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The Beauty and Difficulty of What God Requires

“He has shown you, O man, what is good, and what the Lord requires of you: to do justice, love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.” ~ Micah 6:8

Singers and politicians have sounded out these words, because they ring true and flow smoothly from our lips. But like most prophetic words they sound poetic until you reflect on how difficult it is to hold justice, mercy, and humility in your heart at the same time. Micah’s passage has been used to rail against economic violence and to decry war in the streets, but what if these words are for us, and not for others? Here are four reflections:

Goodness comes with requirements: The passage is so beautiful we can easily miss the word “require.” The prophet reveals the stuff of God's goodness, but knowing the ingredients is not enough. We must prepare the feast.

Justice is a difficult word: we embrace the idea and struggle with the application. And application is the point of this passage—we are called to do justice. For example, anyone can decry violence. But we are called to be peacemakers. Nearly everyone sees the justice of feeding the poor, but what if we steal from the farmer to do so? Before we dismiss this example as simplistic, consider how many calls for justice cost us nothing but demand so much of others.

Mercy threatens the work of justice. In their most worldly senses, justice is about responsibility and mercy is about getting off scot-free. If we have learned justice from the laws of men, mercy and kindness will appear undo the very foundation of the law. Who can teach us true justice, and connect us with eternal mercy? The prophets revealed that the Day of Judgment would be both great and terrifying, and they looked forward to the event. To love God's justice is to yearn and tremble for his appearing, all the while knowing that (eventually) kindness triumphs over judgment. If mere men have taught us about justice—or mercy—we can be sure we must learn both afresh from God.

Anyone who can balance the demands of justice and mercy could be forgiven a hint of pride, but we are called to humility. The world has no place for humility. To the world’s way of thinking, humility is hardly the path to success. Perhaps because justice and mercy seem so at odds that humility is precisely what’s required of God’s people. Who has the wisdom to know when to tilt toward judgment and responsibility, or when to favor kindness and mercy over the demands of equity? Humility calls forth wisdom, and godly wisdom can silence the shouting of this age.

What if Glory?

Moses saw the glory of God. The encounter was transformational—it changed him so much the people of Israel asked him, “Please, cover it up, you’re freaking us out.”

Glory is a strange word these days. It has the feel of movies like Gladiator, or the hyped opening to an NFL game. Religious people use it, too, but I’m not sure we know what it’s all about. It conjures up notions of Pentecostals run amuck shouting “Glory, Hallelujah!” or even that God’s glory is in the sunset—which is true, but not very useful.

But what if the glory of God isn’t the stuff of Old Testament stories, Hollywood hoopla, or religious delusions? What if glory is a substance so real it burns our skin, or kills cancer better than chemo? What if God designed his glory to be the stuff of transformation? Apparently the Apostle Paul had such a notion: “But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit.” (2 Corinthians 3:18)

What would it mean--in real-life, practical terms--to progress from glory to glory? What would it mean in real life if our expectations were focused on an infinite path, a path designed to transform us more and more into his image? How would it change things if we awoke to our destiny to be conformed to the image of Christ?

What if, in quoting Romans 3:23 we focused on God’s intention instead of our sin? The famous verse reminds us “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” But we have walked the Romans road so often we think only of our shortcomings, but not the destination. In this case, that we were made to live in his glory, to reflect his glory, to interact with his glorious, manifest presence. That’s a game-changer for me, and the possibilities are quite literally, endless.

One of the unspoken needs of the western church is to rediscover the stuff of Biblical legend, called glory. We, too, could ask (as Moses asked), “Show me your glory!”

At least one person has seen that day. Jesus spoke of what he saw when “the sons and daughters of the kingdom will shine like the sun.” We thought he was just being poetic, but what if he was pointing the way?

The Limits of Revelation

Blessed are you, Simon Bar Jonah, for this was revealed to you not by man, but by my Father in Heaven.” (Matthew 16:17) With these words Jesus confirmed his identity as the anointed One, the Messiah and Christ. Simon Peter had correctly answered Jesus’ question, “Who do you say I am?” Jesus declared that Peter’s answer came not by human reasoning but by direct revelation from God Himself.

