Mark S. Mitchell

Pastor, Writer, Follower of Jesus

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Blessed Bankruptcy

Jesus begins the Beatitudes saying, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” That sounds like nonsense to most of us. We live in a society where leadership, success and fulfillment have nothing to do with being poor in spirit. Political candidates promise if they’re elected things will be better. They’ll lift our economy, bring on world peace, solve our health care crisis and improve education for our kids. Smart political candidates are optimistic and confident, not poor in spirit. We don’t raise our children to be poor in spirit either. On the soccer field we yell from the sidelines, “You can do it! Believe in yourself!” We don’t want our kids to cower in the face of life’s challenges; we don’t want them poor in spirit; we want them to have confidence. Our culture says, “Blessed are the people who have it all together, who are confident, independent, and think well of themselves.” So when Jesus says the poor in spirit are blessed we don’t really believe that’s true.

What does it mean to be poor in spirit? It doesn’t mean to be financially poor. Living in a slum doesn’t merit favor with God. You can be materially poor and proud as a peacock. You can be rich in the world’s goods and poor in spirit. Nor does it mean to be poor spirited. Jesus isn’t saying the wimps of the world are blessed. He’s not promoting passivity of spirit or a certain cowering kind of personality. Nor does it mean to be poor in spiritual awareness. Jesus isn’t pronouncing a blessing on those who have no interest in spiritual things; who go through life without a second thought of God. Finally, to be poor in spirit doesn’t mean to be modest. It’s not the Academy Award winner who says, “Aw shucks, I couldn’t have done it without my supporting cast.” That may be a nice way to handle an award, but you can be modest in your manner yet proud in your spirit.

Being poor in spirit has to do with our relationship with God. In the Greek language there are two words for “poor.” One word describes those who live from paycheck to paycheck with just the bare necessities. That’s not the word used here. The word used here means to be afflicted and oppressed and look to God and God alone for help. Psalm 34:6 says, “The poor man cried, and the Lord heard him, and saved him out of all his troubles.” To be poor in spirit means to recognize our own spiritual bankruptcy and our deep need for God.

In Luke 18:9-14 Jesus told a story to show what it means to be poor in spirit. Two men went to church to pray. One was a Pharisee and the other a tax-collector. The Pharisee stood before God and thanked him he’s not like other people. He’s not a liar and a cheat in business, he doesn’t sleep around, and he doesn’t rip people off like this tax collector. He fasts on a regular basis and gives a tenth of his income to God. What he was saying was true; he probably lived an upright life. This is the kind of guy every church wants. This is the kind of guy other people look at and think, “If only I could get it together like him. He’s so disciplined, so spiritual.”

The tax collector couldn’t have been more different. Tax collectors were the scoundrels of the ancient world. They were Jews who bought franchises from the Roman government which gave them the right to collect taxes. Besides being traitors to Rome, they got rich by extortion. Rome had no standardized tax rates, so the tax collector could charge what he wanted, and skim whatever he could off the top. They were the scum of society. So when this man prayed, he didn’t have a whole lot to say. He didn’t even dare raise his eyes to heaven. He beat his breast and cried out, “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.” We say, “Well, he ought to be praying that! If anyone needs mercy, he does!”

By anyone’s measure, the Pharisee was better than the tax collector. If they were both running for election, we’d vote for the Pharisee. But Jesus closes the story with a statement that must have sounded like nonsense. He said the tax collector, not the Pharisee, went back to his house justified, right with God.

What’s going on in this story? We might say that the Pharisee’s problem was conceit. He really was a better man, he just needed to be more modest. Who would stand up at church and say, “Thank you Lord that I’m not like these other guys. I rarely miss church. I tithe. I witness to my neighbors.” But his problem wasn’t conceit, it was pride. Luke said something important to introduce this story. He said, “Jesus told this story to those who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and looked down on everybody else.” This tells me the difference between pride and poverty of spirit has to do with who you trust. The Pharisee didn’t trust in God; he trusted in himself. He didn’t really need God for anything. He wasn’t a beggar before God; he was confident in himself. But the tax collector came empty handed, trusting in God. We might say, “He had an advantage. He really was a loser!” But he could have practiced his own form of pride. He could have said, “Lord, thank you I’m not like this proud Pharisee. I may be a sinner, but at least I’m open and honest about it. At least I’m not a hypocrite.” He didn’t say that. Instead he saw his moral poverty and trusted God, not himself.

I think the reason he did that was how he measured himself. The Pharisee was proud because he measured himself against man. That’s why it says, “He looked down on everyone else.” He didn’t measure himself God-ward; he found a guy who would make him look good. Some of us aren’t poor in spirit because we really haven’t looked God-ward and identified the sin in our lives as sin. We’ve rationalized it and trivialized it. To be poor in spirit means to look God-ward and come to grips with our absolute moral bankruptcy in his sight. But it equally means to come to him out of that need; to cry out to him for mercy and to trust that he can and will supply what we need.

