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.

2 Samuel 10:1-5 – Misunderstood

Sometime later, King Nahash of Ammon died, and his son Hanun became king. David said, “Nahash was kind to me, and I will be kind to his son.” So, he sent some officials to the country of Ammon to tell Hanun how sorry he was that his father had died.

But Hanun’s officials told him, “Do you really believe David is honoring your father by sending these people to comfort you? He probably sent them to spy on our city, so he can destroy it.” Hanun arrested David’s officials and had their beards shaved off on one side of their faces. He had their robes cut off just below the waist, and then he sent them away. They were terribly ashamed.

When David found out what had happened to his officials, he sent a message and told them, “Stay in Jericho until your beards grow back. Then you can come home.” (Contemporary English Version)

Showing mercy, grace, and good faith doesn’t always have a happy ending.

Sometimes people get burned for their genuine gracious overtures. Not only do some folks not return or reciprocate with grace. There are times when someone refuses it and even responds with criticism and judgment.

King David was at the pinnacle of his rule. All Israel and Judah were under his gracious authority. David acted as a godly sovereign when he sought to use his power to show kindness and grace to those in his kingdom, even to those who were related to his former enemy, Saul. (2 Samuel 9:1-12)

Yet when David kept up his gracious ways and sent a delegation to the Ammonites in order to bring compassion to a grieving nation, they not only spurned the kindness but attributed evil intent to it.

Why in the world would they do such a thing? Why did Hanun, the new ruler of Ammon, reject David’s kindness? Because he severely misinterpreted David’s motives, and completely misjudged David’s intentions.

It is important to make wise assessments of others, and not quick judgments about people or their situations.

Being misunderstood is downright difficult to swallow. Yet we can avoid sinful reactions and respond with grace, even if grace isn’t being shown to us:

  • We can be gracious by not always needing to have the last word. Any fool can get easily get sucked into an argument. Know when to stop talking.

Too much talk leads to sin. Be sensible and keep your mouth shut. (Proverbs 10:19, NLT)

Even fools may be thought wise and intelligent if they stay quiet and keep their mouths shut. (Proverbs 17:28, GNT)

  • We can be gracious through cultivating a humble spirit. Pride assumes that another can be silenced with the power of words. What’s more, wounded pride typically manifests itself by gossiping to others about our hurt.

Destructive people produce conflict; gossips alienate close friends. (Proverbs 16:28, CEB)

Pride leads to destruction; humility leads to honor. (Proverbs 18:12, CEV)

God opposes arrogant people, but he is kind to humble people. (James 4:6, GW)

  • We can be gracious by developing our capacity for civility and empathy. Often when someone spews their off-base judgments and criticisms upon us, they have a world of their own past personal hurt behind the angry diatribe. We can choose to be gently curious about this, discovering why there is such a visceral reaction to our kindness.

“I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” (Matthew 5:44-45, NIV)

Show respect for all people. Love your brothers and sisters in God’s family. Respect God and honor the king. (1 Peter 2:17, ERV)

  • We can be gracious through tapping into an inner storehouse of wisdom. Knowledge puffs up. Love builds up. Wisdom is insight into reality. For the believer, it is the ability to take God’s Word and lovingly apply it to the lived experience we are enduring.

Hold on to wisdom, and it will take care of you. Love it, and it will keep you safe. Wisdom is the most important thing; so, get wisdom. If it costs everything you have, get understanding. (Proverbs 4:6-7, NCV)

It is true, of course, that “all of us have knowledge,” as they say. Such knowledge, however, puffs a person up with pride; but love builds up. (1 Corinthians, 8:1, GNT)

One of life’s hard lessons is that bestowing grace and mercy to others does not necessarily mean they will receive it and respond in kind. 

In fact, there are some individuals who refuse grace and give back only scorn and derision. Even the Lord Jesus experienced this like no other before or after him. Christ endured all the foulness and degradation of a cruel cross because there were people who refused to see that he was extending God’s grace to them. He turned scorn on its head by despising shame and enduring pain so that we would be spared of such ignominy. (Hebrews 12:2-3)

In those times when we, at best, scratch our heads, and, at worst, weep uncontrollably over having our genuine love paid back with harsh misunderstanding, it is a good reminder that we are imitating the life of our precious Lord Jesus who knows exactly what shame is and what a profound lack of mercy can do. 

