Shout for Joy
There is a unique beauty in simplicity. When an important issue is expressed in a simple phrase or sentence you can be sure that a lot of careful thought lies behind it. It is far easier to make your point by expanding it than by compressing it. The ideas that remain with us over time and help focus our thinking on an issue of importance are normally to the point and simple to remember. We’ll never forget Ronald Reagan’s, “Mr. Gorbachef, tear down this wall,” or David Farragut’s “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead,” to say nothing of Patrick Henry’s, “Give me liberty or give me death.” Clarity and simplicity: Long live the happy pair!
The other day I read a statement that caught my attention and has been circling around in my mind ever since. It was Mahatma Gandhi’s, “Be the change that you wish to see in the world.” His challenge was not simply to say it, but to do it – or at least to start it by taking that first step. There is a distinct difference between the two worlds of theory and practice. It is one thing to recognize the need for change, and, in itself, that is good, but it calls for action. In the long run, if the challenge for change remains acknowledged but inactive, there has been no progress.
Everyone recognizes certain changes that should happen in their world. On a personal basis it may be a change of attitude about some relationship. In a community setting it could be the need for something like a larger park system for the expanding needs of the populace. On an international level is could be, and should be, the reduction of nuclear armament across the board. All good changes that we see, but each seems to be immobilized by the lack of necessary and appropriate action. The question is, How does one get from the “should be” to the “has been?” Every now and then we make it on an individual level, but what about change in a larger setting?
What Gandhi suggests is that change is less a corporate activity than a personal responsibility. All change begins with someone taking that first stip. Developing a list of rules or expectations will rarely move a project off center. Individuals are the change agents of society. The problem of the “first step” is crucial. Unless someone steps out the train of progress remains stuck on the tracks right where it is. The real futurist is not the dreamer who spends his life absorbed in the “what ifs” of life, but the less prominent doer who seems to recognize that to arrive at one’s designation always requires a first step.
To “be the change that you wish to see in the world” is a call to active involvement. It is wise in theory, beautiful in its simplicity, and effective in its appeal. Repeat aloud with me a slightly modified version of the quote: “I will be the change that I wish to see in the world.”
I love the beautiful poetic lines David, the Psalmist, uses to give expression to all that is on his heart. In Psalm 37:21 he describes two types of people in terms of their character. There are (1) the “wicked who borrow and do not pay," and by way of contrast (2) the “righteous who give generously.” The giver reaches out to help, the taker reaches out to receive. It is not surprising that these two kinds of people are still with us. Talk about opposite ways of living! And the passing of time appears to have been unable to change human nature.
We all recognize the first kind of person. In fiscal matters they will take what someone else has earned and use it for themself without any intention of paying it back. That’s called stealing. In contrast, the righteous person is not captive to his old selfish nature. When they see another in need they respond with generosity. Their compelling desire is not to enjoy themselves at the expense of others, but to meet that person’s needs and do it generously. I know that those of you who read my blogs on a regular basis are wondering whether I am about to talk about human nature again. And of course, I am; it’s so central to what is wrong in our old world. The two types of people are those who are still in bondage to their old nature, and those who have discovered the joy of complete surrender to a loving and generous God.
Having identified the problem, let’s think together about the Christian gift of generosity. Dictionaries describe this kinds of person as being “unselfish, anxious to share, magnanimous, free from any smallness of mind” and other descriptive phrases. I believe it is important to understand that for the Christian, being generous is not something that we do but something that we let God do in and through us. Jesus’ words of forgiveness to those who nailed him to the cross – “Father forgive them, they don’t know what they’re doing”(Luke 26:24) – was a gift of inceedible generosity. This same Jesus enters our hearts when we turn to him in faith. His desire is to carry out endless acts of generosity through us. If we are open to his redemptive desires for us as we travel toward heaven, we will find ourselves spending less time on the narrow streets of egocentrism, and more on the broad highways of loving concern for others. He would like to take hold of the steering wheel and redirect us to a far more rewarding way to live. As John the Baptist put it, so long ago, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30). Generosity takes so many different forms. A person can be:
Generous in speech, that is, being thoughtful about how our words might fall on another.
