Mercy

Burning Coals

Romans 12:18-20:

“If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary:

‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
    if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.’”

I have to be honest, I’ve never liked this passage. I’ve always thought to myself, first of all, that we as believers shouldn’t be wishing God’s wrath or vengeance upon anyone, no matter their offense. We should hope, pray, and work for repentance, redemption, restoration, and reconciliation. So revenge has never been my M.O. And I’ve never really seen it as God’s, either.

The second reason why I’ve always disliked this passage is the idea of doing good to your enemy in order to “heap burning coals on his head.” That has always struck me as incredibly spiteful. And God doesn’t call us to spite our enemies. No, He calls us to love and bless them. So in my cognitive dissonance, I’ve just glossed over the verses, vowing to ask God about it one day. Well, it turns out that now I don’t have to—thank you Jon Green!

You see, Jon taught from this passage in his Sunday sermon this week, and he shed SO much light on the context of this passage for me. Specifically, he pointed out that this refers to a common-ish practice of the day, and one undertaken when an enemy was attacking. From the top of the city’s wall, soldiers would heap burning coals on the heads of their attackers in order to keep them at bay. And Jon rightly described this as a defensive action, a response from a position of strength, but one respecting appropriate boundaries. So rather than going on the offensive, or being spiteful, this heaping of coals was simply a strategy for protection. And for me, that changes everything.

So then, what about God’s wrath and His vengeance? Well, when Jon suggested that we are to leave revenge to God, I got to thinking that one reason for this is that we do not know how to properly wield vengeance. But God does. And do you know how we know that? John 8. You remember, don’t you, when a woman was brought before Jesus after being caught in adultery? And the teachers of the law wanted to stone her, but Jesus quietly called each one out in his sin, and said, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her” (John 8:7b). “At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”

“No one, sir,” she said.

“Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin” (John 8:9-11).

So when we turn our enemies over to God—who is righteous, just, AND merciful—we can trust that He will do the right thing. We can certainly have no such faith in ourselves. What a relief, then, to let go and give it to God—not asking Him to avenge us, but pleading with Him for mercy and forgiveness, on behalf of our enemy. Jesus Himself did no less as He hung on the cross to die for our sins. Let us live by His example, saying “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).

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Dust

Psalm 103:13-14

“As a father has compassion on his children,
so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him;
for he knows how we are formed,
he remembers that we are dust.”

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Well, I finally got tattoo #8 yesterday. I’d been thinking about it for some time, but the logistics only just fell into place. Whenever people see a tattoo in another language, the first thing they ask is what it means. Well, in this case, the Korean symbol on the back of my ankle means “dust.” It isn’t the only symbol for dust in the Korean language, but this one means, “soil, earth, clay, dust, ground, terra.” And that seems pretty close to the meaning of dust in the Bible verse above. WE. ARE. DUST.

I think we forget that sometimes. We think we are greater than we are, more invincible, more in control of our own destiny. Or maybe we are constantly beating ourselves up because we aren’t as great as we think we should be; we aren’t as kind, honest, or righteous as we are called to be. We fail. We fall. We disappoint ourselves, and those around us, and presumably God. But the verse above suggests that our God is a God of compassion, understanding, and unconditional love.

We also need to remember that, just as we are formed from dust, so are the people around us. They will fail. They will fall—and the higher the pedestal you’ve put them on, the greater the fall will be. They will disappoint. They will betray. And God remembers that they, too, are but dust.

Now, does this mean we should throw in the towel and dispense with all the good we know we should do? Does it mean we should do away with our efforts to promote justice and righteousness? And does it mean we should try to avoid the consequences of our actions, or protect others from suffering the consequences of theirs? No, no, and no. Paul makes that abundantly clear in Romans 6:1-2: “What then shall we say? Shall we continue in sin so that grace may increase? By no means! How can we who died to sin live in it any longer?”

