A new year is peeking through my frosted window panes. The north wind of 2021 is frozen in place this week, but it will not stop 2022 from coming.
I stand upon the hard middle ground of 40 years now. New Year’s Day no longer appears as the undulating silhouette of mystery – tall, dark, and handsome. Rather, I see that what is true of today is true of that day too: My shadow follows me and God’s nature remains unchanged. Seeing the truth has changed my hopes for every year.
I don’t want to live by checklists or efficiency protocols. After years of following behind the hollow church ritual of naming and claiming a superstitious word or supernatural mantra for the new year, and after enough failed mantras of my own, I don’t want to live another second tied up in those kinds of one-size-fits-all shoelaces either.
Even so, a question many have no doubt pondered (all-the-more over these past two years) has kept me up at night for many years: How best to live?
In light of Scripture,
In light of all I’ve learned and heard,
In light of this shadow’s brevity,
In light of who God is –
How best to live?
There are many ways that seem right to mankind, after all. There are many ways to live called ‘right’, you know… They depend upon who is doing the calling.
Ways of Living
I think every adult dreams of living as a child again in some way. Perhaps things were simpler then, less entangled, less scripted. Perhaps we only seek to escape the DMV lines and recipe books of adulthood in such dreams. Even so, the longer my chin hair gets, the more I delight in the thought of returning to a childlikeness… Don’t you?
The world wants to homogenize everyone; they seem to be ever-striving to make everything and everyone same-sies. Even as they cry for “diversity”, they demand that we all hold to the same ideologies and social mores and viewpoints as the worldly: It’s “Happy Holidays” not “Merry Christmas”, right? (It’s an easy target, I know…)
Some just want everyone to do their part, like Martha busy for Jesus while Mary was lazin’ around at His feet… And let’s be honest, if we look around our own community we know exactly who plays the roles of Martha or Mary in our own estimation. Don’t we?
I have a degree in Sociology, which is the study of people groups. I love to people watch; if you catch me staring, it’s not personal: It’s research. (Not that that’s encouraging…)
But I did not need a degree in sociology to see that every family, every community, every church, every grocery store has its own unique ethos of values and beliefs which they tend to trumpet above the rest, even if some trumpet more loudly than others. Even when they hold to the same basic tenets as the rest, such as in a denomination, each body tends to highlight some cherished conviction or standard over all others:
Grace, Faith, Forgiveness, Belonging, Baptism, Healing, Sovereignty, Compassion, or the Great Commission, etc… in churches;
Work Ethic, Modesty, Health, Civic Duties, Recycling, Family Time, Hospitality, or Arts, etc… in homes;
Beautification, Fiscal Responsibility, Events and Programs, Learning or Service opportunities, etc… may be emphasized, one or two more than the others, in various communities.
Yes, grocery stores too. Some refine the atmosphere of lighting and flooring, while others boast in bulk; some appreciate ‘the bottom line’, while others post politically polarizing mantras in their windows. Some are quick on data and quickly stock the things that fly off the shelves, while others catch on too late or remain the stapled general store of the past. See? These too have their ideals, which is why — by the way — we have our preferences about which to shop; it’s not arbitrary, even when it revolves around our pocketbook.
For some, like my dad, an excellent work ethic is the supreme value of life. One may have many things but without a sharp work ethic, one deserves nothing. This shows itself in some communities where the women all have a full-time job and a side-hustle; it betrays itself in discussions about the national welfare program; and, sometimes, it shows itself in beautifully landscaped lawns (which I do not begrudge in the least but admire).
I’ve met many Christians for whom fostering children is God’s work – and, to hear some of them say it, tend to communicate that it is the only God work that counts for anything. You may serve in the nursery or have seventeen kids of your own, but if you’re not also fostering the stranger then you haven’t really surrendered to God’s “true religion” as penned by James.
There are others for whom peace reigns supreme – whether that peace means disengaging from social events, keeping the emotionally unstable person at arms’ length, never posting anything controversial on social media, staying away from spotlights, OR not holding one’s peace in any arena to keep one’s peace by speaking one’s own ‘truth’ no matter the occasion or whom it offends: Either way, “peace” is the stated goal, the only true honey of life.
In our own little family, lying and loudness are egregious sins; thus, honesty and tempered sugar-rushes are fostered…
And we could go on and on.
Some feel that to have no civic life, to not engage in politics and community events, is to err grossly; some spend their weekends shut away in their prayer closet eating and drinking one spiritual experience after another and feel something like pity against those who don’t know well enough to do the same; some go to church every time the doors are open for the sake of God’s words; others neglect ‘institutionalized’ church also for the sake of God’s words…
And guess what? If we look, we can find scripture verses to prop up any one of these preferential lifestyles. Can’t we? Indeed, some today have managed to construct entire theologies from things God never said.
“But to what shall I liken this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to their companions, and saying:
‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance;
We mourned to you, and you did not lament.’
