EUODIA AND SYNTYCHE

I have a special appeal which goes jointly to Euodia and Syntyche: please, please, come to a common mind in the Lord. [Philippians 4:2 (NTE)]

sandhill cranes
These words from Philippians are the only mention of Euodia and Syntyche in the New Testament. Personally, if someone is going to read about me 2,000 years from now, I would prefer something about how easy it was to get along with me rather than about any arguments I had. Because Paul urges the women to settle their disagreement, it seems that their dispute was personal rather than doctrinal. Had the issue been one of doctrine, Paul would have stepped in and corrected the error as he did in many of his letters to the early churches.

Bible scholars have a sense of humor and it’s been suggested that better names for these women would be “Odious” and “Soon Touchy.” Perhaps Euodia really was disagreeable and unpleasant and Syntyche was thin-skinned and quick-tempered. Then again, maybe they were just like the rest of us at our less than best—stubborn, indignant, tactless, resentful, short-tempered, uncompromising, or easily offended. We don’t know what their problem was nor do we know who was “right” and who was “wrong.” In this case, by holding a grudge, they both were in error!

Because people in conflict usually expect others to take sides, conflict affects more than those directly involved. The women’s behavior was threatening the existence of the church at Philippi and their dispute was hindering God’s work. To save the church, Paul didn’t tell them they had to become best friends or even agree with each other, just to be of the same mind as the Lord. For the sake of the church, he wanted them to find a way to live in harmony.

The letter to the Philippians was written to “all of God’s holy people in Philippi who belong to Christ Jesus, including the church leaders and deacons.” [1:1] In the early church, Paul’s apostolic letters were meant to be read aloud to the entire congregation. Less than 15% of men were literate and that number was less for women. The congregation sat in a circle or semi-circle around the reader so that everyone saw the speaker. This arrangement meant they also saw one another and their reaction to the words spoken. Can you imagine Euodia and Syntyche (and those who may have taken sides in their conflict) as they heard the apostle’s words? There probably was a fair amount of squirming in the seats that day!

Like churches, families can suffer because of quarrels. My friend Wendy’s two sisters have a long-standing feud and refuse to speak with one another. Whenever she returned to her hometown, each sister expected Wendy to spend time with her but got irate and offended if she spent time with the other sibling. Even though Wendy refused to be caught up in their animosity, she was in a no-win situation. Eventually, it became easier to step away from the drama altogether and not return home at all. The sisters’ vendetta impacted more than just Wendy; ten cousins were affected as were the women’s parents when they were alive.

Heavenly Father, knowing that we can’t agree with everybody all of the time, show us how to get along with them. Give us loving, forgiving, and understanding hearts. Toughen our hides so that we don’t take offense so easily. Show us how to have harmony in all of our relationships. Help us to acknowledge other people’s points of view and guide us to respectfully agree to disagree with one another when necessary.

Until the day that you become perfect, don’t expect others to be. [From “Hugs – Daily Inspirations for Grandmas” (Howard Books)]

So, my dear brothers and sisters, get this straight. Every person should be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger. Human anger, you see, doesn’t produce God’s justice! So put away everything that is sordid, all that overflowing malice, and humbly receive the word which has been planted within you and which has the power to rescue your lives. [James 1:19-21 (NTE)]

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A FEARLESS INVENTORY

If we claim we have no sin, we are only fooling ourselves and not living in the truth. But if we confess our sins to him, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all wickedness. [1 John 1:8-9 (NLT)]

Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves. [Step 4 of the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous]

great blue heron

Step four in most twelve-step recovery programs requires “a searching and fearless inventory of ourselves.” However, it’s not just addicts or alcoholics who should take an honest inventory of themselves—we all should. Blindness to our faults can keep us from far more than recovery; it keeps us from a relationship with Jesus. Sin keeps us from being the people God wants us to be because it weighs us down with guilt and shame.

While most of us probably have no problem saying, “Forgive us our trespasses,” and admitting we’ve trespassed, the problem occurs when we’re asked to catalog those trespasses! We’d much rather gloss over our faults than face the unpleasant task of honest self-examination. Real confession, however, requires more than just admitting we’re sinners; it requires taking a good hard look at ourselves to determine how we sinned. Since self-examination can be unpleasant, we tend to generalize or even avoid confession altogether in our prayers; but, we can’t grow spiritually if we’re discounting or ignoring our sins.

It’s easy to spot what’s wrong in the world or in the lives of others but much harder with ourselves. If we’re innocent of the obvious sins—murder, bribery, fraud, assault, worshiping graven images, stealing, and blasphemy—we feel pretty good about our behavior. But even the best Christian, when making a searching and fearless inventory, is likely to find some hypocrisy, bitterness, jealousy, pride, selfishness, greed, prejudice, worry, and/or materialism. Upon further examination, we’ll probably find a list of failures, as well—failure to forgive, show patience, love God with our whole being, love our neighbor as ourselves, have a grateful heart, pray for our enemies, read God’s word, further His kingdom, bear the Fruit of the Spirit, do what we know is right, or give the glory to God.

