THROWING STONES

Don’t pick on people, jump on their failures, criticize their faults—unless, of course, you want the same treatment. Don’t condemn those who are down; that hardness can boomerang. Be easy on people; you’ll find life a lot easier. Give away your life; you’ll find life given back, but not merely given back—given back with bonus and blessing. Giving, not getting, is the way. Generosity begets generosity. [Luke 6:37-38 (MSG)]

mimosaYesterday, when writing about the adulterous woman, I wondered what became of the stones that had been gathered in anticipation of stoning her. We know the Pharisees were quick to condemn people for the smallest infraction of the Law. Did they drop those stones in the road or did they put them in the pockets of their robes for another time when they could catch someone else sinning?

My husband was at the Fed Ex store when the woman in front of him dropped several packages and papers. He stooped down and helped the flustered woman gather up her scattered papers and boxes. As she departed, the man behind my husband loudly asked, “Did she even thank you?” and then, without waiting for an answer, angrily continued, “I don’t think she did and she should have. People just don’t say thank you anymore!” I agree with him that good manners seem to be in short supply nowadays; nevertheless, I wondered why he got so angry and felt the need to point out the woman’s faux pas to all around him.

How ready we are to criticize the failures of others while overlooking ours! We all set standards for others and, like that man, get peeved when they’re not met. Yet, when our hearts are filled with criticism and judgment rather than mercy, we’ll go through life picking up stones and looking for opportunities to throw them. Although the critical man cast only a pebble at the woman, it wasn’t necessary. I’m not much different than he and I suspect neither are you. In fact, I might have tossed a small stone at the man in the Fed Ex store! After all, we easily see the failings of others while being blind to ours.

Granted, common courtesy isn’t common anymore and we frequently encounter people who clearly haven’t heard of Emily Post or Miss Manners. But, if Jesus could show mercy to the woman caught in adultery, wash the feet of the men who would betray, deny, or abandon Him, and manage to ask forgiveness for the people who crucified Him, we should be able to cut a little slack for those who commit the petty offenses of everyday life! We certainly don’t need to keep stones in our pockets in case someone offends our sensibilities or look for opportunities to throw them! Maybe people would be nicer if we simply smiled more and grumbled less!

I don’t know why the woman was so frazzled that day or what really was upsetting that man. There’s wise advice in the old proverb: “Never criticize a man until you’ve walked a mile in his moccasins.” Another old proverb reminds people who live in glass houses not to throw stones—and all of us live in glass houses of some kind or another. If we want God’s mercy, grace, and understanding, we must offer those same things to others.

Our days are happier when we give people a bit of our heart instead of a piece of our mind. [Anonymous bit of Internet wisdom]

Don’t pick on people, jump on their failures, criticize their faults—unless, of course, you want the same treatment. That critical spirit has a way of boomeranging. It’s easy to see a smudge on your neighbor’s face and be oblivious to the ugly sneer on your own. Do you have the nerve to say, “Let me wash your face for you,” when your own face is distorted by contempt? It’s this whole traveling road-show mentality all over again, playing a holier-than-thou part instead of just living your part. Wipe that ugly sneer off your own face, and you might be fit to offer a washcloth to your neighbor. [Matthew 7:1-5 (MSG)]

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SIFTING

rainbow over SteamboatSimon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift each of you like wheat. But I have pleaded in prayer for you, Simon, that your faith should not fail. So when you have repented and turned to me again, strengthen your brothers. [Luke 22:31-32 (NLT)]

I have told you all this so that you may have peace in me. Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows. But take heart, because I have overcome the world.” [John 16:33 (NLT)]

‘Cause what if Your blessings come through raindrops?
What if Your healing comes through tears?
And what if a thousand sleepless nights are what it takes to know You’re near?
What if my greatest disappointments or the aching of this life
Is the revealing of a greater thirst this world can’t satisfy?
And what if trials of this life-
The rain, the storms, the hardest nights
Are Your mercies in disguise? [Laura Story]

One of the benefits of my thrice weekly PT appointments for the last several months has been the time I spend alone in the car with the radio tuned to the Message on SiriusXM. Sometimes I uninhibitedly sing along with the contemporary Christian praise music and other times I quietly ponder the songs’ words. As I listened to Laura Story’s song “Blessings,” I pondered the many storms, tears, disappointment, and sleepless nights that turned out to be God’s “mercies in disguise.”

