I spend some Saturday mornings meeting with people at a low-income, legal aid clinic. Many people come with “one” big issue, but the conversations often reveal a myriad of things they are dealing with.
The one big issue brought them to the desperate point of reaching out, but that one big issue often belies many little things that plague them. The little things they tolerate in their lives, often lead to the big thing that brought them to the point of desperation.
The circumstances aren’t always the result of bad decisions, bad behaviors or other failures, but often they are. We can be our own worst enemies, and lack of knowledge and understanding compounds the problems that result from those failures.
I often feel overwhelmed by the loads that people carry. Simple answers are rarely sufficient. Many peoples’ lives are bogged down by a thousand little things, and the one big thing is the just tip of the proverbial iceberg.
The best I can do in our short session on a Saturday morning is to identify the key issue(s) to be dealt with and a strategy for dealing with them, but I can often only recommend treatment for the symptoms. It isn’t hard to see evidence of the virus behind the symptomatic issues that are demanding immediate attention. We might call that virus sin.
Sin, in its etymology, means “missing the mark”. We miss the mark in many small ways that we might assume are insignificant, but the little things add up. They form habits of thought and behavior that are counter-productive to achieving the things we all want – comfort, security, harmonious living with our family and world, and satisfaction in life.
Sin isn’t just doing something that God frowns upon. Sin is falling short of the way we are meant to live – the way God made us to live. A thousand little bad decisions, a thousand misunderstandings that are unwittingly adopted, a thousand little things that we allow to creep and remain, without addressing them, pile up and weigh us down.
To be fair, we all struggle with sin that threatens to undo us. Some of us just manage it better than others. Some of us learn to use our sinfulness to our own selfish advantage. Others are steamrolled by it and the sins of others that leave destruction in its wake.
Regardless of our ability to manage our sins, it catches up to us – now or later. The most beautiful, white-washed tombs are as empty as a pauper’s grave. Sin has real consequences for us and for the people around us.
The prophet Hosea’s words ring true:
“They sow the wind and reap the whirlwind. The stalk has no head; it will produce no flour. Were it to yield grain, foreigners would swallow it up.”
One bad decision, like marrying someone for the wrong reasons without considering their real character, coupled with personal shortfalls that go unchecked, like laziness, selfishness, unkindness, gluttony, indiscretions, and all those character traits we often tolerate in ourselves but are quick to point out in others, can lead to a lifetime of heartache, difficulty and pain.
Our decisions and shortfalls are visited on our children and their children. They become part of our DNA. They become part of our character, our family culture and social construct, the way we relate to people and treat them, and our children learn from us. They these things on to their own children.
This is why poverty and dysfunction in families is cyclical it. Not that all poverty is the result of sin, but people missing the mark contributes to poverty and dysfunction, and poverty and dysfunction feeds poverty and dysfunction.
It becomes what people become accustomed to. It becomes their expectations. It’s much easier to allow those circumstances that surround us to mold us than to rise above those circumstances and to refuse to be molded by them.
Perhaps, some of it is DNA and some of it is the molding of circumstances. Either way, someone sows the wind, and those around them and those who come after them reap the whirlwind.
For many people caught in generational cycles of poverty and dysfunction, most of their efforts go for naught. The grain they managed to eke out is swallowed by foreigners (others).
I spent an hour one morning speaking to a woman who appeared much older than me. I was in Memphis after my son’s wedding. Everyone had left, while I waited for the Men’s Warehouse to open so I could return the tuxes that were rented for the wedding. I sat outside the hotel enjoying the tranquility of a bright Sunday morning when she approached.
Her eyes and her face betrayed a hard life, but she was pleasant and struck up a conversation. Soon she asked for money for some coffee. Maybe it’s a southern thing. Maybe it’s a Memphis thing. I met some of the most conversational people asking for money of anywhere I have been. I gave her the coffee money. When she returned with the fresh cup of coffee she asked if I minded if she drank it with me.
Not long into the pleasantries, I asked her what she did, though I suspected that I knew. She said, “You don’t want to know.” I left it at that – suspicions confirmed.
It turns out that she was my age. I never would have guessed that without her telling me.
She was baptized as a child, but she had gone down her own path “seeking love in all the wrong places”, beginning with a very abusive relationship as a teenager. The past melted quickly into the present.
She told me that she makes about $800 a month now, and she rued that she has to pay $100 a month to the bankruptcy court. She wanted to go back to court and change that, but she didn’t have a car to get her there.
As we talked about the idea of saving money to buy a used car, she acknowledged the cost of her smoking habit and wine coolers that she liked. We calculated how much money could be saved if she put away some of the money she spent on cigarettes and wine coolers.
As I think back on these things, I wonder how many other thousands of little decisions, little habits, ways of thinking and reactions to things have contributed to her present life and legacy. She asked me to pray for her, and I promised her I would. She wiped away tears as I left to go.
As I told her God loves her, I felt compelled to tell her I loved her too. I wonder how many times she has heard anyone say those words to her without the exchange of money and pleasure?
The truth is that God does love us. The commands He gives us aren’t arbitrary. Lest we fail to understand the thrust of those commands, Jesus summed them up this way: “Love God with all your heart, all your soul, all your strength, and all your mind. And, love your neighbor as yourself.” If you do these things, you fulfill the law.
Too often we love sin and contend against God and people when we should love God and people and contend against sin.
The law doesn’t exist for its own sake. It exists for our sake. God made us. He knows how we are made and what will fuel us to maximize our potential. When we miss the mark, when we sin, we fail to live up to our potential.
We aren’t made for the dust from which we were formed, but for metamorphosis into a spiritual existence that will live on. We weren’t made to indulge the flesh (our corporeal selves); we were made to attain to our spiritual, perfect selves – who God made us to be.
The Greek word for flesh (sarx) refers to the sinful state of human beings, often presented as a power in opposition to the Spirit. The flesh is impetuous, insistent and attractive to us because we are most familiar with it. It promises us the things that we want, but only offers us cheap substitutes.
The flesh bullies and belittles the spirit and settles for nothing less than our undivided attention, while molding us into a hardened shell that is unresponsive to the spirit. When all the little things add up, they define us in the end.
But God calls us to Himself, to a higher existence.
You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.
So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.
The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other.
Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. Whoever sows to please their flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction; whoever sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life.
Like the thief on the cross, no one is too far gone. God can do in us what we can’t do in ourselves. The woman I met in Memphis was baptized as a child. God is faithful, even when we are not.
I believe that God met that woman the day we met and talked. She was moved. How she responded and where her life headed after that day I don’t know. It’s never too late – for anyone – but all the choices we make along the way create a momentum in our lives that can become virtually impossible for an individual to change.
Nothing, however, is impossible to God. When the rich young ruler walked away sad, after Jesus told him that he should sell all he has, give it to the poor and follow Jesus, Jesus spoke these words:
“’Truly, I say to you, only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.’ When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished, saying, ‘Who then can be saved?’ But Jesus looked at them and said, ‘With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.’”
God can change the momentum of a person’s life in one moment of true surrender. A rich man would have much more baggage that would be much more difficult to let go than the woman I met in Memphis. I pray that she found the willingness to surrender and allow God to change the momentum of her life, and give her peace and the blessed hope of the assurance of her salvation.