Psalm 1 – Two Different Ways

Oh, the joys of those who do not
    follow the advice of the wicked,
    or stand around with sinners,
    or join in with mockers.
But they delight in the law of the Lord,
    meditating on it day and night.
They are like trees planted along the riverbank,
    bearing fruit each season.
Their leaves never wither,
    and they prosper in all they do.

But not the wicked!
    They are like worthless chaff, scattered by the wind.
They will be condemned at the time of judgment.
    Sinners will have no place among the godly.
For the Lord watches over the path of the godly,
    but the path of the wicked leads to destruction. (New Living Translation)

Today’s psalm presents us with two differing ways we can choose to shape our lives: The way of the upright and virtuous, or the way of the unethical and depraved. 

The way of the right and just person leads to human flourishing and life – whereas the way of the wicked and unjust person leads to human degradation and death. 

Distinguishing between the righteous and the wicked is not always as easy as it looks.

Only at the end of the age, when the Day of Judgment comes, will we know for certain the righteous and the wicked.

The magisterial Reformer, Martin Luther, contrasted these two ways with his Heidelberg Disputation of 1518. Luther called the way of the wicked a theology of glory – and described the way of the righteous as the theology of the cross.

The cross of Christ, as expressed by Luther, is God’s attack on human sin. Christ’s death is central to Christianity, and one must embrace the cross and rely completely and totally upon Christ’s finished work on the cross to handle human sin. 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.

Conversely, the theology of glory is the opposing way of the cross. For Luther, the wicked person, and the vilest offender of God, is not the person who has done all kinds of outward sinning and heinous acts. The worst of sinners do good works.

Specifically, the wicked person is the one who does all kinds of nice things – yet does them disconnected from God by wanting others to see their good actions. Another way of putting this: The wicked person is one who seeks to gain glory for self, rather than giving glory to God.

Our good works can be the greatest hindrance to righteousness.

It is far too easy to place faith in our good works done apart from God, rather than having a naked trust in Christ alone. And it is far too easy to do 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 is one who lives apart from that cross, trusting in self so that people can recognize and give them their perceived due 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

We are not to avoid good works but do them from the good soil of being planted in the law of God and connected to the vine of Christ. When the psalmist uses the term “law” he is referring to Scripture as a whole, to all the acquired wisdom about how life is supposed to be lived in God’s big world.

The righteous are those who immerse themselves in the law; secretly rise early to meditate on God’s Word; privately pour over Scripture’s message and pray to put it into practice because they want to delight in God. Their fruit will be abundant and sweet.  

The wicked, however, are simply too busy to take note what the law says; only serve to be seen; and publicly desire to be recognized for their charity and works. Such works will not stand when Judgment Day comes.

You’re nothing but show-offs. You’re like tombs that have been whitewashed. On the outside they are beautiful, but inside they are full of bones and filth. (Matthew 23:27, CEV)

Truly righteous people have a humble sense that they could easily drift from God, if not staying connected and rooted in Jesus and the way of the cross. 

The wicked, in contrast, are like chaff – worthless, and not adding value to anything. They are arrogant and annoying – wanting all the attention that God rightly deserves. The wicked have nothing to contribute to God’s kingdom. They hinder the harvest of souls God is working toward with their irritating attitudes.

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 the result of a righteous relationship cultivated with Jesus Christ. The Lord watches over the way of such persons.

The way of the wicked will perish.

We have 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 God’s covenant people, because they selectively did their good works to gain glory for themselves. They withheld the good they could have done because it did not add any value to their reputation or their personal goals.

God desires genuine spiritual growth for us. That will only happen if we avoid the theology of glory and embrace a theology of the cross – delighting in God and the law.

Every day, we have a choice to make: The way of connection and life, or the way of disconnection and death. 

Look here! Today I’ve set before you, life and what’s good versus death and what’s wrong. If you obey the Lord your God’s commandments that I’m commanding you right now by loving the Lord your God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments, his regulations, and his case laws, then you will live and thrive, and the Lord your God will bless you…. But if your heart turns away and you refuse to listen, and so are misled, worshipping other gods and serving them,I’m telling you right now that you will definitely die…. I have set life and death, blessing and curse before you. Now choose life—so that you and your descendants will live—by loving the Lord your God, by obeying his voice, and by clinging to him. That’s how you will survive and live long…. (Deuteronomy 30:15-20, CEB)

The idols of our hearts can so easily draw us away from God so that our own good works are done for an audience who will recognize and affirm. Instead, our daily choice must be to love God supremely and give God glory for everything good in our lives. 

