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bible faith guilt injustice jesus religion righteousness self sin spiritual life struggle theology

Being Right

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Of all the desires that motivate human beings, the desire for personal righteousness—wanting to be right—is the most pernicious. There is no evil, no matter how unspeakable, we will not commit if we can convince ourselves that what we are doing is for the greater good. We will put up with caging children at our borders, turning away the poor and sick, righteously stifling our own sense of mercy in service to outrage at some injustice. The desire to be right makes us spin our own actions, not only to impress others, but to burnish the image we have of ourselves. We willingly deceive ourselves about ourselves in order to preserve an image of ourselves that is noble, caring, even kind while approving and even performing acts that are cruel and selfish. The desire for personal righteousness makes us remorseless and unrepentant. After all, repentance requires acknowledging sin in our own lives. Sometimes, we willingly acknowledge some acceptable sin in an effort to cover up a deeper, more entrenched sin to which we are culpably blind. No wonder Jesus talked about picking specks out of others’ eyes while being unaware of the plank in our own eyes!

The Bible writers were well aware of how pervasive and pernicious is the desire to be right. That is why they repeated again and again, “There is no one righteous, not even one.” They wanted to assure their readers that no matter what they thought about themselves, the reality was that all their efforts at being right were worthless. As Isaiah puts it, “All our righteous deeds are like used menstrual cloths.” They are not merely rubbish, but the worst, most disgusting rubbish. (The Jews regarded a woman during her period as ceremonially unclean. She could not enter the temple or approach God. Whatever she touched would also become unclean. While laws regarding menstruation unfairly stigmatized women, they also protected the community from the spread of disease at a time when humans knew nothing about microbes.)

We cannot merely rid ourselves of the desire to be right, however. It is fundamental to our humanity. Though it deceives us time and again, it also makes us want to do better. It inspires us to keep trying to do good. What a quandary we are in—wanting to do what is good but lacking the capacity!

Therefore God has imputed righteousness to those who put their faith in Jesus. He satisfies our desire to be right without requiring us to be sinless. Because he has shown us such mercy and grace, he enables us to likewise show mercy toward those who are also trying—and failing—to do what is right.

Everyone is a hero in their own story. While some tell their story to evoke pity and others admiration, we all mitigate our sins to ourselves. We all make excuses for ourselves and seek forgiveness for our worst blunders. “If you only knew what it was like,” we say, and we are quite right to say it. None of us knows anyone better than ourselves. We know how hard we try. We know how often we fail. Despite this knowledge and the free gift that God offers of his own righteousness, we remain unwilling to acknowledge before him just how much we need what he has. To do so, we would have to admit we were wrong.

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fear kindness leadership love magic strength struggle suffering theology violence war weakness

The Strength You Have

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The story of Gideon found in Judges 6–8 is one of my favorites from the bible. Gideon is not handsome or charismatic like David. He doesn’t have superhuman strength like Samson. He’s not chosen from birth like Jeremiah or Samuel. He’s just a regular guy, frightened like everyone else by the Midianite marauders who roll into town on their Harley camels. Like the banditos in The Magnificent Seven, they take whatever they want and leave so little for the Israelites that the people are doomed to perpetual poverty and hide their families and belongings in caves.

Gideon, too, is hiding from the Midianites when the angel of the Lord first approaches him. He is threshing grain in a wine press. Grain is usually threshed on a threshing floor—a wide, open space where the wind can carry away the chaff as the grain is tossed in the air. A wine press is an especially poor place for threshing. It was usually a large pit lined with bricks with a smaller hole in the center. The grapes were dumped in around the center hole and crushed by stomping on them. The juice would flow into the center hole. During threshing, the walls of the press would block the wind, making it harder to separate the chaff from the grain, but they would also block the view of any passing Midianites who might come and seize the grain as soon as Gideon was done with the threshing.

