I didn’t pray for my enemies. I didn’t pray for their health or safety. I didn’t pray for their spiritual well-being. I didn’t pray that God might show me ways to bless them, or encourage them.
I prayed that they would be stopped. That they would be exposed as frauds and liars. I prayed for “justice” to be done– to them. That they would be humiliated. That they would get all that they deserved.
And perhaps that is what they prayed for me, as well. That I would “see the light”, and change my mind. That I would be punished for my words and actions that didn’t agree with theirs.
I prayed “around” my enemies. I didn’t pray for them. I didn’t lift them up before the throne of grace. I didn’t pray that they would be shown mercy– I certainly didn’t pray to meet them with humility and grace…
4 Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5 It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7 It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. 8 Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away.
God, forgive me for holding bitterness and anger in my heart. I will never meet a human being– “friend” or “enemy” that you didn’t create in Your own image. You have commanded that I am to love my neighbor– even one who disagrees with me; even one who considers me an “enemy.” I cannot delight in evil, or rejoice at injustice; but I must reach out in Love and not Self-Righteousness.
As I type this, I am eating leftovers. I made a big pot of beef stew the other night, and we’re making another meal out of what was left. Some things, like beef stew, often taste just as good (or even better) warmed up again. And it’s very convenient not to have to make a new meal from scratch. We like leftovers, and I am very thankful that we are able to have an abundance of good food. But today’s leftovers started me thinking…
Did you know the Bible has something to say about leftovers? I’ve been reading in Exodus and Leviticus lately, and as God was giving instructions for the Passover Seder, the gathering of Manna in the desert, and the priestly sacrifices, He spoke about leftovers. During the Passover, all the meat was to be eaten on the night of the Passover Seder. Any meat left over was to be thrown away. Several families could share a Passover meal, in order to avoid waste, but the meat was to be eaten in one meal. Similarly, Manna was to be gathered and eaten for a single day (except over the Sabbath). No leftovers! The priests were allowed to eat leftover meat for a single day after the sacrifice, but no more than that.
So often, the “rules” of the Old Testament seem strange to us– arbitrary and even harsh. But in context, they paint a picture of God that we would do well to study. So what do the rules about “leftovers” teach us about God and our relationship to Him?
First, God knows what we need. We may often plan too much or too little, or use more or fewer of our resources, but God knows exactly what is necessary. And if we are listening to and trusting God, we can be sure that His plans and resources are sufficient!
Secondly, God PROVIDES what we need. Our tendency to store extra food and other resources “just in case” may be motivated by a sincere desire to help our neighbors in times of trouble– there’s nothing wrong with that– but often we are motivated by fear or pride, instead. We fear not having enough, instead of trusting God to provide. Or we pride ourselves on our ability to provide, rather than acknowledging that our resources and abilities all come from God.
God’s ways are NOT our ways. God sent the entire nation of Israel into the wilderness. They had all their animals with them– but no place to plant, grow, or harvest wheat or other grain. God could have ordered them to slaughter their animals for meat, or sent them with huge stores of harvested grain, or led them through areas with gardens and orchards. But instead, He sent Manna and quail for them to eat. He provided in ways that they could NOT.
God’s mercies (and provisions) are “new every morning.” (Lamentations 3:22-23) God doesn’t give us the “leftovers” of His abundance. He lavishes us with Love and Grace. Every day!
God isn’t impressed with my “leftovers.” My leftover offering; my leftover time spent in prayer or Bible Study; my leftover interactions with others, my leftover discipline.
And that brings me around to prayer and giving. Do I give God my “leftover” praise and thanks? My “leftover” confession (after I’ve pouted and argued and justified by actions to myself)? Do I lift up “leftover” requests–those things I think I’m “supposed to” pray about, but not those I judge unworthy of MY time or attention? After all, would I want God’s “leftover,” absent-minded help? Would I want His half-hearted blessing? Do I give “leftovers” to my family, friends, and neighbors? Or mere scraps to those in need?
The other day, I was on Facebook, and one of my friends requested prayer. It was something I felt was a trifling situation, and I scrolled past her post. But then I realized that I was scrolling past an opportunity to join God in what He would do for my friend. It might not have felt like a big deal for me, and certainly it wasn’t beyond God’s ability to work in that situation. Why did I hesitate? Did I feel I had the right to judge either my friend’s motives or her situation? Did I think I could lift up a “leftover” prayer– “God, help _________. Amen.” I stopped, scrolled back and took a moment to lovingly lift her up, and pray that God would intervene in her situation and forgive me for presuming to judge.
