Evangelizing the Brain

I often have people come to me and say, my sibling/friend/son/daughter/spouse is struggling with their faith. In fact, I am asked about this when going and speaking to different groups of people more than any other subject. But what follows this confession is often some variation on the question: What resources would you recommend?

What can I read to be a better apologist? This person is smarter than me, so what can I get my hands on to corner them in their atheistic logic? What kind of study can I recommend to them to get their faith back on track?

It is a well-meaning question, and I have never met anyone who wasn’t completely genuine in asking me. But I wonder helpful recommending resources really is.

Don’t get me wrong, we love good books here at Sacred Margins. But often our reliance on books and information and reason and logic keep us from seeing the bigger picture.

Just to prove books can be helpful, I want to draw two points from a book I just finished on the science of the brain and it’s relationship to faith.. (Hang with me if how brains work isn’t your cup of tea, I promise there’s a point!) Thompson works through a lot in this work, but three main points are helpful for our discussion this week:

1. Our brains our built to experience a God who loves and attaches infinite value and worth to us.

2. We relate to God based on how our human relationships have trained us to relate to others.

3. Sin has marred both of these capacities of the human brain a great deal.

_71876007_c0177401-brain_activity,_artwork-splBasically, people can only understand and relate to God in terms of how they have experienced other people. Yet because of the nature of living in a fallen world, even the best of relationships and upbringings leave tiny little hurts and wounds on our souls. The brain remembers these ways of interacting, and continues to use them in all sorts of relational settings. Each time we “remember” these mistrusts, the less likely we will be to trust and deeply connect with others in the future.

We take beatings as human beings. And we often take beatings from the people who are closest to us. When this happens, we often attribute those failures to God.

Perhaps we were presented with a tyrannical and angry picture of God which was re-enforced by unloving and hurtful people.

Perhaps we have been deeply wounded by people in the name of Jesus.

Each time these hurts occur, our brain remembers them and uses them in future interactions.

The way we are even able to have healthy relationships in the midst of all this messiness, is when people are able to admit their faults, apologize, and model grace and forgiveness towards us. When people model these attributes for us by loving us and being vulnerable and forgiving and offering comfort or hope, they in essence re-wire our brains. They teach us to remember relationships differently.

And the only way to change patterns of relating to others (and God) is to have real-life human models of grace, love, forgiveness, mercy, and grace. Our brains remember what is modeled.

Not only that, but because the poor ways of interacting become so ingrained within us, it takes multiple iterations of grace and love to change the way our brain reacts to other people, and therefore God.

We cannot read a book about it. We cannot listen to a moving sermon about it. We have to see it modeled in real life for our brains to accept it.

Here’s where I am going with this:

If we want people to experience a good and loving and merciful God, we have to first show them that love and mercy and grace is possible. This is not something which we can just logically prove. It requires long-term consistent people modeling the attributes of God to us in order to really experience and relate to this beautiful, mysterious, loving, and good God.

If we really want people to experience the good and beautiful God we follow and who is revealed fully in Jesus, it does not start with books, sermons, or blogs.

It begins with embodying the love and mercy of Jesus to another person.

Consistently.

Frequently.

Over time.

And it requires admitting it and asking for forgiveness when we don’t.

There is no replacement for the human experience of love and forgiveness.

People do not first change their thinking about God because of a moving sermon or by watching God is Not Dead and having that proclaimed on Facebook. In fact, believing something because of logical, objective truth often moves us away from trust. Trust requires things we cannot logically explain. Trust is built by it being lived out over time and in consistent and grace filled ways.

It is the way we were designed and it is the way our brains work.

What we typically call evangelism is often relegated to books and tracts and well-thought out, logically consistent arguments with objective proof.

True evangelism is when the people of God do their best to model and the grace and love of Jesus consistently to those they come into contact with.

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It is What We Do That Defines Us

One of my favorite movie trilogies are the most recent Batman movies. I have always loved Batman, but these movies are all quite profound. Here is a scene from the first movie which I think captures the theme for this week:

As Christians, we use a lot of words. We have sermons and Bible studies and read blogs (ouch) and talk about our theology and the way things “ought” to be. Yet this alone is does not do a whole lot.

