Monday, September 18, 2023

The Power of Appropriate, Judicious Words

We live in a world where the prevailing attitude seems to be, “Give someone a piece of your mind – even if you can’t afford to lose it!” It’s hard to pinpoint when the trend toward incivility and mean-spiritedness really started gaining momentum. We could point to individuals we think have been the worst examples. TV talk shows and news commentators are famous for the use of poisoned tongues. And we can blame the influence of social media – the propensity for saying nasty things online that we wouldn’t dare express to someone face-to-face.


But the simple fact is, whoever thought up the saying, “Sticks and stones may break my bones but names [words] will never hurt me,” was either lying or out of touch with reality. Words do have a profound effect on us, for good or for ill. It’s ironic because, as the apostle James points out: “With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness. My brothers, this should not be” (James 3:9-10).


Obviously, this abuse of spoken and written words isn’t anything new. We just have more ways for doing it these days. It’s such an important matter – a universal human weakness – that the Scriptures devote much attention to it.


Years ago, I spent hours poring over the Old Testament book of Proverbs, categorizing its sayings by topic and compiling them into a notebook. Passages about speech and communication covered two typewritten pages, and I might have missed a few.


My personal favorite – since it underscores a problem I’ve wrestled with – is Proverbs 10:19, which says, “When there are many words, transgression is not avoidable, but he who restrains his lips is wise.” Another translation puts it this way: “When words are many, sin is not absent, but he who holds his tongue is wise.” I haven’t mastered this, but hope I’ve gotten better with time and practice.


But that’s just the tip of the verbal iceberg. Potentials for evil speech are addressed early in the book: “Put away perversity from your mouth; keep corrupt talk far from your lips” (Proverbs 4:24). Can you think of anyone – or any group – you’d like to heed this instruction?


What we say and how we say it might serve as a good barometer for determining if we’re as good as we’d like to think we are. Proverbs 10:32 declares, “The lips of the righteous know what is fitting, but the mouth of the wicked only what is perverse.” Similarly, “A man who lacks judgment derides his neighbor, but a man of understanding holds his tongue” Proverbs 11:12).


To paraphrase an old Sonny and Cher song, “And the list goes on.” One might suggest the solution is to have a pandemic of laryngitis, or illiteracy. That way people couldn’t say or write anything damaging to other people. But Proverbs and other passages from the Bible affirm the power of appropriate, judiciously chosen and used words.


Consider: “From the fruit of his lips a man is filled with good things, as surely as the work of his hands rewards him” (Proverbs 12:14). Here’s a warning given from a positive slant: “He who guards his mouth and his tongue keeps himself from calamity” (Proverbs 21:23).


A person who excels at the use of careful words will likely reap benefits: “He who loves a pure heart and whose speech is gracious will have the king for his friend” (Proverbs 22:11). And I like the visual image from Proverbs 25:11-12, “A word aptly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver. Like an earring of gold or an ornament of fine gold is a wise man’s rebuke to a listening ear.”


Other references to the power – and perils – of spoken and written words aren’t confined to Proverbs. In a passage my Bible labels “Taming the Tongue,” James 3:4-8 offers a striking comparison. “Although [ships] are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go. Likewise the tongue is a small part of the body but it makes great boasts…. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body…no man can tame the tongue.”


If that’s the case, what are we to do? Just blurt out whatever comes to our minds and not worry about the consequences? That’s not what it’s saying. Instead, maybe we should replace the “sticks and stones” adage with one that reminds us, “If you can’t say something good, don’t say anything at all."


Ephesians 4:29 speaks eloquently to this: “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.” Just as we can use our hands to greet someone cordially or strike them in the jaw, we can exercise our self-control to edify people with our words, rather than inflicting verbal wounds. 


But what if someone says something hurtful to us? Don’t we have a right to react accordingly? We might have that “right,” but Jesus offered us a better option: “But I tell you, do not resist and evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also” (Matthew 5:39). 

Society might advise us to engage in a kind of verbal tit-for-tat, but to draw another piece of wisdom from Proverbs, “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Proverbs 15:1). If we must respond, a gentle answer is often more productive than a harsh word. 

Thursday, September 14, 2023

A Fragrant Aroma, Or Just a Big Stink?

