Deuteronomy 9:1-5 – A Reality Check

Jordan River by Ilan Szekely, 1944

Listen, Israel! Today you will cross the Jordan River to enter and take possession of nations larger and more powerful than you, along with huge cities with fortifications that reach to the sky. These people are large and tall—they are the Anakim. You know and have heard what people say: “Who can stand up to the Anakim?” Know right now that the Lord your God, who is crossing over before you, is an all-consuming fire! He will wipe them out! He will subdue them before you! Then you will take possession of their land, eliminating them quickly, exactly as the Lord told you.

Once the Lord your God has driven them out before you, don’t think to yourself, It’s because I’m righteous that the Lord brought me in to possess this land. It is instead because of these nations’ wickedness that the Lord is removing them before you. You aren’t entering and taking possession of their land because you are righteous or because your heart is especially virtuous; rather, it is because these nations are wicked—that’s why the Lord your God is removing them before you, and because he wishes to establish the promise he made to your ancestors: to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. (Common English Bible)

When my kids were small, I dealt with the issue of sharing, as every parent has to do. Once, two of my girls were fighting over a doll. As I entered the room, one of them quickly said, “She has my doll!” So, I sat her down with me and calmly asked, “Whose doll is it?” “It’s mine!” my daughter cried.

I asked again, “Whose doll is it?” Again, the answer came, “It’s my doll!” I asked yet a third time, “Whose doll is it?” Because this was not our first rodeo together about fighting over dolls and toys, my daughter bowed her head, gave a big sigh, and quietly said, “It’s God’s doll.”

“Yes, it’s God’s doll,” I said. “God is just letting you borrow it for a while and expects you to take good care of it and share his stuff with others.”

Kids often need a reality check of where things come from and who really owns it all. Many times, adults need the very same reality check.

We big people grow up and tend to think we are bigger than we really are. Over the years, we gain misguided notions of our possessions and accomplishments. We believe we did it all through our own skills and character.

Maybe you recognize some of these common notions about our life, work, and ministry:

  • “I worked a long time for my money. I’m not giving it to so-and-so.”
  • My church has a lot of people because we preach the Bible, not like other churches.”
  • “The government takes too much of my hard earned money.”
  • “Here, you can have this couch. I was going to throw it away, anyway. My couch is a nice new one.”
  • “I made a lot of sacrifices for my job. I’m not letting anyone steal my position from me.”
  • “I raised my kids and they’re all doing very well in life. They wouldn’t have made it without me.”
  • “Hey, that’s my yard. Your dog can’t be on it.”
  • “This is my time.”
  • “It’s my car. Don’t touch it.”
  • My way or the highway.”

Those are actual statements Christians have said to me over the years. In their extreme individualism, they believed they were the masters of their own goodness and achievements. In other words, they gave themselves more credit than they really deserved.

A person is proud and selfish not for pursuing their own good but for neglecting their neighbor’s.

It’s far too easy to chalk-up our positions, titles, degrees, jobs, and the good things which come with them as of our own doing. We then believe we are the true owners of all our stuff. Some can even take the next step of believing that if others would just do what I do and think the way I think, then all would be well in the world.

That’s pretty much how Lucifer thought about things. And even after getting cast from heaven, he still exists with the delusion that he didn’t deserve it, as if he were above ever getting treated any other way than like God does.

The reality, however, is that everything and everyone belongs to God. The Lord is the rightful ruler of the universe, and we are not. Every good and perfect thing we have in this life is a gift from a gracious heavenly Father.

Stupidity doesn’t come from a lack of brains or smarts; it’s a result of pride taking over one’s thinking.

Indifference doesn’t have its source in a lack of caring; it comes from believing certain people don’t deserve to have my attention, my stuff, or my time.

Arrogance isn’t an inbred personality trait; it’s the logical end of the successful person’s life who is convinced that everyone ought to adopt their particular set of societal mores, cultural values, political views, and personal disciplines.