It is in the seasons and events of life which produce frustration that we understand this: Perfect peace will not be found in this life. So, we more fully attach ourselves to Jesus and find genuine grace and the solidarity of faith and love.

Consider what Christ went through; how he put up with so much hatred from those misinterpreting and misjudging him. Do not let yourselves become discouraged and give up from gross misunderstanding.

Loving God, I give you thanks for sending your Son, the Lord Jesus. Christ is the pioneer of my faith. Just as he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at your right hand, so help me to live into the grace you offer through Christ’s redemptive events so that I might persevere with grace through all the unmerciful acts of this world. Amen.

Two Ways of Living: Blessed or Cursed

Blessed is the one
    who does not walk in step with the wicked
or stand in the way that sinners take
    or sit in the company of mockers,
but whose delight is in the law of the Lord,
    and who meditates on his law, day and night.
That person is like a tree planted by streams of water,
    which yields its fruit in season
and whose leaf does not wither—
    whatever they do prospers.

Not so the wicked!
    They are like chaff
    that the wind blows away.
Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
    nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous.

For the Lord watches over the way of the righteous,
    but the way of the wicked leads to destruction. (Psalm 1:1-6, NIV)

The Righteous and the Wicked

This psalm presents two ways we can choose to shape our lives: the way of the righteous and the way of the wicked, blessed or cursed. The way of the righteous leads to human blessing, flourishing, and living. The way of the wicked leads to human cursing, degenerating, and dying.

Distinguishing between the righteous and the wicked is not always as easy as it looks. Only at the end of the age, when Judgment Day comes, will we know for certain the righteous and the wicked.

To discern the difference between the two, let’s refer to the Reformer, Martin Luther, to help us. You might be familiar with Luther’s 95 Theses posted on the door of the Wittenberg castle church, sparking the Reformation of Christianity. Less familiar is the theological meat of Luther’s reforming spirit, his Heidelberg Disputation of 1518, written the year following the 95 Theses.

Theology of the Cross and Theology of Glory

Like Psalm 1, Luther contrasts two opposing ways. He calls these two ways the theology of the cross and the theology of glory. The cross, as expressed by Luther, is God’s attack on human sin. It is the death of Christ which is central to Christianity. Therefore, one must embrace the cross and rely solely upon Christ’s finished work on the cross to handle human sin. It is through being crucified with Christ we find the way to human flourishing and life. In other words, righteousness is gained by grace through faith in Christ.

The theology of glory is the opposing way of the cross. It’s important to understand Luther because he has a key which helps us unlock Scripture by not walking in the way of the wicked, as expressed in Psalm 1. For Luther, the wicked person, and the vilest offender of God, is not the person who has done all kinds of readily observable outward sinning. You, perhaps like me, have an idea in your head of what the worst of sinners is like. My guess is that it probably has something to do with certain lifestyles or evil acts. 

“Good” Works?

Luther, however, insisted the worst of sinners are people who do good works. Specifically, the wicked person is one who has clean living and does nice things but does them disconnected from God by wanting others to see their good actions. Another way of putting it: The wicked person seeks to gain glory for themselves rather than give glory to God.

Our good works can be the greatest hindrance to righteousness and living the way of the cross. It is far too easy to place faith in our good works, done apart from God, rather than placing complete trust in Christ alone. It can be too easy, doing good things, for the primary purpose of having others observe our goodness, rather than do them out of the good soil of being planted in God’s Word. 

The remedy for sin is the cross, and the sinner lives life apart from that cross, trusting in self, so that people will give personal recognition, respect, and accolades.

“It is impossible for a person not to be puffed by his good works unless he has first been deflated and destroyed by suffering and evil until he knows that he is worthless and that his works are not his but God’s.”

Martin Luther

Delight, or Not

The answer to this problem of doing good works to gain glory for self is not to avoid good works, but to do them from the good soil of being planted in God’s law and connected to Christ’s vine. The psalmist uses the word “law” in referring to Scripture as a whole, to all the acquired wisdom about how life is supposed to be lived in God’s world.