Of our five human senses (not including the so-called “sixth sense” some people seem to have), the sense of smell is perhaps the most underappreciated. And yet, I can’t count the number of times a fragrance or aroma has awakened old memories for me. 

To this day I can remember the enticing smell of my mom’s lemon meringue pie or Hungarian nut rolls fresh out of the oven. One of my first girlfriends used to wear a particularly appealing cologne. For years afterward, whenever I caught that familiar whiff emanating from someone, my thoughts would briefly return to her. For some people there’s nothing more invigorating than the smell of fresh paint.


Or course, not all smells are created equal. Sometimes when the trash hasn’t been taken out as promptly as it should, the unpleasing odor serves as a reminder. Have you ever walked across your yard and received the odiferous alert that you just stepped in the droppings of the neighbor’s dog? Or you’ve grabbed a carton of milk out of the refrigerator and before you can pour it on your cereal, a quick sniff confirms it’s gone sour?


Have you ever considered that the sense of smell has spiritual implications? The Scriptures seem to suggest that subconsciously people can “smell” the presence of Jesus Christ in us as believers?


According to 2 Corinthians 2:14-16, that’s the case both literally and figuratively: “But thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumphal procession in Christ and through us spreads everywhere the fragrance of the knowledge of Him. For we are to God the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. To the one we are the smell of death; to the other, the fragrance of life….” 

In his devotional book, Grace Notes, author Philip Yancey alluded to this in recalling “the old-fashioned atomizer” women used prior to refinements in spray technology. Using the atomizer, he noted, women would squeeze a rubber bulb, propelling droplets of perfume through the fine holes at the other end. 


“A few drops suffice for a whole body; a few pumps change the atmosphere in a room. That is how grace should work…. It doesn’t convert the entire world or an entire society, but it does enrich the atmosphere,” Yancey observed.


The question is, as followers of Christ do we give off a fragrant aroma of His grace – or do we just create a big stink?


As the passage in 2 Corinthians points out, the “smell” others sense coming from us can differ according to where they are spiritually. We are “the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved…the fragrance of life.” However, for “those who are perishing,” we seem more like “the smell of death,” even if they might not be consciously aware of it.


This might be one reason we sometimes hear people comment, upon learning of our faith in Christ, “I knew there was something different about you.” Perhaps it’s only subliminal recognition, but Ephesians 5:1-2 admonishes us to, “Be imitators of God, therefore, as beloved children, and walk in love, just as Christ loved us and gave Himself up for us as a fragrant sacrificial offering to God.”


People sometimes respond in different ways to the same smells. For instance, some people love chicken liver and the smell of it cooking. Not me. I love the smell of cooked cabbage, but have a son-in-law who hates it. One reason there are so many varieties of perfume is that one person finds a certain fragrance enticing while another finds it repelling.


In a similar way, I suspect some atheists and agnostics react so negatively to even the mention of Jesus because of the “smell,” while for those of us know Him, nothing could be more appealing. When 2 Corinthians 5:17 declares, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” this might include receiving new “noses” or a transformed sense of “smell.”


We can’t control how others react to “the fragrance of the knowledge of [Christ].” As we’re told, for some it’s “the smell of death.” What we can control, however, is that what repels them is not our words, attitudes and actions as His “ambassadors,” to use the term from 2 Corinthians 5:20. 


When we have the opportunity to interact with non-believers, are we kind and compassionate, reflecting the Lord’s grace? Or do we come across as judgmental and hateful? Through our lives do we demonstrate integrity, humility, joy, patience and the other “fruit of the Spirit," or does our behavior seem to contradict what our lips profess? Maybe we need to inspect the contents of our “atomizers.”

Monday, September 11, 2023

Remembering 9/11: A Day of Horror and Tragedy

Sept. 11, 2001 will always be one of those, “Where were you when…?” days, similar to the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.; the space shuttle Challenger exploding and killing seven crew members, and other tragic events of like magnitude.


What were you doing on this day 22 years ago? Do you remember? For most of us, what we now refer to as “9/11” started off just like any other day. We were working, leaving for work, going to school, finishing breakfast, or engaged in any number of everyday life activities. Who knew that before 10 that morning, the world as we knew it would be turned upside-down?

