Has the pressure has been getting to you lately? Career, financial decisions, leadership responsibilities, a spiritual life to nurture – how are you supposed to stay on top of all that? You feel like the proverbial camel with the badly strained back: one more straw and you know what is going to happen. You are in over your head, and you cannot even tread water because you are holding onto too many important things. So what can you do?
I think we can learn from Saint Paul, who should be the patron saint of the distraught, the overworked and the undervalued. The man faced more pressure per square inch than any of us are likely to, and he survived – well actually he didn’t, but that is another story, and it wasn’t the pressure that killed him. We can learn a few things about handling pressure from Paul.
Here are some of the things that Paul said about his lifestyle: “I have worked . . . harder . . . I have been constantly on the move. . . I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern”(same word translated as worry or anxiety every other time it is used in the New Testament) “for all the churches.”1 In this same letter he writes, “this body of ours had no rest, but we were harassed at every turn – conflicts on the outside, fears within.” Paul understood pressure.
It is not just when things are going wrong that we feel pressured. Sometimes the pressure is greatest when everything is going right. I once read about a bowler who rolled eleven straight strikes. He only needed one more for a perfect game. But the guy got so psyched out that he couldn’t bring himself to roll the last ball. The pressure was too great. He sat there for a long time, then finally took off his bowling shoes and went home. It was the last time he ever stepped into a bowling alley.
St. Paul knew more about pressure than that man. He was incarcerated, beaten, and tried as a traitor to the empire. Several of his letters that appear in our Bible were written while he was in prison. When he wrote the letter to the Philippians, he was waiting to hear whether or not the court would sentence him to death. Paul knew what pressure is all about, and he learned how to handle it.
Perhaps 2 Corinthians 4 offers the most insight on handling pressure of any of Paul’s writings. Here are verses 8 and 9: “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.”
Maybe you’ve been there. Maybe you are there. “Hard pressed on every side.” The word Paul chose is used of squeezing the juice out of grapes. Perhaps you feel like your circumstances are squeezing the life out of you. Now notice the next two words: “But not.” That is the refrain that runs through these verses. Things can sometimes get very tough, but not too tough for us to handle, as long as we are receiving God’s help. We can do this!
(Look for part 2 of How to Handle Pressure next week.)
Read below or watch at here (Sermon begins at 25:38.)
No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it. (Hebrews 6:11)
Let me remind you of the danger prolonged hardship presents and the five things we need to know to endure it well. The danger in hardship is (verse 3) that “you will … grow weary and lose heart.” Another way of putting that, which is faithful to the Greek text, is: “lest you become soul-sick and fall apart.”
Falling apart is the danger. There are five things we need to know to avoid it. 1) We need to know that hardship is inescapable. We will go through it – everyone does. Even Jesus the Son of God did.
2) We need to know that, while we don’t have a choice about whether we will go through hardship, we do have a choice about how we will go through hardship. (The how is what we are looking at today.)
3) We need to know that God knows. He knows what’s out there ahead of us and he knows what’s in here inside of us. He knows what we can handle (better than we do) and will keep us from any trial that we cannot, with his help, handle.
4) God will not waste our suffering. It will only be wasted if we waste it. He will use it to change us for the better and enable us to share in his holiness. Holiness is the state in which people flourish.
5) And this is a summary of all the rest: God intends to bring good to us through hardship, whatever it may be. That does not mean that hardship is good. It means that God is. So good, in fact, that nothing can prevent him from bringing good to his people.
When we know these five things, we are ready to do the five things that keep us from falling apart and avoid doing the five things that contribute to falling apart.
The first thing to do, which comes from verse 2, is to look at Jesus. If you want to know how to do a thing, find someone who has done it. If you want to replace the O2 sensor on your Ford F-150, get on YouTube and watch the professional at 1A Auto; don’t watch me. He’s done it. He knows how. Jesus knows how to endure hardship. He’s done it. Watch him.
One way to watch him is to read the Gospel accounts of his life. You can watch Jesus endure misunderstanding and see how he handles it. You can watch Jesus deal with false accusations, manipulative people, the violation of his rights, and physical exhaustion. You can see what he does with bickering, misguided friends, and flattering, devious enemies. I spend some time each day looking at Jesus in the gospels. It is one way I “fix my eyes on Jesus.”
But don’t just watch him: think through what you see him doing. Watching him won’t help much unless you think about what you see and imitate it. That’s the second thing we can do to endure hardship in a healthy way: Consider carefully how Jesus dealt with hardship. After we have looked at him (verse 2), we “consider him” (verse 3). The word the NIV translates as “consider” is a Greek compound, comprised of a root meaning “to reason” and a prefix meaning either “up” or “again.” We say, “Lighten up,” or “Toughen up!” or “Man up!” Our author says, “Reason up!”
If we are going to get through hardship well, we are going to need to think about what to do and we will learn that by watching Jesus. He’s the master. We reason up; that is, from a higher point of view, from Jesus’s.
I mentioned that prefix can also mean “again.” If it has that sense here, then the idea is for us to go back to Jesus’s life again and again, repeatedly thinking about what he did. We think through our response to hardship in the light of Jesus’s response to it. If we don’t know how Jesus responded to being misunderstood, misjudged, demeaned, and rejected, we need to find out. It is right there in our New Testaments.
Third thing to do (this is huge): Make up your mind in advance that you will not give up but that you will endure hardship as training. Verse 1 has already spoken about perseverance (“…let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us”) and verse 7 tells us to “Endure hardship as discipline.”
Get something out of the hardship you are going through; don’t let it be for nothing. Determine not to waste it. God won’t; you mustn’t either. Use it as discipline. You are going to endure it anyway; why not turn it to your advantage?
What areas in your life need to be trained and strengthened? Perhaps your “patience muscle” is weak. You are always reacting. Or perhaps your understanding and appreciation for others is so feeble as to be missing. Perhaps you need to develop courage, compassion, or faith. Those things can be strengthened, just like your biceps, triceps, and abs. Perhaps you want to be able to forgive someone, but the spiritual muscles needed are incapable of the heavy lifting forgiveness requires.
Hardship is the gym where those spiritual muscles are developed. Since you are going to the gym anyway, why not ask God for help? He’s the Ultimate Trainer. He can help you use your current hardship as strength training so that you will be able to do things in the future that are now beyond your ability.
(By the way, the Greek word from which we get our word “gym” or “gymnasium” appears in this text. It is in verse 11, and the NIV translates it as “have been trained.” Everyone goes to the gym – experiences hardship – whether they want to or not. Why not get some good out of it?)
