Galatians 4:8-20 – It’s All About Grace

A mosaic of the Apostle Paul in St Isaac’s Cathedral, St. Petersburg, Russia

Formerly, when you did not know God, you were slaves to those who by nature are not gods. But now that you know God—or rather are known by God—how is it that you are turning back to those weak and miserable forces? Do you wish to be enslaved by them all over again? You are observing special days and months and seasons and years!I fear for you, that somehow I have wasted my efforts on you.

I plead with you, brothers and sisters, become like me, for I became like you. You did me no wrong. As you know, it was because of an illness that I first preached the gospel to you, and even though my illness was a trial to you, you did not treat me with contempt or scorn. Instead, you welcomed me as if I were an angel of God, as if I were Christ Jesus himself. Where, then, is your blessing of me now? I can testify that, if you could have done so, you would have torn out your eyes and given them to me. Have I now become your enemy by telling you the truth?

Those people are zealous to win you over, but for no good. What they want is to alienate you from us, so that you may have zeal for them. It is fine to be zealous, provided the purpose is good, and to be so always, not just when I am with you. My dear children, for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you, how I wish I could be with you now and change my tone, because I am perplexed about you! (New International Version)

Grace is the most wonderful spiritual reality of all. It is forgiveness, freedom, faith, acceptance, and love all rolled up in a package given specially to you and me.

Grace is also terribly hard for a lot of folks to wrap both their heads and their hearts around. It is scandalous, subversive, and stupefying.

It was hard for the Galatian Church. Having embraced the grace of God in Christ for their deliverance from guilt and a shameful past, they then set their lives on the law to work out their sanctification. In other words, the Galatian believers did a sort of half-repentance; they turned from useless ways and were saved by grace, then turned around and decided, like a dog returning to it’s vomit, to go back to the law for the governing rule of their Christian lives.

If grace was good enough for salvation (which it was) it’s also good enough for sanctification, to be the chief operating force of the Christian’s life and ministry (which it is).

“Grace fills empty spaces but it can only enter where there is a void to receive it, and it is grace itself which makes this void.”

Simone Weil

A life filled with endless rules and regulations is unable to receive the life-flowing life-giving stream of grace. Grace is even so wondrously powerful that it is the force which breaks all other lesser forces and takes over.

This was the Apostle Paul’s experience. Having been the ultimate rule-keeper and law-abider, he was completely overtaken by a tsunami of grace. It stripped him of all the laws which kept him from Christ and the gospel. Grace changed his mind, his heart, and his life. He would never be the same again.

So, with the confidence of grace behind him, Paul could implore the Galatians to be just like him. I wonder if any of us could say the same.

Paul was a committed follower of Jesus – so much so that he ached and longed for others to embrace a life of grace, just as he had. It was actually painful for Paul to see others held by the cold grip of the law and not the warm embrace of grace. Like a mother about to give birth, he was laboring and working hard to give spiritual birth to those that would become like Jesus.

If you have experienced a transformed life in Jesus Christ, as if you have been born again by grace through the Spirit, then you likely feel and resonate with the travail of Paul. Knowing the elixir of grace, you want everyone to drink it in and be inebriated with its effects. You want it so bad that it hurts. You desire it to the point of exclaiming, “I beg you to be like me!”

You may spend many of your days with family, friends, neighbors, or co-worders who are strangers to grace. Either they are stuck in the clutches of the law and are fearful stick-in-the-muds because of it, or they simply do not know what they are missing. 

It is good to regularly ask ourselves, “What am I afraid of? Will this thing matter in the end? Is it worth holding on to?”

Grace will lead us into our fears and emptiness, and grace alone can fill them up, that is, if we are willing to stay in the void. We must become comfortable with asking questions for which we might never get answers.

People of deep faith develop a high tolerance for ambiguity and find less and less a need for the certainty of rules and regulations. Grace teaches us to swim in the river of mystery and find our home in faith.

Gracious God, may you weave your way into the lives of those who need you the most, so that mercy will be more than a theological idea. Work in me in such a way that I can stand with Paul and encourage others to be like me, through Jesus Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Job 7:1-21 – Why God?

Why is life so hard?
    Why do we suffer?
We are slaves in search of shade;
we are laborers longing
    for our wages.
God has made my days drag on
    and my nights miserable.
I pray for night to end,
but it stretches out
    while I toss and turn.
My parched skin is covered
    with worms, dirt, and sores,
and my days are running out
quicker than the thread
    of a fast-moving needle.