Conversely, a person in humble circumstances with little to their name is not necessarily lazy or unwilling to work. And when they have giants in their lives, they can trust the God who specializes in taking down the stupid, the indifferent, and the arrogant.

All things are a gift from the Lord, even the difficult people and hard circumstances we face. They are really opportunities for God to show up and give us precisely what we need.

Everything is a trust from God that we are to steward well, whether it is people, things, or money. They are given to us, not because of any superior spirituality on our part or righteous ingenuity, but because God simply gives it. We have what we have because of God, period.

The appropriate way of stewarding our resources, as well as expressing thanks to God, is through sharing our stuff, our money, our time, and our love with others.

Whose life is it?

We do not presume to come to your Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in your abundant and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under your table; but you are the same Lord whose character is always to have mercy. Grant us, therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat and drink that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his body, and our souls washed through his most precious blood, and that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us. Amen.

Psalm 138 – Humility and Hubris

I give you thanks, O Lord, with all my heart;
    I will sing your praises before the gods.
I bow before your holy Temple as I worship.
    I praise your name for your unfailing love and faithfulness;
for your promises are backed
    by all the honor of your name.
As soon as I pray, you answer me;
    you encourage me by giving me strength.

Every king in all the earth will thank you, Lord,
    for all of them will hear your words.
Yes, they will sing about the Lord’s ways,
    for the glory of the Lord is very great.
Though the Lord is great, he cares for the humble,
    but he keeps his distance from the proud.

Though I am surrounded by troubles,
    you will protect me from the anger of my enemies.
You reach out your hand,
    and the power of your right hand saves me.
The Lord will work out his plans for my life—
    for your faithful love, O Lord, endures forever.
    Don’t abandon me, for you made me. (New Living Translation)

The God of Holy Scripture is no uppity highfalutin Being. However, amongst humanity, those with established pedigree, high position, and influential power tend not to hobnob with the common person. In their hubris, they believe themselves to be above the common person.

Not so with the Lord of the universe. God consistently cares for humble folk. The Lord intentionally seeks the average commoner and draws near to them. The Creator bends down to meet lowly creatures at their level.

Conversely, the Lord stays out on the margins of proud and arrogant people. God stands straight up and looks down from afar on the haughty who believe they are above others. The privileged and powerful in the world will experience divine distance, mostly because their attitudes and actions put the stiff arm toward God.

One of the most frustrating experiences in life is to have someone in power arrogantly misjudge you. Rather than carefully listening and offering gracious attention, the proud already assume they know what’s going on and what is best for others.

So, like a bull about to enter a China shop, or a timebomb ready to explode, human hubris of the heart violates and blows up another’s life based upon misinformation and faulty egotistical assumptions.

Yet, God sees. From a lofty place, clearly observing all creaturely activity, the Lord knows what is truly happening. And God is not okay with injustice perpetrated by cocky roosters and pretentious autocrats. Everyone will experience God’s power. It’s just a matter of what type of power one receives.

The Lord’s saving and sustaining power will uphold the humble of heart. However, the power of God’s wrath is the lot of puffed up peacocks who only care about getting their way. Their own puny power will be eventually stripped away and given to those who will wield it with grace.

The difference between the proud and the lowly is evidenced by their prayers. Megalomaniacs are concerned for material acquisitions, high positions, and fame. And their prayers reflect those ambitions. The meek, however, pray for increased spiritual strength to withstand trouble; enlarged hearts to hold more of God; and acceptance of whatever the Lord wants, whether it is for personal good or ill.

The arrogant may accomplish many good things. It’s possible for them to achieve greatness through outstanding work and incredible feats. Yet, God knows the real score. Jesus said:

“Not everyone who calls me Lord will enter God’s kingdom. The only people who will enter are those who do what my Father in heaven wants.On that last Day many will call me Lord. They will say, ‘Lord, Lord, by the power of your name we spoke for God. And by your name we forced out demons and did many miracles.’ Then I will tell those people clearly, ‘Get away from me, you people who do wrong. I never knew you.’” (Matthew 7:21-23, ERV)

Self-absorbed people enjoy their own presence and narcissistically believe everyone else should, too. Yet, ordinary people, being attentive to the common good of all persons, rely on the presence and protection of God for everyone and everything.

