Archive | February 2022

The Kind of Heart that Can Grow

What kind of heart can God work most effectively in?  What kind of heart is most inclined toward spiritual growth?

I am not sure whether the story Jesus tells in Luke 18:9-14 is a parable (a made-up story) or the report of something he actually observed, but what we find in these verses is a description of two individuals: one is inclined toward spiritual growth; the other is not.  One is a Pharisee, a very, very good Pharisee, who, by his own account, is “not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers.”  Indeed, this individual fasts twice a week and gives to God a tenth of all his income.

The other individual is a despised tax collector who stands “far off” in the temple, who doesn’t lift his gaze up toward heaven but beats his chest and mutters, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”    

We might suppose that it would be the good Pharisee—the fasting and tithing Pharisee, the confidently praying Pharisee—whose heart is most inclined toward spiritual growth, but Jesus sees it differently.  No matter how holy a person may be considered, spiritual arrogance never leads to spiritual growth.

Leo Tolstoy assesses it well: “An arrogant person considers himself perfect.  This is the chief harm of arrogance.  It interferes with a person’s main task in life—becoming a better person.” 

Spiritual arrogance naturally results in spiritual stagnation.  Stagnation is defined as “a state or condition marked by lack of flow,” or as “a situation in which something stays the same and does not grow or develop.”  A pond becomes stagnant when it takes in no fresh inflow and when it gives nothing out.  People become spiritual stagnant when they consider themselves to have “arrived,” when they take in nothing new and give out nothing of themselves.  Arrogant people become as lifeless and foul as a stagnant pool. 

It is humility that leads to spiritual growth, for it is humility that recognizes our need for help from God and our need for encouragement from others.  John Ruskin expresses it well: “I believe that the first test of a truly great person is humility.  I do not mean by humility, doubt of one’s power.  But really great people have a curious feeling that the greatness is not in them, but through them.  And they see something divine in others and are endlessly, foolishly, incredibly merciful.” 

This is why Jesus praises not the prayer of the Pharisee (“God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector”) but the prayer of the tax collector (“God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”). 

It is the humble heart that is open and receptive to God, thus it is the humble heart in which God works most effectively.  This is why Jesus concludes, “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” 


Bring a Big Bucket

Sadly, I have a tendency to shrink God down to what I can understand.  With that, I shrink down what I expect to be able to receive from God.  But Psalm 36:5-9 encourages us not to shrink God down but to pursue the fullness of God’s care and goodness: “Your steadfast love, O Lord, extends to the heavens, your faithfulness to the clouds.  Your righteousness is like the mighty mountains, your judgments are like the great deep; you save humans and animals alike, O Lord.  How precious is your steadfast love, O God!  All people may take refuge in the shadow of your wings.  They feast on the abundance of your house, and you give them drink from the river of your delights.  For with you is the fountain of life; in your light we see light.” 

God is not meager; what he offers to us is not cheap.  We are invited to “feast” on the “abundance” of his house and to drink from the “river” of his “delights”!

Brian Croft comments, “This lesson [of God’s immeasurable greatness] came alive to me when my dear friend, Bruce Ware, told me the story of how he taught his daughters this great truth when they were about 5-6 years old while on vacation at the beach.  Bruce took them to the beach one day and said, ‘Hey girls, you know how the Bible teaches that God holds the oceans in the palms of his hands?  Well, you see how big daddy is, right?  I’m going to walk into the water, cup my hands, and when I pull water out with my hands, I want you to watch to see if the ocean level goes down at all.  Okay?”

Of course the water level of the ocean did not go down when Bruce scooped some into his hands.  Neither do we deplete in any way the care of God when we drink from the river of his love!

I appreciate what my friend Mary Naegeli posted on her blog one day: ‘The God of the Universe dwells in and enjoys the beauty and bounty of all that he has created.  He resides in eternal and unlimited grace and power, blessing and provision.  God has never needed anything; he has always had enough time (eternity), knowledge (omniscience), power (omnipotence), and self-sustenance (provision) to get along.  I love how Dallas Willard described him: ‘God leads a very interesting life, full of joy.  The abundance of his love and generosity is inseparable from his infinite joy…. All of the good and beautiful things from which we occasionally drink tiny droplets of soul-exhilarating joy, God continuously experiences in fullness!’”

