devotionals

The Rich Man And Social Righteousness

I came across the story of the “rich young man” the other day (Mark 10:17-31). Sermons and commentaries on the story tend to focus on reassuring modern readers that Jesus’ command to “sell all” need not necessarily apply to them. But I wonder if this specific focus on the degree of generosity misses something about the overall picture. Now that I’ve learned to distinguish evangelicalism’s cultural focus on personal righteousness from the Bible’s integrated holistic view of both “personal” and “social” righteousness, I can’t help but view this story through that lens.

The “commandments” that Jesus rattled off – commandments he surely knew the rich man thought he had upheld – are all pretty much limited to personal righteousness. Do not murder. Do not commit adultery. Do not steal… As long as the rich man wasn’t personally hurting any of the less fortunate people around him, he considered his obligations to them – and to the Lord – fulfilled. His view of righteousness stopped short of any social concern for his neighbors.

But, of course, the law of Moses made no such distinction. The judgments and hopes of the prophets made no such distinction. The teaching and ministry of Jesus made no such distinction. The practice of the early church made no such distinction. So maybe it was almost like Jesus was saying, “Oh, you think you’ve been so perfect in personal righteousness, eh? Well, here’s what it would take for you to be perfect in social righteousness!”

When Jesus amazes the disciples by telling them “how difficult it will be” for the wealthy to enter the kingdom of God (v.23-24), my Bible has a cross-reference to Job 31:24.

If I have made gold my trust
Or called fine gold my confidence,
If I have rejoiced because my wealth was abundant,
Or because my hand had found much…
This also would be an iniquity…

But in fact the entire chapter of Job 31 is a beautiful example of the Bible’s holistic view of righteousness!

It starts off on a personal note – Job’s declaration of his lust-prevention “covenant with my eyes” (which formed the basis of many youth-group sermons from my upbringing). He decries “falsehood” and “deceit” (v.5). He rejects adultery (v.9). Ah, but what’s this? He cares for the poor and the widow (v.16). He is a father to the fatherless (v.18). He clothes the naked and the needy (v.19). Or rather, in majestic and poetic violence, he declares with conviction that if he has not done any of those things, “then let my shoulder blade fall from my shoulder, and let my arm be broken from its socket.” (I don’t remember as many sermons about that section!)

Job gives us an archetypal picture of a righteous wealthy man – not one who literally sold 100% of his possessions – but one who was deeply concerned about the well-being of the needy and the inherent responsibility of his resources toward them. And what’s so beautiful about Jesus is that he is ever inviting the wealthy into his kingdom to do the same. It’s difficult, oh yes, but all things are possible with God! (Mark 10:27)

And there’s something else sadly ironic about that rich man… He seemed to be afraid of losing all his stuff, but if he had actually listened to Jesus, I’m not sure he could have ever run out of stuff to give! Another cross-reference from the passage takes me to Proverbs 11:28: Whoever trusts in his riches will fail, but the righteous will flourish like a green leaf. Yes, yes, we get it – but look a few verses earlier: One gives freely, yet grows all the richer; another withholds what he should give, and only suffers want. Jesus seems to echo the same promise when he assures the disciples that all who have “left” things for the gospel will “receive a hundredfold now in this time… and in the age to come…” of brothers and sisters and mothers and houses and lands (ok, and persecutions, too – in case you were mistaking this for personal prosperity gospel) (Mark 10:29-30)

If the rich man had truly understood – not just the personal commandments, but the full picture of the Law and the Prophets – of God’s heart for humanity and the commands and the promises about generosity – he might not have been so sorrowful. If he had started to rid himself of his possessions, perhaps like the proverb said he would have somehow found a bountiful supply coming back to him faster than he could give it away. Or perhaps like Jesus said he would simply have found himself – in a paradigm often known by the desperate poor better than the lonely rich – within a deep community of Christ-followers all joyfully sharing what they had with one another, in which none have many of their own possessions and yet at the same time none are ever truly left without anything at all.

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devotionals

How much stuff should we give to the poor?