Jesus spoke words of encouragement.
Generous in time, that is, devoting more of it to meet the needs of others.
Jesus spent the days of his ministry helping those in need.
Generous in hospitality, as in “Come unto me all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28).
Jesus said he had “no place to lay his head” (Luke 9:58) but he turned no person away.
Generous in giving, that is, when you have all you need shouldn’t the rest go to others?
Jesus gave all he had; he even had to ask for a coin so he could question whose image was on it.
Lord Jesus – We know you can and will live out your generosity through each of us who will grant you permission. Come, take control! Amen.
We have been “getting older” from that first day when we opened our eyes to see what sort of place it was where we were to spend our days. And there is another sort of “getting older” as we find ourselves preparing for our transfer to eternity. This second period is decidedly different in a number of ways, the chief being a growing appreciation for the exciting experience of life itself. Granted, this is not true for all, but God does allow most a selective review of life that focuses on the pleasant and the positive. This rear-view appraisal has been strong recently in my days and there is one theme that seems always to rise to the top. And what is that? (Read on).
I have become increasingly thankful for this journey of life. Most of the stops along the way have been highly rewarding. (You probably have the same sense of gratitude as I although no two of us ever live identical lives. You, my friend, are one of a kind.) Were I to list those experiences for which I am most grateful, it would include everything from my Navy wings to a book well written. I am thankful for being given the physical ability to fly a combat aircraft, and the mental alertness to publish in a scholarly field. The necessary equipment in both was a gift. Then there is family and friends, opportunity and spiritual life.
Then there is one for which I am especially grateful and that is an ever-increasing sense of contentment. Someone noted, “Contentment is not the fulfillment of what you want, but the realization of how much you already have.” And the “what-you-have’s” of life are without number. So, it is strange, is it not, that we still seem to want more. Well, it is strange until we remember who we are. Remember that Adam had it all, yet there was one more thing that he wanted and that was freedom from God’s one restriction – “You must not eat fruit from the tree in the middle of the garden or you will die” (Gen. 3:3). But he went ahead anyway. Adam wanted more and in the process determined the nature of the human race. But there is one more really import thing for which we can be thankful, and that is God’s gift of salvation for those who will accept it.
When I was growing up as a boy, if you had asked me to explain faith, I would have said something like “science is what we know, and faith is hoping it’s true.” At that stage in life faith was the expected response to whatever the Sunday school teacher or one’s mom or dad said. It was a carefree period in life and boys didn’t worry much about theological issues. However, if I had happened to read Thomas Aquinas’ observation, “To one who has faith, no explanation is necessary. To one without faith, no explanation is possible” it would have set my mind to thinking. I would have figured that “if you believe something then you don’t have to have it proved to you, and if you’re a skeptic you don’t really believe anything anyway.” It all made pretty good sense and perhaps in the long run it’s a better answer than the contortions required by the relentless mind that has forgotten that God's ways may be different from our ways. But let's look at it anyway.
I do not believe that faith is so convincing in and of itself that explanation is totally irrelevant. As I have written before, "Faith is the resting of the mind in the sufficiency of the evidence." Faith takes an aspirin for a headache because on previous occasions it answered the problem. It is that last step after the evidence of previous trials has taken you as far as it can. The two are not totally separate entities. Faith is the logical step you take in the direction to which evidence points. The old idea that science operates within the verifiable and that faith has no necessary relationship to evidence is simply incorrect. It would not be reasonable to say that you believe a certain planet is made of green cheese because there is nothing that points the mind to a conclusion like that. Faith is not the reckless assertion of something for which there is no logical reason to believe.
I also have a problem with the second part of Aquinas’ statement that “to one without faith, no explanation is possible.” An explanation is an explanation – nothing more. Its veracity does not depend upon someone's ability to be convinced. If the statement means that no explanation can convince the person who doesn't believe anyway, it is probably true, but the problem lies with the person not the explanation.
Where I find myself is that since I believe that truth is one, it matters not whether it originates in the field of science or theology. As I understand it, even in science a theorem is considered workable not absolutely true in every possible and verifiable sense. Newton's world provided a good explanation until quantum physics came along. Reliable science is open to that kind of understandable change. As understanding continues to develop there is and increasing similarity between what we say we know and what we say we believe. Hopefully, both perspectives are learning to respect the other as they continue to work toward a unified understanding of all the things that are of vital importance to mankind.
