During Christmastime, we talk a lot about joy. I don’t know about you, but the first thing that usually pops into my head when people say this word is… absolutely nothing. Well, sometimes I picture it as a bright light, or laughter, or a general feeling of happiness, but oftentimes joy is difficult for me to visualize. Yet, this word appears everywhere throughout the holiday season, and everyone seems to be searching for it. I get the feeling that joy is so important and simultaneously so elusive to us because we intrinsically long for it, but we’re not really sure what it is or what it looks like.
What exactly is joy? Surprisingly, neuroscience can help guide us toward the answer. In their book The Other Half of Church, authors Jim Wilder and Michel Hendricks describe the findings of Dr. Allan N. Schore, a leading neuroscientist who studies joy. Schore defines it as “being the sparkle in someone’s eye” or simply being happy to see someone. I believe that this definition is incomplete, but I will discuss that later. Regardless, we’ve all experienced what Dr. Schore is talking about. It’s the uplifting feeling when our favorite person walks into the room. We smile without thinking about it, gravitate toward them, and let them know how glad we are to see them. That is the effect of joy!
Why do our brains need and long for joy? It turns out that our brain structure was designed for it! Jim Wilder says it this way:
“From the moment we are born, joy shapes the chemistry, structure and growth of our brain. Joy lays the foundation for how well we will handle relationships, emotions, pain and pleasure throughout our lifetime.”
As it turns out, positive relationships physically alter the right sides of our brains, which manage emotions, social skills, and character development. The more joy we experience, the more the synapses on the right side of our brains fire and wire together. This enhances a measurable quality of our brain function called coherence.
Coherence is simply the scientific term for how well the different parts of the brain cooperate. As our synapses grow more and more connected, our brains communicate more effectively with themselves, and our coherence increases. Coherence edifies our relational capacity, and contributes to our selflessness as people. It also helps left-brain activities (ex. verbalization, logic, memory, etc.) develop in tandem. So essentially, joy makes the brain operate better! Not only so, but it helps us establish relationships and form communities from which we give and receive more joy. (See the article on Leadership and Neuroscience I have linked at the end of this piece if you would like to learn more about coherence.)
So how do we find joy in life? Dr. Schore says that “Our brains look specifically to the face of another person to find joy.” When we smile, laugh, empathize, and make eye contact with others, we love and delight in them through our faces. This builds relationships, builds community, and builds our brains.
I was excited to discover that God, having designed our brains this way, fills Scripture with words to express His joy over us. He wants us to know that the source of all of our joy is His own face! Sometimes we don’t see it, because our English translations of the Bible change the word “face” to “presence” most of the time. The most literal translations of these two verses, however, demonstrate the link between God’s face and joy.
Psalm 16:11 “…in your face there is fullness of joy…”
Psalm 21:6 “…you make him happy with joy with your face.”
So how does this relate to us this year? Joy seems particularly hard for us to find in 2020. Yet, as the character Tevye says in Fiddler on the Roof, “God would like us to be joyful, even when our hearts are panting on the floor.” There are still ways to experience and share joy as we “celebrate small” in our homes.
For example, we must remember more than ever that gifts themselves are not the source of joy. Things are incapable of giving us joy, because objects don’t have faces. In light of neuroscience, it should be obvious that only people (and ultimately, Christ alone) can give us joy. So this year, we can accept gifts from friends and family knowing that what is important is who they are to us, not what they bought us. And we can give gifts within the same paradigm too, keeping in mind that the act of gift-giving is meant to flow out of our love, not to produce love through an object.
Finally, this Christmas let Christ guide you to what God’s joy is in a deeper way. The Father was so delighted in this world that He sent His son to show us the full extent of His love by living, dying, and rising again. And you are now invited to draw near to the fountain of all joy Himself to have your every longing fulfilled.
“Things are sweeter when they’re lost. I know–because once I wanted something and got it. It was the only thing I ever wanted badly, Dot. And when I got it, it turned to dust in my hands….Because desire just cheats you.”
–Anthony Patch in The Beautiful and Damned by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Black Friday is traditionally a day transfixed on desire. On this busiest shopping day of the calendar year in America, advertisers do their best to elicit our desires for clothes, cars, electronics, jewelry–pretty much anything you could lay your eyes on in a store. We also typically spend this day wondering what others desire. What would make the best present for that friend or relative that we see once a year? What could we buy for our sister, brother, mom, dad, significant other, etc. that they would actually appreciate and be satisfied with on Christmas day?
I think it’s obvious how ironic it is that this day immediately follows Thanksgiving, the holiday we reserve for gratitude. We even physically remind ourselves of how plenteous our lives are by filling ourselves with great food. Yet, in this wonderful and supposedly satiated state, why do we still feel the need to collectively–as a culture–immediately run to the next thing the day after?