The infinite nature of God impacts us wonderfully.  A.W. Tozer sums it up: “An infinite God can give all of himself to each of his children.  He does not distribute himself that each may have a part, but to each one he gives all of himself as fully as if there were no others.” 

We should not be reluctant to feast upon the vastness of God’s love and goodness.  We will not deplete him, and he is not reluctant to share with us.  Mary Webb points out, “The well of Providence runs deep.  It’s the buckets we bring to it that are small.”

“How precious is your steadfast love, O God!  All people may take refuge in the shadow of your wings.  They feast on the abundance of your house, and you give them drink from the river of your delights.  For with you is the fountain of life; in your light we see light.”

The Antidote to Greed & Worry

It was not uncommon for people of ancient Israel to bring an unsettled dispute to a respected Rabbi.  In Luke 12, we find someone doing just that: “Someone in the crowd” cries out to Jesus, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” 

The Jewish law was clear about the division of inheritance: You take the number of children in a family, add one, divide equally, then everyone receives an equal share except the oldest son who receives a double share.

There are two possibilities as to what has gone wrong between this man and his brother: Either the oldest brother has not distributed fairly what the younger brother has a right to, or the younger brother is seeking more than what the law declares to be his fair share.  We do not know which it is, whether this man is presenting a legitimate plea for justice or a greedy ploy to get more. 

A Rabbi of that day had a responsibility to look out for the good of a person.  In addressing what was good for this man, Jesus looked beyond the surface issue of What is fair? to the deeper issue of What is good for this person’s soul? 

Whether this man’s request flows out of a legitimate plea for justice or an illegitimate ploy to get more, Jesus perceives a certain level of greed has become implanted in this man’s soul, and greed is like a poison that can destroy a soul.  Therefore, Jesus speaks words of warning to this man, “Take care!  Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”

Money can purchase many nice possessions for a person, but there is a limit as to what such possessions can bring about in a person’s life.  Money can fill a home with nice furniture, but it cannot fill a soul with contentment.  Money can purchase a comfortable bed and nice sheets, but it cannot produce a peaceful night’s sleep.  Money can pay for plenty of entertainment, but it cannot produce joy.  Money can buy popularity, but it cannot buy true and lasting friends.  Money can be spent on filling your stomach with the finest of foods, but it cannot fill your heart with love.  Money can buy the most stylish clothes to make you look attractive, but it cannot produce inner beauty and character.

The ancient Romans had a proverb that said that money was like sea-water; the more a person drank of it, the thirstier the person became.  The love of money is a thirst that can never be satisfied. 

In warning of greed’s dangers, Jesus tells a parable of a rich man whose land produced abundantly.  The rich man tears down his barns to build larger ones to hold even more produce.  There is nothing evil about building larger barns, yet Jesus refers to this rich man as a “fool” because he never gets around to enjoying his blessings before his death.  Jesus concludes the parable with this warning: “So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”  Then he says to his disciples, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear.  For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing.” 

The English word worry actually comes from an old German word, wyrgan, which means “to strangle or to choke.”  That’s what worry does to us.  Worry is a poison that chokes us.  It strangles the life out of us.  It chokes us of peace and joy and strength and trust and enthusiasm and sleep and altruism and compassion and mercy. 

The antidote to greed and the antidote to worry is the same.  The antidote is to value more highly the things of God than what money can buy.  That’s why Psalm 37:4 tells us, “Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.” 

Put My Complaint in God’s Hands

In Psalm 35, David pours out his complaint to God over the cruelty he has suffered from his enemies: “Without cause they hid their net for me; without cause they dug a pit for my life” (verse 7). “Malicious witnesses rise up” (verse 11). “They repay me evil for good; my soul is forlorn” (verse 12). “At my stumbling they gathered in glee; they gathered together against me; ruffians whom I did not know tore at me without ceasing” (verse 15). “They open wide their mouths against me; they say, ‘Aha, Aha, our eyes have seen it.’”

