But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” [1 Samuel 16:7 (ESV)]

carolina wrenYesterday, when writing about the lack of physical descriptions of Jesus, I realized how rarely Scripture describes anyone. Granted, we know that Goliath was huge, Saul was tall, Ehud was left-handed, Samson had long hair, Esau was hairy, Zacchaeus was short, that Sarah, Esther, and Rachel were beautiful, and that Leah was not. Those brief descriptions, however, were necessary to explain the narrative. Other than their ages, for example, we know nothing about the appearance of Noah, Abraham, or Moses and we don’t even know the ages of any of the disciples! Appearance, however, isn’t important to God.

1 Samuel 9:2 describes Saul as “the most handsome man in Israel—head and shoulders taller than anyone else in the land.” Looking kingly, however, isn’t qualification enough to be a king. After removing Saul’s kingship because of his disloyalty and disobedience, God sent Samuel to Jesse’s house to find and anoint Israel’s new king. Once there, the prophet took one look at Jesse’s impressive-looking eldest son Eliab and was sure he found the new monarch. When God rejected Eliab, Jesse lined up the rest of his sons and Samuel continued on down the line. Going about this selection process as would a casting director—by choosing someone who looked regal—Samuel seemed to have forgotten that Israel already had a king who looked the part. What they needed was someone worthy of the role.

When God rejected all seven of Jesse’s boys, Samuel asked if there were any more. He learned of the young David out herding animals in the fields. This youngest son was so far down the family’s pecking order that his father hadn’t even summoned him to the feast but Samuel insisted on sending for him. Although David is described as being pleasant looking, with beautiful eyes and a ruddy complexion, a young shepherd boy (no matter how handsome) doesn’t sound much like king material, but God told Samuel, “This is the one.”

God explained to Samuel that He doesn’t look at a man’s appearance; He looks at a man’s heart. With his pink-cheeks and beautiful eyes David may not have looked the part, but he had the makings of a king because he was what God wanted: a man after God’s heart. [13:14] While people see what a person appears to be, God sees who that person actually is!

In spite of our best efforts not to do so, like Samuel, we tend to categorize people by their looks and often allow age, physique, beauty, ethnicity, clothing, wealth, grooming, or style to outweigh substance. If God doesn’t judge people by appearance, I wonder why we so often do. Unlike God, we can’t immediately see what’s in a person’s heart but, when we estimate a person’s worth by his exterior, we often miss the opportunity to ever see into his interior! God calls us to live by faith rather than sight; perhaps we should apply those words to the way we view our fellow travelers on this planet. Let us remember Isaiah’s description of Jesus—the Messiah who had “nothing beautiful or majestic about his appearance, nothing to attract us to him.” [53:2] That man was God’s son! If we saw Him on the streets today, would we write Him off as readily Jesse did his own son?

For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. [Isaiah 53:2-3 (ESV)]

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Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. [Philippians 2:3-4 (ESV)]

coreopsisWhile writing about lies these last few days, I recalled Mark Twain’s Was it Heaven? or Hell?, a short story in which the principle of absolute truth is challenged by that of Christian love. The widowed Margaret and her 16-year old daughter Helen live with their two elderly maiden aunts, Hannah and Hester. The aunts are uncompromisingly strict in their moral code and any sort of lie is inexcusable. When Helen admits having told a small and harmless lie, the aunts demand that she confess to her mother who is ill in bed.

It is only after the doctor visits that the sisters learn that both Margaret and Helen have typhoid fever. When the doctor asks the sisters if any situation could be a valid reason for a lie, they maintain they’d never lie to shield a person from injury or shame—not even to save someone from pain or grief. Positive that any lie would cost them their souls, they vow never to tell a lie of any kind, not even one of courtesy, kindness or compassion.

Not knowing that her daughter is sick in bed, Margaret assumes Helen’s absence from her side is to prevent her from getting typhoid. When Margaret asks about the girl’s well-being, Aunt Hester hesitantly replies that Helen is well when, in fact, her health is rapidly failing. Learning of Hester’s deceit, Hannah reprimands her sister for lying but, the following day, when Margaret asks Hannah about the youngster, she also lies that Helen is well. Not wanting to give Margaret the cruel truth that her daughter is dying, the sisters regularly reassure her that Helen is happy and healthy. As the girl’s health further deteriorates, the aunts even forge cheery notes to reassure her sick mother. When Helen dies, the aunts continue to bring her mother news of the girl’s well-being and, to explain the noise during her wake, they even tell Margaret they’re having a party. When Margaret dies, Hannah and Hester agree that she was blessed never to have known of her daughter’s death.

