Owing Others the Loving Truth
By Linda Rex
September 6, 2020, Proper 18—Lately I have been thinking a lot about how hard it can be sometimes to speak the truth in love to someone I am close to. In fact, as someone who learned painfully the desperate need I personally have for grace, I experienced in relationships the pain and destruction which come from truth applied without compassion or love.
It is important for us as human beings to get our minds readjusted to the reality that God loves us. And he loves us so much that he did everything he could to free us from the chains of evil, sin, and death we so often give ourselves over to. Our loving Abba could not bear to see us diminished into brute beasts enslaved by our passions and lusts. He created us for something so much more wonderful than this! So, whatever it cost him he did—even to the place of giving us his beloved Son in our place on our behalf.
When we talk about loving our neighbor or being good to others or showing compassion to the suffering, it is easy to assume wrongly that love permits unacceptable or abusive behavior. Love “bears all things” we read and so we let the people we love do whatever they want, even if it hurts us and others or is destructive or demeaning. We allow people to take advantage of us over and over and we show them infinite grace, not realizing that we are not genuinely loving them by doing so.
It is in view of this that we need to look at Jesus’ conversation with his disciples about going to one’s brother. To live in relationship is to open oneself up to the possibility of being hurt or offended. When people interact, they will inevitably do or say something that will create difficulties between themselves and another person. It is our human propensity to err that causes chaos and havoc in our relationships.
When we are in a relationship with another human being—any kind of relationship, whether business, friendship, marriage, companionship—we often are tempted to isolate ourselves and hide parts of ourselves away. We do this because we know that if the other person knew the truth about us, they would reject us or wound us, or shame us in some say. Not all people have our best interests at heart, so out of self-preservation, we learn to skillfully hide parts of ourselves away.
Our hiding is something we as human beings have been doing since the garden of Eden. When Adam and Eve ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they knew they had done what God had asked them not to do. So, when God showed up in the garden, looking forward to spending time with them, they did what we as humans do—they hid. When faced with the reality of what we are and what we’ve done, we as humans find a way to hide from God and each other.
But notice what God did. He did not allow them to continue to hide. He gently sought them out, confronted them, and told them that he knew the truth. He told them the consequences of their choice and the pain it would bring to themselves and others. Then he tenderly covered them with skins and sent them on their way. God used truth to call them back into relationship with himself, and then did what he could to get them pointed in a new direction.
This brings to mind the story of the woman caught in the act of adultery who was brought to Jesus by her accusers. They believed she was worthy of being stoned and that Jesus was soft on sin because he was gracious. It is interesting that Jesus did not let either the woman or her accusers off scot-free.
The men who were interested in her destruction were told, “You who are without sin may cast the first stone.” At this, each man began to see in his own mind’s eye the truth—convicted of his own error by the Spirit of truth, he walked away. When all the men were gone and only the woman was left, Jesus asked where her accusers were. She said they were all gone. Then Jesus applied the truth gently to her as well, “neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.” She was not allowed to continue in her way of self-destructive relationship—she was told the truth in love and instructed to begin moving in a new direction.
In Ezekiel 33, the prophet wrote how God made him a watchman over the people of Israel, to give them a warning. The prophet was reminded that when someone is sinning and we don’t warn them about it, we are equally guilty of their sin. If we warn them and they do it anyway, then that’s on them. But we are to do what we can to help people see the truth about their destructive, disobedient behavior—this is an expression of divine love.
What we must do is difficult and can be painful—and it can result in severed relationships. But it must be done—and done in love. Jesus gave a template by which we can introduce a measure of God’s truth into our relationships, enabling a loving environment of grace and truth to help grow people into greater Christlikeness.
We begin first with a humble estimation of our own need for grace. Then we approach the person by themselves, speaking the truth in love and calling them back to what is right and true. If they refuse to hear us, then we take two or three others who know the truth, and bring them into the conversation to help this person see the truth for themselves. It sometimes requires someone other than us to say what needs to be said in order for someone to hear a difficult truth about themselves.
The worst-case scenario is when someone refuses to hear even under these circumstances. In this case, Jesus encourages us to create a protective boundary around ourselves as a church body, family, or other group until this person sees their fault and repents. It is unfortunate, but sometimes a person is so deeply entrenched in sin that it takes the loss of his or her significant relationships before he or she will repent and change.
To refuse to engage someone in this process is to enable them to continue in their sin, and in the destructive cycle that goes with it. We express love by speaking the truth in love, gathering others when necessary to lovingly share with truth along with us, and if necessary, call the church together as a body to call this person back to themselves so they might once again live in the truth of who they are as God’s beloved child.
This is a gift we can give one another if we are willing. It is so easy to be hurtful with the truth—to gossip, to tell everyone on social media what’s going on, to be demeaning and insulting with it. But God means us to use truth to create unity, to bring about healing and restoration, and to create a healthy environment in which people can grow into the fullness of the image of Christ. He means for us to speak the truth in love, to build the person up, not tear them down.