So, the third thing to do is to turn hardship into a gym for training yourself in Christlikeness. The Jesus-follower is not a Marvel Superhero, who is born awesome or is suddenly transformed into a powerhouse. We were not born again awesome or with superpowers already developed. We need to train. Training, as Craig Gross put it, “is boring. But …training is everything.” Use hardship for training.
The fourth thing to do is: “make level paths for your feet” (12:13). I ran across a paraphrase of verses 12 and 13 that might help us wrap our minds around this: “So, look: now is the time to get tough. Straighten up! Have a workable plan and stick to it. Otherwise, when you get tired, you’ll stumble off the path, dislocate something, and need to be healed.”
“Make level paths for your feet” is a quotation from Proverbs 4. Our paraphrase puts it: “Have a workable plan and stick to it.” Don’t make following Jesus harder than it needs to be. Too many people do. They don’t make level paths. They don’t have a workable plan. Quite frankly, they don’t have any plan.
They only read the Bible when the urge hits them, which is not very often. They only pray when they need something. They have no definite plan for joining the church to worship on Sundays. If they got to bed early enough, and the kids are behaving, and the lawn is mowed, and their favorite speaker is in the pulpit, they might go. They have no plan for serving God – haven’t even thought about how their gifts fit into the work of the church.
These folks have not made level paths for themselves. When they hit the steep, rocky places in life (as they certainly will), they will lose their balance, get knocked off their feet, and end up disjointed. That is the meaning of the word translated “disabled” in verse 13 and it is a very painful condition. That’s what happens when we do not make plans for following Jesus.
One more thing we can do when things get tough, then will look at the things we must not do. The fifth thing to do in hardship is to get along with others. This is verse 14: “Make every effort” – literally, “pursue” or “hound” – “peace with all men…” When we’re going through some painful trial, particularly a prolonged, never-seeming-to-end trial, we can start taking out our frustration and hurt on others and not even realize it. Prolonged trial is a tinderbox and it only takes one spark to cause relationships to go up in smoke. During times of hardship especially, peacemaking must be a priority.
If we do these five things, we are much more likely to endure hardship well. But there are also five things we must not do. The first comes from verse 5: We must not forget God and what he has said. The Hebrews, our author asserts, “have forgotten that word of encouragement that addresses [them] as sons.”
When hardship has stressed us out, we are more likely to forget what we ought to remember and to remember what we ought to forget. We remember our rights but forget our responsibilities. We remember other people’s sins but forget our own. Worst of all, we forget about God. The Bible is stuffed full of appeals for us to remember God and warnings about what will happen if we don’t.
Think back to the last time you were in a really hard place (unrelenting temptation, relational upheaval, physical illness, or emotional distress). How long did it take you to remember God and his word? The better we get at going through hardship, the more quickly we remember God. Or you could say, the more quickly we remember God, the better we get at going through hardship.
The Greek word translated “forgotten” in verse 5 is used only here in the entire Bible. The lexicon defines it as “to forget completely” or “to not remember at all.” The recipients of this letter had known – probably memorized – this word of encouragement. But the stress of the in-your-face trial they were going through had driven it from the minds. That is a precarious place to be in. We must not forget what God has said to us.
A second thing we must not do (in that same word of encouragement from Proverbs) is to “make light of the Lord’s discipline” (Hebrews 12:5). Now what does that mean? How do people make light of the Lord’s discipline?
We make light of the Lord’s discipline when we ignore our conscience. After a shocking fall from grace, a prominent national figure admitted: “God sent me 1,000 hints that he didn’t want me to keep doing what I was doing. But I didn’t listen…” That’s making light of the Lord’s discipline.
We also make light of the Lord’s training when we blame others for our troubles. If, instead of saying to our Trainer, “Help me use this pain to share in Christ’s sufferings and in the power of his resurrection,” we say, “It’s not my fault. It’s his fault. It’s not fair,” we will miss the opportunity to train. We will make light of the Lord’s discipline.
Another way we do that is by sidestepping the Lord’s discipline theologically. This is what happens when we excuse sin by saying: “Salvation is by grace, not works. It’s not what I do, it what Christ did, that matters!” Of course! But if we are using the doctrine of grace as an excuse to continue sinning we are committing the worst kind of heresy. St. Paul himself bristled at the suggestion. It is theological malpractice to use the justification Christ won for us by his perfect obedience to justify our ongoing disobedience.
One more way we make light of the Lord’s discipline. In this case, we don’t ignore it. We acknowledge God in the trial and promise to obey him. But when the difficulty is resolved, our promise is dissolved, and we go right back to thinking and acting in the same old ways.
We must not make light of the Lord’s discipline. That is the second thing not to do. The third thing (also in verse 5) is, in some respects, the opposite of making light of the Lord’s discipline. We must not lose heart at his rebuke. Remember what we learned last week. To lose heart is to come apart at the seams. We must not fall apart when God reveals sin in our lives or calls us to change. Some people do just that. They tell themselves, “I can do it. I’m no good at this. I’m such a failure. It’s just impossible.”
Jesus’s people must avoid both errors. We mustn’t fall apart, as if God despises us (he does not). Nor must we belittle his discipline, as though we despise him (we dare not). Instead, we need to remind ourselves that God disciplines those he loves because he loves them and wants them to be glorious.
A fourth thing we must not do (verse 15) is miss the grace of God. In Christ there is grace for every insult, misunderstanding, and difference of opinion; for every illness, financial setback, and loss. We mustn’t miss that grace for ourselves and we must help others obtain it for themselves.
There is a promise implicit in this instruction – a promise that God’s grace will be there when we need it. Has someone taken advantage of you? God is offering you his grace to deal with it. Has someone insulted, ignored, or manipulated you? You can handle it with the grace God is offering right now. Is uncertainty stressing you out? God’s grace is sufficient, and it is yours to receive.
The danger here is that we will so focus on the injustice done that we will miss the grace extended. We take offence because we’ve been slighted, then turn around and slight God who is offering us his grace! If we ignore that offer, there will be a price to pay; there will be hell to pay. A bitter root, planted and fertilized in the soil of hell, will grow up and it will “cause trouble and defile many.”
The “trouble” of verse 15 is the opposite of the peace of verse 14. If we miss the grace of God, trouble will roll through our families and churches and defile many. That is the opposite of the holiness of verse 10. People will be polluted – that’s what that word means. Entire families can become toxic. If heaven had a Toxic Substances and Disease Registry like the U.S. government does, some families and even churches would be on it. It is our responsibility not to miss the grace of God. If we do, people will be contaminated and bitterness will become epidemic.
