Romans 2:1-11 – Connection, not Criticism

Those people are on a dark spiral downward. But if you think that leaves you on the high ground where you can point your finger at others, think again. Every time you criticize someone, you condemn yourself. It takes one to know one. Judgmental criticism of others is a well-known way of escaping detection in your own crimes and misdemeanors. But God isn’t so easily diverted. He sees right through all such smoke screens and holds you to what you’ve done.

You didn’t think, did you, that just by pointing your finger at others you would distract God from seeing all your misdoings and from coming down on you hard? Or did you think that because he’s such a nice God, he’d let you off the hook? Better think this one through from the beginning. God is kind, but he’s not soft. In kindness he takes us firmly by the hand and leads us into a radical life-change.

You’re not getting by with anything. Every refusal and avoidance of God adds fuel to the fire. The day is coming when it’s going to blaze hot and high, God’s fiery and righteous judgment. Make no mistake: In the end you get what’s coming to you—Real Life for those who work on God’s side, but to those who insist on getting their own way and take the path of least resistance, Fire!

If you go against the grain, you get splinters, regardless of which neighborhood you’re from, what your parents taught you, what schools you attended. But if you embrace the way God does things, there are wonderful payoffs, again without regard to where you are from or how you were brought up. Being a Jew won’t give you an automatic stamp of approval. God pays no attention to what others say (or what you think) about you. He makes up his own mind. (The Message)

Claiming the moniker of self-appointed Judge will only get you, well, judged! There is only one true Judge. And Judge Jesus renders decisions which are always right, just, and fair, with no favoritism, cronyism, or malice.

A critical spirit is an evil spirit. It vaults oneself over and above others who are viewed as inferior, unworthy of love and belonging. It is the very antithesis of Christ’s way of being in the world with others.

The Apostle Paul, writing to the Church at Rome, merely upheld the teaching of his Lord Jesus, who said:

“Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make, you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get.” (Matthew 7:1-2, NRSV)

Although most people would affirm that showing favoritism is a bad thing, in practice we have a difficult time avoiding it – especially in polarizing times such as ours. Political mudslinging is (unfortunately) a time-honored American tradition. And so is religious judgmentalism.

Some of the most emotionally laden vitriol comes from folks who are so heavily entrenched in their religious convictions that they believe any deviation from their way of belief is worthy of scathing criticism.

People, however, do not change because someone criticizes or judges them. They experience transformation through basic divine and human kindness.

As a hospital chaplain in a behavioral health unit, I wholeheartedly affirm this to be true. Many patients have been told repeatedly by family or friends to stop their destructive behavior or thinking, get their lives together, move on, wake up, etc. – all with the condescending edge of criticizing judgment.

Yet, when someone takes notice, is curious about them, treats them like a fellow person, offers helpful encouragement, and a listening ear without trying to fix, souls become open to receiving the healing grace of love and truth.

God shows no partiality, and neither should we, period.

God is right, just, and fair in all dealings with everyone. The Lord judges according to divine standards of righteousness and mercy – no matter one’s race, ethnicity, gender, economic status, or social standing. And it is all laced with the love and compassion of Christ.

Christians are not exempt or given a pass on being judgmental, as if owning multiple Bibles or giving lots of money exempts one from a wagging tongue and an insensitive spirit.

Our own unhealthy practices, bad habits, and angry outbursts will be treated just like any non-Christian by God. In a time when decrying the moral condition of our world is nearly a spectator sport, the New Testament lesson for today reminds us that we must first be concerned for the condition of our own hearts before we can point the finger at another.

We all equally stand in need of God’s grace in Jesus.  There is a symbiotic relationship between our actions and the state of our hearts.  A soft and tender heart toward God leads to obedience; disobedience hardens the heart and leads to God’s wrath, no matter the individual.

So, it will help if we all faithfully engage in daily spiritual practices which keep our hearts attentive and alert to God’s will and way. 

No matter how busy we are, or how we feel, to forego or ignore the Word of God and prayer on a regular basis will slowly calcify our hearts and render them unable to respond rightly to grace. Instead, we can drink deeply of the gospel throughout every day so that we may experience peace.

