Trust and integrity. Over and over again, I have seen in my life and in the lives of others that when trust goes down integrity tends to decline as well, but when trust holds strong integrity also holds firm.
That’s what we see in Abram in Genesis 12.
When God called Abram away from Ur and Haran, promising to make a great name for Abram, and promising to bless Abram and to make his name great, and promising to bless those who bless Abram and to curse the one who curses him, and promising to bless all the families of the earth through Abram, Abram traveled forth to Canaan building altars to the Lord along the way. But then a severe famine comes upon the land, and Abram’s trust in God begins to falter. Though God had promised Abram that he would give the land of Canaan to Abram’s offspring, Abram doubts that God can get him through the famine. God had led Abram to Canaan and promised the land there to him, but Abram decides to take himself down to Egypt instead. Upon arriving in Egypt, Abram doubts that God can protect him from Egyptians who may want his wife, so he says to her, “I know well that you are a woman beautiful in appearance; and when the Egyptians see you, they will say, ‘This is his wife;’ then they will kill me, but thy will let you live. Say you are my sister, so that it may go well with me because of you, and that my life may be spared on your account” (Genesis 12:11-13). This is where we see a tragic collapse in Abram’s integrity—passing his wife off as his sister, “so that it may go well with me because of you.”
Trust and integrity are both essential qualities in the life of a believer, but both qualities slip away from Abram.
In his book In Two Minds, Os Guinness points out that the Latin word for doubt, dubitare, comes from an Aryan root meaning “two.” Guinness writes, “To believe is to be ‘in one mind’ about accepting something as true; to disbelieve is to be ‘in one mind’ about rejecting it. To doubt is to waver between the two, to believe and doubt at once, and so to be ‘in two minds.’”
That’s what happened to Abram, and he did not do well when he was in two minds.
John C. Maxwell writes, “William H. Hinson tells us why animal trainers carry a stool when they go into a cage of lions. They have their whips, of course, and their pistols are at their sides. But invariably they also carry a stool. Hinson says it is the most important tool of the trainer. He holds the stool by the back and thrusts the legs toward the face of the wild animal. Those who know maintain that the animal tries to focus on all four legs at once. In the attempt to focus on all four, a kind of paralysis overwhelms the animal, and it becomes tame, weak, and disabled because its attention is fragmented.”
Sadly, that’s what becomes of Abram. Torn between trust and distrust, he becomes weak, and his integrity crumbles.
Frederick Buechner observes, “Doubts prove that we are in touch with reality, with the things that threaten faith as well as with things that nourish it. If we are not in touch with reality, then our faith is apt to be blind, fragile, and irrelevant.”
Life, by its very nature, provides plentiful opportunities for us to be put in touch with reality. How will we respond? In the midst of troubling circumstances, will our faith hold firm, and will our integrity hold strong? Or will our trust decline and our integrity deteriorate?
Spiritually and emotionally, we can all trace our roots back to Abram. We all come from someone who left his and/or her home and homeland looking for or being dragged to a new life in a new land. The reasons vary. On my father’s side, my great great grandfather fled England in shame after killing a fellow boxer in a bare knuckle boxing match. On my mother’s side, more than two centuries ago, my ancestors were forcibly moved from Scotland to Ireland, then they left poverty in Ireland seeking greater promise in the North American colonies.
No matter one’s race or ethnicity, everyone in this country can trace our origins back to someone who came here from somewhere else.
Scripture provides a small but important part of the reason why Abram left Ur of the Chaldeans for a new life in a new land. Archaeology and history fill in a bit more of the story of what Abram left and why.
Ur, located 140 miles south of Babylon, at the intersection of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, was among the greatest cities in the world at the time of Abram. The city was dedicated to Nannar, the moon god, who was looked upon as the king and the landlord of the people. The farms and shops and wealth of the people of Ur were considered to be owned by Nannar. An entire quarter of the city of Ur was set apart for Nannar. One of the temples in Ur was called “The House of Great Plenty,” which housed Nannar’s sacred harem and was the site of temple prostitution. In some of the royal tombs in Ur, archaeologists found as many as 60 to 80 skeletal remains of escorts, guards, musicians and servants who were marched into the royal tombs with the deceased ruler so as to accompany the king or queen into the afterlife.
Though Ur was a center of commerce, culture and wealth, it was a city dedicated to a god who claimed ownership over everything the people had, where temple prostitution was a sacred part of worship, where human sacrifice was practiced, and where subjects of the king were expected to march into a tomb so as to be sealed in to their deaths as gifts to their monarch.
