Tag Archives: envy

Eternal Lessons from an Old Psalm

Psalm 73 was written by someone who might have recently heard a political speech in the USA  Politicians routinely attempt to motivate people who report “less than $250,000” in income annually to envy the wealth and possessions of those who earn more than that. The psalmist went through an experience like that, but he discovered an outcome superior to income redistribution.

1      Surely God is good to Israel,
to those who are pure in heart.

At the beginning of the Psalm, the writer meditates on God’s goodness. He remembers God’s blessings and the way of life to which God calls his people.

2      But as for me, my feet had almost slipped;
I had nearly lost my foothold.
3      For I envied the arrogant
when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.

The psalmist confesses that he almost went over the precipice when he allowed himself to envy the prosperity of other people. The Bible teaches us that “The acts of the sinful nature are …  envy….” (Galatians 5:19, 20 NIV) Envy was almost his undoing.

4      They have no struggles;
their bodies are healthy and strong.
5      They are free from the burdens common to man;
they are not plagued by human ills.
6      Therefore pride is their necklace;
they clothe themselves with violence.
7      From their callous hearts comes iniquity;
the evil conceits of their minds know no limits.
8      They scoff, and speak with malice;
in their arrogance they threaten oppression.
9      Their mouths lay claim to heaven,
and their tongues take possession of the earth.
10     Therefore their people turn to them
and drink up waters in abundance.
11     They say, “How can God know?
Does the Most High have knowledge?”

The psalmist then elaborates on his observations. He is seriously upset. He observes the arrogance of people who ask, (my paraphrase) “What does God know? What makes him an authority?” The psalmist, who has meditated on God’s goodness and has tried to draw near to God feels abused and neglected.

12     This is what the wicked are like—
always carefree, they increase in wealth.
13     Surely in vain have I kept my heart pure;
in vain have I washed my hands in innocence.
14     All day long I have been plagued;
I have been punished every morning.

He points out something many people claim to be true: he says that the wicked have no problems and grow wealthy. He, on the other hand, lives a life of discipline and innocence, yet his life is full of trouble. He says that life is grievously unfair.

This idea, of course, is the grist of class warfare. The psalmist lived in ancient times, long before anyone dreamed up that term. Yet he might have written this poem yesterday. His experience and his thoughts are so timely. Life is absolutely not fair. He whines, “I try to do good, but I get nothing.” He sounds like a presenter at a political convention.

15     If I had said, “I will speak thus,”
I would have betrayed your children.
16     When I tried to understand all this,
it was oppressive to me
17     till I entered the sanctuary of God;
then I understood their final destiny.
18     Surely you place them on slippery ground;
you cast them down to ruin.
19     How suddenly are they destroyed,
completely swept away by terrors!
20     As a dream when one awakes,
so when you arise, O Lord,
you will despise them as fantasies.
21     When my heart was grieved
and my spirit embittered,
22     I was senseless and ignorant;
I was a brute beast before you.

The psalmist had a revelation, an epiphany. In the midst of his victim’s lament, as he was whining that God was not fair, something happened.

He says, “If I had said these thoughts aloud, I would have betrayed everything God stands for. My testimony would have been treasonous to God’s kingdom.” In God’s presence, the psalmist begins to see things God’s way. He looks at the world from God’s point of view.

When people feel discouraged and downtrodden, they need to put all their hope in God and start looking at things from his point of view. This only happens when they draw near. Worship is not the only way to do that, but it is a good way. Every Sunday morning, everyone is invited to draw near to God and to worship him. It is in the midst of worshiping God that he is able to open our eyes and show us what he sees. That is what happened to the psalmist.

He let go of his sense of being a victim. The he started looking at things God’s way.

Whoa! The wicked may appear to be prosperous, but they are doomed. Their wealth and their importance is on the way to destruction.

He confesses (my paraphrase of verse 21) “When I let myself become bitter, I became like an empty-headed fool.” In that moment he realizes how ridiculous it is to envy people who possess only objects that can disappear in a flash. In his moment of enlightenment, he realizes that he possesses something eternal that nobody can take away from him.

23     Yet I am always with you;
you hold me by my right hand.
24     You guide me with your counsel,
and afterward you will take me into glory.
25     Whom have I in heaven but you?
And earth has nothing I desire besides you.
26     My flesh and my heart may fail,
but God is the strength of my heart
and my portion forever.

Instead of objects, the psalmist has God. The wicked people he envied have possessions that only have substance in time and space.

The psalmist turns away from envy of fleeting wealth to see wealth that is eternal. He has God.  In verse 26 he notes that the treasures of time and space are ephemeral, but God is a blessing forever.