God is in the business of restoring the world into the way things were always meant to be and the way they will ultimately be again. And we are invited into this process.

But the process of partnering with God is one that requires action. It is not about what theology we have or what doctrines we hold, it is about following the cruciform way of Jesus in order to bring about the Kingdom of God.

Are we willing to act like Jesus? And what role does our thinking play in our actions? What does our sense of who we are contribute to how we act in the world?

These are things we want to explore this week.

Matthew 21:23-32

When Jesus returned to the Temple and began teaching, the leading priests and elders came up to him. They demanded, “By what authority are you doing all these things? Who gave you the right?”

“I’ll tell you by what authority I do these things if you answer one question,” Jesus replied. “Did John’s authority to baptize come from heaven, or was it merely human?”

They talked it over among themselves. “If we say it was from heaven, he will ask us why we didn’t believe John. But if we say it was merely human, we’ll be mobbed because the people believe John was a prophet.” So they finally replied, “We don’t know.”

And Jesus responded, “Then I won’t tell you by what authority I do these things.

“But what do you think about this? A man with two sons told the older boy, ‘Son, go out and work in the vineyard today.’ The son answered, ‘No, I won’t go,’ but later he changed his mind and went anyway. Then the father told the other son, ‘You go,’ and he said, ‘Yes, sir, I will.’ But he didn’t go.

“Which of the two obeyed his father?”

They replied, “The first.”

Then Jesus explained his meaning: “I tell you the truth, corrupt tax collectors and prostitutes will get into the Kingdom of God before you do. For John the Baptist came and showed you the right way to live, but you didn’t believe him, while tax collectors and prostitutes did. And even when you saw this happening, you refused to believe him and repent of your sins.

Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32

Then another message came to me from the Lord: “Why do you quote this proverb concerning the land of Israel: ‘The parents have eaten sour grapes, but their children’s mouths pucker at the taste’? As surely as I live, says the Sovereign Lord, you will not quote this proverb anymore in Israel. For all people are mine to judge—both parents and children alike. And this is my rule: The person who sins is the one who will die.

“Yet you say, ‘The Lord isn’t doing what’s right!’ Listen to me, O people of Israel. Am I the one not doing what’s right, or is it you? When righteous people turn from their righteous behavior and start doing sinful things, they will die for it. Yes, they will die because of their sinful deeds. And if wicked people turn from their wickedness, obey the law, and do what is just and right, they will save their lives. They will live because they thought it over and decided to turn from their sins. Such people will not die. And yet the people of Israel keep saying, ‘The Lord isn’t doing what’s right!’ O people of Israel, it is you who are not doing what’s right, not I.

“Therefore, I will judge each of you, O people of Israel, according to your actions, says the Sovereign Lord. Repent, and turn from your sins. Don’t let them destroy you! Put all your rebellion behind you, and find yourselves a new heart and a new spirit. For why should you die, O people of Israel? I don’t want you to die, says the Sovereign Lord. Turn back and live!

Psalm 25:1-9

O Lord, I give my life to you.
I trust in you, my God!
Do not let me be disgraced,
or let my enemies rejoice in my defeat.
No one who trusts in you will ever be disgraced,
but disgrace comes to those who try to deceive others.
Show me the right path, O Lord;
point out the road for me to follow.
Lead me by your truth and teach me,
for you are the God who saves me.
All day long I put my hope in you.
Remember, O Lord, your compassion and unfailing love,
which you have shown from long ages past.
Do not remember the rebellious sins of my youth.
Remember me in the light of your unfailing love,
for you are merciful, O Lord.
The Lord is good and does what is right;
he shows the proper path to those who go astray.
He leads the humble in doing right,
teaching them his way.

Philippians 2:1-13

Is there any encouragement from belonging to Christ? Any comfort from his love? Any fellowship together in the Spirit? Are your hearts tender and compassionate? Then make me truly happy by agreeing wholeheartedly with each other, loving one another, and working together with one mind and purpose.

Don’t be selfish; don’t try to impress others. Be humble, thinking of others as better than yourselves. Don’t look out only for your own interests, but take an interest in others, too.

You must have the same attitude that Christ Jesus had.

