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Wailing Unto God

wail

A while back there was a video clip making the rounds. It is footage of a man who is being confronted by friends and family on the A&E show “Intervention”. After one member of the family reaffirms his love, the addict lets out a wail from the very depths of his soul. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ee925OTFBCA (Kleenex alert)

Some people shared this video as a joke; finding humor in the rawness of his emotional response. I saw something different. I saw a lesson on how we should respond to God’s unimaginable love and forgiveness. Consider what is heard as the man cries out:

It is a wail of shame and regret for past sins, hurts, and disappointments.

It is a wail of disbelief that one who has been so injured by his selfishness could offer forgiveness and love instead of bitterness and anger.

It is a wail of gratitude at being given a second chance to make up for past mistakes.

It is a wail of joy over the power of stubborn love and reconciliation.

His cry is our cry to God over our sin, of our repentance, of our relief, of our reconciliation, of our joy, of our long-sought-after peace.

This video shows the power of love which intervenes when we are unwilling or unable to do so.

The cross was our intervention; God’s refusal to hate us or let us continue to be dead to Him. It was God doing for us what we never had the strength or will to do for ourselves.

“But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8 NKJV).

Let us cry out to God from deep in our soul and show our gratitude for his stubborn and healing love.

Jesus the Preacher: Warm Fuzzies or Fire and Brimstone?

Article I wrote for StrongChurch (http://www.strongchurch.org/jesus-the-preacher-warm-fuzzies-or-fire-and-brimstone/)

It was Paul, not Jesus, who told us to season our speech with salt (Colossians 4:6). Our words must be tasty if the world is going to receive them, but we must never compromise the truth for the sake of flavor. Everyone has experienced food (and language!) which was too salty and, therefore, unpleasant. However, Jesus practiced Paul’s exhortation in His own preaching. There was a balance between positive, feel-good messages and warnings of judgment urging repentance. Sometimes the message was very easy to swallow and other times the audience choked on the sharpness of the “salty” rebuke.jesus-angry

Some preachers have made the assertion that Jesus preached more about hell than heaven. Conversely, detractors of modern Christianity have claimed that Jesus only preached love, acceptance, and peace during His ministry while those claiming to follow Jesus today spout messages of division, hatred, and bigotry. What do the gospel accounts actually say? Was the preaching of Jesus generally more positive or negative in tone? Was Jesus more like Joel Osteen spreading a gospel of joy and self-affirmation or was His message more like Jonathan Edwards preaching “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”? The only way to determine the answer is to go verse-by-verse through Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John counting the statements which could be classified as either positive or negative in tone.  So that is what I decided to do. Armed with a pink marker for positive, happy, uplifting statements and a blue marker for negative, rebuking, condemning statements, I began reading in Matthew 1:1.

Criteria

The methods for this exercise need to be explained. How best to make this determination about tone? First, only direct statements by Jesus have been considered. Second, asking questions about the verse or passage is helpful. Was He focusing on God’s love or His wrath? Was Jesus endorsing the attitudes of His audience or rebuking them? Was the Lord encouraging His listeners to continue their current lifestyle with His approval or was He urging them to repent? Was He polite to His critics or calling them out harshly? Was His message designed to make hearers feel good about themselves or drive them to understand their sin and need for God’s mercy? Were Christ’s words received gladly by His audience or did they provoke the crowd to anger or sorrow? The reaction of the listeners often reveals the perceived tone of Jesus’ words and I have used their reaction to determine the tone of the statement. Some verses contain positive and negative messages (Mark 16:16 for example) and have been counted as both.  My judgment and classification is admittedly subjective, so I generously added a 10% margin for error and took the high side in favor of the positive tone. The gospel is, after all, the “good news.”

