Posts tagged ‘Grace’

Joshua Paused the Battle of Jericho

When I was a kid, I would sing a song in Sunday School called “Joshua Fought the Battle of Jericho.” It was all about Joshua’s conquest of the infamous city, whose walls came “tumblin’ down.” The song was fun to sing, but it also recounted a chapter from Israel’s history that has long been troubling to a lot of people. Israel’s conquest of Canaan, beginning with Jericho, involved a lot of violence and slaughter, which raises an important and understandable question: how could a good God lead His people in such violent warfare?

When Joshua fights this inaugural battle against the people of Canaan, the battle plan God gives him is a strange one:

See, I have delivered Jericho into your hands, along with its king and its fighting men. March around the city once with all the armed men. Do this for six days. Have seven priests carry trumpets of rams’ horns in front of the ark. On the seventh day, march around the city seven times, with the priests blowing the trumpets. When you hear them sound a long blast on the trumpets, have the whole army give a loud shout; then the wall of the city will collapse and the army will go up, everyone straight in. (Joshua 6:2-5)

God says to Joshua He will bring the walls of the city down, but only after six days of open marching.

In ancient battle plans, the element of surprise was key. Just a few chapters later, Adoni-Zedek, who is the king of Jerusalem at this time, moves to attack the Gibeonites because he does not like that they have made a peace treaty with the Israelites. The Gibeonites ask for Joshua’s help, which he delivers when he takes Adoni-Zedek in battle “by surprise” (Joshua 10:9). Surprise was standard.

But there’s no surprise at Jericho. The chapter opens by noting that “the gates of Jericho were securely barred because of the Israelites” (Joshua 6:1). The people of Jericho knew a defeat was imminent. So why would Joshua wait? Why not just make those Jericho walls tumble on the first day instead of waiting until the seventh?

Before they reach the Promised Land, Moses describes God’s character to the Israelites like this:

The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness. (Exodus 34:6)

God’s desire and nature is not to destroy wicked people in anger, but to patiently wait for them to turn to Him. Indeed, even when a prostitute from Jericho named Rahab trusts in God and helps the Israelites, He gladly spares her (cf. Joshua 2). The six days of marching, then, are six days of waiting – six days of God waiting for the people of Jericho to repent. Before Joshua fought the battle of Jericho, he paused the battle of Jericho.

When God first promises the land of Canaan to Abraham, He says to Abraham that he will have to wait to enter it because its sin “has not yet reached its full measure.” 675 years pass before Joshua fights the first battle against the people there. It turns out that God is not only patient with sinners, He is very patient.

Thus, the violent warfare of Joshua’s day is not the story of a vengeful God gleefully destroying sinners, but the story of sorrowful God who has waited and waited for sinners to repent, but to no avail.

God is still patient with sinners today. His invitation to us remains the same: turn to Him and trust in Him. Sin does not need to destroy you, for His Son can save you.

August 2, 2021 at 5:15 am 1 comment

Slow in Anger and Full of Grace

When God appears in a burning bush to Moses and charges him to lead the Israelites out of their slavery in Egypt, Moses is fiercely skeptical of God’s rescue mission. He begins by expressing skepticism that the Israelites he is called to rescue won’t express some sort of skepticism:

What if they do not believe me or listen to me and say, “The LORD did not appear to you”? (Exodus 4:1)

God responds by giving Moses the power to perform some miracles to back up his divinely mandated mantle – he can turn his staff into a snake, make his hand leprous and then heal it again, and turn water from the Nile into blood.

But Moses is still not so sure. He is not only skeptical that the Israelites won’t be skeptical; he is also skeptical that he will be able to deliver God’s message:

Pardon Your servant, LORD. I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor since You have spoken to Your servant. I am slow of speech and tongue. (Exodus 4:10)

God insists that Moses will do just fine. After all, He created Moses’ mouth, and He will speak through Moses’ mouth.

