Stripped

Mark 6:7-13

As we saw last time, Jesus was rejected by the people of his hometown, which was a preparation for what was to come, the complete rejection of Jesus on the cross, as he hung between heaven and earth, forsaken by both.  Now it’s the disciples’ turn.

To be a disciple of the Rejected One would be to be rejected, as well, which is what Jesus’s closest friends needed to know before he sent them out on their first mission.  They would continue to do what Jesus had been doing by himself, ushering in the kingdom of God.  He called them together and gave them their assignments.  He told them they could only go out with one other person, two by two.  Right away, each disciple must have raised his eyebrows in surprise.  Wouldn’t it be better if we went out as one group, for strength in numbers?  But it got worse.  Jesus charged them to take nothing on their journey but a walking stick and the clothing on their backs.  They were not allowed to bring food, not even bread, no bag, no money, and no extra tunic to wear.  

They probably felt like Gideon, no doubt one of their heroes from the Old Testament.  Before Gideon faced the overwhelming Midianite army, which boasted 135,000 soldiers, God reduced the size of Gideon’s army from 32,000 to just 300 men.  The disciples probably thought about David, too, the teenager who fought the heavily-armed and feared giant, Goliath, with just a sling and a stone.  They might have thought of the Israelite slaves, whom God allowed to be trapped in the desert between the Red Sea and the mighty Egyptian army.  God seemed to have a pattern of stripping people down to practically nothing before placing them in an overwhelming situation to do an impossible task. 

“I’d better get back to the store.”  I said to myself after tapping my homescreen to check the time to see if my lunch break was over.  I was feeling particularly miserable and sorry for myself earlier today.  My family had just been through a string of setbacks.  Both our cars broke down, bills totalling over $2100.  One of our kids broke his arm.  Three weeks later, he did it again, which cost us an arm and a leg, or should I say, an arm and an arm.  Our property tax bill was due, too; two elective surgeries would not be covered by our insurance; my wife was being severely bullied at work; and my own menial job was increasingly unfulfilling.  On top of it all, we had legal issues.  It seemed like God was stripping everything away and I was questioning my purpose in life.  God, just tell me what you want me to do with my life.  Tell me what direction to go and how to fix it, because pretty soon, I’d be just like the disciples, down to my last shirt and pair of sandals.  

Ever been here?

I tucked a book under my arm and began to walk back to work.  I had been sitting at a park bench, eating my lunch, and reading a poem by Rumi:

“A King sent you to a country to carry out one special, specific task.  You go to the country and you perform a hundred other tasks, but if you have not performed the task you were sent for, it is as if you have performed nothing at all.  So man has come into the world for a particular task and that is his purpose.  If he doesn’t perform it, he will have done nothing.”

As I thought about this poem, I realized it sounded a lot like our passage today, Mark 6:7-13.  In both stories, there’s a King who sends his people into a country to do a task, not just a job, but a specific duty.  Rumi’s words were echoing in my mind as I bemoaned my life and questioned what I was to do on earth.  I wanted God to tell me what he wanted me to do; I wanted him to be clear.  I didn’t want to end up like the person Rumi warned about, who did a hundred other jobs, but not the one task the King sent him to do.  

Then I thought again of Jesus’s instructions to his disciples and I started to realize the profundity of them.  King Jesus sent his disciples into the country to do a task, but he limited their options, rather than multiplied them.  He didn’t load them with a lot of cargo and then prep them for every sort of scenario.  He didn’t give them a list with a hundred different tasks on it.  By not letting them bring extra items, by stripping them down to practically nothing, Jesus empowered them for just one task.  Their job was to confront evil: to expose it and call people to turn from it.  Jesus did not tell them to speak with the governor, reform temple worship, take on the Pharisees, teach people the Bible, root out sexual immorality in their culture, feed the homeless, teach parents how to raise kids who fear the Lord, lead worship services, or any of the other hundred things he might have sent them to do.  They had one job, so Jesus stripped away everything that was not necessary to that job.  

The King does the same for you and me, too.  He strips away all we don’t need in order to do the one job he sent us to do.  God is not sentimental with us, either.  It doesn’t bother him one bit to take almost everything away from us.  Why?  Because it’s the only way to guide our straying, seasick hearts.  The King is not just a ruler, but the Author of the story of this life.  He sends us into the plot like the author of a book sends in the next character.  He designs each character for a specific role within the plot, giving him or her the tools they need to accomplish their part in the great drama of redemption.  

He strips us to almost nothing so we won’t rely on ourselves, but on him, making our weakness our greatest strength.  Our weaknesses are the concrete barriers on the edges of the highway, keeping us from falling into the ditches of our own strength and guiding us to our destination.  

As I sit outside a closed coffee shop to use their internet for Google Drive, so that I can write this devotional on Mark 6, and wait to pick up my son with two broken arms and wonder how my wife is being treated on the night shift and how I will pay bills with money I don’t have, I rejoice that I have a shoe on each foot, a hoodie, and fingers that can declare Christ to be the King—the King who has sent me into this chapter of life to do this one job.  

Don’t spend your short life on a hundred jobs, because there’s only enough time for one—and you don’t need much to do it. 

And he called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits.  He charged them to take nothing for their journey except a staff—no bread, no bag, no money in their belts—but to wear sandals and not put on two tunics.  And he said to them, “Whenever you enter a house, stay there until you depart from there.  And if any place will not receive you and they will not listen to you, when you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.”  So they went out and proclaimed that people should repent.  And they cast out many demons and anointed with oil many who were sick and healed them. —Mark 6:7-13

The Breakdown

  1. Has God ever stripped you of the things you thought you needed?  What happened and what did you discover about God?  About yourself? 
  2. Why do you think it’s hard for people to accept that they might just have one calling to do in life?  
  3. If you could only do one thing for all eternity, what would it be?  What does this tell you about your calling, in other words, the reason the King sent you here?

10 Powerful Ways to Handle Rejection

I want to take a moment really to sink our teeth into Mark 6:1-6, the text we covered in our last devotional, which was affectionately titled, “God Pooped.”  If you haven’t read that one, then be sure to check it out!  Let’s cover the same text, but this time, let’s pull from its lessons on rejection.  I don’t know about you, but I’ve been rejected plenty in my life.  So let’s see how Jesus dealt with rejection.  Learning from Jesus, here are ten powerful ways to handle rejection.

  1. Don’t avoid rejection or live a paranoid life

We’re told right away that Jesus, “…went away from there and came to his hometown” (Mark 6:1).  Jesus wasn’t naive, he knew what he was headed for when he decided to go to his hometown.  Rather than spending his whole life avoiding the inevitable challenges of life, he faced them head on, for he knew if you’re truly living the way you’re supposed to live, then it’s not possible to live a life free of rejection.  Jesus had realistic expectations about being rejected, so it didn’t rile him when it happened, nor did it keep him from taking risks in life. 

  1. Do what you were made to do.

It says that Jesus, “…began to teach in the synagogue” (2).  Jesus was born to teach and challenge the status quo, so this is what he did, even if people rejected him for it.  If you have a gift and passion, then you have to do it, or else you’ll go crazy.  

  1. Expect people to question you.

Those who heard Jesus said, “Where did this man get these things?  What is the wisdom given to him?  How are such mighty works done by his hands?” (2).  While none of us will do the kind of astonishing works Jesus did, we will still do things that others question.  This is a mark of an authentic life.  If people do not question what you are doing, then you’re probably just living a life of the crowd.  You’re playing it safe, not doing what you were made to do.

