New Testament Grace

Where Exactly is the “Wiggle Room”?

The Scriptures are powerfully effective when we understand them.

For the word of God is living and effective and sharper than any two-edged sword, penetrating as far as to divide soul, spirit, joints, and marrow; it is a judge of the ideas and thoughts of the heart. Hebrews 4:12 NASB

My time with the LORD when I sit for Bible study can be incredibly challenging. Admittedly, I know I’ve come to the table with preconceived ideas, my own preference of interpretation, and imaginary “wiggle room” when I study. I’m sure I’m not the only one, and I know it’s not always with malice in my heart. It’s a fine line, though. There is a definite difference between looking at the words on the page with immaturity (a Calculus problem with a Pre-Algebra skillset) and looking for the loophole (studying for a warped version of the “biblical bar exam”). Where it is immaturity, I believe a gift of growth and understanding waits for me while the Spirit whispers to my heart. Where I hope for “wiggle room” for my own selfish motives, I’m pretty sure it’s a whole different scenario.

Hebrews 4:12 paints a picture of the Bible’s specific function in our lives. Honestly, whether we are committed to following Christ or have yet to do so, I think this could be true. The Scriptures are intended to penetrate to our “soul,” our “spirit,” and they do so by God’s sweet grace for our benefit—because he loves us that much. We have all been given the gift of the expressed will of God (the very thing we want to know and follow as disciples of Jesus). Once we’ve read it, we’re responsible for what we know.

And that is the first obstacle to our imagined wiggle room in what we read.

Knowing the Scriptures is expected for those who follow Christ. A disciple knows the heart, mind, and will of the one who instructs, then he does what is taught. There’s only one way for that to happen. As disciples, we absolutely must know what is contained in the pages of the Bible! He was clear in his instruction to those who should know better in Mark 12:4 when “Jesus told them, ‘Are you not deceived because you don’t know the Scriptures or the power of God?'” (CSB). In this case, the religious leaders’ confusion was rooted in their lack of knowledge and understanding. I’m not positive whether it was the letter of the law or the heart of God that tripped them up, but I guess it would be the latter.

I’m tempted to let my study in this area spew all over this entry page, but I think I will restrain myself. Believe it or not, I can do that sometimes. I’m only slightly concerned with abandoning the topic too soon because of the usual trend toward legalistic interpretation. Still, I’m hoping for the best, gracious heart-knowledge….

Where can I smell the sweet fragrance of grace? It’s in the fact that, while we could be deceived, we have been given a gift to address that: the Bible, the Word, the expressed will of God. He leaves nothing to us, our selfish nature, or to chance. We’ve been given clarity in most things…because he loves us that much!

And I circle back to a favorite verse to wrap up.

[Growth in the Faith] For His divine power has given us everything required for life and godliness, through the knowledge of Him who called us by His own glory and goodness. 2 Peter 1:3 CSB

This is the hope I cling to when the wiggle room evaporates! I’ve been given everything I need. I know (or can find out) what God’s will is, and I have been given the power (the Holy Spirit) to follow through in my thoughts, words, and actions.

I’m so thankful for this grace!

~Jennifer

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Thought Questions:

Have you ever found yourself studying the Bible with a “loophole” mentality?
Is it easy to admit the “wiggle room” you wished for isn’t really there on the page?
When you realize it isn’t there, how does that feel?
What will you do with the reality of absolute truth (AKA: there just isn’t any wiggle room)?

Drop the Rock

Occasionally, our pain lands squarely in the category of “beyond our control.” Events can be products of our conscious decisions, but some are not. It’s possible to blame ourselves in a warped way, but the honest truth is, others’ choices can dramatically and painfully affect us. We know what that feels like, don’t we?

Let’s face it. It’s easier to move with the strong flow of a current rather than be the salmon fighting it with hard-wired instinct. The norm of the culture generally trends hard toward basic things: greed, envy, pride, anger, hate, and pleasure. All these things drive behavior. As I mentioned in my last post, the culture permeates our hearts, minds, and actions over time, if we’re not particularly vigilant. The most attractive presentation drips with the honey-sweet taste of our own brand of justice.

So, where is this going, you ask? John 8.

An Adulteress Forgiven
2 At dawn He went to the temple complex again, and all the people were coming to Him. He sat down and began to teach them. 3 Then the scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman caught in adultery, making her stand in the center. 4 “Teacher,” they said to Him, “this woman was caught in the act of committing adultery. 5 In the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do You say?” 6 They asked this to trap Him, in order that they might have evidence to accuse Him. Jesus stooped down and started writing on the ground with His finger. 7 When they persisted in questioning Him, He stood up and said to them, “The one without sin among you should be the first to throw a stone at her.” 8 Then He stooped down again and continued writing on the ground. 9 When they heard this, they left one by one, starting with the older men. Only He was left, with the woman in the center. 10 When Jesus stood up, He said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” 11 “No one, Lord,” she answered. “Neither do I condemn you,” said Jesus. “Go, and from now on do not sin any more.”  CSB

This passage contains rich teaching, plenty of characters to explore, and several angles from which to study it. I could note elements other teachers have highlighted. Questions could be asked of the text to yield deeper thought but fewer answers:

Where is the man who was “caught” with the woman?
Does the intent to “trap Him” play into the context more than I might think?
What *is* Jesus writing?