I can imagine Gideon suddenly being hailed by the angel, “The Lord is with you, mighty warrior.” He freezes with fear but relaxes when he realizes the angel is not a Midianite. His fear turns to anger.

“Excuse me,” he says. “If the Lord is with us, why has it been decades since we saw any evidence of it? We hear stories about God’s wonders, but we never see them, and right now we are being savagely oppressed, and God does nothing.”

Then the angel of the Lord gives him a most extraordinary command. “Go in the strength you have and save Israel from the hand of the Midianites. Am I not sending you?”

Gideon is dumbfounded. “Me? You want me to save Israel? I’m the least influential guy from the weakest clan in Manasseh.”

“Oh, that,” says the Lord. “Not to worry. You’ll have me with you.”

As the story unfolds, however, God shows Gideon that he means exactly what he says. Gideon does save Israel using only the strength he has. The only wonders God performs are signs to reassure Gideon that he is really hearing from God rather than hallucinating or going mad. His military strategy is insane. He attacks with 300 men armed with—swords? no—trumpets and torches hidden in clay jars. The plan is to scare the Midianites into killing each other, and amazingly it works. Once the Israelites see the Midianites are on the run, then they are emboldened to pursue them until there are none left. Then peace and prosperity return to Israel for the rest of Gideon’s life.

God didn’t equip Gideon with special powers or abilities. He didn’t provide him with overwhelming force, an army to match the size of Midian’s invasion. He called Gideon to use the strength he had to relieve the suffering of the Israelites. The Apostle Paul makes it explicit:

Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are.

1 Corinthians 1:26-2

God can call you and give you a mission now, where you are, with the strength you have. You can begin where you are to express his love. You can join with others to oppose injustice. You can alleviate the suffering of those in pain. You can be kind. Kindness requires no preparation or training or special talents or gifts.

Here are three things to keep in mind if you feel God is calling you to do something.

  1. Check your motives. God didn’t call Gideon to make him rich or famous or powerful. He called him to relieve the oppression of his people, to correct an injustice, to right a wrong. Gideon did become rich and famous and powerful, but that was a by-product of God’s mission, not the main event.
  2. Make sure it’s God. God provided signs that he was one speaking to Gideon, signs that made sense to Gideon. He burned up the meal Gideon brought to the angel. He did the thing with the fleece, wet with no dew all around one day and dry when the surrounding ground was wet with dew the next. He also gave him intelligence about his enemy in advance of his attack. All of these things served to reassure Gideon that he was acting as God intended.
  3. God isn’t magic. God’s presence with Gideon did not make Gideon’s task easier. It made it possible. Gideon still had to deal with smashing idols, raising an army, selecting an elite force, planning his military strategy, pursuing the enemy, and cleaning up after all the slaughter. He had to deal with self-doubt and fear. None of those things were easy. Easy would have been staying in the wine press threshing.

God may have a special mission for you, a unique calling to a particular task, but if he does not, he still expects all who belong to him to follow his commands to love others, to do good and act with kindness even toward those who scoff at your beliefs or persecute you, and to pray for the coming of his kingdom. These things are a general call to all his followers. Go in the strength you have and do them.

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faith harry potter leadership spiritual life struggle theology trust

How Harry Potter Teaches Trust in God

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My daughter posted the following to her Facebook account in 2008. I asked her for permission to repost it on my website because I liked it so much. With her approval I made some minor editorial changes. I also moved it from my website to my blog.

Many of you may know that I enjoy making sport of modern literary commentary and religious conservatives all at once by forming arguments for parallels between that king of the wizarding world, Harry Potter, and that King of kings, Jesus Christ. In general these assertions are all in jest, but lately as I have been reading the seventh book for the second (and much more attentive) time, I have caught glimpses into Harry’s tortured psyche: the jumble of regret over his lost life with his near perfect parents with anger at Dumbledore for dying and leaving him all alone—I realized I had a certain affinity with the angst-ridden teen.

