Prayer that is Conversation

I have read -- 
your words rang true
and I saw your hand at work:
your love in history,
your ancient mystery.

I lean back
onto your chest
to let you do what you will do:
talk to me, sing to me,
simply rock and hold me.

Abba God,
my ears feel plugged,
my inner eyes are restless!
I long to understand.
to feel your loving hand!

I now wait,
quieting the words,
settling my questing heart
in full submission:
contemplation.

“Tell me,” the inquirer said to Jesus, “what is the most important commandment?” And Jesus’ answer set everything in perspective. He cited Deuteronomy 6:4-5: to love God with all you heart, soul and might, and your neighbor as you love yourself. That covers it all, he said.

So how do we become the kind of person who actually accomplishes this?

I have been on a lifelong journey, very slow at times, in coming to understand some foundational practices that stimulate this kind of growth. And one of them is a transformational style of prayer.

Prayer can be an intimate conversation with God, not just recitation or laying out our usual requests. And when we really have deep conversations with someone, we get to know them. When we live with someone, sharing daily life, our conversations can deepen our relationship. If we don’t talk, don’t share, don’t listen to each other, instead we grow farther apart. We don’t really matter to each other.

In Matthew 6:1-4, the passage in the Sermon on the Mount that I’ve been contemplating these last few weeks, Jesus points out that prayer is to be private, not done in order to be seen by others. He is underlining the importance of the heart’s motivation. Is the prayer done in order to be seen as a good person, a practicing Christian? Or is praying a matter of the heart, a deep inner commitment of love and trust? If it is this, it would change who we are and how we live. All would be done for our good Father that we love.

As Donald Hagner pointed out, when Jesus introduced these four verses, he was most likely pairing the practice of prayer with loving God with all your heart, from the key verse in Deuteronomy 6:4-8.[1]  The Louw-Nida lexicon explains that the Greek word for “heart” that is used here, καρδία, is a figure of speech that refers to “the causative source of a person’s psychological life in its various aspects, but with special emphasis upon thoughts – ‘heart, inner self, mind.’ ”

So if we are to love Yahweh our God with all of our inner self – our mind, our thoughts, our view of the world – how do we learn to do that through prayer?

I’ve been mentored through the years by many authors (see a list at the end of this blog). What a treasure to have access to their teaching through their books! What truly changed my prayer life and deepened my relationship with my Lord was the recurring theme of learning to listen to God, not just blab to him. Maybe that is partly what Jesus was referring to when he said not to blabber on and on like the heathens do:

7 And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. (Matt. 6:1 NIV).

He already knows what we are asking for and what is going on in our lives. So pure repetition is definitely unnecessary. So is the recitation of some formula, thinking that is sufficient.

How would you feel if someone you love were to call you on the phone, talk non-stop and ask you to do all sorts of errands for them, then hang up without giving you a chance to even respond? Brad Jersak asks this question in his book Can You Hear Me? Tuning in to the God Who Speaks. That illustration really convicted me. Yes, getting that kind of call (especially regularly) would hurt me. And yes, that was how I was always talking to my Father. I began to practice listening prayer, as it is called, finding other books on the topic and then taking their counsel. Listening prayer is about making it a conversation.

Over about three decades of practice, I changed a lot. I began to seek out moments of silence and solitude so that I could open the ears of my heart. Some of that journey (like the poem introducing this blog) is shared in the book of poetry that I published last year, When He Whispers: Learning to Listen on the Journey. I found that it took at least one hour of silence to “let the mud puddle settle”—the thoughts, concerns, linguistic challenges that kept swirling in my mind. Sitting under the golden rain trees at the side of our house in Ferke, which became my “sacred grove,” nature was around me, joining me in contemplation. My Bible and notepad were in a second chair beside me, reminding me of the Word who is always with us, and providing pen and paper for that moment when a certain thought would become significant. I would take up my pen and become a listening scribe. For me, the thoughts would begin to build into free verse poetry—a prayer, or a message from the Lord to me. A conversation! When the poem did not come, I expressed my yearnings and my trust, and learned to wait. Often, then, I would receive a strong impulse to do a certain act of service. Waiting was worth it!

After a while I even began to sense those nudges as I walked through daily life, and was amazed when I saw the outcome and realized the true source of the nudge.

I know that poetry is not usually the way most people access the message the Lord has for them. My closest friends, including my husband, have found that inner processing is enough, or journaling, or even walking and praying with space for an answer to come. You may be able to add to this list.

As we grow in intimacy with our Lord, delving into his Word, listening, loving him more and more, it does change how we live. We want to be like him. And then, as he promised, he reveals himself to us:

Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me. The one who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love them and show myself to them.” (Jn. 14:21 NIV)

My husband, my son and I try to have a devotional time together after the evening meal. Recently we read Renovated: God, Dallas Willard and the Church that Transforms, by Jim Wilder. Wilder dissects the final teachings of Dallas Willard at a conference before his death, adding his own experience in neuroscience and counselling to show how attachment to God impacts who we are (our hearts, our minds). He explains “mutual mind,” which is knowing someone so intimately that you intuitively sense what they are thinking or are going to do.

My husband and I laughed as we heard this. We certainly have developed mutual mind during our 49 years of marriage and ministry together. Sometimes I know exactly which pun he is going to make. Or someone will ask me for a certain favor that would also impact him, but I know that he would agree to do that, so I do it. And he has that same knowledge of me. Back in 2004, for instance, we were looking for a house to buy. Civil war in Côte d’Ivoire was keeping us out of the country for three years, and we needed a place to live. We had looked at several low-cost possibilities, but when we walked into the old house in Detroit that was just beginning to be renovated, still littered with some beer bottles left behind by vagrants, we both “knew” this was the place for us. And all these years later, we have increasing assurance that it was our mutual mind with God that also was involved.

Knowing what the Lord wants from us, knowing him intimately enough to be sure of what he values, is a wonderful spot to be in. It is a great life to live. And just as my husband, our son and I are growing in that mutual mind as we increase the depth of our sharing and we journal our listening prayer, spending time with our Lord that includes letting him speak to us will increase the quality of our mutual mind with him. This definitely builds that unity among us that he desires as well.

Are there dangers in learning to listen to the Lord? Yes, some people take their own thoughts and claim that God has said them. There are ways to test what we think we are hearing. Is it in line with Biblical teaching (not just a verse taken out of context)? Is it self-promoting, or promoting God’s purposes? Read and listen to the voices of trusted preachers and authors. Ask the Lord for his guidance.

I could go on and on. But I will just close with a list of some other resources that I recommend. May our God lead us all further in our prayer journey, and may we listen to what he says through his written Word and his promptings and messages!

Hearing God: Developing a Conversational Relationship with God, by Dallas Willard

Renovation of the Heart: Putting on the Character of Christ, by Dallas Willard

Joyful Journey\: Listening to Immanuel, by Jim Wilder (for group study in developing mutual mind)

Listening Prayer: Learning to Hear God’s Voice and Keep a Prayer Journal, by Leanne Payne

Hearing God’s Voice, by Henry Blackaby

Invitation to Solitude and Silence: Experiencing God’s Transforming Presence, by Ruth Haley Barton

Prayer and Listening, Jan Johnson (Life Guide Bible Series, IVP)

When He Whispers: Learning to Listen on the Journey, by Linnea Boese


[1] Donald A. Hagner, Matthew 1–13, vol. 33A, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 1993), 138.

All for the King

This I desire: integrity—
my heart and mind
undivided
unfragmented
undistracted
truly focused
deeply centered
all transparent
and devoted—
set apart
for only You.

Set apart with whole-hearted devotion to God—that is what would qualify us as “holy,” which is what Jesus had commanded right before beginning his message on how important it would then be to do what is right, but never to purposefully draw attention to oneself:

Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matt. 5:48 NIV)

Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. (Matt. 6:1 NIV)

I’ve been contemplating the meanings of “holy,” “perfect” and “godly” ever since we faced the challenge in translating them to Nyarafolo, working out how to accurately communicate the meaning of these key terms. It really impressed me, the way that “holy” means completely set aside for God, and requires perfection! So how can I ever achieve that? It is only through my relationship with God as he works in me. And the best translation we found for “godly” is one used in a current French translation: “attached to God.” It reminds me of being attached to the Vine, able to bear fruit due to that nourishing life-giving connection!

