A HIGHLY DANGEROUS SCRIPTURE

I don’t know any Bible verse fraught with the power to divide—or filled with more explosive potential. The man who walked with the resurrected Jesus the longest time of any New Testament writer said this: “As for you, the anointing you received from him remains in you, and you do not need anyone to teach you” (I John 2:27). This could bring down the church on the one hand or release passive people into their destiny on the other.

 

What John didn’t mean:

  1. We can do away with teachers. The church needs gifted teachers to help people come to maturity (Ephesians 4:11-13). John was one of them.
  2. We can do away with community. We are encouraged to “not give up meeting together” (Hebrews 10:25).

 

What John meant:

  1. The Holy Spirit is the greatest teacher. As Jesus prepared to leave, he told the disciples, “It is for your good that I am going away…When he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth” (John 16:7,13). What could be more important than a constant Companion who leads us into all truth?
  2. No teacher can replace the Holy Spirit. The anointing is a Christian’s highest asset. We never grow beyond dependence upon the Spirit.
  3. Teachers help us move toward independence. We rely less on them and more on the Spirit. Parents, likewise, train their children to function without them.

 

I wonder if some pastors actually feel good if the church falls apart after they leave: “Look at how much they needed me.” That pastor has mistaken the role of a leader. A co-dependent relationship with a congregation does not release their potential. God has provided something much better. We grow to the place where we are teaching rather than being taught.

 

Paul wrote to the Corinthians who scuffled like immature children, “I could not address you as spiritual but as worldly—mere infants in Christ. I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it” (I Corinthians 3:1,2). Put simply, he said, “Grow up!”

 

The author of Hebrew wrote similarly, “We have much to say about this, but it is hard to explain because you are slow to learn. In fact, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food! Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil” (Hebrews 5:11-14).

 

Maturity is described as:

  • not needing someone to teach us elementary truths
  • training ourselves to discern good from evil
  • learning quickly
  • being able to digest solid food
  • successfully sustaining wholesome relationships

 

I no longer need review on addition and subtraction. Believe me—I have it down. You can also trust me to go to the medicine cabinet without killing myself. Not true for some grandchildren, who lacks discernment. Independence separates children from adults, in the family and in the church. An infant cannot survive without the parent (or the pastor). An adult is self-feeding, self-learning, self-protecting, self-discerning.

 

Pastors and parents can and should train those under their care for independent, healthy living, independent of them and yet fully dependent upon the anointing of the Spirit. Jesus said that the goal of discipleship is becoming like the teacher (Matthew 10:25). He told the disciples that they were better off with him leaving.

 

How can this be done? By training people to rely upon the Holy Spirit as we rely upon him. Jesus gave his apostles heavy-duty assignments early in the learning process. “He called his twelve disciples to him and gave them authority to drive out evil spirits and to heal every sickness…” He said, “Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons” (Matthew 10:1,8). Jesus trained by: experience—debrief—experience—debrief. Few notes—many testimonies. He gave the disciples a piece of the pie. He taught them to rely upon the Spirit.

 

Karen and I are worship leaders, but we seldom lead worship now, because we want to train our young adults to do as we have done. I love preaching, but in order to train preachers and teachers, I must let others do it. When I miss a meeting, it goes on without a hitch. How disturbing is that; they don’t even need me—but they desperately need the Spirit.

 

IS EXERCISING SPIRITUAL?

I first read it in the King James: “Bodily exercise profiteth little” (I Tim. 4:8). Even though the RSV  made Paul’s statement slightly more positive (“bodily training is of some value”), we still heard the KJV quoted to those who went overboard: “Remember, bodily exercise profits little,” proving that the jocks needed to adjust their priorities. Maybe you know someone who never misses the trip to the gym, while the spiritual condition remains neglected. However, contrast this with the multiplied saints who don’t forget their devotional life but can only vaguely recall the last time they cared for their bodies.

 

Divine mandates often impose stresses on the body that require physical endurance, like travel, staying up late, or rising early. Exercise allows the body to stay tuned so that it can serve the spirit.

