James 1:17-27 – Be Good because God Is Good

Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of first-fruits of all he created.

My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires. Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you.

Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do.

Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless. Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world. (New International Version)

God is Good – All the Time

And all the time – God is good. That statement is a bedrock foundation for Christian faith. Without a basic affirmation and belief of God’s goodness, our faith will experience cracks and not stand the test of hardship and difficulty in life. Without the steadfast conviction that God is good, the alternative is that God is somehow fickle or even mean – that God does not care about my problems.

The trials and tribulations of life are intended by God to be watershed experiences that prove the genuineness, or lack thereof, of our faith. When life is good, it is easy to say God is good. However, when it isn’t, we may slide into a belief system that thinks God is the source of our trouble. And if we have not been working on a relationship with God, we will have scant resources to draw from to help us.

God is good, and not mean. Every single good gift there is in this world comes from God. Nothing evil comes from God. God’s grace is constantly around us. If his grace were not here, it would be like living inside a dystopian novel, or a zombie apocalypse, where everyone is constantly looking over their shoulders for the next evil thing to happen. Although evil exists, it could be a whole lot worse if it were not for divine grace and goodness.

“This is true faith, a living confidence in the goodness of God.”

Martin Luther

God is immutable, that is, God’s goodness is ever-present. On this earth we are constantly subjected to changing light as the sun rises and sets, and as the clouds come and go. Yet, God does not change like shifting shadows. God is not fickle or capricious. God’s goodness is always at high noon, standing like an eternal sun in a bright blue sky radiating unbroken grace to us.

God’s goodness has delivered people from sin, death, and hell. God’s grace has given us new life. God created the world and pronounced it “good.” God formed you and called you “good.” And God has forgiven you, in Christ, and says it is “good.”

God gave us a good word for us to accept and live by.

Hurry Up and Listen

There is a great need for listeners today. Precious little productive communication takes place because there are so many people in a hyper-vigilant state airing their opinions. They talk over and on top of each other because they’ve already made-up their minds about how things really are and what should be done. Nobody is listening.

Bible reading is a primary source for listening to God. Yet, although many people own multiple Bibles, and Scripture is freely available through digital sources, far too many persons simply don’t read and listen to it.

Slow Down and Speak

God has given us two ears and one mouth so that we will listen twice as much as we talk.   

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

A loose tongue and constant opining happens because of faulty listening.  An inability to listen leads to a lack of understanding because we do not take the time to get the whole story. It’s easy to pronounce verdicts with little information, and offer bad advice, when there is little listening.

Have a Long Fuse

Be slow to anger. A fool speaks without thinking, which stirs up strife. Slow to listen and quick to speak leads to anger flares. An angry spirit is an unteachable spirit, unwilling to listen to both God and others. 

Rash words said in anger produce an ugly unrighteous life. Selfish opinionated anger produces harsh bitter words and kills God’s plan for a good life.

We are to accept the Word of God. Throwing labels at people only de-humanizes them. They become objects of anger and scorn, and not people made in God’s image. Nothing good comes from ignoring God’s Word and giving-in to bitterness. It destroys good people.

Get Rid of Evil

Get rid of all moral filth, and the evil that is so prevalent. The unwillingness to listen, a loose tongue, and unrighteous anger are moral evils. Evil is not only perpetuated by serial killers, terrorists, and other people different from us. In fact, the face of evil rarely comes to us in the form of red horns and a pitchfork.

Evil also resides as soft-core wickedness – common ordinary evil. The demonic can work in an almost ho-hum manner, subtly questioning whether anyone can really live up to the precepts of God’s Word, and generally undermining all that takes place to the glory of God.

The face of evil is neither hot nor cold, but “meh.” It is the bitter slow-cooked seething anger bubbling just underneath the surface which comes out in a plastic smile while offering up a morsel of slander based on a lack of listening well. It comes out in fake gestures of niceness while being quick to make judgments with little to no information.

Put away the “meh.” Receive God’s Word. Take a teachable posture. Stop and listen to what God’s Word has to say.

Be a Doer of God’s Word, Not Just a Hearer

The Word of God is not truly received until it is put into practice. 

It is not the hearers of the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but the doers of the law who will be justified. (Romans 2:13, NRSV) 

Blessed are those who hear the word of God and obey it (Luke 11:28, NIV). 

The person who only hears is like a Mr. Potato Head that is only ears. He cannot stand because he has no feet.  He cannot do anything because he has no hands. Mr. Potato Head needs some feet so that he can follow Jesus wherever he goes. And he needs hands so he can do God’s will.

