Character and Values

Robin Williams, Suicide, and Hope (Revisited)

I originally shared this post on August 12, 2014, a few days after comedian Robin Williams committed suicide. The recent anniversary of his departure seems a good opportunity to consider some of the lessons we can learn from this tragedy.

If the LORD had not been my help, my soul would soon have lived in the land of silence.
When I thought, “My foot slips,” your steadfast love, O LORD, held me up.
When the cares of my heart are many, your consolations cheer my soul.” (Psalms 94:17-19)

Robin_Williams_(6451536411)_(cropped)

Robin Williams, 1951-2014. From https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robin_Williams.

Over the last 27 hours, I have joined millions of fans around the world who mourn the sudden death of Robin Williams. As I logged onto my computer last night, I saw the shocking “breaking news” alert at the top of my Yahoo! homepage, that the popular comedian/actor had committed suicide.

While I have been a fan of his for many years (“Mork and Mindy” was one of my favorite TV shows during my youth), his death disturbed me more than others. Perhaps that is because “there but for the grace of God go I.” Like Robin Williams, I have battled depression at various times in my life. At times it has cost me dearly. Even in my best moments, I have to think of my depression as being “in remission,” not really “cured.” Thanks be to God, though, even in my worst moments, I could not succeed in ending my life.

It is ironic that a man who devoted his life to bringing happiness to others suffered through so much deep-rooted despair that he eventually surrendered to the lying spirits who told him that death would be better than life. Despite that, maybe it should not come as a surprise. He did not hide his struggles with drug and alcohol addiction. He regularly made jokes about his struggles as part of his stand-up act.

Social networking sites have been ablaze lately with posts reminding people that there are millions of people like Robin Williams. There is nothing like front-page news to bring an issue out of the closet and place it before the masses. I can only hope that Williams’ death raises some red flags so that some people get the help they need to avoid his fate.

With this in mind, I would like to offer the following thoughts:

  1. The Body of Christ must do a better job of ministering with compassion and mercy to those who suffer from depression. Some of the most asinine posts I have read recently have come from those who think they are writing in Jesus’ name. Yes, suicide is a horrible act. I do not want to imagine the agony his wife and children will endure for the rest of their lives. For all I know, maybe Williams is in hell. But, I honestly hope I’m wrong about that. I would like to find out some day in eternity that, at some point, Robin Williams came to have a personal relationship with Jesus and is now in heaven, even if he did have to receive forgiveness for the way he arrived there. We Christians should be eager to find ways to populate heaven, not look for excuses to damn people to hell.
  2. Out of that compassion, we should understand the pain of depression and other mental illnesses and reach out with God’s transforming grace. I know churches that do a great job ministering to drug addicts and alcoholics. They recognize that there is a certain physical healing process that must occur alongside the spiritual and emotional healing that accompanies repentance. Yet, when somebody struggles with depression, many a Christian responds that we need to “snap out of it.” We do not need medication or counseling; we need more faith. The fields are white unto harvest, but we bury the crops in condemnation. (Really, you do not need to judge or condemn someone with depression; many of us do that quite well on our own, so we do not need your help.) As I began writing this post, I was thinking of ministries to the emotionally and mentally ill I could endorse. Unfortunately, I could not think of any.
  3. Take note of the warning signs of suicide. A good list is provided at http://www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org/learn/warningsigns.aspx.
  4. If you read those warning signs and it reminds you of someone you know and love, do not gossip about them. (That includes sending a prayer request to all of your friends.) First, go talk to them. Be open; be honest. Ask them outright about their feelings. Many suicidal people find hope when a friend allows them to verbalize their feelings. I can think of a few people who are alive today because I or someone else had the guts to actually ask them if they were considering suicide. (Feel free to pray for them before speaking to them, but before asking others to pray, obtain their permission.)
  5. If those warning signs sound like they describe you, get help. I would recommend seeking a godly Christian counselor: preferably one with a strong relationship with Christ, the appropriate spiritual gifts, and adequate training. Suicide is serious business, a life-and-death issue. A quick fix by quoting one or two Bible verses out of context will not solve your problems. It requires compassion, wisdom, insight and TIME.
  6. Finally, even if you are not at high risk for suicide, but have prolonged issues related to depression, seek help. Much research suggests that there is a biochemical aspect to depression which must be addressed. One can debate whether a chemical imbalance causes depression, or depressive thinking causes the chemical imbalance. Nevertheless, a healing process is necessary.

Finally, remember that you are not alone. Even Elijah struggled with despair and asked God to take his life (1 Kings 19:5). As long as you have breath, you have hope. As long as God is with you, healing and restoration are freely available.

