What we crave

What do you want desperately? More than anything else in the world? So badly you obsess over it, rave about it, dream about it, crave it.

What is it?

Jesus is interested.

The only thing I know about hunger is what I learned from those pangs that come in mid-afternoon after I’ve skipped lunch. The thirstiest I’ve ever been happened when I exercised for a few hours and forgot to take enough water.

The people in Jesus’ world really knew hunger and thirst, though. Food and clean water weren’t always available, so they didn’t wake up every morning with a guarantee that they’d have enough. Caloric deficits were a real possibility.

Jesus taps into that experience to make a crucial spiritual point:

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied (Matthew 5:6).

I’ve read stories of what people are willing to do to get a piece of bread when they’re starving. Crazy, unthinkable things.

It’s that kind of desperation Jesus has in mind here. He wants us to crave righteousness—his righteousness—more than we want anything else. Like the starving chase after a piece of bread, like the dehydrated seek to slake their thirst with a drink of water.

I want to want it that badly, don’t you?

I want to cry out with the sons of Korah: “As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and appear before God?” (Psalm 42:1-2).

But so often I satisfy my hunger with the world’s empty morsels; I quench my thirst with water that isn’t the Living Water.

Let’s pray about it today. Let’s ask the Lord to make us thirsty for him, not this world’s tempting but fleeting pleasures. That he’ll create a holy hunger in us, a craving for him, for his goodness and righteousness . . . a desire to be right with him.

Let’s pray that he’ll remove all these things that are getting in the way . . . and that we’ll pant for him.

When we hunger for him, when we’re thirsty for his righteousness, he’s promised to satisfy us completely. Don’t you want that?

A powerful meekness

A company that’s trying to hire a recent MBA graduate for an executive position would look for several qualities: hard-driving, aggressive, intelligent, assertive, confident.

I can almost guarantee that meekness wouldn’t make the job description. Imagine Human Resources trying to win the boss over to the one they selected. “I think he’s the guy we need. He’s, well, so . . . meek. He’ll be running the company within ten years.” It wouldn’t be very convincing.

Like with so many things, though, Jesus came in and changed all the price tags. What isn’t worth much in a CEO boardroom carries a lot of weight in the Lord’s kingdom. What it takes to follow Jesus is counter-intuitive, and much of it won’t be featured in any business school.

“Blessed are the meek,” Jesus says, “for they shall inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:5).

Those words were posted in a prominent place once, and someone scrawled this beneath them: “If that’s okay with the rest of you.” Meekness is weakness, the world thinks, and weak people accomplish nothing.

But that couldn’t be further from the truth. Moses was the meekest man on earth (Numbers 12:3), yet he was an incredible, gifted leader of the people of Israel. Abraham was meek, as were David and Isaiah and Esther and Peter and Paul, and God used them to do his will.

Meekness means humility, gentleness, but it also means strength under control. We aren’t meek when we shuffle around with a whipped look on our faces but rather when we submit everything that we are to God’s purposes.

A powerful horse with a bridle in her mouth . . . an enormous ship with a rudder to guide her—there’s nothing weak about either. Jesus’ followers are those with incredible strength, but they use it under the Lord’s oversight and to his glory.

It’s the gentle elder who recognizes his role as a loving shepherd of God’s flock. It’s the sweet mother who trains her children with firm, loving authority. It’s the humble father who leads his family with a quiet confidence that’s shaped by compassion. It’s the committed Christian with the fortitude to stand strong against Satan’s tactics and with a love that touches everyone around her.

The meek will inherit the earth, Jesus says. He’s almost certainly looking forward to that new heaven and new earth—our future dwelling place.

If we submit to the Father’s will here, we’ll reign with him there.

No tears in heaven

You’ve probably heard about the sweet little baby in our area who died this week after accidentally being left in a sweltering car for three hours. That poor child. And that poor family. I can’t even fathom how overwhelming their grief is, how much guilt they feel, how many tears they’re shedding.

It’s a reminder—if we needed one—of how many struggles there are in the world. How many people are suffering. How many tears they’re crying.

When’s the last time you wept?

It’s interesting that near the beginning of his famous sermon Jesus spoke about what he would do about the world’s suffering.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted (Matthew 5:4).

He came to set everything right again, and here he’s probably addressing both spiritual and social concerns . . . grief caused by social evil as well as personal sin (Craig Blomberg, Matthew, p. 99). In other words, he’s referring to our mourning when bad things happen, but also our grieving over the pain that our sins cause.

I can still hear the hopeful lyrics to a song we sang in a little country church in east Alabama when I was a kid.

No tears in heaven, no sorrows given. All will be glory in that land; There’ll be no sadness, all will be gladness, When we shall join that happy band.

No tears because of innocent babies who die oh-so-prematurely.

No tears because of a husband/daddy who walks out on his family.

No tears because of a teenager who rebels against her upbringing.

