Wednesday, October 05, 2022

The Battle for Faithfulness Is Won or Lost in an Instant

photo by krakenimages on Unsplash

We’ve been studying Proverbs in Sunday school lately, and a few weeks back we were talking about all the teachings in the book that have to do with curbing our reactivity.

For instance, Proverbs 15:28:

The righteous heart reflects before answering,
    but the wicked mouth blurts out evil.

Do you know someone (maybe it's you!) with a wicked habit of just blurting things out, without pausing to consider how their words might be harsh, hurtful, or inappropriate? "Before answering" indicates that this proverbs is about how we respond to others. Righteousness means resisting that sort of unbridled reaction to the words and actions of others.

Or, think about Proverbs 14:17:

A quick-tempered person does foolish things,
    and the one who devises evil schemes is hated.

Other sayings, like Proverbs 15:18 or 22:24, describe a “hot-tempered” person, but 14:17 (and 14:29) singles out the quick-tempered, those with short fuses, who rapidly react to any provocation with anger. That kind of reactivity results in foolish acts. I’m sure we’ve all experienced that.

Proverbs like these made me realize something. The battle for faithfulness is often won or lost in the instant between someone else’s words or actions and my response. And the briefer that moment is, the more likely that my worst impulses will carry the day. If I’m quick-tempered, if I blurt something out without first pausing to reflect, foolishness and evil will inevitably result. But if I can just restrain my reactivity for a second, that creates an opportunity for my better judgment, my convictions, and the Holy Spirit to have some input. Then there’s a chance that I’ll overlook an insult (12:16) and offer a gentle answer (15:1), or even bless those who curse me (Luke 6:28).

All that to say, one of the greatest victories a Christian can win on the road to holiness and loving a neighbor is developing the ability to bite your tongue. If you can just restrain the knee-jerk reaction, a world of holy possibilities opens up. Sure, after a pause you may still offer a (now carefully considered) vicious retort. The goal is to blurt out kindness, understanding, encouragement, and forgiveness, for such things to become your knee-jerk reaction, but developing new habits like these takes time and a lot of practice. And learning a new way, retraining your tongue to respond with grace and gentleness, is only possible after reactivity is taken out of the equation.

So, practice biting your tongue today. Stretch out that instant before your response. It might not sound like much, but that’s a real victory. Reactivity breeds sinful speech: we’ve all been on the receiving end of it, and we’ve all perpetrated it. But if we focus our efforts on that instant when our reactions erupt, maybe we can open the door to a different kind of speech, that’s “gracious, seasoned with salt.” (Col 4:6) Maybe we can begin to bless the people around us with the thoughtful responses of a righteous heart. 

Wednesday, September 28, 2022

Go to the Source

A while back, I was in a Bible study where we discussed 2 Samuel chapter 16. King David’s son Absalom has just seized the throne, and the aging king suddenly finds himself on the run. Before he escaped Jerusalem, however, David deployed a double agent: his faithful confidant Hushai will offer to serve Absalom and undermine the wise counsel of Absalom’s other advisors (15:32-37).

Chapter 16 opens with another report of treachery: Mephibosheth, the grandson of King Saul, to whom David had shown much kindness, has supposedly abandoned the king in hopes of seizing power for himself —a report Mephibosheth will later deny, in chapter 19.

We then meet Shimei, a supporter of the house of Saul, who’s hurling curses and rocks at the fugitive monarch (16:5-6). Some of his troops are ready to remove Shimei’s head for the offense, but David tells them to leave him be. Maybe, the king speculates, these curses are from the Lord.

The whole scene is clouded with uncertainty: What’s true, and what’s a lie? Who can you trust? What is God up to? Which side is the Lord really on here? The characters grope through the uncertainty by relying on messengers and counsellors, or by just making their best guesses.

One thing that no one does is consult the Lord. There are no prayers offered, no prophets called in. No one goes to the source. David is navigating uncharted waters, but he’s trying to do it without his Compass.

So often, uncertainty is the water we swim in. Your health, your finances, your relationships, your job, your plans and dreams—all of it can change in a moment. When it does, how do you navigate those uncharted waters?

Do you fall back on familiar habits and old assumptions?

Do you ask a friend or family member for advice?

Do you go with your gut, rely on instinct, and act decisively without much consideration?

