Potential for Change (Jeremiah 13:23)

“Can the Ethiopian change his skin
Or the leopard his spots?
[Then] you also can do good
Who are accustomed to doing evil.”

Jeremiah 12:23

This question, rhetorical though it is, and its answer are an illustration of something, namely of the difficulty in changing. For us, it may sometimes be impossible. Many changes are, in fact, impossible to make without help. And that is what I hear God getting at in this verse.

I am tempted to go off on a tangent about a lot of minor details, but the crux of this verse; the pivot on which it turns is how difficult; how impossible it is to go from habitually doing evil to habitually doing good. Inevitably, the objection will be raised that people have done precisely that: gone from doing horrible things to doing wonderful things. This objection may be valid, but only if God was not involved in the change process and the person’s motives were pure. If God is involved, the impossible becomes probable. If the person’s motives are still evil, then that individual has not changed what they do, only what it appears to be to the rest of us. God looks at the heart; at what drives a person.

The Bible is quite literally brimming over with this message: I cannot do good with good motives without God’s help. Paul would later write that it is God Who works in us to will and to work His good pleasure; it is God Who gives us good motives and the wherewithal to follow through on those motives with good actions.

Can a leopard change its spots? With God, all things are possible. Can I do the right thing for the right reason, even if I have been accustomed to do evil? With God, all things are possible. Without God, no spots are changing and no good is taking place.

Correction (Jeremiah 10:24)

Correct me, O LORD, but with justice;
Not with Your anger, or You will bring me to nothing.

Jeremiah 10:24

Jeremiah has been writing down what God has to say about those who worship idols and realizes, I suspect, that he has wandered in his own life. Not that he has set up a physical idol — some statue to pray to off in a corner of his house — but that he has allowed something to usurp God’s rightful place. It is far too simple a matter for those who want to walk with God to find themselves with a pretender on the throne of their heart and life and there need be no statues for us to have set up an idol. All that is needful is that something else take God’s place in our lives. It is possible that Jeremiah examines himself and realizes that something is beginning to take God’s place; is becoming an idol.

Everyone needs to be corrected from time to time. Even prophets. Jeremiah’s request is that God correct him with justice and not with … anger. I find it fascinating that the prophet appeals to God’s justice instead of His mercy or His grace. We make a similar mistake today.

So many folks I come across want to impugn God’s justice. They think that God cannot be a just God if _______. And their own microcosmic focus is substituted for omniscience. I cannot think of an example of how ludicrous it is for us to think that we can see enough of the picture to impugn God’s justice. I have tried and am incapable of mustering an example of absurdity that extreme. Suffice it to say that we see so small a portion of the tapestry of what is going on that to condemn God’s actions is utterly absurd.

Or we think that God’s justice is a parallel to our own. We think that He adheres to our standards (or should) and go from there. This, also, is utterly absurd. God’s thinking is as far beyond human thinking (even the most enlightened) as the furthest reaches of space are from the surface of Earth (paraphrase of what God told Isaiah). Why would He arrive at standards reachable by inferior minds? It would tantamount to forcing a chess grand master to play according to the rules made up by a three-year-old. It is so ridiculous as to be baffling.

Yet we persist. Yet we malign the justice of God. Not Jeremiah. Jeremiah sees God’s justice as the stay that holds back God’s wrath. Jeremiah throws himself on the justice of God and asks God for just correction. The alternative, as Jeremiah presents it, is for God to correct in anger and to bring the prophet to nothing.

I need correction in my life. I know that there are areas in which I am failing miserably to follow God as He deserves. Like Jeremiah, I ask that God will correct me in justice. I want to walk the just; the right path. Like Jeremiah, I see my nation going after falsehoods; things which are not gods. I see a once great land descending into absurdity and infamy because we have forsaken the God Who made us great. Let me be corrected that my ways remain straight, regardless of how those around might walk.

Brokenhearted (Jeremiah 8:18)

My sorrow is beyond healing,
My heart is faint [within me].