  1. Embrace your humanity.

Even though Jesus was truly God, he did not take advantage of his divinity, but instead, he embraced his humanity.  The people of his hometown accused, “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon?  And are not his sisters here with us?” (3).  Jesus was never vexed by their accusations or embarrassed by his humanity.  He never said, “No, really, I’m no son of Mary, no brother of James, Joses, Judas, and Simon…I’m much better than they.”  Instead, Jesus embraces his humanity in full, never denying his heritage, skin, weaknesses, and warts.  Unfortunately, these days, this is where Chrisitanity tends to flop, but, if you take Jesus seriously, Christianity can really shine.  God wants you to embrace your humanity, not be ashamed of it.  Are you weak?  Embrace your weakness.  Struggle with your sexuality?  Embrace your homosexuality.  Wrestle with conditions, phobias, fears, uncertainties, anxieties, failures, shortcomings, or histories?  Embrace them all!  We’re not repeating the tired cultural cliche “you do you,” but, instead, we’re trying to get you not to rely on someone else’s version of what it means to be a child of God and help you understand God’s grace, which proclaims to you that God loves you just as you are.  God’s grace teaches us to say fuck self-righteousness, I’m going in for Christ’s righteousness.  Others may reject you, but you better not, because Jesus doesn’t.  Embrace yourself and then take yourself to Jesus to see what to do next. 

  1. Sit back at the table with brother Jesus and enjoy the family resemblance. 

People rejected Jesus and if you’re in his family, then you’ll bear this same family resemblance.  People will reject you, too.  So grab a beer, sit back at the table, and enjoy true fellowship with your brother, Jesus Christ, who was rejected first.  “A prophet is not without honor, except in his hometown and among his relatives and in his own household” (4).

  1. Don’t waste your time on those who don’t want what you have.

Because the people rejected the kind of God that Jesus was, he didn’t do that many miracles for them.  He didn’t heal as many as he could or teach as much as he was able.  Jesus knew not to waste his time and energy on those who rejected him.  Likewise, let’s learn from Jesus.  Instead of breaking your head trying to win people over, let it go.  As Jesus says elsewhere, shake the dust from your feet and move on.  Don’t humiliate yourself or let people walk all over you.  

  1. Spend time with and care for those who actually need you.

There were a few in the town who actually needed him and believed in him, so Jesus chose to spend his time and energy with them.  “And he could do no mighty work there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and healed them” (5).  Let’s learn from this!  Many might reject you, and I mean many, but not all.  Some people still believe in you and need you.  In this case, don’t miss the trees for the forest.  The masses might reject you and not need you, but that’s no big deal!  There are some hurting people around you who need you.  It might be a family member, lonely friend, or a pet.  If Jesus himself didn’t think too much of himself to care for just a few, then neither should you think you’re too important to care for just a single lonely dog or orphan or senior citizen or neighbor or friend.  

  1. Marvel at how they really reject Jesus, not you. 

“And he marveled because of their unbelief” (6).  Jesus was amazed at their unbelief.  Notice how Jesus did not react.  He did not indulge in self-pity, he did not lash back, he did not sulk, he did not get angry, he did not criticize, he did not curse, he did not mock, he did not escape in denial, he did not project this problem elsewhere, he did not get embarrassed, he did not let it ruin his day, he did not cry, he did not minimize their reaction, he did not condescend, and he did not escape to an addiction.  Instead, he marveled at their unbelief, which is incredibly instructive to us on how to handle rejection!  Now, if you’re being a dick, then that’s one thing, so stop being a dick as soon as possible.  But if people are rejecting you when you’re being your authentic self, trying to love them truly from the heart, and they reject you, then all that’s left to do is marvel at their rejection of Jesus.  Remember, they are not rejecting you, but Jesus in you, so let your reaction be to marvel at them and don’t take it so personally.  Don’t let it destroy your day.  

  1. Realize God’s crucifying grace.

When his hometown rejected him, this was just a foretaste of what was to come, for Jesus was on his way to the cross, to hang between heaven and earth and be rejected by both.  In other words, all rejections we experience in life are pointing to the reality of God’s crucifying grace.  By letting us experience rejection, God is crucifying our old nature, nailing it to a cross, helping us to shed its power.  Therefore, we must learn to embrace rejection, because God is dealing with something in our lives he wishes to kill off.  

  1. Know that you’ll meet Jesus in a special way in rejection.  

Finally, when you are rejected, you’ll meet Jesus in deeper and more profound ways.  You’ll enter into the fraternity of the rejected.  In your rejection, you’ll learn more about Jesus than you could ever learn when the world is all sunshine and rainbows and things are going your way.  Rejection is synonymous with Jesus and grace.

God Pooped

If you’re offended by the title, then this little devotional is already starting to do its job!  I want us to feel what the folks in Mark 6:1-6 felt when Jesus returned to his hometown.  He taught in the local synagogue and everyone was astonished at his teaching.  Like everyone who heard him, they thought he was wonderful, powerful, and wise.  They marveled at the mighty works he did, too, saying, “How are such mighty works done by his hands?” (2).  After all, they were very familiar with his hands, because they saw these hands grow from the delicate hands of an infant into the rough hands of a carpenter.  “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon?  And are not his sisters here with us?” (3).  They even knew his snot nosed brothers and sisters and all their typical problems, too.

It took balls for Jesus to return to his hometown, because you can’t pull the wool over anyone’s eyes there.  If Jesus were a conman, then they’d be the first to blow the whistle; but Jesus wasn’t afraid, because he wasn’t fake.  His going to his hometown proves he had nothing to hide.

Still, his neighbors couldn’t wrap their minds around what they saw.  On the one hand, his teaching seemed to be otherworldly, but on the other hand, they had seen him poop.  They were there when he learned to walk, went through puberty, and smashed his finger with a carpenter’s mallet.  Now the whole world’s going berserk, saying he’s God?  I mean, yes he teaches with power and calms the storm and raises the dead, but we were there when he learned to talk, was caught in a storm, and cried at his dead dad’s funeral.  “And they took offense at him.” (3).  Literally, they were “scandalized” by him, as the Greek word for “offense” indicates. 

So Jesus said, “A prophet is not without honor, except in his hometown and among his relatives and in his own household” (4).  As a result, “He could do no mighty work there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and healed them.  And he marveled because of their unbelief.” (5-6).

We might be tempted to think Jesus was not able to do miracles in his hometown because the people didn’t believe hard enough, but that interpretation would contradict everything Jesus stood for.  It turns Jesus into a vending machine or genie, just rub his belly hard enough and he’ll grant you a wish!  But you can’t manipulate Jesus, nor does he reward us for our good works, as if our good works could merit eternal salvation.  

Here’s what’s really going on.  The people of Jesus’s hometown didn’t want the kind of God Jesus was, so they rejected him.  And when you reject Jesus, then you reject the kind of God he is, a God who loves, heals, helps, accepts, and forgives.  

The Bible presents us with this fundamental truth about God over and over: God shows up in our lives on his terms.  God decides who he is and will be.  “I am who I am!” he told Moses.  We don’t get to dictate who God is or what he is like, just because of some stilted stereotypes we might have.  If God wants to show up in our lives as a pooping, burping, table-making carpenter with jealous siblings, then so be it.  He gets to be God how he wants to be God.

There are so many times in my life that I’ve missed out on being close to God or seeing him, because I was looking for the wrong kind of god, do you know what I mean?  I was looking for a god of my making, an idol.  God isn’t predictable, as we’d like him to be.  God isn’t normal, either.  The people of Jesus’s hometown probably thought the Messiah would come riding in on a big white horse with lightning bolts shooting out of his ass, who knows.  But Jesus smashes their expectations and hides right in front of their eyes in ordinary grimy human skin.

Maybe God is hiding right in front of your eyes right now.  Have you ever thought about that?  Maybe God is hiding within a problem you have, which you’ve been avoiding to deal with, so you’ve actually been ducking him.  Maybe God is in a coworker who’s been making your life a living hell, but you refuse to see the God who wants to help you grow.  Maybe God is hiding in a fear that keeps you up at night, which you refuse to face, so you keep praying for God to take it away, but that would only mean taking himself away.  Have you thought about that?  

Maybe God is hiding in the depths of your failure and you can only see him if you go deep enough into the darkness where you’ll find him in his joy.

