secondary matters

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.”

Matthew 23:23-24

Jesus’s words here remind me of my own life and even the life of the church if I were to cite concerns. We easily get caught up in secondary matters, things necessary in their place which need to be attended to. And we often are focused on issues which distract us from what’s most important.

Our theological concerns can be far too narrow, and that becomes evident in what we are thinking about and what we do as a result. Is our view becoming more and more expansive like God’s? Or are we concerned about only the things which most directly affect ourselves both for this life and the next?

Jesus makes it clear that justice, mercy and faithfulness are to take priority over other matters. A key tactic of the devil, or so it seems to me is to get us sidetracked into obsessions which seem so important, but cause us to lose out over what is of first importance.

We need to take care of what we might call nuisance questions and problems. And in this life we’re beset by them, no doubt. But we must not let what is of primary importance be crowded out. Loving others, loving our neighbor as ourselves, loving even our enemies, certainly not neglecting those near and dear to us, all of this in our love for God must take priority. As we seek to follow Jesus in everything. In and through Jesus.

keeping close accounts

This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all. If we claim to have fellowship with him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live out the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all[b] sin.

If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us.

My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have an advocate with the Father—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.

1 John 1:5-2:2

It is so important to keep a close account in our walk with God in Christ before others. There is no doubt that we sin along the way in thoughts and attitudes, sometimes in words and actions. Hopefully as we go along and grow the latter will become less and less, that God would grant us more and more the wisdom to avoid such. But at times we will. And definitely we will fall into less than godly, loving thoughts and attitudes.

We need sensitivity before God, before the light of God to recognize our darkness, what is wrong. Then we need to confess such to God and if need be to anyone we’ve offended.

Thankfully God has made provision for us and for the world in Christ. Our sins are taken care of in Christ, through his atoning work. Again, all we have to do is acknowledge them along the way. Even as seek not to sin, just as John tells us in the passage above. In and through Jesus.

ignoring the devil?

Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.

James 4:7b

There’s no specific Scripture passage I can come up with that tells us to ignore the devil. So I was rather taken back not a few years ago when a respected pastor told us that he prefers to ignore the devil. I’m sure given his tradition that wouldn’t mean he would skip Scriptural passages or teaching about the devil. Just what he meant, I can’t be sure. I remember C.S. Lewis’s thought that Christians either pay too much attention to Satan, or prefer to carry on as if Satan did not exist at all. There has to be a balance. We have to be aware, but not giving more place to Satan and its activities, the demons, etc., than what Scripture gives them.

There is the newer understanding to deal with, the reality that the Satanic powers are at work in human systems. There is no way we can nor should ignore that. That’s another, but important matter. But we’re dealing here with our own struggles. Hopefully from that we can begin to see the struggles of others around us, including society at large in its implicit as well as explicit systemic evil.

I think one of the devil’s main tactics at least from my own experience is to get us distracted, our mind focused on something seemingly important that can’t wait, accompanied by numerous concerns and fears, maybe only one such, but consuming our thoughts, time and day. For each of us, it will be something different, but the main point is the same. It’s something which hits us out of nowhere at any time to the point that if you’re like me, especially in year’s past, I would dread its coming. I think during such times it is probably more than likely that simply ignoring this ploy might be just what we need.

We can’t do that by trying to ignore the thought. It’s in our head and there’s no way we can get rid of it ourselves. I would suggest that of course we can and should immediately ask God for help. But also we can resolutely set our attention on something else. Paul’s word can help us here:

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

When something is overwhelming us, just demanding our attention, putting us in a near panic, that’s a sure sign it’s not from God, but from the devil. Or maybe we’re so used to reacting to situations in that way, that’s it’s simply become a part of who we are. Instead we need to discipline ourselves to focus on something else. We might look into our concern a bit, but then we quit, after we’ve committed the matter to God in prayer. And we proceed with something else, something good for us and for others. And fill our minds with that.

I think this is one important way to resist the devil and its schemes. In and through Jesus.

Augustine: Love, and do what you will.

The goal of this command is love, which comes from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith.

1 Timothy 1:5

The whole point of what we’re urging is simply love—love uncontaminated by self-interest and counterfeit faith, a life open to God.

1 Timothy 1:5; MSG

Once and for all, I give you this one short command: love, and do what you will. If you hold your peace, hold your peace out of love. If you cry out, cry out in love. If you correct someone, correct them out of love. If you spare them, spare them out of love. Let the root of love be in you: nothing can spring from it but good. …

Augustine

Augustine’s quote is taken to mean that one can do whatever they feel like and want to do if they love God. But that’s not precisely what Augustine meant, and can open us up to misunderstanding. His point in the context of his sermon was that whatever we do is to be done out of love. Love for God and love for neighbor flowing together. As revealed in Christ in his fulfillment of God’s will. And then everything we do if done in that way will be good.

I think a good way to assess our actions and thoughts, indeed the fruit of our lives is to ask ourselves whether love for God and for our neighbor is our motivation and animating impulse, what moves us. If so, then we’re living in God’s grace as God intends for us in Christ. If not, then we’re living in something else, foreign to that grace. Sometimes we may simply be struggling to accept God’s love and then live in that love at all. God understands those times. We should still try to love, even when the sense of it is far removed from us. But make no mistake, the God who is love as John points out elsewhere and Paul as well, wants us to live in love, in everything we think, do and say. In and through Jesus. 

waking up Christian love in each other

And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.

Hebrews 10:24-25

A little bit can go a long way. We may think what we can do isn’t much. But when it’s done as an expression of love, it can indeed be a lot. People can be moved from near despair to being lifted in needed encouragement, with a feeling and sense of being loved and belonging. Love and good deeds beget love and good deeds, at least having the potential to do so.