That’s enough for now. Asking those questions of the text would be natural for me, but I really want to take a closer look at the men holding the rocks. A keen sense of justice brought them to the point of grabbing stones for the woman’s punishment. Every man’s heart was primed to execute justice. The stones had her name on them, every one.

We don’t typically pick up rocks in this country to exact justice (this is when I’m thankful for our Constitution and judicial system). We have other weapons to “serve justice.” What are the “rocks” in our hands? What will we use to punish others for the range of wrongs—from little mistakes to more severe offenses? Silence. Separation. Furious, long lecture. “Word weapons” in our arsenal. Avoiding eye contact. Looks we wish could kill. Property damage. Terribly painful (and punishable by law) is causing physical harm to others. We clutch various “stones” in our angry hands, primed and ready, with someone’s name on it, don’t we?

We don’t live long without experiencing the pain of condemnation in some form. The characters in every story will be unique, but the gist will be the same. We know the scene. In the case of the adulterous woman, the accusation indicates her wrong-doing, something that deserved punishment by God’s Law. Our personal story may include our own poor decisions, or we may be completely innocent (as children, victims of others’ wrong choices, or bystanders). In any case, justice could (or should) be served. When we have the opportunity to see justice done, we have a choice to make.

Note: When justice needs to be done for specific, illegal activity, we may not (possibly should not) have as much choice to influence the flow of that process. Scripture is clear; there is justice and punishment for breaking the law. In the case where we have opportunity, that is the time to think about our response to an offense.

That said, may we never let our keen desire for justice become the emotional hinge on which everything turns. Some relationships offer the opportunity for smaller, less painful wounds. Maybe we could start with those and work toward the more significant offenses. In any case, what will we do? Will we keep the rock in our sweaty palm or drop it?

Jesus diffuses the situation with the adulterous woman simply. He suggests the completely innocent man throw the first stone (v. 7). Did the older, honest men walk away first? Did the impetuous, young men linger until they faced their own denial? We may never know, but we can imagine: Thud. The first rock fell, and a little dust cloud rose from it. The others followed.

The main thing I take away from this slice of the story is the plain, hard truth—I’m not different from the one who has made poor choices (Romans 3:23). I keep hoping this perspective will create a softer, more compassionate heart toward the offender. Sometimes it does, especially when the offense is similar to my own choices. If a gentler response isn’t forthcoming, I want to examine my thoughts and feelings to cultivate one. The other takeaway is this—the only one who could exact real, honest justice isn’t me. This little nugget is tougher to sit with, in my mind.

“Resentment is like taking poison and hoping the other person dies.” ― Augustine

Augustine isn’t a biblical source, but he was wise. Self-inflicted damage occurs in the unforgiving heart. It is significant and worthy of attention. Dropping the rock from our angry, sweaty grip isn’t weak, and it isn’t the hallmark of a martyr. It can be a beautiful journey to freedom! There’s some incentive right there, but don’t forget the instruction we receive in Colossians 3:

12 Therefore, God’s chosen ones, holy and loved, put on heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, 13 accepting one another and forgiving one another if anyone has a complaint against another. Just as the Lord has forgiven you, so also you must [forgive].

If we are “God’s chosen ones,” we are commanded to be the salmon swimming upstream in the culture’s current. Be different. Be the church as our God describes: holy, loving, genuinely compassionate, kind, humble, gentle, patient, and forgiving. We are, after all, forgiven!

So, I turn all of this this over in my mind and think about dysfunctional family relationships, painful moments in friendships, and the devastation caused by strangers. One by one, I want to examine my stockpile of rocks. And, if I’m swallowing arsenic, hoping someone else will feel the effects, I think that’s got to stop.

What do you think? Could we empty our hands and pour out the poison?

Committed to dropping some rocks,

~Jennifer

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Thought Questions:

Do you have a rock with a name on it to think about?
Whose name is on it
? Is it your own name?
Which rock will you commit to loosening your grip on first?
Why should you commit to dropping this particular rock?
What steps will you take to improve the relationship with the one who deserves justice?

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Scripture references from http://www.biblestudytools.com from Crosswalk.com.

Pondering Grace: It’s Better to Give Than…

I’ve been doing a little thinking about the last post, and in combination with some recent personal events, something has been rattling around in my mind to the point of distraction. Usually that means it’s time to write. (A lot of you “get” that, I’m sure.) Here is my best effort to capture it, though it feels a little like herding cats.

I can be selfish. What—you can, too? It can be comforting to know we’re not alone in some things. I don’t suppose any of us honestly wants to condone or encourage it, but acknowledging the problem can be a step toward change. It’s all about bringing the dark things into the light.

