Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Say what you mean and mean what you say- Matthew 5:33-37

By Walt Disney (Original Trailer (1940)) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

"Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, 'Do not break your oath you have made to the Lord.' But I tell you, Do  not swear at all: either by heaven, for it is God's throne; or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black.  

Simply let your 'Yes' be 'Yes,' and your 'No,' 'No'; anything beyond this comes from the evil one."

Matthew 5:33-37

The point of this passage is as plain as the last line in it. God wants honesty. You don't have to look through too many lists in the Bible of sins, things God hates, and categories of people that will not inherit the kingdom of heaven before you realize that God really, really doesn't care for deception. However, just like the rest of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus lifts the ideal of truthfulness to a whole new level by contrasting it with God's calls for fulfilling oaths in the Old Testament, and that is worth taking note of.

It is worth pointing out,though, that God, himself, swore by an oath.
 "People swear by someone greater than themselves, and the oath confirms what is said and puts an end to all argument. 17 Because God wanted to make the unchanging nature of his purpose very clear to the heirs of what was promised, he confirmed it with an oath. 18 God did this so that, by two unchangeable things in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled to take hold of the hope set before us may be greatly encouraged."
Hebrews 6:16-18

Based on that, I don't think it is a good practice to say that swearing an oath in a court of law, for example, would be sinful in and of itself--although I respect the decision of those who do. What Jesus is getting at is the heart and the culture that leans on deception so much that it becomes necessary to convince hearers that what you say is true.

I have heard this passage explained in light of the Jewish people's habit of "verbal finger-crossing." It was the idea that, if I swear by something like the temple, then I can still be righteous if I am not actually telling the truth, because I am not swearing by God. Jesus completely debunks any possibility of that because anything you swear by belongs to God and therefore still carries his weight. The truth, however, is that oaths are not even necessary inside the kingdom of heaven, because those living by kingdom principles desire so much to be like God, that to deceive someone else intentionally would contradict their very nature.

Others have pointed out that when we begin trying to convince someone else of their truthfulness by our promises or oaths, we have usually veered off course from simple communication into attempts at manipulation and coercion. The nature of God is to always give people choices and free will. When we push through simple yes or no answers trying to convince someone that what we say is true, don't we typically have an agenda that we are trying to push? Aren't we often needing them to accept our statements as truth in order to advance our own personal ambition, whatever it may be? To do so is self-serving and the culprit of selfishness can always be found at the scene of a crime against love.

And so, very simply, Jesus calls us to live lives of such honesty that we have no need of oaths...and we definitely have no need of "finger-crossing" oaths intended to deceive. But I don't think I'm telling you anything that you didn't already know and believe. So really...this week needs to just be a reminder and another call to evaluating our words and our hearts in light of Jesus' perfect ideal of "speaking the truth in love."

Am I honest with my spouse even when it might cause friction and I would rather avoid a fight? (honest...not blunt. There's a big difference and many an abusive, hateful, and self-serving person has hidden behind the mask of truth in order to continue their selfishly "blunt" ways.) Am I honest with my children when they ask about my past...or when I refer to my past...or to my current faith and my sometimes failures? Am I truthful with my children about my struggles that may affect them? Do I leave the door open for backing out when I commit to do something? ("I'll try to do that" is actually, "Deep down I know I'm not going to, but I'm too nice or chicken to say 'no'") 

Sadly, I'm still working on many of these and probably will be until the day I die. But I will say this...by the grace of God and the working on the Spirit in my life...and the help of a good wife, I am at least a little more honest today than I was 7 years ago. That's not to my credit or goodness...I've always wanted to be good in that area and failed. It's to God's credit and goodness that He has the power to change liars like me. And I know and trust in my Savior who did live a perfectly honest life and imparted that righteousness to me. And for the rest of my life, I will continue to learn how to trust Him more and more that the best way to live is with a simple, "yes" meaning "yes" and "no" meaning "no."

Will you?

A simple "yes" or "no" will do. :)

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Breaking the Divorce Cycle- Matthew 5:31-32

"It has been said, 'Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.' But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, causes her to become an adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery."

