Doing What We Hate

By Chuck Griffin

In his letter to the Romans, the Apostle Paul takes note of a strange situation Christians will find themselves in from time to time. We continue to sin despite feeling deep revulsion afterward.

Before finding salvation, we sinned in ignorance. After our conversions, we should know better, and yet we ignore what the Holy Spirit whispers to our hearts.

 “I do not understand my own actions,” Paul writes in the seventh chapter of Romans. “For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.”

His ensuing meditation, using terms like “sinful flesh” and life “according to the Spirit,” can be a bit confusing to interpret and understand. Think of his argument this way: There is the way the world without Christ worked, and there is the way a world redeemed and restored by Christ works now.

Unfortunately, the old world still creeps in, largely because our not-yet-resurrected bodies still carry within them a brokenness that Christ will one day completely drive out. If we’re not careful, we find ourselves conflicted, doing what we know is wrong, even doing what we hate.

I think most of us instinctively relate to what Paul is saying. For each person, the sin may be different, but its commission inevitably brings a sense of physical sickness, shame, and the question, “Why on earth did I just do that?”

The sin could be as simple as haughtiness or sudden flashes of anger, or as elaborate and dangerously progressive as greed or lust.

Here’s the interesting twist in Paul’s letter: He doesn’t offer some elaborate plan to escape this problem. Instead, he shows us a simple two-step solution.

First, we have to admit our brokenness, in the process giving up what is perhaps one of the great sins of American culture, extreme self-reliance.

“Wretched man that I am!” Paul writes. “Who will rescue me from this body of death?”

Second, remember the one who has saved you, the one who continues to mold you and change you and make you a little more holy each day, if only you will let him.

“Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” Paul writes.

I note in particular that Paul’s statement is celebratory, a reminder that Christ already has defeated Satan and the eternal death he otherwise would impose on us.

We simply have to accept the spoils of a battle already won, the power God grants us through the Holy Spirit to resist sin. Those spoils are there for the taking, stored in Scripture and the direct access we have to God through prayer.

Dear Lord, move us toward consistent and conclusive victory over sin, and let times of temptation be when we turn toward you, not away. Amen.

The Tree I Hope to Be

Luke 6:43-45 (NLT)

“A good tree can’t produce bad fruit, and a bad tree can’t produce good fruit. A tree is identified by its fruit. Figs are never gathered from thornbushes, and grapes are not picked from bramble bushes. A good person produces good things from the treasury of a good heart, and an evil person produces evil things from the treasury of an evil heart. What you say flows from what is in your heart.”


By Chuck Griffin

I suspect that James, brother of Jesus and leader of the early church at Jerusalem, had the above words in mind when he wrote, “Does a spring of water bubble out with both fresh water and bitter water? Does a fig tree produce olives, or a grapevine produce figs? No, and you can’t draw fresh water from a salty spring.” (James 3:11-12.)

The way we are on the inside, deep in our souls, will eventually show on the outside through our behaviors. Our inner nature, whatever it may be, cannot remain hidden or pretend to be something else for long.

Few of us would dare claim that what is within us is perfectly pure, and fewer still would be telling the truth. But remember, there are no perfect trees, except those found in Paradise. A tree we would call “good” is one that fulfills its mission year after year, providing abundant, attractive fruit despite the occasional blemish on its trunk or scar within its roots.

Not far from a church building where I once served, there was a rough-looking little apple tree at the edge of a yard, its branches overhanging the road. You wouldn’t think much of it in the winter, but in the late summer and fall, it produced apples galore. When I went for a walk, it practically waved its branches and said to me whenever I passed under it, “Here, have an apple! Please!”

I would take one and eat it as I walked along, and the apple was always very good. It was a faithful little tree, doing its best in a less-than-perfect location, bordered on one side by asphalt and exhaust. I suppose the tree persistently kept reaching for the water and nutrients it needed all those years.

Jesus, James and a particular apple tree I know offer us a straightforward way to measure our Christian lives.

Lord, in our brokenness and infirmities, we can still bear fruit for you. Keep us mindful of where we find sustenance: in prayer, in Scripture, in worship, in fellowship and communion, and in so many other places where you have promised to meet us. Amen.

The Holy City

Revelation 21:22-22:5 (NRSV)

I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. Its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there. People will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations. But nothing unclean will enter it, nor anyone who practices abomination or falsehood, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life.

