The Ones Jesus Didn’t “Save”

“For God so loved the World, that He gave His only Begotten Son, that Whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting Life.”

John 3:16 (KJV)
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This is probably the most well-known verse in the Christian Bible. It has given hope to millions, as it explains that the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ allows anyone to find forgiveness, faith, and new/eternal life. But what about those who don’t believe; those loved ones (and others) who die without the hope of salvation? Doesn’t God care about them? Why does he let them die without hope? Why do they go to eternal suffering, instead of being forgiven?

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I can’t give a complete answer to those questions…I don’t comprehend the entirety of God’s plan or His mind. But I do know this– God understands our heartbreak and our grief over our unsaved loved ones. After all, Jesus spent three years preaching and announcing the Gospel, yet He was betrayed by one of His closest friends. Jesus– God in the Flesh; Emmanuel; the Perfect Son of God–didn’t “save” everyone He knew. We have the wonderful story of the conversion of Saul on the road to Damascus– what about others who didn’t “see the light?” There may have been hundreds, even thousands who heard Jesus preach; who watched Him hanging on the Cross; who heard the rumors that He had risen, only to reject His message–what about them? Jesus had met them. Maybe He had healed them, or eaten at their house, or studied with them at the Temple when they were younger. Some may have been His brothers, or cousins, or mentors and teachers.

On the night before He was crucified, Jesus was in agony in the Garden of Gethsemane. He was in anguish about what He would have to face, but some of His anguish and grief had to be in knowing that, while His death and resurrection would save so many, there were still others who would choose to turn away and reject the Life and Hope and Peace that He suffered to bring.

Even during His ministry, Jesus didn’t heal everyone who was diseased or lame or blind. He even made reference at one point to the kinds of disasters that often leave us questioning God’s mercy:

There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”

Luke 13:1-5 (ESV)

Jesus could have “saved” those Galileans from having their sacrifices desecrated; He could have provided a miracle to save those who were killed by the tower that fell in Siloam. And just as we grieve today for the senseless loss of life in places like Afghanistan and Haiti, or New York City on 9/11/2001, Jesus felt the loss of innocent strangers. Just as we plead with friends and loved ones to repent and seek God’s face, Jesus preached the need for all people to confess and seek forgiveness.

Jesus could have forced Judas to turn from his plan to betray the Master. He had the authority to cast out demons and demand that angels come to honor, protect, or comfort Him. He has the authority to make every knee bow down and every tongue confess that He is the Sovereign Lord of the Universe. And someday, He will! But Jesus won’t save people against their will– even those close to him. He doesn’t compel grudging obedience, or demand abject servitude. There are some who choose to serve Him in that way, but that is not His desire. Instead, He compels us with His mercy. We choose to love Him because He first Loved us– sacrificially, unreservedly, without limits or conditions. (See 1 John 4:19)

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Jesus patiently spoke to Nicodemus in the dead of night. He chased Saul down on the road to Damascus and gave him three days of blindness to reconsider the direction of his life. He called His disciples and asked them to Follow Him– even Judas. He invited Himself to the house of Zacchaeus. He spoke with compassion to those who were broken, and outcast, and lost. And just like Judas, they had to make choices– some of His friends and followers abandoned Him when He needed them most. Some of them stumbled. But they HAD followed Jesus. They had learned from Him, and they came back and persevered.

Being loved by God comes without conditions and without reservations. Being “saved” by Christ’s atoning blood comes with a price–not just the price He paid on the cross, but the price of our repentance and acceptance of His Lordship, and yes, even the mysteries of His Grace.

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As Jesus hung on the Cross, He was positioned between two convicts who were justly condemned. Both were sinners; both were paying the penalty for their crimes. One cried out to a dying Savior, and was saved. The other mocked and cursed. Jesus had the power to save him. He did not desire that the other man should suffer. But the other man chose to reject who Jesus was, and so rejected all the mercy and power He could have shown.

