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?

Deuteronomy 11:18-21 – Leave a Spiritual Heritage

You shall put these words of mine in your heart and soul, and you shall bind them as a sign on your hand and fix them as an emblem on your forehead. Teach them to your children, talking about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates, so that your days and the days of your children may be multiplied in the land that the Lord swore to your ancestors to give them, as long as the heavens are above the earth. (New Revised Standard Version)

Remember God’s Law

The book of Deuteronomy is a farewell address by Moses to the Israelites. Moses was about to die. The Israelites were about to enter the Promised Land. So, Moses restated God’s law and called the people to remember all that God had done. He exhorted the people to communicate the law and their heritage to the next generations. If God’s Word and God’s ways are continually observed, then the people would prosper in the land.

The overarching command and call to the people is to love God with everything they have and everything they are. God’s people are to have a total commitment of mind, body, emotions, and spirit to the law of God. Each ability and gift, and all that makes a person a person, is to have its clear direction and orientation toward loving God through obeying God’s commands.

Talk About God’s Word

The love of God is meant to become a habit in the normal daily rhythms of life. And we are told how to do that:  impress God’s commands in the family; talk about them at home; talk about them when you are out and about; talk about them in the morning and the evening; even write them out and have them before you continually.  The entire day is an opportunity to love God by talking about God’s Word.

The privilege of discussing God’s Word doesn’t need to be forced or awkward. Yet, it is something which needs some intention and purpose to it. Most people like talking about things which are important to them. If someone is really into classic cars, he does not have to try and force a conversation about it because it just comes out of him. Because they go to car shows, maybe own a classic car that they are continually tinkering with, and read up on car magazines, a discussion about the subject is quite natural to them.

So, then, the best way to live into God’s law is to spend time with God through regular Bible reading, focused and earnest prayer, conversing with others, and taking advantage of opportunities to learn and know about God.  For the Christian, talking about Jesus is meant to be organic, springing from a heart which loves God and observes God’s law.

Discuss God with Family

When it comes to family, we don’t need to be an expert on God or the Bible. We just need a willingness and a curiosity to ask questions. Typically, when raising my girls, most of our conversations at the table centered around one question I would ask. We discussed it, talked about it, and mulled it over. Sometimes it was a deep theological question. At other times, it was a practical question. My wife and I often had others share a meal with us, so I usually asked our guests to tell their God story or participate with us in the question. If they were not Christian, I would ask them what they thought about Jesus, and why.

God loves it when we have conversation in the home around biblical teaching. God also loves it when we have discussions in public. Some Orthodox Jewish persons still to this day wear a “phylactery” on their foreheads – a small box with little Scripture passages inside of it – testifying to their value of the written Word.

I’m not sure that’s what Moses had in mind when he talked about binding God’s commands on the forehead and tying them as symbols on the hands. Much of the Hebrew language is metaphorical, speaking about concrete things as a way of communicating something intangible. So, I wonder if the big idea here is simply to be open about faith and love for God and the law.

Keep Tangible Reminders of Scripture

Although I don’t believe we have to take these verses quite so literally, there is, however, something to be said for keeping Holy Scripture in front of us, continually, to remember divine commands and promises. It’s good to write some Bible verses and place them on your bathroom mirror, the dash of your car, in your pants pocket, or anywhere you will see them on a regular basis. It’s a practical way of remembering to observe all that God has commanded.

Physical reminders of significant spiritual events can help us keep God’s Word in our lives. When the Israelites experienced God in some significant way, they built an altar. For example, when they approached the Jordan River to enter the land, God caused the water to stop flowing so that they could cross over. Here is what happen next: 

Joshua erected a monument, using the twelve stones that they had taken from the Jordan. And then he told the People of Israel, “In the days to come, when your children ask their fathers, ‘What are these stones doing here?’ tell your children this: ‘Israel crossed over this Jordan on dry ground.’