In Luke 18 Jesus tells a rich man who has done a good job following the commandments that there’s something else he needs to do “to inherit eternal life”:

“You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.

When he heard this, he became very sad, because he was very wealthy. Jesus looked at him and said, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!” (Luke 18:22-24)

Now 99% of the Christians I know, especially the wealthy ones, don’t seem to be selling all their possessions and giving them to the poor. Sometimes non-Christians will use this passage as proof that Christians don’t really believe in following all the teachings of Jesus, but only the ones they find convenient. And then there’s that <1% that actually does give everything to the poor and thinks any Christian that doesn’t do the same thing is a bad Christian.

Well, we could look up the original Greek words or browse centuries of commentaries to try to justify our interpretations of this passage, but I think we need to look no farther than the next chapter, where Jesus interacts with another rich man:

Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.”

Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” (Luke 19:8-10)

I’ve read this passage many times, but for the first time I noticed the contrast with Luke 18. Jesus just got done telling the unnamed rich man to give “everything” to the poor. Here, Zaccheus voluntarily offers “half.” If giving everything to the poor was a universal principle, wouldn’t we expect Jesus to demand more?

Instead, Jesus is excited: “Today salvation has come to this house…” What makes this even more remarkable is Jesus just got done talking about how hard it was for the rich to enter the kingdom of God. Yet he concluded that it was possible with God, and it’s almost like Zaccheus’s salvation in the next chapter is the proof.

So there are two things I take from the contrast of these two passages.

1. God doesn’t want us to be generous in the same way. Jesus wanted one wealthy man to give everything to the poor, but he seemed satisfied with another man offering half. Maybe it has something to do with the different attitudes of the two men; maybe God just wants different sacrifices from each of us. Paul says “God loves a cheerful giver,” (2 Corinthians 9:7), and he tells the rich to “be generous and ready to share” (1 Timothy 6:17-19).

But maybe there’s no clearly defined rule for our generosity. Maybe we have to seek the Lord and ask him what he wants us to give. God has blessed each of us in many different ways and wants each of us to give in many different ways, including from our possessions, our money, and our time. If someone else isn’t giving the same way or at the same level that you’re giving, maybe that’s OK. Maybe God hasn’t called them to the same kind of sacrifice that he has called you.

2. God definitely wants us to be generous. While Zaccheus and the unnamed rich man showed different levels of generosity, 50% and 100% are both pretty high levels of generosity compared to what we often like to think about (such as, say, 10% tithing, unless you interpret that as an Old Testament rule to justify giving even less). If you’re not sure what God is telling you to give, you could probably err on the side of being more generous than you are right now. And while you shouldn’t force your idea of generosity on other Christians, I think you could still encourage them to be more generous, just as Paul did in his letters. I guess that’s what I’m doing right now.

So ask God what he wants from you. Don’t expect a one-size-fits-all rule, but do expect to be very generous.

devotionals, non-music

Random Devotional 8: Seek The Welfare Of The City

Plant gardens and eat their produce

Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf; for in its welfare you will have welfare. (Jeremiah 29:7 NASB)

God sent most of the Israelites into exile for awhile, essentially because they were getting ornery and needed some discipline. They didn’t want to be in Babylon, but God sent a message to them through Jeremiah to encourage them to make the most of their time there, as opposed to just moping around or waiting for a rescue. Yes, he was going to rescue them and bring them back, but for now they needed to “build houses,” “plant gardens,” and “take wives” (Jeremiah 29:5-6). Then in seventy years (v. 10) the time would be completed and he would bring them back (leading into v. 11, the most popular all-time verse of evangelical Christianity).

Continue reading “Random Devotional 8: Seek The Welfare Of The City”

devotionals

A Grandma’s Devotional

My grandma is one of my heroes. She lost two of her sons before I was even born (one shortly after birth and one as a teenager), and her husband left this earth to be with Jesus eight years ago. Yet throughout my life she has been the most tangible representation of the joy of the Lord that I have ever known. Even as her hearing fades, her heart and mind are strong, and she always has a smile on her face. (She also loves her immediate and extended family very much, and probably prays more every day than I pray in a week.)

