In our moments of greatest failure, it can be easy to believe it’s too late for us, that we’ve lost our chance at a life of purpose and worth. That’s how Elias, a former inmate at a maximum-security prison in New York, described feeling as a prisoner. “I had broken . . . promises, the promise of my own future, the promise of what I could be.”
It was Bard College’s “Prison Initiative” college degree program that began to transform Elias’ life. While in the program, Elias participated in a debate team, which in 2015 debated a team from Harvard—and won. For Elias, being “part of the team . . . [was] a way of proving that these promises weren’t completely lost.”
A similar transformation happens in our hearts when we begin to understand that the good news of God’s love in Jesus is good news for us too. It’s not too late, we begin to realize with wonder. God still has a future for me.
And it’s a future that can neither be earned nor forfeited, dependent only on God’s extravagant grace and power (2 Peter 1:3). A future where we’re set free from the despair in the world and in our hearts into one filled with His “glory and goodness” (v. 3). A future secure in Christ’s unimaginable promises (v. 4)—of a future transformed into the “freedom and glory of the children of God” (Romans 8:21).
In 1994, when South Africa made the transition from government by apartheid (imposed racial segregation) to a democracy, it faced the difficult question of how to address the crimes committed under apartheid. The country’s leaders couldn't ignore the past, but merely imposing harsh punishments on the guilty risked deepening the country's wounds. As Desmond Tutu, the first black Anglican Archbishop of South Africa, explained in his book No Future Without Forgiveness, "We could very well have had justice, retributive justice, and had a South Africa lying in ashes."
Through establishing the Truth and Reconciliation Committee, the new democracy chose the difficult path of pursuing truth, justice, and mercy. Those guilty of crimes were offered a path to restoration—if they were willing to confess their crimes and seek to make restitution. Only by courageously facing the truth could the country begin to find healing.
In a way, South Africa's dilemma mirrors the struggle we all face. We're called to pursue both justice and mercy (Micah 6:8), but mercy is often misunderstood to be a lack of accountability, while pursuing justice can become distorted into pursuing revenge.
Our only path forward is a love that not only hates what's evil (Romans 12:9) but also longs for the transformation and good of our "neighbor" (13:10). Through the power of Christ's Spirit, we can learn what it means to have a future of overcoming evil with good (12:21).
Fifteenth-century monk Thomas à Kempis, in the beloved classic The Imitation of Christ, offers a perspective on temptation that might be a bit surprising. Instead of focusing on the pain and difficulties temptation can lead to, he writes, “[temptations] are useful because they can make us humble, they can cleanse us, and they can teach us.” Kempis explains, “The key to victory is true humility and patience; in them we overcome the enemy.”
Humility and patience. How different my walk with Christ would be if that were how I naturally responded to temptation! More often, I react with shame, frustration, and impatient attempts to get rid of the struggle.
But, as we learn from James 1, the temptations and trials we face don’t have to be without purpose or merely a threat we endure. Although giving in to temptation can bring heartbreak and devastation (vv. 13–15), when we turn to God, with humble hearts seeking His wisdom and grace, we find He “gives generously to all without finding fault” (v. 5). Through His power in us, our trials and struggles to resist sin build perseverance, “so that [we] may be mature and complete, not lacking anything” (v. 4).
As we trust in Jesus, there’s no reason to live in fear. As God’s dearly loved children, we can find peace as we rest in His loving arms even as we face temptation.
As I shared with my counselor my roller-coaster of emotions after a stress-filled week, she listened thoughtfully, then invited me to look out the window at the trees, lush with autumnal oranges and golds, the branches swaying in the wind.
Pointing out that the trunks weren’t moving at all in the wind, my counselor explained, “We’re a bit like that. When life is blowing at us from every direction, of course our emotions will go up and down and all around. But sometimes we live as if we only have ‘branches.’ Our goal is to help you find your own ‘trunk.’ That way, even when life is pulling from all sides, you won’t be living in your ‘branches.’ You’ll still be secure and stable.”
It’s an image that’s stuck with me; and it’s similar to the image Paul offered new believers in Ephesians. Reminding them of God’s incredible gift—a new life of tremendous purpose and value (Ephesians 2:6–10), Paul shared his longing that they’d become deeply “rooted and established” in Christ’s love (3:17), no longer “blown here and there by every wind of teaching” (4:14).
On our own, it’s easy to feel insecure and fragile, pummeled by our fears and insecurities. But as we grow in our true identity in Christ (vv. 22–24), we can experience deep peace with God and each other (v. 3), nourished and sustained by Christ’s power and beauty (vv. 15–16).
Sometimes I suspect my cat Heathcliff suffers from a bad case of FOMO (fear of missing out). When I come home with groceries, Heathcliff rushes over to inspect the contents. When I’m chopping vegetables, he stands up on his back paws peering at the produce and begging me to share. But when I actually give Heathcliff whatever’s caught his fancy, he quickly loses interest, walking away with an air of bored resentment.
But it’d be hypocritical for me to be hard on my little buddy. In comical caricature, he reflects a bit of my own insatiable hunger for more, my assumption that “now” is never enough.
According to Paul, contentment isn’t natural—it’s learned (Philippians 4:11). On our own, we desperately pursue whatever we think will satisfy, moving on to the next thing the minute we realize it won’t. Other times, our discontent takes the form of anxiously shielding ourselves from any and all suspected threats.
