You should’ve seen it. This Sunday, the church gymnasium was transformed into the bustling city of Jerusalem around A.D. 30. After I’d joined the tribe of Ephraim and received a bag of denarii (Roman money), I sat down cross-legged in the temple, right in front of the veil leading to the Holy of Holies (where I never would have been allowed in real life!).
That’s when little Sarah came over and squeezed herself onto my lap. Then, when the shofar blew signaling it was time to move on to the next station, Sarah slipped her little hand into mine as we walked a few steps to the synagogue. She sat in my lap again as we learned to sing the Shema in Hebrew and stayed close all morning as we went from booth to booth.
And then, while we were at the potter’s shop, I heard a shout, "It’s Jesus!" If I hadn’t already been told that the Sunday school teacher Chris was playing the part, I wouldn’t have recognized him with that wig of long, curly, dark hair. He slowly wove his way through the crowd of 400 people, hugging the children as he went.
Sarah pulled me forward, not content to watch from behind a wall of people. I let her pull me so far, and then I slowed, not wanting the adults to wonder why I was crowding Jesus and not letting others have their turn. But Sarah wouldn’t let up. I stopped, she strained. She pulled, I resisted. Finally, she dropped my hand and went around the mountain in the middle of the room so she could get to Jesus.
Sarah wasn’t the only child who did this. Instinctively, without any scripting, all the children wanted to get as close as they could to Jesus. Maybe that’s why Jesus told His perturbed disciples so many years ago,
"Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it" (Luke 18:16–17).
As I saw the difference between me and Sarah, I couldn’t help but wonder how close I would’ve tried to get to Jesus if I’d been alive when He walked this earth. Would I have been willing and desperate enough to cry out loudly with Bartimaeus, "Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me"—even when everyone around me was telling me to just be quiet? Or would I have been more like Nicodemus who came to Jesus under the cover of night so no one would see?
More importantly, how desperate am I today to get as close as possible to Jesus? Am I content to hang back and observe Him along with the grown-ups, or am I pressing forward with the children to stare up in wonder at Him?
I’m afraid I know the answer, and oh, how I long for that to change.
So thank you, Sarah. You have no idea what you taught me this week. I want to be like you when I grow up.
PS: I’m curious. What do you think it actually looks like to want to get close to Jesus today?
I used to think I was merciful simply because I felt others’ pain. If I’d lived long ago, I could easily have been hired to be a professional mourner, wailing through a perfect stranger’s funeral. But it turns out, that’s not mercy after all.
While mercy is often accompanied by tears, it’s much more than feelings and emotions. It’s an act of the will. It involves not only seeing a need and empathizing with it, but doing something about it. In Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ words, mercy is both "inward sympathy and outward acts in relation to the sorrows and sufferings of others."
Mercy was on full display the day the Samaritan man met the needs of a complete stranger (while the religious folk passed by on the opposite side of the street!). If you’re like me, you’re no "Good Samaritan." You could be, mind you, if only thinking of others’ needs was as easy as thinking of your own! But it’s not. So you’re not.
The problem is, Jesus doesn’t seem to think being merciful is optional for the true Christian. After describing a Christian’s character in the first four beatitudes (poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness), Jesus moves to how Christians relate to others in the last four beatitudes. Because what you do flows out of who you are. As Dorothy Patterson puts it, "A passion for God means compassion for others."
So how do you and I get there?
1. Reflect on the mercy you’ve been shown.
Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones doesn’t mince words when he says, "If I am not merciful there is only one explanation; I have never understood the grace and the mercy of God."
I just read this by Sally Lloyd-Jones (not Martyn’s wife!), and it meant a lot to me:
Did God abandon us? Did he just look down from heaven at the mess we made? No. He didn’t just look down. He came down. God himself came down. Not as a judge to punish us, but as a Rescuer to save us.
If you’re still not "feeling" God’s grace and mercy, slowly read and think about Ephesians 2:1–10:
You were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.
But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them (emphasis added).
2. Ask God to open your eyes to the needs around you. Make a list. It didn’t take me more than a few seconds to write down a boatload of needs I’m aware of, including financial needs, relational needs, spiritual needs, and emotional needs. If you’re having troubles coming up with a list of others’ needs, here’s a good place to start:
How can an ordinary woman extend mercy to others? She begins by stepping into the shoes of another woman, feeling her pain, sensing her uncertainties, seeing her world crumble. Then and only then can she begin to live her life and think her thoughts and fight her battles. You don’t put yourself into the life of another in a brief moment but rather by living your life in her shadow and trying over a period of time to walk where she walks and feel what she feels. —Dorothy Patterson
Whose shoes does God want you to walk in for a while?
