Archive for the ‘grace’ category

Giving Alms from Within

October 3, 2018


Jesus didn’t pull any punches, and the religious leaders were often the targets caught in his cross-hairs. One theme of his criticism was that they kept up righteous appearances while they were anything but righteous on the inside.  It’s a bit unnerving, is it not, that Jesus could see the thoughts and intents of the heart!

For those who might be tempted to say that the one person in history you would most like to meet is Jesus, maybe you should rethink that!

But then again, Jesus didn’t do anything more than God, the Father, already does. God “discerns our thoughts from afar”; He even knows every word “on my tongue” before I say them. (Psalm 139)

Think about that. Where can I go that God is not present? There is no use trying to hide from God. It’s futile to think that we can.

So, we might as well be honest. God already knows what’s going on in our heads and hearts!

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The Impossible Perfection of God

September 27, 2018


In the Gospel of Mark, we read the story of the rich young man who came to Jesus and asked him what he must do to inherit eternal life. (Mark 10:17) After a brief discussion about the law and keeping its commandments, Jesus said to him, “One thing you lack: go and sell all you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.” (Mark 10:21)

The rich young ruler went away saddened and grieving. (Mark 10:22)

Obviously, the rich young man found the instruction very difficult. He was evidently hoping for a different answer. He claimed to have kept the commandments of God from an early age, but Jesus brushed his boasting aside and dashed his hopes by demanding the “impossible” from him.

Jesus turned to his disciples as the example for what he was about to say was walking away, and commented, “How hard it will be for those who are wealthy to enter the Kingdom of God!” (Mark 10:23)

If we are being honest with ourselves, most Christians in the United States are wealthy compared to the rest of the world. We might even be considered wealthy compared to the rich young man who sought out Jesus in the First Century. Unless we gloss over what Jesus said, these are hard words to swallow.

They were hard words for the disciples also. Though they had left everything to follow Jesus, they were still “amazed” at what Jesus just said. (Mark 10:24)

As if the example wasn’t enough, Jesus said it again, “[H]ow hard it is to enter the kingdom of God!” and he added a word picture for emphasis:

“It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” (Mark 10:25)

At these words, the disciples were not just amazed; they were “astonished”, asking, “Then who can be saved?” (Mark 10:26)

I believe they identified with the rich young man. I suspect they knew they had to more to give than what they had given. They might have also been thinking about the size of this following to which they had given themselves – it would be small indeed! Who could even qualify?!

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Honest Liar or Dishonest Priest?

September 20, 2018


Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat.” He answered them, “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?  For God commanded, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’  But you say, ‘If anyone tells his father or his mother, “What you would have gained from me is given to God,” he need not honor his father.’  So for the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God.  You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said:   “‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.'” Matthew 15:1-9 ESV


And he called the people to him and said to them, “Hear and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person.”…. Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth passes into the stomach and is expelled?  But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person.  For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander.  These are what defile a person. But to eat with unwashed hands does not defile anyone.” Matthew 15:10-11, 17-20 ESV

Jesus leveled his criticism at people who seemed to honor God in the way they spoke and acted, but they didn’t honor God in their hearts. He quoted the prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel who carried a similar theme in their writings. The prophets were as harsh on the religious and political leaders of their day as Jesus was in his day.

The statement, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”, seems to miss the mark in light of the importance Jesus places on the heart, does it not? Not that what we do isn’t important. It’s just that what we do starts with who we are, and who are is in our hearts.

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Progression of Revelation in the Bible Part 2

August 26, 2018


In Progression of Revelation in the Bible Part 1, I made the point that the Old Testament Scriptures anticipate and point toward Jesus. Jesus said he was the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets. The thrust of the Scriptures from the Old Testament to the New Testament also progresses from physical to spiritual, from law to grace. I will pick up on those themes and get into the progression from law to grace in this piece.

Before doing that, though, I am taking a short sidetrack to recall an observation I made years ago as a college freshman in a world religion class. As I as I studied (and read) the Bible for the first time in my life I realized that the fabric of the Scripture, from beginning to end, is an intricately woven tapestry. I wasn’t a believer then, but I could see (as a budding English Literature major) the incredible, unlikely harmony of the Scriptures.