We should do what we know to be right and good. As Micah 6:8 commands, we must seek justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God. And as Jesus stated (Luke 10:27), we are to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. Still, as hard as we try to obey God’s instructions, we will fail at least some of the time. And no matter how hard our fellow believers try to keep those commands, they will fail. And no matter how much trust and loyalty we place in our leaders, they too will fail. And maybe, just maybe, if the God of the universe—holy, righteous, and just—can show compassion toward such dusty creatures as you and me, then perhaps we could too.

Known

John 4:28-29

“Then, leaving her water jar, the woman went back to the town and said to the people,
‘Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Messiah?’”

You know something that doesn’t change about Jesus throughout the scriptures? The way He knows everyone He meets—inside and out. He knows the depths of their souls, the depths of their sin, and the depths of their needs. Each has a different story, but Jesus knows every detail. What I’ve found does change is the response of the known to the Knower, and to the being known. For some, it’s a source of comfort—for others, a source of shame.

Consider the woman at the well. After Jesus exposed her sins of adultery and promiscuity, she dropped everything and ran back to town to tell everyone. She was no longer ashamed of her sin. Instead, she was hopeful in the face of Christ’s forgiveness and was eager to share that Living Water with everyone she knew. She allowed her failures to become her testimony.

Similarly, recall the woman who in John 8 was brought before Jesus upon being caught in the act of adultery. The teachers of the law and the Pharisees had wanted to stone her, but had to retreat at Jesus’s command that he who was without sin must throw the first stone. When she looked up and saw that none of the religious leaders had condemned her, and when Jesus himself offered her mercy and forgiveness, there seemed to be a sense of gratitude and relief as Jesus told her to “go and sin no more.”

In contrast, though, reflect on Christ’s conversation with the rich young ruler, which is chronicled in all three synoptic gospels. In Mark 10:17-27, we see that, as Jesus

“was setting out on a journey, a man ran up to Him and knelt before Him, and asked Him, ‘Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call Me good? No one is good except God alone. You know the commandments, “Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.” And he said to Him, ‘Teacher, I have kept all these things from my youth up.’ Looking at him, Jesus felt a love for him and said to him, ‘One thing you lack: go and sell all you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.’ But at these words he was saddened, and he went away grieving, for he was one who owned much property.”

It seems as though this young man was counting on Jesus NOT knowing him, not being able to see deep into his heart to identify his sin. So when he realized that the Messiah did know him, inside and out, it brought sadness, as opposed to comfort. And ultimately, rather than repent of his sins and accept Christ’s love and forgiveness, this young man walked away.

The Bible is full of people just like him, unwilling to give up their earthly treasures in exchange for eternal ones. But the Bible is also full of people who embraced Jesus and His intimate knowledge of their sin. And in so doing, they were able to accept with confidence the grace, mercy, and forgiveness He offered them. Our world today is full of both kinds of people, too. The question that you and I need to answer is, “Which kind of person will I be?”

Compassion for Humanity

Psalm 103: 13-14

“Just as a father has compassion on his children, so the LORD has compassion on those who fear Him. For He Himself knows our frame; He is mindful that we are but dust.”

I may have mentioned before how I feel like our testimonies should be living, changing, and growing. God should be moving in us each day—what He’s doing in and through us should never be stagnant, it should never be only in the past. I’m thankful that God challenges and convicts me each week, and that I have the privilege of sharing that journey with all 12 of you. Does my testimony include falls and failures? Absolutely. But just as surely, His continued work in my heart is evidence to me that I am not living surrendered to my sins. It gives me faith that God is not through with me yet. And I praise Him for it.

It is against this backdrop that I confess that this week, I lost hope in humanity. I felt disappointed, and to some extent betrayed, by the words and thoughts expressed by some within my circle of friends and family. I felt like we couldn’t find a common ground—and of course, I was in the right. My first instinct was to—well—judge. I quickly convinced myself that these people lacked compassion. To some degree, they were heartless. I mean, doesn’t the Bible say that “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Luke 6:45)? So there I was, peering into hearts that looked to me a lot like tar pits. But then I felt the disquiet that often accompanies the conviction of the Holy Spirit, and I heard a still, small, slow voice speaking to my heart, No.

