Struggles of the Good Son

In part two of The Return of the Prodigal Son, Henri Nouwen focused on the struggles of the older son. We think of the younger son as the one who was lost. He was the one who left home and squandered his inheritance on wild living. The older son was faithful, hardworking and obedient. The truth is both sons were lost.

The younger son’s sins are easy to see. He was greedy and self-indulgent. He spent money recklessly. The older son’s sins are not as obvious. We know he was obedient. We can assume that he was respected and admired as a good man. When his self-indulgent brother was lavished with a huge welcome home celebration, he became angry, resentful, and jealous. He felt unappreciated.

What does more damage? Sins of the flesh or sins of the heart? Lust and greed or anger and resentment?

Nouwen pointed out that you can be lost while still at home. Even righteous people struggle with sins of the heart – anger and resentment, judgment and condemnation, bitterness and jealousy. This way of being lost is “closely wedded to the desire to be good and virtuous.” Sins of the heart are the dark underside of virtue.

The older son worked hard and did not get what he thought he deserved, certainly not compared to his younger brother. As a result, he became self-pitying and envious. He felt no joy at his brother’s return.

I can relate to the older brother’s response to his father. I’ve often complained and grumbled about unfairness, in my heart if not out loud. I can relate to his feelings. I’ve also felt unappreciated, rejected, and overlooked.

Nouwen noted that in this world, people are compared and ranked as more or less successful, more or less attractive, etc. How much of our sadness or happiness comes from comparing ourselves to others? I know that comparing myself to others often makes me feel like I’m not good enough.

We are so conditioned to measuring ourselves against other people, it can be hard for us to accept that someone loves us unconditionally. God loves each of us completely. He gave us our unique gifts and understands our shortcomings.

Nouwen told a story about a young man who was loved and admired by everyone who knew him. One critical remark from a friend sent him into a deep depression. His self-esteem was so fragile, he believed his friend had broken through the facade and had seen the despicable man he really was.

Even people who outwardly seem to have it all can feel insecure inside. Beneath the self-confidence and arrogance there can be an insecure heart that isn’t as sure of itself as the outward behavior leads one to believe.

Nouwen wrote that for those of us who struggle with sins of the heart, trust and gratitude are the keys to returning home to the father. “Trust is that deep inner conviction that the Father wants me home.” Trust that God loves us completely as we are. We are worth finding.

Gratitude is the opposite of resentment. When we choose to be grateful, we acknowledge that all that we are and all that we have are gifts from God. Gratitude for what we have helps us see that our brothers and sisters belong to God as much as we do.

Nouwen’s reflections on the challenges of the good son remind me to pay attention to my feelings. When I catch myself judging, condemning, or resenting someone else (as I surely will), I should stop and remind myself that God loves each of us unconditionally. He loves me completely even though I am flawed in so many ways. He has forgiven me. His amazing grace is available to all of us! We are not rivals.

Wisdom walk through Proverbs

Today is the last day of preparation for the 50-state prayer project, If We Will – Then He Will. In December, participants read through the book of Proverbs in search of wisdom. Today, the first day of the New Year, we seek God’s guidance for the next 50 days of prayer.

Lord, if I’m going to be a prayer warrior, make me a wise prayer warrior. I seek your wisdom and guidance as I pray for my country.

Knowledge and wisdom

Father, you are the source of wisdom and understanding. Write your word on my heart. I want to hear your voice. I want to follow you. Teach me your ways. Show me your paths.

I confess that I get distressed about the state of this world and I worry about the future. Help me to not be anxious about anything but to put my trust in you. No matter what happens in the coming days and years, I take refuge in you. May your will be done here on earth as it is in heaven.

