You’ve probably heard of Charles Shultz, creator of the Peanuts comic strip and cartoon series. Many people know and love his Christmas special, but another classic is the Halloween one called “It’s The Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown”. The Charlie Brown Christmas was extremely popular and the CBS Company was more than happy to air another show that would be just as popular – and that’s where the Halloween special came from. Not just a one-off show, but something that could be shown every year to a new group. And it worked. A lot of people, since its first release on Oct 26, 1959 have seen it.
I really enjoy the TV specials and comics, not only because they are cute and funny, but because Charles Shultz was amazing at sneaking in contemporary issues and, specifically, views about faith and religion, into the story. Shultz himself spent his life on a religious journey and we see it played out in the lives of his famous characters.
For most of our post-Christian culture today, these references go by as quick jokes, but if like me, you’ve been a Christian and lived among “church people” for a long time, then the depth of these moments comes out in fairly stark detail.
The Linus character is always the religious one of the bunch. In the comic, Linus talks about philosophy and theology, and actually quotes scripture quite often. One of my favourite lines, which I’ve used many times, comes from Linus. Lucy is looking out the window at the rain and is worried that the whole world will flood and Linus tells her of God’s promise to never do that again and the sign of the rainbow, and she says, “You’ve taken a great load off my mind.” Linus responds with, “Sound theology has a way of doing that.” I love that line and use it all the time.
That reference is pretty on the nose and everyone can see it, but when it comes to the Halloween Special and the Great Pumpkin, the spiritual allusions are a lot sneaker. The whole show is about practicing false religion and worshipping a false god!
I want to use this favourite cartoon classic as a jumping off point to talk about the difference between false religion and true Christianity. Here’s a clip so you can get the flavour of the program.
Linus believes in The Great Pumpkin; something that no one understands, nor has ever seen, nor has ever heard of. It is an invention of Linus’ mind, but He believes in it with all his heart. At the beginning of the show, all of the other characters take turns mocking him for his beliefs. His sister, Lucy, begs him to give up his strange faith because it makes him weird and people mock her for it – she even threatens violence if he doesn’t give up his faith. One character says, “You’re wasting your time on a fake!” and Linus writes in his letter to The Great Pumpkin, “If you are a fake, I don’t want to know.” He’s so attached to his religious beliefs that he’d prefer ignorance to truth!
Even mailing the letter – perhaps referencing prayer or religious devotion – is a chore since Linus is too short and no one will help him. He overcomes the difficulty through an act of his own intelligence – and by casting his prayer upon the wind in faith it will enter the mailbox and his prayer will be heard. Of course, his prayer letter, even though it goes into the box, will ultimately end up nowhere because the object of his faith simply doesn’t exist!
Many of us likely know someone like that – “My mind is made up! Don’t confuse me with facts!” Linus’ faith is a blind faith – which is something that Christians are often accused of having. People assume that in order to be a believer, one must “take a leap of faith” – meaning that there is a point at which one must give up their brain so they can believe in God. This is a huge struggle for some people, but I want to tell you today, that this is not what Christians believe.
Yes, our God is mysterious and bigger than we can fully process – because He’s God – but He’s not unreachable; nor does He demand we check our brains at the door when we come to church. Unlike Linus, we believe in a historical God, whose actions are testified to in a historically accurate book, substantiated by other historical books. We are one of many generations of people who have told the same stories of true, accounts of historical events.
The Bible is a book written by real men who, in partnership with a real God, told the story of God and humanity. It is a collection of 66 books, written by 40 different authors of a variety of backgrounds (like shepherds, doctors, prophets, and kings) in three different languages, on three different continents (Africa Asia and Europe) over a period of 1500 years, that have no historical errors or contradictions and contain one common theme: God’s love for humanity and his plan of salvation for our sinful souls. That’s beyond amazing.
So, we are not like Linus, having blind faith in a god of our own design, but believe in a God who revealed Himself and who desires to be in relationship with us. We don’t believe in an idea, but in a historical person – Jesus Christ, the main character of the Bible – who is spoken about from the first book of Genesis to the last book of Revelation.
In 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 we read a whole list of historical facts and foundations for Christian belief. It says:
“For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.”
He doesn’t tell the people he’s writing to to simply have faith, but instead challenges them to look into it! Talk to Cephas (or Peter), to James, to the 500 witnesses that saw Jesus alive after being crucified and buried for three days… go check out the historical fact of Jesus resurrection! Ours is not a blind faith.
Let’s keep going in our Peanut’s story. When Linus finally does get a conversion to his new religion it’s Charlie Brown’s sister Sally who is only there because she has a crush on him.
For the rest of Halloween, Linus goes to “the most sincere pumpkin patch, one without hypocrisy, nothing but sincerity as far as the eye can see”. He teaches his new convert that the most important part of his religion is that they are absolutely rock solid in their sincerity, their earnestness, their faith, their total commitment and lack of doubt – because the Great Pumpkin “respects sincerity.”
Now, though scripture does say that we should “fear the LORD and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness” (Jos 24:14), but that’s not what Linus is talking about. Christian sincerity is that quality of life that shows a person has pure motives and is not full of deceit. It’s associated with words like “truth”, “genuineness”, and “godliness”. A sincere preacher is one that preaches without any reason to feel guilty or disingenuous.
That’s not what we see in Linus. Here we get a glimpse of truly religious person who, even though they know the object of their faith is questionable, and that they have invented much of it, they believe they can overcome their doubt through sheer willpower.
These are the people like Oprah Winfrey who believe in belief, who have faith but no object to their faith, who have invented their own version of god and then assume that their “sincerity” will somehow make the object of their faith come to life.
This was crystalized to me during an interview that Stephen Colbert had short time ago with Oprah Winfrey where he asked her if there is a difference between “belief” and “faith”. Her answer was a mumble-jumble of post-modern religiosity that detached faith from an object of faith. Here’s what she said:
“Yeah there is, because there are a lot of people who don’t think they’re faithful people, but have beliefs. You cannot be in the world without believing in something, even if you don’t call it a deity. So there are people who believe in working hard and striving for their best, but don’t necessarily have a religious belief. Faith is very different, I think. Faith is knowing that no matter what, you’re going to be okay. And I’ve always been a part of that faithful.”
Then she went on to share her favourite bible verse. It’s Psalm 37:4 which says, “Delight thyself in the Lord and He will give you the desires of your heart.” which for a Christian is pretty simple to understand. It means make your whole life about pursuing the joy of knowing God, and He will shape your heart so that you desire the right things. Not things that will harm you and drive you away from him and others – but things that will help you, bring you closer to Him, and help you love others. Easy exposition there and the rest of the Bible agrees with it.
Here’s what Oprah said:
“Now what that says to me, ‘Lord’ has a wide range. What is Lord? Compassion, love, forgiveness, kindness. So you delight yourself in those virtues where the character of the Lord is revealed. Delight thyself in goodness, delight thyself in love, kindness, and compassion, and you will receive the desires of your heart. It says to me, if you focus on being a force for good, good things will come – which is also the third law of motion –which is also karma – which is also the golden rule.”
Faith in faithfulness, belief in belief, “Lord” can mean whatever you want (actually, it’s literally the word YHWH, the proper name of the God of the Israel). It makes my brain melt and my heart hurt. Her beliefs are an absolute mess of made up, reassembled, religion. But would anyone dare to question Oprah’s sincerity?
