Thursday, August 24, 2017

The Three R’s (After Wrongdoing)

How do you react when you’ve done something wrong? Do you settle for “Oops!”? Or, “Sorry, my bad”? Pretend it didn’t happen? Blame someone else?

Little wrongs, like accidentally bumping into someone, spilling your coffee, or being late for a meeting, aren’t that big a deal. A quick apology and it’s all good. But what about the times when the magnitude of your wrongdoing can’t be glossed over so quickly? What then?

Chances are you choose one of three options. You’ve heard of the “three R’s” of basic education – readin’, ‘ritin’, and ‘rithmetic? (At least I think they still teach those things in our schools.) There are also three R’s after wrongdoing: Regret. Remorse. Repentance.

It’s often hard to say, “I was wrong” or “I am sorry.” We don’t like to admit we’re wrong. We resent being found out, and if possible, might try to ignore or cover up any wrongdoing. Some of the folks we elect to serve us in Washington, D.C. – on both sides of the aisle – seem adept at the latter.

But what about when wrongdoing is indisputable, our hands caught in the proverbial cookie jar? Do we settle for regret, wallow in remorse, or choose to repent? Each starts with the letter “r,” but that’s where the similarity ends.

When aware we’ve done wrong, feeling some measure of regret is common. “Wish I hadn’t done that.” Like when we misjudge the distance to the car behind us in the parking lot and suddenly hear, “Crunch!” Or put our mouth in gear while our brain is still in park, and say something we quickly wish we could retract. Unfortunately, in oral communications, retractions rarely work.

Other times we feel more than regret – we’re overcome with remorse. Perhaps an action (or series of actions) destroys a relationship. Or a dishonest or unethical act ruins a career and darkens a once bright future. Consequences of the wrongdoing command our attention, immersing us in self-pity.

Lastly, there’s repentance, compelling us to seek to make right what went wrong, accept responsibility, and resolve not to follow that path again. After acknowledging the effects of a harmful habit, negative behavior, or even malicious thought patterns, a moment comes when “I’m sorry” is no longer enough. Genuine, lasting change is required.

Two things the Bible talks about a lot are sin – and repentance. Most of us are familiar with sin, at least to some degree. It’s part of our spiritual DNA, traced back to Adam, and comes naturally. To repent and turn to God in sincere repentance does not.

The Scriptures offer a contrast between remorse and repentance in Judas and Peter, two of Jesus Christ’s closest followers. Both betrayed Him, but their responses afterward made all the difference. An eternal difference.

The gospels offer accounts of Judas betraying Christ. Matthew 27 states it gained him 30 pieces of silver. Judas led a crowd to Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, where he boldly identified Him for the arresting officials. The gospels show Peter guilty of a different form of betrayal. He and another disciple, John, had followed Jesus, standing nearby during His mock trial. Then, as Jesus predicted, Peter denied Him three times when confronted about being among His followers.

The degree of the betrayals might have been different, but both were betrayals.

What’s important is what the men did next. Judas, remorseful for what he had done, returned the money to the priests – then hanged himself. Swallowed up in self-pity over what he had done, he chose to end the pain by committing suicide.

The other disciple, however, responded very differently. Distraught over having verbally betrayed his great friend, Peter fled from the scene but later reconnected with the remaining disciples. Broken by his own cowardice, Peter was no longer the brash, impulsive person he once was.

In the last chapter of the gospel of John, we see repentant Peter humbly interacting with the resurrected Christ. Shorn of bold declarations, Peter no longer was inclined to promise what he might not be able to keep. But in a wonderful demonstration of grace and mercy, Jesus restored the man He had nicknamed “the rock,” telling him, “Feed my sheep…. Follow me!” (John 21:15-19).

What the Lord expects of us often is not what we expect. We think in terms of impressive service, or lavish material contributions to advance His kingdom. But Psalm 51:17 states plainly what He desires: “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”

When we sin, our lives going off track, the Lord is just as eager to restore us as He was Peter. But He doesn’t want regret; nor is remorse enough. Repentance is what He’s after.

Jesus made this clear from the start of His earthly ministry, From that time on Jesus began to preach, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near’” (Matthew 4:17). Later He declared, there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent(Luke 15:7). There’s no limit to the wondrous things He can do through someone with a repentant, contrite heart.

Monday, August 21, 2017

The Kind of Inventiveness We Don’t Need

Have you ever marveled at the creativity and inventiveness of the human mind? I remember as a boy learning about Alexander Graham Bell inventing the telephone, Eli Whitney the cotton gin, and Guglielmo Marconi the telegraph.

Considered America’s greatest inventor, Thomas Edison introduced incandescent lightbulbs, the phonograph and many other devices that changed our lives and paved the way for other wonderful innovations. Necessity might be the mother of invention, but Mr. Edison might have been its father.

We benefit from human inventiveness in many
ways - but not always. It also has a dark side.
We could name many other notables, ranging from Henry Ford to George Washington Carver to the Wright brothers. Thanks to Elisha Otis, every time we get on elevators, they don’t plummet to the bottom level. Perhaps more than anyone else, his career had its ups and downs.