I beg you, God, don’t forget!
My life is just a breath,
    and trouble lies ahead.
I will vanish from sight,
and no one, including you,
    will ever see me again.
I will disappear in the grave
or vanish from sight
    like a passing cloud.
Never will I return home;
    soon I will be forgotten.

And so, I cry out to you
    in agony and distress.
Am I the sea or a sea monster?
    Is that why you imprison me?
I go to bed, hoping for rest,
but you torture me
    with terrible dreams.
I’d rather choke to death
    than live in this body.
Leave me alone and let me die;
    my life has no meaning.
What makes you so concerned
    about us humans?
Why do you test us
    from sunrise to sunset?
Won’t you look away
just long enough
    for me to swallow?
Why do you watch us so closely?
    What’s it to you, if I sin?
Why am I your target
    and such a heavy burden?
Why do you refuse to forgive?
Soon you won’t find me,
    because I’ll be dead. (Contemporary English Version)

Few people have ever suffered such agonizing loss as the Old Testament character of Job. He literally lost everything but his life. All his children were killed in one horrific event. He was so racked with physical pain and ill health that even his closest friends barely recognized him. 

Yet the most severe suffering of all came from the grinding silence of God about the whole affair. Job acutely experienced the spiritual pain of a seemingly distant God. He felt like God’s target, being pierced with sharp arrows, one after the other. It seemed to Job as if God was burdened with his very presence on the earth.

Indeed, when one is in the throes of grief, and there is no response from God, the suffering seems pathetically senseless. 

We are currently living in a world of pandemic. There is social and political unrest everywhere. Hurricanes and natural disasters wreak havoc. Religious persecution is on the rise. It may cause one to wonder where God is, in all this human suffering.

As families grieve the loss of home and property, as mothers lament the loss of sons and daughters, and as communities reel in shock over neighborhood violence, how can the loss of life and safety square with a God who is supposed to be sovereign over all creation?

And then there is the very real psychological suffering of mental illness, brain disorders, and unfeeling friends and family who fail to understand the biology and pathology around it – not to mention the extreme trauma of complicated grief.

“Does God understand? Is God even seeing any of this? Why doesn’t God seem to give a @#$!? Am I so odious to God that he’s left the room?” we might say, either out loud or in the deep hurt of our hearts.

It’s the silence that can hurt so badly. Groans, laments, and anguish seem to fly up and away with no easy answers and no immediate relief. 

Yet, God hears. God sees. And God knows. 

We, as readers, have a big picture perspective of Job’s life. We know the end of the story. We even know why Job suffered, even when he himself never knew. However, even with the understanding we have, there is still a large mystery to the ways and the silence of God.

It is a great temptation for many people to give neatly wrapped answers to life’s most difficult realities. But the book of Job does not allow for it. What we have is a man who never understood all that happened in his life yet held onto his integrity and his faith in the God he never fully understood. 

After all, if we understood all there is to understand about God, God would not be God at all.

Invisible God, you are not only unseen physically, but many times spiritually and emotionally unseen, as well.  Open the eyes of my heart so that I might catch but a glimpse of your working. Even though I am but a child and know so little, yet I trust in your steadfast love even in the most difficult experiences of life. Amen.

Proverbs 30:1-10 – Live Wisely and without Envy

These are the solemn words of Agur son of Jakeh:

    “God is not with me, God is not with me,
    and I am helpless.
I am more like an animal than a human being;
    I do not have the sense we humans should have.
I have never learned any wisdom,
    and I know nothing at all about God.
Have any ever mastered heavenly knowledge?
    Have any ever caught the wind in their hands?
    Or wrapped up water in a piece of cloth?
    Or fixed the boundaries of the earth?
Who are they, if you know? Who are their children?

“God keeps every promise he makes. He is like a shield for all who seek his protection. If you claim that he said something that he never said, he will reprimand you and show that you are a liar.”

I ask you, God, to let me have two things before I die: keep me from lying and let me be neither rich nor poor. So, give me only as much food as I need. If I have more, I might say that I do not need you. But if I am poor, I might steal and bring disgrace on my God.

Never criticize servants to their master. You will be cursed and suffer for it. (Good News Translation)

These are the raw expressions of a man who has awareness of his own envious nature. He realizes his profound lack of wisdom. The man, Agur, discerns how helpless and pathetic he really is, apart from wise living.