Because of the pain they have caused him, David prays for God’s vengeance against his enemies: “Contend, O Lord, with those who contend with me; fight against those who fight against me!” (verse 1). “Draw the spear and javelin against my pursuers” (verse 3). “Let them be put to shame and dishonor who seek after my life. Let them be turned back and confounded who devise evil against me” (verse 4). “Let their way be dark and slippery, with the angel of the Lord pursuing them” (verse 6). “Let ruin come on them unawares. And let the net that they hid ensnare them; let them fall in it—to their ruin” (verse 8). “Let all those who rejoice at my calamity be put to shame and confusion; let those who exalt themselves against me be clothed with shame and dishonor” (verse 26).

As I read these lines, I am struck by two thoughts:

1: God gives us freedom to express to him whatever is on our hearts. We don’t have to “clean up” our prayers before bringing them to God. If there is hurt in our heart, the best place to bring that hurt is to God. Likewise, if there is anger, bitterness or even vengeance on our heart, the best place to bring it is to God. God is able to handle whatever we are feeling, so the best thing we can do is to bring our feelings genuinely to God.

2: Rather than exacting vengeance himself upon those who have treated him unjustly, David brings the request for vengeance to God, and he leaves it up to God to do whatever God will choose to do in this matter. This reminds me of Paul’s advice in Romans 12:19: “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’” Though we may want to take vengeance into our own hands, it is always better to leave the matter of vengeance and justice up to God.

In his book The Prisoner and the Bomb, Laurens van der Post tells of the miseries he experienced in a Japanese prison camp in Java during World War II. Yet he also shares the conclusion he came to: “The only hope for the future lay in an all-embracing attitude of forgiveness of the people who had been our enemies. Forgiveness, my prison experience had taught me, was not mere religious sentimentality; it was as fundamental a law of the human spirit as the law of gravity. If one broke the law of gravity one broke one’s neck; if one broke this law of forgiveness one inflicted a mortal wound on one’s spirit and became once again a member of the chain-gang of mere cause and effect from which life has laboured so long and painfully to escape.”

Let’s bring to God our hurt and our longing for vengeance, and let’s leave it with God to do what he will choose to do for the sake of justice and mercy.

Love God; Love Our Neighbor

John 3:16 reports, “For God so loved the world….”  God is so intent upon loving the people of this world that God took on human skin as a baby in a manger on Christmas day.  God is so serious about loving the people of this world that Christ endured the agony of a cross to die for us.  God is so determined to love the people of this world that Jesus declared to his followers, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.  Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another” (John 13:34).

If we wish to love God, we will love what God loves, and what God loves is people.  Therefore, anyone who genuinely wishes to love God must also those whom God loves!    

This is why Scripture puts together two commandments as the single greatest command: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27).  We cannot claim to love God if we refuse to love those whom God loves.  If we wish to love God we must love our neighbor as we love ourselves. 

Sometimes, though, we hope this command will include some wiggle room.  In our opinion, some neighbors are not entirely loveable.  We would be glad to love neighbors who are ‘like us,’ or neighbors who are nice.  We would be glad to love the ‘right kind of neighbor.’  When we hear the command “Love your neighbor as yourself,” we want to ask, “But who is my neighbor?”

When Jesus was asked this question he told a story about a man who was beaten by robbers and left half dead along the road going down from Jerusalem to Jericho.  This injured and robbed man needs the loving care of a “neighbor,” but who will be a neighbor to him.  A priest—a supposed representative of God—comes along but crosses to the other side of the road, leaving the injured man in his agony.  A Levite—another supposed representative of God—comes along but also crosses to the other side of the road to avoid the hurting man.  Then a Samaritan—one who was perceived as an undesirable neighbor—comes along.  The Samaritan has pity on the man, binds his wounds, takes him to an inn, and pays for his care there.  As he concludes the story, Jesus asks, “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”  The answer is provided, “The one who showed him mercy.”  To this, Jesus replies, “Go and do likewise.” 

We are called to love our neighbor—no matter who he or she may be—for every neighbor is loved by God, and if we want to love God we must love all whom He loves. 