The way the chapter cut happens right after Matt. 5:48 divides the discourse and makes it easy to overlook the thought progression. Jesus says to be perfect, or holy, like our Father, then begins explaining what it means to be completely set apart for God, relinquishing all need for self aggrandizement. A disciple’s focus is to be totally reoriented, no longer concerned with their own honor but instead with showing people what their great God is like: loving, merciful, and attentive.

But hadn’t Jesus just said that they should let others see their good works?

In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven. (Matt. 5:16 NIV)

The key ingredient in determining whether a disciple’s actions are in line with Jesus’ teaching is the person’s motivation. Do they do what they do, even good acts, in order to be applauded by other humans, to get others to respect how great they are, or do they focus on respecting the goodness of their Father?

It is not wrong to be encouraged by others. We are commanded to encourage one another (1 Thess. 5:11), and when it comes unexpectedly it can truly be delightful to know that others in your cohort are supporting you. But if we are truly aligned with the Kingdom perspective, getting that applause is not why we do what we do. We are motivated by love for our King, and this love overflows to others.

Practicing righteousness had a particular meaning for the Jewish audience that Jesus was addressing:. The Louw-Nida Greek Lexicon gives this definition:

δικαιοσύνη, ης f: observances or practices required by one’s religion – ‘religious observances, religious requirements.’ . . . ‘be careful not to perform your religious observances in public’ Mt 6.1.

Understanding it that way shows that the verse functions as a heading for three sets of religious observances that Jesus will now address:

  1. Vv. 2-4: giving to the needy (called almsgiving then)
  2. Vv. 5-6: prayer
  3. Vv 16-18: fasting

The most enlightening explanation of why Jesus pinpointed these observances, for me, was what Donald Hagner points out (referencing Gerhardsson):

“The deeds may be thought of as the Christian’s self-offering in “spiritual service” and may correspond to the demand of the Shema (Deut 6:4–5) to love God with all your heart (prayer), soul (fasting), and might (almsgiving), with the order changed to move from the easier to the harder.”[1]

So then giving to the needy was seen as easier, fulfilling a religious requirement that showed off good character. With prayer the next hardest, one could make it a habit to recite memorized prayers at the assigned hours for prayer during the day, and also be seen doing that in public spaces. Then last in line would be fasting. This self-denial would take more strength of will and character. But if you could be admired for doing it, then that brought motivation.

In each case Jesus pointed out that when the practice is performed in order to be noticed and admired by others, it was not being done to honor God but oneself. Therefore it did not even count as something that God would reward; that idea of being “rewarded” had already been fulfilled.

How does this apply to us today?

As missionaries, known as representing the Jesus Road, we found that living it out put us in marked contrast to one of the major religions where we were working in Côte d’Ivoire, Islam. For one thing, the word was circulating that Christians were less prayerful than Muslims. It was said that Jesus-followers only pray three times a day, at meals, whereas Muslims are to pray (bowing, on a prayer mat) five times a day, much of the time in an open setting facing east. If we could engage someone in a discussion about this, we would try to point out that for us it was not about times of the day, but about “praying constantly” and most of the time in private when setting aside a regular habit of talking with our Lord. Yes, we were grateful for the Lord’s provision of food at meals, but we had other conversations with him that did not show up.

Giving to the needy also depended more on the particular need and the identity of the person needing help. We were viewed as wealthy, being educated professionals, and Americans who owned a car. That meant that we received many requests for help and needed much wisdom. But we did not walk by the mosque at times of prayer to give to the beggars regularly there, to be seen. (More on that in another discussion.)

Fasting was also assigned by them to designated months, and meant rigorous self-denial during the lengthy hot days, usually followed by hefty meals during the night hours. People even spit sidewise during the day so as not to be swallowing that liquid. But did Christians ever fast? I found it very difficult to fast without it getting noticed, at least by family and workers coming in and out. This actually discouraged me from attempting it, for years. But I eventually realized that the point was not just to find a way to do it in secret, but to be sure that I was not trying to get others to think I was more spiritual than “normal” people because I sometimes did need to deny myself in order to pray in a more focused way, especially during tough times.

How about our current question in the United States about whether a football coach should make it a habit (a ritual?) to pray on the field, kneeling, after a game? How about churches that maintain that clergy and truly devoted believers are to observe fixed prayer times, a liturgy of the hours? How about when those prayers are based on reciting formulas, particular forms of prayer?

I personally have found that having scheduled prayer times does promote a greater focus on conversing with my Lord. And during some seasons of life I have applied certain prayer outlines to intensify my learning curve. So I am not saying that such practices are all wrong.

And I don’t understand what Jesus said as completely negating those practices either.. But he was describing the essential ruler to apply to measure whether the religious observance is being done for personal aggrandizement or to honor the Father, eyes on him and what delights him.

An example that comes to mind is my own learning curve as a child with respect to household chores. At first I did them to be seen as a good kid, especially when I was at boarding school and would get “graded” on my bedroom’s cleanliness every day. It also took a lot of maturation before I would find myself leaping in to help mom with cleaning up or child care not in order to be applauded, but because I loved her and wanted to partner with her.

If all our good deeds and religious practices (even going to church!) are done under a sense of legalistic observances, to check off what is required and to be seen as a good Christian by others, we are falling into that muck of doing it for the wrong reasons. If instead we listen to the promptings of the Word, and of the Spirit working in us, to partner with the Father in our spiritual maturation and loving service, eyes on him and not on the applause of others, then we are on the right path.

That goes against the grain of our culture, where we are constantly pursuing better grades and recognition, popularity, or respect in the workplace. But that embrace and smile of approval from the Father is what matters more than anything!

God is love, and when we love him with all our heart, we are living in an atmosphere of overflowing love. His love in us motivates us to care for our “neighbors” who need help. He is our Father who delights in our conversations with him. That changes our perspective on prayer, which brings us into increasing intimacy with him and helps us to know him better. Fasting changes from something on a check-off list to get us better grades in “spirituality” to a practice that helps us to concentrate on strengthening that sweet relationship with our Beloved and to listen to him.

Living completely attached to God (a “godly” life) changes everything!


[1] Donald A. Hagner, Matthew 1–13, vol. 33A, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 1993), 138–139.

The Best Reward Ever

Her goal is invisible
on this long race,
but she keeps on running
because she knows
it is actually there,
just requiring effort
and long perseverance
to finally touch it.

But she knows Dad
is cheering her on,
providing water
and encouragement
as she keeps on running.
She knows that others
will get to the goal
long before he does.

But that is not the point.
What matters most
is making it all the way
to that finish line!
And when she gets there,
Dad will grab her up
hug her close, and
twirl her with joy.

That smile on Dad’s face
is worth more than anything,
more than a trophy
won in a tournament,
more than loud clapping
from the observers.
It is what she wants the most:
the best reward ever!

I’ve never run a marathon, but it is a great symbol of running for making the goal, not for winning. I’ve seen how moms and dads cheer their sons or daughters when they run, just thrilled when they make it to the goal set for them—even just 5 miles. And when someone makes it the whole way to the end, there is huge celebration. The goal is one you cannot see when you are on the way, always around another curve. But you know it is there.

When I think of running toward waiting arms, the months before my wedding come to mind. Glenn and I were on the same campus, at Michigan State University, but lived three miles apart. And our wedding was to take place on the day after final exams week, so that friends from out of state could delay going home and celebrate with us. So it felt like a marathon, finishing assignments and studying for exams, but always communicating with parents and friends about wedding preps. It would have been unthinkable to offend these loved ones we were depending on, and especially terrible for me to offend the groom that was so excited to soon welcome me into his forever embrace. At last the Big Day came, and I will never forget his glowing eyes as he watched me come down the aisle. He did put a beautiful gold ring on my finger, but what mattered most was the truth that now life together in its most complete sense was truly beginning.