In 2006, just two years into her marriage, Laura Story nearly lost her husband to a brain tumor. Although he survived, disabilities remained from his surgery and the future once envisioned by the young couple changed significantly. Among other things, instead of being a stay-at-home mother, Story became breadwinner and caregiver. Her song “Blessings” was written as a reminder that God remains faithful even when things don’t turn out the way we envisioned. “Life is filled with things you don’t expect, but the Bible tells us to respond by trusting God and continuing to worship Him,” said the singer/songwriter. “God has grown us up, deepened our faith, our awareness of our great need for Him as a savior, daily.”

We’ve all experienced those unexpected and uninvited changes—the storms of life—that necessitate changing our expectations and revising our concept of normal. One such event happened in my life fourteen years ago. The details are unimportant but, as I listened to Story’s song, I saw how it was, indeed, a blessing in disguise. At the time, I mourned the end of a dream—the loss of what I envisioned in the future for myself and my family. But, as weeks stretched into months and months into years, the old vision was laid to rest. I wasn’t the only one affected and everyone in that storm lost something as it rained down on us. Nevertheless, just as Jesus was with the disciples in the midst of that storm on the Sea of Galilee, He was with me in that storm, and He will be with us in the storms to come.

When Jesus warned Peter that he’d be run through the sifter, He was telling the disciple that he’d be going through an ordeal and put to the test—a test that would separate the grain from the chaff—the good from the bad. For me, those years were a long season of sifting—sorting out priorities, persevering with what seemed like unanswered prayers, dealing with hardened hearts, accepting what I couldn’t change, learning to step back and allow God to do His work, and trusting the future to Him. It actually was a season of sifting for all involved as resentment and bitterness were separated from forgiveness, animosity from love, doubt from faith, weakness from strength, anger from understanding, excuses from accountability, fear from courage, and deceit from truth.

Years later, after plenty of sifting and what Paul would call character strengthening, the storm abated and we finally saw the rainbow at its end. Granted, life is not the same as it was but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t good and probably even better because of that storm.

As it turns out, I now can call one of the darkest times of my life a true blessing and I think the others affected would agree. Of course, the end of one storm doesn’t mean there won’t be others. Nevertheless, we can face them with confidence because, like Laura Story, we’ve learned that the “trials of this life—the rain, the storms, the hardest nights” can be God’s “mercies in disguise.”

We can rejoice, too, when we run into problems and trials, for we know that they help us develop endurance. And endurance develops strength of character, and character strengthens our confident hope of salvation. And this hope will not lead to disappointment. For we know how dearly God loves us, because he has given us the Holy Spirit to fill our hearts with his love. [Romans 5:3-5 (NLT)]

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LOST CAUSES

For this is what the Sovereign Lord says: I myself will search and find my sheep. I will be like a shepherd looking for his scattered flock. I will find my sheep and rescue them from all the places where they were scattered on that dark and cloudy day. … I myself will tend my sheep and give them a place to lie down in peace, says the Sovereign Lord. I will search for my lost ones who strayed away, and I will bring them safely home again. [Ezekiel 34:11-12,15 (NLT)]

opossum - clam passWalking along the shoreline, I was surprised to see a baby opossum on the beach. A man with a large bucket was trying to scoop him up to return him to the safety of the mangroves but the little guy would have none of it. Lost and in danger of dying of thirst or becoming dinner for an osprey or eagle, I’m sure he thought he was on a wonderful adventure. Meanwhile, his mother was probably frantically searching the mangroves for her wayward child.

Thinking of frantic mothers and wayward children reminded me of Monica’s story. Back in 352, she gave birth to a baby boy—the man we know as St. Augustine. As a young man, however, Augustine was anything but a saint; he was disobedient, strong-willed, self-indulgent, and immoral. Although he’d been raised in the faith, he abandoned Christianity for the world of sin to pursue paganism and pleasure. Rather than lost on the beach, Augustine was lost in his hedonistic life. The original “helicopter” parent, Monica never gave up on her dissolute son and, as distressed as she was by his bad behavior, she pursued and prayed for him. Her persistence was rewarded and, after seventeen years of praying for her lost boy, Augustine converted to Christianity. After being baptized, he founded a religious order, was ordained as a priest, and was appointed as the bishop of Hippo. Devoting the rest of his life to serving the Church, he used his brilliant mind to establish the intellectual foundations of Christianity in the West. A prolific writer, Augustine is often called the most significant Christian writer after the Apostle Paul. What would his story be if his mother Monica had thought her sinful son was a lost cause? What if she’d stopped praying for her lost son’s soul?