Anthony Patch (quoted above) seems to understand part of the problem. His life, as written by Fitzgerald, has consisted of one string of luxuries after another. He has an inheritance of millions of dollars, a beautiful wife whom everyone adores, and friends who are always ready to chase a good time with him, whether that be in downtown NYC, the pleasant suburbs, or sunny California for the summer. He gets everything that he ever wants, simply by nature of who he is and his doggedness to get more. But, as time goes on Anthony’s life dwindles. He eventually struggles with alcoholism, friends disappearing, a marriage full of acerbity and blame, and lethargy that keeps him from ever accomplishing anything with his life. Desire cheats Anthony of every meaningful thing, because what he uses to fill himself is never enough.
“He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end.” Ecclesiastes 3:11
Nothing is ever enough for us that doesn’t last forever, because we have eternity in our hearts. For instance, most of us have probably had a moment, however brief, that we wished we could live in for the rest of our lives. Those times are usually marked by peace, joy, belonging, beauty, and hope for better things. They can be beautiful–but only in their time. These moments will wilt and pass away like a flower. So will our possessions, our beauty, our social standing, or anything else that seem so fulfilling in the moment. So what do we do with these heavy desires? Why do they move our lives so powerfully? Why do we long for permanency in a world that changes constantly?
C.S. Lewis says this about our desires:
If we’re honest, the lives we’re currently living probably leave much to be desired. Even in a normal year our desires can be overwhelming, but in this season where pretty much everything we typically turn to is cancelled or stunted, we want so many things. I know for myself, it’s gotten progressively harder and harder to dream or to strive for anything, because each time my desires seem to get shut down, or I get nothing like what I expected. As a senior in college, I want to look forward to the future for so many reasons, and I have a lot of desires for starting a new phase of life. I’ve had to reconcile myself with the fact that life after graduation may look nothing like I have envisioned, and that even if I did get every single thing I could imagine, it would not be enough. I’d be chasing specters of what my heart really longs for: eternity with Christ.
Christ is the only true, 100% fulfillment of what we want and long for as people. He is the actual peace, joy, belonging, beauty, and hope that we search for. Every aspect of our life on earth from the mundane to the magnificent is meant to direct us to him. He is our food (John 6:35), our water (John 4:14), our help (Psalm 121), our friend (John 15:13-15), our king (Isaiah 9:6-7), our shelter (Psalm 91), our breath (Isaiah 42:5), and ultimately our Savior (Acts 4:12). As real as our desires on this earth are, they point to the deeper realities of our need for transcendence in this life. Christ is the only unchanging, perfectly good, and endlessly fulfilling person in the universe.
Instead of trying to get the most out of this life that we can, scraping by with paltry fillers for our massive desires, we have the opportunity to receive all that God generously gives us in Christ. We do see echoes of this in His provision and kindness to us in the form of earthly blessings, but eternal fulfillment will come to us when God makes all things new (Revelation 21:5). This requires us to have faith, to trust that there is more than what we see, and that we only find true fulfillment from one source.
So the next time you reach for something to fill your desire, remember that it will cheat you. Christ, however, is offering you the riches of heaven–namely, himself.
Here is another message I gave this past week in my Message Preparation for Women class. Once again, even though it was intended for my fellow classmates, I hope all can benefit from the promise in God’s word that pain and death don’t have to be meaningless. In a year as discouraging and, in a way, stunted as 2020, I think it is important to remember that for believers, our hope is in things unseen. All will one day be consumed by life, and the momentary troubles of this earth will be forgotten.
Where would you keep your most precious treasure? Many stories and myths of hidden treasures span the globe even today. From El Dorado to the legends of Oak Island, people have spent a lot of time and effort securing their wealth away from the rest of the world. For example, in the early 1800’s a miner named Thomas Jefferson Beale found an estimated $63 million worth of precious metals in the Rocky Mountains, which he buried for himself. He then wrote three coded messages describing the treasure’s location, and entrusted them to an innkeeper named Robert Morriss. Morriss was supposed to get a key to the trove 10 years later if Beale did not return, but he never received anything. Only one of the coded messages was ever cracked, and the fortune has never been found.
Humans have fascinating ways of hiding their treasure, but I think an even more fascinating question is this: where does God keep His most precious treasure? Does He have a royal vault in heaven? Does He hide it deep in the earth, or out in the solar system? Does He leave behind cryptic clues for us to follow? Paul actually tells us in 2 Corinthians where God keeps his most precious treasure, and also answers the question we have not yet been asking: what is God’s treasure worth to us?
If 2 Corinthians is our map, then X marks the spot on 4:7-18, so let’s turn there together.
Before we really unearth the wealth of hope and wisdom in this passage, we must note that Paul’s focus in writing it is to teach the Corinthian believers that since God’s treasure in Christ overwhelms earthly limitations, we can live in reliance on Him in defiance of death. Paul is also expressing his joy at their repentance and obedience since his last disastrous visit to Corinth. The problems Paul addresses in 1 Corinthians were not resolved until after he made this visit. Hearing that the conflict ended in his absence, Paul wrote 2 Corinthians and made a final visit to the church (recounted in Acts 20).
Here in this epistle, he tells them that God’s treasure in Christ overrides our earthly brokenness and limitations in 4 ways: Christ’s power, Christ’s life, Christ’s truth and Christ’s glory.
First in this passage, we find out where God keeps His treasure, and that Christ’s power overwhelms our frailty.
