Jesus is Patient and Kind Even When I am Not

Jesus is patient and kind; Jesus does not envy or boast; Jesus is not arrogant or rude. Jesus does not insist on His own way; He is not irritable or resentful; He does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Jesus bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Knowing the love Jesus has for us is an encouraging thought. This paraphrase of 1 Corinthians 13:4-8 was suggested in a devotional I read last year[1] for John 13:34 – “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.”  James Montgomery Boice said that we are not to “love” in any way we see fit, but as Jesus loved, which the above describes.

Based on John 13:34, Boice says we should be able to substitute “I” in place of “Jesus” and see what He commands us to be.  When I re-read the first paragraph with myself in mind, I see how much I fall short, but His love for me remains an encouragement.  He will be patient and kind with me.

Pray that we may get ever closer to living the love of Jesus.

[1] From “August 30.” James Montgomery Boice and Marion Clark. Come to the Waters: Daily Bible Devotions for Spiritual Refreshment.  (2017).

When You’re Stuck in Second Gear – Blessed are the Meek #4

Everybody struggles with maintaining hope in tough times, and also with knowing and doing God’s will when what we feel is right seems irrelevant.  Today I’m going to cover a story of how the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah struggled to understand an idea God gave him to share hope with future generations, including us.  The story also loosely follows the outline of the first three Beatitudes and therefore fits in the “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth” series.

If misunderstood, the first two Beatitudes alone can leave us in a place where we’re a mess and the world is a terrible place and there’s nothing we can do about any of it.  It can be a place of depression and despair.  Like in the theme song from the TV show Friends[1], we feel like “It hasn’t been your day, your week, your month, or even your year.”  Where does it end?  But God promises that there is work for each of us to do: “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” (Ephesians 2:10) The third Beatitude, “Blessed are the meek” promises a way forward – for every person in their own way to do whatever He has prepared for them.

The Gearbox of the Beatitudes
As I wrote in the first post on “Blessed are those who mourn” I believe the Beatitudes are an intentional sequence, and here I’ll describe better what I mean.  The Beatitudes are not a chronological path we move through as we mature.  We don’t learn to be fully poor in spirit before we can get any better at mourning or being meek.  The picture is more like gears in a machine that all need to work together for the machine to function in each specific situation.  Weakness in one place affects the entire machine and Jesus was explaining specific parts of becoming more like Him.  God, as our maker, knows how we function, the reasons behind when we fail to function, and the solution.  With the Beatitudes, Jesus encourages us to use the machine for what it was made for – loving God and neighbor in all times and circumstances.  First, being poor in spirit means that we have emptied ourselves of all illusions that our plans are better than God’s.  Second, mourning the state of ourselves and our world means we are emotionally engaged.  That we care.  In the third Beatitude, being meek is where we begin to engage our will, submitting it to God as our benevolent Lord.  If we don’t, “it’s like you’re always stuck in second gear” from the Friends theme song.

The story today (from Jeremiah 32) finds Jeremiah stuck.  The Jews had him imprisoned for speaking the words of their own God, and while he was there, God told him that he should buy a field.  Not only was Jeremiah in prison, but the field he was asked to buy was in enemy territory.  The Babylonians had already conquered much of Judah and were besieging Jerusalem.  Surrounded by despair, we can easily imagine Jeremiah asking: what good will it do?  He might think cutting off Nebuchadnezzar’s ear would be a better idea[2].

Jeremiah Inspects the Gears
As readers of the book of Jeremiah, we are doubly blessed to know that he did buy the field, but also that he recorded his prayer to God as he tried to overcome his reservations.  The prayer is in chapter 32, verses 17-25, and loosely reviews the first two Beatitudes, while he is having trouble engaging the third gear of meekness.  His mind and emotions are engaged, but his will hesitates.