Those pictures illustrate for me the emphasis on “reward” that Jesus included in his Sermon on the Mount. He kept saying that those who performed their rituals or righteous acts in order to get applause here on earth had already gotten their reward, ephemeral as it is. What kind of reward was he talking about when he kept underlining that a reward from the Father in heaven us what is essential?

Recently I saw a discussion online that put down Christians who are expecting some kind of reward after death, asserting that this is a kind of useless greed for something that doesn’t even exist. There may be some Christians who are doing good deeds based on that kind of selfishness, but I don’t know them. Many are instead living normal lives, hoping they are doing what is right but pretty much making decisions on their own. Others are arrogant, vaunting themselves and their lifestyle without paying attention to Jesus’ warnings. And there are those running toward the goal of being with him, running into his arms!

Children who truly love their father, and who know what will make him happy, try to do what pleases him. I remember scrubbing in surgery with my dad, the surgeon in Ferkessédougou, when I was a teen, trying to carefully carry out every little instruction he gave me. I wanted him to welcome me back many more times, and to be delighted with my learning curve. Every encouraging word was something I hung onto. At the time, I even wanted to be a doctor in order to please him and my mother! Later I realized that another purpose was out there for me.

But I hope that is an example of what it means to live in such a way that our Father in heaven is delighted with us. Someday we will be with him, and what would be the best reward ever would be his welcoming arms, his smile of approval, and those words: “Well done, good and faithful servant!” (Mat. 25.23). 

There is even more ahead for the child of God who serves well: they get to participate in service in the New World! I truly appreciated N.T. Wright’s deep dig into the truth of the Kingdom already here on earth through Jesus, and his death and resurrection. His Kingdom is come, and our acts of righteousness are not just about “being good kids” but about participation in preparing the Kingdom’s full completion, the new heaven and new earth. 

‘Every act of love, every deed done in Christ and by the Spirit … takes its place within a long history of things which implement Jesus’s own resurrection and anticipate the final new creation.’ (N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church)

Paul was truly excited about this hope: ”I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.” (1 Cor. 9:22-23 NIV)

While writing the introduction above, I did not realize how much N.T. Wright’s book had transformed my understanding of those blessings, my future hope, and what it means to be with my Lord and Father forever. He wrote: 
“We have been taught that we are justified by faith, not works, and, somehow, the very idea of being a Christian for what we will get out of it is distasteful. But the image of reward in the New Testament doesn’t work like that. It isn’t a matter of calculation, of doing a difficult job in order to be paid a wage. It is much more like working at a friendship or a marriage in order to enjoy the other person’s company more fully. It is more like practicing golf in order that we can go out on the course and hit the ball in the right direction. It is more like learning German or Greek so that we can read some of the great poets and philosophers who wrote in those languages. The 'reward' is organically connected to the activity, not some kind of arbitrary pat on the back, otherwise unrelated to the work that was done. And it is always far in abundance beyond any sense of direct or equivalent payment.” 

Jesus was explicit about this in his Sermon on the Mount. He repeatedly pointed out that what matters is a person’s devotion to serving his Master with sincerity, in other words, his motivation. If any good acts are done only to get the approval of others, to be honored by them, then that honor is the only reward they will get (Matthew 6:2,5,16). Those acts are done with selfish purposes, for personal aggrandizement, a completely earthly aim. They are not aligned with living out love for God and love for others, the two greatest commandments, that englobe the entire law (Mat. 22:37-40).
 
On the other hand, what is done for our Father in heaven will come with great reward, with his pleasure in us and with participation in the great things he has planned in the new world. As Jesus said in his parable about the good servants,
 "His master replied, 'Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master's happiness!" (Matt. 25:21 NIV)

This was how Jesus was explaining what the Kingdom of heaven (called “Kingdom of God” in the other gospels) would be like. We will not be sitting around on clouds with nothing to do. Given our God’s creativity, there will be joy to share and ongoing partnership in accomplishing his purposes!

Doing what is right has been made clear in the beatitudes, especially being someone who is merciful and a peacemaker, who hungers and thirsts for righteousness. Then there are those who so reflect the light of Jesus that they are persecuted because of him. Now in the section starting in Matthew 6, Jesus is addressing the particular works of “righteousness” that the religious leaders of the time touted as key, and performed in ways to bring honor to themselves so that they would stand out as truly good people. So they did all they could to advertise their good deeds, especially helping the needy, praying, and fasting. But Jesus called them to account: 

"Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.” (Matt. 6:1 NIV)

Jesus then assured his disciples that what is done for God’s purposes, with a heart aligned with his, will be seen by their Father and taken into account. He sees everything, even what is done in secret. And he knows the motivation of each heart. That motivation is what makes a difference. This is our prompt: to know our Father’s heart, to follow his commands with joy, and to participate in Kingdom activities with sincere confident hope, knowing that it is not done for “nothing.”

Let’s be like Moses, who “chose to suffer with the people of God rather than to enjoy the short-lived pleasure of sin. For he considered the reproach because of the Messiah to be greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, since his attention was on the reward.” (Heb. 11:25,26 CSB)

What was that reward? It was the Promised Land. It took incredible trust in his Lord to persevere through all the challenges involved in herding his people to that goal. And what is our Promised Land? Think about it! Then persevere with hope, knowing that the God who is currently invisible to us is actually present with us, and knows everything that is done in public or in secret. His purposes are good and completely what we truly want, the full establishment of his Kingdom: a place where everything is done in love and perfect peace will reign forever. That goal is around the corner, still not visible to our eyes. But it is there!

Wow: every good deed that we do out of love for God and for people is building toward that world!


What? Be Perfect?

No one is like you, the Holy One,
perfect in all that you do,
perfect in who you are.
You are love.
You are good.
You are all-powerful,
majestic in awesome glory,
you, the Sovereign King of Everything.

And you call yourself my Father!
You healed me, rescued me,
brought me into your Family.
Abba, Daddy,
I’m in awe. And confused.
You tell me to be perfect
like you are perfect—can it be?
Only you can make that change in me!

It’s hard enough that Jesus told his disciples that they must love their enemies. He told them that living out that commandment is what proves that they are children of their Father in heaven (Mat. 5.44-45)! Yes, I am Jesus’ disciple, so I am a child of God. Good parents want their children to mature and do what is right. With God as my Father, the standards are extremely high! I have been working (along with him) on being transformed, to be able to show love to “enemies.” And loving my neighbor, the parallel command, I affirm that that is something that has become a joy to live out. It involves not doing good only to the people that I know, especially those who are good to me and love me. Favoritism and prejudice, prejudging, have to be thrown out.

But then, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus added the command that wraps that section up: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mat. 5:48).  What? Perfect”

I’ve confessed in previous blogs that I was born a perfectionist, convinced I was a complete failure at the hint of making a mistake, just tripping. When I was in first grade, attending Central Elementary School in Pontiac during my parents’ first furlough (from Congo), we had to spell the days of the week in the first spelling test I remember. I blew it! I wrote “Wednsday” – with no middle “e”. The teacher was shocked that I burst into tears when I got that red check mark.  It was just the beginning of my long journey in coming to accept my imperfections. And that is a necessary part of maturing.

So what does God expect from his children when he says they are to be perfect, like he is? Jesus was actually referring to what had already been said in the Law:

The LORD said to Moses,  “Speak to the entire assembly of Israel and say to them: ‘Be holy because I, the LORD your God, am holy.”  (Lev. 19:1 NIV)

When Moise and I were translating the Pentateuch, the book of Leviticus was a real challenge. But I became intrigued with its basic message: God’s people were to be different. They were to stand out among the nations through their love for God alone, no other gods, and also through their love for others. It is amazing now to see how Jesus picked up the themes of the climax of that book in his discourse, Leviticus 19, filling them in with deeper meaning just as he had said he would (Mat. 5:17). So now, when he is commanding sons and daughters to be “perfect,” it parallels the command to be holy, just as YHWH is holy.