What I find challenging are two specific verses that come just after this high point of revelation.

Verse 21: “From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.” Even though the disciples had received revelation of Jesus’ divine identity, there was still more to be explained. The revelation brought them to a place unattainable by human wisdom, but Jesus had more to say, more to teach. Revelation, by itself, was not enough—they needed Jesus to explain what it meant in practical terms. I believe the Father still provides moments of divine revelation today, but just like that day at Caesarea Philippi, we need the revelation explained. Our own understanding is never enough.

Verse 24: “Then Jesus said to his disciples, "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” Jesus had even more to say to the disciples. After they recovered from the shock of what the Christ would suffer, Jesus explained they, too, had a destiny that involved the cross. Like Jesus, the disciples would have to choose to take up the cross and follow him. If revelation needs explanation, then after the explanation we must respond: am I in, or out?

God’s revelation is not "FYI." We need a teachable spirit and a heart willing to respond.

Please Check Jesus At The Door

A while back my friend attended a Christian college. He needed to fulfill a general education requirement in the social sciences, so he signed up to take a psychology course called “Mental Disorders.” He expected some consideration of the Christian view of the human psyche but the very first day in class set him straight: “There are certain psychological problems,” the professor intoned, “That cannot be fixed by prayer.  That’s what we will be talking about.” Prayer, Christianity, faith, the Bible or Jesus was never mentioned again during the semester. In effect the professor said: “Enough with Christianity, let’s get down to how things really work.”

Poor Jesus. Each day, at workplaces all across North America, he gets checked at the door. I’ve begun to imagine high-rise office buildings where Christians can stash Jesus in a cloakroom off the lobby before getting on the elevator and heading up to their law offices, accounting practices, engineering firms, insurance companies, and investment bullpens. Most of these businesses probably have a Christian fish in their logo.

In his essay, Jesus the Logician, Dallas Willard points out the separation between Jesus and the real world:

“There is in our culture an uneasy relation between Jesus and intelligence, and I have actually heard Christians respond to my statement that Jesus is the most intelligent man who ever lived by saying that it is an oxymoron . . . How could we be his disciples at our work, take him seriously as our teacher there, if when we enter our fields of technical or professional competence we must leave him at the door?”

What about it? Is he the smartest guy ever, or what? And if he were so smart, why wouldn’t he have something to say about how to get the job done?

Yes, we respond: Jesus can remind us to tell the truth and be kind to small animals--but what does he know about estimating the raw materials required for this construction site? But what if Dallas Willard is right? What if Jesus was--and is--the smartest guy alive? What will he say to us as everyday followers?  Was the Apostle Paul merely engaging in flowery speech when spoke of Jesus, “In whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.” (Colossians 2:3)

The calling of a disciple is to make life application in Christ. Jesus was a carpenter, true--but what if he was a doctor? Jesus is looking for someone today to demonstrate the answer. What if Jesus was a marketing executive? Or a car salesman? Or a wife and mother? These are no idle questions.They go to the heart of our life in Christ and our calling to put him on display in the human situation. When my friend’s (Christian) psychology professor exempted the life of God from consideration of the human psyche, she set herself on a course to ignore the surest reality in her field. Willard recommends the Christian faith because it helps you integrate with reality. After all, who created the human psyche?

This issue is significant for individual Christians but also for the church at large. Christian books pour forth daily, dealing with every conceivable life issue: marriage, family, business, and personal discipline. Many of these well-meaning treatments look to “the latest” results of research, science or technology and attempt to baptize secular learning with Biblical window-dressing, much like the Christian psychology professor who presumes that the faith is unable to speak to her discipline. If, in fact, all the treasures and wisdom of his age are hidden in Jesus Christ, shouldn’t he be the first place we look? Why do we turn to  “objective” sources of research or academia only to apply a Christian wrapping paper after coming to our conclusions?

How can we make application in Christ? How can we discover the hidden treasures of wisdom in him?

