Peace and joy and endurance



During Easter each year, we read the Gospel of John.  Several times, we hear Jesus say that he gives us peace and joy.  He makes these promises before he dies and again after he is resurrected.  Does Jesus promise peace and joy so that we can sit at home and watch TV without worrying?  How should I approach times in my life when peace and joy seem to be exactly what I do not have?  Is this an empty promise?

This is the fourth post in a series about God’s promises.  Look here , and here , and here and here to read the other posts.

Do I get peace and joy so I can sit back and take things easy?

Some preachers today proclaim a “gospel of prosperity” – serve God and you get money and success, maybe even ease.  But let me give you two absolutely iron-tight reasons this simply cannot be the message of the Gospel.

First, you cannot find a single hero of the faith in the Bible or in the Church’s saints who lived that way.  Who you gonna name?  The apostles?  Nope, they all died as martyrs, except John, and he was exiled on an island.  King David?  He had trouble almost every day of his life.  Isaiah or Jeremiah or Ezekiel or any other Old Testament prophet you want to name?  Nope, nope, and nope.  Some of them suffered horribly, others were discouraged and ignored.  Abraham or Isaac or Jacob?  Are you kidding?  Go read and you see their life was full of challenge, even suffering.

The same goes for the Saints and Doctors of the Church.  They did not receive peace and joy in order that they could just take it easy.  The overwhelming majority of them led lives of difficulty.

Second, even though Jesus says we receive peace and joy, he specifically says it won’t be easy.  Look at two passages from Mark’s Gospel.

And these are the ones sown on rocky ground who, when they hear the word, receive it at once with joy.  But they have no root; they last only for a time. Then when tribulation or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away.    Mark 4:16,17

Jesus said, “Amen, I say to you, there is no one who has given up house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands for my sake and for the sake of the gospel, who will not receive a hundred times more now in this present age: houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and eternal life in the age to come.     Mark 10:29,30

Jesus doesn’t say “if” persecutions come – the Lord says “when”.

So is the promise of peace and joy an empty promise?

No, it isn’t empty – it’s deeply significant in a Christian’s life when properly understood.

The main thing in responding to Jesus’ promise of peace and joy is to distinguish what these things are and are not. “Peace and joy” is not the same thing as having plenty of money and good health and children who never give you trouble and the admiration of the people around you and good bone structure and great hair.

Peace and joy is the abiding conviction that you are doing God’s will, which is precisely the confidence that all is well with you.  You are in agreement with God, who is the great Ground of all there is and can be.  The focus of your being lifts from current conditions and a short-term future, onto a horizon linked to eternity.  God is your friend.

Let me offer an example from Father Robert Barron’s Catholicism dvd series.  (By the way, the dvd series is a triumph.  You can learn more here.

Here is Father Barron’s example.  In the Beatitudes, Jesus speaks of the happy person as one who does not look for happiness in economic wealth or in power or in experience.  The happy person hungers for God and for the qualities that belong to God.  Jesus even says  in the final Beatitude “Blessed are you when men… persecute you… on account of me.”  Father Barron then goes to Matthias Grunewald’s Isenheim altar depiction of the Crucifixion and says this painting of Jesus nailed to the cross is a picture of a happy man.  Why?  Because this is a man who does the will of God and knows it, a man who is motivated by what motivates God.  Thus, this is a man who is at peace and one who has joy, despite his suffering.

St. Paul speaks of much the same thing.

Have no anxiety at all, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God.  Then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus…  I know indeed how to live in humble circumstances; I know also how to live with abundance. In every circumstance and in all things I have learned the secret of being well fed and of going hungry, of living in abundance and of being in need.  I have the strength for everything through him who empowers me.     Philippians 4:6,7,12,13

Paul’s peace did not depend on whether he was hungry or well-fed.  His peace was not a function of whether he was in abundance or in need.  He lived by the strength of Jesus.  His peace came from Jesus.

The oddly logical link between joy and peace and suffering

God in his wisdom and forbearance has allowed our world to continue, even though so much of this world is controlled by people who are evil.  Somehow, it is the will of God that hurtful people nevertheless retain the freedom to exercise their hurtfulness.  It is his will that even natural forces have power to cause physical suffering for his children.

He gives peace and joy to you and me who serve him – he does this in order that we may endure suffering in this world, yet remain bound to Father and Son and holy Spirit.  It is odd, isn’t it?  For now, it is necessary that there be pain and hunger and persecution and all the rest.  So God holds me close, he “guards my heart and mind in Christ Jesus” so that when I suffer I am not in danger of separation from him.  Romans 8:28-39  is another passage that describes this process.

Far from being an empty promise, God’s peace and joy are what make it possible for me to imitate Jesus in his suffering, even Jesus on the cross, “who for the sake of the joy that lay before him endured the cross, despising its shame, and has taken his seat at the right of the throne of God”.   Hebrews 12:2

Suffering and persecution are inevitable for God’s people.

