Politics Didn’t Keep King David Up at Night

In the United States, we just had midterm elections, those falling between the presidential elections that happen every 4 years.  The end result of government divided between Democrats and Republicans likely has many wishing their preferred side had more power.  This post is a slightly edited version of one from this April, when anxiety about these elections began to heat up.  While in Psalm 2, God declares “As for me, I have set my King on Zion, my holy hill,” where He laughs at the kings and rulers of the world who stand against Him, that declaration may be harder to take when events don’t appear to go our way.  Psalm 3, “A Psalm of David, when he fled from Absalom his son,” follows, and I don’t think it’s an accident because it records God’s king at the time, David, lamenting about being chased from power by his own son.  The story may provide comfort when things don’t look to be going God’s way here on earth.

Absalom’s Rebellion
The story of King David in the Bible is a very condensed version of his life but does not shy away from David’s serious failures and flaws.  The story of his adulterous relationship with Bathsheba is not swept under the rug, and eventually, Absalom’s rebellion against his father David was justified in his mind by those flaws.  Absalom harbored resentment for years after David’s lack of punishment for Absalom’s brother Amnon, who raped his sister Tamar.  One can imagine Absalom thinking about his father: “You’re the king of Israel, so why didn’t you protect Tamar, or at least punish Amnon?  If my sister and I don’t get justice, you don’t deserve to be king!”

David, on the other hand, was quite aware of the limits of being king.  In Psalm 131:1, David wrote:

O LORD, my heart is not lifted up;
            my eyes are not raised too high;
I do not occupy myself with things
            too great and too marvelous for me.

Even while writing as divinely selected king of Israel, David knew many things were “too great and too marvelous” even for him.  Instead, David focused his heart on the God-given task before him, which did not include achieving perfection in this world.  That task belonged elsewhere.  Later, Psalm 131 was included in the Psalms (or Songs) of Ascent[1], which served as a liturgy for pilgrims traveling to Jerusalem for the three annual festivals.  In those Psalms are reminders of God’s provision for things the world can’t provide, including salvation for our souls and a way to perfect righteousness.  The pilgrims did not go to Jerusalem to worship the earthly king, but to encounter God, and including Psalm 131 in that liturgy would always be a reminder that our worldly aims should always be rooted in humility.

When Absalom raised several hundred supporters and entered Jerusalem to violently overthrow his father David, “a messenger came to David, saying, ‘The hearts of the men of Israel have gone after Absalom.’ Then David said to all his servants who were with him at Jerusalem, ‘Arise, and let us flee, or else there will be no escape for us from Absalom. Go quickly, lest he overtake us quickly and bring down ruin on us and strike the city with the edge of the sword.’”  (2 Samuel 15:13-14)

David’s Response
After surrendering the throne and fleeing, David wrote Psalm 3, “A Psalm of David, when he fled from Absalom his son,” which says in full:

“O LORD, how many are my foes!
            Many are rising against me;
many are saying of my soul,
            “There is no salvation for him in God.” Selah
But you, O LORD, are a shield about me,
            my glory, and the lifter of my head.
I cried aloud to the LORD,
            and he answered me from his holy hill. Selah
I lay down and slept;
            I woke again, for the LORD sustained me.
I will not be afraid of many thousands of people
            who have set themselves against me all around.
Arise, O LORD!
            Save me, O my God!
For you strike all my enemies on the cheek;
            you break the teeth of the wicked.
Salvation belongs to the LORD;
            your blessing be on your people! Selah”

Knowing the background of this Psalm and its placement after Psalm 2 make it far more interesting.  David had suffered a massive political defeat, being humiliated and tossed out of Jerusalem by his own son.  Instead of despairing, he turned to God for his salvation because he knew even the king of Israel could not save the people.  He was only a temporary and provincial authority.  Even though God had promised David the throne, God was able to save David, and Israel, without David on the throne.  With the murderous and vengeful Absalom on the throne, was God defeated?  No, instead we have this Psalm as a reminder of God’s presence and provision of salvation in spite of whatever situation we find ourselves in.

