Do Justice

Sometimes, we pray for God to “show us the way,” to help us know how best to please Him. We are faced with choices that seem right or good, but other choices seem equally good. In fact, sometimes, “God’s ways–” His laws and commands– seem awkward, outdated, harsh, even “wrong” in light of circumstances.

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But the prophet Micah points out the God has shown us how to please Him. He even spells out three things God requires of us: to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God. (Micah 6:8) Later, Jesus confirmed that the two greatest commandments are to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” and “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22:36-40) I want to explore this in greater detail, beginning with Micah’s first requirement– Do Justice.

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On its surface, this seems sensible and self-evident– Justice is good; injustice is bad, and a good God would always want us to be on the side of justice. But this is not a statement of thought or sentiment. God’s requirement is not that we prefer justice, or agree that justice is a good thing, or even denounce injustice. Instead, it is an action statement– DO justice (some versions use the phrase “act justly”). Those of us nodding our heads, or pointing our fingers, or arguing about past injustices miss the requirement entirely. We are to love mercy (more about this in another post), but to do justice– act justly–behave in accordance with justice.

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DO. JUSTICE. Tell the truth; honor commitments; pay debts; actively share with the needy around us; actively defend our neighbors against threats; actively confront and seek punishment for those who are doing harm; honor and respect those in authority over us; accept the limits and limitations of our circumstances; obey the law, even when others don’t. There is nothing easy or self-evident about doing justice in a fallen and unjust world.

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This is not a “social justice” or social media activity; not a matter of “being on the right side of history” about a specific political agenda, or a moral crusade. It is a personal matter– personal choices to take action toward individuals for the sake of justice. It may involve personal sacrifice of time or money. It may involve confronting family members or close friends who are lying, cheating, or breaking the law, rather than turning a blind eye or excusing their actions. It may mean saying “no” to an opportunity that involves sketchy practices.

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We like to think of JUSTICE–in big letters, stretching across decades–as an ideal to which we aspire. We don’t like to see it as a discipline that imposes on us a set of actions and reactions.

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Our current political situation in America is a great example of this. As a Christian– someone who wants to follow Christ’s example and please God in every area of my life– I’ve had to confess to being very unjust in my words and attitudes toward political candidates, media personalities, even neighbors and family members. I am constantly bombarded with photos, news stories, FB posts, memes, and more expressing criticism, sarcasm, innuendo, half-truths, exaggerations, and out-right lies. When I pass them on, comment on them, rejoice in (or proudly dismiss) their messages, am I acting justly? Am I doing justice to the people involved when I pass instant judgment or give instant approval? When I impute motives before I even know the full extent of actions taken? When I ignore uncomfortable truths, or insist on “my” truth? Can I do justice if I refuse to seek the truth, refuse to get involved or be inconvenienced?

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It is easy to point out hypocrisy in others, but if I want to please God– to do justice– I have to begin with me. I have to begin with the small acts I do every day. Am I doing justice to my spouse if I complain about her/his habits? Am I doing justice to my boss if I “call in sick” to go shopping or go to the beach? Am I doing justice when I keep the extra change because the cashier made a mistake at the store? Am I doing justice when I pretend that my stances on abortion or marriage or the minimum wage give me the right to silence, or harass, or destroy my neighbor?

I have to stop just talking about justice, or demanding justice for past wrongs, or making an idol of “Justice”– I need to pray for the wisdom and strength to act justly.

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Lord, help me to seek justice. But even more, give me the wisdom to discern what is just, and the power to do it whenever and wherever I have the opportunity. For the glory of Your Name. Amen.

Praying from Nineveh

It’s depressing to watch the news, lately–the reports include the COVID-19 pandemic, rioting and violence, injustice, crime, natural disasters…there is very little to celebrate. And yet, my nation just recognized the 244th anniversary of our declaration of independence from Great Britain. In that declaration are the immortal words, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness..” America has never realized perfection of these truths. No nation can claim perfection, just as no individual person can claim perfection. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23). But the truth still stands. All men (and women, children…human beings) are created equal, and are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights. God does not favor the rich or the poor, men or women; He doesn’t favor one skin tone over another; He doesn’t love Baptists more than Catholics, or agnostics! He is not partial to citizens of one nation over another; He doesn’t favor Republicans over Democrats. Governments and individuals may deny or withhold these rights; they may pervert the truth or twist and shape circumstances to their favor at the expense of others. But the truth still stands.