Matthew 5:31-32

I have to be honest...I originally wanted to skip this passage. Not because it is not an important passage or a teaching that needs to be looked at, but because I feel like divorce is such an obvious problem in someone's spiritual life that we tend to pick on it constantly while ignoring sins of anger, bitterness, slander, etc. Part of me wants to skip over this passage to spare the pain that this teaching must bring to those who have been touched directly or indirectly by divorce...and that is most of us. Having said that, though, it does touch so many of us and especially so many of our children and teens today who are affected by it without participating in it, that it would be negligent not to address Jesus' teaching on marriage when it comes up in scripture.

I will not attempt to draw the lines on who is and who is not eligible to remarry. Enough other people have argued that and come to conclusions that if you are looking for guidance on that, you can find it easily. I think we would be better served to go further back before someone is in the position of being divorced or remarried and really teaching ourselves and our children why marriage is so important to God and why He says, "I hate divorce" (Malachi 2:16).

I don't have to talk to you about the pain and the damage that is done to the couples who get divorced and to their children if they have any. You already know it and have felt it.

I really don't even need to remind you about God's plans for marriage. We all pretty well recognize that marriage is supposed to be "till death do us part."

Instead, let's just look briefly at how Jesus' teaching about divorce in this context fits into the Sermon on the Mount.

First, it's worth noting that Jesus once again begins with the current understanding of the law of Moses and then elevates it to a higher plateau. At the time, the practice was that men could divorce their wives for pretty much any reason they wanted (sound familiar in our context?) and they were still "good men" as long as they gave her a certificate of divorce so she could have proof that she was no longer married. Jesus says that this understanding of "righteousness" was absurd and points out that such divorce culminates in adultery of pretty much all parties involved. The disciples, mired in their current way of thinking, thought this to be such a difficult change compared to what they were used to, that they decided it would be better not to be married at all! (Matthew 19:10) But they had not yet understood the possibilities of life and the power of the Spirit inside the kingdom of heaven!

Second, is it any surprise that Jesus began the sermon with uncontrolled anger and contempt, and then discussed lustful perversions and adultery in the heart, and THEN talks about divorce. Can you imagine how many marriages could have been saved if the spouses had been living according to the kingdom principles of anger and lust? Can you imagine how many future marriages can be saved if children and teens today, and even spouses-- whether they are already struggling, are healthy, or are still in the honeymoon-- really decided to be like the wise man who built his house on the rock and put Jesus teaching about anger and lust into practice over and over again in each circumstance they rear their ugly heads?

I have a friend named Chris who I admire greatly. We were discussing how peaceful he and his wife always are and how they are my role models for marriage. I jokingly said that they should teach a marriage class even though they would still be considered "young marrieds." His response was typical Chris. "It's easy. Just do what the Bible says." It's been a while since we had that conversation so I may be paraphrasing, but that's pretty close. And he is absolutely right.

But where does that leave us now when we are already in the middle of so many broken families and so much hurt? It does no good to despair in guilt and for me or other church leaders to continue adding to the pain that divorced people have already been through once they are working to restore relationships with family and with God. It also does no good to ignore the fact that divorce tends to be a cycle that children repeat in their own marriages once they have experienced. But does that mean that divorced parents who feel no hope and the church should add more pain and judgment to an already painful situation? I don't believe so. Instead I will point to another passage that I think should guide our thoughts about ourselves and others and serve as a lens to look into mirrors and into other's eyes with.

Paul lists a lot of different categories of "unrighteous" people who will not inherit the kingdom of God in 1 Corinthians 6:9-11. Among those are the sexually immoral and the adulterers. Based on Jesus' teaching about the results of divorce for any reason, we are at least not many steps removed. Of course, we also know from many other passages that liars, divisive people, slanderers, and children who disobey parents, as well as any other sins and acts of unrighteousness could also be included in Paul's list. But verse 11 is what I am interested in.
"Such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God."
 To parents of teens and children, I say model and teach every day what it means to live life inside the kingdom of God as regards the teachings about anger and purity of heart so your children will never have to see divorce. Remind them constantly that as the body of Christ, we are washed from our old sins, sanctified (set apart) for a different style of life, and justified in front of the righteous almighty Judge. Now we are free to live like we are those things. To married couples I say the same thing. To divorced parents of teens, I say remember that if you are in Christ, you are also now washed, sanctified, and justified like every other sinner in the body of Christ. And now you are free to live in those attributes like everyone else. And to young and old children alike who have witnessed divorce in their family and are suffering from it or fearing repeating the same mistakes in your future marriage...I say to remember that you are washed, sanctified, and justified and can break the cycle with the power of the Spirit of God that is living inside you. And I say to remember that your parents, if they are in Christ, are now washed, sanctified, and justified as well. Help them to remember that and to live like it.