  • Recognize Jesus the Wellspring: Jesus is our model. Not a “spiritual model,” or “ethical model.” He is simply the source of all wisdom and knowledge. Those who recognize the Source will turn to him first and ask for revelation from him before examining other sources.
  • Trust the Biblical record: In my opinion the downside of Biblical scholarship in our age has been distrust of the scripture’s inspiration. To recognize the God-breathed nature of the Bible does not limit the text to one and only one meaning, but instead opens it up to the possibility that the infinitely intelligent and creative God has placed more and more in the Bible for us to discover.
  • Look for the Living, Resurrected Lord: Jesus, the smartest guy who ever lived, is alive today. Not only alive, he is accessible: he promised that he shows up whenever two or three get together in his name.  He--and his wisdom--is not remote. His treasure-trove of wisdom and knowledge is, among other things, mediated by his Spirit, and found in the communion of the believers who assemble in his keeping.
  • Look for His witness in so-called “Secular” Wisdom: Proverbs depict Jesus as the Wisdom of God, dancing daily in the Father’s sight, rejoicing in the creation of the world (Proverbs 8). Jesus is Lady Wisdom in the marketplace. Jesus, the wisdom of God, delights in the Father’s creative genius whether that genius is discovered in worship or in Wall Street.

Why check Jesus at the door? He is the wellspring of wisdom and truth beyond our imaginations--or our intellect.

The Limits of My Love; My Limitless Thirst

My love has limits. On my best days, when my heart is free from cloud or stain, the well of my love is so shallow you can see the bottom. It has nothing to do with selfishness or sin; it has everything to do with the finite limits of my body, soul, and spirit. I only have so much to give.

Yet this is only half the bad news: I have a thirst that is never quenched, without limit in this present age and perhaps in the age to come as well. This well has no bottom. My mouth and lips are dry, my soul is a sponge never saturated. I cry out for acceptance again and again; there never seems to be enough. Who has the capacity to give and give and give? Who can fill me up?

Don’t rush. We’ll hurt ourselves if we jump to the answer too quickly. The Sunday-school response may well be correct, but the child who speaks the words may have no idea what she says. Of course we need Jesus, but what if we fail to understand the need? What newborn understands the arms that welcome him?

Even the best human love is bounded by weakness and ignorance. My heart may be perfect toward my children, but I don’t have the strength and wisdom to deliver everything they need. In 30 years of marriage my wife as discovered nearly every flaw in her husband. She has discovered I am not (and should not be) her source. On its best days, my love cannot reach beyond the span of my arms. She needs something more than I can give, and in her wisdom sees the limits of my love. Instead of drawing from the well of my soul, she kneels at the river of life, the flow of endless supply. Then she can accept my meager gifts based not upon her need, but her gratitude.

Still, there is a part of me that seems infinite. I tilt my head forward to hear the praise of men. I crave the acceptance of others the way a singer sells the end of a song. The applause dies and I am hungry again. Like John D. Rockefeller I will always need “Just a little more.” Like Bob Wiley I beg my therapist, “I need, I need! I want, I want!” No amount of affirmation can fill my heart but I continue to plead. I’ve turned to the wells of other men to supply my need. I carry my pail from shallow well to shallow well. Just beyond the village of wells is the river of life, safe enough I can wade and swim. I can leave the bucket behind.

When I see these two needs for what they are, I begin to find strength to love and freedom to receive from a source beyond the things of man.

Jesus waited until the great feast in Jerusalem was drawing to its close: 

“On the last and greatest day of the Feast, Jesus stood and said in a loud voice, ‘If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink . . .”

Feasts always come to an end. The wedding party always runs out of wine. But we can return home ever-full:

“Whoever believes in me in me (as the Scripture said), streams of living water will flow from within him.”

In one act God fills my need for acceptance and provides the strength for me to love beyond my own strength. The flow that slakes my thirst is the flow that supplies the others in my life.

What I give to others must come from beyond myself. What I need most others cannot give. When I know the limits of my love I will seek the love without limits.