Some morning yonder, we’ll cease to ponder, O’er things this life has brought to view; All will be clearer, loved ones be dearer, In heav’n where all will be made new.*

No tears because of the sins we commit, which are the same ones we committed last month, and the month before that, . . . .

No tears because of the pain our bad choices bring to us and the people we love.

No tears because of our disappointing the One who died to free us. Again.

And then the chorus.

No tears (in heaven fair), No tears, no tears up there, Sorrow and pain will all have flown; No tears (in heaven fair). No tears, no tears up there; No tears in heaven will be known.

Blessed are the crying ones, because they’ll receive his comfort. He’ll release us from this sin-sick, grief-stricken world and lovingly wipe away every tear with his once-pierced hand.

No tears, no tears up there; No tears in heaven will be known.

Won’t that be amazing?

Spiritual beggars

I was getting off the interstate last week when I saw a man at the bottom of the exit ramp holding a “NEED FOOD” sign. I’m always stirred by different feelings when I see this—compassion, curiosity, even a bit of guilt and shame (for not doing more to help). Why doesn’t he have food? Should I give him money?

But it’s also interesting to recognize that this is the image Jesus used to start the most famous sermon ever preached. Most of his people thought the Messiah would come riding on the back of a white stallion at the front of an army of liberation. He would be strong, proud, powerful, and he would restore them to their former glory.

But his first words were nothing like what they expected.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:3).

Coming to God’s kingdom, Jesus said, involves first of all admitting that we’re spiritually poverty-stricken. We’re powerless to attain salvation, and we depend on God for everything that’s good.

Beggars. That’s what we are. We come to Jesus without “a righteousness of our own” and receive “that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith” (Philippians 3:9). “In him,” Paul writes, we “become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21).

What all this means is that being in the Lord’s kingdom involves emptying ourselves of pride, achievement, and accomplishment. We don’t bring our goodness to the table and exchange it for forgiveness. We don’t bring our impeccable morality and integrity to the Lord and hope it’s enough to be saved.

“Poor in spirit” means recognizing that there is “none righteous, no, not one” . . . including me.

It means admitting that “no one understands; no one seeks for God,” that “no one does good, not even one” . . . including me.

That’s hard for most of us. I want to point to a few of the good things I’ve done. I want to compare myself to some of society’s dregs and take a little pride in, “Well, at least I’m not like that.”

That’s why pride has always been the biggest obstacle between us and salvation. It takes our eyes off of God and puts them on us.

You can’t be a part of the kingdom until you recognize that you’re utterly dependent on God for salvation. Blessed are the spiritual beggars, for theirs is the kingdom.

Nothing in my hand I bring, Simply to the cross I cling; Naked, come to Thee for dress; Helpless look to Thee for grace; Foul, I to the fountain fly; Wash me, Savior, or I die. . . . When I soar to worlds unknown, See Thee on Thy judgment throne, Rock of Ages, cleft for me, Let me hide myself in Thee (Augustus Toplady).

His eye is on the sparrow

Where is God? Does he know what’s going on in my life? Does he care?

Because he doesn’t speak directly to us, and because we can’t literally see him, we might start thinking he’s not there, or if he is, he’s not particularly interested in the things we’re facing. Especially the bad stuff. Where is he when all that happens?

To those of us who struggle with this—which is probably all of us—Jesus spoke some of the most comforting words anyone has ever said:

Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows (Matthew 10:29-31).

A day’s wage was a denarius, and a penny was 1/16 of a denarius. Since two sparrows were sold for a penny, that means one sparrow was worth 1/32 of how much a man would make in a day.

Translation: not much.

Which was Jesus’ point. Sparrows had less value than almost anything in his world, but God noticed even their problems. Adding to the tenderness of the passage, Jesus said that God even knows how many hairs we’ve got on our heads.

In other words, he cares about us. A lot. Satan tries to get us to think that God is distant, uninterested, uninvolved. But Jesus says that God is infinitely concerned about every struggle, every difficulty, every hurt.

Sometimes we need to think about God’s love in global terms—“for God so loved the world . . .”—there’s not a spot on the planet that escapes his notice. But we also need to take comfort in the intimate nature of his personal love. He cares about me. And you. And your spouse or kid or mom or dad. Even your grumpy neighbor.

Whenever I see a bird lying on the side of the road, it reminds me of these words from Jesus. God took notice of that little blue jay, wren, or house finch.

Just think how much he must care about your problems.

The cause of anxiety

Do you worry?

About your kids, perhaps, or that nagging pain in your abdomen. Or maybe it’s about how long it’ll be before our country’s thumbing its nose at God brings major consequences. Maybe you’re concerned that your retirement fund isn’t nearly big enough to pay the bills in your golden years (and who knows what’ll happen with Social Security?). And then, of course, there’s that persistent pain again . . . what could be causing that?