People who yield juicy abundant fruit have immersed themselves in the law. Because they delight in God; secretly rise early to meditate on God’s Word; privately read the Bible’s message; and pray to put that message into practice. They will be blessed. 

The wicked are too busy to notice the law. They serve to be seen and desire public recognition for their charity and works. But those works will not stand in the Judgment. Jesus described them this way:

“You are like white-washed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside, but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean….  On the outside you appear to people as righteous, but on the inside, you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.” (Matthew 23:27, NIV)

Which is Which?

Identifying the righteous and the wicked is not as simple as saying the wicked are “those people” out there, and the righteous people are in here. The truly righteous person delights in God through the law. They have the humble sense they could easily drift from God if not staying connected, rooted in Jesus, and grounded in the way of the cross. 

The wicked, in contrast, are like chaff – worthless. They are arrogant and annoying – wanting all the attention which God rightly deserves. When I was a kid, I always wore a mask during the corn harvest because of the chaff and corn dust. Every year, from the time I was seven years old, I had the job of taking the tractor out and hitching up the wagons of corn and bringing them back. Then, I unloaded the wagon of corn into the auger which sent it up and into the corn bin. The corn dust flew everywhere. It was annoying and could easily take over my lungs if I weren’t masked up.

The wicked have nothing of substance to contribute to God’s kingdom – they add no value to what is going on. In fact, they are a hindrance to the harvest of souls God is trying to accomplish. Conversely, the righteous do good works which sprout from rich Iowa-type soil, producing a harvest of righteousness. 

The righteous person takes the time to know God’s law; satisfies the needs of those who are not able to pay them back or give them proper recognition; and cultivates relationships with those they help. The righteous are relational.

Righteous Job

The biblical character, Job, is an example of a righteous person. Job did all kinds of good works. And he did them because of his close walk with God. Job persevered through intolerable suffering and grief because he knew God. Job assisted the needy; helped others no matter their situation; championed the less fortunate; and gave glory to God even amid terrible trouble. Job did not throw in the towel when his reputation, his family, and his wealth were completely taken away. Instead, he said:

“Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will depart. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised.” In all this, Job did not sin by charging God with wrongdoing. (Job 1:21-22, NIV)

Generosity marks the righteous because God is generous. Grace defines the righteous because God is gracious. Gentleness is the way of the righteous because Christ is gentle. Spiritual prosperity is born of a righteous relationship with Jesus Christ. The Lord watches over the way of the righteous.

Injustice and Judgment

However, the wicked perish. There are sixteen prophetic books in the Old Testament, all given to a single message: Judgment is coming because of wickedness. And the wicked turn out to be some of God’s covenant people. That’s because they selectively did their good works to gain glory for themselves. And they withheld the good they could have done because it did not add any value to their reputation or personal goals. 

For example, prophesying to those who fasted so that others would see their spirituality, the prophet Isaiah communicated God’s message:

“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loosen the chains of injustice
    and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
    and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry
    and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
    and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? (Isaiah 58:6-7, NIV)

God desires genuine spiritual growth. That happens when we eschew a theology of glory, and embrace a theology of the cross, which delights in God and God’s law, meditating on it day and night.

A Choice

We always have a choice between the way of the righteous and the way of the wicked, to embrace a theology of the cross or a theology of glory. Here is how that choice is framed in the book of Deuteronomy when the ancient Israelites were about to enter the Promised Land:

See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction. For I command you today to love the Lord your God, to walk in obedience to him, and to keep his commands, decrees and laws; then you will live and increase, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land you are entering to possess….

I have set before you: life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the Lord your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him. For the Lord is your life, and he will give you many years in the land he swore to give to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” (Deuteronomy 30:15-20, NIV)

The idolatry which can easily seduce us are our own good works done for a human audience who will recognize and affirm. Jesus said we must play to the audience of one:

But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” (Matthew 6:3-4, NIV)

Our daily choice must be to love God supremely and give God glory for everything good in our lives. Perhaps Christianity needs another Reformation – one in which we do not just uphold the authority of Scripture, but reform our habits by loving God through basic disciplines of Bible-reading and simple obedience; and by loving our neighbor through giving them time and attention, the gift of relationship and friendship.

