Love in Hard Places

Jonah hated the people of Nineveh, and he had reason: they were legitimately a nation filled
with cruel and evil people. There are people in our world today, both near and far, who give us
reason to hate them. To deny this is to rob the message of Jonah of its power and its gospel
witness. It is also to soften the piercing command of Jesus in Matthew 5:44 “I say to you, love
your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Jesus isn’t being hyperbolic — at times we
will all have real enemies, just as Jesus did (see John 15:18-20) — but Jesus’ point is that we
can’t use that as an excuse to hate them back.

Let’s be honest, sometimes we like to hate. The command to love our enemies is hard because
we like to hate them. It satisfies our selfishness; hate prioritizes “us” over “them” and it never
asks us to love and serve “them.” Our hatred also satisfies our own internal sense of justice. But
this is precisely what Jesus takes aim at in Matthew 5:43-48.

Jesus attacks the principle ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemies,’ not by denying that
there is such a thing as fairness and justice, but by showing that we don’t get to use the Old
Testament law as a way to justify our own personal hatred. In other words, we don’t get to use
passages that speak against racism, for instance, as an excuse to justify our personal hatred of
racists. We don’t get to use passages that speak against murder to deny grace to murderers.
We simply don’t have the right to deny people the gospel of grace simply because we don’t like
the way they need the Savior. The reality is: we all need saving.

This is the heart of Jonah’s problem. Jonah likes hating the Ninevites, because they were his
enemies and the enemy of Israel. Do you love your enemies, great and small? Friends and
family can be enemies. Revolting relatives, rude coworkers, business rivals, proud teachers or
students, insecure people who resent your competence, those who lust for power, the bitter ex,
the angry spouse, and far more – all can be our enemies. In 2020 we face an election; for many
people in our country, politics has become a religion. We measure moral character and define
our allies and enemies according to political affiliation.

The command of Jesus to love, exemplified in the call of Jonah to preach to the Ninevites, is a
call to love all of our enemies. In the book Love in Hard Places, D.A. Carson recounts “Karl
Barth was once asked, ‘Is it true that one day in heaven we will see again our loved ones?’ He
replied, ‘Not only the loved ones.’”

Who are you being called to love today?

When God Relents

Jonah is a fascinating story! God asks the prophet Jonah to go preach to the city of Nineveh; which is in Assyria – a terrorist nation known for its brutality, and an enemy of Israel. Jonah does not want God to grant mercy to his enemies and so he is reluctant to go. Jonah wishes judgment would fall on his enemies. If there had been no hope for Nineveh, God would not have sent Jonah; just as if there had been no hope for Jonah as he fell into the ocean, there would have been no point to his prayer for deliverance. But God is “a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty.” (Exodus 34:6-7a) God is not unjust, but he is also slow to anger and forgiving. He relents of the judgment on Nineveh, and in this we learn something about God. 

God forgives those who ask for it. God sees the repentance of the Ninevites and changes his mind. “When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it.” (Jonah 3:10) It is this merciful nature of God that invites a response. In a closely related passage, Joel 2:12-14, God invites stubborn Israel to repent of their own sin: “Yet even now… return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments. Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and merciful… Who knows whether he will not turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind him?” (cf. Jeremiah 18:7-10) 

Our actions, our repentance, our prayers – these things really matter to God. He is the ruler of all creation and accomplishes his purposes, yet passages like this remind us that our actions really do matter to him. This text in Jonah shows us that it is the actions of the Ninevites, their prayers and fasting and repentance, that move God to have compassion on them and “relent of the disaster” that was coming their way. 

The nature of our merciful God, and stories about the repentance of Nineveh, are facts which make us ask: are we right to hate our enemies? To think they cannot be reconciled to us, or worse, to God? To, by our stubborn hatred, deny them a chance to come to know this God who delights in showing them grace and forgiveness and love in Christ?

Welcome, Advent

We celebrate the four weeks of Advent with four themes: Hope, Peace, Love, and Joy. We have to remind ourselves of these themes because we live in a world filled with their opposites: despair, conflict, hate, and dissatisfaction. As we walk in the world these qualities can fill us up; we must displace them again with the qualities of Christ. When we do, we become like ships, sailing in the waters of the world yet dry and snug in Christ. The hope, peace, love and joy we find in Christ displace the qualities of sin, shame and darkness within us, and we are re-filled with the righteousness and life of Christ. We also become a refuge on the waters of the world; calling others to come and sail with us as we set our eyes on Christ and sail toward heaven.

May you be filled with the love, joy, peace & hope of Christ this Advent season.

Hope and the Diseases of Despair

We are living in a time of despair. According to the CDC (Centers for Disease Control), the life expectancy rate is declining in America due to what they are calling “diseases of despair.” Drug abuse, alcoholism, and suicide. If despair is, in fact, killing us, what does it look like to foster hope in dark times? There is no easy answer to this question, and each person’s journey is unique, but the thing that unites us all is a desperate need for hope.