Continue reading “A Grandma’s Devotional”

devotionals

Random Devotional 7: Making Choices

One of the spiritual lessons we can learn from our current financial crisis is about how God bails us out, so to speak, especially when we’re not sure about the choices we’re making.

The beautiful thing about the coexistence of God’s divine plan and our free will is that there’s nothing we can do to ruin God’s plan. He is so creative that he could come up with a million different ways to accomplish every one of his purposes, and when we make a poor or wrong choice, it’s just an opportunity for him to rearrange things to still accomplish his purpose.

The classic example of this is Joseph’s brothers who sold him into slavery. They intended it for evil, but God used it to save the lives of thousands of people across Egypt (Genesis 50:20).

Obviously, this does not give us a blank check to make reckless or unwise decisions. Just because God’s overall plan will still be accomplished does not mean that we cannot create consequences or pain and hardship for ourselves – or worse, for others.

But it should give us a confidence that when we’re in a situation where we’re unsure about which direction to take (should I wear my blue shirt or my red shirt today?), in the long run it doesn’t really matter because God is able to make things work out either way. God promises to work things for the good of those who love him (Romans 8:28).

When you’re unsure about something, you should consider the matter, pray, and seek wisdom and counsel. Do everything you can to make sure you’re not being led by selfish desires (Philippians 2:3). But if you still feel clueless, there is no need to despair or worry that you’re going to screw things up!

God has not given us a spirit of fear (Zech. 4:6), and he has told us to be strong and courageous (Joshua 1:8). So have confidence! If God can take the selfish, hateful actions of Joseph’s brothers and use it to save thousands of lives, how much more can he work with our fretful stabs at righteousness! God is creative enough to accomplish his purposes no matter what we do, and if we trust in him, he will direct our paths.

devotionals

Love. Joy. Apples.

Commit your way to the LORD,
Trust also in Him, and He will do it.

(Psalm 37:5)

Much of my work at the Apple Store consists of unboxing packages and shelving inventory. One of my secondary duties is to answer the phones when others are occupied, and last Tuesday I was answering them just a little more than usual. One man called around one in the afternoon. He had a technical support appointment at 6:00 and wanted to know if he could make it earlier. There was a spot available at 4:00, so I clicked the name of a man with a 6:00 appointment and rescheduled it.

But both 6:00 appointment slots had been filled with a name, and with an inexplicably inexcusable haste, I did not clarify the name of the man who wished to change his appointment time, and unbeknownst to me, changed the wrong one.

At 3:46, the phone rang. I happened to answer it. It was the same man. He called to say that he wasn’t going to be able to make it at 4:00 and to see if he could just change his appointment back to 6:00. “Wait… what was your name?” With a muffled shock, I realized I had changed the wrong man’s appointment. By the grace of God, the other 6:00 slot was still open, and I changed the other man back to 6:00 and informed the original man that his appointment was now (or, just as correctly, still) for 6:00.

This may seem like a trivial coincidence, but let’s review the possibilities.

If the other 6:00 slot had since been filled, which is not uncommon with two hours remaining, I would not have been able to fit both men into the time, and would probably have had to move the calling man to the nearest available time to move the clueless man back to his intended time slot. My mistake would have inconvenienced the calling man at best, as well as probably angering him and/or making him wait longer than necessary to have his machine checked. The calling man would have suffered because of my failure.

Secondly, if someone else had answered the latter call (and I never answer close to half of the phone calls), he or she would not have known about my mix-up and would have told the man he was already scheduled for 6. He might have been surprised and suspicious, but at least he would still get serviced when expected. However, the other man who had been unknowingly “rescheduled” to 4, would have been crossed off the list as a “no-show” by the time he came in at 6, and he would have to wait a couple hours to get serviced, if there was any time available at all, and at least the clueless man would have suffered because of my failure.