Though he was God,
he did not think of equality with God
as something to cling to.
Instead, he gave up his divine privileges;
he took the humble position of a slave
and was born as a human being.
When he appeared in human form,
he humbled himself in obedience to God
and died a criminal’s death on a cross.
Therefore, God elevated him to the place of highest honor
and gave him the name above all other names,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue declare that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

Dear friends, you always followed my instructions when I was with you. And now that I am away, it is even more important. Work hard to show the results of your salvation, obeying God with deep reverence and fear. For God is working in you, giving you the desire and the power to do what pleases him.

Prayer

God,
We often get lost in our words.
We have a genuine desire to follow you, but we so often don’t follow through.
Give us the courage to do the things we talk about.
Give us the courage to be the kinds of people who take on the attitude of Christ,
and to partner with you in the renewal and transformation of the world.
Give us the courage to see ourselves and those around us through your eyes.
Empower us to live our lives in ways that reflect who we truly are and who you truly are.
Amen.

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about birth order and the perils of being first

I have an ongoing conversation/friendly debate with a friend about the idea of “fairness”. For him, there isn’t such thing as fairness. Or maybe more, we do no favors for folks by trying to level the playing field and make things fair for everyone. From this point of view, those who are at more of a position of disadvantage have an opportunity to make things better for themselves while those who are in more of a position of advantage have the responsibility to take care of those who do not have the same level of privilege.

He, like me, is an oldest child. And, I remind him of this fact when he talks about the idea of fairness being misinformed. While I probably agree with a lot of what he is saying, I think it is important for him to acknowledge his own position as the opinion holder.

In other words, I think it is easy to think fairness is stupid when you are already in the position of advantage. That isn’t to say his worldview is wrong, but maybe needs some perspective.

My wife is a middle child and she is much more concerned with fairness than I am. She wants to divide her attention as fairly as possible between our two boys. Sometimes as a first child I wonder if this is a good use of energy. But from her point of view as one who came after two older siblings in the birth order, knowing that she would be treated fairly would be much more important. I’m sure as a younger child it is easy to feel neglected or that life was harder as a younger sibling.

I would have no idea. Because, I am an oldest child.

With being an oldest child, I have to acknowledge the world views I carry with me. I tend to want people to show self-reliance and be independent. For me, having to depend on someone else for my livelihood or to even ask for help is kind of a nightmarish idea.

lastfirst

Yet, I think this points to something deeper about those of us in positions of power and influence. Living in the most powerful country in the world, it would be almost inconceivable to live in a country needing aid or under siege by an oppressive regime. I think of countries like Iraq and Syria who have been overrun by ISIS militants, taking over towns and villages raping, beheading, and destroying everything in their path. What would it feel like to be completely powerless?

As citizens of the first world, and of the first nation in that world, we struggle to think about these things and sometimes default to the idea that because we were born in this first nation that somehow we are deserving of the things we have. Or even worse, that because we live in this nation with our great wealth and power – that God somehow has more favor on us than others.

The parable of the workers in the vineyard in Matthew is very un-American. The idea that everyone gets the same wage, no matter how hard they work is quite unappetizing for the free market. To think those who seem to be undeserving of a full wage might actually get the same as one who worked all day long looks more like welfare than capitalism if we are honest.

Just as the oldest child could use some perspective on what it is like to be in the younger child’s shoes, so should we search for some ways to find greater perspective from those who suffer and have less.

How do we gain a more healthy perspective on who deserves what in this world. Let me propose a few things.

  1. We need to check our beliefs about God. Do we really believe this is how God think? When God says the last will be first, is this really true, or just a cutesy phrase? If we don’t really believe God’s heart is with the least and the powerless, then we will never really know true empathy for those in lesser positions. We will continue as those who feel like we deserve more and more, while those who have less continue to have less.
  2. Admit our own heart issues where it comes to what we feel like we deserve. What areas of your life do you feel entitled? Why do you feel like this? How could it be different? What would life look like if you didn’t have advantage?
  3. Finally, evaluate your relationships and how much time you spend around those in disadvantaged situations. Do you only hang out with folks that look like you? Or, do you spend any time with people who have less opportunities?