Figuring out how to translate that word “holy” into Nyarafolo was one of our big challenges. What did it really mean? That research truly deepened my own understanding. We had long discussions after looking into all the Hebrew and Greek dictionaries and commentaries at our disposal. What could most closely express the complete, set-apart goodness of God, then that quality in his true followers? The closest term we could find was an expression meaning “without blemish,” in other words, perfect in every way.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus aligns this perfection with God’s fair treatment of everyone, using the weather as an example. It is not only righteous people who benefit from rain and sunshine. We all share this world, the one he created. And when Jesus came, he said that he had come specifically to call sinners to repent and follow the truth.  All of us have fallen into sin’s trap, and he has brought rescue to anyone who will accept it. We are to be perfect like that as well, actively demonstrating our relationship to God by acting like he does, becoming like him. William Hagner explains how this ties in to all the teaching that just preceded this verse:

“The righteousness of the kingdom, which altogether exceeds that of the Pharisees, involves a call to be like the Father. τέλειος is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew word תָּמִים (tāmîm), used often in the OT to refer to perfection in the sense of ethical uprightness (e.g., Gen 6:9; 17:1; 2 Sam 22:24–27 . . .) For Matthew, to be τέλειος means to fulfill the law through the manifestation of an unrestricted love (including even enemies) that is the reflection of God’s love. This unrestricted love preeminently embodies ethical perfection. This perfection, and nothing less, is that to which Jesus calls his disciples.[1]

As Danker’s Greek New Testament Lexicon says, the word tέλειος means: “free from any deficiency, omission, or corruption’, complete, perfect . . . with God as a model.”

Can I be free from any deficiency, completely loving, ethically perfect? Only as I allow the Holy Spirit to change me! He has been sent to be my Counselor, my constant guide, living right in me. But am I listening to the promptings, the corrections, that are most certainly coming my way? That is my responsibility: admitting my failings, changing my responses so that they conform to Jesus’ teaching and the leading of the Spirit. Loving Abba (Daddy) that he is, he forgives, he holds my hand and leads me to into the paths where I do the right thing, and honor him.

He restores my strength. He leads me down the right paths for the sake of his reputation. (Ps. 23:3 NET)

So many times it is our lack of following his clear instructions that make him look bad in the eyes of those watching us. I hear it frequently these days as our country is filled with examples of hate speech and slander coming out of the mouths of Christians. People see us as a quarrelsome, divided family. And those who feel marginalized and dismissed as irrelevant are not experiencing Christlike compassion. It is interesting the way Luke expresses the same teaching of Jesus with slightly different words that underline the way that being “perfect” like our Father is shown through active love:

Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. (Lk. 6:36 NIV)

Let’s walk down his right paths, and show others what he is like! He will pick us up when we fall, and show us the way to go. And as we get to know him more and more personally, we will realize what it means to be increasingly like him!


[1] Donald A. Hagner, Matthew 1–13, vol. 33A, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 1993), 135.

The Totally Unexpected Response

I’m cringing at this growing dump
of insults, hurled in public spaces
or in texts or face-to-face.
Grudges fondled and fermented
could ignite a searing blaze.

Our natural response is fear
and hatred of this “enemy”
whose words and push-back
feed distress, a tangled mess
that could lead to catastrophe.

But, Yahweh, You have told us:
“You can walk on waves so high
they crash with stormy fury
on the fearful passerby!”
If we have faith, our eyes on you.

Can we do this? You said that we
must shock a cruel enemy
by answering insults with love!
We need you in our hearts and minds,
empowering us to be this kind!
 
May eyes be opened, hearts swept clean
as Spirit-wind blows hate away,
and unexpected love reveals
a different world, a Kingdom come
where hatred has no sway!


Jesus turned the world upside down by saying, “You have assumed that if you love your neighbor, that is, someone like you, then it’s just fine to hate your enemy—but I say, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you!” (Mat 5:43-44) 

Really? How can we love people who truly oppose us? And in what way are we supposed to pray for anyone who treats us badly because of our race, or political or religious beliefs? (That is the Oxford Languages definition of “persecution,” broader than what we usually think.)

It is easy to dismiss this radical teaching of Jesus as not applicable to us personally. After all, “enemy” designates someone dangerous who is really out to get me, right? Not a relative who is mistreating me. Not someone who thrashes me verbally because we differ in our understanding of history or social justice. Not someone who refuses to help me or puts me down because my skin is the wrong color.

But looking at the way Jesus lived out this commandment, we cannot miss the truth that those who were opposing him the most belonged to his own people – one of his disciples for instance, and the religious leaders of the Jewish faith. The attacks were verbal before they became physical. But he continued to teach them, to respond graciously with truth and love.

I’m sure we have all had experiences with opposition. Some have even suffered real abuse. Jesus spoke out against injustice, and we should not be doormats who just let evil hold sway. But when it comes down to personal insults or harsh opposition, we are first of all to respond with love. This kind of response is indeed unexpected, and it may even cool the heated atmosphere. It may be the soft answer that turns away anger (Prov 15:1). Or how about Proverbs 25:21–22, cited by Paul in Romans 12:20: “If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat; if he is thirsty, give him water to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”

What are those burning coals? Walter Kaiser says that they “may mean the sense of shame which will be produced in the enemy, leading to a change of heart on his side too. But first do him a good turn; the feelings can be left to their own good time.”1
Dallas Willard explains that Jesus is contrasting “the ordinary way human beings love, loving those who love them, with God’s agape love. This is a love that reaches everyone we deal with.”2  It is the kind of love God showed when he sent his Son to earth to provide the way to salvation for broken people (John 3:16). It includes love for those who oppose you. To be like their Father, his children need to have their natural character transformed so that they can love like he does.

Love for one’s neighbor was supported by the religious leaders of Jesus’ day; it was included in the Law, in Leviticus 19:18. But they defined “neighbor” as a fellow Jew. Gentiles were “enemies.” That is why Jesus’ parable of the good Samaritan was shocking: It was a stranger to Israel, an “enemy,” who helped the injured “neighbor” when the Jews passing by would not. The Samaritan’s love for someone not of his ethnic group was shown through what he did, his act of compassion.

Once again, Kaiser’s explanation is truly helpful:
 “The love of which the law and the gospel alike speak is a very practical attitude: ‘Let us not love with word or tongue [only] but with actions and in truth’ (1 Jn 3:18). Love to one’s neighbor is expressed in lending him a helping hand when that is what he needs: ‘Right,’ says Jesus, ‘lend your enemy a helping hand when that is what he needs. Your feelings toward him are not the important thing.’ But if we think we should develop more Christian feelings toward an enemy, Jesus points the way when he says, ‘Pray for those who persecute you’ (or, as it is rendered in Lk 6:28, ‘Pray for those who mistreat you’)."3
 
There have been several times in my life when I have been convicted of holding on to deep resentment of certain people whose words were hurting me. I knew that they were misjudging me, and my hyper-sensitivity would take it very seriously. When I finally began praying for each one, wanting the best for them, asking my Father to manage the situation and their perceptions, I would notice that the inner heat would begin to cool. I was learning, the hard way, how to stop focusing on my feelings and instead to care for their well-being.

This is the goal of agape, the Greek word used for love in these instances. This definition in Danker’s Greek NT Lexicon makes it clear (bold letters are my way of underlining):
 
"ἀγαπάω [etym. uncertain] – 1. of personal relationships, ‘have such an interest in another that one wishes to contribute to the other’s well-being’, have concern for, hold in esteem, love, of God’s affection for humanity J 3:16; Ro 8:37; hence in Jesus’ directive to his followers concerning enemies Mt 5:4"

God sends his blessing on those who are good and those who are bad, Jesus pointed out, using sunshine and rain as examples. We live together, all peoples, on this earth, and are kept alive by these necessities of life. Yes, the world is broken, and there are also torrential rains that produce floods, and phases of burning heat that harm people and produce drought. It will not be that way when we are in the new earth someday, when every aspect of the world is transformed and God alone has dominion. But we do see his kindness shown both to his children and to those who dismiss him as irrelevant, when we consider how much he is providing for humanity.

