“Could they not carry their own garbage this far?” I grumbled to Jay as I picked up empty bottles from the beach and tossed them into the trash bin less than 20 feet away. “Did leaving the beach a mess for others make them feel better about themselves? I sure hope these people are tourists. I don’t want to think that any locals would treat our beach with such disrespect.”
The very next day I came across a prayer I had written years earlier about judging others. My own words reminded me of how wrong I was to take pride in cleaning up other people’s messes. The truth is, I have plenty of my own that I simply ignore—especially in the spiritual sense.
I am quick to claim that the reason I can’t get my life in order is because others keep messing it up. And I am quick to conclude that the “garbage” stinking up my surroundings belongs to someone other than me. But neither is true. Nothing outside of me can condemn or contaminate me—only what’s inside (Matt. 15:19-20). The real garbage is the attitude that causes me to turn up my nose at a tiny whiff of someone else’s sin while ignoring the stench of my own.
Dry. Dusty. Dangerous. A desert. A place where there is little water, a place hostile to life. It’s not surprising, then, that the word deserted describes a place that is uninhabited. Life there is hard. Few people choose it. But sometimes we can’t avoid it.
In Scripture, God’s people were familiar with desert life. Much of the Middle East, including Israel, is desert. But there are lush exceptions, like the Jordan Valley and areas surrounding the Sea of Galilee. God chose to “raise His family” in a place surrounded by wilderness, a place where He could make His goodness known to His children as they trusted Him for protection and daily provision (Isa. 48:17-19).
Today, most of us don’t live in literal deserts, but we often go through desert-like places. Sometimes we go as an act of obedience. Other times we find ourselves there through no conscious choice or action. When someone abandons us, or disease invades our bodies, we end up in desert-like circumstances where resources are scarce and life is hard to sustain.
But the point of going through a desert, whether literally or figuratively, is to remind us that we are dependent on God to sustain us—a lesson we need to remember even when we’re living in a place of plenty.
The St. Olaf Choir from Northfield, Minnesota, is renowned for making beautiful music. One reason for its excellence is the selection process. Applicants are chosen based not only on how well they sing but also on how they sound as part of the whole. Another reason is that all members agree to make the choir their first priority and commit to a rigorous rehearsal and performance schedule.
One of the things that intrigues me the most about this choir is what happens during rehearsals. Whenever members make a mistake, they raise their hand. Instead of trying to hide the blunder, they call attention to it! This allows the conductor to help each singer learn the difficult part, and it increases the likelihood of a flawless performance.
I think this is the kind of community Jesus was establishing when He told Nicodemus that God sent His Son into the world to save it, not condemn it (John 3:17). Shortly after this conversation, Jesus encountered a Samaritan woman at the public well. He made it easy for her to admit failure by promising her a better way of life where she could enjoy His forgiveness (John 4).
As members of Christ’s body on Earth, we should not fear admitting our wrongs but welcome it as an opportunity to together experience and rejoice in the forgiveness of God.
Most of what goes on in the universe we never see. Many things are too small or move too fast or even too slow for us to see. Using modern technology, however, filmmaker Louis Schwartzberg is able to show stunning video images of some of those things—a caterpillar’s mouth, the eye of a fruit fly, the growth of a mushroom.
Our limited ability to see the awesome and intricate detail of things in the physical world reminds us that our ability to see and understand what’s happening in the spiritual realm is equally limited. God is at work all around us doing things more wonderful than we can imagine. But our spiritual vision is limited and we cannot see them. The prophet Elisha, however, actually got to see the supernatural work that God was doing. God also opened the eyes of his fearful colleague so he too could see the heavenly army sent to fight on their behalf (2 Kings 6:17).
Fear makes us feel weak and helpless and causes us to think we are alone in the world. But God has assured us that His Spirit in us is greater than any worldly power (1 John 4:4).
Whenever we become discouraged by the evil we can see, we need to think instead about the good work God is doing that we cannot see.
Social media is useful for many things, but contentment is not one of them. At least not for me. Even when my goals are good, I can become discouraged by continual reminders that others are accomplishing them first or with greater results. I am prone to this kind of discouragement, so I frequently remind myself that God has not short-changed me. He has already given me everything I need to accomplish the work He wants me to do.
This means I don’t need a bigger budget or the assurance of success. I don’t need a better work environment or a different job. I don’t need the approval or permission of others. I don’t need good health or more time. God may give me some of those things, but everything I need I already have, for when He assigns work He provides the resources. My only assignment is to use whatever time and talents He has given in a way that blesses others and gives God the glory.
Jesus and Peter had a conversation that got around to this subject. After making breakfast on the shore of Galilee, Jesus told Peter what would happen at the end of his life. Pointing at another disciple, Peter asked, “What about him?” Jesus responded, “What is that to you?”
That is the question I need to ask myself when I compare myself to others. The answer is, “None of my business.” My business is to follow Jesus and be faithful with the gifts and opportunities He gives to me.
In his book The Hidden Brain, science writer Shankar Vedantam describes the day he went for a leisurely swim. The water was calm and clear, and he felt strong and proud for covering a long distance so easily. He decided to swim out of the bay and into open water. But when he tried to return he couldn’t make any progress. He had been deceived by the current. The ease of swimming had not been due to his strength but to the movement of the water.
In our relationship with God something similar can happen. “Going with the flow” can lead us to believe we’re stronger than we are. When life is easy, our minds tell us that it’s due to our own strength. We become proud and self-confident. But when trouble hits, we realize how little strength we have and how helpless we are.
This happened with the Israelites. God would bless them with military success, peace, and prosperity. But thinking they had achieved it on their own, they would then become proud and self-sufficient (Deut. 8:11-12). Assuming that they no longer needed God, they would go their own way until an enemy attacked and they would realize how powerless they were without God’s help.
When life is going well we too need to beware of self-deception. Pride will take us where we do not want to go. Only humility will keep us where we ought to be—grateful to God and dependent on His strength.
I’ve been blamed for a lot of things, and rightly so. My sin, failure, and incompetence have caused grief, anxiety, and inconvenience for friends and family (and probably even for strangers). I’ve also been blamed for things that were not my fault, things I was powerless to change.
The doctors I know are smart, hard-working, and compassionate. They have relieved my suffering on many occasions, and I am grateful for their expertise in diagnosing illnesses, prescribing medication, setting broken bones, and stitching up wounds. But this does not mean that I place my faith in physicians rather than in God.
Within the last 800 or so years, a new custom has been added to the Jewish wedding ceremony. At the very end, the groom crushes a wine glass under his foot. One explanation of this is that the shattering of the glass symbolizes the destruction of the temple in ad 70. Young couples are encouraged to remember, as they establish their own homes, that God’s home had been destroyed.