According to the “Law of Mathematics for a Hungry Dog,” if you see a dog with a rotten, poisonous bone in its mouth, and if you want to rescue that dog from the dangerous bone, the best thing to do is not to grab the bone and try to pull it away. That will only cause the dog to snarl and growl at you and bite into the toxic bone even tighter. If you are wise, you will throw a big, juice lamb chop to the dog. He will drop the poisonous bone immediately to grab the lamb chop. That’s where the mathematics comes in: To grab the lamb chop, he must let go of the deadly bone. To add the new, he must subtract the old.
In verses 2-3, God tells Abram the wonderful things He wants to add to Abram’s life: “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” But the mathematics of faith are like the mathematics for a hungry dog. It would be impossible for Abram to take hold of the blessings God was promising him if he continued to hold onto the gods and the practices and the poisonous mindsets he had lived with in Ur of the Chaldeans for seventy five years. To receive the blessings of the God who called him, Abram needed to let go of the things that stood in the way. He had to turn away from a false god who claimed ownership over everything that would come to Abram. He had to turn away from temple prostitution as a means of trying to activate the attention of the goddess of fertility. He had to turn away from the custom of human sacrifice—even child sacrifice—as the ultimate way of proving one’s devotion to a god.
What is it that we need to let go of to be able to take hold of the good God would give to us?
A study of the ensuing chapters of Genesis will reveal that God’s promised blessings will not come to Abram according to the time table Abram hopes for. A famine will drive Abram to Egypt. It will take another two and a half decades before the birth of the child which he and Sarai long for. But in the midst of it all, Abram’s intimacy with the living and loving God grows, and he becomes a great nation, and in him all the families of the earth are blessed.
Can we be patient enough and trusting enough to get through the tough times while waiting for the good that God will bring?
When we do something that hurts another, one of two things happens within us: Either our conscience bothers us or our conscience dies.
If our soul has not died, if our conscience is troubled by the wrong we have done, the guilt we feel goes in one of two directions: Either in the direction of unhealthy guilt or in the direction of heathy guilt.
Unhealthy guilt goes beyond convicting us of the wrong we have done. It fills us with shame and despair and self-loathing. It drives us to hide, to run away, to give up.
Healthy guilt faces the truth of what we have done and prompts us to set things right and to do better next time.
The devil is in the business of unhealthy guilt. He delights in filling us with shame, despair and self-loathing. It pleases him when he succeeds in getting us to hide or run away or give up.
Jesus, on the other hand, is in the business of healthy guilt. He is delighted when we face the truth about the wrong we have done and turn in the right direction.
To deny knowing a friend—three times—in their darkest moment is a deep disloyalty to and injustice to one’s friend. That’s what Peter did to Jesus.
After that, a battle began to take place in Peter between unhealthy guilt and healthy guilt. The unhealthy guilt stirred up within Peter a sense of shame and despair and self-loathing. Thinking himself no longer worthy to be a disciple—thinking himself to be incapable of being a credible witness on behalf of the one whom he denied—Peter runs away. He returns to his fishing. The devil must have been delighted with that!
But Jesus enters into the battle—and I love the way Jesus fights for Peter. Jesus fights for Peter without shaming Peter for going back to his fishing. He fights for Peter with a blessing, with a meal, with perseverance, with restoration, and with affirmation.
While Peter is fishing unsuccessfully, Jesus tells him to put the nets down on the right side of the boat. Suddenly, the nets fill with fish! Though Jesus wants Peter to leave his fishing, Jesus does not force Peter into a change of careers by putting a hole in his boat. Instead, Jesus pours out blessings on Peter.
Then they sit down to a meal together. Even after disowning Jesus, Jesus does not require Peter to do something first to re-earn the company of Jesus. Jesus simply sits down with Peter, gently and graciously meeting the needs of a hungry and estranged friend. This is all a part of Jesus’ strategy of moving Peter from unhealthy guilt to healthy guilt. It begins with loving and valuing Peter right where he is.
It’s what Jesus does with us, too. He comes to us. He meets us where we are. He loves and cares for us before we do anything to earn or re-earn his favor.
After the meal, Jesus tackles the elephant in the room: the wall of unaddressed sin and unhealthy guilt that stands in the way between Jesus and Peter. Jesus asks Peter—three times—“Do you love me?”
Some have argued that Jesus asked the question three times to match the number of times Peter denied knowing Jesus, as though Peter must make up for each sinful denial with a matching declaration of love for Jesus. But such reasoning goes against all of Biblical teaching on grace and forgiveness. According to Scripture, we are not forgiven because of penance we do to earn God’s forgiveness, but because of what Jesus did on the cross for us.
Part of the reason Jesus asks Peter three times has to do with the progression of the way the question is asked. First Jesus asks whether Peter loves him “more than these,” using the highest word for love in the Greek language. Next Jesus leaves off the comparison while still using the highest word for love. Finally, Jesus moves from agapao to phileo, a lighter word for love, more akin to “brotherly love.”
