The God of the vulnerable

Reflect deeply on the way God is revealed in both His greatness and His love for the vulnerable. (Audio version here)

“To the Lord your God belong the heavens, even the highest heavens, the earth and everything in it. Yet the Lord set his affection on your ancestors and loved them, and he chose you, their descendants, above all the nations—as it is today. …. For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes. He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt” (Deuteronomy 10:14-19).

Great thoughts on this subject “The gods that the ancient world worshipped were concerned with great people — the mighty and cunning, the swift and the gorgeous. The rest of humanity served as a backdrop — bit players, foils, and inconsequential fodder for the grand plans of kings, generals, and deities. Not so with the God of the Bible. We see God’s strange interest in the people on the margins carved upon every page of Scripture. It was evident in Yahweh’s selection of a nation of slaves to be his special people. It echoed in his choice of sheep-tenders to be the first to hear news of the Incarnation. We may miss how odd it actually is because we live in a culture that is deeply shaped by Christian assumptions. Though it is often violated, to care for the weak and vulnerable remains a Western virtue. This generally wasn’t the case in the cultures that surrounded Jewish and early Christian communities. Like modern Social Darwinists, ancient societies typically saw weakness as unworthiness to live. As the Roman philosopher Seneca described Roman culture during Jesus’ time, “We drown children who at birth are weakly and abnormal. Consider then the marvel of a God who not only tolerates the feeble and lowly, but places special premium on defending and caring for them. What a contrast. We see God, the most potent and self-sufficient Power imaginable, continually expressing profound concern for the least potent and self-sufficient — the orphan in distress. The Law describes, “He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow …” (Deuteronomy 10:18 NIV). The Prophets echo the same truth: “For in you the fatherless find compassion” (Hosea 14:3b). And, again, in the psalms, “A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows, is God in his holy dwelling. God sets the lonely in families …” (Psalm 68:5-6). As we grasp this outlandish, beautiful reality, we encounter the truth of God’s father heart. It pulses not only for the orphan, but for each of us as well. He pursued us when we were destitute and alone. He adopted us as his children. He invites us to call him “Abba” and to live as his daughters and sons. Of course, we must not miss the fact that God calls his people to do the same. We are to live out “pure and faultless religion” by caring for the orphan and widow in their distress (James 1:27). As we do this, we reveal God’s heart to the world. Whether by adoption or foster care or mentoring or supporting the local Church in care for orphans around the globe, we display that astonishing reality that the Great One cares passionately for the least. And in the process, we experience God’s heart more deeply ourselves as well — a peculiar, marvelous love for the orphan. A peculiar, marvelous love for us” (Rick Warren). This is our God

  • “A father to the fatherless, a defender of   widows, is God in his holy dwelling” (Psalms 68:5).
  • “Though my father and mother forsake me,
 the Lord will receive me” (Psalm 27:10).

A call to be like our God

  • “Defend the weak and the fatherless; uphold the cause of the poor and the oppressed” (Psalm 82:3).
  • “This is what the Lord says: Do what is just and right. Rescue from the hand of the oppressor the one who has been robbed. Do no wrong or violence to the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow, …” (Jeremiah 22:3).
  • “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress…”                                                        (James 1:27).
  • “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, 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 receive from God” (II Corinthians 1:3-4).
  • “Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Ephesians 5:1-2).

Steve Cornell

Grace and Responsibility

Does grace lead to responsibility?

When people genuinely experience God’s grace should it make a difference in their lives? Is grace transforming? 

Jesus told a story that made a profound and urgent connection of grace with responsibility. It’s a familiar story, perhaps too familiar. It’s the parable of the unmerciful servant. One New Testament scholar suggested that this story “is possibly the most forceful expression of how Christians should live” (Klyne Snodgrass, Stories With Intent).

The parable of the unmerciful servant only appears in the gospel of Matthew and follows a question the apostle Peter asked about how many times he should forgive a person who sins against him (Matthew 18:21-22).

Before Peter asked this question, Jesus taught his followers to confront a brother or sister who sins against them. “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you” (Matthew 18:15). The goal of this confrontation is to address the offense that divides them with hope of restoring a broken relationship. 