This post copyright © 2017 Michael E. Lynch. All rights reserved.

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Imitating the Father

“Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children; and walk in love, just as Christ also loved you and gave Himself up for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God as a fragrant aroma” (Ephesians 5:1–2, NASB).

be_imitatorsThe traditional church calendar usually schedules its feast days with little or no consideration for secular holidays. Christian holy days sometimes clash with secular celebrations (like when Pentecost Sunday falls during Memorial Day weekend), while sometimes a secular holiday never seems to coincide with a particularly appropriate religious celebration. So, I was pleased that Fathers’ Day fell one week after Trinity Sunday this year. Having commemorated Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension, and then acknowledging the Holy Spirit and the Trinity, it seems appropriate to consider the Fatherhood of God.

As with last Sunday’s post about the Trinity, this will not be an in-depth analysis of God the Father. In this case, I would like to focus on how we can be imitators of the Father.

Most men imitate their fathers, sometimes without realizing it. Sometimes, I will notice one of my brothers saying things, or making gestures, that reminded me of our father. Even more peculiar was the time that I saw my son giving his son “the look” my dad would give mewhen he was angry. My father died when my son was very young, so he does not have such specific memories of his grandfather. Did he learn that expression from me (was I imitating Dad without realizing it), or is it genetic? We may find ourselves imitating positive or negative traits we learned from our parents.

This site’s tagline (just below the Darkened Glass Reflections title at the top of the page) is “Living today with an eye on eternity.” One way to do that is by imitating God, as Ephesians 5:1 urges. But, how do we do that? After all, we cannot see Him.

God the Father gave us His best self-portrait when He sent His Son to show us who He is and what He is like:

“God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the world. And He is the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature, and upholds all things by the word of His power…” (Hebrews 1:1–3).

God could reveal Himself, at least partially, through the preaching of the prophets or through the Old Testament law. However, it was an incomplete image. This could reduce God to a mere concept or idea, instead of a personal Being. Such an impersonal revelation gives a distorted view of God and dysfunctional form of faith. Take the law alone as your image of God, and you get legalism. Rely on the prophets alone, and you can become judgemental, too focused on circumstances, etc. The same dangers arise if we read the New Testament as a set of rules or dogmas, without recognizing that it is a revelation about a person, Jesus. We can discard fellowship with Christ and replace it with a list of rules to obey, doctrines to comprehend, and intellectual concepts to defend. Jesus Himself can be easily forgotten. Hebrews begins by telling us that Jesus is the ultimate revelation about who God is; near the end it reminds us to fix our eyes upon Him (Hebrews 12:2).

Jesus emphasized that He imitated His Father. After healing on the Sabbath, He said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of Himself, unless it is something He sees the Father doing; for whatever the Father does, these things the Son also does in like manner” (John 5:19). Why did Jesus heal? Because that is what the Father would do. Why did He do it on the Sabbath? Again, this is what His Father would do. Later, He would add, “I do nothing on My own initiative, but I speak these things as the Father taught Me” (John 8:28). Every time He spoke or acted, He imitated His Father, showing us what God would do in human circumstances.

So, as we face the challenges of life, we can look to Scripture to see how Jesus responded to people and situations. He has given us His example. He has also given us the example of people who knew Him. The Bible tells us their stories so that we can learn from them. St. Paul wrote, “Be imitators of me, just as I also am of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1).

Furthermore, we can learn from mature believers that we know how best to imitate God. This is part of the reason why we should be active in and committed to a local church. Do you want to improve your prayer habits? Find a disciplined prayer warrior and imitate his or her habits. Do you want to be a better Bible student? Study with a knowledgeable Bible student and find out how he or she reads and studies. Do you want to learn evangelism? Find someone who shares the Gospel frequently, follow them, and learn their techniques. Do you want to break free from a life-controlling sinful habit? Find someone who has found freedom in Christ in that area and find out how they win their battle against this particular sin.

There is a saying that imitation is the highest form of flattery. It can also be one of the most effective tools for spiritual growth. Our Father wants us to be like Him: “like the Holy One who called you, be holy yourselves also in all your behavior; because it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy’” (1 Peter 1:15-16).

This post copyright © 2017 Michael E. Lynch. All rights reserved.