Leftovers are not “bad” or “wrong” in and of themselves. They are blessings. But we should not live on “leftovers”– especially when it comes to our relationships with God and others! Like God, let our mercies be “new every morning,” and let us share gladly from the abundance God has given, not grudgingly or half-heartedly.
7 “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. 8 For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.
9 “Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? 10 Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? 11 If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him! 12 So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.
(Matthew 7:7-12 NIV via biblegateway.com)
A couple of years ago, I took on a part-time, temporary job with the Census Bureau in which I had to make visits to various households and ask to conduct an interview. I knocked on a lot of doors. Few of them were ever opened. Many of the houses were unoccupied– either the family wasn’t at home, or the home was vacant or even abandoned. At others, there were clearly people at home, but they wouldn’t come to the door. At still others, a person would come to the door, or respond via intercom or speaker, but they would not open up or consent to do the interview. This occurred during the height of the pandemic, so some of the fear and evasion was expected. But even though I was wearing a mask and promised to practice social distancing; even though the interview was less than 10 minutes, and would help their community and country, they would not speak to me or let me step up to or across the threshold. *(For the record, I was not required to actually enter anyone’s home to conduct an interview; most took place across the threshold or through a screen door or even out on the front steps.) A select few, however, were gracious and welcoming. They opened the door, invited me in, offered me a seat, and refreshed my spirit. I knocked on the doors of the wealthy, and those in extreme poverty. I knocked on fancy doors with cyber-security, and doors that were hanging off their hinges. I knocked on the doors of large families, and lonely widows. I knocked on the doors of the dying, and the doors of families with newborns. I knocked on the doors of mobile homes, and lake cottages, and apartments, and old farm houses. Some of the kindest people I found were in so-called “bad” neighborhoods. Some of the people who were the most gracious were those who were in the most pain, and had the least to gain by being kind. Those who were threatening and rude were quick to point out that their time was more valuable than mine– that they were too important, or too comfortable, or too busy to answer a few simple questions. In a couple of cases, I had to leave because I was threatened with harm or faced verbal abuse.
My job required me to knock on a lot of doors! And throughout our lives, we will have to “knock” on doors– seek out opportunities, ask for needed help, go to places outside our comfort zone– and many of the doors will remain closed. Others will require that we knock several times, or even return another day to knock and seek entrance. But God will never turn away those who knock at His door. God will never tell us we must stand outside or come back at a more convenient time. He will never have a sign that says “No Trespassing,” or “Keep Out!” In fact the only thing keeping us from entering His Courts is our own refusal to accept His invitation; our own pride or guilty conscience, or resentment and rebellion; our own reluctance to approach the door, let alone knock. We don’t need an appointment, or an official summons to “Come!” The invitation is always open, and the door is not locked.
God is not “too busy”, and our questions, requests, and praises are not “too small” to get His attention. God is gracious. God is available. God is accessible. And God’s opened door is so much more than an entry to someone’s hallway or front room or kitchen. God opens the doors to His very throne room! He invites us to “Enter His gates with thanksgiving and His courts with praise”! (Psalm 100) He invites us to the wedding feast of the Lamb (Revelations), and to everlasting life (John 3:16).
Jesus also “knocks” at the door of our hearts, asking to “come in.” (Revelation 3:20) What does He find? Are we “away from home”– so busy chasing after foolish things that we don’t even inhabit our own hearts? Are we ignoring Him, hoping He’ll go away? Are we telling Him to come back another time, or coming up with excuses why we don’t need to speak with Him? Do we try to chase Him away with our anger or bitterness? Or do we open the door, invite Him in, and offer Him a seat?
Jesus urged His listeners on the Mount to Ask, Seek, and Knock. And then, He challenged them to “do to others what you would have them do to you.” How are we treating those who “knock” at our door? Those who need a friend, or a listening ear? Those who need to hear the truth, and the hope that is in us? Trust me– how we answer that “knock” at our door will leave an impression. It will testify to our true nature.
God doesn’t just hear us knocking, He opens the door and gives us all we need for life and godliness (2 Peter 1:3). What are we giving to those who knock on our door?
The other day started out frustrating. I went to the pharmacy to drop off a medicine container for a refill. There was a line. The man in front of me had a dozen questions, and demanded to speak to a specific staff member. By the time I reached the front of the line, I felt as though I was already running late for the rest of the day. I said I would pick up the refill later in the day as I didn’t have time to wait. Then, I went to buy a birthday card for my nephew. When I went to check out, there was no one at the regular counter– I had to use the self-check machine. It asked if I had a “rewards member” number. I entered it, but the machine didn’t register the number. A staff member (who could have checked me out at the regular counter!) helped me re-enter the number. Instead of discounting the price of the card, the machine ADDED to the amount, “rounding up” for a particular charity. I asked the staff member why this happened, and she said that I must have agreed to round up my total. I said, “No,” I hadn’t done so, but she said I must have done so some time in the past, and the machine automatically rounds up every time I make a purchase.
