Psalm 23 is no doubt the most well-known and well-loved psalm. It’s the first one kids memorize in Sunday school and a lot of adults can recite it still. Unless a person really thinks about what it means to be shepherded, it can simply be rote and meaningless. Jesus called himself our shepherd but how often do we think of him in that way?
Our shepherd Jesus provides everything we need. When he leads us by the still waters, we can relax and rest in his presence. Laying down in a green pasture means we don’t have to be looking over our shoulders for danger or trouble. We can even stay calm when the enemy is circling around us. We know he will always guide us and his loving presence is with us in this life and the next.
I love that he describes himself as our good shepherd (John 10:11-18). The good shepherd knows us intimately and loves us so much he laid down his life for us. And after the crucifixion and resurrection, he did not leave us alone. He is still guiding, protecting and loving us. How can we do anything but love the shepherd of our souls with our whole hearts? He is our true champion and defender – always.
We humans are a fickle bunch. We change our minds as often as the weather. Our loyalties fluctuate over many areas of life, depending on our experiences, feelings, politics, financial situation, age and health. We can’t help it – it’s part of being human, at least it seems to be in this social climate. This makes it hard to depend on anything – people, brands, governments, sometimes even ourselves. Perhaps the contrast between our fickleness and God’s faithfulness is what makes that part of God’s character so attractive.
We can always count on God’s faithfulness. He can’t be anything other than faithful, and as a fickle, sometimes faithless person, I love that about him. I know he will always be true to who he is and true to his word; he will always be on my side and always love me. I never have to doubt his motivation for anything he does (or doesn’t do); I don’t have to worry that if I mess up something, he will blow his top. No walking on eggshells with God. His constant steadfastness is one of the foundations of my life – and I can trust him with my life.
How amazing to know God is as steady as a rock and he will never let me down. His constancy is the one thing I can always depend on – always and forever.
You might have heard or said “God is good – all the time. All the time – God is good.” I’m sure we all believe God is good, but what do we really mean when we say it? When we think of people we would call good, we usually mean they are law-abiding, kind, generous and helpful, among other things. God is all of those, except he’s the one who created laws of all kinds so saying he’s law-abiding doesn’t mean the same thing as it applies to humans. Another difference is that God not only does good, but his goodness is who he is.
We could spend a lot of time talking about all the good things he does, like creating the varieties of food, spices, herbs, fibers for clothing, flowers, animals, water, the sun, moon and stars, not to mention salvation and redemption – the list is endless. The list of who he is in his goodness is also endless, so much that we can’t comprehend the extent of it. But we do know love is the essence of who he is, and that means he cannot be or do anything that goes against his nature. He is always true to who he is. He doesn’t lie (Titus 1:2) and he is faithful (1 Corinthians 1:9). “He is the Rock, his works are perfect, and all his ways are just. A faithful God who does no wrong, upright and just is he (Deuteronomy 32:4, NIV).
When we hear about acts of kindness or goodness in others, we applaud and admire them. We also desire goodness in ourselves and we know human goodness comes only from God. But his goodness is so real we can taste it: “Taste and see that the Lord is good; blessed is the one who takes refuge in him” (Psalm 34:8, NIV). May we never forget his goodness and may it give us many more reasons to love him.
Years ago, I watched The Visual Bible: Matthew, which came out in 1993. The entire script was made up of only the words in the book of Matthew. I also got to meet the actor who portrayed Jesus, Bruce Marchiano. He shared at a women’s conference how he studied for the role. He was looking for something to help him and came across a little out of print book in the back of a bookstore called Jesus, Man of Joy, by Sherwood Wirt (it’s now available on Amazon). He said it really opened his eyes to how joyful Jesus was and it changed the way he depicted him.
I remember Jesus smiled at times during the book of Matthew but the smile that stuck in my mind after all these years was at the end of the movie, after the resurrection. Jesus walks away from the empty tomb with a huge smile on his face, beckoning us to come along. I couldn’t help getting goosebumps at the wonderful feeling of accomplishment he must have had and the excitement of us following him, the conqueror of sin and death.
We probably don’t think of Jesus smiling when we read the gospels, but I’m sure he did. Though a man of sorrows (Isaiah 53:3), he was anointed with the oil of joy (Psalm 45:7; Hebrews 1:9). I also believe he smiles when he thinks of us (Zephaniah 3:16-17). His smile is just another reason to love Jesus. His smile makes me smile!