When I was a kid we had a thick, illustrated copy of John Bunyan’s book, Pilgrim’s Progress. I have nostalgic childhood memories of flipping through the pictures and reading the book with my parents. In the Christian allegory Pilgrim’s Progress, John Bunyan introduces a character, Hopeful, who encourages the character named “Christian” on his pilgrimage. Both Hopeful and Christian are imprisoned by the Giant Despair in the course of their journey; Hopeful encourages Christian through this ordeal. Later, at the last stage of their journey, they must cross a deep river in order to reach the gates of heaven, and Christian begins to despair as he sinks. Hopeful provides the final encouragement that enables Christian to reach the other side: “Be of good cheer, my brother, I feel the bottom, and it is good.”

The bottom is Christ, who has gone before us all and suffered, humbled himself below us all, in order to fuel our journey toward God. (Philippians 2:5-13)

May you also feel the bottom and see that it is good.

When Good People Suffer

Jesus does not say we will not suffer; Jesus says we will not suffer alone. Jesus does not model a stiff upper lip in the face of suffering, rather Jesus cries out “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” In the book of Job, we see that suffering is disproportionate and unjust, and innocent people suffer immensely in this world. Jesus himself did not deserve what he got. Yet suffering is never pointless. The scriptures say that “our momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.”

Author Tim Keller points out a wonderful line in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.  It comes right at the end of the story when Samwise Gamgee sees Gandalf, and he says, “I thought you were dead! But then I thought I was dead myself. Is everything sad going to come untrue?”

Yes, it is.

It’s not just that suffering is going to end, although it will. Suffering will be healed, reversed, undone. Everything sad is going to come untrue. C.S. Lewis said heaven will work backward. It has already started. Heaven has already turned the cross, which was the ultimate symbol of violence, hate, and injustice, and turned it into the ultimate expression of sacrificial, triumphant love.  One day heaven will turn agony – every agony, your agony and mine – into glory, endless glory, unimaginable glory, an eternal weight of glory.

“Therefore we do not lose heart….though outwardly we are wasting away….yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day….for our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all…so we fix our eyes not on what is seen, for what is seen is temporary but what is unseen is eternal.”   — 2 Corinthians 4:16-18

The #1 way to kill a relationship

A wise man I used to know named Virgil Staples would often say: The 10 most important words in marriage are: I am sorry. I was wrong. Will you forgive me?

The scriptures say, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of others.” — Philippians 2:3

The word pride can mean a lot of things – not all bad. We take pride in a job well done, or in our kids when they accomplish something good. But the type of pride that kills relationship – the type of pride the Bible speaks against is when we build ourselves up at the expense of others – when we think of ourselves as superior to others because of who we are or what we’ve done. The word Paul uses in verse 3 is translated “empty pride” or “conceit” – the word is kendoxia and it means empty-pride or groundless self-esteem.

God hates pride. Pride is a sin that is deeply offensive to God because God is the one who is truly above all others. Those who know him know we’re nothing in comparison to him. Proverbs 16:5 says, “Everyone who is arrogant in heart is an abomination to the Lord. Psalm 138:6 says, “For though the Lord is high, he regards the lowly, but the haughty he knows from afar.”

For us to be proud would be like the strongest of all ants proclaiming himself the mightiest creature alive, only to look up and see the sole of a descending shoe; or a horse shouting at his fellow horses to proclaim himself the fastest of all creations just as a fighter jet screams by overhead.

You want to kill a relationship? Be proud.

You want to build a relationship? Humble yourself.

The end.

Your Story

I was born in 1975 into a family that was very far from God. My dad was an alcoholic at the time and my oldest sister was strung out on drugs and in and out of a treatment center. That was my situation, but then there is the story.* We all have a situation – a set of details we are living within, a context, a time, a place, a setting. Then there is the story. The story is much harder to see at first, it is the journey of your heart, it is the story of desire, it is the fulfilling of your souls deepest longings.

I was born in 1975 into a family that was very far from God – that is the situation. I was born with a longing to be known, to be loved, to belong, to be one with something bigger than myself – that is the story. My life, your life, and everyone who’s ever lived have a situation and a story. Usually, our focus, our time, our conversations, our energy is spent on the situation. That is right and good for a time because our situations are important. We wonder if we’re in the right place, should we live in this place or that? Do I take this job or the other? Marry this person or wait?

However, at some point in life, we realize that all of the attention of our lives has gone to the externals – to the situation. Out of habit we continue frantically re-arranging the furniture on the deck of the Titanic as our inner lives begin to sink into despair. This moment of desperation, of existential questioning – these mid-life moments – are an invitation to an inward journey. This new journey will be focused more on the story than the situation. It requires a shift of focus that makes no sense to anyone watching, requires more courage than we imagined, and is often riddled with self-doubt and a wandering progress that looks more like two steps forward and three steps back. Everything within me wants to remain focused on the situation, because historically when I have “solved” the externals, then everything was good. This journey isn’t about that though, this is an inward journey, focused on the story of desire rather than the situation of our lives.

Jesus said, “Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” — John 12:24

May you have eyes to see beyond your situation and into the story God is inviting you to live within.

*For more on the idea of situation and story, check out Vivian Gomick’s book here.