Today, then, what truth have we neglected to tell someone in our life? How are we going to lovingly approach them and talk with them about it? What would Jesus have us say? May God grant us the grace to lovingly build relationship and not destroy it in the process of speaking the truth in love. May we prayerfully and humbly work toward unity, healing, and restoration, by God’s grace and power, through Jesus Christ.
Abba, forgive us that so often we neglect to balance effectively truth and grace. Thank you, Jesus, that you brought truth and grace to us, and that you work to grow each of us more fully into your likeness by your precious Spirit. Enable us today to speak the truth in love to those you have brought us into relationship with. Give us the boldness to love people well by enabling them to grow up into all you meant for them to be. In your name we pray, amen.
“Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law.” Romans 13:8 NASB
A Real Reversal
By Linda Rex
3rd SUNDAY OF EASTER—As the years go by, I find myself reflecting on the journey I have been on with Jesus. The person I am today is profoundly different from the person I was as a young adult. I had lots of dreams back then, and I voiced many strong convictions about what I believed to be true about God, myself, and others, much of which I have since renounced as wrong or inaccurate.
Life seemed to be a lot less complicated back then. I believed that if I just did everything the way it should be done, my life would be blessed, I would be happy, and things would go along quite well without any difficulties or suffering. Whatever difficulty or suffering that might come would be because I sinned or because I was being persecuted for doing what was right. It seemed as though I was on God’s side so he had to be on mine, making sure everything went as it should.
I’m a little embarrassed to think about how naïve and unschooled I was, but it was merely the outgrowth of unhealthy theology and a protected yet legalistic childhood. I have, through the conditioning of God and everyday human existence, come to have a more rounded and mature view of things. There is indeed evil at work in this world, and evil affects anyone and everyone at some point. No matter who we are, we won’t escape failures, difficulties, struggles, and challenges.
A fundamental change in my life began when my view of who I believed God to be was challenged. I believed God was Father and Son, and the Spirit was their power or essence. As I grew in my understanding of who the Holy Spirit really is as the third Person of the Trinity—reading in the scriptures and believing all the examples of his personhood illustrated there and growing in my personal relationship with the Spirit through prayer and listening—my understanding of who Jesus and the Father are began to change as well.
Knowing the Father as our loving Abba and Jesus Christ as his Son the Messiah, the Word who came and took on our human flesh, dying our death, rising again, to bear our glorified humanity in the presence of the Father forever, is life-transforming. As the Spirit brought me nearer and deeper into the life of the Trinity, what I believed kept moving beyond just a religious creed into the realm of personal experience. The reality of Jesus Christ in me, with me, for me, began to take a clearer shape. Jesus was no longer some story character—he had revealed himself to me personally by the Holy Spirit. I began to hear God’s still small voice in my heart and mind, and I began to know and believe I am loved, forgiven, and accepted. The more I believed the truth about who Jesus was and why he came and the more I knew I belonged and was included in Jesus’ perfect relationship with his Abba in the Spirit, the more my behavior began to change.
I was more than happy to do my part in obeying God—I had constantly been bombarded by the shoulds, oughts, and have-tos of the belief system I held and all it did was make me worse. The harder I tried, the more I found myself shackled by unhealthy ways of thinking, feeling, and acting. I struggled often with depression and self-loathing. This obviously wasn’t God’s way of doing things. Eventually, the change I noticed within myself did not come about because I tried harder, but rather because I admitted I couldn’t do it and I needed Christ to do it in me and through me by his Holy Spirit. It happened when I was honest with others about my struggles and failures, and sought help. It happened when I was transparent about my failures, became fully known and yet loved, accepted and forgiven within a healthy spiritual community.
The worst thing about toxic or legalistic religious environments is that they do not allow people to be authentic and real and so find genuine healing and renewal. It seems that when people come together to form a church, they bring with them their masquerade gear and spend copious amounts of energy hiding from one another. In this type of environment, addictions and co-dependencies thrive. Healing and renewal are often limited or are complicated by unhealthy boundaries and toxic relationships.
It is much better to be in a safe spiritual community where each person is able to be genuine and transparent, and is allowed to grow up in Christ. Growing up in healthy ways requires the freedom to make mistakes without condemnation and with the support and encouragement of those who have previously traveled those same difficult paths. A healthy spiritual community allows for falling short without condemnation, but challenges brothers and sisters to grow up into the fullness of who they are in Christ.
Saul was not a bad person. He was a zealous God-fearing Jew. He meant to do the right thing, and he was trying to live life the way he believed God wanted him to. I don’t know why he was so adamant about imprisoning and executing the believers in Christ, but perhaps his zeal for God was also inspired by a need for the approval of his Jewish peers and a need to accomplish what no one else was doing quite as well. Whatever his reasoning, it seemed to be borne out of a heart seeking to please God.
