Thursday, June 17, 2021

Inventing Tests for Your Future Spouse

Suggested Reading: Matthew 27:32-50

In the Superman prequel series Smallville, Lex Luthor caught Lana Lang at a time when she was emotionally vulnerable and manipulated her into a romantic relationship and then into marriage. Before he married her, however, he wanted to know if he could trust her. So he arranged for her to overhear a compromising conversation to see how she would react. Lana responded by working to protect Lex from what she perceived as a threat to him. Lex tested her but in a way that showed no respect for her.

Reading through Matthew’s account of the crucifixion, I recently noticed what might have been another test. Jesus was hanging on the cross and had cried out to God saying, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachtani?” that is, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” And some of the bystanders, hearing it, said, “This man is calling for Elijah.” And one of them at once, ran and took a sponge, filled it with sour wine, and put it on a reed and gave it to him to drink. But the others said, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to save him” (Matthew 27:46-49, ESV).  When Jesus was in emotional agony on the cross, feeling the separation that the sin of the world created between him and the Father, he cried out. One man wanted to take pity on him, giving him something to drink that might deaden the pain but the others wanted to wait to see if Elijah would come.

Some were likely mocking him as one might mock a guilty criminal still hanging onto the pretense of innocence. But others must have been watching this man, knowing that he claimed to be the Messiah and that Elijah was supposed to come before the Messiah made himself known. According to Jesus, John the Baptizer had fulfilled the function of Elijah, but no one had recognized him. So I wonder, how many of these people, uncertain whether or not they were crucifying the Messiah, wanted one last test to see if Elijah would respond before completely labeling him a false messiah.

Whether anyone was actually using these events as tests or not, we often engage in very similar behavior. We let something “slip” at just the right moment to see how a friend responds. We create a situation designed entirely to determine whether or not we can trust someone without thinking about the betrayal of manipulating them. Sometimes, we test God, putting God in a position of doing what we want or threatening to stop believing (or at least to stop trusting), whether that thing is really what we need or not. We test people and God in ways that are selfish and demonstrate a lack of respect and a lack of love.

Watching how people respond to natural situations is good and healthy. But manipulating people and forcing them into sometimes painful situations just for our own peace of mind is cruel, no matter how we justify it. Deciding whether we will trust God or anyone else based on artificial criteria or self-created tests is childish and immature.

Are you testing someone at the moment? Are you thinking about doing it? Creating a test for someone may not give you an accurate reading of their character, but it does create a very definite image of your own. Before you do anything, make certain you are treating the person in question with love and respect. If your test pushes the boundary of that standard, think twice before seeing it through.

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Practical Jokes and Balcony Patios

Suggested Reading: James 1:12-18

From time to time I enjoy a good practical joke. When I was in college I had a friend who lived on the second story of an apartment complex and he had a balcony big enough to place a couple of chairs where you could sit and talk. One particular night, several of us were over at his apartment playing Risk and we had taken a break. I announced that I needed to run to my car to grab something and would be right back. When I left, instead of going to my car, I walked around the building to his patio. I climbed up the side of the building, quietly hefted myself over the railing, and then made a very sudden, very loud entrance through the unlocked patio door. I caused a few mild heart attacks and made someone else spew a drink out of their nose in fright before they realized what had happened. At least for me, it was stinking hilarious. And the entire prank was possible because no one ever thought about locking the patio door. After, all, it was on the second story of the building. No one would be able to get in that way, right? But after that night, I never found the patio door unlocked again.

When we deal with temptation one of the greatest dangers we face is the assumption that we are safe from certain sins, that particular temptations hold no danger for us, and so we don’t guard against them. We leave the door to the balcony unlocked. This tendency is what James was addressing when he wrote, No one undergoing a trial should say, "I am being tempted by God." For God is not tempted by evil, and He Himself doesn't tempt anyone. But each person is tempted when he is drawn away and enticed by his own evil desires. Then after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin, and when sin is fully grown, it gives birth to death (James 1:13-15, HCSB). Temptation very rarely is a danger because of our outward circumstances. Yes, someone may make us an inappropriate offer. Yes, we may find ourselves in a difficult position where doing something wrong is easier than pushing through and doing the right thing.  But the circumstances in which we find ourselves are not the most important factors in temptation. Our own desires are what trip us up.