Let’s read verses 7-9:
“But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard-pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.”
God puts His treasure in jars of clay–His people! The word “treasure” in verse 7 refers back to verse 6, where Paul describes it as “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ” which God causes to shine in our hearts. That’s a lot of prepositions in one sentence, but in a simpler fashion, George H. Guthrie explains it as “personal comprehension of God’s glory”. In other words, the greatest treasure God has is revelation of Himself in Christ. And the contrast of this glorious treasure contained our bodies–simple jars of clay, which were the most common and inexpensive objects in the Ancient Middle East–proves that it originates in God, and not ourselves. Imagine that picture for a second, a simple jar of clay holding great riches. Or consider this analogy: just as in the beginning God breathed into dust to make the first man, so also Christ breathes the newness of eternal life in us through the Holy Spirit, and we are now earthen vessels of His heavenly grace.
This is why we can suffer every kind of hardship conceivable, because Christ’s power sustains the Church in spite of her frailty.
Do you feel hard pressed by the scrutiny of our culture for standing for biblical truth? Know that you will not be crushed.
Are you perplexed by the mysteries of suffering in the world and God’s plan in this strange reality we call COVID-19? Know that you don’t have to despair.
Do you fear persecution’s hand sweeping across the world and hanging on the American believer’s horizon? You will never be abandoned by Christ.
Have you been struck down in your battles with sin, or watched evil infiltrate a church that you loved? Have you seen dear friends make a shipwreck of their faith? Know that Christ’s bride is bestowed with strength, she will never be destroyed.
I encourage you to choose something from this list in verses 8 and 9 that you struggle with today. Even now in this moment think of an example in church history or the Bible to remind you that God’s power overwhelms the frailty of His people.
For myself, this school year has tempted me to despair with all of its perplexing nuances. I don’t know why I moved off campus far from my friends in an already isolating time, or why the regulations we have to follow to keep our campus open seem so arbitrary at times. I question if any of it is worth it, or if I should just give up. But then I remember the psalmist in Psalm 13, who asked God “How long must I wrestle with my thoughts, and every day have sorrow in my heart?” He endured a storm of internal upheaval. By the end of his song, however, he praises God, declaring, “I trust in your unfailing love, my heart rejoices in your salvation.” I think of this psalm to remind me of the hope we have and the character of God, so that I do not despair in the midst of personal turmoil.
After Paul’s locates God’s treasure and offers encouragement in these first few verses, he then communicates that Christ’s life overwhelms our death.
Verses 10 and 11 say this:
“We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may be revealed in our mortal body.”
Notice Paul’s repetition of the word “body”. Each of our bodies, these jars of clay, is a cosmic battleground for life and death. Our bodies decay as we age, fall prey to all kinds of diseases, get addicted to substances that destroy us (even those as seemingly harmless as Oreos or potato chips), and those are just physical examples of how we experience death as a result of the Fall every day. We also die mentally as anxiety and depression grip the reins of our lives. We die socially whenever we let gossip divide us, or when the fallout from our broken relationships leads us to burn our bridges. Corporately, our death is multiplied even further. Think about how historically warring nations have devised increasingly horrible ways to exterminate each other–everything from machine guns to the atrocity of the atom bomb.
This is the pit of death we inhabit. It’s all around us and we only escape by being rescued from it.
Yet, in Christ we are bought with a price, claimed as His territory and our bodies are no longer our own. He is inside of us now, and he has defeated death eternally to repurpose it for the task of consuming the universe with life.
He has built a new, paradoxical pattern into the redemption of the world: die to live. His new kind of death looks like starving our vices, enduring shame from worldly powers, expending our time and energy for the sake of loving others, persevering through criticism and betrayal for His sake, and giving the best of ourselves away–even our very lives.
The character Hero in Shakespeare’s play Much Ado About Nothing demonstrates this concept in her journey from death to life. Much Ado About Nothing is a sixteenth century Rom-Com, and if you’re not into Shakespeare now, watch the Kenneth Branaugh film adaptation of the story and I bet you will be. What happens is that Hero is about to get married to the man of her dreams, Claudio. But the evil Don John has tricked Claudio and convinced him that Hero is not a virgin. On their wedding day, Claudio confronts Hero, unwittingly slandering her in front of everyone, which causes her to faint. He storms off in the drama of the moment, but once Hero comes to, the friar officiating the wedding concocts a plan. He tells her that she should pretend to be dead from the shock of the accusation until the lie can be exposed and her dignity restored. He consoles her with these words, “Come lady, die to live. This wedding day perhaps is but prolonged. Have patience and endure.” I’ll explain what happens to Hero a bit later, but for now, remember that she has to die (in a symbolic way) in hope of one day being able to live her life apart from the effects of evil and sin.
In the same way, we follow Christ’s pattern of dying to ourselves and our sin to experience life in eternity.
When the apostles followed this pattern, they saw the power of Christ’s life overwhelm death in those they ministered to as well.
Verse 12 says,
“So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you.”