We’ve all heard this one too: “How dare you question my strongly held beliefs! I can believe whatever I want! Even if it contradicts reality and seems utterly confused, is unsupported by any authority, and is a jumbled mess – I believe it! Even though I made it up from my favourite scraps of other people’s religions, it’s what I believe and my ‘sincerity’ will make it count for something!” That’s Linus.
A Christian, as we said before, believes in historical facts and stands on what God has revealed about Himself. We don’t make it up, instead we go to the inerrant word of God and discover what God has said about Himself, and then believe that. We work hard, not to invent a god from the scriptures, but to learn about the God that is revealed in the scriptures. Do you understand that?
Think of it this way. Two men spend their life looking for treasure. One man comes across a treasure map with a big red line that leads to an X on the ground. As he studies it he sees that the map leads through burning deserts, across vast oceans, and finally to an X in a cave on the top of a huge mountain. He invites the second treasure hunter along, but the second treasure-hunter says that sounds like too much work and he has a better idea. So instead, he makes his own treasure map. One that has a much shorter red line that goes through nice hotels, shopping malls, and ending up at a lovely park. It’s a better trip.
Which one will get to the treasure? The one that follows the treasure map, right? But what if the second man truly believes, with all his heart, that his treasure map will lead him to the treasure? No? Why? Because no matter how sincerely you hold a false belief – it’s still a false belief.
Let’s go back to Linus. There he is spending the night in his “sincerest pumpkin patch”. He’s exercising his religion like a monk in a monastery, giving up the worldly pleasures of candy, parties and friends, so he can impress the Great Pumpkin with his religious zeal and be rewarded with a glimpse of the object of his faith.
His friends make a special trip to the pumpkin patch, more than once, to try to convince him to join them, but he staunchly refuses, keeping his vigil in the patch – only accompanied by his singular convert, Sally – who is gets more and more impatient. Linus starts to get more and more nervous that his sincerity, his faith, his religion, just isn’t enough to make The Great Pumpkin real.
Then, in a moment of religious fervour, Linus mistakes Snoopy for the Great Pumpkin and gets so overwhelmed that he faints. But his convert, Sally, stays awake and realizes, with great anger and disappointment, that she’s wasted her whole night. This was to be her first Halloween! She could have had treats, toys and fun with friends – but instead she wasted her time practicing a useless religion that ended with utter frustration and disillusionment.
Have you been there? A lot of people have. They got wrangled into some kind of belief system that doesn’t work out. They put their faith in some kind of faith in a false messiah and they are left utterly disappointed. This doesn’t even have to be a form of god or religion. People put their hope for happiness and fulfillment in things like money, politics, friends, their spouse, their career, an experience – and when it lets them down it colours the rest of their world. It makes it harder to trust anyone. The money goes away, their government is found to be corrupt, their friends let them down, their spouse breaks their heart, they lose their career, and the experiences no longer fulfil.
Sally leaves the patch feeling as though she’s been tricked and she “demands restitution”! She missed out on everything. I know people who have felt that way– even after coming to church. They attended a church, but never really met God or Jesus. Instead, they came for a bunch of other reasons – to make friends, a religious experience, business contacts, to explore morality, because of the music or the inspirational talks – but they never really connected to the true God of the universe and it ended up feeling shallow.
That’s a mistake that a lot of people make. They mistake religion for relationship. They mistake the traditions, decorations, experiences and ceremonies for having a relationship with God. Not that those are bad things – but they are only a means to an end.
We don’t read the bible because it’s a good book – but because it teaches us about our relationship with God. We don’t sing songs merely because it’s enjoyable– but because we are worshipping God. We don’t have potlucks because we merely enjoy eating together – but because it is a way to obey God’s command to grow in love together. We don’t celebrate the Lord’s Supper because it’s tradition – but because it reminds us of the death, burial and resurrection of our Lord and Friend of Sinners, Jesus Christ. We don’t listen to a sermon because they are interesting – but because we believe God works through the reading and teaching of His Word. We don’t pray to impress others or manipulate God – but to get to know Him better and give Him the opportunity to speak to us and change our hearts.
In Isaiah 1, God has some very serious things to say to His people about their confusion of religion and relationship. Let me read what He says. Keep in mind God is talking to His people and starts by saying they are as bad as Sodom and Gomorrah, which He destroyed because of their wickedness! Look at what He says about their religious festivals. (I’m going to read out of The Message because I think it will help us understand it better.)
“Listen to my Message, you Sodom-schooled leaders. Receive God’s revelation, you Gomorrah-schooled people. Why this frenzy of sacrifices?’ God’s asking. ‘Don’t you think I’ve had my fill of burnt sacrifices, rams and plump grain-fed calves? Don’t you think I’ve had my fill of blood from bulls, lambs, and goats? When you come before me, whoever gave you the idea of acting like this, running here and there, doing this and that—all this sheer commotion in the place provided for worship?
Quit your worship charades. I can’t stand your trivial religious games: Monthly conferences, weekly Sabbaths, special meetings—meetings, meetings, meetings—I can’t stand one more! Meetings for this, meetings for that. I hate them! You’ve worn me out! I’m sick of your religion, religion, religion, while you go right on sinning.
When you put on your next prayer-performance, I’ll be looking the other way. No matter how long or loud or often you pray, I’ll not be listening.
And do you know why? Because you’ve been tearing people to pieces, and your hands are bloody. Go home and wash up. Clean up your act. Sweep your lives clean of your evildoings so I don’t have to look at them any longer. Say no to wrong. Learn to do good. Work for justice. Help the down-and-out. Stand up for the homeless. Go to bat for the defenseless.’”
God is pretty clear about his hatred of empty, hypocritical religion, and yet, somehow, people still keep getting caught up in it. “Commotion”, “worship charades”, “prayer-performance”, “meetings, meetings, meetings!” Like poor Sally, following Linus into the Pumpkin patch, they show up to do their religious duty, go through the motions, and walk away empty – because that’s all it was. It wasn’t pointed at God, they didn’t meet God – it was just worthless, religious activity.
This truth is all over scripture. God doesn’t want anything to do with “religion for religion’s sake”. If it is merely empty gestures, God wants you to keep it. He says that for worship, prayer, charity, and everything else. God despises empty religion – and really, so should we.
A Fickle God
Let’s close with two more and then we’ll be done.
In the next scene we find out that Linus sitting in his pumpkin patch, alone, and is visited one more time by his friends. He rejects them again and yells out, “If the Great Pumpkin comes, I’ll still put in a good word for you!” and catches himself. Oh no – a moment of weakness of faith! He said “If” and not “when”! He mutters to himself, “I’m doomed! One little slip like that can cause the Great Pumpkin to pass you by!”
A lot of people see God like this – which is why they get caught up in religion. Linus’ god is not one of love, compassion, kindness, mercy and grace, but one of rules and commandments, fickle and unpredictable, spiteful and petty – in other words, the Great Pumpkin is God is not the God of the Bible. He’s more like the Greek god Zeus than the Christian God. So Linus spends the rest of the night trying to make up for his momentary lack of faith. He stays out all night, until 4am, freezing, passing between sleep and wakefulness until he finally passes out from exhaustion. Lucy eventually comes and brings him home having never seen The Great Pumpkin.
This is the god that a lot of people think of when they describe the Christian God. They only know the parts about the 10 Commandments, the Jewish Laws, the Temple Ceremonies that had to be done exactly right. The only church they know is the one that is against everything. No stealing. No lust. No anger. No playing cards. No movies. No beer. No mowing the lawn on Sundays. Etc.
