Do you picture God as having a closed fist or an open hand? Do you picture God as clinging tightly or giving generously?
The way we answer these questions affects the way we interact with God in prayer. If we perceive God as tightfisted, why should we bother praying? Why should we waste time or energy waiting for an answer from a miserly Deity? Why would we expect a clinging God—a selfish God—to give open-heartedly to us?
But if the material world reveals anything to us about its Inventor, we find evidence to the abundant generosity of God. Jill Foley Turner remarks, “We know that the whole of creation declares the glory of God (Psalm 19:1), but it also demonstrates His generosity. Our…Creator perfectly crafted a world which sustains our human lives…. But God did not stop at life and breath and sustainability. Beyond our survival, the Bible says He considers our delight (1 Timothy 6:17). He made seas and mountains and rivers. He made 750,000 species of insects, 400,000 species of flowers, 200,000 species of edible plants, 10,000 species of birds, and stars too numerous to count. Every good thing a person enjoys in life is a gift from God (James 1:17). He created our universe with perfect elegance and complexity. He designed with superfluous creativity. Then He gave us senses of sight and sound and touch and taste, so we could experience the richness of these gifts. The Provider of our needs is also our source of never-ending pleasure (Psalm 16:11).”
No wonder Psalm 145:16 proclaims, “You open Your hand and satisfy the desires of every living thing.”
We see the generosity of God in nature because God is generous by nature. God’s heart is inclined toward giving generously to His children. In Matthew 7:9-11, Jesus announces, “Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask Him!”
God is generous toward His children whom He loves, but His generosity is not a fairytale—they-all-lived-happily—kind of generosity. Kate Bowler, an Assistant Professor at Duke Divinity School, has experienced this. At 35 years of age, when her son was just 1 year old, Bowler was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer. Despite surgery, her cancer is considered incurable. Every two months, her doctors decide whether she is able to continue with the trial medication she is taking. As a result, she says that she lives in two-month increments. In the preface to her book, Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved, she describes what went through her mind when she found out about her cancer: “One moment I was a regular person with regular problems. And the next, I was someone with cancer. Before my mind could apprehend it, it was there—swelling to take up every space my imagination could touch. A new and unwanted reality. There was a before, and now there was an after. Time slowed to a pulse. Am I breathing? I wondered. Do I want to? Every day I prayed the same prayer: God, save me. Save me. Save me. Oh, God, remember my baby boy. Remember my son and my husband before you return me to ashes. Before they walk this earth alone. I plead with a God of Maybe, who may or may not let me collect more years. It is a God I love, and a God that breaks my heart.” (p. xiv-xv)
The struggles Bowler faces are real and daunting. The conclusion to her story is uncertain. But later in her book, Bowler shares, “At a time when I should have felt abandoned by God, I was not reduced to ashes. I felt like I was floating, floating on the love and prayers of all those who hummed around me like worker bees, bringing notes and flowers and warm socks and quilts embroidered with words of encouragement. They came in like priests and mirrored back to me the face of Jesus. When they sat beside me, my hand in their hands, my own suffering began to feel like it had revealed to me the suffering of others, a world of those who, like me, are stumbling in the debris of dreams they thought they were entitled to and plans they didn’t realize they had made.” (p. 121)
Bowler experienced the generosity of God amidst her struggles through the care of others. No wonder Jesus goes on to instruct us in Matthew 7:12, “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” As we receive the open-heartedness of God toward us, we are called on to pass it along to others.
As I read the Sermon on the Mount I find myself challenged deeply by the things Jesus says.
In Matthew 7:1-2, He says, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”
This does not mean that I am to avoid identifying evil as evil or that I should ever sidestep taking appropriate actions to confront evil. Martin Luther King, Jr. correctly comments, “He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.”
We must be quick and conscientious to judge evil, but we must be careful about how we judge people. Specifically, I must take to heart that the measure I use in judging others will be the measure that is used in judging me:
If I hope people will be understanding toward me when I have had a bad day, I should keep in mind that the person who is irritating me may be having a bad day.
If I would like others to be sympathetic toward me when I fall on my face and make a fool of myself, I should try to be sympathetic toward others when they fall on their face.
If I want others to give me a second chance when I have messed up, I should be willing to give others a second chance.
If I want people to hear me out before jumping to conclusions about me, I should be willing to listen carefully and thoroughly to what others have to say.
If I hope people will speak respectfully to me and about me, I should be intentional about speaking respectfully to and about others.