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Long ago, there was an empire called Assyria– powerful, ruthless, domineering. They were not governed by principles of fairness, equality, or justice. They conquered and slaughtered other people at will. Their capital city was Nineveh. The prophet Jonah, a man thoroughly familiar with their cruelty and lack of justice, was dispatched by God to warn the people of their coming judgment. Instead of obeying, Jonah fled. It would seem understandable that Jonah might fear the people of Nineveh. Delivering such a warning could put him in danger. But that wasn’t why Jonah fled.

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The story of Jonah is well-known. After fleeing toward Tarshish on the first available ship, God sent a storm. Fearing that the ship would sink, the sailors cast lots to choose a human sacrifice to appease the sea gods. Jonah volunteered, saying it was his sin that “caused” the storm. Reluctantly, the sailors threw him overboard, and the storm ceased immediately. Jonah was “saved” when a giant fish swallowed him. From the belly of the fish, Jonah prayed, and God rescued him again, causing the fish to spit him out onto dry land. Jonah took advantage of his second chance, and went to Nineveh, preaching the message of destruction.

But when Jonah’s message results in mass repentance and a “second chance” for the Ninevites, Jonah is disgusted. THIS was why he didn’t want to go to Nineveh– because he did not want them to receive a warning and a potential reprieve! He knew that God was sending him, not with a message of doom, but with a message of hope! There was a chance to repent– to try again–to seek justice and avoid destruction. They didn’t deserve it. Certainly, they had never given mercy to any of the peoples they had already conquered. God had every right to destroy them without any warning– and Jonah had counted on it.

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I almost always focus on the character of Jonah when I read through this story. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Jonah+1&version=NIV (follow this link to see chapter 1 and use the site to read the other three chapters). But what about the people in the city of Nineveh? Imagine a stranger walking around one of America’s major cities– Washington, New York, Seattle (in light of recent events there)… His face and skin are unnaturally white and blotchy; bleached by stomach acid from an enormous fish. He looks like a zombie, and his message is delivered in utterly horrible assurance–“yet forty days, and this city will be destroyed.” Not by a spike in COVID-19 cases; not by looters or protesters tearing down a couple of buildings here or there–total destruction by the hand of God.

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What might we do differently if we had forty days to convince God to stay His hand and give our nation a chance to repent. We claim we are not like the Assyrians– we were founded on truthful principles and ideals. We “hold” these truths, but we do not live them out as a nation.

The Ninevites did not have time to amend or rewrite a Constitution. They did not have forty weeks or forty years to “reconstruct” their empire or implement social justice legislation.

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But they had time to pray. They had time to fast, and repent, and seek the mercy of God. From the least to the greatest, they fasted and prayed. Even their animals fasted! They stopped frantically trying to grab power, and turned their eyes toward their Maker and Judge. And God listened! God forgave! God showed mercy!

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May we pray– in every nation, region, city, village, or settlement– for God’s mercy in these times, and at all times. God is not waiting for us to “get it right.” He is waiting for us to come to Him. May we be humble and hopeful and turn to Him today. And may we learn from their example.*

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*Spoiler alert– while the Assyrians in Nineveh repented after the message of Jonah, they quickly forgot God’s mercy and returned to their wickedness. Just a few decades later, God DID bring destruction on the entire empire– this time without warning!

Any One Who Is Without Sin…

I was re-reading a familiar passage in the gospel of John recently, and I was struck by a truth I had missed before. In the first part of John 8, there is a story about a woman caught in adultery https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=John+8%3A1-11&version=NIV I have read this story many times, and even heard sermons preached on this passage. What struck me this time wasn’t exactly new material, or a new reading, but a new understanding of a detail that was there all along.

The story begins with Jesus teaching a crowd of people in the temple courts in Jerusalem. His teaching is interrupted by a group of Pharisees and teachers of the law. They have a woman caught in the act of adultery, and they come to Jesus asking his opinion about stoning her. They obviously know the laws of Moses, because they cite them. But they cite only a certain portion of the law, and they want Jesus to weigh in (so they can use his own words to trap him).

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Jesus turns the tables, and passively bends down to write letters in the sand. He says only, “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” One by one, the accusers and the crowd– everyone except Jesus–melts away. Finally, Jesus asks who is left to condemn the woman. There is no one. Jesus refuses to condemn her, and sends her on her way, telling her to “Go, and sin no more.”

