“You unbelieving and perverse generation”, Jesus replied, “how long shall I stay with you? How long will I put up with you?” – Matthew 17: 17
Addressed to Jesus’ disciples who had been following him and listening to him, Jesus expressed frustration that they were missing something important, specifically who Jesus was and faith in his power to heal. In a later private moment (verses 19-21), Jesus explains that the disciples simply lacked faith. Something was missing, and they were slow to understand.
Sometimes I carry with me a nagging sense that I am missing something. It’s almost like I don’t have my keys, phone, or wallet, but it is deeper and spiritual.
The root of this nagging is that I am aware that I am filled with biases and prejudices. I have grown up and lived in an upper middle-class family in the United States. My economic “normal” is not normal to either most of the world nor the setting of the New Testament scriptures. I am also a privileged white man, having been able to attend excellent universities and learn to read, write, think, and work using my mind. I have not experienced class, gender or race discrimination nor have I had to wear out my body with hard labor. I am healthy, spared from disability and major health challenges (so far). In lifestyle alone, I am out of touch with 99% of the real world and the audience of Jesus’ teaching and the early church.
Additionally, I am shaped by my parents, my upbringing, and my personality. I have bents and prejudices, often struggling to relate to and “get” people who are different than me.
Consequently, I fear that when I read scripture I often practice eisegesis, that is, reading into the text my upper middle class, western views, and my introverted, perfectionist personality. There are a lot of ways to get it wrong, miss the point, and simply lack faith. What is one to do?
“And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” – Micah 6:8
Using Micah 6:8 as my guide, and speaking first to myself, I propose the following:
- Act Justly
“For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes. He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt.” – Deuteronomy 10:17-19
There are several biblical teachings that are very clear: sin, repentance, forgiveness, discipleship, and evangelism. We find unity in these. There are also other very clear biblical teachings about how we should act and interact with others, specific to the imperative of Micah 6:8 to act justly. In sum, it requires compassion and others-centeredness.
In the Old Testament, acting justly primarily referred to concern and care for widows, orphans, foreigners, and the poor (Deuteronomy 10:17-19 above, Psalms 68:4-5, and many others). In the New Testament, the dominant example is the Good Samaritan (Luke 10). Today, acting justly can be extended to those who are needy, suffer persecution, prejudice, and injustice. And it can be further applied to those who suffer physically, emotionally and spiritually.
Spiritually, acting justly is having eyes of compassion to see the need of others to learn and feel the love of God and to experience his kindness and grace. So many people live tortured lives, ravaged by guilt and all the unhealthy ways of masking it. It requires getting beyond myself and mere appearances to have the eyes of Jesus when he saw the crowds as harassed and helpless, and then engage all the messiness to love them and show them Jesus.
Acting justly requires compassion and others-centeredness, antidotes to the greed, comfort, and selfishness with which I struggle. My wife, Maureen, and I have adopted a child and cared for aging parents, with my dad living with us his last three years. Additionally, we strive (quite imperfectly) to live a lifestyle focused on discipleship and evangelism, desiring to love and serve others. While Maureen is an evangelistic extrovert and a natural Good Samaritan, I am not. For me it takes intentionality, self-denial, and the decision to experience emotional and mental discomfort. But it helps me to “get” people who are different from me. I am a work in progress but striving to act justly gets me beyond myself and enables me to both better read, interpret, and practice scripture and to be more compassionate. I want to be and do better.
- Love Mercy
“If I speak in the tongue of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
Love never fails.” – 1 Corinthians 13: 1-8
To love mercy is multifaceted, and my scholarly friends can do more with this, but for me it encompasses a disposition of love and forgiveness.
One way I have sinned and have observed others sin is to propagate a strength of conviction with pride and anger. As important as it is to be rooted in God’s word, hold to Jesus’ teachings, and to defend the gospel, my disposition should be one of love and forgiveness. I think of Jesus’ tenderness and clarity with the woman caught in adultery (John 8), and his amazing words on the cross of “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).
I think that 1 Corinthians 13:1-8 is a major text that I can fail to understand and live. I am so self-centered and performance-oriented that I can value outcomes and my reputation over godly behavior and a spiritual disposition. I judge by mere appearances and deem that others do also, valuing personality, talent, powers of persuasion, and results over a character of love and forgiveness. I can judge myself this way, and others as well.
Ego and self-promotion, resentment and bitterness, anger and fear can all dominate my disposition and affect how I read, interpret, and practice scripture. I simply miss the example of Jesus and the most excellent way.
- Walk Humbly with Your God
“The greatest among you will be your servant. For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” – Matthew 23:11-12
Acting justly is a lifestyle and is what I do, loving mercy is how I am, but walking humbly with my God is at the core of who I am. When I see God for who he is, and me for who I am, I am better able to read, interpret, and practice scripture. I am humble, grateful, teachable, persuadable, and ever aware of my sin and need to learn and grow.
Humility is beating my chest and acknowledging my (often hidden) sin and not looking down in judgment on others with obvious sins. Humility is a willingness to learn and be persuaded. Humility is avoiding name calling and the marginalizing of those with whom I disagree and finding ways to learn from them. Humility is saying “I don’t know” when I don’t. The older I get the more I realize that there are many issues, even biblical ones, where I am just not sure. There is mixed evidence and room for differing opinions. As I wrote above, in the major issues, I am clear on what the Bible says, but even then, I submit to God as the ultimate judge.
In the months and years ahead, we will grapple with a myriad of issues like leadership structure and function, gender roles, evolving to reach the next generation, and other issues yet to surface. We will struggle to understand God’s word in its setting and culture and then how to apply it faithfully today in our setting and culture. I propose that first we must act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God. Then we will have meaningful dialogue within lifestyles of service, dispositions of love and forgiveness, and strong, spiritual walks with our God, manifesting in a deep humility.
Service, love, forgiveness, and humility: in that milieu God can use us as his noble vessels and show us to the world as disciples of Jesus by the love we have for each other. Less will be missing and we can better “get” God, his word, and others.