After that generation died, another generation grew up who did not acknowledge the Lord or remember the mighty things he had done for Israel. … In those days Israel had no king; all the people did whatever seemed right in their own eyes. [Judges 2:10, 21:25 (NLT)]

tulipAs a history of Israel’s disobedience, idolatry, and moral depravity, Judges is one of the saddest books of the Bible; it also is one of the bloodiest and violent. After starting well with war against the pagan tribes of Canaan, it ends with civil war and Israelite killing Israelite. While some tribes obediently drove the pagan people from their land, others found it easier to tolerate sin than fully eradicate it. By the time of Gideon, altars to Baal and Asherah poles had been erected and people wanted to kill Gideon for destroying them. It only went from bad to worse after Samson. Micah sinfully set up a shrine for his idols, wrongly fashioned a priestly ephod, ordained his son into the priesthood, and then purchased the services of a Levite as his personal priest! After the Danites stole his idols, ephod, and Levite, they set up their own idolatrous shrine with the Levite as priest. Did no one remember God’s laws given to them by Moses that specifically covered priests, ephods, Levites, and the worship of idols?

As for violence—along with the carnage of battle, there’s a disembowelment, a tent peg hammered into a head, eyes getting gouged out, and a king’s thumbs and big toes get amputated to humiliate him. Thirty men are killed just to pay a gambling debt and a father’s foolish vow ends in the sacrifice of his daughter. After 300 foxes are set on fire in a vengeful act that destroys a town’s grain fields, vineyards, and olive groves, a father and daughter are burned to death as payback!

Instead of conquering the fertile land they’d been given, the Danites moved north, burned the peaceful city of Laish, and mercilessly killed its inhabitants. When the men of Gibeah raped and killed a Levite’s concubine, the Levite dismembered her body to summon the tribes of Israel. Then, after they nearly eradicate the entire tribe of Benjamin in retaliation for the concubine’s death, the men regret their actions. To right the wrong, they slaughter every man, woman, and child in Jabesh-gilead except for 400 virgins who are given to the surviving soldiers of Benjamin. Needing more virgins, another 200 young women were forcibly abducted from Shiloh. How did this happen? What happened to God’s law? How did Israel fall into such sin, violence, and mayhem?

Scripture tells us that one generation after Joshua’s death, the people forgot and, within one generation of the death of each judge, they forgot again! There was a reason God wanted his word passed on through the generations and a reason he commanded people to keep repeating the law to their children. Whether the command to put His words on hands, foreheads, and doorposts was literal or figurative, God wanted His word to be an inescapable part of His people’s lives and the lives of every generation that followed. Why? Because God’s Word means life!

When I look at the disobedience, idolatry, moral depravity, and violence in Judges, I can’t help but see parallels today. As my mother would say, it seems that the world is going to hell in a handbasket. Indeed, it does! There’s a reason the world doesn’t seem much better in 2022 than during the 300 plus years of turmoil recounted in Judges. As they did nearly 3,400 years ago, people continue to do whatever seems right in their own eyes. We’ve allowed the full story of God’s redemption to be forgotten, disregarded, or never heard. The people of Israel didn’t need a king; they needed God. So do we! What are we going to do about it?

And you must commit yourselves wholeheartedly to these commands that I am giving you today. Repeat them again and again to your children. Talk about them when you are at home and when you are on the road, when you are going to bed and when you are getting up. Tie them to your hands and wear them on your forehead as reminders. Write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. [Deuteronomy 6:6-8 (NLT)]

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While they were at Hazeroth, Miriam and Aaron criticized Moses because he had married a Cushite woman. They said, “Has the Lord spoken only through Moses? Hasn’t he spoken through us, too?” But the Lord heard them. [Numbers 12:1-2 (NLT)]

roseThomas isn’t the only Bible personality who gets a bad rap. Consider Miriam, the resentful sister who, along with Aaron, attacked Moses for marrying a Cushite woman. The implication in their complaint is that it was a recent union; perhaps Moses’ wife Zipporah was dead. The Cushite woman may have been one of the many non-Israelites who joined the Hebrews in their exodus from Egypt. That she wasn’t an Israelite shouldn’t have been an issue to them since Zipporah had been from Midian. The land of Cush, however, was used to describe Black Africa and the siblings may have been disparaging the woman’s dark complexion. Moses’ new wife, however, wasn’t the real issue. Miriam and Aaron simply were jealous of their brother and, since they couldn’t find fault with his leadership, they spitefully chose to criticize his choice of wife.