It’s not that I want to be parsimonious–I like to think I am a generous person. But if I hadn’t typed in my “reward member” number, I would have saved a little money. To be more exact, I would have saved three cents! Now I know that sounds really petty, but sometimes, it’s the little things that really sting. After waiting (not all that patiently) at the pharmacy, this hidden consequence of a past act of generosity, coupled with the inconvenience of using the self-check, really made me angry.
I am reminded of a story in the book of 2 Kings 5 about a man called Naaman. Naaman was the commander of the Syrian army under the powerful king Ben-Hadad. But Naaman had a big problem. He had contracted leprosy. Not only would leprosy destroy his skin and extremities, but it would make him an outcast and a pariah, and ruin his legacy. When he heard that there was a prophet from Israel who could heal him, he pulled out all the stops and went to see him. But Elisha did not come to the door. Instead, he sent Naaman instructions through his servant, and told him to wash seven times in the Jordan River.
Naaman felt insulted and infuriated. Why? It was such a simple solution– no drastic diet, no expensive and painful treatments–just take a bath in the river! But the Jordan River was considered dirty. That’s where the poor and destitute bathed, and where animals drank. Naaman almost lost his opportunity to be cured through pride over such a little thing. Thankfully, he was talked into doing what Elisha had asked, and he was completely healed. He was so grateful, that he asked for some dirt (!) so he could build an altar to the God of Israel who had provided his healing!
So often, God uses the little things to point out what really matters. After my less-than-gracious reaction to a couple of minor inconveniences, I had to step back and take a look at my morning from God’s perspective. The line of people at the pharmacy all had needs, and, like the man ahead of me with questions, each one had a right to service. It wasn’t their fault I was impatient or feeling “late”– and, it turned out, I wasn’t really behind schedule after all. I just didn’t like waiting! And my anger over the self-check machine was out of proportion. I still found a birthday card for my nephew, and I had the ability to go to the store, pick out the card, pay for the card, and I got to spend time with my nephew later that day. And some worthy charity got a whopping three cents!
Sometimes we fail to see the importance of the “little” things in life. And we allow “little” problems to grow all out of proportion. We allow petty injustices to fester; we withhold forgiveness; we get angry over perceived slights, and hand on to pride or envy. We forget to lift up “little” burdens and requests; we are blind to the “ordinary” blessings that fill our lives; we lose opportunities to do the simple things that can help others–a smile, a word of encouragement, a helping hand–we miss out on the miracles that hide among the “little” inconveniences of our day.
My prayer today is that God will open our eyes to the “little” things in our lives– opportunities, mercies, blessings in disguise– and that we, like Naaman, will find healing and joy where we least expect it!
How big is God’s forgiveness? I know the Biblical answer: “As far as the East is from the West, so far does He remove our transgressions from us” (Psalm 103:12 ESV); but sometimes, I add subconscious limits to God’s Grace. Sure, I know He can forgive my sins. And your sins. And even sins that make me shudder. I know that He offers forgiveness to all who call on His name in Faith. But sometimes, I question. I add qualifications–“if only..”–because sometimes, it’s overwhelming to think about the enormity and scope and freedom of God’s Grace.
Often, we see God as the great Judge– and He is–the only one with final authority to judge what is right and wrong; who “deserves” punishment or reward. But Jesus came, not only to be the perfect sacrifice for our Sin, but to demonstrate how much God desires to have us be reconciled to Him.
The Cross is a stumbling block to many. I have some friends who find the cross offensive. They say that if God were truly merciful, He would simply forgive our sins without Christ’s sacrifice–just snap His fingers and say, “we’re all good.” They claim that God is harsh, that He delights in sending people to Hell, or He would’ve found a “better” way so that no one would have to suffer (or repent). But Sin isn’t just a trifling matter. It is not just a “boo boo” or a “whoopsie” when we defy the Sovereign, Eternal God. And it isn’t just a trifling matter to bring justice to a fallen world. Absolute justice without mercy would require that we die in the first instant of our rebellion–the moment we tell a lie; the instant we think a lustful thought; in the very act of taking the Lord’s Name in vain. Harsh justice would mean eternal separation with no second chances; no possibility for atonement; no hope of redemption. And Mercy without Justice is not true mercy. It is a cheap imitation. It offers temporary relief from guilt, without effecting any change.