Imagine how horrifying it must have been to realize that the One Saul had been trying to impress was actually the One he had been persecuting. His efforts to earn God’s love and approval, and the adulation and approval of his peers, was actually an action in opposition to God and in persecution of Jesus. Saul needed to know who Jesus Christ really was. He needed to have his image of God reformed into something which more perfectly apprehended the Triune God of love. As Saul sat in the darkness of blindness for a few days, he must have thought at least once—now what do I do? How can I possibly make amends for this?
What if Ananias had refused to listen to Jesus when the Lord told him to go lay hands on Saul so he could see again? What if he had stood in judgment of Saul and had condemned him, insisting he pay for his crimes against Ananias’ friends and fellow believers? But he didn’t. He humbly obeyed Jesus’ command and met Saul right where he was, offering him grace and love, and entrance into the body of Christ, the church.
Saul, whom we know today as the apostle Paul, never minced words when he spoke about his past and his failures in life. He was transparent and honest about the people he had harmed and the suffering he had incurred. Instead of being a reason for shame and guilt, God made his failures an essential part of his witness to the resurrection power of the risen Christ and the transforming work of the Holy Spirit. Paul’s proclamation of the gospel was effective often because people saw the profound reversal which had occurred in his life when he met Jesus Christ.
A church should be a spiritual community where people can be authentic and transparent, and safely transverse the changes necessary between spiritual infancy and the spiritual maturity of Christlikeness. This is a journey that takes time, and we all have ups and downs as we travel. We are bound together in Christ to offer one another both grace and truth—to enable one another to be challenged as well as upheld when things don’t go as we planned or hoped they should, or when we fall short of Christ.
The Spirit creates such a community as we respond to his work in our hearts and minds, and live and walk in him, tossing aside the old as unneeded scraps of clothing ready to be burned, and putting on Jesus Christ who is our life and the truth of our being. As we live out the truth of our real reversal in Jesus, the Spirit enables us to participate in bringing others to experience this transformation as well, creating a fellowship of care which reflects the inner life of the Triune God. Our spiritual community isn’t meant to be a closed group but rather a welcoming place where others may find healing and renewal as well.
Dear Abba, thank you that by your Spirit you bring together people to form spiritual communities where they can find healing and renewal, and share that gift with others who are broken and suffering. As believers, change our hearts and minds so that we begin to live together in ways which are transparent and authentic, and are safe for others to participate in and to come to know and grow up in Christ in a healthy way. We thank you for never ceasing to bring us to yourself through Jesus and by your Spirit. Amen.
“And he said, ‘Who are You, Lord?’ And He said, ‘I am Jesus whom you are persecuting, but get up and enter the city, and it will be told you what you must do.’ … and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, ‘He is the Son of God.’ All those hearing him continued to be amazed, and were saying, ‘Is this not he who in Jerusalem destroyed those who called on this name, and who had come here for the purpose of bringing them bound before the chief priests?’ ” Acts 9:5-6, 20-21 NASB
By Linda Rex
It’s very interesting to me the many ways in which God works in our lives in order to get our attention and help us to learn things about ourselves we would not otherwise see. Often, we go about our daily business, dealing with life as usual, never realizing there are significant issues with the way we handle certain things. We may not want to admit it, but we each have blind spots which are obvious to others, but which we cannot see.
One of the ways God brings light into these areas of blindness is by challenging our preconceived ideas regarding certain people, places, or things. By placing us through various circumstances in situations we would not have chosen for ourselves, or situations we did choose but they turned out differently than we expected, God exposes parts of our character which we are often able to hide under the glitz of performance.
Another way God pours his light into areas we are blind to is by placing people in our lives with whom we have to interact whether we like it or not. For example, an introvert such as myself may find herself forced to sit in a big circle of seventy people and have to tell how she feels about being present at that particular event at that particular moment whether she likes it or not.
Would I normally have chosen to tell such a personal feeling to that many people who are strangers to me? No. But the requirements of my situation have forced my hand—I will do it whether I want to or not. And I have to own that I would prefer to gloss over the way I really feel rather than expose myself to all those people and admit I’d just rather not be present in that situation. I’d rather be hiding somewhere else where I can just be me, away from the inspecting, critical examination of myself by people I don’t know and don’t believe are safe.
So, in just a few brief moments, I have gained insight into my own heart and mind, and into how I react in difficult and uncomfortable situations. I have learned something about my own character and my propensity to fudge the truth rather than to make other people feel bad or myself look bad. If I pay attention, then I will make note of this response and determine when faced with this situation again, I will act with boldness and integrity, and speak the truth in love.
If, however, I’m not paying attention when this happens, but ignore what is going on inside my head and my heart, I will react to the situation in a way which isn’t necessarily healthy or loving or honest. I might spend much of my life in this way, reacting to similar situations, and not realizing what is really going on. Blinded to this truth about my character, my behavior, and my responses to certain stimuli, I might go on oblivious, depriving myself and others of the opportunity to live in and experience God’s best.