If private confrontation is rejected, Jesus taught that it should involve others and could possibly, if repeatedly rejected, lead to a change in the relationship. “If they still refuse to listen,” Jesus said, “tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector” (Matthew 18:17).

After this instruction, Jesus taught about the far reaching extent of forgiveness. Peter asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?” Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times (Matthew 18:21-22).

Jesus’ parable contrasted an unimaginable act of forgiveness by a merciful King who released his servant from a massive debt (Matthew 18:23-27) with an unmerciful act of the servant who had just been forgiven (Matthew 18:28-30).

At this point the story takes a dramatic turn. When the other servants saw what had happened, they were outraged and went and told their master everything that had happened. “Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed. “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart” (Matthew 18:31-35).

Jesus used an extreme amount of debt to make the point that we will never be able to earn or deserve forgiveness and that we are hopeless doomed apart from the mercy and forgiveness of God.

Two truths 

  1. We will never forgive others any where close to the extent that we have been forgiven by God.
  2.  Forgiven people who withhold mercy and forgiveness from others are not going to do well with God (v. 35).

A disturbing question – The parable raises a question about the role of works and obedience in relation to God. 

Q. Are God’s mercy and forgiveness conditioned on or withdrawn from us based on our mercy and forgiveness toward others?

  • Matthew 5:7 – “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.”
  • Matthew 6:14-15 – “For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.”
  • Mark 11:25 – “And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.”

Three essential facts

  1. We cannot earn or deserve God’s forgiveness by forgiving others.
  2. God’s forgiveness of our sins is the basis for our forgiveness of others.
  3. God expects forgiven people to forgive and they will (Eph. 4:31-32; Colo. 3:13).

Ethical motivation

The ethical motivation for Christian forgiveness and for treatment of others is responsive and reflective.

1. Responsive to God’s prior action toward us in mercy, forgiveness and love

I John 4:16-19 – “And so we know and rely on the love God has for us. God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment …. We love because he first loved us.”

2. Reflective of God’s prior action toward us in mercy, forgiveness and love

  • Luke 6:35-36 – “But love your enemies, do good to them, …Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”
  • Ephesians 4:32 – “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.”
  • Colossians 3:13 – “Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.”
  • Ephesians 5:1-2 – “Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”

Summary thoughts (from “Stories With Intent” by Klyne Snodgrass, pp. 74-76)

“The community cannot tolerate sin without confrontation and reproof, but must always love and forgive without limits… Sin has disastrous and eternal consequences, confrontation and discipline are necessary, and excommunication from the community is a real possibility. At the same time, God searches out those who stray and wills that none be lost, and the community can lay no bounds to its forgiveness or forget that its forgiveness is modeled on God’s forgiveness of its members’ own much larger debt.

We … feel the tension we feel between reproof and love…  Matthew has insisted that the community address seriously issues of obedience and sin, if possible in discrete ways, even if that leads to starting all over with those it rebukes, treating them as outsiders.  At the same time…insisted that humility and forgiveness dominate the efforts.”

“The parable prevents any presuming on grace. The church has often presented a grace that did not have to be taken seriously, but biblical grace is transforming grace. When you get the gift, you get the Giver, who will not let you go your way.”

“All the focus on obedience, however, is based in God’s prior action. The indicative of God’s forgiveness precedes the imperative of our response. …the ethic is a responsive ethic, a response to God’s grace and calling.”

“The fear of works righteousness is far too exaggerated. Would that there were an equal fear of being found inactive. Works righteousness is not the problem of most modern Christians. We would do better to realize that if we do not work, we are not righteous.”

“In the end we should recognize that God is the only one who ultimately can hold humanity accountable.  The concern of the parable is God’s forgiveness and the seriousness of failing to mirror God’s mercy, not an atonement theology or a general discussion of judgment.”

“God’s mercy must not be treated cavalierly. Mercy is not effectively received unless it is shown, for God’s mercy transforms. If God’s mercy does not take root in the heart, it is not experienced. Forgiveness not shown is forgiveness not known.”

“…grace always brings with it responsibility. The forgiveness of God must be replicated in the lives of the forgiven, and the warning is clear. Where forgiveness is not extended, people will be held accountable.”