Your list and my list probably aren’t too different. We fret over things we can’t control and wring our hands over issues that won’t matter a hundred years from now. That’s not always the case, but it is more than it’s not.

In that sense we’re not too different from Jesus’ peasant audience two thousand years ago. They didn’t have 401(k)s or pills for their anxiety-induced indigestion, but they worried about their future just like we do.

Here’s what Jesus said to them:

Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? (Matthew 6:25).

He goes on to explain how God takes care of the birds and the wildflowers—if he does that, won’t he take care of us, his children? And worrying doesn’t do any good at all anyway, Jesus says.

But at the root of it here’s his message: When we worry, it’s because we don’t trust God, not really. We think—whether we admit it or not—that the future God has planned for us may not be the future we want.

That’s presumptuous, isn’t it? We claim God as our omnipotent Father, trust Jesus Christ as our only Savior, then don’t trust them to work things out for the best. Doesn’t really make much sense.

So Jesus points us to the only One who can help us.

Is God in control? Look at creation, marvel at its beauty, complexity, and power.

Does he love us? Look at the cross and see his dying in our place.

If Satan can’t get us to give up our faith completely, he’ll at least try to make us miserable Christians. But that’s not what we want, and it’s not what Jesus wants for us. He wants us to believe him and trust him and submit to him. He wants to give us his peace and joy to sustain us no matter what.

There’s incredible potential in this heavily quoted part of his warning about anxiety: Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and he’ll take care of the rest.

Be kind.

A few days ago one of my kids was withdrawn and quiet—a reasonably rare occurrence at our house—so I asked him what was wrong. He hesitated, then with a little prodding told me that it was because I had been unkind to him earlier.

I wish I could say it was a case of childish hypersensitivity on his part, that he was wearing his feelings on his coat sleeves, that he needed to toughen up . . . but that wasn’t it. I knew it was true when he said it. I had been critical and irritable, and it was bothering him (as it should have).

The Spirit convicted me with Paul’s words in Ephesians 4.

Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear. . . . Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you (vv. 29,31,32).

Use your words to build one another up, Paul says, and be kind. The Bible contains a lot of theological mysteries, stuff most of us will never really understand, and then there are a few things that are completely clear. One of them is this: Christians ought to be kind.

On a blog that I read, the writer posted some comments about interviews he had had with people who had left the church. At the end of the interview he asked them what it would take to get them to come back. A comment he heard dozens of times was, “I would consider coming back if I knew people in the church would be nicer.” Many of them had apparently been burned by other Christians—either as recipients or spectators.

Maybe we need to hear Paul’s words. Build one another up. Encourage. Be nice. Treat everyone—Christian, non-Christian, family, stranger, enemy—according to the rule of kindness.

Christianity certainly can’t be completely described with only those admonitions, but can it be described at all without them?

Those careless words

If you read this blog regularly, you might be wondering where I’ve been. I apologize. It’s been a busy couple months, but thanks for sticking around . . . for good or bad, I’ll be blogging again, and I hope the Lord will use these thoughts to bless you in some way. I’ll try not to disappear again . . .

As a preacher and occasional writer, I use a lot of words, and that’s probably part of the reason this passage has puzzled—and scared—me. Maybe it’s bothered you a little as well.

I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned (Matthew 12:36-37).

I’m pretty sure I use quite a few “careless” words, probably every day. Don’t you?

Maybe an off-handed remark to your spouse or child, perhaps an off-the-cuff comment to a co-worker. Some of our words are carefully thought out, while many, probably most, aren’t. What does Jesus mean? Did he intend to imply that our innocent small talk is wrong, like when we’re talking about last night’s rain or next week’s game?

I don’t think so.

It helps to read what the Lord said just before:

Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or make the tree bad and its fruit bad, for the tree is known by its fruit. You brood of vipers! How can you speak good, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. The good person out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure brings forth evil (Matthew 12:33-35).

Jesus is saying that our words matter because they reflect our hearts. Good people say good things, while bad hearts produce evil speech.

There’s an important implication here: we learn more about our hearts from what we say without thinking than we do by looking at our carefully rehearsed speech. This means that you’d learn more about who I really am by hearing how I speak to people conversationally than you do by reading this devotional. I’ve rewritten the words on this page several times, but my “careless” words—the ones I use in normal conversation—more likely reflect the real me.

What about you? Are your words too critical? Do they build up or tear down? Are they positive or negative?

Our words matter, but mostly because they say something about our hearts. We don’t really fix our speech by learning to speak more nicely and be more honest. Our speech gets fixed when our hearts grow closer to Jesus.

God cares more about what’s inside us than he does about what comes out of us. So we need to work on our hearts by spending time with the Lord. Loving him more, praising him more, wanting to please him more.

What Jesus said should cause us to think before we speak, but it should especially cause us to ask him to take control of our hearts. That’s where the words—good or bad—come from.