We all love generous people. Those who go above and beyond with gifts, money and even time make us feel loved, appreciated and uplifted. An unexpected gesture of generosity can make us feel valued as a person. And this is another thing I love about Jesus. He was (and continues to be) not merely the most generous person who ever lived, but munificent in his giving, which “suggests a scale of giving appropriate to lords or princes” (Merriam-Webster online dictionary).
Not only did he empty himself, not considering equality with God something to grasp or take advantage of, he made himself “nothing” to become a servant to us (Philippians 2). With “warmhearted readiness” (Merriam-Webster), he gave everything he was and had so we can have abundant life now, and live with him forever. I can’t think of a more generous act or a more loving gift. Jesus told us there is no greater gift than to lay down one’s life for his friends (John 15:13) – he calls us friends and he laid down his life for us.
In this incredible, loving act of munificence, he makes us feel loved, appreciated and valued. He elevates our humanity by first assuming our sinful humanity to save us from ourselves and then sharing his humanity with us. I love his warmhearted readiness, his lavish, unremitting giving, his liberal and unstinting generosity, giving not merely as humans give, but on a scale above and beyond that of lords, princes, kings and emperors. What a munificent Savior!
I love riding my bike. One time I was going on about riding and how much I enjoy it and a friend asked, what do you like about it? I answered: “Everything!” I like working hard to climb a hill and then flying down. I love the freedom of exploring new places and I even love the clothes (yes, the shorts too). It’s the same when I think about what I love about Jesus – everything!
His humility is especially attractive and intriguing. One of my favorite passages in the New Testament is Philippians 2. Paul tells us Jesus made himself nothing to become one of us. His humility and self-emptying (kenosis) are astounding. For the creator of space, time, the universe, earth and all it holds to give up the glory he shared with the Father and the Spirit is something we can hardly comprehend. He continued to show humility to everyone he encountered. It was most evident when he went to the cross, humbling himself to die a criminal’s death, enduring the ultimate shame and derision to lay down his life for us.
Humility is a rare commodity today. It’s scary because it usually means giving up something of ourselves and everything within us tells us not to because we think it will hurt or diminish us. It’s one of those supernatural laws that seems contradictory, that whoever wants to save their live will lose it, but whoever loses their life for Jesus will save it (Matthew 10:39, 16:25; Mark 8:35; Luke 9:24). Jesus is so full of humility that he will even share his with us. This is the only way to true humility – for him to fill us with his, which at the same time empties us of our arrogance. Humbled by his humility – that’s something to ponder!
Thinking about last week’s post regarding the kindness of God reminded me of something I read in a book called The Organic God by Margaret Feinberg. She said someone asked her what she loves most about Jesus. Here is her answer: “In his interactions with people, Jesus flashed the beauty of his Father, a God who is breathtakingly beautiful. Such beauty is a reflection of his holiness, a representation of the harmony of the Trinity, and its expression is manifested throughout creation.”
There are many things to love about him and we could even wonder what’s not to love about Jesus. Getting to know him better and going deeper in relationship with him could be enhanced by meditating on specific aspects of his nature, character and personality. What do you love about him?
Besides his kindness toward us, I love his gentleness. In both Isaiah 43 and Matthew 12, we are told he won’t break a bruised reed or snuff out a smoldering wick. He was gentle with children, who are sometimes like a bruised reed, easily overlooked and harmed by careless words and mistreatment. He was gentle with women, especially those who were hurting and downtrodden. He is gentle with us, kindly and gently loving us to greater depths of relationship and maturity in him. He doesn’t kick us when we’re down. He understands our weaknesses to the point of protecting and guarding us as you would a flickering candle.
His gentleness shows us how to not only treat others, but how to treat ourselves. May his gentleness lift you up and keep you going.
Most churches don’t preach fire and brimstone anymore. Some of you may not even know what this is or what it sounds like. In some old movies, like Pollyanna, you can get a taste of what it was like to sit in the pews and be scared to death of going to hell. Even though most sermons don’t sound like this, many sermons, books and devotionals are filled with subtle legalism, causing people to think they aren’t good enough, aren’t doing enough and need to work harder at being Christians.
