Friends and Enemies
Scholar Kenneth E. Bailey told of the leader of an African nation who had learned to maintain an unusual posture in the international community. He’d established a good relationship with both Israel and the nations surrounding it. When someone asked him how his nation maintained this fragile balance, he responded, “We choose our friends. We do not encourage our friends to choose our enemies [for us].”
That is wise—and genuinely practical. What that African country modeled on an international level is what Paul encouraged his readers to do on a personal level. In the midst of a lengthy description of the characteristics of a life changed by Christ, he wrote, “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone” (Romans 12:18). He goes on to reinforce the importance of our dealings with others by reminding us that even the way we treat our enemies (vv. 20–21) reflects our trust in and dependence upon our Lord and His ultimate care.
To live in peace with everyone may not always be possible (after all, Paul does say “if”). But our responsibility as followers of Christ is to allow His wisdom to guide our living (James 3:17–18) so that we engage those around us as peacemakers (Matthew 5:9). What better way could there be to honor the Prince of Peace?
Information and Evidence
When Doris Kearns Goodwin decided to write a book about Abraham Lincoln, the fact that some 14,000 books had already been written about America’s sixteenth president intimidated her. What could be left to say about this beloved leader? Still, Goodwin pressed on, her work resulting in A Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. Her fresh insights on Lincoln’s leadership style became a top-rated and top-reviewed book, in spite of the mass of volumes already available on him.
The apostle John faced a different challenge as he wrote his account of the ministry and passion of Jesus. The final verse of John’s gospel says, “Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written” (John 21:25). John had more material than he could possibly use!
So John’s strategy was to focus on only a few selected miracles (signs) that supported Jesus’ “I Am” claims throughout John’s record. Yet behind this strategy was this eternal purpose: “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 20:31). Out of the mountains of evidence, John provided plenty of reasons to believe in Jesus. Who can you tell about Him today?
“Men have been found to resist the most powerful monarchs and to refuse to bow down before them,” observed philosopher and author Hannah Arendt (1906–1975). She added, “[B]ut few indeed have been found to resist the crowd, to stand up alone before misguided masses, to face their implacable frenzy without weapons . . . .” As a Jew, Arendt witnessed this firsthand in her native Germany. There’s something terrifying about being rejected by the group.
The apostle Paul experienced such rejection. Trained as a Pharisee and rabbi, his life was turned upside down when he encountered the resurrected Jesus. Paul had been traveling to Damascus to persecute those who believed in Christ (Acts 9). From that time forward, the apostle found himself rejected by his own people. In his letter we know as 2 Corinthians, Paul reviewed some of the troubles he faced at their hands, among them “beatings” and “imprisonments” (6:5).
Rather than responding to such rejection with anger or bitterness, Paul longed for them to come to know Jesus too. He wrote, “I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my people” (Romans 9:2–3).
As God has welcomed us into His family, may He also enable us to invite even our adversaries into relationship with God.
I Heard the Bells
“I Heard The Bells On Christmas Day,” based on an 1863 poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, is a truly unusual Christmas song. Instead of the expected Christmas joy and mirth, the lyric forms a lament, crying out, “And in despair I bowed my head / There is no peace on earth I said / For hate is strong and mocks the song / Of peace on earth, good will to men.” This lament, however, moves forward into hope, reassuring us that “God is not dead, nor does he sleep / The wrong shall fail, the right prevail / With peace on earth goodwill toward men.”
The pattern of hope rising out of lament is also found in the lament psalms of the Bible. As such, Psalm 43 begins with the psalmist crying out about his enemies who attack him (v. 1) and his God who seems to have forgotten him (v. 2). But the singer doesn’t stay in lament—he looks up to the God he doesn’t fully understand but still trusts, singing, “Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God” (Psalm 43:5).
Life is filled with reasons for lament, and we all experience them on a regular basis. But, if we allow that lament to point us to the God of hope, we can sing joyfully—even if we sing through our tears.
The Socratic Club
In 1941, the Socratic Club was established at England’s Oxford University. The club was formed for the express purpose of encouraging debate between believers in Jesus and atheists or agnostics.
Religious debate at a secular university isn’t that unusual, but what is surprising the man who chaired the Socratic Club for fifteen years—the great Christian scholar C. S. Lewis. Willing to have his thinking tested, Lewis believed that faith in Christ could stand up to whatever scrutiny it received. He knew there was credible, rational evidence for believing in Jesus.
In a sense, Lewis was practicing Peter’s advice to believers scattered by persecution when he reminded them, “In your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15). Notice the two key points Peter makes. We have good reasons for our hope in Christ. And we’re to present our reasoning with “gentleness and respect.”
