Monthly Archives: May 2013

Unforgivable

In Matthew 18:21-35, Peter asks how many times he ought to forgive someone who sins against him and Christ responds with a story about a servant.  This servant is called to settle a debt he owes to a certain king (on the order of about $10,000,000).  Since he is unable to pay, the king orders that he, his wife, his children, and everything he owns be sold in order to pay back as much as possible.  However, the servant begs the king to give him more time to pay.  The king is filled with compassion and cancels the servant’s debt.

Immediately after leaving the king’s presence, the servant goes and finds one of his fellow servants who owes him a debt of about $20, grabs him by the throat and demands to be paid.  His fellow servant begs him for more time to pay.  The servant, however, will hear none of this and has his fellow servant put in jail until payment be made.  Word of this reaches the ears of the king who summons the servant back before him.  He proceeds to ask the servant if he should not have shown mercy to his fellow servant after the king had shown mercy to him?  Therefore, since he didn’t have mercy on his fellow, the king has him put in jail until he pays all that he owed the king.  So will God deal with us, Christ says, if we do not forgive others.

Initially it seems like Jesus is making a big deal out of something rather minor.  After all, isn’t the important thing that we love God?  Indeed, love is at the core of our relationship with God; and the nature of this love is to effect change in our lives.  Therefore, rather than focus on etymology and definitions, let’s look at the marks of the love of God in our lives.

In the story told by Jesus, the king’s act of compassion did not lead to change in the servant, as evinced by his treatment of his fellow servant.  Likewise, it becomes clear that our lives have not been affected by love of God if we do not forgive others.  Despite God’s work in our lives, our hearts remain hardened.  We have not accepted a new heart from God that grows in His love, but have kept our hearts of stone.

This parable of the unforgiving servant serves as a reminder that God is not inviting us to have a “get-out-of-hell-free” card.  God is inviting us into a life with Him.  In His love and mercy, He has cancelled the debt that we have incurred because of our sin, but that is only the beginning.  If we stop our spiritual growth after we accept Christ or live as we did before we accepted Christ as our Lord and Savior, we are just like the unforgiving servant.  The servant’s hardness of heart in the face of the king’s compassion is revealed by his refusal to forgive his fellow servant.  Our hardness of heart in the face of God’s grace is revealed by our refusal to forgive others.

Forgiving others can sometimes be extremely difficult.  Fortunately, God does not leave us to do this on our own strength and willpower.  He works to bring about change within us through His indwelling Spirit.  For example, the Spirit bears the fruits of love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23) in our lives, which help us to forgive others.

The love at the core of our relationship with God is a love that changes.  God’s love for us produces this change and our love for God cooperates with this change.  The love that God has for us is constant and constantly reaching out to us.  The question before us is how will we respond?  Will we ignore and resist God?  Will we claim to love God, but in reality ignore Him?  Or will we love God and allow His love to shape us into the person we were born to be?

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A Single Seed

In Matthew 13:31-32, Jesus tells a parable which compares the kingdom of heaven to a mustard seed.  Although it is one of the smallest seeds, it eventually grows into a tree large enough for birds to nest in its branches.  One thing that we can glean from this monologue of mustard seeds is that the kingdom of heaven begins with and consists of the little things.

Our life in the kingdom doesn’t begin with great feats of godliness.  Quite the opposite, it begins with the little things:  setting aside 15 minutes for prayer, stopping what we’re doing to really listen to the person in front of us, forgiving that person who cut us off while driving to work this morning, etc.  Many times we get caught up in the bigger and flashier parts of the Christian life like mission trips or Sunday services.  However, these make up a relatively small part of our walk with God.  Let’s take Sunday services as an example.  Regular corporate worship and being part of a congregation are very important parts our spiritual life and development.  However, if this is the only time that we live the kingdom life, the only time that we encounter God, it amounts to 1 hour a week.  That, in turn, translates into about 4 hours a month or 2.16 days a year.  2.16 days a year that we spend time with God and live out the Gospel.  On the flip side, it also shows how the small things add up.  Spending 15 minutes a day in prayer amounts to 1.75 hours per week which is about 7 hours a month or 3.79 days a year.  Compared to only going to church for an hour every week, only devoting 15 minutes a day to prayer leads to roughly 75% more time spent with God.

Now, it bears reminding that mere accumulation of hours does not a spiritual life make.  The key lies in spending time with God as opposed to spending time in religious observances.  However, the point at hand is that the little things in life add up to more than we often think.

Jean-Pierre de Caussade wrote a book about what he called the “sacrament of the present moment”, that is, how we encounter and serve God from moment to moment.  Perhaps that is at the core of living out the kingdom of heaven:  living each moment in the kingdom.  Each moment of our lives is a seed that has the potential to subtly change us.  Grown from these moments, the kingdom of heaven becomes deeply rooted in our lives and our lives begin to take on the shape of the kingdom as God shapes and forms us.  But it all starts with a single moment, a single seed.


Squishing Spiders

What is the most common reason we have for squishing spiders whenever they show themselves?  I propose that it is because they strike us as “icky” or “gross”.  They just make our skin crawl.  Whatever the reason, we would just as soon step on a spider than look at it.

