“Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men . . . It is the Lord Christ you are serving.” Colossians 4:23, 24
If you’ve heard enough church sermons, maybe you’ve run into the joke about the man who was caught in a horrible flood, and found himself on the top of his roof, looking down at the water lapping his feet.
“Oh God,” he prayed. “Save me!”
Just then a man approached in a canoe. “Get in!” he called.
“Oh, no thank you,” the man on the roof called back. “I have prayed and God will send me help.”
“Okay,” the other shrugged.
Shortly afterwards a man floated by in a makeshift raft, and again invited the stranded homeowner in. Same answer — God would provide.
The third time it was a leaky rowboat, and for the third time, the man on the roof opted to wait — only by this time the water was up around his chest. Shortly thereafter, it engulfed and drowned him, and the man found himself in heaven before God.
“I prayed to you!” the man said in confusion, “but you never answered.”
“Yes, I did,” God replied. “I sent you a canoe, a raft, and a rowboat, and you said no to each one of them.”
Sometimes, when we pray to God about a situation — our job, our marriage, our health, our family, our future, our hopes and dreams — it seems like He sends us a leaky rowboat — and I think He does, actually. While all we can see is the water in the bottom that needs to be bailed out, the single oar, and the lackluster appearance of the life preserver, it’s easy to forget that the boat, though it’s ratty and ugly, does manage to fulfill the one major function of a boat: it transports us through water.
It won’t do it comfortably, it won’t do it with any modicum of style or coolness, and it probably won’t do it easily, but when our primary objective is to get off the roof and not drown, all we really need is something that floats.
I was reminded of this recently as we negotiated a delicate situation that, ideally, would be resolved perfectly and well — in praying for the answer, I had it clear in my mind just what that answer should be. The major problem, however, was that achieving the perfect result was out of my hands. All I could see, six inches in front of my face, was one small thing that I could do:
One, small, insignificant thing, but the best thing about this thing is that it was, indeed, something I could do. So, I did it.
And then, as I got into the boat and steadied my balance from tipping, I saw a second small, insignificant thing — which grew out of the actions of the first — that I could do. So I grabbed the one oar, since it was better than nothing, and did that second small, insignificant thing.
It goes on — a second action leads to a third, a third to a fourth, and at some point you realize, though your feet are wet because there’s always water in the bottom of the boat — which you keep bailing out with the bent-up tin can you found under the seat — you’re still afloat, and the current is taking you somewhere.
“Oh, God — I Wish Things Would Work out!”
The problem remains alive and well, just looking different because you’ve done whatever little thing you were given to do regarding it, and while you still dream about a king-sized suite in a private yacht with an experienced captain and a working motor, you do acknowledge that you’re no longer on the roof. Indeed, you’re so far away from the roof that it’s no longer visible.
Over the last several days, I have interacted with three separate people, facing three completely divergent, significant issues in their lives, who sighed,
“I just wish things would work out the way I wish they would!”
Oh, I hear that. I do, do hear that.
But at the same point, I know — from experience — that waiting, especially, is part of the job description, and that as members of our Father’s household, it is an indispensable part of what He asks us to do, as we go about working for Him, and the kingdom of heaven.
When we pray, He does answer. But because it so very rarely looks the way we humanly expect it to, it is tempting to turn our backs on the rowboat. And while the boat is not really what we want, and it doesn’t look like it will take us anywhere, our objections to it aren’t strong enough to preclude our getting in.
We are asked to do nothing more than accomplish what is set before us, and the more insignificant and unimportant the task is — in comparison to the big requests we are making — the harder this is to do.
But the encouraging news is this: that’s all we have to do, just the stuff set before us. And while it is frustratingly insignificant and so far from the mighty work that we are looking for, we “work at it with all our heart, as working for the Lord, not men, (because) . . . it is the Lord Christ we are serving.”
He took five loaves and two fish to feed thousands.
Thank you for joining me at Commonsense Christianity, where I encourage you, in facing an insurmountable issue, to leave it in the hands of the Person who is bigger than your problem.
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“When Jesus saw their faith, he said, ‘Friend, your sins are forgiven.’ “ (Luke 5:21)
Jesus Heals a Paralytic.
This is the chapter heading that one of my Bibles (NIV Study, 1985) uses to describe passages in Mark 2:1-12 and Luke 5:17-26, in which a determined group of men, unable to access Jesus through the crowds, climbs up on the roof, digs through the tiles, and lowers a paralyzed man, on his bed, down to Jesus.
