This blog post is inspired by today’s sermon where I go to church. The sermon was the last in a series about how followers of Christ are called to have an impact on the world. The text is out of Matthew, known as the Sermon on the Mount:
“You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet. You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden.” Matthew 5:13-14 ESV
The themes here are salt and light. God calls His people to be salt and light in the world. These should be familiar concepts, but it always helps to dive a little deeper into the things we think we already know, and it doesn’t hurt to be reminded and encouraged to live them out.
I will preface my thoughts with a personal story I have told before. In high school and college, I found in myself a yearning to go off in the woods and retreat from society. That feeling might have been originally inspired by reading My Side of the Mountain when I was in grade school.
My Side of the Mountain was about a young boy who left his home for the woods of the Catskill Mountains where he took up residence in a hollow tree. He fended for himself in the quiet and solitude of nature, taming a peregrine falcon in the process, in a very idealistic depiction of life alone in the Eden of nature.
You probably won’t be surprised to know that I was very drawn to Henry David Thoreau. That kind of contemplative life lived alone in the peace and abundance of the outdoors was alluring to me. Even after I became a believer in college, my personal dream included peace, quiet, solitude and nature.
I am still drawn to that, but God took me through a college class in which I realized that God was calling me to the noise, bustle and busyness of society – despite my reluctance. It seemed like a personal paradigm shift to me, and it was; but it really wasn’t as profound a revelation (or shouldn’t have been) as it seemed at the time.
I won’t bore you will the details here, but I realized that I couldn’t (and shouldn’t) run from the encroachment of “civilized” society on that idyllic vision of personal utopia. I needed to turn and face it. I realized God was calling me to engage the world and not run from it.
Throughout history, religious believers of various kinds formed groups that cloistered themselves from the world. From monasteries to modern communes, the tendency to want to run from the grit and grime and dirt of humanity and human institutions is a strong idealist and religious theme, but not one, it seems, God wants most of us to pursue.
That is because He calls us to be salt and light.
As I listened to the sermon today, it dawned on me that salt is only effective when it comes in contact with food. It’s purpose in drawing out the flavor of food and in preserving it can only be realized when salt is in close contact with it. Salt can’t flavor or preserve food it doesn’t touch. Continue reading “On Being Salt (and Light) in the World”→
Job was a righteous man the Book of Job says in the opening chapter and verse. (Job 1:1) But was he really? It seems that Job was very well regarded in his community, taking a prominent place (at the gate where the wise men sat). Job thought he was righteous and believed that everyone saw him that way too: as a righteous man above reproach. (Job 32:7-17)
Job was also a very wealthy man. He had a large family. He was proud of his good fortune, which he believed was the result of his righteous living. He even offered sacrifices for his children in case they sinned. (Job 1:5) I get the impression he didn’t think they had sinned, but he wanted to get a jump on it if they did.
Job reminds me of the kind of person who lives in a house in the suburbs with a white picket fence. The kind of person who has a perfect wife and perfect children who got good grades, got along with each other and always did the right things in their parents’ eyes. The kind of person who listened to his parents and other authorities growing up, was the example the coaches pointed to on the athletic field, got good grades, went to a good college, got a good job, didn’t smoke or drink, went to church on Sunday and lived a good and secure life.
Job was probably the envy of all who knew him, and he was probably insufferable because of it. It seems Job was righteous, at least compared to other people. Job was also righteous in his own eyes (Job 32:1). And that’s the issue: Job viewed the world through the lens of his own self-righteousness.
Job viewed the world through the lens of his own self-righteousness
Job reminds me of the kind of person who was good and proud of it. Job clearly believed that his goodness was the source of all the good things he accomplished and acquired in his life. Job believed in God, of course, like a good Catholic or Protestant Christian. Job would have been a good American, a self-made man, equal parts proud of good living and proud of the wisdom of his belief in God. He would probably be a proud patriot too, if he was alive today.