Jesus died to save “whosoever” would believe. He did not die to save “howsoever.” We may not fully understand why He chose to offer Salvation in this way, but we believe it to our everlasting joy, or reject it to our everlasting anguish.

No Greater Love…

This coming Monday we will be celebrating Memorial Day in the U.S. It is a day to remember those who gave their lives in battle, defending our nation, our people, and our way of life over the course of almost 250 years. We decorate the graves of fallen soldiers with flowers and flags and plaques honoring their sacrifices. It is a strange sort of “holiday.” We don’t like to think of wars and battles– we ache for those who are terrorized by wars in the current days. We don’t celebrate war and violence– our highest goal is to achieve and preserve peace and safety. And it can seem somewhat morbid to “celebrate” the fallen soldiers of bygone days.

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But we are not celebrating their deaths. We are celebrating the causes for which they fought and died. We celebrate freedom, and justice; the rights of individuals to pursue liberty and fulfill their dreams. These are causes worth fighting for, and yes, even dying for. We mourn the loss of life, and we grieve the necessity of fighting and struggling to preserve basic rights. But we are grateful for and humbled by the examples of those who have shown the courage and strength to give their all. We honor these sacrifices when we decorate the graves of fallen soldiers, or hold services and memorials at cemeteries. It is not meant to be a time of joyful celebration, but a time of solemn reflection and humble gratitude.

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But Memorial Day can also be a time of reflecting on an empty grave– that of Jesus Christ, who gave His all for a cause even greater than liberty and justice in a particular nation or time or for a particular group of people. Jesus gave His life to reconcile an unholy human race with a Holy and Righteous God. He fought against Sin and Death, and conquered them both. And we cannot decorate a grave to honor His sacrifice, because, unlike all the soldiers we honor next week, Jesus did not just preserve a cause or a way of life– He became Life for us. His grave is empty as a symbol of Death’s defeat!

It was Jesus Himself who said, “Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13 NASB) Soldiers who lay down their lives often do so to save the lives of their comrades at arms– their friends and fellow warriors– as well as their countrymen and women, their neighbors, and their families. And it isn’t just soldiers who give their lives. Recent news stories tell of teachers, police officers, and other individuals who have sacrificed their lives for the sake of innocent shoppers, students, and neighbors. Such sacrifices are tragic, but they are also heroic, and deserving of our acknowledgement.

We take time to honor those who died for a cause. How much more should we honor the One who died to bring eternal freedom and life to each one of us! And how much more should we be willing to give our lives for the sake His Kingdom! There is no greater love that we can show.

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It Is Well With My Soul

I’ve been reading through the book of Job this past week. Job’s story challenges us– especially if we trust in our circumstances to confirm God’s love for us. Job was a seeming pawn in a situation beyond his control or understanding. He lost nearly everything– his cattle, flocks, all his children, and even his health. The only thing he did not lose was his nagging wife, and his faithful, but very unhelpful friends.

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At first, Job’s friends seem very supportive. They stay with him, saying nothing, just offering their presence for a week! But then, they start spouting the kind of useless aphorisms and accusations that make Job’s bad situation infinitely worse. They “remind” him that good people don’t suffer–only the wicked experience pain and loss. This knowledge, they assure him, comes from their own experience, and the wisdom of the past. When Job protests that he is innocent, that his suffering is NOT because of his own wickedness, they become increasingly angry and irrational– making up accusations and heaping blame on Job for daring to “question” God.

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But Job’s friends, even though they speak with confidence and sound very much like many people we hear today, are wrong. Job’s experience is real–suffering comes to the innocent, while the wicked often “get away with” their sin, living lives of ease and comfort at the expense of others. We see it in the world around us– innocent people are the targets of mass shootings, or war, or famine, or disease. Meanwhile, criminals get “off” on a technicality; decorated war “heroes” destroy entire cities; powerful tyrants bend laws and oppress the helpless.

