When the Bottom Falls Out, Part 1

Job 1:20-22 (NLT)

Job stood up and tore his robe in grief. Then he shaved his head and fell to the ground to worship. He said, “I came naked from my mother’s womb, and I will be naked when I leave. The Lord gave me what I had, and the Lord has taken it away. Praise the name of the Lord!”  In all of this, Job did not sin by blaming God.


By ‘Debo Onabanjo

People have always asked the questions, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” and “Where is God?” when it appears our world is spiraling out of control. Even though it is no longer breaking news, some reading this can still recall the tragic Surfside, Fla., high-rise building collapse that occurred on June 24, with a final death toll of 98.

In last Saturday’s early hours, another devastating earthquake struck Haiti, with about 1,300 reported dead thus far and thousands more injured. Search and rescue teams continue their search for survivors with distraught and grief-stricken family members of the missing hoping somehow for a miracle. The clock continues to tick. 

Theodicy is the part of theology that attempts to provide an explanation for the problem of evil in our world. If you have been a Christian or believer for some time, there is no doubt you have heard people utter the phrase, “God is good, all the time, and all the time God is good.” But how can a good God allow evil things to happen? 

The simple answer is that the Bible assures us that our God is a good God and while some things occur in our world as a result of pervasive sin and human brokenness. Regardless of what we face, we can trust in the unfailing steadfastness and goodness of God. The idea that God would offer his innocent Son Jesus as propitiation for the sin of the world is a mystery that defies human logic.

No story in the Bible speaks more than Job to the challenges evil poses. The opening chapter tells us, “One day the members of the heavenly court came to present themselves before the Lord, and the Accuser, Satan, came with them. ‘Where have you come from?’ The Lord asked Satan. Satan answered the Lord, ‘I have been patrolling the earth, watching everything that goes on.’” (Job 1:6-7.) 

Peter, who was specifically targeted by Satan (Luke 22:31-32), later wrote to warn other believers, “Stay alert! Watch out for your great enemy, the devil. He prowls around like a roaring lion, looking for someone to devour. Stand firm against him, and be strong in your faith. Remember that your Christian brothers and sisters all over the world are going through the same kind of suffering you are.” (1 Peter 5:8-9.)

Originally an angel of the Lord, Satan became corrupt and rebelled against God because of his pride, leading to his expulsion from God’s presence. Satan continues to stand against anything good and will always oppose anything good.

The fact that Satan came to present himself before God tells us that God is superior to Satan. God created all things and no one created God. Then in a strange twist, we read from the story that the Lord asked Satan, “Have you noticed my servant Job? He is the finest man in all the earth. He is blameless–a man of complete integrity. He fears God and stays away from evil.” (Job 1:8.)

Satan responded that Job had good reason to fear God because he enjoyed the Lord’s protection and everything seemed to be going well for him. Satan then suggested that if all the good things in the life of Job were taken from him, he would surely curse God. (Job 1:9-11.) It is true that some folks serve God when things are going well for them and turn away from God when the bottom falls out of their world. 

But the Lord had strong confidence in Job and gave permission for him to be tested by Satan. The Lord told Satan, “Do whatever you want with everything he possesses, but don’t harm him physically.” (Job 1:12.) Satan left the Lord’s presence and in a series of cataclysmic events, Job lost everything. (Job 1:2-3, 13-19.)

As we would expect, Job was hit very hard by the unexpected turn of events and stood up and tore his robe in grief. He shaved his head and fell to the ground in worship, speaking these poignant words: “I came naked from my mother’s womb, and I will be naked when I leave. The Lord gave me what I had, and the Lord has taken it away. Praise the name of the Lord!”

How will you react when the bottom falls out of your world? Will your character come shining through or will you walk away from the Lord? May God grant us grace to persevere like Job. 

Merciful God, your Son warned us that we would face trials and tribulations in this world. Like Job, help us to be of good cheer even in the face of situations we cannot understand. Let us always trust in your goodness. We pray in the name of Jesus. Amen.

Clean and Unclean

Acts 10 (NLT)

By Chuck Griffin

Today’s reading is an extended narrative from Acts. I would encourage you to spend a few minutes reading the story of Cornelius, Peter and a rooftop vision, either by using the link above or finding it in your personal Bible.

From there, let me simply provide you with a guide to meditating on this important story.

Most of you raised in church likely have at least a rough understanding of what Jews meant by “clean” and “unclean.” As a people set apart by God, it was the Jews’ role to demonstrate ritually their separateness by avoiding activities and objects the non-Jewish world might find normal. Certain actions unique to Jews at the time—circumcision, for example—also were required to set them apart.