We can’t help where we were born or what we might have been given. But, we do have a fight against entitlement and feeling deserving of things, whether we earned them or not. Let us focus on ways to can broaden our perspective and know those who have much less, actually have much more.

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I’m With Emma

Yesterday Trevor pointed out a reality that gets lost when begin talking about who “earns” what and which people “deserve” what they have. This reality is that while we would like to live in a world where everyone’s opportunity is equal, where every person can rise and fall based on their own merit, we do not live in that world. Some people find chances that others do not. Opportunity shines on one and eludes another.

We must be honest about the nature of the world that we live in. Life is not fair or equal. Can we completely solve this type of inequality? The sad answer is no. Much of this can be attributed to random chance. But there are circumstances in our world that can be spoken against and battled.

Over the weekend Emma Watson, the 24-year old British actress best known for her role in the Harry Potter films, stood up before the United Nations to talk about one of these realities. Her speech was passionate and moving. Here it is if you haven’t seen it yet:

The word feminism is a loaded word in our culture. Its mention conjures up all kinds of political connotations for people. I get that. But what I did not hear from Ms. Watson was a desire to blur the lines between the genders or act like “everyone is the same.” What I heard was a cry for us to love, respect and value one another with no regard for gender. And to fight to make sure that no opportunity is withheld from women simply because of their anatomy.

This wasn’t a cry from Scripture or religion, but it certainly reminded me of Galatians 3:

So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free,nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.

Christians cannot solve all of the world’s problems. I long for the day when God comes and puts all of the world to rights. Until that day comes, we will continue to see inequality and injustice. But we can also live as people of expectation. As people who work to create a better reality, who offer themselves as conduits of a new kingdom.

eqWhile we do not have the power to make everything right, we can — we’re called to  — do everything in our power to nurture an environment where everyone is valued equally. A world where no one’s voice is unworthy.

Are our churches places that reflect the inequalities of our world? Or are we people that are realizing the better reality of God’s kingdom? Where everyone, regardless of race, gender or socio-economic status, is on equal footing?

Over and over again in Scripture, God communicates that it is not our job to decide who is deserving and who is not. It’s above our pay grade. The rain falls on the righteous and the unrighteous. His blessing falls on whomever he wills. What we can do, though, is live as baptized people who erase the inequalities in our control.

So I’m with Emma. I appreciate her courage and her voice. And I encourage you to check out what she’s doing.

It reminds me of who we are called to be in Christ.

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Have We Lost a Narrative of Grace?

I have noticed over the last few years that there is a prevailing narrative in how many people view the world about who “deserves” certain things and who does not.

line-in-the-sandWhether it is conversations health care or public policy or success or second chances or corporate mobility or even the favor of God, a line is drawn in the sand. One one side (usually the side of the person presenting their opinion) there are the people who have “earned” their current status. The criteria of what it means to earn this status is rarely the same, but there is always a recognition that a person is where he or she is because they have earned it and worked hard for it. Therefore, their present position entitles them to think less of those who do not or cannot occupy similar positions of status or power.

On the other side of the line are the undeserving. There is little consideration for how they came to be in their current position, but it must be due to their own bad decisions. Had they worked as hard as the people on the other side, they would not be on the wrong side of the line. Getting on the right side of the line is earned.

I have heard this from a broad spectrum of people.

I have heard it from people who have turned difficult circumstances into positive circumstances. I have heard it from people who have literally come through the school of hard knocks. I have heard it from people who have had little difficulty in life and caught lucky breaks. I have heard it from people who have had everything handed to them. It is a narrative which cuts across many different lines.

But the bottom line is this: Having “earned” my current position, I am entitled to things other people aren’t. I put in the work, so I deserve things more than those who haven’t. Or even if we both deserve it, I am entitled to more or should be first in line to receive it. Because I am a self-made man or woman, I am entitled to what being on the right side of the line gets me and the people who are on the opposite side of the line deserve to be there.

Since this is a bit of a caricature, it is easy to read through and say: I never think that way. But watch some of the narratives you tell in your life. Watch them in other people. What story is being communicated? One where everything we have is a gift and human beings are all equally worthy of love and value? Or do we allow the narrative of earning the right to be human to slip in?

Even as I write about this perspective and want very specific people to know how I feel about it, I know I allow this same kind of natural selection to invade my own thinking on how the world should work.