There are also many people who we would rather step on than look at.  Of course, we don’t literally step on these people, but Jesus did say that murder is ultimately a matter of the heart.  Therefore, we ought to think in terms of how many people we squish with our thoughts and attitudes.  How many people do we regard with the same cold disgust as a spider?

The preacher and theologian Jonathan Edwards once used the metaphor of “a spider or other such loathsome insect” when describing how God sees our sinful and rebellious selves.  However, even though our sins are revolting to Him, God doesn’t love us any less.  Edwards’ full metaphor describes God as holding us, sin and all, in His hand which is the only thing that prevents us from falling into the fires of hell.  This image stresses the magnitude of God’s love and grace.  The love of God restrains the wrath of God.  It is this profound love that we are called to imitate:  “Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48)  God loves His spiders; therefore we also must love ours.

This most certainly is not an easy task.  Fortunately, God is happy and eager to help us with it.  He does this by filling us with His love so that we love others not by our own effort or whim, but from the overflow of God’s love within us.  We are not passive observers in this work of God.  Our role is to receive and cooperate with God.  We do this by spending time with Him in prayer, in reading the Scriptures, in worship, etc. putting ourselves in a place that allows Him to do His work on our hearts.

This overflow of love is not something that happens instantly.  As with many of God’s works, it takes place gradually over time.  We don’t wake up one morning and love the people who grind our gears, but we can wake up one morning and decide to love those people.  The difference is that the former represents the fulfillment of the goal and the latter is the start of the pursuit of the goal.  The freedom that we have in Christ is what allows us to choose this goal and to pursue it.  The work of God’s Spirit within us is the means by which we develop towards this goal.  We may begin by not judging others so harshly.  Then we may learn to recognize them as fellow sinners who are loved by God.  Eventually, by God’s grace, we will reach the point where we truly love our enemies and can see that they, too, are made in the image of God.

Who knows, perhaps after we have learned to love those who we find repulsive we may even learn to see the glory of God in His eight-legged creations as well.


Entitlement Reform

When bad things happen to us, one of the first questions we ask of God is “why?”  “Why did this happen to me?”  Or, a rather “why did You allow this to happen to me?”  We thought that we were doing everything the way we were supposed to.  We’re Christians after all, isn’t God supposed to protect us from harm?  The least He could do is make sure that everything turns out all right in the end.  At the most basic level, what we ultimately want from God at these times is an answer.  Even if we accept our suffering with all patience, we still want to know why we’re suffering.

When God allows Satan to afflict Job (taking away his wealth, family, and health), Job’s responses include, “the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord,” and, “shall we indeed accept good from God, and shall we not accept adversity?”  These are certainly words we would expect to hear from a man who God testifies of as one who “fears God and shuns evil”.  However, let us not suppose that Job was not upset by his losses.  So ghastly was his appearance due to his sorrow and afflictions, that when his friends arrived to comfort him they did not recognize him and they sat in silence, no one daring to speak, for seven days and seven nights.

When they finally spoke, the debate centered on the question of why these things happened to Job.  Job asserts his righteousness and demands an explanation from God of the matter.  His friends, on the other hand, insist that he is being punished for his sins.  They reason that God wouldn’t allow such things to happen to a righteous man.  Thus, Job is not as righteous as he claims to be and can get God to end his suffering by repenting.  This debate unfolds over the course of the book until it comes screeching to a halt when God speaks.  He rebukes Job’s friends for misrepresenting Him.  Then, turning His attention to Job, God questions him to demonstrate the gap between the His understanding and Job’s.  Upon being shown this, Job repents of demanding an answer from God because he realizes that God owes him no such answer.

Like Job, we often ask why because we think we’re entitled to an explanation from God.  However, we learn from the story of Job that God doesn’t owe us an explanation.  As a matter of fact, God doesn’t owe us anything.  It might be an audacious question, but the next thing that goes through our head is often “why not?”  Fortunately, this is a question that we can at least begin to answer (by deferring to God’s answer, of course).  When God speaks to Job, He questions him concerning matters that, Job admits, are beyond his comprehension.  God reminds Job of their relationship as God and man, as Creator and created.  He essentially demands to know on what grounds Job is entitled to an explanation from Him.  Why is God obligated to explain Himself to the man He created?  Paul uses the metaphor of a potter and a pot in Romans 9:20-21.  The pot cannot claim authority over the potter nor can it claim that the potter owes it a debt.  Likewise, we don’t have any ground to stand on in order to make demands of God.

This certainly seems harsh, especially when God “brings the hammer down” on Job and company.  But we cannot lose sight of what it says about God when we look at the full picture.  Yes, it is true that God, by virtue of being God, doesn’t owe us so much as an explanation.  However, consider the things He has done without any obligation:  He has given us His written word in the Scriptures, He has redeemed us through Christ’s death and resurrection, and He causes His Spirit to dwell in us.  These are just a few of the unwarranted blessings that He gives us through grace.

We are often sidetracked by the whys, as Job and his friends were, which causes us to lose sight of God.  This is sometimes why we feel abandoned by God or that God doesn’t care; we aren’t looking for God, but for the answer we want.  We turn away the love and comfort that God offers us because it isn’t an explanation.  Finding God in trials and tribulations doesn’t always consist in understanding why.  It consists in receiving His grace:  His peace, consolation, patience, hope, etc.  “My grace is sufficient for you,” (2 Corinthians 12:9)