We don’t know if the men were friends — although this level of trouble and activity is something we associate with people who care about one another — but what we do know is that,
“When Jesus saw their faith, he said, ‘Friend, your sins are forgiven.’ “
Because of their faith (plural, indicating the men at minimum, possibly the paralyzed man as well) he (singular, the paralyzed man) was forgiven of his sins — an intriguing incongruity to contemporary politico-Christian doctrine which avers that the only way to be saved and have our sins forgiven is to say the Sinner’s Prayer, or repeat the Four Spiritual Laws.
Interestingly, the politico-religious element in the room at that time — “Pharisees and teachers of the law, who had come from every village of Galilee and from Judea and Jerusalem” — were offended by Jesus’s breach of their doctrine of the day, and they “began thinking to themselves, ‘Who is this fellow who speaks blasphemy? Who can forgive sins but God alone?’ “
Who Is He? He’s God
We, in hindsight, know exactly who this fellow was, and that He indeed has the power to forgive sins because He was, and is, God, but we, like the Pharisees, are also in danger of grumbling within our hearts, “What’s with this forgiveness thing? How could that person possibly think he is forgiven?”
In setting up rules, and doctrines, and extremely narrow parameters of determining who is, and is not, forgiven by God, we are at risk of shutting the kingdom of heaven in men’s faces, not entering ourselves, nor letting anyone else enter who are trying to. (Matthew 23:14)
Many years ago, a friend of mine committed the sin that we still rank at the top of Bad Things Women (but Not Men) do: she slept with a guy, one time, got pregnant, and didn’t abort the baby. And while she earned points from the church community she was then attending for not taking the life of the child, she was ostracized to the point of having to leave that specific religious assemblage because nobody believed that she was truly forgiven — at least, not yet.
“I approached God immediately,” she told us, “and He forgave me. But for some reason, outside people seem to think that I need to ‘go through more’ before I can be fully forgiven. But that’s between me and God, and we have worked that out.”
So it was between the paralyzed man and Jesus, who “worked things out” to the point that the very first, and most important, thing Jesus did was forgive the man’s sins.
“Why would you do that?” I asked God the first time I saw this. “From the man’s point of view, it’s more important that he walk again.”
Maybe. Maybe not.
Having spent a significant amount of time in the Christo-religious church environment, I have had it hammered into my head that true spirituality means being so overjoyed by the forgiveness of my sins and future eternal life that I am not affected by the flesh, but quite frankly, as a human being who lives in a body of flesh, I do get distracted by the physical stuff. When I’m hungry, I crave food — not the Word of God — and my spirituality battles regularly with the physical body. I’m pretty sure that this situation is not unique to me.
We Bear Our Past Sins in Our Bodies and Minds
So Jesus’s focusing on forgiving the man’s sins — to the point that the passage should be entitled, “Jesus Forgives a Man” as opposed to “Jesus Heals a Paralytic” — was baffling.
But then I started thinking, which is a primary aspect of meditation and prayer, and I realized:
“Jesus doesn’t do things randomly, nor does He play with people. He knew — whether the paralyzed man did or not — that the man needed forgiveness first, or the healing of his body would be meaningless.”
Perhaps the damage the man carried in his body was “evidence” of his sin, much in the way that rotting teeth can point to someone who has had, or still has, a meth addiction; or liver problems indicate a battle with alcoholism; or a living child — and no corresponding wedding ring — shouts out, fornication!
In other words, the results of our past behavior leave indelible marks upon us physically and/or mentally, and the very real tendency of the religious community around us is to point, and say,
“See! He’s a felon, and he committed that crime. It’s no wonder he can’t make anything of his life.”
And while that felon may have approached God in all humility and begged for — and received — forgiveness for his sins, we, like the Pharisees, are reluctant to see it happen, and every time that felon falls — and he will fall, because he is human — we say, “He’s just a felon. He’ll never be anybody.”
Yes, there are consequences for one’s actions: the apostle Peter no doubt understood this truism very well. But in dealing with those consequences, we are far more able to prevail when we realize that, when we ask God’s forgiveness, we get it. But how much it would hurt if, every time we told a little lie, or gossiped, or manipulated a situation to our advantage, someone announced, loudly,
“Look at that liar and deceiver! He’ll never be forgiven, and he doesn’t deserve to be!”
Of course he doesn’t “deserve” to be. Neither do I. Nor you. But Jesus’s words to us are,
“Friend, your sins are forgiven.”
Thank you for joining me at Commonsense Christianity, a column written by just an ordinary Christian who reads a lot, thinks a lot, prays a lot, and encourages all my brothers and sisters to do the same. For years, I was fooled into thinking that it took special credentials to speak for Christ, until I started taking a serious look at the words, and message, of some of those people with the special credentials.