3. Show mercy to the hurting.
Mercy doesn’t run past prayer, but it also doesn’t stop at prayer. Mercy rolls up its sleeves and gets down to business. And the merciful receive more mercy from God:
"Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy" (Matt. 5:7).
Dorothy Patterson explains it this way,
This beatitude carries a double blessing because both the giver and the receiver reap a reward. . . . God’s mercy is so sweet that He always notes and rewards the kindness and mercy we extend to others. You never lose with God. The reward is not only in this life but also in the life to come.
Have you ever shown someone mercy? Tell us about it. If not, are you sure you’ve received God’s mercy? Will you humble yourself and ask Him for it now? He is eager to give it to you.
Visions of cheesy pizza, crunchy Sour Cream ‘n Onion chips, and gooey chocolate brownies dance through your mind. All else fades except that repetitive thought: FOOD. RIGHT. NOW. FOOD. RIGHT. NOW. Rumblings crescendo from the lower regions of your belly and before you know it, you’re just desperate to satisfy that craving. You are officially hungry!
Jesus points to our hunger pangs to reveal the secret to our search for true satisfaction:
"Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied" (Matt. 5:6).
Cheesy pizza, gooey brownies . . . yum. But . . . righteousness? That’s one rare food that’s not typically found in my fridge! What is righteousness?
Pastor John Piper describes it this way based on the context of Matthew 5:6:
The first four beatitudes describe the broken, grieving, quiet person who hungers and thirsts for righteousness. And the next four beatitudes describe the merciful, pure peacemaker who gets persecuted for his righteousness. Doesn’t this structure, then, give us the definition of righteousness? If we were hungering for righteousness in verse 6 because we were empty, and then we get persecuted for righteousness in verse 10 because we’ve been filled, isn’t it proper to define righteousness as that with which we have been filled—namely, mercy, purity, and peacemaking?
Righteousness is showing mercy to other people; and righteousness is being pure in heart before God who alone can see the heart; and righteousness is the effort to make peace. Now there may be much more to it than that. But that seems to be the focus of these verses and this chapter.
So how do you know when you’re hungry and thirsty—really hungry and thirsty—for righteousness? Well, as we’ve talked about in the last few blog posts on being poor in heart, mourning over sin, and being meek, you can’t hunger and thirst after righteousness until:
1. You’re not impressed—not at all—with your "righteousness." A lady I met this weekend matter-of-factly described herself as "spiritual." From the context of our conversation, my guess is that she meant she attended church, prayed, and was hospitable and friendly.
Never mind that Isaiah 64:6 says, "all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment" in God’s eyes.
What are you secretly (or not so secretly) most proud of spiritually? What makes you feel better than other people? Are these areas where you’re trusting in your own righteousness?
2. You trust solidly and solely in Jesus’ righteousness on your behalf. You’re not impressed with your own spiritual résumé, so you turn to Jesus to receive the free gift of His righteousness. When you do, He instantly gives it to you:
To the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness (Rom. 4:5).
At that moment, God justifies you. He sees you just as if you’d never sinned, just as if you’d always obeyed. The barrier of sin and guilt between you and God is bulldozed to nothing. You are given Jesus’ full and complete righteousness!
So does that mean you never hunger after righteousness again? No! God’s Holy Spirit keeps stirring up hunger pangs in you so you desire to keep growing into who you already are.
3. You want to run from everything that is not righteous. This week I watched a coworker jerk away when they realized they were sitting next to someone who was sick. Do you run from or revel in things that aren’t righteous? Do you even avoid things that might spoil your spiritual appetite? As you do, you realize that you need spiritual food. So . . .
4. You soak up time with those who are righteous. I just talked to a woman who doesn’t go to church because "I don’t have to go in order to believe in Jesus." While that’s true, it seems a bit like saying, "I love hockey, but that doesn’t mean I have to go to hockey games." If you’re hungry for righteousness, you want to be with other hungry people. You want to spend time reading your Bible and talking to God. But you don’t stop there.
5. You move out into the world as a representative of God’s righteousness. (More on this in the next four weeks!) For now, I’ll leave you with a quote from Pastor John Piper: "Deep and lasting satisfaction for our souls comes not from the delights of the world nor from a merely religious or vertical relationship with God. Satisfaction comes from God to those whose passion in life is to know him in the struggle to be like him in the world."