Marriage is messy, but if lived according to the kingdom of God, it is a beautiful and wonderful blessing. Divorce is messier...but I don't believe there is any sinful situation or any sinner that is so messy that God cannot redeem them. May we all live inside that hope and promise and may the cycle of divorce in America's churches finally be broken as people realize this and live kingdom principles.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Is Self-mutilation the key to kicking lust out the door? Matthew 5:29-30

photo by: http://www.flickr.com/photos/quinnanya/

If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell. 

Matthew 5:29-30

Regarding Jesus' teaching in Matthew 5 about looking at a woman to lust after her, Dallas Willard says this:
"In other words, all the elements of a genuine act of adultery other than the  overt movements of the body are present in such a case. The heart elements are there. Usually the only thing lacking for overt action is the occasion. When the heart is ready, the action will occur as occasion offers. Just as the thief is the person who would steal if circumstances were right, so the adulterer is the one who would have wrongful sex if the circumstances were right. Usually that means if he or she could be sure it would not be found out. This is what Jesus calls 'adultery in the heart.' In it, the person is not caring for, but using, the other. The condition is wrong even though sexual relations do not occur."    (The Divine Conspiracy. p. 161)
In our verses 29-30, Jesus lays out what I feel are very practical teachings for how to best avoid sexual temptation....and it makes absolutely perfect sense. What happens if your leg is infected to the point that it cannot be saved? No one wants to lose a limb, but almost all of us recognize the common sense of sacrificing a diseased limb in order to save the rest of the body.

If only we could see that principle so clearly when it comes to the part of us that is eternal!
But of course, we rarely see that and, therefore, Jesus' comments about cutting off hands and plucking out eyes seem to be simply exaggerations. But the truth is that it would actually be better to cut hands off and pluck eyes out if that would ensure entrance into the kingdom of heaven!

Now practically speaking, I'm not suggesting that we do that. But if we felt like that were the only way, wouldn't it be worth it!? Most commentators lean more towards the understanding that there are certain relationships and/or circumstances that need to be cut out of our lives if we know they are causing us to sin. If your boyfriend/girlfriend is tempting you to think things you shouldn't...break up with them! Isn't it better to be lonely and "miss out" than to be thrown into hell!? If you cannot keep away from certain sites or ads on the internet, then get rid of the internet! Isn't it better to miss out on a convenience than to have your whole body thrown into hell because you can't say no to the pop-ups!? If someone at work dresses inappropriately and you can't avoid them and can't quit thinking about them...switch jobs! Isn't it better to sacrifice job security than to sacrifice your eternal security!?

I think we would all do well to apply these principles for ourselves and our children in whatever way we need to...no TV or internet in bedrooms, no internet on phones if necessary, no late-night TV, restrictions on what types of movies are worth paying money for and what types will cost us out souls...whatever steps we need to take.

But the truth is that we could cut all of those things out- indeed, we could go so far as to take Jesus literally and cut limbs off and pluck eyes out- and still not have our heart in the right place. Willard takes a different view of Jesus' teaching that I think is worth looking at.
"Jesus is saying that if you think that laws can eliminate being wrong, you would, to be consistent, cut off your hand or gouge out your eye so that you could not possibly do the acts the law forbids.
Now, truly, if you blind yourself, you cannot look on her at all. And if you sufficiently dismember yourself, you will not be able to do any wrong action. This is the logic by which Jesus reduces the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees to the absurd.
...Of course being acceptable to God is so important that, if cutting bodily parts off could achieve it, one would be wise to cut them off....But so far from suggesting that any advantage before God could actually be gained in this way, Jesus' teaching in this passage is exactly the opposite. The mutilated stump could still have a wicked heart. The deeper question always concerns who you are, not what you did do or can do. What would you do if you could? Eliminating bodily parts will not change that....
 The goodness of the kingdom heart, by contrast, is the positive love of God and of those around us that fills it and crowds out the many forms of evil. From that goodness come deeds of respect and purity that characterize a sexuality as it was meant by God to be. (The Divine Conspiracy. pp. 167-168) (Emphasis added)
Where is your heart? Is it just fear of getting caught by your family or others...or even God that is your primary motivator in avoiding lust? If it is, then you are doomed to fail as long as you have any members attached to your body that can overcome their fear and long for sex outside of God's plans. On the other hand, if you fill your life with so much love for God by burying yourself in His words for you (the Bible), by filling your time with His purposes for you, and by filling your heart with God's love for others through you, then the battle will already have been decided because Jesus has already defeated sin and has given you the victory.