For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’. The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look a glutton and a winebibber, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’
But wisdom is justified by her children.”Matthew 11:16-19
Interestingly, Jesus contrasts two different kinds of children here: The children who sit in the marketplace and cannot be satisfied by their companions and the children justified by wisdom….
The children of the marketplace are not hard to spot; sometimes, we see them in our own mouths.
Today, if John the Baptist were here many would say that he was being legalistic and practicing some form of pagan asceticism with his weird honey and locust diet.
Today, if Jesus were here, we might indeed call him a glutton, a heretic for claiming to be the Son of God, or even one of those pesky Charismatics for all of the signs and wonders rumored…
But I wonder sometimes if the children of wisdom are so easily identified…
Even a fool can seem wise when he makes silence golden, so that’s no sure tell…
We could say that those healthy and wealthy and influencing must be among the wise… but is that always true?
We could say that those lettered and acclaimed with vast and academic knowledge must be among the wise… but we know that isn’t always true. Don’t we?
We are often tempted to believe that those whose lives appear to be well-financed, emotionally stable, and even-tempered are wisest of all… I suspect, however, that there are many an ungodly person we’d have to subscribe to if we truly believed that to be wholly the truth. Oprah represents such an ideal, doesn’t she? But she sold out years ago…
So, who are these mysterious children of wisdom anyway?
Well, we can first define them by the obvious:
“The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, And the knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.”Proverbs 9:10
So, FIRST, the ‘children of wisdom’ are those who fear the Lord.
Hm… Not as specific as we’d like is it? That’s a fairly generous identity at face-value. Nothing in that tells us exactly which church to attend, how to keep our lawns, where to school our children, or whether decluttering our homes is really the best way to spend our time — like ever or bi-annually.
“For we do not presume to rank or compare ourselves with some of those who commend themselves; but when they measure themselves by themselves and compare themselves with themselves, they have no understanding.”2 Corinthians 10:12
Some versions say “they are not wise” rather than “they have no understanding”, but by Proverbs 9 we can see that these two things are virtually synonymous.
So, NEXT, we find that those who make such comparisons – that is, who form their standards and measures by the simple contrasting of another’s life OR against their own supposed progress in life – are not among the wise nor understanding.
In other words, a child of wisdom can see John the Baptist as adhering to his convictions because of his specific calling and Jesus adhering to his character because of his specific mission as the God-made-man, and bless and have peace-at-heart with both testimonies working in tandem.
Did not both callings and missions come from God, though both men served uniquely?
How then should we live? Those are two very different examples…
Examples, Contrasts, or Principles
Life isn’t a beauty pageant, a chapter in the Lord of the Flies, or an occupational resume in which we must best another. Life isn’t fair, isn’t cut and dry, and is rarely so neat and sterile as our memed favorite verse or mantra.
There are many ways to live exemplified in the Bible.
Ruth’s life looked nothing like Hannah’s; Moses’ life was nothing like Benaiah’s; Jeremiah’s life looked nothing like King David’s; Eve’s testament would not read the same as Deborah’s or virgin Mary’s; and what Job and Ezekiel each had to work out in their own love for God did not look the same. Without doubt, Peter and Paul had their disagreements and frustrations with one another, even as they recognized God’s calling upon each other.
“Why, then, do you judge your brother? Or why do you belittle your brother? For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat.”Romans 14:10
Judgement is passing sentence; it’s saying, “You must not be a true believer if…”
Well, many definitions, examples, and sermons can and have been taught on the subject of judgment. For this piece we will confine the definition to making assumptions about another’s authenticity based upon what we can see with our eyes and what we believe to be wisdom based upon our own preferential sensibilities…
After all, is it unsensible to want to bury your father before following Jesus? – Jesus seemed to say so in that specific interaction, though all of society, even today, would argue the point (Luke 9:59-60). In fact, we would say Jesus was being unloving in such sentiments… Would we not?
(I speak, of course, of differences in ‘working out salvation’ among those IN Christ; not of the wolves parading sin under the banner of His Good Name falsely. That is a different post.)
We are told to live by many principles, precepts, and wise advisements in the Bible.