To endure suffering, God gives his people peace and joy.

When the suffering is ended and we are in the presence of God, part of our perfection will have come from the suffering we endured with God’s help.

Overwhelming temptation – can the devil make you do something?



God gives a promise that makes it impossible for a Christian to shrug his shoulders when he sins and say “the devil made me do it”.  It’s a promise described by St. Paul in I Corinthians which says whenever a Christian is tempted to sin, there will always be a way to escape the temptation, always a way to keep from sinning.  And that means being Jesus’ disciple is not hopeless, it is not doomed to fail.  This promise has a bright side, and it has sort of a tough side, too.

This is the fourth post in a series about God’s promises.  Look here , and here, and here to read the other posts.

Here’s the bright side to the promise

First a word about the people Paul was writing to.  The Corinthians are already Christians and they are literally covered up with stuff that just is not right.  These people get drunk at church (no kidding) — they sue each other instead of settling their difference privately — they have factions within the church sort of like denominations — they do things in front of each other (having to do with pagan worship and food) that really create problems for Christians falling away from the church — they have a man who is sleeping with his mother-in-law and nobody seems to think it’s a problem — their worship is chaotic and even out of control to the extent it’s hard to tell what’s going on — rich people discriminate against poor people in obvious, hurtful ways.  Good grief!  If your diocese had a parish like these Corinthians, your bishop would be all over them to clean things up.  And Paul was definitely all over the Corinthians.

As often as they sinned, it would have been easy for the Corinthians to throw up their hands and just say “what’s the use?”  Paul tells them about God’s promise so they won’t give up.

In chapter 10 after Paul makes a list of warnings, he then tells these Christians about a promise God has made to them:

No trial has come to you but what is human. God is faithful and will not let you be tried beyond your strength; but with the trial he will also provide a way out, so that you may be able to bear it.   I Corinthians 10:13

 

Paul says sinning as badly as these people already have done is no reason to quit!  The good news in this promise is that God is actively involved in the life of each Christian to limit the temptations each of us face.  The limit is that the temptation will not be more than we can bear.

This promise gives us the courage to start our discipleship, because God’s promise means our effort is not hopeless.  We will not meet temptation so strong that we are doomed to fail.  And even when we do sin, we have the courage to “get back up” because of this promise.  If we endure, then Paul’s word that God “will also provide a way out” means God is our helper who understands each situation we are in and who will help overcome.

Here’s the tougher side to the promise

Since God protects me from overwhelming temptation, one so strong I cannot resist it – since “God is faithful and will not let you [that would be me!] be tried beyond your strength” – well… it means when I do give in to the temptation it sure isn’t God’s fault!  He gave me a way out and I just did not take it.  It means I sinned because I wanted to.

So this promise from God means that part of the process of dealing with temptation is to step up to the plate and as Paul puts it “bear it”.  This is endurance, it is patience, it is trust in God and in myself that I really can play my part as a human with a will.  It is self-control to avoid the wrong and do the right.  Most of the time, it will not be fun.  But it doesn’t have to be grim, either.

Each time I resist temptation with God’s help, I learn a little more about myself.  I learn what it feels like to resist and succeed.  I gain the experience of working in partnership with God to accomplish his will, to produce the project that is my life.  I see from experience  that, yes, God plays his part and I can play mine, too.

Here’s a sweet description of how this works, again from Paul:

Work out your salvation with fear and trembling. For God is the one who, for his good purpose, works in you both to desire and to work.    Philippians 2:12,13

 

Did you help your mom in the kitchen when you were a kid?  Or maybe mow the grass with your dad?  There was joy in learning you really could do these things with their help.  Joy in the knowledge you were growing and developing as you should.  If I could find that same joy of growth and purpose when I partner with God to resist temptation, then I would be farther along the path to holiness.

So what is my part in resisting temptation?

Trust the promise.  Know that things are not hopeless.

Get back up if you do sin.  The promise is still there, Jesus is still there.  Don’t give up.

Avoid the situations that put you in strong temptation.  The Church calls these “occasions for sin”.  Part of knowing yourself and playing your part is to stay away from what tempts you in the first place.  It’s part of humility.  It’s part of the “way out” that God promises.

Pray for strength whenever you are tempted.  And pray for a continuing sense of recollection, for the awareness that God is both available and is your great helper.

Picture the Lord who suffered to forgive you.  If you are Catholic and go to Mass, picture the crucifix in your church.  If you’re not, then bring to mind as vividly as you can the Lord’s agony.  Know that if you choose to yield to sin, then it is only through Jesus’ suffering that you will be forgiven.  This isn’t morbid – it’s realism.

Study the Bible and study the Church’s magisterial teaching.  How can I hope to receive strength from God and from my faith if I’m not even aware of what the Bible and the Church teach?