First, Jeremiah reviews the power, character, and history of God to remind him to rely on His Spirit, not on the poverty of his own spirit in verses 17 to 23:

“‘Ah, Lord GOD! It is you who have made the heavens and the earth by your great power and by your outstretched arm! Nothing is too hard for you.  You show steadfast love to thousands, but you repay the guilt of fathers to their children after them, O great and mighty God, whose name is the LORD of hosts, great in counsel and mighty in deed, whose eyes are open to all the ways of the children of man, rewarding each one according to his ways and according to the fruit of his deeds. You have shown signs and wonders in the land of Egypt, and to this day in Israel and among all mankind, and have made a name for yourself, as at this day.  You brought your people Israel out of the land of Egypt with signs and wonders, with a strong hand and outstretched arm, and with great terror.  And you gave them this land, which you swore to their fathers to give them, a land flowing with milk and honey.  And they entered and took possession of it.

Second, Jeremiah mourns the consequences of Judah’s disobedience starting in the middle of verse 23 through verse 24:

But they did not obey your voice or walk in your law. They did nothing of all you commanded them to do. Therefore you have made all this disaster come upon them.  Behold, the siege mounds have come up to the city to take it, and because of sword and famine and pestilence the city is given into the hands of the Chaldeans who are fighting against it. What you spoke has come to pass, and behold, you see it.

Yet the prayer closes with Jeremiah doubting the significance of his own obedience in verse 25:

Yet you, O Lord GOD, have said to me, “Buy the field for money and get witnesses”—though the city is given into the hands of the Chaldeans.

In a book where the main theme is (temporary and partial) judgment on God’s people who had turned away from Him, there are also moments of (eternal) hope.  Jeremiah bought the field – to show God’s people that their exile would be temporary, and their eternal hope was secure. As the Beatitude says, the meek “shall inherit the earth“!   But there are also two notes of hope for us living centuries later: 1) that doubt is not something only “weak” Christians feel.  Jeremiah felt it too.  And 2) that encouragement matters, even if we see it as a meaningless drop in a turbulent ocean.  If God calls us to do it, it is meaningful.  For a lot of people “It hasn’t been their day, their week, their month, or even their year.”  As I write, the Covid-19 pandemic isn’t quite over and many are struggling to return to “normal,” which isn’t what it used to be.  To quote an old friend of mine in a recent Facebook post: “Encouragement. Everyone needs it, and we hardly ever share it. Don’t wait. Spread the love!”

If you still find yourself stuck, hesitant to shine God’s light in the darkness, go before God and follow the pattern of Jeremiah’s prayer – remember the power of His Spirit when yours is weak and the significance of obedience even in small things.  You might find not only yourself getting out of second gear, but also helping someone else move beyond a rut they’ve found themselves in.

Let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” – Hebrews 10:25

This post continues a series on the Beatitudes. To start at the beginning, click here.

[1] “I’ll Be There For You” by The Rembrandts (audio here)
[2] See the post “He Who Sits in the Heavens Laughs (Part 2)” for more on the growth in the Apostle Peter from cutting off Malchus’ ear to teaching “So put away all malice and all deceit and hypocrisy and envy and all slander.” (1 Peter 2:1)

The Benevolent Incarnation – Blessed are the Meek #2

And the LORD commanded us to do all these statutes, to fear the LORD our God, for our good always, that he might preserve us alive, as we are this day.” – Deuteronomy 6:24
I am the LORD; that is my name; my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to carved idols.” – Isaiah 42:8

In part 1 on Jesus’ statement that “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:5), I wrote about one of my favorite movies, The Matrix, and how Agent Smith thought mankind stinks and he only wants them to obey his rules so he can be left alone.  Also in that movie, Neo fights to free mankind from rules so they can be “free” even if that freedom does nothing to address that they stink.  Agent Smith was the “malevolent incarnation,” and Neo the “ambivalent incarnation.”