 

We have been guilty in the church of dividing the sacred and the secular. The call to the holy ministry is a sacred one, while most people enter so-called secular positions. By whose standard? In the same way we have unconsciously taken a Greek understanding of the body, assuming that our spirits count to God much more than our bodies. Such thinking runs counter to our Hebrew heritage. We declare in the Apostles’ Creed, “I believe in the resurrection of the body.” It must mean something to God if He chooses to raise up decomposed matter. It’s time for a healthy theology of the body, and the New Testament gives us one. But we have largely ignored it, and mature Christians are dropping dead because they exercised their spirits and not their bodies. We need vibrant 80-years olds like Caleb.

 

The context of Paul’s exhortation to Timothy offers us help. He was warning of false teachers influenced by demons, who “forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods…” (v. 3). Demons portray the physical realm as unspiritual. To over-spiritualize is to trivialize. The test of a true spirit centers on God becoming flesh (I Jn. 4:2,3). To a world trying to get spiritual, God gets physical!

 

When Jesus said, “This is my body given for you,” the disciples saw His body hanging from a tree fifteen hours later. Our reconciliation came “by Christ’s physical body” (Col. 1:22). We cannot spiritualize the cross; real blood poured out. In like manner, we are called to offer our “bodies as a living sacrifice.”

 

The seriousness of sexual sin is complicated in the damage to our bodies: “All other sins a man commits are outside his body, but he who sins sexually sins against his own body” (I Cor. 6:18). Paul goes on to give one of the greatest reasons for keeping bodies physically fit: “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body” (v. 19,20). What a wonderful goal, what a high calling!

 

A physically fit body is a gift we give the Lord—and our family. Why should we cause grief by dying early? Why not go for the long haul and serve ’til you drop as Moses did? Hit the tape on the run rather than retiring to the rocking chair. Exercising means investing in our future, and the dividends accrue with time. My in-laws, Phil and Margaret, have modeled the clear spiritual value of proper care for the body. She walks and he bikes. He told me not long ago that he might like the idea of working with the elderly—when he gets old!

 

A physically fit body:

  • will normally live longer
  • will fight off disease and depression better
  • is a testimony as to how we steward the gift of our bodies
  • enables us to potentially listen to the Lord better
  • can likely concentrate more fully upon the Lord in prayer
  • can better stay awake spiritually and sleep better
  • can potentially deal with suffering better (exercise is planned pain!). Our bodies naturally prefer comfort to challenge and sleep to hard activity. As we test our bodies with exercise, we are preparing our bodies and our spirits for the tests that are coming our way.

 

My knees complain if I try running these days, so I do push-ups and sit-ups. I often find myself spiritually energized after my short workout, and my children tell me the same thing. We see a relationship between body and spirit. Some take the word “flesh” as used in the epistles to mean “body,” as if Paul is contrasting the body and the spirit in writing about our proneness to sin. The “flesh,” however, speaks of our inherited nature in contrast to the new nature in Christ. It is not contrasting the physical to the spiritual. Many have experienced spiritual growth (in confidence, courage, and peace, for instance) through physical workouts.

 

Any good thing can be overdone. An hour at the gym and a five-minute devo demonstrates scewed priorities. Exercise is not everything! We are told not to fear those who can kill the body, so we must keep this outlook in perspective. I doubt if we’ll need to do push-ups in heaven when we are given glorified bodies, but I suspect that we will engage in more activity than is sometimes imagined. So let’s stay in shape—and get ready!

 

Here’s a personal disclaimer: at seventy, I eat more than many guys half my age. But my metabolism has kept me slim. I feel for those friends more godly than myself who struggle with health or weight issues that make workouts grueling. May God grant extra grace for those who greet this article only as fuel for self-condemnation. Would to God that as you have overcome in more critical areas, like loving God and people, you could also find strength to walk in victory here.

 

I BELIEVE IN BIRTH CONTROL

Karen and I chose natural family planning. It’s a kind of birth control that uses an understanding of a woman’s cycle. What if we had chosen no method? Would we have had more? Is believing in God ever foolish or naïve? Some choose a pill, which can either be a contraceptive or an abortifacient. Instead of using this or other methods, we trusted a natural cycle. What if we had trusted in God and used nothing?

 

Babies and prophecy. I believe in birth control, because God controls the birth. Shouldn’t the Creator be given the first and last say about how many and when? Babies in the Bible often came through prophetic words. Prophecy is history written in advance. Sarah didn’t give birth until she was ninety, because God, not nature, controlled her destiny.

 

Zechariah and Elizabeth were righteous—but they were also childless. When Gabriel announced to the elderly priest that his wife was going to give birth, he had long since quit believing, and he paid for his skepticism with a nine-month quiet time. Nevertheless, God delivered on His promise.

