DISCONTENT

Keep a sharp eye out for weeds of bitter discontent. A thistle or two gone to seed can ruin a whole garden in no time. Watch out for the Esau syndrome: trading away God’s lifelong gift in order to satisfy a short-term appetite. You well know how Esau later regretted that impulsive act and wanted God’s blessing—but by then it was too late, tears or no tears. [Hebrews 12:15-17 (MSG)]

Discontent is the first necessity of progress. [Thomas A. Edison]

snowy egretA certain amount of discontent seems to be built into us, which isn’t all bad. It can be creative and the source of change and improvement. Dissatisfaction with the harpsichord’s inability to vary the intensity of its sound led Bartolomeo Cristofori to invent the piano around 1708. Benjamin Franklin’s annoyance at having to switch between two pairs of glasses led to his invention of bifocals and it probably was his discontent with a cold house that led to his invention of the metal-lined Franklin stove. Discontent with the traditional wheelbarrow is what led James Dyson to reinvent it as a Ballbarrow using a rust-proof plastic bin and a ball-shaped shock-absorbing wheel that wouldn’t sink into soft soil or sand!

Discontent with harsh taxes and lack of representation in Parliament is what led to the Revolutionary War and the formation of our nation. The abolitionist, women’s suffrage, environmental, anti-apartheid, and civil rights movements were the result of social discontent. Jesus certainly was discontent with much He found in Judah and He made His feelings known to the Pharisees and scribes. God wants us to be dissatisfied with sin, injustice, inequity, intolerance, discrimination, malice, and evil. Constructive discontent is far better than self-righteous satisfaction.

While God wants us to be discontent with the wrongs in our world, He doesn’t want us to be people of discontent. Focusing on the petty frustrations or material things of life leads us to the land of “if only:” if only we had a larger house, a prettier wife, a richer husband, brighter children, a better body, nicer in-laws or more money, power, or influence. The grass always seems greener in the land of “if only.”

Why is it so difficult to be content with God’s blessings? Eve was in a paradise and yet, in spite of all she had in Eden, she wanted something more. Discontent is what led Esau to trade his birthright for stew, David to desire Bathsheba, Sarah to give Hagar to Abraham, the prodigal to ask for his inheritance, the Israelites to complain incessantly to Moses, the angels to rebel against God, Miriam and Aaron to criticize Moses, and Korah to protest the leadership of Moses and Aaron. Things didn’t end well for any of them!

Discontent is the enemy’s voice telling us we deserve more and better. Like a slap in God’s face, our discontent tells God He made a mistake and His mercies and gifts aren’t enough. It makes us think we know better than God and that our plan makes more sense than His.

When in elementary school, I remember the teacher’s admonition to keep our eyes on our own papers. That remains good advice today only, instead, of our schoolwork, we need to keep our eyes on the gifts God has given us rather than what He may have given to others. There always will be someone who has more or better and some place where the grass looks greener. Looking at others’ papers during a test was cheating but looking at others’ lives can lead to discontent and envy (and that’s sinning!)

Satan loves to fish in the troubled waters of a discontented heart. [Thomas Watson]

You’re blessed when you’re content with just who you are—no more, no less. That’s the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that can’t be bought. … You’re blessed when you get your inside world—your mind and heart—put right. Then you can see God in the outside world. [Matthew 5:5,8 (MSG)]

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GUARD YOUR GATES [THE HOLY WAR – Part 1]

He burned down the Temple of the Lord, the royal palace, and all the houses of Jerusalem. He destroyed all the important buildings in the city. Then he supervised the entire Babylonian army as they tore down the walls of Jerusalem on every side. [2 Kings 25:9-10 (NLT)]

Schoonhoven - city gate

Jerusalem was heavily fortified and completely protected by walls over thirty-nine feet high and eight feet thick. In 586 BC, the Babylonian forces of King Nebuchadnezzar breached those seemingly impregnable walls and Jerusalem was burned, the city’s walls torn down, and the people taken captive. The city’s walls were rebuilt by Nehemiah 141 years later but they were again breached in 70 AD by the Romans who destroyed the city, demolished the second Temple, and massacred much of the population.

Published in 1682, John Bunyan’s allegory The Holy War tells of another fortified city’s fall. Bunyan’s walled city of Mansoul had five gates: Eye-gate, Ear-gate, Mouth-gate, Nose-gate and Feel-gate. Rather than Babylonians or Romans, Mansoul’s enemy was Diabolus. Unlike Jerusalem’s, Mansoul’s gates could not be breached or opened from the outside. They could only be forced if someone within the city allowed it. In short, sin could only enter if someone permitted its entrance. Diabolus and his then invisible army sat down in front of Ear-gate and assaulted it with fraud, guile, and hypocrisy. With the deaths of Captain Resistance and Lord Innocence, the townspeople looked at the tree of forbidden fruit, tasted it, forgot their good King Shaddai, opened both Ear and Eye-gate, and Mansoul came under the rule of Diabolus.