The fifth and final thing we must not (verse 16) do: we must not be godless. This might need some clarification. A godless person can be friendly, fun, witty, even cultured. We can enjoy thoroughly enjoy his company. But, like Esau, he will make choices without regard for God or for spiritual consequences. God is simply absent from his mind. That pretty much describes how our society operates.
But remember! “Godless” does not mean “worthless.” Godless people are not God-forsaken people. He loves and values them and we can too, but we dare not imitate them.
I have met – this may sound like an oxymoron – more than a few godless Christians. Though they would never admit it, they have taken on the mindset of the culture around them, which operates on the assumption that God is alright, as long as he does not get in the way of some pleasure or pursuit. Our attitude should be precisely the opposite: this pleasure or pursuit is alright, as long as it does not get in the way of my love for God and my obedience to him.
We’ve been talking about what needs to be done and what, most assuredly, needs not to be done, but I want to close with what we will be like if we follow these biblical instructions. When hardship comes, we will hurt like everyone else, but we will heal and bring healing like Jesus. That is because we have used the hardship to enter the fellowship of Christ’s sufferings, been made conformable to his death, and have experienced the power of his resurrection.
You might not recognize the name Brian Doerkson but you’ve likely sung his worship songs. Brian is a well-known songwriter and worship leader. We’ve sung his songs at Lockwood. When he and his wife learned that their son would be physically, intellectually, and emotionally stunted by a genetic disorder, the news hit them like a truck. They nearly lost heart.
Brian said to God, “I quit.” He didn’t think he could go on leading people in worship. But when his soul got quiet enough to hear God, he heard God say to him: “Will you trust me? Will you go even with your broken heart?”
Because Brian said yes, he learned that people are not helped by our triumphs nearly as much as they are by our tragedies – when we use those tragedies to enter into the fellowship of Christ’s sufferings, are made like him in his death, and experience his resurrection power in our lives.
Brian learned that “People are just longing to hear [others] speak of how they have walked through the deepest valleys.” Through people like Brian – people like us, if we will endure hardship well – God heals the world in small ways just as, through his suffering Son, he will heal the world completely.
 Craig Gross, Go Small (Thomas Nelson, 2014), pp. 6-9
 Jack Abramoff in Time Magazine, “Notebook,” (2-6-06)
FX Networks (a Walt Disney Company) is about to release the documentary AKA Jane Roe, the story of Norma McCorvey, the woman whose challenge of Texas law led to the 1973 U.S. Court ruling that struck down many state and federal abortion laws.
Ms. McCorvey was 21, unmarried, and pregnant for the third time when she was referred to lawyers Sarah Weddington and Linda Coffee, who were looking for a way to challenge and overturn Texas’s abortion laws. That was in 1969. Long before the case reached the Supreme Court, McCorvey’s baby had been born and given up for adoption.
In the mid-1990s, McCorvey made a very public conversion to Christianity, was baptized in a nationally televised event, left her job at an abortion clinic, and became a very public anti-abortion advocate. She published a book in 1998, recounting her conversion, and continued protesting abortion for more than two decades.
A few months before her death, however, she made another highly publicized, filmed for television “deathbed confession,” as she called it, saying that her anti-abortion advocacy was all an act. She said she was paid handsomely (FX puts is around $500,000) to say the things she had said and claimed it made no difference to her whether “a young woman wants to have an abortion.”
Ms. McCorvey went on to say proudly that she was “a good actress,” then added, “Of course, I am not acting now.” But who knows? She had played the actress so frequently in her life, it is possible she could no longer tell whether she was acting or not.
Before being referred to the lawyers who took her case to the Supreme Court, McCorvey tried to get a legal abortion by claiming she had been gang raped by a group of black men. The investigation, however, was dropped for lack of evidence, and McCorvey later admitted it was all an act.
It would be easy to attack Ms. McCorvey’s character, but that would be a mistake. She was a person, created and loved by God, who had been subjected to abuse and manipulation throughout her life. Her mother was an alcoholic, reputed to be violent. Her father abandoned the family. She was made a ward of the state at age 11 and was repeatedly institutionalized.
McCorvey was misused again and again. Her mother tricked her into giving up her daughter for adoption. Her attorneys took her case because they saw her as a tool for overturning abortion laws. The evangelical Christians she met in the mid-nineties saw her as a tool for reversing Roe v. Wade. Did the executives at Disney see her as a tool for bolstering ratings?
Mercenary TV executives and lawyers are so common as to be cliché. It is the religious people in this story who sadden and repulse me. Somehow, they thought it was morally acceptable to manipulate a woman who had been manipulated her entire life. They thought they could somehow exploit a human being in the name of Jesus.
What they did was outrageous. It was sinful. The Reverend Rob Schenck, who has himself made a very public about-face on abortion, was one of those involved. He now says: “I knew what we were doing … and I wondered: ‘Is she playing us?’ What I didn’t have the guts to say was: ‘Because I know … we’re playing her.’”
I oppose abortion and expect that future Americans (including the irreligious) will too. They will look on this period in our history with bewilderment and think it barbaric: the bad old days of racial hatred, wars, and millions upon millions of elective abortions.
Abortion stains our history. Nevertheless, if it took but a single lie or act of exploitation to end abortion, it would be wrong to do so. Jesus himself would not do it. Abortion will never be legislated out of existence, though legislation is needed. It will never be shamed out of existence – that has already been tried. It will only be loved out of existence and that is the work of the church.
I wonder: What would Norman McCorvey’s life have been like had she been loved at age 11 rather than institutionalized? No one knows but, perhaps, things would have been different.
A farmer once told me he doesn’t like to get much rain in the weeks after planting because the corn won’t need to send its roots deep to get nourishment. If there is enough moisture near the surface, the plants will root near the surface. Later, when the hot days of July and August dry out the ground, there won’t be enough moisture for the plants to flourish, and yield will be down.
People are like that. It may seem counter-intuitive, but no one flourishes without a fight. That is true both of families and individuals. Flourishing doesn’t happen in the absence of sustained effort; it happens because of it – if people go through it well.
Individuals and families that don’t endure difficulty in healthy ways don’t flourish. They may look impressive on the outside, like a nine-foot cornstalk but, like that cornstalk, they will bring little good into God’s world.
