Do you know you are loved?

In Oliver Stone’s epic biographical interpretation Nixon, the controversial filmmaker makes much of Nixon’s personal insecurities as the driving force behind most of his professional decision-making. There is a scene near the end where, as Richard Nixon’s presidency is imploding, one of his last remaining advisors, Henry Kissinger, is watching a televised speech in which the president again denies having any knowledge of the Watergate cover-up. Exasperated their president has lost touch with reality, Kissinger comments to the chief of staff “Can you imagine what this man would have been had he ever been loved? It’s a tragedy, because he had greatness in his grasp”.

Historical accuracy aside, the comment stands out as a reflection of a narrative with which we all struggle—knowing we are loved and living from out of that awareness. For many people this struggle stems from growing up in an environment where they never were actually shown any love at all. For many other people, this struggle is the result of never having actively embraced the love they were actually shown. In such cases, the grounded assurance of being both loved and lovely is lacking. This deficient awareness of love seems only to fuel futures filled with fearfulness, distrust, bitterness, isolation, loneliness, and, ultimately, the withholding of love towards others, thus perpetuating the cycle.

I can do nothing about the environments that create such a poverty of love, but I can try bringing to your attention that love exists and is abundantly available and accessible. To do so, please allow me a well-worn platitude that is also very true: God loves you.

My father and pastor, Charles Robinson, recently preached a terrific sermon wherein he referenced Nebuchadnezzar’s casting of Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah into the fiery furnace. Citing Daniel 3:25, Pastor Robinson commented “God didn’t rescue them from the flames; God joined them.”

This arouses the deep awareness that God has not left us alone to the environments and moments in which we feel so often abandoned. Though they seem bereft of our preferred expressions of love, they are not without God’s presence. The totality of place and time is permeated with the presence of God. I refer of course to the incarnation of Jesus Christ: God with us, God amongst us, God for us. Through Christ’s incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection, the presence of God fills the present of every believer’s person, place, and period and expands across their past and future. When pains of the past and fears of the future come stealing in, Christ is already there to absorb every ache and anxiety, redemptively molding your memories and moments into a grace that emits his majesty through you. When time and life feel fractured and fragmented, Christ fills the cracks and the voids, the emptiness and brokenness, so that all may be restored to wholeness. We then shall find we need not resent the past nor fear the future, for they are becoming the planes upon which God’s salvation has and will play out.

In Christ, God conveys upon us love without end. Christ awakens us to what throughout this world lies dormant—the rich assuring awareness that we are lovely and loved.

Do you know you are loved? Has knowing Christ enabled you to accept that truth? If your mind was constantly attuned to this awareness, how might you imagine living?

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Wealth, Worry, and the Wonder of God | Matthew 6:24-34

Much of Jesus’ chapter 6 comments focus on the development of Kingdom-centered piety for the disciple; beginning in v24, Jesus examines this pursuit in the context of our relationship with money.

That relationship can be a complicated one.  On the one hand, we all need money—to provide food, clothing, shelter, to pay bills, taxes, to provide a sense of security, to enjoy life.  But we also know there’s great tendency for money to become so much more.  For various reasons, money can go from being a means to life to becoming the meaning of life.

Jesus cuts right to the heart of the matter and says “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other.”  Devotion cannot be divided.  Many have tried to parse their hearts amongst various pursuits, but deep down one is always a priority.  As the physics principle goes, two objects cannot occupy the same space; when it’s the heart’s devotion, there can be only one.  Jesus takes these general notions of dueling masters and specifies “You cannot serve God and wealth”.

The word Jesus uses here, Mammon, means more than just wealth.  It is a term that visualizes money as a godlike personality whose wealth-wiles can have mastery over us, how we think, choose to use our time, how we value people in terms of what they can do for us.  A mindset mastered by Mammon genuinely lives like “cash is king”.

It is okay to have an income, to make money, to provide.  As a disciple it’s not wrong to be reasonably concerned about your finances and to take wise steps to address those concerns.  But should those concerns begin to undermine our commitment to and contentment in Christ, those legitimate concerns have transformed into dictatorial masters over us.  We have to choose.

Jesus knows, however, that choosing to follow him, worthwhile as it is, also has the potential to exacerbate anxiety and worry.  Having decided to follow Christ in a way that does not obsessively seek out Wealth, the opportunity cost of all the money we might have had could begin to set our minds and hearts on edge.  We begin asking questions.  “Will everything be alright?  Will we be okay?  Will we be able to eat?  Will we have clothing, shelter?  Will we survive?”

These questions can very easily turn into nagging what ifs, knots in the stomach, trembling hands, unsettled minds, fear of the future, resentment of past choices, misdirected anger, paralyzing anxiety, and a waning passion for Christ.  Knowing how our choice to prioritize God over Wealth could potentially stir up these overwhelming concerns, Jesus comments “For this reason I say to you, do not be worried about your life, as to what you will eat or what you will drink; nor for your body, as to what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air, that they do not sow, nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not worth much more than they?  And who of you by being worried can add a single hour to his life? And why are you worried about clothing? Observe how the lilies of the field grow; they do not toil nor do they spin, yet I say to you that not even Solomon in all his glory clothed himself like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the furnace, will He not much more clothe you? You of little faith!”