“Yes, God, your God, dried up the Jordan’s waters for you until you had crossed, just as God, your God, did at the Red Sea, which had dried up before us until we had crossed. This was so that everybody on earth would recognize how strong God’s rescuing hand is and so that you would hold God in solemn reverence always.” (Joshua 4:20-24, MSG)

Passing the spiritual baton and leaving a heritage for future generations is a sacred trust. The best way for that to happen is within the home, talking about God and Scripture as a daily routine, as well as freely conversing about spirituality in public.

Pass Faith to the Next Generation Church

Hopefully, God and Jesus get talked about in the church! There are several ways churches can impress God’s Word to younger generations: 

  1. Train them to lead.  Adults do not have to do everything in the church. Every generation can be empowered to engage in ministries on a regular basis. Everyone needs a mentor to do anything well – which means taking others with us along the journey of ministry so they can both shadow and participate.
  2. Empathize with young people and young families. That means avoiding criticism. It’s easy for older generations to be critical about millennials – their lack of involvement, or how they live their lives. They don’t need our criticism; they need our help. To have empathy means we recognize they’re just trying to do the best they can in a crazy world. A world, I might add, which is quite different than the one many of us grew up in. This is an extremely competitive world, requiring more energy and drive than previous generations. Being a student today is not like being a student when I was a kid.  Being a young parent is not the same today as it once was. Today’s family structure is completely changed; what we think of as a traditional family only makes up 7% of the American population. The stance to take on this is not to criticize, but to encourage and help.
  3. Take Jesus’ message seriously.  Discussion, conversation, questions, and mutual sharing are the ways Jesus developed his followers, and it is a way we can reach younger generations. Dialogue goes a lot further than just telling others what they should believe and do.
  4. Adopt a young person, or a young family. If you consider yourself part of an older generation, seriously consider taking a younger person or even family under your wing who is not related to you. Invite them to a meal, read these verses, and discuss them together. Commit to praying for them daily for a set period.
  5. Look for ways to support children, teens, and young families. Prioritizing younger generations means they don’t have to do everything our way. Rather, it means we will listen to what they need in loving God and building into their own kids’ lives.
  6. Be great neighbors. Discuss, teach, empower, and develop young people without criticism into good neighbors who engage their local community by addressing issues with great love and lots of compassion.

There are certainly more ways to engage. The idea here is that we think about how to embody the teaching we have in Deuteronomy by passing on God’s love and God’s Word. Where will you start? Is there a way that resonates with you?  If you are a younger generation, who are some people you believe could be helpful to you? Let’s work together to realize God’s Word springing to life!

Deuteronomy 11:1-17 – Knowing Our Boundaries

Love the Lord your God and follow his instruction, his regulations, his case laws, and his commandments always. And know right now what your children haven’t known or yet witnessed:

  • The Lord your God’s discipline, his power, his mighty hand and outstretched arm.
  • The signs and the acts that he performed in the heart of Egyptian territory, against Egypt’s King Pharaoh and all his land.
  • What God did to the Egyptian army, to its horses and chariots—how he made the water of the Reed Sea flow over their heads when they chased after you, but the Lord destroyed them, and that’s how things stand right now.
  • What the Lord did for you in the desert, until you arrived at this place.
  • And what he did to Dathan and Abiram, the descendants of Eliab the Reubenite, when the ground opened its mouth and swallowed them, their families, their tents, and every living thing they possessed in the presence of all Israel.

Your own eyes witnessed each of these powerful acts the Lord performed. So, keep every part of the commandment that I am giving you today so that you stay strong to enter and take possession of the land that you are crossing over to possess, and so that you might prolong your life on the fertile land that the Lord swore to your ancestors to give to them and their descendants—a land full of milk and honey.

The land you are about to enter and possess is not like the land of Egypt, where you came from, where you sowed your seed and irrigated it by hand like a vegetable garden. No, the land you are entering to possess is a land of hills and valleys, where your drinking water will be rain from heaven. It’s a land that the Lord cares for: The Lord’s eyes are on it constantly from the first of the year until the very end of the year.