Ironically, sometimes it takes experiencing what we’d feared the most to stumble into real joy. Having experienced much of the worst life has to offer, Paul could testify firsthand to “the secret” of true contentment (vv. 11–12)—the mysterious reality that as we lift up to God our longings for wholeness, we experience unexplainable peace (vv. 6–7), carried ever deeper into the depths of Christ’s power, beauty, and grace.
Legend has it that at the edges of medieval maps, marking the boundaries of the world the maps’ creators knew at the time, there’d be inscribed the words “Here be dragons”—often alongside vivid illustrations of the terrifying beasts supposedly lurking there.
There’s not much evidence medieval cartographers actually wrote these words, but I like to think they could have. Maybe because “here be dragons” sounds like something I might’ve written at the time—a grim warning that even if I didn’t know exactly what would happen if I ventured into the great unknown, it likely wouldn’t be good!
But there’s one glaring problem with my preferred policy of self-protection and risk-aversion: it’s the opposite of the courage to which I’m called as a follower of Christ (2 Timothy 1:7).
One might even say I’m misguided about what’s really dangerous. As Paul explained, in a broken world, bravely following Christ will sometimes be painful (v. 8). But as those brought from death to life and entrusted with the Spirit’s life flowing in and through us (vv. 9–10,14), how could we not?
When God gives us a gift this staggering, to fearfully shrink back would be the real tragedy—far worse than anything we might face when we follow Jesus’s leading into uncharted territory (vv. 6–8, 12). He can be trusted with our hearts and our future (v. 12).
My three-year old niece, Jenna, has an expression that never fails to melt my heart. When she loves something (really loves it), be it banana cream pie, jumping on the trampoline, or playing Frisbee, she’ll proclaim, “I love it—whole world!” (”whole world” accompanied with a dramatic sweep of her arms).
Sometimes I wonder, When's the last time I’ve dared to love like that? With nothing held back, completely unafraid?
“God is love,” John wrote, repeatedly (1 John 4:8, 16), perhaps because the truth that God’s love—not our anger, fear, or shame—is the deepest foundation of reality, is hard for us grown-ups to “get.” The world divides us into camps based on what we're most afraid of—and all too often we join in, ignoring or villainizing the voices that challenge our preferred vision of reality.
Yet amid the deception and power struggles (vv. 5–6), the truth of God’s love remains, a light that shines in the darkness, inviting us to learn the path of humility, trust, and love (1:7–9; 3:18). For no matter what painful truths the light uncovers, we can know that we’ll still be loved (4:10, 18; Romans 8:1).
When Jenna leans over and whispers to me, ”I love you—whole world!”, I whisper back, “I love you whole world!” And I’m grateful for a gentle reminder that every moment I’m held in limitless love and grace.
Ever heard the expression, “Don’t feed the trolls”? “Trolls” refers to a new problem in today’s digital world—online users who repeatedly post intentionally inflammatory and hurtful comments on news or social media discussion boards. But ignoring such comments—not “feeding” the trolls—makes it harder for them to derail a conversation.
Of course, it’s nothing new to encounter people who aren’t genuinely interested in productive conversation. “Don’t feed the trolls” could almost be a modern equivalent of Proverbs 26:4, which warns that arguing with an arrogant, unreceptive person risks stooping to their level.
And yet . . . even the most seemingly stubborn person is also a priceless image-bearer of God. If we’re quick to dismiss others as fools, we may be the ones in danger of hardening in our arrogance and becoming unreceptive to God’s grace (see Matthew 5:22).
That might, in part, explain why Proverbs 26:5 offers the exact opposite guideline. Because it takes humble, prayerful dependence on God to discern how best to show others love in each situation (see Colossians 4:5–6). Sometimes we speak up; other times, it’s best to be silent.
But in every situation, we find peace in knowing that the same God who drew us near while we were still in hardened opposition to Him (Romans 5:6) is powerfully at work in each person’s heart. May we rest in His wisdom as we strive to share Christ’s love.
“You must relax,” pronounces a doctor crisply in Disney’s Rescuers Down Under, attempting to treat the injured albatross Wilbur, a reluctant patient. “Relax? I am relaxed!” a (clearly not relaxed) Wilbur responds sarcastically as his panic grows. "If I were any more relaxed, I’d be dead!”
Can you relate? In light of the doctor’s dubious methods (such as a chainsaw dubbed an “epidermal tissue disruptor”), Wilbur’s misgivings seem justified. But the scene is funny because it captures how we tend to feel when we’re panicking—whether or not what we’re facing is actually life-threatening.
When we’re terrified, encouragement to relax can feel ridiculous. I know when I feel life’s terrors piling up around me, and when painful “cords of death” (Psalm 116:3) tighten my stomach into knots, my every instinct is to fight back, not relax.
And yet . . . more often than not, my panicked attempts to fight back only tighten anxiety’s vice-grip, leaving me crippled by fear. But when I, albeit reluctantly, allow myself to feel my pain and lift it up to God (v. 4), something surprising happens. The knot inside me relaxes a bit (v. 7), and a peace I can’t understand rushes through me.
And as the Spirit’s comforting presence surrounds me, I understand a bit more the truth at the heart of the gospel: that we fight best when we surrender into the powerful arms of God (1 Peter 5:6–7).