Finally, if the man had not called back but come in at 4:00, he would have learned that he was still scheduled for 6 with few if any earlier slots remaining, and would have been extremely upset at Apple’s customer service that led him to expect he could be serviced at 4. In this case, both customers would have suffered because of my failure.

It was improbable that neither man would feel the effects of my mistake, but nothing occurred except for my learning an important lesson to be more careful about rescheduling appointments. I thanked God for his grace that prevented my mistake from causing grief to others.

Later in the week, God used that event to remind me how he’s been faithful through my entire life, even to the point of sometimes saving me from my own mistakes that should have caused greater consequences. I was overcome with the joy of the assurance that his grace will continue to be faithful through the future.

It’s hardly uncommon for a single guy to wish to be otherwise, but lately that desire has been more distracting than usual. I’m perfectly content, in theory, to wait for God’s timing, but I had been starting to wonder if I’m supposed to be, shall we say, looking or trying harder, or if I’m doing something wrong. God reassured me that his grace will continue to cover my life, and that I’ll know when to pursue. He’s never failed to come through in the past; it’s literally impossible for him to not continue to do so!

When this revelation becomes real, the dutiful, unverified “faith in the unseen” becomes an excited, confident faith rooted in the simple fact of God’s overwhleming and consistent love. Only then can one truly understand how “the joy of the Lord is my strength.” And this assurance is a double blessing. Not only do you realize while you are showered in God’s grace that he is going to come through ~ a certainty that is powerful enough ~ but you realize that because you are loved by and favored by ~ indeed, you are with ~ God, it doesn’t even matter in a particular situation whether or not he comes through, because you are with God, and nothing could make that more complete.

I was explaining some of this to a friend last night who has also seen God working in her life, and she said she felt like she was talking to herself. To top it off, we discovered that we had both independently been led to the same encouraging psalm (did I mention that someone at church this morning also quoted from it?). These “coincidental” confirmations only increase the amazement of God’s blessing and the powerful joy of the confidence that he will continue to guide our lives. It is only within that joy that you can wonder with self-amusement how you could ever doubt, and not feel shamed, because that same Love is there to forgive, and then be overcome all over again by that great and mighty Love.

If anyone feels inclined to caution against putting too much stock in the emotional experiences of the religious life, he must also caution the lover against feeling too happy after a long, beautiful walk with his beloved. The emotional outpourings of a well-founded relationship are not an artificial danger, but the most fulfilling expression of its reailty. God is REAL. And he loves YOU. Let that warm your heart.

The steps of a man are established by the LORD,
And He delights in his way.
When he falls, he will not be hurled headlong,
Because the LORD is the One who holds his hand…
The mouth of the righteous utters wisdom,
And his tongue speaks justice.
The law of his God is in his heart;
His steps do not slip…
Mark the blameless man, and behold the upright
For the man of peace will have a posterity.
But the salvation of the righteous is from the LORD;
He is their strength in time of trouble.
The LORD helps them and delivers them;
He delivers them from the wicked and saves them,
Because they take refuge in Him.

(Ps 37:23-40)

devotionals

So shall I be saved from my enemies.

Today Meredith told me to read Psalm 18 because it was awesome.

“I will call upon the Lord, Who is worthy to be praised. So shall I be saved from my enemies” (verse 3)

Oh yes… I know that song… I remember this Psalm now… it’s really long and towards the end it has a verse that they used for the rest of that song… nice little Psalm about God saving David from his enemies, yeah, alright, cool.

I’m somewhere around verse 11 when… wait a minute… God’s doing some stuff here… let’s back up a bit…

The psalmist is in big trouble. So he calls upon God in his distress. And guess what? God takes action. And I don’t just mean a little outpouring of hope or something. I mean God takes ACTION.

“Then the earth shook and trembled… because He was wroth. There went up a smoke out of His nostrils, and fire out of His mouth devoured… The Lord also thundered in the heavens, and the Highest gave His voice, hail stones and coals of fire. Yea, He sent arrows, and scattered them, and He shot out lightnings, and discomfited them.”