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A Valiant Warrior Misses the Mark

Shortly before my recent vacation, which took me away from writing for a few weeks, I posted an article about the Old Testament judge Gideon. In that article, I pointed out that we need to see ourselves from God’s perspective. We may have a low opinion of ourselves, but God sees the potential He has given us. Even when Gideon was controlled by fear and doubt, God called him a “valiant warrior” and called him to lead the Israelite army to overthrow their oppressors. In that article, I summarized:

What is your identity? If you are in Christ, God’s seed abides in you (1 John 3:9) and you are a partaker in the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4). God can do great things through you. Fix your eyes on him, not your earthly status or present circumstances, and prepare to go forth in the power He gives you to advance His kingdom!

During my vacation, I was reminded that this is only half the story. The preacher in my son’s church preached the other half of Gideon’s story: After he won the battle against Midian, he took matters into his own hands. During the first half, we hear God instructing him. After a while, Gideon made his own decisions. He went from spiritual hero to a bad example.

If you are not familiar with Gideon’s story, you may read it in Judges 6-8 on Bible Gateway or a similar Bible app or website. What follows is a brief summary.

Gideon started on the right track. He struggled with doubt, but started to obey God’s instructions despite his fears and doubts and eventually courageously led his army to victory.

It all sounds good in Judges 6:11–7:23. God spoke and Gideon obeyed (even if he needed encouragement to overcome his fears and doubts). As a result, the people of God experienced victory.

However, after that, God seemed silent. We do not see the words “God said” again in Gideon’s story after he routed the Midianite army. After starting in obedience to God, Gideon seemed to take matters into his own hands. It seems as if he started to act without seeking God’s will. God continued to give him victory, but Gideon was heading for trouble. The man who started his ministry by tearing down an altar to Baal began to collect new idols: After killing two Midianite leaders, he decided to keep crescent ornaments that were on their camels’ necks. These crescents were symbols of the moon god (Judges 8:21).

Although Gideon refused to be appointed as king of Israel, he requested a large sum of silver, which he made “into an ephod, and placed it in his city, Ophrah, and all Israel played the harlot with it there, so that it became a snare to Gideon and his household” (Judges 8:27). He collected symbols of a pagan god and introduced a new idol to the Israelite people. Gideon obeyed God as long as it was convenient, but then turned back to idolatry.

In the end, he had no positive lasting legacy. The Israelites soon forgot about him and his family, and as soon as he died, they returned to worshipping other gods and rejected the LORD (Judges 8:33–35). Furthermore, his illegitimate son Abimelech (whose name means “my father is the king”) slaughtered all his siblings and declared himself king.

Gideon started well, but ended in failure. The man who tore down an altar to Baal claimed amulets depicting a pagan deity and crafted something that became an idol. The man who said “I will not rule over you, nor shall my son rule over you; the Lord shall rule over you” (Judges 8:23) gave his son a royal name, and that son claimed kingship without God’s approval.

While we need to recognize our identity in Christ, we need to remember that entire phrase: It is our identity in Christ. Sometimes, we win spiritual battles through God’s power and the work of the Holy Spirit, and suddenly forget that He is in control. The apostle Paul asked, “Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” (Galatians 3:3). If we are wise, we will recognize that the spiritual life is a marathon: We have to persist in following Jesus. We cannot start walking with Him and suddenly decide we are so spiritual was can run ahead of him. We need to ask all of the important questions:

  • God, how do you see me?
  • What gifts and talents have you given me?
  • What is my mission and calling?
  • What is your will for my life?
  • What do you want me to do in this situation?

Like many of the heroes in the book of Judges, Gideon was a complex figure: He had some good qualities, but he failed in many ways as well. Like each of us, he was a work in progress. Let us not stop short of doing God’s will and quickly forget His blessings and guidance.

This post copyright © 2017 Michael E. Lynch. All rights reserved.

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Valiant Warrior?—Judges 6:11–14

Then the angel of the Lord came and sat under the oak that was in Ophrah, which belonged to Joash the Abiezrite as his son Gideon was beating out wheat in the wine press in order to save it from the Midianites. The angel of the Lord appeared to him and said to him, “The Lord is with you, O valiant warrior.” Then Gideon said to him, “O my lord, if the Lord is with us, why then has all this happened to us? And where are all His miracles which our fathers told us about, saying, ‘Did not the Lord bring us up from Egypt?’ But now the Lord has abandoned us and given us into the hand of Midian.” The Lord looked at him and said, “Go in this your strength and deliver Israel from the hand of Midian. Have I not sent you?”

