don’t be overrighteous or overwise

In this meaningless life of mine I have seen both of these:

the righteous perishing in their righteousness,
and the wicked living long in their wickedness.
Do not be overrighteous,
neither be overwise—
why destroy yourself?
Do not be overwicked,
and do not be a fool—
why die before your time?
It is good to grasp the one
and not let go of the other.
Whoever fears God will avoid all extremes.[a]

Ecclesiastes 7:15-18

I believe just one of the many devices of the evil one is to get us to think life somehow depends on us, so that unwittingly we begin to do what in our heads we wouldn’t want to do, but in our hearts and lives are all too prone to doing: replace God.

Ecclesiastes is a notoriously difficult book to pin down, and maybe that’s part of not only some of the appeal of the book, but what God wanted from that book for us. To get us to wrestle with something of what the writer (the Teacher, Qoheleth) was wrestling with. Maybe “the Teacher” was making his (or her) writing somewhat nebulous due to his thinking that all is meaningless, rather pointless, fleeting- anyhow.

Note that we’re not being told here to not be righteous or wise. Just not overly so. I take that to suggest that we shouldn’t think all depends on us and on our own righteousness and wisdom. At the same time this passage is not at all telling us that we should throw our righteousness and wisdom by the wayside. Not at all. It’s just that we need to fear God as the writer tells us here. Which I think might point us in the direction that we think and act in the fear of God. That includes a reverential awe and respect, and a trust I believe, as well. We want to trust in God’s righteousness and wisdom to actually impact us and help us have a righteousness and wisdom not warped and therefore of no value or even dangerous by somehow thinking that its our own righteousness and wisdom. We know that Christ Jesus has been made by God to be for us wisdom and righteousness in a redemptive sense, which I think includes impacting our down to earth daily lives (1 Corinthians 1:26-31). What we have from God is both by creation and then new creation in Christ by the Spirit. So we need to learn to be wise and right in dependence on God, not on ourselves.

I think that means we need to say no to our own ongoing urge to take all matters in our own hands as if anything depends on us. Instead we just need to say no, even kick back, relax and enjoy (another theme in Ecclesiastes: God gives the gift, we work hard, and then enjoy). We still hold onto righteousness and wisdom. We need to do it though in a way which honors God’s righteousness and wisdom above our own, our own even being entirely dependent on God’s so that strictly speaking, it’s not our own. Through prayer, prayer and more prayer. Through taking responsibility. And not thinking for a moment that all depends on our righteousness and wisdom. Or else we’ll be violating what the Teacher in Ecclesiastes tells us. In and through Jesus.

don’t forget this

And that about wraps it up. God is strong, and he wants you strong. So take everything the Master has set out for you, well-made weapons of the best materials. And put them to use so you will be able to stand up to everything the Devil throws your way. This is no weekend war that we’ll walk away from and forget about in a couple of hours. This is for keeps, a life-or-death fight to the finish against the Devil and all his angels.

Be prepared. You’re up against far more than you can handle on your own. Take all the help you can get, every weapon God has issued, so that when it’s all over but the shouting you’ll still be on your feet. Truth, righteousness, peace, faith, and salvation are more than words. Learn how to apply them. You’ll need them throughout your life. God’s Word is an indispensable weapon. In the same way, prayer is essential in this ongoing warfare. Pray hard and long. Pray for your brothers and sisters. Keep your eyes open. Keep each other’s spirits up so that no one falls behind or drops out.

Ephesians 6:10-18; MSG

I find Eugene Peterson’s rendering of this Scripture helpful on a number of points. You get a sense of how this spiritual battle we’re in is ongoing and frankly, horrific. I wish it were not so. It would be quite a different experience. For those whose life is a walk in the park, and an ongoing happy time, I think something like: “Wow. Great!” But then it makes me wonder if they know this aspect of life. All who are “in Christ” do, even if somehow that realization is hidden from them.

And then the idea that we can’t do this on our own. That we are dependent on God and on all God gives us in Christ. Especially helpful is the point that we’re to apply truth, righteousness, peace, faith, and salvation to our lives, as taught to us in Scripture. And God’s Word expressed as a weapon, perhaps referring to God breaking through to us as we read Scripture, that word coming home to us. And the need for ongoing prayer. I find that when I feel up against it, I am often pressed to pray, and end up praying more persistently, sadly, then I would otherwise. On the other hand when I have a break from this spiritual warfare, I can be encouraged to pray, at times having a sense of God’s presence and peace. But by and large I keep at it more faithfully when I feel pressed for one reason or another. It’s not hard for me to realize the need for this.

And how we’re to pray for each other. Having been within the evangelical tradition most of my Christian life, I’ve been well taught on the need to apply Scripture to my own life, but not as well taught in how we’re all in this together, and the responsibility which comes with that.