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Where is God in all this? WHO is God in all this? There are many different responses, but I want to look at three that are all present in the book of Job:

  • Mrs. Job: “Curse God and Die.” Some people look at evil and suffering, and they decide that God must be a fraud. Either He cannot or He will not destroy evil, or He would have done so before now. They declare with great defiance that either God does not even exist, or He must be malicious, capricious, petty, and weak.
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  • Job’s friends: “Everyone knows that God rewards good and punishes evil.” Doesn’t the Bible say this? Isn’t this what we learned in Sunday School? Surprisingly, most of us would say, “Yes, that is exactly what I learned as a child, and it is exactly what the Bible says!” But look closer. The Bible says that “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23) It goes on to say that “The Just shall live by faith” (Habakkuk 2:4 and Romans 1:17)–not their good works. God DOES reward goodness, and he DOES punish evil– but He also redeems the wicked and causes the good to go through times of trial and suffering. God is more than a two-dimensional dispenser of rewards and punishments. God’s ways are not our ways (Isaiah 55:8), and there are times that He chooses not to explain His ways “in the moment” of our suffering, or in the moments when wickedness seems to be “winning.”
    Unfortunately, when bad times come; when we experience pain, or watch someone else going through inexplicable suffering, if our view of God is incomplete or two-dimensional, we are left repeating the little we KNOW (or think we know) about God, and defending, not God’s character, but OUR knowledge. This is especially true if we have not been tested ourselves.
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  • Job: “Though He slay me, yet will I trust in Him.” (Job 13:15) “I know that my redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand on the earth. And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God; I myself will see him with my own eyes—I, and not another. How my heart yearns within me!” Job 19:25-27 Even when Job struggled with his pain and suffering–even as he defended his character to his accusing friends, Job KNEW that God was GOD. He knew all that his friends were saying ABOUT God, but he also knew God–even when he didn’t understand His actions. And after all the arguments had been made and all the “easy” answers had been spilled out, GOD did not slay Job; he did not leave him in his agony. Neither did He provide Job with detailed answers or explanations. But He redeemed the situation– Job ended up with more blessings than before. More importantly, Job ended up with a greater understanding of who God is.
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When all is not well with our health, or our finances, or our safety, or our relationships, it can still be “well with (our) Soul.” God does not change, but He does ask us to trust Him, even when His ways are not our ways. God will reward good and punish evil– but it may not be in our lifetime or as we imagine. God may stay silent during times of great stress and pain, but He will not leave us! In every situation, we can trust Him.

Will we?

For Righteousness’ Sake

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake,
For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Matthew 5:10 (NKJV)
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Yesterday was Easter (in parts of the world)–the celebration of Christ’s resurrection and victory over Sin and Death. We have much to celebrate. But we also have a mission. We have the assurance of eternity in Heaven, but in THIS world, Jesus warned us, “you will have trouble.” (John 16:33). We will be misunderstood, mocked, and persecuted. We will have to face the temporary consequences of living in a fallen world– anger, greed, abuse, violence, betrayal–even bad weather and natural disasters!

In giving the Beatitudes, Jesus turned common expectations upside-down. Blessed are the poor in spirit; blessed are the meek; blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake… We don’t consider poverty, powerlessness, suffering and persecution blessings to be desired. Yet Jesus, the One we follow, gladly endured all of these for our sake! Notice that the “blessing” is the same here as in the first of the Beatitudes– “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” The Kingdom of Heaven is not reserved for those who are victorious in their own power or through force of will or extraordinary effort. But it is reserved for those who persevere in the face of evil–those who lean, and those who rest, and those who stand IN THE POWER of God.