God is getting angry because someone dared to harm his child. Remember how enraged Mufasa got when the hyenas cornered Simba? Picture that times a thousand. God loves his child so much that you better not dare lay a hand on him, or you’re in BIG trouble. God personally comes to answer the call for help, punish the criminal and save his child (see an amazing human video illustration of this).

“He sent from above, He took me, He drew me out of many waters. He delivered me from my strong enemy and from them which hated me, for they were too strong for me.”

This is such beautiful imagery! How did I never see all this before? Next the psalmist explains that God delivered him, not only because of His great and unfathomable love, but because the psalmist had been righteous. Then God girds him with strength and gives him weapons to take on the enemy himself.

And that’s when he concludes, “The Lord liveth, and blessed be my rock, and let the God of my salvation be exalted!”

Let’s recap.

I will call upon the Lord when I’m in trouble.
Ungodly men trouble me.
I call upon the Lord.
God says, “HOW DARE YOU HARM MY CHILD?” and personally comes to the rescue.

While meditating on these words from David, I listened to the words of yet another David. (David Crowder, that is)

when clouds veil sun
and disaster comes
o my soul…

ever faithful
ever true
you are known
you never let go

you never let go

Simply beautiful.

Whatever you’re going through right now, child, call out to God.
He loves you.
He will come to the rescue.
He will come.

devotionals, inside my brain

Rubix Cubes And The Pursuit of Happiness

Originally Posted: December 21, 2006 (Age 18)

Yesterday, I saw Will Smith’s movie The Pursuit of Happyness. His character Chris Gardner brings up an interesting point about the Declaration of Independence. Thomas Jefferson said we should each have the right to life and liberty, but not happiness. The pursuit of happiness. “How did he know to put the pursuit part in there?” Gardner wonders.

Life and liberty are easily given and taken away, but happiness is something more elusive. It cannot be promised. We can only be promised the chance to pursue it.

And, in fact, we spend most of our lives pursuing it. Everything we do is an attempt to find some kind of satisfaction ~ in love, in money, in hobbies, in addictions ~ something to make us happy.

It is often said, usually to make a contrast with joy, that happiness comes from our circumstances. The closer that our circumstances match our ideal circumstances, the happier we are.

The Rubix cube in The Pursuit of Happyness is symbolic of this. The colored squares are positioned all over the cube, but they are supposed to be placed together, one color per side. Chris Gardner is not happy because he is struggling at his job, he can’t pay the rent, his wife is angry at him, he can’t support his son ~ nothing is lined up. But even if you can get all the blue squares on one side, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re closer to happiness, because to get all the white squares on the other side, you first have to rearrange some of the blue ones. Because our circumstances are constantly changing ~ the squares are constantly being rearranged ~ it is often impossible to tell if we’re moving forward or backward in our pursuit.

The first truth to recognize is that we are not in control of the rearranging. We often have choices about which way to turn the squares, and sometimes we choose what we think will make us happier because it puts more red squares on one side, but at the same time it puts green squares all over the cube.

And have you ever noticed that some rows are harder to turn than others? Sometimes we have no choice at all, and the squares are simply turned and tossed by others, or by the laws of nature and society, or by God, or by all of the above.

The second truth is that we are not entitled to happiness, only the pursuit of it. Often the reason we are so unhappy is because we think we’re supposed to be happy. Thomas Jefferson only said we’re supposed to be able to pursue it. God never promises it, either. The Bible says many things about happiness being caused by wise actions and various circumstances, but these are only factual statements, not commands or promises. “Thou shalt be happy” is not a commandment.

The problem occurs when, in our pursuit of happiness, we forget each of these truths. We think that we are entitled to it, and we think that we can control it, so we try to manipulate things to bring about that happiness. Sometimes we might get a few colors lined up, but all too often we only end up further disorganizing them across the cube.

It is much better to recognize that we are not actually guaranteed happiness, and to let God do the rearranging. On the other hand, this does not mean that we do nothing. God will not solve our Rubix cube for us. But we will never find happiness by twisting the squares without his guidance.

