how to win by losing: 1 Corinthians 6


Thank you, President Putin.  We the American people appreciate that you’ve reminded us to follow the rule of law.   We agree that sometimes governments in power can set up their opposition.  We value your reminder to use diplomacy first.  We agree that the shedding of innocent blood must be avoided at all costs.  We look forward to working together to try to help the Syrian people resolve their own internal conflict.  We say Amen to your admonition that God created us all equal.  Finally, we’re so glad that you recognize the positive power of freedom of the press, a freedom that enabled you to write a letter to us in today’s New York Times.   “A Plea for Caution from Russia,” by Vladimir V. Putin

President Putin’s letter to the American people reeks so strongly of hypocrisy that I nearly gagged from the fumes seeping in under my apartment door when I woke up this morning.  And yet the above is how I imagine Dale Carnegie might recommend responding to President Putin.  Why?  Because Carnegie knows that responding with humility accomplishes far more than lashing back in pride.  He knows the value of losing a battle in order win the war.

BBC World News posed the question this morning: do the American people WANT the Russian President telling us what to do?  It’s the wrong question.  Why?  Because in the battle of good against evil, we need to keep our eye on the prize.

In today’s Scripture, Saint Paul makes the stunning claim that it is better to be cheated than for a Christian to sue a fellow believer in a civil matter.  Read 1 Cor. 6.  It’s the kind of claim that sends shivers up our litigious American spines.  Seriously?  You mean if a Christian sister steals your money, you’re not supposed to sue her in a secular court?  Yes, that’s exactly what Saint Paul says.  He’s not against all legal action.  In Acts 22 and 25 he appealed to the Roman courts for his rights.  So why this advice here?  His reasoning is that when Jesus comes back, the Christians will judge even the angels.  So Paul asks: is there not even one Christian person who can fairly judge between Christians?  Why would a Christian assert their rights before someone who doesn’t respect or submit to the laws of God?  Paul says Christians should try to work these matters out amongst themselves, and to find an honest Christian arbiter, and if that’s not possible, it’s better to be cheated. God is the ultimate judge of wrongdoers, and Paul provides a long broad list of behaviors God rejects unless they’re covered by the cross.

If we look at the Sermon on the Mount, we find Jesus making the same kind of stunning claims as Saint Paul.  Turn the other cheek.  If someone demands your coat, offer your shirt also.  Give to anyone who asks.  When things are taken away from you, don’t try to get them back.  Luke 6:27-30.  These claims come bang up against our pride.  But our pride is based on the lie of our perfection. As Paul says, the reason we should let things drop if we have to, is that we’ve cheated other people, too.  The truth is that we’ve all hurt other people and taken things from them unjustly.  Sometimes we take their boyfriends and girlfriends, or even their spouses.  Sometimes we take their reputations.  Sometimes we take their belongings.  Sometimes we take their self-esteem.  We rob them of their dreams, dash their hopes and yell at them for being too sensitive when they protest.  When we realize we’ve done these things, we fling ourselves on God’s favor, mercy and goodness to release us from guilt.  We rely on the cross alone.  If we’re honest, we can never rely on our perfection.  And so we, in turn, would be fools not to offer that kind of forgiveness to others.  Who wants to live in a world of pure justice?  None of us would survive.  We need a world of grace.

Grace leads us even deeper into the heart of the matter.  The reason we can follow this off-putting advice about allowing ourselves to be cheated in certain circumstances, is that God’s grace proves to us we can trust God.  We grow to trust God more and more, the more we take in how kind He is.   We start to rely on God to rescue us.  And if God says we’re not to sue a fellow believer, and that we’re instead to try to get a Christian to judge between us, we’re to trust Him to bring good out of that situation.

Which brings us back to President Putin.  What’s our goal in Syria?   Is it a zero sum game, where either the Russians or the Americans win?  Or is the goal truly to help minimize evil in the world by using our influence to persuade governments to not kill their own citizens, and especially to never use chemical weapons?  If so, the kind of forgiving nature God calls us to counsels that we get off our high horse in the interest of achieving the greater good.  In this conflict the Russians have to date stymied our ability to work within the UN Security Council.  The fact that President Obama’s red line in the sand means there now seems room to maneuver within the diplomatic channels means that the most powerful thing President Obama can do right now is agree with the Russians.  Of course, everything Putin says is pure hypocrisy, but who cares?  “What a GREAT idea!” our President can say to the Russian President.  “I’m so glad you appealed to God and the law.”  And together, they can try to wipe out chemical weapons from the face of the planet, as difficult as that may be in practical terms.

Why do we Americans want to help the world?  Here is where we get to the worst thing President Putin said.  Putin is right to say that all are equal before God.  But he’s wrong to say that therefore none can claim to be exceptional.  It’s the other way around.  God sees us each as exceptional.  As Paul says, our body is as exceptional as God’s body.  We are all exceptionally loved by God.  How do we know?  Because God loved us so much, that even though we weren’t obeying His laws, God chose to be unjustly tortured and killed to set us free from the consequences of our sins.

