more virtuous or because I think I somehow deserve it. But it does mean that I continue to pray, I continue to have Faith and Hope that God will turn even the smallest acts of Love into seeds that will return a harvest in His time and in His way.

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When I look at the life of Jesus Christ, that is just what He did. He had the power to destroy the corrupt Temple system– He demonstrated just a particle of His passion when He drove the money changers out of the Temple courtyard (Matthew 21:12-13). He could have led a rebellion against the oppressive Roman Empire. (In fact, that is one reason He was rejected as the Messiah. He chose not to use His power for political or economic gain– even for the benefit of His own people.) He had the power to wipe out leprosy, or blindness, or demon possession– He could have been the most powerful man on Earth, and single-handedly put an end to poverty, injustice, and so much more. If solving those issues for His people in His lifetime would have been the most loving thing– He would have done it. But He spent His time speaking to those in need– those who had lost hope, those who needed healing, those who were carrying guilt and doubt and grief. He spent His time, not talking about Love, but demonstrating Love– personal, unconditional, life-giving Love. Jesus spoke to crowds, yes, but most of His time was spent in small groups or one-on-one– teaching, eating, listening, caring–Loving.

Loving this way takes time– it takes effort, and it comes with risk. Jesus, loving in just this way, was misunderstood, rejected, hated, even killed. But His Love conquered death, and brought life and victory. I may not be asked to become a martyr– but will I seek to Love like Jesus? Will I pray for people I don’t know; or people who have opposed me, or rejected me? Will I reach out in Love to people who are in rebellion against God? People who mock Him, cry out against Christians, persecute us–even kill us? Will I pray for and support those who are in danger because they are showing God’s Love in this way? Because whether I do or not– Love Remains. Will I be Faithful? Will I reach out in Hope? Will I risk Loving as Christ Loves?

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