Prepare for the time when temptation comes.  Design your response ahead of time, then do your best to stick to it.

Spend time in Christian service.  Get involved with other people at church or in charities doing the things that please God.  Spend your time and spend your self.

Confess your sins.  Obviously, you should confess your sins to God when you pray, discussing them specifically and frankly.  Then confess them to a priest if you are Catholic or to a trusted Christian friend if you are not.  Own your sins.

Be prepared for the resistance to sin to be difficult.  Paul speaks of “bearing” temptation.

Join with people who can help you.  It might be a 12-step group, or an internet support group with temptation similar to yours.  Or simply choosing your friends from Christians who have the same goal as you.  Christianity is not a solitary activity.  It is communion.

All of this taken together is sort of the same thing as what the Benedictines say.  Ora et labora.  “Work and pray.”

Here is something to remember about your non-Christian friends

The promise of protection from overwhelming temptation is not made to people outside the church.  It is made to Christians.  If you have non-Christian friends who seem to give in to certain temptations over and over again, remember that it might be more than they can do to resist.  Be patient and understanding with your non-Christian friends.  Help them come to Jesus, because that is where the protection from temptation is.

God limits the temptation I face.  He will not allow a stronger temptation than I can resist.

God provides a way out of temptation.

I play my part when I take His way out of temptation and bear it.

Christians and famines



The Hunger Project reports that every 5 seconds a child (a child!) dies of hunger-related disease.  How may I reconcile so many deaths related to hunger versus the promise Jesus makes that a person who seeks the righteousness of God will receive food and clothing?  There are 6,000,000 million children who die every year of hunger-related disease – am I supposed to think that every one of them dies outside this promise?  Can I believe the reason these children die of hunger-related disease is that none of them come from God-fearing, God-seeking families who live in God’s grace?

This is serious.  If I cannot understand God’s promises, then how can I even know I’m saved?

This is the third of several posts about God’s promises.  Look at the first section here for a discussion of why anybody makes promises.  Read the part titled God makes promises for the same reason you make promises.

You may also want to read my post about God’s promise to feed and clothe us.

First, a “fact check” on that promise

It’s clear to an awful lot of people (including St. Peter!  II Peter 3:16) that Scripture includes some things that are hard to understand and can get us in trouble if we’re not careful.  The thing to do in those cases is to look at other passages in the Bible to help with the one that is difficult.

The promise Jesus makes is that if we give our lives first to God, then he will take care of our need for food and clothing.  To make his point, Jesus says we can look at the care God gives to birds and flowers.  Here is the whole passage:

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat [or drink], or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing?  Look at the birds in the sky; they do not sow or reap, they gather nothing into barns, yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are not you more important than they?  Can any of you by worrying add a single moment to your life-span?  Why are you anxious about clothes? Learn from the way the wild flowers grow. They do not work or spin.  But I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was clothed like one of them.  If God so clothes the grass of the field, which grows today and is thrown into the oven tomorrow, will he not much more provide for you, O you of little faith?  So do not worry and say, ‘What are we to eat?’ or ‘What are we to drink?’ or ‘What are we to wear?’  All these things the pagans seek. Your heavenly Father knows that you need them all.   But seek first the kingdom (of God) and his righteousness, and all these things will be given you besides.  Do not worry about tomorrow; tomorrow will take care of itself.  Sufficient for a day is its own evil.     Matthew 6:25-34

Here are Biblical reasons to conclude the promise does not mean a Christian will never be hungry, and furthermore does not rule out the possibility a Christian could even starve.

St. Paul speaks of famine as something we may have to endure.  In Romans 8:35, Paul lists several things that do not have power to separate us from the love of God.  He includes famine in the list.  Paul’s point is that these are things that could very well happen to a Christian, things we may be called on to endure, yet with God’s help they will not defeat us.

St. Paul himself suffered hunger.  In II Corinthians 11:27, Paul describes his own hunger in the course of his ministry for God.  You don’t seriously think Paul was not pursuing first the kingdom of God, do you?  No one ever pursued God’s kingdom with more vigor than Paul, yet he was hungry sometimes.  So hungry he includes the experience in a list that includes being whipped and shipwrecked and stoned.

Jesus talks about birds dying.  I hope you don’t think I’m being a smart aleck, but think about this.  Jesus’ promise compares God’s care for us to his care for birds, but that doesn’t mean a bird never died in a famine.  He talks about “birds falling to the ground” in Matthew 10:29.  How can I conclude that a bird never died (“fell to the ground”) of starvation?  There are droughts all the time.  Jesus knew that.  So it’s just about impossible that his promise to us of food, which he compares to God’s care of the birds, could possibly mean no hunger or starvation.