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. Nothing accursed will be found there any more. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him; they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.


By Chuck Griffin

Biblical visions of eternal life with God are highly symbolic. I do not say that to downgrade our expectations in any way—symbols point us toward an experience greater than what is described.

The images we are given in Revelation certainly lift me up, even knowing they fall short of what we will truly see. In our text today, we are granted a peek at life after a new heaven and earth have come into existence.

Our verses today focus on the vast city at the center of it all. This clearly is a place for those who have taken advantage of God’s unmerited offer of salvation, made possible by Jesus Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. 

What particularly entrances me is that the holy light of God, shining through the “Lamb,” Jesus, is all anyone needs for seeing. Just as God penetrates our hearts now, the undiluted truth of God will be continually and eternally revelatory, washing through our resurrected senses.

I also love the way the river of life flowing from the throne of God connects this vision in Revelation to the descriptions of Paradise found in Genesis. In a refashioning of what was lost to humanity because of the first sin, multiple versions of the tree of life are there, complete with death-defying fruit and leaves for healing.

I am left asking myself this question: How much of this can we experience now? Even as part of this old earth, we can make the decision to put God as revealed through Jesus Christ at the center of our lives, asking that we see everything with his holy, illuminating truth.

We are not yet invited to eat the fruit that will give eternal life, but we can be bearers of the leaves, offering healing words and actions carefully crafted to draw the lost toward salvation and holiness.

If we choose to do so, perhaps the holy city will seem vaguely familiar when we visit it for the first time.

Lord, we thank you for visions of what is to come. What we will experience will be a beautiful expansion of the gift Christ already has given us on the cross. Amen.

What Must Be Done

Ezra 9:5-9 (NRSV)

At the evening sacrifice I got up from my fasting, with my garments and my mantle torn, and fell on my knees, spread out my hands to the Lord my God, and said,

“O my God, I am too ashamed and embarrassed to lift my face to you, my God, for our iniquities have risen higher than our heads, and our guilt has mounted up to the heavens. From the days of our ancestors to this day we have been deep in guilt, and for our iniquities we, our kings, and our priests have been handed over to the kings of the lands, to the sword, to captivity, to plundering, and to utter shame, as is now the case. But now for a brief moment favor has been shown by the Lord our God, who has left us a remnant, and given us a stake in his holy place, in order that he may brighten our eyes and grant us a little sustenance in our slavery. For we are slaves; yet our God has not forsaken us in our slavery, but has extended to us his steadfast love before the kings of Persia, to give us new life to set up the house of our God, to repair its ruins, and to give us a wall in Judea and Jerusalem.”


By Chuck Griffin

Ezra dropped to his knees to do what must be done from time to time, to do what the people as a whole had failed to do. He repented and sought forgiveness.

Because of their sins, God’s chosen people found themselves enslaved, their way of life decimated. But a glimmer of hope had appeared, the potential to rebuild what had been a glorious temple. And yet, Ezra observed, the people of Israel continued to defy God.

The specific sin causing Ezra grief sounds strange to us today. The Israelites were to be a people set apart, a lesson in holiness to all the world. But instead they had begun to intermarry with the people around them, in the process adopting other gods and unholy practices. The real problem was that they had moved away from God and toward idolatry.

The principle remains the same for us. We are to search for what pleases God and what displeases God, practicing the former and avoiding the latter. Our Holy Bible gives us our baseline for understanding sin, something our broken minds cannot sort out on their own. In our New Testament, we receive refined guidance about sin from Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit working within the early Christian church.

Ignoring this guidance brings grave danger. Our best response is to search our actions and even our thoughts to see where we may deviate from what God desires. We truly practice a religion of the heart.

Such an examination of ourselves should lead us where Ezra went—on our knees, in a state of repentance. Living much later than Ezra in God’s grand story of redemption, we know that because of the work of Jesus Christ, forgiveness, change and hope lie ahead.

A call to such piety is not popular, I know. Sadly, there are people among us who have established themselves as preachers while preaching the opposite.

Their opinions do not change the word of God, however, and they do not remove the need for thoughtful searching of our souls and serious repentance.

Lord, reveal to us through your holy word and directly in prayer where we displease you, and then show us a better way. Amen.