Results

In the gospel of Matthew, there were 251 verses found to have a discernible positive or negative tone (in the author’s estimation). Of those, 61 were seen as positive (24%) and 190 were viewed as negative (76%). Applying the 10% margin for error (on the positive side) yields results that show the preaching of Jesus in Matthew was 34% positive and 66% negative. In Mark’s gospel, 31 out of 132 verses (23%) were positive while 101 (77%) were negative. Thus, Mark’s gospel reveals Christ’s tone as 33% positive and 67% negative. The gospel of Luke shows a trending toward the positive with 92 verses out of 236 (39%) having a positive tone as opposed to 144 verses (61%) coming across negatively. The margin for error puts Luke’s gospel nearly in balance at 49% positive and 51% negative. Counting through John’s gospel finds 89 out of 158 verses (56%) as positive while only 69 verses (44%) display negativity. Applying the margin for error makes John the only one of the four gospels that is more positive in tone and markedly so at 66% positive to 34% negative. So what conclusions may be drawn from this exercise?highlighted_bible

Analysis

It seems clear from the data that the preaching of Jesus was not primarily affirmative in tone as some allege. Matthew’s gospel shows Christ’s message to be one-third positive in tone and two-thirds negative. The same 2:1 ratio seen in Matthew is also found in Mark showing twice as many negative verses as positive ones. This is even more remarkable because Mark’s gospel is much shorter than Matthew. Mark’s gospel has a characteristic bluntness to it and the word “immediately” is an important theme. It hints that Jesus was not concerned with mincing words or tickling ears with such an important message. Luke showed a nearly equal use of positive and negative tone. This is significant because Luke contains many long teaching discourses spoken by Jesus. It may, therefore, be a more accurate estimation of the overall tone of Jesus in His public preaching. John is sometimes referred to as the “apostle of love” perhaps more due to his epistles rather than his gospel. It is worth remembering, however, that it was this same John (along with his brother James) who asked for Jesus’ permission to call down fire upon the Samaritans who had rejected the Lord’s teaching (Luke 9:54) thus earning them both the nickname “sons of thunder” (Mark 3:17 NASB). John seems to have learned the importance of maintaining balance as well!

Pink and blue highlighting often appears together and the text rapidly shifts from one tone to the other. There are some interesting juxtapositions. Contrast the soaring love of John 3:16 with the stern rebuke of those using darkness as a cloak for their wickedness in 3:18-20. These factors may affect or even guide our own personal study.

Application

It is fascinating to consider that we, with the benefit of the full revelation of God’s plan, may interpret the words of Jesus quite differently than the original audience. When Jesus told Nicodemus one must be born again of water and spirit, the poor man was utterly confused. We have a much better idea of what the Lord meant. Peter was absolutely scandalized when Jesus foretold of His suffering and death in Matthew 16:22. We would tell him, “Settle down, Peter, it will be a good thing!” When we are tempted to think to ourselves, “How did they not see that?” perhaps we should cut them a little slack. We know many things they did not.

Knowing the tone of the gospels may be helpful not just in our own study, but in efforts to evangelize others. If someone is very depressed and needing hope, it may be wise to recommend they read the gospel of John and be lifted up by its positive tone. Maybe a person is at that rock-bottom point where sin has left them adrift and aimless; stuck in neutral.  Perhaps they would benefit from the blunt wakeup call of Mark’s gospel to slap them in the face and get them moving toward God.

A troubling reality is that this entire study is based upon a fundamental flaw: that a message must be either positive or negative. It is often both. Indeed, it must be both. The gospel must be bad news before it can be good news. Romans 6:23 exemplifies this two-part message: “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (NASB). Sinners must be confronted with their sin and the danger of judgment before they will be compelled to avoid that judgment by seeking a remedy for their sin.

The whole message of truth (Acts 20:27) must have a little bite to it. False pleasantries such as, “We are all going to heaven by different roads,” “Hell does not exist,” and the so-called “Sinner’s Prayer” contain only the sweet, sugary taste of theological candy. Truth has a bit of salt in it. That is one way to tell sound doctrine from wishful thinking.

It seems the popular notion that Jesus never condemned anyone and only preached positive, uplifting messages is proven false by examining the gospel record. It goes too far, however, to characterize Jesus as a “fire and brimstone” preacher. Certainly He preached about the danger and reality of hell, but only to encourage sinners to escape it. The underlying message was ultimately one of love, hope, and deliverance. Too many today perceive scriptural admonition as an act of intolerance and hatred. What they fail to appreciate is that Christians are compelled to share the whole counsel of God out of love for souls, not hatred. Allowing our neighbor to be condemned to an eternity of darkness just because we fear our efforts may be received in a negative way—THAT would be an act of hatred.