Jeremiah 8:18

Jeremiah is often called “the weeping prophet” because his heart broke over the messages he was given to deliver. He heard God’s words; God’s judgments on Judah; God’s pleas for His people to return to Him and Jeremiah’s heart resonated with that same yearning and pain.

What this brings to me this morning is a question: Does my heart resonate with God’s?  It is one thing to know God’s Word and to be able to understand what it is God is saying. It is one thing to know that God will judge those who reject His offer of salvation. It is quite another for my heart to want to say the things that God says to people — to passionately want people to come to salvation; to call sin utterly sinful and do nothing to disguise it.

For my part, I know that I do okay with calling sin as it is. My sin; the sin of others; all sin is utterly sinful and necessitates a Savior. I cannot claim that my heart breaks over every person who rejects God’s offer to save as God’s heart breaks over them. But it should. Jeremiah is, I think, the model for what pronouncing God’s judgments should look like. It breaks the prophet’s heart to need to tell people that their actions are sinful, but his heart is full of joy when he extends God’s offers of mercy and grace.

Do I feel the same way when pronouncing the judgment of God on something I know He condemns? Is my sorrow beyond healing that people reject God’s grace? Is my heart … faint at the prospect of what awaits those who reject God’s Son? If yes, then I am where I ought to be. If no, then I need to go before God and seek for Him to change that in me.

Relationship (Jeremiah 7:22-23)

“For I did not speak to your fathers, or command them in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices. But this is what I commanded them, saying, ‘Obey My voice, and I will be your God, and you will be My people; and you will walk in all the way which I command you, that it may be well with you.’”

Jeremiah 7:22-23

There is a common misconception about how God wants to relate to humankind. So often, God is perceived as a giver of rules; a speaker of “Do”s and “Do Not”s. While the Ten Commandments are definitively in The Bible and while there are extensive books of rules and regulations, these verses serve as a reminder that God did not begin with rules, He began by offering relationship.

This can be seen as far back as Eden, where God walked in the cool of the day to spend time with the first man and woman. It is also seen in Enoch, who walked with God. There is no mention made of offering sacrifices or of following some prescribed set of rules and regulations, only the companionable action of walking with God. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob/Israel, even on down to Moses. And it was in the time of Moses that God spoke the words of which He reminds Israel (the nation, not the individual) in these verses.

As with the Father, so with the Son. Jesus extended offers of relationship repeatedly. He told all who are weary and heavily burdened to come to Him and He would give them rest. He followed that up with telling us to take His yoke. Animals that are yoked together walk together; work together. Jesus offers not only to walk with us and share the load of our lives, but to also make us a part of His work. The yoke works both ways. Not only is His strength available for the things that I must do, but I am tied into the things which He is doing.

I do not want to make it sound as if there are no rules. There absolutely are. But it is not rules that God offers to all who would come. It is a relationship with Himself. Rules are helpful. Relationship is so much more. Rules allow us to get into the neighborhood of God. Relationship allows us to snuggle in close to our Father.

Rules are good. Relationship is better. What God wants is best: a relationship that is so intimate that we know His heart on matters without Him saying anything. My wife and I have been married for five years this summer. It is not a long time, but there are things that we no longer need discuss, because we know one another’s heart on the matter. We might still touch base (and often do); verify that we are correct in our surmise, but most often the surmise is correct and the intimacy of relationship begets an intuitive understanding of one another. That level of intimacy is what God wants for my relationship with Him.

God wants relationship. He wants to be my friend as well as my God and my King and my Savior. Will I let Him get that close? Will I get that close to Him? The choice is mine.


Doing It Wrong: Thoughts on Parenting

I am now the pleased as punch and exhausted as you please father of a two-year-old girl and a newborn boy. This has been a true statement for almost two weeks. I guess that means I am the father of a two-year-old and a two-week-old. I am terrible at counting ages.