By now you probably anticipated that Jesus is the “benevolent incarnation,” but to show what that means we return to the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead (last discussed in detail here).  A messenger came to Jesus telling Him that Lazarus was ill, but instead of returning to Bethany immediately to help, Jesus intentionally delayed in coming until Lazarus had been dead for four days.  Jesus knew all along that He would immediately raise Lazarus, but nobody else knew that and He found everyone in mourning.  Martha heard Jesus’ hints but thought Lazarus would have a future “resurrection on the last day.”[1]

Then, one of my favorite verses in the Bible: “Jesus said, ‘Take away the stone.’ Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, ‘Lord, by this time there will be an odor, for he has been dead four days.” – John 11:39

In this one exchange we see the contrast of Jesus to both Agent Smith and to Neo:

  • The odor does not keep Jesus from loving His people.  He does not even comment on it but responds “Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?”[2]  He did not become human to tell us we stink and how he can’t stand being with us, as Agent Smith did.  He was willing to live among us in order to bring us to a better place, to be with Him.
  • His rule is for the good of Lazarus, Martha, all the witnesses to this event, and everyone hearing the story today.  When Jesus tells Martha to move the stone, He isn’t bullying her or oppressing her, but He is giving her a command.  For Lazarus to come out of the tomb the stone needs to be moved, and Jesus is asking her to participate in a good work.  Likewise, Jesus asks us to do many things, some listed explicitly in the Bible and others spoken to our conscience.  All these rules are there to generate good works, as all His rules are expressions of “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind”, and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”[3]  Therefore He is being neither malevolent nor ambivalent.  As a benevolent God, Jesus cares about what we do because He knows what is good and bad for us.  Unless we agree with what He knows is good and bad, we are actively rejecting the cure for our odor, the Christ who is “the resurrection and the life.”[4]
  • His rule brings Him glory, and Him alone.  Jesus delayed in coming to raise Lazarus specifically “so that the Son of God may be glorified through it[5]  The entire situation was set up to deliver the lesson that as our Creator and Lord, He deserves all the credit.

In the opening verses, we see that His rules are “for our good always” (Deuteronomy 6:24), and also that He says, “my glory I give to no other” (Isaiah 42:8).  In my church, prayers often end with “for our good and your glory, Amen.”  I find that it’s often harder to give up the glory than it is to realize which path is the right one.  But as I wrote in the last post of the series, “the value of meekness depends on who or what you are meek towards.”  So giving Him the glory is just awareness that we are meek because He is worthy of our meekness.

Winning the Lottery
I’ll close with one illustration: Would you rather have someone deliver tomorrow’s newspaper to you with the winning lottery numbers, or would you rather work eternally on a system to try and predict them but never win?  Rejecting God’s truth and trying to make our own is like choosing the second option.  I too often would rather get credit for losing than win but not get credit for it, and I suspect I’m not the only one.  Picking the second option has replaced God in the hearts of many, from the inscription across the Pantheon in Rome, a temple to the many gods they claimed to serve (“M AGRIPPA L F COS TERTIVM FECIT”, which loosely means “Marcus Agrippa built this”[6]) to Frank Sinatra’s “I Did It My Way” or Bon Jovi’s “It’s My Life.”

If we accept that Jesus is our God, that He is benevolent and that His rule is for our good and His glory, then we win the best prize every time – eternal life in a perfect world.  Every sacrifice we make is worth it, and we end up being the person we were created to be, full of joy and peace and love.  If we choose a malevolent or ambivalent lord to follow, not only do we lose the prize, but we have to take the credit for losing it.  These ‘lords’ often don’t even claim to have the prize, just abstractions like “freedom” or “order.”  In Jesus, the winning lottery ticket has been offered to us all along, but we didn’t want to admit where we got it from, or that its prize was more important than what we thought we wanted.

