God and the Human Condition (Romans 1:18-25)

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and injustice of those who by their injustice suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them because God has made it plain to them. Ever since the creation of the world God’s eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been seen and understood through the things God has made.

So they are without excuse, for though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles.

Therefore God gave them over in the desires of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves. They exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen. (New Revised Standard Version)

Exchanging Good for Bad

Nature abhors a vacuum. Everything is filled with something. If one thing is given up, another thing will take its place. Change is actually more like an exchange of one thing for another. Something is taken out, then replaced with something different.

We have exchanged:

  • Behavior that attends to the common good of all persons, for self-interested behavior to what is good for me and my family and/or group
  • Good deeds done from a pure heart, for good deeds done from an impure heart which give me an advantage or leverage over another
  • Steadfast committed love of others, for hustled love that gets discarded whenever things get hard
  • Submission to one another out of a sense of sacred reverence, for disobedience to anyone I don’t like
  • Dignity of being an image-bearer of God for the shame and ignominy of self-image
  • Majesty and worth of all persons in the world, for becoming masters of small worlds
Photo by Kindel Media on Pexels.com

And that’s not all, there’s more. We also have a nasty tendency to replace:

  • Freedom for shackles
  • Virtue for vice
  • Morality for immorality
  • Justice for injustice
  • Goodness for ungodliness
  • Truth for a lie
  • Wisdom for foolishness
  • Immortality for mortality
  • Honor for dishonor
  • Devotion for disregard
  • God for gods

These are all very poor replacements. In fact, the exchanges are so dark that they leave us in a state of guilt before God and all creation. Indeed, we all have sinned and fallen short of our intended purpose on this earth.

Guilt and Shame

Our response must not exchange guilt for shame because they are different words:

Guilt is assigned by God so that repentance and reconciliation might happen.

Shame, however, is introduced by us; we are the ones who label ourselves as a bucket of pig slop, not God.

Guilt is a function of the conscience, letting us know when we have said or done something wrong or hurtful; it is specific to a particular action or lack of action.

Shame, however, is a function of the “inner critic.” It interprets bad words or actions as we ourselves being bad, focusing not on actions but on our very personhood in the form of judgmentalism leveled at myself.

Guilt says, “I have done something bad.”

Shame, however, says, “I am bad.”

Guilt serves a redemptive purpose through alerting us that we need to deal with a wrong.

Shame, however, damages our spirits through telling us we are flawed and unworthy of love and connection with others.

Because guilt and shame are not the same, they need to be dealt with in different ways.

Guilt, if not faced and dealt with, becomes gangrene of the soul. Over time it festers and poisons our spirits, leading to significant emotional and sometimes physical problems. Forgiveness (both in apologies and in forgiving oneself) is the primary tool in dealing with guilt.

Shame, however, lives in the shadows and feeds on secrets. If shame persists, we withdraw from others and experience grinding loneliness. Therefore, the path out of shame is to openly name your shame and tell your story – thus taking away shame’s power and giving it back to yourself. Vulnerability is the tool which erases shame.

“Shame, blame, disrespect, betrayal, and the withholding of affection damage the roots from which love grows. Love can only survive these injuries if they are acknowledged and healed.”

Brené Brown

Emotional Creatures

In the absence of light, there is darkness. Purging oneself of belief in God merely means that another god will take her place. Scripture labels this “idolatry.”

What’s more, in the absence of feeling, in the quest to absolve oneself of unwanted emotions, there still remains emotion – because humans are emotional creatures.

People mostly rid themselves of any god concept because of how they feel about it. In fact, we do just about everything in life based on our emotions. This is a good thing, not a bad thing. We get into problems and fuss about emotions mucking up things, only because we never faced those feelings to begin with.

A person will never know God unless they understand this. The worship of God and the practice of Christianity is not only to engage the mind and the spirit, but also the body and the emotions.

Emotions and feelings are not like foreign microbes that enter the body as unwanted interlopers. They didn’t enter humanity as part of the world’s curse, after Adam and Eve’s fall into disobedience. No!

Rather, we are our emotions, just as much as we are our body, mind, and soul. Therefore, every emotion which exists, resides in us, all the time. We cannot purge ourselves of our emotions any more than we can remove the heart, the brain, or the bowels, and then expect to live.