But I believe the more significant reason Jesus asks Peter three times is because he gently perseveres until he gets Peter to give more than a trite answer to a critical question. At first, Peter answers off the top. His answer does not penetrate deeply into his heart. But after gently, graciously and persistently pressing on with his questions, Jesus gets past the veneer to the deep, hurting places in Peter’s soul. The words Peter uses to answer the question are the same, “You know that I love you,” but now they come from the heart—the deep, aching part of Peter’s heart. That’s what Jesus wanted all along. That’s why he persevered with the questions. He pressed on to get to the deep and genuine place in Peter’s heart.
That is what God does with us as well, and that is the blessing of an aching conscience. An aching conscience is God’s way of getting us to the place where our hearts break over the wrong we have done. This is the beginning of repentance; it is the beginning of a changed life.
All the way through, Jesus kept reaffirming his call to Peter, for that was part of his battle plan against unhealthy guilt. The aim of healthy guilt is to move us from despair to restoration, and from giving up to re-engagement in the work of God.
As a result of Peter’s healthy guilt and restoration, Peter becomes a better person. He becomes a more humble person, more aware of his own weaknesses, more reliant on Christ to help him through each day, and better equipped to shepherd God’s people lovingly.
Mary Magdalene’s encounter with Jesus beside the tomb on the day of his resurrection matches well with the complex mix of emotions Christians continue to experience in the face of death. We find in this encounter the deep grief of death, the exhilarating hope of resurrection, and the agonizing wait for the joy of resurrection to reach fulfillment.
Grief: Out of the sleeplessness of grief, Mary hurries to Jesus’ tomb “while it was still dark.” At the tomb, we find her weeping and so distraught that she fails to recognize Jesus when first she sees him. She is in the morass of grief—the heartbreaking, pain-filled, despairing sorrow of losing one whom she loved.
What I love about John’s report of this incident (in John 20:11-18) is that we can find no trace of Mary being corrected for her behavior. There is never a suggestion that Mary should not have cried or that she should have trusted God more fully. John reports, with full acceptance, the depth of Mary’s bereavement because that’s what the death of a loved one does to us. Mary did what every sane person does in the face of death.
Earl Grollman stresses, “Grief is not a disorder, a disease or a sign of weakness. It is an emotional, physical and spiritual necessity, the price you pay for love. The only cure for grief is to grieve.”
Washington Irving adds, “There is a sacredness in tears. They are not the mark of weakness, but of power. They speak more eloquently than ten thousand tongues. They are the messengers of overwhelming grief, of deep contrition, and of unspeakable love.”
Hope: Suddenly, Jesus stands before her—or suddenly Mary recognizes Jesus as he stands before her—and Mary is overcome with the exhilaration of his resurrection. Never has such good news been shared with our world as when Jesus appeared before Mary with the announcement that death had been overcome.
Many years ago, Dr. Robert Hughes of the Lutheran Seminary in Philadelphia illustrated the significance of Jesus’ resurrection with a story about his father, who had been a coal-miner in northeastern Pennsylvania. Dr. Hughes’ father had the job of going down into the mines every morning before the other miners, to check the mines for methane gas. Every morning he would descend alone into the mines, taking with him the safety lamp, and he would begin to go through the darkened tunnels, checking each of the tunnels and shafts to make sure there was no deadly methane gas present. If the light of the safety lamp would begin to flicker, he would have to run for his life, because it would signal the presence of deadly gas. After checking the mine, he would rise to the surface, where all the miners gathered around waiting expectantly, and he would announce, “It’s okay; it’s safe. You can go down into the mine now.”
Dr. Hughes would explain, “That’s what Christ did for us. He came up out of the depths of death and announced to all who are gathered on earth, ‘It’s okay; it’s safe now. You can enter into death, into the darkness and the unknown. It is safe because I have made it safe. I have been there, and I have come back. It has not been victorious over me, but I have overcome it, and I will be with you in death, even as I have been with you in life!’”
Wait: In the midst of her excitement, Mary grabs hold of Jesus, but he says to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father.”
Jesus rose from the dead, but he was not going to remain on the earth, so she could not cling to him. Death was been conquered, but we do not yet get to enjoy the resurrection of our loved ones.
When our loved ones die, they go to heaven. That is great news! But we still miss them. All of us on earth are stuck waiting for the experience of the joy of the resurrection, and we will remain stuck in our waiting until we are called to heaven or until Christ returns. Between now and then, when we deal with the death of a loved one, we live in the complex mix of deep grief, exhilarating hope, and an agonizing wait for the joy of resurrection to reach fulfillment.