Jesus often uses this sort of statement to make a point.  For example, he tells us to forgive a person who sins against us “seventy times seven” times.  You don’t think he wants me to count to 490 and then stop forgiving, do you?  In another place, he says if I give up houses or land for his sake, I will receive a “hundredfold” return.  Should I get out a calculator and check his promise?  These are not statements of what will happen in terms of mathematics.  They are statements that use forceful, memorable language to persuade me to be forgiving and obedient.

Jesus himself suffered.  If I follow Jesus, I may very well suffer at the hands of evil or natural disaster.  In fact, he says I will be persecuted if I am his disciple.  Am I somehow to conclude from the promise about birds and food that this persecution will never involve hunger?  Of course not.  Am I to conclude that in droughts or the aftermath of great destruction, that I will somehow be provided with food that the non-God-seekers do not have?  Of course not.

Next, here are two possible ways to interpret the promise

There are at least two ways to understand the promise Jesus makes of food and clothing to God-seekers.  These two ways allow for what I have written above without in any way making the promise void of meaning.

One way.  We are simultaneously physical and spiritual creatures.  So we need two kinds of food , physical and spiritual.    In John 4 is the encounter of Jesus with a Samaritan woman at a water well.  It’s a long discussion that moves more than once between the idea of physical food and spiritual food.  When the disciples return to Jesus from a trip into town to get food, this exchange takes place:

The disciples urged him, “Rabbi, eat.”  But he said to them, “I have food to eat of which you do not know.”  So the disciples said to one another, “Could someone have brought him something to eat?”  Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of the one who sent me and to finish his work.  Do you not say, ‘In four months the harvest will be here’? I tell you, look up and see the fields ripe for the harvest.     John 4:31-35

Jesus speaks of spiritual food when the disciples urge him to eat physical food — to do the will of the Father is his meat.  Then he compares the souls of men and women ripe for the kingdom to physical wheat in the field.  Jesus is comfortable mixing his language between physical and spiritual, and expecting the disciples to understand.

Now this is by no means the only Bible passage where physical and spiritual food are compared or mixed, but it’s enough to make my point.  To understand the promise of Jesus that God will feed us like he does birds, it is entirely reasonable and scriptural to believe that there will be times when the feeding will be spiritual, rather than physical.  Times of physical hardship, even famine, when the food we receive from the hand of God will be spiritual food to give us the strength to endure physical hunger.  That’s how Paul is able to say in the Romans 8 passage I mention above that famine has no power to separate us from the love of God.  God will feed us spiritually, so we can endure the physical.

Another way (sort of a subset of the first one).  Perhaps the promise is contextual in the sense that Jesus means for it to apply in what we call “ordinary times”.  If this is so, then famine sweeping over a large portion of an entire continent (it’s happening right now in Africa) is not the context within which Jesus means this promise.  In ordinary times, the God-seeker receives physical food and clothing just like the promise says.  But in times of warfare or persecution or natural disaster, the promise reverts to spiritual support rather than physical.

There are other passages that we view this way.  For instance, the statement is made “train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it” in Proverbs 22.  Nobody thinks that this works 100% of the time.  We all know siblings who were raised by Godly parents and shown everything they need to become God’s man or woman – yet within the same family, some leave the faith and others retain it.  Does that mean the proverb is wrong?  No.  It means the proverb tells you what happens most of the time, what happens ordinarily.

Another example – no one believes the commands of God apply to mentally ill people, despite the fact that the commands are not specifically worded to exclude the mentally ill.  We just understand that when God tells me not to steal or tells me to treat other people with generosity, that the assumption is my mind is normal, not burdened with paranoia or schizophrenia.  The commands apply to people with healthy minds in ordinary circumstances.

Yet a third example is this: when the Nazi’s come to the door looking for Jews, I can lie to them in order to save a life and it is not a sin.  The times are not ordinary.

But there is a rock-solid truth beneath the promise to feed us

The promise means that God takes care of his people.  And the heart of the promise is its condition: seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness.

Sure, it’s nice to have food.  Clothes are nice, too.  And in most circumstances, Jesus’ promise means exactly what it says.  God feeds us like the birds, he cares for us in the course of our seeking his kingdom.  But there is something far more wonderful he gives me and he does not give this more wonderful thing to me the way he feeds birds.  I am permitted to possess God as the foundation of my life – to know that I will one day be with him in heaven – to rest sure in the assurance my well-being is in the hands of the God who is love.  This is my food, this is the clothing that protects me and that shelters.

Here is a wonderful passage from Hebrews 13, the Amplified Version.  I have removed some of the technical punctuation used in this somewhat academic translation.  I take this passage to express substantially the same thing as Jesus’ promise of God’s care and his warning to avoid the love of money.

