“Tell them, ‘As sure as I am the living God, I take no pleasure from the death of the wicked. I want the wicked to change their ways and live.
Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them; they don’t know what they’re doing.”
"Look who’s laughing now!”
How many times have we heard that phrase near the end of an action-adventure movie as the villain is destroyed and the hero stands above him with a huge smile on his face? This is the moment of victory: order is restored.
It’s amazing how hardwired we are to enjoy a good revenge story, or to see someone get "what’s coming to them.” I’d rather not admit it, but I’ve watched my share of videos where people attempt stupid things and end up flipping on their heads. Or they cannonball into a lake that they don’t realize is actually frozen over (HOW DID SHE NOT NOTICE???). And it makes me laugh. Why is it so enjoyable to watch someone experience bad consequences? That’s sort of, well…. off.
We enjoy watching others suffer, especially if it’s entertaining or if we think they deserve it. Ask my wife and kids. Every single time I stub my toe or slip down the stairs, they think it’s absolutely hilarious. Forgive them, father for they know not what they do!
Ok, maybe that is pretty funny. But at least wait to see if I’m ok first!!!
No, what I’m really talking about is how an attitude of satisfaction at retribution has become normalized in our world, and in our hearts.
Maybe this is why our justice system focuses so much on punishing people more than rehabilitating them. Maybe this is why the talking point is rarely about helping the person that’s been wronged, but rather making sure that the perpetrator “gets what’s coming to them.”
And it goes beyond systems and into our daily interactions as well.
We’re in the midst of yet another season of very strong opinions about what and who is evil. The culture of disdain is palpable, and people eagerly await the chance to celebrate the downfall of their adversaries. I’ve heard people say that they hope that those who aren’t taking the pandemic seriously contract COVID-19 and get hurt. I’ve also heard people say that teachers who are not comfortable teaching in person right now deserve to lose their jobs. And both attitudes seem to gain some sense of enjoyment out of thinking about those realities coming to pass. Yuck.
The pesky and loving voice of Jesus means that we have to learn to ask the question, what might a Christlike response look like instead?
There are a lot of facets to this, but today I’m thinking more about how this affects the interior of our souls. Understanding God’s heart in this area will inevitably affect ours.
Ezekiel prophesied that God is not bent on revenge, contradicting common assumptions of what all the gods were about during his era.
Jesus took it further. He looked at people who were killing him… killing God…..killing the only sinless one to ever live…. and asked the father not to be too harsh on them, because they just didn’t have the whole story.
Paul famously reminded the early church that if it’s got flesh and blood, it’s not your enemy. Nobody is beyond redemption. Everyone is created in God’s image. That means that while we may find people’s behavior wrong or unacceptable (and worth resisting) we still need to understand that the potential for evil is in every human heart, and everyone is worth offering compassion to… even if they don’t offer the same courtesy to others.
That, my friends, is countercultural.
I find it profound to think that God doesn’t delight in bad things happening to “bad people.” We can cherry pick verses out of the Old Testament to rebut this, of course, but the movement in the biblical narrative and its culmination in Jesus tell a different story.
This week, I’m asking Jesus to do good and wonderful things in the lives of those who I think are doing wrong. I’m choosing to remember that Jesus is for people. I’m praying that God changes hearts, for sure. Starting, as usual, with mine.
Jesus, give me eyes of love and compassion to look on everyone today.
But everything exposed by the light becomes visible—and everything that is illuminated becomes a light.
I think I could start every reflection with an anecdote from Doctor Who, my favorite British television series, but that might be gratuitous, so we'll just do one. My wife and I are rewatching some of the early seasons with our boys right now, and it’s fun to see them experience the sci-fi twists and turns for the first time. Last week’s episode was a suspense thriller taking place in an abandoned library. A group of alien organisms called the Vashta Nerada had destroyed all human life, so the Doctor and his companion come to work with archaeologists to save the day. The tricky part? Vashta Nerada are virtually invisible, made up of the stuff of shadows. Stay in the light and you’re fine. but the problem is, even in light, everyone has a shadow. And throughout the episode in the library, various explorers noticed that they had inexplicably gained an extra shadow. And if you had more than one shadow...well, not even a high tech suit can save from becoming a skeleton a few moments later.
Sleep well tonight!
So shadows got me thinking. I've been pondering ego more and more lately. Ego is the part of us that pushes our need for value. It’s not all bad, but until we reach real maturity, the way we pursue significance will usually involve self-promotion, self-protection, and pride.
Richard Rohr describes the ego as "that part of the self that wants to be significant, central, and important by itself, apart from anybody else. It wants to be both separate and superior. It is defended and self-protective by its very nature."
The negative part of our ego lurks just behind us, like a shadow. It is connected to us and looks a bit like us, but doesn’t contain the real substance of our souls. The ego often attempts to hide what is real in order to externally convey something impressive. It is not our truest selves. Like a shadow, it stays small when we remain in the light. But when light gets dim, the ego grows and expands and threatens to destroy who Jesus intends us to be.