This story in Acts is critically important because it demonstrates that the Jewish messiah’s death on the cross has made it possible for all people to be restored to God. A common theme of the New Testament is how difficult it was for Jewish Christians, Peter included, to let go of this separateness in order to spread the Good News. Many were reluctant to go among Gentiles, and some demanded the Gentiles adopt Jewish behaviors in order to follow Jesus Christ. A council of Christian leaders finally had to settle the matter.

We who are of non-Jewish descent should be particularly thankful for the expansive nature of God’s grace. “For God so loved the world ….”

This story also should challenge us now, just as the Jewish Christians were then challenged.

  • How do we let our own ideas about cleanliness and uncleanliness impact where we tell the Good News?
  • Can people be so different from us that we ignore their need to hear about Jesus Christ?
  • To be Christian, people need to reject sin and accept Jesus Christ as Savior. But do we sometimes try to impose additional burdens?

Let’s always be watching for a good-hearted Cornelius who awaits word of salvation.

Lord, thank you for your ever-expanding grace, which is capable of penetrating all cultures and all individual circumstances. Amen. 

Who Owns Whom?

“Peter’s Conflict with Simon Magus,” Avanzino Nucci, 1620. Simon is on the right, in black.

Acts 8:18-25 (NRSV)

Now when Simon saw that the Spirit was given through the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money, saying, “Give me also this power so that anyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.” But Peter said to him, “May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain God’s gift with money! You have no part or share in this, for your heart is not right before God. Repent therefore of this wickedness of yours, and pray to the Lord that, if possible, the intent of your heart may be forgiven you. For I see that you are in the gall of bitterness and the chains of wickedness.” Simon answered, “Pray for me to the Lord, that nothing of what you have said may happen to me.”

Now after Peter and John had testified and spoken the word of the Lord, they returned to Jerusalem, proclaiming the good news to many villages of the Samaritans.


By Chuck Griffin

Earlier in Acts, we learn that Simon was a magician, one so clever he astonished the people of Samaria to the point they thought he was tapping into the power of God.

But even this trickster was drawn to the message of Jesus Christ as Savior. Impressed by the signs and great miracles that truly flowed from God through Philip the Evangelist, Simon received baptism and began to follow the preacher about.

Pretty soon, two apostles, Peter and John, arrived on the scene, laying hands on those who had claimed Christ as Savior so the Holy Spirit would go to work in their lives. In other words, new spiritual gifts became available to this fledgling church in Samaria, expressed visibly in new signs and miracles now flowing through these recent converts.

As we see, Simon had heard the message in only a kind-of-sort-of way. It had not moved his heart to a new place. He saw the world as transactional, all about gain and loss. He thought money could somehow let him control this Spirit power.

Here’s what Simon was missing: We do not control God, and God’s work is never intended to glorify us. Instead, we let God control and guide us, giving the glory to him. Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross removes the offense of sin from the relationship, and we are able to resume the role of created beings serving the loving Creator.

It’s a struggle that continues today. Even church leaders can become obsessed with the idea that they need to benefit personally from this kingdom work. Certainly, the “laborer deserves to be paid,” but beware of those whose only motive seems to be personal glory and a paycheck, preferably a big one.

Thanks be to God for all who serve the kingdom humbly and without thoughts of entitlement or reward, other than the joy to be found in eternal life with God.

Lord, may your Holy Spirit flow freely among your church, going to and fro to all who call upon your name. Amen.

Grace Under Fire

Acts 4:1-4 (NLT)

While Peter and John were speaking to the people, they were confronted by the priests, the captain of the Temple guard, and some of the Sadducees. These leaders were very disturbed that Peter and John were teaching the people that through Jesus there is a resurrection of the dead. They arrested them and, since it was already evening, put them in jail until morning. But many of the people who heard their message believed it, so the number of men who believed now totaled about 5,000.


Yesterday, we considered how Peter continued to offer forgiving grace from Jesus Christ even to the people involved in the crucifixion. Thousands listened, but we also see how pointedly describing sin and the need for repentance can get a person into trouble.

The leaders who thought a crucifixion had brought an end to the Jesus movement were unhappy to hear all this talk of resurrection. Peter and John found themselves under arrest.

They seem to have approached the situation not as a problem, but as an opportunity. Read on a little, and you’ll see how they continued to declare that Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior, and that ongoing healing still was to be credited to the one who had risen from the dead.

Later, such arrests would lead to beatings for the apostles. Fearing the people who had seen the lame man healed, the Jewish leaders this day opted for authoritarian threats and intimidation, telling Peter and John to speak of Jesus no more.