The Holy War is a none too subtle allegory that makes its point: walled cities can fall and city gates can be breached, if not from the outside, then from within. Like the city of Mansoul, sin will tempt and try to seduce us but it can’t force its way into our lives; it only enters by invitation. We alone are the ones who determine what we look at, hear, touch, feel, smell, say and do. Satan didn’t force Eve to eat that fruit, Cain to kill Abel, Jacob to deceive his father, the Israelites to worship a golden calf, Samson to dally with Delilah, David to take Bathsheba, Jonah to run away from Nineveh, King Ahaz to sacrifice his son, Herod to decapitate John, Judas to betray Jesus, or Peter to deny Him. These people freely opened their gates to temptation and allowed sin entrance into their lives.

An inevitable part of life, temptation is not a sin; it is a trial of faith. Mansoul’s sin was not in hearing the lies of Diabolous—it lay in believing and acting upon them. Sin happens when we drop our guard, open our gates, and allow it into our lives. God has given us a conscience, self-discipline, His word, and the Holy Spirit to defend our gates; whether or not we open ourselves to sin always remains our choice. Let us be cautious as to who and what enters our gates!

Temptation is the devil looking through the keyhole. Yielding is opening the door and inviting him in. [Billy Sunday]

But let us who live in the light be clearheaded, protected by the armor of faith and love, and wearing as our helmet the confidence of our salvation. [1 Thessalonians 5:8 (NLT)]

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DESPAIR AND DOUBT

Around midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening. Suddenly, there was a massive earthquake, and the prison was shaken to its foundations. All the doors immediately flew open, and the chains of every prisoner fell off! [Acts 16:25-26 (NLT)]

By 1658 in England, it had become illegal to conduct a religious service differing from the Church of England’s official liturgy or for “one not in Episcopal orders” to address a congregation. A Puritan, John Bunyan, was arrested for preaching the gospel without a license. After three months in the Bedford jail, he was offered his freedom if he’d agree not to preach publicly. He refused saying, “If I was out of prison today, I would preach the gospel again tomorrow by the help of God.” Bunyan spent twelve years imprisoned. During that time, he wrote The Pilgrim’s Progress. No country cub prison, the Bedford jail was overcrowded, unsanitary, unheated, and the plague of 1665 claimed forty prisoners as victims. Years later, Bunyan wrote: “Satan can make a jail to look like hell itself.” Although all looked hopeless for the man, he found strength in prayer and in his writing.

In The Pilgrim’s Progress, Christian and Hopeful accidentally step out of the Way. Having trespassed on the grounds of Giant Despair, they are captured and taken to Doubting Castle. The Pilgrims are imprisoned in a dark dungeon, without bread or water, for nearly four days. The first day, Despair mercilessly beats the men with a club. The second day, telling them there is no escape, the giant urges the suffering men to kill themselves. Realizing that others have managed to escape, the men retain hope, refuse to end their suffering, and vow to battle Despair. The third day, to further destroy their spirits, the giant takes them into the castle yard, shows them the remains of those he’s destroyed, and pitilessly beats them again.

Around midnight Sunday morning, just as Paul and Silas did in their prison cell, Christian and Hopeful begin to pray. A little before dawn, Christian realizes what a fool he’s been. In his coat, next to his heart, is a Key called Promise and Christian is sure it will unlock the doors of Doubting Castle. Although Doubt and Despair caused them to forget the promises of God, prayer reminded the two men to recall and trust in God’s promises. The Key easily opens both the door to their cell and the one into the castle yard but the last lock, the one out of Doubting Castle opens hard. It’s not easy to escape from the depths of Doubt and Despair and I imagine that, during those twelve years he sat behind bars in abysmal conditions, Bunyan had many moments of doubt and despair.

Let us remember to keep the Key of Promise close to our hearts.  It’s unlikely that doubt and despair will come in the form of a giant or a castle dungeon, but they will come and they are capable of imprisoning us. While not using a club, despair will attack us mercilessly, try to strip us of hope, and imprison us in doubt. May we always hold tight the key to our freedom: the promises of God.

