DO NO HARM

No, O people, the Lord has told you what is good, and this is what he requires of you: to do what is right, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God. [Micah 6:8 (NLT)]


Rather than in the Hippocratic Oath, “To do no harm” is found in Hippocrates’ History of Epidemics. “First, do no harm” actually dates to medical texts from the mid-19th century, and is attributed to the 17th century English physician Thomas Sydenham. Whoever said it first, I’m relieved those words weren’t the only ones recited by my doctors when they graduated from medical school. Simply doing no harm seems to set the bar too low. I want my physicians to do more than not harm me; I want them to help!

It’s never enough to stop at doing no harm; as Christians, we are to do what is right and good. Remaining on the sidelines may do no harm, but it rarely does any good either. We can’t stand idly by while people are in need nor can we ignore the plight of our neighbor, whether he lives right around the corner or half-way around the world. Rather than Hippocrates’ “do no harm,” I prefer the words of St. Ambrose in a 391 AD treatise setting forth the duties of the clergy: “It is not enough just to wish well; we must also do well. Nor, again, is it enough to do well, unless this springs from a good source even from a good will. … It is thus a glorious thing to wish well, and to give freely, with the one desire to do good and not to do harm.”

Of course, “to do good and not to do harm” requires determining what is good and what is harmful. In medicine that line often is blurred. Take chemotherapy—while it kills dividing cancer cells, it also kills dividing healthy cells like hair, skin, bone marrow, and the lining of the digestive tract. Nevertheless, it is used to treat cancer because it does more good than harm and the damage done to those healthy cells usually doesn’t last.

In everyday life, the line between doing good or harm also can be blurry. After he advised clergy to be generous in giving, Ambrose explained that generosity didn’t mean they should give an extravagant man the means to continue living extravagantly, facilitate an adulterer in his adultery, or aid someone plotting against his country because, in those cases, giving would do more harm than good. While his examples seem pretty straightforward, determining whether we’re helping or hurting others rarely is so clear-cut.

As Christians, we have the desire to help others, especially our loved ones. We must prayerfully determine whether we are empowering people to achieve something they couldn’t do by themselves or simply enabling them to perpetuate a problem. While empowering helps, enabling harms. There are certain battles that are not ours to fight, debts that belong solely to the debtor, and work that must be done without our help. There are consequences that others must face—things that will be lost, disappointments that will occur, hardships that must be endured, tears that must be shed, restitution that needs to be made, and even time that must be served. We do more harm than good when we deny our loved ones those life experiences that rightfully are theirs. Sometimes denying help is the best way to do good for someone.

Father God, guide us in our efforts to do your good works. Keep us from ignoring the many needs around us but don’t let our efforts to be helpful to those we love do more harm than good. Give us the means and desire to do good and the discernment to know the difference between doing good and doing harm. Show us the path you want us to take so that we always do the right thing.

Remember, it is sin to know what you ought to do and then not do it. [James 4:17 (NLT)]

Love does no wrong to others, so love fulfills the requirements of God’s law. [Romans 14:10 (NLT)]

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HEROD AGRIPPA I

The Lord detests the proud; they will surely be punished. … Pride goes before destruction, and haughtiness before a fall. [Proverbs 16:5,18 (NLT)]
peacock

After Peter’s miraculous escape from prison, Herod Agrippa interrogated and executed the apostle’s guards. Luke tells us that the king then went to Caesarea where he died. While independent historical evidence of the Bible’s stories isn’t necessary, it’s always welcome. The Jewish historian Josephus (37-100 AD) corroborates Luke’s account of the king’s death in his Antiquities of the Jews. 

With his flowery language, direct quotes, and added details, Josephus’ account differs slightly from Luke’s but the two versions are complementary rather than contradictory. While in Caesarea, Agrippa attended a festival in honor of the emperor Claudius. Luke simply describes the king’s dress as his “royal robes” but Josephus adds that they were “made wholly of silver, and of a contexture truly wonderful.” When the sun shone on Herod, the garment “was so resplendent as to spread a horror over those that looked intently upon him; and presently his flatterers cried out, one from one place, and another from another, (though not for his good,) that he was a god.” Luke tell us that when Agrippa spoke, the people gave him a standing ovation and said his voice was that of a god, not a man. Josephus adds that “the king did neither rebuke them nor reject their impious flattery.”

Both historians report that Herod Agrippa immediately fell ill and died. “A severe pain also arose in his belly, and began in a most violent manner,” reported Josephus, adding, “And when he had been quite worn out by the pain in his belly for five days, he departed this life.” Although Josephus doesn’t specify the cause, Luke says the man was “consumed with worms” and Agrippa probably had roundworms or tapeworms. Feeding on the nutrients in the intestines, these parasites can block the intestines, bile and pancreatic ducts, and cause severe pain along with seizures, diarrhea, and vomiting. Able to migrate to other parts of the body, the worms can damage the liver, eyes, heart, and brain. Being eaten by worms both before and after his death seems a fitting end for such a despicable man and both Luke and Josephus agree that his agonizing (and gross) death was a supernatural act of divine judgment for Herod Agrippa’s arrogance and blasphemy in accepting the people’s worship.