The two were unimpressed.

“Do you think God wants us to obey you rather than him? We cannot stop telling about everything we have seen and heard.”

The lesson is straightforward. If they were so bold under their circumstances, we certainly should be bold in ours. Let’s always be seeking new opportunities to tell people Jesus Christ is Lord.

Lord, we know any success we have at declaring the Good News is because of your strength, not our own. May we rely on your guidance and power more each day. Amen.

Feeling Betrayed

Our devotionals for Holy Week continue. The following ran on Luminary UMC’s website for Holy Wednesday last year, and received a lot of comments. It seems we’ve all felt betrayed at one time or another.

John 13:21-27 (NLT)

Now Jesus was deeply troubled, and he exclaimed, “I tell you the truth, one of you will betray me!”

The disciples looked at each other, wondering whom he could mean. The disciple Jesus loved was sitting next to Jesus at the table. Simon Peter motioned to him to ask, “Who’s he talking about?” So that disciple leaned over to Jesus and asked, “Lord, who is it?”

Jesus responded, “It is the one to whom I give the bread I dip in the bowl.” And when he had dipped it, he gave it to Judas, son of Simon Iscariot. When Judas had eaten the bread, Satan entered into him. Then Jesus told him, “Hurry and do what you’re going to do.”


By Chuck Griffin

If you have a strong reaction to this story, you’ve probably been betrayed. A co-worker, a friend, a relative, a spouse—someone not only let you down, the person actually turned on you, consciously violating a long-established trust.

The closer the relationship, the worse the pain caused by the betrayal. It usually is hard for the victim of betrayal to let go, to forgive.

Most cultures hold betrayers in very low esteem. In Dante’s fictional account of hell, punishments grew progressively more severe moving inward, and the heart of the inner circle was for betrayers who remained frozen in painfully contorted positions. In the very center, Satan munched on the people Dante considered to be the three greatest traitors, Judas Iscariot, Brutus and Cassius.

In contrast to our personal and cultural reactions, Jesus seemed resigned to betrayal. Of course, by this point in the story, he knew exactly where he was headed, down to the minute, I suspect.

Jesus didn’t do anything to change Judas when he gave him the morsel of bread; Judas’ heart was already turned toward sin. In the act, Jesus simply identified who among the 12 was most deeply broken. The sharing of the gravy-dipped bread makes me sad, though.

To eat with someone on such a night—in this case, to literally break bread—is an intimate moment. Earlier in the evening Jesus had washed the disciples’ feet, Judas included, compounding the intimacy. But none of those acts could turn the betrayer from his plan.

On that night, Judas truly was a wolf in sheep’s clothing. And once your mind is so firmly set in such a terrible direction, it is easy for Satan or one of his minions to enter and lead the way.

I do wonder about something, though. The Bible tells us that Judas died shortly after the betrayal. (The accounts of his death in Matthew 27 and Acts 1 are difficult to reconcile, but in each one he ends up dead.) Had he lived, how would the resurrected Jesus have treated his betrayer?

The closest analogy we have is Peter, who proved to be the worst of the deniers once Jesus had been arrested. Near the end of the Gospel of John, we see Jesus forgive and restore Peter. Again, the scene is intimate, on a beach near a charcoal fire, a breakfast of fish and bread cooked and waiting for some very ashamed men.

Had Judas lived, carrying with him the remorse and repentance he seems to bear in Matthew 27:3-4, I suspect he would have found forgiveness, too. Such radical forgiveness would be typical of the Savior we serve.

Lord, where we have been betrayed, let us find a way to forgive during this Holy Wednesday, and where we have betrayed others, may we be forgiven. Amen.

Almeida Júnior, “Remorse of Judas,” 1880

The Chosen Ones

Mark 3:13-19 (NLT)

Afterward Jesus went up on a mountain and called out the ones he wanted to go with him. And they came to him. Then he appointed twelve of them and called them his apostles. They were to accompany him, and he would send them out to preach, giving them authority to cast out demons. These are the twelve he chose:

Simon (whom he named Peter),
 James and John (the sons of Zebedee, but Jesus nicknamed them “Sons of Thunder”),
 Andrew,
 Philip,
 Bartholomew,
 Matthew,
 Thomas,
 James (son of Alphaeus),
 Thaddaeus,
 Simon (the zealot),
 Judas Iscariot (who later betrayed him).

What an odd mix.

Among them are fishermen, a tax collecting bureaucrat, a rebel who under different circumstances might try to kill the tax collector, some loud, pushy brothers, and a petty thief who would eventually prove to be a traitor. Their de facto leader, functioning like a senior student, is one of the fishermen, good old foot-in-mouth Peter.