Listening to the Word without obedience is just that – it is mere hearing.  Profession of faith means nothing without a practice of that faith; learning the Bible is useless without living it; and acceptance of the Word is nothing more than a mental exercise without action to back it up.  Profession, knowledge, and acceptance alone does not satisfy God’s plan for our lives. 

Pay Attention to the Person in the Mirror

A person looks at himself in the mirror. He clearly sees all his flaws. Yet he does not respond, likely because he doesn’t like what he sees. It’s silly to look into a mirror, see a major bedhead, and just do nothing about it and go to work as if everything were fine. We look. We examine. We hear. We see exactly who we are. And we can’t even identify ourselves in a police lineup.

The person forgets what he looks like because he does not really want to face himself. This isn’t a clueless guy. It is one who sees himself as he really is and chooses not to do anything about it.

Forgetfulness happens because of inaction. Remembrance, communion, and hope all occur through active participation. God blesses the one who looks hard into the mirror of God’s Word, then intentionally makes changes based on what he finds.

Obedience to God’s Word brings freedom, not bondage. Listening, seeing, adjusting, and changing is a freeing activity. That’s because it’s how we are designed to live.

Holy and good God, give me grace to see you, others, and myself clearly so that I will be conformed to the image of Jesus Christ. Amen.

1 Samuel 16:1-13 – Solitude of the Heart

The Lord said to Samuel, “How long will you mourn for Saul, since I have rejected him as king over Israel? Fill your horn with oil and be on your way; I am sending you to Jesse of Bethlehem. I have chosen one of his sons to be king.”

But Samuel said, “How can I go? If Saul hears about it, he will kill me.”

The Lord said, “Take a heifer with you and say, ‘I have come to sacrifice to the Lord.’ Invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will show you what to do. You are to anoint for me the one I indicate.”

Samuel did what the Lord said. When he arrived at Bethlehem, the elders of the town trembled when they met him. They asked, “Do you come in peace?”

Samuel replied, “Yes, in peace; I have come to sacrifice to the Lord. Consecrate yourselves and come to the sacrifice with me.” Then he consecrated Jesse and his sons and invited them to the sacrifice.

When they arrived, Samuel saw Eliab and thought, “Surely the Lord’s anointed stands here before the Lord.”

But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”

Then Jesse called Abinadab and had him pass in front of Samuel. But Samuel said, “The Lord has not chosen this one either.” Jesse then had Shammah pass by, but Samuel said, “Nor has the Lord chosen this one.” Jesse had seven of his sons pass before Samuel, but Samuel said to him, “The Lord has not chosen these.” So, he asked Jesse, “Are these all the sons you have?”

“There is still the youngest,” Jesse answered. “He is tending the sheep.”

Samuel said, “Send for him; we will not sit down until he arrives.”

So, he sent for him and had him brought in. He was glowing with health and had a fine appearance and handsome features.

Then the Lord said, “Rise and anoint him; this is the one.”

So, Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the presence of his brothers, and from that day on the Spirit of the Lord came powerfully upon David. Samuel then went to Ramah. (New International Version)

Loneliness is the poverty of self; solitude is the richness of self. - May Sarton

Appearances can be deceiving.

One of the best ways to see beyond mere physical sight is to engage in the spiritual practice of solitude. Solitude is not loneliness but a deliberate retreat from normal routines to be alone with the Lord.

The faith of both Samuel and David were strengthened through solitude. It prepared them for public service and made them godly. Because they had established patterns of being alone with God, they had an inward solitude even when in a crowd. That is why Samuel could have an interaction with the Lord, even when among lots of people.

Solitude is important because it is the true path to listening well.  A person whose faith has been shaped through solitude has an ability to carry on a dialogue with God while, at the same time, having a conversation with others.

Christ’s relationship with the Father was formed through solitude. Jesus was able to have simultaneous conversations with God and people since he practiced solitude on a regular basis. Jesus began his ministry with solitude (Matthew 4:1-11); made major decisions through solitude (Luke 6:12); and taught his disciples to practice solitude (Matthew 17:1-9; 26:36-46).

Solitude is necessary because engaging the world is important. Effective interaction with others requires times of retreat for solitude with God. Solitude as a spiritual discipline:

  • Gives us freedom from the need for constant noise and activity.
  • Allows God to shape our faith rather than conform to the world.
  • Liberates us from other people’s expectations for us.
  • Helps quiet internal noise and racing thoughts so we can better listen to God.
  • Provides the opportunity for reflection upon and preparation for future events.
  • Creates encouraging speech for the benefit of others.
  • Fuels a desire to keep practicing solitude because of its benefit.

Solitude taught Samuel obedience.