But what if I took a different approach? What if I stopped in the midst of what is occurring and paused long enough to see things as they really are? What if I took the time to feel what is going on in my heart and to pay attention to what is going on in my mind, before reacting to the situation?
One of the things they told me in Christian counseling classes about bad habits is the need to place some significant distance between the stimulus or trigger and the behavior it leads into. The larger this gap is, the more distance there is between what triggers our response and the response itself, the more opportunity there is for the Holy Spirit to get in there and go to work.
I was listening to a young lady today, Kayleigh Vogel with Explore What Matters, talk about this very thing. The more they study the human brain and the psychological/physiological responses to stress stimuli, the more they realize there needs to be a proactive effort to create this distance and to enter into it in such a way we choose our response rather than just doing what comes naturally. She was saying the current studies in the neuroplasticity of the brain show over time our response can be changed as new pathways in the brain are formed and reinforced.
But there must be some effort to pay attention to what is going on inside of us. What drives our decisions? What drives our responses? Is it a gut-reaction, or is it a true expression of what we really value and believe is most important? This is worth reflecting on.
One of the things we do as we get to our adult years is to choose a career or find a job. More people are being intentional about what they choose to do for a living, while others grab what is available, just being thankful they have a job. But at some point, it would do each of us some good to consider this question: Does this job or career bring me joy? Does it really resonate with something deep inside me, with my values and what I care about most?
This is true also about what we do in our daily life, or how we respond to the stress we experience day by day. We all have choices we face. They teach us things, and we grow as we make those choices. We should not be afraid of them, but realize—these are opportunities to learn about ourselves and other people, and about this wonderful world we live in—opportunities to grow as human beings and open ourselves up to the refining, transforming work of the Holy Spirit.
As we make choices and other people make choices, and we experience the reality of life in an imperfect world, we can embrace all this as a wonderful opportunity to learn things about ourselves we would not know otherwise. And we can embrace it all as an opportunity for God to mature and refine us, and to transform us more perfectly into the nature of Jesus Christ.
And we can thank God we have new opportunities to see the blind areas of our character and lives as God’s light shines in those dark places, and opens them up to the redeeming power of God’s grace through Jesus our Lord by his Holy Spirit.
Abba, thank you for all the ways you bring us to see things about ourselves and our hearts we would not otherwise see, were it not for your love and grace. Thank you that by your Spirit, you continually shine your light in all our areas of blindness and bring us into a deeper understanding of who God are and who we are in you, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.
“The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend [or overpower] it.” John 1:5 NASB
Paying the Price of Being Nice
by Linda Rex
Over the years I have had to learn the difficult lesson that sometimes it pays better to stop being so nice to people. Being nice can actually make things more difficult and painful rather than creating a place of safety and healing for those involved. In fact, being nice can actually cause a dangerous situation to continue which needs to be made right.
But being nice isn’t necessarily a bad thing in itself, right? God would want us to be nice people wouldn’t he? Isn’t God always a nice God?
And being nice can seem like the Christian thing to do. If someone is a follower of Christ, they will always be nice, right? They will never be mean or unkind. Jesus was always nice, going around healing people and helping people when he lived on earth, wasn’t he? Or was he?
What about when we are parenting our kids? We may want to be a good parent, so we are always kind, and thoughtful, and generous to our kids. We may give them everything they want, and never say anything to correct them, thinking we are being a good parent by doing so. When they get in trouble in school, we may take their side instead of allowing them to experience the painful consequences of bad behavior. But when we do this is it really the most loving and best thing we can do for them?
Parents may find it very difficult to correct their children and to hold them accountable—it just feels heartless to make a child experience the consequences of their bad choices. Putting limits on a child, and enforcing them, and dealing with the accompanying tears and frustration is not a task for the faint of heart. It’s tough being a parent sometimes.
And it may appear that when a person speaks difficult and painful truth, they are being cruel and heartless, when actually they are doing their best to make a bad situation better. Everyone needs someone in their life who won’t just be nice, but who will speak the truth in love.
If you have a friend who will never tell you the truth about your hurtful behavior, are they truly your friend? If your friend is so busy being nice to you they don’t tell you the truth about how insulting and rude you were to someone the other day, are they really doing what is best for you? Are they really loving you with God’s love?
And what about God’s love? We’re all okay with God being a nice God, giving us so many things, and being good to us, as long as he never makes any demands of us and never tells us when we are wrong. We are happy to have a nice God, but not a God who has the right, and the responsibility, to correct us, and to guide and teach us. As long as God stays on his side of the universe and leaves us alone, but makes sure our life is happy and blessed, we like God.
But I’m not so sure God is a nice God. I’m more inclined to believe God is a loving, compassionate God who has a passion for his children becoming the beautiful, Christlike creatures he initially created us to be. God’s heart toward us is not that our life be easy and convenient, but that we grow up into the fullness of the image of God we were created to bear.
