YOU WOULDN’T UNDERSTAND

“My thoughts are nothing like your thoughts,” says the Lord. “And my ways are far beyond anything you could imagine. For just as the heavens are higher than the earth, so my ways are higher than your ways and my thoughts higher than your thoughts.” [Isaiah 55:8-9 (NLT)]
spiderwort

During our summer travels, we were seated with a young couple during breakfast at a rural B&B. Upon discovering they were PhD candidates at the University of Chicago, we asked for an explanation of their research. Our eyes glazed over as the man used words like photons, leptons, mesons, baryons, and hadronic interactions. By the time his wife explained her materials research and mentioned macromolecular interactions, microstructures, interface dynamics, nanoparticles and stress variations, I think we would have preferred a flippant, “We’d tell you but then we’d have to kill you!” response to the ones we got. As patient as they were and as dumbed-down as they made their explanations, we barely knew more about their studies at the end of our conversation than we did at the beginning.

Perhaps a better answer to our questions would have been, “You wouldn’t understand even if we told you!” Nevertheless, if they’d said that, even though they were right, we would have been offended by their answer and insisted we could figure it out. Their world, however, is so far removed from ours and their vocabulary so specific that it would have taken them hours (more likely days) of explanation before we could have a vague understanding of what they did and why they did it. Nevertheless, we managed to find common ground in our fondness for Chicago, the charm of the B&B, and the delicious breakfast we were enjoying.

Even though the Bible clearly explains that God’s thoughts and ways are not ours, Scripture’s answer is neither satisfying nor comforting in the face of tragedy. Naturally, we want an explanation but God is strangely silent. Perhaps that’s just His way of saying, “Trust me, child, you really wouldn’t understand even if I explained it all to you!” While it’s not found in the Bible, the old maxim, “God works in mysterious ways,” is true. If the world of physics and materials science is beyond my limited understanding, I know I’m incapable of ever understanding what makes God run the universe the way He does. I’m still having trouble understanding a love so great that He gave His son as propitiation for our sins! I can’t fully grasp an all-powerful God who has always existed and always will—an all-knowing God, unconstrained by time or space, who can be everywhere at once—a God who can see yesterday, today and all the variations of tomorrow at one time. If I can’t fully comprehend God’s traits, what makes me think I could ever comprehend His reasoning?

We mortals want a detailed explanation of our lives from God but, even if He offered us one, we’d never understand it. Moreover, I’m not so sure I really want to know—the weight of such divine knowledge would be overwhelming. As we did with those grad students, however, we can find common ground—in God’s case, that would be His love for us and our love for Him. For now, that will have to suffice.

Oh, how great are God’s riches and wisdom and knowledge! How impossible it is for us to understand his decisions and his ways! [Romans 11:33 (NLT)]

The teaching of your word gives light, so even the simple can understand. [Psalm119:130 (NLT)]

God moves in a mysterious way His wonders to perform;
He plants His footsteps in the sea And rides upon the storm.
Deep in unfathomable mines Of never failing skill
He treasures up His bright designs And works His sov’reign will.
Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take; The clouds ye so much dread
Are big with mercy and shall break In blessings on your head.
Judge not the Lord by feeble sense, But trust Him for His grace;
Behind a frowning providence He hides a smiling face.
His purposes will ripen fast, Unfolding every hour;
The bud may have a bitter taste, But sweet will be the flow’r.
Blind unbelief is sure to err And scan His work in vain;
God is His own interpreter, And He will make it plain.
[William Cowper]

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THE MARK OF CAIN

The Lord replied, “No, for I will give a sevenfold punishment to anyone who kills you.” Then the Lord put a mark on Cain to warn anyone who might try to kill him. So Cain left the Lord’s presence and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden. [Genesis 4:15-16 (NLT)]

After the magnificence of creation, things go from bad to worse and, by the fourth chapter of Genesis, we have the first homicide. When Cain and Abel make an offering to God, Abel’s is accepted but Cain’s is not. The rejection wasn’t because one gift was animal and the other was crops—both fauna and flora were acceptable and represented each brother’s vocation. Abel, however, presented the “best portions of the firstborn lambs from his flock” and Cain merely offered “some of his crops” rather than the best and first. God rejected the offering because of Cain’s heart. While Abel made his offering whole-heartedly, Cain begrudged making the gift at all. Although Abel was not responsible for the rejection, he died at the hands of his angry jealous brother.