When I cross-referenced Mark 6:5, I discovered an unnerving connection to Isaiah 59:1-2, which says, “Behold, the Lord’s hand is not shortened, that it cannot save, or his ear dull, that it cannot hear; but your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, and your sins have hidden his face from you so that he does not hear.”  In other words, the prophet Isaiah (who Mark references again and again in his gospel) said that God is able to heal and save us, but sometimes he doesn’t, because of our sins.  The sins referred to here are the sins of rejecting God’s plan to save us.  In Isaiah’s time, God wanted to save his people through their pagan enemies, the Persians (Isaiah 45:1), which God’s people couldn’t stomach.  But when we don’t like how God wants to save us, Isaiah warns, then God hides from us and doesn’t give us any other options.  

God is not hidden, as if he’s materially invisible and we just can’t see him, but he actually hides himself from us.  Like a father hiding in the closet during a game of hide and go seek with his child, God is here, but not here, at the same time.

In the same way, God was right there with the people of his hometown, but not there, at the same time.  He was hiding in their rejection and hiding in their false assumptions.  He was hiding in all their fears of what a Messiah should not be like.  He was hiding in ordinariness and familiarity and weakness, but they rejected a God like that.

And one day, most of them would completely reject and be scandalized by the God who went to the cross to die, which is what our text today is hinting at.

God loves to save us by the things that scandalize us, in order to humble us and help us rely on his grace, rather than our goodness.  

I’m convinced, if you can’t see the God who pooped, then you’ll never be able to see God in your life, because you’ll be looking in all the wrong places.  Again, you have to look in the places that scandalize you to see him. 

Jesus only saves those who take him on his terms, as he is, not those who wish to squeeze him into some other kind of mold.  Take Jesus as the Incarnate, defecating, killable God, or don’t take him at all.

The Breakdown

  1. Be honest, what expectations and stereotypes are you trying to force on God right now?  Write them down and ask yourself, “Do these look more like the God of the Bible or the god in my head?”
  2. As you’ve been encountering Jesus in Mark’s gospel, how have your perceptions of him changed?  What has surprised you?  What are you still wrestling with?
  3. Where is God hiding in your life right now?  Remember, like any good hider, God loves to hide in the darkest and least expected spots he can find. 

A Bleeding Woman and a Dead Girl

Go ahead and spend a few minutes reading today’s section, Mark 5:21-43, so that rather than retelling the story, I can go straight to some meditations on these precious verses.  Here are nine applications from the story of Jairus’s daughter and the bleeding woman. 

1. Our Stories Are Connected

All our stories are connected.  The story of the healing of Jarius’s daughter is intertwined with the story of the healing of the bleeding woman.  This connection is made obvious with the mentioning of “twelve years” in both cases.  The little girl was twelve years old and the woman had been bleeding for twelve years.  Think about their lives, Jarius and his wife welcomed into the world a newborn baby and on the same day, in an unknown home, a woman began to bleed.  One family experienced joy and another fear.  Twelve years later, their paths would intersect, because both their stories were brought together by a need for Jesus.  

We are all connected, but not just in our brokenness, in our hope, also.  People today find it meaningful to recognize our connection as a suffering human race, but we are also connected to each other by what Jesus can do for us.  Your story is connected with someone on the other side of the planet, because Jesus can touch both of you.  The healing hands of Christ hold all the stories of the world together.  

2. Our Efforts Make Things Worse

Our efforts to repair our lives make things worse, not better, so we need to rely on the grace of God.  There was a bleeding woman, “who had suffered much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had, and was no better but rather grew worse” (Mark 5:26).  The true story of the bleeding woman is also a parable to us about our ability to fix ourselves.  Nobody could heal the woman, no matter who they were.  Even though she spent everything she had, she was no better.  

Spiritually speaking, the same is true for you and me.  There are no people out there who can stop the bleeding in our lives.  And the harder we try, the worse things get.  Most of us know what it’s like to try our absolute hardest at something, only to see it get worse, not better.  Friedrich Nietzsche called human beings “the sick animal,” and I think this is what he meant by such a remarkable phrase.  Most of the time we know we’re sick, but the more we try to repair ourselves, the worse we become; and sometimes, we sabotage ourselves with pain in effort to heal ourselves of pain.  

3. We Need Faith

Faith, not more works, is what we need.  After the bleeding woman reached out and touched the garments of Jesus in order to get healed, Jesus said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease” (Mark 5:34).  Faith made her well, not more money.  Faith made her well, not more opportunities, better circumstances, a new job, different family, more friends, improved possessions, citizen rights, changed policies, and increased morality.  All these other things can be lumped together in the trash can called “good works.”  Yes, they are good, but they are not healing works.  They do not provide salvation from the human disease, they do not stop the spiritual bleeding, they do not help us sick animals to find meaning in life.  

In other words, nothing can take the place of God in our lives.  Even if you spend all the money in the world, you will never be able to do for yourself what God can do for you.  All the success and power you can accumulate in this world doesn’t compare with one touch of the bottom of Jesus’s garment.  A little of Jesus in your life goes a long way, much farther than the intelligence and resources of this world.  This is why faith, not more works, is what we need most.  And if faith is superior to works, then we owe it to ourselves (and those we love) to engage with activities of faith, such as prayer, meditation, partaking in the sacraments, hearing the gospel preached, Christian fellowship, and so forth.

4. Jesus Will Put the Solution out of Reach

Jesus will regularly put the solution out of reach, but that doesn’t mean he’s done working in our lives.  When Jarius first came to Jesus, his daughter was sick, but still alive.  “Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well and live” (Mark 5:23).  Jarius’s situation was absolutely desperate, so Jesus began to go to his home at once.  However, the situation wasn’t desperate enough, for Jesus knew things could get worse.  On the way to see the sick child, Jesus allowed himself to be interrupted and distracted by the bleeding woman.  He spent just enough time with the woman for further tragedy to strike at Jarius’s home.  

“There came from the ruler’s house some who said, ‘Your daughter is dead’” (Mark 5:35).  While we’ll never know for sure, it seems Jesus tarried long enough to turn a desperate situation into a hopeless one.  In fact, the man from Jarius’s house said, “Why trouble the Teacher any further?” (Mark 5:35), because the situation now was hopeless.  But there’s a lesson here for us to learn.  Whenever you hear yourself saying, “Why trouble God any more with this hopeless situation,” you may be right where God wants you to be.  Don’t give up yet, because God hasn’t given up yet.  

“But overhearing what they said, Jesus said to the ruler of the synagogue, ‘Do not fear, only believe’” (Mark 5:36).  In terms of boxing, Jesus was not ready to throw in the towel, but wanted to go a few more rounds.  Be careful who you listen to, for there will be those voices in your life that say to you, “Don’t bother about this anymore, because it’s hopeless.”  In critical moments like these, turn your ear to Jesus and listen to what he says, instead.  Chances are, he’s still in the ring fighting for you.  “Do not fear, only believe.”

5. When Suffering, Be Careful about Who You Allow to Get Close

When times are really tough, be careful who you allow into your life.  Even though we’re told over and over again that there were great crowds of people tagging along, notice that Jesus only selected a few to walk with him into the suffering home.  “And he allowed no one to follow him except Peter and James and John…” (Mark 5:37).  As your suffering increases, your friends will decrease, for not everyone has what it takes to face a storm.  Peter, James, and John had what it took to walk with Jesus into the tragedy, but no more than this.  To tell the truth, you don’t want people in your life who can’t hack the pain and difficulty.  You want just a few tried and true friends to be with you when things are really tough.  

6. Allow Jesus to Believe for You

Allow Jesus to believe for you, when you find it hard to believe for yourself.  When Jesus entered the home of Jarius’s daughter, many family members and friends were “weeping and wailing loudly” (Mark 5:38).  Jesus said to them, “Why are you making a commotion and weeping?  The child is not dead but sleeping” (Mark 5:39).  The people laughed at him for saying this, because they knew she was dead (40).  They knew what they saw with their own eyes, heard with their own ears, and felt with their own hands: the little girl was dead.  They found it very hard to believe she was sleeping.  Now, here’s a lesson we’ve got to learn about suffering in life.  The suffering you observe is true, but the suffering Jesus observes is also true.  Yes, you are right, your life sucks, the pain is real, and there is no hope in sight, but guess what?  The things Jesus sees are also right: our pain is not final, but just a pause, like a night’s sleep.  Both are true.  