Parents want their kids’ lives to flourish but they also want their kids’ lives to be easy; want success to be right at the surface. They want their kids to have sports’ triumphs, academic honors, and scores of friends. But if life is always easy, those kids won’t root deeply and they won’t flourish.
But when is life easy – either for adults or for kids? Financial uncertainty, sickness, loneliness – sounds like Covid-19, doesn’t it? But there needn’t be a pandemic to experience hardship. Long ago, the author of Hebrews wrote a brilliant letter to help people who were going through a tough time. They were harassed and mocked, refused jobs—and some even lost their homes and were incarcerated.
Our situation is different, but our need is the same. Life was hard for them. It is hard for us. They were tired. We are tired. Some of them were ready to give up. Perhaps some of us are ready to give up.
The Book of Hebrews urges readers not to give up, explains why giving up would be a mistake, and tells people what they can do to avoid giving up. The letter comes to its climax in chapter 12, which we will look at today and again next week. Today we will discover five things we need to know in difficult times. Next week will look at four things we need to do in difficult times and three things we need at all costs not to do.
Let’s read a part of our text, Hebrews 12:4-11: In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. And you have forgotten that word of encouragement that addresses you as sons: “My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son.” Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is not disciplined by his father? If you are not disciplined (and everyone undergoes discipline), then you are illegitimate children and not true sons. Moreover, we have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of our spirits and live! Our fathers disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.
I started reading at verse 4 but in verse 3 the author sets the stage by naming the very real danger his readers faced, which we also face: the danger that we might “grow weary and lose heart.” A literal translation of that Greek phrase goes: “lest you weary your souls and come loose.”
How often we have heard about some pastor or Christian leader who has been caught up in scandal. Many of these people are, to all appearances, genuine followers of Jesus who have been a real blessing to the church and the world. So, what happened? How did they get caught up in sexual sins, or gambling addictions, or episodes of rage?
I’m sure there are many reasons but one, I think, is that they were soul-weary and lacked the strength to resist temptation. The word translated “weary” here is frequently used of someone who is ill. It is the same word St. James used when he wrote: “Is any sick (that’s it) among you? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him…” (James 5:13). Whenever we are going through prolonged difficulty, we are at risk of contracting soul-sickness.
The Greek word the NIV translates as “lose heart” means something like, “come loose” or “come untied.” It pictures a person who is coming apart at the seams. What keeps the seams from unraveling is a person’s soul. The soul integrates thoughts, feelings, will, and body into one whole person. But if the soul gets sick, that integration begins to fail. The body won’t be able to carry out the heart’s decisions and the heart’s decisions will be made over the mind’s objections. When the mind and heart and body are out of sync, life falls apart. Soul-sickness is always a possibility, but especially in extended times of difficulty – like right now.
Our author wants his readers to understand the dynamics of prolonged hardship and the dangers that accompany it, so he lays out some things people need to know to successfully navigate hard times. We’ll look at those from Hebrews 12 and add one from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians.
It will help you, whenever you encounter hardship – whether sudden trial or prolonged difficulty – to know the five truths we are about to look at. But knowing them in the abstract will not be enough. You actually need to remember them and think about how they apply. Otherwise, you will be less likely to do the things that help people endure hardship but more likely to do the things that cause people to come apart at the seams.
The first thing you need to know is that trials will come and they will hurt. A lot. Somehow, we have got the idea that hardship is an outlier and pain an aberration while ease is normal and comfort is our right. Some people (like Buddhists and Christian Scientists) teach that suffering is an illusion while others (like the prosperity gospelers) teach that suffering, though real, is shameful and unnecessary.
That is not what Jesus, his apostles, the prophets, or the evangelists taught. St. Peter, for example, wrote: “…do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you.” (1 Peter 4:12). When his friends in Thessalonica were going through distress, St. Paul sent his surrogate Timothy “so that no one would be unsettled by these trials.” Then he added: “You know quite well that we were destined for them.” (1 Thess. 3:3). Among the sure promises of Jesus is one we don’t like: “In this world you will have trouble” (John 16:33). He said similar things time and time again. Suffering is woven into the fabric of a world that is out of sync with its Creator.
The staff at the Bridger Wilderness Area in Wyoming posted some of the comment cards they have received. Here is a sampling: “Trails need to be reconstructed. Please avoid building trails that go uphill.” (Bridger is in the heart of the Teton mountains.) “Too many bugs and spiderwebs. Please spray the wilderness. . .” “Escalators would help on steep uphill sections.” “Too many rocks in the mountains.” “The coyotes made too much noise last night … Please eradicate these animals.” And finally, “A MacDonald’s would be nice at the trailhead.” Those people don’t seem to understand what a wilderness is. Bugs, rocks, coyotes, and steep climbs come with the territory. The author of Hebrews is telling us that suffering comes with the territory, and people are not exempt, just because they follow Jesus Christ.
Trials will come and they will hurt. A lot. In Hebrews 12:4, the author writes: “In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood.” They hadn’t but they might, and many people do (as the previous chapter made abundantly clear). In verse 2 of this chapter, we are reminded that even the author and perfecter of the faith himself, the Man of Sorrows, endured suffering and shame.
It would be a mistake to think that pain was unavoidable in the past but we’ve moved beyond that now. In our day, people around the world are enduring hardship just like they did when this letter was written. Last December the British Foreign Secretary reported that in parts of the world, the persecution of Christians is at near “genocide” (his word) levels. No one said this was a picnic.
Life is hard and it always has been. Isaac Watts, the Chris Tomlin of his day, a guy who wrote something like 750 hymns, was born into a time of political turmoil. England had just come through civil war and was about to go through a second revolution and begin two generations of a divided kingdom. There were flagrant injustices. Watts himself was not permitted to attend England’s top tier universities simply because he wasn’t an Anglican.
In 1721, a year of instability and intrigues, Watts wrote this hymn: “Am I a soldier of the cross, a follower of the Lamb, and shall I fear to own His cause, or blush to speak His name? Must I be carried to the skies on flow’ry beds of ease, while others fought to win the prize, and sailed through bloody seas?”
Isaac Watts knew better. So did the author of Hebrews. He wrote in verse 8: “Everyone undergoes discipline.” Not some people: everyone. No one is exempted.
The first thing to know and to remember in hardship is that trials will come and they will hurt. A lot.
The second thing to know is that we can choose how we will go through hardship. (This is from verse 7.) We’ll go into this in more detail next week, when we look at what to do and what not to do in hardship, but for now it is enough to know we have a choice in the matter. We have no choice about whether we will endure hardship but we do have a choice about how we will endure it—a choice that makes a real difference.