A critical spirit begins to melt away when the tools of empathy, compassion, understanding, and acceptance are used to forge connections and provide support.

It takes little to no practice to bludgeon someone with condemning criticism. However, it takes repeated practice to speak and act with grace, mercy, and peace, especially when we are stressed and/or anxious about our surrounding circumstances.

Instead of judgment, observe and be curious. Seek more information. Ask clarifying questions. Expand the gap between observation and conclusion.

The ability to have an awareness of one’s own emotions, to be mindful of self and surroundings, and to do it all with neither criticism nor judgment is perhaps the highest form of intelligence and spirituality.

It is kindness which leads others to repentance, not condemnation. Grace has the final word, not judgment. So, let us be blessed through a gentle spirit which spreads the goodness of God throughout the world.

O God, thank you for the gift of prayer and the grace of your Word.  May it seep deep down into my heart so that I am compassionate and kind, just like Jesus.  Amen.

Colossians 3:12-17 – Wear the Right Clothes

God loves you and has chosen you as his own special people. So be gentle, kind, humble, meek, and patient. Put up with each other, and forgive anyone who does you wrong, just as Christ has forgiven you. Love is more important than anything else. It is what ties everything completely together.

Each one of you is part of the body of Christ, and you were chosen to live together in peace. So let the peace that comes from Christ control your thoughts. And be grateful. Let the message about Christ completely fill your lives, while you use all your wisdom to teach and instruct each other. With thankful hearts, sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. Whatever you say or do should be done in the name of the Lord Jesus, as you give thanks to God the Father because of him. (Contemporary English Version)

New life is fantastic!… Until it isn’t.

Like a new car eventually losing its new car smell, so it is quite easy for the Christian to experience the mountaintop of transformation, only to lug back down and walk through the boring old valley.

And it’s fun to have a new set of clothes… until they wear out, go out of style, or fall apart in the washing machine. the thing about those new clothes we were so excited about when we got them is that they are wearing out.

When I was eight-years-old (a long time ago!) I still remember my favorite pair of jeans. I wore them every day. My Mom had to order me to take them off so she could wash them. Finally, after having several patches sewn on them, having grown too much, and with the material so thin you could see through them in places, that old ratty pair of jeans actually just fell off my body in a heap, as if to say, “Enough is enough, boy!”

Our nice white spiritual clothes, given to us through Christ’s resurrection, are to be our favorites. We need to clothe ourselves in them every day.

Because of Christ’s redemptive events of crucifixion and resurrection, believers can experience new life, free from sin, death, and hell.  Oh, it isn’t that we never need to deal with evil; we very much do. The difference is that we now have a new awareness of our spirituality.  And with awareness comes choices. 

If we aren’t aware of our feelings, our spirit, and/or old nature, well, then, it’s as if we operate on auto-pilot – losing altitude in an immanent descent into tragedy. When we are aware of our inner selves, then we mindfully ascend through the clouds to join Christ.

You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.

Ephesians 4:22-24, NIV

We can make choices about what to wear. With awareness, we look in the mirror and see that the grave clothes need to come off. The old raggedy garments of pride and hubris, greed and immorality, selfish lust, jealous envy, spiritual gluttony, unholy anger, and complacency get taken off and tossed in the garbage. 

We then go to God’s expansive walk-in closet and choose the bright raiment of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, forgiveness, and grab the beautiful coat of love which covers it all with such dignity and honor.

It would be super weird to try and put the new clothes over the old raggedy grave clothes. That’s not only gross, but it’s also downright wrongheaded. Practical Christianity always involves two actions: taking-off and putting-on. 

“No one cuts up a fine silk scarf to patch old work clothes; you want fabrics that match. And you don’t put your wine in cracked bottles.”

Matthew 9:16-17, MSG

Human willpower and/or ingenuity tries to live a virtuous life while ignoring the vices. This will not do for the Christian. The endearing qualities we so desire to possess cannot be obtained without first dealing with the crud of sin which clings to us like so many stinky dirty clothes. To put this in theological terms: the cross and resurrection go together. Sin must be put to death before a victorious life is put on.