The Woolly Jesus

Revelation 1:9-18 (NRSV)

By Chuck Griffin

Life seldom goes as planned. In fact, I wonder if life ever goes as planned.

A few years ago, I read an Associated Press obituary about a pilot named Denny Fitch. Back in 1989, he was riding home in an empty seat on a United Airlines DC-10 bound for Chicago.

While in the air, the tail engine on the jet exploded. Shrapnel from the engine sliced through all three of the jet’s hydraulic systems. When Denny heard the explosion, he made his way to the cockpit to see if the flight crew needed any help—after all, he also was a flight instructor for United.

Turns out they needed the help. They pretty much had lost all control of the plane, except for one option: They could make the jet go up and down, left and right by increasing and decreasing power to the remaining wing engines. Denny sat down in the only available space, the floor, and helped steer a jet carrying 300 people in this crude manner toward Sioux City airport, their best option. That’s where the jet crashed, but in a somewhat controlled manner; half the people on board survived.

In an interview for a documentary, Denny talked about the unpredictability of life: “What makes you so sure you’re going to make it home tonight? I was 46 years old the day I walked into that cockpit. I had the world ahead of me. I was a captain on a major airline. I had a beautiful healthy family, loving wife, great future. And at 4 o’clock I’m trying to stay alive.”

That’s how life goes. Bad things happen in a broken world where sin and its biggest effect, death, still have a hold. I’m not sure which is more disconcerting, the evil humans inflict on each other or the evil that just happens because some force of nature like wind or fire smacks us down. Both can make us question God’s presence. We all experience events throughout our lives that can wear us down.

It’s hard to make it to adulthood without losing to death someone you love. And then there are the other pains we experience. We love someone but are not loved back. Our careers jump the tracks, despite how hard we work. We feel like we’re careening out of control.

Whoever he was, John, the John who wrote down what we now call the book of Revelation, must have felt he was careening. We don’t know much about him, but he tells us he was persecuted. He was on the island of Patmos in exile because he had professed belief in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.

But then he saw the woolly haired Jesus, and everything changed. His suffering and his disappointments had context.

John’s vision of Jesus was different than our Gospel-inspired images. “I saw one like the Son of Man,” John writes, “clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash across his chest. His head and his hair were white as white wool, white as snow; his eyes were like a flame of fire, his feet were like burnished bronze, refined as in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of many waters. In his right hand he held seven stars, and from his mouth came a sharp, two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining with full force.”

Don’t be too literal when reading Revelation, but don’t discount the power of symbolic speech, either. This is the glorified Jesus, the post-resurrection Jesus. This is humanity blended with deity, pure and holy. Power, strength and authority radiate from the Savior.

This vision, and other visions in John’s Revelation, remind us that the world is not out of control, even if it seems so for a time. Christ came for a reason, to set the world right. His resurrection is the first sign of the work being done today, the restoration and healing of the world.

And Christ will be seen again.

Lord Jesus, Maranatha. Come Lord, come. Amen.

What Might Be Lost

Deuteronomy 11:13-17 (NRSV)

If you will only heed his every commandment that I am commanding you today—loving the Lord your God, and serving him with all your heart and with all your soul—then he will give the rain for your land in its season, the early rain and the later rain, and you will gather in your grain, your wine, and your oil; and he will give grass in your fields for your livestock, and you will eat your fill. Take care, or you will be seduced into turning away, serving other gods and worshiping them, for then the anger of the Lord will be kindled against you and he will shut up the heavens, so that there will be no rain and the land will yield no fruit; then you will perish quickly off the good land that the Lord is giving you.


By Chuck Griffin

When I was in college, I learned an important concept in economics class: “opportunity cost.”

Essentially, when we make decisions, we need to account for more than just the gain we believe we will experience by going in a particular direction. We also need to assess what we lose by not making an alternate choice.

As Forbes magazine once wrote, “It’s a core concept for both investing and life in general.”

It’s easy to analyze opportunity costs with hindsight. For example, a lot of us may have spent $10,000 or so on a nice little car or truck in 1997. We probably enjoyed driving our little cars and trucks.

We had another option, however—we could have instead bought $10,000 worth of Amazon stock in May of that year, when it was first publicly offered. In May of 2020, according to Investopedia, that stock would have been worth $12 million.

