read Acts 6. We are all attracted to glowing faces. We can feel when our own faces glow. We spend a lot of money on products that promise to give us that glow. Glowing faces are contagious. It’s hard to see someone else glow and not respond in kind – unless we’re in a really really bad mood, in which case seeing someone else that happy can make us glower, Scrooge-like. To resent when others are happy makes us feel small, miserly and bitter. That’s when we know we’re in a bad place – when we can’t be happy for someone else. We know that love rejoices for other people. But at times, we all have quiet selfish little moments, in which we don’t rejoice – as much as we would like to.
If you don’t believe me, think about when you were single, lonely and depressed, and your best friend got engaged. We rejoiced, of course we did, but there is always a little part of us, a secret place, that mourns: “when is it going to be MY turn?” Or on a personal front, when I learn that a friend is having her first novel published by a fantastic, literary publisher – I’m thrilled for her. I’m over the moon. And quietly, there’s a little stabbing sigh of: “why can’t I write a literary novel that’s good enough for that publisher??” We don’t want those stabbing sighs – they do pierce our souls. They make us feel unattractive. They are unattractive. But they live alongside us. They inhabit us, like termites, eating us up from the inside out. Left unchecked, they can, like termites, bring down our houses. They seek to define us. They seek, as the Scripture puts it – to devour us like a lion. That’s because those kind of lonely, self-pitying, selfish and self-seeking thoughts bubble up from the cauldrons of hell. Those thoughts are meant to devour us. As Saint Peter once put it: “your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.” 1 Peter 5:8.
We humans are too vulnerable to a lion’s speed, prowess, teeth, claws and predatory instincts to protect ourselves. We need a safe refuge, strong friends or powerful weapons – and the intimate knowledge of how to use those weapons.
Spiritual lions call for spiritual refuges, spiritual friends and spiritual weapons. We can’t fight off spiritual lions with willpower alone. No matter how much we instruct ourselves to be happy for other glowing people, we can’t shake off those tiny predatory selfish thoughts that rob us of our own glow. We can bury those thoughts, but they’re still there, rising up out of the ashes of our hopelessness, singing to us a dirge of sadness and regret, dragging us down to the depths, wanting us to feel unloved, unlovely, and unlovable. Those thoughts can indeed devour us. They can eat us alive.
And those thoughts show on our faces. We can feel the twinge of selfishness in ourselves, and we can see it in others. We sense when their smiles crack, like paint chipping off porcelain dolls. We feel when our own smiles crack, and it makes us feel as hard-hearted as porcelain dolls ourselves.
The spiritual solution offered by Christ is, as always, the unexpected way. It is to find strength to fight off the lions of self-pity, hopelessness and despair through laying down our lives. It is, as Christ once said, to find our life by losing it. Something within us responds to those words. We hear the sound of them. We like the sound of them. But we don’t always know what they mean. What does it MEAN to lay down our lives for others – especially in the face of their glow when we feel none ourselves? Guilt alone can never motivate us to find real joy, deep within us. Guilt can restrain us. We do feel guilty when we are jealous of other people’s delight. But the guilt can’t erase our selfish thoughts. It only highlights them.
What I love about the Bible is how very real it is. It addresses these kinds of issues head on. It lovingly highlights our humanity. It reads us. It shows us that yes, we all have a selfish side. But at the very same time, it shows us how very loved we are by the God who made us, knows us, and understands us. It’s hard to describe, but the more time we spend with God, the more we begin to melt at our humanity. God’s presence brings us to a place where we weep with Him about our shortcomings, rather than rail against Him.
If we look at Acts 6, for instance, we find a scene straight out of any contemporary news story about sectarian violence. Soon after Christ was rose again to heaven, the early believers lived in unity. They shared everything. They ate together. They handed over their property to be used by those in need. Their unity convicts me every time I read it. And then, boom. Humanity reared its ugly head: “as the believers rapidly multiplied, there were rumblings of discontent.” Acts 6:1. Those rumblings and grumblings rise up within us all. We grow discontented with even unity. God places us in a garden, and we end up seeing the thorns. Here, the cause was, as so often happens, ethnic: “The Greek-speaking believers complained about the Hebrew-speaking believers, saying that their widows were being discriminated against in the daily distribution of food.” Acts 6:1.
I love what happens next. Instead of lecturing the people, and telling them to shape up or ship out, or telling them that they’re imagining things, the Twelve apostles call a meeting. The Twelve say that they need to spend their time teaching the word of God, “not running a food program.” So they ask their Christian brothers and sisters to select “seven men who are well respected and are full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will give them this responsibility. Then we apostles can spend our time in prayer and teaching. the word.” Acts 6:2-4. I love the fact that they don’t discount the problem. It suggests to me that they recognized their own humanity – perhaps they HAD been discriminating against the Greek-speaking believers. It suggests they recognized what Richard Dawkins once called the “selfish gene” inside us all – the one Dawkins quantified in bats, that would, in a bat cave, cause adult bats to statistically favor feeding baby bats who shared their genes over bats who were unrelated. And even if the discrimination was in the minds of the Greek-speakers, it was no less real, and no less important of an issue. The apostles prayed for the seven men chosen to distribute the food and laid hands on them.
