I would like to be thought of as a good, honest, decent sort of person. I think most people would say the same; some might claim flippantly that they don’t care, but very few people are indifferent to public opinion. We want to be liked and respected by others– we want to be included. But we also want to be “right.” There is a confidence that comes from knowing that our opinions and morals are shared by those around us, and that we are accepted.
We live in a world full of “right-ness”, but much of what used to be considered good, right, and moral, is now seen as intolerant, mired in sexist or racist traditions, hateful, and “wrong.” And the temptation is to rise up in defense of what we know to be right– to be identified with it, and to claim it as our own. It is tempting to pray that others will “see the light” or even “get what is coming to them” in light of where they stand on moral issues.
But God’s standard is much higher. God loves us all with an unfathomable and everlasting love, but He is not impressed by our self-proclaimed righteousness. Nor does He declare us “better” or “more righteous” than our neighbors based on what we believe or how we argue. “There is NONE righteous, no not one.” (Romans 3:10) Our righteousness comes from Grace by Faith (Ephesians 2:8).
Just because God loves us all, and just because none of us can earn God’s favor by what we do or say, doesn’t mean that morality is relative or even irrelevant. We should still fight to correct faulty characterizations of God and His Righteousness. But we must be careful not to let it become a personal crusade; to let self-righteousness blind us to our own dependence on God’s Grace.
If we spent as much time learning humility as we spend trying to humiliate our rivals, we might see that our reputation is safe in God’s hands!
14But 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
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!
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.
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.
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.
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)
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.
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!
I’ve always been intrigued by the story in John’s Gospel about the “woman at the well.” (John 4https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=John%204&version=KJV). Jesus and his disciples are travelling through Samaria, and they decided to rest near Jacob’s well at the town of Sychar. The disciples travel into town for food, leaving Jesus alone at the well. A lone woman comes along, and Jesus asks her for a drink of water.
This would seem to be an ordinary encounter, but there are many clues that tell us a different story. The woman comments that Jews don’t ordinarily speak to or interact with Samaritans. But even more extraordinary, most Jewish men would not strike up a conversation with a lone Samaritan woman, unless he meant to insult her or proposition her. The very fact that she is coming to the well alone and near noon (the sixth hour) puts her at a distinct disadvantage– most of the women would come early in the day to draw water, where their numbers offered protection and support, and the heat of the day would not add to the burden of carrying the water back home.
At first, this woman seems both suspicious and dismissive of Jesus. Why is he asking for a drink of water? Does he want more than just water? Does he mean her harm? He seems thirsty, not threatening– but is he safe? Then Jesus throws a curve ball– he claims to HAVE water that brings total satisfaction and life. Water far better than any of the water he has just asked for! The woman’s tone changes from suspicious to sarcastic. And then, Jesus drops the bombshell– “Go, call thy husband, and come hither.”
Aha! Here it comes… The woman admits that she has no husband. She has no protector, no status. NOW this Jewish man, this stranger, will take advantage. Or he will make improper advances. Or he will despise her even more. But instead, Jesus reveals her darker secret– she has had five husbands, and she is with another man who is not her husband. Maybe he is someone else’s husband. Maybe he refuses to marry her. Maybe he treats her badly– this man who lets her come to the well at midday with no protection and no helper. Maybe the five husbands all died; maybe she has been divorced or abandoned time after time. Jesus knows all this– yet he doesn’t call her names or look at her with disgust. He even commends her for telling the truth!
I don’t know about you, but I’m not sure I would want to meet a stranger who know that much about me. I don’t want to be reminded of my failures, my bad choices, or my past sorrows or shame. Yet this was the heart of the woman’s testimony as she went back into town. “Come, see a man, which told me all things that ever I did: is not this the Christ?”
For years, the profound nature of this encounter was lost on me. What is so exciting about someone who knows your dirty laundry and tells it back to you? There are magicians and illusionists, fortune-tellers, and charlatans galore who attempt to do such “readings.” How is it that this woman’s life could be transformed by such an unlikely and disturbing encounter? Why would she be so eager to share this encounter with all the men (or people) of her town– people who probably despised her?