Do you go to the source and consult your Compass?

No doubt David was preoccupied and flustered while he abandoned his capitol and fled for his life. That’s understandable! And the demands of the moment are often all you can see. What David didn’t realize, however, is that these moments demand prayer. They demand the guidance of God’s Spirit, inquiring of the scriptures, and searching for divine wisdom.

When you find yourself unsure of what’s ahead or where to turn, I hope you’ll remember that we have a Lord who, as David wrote, leads us beside still waters and in the paths of righteousness (Ps 23:2-3). If you’re uncertain of the right way to go or how to find peace in the midst of life’s conflicts and chaos, don’t forget, in the bustle and stress of the moment, to turn to your Shepherd. Go to the source. You may not immediately see a way through the confusion or feel like you’re relaxing in green pastures, but, then again, you might.

And if you don’t pause to seek God in those moments, how are you expecting to hear the “still small voice” over the hubbub?

Wednesday, September 21, 2022

The Faith to Forgive

“Faith like a mustard seed.”

It’s a famous phrase. It’s an encouraging image: you don’t have to have faith like a boulder or a Mack truck or a redwood. A mustard seed will do—and mustard seeds are about the size of the round head on a straight pin.

You see that phrase pop up twice in the gospels, in Matthew 17 and in Luke 17. Matthew tells the story of a demon-possessed boy whom the disciples weren’t able to heal. When Jesus is told, he promptly exorcizes the fiend, leading the disciples to ask him: “Why could we not cast it out?” Jesus replies:

“Because of your little faith. For truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.” (17:20-21)

With just a tiny amount of faith, one can accomplish incredible things, move mountains.

That’s Matthew.

I noticed recently that the way the phrase shows up in Luke is very different. Jesus’s actual words are pretty similar, though he goes for a more modest illustration:

The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” The Lord replied, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.” (17:5-6)

The big difference in Luke is the context of the teaching. In Matthew, the disciples didn’t have enough faith to perform an exorcism, and I can’t say that I blame them. But what leads them to plead “Increase our faith” in Luke’s version?

It's Jesus’s teaching on forgiveness.

“If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive. And if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive.”

The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” (17:3-5)

If forgiving someone—especially a repeat offender—feels like a small miracle to you, almost like moving a mountain, you’re not alone. The disciples felt the same way. And according to the Great Physician, the prescription is the same for forgiving someone as for driving out demons: you need a mustard seed of faith.

If forgiveness is a struggle for you, I think Jesus, Peter, and the rest understand.

But, at the same time, if forgiveness is a struggle for you, don’t think that it’s insurmountable. You don’t need a boulder or Mack truck or redwood of faith to do this. You don’t. All you need is a mustard seed. Maybe just enough faith to say ‘Lord, help me at least want to want to forgive him’. Or the faith to pray, ‘Lord, I hate her, but bless her family today.’ 

That’s a tiny start. 

But a mustard seed’s a tiny seed. The whole point of the phrase is that God can do much when we can only do very little.

So what tiny, mustard-seed-sized step can you take towards forgiveness today? Because Jesus assures us that the Lord can make miracles out of that.

Wednesday, September 14, 2022

Salvation Starts Now

If I have time in the mornings before two precious little girls wake up and demand Daddy’s attention, I sometimes will pray through a morning prayer service on an app on my phone. These services always include readings from the Psalms, and so recently I found myself, in the quiet of early morning in the living room, reading Psalm 56. I was trying to listen, to let the scriptures tell me what God wanted me to hear, instead of what Nance wanted to hear. I don’t know how successful I was, though, because the verse that jumped out at me reminded me of one of my favorite gospel truths.

Unto you, O God, will I pay my vows;

   unto you will I give thanks.

For you have delivered my soul from death

   and my feet from stumbling,

that I may walk before God

   in the light of the living. (56:12-13)

The promises of the gospel are vast. Typically, however, in my experience, churches squeeze this vast good news into one, inadequate headline: forgiveness of sins means you can have eternal life. In the words of the psalm, “you have delivered my soul from death.”

What’s inadequate about that message?

It’s gloriously true, but it’s tragically incomplete.