There are some names on my prayer list that I’ve begun to think of as “lost causes”—people for whom I’ve been praying for several years. Due to an unfortunate combination of bad choices and bad circumstances, they are people whose lives have been wasted, people who have sunk so deep that rising from the depths seems impossible, people whose redemption seems hopeless, people who are so lost even their loved ones don’t know where they are. I was ready to delete them from my prayer list before seeing the opossum baby. The man with the bucket didn’t give up trying to save the animal, Monica never gave up on Augustine, and God will never stop trying to rescue the lost. Those names and others like them will stay in my prayers. You see, for God, there are no lost causes, only lost children.

If a man has a hundred sheep and one of them wanders away, what will he do? Won’t he leave the ninety-nine others on the hills and go out to search for the one that is lost? And if he finds it, I tell you the truth, he will rejoice over it more than over the ninety-nine that didn’t wander away! In the same way, it is not my heavenly Father’s will that even one of these little ones should perish. [Matthew 18:12-14 (NLT)]

For the Son of Man came to seek and save those who are lost. [Luke 19:10 (NLT)]

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WE WANT TO KNOW

Nobody can understand what God does here on earth. No matter how hard people try to understand it, they cannot. Even if wise people say they understand, they cannot; no one can really understand it. … I also saw something else here on earth: The fastest runner does not always win the race, the strongest soldier does not always win the battle, the wisest does not always have food, the smartest does not always become wealthy, and the talented one does not always receive praise. Time and chance happen to everyone.  [Ecclesiastes 8:17,9:11 (NCV)

Several years ago, author and apologist Lee Strobel commissioned a national survey asking people the one question they would pose to God if they could. As might be expected, the number one response was “Why is there suffering in the world?” Indeed, like Job, we want to know why, especially if the affliction directly affects us or the ones nearest and dearest to us. Why did he get Alzheimer’s? Why did she go into a coma? Why did his child get leukemia or hers have Down’s syndrome? Why was the surgery a failure? Why didn’t the driver stop? Why can’t I have children? Why was he at the wrong place at the wrong time? Why didn’t you stop the shooter from taking those children’s lives? Why couldn’t you save those who perished in that deadly tornado? Why do bad things happen to good people?

In reality, we already know the reason for pain and suffering since it’s found in Genesis. The world God created was a good one—one without misery and tragedy. Suffering entered the world when mankind abused their free will and sinned. That answer, however, just doesn’t seem adequate, especially since pain and affliction seem to hit randomly and unfairly. Logic tells us that the cruel and evil ones of the world should suffer more than the innocent but it rarely seems to work that way. The only sermons on this topic that made sense to me were the ones conceding that, while we’re in this world, the question of “Why?” will never be satisfactorily answered. Since Job asked God “Why” more than twenty times and never got an answer, an acceptable explanation for the suffering in this world isn’t likely. I suspect, however, that even if we knew the why of every terrible thing and how it all fit into God’s plan, we wouldn’t find the answer satisfactory. Like Job, our faith in God must be stronger that our need to know!

When the disciples passed by the man who’d been born blind, they wanted to know why he had no sight and they asked if it was it his sin or the sins of his parents that caused his blindness. Answering that it was neither, Jesus explained that it was part of God’s sovereign plan so that the power of God would be seen in him. Rather than a punishment or simply bad luck, the man’s suffering afforded an opportunity for Jesus to do God’s work in restoring the man’s sight. Jesus’ answer is about the best one we’re ever going to get while on this side of the grass. Perhaps, rather than asking God the reason for misfortune, pain, and anguish, we should be asking God how that suffering can be used to display His mighty work.