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge,
    but fools despise wisdom and instruction. (1:7)

For the Lord gives wisdom;
    from his mouth come knowledge and understanding. (2:6)

Trust in the Lord with all your heart
    and lean not on your own understanding;
in all your ways submit to him,
    and he will make your paths straight (3:5-6)

Many are the plans in a person’s heart,
    but it is the Lord’s purpose that prevails. (19:21)

Every word of God is flawless;
    he is a shield to those who take refuge in him. (30:5)

Fearing the Lord and hating evil

Lord, I hate arrogance, corruption, deception, meanness and greed. Lead me away from the snares of the wicked and deliver me from evil.

Do not set foot on the path of the wicked
    or walk in the way of evildoers. (4:14)

To fear the Lord is to hate evil;
    I hate pride and arrogance,
    evil behavior and perverse speech. (8:13)

The wise fear the Lord and shun evil,
    but a fool is hotheaded and yet feels secure. (14:16)

In the paths of the wicked are snares and pitfalls,
    but those who would preserve their life stay far from them. (22:5)

Envy of the wicked

Father, sometimes I fret when people seem to get away with evil. I know that they will not escape your justice. They have no hope. When I am tempted to envy them, remind me that my treasure is in heaven.

Do not let your heart envy sinners,
    but always be zealous for the fear of the Lord. (23:17)

Do not envy the wicked,
    do not desire their company;
for their hearts plot violence,
    and their lips talk about making trouble. (24:1-2)

Do not fret because of evildoers
    or be envious of the wicked,
for the evildoer has no future hope,
    and the lamp of the wicked will be snuffed out. (24:19-20)

Evildoers do not understand what is right,
    but those who seek the Lord understand it fully. (28:5)

Testing the heart

Lord, test my heart and show me the offensive ways you find in me. Father, I am your child and I submit myself to your discipline. Help me to be honest about my own sins and to have pure motives, to focus on the log in my own eye and not on the speck in my brother’s eye.

Whoever loves discipline loves knowledge,
    but whoever hates correction is stupid. (12:1)

All a person’s ways seem pure to them,
    but motives are weighed by the Lord. (16:2)

A rebuke impresses a discerning person
    more than a hundred lashes a fool. (17:10)

The crucible for silver and the furnace for gold,
    but the Lord tests the heart. (17:3)

Lying lips and foolish tongues

Lord, help me to be trustworthy and to testify to your truth. The tongue is small but it can do so much damage, as I know too well. Help me to watch my tongue. May the words of my mouth be pleasing to you.

The Lord detests lying lips,
    but he delights in people who are trustworthy. (12:22)

Sin is not ended by multiplying words,
    but the prudent hold their tongues. (10:19)

A fool’s mouth lashes out with pride,
    but the lips of the wise protect them. (14:3)

Humility

Lord, I fall so short of your glory. Too often, I fail to be the loving person you want me to be. There is so much that I do not know. Help me to be humble.

When pride comes, then comes disgrace,
    but with humility comes wisdom. (11:2)

Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall. (16:18)

Humility is the fear of the Lord; its wages are riches and honor and life. (22:4)

Justice and mercy

Lord, I know what it is to be poor and I am thankful for those who had mercy on me. Whatever I do for the poor, I do for you, our Maker. Help me to act justly and to love mercy.

Whoever is kind to the poor lends to the Lord,
    and he will reward them for what they have done. (19:17)

Whoever shuts their ears to the cry of the poor
    will also cry out and not be answered. (21:13)

The righteous care about justice for the poor,
    but the wicked have no such concern. (29:7)

Watch your temper

Father, forgive me for the times I have lost my temper. I know there is danger in anger. Help me to be calm, forgiving, and patient with others. Where there is discord, may I sow peace

Do not make friends with a hot-tempered person,
    do not associate with one easily angered,
or you may learn their ways
    and get yourself ensnared. (22:24-24)

Fools give full vent to their rage,
    but the wise bring calm in the end. (29:11)

An angry person stirs up conflict,
    and a hot-tempered person commits many sins. (29:22)

Lord Jesus, my heart belongs to you. Guard my heart and help me to love others as you love me. As water reflects the face, may my life reflect your heart. May I reflect your love in all I say and do.