But Moses’ problem, it turns out, is not one of Israelite skepticism or a fear of public speaking. Instead, it is simply an old-fashioned stubborn will:

Pardon Your servant, LORD. Please send someone else. (Exodus 4:13)

Moses simply does not want to be bothered with God’s mission. And God is not happy:

Then the LORD’s anger burned against Moses. (Exodus 4:14)

Usually, when the Lord’s anger burns, He acts accordingly. When the Israelites build a false god in the form of a golden calf, God says to Moses, “Now leave Me alone so that My anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them” (Exodus 32:10). By the end of the chapter, we read: “The LORD struck the people with a plague because of what they did with the calf Aaron had made” (Exodus 32:35). When the Israelites grumble against God immediately after He provides them with a superabundance of quail, we see that “while the meat was still between their teeth and before it could be consumed, the anger of the LORD burned against the people, and He struck them with a severe plague” (Numbers 11:33).

With the Lord’s anger burning against Moses in Exodus 14, we would expect God to take decisive discipline measures against Moses. What will God do? Strike Moses with a plague? Swallow him up into the earth? Turn the burning bush into a flaming inferno that consumes him?

God does none of these things. Instead:

He said, “What about your brother, Aaron the Levite? I know he can speak well. He is already on his way to meet you, and he will be glad to see you. You shall speak to him and put words in his mouth; I will help both of you speak and will teach you what to do. He will speak to the people for you, and it will be as if he were your mouth and as if you were God to him.” (Exodus 4:14-16)

God, instead of destroying Moses because of his lack of confidence in Him, gives Moses a companion in his brother. God’s anger may burn, but so does His grace.

When Moses is up on Mount Sinai meeting with God, God proclaims His character to Moses:

The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. (Exodus 34:6-7)

It turns out that not only is God slow to anger, He is also slow in anger. Yes, sometimes His anger results in disciplinary action. But in Moses’ case in Exodus 4, God’s anger was subsumed by God’s grace. In place of judgment, God gave Moses his brother.

When we sin, God can – and, indeed, does – get angry. But as with Moses, God’s anger is ultimately subsumed by God’s grace. And in place of judgment, God gives us a brother:

Jesus’ mother and brothers arrived. Standing outside, they sent someone in to call Him. A crowd was sitting around Him, and they told Him, “Your mother and brothers are outside looking for You.” “Who are My mother and My brothers?” He asked. Then He looked at those seated in a circle around him and said, “Here are my mother and my brothers!” (Mark 3:31-34)

God is slow in anger – even with us.

May 17, 2021 at 5:15 am 1 comment

Anger and Forgiveness

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

A new study published in the Oxford Journal of Gerontology finds that those who work to resolve arguments quickly – or avoid arguments altogether – improve their long-term health. Researchers from Oregon State University found that the longer a person lets an unresolved conflict linger, the heavier and more significant it begins to feel. Robert Stawski, the senior author of the study, explains:

Everyone experiences stress in their daily lives. You aren’t going to stop stressful things from happening. But the extent to which you can tie them off, bring them to an end, and resolve them is definitely going to pay dividends in terms of your well-being. Resolving your arguments is quite important for maintaining well-being in daily life.

The study found that, if possible, it is best to resolve a conflict the same day it arises. Dr. Stawski added:

The extent to which you can tie off the stress so it’s not having this gnawing impact at you over the course of the day or a few days will help minimize the potential long-term impact.

Of course, this insight of resolving conflict within a day is not new to this study. Long before there was this study, there was the apostle Paul who wrote:

“In your anger do not sin”: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold. (Ephesians 4:26-27)

Unresolved anger is dangerous, Paul writes – not only emotionally, but spiritually. It gives the devil himself a foothold in your heart.