The problem, of course, is that none of us has clear information about the future, so it’s hard to guess what our opportunity cost for a particular decision is going to be. Don’t ask me for a loan. I bought the little car.

As we see in our Deuteronomy text, God did the Israelites a real favor. He laid out what would happen if they chose to love the Lord with all their hearts and souls, and what would happen if they chose to turn away from God and sin.

One choice promised a sort of paradise on earth. The other offered a miserable existence and widespread death. The opportunity cost of each choice was made clear. But even with all that clarity, they chose poorly.

God is gracious, of course. He presents the lesson in new ways. Now he presents it to us through Jesus Christ. Choosing to reconcile with God through Jesus actually offers us peace and joy in this life, and ultimately eternal life in the presence of God!

Sin often is attractive in the short-term, offering what we think we cannot live without. To combat sin, it helps to measure the opportunity cost of straying from God’s love and guidance. Ongoing joy and eternal life are a lot to lose.

Lord, may your Holy Spirit grant us a fuller and more complete picture of where our decisions lead us. Amen.

Restore Us, O God

Psalm 80:1-3 (NRSV)

Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel,
    you who lead Joseph like a flock!
You who are enthroned upon the cherubim, shine forth
    before Ephraim and Benjamin and Manasseh.
Stir up your might,
    and come to save us!

Restore us, O God;
    let your face shine, that we may be saved.

By Chuck Griffin

What we now call the Old Testament is full of oscillation, the relationship between God and his chosen people moving in and out of harmony.

God’s abundant love and astonishing holiness never change, of course. It is people, then and now, who draw near to God in works of mercy and piety or run away from God as they sin. Sometimes we run so far that God seems to have slumbered or even poured out wrath.

For the fallen—and we all have been among the fallen—that plea, “Restore us, O God,” is an excellent starting point. Of course, we cannot say “restore us” as we continue to run away. We have to at least turn toward God, like the prodigal son climbing out of the pig sty and taking his first step on the walk home. We have to repent.

While sin deeply offends God’s holiness, God’s love keeps our creator alert to our return. Through his chosen people, he has even made the return easy, ready to embrace us with outstretched arms. He came among us while we were deep in sin, living among us and ultimately paying for those sins on the cross.

“Stir up your might, and come to save us!” the people prayed in Psalm 80. And God did, in ways with far greater global impact than they likely imagined.

Can we lift up the same cry, in our own lives and on behalf of our own people, whomever they may be?

Lord, let us see a turning toward you, moving us into a time when your grace abundantly flows, bringing healing and salvation to all. Amen.

In the Thicket

Micah 7:14 (NLT)

O Lord, protect your people with your shepherd’s staff;

    lead your flock, your special possession.

Though they live alone in a thicket

    on the heights of Mount Carmel,

let them graze in the fertile pastures of Bashan and Gilead

    as they did long ago.


By Chuck Griffin

This particular verse in Micah arises as part of a lament over sin and a longing for better days.

We can process this desire to be led back to the good life on so many levels. As a people, we can always look to aspects of a national past we believe to be better, the good old days, although we do have to be careful. People have a tendency to remember the good and forget the bad.

My wife and I like movies from the 1950s and early 1960s, the ones that fill the screen with images just a little too early for us to have seen with our own eyes. Think of the New York City street scenes in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” or Doris Day at the Automat, or Cary Grant in a finely tailored suit. How nice it would be to go back in time and experience all that—without polio, the Korean and Vietnam wars, racism, sexism bordering on misogyny, and those ever-present clouds of cigarette smoke, of course.

We can have similar longings on an individual level, too, desiring that “better time,” whenever that might have been—maybe when we were in high school, or first married, or when the kids were little. If we get stuck in that longing, the here-and-now can seem very much like a briar-filled thicket.

We cannot go back in time, and we probably would not want to do so, were we to think it through. What we can do is take the best of our past experiences, as a people or as a person, and find a way to carry what we learn from them forward. That’s where this verse from Micah becomes useful.

Followers of God know that the best of times always happen in conjunction with a deep relationship with God. When we are with God, we are tapping into promises of eternal joy, timeless truths that color any present moment for the better.

Whatever thicket we find ourselves in, God can lead us out, usually through fellowship with others who follow God. The Great Shepherd has even gone to the cross so we can forever escape the deadly consequences of sin.