Notice, too, that we are blessed if we are persecuted “for righteousness’ sake.” There is no blessing for suffering due to our own stubbornness or foolishness. There is no blessing for those who are persecuted for their own pride and judgmental nature and unforgiveness toward themselves or others. (see 1 Peter 3) https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1+Peter+3%3A8-17&version=CEV

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We live in a culture that celebrates “victimhood.” Those who suffer injustice– even perceived of implied injustice–are considered to have a special status. Those who claim to have been offended or hurt by individuals or groups often demand recognition for their “bravery” or retribution for their suffering. This happens even among certain Christians, who claim to be “persecuted,” when they are merely suffering the consequences of their own hubris and self-righteous posturing. This is a monstrous injustice to fellow Christians who are truly suffering persecution “for righteousness’ sake.”

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My prayer today is that I will emulate the example of Christ– that I will serve, humbly, willingly, sacrificially, enduring any persecution that comes as a result, and lifting up fellow Christians who are suffering, as well as their persecutors! For righteousness’ sake– for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven.

Blessed Are the Peacemakers..

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.” (Matthew 5:9)

Matthew 5:9

We live in a time of conflict. Wars, protests, upheaval, domestic violence, gangs, shootings, and more leave us praying for peace.

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Today is a reminder of violence. “Good Friday” is filled with reminders of torture, injustice, and brutal death on a cross. There is almost nothing about this day that suggests “Peace.” And yet, it is because of this day, and this cruel and violent death, that WE can have peace with God. Jesus made peace for us by suffering at the hands of corrupt and brutal men. He could have fought back. He could have called down legions of angels to avenge each cut and bruise He suffered. With a breath or a single word, He could have slain the entire Roman Empire, freed the nation of Israel, and claimed victory and “peace.” He could have avoided the violence of beatings and death. He could have appealed to Pilate, who already was inclined to release Him. He could have argued with the Sanhedrin, or said whatever they required to secure His pardon and avoid the cross. He could have run away in the Garden, and stayed hidden and given up His ministry for safety and “peace.” But He didn’t. He didn’t fight back, He didn’t argue, He didn’t plead. He healed the ear of one of His arresting officers. He welcomed one of the thieves crucified next to Him into the Kingdom of God. He made provision for His mother’s well-being. He forgave those who accused Him and crucified Him–even from the Cross!

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Jesus said that those who make peace will be called the children of God. Not those who seek peace– those who make peace. There is a difference. We tend to seek peace through avoidance. We isolate, insulate, hibernate and alienate, all in attempting to find peace. We avoid conflict. We avoid attachments that might cause us heartbreak or betrayal. Even in our prayers (and I’m speaking from personal experience), we ask for peace without pain or involvement. We want God to shower us with peace and protection, but we don’t ask for the courage or the strength to “make” peace.

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Making peace involves reaching out, taking risks, being willing to suffer misunderstanding, conflict, and injustice. It means that we will “take up our cross” and be willing to die to our own comfort and safety for the sake of Christ. That does not mean that we are to be combative, aggressive, abusive, or contemptuous. But, like Jesus, we are to stand firm, even as we offer open arms to those who disagree with us, mock us, even persecute us. True peace is a gift–first from God, and passed on to others who do not deserve it. It is a gift of Grace and Love. The Children of God should be makers of peace, not avoiders of conflict. We need to meet violence and aggression with strength of purpose and positive action. And that should be reflected in our prayer life as well.

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How can I make peace today through prayer and service? What cross can I bear for the sake of Christ, and the Cross He bore for me?

Blessed Are the Merciful

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy” (Matthew 5:7).

Am I merciful when I pray? That’s not a question I normally ask, but I’m looking at the Beatitudes, and how they relate to my pursuit of prayer. I pray for justice; I pray for healing; I pray to be more Christlike, but do I specifically pray about mercy? Certainly, I thank God for HIS mercy toward me, and I hope I show mercy to others, but does it enter my prayer life?

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It’s easy to pray for mercy for ourselves, when we know we deserve justice (and punishment). It’s easy to ask for mercy for our loved ones. But do I pray to become more merciful? Do I pray for a greater love of Mercy? In Micah 6:8, we are told that God requires three things– to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with Him. Often, it is easier to love justice, do mercy (when it suits us) and walk in our own way, asking God to follow US as we go through the day– bless me, bless my work, bless my travels, etc..