27     Those who are far from you will perish;
you destroy all who are unfaithful to you.
28     But as for me, it is good to be near God.
I have made the Sovereign Lord my refuge;
I will tell of all your deeds.

The psalmist concludes by summing up what he has learned. He no longer envies anything other people have, because he recognizes the superior treasure of knowing God.

This is the same powerful understanding that encourages Syrian Christians and Egyptian Christians and Christians in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. They are under siege and in grave danger. They don’t envy wealth so much as they might envy someone who is safe and at peace. They could have peace if they were willing to renounce Christ. Their world is in complete turmoil. Yet the knowledge that gives the envious psalmist peace, also gives peace, strength and hope to these besieged Christians. The psalmist turned to the presence of God; persecuted Christians remember Christ’s promise, “I will be with you to the end of the age.” It gives hope to everyone who feels that life’s circumstances have not been kind. No matter what circumstances surround us each day, like the psalmist we can enter into a worshipful attitude, draw near to God, and learn to view the situation from God’s perspective. God’s viewpoint shows us the real reality, reality in the light of God’s loving presence. He is our refuge, and we can share that story with everyone.

Servant Life

Jeremiah 11:18-20     Psalm 54     James 3:13-4:3     Mark 9:30-37 

English: Icon of Jesus Christ
English: Icon of Jesus Christ (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” (Mark 9:35) 

When Christ became incarnate and lived on earth, he gave up everything that secular teaching promotes. In secular philosophy, the guiding force of the time/space world we call “reality,” people pursue “success.” They target people who deprive them of means and opportunity for success, and they bring them down. Along the way, the energy of envy, jealousy, spite and revenge destroy enemies and prop up victorious warriors.

Christ put everyone on earth ahead of himself and became the servant of mankind. Christ gave up everything not so that he could bring people down, but rather, so that he could raise people up. Jesus targeted his enemies by becoming powerless and vulnerable, like a child, and then he served them by dying on a cross for them. After Jesus told his disciples what was coming for him, it must have broken his heart to hear them begin to fight over who would succeed him on the team. When they settled in at Capernaum, he asked them about that self-serving conversation. Then he said, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” (Mark 9:35)

None of them had apparently grasped even a hint of what he meant. We who serve, or allege to serve, Christ in the twenty-first century hardly grasp it, either. It is very hard wrap our minds around the truth that when God wanted us to really understand who he was, he entered human flesh and lived with all the same limitations we have. It sheds a lot of light on the statement in Genesis that says, “God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” (Genesis 1:27) If Christ is the image of God, then we should understand that all we need to do to live that image, the image of God implanted in us at creation, is to be like Christ.

To be like Christ is to embody this truth: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” (Mark 9:35) In other words, whoever is the most humble and self-denying looks the most like Christ. Jesus said essentially the same thing when he said, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves.” (Mark 8:34) It sounds counter-intuitive. If someone denies himself, is that not an attempt to suppress his unique created gifts? Secular teaching says that we must dream dreams and fight for our success and achieve our potential. We have heard even Christian teachers try to motivate us to discover our calling and obediently fulfill it. Is Christ saying that we should be dishrags?

Not at all. To deny self is simply to let go of the need be the greatest, the need to be first. To deny self is to take the last seat after everyone else has taken one, and then be the first to get up and give that seat to another person who has arrived late.

Paul said it another way. When he wrote to the Philippians he told them that they should be just like Christ who, “who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave.” (Philippians 2:6-7) To be a slave was to be a servant, a nobody. God created us in his image, in the image of a servant, in the image of a person who looks after the needs of others before himself. To be Christlike, therefore, is not to call attention to oneself for performing service, but rather to be selfless in service and self-effacing in demeanor. Christ’s followers do not serve others in order to “make a difference.” They aren’t looking for the attention of people who say, “Oh, look what a difference John made!” Christ’s followers serve in order that people say, “Look what Christ does in John’s life. I give thanks to Christ for John.”

The lesson of Christ’s words is that he most truly showed God’s image, not in miracles of healing and feeding and calming storms, but in his death on the cross. By becoming the servant of all, Christ truly showed us what God is like. God has the power to heal dread disease, but his real power heals broken hearts. God has the power to feed people with loaves of bread, but his real power is to feed spirits and strengthen us when life is hard. God can calm the waves of the sea, but his real power is to calm our fears in the dark nights of life. We are most like God when we put our own needs and wants and ambitions aside and go with other people through the dark hours and the pain and the madness.