Other than being Jews, the common denominator in the group was that they would all abandon Jesus after his arrest. I once knew a seminary professor who referred to them as the “duh-sciples.”

Out of the larger crowd of people following Jesus, these were the 12 deemed worthy to be part of the inner circle, the ones charged with spreading the Good News about Jesus, proclaiming to the world that salvation is available.

In them, I see what has been evident far too often in me: inattentiveness, dull wit, self-centeredness, impatience, insecurity, striving, and yes, the failure to perceive what is godly and right in front of me. And when I consider these flawed men, I take great comfort.

As we assess these men charged with the role of apostleship—the spread of the Good News and the growth of the church—here’s what’s incredible: They got the job done! The fact that there are more than 2 billion people calling themselves Christians nearly 2,000 years later is the proof.

Well, let me rephrase that a little. God got the job done through them, and through many who followed them. The key, it seems, is that the apostles who remained after Jesus’ resurrection were willing to let the Holy Spirit fill them and guide their work. Grace began to pour forth from these badly cracked earthenware vessels, and it just kept on pouring.

Never doubt for a moment that God can work through any of us.

Lord, thank you for the blessing of broken people who give themselves over to you. Amen.

Give It Time

Acts 5:33-42 (NRSV)

When they heard this, they were enraged and wanted to kill them. But a Pharisee in the council named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law, respected by all the people, stood up and ordered the men to be put outside for a short time. Then he said to them, “Fellow Israelites, consider carefully what you propose to do to these men. For some time ago Theudas rose up, claiming to be somebody, and a number of men, about four hundred, joined him; but he was killed, and all who followed him were dispersed and disappeared. After him Judas the Galilean rose up at the time of the census and got people to follow him; he also perished, and all who followed him were scattered. So in the present case, I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone; because if this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them—in that case you may even be found fighting against God!”

They were convinced by him, and when they had called in the apostles, they had them flogged. Then they ordered them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go. As they left the council, they rejoiced that they were considered worthy to suffer dishonor for the sake of the name. And every day in the temple and at home they did not cease to teach and proclaim Jesus as the Messiah.


The “them” in the opening sentence of this passage consisted of Peter and the other apostles, who were going about in the earliest days of the church performing miracles and preaching that Jesus is the Christ.

The leaders of the temple in Jerusalem were, in the words of Acts 5:17, “filled with jealousy,” so they had the apostles arrested, only to discover these men of Christ were preaching again the next morning in the temple. An angel had freed them from prison overnight, telling them to get back to delivering the message that gives life.

So, the temple leaders had the apostles arrested again, this time intending to kill them.

As we see in our passage today, a much cooler, wiser head prevailed. Gamaliel, as we are told, was deeply respected by his fellow leaders. By the way, one of his rabbinical students was the Apostle Paul, who at this point in the story of the church had not experienced Christ on the road to Damascus.

Gamaliel correctly understood that he and the other Jewish leaders should be centered on one important task: Seeking the will of God. He also believed God would reveal whether these apostles and others who would claim to speak for God were right in what they said.

Gamaliel was spot on. Ultimately, messages and movements opposed to God will fail. All of creation is moving toward reconciliation and reunion with God, so it’s only logical that movements opposed to God will eventually collapse, even if that process sometimes takes longer than we like.

Gamaliel’s colleagues did arrange for the apostles to receive a beating none of us would want to face today. As long as evil and good continue to grow side by side, angry, jealous men will sometimes extract the vengeance they so desperately desire.

That part of the story reminds us that doing what God asks—in the apostles’ case, preaching the Good News—may require some sacrifices.

Dear Lord, your Good News has continued to be preached for nearly 2,000 years, reaching people all around the globe. May we have the courage of the apostles, trusting that the truth of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior will always be vindicated and reign supreme at the end of time. Amen.

A Healthy Fear

Death of Ananias, Raphael, 1515.

Acts 5:1-11 (NRSV)

But a man named Ananias, with the consent of his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property; with his wife’s knowledge, he kept back some of the proceeds, and brought only a part and laid it at the apostles’ feet. “Ananias,” Peter asked, “why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back part of the proceeds of the land? While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, were not the proceeds at your disposal? How is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You did not lie to us but to God!” Now when Ananias heard these words, he fell down and died. And great fear seized all who heard of it. The young men came and wrapped up his body, then carried him out and buried him.

