When I was a small boy, my family took a summer vacation to Myrtle Beach in South Carolina. Although the beach and commercial district was nothing near its present size, it was still a busy area—especially for a lost kid. Somehow I got separated from my family and before I knew it, I was walking alone on quiet side streets unable to get back to all the beach and water I knew were so near. Continue reading “The Lost and Found”
We are a church culture that ranks sins. A few get to tell glowing testimonies of how they were freed from their flaws while others know not to breathe a word about their past misdeeds—at least not the whole story—for fear of being scorned by some or investigated about the extent of their freedom.
This is shameful. It demonstrates that some of us have not understood the nature of sin, that we all stand under the same curse and that the mite of sin is as great as the vilest and most flagrant. We have also not understood the holy nature of God, his seamlessly pure moral character, or the extravagant grace that rescues us all from equal depravity.
Keep the Main Thing…
I like the way Paul addresses the fact—and how do we miss the point?
“Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor practicing homosexuals nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Cor. 6:9-11).
So profound! Paul highlights issues that were specific to Corinthian society and his hearers; so we gain a telling picture of Corinth. What I love here is that one’s particular “sin background” is non-essential; instead, believers now stand redeemed by the work of Christ—and that’s all that matters, not the once-but-delivered ailment.
If we’re not careful, we will make a big deal about sin and lose love for sinners and fellow believers who wrestle with internal conflicts. We would do well to remember the words of Hebrews 12:15: “See to it that no one falls short of the grace of God.” Make sure, the writer explains, that no one—sinner or saint—lacks of the Lord’s great kindness.
Assessing Our Approach
Therefore, our churches must be spiritual communities where harbored sin in people’s lives breaks our hearts and where we have mastered a quick prayerful, loving, and restorative response, in the same way a body heals itself.
Compassion is the key. It characterized Jesus’s approach with others. And Paul, in Galatians 6:1, reminds us to compassionately restore those in indiscretion mindful that not only are we too susceptible to sin, but also to their kind of sin.
Sin will (and should) always be an affront to God’s holy nature in us, yet we must stop being surprised and shocked by the personal matters family, friends, and peers share with us. We are all human and err. Amazement only makes one feel bad about divulging their troubles; it also makes them question if God really cares about them.
Sin ain’t pretty. Yours wasn’t. So we dare not offend the Lord by being insensitive to others and impede ministry before it starts.
This isn’t just about sinners bearing all, if you’re still missing the point. Christians trip up and get bound, too. The context for Galatians 6 is the believing community; so Paul continues, “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (v. 2, NKJV).
So our churches must be havens where certainly the godly can unpack their burdens and receive guidance and healing prayer. We should think this normal, but it isn’t hardly the case. It is sad that some Christians are scornful, judgmental, untrustworthy, and unloving toward their own—how can the lost ever be saved!
A New Culture
I’m concerned we err because we take our cues from the non-Christian culture around us, not the word of God. But the kingdom of God is our culture, a new and shockingly transformative one, and its implications are monumental. No, we don’t think and act the way the world does; our actions and responses will indeed be revolutionary and countercultural and make non-Christians wonder about our dissimilarity.
And our difference should be most evident in our relationships, the one aspect Jesus seems to deem the very purpose of our lives (cf. Mark 12:28-34). Thus, we take none for granted, neither those with the most need for an assurance of grace nor those who already possess it but need strengthening.
We will best love others and be most real with ourselves when we stop cherry-picking sin and esteem the marvelous grace that rescues us all.
More on this topic: The Need for Transparency
Have you ever been “broke, busted, and disgusted,” wondering where God was, and found yourself despising a well-off person you were certain didn’t care anything about God? Did you sizzle? Rant? Curse? I imagine there are many reasonable Christians who’ve wrestled with these feelings—and taken it out on God. I’ve been there. It’s comforting to know that the scripture writers have, too.
It’s a question asked throughout the Bible, especially in the Prophets, and by do-gooders everywhere: why do the wicked prosper? What is more interesting is God’s answer to the question. But before we get to his response, I need to provoke a discussion. *toothy grin*
This one calls for getting to the heart of why we feel the way we do about the issue. I know what a shoestring budget feels like standing in the grocery line with my bare necessities watching some thug/some white collar highbrow/some self-righteous prude lay all their goodies and spirits on the checkout, me thinking, I’m trying to live for you and I’m just getting by! Judgmental perhaps, but if you’ve been there, can I get an ‘Amen’?
God, You Owe Me!