What Love Does (and Doesn’t)

I was discussing marriage with some friends recently, and I mentioned a simple but powerful exercise I sometimes use in marriage counseling. I have couples read Paul’s great little treatise on love in 1st Corinthians 13:4-8 “Love suffers long [is patient] and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails” (NKJV). I tell the couple that this is what love does. It is an action, a choice, not merely an emotion. Then I say that since this is the standard of how we should be loving one another (especially our spouse), try substituting your name every time you see the word “love.” The passage takes on a new meaning. The goal is to live our life and love others so that all those statements are true. I hadn’t done that exercise myself in a while, so I began to go through it.businessman-looking-in-mirror

“Rob is patient.”

Ouch. Really Paul? We have to start there? I couldn’t get past #1 due to my wife’s laughter. Or maybe it would be because of the pained look on her face. Either way, I start the exercise with a big ole goose-egg. “Rob is kind.” OK, I think I do pretty well at this most times. Would my wife and kids agree? My co-worker? My cashier? Go down the list and see which sore spots of yours get poked. I guarantee you will find them in there. I overheard a man tell a preacher once that his sermon had poked him in a sore spot. The preacher, a very compassionate and wise man, gently replied, “Brother, if I may ask, why is that spot sore?” Likely because we already know we have a weakness there. Continue down the list and see where you are coming up short: jealousy, pride, cynicism, etc. I’ll bet few would even muster a passing grade if we’re being honest. “Well thanks, Rob, for making me feel lousy about myself.” Hey, blame Paul, he started it!

The point is not to make anyone depressed, but to challenge us to a higher standard. It is a pretty tall order, but I do know of one Man who was able to do it. Jesus Christ. Substitute His name for “love” and every word is true.

“Jesus is patient” with me when I fail and stumble into sin again. And again. “Jesus is kind.” No one has ever been kinder. “Jesus does not envy.” Of whom does He have to be jealous? “Jesus does not parade Himself and is not puffed up.” He didn’t come to earth to win fans and fill stadiums. He came to save souls by dying a humiliating death. “Jesus does not behave rudely.” Even when rebuking the Pharisees it wasn’t because He hated them, it was because they were stubbornly resisting the truth about Him to their own souls’destruction. He was merely frustrated at their foolish pride and how they tried to lead people away from the truth He was preaching. Jesus lived out the often misunderstood principle of “Hate the sin, love the sinner.” On down the list we could go.

Perhaps my favorite part and the one which may be most encouraging to you is “Jesus hopes all things.” Jesus loves us and always hopes for the best in us. He knows our hearts and yet He still has hope that we will do the right thing. Often, we won’t, but He HOPES we will. He believes in us even when we don’t believe in ourselves. He is our cheerleader saying, “I know you fell into that sin again, but you can beat it! Get up and we’ll try again, you and Me. I’ll be right beside you.” That’s love right there. If Jesus believes in you, can’t you try to believe in yourself? “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13).

“Rob never fails.”

Sadly, this is not a true or accurate statement. But “Jesus never fails” is 100% true. Jesus has never failed and He never will. Never. In John 13:34 Jesus told His disciples to “love one another as I have loved you.” That’s a pretty big challenge, as we have seen. We may fall short–okay, we WILL fall short–but let’s at least TRY to do what Jesus said. Aim for that high standard and we will certainly be closer than we were before. You can do it! May the Lord shine upon you.

That’s Mighty Neighborly of You!

Once, as I was rolling my dumpster to the curb in preparation for the next day’s trash pickup, I noticed my next-door neighbor’s dumpster still sitting beside the garage.  I knew my neighbor was out of town, but would be back home before the next trash day.  So, I wheeled the dumpster out to the curb for him. I remembered making a mad dash in my pajamas early on trash day several times when I had forgotten and I would have appreciated someone watching out for me that way.  I felt that I was being a good neighbor.

