All of us have relatives who become so special to us that they hold a unique place in our hearts and lives. When they die, they leave a big hole in our hearts and it takes a while for the grieving process to replace the pain with only precious memories. Ten years ago yesterday, I lost such a relative, a very special uncle. As I almost always do in times of loss, I wrote, as I mentioned two days ago in introducing another similar article. I just posted what I wrote on Halloween ten years ago. Hardly anyone who reads the brief article will have any idea of who my Uncle Pete was, but I would like to introduce a man to you who was an important part of my growing up years. Hopefully it will encourage you to write as you work through your own times of grief. Enjoy!
Today, Uncle Pete passed from this life. He was a half month shy of his 79th birthday (which would have been on November 16th). His name will be listed in the obituary as “Brider L. (Leroy) Ferguson” but the only name I ever heard him called by was Pete, or Uncle Pete by his nephews and nieces. I was blessed with five uncles and a number of great-uncles, and I loved all of my uncles in unique ways and thankfully, felt loved by all of them. But for me, Uncle Pete was in somewhat of a special class. For one thing, we were reasonably close in age. I made my entrance into the world when he hadn’t yet turned ten. And he married two years after I did. For all practical purposes, we were contemporaries or at least became that in a reasonably short period of years.
However, for a decade of my life, we shared something especially important to me as a youngster growing up. Prior to my teen years, my dad and I regularly enjoyed the Louisiana outdoors together with Pete and my other two Ferguson uncles, Stanley and Jack. We fished until hunting season opened, and then started back fishing again as soon as the hunting season closed. I could write quite a long article (maybe a book) about all the adventures of the Ferguson boys. As the oldest grandchild, I pretty much became the fifth Ferguson boy. My granddad died when he was relatively young, and in time, I sorta became one of Grandma’s five sons. It was not a coincidence that all five of us went to make her funeral arrangements together when she died at age 75.
But back to what made Pete so special in my life. About the time I became a teenager, he and Grandma moved to Gaars Mill, Louisiana in Winn Parish. They lived on a 65 acre farm with its own little fishing pond and all of the trappings of farm life. Although Pete kept laying brick for a living, he populated the farm with cows, chickens, a horse or two and a couple of dogs. God provided the rest of the population, primarily rats, snakes and other assorted pests. The first two on the list were actually fun pests, in that they provided excellent opportunities for target practice. I shot the snakes with my pellet gun as I made my way around the banks of the pond fishing. Pete, Daddy, Jack and I often shot the rats at night with our .22 pistols loaded with rat shot as they were running across the rafters of the various barns and sheds. Wearing headlights and yelling and hollering as we emptied our guns time and time again would have no doubt alarmed the neighbors – if there had been any! Grandma and Pete definitely lived in the country, but that’s what made it extra special.
Pete didn’t have many rules for me when I visited them, and I visited them often – from about age 13 until they moved back to Shreveport ten years later. He often did make me get up well before daylight to feed the cows and do various other farm chores, but most of the time I did exactly what I wanted and little else. And considering the breakfasts Grandma cooked, getting up early had its own rewards. Pete was not only a really fun uncle, he was an amazingly generous one. From the time he moved to the country, he started letting me drive his fairly new car. I would occasionally pick up a certain distant relative so early in the morning that he didn’t have time to get drunk yet, and the two of us would drive 50 miles to a good fishing hole. He didn’t have much about him to endear himself to the human race, but he endeared himself to me by knowing how to catch lots of fish. It was always a mystery to me why Pete would trust me with his car to drive, knowing that I was not only an underage driver for a few years, but I carried passengers of questionable character in his car when the need arose!
Those years visiting in Gaars Mill left me with some of my best memories of my growing-up years. I could write a fairly lengthy book filled with the memories of those years, replete with chapters that could only be viewed as Ferguson craziness. Right now, I couldn’t imagine life without those years, nor without the memories that made those years so memorable and enjoyable. And all of that means that I couldn’t imagine life without my Uncle Pete. After I heard that he had been diagnosed with a serious form of cancer, I tried to make it back to my hometown as often as possible to see him, and was able to visit him on at least four different occasions between diagnosis and death. The last time was one week ago today in the hospital, and he was still lucid enough to recognize me. For that I am most grateful. I am also strangely grateful that he only lasted one more week, because being confined to bed wasn’t his thing and watching him suffer wasn’t mine.
Although I knew he couldn’t last long, and hoped that he wouldn’t since recovery wasn’t a possibility, hearing the news today hit hard. I’ve thought of little else since, and after talking to his sweet daughter, Melissa, I was able to let the tears flow and drain off some of the grief. Like all such occasions when losing someone you love, it will be a process in which the pain is gradually replaced by the special memories. The mental image of seeing him in his last stages will give way to the memories of a young uncle doing the things that he and I shared together. Even as I write out my feelings of pain now to hopefully help deal with the loss, I have a plethora of feelings of appreciation for having enjoyed an uncle named Pete for the 69 years and four days of my life. Tomorrow will be my first day to awake without an Uncle Pete to share planet earth with any longer. But that fact can never erase his residence in my heart. Good-bye Pete, and thanks for the memories. It was quite a ride.
The question posed by the title is one of the most important questions that any individual can entertain and it is one that you will answer with your life whether you realize it or not. No one can avoid answering it. We are all in the process of answering it right now. Let me explain.
Becoming a Christian means that we come into a saved relationship with God through Christ. Prior to that point, he is our Father by right of creation but when we are saved, he becomes our spiritual Father and we his spiritual child. At the same time, we become a part of his spiritual family, which the Bible describes with many different designations, but church is the most common one. Coming into that saved relationship with God means that we also come into a spiritual relationship with the rest of his children, and together we comprise the church. When we are baptized into Christ we are also baptized into his spiritual body, the church. They go together, as the following two verses show.
Galatians 3:27 (NASB)
For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.
1 Corinthians 12:13 (NASB)
For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.
Of course, the church is used in two basic senses, the universal church which includes all of those who are saved, and the local church. The local church is our local family of believers with whom we fellowship. Years ago, I remember a popular saying, “Up with Christ and down with the Church.” Those voicing this concept were basically saying that you could have a satisfying relationship with Christ without being a part of a local church fellowship. It sounded good – if you knew nothing about what the New Testament actually says. You cannot have Christ without the church. Satan works tirelessly to get you to believe that, but it is a Satanic lie. The multitudes of verses that speak of how we function together as family make it clear that we are a family, not a DIY project.
Family Equals Relationships
There are over 60 verses using the phrases “one another” and “each other,” and even more that speak to our close personal relationships with each other. If we understand what the term family means in a physical sense, we should be able to use that understanding to grasp some of the basics that also apply to our spiritual family. For starters, no family is perfect. No parent is perfect and no child in the family is perfect. That means that we had better figure out things like forgiveness, conflict resolution, teamwork, grace and the many other qualities necessary to enjoy happy family relationships. Did your physical family of origin have any dysfunctional aspects in it? Mine certainly did, enough in fact that I wrote a yet unpublished book about some of our dysfunction that I call “weird humor.” It was pretty weird, but we were still family and we still loved one another and we functioned reasonably well even in the midst of our dysfunction. You understand, right? You weren’t raised in a perfect family either, were you? If so, I would love to meet you and hear your story. You would be the first and only one on my list of perfect families.
But I Want a Perfect Church!