And this narrative is devoid of grace.

The grace-less narrative of our culture says you only get to be considered human if you earn it.

Grace says we are given things we don’t deserve.

Grace says we give that which other’s don’t deserve.

Yet grace also says we are all entitled to love and hope and mercy just because we exist and are human.

Jesus’ parable reminds us that when we step into the kingdom, we step out of the “earning” game. Not only are we freed from trying to earn our way to God, we are asked to stop demanding that other people earn their right to be human.

And I think deep down we all know there is no such thing as a self-made person.

In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell outlines how the most successful and impressive people became successful and impressive. All of them are geniuses who worked hard and overcame a lot. But he compares them with similar geniuses who worked hard and overcame a lot and whose life didn’t turn out the same way.

The difference?

The important, successful people were all given “chance” opportunities others were not.

Important, successful people do not become important and successful by hard work and determination alone. There is always an element of receiving something they did not earn along the way.

We can tell ourselves we got to where we are all by ourselves and by the sweat of our brow, but hard work and perseverance are never the only factors.

Someone saw us. Someone took a chance on us. Someone forgave us. Someone gave us a helping hand. We got an opportunity out of the blue and for no good reason.

These are acts of grace. These are a part of our story.

Now, I am not against hard work. Following Jesus is hard work. Grace is actually hard work. But hard work is only part of the story.

Jesus’ parable forces the question: What am I working hard for? Am I working hard so that I can be more loving and gracious? Am I working hard so I can live the best kind of life possible and be more like the God who made me?

Or am I working hard so I can project the illusions of being self-made? Am I working hard so I am entitled to more and can set myself over and against other people?

We like grace when it is extended to us. We like it when we get things we don’t deserve.

The sad thing is that we often don’t accept these things as acts of grace, and we don’t allow or extend that grace to others.

We live in a world where the dominating narrative is one without grace. As Christians, we need to be speaking this narrative of grace to the world. We should be the ones who are advocating for the rights of people who don’t deserve what they are getting. We should be the ones acknowledging the people and circumstances which have been grace in our own rights.

We should be the ones who make the grace of God a visible and tangible reality by how we treat those who “aren’t deserving” and by how we tell our own stories of grace.

What about you? Where have you seen these narrative pop up in your life?

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Ordinary Days: who are the deserving?

Being the first child in my family system, I tend to scoff at the idea of fairness and the concept of being “deserving”. When you are a first child you tend to believe in the school of hard knocks, and that hard work will get you to where you want to go. Most first children are driven a little harder by their parents, given less chances to fail because they are the “first born”. I remember distantly growing up wondering how my little sister got away with so many more things than I did. I always felt like my parents cut me zero slack when she in turn seemed to be able to say more and do more before she got in trouble. In fairness, this was likely more perception than reality, but it did form the way I looked at the world.

My wife is a middle child. She is concerned and even obsessed with the idea of fairness amongst the kids. She is more the advocate for equality and making sure everyone has as much as the other. In my mind this is foolishness (tongue and cheek, folks) because that isn’ t my experience.

entitlement3

Being Americans, we suffer from the same problem. While all of us are not first children in our family system, we are a part of the first world system. Since we have been a part of the most prosperous nation on the face of the planet, we tend to have a worldview of a first child. Fairness, equality, and the idea that others might deserve more than us comes across as more heresy than ideal.

In God’s kingdom all of these things are upside down. Just because you work hard doesn’t mean you get the most money. If you worship the right way, it doesn’t mean God cares any more for you than anyone else. There are no favorite, no “chosen”, no winners and losers.

This week we will look at systems of inequality and injustice through the lens of the Kingdom of God and ask:

Who are the deserving?

Matthew 20:1-16

“For the Kingdom of Heaven is like the landowner who went out early one morning to hire workers for his vineyard. He agreed to pay the normal daily wage and sent them out to work.

“At nine o’clock in the morning he was passing through the marketplace and saw some people standing around doing nothing. So he hired them, telling them he would pay them whatever was right at the end of the day. So they went to work in the vineyard. At noon and again at three o’clock he did the same thing.

“At five o’clock that afternoon he was in town again and saw some more people standing around. He asked them, ‘Why haven’t you been working today?’