Lord, we pray for those imprisoned By Despair, who lie in grief;
Locked in Doubting Castle’s dungeon, Stripped of hope and its relief.
Father help them to remember In Your promise is the key;
Now unlock the door that bars them, In the Gospel, set them free.
[From “A Prayer for Pilgrims” by Ken Puls]

For all of God’s promises have been fulfilled in Christ with a resounding “Yes!” And through Christ, our “Amen” (which means “Yes”) ascends to God for his glory. It is God who enables us, along with you, to stand firm for Christ. He has commissioned us, and he has identified us as his own by placing the Holy Spirit in our hearts as the first installment that guarantees everything he has promised us. [2 Corinthians 1:20-22 (NLT)]

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FRESH STARTS

When God our Savior revealed his kindness and love, he saved us, not because of the righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He washed away our sins, giving us a new birth and new life through the Holy Spirit. [Titus 3:5 (NLT)]

This means that anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun! [2 Corinthians 5:17 (NLT)]

desert paintbrushSent by God to warn the people of Nineveh of God’s judgment, Jonah went in the opposite direction. After he survived three days in the belly of a fish, God gave Jonah another chance to deliver His message to the people of Nineveh. This time, Jonah delivered the news that God intended to destroy the city in forty days. When Nineveh’s king heard Jonah’s warning, he called for fasting, praying, and repenting their evil ways. People and animals were to cover themselves with sackcloth (a coarse fabric of goat’s hair) as a sign of grief, submission, and contrition.  Seeing their repentance, God was merciful and gave them another chance.

Barnabas and his cousin John Mark accompanied Paul to Cyprus but, for some unknown reason, John Mark deserted the other two in Pamphylia. Paul initially refused to give the man another chance but both God and Barnabas did. The cousins went to Cyprus and Paul and Silas went to Syria and Cilicia. Eventually, however, Paul gave the one-time deserter another chance and, twelve years later, John Mark was with the Apostle during his first imprisonment in Rome. When Paul was approaching the end of his life, he requested John Mark’s presence during his second Roman imprisonment. What became of John Mark? Because he was given another chance, the man who once abandoned Barnabas and Paul became the man we know as the gospel writer Mark!

Peter failed Jesus by denying Him; when given another chance he became “the rock” and leader of the disciples. Saul failed Jesus by persecuting His followers; given another chance, he became Paul and carried the gospel message throughout the Roman Empire to Jews and Gentiles alike. While we don’t know what happened to the woman caught in adultery, we know Jesus gave her another chance with the admonition to, “Go and sin no more.” One look at the history of the Israelites tells us that God is not a God of second chances; He’s the God of many chances!

We are not our poor choices and our failures should never haunt, confine, or define us. Our God is one of both forgiveness and transformation. Because He gives us another chance, who we were yesterday does not have to be who we are today. Unfortunately for Nineveh, their repentance didn’t last for long. Instead of leaving their past behind, they returned to their sinful ways. The second chance God gave them was wasted and the city of “murder and lies” was destroyed 148 years after Jonah’s first warning. Our God specializes in renewal and fresh starts. The people of Nineveh wasted theirs; let’s not make the same mistake!

And I am certain that God, who began the good work within you, will continue his work until it is finally finished on the day when Christ Jesus returns. [Philippians 1:6 (NLT)]

Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect. [Romans 12:2 (NLT)]

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LEADING WITH LOVE

For the law was given through Moses, but God’s unfailing love and faithfulness came through Jesus Christ. [John 1:17 (NLT)]

mouse-ear hawkweedLegend had it that an angel of the Lord occasionally would come into the pool at Bethesda, stir up the water, and that the first person to enter the pool would then be healed. Jesus, however, simply said to the crippled man lying there: “Stand up, pick up your mat, and walk!” and the man did just that. Since it was the Sabbath, the man later was stopped by the Jewish leaders and condemned for carrying his mat and working on the day of rest. According to the law, either he should have stayed and watched his mat or left it behind and walked away. When he explained that the man who’d healed him told him otherwise, they wanted him to identify his healer. Their curiosity, however, had nothing to do with knowing who had performed this amazing miracle; they wanted to know who’d broken the law!

It was on the Sabbath that Jesus gave sight to a man born blind. Out Lord spit on the ground, made mud with his saliva, applied the muck over the man’s eyes, and told him to wash himself in the pool of Siloam. After the man did as directed, he could see. Stunned by the change in him, people who’d known him as a blind beggar took him to be questioned by the Pharisees. Again, Mosaic Law had been broken, not just by the healing, but also by the spitting (considered digging or plowing) and mud making (combining wet and dry was kneading). Sure that a healer who so flagrantly broke the Sabbath could not be from God, the Pharisees wanted to know who it was.