If you understand the basics of what I just said, then how could you expect the church to be perfect? Do you think the first century church was perfect? I know you can quote the last few verses of Acts 2 and say, “Yes, that was about as close to perfect as I can imagine.” But if you keep reading through Acts and the other writings describing the history of the early church, you are going to find out that the human element emerges. We wouldn’t have a New Testament if the early church had been perfect. Most of the epistles were written to correct wrong doctrines, wrong living and messed up relationships. Surprise, surprise – but what did you expect with human beings? My subheading for Romans 1-3 in my exposition of Romans is: “The Best of Us is a Mess!” And when you compare us to the standard of Jesus, only an idiot would argue with my wording. We are a mess.
So your church has problems that you would like to see fixed. I understand. I feel the same way. I imagine just about all of the members have a list mentally of what they would like to see done differently. But our lists don’t agree with each other on every point and maybe not even on most points. Through my ministry of over a half century, I’ve seen little groups with the same concerns, which could be called “gripes” if found in a not-too-spiritual group, but other little groups of folks have a different list. What bothers one doesn’t necessarily bother everyone else. But in our pride, we can come to think that we are zeroed in and if others are in the same ballpark of spiritual perspective we are, they will see it the same way. Are you starting to see the huge impact of our pride?
Perspectives Come From Focus
I am addressing much more than our perspectives here; I am addressing what gives us those perspectives in the first place. Our perspectives come from our focuses. Here’s my best illustration to make the point I am aiming at. I have been married for 56 years to Theresa. I am so much in love with her that I can’t keep from talking about her to others. One of my preacher buddies and his wife were once in the audience for one of my teaching days, and in one day, the wife counted how many times I mentioned Theresa. I think it was somewhere over 50 times. She then, with some edge to her voice, asked her husband why he didn’t mention her nearly as much in his preaching as I mentioned Theresa. I didn’t mean to get the dude in trouble. I just can’t help myself. I am married to a cutey pie, fun and funny little angel and I’m delightedly held captive by her. I can’t help it. I don’t want to help it. I wrote a whole book about our marriage, “Fairy Tales Do Come True” (and mine did). One of the last books I wrote was “The Power of Spiritual Relationships.” It’s no surprise that one chapter was just about her.
BUT – there have been many times when I was so mad at her that I couldn’t see any of what I just said. She had become a little demon to me and not an angel. Have we had our so-called “bumps” in our relationship? Oh yes, in fact we have had our “mountains.” My perspective has in those times been so different than it is most of the time. Why? Because perspective is determined by focus! I had started focusing on her very few faults and stopped focusing on her multitude of positive qualities. If you are stupid enough to do that long enough, you may well end up in the divorce court. I usually come to my senses and repent pretty quickly, for she keeps being like Jesus even when I am being the opposite. It’s so humbling when she does that!
Now I don’t think you are stupid. I think you can make the connection and understand just how this illustration correlates to your view of the church. Your focus determines your perspective. If you are mainly negative toward the church, your focus is the reason. Paul wrote to the church in Philippi and used the terms “rejoice” and “rejoicing” repeatedly. But who was rejoicing? Paul – not the church. Read Philippians and you will discover that the church had a number of problems which Paul was addressing. One of the ways that he was trying to help them was in using himself as an example. He was a prisoner in chains when he wrote the book and yet he was rejoicing. How in the world did he do that? Focus! Just listen to him.
Philippians 4:4-9 (NASB)
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice! 5 Let your gentle spirit be known to all men. The Lord is near. 6 Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. 8 Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things. 9 The things you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.
Did Paul know that the church had problems? Of course, that’s why he wrote the book, to help them start dealing with their problems and to make progress in being better children to God and better brothers and sisters to each other. Was he ready to give up on them and throw in the towel of being an apostle? Far from it. They were his family and he loved them. They were closer to him emotionally than his physical family members who were not in the church. Is that true with you? The answer you give is determined by your perspective and your perspective is determined by your focus.
How Can You Help With Change?
Thus far, I have addressed how we view and feel about the church. I can see a number of things about the church that I would like to see changed. I’ve never felt differently during my many decades in the church. I will never stop desiring to see every individual member, certainly including myself, become more and more like Christ. I will never stop desiring to see every church become more and more like Christ. After all, it is the church that is said to be the “fullness” of Christ (Ephesians 1:22-23). As individuals, we need to be full of Christ as his image bearers, but it is the church that is said here to be the flesh and blood demonstration of Christ to the world – his fullness.
That said, what are we to do with an imperfect church? You might ask yourself first what God does with it. What do you do with imperfect children or other imperfect family members? Cannot you see the connection? Can you make the connection personally? Better yet, will you make the connection? I see at least two ways we can deal with our imperfect church and I’ve tried them both. Hopefully, my example can help you with your decision about how to proceed.
Be a Constructive Critic
You can either be a constructive critic or a destructive critic. The former tries to help from within as a friend. The latter type ends up outside throwing stones and doing absolutely nothing to help anyone, least of all themselves. I became a part of what we now call the ICOC family of churches back in the summer of 1985 when we moved to San Diego to become a part of what we then called the “Discipling Movement.” Those two and a half years were the most beautiful ministry years of my life. The church had less flaws and more outstanding qualities than any I have ever been a part of. Theresa and I used to say that we thought we had died and gone to heaven. To all of those brothers and sisters there, some of whom are watching from above now, I praise and thank God for you.
But then we moved to Boston. The church in Boston was growing very fast and the growing pains were obvious. I saw things that I didn’t like or think right, and since it was the biggest church in our movement at the time with the greatest influence, it gave a pretty accurate picture of what our movement as a whole was like. I was one of the older leaders, and an implanted one from another family of churches. Most others like me who tried to become a part didn’t last long. They saw the flaws, focused on them and became such destructive critics that they left on their own or were asked to leave. Some of them were my good friends.
It was decision time for me. I unloaded my critical attitudes on people like Wyndham Shaw time and time again. I was mature enough to realize that I had one of two options. I could do like some of my friends did and end up throwing my rocks and flaming arrows of criticism from the outside, doing no one any good, or I could become a real insider and offer constructive critiques that might have a chance to yield some good influence for change. Of course, you know already that I chose the latter option.
Yes, a Critic Still
Was I a critic? Yes. Am I a critic? Yes. Wyndham and I wrote a book almost 20 years ago, “Golden Rule Leadership,” that called a number of our movement leadership practices into question. We got enough criticism from leaders that my wife suggested that we just get tee shirts made with a target on the back of them. Haha – but not too funny at the time. But that book made a difference. I later wrote “Dynamic Leadership,” and Wyndham wrote the Foreword to that one. I think it has made a difference too. I have spoken and written many, many things about us that could accurately be called constructive criticism. Some, usually better-known leaders with the most influence, have not appreciated my efforts. I think God has.
Here is what you cannot afford to miss – I am a constructive critic, registering my concerns as a trusted “insider” and not as an outside flame thrower. Isn’t that what the early apostles were in all of their corrections of wrongs within the church? They were a part of the family. I am a part of the family. If you are focused so much on the negative that your perspective is mainly negative, and you don’t have a mind change sooner than later, you will likely end up leaving. Although I would hate to see you leave, without a mind change, your negativity (which will come out of the pores of your skin if not your mouth) is going to hurt others, and those others are my brothers and sisters too. They have enough to deal with in this crazy COVID messed up world right now. They don’t need your negativity. Please, just take responsibility and repent instead of playing the victim card and blaming the church.
Who Gets the Blame?
Speaking of blaming the church for the things you don’t like, what does that even mean? You don’t blame the church; you blame the leaders. I know you do. They represent the church and are the ones guiding it and the only clear targets you have. Of course you blame the leaders. Leaders do carry much responsibility for the direction and condition of the church. That’s why they have qualifications and directions given to them in Scripture. I have personally fired or helped fire more leaders on staff than anyone I know. I have never subscribed to the “Old Boys Club” philosophy that staff members are untouchable. Quite the contrary. I have always quoted Spock from the old Star Trek series, when he said, “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.” Translated in spiritual terms, “The needs of the membership outweighs the needs of any ministry staff person.”