Here are but a few examples:
“Love your enemies…” (Matthew 5:44)
“…Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life: You should mind your own business and work with your hands, just as we told you…” (1 Thessalonians 4:11)
“Therefore I say to you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink… But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you.” (Matthew 6:25; 33)
“Pray without ceasing.” (1 Thessalonians 5:17)
“Pray in the Spirit at all times, with every kind of prayer and petition.” (Ephesians 6:18)
“Earnestly pursue love and eagerly desire spiritual gifts, especially the gift of prophecy.” (1 Corinthians 14:1)
“My brethren, count it all joy when ye fall into divers temptations…” (James 1:2)
“And indeed, have mercy on those who doubt; save others by snatching them from the fire; and to still others show mercy tempered with fear, hating even the clothing stained by the flesh.” (Jude 1:22-23)
“If anyone comes to you but does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your home or even greet him. Whoever greets such a person shares in his evil deeds.” (2 John 1:11)
“Do not be too quick in the laying on of hands and thereby share in the sins of others. Keep yourself pure.” (1 Timothy 5:22)
“And have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather reprove them.” (Ephesians 5:11)
“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48)
“Therefore, having these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God.” (2 Corinthians 7:1)
“Since you call on a Father who judges each one’s work impartially, conduct yourselves in reverent fear during your stay as foreigners.” (1 Peter 1:17)
“For ye are bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body, and in your spirit, which are God’s.” (1 Corinthians 6:20)
“If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another.” (Galatians 5:25-26)
“Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. For if anyone thinks he is something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself. But let each one test his own work, and then his reason to boast will be in himself alone and not in his neighbor. For each will have to bear his own load.” (Galatians 6:2-4)
These quotes don’t even make up the tip of the iceberg in guidances, commands, or principles we can find in God’s word. And this question has kept me up at night for years, well, decades now…
How then do we live?
If we take every passage literally, especially Jesus’ own words, do we have to live as homeless nomads? Constantly praying and preaching? No dance recitals? No bling? No time for burying loved ones? No hands or feet because we had to cut them off and no eyes because we had to pluck them out?
Are we to parade in thanksgiving to God and dance in the nude down Main Street? (Anyone in your town will be pleased if you don’t.) Are we to rally impossible odds against the powers of the day like Gideon trusting the God of Angel Armies? Are we to tend our own garden, work quietly, and mind our own business? What about the places that actually need an ass’s jawbone to take a slew of mockers, boasters, and reprobate’s out of the picture? Is there really ‘a time for everything’ (Eccl. 3:3)? Are we all to teach and preach and baptize and call many to repentance? Should we all be fostering? Adopting? Should we all prophesy? Taking casseroles to all the widows?
Paul spoke in tongues more than y’all. Was that an intentional jab at Southerners?…
Plenty of arguments ensue over how we are to love our enemies – And what does that look like if we’re also supposed to pull the fluffy white fur off of the cloaked wolf bearing the works of wickedness? Should we or shouldn’t we shake hands? – I don’t want to be complicit in your sins too, after all; I have plenty of my own to confess.
There is a verse for every hidden mantra-at-heart. There is. If you doubt it, just open the Good Book: the devil will surely show up in the details, as he did with Jesus in the wilderness, and quote sonnets in your ears…
But the lie he tells to each of us is the same one told from the very beginning, isn’t it?
“For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”Genesis 3:5
Was that truth? The whole truth?
Of course not. Rather, mankind ‘fell’ from God’s good graces, our eyes were darkened, and in ‘knowing good and evil’ some “loved the darkness” (John 3), making more of devils than of gods among us.
So, a lie that was and is and always will be… yet we still try to act as gods with our extensive knowledge, don’t we?
In closing, what offended and overturned the religious rulers of Jesus’ day was that He spoke against and dealt less with the obvious and visible sins, while underscoring, slicing, and dicing the hidden sins of their hearts. He forgave prostitutes and called a tax collector, while silencing the Pharisees on more than one occasion…
So, how best to live?
He did not call us to be sinners, after all; He still condemns sin. Neither did he call the Pharisees to continue in their vain traditions; He still says He is the only way, our Righteousness…
At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”
And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.”Matthew 18:1-6
There are many different kinds of children and the difference between childish and childlike behaviors to consider, but, clearly, Jesus had something definite in mind…
The minor prophets, Amos and Micah, were no less vague. When calling Israel to repentance, Amos says:
“Seek good, and not evil; hate evil, love good!…Seek Yahweh, that you may live!”Amos 1:14, 6
There’s more than one school of thought on that word, isn’t there? So, we must place it in context of what the nation of Israel and Amos’s purview would have known to be ‘good’ based on God’s laws.
He has showed you, O man, what is good and what Yahweh seeks from you: to do justly, to love kindness, and to walk humbly before Yahweh.Micah 6:8
Even in Christian circles, people argue about how best to do these things and what they look like… and, being that this prescript comes from the roots of Christianity, we will not consider the world’s ideas about these Godly traits valid here.
“Before God” is my favorite part of that quote because it does simplify our quest, doesn’t it?
If I am walking with, for, through my heart laid bare before my Creator God, my Father God, my Savior, and Comforter, then I will not err in walking my walk as if before mere men and mortals –
If I walk before God as a child, desiring to do justly, desiring mercy, and accepting humility, then I am less likely to make the error of comparing my mission and calling to someone else’s: I am less inclined to walk before men, as if humanity were my Final Judge.
But I am also less inclined to forget my calling, less inclined to embrace my sins with affection, if I walk “before God” – in remembrance of who He is and what He has spoken.
How then to live?
That is best.
And there are many parts of the Body and many callings within that easy yoke…
Blessed New Year, saints! I pray you enter it with the trusting affection of children before a Good Father.