So what if you’re just not hungry for righteousness? Find where you are in this list and honestly confess your lack of desperation for God’s righteousness to Him. Then put your faith and trust in Jesus’ righteousness alone. Ask Him to give you starvation for His righteousness.
When you do, you will find not only true happiness ("Blessed are those who . . .") but satisfaction ("for they shall be satisfied"). You’ll be completely full and content like you feel after stuffing your face with pizza, chips, and brownies—without the bloating, of course!
So how about it? Are you officially, desperately hungry for His righteousness?
A few months ago, my creative boss asked me and a few other employees to spend twenty minutes or less writing a poem about why we do what we do.
What working girl has time to write poetry when her inbox is spilling over with emails and deadlines? Besides, my last attempt at poetry wasn’t pretty (although it was memorable!):
A man was in a mine
He tripped on a vine
He really quick got up
And tried to find his cup . . .
But my boss said it didn’t have to be perfect, so I just wrote from my heart.
And when I finished, I was surprised and grateful for the exercise. Because most days the deadening dailyness of details clouds my vision and I forget.
But yes, that’s right! This is why I do what I do:
Most days I drag myself out of bed
grab an apple on the run
lower my shoulder to the Mac
and grit my way through email
and space dot space dot space dot ellipsis
their faces gray and unformed and far away.
But on occasional days
I see them
Ann locked up in bitter prisons of the heart
Jenny searching desperately for soul rest
Aisha wrapped in hijab, eyes blinded, serving a dead god
their faces soft and flushed and hungry.
And I wonder at this high calling
serving the WORD with each word
that, if Spirit-drenched, can point to Him
whose face is bloodied and tear streaked and warm
carrying all their sins and griefs and sorrows
if only they will let Him.
April is National Poetry Month, and I’m issuing my boss’s challenge to you. (No groaning, now!)
Why do you do what you do? I know you don’t feel like you have twenty minutes to write a poem, but even two is just fine. You’ll be glad you did! Because whether you’re a Classical Conversations homeschooling mother or an architect creating a design concept on the thirtieth floor, “where there is no vision, the people perish” (Prov. 29:18).
Before I hit I-94 that morning, I read about how on the cross Jesus didn’t think of Himself in order to free me from myself. I asked Him to help me live free of self that day, and then—in the smallest of tests in the Art Institute of Chicago—I failed.
It happened under Mark Chagall’s America Windows—after a lunch of hummus and tabouli in the Garden Café. With leftovers in hand, I asked a security guard the way to the Picasso and Chicago exhibit.
He ignored my question and fiercely told me I was not allowed to have food in the Art Institute. "Oh, I didn’t know," I said and repeated my question about the location of the Picasso Exhibit.
"I won’t tell you until you throw your food away," he growled.
Muttering to myself, I dumped my food in the nearest trashcan and got the directions I needed.
I knew I shouldn’t mention it to my mom and sisters—after all, I’d asked Jesus to help me live free of self—but I couldn’t resist. The security guard had treated me with less respect than I felt I deserved, and my self wanted to flare up and kick back.
In that moment, I lost sight of the fact that Jesus was willing to be treated in a way Hetotally didn’t deserve . . . in order to take God’s wrath that I did deserve because of my sin . . . so I might receive what Jesus deserved—God’s love, favor, and righteousness.
What’s the big deal, you ask? Isn’t it perfectly natural for someone to resist being treated disrespectfully? Sure, but Jesus didn’t give me His Spirit so I could continue acting "naturally." One of the marks of Jesus’ Spirit is meekness. It’s also the third beatitude:
"Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth" (Matt. 5:5).
What does it mean to be meek? Martyn Lloyd-Jones explains it this way:
The man who is meek is not even sensitive about himself.
We think those who exert their power and defend their rights will rule the world. Jesus says just the opposite. Those who are meek (gentle) like He is will rule the world with Him in the end.
It’s what we see the night Jesus was arrested. He knew what was coming, pleaded for a way out, but surrendered to His Father’s will: "nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will" (Matt. 26:39). It’s how we see Jesus responding to the insults flying at Him from all sides while He hung on the cross: "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do" (Luke 23:34).
But we’re not Jesus. And meekness isn’t just tough . . . it’s impossible! Martyn Lloyd-Jones explains why we fight meekness:
I am aware, when I am honest with myself, of the sin and the evil that are within me, and that drag me down. And I am ready to face both of these things. But how much more difficult it is to allow other people to say things like that about me! I instinctively resent it. We all of us prefer to condemn ourselves than to allow somebody else to condemn us.