At midnight, an angel of the Lord appears and says, “For liars a place is appointed. There they burn in the fires of hell from everlasting unto everlasting. Repent!” The women fall to their knees but, rather than repent, they say they’d tell the same lies again. The last words of the story ask this simple question, “Was it Heaven? or Hell?”

Mark Twain was not a Christian so he can be excused for not understanding that the sins of a Christian already are forgiven. Nevertheless, the underlying question remains—is every lie, no matter its reason or purpose, a sin? Were the sisters’ lies a sin or did their act of love trump the sin of a lie? After three days of writing about deception, I still don’t know the answer. While we have a God of truth, truth is not god! The Apostle Paul asked, “Am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God?” adding, “If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ.” [Galatians 1:10] If we come to a time when we have to choose between truth and deception, perhaps we should ask whose approval we are seeking and who we would be serving with our actions.

For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”… The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. [Galatians 5:13-14,22-23 (ESV)]

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THE GRAY AREA (Lies – Part 2)

Therefore, the proud may not stand in your presence, for you hate all who do evil. You will destroy those who tell lies. The Lord detests murderers and deceivers. [Psalm 5:5-6 (NLT)]

gray catbirdYesterday, when writing about notable liars in Scripture, I thought of other less commendable circumstances when people lied. When David was on the run from Saul, he arrived in the town of Nob and visited Ahimelech, the high priest. Although his purpose was to obtain food for his men and a weapon for himself, David blatantly lied and said he was there on a private matter for the king and lied again to explain being weaponless. Ahimelech, who didn’t know of the rift between Saul and David, gave David bread for his men along with Goliath’s sword.

While the lies told by Rahab, the midwives, and Elisha can be justified, David’s lies can’t and Scripture gives us no reason to think Ahimelech was an adversary. Rather than taking the easy way through deception, David should have trusted God, explained the situation honestly, and left it up to Ahimelech as to whether or not he would help.

David probably thought his deception harmless but it wasn’t! Saul’s chief herdsman, Doeg the Edomite, heard the exchange and reported it to the king. Misconstruing the priest’s aid to David as treason, Saul ordered the death of all the priests in Nob. Obliging the king, Doeg killed 85 priests and slaughtered everyone in their families. When David learned of the massacre, he regretted his action and learned a valuable but costly lesson about honesty and integrity.

Although the Doeg never lied, he failed to tell the whole truth. When reporting the priest’s aid to David, he neglected to mention that David lied to the priest. When Ahimelech tried to explain that he had no knowledge of any plot against Saul, Doeg had a second opportunity to clarify the situation, but he didn’t and his half-truth was as sinful as any lie!

Like Doeg, Samuel also told a half-truth. Although his real purpose was to anoint a new king when he arrived in Bethlehem, he said he came to offer a sacrifice. While misleading, his answer was truthful since he’d brought a heifer with him and did have a feast. The difference between his half-truth and Doeg’s was that God instructed the prophet to answer that way!

Nevertheless, people played fast and loose with the truth several times in 1 Samuel. Saul lied to Samuel about obeying the Lord’s command to completely destroy the Amalekites and all they owned when he only destroyed what was of little or no value. After planning a ruse to test Saul’s intentions toward David, Jonathon lied to his father about David’s whereabouts. Michal helped David escape from Saul’s men by making it look like her husband was asleep in his bed. When her subterfuge was discovered, she falsely claimed that David had threatened to kill her if she hadn’t helped. Twice, David deceived King Achish and the Philistines: first, by feigning madness and later by making the Philistines think him an ally who was raiding the Jerahmeelites and Judeans when he really was raiding non-Israelite allies to the Philistines. Saul later deceived the Witch of Endor about his identity.

Some of these lies and half-truths seem justified while others do not. Some seem incredibly self-serving and some served others. While some situations seem clear cut, many others aren’t. Is there a gray area between absolute and complete truth and outright deception? How do we know what is right? Let us continue to look to Scripture for our answer.

Whoever desires to love life and see good days, let him keep his tongue from evil and his lips from speaking deceit; let him turn away from evil and do good; let him seek peace and pursue it. [1 Peter 3:10-11 (ESV)]

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You shall not steal; you shall not deal falsely; you shall not lie to one another. [Leviticus 19:11 (ESV)]

canna - bandana of the evergladesA 2010 study on “Human Communication Research,” found that people average 1.65 lies per day. I suspect the 1,000 they people surveyed were not completely truthful and the number is probably higher! We’re all liars but are all lies equal? Is a POW’s lie to his interrogator about his platoon’s position the same as a thief’s lie to a detective? Is an undercover policeman’s lie to a drug dealer the same as not reporting all your income on your 1040? Is deceiving someone so you can give him a surprise party the same as saying the check’s in the mail when it isn’t?