God punished Cain by banishing him and cursing the ground so that he would be unsuccessful in cultivating the soil. Having lost homeland, family, and livelihood, Cain was condemned to be a “homeless wanderer.” Cain protested that his punishment was too harsh—as a homeless fugitive without the protection of a community, he could be attacked and killed, perhaps in revenge by Abel’s family. Promising Cain that scenario wouldn’t happen, God pledged a seven-fold punishment for anyone who killed Cain.

To seal the deal, God gave Cain a sign or mark. Contrary to what we may have learned in Sunday school, this mark was a blessing not a punishment and may not have been a physical mark at all. The Hebrew verb typically translated as “set” or “put” in this verse was sum or sim which could mean everything from appointed, assigned, and established to attached, placed, or laid. The word typically translated as “mark” was ‘owth which referred to a sign, token, or mark and is the same word God used when giving Moses miraculous signs to convince Israel’s elders that God had spoken with him. Because we don’t know if this was an actual mark on Cain or some other sign, some Bibles translate the questioned verse as God giving Cain a sign or appointing a sign for him. Nevertheless, in one way or another, the sign or mark guaranteed Cain’s safety by indicating he was under God’s divine protection and warning of repercussions should the fugitive be killed.

More important than the mark is God’s choice of Cain’s punishment. It certainly isn’t what we expect from the God who later says, “Anyone who murders a fellow human must die.” [Genesis 9:5] Cain’s banishment is an important lesson for us. After being with God, Cain had to leave the Lord’s presence and his departure from God’s presence demonstrates the way our sin separates all sinners from God. When we sin and reject God’s will, only spiritual isolation and wretchedness remain. Moreover, by God withholding the full penalty of death for Cain’s sin, we are introduced to His amazing grace and mercy—a theme that weaves its way from Genesis through Revelation and culminates in Jesus! When Jesus took our punishment on the cross, rather than the death penalty we rightly deserved, like Cain, we were given life!

But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners. [Romans 5:8 (NLT)]

But God is so rich in mercy, and he loved us so much, that even though we were dead because of our sins, he gave us life when he raised Christ from the dead. (It is only by God’s grace that you have been saved!) [Ephesians 2:4-5 (NLT)]

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COUNTING THE COST

Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me, cannot be my disciple. For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? [Luke 14:27-28 (RSV)]

orchard swallowtail butterflyHaving witnessed the condemned walk to their tortuous deaths while carrying their crosses, the people of Judea knew exactly what it meant to carry a cross. The cross meant humiliation, indescribable pain, grief, anguish, and death! When Jesus spoke of cross bearing and cautioned His followers to count the cost of discipleship, it was clear He wasn’t offering a ticket to Easy Street. While He was offering a ticket to eternal life, it came with a price: the giving up of self and all that might come to mean—be it loss of status, relationships, family, possessions, or even life. Rather than an abstract ideal, discipleship was a hard reality that included denial of self and promised to be a challenge.

Some of us, when looking at the cost, would prefer a watered-down gospel. We want to be Christians without Jesus having any effect on our lives. We want the blessings of a new life without giving up the pleasures of the old. We’re happy to bear His name, celebrate both His birth and resurrection, and wear a cross, but we’re not that anxious to bear one! Wanting to guarantee our final destination, we want salvation without the sacrifice. Unwilling to surrender to God’s will, we figure a few good deeds can make up for our lack of faith and obedience. We want what Dietrich Bonhoeffer calls “cheap grace.”

Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate. [Dietrich Bonhoeffer]

While free, God’s grace is not cheap. Jesus was the gift of God’s grace by which all of mankind could be saved, but it cost God His only son. Accepting Jesus’ name means far more than taking a spot in a church pew. God’s grace expects us to follow Jesus wherever He leads us and to do whatever He asks. We can’t just listen to a preacher; we must practice what Jesus preached! God’s grace expects us to love the unlovable, forgive the unforgiveable, reach the unreachable, and do what often seems impossible. God’s grace demands that we grow smaller while He grows greater—that we take up our cross and lose our lives in complete commitment to Him. For many, that loss is figurative but, for some like Bonhoeffer and most of the disciples, that loss of life was literal!

