Seeking God First
During the downward spiral of Israel in the Old Testament book of Judges, there is an ever-apparent theme that propels the main dialogue: Yahweh commands his people to destroy every nation in the Promise Land, and much to their demise, they failed to obey. This led to an assimilated people who viewed Yahweh as a “war god”, amidst a melting pot of gods from the surrounding nations. In Yahweh’s New Covenant, we see the paradigm shift from destroying nations that are not Israelite, to living peaceably within our own communities. Early Christians were told to live in the world but not let the world affect their primary goal of seeking the kingdom of God.
How do we accomplish this without compromising our faith? How can we be active in our community without compromising the deep tension that must be maintained between the church and the world surrounding it? Seeking the kingdom of God within our community can be difficult, but we are commanded to do it. Over the next few weeks, articles will reflect ways in which we can be effective as kingdom citizens in our communities.
Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us. – 1 Peter 2:11-12
I love this verse because the apostle Peter, inspired by the Holy Spirit, perfectly provides us the balance in our lives of connecting to the community without conforming.
We are aliens. Peter is speaking to Greeks—those who have a deep tie to the community in which they live. He is telling them that when you become a Christian, you become foreigners to your country. Why is Peter telling us to become a different species? It is because Christians become counter-cultural. In the context of this verse, Peter has identified Christians as “a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession” (2:9). They are a holy or sanctified people. There is something drastically different from Christians in comparison to the world in which they live. Think about the religious culture in which early Christians lived in. The Greeks were pagans—polytheists, believing in multiple gods, while Christians believed in Jesus as the only way to salvation. The world had never seen such a radical change in religion. Since its conception, Christianity calls for its followers to become a category busting people who do not fit in any culture. We are separate. We are holy. We are aliens.
But we are resident aliens. Peter describes a balanced life that we crave. This letter was written to exiles that were under immense persecution. Peter is writing this letter to encourage them to continue as aliens even under accusations of doing wrong. He wants them to continue to live in the culture, but be a foreigner – a resident alien. He urges them to live in a way so that those in their community will one day see the good they are doing, all for the glory of God. This echoes the same language that Peter was given from our Lord when He said that we are the light of the world, a city on a hill that cannot be hidden (Matthew 5:14). We must be aliens but we must reside within in our communities and have a profound impact on those who are part of it. We are going to be accused of wrong doing as an alien in our community, but we must be gracious, serve, and be different in a manner that will bolster the glory of God. What a phenomenal task put before us! So, how is this accomplished?
Align yourself with the Chief Cornerstone. According to Peter (1 Peter 2:4-8), Jesus was the chief cornerstone, however, he was ultimately rejected by men, seen as a foreigner, an alien, an exile. The cornerstone of a building provides the beginning surface in which the whole construction site is built upon. If it is solid, the building is solid, but if the cornerstone is misaligned, the building is shaky at best. If we join, as a living stone, with Christ being our cornerstone, he provides us with the strength to reside in our community as a resident alien, because he did it perfectly. John states in his gospel that Jesus became man and made his dwelling among us (John 1:14). Even under painful rejection and alienation, He literally “tabernacled” with mankind to show us how to live in our community. Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in His steps (1 Peter 2:20).
Over the next two weeks, we will examine our Lord and how he interacted with His community. How was he able to be an alien but also perfectly “tabernacle” and provide such a profound influence in His community? I write these articles with much trepidation, because this is personally challenging for me to implement in my life. But then, what more can we do than align ourselves with King Jesus?
It’s interesting that I sit down to write a piece on forgiveness. I feel perhaps least qualified to compel others to be forgiving when I struggle mightily with this concept 1) as a sinful being, and 2) in need of finding forgiveness toward past transgressions…but we come “to knowledge of salvation by the experience of forgiveness” (Luke 1:77). In the eyes of God one is hard pressed not to see one’s self as ordinary, imperfect, and well disappointing. Maybe it’s also the struggle to forgive our own selfish view of what we think God to be. Much of life and sense of self involves feeling successful, feeling prideful and in terms of forgiveness it is much easier or natural to hold on to something rather than letting it go. However, the very nature of our faith hinges on God’s forgiveness. His holding on to us in spite of our resistance of letting go.
Generally speaking, most of our historical, political, and social lives are clouded by wars and violence. Is it any surprise that we lack the skill of forgiveness from national, cultural, and religious points of view? The individual and societal view of fairness leads us right into conflict. Authentic faith though is always on some level or in some way about letting go. Jesus said, “the truth will set you free” (John 8:32). Upon discovering what traps us and what keeps us from freedom it’s easy see how integral forgiveness becomes to this process.