What can we do? We need to ask for this personal transformation in our own lives, learning through the empowerment of the Spirit how to answer insults with gentleness, and how to show love to those who disagree with us or are in totally “other” communities!  This is the Jesus Way, and we his followers do not want to stray from his path.

Footnotes

1 Walter C. Kaiser Jr. et al., Hard Sayings of the Bible (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1996), 365.

2Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering our Hidden Life in God (Harper Collins Publishers: HarperSanFrancisco, 1997), 183.

3Kaiser, 364.

Lessons from the Golden Rain Tree

This is a barren stretch,
this rocky dry savanna:
land deprived of rain
for half a year, parched
now and waiting,
waiting for the skies
to fill with roiling water
and at last to crack
apart, thunderous, and
spill down blessing.

A golden fountain, meanwhile,
dribbles petals, lemon 
yellow, in soft carpet
all around.  Leaves have yet
to follow; blossoms
are the joyous waking
of the tree from the
bare fast of harmattan -- 
dry wind, no drink, heat
increasing daily.

What woke her? what
rich stores of energy
does she access for
bursting into bloom 
without a leaf in sight?
She hugs the packed
red ridge, tenacious,
roots tunneling wide
and shooting children
upwards to the air.

Together they become
a thick grove, thriving,
a blast of color shouting
silent courage in 
the face of drought.
And green will come,
before the rains,
hope predicting that
it’s time, fruitful in
the midst of famine.

We who travel far 
from irrigated lands
to live in stony soil
have just one source
of like resiliency:
our networked roots,
clinging hard to Rock,
soaking up live Water
and flowering before
the longed-for rains.

Today is a “Day of Remembrance” for me. I just crossed the threshold to a new decade of life, and that is not something to take for granted. It is a grace. And I am grateful!

During the 40+ years we were in Côte d’Ivoire, living in Ferkessédougou, the golden rain tree became a symbol of resilience and spiritual health. Having come this far, I can look back and see ways in which it informed me on the journey. Let me explain why:

In order to grow strong, the golden rain tree needs to be planted in unfertile, dry soil! My dad found this out when he tried repeatedly to plant golden rain tree seeds taken from the long seed pods dropped to the ground. None of them grew into trees, in spite of the rich fertile soil where he planted them, making sure to water them. He did some research and finally could explain why we would see lush rows of golden rain trees along the edges of gravel roads, often sprouting up from rocky red or gray soil. They were fruitful only in tough spaces!

My courtyard in town had one section with that kind of soil, the yard between my bedroom window and the wall separating us from the road beyond. Grass rarely grew there, even in rainy season, just hardy weeds. Year after year the golden rain tree grove there prospered, with new trees sprouting from roots creeping horizontally from the tree trunks. I found out that they are similar to ash trees, bearing their “children” from their roots. 

But they have other roots that go deep down through the dirt to where there are underground water sources. They do not have to be by a visible river or wetland, because their living water comes from where they are grounded.

Maybe you are already seeing the spiritual parallels. 

That grove became my place of refreshment on early Saturday mornings. I had been drawn to the practices of silence and solitude, which lead to listening to what the Lord may be saying, and I needed a private space in a community where privacy is rare. So I told my close friends, family, and the yard worker that if they saw me sitting under the golden rain trees in the morning, I was not to be disturbed unless it was urgent.

Mission life had many long dry seasons. In the early years, just figuring out the Nyarafolo language and increasing a little bit in fluency was a marathon run. Sometimes relationships were a challenge that made the environment feel ambushed by thorns or weeds. It took years of “planting seed” before we finally began to rejoice in harvest.

I would sit in the grove in the dry harmattan air in December through February, contemplating branches just as bare of foliage as trees in Detroit during winter months. But I knew that during the first weeks of March, before the rains began, suddenly there would be grape-like clusters of glorious gold flowers bursting into bloom on the trees. And eventually the petals would fall to the ground making a golden carpet as the green leaves took over above. The birds would be singing and I would be marveling at this beauty that had come out of the long dry season. And why could it come? Because the tree was deeply rooted in the source of its life water.

That was how I had to live to be fruitful and to be resilient after a dry stretch: rooted in my Living Water. Even though all around me there was drought, I was not thirsty. And when the timing was right, I would see the blossoms come.

The season of golden rain glory was like other seasons of mission life, such as when we saw real growth in brothers and sisters, and new siblings coming into the Family—or when working with my translation team, we delved into key terms or challenging passages and found wonderful solutions. Sometimes it was welcoming a pastor’s family into our home for a while, sharing life and growing close, loving on their children. There were also moments when conflicts were resolved, friendships renewed. Precious seasons.

Retirement is similar. I am like a long-lived golden rain tree now, with my children full grown and flourishing with children of their own or bringing beauty to the spaces where they’ve become rooted. There are times that seem like drought, like being on crutches with a broken ankle or homebound during the pandemic. But through it all, when Life is flowing through you, you keep on thriving. The Lord gives purpose wherever we are placed. And I am deeply grateful.

When we retired, the Nyarafolo team gave us a plaque with a verse inscribed on it (in Nyarafolo) that truly resonates with me:

They will still yield fruit in old age; They shall be full of sap and very green (Ps. 92:14 NAS)

(Okay, some of you may say they are “sappy” but you know what is meant: they will constantly have all the nourishment and water that they need flowing through them!)

And the next verse underlines the purpose of these old people:

To declare that the LORD is upright; He is my rock, and there is no unrighteousness in Him. (Ps. 92:15 NAS)

And that is what the Father keeps affirming for me: even in old age, I am a testimony to what he can do with an ordinary woman, and how he can continue to keep me growing and “green,” because I ma firmly rooted in him.

All I Have is Yours

This month you told me,
“Hold on lightly to possessions;
all you have is mine.”
Then you brought forward 
chances to let go:
my sweater to the shivering boy,
my shirt to the cadavre
(swollen past the size of her own clothes),
my mat to the child who had no bed,
my socks to help the traveler.
Yes, all I have is yours.

One of the key lessons that we learned as missionaries living among people with few resources was to hold lightly to our possessions. Day after day we would encounter people truly in need. Some would come to our door, asking for help with food, or school, or medical issues, or sometimes it was a widow needing housing or a way to make a living. In the villages scattered around Ferkessédougou, where subsistence farming’s success was dependent on the weather and whether one could afford fertilizer for the poor soil, there were often drastic needs. It would become overwhelming. We could not help everyone. Compassion fatigue was a constant dilemma.

I was convicted of my tendency to let Glenn, with his gift of mercy, handle most of the situations. Eventually I felt the Lord was telling me that everything I owned was a gracious blessing from him, not my “due.” So I repented, and told him I would be on a learning curve, remembering that he was my Father, and my possessions were supplied by him. If he wanted me to let go of something, I would do it. The series of opportunities to do exactly that, those listed in the poem, came quickly, a test of my willingness to let go and give.

The situation that truly moved me was when the adult daughter of one of our friends died suddenly. She had been selling goods to make a living, walking the town streets carrying a basket on her head filled with various lotions and medications. She wasn’t feeling well so took one of the medicines herself. It turned out to be outdated and poisonous. Her kidneys shut down, her body swelled, and she died. We went to the family courtyard to mourn with them, and I was asked to join the special group of women selected from the extended family to wash the corpse and prepare it for burial; I was to take them to the hospital morgue. They had brought some of her dressiest clothes to put on her. After washing the body, they dressed her – but the cotton shirt would not fit over her swollen neck, chest and shoulders! What could they do? I realized that I had on a very stretchy top that just might work, so I took it off and handed it over. Sure enough, they were able to make it fit. One of the women in the group offered me her extra two-yard “pagne” wrap so that I could wrap it like a towel around my own chest and get home to find another shirt for myself.