—Judges 6:11–14, NASB

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

An ancient Israelite wine press, like the one Gideon used to thresh wheat [CC BY 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons

The angel’s greeting to Gideon may be one of the most peculiar in all of Scripture. He finds a man who is hiding fearfully in a wine press and calls him a “valiant warrior.” Then, he tells Gideon to “Go in this your strength and deliver Israel from the hand of Midian.” At the beginning of his story, Gideon does not seem like a valiant warrior, and he seems to lack strength. One could wonder if the angel came to the wrong wine press.

Gideon can be an encouragement to all of us. God called him to step out in faith with strength he did not know he had, to accomplish a mission for which he seemed ill-equipped. Most of the heroes of the Book of Judges are like us. They have flaws. Their human frailties rise to the surface along with their greatest accomplishments. Most of us can relate to that. We are painfully aware of our weaknesses even in our noblest moments. Many of us would like to be heroic like James Bond, but realize we are often more like Maxwell Smart. Gideon was kind of like that too.

Gideon had a few strengths that God could use. For one, he knew Israel’s heritage, and he knew about his God. He knew God had delivered his ancestors from slavery in Egypt, parted the Red Sea for them, and fed them miraculously for 40 years in the wilderness. But now, they were a defeated nation, oppressed by the Midianites. Regardless of Israel’s present situation, Gideon knew—at least intellectually—that God could deliver them. He just did not know why the Lord was not acting on their behalf.

Second, Gideon had initiative and creativity. As soon as he knew what needed to be accomplished, he would act and he was not afraid to think outside the box to get things done. We see this at the beginning of his story: The Midianites would frequently raid their fields and take all of Israel’s grain. Therefore, Gideon was beating out the wheat in a wine press. This was probably the last place the Midianites would expect to find grain! This knack for initiative and creativity would serve Gideon well as he mustered an army to conquer their enemies.

Gideon had his shortcomings as well. Although he knew God could deliver Israel, he initially looked at his present circumstances. At first, he assumed God had forsaken Israel. He also underestimated himself. He believed he was too low on the social ladder to play a pivotal role in Israel’s deliverance (Judges 6:15). Finally, he needed repeated affirmations that God was with him: miraculous consumption of an offering was not enough to fully persuade him (Judges 6:19–23); he also demanded two omens involving dew and a fleece to be certain of his calling (Judges 6:36–40).

However, eventually Gideon claimed his status as a “valiant warrior.” At first, only God saw him that way. Before long, Gideon accepted this as his identity: demolishing a pagan altar, mustering an army, defeating the Midianites and executing their leaders. When he accepted God’s perspective, he could lead his people with the strength God had given him.

What is your identity? If you are in Christ, God’s seed abides in you (1 John 3:9) and you are a partaker in the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4). God can do great things through you. Fix your eyes on him, not your earthly status or present circumstances, and prepare to go forth in the power He gives you to advance His kingdom!

This post copyright © 2017 Michael E. Lynch. All rights reserved.

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Obeying God—1 Samuel 15:22–23

Samuel Cursing Saul, by Hans Holbein the Younger
Samuel pronounces God’s rejection of Saul, woodcut by Hans Holbein the Younger (1497/1498–1543) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

And Samuel said,

“Has the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices,
as in obeying the voice of the Lord?
Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice,
and to listen than the fat of rams.
For rebellion is as the sin of divination,
and presumption is as iniquity and idolatry.
Because you have rejected the word of the Lord,
he has also rejected you from being king.”

(1 Samuel 15:22–23, ESV)

1 Samuel 15 begins a turning point in the Old Testament’s history of Israel. The Israelites have begged God for a king, so that they could become just like all of the other nations. God chose Saul to be the first king. However, since Saul chose to do things his own way and disobey God, he was rejected as king. In 1 Samuel 15, God declares that He has rejected Saul and will appoint a new king in his place (David, the ancestor of Jesus).

For the sake of brevity, I will simply summarize this chapter (you can read 1 Samuel 15 in its entirety on your own if necessary). God commanded Saul (through the prophet Samuel) to destroy the Amalekite nation. Saul did not fully obey God: he spared some livestock and the king.

God viewed Saul’s partial obedience as full disobedience. The consequences lasted for centuries. Since Saul chose to spare a few Amalekites, more survived. David ended up having to battle them in 1 Samuel 27:8 and 1 Samuel 30. Many commentators believe Haman the Agagite, the enemy of the Jews in the Book of Esther, was a direct descendant of the Amalekite king.

Some of Saul’s excuses sound similar to excuses we hear nowadays. “I did this for God, even if it goes against His Word” (1 Samuel 15:15). “Everybody else was doing it” (1 Samuel 15:21). “Quit making a big deal about it; you’re making me look bad!” (1 Samuel 15:30).