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“Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” (1 Corinthians 13:12)
Yesterday, I went on a road trip with my daughter. We chatted while we drove, ate lunch in a charming city, and on the way back, my daughter napped. She ended the day with ice cream.
While this sounds like the perfect outing with an 8-year-old, I neglected to mention one salient point. My daughter (who is an adult) was getting her wisdom teeth extracted, and I was designated chauffeur. And while it’s true that we did have a lovely drive, good conversation (on the way up), and a hamburger before the procedure, my daughter slept because the pain medication kicked in, and ice cream was the only thing she could eat.
Not knowing the whole story, nor being conversant with all the facts, makes a tremendous difference in our final interpretation. This simple truth — which is well understood and applied by marketing departments in both corporate and political settings — can and is used against people to manipulate them into thinking, acting, purchasing, or believing a certain way.
Deceit Is Normal to Us
Lamentably, it is testament to the type of society in which we live that we accept this deliberate suppression of facts as normal. “It’s not deceit,” we aver. “It’s just good business (or politics, or media savvy). If you’re dumb enough to fall for it, then I guess that’s your fault.”
Well, the deliberate leaving out of information, with the intent to mis-guide someone’s interpretation of the facts, is clever, cunning, brilliant, and quite effective. It is not, however, Christian — and that many Christians accept it as normal (even within “Christian” establishments) should make us question our slavish belief that we, in the United States and other “progressive” western countries, live in a Christian nation.
Christ did not practice deceit. As imitators of Him, we are not called upon to practice it either.
That’s Point 1. I never can walk by our corporate-based, military-obsessed, oligarchical culture without making a comment, and given the amount of time people spend listening to other people — TV evangelists, radio talk show hosts, political commentators, politicians themselves, actors, and endless advertisements — we can’t be reminded too much that those who want to sell us something — be it a product or an idea — are not necessarily reluctant to stoop really low to do so.
Drawing Conclusions from the Facts
Now to Point Number Two, which will take me a few paragraphs until I finally articulate it, and which concerns our verse at the head of this essay, 1 Corinthians 13:12:
“Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.”
Life is full of unknowns, and for every human being breathing on the planet, the future is one great big unknown — both our future as individuals and as a community of Earth dwellers. Because we are intelligent beings capable of rational thought, unlike alligators, say, we regularly take the facts at our disposal and use them to come up with reasonable conclusions:
On an overcast, cloudy day, we grab an umbrella because the signs in the sky, as well as our own past experiences, lead us to predict that rain could happen, and while walking in a cloudburst has the potential to be romantic and definitely looks that way in the movies, it’s on the most part generally unpleasant.
Jesus Himself mentioned our ability, and inability, to process information, when he observed to the Jewish religious leaders in Matthew 16:4:
“You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times.” One factor upon another, in succession and over time, should lead us to draw reasonable conclusions, but we frequently don’t. For example, many people, upon finding out that they have been lied to — by an individual or an organization — are understandably angry, but, oddly, they frequently keep trusting and listening to the ones who have lied to them. They buy the products, they send the money, they watch the face on the screen.
It’s easier, in the short run. But it’s like going out on a ponderously grey, cloudy day in shorts and a t-shirt. We should use the information we have, as best we can, to make wise choices.
But We Don’t Have All the Facts
That being said, we are not infallible, and we do not, like God, know all (thank you for your patience, I’ve finally manged to express with some lucidity, Point Number Two). So while we do know some things about our individual lives, or our composite lives as a nation or society, we do not know everything, and our predictions of the future — which are generally dour — do not necessarily mean that this is our truth.
In other words, when things look bad and we’re tempted to despair — because we’ve lost our job, say, as an individual, or because we’re told, by the upcoming election year’s crop of hopefuls that our nation deserves and will incur the wrath of God — it’s good to remember that we don’t have all the facts, but — and this makes all the difference — God does.
He knows our future, both individual and composite, and when we fall into despondency because things look so bad that they couldn’t possibly ever be good, it’s wise to turn, instead, to the one Person who does have all the facts and ask Him for guidance.
We are far more likely to find the truth we’re looking for in His words, and under His leading, than we are in the words and wisdom of men — Point 1, and Point 2.
Thank you for joining me at Commonsense Christianity, where I encourage people to stop listening so much to others and start thinking more for themselves.
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“When he ascended on high, he led captives in his train and gave gifts to men.” Ephesians 4:8
Where did Jesus go after He died, and before He was resurrected?
What was the purpose of John the Baptist baptizing, and why isn’t the practice specifically mentioned in the Old Testament?