Just look at the rest of Psalm 56:13: “you have delivered my soul from death and my feet from stumbling.” We are very familiar with the gospel truth that Jesus wants to save people from the consequences of their sins. But Jesus doesn’t only save us from sin’s consequences: he also saves us from sin’s power over our lives. He keeps our feet from stumbling.

In other words, the gospel isn’t just good news about a happy ending when this life is over. It’s also good news about a new beginning right here, right now. Jesus can give us eternal life hereafter, but he can also give us new life in the present. The Lord’s saving power doesn’t finally kick in when you die: you can walk before God in the light of the living. You can be saved from sin today.

That’s good news because it means your life doesn’t have to be this way. The hurtful routines you’ve gotten into with your family, the secret habits you can’t seem to kick, that unwise financial decision you just keep making, that grudge you can’t seem to let go of, those gaslighting denials you instinctively issue at work or at home—your life doesn’t have to be this way. Jesus can save you from sin’s grip. He can make you new.

Don’t settle for a partial gospel. Don’t wait until you’re dead to look to the grace of God to save you.

Jesus wants to deliver you from sin today. Salvation can start now.

Here’s a prayer for today:

Lord Jesus, I don’t think I can save myself from my rotten thoughts, self-serving routines, and serrated words. By the power of your Holy Spirit, rescue me from the attitudes and behaviors that I can’t get rid of on my own. Jump start some new, holier habits in my life today. Guide me into a life that’s healthier for my heart and soul and a greater blessing to the people around me. Save me, Jesus. Amen.

Wednesday, September 07, 2022

The Gift of Rest

This past Sunday I preached on keeping the Sabbath, and, as I was prepping the sermon, I kept going back to a fantastic chapter in pastor Rich Villodas’s book, The Deeply Formed Life: Five Transformative Values to Root Us in the Way of Jesus.

I kept going back to that chapter… but I didn’t use any of it in the sermon. So, I thought I’d share a couple of things from the cutting room floor with y’all.

I mentioned Sunday that, for me, the key to Jesus’s understanding of the Sabbath comes in Mark 2:27, when he says, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” Or, like the NLT puts it, “The Sabbath was made to meet the needs of people, and not people to meet the requirements of the Sabbath.” One of those needs is the rest that Jesus offers in Matthew 11:28: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”

And Rich Villodas does a wonderful job describing Sabbath practices that are aimed at meeting the needs of people and creating opportunities for rest.

He starts with a definition: “Sabbath keeping is a weekly twenty-four hour period of unhurried delight with no have-tos or ought-tos, resulting in deep rest and renewal.” (29)

Do you know that feeling of calm that comes when you mark the last thing off your to-do list? When you realize that there are no more responsibilities or deadlines looming over you? If Sabbath time is going to be restful, renewing, a time of unhurried delight, then it must be time when the to-do list is blank or at least set aside. Jesus cannot give us rest if we aren’t willing to set down the things that have us so weary and burdened.

Now, imagine you go to lunch with an old friend, and before you know it, they’ve told the waitress to bring them the ticket. You weren’t looking for this kindness, you tell them that you’ll pay for your own meal, but they insist. At that point, you know there’s no use arguing, and you just accept their gift and say “Thank you.” I’m sure you’ve been in a situation like that before, where you finally had to give up and accept someone’s gift.

Sometimes we’re reluctant to let go of the busyness and our have-tos and ought-tos. Maybe you take pride in your busyness and like to brag about your overloaded schedule. Maybe you feel a tinge of guilt if you find yourself relaxing when there are still things that you could be working on. But there will always be more you could have done or another thing you could get a head start on. There will always be some argument against resting.

But Jesus says, “I insist.”

There’s no use arguing with him. It’s time to accept the gift of rest he has for you and just say “Thank you.”

When’s the last time you didn’t have a to-do list hanging over your head?

Do you ever spend a day resting, when you aren't trying to accomplish anything?

What can you do to make space for “unhurried delight” in your schedule this week?

Wednesday, August 31, 2022

The Value of a Second Opinion

A while back I was reading through 2 Chronicles, and I was struck by a scene in chapter 18.

Judah’s King Jehoshaphat (yes, as in, “jumping Jehoshaphat!”) was visiting King Ahab of Israel, who wanted to form a military alliance with his southern neighbor. Jehoshaphat immediately agrees to join forces with Israel, but he has one request: “first, let’s see what the Lord has to say.” (18:4) So the kings summon 400 prophets and ask “Should we go to war or not?” The prophets are all in agreement: Attack, and God will give you victory!