Above all else, guard your heart,
    for everything you do flows from it. (4:23)

As water reflects the face,
    so one’s life reflects the heart. (27:19)

Loving the enemy

My church is doing an in-depth study of the gospel of Luke. One of the most challenging spiritual lessons, on loving your enemies, is found in Luke chapter six, verses 27-36.

But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.

Luke 6:27

Jesus explains why we should love our enemies – because God is kind to the wicked and to the ungrateful. Anyone can love their friends. God expects more of us. We are to be merciful to others just as He is merciful to us.

If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that.

Luke 6:32-33

Scot McKnight wrote about loving the enemy is his book, Living the Jesus Creed. He says that the enemy Jesus has in mind is the person who has wronged or wounded us. McKnight says that loving the enemy often begins in the mind and the memory. When you remember that you have been wronged, you can either “enjoy a feast of condemnation, the feast that never satisfies” and thereby let the enemy define you or you can let Jesus define you through grace.

Your enemy may be a person who hurts you. Your enemy may be a person who rubs you the wrong way or pushes your buttons. It may be a person whose interests are diametrically opposed to yours.

It has been fifteen years and I have not forgotten how wounded I was by a conflict with a coworker. We were so different! I have always been hardworking, conscientious, and dependable. The younger coworker was a slacker who always had an excuse for not doing his job. I was put in charge of training him. I couldn’t ignore his negligence of his job responsibilities. Large bills were not getting paid. I complained to the boss. The boss listened to my concerns but never held the coworker accountable. Instead, he acted like an indulgent parent and accused me of being contentious.

This conflict went on for months. I tried to deal with it on my own. I read self-help books. I spoke to a counselor. And yes, I indulged in a feast of condemnation that did not satisfy. I knew that I was becoming the kind of person God does not want me to be. I became critical and unkind to the coworker. I gossiped about him to friends. The conflict brought me to my knees. I resigned from my job but not before wounding my boss by telling him what I honestly thought of him.

McKnight reminds us that in the face of the enemy, we see an eikon of God – a person made in God’s image. Instead of “shrinking the other person to the size of our personal villain,” we should see them as someone whom God loves. To love the enemy is to see their humanity.

With time and lots of prayer, I learned to see the humanity of my enemies. I saw that the younger coworker was not a villain but the product of his upbringing. I saw that the boss was a good man with a personality unlike my own. I knew that I was not above reproach and that God has forgiven me for my role in the conflict. It didn’t define who I am.

Loving your enemy doesn’t mean that you forget that you were wronged. You can still condemn the wrong. But you should remember that God forgave you despite your own wrongdoing. With the grace of God, we can turn the memory of wounds into grace. We can pay God’s grace forward by offering it to others.

Jesus said to pray for those who mistreat you. McKnight suggests praying that God will make the enemy into the person God wants them to be. Lord, as I remember the hurts of the past, I remember how merciful you were to me. Thank you for using that difficult experience to teach me. I pray that you will make A and B into the people you want them to be.

****

Photo by Richard Lee on Unsplash

A Disciple of Jesus Christ Rejecting and Resisting Christian Nationalism

Something has been bothering me and I have to get it off my chest. A couple of days before the Presidential election, a member of my old church shared a post from a former pastor in which he wrote, “This week I will be voting for the sanctity of life, for religious liberty as understood by our founders, for the sanctity of marriage, for our constitutional order and original intent, and against the growing influence of socialism and cultural Marxism in our nation.” This statement disturbed me because it is a clear example of Christian nationalism and a Christian endorsement of Donald Trump, a man who is the antithesis of Jesus Christ.

I can’t believe that after four years, I am still asking myself, how can Christians support a man whose behavior is the complete opposite of Jesus Christ? How can they accept his racism, xenophobia, hatred and cruelty? While many Christians complain that our culture has taken Christ out of Christmas, sadly many Christians have taken Christ out of Christianity.