As a pastor, it is not uncommon for me to have a conversation with someone who is nursing a grudge and stewing in anger. And, to put it bluntly, they’re miserable. The problem is it’s difficult to stop a feeling. When I become angry, I don’t consciously choose to become angry. Anger just, well, happens. But even if I don’t consciously choose to become angry, I can consciously choose to calm down. I can talk to a friend who I trust to give me perspective. I can talk to myself and remind myself that my anger solves nothing. I can talk to the Lord and ask Him to bring me peace. And I can forgive. To quote the apostle Paul again:

Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. (Ephesians 4:31)

In other words, even if you can’t stop anger from bubbling up in your heart, when it does, you are called to get rid of it as fast as you can. But how? Paul tells us in the very next verse:

Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. (Ephesians 4:32)

Anger, Paul says, is nothing forgiveness can’t fix. Yes, forgiveness is hard. Choosing to release a grudge against someone when they have hurt you is a heavy task. But anger is dangerous. And it’s heavy, too. So, choose what is better for them – and for you. Choose forgiveness.

April 26, 2021 at 5:15 am 1 comment

A Very Good Blessing for Esau…and Us

“Esau and Jacob” by Giovanni Andrea de Ferrari / Wikipedia

In the story of Jacob and Esau, Jacob famously steals his brother’s blessing from his father, Isaac. Jacob, who dresses up like his brother to dupe his near-blind dad, receives this blessing from Isaac:

Ah, the smell of my son is like the smell of a field that the LORD has blessed. May God give you heaven’s dew and earth’s richness – an abundance of grain and new wine. May nations serve you and peoples bow down to you. Be lord over your brothers, and may the sons of your mother bow down to you. May those who curse you be cursed and those who bless you be blessed. (Genesis 27:27-29)

In this blessing, Isaac promises Jacob four things. First, he promises Jacob material blessing – he will be blessed with much food and drink. Second, he promises Jacob political power – that nations and people will bow down to him. Third, he promises Jacob familial patronage – he will be the patriarch and guardian for his whole family. Fourth, he promises Jacob a spiritual legacy. Isaac’s words “may those who curse you be cursed and those who bless you be blessed” echo God’s words to Jacob’s grandfather Abraham (cf. Genesis 12:3). Jacob, rather than his older brother Esau, will be the one to carry the spiritual mantle of Abraham forward in the family – and for the world.

This is quite a blessing. And unsurprisingly, when Esau finds out that his brother Jacob has received such a stellar blessing, which his dad intended to be his, he is furious – and desperate. He pleads to his father, “Haven’t you reserved any blessing for me” (Genesis 27:36)? What his father musters for him sounds quite meager:

Your dwelling will be away from the earth’s richness, away from the dew of heaven above. You will live by the sword and you will serve your brother. But when you grow restless, you will throw his yoke from off your neck. (Genesis 27:39-40)

This seems more like a curse than a blessing! Isolation from others and subordination to a scorned sibling hardly sound enticing. And yet, embedded in this “blessing” is a glimmer of hope: “But when you grow restless, you will throw off his yoke from your neck.” When Esau first hears these words, he immediately interprets them as a license for violence. In the very next verse, we find Esau looking forward to his father’s imminent death and saying to himself: “The days of mourning for my father are near; then I will kill my brother Jacob” (Genesis 27:41). Murder is how Esau believes that he will throw off the yoke of his brother’s betrayal.

But things don’t turn out the way Esau plots them.

Instead, Jacob, learning of his brother’s secret plot, flees. Over five decades pass before they see each other again. But when they finally do, the scene is moving:

Esau ran to meet Jacob and embraced him; he threw his arms around his neck and kissed him. And they wept. (Genesis 33:4)

At first, Esau believed that he would be able to throw off the yoke of his brother’s betrayal by exacting vengeance from him. But, it turns out, he was only able to throw off the yoke of his brother’s betrayal by forgiving him.

As the holidays approach, many of us have family members – or others – by whom we may feel betrayed. Perhaps this is the time of year to trade a weak hope for vengeance for a better blessing of forgiveness. This is the only way the yoke of the betrayal someone has committed against you can truly be removed from you. This is what Esau learned, and this is the way Jesus shows.

It turns out Esau received a pretty good blessing after all.

November 9, 2020 at 5:15 am 1 comment

“Let us” vs. “I will”

Pieter Bruegel the Elder - The Tower of Babel (Vienna) - Google Art Project - edited.jpg
The Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel (c. 1563) / Wikipedia

Human arrogance is nothing new. It’s as old as sin itself. Adam and Eve, after all, were tempted into sin by a delusion of grandeur – if they broke a command of God, they could “be like God” (Genesis 3:5).