Many theologians and Biblical scholars hold that, regardless of the circumstances, a falsehood of any kind is never condoned by God and is a sin. Be that as it may, there are some notable episodes of lying by some of the Bible’s heroes. We have Rahab, the prostitute/innkeeper in Jericho who saved the lives of Joshua’s spies with a blatant lie to the king’s men. Some theologians (like Calvin and Augustine), insisting that no lie ever is permissible, condemn Rahab. In that case, perhaps Joshua and his spies should be condemned. Joshua sent his men out secretly and a spy’s purpose is to deceive people into thinking he is friend rather than foe. As long as we’re condemning liars, we might as well condemn the two midwives, Shiprah and Puah, who lied to Pharaoh and spared the lives of Hebrew baby boys. Let’s add Elisha to the list since he lied to the Aramean army before leading the blind troops straight into the city of Samaria.

Is there such a thing as a “righteous lie?” Are there situations when deception is permissible? Can it ever be the morally right thing to do? The hardliners hold that we are to obey God first and foremost—even before we look to our neighbor. For them, regardless of its size or the reason behind it, a lie is a sin. They maintain that the lies of Rahab, the midwives, and Elisha showed their lack of faith in God and they should have trusted Him enough to tell the truth regardless of the consequences.

While Augustine said, “A lie consists in speaking a falsehood with the intention of deceiving,” the other side defines a lie as an intentional falsehood that denies someone’s moral or legal right to know the truth. For them, not all falsehoods are lies and, on those occasions when people have forfeited their right to the truth (such as during a war or a criminal act),  a falsehood is ethically permissible. For this camp, whether or not a falsehood is a lie, depends on the circumstances.

Clearly, a lie for personal gain is wrong, as evidenced by the leprosy inflicted on Gehazi for lying to Elisha and the deaths of Ananias and Sapphira for their lies to Peter. But, rather than being displeased with the lies told by Rahab, the midwives, and Elisha, God seemed to reward them. Rahab and her family were saved, she married an Israelite, was an ancestor of both David and Jesus, and became one of two women listed in the Hebrews 11 “Hall of Faith.” God blessed Shiprah and Puah with families of their own and Elisha went on to perform twice as many miracles than did Elijah.

Were their falsehoods sinful lies or, because of circumstances, were they excusable and possibly commendable? In Rahab’s case, although an arrow had not yet been shot, war between Jericho and the Israelites was on the horizon and, once she hid the spies, she’d taken Israel’s side. In the case of the midwives, Pharaoh had declared war on the Hebrews by instructing the women to kill all male infants. As for Elisha, his lie occurred during a time of war between the king of Aram and Israel. The lies they told were the kind of lies told by Oskar Schindler that saved over 1,000 Jews in Germany, by the Benedictine monk Father Bruno that safeguarded 300 Jewish boys in Belgium, and by Corrie ten Boom that hid and protected Jews in the Netherlands. Would God condemn them (or others like them) for lying in the war between good and evil?

Are there ever times when deception is permissible? Can a higher moral good outweigh the sin of a lie? Can we lie to protect a life? When lying is the only way to prevent a horrible evil, is it acceptable to God? Or is such a lie a failure of our faith? I’m not sure I know the answer. John Wesley famously claimed that he would not tell one lie to save the souls of all the world. I wonder if he would lie to save a life so that he then could save a soul.

Keep your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking deceit. Turn away from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it. [Psalm 34:13-14 (ESV)]

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Human pride will be brought down, and human arrogance will be humbled. Only the Lord will be exalted on that day of judgment. For the Lord of Heaven’s Armies has a day of reckoning. He will punish the proud and mighty and bring down everything that is exalted. [Isaiah 2:11-12 (NLT)]

black-crowned night heronJesus’ Parable of Two Men Who Prayed contrasts pride with humility, self-righteousness with repentance, and how not to pray with how to pray. In it, both Pharisee and publican (tax collector) go to pray in the Temple. The Pharisee boldly thanks God that he’s not a sinner like everyone else and then self-righteously singles out the sinful publican. Then, just to make sure God understands how good he really is, the man brags of his tithing; rather than giving a tenth of what he earns, he tithes a tenth of all that he acquires. Even though fasting was only required on the Day of Atonement, Pharisees fasted on Mondays and Thursdays as well, so the self-satisfied man finishes his prayer by boasting of his twice weekly fasts.

In stark contrast to the proud Pharisee is the second man: a detested tax collector. Considered traitors and thieves by their fellow Jews, tax collectors paid the Romans for the privilege of collecting taxes and then overcharged their countrymen while lining their pockets with the excess. The despised man stands meekly before God with his head bowed and eyes down. Beating his breast in sorrow, he humbly confesses his sinfulness and begs for God’s mercy.