To get the fullest picture of the meaning of this verse, we should look at the example of martyrdom. Tertullian famously said that “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” They die so the church may live. But this is no accident on their part. Martyrs make the small choices of death to self in everyday moments in order that Christ’s life may overwhelm them, and it’s through the practice of these many smaller deaths that they are able to finally die well for their Lord and His glory.
What death is at work in you so that others may believe the gospel? What parts of you–habits, styles, sin patterns, or relationships–have had to die since coming to Moody? What do you yet have to relinquish to the Lord as you present yourself as a living sacrifice? How do your scars show the mercy of Christ?
Take some time with the Lord this week and ask Him to show you where the death in your body is allowing for the life offered in the gospel to move forward in your spaces of influence.
Indeed, Christ’s life overwhelms our death, and that should cause us to broadcast the news to the world. In fact, what we see next in this passage is that Christ’s truth overwhelms our silence.
Verses 13-15 say: It is written: ‘I believed, therefore I have spoken.’ With that same spirit of faith, we also believe and therefore speak because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus from the dead will also raise us with Jesus and present us with you in his presence. All of this is for your benefit, so that the grace that is reaching more and more people may cause thanksgiving to overflow to the glory of God.
Paul quotes Psalm 116:10 here, which is a praise psalm thanking God for his deliverance. The first verse of the psalm reads, “I love the Lord, for he heard my voice; he heard my cry for mercy.” The psalmist goes on to speak of his affliction because he believes in the Lord’s power to save him from it. In the same spirit as this psalmist, Paul freely verbalizes his difficulties because he trusts that one day we all will be raised with Christ and presented to him. The nuance of the language is important here, because the word “present” in verse 14 is also used in 2 Corthians 11:2, where Paul speaks of giving the church to Christ, as a “pure virgin” for “one husband”.
We must finish the story of Hero and Claudio to illustrate the beauty of this future reality for the Church. This is your spoiler alert! A group of guardsmen overhear the villains who carried out the plot against Hero’s honor and put the fiends under arrest. When Claudio learns the truth, he is crushed because he thinks Hero died for nothing, yet he promises Hero’s father that he will do anything to make it right. He even agrees to marry Hero’s cousin in her place as reparation for his slander. When the second wedding day arrives, however, it is Hero who actually walks down the aisle, veiled and hidden from her groom. She reveals her identity just after he promises his life to her forever. She has died for a time, and now lives, so the truth compels her to speak. Imagine her joy when she declares to everyone at the wedding, “One Hero died defiled, but I do live, and surely as I live, I am a maid.”
Christ’s truth overwhelms our silence in the same way. We can rejoice, praise him, and spread the gospel even though we have been afflicted, because we have joy looking forward to that wedding day of Christ and His Bride, where we will be presented to him as a pure virgin to one husband.
What beautiful story can you tell others about your deliverance from death to life in Christ and about your eternal hope? How could you creatively display his faithfulness in your life publicly, so that others see the glory of God? Your options are infinite. Indeed, this is the task of our entire lives as believers. But maybe right now you need to think of a new and fresh way of doing it. If you are artistically inclined, you could write a song, paint a picture, or compose a piece of writing to post on your social media. Maybe it’s as simple as offering an item of praise the next time someone asks you for prayer requests.You could also choose an item to display that represents what Christ has done for you. For example, I wear an emerald necklace almost everyday as a reminder of God’s kindness to me in the midst of loneliness. The story behind it is too long to go into here, but the point is that when people ask about it, this necklace is an opportunity for me to let Christ’s truth overwhelm my silence in the most difficult parts of my life. Unlike those who hide their treasures deep in the earth, God wants the treasure of Christ to be unveiled before the world, so He gives us His message to overwhelm our silence.
Christ’s truth is the powerful hope that we carry, and finally we see that Christ’s glory overwhelms our troubles.
Verses 16-18 say:
“Therefore, we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.”
The simultaneous wasting away and renewing that we experience in Christ is a wonderful paradox, and it can also be a messy process. For example, on one hand, Moody has been confronted by the media for standing for biblical truth, and on the other hand we are also having our imperfection in caring for abused people uprooted in a deep way. I believe this is the Lord giving us an opportunity for greater life through humility and repentance, but that journey is a long and difficult one. We are deeply troubled, because death and life are battling for our school.
(While these comments apply specifically to my school’s current circumstances, I believe the same principles to follow apply to any community of Christians.There is no perfect community of faith this side of eternity.)
I would like to say something to you all as a fellow student and follower of Christ: Don’t be surprised or lose heart when Moody fails you. Please resist the temptation to fall into bitterness. Moody is not inherently a great place, it is a jar of clay. Its greatness comes from God’s grace working over and above its limitations. In fact, we are a community whose currency should be God’s treasure held within us–the grace of Christ. Praise Christ for His faithfulness to this school and forgive Moody for its failures. Jesus was perfect because Moody is incapable of being so. His surpassing glory will carry us through these momentary troubles. In light of this, let’s be students who commit to advocacy for victims, to healing and forgiveness for our administration, and to promoting the name of Christ in everything we do here. I don’t know precisely what that looks like for each of us in this season, but let the Lord dictate to you what your attitude should be on your floor, bro-sis, in your jobs, classes, and in conversations with people from outside of this campus.