Another early instance of human arrogance comes in the form of an infamous building project:

Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. As people moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there. They said to each other, “Come, let us make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.” (Genesis 11:1-4)

The arrogance of humanity in this project can be summed up in two words:

“Let us.”

“Let us make bricks and bake them thoroughly,” they say. “Let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves,” they plan. They believe that there is nothing they can’t do. They don’t need God when they have a “Let us.”

When God discovers the people’s plot, He stops them by confusing their language so they can no longer communicate with each other, which is why we now call this building project “Babel – because there the LORD confused the language of the whole world” (Genesis 11:9). But God does not merely judge these people by confusing their communication. He does something else. He does something more. He tries something better.

In the very next chapter of Genesis, God calls a man named Abraham and says to him:

Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you. I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you. (Genesis 12:1-3)

God is not only promising to bless Abraham here, He is also working to undo the calamity of Babel by responding to humanity’s arrogant “Let us” with two words of His own:

“I will.”

“I will give you a new land,” God explains. “I will make you into a great nation,” God declares.

On the one hand, the words “I will” can trouble us, because what God will do always outdoes and overcomes what we might want to do. On the other hand, these words of God are a great promise for us. They remind us that our accomplishments, our worth, and our lives are not in our hands. We do not live by what we do. We live because of what God has done – and will do – for us.

At a time like this, the temptation to say “Let us” can become overwhelming. “Let us get a raise so we can live more comfortably.” “Let us airbrush our lives on social media so we can present ourselves perfectly.” “Let us win this presidential election so we can beat our opponents into submission politically.” What we need most at a moment like this, however, is not another “Let us.” We need God’s “I will.” “I will provide for you.” “I will grant you My perfect righteousness.” “I will be your perfect king and your loving heavenly Father.” His “I will” always works better than our “Let us.”

The One who calls you is faithful, and He will do it. (1 Thessalonians 5:24)

October 26, 2020 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

A Hug of Forgiveness

It was the hug felt round the world.

When Brandt Jean, the 18-year-old brother of Botham Jean, who was murdered by Amber Guyger, asked if he could hug his brother’s killer, the courtroom flooded with tears.  Mr. Jean’s hug capped an extraordinary – and, honestly, supernatural – expression of love, compassion, and forgiveness toward Ms. Guyger.  When Mr. Jean first took the stand last Wednesday, he was supposed to, following Ms. Guyger’s conviction, offer a victim impact statement – something common in cases like these.  But Mr. Jean’s impact statement was unlike any other and is worth recounting in full:

If you truly are sorry, I know I can speak for myself, I forgive you. And I know if you go to God and ask Him, He will forgive you.

And I don’t think anyone can say it – again I’m speaking for myself and not on behalf of my family – but I love you just like anyone else.

And I’m not going to say I hope you rot and die, just like my brother did, but I personally want the best for you. And I wasn’t going to ever say this in front of my family or anyone, but I don’t even want you to go to jail. I want the best for you, because I know that’s exactly what Botham would want you to do.

And the best would be: give your life to Christ.

I’m not going to say anything else. I think giving your life to Christ would be the best thing that Botham would want you to do.

Again, I love you as a person. And I don’t wish anything bad on you.

I don’t know if this is possible, but can I give her a hug, please? Please?

I’m not sure how he did it, but Mr. Jean managed to honor his brother’s memory, extend forgiveness to his brother’s killer, and invite her to trust in Christ, all in a matter of moments.

This was a complicated case.  Ms. Guyger claimed she shot Botham Jean because she believed she was entering her apartment while accidentally entering his.  When she saw him, she thought he was an intruder and was afraid, so she shot him.  At the same time, there was plenty of evidence introduced at the trial to call into question her character.  She, herself a police officer, was having an affair with another married officer, to whom she also sent several racially tinged text messages.  Then, she shot an unarmed black man.  There were plenty of reasons Mr. Jean could have been suspicious of her and angry at her.  Instead, he decided to extend forgiveness to her.