To apply truth, righteousness, peace, faith, and salvation both for our own lives, and for the world, into the lives of others, especially our brothers and sisters in Christ. And for everyone else as well. But Paul here seemed to particularly mean it for the believers at large, I would say especially individually, and then collectively, together. Definitely an ongoing personal application. In and through Jesus.

letting the truth sink in and settle

To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

John 8:31-32

Then Jesus turned to the Jews who had claimed to believe in him. “If you stick with this, living out what I tell you, you are my disciples for sure. Then you will experience for yourselves the truth, and the truth will free you.”

John 8:31-32; MSG

The heart of the Christian message is about relationship and truth. The two go together in a number of ways. By faith in Christ we begin to understand not just the truth about God, but God himself, or God’s self (since, strictly speaking, God is neither male nor female, while at the same time, male and female human beings are made in God’s image). But as Jesus I think was suggesting to those who had believed him, it’s not enough just to have the light turned on, and truth dawn on us. We need to let that sink in and settle to make the needed difference in our lives. We need to keep the truth from and of Jesus front and center, and make it central to how we live. Nothing less than that will do.

If we do that, then we’ll begin to experience the freedom God wants to give us, not only from sin, but for what is right, good, of God, and truly human. As disciples/followers of Jesus. In and through Jesus.

a meditation for Ash Wednesday: Luke 18:9-14

To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’

“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

“I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Luke 18:9-14

He told his next story to some who were complacently pleased with themselves over their moral performance and looked down their noses at the common people: “Two men went up to the Temple to pray, one a Pharisee, the other a tax man. The Pharisee posed and prayed like this: ‘Oh, God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, crooks, adulterers, or, heaven forbid, like this tax man. I fast twice a week and tithe on all my income.’

“Meanwhile the tax man, slumped in the shadows, his face in his hands, not daring to look up, said, ‘God, give mercy. Forgive me, a sinner.’”

Jesus commented, “This tax man, not the other, went home made right with God. If you walk around with your nose in the air, you’re going to end up flat on your face, but if you’re content to be simply yourself, you will become more than yourself.”

Luke 18:9-14; MSG

On this Ash Wednesday, as we enter into Lent, it is indeed a season of reflection and preparation. An important aspect of it is the acknowledgement and confession of our own sins. And of how we fall short of God’s perfection and will. We should never think we have a leg up on others. Yes, some sins are more devastating than other sins; we can’t escape that reality. At the same time, we too sin, and are sinners in that sense. We’re no longer sinners as before, as those declared and made righteous in Christ, so that we’re on a new path, the path of righteousness (Psalm 23). Yet we still have sin and sin (1 John 1).

It is particularly important during this time when some may think they’re better than others given what’s happening in our nation. We need to face the fact of our own complicity. Even the sin of simply not being present, of excusing one’s self, or not making the effort to understand what’s wrong, and how it affects actual people, including possibly some of our neighbors.

The point is that we need to accept that we too are in need of ongoing forgiveness, and a deeper repentance, which gets right to the heart of our own need, as well as the need around us.

This is not something we beat ourselves with again and again. But in a sense it’s where we live and is actually for our good. In the process we’ll more and more come to find the special place God has for us. In God’s love for all. In and through Jesus.

accept the reality we’re in: Christian spiritual warfare

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.

And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people. Pray also for me, that whenever I speak, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it fearlessly, as I should.

Ephesians 6:10-20

And that about wraps it up. God is strong, and he wants you strong. So take everything the Master has set out for you, well-made weapons of the best materials. And put them to use so you will be able to stand up to everything the Devil throws your way. This is no weekend war that we’ll walk away from and forget about in a couple of hours. This is for keeps, a life-or-death fight to the finish against the Devil and all his angels.

Be prepared. You’re up against far more than you can handle on your own. Take all the help you can get, every weapon God has issued, so that when it’s all over but the shouting you’ll still be on your feet. Truth, righteousness, peace, faith, and salvation are more than words. Learn how to apply them. You’ll need them throughout your life. God’s Word is an indispensable weapon. In the same way, prayer is essential in this ongoing warfare. Pray hard and long. Pray for your brothers and sisters. Keep your eyes open. Keep each other’s spirits up so that no one falls behind or drops out.

And don’t forget to pray for me. Pray that I’ll know what to say and have the courage to say it at the right time, telling the mystery to one and all, the Message that I, jailbird preacher that I am, am responsible for getting out.

Ephesians 6:10-20; MSG

I think there’s truth and wisdom in what I heard years and years ago from a servant of the Lord. We as followers of Christ are children, servants and soldiers. He then likened that I think to the old stools people used to sit on to milk their cows. Three legs, so that if one of them is gone, the stool is gone we could say, as well. For different reasons I think we either want to avoid the soldier analogy, or we misapply it, pushing it into “the culture war,” or even into what is some ways is worse, actual military or paramilitary activity. Not what Christ taught, nor what Paul is teaching here.

