John F. Burns spent forty years covering world events for The New York Times. In an article written after his retirement in 2015, Burns recalled the words of a close friend and fellow journalist who was dying of cancer. “Never forget,” his colleague said, “It’s not how far you’ve traveled; it’s what you’ve brought back.”
Psalm 37 could be considered David’s list of what he “brought back” from his journey of life, from shepherd to soldier and king. The psalm is a series of couplets contrasting the wicked with the righteous, and affirming those who trust the Lord.
“Do not fret because of those who are evil or be envious of those who do wrong; for like the grass they will soon wither” (vv. 1–2).
“I was young and now I am old, yet I have never seen the righteous forsaken or their children begging bread” (v. 25).
From our experiences in life, what has God taught us? How have we experienced His faithfulness and love? In what ways has the Lord’s love shaped our lives?
It’s not how far we’ve traveled in life, but what we’ve brought back that counts.
I was young and now I am old, yet I have never seen the righteous forsaken or their children begging bread. Psalm 37:25
At his death, the great artist Michelangelo left many unfinished projects. But four of his sculptures were never meant to be completed. The Bearded Slave, the Atlas Slave, the Awakening Slave, and the Young Slave, though they appear unfinished, are just as Michelangelo intended them to be. The artist wanted to show what it might feel like to be forever enslaved.
Rather than sculpting figures in chains, Michelangelo made figures stuck in the very marble out of which they are carved. Bodies emerge from the stone, but not completely. Muscles flex, but the figures are never able to free themselves.
My empathy with the slave sculptures is immediate. Their plight is not unlike my struggle with sin. I am unable to free myself: like the sculptures I am stuck, “a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me” (Rom 7:23). No matter how hard I try, I cannot change myself. But thanks be to God you and I will not remain unfinished works. We won’t be complete until heaven, but in the meantime as we welcome the transforming work of the Holy Spirit, He changes us. God promises to finish the good work He has begun in us (Phil. 1:6).
Dr. Charles W. Eliot, longtime president of Harvard University, believed that ordinary people who read consistently from the world’s great literature for even a few minutes a day could gain a valuable education. In 1910, he compiled selections from books of history, science, philosophy, and fine art into fifty volumes called The Harvard Classics. Each set of books included Dr. Eliot’s Reading Guide titled “Fifteen Minutes A Day” containing recommended selections of eight to ten pages for each day of the year.
What if we spent fifteen minutes a day reading God’s Word? We could say with the psalmist, “Turn my heart toward your statutes and not toward selfish gain. Turn my eyes away from worthless things; preserve my life according to your word” (Ps. 119:36–37).
Fifteen minutes a day adds up to ninety-one hours a year. But for whatever amount of time we decide to read the Bible each day, consistency is the secret and the key ingredient is not perfection but persistence. If we miss a day or a week, we can start reading again. As the Holy Spirit teaches us, God’s Word moves from our minds to our hearts, then to our hands and feet—taking us beyond education to transformation.
“Teach me, Lord, the way of your decrees, that I may follow it to the end” (v. 33).
The word dysfunctional is often used to describe individuals, families, relationships, organizations, and even governments. While functional means it’s in proper working order, dysfunctional is the opposite—it’s broken, not working properly, unable to do what it was designed to do.
In his letter to the Romans, the apostle Paul begins by describing a spiritually dysfunctional humanity (1:18–32). We are all part of that rebellious company: “All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one. For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (3:12, 23).
The good news is that “all are justified freely by [God’s] grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus . . . to be received by faith” (vv. 24–25). When we invite Christ into our lives and accept God’s offer of forgiveness and new life, we are on the path to becoming the person He created us to be. We don’t immediately become perfect, but we no longer have to remain broken and dysfunctional.
Through the Holy Spirit we receive daily strength to honor God in what we say and do and to “put off [our] old self . . . to be made new in the attitude of [our]minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness” (Eph. 4:22–24).
They say we all have one: Doppelgangers some call them. Lookalikes. People unrelated to us who look very much like us.
Mine happens to be a star in the music field. When I attended one of his concerts, I got a lot of double takes from fellow fans during intermission. But alas, I am no James Taylor when it comes to singing and strumming a guitar. We just happen to look alike.