What will you choose this day?

Amos 9:7-15 – A Promise of Restoration

“Are you Israelites more important to me
    than the Ethiopians?” asks the Lord.
“I brought Israel out of Egypt,
    but I also brought the Philistines from Crete
    and led the Arameans out of Kir.

“I, the Sovereign Lord,
    am watching this sinful nation of Israel.
I will destroy it
    from the face of the earth.
But I will never completely destroy the family of Israel,”
    says the Lord.
“For I will give the command
    and will shake Israel along with the other nations
as grain is shaken in a sieve,
    yet not one true kernel will be lost.
But all the sinners will die by the sword—
    all those who say, ‘Nothing bad will happen to us.’

“In that day I will restore the fallen house of David.
    I will repair its damaged walls.
From the ruins I will rebuild it
    and restore its former glory.
And Israel will possess what is left of Edom
    and all the nations I have called to be mine.”
The Lord has spoken,
    and he will do these things.

“The time will come,” says the Lord,
“when the grain and grapes will grow faster
    than they can be harvested.
Then the terraced vineyards on the hills of Israel
    will drip with sweet wine!
I will bring my exiled people of Israel
    back from distant lands,
and they will rebuild their ruined cities
    and live in them again.
They will plant vineyards and gardens;
    they will eat their crops and drink their wine.
I will firmly plant them there
    in their own land.
They will never again be uprooted
    from the land I have given them,”
    says the Lord your God.
(New Living Translation)

Guilt

Doom and hope, judgment and grace, suffering and glory. These are the movements and rhythms of the Old Testament prophets. The great sin of Israel which warranted divine wrath was not only that they trampled on the poor and needy. On top of it all, they saw nothing wrong with their way of life. 

This profound lack of awareness, rooted in the spiritual blindness of greed, is what led to judgment. It would take the form of having the Assyrian Empire come, seize the land, and take the people away to a place where they would have no chance to oppress others. Sadly, death would come to many.

“The work of restoration cannot begin until a problem is fully faced.”

Dan Allender

The sin of oppressing others and believing there’s nothing wrong with it comes with severe consequences. The people relied too much on their ethnicity. The ancient Israelites wrongly assumed that because they were the people of the covenant, this somehow inoculated them from disaster. Their belief in Jewish exceptionalism was their downfall.

Grace

Yet, all would not be an endless gloom. The Lord will not destroy completely. God’s anger lasts for a moment. However, God’s grace lasts forever. Restoration, renewal, and fruitful times will come because of God’s mercy. 

Yes, God pronounces judgment when it is warranted. But God also makes and keeps promises to people. In our lesson for today, the Lord promises to restore the fortunes of the people through rebuilding ruined cities and letting them inhabit them once again.

God steps in and graciously acts on behalf of all people because that is what God does. We might get the notion in our heads that God executes judgment to teach people a lesson or to make a point. In my line of work, it is common to hear people express the idea they are under divine punishment because of personal illness or hard circumstances. 

God, however, acts independently out of a vast storehouse of righteousness and mercy. The Lord maintains holy decrees while showing grace to the undeserving. The nation of Israel, in the days of the prophet Amos, deserved only judgment, not grace. 

It seems to me God would have been completely justified to never restore or renew a recalcitrant people. Yet, God’s grace overwhelms and swallows human sin. Try as you might to understand grace, you will end up befuddled. That’s because grace is wildly illogical, nonsensical, and unconditionally free. Grace shows radical acceptance where there ought to be only the punishing fire of hell.

Gratitude

The height of grace and the pinnacle of restoring the fortunes of Israel (from a Christian perspective) came through a baby and a humble birth in the small village of Bethlehem. Jesus came to save the people from their sins. God acted by entering humanity with divine free love so that there could be new life and fresh hope. 

So, let grace wash you clean. Allow mercy to renew your life. Receive the gift of gracious forgiveness, merciful love, and divine peace. Look ahead and see there is hope on the horizon. Give thanks for God’s indescribable kindness.

Merciful God, although you are careful to uphold your great holiness, your mercy extends from everlasting to everlasting. May the gospel of grace form all my words and actions so that true righteousness reigns in my life through Jesus, my Lord, in the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.