Tuesday, January 25, 2011

No Wrath, Ever

Journalist and art historian Lewis Hind once wrote of a personal epiphany about his father. Mr. Hind was a stern parent who administered discipline with an iron hand. Lewis respected his father, but even more, he feared him. One Sunday morning that all changed. He was sitting in a church pew next to his father when the urge to sleep overtook him. Try as he might, young Lewis could not keep his eyes open. As he began to nod off, movement next to him startled him awake. His father raised him arm. Lewis flinched, sure his father meant to shake or strike him. Instead, Mr. Hind stretched his arm over the back of the pew and drew his young son close to his side, encouraging him to snuggle up and relax. For the first time Lewis understood that his father loved him.

Sometimes what we think we know as truth turns out to be dead wrong.

From early on, Jewish theology carried the idea that sickness was always a result of sin. Many centuries ago, a friend of Job demonstrated this with these words: "Remember now, who ever perished being innocent? Or where were the upright destroyed? According to what I have seen, those who plow iniquity and those who sow trouble harvest it. By the breath of God they perish, and by the blast of his anger, they come to an end."

In Jesus' day, that idea persisted. Religious leaders questioned Jesus about one man's the state of blindness in John 9. "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he would be born blind?" Obviously, if you were blind, you were experiencing the wrath of God for some grievous sin. Or so they thought.

Jesus knew otherwise. He corrected their false belief by telling them it was neither. "It was so the works of God might be displayed in him," he said.

Mark tells the story in his gospel of a paralytic whose friends lowered him through a hole in the roof to see Jesus. Their faith in his ability to heal, as evidenced by their determined initiative, pleased Jesus. But when he addressed the paralyzed man, his first words are puzzling. He didn't say, as we think he might, "I will heal you." He said, "Your sins are forgiven."

Why did he say that? Certainly claiming authority to forgive sins was a statement to the religious leaders present in that house. Only God could forgive sins. With his proclamation, Jesus was claiming to be God. But what would "your sins are forgiven" have meant to Jesus' primary recipient, the paralytic?

For however long the man had been paralyzed, he had lived with the stares of others, silently accusing him of committing some terrible sin, evidenced by his physical condition. Worse, he knew the rejection and wrath of God himself. Or so he thought.

Jesus told him otherwise. He cleared away the man's guilt with one statement. Your sins are forgiven. God is not angry with you. He wants a relationship with you. Upon hearing those words and their implication, the burden of despair fell off the man's shoulders. He was spiritually healed.

Then, for good measure, Jesus did what no other could do. He commanded the paralytic to walk. And so he did. He picked up the mat on which he had so recently been carried and carried it home. With that physical healing, Jesus made his point. He was the Son of God. He had the authority to forgive sin. And he had just proved it.

Have you ever wondered if your difficult circumstances are God's punishment for your sin? That if you could be a better person, God wouldn't be angry with you? Don't buy into the lie. It's bad theology.

Jesus bore the wrath of God for our sin on the cross. He endured God's rejection, anger, and sin's consequences. If we believe in Christ, trusting him for our salvation, we will never be condemned for a single sin.

Jesus already paid the debt. God is not angry with you. True, sin makes him angry. But he placed his wrath for our sin on Jesus. As believers, we will never experience the wrath of God.

"For God has not destined us for wrath, but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ." 1 Thessalonians 5:9

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Time to Lay Those Burdens Down

The longest river in the world, the Nile, flows 4,130 miles from its headwaters in Africa's mountainous lakes region to the Mediterranean. Sediments from as far away as Rwanda are carried northward by the force of the water as it plummets over falls and sweeps through channels in relentless movement toward the sea. Near the mouth, the river's banks suddenly widen, and the water spreads out, losing energy in the process. As the velocity slows, much of the sediment, after being carried thousands of miles through the desert, drops to the river bottom. Thousands of years of these deposits have resulted in the famous Nile Delta, an enormous landform easily seen from space.

Sometimes it takes slowing down before a burden can be deposited. David knew this fact well. He wrote: "He leads me beside quiet waters. He restores my soul."

I didn't used to be much on slowing down. As I raced through each day, tyranny of the urgent ran my agenda. We were raising four children, and I was working full time, throwing my energy into making my fifth grade classroom a place of wonder and discovery. Even my service given to the church held the same frantic pace. The busyness eventually took its toll on me, and I began to experience physical problems related to stress. Yet slowing down didn't seem like a viable option.

Then I went to seminary. One of the classes I was required to take was on the spiritual disciplines. I was skeptical from the first time I walked in the door. We Biblical Studies majors didn't think much of those counseling classes. Too much about feelings, not enough about exegesis. I took it because I had to. But I wasn't going to like it.

True to expectations, the professor had us doing some outside-the-box things. I would inwardly roll my eyes as he sent us out to meditate or participate in some touchy-feely exercise. Oh, please. Stop wasting my time!! As the class dragged on, I began to count the sessions until it would be over. Then one morning, as the class neared its end, we were told to go find a quiet place in nature and sit there for one hour, just listening to what God had to say to us. An hour? Of listening? Seemed a bit ridiculous to me. I reluctantly collected a notebook to record all of these messages I would supposedly receive and headed out to find a tree.

"OK, here I am," I begrudgingly informed God. "Fire away." My mind was full of the papers I had to write, the books I had to read, the Greek I had to translate. I could use this hour so much more effectively. I could hardly sit still. My frame of mind was anything but conducive to listening.

But as the hour dragged on I tried to relax and appreciate the peace and quiet. I began to perceive the Lord's presence. Not that he hadn't been there all along, mind you. I was just too preoccupied to notice.

I started to bask in the love and grace he has lavished on me. My thoughts went to his greatness and power and faithfulness, his mercies that were new every morning. I began to thank him for loving me and for the blessings he has put into my undeserving life. Suddenly, my former agenda seemed very shallow. I prayed again, this time with an open heart and mind. "Lord, show me what you desire," I pleaded.

God began to invade my thoughts. He wanted my heart more than my efforts. I was carrying too many burdens. It was time to put them down. So I did. I gave him my worries about finishing my studies successfully. I gratefully handed over concerns about my fledgling adult children awkwardly spreading their wings. My fears and anxieties fell off my shoulders as he impressed on me his power and ability to handle it all. And when the hour was up, I walked away feeling freer than I had been for a very long time.

We Americans are busy people. In our drive for productivity, we pick up burdens we don't have time to lay back down. It's time to slow down. Find a quiet corner in your house. Sit down unencumbered by the routine distractions and open your heart to him. As we embark on a new decade, make it a priority to give God the time he deserves. Don't go to him with an agenda. Let him set the pace. And as he leads you beside quiet waters, you will be restored. It's well worth the time.