My Lord’s point was: when I show you a need you can meet, do it! As he said to the crowd of disciples as he taught them on the mountainside:  “Give to the one who asks you, and do not reject the one who wants to borrow from you.”  (Matt. 5:42 NET)

Does that mean that you are to be a passive doormat, giving to everyone, even that beggar that you know will misuse the gift? No, as we discussed last week, we are still to discern what would be promoting evil and resist that. What is emphasized here is a radical change of heart from the normal human tendency to insist on “my rights” and to greedily hold onto possessions. The disciple is to reflect the heart of his Master, who is gracious and generous. We have had his mercy poured out on us, undeserving as we are. Can we then be like him, and give generously when we see a need?

This command comes in a list of four ways to show undeserved compassion to someone who is in some way demanding. Donald Hagner explains the impact of these acts:

“Rather than demanding strict justice, or allowing for retaliation of any kind, the disciple of the kingdom defers to others. The disciple does not insist on personal rights. Furthermore, the true disciple does more than is expected. He or she is free from society’s low standards of expectation, being subject only to the will of the Father. The conduct of the disciple is filled with surprise for those who experience it. This element of surprise relates closely to and reflects the grace that is central to the gospel.”[1]

Yes, this kind of generosity is, in essence, grace. Even when discretion is needed, doing what is not expected can bring surprise and blessing. One day at a local grocery store in Detroit a man was hanging around outside. As I exited with my grocery cart, he offered to pack my goods in the car for me and return the cart. I knew he wanted a tip, and I hesitate to give money to those who might use it for drugs or something. So I offered him a banana instead, and he gladly accepted it. As I was leaving he called out, “That was delicious – I’ve never tasted one before!”  Once again I was reminded of how much I have been blessed with delicious foods in this life. I now wish I had turned around and given him the whole bunch of bananas! Gracious giving is indeed a learning curve.

The same is true of lending. We had many cases when young people asked to borrow money to get vocational training, for example, promising to pay it back when they found employment. Then, time after time, they would not be able to find work in that field. The lesson was there, in Jesus’ teaching: don’t worry about getting paid back!

“And if you lend to those from whom you hope to be repaid, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, so that they may be repaid in full. 35 But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High,because he is kind to ungrateful and evil people. (Lk. 6:34-35 NET)

In our personal lending experiences these were not our enemies or ungrateful people, but we still had to learn to let go of expectations in many cases. Jesus actually asks us to do this for those who are opposing us as well! Being like our Father, the Most High God, is not easy for his sons and daughters, but it is our calling. As the translation note in the NET Bible for these verses says:

“The character of these actions reflects the grace and kindness of God, bearing witness to a ‘line of descent’ or relationship of the individual to God (sons of the Most High). There is to be a unique kind of ethic at work with disciples.”

Earlier in this discourse Jesus had said that he came to fill in the meaning of the Old Testament law. This teaching about righteous generosity was indeed already there:

Even in darkness light dawns for the upright, for those who are gracious and compassionate and righteous. 5 Good will come to those who are generous and lend freely, who conduct their affairs with justice. 6 Surely the righteous will never be shaken; they will be remembered forever. (Ps. 112:4-6 NIV)

A generous person84 will be enriched,and the one who provides water for others will himself be satisfied. (Prov. 11:25 NET)

The translation note (84) for “a generous person” reveals that the Hebrew expression behind it is “a soul of blessing,” a person who passes on blessing that he has received (a gift or special favor) to others – even a cup of water! (Sound familiar, like something Jesus said?) That person will “himself be satisfied.” The reward, the satisfaction, may not come on this earth, but the Kingdom present here foreshadows the forever Kingdom where our King will reward those who have truly lived out his Kingdom ethics. As was quoted in Luke 6:34 above, you will get no credit with him for lending only to those you know will repay you. In the verses that come after this teaching in Matthew 5:42 about being generous, Jesus will be expanding on how that applies to loving enemies, and how only the gracious Kingdom ethic will be applauded or rewarded by him.

That weariness that comes from living among the needy is not a rare experience. Some people suffer it to a point of burnout or PTSD. Eric McLaughlin, a missionary doctor in Burundi, describes it well:

“Compassion fatigue doesn’t always take you to PTSD, though. Sometimes, it just leaves you feeling exhausted, hopeless, irritable, and dreadfully responsible. It imposes a perspective that leaves no room for awe, gratitude, and grace. Most characteristically, it muffles or eliminates your ability to care appropriately. Though compassion fatigue certainly keeps company with burnout, it has an additional layer of challenge: While you can burn out on anything, compassion fatigue is the challenge of persevering precisely where you have decided to open your heart to someone else’s trouble.”[2]

That “additional layer of challenge” is the one for any of us who are finding it hard to continue showing gracious love to a certain community. When the Lord has given us a mission or act of service, and it involves participating in “someone else’s trouble,” we must rely on him for the strength and willing heart to persevere.

All that we have is an undeserved gift from God, and we his children must be ready to pass it on when he puts the opportunity before us. Like the Samaritan who rescued the wounded man who was from an ethnic group that despised his kind, we need to be ready to reach across cultural or difficult relational lines to demonstrate his heart of generosity. Even if it means taking off our sweater or shirt to pass it on!


[1] Donald A. Hagner, Matthew 1–13, vol. 33A, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 1993), 131–132.

[2] Eric McLaughlin, “What Should We Do If Our Compassion Runs Out?”   (Christianity Today: June 2022) https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2022/july-august/bleeding-heart-breaks-compassion-fatigue-medicalmissions.html

Turn the Other Cheek?

“Turn the other cheek,” I heard you say.
So, not striking them in return, I did,
Quietly hoping the slaps would end.
But I’ve been slapped again twice, instead.

The red on my cheeks does fade away.
The hurt that remains is deep inside;
my heart feels bruised, misunderstood.
Is this all I should do? Just hide?

Silence, for now, is my one resort.
How can I win over evil with good?
My hope is in you, my counselor.
How can I show love like I should?

It is yours to avenge. That you have said.
And you will repay. You gave your word.
My job is to wait, to promote peace.
So I will practice what I have heard.
(Mat 5:39; Luk 6:29; Rom 12:19-21; Prov 12:20)

I’ll bet you’ve been in a situation like that, too. You “turn the other cheek” and react peaceably, but the problem persists. Why did Jesus ask us to not retaliate when someone insults us?

When I was crying out in distress to the Lord and wrote this poem, I was in that kind of sensitive dilemma. I had actually tried to address the issue earlier, when it was another person in the community who was getting “slapped,” publicly, repeatedly, by this same person. The victim was not responding, since the culture where we were working dictated silence when rebuked by someone over you, even when the rebuke was shaming, not kind. I had tried to intervene, but it was continuing, and now it had been my turn.

I have always been hypersensitive. My mother used to tell me, “Linn, you are wearing your feelings on your shoulders – don’t be so sensitive!” Over the years I felt that I had made progress, but this new situation involving “slaps” from someone I had mentored was like a sword slicing my heart. I responded by letting it go, then it happened again. Tears welled up; I could no longer control them. I thought there was no hope of change.

But a short time later, my much-loved coworker found a moment when we were alone and asked me, “What am I doing wrong? I seem to be hurting people; I don’t get it!” That gave me an opening to explain again the power of words to encourage or to hurt, especially in a public context. It turns out that he had grown up in a family where every disagreement was handled with loud harsh words. With new understanding, and given time, we began to see him practicing a more careful approach to speaking out in disagreement, using words with more attention to the topic and less disrespect of the person. The Lord was at work!

When Jesus said, “Do not resist the one doing evil,” but instead allow that person to do that wrong thing to you again, he was once again explaining how Kingdom values were different than what would be assumed to be appropriate by the world. Dallas Willard calls this “the great inversion,” where Kingdom character would express the opposite of what would be considered normal. Instead of resisting a personal insult by insulting back, instead of returning “harm for harm,” those acting like children of God should react with regard for their adversary and do what would promote peace. When “we have already heard and received the word of the kingdom, and  . . . anger, contempt and absorbing desire have been dealt with so that our lives are not being run by them,” then our normal reaction becomes to do what is good and loving, not allowing an injury to become the dominating factor.[1]

Because translations usually say not to resist “an evil person” or “one who is evil,” I used to find it tough to apply this principle to a fellow believer. The NET and CSB versions use “evildoer,” which is broader. We are often not shocked to be treated abusively by those outside the Family, but as we all know, there are times when a brother or sister in Christ will lash out in a way that truly hurts. Applying Kingdom values in those situations is just as essential as when the other person does not know the Lord.