Next thing we need to know: God knows. He knows the course marked out for us (that was verse 1). He knows where the obstacles are and he knows how to get through them.
God not only knows the course marked out for us (what lies before us), he knows us (what lies within us). He knows what we can handle and what we cannot and he will not allow us to undergo trials that are too much for us.
Over the last few years, our church has seen a number of young people join the Marine Corps. When they got to Parris Island, they met their Drill Instructor, who is called that because he drills recruits on proper social etiquette, how to enunciate clearly, how to fold a napkin properly, how to extend the pinky finger when drinking tea.
No, that’s not what they found. The D.I. was merciless. The drills unbearable. They and their fellow-recruits were pushed to their limits. Why? Because those Drill Instructors had come home from Iraq and Afghanistan and they knew it might take everything these young men and women had – and more – to survive and keep their fellow Marine alive. They knew what their recruits could handle even before the recruits themselves knew it.
God knows what’s coming, knows what you can handle and, as St. Paul put it in 1 Corinthians, he “is faithful; he will not let you be tempted” (or tried) “beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it” (1 Cor. 10:13). If we don’t know this, we will not trust God when hardship comes, and trust is the only vaccine that can immunize against the soul-sickness that causes people to come apart at the seams. Hardship will not make you fall apart unless there is a comorbidity; that is, unless you are soul-sick. Trust in God is the only antidote.
Another truth we need to know: Our Father God allows suffering because it performs an important function for which there exists no easier means. Suffering is a road no one wants to take, but it leads to a place no other road can go: to holiness. That is verse 10: “God disciplines us … that we may share in his holiness.”
If you say, “I don’t care about holiness—I’m no monk or priest. I just want to be happy,” then you don’t understand holiness. Holiness is the state where joy and peace are located. Holiness is like clean air after smog, like light after dark. God wants us to share in his holiness; in fact, he insists on it, in part, because our happiness depends on it. “Without holiness,” verse 14, “no one will see the Lord.” Holiness is the state of healthiness and flourishing.
Holiness is so important that God will use insecurity, grief, and pain to produce it in us. It’s not that he inflicts such things on us – he’s not like that. But, when such things come, he will not hesitate to use them for our great and lasting good. The real question is whether we will use them for our good.
A fifth thing, which is itself a summary of all the others, is found in verse 10: “Our fathers disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God” – our Father in heaven – “disciplines us for our good.” Included among the goods produced by God’s discipline are the priceless treasures of verse 11: a harvest of righteousness (that is, right relationships with God and people) and the blessing of peace.
Now, a word about that word “discipline.” In the home in which I grew up, discipline meant one thing: the belt. I got “disciplined” when I did something selfish or malicious or willfully disobedient. “Discipline” was to be avoided by any means – including hiding, evading, and lying.
The word translated “discipline” in verse 10 and elsewhere in this passage doesn’t mean that. It means training, not whipping. This is the word that would be used of training a child to tie his shoes or a young man to tie a tie. It is a word that would fit spring training in baseball, or a training regimen in the gym. Training always has a purpose. People who undergo it and make use of it can do more after being trained than they could before. Training can help us achieve when trying – even earnest, strenuous trying – fails.
Listen and do not forget: our good is never out of God’s mind. Never. But we will think it is when we go through hard times, if we think our good is our ease or the preservation of our routine, or our so-called possessions.
We are like a tourist at Bridger Wilderness Area for whom a cell signal is the only good he cares about because he wants to play Fortnite with his friends. He misses the awe-inspiring Grand Tetons, the turquoise lakes, the singing of the mountain streams, the moose, and the grizzly. He thinks his good depends entirely on a connection to a cellular network.
We’re not so different. We think our good depends entirely on keeping a connection to our money, our health, or our reputation. We so lack imagination. The good we can envision, to which we cling like a selfish child, is a trinket compared to the awful good, the glorious good, the thrilling good God has planned for us.
The promises of the Bible regarding us are breathtaking. The earth we live in will be transformed; a metamorphosis; an eco-resurrection. No more decay, no more death, no more Second Law of Thermodynamics. The most out-there science fiction plot you’ve ever read doesn’t even come close to the biblical promises.
We will be changed. Fear will be gone. Can you imagine – no fear? Joy will be full and overflowing. We will be immortals – glorious, shining like the sun in the kingdom of our Father. The Genesis 1 work of subduing and ruling the earth, which we have bungled so completely, was, I expect, just a training exercise for subduing and ruling the universe … in love.
I appreciate Dallas Willard’s shorthand for what awaits us: we will belong – what a beautiful word – we will belong to (here’s Willard) “A community of unspeakably magnificent personal beings of boundless love, knowledge and power.” That is, we will share in the joyful life of the Trinity itself.
Two notes. One: this is only possible because of the love of God and the sacrifice of Christ. We didn’t make this happen and we cannot earn it. It is all grace. And two: we must not give in or give up on so great a future because of current hardships, whatever they are. How to avoid giving in is the subject of next week’s message from Hebrews 12.
My wife and I went to Turkey a few years ago on a tour of the seven ancient cities mentioned in chapters two and three of the Book of Revelation. In many of the places we traveled, we saw engravings dating back nearly two millennium and written in Greek. Since I know some Koine Greek, I was eager to read these signs.
It was more difficult than I expected, partly because the Greek sometimes differed from the Koine I know, but largely because (as I anticipated) the Greek letters were all capitals and there was no spacing between words. Students of biblical Greek usually learn the language as it is printed today, with lower-case letters and with spaces between words and sentences.
Try reading the following well-known Bible verse in English: JUDGENOTLESTYOUBEJUDGED. You were probably able to read this and may recognize it as something spoken by Jesus and recorded in Matthew’s Gospel. But imagine what work it would be to locate and read a particular passage if the entire Bible ran together like this.
We take our Bibles for granted, but navigating the text was not always as easy as it is now. Translating the original language into English was, of course, an enormous task, but even after it was translated, and word spacing was introduced, and upper and lower cases were used, it was still much more difficult to find a text than it is today. That is because the books of the Bible were not divided into chapters for more than a millennium or into verses for more than 1500 years.
Imagine owning a Bible without any verse or chapter breaks. You’re at church and the pastor says, “Today, we’re looking at the most famous passage in the Bible,” so you hurry to locate the part about God so loving the world that he gave his only begotten Son. But there would be no John 3:16, so you would need to scan for key words like “so,” “loved,” “begotten,” and more. Good luck with that.