If I long for God to handle me with grace and forgiveness, do I dare withhold grace and forgiveness from others?
The “measure” we use makes a difference on the people around us. Dorothy Law Nolte observed the truth of this in the lives of children. She wrote,
“If children live with criticism, they learn to condemn. If children live with hostility, they learn to fight…. If children live with ridicule, they learn to feel shy…. If children live with shame, they learn to feel guilty. If children live with encouragement, they learn confidence. If children live with tolerance, they learn patience…. If children live with acceptance, they learn to love…. If children live with recognition, they learn it is good to have a goal. If children live with sharing, they learn generosity. If children live with honesty, they learn truthfulness. If children live with fairness, they learn justice….”
The “measure” we use also makes a difference in us. In his book Abba’s Child, Brennan Manning quotes from Anthony DeMello’s book The Way to Love:
“What is indiscriminate compassion? ‘Take a look at a rose. Is it possible for the rose to say, “I’ll offer my fragrance to good people and withhold it from bad people”? Or can you imagine a lamp that withholds its rays from a wicked person who seeks to walk in its light? It could do that only by ceasing to be a lamp. And observe how helplessly and indiscriminately a tree gives its shade to everyone, good and bad, young and old, high and low; to animals and humans and every living creature—even to the one who seeks to cut it down. This is the first quality of compassion—its indiscriminate character.’”
If I hope to be as genuine (as consistent) as a rose or as a lamp or as a shade tree, then I must seek to be genuine (consistent) in my own life. If I hope for compassion to live within me, then it must be something that flows naturally (indiscriminately) from me. “With the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”
Imagine something disturbing: Imagine a wolf attacking an animal.
According to Conservation Officer Al Lay, “Wolves will attack a single or a small number of animals at one time. The attacks are normally to the rear of the animal, where the wolf or wolves will tear at the upper hindquarter, rectum, or vulva. This will cause the prey animal to go into shock from blood loss; it may travel a distance, lie down, stiffen, and eventually succumb to the injuries. The wolves will follow the heavy scent trail and begin to consume…. Another method of attack is disemboweling, whereas the wolf will run beside the prey animal, bite into the flank area and pull the hide away from the stomach section, allowing the stomach, intestines to fall away.”
A Rancher’s Guide to Wolf Depredation adds, “The prey is often left to become weak and stiff. Wolves begin to feed when the prey is knocked over or falls from weakness. The bite usually causes damage deep in the underlying tissues. Cattle severely injured by wolves appear dazed and exhibit a characteristic spread-eagle stance. They are reluctant to move because of the deep pain.”
I asked you to imagine this because our English word “worry” has its origin here. Our English word “worry” comes from the old German word wurgen then wyrgan in old English. Originally, the word meant “to strangle,” or “to choke,” or “to harass by tearing or biting—especially tearing or biting at the throat.” Initially “worry” was used to describe the kind of thing a wolf would do to a deer or a lamb.”
Anxiety tends to do to us what a wolf does to its prey. Emily Holland points out that excess worry can cause disrupted sleep, headaches, difficulty concentrating, nausea, muscle tension, exhaustion, irritability, elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol, and difficulty making decisions. Worry can leave us feeling as weak and debilitated and dazed and wounded as an animal that has been attacked by a wolf.
What intensifies worry is the fear that we are facing our struggles alone, that we have been abandoned in our troubles. What reduces worry is the conviction that we are loved and that we are accompanied even in the midst of our hard times.
Paul Stanley shares an experience he had in Vietnam in 1967: “On one occasion after the enemy had withdrawn, I came upon several soldiers surrounding a wounded Viet Cong. Shot through the lower leg, he was hostile and frightened, yet helpless. He threw mud and kicked with his one good leg when anyone came near him. When I joined the circle around the wounded enemy, one soldier asked me, ‘Sir, what do we do? He’s losing blood fast and needs medical attention.’ I looked down at the struggling Viet Cong and saw the face of a 16- or 17-year-old boy.
“I unbuckled my pistol belt and hand grenades so he could not grab them. Then, speaking gently, I moved toward him. He stared fearfully at me as I knelt down, but he allowed me to slide my arms under him and pick him up. As I walked with him toward a waiting helicopter, he began to cry and hold me tight. He kept looking at me and squeezing me tighter. We climbed into the helicopter and took off.
“During the ride, our young captive sat on the floor, clinging to my leg. Never having ridden in a helicopter, he looked out with panic as we gained altitude and flew over the trees. He fixed his eyes back on me, and I smiled reassuringly and put my hand on his shoulder.