The ones who see God like this don’t understand how Christians can call their God “loving”, because they only hear about the one who kills disobedient people with plagues and disasters. This is a God who wants everyone to feel guilty all the time, gets angry when we step out of line, and then punishes them for it. This is Linus’ god, and the god that many people think we Christians believe in.
This is not a good description of the God of the Bible. The God we preach of created us good and put us in a good environment, and then gave us the choice to love and obey Him or not. That’s why the tree and the deceiver were there – to give us the choice. He didn’t want robots programmed to love him, or people locked in a gilded cage with only one option.
He gave us free will and then we chose to sin. And we’ve all been choosing to sin ever since. We go against our conscience – we do things we know are wrong, without ever even having to read the Bible to know it’s wrong – and that sin makes it so that we can’t be in the presence of a holy, perfect, good God.
Sin lead to spiritual and physical death, and that broke God’s heart, and He didn’t want to leave us that way. So, before He ever created the world, He worked out a plan for our salvation. The penalty for sinning needed to be paid for by every human being – but He would accept a trade. For the Israelites, He would allow the death and shedding of the blood of animals to pay for sin for a short period of time. Sin means death, and God allowed that animal’s blood to be traded for ours, for a time – but that wasn’t the end of His plan.
No, He wanted a permanent solution. So what He did was send His Son to earth to be born as a human being. He would live a human life, but would never sin. The world would hate Him and reject Him, just as Adam and Eve rejected God in in the beginning, and would take His Son and kill Him. But God would use that terrible crime for good. He would let the death of Jesus Christ be the permanent trade.
The wrath of humanity wouldn’t just be on Jesus, but the wrath of God almighty. All of God’s hatred of sin, all of the punishment that was due for humanity’s sin, would be poured out on Jesus Christ. God would punish Him instead of us – and would then offer the trade to humanity. Again, because of His love for free will, God won’t force us to accept the gift, but He will offer it. He will even go so far as to show us the darkness of our sin and contrast it with the light found in Him – and then make it possible for us to accept it. God does all the work of salvation, and allows us to make the choice to accept that free gift.
That’s the love of God. He’s not Linus’ poor, fickle copy. He’s a God of mercy and grace.
Don’t Be Linus
Allow me to close on this. In the final moments of the program, Linus and Charlie Brown sit at their famous brick wall and bemoan their failed Halloweens. Charlie Brown got a bag full of rocks and Linus missed the Great Pumpkin once again.
Charlie Brown comforts his friend, “Well, don’t take it too hard Linus. I’ve done a lot of stupid things in my life too.” We would think that Linus would say, “Yeah. I’ll never do that again.” But no. Linus epitomizes mindless religion, blind faith, and the prideful, stubborn refusal to humble himself and change his mind.
As the credits roll, he yells at Charlie Brown, “Stupid? What do you mean, stupid! Just wait until next year Charlie Brown, you’ll see! Next year at this same time, I’ll find a pumpkin patch that is real sincere and I’ll sit in that pumpkin patch until the great pumpkin appears.” As the camera slowly pulls back and the credits continue to roll, Linus waves his hands, grits his teeth, and keeps blasting Charlie Brown with the passion only found in a religious fanatic, until it fades to black.
My application for you today is simple: Don’t be Linus. Don’t live a blind faith that has no connection to reality. Remember that you can be sincere, but you can also be sincerely wrong. Dig into studying the One, True God and don’t get fooled into weird, religious nonsense that someone has made up or that you are making up for yourself.
And remember that God loves you so very much – and that love is not based on how obedient or religious you are. He loves you exactly as you are today, and couldn’t love you any more than He already does. He’s a good father that loves you so much that He doesn’t want to leave you in your sin, but will do whatever it takes to save you from death, hell and the effects of wickedness in your life. All you have to do is ask for forgiveness, give up the throne you sit on, and turn control of your life over to Him.
And finally. Don’t be stubborn – be humble. If you’re wrong, admit it. If you don’t something, admit it. Allow God to speak into your heart. Listen to what He’s saying. Read His word and let it do the work in your heart. Put down your religious fervour or willful pride, and listen to someone else for a change.
The world is going to fade to black. Don’t let your stubbornness keep you from knowing and finding God.
We just finished going through the Gospel of Mark together, and it took 43 weeks, so for this series I want to do the opposite – I want to do four books in four weeks. Today I want to start a four-week series that I’m calling “summer shorts”, where we are going to go through four of the shortest books in the Bible, each from the New Testament: Philemon, Jude, Second John and Third John. Each of these books is less than a chapter, less than 500 words, in fact.
Now, to call them “books of the bible” is a little misleading. They’re not books, they’re letters. Each one of these letters was sent to their respective churches to address a very specific issue, and I believe that studying them will help and inspire each of us to grow in that respective area. I’m really looking forward to this mini-series and I hope you are too.
Let’s get started by looking at the letter from the Apostle Paul to Philemon – just 335 words long. Before we read it, I want to give you a little background on what is happening here.
This is a letter, written by the Paul while he was a prisoner in Rome (which we’ve talked about before), and was delivered to the same place as his letter to the Colossians. As he sat under house arrest, awaiting trial before Caesar, he wrote letters to some of the churches he visited during his missionary journeys or that had been planted by those churches. There were various motivations, but mostly it was to address issues that had cropped up in the churches – like false teachers, bad theology, church fights, etc. – after he had left.
He had various helpers around him while under house arrest, sometimes people he had brought with him to train further, sometimes people that had tagged along, and others that had sought him out. When they came, they brought him letters from the churches, financial support, and, of course, news about what was happening at the church – which all prompted the letters.
One of the letter carriers was a man named Onesimus, who had a unique story. He was originally from Colossae, but was now in Rome, and had come across Paul’s ministry – and became a Christian. Pretty soon, he and Paul became friends and ministry partners, and as they worked together, Onesimus’ story came out. It turned out that he was a runaway slave, who, in the providence of God, had actually ran away (and stole from) one of the key leaders in the church that Paul had planted in Colossae – a wealthy man named Philemon.
This complicated matters because, under Roman law, a running away and stealing from one’s master was punishable by death. Paul knew that the best thing that could happen would be for Onesimus to go back and make things right with Philemon, but who knew how he would react. Onesimus was scared that Philemon, though a good guy and a Christian, might be angry, or think that he needed to set an example of him to the rest of the people that worked in his household. But returning was the right thing to do, so Paul wrote two letters – one to the church, addressing their theological and practical issues, and one to Philemon himself, addressing the Onesimus problem.
So as we read, picture Onesimus, the runaway slave, walking towards Philemon’s house, letters in hand, then standing before his former master, holding up the letter and having him read these words:
“Paul, a prisoner for Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, to Philemon our beloved fellow worker and Apphia our sister and Archippus our fellow soldier, and the church in your house: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
I thank my God always when I remember you in my prayers, because I hear of your love and of the faith that you have toward the Lord Jesus and for all the saints, and I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective for the full knowledge of every good thing that is in us for the sake of Christ. For I have derived much joy and comfort from your love, my brother, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you.
Accordingly, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required, yet for love’s sake I prefer to appeal to you—I, Paul, an old man and now a prisoner also for Christ Jesus—I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I became in my imprisonment. (Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and to me.) I am sending him back to you, sending my very heart. I would have been glad to keep him with me, in order that he might serve me on your behalf during my imprisonment for the gospel, but I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own accord. For this perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, no longer as a bondservant but more than a bondservant, as a beloved brother—especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.