36 One of the Pharisees asked him to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and reclined at table. 37 And behold, a woman of the city, who was a sinner, when she learned that he was reclining at table in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster flask of ointment, 38 and standing behind him at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears and wiped them with the hair of her head and kissed his feet and anointed them with the ointment. 39 Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner.” 40 And Jesus answering said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” And he answered, “Say it, Teacher.” 41 “A certain moneylender had two debtors. One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. 42 When they could not pay, he cancelled the debt of both. Now which of them will love him more?” 43 Simon answered, “The one, I suppose, for whom he cancelled the larger debt.” And he said to him, “You have judged rightly.” 44 Then turning toward the woman he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. 45 You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not ceased to kiss my feet. 46 You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. 47 Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.” 48 And he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” 49 Then those who were at table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this, who even forgives sins?” 50 And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”
Luke 7:36-50 ESV)
The Pharisee in the above story wasn’t looking for forgiveness– nor did He receive it. But the woman who came to Jesus received both forgiveness and blessing. She did not receive it because of the expense of the ointment she used to anoint Jesus’ feet; she didn’t receive forgiveness because her need was so much more pressing than that of Simon the Pharisee; Jesus simply said her faith had saved her. Jesus didn’t refuse to forgive Simon–it’s just that Simon never asked for forgiveness. He wasn’t looking for it. He wasn’t looking for a relationship with Jesus– He wasn’t even really interested in hearing what Jesus had to say. Simon had invited Jesus to show off his own righteousness and get Jesus’ “stamp of approval.” And he didn’t pass muster! The short parable that Jesus told seemed to pass right over Simon’s head. Simon merely “supposed” that someone who had been forgiven more would love more. He didn’t know from experience, because He had never seen a need for mercy or forgiveness– nor the need to extend it to others! He didn’t value Mercy, because he had never desired it. Yet all of the Law and the prophets that Simon had spent his life studying pointed to the very great need we all have to be cleansed from our sins. Simon should have known that God desired “mercy rather than sacrifice” (Hosea 6:6), and that the “righteous will live by faith” (Habakkuk 2:4) Instead, he was trying to live by condemning others and comparing his efforts to theirs, instead of to a Holy God. The sinful woman, in contrast, desired mercy and craved forgiveness. And she got them! Forgiveness from Immanuel Himself, who would soon die to provide complete Mercy and Grace to all!
The Cross shows us the high cost of God’s Mercy– and yet He gives it freely to those of us who don’t deserve it and can never earn it. And He does it without condition. When I ask for God’s forgiveness, there is no form to fill out; no waiting list; no qualification test. And no label, identifying me by what I have done or failed to do; by who I was or who I thought I should have been, or what others told me I was. I am redeemed! I am cleansed– thoroughly renewed! Every time! There is no limit on how much or how often God will forgive me–NONE!
Except. “Aha, here it comes. I knew God would have at least one limit,” my friends would say. It’s not a limit of God’s love or willingness to forgive, but our limit in accepting and passing along God’s forgiveness. God will forgive us. Will we forgive ourselves? Will we withhold forgiveness from someone else God has forgiven? Are we a greater Judge than God? Are we more just? Holier? Harsher?
Today, I want to spend time trying to grasp just how wide and deep and huge God’s Grace is toward us; how free and limitless His Mercy; how infinite His willingness to pardon and cleanse even my chronic pride and selfishness; and His passion for reshaping me and restoring me to be all that He created me to be! I hope you will join me.
18 And a ruler asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 19 And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. 20 You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery, Do not murder, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother.’” 21 And he said, “All these I have kept from my youth.” 22 When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “One thing you still lack. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” 23 But when he heard these things, he became very sad, for he was extremely rich. 24 Jesus, seeing that he had become sad, said, “How difficult it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! 25 For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” 26 Those who heard it said, “Then who can be saved?” 27 But he said, “What is impossible with man is possible with God.”
Luke 18:18-27 ESV via biblegateway.com
I love that Jesus didn’t just give pithy answers to questions, but often went in roundabout ways to explore the motives behind them. I also love how He would use others’ questions, mixed with parables, metaphors, or other figurative language to stimulate further thought. And His parables and word pictures, while short and simple, have layers of meaning that cause us to ponder deeper issues.