“After landing, I picked him up and walked toward the medical tent. As we crossed the field, I felt the tenseness leave his body and his tight grasp loosen. His eyes softened, and his head leaned against my chest. The fear and resistance were gone.”
When we think that we are alone in our struggles, our worry intensifies. When we discover that we are loved and accompanied—even in our darkest hour—our worry diminishes.
Because Jesus cares about our worry-ravaged souls, Jesus assures us, in Matthew 6:26, how deeply we matter to Him. He says, “Look at the birds of the air, they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?”
Max Lucado sums it up well, “There is no moment when the Father’s eye is off me, or His attention is distracted from me, and no moment, therefore, when His care falters. I never go unnoticed.”
Worries will assault us, but we do not have to make our home in them. We can set up our home instead in the conviction that we are loved by God and that we are accompanied by God—even through the darkest hours of our lives.
God cares deeply about the state of our souls. For this reason God calls us away from a heart of hoarding, and He calls us to a heart of generosity.
Dr. Norm Wakefield points out, “Psychiatrist Karl Menninger observed that giving was a mark of mental health. He found that generous people are rarely mentally ill. Their focus is less likely to be inward. They do not have as great a need to hoard their resources. Generous individuals are less fearful that others will exploit them. Sharing their resources brings joy and fulfillment to their lives.”
That’s what God wants for our souls: less fear and more joy and fulfillment. The way we get there is by turning from hoarding to generosity.
Harry Emerson Fosdick adds, “The Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea are made of the same water. It flows down, clear and cool, from the heights of Hermon and the roots of the cedars of Lebanon. The Sea of Galilee makes beauty of it, for the Sea of Galilee has an outlet. It gets to give. It gathers in its riches that it may pour them out again to fertilize the Jordan plain. But the Dead Sea with the same water makes horror. For the Dead Sea has no outlet. It gets to keep.”
That’s why God calls us away from a heart of hoarding, and why He calls us to a heart of generosity. God wants our hearts to be less like the Dead Sea and more like the beauty of the Sea of Galilee.
Jesus addresses this directly in Matthew 6:19-21: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
Following these verses, Jesus says something else that always mystified me…until I understood better the translation and read it in proper context. Jesus said, in Matthew 6:22-23, “The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are good, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!”
The Greek word translated as “good” in verse 22 is haplous. It is translated as “generous” in James 1:5. In Romans 12:8 and 2 Corinthians 9:11 it has to do with liberality of giving. Likewise, the Greek word translated as “bad” in verse 23 is poneros. It is used in the Septuagint in Deuteronomy 15:9 and Proverbs 23:6 and Proverbs 28:22 to describe a person who is miserly, begrudging about giving, or greedy.
Suddenly Matthew 6:22-23 begins to make sense to me: Jesus, who cares deeply about the state of our souls, is telling us that the person whose eyes (and soul) are generous will be full of light (and beauty and health and joy and fulfillment). But the person whose eyes (and soul) are miserly, begrudging, and greedy will be full of Dead Sea-like darkness.
I am struck by the contrast between Buddy Post and Jeremy Taylor.
On September 1, 1996, the Chicago Tribune ran a story about Buddy Post, who was described as “living proof that money can’t buy happiness.” In 1988, Post won 16.2 million dollars in the Pennsylvania Lottery. During the eight years following that win, Post was convicted of assault, his sixth wife left him, his brother was convicted of trying to kill him, and his landlady successfully sued him for one-third of the jackpot. When the article was written, Post was trying to auction off 17 future payments, valued at nearly $5 million, in order to pay off taxes, legal fees, and a number of failed business ventures. He was also pursuing lawsuits he had filed against police, judges, and lawyers whom he claims had conspired to take his money. He said, “I’m just going to stay at home and mind my p’s and q’s. Money draws flies.” Rather than filling him with joy or fulfillment, that treasure depleted Buddy Post’s soul.
On the other hand, even when Jeremy Taylor’s ‘treasure’ was taken away, the state of his soul withstood the adversity. In his book Facing Loneliness, J. Oswald Sanders writes, “When Jeremy Taylor, the old Puritan, had his house burglarized, all his choicest possessions taken, and his family turned out of doors, he knelt down and thanked God that his enemies had left him the sun and moon, a loving wife and many friends to pity and relieve, the providence of God, all the promises of the gospel, his faith, his hope of heaven, and his charity toward his enemies…. With wealth such as this, no burglar could impoverish him.” Because his eyes (and his soul) were generous, his entire being remained “full of light.”