I tend to believe God isn’t as concerned with keeping us happy as he is helping us to be transformed into the image of his Son. Sometimes the process we must go through includes difficulty and pain and suffering. We experience the consequences of our behavior, our words and our choices, and we experience the consequences of the things other people say and do. We experience life in a broken world full of broken people, and this is the crucible in which God forms us into new creatures.
I am a firm believer, though, that there is nothing we go through in this life which God cannot redeem or restore, when and as he so chooses. Those unjust and hurtful things people have done to us or said to us over the years are not ignored by God. In his own time and way, he works to make everything right in the end. In Christ who became sin for us, he takes all these things and redeems them, transforming them into a means for accomplishing his Christ-like perfection in our character and way of being.
We can participate in this process of renewal and restoration by allowing God to use our brokenness and pain as a means of helping others to heal and be restored. We respond to the work of the Holy Spirit in our hearts and lives to heal us and comfort us, and then we turn to others who are suffering and in pain, and share with them the gift which God has given us.
Sometimes healing requires the painful process of removing what is causing the pain—surgery is sometimes necessary in order for healing to occur. This can be true even with regards to our emotional pain. What we do not deal with, we carry around with us, and it often causes difficulty for those around us. So we need to own our stuff, and face it, and get help with it if need be. This is why we have counselors and other people God has gifted to help us with emotional, mental and spiritual struggles and wounds. These are people who will tell us the difficult things we need to hear, while listening to the horrendous things we need to say.
In other words, we need people in our lives who aren’t so much interested in being nice as they are interested in helping us be whole. We need friends or companions on our journey through life who are real, genuine, honest and compassionate. We don’t need people who are nice all the time, but rather who are willing to take the risk of speaking the truth in love, and standing by us when life gets tough. And not only do we want to have these types of people in our lives, but these are the kind of people God is calling us to be.
As parents, we can be people who are more interested in our children growing up to be honest, faithful, compassionate, and genuine people, than keeping them happy and not ever disappointing them. As parents, we can allow our children to suffer, to grieve, and to struggle, while at the same time, helping them to bear up under what they are not able to bear on their own. We can encourage them to take risks rather than taking all their risks for them in their place. We can do things alongside them in such a way that eventually they are able to do them on their own without our help—and this may mean allowing them to struggle and fall down in the process.
In other words, we will all be healthier people, with healthier friends and families, if we would stop being so nice and start being truly loving. We are able to do this because this is the nature of God in us—the God who is so genuinely loving he was willing to join us in our mess and become one of us. This God who lives in us by his Spirit is the God who confronted evil and sin in sinful man by taking our broken humanity upon himself and redeeming it. God was too nice to be nice to us—he became sin for us so we could become the righteousness of God in him.
This God by the Spirit tells us what it looks like to live in true spiritual community. He tells us to avoid living in ways which are hurtful to others, and names what those are in his Word. He by the Spirit enables us to have the courage to speak the truth in difficult situations, and to handle the meltdown which occurs when we directly address unhealthy behaviors and words. This God, who may not always seem to be nice is the God who is Christ in us, and who enables us to stop being nice and to start being truly loving and compassionate in how we live and what we say.
Thank you, God, for not being nice to us—for not allowing us to continue in our broken and unhealthy ways of living and being. Thank you for joining us in our humanity, and forging for us a new humanity which reflects your divine life and love. Grant us the grace to respond to your transforming work and to stop being nice, and start being truly loving and giving–in your name, Jesus and by your Spirit. Amen.
“Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love. By this the love of God was manifested in us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world so that we might live through Him.” 1 Jn 4:7–9 NASB
The Inward Movement Toward Rest
Yesterday I tried to reach someone at business by phone, but was put on hold. I waited and waited for someone to take me off of hold and to answer what I thought was an important question, but they took a very long time to respond. As I tried to wait patiently, I listened reluctantly to the voice on the line telling me all the positive attributes of the organization and why I should be doing business with them rather than with someone else.
There were a lot of good things said by the recording I was hearing, but after waiting on the line for quite literally an hour, all I really heard was their indifference to their customers. In fact, every couple minutes they would remind me someone would be with me “shortly”. I remarked to my daughter, who was tempering my impatience with reminders to be calm, that apparently their definition of “shortly” was a lot different than my definition of “shortly”.
After another phone call put in a little later during which I was hung up on and then called back and apologized to, I finally got the answer I needed. And I didn’t even think to mention my concern about their definition of “shortly”. I was just happy to have my concerns taken care of.
However, today when I got put on hold with another company, after about 10 minutes of waiting for tech support, I was beginning to wonder about what the word “momentarily” was supposed to mean. The recording told me someone would be with me “momentarily”. I thought “momentarily” meant in just a moment something would happen. I’m beginning to see that I might need to adjust my use of the English language to fit a culture where time has become very relative for some people.
But then again, maybe the problem isn’t with them, but rather with my inner need to have what I want done, done right now and at my convenience rather than theirs. Maybe what needs to change is my view of time and what is really most important in each moment. For me it is the task at hand. But for God, I’m beginning to believe it is instead the relationship I am encountering in that moment.