The “Rich Young Ruler” in the above story came to Jesus with a question. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Instead of answering the question, Jesus seems to get distracted by the young man’s greeting. “Why do you call me ‘Good?'” Did the young man really think that Jesus was better, or wiser, or more righteous than the religious leaders of the day? Or was he trying to flatter Jesus? Or did he think that Jesus would see him as an equal (or even superior) when he found out how righteous the ruler was? Jesus got to the heart of the greeting– “No one is good except God alone.” And therein lies the true answer to the ruler’s question, as well. There is nothing anyone can do to be “Good” enough to inherit eternal life.
Jesus could have said this, but would the young ruler have accepted this answer? Probably not. His question betrays an assumption that he WAS good enough– that he had already done all that was required and that Jesus would surely be impressed and announce to the crowd that here was an example of someone who was worthy of eternal life. Instead, Jesus led the man through his pride by naming a few of the commandments– the very ones the ruler was so sure of. Indeed, this seemed to be exactly what the ruler was hoping to hear– proof that he had “passed the test.” Ironically, he was addressing Jesus as “Good teacher, ” but seemed to miss that fact that he was also addressing the only One who is truly Good! Jesus–God in the flesh — the very one whose death would guarantee that anyone would “inherit” eternal life. This young ruler doesn’t want Jesus to be his “Lord” and “Savior,” he just wants Jesus’s opinion.
But then, Jesus pulled the rug out from under this man’s assumptions. “One thing you still lack.” One thing…I’m sure the young ruler thought it would be a fine point in the laws or traditions he know so well– some minor point that could be cleared up with a gift or a small offering. I find this a fascinating statement, because it is followed by “sell all you have and distribute to the poor…” It seems like such an oxymoronic statement. You lack one thing, therefore, you must give away all that you have. How is that possible? Because the “one thing” the rich man lacked was not an object; not something he could check off a list of “things I can do to impress the religious leaders.” This man lacked humility; he lacked a self-awareness of his own need. And he lacked the understanding of what it means to “inherit” eternal life. No one “earns” an inheritance. Even someone who is rewarded with an inheritance must trust in the goodwill of the person writing the will, and will only inherit under the terms of the will. Jesus’s “terms” were not that the man had to become destitute or spend the rest of this life as a beggar. But faced with the choice of his comfortable life in the here and now, or eternal and abundant life in heaven on God’s terms, this man chose earthly wealth and spiritual poverty.
Almost lost at the end of Jesus’s surprising answer are the last two phrases, “and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” This man wanted eternal life as an extension of his comfortable life on earth. He did NOT want eternal life enough to sacrifice his present comforts or his preconceived notions of “goodness.” He did not want to follow Christ– he only wanted to consult with Him.
I find it uncomfortable to hear about the young ruler’s rejection of Christ. I understand the initial shock of the disciples as Jesus uses the illustration of a camel going through the eye of a needle to compare with a “rich” person coming into the kingdom of God. Wasn’t Abraham wealthy? Wasn’t Solomon rich? What about King David? If riches make it impossible to follow Christ, who can gain eternal life? Thankfully, Jesus redirects the focus– it’s not about the riches; and it’s not about what we “do”– it is God’s “Good” pleasure to give eternal life to those who choose to “follow” Him.
“Good Teacher and Lord, help me to remember this lesson as I come before you in prayer. You have not asked me to ‘earn’ my inheritance. It is your gift to answer my prayers as you see fit; to be the Lord of my life; to be merciful and gracious to me; to prepare a place for me to live with You for eternity. What you ask of me is that I ‘follow’ you– that I listen to your call; that I accept Your “terms” of inheritance; that I share Your Grace and Mercy with those around me.”
5-9 So don’t lose a minute in building on what you’ve been given, complementing your basic faith with good character, spiritual understanding, alert discipline, passionate patience, reverent wonder, warm friendliness, and generous love, each dimension fitting into and developing the others. With these qualities active and growing in your lives, no grass will grow under your feet, no day will pass without its reward as you mature in your experience of our Master Jesus. Without these qualities you can’t see what’s right before you, oblivious that your old sinful life has been wiped off the books.
2 Peter 1:5-9 (The Message– emphasis added)
8 “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, and your ways are not my ways.” This is the Lord’s declaration. 9 “For as heaven is higher than earth, so my ways are higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.