When we refuse to acknowledge those hidden desires, those things that linger in the hidden recesses of our hearts, those things no one else knows about, we fail to guard against those particular temptations. After all, what is the point of locking a door nobody can get to? What is the point of reinforcing a foundation that isn’t in danger of fracturing? If we think we are safe, we do nothing to safeguard ourselves. Thus, it is vitally important that we acknowledge those areas where our desires might get us into trouble.

If we yearn for the latest technological gadget but we don’t have the money to spend on it, we might need to avoid Best Buy for a while. If we have trouble controlling lustful thoughts, we might need to avoid being alone with that good-looking co-worker we’ve caught staring recently or even stay away from the internet entirely. But when we refuse to acknowledge our own desires, we end up putting ourselves in unsafe positions, positions that will eventually see us yield to a temptation we could have guarded against.

Be honest about the desires that lurk within you. Hiding and denying them only sets you up for failure. Acknowledge them and guard against them. Confide in someone who can hold you accountable and help you set up safeguards. Maintaining a pretense of super spirituality is difficult when your temptation sneaks in through your balcony.

Friday, June 11, 2021

Passing the Homeless Alien Test

Suggested Reading: James 1:1-8

The classic Sci-Fi television series Farscape was about John Crichton, a human astronaut who got sucked through a wormhole and discovered himself in a distant part of the universe surrounded by strange life-forms. In one particular episode, he encountered a wormhole that allowed him to return to Earth, something he had been searching for since the day he got sucked away from home. He returned through the wormhole and was followed by some of his alien friends. While some people handled the aliens' arrival well, most did not. One of his friends was killed and dissected. The others were all locked in cages until he was forced to escape. Eventually, John noticed that some of the details didn't add up. Apparently, John had never returned to Earth, but an alien species which was looking for a new home had been testing humanity through John's memories to see if they would be accepted. Humanity didn't pass the test, although John himself did.

Quite often, we encounter tests without realizing that we are being tested. James wrote, "May you be led to every kind of joy, my brothers, when you face many kinds of trials, knowing that the proving of your faith produces endurance." (James 1:2-3, SPT*). While James went on to talk about how our trials can serve to mature us, he takes for granted what we can easily forget: trials and temptations are tests of faith. We tend to do better on tests when we know we are taking them. We often make better decisions when we know people are watching us and grading us on those decisions. Trials and temptations are the same way, but we often fail to recognize them for what they are: a test of faith.

How we handle a trial, how we view the trial, changes when we realize that our faith is being tested. When we realize that the ultimate decision is whether to trust our God or follow our own desires and wisdom, we normally find the trials and temptations easier to navigate than when we simply ask, "How should I handle this?" When we're tempted to provide for ourselves in less than honest ways, recognizing the decision as a test of faith clarifies which course of action we should take. When we face a situation so difficult we are tempted to give up, viewing it as a test of faith helps us discover the resolve to continue.

Whatever trials or temptations you may be facing, remember that they are tests of your faith. Sometimes just remembering that can help you pass the test.

*Stickler's Personal Translation

Wednesday, June 9, 2021

Being an Angry Tattle-Tale

Suggested Reading: James 1:12-21

Something I've noticed since having children is how often kids are eager to run and tattle on someone for doing the very thing they were doing just few minutes before. Children universally have the attitude, "It's ok for me to do it to you but you better not do it to me." The younger children just don't grasp the concept that they do the same thing they are mad at someone else for. The older children come up with reasons to justify their behavior, reasons why it's ok for them to behave badly, reasons they deserve to behave badly. Unfortunately, many of us never grow out of that attitude, especially when it comes to anger.