Mercy requires a knowledge of justice and a humble acceptance of God’s sovereignty. Justice is NOT whatever we think is “fair” or “equitable” in a certain set of circumstances. Justice is defined by God, and the only way to “do justice” is to obey His will. We will not “love mercy” until we experience it at God’s hands.

That’s really what this Holy Week is all about–God’s justice, God’s Mercy, and His Victory and Lordship. As we go through this week, in preparation for Easter, it is vital to meditate on what Jesus DID for justice to be satisfied, the depth of His Love that caused Him to suffer and die to provide, not just mercy, but Unspeakable Grace, and the humility He demonstrated in His time on earth– serving, sacrificing, even dying the painful and humiliating death on a cross–all for me; all for you.

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And we must be careful about making Mercy all about us and all about the here and now. We live in a culture of “instant gratification.” We want God’s mercy to “fix” the immediate problems we see around us. Those who are merciful WILL be shown mercy– but we may not see instant ease and comfort in a situation where others hold a grudge, or where the natural consequences of our sin still exist. We have been justified before God– He will not count those sins against us–but we still live in the fallen world where sin leads to death and destruction. God will redeem all things in His time, and we can trust that His mercy will triumph over even the worst of circumstances, but we may still have to endure suffering for a season.

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When we come to God in prayer, we have no right to withhold mercy– either from those who may have offended us, or from ourselves for things we did in the past. Mercy is a gift– one we cannot give without having received it, and one we cannot hold on to without sharing it freely. When we pray for our enemies, we must pray with a heart of mercy– not because they deserve it, but because God’s sovereignty demands it.

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Do You Love Me?

15 When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?”
“Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.”
16 Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”
He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.”
17 The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”
Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” 
He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Feed my sheep. 18 Very truly I tell you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” 19 Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then he said to him, “Follow me!”

John 21:15-19 (NIV)
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Today is Valentine’s Day, and many people will be saying, “I love you,” or asking, “Do you love me?” And many others will reply, “Yes, I love you,” or “I love you, too!” Cards and gifts may be exchanged; some couples will dine out or have romantic candlelit dinners at home. It is a day to celebrate love. There are thousands of poems and songs about love– ooey, gooey, gushy love; unrequited love; first love; true and lasting love; even “puppy” love.

But Valentine’s Day can also be a painful reminder– of lost love, betrayal, and loneliness. The story of Peter’s betrayal and reinstatement is not a “Valentine” story of romantic love, but it carries some lessons for today about love in general, and the Love of Christ in particular.