 

Couples wait because of finances, travel plans, the desire to grow together in love, or because of circumstances that seem to demand that they put off children. One size doesn’t fit all, nor one blog. Scripture calls us to a lifestyle of self-denial. It also regards children as “a gift from the Lord.” Do we trust Him for our salvation but not for family planning? By tampering with the womb we run the danger of messing with the plans of a gracious God. Abraham tried playing God, and the effects are still being felt in the world. Jacob asked his barren wife, “Am I in the place of God, who has kept you from having children?” (Gen. 30:2). Are we?

 

God knows the destiny of children. He told Rebekah, struggling in her pregnancy, “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples from within you will be separated” (Gen. 25:23). God sent an angel to a woman “who was sterile and remained childless.” The angel told her, “You are going to conceive and have a son” (Judges 13:5). That was a part of Samson’s testimony years later (Judges 16:17).

 

In my concordance womb follows the word woman. Some might say, “It’s her womb; it’s her right.” True—if our bodies were our own, but we were bought with a price (I Cor. 6:20). If God owns them, He reserves the right to decide what goes on in the womb of a woman. He decided for Sarah, Rachel, Hannah, Elizabeth, Mary and countless others. Why not us?

 

The first command ever given focused on the womb: “Be fruitful and multiply.” It came with a highly desirable activity to encourage humanity in the process. Unfortunately, humankind has come up with mutiple ways to enjoy the program without delivering the product.

 

Does Scripture teach that God controls the womb? “The Lord closed up every womb in Abimelech’s household because of Abraham’s wife Sarah” (Gen. 20:18). He not only controls the womb of His people but of all people. “When the Lord saw that Leah was not loved, he opened her womb, but Rachel was barren” (Gen. 29:31).  “Then God remembered Rachel; he listened to her and opened her womb” (Gen. 30:22).  “To Hannah he gave a double portion because he loved her, and the Lord had closed her womb” (I Sam. 1:5). But the Lord heard her prayer and “Hannah conceived and gave birth to a son” (I Sam. 1:20).

 

What if we let God decide regarding the time and number? The world would have more babies. Some would have bigger families. (The God who opens the womb can also open the pocketbook!) And we would have more problems, which could help us grow up quicker and die to ourselves sooner. Final question: What does our outlook on birth control say about us, about our view of children, and about our picture of God? Bottom line: He is worthy of trust!

 

 

THE TONGUES MOVEMENT GONE WILD!

 When I was a kid, we’d say to those who called us names, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.”  Like fun!  Names hurt us more than any stick ever did. Words shaped like weapons wound far more than a piece of wood.  Job asked his so-called friends, “How long will you torment me, and break me in pieces with words?” (Job l9:2).

 

Words have launched wars.  They have broken up countless marriages, separated life-long friends, split churches, and sent children down the lonely road of depression.

 

But they have also healed cancer, prevented suicides, restored friendships, stopped wars from breaking out, and brought the emotionally imprisoned into liberty. 

 

THE TONGUE HAS GREAT POTENTIAL FOR GOOD.

“If we put bits into the mouths of horses that they may obey us, we guide their whole bodies.  Look at the ships also; though they are so great and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs” (James 3:3,4).  James gives us two examples to show us that small can be significant.

 

A BIT. A broken and bridled stallion makes a beautiful sight, and a little bit goes a long way!  The flick of the wrist by the master turns the mighty beast in an instant.  His will has come under the control of his rider, and a ninety-pound girl can rule a great racehorse.

 

James likewise says that a controlled tongue makes possible the direction of the whole body. If you want to obey your Master, start with the tongue. It’s downhill from there.

 

A RUDDER. On a vacation, my wife Karen and I sat at one of our favorite restaurants along the San Pedro harbor and watched mega-oil freighters cut their way into quiet waters and dock.  Amazing as it is, the direction of these huge ships is determined by a relatively small rudder, operated by one man’s hand.

 

THE TONGUE ALSO HAS POTENTIAL FOR EVIL.

“So the tongue is a little member and boasts of great things.  How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire!  And the tongue is a fire.  The tongue is an unrighteous world among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the cycle of nature, and set on fire by hell.  For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by humankind, but no human being can tame the tongue–a restless evil, full of deadly poison” (James 3:5-8). Again, James gives us two examples.