That said, having served on staff for about 50 years, I know the challenges. I know the burdens and the feeling that you can’t please everyone, and often don’t feel like you are pleasing anyone. I will not support unspiritual staff or unspiritual leaders in any role and my track record shows that clearly. But I will also absolutely refuse to focus on the faults of any leader or group of leaders and not note, and be thankful for, their hearts and efforts to serve. I’ve been a part of a number of different church ministry staffs. I may have had my reservations about some of the leaders, but not about most. I believe that most of them loved God and loved the church and were doing the best they could with the gifts that they had. No leader has all of the gifts. All of us wish we had more than we have and could do a better job of leading than we do. I also wish I could be a better husband, father, friend, neighbor, etc. I wish I were more like Jesus. I’m trying very hard to become more like him and I will never stop trying.
We’ve been in Dallas for almost seven years. I was a part-time member of the ministry staff for the first year, but not since. I have been around many of our ministry staff members and I trust their hearts. I can’t speak with any certainty about what leaders in other places are all like. I suspect that the large majority of them are like the ones I know best. Their hearts are in the right places and they are trying to do their best for God. They are not ignorant of the fact that God expects more out of them than anyone else in the church. They know that they will one day stand in front of God to be judged. I trust that and I trust them. If I discover that they aren’t worthy of that trust, I will deal with it in the same way I always have and speak my mind. I will not be a gossip and slanderer and talk behind their backs. Doing that is the way to be the least like Jesus possible. He spoke up and he spoke out to the ones with whom he had issues. Are you imitating him or listening to Satan and being like Judas rather than Jesus?
The Most Important Focus of All
Let’s just assume that you are correct if you view the church of which you are a part as a really messed-up, broken church. What then, beyond what I’ve already addressed about focus and perspective? Christianity is much, much more about you and God than about you and the church, as important as the church is. Let me introduce you to a really messed-up, broken church – in fact one that God himself said was dead. Whoa? Yes, dead!
Revelation 3:1-5 (NASB)
“To the angel of the church in Sardis write: He who has the seven Spirits of God and the seven stars, says this: ‘I know your deeds, that you have a name that you are alive, but you are dead. 2 ‘Wake up, and strengthen the things that remain, which were about to die; for I have not found your deeds completed in the sight of My God. 3 ‘So remember what you have received and heard; and keep it, and repent. Therefore if you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come to you. 4 ‘But you have a few people in Sardis who have not soiled their garments; and they will walk with Me in white, for they are worthy. 5 ‘He who overcomes will thus be clothed in white garments; and I will not erase his name from the book of life, and I will confess his name before My Father and before His angels.
What did God do with this dead church? He called them to repent in no uncertain terms. But there were a few members who were worthy of the name of Jesus which they wore. What about them? What were they told to do? Start a new church, a small church and build it right? That sounds good, for if the good guys started it, it would be a perfect church or near perfect church, right? Our world is full of little church groups who have done exactly that – left their spiritual family, who certainly had their faults and probably plenty of them. But is that what God said to do?
What Jesus did say here is that one relationship is by far the biggest priority in Christianity – our relationship with him. All churches go through stages, ups and downs, better times and worse times. In the midst of that, I am responsible for my own personal relationship with God. The down times in churches and the down times in my own life have been historically the times when I have grown most in my personal relationship with God. On the Day of Judgment, God is not going to call us up by church group or by our physical family to give account. He is going to call us up one by one to give an account of how we have responded to him and his Son – and to the hard times in our lives.
Pulling out your victim card will not only do no good, it will make matters worse because you didn’t accept responsibility in how you handled this gift called life. There will be no one to blame besides yourself. We had better get a grip on these truths and respond accordingly. My religion and your religion are not about the church. They are bottom line about our relationship to God, but how you deal with your relationship to the church is going to be a fundamental part of how God views your relationship with him. The church is his family. It is called in Ephesians 5, “the bride of Christ.” I would suggest that you stop telling Jesus how ugly his wife is, and that begins with you ceasing to tell members who make up his collective wife the same. This is serious business. You and I are going to meet God, some of us much sooner than others.
How Did You Answer?
So how would you answer the question posed in the title of this article? Is your religion focused on Christ or the church? It had better be the former if you expect to please God and be right with him on the Day of Judgment. It is time to develop the right perspective by having the right focus. It is time to help the church change too, but through an approach that imitates Jesus. He came to minister to the sick, to effect change from within. Is your church in a bad place? Then why not be like Jesus and his apostles and try to help like they did (and still do)? Jesus was a critic for sure, but a constructive critic who identified with the sinners enough to become one of them and give his life for them. Does that describe you and me? It had better if we hope to spend eternity with him.
How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are! (1 John 3:1)
God is our Father and those of us in Christ are his specially adopted children – no truth in the Bible is more exciting! The cost of this adoption is the blood of Christ, which should humble us and fill us with a depth of gratitude that becomes our greatest motivation to serve. In fact, the fatherly love of God is what we are to imitate as we serve others in his name. Paul said it this way in Ephesians 5:1-2: “Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” As we imitate him and live a life of love, we surely must develop his heart for his children.
How does the love of God show up in his treatment of us? Keep in mind that this is the kind of love that we are to imitate as disciples and show to the world.
From his first contact with man until the present, God has shown himself to be a giver, not a taker. His concern is never what we can do for him, but only what he can do for us. He is absolutely selfless in his relationship to mankind. He gives and gives and gives some more. He is a Servant of servants, which explains how he can keep blessing us when we are unlovely, undeserving and unappreciative.
God does not take our sins against him personally, get his feelings hurt and pull his heart back. He keeps on giving in the hope that his kindness will once again lead us to repentance (Romans 2:4). When Jesus said that the first prerequisite for following him was sacrificial self-denial (Luke 9:23), he was only calling us to do what God has always done. Sacrifice is what God’s heart is all about – it is not something that he does, but something that he is. As you serve others, we must imitate that.
God shows us respect by treating us as individuals and by expecting us to be the individuals we have been designed to be. He does not expect us to be like everyone else, but to be the best that we can be. The command to “train a child in the way he should go” (Proverbs 22:6) implies the need to understand who each person is and then help them to blossom into the plan of God for their life. Similarly, God does not try to force us into any mold that we were not made for, but patiently develops us into the mold for which we were originally designed – to be like Christ.
In essence, God shows us respect in order to help us become respectable. His approach is never to make us earn his favor by our performance, but rather, he treats us with love in order to help us grow and mature. As we work with others, we must give them what they need as an impetus to move them in the direction God has planned for them.
God uses any and every means available to help us grow into becoming like him. He has a multiplicity of circumstances and people he can call into play for our guidance, and he works everything out for our good. And our ultimate good is “to be conformed to the likeness of his Son” (Romans 8:28–29).
The greatest miracles, in my mind, are not the obvious ones in the Bible, but rather the everyday variety that are produced by God’s orchestration of so many behind-the-scenes details. To make the application to us as people helpers, we need to be getting as much (behind-the-scenes) input and help from others as possible. As Proverbs 15:22 puts it, “Plans fail for lack of counsel, but with many advisers they succeed.” We must continually be learners if we are to be effective teachers. Don’t be lazy and don’t be prideful; get help to be your best, and get the help from all available sources.