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Four details I want to highlight in this story:

  • There was already a crowd around Jesus before the Pharisees and teachers arrived. They did not bring this woman to Jesus to get an honest answer to a question, or to bring about justice (for that, they should have brought both her AND the man involved!); they brought her to a very public spot to humiliate her and trap Jesus. She was a pawn in a political and religious game, and she was guilty of a crime that was punishable by death. She was accused and forced to stand before a crowd to be condemned without a trial. So often, I read this passage, and my focus is on Jesus and the woman and the Pharisees– I forget that there is a crowd of ordinary people being “played” by the Pharisees for their own purposes.
  • Jesus never answers the question at hand. According to the laws of Moses, the woman should be stoned. That is the point the Pharisees want Jesus to address. They have set him up. If he agrees with their interpretation of the laws of Moses, he should insist that the woman be stoned. But this will be in violation of the Roman laws, and will lead to Jesus being arrested by the Romans. But if Jesus upholds the Roman law, he will be turning his back on centuries of Jewish tradition dating back to Moses. The problem is that the Pharisees have resorted to some half-truths. The laws of Moses DO speak of stoning; they speak of adultery being punishable by death– for both the man and the woman involved. However, the Priests and leaders of Israel have not followed this practice. King David committed adultery with Uriah’s wife. Neither one was stoned or condemned to death. There are no records of other adulterous couples being stoned throughout Israel’s history. So it is rather disingenuous for the Pharisees to bring this case to Jesus and ask him to speak judgment where they will not. Jesus knows this is not about actual justice; it isn’t really about the law of Moses– because they are not following it themselves! By turning the tables back on them, Jesus exposes their hypocrisy and failure in front of the very crowds they are trying to impress with their clever plans.
  • One by one, the woman’s accusers melt away. But it’s not just them, it’s the crowd of ordinary people– the ones who were likely riled up by the Pharisees and teachers. Think about the mob mentality–a guilty woman, caught in the act and brought before a teacher with moral authority–there is nothing like scandal to get a crowd of anonymous bystanders worked up and ready for blood. Yet, Jesus’ gentle reminder that any of us could be found “guilty” of something and condemned to shame and punishment puts out the flame of anger and resentment, and causes the mob to evaporate. No one is left to accuse, to curse, to insult, to humiliate, or condemn.
  • Finally, it’s down to Jesus and the sinful woman. There IS one person there who is without sin– one person who has the right to throw stones, to judge, to punish. Yet he reaches out with compassion and mercy. He is still righteous– he doesn’t shrug off the woman’s sin. He doesn’t say, “Well, that’s no big deal. Let’s just pretend that never happened.” or “I think you’ve learned a valuable lesson here today, young lady.” He simply says, “Neither do I condemn you. Go now and leave your life of sin.”
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Next time, I want to address each of these details from a practical standpoint in light of modern circumstances, and what lessons I am taking from Jesus’ actions.

Does Prayer “Work?”

I have a friend who is very keen to study if prayer “works.” His theory is that if someone were to measure the number of prayers said in various regions of the world during the COVID-19 pandemic, and compare those numbers to the rates of infection, numbers of deaths, etc, for the same regions, one could “prove” whether or not prayer is effective.

I don’t think my friend is being sarcastic or overly cynical– I believe he is sincere in wanting to study prayer. I accept his desire to study prayer–to quantify it, even to “prove” it, or legitimate it for those who are skeptical. Unfortunately, he wants to study it as an observer, and not a participant, and he wants to conduct a physical study of a metaphysical practice.

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Scientists are conducting several studies during this time, to see what “works.” Does social distancing “work” better than building up “herd immunity?” Is there a treatment that works better, or faster than others? Can we develop an effective vaccine? What practices– social, hygienic, medical, political– might help mitigate the spread of future viruses? Even these studies will not be definitive. The results will depend a great deal on methodology, and the conclusions will be open to interpretation.

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There are additional problems in studying whether or not prayer “works” or not, because prayer is metaphysical. Here are just a few of the “measurement” problems:

  • How do you measure prayer? By length of time? Number of words used? The number of prayers prayed by each person over a certain period of time?
  • Do you count ritual prayers? Mantras? Meditation? Unspoken “thought” prayers? Recitations? Prayers spoken “in tongues” or in ecstatic states?
  • Do you count corporate prayer as a single prayer or by the number of people in the group?
  • What about social media? Do you count all the people who say they will send “thoughts and prayers?” Do you count those who say they “will pray,” or only those who are “praying,” or “praying now.”
  • If you are testing by geographical region, how do you account for people who are praying for others around the world?
  • How do you measure the efficacy of prayer (as opposed to other factors)? If a region has a higher mortality rate, even though many people prayed, does that mean that prayer “doesn’t work?” Or does it mean that the mortality rate would have been even more devastating (given other factors) without prayer?