The story is told about a crippled boy who was hurrying to catch a train.  Carrying packages under his arms, he was struggling with his crutches when a man bumped into him, knocking his packages in different directions.  The man paused only long enough to scold the boy for getting in his way.  Another man hurried over, picked up the scattered packages and slipped a $10 bill into the boy’s pocket, saying, “I hope this makes up for your troubles.”  As the man walked away, the boy called after him, “Thank you, Sir.  And, Mister, are you Jesus?”  The man answered, “No, but I am one of his followers.”

When we ignore (or intensify) the plight of another, we do nothing constructively to reveal Christ to others.  But when we love our neighbor as we love ourselves, we make it possible for others to see Christ through us. 

Let’s face it: Loving our neighbor is often not an easy thing to do, but it is the best thing to do.  Albert Schweitzer sums it up: “Life becomes harder for us when we live for others, but is also becomes richer and happier.” 

Taste the Goodness of God

I love the invitation in Psalm 34:8: “O taste and see that the Lord is good….”

I love the confidence of the psalmist.  He is sure that a person who genuinely tastes of God’s love and goodness will be delighted with the taste and will want more and more of the Lord.  That has been my experience.  As I have tasted of the Lord’s love and goodness, I have wanted more and more of his love and goodness to fill my life.

Indeed, Psalm 34 lists some of the benefits that I and other believers throughout the centuries have found in God: 

Verse 4: “I sought the Lord, and he answered me, and delivered me from all my fears.”

Verse 8: “Happy are those who take refuge in him.”

Verse 18: “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted, and saves the crushed in spirit.”

Verse 19: “Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the Lord rescues them from them all.”

What a joy it is to know God’s love and goodness in our lives!

Yet there is something in the wording of verse 8’s invitation that we need to pay careful attention to.  The psalmist invites us to “taste” of God’s goodness.  How do you taste something?  By putting it into your mouth.  By biting into it.  Tasting something requires action on our part.  To taste God’s love and goodness calls for us to bite into God’s love and goodness, to take God’s love and goodness into our souls and into our very living.

This is what we are called to do in verses 13-14: “Keep your tongue from evil, and your lips from speaking deceit.  Depart from evil, and do good; seek peace, and pursue it.” 

It is important for us to keep in mind that if we want to enjoy the blessings of the Lord, we need to act upon his love and goodness.

Susanna Wesley once stated, “There are two things to do about the gospel—believe it and behave it.”  Mark Labberton adds, “Jesus does not say, ‘Believe me,’ but rather, ‘Follow me.’  If we are going to pursue God’s call, it’s an act of trusting and following.” 

I love the way Bill Donahue explains it: “When Jesus walked the earth, the wind obeyed him.  The waves obeyed him.  Evil spirits obeyed him.  People, however, did not always obey him.  And that hasn’t changed much in the last two thousand years…. The English word obey means ‘to hear toward’ or ‘to submit to the control of,’ which is why we can obey our passions, our instincts, our conscience, our teachers and so on.  When we obey, we place ourselves under the authority of God and we listen to his voice.  As a result we feel his love.”

Isn’t that a great observation?  When we place ourselves under the authority of God (when we genuinely take his love and goodness into our souls and our living), the result is that we feel his love.

As Psalm 34:8 puts it: “O taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are those who take refuge in him.”

Forgiveness is a Necessity

Injustice inflicted upon us hurts horribly!  It rips apart the sinews of wellbeing that would keep our souls at peace, leaving us feeling broken, violated, shamed and diminished.

How are we to recover from such deep injury? 

Some people try to cope with such injury by running away from the pain, by covering it over with substance abuse, or workaholism, or pornography, or shopping, or religious fervor, or in a variety of other ways.  But covering up the pain doesn’t make it go away.  It ferments within our soul, growing stinkier and more destructive to our wellbeing. 

Others try to cope with it through revenge, imagining that if they could get even with the one who hurt them everything could be set right.  But a drive to get even with someone keeps that person and the wrong that was done to you forever on your heart.  Holding onto vengeance is like holding onto a burning coal with the intent of throwing it at a person.  You are the one who gets burned.

The only remedy for the injury of being wronged is forgiveness. 