Lord, as we walk with you, give us great optimism for the future, knowing you are leading us toward fertile pastures. Amen.

Abide

1 John 2:28 (NRSV) And now, little children, abide in him, so that when he is revealed we may have confidence and not be put to shame before him at his coming.


By Chuck Griffin

Holiness is a churchy word meaning we behave as God would have us behave. It’s a difficult concept for people who resist or reject Christianity because they perceive conversations about holiness as evidence of God’s authoritarianism, or worse, a church’s attempt to control society at large.

The call to holiness you hear from God in Scripture and through Holy Spirit-inspired churches has nothing to do with such negative motives, however. We simply are being reminded to live in a way that should be a natural response to God’s overwhelming love, expressed most clearly in Jesus Christ’s death on the cross.

A little after today’s text, in 3:6, John goes so far as to make a bold, flat statement: “No one who abides in him sins; no one who sins has either seen him or known him.” The larger context of the letter helps us to understand the author is talking about ongoing, deliberate sin.

When we find ourselves asking, “Why am I still trapped in sin,” a good follow-up question might be, “How far have I strayed from God?” Odds are, we’re not truly abiding, gazing at him through our study of Scripture or leaning against him in prayer and worship.

John repeatedly refers to us as God’s children. Where are children the safest? Well, when they are near a loving parent, of course. It’s hard to get into trouble when you’re holding a parent’s hand.

In dangerous settings, even the slightest distance between child and parent can mean potential trouble. As good parents, we’re always trying to manage that distance, sometimes literally keeping our children on a short leash.

When our oldest child was beginning to move from toddling to real walking and running, we bought a springy little wrist tether so she would have more freedom to move when we were out in public. I still remember attaching the adult end to my left wrist and the complicated system of velcro and watchband-style straps to her right wrist.

Being spatially gifted, she studied her end for about five seconds and had it undone, proudly handing it back to me. I did the only thing I could do—I went back to holding her hand.

It’s good for children to have that desire to be independent from us. Ultimately, their instinct to go it alone makes it possible for them to grow into independent adults.

Acting like independent-minded children in our relationship with God is a bad idea, though. We are not little gods, needing to pull away in order to grow. We instead are part of God’s creation, designed to abide in our creator for all eternity.

Lord, call us back when we resist our connection to you, and grow us into the kind of Christians who naturally and joyfully abide in your love. Amen.

Ongoing Concern

By Chuck Griffin

Philippians 2:12-18 (NRSV)

Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

Do all things without murmuring and arguing, so that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, in which you shine like stars in the world. It is by your holding fast to the word of life that I can boast on the day of Christ that I did not run in vain or labor in vain. But even if I am being poured out as a libation over the sacrifice and the offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with all of you—and in the same way you also must be glad and rejoice with me.


Few pastors in our Western culture have been chained in prison like Paul, but I suspect most of us who have left a beloved church understand the poignancy of his message to the Christians at Philippi.

Even as we move on to new ministry settings, we want so much for those we led before. We pray their spiritual lives were on an upward trajectory as we left, and we pray they have continued in such a direction.

Paul was still able to advise the Philippians, if only in a letter dictated from his cell. In this part of the letter, Paul encouraged them to maintain that constant tension all Christians need to feel. Yes, it is God who does the work of salvation, and it is God who is at work in us to bring us toward holiness. But simultaneously, we also have work to do, reaching out toward God and each other to accept the grace so freely poured out through Jesus Christ.

As John Wesley wrote, “First, God works; therefore you can work. Secondly, God works; therefore you must work.”

Because of the value of the gift, eternal life, we are to take our very mild share of the responsibility quite seriously, enough so that we trigger both an emotional and a physical response.

Much of our work is rooted in the avoidance of evil and the pursuit of good. Paul described the dangerous people in the world as “crooked and perverse,” at this point feeling no need to define the specifics of crookedness and perversity.

With the Holy Spirit working through the gracious revelation of Scripture and within us, it should not be difficult for a committed Christian to spot what is crooked and what is perverse. That remains true today, even as the world tries to make up new definitions to suit itching ears.

Heavenly Father, as we move into the weekend and toward Palm Sunday, help us to work on our salvation to the point where we do experience fear and trembling. We know your Holy Spirit will comfort us quickly enough, giving us loving assurance we are your children. Amen.