So if you consider me your partner, receive him as you would receive me. If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. I, Paul, write this with my own hand: I will repay it—to say nothing of your owing me even your own self. Yes, brother, I want some benefit from you in the Lord. Refresh my heart in Christ.
Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say. At the same time, prepare a guest room for me, for I am hoping that through your prayers I will be graciously given to you.
Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends greetings to you, and so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, my fellow workers. The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.”
Who Was Philemon?
Let’s talk about the main character first, so we can get an idea of what’s happening here. It says that this letter is addressed to a few people: Philemon, Apphia (who is likely Philemon’s wife), and to Archippus (who is probably Philemon’s son and a teacher in the church in Colossians.) This family was the host family for the church in Colossae. Very wealthy, very involved in the church, and very well known in the community.
Paul and Philemon are clearly friends and ministry partners. Paul calls him “beloved” or “very dear” to Him. He’s a man who loved others, had a strong faith, showed generosity and hospitality to many people in his church and community. He was a good, Christian man who shared his faith and his finances with others.
Paul opens with a prayer for his friend Philemon, one of thanks to God for him and all the good memories Paul has of the kind of man he is. Paul, sitting under arrest and awaiting a trial that might cost him his life, had a lot of things on his mind, but Philemon was such a great guy, such a helpful Christian, such a powerful influence for good to so many churches (especially in Colossae) , that he was memorable to Paul. He likely funded some of Paul’s missionary journeys as well as supporting the hurting people of the church in his city.
Paul also says that he “hears” (using the present tense) that Philemon has kept up the good work. Even after Paul moved on, and with all the difficulties of having a big home, a business, and being in ministry, Philemon has continued to be an example of faith and generosity. Verse 7 says that Paul gets much joy and comfort just by thinking about Philemon.
His love for Paul is evident, but it’s more than that. It’s because so many local Christians and missionaries abroad have been “refreshed”, encouraged, had their weight lifted, their work eased, and their hearts filled by Philemon’s generous ministry.
Do you know anyone like that? A good, generous hearted person that, when you start to think of them, you can’t help but smile? I know a few. They’re the people you don’t need to worry about offending because they’re not looking for a problem – their patient and kind. They’ve got your back. They’re the people that you can go to with a problem and you know you’ll get help without strings attached. They’re the people that, when crisis hits, they always seem to be there with an encouraging word and something to ease the struggle. They don’t have a personal agenda, they’re not trying to fix you, they’re just there, helping, loving, giving, and making you feel loved.
I remember a time, after I was going through the darkest period of my ministry, I discovered a few of these people that make me smile when I think of them. One person stands out in particular. I had recently resigned from my church with nowhere to go, after a very difficult ministry. The government was taking its sweet time in getting us our Employment Insurance, and we were at the end of our money – literally, less than a dollar in the bank. There were no prospects on the horizon and it looked like we were in trouble. It was a tough time for my family.
One day we got a call from a lady who wondered if she could come by and bring us some strawberries. She was a quiet person – someone who never popped up on anyone’s radar. I said, “of course” and she showed up at our house a short while later. She handed me the strawberries and thanked me for letting her bring them over, and then gave me an envelope. After handing me the envelope, she literally ran to her car as fast as she could. I tried to start a conversation with her, but all I could manage was a quick thank-you as she popped into her car and sped away.
We hadn’t told anyone about our financial struggles, but had agreed to trust God for our needs. I gave the strawberries to Anita, and opened the envelope – to find a very generous amount of money – exactly what our family needed until the EI came.
The word that Paul uses in verse 7 is exactly the right word – we were “refreshed.” Her action not only blew our minds, but gave us a huge amount of encouragement at exactly the right time. It showed us the generosity of God and of our fellow believers. It renewed our faith in God and revived our weary souls. It reminded us that we weren’t alone, that God supported our decision to leave, that He would take care of us, and that not all Christians are hypocrites who do more harm than good – which is how we were starting to feel. We were “refreshed.”
Do you know anyone like this? I hope you do. Are you someone like this? I know that some of you are. You are a Philemon, one who brings joy, comfort, love and refreshment to the saints around you because of your willingness to encourage people and be there to ease their burdens. It brings you joy, and brings joy to the ones you help. You show us the heart of God, often when we need to see it the most. And we smile when we think about you.
Remember Who You Are
Was Paul just buttering up Philemon because he was about to ask him something difficult? I don’t think so. It is more likely that Paul was absolutely genuine in his praise and thankfulness – but that Philemon would need a reminder of who he was. He would need a reminder that he was a good, Christian man before Paul moved on.
We all need that kind of reminder sometimes. Sometimes, when we’re feeling low, forgotten, depressed, tempted, angry, afraid, we are presented with something that goes counter to what we believe. Satan’s voice starts to get a little louder, and more seductive. “Why no do that? You deserve it. You’ve been good, so you’ve earned it. No one will know. Why not?” and sometimes, the answer we need to give is that “We’re Christians” and that means something.
We’re not Hindus or Buddhists or Islamic pagans who believe that we just need to do more bad than good. We’re not atheists or agnostics who do things out of pragmatism or self-interest. We are Christians who believe that God is good, His ways are good, His word is good, and we want to be like Him. We are Christians.
We sometimes need to remind ourselves what we believe.
- I believe that sin is wrong.
- I believe I’m not the centre of the universe.
- I believe that God has a law that is to be obeyed.
- I believe that Satan is real, is tempting me, and wants to harm me and the people I love.
- I believe that Jesus is better than anything else.
- This is what I believe and where I’m going to stand.
- I’m committed to God and He’s committed to me.
I think Paul was saying, “Listen, Philemon, I know you possess the love of God in your heart, that you love believers, and that you have a generous heart – but in a moment I’m going to test that. Remember who God has made you to be. Remember who you are.”
On one side was Philemon, on the other was Onesimus – the runaway slave who had fled his position, stolen from his master, and was standing awaiting judgement. I know we’ve all been there, on both sides of this relationship. We’ve all been the offender and the offended. We’ve all been the one who got hurt and the one who did the hurting. We’ve all been the one who took, and the one from whom it was taken. And now the two parties, not friends but master and servant, employer and employee, stand face to face. All the power is in Philemon’s hands because Onesimus has chosen to humble himself and courageously do the right thing.
What needs to happen here is forgiveness and reconciliation, but if pride sneaks in, vengeful feelings take hold, fear rules the day, or Philemon’s or Onesimus’ heart gets hard, it could go very wrong. So now, let’s see how Paul sheds the light of wisdom on this situation. This is where we really start learn from this letter:
1. Forgiveness is a Command
First, when we look at verse 8, we see that forgiveness is a command. Paul starts this part saying, “Accordingly, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required…”. In other words, Paul had the scriptural authority, pastoral authority, spiritual authority and apostolic authority to command Philemon to do this. That’s an important realization. Forgiving others and pursuing reconciliation in relationships isn’t optional, depending on how we or the other person feels, how long it’s been, or anything else. Forgiveness is commanded.
The clearest place we read this is the words of Jesus right after He teaches the Lord’s Prayer. He says that when we pray, we are to say:
“Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.