God’s love is positive in its expression to us. Positive reinforcement is one obvious demonstration of his kindness and gentleness. He knows exactly how to call us higher by encouraging us. It is easy to think that we help others improve by focusing on their weak points, believing that if they can just eliminate them, then they will really be great. The problem is that the other person’s self-esteem can take a beating in the process. God is full of encouragement as he generously expresses his love and commitment to us. With this approach, we can face critiques with confidence.
God is protective of us, choosing to expose our weaknesses in embarrassing ways only when we are stubborn and prideful. He works gently as he leads us to see ourselves and to resolve to change. Many of us can remember times in our childhood when we were embarrassed by teachers or parents in front of our peers. Such deep hurts are not easily forgotten. Thankfully, God is not that kind of parent. He deals with us gently and sensitively (Isaiah 42:3).
God never gives up trying to mold our characters and hearts into his own image. Gentle he may be, but sentimental he is not! The definition of discipling as “gentle pressure, relentlessly applied” finds its highest application in God’s approach with us. He never gives up and he never gives in. His attention to discipling is constant, for he always wants the best for his children. He perseveres with us far beyond what we can imagine. Just think of the story of the runaway son in Luke 15. No matter how long the rebellious son had been gone, the father in the story (representing God) never ceased to gaze at the horizon for any sign of his son’s return. When he caught a glimpse of him at a great distance, he literally ran to his son, eagerly accepted his repentance, and then quickly arranged a celebration party of grand proportions. God is determined to save us and determined to help us become the best we can be. How quickly and easily we can be tempted to give up on others. How unlike God we are when we do.
As we look at these amazing qualities of God as our Father, let’s determine to imitate them as fully as possible. He wants to express his love to others through us. Pray that others will feel his love through your love for them. Love like God loves, and both you and those around you will be filled with inexpressible joy. The love of God is the love of a perfect Parent. Embrace it for yourself, and then share it with others.
Handling Injustices and Ill Treatment Spiritually
Life is nearly always somewhat messy, right? Sometimes it is so messy that we generalize and just say it’s a mess. I’ve been at that point many times, one recently that I will mention before closing the article. But for whatever reason, I’ve been getting a number of phone calls from people who are either in the middle of a mess or have friends who are. In all cases, other church members are involved in the mess, most often leaders in one role or another.
That’s not surprising, for at least two reasons. One, leaders are humans and thus imperfect and sinners. Two, we interface more with them in situations that are likely to be challenging because their roles put them with us in those situations. Do I have issues with some leaders? Since I authored one of my longer books on the topic of leadership and co-authored another, you can no doubt answer my question pretty easily. Do I have issues with all leaders? No, because I refuse to generalize about leaders, churches and members of those churches. But the point is well taken that we humans who claim Christ will have challenges with other humans who share the claim of being his followers. Most often those challenges will involve leaders. No surprises there, for reasons noted.
With those observations as a backdrop, the biggest issue by far is how we respond to those challenges. The application of common sense is a good place to start. Humans are still humans even in God’s family. Further, Satan is alive and well on planet earth to the point that John the beloved apostle wrote that “the whole world is under the control of the evil one” (1 John 5:19). Next, only a small minority of humankind is traveling the narrow road that leads to heaven (Matthew 7:13-15). Finally, in our quest for common sense on the matter, we need to realize that without a plethora of problems in the first century church, we wouldn’t have a New Testament (or if we did, it would be pretty short). With all of that in mind, let’s proceed with expectations that are at least within shouting distance of reality.
One of the mistakes I have made through the years is not always opening the Bible and looking at God’s words in print when giving spiritual counsel. I know the Bible well enough to work its principles into normal conversation and also to quote relevant passages from memory. In much of my spiritual counseling, I have used that knowledge in the way described. Although I believe I have been effective in most cases, I would have been more effective if the Book of books was open and we were reading it together. However, to avoid making this article overly long, I will do some paraphrasing along with some direct quoting. But I urge you to read the article with Bible open and read each verse as we discuss the passage.
God’s Directions Are Clear
When I say that his directions are clear, that doesn’t mean that they are easy to follow. Far from it. But if we truly want solutions, we can’t improve on what the Creator said about how his creatures should function. Many biblical passages could be listed here which would be quite applicable, but I will only mention the main three that I have been using lately. The first two apply to dealing with problems between individuals and the third applies to responding to broader church problems. In all three cases, I am going to offer my insights about the passages. Otherwise, if we but read them quickly, we might only catch the surface meanings and not the deeper, most important principles.
The Way of the Cross – 1 Peter 2:11-3:9
This is a long passage, but it is all about what might well be called the way of the cross. It begins under a heading in my Bible entitled, “Living Godly Lives in a Pagan Society.” Chapter 2:11-12 urges us to avoid sin because we are in a spiritual war and our lives should stand in stark contrast to any charges that others might make against us. Good introduction. Verses 13-17 admonish us to live a life of submission, beginning with submission to governmental rulers, and once again emphasizes the need to live in a way that that quietens the critics. In other words, be the real deal – walk the walk and not just talk the talk. He ends this section by saying that we should live as free people in showing respect to everyone and loving God’s family. But that lifestyle is described as living as God’s slaves.
Verse 18 introduces the final section of the chapter in addressing literal slaves and their behavior in response to their owners, regardless of whether they are kind or harsh masters. The way of the cross is about to go uphill fast with rocks strewn abundantly in the path. The word “slavery” catches in our throats in any combination of a discussion about Christianity. I understand. Slavery has been aptly labeled as the original sin of the United States. Yet in both the Old Testament and New Testament, slavery was regulated but not forbidden. Not only were there slaves in the first church, but slave owners. Because of this, many moderns have rejected the Bible and Christianity. Was slavery in the first century as bad as that in American history? I hope not, but I’m not sure we can be sure. Slavery would have to be viewed negatively in any setting in any century. Yet, Peter talks about it and uses Christ and the way of the cross as the solution in their setting.
1 Peter 2:18-23 (NIV2011)
Slaves, in reverent fear of God submit yourselves to your masters, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh. 19 For it is commendable if someone bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because they are conscious of God. 20 But how is it to your credit if you receive a beating for doing wrong and endure it? But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God. 21 To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps. 22 “He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.” 23 When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly.
From the Sermon on the Mount forward, those who follow Christ are directed to respond to all kinds of ill treatment and injustices differently than those in the world respond. The concept of “turning the other cheek” (Matthew 5:39) is repeated many times in many ways throughout the NT. Christians must live as examples of this principle if we are to follow Christ. It goes against everything in us to do it, and few have done it well, even among those who call themselves Christians. Seeking revenge is natural; refusing to seek revenge is unnatural.
Back to our passage. Slaves submit to even harsh masters because their first priority is pleasing their heavenly Master, and he is pleased when we imitate Christ. He says, “To this you were called” (verse 21), referring to imitating Christ’s example of enduring unjust, harsh treatment. Not only did he refuse to sin generally, but he refused to respond with retaliation to insults or threats when suffering. How did he manage such unnatural responses? He entrusted himself to God.
After all, did not God promise to work all things (good and bad) together for the good of those who love him (Romans 8:28)? Did he do it for Jesus? Does he now do it for us? Jesus died a gruesome death as a common criminal as people spat upon him and cursed his very name. Did that work out for good? Jesus thought so. We who follow him think so. If God managed that outcome in the midst of the most extreme circumstances, can he not manage it in your circumstances, as challenging as they may seem? Is God not still God? We all say yes intellectually, but saying it emotionally is quite often a different matter. At least that’s true for me.