Meekness only becomes possible when we have Jesus’ Spirit living inside of us. I will try to remember that the next time I find myself being talked to in a tone I find offensive.
How about you? Do you know this meek Jesus? Are you allowing Him to exhibit His gentleness through your life when you feel wronged, belittled, or underappreciated?
Tears and I go together—we always have. Growing up, I cried when I was happy, cried when I was sad, and cried when I didn’t even know why I was crying. In third grade I wept through the movies Bambi, Fievel Goes West, and Old Yeller. In high school algebra I fought back tears when faced with mind-numbing quadratic equations.
After reading Jesus’ second beatitude, you might think I’d be especially blessed because of all my tears, but that just wouldn’t be true:
"Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted" (Matt. 5:4).
I told you what I cried over, but did you notice what I didn’t cry over? I didn’t cry over my sin. And I certainly didn’t cry over the Church’s or the world’s sin. I just couldn’t relate to Psalm 119:136:
My eyes shed streams of tears, because people do not keep your law.
How do I know this is what Jesus means when He says, "Blessed are those who mourn?" Well, His beatitudes aren’t random and chaotic—they’re all built on the one before. This second beatitude flows out of the first beatitude: being poor in spirit. When you and I realize that we have nothing good to offer God, when we realize how desperately we need a Savior, that will lead us to mourn over our sin. And not only our sin, but others’ sin as well.
Have you ever cried over sin? Not because you were dealing with its painful consequences, but because it hurts the heart of God? Because it sent God’s innocent, perfect Son to the cross?
Or are your eyes dry and your heart hard and unmoved? Worse yet, do you laugh over sin? "How can we laugh over sin," Kay Arthur asks, "when sin nailed Jesus to the cross?"
When is the last time you cried? More importantly, what made you cry?
Will you begin to pray along with me, "God, break my heart for what breaks Yours"?
When you do, God promises that He will comfort you. In Kay Arthur’s words, "The blessedness does not come in the mourning; it comes in the results of mourning—knowing the comfort of [God’s] intimacy, the surety of His arms about you, hearing the beat of His heart as He draws you close to His all-sufficient breast."
After watching her message for myself, I couldn’t agree more. Joni relives her life story as if it’s happening in the moment—with tears, singing, and heartfelt emotion. I thought I knew all about Joni’s story, but most of what she shares in this video was new to me.
Journey with Joni through . . .
her disappointing pursuit of physical healing
the “tired middle years” of her marriage
her husband’s “I feel trapped” admissions
Through it all, trace the deeper healing that Joni has received. The deeper healing that can be yours, too.
I visited Chicago this past weekend, not realizing it was the same day as the St. Patrick’s Day Parade. The river had been dyed green, the whole city appeared to be drunk by noon, and cops swarmed the streets. Then there were the homeless, tucked into doorways trying to shield themselves from the bitter cold.
The Poor in Chicago
Except for Aveda. She stood right next to the door of Garrett’s Popcorn, wrapped in a scarf and winter coat, holding a "Please Help" sign in one hand and a plastic cup in the other. She cried out to each person who entered the store, asking for money to purchase a hotel room.
After dropping a dollar bill in her cup and telling her about the Pacific Garden Mission, I told her that Jesus said, "Blessed are the poor . . . in spirit," and that I wanted to be poor in this way too.
Aveda didn’t get it. When I told her about Jesus’ statement, she started telling me about how often she prays. She may be poor, but she’s not yet poor in spirit.
The Poor In Spirit
"Blessed [happy] are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven" is the first "beatitude" that Jesus shares in His Sermon on the Mount. The Beatitudes are not statements that Jesus expects the world to live up to. The Beatitudes describe the essence of a true Christian. And boy, a Christian couldn’t possibly be more different than the world!
Because we’re all born thinking we’re something. Thinking God would really benefit from having smart, sweet girls like ourselves on His team! But while we’re busy admiring ourselves, He’s stooping down looking into doorways for someone—anyone—who is destitute of spirit. Someone holding a "Please Help" sign.
Are You Poor?
While Aveda didn’t get it, I pray that you do. Jesus doesn’t approve of you because of your prayers, your Bible reading, your church attendance, or your purity. He, the Savior of the world, is looking for those who realize they desperately need saving.
I have to ask: Has there ever been a time in your life when you’ve been wrecked over your sin? Who are you more like in the following story—the Pharisee or the tax collector?
He [Jesus] also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: "Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted" (Luke 18:9–14).