We have to ask ourselves “Does godliness merit ease and prosperity?” On the one hand we have a God who promises, “All these blessings shall overtake you if…” and on the other he acknowledges, “Many are the afflictions of the righteous…” Might our real problem with the wicked prospering be that we feel God owes us for serving him? That we should be treated better…look like his children, yet the wicked appear more like what his children should be?
Jeremiah in his twelfth chapter and Asaph in Psalm 73 both deal with this topic. Jeremiah laments, “Why does the way of the wicked prosper? Why do all the faithless live at ease?…You are always on their lips but far from their hearts” (12:1-2). One thing we see from Jeremiah’s complaint was that God’s bounty was in the land but was being circumvented by the powerful and greedy, leaving the rich to grow richer and the poor poorer (v. 4). It’s understandable to be angry about these conditions.
God’s reply to Jeremiah is a noted verse in the book—“If you have raced with people on foot and they have worn you out, how can you compete with horses?” (v. 5). God told Jeremiah that his issue was a small and ordinary concern, while the real problem was the moral darkness in the land that was incurring great judgment.
A ‘small and ordinary concern’…
I pause here to be fair. We should not grossly assume that because a person is not devout or is perhaps agnostic or atheist that they are somehow undeserving of good things, and, for that matter, incapable of generosity. The larger point is that wealthy “wicked” people have not necessarily gained their prosperity by being wicked and criminal any more than some Christians have earned a life of poverty by their godliness. Instead, they have worked hard for what they own and deserve any wealth they have. Moreover, honest and diligent work is all of our responsibility, and everyone can be wealthy. This is a clue that, in God’s mind, the issue is not about money.
Matters of the Heart
Asaph shows us the rest of the picture. “Surely God is good to Israel,” he says, “to those who are pure in heart. But as for me, my feet had almost slipped” (73:1-2). What an admission! He rants for half the chapter until despairingly stating the same sentiments I’ve made in the grocery line: “Surely in vain have I kept my heart pure…all day long I have been afflicted and every morning brings new punishments” (vs. 13-14).
But then the dawn of an answer breaks through:
“When I tried to understand all this, it troubled me deeply till I entered the sanctuary of God; then I understood their final destiny. Surely you place them on slippery ground; you cast them down to ruin. How suddenly they are destroyed, completely swept away by terrors!” (vs. 16-18).
Asaph only alludes to the real discovery, and what he realizes is the same message God was trying to get through to Jeremiah. The issue is not wealth but the condition of the heart. The “slippery ground” Asaph refers to explains it: money allows the desires and inhibitions of our hearts to easily surface.
Reading the demise Asaph describes for the wicked is nothing to rejoice about. It is very sad. He shows us a person who has gotten carried away by his or her desires. If the test of struggle is to survive the dearth, then the test of plenty is also to survive by not being drowned by fortune—or drowned in covetousness, pride and greed, power and control, vice and criminality.
Money doesn’t have a heart; people do—and people create crime and unfairness and the imbalance of justice. Thus, why the wicked prosper is manifold, from industriousness to unlawful dealings, but this is not the real issue. What we should hate is not the wicked with money but their state and be very sad about it and the judgment and sorrow their actions work to bring down upon them and a people.
My first real job was at a drugstore during my high school years. It was formative for me in many ways, but there is a small, simple lesson I learned there that I want to share with you.
People were always eager for weekly sales, and some items required a coupon to receive the discounted price. But when shoppers didn’t have the required coupon, I would have to deny them their deal because the clipping was…policy (queue music: duhn, Duhn, DUHNN!)
Of course, they hated it and soon I hated it, too—their dissatisfaction and appeals for the manager. But the lesson became bigger than a mere bottle of shampoo or 12-pack of Coke. It was about people…everywhere, particularly the disenfranchised.
The coupon incident let me see a larger group of folk with a host of needs who find themselves in a big business nation that often turns them away with not much more than a Sorry-that’s-policy attitude.
Do you tire of news stories about people going bankrupt and losing their homes because they get sick? I’m shocked that the top tenth of the top one percent of rich Americans control half of the entire nation’s wealth. And I’m beyond maxed with the cavalcade of contests and reality shows that lure and exploit people in the name of money and status.
Those missing coupons did something for me. They sharpened my vision of hurting people, not any wealth I might chance to have. They taught me that if you wish to help others, just do it—don’t make them jump through hoops for what you can freely and simply offer them. Be good to people and make life easier for them with your capital, not always for it.