Broadening the Principle – to Wives
In 1 Peter 3, God applies the same principle, the way of the cross, to three other situations. First, Peter addresses wives with knotheads for husbands, i.e., those who “do not believe the word,” whether as non-Christians or Christians who aren’t obeying what they profess to believe. Either way, they are knotheads. So what does the Christian wife do in such situations to follow the way of the cross? Note that this is still the principle being discussed, for he begins the passage with “in the same way.”
1 Peter 3:1-4 (NIV2011)
Wives, in the same way submit yourselves to your own husbands so that, if any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without words by the behavior of their wives, 2 when they see the purity and reverence of your lives. 3 Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold jewelry or fine clothes. 4 Rather, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight.
Thus, wives are to be submissive to their husbands, with behavior that includes purity, reverence, a gentle and quiet spirit. They don’t react unspiritually to unspiritual treatment, but rather they go the way of the cross in following the example of Jesus. In verse 6, they are told that such responses can only occur when they don’t give in to their fears. What might those fears be? Probably that if they don’t fight back, they will become worse then doormats for their husbands to wipe their feet on. Did Jesus become a doormat for not fighting fire with fire? That certainly wasn’t his expectation. “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (John 12:32). Does the way of the cross work? Will it work for you and me? Only if we do it consistently, not simply try it occasionally. As I said earlier, the way of the cross is a steep one full of obstacles (mostly ourselves).
Broadening the Principle – to Husbands
Next, Peter addresses husbands, but for only one verse. That is puzzling to me. Most of the problems in my marriage are my fault as the husband. Most of the problems in marriages I have counseled (hundreds) have been similar, with more of the fault on the husband’s side than on the wife’s side. Of course, there have been some notable exceptions, but not a great many. But no matter my puzzlement, Peter begins with “in the same way” again as he continues to elaborate on the way of the cross and what it looks like when applied to marriage for the husband.
1 Peter 3:7 (NIV2011) — Husbands, in the same way be considerate as you live with your wives, and treat them with respect as the weaker partner and as heirs with you of the gracious gift of life, so that nothing will hinder your prayers.
Thus, husbands are to be considerate, which carries the idea of considering or studying the wife in order to know her well enough to meet her needs (figure out her love languages and provide for them). Treating them with respect is what all people need, and given the patriarchy views held in the first century toward women and wives, that was unnatural. Unless we understand how wives in that era were viewed and treated by their husbands, we will likely underestimate the counter-cultural nature of what Peter wrote here. The way of the cross is unnatural, although with lots of practice and prayer it becomes more natural (thankfully).
Broadening the Principle – to the Church
I started to entitle this section, “Proceed With Caution – Hazardous Road Ahead!” You will see why in a moment.
1 Peter 3:8-9 (NIV2011)
Finally, all of you, be like-minded, be sympathetic, love one another, be compassionate and humble. 9 Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult. On the contrary, repay evil with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing.
We know that Peter is making this application to the church, suggested by “Finally, all of you” and “to this you were called” (pointing back to verse 21 of chapter 2). How does the principle of the way of the cross fit the church and all of our relationships within the church? Just like the example of Christ, it applies in two ways: live righteously and refuse to respond unrighteously to unjust treatment. Peter begins with the ideal, the righteous part, which includes being unified, sympathetic, loving, compassion and humble. Amen – that is what the church ought to be like! Why isn’t my church like that (some are thinking)? Undoubtedly that is the goal and one worth striving for mightily.
But he is still addressing church relationships when he wrote verse 9. If we are not to repay evil with evil or insult with insult, that clearly implies that we are going to encounter such in the church. And right there lies the ultimate challenge. We expect to be treated badly by those in the world. We expect to find a safe haven in the family of God. When that expectation is dashed by a harsh dose of reality, it hurts and hurts badly. I recall the Proverb which explains why this is so true. “A brother wronged is more unyielding than a fortified city; disputes are like the barred gates of a citadel” (Proverbs 18:19). When deeply wounded by brothers and sisters in Christ, how must we respond? “Repay evil with blessing.” Why? “To this you were called” – to the way of the cross, to imitate the example of Jesus suffering the greatest indignities possible.
Best Communication Principle in Scripture
The Bible is chock-full of teaching about communication with those outside the family of God as well as in it and within our own physical family relationships. All of these passages are jewels and golden nuggets. In my opinion, based on observation and personal experience, one rises to the top of the heap when dealing with challenging people in challenging situations. Here it is.
2 Timothy 2:23-26 (NIV2011)
Don’t have anything to do with foolish and stupid arguments, because you know they produce quarrels. 24 And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. 25 Opponents must be gently instructed, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth, 26 and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will.
We teach our kids not to use the word “stupid.” Overall, that’s a good idea, but Paul didn’t get the memo or at least the translators of this version thought that this word was the best translation of the Greek term, apaideutos. It is the only time the word is used in the NT. I like the word as it is translated here. Any married couple can tell you that the bulk of their arguments are actually pretty stupid and petty, focused on irritants and not real issues. If we don’t stop such arguments, they lead to longer lasting problems which are here termed quarrels, becoming something like an ongoing feud. But how do we avoid such disturbances in relationships and keep them from getting out of hand, and hopefully, end up with both parties in harmony?
First, just don’t allow that sinful part of your nature to take control of your emotions. Second, be kind to everyone, which in this context is applied to those who oppose you. Third, continue calmly trying to reason with those who do oppose you. Being “able to teach” means here controlling your emotions while continuing to reason. Refusing to talk is not the option given. Many people just shut down when they are mad or hurt. Most in this category justify their actions by explaining that silence is preferable to saying something that they will regret later. That sounds reasonable, of course, but it is not what the text says to do. Keep teaching, calmly. Difficult to do, yes, but as an emotionally based person, I assure you it can be learned and practiced.
Fourth, don’t take what is said to you personally. Otherwise, you will become resentful, angry and bitter (the normal progression of unchecked emotions in conflict). How can we do these things when what is said is hurting us, perhaps very deeply? How can we continue to gently instruct those who keep dishing out the pain? It’s actually a matter of recognizing the deeper issues of what is taking place. Your opponent in an emotional quarrel has been captured by Satan, who is now using the person to hurt and hopefully destroy you. The issues are really never about you and another human; they are about you, God and Satan; and them, God and Satan. It’s a spiritual battle taking place. God is always begging us to go the way of the cross and Satan is always begging us to do the opposite in taking the human way.
Since the captive is under Satan’s control, they are out of their senses. That’s why we must remain in ours, calmly and gently continuing to reason with them while we are praying that God will bring them to repentance. We cannot force anyone to repent, even ourselves. God is the one who grants repentance to all of us. Yes, we must at some point reach a desire to repent, or be willing to be made willing to repent, but God through his Holy Spirit must bring it about. If you believe this and pray as though you believe it, God will do it if it can be done in a given situation. Even if all of the right principles of dealing with difficult people don’t work on a given occasion, there’s always another day. God doesn’t give up on us; we must not give up on each other.
This passage, in combination with 1 Peter 2 & 3, provides us with powerful principles of allowing God to work his miracles in the middle of our messes. I have seen him do it time and time again in my life and in the lives of countless others. It is not as if these principles have been tried and found ineffective; they are just not often tried and employed consistently. The way of the cross in Peter’s writing is applied as the way of the godly communicator in Paul’s. Both employ the same two foundational elements: be righteous in your own life and refuse to be pulled into Satan’s world by those who are behaving righteously. Peter says to return blessings for evil treatment and Paul shows how to do it in the communication process. A beautiful combination of the same principle illustrated in two ways.