This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what he has done has been done through God.” John 3:19-21

Friends, we ultimately choose whether to merely exist in the shadows or live fully in the brilliant daylight. And the choice is going to be hard for a time while the decisions cause angst between what we habitually know and what we really, really want. Much like running a marathon begins with a few single steps toward the goal, we take single, isolated steps toward bold choices that lead to change and a new “daylight” lifestyle that honors God. There have been several teachable moments for me in this area recently.

I have choices, and lots of them, every day. It’s almost always a choice between a sweet aroma of grace or the stench of something quite different. I think we can all distinguish between the attractive qualities of grace and the repulsive qualities that go along with selfishness, dishonesty, disrespect, malice, and the other nasty options that abound. We don’t want to be on the receiving end of the nasties, but we shouldn’t be on the giving end, for sure! Followers of Christ have been given clear direction. There are various lists of evil behaviors in Scripture; they are easy to find (Matthew 7:20-23; Romans 1:28-32; Titus 3:3; etc.). Being familiar with these helps us identify the worst choices.

The comforting part of the lists above, if there were any, might be that Titus 3:3 establishes the behaviors are common to all of us, at least at one time, or in a season of life (pre-conversion, for the author of the book, it appears):

At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another.

When decisions are hard, I’m reminded to soak for a while in that “At one time we too were” there. I’m not alone. It’s not uncommon, but it’s not okay. There’s some tension for you right there!

Objects in mirror are closer than they appear.

When property is damaged or stolen, feelings are trounced upon, or I feel insignificant as others disregard me in conversation (notice the “majors” and “minors” in my list), I will have a difficult time. I’m offended, and it’s a big deal to me. I’m reminded of the printed warning on my car side mirrors: Objects in mirror are closer than they appear. It’s a somewhat poor analogy compared to the straight forward “plank-speck” analogy in Matthew 7 and Luke 6, but bear with me.

Consider how myopic we might easily become. Either the offense triggering the poor choice becomes greater in our field of vision (closer than it appears in reality) or the grace we received at the cross does. And it’s a choice—a tough one, though. Things have monetary and sentimental value, our hearts crave significance in relationship, and our mistakes or others’ can drive us to undesired behavior. Grace-filled humility contrasts starkly against our natural desires for significance, respect, and honor. Dear goodness! It’s insanely hard when our pride goes head-to-head with genuine humility, isn’t it?

I am brought back, full circle, to the post in Romans about the “Do-Do Chapter.” I do selfish things I honestly don’t want to do, and I don’t do gracious, humble things I genuinely want to do when I consider the sacrifice of grace on my behalf at the cross. It takes different forms: “big stuff” I believe jeopardize my overall comfort, health, and well-being and “little stuff” that hurt my feelings a wee bit.

When I read Titus 3:1-11, I’m challenged to be completely different than I might otherwise want to be. But, there is a reason and a purpose behind making the changes:

But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life. This is a trustworthy saying. And I want you to stress these things, so that those who have trusted in God may be careful to devote themselves to doing what is good. These things are excellent and profitable for everyone. v. 4-8

What’s the whole point of being a “giver” of grace? Is it perhaps better to give than to receive in this case? Yes, and—just yes!

We have been the recipients of incredible mercy! The passage is clear; we’ve been granted merciful grace that offers rebirth and renewal, right standing (justification) with God, and adoption benefits (rightful heirs). That’s the reason behind making the changes. Being wholeheartedly devoted to doing what is good and right as a gift to others is what we’re called to. But, in as much as it benefits others, it’s the gift that keeps on giving. It is all-around “excellent and profitable for everyone.” That includes being beneficial to the giver. Giving grace benefits the recipient, but it also shapes our character after the One we follow. There’s a benefit we might not be counting in the mix, but it’s huge! It means our decision to be grace-givers will get easier with repetition, and we will be most definitely be changed. That’s the purpose behind the changes.

In my opinion, it is better to be a “giver” because that’s the ultimate calling on the Christ follower’s life and reflects the merciful, gracious nature of the One who sacrificed everything at the cross. Living out our high calling is both noble and the working out of our faith in this life amid the culture. And the cross—the sacrifice there must become more our motive for what we say, think, and do. Or if not, introspection is seriously needed to root out the reasons for choosing to exist in the shadows rather than living in the brilliant daylight.

My prayer:
Dear Jesus, you’ve given me so much mercy and grace, and in doing so, you’ve assigned great value and purpose to my life. What an incredible gift you’ve given me! And it is not without reason and purpose. You loved me, and so sacrificed all for me. You love others, so you give me the opportunity to humbly offer the same loving mercy and grace to those in my sphere of influence. Then they see you in and through me and my choices. You want to change me, and you want others to be changed, too.

Dear Spirit, empower me in my weakness. Give me strength to reject the darkness and walk boldly into the brilliant daylight.

Dear Me (and those reading along), “live by the truth” and be courageous!

~Jennifer

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Photo Credit: “Objects in Mirror” – Jennifer J. (A little “doodle” I did a few years ago. All rights reserved.)
Scripture source: Crosswalk.com @ www.biblestudytools.com