Once we have acknowledged sin, let Christ take it all off, and put on the new clothes. Then we’re ready to hit the town in style!  We walk out the door with a tremendous sense of peace, knowing God in Christ has cleaned us up.  We stroll into the world with lips whistling and a song in our hearts – singing with gratitude for what the risen Christ has accomplished on our behalf. 

After all, we just put on expensive clothes and it didn’t cost us a dime.  In fact, we’re so darned thankful that we don’t just talk to others, we sing our words to them – even though we can’t carry a tune.  It doesn’t matter.  Our coat of love compels us.

Almighty and everlasting God, you willed that our Savior should take upon him our clothing of death upon the cross so that all humanity would have the privilege of wearing humility, gratitude, and love. Mercifully grant that we may both follow the example of Christ’s life, and also be made aware of our participation in his glorious resurrection, in the power of your Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Matthew 5:5 – Blessed Are the Meek

Blessed are the meek,
    for they will inherit the earth. (NIV)

To give us a flavor of Christ’s counter-cultural Beatitudes, when was the last time, or has anyone ever, described themselves to you as meek?

Whenever I have interviewed people for positions, both paid and voluntary, and asked them to tell me their strengths, I have never had anyone say to me, “I’m a meek person.”

Why would I want to be meek?

Far too often, we equate meek with weak. If someone is meek, we may wrongly reason they must be a washrag, or overly introverted, and maybe not taking proper initiative in life. Of all the character qualities we might aspire to, I doubt that meekness is on anyone’s top ten list of desired qualities.

Yet, of the few words in the Gospels which Jesus uses to describe himself, one of those words is meek. And even then, many English translations steer clear of the word. For example, the New International Version of the Bible says in translating the words of Jesus, “Come to me all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Only the King James Version translates the word as “meek,” instead of “gentle.”)

What does it mean to be meek?

Meek and gentle are the same words. The original Greek word is πραεῖς (pronounced “prah-ace”). “Meek” is the word used in other ancient Greek literature for breaking a horse. It is to be changed from being a wild stallion who wants to go his own way, to a broken horse who is gentle before the Master and allows others on his back without bucking.

Consider, for example, the scene around Christ’s crucifixion. Jesus was naked, exposed, and vulnerable to the idle curiosity of the crowd and the vulgar frivolity of the soldiers who were having a party around his suffering. “If you are the king of the Jews,” they taunted, “save yourself.”

And yet the extraordinary thing is there was no spirit of revenge with our Lord. Jesus did not curse his tormentors. Instead, he prayed, “Father forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing.” (Luke 23:24)

It is important to notice the meekness that Jesus is speaking about in this Beatitude is not being a pushover. Meekness is not to be confused with being nice and easy-going. Meek and lowly as he was, Jesus could also take a whip to greedy money-changers in the Temple. We must not confuse meekness with weakness.

What characterizes a meek person?

Whereas poverty of spirit is more a humility before God, meekness is a humility toward other people. It is to be flat on our backs with only one way to look: up to God; and because we are in that position, there is no opportunity to look down on others. 

Meekness is a foundational Beatitude. Jesus considers it a necessary part of righteousness. I believe the word “meek” needs a renaissance. Even if we use the word “gentle” this will be a great advancement in how people interact with one another. So, what characterizes a meek person?

  • The meek have a desire to put other’s interests ahead of their own, because they know it is not all about them. They practice healthy rhythms of giving and receiving with others, without prejudice or favoritism.
  • The meek are more concerned with edifying and building up their brothers and sisters than justifying themselves. They don’t care who gets the credit. And they receive criticism well.
  • The meek are truly egalitarian and do all things with equity and inclusion. They make no distinctions between rich and poor, beautiful and ugly, intelligent and cognitive deficits, black and white, gay and straight, Democrat and Republican, or insider and outsider. In the meek person’s mind, every person is created in the image of God and therefore deserves respect, attention, and justice.

It is the meek who will inherit the earth – not aggressive people who believe in survival of the fittest, stepping on people to get where they want to go, or badgering others in order to get their way. 

Someone might protest, “But if I live this way, I’ll be pushed around.”  Meekness is not living without boundaries but is power under control. Maybe you will get stepped on – but you will inherit the earth.