We don’t need to confess our sins to receive forgiveness. Our sins—past, present, and future—were cancelled when Jesus was nailed to the cross. He paid the debt with His life and anyone who believes in Him receives that forgiveness. The assurance of our forgiveness, however, doesn’t give us carte blanche to keep on sinning.

As Jesus’ followers, we are expected to make war on our sins—to “put to death the sinful, earthly things lurking within” us. How can we go to war if we don’t know what it is we’re battling? Our omniscient God doesn’t need our confession to know our sins—He knows them all. Confession is for us! Simply saying, “forgive us our trespasses” is little more than lip service; admitting lack of forgiveness regarding the ex, surfing for porn, deceit on your resume, or gossiping about your neighbor is taking up arms and engaging in combat against that sin!

Confession makes us open up the junk drawer of our lives, scrutinize it carefully, and toss out the trash that we’ve accumulated. That searching and fearless inventory makes no excuses—it focuses on the truth and accepts full responsibility for the actions. Recognizing that our sins are offensive to God, we repent and forsake our sins, admit our need of God’s saving grace, and commit to walking in Jesus’ footsteps.

Children of God should not make a general confession by acknowledging their innumerable sins in a vague manner, because such confession does not provide conscience opportunity to do its perfect work. They ought to allow the Holy Spirit through their conscience to point out their sins one by one. Christians must accept its reproach and be willing, according to the mind of the Spirit, to eliminate everything which is contrary to God. [Watchman Nee]

So put to death the sinful, earthly things lurking within you. Have nothing to do with sexual immorality, impurity, lust, and evil desires. Don’t be greedy, for a greedy person is an idolater, worshiping the things of this world. [Colossians 3:5 (NLT)]

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A WORK IN PROGRESS

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)]

juvenile ibis - juvenile little blue heronWhenever I see immature white ibis or blue herons, I recall a picture that hung in my daughter’s bedroom. Beneath a drawing of a little girl in a pink dress were the words, “Be patient; God isn’t finished with me yet!” These birds, however, don’t need a sign to tell us that God isn’t finished with them; their varicolored plumage makes that abundantly clear. You see, for their first few years, they look like a work in progress. Instead of being born white, the newly hatched white ibis chicks start out grey but quickly turn dark brown. As they mature, the young birds become a haphazard patchwork of brown and white. By the end of their second year, they’re mostly white but it’s not until the end of their third year that they finally molt the last of their brown feathers. Unlike the ibis, the little blue herons start out pure white. Were it not for their greyish-green legs and bill, they look more like snowy egrets than blue herons for much of their first year. They turn into a patchwork of blue and white as they gradually molt into the dark slate-blue plumage of an adult by the end of their second year.

Today, I thought of those words about patience and being unfinished after berating myself for making a foolish and avoidable mistake. I spoke to myself in a way I’d never (or hardly ever) use with anyone else and called myself something that I wouldn’t call others (at least not out loud). Sometimes, it’s easier to be patient with a child than it is with ourselves. Perhaps, we need to remember that God isn’t finished with us, either!

Even though it may be less obvious, I’m as unfinished as an immature ibis or little blue heron! The birds, however, don’t have to make any effort for their colors to change—that automatically comes with time. For us, it’s a bit different. When God brought us from death into life in Christ, He loved us with all of our imperfections and faults. Nevertheless, just as He doesn’t leave those birds looking half-done, He’s not about to leave us the flawed way we began. Our sanctification began at the moment of salvation but it didn’t end there. No matter how old we are, God continues to give us opportunities to learn and grow. He expects us to actively strive for holiness and obedience so that, through the power of the Holy Spirit, we can become more and more like Jesus. Unlike the birds, however, we remain works in progress until our last day on earth. Remembering that we still are mid-design and won’t always get it right, let us be patient with ourselves until that day comes.

The Christian life requires hard work. Our sanctification is a process wherein we are co-workers with God. We have the promise of God’s assistance in our labor, but His divine help does not annul our responsibility to work. [R. C. Sproul]

Work hard to show the results of your salvation, obeying God with deep reverence and fear. For God is working in you, giving you the desire and the power to do what pleases him. [Philippians 2:12-13 (NLT)]

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CONVICTION AND CONDEMNATION

I know that nothing good lives in me; that is, nothing good lives in my corrupt nature. Although I have the desire to do what is right, I don’t do it. I don’t do the good I want to do. Instead, I do the evil that I don’t want to do. … What a miserable person I am! [Romans 7:18-19,24a (GW)]
tri-colored heron - snowy egret

Yesterday, I suggested taking a good look at ourselves in God’s mirror but let’s not beat up ourselves over what we see. While a critical look at our spiritual shortcomings can make us feel wretched and condemned, that’s not what it’s supposed to do. There’s a big difference between condemnation, which comes from the enemy and conviction, which comes from the Holy Spirit.