What does it look like to be “born again” as Jesus describes in John 3?
Why does everyone say that the Emperor is wearing red silk pantaloons when he is obviously naked?
Asking questions is an indubitable element of existence, and while some people, amazingly, make a living off of being professional philosophers, all humans wonder, at some point and in some way, why we were born, what is our purpose in life, and where we go when we die.
Such are basic queries posed by some branches of philosophy (it is a testament to questioning itself that not even philosophy, as a discipline, can agree on what it is), and it would be absurd to leave the pursuit of truth to a small, self-imposed group of experts who come up with a concise, compact answer that addresses all issues, and is not to be argued with.
“Good heavens, no!” the average Christian will reply. “We cannot look to the world of men to give us answers about God — especially when the men giving answers don’t even believe in God!”
It’s a valid point: the chasm between those who believe God exists and those who don’t is a wide, daunting one, made all the more difficult because we use the same words but with different interpretations of what we mean. Arguing is fruitless when one, or both sides, are reluctant to hear the words of the other.
Our immediate challenge, however, is closer to home, as we, Christians, deal with a self-imposed group of experts who come up with concise, compact answers for everything and anything that can be found in the Bible, reducing to elementary simplicity mysteries of the universe that haven’t been adequately solved yet. Generation after generation finds intense seekers of truth asking the same questions, dissatisfied with the traditional and dogmatic answers neatly encapsulated in a creed or within a Bible tract.
For example, the verse at the head of this essay is part of a larger passage, Ephesians 4:7-10, which some people use to answer the first question in this article, “Where did Jesus go after He died, and before He was resurrected?”
I recently read a detailed account addressing this perplexity, describing how Jesus descended to hell, preached the gospel to the damned down there, and took back up with Him those who accepted the message. The rest He left behind. The validation for all this information, external to Scripture, was Ephesians 4:7-10.
But is that what Paul is saying? And if he is saying what the writer I read so succinctly and definitively explained, why didn’t Paul express it succinctly and definitively in the first place? As tempting as it is to look for, develop, and put forth an unambiguous and terminating response to complex issues (and the Bible is filled with deep, thought provoking, complex issues) it is dangerous to do so — more dangerous, in fact, than the asking of the question. And yet it is this former that is frequently attacked: “That question leads to a dangerous frame of thought . . .
“This, and only this, is the answer to that enigma in Scripture.”
(By the way, to add a little confusion to the mix, Paul’s quoting of the Scripture, Psalm 68:18, is a little adjusted, and where the apostle writes, “he led captives in his train and gave gifts to men,” the original quote reads, “You led captives in your train; you received gifts from men,” with the emphasis being mine. Not a bad time for another question.)
The Fundamental Problem with Fundamentalism
One of the fundamental issues, and concerns, of fundamentalism of any sort — be it religious, political, social, or economic — is the extermination of dissent, the quelling of any discussion or philosophizing, the subjugation of other ways of looking at things in the effort to promote, and maintain, “correct doctrine.” In totalitarian societies, people who question are agitators, anarchists, enemies of the people — when in reality, they are enemies of the state that imposes itself on the people.
Within religious circles, this same attitude of distrust toward provocateurs holds its own sway, and many is a child — between the age of 7 and 10, say — who is shamed and silenced by asking a simple question, along the lines of,
“How is it fair that I can be ‘chosen,’ but someone else — my oldest sister, for example — is not?” By the time that child is 11, he has learned to not ask such things, and by the time he is 17, he may decide to leave the system that refuses to even admit the validity of the question. It should be important to us, as believers in truth, that we do not impose upon others a totalitarian state of spiritual existence.
In a world where a statement as banal as, “The sky is blue,” is up for discussion (what about on cloudy days? how about from outer space? what if the viewer is colorblind?), truth as serious, provoking, and significant as Scripture should not cavalierly be encapsulated in short, pithy statements projected toward us from the pulpit, or worse, dumped into shallow, simplistic “Bible study” materials imposed upon a captive small group. This is like defining Einstein — the man — by a compendium of his witticisms posted on Facebook memes.
Philosophy — the questioning of who and what we are, who God is, and how we fit into one another’s existence — is not a discipline beyond the reach of the ordinary person, because philosophy, at its essence, is the asking of questions in the pursuit of truth.
There is no need to be afraid of questions, or people who question. But there is every reason to be wary of any human being, or institution, which assures you that it has found the undisputable answer.
Thank you for joining me at Commonsense Christianity, where I consistently encourage believers to regularly read the Bible, and at some point, to do it independently of a warm, chatty study guide that leads them, step by step, to a foregone conclusion.
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