Appointed by God as Moses’ spokesman, Aaron served as high priest and Miriam was God’s prophet. Although they assisted their brother, Moses was the indisputable leader. God spoke with him face-to-face and, as God’s spokesperson, he became Israel’s law-giver. Unsatisfied with their roles, however, the siblings wanted equal authority with their brother. When God heard their hostile words, He upheld Moses’ position as His chosen leader. As the instigator of the complaint and mini-rebellion, Miriam received the brunt of the punishment and was given a skin condition and required to stay outside the camp for seven days! (A Biblical form of “time out.”)

Whenever Miriam is mentioned, I first think of the jealous, spiteful, complaining, and possibly racist sister of Aaron and Moses. Miriam, however, also was the caring and concerned big sister who kept an eye on her baby brother as he lay in a basket floating on the edge of the Nile. It was she who approached Pharaoh’s daughter and innocently offered to find a Hebrew nurse for the hungry infant. It was her quick thinking that reunited the boy with his birth mother. She probably continued to be Moses’ link between Pharaoh’s palace and his Jewish family for several years. It was the prophetess Miriam who led the women in song and dance as they proclaimed God’s victory over Pharaoh right after the Israelites safely passed through the Red Sea. Loving sister, poetess, and prophet, and yet I remember her as an envious disgruntled woman.

Fortunately, we don’t define most of the Bible’s characters by their failures and shortcomings. Even though Aaron shared in Miriam’s complaint, we remember him as Moses’ right-hand man. We remember David as the giant killer rather than a murderer and adulterer, Rahab as the woman who saved Israel’s spies rather than a pagan prostitute, John Mark as the author of a gospel rather than the man who deserted Paul, and Solomon as a wise king rather than the man who disobeyed God by amassing horses, foreign wives, and a huge amount of wealth.

Church tradition holds that Thomas carried the gospel message to Parthia or India where he was martyred, so he didn’t define himself by his doubt. As the one who spoke powerfully on Pentecost, healed the lame, and preached before the Sanhedrin, the Apostle Peter didn’t define himself by his failures and I’d like to think that, when Miriam returned to camp, she didn’t define herself by hers either. I know God didn’t because, when He spoke to the people through the prophet Micah, He joined Miriam’s name with those of Aaron and Moses and said, “For I brought you out of Egypt and redeemed you from slavery. I sent Moses, Aaron, and Miriam to help you.” [6:4]

From their accomplishments, it seems that, rather than defining themselves by their failures, they learned from them. What about us? How do we define ourselves? None of us are perfect and we probably have a long list of failures, missteps, and transgressions. God has forgiven us; have we forgiven ourselves? Each day, God gives us a clean slate—let us erase the past and confidently move forward to be better person today than we were yesterday and a better person tomorrow that we are today!

You must learn, you must let God teach you, that the only way to get rid of your past is to make a future out of it. God will waste nothing. [Phillips Brooks]

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)]

No, dear brothers and sisters, I have not achieved it, but I focus on this one thing: Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead, I press on to reach the end of the race and receive the heavenly prize for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us. [Philippians 3:13-14 (NLT)]

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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)]

sorrowless tree - ashokaEven though this last year has been one of sorrow and loss for us, I smiled when I recognized the Sorrowless Tree’s bright orange and yellow flowers at the botanical garden. Although its scientific name is Saraca asoca, the Ashoka is commonly called the Sorrowless Tree. Sometimes I wish such a tree actually existed. Even though the tree can’t prevent sorrow, its beautiful foliage and sweet fragrance were just what I needed to lift my spirits as I mourned yet another friend’s death. The flowers reminded me to find joy and gladness in the day God had given me.

A great deal of mythology and tradition accompany the Ashoka tree. Its common name comes from the Sanskrit word aśoka which means “free from sorrow.” In Hindu mythology, the tree is dedicated to Kama Deva, the god of love. Tradition holds that when someone drinks the water in which Ashoka flowers have been rinsed, they can attain an inner state of profound peace and joy. Once infused with the flower’s essence, the water is said to heal the suffering and sorrow caused by mourning, pain, burdens, trauma, disappointment, and loneliness. While it doesn’t change the root cause of the sorrow, the flowery water is said to change one’s perception of it—sort of a placebo effect.