Scripture is clear, however, that no man is righteous before God. (Romans 3:10) None! Job may have been righteous compared to other people, but no one can stand up to God on his own merit.
Jesus eliminated all doubt on the subject when he said, “No one is good but God.” (Mark 10:18) To bring that point home, Jesus challenged the holy men of his day (men like Job) saying: it’s not enough to refrain from murder – you sin when you are angry at your brother, insult him and call him a fool (Matt. 5:21-22); and it’s not enough to refrain from committing the act of adultery – you commit adultery in your heart when you lust after a woman (Matt. 5:27-28).
Then Jesus really got down to the bottom line: if you really want to be good, then don’t just be just (Matt. 5:38) – be merciful and gracious and loving:
“[I]f anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well.And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.” (Matt. 5:39-42)
If you really want to be good, then don’t just love your family, friends and people who are good to you:
“But I say to you, ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.'” (Matt. 5:44-48)
The statement in the first chapter and verse of Job, then, needs to be taken with a grain of salt. It isn’t true. It can’t be true, because we know that no man is righteous before God, but that statement sets the stage for the entire Book of Job. It isn’t meant to be taken as true, but it is the way Job viewed himself.
Job’s view of himself a a righteous man colored Job’s view of the world. His belief that he was righteous defined who he thought he was. He attributed all of his success to it.
As we will see in the next blog post, Job viewed others through the lens of his own self-righteousness. We see this in his friends who mirrored to Job the advice Job had given others. Now that the tables were turned, Job and his friends would come to realize how cold and hollow that advice really is, and they would come to see God in a different way.
We tend to think that all of the misfortunes of other people are brought on by their own bad decisions, bad actions and bad living, but that isn’t always the case. We tend to think our fortunes are the result of our good decisions, good actions and good living, but that isn’t necessarily true either.
“In the course of time Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his face fell. The Lord said to Cain, ‘Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is contrary to you, but you must rule over it.'” (Genesis 4:3-7 ESV)
I have written about this passage before. (See When Sin Crouches at the Door) In fact, it seems that every time I read the story of Cain and Abel it gives me pause. I always wonder: “How would I react?” “Would I be more like Cain or more like Abel?”
The truth is that I would like to fancy myself like Abel, offering a better sacrifice, one in which God would be pleased, but I have doubts about that. Would God really accept my sacrifice? More pointedly, would I really be willing to offer the kind of sacrifice God would regard? If I am being honest, I have to wonder.
I am bit surer that I wouldn’t get angry like Cain did, and I certainly wouldn’t take it out on Abel, right?
Do I protest too much?
I picture myself in my comfortable 21st Century world feeling fairly smugly that I wouldn’t be like that, but I’m not so sure I should be confident about that. The circumstances were much different then.
Cain didn’t have a world full of people to which to compare himself. He couldn’t have said, “At least I am not as bad as so and so.” He wouldn’t have had centuries of wisdom at his fingertips in the way of sermons, books, fables with morals and the Bible. Cain didn’t have the Bible or any moral compass but his own conscience and experience, such as it was.
When I first read this passage (again), I read it to say that God didn’t regard Cain’s offering, and so I thought it wasn’t that God didn’t regard Cain. But then I read it again and realized I was wrong: “And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard.”
It was personal for Cain. God didn’t regard him. What did he do wrong? What is the lesson in the story for us?
As I pointed out in the previous blog post on the subject, the clues are in the text. Abel offered more than Cain did – the best of his flock. The implication is that Cain didn’t offer the best, the “first fruits” of his produce.
It wasn’t necessarily that Cain did something wrong, as he didn’t do it right. He didn’t offer as much a Abel did. Abel offered a better sacrifice, and God took notice of him because of it.
Abel went above and beyond in his offering to God. Maybe Abel’s offering was more heartfelt. Maybe Abel was more thankful to God. We don’t know.