Isaiah 55:8-9 (Christian Standard Bible)
I do not understand God’s ways. If I try to work it out with human understanding, I will never make sense of how God works. I don’t have His wisdom or omniscience; I don’t have His eternal perspective or omnipotence. God will never answer all of my questions; He will never reveal all of His plans or reasoning to me. He calls me to walk in Faith, not by sight (2 Corinthians 5:7) This is a stumbling block to many. It is especially frustrating for those who think they already DO know (almost) everything, and believe that they should be able to speak to God as a peer, even to be able to consult Him! I knew of a man (a convicted felon) who refused to repent of his actions. He admitted that he had done wrong, and that his prison sentence was deserved, but when challenged with how he would answer before God, he simply said–“God and I will come to an understanding.” He simply felt that if he explained “his side of the story,” God would change his immutable commandments and make an exception.
God doesn’t need anyone to “explain” anything to Him. Nor does He “owe” any of His creation an explanation for His actions or seeming inactions. I will never understand why certain injustices are allowed to happen, and seem to go unpunished in my lifetime. I don’t understand God’s timing in my life– why my father died when he did, or why I had to wait so long to be married. But I am learning to trust that God knows every injustice, every need, every situation we face, and that He WILL make all things “right” in HIS time and in His perfect way.
Spiritual Understanding has to come from the Spirit. It cannot come through our own wisdom or learning. It has to be built, not just on Faith, but on acting in Faith and walking humbly in conformity to our Good Shepherd’s example. We must become, not just “fans” of Christ, or even just students of Christ, but disciples of Christ, if we want to begin to have greater understanding. Like the apprentice, who must learn by doing, so we must learn through practice of God’s Word. We must also ASK for wisdom and understanding. (James 1:5) They are gifts, just like Salvation. We don’t earn understanding; we are granted it as we walk in obedience and faith.
Today, my prayer is that I would receive insight as I learn to trust, and I would trust that God will give the wisdom I need for the day ahead– no more or less, and not a moment too late or too soon. And experience confirms that He is faithful to do just that!
Years ago, our high school class read a classic short story by the American author, Herman Melville. Bartleby the Scrivener tells the story of an unusual clerk– one who begins as a good worker, efficient and conscientious, but ends up dying in prison, hopeless, ruined, and broken. His tragic downward spiral begins one day when the lawyer for whom he works asks him to examine a short document. This is a commonplace request, much like asking a writer to proofread her final draft before submitting it to the editor. However, Bartleby responds by saying “I would prefer not to.” The startled lawyer decides not to force the issue, and gives the task to someone else.
Bartleby’s refusal to do what is expected of him escalates until he no longer does ANY work. He refuses to work, refuses to leave the office, and refuses to eat. He isn’t angry or violent, but he remains defiant until the very end.
So it is with us when we are living in sin and rebellion against God. It may start out small– some little habit or attitude. We know it is wrong, but instead of obeying God’s word, we calmly say, “I would prefer not to…” not to tell the truth, not to turn away from porn, not to help my neighbor, not to agree with God about my behavior.
8 The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. 9 He will not always chide, nor will he keep his anger forever. 10 He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities. 11 For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him; 12 as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us.
Psalm 103:6-12 (ESV)
God is patient. He is gracious and kind. He does not treat us as our offenses deserve. He gives us the chance to repent. He offers forgiveness. But every time we say to God, “I would prefer not to,” we get a little more like Bartleby– isolating ourselves, wasting our potential to be all that God created us to be, growing more defiant and more rebellious, until we waste away into a prison of our own making, and, finally, death.
One of the things that makes Melville’s story so disturbing is that the narrator keeps trying to explain away Bartleby’s defiance–perhaps he is having trouble with his eyesight and doesn’t want to admit it; perhaps he was traumatized at a previous job; maybe there is a reason for his passive aggression. But in all of his attempts to understand, the narrator cannot save Bartleby from prison and death.
Understanding sin cannot change us. Excusing sin does nothing to stop its consequences (see Romans 6:23). No one killed Bartleby, yet he died because he “would prefer not to” do the things he needed to do to live. His small act of defiance, which starts out singular and almost heroic (after all, who wouldn’t like to tell the boss, “I would prefer not to,” every once in awhile?), sounds innocuous. Such a little thing to refuse. Surely God would not punish us for so small a thing…until one small thing leads to another…and another; a bigger rebellion; a numbing complacency; loss of perspective; a heart of stone; isolation; starvation; imprisonment; death.
What am I refusing to do for God today? What am I refusing to give up? Refusing to admit? Refusing to listen to? Am I excusing myself? Do I tell myself I am not in rebellion because I have been polite in my refusal to obey? Do I comfort myself that my rebellion is really just a matter of “preference,” and will not be consequential? That God’s Holiness is less important than my comfort or convenience?