Samuel learned obedience through years of solitude with old Eli the priest. “Speak Lord, for I am listening” became a way of life for Samuel, as he was trained in how to listen well. 

Samuel’s greatness as the Judge of Israel did not lie in his original ideas or the initiatives he took, but in simple obedience to the commands of God. Years of obscurity and solitude as a child created the ability to hear and carry-out what the Lord told him to do.

Even Samuel, as godly as he was, could not rely on personal observations about choosing the next king of Israel. Because he had long years of practicing solitude with the Lord, Samuel was able to clearly hear divine speech and anointed the right person as king. Samuel did not trust his own judgment but relied on God’s direction.

Solitude characterizes God.

Christians serve a triune God of Father, Son, and Spirit. God has complete and perfect solitude along with focused engagement with humanity. Through spending time with God, people can simultaneously interact with divinity and humanity.

It is a bit like my wife who began her broadcasting career in radio by simulcasting the AM station in one ear of her headphones, and the FM station in the other ear. She could que a record for the FM station while, at the same time, forecasting the weather for the AM station. Her ability was born of practice and commitment to her craft.  In the same way, we have been given a vocation to engage the church and world, and the ability to have a solitude of heart while interacting with others.

God, unlike us, sees us completely, inside-and-out – which is why we are dependent upon solitude of heart so that we can make proper judgments. God urged Samuel to not look at the outward appearance because this is how wrong judgments happen.

Solitude formed David into a king.

David was on nobody’s short list to become king. He was so far out there as a candidate for the position that his own family did not even think it necessary to have him present for the sacrificial feast. It is just like God to have a way of choosing the people we think would be the least likely to do anything.

Being in the pasture day after day and night after night by himself was just the right curriculum that trained the next king. Shepherding was not a lonely affair for David. It was a rich experience of solitude which developed a solid relationship with God. Out in the field, away from all the wrong judgments of the world, David learned to discern God’s voice – a skill he carried with him the rest of his life.

Solitude is our path to spiritual maturity.

Solitude might seem unrealistic for extroverts, and only something for introverts. Yet, solitude is essential to creating a robust faith in God. The following are some steps toward the practice of solitude and allowing it to bring you into a closer walk with the Lord.

  1. Practice “little solitudes” in the day. The early morning cup of coffee or shower, the drive-time to work, the lunch break, the quiet at night when all is dark and everyone in bed are opportunities for solitude with God to reorient and redirect our lives.
  2. Find or create a quiet place designed specifically for solitude. It might be a room, a closet, or a chair. It might be outdoors. It can be anywhere that helps you be free from distraction and invites you to connect deeply with Jesus.
  3. Begin the day by spending at least 10 minutes alone with God in silence. Over time, work your way to even more minutes, even hours. I am a believer in an hour a day keeping the devil away. Eventually, take an entire day away, every few months. Consider taking a weekend or even a week away once a year.
  4. Read Holy Scripture slowly and meditatively. Listen to what the Spirit may be saying in your reading.  Keep a journal handy and write down your observations. Allow prayers to arise from what you hear from the Lord.

This might seem optional only for those with discretionary time – but it is no more optional than planting in the Spring to get a harvest in the Fall. Such fruit results in the slaying of giants….

**Above photo by Rakicevic Nenad on Pexels.com

Luke 8:4-15 – Christ’s Parable of the Soils

While a large crowd was gathering and people were coming to Jesus from town after town, he told this parable: “A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path; it was trampled on, and the birds ate it up. Some fell on rocky ground, and when it came up, the plants withered because they had no moisture. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up with it and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil. It came up and yielded a crop, a hundred times more than was sown.”

When he said this, he called out, “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.”

His disciples asked him what this parable meant. He said, “The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of God has been given to you, but to others I speak in parables, so that,

“‘though seeing, they may not see;
    though hearing, they may not understand.’

“This is the meaning of the parable: The seed is the word of God. Those along the path are the ones who hear, and then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved. Those on the rocky ground are the ones who receive the word with joy when they hear it, but they have no root. They believe for a while, but in the time of testing they fall away. The seed that fell among thorns stands for those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by life’s worries, riches and pleasures, and they do not mature. But the seed on good soil stands for those with a noble and good heart, who hear the word, retain it, and by persevering produce a crop. (New International Version)

The Parable

“Whoever has ears, let them hear,” said Jesus. Truly hearing Christ’s words and listening with focused attention is paramount to the Christian life. Our ears are the soil of our lives. Ears attentive and devoted to listening to Jesus are good soil; ears distracted, inattentive, and stopped up with ear wax are bad soil. Receptive listening to the Word of God brings a fruitful harvest of righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit. Genuinely believing what we hear from Jesus is crucial. God’s Word falls on four different soils….