Handling a Bad Church Situation
Peter ends up his emphasis on the way of the cross as it applies to disciples with what we have already covered in 1 Peter 3:8-9. But the question of how to respond to a broader situation involving a church that is, or seems to be, going in a bad direction is another issue. The two are related, but different in some ways. One of the recent calls that I received came from friends who were members of a church that was doing well, but who had friends in another church that was doing badly from their perspective. Some members of that church had already left and others were contemplating leaving. My friends admitted that their discouraged and angry friends in the other church were responding poorly but had a lot of truth in what they were saying. I tried to help them help their friends using two approaches.
One was going through the same two passages we have just gone through. We may be a part of a fellowship, but we as individuals have declared Jesus to be the Lord of our lives. If he is our Lord, we cannot fail to listen to what he says and follow it to the best of our ability. What he says in our two passages is that receiving bad and unrighteous treatment is no justification for unrighteous responses to those inside or outside the church. Period. No excuses and no exceptions. The way of the cross is the narrow way of Matthew 7 and thus the way of salvation. Both righteous living and righteous responses are salvation matters. Satan will try to convince us otherwise, but don’t listen to all of his justifications and rationalizations. They lead to hell.
The passage I find very helpful in these situations provides us with an example of a church gone bad.
Revelation 3:1-5 (NIV2011)
“To the angel of the church in Sardis write: These are the words of him who holds the seven spirits of God and the seven stars. I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead. 2 Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have found your deeds unfinished in the sight of my God. 3 Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard; hold it fast, and repent. But if you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what time I will come to you. 4 Yet you have a few people in Sardis who have not soiled their clothes. They will walk with me, dressed in white, for they are worthy. 5 The one who is victorious will, like them, be dressed in white. I will never blot out the name of that person from the book of life, but will acknowledge that name before my Father and his angels.
The church in Sardis was dead. The members thought otherwise. Other sister churches probably thought otherwise too. God told the truth and told it bluntly. He called the church to repent and if they didn’t wake up, he guaranteed disastrous consequences. His word is full of commands, not suggestions. He is not fooled, and he is not fooling around. I find myself wondering how many of our churches today are evaluated by him in exactly the same way. The Christianity of America is a watered-down, polluted version of what Christ established and still expects. Scary stuff, that.
The helpful verses in the plight we are describing about a church gone bad are verses 4-5. In spite of the deadness of the church as a whole, there were a few who were still walking the walk. What were they told to do? Leave the church? No, they were told to keep walking the walk, for their consequences were promises of walking with Jesus in white, that their names would never be blotted out of the book of the saved, and they would be acknowledged by Christ himself before all heaven.
Would I ever consider leaving one congregation to be a part of a better one? Perhaps, but I would not leave in the midst of a storm on bad terms with those whom I left behind. In that case, I would be taking my sins with me that violated the passages we have studied. Therefore, I would also be taking God’s judgment of those sins along with me. I’ve never seen an angry, bitter person change their hearts by a change of location without repentance. Satan will fill your ears and hearts with justifications and human reasoning to make you think otherwise, but nothing less than true spirituality is going to work in old or new locations. You may move, but your problem is that you are going to take yourself with you, and without repentance you are still going to be you. After the honeymoon of a new location wears off, your sins will catch up with you. They always do. The church at Sardis and all individuals who are caught up in sin are always given one solution and one solution only: repentance. Whether anyone else repents or not, you must.
So Where is God in My Mess?
The title of the article suggests that I am going to talk about my own personal mess at some point. What I am about to write delves into another aspect of handling injustice and ill treatment. The other segments of the article dealt with how to respond to hurtful issues at the hands of other people. What has not been addressed is for me a bigger issue than these others, by a wide margin. What do you do when this perceived bad treatment is coming, in one way or another, at the hands of God himself? My belief is that all that happens to me or you is either caused or allowed by him. He is somehow involved in all that I experience.
I have another article on this website which affirms that I have lost my faith in coincidences. I think God is somewhere in the mix of all that I experience, always has been and always will be. That’s a wonderful thought when my life is going according to my plan but can be extremely painful when it is going according to God’s plan which differs from mine. You know what I’m talking about. Don’t get super-spiritual here and pretend that you don’t. You have been upset at God too. The Psalmists certainly were at times and expressed it in print for future generations to read. I’m grateful for their gut-level honesty.
Up until now in the article, I have talked generally about the messes that we all find ourselves in as disciples and what God tells us to do to get out of them. Actually, he has to get us out of them, but we have to cooperate with him by listening to his directions and doing our best to put them into practice. In all three cases, we don’t have control with what is happening to us but we can have control over our responses. These responses can then have an effect, sometimes a very big effect, on those who are causing us grief. What may seem impossible can become possible by the power of God. We just have to cooperate with him by taking what he said seriously enough to follow through by obeying him. He is in the middle of our messes with us and has solutions. We just have to trust them and put them into action.
But what happens when you have done everything you know to do and prayed about all that you can think of and you are ready to just give up? All of your spiritual approaches to spiritual problems for spiritual solutions no longer work. What then? Where indeed is God in my mess? Ever been there? If you are human, I imagine that you have. I know I have and will again. As my dear departed brother Wyndham Shaw often said, “I’ve been up and I’ve been down and I will be both again.”
A Hell of a Year – and Beyond!
God is right in the middle of it with you, regardless of what the mess is and how bad it is. He is always working to get us out of it spiritually, if not physically. So here’s my most recent story about my current mess, an ongoing story at least in one aspect. 2020 was a very hard year for me, one of the worst in memory. As the old saying goes among older people, “Getting old ain’t for sissies.” I think I did pretty well emotionally, spiritually and physically until about age 70. Moses did not write Psalm 90 without reason. Here’s the verse most applicable to this present discussion. “Our days may come to seventy years, or eighty, if our strength endures; yet the best of them are but trouble and sorrow, for they quickly pass, and we fly away” (verse 10). This was Moses’ only Psalm, and interestingly it was written during a period when life spans were typically longer. It was a type of predictive prophecy evidently.
I won’t list all of my life challenges of 2020, but the pandemic on top of it made for a really hard year. I was excited about the calendar hitting 2021 because life had to get easier, right? I’ve thought that many times at the end of a year and have most often been wrong. I most certainly was wrong this time. For just one example of my challenges, health issues were involved. I had one surgery at age four (tonsillectomy) and one in my early 60s. Since hitting 70, I’ve had five, the last of which was just over a week ago. Ten days earlier, I had a similar surgery and was called back into the doctor’s office for a consultation. I was told that the pathology report about the tissue removed for testing might be cancer and might not be. The test was inclusive in the opinion of three separate pathologists. So, ten days later I had a more invasive surgery to obtain a deeper tissue sample. I’m still awaiting the results to be relayed to me by my surgeon as of this writing.
But this issue was just one on top of a number of others that had raised my anxiety level to bad places. Yes, I did write a book about the topic of spiritual surrender. I have been fighting to surrender and stay surrendered pretty much all of my Christian life. It is not an easy war. I win individual battles from time to time when I am out of whack spiritually, and I have written a lot about my relationship to God and all that I have done to try maintaining a growth track. But keeping it real, this last year and a half has been the hardest period of a similar length in my entire life (and that’s saying a lot, by the way).
God – Brace Yourself!
A few days ago, my frustrations and anxieties caught up with me and I poured them out in print to God as a prayer. As I wrote, I came to realize that underneath it all I was angry with him. My conviction that all that happens in life is either caused or allowed by him left me feeling that he had pushed the edge and I was about to go over it. ALL OF THIS WASN’T RIGHT AND IT WASN’T FAIR! Where was God in my mess anyway? In reading the Psalms, I am sure that God can handle our emotions, even when we are at our worst and dumping all of our pain and sins on him. We have to do that with our own kids, don’t we? Why wouldn’t we think he is willing to do the same with us? He had Paul write that passage in 2 Timothy 2, which must mean that he practices it with us.