Who do you look like? As you ponder that question, reflect on 2 Corinthians 3:18, where Paul tells us that we “are being transformed into [the Lord’s] image.” As we seek to honor Jesus with our lives, one of our goals is to take on His image. Of course, this doesn’t mean we have to grow a beard and wear sandals—it means that the Holy Spirit helps us demonstrate Christlike characteristics in how we live. For example, in attitude (humility), in character (loving), and in compassion (coming alongside the down and out), we are to look like Jesus and imitate Him.
As we “contemplate the Lord’s glory,” by fixing our eyes on Jesus, we can grow more and more like Him. What an amazing thing it would be if people could observe us and say, “I see Jesus in you”!
Since its first publication in 1880, Lew Wallace’s novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ has never been out of print. It has been called the most influential Christian book of the 19th century, and it continues to draw readers today as it weaves the true story of Jesus with that of a fictional young Jewish nobleman named Judah Ben-Hur.
Amy Lifson, writing in Humanities magazine, said that the writing of the book transformed the life of the author. “As Ben-Hur guided readers through the scenes of the Passion, so did he lead the way for Lew Wallace to believe in Jesus Christ.” Wallace said, “I have seen the Nazarene . . . . I saw him perform works which no mere man could perform.”
The Gospels’ record of the life of Jesus allows us to walk alongside Him, to witness His miracles, and to hear His words. At the conclusion of John’s gospel, he wrote, “Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:30-31).
Just as Lew Wallace’s research, reading of the Bible, and writing led him to believe in Jesus, so God’s Word draws us to a transformation of mind and heart by which we have eternal life in and through Him.
One of my favorite television programs is The Amazing Race. In this reality show, 10 couples are sent to a foreign country where they must race, via trains, buses, cabs, bikes, and feet, from one point to another to get their instructions for the next challenge. The goal is for one couple to get to a designated finishing point before everyone else, and the prize is a million dollars.
The apostle Paul compared the Christian life to a race and admitted that he had not yet arrived at the finish line. “Brothers and sisters,” he said, “I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead. I press on toward the goal to win the prize” (Phil. 3:13-14). Paul did not look back and allow his past failures to weigh him down with guilt, nor did he let his present successes make him complacent. He pressed on toward the goal of becoming more and more like Jesus.
We are running this race too. Despite our past failures or successes, let us keep pressing on toward the ultimate goal of becoming more like Jesus. We are not racing for an earthly prize, but for the ultimate reward of enjoying Him forever.
Noah Purifoy began his work as an “assemblage” artist with three tons of rubble salvaged from the 1965 riots in the Watts area of Los Angeles. From broken bicycle wheels and bowling balls to discarded tires and damaged TV sets—things no longer usable—he and a colleague created sculptures that conveyed a powerful message about people being treated as “throw-aways” in modern society. One journalist referred to Mr. Purifoy as “the junkyard genius.”
In Jesus’s time, many people considered those with diseases and physical problems as sinners being punished by God. They were shunned and ignored. But when Jesus and His disciples encountered a man born blind, the Lord said his condition was not the result of sin, but an occasion to see the power of God. “While I am in the world, I am the light of the world” (John 9:5). When the blind man followed Jesus’s instructions, he was able to see.
When the religious authorities questioned the man, he replied simply, “One thing I do know. I was blind but now I see!” (v. 25)
Jesus is still the greatest “junkyard genius” in our world. We are all damaged by sin, but He takes our broken lives and shapes us into His new creations.
When Edward Klee returned to Berlin after being away for many years, the city he remembered and loved was no longer there. It had changed dramatically, and so had he. Writing in Hemispheres magazine, Klee said, “Returning to a city you once loved tends to be a hit-or-miss proposition . . . . It can be a letdown.” Going back to the places of our past may produce a feeling of sorrow and loss. We are not the same person we were then, nor is the place that was so significant in our lives exactly as it was.
Nehemiah had been in exile from the land of Israel for many years when he learned of the desperate plight of his people and the devastation in the city of Jerusalem. He received permission from Artaxerxes, the Persian king, to return and rebuild the walls. After a night reconnaissance to examine the situation (Neh. 2:13–15), Nehemiah told the inhabitants of the city, “You see the trouble we are in: Jerusalem lies in ruins, and its gates have been burned with fire. Come, let us rebuild the wall of Jerusalem, and we will no longer be in disgrace” (v. 17).
Nehemiah did not return to reminisce but to rebuild. It’s a powerful lesson for us as we consider the damaged parts of our past that need repair. It is our faith in Christ and His power that enables us to look ahead, move forward, and rebuild.