In Hot Pursuit

The way of the wicked is an abomination to the Lord, but he loves the one who pursues righteousness. — Proverbs 15:9, NRSV

I used to think being transformed by God’s grace was a passive act. Time after time, mistake after mistake, and prayer after prayer I would wait for that magic moment that I would no longer be subject to my bad habits. I believed there would be this “place” in life that would signal my spiritual maturity and official station as a disciple of Jesus.

Welp.

Needless to say, that is not the experience I have had, and I thank God for that. I was denying my agency in life, missing my part in God’s story, and setting myself up for failure in trying to hit a “moving target” of salvation that doesn’t exist. As the well-beaten Emerson quote says, “Life is a journey, not a destination,” and the same is doubly true for the life of faith in Christ.

Scripture speaks often of pursuit. The Scripture above from Proverbs expresses God’s approval for those who pursue righteousness. Psalm 34:14 encourages us to “Depart from evil, and do good; seek peace, and pursue it.” In Philippians 3, Paul speaks of “straining forward to what lies ahead” (verse 13). Jesus exhorts His followers to “strive first for the kingdom of God” (Matthew 6:33). This theme of effort, pursuit, and striving is consistent throughout all of Scripture, and it is a vital lesson for us today.

The quality and holiness of our lives depend not on all we manage to achieve, but all that we decide to pursue with our whole heart. Faith is a journey that takes us to the end of our time on this earth. Salvation is the way in which we live, and not a static place to stand. If we spend our time chasing after accomplishments and accolades while remaining complacent in our faith life, we have veered off course and lost “the narrow path.” However, should we decide to pursue God in every moment, and if we see ourselves, each other, and all this world has to offer as sacred, we will be re-oriented toward God’s kingdom, and we will hasten its coming.

This is not a check-list, finish line kind of race. It is one of endurance, one that will have many obstacles and pit-falls, one that will sometimes involve us getting lost and needing to be re-calibrated. But it is also a journey of transformation. In making the effort to recognize what George Fox called “that of God in everyone,” and in striving to live a Christ-like life, we do actually change and grow in our connection to God. This in turn has a positive impact on those with whom we interact, creating a chain effect that makes the Kingdom of God a current reality.

We all have a part to play in God’s story. We all have the freedom to choose what to do with the love of God and the relationship He offers us. I pray that as we go out into this, we will choose to act on that love, honoring it in our thoughts, our words, and our various doings. In this way, we both pursue and live out our salvation.

Peace be with you!

 

The Dangers of Tunnel Vision

In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did what was right in his own eyes. — Judges 17:6, RSV

Like others who grew up in the United States, I was raised with an emphasis on individuality. Sure, you’re expected to have a respect for family and authority as a child, but as an adult, the goal is to pull yourself up by your own bootstraps and carve your own way in the world. If you end up in an unhappy or undesirable place, that just means you didn’t put in the work or effort to get yourself where you wanted to be.

In recent times, this individualistic mentality has actually intensified. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, even if it is proven to be dead wrong. We get to choose what version of the truth suits us best, and we form tribes that align with our own sense of what is right and wrong. These groups are actually just larger extensions of our individual selves, and we use them to do battle with others.

We have “representatives” upholding party lines, no matter how insane and unhelpful such tribalism might be for us as a nation. As a society, we have carved ourselves into groups that are either entirely supportive of or condemnatory toward police officers. We must be either pro-choice or pro-life, even though solutions exist that could actually appeal to both sides. We can go online and find articles published by terrifically biased sources and share that misleading information, justified only by the fact that we agree with it.

Further, it’s become fashionable to speak and act callously, even cruelly, whether in the name of our specific cause or even just in the name of “freedom.” We are obsessed with our rights while dismissive of our duty to use them responsibly. Using vicious language designed for shock value, we have become more violent in how we think, speak, and act with regard to each other. Should anyone try to correct us, we are quick to remind them of our right to speak and do as we please, and our individual freedom will not be hindered by something so pesky and invasive as compassion.

This is what we see in the Biblical passage referenced at the beginning of this post. The Book of Judges is full of ironic warnings regarding our tendency to depart from the path of God, and the core of the problem is quoted above and appears as the very last sentence of the book. “In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 17:6, 21:25). It seems the ancients shared our self-centered problem.

In Judges 17, the unnamed mother of a man named Micah makes a graven image from silver coins (violating the teaching of God). Micah takes this idol and establishes a shrine in his home. Soon after, a Levite happens upon Micah’s home, and Micah makes this Levite the priest of his shrine. Then in Judges 18, the Danites get involved, take the Levite and the idol, and “set up the graven image for themselves” (verse 30). One woman’s sin, perpetuated by her son, becomes the sin of an entire tribe of Israel. To put it more broadly, because one person did what they felt was right, without regard to anyone else, an entire nation suffered violence.

I hope you can see where I am going with this.

As long as we allow our thoughts, words, and  actions to go unrestricted by compassion, our nation and world will suffer violence. If we continue to live our lives in our own little, individual bubbles, our society will face dire consequences. Every individual person has the ability to build up or tear down, to give life or to take it. For us to choose correctly, we must stop caring only about what is right in our own eyes and strive to look through the eyes of others.