No one could have imagined the horrific scenario: Commercial jets being hijacked and slamming directly into the North and South towers of the World Trade Center in New York City, another into the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., and a fourth diverted from its intended target by courageous passengers, crashing instead in rural Pennsylvania. 

This memorial fountain at the World Trade
Center includes names of people whose
lives were lost on Sept. 11, 2001.
Nearly 3,000 lives were lost that day, including more than 2,000 in the iconic towers that incredibly were reduced to rubble, as well as hundreds of first responders, and the 19 terrorists coordinating the attacks. 

We now have a whole generation of young people who basically know nothing about that evil day because they were too young or not born yet. But for those of us who helplessly watched live news reports as the tragic events unfolded, that day will remain etched in our memories forever. 


I think of my friend Jerry, an entrepreneur who had worked in the North Tower for years. He would have been on one of the building’s top floors that morning if he had not overslept. Instead, he was sitting in his kitchen reading the paper and drinking a cup of coffee when one of his daughters frantically called to see where he was and if he was safe. Even to this day, the memory of friends he lost that day saddens him.


For a brief time following the attacks, our nation seemed to experience a spiritual revival of sorts. Many thousands thronged to churches, some of whom rarely if ever had attended before. Countless prayers were offered as realities of the heinous acts raised questions that seemed unanswerable. At moments like that – faced with life’s fragility and the heightened sense of evil’s presence – it’s common to become desperate for hope.


As often happens, however, within weeks our lives had returned to “business as usual,” despite newly enforced security checks that would dramatically alter travel experiences and other measures enacted to prevent future acts of terrorism. 


Without becoming morbid, we should use this day to pause, remember, and reflect on things that matter most. Not the football games played last weekend, the weather, what’s on our calendars, or even the perpetual political wrangling that seems beyond resolution. 


Things that seem so important today will one day cease to be. We’re assured of this in James 4:13-15, which says, “Now listen, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.’ Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you should say, ‘If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.’”


It’s good to recognize how fleeting earthly life is – and how uncertain. We’d also be wise if we took to heart Jesus’ challenge from His sermon on the mount: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal” (Matthew 6:19-20).


As the old saying reminds us, “You can’t take it with you.” But we can send it ahead – things that will endure for eternity – as Jesus’ admonition suggests. 


On Sept. 11, 2001, thousands of men, women and children had plans for later in the day, the next week or the next month. In a flash, their plans were changed for eternity. This sounds hauntingly like 1 Corinthians 15:52 which says, “in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye…the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.” 

No one knows exactly when that will be. But that day will come, as certainly as the sun rising in the east and the sky being blue. Will we be ready?

Thursday, September 7, 2023

Discovering God in Times of Testing

Can you imagine what the marble must have looked like
before Michelangelo began carving his "Pieta"?
There’s an adage we sometimes hear that we can learn more from failure than we do from success. We could offer a variety of possible reasons for this, but my experience and that of many people I know is that, whether we like it or not, it’s true.

Success might be the result of vision, hard work and determination. But it might also be a product of being in the right place at the right time, or happenstance. Causes for failure, however, are usually easier to identify: Poor judgment; bad planning; not working hard enough; unwillingness to persevere, quitting too soon; downright sinful wrongdoing. Those are just some of possible contributors to failure.


But there’s another one we don’t often consider: God might be allowing adversity in our lives because He has some lessons we need to learn. The Bible calls it “testing,” “tribulations” or “trials.” 


One of the earliest references in the Scriptures is Deuteronomy, after God had given to Moses His commandments and instructions for the people of Israel. Referring to the nomadic journey the Lord had taken them on after their escape from slavery in Egypt, Moses said, “Remember how the Lord your God led you all the way in the desert these forty years, to humble you and to test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep His commands” (Deuteronomy 8:2).


If ever there were a stiff-necked people, it was the Israelites whom God had specifically and specially chosen to be His own people. He could have chosen many other people groups, but the people of Israel were those He ordained to be His for eternity. During their 40-year wanderings, they had rebelled against Him on numerous occasions. So, He kept them in the wilderness for four decades, not only to test what was in their hearts but also to shape their character for the future He had for them.


A number of New Testament passages speak to this as well. In James 1:3-4, the apostle exhorts his readers, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” Verses later James adds, “Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial, because when he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love Him” (James 1:12).