So when you can only believe the former, trust Jesus to believe the latter for you.  To be clear, Jesus believes in our healing and restoration to life, even when nobody else believes it’s possible for us.  Even when your dreams are dead, with Jesus in the room they are merely sleeping, waiting for him to wake them up.

7. Jesus’s Words Are More Powerful

Jesus’s words are more powerful than the forces of earth.  There’s no doubt that the forces of this world are very powerful, such as disease, nature, technology, and living creatures.  However, Jesus’s words are stronger than all these combined.  Death was strong, but Jesus’s words, “She is not dead but sleeping” were stronger.  And his words, “Talitha cumi” pried her from death’s seemingly impenetrable grip.  Just as a painter’s hand creates when it moves, so do Jesus’s words create when they sound.  If Jesus says, “You are forgiven, then” then a new reality is manifested, a new world is born.  The world changed when it received back the little girl from the dead, and so does our world change when Jesus brings you back to life, forgiven of your sins.  His words about you create a new reality, which no other words about you can erase or conquer.

8. Take Care of Your Miracle

Take care of your miracle.  After Jesus raised her from the dead, Jesus, “…strictly charged them that no one should know this, and told them to give her something to eat” (Mark 5: 43).  When God gives you a gift, you are not off the hook, but you are responsible to care for it.  Jesus made her alive, but they had to keep her alive, by feeding her.  We often forget to take care of the wonderful gifts God gives to us, taking both them and him (God) for granted.  

9. God Can Make It Even Better

Finally, if you’re lucky, life will not work out the way you want, because God makes it even better.  Up until now, Jesus healed in just one way, by touching the sick.  But because of the crowd and fear of being known, the woman “discovered” a different kind of miracle, received by touching Jesus’s robe.  This was new, different, and unforgettable.  Disappointment and suffering birth a better version of you, forcing you to change course and see Jesus from a different vantage point in the crowd.  God loves to do new things, rather than repeat the same old kind of miracle or write the same kind of story.  Sometimes we need to know when to let go of our old dreams in order to let God give us new ones, for some dreams are twelve years in the making.  

The Breakdown

  1. Which of the above truths (found in the headings) stood out to you? Why? 
  2. What are some things we can do to move away from self-reliance and begin to rely more on God?
  3. Has God ever seemed to put the solution you needed out of reach?  What happened?  What did you learn about yourself?  About God?

Christ Our Pig

Mark 5:1-20

I know what you may be thinking, how can we be so irreverent, comparing the Son of God to a pig!  I don’t mean to be too much of a ham, but I think you’ll find this idea to be quite tasty, if I have the chops to pull it off.  Though it’s a meaty message, it has the potential to blow your house down.  Before you turn up your snout at my pig puns, I’ll get on with telling the tail. 

The Wild Side of Grace

In the last devotional, we heard Jesus say, “Let us go across to the other side” (Mark 4:35).  We learned that Jesus wants to take us from the side of the “law” to the side of “grace,” passing through a storm along the way.  Now that we’re through the storm and on the other side, we enter the wild world of grace.  Our passage begins, “They came to the other side…” (Mark 5:1).  We’re entering a fantastic world, where things aren’t what they seem to be and anything can happen.  More precisely, the things we would never expect to happen, happen.  This is an important distinction for those who think they’ve figured out what God is like and who ends up on top.

The Most Terrifying Man

It all starts in the land of the Gerasenes when a crazed man rushed out of the tombs toward Jesus.  If you had to score this guy on a “dudes I wouldn’t like to meet in a dark alley” scale, then he would get high marks in all the categories.  He was incredibly strong, able to break the shackles and chains they attempted to bind him with; he was mentally insane, evidenced by his cutting himself with stones and crying out in a loud voice; and, he was evil, being possessed by many demons.  This guy scored a perfect ten in the three major categories of a terrifying monster: strength, lack of sanity, and satanic possession.  

As you would expect, he was no match for Jesus, who commanded the unclean spirit to leave the poor man.  The man fell down on the ground before Jesus and begged him not to torment him.  Jesus asked the man, “What is your name?” to which the demon responded, “My name is Legion, for we are many” (Mark 5:9).  As it turns out, Legion was a community of about two thousand demons.

Legion’s Wish

If it weren’t crazy enough, here’s where the story gets really interesting.  Legion, “begged him earnestly not to send them out of the country” (Mark 5:10).  They wanted to continue to live in the land of the Gerasenes, which was an area on the eastern side of the Sea of Galilee.  They wanted to stay in that area and continue to find hosts to enter and destroy, just as they had done to the man.  

Pause for a moment and think, for this is where most people fail to pick up on this first clue on the meaning of the story.  The demons want to stay alive in the land of the Gerasenes.  If you were Jesus, who not only had power over demons, but also hated what they did to people, would you grant them their wish?  Would you let them continue to live in the land of the Gerasenes?  If so, then why did he cast them out in the first place?

And Now for Some Pigs

“Now a great herd of pigs was feeding there on the hillside, and they begged him, saying, ‘Send us to the pigs; let us enter them.’” (Mark 5:12).  Legion, who wanted to stay alive in the region, begged Jesus to let them take a herd of pigs as their host.  That seemed like a good compromise to them: they would leave the man alone, but would also get to continue to live.  

“So he gave them permission” (Mark 5:13).

What?  Is Jesus going soft on satan?  Rather than seeing this as Jesus compromising with the devil, let’s keep reading to see what happened.  

“And the unclean spirits came out and entered the pigs; and the herd, numbering about two thousand, rushed down the steep bank into the sea and drowned in the sea.” (Mark 5:13).  The demons got their wish, the pigs did a pork roll into the sea, and the man returned to normal.  The pig herdsmen, “…came to Jesus and saw the demon-possessed man, the one who had the legion, sitting there, clothed and in his right mind, and they were afraid” (Mark 5:15).   

Pigs Can’t Fly, But…

But pigs can swim.  Did you know that?  I grew up on a farm and my neighbors had both pigs and a pond.  I can testify that pigs can swim, especially when they get hot, which seems to be all the time.  If you don’t believe me, then just google it.  In fact, pigs are very strong swimmers, which begs the question, “Why did they drown?”  

Put this fact of porcine nauticality alongside our previous observation that the demons begged Jesus to keep them in the region so they could continue to live in another host, and you’ll begin to see what was happening.  Jesus, as you probably guessed, was not about to compromise with the devil; he wasn’t going to give them their wish and allow them to take another host in the land of the Gerasenes.  When he gave them permission to enter the pigs, he knew something they didn’t know.

The Noble Pig

Legion thought they won the case, because they got to enter the pigs, but Jesus knew the stout heart of the noble pig.  You see, many people think the demons overwhelmed the pigs so that they hoofed crazily toward the sea to die, but that understanding doesn’t make sense, given that the demons wanted to continue to live in the land of the Gerasenes.  If they wanted to continue to live, once they got their wish, then why would they have driven the pigs to kill themselves?  Even more, if pigs are such good swimmers, then how did they drown?

It’s better to see that the demons underestimated both the character and capability of the noble pig.  The pigs were in cahoots with Jesus; just as Jesus had power over the storm, so did he have power over the herd.  The pigs didn’t lose control, but the pigs maintained control and ran to their deaths.  They did it by sacrificing themselves in the sea.  Even though they could swim, they chose to die, rather than allow the demons to continue to haunt the land.

Foreshadow the Cross

A sacrifice was made, a man was freed, and demons were destroyed.  These are the elements of the cross, given ahead of time, in this titillating story.  

Just as Jesus would sacrifice himself in order to free people from sin, so did the pigs sacrifice themselves to free the man and his country of the horrible demons.  Just as Jesus didn’t rely on his powers as God to save himself, but set them aside, emptying himself (Philippians 2), so did the pigs not rely on their powers to swim, but set them aside, in order to die in the sea.  What a vivid image of how God takes our sin and plunges it into the heart of the sea (Micah 7:19)!  And that’s no hogwash.