The Gospel clearly states that following Jesus is a narrow gate (Matthew 7:13-14). Additionally, forgiveness is a central theme of the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13). There is a clear connection between God’s forgiveness of us and in turn our forgiveness of others. Maybe the best interpretation (albeit many exist) comes from the perspective that God’s forgiveness cannot be merited, only responded to. But clearly, there is a connection in the petition between our experience of God’s forgiveness and our attitude towards others. In teasing this out it is suggested that human forgiveness be seen as a reflection of the divine forgiveness, an intrinsic part of God’s character.
In translation or correlation to daily living maybe it comes down to this: a faith grounded in the Divine means personal transformation that involves owning our wounds to the point that we do not hand them down to next generations. Or, as Paul writes in Colossians 1:24, “Now I rejoice in what I am suffering for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church.”
Recently, we have mourned for the great losses in Orlando and for a battle that has been waged overseas that is now on American soil. What purpose did these acts serve? What has been accomplished by this? We live in a world that is filled with all kinds of senseless acts and evil. Not so long ago, we remember the Paris attacks, 9/11 and the Twin Towers, the Oklahoma City bombing, and the standoff in Waco, TX. There is a lot of evil that has occurred in the last couple of decades, and this list is not even complete. Maybe these events didn’t affect you directly. What if it was something a little closer to home? Maybe it was the sudden loss of a family member or the terminal illness of one close to you? Maybe it was the loss of a child’s life or a child making the wrong decisions that affected the rest of their lives? Perhaps, no matter how hard you try, your career and/or finances keep failing and to no fault of your own? There are myriads of examples to show the evil in this world. When these events happen in our life we begin to ask, “Why? Why ME? Why not…? What has happened?!”
Living in a world filled with all of this evil and suffering, we see the flaws and imperfections of it. Though we may never know all the reasons, we do know that that is the long term result of sin and Satan’s influence. He is named as the “ruler of this world” in John 12:31, and the world lies somewhat within his power of influence (I John 5:19). Satan is busy at work in the world sowing evil and watching as people fall prey to his traps. The world is imperfect, and as people, we are imperfect having sinned and fallen short of God’s glory (Romans 3:23). He is seeking and hunting to find our weaknesses that will cause us to forsake the Lord; for some it may be discouragement from tragedy upon tragedy, for some it may be pride in their own accomplishments in comparison to others, for some if may be the false sense of comfort resulting in apathy, and for others it may be the loneliness or despair with which Satan isolates us. The trouble and conflict in the world happen due to Satan’s influences, the decisions of those around us, and when we are drawn away by our own lusts (James 1:14).
With all of this tragedy and sadness that is beyond repair, it can cause us to despair. We ask, “What can I do?” First of all, we are given the solution, and the answer in Christ Jesus. As an example, He did not sin (1 Peter 2:22), and though I will fall, I can look to His example of how to handle the challenges of life and the mountains of adversity. Secondly, God listens to the prayers of His children and helps them. What a great gift to be able to talk directly to our Heavenly Father. Psalm 55:22 says, “Cast your burden on the Lord, and He will sustain you; He will never permit the righteous to be moved.” What a great relief to think about giving my burden to someone else, someone who wants to carry it for me! Paul tells us to pray without ceasing, and to let all worries and cares be known to God (1Thessalonians 5:14, Philippians 4:6). God is in control (Isaiah 41:10); God loves His children (John 3:16), and God will do what is best for us if we seek Him (Luke 11:9-13). We must pray to God, submit to His will, and know that His ways are best. As one author put it, “If God says ‘no,’ to something in your best interest, do you really want it for yourself anyway?”
While we are in the world, we are not OF the world (John 17:16). Sometimes, we need to change our perspective. Instead of focusing on what I don’t have, what I want, or where I think I should be, we should focus on others. The greatest human ever to walk this earth lived a life of service in spite of the power He wielded which He could have used to profit for Himself. Jesus knew He would have to die for us because of our sin, but He still served the people while He lived on earth. He healed the sick, pleaded with those who were hard-hearted, and washed His disciples feet (even Judas who would betray Him) to show us that we need to be more focused on serving others (Mark 10:45). “Each of you should not only look to your own interests, but the interests of others.” (Philippians 2:4) Again, in Romans 15:1, Paul tells the Christians that the strong should hold up those who are weaker. The truth of the matter is that each of us is facing our own challenges, fighting our own battles, and mourning our losses.