The Ashoka is also considered sacred in Buddhism. Tradition holds that when Māyā, the Buddha’s mother, reached up to pick one of the tree’s blossoms, she gave birth to her son under the tree. It is said that people will forget all of their worries and concerns just by standing beneath the Ashoka’s beautiful and fragrant blossom because of the tree’s splendor. I have to admit that my heart felt lighter as I paused under the Ashoka’s blossom-laden branches. Rather than focusing on my sorrow, I thanked God for the gift of knowing and loving the beautiful people I’ve recently lost.

As Christians, we know there is no protection from grief and even a dozen Sorrowless Trees in our garden won’t protect us from loss, distress, disappointment, or sorrow. In both the Buddhist and Hindu mythologies, however, the tree’s essence and beauty don’t change the situation—they merely change the attitude and the perception of those circumstances. Like people everywhere, Christians often need an attitude adjustment when life goes seriously awry! When we’re sad, troubled or in pain, on what do we concentrate? Do we focus on our grief, difficulties, and suffering or on God? Do we lament, fret, or moan or do we concentrate on trusting our Heavenly Father? Do we let our negative feelings control us or do we control those discouraging emotions? Do we dwell on our misery or on our blessings? While we have no choice when sorrow and grief enter our lives, we always have a choice regarding the way we will deal with them. Unless we are clinically depressed, we don’t have to be at the mercy of our negative emotions. God has given us the power to do otherwise!

We will never live a sorrowless life. In fact, suffering often accompanies discipleship and our sorrow is neither futile nor unnoticed by God. Instead of drinking a flower’s essence, we can drink the living water of the Spirit—the essence of our God. Rather than standing under a tree gazing at lovely flowers, we can take refuge in the arms of God while pondering His love and trusting in a better life to come. As beautiful as the Ashoka’s flowers are, we will only find profound peace and joy in the Lord.

Should pain and suffering, sorrow, and grief, rise up like clouds and overshadow for a time the Sun of Righteousness and hide Him from your view, do not be dismayed, for in the end this cloud of woe will descend in showers of blessing on your head, and the Sun of Righteousness rise upon you to set no more forever. [Sadhu Sundar Singh]

I am leaving you with a gift—peace of mind and heart. And the peace I give is a gift the world cannot give. So don’t be troubled or afraid. [John 14:27 (NLT)]

He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever. [Revelation 21:4 (NLT)]

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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. If we claim we have not sinned, we are calling God a liar and showing that his word has no place in our hearts. [1 John 1:8-10 (NLT)]

Last month, there were sentencing hearings for two politicians in a northern state. One pled guilty to bribery and the other pled guilty to wire fraud and money laundering. Even though both men abused their positions and betrayed the public’s trust, both of their lawyers argued that their clients’ crimes really weren’t that bad so they didn’t deserve time in jail. In direct reference to the crimes of a former governor of their state, one lawyer argued that wire fraud and money laundering were insignificant when compared to bribing government officials to get lucrative contracts, trying to buy a Senate seat, or shaking down hospitals to get campaign contributions. After the other lawyer pointed out how little money his client actually pocketed from his crime, he called his client’s bribery “a brief dalliance with corruption,” cast the blame on another corrupt official who encouraged him, and assured the court that his client wasn’t a bad person but just a “good person who made a mistake in judgment.”

Along with minimizing their clients’ crimes, both lawyers presented another similar argument in their attempts to keep them out of prison. Granted, these hearings took place in a state where four of the last eleven governors went to prison but they both contended that sentencing their clients to prison was pointless since prison sentences given to other corrupt politicians hadn’t stopped corruption. Claiming that preventing corruption with prison was futile, one lawyer compared it to trying to drain Lake Michigan with a spoon! I suspect the possibility of prison doesn’t deter most criminals simply because they don’t plan on getting caught! When committing their crimes, these politicians never expected having to face the consequences of their actions.

We are quick to highlight and own our victories but even quicker to downplay and disown our failures! When caught, like those politicians, we often try to deny responsibility, spread the blame, rationalize, and minimize our guilt.