Many people coast through life in the belief that God is SO merciful and SO loving that He can’t also be Holy and Just– that His commands are really suggestions; that His wrath is mythical; that our own wisdom is sufficient for living a “good” life and pleasing Him. But God isn’t concerned about whether we live a “good” life– He wants us to have an abundant life– filled with joy and peace, love and relationship, both now and forevermore. In fact, He would “prefer not to” punish us. He is not “willing” (i.e. desirous) that any should perish (2 Peter 3:9), but that everyone would some to repentance. That doesn’t mean that He won’t punish those who refuse to obey Him, or those who refuse to turn from their rebellion and trust Him; only that He will continue to give us the opportunity to recognize our need for forgiveness.
10 If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. 11 These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.12 “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13 Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command you. 15 No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.
John 15:10-15 ESV– taken from biblegateway.com
God has made it possible for us to be more than servants. We don’t have to respond to God as Bartleby responded to his boss– though God has the ultimate authority to demand our loyalty and obedience. Through Jesus, we are sons and daughters and friends! When God gives us commands, like “Love one another,” they are still commands. But His heart is that we should trust that all of His commands are righteous, life-giving, and in our eternal best interest. But some of us are still saying, “I would prefer not to.”
The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.” They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds; there is none who does good.
Psalm 14:1 (ESV)
Only fools say in their hearts, “There is no God.” They are corrupt, and their actions are evil; not one of them does good!
Psalm 53:1 (NLT)
One thing that seems to surprise many intellectuals is the discovery that other intellectuals are Christians! There is a certain class of thinkers who believe that only ignorant people “need” to believe in God. Many of them posit that the concept of “god” is outdated and primitive, steeped in superstition, and unnecessary for anyone. Others claim that any belief in a supreme deity, a Sovereign God who has authority over all humankind, and all of nature, is actually dangerous
If God could be discovered by intellect alone, this might be disturbing for those of us who are not certified “geniuses.” If mere knowledge about God could save us, we could trust intellectuals to be our “saviors” and spiritual guides. But just because someone is intelligent and learned doesn’t mean that they have attained wisdom. Wisdom is a gift of God, and it begins with acknowledging a simple fact– God exists. This does not come automatically with knowledge about God–such knowledge can be dismissed, twisted, and even lost. If God exists– not just as a concept or a long-lost myth–certain other truths must be acknowledged. Chief among these is the truth that I am NOT God.
Fools come in all shapes, sizes, colors, and intellects. There are people of limited intellectual capacity who are very wise. There are intelligent people who live as fools. Foolishness comes when we deny God– whether we deny His very existence, or His authority over our lives– and live as though we are the supreme authority in our own lives.
“The Fool says in his HEART, ‘There is no God.'” Foolishness doesn’t begin in the brain. It begins in the heart. The more I believe that I KNOW better than others–including God–the less I will listen to instruction, advice, and wisdom. The more I will do what I want– and justify it, even if others get hurt. The Apostle Paul–no intellectual slouch himself– warns us in 1 Corinthians 8:1 that “Knowledge puffs up..” Not all intellectuals are snobs, but it is easy to become hardened to others if they believe they know more or better than everyone they meet. And Paul’s warning is to believers! Just because we believe that God exists, we can be foolishly puffed up by our very knowledge of scripture, and ignore God’s sovereign call to love our neighbors! We can be foolish “Christians” who acknowledge that Christ exists, but deny His Lordship in our lives.
There are many intelligent Atheists. Some of them lead moral lives, and do many things that we might see as “good.” They give to charities, advocate for healthful living, a clean environment, and world peace. So why does the Bible use such strong language to denounce them as fools, who are corrupt and even abominable? Doesn’t God see their good works? Doesn’t God give them “credit” for doing the “right” things (sometimes more than their Christian neighbors!)?
God sees us from a different perspective– He looks on the heart. The heart of someone who denies God is the heart of someone in rebellion. It may be a quiet rebellion; it may be vocal and even violent. But once a person denies the very one who created her/him, their heart is corrupted and opposed to giving God His proper place. Even “good” deeds done in defiance of the God of all goodness will become twisted by the selfishness and pride of the doers. The smartest among us may have many great ideas for achieving world peace, but they do not have the power to control all of humanity, nor the authority to force others to accept their “brilliant” ideas. In the end, they will either face disillusionment and despair, or they will become tyrannical in their efforts to “fix” the world’s problems according to their own plans.
God asks us, first and foremost, to trust Him. Second, we are to obey Him. Third, we are to live with, and love, others– to share the love and wisdom He gives! Fools may know about God, but they stop short of trusting Him, obeying Him, and learning to serve others. They deny His wisdom; they deny His Grace, and their need for it. They deny themselves the joy of relationship with the God of Love. There is nothing wrong with learning and intelligence– they, too, are gifts from God–but when we depend on them ahead of leaning on God’s wisdom, we become fools.