James, the brother of Jesus was a straightforward tell-it-like-it-is kind of guy. He never leaves you wondering what he meant to say. It appears that, along with the rest of his siblings, he didn’t believe that his older brother, Jesus, was a divine being. Later, however, he did and became one of the more influential leaders of first century Christian church. James identifies himself as a “servant of God” and sometime in the following twenty years wrote we now call the book of James. He refers to his readers as the “twelve tribes scattered among the nations” (1:1).
So what is the first thing he wrote to his Jewish friends who now considered Jesus to be the fulfillment of Messianic prophecy? It was, “Consider it an occasion for joy when trouble of any kind comes your way” (v. 2). That sure tells us something about brother James! I wonder if he was that way growing up or was it something that developed once he had experienced the transforming love of God?
It is important that we understand the difference between joy and happiness. I would define happiness as an emotional reaction to something pleasant that happens. On the other hand, joy is a deep contentment that wells up from within. The former depends on some stimulus from without, the latter from something within. And that is exactly why James can tell his readers to “consider it pure joy” (NIV) when they find themselves facing trouble from without. Joy doesn’t depend on what is happening out there, but what has happened within. There is little room for gloom in the sinner who has been saved by grace and given the gift of life eternal!
I believe it important that we get over our inclination to follow the lead of well-intentioned promoters of confident living. What they say sounds hopeful, but it rarely lasts. One such wrote in words quite impressive, “If you want to get more out of life, you must lose your inclination for monotonous security and adopt a helter-skelter style of life that will at first appear to you to be crazy” (JK, not John Kennedy). That may cover the scratch for a while but won’t take care of the deep wound left when we walked away from God. We were created for fellowship with him and joy is ours only when we are back in fellowship with him. Joy is a state of the soul and keeps rising as a flood of pure delight. What James is telling us is that when troubles come, and they will, consider each one as an occasion for pure joy since God himself is there with us all the way through.
“Shared joys make a friend, not shared sufferings," Friedrich Nietzsche. I had to think about this one for a while. Certainly "shared joys" make a friend. I still remember a university buddy who was handicapped by some unusual neurological problem and, since he could no longer walk, had to be carried. I was his number one source of transportation and had him on my back for two years. Every now and then we would double date and I would carry him on my back downtown Seattle on the way to a cinema. When people took more than a casual look at us he would point down at me, grin and say, "He lost the bet!" Jack was a special friend and all our good times together strengthened that relationship. When he died in the 80’s his family placed a huge sign in his office window that read, He's walking!! I’ll see Jack in heaven and we’ll have a great time “reliving” our “shared joys.”
But what about "shared sufferings?" I've had those as well, and in my experience they have played pretty much the same role as the joys we’ve shared. I could describe some but they're too personal for this medium. But I can share how they affected me. Times of suffering that we experience together with a friend inevitably drawn us even closer. Each of us is moved by the desire to help the other with his difficulty. As we travelled through the difficult time we would share the joy of being in it together and when it was past we would look back with both relief and joy.
For the Christian there are several verses of Scripture that speak of the joy of shared suffering. In Romans 8:17 the apostle Paul writes to the church in Rome that if they "share in [Christ's] sufferings," they will also "share in his glory.” The suffering to which Paul refers is the opposition of others to the message of the crucifixion of Christ (ranging all the way from social avoidance to martyrdom.) Experience convinces me that difficulties like that strengthen my friendship with God. It used to be that on Pearl Harbor day the media would report that survivors of that tragedy were having their ashes returned and buried under water in the USS Arizona so they could be with their buddies who went down with the ship. What a great example of shared suffering building a lasting friendship.
It's remarkable that friendship can be the product of two opposite kinds of experiences – shared joys and shared suffering. The point is that friendship is the fruit of sharing and it doesn't matter whether the experience was good or bad. No doubt about it, we were made for one another!