 

FIRE. I watched the l993 Southern California fire on TV.  Our close friends, the Guldseths, saw it for real. It wiped out their guest house, tool shed, and several cars. One match can do great damage; so can one word.

 

Pyromaniacs can make a crime look like an accident.  James removes any doubt about the origin of fires ignited by the tongue—the pit of hell.  We may say that it started with a prayer request or a little criticism.  James corrects us by saying that it was fueled by the fires that will rage for an eternity.

 

POISON. A quiet and controlled lady once put her troubled daughter in our church school at Trinity Lutheran. The girl lasted only a few weeks. As the principal explained why she was compelled to dismiss the child, the mom listened impatiently.  When she decided that she had heard enough, she stomped out of the room, spilling poison and profanity along the way. Mrs. Cool morphed into a serpent in a few seconds.

 

A snake exists in South America that is called the two-step. If you’re bitten by one, two steps and you’re dead.  The poison works about that fast, paralyzing the nervous system. A deadly tongue poisons reputations, kills futures, and destroys relationships. Call it the “tongues movement” at its worst. 

 

In his hard-hitting letter, James does not deal with predestination or the nature of the Church.  He talks about temptation, anger, shining it on with the rich, and now how I speak.  He doesn’t let me off the hook. He wants reality without religious clothes, and inconsistencies bother him immensely. He says, “From the same mouth come blessing and cursing” (James 3:l0a).  His friend Paul tells us that carnivorous Christians will sooner or later be eaten alive themselves:  “If you bite and devour one another, take heed that you are not consumed by one another” (Galatians 5:l5).

 

So the challenge comes to do what I am already told I can’t–tame my tongue.  But Jesus can.  His words were always rightly chosen, bringing grace and truth. I must surrender this organ to the Master, trusting more than trying, believing that He can and will do this work of maturity in that moving member halfway between the head and the heart.

QUIET TIME—DUTY OR DELIGHT?

 When a guy gets a girlfriend, he doesn’t have trouble making time for her. Love compels him. Same with Jesus: fall in love, and we don’t give Him the extras. When we aren’t there yet, we talk about devotions as a discipline. We would never talk about our relationship with a gal or guy as a discipline. When our meetings with Jesus become a delight, no one tells us to spend time with the King. A have-to has changed into a want-to.

 

If you say, “I talk with Him on the way to school,” try that on your friend–“I’ll talk with you on the way, when I have ten extra minutes.” If you give leftovers, he/she will feel used. She must not be special if you just can’t find time to be with her, if she gets what spills over after a busy week. God told the Israelites through Malachi that He couldn’t stand the cheap sacrifices they were giving. A second-rate offering signaled a second-rate God!

 

Imagine this check-list: 1) Do my homework, 2) Have my quiet time, 3) Call my girlfriend. When we get done, check it off the list. Suggestion: don’t show it to your friend. She won’t be impressed. She just moved from a desire to an assignment, from a person to a project. Not even close to love.

 

I was there. I remember in college asking a friend to pray for me that I would be regular with my devotions. He found it strange that I would ask. I guess it was a non-issue for him. Then something happened a few years later to change duty to delight. When it takes place, you know it, because you are wanting time with the King. When you miss it, you don’t get clobbered, but you do want it, because love engages the heart.

 

I’m not sure how it happens. For some it comes when they realize how much they are loved. “We love because he first loved us.” For the prodigal, it came when he realized how badly he had blown it but was forgiven and embraced anyway. You don’t need to tell him to spend time with the old man. He wants to!

 

The religious leaders tried to corner Jesus by asking Him to boil it down to one word from heaven, one command, one “have to.” They thought they were going to trick him into saying something controversial. He said simply, “Love God and love people.” He reduced it to relationship.

 

We get that; we have experienced it. We know the difference between motivation and force, between doing something expected of us and something we are drawn to, between the pastor or youth director reminding us and the inner working the Spirit drawing us.

 

When external demand morphs to internal supply, the fight is over. That is what the new covenant is all about. It is your inheritance to have a heart that loves God, that wants to obey. It you are fifty years old and not there yet, acknowledge that you need a transplant. God is a heart doctor: “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws” (Ezekiel 36:26,27).