More than just measurement problems, there are problems with the very nature of prayer that make such a study impossible:

  • Even if you could come up with a standard definition of “prayer” in order to get a count, prayer is not a physical substance or action. Prayer is not a “cause and effect” exchange. It is communication. If ten people say the same thing at the same time to the same person, it is not necessarily “more effective” than a single person-to-person exchange. If a thousand people pray to the same “god” who is not a god–“Mother Nature” or “The Force,” for example, it cannot be compared to a single person praying to a Loving and All-Powerful God.
  • God’s ways are not our ways. If we are measuring for one thing, God may be working for a different, unseen outcome. If more people contract the virus during the “study period”, we see that as “failure.” But God may be preparing that region to build up a resistance or immunity for a future outbreak. God answered prayer in a mighty way that we won’t see immediately. I have known a great many people, and prayed for a great many people who have not received physical healing in this world. They have suffered. They have died. But that doesn’t mean that prayer “didn’t work.” Their sufferings and eventual deaths have often brought about unbelievable works of God– salvation, families restored, friends discovering renewed purpose, strengthened efforts to fight disease, injustice, poverty, etc., and communities coming together in unity and hope.
  • Prayer is not about measurable results. Prayer is a heart-cry to a caring Creator. It doesn’t just involve asking for healing or miracles or “wish fulfillment.” Prayer involves thanksgiving, worship and adoration, repentance and confession, sharing burdens, asking questions, and building an eternal relationship with God Almighty.
  • In the end, any study results will be interpreted differently by different people. Some people will be convinced by numerical comparisons to re-consider their view of prayer. Others will never be convinced, no matter how much “evidence” someone else presents.

Prayer isn’t like taking an aspirin, or holding a protest rally, or doing research for a cure. Prayer isn’t about “winning the battle.” It isn’t about “what works.” It isn’t about “what” at all. It’s about WHO.

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God “works.” God is sovereign, loving, and wise beyond what we can imagine. His ways endure. And He has vanquished the power of death and disease. Yes, it can still touch us in the here and now, spreading havoc and pain and mourning. But it will never triumph over Hope, and Life, Truth, and Faith. And when we pray, we connect to the source of all that is Eternally victorious! Beyond ANY measure!

Death Cannot Stop True Love

I’ve spent the past few days revisiting one of my favorite movies, The Princess Bride. The movie is based on a “fractured” fairy tale, written by William Goldman. In it, a spoiled young farm girl falls in love with a lowly farm hand. When he leaves to make his fortune, the girl promises to wait for his return. When word comes back that he has been killed, she swears that she will never love again, and becomes a pawn of a wicked prince.

** SPOILER ALERT**

Of course, her true love, Westley, has not been killed, and when he finally finds Buttercup, she has agreed to marry the wicked prince, who has had her kidnapped and plans to kill her. “Why didn’t you wait for me?, ” Westley asks. “Well..you were dead,” replies Buttercup. “Death cannot stop true love. All it can do is delay it a while, ” says the intrepid Westley, to which Buttercup replies, “I will never doubt again.”

In true fairy-tale fashion, Westley and Buttercup must face many obstacles, including all the dangers of the “fire swamp,”capture, torture, a fake marriage ceremony, and Westley being “mostly dead”– again– before they can have their happy ending. But in the end, “true love” wins over all trials and obstacles, and Westley and Buttercup “live happily ever after.”

We live in a post-modern age, where people tend to sneer at notions like fairy tales, true love, and “happily ever after.” We are more likely to echo the words of the bitter Dread Pirate Roberts, who tells Princess Buttercup that “life is pain, highness, and anyone who tells you differently is selling something.” Ironically, the Dread Pirate Roberts is really Westley in disguise. His life is filled with painful trials, and “inconceivable” obstacles, but he perseveres, and his “happily ever after” makes all that came before fade from memory. Because, in the end, death CANNOT stop true love. It may take a few miracles, and lots of patience, forgiveness, and faith, but true love “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Corinthians 13:7 ESV)

God’s love is true– it is sure and enduring. God’s presence goes with us even into the valley of the shadow of death–even if the shadows and darkness block our sight; even if death seems sure to win. His rod and staff are not tools of torture and dread, but reminders that He is there to guide us, even if we cannot see His face in the gloom.

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Life is filled with pain–and Westley was right; anyone who tells you differently is selling you something. God doesn’t promise that our path will always be on smooth ground in sunny pastures. We may face separation from loved ones, flame spurts and quicksand, betrayal by friends, battles with giants, wicked rulers, even rodents of unusual size. But in each of these situations, we have God’s very presence to comfort us and help us endure to the end. And the “happily ever after?” It is eternal and glorious like nothing we have ever known or even imagined.