Whereas the vainglorious person trusts in their own ability to achieve and hold power so that they can smugly boast about their superiority, on the contrary, the meek are content to labor for the Lord in relative obscurity, to try and use their skills and aptitude for the benefit of their fellow humanity. God holds them tightly and securely. But not so with the egotistical. They will fall because they were never in God’s hand to begin with.

If the humble are weak, that’s okay. Because God is strong. If they are in trouble, no problem. The Lord has their back. They can let go, knowing there is a God who doesn’t. And that is the irony to the spiritual life – that in releasing and relinquishing we gain and acquire.

The truly humble of heart shall be vindicated by God from the wicked. For the Lord’s steadfast love will have the day.

Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We are terribly sorry, and we humbly repent. For the sake of your Son, Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and forgive us so that we may delight in your will, and walk in your ways, to the glory of your Name. Amen.

Psalm 138 – The Lord Will Defend the Humble

I give thanks to you with all my heart, Lord.
    I sing your praise before all other gods.
I bow toward your holy temple
    and thank your name
    for your loyal love and faithfulness
        because you have made your name and word
        greater than everything else.
On the day I cried out, you answered me.
    You encouraged me with inner strength.

Let all the earth’s rulers give thanks to you, Lord,
    when they hear what you say.
Let them sing about the Lord’s ways
    because the Lord’s glory is so great!
Even though the Lord is high,
    he can still see the lowly,
    but God keeps his distance from the arrogant.

Whenever I am in deep trouble,
    you make me live again;
    you send your power against my enemies’ wrath;
    you save me with your strong hand.
The Lord will do all this for my sake.

Your faithful love lasts forever, Lord!
    Don’t let go of what your hands
    have made.
(Common English Bible)

“God opposes everyone
   who is proud,
but is kind to everyone
    who is humble.”

James 4:6, CEV

God Cares

God consistently cares for lowly and humble folk. The Lord continually draws near to them. God bends down to meet them at their level. Conversely, the Lord hangs out on the margins of proud and arrogant people. God stands straight up and looks down from afar on such persons. They will experience divine distance, mostly because their attitudes and actions put the stiff arm toward God.

One of the most frustrating experiences in life is to have someone in power arrogantly misjudge you. Rather than carefully listening and offering gracious attention, the proud already assume they know what’s going on and what is best. So, like a bull about to enter a china shop, or a timebomb ready to explode, human hubris of the heart violates and blows up another’s life based upon misinformation and faulty egotistic assumptions.

God Sees

Yet, God sees. From a lofty place, clearly observing all creaturely activity, the Lord knows what is truly happening. And God is not okay with injustice perpetrated by cocky and pretentious autocrats. Everyone will experience God’s power. It’s just a matter of what type of power one receives.

Saving and encouraging power will sustain and uphold the humble of heart. However, the power of God’s wrath is the lot of puffed up peacocks who only care about getting their way. Their own puny power will be eventually stripped away and given to those who will wield it with grace.

The difference between the proud and the lowly is evidenced by their prayers. Megalomaniacs are concerned for material acquisitions, high positions, and fame. And their prayers reflect those ambitions. The meek, however, pray for increased spiritual strength to withstand trouble; enlarged hearts to hold more of God; and acceptance of whatever the Lord wants, whether it is for personal good or ill.

God Knows

The haughty might do many things which are good. It’s possible for them to achieve greatness through outstanding work and incredible feats. Yet, God knows the real score. Jesus said:

“Not everyone who calls me Lord will enter God’s kingdom. The only people who will enter are those who do what my Father in heaven wants. On that last Day many will call me Lord. They will say, ‘Lord, Lord, by the power of your name we spoke for God. And by your name we forced out demons and did many miracles.’ Then I will tell those people clearly, ‘Get away from me, you people who do wrong. I never knew you.’” (Matthew 7:21-23, ERV)

Self-absorbed people enjoy their own presence and narcissistically believe everyone else should, too. Yet, ordinary people, being attentive to the common good of all persons, rely on the presence and protection of God for everyone and everything.