Remember that these hardships (and any that you may also be facing personally) are an investment into eternal glory, and the return on that investment will make it well worth it. Christ’s glory overwhelms our troubles today.
I think that the hymn “Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus” succinctly and worshipfully conveys what verses 16-18 teach about Christ’s glory.
“Turn your eyes upon Jesus
Look full in His wonderful face
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim
In the light of his glory and grace.”
To reiterate Paul’s message in 2 Corinthians 4, we know that in any peril we encounter on this earth, we can live in reliance on God in defiance of death, because His treasure in Christ overwhelms all limitations. This treasure is within us, even though we are simple jars of clay, and its incomparable worth grants us Christ’s power, life, truth, and glory. Let us then surrender our bodies, die to live, let truth interrupt our silence, and never lose heart.
Flowers know something that we don’t: life moves in cycles.
Running through a park near my school’s campus this fall, I’ve noticed that since quarantine the flowers have overgrown many of the paths and walkways in absence of people. In some areas, they are tall and tangled enough to form a ceiling of sorts over those strolling through. They seem almost defiant of the restraint humanity has placed on them, in their own ephemeral way. Indeed, for a season they bloom extravagantly and uninhibited, but then they brown and die, decaying quickly when their time has come. In short, flowers just don’t care.
What gives flowers this kind of audacity, to be so temporary yet so vivacious? Why do they resist the order imposed on them when left to themselves? It’s because they know that things which are seen are passing away.
“So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen,since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” 2 Corinthians 4:18
Flowers bloom, grow tall, wilt, and shrivel. Birth leads to life which leads to death and rebirth. Spring becomes Summer, which turns to Fall, which freezes into Winter, which returns to Spring again. Societies are built, expand, collapse, and die. These are the cycles of life, the cycles of history too.
All that we see today–sickness, uncertainty, loss, even America itself–will no longer be in the future, and other things will take their place. The hope we have in these cycles is that Christ is making all things new (Revelation 21:5). He has designed an eternal life for us and an eternal kingdom which is not yet seen, but will last forever.
The following is a message that I presented for my Message Preparation for Women course this semester at Moody. While it is written for an audience of college-aged women living and studying in Chicago, I feel that this message is pertinent for all of us as we continue to face the question of what pursuing justice requires of our nation. As we look ahead toward November 2020, these are my heartfelt reflects on what the Bible says about desiring to live in a just society.
The year 2020 has already proven to be a significant time in all of our lives. One aspect of this year’s significance that I believe has been overlooked, however, is that it is the 100 year anniversary of the passage of the 19th amendment, which granted women in the United States the right to vote. For the last century all of us, women and men together, have been able to voice our desires for justice in this country at the polls. And in the midst of a tumultuous presidential election season, we see all around us that there are many Americans who desperately need justice.
For instance, where is justice for our neighbors in Little Village whose unemployment benefits gets revoked if it is suspected that they are undocumented (even if they are not)? What does justice look like on the South Side, when children often have no access to technology, so they can’t get to class on zoom this school year? What would justice mean for the Planned Parenthood clinic down the street on LaSalle, and for the mothers who make devastating choices because they don’t think they can support a baby? These are just examples from ourowncity, microcosms of what is happening across our nation. Like some of you, perhaps, this is my first time voting for president since being eligible to vote, and I want to engage this task responsibly and in a godly manner at such a crucial time. I wonder, however, if justice is something we are able to vote into office?
In reality, there is only one government that has ever instituted a just society in all human history. This was God’s theocratic rule over the ancient Israelites. The Law in the Old Testament, therefore, is the only expression of a truly just system.
Still, Israel had problems (in their sinfulness) living out this system. We know that Jesus is the only man to ever live the Law perfectly, and that His righteousness fulfills it. But the prophets often had to bring Israel’s sin and rebellion before them to guide them toward justice and God’s grace again. Our passage today in Isaiah 58 is one example of this prophetic confrontation.
As we turn to Isaiah 58, it’s important to note that this prophecy was written during the reign of Hezekiah (king of Judah during the divided kingdom), whose story is told in Isaiah 37-39. This king makes major religious reforms in Israel, guiding people to worship only the true God. One day, however, Hezekiah welcomes messengers from the superpower nation of Babylon to see all his royal treasures, because he feels invincible. After this unwise action, Isaiah, the prophet, promises Hezekiah that Judah will be carried off to Babylon with the king’s riches. Hezekiah doesn’t worry, however, because he knows there will be peace in his lifetime. Judah begins coasting through Hezekiah’s reign, which stunts the reform movement he started. Let’s look at the state of Judah, who was fasting as nation to receive God’s favor, in Isaiah 58:
“Shout it aloud, do not hold back. Raise your voice like a trumpet. Declare to my people their rebellion, and to the house of Jacob their sins.
For day after day they seek me out; they seem eager to know my ways, as if they were a nation that does what is right and has not forsaken the commands of its God. They ask me for just decisions and seem eager for God to come near them.
‘Why have we fasted,’ they say, ‘and you have not seen it? Why have we humbled ourselves and you have not noticed?'”
