When BBC Music Magazine asked one hundred fifty-one of the world’s leading conductors to list twenty of what they believed to be the greatest symphonies ever written, Beethoven’s Third, Eroica, came out on top. The work, whose title means “heroic,” was written during the turmoil of the French revolution. But it also came out of Beethoven’s own struggle as he slowly lost his hearing. The music evokes extreme swings of emotion that express what it means to be human and alive while facing challenges. Through wild swings of happiness, sadness, and eventual triumph Beethoven’s Third Symphony is regarded as a timeless tribute to the human spirit.
Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians deserves our attention for similar reasons. Through inspired words rather than musical scores it rises in blessing (1:4–9), falls in the sadness of soul-crushing conflict (11:17–22), and rises again in the unison of gifted people working together for one another and for the glory of God (12:6–7).
The difference is that here we see the triumph of our human spirit as a tribute to the Spirit of God. As he urges us to experience together the inexpressible love of Christ, Paul helps us see ourselves as called together by our Father, led by his Son, and inspired by his Spirit—not for noise, but for our contribution to the greatest symphony of all.
In the twilight of her years, Mrs. Goodrich’s thoughts came in and out of focus along with memories of a challenging and grace-filled life. Sitting by a window overlooking the waters of Michigan’s Grand Traverse Bay, she reached for her notepad. In words she soon wouldn’t recognize as her own she wrote: “Here I am in my favorite chair; With my feet on the sill, and my heart in the air. The sun-struck waves on the water below; In constant motion—to where I don’t know. But thank You—dear Father above; For Your innumerable gifts—and Your undying love! It always amazes me—How can it be? That I’m so in love with One I can’t see.”
The apostle Peter acknowledged such wonder. He had seen Jesus with his own eyes, but those who would read his letter had not. His words reflect their unseen reality, and ours: “Though you have not seen him . . . you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy” (1 Peter 1:8). We love Jesus not because we’re commanded to, but because with the help of the Spirit (v. 11) we begin to see how much He loves us.
It’s more than hearing that He cares for people like us. It’s experiencing for ourselves the promise of Christ to make the wonder of His unseen presence and Spirit real to us, at every stage of life.
“Mr. Singerman, why are you crying?” asked twelve-year-old Albert as he watched the master craftsman construct a wooden box.
“I cry,” said Isaac, “because my father cried, and because my grandfather cried.” The woodworker’s answer to his young apprentice provides a tender moment in an episode of Little House on the Prairie. “Tears,” explained Mr. Singerman, “come with the making of a coffin.”
“Some men don’t cry because they fear it is a sign of weakness,” he said. “I was taught that a man is a man because he can cry.”
Emotion must have welled up in the eyes of Jesus as he compared His concern for Jerusalem to the care of a mother hen for her chicks (Matthew 23:37). His disciples were often confused by what they saw in His eyes or heard in his stories. His idea of what it meant to be strong was different. It happened again as they walked with Him from the temple. Calling His attention to the massive stone walls and magnificent décor of their place of worship (24:1), the disciples noted the strength of human accomplishment. Jesus saw a temple that would be leveled in 70
Jesus shows us that healthy people know when to cry and why. He cried because His Father cares and His Spirit groans for children who couldn’t yet see what breaks His heart.
In Pontiac, Michigan, a demolition company bulldozed the wrong building. Investigators believe that the owner of a house scheduled to be demolished nailed the numbers of his own address to a neighbor’s house to avoid demolition.
Jesus did the opposite. He was on a mission to let his own “house” be torn down for the sake of others. Imagine the scene and how confused everyone must have been, including Jesus’ own disciples. Picture them eyeing one another as Jesus challenged the religious leaders. “Destroy this temple,” Christ said, “and I will raise it again in three days” (John 2:19). The leaders retorted indignantly, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days?” (v. 20). He knew He was referring to the temple of His own body (v. 21). They didn’t.
They didn’t understand He had come to show that the harm we do to ourselves and to one another would ultimately fall on Him. He would atone for it.
God has always known our hearts far better than we do. So He didn’t entrust the fullness of his plans even to those who saw His miracles and believed in Him (vv. 23–25). Then as now He was slowly revealing the love and goodness in Jesus’ words that we couldn’t understand even if He told us.
