Perhaps the most preposterous, spellbinding moment in the 2018 Winter Olympics was when the Czech Republic’s world champion snowboarder Ester Ledecka won an event in a completely different sport: skiing! And she took the first-place gold medal even though she had the unenviable position of skiing 26th—a feat believed to be basically impossible.
Amazingly, Ledecka qualified to race the women’s super-G—an event that combines downhill skiing with a slalom course. After she won by .01 of a second on borrowed skis, the cameras showed she was just as shocked as the media and other contestants who had assumed the winner would be one of the top skiers in the sport.
This is how the world works. We assume the winners will keep winning while all the others will lose. It was a jolt, then, when the disciples heard Jesus say how “hard [it is] for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 19:23). Jesus turned everything upside down. How could being rich (a winner) offer a roadblock? Apparently, if we trust in what we have (what we can do, who we are), then it’s not only hard but actually impossible to trust God.
The kingdom of God doesn’t play by our rules. “Many who are first,” Jesus says, “will be last, and many who are last will be first” (v. 30). And, whether you’re first or last, everything we receive is purely by grace—by God’s unmerited favor.
On January 30, 2018, almost thirty-eight years after his conviction, Malcolm Alexander walked out of prison a free man. DNA evidence cleared Alexander, who had steadfastly maintained his innocence amid a myriad of court proceedings that were tragically unjust. An incompetent defense attorney (later disbarred), shoddy evidence, and dubious investigative tactics all put an innocent man in prison for nearly four decades. When he was finally released, however, Alexander showed immense grace. “You cannot be angry,” he said. “There’s not enough time to be angry.”
Alexander’s words evidence a deep grace. If injustice robbed us of 38 years of our lives and destroyed our reputations, we would likely be angry, furious. Though Alexander spent many long, heartbreaking years bearing the burden of wrongs inflicted upon him, he wasn’t undone by the evil. Rather than exerting his energy trying to exact revenge, he exhibited the posture Peter instructs: “Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult” (1 Peter 3:9).
The Scriptures go a step further: rather than seeking vengeance, the apostle Peter tells us we are to bless (v. 9). We extend forgiveness, the hope of well-being, for those who have unjustly wronged us. Without excusing their evil actions, we can meet them with God’s scandalous mercy. On the cross, Jesus bore the burden of our wrongs, that we might receive grace and extend it to others—even those who have wronged us.
While most German church leaders gave in to Hitler, theologian and pastor Martin Niemöller was among the brave souls who resisted Nazi evil. I read a story describing how in the 1970s a group of older Germans stood outside a large hotel while what appeared to be a younger man bustled about with the group’s luggage. Someone asked who the group was. “German pastors,” came the answer. “And the younger man?” “That’s Martin Niemöller—he’s eighty. But he has stayed young because he is unafraid.”
Niemöller wasn’t able to resist fear because he possessed some super-human anti-fear gene, but because of God’s grace. In fact, he once held anti-Semitic views. But in the end, he repented and God restored him and helped him to speak and live out the truth.
Moses encouraged the Israelites to resist fear and follow God in truth. When they’d become fearful after learning Moses would soon be taken from them, the leader had an unflinching word for them: “Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified . . . for the LORD your God goes with you” (Deuteronomy 31:6). There was no reason to tremble before an uncertain future because of one reason: God was with them.
Whatever darkness looms for you, whatever terrors bombard you—God is with you. By God’s mercy, may you face your fears with the knowledge that God “will never leave you nor forsake you” (v. 6).
Finally, on January 8, 1964, 17-year-old Randy Gardner did something he hadn’t done for 11 days and 25 minutes: he nodded off to sleep. He wanted to beat the Guinness Book World Record for how long a human could stay awake. By drinking soft drinks and hitting the basketball court and bowling alley, Gardner rebuffed sleep for a week and a half. Before finally collapsing, his sense of taste, smell, and hearing went haywire. Decades later, Gardner suffered from severe bouts of insomnia. He set the record but also confirmed the obvious: sleep is essential.
Many of us struggle to get a decent night’s rest. Unlike Gardner who deprived himself intentionally, we might suffer sleeplessness for a number of reasons—including a mountain of anxieties: the fear of all we need to accomplish, the dread of others’ expectations, the distress of living at a frantic pace. Sometimes it is hard for us to turn off the fear and relax.
The psalmist tells us that “unless the
In a recent conversation, where a friend shared with me that she’d abandoned her faith, I heard a familiar complaint: how can I believe in a God who doesn’t ever seem to do anything? This gut-wrenching question appears for most of us at one point or another, as we read of violence in the news and as we carry our own heartbreak. My friend’s distress revealed her intense need for God to act on her behalf, a longing we’ve all likely felt.
Israel knew this terrain well. The Babylonian Empire overwhelmed Israel, crushing them with an iron fist and turning Jerusalem into smoldering rubble. The prophet Isaiah put words to the people’s dark doubt: Where is the God who’s supposed to rescue us? (63:11–15). And yet from precisely this place, Isaiah offered a bold prayer: God, “rend the heavens and come down” (64:1). Isaiah’s pain and sorrow drove him not to pull away from God, but to seek to draw closer to Him.
Our doubts and troubles offer a strange gift: they reveal how lost we are and how much we need God to move toward us. We see now the remarkable, improbable story. In Jesus, God did rip the heavens and come to us. Christ surrendered His own ripped and broken body so that He could overwhelm us with His love. In Jesus, God is very near.
Our church meets in an old elementary school, one that closed in 1958 rather than obey a court order to integrate (the act of having African-American students attend schools previously attended by only Caucasian students). The following year, the school reopened and Elva, now a member of our church, was one of those black students who were thrust into a white world. “I was taken out of my safe community, with teachers who were part of our life,” Elva recalls, “and placed in a scary environment in a class with only one other black student.” Elva suffered because she was different, but she became a woman of courage, faith, and forgiveness.
Her witness is profound because of how much evil she endured at the hands of some members of a society that denied the truth that every human being, regardless of race or heritage, is loved by God. Some members of the early church struggled with this same truth, believing that certain people were, by birth, loved by God while others were rejected. After receiving a divine vision, however, Peter stunned everyone who would listen with this astounding revelation: “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right” (Acts 10:34–35).
God opens His arms wide to extend love to everyone. May we do the same in His power.