That’s why the letter God wants us to worry about isn’t a letter written by any human hands.  We should pay no heed to those letters that point fingers and tell us what we’ve done wrong.  God wants us to tear up those letters of the law.  Instead, God asks us to look at His hands.  His liberating love for each of us is engraved there. His love letter to us is the one our hearts cry out for every day, in every way, in every hurt, injustice, crime and poison.  It’s the only letter worth reading, and if we keep our eyes fixed on the message of love there, we will find ourselves responding with humility instead of pride because our hearts have been melted down into rivers flowing with tears of repentance and gratitude.

posted by Caroline Coleman in A Chapter a Day, my blog on Scripture, literature, life and love… and sometimes war

why we are all hypocrites: Luke 12

read Luke 12.  We react in horror to the sight of people stampeding others to try to apply to a university in South Africa, but we forget that a Walmart employee was trampled to death by American shoppers in search of Black Friday bargains in 2008.  Stampeding crowds are universal and universally dangerous.  That’s why Oliver Wendell Holmes said the First Amendment right to free speech cannot protect you from prosecution if you falsely shout  “FIRE” in a crowded theatre: your words alone can kill.  Your words alone present a clear and present danger to other people.  So why does Jesus bring up the issue of hypocrisy at the very moments when people crowded around him so tightly they had begun to trample on each other?

Perhaps because when we are hypocritical we are literally trampling on the people around us.  Consider this:  the issues that make us react most violently when we see them in others, are faults that we have that we are not aware of.  “When the preacher shouts, it’s about a problem he has himself.”  Twelve Steps for the Recovering Pharisee, by John Fischer.

So when one of my favorite preachers at Times Square Church started shouting about “preachers who are too lazy to do the work themselves, and who instead of spending time alone praying to God in their prayer closets, at 10 pm at night start pulling sermons up off the INTERNET,” I knew immediately what has been tempting that preacher.  Did that preacher know he was shouting at himself?  Maybe.  I like him.  I think he truly loves God.  I think he does spend time alone praying to God.  But why is he shouting at us about spending time alone with God?  Probably because he has been finding himself distracted by everything except the need to pray.  Does he know why he started shouting?  Maybe – again, his relationship with God is between him and God.  But what we the audience experienced was that someone was shouting at us.  He made us feel like we had done something wrong – even though none of us even preach sermons.  And that, writ large, is what we all do when we are hypocrites.  We rail against other people in such a violent way that we make everyone around us shrink in fear.  There’s something about judgment that is crippling.

But when we are hypocrites, we don’t just randomly trample anyone within listening distance.  We also trample the people against whom we are railing.  We are harsh.  We are judgmental.  We have no mercy.  We allow no room for grace.  I recently heard a woman denounce against a man who overshared about the flaws in his marriage with a female stranger at a dinner party.  What struck me was that the woman who was so bitterly denouncing the man … had done the exact same thing in MY hearing about HER marriage at the end of a dinner party several  years earlier.  She had complained to everyone in the room about the very same problem in her own marriage. I would bet good money that that woman had completely forgotten she had complained about this.  But I can tell you that the woman EVISCERATED the man who did the same thing she had done.  To listen to the hypocrite speak, the man in question was a useless piece of dirt who shouldn’t be allowed to exist on this planet, let alone be married.  And so in trampling to death someone who did the exact same thing she had done – the woman eviscerated herself.

Because crowd trampling is no respecter of persons.  If you leap into a crowd, you will trample someone else – and you will be trampled yourself.  Crowd trampling is not a safe profession.  Jesus compares hypocrisy to “yeast”  – it looks small but it expands and spills over safe borders.  Why do we all rail against hypocrites?  It’s because we are all hypocrites.  We all hate in other people faults we have ourselves that we’re not aware of – and hypocrisy is a universal fault, and therefore something we universally hate.

But how can we possibly save ourselves from the form of trampling known as hypocrisy, if we are all blind to our own faults and therefore doomed to hypocrisy?  The first answer is to use our tone of voice as a mirror into our own soul.  If we catch our voices getting harsh, bitter and loud when discussing someone else’s flaws, it is a clue that we have probably just noticed in someone else a fault we have ourselves.  We can use our judgmental tone as a mirror, reflecting our faults back to us.

But no matter how tuned in we are to the sound of our own hypocrisy, we will still slip – just as even my prayerful pastor did on Sunday.  There is a bigger issue at stake here – the issue of the inevitability of our sin.  We are all imperfect.  We will all trample on each other sometimes.  So what’s the solution?

Jesus’ answer at first glance seems completely contradictory.  In Luke 12, Jesus moves from discussing hypocrisy, to telling the crowds to fear God: “Fear God, who has the power to kill you and then throw you into hell.  Yes, he’s the one to fear.”  Luke 12:5.  But the moment Jesus tells the crowds to fear God, He tells us over and over again not to be afraid. He tells us not to be afraid of those who can kill the body and after that can do no more.  He tells us not to be afraid when we’re put on trial for our faith.  He tells us not to “worry about everyday life,” what to eat or wear.  How can Jesus do this?  How can He tell us to fear God, but not to be afraid?