Because an encounter with Jesus is an encounter with pure and holy compassion. Jesus KNEW the very worst about this woman. He could have shunned her or avoided her. He could have railed at her about her lifestyle or her past. He could have treated her shamefully. Others almost certainly had. But Jesus didn’t just see all the things she had done, or all the things that had happened in her life. He saw HER. He spoke TO her, not at her or through her, not down to her, but face-to-face, and eye-to-eye. Knowing all about her status, he came to HER for help–knowing that she had something of value to offer–not to “put her in her place,” or use her, or demand that she serve him. Jesus welcomes us into the safety of His compassion, so that no matter what we’ve done or what’s been done to us, He looks us in the eyes and wants to be part of our story– part of “all that ever” we WILL do! And THAT is life-changing!
How many people will I encounter today who are outcast, beaten down, shunned, and mistreated? What kind of encounter will it be? Will I see “all that ever they did” and dismiss them as unworthy of my attention? Or will I see THEM–uniquely created by God for a purpose; loved beyond all that I can imagine? Can my friends and family, neighbors and strangers feel safe and loved knowing that I know everything about them? Is it “Safe” to meet me at the well? I pray that God’s love will spill out and overflow to others as I go through the day. May He do the same through you.
I don’t know about anyone else, but this phrase always made me feel uncomfortable. Growing up, I thought of rods and staffs (staves?) the same way I thought of the teacher’s wooden paddle at school– something to be avoided at all costs. They didn’t comfort me one bit; instead, they inspired fear and loathing. “Spare the rod and spoil the child (Proverbs 13:24)*,” meant that someone was due for a spanking. Spanking was in fashion when I was young, though my parents used it extremely rarely, and the dreaded teacher’s paddle never touched my tiny terrified tush. A rod, staff, switch, paddle, or hand– all were threats of punishment– sometimes inspiring fear and even resentment.
And yet, in all my youth, I never stood in fear of my parents. They never beat me, or spanked me without cause, or withheld loving forgiveness and reconciliation. Their discipline, which rested almost exclusively with other methods, was for my benefit– teaching me to respect just authority, recognize the limits of my will, and develop patience, compassion, and responsible behavior.
God does not hold the rod and staff as instruments of terror. God’s love and wisdom are infinitely greater than the love and wisdom of human parents. And God’s sovereignty and authority are infinitely greater than that of any ruler or earthly power we know. God’s rod and staff are not weapons to be used against us. Instead, they are the symbols of authority and tools of our Good Shepherd. His staff is like the scepter of the King of Kings, or the staff of a warrior. He will gently use the rod to direct our steps or keep us from going off the path. And he will use the staff to protect us from the advances of the enemy. He has the authority to use these tools, and the grace and wisdom to use them for our good.
During times of trial and confusion, the Shepherd’s authority should bring us enormous comfort. When disease and fear are closing in, when we travel down the valley of the shadow of death, when evil seems to be prowling, stalking, and ready to pounce– we have a Shepherd who has every resource to keep them from devouring us. Circumstances like the current pandemic are not sent by God to terrorize us. In fact, God holds the rod and staff in hand– He has set the limits of COVID-19; He has provided (and will provide) opportunities for us to learn many good lessons and see many astonishing developments– treatments, protocols, cooperative efforts– that will be for our ongoing benefit; for those who do get ill, suffer loss, or even die from COVID-19, He gives grace and peace to those who seek Him. He comforts us in ways that go beyond our natural understanding.
One of my favorite stories is The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkein. In this saga, the wizard, Gandalf, always carries a staff. It looks harmless enough– a walking stick in the hands of an old man. But when faced with an enemy, or when members of the Fellowship are threatened, Gandalf uses his staff effectively to chase away shadows, defend his friends, and battle the most fearsome of monsters. Gandalf is no threat to the frightened Hobbits, or even to the mad king Theoden. But to the traitorous Saruman and wicked steward, Denethor, he stands in fearless opposition. That doesn’t mean that the Hobbits never face danger or that Gandalf fights all their battles for them. And, because Gandalf is not all-powerful and omniscient, he cannot guarantee their ultimate victory. But his presence is enough to instill hope and comfort wherever he goes.