Things Aren’t What They Seem

Finally, let’s see how this story applies to our lives.  First, in the country of grace, things aren’t what they seem to be.  Remember, everywhere Jesus goes, he’s trying to demonstrate to the religious leaders of his time that they are misleading the people and do not understand the grace of God, because of their insistence on keeping the law.  Jesus uses a pig to show that God is not what we make him out to be; in fact, God is wholly other than we expect.  We cannot manipulate God into being the kind of Being we think he should be.  Many people remake God in their image in order to support their personal agendas.  But God is wild, like a pig, and will not be remade according to our desires.  Further, most people don’t realize when they encounter God, in the first place.  We don’t encounter God in the holy times, the good times, the predictable times; rather, we encounter God in the mud and mire, the worst times, the uncharted moments of our lives, when things are the messiest.  

The religious leaders of the day believed the pig to be ceremonially unclean, one of the vilest creatures imaginable.  It’s no wonder that in the land of grace, Jesus chose to represent himself in the pig, which is the least predictable, lowest, and least likely representation imaginable.  In the same way, God shows up in your life when you least expect, through a means that is both humble and humbling.  God is not in the thing that seems the closest, but that which seems the farthest.  As we’ve seen, Jesus is constantly using words, ideas, and events that confuse us, harden our hearts, and keep us from figuring out God on our own, in order to get us to realize salvation does not come from our abilities, but from his grace.  

Yes, Christ our pig is an emblem of grace, because it’s Jesus as we would never expect, doing for us what we could never do, in a way we would never recognize.  Christ as pig is a precursor to Christ on the cross, for “he had no form or majesty that we should desire to look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him.  He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.” (Isaiah 53:2-3).  Just as the Pharisees despised the pig, so would they despise Jesus.  

And if the idea of Christ as pig is something you find yourself despising, then it’s probably closest to the truth.

The demon-possessed man is the human counterpart to the pigs.  Just as pigs were considered unclean, unusable, and unlikely, so was the man.  Just as the pigs were an emblem of grace-given, so was the man an emblem of grace-received.  Remember, he was the farthest from what you would expect to be a citizen of heaven, for he was insane, demon-possessed, and a force of destruction.  Yet, Jesus loved this man and had mercy on him (Mark 5:19).  Likewise, you are no “worse” than the man possessed by two thousand demons; if God loved him and changed his life, then be assured God loves you and can change you.  

Name Your Demon

This brings us to a second application, tell Jesus the name of your demon.  When Jesus first met the man, he asked him, “What is your name?” (Mark 5:9).  I find this to be an important question for all those who struggle to overcome sin.  We need to be able to give a name to our demons and then tell it to Jesus.  If you want Jesus to break the power of the sin in your life, then you must begin by being honest and vulnerable with him.  Name your demon.  What is possessing you?  What are you struggling with?  This is the first question Jesus asks you and the first way you can find healing.  

Porn.  Gambling.  Envy.  Self-pity.  Lying.  Bragging.  Self-hatred.  Prostitutes.  Bestiality.  Violence.  Abuse.  Foulness.  Hypocrisy.  Addiction.  Alcohol.  Drugs.  Stealing.  Gossip.  Manipulation.  Idolatry.  Greed.    

Tell Jesus the name of your demon(s).

New Ears

Jesus has said over and over in Mark’s gospel, “if you have ears to hear…”  This is his way of telling you that you need a new kind of hearing to understand what he’s saying.  It’s not the kind of hearing you’re used to, where God is predictable, controllable, and fashionable.  We’re used to hearing the demonic message: if you do good, then you will earn God’s favor; if you do bad, then God will condemn you.”  Again, that’s the message our ears are most attuned to hearing.  Jesus wants to give you ears to hear the message that the ordinary person can’t hear, can’t tolerate, and can’t imagine.  We need new ears to hear the new message, “If you try to earn merit with God, then you will be condemned; but, if you name your demon, bring Jesus your sin, then he will forgive and accept you, for God loves you, just as you are.”  

Christ our pig.  He took your demons into himself and ran headlong to the cross, where he put aside his power of life in order to embrace the weakness of death for you.  Perhaps today, Christ our pig is the gospel message you’ve finally been able to hear.  

The Breakdown

  1. If the demons wanted to continue to live in the land, then why would they force the pigs to kill themselves?  If pigs can swim, then why did they drown?  What do you think of this interpretation? 
  2. Have you ever felt like too much of an outcast to be accepted by God or used by him?  How does the story of the demon possessed man help you see otherwise?  
  3. If you’re struggling to find a mission in life, consider what Jesus told the man in verse 19.  How could you do the same?  What was the reaction of the people who heard the man? 
  4. Name your demon(s).  Tell the name to God. Be completely honest.  If this doesn’t ease your conscience, then name your demons to a trusted person in your life.

Storm Grace

On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.”  And leaving the crowd, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. And other boats were with him.  And a great windstorm arose, and the waves were breaking into the boat, so that the boat was already filling.  But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion. And they woke him and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”  And he awoke and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm.  He said to them, “Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?”  And they were filled with great fear and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” —Mark 4:35-41

The Second Way

There are two ways God can convince us we are saved by grace, rather than by doing works of the law.  The first is to show us our inability to keep the law, revealing to us all the ways we constantly break the law, even when trying to do good works.  The second way God can convince us we are saved by grace is to show us that he himself doesn’t act within the law (even while we are trying to do good works).  Our passage today demonstrates God’s grace from this second way.

At first, you might be offended by the claim that God doesn’t act within the law; however, to require God to obey the law would be to make God lower than the law.  It would make the law into a false god that the true God had to obey.  If you’ve ever read through the Bible, whether you’ve realized it or not, you’ve encountered God acting outside the law.  For instance, God threatened to kill Moses (Exodus 4); God saved the wicked pagan Ninevites, when he should have destroyed them (Jonah 4); God ruined the life of righteous Job (Job 2); and God killed dutiful Uzzah (1 Chronicles 13).  Although we must obey the law, God is outside the law, because he’s the supreme law Giver. 

There are two ways God can teach us we are saved by grace, the first is to show us our inability to keep the law, but the second is to show us that he himself doesn’t always act within the law—even when we humans do all the right things.  

Yes, sometimes God sends a storm in the middle of fruitful ministry, potentially destroying it all.

God Sends the Storm

I don’t know about you, but I’ve always been uncomfortable after reading the story of the storm at sea.  Jesus and the disciples just got done doing many days of ministry, helping hundreds of people nobody else would touch.  A great crowd was following Jesus and the disciples, seeking to know God better and obey the teaching of Jesus.  The disciples were low on food and rest, and just needed to get away to recuperate.  They got into a boat, pushed off into the sea, and hoped to spend a quiet night resting and getting ready for more ministry.  Jesus, like all the others, is exhausted, so he falls asleep.  That’s when God sends the storm.  The expression “no rest for the weary” is quite fitting here.

“God Owes Me”

According to our understanding of the law, if I do good works, then God should reward me, right?  If I give myself to ministry, day after day, year after year, then God should “pay” me what I’ve earned.  Now, we wouldn’t put it so crassly, but, let’s be honest, that’s what we’re really thinking.  

Do you know what it truly means to have a sin nature?  It doesn’t mean that we break the law, but it first means that we think keeping the law will save us.  The deepest root of sin is the belief “God owes me.”   When I read the Bible, God owes me.  When I pray, God owes me.  When I serve my neighbor, God owes me.  When I keep my purity, God owes me.  When I perform good works, God owes me.  When I give my life to ministry, God owes me.  This lethal mentality is so ingrained in our hearts that God sometimes needs to take drastic measures to convince us otherwise.  He has to send a storm.

By acting outside our law, God shows us that he doesn’t play the “God owes me” game.  

Here’s what the disciples must have been thinking on the boat, as it was being shredded by the storm and they were moments from being lost in the sea forever: “I’ve been helping lepers, loving tax collectors and sinners, and following around the Son of God, himself…so God sent a storm to kill me.”