Unfortunately, inventions that serve the common good can also be utilized to accomplish all manner of nefarious deeds. Spending time around little kids, we can witness how inventive they can be for getting into mischief. Toddlers sleep a lot, and I think they dream primarily about what they can do to annoy mom and dad.

Inventiveness for the sake of wrongdoing doesn’t disappear with the passage of years. Adults also have an endless capacity for imagining ways to do bad, even with good things. Take the internet, for example. It’s essentially neutral. A means for disseminating information; enabling people to communicate quickly and efficiently with one another; and shrinking the world so we can reach out electronically and touch someone many thousands of miles and multiple time zones away.

Unfortunately, clever – and malevolent – minds have figured out many ways to do bad stuff with this essentially wonderful resource we used to call the “worldwide web”: Scams – have you gotten an email from a Nigerian prince lately? Viruses to infect the computers we now rely on so much. Computer pornography to addict the minds of viewers who believe they can indulge in mental garbage without causing harm to anyone – except for cherished relationships, work productivity, and their perceptions of the real world. Hateful expressions on social media range from simple ridicule to shameless, menacing bullying of vulnerable, sensitive people.

Technology may have changed dramatically through the centuries; the propensity for distorting our inventive capacities for harmful, destructive intentions has not.

Paul the apostle wrote about this in the opening chapter of his letter to believers in the early church in Rome, commenting on the state of those who consciously rebelled against God: “…they invent ways of doing evil” (Romans 1:30).

What was the purpose of this evil inventiveness? Paul explained earlier in the chapter, “For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles” (Romans 1:21-23).

A few verses later, the apostle gets more specific: “They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful…” (Romans 1:29-31).

This entire chapter was a powerful indictment of society nearly 2,000 years ago, but even a casual glance at our world shows things haven’t changed much since then.

Years ago, a popular paraphrase of the Bible was called Good News for Modern Man. The early chapters of the book of Romans, however, sound more like “bad news about modern man.”

Thankfully, even when it appears humanity at its worst is on the rise, we have the assurance God hasn’t lost His capability to turn bad into good, making wrong into right. As Joseph said, after being reunited in Egypt with his jealous, vindictive brothers who had sold him into slavery years before, You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (Genesis 50:20).

Even at the worst of times we can trust in the assurance Paul offered later in his letter to those in Rome, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose(Romans 8:28).

No matter how inventive humanity tries to be for conjuring up evil in new forms, God’s still in control – and can still use bad things to achieve His good purposes.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Worshiping at the Altar of Self

“Self” certainly receives a lot of attention these days. Go into any bookstore, library or newsstand and we’ll find complete sections devoted to “self-help.” Topics range from how to take good photos to cooking to home repairs and renovation. Books and publications also promise to teach us how to become rich, stay healthy, and become fluent in a foreign language in just 30 days.

These days we don’t even need to venture outside the home for self-help assistance. Google and other search engines guide us to whatever self-help information we need. YouTube offers video tutorials of virtually everything, from installing new software to building birdhouses. If you’re facing major surgery, you can even find videos showing what you’re about to go through (if you’re brave enough to look).

We all need help in these or other areas, and after all, doesn’t the Bible say, “God helps those that help themselves”? Uh, no, it does not – but that’s a subject for another day. The point is, we live in a society enraptured with Self, and not just in the self-help sense.

We often hear people talk about self-fulfillment. Speakers talk to us about self-actualization and self-realization. Counselors provide clients with tips for self-determination. Parents fret over protecting their children’s self-image. Hence, “participation trophies” for everyone, whether they did anything of merit or not. We don’t want Jimmy to think he’s not as good as Johnny. Heaven forbid!

Thanks to the convenience of smartphones, “selfies” are only an arm’s length away. I’ve heard people say they enjoy being with only three friends – “me, myself, and I.” There’s even a magazine called Self. Yes, Self seems to be the center of attention just about everywhere we go.

The problem is, the Bible teaches a secret to successfully living God’s way is learning to take the focus off Self. For instance, Philippians 2:3-4 teaches, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.” Whoa! Not exactly what Self wants to hear.

It doesn’t stop there. Jesus explained what it requires to be His true follower: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it” (Luke 9:23-24).

Not long after that, Jesus became the ultimate role model, willingly enduring scorn and ridicule, torture, and then crucifixion, not because of anything He had done or deserved, but because we all owed a great penalty for our sins – a price we couldn’t begin to pay – so He paid the full price Himself, giving His life on our behalf. God incarnate denying self.

The apostle Paul, once as full of Self as anyone who ever walked the earth, understood well the importance of denying self. He declared, “I die daily” (1 Corinthians 15:31), not referring to physical death but death to the desires and demands of self, so that he might serve Christ more effectively and consistently.

To believers in the church in Rome, Paul wrote, “…just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life…. In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus. Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires. Do not offer the parts of your body to sin, as instruments of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God, as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer the parts of your body to him as instruments of righteousness” (Romans 6:4-13).

Seems God is telling us, if we needing help in how to craft a compelling resume for a new job, hit a golf ball straighter, or bake a special cake for the holidays, by all means seek out all of the self-help we need. However, if our desire is to learn how to love God and others, and to serve Him and those He sends our way, it’s a good idea to shove Self out of the way and let Him take control.