As conversations about Mr. Jean’s offer of forgiveness have ricocheted across cable news networks, I heard one commentator worry that Mr. Jean had extended to Ms. Guyger “cheap grace.”  I would respectfully disagree.  There’s nothing cheap about the grace Mr. Jean extended to Ms. Guyger.  The grace Mr. Jean extended came at the cost of his brother.  And there’s nothing more valuable than a life.

But, I suppose, this is the way grace always works.  For the grace that God extends to us comes at the cost of God’s Son.  And there’s nothing more valuable than His life.

There’s a lot of pain – especially along racial lines – that has bubbled to the surface because of this murder.  Ms. Guyger’s ten-year sentence feels to many like justice denied.  And make no mistake about it: justice is important.  Crime and time go together appropriately and importantly.  But it also must be understood that what Mr. Jean offered in that courtroom was not injustice.  It was something totally outside of justice.  It was Jesus.

To Mr. Jean, I offer my condolences.  What happened to your brother is not only tragic, but sinful.  But to Mr. Jean, I also offer my thanks.  For what you did in offering forgiveness was not only inspirational, it was incarnational.  You brought Jesus into that courtroom with you.  And a whole nation noticed.

October 7, 2019 at 5:15 am 2 comments

Lamentation and Restoration

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Lament is not something at which we, as a culture, are particularly skilled. Our carefully curated posts on social media often show only the best moments of our lives, any pain being artfully disguised behind filtered photos of smiling faces in exotic places. At funerals, we often hear about how a deceased loved one would not want those left behind to cry. Instead, they would only want a celebration! And, of course, there is the ubiquitous answer to the ubiquitous question, “How are you?” Any answer other than “fine” may draw some disinterested eye rolls. After all, the question is not really a request for information, but the product of polite social expectation. Lament is not something at which we, as a culture, are particularly skilled.

And yet, in the Bible, there is a whole book called “Lamentations.” It describes the despair and despondency of the Israelites after their nation falls into the hands of the Babylonians and they are carried off from their homes into exile. The book opens with a haunting picture:

How deserted lies the city, once so full of people! How like a widow is she, who once was great among the nations! She who was queen among the provinces has now become a slave. (Lamentations 1:1)

The capital city of Israel, Jerusalem, once the center of Israel’s life, now lies abandoned. So Israel laments.

But Israel does not just lament over an empty city. Israel also laments over her own sin, for she knows that her exile is a divine punishment for her rebellion:

Jerusalem has sinned greatly and so has become unclean. All who honored her despise her, for they have all seen her naked; she herself groans and turns away. Her filthiness clung to her skirts; she did not consider her future. Her fall was astounding; there was none to comfort her. (Lamentations 1:8-9) 

In very picturesque language, Israel describes the blight of her sin and the resulting plight of her people. It is brutal.

So, what is Israel’s way forward? Is this the end of her story? We know the answer is “no.” She, however, is not so sure. Lamentations ends like this:

Restore us to Yourself, LORD, that we may return; renew our days as of old unless You have utterly rejected us and are angry with us beyond measure. (Lamentations 5:21-22)

Israel is hoping for God’s grace, but she is not sure of God’s grace. She wonders if God has not rejected her forever.

Ancient Israel is not the only one who sometimes doubts God’s grace. We do, too. I have talked to many people over my years in ministry who struggle to believe that God’s grace could be for them. Their guilt feels too heavy. Their sin seems too deep. They truly wonder if God would ever, or even could ever, help people like them.

When Jesus is speaking with His disciples, He says to them, “The Son of Man must suffer much and be rejected” (Mark 9:12). And Jesus is rejected – on a cross. He is rejected by men and, ultimately, by God as He takes on Himself the sins of the world – all of the things that God rejects. But because God rejected Jesus then, we have the promise that He will not reject us now. He will always restore us, even when we fall into sin. He will always invite us to return, no matter how far we stray. We have no reason to wonder about God’s grace. It is for us.