The Law of Moses was given to God’s chosen people, Israel. Their judges were advised to administer justice when there were disputes among these brethren:

If a man inflicts an injury on his fellow citizen,just as he has done it must be done to him – fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth – just as he inflicts an injury on another person that same injury must be inflicted on him. (Lev. 24:19 NET)

This kept the judges from demanding unjust settlements from the offender, such as a payment greater than the injury inflicted, but still required retribution. “It thus had the double effect of defining justice and restraining revenge . . . But the scribes and Pharisees evidently extended this principle of just retribution from the law courts (where it belongs) to the realm of personal relationships (where it does not belong). They tried to use it to justify personal revenge, although the law explicitly forbade this: ‘You shall not take vengeance or bear any grudge against the sons of your own people.’[2] (Lev. 19:18)

Charles Wood has summarized Jesus’ teaching this way: “Christ completely reverses the interpretation of the Pharisees. Instead of the spirit of self-centeredness which insists on rights, and demands retaliation, you should have the opposite—selflessness, the ability to abide wrongs and to give of self.”[3]

This does not mean that there should be no consequences for doing wrong. When it comes to a court hearing, justice must be upheld. Jesus did not come to abolish the law but to fill in its complete Kingdom meaning (Mat. 5:17). Here he is talking about how a disciple is not to respond out of anger to a personal injustice, but out of consideration for the other person.

Reacting that way is being like Jesus, who urged his followers to be willing to suffer while following him, to “take up their cross” (Mat. 16.24). When he was being tried and then crucified, he was verbally and physically abused by the very people he came to save, most of them members of his chosen people. But he did not resist them, did not answer their insults (Mat. 27:12). There had been other times when he had corrected their interpretations of God’s law or his ministry, and he had stood up for those being treated unjustly. But when it came to this very personal abuse, he did not retaliate. “This is how Peter put it: ‘Christ … suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps … When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he trusted to him who judges justly.”[4] His Kingdom values were rather to accomplish what his Father had sent him to do, out of love for the very people hurting him (and all the rest of us).

As Paul explains in Romans 12:19, vengeance is not our job, but God’s. Leave it to him.

Some have taken the instruction to not resist a wrongdoer but “turn the other cheek,” to mean one should never participate in any defensive movement, especially war, or even to not defend an innocent person under attack. Christ would not have asked us to break the commands given so often in the Scriptures, such as in Isaiah:

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

As John Stott explains: “True love, caring for both the individual and society, takes action to deter evil and to promote good. And Christ’s command was ‘a precept of love, not folly’. He teaches not the irresponsibility which encourages evil but the forbearance which renounces revenge.”[5]

What is essential here is care for the well-being of the offender who is acting against me personally; I am to promote peace by exemplifying it.

When my coworker realized he was hurting his own well-being by his public accusations of others and the injuries that resulted, peace became his goal as well. He began to care more about their well-being, measuring his words. We may not always see results, but that is when it is important to remember that the King is the one in charge, and commit the problem to him.

Jesus gave three examples of how to put this into practice:

40 And if someone wants to sue you and to take your tunic,  give him your coat also. 41 And if anyone forces you to go one mile,go with him two. 42 Give to the one who asks you,and do not reject the one who wants to borrow from you. (Matt. 5:40-42 NET)

Non-retaliation would mean reacting to illegitimate demands by responding with grace. This is a high calling beyond our natural abilities, but by his gracious gift to us, we who follow Jesus have the Holy Spirit equipping us to live this out. The fruit of the Spirit is: love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. (Gal. 5:22-23 NIV) May we rely on him to produce this fruit in us!


[1] Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering our Hidden Life in God. (HarperSanFrancisco: 1997), 178.

[2] John R. W. Stott and John R. W. Stott, The Message of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7): Christian Counter-Culture, The Bible Speaks Today (Leicester; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1985), 104–105.

[3] Charles R. Wood, Sermon Outlines on the Sermon on the Mount (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1985), 27–29.

[4] Stott, p. 107.

[5] Ibid.

Truth Takes Courage

Truth takes courage when you
Realize that speaking it will
Undo the pretty picture you are
Trying to paint of yourself,
Hoping not to take the blame.

Deception is a trap but seems
Easier, the best way to
Cover up that mistake that
Everyone makes, of course. So
Promise that it was not you
That slipped; swear that your
Insulting comment was actually
On target, or that you did
Not sneak that dirty treat.

Honesty does build trust, when
Only truth is spoken,
Never devious cover-ups
Entailing fingers crossed
So that you’re covered.
Truth reveals integrity.
“Yes” mean “yes,” “no” means “no.”

Jesus was very clear about how essential the quality of honesty is in Kingdom living. He said: “Let your word be ‘Yes, yes’ or ‘No, no.’ More than this is from the evil one. (Matt. 5:37 NET)

Why was he being so insistent on this kind of clarity in our speech (Matt. 5:33-37)? As usual, it was because the leaders, and their followers, had devised ways to appear to be following the Law that gave them a way to cover up their true choices, even swearing oaths using meticulously evasive wording so that they could deviate yet not be judged guilty of perjury or other forms of deceit.

Glenn and I have been watching the old television series, “Perry Mason,” noting the constant themes of greed, infidelity, and deceit that frame the plots. Perry, the lawyer who always defends the person unjustly accused of murder, is extremely sensitive to attempts by witnesses to evade answering truthfully. When he calls them back to the stand for deeper questioning they are reminded, “Remember that you are still under oath!” Those who share in the guilt, even remotely, fidget, trying to figure out how to avoid committing perjury but needing to cover up the truth. Taking the oath was a legal procedure, but it did not keep them from lying when that would implicate them.

In situations outside the courtroom this also happens frequently. All we have to do is read the news about what political figures are saying, even after they’ve been shown to be wrong. They paint their motives in a different color. A current example is Putin, saying that he is waging a war against Nazism in Ukraine. There are many many more such lies out there.

But we don’t have to go that far from home. Picture two kids fighting over who has the right to ride a certain bike. Andy pushes Bob away, and he falls, scraping his knee, blood dripping. He is crying, and an adult runs to the scene. Bob screams, “He pushed me down!” Andy quickly says, “No, I didn’t! He was trying to get on the bike and he just fell! I promise I didn’t push him!” He figures he will be believed – after all, he promised! His right hand is behind his back. Maybe he had learned from friends at school that if he crosses his fingers, he is protected: He hasn’t even lied.

Adults are so prone to such deceit that our nation now relies on videos as proof of what really happened, especially in a situation when police are involved, or someone is accused of a crime. Who is telling the truth? Self-protection matters far more than integrity to many people.

In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus called out the Pharisees for constructing multiple ways to “keep the Law of Moses” in ways that would protect them from transgressing it. When it came to making vows, there were many examples in their Scriptures of people taking vows to perform certain duties. So it was not against Scripture’s teaching to make a vow, or swear an oath. And there were clear instructions about oath-taking:

If a man makes a vow to the LORD or takes an oath of binding obligation on himself, he must not break his word, but must do whatever he has promised (Num. 30:2 NET)

You must not swear falsely in my name, so that you do not profane the name of your God. I am the LORD. (Lev. 19:12 NET)

You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain,for the LORD will not hold guiltless anyone who takes his name in vain. (Exod. 20:7 NET)

It was clear that making a vow or swearing by God’s name was to be taken very seriously. So the Pharisees had shifted attention away from the integrity of the oath itself to the way the oath would be uttered:

“[They] developed elaborate rules for the taking of vows. They listed which formulae were permissible, and they added that only those formulae which included the divine name made the vow binding. One need not be so particular, they said, about keeping vows in which the divine name had not been used.”[1]

Swearing by the name of a deity called that deity to be a witness to the truth and fulfillment of the oath. So it seemed safer to swear by something else in case you might break your promise and bring disrespect to God’s name, taking it “in vain.” So instead they swore by heaven or earth or Jerusalem. Jesus pointed out that all of those places belong to God, so they still implicate him. He referred to Scripture, to Isaiah 66:1 that declared that heaven is God’s throne and earth is his footstool.[2]

What does this mean for us today? It is not that oath-taking in a court is wrong. Instead, this teaching shows that what is essential is being so trustworthy that what you say, anytime anywhere, is known to be true. No deception slides off your tongue, whether to protect yourself or to promise something you know you cannot fulfill. What you say always rings true!