This post continues a series on the Beatitudes. To start at the beginning, click here, and for the next post click here

[1] John 11:24
[2] John 11:40
[3] From Matthew 22:37 and 39
[4] John 11:25
[5] John 11:4b
[6] When I visited Rome in 2003, I learned that the Catholic Church, when building St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, removed the gold from above the entrance to the Parthenon and used it in the Basilica.  Only exposed, rotten wood planks remain where the gold was removed.  While St. Peter’s drive the Protestant Reformation since it was largely funded with the ‘indulgences’ that launched Martin Luther’s protest, the transfer of this gold was an obvious rebuke to the pantheism of the old Roman Empire.

Malevolent and Ambivalent Incarnations- Blessed are the Meek #1

The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” – Jeremiah 17:9
And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” – John 8:32

Finally, we continue the series on the Beatitudes, the opening statements from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, with Matthew 5:5 – “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.”  This one is particularly tough to write about because meekness has such a negative meaning to many people.  Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary defines meek[1] primarily as what you are not: courageous and strong.  It even references the first Beatitude accidentally, saying that being meek is being “deficient in spirit.”  But as we saw in Matthew 5:3, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.”  The dictionary gives an example of “a meek child dominated by his brothers.”  A good way to start this series on “Blessed are the meek” comes from one of my favorite movies, but unfortunately one which has little to do with Christian truth.

The Malevolent Incarnation
In The Matrix, humanity has been imprisoned inside a computer simulation by artificially intelligent machines.  A group of rebels are fighting within and without the simulation to free humanity, and the machines created super-powered Agents to track down and destroy rebels within the Matrix, which is what the simulated world is called.  These Agents hate the Matrix, which to humanity is their “real” world.  Hugo Weaving plays Agent Smith, the main Agent in the story, who says:

“I hate this place. This zoo. This prison. This reality, whatever you want to call it, I can’t stand it any longer. It’s the smell, if there is such a thing. I feel saturated by it. I can taste your stink and every time I do, I fear that I’ve somehow been infected by it. It’s — it’s repulsive! Isn’t it? I must get out of here. I must get free…”

Agent Smith is a “Malevolent Incarnation,” an artificial intelligence who took on human form to represent the rulers of the Matrix, and his job was to make sure humanity stayed enslaved, which required brutally suppressing any rebellion.  What Smith couldn’t stand however was “the smell”!  His biggest motivation was to get the rebels in line so he could leave the world behind.  Agent Smith’s objective was to keep mankind imprisoned in a set of rules.

The Ambivalent Incarnation
Set against Agent Smith in the story is Neo, played by Keanu Reeves (“whoa!”), who wants to liberate mankind from rules altogether.  At the end of the movie, he says to the rulers of the Matrix: “I’m going to show them a world without you. A world without rules and controls, without borders or boundaries. A world where anything is possible.”  The contrast of these characters is a thinly veiled expression of atheistic Marxism, which argues that rules (particularly religious ones) exist only as an expression of power, particularly the power of “oppressors” which must be overthrown.

It’s no wonder why meekness has a negative association for many people, if authority figures are portrayed as malevolent oppressors, and our heroes are ambivalent, requiring nothing of us, so we can avoid being meek, pursuing whatever we want (even if it leaves an odor).  It is also undeniable that many rulers throughout history, including religious ones, have been malevolent.  Therefore, freedom good; rules bad.  Simple.

But it’s not that simple.  When Neo destroys Agent Smith in the end, the audience cheers, but if Neo is the hero of a “world without rules”, where does his authority over Agent Smith come from?  Agent Smith should be Exhibit A that letting everyone live as they please leads directly to oppression by the powerful, because this ethic does nothing to cure self-interest.  It only encourages it.  Under Neo’s “world without rules,” who rules Agent Smith?  He rules himself, and as we know, he hates all of mankind.  Also, what if Neo turns into a malevolent oppressor?  His own ethical system does nothing to stop him, and he’s more powerful than everyone else.  In the famous Latin phrase: Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?  Who watches the watchmen?