  • Love is a choice– freely given and freely accepted (apologies to Elvis Presley and others who have sung about not being able to help falling in love…) When Jesus first called Peter (and in the above passage as well) He simply asked Peter to “Follow me.” He made no demands, offered no bribes, used no intimidation. There is no long list of requirements or expectations; no bargaining; no “quid pro quo.” That said, Love is not a light-hearted or whimsical thing. Peter’s choice to love Christ, and to follow him cost him his life. Christ’s choice to love us led Him to humble Himself to death, even death on the cross (Philippians 2:8). Jesus could have escaped this fate several times over– He CHOSE to die for each of us!
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  • Love is more than just a feeling. “Follow me” demands an action and a commitment. There are many today who “love” the idea of Jesus; they love the parables, or the gospel story; they are in love with “love.” But the idea that “Love” is all you need (apologies to the Beatles) misses the mark. Feelings change; feelings are transitory and often dependent on circumstances. Love chooses to follow– even when the going gets rough; even when it is not convenient, even when it involves sacrifice.
  • Loving someone involves taking the risk of being hurt, denied, or betrayed. There is no Biblical passage describing the amount of hurt Jesus must have felt when Peter denied Him three times, or when Judas betrayed Him. The Biblical account tells us that Jesus already knew and predicted these two events, but how agonizing–every bit as painful as the nails in His hands and feet! Jesus loved those who spit at Him, abandoned Him, condemned Him, and persecuted Him. And we also see Peter in this passage being hurt at Jesus’ questioning him a third time; Peter was shocked and hurt when Jesus predicted his denial, and when Jesus said to him, “Get behind me, Satan.”(Matthew 16:23) Love is never free from risk– especially the imperfect love we have as humans.
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  • Love leads to restoration and forgiveness. Peter’s denial of Christ could have haunted him for the rest of his life. Had Jesus said nothing; done nothing to address this hurt, it would not have changed the fact that Peter was forgiven. But in publicly restoring Peter, Jesus made it clear that it was “all good” between them– Peter wasn’t just conditionally forgiven, he was completely restored!
  • Love is stronger than death! It is stronger than sin, or betrayal, denial, or hurt. Love is eternal and limitless, everlasting, and enduring. God IS Love and to know God is to know love. To speak to God and to hear His voice and read His Word is to converse with Love. Whether in the presence of saints on a mountaintop, in the midst of a raging storm, or on a quiet beach– Love is closer than our next breath, and more powerful than our deepest fear. Love never fails (1 Corinthians 13: 8)

And that’s a love worth endless celebration!

When I Don’t Know How to Pray

Prayer is both simple and complex. Anyone can pray. There is no single correct “formula” for prayer. God is always listening and hears the prayers of those who sincerely seek Him. I can pray to God in formal words, songs, groans, and scattered thoughts.

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But there are times when I don’t know how to pray. More precisely, I don’t know WHAT to pray. When someone is diagnosed with cancer, or a chronic illness, my first instinct is to pray for healing– immediate and total healing. When I hear of a mass shooting, or a blatant injustice, or a natural disaster, I want to pray for all the pain and loss and evil to disappear or be reversed. I want all those things that I know to be “good”– health, happiness, healing, hope, unity, righteousness, and wholeness.

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Still, God’s ways are not my ways. God’s “goodness” is not measured in comfort and quick resolutions. I may not understand the goodness of struggle and pain in the short term. I think of disaster as total and irredeemable, and my prayers often come out of my own short-sighted thinking and my own discomfort at the realization of others’ (and my own) weakness and mortality.

There are a few Biblical principles that I find very helpful when I don’t know “how” to pray:

  • God knows –REALLY KNOWS– all my inner thoughts and feelings. Even more, He KNOWS what will happen, what should happen, and what is best in every situation. I can pour out my desire to see my friend restored to health, or a community re-united in hope, knowing that God is a God of healing and restoration; but also knowing that God’s timing and purposes may involve temporary suffering–even for those I love. Moreover, God knows why I am confused. He knows why I struggle to know how to pray. He doesn’t ask me to always know the “right” answer– He does ask that I trust Him to know and act in His sovereign strength and wisdom. No matter the circumstances, God is still on His throne. And I am not!
  • Jesus gave us simple but powerful examples of “how” to pray. In “The Lord’s Prayer,” He prayed for simple, personal things– daily bread, forgiveness, guidance–as well as big and overarching things–“Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done..” His trust in the Father’s ability to accomplish all things was absolute, and His relationship was firmly established– “Father…Hallowed by Thy Name.” In the garden, Jesus was clearly suffering, and asked that the “cup” of suffering– the torture of the cross and the inconceivable horror of being rejected as He bore our sins and carried them through death and the grave– be removed. Yet, He submitted His desire, His fears, His anguish, to His Father– “Not My will, but Thine..”
  • There are other wonderful examples throughout the Psalms, the Gospels, the Epistles, and hundreds of years of Church leaders and saints: their prayers can teach us, encourage us, and embolden us.
  • Jesus promised that we would have an advocate–the Holy Spirit– who would intercede for us. When we don’t know how or what to pray, the Apostle Paul says that the Spirit makes intercession for us with “groanings which cannot be uttered.” (Romans 8:26 KJV). The Spirit also speaks to our own spirit to help us understand more clearly God’s ways and plans.
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I may not always know how to pray, or what to pray. But I can be confident that God hears my prayers. I can come before Him with the assurance that my prayers– and all my thoughts and emotions–are precious to Him because I am His child, redeemed by His sacrifice. My heart may not know all things, but as He continues faithfully completing the work He began in me (Philippians 1:6), my prayers will come more fully into alignment with His will.