 

Under the newer covenant, God  does the motivating, not the pastor. Chapter 36 includes twenty-two “I will’s” from God. Heaven’s answer to our, “I can’t,” is “I will.”

 

Nothing beats love. It creates its own passion. It never makes it to the “to-do” list because it is the highest priority. Take heart: I’ve seen it happen to scores of young people, and it can happen to you. Hey, every meeting with the King is not a “ten.” Sometimes the Bible can come across as boring, though it never is. Discipline is still required as an ingredient of maturing love, but underneath is the solid foundation of a relationship we have been invited into that matches the deepest desires of our heart!

What to Say to the Hurting

WHAT TO SAY

Nothing. That is often better than something. Touch trumps talk. When a pastor friend was weeping at the altar over a broken relationship with his father, one of the elders hugged him—for twenty-five minutes. I timed it. If actions speak louder than words, try some! Bringing a pie to a hurting family can hardly be misread. Love tastes good.

Job’s friends did great—for seven days. They kept their mouths shut. They met together to “sympathize with him and comfort him. When they saw him from a distance, they could hardly recognize him; they began to weep aloud, and they tore their robes and sprinkled dust on their heads. Then they sat on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights. No one said a word to him, because they saw how great his suffering was” (Job 2:11-13). Good job, guys! Their silence spoke love. It meant so much to Job that he felt free to risk vulnerability. Unfortunately, when he opened his mouth, so did they. Be careful if you feel a need to correct the doctrine of the depressed. Your theology may not be any improvement, as we discover from Job’s friends. Their orthodoxy turned God into a hard-nosed judge rather than a compassionate Father. They were offended for God when Job cursed the day of his birth, and they went to the Almighty’s defense. Job had stepped over the line, and they needed to set the record straight. Far better to posture yourself as a lowly friend of the mourning than the voice of truth from the Ancient of Days. Be prepared—hurt people may say things that offend you. Don’t react.

Something short. No sermons, please. It is amazing how much we want to provide solutions for people. Give love, not answers. The Lord gives more than answers; He gives His presence. “Even though I walk in the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil for you are with me.” Presence means more than proclamation. A team was ministering to a young man who had suffered loss. The first counselor gave him a long message on the nature of God and the sorrows of life. The second person said something short: “This must really hurt.” That gave the young adult freedom to tell his story, which he needed to do in order to release his bitterness and grieve properly. It wasn’t time for a message; it was time for a massage.

Say love. “Love suffers long and is kind.” Ultimately, no rules apply. The guidance of the Holy Spirit, however, does. He is the ultimate Comforter and Counselor. He knows how to touch the depths, and He does it through people like you. He produces the fruit of love in our hearts, and “love never fails.”

The brother of Jesus has counsel worth following, “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry” (James 1:19). How unkind if we get upset with the grieving when we stumble on our attempts to comfort them and they do not receive it. “Love endures all things,” even the apparent rebuff of a grieving friend. Treating people with dignity is a mark of the Spirit’s work in our life.

Good news easily morphs into good advice—which is not. Caring prayer easily degenerates into handing out free counsel. If it is no asked for, it may be rejected. Jesus gave people good news (Isaiah 61), not good ideas. He brought the kingdom of God. The good news of the Gospel can restore hope; it overturns the bad news that takes people down. The good news is that God cares, that God is for us, that Jesus lifts guilt and shame, that He replaces clothes of mourning with a song of rejoicing—in time.

We don’t attempt to remove all pain. Hopefully, our comfort will connect people with the great Comforter. Pain is a part of life and a part of the Christian life. Carl Jung said that “neurosis is always a substitute for legitimate suffering.” A neurotic wants a quick fix, which solves nothing and creates co-dependency. Suffering is important in times of sorrow, and grief arrives as a gift to those who mourn. When we lost a child at birth, a friend removed our cradle from the room before we returned from the graveside. He was expressing love, but he didn’t understand that we needed to grieve, and the presence of the cradle would help us cry. When we had a public service for our stillborn child, elderly women who were not allowed to grieve thanked us for our public demonstration of sorrow, because it helped them with tears that were never shed. People told them that they had to go on with life. Grief puts life on hold, and for good reason. Those filled with the Spirit will be instruments of God to help those who sorrow to walk through the valley of the shadow of death and into a new place.

A mature pastor once told me, “Be with people at their high points and low points.” Sounds like the apostle, who wrote that we should “rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep.” He just gave us the best counsel we could receive on what to “say.”