It was the thirteenth century Archbishop of Canterbury Stephen Langton who came up with the brilliant idea of placing chapter divisions in the text, although it took a hundred-and-fifty years before a Bible was published using them. In 1448, Rabbi Nathan divided the Old Testament into verses, but it was not until 1555 that Robert Estienne divided the New Testament into the numbered verses we now know.
Yet chapter and verse divisions, while an enormous help in locating texts, can also be problematic. Because the original writers did not use them – who numbers the sentences in a letter and divides them into chapters? – we cannot always be sure that an author intended to conclude a thought at the end of a verse or to move on to another subject at the end of a chapter.
Taking the chapter breaks (and even verse breaks) as authoritative can lead to interpretive failures. For example, St. Paul’s famous paean to love in 1 Corinthians 13 is often removed from its context as if it were a stand-alone text. This happens frequently at weddings.
What is wrong with reading 1 Corinthians 13 at a wedding? Nothing. I’ve done it myself many times. However, if we remove it from the church’s corporate life and worship and read it only at weddings, we will think of it as a song about marital devotion. But 1 Corinthians 13 was written to a church, not a married couple—a church that was plagued by infighting and power struggles. Knowing that opens the text to us as we read.
Another example (there are many) is the story of the meeting between Jesus and the well-known teacher Nicodemus. The current chapter division begins the story with the introduction of Nicodemus, but it would be better to divide the chapters three verses earlier. Those three verses set the stage for Rabbi Nicodemus entrance and help us make sense of Jesus’s interaction with him.
The moral here is not that we should throw out chapter and verse numbers – we’d all be lost. The moral is that we had better read before and after the numbers to be sure we understand the context.
(Deuteronomy 6:4-9) 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 strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates. (NIV)
I just want my life to mean something. Ever feel like that? People usually young adults who are just setting out but sometimes middle-aged adults who feel like they have been missing out – have said that kind of thing to me.
I’ve watched as they try to give their life meaning through their experiences, as if having a meaningful experience would make them meaningful. They volunteer at a food pantry, or go on a mission trip, or enroll in Teach for America. Other people try to add something exciting to life, like jumping out of an airplane (for example). And some take on strenuous, test-your-limits pursuits – they join the Marine Corps or go in for an extreme fitness regimen.
Then they wait for meaning to come pouring into their lives. It’s as if they think of their life as an empty vessel which, when they tap into the right thing, will be filled with meaning.
From my observations, the person who says, “I want my life to mean something” is proceeding from a false position; a wrong assumption. His or her life already means something. Everyone’s life means something because God meant them – he made them for a purpose. But that meaning is, at least in part, a significant– sign-ificant – meaning; the kind of meaning a sign possesses.
Signs come in all shapes and sizes and are made from all kinds of materials. The thing that makes a sign meaningful is not inherent in the sign itself. It’s meaning always comes from something outside itself. The important thing about a sign is not its size or shape or the font in which it is written but that thing beyond the sign to which it points. Take a highway sign that reads: Chicago 160. What gives that sign meaning is a place called Chicago, which is 160 miles away.
Now, it is entirely possible to misinterpret the meaning of a sign, including the sign that is our life. Someone from Canada might misinterpret the Chicago sign because they assume it means Chicago is 160 kilometers away. Still, she knows the meaning is not in the sign itself but in the thing to which it points. It is sign-ificant.
People’s lives are also meaningful in that way. They are significant because they are signs; they point somewhere. They’re not meaningful because they get filled up with experiences but because they point to something bigger than their experience, just as Chicago is bigger than the sign that points to it.
So, what is the bigger thing to which your life points? What is the meaning of your life?
Sometimes our lives get twisted around in such a way that they no longer point in the right direction. Sin is one of the things that cause this. We’re still carrying the information about God, but when people look down the trajectory of our lives, they don’t see him.
Sometimes we get knocked down by one of life’s storms or by a collision with some steamrolling reality like divorce, or disease, or trouble. God is still written across our life, but we’ve been knocked down like a road sign struck by a car and we are no longer pointing in any discernable direction.
Your life is a sign. To where does it point? A few years ago, the Barna Group compiled extensive data from a broad survey of American Christian families. They found that the three things parents are most likely to say about themselves are: 1) they are busy; 2) they are stressed; and 3) they are in debt.
Furthermore, most of these parents report being only marginally satisfied with their lives, their marriages, and their jobs. The thing they say they are satisfied with is their parenting skills and their children’s development. Interestingly, they say other people’s parenting skills and other people’s children are unsatisfactory.
So, think about this: Where does a person’s life (whether a parent or not, doesn’t matter) who is busy, stressed, and indebted point? To what does the life of the self-satisfied / others-dissatisfied person point?
God designed us to be signs, exquisitely made and beautifully detailed, that point to him. Genesis tells us that God made humans in his own image. He made them billboards with his image imprinted on them, pointing people to him and to the rich life he makes possible.
Last week in Deuteronomy 6, Hal showed us the God of love who desires to be loved by us. “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 strength” (Deuteronomy 6:4-5). This, the most familiar passage in the Bible for more than a millennium, quoted by Jesus himself as the Bible’s most important command, helps us understand what a flourishing life looks like and how it points to God.
A person who is coming to love God with heart and soul and strength is not just a sign, but a lighted sign, clear and bright, and easy to read. But in the absence of love, the sign that is our life is like a digital display without electricity.
Loving God does help other people but it is also good for us. There are benefits. The first, verse 1, is a family that belongs to God for generations. (How great is that!) The second benefit, verse 2, is that we enjoy long life. I like that translation because it brings out the idea that God doesn’t want us merely to endure life but to enjoy it. The third benefit, verse 3, is that things go well for us. (But note: “well” does not mean easy. It means we will be spiritually healthy and sound.) And finally, same verse, that we increase greatly. That is, we flourish.
Now, how does this happen? It does not happen – we need to get this right – because we compel ourselves or our family to obey a bunch of rules. Outward rules can give expression to inward love, but they cannot take its place. In fact, outward rules without inward love inevitably backfires. A family (or school or church) that has the rules but doesn’t have the love will produce either hypocritical Christians or hypercritical Christians and, either way, their lives will point in the wrong direction.
I know some people who write God’s word, including his commands, on note cards that they place all over their homes – often so their family will see them. I think that is a great idea but I caution you that if you put God’s commands in your home but not in your heart, you’ll only make things worse. God is not interested in forging a people who abide by the rules but in forming a people who abide in his love. The way God designed us, his commands only get into a heart when it opens to his love.