For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” (Matthew 6:9-15)
Without even pausing for a breath, Jesus ties our understanding of the forgiveness we have from God to our willingness to forgive others. The implication is that we cannot say we understand how much we are forgiven, and how deep our sin debt was, if we are unwilling to forgive others. Therefore, Jesus doesn’t beat around the bush, but commands that His people forgive.
The command to forgive is something Paul had to continuously remind his churches about. To the Colossians, Philemon’s church, Paul says, “Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.” (3:13 NIV) to the Ephesians he says, “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” (4:32 NIV)
2. Forgiveness From the Heart is a Blessing
But! God doesn’t want us to forgive and seek reconciliation with people merely because we have to. He wants us to want to, because of our love for Him and our love for others. Paul says to Philemon, “I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required, yet for love’s sake I prefer to appeal to you…”
Paul doesn’t want to coerce Philemon’s love for Onesimus. He wants it to be genuine love, motivated by His love for God and for all believers – which he has demonstrated over and over and over in the past. Paul wants the love to be authentic. It is so much better, so much more of a blessing to everyone around, so much richer for both parties, so much more of an act of worship to God, if the forgiveness and reconciliation of the relationship comes not only as an act of the will, but an act of the heart. Love from God, to us, that pours out onto the person that hurt us.
Paul says in verse 14 that he doesn’t want Philemon’s “goodness” (which he spoke so highly of earlier) to merely be motivated out of “compulsion” – whether compelled by obedience, or by Paul’s order, or assumed because Onesimus stayed in Rome – but done with “consent”.
The idea of loving and serving out of compulsion is an interesting point in scripture. When Paul tells the Corinthians to give to help the suffering Christians in Jerusalem he says, “Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” (2 Corinthians 9:7) It is better if done with love.
When Peter speaks to the elders of the church he says, “…shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you …” (2 Peter 5:2) A leader in the church should not only serve because he feels he has to, but because he wants to. Service, leadership, discipline, preaching, counselling that is motivated by love is far better than that which is motivated by obligation.
I think we all know this deep down. Which is better, the gift given out of love, or the one out of obligation?
- “Here’s your birthday gift. I had to get it because it’s your birthday.”
- “Here’s a rose. I’m supposed to get my wife flowers because I read it in a book somewhere.”
- “C’mon honey, it’s Thursday night. Let’s go to the bedroom and get this over with.”
Everything is better when motivated by love rather than obligation, right?
3. Give Mercy & Grace
Now we move to the next part. Forgiveness is commanded, but what happens after that is situational – it will change depending on the circumstances. Remember, we’re still on Philemon’s side of the ledger and there are a lot of things that he can do to Philemon. Philemon can say, “I forgive you, but the law says I can have you killed or beaten.” There were a number of things that Philemon could do if he wanted. He was well within his rights to take his “pound of flesh” (literally and figuratively), but Paul doesn’t want that.
What would make Paul, and God, happiest, would be to see amazing grace. We all know this feeling right? A person comes to us, admits they are wrong, and we know we have to forgive them – but what about after that? Now they’re on our turf! They’ve admitted they’re wrong! They’ve opened themselves up for anything! And the temptation is to strike, right? Hurt them as much as they hurt us. Make them pay. How sorry are you really? Maybe we can get them to jump through some hoops for our pleasure. Maybe we can get them to publically humiliate themselves. Maybe we can just keep this in our back pocket and jab them with it whenever we want to. After all, it’s our right! We were the offended people!
Paul points out that even though Onesimus made a lot of mistakes, has shown remarkable growth as a Christian and is truly repentant. Yes, he was once a “useless” person, no good to anyone, but now that he’s given his heart to Jesus, he’s “useful”! His repentance is genuine, his heart is right with God, he wants to be right with you, and he has demonstrated that he wants to make it right. Honour him and what God is doing in Him by NOT exacting your right to discipline him or taking what you are due. This is an appeal to grace and mercy.
We don’t have to punish before we can forgive. All over scripture we are told to treat our enemies well – how much more-so a believer who comes to us repentant and in need of forgiveness! If the person is a Christian, then Jesus was punished for that sin. We need not add to it. Let’s not answer repentance and humility with more pain, but with grace.
4. Never Assume
Verses 13 and 14 are an interesting section because they make the point that Paul didn’t want to assume that Philemon would do the right thing. Paul didn’t want to order him, nor did he want to merely assume that Philemon would forgive Onesimus. If Paul would have kept Onesimus with him in Rome, that would have been assuming. No, reconciliation had to happen face to face. It needed to come from Philemon to Onesimus.
We should never assume anything when it comes to forgiveness and reconciliation. We need to work it through. Yes, sometimes its awkward, often risky, usually emotional, and definitely challenging, but it should never be assumed that all is right with the world. I’ve really learned the lesson about dealing with things quickly, even willing to ask the embarrassing questions like, “So, are we ok? Have I done anything to offend you? Have you forgiven me?” Sure, it’s a little hard, but it’s scriptural. Jesus says,
“…if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser…” (Matthew 5:23-25)
Ephesians 4:26 says,
“…do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil.”
The implication of both of these is that we need to take the time and make the effort to seek forgiveness and reconciliation, or we leave Satan the occasion to do more harm. We all know what it’s like to go through a night of uncertainty after a fight with someone. Do they still love us? Are we still friends? What happens now? Why did I say that? What can I do? Maybe it’s too late.
Dealing with it soon stops bitterness from taking hold and keeps our connection to God and others strong. So we must deal with it quickly and face to face. Onesimus had to travel 2000 kilometers to get from Rome to Colossae to be face to face with Philemon. We ought to follow his example and be willing to do the hard work of meeting with people to make sure we are forgiven and reconciled.
5. God Can Use This Too
Verses 15 and 16 are probably my favourite of the letter. They say,
“For this perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, no longer as a bondservant but more than a bondservant, as a beloved brother—especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.”
In other words God has a plan and can use this too. Even though this was a difficult situation, and even though Onesimus was wrong, God is still sovereign over all things and can use this for His glory and the benefit of His people.
He almost seems to be saying, “Maybe this was God’s plan all along. Maybe this is the only way you would be able to see Onesimus as more than your servant or slave, but able to see him as a fellow human being, a brother in the Lord. Maybe this is part of God’s plan to finally break down the walls between masters and slaves, owners and servants, upper class and lower class, and bring unity to your home, your church, and your nation. Maybe God is setting you up as an example to follow so that more people will put away their prejudice and embrace their fellow man – no matter what class they are – as brothers and sisters in Christ. God has a plan, Philemon, and this could be the beginning of something beautiful – and you’re on the forefront of it! So… don’t get in the way!”
When our hearts are soft and our grace is abundant, God can use us to do amazing things. Paul was willing to risk his friendship Philemon because he knew that God could do something much bigger, if they could get this right. That’s big picture thinking on Paul’s part, and he invites Philemon, and the rest of us, to join him in trying to see past our arguments, hurts, and relationship issues to the bigger, gospel picture. The one that shows the whole world that we are people of love, forgiveness and acceptance; and nothing does that better than when people see forgiveness and restoration among our relationships.
6. Reconciliation Means Putting Things Right
Let’s end in verses 17-20. The final part of this section of Paul’s letter to Philemon reminds us that there are still some things that need to be put right. Onesimus did steal from Philemon, after all, and that needed to be paid back.