With a world that is filled with so much evil and disappointment, we have not been abandoned, and we are not alone. We have been given the words of Jesus and His disciples to make a difference (2 Timothy 3:17). The hope we have is not in this world (1 John 2:17). Our hope comes from knowing there is something better waiting for us in Paradise (Luke 23:43). In Heaven, there are no tears and no sorrows (Revelation 21). The tragedies of this world will pass away. What a great hope to think that these imperfections are only temporary! As imperfect people living in an imperfect world, let us all strive for the perfection waiting for us.
“Pride goes before destruction and a haughty spirit before the fall.” Proverbs 16:18
In the scriptures, there are some passages that are so universally respected that they are known to non-believers and believers alike. Proverbs 16:18 is such a passage.
For most of us, pride is a sin we can easily ascribe to others. Pride is easy to diagnose from far away, but up close it becomes more difficult to see clearly. One reason we fail to see pride in our own lives is because we are looking only for the most obvious expressions of it. Let’s consider what everyday pride looks like and how it holds people back from serving God.
Pride keeps me from evangelizing. More often than a feeling of superiority, it’s the feeling of fear that keeps me from evangelizing to the lost. That fear comes in several forms: a fear of rejection, a fear of failure, a fear of inadequacy, a fear of making a mistake. We may see fear as being the root cause of the problem, but what we are experiencing is the effect of pride.
Bob Dylan once sang, “When you ain’t got nothing you got nothing to lose.” The humble Christian who is unconcerned about reputation will evangelize freely and openly to anyone who will listen. Unfortunately many Christians hold back because they are worried about their reputation. They don’t want to be seen as the office bible thumper, or they worry about making a mistake and sounding like a fool. When we over value our reputation, we believe we have much to lose in evangelizing.
Rejection, which is the most typical reaction to the gospel, is a blow to the ego of the one spreading the message. But Jesus never saw it that way. In Luke 10:16 he told his apostles, “The one who hears you hears me, and the one who rejects you rejects me, and the one who rejects me rejects him who sent me.” The reaction to the gospel has very little to do with us, regardless of whether it is accepted or rejected. The parable of the sower teaches us that it neither the sower nor the seed, but the ground that decides the fate of the gospel message.
Pride keeps me unforgiven. In 2 Chronicles 7 Solomon has finished building the temple. The night before it is to be dedicated to the Lord, God appeared to Solomon in a dream saying when the people are being punished they can seek forgiveness from God and he will relent. Seeking God’s forgiveness begins with abandoning our pride. God said in verse fourteen of that chapter, “if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land.”
In modern times pride still is a barrier to our forgiveness. It keeps me from admitting I’m wrong to others and to God. Even when I know that I’ve sinned or wronged another, pride keeps me silent because I want to avoid the shame that comes with everyone knowing my shortcomings. It’s an irrational fear. Everyone is well aware that I am imperfect. It doesn’t take me admitting a wrong to reveal that.
Pride keeps me in the pack. Conformity is a natural desire. We often think of the danger of wanting to “fit-in” as a particular problem for young people, but conformity is a temptation for all God’s children. When God commanded the Israelites to destroy the inhabitants of the Promised Land it wasn’t for spite or punishment. It was because God knew the Israelites would struggle to maintain their identity as a peculiar, monotheistic people. No surprise, God proved to be correct. Young people do face intense pressure to conform to the behavior of their peers, but adults face the same.
Christians would do well to realize the purpose of our sanctification. Like Isaiah in Isaiah 6:1-5, we should be dissatisfied with life on earth. Living among those who embrace sin should cause a longing in us to be in a better place. We should then aspire to be in heaven with our Father where there is no sin, no sickness, no death or pain. To achieve this, our conformity must be to the image of Christ, not to the ways of the world.
Pride keeps me in the pew. Week after week, would-be-Christians stand in their place in their pew and sing along with a song of encouragement. Services are closed and the would-be-Christian goes home in the same spiritual state in which he arrived. The heart is convinced of its sin and the would-be-Christian knows what is necessary to be saved from it. What then keeps the sinner away from the forgiveness that awaits him? Often it is pride.
When someone obeys the gospel, it is an admission that they need God’s forgiveness for sin. That person, at that moment, is revealing the scars caused by their sin. Perhaps more daunting for the would-be-Christian is admitting that for all this time they’ve been wrong. They sought salvation in some other way, they were convinced by a false teacher, and they feel like a fool. How sad would it be to know the truth, to believe it whole-heartedly, but to refuse salvation because of pride? If pride has stood between you and God, make the decision today to put pride in its place. Choose to serve God.