“They replied, ‘Because no one hired us.’

“The landowner told them, ‘Then go out and join the others in my vineyard.’

“That evening he told the foreman to call the workers in and pay them, beginning with the last workers first. When those hired at five o’clock were paid, each received a full day’s wage. When those hired first came to get their pay, they assumed they would receive more. But they, too, were paid a day’s wage. When they received their pay, they protested to the owner, ‘Those people worked only one hour, and yet you’ve paid them just as much as you paid us who worked all day in the scorching heat.’

“He answered one of them, ‘Friend, I haven’t been unfair! Didn’t you agree to work all day for the usual wage? Take your money and go. I wanted to pay this last worker the same as you. Is it against the law for me to do what I want with my money? Should you be jealous because I am kind to others?’

“So those who are last now will be first then, and those who are first will be last.”

Jonah 3:10-4:11

When God saw what they had done and how they had put a stop to their evil ways, he changed his mind and did not carry out the destruction he had threatened.

This change of plans greatly upset Jonah, and he became very angry. So he complained to the Lord about it: “Didn’t I say before I left home that you would do this, Lord? That is why I ran away to Tarshish! I knew that you are a merciful and compassionate God, slow to get angry and filled with unfailing love. You are eager to turn back from destroying people. Just kill me now, Lord! I’d rather be dead than alive if what I predicted will not happen.”

The Lord replied, “Is it right for you to be angry about this?”

Then Jonah went out to the east side of the city and made a shelter to sit under as he waited to see what would happen to the city. And the Lord God arranged for a leafy plant to grow there, and soon it spread its broad leaves over Jonah’s head, shading him from the sun. This eased his discomfort, and Jonah was very grateful for the plant.

But God also arranged for a worm! The next morning at dawn the worm ate through the stem of the plant so that it withered away. And as the sun grew hot, God arranged for a scorching east wind to blow on Jonah. The sun beat down on his head until he grew faint and wished to die. “Death is certainly better than living like this!” he exclaimed.

Then God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry because the plant died?”

“Yes,” Jonah retorted, “even angry enough to die!”

Then the Lord said, “You feel sorry about the plant, though you did nothing to put it there. It came quickly and died quickly. But Nineveh has more than 120,000 people living in spiritual darkness, not to mention all the animals. Shouldn’t I feel sorry for such a great city?”

Psalm 145:1-8

A psalm of praise of David.

I will exalt you, my God and King,
and praise your name forever and ever.
I will praise you every day;
yes, I will praise you forever.
Great is the Lord! He is most worthy of praise!
No one can measure his greatness.
Let each generation tell its children of your mighty acts;
let them proclaim your power.
I will meditate on your majestic, glorious splendor
and your wonderful miracles.
Your awe-inspiring deeds will be on every tongue;
I will proclaim your greatness.
Everyone will share the story of your wonderful goodness;
they will sing with joy about your righteousness.
The Lord is merciful and compassionate,
slow to get angry and filled with unfailing love.

Philippians 1:21-30

For to me, living means living for Christ, and dying is even better. But if I live, I can do more fruitful work for Christ. So I really don’t know which is better. I’m torn between two desires: I long to go and be with Christ, which would be far better for me. But for your sakes, it is better that I continue to live.

Knowing this, I am convinced that I will remain alive so I can continue to help all of you grow and experience the joy of your faith. And when I come to you again, you will have even more reason to take pride in Christ Jesus because of what he is doing through me.

Above all, you must live as citizens of heaven, conducting yourselves in a manner worthy of the Good News about Christ. Then, whether I come and see you again or only hear about you, I will know that you are standing together with one spirit and one purpose, fighting together for the faith, which is the Good News. Don’t be intimidated in any way by your enemies. This will be a sign to them that they are going to be destroyed, but that you are going to be saved, even by God himself. For you have been given not only the privilege of trusting in Christ but also the privilege of suffering for him. We are in this struggle together. You have seen my struggle in the past, and you know that I am still in the midst of it.

Prayer

Father, allow me to see the places I feel entitled
I know my heart is corrupt and I want things for myself
Let me see who is truly deserving
All the while understanding it might be me, but for better reasons
Keep us honest as we seek out what is true about your kingdom.

