As the American Revolution concluded with England’s improbable surrender, many politicians and military leaders maneuvered to make General George Washington a new monarch. The world watched, wondering if Washington would stick to his ideals of freedom and liberty when absolute power was within his grasp. England’s King George III saw another reality, however. He was convinced that if Washington resisted the power pull and returned to his Virginia farm, he would be “the greatest man in the world.” The king knew that the greatness evidenced in resisting the allure to power is a sign of true nobility and significance.
Paul knew this same truth and encouraged us to follow Christ’s humble way. Even though Jesus was “in very nature God,” he “did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage” (Philippians 2:6). Instead, He surrendered His power, became “a servant” and “humbled himself by becoming obedient to death” (vv. 7–8) The One who held all power surrendered every bit of it for the sake of love.
And yet, in the ultimate reversal, God exalted Christ from a criminal’s cross “to the highest place” (v. 9). Jesus, who could demand our praise or force us to be obedient, laid down His power in a breathtaking act that won our worship and devotion. Through absolute humility, Jesus demonstrated true greatness, turning the world upside down.
Liberators found the following prayer crumpled among the remains of the Ravensbruck Concentration Camp where Nazis exterminated nearly 50,000 women: O Lord, remember not only the men and women of goodwill, but also those of ill will. But do not remember the suffering they have inflicted upon us; remember the fruits we brought thanks to this suffering, our comradeship, our loyalty, our humility, the courage, the generosity, the greatness of heart which has grown out of this; and when they come to judgment, let all the fruits that we have born be their forgiveness.
I can’t imagine the fear and pain inflicted on the terrorized woman who wrote this prayer. I can’t imagine what kind of inexplicable grace these words required of her. She did the unthinkable: she sought God’s forgiveness for her oppressors.
This prayer echoes Christ’s prayer. After being wrongly accused, mocked, beaten and humiliated before the people, Jesus was “crucified . . . along with [two] criminals” (Luke 23:33). Hanging, with mutilated body and gasping for breath, from a rough-hewn cross, I would expect Jesus to pronounce judgment on His tormentors, to seek retribution or divine justice. However, Jesus uttered a prayer contradicting every human impulse: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (v. 34).
The forgiveness Jesus offers seems impossible, but He offers it to us. In His divine grace, impossible forgiveness spills free.
The movie The Free State of Jones tells the US Civil War story of Newton Knight and some Confederate deserters and slaves who aided the Union Army and then resisted slaveholders after the war. Many herald Newton as the hero, but two slaves first saved his life after his desertion. They carried Knight deep into a secluded swampland and tended a leg wound he suffered while fleeing Confederate forces. If they’d abandoned him, he would have died.
The people of Judah were wounded and desperate, facing enemies and feeling helpless. Israel had been overtaken by Assyria, and Isaiah prophesied that one day they (Judah) would also be overcome by an enemy—Babylonia. Judah needed a God who would help, who would rescue and not forsake them. Imagine, then, the surging hope when the people heard God’s assurance: “Do not be afraid, for I am with you” (Isaiah 43:5). Whatever calamity they faced or trouble they would endure, God would be with them. He would “pass through the waters” with them, leading them to safety (v. 2). He would “walk through the fire” with them, helping them through the scorching flames (v. 2)
Throughout Scripture, God promises to be with His people, to care for us, guide us, and never abandon us—whether in life or death. Even when you find yourself in difficult places, God is with you. He will help you pass through the waters.
As a young man, Duncan had been afraid of not having enough money, so in his early 20s, he began ambitiously building his future. Climbing the ladder at a prestigious Silicon Valley company, Duncan achieved vast wealth. He had a bulging bank account, a luxury sports car, and a million-dollar California home. He had everything he desired; yet he was profoundly unhappy. “I felt anxious and dissatisfied,” Duncan said. “In fact, wealth can actually make life worse.” Piles of cash didn’t provide friendship, community or joy—and often brought him only more heartache.
Some people will expend immense energy attempting to amass wealth in an effort to secure their lives. It’s a fool’s game. “Whoever loves money never has enough,” Scripture insists (Ecclesiastes 5:10). Some will work themselves to the bone. They’ll strive and push, comparing their possessions with others and straining to achieve some economic status. And yet even if they gain supposed financial freedom, they’ll still be unsatisfied. It’s not enough. As the writer of Ecclesiastes states: “This too is meaningless” (v. 10).
The truth is, striving to find fulfillment apart from God will prove futile. While Scripture calls us to work hard and use our gifts for the good of the world, we can never accumulate enough to satisfy our deepest longings. Jesus alone offers a real and satisfying life (John 10:10)—one based in a loving relationship that’s truly enough!
At fifty-three, the last thing Sonia expected to do was abandon her business and her country to join a group of asylum seekers journeying to a new land. After gangs murdered her nephew and tried to force her 17-year-old son into their ranks, Sonia felt escape was her only option. “I pray to God. . . . I will do whatever is necessary,” Sonia explained. “I will do anything so [my son and I] don’t die of hunger. . . I prefer to see him suffer here than end up in a bag or canal.”