Wonderful Counselor Redux
Merriam-Webster thinks being meek is undeniably a negative, but in reality, the value of meekness depends on who or what you are meek towards.  Do we often think about or realize who or what is guiding us?  We all submit to something, even if it’s our own desires, but is the thing we’re submitting to malevolent, ambivalent, or benevolent?  In my recent Christmas series, I wrote about Jesus as Wonderful Counselor (here).  I encourage you to read that if you have not already, or even read it again, because we are blessed by God through meekness because He is Wonderful. This series will expand on that post.

This post continues a series on the Beatitudes. To start at the beginning, click here, and for the next post click here


Poor in Spirit #3: Give Up Your Lists

Today is part 3 of a Monday-Friday series on the first Beatitude from Matthew 5:3 – “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”  Monday covered how the statement could make both the “proud” and the “ashamed” humble and be blessed by God.  Tuesday was about the rich young man who was fully set on earning his own salvation to see that it was impossible, all while Christ was right before him, loving him.

Today begins with Luke 18:10-14 –
“Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.  The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.  I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’  But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’  I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

Similar to Monday’s post, this passage is a rebuke to the proud, while comforting the ashamed, which is made clear at the end of the verses.  This passage also plays on stereotypes of the Pharisee as one who would have been perceived as religiously superior, versus the tax collector, who was under the ban, or that time period’s rabbinic version of excommunication[1].  At the end of the first sentence, the audience would have been expecting the Pharisee to pray well – after all, they were the “experts.”  But as an “expert” in the law, the Pharisee prays (and thinks) in terms of lists of good things and lists of bad things.  As a result, he is able to credit himself with all good things and the tax collector with all bad things.

The only way to manage this level of pride in spiritual accomplishment is to narrow down your list of “sins” to “things that other people do.”  He also excluded more subtle or internal manifestations of sin from his lists.  For example, at other times, Jesus said Pharisees “devour widow’s houses,”[2] which may have been a form of extortion.  Also, in his heart he may have been unjust and an adulterer just by making this prayer.  God’s justice on the tax collector was poured out on Jesus – who was this Pharisee to say who that justice applied to?  Also, in over-emphasizing the law, the Pharisee was “cheating” on God by idolizing the law as a way to salvation.

By narrowing the list of sins to “what others do,” and reducing those sins to the external evidence of them, rather than the heart level, this Pharisee blinded himself to his own need, and therefore missed the blessing.  The only way to feel rich in spirit before God is to lower the standard, or to humbly accept Christ’s righteousness in place of your own.

King David in Psalm 51, writing of his repentance after committing adultery with Bathsheba and having her husband Uriah killed, declares in verses 16-17:

“For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it;
            you will not be pleased with a burnt offering.
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
            a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”

This broken spirit and contrite heart recall the first Beatitude’s promise of blessing and the ability to follow God’s will, which David prayed for back in verse 12 of Psalm 51:

“Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
            and uphold me with a willing spirit.”

We can’t have a record of our sins and the sins of others if we want to receive God’s blessing.  Doing so is only likely to destroy our ability to love those who God loves and to whom He offers His grace, including ourselves.  We are poor in spirit, but we only realize it when focusing on Him, and we only are blessed when we decide His standard and opinion are the ones that matter.  If we are Christians, the standard is Christ and through our adoption as children of God, He sees Christ’s righteousness when He gives His opinion of us.

Humbly knowing this, we can go to our house justified, and in eternity be exalted by Him, the only one we should compare ourselves to and the only one whose judgement matters.  For now, it will enable us to love God and love others as we love ourselves.

To find love and joy, give up your lists and replace them with Christ.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” – Matthew 5:3

This post continues a series on the Beatitudes. To start at the beginning, click here, and for the next post click here

[1] See an earlier post, Found! A Man in Need of an Ally, for an explanation of the ban as applied to tax collectors, and for Jesus’ striking decision to forgive Zacchaeus, a chief tax collector.
[2] Mark 12:40; Luke 20:47