One of the never-ending questions in some Christian circles is whether or not believers can lose their salvation. Is it possible for a genuine Christian who has walked with the Lord for a number of years to fall into some sinful practice for which he would “lose his salvation” and go to hell? Opposing camps of thought go all the way back to the early church. Verses can be carefully selected from Scripture that will "prove" either position. Once a decision has been made, verses that seem to point to a different conclusion are swept under the exegetical rug. It is relatively easy to dispense with contrary evidence.
My position on the issue is relatively simple, "You can't lose what you don't have.” Does that imply that you CAN lose what you DO have? And the answer to that depends on whether "losing" is up to you or not. I can lose my car keys because I am responsible to put them in the same place every night. If I don't, I will probably "lose" them, at least for a while. But what if the responsibility for losing is not mine but someone else's? In that case I can still lose them, but it won't be my fault. On the other hand, if the person responsible for my keys is absolutely reliable and unable to lose anything, then my keys are safe. But who can find a person who is absolutely unable to lose something. The answer must be God and if he is the one in charge of my keys then all is fine, he will never lose them.
So it comes down to this: If I am the one responsible for safeguarding my salvation, there is a real question as to how it will turn out. But if my salvation is in his hands, I can never lose it. But what about verses of scripture that seem to say rather definitely that one's salvation can be lost (I could gather the evidence but you would counter with verses that seem to say the opposite. So that isn't where the answer lies). If it turns out that my salvation gets lost, then all I can say is that I never had it. Back to my earlier maxim – "You can't lose what you don't have.”
The prospect of losing one’s salvation has always been a concern for some believers, especially for the super-sensitive. Many a child of God has wandered in that land of uncertainty and paid a high price for falling into Satan’s deceptive trap. No longer are they enjoying an intimate relationship with the Father. To envision oneself threshing wildly in the eternal flames of hell is certainly a discomforting experience. Of course, if that were possible for a child of God, who for a brief time no longer qualified for entrance into heaven, then that kind of unrest would be a real possibility. Fortunately, that cannot be the case, because when God begins his work of salvation he never gets discouraged and dumps the project. He completes what he begins. In fact, as John puts it, “Whoever hears my word and believers him who sent me has eternal life and will not be judged, but has crossed over from death to life” (John 5:24). You are right now eternally alive, not still spiritually dead!
Here is a helpful way to read this verse in a personal way that will bring home the assurance of salvation. Read the following out loud, putting your full name in each blank spot:
(The REQUIREMENTS for salvation)
I _______ have heard what Jesus says about how to be saved.
I _______ believe that God sent Jesus, his Son, into this world to die for my sins.
(THE RESULTS of what you have just confessed)
* _______ has eternal life.
* _______ will not be judged
*_______ has crossed from death to life,
Lin Yutang, the influential Chinese writer, noted that "when small men begin to cast big shadows, it means that the sun is about to set.” We know that great men cast big shadows and nations are blessed by the impact of their lives and the legacies they leave. But there are also small men who cast big shadows and society is left in shambles. History has a way of producing its fair share of Hitlers, Stalins, Pol Pots, and Kim Jong-ils and they all cast enormous shadows. As the sun goes down, millions are affected adversely by their reigns.
It is interesting how the labels, “big” and “small” – and all other descriptive adjectives as well – gain their meaning from context. One can be big in size, in importance, in character, or in many other ways. A person can be small in size yet at the same time be big in any number of ways. Currently we often see on political TV a Baptist pastor from Dallas who is both small and big; short in stature but big in his ability to discern what is going on in the world of good and evil. It so happens that if those descriptive words were changed around he probably wouldn’t be on TV.
Positions of political importance seemed to be filled by those who are “big” in terms of social recognition. But it is the big in character to whom we are drawn in every day life. Theologically it all goes back to the tragic decision of Adam. Unbridled concern for self is the original sin. It determined man’s self-centered relationship to life. However, it is the “small” Christian who is becoming more and more like Christ. Big Christians (an oxymoron?) seem to have stopped growing.. The model for the sincere believer is to become “small” in the way that is exemplified by Jesus in his life among us.