When Walt Disney’s Bambi was re-released, moms and dads relived childhood memories with their sons and daughters. A young mother, whose husband was an avid outdoorsman with an impressive trophy room, was one of those parents. With her little ones at her side, she experienced with them the gasp and groan of the moment when Bambi lost his mother to a hunter. To this day she’s reminded at family gatherings of her embarrassment when, in all innocence, her little boy shouted out in the theater, “Nice shot!”
In time, we laugh at the embarrassing things our children say. But what are we to say when the people of Psalm 136 do something similar? Israel, God’s chosen and rescued people, celebrate a love that endures for all creation and for themselves—but not for their enemies. The psalm sings the praises of “him who struck down the firstborn of Egypt” (v. 10; see also Exodus 12:29–30).
Doesn’t that sound a bit like a shout of “nice shot” at the expense of someone else’s mother, sister, father, brother?
That’s why we need the rest of the story. Only when the lights come up in the resurrection of Jesus can the whole world be invited into the joy of one family’s stories, tears, and laughter. Only when we receive Jesus as our Savior and are made alive in Him, can we share the wonder of a God who loves everyone—at His own expense.
The Book of Odds says that one in a million people are struck by lightning. One in 25,000 experience a medical condition called “broken heart syndrome” in the face of overwhelming shock or loss. In page after page the odds of experiencing specific problems pile up without answering: What if we’re the one?
Job defied all odds. God said of him, “There is no one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil” (Job 1:8). Yet Job was chosen to suffer a series of losses that defied all odds. Of all people on earth, Job had reason to beg for an answer. It’s all there for us to read in chapter after chapter of his desperate struggle to understand, “Why me?”
Job’s story gives us a way of responding to the mystery of unexplained pain and evil. By describing the suffering and confusion of one of God’s best examples of goodness and mercy (29:1–25), we gain an alternative to the inflexible rule of sowing and reaping (4:7–8). By providing a backstory of satanic mayhem (Job 1) and an afterword (42:7–17) from the God who would one day allow His Son to bear our sins, the story of Job gives us reason to live by faith rather than sight.
In a BBC video series on The Life of Mammals, host David Attenborough climbs a tree to take a humorous look at a three-toed sloth. Getting face-to-face with the world’s slowest moving mammal, he greets it with a “boo!” Failing to get a reaction, he explains that going slow is what you do if you are a three-toed sloth living primarily on leaves that are not easily digested and not very nutritious.
In a rehearsal of Israel’s history, Nehemiah reminds us of another example and explanation for going slow (9:9–21), but this one isn’t comical. According to Nehemiah, our God is the ultimate example of going slow—when it comes to anger. Nehemiah recounted how God cared for His people, instructing them with life-giving laws, sustaining them on their journey out of Egypt and providing them with the Promised Land (vv.9–16). Although Israel constantly rebelled (v. 16), God never stopped loving them. Nehemiah’s explanation? Our Creator is by nature “gracious, compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love” (v. 17). Why else would He have borne so patiently His people’s complaints, disbelief, and distrust for forty years? (v. 21). It was because of God’s “great compassion” (v. 19).
What about us? A hot temper signals a cold heart. But the greatness of God’s heart gives us room to patiently live and love with Him.
Author Henri Nouwen recalls his visit to a museum in St Petersburg, Russia, where he spent hours reflecting on Rembrandt’s portrayal of the prodigal son. As the day wore on, changes in the natural lighting from a nearby window left Nouwen with the impression that he was seeing as many different paintings as there were changes of light. Each seemed to reveal something else about a father’s love for his broken son.
Nouwen describes how, at about four o’clock, three figures in the painting appeared to “step forward.” One was the older son who resented his father’s willingness to roll out the red carpet for the homecoming of his younger brother the prodigal. After all, hadn’t he squandered so much of the family fortune, causing them pain and embarrassment in the process (Luke 15:28–30).
The other two figures reminded Nouwen of the religious leaders who were present as Jesus told His parable. They were the ones who muttered in the background about the sinners Jesus was attracting (vv. 1–2).
Nouwen saw himself in all of them—in a wasted son, in the condemning older brother and religious leaders, and in a Father’s heart that is big enough for anyone and everyone.
What about us? Can we see ourselves anywhere in Rembrandt’s painting? In some way, every story Jesus told is about us.