This verse came to mind recently while I was meditating on another Bible passage. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said the following:

“So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 5:23–24, ESV).

Modern-day Christians do not rely on sacrifice, in the Old Testament sense, as an element of our spirituality. We do not slaughter sheep and goats and roast them on an altar. We have other ways of serving God that have replaced sacrifice: evangelism, church ministry, worship, prayer, Bible reading, Bible teaching, tithing, fasting, etc. Yet, Jesus calls us to make healthy interpersonal relationships a higher priority than all of these things.

To obey God is better than sacrifice—or evangelism, or serving in the church, or worship, or prayer, or reading the Bible, or tithing, or fasting, or anything else we say we are doing for God.

To wilfully disobey God defiles the sacrifice or ministry. To do your own thing and ask God to bless it defiles the altar itself. For which is greater, the gift or the altar that makes the gift sacred?” (Matthew 23:19). Far too often, we are tempted to decide to do our own thing and then ask God to bless it. Shortly before He was betrayed, Jesus prayed, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.” We are often tempted to instead pray, “Okay God, this is what I am planning to do. I ask You to bless it and provide what I need to succeed in this.” (Even worse, in some circles they do not ask God to bless or provide: they demand it, bossing the King of Kings and Lord of Lords around by “claiming” the blessing, often by twisting a verse of Scripture to mean what they want it to mean.)

God has called us to obedience and service. He is the Lord, which means our responsibility is to do exactly what He calls us to do. Many live with the desire to one day hear our Lord say, “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Matthew 15:21, 23). That commendation is reserved for those who obey God, not those who look for excuses to do things their way. May we always have a heart willing to hear the will of the Lord and obey.

For a closing thought, I will leave you with this classic song by Keith Green, inspired by this verse:

This post copyright © 2016 Michael E. Lynch. All rights reserved.

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Godly Sorrow—2 Corinthians 7:10

“For the sorrow that is according to the will of God produces a repentance without regret, leading to salvation, but the sorrow of the world produces death” (2 Corinthians 7:10, NASB).

We all know the repeat apologizer. Over and over, he or she disappoints us, breaks promises, or does things to hurt us (accidentally or intentionally). He or she then apologizes and promises to stop doing it. However, before long, they make the same mistake and repeat the same apologies and promises. He or she might be a friend, spouse or other family member, or co-worker. If we are honest, we are probably that person to somebody else, in some area of our lives. I think all believers, at some point, are such repeat apologizers towards God.

The apologies and promises sound sincere, but after a while one loses faith in them. Is that person truly sorry, or just trying to manipulate feelings?

St. Paul contrasted two kinds of sorrow in 2 Corinthians 7. The King James Version refers to one of them as “godly sorrow” (or, as the NASB puts it, “sorrow according to the will of God”), which produces a true repentance leading unto salvation. “The sorrow of the world,” on the other hand, leads to spiritual death.

In many cases, the sorrow of the world is primarily being “sorry that I got caught.” From time to time, a politician or celebrity gets caught in a sex scandal. Initial rumors are usually followed by protests of innocence (the alleged adulterer accuses others of false accusations or blackmail), but once the evidence mounts, he publicly apologizes for his wrongdoing, often praising his wife for being such a wonderful woman whom he never intended to hurt. In far too many cases, the cycle is repeated soon thereafter.

It is not only sex. Many people are never sorry for other misdeeds until they are caught: Think of the person who drives while intoxicated until he is finally pulled over by the police, or the co-worker who steals office supplies until the boss figures out where all those pens and reams of printer paper went.

Others may be sorry for the consequences of their actions. A young woman may be sorry that she got pregnant with that guy she just met. Or, the drunk driver is sorry that he totalled his car in the accident.

It is so easy to get angry or frustrated with those people. Yet, how often are we like that with God? We confess our sins during prayer, and it is the exact same set of sins we confessed yesterday. The time, location, circumstances, and other affected or involved persons have changed, but we did the same thing. We tell God we are sorry, but we will probably do it again tomorrow.

Being sorry for getting caught will not bring repentance. It will just train us to find more elaborate ways to avoid getting caught the next time.

Being sorry for suffering consequences may change us for a little while. A few years ago, after a severe gall-bladder attack, I took drastic action to improve my diet: No more doughnuts; no more candy bars; cut back on coffee; avoided fatty foods. However, not long after I recovered from gall-bladder surgery, I was back to my old eating habits. Painful consequences might deter us, but if we can find our way around them, we will go right back to our old ways.