When I slow down enough to create space in a circumstance for Christ to enter in by the Spirit, I find the capacity to be patient when I have no reason to be patient, and to be gracious when I have every reason to be frustrated and angry. I’ve noticed lately I need to pay closer attention to my response to the situation in which I find myself, and to detach enough I am no longer reacting but am being proactive instead.
I first learned about dealing with inter-relational issues proactively when my children were little and they knew just how to push my buttons. I learned the time to deal with a problem behavior was not after it had occurred and my temper was hot, but before it ever occurred.
Being proactive meant I set a healthy, safe boundary and let them know ahead of time what it was, why it was in place and what the consequence would be for choosing to violate it. And when they pushed the boundary, the consequence was immediate though compassionate and gracious. In this way they could not blame anyone but themselves for having brought the unpleasant result upon themselves by their behavior.
Handling such issues in that order saved all of us from a lot of anger, yelling, and other unhealthy ways of dealing with the problem. And the result was healthier and more pleasant relationships, I believe, and a greater sense of security in my children. They didn’t have to guess at how I was going to respond, nor could they manipulate me into responding the way they wanted me to in order to get their way.
And a lot of times it only took one or two times standing my ground on important issues in this way, and it ceased to be an issue. They just needed to know what it meant to be a part of the family with regards to that particular issue, whatever it was—honoring bedtime rules and being honest and caring with others, for example.
Now at this late juncture in my life I am learning I need to treat myself in the same way—proactively rather than reactively. It works so much better when I plan ahead of time what my response is going to be in a difficult situation instead of allowing it to cause me to be upset, frustrated and angry.
When I make a phone call expecting to be answered immediately, I am put out when I have to sit on hold for an hour before getting the information I need. I could have hung up and called back, but I still would have been on hold. The issue isn’t with the phone call, but with my expectations and my response—I am reacting to the situation, not proactively following the way of love. I am allowing the circumstance, the person on the other line, the poor customer service, to define me and how I am going to respond.
But what really defines me is not that phone call. Nor is it the person who answers or doesn’t answer. What defines me is the Who in whose image I was made. It is the love of God in Christ which I am filled with, led by, and surrounded by. I, and every other person, am made in the image of God Who is love, and Who created us to love and be loved.
So proactively, I respond to this irritating life situation with the love of God in Christ—making space for Jesus to rest between me and the other person I am interacting with. If I just react instead, there is an immediate response directly to the person and to the situation, which leaves very little room for the Spirit to work. God is a whole lot more concerned about us loving him and loving others than he is about us getting our way in one particular instance in our lives. So we need to proactively create space for the Spirit, to allow the Spirit to go to work in every situation.
My daughter and I were talking about the phone call yesterday, and I was reminded again that stress is never the issue—stress does and will happen. It is our response to the stress which happens in our lives which can be the issue rather than the stress itself. Do we make space for God to work? Do we rest in him and seek to build the relationships of love in our lives, or are we merely focused on the task at hand?
How we respond to and deal with stress impacts our mental, emotional and physical health, as well as our spiritual health. I can see I have a new way to put what I have learned into practice in my relationships with God and others by proactively living in love with those who can be and are irritating, thoughtless or indifferent.
I will face challenges to my self-control and my patience and peace of mind, just as everyone else does. But Christ has already provided what is needed in these situations and he lives in you and me by his Spirit. As we invite him into these situations, and slow down in the moment and realize what is most important to him—living in love—we will find the capacity to create space for the Spirit and the ability to be patient, gracious and understanding instead of frustrated, irritated and angry. It is the work he is doing in us and in our lives, and by making room for him to work, we participate with him in the process.
Lord, thank you for your faithful love and grace, and for living in love in us, with us and for us. May we open space up in all our relationships and encounters in daily life for you to do your perfect work, so we may all grow up into the fullness of Christ. In your Name we pray. Amen.
“Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children; and walk in love, just as Christ also loved you and gave Himself up for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God as a fragrant aroma.” Ephesians 5:1–2
Comfort Amidst Our Failed Resolutions
By Linda Rex
I’m sure by now that many of you have fallen off your January resolutions for self-improvement and life improvement. And I’m sure many of you are currently in the process of self-flagellation, beating yourself up because you didn’t meet your own expectations, whatever they were.
It is a given that we are broken human beings and we struggle with habits and behaviors that often are not healthy and life-giving. And most all of us want to improve ourselves, have better relationships, and grow as individuals. Now I’m all for New Year’s resolutions, but too often they are our own attempt at self-discipline, rather than a lifestyle change rising out of the deep inner power and conviction of the Holy Spirit, which is the spiritual gift of self-control.
When we look at the Scriptures which talk about being transformed by the renewing of our minds (Rom 12:2), and we are reminded at this time of year when we celebrate Christ’s transfiguration that we are being transformed from our human glory to the glory that is Christ’s, I think it is real easy to look at transformation as being something solely behavioral. What I mean is we often think that our transformation means that we will be better people who will act in better ways.