How do I live as a meek person?

The three Beatitudes of being poor in spirit, mourning over sin, and meekness toward others are foundational to all that Jesus says and does. They are central to being Christ’s follower. Without them, there is only a contrived legalistic righteousness of our own without any real need of God. That is the way of pride, which is the straight and broad road to hell. 

Perhaps repentance is in order. It could be that too many people have made much more of themselves than what they truly are. Maybe we have adopted a soft attitude toward shame and shaming others, believing that some people need a bit of guilt from us to change their obnoxious ways. Perhaps we have paid scant attention to those who are in physical or spiritual poverty. And just maybe we have ignored and gossiped about others simply because we believe we are better than them.

A genuine follower of Christ lives a repentant lifestyle. The Apostle James said, “Confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another so that you may be healed” (James 5:16).  The way of Christ is the way of community. We are not to live ingenuine lives, hiding behind a mask of outward conformity. Now is the time for authenticity, living life as God intended it to be lived, as a disciple of Jesus in the way of spiritual poverty, mourning, and meekness – the narrow path that leads to salvation.

Non-retaliation happens when we realize our poverty of spirit and practice grief and lament. When we are flat on our backs before God, there is no place to look but up. And it means there is no ability to look down on others. It is to be broken and moldable before God. 

If you and I were part of the original crowd that listened to Jesus, there is hope. I have no ability to practice retaliation, even if I wanted to, because I have no earthly power. But that’s okay because, in this spirit of meekness, I take personal responsibility for my attitudes and my actions. I am neither worse nor better than any other person. I do not need to retaliate, even when egregiously wronged, because I can fully entrust myself to God alone who judges the living and the dead. 

Conclusion

It turns out that brokenness is the path to genuine righteousness. Jesus promised that the meek will inherit the earth. Christ didn’t just make that up. He was quoting Holy Scripture:

Do not fret because of those who are evil
    or be envious of those who do wrong;
for like the grass they will soon wither,
    like green plants they will soon die away.

Trust in the Lord and do good;
    dwell in the land and enjoy safe pasture.
Take delight in the Lord,
    and he will give you the desires of your heart.

Commit your way to the Lord;
    trust in him and he will do this:
He will make your righteous reward shine like the dawn,
    your vindication like the noonday sun.

Be still before the Lord
    and wait patiently for him;
do not fret when people succeed in their ways,
    when they carry out their wicked schemes.

Refrain from anger and turn from wrath;
    do not fret—it leads only to evil.
For those who are evil will be destroyed,
    but those who hope in the Lord will inherit the land.

A little while, and the wicked will be no more;
    though you look for them, they will not be found.
But the meek will inherit the land
    and enjoy peace and prosperity. (Psalm 37:1-11, NIV)

Jesus was saying that only the truly meek will learn contentment, joy, and satisfaction. Their ego is not so inflated that they insist they deserve more. Indeed, because as God’s people they are learning from him, the meek understand they are co-heirs with Christ in an inheritance of God’s kingdom.

May your meekness and gentleness be known to all.

*Above painting by Hyatt Moore

Titus 1:1-9 – Effective Spiritual Leaders

From Paul, a slave of God and an apostle of Jesus Christ. I’m sent to bring about the faith of God’s chosen people and a knowledge of the truth that agrees with godliness.

Their faith and this knowledge are based on the hope of eternal life that God, who doesn’t lie, promised before time began. God revealed his message at the appropriate time through preaching, and I was trusted with preaching this message by the command of God our savior.

To Titus, my true child in a common faith.

Grace and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our savior.

The reason I left you behind in Crete was to organize whatever needs to be done and to appoint elders in each city, as I told you. Elders should be without fault. They should be faithful to their spouse and have faithful children who can’t be accused of self-indulgence or rebelliousness. This is because supervisors should be without fault as God’s managers: they shouldn’t be stubborn, irritable, addicted to alcohol, a bully, or greedy. Instead, they should show hospitality, love what is good, and be reasonable, ethical, godly, and self-controlled. They must pay attention to the reliable message as it has been taught to them so that they can encourage people with healthy instruction and refute those who speak against it. (Common English Bible)

Paul wrote his letter to Titus so that spiritually solid competent virtuous leaders might be appointed to guide the church on the island of Crete (located in the Mediterranean Sea, south of Greece). 