This approach will also put an end to fundamental but needless questions, like “Do successful people have an obligation to give back?” and “Should athletes be role models?” Those questions always miss the point. Giving back is not a burden; it’s a privilege.
There’s enough wealth in America for each of us to live comfortably as middle-class citizens, but there is little hope of the people who most need that wealth ever seeing it. Moreover, our systems are broken. But what can happen within each of us is sensitivity to other’s needs and the compassion that motivates us to give of ourselves and our substance, expecting nothing in return.
The snow was a good thing that Thursday morning for a few reasons. I was still getting over a nuisance head cold. Work and customers had been rough all week. I was also in a slump, experiencing one of my moments of frustration with my own failures. So when about two-and-a-half inches of that blessed white freeze surprised everyone and blanketed the region the previous night, I knew then that work was going to have to wait in the morning.
I must have been excited because I couldn’t sleep through the night. I got up constantly: 11:15—1:18—4:35—6:20, until it was finally time to get up at 6:55. I had been calling the weather hotline to see if the facility would be closed, but I didn’t expect concrete answers until I would, more than likely, make the 20-minute drive there only to be told, “Um, they’re closed.”
So I decided I’d leave a message not to expect me and, then, maybe to expect me when the streets cleared. Alas, I thought of those whiny women who nagged the heck out of me about their $800 strollers and car seats that were not the right color or some other ridiculousness that was but an illustration of how money made them think they were better than anyone else—and I made a change of decision decision: There’s a first time for everything, including missing an only day of work in eight months. It could wait.
By 10:30, however, the streets were nothing more than wet, sand-gritted, brine-throwers. I could take care of some errands that I was unable to handle otherwise due to business hours, and then I’d go to work. Moreover, I discovered that my IRS return, which was abnormally large this year, in addition to my work check, had been deposited. I could get to slashing away at my debt in a plan I had created days earlier.
I was excited to get started. Slash! Slash! Slash! and SLASH! It was the biggest day in my recent financial history since a year earlier when I foolishly terminated a job and delivered myself straight to financial hell. A sizeable chunk of debt was now relieved, and the remaining portion of my money would be used to start a much-needed emergency savings fund.
So when I paid the final bill of the morning, I headed out of the building and heard these words sounding from behind me: “Sir, do you believe in helping people?” Before I had the chance to become annoyed by whoever this was, in my heart I recognized a familiar, jabbing, divine, shoulder tap. (Really. There wasn’t a doubt in my mind that this was God and it was a test.)
I turned to see who it was: a less fortunate woman, fairly attractive with bad teeth, wearing a red jacket. She was probably in her mid-fifties by the gray hair. “Yes,” I said. Well I do believe in helping others, said the stuffy part of me that was eerily similar to those ladies who called me each day. She went on: “I need something to eat. I haven’t had anything all day. I’ll go with you if you want me to. I have diabetes and I’m getting weak.” She must have known I wasn’t about to fork over any cash.
Passing the Test
So she got in the car and I asked her name. I still don’t remember it. I asked where she lived; I knew the place. Then we decided on KFC just down the street, a place I figure she frequents often because she walked in greeting the little old cashiers by name as they eyed this newbie (or maybe catch of the day.)
She got what she wanted and I paid: $6.55. Then I patted her arm and told her to take care. She looked at me and thanked me, then smiled what little dental glory she possessed. But right in front of everybody, she grabbed me and hugged my neck. There was a different energy emanating from her. What I had done suffused her with a happiness I didn’t see coming.
I left there stunned and so dazed that I had to get to my favored meditation spot in a nearby park. Here was the first time a beggar truly needed from me, and my charity passed the test.
Who doesn’t know what it feels like to really want to help people but to also feel afraid because to do so is to potentially become the victim? We wrestle ourselves over having the right balance of caution and throwing that caution to the wind over right causes. We do it because the days have grown evil and because the matters of life, as Maslow’s chart so lucidly conveys, all too often become the contingencies for death.
I was proud that I had sensed the divine glare watching and waiting for me to do the right thing, to see if what I was worth that day—my debt relief—was really worth anything to anyone else, for just maybe much more money and relief are ahead of me to help someone else.
I remain gratified to understand that the questions are always more important than the answers because they embody all the motive and quality any answer or action could produce. The questions lead the dance.
So later that day when I got out to go into Piggly Wiggly grocery store and this very frail old man with an empty basket, having just loaded his car, saw me coming, I knew it was another opportunity presenting itself. And, yes, another question: “Young man, are you going inside?” Sir, I’m just going places.