Mark S. Mitchell

Pastor, Writer, Follower of Jesus

Leave a comment

An Ode to Romance

We’re all sometimes a bit skeptical about this business of romance or falling in love. We sometimes hear that true love isn’t something we can “fall” into. We all know Hollywood has distorted our view of love to make it more about romantic feelings than true commitment. But, if we are not careful, we will miss out on something wonderful and mysterious.

Listen to what the Bible says about this in Proverbs 30:18-19:

There are three things which are too wonderful for me,
Yes, four which I don’t understand:
The way of an eagle in the air,
The way of a serpent on a rock,
The way of a ship in the midst of the sea,
And the way of a man with a maiden.

In this ancient proverb, the high point is found in the final line: the venturesome and mysterious ways of the soaring eagle, the slithering serpent, the sailing ship – these build to a climax in the mystery, adventure and attraction between a young man and woman.

It’s hard to fathom! How does an eagle soar through the air? How does a snake slither on a rock? How does a ship glide through the sea? Think of each of these images. Each portrays a seeming ease of movement with no trace being left behind. It seems so natural, but when you try to explain it, words cannot be found. How does an eagle handle invisible air? How does a snake handle unforgiving rock? How does a ship handle unpredictable sea? It’s not easy to negotiate air, rock and sea, much less a young woman! How does it happen? How does he capture her invisible and unpredictable heart? I don’t know, but I’m glad God created a world where there’s something as unpredictable, surprising and wonderful as this. Aren’t you?

This is the mystery of a man and woman in love. The first glance of the eye. The rush of the heart. The conversations that flow long into the night. The scary revelation of mutual admiration. The moving towards greater commitment. How does it happen? I don’t know, but I’m glad it does.

There’s one more thing that’s even more wonderful than the way of a man with a maiden. It’s the way of a man with his wife of twenty, thirty, or forty plus years. It’s the way of love which grows deeper and stronger and even more wild as the years go by.


How to Pray for Our Nation

Much like our nation as a whole, the Church is divided over our new President. One of the things we can all agree on is the need to pray for him and for our nation. Yesterday, in view of both President Trump’s inauguration and Sanctity of Human Life Sunday, many churches prayed for our nation. Adam Darbonne, High School Director at Central Peninsula Church’s North Campus, led us in prayer and I believe this is a fine example of how to pray for our nation at such a time as this.

Almighty God, Creator, Redeemer, Ancient of Days, we bow before you this morning, our only King, and the sovereign God, who rules with perfect justice and love. 

You have commanded us to pray for all those in authority, and as we have prayed for President Obama over the last eight years, we now pray for President Trump. First and foremost we pray that he would repent and believe in your resurrected son. We ask that you would convict him of sin, and bring him to his knees in repentance. That you would humble him under your mighty hand, and lead him by your glorious light. Until then, we pray that your will be done in the government. Surround our leaders with your wisdom. We ask that you would use the government to restrain evil, bring justice in our country, especially to the downtrodden, hurting, and vulnerable.

We also pray that you would use us, your church, to be salt and light in the world, that we would be a voice and force for justice and love in our country and around the world. And as Paul says, teach us to lead peaceful and quiet lives, godly and holy in every way, for this is pleasing to you. As we pray for justice for the vulnerable give us the courage and compassion we need to live as faithful advocates for human life—in all its expressions. How we long for the Day when “death shall be no more”—when life will flourish in the new heaven and new earth. Today we especially think about the lives of unborn children and the constant threat to those lives—even as we cry out to you on behalf of all kinds of women in all kinds of situations who are carrying those children in their wombs. Lord Jesus, we pray for the courage to stand up and care for the voiceless and vulnerable—those whom you are knitting together in their mother’s womb. Lord Jesus, may those here today whose stories are marked by abortion know your love, compassion and forgiveness this morning.

Finally, Lord, make us a compassionate church. Jesus, show us how to love and care for those women and men whose stories are marked by abortion. May we be a church who cares extravagantly for women in crisis. Lord, we long for your justice, compassion, forgiveness, and love. In the name of Jesus, Amen.

Leave a comment


Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a person commits are outside the body, but whoever sins sexually, sins against their own body. Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies. 1 Corinthians 6:18-20

I haven’t read the book. I haven’t seen the movie. I won’t be doing either. I’ve read a few reviews of Fifty Shades of Grey just to know what we’re dealing with, but for a follower of Jesus, this should be a no-brainer: DON’T GO!