Herod Agrippa I was raised in Rome where, after playing the dangerous game of political intrigue, he ended up on the winning side. It was through his friendship with the emperors Caligula and Claudius that he gained rulership of all the Jewish territories once ruled by his grandfather, Herod the Great. Although he owed his position to the favor of the Roman emperor, Agrippa was part Jewish. The politician in him  recognized the importance of prudence and diplomacy with the Jews if he wanted to maintain his powerful position. According to Josephus, Agrippa sought the support of the Pharisees and proved his Jewish identity by carefully observing the law and making daily sacrifices. By acting as a Roman for the Romans and an observant Jew for his subjects, the king did what was politic and self-serving until that day in Caesarea when he was lauded as a god.

Caesarea was a pagan city, so it’s somewhat understandable that the crowd may have been in awe of him. Nevertheless, Agrippa was a Jew who knew that what occurred was nothing short of idolatry! Moreover, as a Roman, he knew that only Caesar could be proclaimed a god. The right (and expedient) thing to do would have been to immediately correct the crowd and reject the honor of being called a god but Agrippa didn’t. Instead, he was filled with pride and the man who’d lived by flattering others to curry favor made the mistake of believing his own flattering reviews. When Agrippa accepted the crowd’s worship, he offended both the emperor Claudius and the Jewish leadership. More important, he offended God!

While none of us are likely to be lauded as gods, we all will have moments, like Herod Agrippa’s, when pride takes hold of us. Pride like the king’s, however, is idolatry because it is worship of self! When we put ourselves front and center, our pride displaces God from His rightful place. Pride may not bring on a fatal case of worms but let us remember these words by Charles Spurgeon: “No matter how dear you are to God, if pride is harbored in your spirit, He will whip it out of you. They that go up in their own estimation must come down again by His discipline.”

None are more taken in by flattery than the proud, who wish to be the first and are not. [Baruch Spinoza]

I am the Lord; that is my name! I will not give my glory to anyone else, nor share my praise with carved idols. [Isaiah 42:8 (NLT)]

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THE PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS – Independence Day

Give me understanding and I will obey your instructions; I will put them into practice with all my heart. Make me walk along the path of your commands, for that is where my happiness is found. [Psalm 119:34-36 (NLT)]

Today we celebrate the adoption of the Declaration of Independence 246 years ago—when American colonists shed the tyranny of Great Britain and King George III to form the United States of America. Among the unalienable rights cited in this historic document are “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” During this long holiday weekend, Americans have been busy enjoying life, celebrating liberty, and pursuing happiness with a variety of activities that, among other things, probably include parties, picnics, flags, fireworks, parades, sparklers, and carnivals along with beaches, pools or sprinklers, and hot dogs, burgers, potato salad, and ice cream!

“The pursuit of happiness,” however, had a different meaning back in 1776 than it does today. When our Founding Fathers wrote of pursuing happiness, they weren’t thinking about 4th of July fireworks, fun, and games. Rather than a temporary emotion, they were thinking of a state of being and envisioning the kind of happiness that comes from having a government in which people can participate, their voices are heard, they can control their destiny, justice prevails, talents are nurtured, people can work and move ahead, the nation is tranquil, and its borders are defended. Pursuing happiness in 1776 wasn’t about self-gratification; it was about an individual’s contribution to society. As Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy explained, “For them, happiness meant that feeling of self-worth and dignity you acquire by contributing to your community and to its civic life.”

Unfortunately, a prevalent attitude in our nation today focuses on individual needs and desires and the pursuit of happiness is interpreted as meaning, “Do whatever makes you happy!” We might want to exercise some caution when pursuing happiness while focusing only on ourselves. It didn’t end well in Eden when Adam and Eve decided to pursue happiness by eating the forbidden fruit nor did focusing on their own desires work for David or Sampson. A hungry Esau pursued happiness with a hearty bowl of stew and his brother pursued it by deceiving Isaac. Achan pursued happiness by keeping plunder from Jericho as did Saul when he kept the best spoils from Agag. Sarah foolishly pursued happiness by giving Hagar to Abraham and, like many of us, Noah sought happiness in too much wine. Yet, none of those pursuits brought happiness. In spite of his wisdom, Solomon pursued happiness by accumulating massive amounts of silver and gold, 700 wives, and 300 concubines and yet his words in Ecclesiastes are not those of a happy man. As Thomas Jefferson said, “It is neither wealth nor splendor; but tranquility and occupation which give you happiness.”

While we live in a free country and God has given us free will, we need to be sure we don’t ever use our freedom to fall into another kind of tyranny—a tyranny much worse than that of King George III—the tyranny of sin.

There are two freedoms—the false, where man is free to do what he likes; the true, where he is free to do what he ought. [Charles Kingsley]

Well then, since God’s grace has set us free from the law, does that mean we can go on sinning? Of course not! Don’t you realize that you become the slave of whatever you choose to obey? You can be a slave to sin, which leads to death, or you can choose to obey God, which leads to righteous living. [Romans 6:15-16 (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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