Conviction of sins is one of the Holy Spirit’s duties and it’s more than a quick pang of conscience pointing out right from wrong. When we’ve been convicted, we see our sin, understand what an affront it is to God, and have the desire to change our ways to honor Him. In conviction, the Holy Spirit acts as a counselor whose purpose is to free us from emotional, mental, and spiritual bondage. Because He knows all of our thoughts (rather than just the ones we want to share), He shows us the truth and exposes our wrongs, admonishes us for them, and then convinces us of our need for Jesus. We repent, ask forgiveness, and then get on with our lives. While conviction may leave us disappointed in ourselves, it doesn’t leave us with guilt, shame, or despair. Rather than a dread of divine judgment, conviction leaves us with a sense of forgiveness, relief, peace, love, and hope.

Rather than acting as our counselor, however, Satan acts as both the accuser and judge who already determined our guilt. While Satan probably prefers that we keep sinning in blissful ignorance, the recognition of our sins gives him another opportunity to overcome us. He has a briefcase full of falsehoods and destructive thoughts to lay on us—self-pity, guilt, shame, and despondency, along with feelings of worthlessness, incompetence, and futility. He wants to condemn us to a prison term of living hell even though we’ve been forgiven because Jesus paid our debt and served our sentence. Moreover, Satan is worse than a nagging spouse—he never lets go of our past failures. He’ll not only tell us how we screwed up this time but he’ll remind us of every past mistake we ever made. Condemnation is Satan’s gift that keeps on giving!

The Holy Spirit convicts us so that we repent but Satan condemns us so that we feel guilt and shame! The Holy Spirit is like a parent who tells the child his actions are wrong and the enemy is like a parent who tells the child how naughty and wicked he is. One is specific and convicts a behavior; the other is general and condemns the person. Conviction tells us how we failed but condemnation calls us a failure. The Spirit’s goal is regeneration and renewal while the enemy’s is destruction and defeat. Conviction focuses on the problem and offers forgiveness; condemnation focuses on the person and lays on the blame. One wants us to be better but the other wants us to feel worse. Let us never forget that Jesus did not come to condemn the world, but to save it!

So those who are believers in Christ Jesus can no longer be condemned. The standards of the Spirit, who gives life through Christ Jesus, have set you free from the standards of sin and death. [Romans 8:1-2 (GW)]

Therefore, everyone was condemned through one failure, and everyone received God’s life-giving approval through one verdict. [Romans 5:18 (GW)]

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MIRRORS

Check up on yourselves. Are you really Christians? Do you pass the test? Do you feel Christ’s presence and power more and more within you? Or are you just pretending to be Christians when actually you aren’t at all? [2 Corinthians 13:5 (TLB)]
little blue heron

Writing about Paul’s flawed bronze mirror yesterday reminded me of the mirror I have at the end of our hallway—the one mirror in the house I actually like! Unlike ancient mirrors with their fuzzy image, this mirror is quite clear but, like those ancient mirrors, the image it reflects is misleading. Some defect in it makes a person look slightly taller and slimmer. Unlike a fun house mirror, however, it’s a minor distortion and so subtle that it takes a while to realize that the reflection isn’t quite true.

I’m not sure any of us truly like mirrors. In actuality, most of us would prefer the ancient bronze ones to those unforgiving three-way mirrors we find in changing rooms! No matter how beautiful we might be, the reflection in a good mirror is brutally honest. I may be able to edit away blemishes, wrinkles, and even pounds with Photoshop but any mirror tells me they’re still there! As much as most of us would prefer not looking too closely at our bodies, we are even less likely to enjoy examining our spiritual nature.

Unfortunately, we’re usually more willing to look closely at other people’s behavior than our own. We’ll use a magnifying glass for them but, when scrutinizing ourselves, we would prefer a mirror like the one in my hall—one that makes us look better than we are—to one that provides a frank and candid assessment. The words “mirror” and “miracle” share the same Latin root of mirari, meaning “to wonder at or admire.” While we’d prefer looking in our spiritual mirrors to admire what we see, at least for me, there is much that isn’t attractive, let alone admirable. One’s spiritual mirror should be as accurate and blunt as those make-up mirrors with lights and magnification! Nevertheless, when we take a deep look at ourselves, we’re tempted to minimize our spiritual flaws by excusing the inexcusable, rationalizing the unjustifiable, defending the indefensible, or just plain ignoring the obvious.