This passage teaches us to keep God before our minds as we go through everyday life. That is one of the best things we can do for ourselves and is a key to spiritual growth. It is what David, the man after God’s own heart, learned to do. He said, “I have set the Lord always before me” (Psalm 16:8). Some people set the media always before them, and you can be sure they will become a certain kind of person because of it. Someone else sets the NYSE always before him. He will become a certain kind of person because of it. Other people have set their wish list always before them—or their regrets list. It will shape them into a certain kind of person.
Moses wanted God’s people to keep the Lord always before them and so be shaped by him – be, as St. Paul put it, “renewed in knowledge according to the image of [our] Creator” (Colossians 3:10). The act of setting the Lord before us must become a regular and ongoing practice. But to do that we need some kind of framework, and that is just what this passage gives us.
Notice the repeated use of the word “when” in verse 7: “…when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.” No one will succeed in setting the Lord before him or her who does so intermittently. Every Sunday from 11:00 to 12:00 is a start, but it is not enough. The church can be a help to you and your family in doing this, but the church cannot do it for you.
Moses mentions four key times for bringing God and his ways before you and your family. It we can make a habit of doing this, it will go a long way to helping us flourish. The first is when you sit at home. But when does anyone have time to sit at home? When they eat. Mealtimes are ready-made for this. If you make only one change in your schedule, this might be the one to make: eat meals together. Recent research suggests that it makes a huge difference in a family’s life. If you are alone, find extended family – not necessarily biological either – to eat with on a regular basis.
In a study conducted in 2018 of practicing Christians adults and teens, 68 percent of families say they eat dinner together every day or two, which means they are together for dinner more often than for any other household routine. Meals can provide a time to talk about the Lord, his ways, and our experiences of him. At first, this may seem forced, but it will become natural over time and, when it does, it will become powerful!
Consider making the dinner table a device-free zone. But instead of ordering your kids to give up their phones, talk it over in advance. Tell them what you’re thinking. Even if you negotiate one mealtime a week without devices and with conversation, that is a great start.
You can talk about a movie you saw and together think through what it implies about the world and about God. Talk about experiences you had growing up. Share something you’re praying for. You don’t need to force God into your conversation. If he has already entered your heart, he’ll enter your conversations. Make the most of mealtimes.
Moses mentions a second critical time in verse 7: travel time – “when you are on the road.” For example, when you leave the worship service you can make it a habit to talk about what you heard in the sermon or in Sunday School or about a song we sang. If you have kids, ask them what they did in Kid’s Min or talk to them about what they are doing in Youth Group.
The next important time is bedtime. You can bring God before your mind by reading an evening psalm. This is something the church around the world has done for hundreds of years. Find the common lectionary online and you’ll find an evening psalm for each day of the week, all year long.
When our kids were young, we read good books at bedtime almost every night. We started when they were infants, read them picture books when they were toddlers, went on to chapter books when they got a little older, and even 500-page books as they got older still. We read The Chronicles of Narnia, for instance – and now our son and daughter-in-law are reading The Chronicles to their kids.
The fourth important time is in the morning – “…when you get up.” Our home was a whirl of activity every morning. I was obsessed with punctuality; my kids were not; and that led to some pretty tense mornings. To be frank, I failed on this one (as well as many others). I failed but God did not.
Before or kids got up, Karen and I would rise, hide ourselves away with a cup of coffee, and set the Lord before us in prayer and Bible reading. That is a habit for us that is many decades in the making, and it has been life-altering. It became a sign to our kids and helped them begin their own daily devotional times.
These kinds of practices become signs to you who are yourself a sign to others. They point you and, if you have family at home, your family to God. If they are framed by love for God (that is verse 5) and contain meaningful content (that is verse 7), they will help you and your family. Moses actually suggests you make literal signs in verses 8 and 9 and put them where you can’t miss them: “…on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.”
I must warn you, though, of a danger inherent in this. If we mistake the sign for the thing to which it points, we will hurt ourselves and our families. We can be all about family dinners and reading at bedtime and having conversations in the car, but if those things become an end in themselves, we are stopping at the sign rather than going on to the God to whom it points. That’s like driving to the sign that says, “Chicago 160,” patting ourselves on the back, and then returning home.
That may sound ridiculous to you, but it happens all the time in the spiritual life. People congratulate themselves on Bible reading and feel like they’ve arrived. They memorize verses as if it were somehow meritorious. Because they have a daily quiet time, they think themselves spiritual when they are really only predictable.
This kind of thing happened again and again among God’s people. God gave them circumcision for a sign (Genesis 17). He gave them Passover for a sign (Exodus 13). He gave them the Sabbath for a sign (Exodus 31). But people gathered around the signs, celebrated them, and forgot where they pointed. They’d confused the sign for the destination, and everything became about the sign.
Those were the people who were furious because the Apostle Paul didn’t agree that circumcision was all-important. When he said things like, “…neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value,” they flew into a rage and called him a heretic.
It happened with the Sabbath. When Jesus dared to say the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath, people wanted to kill him. No, they insisted, man was made for the Sabbath. Sabbath was everything. They had mistaken the sign for the reality.
We mustn’t allow that to happen to us and our families. If it does, the result is predictable. The first generation will use the sign – say, church attendance – to point them to God. The second generation will keep the sign – they’ll still go to church. It may even be important to them and they will feel superior to people who don’t go. They’ll keep the sign but forget where it points. Then it will grieve their hearts when the third generation pulls up the sign and throws it away. The problem comes from thinking that doing certain kinds of things somehow takes the place of being certain kinds of people – people who love God and live in his love.
Let me suggest a couple of things we can do to put what we’ve heard into practice. First, ask God to reveal to you where your life is currently pointing. Be honest with him and with yourself. Is your life pointing to him or to retirement? Does your life say that God is great of that possession are better? Remember, your friends, your children, and your grandchildren are reading the sign that is your life. You need to know where it is pointing.
Another thing you can do: incorporate the four critical times of the day into a plan for spiritual growth and flourishing. What do you now do at mealtimes? What small changes could you make to bring God into your thoughts? Perhaps you could start simply by giving thanks before meals. Maybe you make the dinner table a device-free zone and have conversations instead. Is there a way to bring God before your mind during travel times? Can you listen to a good podcast or sermon, or to Christian music? Can you use the time to pray for friends and family? What about first thing in the morning and last thing before bed? Read a psalm? Pray?
Don’t try to do everything but do try something. Experiment. But remember: the goal is not to do the right things but to become the right people – people who, with heart and mind and strength love the God who so loved them that he gave his only begotten son.