Denying our emotions, suppressing feelings, and leaving them unacknowledged is terribly unhealthy and will slowly kill us – because our emotions are vital to our very existence.

Getting Rid of God

There are millions of spiritually dead zombies walking the earth who have jettisoned God altogether – either deliberately or unwittingly – because they discarded their emotions, long before they exchanged the sacred for the secular.

We all sometimes get physically ill; it’s part of the human condition, and we all understand that. So, we go to bed, or to the doctor, or to the hospital’s emergency department – depending upon the severity of our illness. We even go to a physician when we are healthy, just to get a check-up and make sure everything in the body is working as it should.

We also all get spiritually and emotionally ill; it’s part of the human condition. But we all don’t understand that. So, we soldier on, going about our regular business as if everything is hunky-dory. We don’t attend to our emotional selves. We don’t slow down and address what’s going on, or go to a church, or go to anyone. Instead, we suffer in silence.

Just as it ludicrous to get rid of the body altogether whenever we get a disease, so we must not rid ourselves of God whenever we get spiritually and emotionally sick. We face the illness and deal with it. It might require surgery. Recovery will hurt. That’s all part of facing it.

Ignoring God is about as smart as ignoring a heart attack. It might go away for a short time, but it’ll come back with a vengeance and do you in.

Emotions aren’t to blame when things are rough. Neither is God to blame when bad stuff happens. Both our emotions and God are realities we must deal with.

Just like the force of gravity is always there and needs to be respected (by not simply walking off the roof of your house, believing you don’t need gravity anymore) so the person and the power of God is always here and we absolutely need to come to terms with that reality, instead of walking away.

What will you do?…

Get Me Out of This Scary Dungeon Cave! (Psalm 142)

I pray to you, Lord.
    I beg for mercy.
I tell you all my worries
    and my troubles,
and whenever I feel low,
    you are there to guide me.

A trap has been hidden
    along my pathway.
Even if you look,
    you won’t see anyone
who cares enough
    to walk beside me.
There is no place to hide,
    and no one who really cares.

I pray to you, Lord!
    You are my place of safety,
and you are my choice
    in the land of the living.
Please answer my prayer.
    I am completely helpless.

Help! They are chasing me,
    and they are too strong.
Rescue me from this prison,
    so I can praise your name.
And when your people notice
your wonderful kindness to me,
    they will rush to my side. (Contemporary English Version)

The modern holiday of Halloween is kitschy with a funny sort of scary. But there’s nothing funny about being truly frightened and feeling helpless. Its anything but a holiday.

The psalmist, David, was in both a literal and a metaphorical cave. Before he ever became king of Israel and Judah, David was on the run from King Saul. He hid in a cave. He had more suspense and was on the edge of his seat much more than any horror slasher film could portray.

David was hiding and just trying to stay alive. There was nothing in his life which deserved such maltreatment. It was sheer jealousy on Saul’s end of things that caused him to give his soul over to oppressive pride. And David was the brunt of that oppression.

As biblical readers, we know the end of the story. Saul is eventually killed in battle and David is exalted as the new king. Yet, here, in today’s psalm, we have the genuine cry of a desperate man who longed for the justice of God – not knowing what the end of it all would be.

One of the reasons David was a person after God’s own heart is that he was humble and remained connected to God without succumbing to the bitterness of his situation. I strongly suggest that David was able to keep his life free from pride because he regularly liberated his spirit through real and raw expressions of his emotions and experiences to God.

Spiritual confidence cannot be ginned-up through pretending that all is well, and everything is okay. Rather, spiritual courage is forged in the most awful of circumstances through loud cries of emotional pain to the God who truly hears it all.

Anyone who tells you different is flimsily trying to maintain their puny sense of delusional power. God sees you in the dark place and he hears your cry for mercy. He knows your dark cave better than you know it yourself.

One of the reasons I love the psalms so dearly is that they know the human condition. There is no pretense with the psalmist, David. He opens his mind and heart. He lets the genuine feelings of his life pour out in an offering to the God who pays attention to the humble and contrite.

The proud and arrogant will forever be flummoxed by the psalms, not understanding why they are even in the canon of Holy Scripture.

Yet, here they are, for all to examine and experience. Whereas the piously insincere are continually putting up a false front of godliness and keeping up appearances of superior spirituality, here we have authentic religion smack in front of our faces.