No. Okay, you’re right, it wasn’t my place to judge. I can’t see people’s hearts. But I could see their actions, and I could tell that these people (and frankly most others) were not to be counted upon. I mean, doesn’t the Bible say that GOD will supply all my needs (Philippians 4:19)? God, not people. So the best course of action was clearly just to rely solely on God for every need and to ask for nothing from others, expect nothing from others. But again, there was that still small voice, No.

How about bearing with one another (Colossians 3:13), and accepting those of weaker faith (Romans 14:1)? No. I don’t know about you, but in my flesh, I end up applying these verses from a place of pious self-righteousness, which was never the author’s intent. It wasn’t Paul’s intent, and it wasn’t God’s.

My heart finally started coming around to a right place once I started thinking about what Jesus would do, what Jesus in fact did. I know it sounds trite, but it’s so right. Jesus encountered an adulterous woman at a well, and another in the street, and He forgave both. He chose Peter, knowing full well that this guy’s fear of man and his temper would lead him to sin. Then later, He asked if Peter loved Him with a sacrificial love. Peter’s answer was essentially, “No. I mean, come on Jesus. You know I love you like a brother and you’re one of my closest friends. Isn’t that enough?” The answer was basically, “No. But that’s okay, you’ll get there.” I’m paraphrasing, of course.

But this seems to always be Christ’s sentiment. So even though I may occasionally struggle with my fellow humans, even though I may not be able to reconcile their perspectives with my own, I know what Jesus would do. Or rather, I know what He wouldn’t do: He wouldn’t give up on them. So if I want to be like Him, then I can’t give up either.

My Lord’s Ten

“I lost her and all my friends
Broke all but one of my Lord’s ten
But Jesus died for all my sins
That’s how I know I’m gettin’ in”

 –Love & Theft

Have you heard Love & Theft’s new song, “Whiskey on My Breath”? If not, you ought to check it out. It’s a soulful and poignant tale of a guy who wakes up realizing his need for grace—after all, he’s broken “all but one of my Lord’s ten.” Hmm. And here I was, thinking I’d coined that confession. And frankly, given the band’s inception date and the year of this song’s release, it’s entirely possible that I did. I just never had the foresight to copyright it. But really, if we want to get technical, the guys from the band and I are all equally guilty of plagiarism…call it the Lord’s eleventh, if you will.

Because, as I recall, there once was this jerk who wound up blinded on the road to Damascus—circa 33 A.D. or so—when Christ himself confronted the accused of his many sins. And while the Apostle Paul’s resume may have included a different set of nine sins than yours or mine, he’d been there and done that before any of us. And why? Why did he—or you, or I, or any of us—have to screw up so royally? Well, if Paul ever asked that question, he must have found his answer, because he shares it with us in 1 Timothy 1:14-16:

“and the grace of our Lord was more than abundant, with the faith and love which are found in Christ Jesus….Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, among whom I am foremost of all. Yet for this reason I found mercy, so that in me as the foremost, Jesus Christ might demonstrate His perfect patience as an example for those who would believe in Him for eternal life…”

So basically, the point was for us to ‘get’ grace. We were meant to understand it and to receive it, in large part so that we could also give it to others. When I come to grips and to terms with my own depravity, the depth of my own sins (plural), I find myself a lot better equipped to extend grace to those around me…that is, until I forget.

Then I start strapping on my phylacteries and allowing myself to feel superior to (or at least less inferior than) others. I reason that my sins hurt fewer innocent bystanders, or that they’re justified by my circumstances. I start filling my satchel with rocks I can use to stone the harlot. But then Jesus kneels down and writes something in the sand. I don’t know what He wrote to the Pharisees that day in John 8, but to me, He recites the Lord’s Prayer—“Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

God,
Grant us the strength and mercy to show grace and compassion toward our fellow transgressors. Help us to forgive those who trespass against us, just as you have forgiven us. Amen.