As we get older, we get better and better at coming up with ways to justify our anger. What that person did was wrong, I have the right to lose my temper. I've had a really hard day at work and I don't deserve to be harassed as soon as I walk in the door. And my personal downfall, I had to yell because it's the only way to get you to listen. We each have our own excuses and justifications for mishandling our anger. And we each tend to believe we are justified, even while we judge someone else for the same thing. Jesus's brother James, however, had this to say, Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God (James 1:19-20, ESV).

Anger itself is not a sin. But anger tends to retard our judgment, cloud our reasoning, and blind us to rational thought. As a result, anger very often leads us into sin. Quite often, we are justified in our anger and have legitimate reasons to be upset with someone. But acting in our anger does not produce the righteousness of God. Anger can be a wonderful motivator for correcting injustices, but only when we have allowed the heat of our anger to die down so that our good judgment can reassert itself.

You may be dealing with anger today. Perhaps someone has hurt you or hurt someone you love. Perhaps you have been confronted with an injustice that leaves you seething. You are allowed to be angry, even furious. But you must remain quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger. You never know when you have misunderstood the situation or when acting in your anger will only make things worse. So before you do anything, take a breather, listen, and think. Allow the heat of the moment to dissipate. You might just save yourself from doing something you'll regret

Tuesday, June 8, 2021

Following Jesus Like Fear-Mongering Ghosts

Suggested Reading: Exodus 20:1-21

Merlin, the BBC's late series about King Arthur and the famous sorcerer, had a five year run. In one episode leading up to the series finale, Arthur, who had instituted reforms based on equality and merit rather than on the accident of being born into a noble family, was visited by the ghost of his very displeased father. Arthur's father pleaded with Arthur to undo his reforms, arguing that the people would never fear him otherwise. Arthur responded that he desired respect rather than fear but the ghost of his father didn't believe Arthur would receive either. Arthur believed people would follow him if they respected him but his father believed that fear was the only motivation powerful enough to maintain order.

Arthur's father would have fit right in with the Israelites in Exodus 20. Moses had led them to Mount Sinai where God was going to meet with them and deliver the law. Now when all the people saw the thunder and the flashes of lightning and the sound of the trumpet and the mountain smoking, the people were afraid and trembled, and they stood far off and said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, lest we die.” Moses said to the people, “Do not fear, for God has come to test you, that the fear of him may be before you, that you may not sin.”  (Exodus 20:18-20, ESV). When the Israelites arrived and saw the mountain where God was going to meet with them, they were terrorized with fear. In response, Moses told them not to fear (not to be terrified) but that God wanted their fear (reverence and respect) to keep them from sin. But the Israelites's respect  and reverence extended only as far as their terror. When they became used to the clouds and lightning and thunder, they soon lost their respect and began disobeying the commands they received in fear.

I have often wondered what motivates us as followers of Christ. Are we motivated by love and respect, cherishing Jesus and the Father, and obeying God out of that love? Or are we motivated by fear? Do we obey out of fear that we will face hell or that God will punish us if we mess up? Do we strive to live godly lives because we want to please God or because we want to avoid God's wrath? Don't get me wrong, we should have a healthy fear of the Creator of the universe who does have the power to punish or send us to hell, but if God just wanted our fear he never would have sent Jesus to die in our place. God sent his Son because God loves us.

If your walk with God is motivated by fear, you will fall away as soon as the fear fades. God wants your primary motivation for obedience to be love flowing from a grateful heart. If all you have is fear, you've missed the point of Jesus coming to earth.

Monday, June 7, 2021

Sneak Attacks and Assumptions

Suggested Reading: Genesis 50:7-21

When my son was younger he had a game he played sometimes where he liked to sneak up behind me and attack me. Sometimes he had a play sword. Sometimes he tried to jump on my back. Sometimes he liked to try a hit-and-run where he popped my rear end and then ran off. When he started this game, he was in a playful mood and tended to believe everyone else was as well. Sometimes I was and I turned around and played back. At other times, he caught me in the middle of something or when playing wassn’t an option and so I either made a subdued response or laughed and told him that we would play when I was finished. Regardless of my verbal response, my son almost always came at me again, thinking my response was just the way I was playing the game. Because he was in a playful mood and was thinking that way, he expected me to think that way, too, whether I really did or not. So, even when I specifically told him I couldn’t play right that second, he thought my response was a playful one because his would have been.