God will let us see uncertain days– days when things look grim and we don’t see how anything good can come of our circumstances. But one thing is certain–our God is ever-present, and more than able to bring us hope, peace beyond understanding, joy, and comfort along the way– no matter, where; no matter what!
Note–If we see the “rod” and “staff” only as instruments of punishment, we are missing the point of this proverb. If we “spare” the rod of authority– never providing discipline and correction or teaching respect and responsibility– that is when we spoil the child. And whatever one’s views about corporal punishment, it should never be used to promote terror or abuse.
I spent a good portion of my adult life working in positions where my value rested in my ability to impart knowledge and answer questions. As a teacher, my job was to guide students into a base of knowledge about the English language (and especially spoken communication) so that they would be prepared to adequately speak, read, write, explain, defend, and use it. I was expected to know enough about grammar, spelling, connotations of words, nonverbal communication, sound logic (and fallacies to avoid), presentation, tone of voice, etc., to enable students to improve their communication and use language more effectively in their careers, academic endeavors, business dealings, and even in personal relationships. If they had questions about word choices, written or spoken directions, propaganda techniques, advertising tricks, euphemisms, or a hundred other topics, I was expected to have an answer– and one that would shape their ability to succeed. When I made the transition to working in a public library, my job was to have answers– which books were at the appropriate reading level for various elementary students; where could someone find information about manatees; who wrote the Captain Underpants books (Dav Pilkey); did our library loan out encyclopedia volumes or sets of early reader books; could our library borrow a rare book from another library; what was the capital of Uganda (Kampala); did we have books that might help a child coping with the loss of a pet, or a parent struggling with toilet-training their toddler; where could someone find … the list was endless and extraordinarily varied. My job was to have an answer– or know where to find it.
At no time was it expected that I would simply answer “I don’t know.” Even if I didn’t know in the moment, I was expected to search until I found an answer that was sufficient and satisfactory. However, in each case, I found situations where my “answer,” while satisfactory to me, and even to everyone else I had dealt with, was not enough to satisfy the person in front of me. Sometimes, I had misunderstood the question and given an answer to what I heard or assumed I had heard. I needed to listen some more, or ask for clarification before I could answer the question correctly. Sometimes, the other person was looking for an answer that didn’t exist– either they wanted confirmation of a falsehood they believed to be true, or they wanted a single, absolute answer to a question that was complex and open-ended. In rare cases, there were questions for which I could find no satisfactory answer– it doesn’t mean that there was none, but I had not found it, nor had I found someone else who could find it in the time allowed. I might find an answer that was not satisfactory, or I might find seven possible answers, but not one that stood out from the others, or I would find nothing but dead ends.
The Apostle Peter tells each follower of Christ:
15 But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, 16 keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander.
1 Peter 3:15 & 16 (NIV via biblegateway.com)–emphasis added
This does not mean that we must completely satisfy everyone who asks– the curious neighbor who knows nothing of the Bible and has dozens of confusing questions, or the nay-saying agnostic with a single “gotcha” question. Nor must we fight and fuss and pound the Bible until we “win” every theological and metaphysical argument–because we won’t! There are many things about the Bible, about Spiritual matters, etc., for which we will not have absolute or definitive answers–and neither will they! (That’s why they ask, sometimes.) And those things that satisfy our longings, our questions, our doubts– sometimes don’t meet the needs of the one who is asking, not because the answers are deficient, but because we are all different in our needs, and understanding, and experiences.
Some people will listen to us merely to scoff and try to make us lose heart or make us look foolish. Others are afraid that our answer will make them feel lost or guilty. Some people have been hurt by others who have used the Bible as a cudgel or a whip– bringing shame, judgment, and contention wherever they go. We must not expect that our answers, our arguments, even our favorite scripture verses– that WE are enough to satisfy the questions, the doubts, and the spiritual needs of everyone we meet.