In the 1640s “precarious” was a legal term that referred to something which was “held through the favor of another.” Over time, “precarious” evolved into our modern understanding of the word as “risky, dangerous, uncertain, or perilous.” The word “prayer” also evolved from the old Latin word “precarious,” since prayer by its very nature is something which is held through the favor of Another.
I think we need to recognize that prayer is precarious in the modern understanding of the word as well, for prayer is risky, dangerous, and perilous. We need to take to heart the truth of what Jacques Ellul said, “Whoever wrestles with God in prayer puts his whole life at stake.” And we need to be warned by Karl Barth’s words, “To clasp the hands in prayer is to start an uprising against the disorder of the world.”
Prayer is about relationship with the Almighty Lord of the universe, and that is a dangerous thing because relationship with God is likely to change us in huge ways. E. Stanley Jones suggests, “Prayer’s like the fastening of the cup to the wounded side of a pine tree to allow the resin to pour into it. You are now nestling up into the side of God—the wounded side, if you will—and you allow His grace to fill you up. You are taking in the very life of God.” That sounds lovely, but think it through: What happens to us when he take in the very life of God? We take in the very love of God that led Jesus to lay down His life for the world. Mother Teresa sums it up well when she says, “Prayer enlarges the heart until it is capable of containing God’s gift of Himself.” Look at the risks she took as a result of prayer!
Prayer is about God meeting us right where we are. Centuries ago, when scholars sought to find the meaning of the word epiousios, which we now translate as “daily,” in the petition in the Lord’s Prayer, “Give us this day our daily bread,” they could find no occurrence of the word in ancient Greek literature. They concluded that it must be a spiritual word, meaning that we were supposed to pray for spiritual bread to feed our souls. Then archaeologists found occurrences of the word on scraps of paper in garbage dumps. The word was written on shopping lists to identify items that needed to be purchased on a daily basis since they could not be stored for later. Jesus was making it clear that we are to ask God each day for the basic, down-to-earth things we need each day. That’s what we find throughout the Lord’s Prayer. Jesus tells us to pray for daily bread, for forgiveness, for help in forgiving others, for help in battling temptation, and for rescue from the evil one. These are the down-to-earth things we need help with every day.
It is precarious to present these requests to God, for if we pray only about theoretical matters like praying for a cure for cancer, then prayer remains far away from us, which keeps us in the “safe” zone. But when we pray for practical things it gets dangerous. When we pray for daily bread, we may have to work and budget. When we pray for “our daily bread,” we may have to provide help to someone who is hungry. When we pray for God to help us forgive, we may have to address a particular resentment. When we pray for God to help us battle temptation, we may have to take actual steps to flee temptation.
And prayer is about us meeting God right where God is. This is precarious because God is always at a deeper place of compassion and justice than is comfortable to us. Whenever we rise up to where God is, that gets risky for us. Philip Yancey points out, “The book of Proverbs states the principle bluntly: ‘If a man shuts his ears to the cry of the poor, he too will cry out and not be answered.’ In his letter, the apostle Peter urges that husbands be considerate to their wives and treat them with respect ‘so that nothing will hinder your prayers.’ It may seem strange that issues political and domestic would have a direct effect on prayer life, but not if prayer is viewed as keeping company with God. Every aspect of life, including how we treat those around us, affects an intimate relationship. I cannot say to my neighbor, ‘I love you and enjoy spending time with you, but I hate your stupid dog and keep those bratty kids out of my yard, will you?’ How I treat what belongs to my neighbor affects how he receives my love. The same applies to God: how I treat God’s creation, God’s children, will determine in part how God receives my prayers and my worship. Prayer involves more than bowing my head a few times a day; it pervades all of life, and vice versa.” (Prayer: Does it Make any Difference?, p. 224-225)
I want to be liked. You probably do too. But there is a great danger when the longing to be liked drives us too much.
When the longing to be liked pulls on us too heavily, we end up doing whatever it will take to get people to like us.
I have been caught in this trap more often than I like to admit. I have laughed at jokes I am ashamed to have laughed at. I have exaggerated my achievements to impress others. I have compromised my convictions to fit in with others. I have put on masks that I thought would make me more likeable. I have hidden the truth about myself when I feared it would make others dislike me.
Such a yearning to be liked easily leads to hypocrisy, which poisons both the individual hypocrite and the reputation of Christ within the world.