For my mouth speaks truth,and my lips hate wickedness. (Prov. 8:7 NET)

But let your “Yes” be yes and your “No” be no, so that you may not fall into judgment. (Jas. 5:12b NET)


[1] John R. W. Stott and John R. W. Stott, The Message of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7): Christian Counter-Culture, The Bible Speaks Today (Leicester; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1985), 99–102.

[2] Craig S. Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament, Second Edition. (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic: An Imprint of InterVarsity Press, 2014), 56–57.

Slippery Sand

The traps are there
silent
smooth slippery sand
lurking in my stomping grounds
waiting
for that moment when
(tired, stressed, stumbling)
I forget to watch
so I slide
down that slope
into disaster

I let life take over
busy
pushing hard to meet my goals
eyes distracted by the rocks
obstacles I could climb over
holding Your hand
but
I lose my focus
stop listening to the Voice
step over the line
slip slam
my enemy just laughs

Have you ever seen antlions? They were one of the fascinating discoveries that bonded me as a child to Côte d’Ivoire.  We kids called them “doodlebugs” back then. Whenever I would find one of their inverted cones in the sand I would crouch to watch, especially if there were ants in the vicinity. If one of them even let one leg slip on the edge of the cone they would slide down to the jaws waiting for them, a tiny sandstorm raised along the track by their fall. Here is some scientific data:

antlion, (family Myrmeleontidae), any of a group of insects (order Neuroptera) that are named for the predatory nature of the larva, which trap ants and other small insects in pits dug into the ground. Antlions are found throughout the world, primarily in dry, sandy regions. The antlion larva digs a funnel-shaped pit (from 2.5 to 5 cm [1 to 2 inches] deep and 2.5 to 7.5 cm [1 to 3 inches] wide at the edge) by using its oval, sandy-gray abdomen as a plow and heaping the loosened particles on its large square head and throwing them clear of the pit. When the pit is completed, the larva buries itself so that only its jaws project. Any small insect that ventures over the edge of the sandy pit slips to the bottom and is seized by the sickle-like jaws of the antlion.[1]

I can’t help but compare the antlion’s sandy trap to the basic temptation that Jesus was referring to when he filled in the real Kingdom-of-Heaven meaning of the seventh commandment: “You shall not commit adultery” (Exo. 20:14; Deut. 5:18). The literal sense seemed clear to the religious leaders of Israel: This was the prohibition of the act of intercourse with a married woman. To them, this meant that other forms of fooling around with a woman did not break the command.

Jesus once again went right to the heart of the matter, reminding the people that “breaking the seventh begins with breaking the tenth”[2] commandment, desiring what is not rightfully yours:

 “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.” (Exod. 20:17 NIV).

He made coveting specific to this instance:

But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.  (Matt. 5:27 NIV)

Coveting sexual acts outside of marriage is lustful ideationnot permitted! God sees not just what is done but also what is imagined and fondled. He counts that as just as wrong as the physical act. No person who secretly hides such mental pictures or videos in the private lockers of his heart can claim to have an undivided heart. Jesus had already taught, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God” (Mat. 5:8). Those people will be welcomed into his presence! And a pure heart does not have dirty closets. But a heart that saves up such fantasized acts is like that ant investigating the inverted sandy cone, letting its leg slip over. “When the heart is ready, the action will occur as occasion offers.”[3]

I was talking with a friend not long ago who was asserting that, since it is impossible to not experience sexual desires outside of marriage, this has to be accepted as normal human behavior. They were certain that Jesus, a single man, would have had to have such yearnings, and even act on them. He was human!

I found it difficult to explain the difference between a temptation rising in your thoughts and succumbing to the temptation—falling into the trap of dwelling on that desire. It is this mental pursuit of the sexual thrill that Jesus said breaks the commandments. When the Enemy tempted him in the wilderness, he heard the words and understood the alluring prospects set before him. But he did not cave in. He resisted, and did not commit any sin.

For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are– yet he did not sin. (Heb. 4:15 NIV)

He was tempted, so he understands what that is like, but he didn’t give in. We are not as righteous and as strong morally as Jesus was, that’s for sure. Can anyone say that they have never let those kinds of desires find a resting place in their minds? God’s loving willingness to forgive us is a grace that we all depend on. We also need to remember the warning that we are not to use that grace as an excuse to continue to slide down that slippery slope!

What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? (Rom. 6:1-2 NIV)

For certain individuals whose condemnation was written about long ago have secretly slipped in among you. They are ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into a license for immorality and deny Jesus Christ our only Sovereign and Lord. (Jude 1:4 NIV)

Instead of letting the Enemy trap us, we need to make every effort to resist:

So then, dear friends, since you are looking forward to this [new heaven and earth where there is no wrong], make every effort to be found spotless, blameless and at peace with him. (2 Pet. 3:14 NIV)

This requires decision making. It means turning away from whatever it is that keeps on enticing us. Jesus used the radical imagery of gouging out your eye if it is making you stumble, or cutting off your hand if that is what is trapping you—better that than choosing the wrong path that takes you down the slippery slope into the jaws of the Enemy! Of course this mandate is not to be taken literally, or his disciples would have had to submit to this torture. Instead, it means we are to turn away and leave the online site, the movie, the book, the beach—wherever we find the slippery slope.

And the Spirit lives in the hearts of us believers. If we learn to listen to him and follow his counsel, we can resist these traps!

So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. (Gal. 5:16 NIV)

All around the world there has been another big problem that Jesus wanted to address: a view of men’s rights that obliterates women’s rights. When Moses’ law required a man to write a woman a certificate of divorce if he was going to divorce her, this actually protected her from having essentially no legal standing when the man simply said, as was the custom before, “we are through!” But Jesus knew that this certificate was now being used to excuse a man’s getting rid of a wife for any reason at all, a disagreement or disappointment or desire for a different woman. He was okay if he just wrote that certificate. Jesus pointed out that such a divorce left a woman at the mercy of adultery (Mat. 5:32), since a divorced woman in that society often found that prostitution was her only way of earning a living, being without property or appropriate support.

This may sound far-fetched, but it was one of the things that I learned was similarly convenient for men in Nyarafolo culture to do. They could simply “chase” a wife, sending her back to where she came from if they wanted to. For any reason at all. This made her undesirable as a wife to anyone else. And the cultural definition of adultery, there, is intercourse done within a certain distance of a married woman’s hearth stones (her cooking “stove” in the courtyard). So men were free to make it happen further away. And rape was a huge danger to a woman walking by herself in “bush” areas.

Western culture has an increasingly open stance to all forms of sex if both parties are “consenting.” This does not line up with Kingdom values. The intimacy of sex was created to make “one flesh” out of two, and dismissing the force of this union is what results in broken hearts, broken dreams, trauma.

We need to let the Spirit show us how to live in such a way that we don’t get trapped by the Enemy’s enticing devices. Let’s walk with the Spirit, keeping on the watch for dangerous sand slides!


[1] Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “antlion”. Encyclopedia Britannica, Invalid Date, https://www.britannica.com/animal/antlion. Accessed 14 June 2022.

[2] J. Knox Chamblin, “Matthew,” in Evangelical Commentary on the Bible, vol. 3, Baker Reference Library (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1995), 729.

[3] Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God. (HarperSanFrancisco, 1997), 161.

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