For me, the psalms liberate us from the shackles of trying to be someone I am not and enable us to connect with a God who encourages us in our strange wonderings, our emotional pain, and our sometimes horrific situations.

The Lord is perfectly at home with hearing loud cries, agonizing shouts, and desperate prayers directed to heaven.

Those who oppress others, I believe, are easy to spot because they:

  • Ask rhetorical questions to make a point.
  • Assume their thoughts and ways are always best.
  • Accuse without evidence based on their faulty assumptions.
  • Seek to harm and destroy.
  • Enjoy chaos and thrive on taking advantage of others’ misfortune.
  • Refuse to listen and learn from others.
  • Suppress all competing voices contrary to their own.

Autocrats are too smug and too far into their delusions of power, authority, and self-righteousness to be able to hear any voice other than their own.

A self-absorbed despot in power feels like being in a dingy dank prison cave with no ability to leverage a release.

A self-abnegated deliverer in authority feels like being in a wide open field with freedom to help others in bondage.

God hears when others don’t. The Lord advocates on behalf of those caught in the crosshairs of tyrannical injustice and maltreatment. Divine benevolence is always on the lookout for those being oppressed.

The Almighty uses power to listen and respond when distressed persons are scared silly with maltreatment. Voices raised to heaven shall never go unheard.

Since God listens to those in need of mercy, this is precisely the disposition we are to adopt, as well.

The proud, convinced of their superiority, either cannot or will not see those languishing underneath unjust power structures. There is no space within arrogant hearts to accommodate the cries for justice from people beneath them.

Therefore, recourse for the oppressed comes from God – because God acts with equity, integrity, and justice.

It is not the oppressed who need our pity; it is the ungodly, because they don’t know anything about pity, or empathy, or mercy. Oppressors have no stomach for any of that. So, they keep people locked in systems of oppression. They maintain relational distance and turn a blind eye to the genuine frightened screams of those under their boot.

The weak, the distressed, and the spiritually tired in this corrupt world, however, have the chance for appeal. They can call out to the God who knows them and their situations.

Although cries for deliverance may not happen immediately, we can be assured that divine help is forthcoming. And that is scary good stuff.

Lord Jesus Christ, by your patience in suffering you made my earthly pain sacred and gave me the example of humility. Be near to me in my time of weakness and pain; sustain me by your grace so that my strength and courage may not fail. Heal me according to your will. Loving Jesus, as you cried out on the cross, I cry out to you in my desperation. Do not forsake me. Grant me relief and preserve me in your perfect peace. Amen.

Coming to Grips with Grinding Adversity (Psalm 137)

“By the Waters of Babylon, They Sat Down and Wept” by Kate Gardiner Hastings

Alongside Babylon’s streams,
    there we sat down,
    crying because we remembered Zion.
We hung our lyres up
    in the trees there
    because that’s where our captors asked us to sing;
    our tormentors requested songs of joy:
    “Sing us a song about Zion!” they said.
But how could we possibly sing
    the Lord’s song on foreign soil?

Jerusalem! If I forget you,
    let my strong hand wither!
Let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth
    if I don’t remember you,
    if I don’t make Jerusalem my greatest joy.

Lord, remember what the Edomites did
        on Jerusalem’s dark day:
    “Rip it down, rip it down!
    All the way to its foundations!” they yelled.
Daughter Babylon, you destroyer,
    a blessing on the one who pays you back
    the very deed you did to us!
    A blessing on the one who seizes your children
    and smashes them against the rock! (Common English Bible)

This side of heaven is full of both love and heartbreak, celebration and lament, encouragement and insult. It is a spiritually schizophrenic existence of heaven’s kiss and hell’s bite. 

We live in a fundamentally broken world. Yet, it is a world that is presently being reclaimed by God’s kingdom. Therefore, our emotions run the gamut from joyful happiness to sheer sorrow. Either way, especially through the difficult stretches of our lives, Christians are to tether themselves to their true home of heaven.

The psalmist was speaking of Jerusalem, the city that represented the very presence of God. Yet, the Babylonians came and destroyed the temple, their homes, and carried thousands of her citizens into exile.

Although experiencing the Babylonian Exile, the people of Jerusalem were not to forget their real home. 