What will you choose this day?

Psalm 1 – Choose Real Happiness

The truly happy person
    doesn’t follow wicked advice,
    doesn’t stand on the road of sinners,
    and doesn’t sit with the disrespectful.
Instead of doing those things,
    these persons love the Lord’s Instruction,
    and they recite God’s Instruction day and night!
They are like a tree replanted by streams of water,
    which bears fruit at just the right time
    and whose leaves don’t fade.
        Whatever they do succeeds
.

That’s not true for the wicked!
    They are like dust that the wind blows away.
And that’s why the wicked will have no standing in the court of justice—
    neither will sinners
    in the assembly of the righteous.
The Lord is intimately acquainted
    with the way of the righteous,
    but the way of the wicked is destroyed. (Common English Bible)

True happiness happens when we conform to disciplines of a good life and eschew practices that go against the grain of goodness. That statement might be a bit difficult to accept. Frankly, it is for me, and I wrote it.

You see, I’m not much of a conformity sort of guy. I like creatively doing my own thing, man. Bucking the system and questioning the rules is just something I do. Conformity tends to have a negative connotation with me – like a group of unthinking lemmings running off a cliff to their death.

Yet, the truth is that, although there is a wide range of creative choices we have for most everything, we as humans best function and discover happiness when we are in sync with our Creator. So, we can choose to ignore our foundational human hard-wiring, or we can live into it as the unique individuals we are.

Those two ways of shaping our lives are the path of the righteous and the path of the wicked. The way of the righteous leads to human flourishing, relational connection, and a vast spiritual life. Alternatively, the way of the wicked leads to human degeneration, disconnection from others, and spiritual death. It is to be out of sync with who we are as people.

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

The magisterial Reformer of the sixteenth-century, Martin Luther, framed the two opposing ways as the theology of the cross and the theology of glory. The cross of Christ is G-d’s attack on human sin. Through being crucified with Christ, we find the way to human flourishing and life. It is the narrow road of grace.

A theology of glory is seeking to be radically independent – to rely primarily, perhaps even exclusively, on our own laurels and personal way of doing things. Although these might appear to be outwardly fine, they feed and water themselves from a wicked stream, devoid of grace.

Whenever we place our complete trust in self and forsake faith in something or someone outside of ourselves, it is a highway to the grave.

It is far too easy to place faith in our good works and to do good so that others will observe our goodness, rather than doing them out of the good soil of being planted in ancient and wise instruction.

Embracing tried and true practices of righteousness; delighting in G-d’s law; meditating on sound instruction; privately pouring over the large body of wisdom we have available to us; and diligently seeking to put it all into action is the way of good people who shall surely realize human happiness. They will yield gracious fruit. They will know blessing.

Joyful are people of integrity,
    who follow the instructions of the Lord.
Joyful are those who obey his laws
    and search for him with all their hearts.

Psalm 119:1-2, NLT

Serving only to be seen; seeking public accolades and personal recognition as a sole motivator; and disrespecting others to prop up individual respect is the way of the wicked. They don’t bother to consult the ancient ways of happiness. Instead, they pridefully believe they know what is best.

“You’re like manicured grave plots, grass clipped and the flowers bright, but six feet down it’s all rotting bones and worm-eaten flesh. People look at you and think you’re saints, but beneath the skin you’re total frauds.” (Matthew 23:27-28, MSG)

Abundance, generosity, gentleness, and grace marks the righteous because G-d is abundantly gracious and generous. Jesus is the gentle shepherd who mercifully and lovingly leads anxious sheep to the quiet pastures of settled happiness. Indeed, the Lord watches over the way of the righteous.

Only looking out for number one, stinginess, withholding good, hoarding, and angry criticism identifies the wicked. They have judgment in their future because they add no value to the great needs of humanity. Unhappiness is their lot.

We have choices. We can choose conformity to established patterns of godly instruction and happiness – or we can choose to rely solely on our own ingenuity and/or brawn to eke out a morsel of satisfaction.

Choose wisely, my friends.

O Holy Wisdom, direct us on your path. Make us worthy of your teachings and open our hearts to accept your embrace, that we may serve you in peace and grace. Amen.