Jesus once told His disciples to love their neighbor as themselves.  In response, someone asked the question,neighbor_wilson “Who is my neighbor?”  Jesus answered by telling the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37).  This parable shows that our neighbor is anyone in need whom we can help.  Indeed, if we have the ability to help someone and the opportunity to do so, it creates an obligation on our part which we cannot neglect.

The real issue, however, is how we can love others as ourselves.  First we must ask, “how do we love ourselves?”  The answer is—quite naturally! Nowhere in the Bible does God command us to love ourselves.  He doesn’t have to!  It comes easily to our nature to be selfish.  When we really examine how we love ourselves, some challenging things come to light.  We make excuses for our bad behavior. “Well, I was just tired and under stress.”  We give ourselves the benefit of the doubt.  We are optimistic we will do better next time.  We do not focus on the mistake, but rather on the good in us.  We never think we are evil people or lost causes.  We think we are basically good people who just slipped up.  Here’s the rub. Should we not extend this same courtesy to everyone else for their mistakes? Let that sink in for a moment..

The parable of the Good Samaritan is a very appropriate answer to the question about who my neighbor is.  Not only does it show us that everyone is our neighbor, but it also sets a gold standard for being that good neighbor.  The Samaritan did not help the man because he knew him.  They were not close friends.  He did not hope to be rewarded or praised for it.  He simply found a man in trouble, took care of him, made provisions for his care, and left quietly.  Is that not exactly what Jesus did?  He found us when we had been beaten by Satan, robbed of hope, and left for dead.  Jesus healed us, tended our wounds, made provision for our care (the church), and left suddenly.  But He also promised to return.  Let us make sure we can say we were good neighbors to all people when He comes back.  Let us follow Jesus’ example and treat people the way He treated us.  Let us cut others the same slack we give ourselves so generously.

 

Loving the Unlovable

Recently one of our elders gave a devotional. It was very good, but he made a mistake about halfway through. It was not a misstatement or doctrinal error. Indeed, it was only a “mistake” due to my own inclination. He referenced Romans 5:8 “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” I call it a mistake because once I have read that verse I can think of nothing else. I shamefully admit I couldn’t concentrate very well on the remainder of his fine lesson and would have preferred he left it until the end.

In my mind, Romans 5:8 is the pinnacle of God’s love. It reveals a costlier sacrifice than John 3:16. It shows a deeper beauty than 1st John 4:8. In Romans 5, the unrepentant sinner is called “helpless/without strength, ungodly, enemy of God.” That is who Jesus came to die for. Not for a world full of devoted followers coming on bended knee to beg for God’s mercy. Not for those who came humbly acknowledging their sin and helplessness. Jesus was born and died for a stubborn, rebellious, arrogant, and self-reliant world of unbelievers. It was the person who shakes a fist at the sky and says, “I didn’t ask to be saved!” whom Jesus died for. It was for the one smug in his satisfaction that man’s reason is the ultimate power in the universe that Jesus came.

It was for the one who wanted salvation least but needed it most that Jesus came.

We can make great sacrifices for those we love or simply like. It takes a deeper, more powerful love to make the ultimate sacrifice for our bitterest enemy who spits in our face as we are in the very act of making that sacrifice. There was no guarantee that these enemies of God would ever accept that incredible sacrifice and accept the blood of Jesus which was shed for them. But for the chance, the opportunity, the choice, God put on flesh and went to the cross. Could we ever love anyone so deeply? The love of God is unfathomable.

Now you see why I get stuck on Romans 5:8. The reality of Romans 5:8 strikes me like a prayerthunderbolt every time I read it. I get a shudder of anticipation when my Bible is open to Romans chapter five and I see verse eight approaching. If I had not been so careful or self-conscious, there would be a dark stain on that page where my tears of shame, conviction, joy, and gratitude had fallen across those words. Not so long ago I was that helpless, unrepentant, enemy of God. Now, that love has transformed me by its sheer power. Has it transformed you yet?

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