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Fairy tales are not real– but God’s word is. The very reason such tales and myths and legends endure is because they echo what we know to be true– Truth, and Love, and Justice, and Honor, and Hope, and Faith–they are eternally enduring and strong. We recognize the truth that “Death cannot stop true love– all it can do is delay it for a while.” https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Romans+8%3A31-39&version=ESV

Great Things He Hath Done

2 Corinthians 9:15 Christian Standard Bible (CSB)
15 Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!

via biblegateway.com
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I love this season of the year–as we approach Thanksgiving and prepare for Advent and Christmas, it is a good time to reflect and celebrate all the wonderful things God has done, and all the ways He has blessed us. But there is also a danger in this season. We are tempted to look around and compare our blessings (and our struggles) with others around us. We are tempted to be envious, depressed, and stressed about our circumstances. Or we look at our blessings and feel smug and self-satisfied, instead of grateful and humble.

What “Great” things am I thankful for? Sometimes I make a list of all “my” blessings–my health, my family, my home or car, my freedom (as though I had done anything to earn such blessings)–and I stop. Sometimes I make another list of all the “Great” things God has done in nature–beautiful sunsets and majestic forests, glistening snowflakes and spring blossoms–and I stop. Sometimes, I even thank Him for the trials and struggles and difficult relationships that He has allowed to refine me and build my character to be more like His– and I stop. Sometimes, I thank Him for the great things he has done for others–miracles of provision, safety, or healing.

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But there is a deeper level of thankfulness– one that takes my breath away and causes me to fall to my knees– one that thanks God for WHO HE IS– truth, righteousness, salvation, mercy, wisdom, power, and boundless, unconditional love. Every great work of God has its origin in God’s Character. Every sunrise shows His faithfulness, every snowflake His infinite creativity. Even tragedy can reveal His tenderness and healing and precious promise that NOTHING can separate us from His love. In giving His greatest gift, God spared no expense; he held nothing back. Jesus defeated sin and death by becoming sin and experiencing death–FOR YOU and for ME! For anyone, for everyone, who will accept His gift and trust in His character. How often do I list all the great things God has done and stop before I let the amazement of the Great I AM to overwhelm me? How often to I celebrate Thanksgiving without ever reaching this level of true Thanks-giving?

Whether we celebrate Thanksgiving with turkey and pumpkin pie, or with beans and wienies; whether we celebrate with family, friends, strangers or alone; even if we celebrate on a different day, or in a different way, may we always find ourselves amazed by the Greatness of God. May we truly give God more than just thanksgiving this year. May we give Him all the Glory–Great things He hath done!

Untie?

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I once saw a cartoon involving a person holding a sign that read, “Bad spellers of the world: UNTIE!” Part of what makes the joke funny (at least to a pun-lover like me) is that all the correct letters are there–just two letters are transposed–but the meanings are completely different. And, of course, the bad speller misspelled the most important word. Instead of asking for unity, the sign invites potential destruction and chaos!

There is a serious side to this cartoon, however. Just like the sign-bearer, we often carry a message that is vastly different from what we mean to project– it may look similar or close to what we intend; it may even go unnoticed at first–but eventually, it will make us look foolish and actually call more attention to our faults and failures.

As Christians, we often pray for unity– we talk about it, we long for it, and we call out for it. But what are we DOING to promote unity and love within the Church? I recently ended my subscription to an on-line forum with articles about Christian Living. I wanted to support discussion, encouragement, and even constructive criticism among the Christian community. But more and more, I found the articles and discussions were not constructive; they were divisive, sarcastic, boastful, and condescending to other believers based on how they worshiped– the kind of songs they sang, or the lighting and seating in their sanctuary, whether they wore suits and dresses or ripped jeans and flip flops, whether they collected offerings or had a diverse worship team. There was no effort to listen or present Biblical principals that might help congregations find a balanced way to discuss differences in worship styles. There was no invitation for consensus or inclusion; no discussion of doctrinal principles or lasting truths that must be upheld. It was a forum for bickering, snide commentary, complaints, and virtue-signaling from self-righteous people taking pot-shots at other self-righteous people. I’m ashamed to admit that I did not unsubscribe earlier–I sent in my own snide comments, my own self-justifying judgments of others.

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The Fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23) includes Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, Goodness, Faithfulness, Gentleness, and Self-Control– it doesn’t include cleverness, arrogance, criticism, or divisiveness!