We are not in a physical battle, but spiritual, and we’d better face that and get used to it, and act accordingly. It’s not just something we do and get it over with. We have to be ready and engaged day after day. It’s a kind of mentality, but also something beyond that. It is we can say spiritual in the sense that we are looking to God for God’s strength and help, no less, in all that God has provided for us in Christ. As The Message puts it: “Truth, righteousness, peace, faith, and salvation” along with “God’s Word” and “prayer.”

All who are in Christ will sooner or later realize that they are in a spiritual battle. I remember a successful and loving pastor who seemed to suggest that we should ignore Satan. I may have well misunderstood him. Perhaps he was making the point that our focus shouldn’t be on Satan or spiritual warfare, the spiritual battle we’re in, but on Christ. And that is a good and important point. We succeed in resisting the onslaught of the enemy by getting our strength from God, and applying what God has given us in Scripture, in Christ.

There’s nothing fancy here. All we’re supposed to do is stand firm, holding our ground. It may not look pretty, and may not get us any style points. It’s not about us. We accept this difficult, heavy reality, after all, there’s really no escape from it. And we want to take it head on, not at all in our own strength, but only in the Lord’s mighty strength, the strength of his might. Again, living out all Christ has given us, all we are. Holding on. Not trying to overcome ourselves, but knowing we will overcome by standing firm through Christ. Along with others. In and through Jesus.

peacemaking and persecution

Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Matthew 5:9-12

At the end of what has often been called the Beatitudes, Jesus possibly juxtaposes two thoughts side by side which are related, but at odds with each other.

How can you be a peacemaker, yet be on the short end, indeed experiencing violence? Enter the world of Jesus.

Jesus was indeed a peacemaker, from Scripture we say by the blood of his cross, and that’s for sure. He took human wrath on himself to end human wrath. We say God’s wrath, but I would prefer to say God’s wrath against evil. God in judgment took the wrath of humankind on himself there at the cross, to end it once for all. And peacemakers following Jesus indeed need to point this out.

Peacemaking as Jesus was describing it here definitely was related to the forgiveness of sins and reconciliation later established by the cross. For us on the ground now it’s a matter of promoting peace on God’s terms, the peace of the kingdom established in Jesus. It is a peace grounded in faith and allegiance to King Jesus, and a peace based on his teaching and life. Made possible again through his death. We can’t do this on our own.

But even when we are people of peace, the peace spoken of here, that doesn’t mean we don’t end up becoming victims of war, violent opposition, violence in one form or another (Psalm 120). Certainly in being cursed, verbal violence, but sometimes suffering physical persecution. For us in the United States, this seems remote, of another world for good reason. We rarely if ever face one such incident of actual physical persecution during our lifetime. That probably speaks more of the society in which we live, but I wonder if we were more faithful in following Christ if we would see some incidents of it.

Is our persecution really because of righteousness and what is just, as well as for Christ? A good test might be if we’re truly becoming peacemakers in the way of Christ. Otherwise the “persecution” we experience might indeed need to be put in quotes, more about ourselves and our offenses, and less if at all about the offense of Jesus.

Would that life would be this black and white. Unfortunately there are times when it is partly our fault. We may not understand why, it may be nothing blatant or known on our part. Then there are the times we stumble and know better. Ironically those end up easier for us to make peace by simply asking for forgiveness. The other times, we know that somehow our weakness might be in play, but we have knowingly done nothing wrong.

It is hard to know what to do. To be as wise as serpents, but harmless as doves is surely something we need to be considering here. But we may just have to take what persecution comes our way, hopefully God doing a work for good in the one persecuting us, so that they might repent and change due to the love of God present even through us, in and through Jesus.

strength from God against opposition

It’s interesting how again and again in Psalm 119, the psalmist appeals to God for strength to stand in the face of opposition. You find it sprinkled throughout that long chapter. And it’s not enough just to note that. One really needs to go through the entire chapter to get the feel of it. It’s real life with all its struggles and our responses to them. It is quite experientially oriented, as well as the emphasis on God’s word and law.

We expect to see that in many of the psalms, but may not expect it in this psalm. But it’s there, meant to help and strengthen us in the midst of opposition. Spiritual opposition of course, but also when others oppose us. We hopefully learn where we might be off. The psalmist was certainly not infallible themselves. We can see attitudes in the psalms, and in this psalm which are likely wrong even in that day, and definitely off track for us today as Jesus followers. So we need to be open to needed correction that may come from those who oppose us.