Jesus tell us that the two greatest laws in Scripture are “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” What kind of sorrow will produce true lasting repentance? Only a sorrow that connects with love. If we love God and love our neighbors, we will lay a foundation for godly sorrow which will lead to true repentance.

  • Love the Lord your God: Recognize who He is and all He has done for you. Acknowledge that His will for your life, especially as revealed in Scripture, is better than anything you can come up with. Then, seek to do His will and live the kind of life that will leave no obstacles between you and Him.
  • Love your neighbor: Biblical love is not just good feelings. It is a sacrificial active pursuit of the other’s best interests. It involves caring enough to seek to improve the other person’s life or situation. (Read 1 Corinthians 13:4–7 for a more detailed explanation.) Do we think about how our choices will affect the person we love?

Repentance is the starting point for pursuing a new way of life, and it usually begins with the right kind of sorrow.

This post copyright © 2016 Michael E. Lynch. All rights reserved.

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The Two Sides of Discipleship—Luke 10:38–42

Now as they went on their way, Jesus entered a village. And a woman named Martha welcomed him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching. But Martha was distracted with much serving. And she went up to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:38–42, ESV)

Georg Friedrich Stettner (attr) Christus im Hause der Martha
“Christus im Hause der Martha,” by Georg Friedrich Stettner (17th century). © Public domain

Many people are familiar with the story of Lazarus, whom Jesus raised from the dead. While Lazarus gives us the most vivid illustration of resurrection (besides that of Jesus Himself), it was Lazarus’ sister Martha who would first hear Jesus’ declaration that “I am the resurrection and the life” (John 11:25).

Lazarus had two sisters: Martha and Mary. Like many siblings, they seem like very opposite personalities. Yet, through them, we see the two sides of a disciple of Jesus.

Martha appears to be pragmatic and active. When Jesus came to town, she did what the woman of the house usually did in those days: Prepared a meal for the guests, provided food, and made certain everybody was comfortable. The men may sit around discussing theology and the great questions of life, or listening to the esteemed rabbi. A woman’s place was in the kitchen, and Martha embraced that role and excelled therein. However, her pursuit of excellence got the best of her; she became distracted, anxious, and troubled, even though she was in the presence of the Prince of Peace.

Mary, on the other hand, chose a different response to Jesus’ visit. She sat at His feet, as a disciple, listening to every word He said. Somehow, we always find Mary at Jesus’ feet [when Jesus arrived to raise Lazarus from the dead (John 11:32); anointing His feet with expensive ointment (John 12:3; contrary to a common misunderstanding, this was not Mary Magdalene)]. This is the place of submission, where a student seeks knowledge from a teacher, and where a worshipper kneels before God Himself.

Martha had chosen the role of a servant. She followed the normal conventions of society and fulfilled the customary expectations. Mary defied the norms of her day (assuming a position that was normally reserved for men), because in her heart, she was a worshipper. Martha showed her devotion to Jesus by meeting material needs; Mary showed her devotion by showering Jesus with attention, even affection. Mary may have seemed almost brazen in her radical devotion to Jesus, and may perhaps deserve the title of the world’s first “Jesus freak.”

Christian biographer James Kiefer summarizes the sisters by writing, “On the basis of these incidents, many Christian writers have seen Mary as representing Contemplation (prayer and devotion), and Martha as representing Action (good works, helping others); or love of God and love of neighbor respectively.”

Jesus said Mary’s life of contemplation is the better choice. This does not eliminate the need for people like Martha. Perhaps, though, the Marthas of the world should take a cue from the Marys. Contemplation, prayer, and devotion come first, and give direction and momentum to action, good works, and service. Why do we pray? Why do we study the Bible? Why do we worship Jesus? Because, in His presence, we receive direction for our lives. Prayer should not be separated from “real life.” Instead, it should be the foundation on which we build our lives, built upon by works of service to Christ and those whom He loves and came to save. The dichotomy between faith and works (see James 2:14–26) finds cohesiveness when someone begins the day by praying like Mary, and brings the joy and peace of Christ’s love into the rest of their day. Then, one can serve like Martha without becoming distracted, anxious, or troubled. When a Mary rises from the feet of Jesus and brings His presence into the world by serving others like Martha would, discipleship is complete.

This post copyright © 2016 Michael E. Lynch. All rights reserved.

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Repentance Brings God Joy—Luke 15:7

“Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance” (Luke 15:7, ESV).