I say unlikely, because the Old Testament and New Testament are a combination of writings that were penned by dozens of people and collected over a period of many centuries. All of them wrote down the revelation each one of them received from God. The “book” of the Bible would be, perhaps, the finest masterpiece of cohesive literature ever written if it were written by a single author, but it’s cohesiveness and internal integrity is all the more noteworthy by the fact that it was written by dozens of authors across a large expanse of time.

People who understand the Bible only on a surface level claim it is full of contradictions. We should hardly find it surprising if it was full of contradictions, having been written by so many people over such a long time, but the thing is: a deeper reading of the Bible reveals an uncanny, transcendent, incredibly subtle and nuanced consistency and harmony.

The intricacy and harmony of the Bible is quite stunning given its authorship: the fact that it was written by people, and not by the hand of God Himself.

And this fact led me to another thought when I first read the Bible in its sweep from beginning to end: if God is God, 1) He could reveal Himself in a way that creatures made by Him could understand His communication; and 2) He could preserve the integrity of that communication. Why? Because He is God.

I didn’t become a believer immediately at that point in my life, but I could not deny the uncanny tapestry of the Scriptures.

I recall these things as I consider the Qur’an, and the progressive nature of the two religions’ Scriptures. In the Qur’an, statements in the later sura expressly contradict and abrogate (negate) earlier sura. The later sura are also the problematic ones in which we see statements about killing infidels, etc.

In the Bible, by contrast, we see the earlier Scriptures affirmed, explained and extended in the person of Jesus. We see a progression from Law to the spirit of the law, and from law to grace, and the seeds of that progression are there in the very beginning.

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Progression of Revelation in the Bible Part 1

August 26, 2018


My new favorite Podcast is the Unbelievable Podcast by Justin Brierley on the Premier Christian Radio in the UK. I was listening this morning to a dialogue with Abdu Murray, a Muslim, turned Christian, and Aliyah Saleem, a Muslim turned atheist. The discussion got me thinking about the idea of progressive revelation in both scriptures, the Bible and the Qur’an.

In Islam, the later sura exceed the earlier sura in importance. When a statement in a later sura contradicts a statement in an earlier sura, the doctrine of abrogation applies. The earlier statement is negated by the later statement. Thus, the statements found in the later sura carry the most weight.

A similar, but very different, idea arises in Christianity. Christians interpret the Old Testament through the lens of Jesus in the New Testament. In Christianity, however, statements in the Old Testament are not abrogated (negated); rather they are affirmed, explained and extended.

Jesus doesn’t give us the option of ignoring or negating the Old Testament. Perhaps, the most famous example of the way Jesus interpreted the Old Testament is found in the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus said,

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.” (Matthew 5:17-18)

Rather than abrogation, we get the idea of progressive revelation. Jesus affirms, builds on and extends the intent and purpose of the revelations revealed in the Old Testament. Even more significantly, Jesus says He is the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets.

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The False Promise of Pleasure

August 12, 2018

Statue of writer and playright Oscar Wilde in Merrion Square in Dublin, Ireland.

“Meaninglessness does not come from weariness with pain. Meaningless comes from weariness with pleasure….  No one is more fed up with life than one who has exhausted pleasure. Some of the loneliest people in the world are those who have lived indulgent lives and emotionally and physically drive themselves to impotence.”

This is a quotation from Ravi Zacharias in a talk he gave titled, the Problem of Pleasure. If you listen to Ravi Zacharias much, you will note that he returns to this theme often, and he often mentions Oscar Wilde, the famous Irish poet and playwright. He was a brilliant writer and thinker who was an outspoken atheist and lived a hedonistic lifestyle. Wilde is described as “the supreme individualist”. The Picture of Dorian Gray, is described as a “novel of vice hidden beneath art” tinged with “self-conscious decadence”, while The Importance of Being Earnest, commonly believed to be his best work written at the height of his career, is more subtle and nuanced. (See Wikipedia)

We know so much of Wilde’s private life, ironically, from a much publicized court room drama played out in real life when Wilde sued the Marquess of Queensberry for libel. Queensberry was also an outspoken atheist, and Queensberry’s son, Lord Alfred Douglas, was the person who introduced Wilde to “the Victorian underground of gay prostitution”. Queensberry’s defense was to prove his statements true by hiring private investigators to uncover the “salacious details of Wilde’s private life” exploring that Victorian underground. The trial that Wilde initiated left him bankrupt as the defense proved the truth of Queenberry’s statements.