Lamentations ends with a doubt about whether or not a nation’s sin can be forgiven. We, however, have received a confident answer to that doubt in Christ. There is no sin too great for grace.

September 23, 2019 at 5:15 am 1 comment

Grace in the Wilderness

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Credit: Angelique Downing from Burst

There are some incredible words the Lord speaks through the prophet Jeremiah:

The people who survived the sword found grace in the wilderness. (Jeremiah 31:2)

These words are written for Israel while Israel is in crisis – when she is being defeated and decimated by the Babylonians who will carry her people into exile.  While Israel is at her worst, then, God says to her, “In a place you might least expect it – the wilderness that is your exile – you will find My grace.”

God’s people have a history of finding grace in wilderness. When the Lord led the children of Israel out of slavery in Egypt, He led them into the wilderness, where they received grace upon grace. A miracle at the Red Sea. Manna and quail from the heavens. Water to drink from a rock. There was grace there in that wilderness.

When God decided it was time to send a Savior, His coming was announced in where else, but the wilderness:

In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when he said, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord; make His paths straight.’” (Matthew 3:1-3)

The grace of God’s kingdom was being announced in the wilderness.

And when the Savior did arrive, where did He go to begin His public ministry? Into the wilderness, of course:

Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. (Matthew 4:1)

While Jesus may have been tempted by the devil, He did not succumb to the devil. He defeated the devil and his temptations so that there may be grace for everyone who does not fare so well under temptation.

I think sometimes we might prefer to find grace in places other than the wilderness. In the lushness of an awesome spiritual experience, perhaps, where we feel the warmth of God’s love surrounding us. Or in the comforts of an abundance of material possessions, perhaps, where we can breezily and easily praise God for the amazing things He has given to us.

God can show us grace through these things, but this does not mean He only shows us grace through these things.

Sometimes, grace comes to us in the wilderness. Like when we feel spiritually cold inside and all we can do is cling to God’s Word. Or when our pocketbooks feel strapped and our savings accounts are depleted all we have is God’s promise of daily bread.

Sometimes, grace comes to us in the wilderness.

This should not surprise us. For God’s grace was most fully expressed on some rough-hewn timbers, cut down from the wilderness of ancient Israel. Grace did not feel good to Jesus. But the grace of the cross is the greatest grace there is.

So, don’t let a time in the wilderness crush you. There is grace there because Jesus is there. If there’s one place He knows, it’s there. And if there’s one person He wants, it’s you.

September 2, 2019 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Who Is God’s Enemy?

Screen Shot 2018-10-03 at 3.13.48 PM

There is a fascinating exchange between Joshua and an unnamed man right before he fights the battle at Jericho.  As Joshua is nearing the city and mustering his troops, he looks up and sees a man with a sword drawn in his hand.  He asks him, “Are you for us or for our enemies?”  The man replies, “Neither, but as a commander of the army of the LORD I have now come” (Joshua 5:13-14).

This exchange, though somewhat cryptic, is extremely revelatory.  In this exchange, this man reveals who He is.  He is part neither of Israel’s army nor of the army of Israel’s enemy.  Instead, He commands the forces of God Almighty.  In other words, He is not just a man.  He is divine.  This is why this commander echoes the words that God speaks to Joshua’s predecessor, Moses, from a burning bush.  “Take of your sandals,” this commander says to Joshua, “for the place where you are standing is holy” (Joshua 5:15).  This commander speaks the same words God once spoke to Moses because He Himself is God, who is now speaking to Joshua.

But the revelation that is given to Joshua in this man does not end here.  For this man reveals not only who God is, but who God cares about.  Before one of the biggest battles in Israel’s history, this commander comes to Joshua and tells him that He is not somehow blindly for Israel and against Jericho.  But neither is he for Jericho and against Israel.  Instead, He is for God who, ultimately, is for all.  It is indeed true that God does rain down His wrath on Jericho’s sin in this story.  But this does not mean that He does not love Jericho’s people.  God is much more interested in saving people than in siding against them.