I told him in this wacko prayer that I knew my view of him, him and me, and life in general was messed up and it was my fault. In fact, everything was my fault – always! I further explained that I felt as if the old humanistic saying were correct: “If it is to be, it is up to me.” Thus, I needed to change my perspective on everything I was thinking and feeling. But I simply could not do it. And he would not, or so it seemed to me. I said all of that ridiculous stuff, and a good deal more. I told him I would just settle for being like a teenager saying, “Whatever!” when I couldn’t get my way. I would just keep going but with clenched teeth and rolling eyes. Thus ended my prayer. I could not change myself and God refused to do it for me. I felt like the writer of Psalm 88 as he ended the Psalm by saying, “Darkness is my closest friend.”
Gordon, you actually said all of that stuff to God? Yes, because if we think it he already knows it and we might as well say it. I had hit rock bottom – hard. Like Job, I was wishing October 27, 1942 had never occurred. That was the day I was born. Nothing happened in the next few hours to change my thinking. I didn’t get a phone call or a card of encouragement. Nothing happened out of the ordinary. Doom and gloom prevailed. My normally encouraging wife understood me well enough to just stay out of my way and let me fight my own battle with God. I described that morning to myself and later to others as having wrestled with God until he pinned me to the ground by my neck and forced me to cry, “Uncle!” through clenched teeth. He won, decisively. I was beaten and as disheartened as I could remember. It was, using the phrase from a very old movie, a “bad day at Black Rock!”
Out of the Clear Blue, a Miracle
Then a few hours later, a miracle occurred. All of a sudden, without warning, I was clothed and back in my right mind. Not one thing changed except my heart, and that without any human explanation – none. Amazing! I was simply staggered for a moment, and then began laughing and joking with God about the battle as I marveled at what he had obviously done. I have reached the point of absolute surrender many times through the years. I know when I am there, because in the words of Philippians 4:7, I find a peace from him that transcends all understanding. In that unexpected moment, I had it once again.
Most of my full surrender times in the past came when I was genuinely trying to surrender, using all of the spiritual approaches that seemed to aid in the process (and I have many). Not this time. I was doing nothing, for I had completely given up. I had hit rock bottom and was looking down, not up. Suddenly, in the blink of an eye, it all changed. God was making his point loud and clear. He wanted me to know beyond doubt that it wasn’t up to me. It was beyond me. But nothing was beyond him, even dealing with a totally defeated and hopeless idiot.
The frustrations on my list, including not hearing back from the doctor about my test results for what seems an inordinate amount of time (well over a week after the surgery I still haven’t heard), no longer mattered. God is in control. He can do what he wants to do when he wants to do it in any way he wants to do it. That’s all in his realm, not mine. I belong to him. He promised to take care of me and that’s all I need to know. I’m sitting on the back of this bus called life and he is the driver. My world is back on its axis and whatever comes down the pike of life will be just fine, up to and including death.
We would do well to read Psalm 139 regularly and meditate on its grandeur. I especially find comfort in this verse: “Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be” (verse 16). Let’s just relax and enjoy the ride. It’s pretty much a roller coaster ride, but those are my favorite rides at amusement parks anyway. I’m not at all surprised that God fashioned my life to fit such a ride spiritually and emotionally. It’s been quite a ride, Father, and although we are nearing the end of it, I still love the thrill of it, especially in those days when you do the unexpected and inexplicable – a “God thing.” You are indeed in the big fat middle of my mess, the mess that is me, still loved and cared for by you. End of story (or this current chapter at least). Thank you, Lord, for still being in there with me. When I get it all on straight with you, fully surrendered, other issues in life are just not that significant. Pretty cool, or as my grandsons would say, pretty dope!
Which of those descriptions is true of us as disciples? Both, actually. We are the sons and daughters of God Almighty, Creator of the universe and King of this world and all worlds. But we are also servants of the King, the Master of all creation and of all peoples, those who submit (now) and those who don’t (yet). Ultimately, all will submit.
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, 10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father”
The event in view in this passage occurs at the end of time when time shall cease, leaving only eternity in its place. Those of us who have confessed Jesus as Lord of our lives in this time-bound world will confess then with joy beyond measure, while those who made no such confession with tongue (and life) will then confess with horrific fear and unbelievable regrets. Then eternity with God will begin for the “few” who chose the narrow road of which Jesus spoke in Matthew 7:20-21. Eternal damnation and separation from God will begin for the “many” who chose to remain on the world’s broad road described in the same passage. Thus is reality described by God in his word – unbelievable joy and indescribable pain, depending on our choices regarding Jesus Christ, the crucified.
Back to the Title
Are we disciples children of the King, with the full rights that go along with that exalted depiction? Indeed we are! Sometimes we miss one of the most important points of the popular biblical parable we know by the term, “The Prodigal Son.” Our focus is, understandably, on the son who recently vacated the pig pen and has now come home begging for mercy from the Father he betrayed and sinned against. Remarkably, no begging was needed or even accepted. The Father in this story (capitalized because it is God who is represented) interrupted the prodigal’s well-rehearsed confession, showing that a repentant heart was enough to satisfy him. Beautiful! And, by the way, the Father was so anxious to have the son return that he ran to meet him. Will God run? Obviously, yes – if for nothing else, to welcome home a wayward child. Much more could be said about this part of the story. It is one of the most heart-warming stories in the entire Bible, one that gives us sinners hope. O Jesus, thank you for that!
The lesson I want us to see now is the one that comes in looking closely at the interaction between the Father and the other son. This son wasn’t guilty of the kinds of rebellious, overt sins of his younger brother, but guilty of sins that were far more serious and deadly. Those were the sins of self-righteousness and obliviousness to who he really was before God and who God himself was. He represented the leadership class of Jews, who like the Pharisee of Luke 18:9-14, patted themselves on the back that they did lots of right things and avoided wrong things. They looked good on the outside to their fellow humans, but putrid on the inside to their Creator. Scary stuff, that.
Sinners Are We All
As all self-righteous people do, he looked down his nose at those awful sinners, even his own brother. Especially his own brother. While the Father rejoiced at the return of his long-lost son and prepared a celebration festival, the older son was insanely jealous of his brother and incredibly resentful toward his Father.
“The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. 29 But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’”
Wow! How had he lived with the Father all of those years and totally missed who He was? As many of us can attest, certainly me, we can miss who God is by a country mile. Satan tries to twist our view of God into a 180-degree distortion. Due to my very legalistic religious upbringing as a child and young adult, Satan has been more effective in such attempts than I like to admit. It’s embarrassing to admit, especially for a student and teacher of the Bible. But Satan is nothing if not incredibly cunning and deceptive and effective at what he does.
But Here’s the Answer!
“‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours.
32 But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’”
“Everything I have is yours.” Thus said the Father to the child of a king. He had it all and didn’t know it! He had the Father and all that the Father owned. He was a prince. He lived as a son with the King – in ignorance, without appreciation and with resentment. That’s beyond sad; it’s tragic. Is that you? Is that me? It all depends on our view of God and of God and you (your relationship). How can you tell? Your level of gratitude toward God and your level of love for the unlovely is a good place to start looking for the answer.