 Let your character or moral disposition be free from love of money, including greed, avarice, lust, and craving for earthly possessions, and be satisfied with your present circumstances and with what you have; for He [God]Himself has said, I will not in any way fail you nor give you up nor leave you without support.  I will not, I will not, I will not in any degree leave you helpless nor forsake nor let you down nor relax My hold on you!  Assuredly not!  So we take comfort and are encouraged and confidently and boldly say, The Lord is my Helper; I will not be seized with alarm. I will not fear or dread or be terrified. What can man do to me?     Hebrews 13:5,6   Amplified Version

Lunch is on me. Signed, Jesus.



When Jesus tells us something, it is never just some kind of Hallmark Card moment.  It is never just pretty words with a soft focus picture.  If Jesus says it, it’s because he means it.  In the Sermon on the Mount is a famous promise.  Jesus says that God feeds the birds and he clothes the grass.  Jesus then draws a conclusion that confronts materialism head on.  He says if I pursue the righteousness of God as my first priority, then I will receive the food and clothing that God knows I need.

Why would Jesus make a promise like that?  Can I really believe it?

This is the second of several posts about God’s promises.  Look at the first section here for a discussion of why anybody (even God) makes promises.  Read the part titled God makes promises for the same reason you make promises.   

There’s a lot going on in this promise – more than you might think…

Here is the entire passage:

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat [or drink], or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing?  Look at the birds in the sky; they do not sow or reap, they gather nothing into barns, yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are not you more important than they?  Can any of you by worrying add a single moment to your life-span?  Why are you anxious about clothes? Learn from the way the wild flowers grow. They do not work or spin.  But I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was clothed like one of them.  If God so clothes the grass of the field, which grows today and is thrown into the oven tomorrow, will he not much more provide for you, O you of little faith?  So do not worry and say, ‘What are we to eat?’ or ‘What are we to drink?’ or ‘What are we to wear?’  All these things the pagans seek. Your heavenly Father knows that you need them all.   But seek first the kingdom (of God) and his righteousness, and all these things will be given you besides.  Do not worry about tomorrow; tomorrow will take care of itself.  Sufficient for a day is its own evil.     Matthew 6:25-34

First of all, look at the examples Jesus uses.  Birds.  What do they do all day?  They fly around eating everything they can find.  When you get down to it, it’s almost all a bird does.  Or flowers and grass.  Just about all day they are busy with photosynthesis and whatever biochemical mystery turns dirt into leaves.  If a bird reads Matthew 6 about God feeding him, and based on that verse decides to sit on a branch waiting for God to have some takeout delivered to him… well, that bird starves.  Not because God welched on the promise, but because the bird did not play his part.

Jesus speaks of creatures who play their proper part in God’s creation.  God plays his part, too, and his part involves feeding birds and clothing grass.  There is cooperation between creature and Creator.

Second, Jesus says we are “more important” than birds and plants.  We are more important because we resemble God in ways a bird or a plant does not.  We are in God’s image.  That means the part we play in creation differs from the part the plants and birds play.  Yet, within this creation God will give us what he knows we need as creatures, provided we play our part.

Third, our proper part in creation is to pursue God.  Birds get their nourishment from bugs and seed and carrion.  Because I am a spiritual creature (as well as a physical one), I get part of my nourishment, the spiritual part, from God himself.  If I will pursue God, if I will hunger for God and play my part to satisfy that hunger, God will do two things for me.  First, he will allow me to find him, even to possess him.  Second, he will tend to my physical needs.

And last, don’t be a pig.  St. Timothy was St. Paul’s delegate to various places that Paul couldn’t visit personally.  This is part of what Paul told Timothy to teach:

[R]eligion with contentment is a great gain.  For we brought nothing into the world, just as we shall not be able to take anything out of it.  If we have food and clothing, we shall be content with that.    I Timothy 6:6-8 

Doesn’t that fit things together nicely?  Paul tells us to be content with food and clothing, and that is precisely what Jesus promises in the Sermon on the Mount if we seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness.

The part a lot of us don’t like is that last part about contentment

A fellow in Tulsa one time told me that he had more money than Donald Trump.  His explanation?  “I have all the money I want.”  That’s a deeply Christian attitude, especially since this fellow was by no means rich.

Most people who read this post are probably middle-class Westerners.  The Western media tell us consistently and repeatedly that the drive to possess physical things is not only natural, it is laudable, it is worthy of praise and something we all ought to encourage.  We are told over and over again that to support the economy we should consume.  That the basis of the economy is our consumption.  Good grief – look at what we call ourselves.  Consumers!  As if our purpose is to consume.

Bacteria consume.  A human’s aim should be higher than that!

And even Christians can succumb to the enchantment of owning physical things.  A bigger car, a better address, a big enough retirement fund that we don’t need to depend on anything else for our security, clothes that reflect to strangers our refinement and economic success.  As Christians, we are permitted to have these things, but we are forbidden to love them or use them to define our lives.  We are forbidden to make these things our first priority.