There’s a similar statement in the short book of 1 Peter. After opening his letter to readers he calls “God’s elect, strangers in the world…,” Peter encourages, “In this you greatly rejoice, though for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that your faith – or greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire – may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus is revealed” (1 Peter 1:1,7).


We could cite many other passages, but it’s clear that what we often regard as failure, or mistakenly believe to be the result of sinful disobedience, might actually part of the refining process God uses to mold and shape us into the people He desires for us to be.


I can think of many times of testing in my life, times when I often wondered, ‘What did I do wrong?’ ‘Why is this happening?’ The benefits of the testing began when I shifted my questioning to ask, ‘What are you trying to teach me, Lord?’ 


There was the time when after leaving the newspaper business to join the staff of a Christian ministry, our house in our former city sat on the market for an entire year. All the while we struggled to meet mortgage payments on that house and the house we had bought, along with a bridge loan to buy the purchase of the new house in the interim. 


During that time, I dug deeply and diligently into the Scriptures, seeking to learn that “nugget” God was trying to teach me. I learned many things over that period, but the most important was this: The Lord telling me, “I am God, Bob, and you’re not!” He was eagerly working to break down my self-sufficiency and learn to trust Him, no matter the circumstances.


Since then, I and my family have dealt with testing in many forms. We felt fear at times, as well as anger, frustration, you name it. But God knew exactly what He was doing. And we’ve learned much as we’ve gone through the process.


Some sculptors, they say, work on a block of granite or marble simply chipping away at everything that does not look like the image they have formed in their mind’s eye. I imagine God doing the same with us, knowing how broken we all are, and slowly chipping away at our flaws, determined to transform us into the image of His Son. 

As 1 John 3:2 says, “Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when He appears, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is.” Wow! If that’s the outcome of God’s faithful and loving testing in our lives, I’m all for it. How about you? 

Monday, September 4, 2023

Time for Celebrating a Labor of Love

Of all our American holidays, Labor Day is probably the most confusing. In the minds of some, it marks the unofficial end of summer. Others might regard the holiday weekend as the annual launch of football season. For many schoolchildren, Labor Day signifies the end of summer vacation and time to return to the classroom. While for many folks, it’s just an opportunity to hit the pause button before the most hectic time of the year begins.


The holiday was birthed in the late 19th century, when labor activists were advocating an annual celebration of the many contributions workers had made to the strength, prosperity and overall health of the nation. It came at the peak of the Industrial Revolution, when many workers were putting in 12-hour days, seven days a week to eke out a minimal livelihood. Worker strikes, protests and riots led up to Congressional action declaring a federal holiday, signed into law on June 28, 1894. Tangible changes in working hours, compensation and benefits were to follow.


Imagine the creativity and effort required
to construct this spiral staircase.
So, while many of us are spending the day at cookouts, various outings or just relaxing, enjoying a day off work, it’s fitting that we pause for a brief homage to American workers, men and women who not only have managed to earn a livelihood for themselves and their families, but also have contributed to the well-being of our society in countless ways.

It can also serve as a reminder that from the beginning, work was God’s idea. Even before the sins of Adam and Eve broke up their idyllic existence in Eden, the Lord had ordained work as a good use of our time and talents, as well as a way of giving glory to Him as our Creator.


We find this clearly expressed in the first chapter of Genesis. After stating that God created male and female in His image, it says, “God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it…. I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food” (Genesis 1:28-29).


Sadly, after the original couple defied the Lord by eating fruit from the one tree God had forbidden them to eat from, work became difficult: “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life…. By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food…” (Genesis 1:17-19). Perhaps, before their “fall,” when Eve asked Adam to fetch her a particular type of food he would respond, “No sweat.” No longer.


This in no way negates the truth that God, the ultimate worker, desires for us to also work and honor Him in the process. In fact, the Scriptures say it’s one means for receiving recognition and advancing through society: “Do you see a man skilled in his work? He will serve before kings; he will not serve before obscure men” (Proverbs 22:29). 


In Ecclesiastes, generally attributed to King Solomon, we find a sometimes-negative perspective on work. For instance, he writes, “So I hated life, because the work that is done under the sun was grievous to me. All of it is meaningless, a chasing after the wind” (Ecclesiastes 2:17). And yet, later in the chapter he writes, “A man can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in his work. This too, I see, is from the hand of God” (Ecclesiastes 2:24).