Can you see?  If that statement doesn’t make any sense to you, it’s because your mind has been conditioned by the law, not grace.  Better, your mind approves of the law more than it approves of grace.

Jesus Wept Slept

The story goes to great lengths to prove to us that Jesus is acting outside the normal rules we would expect.  “But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion…” (Mark 4:38).  It’s not just that God sent the storm to destroy their ministry, but it’s also that Jesus seems not to care at all!  He’s the only one who’s fast asleep, while all the others are bailing water!   “…And they woke him and said to him, ‘Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?’” (Mark 4:38).  In other words, by sleeping while everyone else was awake, Jesus showed them a God who acts outside the “social” law.  Jesus cared for strangers and lepers, but he wouldn’t even care for his closest friends! 

God will go to extremes to break us of our addiction to the law.  Sometimes, this is the only way to get us to accept grace.  Grace is what saves us apart from the law, even when we fail to keep the law, grace will not fail to keep us.

His Voice Violated Natural Law

When they were finally able to wake up the sleeping Savior, Jesus, yet again, acted outside the law: he spoke to the storm and caused it to grow calm.  With only his voice, he calmed the raging sea, violating the laws of nature and common knowledge.  He proved he was not one who had to obey the law, but all laws had to obey him, even natural ones.   

When the law rages and threatens to destroy you, remember that Jesus stands outside the law and is able to silence the storm with just his voice.  We’re even told in verse 36 that Jesus came “just as he was” with no tricks or tools up his sleeves.

“And they were filled with great fear and said to one another, ‘Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?’” (Mark 4:41).  In other words, “Who is this that can act outside the law?”   

To the Other Side

Finally, consider the opening verse of this story.   “On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, ‘Let us go across to the other side.’” (Mark 4:35).  This statement is not just for the first disciples, but it is for us, too.  Jesus looks into our faces and says, “Let’s go across to the other side.”  What other side?  He wants to take us from the side of the law to the side of grace.  But it won’t be an easy journey, because the shore of the law has a terrible tide that keeps pulling us back.  If we’re honest, we feel safe with the law, but unsafe with grace.  That’s why grace must begin with a storm.  It must begin by taking us away from the familiarity and safety of a merit-based existence.

Jesus wants to take us to the other shore, from law to grace.  In order to make this journey, we have to go through a storm.  If you want to make this journey, you will be transformed, you will not come back the same.  Jesus won’t be another predictable, likeable rule-giver, but he will be the Lord God enfleshed.  At times, you will be terrified of him.

“He said to them, ‘Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?’” (Mark 4:40).  Jesus is looking for faith in himself, not faith in the “God owes me” system.  It’s terrifying to meet a Being who can operate outside the law, but it’s the only way he can save us, for we all have broken the law and deserve to come under its condemnation.  

This passage is not about the popular, sentimental idea “God is with me in the storm,” but it’s about the God who sends the storm, in order to terrify us away from our reliance on good works to impress him, as well as, convince us of grace, which is our full acceptance from him apart from our doing works of the law.

There are two ways to convince us of grace.  The first is to show us we cannot keep the law, and the second is to show us God will not. 

The Breakdown

  1. Be honest, has God ever done anything that didn’t make sense to you?  That caused you to be afraid or get angry?  If you could say anything to God, what would it be?  
  2. How did you grow from the “storm experience” in question 1? 
  3. What is the difference between humanity’s relationship to the law and God’s relationship to the law?  Do you agree or disagree with the concept that God is obligated to obey all the commandments?  Can God still be good if he is able to act outside the law?
  4. Examine yourself.  Where are you holding on to the “God owes me” mentality?

You Don’t Really Understand the Bible, and That’s Good

And he said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable shall we use for it?  It is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when sown on the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth, yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes larger than all the garden plants and puts out large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”  With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it.  He did not speak to them without a parable, but privately to his own disciples he explained everything. —Mark 4:30-34

You may be tempted to read the parable of the mustard seed and try to figure it out.  “Oh, the kingdom of God is very tiny, like a mustard seed…This means we only need a tiny bit of faith.  Then it grows into the largest plant in the garden…This means God can do great things with my tiny faith.  You see, simple!”  

But keep reading the passage, for it goes on to say, “With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it” (33).  Most were not able to hear what Jesus truly meant by the parables, including the disciples!   “He did not speak to them without a parable, but privately to his own disciples he explained everything” (34).  Jesus spoke the word in parables only, he did not give interpretations.  However, he explained in private to his disciples.  

This brings me to the truth most people overlook: if his own disciples, who spent every moment of the day with him, did not even understand his parables, then what makes us think we will?  They could see his body language, hear his tone, and feel his gravitas.  They shared his cultural background, spoke his language, and understood the idioms and slang of their time.  They slept with him, ate with him, and walked with him from town to town.  They experienced his emotions, knew the color of his eyes, and met his mom and dad.  Again, if the first disciples couldn’t understand his parables without an explanation, then neither can we!  So be careful of trying to figure out his parables on your own, for they weren’t meant to be “solved” like math problems.  

Nobody enters the kingdom of God with their intelligence.  And just as you cannot think your way to heaven, neither can you act your way to heaven. 

What was the purpose of the parables then?  They were meant to confuse, blind, paralyze, and harden.  They were meant to put the hearer in such a state of shock that he wouldn’t dare to move, out of fear, angst, and bewilderment.  They were meant to leave us shaking our heads, muttering to ourselves, “Then who can be saved?  Who can be saved?”  The parables expose our idols and toxic confidence in ourselves and they keep us from being able to manipulate God, forcing him to accept us because of how we act, what we say, or what we believe.  

The parables force us to go to Jesus and ask him to explain to us the meaning of his words.  Let me say it again, the parables compel us to go humbly to Jesus for help.

The parable of the mustard seed offends us, for no matter what good we do, we are bested by a minuscule seed dropped in the dirt.  It doesn’t need our help.  It starts smaller than we are, yet grows larger than we’ll ever dare to dream.  Its purpose is not flashy, but is satisfied with being a resting place for birds.  While our cravings are legion, the seed only needs dirt, light, and water.  Every day, it stretches out its limbs and praises its Creator, doing what it was planted here to do, both bound to the earth and as free as the birds in the air who shelter in it.

Jesus sought to offend all those who trusted in themselves and the “size” of their spirituality, so he used the mustard seed to accomplish his ministry of offense.  Those who trusted in themselves would point their fingers at others and arrogantly say, “Look at him, he is completely hopeless.  Look at her enormous sin and her minuscule faith.  Look at those corrupt people, who know very little about God.”  Yet the tiny mustard seed grows into the largest plant in the garden.  In this way, the parable of the mustard seed is a celebration of hopelessness.

The effect of the parables is to do to us what God did to Abraham.  God gave Abraham astounding promises; God would give Abraham many children and much land.  Yet, by the time Abraham and his wife were a hundred years old, they were childless nomads.  God had to reduce their hopes and dreams down to the size of a mustard seed.  That’s God’s typical method when dealing out his promises to us.  Before fulfilling the promise, he must empty us of natural strength, opportunity, and realistic parameters.

This prepares the way for grace.  

Likewise, the parables are to get us to say, “That’s completely unrealistic…there’s no way that’s happening!”  When we’ve been reduced down to practically nothing, then God begins to cause growth, for he doesn’t want us to rely on ourselves, but him alone. 

If you can see a way forward in your trial right now, then you’re not small enough yet. God may very well wait until circumstances are even more desperate.  We don’t grow by being rich in spirit, but by being poor in spirit.  True growth begins in the ground.  And it doesn’t end until your limbs reach the heavens. 

The parables aren’t meant to be figured out, but they are meant to get you to put your trust in Jesus. 

The Breakdown

  1. Have you ever felt as small as a grain of mustard seed in the face of your enormous circumstances? Talk to a friend about it or write about it.
  2. How can this parable guide your prayer life?
  3. How can this parable help you to understand true humility?  True pride?