What would happen if the staunch, pro-life advocate looked through the eyes of a woman who couldn’t afford to feed herself, much less the healthcare and maternity leave needed to care for a child? What would happen if the most avid pro-choice proponent saw the guilt a young woman carries after having an abortion? The most anti-police demonstrator could learn much if they saw the fear and anxiety that accompanies an officer’s family every time she puts on her uniform and goes to work. A blue-blooded tribe could also stand to experience and understand the fear a patrol car elicits as it rolls down the streets of a low-income, predominantly black neighborhood.

Could the Democrat grow to appreciate the need for a careful, conservative approach to change? Could the Republican see value in loosening our hold on a system that hasn’t been working correctly for quite some time? Maybe those in the public eye could learn that shock value is not the same as substantive content.

Each of us, perhaps, could learn to approach our daily lives with a compassionate heart and an open mind.

None of this means that we need to stop thinking critically for ourselves. It does mean, however, that thoughts and actions rooted in our own narrow perception of life don’t add up to much. When we cease to care about how we affect each other, we abandon the most fundamental commandment of God. We love Him in how we love one another.

I hope you’ll join me in trying to take a more “outward” approach to life. We Christians have just entered into the season of Lent, a time for personal reflection and growth. It is also an ideal time to make compassion a daily practice. We could listen to those that we disagree with, without waiting for our turn to speak. We could imagine what it’s like to be like those who are different from us, and when we are unsure, we could ask questions. We could ask the simple question of how we would like to be interacted with if we were in the same position as someone else.

Transformation is often viewed as a process that comes from power. The law must change, the policy must be altered, and the results must be major. While I agree in a series of just laws and policies guiding us, I believe in Jesus’ model of transformation: One person and relationship at a time. Consistent, intentional effort for the Kingdom of God will lead to far greater things than we can ask or imagine. So let’s get started!

Peace be with you!

 

 

Righteousness ≠ Perfection

The light of the righteous rejoices, but the lamp of the wicked goes out. — Proverbs 13:9, NRSV

Reading Proverbs is both a delight and a challenge. Wonderful wisdom abounds in this small, fast-paced book of sayings, but the challenge comes from historical and cultural values that differ from our own, plus one other thing: vocabulary. The word “righteous” is used quite a bit in the Bible (around 567 times, give or take, depending on the translation), and I’d wager a hefty portion of that usage comes from Proverbs.

The reason I bring this up is that in my own life, the word “righteous” has been largely misunderstood, making Scripture study rather unpleasant. If you’re anything like me, you tend to beat yourself up. Your mind plays your failures over and over again, and reading a collection of texts geared toward making us more righteous certainly doesn’t help. I have found, though, that this is because I have come to confuse righteousness with perfection.

Righteousness is a life defined by virtue and justification, but even the most righteous person in the Bible would by no means be considered perfect. In fact, God seems to go out of His way to choose wildly imperfect people for the purposes of establishing His covenant. Noah, Abram (later Abraham), Sarai (later Sarah), Isaac, Rachel, Leah, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron, Joshua, Samuel, Saul, David, Bathsheba, Jonah, Peter, Judas, the Twelve, Saul (later Paul), and the list goes on and on. All of them are in some sense chosen and involved in the continuation of God’s covenant and story, yet none of them are even close to being perfect.

My point? The Bible has a distinction between perfection (a quality of God) and righteousness (something God imparts to humans). For us to understand the Book of Proverbs, or any other Biblical literature, we must first understand that for the writers of Scripture, sin is a fact of life. It is an ever-present part of being human. Therefore, when we read about righteousness, we cannot assume that we are supposed to be free of sin always and forever. As John says, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8).

Rather, all this talk of righteousness and sinfulness is about the trend of our lives. You and I will inevitably mess up. Sin is a part of who we are. However, it doesn’t have to be our defining characteristic, and it won’t be if we are honest about our faults, do our best to positively affect our surroundings, and rely on the grace of God to fill in the gaps. While sinners, we can still lead a humble life that tends toward the kingdom of God rather than our own selfish pursuits. We only become truly wicked when we decide that we are our gods, having no sin because we can do whatever we wish. In short, we become defined by our sin when we give up.

We must remember the central Christian teaching that salvation and righteousness are gifts of God granted by His sacrifice in Jesus Christ. “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2:8). The love of God is given freely, and relationship with God is opened to us free of charge. This does not mean that we do not have a response to make, but it does mean that our response should come from gratitude, and not the desire to earn our way to heaven.

God’s grace is not intended to inspire guilt or a brow-beating approach to our lives. If we spend every day trying to check off items on “The Chart of Perfection,” we will soon grow resentful of that which is meant to give us everlasting joy. Instead, we are charged with living lives of gratitude, humility, and mercy, with the love of God and neighbor at the front of our minds. We will still have sin, but instead of crippling guilt and regret, we can humbly approach the God who will remind us, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9).

So when we hear the words of the Gospel, extolling the value of righteous living, we shouldn’t engage in self-punishment because we lack perfection. God has plenty of perfection already. What the Lord seeks is that our perfectly imperfect hearts would seek after Him and trust Him to take care of the rest. If we remember our faults (and that God has forgiven them out of His limitless love), we are able to look graciously and lovingly upon the faults of others, and in doing so we fulfill the Commandment. But that is a subject for the next post. 😉

Peace be with you!