I had an uncle who married late in life and never had children. As a result, he treated my brother and me like grandsons. When he got older, his wife was in a care facility and he stayed in his home. Before he died, he shared with me that his home was in joint tenancy, and if he died first his wife would become the sole owner and her plan was to leave the home to some of her own relatives. But, if she died first, my uncle would leave the house to my brother and me, along with four other cousins. I remember the day he called me to tell me his wife had died. Despite the fact they never had a great relationship, he was full of grief and remorse. My first thought wasn’t to grieve over the loss of my aunt, but to rejoice over the fact that now I would inherit one-sixth of the house. There’s a sense in which in my spirit I could have killed her for the money. My uncle died just a few days later, but in that experience I saw how ugly and dark my heart really was.

What happens when we truly see our hearts and lives for what they are? We can try to deny what we see, or cover it up, or explain it away, or find someone worse. When we do that, we stay in our sins. Or we can come to God as a beggar, throw ourselves at his feet and cry out for mercy. It’s then, and only then, that we’ll know the blessing of being poor in spirit: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”


To Live in Joy

I’ve been thinking about joy lately. Where does it come from? How can I live in joy when there is so much wrong not only in this world, but in my own life?

Our church has just started a study on the letters of John. John opens his first letter by telling his readers that his whole purpose in writing was to make their joy complete (1 John 1:4). How is it that followers of Jesus can experience complete joy? We live in the same world as everyone else, we experience the same trials and troubles. The world knocks us all around, rather unmercifully at times. Where does this joy come from? How is it possible?

No one explained this better than G.K. Chesterton. In his book, Orthodoxy he wrote, “The mass of men have been forced to be gay about the little things, but sad about the big ones.” What did he mean by that? He simply meant that unbelieving people are forced to find their joy in the “little things” of this earth, but when they consider the much bigger questions of their ultimate existence, they’re sad. Chesterton writes, “…the pagan was…happier and happier as he approached the earth, but sadder and sadder as he approached the heavens. The gaiety of the best Paganism…is all a gaiety about the facts of life, not about its origin. To the pagan the small things are as sweet as the small brooks breaking out of the mountain; but the broad things are as bitter as the sea. When the pagan looks at the very core of the cosmos he is struck cold. Behind the gods, who are merely despotic, sit the fates, who are deadly.”

This past weekend I had the joy of watching my son play football at Wheaton College. Both he and his team played well and there was joy on the Wheaton College field when the game was over. While God grants us these moments of earthly joy, and it is good for us to enjoy them, the reality is that if the night had not gone so well, our joy would still be complete. This remains true even amidst life’s more devastating tragedies. Chesterton explains that in the Christian faith, “joy becomes something gigantic and sadness something special and small. The vault above us is not deaf because the universe is an idiot; the silence is not the heartless silence of an endless and aimless world… We are perhaps permitted tragedy as a sort of merciful comedy: because the frantic energy of divine things would knock us down like a drunken farce. We can take our own tears more lightly than we could take the tremendous levities of the angels. So we sit perhaps in a starry chamber of silence, while the laughter of the heavens is too loud for us to hear.”

If Chesterton is right—and I believe he is—then we would expect to see this sort of complete joy in Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus was known as “a man of sorrows,” but could it be that he was restraining something deep within? I’ll let Chesterton answer that question: “The tremendous figure which fills the Gospels towers in this respect, as in every other, above all the thinkers who ever thought themselves tall. His pathos was natural, almost casual. The Stoics, ancient and modern, were proud of concealing their tears. He never concealed His tears; He showed them plainly on His open face at any daily sight, such as the far sight of His native city. Yet He concealed something. Solemn supermen and imperial diplomatists are proud of restraining their anger. He never restrained His anger. He flung furniture down the front steps of the Temple, and asked men how they expected to escape the damnation of Hell. Yet He restrained something. I say it with reverence; there was in that shattering personality a thread that must be called shyness. There was something that He hid from all men when He went up a mountain to pray. There was something that He covered constantly by abrupt silence or impetuous isolation. There was one thing that was too great for God to show us when He walked upon our earth; and I have sometimes fancied that it was His mirth.”

I believe it is this very real joy of his that he shares with us. We still experience the tears and the anger, as he did, but all the while the laughter of the heavens echoes in our ears.

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Does Your Work Matter to God?

It’s Labor Day and perhaps a good time to ask the question, why do you work? There can be two extremes in answering that question. There are those who see work as a necessary evil. They work because they have to. Work is a means to an end. “I work because I have to pay my bills.” Or “I work because I want to be able to pay for the things I want out of life.” Or “I work because some day I want to retire.” For these people, work has little intrinsic value. It’s something they do because of something else they want. Some of these people, of course, aren’t neutral about their job; they HATE their job. Like the David Allan Coe song from 1978, Take This Job and Shove It, they loathe their work. Tim J. McGuire, former editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune once said in a speech: “Work is brutal. Work is a four-letter word. Most people don’t think that work could possibly have anything to do with spirituality. They assume that these two worlds cannot mesh.”