At another end of the spectrum, Joseph experienced the same kind of mindset from his own brothers in Genesis chapter 50. Several chapters and years before, Joseph had reconciled himself to his brothers. He had revealed himself as the Prime Minister of Egypt, telling them that he held nothing against them for selling him into slavery as a child, reminding them that God had used that experience to provide for hundreds of thousands of people during a time of intense famine. As far as he was concerned, God had set the whole thing up, so he forgave them. He then took in their families and their flocks, providing for all of them, and reassuring them of his good intentions toward them. But when Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, “What if Joseph holds a grudge against us and pays us back for all the wrong we did to him?” (Genesis 50:15, NIV). Because they would hold a grudge and pretend to be civil in front of their father (they had already done that) they assumed Joseph would as well, even though he had gone out of his way to reassure them and demonstrate that he had forgiven them.

Quite often, we assume things about how people will respond to certain situations or conversations because we know how we would respond. But those kinds of assumptions normally just get us into trouble. No two people are exactly alike and no two people have the same thought processes, no matter how similar they may be. How can we possibly know how people are going to respond to situations or conversations? The fact that we tend to dwell on a particular event doesn’t mean others do too. And the fact that we have let go of the past doesn’t mean everyone else necessarily has.

Before we make assumptions about what other people are going to do or think, let’s give them a chance to respond. What scares you to death may not bother anyone else a bit and what we take for granted other people may have not yet worked through. Give people a chance to respond. Don’t assume you know how they will react. 

Thursday, June 3, 2021

Entertaining Enchantresses and Strangers

Suggested Reading: 

The first animated movie nominated for the Best Picture Academy Award was well worth it just for the incredibly beautiful opening sequence. Disney's Beauty and the Beast begins with the gorgeous, sweeping view of a forest in full bloom and zooms in on a castle in the background. The narration begins, "There once was a prince who lived in a charming castle..." Then stain glass windows tell us the story of this prince who was visited by an old woman begging for a place to stay the night in exchange for a single rose. The prince, in his callousness, turned the old woman away, only to discover that she was a beautiful enchantress who had disguised herself to test him.  The scene makes a wonderful beginning for a fairytale, but the scenario is not so far-fetched as we might imagine. Hebrews 13:2 warns us," Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares" (ESV). 

As I read this verse recently I thought about its context, having been written in a day and age when people routinely traveled from city to city, never knowing if there would be an inn or a hotel, with most people needing to rely on the hospitality of strangers. American society really isn't set up that way. We have hotels and motels in every major city and nearly all of the small ones. We have cars and bus stops and truck stops. People can find shelter if they really want to, so this doesn't really apply to us anymore, right?

But hospitality isn't simply about providing a roof over someone's head. Hospitality is about caring for people and giving of ourselves to make people feel welcome and secure. Hospitality is about providing warmth and friendship to those without any close at hand. And all of those things apply today.

The author of Hebrews, though, warns us specifically not to neglect hospitality to strangers. We are to provide warmth and friendship, welcome and security to people we don't know, to strangers, and he doesn't give us any wiggle room to provide hospitality only when it isn't potentially dangerous. We are to be "wise as serpents and harmless as doves" (Matthew 10:16), but we don't get to overlook someone's need because we are uncomfortable or we have unfounded skepticism about the reality of their need. As believers, we are expected to show hospitality to strangers, to invite them into our homes and offer them welcome and friendship.

As uncomfortable as we might feel welcoming strangers into our homes, we never know when God might be testing our maturity. Who knows? We might even get the chance to entertain angels.

Inventing Tests for Your Future Spouse

Suggested Reading: Matthew 27:32-50 In the Superman prequel series Smallville , Lex Luthor caught Lana Lang at a time when she was emotiona...