Trusting Christ isn’t religious escapism or wishful thinking. Our faith is grounded in the facts of history, including the resurrection of Jesus and the evidence of the creation bearing witness to its Creator. As we rest in God’s wisdom and the strength of the Spirit, may we be ready to share the reasons we have for knowing and trusting our great God.
Heart of Anger
Guernica, Pablo Picasso’s most important political painting, was a modernist portrayal of the 1937 destruction of a small Spanish town by that name. During the Spanish revolution and the ramp-up to World War II, Nazi Germany’s planes were permitted by Spain’s Nationalist forces to use the town for bombing practice. These controversial bombings took scores of lives, drawing the attention of a global community concerned over the immorality of bombing civilian targets. Picasso’s painting captured (and horrified) the imaginations of the watching world and became a catalyst for debate about humanity’s seemingly endless capacity to destroy one another.
For those of us who feel confident that we would never intentionally shed blood, we should remember Jesus’ words, “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment” (Matthew 5:21–22). The heart can be murderous without ever actually committing murder.
The issues of the heart are always bubbling under the surface of our actions. When unchecked anger toward others threatens to consume us, we desperately need the Holy Spirit to fill and control our hearts so that our human tendencies can be replaced by the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:19–23). Then love, joy, and peace can mark our relationships.
Building the House
In 1889, the most ambitious private home construction project in the United States began. On-site manufacturing produced some 32,000 bricks a day. The work continued until the completion of George Vanderbilt II’s “summer house”—six years later. The result was the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina. To this day, it remains the largest private residence in America, with 250 rooms (including 35 bedrooms and 43 bathrooms) consuming a staggering 178,926 square feet (16,226 sq. meters) of floor space.
This project, ambitious as it was, was nothing compared to the “building” intentions Jesus proclaimed to His disciples in Matthew 16. After Peter had confirmed that Jesus is “the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (v. 16), Jesus declared, “I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it” (v. 18). While theologians debate the identity of the “rock,” there’s no debate about Jesus’ intentions. He would build His church to stretch to the ends of the earth (Matthew 28:19–20), including people from every nation and ethnic group from around the globe (Revelation 5:9).
The cost of this building project? The sacrifice of Jesus’ own blood on the cross (Acts 20:28). As members of His “building” (Ephesians 2:21), purchased at so great a price, may we celebrate His loving sacrifice and join Him in this great mission.
The impala, a member of the antelope family, is able to jump up to ten feet high and thirty feet in length. It’s an incredible feat, and no doubt essential to its survival in the African wild. Yet, at many impala enclosures found in zoos, you’ll find that the animals are kept in place by a wall that’s merely three feet tall. How can such a low wall contain these athletic animals? It works because impalas will never jump unless they can see where they’ll land. The wall keeps the impalas inside the enclosure because they can’t see what is on the other side.
As humans, we’re not all that different. We want to know the outcome of a situation before we move forward. The life of faith, however, rarely works that way. Writing to the church at Corinth, Paul reminds them, “We live by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7).
Jesus taught us to pray, “Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10). But that doesn’t mean we’ll know His outcomes beforehand. Living by faith means trusting His good purposes even when those purposes are shrouded in mystery.
In the midst of life’s uncertainties, we can trust His unfailing love. No matter what life throws at us, “we make it our goal to please him” (2 Corinthians 5:9).
A Teachable Spirit
It has become sadly “normal” to attack not only the opinions of others but also the person holding the opinion. This can be true in academic circles as well. For this reason, I was stunned when scholar and theologian Richard B. Hays wrote a paper that forcefully took to task a work that he himself had written years earlier! In Reading With the Grain of Scripture, Hays demonstrated great humility of heart as he corrected his own past thinking, now fine-tuned by his lifelong commitment to learning.
As the book of Proverbs was being introduced, King Solomon listed the various intents of this collection of wise sayings. But in the midst of those purposes, he inserted this challenge, “Let the wise listen and add to their learning, and let the discerning get guidance” (Proverbs 1:5). Like the apostle Paul, who claimed that, even after following Christ for decades, he continued to pursue knowing Jesus (Philippians 3:10), Solomon urged the wise to listen, to learn, and to continue to grow.
No one is ever hurt by maintaining a teachable spirit. As we seek to continue to grow and learn about the things of faith (and the things of life), may we allow the Holy Spirit to guide us into truth (John 16:13), that we might better comprehend the wonders of our good and great God.