  1. The seed on the path. A path is for walking, which is why the seed never takes root. Here there is no listening. When we act without listening, our actions will be misguided. 
  2. The seed on rocky soil.  Here there is no deep listening. A lack of attentive hearing results in a shallow person who perhaps relies more on Christian clichés or on their personality or abilities instead of the sown Word.
  3. The seed on the thorny soil. Here there is significant listening. However, there is too much listening to a cacophony of voices and not enough singular listening to the sown Word. Listening to the wrong voices will cause an unfruitful life. So, we must be careful to whom we are listening.
  4. The seed on good soil. A devoted listening to the Word without distraction leads to a productive, fruitful believer.

“There is a difference between listening and waiting for your turn to speak.”

Simon Sinek

The Nature of Parables

A parable is a genre of biblical literature. Parables are as much about concealing truth as they are conveying truth. A person must give focused attention to the story to learn from it, much like a good novel conveys truth about the human condition without being preachy or outright saying the truth. Or it’s much akin to a good movie relying on character development and the power of story for its message, instead of being a straightforward documentary.

Jesus neither strong-arms people nor puts them in a full nelson to force them into God’s will. We will miss out on God’s working, if we are looking for a big dramatic hoo-ha of an event. That’s because it comes as an awareness within people and works its way out. For those not intent on changing, they will find Christ’s words confusing. They might “hear” Jesus, yet fail to really listen, since they have their own ideas about how God ought to operate.

Yet, grace is still present. The very fact that Jesus addressed the crowd of people demonstrates he cared enough to communicate. He could have said, “Hey, you guys, get lost, I’m just going to interact with people who really listen to me.” Instead of coming at the crowd and bursting through the front door, Jesus mercifully came to them through the side door so that they would be able to receive the message. 

Puking the good news of Jesus all over people without really listening is a bad idea. Neither is being worried about saying something offensive, so nothing is said at all. A better approach is asking permission to tell your story of what Jesus means to you, or what you are learning from God’s Word.

The Parable Interpreted

The focus is the experience of the seed in a variety of soils. Outside powers acting on the Word – devouring birds, rocks, the burning sun, choking thorn-bushes – demonstrate the Word is central and needs to be received well:

  1. The path is the inability to hear God’s Word because of hard-heartedness. The devil snatches it before any real understanding can take place.
  2. The rocky soil is hearing just enough to respond with joy. But the person drops out when hard circumstances occur. “I didn’t sign up for this!” is their cry. They needed to count the cost of discipleship before responding to the message. This is merely a professing Christian, nothing more.  Rather than listening and internalizing the Word, there is only positive affirmation without any action or practice. So, tomorrow the message is gone and forgotten. When difficulty comes, there are no supporting words to draw from, so the person fades away, unable to navigate life successfully.
  3. The thorny soil also hears and responds to the message. This person is also a professing Christian, nothing more. The issue here is that they also listen to voices of worry and wealth. In a sort of spiritual attention-deficit-disorder, there is no ability to filter all the voices calling out, and so, no growth.
  4. Listening with the intention of understanding and putting into practice the message heard is what brings about fruit. Receiving the Word through careful listening brings about spiritual growth. God brings the growth when we focus on the Word. And when a whole group does this, then it creates a greenhouse effect in which people cannot help but grow in the Lord.

Conclusion to the Parable

The simple reception of God’s Word leads to fruitfulness. The first soil did not receive the Word, though it listened. The second received it with joy but under pressure let it go. The third received it with only one hand because the other hand was busy. Only the fourth soil received the Word with both hands.

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. (Psalm 1:1-3, NIV)

The old adage that we were created with two ears and one mouth, so that we will listen twice as much talk, is a truism. It’s hard to receive any words of encouragement, help, or reproof if you’re tongue is flapping in the wind.

Careful listening, attention to memory, and patient application are the pathways to realizing an abundant spiritual harvest of righteousness and peace.

*Above paintings, The Sower by Vincent Van Gogh, 1881 & 1888

Amos 8:11-13 – Not Just Some

We all do better when we all do better.

“The days are coming,” declares the Sovereign Lord,
    “when I will send a famine through the land—
not a famine of food or a thirst for water,
    but a famine of hearing the words of the Lord.
People will stagger from sea to sea
    and wander from north to east,
searching for the word of the Lord,
    but they will not find it.

“In that day the lovely young women and strong young men
    will faint because of thirst.
(New International Version)

Global Ears

Christians are presently in the season of Eastertide. It is a time of celebrating resurrection and new life… for all, not just some.

