"Faith goes up the stairs that love has built and looks out the window which hope has opened."
As we negotiate the transition to a new season of weather, activities, and commitments in the context of a continuing pandemic, we face multiple, often overlapping challenges. And although we can’t change our challenges, the way we respond to these challenges has a tremendous potential to change us. Indeed, the way we respond to our challenges will determine the way we experience our days.
I am an enthusiastic advocate for a redemption mindset, one that depends upon Paul’s reassurance in Romans 8 that our Lord will work all things in our lives for our good. I will add a Biblical postscript to this verse and remind us that the Lord’s redemptive purposes work not only for our good but for His glory.
There are limitless ways the Lord can do His redemptive thing as we walk through our days. I would like to focus on one of them that applies to all of us: the way we interact with others. Social distancing and COVID restrictions do not eliminate many of our interactions, but they do generally make them more challenging. And this is exactly where Christ wants to do His work in us and through us. As we allow Christ to do His sanctifying work in us through His Holy Spirit, we partake in the nature of Christ and become His ministers in a needy world.
In his letter to the Colossians, the Apostle Paul has this to say: Let your speech always be with grace, as though seasoned with salt, so that you will know how you should respond to each person. (Colossians 4:6). And in his letter to Titus, Paul instructs Titus to remind his congregation to be ready for every good deed (Titus 3:1).
So how do we do this in the emotional and stressed interactions that are becoming more and more common? There is the certainty of the abiding Holy Spirit. Jesus told His disciples that the Holy Spirit would give them the words to speak in the midst of persecution, and while we may not be in exactly that position, we have every reason to believe that the Holy Spirit is continually at work in us. Beyond that, as we take responsibility to be ready for every good deed and to speak with grace, I think the concept of “pocket phrases” can be extremely helpful.
Solomon, in Proverbs 15:1 exhorts us with this truth: A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger. A pocket phrase is a thoughtfully-prepared, gentle response that we can pull out of our pocket, so to speak, when we are taken by surprise or in the emotional heat of a moment. This does not mean that we follow a script or a flow chart. Nor does it mean that we suspend boundaries and enable destructive behavior. But if we have a small collection of gracious phrases at our immediate disposal, we will be able to meet the demand of the moment while allowing our mind to manage the emotion and give the Holy Spirit a chance.
Here are a few pocket phrases that I have used and recommend to others:
· I’m sorry; I did not mean to offend you.
· I am sorry you feel that way.
· Please let me think about it.
· Is there a way for us to work this out?
· I am afraid you may have misunderstood me.
· Do you mind if…?
· Is there something I can do to help?
Multiple Gospel accounts remind us that not everyone responded well to Jesus’s words, and it would be unrealistic to think that our experience will be different. We need not belabor unconstructive conversations. Sometimes, we need to simply wish the other person well and walk away, allowing the Judge to rule according to His character. When we do have a negative encounter despite our best attempts to manifest Christ, we can take consolation that we are experiencing what our Master did and be encouraged by the truth that the way someone treats us (or the way someone speaks to us) says everything about him/her and nothing about us. Our identity and value remain firmly grounded in Christ. Regardless of the outcome of our efforts, we can praise the Lord that He is doing His work in us and giving us the incredible privilege of communicating His truth and grace.
I needed eye surgery recently. The surgery was an unanticipated event to correct a problem that I had never heard of. I learned that the sudden distortion that was affecting my ability to read represented what is known as a macular pucker.
Fortunately, a macular pucker can be treated. A delicate, sophisticated surgical procedure removes the offending vitreous and scar tissue, reducing the stress on the macula and offering some level of improved vision. And although the improvement can take as long as three months to be realized, I am most grateful to report that my ability to read fine print was largely restored a week after the surgery.
It has occurred to me that the phenomenon known as a macular pucker in the physiological realm has something to teach us about the spiritual realm. As sinners in a sinful world, we sustain a good bit of internal damage to our hearts and spirits. Some of this damage is of our own doing; a good bit of it is inflicted upon us by other sinners. On this side of God’s kingdom, it is unavoidable.
Sometimes, the damage we sustain is so painful that we avoid dealing with it, denying or minimizing the pain. We “let it go” and move on without genuinely resolving the issue. Over time, emotional and spiritual scar tissue can develop. And then, our spiritual vision—our perspective—can become distorted. We practice Christianity more to meet expectations than to express a vibrant, living relationship with Almighty God. We react negatively to people and events that remind us of past pain as we misinterpret current events according to the past. Our distorted “sight” handicaps us, and we struggle to give and receive love.
But the Gospel is Good News indeed! Jesus came to redeem us—to take our sin and our pain and use those very negative issues to draw us to Him. He takes that sin and pain upon Himself and offers us freedom and healing. By the power of the Holy Spirit, He removes our spiritual and emotional scar tissue. But our redemption—and the restoration of our spiritual sight--requires our participation: we must practice confession, repentance, and forgiveness. And then our spiritual vision can be restored! We are able to approach others with open hearts and know peace and joy as we minister in the name of Christ.
To be sure, God’s work in us can be intimidating, not unlike my eye surgery. Often, we are blind to our distorted perspective, and we need the help of a faithful brother or sister to expose it. And once we recognize that the scars of this life have twisted us away from God and away from others, we are required to acknowledge a need that we cannot meet on our own. It is our Lord who covers our sin and redeems our pain even as we confess, repent, and forgive. And just as I needed prayer support to manage the stress of my surgery, we need the patience, encouragement, and unconditional love of our brothers and sisters to support us as we allow the Great Physician to do His work in us.