The real problem is not why some pious, humble, believing people suffer, but why some do not. [C. S. Lewis]

Jesus answered, “It is not this man’s sin or his parents’ sin that made him blind. This man was born blind so that God’s power could be shown in him.” [John 9:3 (NCV)]

I told you these things so that you can have peace in me. In this world you will have trouble, but be brave! I have defeated the world. [John 16:33 (NCV)]

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THORNS

So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” [2 Corinthians 12:7-9a (ESV)]

thistlePaul was speaking metaphorically of his thorn and whether it was a spiritual, emotional, physical affliction, or something else entirely, we don’t know. Since Paul dictated his letters, some speculate that that he had poor eyesight: perhaps cataracts or macular degeneration. Then again, severe arthritis in his hands may have prevented him from holding a stylus. Paul may have had a chronic medical problem such as gout, migraines, severe asthma, or spinal stenosis. It may have been a person: perhaps, Alexander the metalsmith who was harming his ministry. Considering the number of times the apostle was arrested, the thorn may have been an old injury from the many beatings inflicted upon him. Paul even may have suffered from bouts of depression or the 1st century equivalent of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. The identity of his thorn (or even thorns) is unimportant to us. It is how Paul dealt with his thorn that matters.

This last year has been challenging for many of us; it certainly has been for me. Rather than a single thorn, I feel like I’ve fallen head-first into an enormous patch of thistles or spiny hawthorns. Along with a never-ending pandemic and the disruption Covid-19 has brought to our daily lives, I’ve been dealing with a variety of painful health issues, the deaths of several loved ones, and a recurring case of the glums and gloomies. There has been far too little sleep and laughter and far too many tears and pain.

Like Paul, in my initial prayers I pled for relief. Perhaps, he made the same argument as did I and patiently explained to God how much more effective he’d be in his ministry without that pesky thorn. Unlike Paul, however, I didn’t stop at a mere three times before understanding (and accepting) that God’s power “is made perfect in weakness.” Eventually, I understood that God’s denial of relief didn’t mean He failed a test of His love for me and realized that I was undergoing a test of how much I loved and trusted Him! Although I wanted the emotional, spiritual, and physical pain to go away, God had other plans; He was doing a bit of unwelcome “character building.”

Having just revealed to the Corinthians that he’d been caught up to Paradise where he saw and experienced such amazing things that he was incapable of expressing them, Paul explained that he’d been given the thorn to keep him from becoming proud, arrogant, or big-headed because of what had been revealed to him. Although I haven’t had such an extraordinary spiritual experience as Paul’s, I did need a lesson in Christ-like humility and a few thorns to keep me mindful of my need for God’s power!

Thorns drive us to acknowledge our weaknesses and make us depend on Christ for strength so that His power can surround and enable us! Accepting that God’s grace is sufficient for my needs, my prayers have become simpler and far less demanding. Trusting Him for tomorrow, I simply ask that He grant me grace enough to get through today! Indeed, His power is made visible in my weakness.

Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong. [2 Corinthians 12:9b-10 (ESV)]

I can do all things through him who strengthens me. [Philippians 4:13 (ESV)]

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ASK, SEEK, KNOCK

Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. [Matthew 7:7 (NIV)]

Ask, seek, and knock—three easy instructions. Ask. Ask as if we mean it, as if we truly care about the answer. Ask as if we believe we’re being heard. Ask with the hunger of a beggar begging bread. Ask with the fervor of someone sinking in quicksand pleading for help. Ask with the thirst of a dying man in the desert requesting water. Ask as if our very lives depend on the answer. Ask.

Seek. Seek as if we were searching for something of value—not a cursory look as if we’d lost a button or dropped a paper clip. Seek as we would for a lost wedding ring, wallet, or child. Seek as we would for an exit from a burning building. Seek by adding efforts to our prayers; after all, we can’t ask God for a harvest without first planting the seeds. Seek as if we care, as if our very lives depended on finding it. Seek.

Knock. Knock as if we truly wanted to enter. Knock with confidence—not shyly as if we don’t know whose door we’re at or timidly as if we’re not sure we’re welcome. Knock and keep knocking as if we desperately need the door to be answered, as if our very lives depended on it. Knock.

We have a promise—God’s promise—and we must ask, seek, and knock as if we believe that promise! Where there is a praying heart, He promises we’ll find a listening God—a God who loves us as a father loves a child. Like a good parent, however, no matter how fervently we ask, how diligently we seek nor how hard we knock, He won’t give us stones or snakes or anything bad for us. While there will be no money for drugs when we need rehab, no car when a bicycle will do, no escape from facing consequences, and even no healing when God’s presence in our pain is enough, there will be mercy, peace, grace, patience, wisdom, strength against sin, and understanding. Rather than sell, loan or rent us His gifts, He gives them to us because He loves us! Trust His promise to generously give good things to those who ask, seek, and knock.

For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened. Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him! [Matthew 7:8-11 (NIV)]

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