Now, if you completely obey God’s commandments that I am giving you right now, by loving the Lord your God and by serving him with all your heart and all your being, then he will provide rain for your land at the right time—early rain and late rain—so you can stock up your grain, wine, and oil. He will also make your fields lush for your livestock, and you will eat and be satisfied. But watch yourselves! Otherwise, your heart might be led astray so you stray away, serving other gods and worshipping them. Then the Lord’s anger would burn against you. He will close the sky up tight. There won’t be any rain, and the ground won’t yield any of its crops. You will quickly disappear off the wonderful land the Lord is giving to you. (Common English Bible)

“Boundaries define us. They define what is me and what is not me. A boundary shows me where I end and someone else begins, leading me to a sense of ownership. Knowing what I am to own and take responsibility for gives me freedom. Taking responsibility for my life opens up many different options. Boundaries help us keep the good in and the bad out.”

Henry Cloud

God has boundaries. The Lord doesn’t just flit about doing whatever seems alright for the moment. No, God is firmly secure as the divine Being. God has a deliberate will and way. The Creator God is not okay with created humanity having no boundaries. Since we are people created in God’s image, we are to reflect that image in all things, including having the established boundary of taking charge of our own spiritual lives and obeying the Lord in all things.

God has opened the way of redemption for wayward people. It came first in the incredible event of the exodus from Egypt, then in the culmination of our freedom through the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ. 

Therefore, God expects us to live into this opportunity without blaming divine action or inaction for our problems, as if fault lies outside of us. Just because God stands up to people and does not cave into their demands and their whining does not make the Lord mean or unjust – it simply means God doesn’t need the props or accolades of people. God is secure enough to not be dependent on humans.

Divine expectations are quite clear on where the boundary lines fall: Love. Yes, indeed, it comes down to love. Love the Lord your God and always hold tightly to the law with its statutes, rules, and commandments. There is no fudge factor to that statement, scratching our heads wondering what we ought to be doing. If we obey God, we will discover life as it ought to be lived – free from all the machinations of the world’s brokenness and insecurity – and yet securely confined within godly boundaries. 

God can exhort people to be strong and take the land. That’s because the Lord made it possible for them to do so by acting in history. Therefore, God expects us to respond in obedience to the boundary lines established so that we will flourish and grow as people in a new land.

There is a big divine pasture for us to enjoy and thrive within. Yes, there is a fence around it, marking the boundary of where we can go. It is there for our benefit and protection, and not to simply keep us in line. Longing for the green grass on the other side of the fence is to be unaware of the vast beauty and foliage all around us.

For we already have everything we need – if we possess the awareness and the gratitude to see it.

Great God Almighty, I choose today to obey you in all things out of the grace given to me because of Jesus Christ.  I want to please you in all I say and do, so that you will be seen as the glorious and exalted king of the universe.  Help me to live up to my standing in Christ in the power of the Spirit as I step into your world with the keys of the kingdom.  Amen.

1 Timothy 6:11-12 – How to Fight the Good Fight

But you, Timothy, are a man of God; so, run from all these evil things [the love of money]. Pursue righteousness and a godly life, along with faith, love, perseverance, and gentleness. Fight the good fight for the true faith. Hold tightly to the eternal life to which God has called you, which you have declared so well before many witnesses. (New Living Translation)

Today’s New Testament lesson is a pertinent message for contemporary Christians. These verses come as the conclusion to the Apostle Paul’s letter to a young pastor in Ephesus, Timothy. The epistle is filled with encouragements, exhortations, and warnings of how to go about conducting ministry. 

Paul left Timothy with some pointed instruction to pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, and gentleness. These are the qualities which ought to inform every practice in the church and the Christian life. 

The Apostle gave Timothy a sacred trust, to hold tightly and guard the message of faith in Christ given to him. This good news of forgiveness and grace leading to eternal life through Jesus must be continually upheld. Because there will always be other individuals and groups distorting and diluting this wondrous salvation.

