I stumbled upon footage from a British newsreel crew who filmed six-year-old Flannery O’Connor on her family farm in 1932. Flannery, who would go on to become an acclaimed US writer, caught the crew’s curiosity because she’d taught a chicken to walk backwards. Apart from the novelty of the feat, I thought this glimpse of history was a perfect metaphor. Flannery, due to both her literary sensibilities and her spiritual convictions, spent her thirty-nine years definitely walking backwards—thinking and writing in a counter-cultural way. Publishers and readers were entirely baffled by how her biblical themes ran counter to the religious views they expected.
A life that runs counter to the norm is inevitable for those who would truly imitate Jesus. Philippians tells us that Jesus, though His “very nature” was God, didn’t move in the predictable ways we would expect (2:6). He didn’t use His power “to his own advantage,” but “rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant” (vv. 6–7). Christ, the Lord of creation, surrendered to death for the sake of love. He didn’t seize prestige but embraced humility. He didn’t grab power but relinquished control. Jesus, in essence, walked backwards—counter to the power-driven ways of the world.
Scripture tells us to do the same (v. 5). Like Jesus, we serve rather than dominate. We move toward humility rather than prominence. We give rather than take. In Jesus’ power, we walk backwards.
Painfully, the evil that has long been swept under the rug—sexual abuse of many women by men who had power over them—has come to light. Enduring vile headline after headline, my heart sank when I heard proof of abuse by two men I admired. The church has our own sordid scandals. These days are a reckoning.
King David faced his own reckoning. Samuel tells us that one afternoon, David “saw a woman bathing” (2 Samuel 11:2). And David wanted her. Though Bathsheba was the wife of one his loyal soldiers (Uriah), David took her anyway. When Bathsheba told David she was pregnant, he panicked. And in a despicable act of treachery, David arranged for Joab to have Uriah die on the battlefield.
There was no hiding David’s abuse of power against Bathsheba and Uriah. Here it is in full color, Samuel ensuring we see this wretchedness. We must deal with our evil.
Also, we must hear such stories because they caution us against the abuse of power in our times. This was David, “a man after God’s [own] heart” (Acts 13:22), but also a man who needed to be held accountable for his actions. May we also prayerfully hold leaders accountable for how they use or abuse power.
By God’s grace, redemption is possible. If we read further, we encounter David’s profound contrition (2 Samuel 12:13). Thankfully, hard hearts can still turn from death to life.
In the documentary Look & See: A Portrait of Wendell Berry, author Berry spoke of how divorce describes the state of our world. We’re divorced from one another, from our history, from the land. Things that should be whole are split apart. When asked what we should do about this sad fact, Berry said, “We can’t put everything back together. We just take two things and put them together.” We take two things broken apart and make them one again.
“Blessed are the peacemakers,” Jesus tells us (v. 9). To make peace is to bring shalom. And shalom refers to the world being set right. One theologian describes shalom as “universal flourishing, wholeness and delight. . . . [it’s] the way things ought to be.” Shalom is taking what’s broken and making it whole. As Jesus guides, may we strive to make things right. He calls us to be peacemakers, to be the “salt of the earth” and the “light of the world” (vv. 13–14)
There are many ways to be peacemakers in the world, but with each may we engage brokenness rather than surrendering to it. In God’s power, let’s choose to not allow a friendship to die or let a struggling neighborhood languish or yield to apathy and isolation. Let’s look for the broken places, trusting God to give us the wisdom and skill to participate in making them whole again.
Giles Kelmanson, South African game ranger, described the incredible scene: two honey badgers battling a pride of six lions. Although outnumbered, the honey badgers refused to back down from ferocious predators ten times their size. The lions thought the kill would be simple, but video footage shows the badgers walking away with something like a swagger.
David and Goliath offer an even more improbable story. Young, inexperienced David confronted the fierce Philistine Goliath. Towering above his young combatant, Goliath possessed brute strength and unrivalled weaponry—bronze armor and a lethal, razor-edged javelin (vv. 5–6). David, a fledgling shepherd, carried only a slingshot when he arrived at the battlefield with bread and cheeses for his brothers (vv. 17–18).
Goliath challenged Israel to engage in battle, but no one was willing to fight. King Saul and “all the Israelites were . . . terrified” (v. 11). Imagine the shock when David stepped into the fray. What gave him courage none of Israel’s hardened warriors possessed? For most everyone, Goliath dominated their vision. David, however, saw God. “The Lord will deliver [Goliath] into my hands,” he insisted (v. 46). While everyone else believed Goliath dominated the story, he believed God loomed larger. And, with a single stone to the giant’s forehead, David’s faith proved true.
We’re tempted to believe that “Goliath” (our troubles) dominates the story. God is larger, however. He dominates the story of our lives.
A brutal car wreck devastated Mary Ann Franco. Though she survived, the injuries left her completely blind. “All I could see was blackness,” Franco explained. Twenty-one years later, she injured her back in a fall. After waking from surgery (which had nothing to do with her eyes), miraculously, her sight had returned! For the first time in more than two decades, Franco saw her daughter’s face. The neurosurgeon insisted there was no scientific explanation for her restored vision. The darkness that seemed so final gave way to beauty and light.
The Scriptures, as well as our experience, tell us that a shroud of ignorance and evil covers the world, blinding all of us to God’s love (v. 7). Selfishness and greed, our self-sufficiency, our lust for power or image—all these compulsions obscure our vision, making us unable to clearly see the God who “in perfect faithfulness [has] done wonderful things” (v. 1).
One translation calls this blinding shroud a “cloud of gloom” (
God will not leave us hopeless. His radiant love removes whatever blinds us, surprising us with a beautiful vision of a good life and abundant grace.
Among a display of male statues (Nelson Mandela, Winston Churchill, Mahatma Gandhi, and others) in London’s Parliament Square, also stands a lone statue of a woman. The solitary woman is Millicent Fawcett, who fought for the right of women to vote. She’s immortalized in bronze and holding a banner displaying words she offered in a tribute to a fellow suffragist: “Courage calls to courage everywhere.” Fawcett insisted that one person’s courage emboldens others—calling timid souls into action.
As David prepared to hand his throne over to his son Solomon, he explained the responsibilities that would soon rest heavy on his shoulders. It’s likely Solomon quivered under the weight of what he faced: leading Israel to follow all God’s instructions, guarding the land God had entrusted to them, and overseeing the monumental task of building the temple (vv. 8–10).
Knowing Solomon’s trembling heart, David offered his son powerful words: “Be strong and courageous. . . . Do not be afraid or discouraged, for the Lord God, my God, is with you” (v. 20). Real courage would never arise from Solomon’s own skill or confidence but rather from relying on God’s presence and strength. God provided the courage Solomon needed.
When we face hardship, we often try to drum up boldness or talk ourselves into bravery. However, God is the one who renews our faith. God will be with us. And God’s presence with us calls us to courage.
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.