“You’re so nice!” I cringe inside when I hear these words. While I understand—and appreciate—the affirmation and compliment, “nice” is not my target. From a Biblical perspective, nice is not a virtue we are encouraged to pursue. In my New American Standard Bible, “nice” appears once, at the end of Jeremiah 12:6: “Do not believe them, although they may say nice things to you.” In this passage, Jeremiah is warning the people of Israel to beware of manipulative flattery. And manipulation and flattery are often packaged in niceness. But even without negative intent or connotation, nice is superficial. Nice is often used as a substitute for depth and caring in the context of relationship. And in our rushed, performance-oriented culture, it is easy to settle for nice—on both the giving and receiving ends.
I believe that there is a good reason that Scripture does not promote “nice.” God does not manipulate. He proved this when He shared His free will with us in creation. And God is most definitely not interested in superficiality. Please consider Jesus’s interaction with the woman who sought healing from a hemorrhage that had plagued her for 12 years, as recorded in Luke 8:43-48. We read that this woman risked public rejection by appearing in her unclean state; she manages to get close enough to Jesus to touch His robe. She is healed! But that is not the end of the story. Even though Jesus is trying to walk forward amid a large and pressing crowd, He recognizes that healing power has left him; He stops and insists on identifying her and having a conversation with her. Although Jesus is undoubtedly happy to “nicely” heal her, He doesn’t stop there. He wants real relationship with this woman. There is also a deep kindness associated with Jesus’s insistence on bringing the woman forth. As embarrassing as it must have been for her, Jesus’s declaration of her healing would have put her well on the way to re-acceptance in her community.
As we negotiate life as fallen people in a fallen world, it is easy to compromise on many fronts: integrity, self-care, time management, relationships. It is absolutely vital to remember that we serve a Triune God, a God of internal relationship who created us to participate in that intimacy with Him and to develop it with one another. Our Lord calls us to be loving, kind, gracious, merciful, forbearing, and encouraging in our relationships. Learning to do so helps us to partake in the nature of Christ, to become who He has created us to be and to become fit for heaven. May we remember that the pleasure of nice is fleeting and not settle for anything less than the deep connection that our Lord desires for us.
In the beginning, God created mankind—man and woman—in His image, with a significant purpose. This, in God’s own words, was very good. A foundational truth of humanity is we humans are created for eternal glory and eternally glorious purposes. But all too soon the glory is masked in sin. We read in Genesis that Satan, in the form of a serpent, initiates a conversation with the woman. The end result is that Eve is pulled into what I call The Garden Game. She makes a choice to do life herself, grasping the fruit that would make her like God and independent of Him.
As the man joins the woman, Adam and Eve experience fear and shame instead of the power and freedom they undoubtedly expect. And so it becomes more and more difficult to feel significant, created for glory. What follows in the stories of Genesis is what I call the Compare and Compete Game: Since it can be pretty difficult to feel good about ourselves as our sinful selves, we settle for comparing ourselves favorably to others. It begins when Adam blames Eve—and God Himself, who gave her to him—for his fatal choice in the Garden of Eden. The Compare and Compete Game continues with the stories of Cain and Able, Sarah and Hagar, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Leah and Rachel, Joseph and his brothers, and so on….And God’s glory continues to fade.
A few weeks ago, Andy Straubel, Windsor Chapel’s pastor, preached a sermon from James and highlighted the conflicts that arise when believers compare and compete with one another. We grumble and complain, quarrel and covet as we pursue significance apart from God. And the phenomenon of feeling good about ourselves by comparing ourselves to others is front and center as our world deals with inequality and injustice at the hands of racial, gender, and socio-economic differences.
It is becoming more and more evident to me that I am highly skilled at playing the Compare and Compete game in particularly quiet and subtle ways. While I may not often quarrel and covet, I am very sorry to admit that it is all too easy for me to look at others from a critical perspective. This is not my intention or desire! I am committed to honoring and encouraging others as image-bearers of our Creator. But if I am not vigilant, it can be terrifyingly easy for my sin nature to poke and prod me, to twist and tweak my perspective so that the first thing I notice about someone is something that is on the negative side of the ledger.
As I have brought this before the Lord in confession and repentance, I have been met with an invitation to take responsibility for the way I view and subsequently interact with others. I am consciously and actively directing my eyes and heart toward the God qualities manifested in each person I encounter. I am learning, by persistent practice, to be quicker to notice good qualities and less quick to notice the not-so-good qualities. This is not to deny sin, and it does not preclude the setting of appropriate boundaries on my part. But it is an exercise in honoring my Creator as I honor His creatures. It also honors the Lord’s desire for me, to find my identity, value, and significance in Him and not in my relative place among my peers, my reputation, or what others think of me.
Our Christian faith is founded on the truth that Jesus Christ died for our sins, to save us from the penalty and power of sin. And yet we continue to struggle with our sin nature as we wait for Christ’s coming and initiation of His eternal kingdom. As the body of Christ, we can learn from Christ as we study the Gospels. The Gospels are replete with accounts of Jesus looking beyond sin and the accoutrements of sin in order to touch hearts and lives with His truth and grace. It is not that sin did not and does not matter. To be sure, sin matters enough that Jesus died on the cross to earn our salvation from the its penalty and power. But Jesus has demonstrated for us in the Gospel accounts that the most effective way to confront sin is by relationship, and relationship is rarely built on a foundation of comparison or nurtured by a spirit of condemnation. As we affirm others as image-bearers of the God of the universe, we bring God into the sin picture as well, and this in turn brings confession and repentance out of the realm of our performance and into the realm of His truth and grace. He invites us to join Him in this exercise. It blesses others as we become more able to genuinely bless and encourage. And it blesses us as we partake in the nature of Christ, become more like Him, and are better able to participate in His kingdom’s work.