(Preached May 10, 2020 at Lockwood Community Church, Coldwater, MI.)
 From Barna Group, in Don Everts, The Spiritually Vibrant Home, IVP.
I once thought of Mother’s Day as an innocuous, greeting card kind of holiday. Who wouldn’t want to celebrate moms? Just the fact that she went through labor giving birth to us is cause enough to say thanks. She fed us countless meals, clothed us, put cold washcloths on our foreheads when we had a fever, and laid awake at night when we were out late as teenagers. Everybody ought to celebrate moms.
Then I got to know people – not one but many – who had a mom that did not always see that they were fed, whose five-year-old had to pick out her own clothes and get her own breakfast. Moms who either were not home to put cold washcloths on foreheads or were not sober. Moms who didn’t give their teenagers a thought, except when they were angry.
Then there are the women who ached to be a mom but were not able. Mother’s Day is an annual reminder of what they were denied. Not everyone wants to celebrate moms.
Even moms might not feel like celebrating Mother’s Day. If celebrating requires energy, mom may need to decline. Energy, like bandwidth, is in limited supply. If mom uses too much, she may start buffering and then freeze up altogether.
Debbie Farmer’s description of how motherhood changes one’s perspective was eye-opening to me. “Before children,” she says, “I was thankful for fresh, organic vegetables. After children: I am thankful for microwaveable macaroni and cheese – without which my children would be surviving on about three bites of cereal and their own spit.
“Before children: I was thankful for the opportunity to obtain a college education and have a higher quality of life than my ancestors. After children: I am thankful to finish a complete thought without being interrupted.
“Before children: I was thankful for holistic medicine and natural herbs. After children: I am thankful for pediatric cough syrup guaranteed to cause drowsiness in young children. I was thankful for the opportunity to vacation in exotic foreign countries so I could experience a different way of life in a new culture. I am thankful to have time to make it all the way down the driveway to get the mail.
“Before children I was thankful for the Moosewood Vegetarian cookbook. After children I am thankful for the butterball turkey hotline. I was thankful for a warm, cozy home to share with my loved ones. I am thankful for the lock on the bathroom door. I was thankful for material objects like custom furniture, a nice car and trendy clothes. I am thankful when the baby spits up and misses my good shoes.”
So much for June Cleaver.
It seems to me, looking from the outside, that one of the difficult things about motherhood is that there are no standard gauges by which a mom can determine whether she is doing a good job. Even the mom – no, especially the mom – who cooks countless meals, puts cold washcloths on fevered foreheads, and lays awake at night worrying about her kids, wonders if she is doing it right. The latest clash between the kids, the clutter everywhere, and the recurring feeling that she is on her own, all seem to declare her a failure.
These are a few of the reasons people wish to ignore Mother’s Day. They are also the reasons we should not. Yes, not every mother is a good mom and not every woman who would be a great mom will get the opportunity. These are sad truths but they are not a reason to ignore our own moms who have poured their lives and love into us.
Perhaps moms don’t need their families to glorify motherhood in the abstract once a year on the second Sunday in May. Perhaps what they need is a family that acknowledges their effort, requites their love, and expresses gratitude not just for the innumerable sacrifices they have made but for the fact that they never bothered to count them.
The humorist and actor Robert Benchely once wrote, “There may be said to be two classes of people in the world; those who constantly divide the people of the world into two classes, and those who do not.”
Benchely then drew thedroll conclusion that “Both classes are extremely unpleasant to meet socially, leaving practically no one in the world whom one cares very much to know.”
Benchley’s characterization of the world is funny because he, by dividing people in such a way, has unwittingly placed himself in the first of the two classes, among those one cares very little to know. But, of course, there was nothing unwitting about it, which is what makes his remark so witty.
With his self-deprecating humor, Benchely was taking on a serious subject: the human proclivity to exclude people who differ from us. If we can classify someone, put them into a box and label them, it becomes easier to discount them. They are, after all, just liberals … or conservatives … or whites … or blacks … or Mexicans … or …
In recent years, some politicians have used this human inclination to “otherize” people to their advantage. It has become part and parcel of the political playbook. It is, however, nothing new.
In societies with clear-cut class divisions, both ancient and modern, otherizing people was embedded in the culture itself. People were Rajanyas or Shudras, aristocrats or laborers, the educated or the ignorant. Societies have always had their untouchables as well as their unreachables.
It was clearly so in first century Palestine, when Jesus emerged on the scene. Otherizing people was a way of life. People were not only divided into a caste-like structure with landowners, priests, merchants, artisans, peasants, and slaves but also into the categories of “clean” and “unclean.”
For one prominent group, the Pharisees, avoiding “unclean” people was a way of life. Their very name means “Separated Ones.” They otherized people with intention, determination and, sometimes, brutality. Their reasons for doing so were ostensibly religious, but in practice it was also a powerful tool for guarding their own social status.
Jesus, however, didn’t play the game. He was constantly upsetting the otherizers’ applecart and mixing everyone up. This made him suspect in the eyes of the influencers, as it always does when people deny or defy an established social class system. One can hear the consternation in the Pharisees’ voices when they said, “This man welcomes sinners” – read “unclean people” – “and eats with them.”
Or this, from a prominent community member: “If this man [Jesus] were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is…” In the eyes of such people, Jesus was a trouble-maker and a rabble-rouser, with no respect for cultural norms.
They were not altogether wrong. If Jesus wasn’t a rabble-rouser, he was at least a people-raiser. And there were some cultural norms he clearly did not respect. He did, however, respect people, like the woman whose presence at a social gathering so offended Jesus’s host.
Jesus and his followers quickly became known for their disregard of the social standing codes. They met with untouchables, the (by societal standards) irreligious, women, whom Jesus counted among his closest friends and followers, and even with some Gentiles! From the perspective of the establishment, Jesus had “chosen them over us,” which was simply unforgiveable.
The good news Jesus spoke and modeled was of a God who is radically inclusive, a God who “receives sinners.” He does not treat people differently, based on their race or gender or standing but gladly welcomes all who will come to him. Jesus modeled this very clearly, announcing: “…the one who comes to me I will never send away” (John 6:37).
For people who had been sent away so often, who had been taught that God didn’t want anything to do with them, this was good news. It is good news that the church of Jesus must announce and live today. Whenever the church joins in otherizing people, it denies in practice the gospel it proclaims, but if it welcomes “the other,” it incarnates the good news in a way people can understand – just as Jesus did.