Perfectly Good Sinner

Moses gave God many excuses the day he spoke with him in the burning bush.  Even though the dry bush was on fire in the desert, it was not consumed, which indicates to us that God was about to be encountered outside the normal laws of nature and reason.  We were just told Moses killed a man at the end of Exodus 2, so the reader reasonably assumes Moses will give this excuse when he meets God a chapter later at the burning bush.  

Out of the burning bush, God told Moses, “Come, I will send you to Pharaoh that you may bring my people, the children of Israel, out of Egypt” (Exodus 3:10).  For the rest of chapter 3 and into chapter 4, Moses gave God a string of excuses as to why he could not do what God commanded.  Moses first used the excuse of pedigree, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh?” (3:11).  So God assured Moses he would be with him to back him up.  Then Moses used the people of Israel as an excuse, saying they wouldn’t recognize God unless God gave his own sacred name, so God complied with Moses’s request.  Third, Moses said the people would not believe him or listen to his voice, Exodus 4:1, so God told Moses what to do in response.  Finally, Moses gave the excuse of his own lack of eloquence in speech (4:10), but God provided yet another solution.

Did you notice the excuse Moses did not give?  We’d expect Moses to say right away, “But, God, I’m a terrible sinner, for I have killed a man, and someone who takes a human life should not be allowed to be used by you for a great mission.”  This kind of excuse seems reasonable to us, because we feel most comfortable operating under the law, rather than grace.  To operate under the law means, “If I do this, then I can’t do this.”  If I am immoral and kill a man, then I should not be allowed to be used by God for his great purpose of bringing his people out of slavery in Egypt.

However, if you haven’t figured it out by now, God does not operate under the law, but by grace.  The burning bush tipped us off, for just as the bush operated outside the law of fire, so does God’s selection of people operate outside the law of morality.  Many people think God’s hands are tied just because they have messed up, but that’s thinking like the law, rather than thinking like God.  God thinks according to grace, not law.  Ever since we digested the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, we have been looking at the world through the lense of the law, again, thinking, “Because I did this, then I can’t do this.”  Our eyes were opened and we have been trying to discern good from evil, which is the function of the law, ever since. 

Many people believe God is done with them, just because they sinned and broke the law, but God hasn’t even begun to use them yet.  Look squarely at your sin; now look squarely at grace.  Don’t use your sin as an excuse.  Instead, say to yourself, “God isn’t finished with me yet, but God is only just beginning with me.”

The law is always there to accuse you, it never lets up.  And it doesn’t need to be written on tablets of stone to do the job, for it’s ingrained on our souls.  Whether we know the Ten Commandments or not, we are conditioned to bring the law into every part of our lives and measure our experiences according to it.  Our minds accuse us day and night.  Satan, whose name means, ‘the adversary,’ often accuses us moment by moment.  We are accused of not being good enough to be used by God, to be accepted by God, or to be loved by God.  But just because the dry bush is on fire, doesn’t mean it will be consumed by it.

In the same way, just because the fire of guilt is blazing on you, doesn’t mean it will consume you.  The God of grace uses guilty sinners to do his great work.  God used Moses, a murderer, to lead his people out of slavery and then to deliever God’s perfect law to the people—how ironic!  And so, God can use you, sinner, to lead his people out of bondage and then to teach them the right way to live.

Don’t let your conscience replace your God.  All idolatry begins with the law, with some devious observation of human logic, which goes, “This can’t be, because of this.”  Ever since Adam and Eve, we have been trusting how we see things more than how God sees things.  

This is the same line that took out Adam and Eve in the very beginning, and has been taking out perfectly good sinners ever since.  Imagine finding a bagel on a tray at work.  One of your coworkers takes the tray and is about to throw out this last bagel.  But you say to her, “Don’t throw that away, it’s a perfectly good bagel!”   Now imagine going to an animal shelter and finding a dog someone had dropped off because of some ‘defects.’  Sure, the dog isn’t perfect, but you see something loveable in him.  While another owner got rid of him, you look at this animal and say to yourself, “This is a perfectly good dog!” so you take him home.  Despite living in a culture of waste, we know when something is still perfectly good, whether bagels or beagles. 

If you have a sin, confess it to God and to others and then repent from it.  That’s about all you can do, besides try to make amends with the one(s) you offended.  But after that, it’s just you and the burning bush.  You are free to walk in grace, which is outside of the law, and do what God has called you to do.  He does not plan to consume you, but use you.

You are a perfectly good sinner.  Don’t let the law keep you on the sideline or toss you in the can, because grace has other plans for your life.  Your mission is not about your moral track record, but it’s about the glory of God, which happens to burn the brightest in the driest, darkest, and most common bushes.  

God always chooses the least, lowest, and lost.  Go ahead and read the Bible from cover to cover and see this dizzying pattern for yourself.  He knows that sinners shine the brightest—always have, always will.

The Gospel in Five Seconds

Today’s Bible passage, Mark 4:26-29, gives us a succinct and powerful way of thinking of the gospel.  It’s so quick you can read it in five seconds and so powerful it will affect you the rest of your life.  First read the passage and then I’ll give you the five second version: 

And he said, “The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground.  He sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how.  The earth produces by itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear.  But when the grain is ripe, at once he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.”  –Mark 4:26-29

Think of the expression, “You reap what you sow.”  It means you’ll have to pay the consequences for the all the wrongs you’ve done.  You can’t escape your past.  The seeds of sin will become a harvest of punishment and destruction.  

Now for the good news.  Here’s the gospel in five seconds: You don’t reap what you sow, but God reaps what he sows.

At the beginning of chapter 4, verses 1-20, Jesus told another parable about a farmer.  He clearly taught the farmer was God, the seed was the word of God, and the soil was people.  We have no reason not to keep the same understanding of the components of the first parable in our passage today.  

God plants his word into our lives, just as a seed is planted into the ground.  God watches over the seed, day and night, protecting it and caring for it.  He patiently waits for the kingdom of God to grow in our hearts.  As soon as the kingdom of God has grown up fully in us, he harvests it.  

The good news of the gospel is even though I’ve sown many seeds of sin into my life, I don’t reap the harvest of a life of sin.  Instead, I get to keep the harvest of the seed that God has planted in my life.  The fruit of sin is death, but the fruit of righteousness is life.  The harvest of sin is destruction, but the harvest of Jesus is resurrection.  Thank God he put the seed of his word into my life!  

You don’t reap what you sow, but God reaps what he sows and gives it to you.  God plants perfect seed in you and you get to have the harvest!  If you have received the word of God as a seed in your heart, then you will not reap the harvest of your life of sin.  Instead, you will reap the harvest of Jesus’s perfect life of faithfulness and love.  You don’t reap what you sow, but God reaps what he sows in you and then he gives it to you for eternity.     

The Breakdown

  1. What are the “sin seeds” you sowed into your life that you are most concerned about? Confess them to God.  If this honest confession doesn’t ease your conscience, then confess these sins to a trusted person in your life. 
  2. Have you received the word of grace into your life?  Do this by trusting God’s love for you in Jesus Christ.  Rely on the life and death of Jesus to deal with your sin and make you whole and acceptable.
  3. If God has sowed his word into your life, what will he reap?  What is the harvest he will get for himself from the ground of your life?  Do you accept yourself as much as God accepts you?  Why or why not?

Pastor, Please Stop Dissing Self-Help Books

It was an ordinary Sunday.  There I was, sitting at church with my family, when the pastor went on a rant, blurting out a favorite string of four letter words: SELF HELP BOOK, intentionally pronouncing each word as if he were swearing.  He’d done this before, as have many preachers I have heard.  He’d just made a theological point that sounded convincing, paused, and then reached for the application, thinking it was a left-hook from out of nowhere, when, in fact, I could see it coming a mile away.  With finger pointed toward the heavens for emphasis, he prophesied, “…and that’s why the self-help section of the bookstore cannot help you!”  (Dramatic pause), “…because it teaches you to build your self-esteem, pat yourself on the back, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.”  