We spent a lot of time talking about Philemon. Paul wanted Philemon to come to the Onesimus with a generous, gracious, open and loving heart. On the other side was Onesimus, who needed to come with a repentant heart, willing to pay back what he owed. Now, that was probably extremely difficult. He was a slave, therefore probably broke, especially after traveling from Rome to Colossae. The only person that had any money in this relationship was Philemon. But that doesn’t mean Onesimus didn’t need to try. The right thing to do would have been for Onesimus to have tried to pay it back, whatever that meant, because making it right, paying it back, fixing what was broke, and doing whatever it takes to repair the damage, is an important part of asking forgiveness.
“If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account.” (vs 18)
What Paul does here, in light of the situation, is what Jesus does for us – Paul asks to take Onesimus’ sin onto his own shoulders. Just as Jesus was the propitiation, the payment, for our sins when God charged our sins to Jesus’ account, so Paul wanted Onesimus’ theft charged to Paul’s account.
There’s a great line in vs 19 where Paul says, “I will repay it—to say nothing of your owing me even your own self.” It’s a great line because it reminds Philemon that he was converted to Christ, and learned about salvation through Jesus from Paul’s ministry. Therefore Philemon “owed” Paul something much greater than whatever Onesimus stole – his eternal life.
Don’t take that too far, as though Paul was saying that he was really Philemon’s saviour. No, it’s more a reminder of the thing we all need to remember when it comes to forgiveness and reconciliation: That we are all sinners, that we were all damned and headed to hell, until someone told us about Jesus and we were saved by grace. Understanding that grace, how much it cost to save us, and remembering Jesus’ death on the cross for our sake, makes the sins of others seem very small in comparison. Paul knows that it is so much easier to forgive people when we look at them in the light of eternity and with our eyes fixed on the cross of Jesus Christ and His gospel. It puts everything into perspective. That’s what Paul wanted to do with Philemon.
We end where we ought to: on the Gospel of Jesus Christ. How can we forgive? Because of Jesus. How can we confront? Because of Jesus. How can we have the strength to take the long, difficult walk towards someone we need to forgive, or ask forgiveness from? Because of Jesus.
Let’s remember Philemon and Onesimus’ example, but even more, the example and love of Jesus Christ who paid the penalty for our sins so we might be reconciled to God.
Lamentations contains exactly what you’d expect – laments. It is a series of five sad and beautiful poems, like funeral songs, portraying the capture, fall and destruction of the city of Jerusalem. It often personifies the city and its people and reflects the kind of passion and heartbreak that someone would have after the death of a beloved spouse, or a parent for their child.
These dirges were written by the Prophet Jeremiah, a man tasked with bringing messages from God to the people of Judah during the transition from the last good king, Josiah, until their captivity and fall. He was told to speak out warnings against backsliding into sin and idolatry, but was rarely listened to and often abused. He would often stand before the people, warning them that if they didn’t change God would discipline them. He told them to prepare for the difficult days that were coming. He predicted who would conquer them and how it would come about. He stood before the king and the people, begging them to stop fighting against their enemies, accept God’s discipline, and go quietly into exile, so less people would be killed. And each time dozens of false-prophets and false-teachers say exactly the opposite and the rulers and the people listen to them instead. He had a heartbreaking ministry.
A picture that might help you understand what’s going on as you read the book of Lamentations is of the prophet Jeremiah sitting on the side of a hill, pen in hand, praying, writing, weeping, yelling, and defeated. He’s just watched the people of Jerusalem slaughtered and starved by their enemies after a great siege. He’s witnessed wealthy people die from hunger in the streets, and women stoop as low as to cannibalize their own children.
He’s seen the ruin of Jerusalem’s walls and gates, now nothing but charred rubble remains. He’s witnessed the destruction of the most beautiful buildings, and worse, the pillaging of the temple of God as His enemies break down and carry away the doors, walls and pillars which were made of precious metals, rip down every piece of art that King Solomon had decorated it with, and watched in horror as the holy vessels of the temple were carried away to Babylon as plunder.
Good God, Bad Things
His heart is breaking, and He’s crying out to God. He’s writing something that will be sang, read, and memorized by believers for generations to come – not only by Israelites, but by all of God’s people as they face trials and pain. It’s not just emotive, but instructive. How do we deal with pain, agony and frustration.
And so I’ve pulled out a middle section that tells us a lot about how we should approach difficult times in our life.
“I am the man who has seen affliction under the rod of his wrath; he has driven and brought me into darkness without any light; surely against me he turns his hand again and again the whole day long. He has made my flesh and my skin waste away; he has broken my bones; he has besieged and enveloped me with bitterness and tribulation; he has made me dwell in darkness like the dead of long ago. He has walled me about so that I cannot escape; he has made my chains heavy; though I call and cry for help, he shuts out my prayer; he has blocked my ways with blocks of stones; he has made my paths crooked. He is a bear lying in wait for me, a lion in hiding; he turned aside my steps and tore me to pieces; he has made me desolate; he bent his bow and set me as a target for his arrow. He drove into my kidneys the arrows of his quiver; I have become the laughingstock of all peoples, the object of their taunts all day long. He has filled me with bitterness; he has sated me with wormwood. He has made my teeth grind on gravel, and made me cower in ashes; my soul is bereft of peace; I have forgotten what happiness is; so I say, ‘My endurance has perished; so has my hope from the LORD.’ Remember my affliction and my wanderings, the wormwood and the gall! My soul continually remembers it and is bowed down within me.” (Lamentations 3:1-20)
Heartbreaking, isn’t it? The “He” that Jeremiah keeps referring to is God. One commentary I read said, “These verses are a reversal of the image of God as the caring, protective, and providing shepherd from Psalm 23.”[i] It really is.
Jeremiah knew why all of this suffering had come because He was the one who told people it would come if they didn’t stop sinning against God. He knew it was coming and couldn’t prevent it. It wasn’t his fault, but He couldn’t change anyone’s mind. He didn’t want it to happen and didn’t deserve it, but everyone around Him did. And it crushed him knowing that it was God who did it. The Babylonians were merely the tools God chose to use to enact His will.
How do people of faith deal with the knowledge that everything that happens is God’s doing? If we could blame someone else, then maybe we could direct our anger. Blame the devil. Blame society. Blame my own weakness. Blame someone. It’s really hard for people of faith to know that God is in control of everything, knows everything, is all powerful, and all good – and then have terrible, horrible things happen to them or someone they love. He’s God, right? And so comes the old question, “If God is good, then why do bad things happen?”
In my devotional times recently I’ve read about the worldwide flood that destroyed all but a few people, the book of Job where a man suffers terribly and complains to God for many, long chapters, the book of Lamentations, the part in Acts where Paul (the greatest missionary) and Barnabas (the most encouraging guy ever) have such a strong disagreement over a young man’s failure that they end up not speaking to each other for a long time, and the part of Revelation where it “the Beast” is given the power (by God) to “make war against the saints and to conquer them”, lead them into captivity, and kill them. The middle part of the chapter says, “This calls for patient endurance and faithfulness on the part of the saints.” (Rev 13:1-10).
Yeah, I bet.
Is it Okay to Fall Apart?
That’s tough to read and even harder to understand. What do we do with this? God gave me a bit of a reminder of what this feels like as I felt my own battle with depression rear its ugly head this week. Fatigue, short-temper, low motivation, and questions about everything come by the shovelful, but few answers do.