The man who made the Christian nationalist endorsement of Trump is now the president of a Christian university with the ability to influence thousands of young minds. For years, I looked up to the woman who shared his post and admired her for her caring ministry. Now I see her as just another Christian who conflates religion with politics. It is disappointing and disheartening but I should not have been surprised.

Conflating religious authority with political authority is idolatrous and often leads to oppression of minority and other marginalized groups as well as the spiritual impoverishment of religion.

Christians Against Christian Nationalism

I just read Drew Straits’ review of the book Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States, by Andrew L. Whitehead and Samuel L. Perry. The authors describe four orientations to Christian nationalism – Rejecters, Resisters, Accommodators, and Ambassadors – and confirm what I have observed in too many of my Christian friends: it’s all about power and not about true religion. As Strait wrote in his review, Christian nationalism is about acquiring and using political power to influence “issues like Islam, immigration, abortion/patriarchy, militarism, gun control and sacrificial allegiance to the flag…”

Obsession with power explains why Ambassadors and Accommodators overwhelmingly voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 election while overlooking the many ways that Trump’s personal life is at odds with Christian ethics. Again, Trump’s personal religious piety is of little significance—what matters is that he pulls the right ideological levers to shape America into the image of Christian nationalism, to reclaim a mythical past. 

Drew J. Strait

I knew after the 2016 election that I was in the minority of Christians who oppose and resist the wickedness of Donald Trump. Since then, I have been encouraged to hear from other followers of Jesus Christ who believe that political ambition is not more important than being true to our Savior and sharing his inclusive message of love and redemption.

In What’s So Amazing About Grace, Philip Yancey wrote, “Like fine wine poured into a jug of water, Jesus’ wondrous message of grace gets diluted in the vessel of the church.” Yancey quoted David Seamands, who noted that many evangelical Christians fail “to understand, receive, and live out God’s unconditional grace and forgiveness” and fail “to give out that unconditional love, forgiveness, and grace to other people…”

I believe in the sanctity of life and I believe in the sanctity of marriage. And yet I know that Christians and non-Christians alike, fall short of the glory of God. No law and no government can change the hearts of people; only God can do that. I do not live in fear of socialism and cultural Marxism.

There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. (1 John 4:18)

I will not be dismayed by Christian Nationalism. I reject it and I resist it.

I want people to see the love of Jesus reflected in me.

I want to live out God’s unconditional grace and forgiveness.

I want to give out God’s unconditional love, grace and forgiveness to others.

With all of this in mind, I will be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people and for those who have not seen the love of God in the church.

I will put on the full armor of God so I can take a stand against the devil’s schemes.*

I will stand firm, with the belt of truth buckled around my waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with my feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. 

In addition to all this, I take up the shield of faith, with which I can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. In this stand against Christian Nationalism, I will take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.

*Ephesions 6:10-18

My Daily Prayer: The Jesus Creed

For Lent, my church has been studying The Jesus Creed, a book based on the response Jesus gave when a scribe asked, “Which commandment is the greatest of all?” We were challenged to get into the habit of reciting the Jesus Creed everyday, morning and night. I tried and failed.

The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.

Mark 12:29-31

The first part of Christ’s response is the Shema, a Jewish prayer. Jews recited this prayer morning and night: ‘Hear O’ Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One’. Jesus added the command, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’ giving it great importance. Even people who do not believe in Jesus know this great command. They watch as too many Christians fail to practice it.

Loving your neighbor as yourself is one of the greatest challenges of life. Even more so, when you understand that your neighbors are not just your friends but also your enemies.

May this be my daily prayer. God, I love you with all my heart and with all my soul and with all my mind and with all my strength. Lord Jesus, help me to love as you taught me to love.

Photo by Tyler Nix on Unsplash