Ephesians 4:1-6

As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Ephesians+4&version=NIV

It is not difficult to let our thoughts and emotions lead us to react badly– to untie, rather than unite. Here are several handy questions to ask BEFORE we grab up our “misspelled” sign and march around spreading dis-unity and chaos:

  • If Jesus were listening to me or reading my posts– and He IS!–would He agree? Would He “like” or “share” this? Would I send it to Him? Would I say this to His face?
  • Have I really thought about what this says to my family? My friends? My neighbors? My enemies? My Pastor? My co-workers? Strangers? Will it bring people together? Or will it force people to take sides? (There are times when we all need to be challenged to take sides on important issues, but is this one of them?)
  • There are some great posters in elementary schools that use the acronym to evaluate social media, but it works equally well for gossip, news articles, or any information or opinion that we wish to pass along– THINK–T: is it True? Have you checked the facts, dates, assertions, etc., to see if they are valid? H–is it Helpful? Is this good information? Am I helping people find a solution to a problem, or offering encouragement? I–is it Inspiring/Important? Am I wasting time passing on information or opinion just because I find it clever or entertaining? Or will this information inspire and build people up?Are lives in jeopardy if I don’t pass this information along or if I don’t comment? N–is it Necessary? Does this information or opinion need to be shared? With everyone? By me? Now? Finally, K–is it Kind? Even if it is “true” and “helpful”, etc., it can be abrasive, hurtful, or condescending in tone. Being “right” can still be “wrong” when it comes to unity and encouragement.
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Lord, help me to speak and act in ways that bring unity. Help me reflect the Grace and Peace that comes from You. Let my words and deeds produce Spiritual Fruit that lasts. May I seek to build up others, not tear them down or “untie” relationships that You want to flourish.

Good Christians of the world– UNITE!

The Truth Hurts

“I have told you all this so that you may have peace in me. Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows. But take heart, because I have overcome the world.” John 16:33

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=John+16%3A33&version=NLT

One of my favorite movies is “The Princess Bride.” The title character begins the story as a young, beautiful, wealthy, and spoiled young woman. She falls in love with the young farm boy who works for her father. The young man leaves to make his fortune, but word comes that he has been captured and killed by pirates. In utter despair, the young woman allows herself to become engaged to a spoiled and wicked prince. She has allowed her grief to consume her, and she cares nothing for the prince, his wealth or power, or even her own future. Before she can be married to the prince, she is kidnapped by villains, and “rescued” by a mysterious pirate. Instead of being grateful, she curses the pirate, telling him that he could never understand her great loss and pain. His answer, harsh, glib, but to the point, is to say that “life is pain, Princess. Anyone who tells you differently is selling something.”

There are certain truths in life that we would avoid if we could– death, pain, sorrow, grief, suffering, and Sin–we don’t want to hear the harsh reality of our situation. We don’t want to suffer or hurt at all; much less to discover that our suffering is commonplace or universal. Everyone will taste death; everyone will face pain and grief and suffering in this life. Everyone will suffer as a result of Sin– our individual actions have consequences, as do the cumulative actions of our culture, our ancestors, and the entire human race. This is a harsh truth, but it IS the truth.

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There are four common techniques we tend to use to avoid facing harsh truths– denial or avoidance, anger, bargaining, and depression or despair. Many people know these terms from the Kubler-Ross studies on patients with terminal illnesses and the five “stages” she identified as they came to terms with their impending death. https://psychcentral.com/lib/the-5-stages-of-loss-and-grief/ The fifth “stage” was acceptance. The five stages have been applied commonly to other forms of grieving and loss, including the loss of a loved one or the break-up of a marriage. While most of us go through some or all of these stages when we face suffering, we don’t all go through them the same way or even in the same order.

Many of us live in avoidance and denial– rushing headlong into meaningless pleasure, self-medicating with alcohol or drugs, staying busy with the pursuit of wealth or power. Others wrap themselves in anger– blaming everyone else for their pain, seeking revenge, driving away those who want to help. Still others try to bargain– seeking to avoid death by trying every new diet or fitness routine, or trying to be righteous enough to earn a supernatural blessing or “good karma.” And many wallow in depression and despair, lost in the swamp and mist, sinking into a pit of their own feelings.

These reactions are normal and human. Harsh truths hurt– they shock us, overwhelm us, shatter our trust, even shake our faith. But they ARE true. What is also true is that God has not left us without resources, even for the harshest realities we face. Even when we are in despair, or angry, or in denial, God can give us peace and strength to go on.

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God isn’t “selling something” to make the pain go away or make our life “trouble-proof.”  Jesus never offered a comfortable life to His followers. In fact, He promised that our lives would be filled with trouble and pain and sorrow!  Christians who claim that they never face fear, or failure, fury or frustration, loss and sorrow– they are “selling” a false gospel.  Jesus faced and conquered death on a cross! He could have avoided it– He could have been angry at those who betrayed Him–He could have stayed buried in despair and failure.  But He arose! We don’t worship someone who has never wept, or faced betrayal or loss. Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life (John 14:6)– if anyone knows the harsh truth, it is the one who IS Truth!  And this Truth hurts– He hurts to see us grieving; He hurts when we reject Him to go our own way; He hurts even as He allows us to hurt.