Amen.

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Jonah, Grudges and Conduits of Love

So Jonah got on a boat and headed in the exact opposite direction.

If you’ve gone to Sunday school for any amount of time or read portions of the Old Testament or are familiar with Veggie Tales, you probably know what this story is about, right? It’s the fantastical one where the dude gets swallowed by a huge fish and lives in its stomach for 3 days until he sees the error of his ways.

But that’s not the real story of Jonah. To understand, we have to know about the Assyrians. And the Assyrians were not good people in the eyes of Israel, Jonah’s tribe. No, the Assyrians had been a thorn in Israel’s side for years. They laid siege to cities, taken people from their homes to serve as slaves and used military might to subdue their foes.

(Which kind of looks like what Israel had done in Canaan, right? Destroying cities and taking captives or killing whole settlements of people. I wonder what the Assyrians thought about Israel? But that is a discussion for another time…)

Basically, the Assyrians were the enemy. Them. The others. The evildoers.

So when God comes to Jonah telling him to go preach a message to Nineveh, Jonah wasn’t exactly excited. Nineveh was the capital city of — you guessed it — Assyria. So when Jonah gets on that boat going in the opposite direction, he wasn’t being a petulant child or lazy or obstinate.

There is a real question here: Can Jonah forgive the Assyrians? And by extension, can Israel forgive the Assyrians? This is the question that pervades the rest of the story.

And even after the part of the story that we cutesy up and put in children’s story books — the part with the fish and being spit back up onto dry land — the question persists. It persists even after Jonah finally obeys and preaches God’s message to the Assyrians. It remains as we see the Assyrians repent from their mistakes.

(And I mean REPENT. The king ordered everyone and even the livestock to wear sackcloth and ashes. Can you imagine that scene? Those guys know how to say they’re sorry.)

It’s at this point in the story where we expect the redemption to come. God allays his judgement, so Jonah will too. Surely Jonah has seen the error of his ways. If the smell of fish intestines didn’t wake him up, then a whole city in mourning for their sins will do the trick. Uh, not exactly.

But to Jonah this seemed very wrong, and he became angry. He prayed to the Lord, “Isn’t this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Now, Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.” Jonah 4:1-3

No, instead of hopping on board the mercy train, Jonah chooses to pout. Basically he tells God, “I KNEW this was coming and I want no part of it.” And that’s how the story ends — with our hero pouting about God showing mercy.

This is quite the strange story. But one that still has a lot to say to us.

There is an ethic in our culture that forgiveness is “live and let live.” In other words, forgiveness is a willingness to lay down our right to retribution. To allow an offense to go without seeking revenge and to let one another live in peace. To leave each other alone.

But what God is showing Jonah is that forgiveness goes much deeper than that. As author Lew Smedes describes, “You will know that forgiveness has begun when you recall those who hurt you and feel the power to wish them well.”

This is the forgiveness that God was asking of Jonah. True forgiveness is so much more than “live and let live.” Instead of separating ourselves from others, forgiveness asks if we are willing to be a conduit of God’s love, mercy and grace to another. Even after they have wronged us.

It is the same forgiveness Jesus implies when he tells us to love our enemies. Not to let them be, but to love them and seek good for even those who persecute us.

It’s easy for me to sit in judgement on Jonah or make his tale into a cute Bible story with a large fish. But the reality is that I probably would have gotten on that boat, too. This forgiveness stuff does not come naturally or easily. I would much rather ignore a problem than face it head on.

6CYDD00ZBut here’s the truth I’m confronted with today: When I mess up, I don’t need you to leave me alone. I need to you to help me face it. I need you to help me see that my errors have caused hurt. And I need to see that even the worst offenses can be overcome with love and mercy.

I need real forgiveness.

Because when we don’t get on that boat and choose to turn the other cheek or seek good for the offenders in our lives, relationships are healed. Truth is apparent. Love wins. And heaven becomes a real place on earth.

So today, don’t get on that boat. Don’t ignore the offenders. Instead pray for them. Seek to bring beauty and good into their lives. Love your enemies well. It’s hard, but it’s worth it.

Posted in Ordinary Days | 3 Comments