Cain might have felt that Abel was just “sucking up” to God. Abel was making him look bad, as if it was a competition for God’s attention. We think like that, don’t we? Maybe Cain thought, “I’m not going to suck up to God like that!” Right? Don’t we think like that sometimes?
Of course, that is pride talking.
Would Able have been inclined to think the same way if the shoe was on the other foot? We don’t know. We can’t really say.
Did Abel just get lucky? Did he happen just to offer a better sacrifice. Did he really know what he did “right”? Again, we don’t know, but I think it’s safe to say that Cain didn’t know what he did wrong. He might have made some assumptions, but I doubt his assumptions were very good.
Maybe Cain did know why God regarded Abel and his sacrifice, but he wasn’t willing to offer that much. I kind of doubt it, though. If Cain had known what the difference was between his sacrifice and Abel’s sacrifice, I don’t think he would have taken his anger out on Abel. Maybe he thought God was being arbitrary. Maybe he thought Abel had an unfair advantage. Maybe he thought God just liked Abel better.
Of course, that wasn’t the case at all. God tried to console and counsel Cain. He offered advice and hope, and he warned Cain of the danger of letting the sin crouching at the door get the best of him.
If there is one thing I take away from this story, it is this: regardless of what we are going through, and that we have done or haven’t done, the best answer is always to go back to God. Our own perspective on our circumstances is limited and flawed. God knows what is best for us, and He has the best intentions towards us. We need to trust Him.
If Cain had listened to God, he could have provided a sacrifice the next time that God would regard, and life would be good.
If Cain had trusted God and listened to His advice, I don’t think Cain would have been angry enough to murder his brother. If Cain had taken his anger to God, he wouldn’t have taken his anger out on Abel.
We often don’t get what we think we deserve. Maybe (sometimes) we don’t get what we actually do deserve, but that cuts both ways. We might not get the positive consequences we “deserve”, but we also might not get the negative consequences we deserve. When we “get away with” something, do we rue the fact that we didn’t suffer the consequences? I think not!
Life isn’t fair. Not in this world. Still, God works all things together for the good – not just our good, but the good of all people and all creation (eventually anyway). That is His promise to us. We just need to hang in there. We need to stick by God’s side.
Where else would we turn anyway?
In the end, God actually loves us. We could live in a world in which the creator didn’t love His creation. What an amazing thing that we live in a world in which God loves us! We know this from the fact that God emptied Himself to become one of us. And He didn’t just become one of us, He allowed Himself to be sacrificed in human flesh foe us. He endured our pain, and He bore our sin. We can trust a God like that.
This world also isn’t all there is, though we often lose site of that. Jesus has prepared rooms for all of us who call him Lord and Savior. We can’t even imagine what God has in store for us. It will make all the “good” things in this life pale in comparison. We have no reason to be a Cain and every reason to be an able.
Perhaps, the difference is nothing more than perspective. Maybe Abel had the right perspective about himself and God, while Cain’s perspective was too limited. Maybe Abel was willing to give his best to God because he trusted Him, he believed God and believed God loved him. Abel was thankful for what he had, knowing that all of it came from God in the end.
“But Joseph said to them, “Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.'” Genesis 50:19-20 ESV
I have written recently about the verse, Genesis 50:20 (things men might mean for evil God is able to use for good). (See God in the Dark) The message that God can turn the evil that impacts our lives for good is powerful one. Though we might despair in our circumstances, especially when the evil we experience is caused by people, maybe even people we love, God is ever at work. God is able to redeem our circumstances, and, more importantly, redeem us.
As with any verse in the Bible, though we need to read it in context to understand the fullest, and most complete meaning. Genesis 50:20 was spoken by Joseph in a very specific context, so let’s take a look at that context and mine this well-known verse for some deeper meaning.
These were the words I read this morning when I opened my Bible app:
“So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.” (Galatians 6:10 ESV)
As I think about this exhortation from Paul, I realize that our faith is meant to be manifested in doing good. It also occurs to me that, maybe, we have gotten the emphasis wrong.