David, having cultivated over years an awareness of his own limitations as king of Israel, and the limitless power of God, “lay down and slept,” then “woke again, for the LORD sustained me.”  Surrounded by foes and removed from his throne, David slept soundly!  In contrast, Absalom broods upon every imperfection, plotting ways to force justice as he sees it on others, even if he must dishonor God.  You could say he is driven by a belief in a government that can solve all of our problems and shouldn’t rest until it does.

Jesus was not our midterm ballots, but flawed candidates of many types were.  Some more like David, and some more like Absalom.  A lesson from Psalm 3 is that we should be able to sleep at night in good conscience because no matter what the world looks like, God says “I have set my King on Zion, my holy hill” (Psalm 2:6) even when king David was on the run for his life.

The success of God’s plan does not rely on our political success. “Salvation belongs to the LORD” and He deserves our vote every time.

[1] I’m currently writing about those Psalms in a series, which began here.

A Wonderful Counselor: What We Need For Christmas…Part 2

According to James Boice (see last post in the series), if you asked people to honestly describe their needs, they might describe one as: “We have minds. So we have a need to know things rightly, to understand. We need wisdom.”  In Isaiah 9:6, Jesus, the Christ of Christmas, is described as our Wonderful Counselor, who meets our need for wisdom.

But what is wisdom?  Wisdom is about taking the right action, not about being book smart, or accumulating facts.  You don’t need to be brilliant to have wisdom.  Wisdom looks forward.  It is proactive and specific to you.  Nobody else’s situation is your situation, and nobody else has the same history, relationships, abilities, and resources. Your path is your own.

Why do we need wisdom?  Because our inner conscience is not one, clear voice with the right answer.  It is a jumble of influences and desires, which I’ve described as a multi-voiced “Moral GPS.” How do you even choose from among your own wants?  Everyone is limited by time and resources.  Also, what if your wants conflict with each other?  “I love junk food, but I want to be healthy.”  Also, how do you decide what is “good” to do?  Who decides what is “harmful”?  What if someone else’s desires harm you?  Can you tell them their desires are wrong, or even disagree on what “harm” is, in a world where everyone just lives by their own messy conscience?[1]

We are never truly free.  Absolute freedom is not good, or even possible, and therefore we need a reliable filter and that is what wisdom is.  Wisdom enables us to choose the best possible path from among the many choices before us.  This is especially tricky as multiple paths may look “true” or “best” to us, and most paths have ripple effects we can’t possibly anticipate.  In our world information is more readily available than ever before, but many people just seem more overwhelmed by it all.

Only someone who knows us perfectly, who knows every possible consequence of our choices on us and on others, and who loves us with our best interests in mind is qualified to be our Wonderful Counselor and worthy of our trust.  Others can provide incomplete guidance – parents, teachers, ministers, writers, philosophers – but each of these also needs its own filter.

In the gift of Jesus as Wonderful Counselor we can satisfy one of our deepest needs: “To know the truth! Jesus Christ is the truth, and he is for us a Wonderful Counselor.” (Boice)

Photo by JESHOOTS.COM on Unsplash

As God, He has no gaps in his knowledge or biases and therefore His words to us are not an inadequate abstraction or wishful thinking.  He alone is perfectly trustworthy.  He does not want to scold or punish you, but to guide you in perfect wisdom that only He can provide.  He does not magically tell you everywhere to go, holding up signs, but desires a relationship.  To walk with you and guide you to life eternal. He wants us to invite Him into our lives, and He is Wonderful.

This is the first gift of Christ in Christmas.

[1] Keller, Timothy.  Making Sense of God (2016).  This paragraph draws from Chapter 5.

What We Need for Christmas…Part 1

What do we need for Christmas? We think a lot about what we want, but what do we really need?