Forgiveness is not a running away from one’s pain.  It is not covering up the wrong of injustice with religious fantasy.  As Dr. Lewis Smedes writes, “When we forgive an injustice we do not excuse it; we do not tolerate it; we do not suppress it.  We look the evil full in the face; call it what it is; let its horror shock, stun and enrage us.  And only then do we forgive.” 

Forgiveness is facing the injustice and facing the pain it has caused us, then it is placing that wrong and my hurt in the capable hands of the Holy God.  Forgiveness is the action of removing the grudge from my hands and putting it all in the hands of God.  

This is the only remedy that works.  Pope Francis remarks, “Pardon is the instrument placed into our fragile hands to attain serenity of heart.”   Even medical science endorses forgiveness.  According to Michael McCullough, former director of research for the National Institute for Healthcare Research and co-author of To Forgive is Human: How to Put Your Past in the Past, people who forgive benefit from better immune functioning and lower blood pressure, have better mental health than people who do not forgive, feel better physically, have few symptoms of anxiety, and maintain more satisfying and long-lasting relationships. 

One day Peter came to Jesus with a question.  Perhaps another of the disciples had been offending Peter, so Peter asked Jesus, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive?” (Matthew 18:21)  Then, because Peter had been hanging around Jesus for a while and knew how gracious Jesus could be, Peter tried to show Jesus his own magnanimous side, so he added, “As many as seven times?” 

But Jesus looked upon the matter of forgiveness differently.  From Jesus’ perspective, forgiveness was not a matter of being magnanimous; forgiveness was a matter of necessity.  He told peter a parable about a king who forgave a slave a debt of 10,000 talents (roughly $1,200,000 at today’s rates).  But after being forgiven, that same slave refused to forgive a fellow slave a debt of 100 denarii (roughly $12,000 at today’s rates).  When the king heard about this, he said to the unforgiving slave, “You wicked slave!  I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me.  Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?”  Jesus ends the parable with this harsh conclusion: “And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt.  So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” (Matthew 18:34-35

Why does Jesus tell such a harsh parable to Peter? 

Because the reality of unforgiveness is that it holds us prisoner and tortures our soul.  As Corrie Ten Boom states succinctly, “To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.”  Only forgiveness gets us out of the prison of our hurts.  Only forgiveness heals our soul.

Delight in Beauty’s Creator

Psalm 33 opens with a call to us to invest time and energy in praising God: “Rejoice in the Lord…. Praise the Lord with the lyre…. Sing to him a new song.”

According to verses 6-9 in Psalm 33, one of the things that can prompt us to praise God is the wonder of nature: “By the word of the Lord the heavens were made, and all their host by the breath of his mouth.  He gathered the waters of the sea as in a bottle; he put the deeps in storehouses.  Let all the earth fear the Lord; let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of him.  For he spoke, and it came to be; he commanded, and it stood firm.”

Master Eckhart once commented, “God is like a person who clears his throat while hiding and so gives himself away.”  The beauty of nature is like God clearing his throat.  The beauty of nature captures our attention.  When we look at it, we become aware that Someone is behind it—Someone of immense power, creativity, order and love.  Every time nature provokes a thrill within our hearts, it is like God is clearing his throat to reveal his hiding place behind the beauty of nature.

The great naturalist John Muir would agree with that perspective.  Once, when he was asked what he did for a living, he explained, “I study the inventions of God!”  The study of nature is a study of the inventions of God.  Delighting in nature prompts us to rejoice in the Creator of all beauty.

Robert Boyle, who has been referred to as the ‘Father of Modern Chemistry,’ put it this way, “[When] I study the book of nature I find myself oftentimes reduced to exclaim with the Psalmist, How manifold are Thy works, O Lord!  In wisdom hast Thou made them all!” (Psalm 104:24)

Because nature is the work of God, and since the beauty of nature prompts us to notice the invisible God who is hiding amidst the beauty, spending time delighting in nature draws us closer to God and does much good to the human soul.  For this reason, Ralph Waldo Emerson advised, “Never lose an opportunity for seeing anything that is beautiful; for beauty is God’s handwriting, a wayside sacrament.”

Rachel Carson stresses, “Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts!”

John Muir encourages us, “Climb the mountains and get their good tidings.  Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees.”

Behold the beauty of nature, and delight in its Creator!