The wise person knows that a heart at peace gives life to the body, but envy rots the bones. Possessing too much or too little tends to awaken the eye of envy within us. Agur wants to avoid thinking that people, even God, owes him. He is concerned he might slip into the disposition of what the Lord and others can do for him, rather than vice versa.

“The secret of success is that it is not the absence of failure, but the absence of envy.”

Herodotus

Today, envy manifests itself in moving-on to another church, or friendship, or marriage, or job when perceived needs and wants are not met. Certainly, ties need to be severed in the case of abusive treatment. Yet, when we simply do not like something, and aspire to more and more hoarding of emotional and spiritual resources, there is little to no awareness of the shadowy places in our hearts.

Perhaps, through the difficulty, the Lord was attempting to reveal something important to us or working to bring about positive transformation. However, we bailed from the situation too quickly, not wanting to deal with the pain or inconvenience of it all. And, all the while, our real motivations remain hidden and unaddressed.

It is necessary to see envy for what it is – not just a common predilection everyone has – but a malady of believing I deserve things no one is giving me. It’s the age old endemic problem, much like Adam and Eve’s original sin, of grabbing a forbidden fruit in the belief G-d is not providing everything I need. And we then cannot, or will not, see all the vast resources and blessings already possessed.

Gratitude is a spiritual practice, when engrafted into a daily spiritual walk, provides a strong antidote to keeping envy at bay. Instead of wondering why G-d is not blessing my life and work in ways I think it should happen, perhaps we ought to identify and count the blessings we already possess and enjoy. 

Some of the greatest joys around us are the simple pleasures of everyday life – holding and sipping a hot cup of coffee; a quick kiss good-bye to my spouse on the way out the door; the opportunity to curl up with a good book on a rainy day; these and many more are blessings given to us by a heavenly Father who cares for us deeply.

“Gratitude turns what we have into enough.”

Aesop

It might be a good thing to spend some intentional time saying and/or writing out many of the blessings currently existing in your life. 

For example, rather than wishing a loved one would not have to endure disease or surgery and envying healthy people, rejoice that he/she is with you, that you enjoy one another’s love and companionship, whether it is in times of health or in seasons of illness.

And instead of envying the rich or worrying about becoming poor, give thanks for this current place in your life. Simple thanksgiving to G-d for every meal, each possession obtained, and even all things lost forever, fortifies the spirit for resilience over the long haul of life.

Much of our life on this earth comes down to mystery. We simply do not know, and are not privy, to the myriad ways G-d is working in the world. We may never know why we must face and deal with our particular and personal pains, disappointments, and sorrows.

So, when we pray, much like Agur, it might be wise to ask for continual help with never-ending problems, rather than constantly praying for deliverance from unwanted situations. It is best we pray as Jesus taught us saying, “Give us this day our daily bread.” (Matthew 6:11)

“I’ve learned by now to be quite content whatever my circumstances. I’m just as happy with little as with much, with much as with little. I’ve found the recipe for being happy whether full or hungry, hands full or hands empty. Whatever I have, wherever I am, I can make it through anything in the One who makes me who I am.”

The Apostle Paul (Philippians 4:11-13, MSG)

Wise persons know the frailty of their own hearts. Prayer, for them, is an organic practice arising from vulnerable and forthright discussions with G-d about doubt and disbelief. Indeed, people come to know the Lord not through speculating or imposing their own personality on G-d but by daily calling upon the Divine Being for practical help at the neediest points of life.

Blessed Lord, take me to the place where I am saved from my pride and arrogance and humility takes center stage, where I’m lifting up clean hands and a pure heart to you. Take me to the place where I’m no longer looking at the mountains I face but looking down upon them, where I can clearly see, and my decisions are flooded with your light, truth and justice. I bend my knee and receive your truth. I open my ears to receive your counsel. I open my heart to receive your eternal wisdom. Amen.

Job 38:12-21 – So You Think You Know?

storm

“Have you commanded the morning since your days began, 
    and caused the dawn to know its place, 
so that it might take hold of the skirts of the earth, 
    and the wicked be shaken out of it? 
It is changed like clay under the seal, 
    and it is dyed like a garment. 
Light is withheld from the wicked, 
    and their uplifted arm is broken. 

“Have you entered into the springs of the sea, 
    or walked in the recesses of the deep? 
Have the gates of death been revealed to you, 
    or have you seen the gates of deep darkness? 
Have you comprehended the expanse of the earth? 
    Declare, if you know all this. 