The individual hypocrite: In his book, All Is Grace, Brennan Manning confesses, “The imposter is a fake version of yourself, and that’s exactly how I started living. I faked being happy when I was sad, I faked being excited when I was disappointed, I even faked being nice when inside I was really angry. I still looked and sounded like me, but I wasn’t me. I was a fake. I lived as an imposter of myself. But living as the imposter will do nothing but harm. Here’s a quick list of how the impostor functions:
- The imposter lives in fear.
- The imposter is consumed with a need for acceptance and approval.
- The imposter is codependent; in other words, out of touch with his or her own feelings.
- The impostor’s life is a herky-jerky existence of elation and depression. The impostor is what he or she does.
- The impostor demands to be noticed.
- The imposter cannot experience intimacy in any relationship.
- And last but not least, the impostor is a liar.” (p. 56-57)
Anne Morrow Lindberg adds, “The most exhausting thing in life, I have discovered, is being insincere.”
The reputation of Christ in the world: John Stott states, “Hypocrisy is hideous. What cancer is to the body, hypocrisy is to the church. It is a killing agent.”
Dick Sheppard points out, “The greatest handicap the Church has is the unsatisfactory lives of professing Christians”
When Christians live with authenticity, people are drawn to Christ. But when Christians live as hypocrites, people are repulsed.
No wonder Jesus speaks out so often against hypocrisy. He hates what it does to us, and He hates what it does to those whom He is trying to reach.
Some years ago, Virginia Stem Owens assigned the reading of the Sermon on the Mount to her composition class at Texas A&M University, and she asked the students to write a short essay on what they had read. Some of her students wrote:
- The stuff the churches preach is extremely strict and allows for almost no fun without thinking it is a sin.
- I did not like the essay “Sermon on the Mount.” It was hard to read and made me feel like I had to be perfect, and no one is.
- The things asked in this sermon are absurd. To look at a woman is adultery. That is the most extreme, stupid, unhuman statement that I have ever heard. (Reported by Philip Yancey in The Jesus I Never Knew, p. 130)
Those responses seem to be particularly focused on Matthew 5:17-48, where Jesus declares that to call a person a name is akin to murdering the person, and to look upon a person lustfully is tantamount to committing adultery, and that if a person strikes us on the right cheek we are to turn our other cheek to our assailant. He concludes the section by telling us to be as perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect.
If we perceive this section of Scripture to be a formula, detailing what is necessary from us to be able to get into heaven, then we have reason for confusion, frustration, and despair. If we have to measure up to standards of perfection in order to get into heaven, then we are doomed.
But if we understand this section of the Sermon on the Mount to be more of a diagnosis of our situation than a formula for our advancement, then we have grounds for hope.
As a diagnosis, this section of the Sermon on the Mount reveals that we have a fatal problem (we are all sinners), that the legalistic approach will never work (none of us can come close to being as perfect as our heavenly Father), so we must look for an alternate remedy.
The alternate remedy is brought up in Matthew 5:17, when Jesus announces that He came not to abolish the Law or the prophets but to fulfill them. From a legalistic perspective, fulfillment of the Law would require personal, moral perfection. But from a Biblical perspective, fulfillment of the Law is the sacrificial system for the forgiveness of our sins. Jesus came into the world to be that kind of fulfillment of the Law. He came to be the sacrifice for our sins.
On July 30, 1941, the guards at Auschwitz concentration camp assembled the prisoners because it had been discovered that one of them had escaped. To discourage anyone else from trying to get away, Sub-Commandant Karl Fritzsch ordered that ten prisoners be selected at random to die by starvation. One of the ten chosen was Franciszek Gajowniczek, prisoner number 5659. On hearing his number called, Gajowniczek cried out in agony over the fate of his wife and his children. At that, a Franciscan priest named Maximilian Kolbe stepped forward and said, “I am a Catholic priest from Poland; I would like to take his place, because he has a wife and children.” After two weeks of agonizing starvation, Kolbe was eventually executed with an injection of carbolic acid.
Maximilian Kolbe became the fulfillment of the law for Franciszek Gajowniczek by taking his place in death. In deep gratitude, Gajowniczek spent much of the rest of his life telling people about the heroic love by Maximilian Kolbe.
Jesus did the same for us. He became the fulfillment of the Law by taking upon Himself the full weight of the Law’s judgment against sin. As a result, we do not have to strive to try to attain legalistic perfection but can rejoice that we have been welcomed into the realm of God’s grace through the alternate remedy of Jesus fulfilling the weight of the Law by dying on the cross for us.