Christ is the image that counters the image the world is selling these days. Christ shows us what happens when human beings become servants of God in service to one another. The world sells the image that the government can be like God, the provider of all things. The world attempts to sell the notion that in yielding everything to government rather than yielding to God, people will gain everything they need. Satan wants people to serve any power but God. When we look at what Christ said, that the servant of all is the greatest, then we can clearly see that state power, government power, is not God. State power is not a servant. When it is good, it is a terror to evil, but when it is bad, it is a terror to its citizens. Its benevolence is like an insidious poison that ultimately strips away every human right and replaces them with its own definitions of need and good.

The apostle Paul describes the things that are opposite to the image of Christ this way: “fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these.” (Galatians 5:19-21) Notice how many of these things start with a self-serving attitude. Then he describes what it is like to be servant of all, to be Christ-like: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, and self-control.” (Galatians 5:22-23) Notice that these attitudes point outward to others. The servant of all pays attention to others and serves others. The envy, anger, and jealousy that motivate strife, quarrels and dissensions are the fodder of secular political platforms. Political speakers allege that government will bring the kingdom of God on earth, yet the same speeches motivate all the things that God’s kingdom is not – envy, jealousy, anger, and dissension.

Christians who want to be responsible citizens in a participative government like ours in the USA must filter through a lot of rhetoric in order to exercise the right to vote wisely. That observation may sound like a mismatch in a post about servanthood, but it fits perfectly. Even as we pray and study and listen to Christ in our efforts to become the servants he wants us to be, we go on living in the world where political power acts. By the grace of God, in our country we have the right and the responsibility to vote, which means that our votes must be and will be shaped by our servant lives. We have the obligation to see through the self-serving rhetoric and recognize when a politician is motivating hatred of rich people he holds up as targets under the guise of serving the poor. Christ did not make targets of the rich in his life. Christ’s presence in the homes of rich people did not motivate them to give all their money to the Roman government. Christ made selfishness and envy the targets. He wanted to motivate the poor to generosity (as the story of the widow’s mite informs us) as much as the rich (think Zaccheus).

Being Christlike, being a servant of all, is a huge responsibility. It is a tough thing to do, to think of others before self. None of us can actually do it all the time. When we succeed, then we hope somebody notices, which of course, flies in the face of our original objective of selfless service. But then Jesus never said it would be easy. Look what it got him.

He was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him. (Mark 9:31-32)

What’s in it for Me?

Joshua 5:10-7:26

My husband and I don’t wear big signs that say “Christian,” but we don’t keep it a secret, We believe that the Holy Spirit is at work in our lives, and when we feel that He is guiding the conversation, we invite people to church. We get a lot of different reactions, but the most common is something like this: “I really like to go to a church if I get something out of it. I used to go to church a lot, but then I realized one day that I wasn’t getting anything out of it, so I quit.” I wouldn’t belittle this reaction to church attendance, but it is hard to know what to say. The problem is that we don’t think of church as something we do in order to get something. Our participation in church is much more about loving service and obedience to God’s call. When we attend, we are inspired, and we do learn things. But the real point of attending worship is to worship. In fact, the word “liturgy” is derived from Greek words, leit- people + ergon work, which is to say that liturgy is the work of the people. Worship derives from Old English roots that mean “to ascribe worth to.” It would be right to say that Handel’s “Worthy is the Lamb” is the apotheosis of liturgical worship.

The story of the arrival of the wilderness-weary Israelites in the Promised Land is a story that puts a fine point on the question of what we get out of knowing God. At the beginning of the passage listed above (Joshua 5:10-7:26), the Israelites eat the Passover in the new land, and that is the end of manna. For the first time in forty years, they eat fresh fruits and vegetables, the produce of the Promised Land. Manna had been a gift when they first began to eat it, but the Bible records that the Israelites wearied of it. The generation that entered the Promised Land behind Joshua had never eaten anything but manna. Can you imagine their delight the first time they bit into a peach? They probably thought this moment was evidence from God that there was something for them in following him.

These events took place at Gilgal, their staging point for the coming attack on Jericho. Joshua 5:13-15 describes something even more marvelous. Joshua had been out spying out the ground for the attack on Jericho. As he stood contemplating the battle, he saw a man who said, “The place where you stand is holy.” This explains a lot about the battle for the Promised Land. If you recall, this is the land God promised to Abraham generations before. This is the land from which Joseph was taken to Egypt, where Israelites lived for 400 years before Moses came to lead them back to the Promised Land. How could God promise this land to Abraham? How could he promise it to the Israelites? There were people living on the land before Abraham, and there were people living on the land when the Egyptian escapees arrived there. Where do they get off claiming that God can give them this land?