The world is a rough place. People don’t meet our expectations, and let us down, again and again. Friends turn to enemies, folks you’ve confided in stab you in the back. And then circumstances remind you of your own limitations, throw your troubles back in your face, and open up wounds you though were healed over. We turn on the news and see thousands of people slaughtered by terrorists and cowards bowing to the pressure they are bringing. Christians all over the world are slandered, oppressed, and even killed for their faith. Economic issues, ecological disaster, war and rumours of war. False teachers gain tens of thousands of followers and good teachers burn out and quit. And it’s getting worse. Add to that daily temptations, pressures, fears and responsibilities and it gets pretty overwhelming.
What do we do during those times? Is it okay to fall apart? Do we need to stick on the happy face, pretend everything is ok, sing songs like “God will make a way” or “God is good all the time” and pretend to be happy about it? No. I don’t think we do.
There’s a place for Lament in this world – a lot of place for it. There are times we should be sad, heartbroken, and overwhelmed. Jesus was. Isaiah 53:3 describes Jesus as one who was “despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief…”. He wept over Jerusalem and his lost friends, cursed the blind Pharisees, was in so much agony that He sweat drops of blood the night before his crucifixion (hematidrosis) – and when he turned to his friends for support, they were asleep.
Jesus lamented, and so can we. But how? How do we do it? What do we do? And, perhaps, more importantly, how do we do it right? What process can we use to guide ourselves through it?
How to Get Put Back Together After Falling Apart
I believe that’s why God kept bringing me back to Lamentations 3. Let’s keep reading what Jeremiah says.
“But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. ‘The LORD is my portion,’ says my soul, ‘therefore I will hope in him.’ The LORD is good to those who wait for him, to the soul who seeks him. It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the LORD. It is good for a man that he bear the yoke in his youth. Let him sit alone in silence when it is laid on him; let him put his mouth in the dust—there may yet be hope; let him give his cheek to the one who strikes, and let him be filled with insults. For the Lord will not cast off forever, but, though he cause grief, he will have compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love; for he does not afflict from his heart or grieve the children of men. To crush underfoot all the prisoners of the earth, to deny a man justice in the presence of the Most High, to subvert a man in his lawsuit, the Lord does not approve. Who has spoken and it came to pass, unless the Lord has commanded it? Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that good and bad come? Why should a living man complain, a man, about the punishment of his sins? Let us test and examine our ways, and return to the LORD!” (Lamentations 3:21-40)
The first thing we see Jeremiah do is to change his thinking. There are some incredibly depressing verse in Lamentations, and this is not the end of them. But we see here Jeremiah choosing to intentionally “call to mind” some important truths. In a moment of great despair Jeremiah makes a wilful transition in his attitude and outlook at the situation.
These remembrance come in very rapid succession.
First he remembers that God’s love is “steadfast”. That’s an important word. The Hebrew word HESED can be translated “covenant love” or “loyal love” and it is the reminder to him that God’s love isn’t based on emotions or on the actions of His people, but on a covenant promise He made to them many years before. He’s like the loving husband who has promised to be faithful and loving to His adulterous, abusive, horrible wife. His love is not based on how much the wife loves Him back, but by the covenant that He has made with her: I will love you, you will be mine forever.
That’s critically important for us to remember during dark times too. We don’t have a fickle God that chances His mind, but one that keeps His promises. He will never cease to love us and show us love because His love is bound up in a covenant to us. Something we remember every time we have communion – the sign of God’s covenant with us.
Second, He remembers that they God’s mercies are “new every morning”. I quote this to myself all the time. What I’m looking at is not the end of the story. Here we see Jeremiah calling to mind the promises of the past (God’s covenant love) and also the future. This is not the end of days. This isn’t the end of the story. God is good. He has done good and He will do good. He promises restoration. Tomorrow is coming. Today it is dark and cold, but the sun will rise tomorrow.
In every time of suffering there is always hope. God promises restoration, healing, and blessing. Yes, the floods come, but so does the rainbow. Yes, the fall of Jerusalem comes, but so does its restoration under Nehemiah. Yes, the crucifixion of Jesus comes, but so does the door to eternal life. Yes, death comes, but so does heaven. Don’t judge the world or your life by the middle of the story. God has new mercies every morning, and His light will always come. (Tweet This Quote)
Third, he says, “The Lord is my portion”, and it is a reminder of his priorities. Jesus said it this way:
“Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:19-21)
In other words, destruction, loss, and theft is going to come to everything in this world, and if it is what you love, you will be constantly in sorrow. But if your heart is fixed on the love and presence of God in your life, then you will never lose it and no one can take it from you.
Jeremiah was weeping over the loss of the stones, gems, gold, silver, homes, and everything else that made up the city of Jerusalem. He wept over the loss of the city. He hurt for the people, but he was more moved by the loss of the city of God. But, for a moment, he reminds himself that as important as Jerusalem and the Temple are, it’s only important because it is the place where God chose to make special. Jeremiah didn’t want the furniture of the Temple – he wanted the presence of God.
It’s something that we need to remember as well. Loss will come, and pain, and frustration, but if our heart is fixed on seeking the presence of God through a relationship with Jesus Christ – that He is our “portion” – then we will have a much better perspective on what is happening to us.
Next Jeremiah moves from Intentional Thinking to Intentional Waiting. This is, perhaps, even harder than intentional thinking. It’s one things to change our minds, it’s another thing to act on what we believe.
Verses 25-30 are a portrait of a person who has decided to stop fighting against what God wants to do and to wait for Him to finish what He wants to do. He pauses his activity, stops making plans, stops trying to make his own way, and willingly takes upon himself the yoke of suffering and frustration to let it do the work it must do in his heart.
We want God to build our character, teach us patience, grow our faith, open our eyes, give us compassion, soften our hearts – we pray for that kind of stuff all the time – but are we willing to allow God to actually do what is necessary to make it happen? God needs to strap the yoke of suffering onto our backs to till the soil, break the stones, and make our heart ready for what God wants to plant there. That work will make us sore, expose our weaknesses, and strengthen our muscles. We must submit willingly to allow what we are suffering to be used by God to strengthen us. It’s hard, but Christians who have gone through these times learn to be thankful for the experience of suffering because they know that God uses it to grow them in ways they never would have otherwise.
Paul said it this way:
“…we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” (Romans 5:3-5)
There’s a path there. How do we experience God’s love, go beyond shame and fear, have hope and faith in God? It comes through suffering.
Jeremiah watched the city of Jerusalem kick against what God wanted to do and refuse to learn how to live under God. In Lamentations we see the picture of someone who willingly submitting themselves to what God wants to put them (or their family friends, church, and nation) through – humbly. He’s not happy. He’s doesn’t want it to happen. He wishes it would never have happened. But he submits to it because he knows God loves Him and knows what is best.
Jeremiah asks us who follow God to bears the yoke of suffering willingly, possibly even alone, to prostrate ourselves before God (to put our “in the dust” – bowing before God withour mouth shut), and willingly choose (like Christ taught us and demonstrated) not to fight our own battles but to give our “cheek to the one who strikes” and be willing to have our ears “filled with insults”, because we trust that God will fight our battles for us.
That’s not easy, but it is something that faithful Christians have learned. We kick against God and hurt ourselves. We make our own plans to get out, and we cause more troubles. We try to take control, and we make a mess of it. We choose to fight our enemies and punish those who insult us, and we end up creating more pain and heartache – and we never feel at peace.
Until we relent to God’s plan, God’s way, God’s training ground of suffering.
In verse 40 we see the final exhortation from Jeremiah, spoken allowed to anyone who would listen, and all the generations who would come after:
“Let us test and examine our ways, and return to the Lord!”