Although Jesus’ listeners would have anticipated the Pharisee’s commendation and the thieving publican’s condemnation, Jesus turns their expectations upside down when He says it was the publican who was considered righteous by God. He explains: “For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” [Luke 18:14] These were the same words Jesus used when, at a dinner party, He took the guests to task for their lack of humility as they jockeyed for the best seats around the table. [Luke 14:7-11]

We’re familiar enough with this parable not to identify with the Pharisee’s ostentatious display of piety but I suspect we’re more like the Pharisee than we care to admit. Although the Pharisee addressed God at the beginning of his prayer, the rest of it was all about him and seems more like a business contract than a prayer. Listing his good works, he seems to expect God’s commendation and favor in return for them. In theory, we know we’re justified by faith not works, that none of us are saved by our own merits, and that no human righteousness is enough for a God who demands perfection. In reality, however, we’re often more self-absorbed than self-examining, more likely to extol our virtues than admit our sins, and more interested in justifying our actions than being justified by God. Like the Pharisee, do we ever commend ourselves or justify our failings by pointing out the sins of others? How often do we actually take an inventory of our failings and honestly and humbly admit them to the Lord?

Sinners all, let us never forget how completely undeserving and unworthy we are of God’s grace.

The man who is seriously convinced that he deserves to go to hell is not likely to go there, while the man who believes he is worthy of heaven will certainly never enter that blessed place. [A.W. Tozer]

So humble yourselves before God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come close to God, and God will come close to you. Wash your hands, you sinners; purify your hearts, for your loyalty is divided between God and the world. Let there be tears for what you have done. Let there be sorrow and deep grief. Let there be sadness instead of laughter, and gloom instead of joy. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up in honor. [James 4:7-10 (NLT)]

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His son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against both heaven and you, and I am no longer worthy of being called your son.” [Luke 15:21 (NLT)]

pearl crescent butterflyHamartia is the word most frequently used in the New Testament for sin. Originally an archery term that meant missing the target when hunting with a bow, hamartia came to mean missing or falling short of a goal, purpose or standard. In Scripture, it conveys the idea of missing God’s perfect standard of what is righteous.

Because my father frequently went bow hunting, he set up an archery range in our garage. A round straw target was surrounded by hay bales along the back wall. Covered with a colored paper target paper showing ten concentric rings of five colors, the bull’s eye was at the target’s center. When we were old enough, my father taught my brother and me how to use a bow. Only seven, I was lucky if my arrow landed in the target’s outer rings and I often missed the target entirely. Whether we’re talking of arrows or sin, it’s not always easy to hit the target. But what of those arrows that missed the mark? While mine went into the hay bales, what if those arrows were sins? What would they hit?

I pondered this question while reading the Parable of the Prodigal (or Lost) Son, a beautiful illustration of God’s grace. In this story, we tend to focus on the pardoning love of the father when he welcomes his lost son home. Since both sons in the story clearly missed the mark with their actions, let’s look at it from a different viewpoint and consider where their arrows of sin landed. Having had a prodigal child myself, I know exactly where they came to rest—deep in their father’s heart. His sons’ actions caused the father untold grief. Thinking back to that target in our garage—what if, instead of hay bales holding the target, it had been my father? Every arrow I shot that missed the target would have pierced him instead! What if, instead of arrows it had been sins and, instead of my father, it had been God?

Sin is far more than not living up to a certain divine standard. It is as much a slap in God’s face as were the younger son’s demand of his inheritance while his father was still alive and the older son’s insolence and rudeness in his refusal to attend the celebration. Sin is a personal affront to God and it grieves Him as much as it must have grieved the father in Jesus’ parable.

Sin isn’t a violation of an impersonal standard—it is a personal offense against our Father in Heaven. Our sins hurt more than ourselves and others—they hurt God because we’ve sinned against Him! Our God is a loving God of relationship, not estrangement, but every time we sin, like the sons in Jesus’ parable, we grieve Him with our rejection. The fact that our loving Father forgives us doesn’t make our sins any less painful to Him. Let us weigh carefully our actions and remember that, when an arrow we shoot misses the target, it hits something else. Don’t let it be God!

This day, my God, I hate sin not because it damns me, but because it has done Thee wrong. To have grieved my God is the worst grief to me. [Charles Spurgeon]

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 51:4 (NLT)]

And do not bring sorrow to God’s Holy Spirit by the way you live. Remember, he has identified you as his own, guaranteeing that you will be saved on the day of redemption. [Ephesians 4:30 (NLT)]

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