Does the Bible have anything to say to Sonia and her son—or to so many who have suffered injustice and devastation? When John the Baptist proclaimed the arrival of Jesus, he announced good news to Sonia, to us, to the world. “Prepare the way of the Lord,” John proclaimed (Luke 3:4). He insisted that when Jesus arrived, God would enact a powerful, comprehensive rescue. The biblical word for this rescue is salvation.
Salvation encompasses both the healing of our sinful hearts and—one day—the healing of all the world’s evils. God transforming work is for every story, every human system, and is available to everyone. “All people will see God’s salvation,” John said (v. 6).
Whatever evil we face, Christ’s cross and resurrection assure us we will see God’s salvation. One day we will experience His final liberation.
While out taking walks, writer Martin Laird would often encounter a man with four Kerry Blue Terriers. Three of the dogs ran wild through the open fields, but one stayed near its owner, running in tight circles. When Laird finally stopped and asked about this odd behavior, the owner explained that it was a rescue dog that had spent most of his life locked in a cage. The terrier continued to run in circles as though contained inside a confined box.
The Scriptures reveal that we’re trapped and hopeless unless God rescues us. The psalmist spoke of being afflicted by an enemy, entrapped by “the snares of death” with the “cords of death . . . coiled around” him (Psalm 18:4–5). Enclosed and shackled, he cried to God for help (v. 6). And with thundering power, He “reached down . . . and took hold” of him (v. 16).
God can do the same for us. He can break the chains and release us from our confining cages. He can set us free and carry us “out into a spacious place” (v. 19). How sad it is then when we keep running in small circles, as if we’re still confined in our old prisons. In His strength, may we no longer be bound by fear, shame or oppression. God has rescued us from those cages of death. We can run free.
An outspoken atheist believes it’s immoral for parents to teach their children religion as though it were actually true. He even claims that parents who pass along their faith to their children are committing child abuse. Though these views are extreme, I do hear from parents who are hesitant to boldly encourage their children toward faith. While most of us readily hope to influence our children with our view of politics or nutrition or sports, for some reason some of us treat our convictions about God differently.
In contrast, Paul wrote of how Timothy had been taught “from infancy . . . the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 3:15). Timothy didn’t arrive at faith as an adult through the power of his own, unaided reason. Rather, his mother nurtured his heart toward God; then he “continue[d] in what [he had] learned” (v. 14). If God is life, the source of true wisdom, then it’s vital for us to tenderly cultivate a love for God in our families.
There are many belief systems that are influencing our children. TV shows, movies, music, teachers, friends, the media—each of these carry assumptions (either obvious or under the radar) about faith that exert real influence. May we choose not to be silent. The beauty and grace we’ve experienced compels us to guide our children toward God.
When Denise Levertov was just twelve, long before she became a renowned poet, she had the gumption to mail a package of poetry to the great poet T. S. Eliot. She then waited for a reply. Surprisingly, Eliot sent two pages of hand-written encouragement. In the preface to her collection The Stream and the Sapphire, she explained how the poems “trace [her] own movement from agnosticism to Christian faith.” It’s powerful, then, to recognize how one of the later poems (“Annunciation”) narrates Mary’s surrender to God. Noting the Holy Spirit’s refusal to overwhelm Mary and the Spirit’s desire for Mary to freely receive the Christ child, these two words blaze at the poem’s center: “God waited.”
In Mary’s story, Levertov recognized her own. God waited, eager to love her. God would not force anything upon her. He waited. Isaiah described this same reality, how God stood ready, zealous with anticipation, to shower Israel with tender love. “The Lord waits to be gracious to you, and . . . to show mercy to you” (30:18
It’s a wonder that our Creator, the Savior of the world, chooses to wait for us to welcome Him. The God who could so easily overpower us practices humble patience. The Holy One waits for us.
Recently, several people within our church—those who had experienced poor relationships with their fathers—asked me to stand in as a loving, father figure and offer a blessing over them. The blessing asked forgiveness for the ways a father can hurt his children by setting too high expectations or being distant or failing to offer tender presence and affirmation. It also pronounced delight, admiration, and abundant love. As I shared the blessing, I wept. I realized how I still needed to receive such words, and how much my children need them too.
The Scriptures repeatedly speak of God as our Father, a reality reshaping the distorted father images we might have. God, our eternal Father, has “lavished on us” perfect love, makings us “children of God” (1 John 3:1). Our identity as God’s sons and daughters grounds us in an uncertain, fear-inducing world. “We are children of God,” John says, even though “what we will be has not yet been made known” (v. 2). Facing ever-present challenges, all we can truly count on is that our Father loves and provides for us and never stops. When everything is said and done, God says through the inspired words of John, we can be certain we’ll be like Him (v. 2).
In the midst of our anxieties, wounds and failures, our good Father speaks a blessing of inexhaustible love. God insists we belong, for He’s made us His children.