When the apostle Paul wrote to the church in Corinth, he was writing to people faced with many of the same choices we face. Immorality was rampant in Corinth. Paul offers two commands to Christ followers. First, he says, Flee immorality.” He doesn’t say to stop immorality. He uses much stronger words—flee from it, run from it. I like what Wayne Wright says: The best companion against immorality is geography.” In other words, get as far away as possible. Our sexual urges are so great and so powerful that we can’t afford to hang in there and duke it out with temptation because if we do, we’re going to lose.

One of the ways we can flee immorality is to be very careful with the kind of things we allow ourselves to be exposed to. If we’re feeding the flesh in the kind of books we read, the kind of movies we watch, the kind of websites we visit, then we’re just setting ourselves up for failure in this area. To flee immorality certainly means we stay away from movies and books like Fifty Shades of Grey.

While the first command is negative, the second command is positive. Paul says, For you were bought with a price: therefore honor God with your bodies.” We should honor God with our body because our body has been bought by God with the precious blood of his Son. If you pay good money for a beautiful book, you won’t tear the pages out to make a shopping list. If you fork out $30,000 for a nice car, you won’t spray paint silly patterns on the hood. In the same way, we who’ve been bought at tremendous cost have to remember not to throw our bodies in the mud of immorality, but rather to honor God with it. Our body is under new management. Use it in a way that honors the one who owns it. It’s hard to imagine that the abuse depicted in Fifty Shades of Grey is in any way a God-honoring use of our bodies.

Have you ever known someone who didn’t bother to buy a screwdriver? Instead of a screwdriver, they use a knife. And for some things a knife works just fine, but the problem is it’s not good for the knives. The ends get bent and they get harder and harder to use for their intended purpose. Not only that, if you’re not careful and use it on a very stubborn screw, the knife-blade can snap and you might even cut your hand and have a bloody mess to clean up.

That’s what happens when we use something for the wrong purpose. We need to use our body in the right way. God created the beauty of sex to be enjoyed within the lifelong covenant of marriage. Beyond that, our body was made for the Lord. It will be raised up into immortality. It’s the temple of the living God. It’s been bought at a very steep price. Now use it for what it was made for. Do as God’s Word says: Flee immorality and honor God in your body

In other words, don’t go!

Leave a comment


When was the last time you wrote a letter, I mean a real letter? When was the last time you received one?

I have been slowly reading a very fine book by C. John Miller called, The Heart of a Servant Leader. It is a series of letters that Miller wrote to various friends and ministry associates during his years as a pastor and leader of a mission organization. As I have read through these letters, I have been struck by the power of a personal letter to bring encouragement and counsel, especially when born out of a caring and humble heart of a true servant leader.

Another book that I have found intriguing of late is, Letters of Note: An Eclectic Collection of Comprehensive Correspondence Deserving a Wider Audience, by Shaun Usher. This is an amazing collection of some of the most famous letters ever written. There is a 10-year-old Fidel Castro’s letter to the President of the United States, and Mary Stuart’s letter to the brother of her ex-husband hours before she is to be beheaded: “Thanks be to God, I scorn death and vow that I meet it innocent of any crime.” Once again, the power of a letter!

It is rare these days for people to write real, handwritten letters. It takes time and it can be hard work. Most of our communication these days happens through the medium of technology: email, text, social media, cell phone, etc. I think we have lost some important things in all of this: the ability to express our ourselves carefully and intelligently, something to hold in our hands that is real and personal (just for me), as well as a physical record of our own communications for future generations to enjoy and learn from. Oh, and the skill of penmanship as well!

Is there no longer any practical use for letter writing? Has literary eloquence become relegated to the obsolete past? I hope not. I challenge you to sit down and write a real letter, with a real pen (get a really good one) and real paper. I’ll bet it will do you and someone you care about some good. Fifty years from now, maybe someone will even find your letter in an old, dusty box and read it. If it will make you feel better, you can still sign off with a B4N or LOL.