A couple chapters later, Solomon affirms the benefits of collaborating with others: “Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their work. If one falls down, his friend can help him up. But pity the man who falls and has no one to help him up!” (Ecclesiastes 4:9-10).


Other verses from Proverbs affirm the value of hard work, such as, “Lazy hands make a man poor, but diligent hands bring wealth” (Proverbs 10:4) and, “All hard work brings a profit, but mere talk leads only to poverty” (Poverty 14:23).


Then the New Testament book of Colossians revisits the idea that work is not only productive and profitable, but also a way for serving and glorifying our Creator God: “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving” (Colossians 3:23-24).

As many of us enjoy another day off from our jobs, vocations and professions, it would be good also to remember that work is a good and noble thing, birthed in the infinite and wonderful mind of God. It should be a time of celebration – and worship! 

Thursday, August 31, 2023

Living in the ‘Shadow of Death’

Danger may lurk in the shadows, but our Shepherd
promises to guide us into the light.
Candid admission: Even though I’m a career journalist and spent my first 10 years as a newspaper editor, I find difficult sometimes to watch the daily news on TV. There seems to be a prevailing mindset that events are only newsworthy if they send a shiver up your spine.

I remember a time years ago when news was a reasonable balance of humankind’s accomplishments and failures. Not so these days. Just the other day I tuned in the news, just to make sure there hadn’t been a shift in philosophy. All I saw was mayhem – fatal shootings; hurricanes and tropical storms either hitting or brewing, threatening to eradicate all life in their path; massive fires; new disease outbreaks; wars, and horrific traffic accidents. There was a good news item – the last two minutes of the newscast.


Some years ago, a prominent national TV anchor had one of those “hot mic” moments when he declared the role of today’s journalist is, “to scare the (heck) out of people.” Well, congratulations, sir! You and your cohorts are doing an excellent job at that.


Occasionally we hear or read reports about a significant escalation of mental health problems. It’s a complicated issue, and we certainly can’t fix blame in any single corner. But the relentless barrage of negativity surrounding us must be a major contributor to this development. We could easily conclude, “If it wasn’t for bad news, we wouldn’t have any news at all.”


Before you quit reading, thinking you don’t need another downer in your day, let me share some good news with you. Some very, very good news.


In Psalm 23, one of the best-known passages of the Bible, we read in verse 4 about something called “the valley of the shadow of death.” Sometimes known as “the shepherd’s psalm,” this magnificent and poetic chapter gives us the image of a flock of sheep obediently being led through a dark mountain pass. Sheep aren’t particularly intelligent animals, so their unquestioning trust in the shepherd might have been mixed with a bit by anxiety over what might be lurking in the shadows.


Realistically, shadows can’t hurt us. I’m reminded of the story of a father driving down the highway with his young daughter in the backseat. As they drive past a large 18-wheeler, its shadow falls across the car, momentarily casting them into darkness. It frightens the daughter. But as soon as they get beyond the huge truck, the shadow is gone, they’re back into the bright sunlight, and the father tells her, “See, there was nothing to be afraid of.”


The 23rd Psalm, of course, serves as a beautiful metaphor for how God watches over those in His flock. It provides a number of assurances: “I shall not be in want” – the Lord will provide for our needs. “He makes me lie down in green pastures, He leads me beside quiet waters” – we will find peace and rest. “He restores my soul” – we can entrust our worries and concerns to Him.


In the section specifically concerning “the valley of the shadow of death,” we’re then told, “I will fear no evil, for You are with me.” Like a human shepherd, God is always with us, poised to protect us from whatever dangers we might confront. 


When we’re feeling anxious about forces that might be in opposition to us – physically, emotionally, spiritually, or ideologically – we’re assured, “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.” Oil is symbolic of blessings and protective care, something both wooly and human sheep desperately need and desire.


Psalm 23 closes with the promise, “Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” This reflects a confidence not only for today, tomorrow and next week, but also for eternity.