Back to the Title (Again)
Child of the King and servants of the King – disciples are both. Which concept do you most treasure and like to picture yourself as being? Think about it a bit before reading further. Please…
No matter what your answer, I think I know what it should be. What do you think is God’s favorite way of viewing himself – king or servant? Take another moment to consider your answer… Beyond question, I believe it is the latter. We so miss God and who he really is! Oh yes, he is all of the magnificent things we can contemplate: Creator of all, Judge of all, the All-Knowing, All-Powerful God of all. But God has no emotional need of such titles. We humans need them due to our incredible selfishness and resultant continual bent toward rebellion. But the most accurate picture of God you could ever have is that of a suffering servant, a God on his knees with towel in hand washing the dirty feet of those who, like us in our humanity, failed to see him as he really is – the Servant God wrapped in flesh, volunteering for death on a cross as a common criminal. But wait a minute, you say – he wasn’t a criminal, he was sinless! No, that day he was identifying as a criminal, for on the cross “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us (2 Corinthians 5:21) as “He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross” (1 Peter 2:24).
No writer of whom I am aware has been able to portray God as servant quite like my old friend, Jim McGuiggan, someone I wrote about recently in another column. As he often says, God didn’t become a servant at the Incarnation when he became a human; rather, he became a human because he was already a servant, always a servant. All of us are created in the image of God, and like him, we can be identified with many terms, all of which are accurate in their own right. But regarding our nature, some things about us are more dominate than others. Likely one descriptor fits us better than any other. The descriptor that identifies God best is servant, for that ever-giving heart drove him irresistibly to the cross. Yes, God is love, said John, but love manifests itself in different ways and in different degrees. I think its greatest way and greatest degree is encapsulated accurately and astonishingly as simply, “Suffering Servant.” Jesus actually made the point quite clear in these words:.
Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 26 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever wants to be first must be your slave—28 just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Therefore, that is what I want to be; who I want to be. I am not that – yet! But I want to be and I’m trying to take that road and stay on that road at every fork along the way. I wish I were doing so much better at it. I’m glad to be the son of a King, the very King of kings and Lord of lords. But the high-water mark of all that anyone can be is servant. Please, Lord, let me be the servant of a king, the King – my King! In the name of Jesus, your human name, Amen!
This world has so many problems. We try to solve those problems through political means and through our freedoms in America to protest and aggressively comment against our leaders. When we think about the problems in this country of racism, poverty, inequality, bullying and so on, it can get very overwhelming. Wouldn’t it be great if someone had a magic wand to immediately make good out of evil? Imagine if there was a young teen that had the power of one swish of that magic baton and could immediately stop racism. What if a teacher somehow found out she had the ability to whisk away poverty because she was in possession of a magic pointer? They would be celebrities. They would be heroes.
Once Upon a Time…
There was a man that had such a power, and this is not a Fairy Tale. His name was Jesus. He commanded attention everywhere he went. In Matthew 4, crowds followed him, listened to his teaching and were healed of various diseases and illnesses. In Matthew 5, the crowds were so large that he had to go onto a mountainside so everyone could hear him teach and experience his healing power. Matthew 14 tells us that the crowds were so large and constant that in trying to get some alone time, he left on a boat. Yet, people followed him on foot from many towns. Jesus was that celebrity I mentioned earlier. He had power that no one ever experienced before. He had the ability to teach in a way that no one had ever heard before. He had the power to raise his magic staff and heal the crowds in one fell swoop. What are the examples that the Gospel writers tell us of how he healed the masses?
The Gospels reference Jesus’ healing ministry over 80 times in over 30 chapters of the Gospel accounts, which comprise 33% of his entire ministry. Wow, to have his magic wand now would be priceless! The problem is, he had no magic wand. He didn’t use special fairy dust that would blow over the multitudes. So how did he heal all those people? Simply through touch. Relationship. Singular compassion on each person he saw. Personal contact. There was no fairy dust, there was no magic wand but there was the healing power of social interaction.
Imagine the lines that formed to receive healing. Also imagine the excitement when the mother was holding her daughter who needed healing and was next in line. Then she steps up to Jesus, and even though there are large crowds, Jesus is totally focused on her and her daughter. Jesus was focused on that little girl. He asked what her name was? Bending down to her, the girl looked into the eyes of a man who had authority over the angels. Those same eyes that knew the world before it was formed. And most of all, amongst the noise and confusion, she saw those eyes focused solely on her. Story after healing story, Jesus touched. He touched physically, sometimes just emotionally or verbally. He healed through personal connection.
Making It Personal
My job is to help the poor. As a leader of HOPE worldwide, we seek to help the poor as much as possible with the resources we are blessed with. In my daily walk, I try to help the poor as much as I can. I have been a disciple for over 43 years and have tried to incorporate that into my life. I have tried my best, with countless failures, to walk as Jesus walked, yet I have recently learned a lesson of helping the poor that has been very clear in the Bible I have been reading for four decades, but I missed it. How did Jesus help those in need? How would Jesus help the poor today? How would he respond to the woman at the stop light asking for money? How would he respond to the homeless living under a bridge?
HOPE worldwide has an audacious goal that is two-fold. We aspire to see all disciples regularly helping the poor as they go about their typical day. The world is full of those with unmet needs for the most basic things in life. But we also hope that through serving the poor, the server will be transformed to be more like Jesus, and that the beneficiary of that service would see and feel the love of Jesus.
When I hand out a dollar bill to that guy at the stop light, I feel good about myself, and that man is glad that he is making progress toward his daily goal, but neither of us are really transformed. When I hand the sandwich out to the homeless souls living in the cold on hard, wet concrete, I’m sure they are glad to have something to eat that day, and I feel good that I took time out of my schedule to serve because of my desire to please God. But I was not transformed, and I doubt that the person I helped was either. Begging is demeaning, reducing a person created in God’s image to be reinforced in the belief that he or she is only a beggar.
Ahh – Real Transformation
Recently I tried a different method of helping a person in need. I was coming home from one of my frequent Home Depot runs. At a small intersection near my house, a number of individuals stand at the intersection to ask for money. As usual, if I had cash in small denominations, and the traffic allowed, I would give the person a few dollars. This time I decided to practice what HOPE worldwide (and I) preach. I stopped the car alongside the road and got out of my car, then asked the gentleman if he and I could talk for a few minutes. At first, he was leery of my request, but I tried to assure him that it was cool. He then came over to find out what I wanted. I introduced myself and told him I just wanted to talk with him about his life, and if I could pray with him. I let him know that I would give him whatever money he would miss out on by talking to me instead of collecting dollar bills from passers-by.
We spoke for about 15 minutes. I asked him his story, where he came from, if he had any kids etc. It was a very heartfelt conversation, especially as he sensed that I had no hidden agenda. As he spoke more, I can tell you that for this brief moment, Isaiah felt like a man who was respected for who he was as a person. We discussed having teenage kids, his old job fixing cars, and how the Bible assures us that every human being is created in God’s image. Finally, I asked him if I could put my hand on his shoulder and pray for him. He looked shocked in a good way. We bowed our heads and I prayed. Afterward he told me with a slight tear in his eyes that no one had ever prayed for him. I offered him a twenty-dollar bill to make up for his lost revenue for the time he talked with me. He flatly refused. I told him that if he didn’t take it, I would just leave it on the street and it would just blow away. We laughed and he sheepishly took the money.
As I drove off, I realized that I had been transformed in a way that I never would have had I just opened my window and handed him some money. I want to believe that Isaiah was also transformed, at least for that moment in time. Jesus didn’t just throw out his healing powers to those that would catch them. In every healing, he personally and freely gave his power to an individual, one touch at a time. Since that experience imitating Jesus, as I read the Gospels, I am reminded of my friend Isaiah and the thousands of people Jesus touched, interpersonally, respectfully and compassionately, one person at a time. I think I hear Jesus still saying, “Go thou and do likewise.” Are we listening?