In the film Amadeus, aging composer Antonio Salieri plays some of his music on the piano for a visiting priest. The embarrassed priest confesses he doesn’t recognize the tunes. “What about this one?” Salieri says, playing an instantly familiar melody. “I didn’t know you wrote that,” the priest says. “I didn’t,” Salieri replies. “That was Mozart!” As viewers discover, Mozart’s success has caused deep envy in Salieri—even leading him to play a part in Mozart’s death.
A song lies at the heart of another envy story. After David’s victory over Goliath, the Israelites heartily sing, “Saul has slain his thousands, and David his tens of thousands” (1 Samuel 18:7). The comparison doesn’t sit well with King Saul. Envious of David’s success and afraid of losing his throne (vv. 8–9), Saul begins a prolonged pursuit of David, trying to take his life.
Like Salieri with music or Saul with power, we’re usually tempted to envy those with similar but greater gifts than we possess. And whether it’s picking fault with their work or belittling their success, we too can seek to damage our “rivals.”
Saul had been divinely chosen for his task (10:6–7, 24), a status that should’ve fostered security in him rather than envy. Since we each have unique callings too (Ephesians 2:10), maybe the best way to overcome envy is to quit comparing ourselves. Let’s celebrate each other’s successes instead.
Having tried for years to conceive, Richard and Susan were elated when Susan became pregnant. Her health problems, however, posed a risk to the baby, and so Richard lay awake each night praying for his wife and child. One night, Richard sensed he didn’t need to pray so hard, that God had promised to take care of things. But a week later Susan miscarried. Richard was devastated. He wondered, Had they lost the baby because he hadn’t prayed hard enough?
On first reading, we might think today’s parable suggests so. In the story, a neighbor (sometimes thought to represent God) only gets out of bed to help the friend because of the friend’s annoying persistence (Luke 11:5–8). Read this way, the parable suggests that God will give us what we need only if we badger Him. And if we don’t pray hard enough, maybe God won’t help us.
But biblical commentators like Klyne Snodgrass believe this misunderstands the parable—its real point being that if neighbors might help us for selfish reasons, how much more will our unselfish Father. We can therefore ask confidently (vv. 9–10), knowing that God is greater than flawed human beings (vv. 11–13). He isn’t the neighbor in the parable, but the opposite of him.
“I don’t know why you lost your baby,” I told Richard, “but I know it wasn’t because you didn’t pray ‘hard’ enough. God isn’t like that.”
I once spoke at a secular conference for childless couples. Heartbroken over their infertility, many attendees despaired at their future. Having walked the childless path too, I tried to encourage them. “You can have a meaningful identity without becoming parents,” I said. “I believe you are fearfully and wonderfully made, and there’s new purpose for you to find.”
A woman later approached me in tears. “Thank you,” she said. “I’ve felt worthless being childless and needed to hear that I’m fearfully and wonderfully made.” I asked the woman if she was a Christian. “I walked away from God years ago,” she said. “But I need a relationship with Him again.”
Times like this remind me how profound the gospel is. Some identities, like “mother” and “father,” are hard for some to attain. Others, like those based on a career, can be lost through unemployment. But through Jesus we become God’s “dearly loved children”—an identity that can never be stolen (Ephesians 5:1). And then we can “walk in the way of love”—a life purpose that transcends any role or employment status (v. 2).
All human beings are “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14), and those who follow Jesus become children of God (John 1:12–13). Once in despair, that woman left in hope—about to find an identity and purpose bigger than this world can give.
Inside my parents’ old photo album is a picture of a young boy. He has a round face, freckles, and straight light-blond hair. He loves cartoons, hates avocado, and owns just one record, by Abba. Also inside that album are pictures of a teenager. His face is long, not round; his hair is wavy, not straight. He has no freckles, likes avocado, watches movies rather than cartoons, and would never admit to owning an Abba record! The boy and the teenager are little alike. According to science they have different skin, teeth, blood, and bones. And yet they are both me. This paradox has baffled philosophers. Since we change throughout our lives, who is the real us?
The Scriptures provide the answer. From the moment God began knitting us in the womb (Psalm 139:13–14), we’ve been growing into our unique design. While we can’t yet imagine what we’ll finally become, we know that if we’re children of God we will ultimately be like Jesus (1 John 3:2)—our body with His nature, our personality but His character, all our gifts glistening, all our sins gone.
Until the day Jesus returns, we’re being drawn towards this future self. By His work, step by step, we can reflect His image ever more clearly (2 Corinthians 3:18). We aren’t yet who we’re meant to be, but as we become like Him, we become our true selves.
In his book Human Universals, anthropologist Donald Brown lists more than four hundred behaviors that he considers common across humanity. He includes such things as toys, jokes, dances, and proverbs, wariness of snakes, and tying things with string! Likewise, he believes all cultures have concepts of right and wrong, where generosity is praised, promises valued, and things like meanness and murder understood to be wrong. We all have a sense of conscience, wherever we’re from.
The apostle Paul made a similar point many centuries ago. While God gave the Jewish people the Ten Commandments to clarify right from wrong, Paul noted that since gentiles could do right by obeying their conscience, God’s laws were evidently written on their hearts (Romans 2:14–15). But that didn’t mean people always did what was right. The gentiles rebelled against their conscience (1:32), the Jews broke the Law (2:17–24), leaving both guilty. But through faith in Jesus, God removes the death penalty from all our rule-breaking (3:23–26; 6:23).