Earlier this week, on one of the myriad of walks on which I take my daughter to make sure she gets physical activity (and I get sleep), I told her that she would be seat-belted into the stroller if she failed to obey when daddy told her not to traipse through other people’s gardens (the kind with flowers and topiary and other such malarkey). She, of course, failed to obey and was summarily relegated to imprisonment in her stroller.

Her ire was fierce and short-lived.

As we sauntered through one of the more pleasantly upscale neighborhoods near our apartment — she strapped into her stroller and I on foot — we passed two other adults.

The first is an older gentleman of Chinese descent. I know this because he told me he is Chinese. He is also awesome. He chatted with my daughter and pointed out the peacock on his lawn and gave us advice about what they like to eat (oatmeal, uncooked, presumably). My daughter, prior to this encounter, had enjoyed a messy snack (a granola bar, I think) and had remnants of said snack smeared across her face in a distinctly toddlerish fashion. This gentleman’s comment was to the effect that my daughter must have enjoyed her snack. A fact to which I can attest.

I walked away from that encounter feeling like a halfway decent father.

The second adult by whom we passed was a woman on her bicycle. She had on the proper riding outfit (the stretchy nonsense that bicycle shoppes — spelled with unnecessary vowels and consonants, thank you — sell) and a helmet which I can only imagine has every safety certification under the sun (possibly including some form of UV protection). Her two children trailed her (by a large margin) on their own bicycles in similar attire and with similar helmets. Nothing was dirty or out of place or even wrinkled (in fairness, those outfits could have been wrinkled when they were donned and no one would be the wiser after one’s body had stretched them out) on any of them. She gave me a look that felt as if it were intended to be withering; a sneer that communicated disdain for my having the unmitigated gall to bring my soiled toddler out in public in a cheap stroller (the one we used that day is, in fact, a cheap stroller). The impression given by that woman was of scoffing at the plebeian classes wandering through her fair neighborhood. And I was left feeling that she could not possibly imagine how my child would become anything more or less than a fry cook.

Now, it is entirely possible that the woman’s look meant nothing in connection with me. She may have been exasperated with her children (who were, after all, lagging an impressive distance behind her) or uncomfortable (I cannot imagine those riding outfits to be anything approaching comfortable) or any of a host of other things. But that look encapsulated a vibe that is given off by a lot of folks — the vibe that I am doing this whole parenting thing wrong.

I get that a lot. There are so many social pressures on us now that the age of social media has impressed upon us the overachieving status of those moms and dads who do it all better than us. But we only get the snapshots they give us. Boards of kitschy ideas abound, but we cannot know how many of those ideas are original and how many derivative. Social media parades the accomplishments of our peers’ children (first place soccer team, honor roll AGAIN — both stories from my own Facebook feed), but omits the daily grind of parenting that child (the kid threw a fit every time he was asked to brush his teeth … for three hours — I made this one up, but it sounds plausible). We get a collage of life — a million million little fragments taken wholly out of context, but not the broad sweep of its landscape. In the midst of this social onslaught, I often feel like I am doing it wrong.

After some consideration, I have concluded that the only criteria for doing this parenting thing right are to raise my children in the training and admonition of the LORD God and to love them as the gifts from God that they are. That is it. Raise them in God’s ways and love them. I am far from perfect in either of those areas, but I am working on both daily. The notion that I can be doing it wrong because my daughter’s face is smudged from the chocolate chips in the granola bar she just finished (a frequent occurrence) or her hands dirty from time spent playing in the sand at the park (often with water, too) or lifting rocks as we walk along (she tries to steal them from people’s yards) or from quite literally hugging trees (She wraps her arms around the trunk and delightedly says, “Tree!”) is absurd. She is loved — which is why her father is enduring the heat to go on that walk at all. She is disciplined — which is why she was strapped into that cheap stroller in the first place.