This is where things get interesting. Rather than accepting this encouraging response, Jehoshaphat asks Ahab, “Isn’t there any other prophet of the Lord around whom we could ask?” (18:6) They’ve already gotten a unanimous and enthusiastic answer from the prophets—and, considering they will eventually go to war, presumably that was the answer they wanted to hear. And yet Jehoshaphat still seeks out an alternative point of view, one that he probably won’t like.

Proverbs 15:22, attributed to Jehoshaphat’s great-great-grandfather, Solomon, says that “Plans fail for lack of counsel, but with many advisers they succeed.” I think, in this story, Jehoshaphat recognized something that’s left unsaid in the proverb: an abundance of counsel is no help if we only listen to people who will affirm us and never challenge us. A lack of diverse counsel is a lack of counsel. These kings had already heard what they wanted to here, and yet Judah was not ready to proceed until they had considered another perspective.

This struck me because a willingness to listen to alternative points of view is sorely lacking in America today. We’re combative rather than curious. Instead of seeing different perspectives as understandable or in any way helpful, we tend to label people with different views harshly: they’re hateful, ignorant, stupid, evil. People who don’t agree with me on X, Y, or Z simply don’t have anything valuable to say.

Jehoshaphat, one of the rare good kings after David and Solomon, models a different approach to disagreement: listening to other voices is beneficial, something that can better inform our decision-making.

Eventually they consult the prophet Micaiah, who is clearly not King Ahab’s favorite adviser. Micaiah warns them, accurately, that Israel’s king will die on the battlefield. They launch their attack anyways. Jehoshaphat didn’t agree with the lone dissenter, but he still heard him out.

To me, this is part of what it means to be “quick to listen, slow to speak” (James 1:19). When we prioritize listening, the people around us can feel seen and valued. But, as if that weren’t enough, being “quick to listen” also benefits the listener: it’s a habit that will challenge us and give us a greater “depth of insight” (Phil 1:9) as we hear ideas and perspectives that we otherwise would avoid. To me, this is a sign of maturity and wisdom that we all need to strive for.

Do you see different opinions as valuable?

Do you take time to listen to other perspectives on things or automatically dismiss people who don’t agree with you?

How do you imagine Jesus approached this?

Wednesday, August 24, 2022

Come to Me

Recently I was listening to an interview with a pastor I respect, Scott Sauls, and he said something that I’ve been sitting with ever since. He pointed out that, “Long before Jesus says ‘go for me’, he says ‘come to me’.”

The classic “go for me” verses that immediately come to my mind are in the final chapter of Matthew’s gospel, the Great Commission in Matthew 28:19-20:

Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.

The first “come to me” verse that I think of is seventeen chapters earlier, Matthew 11:28:

Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.

It’s even farther back, in Matthew chapter 4, when Jesus first calls his disciples to “come.” (4:19)

Before Jesus says ‘go for me’, he says, ‘come to me.’

Come to me.

The foundation of our discipleship and of our faith is being with Jesus. Everything else, every belief, act of service, or word of witness, has to be built on that. 

And when we skip over that foundational work of connecting with Christ, the results are disastrous.

A lot of people whom we want to “make disciples” are approached by Christians every day—in person, or on social media—in ways that are belligerent and lack the “gentleness and respect” (1 Pet 3:15) that Jesus’s followers are called to exhibit. You know what I’m talking about. Christians presenting what’s supposed to be “good news” are often argumentative, dismissive, demeaning, and scornful.

Maybe you’ve been guilty of that before. I know I have.

Perhaps the problem is, we’re going out on mission without first taking the time to be transformed in the presence of Jesus. We’re ‘going for’ without first ‘coming to’. And we end up doing the gospel message no favors. “Jesus loves you and wants to change your life!” isn’t very appealing when the person saying it doesn’t seem to love you, and you hope your life never looks like theirs.

But there’s a simple enough fix for this: Come to him. Be with him. Prioritize that time, every single day. Resist the temptation to rush out into every battle for the faith—don’t rush into any battle for the faith!—if you aren’t first coming to Jesus for that time together.

Maybe then, by the grace of God, we could stop showing the world how bad we can be and start showing the world how good Christ is.