James Montgomery Boice, former pastor of Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, says:

“Suppose…that we should conduct an opinion poll to find out what men and women feel they most need. Suppose we should ask, ‘What do you feel are your greatest needs?’
‘Well,’ people would say, ‘we have minds. So we have a need to know things rightly, to understand. We need wisdom. We also have wills, and because we have wills, we want to achieve something. We want our lives to make a difference. To do that we need power. We are also individuals, but we sense that we are not meant to be alone. We want to belong somewhere. We need satisfying relationships. We are also conscious of having done wrong things. We need to be forgiven. We need somebody to deal with our guilt. Isn’t that what we would find if we should poll people and analyze their basic experiences? Aren’t those the things we really need?”[1]

Photo by Tina Vanhove on Unsplash

Whatever mess we find ourselves and the world in, Christmas is a reminder that God has not given up on us and on the world.  Boice quotes from Isaiah 9:6, a prophecy from around 700 BC concerning the Christ we celebrate each Christmas:
“And his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor,
Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”

To meet our deepest, most significant needs, this Christ is provided for us.  Over the coming weekends until Christmas, I’ll be posting Christmas messages inspired by Boice’s framework about each of these 4 names, and how they are “the greatest gifts that anybody can give or we can have, and they are all in Jesus.”[2]  They are better than anything under your tree (or lost in the supply chain until after Christmas) and were delivered over 2,000 years ago.  Therefore, you can receive and open them at any time!

[1] From “May 10.” James Montgomery Boice and Marion Clark. Come to the Waters: Daily Bible Devotions for Spiritual Refreshment.  (2017).
[2] Ibid.

Help! There’s a Log in My Eye! (Part 2)

Dear fellow travelers,

Yesterday’s post started to discuss Jesus’ words in Matthew 7:3-5 – “Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?  Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye?  You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.

Jesus was telling His followers that they should help each other move closer to God, but only to remove specks from others’ eyes after dealing with their own logs.  The first lesson, covered yesterday, was to make sure our motive is right.  The second (today’s topic) is to learn from our own experience fighting the logs in our own eyes.  When I think about these logs, and really try to remove them, I realize it’s a lot harder than I might assume about specks in other people’s eyes.

First, being told I have a log in my eye might be counterproductive.  The hardest logs to get rid of are the ones we already know are wrong, and possibly because we know they are wrong.  Paul gives an example in Romans 7:7b-8a, saying “For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, ‘You shall not covet.’  But sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness.”  Being told my log is a sin isn’t necessarily going to get it out of my eye.  It might make things worse.

Second, the most stubborn logs might be there because I’ve decided, at least subconsciously, that I am better off with the log than I am without it.  Until we are perfected in heaven, part of us wants to listen to “the woman Folly,” who cries out that “Stolen water is sweet, and bread eaten in secret is pleasant” in Proverbs 9:17.  Even though Wisdom offered a feast of meat and wine in Proverbs 9:2, our flesh is drawn to the bread and water because they are “stolen” in “secret.”  Whatever “bad” the log does to me, I sometimes prefer it to the “good” represented by the alternative.    Being told my log is bad for me might not overcome that.

Third, I know that Jesus said, “You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye,” and I’m tempted to think the log in other people’s eyes give them no right to be judgmental.  As noted yesterday, for some, the lesson of Jesus’ words is about how to identify a hypocrite.  For others, the lesson may be that people should mind their own business.  Of course, once I think that, I’m trying to remove a speck from their eye, judging them and saying their behavior should be changed.  Maybe in writing this, I’m being judgmental myself.  Avoiding being judgmental is perhaps the hardest thing for a person to do, while graciously accepting the imperfect love of a brother can sometimes be harder.

Who do you trust with your eyes? Photo by Brands&People on Unsplash

So, what’s the solution?  There may not be a magic formula, but in examining our own logs, we learn to approach others in loving service, not judgment, understanding what Paul said at the beginning of 1 Corinthians 10:13, that “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man.”    Fighting sin is hard.  For all of us.  It requires overcoming our natural response to rules, requires trust that His way is better than ours (proof isn’t always possible), and requires relationships that nurture meaningful involvement – even around the parts of our lives that, like our eyes, we fiercely protect.  We won’t often let anyone near the speck in our eye who hasn’t proven their love by tangible acts.  People can tell when (or imagine that) our motivation is our own anxiety, envy, or anger.