On another Sabbath, Jesus was teaching in the temple when He saw a woman so misshapen by her disease that she couldn’t even stand up straight. After calling her over, He touched her and told her that she was healed. Instantly, the woman stood erect and praised God. The synagogue leaders didn’t have to question the woman as to who healed her that time; they saw it for themselves.

In all these instances, the synagogue leaders believed Jesus had broken the law by healing on the Sabbath. Unless it was a critical life-or-death situation, healing was considered work and was to be delayed until after the Sabbath. Since the crippled man had been that way for thirty-eight years, the blind man sightless since birth, and the woman’s body bent and broken for eighteen years, there was nothing urgent about their conditions. After Jesus healed the woman, the Pharisees indignantly told Him to come some other day to do His healing! Another day meant nothing to the Pharisees. Of course, they weren’t the ones suffering! When in pain or distress, even an hour can feel like an eternity.

When questioned by the Pharisees, Jesus reminded them that the main principle behind the treatment of animals in Jewish law was tza’ar ba’alei chayim: preventing the suffering of living creatures. Even though a donkey or ox could not be untied to go out to work, it could be untied and taken out to be fed and watered so that it wouldn’t suffer all day. Moreover, an animal was to be relieved if it was suffering from carrying too heavy a load. The load those hurting people were carrying was exceedingly heavy and stopping the suffering of God’s creatures was all Jesus was doing when He healed! In their obsession with keeping to the letter of the law, the Pharisees seemed to forget the spirit of God’s law: that we are to love the Lord and love our neighbor. That wasn’t a legendary healing angel of the Lord standing right in front of the Pharisees, it was the Lord himself! Sadly, instead of recognizing Him, they persecuted Him.

So the Jewish leaders began harassing Jesus for breaking the Sabbath rules. But Jesus replied, “My Father is always working, and so am I.” So the Jewish leaders tried all the harder to find a way to kill him. For he not only broke the Sabbath, he called God his Father, thereby making himself equal with God. [John 5:16-18 (NLT)]

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MARA

He has filled me with bitterness and given me a bitter cup of sorrow to drink. [Lamentations 3:5 (NLT)]

tiger swallowtailTo explain her sisters’ bitterness and sour outlook on life, my mother-in-law would say, “Well, their lives didn’t turn out the way they’d hoped.” Those women had no reason to complain when comparing their lives to Naomi (the mother-in-law in the book of Ruth).

Talk about things not turning out the way you’d hoped! Naomi endured famine, a move to an enemy nation, pagan daughters-in-law, no grandchildren, the death of her husband and then the death of her two sons. Poverty stricken, with no relatives to help her in Moab, Naomi decided to return to Israel. When her two daughters-in-law started back with her, she tried to deter them, telling them to go back to their parents where there may be another marriage in their future. While one woman returned home, Ruth stayed with her mother-in-law.

Widowed and childless, neither woman’s life seemed headed for a “happily ever after.” When the bereaved Naomi arrived back in Bethlehem, she told her old friends to call her Mara, meaning “bitter.” She explained that, “The Almighty has made life very bitter for me. I went away full, but the Lord brought me home empty.” Like my husband’s aunts, Naomi was resentful that life hadn’t turned out as she’d expected. What she didn’t understand was that God was busy at work behind the scenes. Her bitterness even blinded her to fact that she didn’t come home empty—she’d come home with Ruth, a woman described by Naomi’s friends as “better to you than seven sons!”  Embittered, Naomi didn’t see her blessing in a daughter-in-law who loved and honored her and would labor in the fields for her.

You know the rest of the story. Ruth gleaned grain in the fields of Boaz. He took on the role of “kinsman redeemer,” purchased land that had belonged to Naomi’s husband, and married Ruth. The couple had a son, Naomi became a grandmother, and that little boy would be grandfather to the future King David.

We all have been given reason to call ourselves bitter. But, as followers of Jesus, we can become better rather than bitter and not because a kinsman redeemer buys our land, marries us, pays our bills, solves our problems, and takes us away from our troubles. We don’t become bitter because we have a Redeemer God who walks with us through our trouble and enables us to find joy in our new normal. We don’t become bitter because we know our life is better than we ever dared hope. We don’t become bitter because we know life, in the world yet to come, can only be better!

We are ignored, even though we are well known. We live close to death, but we are still alive. We have been beaten, but we have not been killed. Our hearts ache, but we always have joy. We are poor, but we give spiritual riches to others. We own nothing, and yet we have everything. [2 Corinthians 6:9-10 (NLT)]

The faithful love of the Lord never ends! His mercies never cease. Great is his faithfulness; his mercies begin afresh each morning. I say to myself, “The Lord is my inheritance; therefore, I will hope in him!” [Lamentations 3:22-24 (NLT)]