What we should always have is an answer for the hope that is in us– why have we chosen to believe? Why do we choose to trust when we do not know all the answers? And our answers should be given with gentleness and respect– not arrogance and snide judgment. I don’t have hope because I know answers to tough questions. In order to have that kind of hope, I would need to know all the answers to all the questions– even those I haven’t asked or imagined! I don’t know about the future– I can’t explain why God allows evil (there are compelling arguments for some reasons, but no absolute answer that stops the question)–I don’t know how God’s Spirit moves, or why He drew me to Himself. I cannot “prove” God to someone who is determined to deny Him– not because God doesn’t exist, but because He will not force anyone to accept Him in this life, and especially not because I said a few words based on my limited understanding. My job is not to explain God–only God is big enough and wise enough to do that– but to reflect His character in a changed nature, and to explain what God has done in my life to effect that change. My hope is in the ONE I choose to trust– the ONE who does have the answers! God has not promised to answer all our “what ifs” or our “whys”– but He has promised to answer all our needs, and to BE the answer in every situation, no matter how daunting.
I spent the day with my granddaughter today. We went to the bakery, the bank, the grocery, and the library. Some days we visit the post office or a local cafe. We live downtown, so we walk everywhere, and say hello to people we meet along the way. At each stop, we thank the people behind the counter or desk. My granddaughter is learning manners– how to be polite in public. Her parents do a wonderful job of this, and it’s very easy for me to bask in the proud glow of people remarking on how cute and polite and engaging she is. (I may be a little biased, but they DO say such things…)
Years ago, when I worked at a library, there were always families who came in and practiced good manners– “Please” and “Thank You,” “Excuse me,” “I’m sorry,” and “May I?” Often, the children were prompted, especially when they were young. Sometimes, they didn’t understand why they were being told to say such things. A couple of times, I had other parents roll their eyes and comment negatively on such practices. “They don’t even understand what they’re saying.” “I’ll bet they don’t say any of those things at home– what hypocrites. They’re just trying to make people think they’re better than everybody else.” “You shouldn’t force kids to say such things. They’ll just resent you for it later.”
There are actually parenting articles about forcing children to say “I’m sorry.” They are well-intentioned, and some are helpful about explaining what the issues are (here’s a link to one of the articles) . Other articles advise parents not to prompt children to say, “Thank You.” (Here’s another link.) I don’t disagree with these authors. In fact, I think they make a valid point about teaching our kids “shallow” manners and neglecting the deeper values of gratitude and empathy. But I think children need both.
Manners (especially as they reflect deeper values) are important. We live in a society where manners are becoming relics–laughable reminders of a quaint culture we have long outgrown. There are pockets of the country (and the larger world) where politeness is almost an obsession. It is not polite or helpful to be facetiously “nice” or sarcastically “nice”. But what happens when we no longer dare to show gratitude or empathy without inviting ridicule and contempt? What happens when saying “Please” and “Thank you” make you a target for mockery? When and how did this happen to our culture?
With all due respect to the recent spate of articles, I think something gets lost in the hyperbolic headlines and fascination with “feelings”–manners should originate, not with feelings, but with the acknowledgement of some basic truths:
I am not the center of the universe!
Other people– all other people–have value, worth, and dignity.
I need other people, and they need me–I am not an island.
There is a God who is kind, forgiving, loving, and wise.
I am polite to others, not because I feel “nice”, but because I recognize that God created all people; He loves us all equally, and I have a duty to treat others with dignity, respect, and kindness– even if I don’t “feel” it; even if they don’t respond in kind. Do I always remember and acknowledge this, even as an adult? Sadly, no. But I practice politeness as a discipline and a reminder that this should be so. I teach it for the same reason. And the amazing thing is that it makes a huge difference. Maybe not in the moment, with all my emotions running wild…but in the quiet aftermath of knowing that I said “Thank you” instead of the hurtful and sarcastic comment. I said “I’m sorry” instead of holding on to my pride and bitterness. And I may never know the difference it made to the harried waitress, or lonely shopper, or tired mechanic to hear two or three kind words– “Thank You” (You are noticed– you matter). “I’m so sorry” (you have dignity–you are worthy of kindness) “Please” (you have value–your time, skill, or service is special)
I’m not a “nice” person– I am often hateful and stubborn and impatient. But God has been abundantly gracious and merciful to me when I don’t deserve it. Being polite is such a small thing in light of God’s eternal and boundless love toward us.