Jesus says our first priority is to “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness.”  This simply means that I must imitate God, which Jesus also explained in the Sermon on the Mount in chapter 5 starting at verse 21.  Here’s a summary

  • Do not hate.  Don’t live your life in anger.
  • Do everything in your power to be reconciled (to live in peace) with people around you.
  • Don’t have sex outside marriage and don’t fill your mind with sexual thought.
  • If there are aspects of your life that cause you to sin, then get rid of them.
  • Keep your marriage vows.
  • Keep your promises.
  • Do not take revenge.
  • Respond to violence and injustice with non-violence.
  • Love everybody.

Do these things – do them because of a total commitment to Jesus – add to these things the qualities Jesus lists in the Beatitudes (Matthew 5, the beginning of the chapter).  And you are pursuing the kingdom of God and his righteousness.

Jesus hits me between the eyes with this promise!

Look at the promise the wrong way and it could seem like what is happening is this – Jesus says I should give my life to God and what I get in return is food and clothing.  Which is not all that exciting if I look at it that way, if it looks like the trade is bare necessities in return for my entire life.  But the fact is, I get more.  I get life itself, I get life in such abundance that existence is on a wholly different level (John 10:7ff).  I get God himself and Jesus and the holy Spirit.  I get life in heaven with them and the saints forever (John14:23 and Revelation 22:1-5).  God freely gives everything he has if I will freely choose to love and obey him.

But here’s why he makes the promise about food and clothing, a promise that can seem to us in the Western middle class something so modest and even negligible.  This modest promise simultaneously removes any excuse for not following him because I fear I would starve and at the same time it confronts me with the stark choice of whether I prefer to pursue physical possessions rather than God.  This promise of God reveals me to myself, it shines a disturbing light on whether I love God or whether I love physical possessions.  Here’s how Jesus puts it.

Do not lay up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal.  But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither rust nor moth destroys, and where thieves do not break in and steal… No one can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will hold to one and despise the other.  You cannot serve God and riches.      Matthew 6:19-24

 

Jesus isn’t playing.  He died so I can have the chance to gain God.  He did not die so I can spend my life pursuing houses and Buicks and designer labels.

 

This promise of food and clothing is a dead-serious promise that forces me confront my own appetite for God.

God knows I have physical needs.

He promises to meet my physical needs, if I seek his kingdom and his righteousness.

If the promise is taken seriously, it reveals to me my own priorities.

 

NOTE:  My next post will discuss how this promise can be understood when Christians die in famines.  If there’s a famine and a Christian dies, has God broken his promise?

It will all work out. Really.



In Romans 8, we are promised that all things work for good for those who love God.  Nice to know, isn’t it, especially when things are hard.  When life gets hard, it may be difficult to see just how God is keeping this promise, yet we trust God.   But why would God make such a sweet promise in the first place?

Note: this is the first of several posts about God’s promises.

God makes promises for the same reason you make promises

Here’s why you make promises: you want to get somebody else to do something.  Think about it.  You go into a bank and you promise the banker you will pay back a loan.  You do that because you want the banker to loan you some money.  Or maybe you promise to get a little child some new stickers after Mass.  You make the promise hoping the little angel will be quiet during church.  Here’s another – you promise a person you will love her until you die.  You promise it because you want her to marry you.

You make promises because you want the other person to do something like loan you money or be good in church.  You might also have a longer-term goal in mind.  If the banker sees you keep your promise on a small loan, you hope that will help your credit score, which in turn prompts other people to loan your money.  But the base motive is still the same.  You make promises to persuade somebody else to do something.

God makes promises to us because he wants us to do things, too.  He says exactly this in II Peter chapter 1:

[God] has bestowed on us the precious and very great promises, so that through them you may come to share in the divine nature, after escaping from the corruption that is in the world because of evil desire.  For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, virtue with knowledge, knowledge with self-control, self-control with endurance, endurance with devotion, devotion with mutual affection, mutual affection with love.  If these are yours and increase in abundance, they will keep you from being idle or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.   II Peter 1:4-8 

The goal of God’s promises to you is that you partake in the divine nature and escape the corruption in the world.  That’s huge!!  And what is the change in your behavior that God intends these promises to produce?  He wants you to make your best effort to be faithful and virtuous and enduring and affectionate and loving.  God does not play for small change, does he?

The promises that God makes to us do, of course, comfort us and they inform us.  But those are secondary effects.  The main reason God makes promises is to change us, to assist in the process of our partaking in his nature.