Although diet, exercise, cosmetic surgery, make-up, and Spanx can make some changes in our appearance, there really isn’t a lot we can change about our bodies. No matter what I do, I never will have the added height and long slender legs I see in my hall mirror. There is, however, much that can be done about our spiritual imperfections and shortcomings—things like anger, vanity, bitterness, hardness of heart, bigotry, pride, scorn, resentment, greed, and lust. To do that, however, we need to take a good hard look at ourselves in our spiritual mirrors!

Forgive us, Father, when we fail to take a thoughtful and honest look at ourselves. Examine us, O Lord, and tell us what is there! Give us eyes willing to see what you see, commitment to making the necessary changes, and the power of your Holy Spirit to do it.

O Lord, you have examined my heart and know everything about me. … Search me, O God, and know my heart; test my thoughts. Point out anything you find in me that makes you sad, and lead me along the path of everlasting life. [Psalm 139:1,23-24 (TLB)]

And why worry about a speck in the eye of a brother when you have a board in your own? Should you say, “Friend, let me help you get that speck out of your eye,” when you can’t even see because of the board in your own? Hypocrite! First get rid of the board. Then you can see to help your brother. [Matthew 7:3-5 (TLB)]

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THE WORST SIN

No, this is the kind of fasting I want: Free those who are wrongly imprisoned; lighten the burden of those who work for you. Let the oppressed go free, and remove the chains that bind people. Share your food with the hungry, and give shelter to the homeless. Give clothes to those who need them, and do not hide from relatives who need your help. [Isaiah 58:6-7 (NLT)]

Canadian geese - goslingsLast week, a devotion I read asked, “What is the worst sin?” How would you answer it? While the “Seven Deadly Sins” (pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath, and sloth) are all wrong, I’m not sure they belong at the top of the list. Would it be idolatry, murder, stealing, or adultery? What about the heinous sins of mass murder, genocide, torture, or the abuse of children?

Of course, there’s “blasphemy against the Holy Spirit,” the unforgiveable sin mentioned by Jesus in Matthew 12 and Mark 3. While attributing the divine power of Jesus to Satan without repenting of it is unforgivable and was bad news for Pharisees to whom Jesus was speaking, since it hurts only the sinner, I don’t think it seems to be the worst sin either.

I pondered this question over coffee while the news was airing on TV. Richard Engle gave a report from an orphanage in Ukraine that left me in tears. When Ukraine became an independent country in 1991, it inherited a broken system in which parents of disabled children were encouraged to commit their children to institutional care. Sadly, in the absence of community-based support, therapy services, or educational opportunities, families continued to abandon severely disabled children to institutions. As a result, before the war, Ukraine had the largest number of children in institutional care in Europe; 100,000 children lived in 700 institutions.

Around half of those institutionalized children had special needs or disabilities and others were separated from their families because of poverty, addiction, or poor health; only a few actually were orphans. As these “orphanages” in war-torn eastern Ukraine were evacuated, their caregivers abandoned the most severely disabled to other institutions and fled. The remaining facilities are so overrun that day and therapy rooms have been converted into dormitories. They are overcrowded, understaffed, unequipped, and unable to provide anything but basic medical attention; as a result, proper care, stimulation, rehabilitation, and therapy can’t be provided and the residents’ conditions continue to deteriorate.

Engles’ report was about visiting such an institution that was packed with 200 profoundly disabled youngsters, all of whom were abandoned by their families. Some of the children, refugees from eastern Ukrainian institutions, were little more than skin and bones. These children (and others like them) are innocent victims of a broken system, a horrifying war, and a world that looked the other way. Could the worst of all sins be one of omission—that of not loving enough to see or care?

The question about the worst sin, however, was misleading. There is no “worst” sin because every sin is an affront to God. No sin is so small that it isn’t offensive to Him and deserving of punishment nor is there any sin so great that He can’t forgive it. Nevertheless, there can be a great difference in the earthly impact of our sins. While both are sins, a drug company’s lie about the safety of its pain medication has a vastly different impact than a child’s lie about taking a cookie from the jar. Without a doubt, what has happened to those Ukrainian children is a sin with devastating consequences for those involved.

When Jesus was asked the most important commandment, He answered “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.” He continued with the second and equally important commandment of, “‘Love your neighbor as yourself.” Unfortunately, we don’t have to go to Ukraine to find the least of Jesus’ brothers and sisters who are hungry, homeless, sick, alone, exploited, abused, or abandoned. While there is little we can do for those Ukrainian “orphans,” there is much we can do to alleviate the suffering of others who are “the least of these” here and now. May we love God and our neighbor enough to notice and to care!

Then these righteous ones will reply, “Lord, when did we ever see you hungry and feed you? Or thirsty and give you something to drink? Or a stranger and show you hospitality? Or naked and give you clothing? When did we ever see you sick or in prison and visit you?” And the King will say, “I tell you the truth, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me!” [Matthew 25:37-40 (NLT)]

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