WHAT TO SAY TO THE HURTING

But first, WHAT NOT TO SAY

“I know just how you feel. That happened to me once.” No one knows the sorrows lying deep within, and “each heart knows its own bitterness” (Proverbs 14:10). Better to say, “I can’t imagine how you are feeling.” To compare your suffering to theirs cheapens what they are going through. However, if they have just lost a child and you have also lost a child, you can identify. Just don’t talk about your experience. If they know you, they will feel your heart. Talk about their experience. Your comfort will mean much to them, because they will feel understood. Only talk about your suffering if you are asked, and then keep it short. God, the One person in the universe who knows how people feel, is “the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God” (2 Corinthians 1:3,4). This Scripture says that the comforted are the best comforters. It does not say that they share their story or give a sermon. It simply says that out of their experience of comfort they are equipped to offer it. So we ask ourselves, “What helped us? How did God use people to put courage back into us when we got the wind knocked out of us?” Long treatises didn’t help—never. Neither did their stories, even if it appeared similar, if they talked too much and listened too little. The comforter needs to take his or her cue from the griever, not vice versa. If you view yourself as the fixer of peoples’ sorrows, you will unfix them. Trust me: they will wish you had not come. Posture yourself as a fellow griever, not as the answer to their grief, not as the one who has gone through what they are going through and can assure them they will make it.

“This is why…” How dare you speak on behalf of God! “God took your wonderful child because she was so special and He wanted her in heaven with Him.” What a selfish God! Answers may come, or they may never come. When people are asking, “Why?” an attempted answer will slap them in the face. Psalm 22 for all time exalts the question that is cried out from the cross. When the horrendous battle was finished, Jesus entrusted Himself to the care of His Father. Did He receive His answer? It was not spoken. However, He cried out “My God, my God, why…?” and after finishing His assignment, He used an endearing term spoken in childlike trust: “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” We can not and should not normally answer the questions grieving people ask, but we can hopefully connect them with the God of all comfort. This may come through a hug, a prayer, or a meal.

“There’s a reason for everything.” No there isn’t, at least not a good reason. Those who say there’s a reason for everything don’t realize that they are turning God into a monster. They are tripping over their sloppy theology, as Job’s friends did. We may incorrectly think that God causes sickness or death in order to teach us some kind of lesson, but for the life of us we don’t know what the lesson is. He takes away a job so we learn how to get by on nothing. He takes a beloved child from us so we learn to put more trust in Him. That doesn’t sound like the Father of Jesus Christ. When a young adult tried to find meaning in her mother’s attempted suicide by saying, “There’s a reason for everything,” we felt for her grief and told her about an enemy whose platform is stealing, killing, and destroying. We don’t come to the grieving with easy answers or trite formulas. We don’t come to try to make them happy. We don’t come to counsel; we come to cry.

“God doesn’t give us more than we can bear.” We had just listened to a friend pour out his soul regarding years of pain. Then from a mature saint came the words just given. I wondered how that could possibly be interpreted as positive. There were two assumptions being made. The first is that God gave the friend all that pain. The second is that the oft-quoted statement is true, which it is not. When I hear what some people go through, I conclude that it is unbearable. The atrocities visited upon humanity are absolutely unbearable, such as holocaust victims. Would we have said to Job, “God doesn’t give us more than we can bear?” We have no right to say it because we haven’t experienced it. Period! People are perhaps attempting to quote that God will not allow you “to be tempted beyond what you can bear” (I Corinthians 10:13). That is dealing with overcoming temptation, not enduring suffering. Just recently a group of us were listening to a woman struggling with a traumatic accusation at work that could have resulted in the loss of her job. Having also come out of a broken relationship, this woman was reeling and could hardly get the words out. Then she heard the statement written above, only it was repeated two more times for emphasis. I know the woman who said it to be kind and caring. It is possible to have a loving heart and still wound people with harsh words.

“All things work together for good…” Great Scripture—comforting truth. Let them confess that after they have worked through their grief. Then it will bring comfort, not hit them like a hammer. It’s all about timing. You are not there to make sure they keep a good attitude or don’t forget to give thanks in all circumstances. You are there to empathize, which means entering into their sorrow with them, remembering the heart of a Father “who has not despised or abhorred the affliction of the afflicted,” who “heals the broken-hearted and binds up their wounds,” and “who is near to the broken-hearted and saves the crushed in spirit.” (Psalms 22, 147, 34).