Leave a comment

Growing Spiritually Strong Families

How can you grow a spiritually strong family? This is one of the questions our church is exploring as we began a series last week called, Building a Home: One Room at a Time. We’ll go from room to room in a typical house and talk about things like parenting, marriage, siblings, children, communication and conflict resolution. In my reading this past week I found a helpful little handbook by Dennis and Barbara Rainey called, Growing a Spiritually Strong Family. They had ten tips for couples who want their families to grow deeply in the soil of God’s love:

  1. Sink your roots: The best thing you can do for your kids is develop your own relationship with Jesus through the classic means of grace, like prayer, confession, reading the Bible and cultivating deep relationships with other believers. It starts with you. You can’t pass on anything you haven’t fully bought into.
  2. Pray with your mate: This may be the hardest yet most significant thing for couples to do. Less than 8% of believing couples pray together regularly and only 3% pray together every day. If you do this, I guarantee it will change your marriage! It’s hard to be mad at each other and pray at the same time. Find creative ways to do this. My wife and I have some of our best prayer times on long walks, and we’ve seen some remarkable answers.
  3. Give your children you: The greatest gift you can give your child is yourself. Carve out time for them. When they’re in the mood to talk, drop everything and give them your undivided attention. Give them lots of bear hugs, kisses and pats on the back. Give them you!
  4. Eat right: Find a way to read and discuss God, Jesus and the Bible as a family. Make this a part of your everyday conversation rather than a once a week mandatory sit down. Find creative ways to spice things up like discussing a movie that touches on some area of biblical truth, throwing out questions with no easy answers or letting one of your kids lead a devotional.
  5. Set the course: Determine what your core values are as a family. What’s non-negotiable? One day one of our daughters announced she would no longer be going to church with us. Yeah, right! Lynn and I decided early on that church wasn’t a negotiable activity for our kids as long as they were under our roof. She wasn’t a happy camper but her resistance didn’t last long and today she holds that value in her own family.
  6. Romance your mate: Go on regular dates together. Study your spouse and know her well enough to know what communicates love to her. By the way, there’s a high likelihood it’s different from what communicates love to you. Don’t be afraid to show physical affection to your spouse in front of your kids. They may act grossed out, but deep down they’ll love it!
  7. Train your disciples: One of the best things our family ever did when our kids were young was take a mission trip to Mexico. Experiences like this stretch our kids’ faith and give them the thrill of seeing God use them to change lives. Each of my kids has traveled with me on ministry trips outside of the country and it’s been a great way to instill in them a vision for something bigger than themselves
  8. Fight the darkness: You need to be aware of the darkness in our culture and how it threatens your family. What kinds of movies and TV shows will you watch? Who will your kids date? By the way, I’ve found that just because other “Christian” families allow their kids to do something doesn’t mean it’s right for your family.
  9. Rest and refresh: Every family needs to make time during the week to set aside the work and the chores and just be together. God created the Sabbath not as a noose around our neck but to bless us. Try to set aside one day a week that’s different from the others in that it’s not about “doing” but rather “being.”
  10. Keep your covenant: Your marriage is the foundation for your family. It’s a covenant relationship you entered into before God who has made you one flesh. There is no room for the “D” word in your vocabulary.


I appreciate the Raineys’ wisdom. We have no guarantees that our kids will follow Jesus as adults, but I believe these are the kinds of things God uses to draw them to himself. My wife and I have had seasons where we’ve done many of these well, and not so well. Perhaps you to go down the list with your spouse and ask how you’re doing in each area. Decide how you’ll shore up those weak areas. Families are always a work in progress and sometimes we just need some markers along the way to help us measure how we’re doing.

Leave a comment

The Battle for the Baby

What really happened at the first Christmas? Revelation 12:1-5 takes us behind the scenes of the first Christmas and helps us to see what in reality was happening. We might call it “the battle for the baby.” Envision the scene in your mind as it unfolds:

A great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head. She was pregnant and cried out in pain as she was about to give birth. Then another sign appeared in heaven: an enormous red dragon with seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns on its heads. Its tail swept a third of the stars out of the sky and flung them to the earth. The dragon stood in front of the woman who was about to give birth, so that it might devour her child the moment he was born. She gave birth to a son, a male child, who “will rule all the nations with an iron scepter.” And her child was snatched up to God and to his throne. Rev. 12:1–5

The book of Revelation has fascinated and bewildered Christians for years. George Bernard Shaw saw it as the “curious record of the visions of a drug addict.” But this scene really has a very clear message about the first Christmas. To understand it we need to first identify the principle characters.

The first character is a woman. She represents the nation Israel. Throughout the OT Israel is depicted as a woman about to give birth. She was chosen as God’s instrument to bring the Messiah into the world. She was the womb through which Christ was formed and out of which he came and this was a great honor but also a great pain.

The second character is the dragon, who is pictured standing before the woman prepared to devour the baby when he was born. Later we read of the great dragon, the serpent of old who is called the devil and Satan. From the day he was born Jesus was the object of Satan’s vicious intent to destroy him or at least to keep him from accomplishing his mission. The impression we have here is that the baby doesn’t have a chance! How will the newborn baby possibly stand up to a great dragon with seven heads and ten horns?