Wilde, the “colourful agent provocateur in Victorian society”, spared himself no pleasure and wasn’t shy about his lifestyle. Like Solomon, though, he retained a sort of wisdom borne of experience. Having been baptized as a child, he often used biblical imagery and characters in his writing, though his use was, perhaps, sacrilegious.  During a two year prison sentence of homosexual actions, he requested the Bible in multiple, languages, Dante’s Divine Comedy and other works with Christian themes. When he was released from prison, the Catholic Church turned down his request to spend six months at a monastery, and Wilde wept at the news.

As I sit here thinking of these things, I am also thinking of the unfolding story of a friend, a very enthusiastic and committed believer in God. He is a lover of the stage, a Shakespearean performer in his past. In that sense, he shares something in common with the playwright, Wilde. My friend is in the ICU as I write, having suffered a series of strokes that could leave him incommunicative and paralyzed. Even in his desperate physical situation, he and his family have experienced the presence of God sustaining them in faith. They exhibit a transcendent joy and peace even in the middle of the difficulties they face.

We are naturally attracted to pleasure and pull back from pain, but sometimes the pleasures we seek cause us pain. We tend to think that pleasure is good and pain is bad, if not in a moral sense, then certainly in an experiential sense. Neither one is intrinsically good or bad, in my opinion. CS Lewis says that God whispers to us in our pleasures, but He shouts to us in our pain.

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Justification by Faith

July 28, 2018


In a previous blog post, I observed that Scripture reveals a progression from law to relationship to faith. In Habakkuk, the prophet said, “The righteous will live by his faith.” (Hab. 2:4) This statement in Habakkuk is the second half of a verse that contrasts “the proud one” whose soul “is not upright to the righteous one who lives by faith. The implication is that the righteousness is linked to faith and is contrasted to pride.

We see this theme continued in the New Testament:

“The righteous shall live by faith.” (Romans 1:17)


“Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for ‘The righteous shall live by faith.’” (Galatians 3:11)


“[M]y righteous one shall live by faith” (Hebrews 10:37)

And the reason that salvation is by faith (in the grace of God) is so that no one can boast.

“For it is by grace you have been saved through faith, and this not from yourselves; it is the gift of God, not by works, so that no one can boast.” (Eph. 2:9)

When Jesus summarized all the law and prophets in just two statements (love God and love your neighbor) he whisked us past the academic details of the law to the simple heart and spirit of the law. (Luke 10:25-27) If we think this simplification of the law makes it any easier on us, however, we should think again. At the same time Jesus simplified the expression of the law, Jesus upped the ante on us when he said that, if we even lust in our hearts, we have committed adultery. If we have even gotten angry in our hearts at our brother, we may have committed the sin of murder. (See Mathew 5:21-48)

Jesus made the law simpler and more difficult to follow at the same time!

Maybe this is because our ability to follow the law (to maintain God’s standard of morality) isn’t the key point. In fact, the point is our inability, in ourselves, to live up to God’s standard! Until we realize that we can’t measure up, we don’t measure up, we are depending on ourselves and our own efforts to “be right with God”. But we never can. Whether it’s 613 laws or just two principles, we fall short.

Our focus shouldn’t be on the laws and other people. On this horizontal level, we compare ourselves to others, and we judge ourselves and others in comparison. This is where pride and self-righteousness dwell, and the focus is, ultimately, on ourselves. Rather our focus should be vertical, on God and our relationship to him.

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Malcolm Guite

Blog for poet and singer-songwriter Malcolm Guite

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