A Christian vision of the world is concerned with the common good of all persons, not just some. God is concerned for the entire planet, not just some of it. The Lord calls people from everywhere, all nations, every ethnicity and race of humanity, not just some.

Somewhere along the line, the people of God began hearing God’s voice, as if it were Charlie Brown’s teacher just saying, “Blah, blah… blah, blah.” Smug in their positions of power, and ever-expanding in their desire for more money and possessions, they stopped up their ears to the cries of the poor, needy, and indigent surrounding them.

Self-Centered Ears

Whenever we cease listening to others, we then construct stories in our heads about why they’re the way they are. “The poor? I’ll tell you why they are poor,” says the person with no significant interaction with anyone struggling in poverty. “Those people are lazy. They don’t like to work. They’re only looking for a free handout. Well, believe you me, they aren’t getting a thing from me! I work hard for what I have,” the satisfied person insists.

Then, with a callous disregard for who and what is right under their noses, the privileged person turns to his wife and says, “What’s for supper?” Food aplenty. Clothing galore. Fresh water with no worries. And no thought to helping fellow humanity with even the dignity of listening to the poor person’s plight.

And God will have none of it from the smug self-justifying person. There won’t be a famine of food. It will be a famine of God’s voice, God’s Word. Those who do not listen will not be listened to.

Individualist Ears

For four-hundred years there was a famine of God’s Word, the time between the Old Testament and the New Testament in Holy Scripture. No voice from God. No divine words for anybody, not just some.

As a human community, what one person or one group of people do, effects everyone else. Our individualism doesn’t like that. We chafe at the thought that other people’s actions influence us.

As a young couple, my wife and I rented an apartment. When I contacted the utility company, they informed me I needed to put an exorbitant amount of money down to begin electrical service in our apartment. It turns out, an older gentleman lived alone in the apartment before us. The neighbors said he always kept all the lights on, and that he had high watt bulbs in everything.

So, when the electric company gave me a figure for a down payment, it was based on the apartment’s average usage over the past year. One man’s single solitary decision about lighting impacted a struggling young couple trying to get through school with a new baby in tow.

Just because we don’t see the impact of our decisions, doesn’t mean there aren’t any.

God sees them all. And he hears the cries of the poor who must fork out the precious little cash they have on things not of their own doing.

Whenever people refuse listening to the poor, the entire human community is at risk of experiencing a famine of God’s speech. That’s for all people, not just some.

Biblical Ears

Scripture says people don’t live on food alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God (Deuteronomy 8:3; Matthew 4:4). God’s Word is necessary sustenance, just as much as the need for three square meals a day. Withholding both physical and spiritual resources from others, either through sheer inattention or blatant disregard, damns a society to experiencing famine in the total sense of the word – for all, not just some.

Worshiping at the altar of capitalism or any other economic system is idolatry. Although I do not believe capitalism is inherently bad, it does have a shadow side to it which we need to see and acknowledge. Private ownership is a good thing. Yet, capitalism benefits only some, not all. We have class divisions and unequal access to goods and resources. A few control a lot. However, in the kingdom of God, all benefit, not just some.

Capitalist Ears

Capitalism is a good motivator to work. It is also the best motivator there is for greed. What’s more, people are viewed and treated more as commodities than human beings. We are not “giving units” to be exploited for our labor or our resources. We are persons. So, we need to be treated as such. Operating a sweat shop, failing to pay workers a living wage, and turning a blind eye to safety, just to make an extra buck, comes under the condemnation of Amos’ prophecy.

A capitalist approach really ends up bringing needless complexity and an exorbitant amount of goods and services, rather than a simple lifestyle which can care for people – instead of maintaining a bunch of stuff. The insatiable desire for more only causes deafness to both neighbor and God.

Common Good Ears

Our way of being together as one human family is vital. Even lovely young women and strong young men – people who have everything going for them – will be resource-less without any word from God. That is, unless we take the biblical prophets seriously. Then, perhaps we will squarely face our collective shadow side and seek the words of God so that we can love all our neighbors as ourselves, and not just some of them.

Do we have ears to hear?

Creator God of all living things: We are all hungry in a world full of abundance. We ask for the grace to see the abundant resources of our world, to have enough awareness of the dark places of our hearts to acknowledge our sins of greed and fear. Give us openness of soul and courageous, willing hearts to be with our sisters and brothers who are hungry and in pain. We intercede on behalf of every person who is hungry for earthly food and hungry for the Word of God. We pray in the name of our compassionate Savior who hears every cry, and not just some. Amen.