Interestingly, this psalm says nothing about politics, law enforcement, military might or any other “force” we might turn to for protection and safety. It’s saying that all we need is the Shepherd, whom we’re promised “guides me in the paths of righteousness for His name’s sake.” Sometimes I forget this and start feeling overwhelmed by the non-stop “the sky is falling!” news of the day. 

Thankfully, God through His Spirit reminds me of the admonition from another part of Scripture: “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?... No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us…” (Romans 8:35-37).

This passage then concludes by observing that nothing – death or life, angels or demons, powers, “nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Regardless of what turmoil or chaos may arise, Our Shepherd is with us in the shadows, leading us out of danger and into life everlasting. 

Monday, August 28, 2023

‘Free Lunches’ and Other Misconceptions

Growing up I often heard the statement, “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.” But not long after I embarked on my newspaper career, that seemed to be untrue. Occasionally I would be treated to lunch, by the PR person with the local school district or at a luncheon provided for the media in conjunction with a press conference or news event. Lunch was free – at least it was for me.


But it wasn’t long before I realized that although there were occasions when I didn’t have to pay for my lunch, someone was footing the bill. Even if an organization’s press liaison took me to lunch, he or she was either paying for it using an expense account or they paid for it out of their own pocket. Free to me, I realized, didn’t mean free indeed.

These days folks seem to be clamoring for a lot of free stuff, not just “free” lunches. They want free healthcare, free education (some people call it “student loan forgiveness”), free housing, free transportation, and a host of other things. 


Then we have the advertisements and commercials promising “free” things when you purchase a product or service. Sounds too good to be true, right? That’s because it is. Someone has to pay, even if it’s not the immediate recipient. 


It might be taxpayers. It might be a business swallowing a cost, resulting in a decrease in its profits. When people talk about forgiveness of college loans, we know the universities aren’t going to say, “Okay, we overcharged you. We’ll just take the money out of our huge endowment funds and call it even.” Nope, someone’s got to pay the price and it’s not going to be Dr. Flammerstam in the chemistry department.


But my point isn’t to engage in the debate over what “free” stuff should be awarded and who should get it. My intent to underscore the reality that nothing in this life is truly free, not a single thing.


Early in my journey of faith I encountered a wonderful verse that nestled in my mind and took root years later. It was Romans 6:23 which in the New American Standard translation I read declared, “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ our Lord.” Receiving eternal life as a gift was a novel idea for me back then, but the idea that it was a “free gift” was astounding. What it meant, I was told, we can do nothing to earn salvation, being welcomed into God’s eternal family.


To an extent I understood that because as a member of my human family, I would receive gifts from my mom and dad at Christmas and for birthdays. But I knew they weren’t really free. They were paid for with their money. The department stores didn’t just give them the stuff because they thought I was a cute little boy.


Nevertheless, over and over the Bible calls justification – being made right once and for all with God – a gift. Ephesians 2:8-9 asserts, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast.” The “gift of God,” given to us by God’s grace (His unmerited favor) unconditionally and without cost.


Even though right standing with God, not just for the present but for all eternity, is free to us that doesn’t mean there wasn’t a cost. In reality, the cost was greater than anything we could ever imagine on earth – greater than the biggest mansion, the most expensive car, the most state-of-the-art jet, or even the most elaborate cathedral.


We read it clearly in Romans 5:8, which says, “But God demonstrates His own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” This wasn’t some simple gesture, an act of pity, kind of like, “That’s okay. No problem. All is forgiven.” No, it was the Son of God – God incarnate – willingly going to the cross for our sins. When Jesus declared, “Tetelestai” (John 19:30), He was uttering a word that not only meant “It is finished” but also, “Paid in full.” The greatest debt in the history of humankind had been fully satisfied.


It's tempting to view artwork or statues of the Crucifixion with admiration but also with the shrug of our shoulders, failing to grasp the gravity of the price Jesus paid. Philippians 2:6-8 helps us to understand, saying about Jesus, “Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made Himself nothing…. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to death – even death on a cross!”

So, the next time someone offers you something free – or you hear someone demanding that they receive something free – we need to remember that in truth, nothing is free. Someone must pay the cost. And if we’re enjoying the “free gift” of salvation, let’s never forget, “You were bought with a price [you were actually purchased with the precious blood of Jesus and made His own]” (1 Corinthians 6:20, Amplified).