In Matthew 23 Jesus speaks of the ego as the actor, often translated "hypocrite”, that lurks within the human soul. Jesus is harsh toward the religious leaders not because of sins of weakness, but precisely because Pharisees presented an air of sinlessness while simultaneously projecting their own sins onto others and judging them for it. Sometimes this is intentional; other times it's simply lack of self awareness. But the refusal to face our shadows is the perfect atmosphere for darkness and evil to grow in us. That’s why Jesus says that those who “exult themselves will be humbled but those who are humble will be exalted” (23:12).
Maybe this is why Jesus’ beef is never really against weakness (think of how compassionate he is to his disciples in the garden when they are weak), but against the ego that drives judgment, manipulation, and control over others. Our egocentricity is where the real evil lies.
Ego has always been one of the most destructive forces on the planet, but it has become more noticeable than ever to me in recent years. Of course, sometimes it’s obvious and easy to spot, but other times it’s elusive, almost imperceptible to the naked eye. It’s in the shadows, lurking behind our actions and attitudes. It pushes us to be arrogant in disagreements, selfish in our decision making, and unreflective during our struggles. And sheesh, when this shadow gets a hold of you, it leaves a path of destruction, and you’re lucky to make it out alive.
Sometimes we work so hard protecting our egos that we can’t receive any difficult truths about ourselves. And when this happens, we can’t be transformed. We also can’t experience the beauty of shadowed things in our lives being exposed to light and becoming redeemed (see the Ephesians passage above).
Ignoring our growing shadows will lead to the destruction of our true selves. We have to notice them there, and keep them well lit.
And that is exactly what Jesus does. He lights things up. He helps us be unafraid of our shadows so that we can name them, talk about them, and take away their power. Jesus is light. When we expose our egos to Jesus, we find in God our truest sense of significance, and learn to be ok living in our own skin without pretense (yet always desiring to keep moving toward holiness). We no longer have to seek out significance in damaging ways. We can simply walk forward as God’s beloved.
Today, don’t be afraid to notice the role your ego plays in your thoughts and interactions. Where are you quickly defensive or easily offended? Talk with a friend about it. Sit with Jesus in prayer about it. Be freed from the need to impress, and enjoy the good news that light casts out darkness.
Jesus, give me courage to be the person you created me to be with you and others today.
If we claim to have no sin, we are only fooling ourselves and not living in the truth. But if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from everything we’ve done wrong.
-1 John 1:9
I don’t know why, but I’ve been thinking a lot about confession lately. Maybe it’s because when the ugliness of our world rears its head, the ugliness inside of me swells up too. Can you relate? In our exhaustion and frustration, we are tempted in many ways. We face what the New Testament writers described as struggles of “the flesh.” They're talking about moments when our selfishness takes over. Moments when pride, shame, self-righteousness, sexual temptation, greed, laziness, a critical spirit, and other stuff like that rises up and does some damage in us and others.
This battle is a part of life. In John’s first letter, he says that if anyone says they don’t mess up, they are liars. I’m inclined to believe John from firsthand experience.
The early church regarded confession as the means by which God brings us back onto the path of life. Following the scriptures, they entrusted their mistakes to God, and trusted God’s lavish grace to restore and renew them daily.
Unfortunately, confession today often carries a lot of baggage because 1) we live in a culture where admitting we’re wrong is a sign of weakness and 2) confession has been forced upon people in guilt-tripping, damaging ways.
But it doesn’t need to be like that.
When we confess the areas that we miss the mark, we open ourselves up to the regular reminder of the grace of God available to us. The grace that tastes like honey. The grace that turned the world upside down when Jesus died unjustly but refused to take revenge on humanity. The grace that sets Christian faith apart from any other religious movement. This grace is a pleasure to experience, because grace can only be received as a gift. It cannot be grabbed or stolen out of pride or selfishness. It is only when we acknowledge that pride and selfishness often dominate our thoughts that we actually move beyond guilt and into grace.
To simplify: When we say we’re guilty, we get the pleasure of grace.
Well there’s a paradox to think about when you lie awake at night. Is grace a guilty pleasure?
A few weeks ago during our few minutes of zoom prayer we have every weekday, a brother prayed a prayer of confession, humbly acknowledging how he misses the point regularly. As I prayed along, I had this incredible experience of joy…. odd, right? But his openness to confess brought out this desire in me to say,
Yes, me too, God! I’m in need too!
Why is admitting our weakness so countercultural? Why aren’t we doing this more often as a practice in spiritual, mental, and emotional health? Maybe confession is not a guilty pleasure at all. Guilty pleasures are things that we don’t like to admit to others, like how I binge watched two full seasons of Scream Queens with Bethany during quarantine. The joy of God’s grace intersecting our imperfect lives is not embarrassing, but exhilarating. Maybe we should be shouting it from the mountain tops.
True confession is not the addition of, but the release of the soul-ravaging power of guilt and shame crushing our spirits. We are not made to live in guilt or be guilt-tripped. We are not made for worm theology, of calling ourselves such miserable worthless peons that we can’t possibly imagine God loving us. If we can’t imagine God loving anyone as miserable as us, we have yet to fully understand the character of God.
No, simply by God loving us, we have proof that God has determined that we are indeed worthy of his love. Therefore, living in guilt doesn’t do a thing. For more information, read the New Testament.