After an interval of about three hours his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. Peter said to her, “Tell me whether you and your husband sold the land for such and such a price.” And she said, “Yes, that was the price.” Then Peter said to her, “How is it that you have agreed together to put the Spirit of the Lord to the test? Look, the feet of those who have buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out.” Immediately she fell down at his feet and died. When the young men came in they found her dead, so they carried her out and buried her beside her husband. And great fear seized the whole church and all who heard of these things.


Just to be sure we are all on the same page, I should point out what most careful readers will observe. This harsh, shocking story is not about money.

It is instead about the very serious nature of Christians’ relationship with their church, “church” being a gathering of people sharing a mutual belief in Jesus Christ, and the mission flowing from that belief.

Readers of the Bible have struggled for centuries with this story, finding themselves confused by the rapid judgment falling upon this couple. Was there no room for them to repent and find grace?

Peter’s words and a particular Greek verb in the text, one used only when divine judgment is at hand, make it clear the answer is “no.” Working through the hearts of this couple, Satan had dared to enter the holy group established by God to spread the gospel over all the earth.

Such deceit from this couple could not be tolerated. These two likely were hoping to leverage their false gift into acclaim, and their acclaim into power, and God could not allow the devil to embed himself so deeply in the fledgling church.

We should read this story as a reminder to take very seriously the vows we make as Christians, be they the words we say at baptism and confirmation or commitments we make later. We especially need to be sure that any actions we take to support or participate in the life of the church are intended for the glory of God.

The devil still seeks to find entry, and God still sees his holy, catholic church of believers to be precious and worth defending.

Lord, help us to search our hearts continually as we serve the kingdom through the church. May our motives be pure. Amen.

Toward Solid Food

By Chuck Griffin
LifeTalk Editor

1 Corinthians 3:1-3

Hebrews 5:12-14

1 Peter 2:1-3

Yes, we are saved by simple faith, but yes, Christianity also calls us to a lifetime of learning. Peter, Paul and the author of Hebrews give us similar clues about what progress should look like.

Much like when we are learning to eat, our faith journey begins with “spiritual milk.” Literally, these apostolic fathers mean we have to begin with the basic core truth of Christianity, the idea that “Jesus Christ is Lord.”

To grasp that earliest of Christian creeds, you have to understand what the name Jesus means historically—how Jesus’ existence was the fulfillment of promises made over thousands of years to the people of Israel. You understand that calling him “Christ” roots Jesus in promises of a messiah to come, that this little creed is in present tense for a reason, and that the term “Lord” places Jesus over all creation.

As all three of our Scripture selections affirm, some people cannot get past their reliance on milk, or even learn to handle milk in a sustained way. That’s sad, because there is so much more for Christians to consume, a lifetime of ever-increasing richness.

In my mind, this all translates into a structured system of learning in the church, something to sustain us from cradle to grave, assuming we are so blessed as to be born into a Christian family.

Our educational programs are suffering mightily right now. The pandemic has shut down many of our traditional means of Christian learning. But this is a good time to consider which efforts were working before the pandemic, and which weren’t working so well.

I like to think about Christian education in three tiers, which are age-related for people carried into church as babies. Adult converts have to go through similar steps, although obviously they would be guided through them in a different setting using adult education techniques.

Tier 1 (from birth through about age 12): Learn the stories! Not only that, learn them in a way where they become beloved stories.

The broad themes in these stories teach us about the nature of God, how humans become broken by sin, and what God wants to do in love to restore creation to a holy state. The story of Jesus Christ is the climax of the great story told in the books of the Bible.

Tier 2 (from adolescence to young adulthood): Consider in a deeper way how those stories apply to life, in particular, life’s difficulties. Any teacher of this group should welcome questions, and be mature enough to handle the challenging ones.

It’s important at this stage to acknowledge that we sometimes do not have easy answers before us—occasional debate, rooted in Scripture, should be encouraged. This can be an exciting phase as students discover that salvation is initially easy to grasp, but becomes an intriguing mystery to explore as we go deeper.

Tier 3 (adulthood): Here, we should enter a stage I call “relational learning.” Small groups and mentoring arrangements become important in the life of the Christian. Someone who has grown up in the church should, by this point, have a scripturally inspired sense of right and wrong.

Such a person also should be ready to humbly submit to God’s calling, which easily can lead to a servant leadership role based on the gifts God has placed in that person.

In all three tiers, a lot of detailed planning is required, of course. But here’s a simple question for any church: Are we moving a significant number of people into mature Christian leadership roles?

I have no doubt that churches answering “yes” are doing great work for the kingdom.

Lord, may your Spirit guide us toward an honest assessment of what’s happening in our churches. Where we need to adjust, may we have the courage to do so. Amen.


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