Now, back to the Romans 8 promise

So think about the promise that all things will work together for good if we love God.  Here’s the whole passage:

We know that all things work for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose…  What then shall we say to this? If God is for us, who can be against us?  He who did not spare his own Son but handed him over for us all, how will he not also give us everything else along with him?  Who will bring a charge against God’s chosen ones? It is God who acquits us.  Who will condemn? It is Christ [Jesus] who died, rather, was raised, who also is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us.  What will separate us from the love of Christ? Will anguish, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or the sword?  As it is written: “For your sake we are being slain all the day; we are looked upon as sheep to be slaughtered.”  No, in all these things we conquer overwhelmingly through him who loved us.  For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor present things, nor future things, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.  Romans 8:28, 31-39

First, be very clear about what this promise “that all things work for good” does not mean.  It does not mean that we will escape all discomfort or suffering if we love God.  Immediately after wording the promise in Romans 8, Paul speaks of anguish and famine and persecution, so it’s still possible that these things could happen to us.  This is not a promise that we escape all unpleasantness.  Think about it – Peter and Paul sure loved Jesus and they suffered amazing things, then they were martyred in Rome.  So the promise cannot mean that you and I escape all pain as long as we love God.

 

The promise says that everything will work together for good if we love God.  So even if suffering and persecution do happen to me, they will be part of this “working together for good”.  God will look after what happens to me and he will do what it takes to make sure things turn out “good” for me.  And since I love him, “good” means whatever brings me closer to God, whatever makes me love him even more, whatever makes me a better imitator of Jesus, all these things are “good” even if they are painful.

When you get right down to it, this promise confronts me, it almost dares me

This promise is a powerful word for obedience.  There are some pretty stiff things that Jesus gives me as commands.  Not suggestions – commands.  He tells me to be generous with my money and time to other people, even people who are beggars and strangers (for instance, Luke 6:35 and 12:33).  He tells me to incur risk in order to help someone who is in great danger (the Good Samaritan parable ends with the statement “go and do the same”).  He tells me that when I encounter jerks who mistreat me and even abuse me, that non-violence is the only path I may take as his disciple (Matthew 5:38-48).

And this Romans 8 promise that things will work together in my life for good absolutely leaves me with no excuse for not obeying these difficult commands.

I can’t tell Jesus “I’m scared”.  I can’t tell Jesus that turning the other cheek is just too risky.  I can’t tell Jesus that if I do these hard things he commands it will get in the way of my bigger plans and mess them up (even if the plans are for him).   And the reason I cannot say these things is that Jesus promised me things will work together for good if I love him and he also said if I love him I will keep his commands.  To be sure, I may very well suffer because I obey Jesus, but I can be certain that everything will work together for good.

And this promise is a powerful word for conversion.  If a person is far enough along the road to conversion to Jesus that she has concluded God can be trusted, then hesitancy to convert can be done away with in this promise.  Convert to Jesus – begin the journey of loving Jesus with everything you have.  And things will fit together for good.

It is a powerful word when there’s a big decision to make.  Christians have to make big decisions, just like everybody else.  What school to go to, whether to accept some job, who to marry, how to raise a child, whether to retire.  We pray about these things and we consider the will of God carefully, but at the end of the day we have to make a decision.  This promise of things working together for good keeps me from being paralyzed when I must make a big decision.  Even if the decision I choose is unwise or uninformed and causes me trouble, nevertheless it will fit into a pattern for good if I keep on loving God.

This promise is a powerful word when plans get messed up.  Sometimes it seems like things “come out of nowhere” and the best plans, the best decisions get messed up.  Maybe I get sick.  Maybe the bottom falls out of the economy.  Maybe I’m doing research and I lose my funding or it turns out the person in charge of things disagrees with how I’m going and I lose a couple years of work.  Stuff happens.  But this promise means that even these unforeseen developments will somehow, eventually work together for good.

God promises me that things will work together for good if I love him.

The promise improves my ability to live like Jesus.

This promise enables me to trust God, to make plans and decisions, and to obey God without fear.

St Peter and fishing and Lent



The day after Jesus was baptized (literally the first full day of his preaching ministry), he met several of the apostles.  That was quick!  The first chapter of John’s gospel says that Jesus walked near John the Baptist that day and John proclaimed the words we hear at every Mass “Behold the Lamb of God”.  Andrew heard these words – he went and found his brother Simon Peter to bring him to Jesus.  The next day Philip and Nathanael joined Jesus.  John 1:43 may indicate that it was with these four that Jesus started his preaching in Galilee.  Jesus invites them to follow him.

It is this initial meeting when Jesus changes Simon’s name to Cephas or Peter.  In the Bible, when God changes somebody’s name it is always an important moment and that means the invitation to “follow” was also a serious invitation.

Now fast forward a little.  All three synoptic gospels record another invitation from Jesus to Simon Peter (and James and John, too) to follow him.  This time Jesus invites them to become “fishers of men”.  Luke 5 records quite a bit of detail.

While the crowd was pressing in on Jesus and listening to the word of God, he was standing by the Lake of Gennesaret.