But admitting that we are wrong sometimes…. admitting that we need Jesus in our lives? Somehow that is what we’re made for. That changes our outlook. It’s a rejoining of the union we were created for.
I think we need to reclaim the power of confession, and perhaps reframe it. I’m aware that many of my friends, both Catholic and otherwise, have shared that even using the word confession triggers feelings of a faith built on feeling bad about themselves. I get that. But it’s time to allow confessional sorrow to give way to grace-filled pleasure. I can think of nothing more freeing than admitting that I want the God of grace in my life each moment that I mess up. I want the pleasure of walking forward realizing that my past mistakes do not determine my future path. I want the pleasure of remembering that the burdens I carry may be laid down as frequently as I am willing to bring them to Christ, and I want the joy of heading out on a new journey each day to love the world with reckless abandon because I literally have nothing to lose. I’ve already had my soul laid bare with all my shortcomings and been told that I’m still worth dying for. It’s just that I forget that all the time.
Go ahead. Confess your sin. And go ahead, receive grace. You might be amazed at how good it feels.
Jesus, I want to delight in your grace touching my imperfect life today. I receive it.
Let us hold tightly without wavering to the hope we affirm, for God can be trusted to keep his promise. Let us think of ways to motivate one another to acts of love and good works. And let us not neglect our meeting together, as some people do, but encourage one another, especially now that the day of his return is drawing near.
This week is going to be very honest. And I think honesty is what we’re going for these days.
I have a lot of moments where I feel the emptiness right now. Days where the sense of exhaustion is pervasive and creativity feels stunted. I grow weary of the endless sharing of opinions on digital media and I pull inward, knowing that every decision made these days is bound to make a number of people unhappy.
Movement feels hard, and even as a people person, I start to feel like I just want to be alone.
What an excellent attitude for a pastor to have! (Read in sarcastic tone.)
If this is how I’m feeling as extrovert that normally loves being with people and taking initiative, I can’t imagine how a lot of folks in our population are feeling.
Isolation has become normal. Sure, we may interact with people through our jobs, but most everything outside of that has been shaved down to the bare minimum or nothing at all. And even when we interact with people, it can be so complicated on so many levels that it’s just easier to not try. There’s a cyclical nature to isolation. The more removed we are, the harder it is to move toward relationships. Inertia sets in. I’m hearing that from many of you, and believe me, I get it.
Good thing we have facebook, twitter, and instagram for connection! What could possibly go wrong?
Do we even need other people anymore? I’m glad I asked. Let’s talk about it.
Living a reflective life is crucially important. Taking time in the wilderness alone with Jesus is necessary to do the heart work inside of us that needs to be done. But...
But it’s possible to start walking circles in the wilderness. It’s possible to get lost in our heads and in our isolation and in our never-wrong opinions. It’s possible to stew, to spiral, to become so stuck in our internal monologues that we start to think we don’t need other people that much. It’s possible to feel just enough connection through our screened-in lives that we call it adequate. Or maybe we know we need relationships, but beyond family, it just feels too difficult to get motivated to reach out. The problem is that in arriving at that spot, we may just lose the ability to be disciples. Here’s a statement that will be true every day of your life: you can’t become like Jesus if you don’t have people to really practice love with.
The writer of Hebrews tells the young church that they have a calling to motivate each other to love and good works. We need to be in real connection with brothers and sisters in Christ these days, because that’s how we stay motivated to keep acting compassionately and beautifully in the world. The writer also tells them that they need to keep being together so that there is opportunity for encouragement. Something happens with direct human interaction that nothing else can accomplish the same way. It’s infinitely valuable for encouragement. Yes, digital media can be used to encourage each other. And yes, it is complicated in the COVID-19 era to figure out how to have responsible meaningful human interaction. But let’s fight to keep our humanity, friends. It’s getting easier to withdraw emotionally, and miss out on mutual motivation and encouragement.
Today I was working alone in the large school room that our church gathers in. While writing this reflection, my dear friend José, who works down the hallway, dropped in on me to say hi. We spent a few minutes talking (masks and all) about the challenge of leadership and creativity, the calling of Jesus, and the complicated task of creating forward movement. He asked me great questions and reminded me that we are in this thing together. Ten minutes later I was both encouraged and motivated toward acts of love and good works. Hey folks, church actually works. (Also, what a guy!)
This Hebrews passage is not about “going to church” in a traditional way, as some people have narrowly interpreted it. Jesus created the church so that people could grow a movement together of loving God and loving others for God's kingdom. It’s our task to creatively participate in that in new ways right now. It’s our job to keep showing up for each other, however that looks.
So here’s the bold ask. If you’re feeling what I’ve been feeling, make the hard move. Give somebody a call and talk with them on the phone. Or invite someone for a walk and conversation if you feel comfortable. Go beyond complaining about our political system or critiquing how everyone’s dealing with COVID-19. Pray together. Motivate each other toward love and good works, and encourage each other as you do. The current reality is too heavy of a load to bear alone. We need to stop trying.
Jesus, help me make one move toward healthy relationships today.