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Faith, prayer, worship, promises– these are not God’s way of helping us escape the reality of harsh truths.  They are His tools for helping us to overcome and be victorious in the face of trials and setbacks, grief and pain, even death!  As Princess Buttercup discovers in “The Princess Bride”– “Death cannot stop true love!” And it cannot stop the Truth that IS Love!

Promises, Promises…

God keeps His promises.  Not just small promises, not just some of them, or some of the time.  God Keeps His Promises!  Every single one.  Every single time.

In this world of failed promises, assumed promises, “campaign” promises, and broken promises, it is almost impossible to believe.  Surely there must be some promise that God has not fulfilled– some promise that he has taken back or “modified” somehow…

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Isn’t there?  There are people who claim to have examples– proof that God cannot be trusted.  They list tragedies that God allowed to happen, or dreams that did not come to fruition.  They list times they could not feel God’s presence, or understand His ways; times He seemed silent or harsh.  Didn’t God promise His unfailing presence?  Didn’t He promise peace and love and joy?

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Good questions–just what DID God promise?  To whom did He promise it?  When?  Were there some promises that were conditional, and, if so, what are the conditions?

  • God’s presence–Jesus said, “And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20 ESV)  There are numerous other passages where God says to Israel, or to one of Israel’s leaders, “I will never leave you or forsake you.”  The writer of Hebrews echoes this in chapter 13 of his letter as he seeks to encourage early Christians.  This is a solid promise, and one that we can trust.  But we won’t always “feel” God’s presence.  That’s one of the reasons for the promise– to give us an anchor for our faith when our feelings are confused.  God will be with us even (and often especially) when we feel alone, frightened, overwhelmed by our circumstances.  What makes the thought of Hell so frightening is that it falls outside of this promise– at the “end of the age”, there will be a time and place where God’s presence cannot be felt– God will not be there, nor will the essence of God be available.  No love, no peace, no light, no life, no joy, no hope.  Even those who utterly reject God in this life still have access to hopes and dreams, love and goodness, because God is still present in His creation.
  • God’s promises to Israel–God made hundreds of specific promises to the nation of Israel.  Some were made for specific circumstances and times.  Some were made to be eternal and never broken, canceled, revoked, or transferred.  Many promises (including those given through prophecies) were given to specific nations, including Israel/Judah/Judea as it existed at that time.  Others were given to a restored Israel– one that has not yet been completely restored.  Other promises were made to those who are the spiritual heirs of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob– regardless of their genetic heritage.  It is very easy to co-opt a promise that isn’t really ours to claim in the context of when or how it was given.

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  • “Circumstantial” or “Personal” promises– God fulfilled certain promises to individuals throughout the Bible.  These are recorded to remind us of God’s faithfulness and His power to bring about miracles.  They are not meant to act as personal promises to us because We want the blessings that God gave to someone else in other circumstances.

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  • “Difficult” promises– Not all God’s promises are ones we want to remember!  God has promised that we will suffer.  He promises that people will hate us, abandon us,  or persecute us on account of our faith.   Death and judgement are stark realities– God has promised that we will face both– and that we can face both without fear!  Jesus himself foretold of natural disasters, war, poverty, disease, injustice, hunger and other difficult circumstances that will continue until His return.

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  • “Victorious” promises– God has promised future restoration and renewal– eternal life, a new Heaven, and a new earth.  But He hasn’t promised easy victory.  He promises Justification, not “just a vacation” by Faith.  When we face struggles, it is not God breaking His promises.  And it is not always because we aren’t praying enough or don’t have enough faith.  Sometimes, God sends us into the thick of the battle for reasons we don’t understand.  He doesn’t give us the victory we think we deserve or the victory we dream of.  But we can trust that the victory already belongs to Him.

Prayer is more than just a wish or a vague hope– it is trusting my life, my future, my fears, and my heart to the one who can be counted on to listen and to respond.  Always!

Praying in Anger

Ephesians 4:25-32 English Standard Version (ESV)

25 Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another. 26 Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, 27 and give no opportunity to the devil. 28 Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need. 29 Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear. 30 And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. 31 Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. 32 Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.

I grew up hearing that anger is a sin.  Yet God experiences anger and wrath.  And the Apostle Paul says in this passage that we are to “Be angry and do not sin” (Eph. 4:26a).