For the believer in Jesus, this present abode is like camping in a tent – it is a temporary home, and not our permanent residence.

It is easy to forget our true home, which is why we need the constant perspective of eternity. We ought not get too familiar with our current living conditions. 

Simple acts like looking up at the stars at night or gazing into the vast expanse of the day’s sky can be tangible reminders that we are meant for larger things, for the embrace of heaven.

None of this, however, means that we are to ignore what is happening in the here and now. Trauma is real and needs to be dealt with. Having an expansive perspective doesn’t mean we stuff the details and emotions of traumatic events.

The psalmist names the difficult experience, the agonizing emotions, and the bitter thoughts. None of it is hidden or buried under a layer of positivity.

“Lamenting Jews in Exile” by Eduard Bendemann, 1832

We need the combination of faith that my experienced is acknowledged, of hope that a better future is coming, and of love that good still presently exists in the world. Faith, hope, and love are all vital in coming to grips with terrible adversity.

Hiding large swaths of our lives and stories from others is not the path to spiritual wellness, emotional healing, and personal peace. Spiritual and emotional health comes from owning our internal struggles. The virtues of weakness, humility, vulnerability, and faith opens us to the way of grace.

We too often struggle because we don’t struggle. 

I’m the expert on stuffing feelings and turning them into thoughts. I learned it well early in my life. Yet, feelings never evaporate just because we ignore them. Just the opposite, like a forgotten half-carton of cottage cheese in the back of the fridge, our feelings only gather moldy bacteria and crust over with nastiness. 

We need to understand that feelings really do have an expiration date to them. If not openly acknowledged and dealt with, they’ll fester into bitterness. It’s much better to deal with our present struggles instead of living with the wishful thinking that they’ll just go away.

There are 52 references to “one another” in the New Testament, including: 

  • Love one another (John 13:34-35)
  • Be kind to one another (Ephesians 4:32)
  • Show hospitality to one another (1 Peter 4:9)
  • Forgive one another (Colossians 3:13)
  • Encourage one another (Hebrews 3:13)
  • Bear the burdens of one another (Galatians 6:2)
  • Spur one another on toward spiritual well-being and healthy community relationships (Hebrews 10:24)

Nowhere in Holy Scripture will you find references to hide from one another, pester one another, or put up a false front toward one another.

God desires for us to take a risk on betting the farm on Jesus. Embracing Christ involves owning our struggles, both to God and to one another. 

You may argue that it isn’t helpful to wear your feelings on your sleeve. But I’m not talking about emotional diarrhea; I’m referring to something far worse: emotional prostitution, where we sell ourselves to others in a cheap façade of who we really are and how we are really doing. 

We want to be liked, loved, and longed for. And we very much desire to avoid heartrending pain. So, many mistakenly believe that keeping up false appearances will get them what they long for.

What matters most is faith expressing itself through love (Galatians 5:6). It takes personal risk to have faith. And it takes two to have love.

Own your struggle. Face it squarely in all of its foulness, degradation, and ugliness. Face it with both God and others. 

If you’re mad as hell at God, then say it; the Lord is big enough to take it. If you need prayer or help, ask for it. Don’t just expect someone to read your mind or your emotions. If someone asks you to pray, stop what you’re doing, get on your knees with that person, and pray like there’s no tomorrow.

Life is too short to sleepwalk through it with a constellation of unacknowledged emotions. It takes no relational effort to ask a pat question like, “How are you?” It takes even less relational energy to give a pat answer such as, “Fine,” or “Busy.” Instead, let’s get down to why you feel a constant need to say how busy you are, even when you’re not really all that busy.

Holy Scripture doesn’t call us to hide, but to love one another enough to both give and receive God’s grace. 

Daily reading and praying of the psalms is a good place to begin in learning to be authentic with God and the people in our lives. It’s the only way of dealing with the overwhelming circumstances and emotions we face.