The man who spoke with Joshua gives us the answer: the land belongs to God. It always belonged to God. In fact, if you read the Bible carefully, you soon discover that in God’s economy, all the land belongs to him, as well as the cattle that graze upon it and the whales that swim in its oceans. When the man who met Joshua told him that the spot where he stood was holy, it could have been any place. There is a big lesson in this little story. James summed up this lesson beautifully when he wrote, “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights.” (James 1:17, the eloquent and beautiful King James Version) The lesson is that all that we have and all that we are is the gift of our gracious God. We owe him thanksgiving and grateful stewardship of all that we receive.

This little story puts the big story of the conquest of Jericho in proper context. The marching, the trumpets, the wall that came tumbling down. The bloody destruction of men and women, children, animals, all living things within the walls except for Rahab and her family. The scruffy desert wanderers who had just arrived in Canaan defeated a powerful center of commerce surrounded by a high, thick wall, designed to repel real armies, not families marching around and singing praise to God. The people were full of excitement and delight. Everything looked good. God was working things out to their advantage. It appeared that they would get something out of all the misery they had endured since leaving Egypt after all.

One man wasn’t satisfied with the ego trip, however. He wanted something he could hold in his hands. I see that in dissatisfied church-goers, too. People come to my church, and they participate in a colorful and aesthetically pleasing liturgy, but they go away without “feeling” anything. They are not promised anything, but rather, they are urged to go forth and give service. There doesn’t seem to be anything in it for them. It isn’t at all like the churches where people are told that faithful Christian living will be rewarded with good jobs, comfortable houses and plenty of food for their children. It isn’t like the teleseminars that promise you that the universe wants you to have whatever you really want if you just get in synch and make your desires clear. They feel like Achan, who looked at all the “stuff” being gathered up for the Lord’s treasury and wondered where his share was. God could surely spare a little something for Achan. Didn’t God have enough already?

We are all tempted by this logic, and never more than in contemporary culture. The “Occupy” movement is all about a feeling that somebody else, be it God or man, has more than he “needs” and I have less than I “need.” It is all about my right to decide what is enough for someone else, even God. It is all about my right to judge what others have as if their possessions exist only because I have been shortchanged. Maybe Achan thought he actually needed the things he stashed out of sight of whoever was managing the Lord’s treasury that day. Or maybe he really thought God had no right to keep all the treasure for himself. Maybe Achan thought God was being profoundly unfair to everybody, so Achan said something like, he who helpeth not himself, the same he shall not be holpen.

The root of Achan’s problem is the root of most human discontent. Achan failed to recognize that all the wonderful things, all the land, all the animals, all the people, belonged to God already. The Israelites were conquering Jericho as God’s servants, and they were asked to demonstrate their stewardship of God’s gifts first. If you have read the books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy, you have read the references to the “firstfruits.” The birth of an animal, the beginning of harvest, even the firstborn child, was all dedicated to God. The firstfruits were to be put in God’s treasury or else redeemed. God claimed Jericho as a firstfruit of the blessing of a homeland for the Israelites, and Achan ignored God’s righteous claim, because he wanted something for himself.

We are all guilty of the same thing. The people who put it into words are not worse than the rest of us; they are exactly like us. We all want rewards and privilege and possessions. The “Occupy” movement is just like the rest of us. When we are honest, we know that we all must grapple with envy, jealousy and covetous hearts. No matter how satisfied we are on most days, we all have our moments when we wonder why God didn’t give us the same benefits as somebody else. (I won’t say “everybody else” because we all know that the number of people in the world who have less than the 99% in the US is astronomical.)

I hear a lot of people say that the Old Testament is out of touch with reality, but I don’t believe it. The Old Testament is more real than most reality TV. Those folks were genuine scoundrels. They were just like the scoundrels in the news. Criminals, celebrities, politicians, scheming businessmen – they are all there, and much, much more. The story of Achan is quite real and down to earth. Any of us could be Achan, because any of us could be Eve. Satan was there, whispering in Achan’s ear, just as he whispered in Eve’s ear, “Did God say …?” The lesson of Achan is not implacable, ruthless justice in the name of God. The justice administered that day was simply the way justice was administered in that era. The truth of Achan is timeless, and we do well to listen to it. 

Every wild animal of the forest is mine,

the cattle on a thousand hills.

I know all the birds of the air,

and all that moves in the field is mine.

If I were hungry, I would not tell you,

for the world and all that is in it is mine.

 

Psalm 50:10-12

We are blessed with God’s grace and presence in our lives. We are gifted with God’s abundant generosity, and our responsibility is simply grateful stewardship of those gifts. God’s goodness is not focused on our personal gratification, but rather on the provision of all that we need according to his purposes. What’s in it for me? The presence and power of the Most High God in my everyday life. That’s what.