Every Christian seems to have a struggle accepting some particular aspect of the faith. It might be the biblical outlook on specific moral controversies, such as abortion or sexuality. It could be a general theme taught by the Church, like the idea that there is an absolute truth to which everyone must answer. For me, the greatest private struggle with the Christian faith is one of Jesus’s practical teachings, often known as “turning the other cheek” (cf. Mt. 5:39 NAB). I can be a grudge-nurse, an instinctive revenge-taker, an accountant of misdeeds and injuries. In the midst of pain over someone’s wrong against me, whether slight or great, I tend to feel that my healing should begin with redirecting hurt toward the other person.
A multitude of influences lead us to respond to one evil with another, and sometimes greater, evil. Our own sin-wounded human nature, our own pride and egotism, is frequently enough. The world itself acclaims those who retaliate against wrongdoers and oppressors—the government that executes a criminal, the politician who returns the spite of a hated rival. Perhaps most powerful is our urge to forgo mercy and chase destruction, to satisfy our own individual and collective sense of justice.
Jesus asked a lot when he gave the command to “love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you” (5:44). It’s not something we consider natural. Deep within us is a fear that the choice not to pursue revenge demeans us, reveals our weakness, and even reveals a lack of dignity. But Jesus never asked us to do something that violated our personhood. The refusal to respond in evil is not the surrender of a weak soul; it is a life-giving resolution that demands discipline and confidence in God’s power over all circumstances.
When Jesus spoke the Beatitudes during the Sermon on the Mount, he promised ultimate vindication for “the meek”; for “they who hunger and thirst for righteousness”; for “the merciful” and “the peacemakers” (5:5-7, 9). Each of these callings describe followers whose final confidence rests in God—not other men, not an institution, and not themselves—to correct all wrongs. In telling the parable of the unforgiving servant, Jesus instructed Peter, and through him all current and future believers, to recognize that we will never forgive anyone as much as God has already forgiven us (Mt. 18:21-35). A relationship with him should make our lives a celebration of the mercy shown to us, and it should provide for mutual leniency and peace in our relations with other people (Luke 2:14)
“Beloved, do not look for revenge but leave room for the wrath; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord’” (Romans 12:19). If we appoint ourselves the judge in God’s place, we’ll get the mean, quick gratification we want, and the heartache and lingering animosity we never planned. But if we refuse “to be conquered by evil,” we will “conquer evil with good” (12:21) and reflect the new life he has won for us. That’s hard to do, but it’s the strongest and truest way to live, and the only way to freedom (John 8:32).
If there’s one thing that can come between God and people, it’s God’s people.
Just recently, during a medical appointment, a technician told me she hadn’t baptized her children as Catholics because she had some lingering antipathy toward her childhood parish. Her mother was the only woman in the town to have been excommunicated for divorcing. The monsignor who headed the local school often asked the little girl why her mother wasn’t at church, though he obviously knew that the experience of attending while being forbidden from Communion was humiliating.
Incidents of social stigma, of course, aren’t restricted to one part of the faith. My grandmother grew up in terrible poverty in coal country and had trouble feeling God’s love because her classmates, all Baptists, ridiculed her for her lack of table manners and shabby clothing. My mother didn’t get married until she was in her middle thirties, and until that time she often skipped services at her Baptist church because of the moral suspicion and condescension directed at singles. (I can’t help wondering if the Pharisees who view singles as incomplete human beings ever realize that the incarnation of God was an unmarried carpenter).
I’ve always suspected that few people are driven from Christianity by purely rational objections, even if they claim this is the case. More often, I see believers who feel rejected by God because a self-identified Christian, perhaps even someone entrusted with authority in a church, had found them lacking in a trivial respect. This struggle, this sense of being an unwilling outsider, is the only fight that has ever endangered my faith. Asking God for an answer, I found great relief in remembering that Jesus, too, was an outsider among religious types.
Christ was born of a young, unwed mother (Mt. 1:18 NKJV). His identity as the Messiah was least believed in his “own country” (Mt. 13:54), where those who knew him best were “offended” (v. 57) at his teaching. He told a scribe, bluntly, “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head” (Mt. 8:20).
Jesus knew well the awkwardness and anguish of being an outlier. His experiences of rejection didn’t turn him from God; instead, he directed his love all the more fully toward the misfits and outcasts of society. He touched lepers (Mt. 8:2-3), ate with despised social groups (Mark 2:16), and spoke in public with a Samaritan woman (John 4:9) despite the Israelite prejudice against that ethnicity. At every opportunity, he made himself the definition of loving God “with all your heart” and, of necessity, extending that same love to other people (Mt. 22:37; 39).