There is no question but there are plenty of genuinely big men in this world – that is, good men who are living out their days in a fair and honorable way. They pay their taxes, get along with their neighbors, work hard, raise good kids, contribute to charity, etc. Then why do "small men" seem so often to be in charge? What is there about power that attracts? Christian theology teaches that man (and I use the word genetically) is a creature made in God's image, but flawed by disobedience. The result is universal narcissism. Power is the political aphrodisiac that all too often draws the unqualified into public office. Plato was right when he said, "One of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors.”
What a nation needs in positions of leadership are good men able to resist the corrupting influence of power. Faith in Christ is a transforming experience in which bigness (the desire for personal recognition) is replaced by smallness (the willingness to place others ahead of one’s concern for self). The road up has first to go down. God’s answer to the basic human error is that we let go once and for all our natural desire to control, or as the metaphor puts it, to become small and let God take care of everything else.
A major difference between the gods of paganism and the God of the Judeo-Christian faith is that the latter never changes. The author of Hebrews speaks of the third person of the Trinity as being “the same yesterday and today and forever” (13:8). God can be counted on to always act in exactly the same way. There may be cultural adjustments, but that is necessary in order to stay true to the underlying principle. It’s the principle that never changes, not its particular expression in time. For example, scripture teaches that “to obey God’s precepts is to enjoy his favor,” and that “to disobey them is to suffer the consequences.” That will always be true, even though how it may look in various settings will appear to be different.
We readily accept the law of nature that if you drop an object it falls. It has always been that way and we know that it wont be different next week. We believe that since creation is an expression of a changeless God, its “laws” are necessarily changeless as well. It is broadly held that apart from the westward growth of Christianity there never could have been a scientific revolution. An unchanging God inevitably results in a universe that reflects this same characteristic. Acid always turns litmus paper red. If someday God changed his mind and decided that from that point on it should turn green, our confidence in the scientific method would be undermined.
The bright side of God’s unchangeable nature is that he will never fail to bless those who honor him. His promises are steadfast and absolutely dependable. His presence is immediately available for those who come to him in genuine humility. We can read the book of Acts with the confidence that today’s Peter or Paul can enjoy the same intimacy with God as did those two early apostles. Those who originally received the “cornerstone” found in him their hearts desire. Since he is an unchangeable God, the same joyful experience awaits us today as we turn from “darkness into his wonderful light” (2:9).
We live in a remarkable world, do we not? No, I am not thinking of some advance in technology but of our ability to go back in time and “chat” with the great figures of yesterday. I enjoy them because they are always available via their writings. In fact I was “talking” with Thoreau this morning. I did most of the talking but I could see him nod his head now and that left me with the feeling that we were in contact.
What caught my attention was his statement, “There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root." That is so true. Thoreau was writing more than a century ago, so it appears that our old world has not made much progress since then. In fact, it hasn’t moved very far since the beginning of human history. Scripture tells us that the first person naturally born murdered his own brother.
Thoreau sees the problem of people trying to solve the problems of life by focussing on results (the branches) rather than cause (the root). But the branches at which they are ”hacking” are not the problem; the problem is the root. To expand the metaphor, branches removed makes no difference to the root. You can hack them all day long but the problem is not there, it is much deeper, in the root. You can’t win the war against evil by fighting its results. We talk about “going to the root of the problem” and that is exactly what is needed in the case of every expression of evil.
Let’s see how this metaphorical statement throws light on how we should deal with evil in our world. It would imply that a basic mistake is to hack away at the branches. For instance we are inclined to think that if our neighbor would only understood how disturbing their barking dog is that that would sove the problem. Well, that could lead to the end of the barking, but is does nothing to take care of why the dog was allowed to bother the neighborhood in the first place (“that’s the root”). Or a nation, after severe reprimand from the UN stops its prodcution of chemical gasses only to build an atomc arsenal. Denial of one form of evil doesn’t solve the underlying problem.
There is only one effective answer for evil in this world and that is to do away with the root. And that is exactly what God did in sending his incarnate Son to pay the price on Calvary for our sin. That’s how our loving God took care of that evil root. As the old hymn has it, “Our hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.” It remains for us, as believers, to grasp what God has done (defeated the “root” on Calvary) and take from him the strength to handle the problems of the withering branches.
Robert H Mounce