“Where is the way to the dwelling of light, 
    and where is the place of darkness, 
that you may take it to its territory 
    and that you may discern the paths to its home? 
Surely you know, for you were born then, 
    and the number of your days is great! (NRSV) 

The older I get, and the more understanding I gain, the more I realize how little knowledge I truly possess. When I was eighteen years old, I thought I had the world pretty much figured out. Since then, it has all been downhill. With each passing year, my ignorance seems to grow exponentially. I suppose this all really makes some sense when talking about God’s upside-down kingdom. So much more of life is a mystery to us than we realize. 

The more discernment I get, the less, I discover, I know. 

Seems like the biblical character of Job found this out the hard way. If there is any person in Holy Scripture that would be wise and understanding, its him. God speaks highly of Job in the Bible. Regarding the upcoming destruction of Jerusalem, God said, even if these three men—Noah, Daniel and Job—were in it, they could save only themselves by their righteousness, declares the Sovereign Lord” (Ezekiel 14:14). Job is held up as the model of patience under suffering: “As you know, we count as blessed those who have persevered. You have heard of Job’s perseverance and have seen what the Lord finally brought about. The Lord is full of compassion and mercy” (James 5:11).  

Yet, with all of Job’s integrity, patience, and righteousness his understanding can barely get a movement on the Richter Scale of God’s expansive knowledge. We likely are somewhat familiar with the story of Job. Being a conscientious follower of God, Job is careful to live uprightly. He acknowledges God in all things and worships him alone. Yet, suffering befell him – for no other reason than that God allowed it. Job knew fully well that there was no personal sin behind his awful ordeal of grief and grinding pain. 

So, Job contended with God. For an agonizing thirty-five chapters (Job 3:1-37:24) Job questions God and respectfully takes him to task – as Job’s supposed friends questioned him and assume his guilt. Through it all God is there silent… saying nothing. Then, just when we think God is paying no attention, he suddenly speaks. What is so remarkable about God’s speech is that for the next four chapters (Job 38:1-41:34) he gives no answers. It is all questions. God said,

“Brace yourself like a man; I will question you and you shall answer me” (Job 38:3). 

God Questions Job
God questions Job. From a 12th century Byzantine text.

It becomes abundantly clear after just a few questions that it would be impossible for any human being to even come close to having the understanding to answer anything God asks. And that was the whole point. God is God, and we are not. Our questions, however legitimate, real, and raw they are, come from a very puny perspective. In other words, we just don’t know as much as we think we do. 

To Job’s great credit, he keeps his mouth shut and listens. At the end of the questioning, Job responds in the only wise way one could after such an encounter:

“Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know” (Job 42:3). 

None of this means that, for us, we need to face our hardships and our sufferings with a stoic keep-a-stiff-upper-lip approach. Trapped grief will inevitably come out sideways and only cause more hurt. I believe God allowed Job to express his terrible physical, emotional, and spiritual pain for chapter after chapter because he needed to. Only when God sensed it was the proper timing did he jump in and bring the perspective Job then needed. And even after being challenged by God about his vantage point, Job still did not receive answers as to why he had to endure the awfulness of loss beyond what most of us could comprehend. 

Maybe we lack being able to understand even if God directly answered all our questions. Most likely, God protects us from knowing things that might bring irreparable damage to our human psyches. Again, this is all pure conjecture. Which leaves us with perhaps one of our greatest challenges as human beings: We must eventually come to the place of being comfortable with mystery – and even embracing it.

We simply will not have all things revealed to us that we want to know. And that’s okay.  

There is yet one more comment to observe about God’s questioning of Job. God is sarcastic. Sarcasm often gets a bad rap, much like anger does, because it is so often associated with unacknowledged emotions and/or expressing our feelings in an unhelpful way. Yet, there the sarcasm is, with the God of the universe. I must admit, I take some odd comfort in knowing that God can be snarky at times – in a good way. Anytime we try to pin God down to nice neat understandable categories, he typically colors outside our human contrived lines and demonstrates to us that he cannot be contained in our ramshackle box. I like it that God is playful, wild, and free to be himself – even if there are times it may bug me. 

God is unbound by any human knowledge, understanding, ideas, or plans. God will do what God will do. God will be who he will be. “I AM who I AM,” he once said. Now that’s a God I can put my trust in. 

O Lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world, have mercy upon me. 

O Lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world, have mercy upon me. 

O Lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world, grant me your peace. Amen.