The suffering comes because of sin. Jeremiah isn’t perfect – he’s a sinner too- and so, after turning his mind and his will over to God, he does what all believers must do and says, “Ok, let me look inside and see what’s wrong with me and make myself right with God.”
I read something from JC Ryle that I want to share with you. Remember, this was written well over a hundred years ago:
“Let me counsel every true servant of Christ to “examine his own heart” frequently and carefully as to his state before God. This is a practice which is useful at all times: it is especially desirable at the present day. When the great plague of London was at its height people [noticed] the least symptoms that appeared on their bodies in a way that they never remarked them before. A spot here, or a spot there, which in time of health men thought nothing of, received close attention when the plague was decimating families, and striking down one after another! So it ought to be with ourselves, in the times in which we live. We ought to watch our hearts with double watchfulness. We ought to give more time to meditation, self-examination, and reflection. It is a hurrying, bustling age: if we would be kept from falling, we must make time for being frequently alone with God.”[ii]
Not all the problems of the world are your fault, or mine, but we are certainly contribute to the sin we find in this world. Someone can hurt us, completely out of the blue – totally unforeseen, totally not our fault – and it can cause great suffering. But that doesn’t gives us the exception to not examine ourselves. Is the grief I am experiencing exacerbated by my own bitterness and negative attitude? Am I hurting because of my own pride or prejudices? How have I contributed to what’s going on? What do I need to make right before God?
Throughout scripture we are told to examine ourselves so that we can be right with God – which is the most important thing. Get right with God and get right with others. That summarizes the entire Bible. And that takes a good deal of self examination.
In Romans 12:9-21 Paul gives a list of ways that Christians are meant to respond to persecution and suffering at the hands of others and it is a powerful list of ways we can examine ourselves before God.
He starts with: “Let love be genuine.” and then goes on to show us what genuine love looks like:
“Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ To the contrary, ‘if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
That is a convicting list of attributes which I know I don’t love up to. But it’s a list of ways that we fall short before God and contribute to sin in this world. It’s a list of ways that we break God’s laws and make ourselves (and those around us) miserable.
And so, after turning our hearts and minds over to God, we examine ourselves for sin – and we, once again, repent and ask forgiveness. And then we pray.
Here’s an example of the kind of prayer we can pray as we work through suffering and lament:
“God, I feel great pain, anger, sadness, frustration. I know this isn’t all my doing. This is a sinful world and I’m being sinned against. But I also know that my sinful, selfish heart is making it worse.
What’s more is that I know that this is your doing. You allowed this to happen to me. It hurts, but I trust You and believe have a purpose for it. I will stop fighting against what you want to do, stop taking control of it, stop thinking too much of myself, stop believing myself to be to special to experience pain. I will stop blaming you and start trusting you. I’m still angry, but in my anger I won’t sin, and I will continue to bring my pain to you.
God, you’ve brought great suffering to my mind and body. My relationships are in pain. My soul is not at peace. But. I know you know all of this and I choose to call to mind and have hope in the knowledge that you love me with a covenantal love – you promise to love me no matter what – and there is nothing I or anyone else can do to remove me from that love. Your love is steadfast. Your mercies never come to an end. Though it is dark today, I will wait patiently for your morning, and I will not waste this suffering by complaining – I will allow you to till the soil of my heart using this pain.
God, I’m not very patient, but you are teaching me patience. My character needs work, and through this pain you are building it. I asked for hope, and you are giving it to me. It’s not what I want – but it’s what I need. You are the great doctor who knows how to heal, the great vinedresser who knows what branches must be cut off.
I choose now to lay myself before you, mouth in the dust, and to trust in your ways. I want my love to be genuine, to abhor evil and to cling to what is good. That comes only from you, and by your discipline. No one loved more than you, Jesus – and no one suffered more than you.
Help me to have zeal in worship and services. To be patient and hopeful during tribulation, to be constantly in prayer. Help me serve and help others, even during my time of difficulty, just as you served others – even performing miracles – during your arrest and crucifixion. Help me to bless my persecutors, to learn how to be joyful, but also how to weep with those who need me to weep with them. I know that only comes when I can feel their pain – and that only comes when you bring that pain to me.
Kill the pride in me and help me associate with the lowly – and I realize that means that you must knock me down and make me lowly. Help me live peaceably with all, even if that means I don’t get my way and have to suffer for the sake of peace. Let me trust you to pay back wrongs, and take from my heart all of the feelings of vengeance that come there. Instead, help me to do good to my enemies. Let me never be overcome by evil, but to always overcome evil with good. You are that good. You are my treasure and my portion forever.
In Jesus Name, Amen.”
[i] The New American Commentary, F.B. Huey, Jr.
[ii] Warnings to the Churches #4, JC Ryle
While writing this article I was reminded about this song by Casting Crowns called “Does Anybody Hear Her” which seems to hit the nail on the head.
Do Churches Still Help?
I had a conversation recently where we were discussing the place of “para-church ministries” within the realm of global and local missions and it dawned on me that North American churches (and many para-church ministries) are lagging way behind the secular world when it comes to having the reputation of being helpful people.
Back in “the day”… [you know “the day” when your granddad had to walk back and forth from school, up-hill both ways, in 6 feet of snow (and he was only 4 feet tall), in only his socks, dragging a 300 pound bag of books, and only ate dirt for lunch… and LIKED IT!]… it used to be that the church was the premier place to come for help, protection, comfort, healing and peace. We were the first call for education, healthcare, protection from tyrants, help for the poor, the lonely, the bereaved, the lost, etc.
But now, honestly ask yourself: Why would anyone call the average North American Church for help? Or for that matter, the average North American Christian? If they are sick, they go to the hospital. If they’re poor, call the government. Hurt, lonely or afraid? Call a 1-800 help line. If they’re addicted to drugs, they can get into a secular program. Protection from tyrants? Go to the police. If they feel bad or need to make a life change, call a psychologist. If they are unhappy, call a psychiatrist. It seems that the church has lost (or given up) almost everything it once did to help people.
Individual Christians have a hard time with this too. We have lots of excuses why we don’t stop to help someone in need. “I have to protect my family.” “I could get hurt.” “I don’t know anything about medicine or cars.” “I’m too busy.” Lots of excuses… most of which stink.
The Speed Dial Principle
So, here’s a challenge for all Christians to get back to their roots of being people full of grace and mercy. I’m going to call it the “Speed Dial Principle”.
Here’s how it goes:
I propose that we do everything we can to be the first call on everyone’s speed-dial. It is my hope that those around us, without a shadow of a doubt, know that we can be counted on to help NO MATTER WHAT is going on in their life!!!
- How many phones do you have with speed-dial?
- Who are the top 3 people and why are they there?
- Are you on the top of anyone’s speed-dial list?
- Using your position on other people’s speed-dial as your reference, how good is your reputation as a helper? [First call, second call, last choice, not even thought of]?
I propose we try to live our lives as someone trying to make themselves the number one person on everyone’s speed-dial. We want to be their #1 button because they know we are a great friend will never let them down, we have resources to help, and will be there full of joy and without condemnation. Whether it’s helping carry in the groceries, driving someone to another province, helping a kid with homework, cleaning someone else’ house, making a meal or picking up your drunk friend after too much partying… what can you do to be the first person they call.
What about you? What do you think of the “Speed-Dial Principle”? Is it realistic? How can we help our local churches reclaim their ministries of grace and mercy?