Matthew 5:6 – Blessed are Those Who Hunger and Thirst for Righteousness

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
    for they will be filled. (New International Version)

Happy are people who are hungry and thirsty for righteousness because they will be fed until they are full. (Common English Bible)

Happy are those whose greatest desire is to do what God requires;
    God will satisfy them fully! (Good News Translation)

They are blessed who hunger and thirst after justice,
    for they will be satisfied. (New Century Version)

God blesses those who hunger and thirst for justice,
    for they will be satisfied. (New Living Translation)

The words “justice” and “righteousness” come from the same word (δικαιοσύνη). The English words are much like two sides to the same coin – one side primarily emphasizing an action, and the other side a relationship.

The word “justice” in Holy Scripture refers to much more than a punitive corrective action toward wrongdoing. That is only a secondary concern for justice. The primary idea is to provide necessities to people without prejudice or favoritism. This is why the Old Testament is filled with references to providing justice to groups of needy or oppressed people such as orphans, widows, foreigners, and the poor:

Do not deprive the foreigner or the fatherless of justice or take the cloak of the widow as a pledge. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you from there. That is why I command you to do this. (Deuteronomy 24:17-18, NIV)

Cursed is anyone who withholds justice from the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow. (Deuteronomy 27:19, NIV)

Good will come to those who are generous and lend freely, who conduct their affairs with justice. (Psalm 112:5, NIV)

I know that the Lord secures justice for the poor and upholds the cause of the needy. (Psalm 140:12, NIV)

Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow. (Isaiah 1:17, NIV)

Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees, to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people, making widows their prey and robbing the fatherless. (Isaiah 10:1-2, NIV)

God is greatly concerned for justice because the Lord is always just in all affairs.

The word “righteousness” primarily has to do with obtaining and maintaining right relationships with God and other people, with the result of doing right actions in the world. Holy Scripture is loaded with references to righteousness. In the Old Testament, justice and righteousness are often coupled together. That’s because justice is to be dispensed with personal relationship – and not detached in an impersonal way.

People do not merely need access to resources – they also require the gift of human connection in obtaining them.

The Lord loves righteousness and justice; the earth is full of his unfailing love. (Psalm 33:5, NIV)

The Lord works righteousness and justice for all the oppressed. (Psalm 103:6, NIV)

Let the one who boasts boast about this: that they have the understanding to know me, that I am the Lord, who exercises kindness, justice and righteousness on earth, for in these I delight,” declares the Lord. (Jeremiah 9:24, NIV)

I will betroth you to me forever; I will betroth you in righteousness and justice, in love and compassion. (Hosea 2:19, NIV)

God hungers and thirsts for righteousness, which is why believers share this same appetite. Being attentive to the entire spectrum of needs that people have – physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual – are what Jesus has in mind when characterizing true disciples.

God specializes in filling broken people and meeting their needs. The picture here is one of a starving person who needs food and drink, or he will die. The person who hungers does not merely view justice and righteousness as options, or something nice to have. Rather, they know that without God’s just action and right relationship, they will die!

People who strongly desire Jesus and his righteousness are easy to spot:

  • Those who are just and right crave and devour God’s Word, so they read and learn Holy Scripture.

Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation, now that you have tasted that the Lord is good. (1 Peter 2:2-3, NIV)

  • Those who are just and right are incessantly chattering about Jesus, so they pursue fellowship with believers and connections with unbelievers.

We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Corinthians 5:20-21, NIV)

  • Those who are just and right want to know Christ better, so they pray a lot.

The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective. (James 5:16b, NIV)

  • Those who are just and right desire right relations with others, so they make things right with others.

Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death. See what this godly sorrow has produced in you: what earnestness, what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what alarm, what longing, what concern, what readiness to see justice done. (2 Corinthians 7:10-11, NIV)

Only those who know their poverty of spirit, personally grieve over sin, and are truly humble end up hungering and thirsting for righteousness. This is the recognition that without God, I will not make it. I can neither be justified nor righteous without Jesus.

Grant us, Lord God, a vision of your world as your love would have it: a world where the weak are protected, and none go hungry or poor; a world where the riches of creation are shared, and everyone can enjoy them; a world where different races and cultures live in harmony and mutual respect; a world where peace is built with justice, and justice is guided by love. Give us the inspiration and courage to build it, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

*Above painting by Hyatt Moore

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?