Indeed, God wants to transform our behavior, but I believe that he wants to go much deeper than that. I believe God wants to transform our inner being. And he wants to transform our relationship with himself—so that in relationship with him we become the people he created us to be—his adopted children who live eternally in intimate relationship with him and one another for all eternity.
It occurred to me this morning as I contemplated the transfiguration that what Jesus said about this process was significant. When he prayed to the Father the night before his crucifixion, it is recorded that he asked that the glory he was given by the Father would be given to those who were his so “that they may be one, just as we are one”. In other worlds, the purpose for sharing in Christ’s glory, in Jesus’ mind, was not so much that we become good people, but that we could and would share in the unity, the intimacy, the oneness of the Father and the Son in the Spirit.
Jesus’ prayer was a request with regards to unity and oneness. Going on, he said, “I in them and you in me, that they may be perfected in unity.” This has to do with our sharing in the divine perichoresis or mutual indwelling of the Father, Son and Spirit. This is a relational oneness that we struggle to have with almost everyone in our lives.
Apart from the grace of Jesus and the gift of the Spirit, it is difficult or next to impossible for us to have the relationships in our lives the way we should have. We don’t realize how often the Spirit is at work interceding between us with one another and in our relationship with God so that we can have unity, peace and harmony. I think if we did, we would be a whole lot bolder and consistent about asking the Spirit through Jesus to intercede in every relationship in our lives, whether individually, as communities, or as nations.
Indeed, it is our rejection of our Father, Jesus and the Spirit who indwell human hearts that creates such havoc in our lives. When we are fully in control of all that happens in a relationship and insist that others behave in the ways we think they should behave—we create havoc and destruction in those relationships. When we suffocate the people in our lives because we expect them to take the place only God should take in our lives, we reap the consequences that go with such behavior. When we demand things from others that only God can do for us, we create relational holes that are impossible to fill.
God created us for relationships. They are important and essential to our human existence. Introvert or extrovert, we all need people in our lives to love us, to affirm us, and for us to share life with. Some of the saddest people I know are those who have shut out everyone and have holed up in a place all by themselves. The twisting of the human soul often comes with the significant relationships in our lives harming or attempting to destroy us. And it is only through loving, healthy relationships with God and one another that we find true healing.
Our behavior is often a reflection of what is going on inside of us. It rises out of the depths of our being—the being that we really are inside, not what we project to everyone around us. There are times when we find ourselves doing things we don’t want to do and we can’t figure out why.
This is because there are depths to our being we push down or hide away, or reject because either we don’t want to face them, or we are afraid to let them surface because we may not be able to control what happens when we do allow them to come to light. Indeed, there are times when it would be good to see a counselor or therapist to get help with these deep issues of the heart. And in other cases, to be in a spiritual community where we can be authentic, transparent and accepted is essential.
But other times it’s more a matter of inviting the divine Counselor, the Holy Spirit, to go with us into the dark places and inviting him to bring the healing light of our divine Physician Jesus Christ there. And God will heal us as we ask and cooperate with him in our healing.
Transformation of our lives begins first by the transformation God gives us through Jesus and in the Spirit in our relationship with himself. God draws us near so that we can draw near to others.
When we have a strong foundation in our lives of a deep, intimate relationship with God through Jesus and in the Spirit, we will find that our relationships will begin to reflect that change. Sure, some of them will fall away because there is no room for God or the divine realities in them. But others will begin to heal and blossom and grow. And as we choose to respond to God’s guidance in making healthy choices in our relationships, we will find ourselves in the midst of a healthy spiritual community, and we will find ourselves beginning to heal.
It is in our healthy relationships with God and one another that our true being is reflected back to us in such a way that we begin to change. This change comes not by following a list of rules, mind you, but by God’s work of transforming us by his Holy Spirit.
Our relationships, when they are filled with God’s love and grace, begin to influence us and change begins in our hearts and our minds. True, it is good to study the living and written Word of God so that our minds are renewed in the true realities, but it is God through the Spirit who brings about our true transformation. We are merely participants in the work God has done and is doing through Jesus Christ and in the Spirit. May it be our new resolution to receive this gift of transformation God has given us and to actively participate in what God is doing in our hearts and lives.
Dear loving Father, thank you for the gift of yourself through Jesus and in your Spirit through which we may experience loving relationship with you and one another. Please finish the work of transformation you have begun in us, and grant us the grace to fully participate with you both in listening to the living Word and obediently following the Spirit as he leads us, so that we might ever walk in step with Jesus. May we be fully transformed by grace through faith. In your Name we pray, amen.