In our current milieu, I think it can be all too easy to forget that God cares about not only us, but those who we call “enemies.”  But if we took the time to actually ask Him, “Are you for us or for our enemies?” God’s answer might just surprise us.  It might just be, “Neither.”  God is much more interested in loving the world than He is in making enemies.

The next time you are tempted to hate your enemy, remember this commander’s interaction with Joshua.  And remember the admonition of Jesus: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44).  And, most importantly, remember the action of Jesus: “While we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to Him through the death of His Son” (Romans 5:10).  Paul says that God’s enemy, before the cross, was you.  So, ask yourself, “How did God treat me when I was His enemy?”

Go and do likewise with your enemy.

October 8, 2018 at 5:15 am 1 comment

Character and Civics

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Credit: Wikipedia

The economy is booming.  There is hearty hope for a diplomatic breakthrough between the United States and North Korea.  Pressure is mounting on Iran to come clean about its nuclear ambitions.  And the President of the United States is embroiled in a controversy over whether or not campaign finance laws were violated when his personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, paid an adult film actress, Stormy Daniels, $130,000 during the closing days of the 2016 election to, ostensibly, keep her quiet about an affair she now claims to have had with Mr. Trump in 2006.

If the accusations against President Trump are true, this episode is morally disquieting – and not just because campaign finance laws were potentially broken.  Not only that, the responses to this episode are themselves morally disquieting.  Many who are opposed to the president see this episode as a convenient way to defeat a political enemy.  The moral turpitude of what has allegedly happened is merely a pretext for a political power grab.  Others, who are aligned with the president, are quick to cast the allegations against him as nothing more than a witch hunt.  Even if they suspect the charges might be true, they calculate that sexual immorality is a small – and, I would add, historical – price to pay for the power of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Whatever your political proclivities, these accusations present Christians with much to ponder.  On the one hand, it is important for us to remember that character still matters in our leaders.  All the way back in the sixteenth century, Niccolo Machiavelli famously argued that political leaders do not need actual virtue.  They simply need to project the appearance of virtue:

It’s seeming to be virtuous that helps; as, for example, seeming to be compassionate, loyal, human, honest, and religious.[1]

This is nonsense.  Appearing to be virtuous while not actually being virtuous is, plainly and simply, hypocrisy – a sin that Jesus fiercely and consistently condemns.  Hypocrisy in virtue is not only immoral; it also is dangerous.  If a person cannot lead himself by cultivating in himself basic virtues, he will struggle to lead others as well as he could.  Self-leadership is a necessary prerequisite for other-leadership.

This is certainly not to say that our leaders need to be perfect – no leader is, has been, or ever will be.  But it is certainly preferable that our leaders be self-aware.  Self-awareness cultivates both humility and curiosity – humility over how one has fallen short and curiosity about how one can grow in competence and character.

At the same time it is necessary to encourage character in our leaders, it is also important demand character in ourselves.  A critical part of personal character development, according to Jesus, is to carefully consider our own shortcomings before we address the iniquity of others.  Jesus explains it like this:

Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, “Let me take the speck out of your eye,” when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.  (Matthew 7:3-5)

Notice that Jesus does not prohibit holding others accountable for their specks of sin, but He first wants us to hold ourselves accountable for our own planks of peccancy.  Understanding and addressing our own struggles with sin gives us both wisdom and empathy to help others in their tussles with transgression.

Over the years, as I have watched the dialogue that unfolds during scandals involving the character of our public officials, I have come to suspect that at least a segment of our population doesn’t care too much about helping the people involved.  Instead, it only cares about maximizing the power it has.  Depending on one’s political preferences, maintaining or overturning the power of this or that politician becomes the driving and deciding factor in how some people respond to any given moral crisis.  When this happens, we’re not really defending our politicians, even if we like them, or honoring them, as the Bible instructs.  We’re simply using them.  And that’s a character crisis in us that, though it may not make the headlines, should certainly serve as food for thought in our hearts.

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[1] Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince, Tim Parks, trans. (New York:  Penguin Books, 2009).

May 7, 2018 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

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