And all of this brings the story to Saint Stephen and the glow. Many of us have heard of Stephen. He was the first Christian martyr. Stephen is described repeatedly here as a man “full of faith and the Holy Spirit.” Acts 6:5. He’s “a man full of God’s grace and power, [who] performed amazing miracles and signs.” Acts 6:8. Stephen has the kind of “power” God gives. He has the power that can defeat roaring lions. Inevitably, Stephen’s spiritual power brings him into conflict with people who don’t have that power. Some men begin to debate with him, and discover that none of them – not one – can “stand against the wisdom and the Spirit with which Stephen spoke.” Acts 6:10.
Most of us don’t like it when someone shows us up. It rubs up against our pride. So instead of rejoicing in Stephen’s wisdom, they seek to bring him down. They lie about him. They persuade people to accuse him of blasphemy against God and Moses. Stephen is arrested, brought before the high council, and lied about. And here is where the story takes a turn for the beautiful – right here – where we least expect it:
“At this point everyone in the high council stared at Stephen, because his face became as bright as an angel’s.” Acts 6:15.
That’s it. That’s the end of the chapter. As we read the chapter, we find humanity, tension, resolution, jealousy, selfishness, wounded pride – and then angelic beauty. What happened? How did Stephen glow at the very moment when most of us would deteriorate into fury, anger, rage and high moral indignation? Stephen was innocent. He had acted with the best of intentions. He was falsely accused. And yet he didn’t inhabit the bitterness of his accusers. What was his secret? What did Stephen know that the rest of us only yearn to know?
Stephen knew God.
Stephen knew the One who loved Him. He knew, in an intimate tender way, His Lord and Savior. He looked not at the lying people – or rather, not at the jealousy and pride hardening their faces – but into their hearts. He knew that they spoke from their humanity. In order not to resent their humanity, Stephen must have known his own humanity. To have God’s “wisdom,” as Stephen is described as having, is to know not that we are perfect, but the very opposite. To have God’s “grace” as we are told he had, is to know our shortcomings, and know them deeply . But it’s also to allow God to bring us to the place where we can weep over our smallness. And when we begin to mourn, as God mourns, we glow, as God glows. We shine with love, our of love, in love. We shine because we know we are loved, just as we are. We begin to know, in a very deep way, that God loved us so much He laid down His life for us. He did it literally, on the cross, and spiritually, by allowing Satan to devour Him in hell. He took our punishment – the lion’s claws, teeth, and roaring fury – so that we could have peace. He abandoned the refuse of heaven, in order to give us the refuge of grace. We can hide from any lion in the secret place of knowing that no matter what we sense ourselves thinking, and no matter what we do, we can be made beautiful, perfect, spotless and clean, by the cross.
That’s all God asks of us – to have faith in His love. He asks that we lay down our lives – that we stop pretending we’re all that – and instead admit our pride. Admitting our pride gives us the strength to defeat even a pride of lions. If we confess our faults, He is faithful and just, and will cleanse us of all unrighteousness. He will wipe our tears from our eyes and make our faces glow with a knowledge of His love so deep and true, that it brings joy to us in the midst of any and all circumstances – even, especially, false accusations against us when, for once, we are actually innocent. Look at Joyce Meyer – the one whose picture I took on t.v. above. She glows even as she tells millions of people a day about her selfishness, pride, jealousy and smallness – and in so doing she becomes anything but small.
We can all be like that. We can all glow. We can all shine like an angel, even in the midst of our smallest, most bitter, selfish, self-pitying, hopeless, bat-like, selfish gene thoughts. Right there, when we least expect it, we can take a turn for the beautiful. How? By weeping with God’s heart over our humanity, and accepting God’s heart in place of our own. A tender soft loving heart can defeat any lion. That’s the secret. That’s why the Bible says that the lion, one day, will lie down with the lamb. That unity starts in our own hearts now, as we allow our porcelain hearts to lie down with the Lamb of God. Our painted smiles chip off, revealing a heart of God beneath. God’s Spirit gives us a heart that can rejoice when others rejoice; that weeps when others weep; that delights in the victory of others even in the midst of our own seeming defeats. That is because we know our deepest victory has already been won. God defeated the lion for us on the cross. And if we lay down our smallness, over and over and over again, it is to lay down our lives for others. It is to glow not with our own made up beauty, but to glow with God’s beauty. God’s sacrificial love gives us the kind of beauty that lingers with us no matter how hopeless, unattractive or despairing we feel. It transcends our thoughts and encircles and enraptures us, even as we remain, still, a people who sometimes cannot rejoice for others. Our thoughts may flap their bat-like wings, but deeper still, our hearts know the truth. We do love others. We can love them. If we look to God, He gives us His love – for us, and for all humanity.
by Caroline Coleman on September 18, 2012