Eleven days after the most horrific shooting incident remembered in American history, a poem was written by someone in another state about the twenty dead children. The takeoff from “The Night Before Christmas” showed them in heaven being cared for by Jesus. Right word—wrong time, way too early to show the bright side of an unspeakable tragedy. Silence and sorrow would have served the grieving families far more.

Don’t have any expectation for the impact of your visit or your words. Otherwise, you may attempt to manipulate the one in grief. If you come with an agenda (cheer up your friend, offer them advice, answer their questions), it will lead to some kind of control.

BEHAVING THE WORD!

My friend Kevin McClure told our young adult group, “I don’t just want to read the Word. I want it to read me!” More important than scrutinizing the Scripture is letting it scrutinize us. “Search me, O God,” says the psalmist, “and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts” (Ps. 139:23). We need to come away from encounters changed, not just inspired. We won’t always enjoy devotions; maybe we’ll feel unsettled.

It is of value to search the Scriptures. We also need the Scriptures to search us. They judge “the thoughts and attitudes of the heart” (Heb. 4:12). They dig below the surface to where we really live, into hidden outlooks that must be awakened and confessed.

Jesus once asked would-be followers, “Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say?” Their lives did not match their words, and the appearance of living under Christ’s lordship proved a pretense.

The Great Commission does not call us to know more but to obey better. We err when we invite people to hear but not to heed. We settle for a faith that stops at intellectual assent rather than radical obedience. James mocks such head knowledge, calling it “useless” (Js. 2:20). He also says that we are living in self-deception.

When Mary and the siblings of Jesus came to see Him, He said, “My mother and brothers are those who hear God’s word and put it into practice” (Luke 8:21). Simply put, Jesus considered those careful to do what God’s Word tells them to do as closer than His family of origin.

Luke places this incident just after the parable of the sower, where Jesus again told the importance of doing the Word. The fourth kind of soil stood for those “who hear the word, retain it, and by persevering produce a crop.” Good intentions do not make it for the farmer or for the faithful. Follow-through is what counts! Every time we praise the Lord in the midst of difficulty, stop our tongue when insulted, or deny ourselves to help a brother in need, we are strengthening our foundation and fertilizing the crop.

Easier said than lived out. How do we apply the Scripture when we read a different passage each day and hear a new sermon every Sunday? Answer: “We can’t.” When a voice teacher said to me, “Keep your shoulders low, your gut firm, your chin in, your arms relaxed, and don’t sing from your throat. And….” I interrupted her: “I can learn only one thing at a time.” So we may need to pick one passage for a while, praying that the Spirit translates it into our habits.

Jesus persisted with this theme of doing the Word. When a woman tried to praise Him by shouting in a crowd, “Blessed is the mother who gave you birth,” Jesus responded with, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it!” (Luke 11:28). I would have at least acknowledged the affirmation. The Son of God deflected it toward a higher priority.

To know and not to do is not to know. To study the Scriptures and not to do what they say puts us potentially in more dangerous territory than not studying at all! (Suggestion: try praying them into your life. If you read about worry, pray, “Forgive me for worrying about finances. Please help me to live without this anxiety.”)

Later in His ministry, Jesus told a parable of two sons. When the father asked the first son to work in the field, he refused but later changed his mind. The second son said he would but did not. Obedience trumps profession—every time. Simple obedience does not always follow easy assent. Words come naturally for religious types who want to look good, and sometimes I can be religious. The first son proved more in touch with his own independence, and God changed his heart.

Just days before the crucifixion, Jesus told three stories, all of which ended with horrendous judgment. The verdict came not on the basis of belief but of behavior. Five virgins missed the Party because they forgot oil. A servant missed the celebration because he didn’t invest his master’s money. The goats were separated from the eternal kingdom because of the compassion they failed to extend. These examples tamper with our theology that assumes believing suffices. Apparently, believing without responding invalidates the belief. Or in the words of Jesus’ brother, “Faith without works is dead.”

Are you reading the Word of God on a regular basis? If yes, good. Are you letting the Word of God read you? Even better. I once said to a pastor friend, “I want to study more about repentance,” to which he responded, “I want to repent.” Or like the new Chinese believer said, “I am now reading the Bible and behaving it.”