Father, I don’t want to be a fool. Help me to acknowledge You in everything I say and do. Help me to recognize Your wisdom, and cling to it. And help me to appreciate the wisdom of Your Word in guiding my intellect and learning.
As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.
Do you have a friend who “sharpens” you? Someone who keeps you honest? Someone who challenges you? Someone who holds you accountable? The Bible has much to say about relationships that we form– and some of it may surprise us. Earlier in Proverbs 27, the writer says, “Better is open rebuke than hidden love.” (v.5 NIV) and, “Faithful are the wounds of a friend, but the kisses of an enemy are deceitful.” (v. 6 NKJV).
I don’t know about you, but I want friends who encourage, friends who make me feel good about myself; friends who make life more pleasant and uncomplicated. I don’t enjoy hearing criticism, or having my beliefs and ideas challenged. I don’t enjoy conflict, and I tend to avoid it whenever possible. However, I also know the truth of verse 6 from experience–I can trust the constructive criticism of a good friend, even when it stings in the moment. A loving friend will take the risk of saying what needs to be said, and not just what I want to hear.
There are three points that struck me recently as I came across these verses:
“Iron sharpens iron”–nothing gets sharpened by a marshmallow, and an iron blade that is left unsharpened will either lose its edge over time, or rust from disuse. We may not like conflict. But we need to be disciplined, and that means that we need to be held accountable. We need to be challenged and sharpened, or we will grow dull or rusty. God can use the “fire” of circumstances to soften our hard hearts, but He often uses other people to “spark” us into action. Left to my own devices, I can grow rusty and useless. I can feel sorry about a bad or sinful habit– I can confess it, and make plans to change. But I am more likely to grow and develop positive habits and actions if there is someone keeping me honest. I can have good ideas; I can know what the Bible says– but I can also fall into deception, lazy thinking, and pride. A good friend can help keep me “sharp” in both actions and thinking. We are not meant to do life alone, and God does not want “Holy Hermits.” He also does not want us to be so timid and accepting that we fail to sharpen others. It is really hard to risk a friendship by speaking the truth–but NOT speaking is sometimes more damaging to the friendship– and to our friends!
“Iron” is what sharpens “Iron”–We need to seek out truth and wisdom, and that’s what we need to offer others, as well. We should not waste time on petty disagreements, trying to “win” every point in an argument, or pointing out every minor fault. We also need to have mutual respect; being willing to listen, willing to let a few sparks fly, and willing to respect another’s strengths as we develop our own. This verse is not about letting someone else dominate you or shut down your voice, just as it is not about dominating or “fixing” someone else by forcing your opinions (even if grounded in the truth) down their throat.
“So one person sharpens another.” Notice it doesn’t say whether the person is a believer, a dear, personal friend, or a relative. Any person can “sharpen” us. I may disagree with another person– a coworker, a peer, a neighbor–and still respect that their ideas, their words, even their criticism.
How does this tie into our pursuit of prayer? Conflict and testing can make us better or bitter–in this analogy, it can make us humble or it can make us brittle. A humble person will be shaped and sharpened. A brittle person will snap or break.
When I am challenged or criticized, do I take it to God or do I take it to heart? Do I ask God to reveal truth or have I already decided what I want to believe? Not all criticism is constructive; not all challenges are meant to sharpen us. Do I react in anger? Do I become sullen? Do I crumble into a puddle of doubt? Or do I see it as an opportunity to become sharper, to change course, or to refine my thinking? Conflict and criticism do not happen in a vacuum–God is as close as a prayer, and willing to give wisdom, discernment, and strength!
How do I react to the other person? Do I become bitter toward them? Do I seek for ways to repay them with criticism or prove myself to them? Do I pray for THEM to change, without looking at my own responsibility? Do I appreciate the risk they may have taken to speak up? (Or do I appreciate the reasons they may have for feeling or thinking as they do, even if I am convinced they are in error?) Can I offer thanks to God for the way He may be using that person to sharpen me–even if that is not their intent? Can I pray for God to bless and strengthen them, even if we don’t agree?
This is all easier to write than to put into practice. But I can say from experience that God has often used the most unlikely people to “sharpen” me in unlikely ways and unlikely moments, and I am so grateful for the “faithful” (and temporary!) wounds of friends. I am also grateful for others who challenge me to defend the Faith, and who open their hearts to me– even when we clash sometimes.