I can understand how it happened. Common people didn’t have the Scripture to read for themselves. The church had gotten corrupted by power and wealth. Priests sold indulgences and turned faith into a religion of required observances and superstitious piety.
John Wycliffe and others made Scripture available to the common people, and Martin Luther and the people he inspired rediscovered the that salvation is received by faith. It’s a matter of grace, not of works, lest any man boast.
These things were inspired by the Holy Spirit at the time, but we always flirt with the danger of settling into religious ruts that prevent us from appreciating and considering the whole counsel of God. Western Protestantism has tended for centuries to accept the stuffy air of an academic, heady faith that gets too little exercise in the “good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them”.
This is the progression: We are “saved through faith”; this is not our own doing; “it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast”. But we can’t stop there. We have to realize the truth of the very next statement: “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”
We are saved by faith, not by works, in order for us to do the good works God prepared for us to do.
We are saved by faith, not by works, in order for us to do the good works God prepared for us to do.
Paul’s words in Galatians and the entire thrust of Scripture suggest that the hallmark of Christian faith is the good that we do that flows out of the salvation we received by faith.
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone…. For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” (Isaiah 9:2, 6 ESV)
These words that are repeated often at Christmas time were spoken originally by Isaiah, the prophet, hundreds of years before Jesus. “For unto us a child is born….” These words are so ubiquitous in our western culture today that we may miss the significance of them.
At one time, people doubted the dating of Isaiah because it so accurately describes Jesus who was born around 4 BC. Isaiah lived purportedly in the 8th Century BC. Because Isaiah predates Jesus and the span of time from Isaiah to Jesus, an increasingly skeptical world that seriously doubted the predictive nature of those words begin to think that the Isaiah text was written after Jesus, perhaps in the 1st Century after his death.
People no longer doubt when Isaiah wrote those words, however, not since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. One of the most significant discoveries among the Dead Scrolls was the Isaiah Scroll. It has been dated hundreds of years before the birth of Christ, and it is nearly word for word the same as the more recent manuscripts of Isaiah that we had until that time.
Isaiah contains, perhaps, the clearest and most amazing prophecies in the whole OT of the coming of Jesus. For this reason, Isaiah is quoted every Christmas. Particularly the statements stating that the Messiah would come as a child.
At least one aspect of what Isaiah wrote gets lost in wonder of the predictions he spoke. We look back on them now with wonder and amazement that God inspired Isaiah to speak those words so long ago, but when Isaiah spoke them, no one listened. No one believed him.
Paul, speaking to the Christians in Rome, penned these words that echo today on the minds of people who seek to do God’s will: “there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.” (Romans 13:1)
Lest we gloss over the historical context, Paul wrote these words from a Roman prison cell. He wrote them not knowing that he would never live free again. He would remain a prisoner until his public execution at the hand of those same Roman authorities established by God.
Not that Paul would have said anything different if he had known his fate. I don’t believe knowledge of his future would have influenced him to say anything different. In the same letter to the Romans, Paul said, “If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord.” (Romans 14:8)
I have heard many people recite the verse in Romans 13 in support of supporting Donald Trump. Many of those same people would not have given that verse much consideration during the Obama presidency. The Scripture didn’t change.
Many people who have championed Trump for President, and Trump as President, have claimed that God wanted Trump to be President. Like Daniel in the Persian palace, Trump is God’s man in the White House.
I have been skeptical of that claim. Not that it couldn’t be true. It’s that I don’t see the fruit.
Paula White, who is now an adviser to Trump in the White House, said after he was elected, “Trump had ‘been raised up by God’ and added, ‘It is God who raises up a king. It is God that sets one down. When you fight against the plan of God, you are fighting against the hand of God.’” Of course, she would have been just as right if she were speaking of Barack Obama four years earlier.
I wondered then, as I do now: does Trump’s victory mean that we (believers) won too? Did God give us what He wanted? Or did God give us what we wanted?