You may never have all of your squares lined up the way you would like them to be. But that should not be your goal. Look at your Rubix cube. Change what you can. Learn to live with what you can’t. Besides, it may soon change apart from your control. Instead of wasting time trying to figure out how to line up all your colors, do something to help others line up theirs.

“Each of you should look not only to your own interests,” Paul tells the Philippians, “but also to the interests of others.” Because the less you pursue your own happiness, the more you will find it.

devotionals

Random Devotional 6: God Intended It For Good

Originally Posted: September 21, 2006 (Age 18)

Things didn’t exactly go the way Joseph planned. OK, so maybe he didn’t do the best job of making his brothers like him, what with the whole I-dreamed-you-guys-bowed-down-to-me thing, but he certainly wasn’t expecting them to sell him into slavery. He didn’t spend time feeling sorry for himself, and quickly got promoted to head of his master’s house. But even when that happened, he was just minding his own business when Potiphar’s wife decided to accuse him of rape and get him thrown into jail.

This poor young Hebrew man was miles away from home, stuck in a jail, with no chance of getting out anytime soon. But once again, Joseph did not despair. His faith in God was strong. Before he knew it an opportunity came along and he was not second-in-command of someone’s house, but second-in-command of the whole kingdom, saving thousands of people from starvation. He was able to look back on his life and tell his brothers, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good…” (Genesis 50:20)

Let’s face it. Jesus told us that in the world we would have trouble (John 16:33). We can be doing everything we’re supposed to be doing, serving and seeking God with all our hearts, and we will still be attacked. Satan and his forces are doing everything they can to stop us. There may be even be people in our lives who try to make us fail. Bad things happen, and we are tempted to question God’s plan, to give up, to despair.

But God is still in control. “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him…” (Romans 8:28) God is not surprised or troubled by the evil intentions of mankind, or even our own mistakes. There is nothing others or we ourselves can do to mess up God’s plan! He knows what’s coming and has a perfect and beautiful design to turn evil into good in ways that we cannot even imagine.

Friends, if your life isn’t in perfect condition right now, don’t give up! It doesn’t matter who intends to harm you; God intends it for good! Trust that you will be able to look back and see how God was in control all along.

Yes, “in this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.

devotionals

Random Devotional 5: That Your Joy May Be Full

Originally Posted: August 3, 2006 (Age 17)

In John 15:11-12 Jesus says, “These things I have spoken to you, that My joy may remain you, and that your joy may be full. This is My commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”

Here Jesus is saying that He wants us to be full of joy, and he also wants us to love another.

In John 16:23-24 Jesus says, “Most assuredly, I say to you, whatever you ask the Father in My name He will give you. Until now you have asked nothing in My name. Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full.”

Jesus again uses the phrase “that your joy may be full.” It is related to asking for things in His name. He does not say to ask for joy, but that when we do ask, we will receive, and that we will also be full of joy. So what exactly are we supposed to ask for?

The first time Jesus used this phrase, it was in connection with a command to love one another. 1 John 1:4 also uses this phrase, “These things we write to you that your joy may be full.” And what is most of 1 John about? God’s love, and loving one another.

Putting it all together, it seems as if Jesus is commanding us to ask in His name that we love another, and as a result we will be full of joy. Someone else put this together a long time ago in the Sunday school song, “This is my commandment, that you love one another, that your joy may be full.” (I always assumed this was a Bible verse but I could not find it anywhere)

Following Jesus’ words about love and joy in John 15 and 16, he prays in John 17 that we will have His joy fulfilled in ourselves (v. 13), and that we will be one, that they world may believe that God send Him (v. 21).

Jesus knew that if we really love one another, not only will we have joy, but the world will know that Jesus was sent by God. This is powerful stuff!

Even David knew this truth, when in Psalm 133:1 he said, “Behold, how good and pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity.”

If we as Christians can show love to one another, we will experience joy, not only because by getting along with each other and encouraging and supporting each other we will naturally feel a fellowship and closeness that brings satisfaction, but also because it is a promise of God.

So let us ask in His name that He will give us love for each other, that our joy may be full and that the world will believe.