What we see here is that Israel’s self-righteous fasting does not fool God. In verse 1, it is clear that God is confronting His people about their practices in a way that they cannot ignore–a declaration like a trumpet call. After Isaiah uses this kind of attention-grabbing imagery, he begins to call out Israel’s wickedness. The prophet does this because Judah’s integrity did not match their requests to God, as it says in verse 2. Judah thought they were seeking the Lord, but they had actually forsaken His commands. Then they wondered why he did not notice their fasting in verse 3. I think it is important to stop here and ask:why were they fasting to seek just decisions from the Lord?
We should not let our idea of fasting be confused with what Israel was doing at this time. They were not only abstaining from food as an expression of individual devotion to God. That is the way wetend to see fasting. This was a nation hungering together for righteousness. God had commanded Israel to fast once a year, on the Day of Atonement to remind them that they needed his provision for their sin to be taken away. However, as time went on the leaders and teachers of the law increased their fasting days to prove their religious zeal. In ancient Judaism, they hoped prayer and fasting would manipulate God, so that he would answer their requests. Yet, we see that this fasting was beyond what God had commanded, and in doing it Judah left what God did command undone.
I realized when studying this passage that our society actually does this too (both inside and outside of the church), but our approach is not typically appealing to God through fasting. The ways that we reveal our hunger for righteousness look different from Judah’s, but are just as problematic as theirs.
What does this look like in our nation typically?
Firstly, we take to social media, posting about tragedies or events that reveal injustices around us. Also, we do research: our culture often turns to studies and science to find out how oppression impacts people in all areas of life in hopes that information will change us. One we’ve seen much of this year is protesting: seeking the attention of our leaders and verbalizing our disapproval.
I don’t think these things are always bad, however, I also do not think they are what God is necessarily commanding us as the Church to do to fight injustice.
We as American believers are often just like the Israelites, thinking that we do right and seek the ways of the Lord. But, this hunger for righteousness is superficial and ungodly. We think God should hear our petitions, but really we only care about appearances. Our social media posts don’t lead to action, and we only post when everyone else is talking about something. We use research to confirm our own opinions, not to lead us to the truth. Protests might garner attention from the government for a time, but they don’t guarantee that any changes will come about. We do these things to demand the outcomes we desire to see in the world and forget to listen, praying, Father, your will be done.
Spurgeon says it this way in his commentary on Isaiah: “O my dear friends, let us always be afraid of merely external religiousness!…it is indeed but the ghastly coffin of a soul that never was quickened unto spiritual life.”
We need the grace of God to clear us of this hypocrisy and reform our hunger for righteousness, so we can climb out of the coffin of external religiousness and truly pursue a just society.
It is no surprise that we also find in Isaiah 58 that our self-righteous fasting cannot create a just society. As Isaiah says:
“Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please, and exploit all your workers. Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife, and in striking each other with wicked fists.”
Evil resulted from Israel’s fast days, which were meant to be set aside to pursue goodness and truth. This was utterly hypocritical behavior. A very recent example of this kind of fruitless fast in our own culture was Blackout Tuesday, which happened on June 2nd of this year. I participated in it, and maybe some of you did too. On that day, the music industry encouraged media outlets to abstain from releasing new material, and instead producing silent or blacked out programming for 8 minutes and 46 seconds to reflect the amount of time that a police officer knelt on George Floyd’s neck. The trend took to Instagram, and users began posting black square photos, abstaining from their own posting habits. Unfortunately, confusion over the hashtags which were being used for protests and for Blackout Tuesday left mobilizers unable to track events over social media in the sea of black squares flooding the internet. At the end of the day, there was greater tension and anger from the misunderstanding than unity because of the expression of solidarity. It was a fast that led to arguments and discord rather than creating a just society.
As the second half of verse 4 says, we should not expect God to hear us when we act in this way. It says:
“You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high.”
God doesn’t have to listen to foolish arguments, or honor self-righteousness. The Lord sees through this behavior, and knows when our fasting completely misses the point. He asks Israel in verse 5:
“Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for man to humble himself? Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed and for lying on sackcloth and ashes? Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?”
These are rhetorical questions, but it is clear that the answer to each is no. God sees that our hypocrisy cannot transform us. He knows–as Shakespeare writes in his play, Hamlet– that, “One can smile and smile and be a villain”. Yet, we still ignore His grace, and we think that putting in our day of fasting (or our black square on instagram) is enough.
We are not called to a Blackout Tuesday kind of fasting, which does not create a just society. Instead, our self-righteous fasting needs to be replaced by the kind of fasting God desires, which is something greater, and empowered by His Spirit in us. Verses 6 and 7 tell us what true fasting looks like:
“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter–when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?”