Costly grace…is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: “ye were bought at a price,” and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God. [Dietrich Bonhoeffer]

Jesus knew the price He’d pay when He threw the money changers out of the temple, healed on the Sabbath, and confronted the Pharisees; nevertheless, He did His Father’s will. Over 2,000 years later, He still calls us to take up our crosses and follow Him. Even though a Roman cross doesn’t await us as it did Jesus, Peter, and Andrew, taking up the cross for us today means that we willingly bear the cost of Christian discipleship as we sacrifice ourselves, our time, and talents in serving God and others. That cross doesn’t necessarily mean life will be easier, but it definitely will be better!

And he who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for my sake will find it. [Matthew 10:38-39 (RSV)]

For the grace of God has appeared for the salvation of all men, training us to renounce irreligion and worldly passions, and to live sober, upright, and godly lives in this world. [Titus 2:11-12 (RSV)]

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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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THROUGH A GLASS, DARKLY

For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity. [1 Corinthians 13:12-13 (KJV)]
variegated fritillary butterfly

At my age, I think I’d prefer a hazy mirror and blurred reflection to my bathroom mirrors that seem cruel with the clarity of what they reveal. Mirrors in Biblical times, however, were usually made of polished bronze and their reflections were blurred. In 1 Corinthians 13, the Apostle Paul wrote of seeing an unclear reflection in a mirror. When the first Bibles were translated into English, the words “glass” and “looking glass” were commonly used for the word mirror. Both words, however, are anachronisms since glass mirrors were not introduced until well after Paul’s letter was written. Nevertheless, as a result of the early translators’ use of glass, several later Bible translations turned that flawed mirror into a blurry window or a clouded windowpane. The Greek words Paul used, however, were dia spektrou which meant “by means of a mirror.”

Initially, I thought the proper translation was necessary to understand that verse. After all, when looking in a mirror, we are seeing ourselves; when looking through a glass window, we are seeing others. Then I looked at the more important (yet easily overlooked) word: “darkly.” Rather than speaking of a poorly lit room that would make it difficult to see in any sort of mirror, Paul was speaking of our human limitations. The literal translation of the Greek words used, in aenigmate, mean “in a riddle” or “an enigma.” Regardless of the translation, whether we’re looking at an imperfect mirror or through a smoky window, what we’re seeing is incomplete and distorted. Like an unfinished jigsaw puzzle, it is incomplete. What we’re able to perceive is just an outline, a hint, a rough sketch, of what is to come.

Although God revealed Himself to us through His word and in Jesus, what we know of Him is neither easily explained nor clearly understood. Like the picture on a puzzle’s box, we have an idea of what it will be like once done but we don’t know exactly how it fits together. In spite of having numerous translations of the Bible and countless scholars through the ages who’ve offered interpretations, commentary, and clarifications, much is still left to conjecture. Because God and His plan are an enigma, there is a great deal we will never know, much less comprehend, this side of heaven. With our limited comprehension and flawed eyesight, we only catch a fleeting glimpse of Him now. Someday, however, we will see Him face to face and what was obscure will become clear when the darkness becomes light.

So, what do we do until then? How do we get through this puzzle called life with our incomplete knowledge and understanding? We do it with faith, hope and love!

The heavens shall be open, and I shall see the Son of man, the Son of God, and not see him at that distance…but see him, and sit down with him. I shall rise from the dead…for I shall see the Son of God, the sun of glory, and shine myself as that sun shines…and be united to the Ancient of Days, to God Himself. …No man ever saw God and lived. And yet, I shall not live till I see God; and when I have seen him, I shall never die. …As he that fears God, fears nothing else, so he that sees God, sees everything else. [John Donne]

We don’t yet see things clearly. We’re squinting in a fog, peering through a mist. But it won’t be long before the weather clears and the sun shines bright! We’ll see it all then, see it all as clearly as God sees us, knowing him directly just as he knows us! But for right now, until that completeness, we have three things to do to lead us toward that consummation: Trust steadily in God, hope unswervingly, love extravagantly. And the best of the three is love. [1 Corinthians 13:12-13 (MSG)]

The Throne of God and of the Lamb is at the center. His servants will offer God service—worshiping, they’ll look on his face, their foreheads mirroring God. Never again will there be any night. No one will need lamplight or sunlight. The shining of God, the Master, is all the light anyone needs. [Revelation 22:4-5 (MSG)]

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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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