Since God created all humans with a sense of right and wrong, each of us will likely feel some guilt over a bad thing we’ve done or a good thing we failed to do. When we confess those sins, God wipes away the guilt like a whiteboard wiped clean. All we have to do is ask Him—whoever we are, wherever we’re from.
A friend and I recently visited a favorite walking spot of mine. Climbing a windswept hill, we crossed a field of wildflowers into a forest of towering pines, then descended into a valley where we paused a moment. Clouds floated softly above us. A stream trickled nearby. The only sounds were birdsongs. Jason and I stood there silently for fifteen minutes, taking it all in.
As it turns out, our actions that day were deeply therapeutic. According to research from the University of Derby, people who stop to contemplate nature experience higher levels of happiness, lower levels of anxiety, and a greater desire to care for the earth. Walking through the forest isn’t enough, though. You have to watch the clouds, listen to the birds. The key isn’t being in nature, but noticing it.
Could there be a spiritual reason for nature’s benefits? Paul said that creation reveals God’s power and nature (Romans 1:20). God told Job to look at the sea, sky, and stars for evidence of His presence (Job 38–39). Jesus said that contemplating the “birds of the air” and “flowers of the field” could reveal God’s care and reduce anxiety (Matthew 6:25–30). In Scripture, noticing nature is a spiritual practice.
Scientists wonder why nature affects us so positively. Maybe one reason is that by noticing nature we catch a glimpse of the God who created it and who notices us.
In the seventh century, what is now called the United Kingdom was many kingdoms often at war. When one king, Oswald of Northumbria, became a Christian, he called for a missionary to bring the gospel to his region. A man named Corman was sent, but things didn’t go well. Finding the English “stubborn,” “barbarous,” and uninterested in his preaching, he frustratedly returned home.
“I am of the opinion,” a monk named Aidan told Corman, “that you were more severe to your unlearned hearers than you ought to have been.” Instead of giving the Northumbrians “the milk of more easy doctrine,” Corman had given them teaching they couldn’t yet grasp. Aidan went to Northumbria, adapted his preaching to the people’s understanding, and thousands became believers in Jesus.
Aidan got this sensitive approach to mission from Scripture. “I gave you milk, not solid food,” Paul told the Corinthians, “for you were not yet ready for it” (1 Corinthians 3:2). Before right living can be expected from people, Hebrews says, basic teaching about Jesus, repentance, and baptism must be grasped (Hebrews 5:13–6:2). While maturity should follow (5:14), let’s not miss the order. Milk comes before meat. People can’t obey teaching they don’t understand.
The faith of the Northumbrians ultimately spread to the rest of the country and beyond. Like Aidan, when sharing the gospel with others, we meet people where they are.
Lucy Worsley is a British historian and TV presenter. Like most people in the public eye, she sometimes receives nasty mail—in her case, over a mild speech impediment that makes her R’s sound like W’s. One person wrote this: “Lucy, I’ll be blunt: Please try harder to correct your lazy speech or remove R’s from your scripts—I couldn’t sit through your TV series because it made me so annoyed. Regards, Darren.”
For some people, an insensitive comment like this might trigger an equally rude reply. But here’s how Lucy responded: “Oh Darren, I think you’ve used the anonymity of the internet to say something you probably wouldn’t say to my face. Please reconsider your unkind words! Lucy.”
Lucy’s measured response worked. Darren apologized and vowed not to send anyone such an email again.
“A gentle answer turns away wrath,” Proverbs says, “but a harsh word stirs up anger” (15:1). While the hot-tempered person stirs things up, the patient person calms them down (v. 18). When we get a critical comment from a colleague, a snide remark from a family member, or a nasty reply from a stranger, we have a choice: to speak angry words that fuel the flames or gentle words that douse them.
May God help us to speak words that turn away wrath—and perhaps even help difficult people to change.
Cateura is a small slum in Paraguay, South America. Desperately poor, its villagers survive by recycling items from its rubbish dump. But from these unpromising conditions something beautiful has emerged—an orchestra.
With a violin costing more than a house in Cateura, the orchestra had to get creative, crafting its own instruments from their garbage supply. Violins are made from oil cans with bent forks as tailpieces. Saxophones have come from drainpipes with bottle tops for keys. Cellos are made from tin drums with gnocchi rollers for tuning pegs. Hearing Mozart played on these contraptions is a beautiful thing. The orchestra has gone on tour in many countries, lifting the sights of its young members.
Violins from landfills. Music from slums. That’s symbolic of what God does. For when the prophet Isaiah envisions God’s new creation, a similar picture of beauty-from-poverty emerges, with barren lands bursting into flower (Isaiah 35:1–2), deserts flowing with streams (vv. 6–7), castaway war tools crafted into garden instruments (2:4), and impoverished people becoming whole to the sounds of joyful songs (35:5–6, 10).
“The world sends us garbage,” Cateura’s orchestra director says. “We send back music.” And as they do, they give the world a glimpse of the future, when God will wipe away the tears of every eye, and poverty will be more.