We should note at least three things about God’s kind of fast:
It is active: doing good for others and working to solve problems. This is not sitting around waiting for God to work, but going to the heart of where injustice happens and expecting that in His grace He will meet us there. The avenues through which we can actively work for justice are boundless, but here are a few ways you could get started: attending church or a small group with people of a minority from the South Side or West Side during your time at Moody; volunteering once a month (or more frequently) in underserved communities through food banks, homeless shelters, or local church ministries; donating to pregnancy care centers and organizations that pursue justice globally, like Samaritan’s Purse or A21. You could even dedicate space on your blog or social media to contribute meaningful dialogue about issues that other people are facing. I’ve had the privilege of doing some of these things during my time at Moody, and they have blessed me immensely and propelled me forward to do more on the behalf of the voiceless. For you as well, even a small step could be the catalyst to something greater, but if none of us move, nothing will change. We all must listen to where God’s heart for justice wants us to go, and then act in obedience in His power.
It costs us something: we have to give up our food, share our shelter, and provide clothes in this kind of fasting. We don’t just abstain, what we forfeit is given to others. It could be as simple as giving our time or our money beyond our regular tithing. The point is that we choose to bless others with what we have every right to keep for ourselves.
It dismantles oppression: we should be fasting in such a way that our society is reordered. This is penetrating work, and we have to let ourselves be examined in every sphere of our influence. We must be ready to sacrifice and listen well to the conviction of the Holy Spirit to find what areas we need to change in ourselves and our communities. Then we can move forward with the grace of God, living a lifestyle of justice that flows from our relationship with Him and our conformity to His character.
Here is an example of this active, costly, and oppression-dismantling kind of fasting in our society: In 2018, Chick fil a responded to the devastation of Hurricane Florence by giving away free food to those displaced by the storm and to first responders. This is the company’s pattern of responding to the hardship around them. By fasting from profit and sacrificing product, the company is an active agent in seeing justice done.
The Lord promises that His kind of fasting–active, costly, and oppression-dismantling–results in breakthrough, because He Himself responds to it.
“Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard. Then you will call, and the Lord will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.”
This beautiful image Isaiah uses of light breaking forth with the dawn reminds me of the battle of Helm’s Deep in The Lord of the Rings. This battle in the second part of the trilogy, The Two Towers, begins in seemingly impossible odds. The army of men, bunkered in an ancient stone fortress on the side of a mountain, is on the verge of despair. None of their allies have come to their aid against the hordes of Mordor.
A few days before the battle, the wizard, Gandalf, decides to leave, making everything more bleak. He tells Aragorn, one of the leaders of the frail army, “Look to my coming on the first light of the fifth day, at dawn look to the east.” He leaves, and soon Mordor attacks. The fighting lasts all night, and the fortress is breached several times by the enemy. Surely enough, however, at the first glimpse of that fifth morning Gandalf sweeps over the hillside on a white horse, bathed in the light of the dawn with hundreds of new soldiers and renewed hope. The enemy goes into full retreat and the fortress is saved. This is my favorite scene of the entire movie.
Imagine seeing this kind of magnificent hope manifest in our nation today! God is able to deliver us from the overwhelming forces of injustice, when we are cornered and beat down from every side. Amidst the uncertainty and calamity, He wants to give us glimpses of the future kingdom that we long for.
He will be our healing, behind us and before us like verse 8 says. And He will hear us when we ask for His divine aid, granting us His presence as a definitive answer to our call. But we have to fight the battle in expectation of His arrival.
We fight this battle under the banner of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. As I noted before, in all human history only He has ever lived a life truly committed to justice as a man. Isaiah 59 actually predicts this centuries beforehand, and says in verses 16 and 20:
“He saw that there was no one, he was appalled that there was no one to intervene; so his own arm worked salvation for him, and his own righteousness sustained him.”
“‘The Redeemer will come to Zion, to those in Jacob who repent of their sins,’ declares the Lord.”
Jesus fasted in God’s way with his entire existence–his ministry was active, costly, and dismantled oppression from within. He hungered for righteousness in every moment. Jesus spent himself for the poor, loosed every chain, set the oppressed free, shared his food with the hungry, clothed the naked. It led him to death, and his sacrifice covered our inability to live as He did for justice. Growing in Christlikeness should cause us to show the same sacrificial love in action. Our active, costly, and oppression-dismantling fasting for justice should make us look more like our Savior as His Spirit works in us. We fast in God’s way by becoming more like him, and trusting in his righteousness instead of our own.
So this year, as women and men of America we long for justice, but as followers of Christ, we can do more than simply filling out our ballots at the polls. We must hunger for righteousness in honor of Him. We must be active, sacrificial, and destroy oppression through the Spirit’s leading. We must fast and pray in God’s way, becoming more like Christ to see His justice break forth like the dawn over the darkness of 2020.
Did you know that you share a gravitational attraction to every single object in the universe? The laws of gravity state that every single mass that exists experiences the gravitational pull of every other mass. Though distance is a factor into which masses are most affected by the gravity between them, the force still exist between all objects, people, planets, and stars.
I was thinking about how so often people come in and out of my life, and sometimes it seems like I’ll never be able to be close with them anymore. Maybe they move far away, or they have a new stage of life apart from mine, or they just have a busy schedule that means they can’t be accessible. Sometimes they just change as people and we move along different currents. I’ve found comfort in the fact that I still share gravity (literally and figuratively) with those people, that their impact on my life still exists even when our relationship is no longer what it used to be. I can remember the briefest and longest of friendships and be encouraged that we are linked by something that supersedes our distance to each other.