I’m a crummy friend. I didn’t even realize it until last Friday, when Revive Our Hearts asked their employees to spend four hours on an exercise called the Personal Vitality Plan. We were to look at twelve areas of our life and evaluate what’s been going well, what’s been being neglected, and what some achievable steps are to replenish that area.
It didn’t take long to realize what was anemic. My relationships. Specifically, my friendships.
Until now, my idea of a good friend has been one whom I don’t have to spend a lot of time with, but when I do, we pick up right where we left off. But now I wonder if my definition of friendship has simply been a sorry excuse for neglect and selfishness on my part.
Oh, I haven’t painted it that way. I’ve chosen the busyness of “ministry” above friendships, investing more time in those who are “needy” while my iron-sharpening-iron friendships have simmered on the back burner.
As spiritual as that has seemed, I wonder if it has had more to do with pride and fear than love and compassion. There’s something self-inflating about being the one people always look to for help and answers. But since when are friendships one-sided?
When I look at Scripture I see friendship described with words like:
talking face to face (Ex. 33:11)
your friend who is as your own soul (Deut. 13:6)
loyalty (2 Sam 16:16)
kindness (Job 6:14)
trust (Ps. 41:9)
celebrating together (Luke 15:29)
grieving together (Ps. 35:14)
Now I see that I’ve been treating my closest friends as if they’re optional. But Jesus tells me in John 15:12–17 that friendship isn’t optional (and in the process, He calls me His friend!):
“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you. . . . These things I command you, so that you will love one another.”
It took me less than the allotted four hours to realize that I was a crummy friend, so I spent the remaining time sending emails and setting up specific plans.
I asked one friend if she’d be willing to spend time together regularly. I don’t want to get spread so thin maintaining all kinds of relationships that no one really knows what’s going on deep in my heart. I asked her to meet with me regularly for several reasons:
She loves and cares about me.
She already knows me well and runs in my circles.
She’s not afraid to ask me hard questions. You know, the kind that make you squirm.
Once that was taken care of, I began making plans to choose people over pixels: scheduling a party for artists in April, inviting neighbors over to roast marshmallows in the fireplace before spring arrives in full vigor, exploring the possibility of a getaway with two other about-to-turn-thirty-year-olds.
Since Friday, I’ve attended a birthday party, two movie nights, and am headed to the Art Institute in Chicago with the girls in my family this Saturday. Oh, and I’m asking God to teach me how to be a good friend. To learn to love . . . and be loved.
How about you? What do you tend to value more than friendship? What’s your excuse for letting your friendships simmer on the back burner? And if you’re the one feeling undervalued in a friendship, how can you continue to extend grace and reach out to that busy friend?
Jennifer cussed the chaplain out when she arrived at prison to serve her sixteen-year sentence. But in the privacy of her cell, she repeatedly beat her head against the concrete wall until it bled. Without drugs, she knew no other way to mask the anger and bitterness she had known from childhood.
For most of her twenty-two years, Jennifer’s parents said she was a mistake—that she was supposed to be a boy. So, Jennifer believed that God makes mistakes.
At ten, a nineteen-year-old from church began molesting Jennifer. To add to this evil, he asked her to act out Bible stories such as Adam and Eve. At this point, Jennifer wanted nothing to do with God.
She started drinking at age eleven to make the pain go away. By twelve, she was cutting, participating in criminal activity, and abusing drugs. By seventeen, she was a “mule,” trafficking drugs from Tulsa to Memphis.
One night, wondering how her life had turned out the way it had, Jennifer breathed a simple prayer, “Help. If You’re listening, help.”
She didn’t think about that prayer again until twenty-seven days later, when she saw six squad cars in her rearview mirror. As Jennifer was slammed to the pavement and cuffed, a load lifted from her. While she didn’t know what it would look like, she was certain life as she knew it was over.
After arriving at prison, Jennifer mocked the inmates in the PAL program (Principles & Applications for Life—a Bible boot camp of sorts). But she watched them. Their joy haunted her because it was something she had never known.
So she caved and joined them. For ten weeks, she heard things she’d never heard before: Forgiveness equals freedom; God uses authority for direction, provision, and protection for our lives. And, if she would believe in Jesus’ sacrifice for her sins, He would give her a new identity.
Ten weeks came and went, and the chaplain asked Jennifer to stay ten more. She couldn’t understand why—after the trouble she’d caused—but Jennifer agreed.
And on December 21, 2000, God’s Spirit interacted with her through His Word for the first time in her life. When that class ended, Jennifer got on her knees and told God if He could salvage what was left of her life, it was His.
And it has been, ever since.
“If any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new.” (2 Cor. 5:17)