God Helps

Whereas the vainglorious person trusts in their own ability to achieve accomplishments and hold power so that they can smugly boast about their superiority, on the contrary, the meek are content to labor for the Lord in relative obscurity, to try and use their skills and aptitude for the benefit of their fellow humanity. God holds them tightly and securely, but not so with the egotistical. They will fall because they were never in God’s hand to begin with.

If the humble are weak, that’s okay. Because God is strong. If they are in trouble, no problem. The Lord has their back. They can let go, knowing there is a God who doesn’t. And that is the irony to the spiritual life – that in releasing and relinquishing we gain and acquire. We shall be vindicated by God from the wicked. For the Lord’s steadfast love will have the day.

Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We are terribly sorry, and we humbly repent. For the sake of your Son, Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and forgive us so that we may delight in your will, and walk in your ways, to the glory of your Name. Amen.

James 4:11-16 – On Planning Well

Brothers and sisters do not slander one another. Anyone who speaks against a brother or sister or judges them speaks against the law and judges it. When you judge the law, you are not keeping it, but sitting in judgment on it. There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who can save and destroy. But you—who are you to judge your neighbor?

Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.” As it is, you boast in your arrogant schemes. All such boasting is evil. (NIV)

Listening is both art and hard work. A few years back I spent a week at a prayer retreat. It was time intentionally set aside to hear God. It was hard work. I stayed in a little one room hermitage in the woods surrounding by God’s creation. On the first morning, I was in bed and at dawn I heard this loud thud on one of the windows. I woke up and heard it again, and then again. Outside there was a big male robin going at the window like there was no tomorrow. He did it about a dozen times before finally flying away. I laid there a bit frustrated with this stupid bird waking me up, and yet also wondered about that robin. Since I was there to connect with God, I started asking the question: “God, what are you trying to teach me through that stupid robin?”

I did not get an answer to my question. Then, the next day it happened again. Mr. Robin came by and took about a dozen hard tries at my window before flying away. However, this time I finally realized what was going on. Mr. Robin was perching just outside the window and looking at his own reflection. All he could see was a big rival robin staring back at him, on his turf, and he was going to tear into that interloper. Little did the birdbrain know that he was fighting a losing battle, against himself. 

“God, what are you trying to teach me through this robin?” Now, I had my answer. I was a Pastor tackling the issues and problems of others in the church and the world. Yet, I came to understand that I was only tackling myself, seeing my own reflection and struggling in a losing battle. I investigated the face of the enemy, and the enemy was me.

We are our own worst enemies. Much of life is determined by whether we plan for and with God. The natural temptation of us all is to view the landscape of human problems, assign enemies, and then fail to see that our greatest enemy is staring at us in the window’s reflection. Another temptation is to believe that when things are going well, it is because of our own doing – as if somehow, we can live and move and have our being independent of God in the equation. So, I ask, is God in our plans?

That is a big question. Here is just a smattering of what Jesus said about living for him: 

“Any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:33)

“Anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:27)

“If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples.” (John 8:31)

“No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.” (Luke 10:62) 

We are not called by God to control other people or events; we are called to practice self-control and listen to God as we determine the course of our lives in both the big and small things of life.

The Apostle James had to deal with some birdbrain robins. They were only looking at themselves and not doing the good they knew they ought to do.

The Actual Situation

Some of the people James addressed were planning and mapping out their lives without consideration of what God wanted. They neither looked to God before beginning their planning process nor intended on including him in their dealings. These certain businesspersons were independent minded. They viewed their time and money as their own. In their minds, they give God an hour on Sunday, and the rest of the time is their own; they make their own money and no one can tell them what to do with it; they make their own plans, and maybe ask God afterward to bless it all.