Peace on Earth?

I’ve been exploring some of the themes related to the Advent. But what happened afterwards? There is a curious and violent story related to the visit of the Wise Men– before they found Mary and Joseph and the Baby Jesus, they visited the palace of the ruling King of the Jews, Herod. Herod was intensely curious about the baby– when and where the prophets said Messiah should be born. But unlike the worshipful wise men, Herod wanted to destroy this heaven-sent King; one who could pose a threat to his own power and rule.

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Jesus escaped Herod’s plot. Joseph had been warned in a dream, and had taken Mary and Jesus to Egypt for safety. The Wise Men, also warned in a dream, had failed to report back to Herod the information he wanted. In his anger and fear, Herod ordered the slaughter of all the baby boys in the region, up to two years old. This “Slaughter of the Innocents,” as the event is known, seems to come in direct repudiation of the message of the angels at Christ’s birth. There was no peace in Bethlehem as soldiers dragged innocent babies from their mothers’ arms and killed them. There was wailing and anguish, instead.

How could a loving and wise God allow this to happen? It was no unforeseen accident, either. This event had been predicted by the prophets hundreds of years before it happened, just the same as the prophecies about Jesus’ birth. God could have sent angels to protect Jesus from this slaughter; He could have confounded Herod’s plans and stopped the soldiers from reaching Bethlehem; He could have struck Herod dead before the plot could be carried out…so why did He let it all happen?

I don’t have any definitive answers. But I can share some opinions, based on what I’ve learned of God’s character. I don’t think God was in any way indifferent to the suffering and injustice of this tragedy. But I think there are a few lessons we can take from this strange and disturbing incident:

  • First, Jesus came to share a very human fate. Jesus was not spared the indignity of being born in a cattle shed and laid in a manger. His life was not supernaturally easy or safe or comfortable. It was God’s perfect will that Jesus was vulnerable to attack, and in need of protection– even when it meant fleeing His home.
  • At the same time, He WAS fully God, and as such, posed a danger to men like Herod. Jesus, even from birth, had an authority greater than any king or emperor who ever lived. But He did not come to earth to exercise that power over other people. Instead, He came to serve and to pour out His life for others. It was not His mission to overthrow the existing government, or to challenge rulers like Herod. It was His mission to fulfill the Law, set an example of obedience, preach the Gospel, and offer Himself as atonement for Sin.
  • Herod had the earthly power to do good or evil as a ruler. He had the unique opportunity to join the Wise Men in worshiping the arrival of God’s chosen one– an event that had been anticipated for hundreds of years. Yes, God could have forced Herod to bow before the Newborn King, but Herod could also have chosen wisdom over fear. We have the same opportunity to welcome Jesus as our Savior– or to wage war against Him. Jesus invites us to follow Him, but He doesn’t stop us from making the same destructive choices that Herod made.
  • Jesus did not come to bring a worldly peace, but an eternal “Peace that passes understanding.” Even now, after His death and resurrection, there is still war and slaughter, crime and injustice in our world. But, because of all Jesus did, and is doing in and through those who follow Him, we see that tragedies can be redeemed; hope can survive where there seems to be no hope; and death is not the final victor. I don’t understand why these particular families had to face the tragic consequences of Herod’s rage and fear and ambition. But I understand that God is bigger than Herod; and more powerful than all the chaos and pain that he caused.
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The world is not at peace today. Innocent people– even babies–are hurt and killed in our world. God knows. He aches for our grief and pain. But He also knows His plans. He knows how the story ends– He knows all that has happened, and all that is happening, and all that will happen. Even in the glory of Christmas, He wants us to know that reality. Someday, Jesus will return in all of His authority and power. He won’t just end the reign of evil rulers like Herod– He will render their legacies useless. He will redeem injustices– even genocide and slaughter–and wipe out even the memory of their grief and terror.