The other extreme sees their jobs and their work as central to their worth and identity as a person. Not only do they love their work, their work is everything to them; it’s their religion. One study showed that Americans work an average of 49 1/2 weeks a year, more than any other developed nation. My oldest daughter used to work for Facebook. It was great because you could eat three very nice meals a day there; they would even do your dry-cleaning. All this for free! But after awhile she realized part of the deal was you never needed to go home! For some, work is an obsession.

God is the One who invented work. When God created Adam and Eve, he gave them work to do. He told them to “fill the earth and subdue it” (Gen. 2:28). Before sin ever entered the world, there was work in paradise. The Bible also hints strongly there will be work in heaven. But work isn’t everything. God also instituted the Sabbath; a day of rest. Life is to be lived in a sacred rhythm of rest and work.

How do we capture God’s purpose for our work? How can work become for us more than just a necessary evil? How can our work take on it’s rightful place in our lives? I believe the answer to that question lies in the whole idea of what the Bible calls our calling. We need to understand how our jobs connect with our calling. Paul wrote about this in 1 Corinthians 7:17, 20, Only, as the Lord has assigned to each one, as God has called each, in this manner let him walk… Each man must remain in that condition in which he was called.” Paul calls our job the place “the Lord has assigned to each one.” He says, “Wherever you were at when Christ called you, that’s your assignment.” Then in v. 20 he says something very surprising. The word translated “condition” is actually the same word he uses in the rest of the passage for “calling.” It should read like this: “Each man must remain in that calling in which he was called.” You see, our jobs are a calling. You might say, there is Calling with a big “C” and calling with a small “c.” Calling with a big “C” is the same for every believer; we are called into a relationship with Christ.  Calling with a small “c” is a little different for every believer. Our different jobs are a kind of calling; they are an assignment from God. This is where the word “vocation” comes in. We use that to speak of our careers, but the word comes from the Latin root which means “to call.” We each have a vocational calling. Our vocation is the unique place God has called us to live out the implications of our big “C” calling.

Paul gives us a a very strong hint of what that might mean later in v. 24 when he says, “Each one is to remain with God in that condition in which he was called.” Those two words, with God” make all the difference in the world. The idea seems to be that, whatever our work is, God is not only right there with us, but we do our work for Him; he is the One we are to please. In Colossians, Paul put it this way, “Whatever you do, do your work heartily as for the Lord rather than for men” (Col. 3:23-24). Paul says do you work as if it were an act of worship. What difference would it make if you did your job every day before an audience of One?

It would make a difference in how we work. When we are doing our work for God we strive for excellence in all that we do. Sweeping floors, pounding nails, pulling teeth, fixing computers will be done with diligence and conscientiousness. It should never be said of Christian workers that they are halfhearted, chronically late, irresponsible, whiny, and “too heavenly minded to be any earthly good.”

Working for God should also make a difference in who we are. This goes beyond just being good workers. The idea here is being people of Christlike character in the marketplace. We should be marked by integrity. We should be known as people who don’t shade the truth to make the deal. Expense accounts are not padded. Petty cash is not pilfered. That’s only the start. We should actually model a lifestyle that is directly opposed to the typical standard. The typical marketplace mentality centers on the bottom line: profits, quotas, sales reports, balance sheets and getting ahead of our co-workers. Yet, we should be people marked by compassion, servanthood, putting people above the bottom line. Its so easy to slip into self-centeredness. When you go to work tomorrow, who do you need to reach out to? Who needs your encouragement? Who needs you to listen?

Being Christlike also means being vulnerable — admitting when you make a mistake. As followers of Christ we are going to blow it at times. We will lose our tempers, say something unkind, fall into gossip, or just fail to do a good job. We should be known as people who refuse to shift blame or rationalize, but who say, “I’m sorry. I blew it. I shouldn’t have said that. I was wrong.”  We can also be vulnerable by just being honest when we’re struggling with something. We don’t have to be “Joe Christian” with a plastic smile. We need to be human, sincere and transparent.

Finally, working before an audience of One should make a difference in what we say. Once we earn credibility in how we work and who we are, then we’ve earned the right to share Christ with our co-workers. I like what Bill Hybels says about this, “Jesus never commanded us to engage in theological debates with strangers, flaunt four-inch crosses and Jesus stickers, or throw our Christian catch phrases. But he did tell us to live and work in such a way that when the Holy Spirit orchestrates opportunities to speak about God, we will have earned the right.”

At the end us his life Jesus prayed something to his Father we would all want to be able to pray. He said, “Father, I have finished the work you have given me to do.” That work was his calling to be obedient to his Father in everything, including the work of dying on the cross. Jesus finished his work; he fulfilled his calling. But sometimes we forget that for twenty-plus years that obedience found expression in climbing out of the sack six days a week to make plows and repair broken furniture. When Jesus went to his hometown of Nazareth and began to teach in the synagogue like he was a rabbi, his old buddies came by to see him and said, “Is this not the carpenter?” We forget that for most of his life he was the carpenter; it was only the last three years of his life that he was a preacher. But whether he was at the workbench pounding nails or in the synagogue preaching, he did his work before an audience of One; what drove him was His call to live for the Father. And at the end of his day his reward was to hear his Father say, “Well done! Well done in your calling. Well done in your job.” Would that be what he could say to each of us?