We in Christ are all in this together. It’s not each person all out for themselves. We need to watch out for each other, regularly meeting together, keeping track of one another, particularly during hard times. And really just ongoing love expressed is surely underrated and a largely missing element in our church lives nowadays.

Some of us will need more encouragement than others. But we all need it, each and everyone of us. None of us are excluded. And we need to express genuine appreciation for others, for God’s gift in them, and for their gift to us. And in practical, down to earth ways, thoughts and prayers certainly not excluded. In and through Jesus.

love and pray, pray and love

Love from the center of who you are; don’t fake it….

Don’t quit in hard times; pray all the harder.

Romans 12:9a,12b; MSG

There are days when everything seems uphill. It can seem we’re running on less than empty, and what’s filling us, or at least inside us is not good. And that at least so much is against us, even seemingly so, the whole world. And that we’re just hanging on for dear life. Like being hit hard where it hurts, in a spiritual battle, and not breathing all that well.

Those are the times especially when we need to pray and love, love and pray. It doesn’t matter where we begin. We pray because we want to love, and we love, so we pray. But like Paul says above, we don’t quit in the hard times, but pray all the harder. We focus on praying to God, asking for help, praying for someone who may be bothering us. Whatever the needs, we lift them up to God in prayer.

The answer will come, yes it will. As we pray we’ll likely sooner than later see the cloud begin to lift. What gradually will replace our troubled minds are better, good thoughts, God-given thoughts. That will begin the cycle of real love and more prayer, more prayer and more love. These go together. What is essential for us. In and through Jesus.

first things first

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. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.

Philippians 4:8-9

I too often have the experience of getting through one thing or another that troubles me, finding inward peace with the freedom to think beyond troubles, only to be assailed by a new problem. I think there’s some serious wisdom in seeking kind of a monastic existence apart from the cares of this world. In my case it would be a married monastery. Yet in having to go through the extra difficulties one can grow in faith and wisdom. I suppose if I were to choose, unblinkingly I would take the former. But I am stuck in the latter, at least for now.

There’s a good word for us from Paul that relates to this, I think. Paul had plenty of serious concerns, but they were all more or less related directly to the kingdom of God. He filled his mind with good things, which is more than evident in his writings. And remember when he said in what is allegedly his last letter that he wanted the parchments and the scrolls (2 Timothy 4:13). He was a reader, or he had someone read to him due to what seems to have been an eye condition. At any rate, he kept himself occupied with truth, knowledge and beauty both from God’s revelation of Scripture, and from other sources as well, evident in the terms used here.

For me that means I need to major on what is major, do my best to take care of the rest, but not let go of what’s most essential. In fact even in addressing problems, we can do so hopefully through ways which will actually add to our well being, instead of tearing us down. While we don’t let go of what is helpful and edifying, from Scripture, and from other sources, all part of God’s revelation, as we sift though those things.

And we must act. Paul says to look at his life, and do what he does, to follow him as he follows Christ. That is so important. We need people who have learned, or at least are learning to walk the walk. To learn from them over time, just to be around them. Sadly the way it is, church life is hardly church life at all in so many good places. You have to really take initiative in looking for small groups, maybe even a house church, and develop relationships. I’ve gained a lot from that in recent years, even though it has been limited in the numbering of gatherings. Faithfulness to Christ in love for God and for others in God’s grace must be lived out, yes in our imperfect sometimes broken ways. But that must be our priority, indeed passion.

So we need both commitments: To occupy our minds with good things. And to live in the faith God gives us, following the good example of others, that we might in turn be an example. In and through Jesus.

in insane 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. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.

Philippians 4:8-9

Paul basically tells us two simple yet profound things here. He says essentially to guard our thought life, not so much here by what we don’t take in, though that’s important, but what we actually do think about and reflect on. And Paul tells us to live as he did. That should be a check on us, on how we often live and act, or react to things.

This is a challenge because Christians are not to turn a blind eye to what is wrong, impure, ugly, shameful, and deserving of rebuke and censure. That’s always to be found, and people are thankfully metaphorically, but still sadly nearly at each other’s throats nowadays. It is a maddening time.

But what’s a Christian to do? Do what Paul tells us here, a part of God’s written word. Settle down and settle in to what is better. In doing so, maybe then we can be helpful to influence what is not. 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.

 

think, think some more, and don’t quit thinking

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

The Apostle Paul uses terminology and actually says something here which makes it clear that we draw truth and what is good from various sources, from anywhere they might come from. Of course he would say that we have to test everything in terms of what God has revealed in Scripture, but so much is not contradictory to that. For example today we take much of medical science for granted, at least on some scale. And I completely accept the idea of mental illness and psychology along with medications which can help alleviate or at least deal with that. And then I’ll go to the arts: painting, music, etc. Much of beauty and what is good found there, and much of it from non-Christians.

When it comes to the faith itself, there is a rich tradition of deep theological thought and reflection on Scripture and life. I lament because it seems like much of that is set aside as less than lame, more like dead. But if one seriously reads through all of Scripture themselves, they’ll come to realize that such is not the case. The depth found in Scripture is something to remain in and explore the rest of our lives, in prayer and in life.

Of course we need discernment. Not everything out there is good. There is the cunning deceptive work of the enemy, the devil. We have to have discernment from God to see through anything that is contradictory to the main point of Scripture: the gospel. And we weigh what is good and not so good, along with rejecting what is false. If we don’t learn to think, pray and live deeply, we will fail to discern what is good, and might fall for what is not.

There at least needs to be a broad agreement on what Paul says here. Certainly Christians won’t see eye to eye on everything; we all bring a different perspective. But we should at least have the bigger picture in view, fulfilled in Jesus, so that we question many things, and remain true to the big picture found in Scripture along with the details, that of God’s grace and kingdom come and being fulfilled in and through Jesus.