Harry’s hand brushed the old snitch through the mokeskin and for a moment he had to fight the temptation to pull it out and throw it away. Impenetrable, unhelpful, useless like everything else Dumbledore had left behind—And his fury at Dumbledore broke over him now like lava, scorching him inside, wiping out every other feeling…Dumbledore had left them to grope in the darkness, to wrestle with unknown and undreamed of terrors, alone and unaided: Nothing was explained, nothing was given freely…”

Harry is upset to say the least. He cannot understand why Dumbledore had not given him the whole picture, explained to him exactly how he was to carry out his quest. Add to that the fact that Dumbledore avoided certain intimacies with Harry regarding his past, and you get a bitter and incensed adolescent trying to make sense of clues left him by a seemingly benevolent, wise-and-powerful-beyond-all-reason wizard. Sound familiar? Well it does to me. I can count on one hand the number of days it has been since I last raised a frustrated fist to heaven and demanded of that all powerful and unspeakably good God whom I serve that He explain to me what His plan is. I understand Harry’s frustration, and I relate it to my own. How many times have I looked at situations in my life and said, “Where is God?” And I think if life is supposed to be so hard and our quest for holiness so unattainable, why didn’t God give us more clear direction?

I have heard the bible described as a roadmap and been told that all you have to do is read it and you will be able to navigate safely through life. Well, I don’t know what translation those pastors and youth leaders had, but mine is certainly anything but. When I read the Bible, I find a series of confusing stories and poems accompanied by even more confusing and often conflicting teaching. That road map does not show me how to get from point A (our birth) to point B (our death). It shows me people’s lives and snippets of prophecies and commandments that I often struggle to apply to my daily life. They are like the clues Dumbledore left for Harry. They confuse and baffle me, and it is only through moments of seemingly divine revelation that I ever feel I understand anything about God or His plan for my life.

So it’s easy to get frustrated—to shout and grumble, grow bitter, and decide your own plans are better. Later in the book Harry decides he is better off seeking a powerful wand that will win any duel in which it is engaged. Since Harry knows he will one day have to face Lord Voldemort—only the most powerful dark wizard of all time—it doesn’t seem like the dumbest of ideas. He abandons the quest given him by Dumbledore and seeks only to satisfy his desire.

Here, again, I see Harry’s point. I want more than anything to effect change in the world. I know what I am passionate about: feeding the hungry; advocating for the oppressed; Africa—the list goes on. And I could easily form a very simple and clear plan that would allow me to act in those areas of passion. I could join the Peace Corp. Or I could drop out of school and become a full-time missionary. To be certain, there are days when I question God’s leading me to Iowa of all places. I feel like my precious time is being wasted as I study concepts, theory and theology. And I am tempted to strike out on my own, head for El Salvador, and live a brave and untamed life.

But in the end I must choose as Harry does. Harry, in a moment of clarity, decides wholeheartedly to follow Dumbleore’s instructions and his alone. Though he has the chance to both seize the wand and pursue the quest, Harry chooses only to seek Dumbledore’s quest—a move which, incidentally, could cost him his life. The decision that Harry makes is straightforward. It does not come out of a supernatural encounter with Dumbledore in which the dead man mystically appears before Harry bidding him to do only as he says. Rather, Harry makes this decision based purely on trust in that ever so wise and perceptive wizard.

Similarly, though I find myself longing to, I can not demand signs and wonders from God or even clear and precisely laid out directions. I must simply choose trust. I must choose to trust that God loves me even while, as Harry so often does, I doubt it. Because it is the trust and relationship that God wants of us—not blind obedience. He wants us to rely on him not just for direction but for life—for our very well-being. In doing this He has made Himself indispensable. So kudos to you, Harry Potter. Way to trust your benevolent powerful-and-wise-beyond-all-reason wizard. I will choose to trust mine.

©2008 Elizabeth Wasylik, all rights reserved.

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