Don’t become troubled in your faith because you’ve conflated God’s warm, welcoming, open character with the personality defects of other believers. We have a God who sympathizes with the outsider life—because he lived it. His love for us, and his understanding, demand we find courage and peace in that example.
In his book King’s Cross, Dr. Timothy Keller recounts a conversation he had with a girl at his church who had gotten last place in a school pageant, while her friend had won. “Are you trying to tell me,” she asked him, “that the Bible says I should be as happy for her as I would have been myself if I had won?”
Keller said yes. The girl’s answer: “Christianity is ridiculous. Who lives like that?”
Many of us, like this girl, have an instinctual distaste for other people’s good news. Christians are called to rejoice over the blessings of others, but when something we picture happening for us—getting the career job, meeting our future spouse, earning the grade that will justify all our work—happens instead for somebody else, our mind darts automatically to what we lack in comparison. We feel a sour twinge of envy that taints whatever happy mask we put on when we give our congratulations.
The Bible has a reason for condemning envy alongside murder (Romans 1:29; Galatians 5:21). Envy is a “rottenness to the bones” that siphons all the contentment from a person’s life (Proverbs 14:30 NKJV). Whether we feel jealousy toward an enemy (Proverbs 3:31) or a dear friend, it is a response that we must battle in ourselves with the strength of God.
When Pilate was considering what to do with Jesus, he realized the motive of the Pharisees who sought Christ’s execution: they had handed him over to death because of envy (Matthew 27:18; Mark 15:10). That’s because envy is a form of hatred against oneself and others. When the temple leaders encountered Jesus’s purity and the love that the common people had for him, they saw him only as a comment on their own shortcomings, a reflection of their own inferior piety and sinfulness. Their loathing for themselves transformed into hatred for the one who had come to give his life for them (Mark 10:45). Envy is hatred directed inward and released outward.
Jesus told the Bible’s most famous story of forgiveness with the parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15, but we often forget that the story’s second half is about envy. The prodigal son’s righteous brother, jealous of the celebrations over his sibling’s return, storms away. His father appeals to him that “‘you are always with me, and all that I have is yours,” but “[i]t was right that we should make merry and be glad” for the younger son’s return (v. 31-32). The older brother is blind to this because envy is fundamentally selfish and self-centered. One of the real tragedies of an envious heart is that it precludes us from experiencing any real joy and gratitude for our friends and family—joy for their own sake in their own right, not for how their fortune causes us to feel about ourselves. A personality distorted with envy lives bitterly in the dark: “For where envy and self-seeking exist, confusion and every evil thing are there” (James 3:16).
Envy, worst of all, is an offense to God. It is a belief that we know better than God what should be happening in our lives right now. It dishonors God’s wisdom, his understanding of what we can manage, what we can receive, and what we are ready for.
But God, with that same understanding, has made Jesus the solution to our own darkness.
All of us have turned away from God somehow (Romans 3:23). We are only able to stand before God because of his mercy and leniency toward our evil (Psalm 130:3). Jesus’s love in dying for us to provide this grace is beyond our knowing (Ephesians 3:19), and in Christ we can all claim an infinite share of that love. Since God doesn’t have favorites (Romans 2:12), no Christian can receive more of God’s love and friendship than another. If we make him our first and last possession, greater than any goal or desire we have for ourselves, God will be the death of our envy.
“I pay my taxes like everybody should…”
“Just because I’m not perfect…”
“Well, I didn’t mean to shoot him…”
Maybe you have defended or justified yourself with one of the above lines. I have to hope you didn’t use the third one (I’m talking to YOU, Dick Cheney). It is comforting to externalize evil, to believe it an out-there force embodied in terrorists and abusive parents, while our families and friends are flawed but basically good people.
That belief is wrong.
There are no good people. Truly. And I’m not speaking on my own authority here.
In June, I wrote on five kinds of preachers who don’t bring love and truth to a church, whether by incessant talk of damnation, political pandering, soft commitment to Scripture’s teachings, or preoccupation with family anecdotes. Now I want to share three ways that one Baptist church I met had a tangible difference in its message and culture.