Of Spiders, Skeletons, and Saints

Just before writing this, I found a spider crawling on my shoulder. I’m not a big fan of spiders. This one wasn’t huge or furry or anything, but it startled me. I didn’t scream, but I did jump, and frantically brushed at my shoulder, and then stomped on the spider a couple of times for good measure as it tried to crawl away.

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Spiders are not uncommon. They eat other annoying insects, and many are not harmful to humans. But they are “creepy.” They have all those legs and eyes and they hide in corners and drop down from ceilings. Some of them jump and some bite. There are a lot of “creepy” creatures in this world– spiders and snakes, rats and lizards, worms, and bats, and scorpions, roaches and fleas, and more. “Creepy” critters startle us; they scare us in the ways that they move, in the noises they make, and in the threat of danger– diseases, poisons, filth…

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This time of year it is not unusual to see “creepy” creatures in movies and decorations and costumes for Halloween. Another type of “creepy” sighting involves things associated with death or near-death– ghosts, zombies, skeletons, ghouls, vampires…Their creepiness comes from the idea that Death has power over the living. The idea that Death stalks among us causes fear. Death is an enemy we cannot conquer. Everyone has to taste death and the unknown that follows. Everyone has a skeleton in life, but a skeleton walking without muscle or skin is terrifying to us. Everyone has a soul, but a soul without a body (or a body without a soul) makes us fearful–will that be our fate? What kind of existence would that be?

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I am not a big fan of “creepy” stories and horror flicks. I don’t like being frightened for entertainment, and I have never understood why such things appeal to others. Recently, though, I heard from someone an explanation that made me think. They said, “I enjoy watching horror films and reading scary books because I know, no matter how scary it gets, that Good will always win out in the end.” Well, all right. I still don’t want to watch spooky stuff, but I can agree with the sentiment of the speaker.

Not all frightening things in this world are “creepy.” Cancer, blindness, aging, loss of a loved one, job loss, homelessness, loss of reputation, betrayal, false arrest, slavery to addiction, abuse, starvation–all are scary realities that can leave us overwhelmed, afraid, and even feeling hopeless. Nothing we can do will eradicate the threat of hardship, suffering, and death that await us all. We can make plans to “cheat” death, or build walls against getting hurt or suffering loss. But we cannot banish the threat or the fear of “what if..”, nor can we slay Death.

The Good News is that Death doesn’t win in the end. Death seems like the final word, but we can endure even this, knowing that “Good will always win out in the end.” God has not destined us to be skeletons, but to be saints–awakened to new life, cleansed of all sin and disease, and eternally Alive in Him! I can be startled by the spider, “creeped-out” by a skeleton, and knocked down by a debilitating disease. But I can turn the page, open my eyes, look up, and keep going, knowing that God is on His Throne.

And there’s more good news–Life, Hope, and Love are always with us. No spider, skeleton, sickness, or other threat will ever find us alone; none will ever take God by surprise; nothing can separate us from God’s Loving Care.


18 And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Matthew 28:18-20 (ESV)

Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that the family of believers throughout the world is undergoing the same kind of sufferings.10 And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast. 11 To him be the power for ever and ever. Amen.

1 Peter 5:7-11 (NIV)
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6 Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the LORD your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you.”

Deuteronomy 31:6

6 So we say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can mere mortals do to me?”

Hebrews 13:6

38 For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Romans 8:38-39 (NIV)

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