The third character is the child that is born. A male child, a son, was born who is Jesus Christ. He will “rule the nations with an iron scepter.” This child is the One who ultimately rules, not the dragon. All that John tells us about Jesus is that he was born and then was snatched up to God and to his throne. That’s the shortest life of Christ ever written! Christ was born and 40 days after his resurrection he ascended into heaven, was seated at the right hand of the Father where he rules over his people and from where he will come again in judgement. The important thing is that the great dragon was unable to devour the baby. Satan tried and tried and tried in various ways to keep Christ from accomplishing the Father’s purpose in being the spotless lamb of God that would atone for the sins of the world by his voluntary offering of himself on the cross, but he failed.

This scene gives unique insight into the birth of Christ. This is a different picture than the typical manger scene you might see on the latest Hallmark card. In the quiet, peaceful barn among the cows and goats and shepherds and wise men and Joseph there was a dragon on the loose and his sole intent was to devour (lit. “eat”) the baby. We like to think of this baby as tender and mild but the fact is he is destined to rule the nations with an iron scepter. He will shatter his enemies like earthenware. The manger was a violent scene where great powers clashed and great things were at stake. It was Robert Southwell who wrote back in the second century:

This little babe so few days old 

is come to rifle Satan’s fold. 

All hell doth at his presence quake

though he himself for cold do shake. 

Do not buy into a “Hallmark Christmas”. The world wants to keep Christmas tame. Who can argue with a cute little baby lying in a pile of soft hay? The world likes Christmas as long as it’s safe, but it’s not safe. The coming of Christ was the focal point of a great battle, a battle that has been waged throughout eternity. The bottom line is that Jesus has won. The fatal blow had been delivered, one that would result in Satan’s complete demise. The joy and peace we celebrate at Christmas is the result of knowing and trusting in the victory of the One destined to rule the nations with an iron scepter!


Train up a Child

In my last post I mentioned Proverbs 22:6: “Train up a child in the way he should go, even when he is old he will not depart from it.” This is the best known of all the Proverbs on parenting, but it’s also one of the most difficult to understand, so I want to unpack this verse. There are three parts to look at here.

First, it says that we are to “train up a child…” The word for “train” here means to inaugurate or to dedicate. The word was used most often in the OT to describe something that was dedicated to God. The Jewish feast of Hanukkah is the noun form of this word because it involves the dedication of the altar. So to train a child in this way can mean to dedicate him to God. It can also mean to start him or to inaugurate him or to prepare him to go in a certain direction. HOW we’re to do that is something I’ll come back to in a minute.

The second thing to notice is that it says we should train a child “in the way he should go.” This is where the verse really gets ambiguous. Literally, this should read, “according to his way.” Some take this to mean that we should train up a child according to the proper or right way to live. This is how both the NIV and the NASB take it. But, the text does say, “his way,” i.e., the child’s way. For this reason, many scholars take this to mean that a child should be trained according to his own unique personality and stage in life. The emphasis here is on really knowing your child well and training him accordingly.

This means that before we can train our kids we have to be students of our kids. We have to know their stage of life as well as their unique characteristics. I have three kids who are each about five years apart. Growing up, they were always at very different stages of life. That means I treated each one differently. They’re also very different in their temperament and personality. Among the three we have an extrovert and an introvert. We have a mercy giver and a truth teller. We have a morning person and a night person. Recognizing these differences kept us from making the all too frequent mistake of comparing them with each other, “Why can’t you bring home the same grades as your sister?” Because they’re different we expected different things from them and taught them and disciplined them in different ways. Two went to a Christian school and the other to a public school. These are the kinds of things that go into knowing your children.

The third thing to notice about this verse is the last line, “…even when he is old he will not depart from it.” Does this mean that after a period of rebellion they will come around and find the right path? Although that might be true, that’s not what it means. Notice that it says, “EVEN when he is old…” The idea here is that, not only in his youth, but even in his old age he’ll not stray from the right path. The beginning determines the end. It’s as if the writer is saying that raising children is like pouring cement. The way you mold it and shape it when it’s newly poured, before it sets, will determine its shape for the rest of its life. Although it’s not a guarantee, this is what child development experts have been telling us for quite some time now: the first five years of life seem to determine so much of what that child is like. Proverbs has been saying that for a few thousand years!