“The glory which You have given Me I have given to them, that they may be one, just as We are one; I in them and You in Me, that they may be perfected in unity, so that the world may know that You sent Me, and loved them, even as You have loved Me.” John 17:22–23 NASB
Covenant Relationships and Our God of Grace
by Linda Rex
One of the most difficult aspects of living in covenant relationship with another human being is coming to grips with the need for unconditional love and grace. Since most of our lives we work and live within the idea of making and keeping contracts, much of our culture is based upon this type of economic and social structure. So when we come to our relationship with God, as well as the covenant of marriage, it is easy to fall back upon this type of thinking and being.
This morning I was listening to Dr. James Torrance ask the question, “Is our God the Triune God of grace or is he a contract God?” His purpose for asking that question was to help his listeners consider the difference between a covenant and a contract. Most of us clearly understand what a contract is—an agreement between two people which can be broken if one or the other does not perform completely the requirements of the contract.
When we mistakenly assume that the covenant God made with Israel and humanity is actually a contract, then what happens is that we put the terms of the agreement in the wrong order: law, consequences, grace. But if we understand that God’s covenant is one of love and grace, and is unconditional, then we understand that the proper order is: grace, law, consequences.
In other words, a covenant looks entirely different from a contract. Torrance uses the example of a marriage covenant to describe the difference. If we think a marriage agreement is a contract (if you do this, then I will do that), then whenever one or the other members of the relationship fail to meet the other’s expectations, then the relationship is broken, and each person can walk away from the relationship at any time. There isn’t really anything to bind two people together if marriage is treated like a contract. You and I both know that at some point in any relationship, someone is going to fail to meet the other person’s expectations. It’s a given, because we’re human.
But in a covenant, unconditional love and grace come first. The commitment to the other supersedes all other considerations in the relationship. Two people agree to love one another no matter what may happen in life, no matter what they each might do. Then there is an understanding that whatever they may do or say to one another will have consequences for the relationship. But the binding of the two people together by unconditional love and grace keeps the relationship intact even when there is a failure at some point to meet the other person’s expectations.
This is what God did with Israel and what he did, in fact, with all humanity. God determined that he was going to draw human beings into relationship with himself. We as human beings have so often broken our part of that covenant just as Israel broke their part of their covenant with God over and over. But God has always been faithful to what he promised. He loved us prior to us loving him. He forgave us prior to us even knowing we needed forgiven. His love and grace are unconditional. This is true covenant.
This is where relationships get tough. Are we willing to forgive the unforgiveable? Are we willing to go the extra mile? Are we willing to keep loving someone who is all prickles and thorns?
You see, God loved Israel unconditionally. Over and over, he forgave his people all of their unfaithfulness to him. Were there consequences to Israel’s breaking of the covenant relationship? Yes—they experienced slavery, oppression and devastation. Even though God allowed them to experience the full consequences of their unfaithfulness to him, he, in time, laid down his life for his people, as well as for all humanity.
God’s love and grace were and are prior to any law. Law describes what a healthy happy relationship looks like and what the consequences are when people don’t live in ways that coincide with a healthy happy relationship. God’s love and grace were present and available even when Israel failed to keep their side of the covenant and experienced the consequences of it. God’s love and grace are also present and available to each of us, in spite of our failures to live faithfully and lovingly in relationship with our God.
Yes, God often allows human beings to experience the pain and devastation that comes with living in ways that break that relationship. And that is where we need to rethink how we handle our covenant relationships. It is easy to believe that in a marriage, if one person loves the other no matter what, then they have to accept whatever behavior the other person does even if it is harmful or involves infidelity or substance abuse. But we need to rethink that.
We are called to love one another unconditionally within the marriage covenant. If a person within the relationship is an addict and is causing destruction to the relationship and to themselves, is it truly loving to allow them to continue in that destructive behavior? No. So they need to experience the consequences of their behavior, but in such a way that the covenant relationship remains intact if at all possible. Love calls the broken person to healing and wholeness and provides a safe place for them to begin to get help. Love does not leave them in their brokenness and enable them to continue their self-destruction. This is when love has to be tough.
When a person is unfaithful in a relationship, there is so much pain involved. The gut level response is to bail out of the relationship. But if indeed unconditional love and grace come first in the covenant—then there must be room, if both parties are willing, to forgive and to rebuild the relationship on a new foundation of grace. When Israel was unfaithful to God, we see the language of divorce in Hosea—yet God did not divorce Israel. Instead, he came in the person of Jesus, laid down his life, and died in her place. Wow! Most of us never get to that place of self-sacrifice and forgiveness in our relationships!
To truly love and forgive is to lay down one’s life for the other so that they can be and become all they were created to be as image-bearers of God. The Triune God of grace teaches us what covenant love looks like—and calls us to live in that relationship with him and with one another. Consequences have their place in covenant relationships. Pain and sin will happen. But unconditional love and grace trumps it all.
God of grace and love, thank you for your faithfulness and compassion. Grow in us the capacity to love and forgive as you do. Teach us what it means to live in covenant love as you do with us. Through Jesus and by your Spirit. Amen.
“I will establish My covenant between Me and you [Abraham] and your descendants after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your descendants after you.” Genesis 17:7 NASB