I have no doubt that we would all do well for ourselves and our children to think about what areas need to be cut off or plucked out because they consistently trip us up. But I am also absolutely convinced that we will always be able to find a way around our precautions if our heart is not filled with God. Therefore, what will you do today to fill your heart and the hearts of your sons and daughters with enough Love and Light that the Light will drive out the darkness?

Monday, May 6, 2013

Covenant Eyes- Matthew 5:27-28




“You have heard that it was said, 'You shall not commit adultery'...


Is it any wonder that when Jesus turned his attention in the Sermon on the Mount to the practical right and wrong choices of day-to-day living, the first two subjects addressed were uncontrolled anger and sex? Can you think of any two other things that have destroyed more lives, damaged more young children, and alienated more families from each other?

I could press the point about how saturated our society is with sex, but I know I don't need to. You've already had the point made loud and clear many times today as you drove past billboards, turned on the radio, changed the channel, and surfed the web. Not to mention the clothing worn at school and at work that is specifically designed to flatter one's body shape in order to gain attention. 

I can't help but think of Job's words from centuries before Jesus ever lived as a man.
"I made a covenant with my eye not to look lustfully at a young woman....Does he not see my ways and count my every step?...If my steps have turned from the path, if my heart has been led by my eyes, or if my hands have been defiled, then may others eat what I have sown, and may my crops be uprooted. If my heart has been enticed by a woman, or if I have lurked at my neighbor’s door, then may my wife grind another man’s grain, and may other men sleep with her. For that would have been wicked, a sin to be judged. It is a fire that burns to Destruction; it would have uprooted my harvest."
 - Job 31:1-12
 As he did with anger, Jesus started with the absolute right and wrong of the matter of adultery. But he explained that in God's kingdom, it is more than just the restraining of the actual physical act that matters to God...it is the heart of the person. And regardless of what I might or might not do based on the consequences of my actions and the fear of "getting caught", if my eyes are wandering because my heart is inclined toward other women, then I have already violated my relationship with my spouse (or future spouse for those who are not yet married), and with my God.

I want to be careful here because this area is one that is especially double-edged. On the one hand, Satan has kept the second-rate cheap version of sex in front of our minds and eyes so much, that it is possible to completely lose sight of Jesus' ideal of a pure heart and not think twice about a lingering look filled with illicit desire. On the other hand, Satan has also employed the weapons of worldly guilt to keep boys, girls, young and old men and women alike absolutely crippled in their desire and pursuit of Godliness because they cannot shake the "dirty" feeling that comes from this most personal of sins.

So today, I simply want to ask a question and remind you of a truth...

1.You have already made a covenant with your God. Most of you have already made a covenant with your spouse. Have you made a covenant with your eyes such as Job did? If not, then why not? 

2.  If you have, then when you think about your past and are overwhelmed with guilt, or you think about your present or future and are overwhelmed with fear, then I want to remind you that as with anger and everything else, Jesus began this sermon by calling us to a righteousness that surpasses that of the Pharisees and teachers of the Law. AND THAT RIGHTEOUSNESS IS YOURS INSIDE CHRIST! It is not yours if you can manage the strength to live up to it; it is yours because you have trusted in the One Who did! So quit falling to that sin over and over again because you don't feel worthy of forgiveness and keep returning to the mud like a pig returning to its wallow, and start living with the confidence and strength of someone who has been bought with the blood of Christ and redeemed from the old way of life...and lust.

To focus on the sin is to put yourself in a position to fail again. You cannot change your heart by legislating your eyes and hands any more than we can change the heart of the nation by legislating laws. The laws of the nation will merely reflect its heart.

No...focus on Christ who will teach you how to overcome and change you from the heart out. And as you do, I think you will find along with all of God's saints who have done so throughout the centuries that God's perfect law of liberty that is legislating your eyes and your hands will more and more perfectly reflect the heart that is in you.