[If only the church] “spoke truth taking care to guard the privacy of the offender as much as possible without ignoring the sin, set no limits for forgiveness, and emphasized the necessity of a forgiveness modeled on God’s own forgiveness, knowing that judgment is severe for those who do not forgive?”

“The message of this parable is badly needed by churches and individuals who live in a society where people insist on standing on their rights and division marks our churches, families, and societies. The teaching of the parable is counterintuitive, but it is possibly the most forceful expression of how Christians should live. Christian living—rather than insisting on rights—should be a continual dispensing of mercy and forgiveness, mirroring God’s own character and treatment of his people.”

“Society also cheapens forgiveness so that sin is treated lightly, but the focus on judgment in Jesus’ parables warns that forgiveness brings with it a call for reform. If forgiveness does not effect change, it is not experienced.”

Steve Cornell

Transforming our marriages, families and Churches

Here’s an urgently needed word from Jesus Christ for our marriages, families and Churches:

“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

What does this love look like in our relationships?  

Love…

      • is patient
      • is kind
      • does not envy
      • does not boast
      • is not proud
      • is not rude
      • is not self seeking (demanding its own way)
      • is not easily angered (irritable) 
      • it keeps no record of wrongs
      • is never glad about evil
      • rejoices in truth
      • always protects
      • always trusts
      • always hopes
      • always perseveres (1 Corinthians 13:4-8a)

“Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance” (NLT). “There is nothing love cannot face” (NEB).

  • Love is tenacious and faithful.
  • Love is brave and noble.
  • The greatest is love.

Love in action

“Love each other with genuine affection, and take delight in honoring each other.” (Romans 12:10, NLT) 

  • “take delight” (προηγούμενοι) could be rendered “going before” or “giving preference.” The word conveys eagerness to honor others. It’s a call to initiate or even to surpass one another in showing honor.
  • “Out do one another in showing honor” (ESV).
  • I like the rendering “Take delight.” It should not be a burden but joy to show honor to others. Honoring involves recognizing the value of another. 

Renewed practice of Romans 12:10 could transform our marriages, families and Churches. “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35).

Love is what the world needs to see in us and what each person can experience through God’s love in Christ (see: Rom. 5:8; 8:38-39; Titus 3:3-6).

“God showed how much he loved us by sending his one and only Son into the world so that we might have eternal life through him. This is real love—not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as a sacrifice to take away our sins.Dear friends, since God loved us that much, we surely ought to love each other” (I John 4:9-11)

Steve Cornell

Unity in Marriage

Have you ever observed wives who suppress their identities under more dominant husbands who do not draw from the gifts and strengths of their wives?

Wives who do this typically have misguided understandings of headship and submission. They tend to enable their husbands while wrongly thinking that they’re being good submissive wives. What they are actually doing is violating the original design for a wife to be a complementary completion to husbands who need the unique contributions of their wives.

The original plan for marriage assumes the necessity of individuality and uniqueness in husbands and wives for the completion of a combined oneness. Think about it. If it wasn’t good for the man to be alone, it won’t resolve matters if a wife disappears into his identity. The wedding ceremony of the unity sand offers a nice picture of two becoming one — without one disappearing into the other.

Whatever else oneness is meant to be in marriage, it’s not the disappearance of either part into the other but the merging of the uniqueness of each into one. Some husbands foolishly misuse Christian teaching about headship and submission to diminish the uniqueness and contributions of their wives. These men typically insist that life conforms to their dominant identity so they can get what they want. 

But marriage is intended by God to be a one-flesh relationship based on mutual self-giving love. It’s a covenant of companionship between two spiritually equal human beings. This doesn’t mean that the relationship is without roles and roles in marriage do not diminish individual uniqueness, equality and the call for mutual respect.

If each person is important to the strength of a marriage, each one must bring the beauty of their uniqueness and gifts to the relationship. It takes two for marriage to be what it is meant to be.

The husband bears primary responsibility to lead the home in a God-glorifying manner. His leadership clearly involves authority and should be honored by his wife and family. This authority, however, should be based deeply in the love described in I Corinthians 13:4-8a and in thoughtful consideration toward his wife (see: Philippians 2:3-5; I Peter 3:7).