In contrast, consider David. While he wasn’t perfect, we’d call him a good man. In fact, Scripture refers to him as a man after God’s heart because he did everything God wanted him to do. Of course, being human, he also did some things God didn’t want him to do! Like those politicians, this good man made some serious mistakes in judgment. Instead of fraud or bribery, he abused his power when he dallied with Bathsheba and arranged for Uriah’s death.

While crooked politicians may escape the arm of the law, let us remember that none of us can escape God! I’m sure David thought he’d gotten away with his sins by the time Nathan confronted him about a year later. In contrast to those politicians, however, David didn’t minimize them, compare them favorably with the sins of others, or attempt to evade their consequences! He didn’t blame Bathsheba by claiming she enticed him, Uriah for not sleeping with his wife, or Joab for putting Uriah in harm’s way. He simply admitted, “I have sinned against the Lord.” [2 Sam. 12:13] Although the Lord forgave him, the price David paid for his sins was steep. The child Bathsheba conceived in adultery died, three more of David’s sons died violent deaths, and his son Absalom claimed David’s throne by having relations with the king’s concubines publicly.

Regardless of what you call it, a sin is a sin and every sin separates us from God and deserves the death penalty. Fortunately, the blood of Christ and our heartfelt confession and repentance have commuted the sentence we so rightly deserve. Forgiveness, however, doesn’t mean there won’t be consequences. Let us learn from David—honestly confess our sins and accept their consequences without complaint.

Have mercy on me, O God, because of your unfailing love. Because of your great compassion, blot out the stain of my sins. Wash me clean from my guilt. Purify me from my sin. For I recognize my rebellion; it haunts me day and night. Against you, and you alone, have I sinned; I have done what is evil in your sight. You will be proved right in what you say, and your judgment against me is just. [Psalm 51:1-4 (NLT)]

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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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Examine yourselves to see if your faith is genuine. Test yourselves. Surely you know that Jesus Christ is among you; if not, you have failed the test of genuine faith. [2 Corinthians 13:5 (NLT)]

alliumHaving frequently been told by her elders, “If you get your reward on earth, you won’t get it in heaven!” a friend said it still remains difficult for her to accept praise or compliments. Her experience reminded me of my college roommate Marilyn who, like my friend, received large doses of guilt, shame, hellfire, and brimstone in her strict Christian upbringing. She reminded me of The Nun’s Story and Sister Luke who tried so hard to be a perfect nun who flawlessly kept her vows. But, even when Luke succeeded at following a rule of cloistered life, she repented of the pride she felt at her success. So afraid of inadvertently sinning, the nun even felt guilty when she caught a glimpse of her face reflected in a window! Like her, Marilyn kept taking her spiritual temperature and searching for some hidden transgression for which she should repent. If something was fun or entertaining, Marilyn was sure a hidden sin lurked in it. Both the fictional nun and coed became so focused on their real and imagined spiritual faults that they missed out on the joy of the Lord.

Most of us have regular check-ups at the doctor and routinely check for lumps or suspicious moles but, unless we’re hypochondriacs, we don’t do that every day nor do we take our temperature or check our blood pressure hourly. As Christians, we should look into our hearts and acknowledge the errors of our ways but we should be cautious of excessive self-analysis and soul searching. Hypochondriacs, whether medical or spiritual, focus on themselves which leave no room for anyone or anything else. When we brood about our real and imagined spiritual failings, our eyes are focused on ourselves rather than where they belong–on God! And, if our eyes aren’t on God, it’s pretty difficult to experience His joy or serve Him with gladness.

When we wallow in self-condemnation, we’re choosing the enemy’s gifts of shame and blame rather than God’s gifts of mercy and forgiveness. Rather than dissecting our lives and putting our every thought, word, and action under a microscope, it might be wiser to have a regular check-up of our spiritual health and progress in following Jesus. The following seven questions can help us do just that and it seems they can be asked without our becoming spiritual hypochondriacs. Originally posed by Pastor Colin Smith of the Orchard Evangelical Free Church in Illinois several years ago, they are the following:

Am I praying with faith?
Am I serving with zeal?
Am I believing with confidence?
Am I confessing with humility?
Am I worshipping with joy?
Am I giving with gladness?
Am I reaching out with love?

Great thoughts of your sin alone will drive you to despair; but great thoughts of Christ will pilot you into the haven of peace. [Charles Spurgeon]

Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. Point out anything in me that offends you, and lead me along the path of everlasting life. [Psalm 139:23-24 (NLT)]

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