I had heard it all before many times.  As I sat there with my kids, I wondered what they thought.  How was the pastor’s rant about self-help books received by my boys?  Or what about the struggling alcoholic in the congregation?  The porn addict?  The couple struggling to get a hold of their finances?  The anorexic woman?  It seemed to me that such a blanket statement about the self-help section of a bookstore was not only damaging, but fundamentally wrong.  Here are ten reasons why. 

1. It’s Lazy

First, it’s lazy.  Imagine you’re watching a marathon race.  Although you’ve never run more than two consecutive miles your whole life, you notice the running technique or gear of one of the marathon competitors, and you say, “Look at that idiot!  He shouldn’t be running!  That’s no way to run!”  But, the fact is, he’s actually running a marathon and will soon finish, while you aren’t.  So who are you to critique him?  I’ve got news for you, running a marathon is easier than writing and publishing a book.  So, pastor, until your name is on the spine of a book in the bookstore (and I don’t mean self-published!), then be careful when you criticize those whose names are.  It doesn’t make you look very good.

2. It’s Sends the Wrong Message to Our Kids

Second, it sends the wrong message to our kids, especially boys.  Boys struggle to ask for help, as it is.  Now you’re telling them that it’s wrong to try to help yourself?  Boys rarely read in the first place, and this just gives them another excuse not to read.  What if they struggle with porn, do you want them to keep away from a book like Gary Wilson’s Your Brain on Porn?  It’s in the self-help section, by the way.  Or maybe your daughter is struggling with being an introvert, should she shy away from Susan Cain’s groundbreaking book Quiet?  Also in the self-help section.  By degrading self-help books, we are discouraging our kids from admitting they need help and seeking it in a healthy way.  (Or perhaps they should just seek the advice of their peers on social media?—sarcasm intended.) Instead, they feel ashamed to ask for help and even more ashamed to rely on some of the wonderful, professional resources that are available to them.  Picture a teenage boy sneaking around in the bookstore, only he’s not trying to look at dirty magazines, but he’s trying to find a book on understanding his emotions from the self-help section(!).    

3. Taking Responsibility for Yourself Is Not a Bad Thing

Third, what’s so wrong with self-help, anyway?  What’s so wrong with trying to help yourself?  Since when is taking responsibility for yourself a bad thing?  The Bible constantly tells us to take responsibility for ourselves and put good habits into practice.  In fact, the entire book of Proverbs reads like a self-help book, arguably the best self-help book ever.  Are you suggesting we be irresponsible?  Don’t help ourselves, but wait for others to take care of us?  Just sit back and relax?  Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life has an entire chapter titled “Tell the Truth.”  Is that so misguided?  Another chapter is called, “Assume that the person you’re listening to might know something you don’t.”  That would be an appropriate chapter for some pastors to read.

4. We Need to Humble Ourselves

Fourth, we need to humble ourselves before the counsel of others.  Self-help books have the ability to catch our blindspots.  Typically, the authors are experts in their areas and have something worthwhile to say.  Are we too proud to listen?  Remember, if God can talk through an ass (Numbers 22), then surely he can talk through a self-help book!  I’ve found that God speaks to me through the most unlikely people and sources; God can even speak to us through our pain.  Don’t be too proud to listen to the counsel of others, no matter who they are.  

5. Don’t Overgeneralize

Fifth, before you make a blanket statement about self-help books, get a clue about them first!  What if I were to say, “All men are pigs” or “All pastors are swindlers?”  Obviously, it’s not true!  Think about your sweeping statements concerning self-help books.  Think about 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey, would the world be a better place without it?  Obviously not, for it’s a wonderful and insightful book!  Another helpful book is The Life-Changing Habit of Tidying up by Marie Kondo.  One of my favorites is Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl, whose masterpiece self-help book was birthed from his time in a Jewish concentration camp.  Is this book bad, too?  Are you saying there’s no value in reading White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism, by Robin DiAngelo?  What kind of a message are we sending by denouncing this book in the self-help section?  Another wonderful book is When Breath Becomes Air by the late Dr. Paul Kalanithi, who wrote down his thoughts on what makes life worth living, just before he died as a young man.  This book is gold, not fools gold.  Other books to glean wisdom from are Whatcha Gonna Do with That Duck by Seth Godin, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr, Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life by James Hollis, or 12 Ways Your Phone is Changing You by Tony Reinke.  Here are two other life changing books, Healing the Shame that Binds You by John Bradshaw and Life of the Beloved by Henri Nouwen.  Dispense with these books at your own risk!

6. Discern Good and Bad Self-help Books

Sixth, just as there are useful and dreadful theology books, so there are good and bad self-help books, so don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater (if you’re tempted to, then get a copy of On Becoming Babywise by Robert Bucknam; you’ll find it in the self-help section).  I’ve heard about or read many terrible theology books, but I don’t, therefore, write off all theology books.  I don’t say to my friends, “Don’t go in the religion section at Barnes and Noble!”  Imagine telling an alcoholic to stay away from the classic Alcoholics Anonymous, just because it’s in the self-help department.

7. Teach Us to Read Responsibly

Seventh, rather than criticizing all self-help books, teach us to read responsibly instead.  If you have an issue with a certain self-help book, then tell your people about it specifically.  Tell us why.  Know the book you’re referring to, because you’ve read it, and provide an informed critique.  Don’t just blast all self-help books, as if you’ve read them all, for that would be disingenuous, not to mention arrogant.  Then go read David Brooks’s The Road to Character, which is in the self-help section. 

8. Beware of Presenting a False Dichotomy

Eighth, beware of presenting a false dichotomy between self-help reading and Bible reading.  Just because you read self-help books, doesn’t mean you can’t read the Bible, too!  In fact, the best practice is to read the Bible along with every other kind of book you read.  Compare your self-help book with the Bible.  How are they the same?  Where do they differ?  What light can a self-help book shed on the Bible and what light can the Bible shed on the self-help book?  Trust me, the Bible can hold its ground next to any self-help book.  The Bible is not threatened one bit, so stop acting like it is.  Don’t worry, pastor, long after all self-help books go out of print, the Bible will remain the number one bestseller of all time.  (To learn what a false dichotomy is, read Nathaniel Bluedorn’s The Fallacy Detective, a bestseller in the self-help section.)

9. Expose Yourself to Different Genres

Ninth, don’t underestimate the value of exposing yourself to different genres of books, such as self-help books.  Here’s a helpful analogy.  It greatly benefits a heavy metal drummer, for instance, to listen to jazz, gospel, or classical music!  To expose yourself to different genres doesn’t hinder your playing, but helps your playing.  The same is true with the various genres of books.  This is one of the reasons why the Bible contains so many different genres of writing, such as poetry, law, lament, wisdom, gospel, narrative, history, prophecy, personal letter, etc.  This is also why we should read fiction, history, poetry, essay, memoir, theology, technical, and even self-help books!  

10. The Goal Is Wholeness

Tenth, the goal of life is wholeness or integrity, rather than compartmentalization.  By restricting yourself to one department in the bookstore, you run the danger of “departmentalizing” your life.  Instead of allowing all the parts of yourself to work together, you’re shaming some parts and neglecting other parts.  This is a recipe for disaster.  We are commanded to love God with our whole heart, soul, mind, and strength, not just one department of us.  Whenever we say something is “off limits,” we keep it outside our consciousness, rejected.  Just like Jonah couldn’t run away from his calling, but it came to the surface and swallowed him whole, so will the neglected parts of ourselves come back to devour us.  Blatantly to reject a whole area of life, in this case, self-help, rather than integrating it into your whole person, you run away from an opportunity for self-knowledge, self-examination, self-critique, and self-discovery.  In fact, the sixteenth century reformer John Calvin wrote in Institutes that unless we know ourselves, then we cannot know God.  You see, there is a truth to the cliche, “That person is so heavenly minded that he’s no earthly good.”  And to think there’s not proves the point.  

To conclude, I’m not suggesting a church should preach self-help, for the church must preach the biblical gospel.  However, there’s no reason why a pastor cannot use self-help books to point to the gospel, help people understand themselves, and give additional resources to deal with the complexities of life.