Jesus didn’t operate that way – he loved people into believing, rather than trying to scare them. Paul knew this. In Romans 2:4, he tells us it’s the kindness of God that leads us to desire him and his kingdom, not images of devils, flames and torture. In The Passion Translation, Paul asks, “Do you realize that all the wealth of his extravagant kindness is meant to melt your heart and lead you into repentance?” The footnote says the Aramaic word for kindness can be translated sweetness! The New Living Translation puts it like this: “Don’t you see how wonderfully kind, tolerant, and patient God is with you? Does this mean nothing to you? Can’t you see that his kindness is intended to turn you from your sin?”
Even though most people don’t have to endure the scare-them-to-death strategy of evangelism anymore, we still need to beware of anything less than the total grace Jesus offers us through his saving sacrifice. Dr. Daniel Thimell, in Trinitarian Conversations Volume 2: Interviews with More Theologians (You’re Included), reminds us that “Grace is the basis for our life in God, not our works” and “The gospel invites us to look away from ourselves to what God in Christ has done.”
God’s kindness, sweetness and patience may not be as gripping and attention-getting as fiery, angry preaching, but it’s much more effective and more soothing to broken, hurting souls. May his kindness and sweetness envelop and comfort you.
When the disciples asked Jesus to teach them how to pray, he introduced a new way to address and even think of God – as our Father. Before then, prayers did not begin this way even though some verses referred to him as father. It wasn’t appropriate to do so as it was too familiar and didn’t show the proper respect. But Jesus went so far as to use the intimate term “Abba,” which probably shocked some of the Jews. We pray to him and we think of him as our Father both because of Jesus’ example and because we have been adopted as God’s children.
Some will tell you not to pray directly to Jesus or the Holy Spirit. Some will tell you to give the Father, Son and Spirit equal time and if you don’t, you may be guilty of neglecting one or the other. I’m addressing this because I quoted someone in a previous post who said exactly that – if we don’t pray to the Holy Spirit, we should repent and begin giving him equal attention. If you searched for this person on the Internet, you may have found his article and wondered about this. Is he correct? Should we repent of neglecting Jesus or the Holy Spirit if we are not giving equal attention to each person of the Trinity?
The answer is no. This kind of thinking is tritheism, separating the one God into three gods or three beings. He is indivisibly one with three distinctions. When we pray to the Father, we are also praying to Jesus and the Holy Spirit. When we commune with Jesus, we are communing with the Holy Spirit and the Father. We don’t have to worry that we’ve been neglecting the Spirit if we only pray to the Father or to Jesus. We do acknowledge and understand that Christian prayer is to the Father, through the Son and in the Spirit, but thinking of God as three separate beings who each demand equal time is to misunderstand his triune nature. God is one in three and three in one and hears our prayers no matter how we address him. Believing he feels neglected or gets offended is thinking he’s like us and making him over into our image.
(For more on the triune nature of God, go to www.gci.org/youre-included/, featuring interviews with trinitarian theologians.)
God, are you there? Are you listening? Can you hear me? Many prayers have begun this way, especially in movies and books, to show the character’s doubt or disbelief in God. If you’re reading this, you probably don’t wonder if God listens, because you know he does. We can be sure of this because of the many times we are told to pray, by even Jesus himself, and the many examples of prayer in the Bible. We can read of answered prayers and the times God has spoken to his people.
I read an enlightening little book called Whole Prayer by Walt Wangerin. In it, he says “God’s listening precedes our praying, so that we pray into a divine and merciful awareness, already waiting and knowing what we are about to say.” I found this encouraging for those times (I must admit) when it seemed I either wasn’t communicating very well with God or I wasn’t hearing anything back. Even though prayer is so simple children do it successfully, it can sometimes seem difficult and even uncomfortable.
To know we pray into a divine awareness can change our perspective on this mystery of prayer. He’s not just listening, but actively aware of us, already knowing what’s on our minds and in our hearts, and not just knowing, but understanding in a deeply intimate way. He doesn’t disconnect with us when we finish our prayer, like we’re on some kind of cosmic telephone call, and then wait for us to start praying again to reconnect. His awareness of us doesn’t end, has no limits, is divinely merciful, compassionate and loving. We don’t need formulas, positions or rules. Prayer is his mind to our minds, his thoughts to our thoughts, a more incredible experience than a Vulcan mind meld.
We don’t have to wonder if he’s listening if we remember we pray into his divine awareness. Wouldn’t it be great if we could be as aware of him as he is of us?