Loving God, please grant me peace of mind and calm my troubled heart. My soul is like a turbulent sea. I can’t seem to find my balance, so I stumble and worry constantly. Give me spiritual strength, mental clarity, and emotional calm to find my purpose and walk the path you’ve laid out for me. Just as the sun rises each day against the dark of night, may the light of your divine countenance shine on the shadowy places of my life, through Jesus Christ my Lord, in the illumination of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

2 Kings 4:32-37 – But That Is Not the End of the Story

Elisha and the Shunammite woman by Dutch painter Gerbrand van den Eeckhout (1621-1674)

Elisha entered the house and found the boy stretched out on the bed dead. He went into the room and locked the door—just the two of them in the room—and prayed to God. He then got into bed with the boy and covered him with his body, mouth on mouth, eyes on eyes, hands on hands. As he was stretched out over him like that, the boy’s body became warm. Elisha got up and paced back and forth in the room. Then he went back and stretched himself upon the boy again. The boy started sneezing—seven times he sneezed!—and opened his eyes.

He called Gehazi and said, “Get the Shunammite woman in here!” He called her and she came in.

Elisha said, “Embrace your son!”

She fell at Elisha’s feet, face to the ground in reverent awe. Then she embraced her son and went out with him. (The Message)

Life sometimes feels like a roller coaster. Our emotions go up and down alongside the circumstances which bring them forth.

Elisha was one of the all-time great prophets in ancient Israel. He developed an ongoing friendship with a woman from the town of Shunem. It was her simple hospitality to a stranger that brought about the enduring relationship.

Whenever Elisha passed through on his prophetic business, he would stop in and have a meal or spend the night in a special room set aside just for him.

But that is not the end of the story….

The woman was about to have a big change of life, a life she could not have ever seen coming and only dreamed of.

The Shunammite woman had no children and was not able to conceive. Yet, on one of his visits, Elisha promised her she would hold her very own infant child… which she eventually did. A year after Elisha’s pronouncement, the woman and her husband had a son.

The woman went from discouraged to elated. The child grew. The Shunammite and her family were content and living well.

But that is not the end of the story….

In today’s Old Testament lesson, we pick up the narrative as the child is a small boy, the family happy and healthy… until they weren’t.

One day the boy was playing, as he did every day. Whatever happened, he developed such a terrible headache that his dear mother rocked him for hours, trying to comfort him. The worst case scenario happened. The boy died.

The woman went from joy to despair in a matter of hours.

But that is not the end of the story….

The grieving mother refused to let death have the last word on her son. She saddled her donkey and went directly to Elisha. The Shunammite lamented to him about her son, and in her grief, cried out how Elisha had gotten her hopes up, only to be dashed by that dark enemy of death.

The prophet responded to the woman’s plea and set off  post haste to her home, which had now become a sort of funeral parlor. Elisha went into the room by himself with the dead boy. In an odd process similar to what Jesus would do centuries later, Elisha did some physical actions in bringing about a miraculous resurrection.

The boy sneezed, got up, and was given back to his mother. Her lowest of the low grinding sadness of distress and despair now turned to the highest of the high elation of joy and gratitude.

But that is not the end of the story….

The story continues because the larger overarching story of God’s gracious intervention into this world to bring about the redemption of all creation.

Along the way, across the millennia, the Lord continues to use faithful people to bring about renewal, restoration, and redemption. In the Christian tradition, the apex of this merciful work is fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ.

God himself was pleased
    to live fully in his Son.
And God was pleased
    for him to make peace
by sacrificing his blood
    on the cross,
so that all beings in heaven
    and on earth
would be brought back to God. (Colossians 1:19-20, CEV)

The resurrection of the boy, and all risings from death before Jesus, prefigured and foretold the ultimate resurrection of Christ. And because Christ is risen, we too, shall rise from death – both spiritually and bodily.

Therefore, we have been buried with him through baptism into death, in order that just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too may live a new life. For if we have become united with him in the likeness of his death, we will certainly also be united in the likeness of his resurrection. (Romans 6:4-5, NET)

The end of the grand narrative story is moving to a climax. Jesus is coming again to judge the living and the dead. All things shall be restored. All will be made right. We may sorrow in the night, but joy comes in the morning.

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,

“See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them and be their God;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.”

And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” Also, he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.” Then he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life. (Revelation 21:1-6, NRSV)

Our past grief and our present troubles will give way to a future hope – an ending to the story we can barely imagine, a glorious existence with our God which will have no end.

May the Lord come soon.

I pray the Lord Jesus will be kind to you.

May faith, hope, and love surround everyone who belongs to Christ Jesus. Amen.