In this time of separation and constant change, I’m letting the laws of gravity remind me that I’m not as disconnected as I sometimes feel.
“Passion…will have all now, but Patience is willing to wait.” –John Bunyan, Pilgrim’s Progress
Now or never.
Next things and cheap rings.
Passion keeps pushing.
Could there be a value–
A wealth, a fortune, even–
Warding off vanities with
A simmering rumble expounded to a roar…
A towering wave quelled upon the shore…
A dogged, prudent asking for more…
Patience permits pauses.
When I got the email that my school was returning to campus this fall, I wasn’t excited. I honestly didn’t feel anything in particular. When people asked I told them I was looking forward to being back on campus and seeing everyone again. I wasn’t lying, I really was looking forward to it, I just didn’t let myself invest in the thought emotionally.
In truth, I was already looking long past this coming fall semester. Maybe by spring there would be a vaccine, and no more necessity for masks. I would be able to have all the adventures I wanted to have in the city before I graduated. I was dreaming ahead about job opportunities, possible travel plans, and how everything might be different after the end of the school year. Then it was on to life afterward, with all its shining possibilities. Fall semester was just a bridge to cross from the disappointment of quarantine to the discoveries of the future.
Just like that, I had 2020 written off. What good could come from it anyway? I didn’t expect anything positive to happen, didn’t expect myself to do anything remarkable, didn’t expect God to have any more wonders for the rest of the year. It was used up.
I found myself saying it in conversations: “We’ll just start over in 2021”.
I heard it on the radio: “Doesn’t 2020 just suck?”
I heard it from others too: “2020 is basically cancelled.”
But then I looked at the calendar: it was (and still is) July. That meant there were five months before the end of 2020. What could possibly fill those months?
So I started filling them myself: reading and writing and projects and posting and running and texting incessantly and eating and movies and anything else I could possibly think of to distract me and make it feel like I was getting somewhere.
I realized that I was entertaining a lack mentality. This kind of thinking can look a lot of different ways, but in this case it meant assuming that the next five months were a wasteland with no joy to be found, no excitement, and nothing worthwhile to invest in. It meant thinking that I had the power to consume enough things to fill my own life in the way I wanted. I wanted to just run myself ragged trying to get to the next thing. I had no trust that the Lord would continue to fill my life with good things (Psalm 103:5), so I tried to fill in my perceived lack myself and ignore whatever He wanted to do with 2020.
Patience has the answer to this problem. Instead of pushing past this year, what would it look like to pause in it? To inhabit the gray area? To not try and get all of my normal life back right away? To wait on the Lord and see what he is building and working on? The truth is, as much as we try to run about filling our lives with the next thing, God outruns us every time. He never stops being generous or kind or diligent in doing good for this world. He is always giving, saving, healing, filling, and serving.
So my attitude has started changing: In the pause, what are the things I can experience only in this time? What are the things I can work on in the background of my life that might helpfully surface later? How can I keep learning to be an advocate of justice and racial reconciliation after the waves of excitement about it on social media have passed? What foundations can I lay for disciplines, habits, or skills right now? How could I lean in to the fall semester on campus with all my friends and peers and work and classes? In all these things, what is God still doing in 2020? If you find yourself writing off 2020, maybe you could ask yourself similar questions.
It surprised me to find that pausing in this year was the best way to keep moving through it.
“Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer.” –Romans 12:12
“Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.” –Galatians 6:9
I’ve always heard that the story of the thief on the cross next to Jesus (found in Luke 23:32-43) is about the fact that it’s “never too late” to put faith in Christ and be forgiven. This is true, however, the more I read this story, the more it becomes apparent that something much larger is happening in the heart of the thief. In Luke’s gospel, the author spends most of the story highlighting the idea of the kingdom of God, describing it with stories and sharing what Jesus teaches about it. It is supposed to be a real, tangible kingdom, but also one that is spiritual and not yet complete on this earth. The Jews expected the kingdom of God to be an overthrow of the Roman Empire, who was controlling them at the time.
Amidst the paradox, confusion, and the king of this kingdom’s own imminent death, the thief chooses to believe that the kingdom will still come. He knows Jesus will be there to see it too, saying, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom”. Not only does he trust that what Jesus says will come true, but that He can defy death in order to see it happen. This was no “If you could do me a favor, please let me into heaven, Jesus.” This was a startling assertion of faith that contradicted everything the dying man should have believed based on his immediate circumstance.
In a broader discussion about how creation is longing to be renewed, Romans 8:24 says, “hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what he already has?” And Hebrews 11:1 says, “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for, and certain of what we do not see.” In other words, hope longs to see what faith knows will happen in the future. Do we have faith for today like that? Amidst war and injustice and racism and everyday violence and corruption (and so on)–can we look death in the face like the doomed thief and have faith in a different end to the story in the kingdom of God? Faith in Christ anchors us; it’s not just vague assent to whimsical claims, but a trust that supersedes our reality, telling us that we will see God and His kingdom in its fullness one day.