There was no ambiguity with Paul about the importance of leadership. The Apostle clearly laid out his expectations that church officials must have a good reputation – not bossy, quick-tempered, heavy drinkers, bullies, or dishonest in business. Instead, they must be friendly to strangers and enjoy doing good things. They must also be sensible, fair, pure, and self-controlled.  They must stick to the true message they were taught, so that their good teaching can help others and correct everyone who opposes it.

I find it interesting that very few biblical scholars view this teaching as an ideal to aspire – while many churches and believers think this is the case. There is neither any indication nor reason within the biblical text to think that Paul presented his expectations for the ideal leader, as if no one could really be this way. 

Furthermore, Paul did not provide his instruction as a strategy for getting apathetic people off their butts and into some form of service. No, it’s best to understand that Paul meant what he said. He knew that compromising on the character of leadership would erode and destroy the church.

“True leadership is found in giving yourself in service to others, not in coaxing or inducing others to serve you.”

J. Oswald Sanders

The selection of church leaders is important because just one bad belly-aching non-virtuous apple can upset the entire apple cart. Good people provide good teaching and good wisdom. Selfish people with a self-centered agenda find ways to subvert or manipulate sound instruction to get what they want. 

Everyone in the Body of Christ is to grow in the wisdom and knowledge of God. They are to be wise to all the shenanigans of myopic persons through understanding the commands and instruction of Holy Scripture. This is yet another reason to immerse ourselves in the Bible so that we will lead with confidence.

If a church or faith community feels the need to overlook character defects to fill empty leadership seats, then Houston, we have a problem. Any short order cook worth his salt would never crack open a rotten egg and mix it in with the rest to make an omelet. And any group of people who throw a bad egg into their leadership team had better be ready to get sick and vomit when meetings are called to order.

It is imperative that spiritual leaders possess the following:

  • A good reputation
  • Faithfulness and fidelity to their families.
  • A clear-mind and consistent good behavior.
  • Self-control
  • The moral courage to speak truth with grace.
  • A spirit and practice of hospitality.
  • An ability to communicate well so that people are built up in their faith.
  • Sobriety
  • Humility
  • Respectability
  • Gentleness
  • Patience
  • Generosity
  • Compassion
  • Maturity
  • Sincerity
  • Honesty
  • Empathy
  • Purity

All these traits are needed for effective and godly spiritual leadership. Compromising on virtue will never end well. Upholding moral character brings blessing.

“The authority by which the Christian leader leads is not power but love, not force but example, not coercion but reasoned persuasion. Leaders have power, but power is safe only in the hands of those who humble themselves to serve.” 

John R.W. Stott

God calls and sets apart individuals for service. The Lord desires to reveal and manifest the divine presence among people through leaders who reflect God’s good attributes. Jesus Christ wants his church to be built up through faithful service. The Spirit seeks to sanctify and empower for effective ministry.

Nowhere do we find in Scripture that a leader’s main job is listening to complaints. That’s because God has a zero tolerance policy toward murmuring, grumbling, and ingratitude. In fact, the New Testament clearly says to do everything without complaining or arguing. (Philippians 2:14)

Neither will you find the church is supposed to operate just like an American form of democracy. Spiritual leaders are not representatives of the people to do their will. Instead, they are representatives of God to the people so that God’s will is done in all things. 

That all means prayer to God and outreach to the world is the major work for spiritual leaders. And it takes virtuous and ethical persons leading to realize love to all kinds of people. So, feel free to exercise leadership. Just make sure that leadership is grounded in the God of integrity and the Word of grace and truth.

Almighty God, the One who gives good gifts to people, may every grace of ministry rest on divinely appointed leaders. Keep them strong and faithful so that your church may prosper in peace. Grant leaders wisdom, courage, discretion, and benevolence so that they may fulfill their charge to the glory of Jesus Christ and in the power of your Holy Spirit. Amen.