Two Exhortations

These two exhortations – pursuit of a godly life and grabbing hold of Christian good news – needs to be always held together. To only pursue virtuous practices apart from grasping the message will cause slow erosion and compromise the faith entrusted to us. To only embrace the gospel without trying our best to live a virtuous life will lead to ornery and combative attitudes, as well as behavior which undermines the very gospel we seek to uphold.

So, then, competing in the arena of spiritual warfare is useless without knowing why we are in that arena to begin with. We are striving for the hearts, minds, and souls of people who need the life-giving message of God’s grace in Jesus Christ. We are to carefully apply the poultice of grace to the incredible need of the world’s people, using all the virtues of righteousness and godliness at our disposal. 

Badgering, bullying, and bludgeoning people with the truth are unbiblical because it ignores the virtuous practices integral to our faith. On the other hand, loving others without careful proclamation of the gospel misses a central thrust of Paul’s letter to Timothy.

Ensure you are putting your energy into the right things. Uphold the faith delivered to us through sacred Scripture. Use love and gentleness in everything said and done. Seek after righteousness and godliness. Clutch eternal life and hold it tightly. With both hands, uphold the sanctity of the Christian message through the sacredness of holy living. We are to pursue the following:

Righteousness and Godliness

Being right with God comes through the justifying work of Jesus. This right standing then is to work out itself in practical daily living. We are to strive toward having right relationships with others.

Once you’re convinced that Christ is right and righteous, you’ll recognize that all who practice righteousness are God’s true children. (1 John 2:29, MSG)

Desire first and foremost God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness. (Matthew 6:33, CEB)

Like righteousness, godliness is given to us so that we are viewed as godly. Yet, living a godly life is a skill which requires much training. Since God is One and Love, so we are to work at unity and loving others with the divine power given to us.

By his divine power, God has given us everything we need for living a godly life. We have received all of this by coming to know him, the one who called us to himself by means of his marvelous glory and excellence. (2 Peter 1:3, NLT)

Train yourself in godliness, for, while physical training is of some value, godliness is valuable in every way, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come. (1 Timothy 4:7-8, NRSV)

Faith and Love

Faith is also a gift of God. Once given, we are to hold onto it, lean into it, and rely on it throughout our lives. We pursue our faith through being above board on all things and listening to our inward conscience, even and especially when outward circumstances are troublesome.

Love is the actionable means of meeting another’s needs. Armed with a robust faith in God, we are to confidently love the world, knowing the Lord has our back.

Cling to your faith in Christ and keep your conscience clear. For some people have deliberately violated their consciences; as a result, their faith has been shipwrecked. (1 Timothy 1:19, NLT)

What you heard from me, keep as the pattern of sound teaching, with faith and love in Christ Jesus. Guard the good deposit that was entrusted to you—guard it with the help of the Holy Spirit who lives in us. (2 Timothy 1:13-14, NIV)

Perseverance and Gentleness

We contend for the faith delivered to us by having the long view of Christianity and the Christian life. A daily walk of faith is rarely glamourous. The growth of our spirits and the construction of our souls is tedious and patient work. It requires a great deal of endurance.

Do not throw away your confidence; it will be richly rewarded.

You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised. For,

“In just a little while,
    he who is coming will come
    and will not delay.”

And “But my righteous one will live by faith. (Hebrews 10:35-38, NIV)

The practical working of perseverance in one’s life is marked by gentleness. When we take the long view, we can be gentle, not rushing or hurrying people to be godly beyond their own personal growth capacity.

Let your gentleness show in your treatment of all people. The Lord is near. (Philippians 4:5, CEB)

Holding tight to the gospel message is a very practical affair. It isn’t an abstract doctrinal or dogmatic defense but a righteous, godly, believing, loving, enduring, and gentle application of truth in daily life.

King Jesus, Lord of all, help me to keep your commandments in ways consistent with the gospel of grace so that your church is encouraged, and your world is blessed with both the message and the medium. Amen.