Years ago there was a family in the San Francisco Bay Area. The father was a well known pastor and his son was named David. David grew up in a family where he was “trained up in the way he should go.” He grew up to love the Lord, felt a call into ministry, and went to seminary. David was a big, athletic young man. He was six feet two and 200 pounds. He worked with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. At age 32 he was diagnosed with cancer. It wracked his body and over time he went from 200 pounds to 80 pounds. When he was about ready to die he asked if his father could be brought to the hospital room. Lying there in bed, he looked up at his father and said, “Dad, do you remember when I was little how you used to hold me in your arms close to your chest?  Do you think you could do that again, Dad, one last time?” His father nodded and he picked up his 32—year—old son and held him close to his chest so that their faces were right next to each other. They were eyeball to eyeball, tears running down both faces, and the son looked up at his father and said to him, “Thank you for building the kind of character into my life that has enabled me to face even a moment like this.

It’s this kind of character that every parent wants for his child; the kind that will carry them through even the darkest storms. God, in his grace, can do that with or without us. But the fact is, he has entrusted us parents with the privilege of being a part of that process, a very important part. “Train up a child in the way he should go, even when he is old he will not depart from it.” By God’s grace we can do just that. In my next post, I will write about three skills parents must learn to do this well.


Parenting with Grace

Whenever I talk about parenting I feel a little bit like how Charlie Shedd describes himself in his book, Promises to Peter. Shedd tells how the title of his messages on parenting changed with his own experience of fatherhood. In his early years as a preacher before he was a father he entitled his message, “How to Raise Your Children.”  People came in droves to hear it. Then he had a child of his own, and it was a while before he gave that message again. When he did, he gave it a new name: “Some Suggestions to Parents.” Then he had two more children, and a number of years later he called it, “Feeble Hints to Fellow Strugglers.” Several years and children later, he seldom gave that talk, but when he did his title was, “Anyone got a Few Words of Wisdom?”

I can relate! As time has passed and my own kids have grown up I feel in many ways like I have less and less to say about parenting. Because of that, I give parenting advice with a certain amount of fear and trepidation. The Bible has a lot to say about parenting. Without embarrassment, it offers us some very pointed and specific wisdom on how to raise our kids. But, having been at this business of raising kids for a while, I know how difficult it can be to really do these things, and I’m very aware of areas in which I’ve failed to live up to these standards.

For this reason we should approach what the Bible says about parenting in the larger context of what we know about the gospel of Jesus Christ and specifically the grace of God. Before we DO anything as parents we need to know something of God’s grace at the core of our being. We need to know He loves us unconditionally; he’s not keeping score of our performance. We need to know that we’re very much in process as people, and that we need God’s love and grace every day of our lives.

If grace is not at the very core of our lives as individuals, then we’ll not be able to parent with grace; we won’t be able to parent without our issues getting in the way. Our relationship with our kids will be tainted with our own insecurities. We’ll place them on the performance treadmill we ourselves are on. We’ll look to them to fill the holes in our lives that only God can fill. Everything the Bible says presupposes a relationship with your kids that is rooted in grace and unconditional love. It presupposes an authenticity that flows from grace where you can laugh together and cry together and forgive together.

Part of this foundation of grace means that we recognize that we need God’s grace in our parenting. There is a pervasive lie floating around the Christian community that places all the responsibility for what our kids become on the shoulders of the parent. Often, a verse from Proverbs is used to support this myth. “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it.” We take that as a blanket promise that if we just train our kids right they will turn out to be model Christians. But, Proverbs were never intended to be blanket promises. They were intended to be general statements of what happens most of the time. The fact is, we can’t do anything to guarantee the outcome of our child’s life.

Depending on how you look at it, that’s either very good news or very bad news. The bad news is that you can’t do anything that will absolutely determine the outcome of your child’s life. The good news is you can’t do anything that will absolutely determine the outcome of your child’s life. Do you catch my drift? If you’re a parent in need of grace, this is very good news. It frees us up as parents to know that everything does NOT depend upon us. That’s the law. But we don’t live under the law, we live under grace. As parents who’ve experienced the grace of God in our own lives, we’re free to live with the expectation that He’ll act in grace in our children’s lives as well! That’s very good news because none of us feel we have it all together; none of us want it all to depend on us.

With that foundation of grace intact, it’s true that God has entrusted parents with a tremendous responsibility.  And He offers us some very helpful instruction on how to be effective parents.  I will talk about that in an upcoming post.

Leave a comment

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.