But we also can expect God to strengthen and help us as we seek to humbly take a stand for Christ, for the gospel, for mercy, justice, righteousness and truth. In and through Jesus.

vindication from God our Savior

Who may ascend the mountain of the Lord?
Who may stand in his holy place?
The one who has clean hands and a pure heart,
who does not trust in an idol
or swear by a false god.

They will receive blessing from the Lord
and vindication from God their Savior.
Such is the generation of those who seek him,
who seek your face, God of Jacob.

Psalm 24

When I read in the psalms about God vindicating his people, I think how undeserving I am of such vindication. And this is a psalm of David, who doesn’t seem that worthy of vindication when you consider his great sin of adultery and murder. But maybe that is meant to be an encouragement to the rest of us who, while we may have not committed such an act, still know we’re so undeserving because of what we have done, left undone, and because of grievous attitudes in our heart at times.

Just to make it clear what vindication means, it involves someone being proven to be in the right. When one thinks about that, one can’t help but think of God’s grace without which none of us would ever be in the right in the first place.

What especially stood out to me today in reading this great psalm is the line: “They will receive…vindication from God their Savior.” I think that helps us understand how God’s people are vindicated. It’s not because of them, but the God who saves them.

N. T. Wright helped me see from the psalms how God’s righteousness is tied to God’s salvation of his people. God’s saving act includes vindicating his people, who apart from that would never be vindicated. Of course this goes beyond what we deserve, because when we read all of the psalms and the rest of Scripture we understand that no one deserves vindication in themselves. We’re all sinners.

We receive vindication from God because of our faith and the difference God makes in our lives. We are different through and through, not wanting to do what is wrong, but wanting to do what’s right, even while we do fail along the way. It’s God’s working that makes us want to face our true selves, repent, and walk in God’s way, and keep doing that again and again with our ongoing confession of our sins, and endeavor to walk anew and afresh in God’s will for us in Christ.

And so we can be encouraged with this thought. God’s vindication of us is completely not because of us, but because of God, as by faith he credits righteousness to us, and helps us to want to live accordingly, even in the midst of our inevitable stumbling. God will vindicate us, yes, each one of us, in and through Jesus.

 

thinking needed during difficult times

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.

Philippians 4:8

Right now in the United States and across the world we’re facing a pandemic. This naturally intensifies stress, and is affecting all of life. So why would I point myself, and all of us to this word from Paul, and actually this Scripture, God’s written word?

First of all, it’s always good practice, something not just recommended, but prescribed for us Christians. And when you turn the pages of Scripture, you’ll find plenty of good in the midst of reality. Scripture is not couched in an alternative, imaginative, make-believe world, but in the all too real world, the world in which we live. Of course across different cultures and time, to be sure. But much of what we see there, we see here. And Paul’s word here actually refers to good found anywhere, all a part of God’s common grace given to humankind.

To be sure, we practically have to turn our faces, or ignore so much right in front of our faces that is less than good, and too often is bad, or even evil. We don’t ignore such things. To focus on what is true is probably more in the sense of what is true in a good sense. But what is true, noble and right includes taking seriously that which is not. To engage in this process requires discernment. It’s all too easy at least for me to descend into something that is less than good in reaction to what’s not good.

During this crisis, we will do well to find what is good in the sense of fitting and helpful. And to have discernment to see what is not. Paul’s words here necessarily mean that we’re going to want to be constructive in our critiques, beginning first with ourselves, if we’re going to help others with the kind of help that’s needed.

May God help us to think thoughts which impact us in ways that are uplifting in the sense of edifying, so that others too may be helped. And especially that we might all look to the one who can lift us beyond what we can imagine, or experience ourselves. In and through Jesus.

 

doing what is right and loving others

Anyone who does not do what is right is not God’s child, nor is anyone who does not love their brother and sister.

1 John 3:10b

1 John is a powerful letter from the start, both in its simplicity and profundity. And one of the things John pounds home again and again in the brief letter is the importance of living by the truth of God found in Jesus which means obeying God’s commands, the most fundamental of all, to love each other.

1 John has much to say about this, so we need to read further. Love is made known in Christ laying down his life for us, and our love is made known in laying down our lives for the brothers and sisters (3:16). And this is about day to day acts of faithfulness, especially to meet a need.

So John stresses that God’s children do what is right, and love God and the family of God.

I am grieved when I see what seems to me to be less than that. Yes, we can’t see into other people’s hearts like God can, so that we need to indeed be careful. Sometimes it’s in overt acts such as harsh words. Other times it may be subtle, yet even worse, like when one is continually ignored. It may involve a slow burn. We need to watch ourselves, even check to see whether or not we might be misunderstood by someone to be doing that. And we need to pray for any who might be doing that to us. As we seek to do what is right and love. In and through Jesus.