Two years into this parenting thing and I, like so many who have gone before, am taking the wisdom given by God’s Word and by those who have walked this path before me and playing it by ear. I do not know whether or not I am “doing it wrong,” though social media snapshots seem to indicate that I am, but I am going to raise my children in the discipline and teaching of God and I am going to love them ferociously; protectively; fiercely. I know no other way.

Superficial (Jeremiah 6:14)

“They have healed the brokenness of My people superficially,
Saying, ‘Peace, peace,’
But there is no peace.”

Jeremiah 6:14

There is a fair bit of superficial life happening in the United States. I live in California which is a hotbed of such activity. So many folks are so busy keeping up with some imagined ideal; some non-existent pass bar that their entire life consists of those superficial  pursuits.

Worse, there is a fair bit of superficiality within the church. Every time I come across a verse that warns against superficiality, I find myself asking God if my relationship with Him is genuine. I do not see anything wrong with that sort of examination. However, there are preachers and teachers and folks who claim to walk in the light who are healing wounds superficially and leaving the deep injury to fester.

Take, as an example, sexual sin. The practice itself is wrong — The Bible declares it to be so. This does not mean that people practicing one of that suit of sins are irredeemable, only that they are in a place where the sin is ascendant and God is in the back seat. Redemption is completed and sanctification is possible, but it will be painful and difficult and require a daily renunciation of the desires of the flesh. I speak from experience in this area. There are those who will say that God delivers from any and all sins immediately. This is true to a point. The penalty of all sins has been dealt with at the cross of Christ. The presence and persistence of sin in our life must be dealt with on a day-by-day, moment-by-moment basis. God does sometimes deliver immediately and miraculously from certain sins — I know a person who was delivered in that way from drunkenness — but He sometimes requires us to pitch the battle lines and take the hill. To tell a person caught in sexual sin that they can continue in that sin and be secure in their salvation ignores the better part of scripture. To tell them that they are in for a pitched battle; a protracted fight to expel that false ruler from their lives sounds harsh, but is the kindest thing I can do for them.

We, the church, need to be aware that there are those claiming to speak on God’s behalf and telling people caught in sin that they can continue in that sin and be saved. This simply is not so. We must join the battle against sin within us or be counted the enemies of God. There is no middle ground.

Let us heal wounds, but let us not gloss over the damage. Let us confront sin first within ourselves and then within those around us so that we may say from our own experience that God is able to give victory.

How Bitter (Jeremiah 4:18)

“Your ways and your deeds
Have brought these things to you.
This is your evil. How bitter!
How it has touched your heart!”

Jeremiah 4:18

We, believer and non-believer alike, often find ourselves wanting to blame our misfortune on someone or something else. We try to blame anything but ourselves — our upbringing, our temperament, our genetics, bad luck, oppression. The truth is that some of these things may be very real obstacles we need to overcome, but when our lives are receiving the payment for the wrongs we have done, there is nothing and no one else to blame but ourselves.

God said to those who were in rebellion that their rebellion against Him had brought the calamities on their heads. And God was (and still is) in the best position to know a thing like that.

When certain aspects of life are challenging; when it feels like God’s favor has departed from me; when everything seems to be going sideways, let me examine myself and see if it is not my own wrongdoing that has brought those circumstances on my head. It may be that I have done nothing, as was the case with Job. It may be that God is allowing something tragic so that I turn to Him for comfort and can then turn and comfort others with that same comfort given to me, as Paul wrote to the Corinthian church. Not every bad circumstance is due to sin in my life, but some will be and I need to recognize those for what they are and repent of the sin that brought them.

Life is challenging in many ways right now. In some cases, the difficulties have nothing to do with action or inaction on my part. Those difficulties are not what God is talking about in this verse. In other instances, the challenges are incidental to other parts of life in progress – just par for the course of life. Those are likewise not what God is addressing in this verse. There are challenges that can be traced back to decisions I made; decisions to do what God commanded I not do. Those difficulties are the ones God is addressing. And I heartily agree with God — This [my] your evil. How bitter! How it has touched [my] heart!