The Lord is my Good Shepherd
“The Good Shepherd,” by Bernhard Plockhorst [public domain, via Wikimedia Commons]

Luke 15 centers around three parables about repentance. Each story focuses on something or somebody that was lost, but which is eventually found. The most famous part of this chapter is the parable of the prodigal son (vv. 11–32). However, the parable of the lost sheep deserves special attention. This is the first parable in the series, when Jesus responds to complaints by religious leaders, who think it is inappropriate for Him to eat and drink with “sinners”:

“What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance” (Luke 15:4–7, ESV).

The story is simple enough: A man has 100 sheep. He loses one of them; most likely, the sheep has wandered away. Think about it, though: Is it worth the risk to look for that one sheep? It may already be dead, eaten by a wolf or another predator. Many more may wander off while he is looking for the lone sheep. Nevertheless, he goes off looking for his sheep, finds it, and then invites his neighbors to a party to celebrate the return of the lost sheep. (The party would probably cost more than the sheep would be worth.)

This is a picture of the grace of God. It is radical. It defies logic. It assumes a great risk when it seeks to save the lost. Most importantly, it cares about an unworthy individual.

Jesus tells us that there is more joy in heaven over one repentant sinner than there is over ninety-nine righteous people. God is not satisfied with those who are already following Him. He is seeking more lost souls to add to His kingdom and welcome into His family. When one child of God backslides, He is seeking to draw them back. No matter how many people are living in fellowship with Him and on their way to heaven, it is not enough.

No matter how far any of us may stray from Him, it is not far enough to draw us away from His care. Your sins are not bad enough to bring God’s love to an end. If you have strayed from Him, or if you have never entered a relationship with Jesus Christ, He still loves you; no sin will change that.

This parable also speaks against self-righteousness. The religious leaders, the Pharisees, were asking, “What kind of great religious leader spends time with people like these guys? Jesus, do you know what that guy over there does for a living? Do you know how many crimes that one has committed? Do you know what that one is smoking, or drinking? Do you know who that woman is sleeping with?” It does not matter to Jesus: He came to seek and save that which was lost. These are the people He came to receive: People who know they need forgiveness and salvation. He came for those who know that they deserve eternity in hell, instead of salvation and the love of God.

When Jesus speaks of the ninety-nine who have no need of repentance, it is sort of like a trick statement. Nobody is truly righteous. To another leader, Jesus would say “No one is good except God alone” (Luke 18:19). Romans 3:23 reminds us that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. So, in reality, we all need repentance. Some of us have been fortunate enough to realize that and come to Jesus already. Others need to repent of sins that have become socially acceptable, or that many churches think are “not so bad.” We may look good and moral to others, but we still need the grace of God.

It does not matter how far you have wandered, or in what kind of mire you have soiled your soul. Forgiveness is available. Jesus, the Good Shepherd, is seeking you. Run into His arms for protection and preservation. He is looking for a reason to celebrate.

This post copyright © 2016 Michael E. Lynch. All rights reserved.

Categories: Bible meditations, Character and Values, Christian Life, Renewing the Mind Reflections, Scripture Sabbath | Tags: , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Tempted from Within—James 1:13–15

“Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am being tempted by God,’ for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.” (James 1:13–15, ESV)

“The devil made me do it.” Those words were made famous by Flip Wilson’s brash female character, Geraldine Jones. They have been repeated by numerous people, including many Christians. They echo Eve’s excuse for eating the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3:13).

The devil gets a lot of free advertising these days. A recovering alcoholic yields to temptation, gets drunk, and has a car accident. “I don’t know what happened. I was doing OK, and then the devil got a hold of me.” I recently spoke to a friend who was afraid his church could split because somebody had left, and a few other people were having conflicts. (By the way, there are several hundred people in this church.) In his mind, Satan was causing division.

The devil is real, but he probably had little to do with any of these circumstances. For one, unlike God, he cannot be everywhere all of the time. At most, maybe one of his demon friends could be involved in one of these situations. However, if they are present, they are merely providing added influence. The real problem arises with the people in the situation.

The alcoholic drank because, to some extent, he wanted to drink. Maybe there was a false sense of comfort in the bottle; perhaps he felt like he needed beer to relax. Satan was not in the bottle, though. He had been lured and enticed by his own desires.

When relationships are strained, it is usually not a demon who is to blame. It is the sinful attitudes, or the history of hurt in the hearts of the people. One person is overly sensitive and takes it as a personal attack if things do not go their way or if people disagree with them. Another assumes they know what is best for everybody around them. Still another is easily offended if people do not do the things they ask. Often, past hurts are replayed in current conflicts. Friendships, families, and fellowships fall apart.