1) The church believes missions should happen everywhere. The pastor encourages missionaries to travel to Africa, to Haiti, to Native American reservations. But he declares it no less honorable to evangelize Philadelphia, or Cincinnati (ten minutes away from us), or down the block at a liquor store, or on your neighbor’s porch. Churches often fail to reach people on their doorsteps because the Gospel seems more available to Americans. But Christians are to “make disciples of all nations” (Mt. 28:19 NIV), and that includes college students, sales clerks, and newspaper boys in our hometown as much as it does tribesmen in distant wilds.
Has the place and time of your salvation ever seemed important to you? I once heard a preacher say that a person isn’t truly saved if she can’t recall the moment it happened. Really, though, would God make your eternity depend on your memory?
I admit a special irritation with pastors who question the authenticity of their worshippers’ relationship with God. I even stopped going to a church where a preacher said that if someone doesn’t feel an urge to get baptized, then maybe he isn’t really saved. The danger of thinking this way is that it leads us to look for emotional signposts of someone’s Christianity, like weeping during service or saying Amen forcefully. But God does his real work in the interior, in the deep catacombs where we deceive ourselves of our sufficiency.
With that acknowledged, though, I will tell you of the moment God saved me.
“New Year, same world. But new garment, new birth—new person.” – Jesus (paraphrase)
Here are the top five recent posts from this year, according to page views. May your year be more than a new number on the calendar!
1. We're Made of Dirt
Let's remember, we're all Adams here. Excuse my dust, please.
2. An Inconvenient Messiah
God didn't bother becoming a man to fulfill somebody else's agenda.
3. God Gives the Increase
God, never just a cheerleader, is the wellspring of everything we can accomplish on our "own."
4. What's Write for You?
Define your own way of writing, from the chair you choose to how often you write.
5. God Had a Seventh Day - Why Not You?
Rest is vital to the creative process. No one demonstrates this better than God.
Maybe this will sound glib, but it makes utter sense to me that if God became a man, we would all nail him to a piece of wood and spit on him until he died. Hence, the story of Christ’s Passion. People have an urge to get God out of the way.
Christ is a master of the unanswerable question. When the Pharisees are preparing to kill him for rebuking their unprofitable customs, he asks, “Many good works I have shown you from My Father. For which of those works do you stone me?” (John 10:32, NKJV). Outrageously, he seemed to find no distinction between himself and God: “The Son of Man [Jesus’s name for himself] is also Lord of the Sabbath” (Mark 2:28).
The summer view from my backyard...no copyright violations here!
The Bible tells us that Creation (capital-C intended) involved six days of labor—dividing the waters, flinging the sun and stars into orbit, seeding the dead earth, and stitching together a strange little hominid named the human. After that, God took a break. On the seventh day he rested (Genesis 2:2). Isn’t that the impression some of us get from Scripture, that God was tuckered out from all the making and finally decided to collapse on heaven’s sofa?
I remember a joke from my elementary school days: “Your mama’s so fat, it took God six days to make her, and on the seventh day he RESTED!” Leave aside for a moment your joy that public school kids would be so familiar with Genesis. Realize instead that people often assume creation—whether by God directly, or by him through us—involves exhaustion…depletion…weariness…
But if God is infinite (Psalm 145:3), then how could he get tired as we limited beings do?
The Bible quickly scissors away a person’s self-admiration, a sense of having “made it,” a comfort with one’s comfortable position on planet Earth. For example:
When we die, what goes with us?
We leave behind our money, however much we line our coffins with it. Just ask the rich man in Luke 12:16-21, who used his bounty only to build new barns to house it, and was not “rich toward God.” So regardless of our earthly inheritance, we all die poor.
Our death is our own, and no one goes with us. So we all die alone.
Our clothed bodies remain behind to decay. “Is not…the body more than clothing?” (Matthew 6:25 NKJV). We will die and leave our clothes behind. So we all die naked.
In addition, Scripture tells us that God “knows our frame; He remembers that we are dust” and that Adam was formed from the “dust of the ground” (Genesis 2:7). These verses are a gentle, poetic reminder that all people, from Fortune 500 CEOs to the most wrung-out heroin addict in a soup kitchen, are made of dirt.
And there’s the sermon for today. We’re all made of dirt, and we’ll die poor, alone, and naked. “Make a joyful shout to the Lord, all you lands!” (Psalm 100:1)
Anthony Otten has published stories in Jabberwock Review, Valparaiso Fiction Review, Wind, Still: The Journal, and others. He has been a finalist for the Hargrove Editors' Prize in Fiction. He lives in Kentucky.
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