Anger is an emotion; feeding on anger, wallowing in it, stewing and screaming and acting out under the control of our anger– that is sin.  That is why Paul goes on to say that we should “not let the sun go down on your anger ” (4:26b).  Anger is not a “bad” emotion, but it is a bad master.  We need to take control over our anger to resolve it, and let it go.  In Genesis, God spoke to Cain about this very thing–Cain and his brother Abel had brought sacrifices to God; Abel’s sacrifice was pleasing to God, but Cain’s sacrifice did not find God’s favor.  The sacrifices were voluntary– Cain and Abel were not in competition to see who could bring the “best” sacrifice.  God had not ordered them to bring a sacrifice only to find fault with Cain’s efforts or the way he chose to present the sacrifice.  The scriptures don’t even say that God rebuked Cain or pointed out a flaw in his offering.   He simply found favor with Abel’s offering– Abel had brought the best he had; the firstborn of his flocks.  Cain had brought “some” of his crops.  The difference in the sacrifices had nothing to do with the content or the manner of offering, but in the intent to worship God halfheartedly, instead of wholeheartedly.  God saw that Cain was angry (as well as proud and envious of his brother).  Instead of rebuke, God offered grace and wisdom:

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Genesis 4:6-7 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

The Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.”

God doesn’t want us to deny our anger or pretend we are never angry.  But He does want us to acknowledge it, and deal with it.  Why am I angry?  What should I do about it?  Anger can motivate us to do the wrong things, but it can also spur us to change our course, and do something good.  Righteous anger can spur us to speak out about injustice, and seek to correct wrongs.  Anger can lead us to our knees, asking God for direction, strength, or His intervention and justice.  King David often prayed angry prayers asking God to strike down the people who were plotting against him, or those who were doing evil or mocking God’s people.

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I wish I could say that I had mastered this area, but I’m writing as much for my own instruction today as anything else.  Here are some wonderful steps we can and SHOULD take to deal with anger:

  • Pray!  Anger can strangle us, or it can sneak up and suffocate us, but the worst it can do is drive us away from our source of help and hope.  God WANTS us to come to him.  He reached out to Cain in his anger, wanting to draw him near and help him overcome it; He offers us the same help.  God can handle our anger– he can give us the power to let it go, and direct our feelings appropriately.
  • Own it–Angry people tend to deflect responsibility.  Yes, other people can say or do things that make you angry, but they can’t make you say or do sinful things in response to their actions.  You still bear the responsibility for what you do with your anger– even “righteous indignation.”
  • Question it!–This is something I have found helpful.  Just as God asked Cain, ask yourself, “Why am I angry?  Why am I downcast?”  And then, answer them honestly.  Many times, the root of my anger isn’t justified–instead it’s “just a lie”.  I have no right to be angry with someone else when I chose to waste time, cut corners, or neglect to do what was necessary.  I have no right to be angry or outraged because someone else feels differently or sees a different side of an issue.  In fact, if I keep listening instead of exploding, I might find compassion overriding the anger.  I might even learn something new!  Or I might better understand why I feel or think as I do, and be better able to explain it to others, instead of just yelling the same thing over again.

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  • Deal with it–This is a difficult one for me.  I don’t like confrontation.  If someone hurts me, I just want to walk away and lick my wounds.  And we shouldn’t confront others WITH our anger, striking out at them and seeking to hurt them.  But I have found that a lot of anger and hurt that I have harbored is not only unjustified, but is based on misunderstandings and pride.  It takes humility, but it also takes courage to seek out someone to offer an apology you don’t want to give, or to ask for clarification instead of harboring hurt.

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  • Don’t spread it!  “Don’t let the sun go down upon your wrath”  is not permission to “vent” to seven (or seven hundred) friends by spreading your hurt and outrage  until you feel calmer.  This is particularly true in the age of Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.  In the short-term, this may seem right– “they need to know what is happening”– but it is just the opposite.  Anger often leads to rash judgments, and hasty actions that we can’t undo or call back.  If you are not talking with the object of resolving a misunderstanding, apologizing, or offering a positive solution, you are engaging in sin.  The old saying, “If you can’t say something nice about a person, say nothing at all” applies here.  And it applies about situations and circumstances, too.  I am angry about various practices and policies by governments, companies, even churches; what I need to spread is not my anger about them, but awareness of how God can change them, and why we should be seeking His justice, His righteousness, and His grace toward those who have been impacted by them.

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  • Repent of any anger-related sin.  Remember, anger itself is an emotion.  God experiences it; we are made in His image, so we experience it, too.  The only people who never experience anger are those who have lost their conscience.

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