So, just to be clear:

  • If your car breaks down, it is probably not caused by a demon. It is a mechanical problem, caused by the laws of physics. It may have been expedited by your careless stewardship of the things you own (e.g., if you were too cheap or lazy to do regular maintenance).
  • Your emotional reaction to the car breaking down is not caused by a demon. You said those words yourself. A demon did not jump into your mouth to say them.
  • If there is fighting and division in the church, it is caused by the same things that cause fighting and division throughout society (James 4:1–3). Greed, pride, ego, passion, selfishness, hatred, unforgiveness: These are human character defects, manifestations of sin, and indications that people are not perfect. Hostility and fighting are manifestations of human sin: you do not need a demon to break up a church. [Besides, Jesus Himself said that the church would prevail against the gates of hell (Matthew 16:18); if Satan is defeating your church, it is still a reflection of weakness in the congregation. The Body of Christ should have the victory, because Jesus said we would!]
  • If you are in financial trouble, make sure it is not caused by your sin. Yes, there will be hard times when money is tight. But, many people get into financial problems because they buy things they want when they cannot afford them. If you are living beyond your means, the problem is probably your greed: It is not a demon eating your bank account.

I hope you get the point. The root of your temptations usually lies within your heart. Yes, demons and circumstances may edge us closer to temptation and sin, but only by exploiting our own weaknesses. “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:8–9, ESV). “Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed” (James 5:16, ESV). Acknowledge that it is truly YOUR sin, YOUR temptation, YOUR weakness, and then turn to Jesus to receive the forgiveness that He is offering to YOU.

This post copyright © 2016 Michael E. Lynch. All rights reserved.

Categories: Bible meditations, Character and Values, Christian Life | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment

Fulfillment of the Law—Matthew 5:17-20

“Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:17-20, NASB.)

Christians seem to have many different opinions about the relationship between followers of Jesus and the Old Testament law.

Many live and talk as though we are still bound by a series of rules and regulations. Even though they may believe that some of the rules no longer apply to us (e.g., eating pork, observing the Sabbath), they find new rules which they believe all Christians should follow (for example, thou shalt not listen to rock music or anything that sounds like it; thou shalt not dance; thou shalt not drink even the tiniest sip of alcohol). When someone violates one of those rules, these people may assume that this person does not know Jesus.

Then there are those people who believe that since we are no longer under law, but under grace (Romans 6:14–15), we can just ignore the entire Old Covenant. In fact, we can even ignore those passages in the New Testament that sound like commands straight from the mouth of God.

Clearly, neither is correct. Paul’s teaching in his letters, as well as much of Jesus’ teaching in the Gospels, proves that rules and regulations do not save us. But, when Jesus says that those who annul even the smallest stroke of the pen are least in the kingdom of heaven, it is clear that we cannot simply live as we like.

How do we answer this paradox? I will suggest a few basic principles that we can learn from Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 5:17–20, which will help us balance our relationship with Jesus and our obligation to rules and regulations in Scripture.

First, remember that Jesus has fulfilled the law. The central message of the Gospel is that God so loved the world that He sent His only-begotten Son, so that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life (John 3:16). Jesus died for you! You are forgiven! That forgiveness is a gift, freely received by faith! You do not earn it by trying harder, or by paying God back. Stop beating yourself up if you fail: All of your sins, whether by failure to resist temptation or by open rebellion against God, are forgiven when you confess Jesus as Lord of your life.

Second, the entire law is summed up in loving God and loving your neighbor. In Matthew 22:37–40, Jesus defined the greatest law of Scripture by saying:

And He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the great and foremost commandment. The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.”

The love Jesus speaks of is not just a warm feeling. It can hurt. Remember John 3:16—God so loved the world that He did something drastic and sacrificial for us. In the Gospel of Luke, after Jesus sums up the two great laws, He taught the parable about the Good Samaritan: In that story, a man went out of his way to take care of a crime victim who probably hated him, surrendering his own time, money, and energy to care for somebody in need.

Because of this, in some ways the New Covenant calls us to a higher standard. We can no longer face ethical dilemmas or personal decisions based purely on the questions, “Is there a rule against this? Am I allowed to do this?” Instead we must ask ourselves deeper questions:

  • Since Jesus dwells in me and I am part of His body, how would He act?
  • What would He do about this?
  • How can I show love for this person in this situation?
  • Not only is it allowable, but also, is it profitable? Is this the best way to seek the best for other people?

These are challenging questions to ask ourselves as we face the daily challenges of life.

This post copyright © 2016 Michael E. Lynch. All rights reserved.

Categories: Bible meditations, Character and Values, Christian Life, Scripture Sabbath | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

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