Me First (Redux)
Immediately after the version of the speck and log story in Luke’s gospel, Luke records Jesus saying: “For no good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit, for each tree is known by its own fruit. For figs are not gathered from thornbushes, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush.  The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.[1]

I believe Luke puts this here because removing our own logs makes us more like a good tree that can produce good fruit.  Only by knowing and relying on God can we approach the specks in our brother’s eyes inspired by grace not legalism, concern not unwelcome intrusiveness, and love not judgment.

God, the only righteous judge, forgave us our sins by taking the judgment we deserved upon Himself on the cross.  Instead of fretting over evildoers, He sought to save them.  Knowing our Lord and how He approaches us in our sin as our Savior helps us see more clearly to help our brothers remove the specks from their eyes.  Only He can heal us, but sometimes He wants us to participate in His work.

“…first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.

[1] Luke 6:43-45

Help! There’s a Log in My Eye! (Part 1)

Until we get to heaven, none of us can fully understand what God is telling us in the Bible, but I believe one particularly tricky passage is this one: “Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?  Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye?  You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.” – Matthew 7:3-5

For some, the lesson is about how to identify a hypocrite.  For others, the lesson may be that people should mind their own business.  Some might think it has applications for the church’s role toward the sinners of the world.

While there might be good points to be made about those lessons, here I want to focus on what Jesus told those listening to actually do: 1) “take the log out of your own eye,” and 2) “take the speck out of your brother’s eye.”  Jesus is definitely not saying His people should always ignore every speck and log.  His mission is to make His church holy, and we participate in that work.  Christians are supposed to help each other move closer to God.  However, there are right ways, and very wrong ways, to remove specks and logs.  He says do (1), then only do (2) afterward.

When saying “first take the log out of your own eye,” I think Jesus is offering two bits of advice.  First, be more concerned about your own sin first before dealing with the sin of others.  Second, take what you learn about overcoming your own logs of sin and apply it to ministering to others with their specks.  The cure for hypocrisy here is not to do nothing about the brother’s speck.  It is to remove our own log first, so we “will see clearly.”

This is a huge topic, but today’s post will briefly cover the first point, and tomorrows will cover the second point.  There’s definitely a lot more that has been, and can be, said.

Me First
By focusing on our own problems first, we might avoid three problems, the first being putting ourselves through endless anxiety about the sins of the world.  Psalm 37:1 advises “Fret not yourself because of evildoers; be not envious of wrongdoers!”  When God chose to love the world, He did so knowing that the world contained nothing but evildoers, and therefore advises not to fret about evil.  He has a plan, and that plan is not that we need to address or fix every problem.

Later in the same Psalm, verse 8 advises: “Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath! Fret not yourself; it tends only to evil.”  This means that fretting over the sins of others leads us to wrong emotions and motives, particularly envy and wrath.  Referring back to verse 1, “be not envious of wrongdoers”, because we may be tempted to participate in their wrongdoing.  If we think they’ve done well by sinning, and that there was no negative consequence, we might persuade ourselves to join in out of envy for their “success”.  So, we add the speck in their eye to the log in our own, and everyone is worse off.

Third, if we see that wrongdoers are not punished, and are frustrated by it, we can be tempted to take it into our own hands to “correct” their situation by removing their speck.  In this case, we’re motivated by wrath, instead of a loving desire to do the best for our brother.  Also, others might see that we did this, got away with it, and be tempted to join in (envy again?), and so these 2nd and 3rd points can become a vicious cultural cycle within a community of believers.

In another post, The Desires He Delights to Give, I wrote about verses 4-6 of Psalm 37 and it would a good read for context here, but the summary is that when we seek to please God, we will learn to be less anxious about evildoers, and also feel less envy and wrath.

So, Jesus’ first advice before removing a speck from someone else’s eye seems to be to make sure we have the right motive – love.  Tomorrow, part 2 will briefly talk about how hard it is to remove the real logs in our own eyes.