The actual situation was that people were holding back on God, only giving him a certain portion of their effort.  And this can happen to any of us, with anything we have.  We may not all have money and power, yet we all have time, and how we use our time says a lot about our faith.

One of the many things God taught me at my prayer retreat was through all my business and busy-ness that I was holding back in some ways. Yes, I could compassionately connect with people but was guarded with it. Having my armor up was coming from a fear of not doing something perfect, or at least not doing it really well; and, if I would give myself completely to compassionately connecting with others, I might get hurt (because I’ve been hurt before). I wonder if you can resonate with this.

God just wants us to show up, be present, and not be perfect. We are to do the best with the gifts and abilities given us and leave it all on the playing field so that it cannot be said of us that we did not do the good we knew we should have done.  Furthermore, there is nothing wrong with being afraid.  In fact, true courage involves fear because real bravery is doing what is right when it is scary to do it, no matter what the consequences might be.

The Analysis of the Situation

Life is truly short – like a mist that appears for a little while in the morning, and then vanishes. Thus, the scheming we might do to make money and guard our investments; the posturing to make ourselves look good; the power-plays we engage to get our way; and, the anxiety which prevents us from the things we know we ought to do amounts to nothing at the end of our lives.

I have talked with far too many people over the years who crucify themselves between the two thieves of regret over yesterday’s missed opportunities, and fear of what will happen tomorrow. I have observed far too many people who made lots of money, patented inventions, and won awards, yet had no one at the end of their lives to be with them. They were not there for others, and so others were not there for them. 

Jesus said we cannot serve both God and money (Matthew 6:24). In God’s economy, money is simply a tool to be used to meet needs and bless others. Yet, we tend to make audacious plans with money through accumulating debt and presuming we can pay it off; encouraging our kids to get high paying jobs as their highest objective; and, putting faith in the market economy to provide for us in the end. 

James was not saying money is bad and making plans is wrong; he was saying that the almighty dollar is not to be the motivating factor in our lives, and that God needs to be squarely in the middle of all that we do.

The Alternative to the Situation

The alternative to making plans independent of God is to plan carefully for God to be in everything – to find and do his will without trying to impose our will upon the divine.

This requires listening well. It is easy to rush and keep busy and then are unable to hear what God might be saying. When things are rough, we may work so we do not have to stop long enough to feel what is really going on inside of us. James encourages us to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.”  Listening well enables living well.

The Audacity of the Situation

Some people in James’ day were boasting over their accomplishments.  Like Kings Nebuchadnezzar and Herod of old, they made plans and did what they wanted with delusions of grandeur. They believed they were the ultimate sovereigns of what could and should go on in the world of which they controlled. They had to learn the hard way that they were only masters of small worlds.

Boasting merely sets us up for a higher fall. We need God, and we need each other, and whenever we lose sight of that truth, we are on a one-way road to implosion. Whereas some might call it independence, God calls it evil.

The Awfulness of the Situation

The tragedy of independent planning and acting is that God is left out due to purposeful ignorance. Like the deceitful husband and wife duo, Ananias and Sapphira, there were certain persons who withheld their money and their resources so that they could look good to the rest of the community and influence happenings within the church (Acts 5:1-11).  It did not end so well for them.

Conclusion

Doing more with greater efficiency may help, yet it misses the point. We are to take the time and effort to relate meaningfully with God so that we can plan with confidence and make faith-based decisions on what we believe the Lord wants us to do.

Let us not find ourselves repeatedly flying into a window. Instead, let the Lord shape life in such a way that conforms to his purposes, so that we will then know genuine lasting joy and peace.

One mark of the mature person is that he/she has the same benevolence and character whether they are rich or poor. Since we are all rich in faith, let us continually demonstrate it by living for Jesus Christ, loving one another, and planning to reach a lost and unjust world with the good news of God’s grace.