Scripture issues strong warnings against husbands who treat their wives with insensitivity. Husbands must never forget that they are commanded to love their wives as Christ loved the church (Ephesians 5:25). Cultural limitations should not be placed on the command for husbands any more than on the command for wives to submit.

Steve Cornell

 

Formula E429 could change your life!

One of the best ways to improve our communication is to replace destructive tones with constructive ways of speaking to each other.

Words of appreciation and encouragement are excellent alternatives to ugly tones of grumbling, whining; impatience, frustration and defensiveness.

Think of how many times we could defuse a situation by choosing better words and tones. Parents especially need to ask if their words and tones set the right example for their children. 

Use Formula E429 to remind yourself of God’s will for our speech. The formula is based on Ephesians 4:29 – “Let everything you say be good and helpful, so that your words will be an encouragement to those who hear them.” (Ephesians 4:29, NLT).

Then apply a large dose of the first two characteristics of love: “Love is patient, Love is kind…” (I Corinthians 13:4).

This could literally change your life and the lives of those close to you!

WARNING LABEL

This advice comes with a warning about how easily we excuse our attitudes, words and tones by pointing to the difficult people around us. Remember the basic truth that the only person you can change is yourself. But by working on self-correction and experiencing personal change, we can powerfully influence others. So if you feel stuck in a bad place, find ways that you can change your attitudes, words and tones. But start with the words and tones you use because this discipline will make you face and confront your attitudes and emotions.

Recognize how all of this change fits under the work God is doing in your life based on these truths:

“Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.  And we all … are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit” (II Corinthians 3:17-18, NIV).

“Work hard to show the results of your salvation, obeying God with deep reverence and fear. For God is working in you, giving you the desire and the power to do what pleases him” (Philippians 2:12-13).

I have work to do. Will you join me?

Steve Cornell 

See also: Spiritual Depression

Love’s grand finale

 

“Do everything in love” (I Corinthians 16:14). How can we do this? Go back to the best definition of love available to us: 

I Corinthians 13:4-8

“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.” (I Corinthians 13:4-8, NIV).

Those who practice this kind of love minimize conflict because love is anti-rivalry. Playful rivalry keeps life interesting and fun but when rivalry becomes selfish it violates true love and destroys unity and community. 

A closer look at love

1. Love is patient: It is long-suffering. It restrains anger when provoked. Patience is more than passive waiting. It’s active restraint in the moment of provocation. God is patient (Romans 2:5; II Peter 3:9).

2. Love is kind: It reaches out in good will with acts of care and concern. Love not only patiently forebears, but through kindness, actively pursues. Loving people are distinguished by their kindness. God is kind — even to the ungrateful and wicked (Luke 6:35-36; Titus 3:4-5)

3. Love does not envy: It does not resent the blessings of others. Envious people engage in evil rivalry. The envier gloats over the harm or misfortune of the envied. Enviers delight in evil.

4. Love does not boast: Love corrects the desire to call attention to self. A loving person is not a windbag or braggart. He does not parade himself. Love is willing to work anonymously. It needs no limelight or stage, applause or recognition.

5. Love is not proud: not puffed up; not arrogant; not full of oneself. A loving person does not think more highly of himself than sober judgment dictates (Romans 12:3).

6. Love is does not dishonor others: It is not rude. It is respectful of others.

7. Love is not self-seeking: It does not insist on its own way. It is not self-absorbed.

8. Love is not easily angered: It is not easily agitated nor easily provoked. Loving people are not hot-tempered, short-fused people.

9. Love keeps no record of wrongs: Love seeks forgiveness and reconciliation. When hurt badly, this part of love is hard to practice.

10. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth: This rules out gossip, slander, and Schadenfreude (delight in the downfall of others).

Love’s grand finale – Love always protects, trusts, hopes, perseveres.

There is nothing love cannot face and endure. Four verbs (protects, trusts, hopes, perseveres) offer repeated emphasis on how love brings everything under its influence. Love is tenacious and faithful. Love is positive and hopeful. Love is brave and noble; it never fails.

“Live a life filled with love, following the example of Christ. He loved us and offered himself as a sacrifice for us” (Ephesians 5:2).

Steve Cornell