The answer lies, as always, in the cross.  The cross shows us what kind of God we have, and why we should fear Him but not be afraid.  Look at the end of the chapter.  Peter asks Christ if Christ’s warning about being ready for Christ’s return was “just for us or for everyone”?  Luke 11:41.  Jesus’ response illustrates that he knows perfectly well why Peter is asking the question: Peter wants to know if he’s better than everyone else.

That’s why Jesus tells Peter that those to whom he has entrusted much, even more will be required.  Luke 11:48.  Jesus says He has come to set the world on fire.  He says that He has not come to bring peace on the earth, but to divide families.  He says that we should try to settle matters with our accuser before we are dragged into court, or we will be thrown into prison and not released until we have “paid the very last penny.”  Luke 11:59.  Those are harsh words from the Prince of Peace.  That is a terrifyingly high standard for Jesus’ followers.  That sounds like a fear-based way to settle litigation.  What is going on?  What is Jesus talking about?

Jesus is talking about judgment.  He is saying to each of us: look.  Do you really want to go around judging each other?  Do you really want to condemn other people?  Fine.  Go ahead.  Play that game.  But be aware that the very words you use to condemn others will rebound on your own heads.  The measure you use is the measure by which you will be judged.  Jesus is pointing out that if we humans want to live in a world of judgment, where we measure each other based on laws – often arbitrary, sometimes godly – it’s like walking around every day in a stampeding crowd.  We will trample others, and we will be trampled.  If we want to live in a world of judgment alone, then we will have to prove that we are perfect.  In the world ruled by judgment, perfection is the only way to freedom.  And what Peter was missing was that being a follower of Jesus doesn’t mean we’re perfect; it means that we’re under grace.

God knows all about our imperfections, even more than we do; God is all-knowing.  Unlike humans, God actually knows everything we have all done and thought.   God already knows what we have all “whispered behind closed doors.”  We don’t even know what we have whispered behind closed doors because half the time we’ve already blocked it out or forgotten.  God knows what we’re really like.  He knows our hearts because He made them.  The reason we should fear God, “who has the power to kill you and then throw you into hell” is because God knows we have all broken His law – at least behind closed doors – and therefore we all deserve to go to hell.  Harsh?  Yes.   But that doesn’t mean it’s not true.

Thankfully, the reason the story of Jesus is called the Good News, is because Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the only perfect man who walked this earth, allowed himself to be trampled to death to rescue us from death.  Jesus trampled death on the cross.  He laid down his life for each of us, to lift us out of the world of judgment, and into the world of mercy.  Jesus’ blood stands between us and judgment.  Every time God looks at us, if we have asked Christ to “cover” us with his blood, God sees Jesus.  He sees Christ’s perfection.  On the cross, Jesus took the judgment we deserve – and that we all level against each other – so that we could live under grace.  Grace is the undeserved gift of going to heaven.  Grace is available freely to for all.  Grace is provided to anyone who accepts his need for grace.  The only thing that stands between us and receiving grace is pride; only a false sense of our own perfection (in which we compare ourselves to all those other “bad” people whom we spend our days judging) can block us from receiving God’s mercy.

So even our hypocrisy, strangely, is good; it reveals to us our need of mercy.  In judging others, we reveal that we need grace.  And the good news is: grace is freely available to all who ask for it.

That is why Jesus says we should be afraid of God, but that instead we can live without worry.  Jesus died to enable each of us to have a “rich relationship with God.”  Luke 12:21.  That is why Jesus can say here that we are more “valuable” to God than a whole flock of sparrows; we are so “valuable” that God himself gave His life for us.  Jesus knows what He is talking about.  Jesus gave up heaven to enable us to go to heaven – even though we are all imperfect, hypocritical, judgmental and tramplers of each other.

And that is why Jesus calls us here to trust God.  He asks us to stop worrying.  He does want us to have what one of my friends calls a “healthy” fear of God; yes, we should respect God’s rules.  God made His rules for our benefit.  Breaking God’s rules will always backfire on us.  Always.  But we are not to live in fear of God – the kind of fear that would prevent us from enjoying life.  On the contrary, Jesus invites us to live free from fear.

What would that look like?  It’s pretty breath-taking.  Jesus invites us to trust God to meet all our needs.  He invites us to hand to Him all of our cares, because He cares for us. He invites us to abandon greed, and the desire to hoard, and instead to release ourselves into His hands.  That kind of trust looks terrifying, liberating, and almost too wonderful to believe.  It would be dumb to trust another human like this.  But it would be dumb NOT to trust an all-loving God like this.  It may be dumb not to trust God, but none of us fully trust Him.  It’s hard to trust God.  Perhaps it’s impossible – at least to try to do it all on our own.  Perhaps we need to ask God to help us trust Him.  For if we could trust that He really has forgiven us, we can live free from fear of other people’s condemnation; we can live free from fear of our own harsh judgmental tendencies.  After all, just because something is wonderful, is no reason not to ask for it.  And why shouldn’t we ask God for the most wonderful thing of all?

posted by Caroline Coleman on January 24, 2012