He saw two boats there alongside the lake; the fishermen had disembarked and were washing their nets.  Getting into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, he asked him to put out a short distance from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat.  After he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into deep water and lower your nets for a catch.”  Simon said in reply, “Master, we have worked hard all night and have caught nothing, but at your command I will lower the nets.”  When they had done this, they caught a great number of fish and their nets were tearing.  They signaled to their partners in the other boat to come to help them. They came and filled both boats so that they were in danger of sinking.  When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at the knees of Jesus and said, “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.”  For astonishment at the catch of fish they had made seized him and all those with him, and likewise James and John, the sons of Zebedee, who were partners of Simon. Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men.”  When they brought their boats to the shore, they left everything and followed him.    Luke 5:1-11

Simon Peter’s odd reaction to Jesus’ miracle

Why would Simon Peter tell Jesus to leave “for I am a sinful man”?  That’s sort of an odd reaction after Jesus delivers all those fish, isn’t it?

My guess (and it’s actually the only explanation I can think of…) is that between the first meeting in John chapter 1 and this meeting in Luke chapter 5, Simon Peter has stopped following Jesus, despite the endorsement he heard from John the Baptist.  Peter is ashamed and a little scared that he had in some sense abandoned Jesus – now when he sees an undeniable display of God-like power, his first reaction is to just want Jesus to leave because of his sin.  So I’m thinking the situation is just like it looks in Luke 5.  Simon Peter left Jesus and went back to his fishing business.

This also makes sense out of why Jesus makes such an extravagant show of generosity and power.  He wants to prove to Simon Peter and the others that if they follow him, they are not risking starvation or bankruptcy.  One way or another (and the way will be chosen by Jesus and will always be according to God’s will), they will be able to live if they choose Jesus.

The reaction of these men who will one day be the Lord’s apostles on whom he will found his church (Rev. 21:14) is exactly the right reaction.  This time, they left everything and followed him.

Wouldn’t it be great if Jesus would make our living for us?

So if I’m reading this thing correctly, Jesus has proven with an extravagant gesture that he can take care of these men on a fulltime basis.  What do you think?  Wouldn’t it be great if Jesus would just dump a huge pile of fish on us (figuratively speaking, of course!!), so we would know our living is taken care of?

In a way, he actually does promise to do that.

The thing to remember is that the vocation to which he was calling these men was a special one, that of apostleship.  He must have them fulltime, so he shows his power to provide.  And they leave everything to follow him.  They accept the vocation.

The matter of vocation is critical here.  Jesus hasn’t called you or me to be apostles.

More than likely, he has called us either to married life or single life as a faithful Christian.  A description of our role in the “living” we make to feed and support ourselves is this:

Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life and attend to your own business and work with your hands, just as we commanded you, so that you may behave properly toward outsiders and not be in any need.    I Thessalonians 4:11,12

This meshes perfectly with what Jesus promises in the Sermon on the Mount.  Jesus tells us (the ones called to the vocations of married life and single life) that God will take care of us, too.  He says he will take care of us the way he does birds and grass.  Birds have to fly around and get food, sometimes they have to migrate, maybe they eat different things at different times.  But it’s not like birds just sit on a branch and God has worms delivered each day.  The birds have to participate in God’s nature.  Grass is the same way – the grass has a role to play in its livelihood, too.  Here is how he puts it:

Look at the birds of the air, that they do not sow, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them.  Are you not worth much more than they?  …Observe how the lilies of the field grow; they do not toil, nor do they spin, yet I say to you that even Solomon in all his glory did not clothe himself like one of these.     Seek first God’s kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you.    Matthew 6:26,28,29

So the bottom line is that Simon Peter and the other apostles got the support they needed to be apostles.  And we get the support we need to carry out the vocations to which we are called.  Jesus promises it.

What in the world does this have to do with Lent?

Just this.  Lent calls us to renounce self and follow Jesus.  We are called to trust him by yielding our life to him.  But a reason some people refuse to do that is money.  Despite what Jesus says about birds and grass, the thing they want is a big 401(k), and a lovely house, and nice shopping and all the rest of the things you see in ads.  They spend their life’s energy pursuing money and what it can buy and almost none of their time dedicating themselves to Jesus.  An hour at Mass once a week is what Jesus gets.  Maybe a prayer every so often while doing something else at the same time.  Rather than maximize their dedication to God’s righteousness like Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount, they maximize their income.

But if we Christians will just do what Jesus says to do – “seek first God’s kingdom and his righteousness” – then he will take care of our physical needs as we “attend to our business and work with our hands” like St. Paul commands.  No particular reason to expect to be rich, but if I really love God and his righteousness with all my being, then “rich” has nothing to do with money.  “Rich” has everything to do with knowing Jesus.

God will take care of us like he did Peter and James and John.  I should renounce myself and trust God.

 If we have food and covering, with these we shall be content. 

But those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a snare

 and many foolish and harmful desires which plunge men into ruin and destruction.

I Timothy 6:8,9