To not worry about food and shelter goes against our grain.  It’s an instruction that, admittedly, is difficult to accept.  But there’s more here than just an instruction.  There are questions.  There’s imagination.  There’s wonder.  The thing about worry is that our mind is always racing, frantically moving in circles.  Good questions, however, slow worry down.  They give the mind something productive to ponder.  And imagination, like food for an empty stomach, gives the mind something to feed upon, to be nourished by.

With his questions, Jesus wants to deconstruct this domineering understanding we often have that life is all about the materials.  Like an older brother draping his arm around us, knowing better, Jesus’ questions hush our hurried worries.  With his images, Jesus wants to fill up our understanding with the awareness and assurance of a caring Father.  Like a visionary painting, Jesus’ images invite us to behold a reality resplendent with God’s glorious riches, worth, and redemptive purpose.  Wonder feeds faith, making obedience joyful.

We are to “not worry then” about provisions as the world frantically does.  Rather, knowing how our heavenly Father knows our needs, we are freed to follow after what God is setting before us in Christ. Thus Jesus ultimately emphasizes “But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.”

His kingdom is the heavenly reign of God spilling into and transforming the realities of Earth through the redemptive work of King Jesus for the reconciling of humanity’s relationship to God, creation, and each other unto the renewal of Heaven and Earth.  It is the good news Jesus proclaimed.  It is the epitome of God’s plan for us all.  It is the way of Jesus.  As “all roads [led] to Rome”, the continuous seeking of Jesus always conducts us into Christ’s rule and realm, cultivating us into witnesses of the wonder God is continuously working out amongst this world.  How do we bear witness?

His righteousness gives integrity to his redemptive words and works, and authority to his kingly rule.  As we keep company with Christ, his righteousness is instilled in us, conforming our character to his, molding us into God’s witnesses.

Seeking God’s kingdom and righteousness first by following Jesus is a pursuit whose single-mindedness simplifies all other pursuits and weeds out our worry by enrapturing our attention with God-glorifying wonder. A heart so consumed with the majesty of God has no room for worry.

Does this mean we stop working to provide for needs?  Of course not.  It actually enables us to work more wholeheartedly, with a contented wonder-while-we-work mentality.  It also frees our minds of the burden our heavenly Father has already promised to shoulder.  “So do not worry about tomorrow” Jesus concludes, “for tomorrow will care for itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”

Worry does not give hope for tomorrow, but God-wonder does foster joy for today.  Thus the marvelous reality of God’s redemptive rule sets our minds and bodies into tranquil rhythms as we go forth living and working in ways that give witness to the wondrous work God is accomplishing in King Jesus.

Kingdom righteousness in the context of anger

Jesus has just challenged his followers to live a “righteousness [which] surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees”; not a kind that competes with others, but strives to keep up with Jesus.  Now he continues his commentary on kingdom righteousness by contrasting it with what had become the cultural norms of Pharisaism, beginning with a quote of the sixth commandment: “You have heard that the ancients were told ‘You shall not commit murder’ and ‘Whoever commits murder shall be liable to the court.'”

We all know this command.  We all approve of this command.  But there is more to kingdom righteousness than a surface-level, one-dimensional adherence to this command.  In their current culture of Pharisaism, the “do not murder” command would have measured a person’s righteousness by whether or not they had a person’s blood on their hands.  If they did, they were guilty in sight of the law and courts.  If they did not, they were “righteous”.  The problem with this measurement, however, is that in kingdom reality, righteousness in this context is measured by so much more than whether or not we have murdered someone.

So in view of “surpassing righteousness”, Jesus clarifies the righteous essence at the heart of the sixth commandment: But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court; and whoever says to his brother, ‘You good-for-nothing’, shall be guilty before the supreme court; and whoever says, ‘You fool’, shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery hell.”

Three times in three various ways with three intensifying consequences, Jesus makes anger and its frustrated burstings as unacceptable as murder.  Why?  Since the kingdom of heaven is the reality of redemption cultivated in God’s sovereignty, as following participants we must perceive all of life through the lenses of God’s redemptive reality.  The King’s grace which brings us into redemption postulates that everyone is redeemable, and as participants in God’s redemption we must treat everyone as such.  Sustaining an anger that is willing to treat people as “good-for-nothing” and fools only corrupts our understanding of and witness to that redemptive reality.  Maintaining an anger that hinders God’s redemptive reality effectually “murders” our sense of redemption, towards both ourselves and others.  Surpassing, kingdom righteousness here is not measured exclusively by outward expressions of violence, as hypocrisy would have us believe, but by the extent to which Christ’s righteous character of peacefulness is formed in us.

Jesus then gives his disciples two illustrations for overcoming anger for the sake of kingdom righteousness: “Therefore if you are presenting your offering at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your offering there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and present your offering.  Make friends quickly with your opponent at law while you are with him on the way, so that your opponent may not hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the officer, and you be thrown into prison.  Truly I say to you, you will not come out of there until you have paid up the last cent.”

The first picture is set in the context of spiritual community and worship.  While one person is preparing to worship God, elsewhere is a community brother who may be angry with him for some unspecified reason.  In such a situation, Jesus would have the worshipper embody kingdom righteousness by taking the initiative and leaving his place of prayer and offering to engage in reconciliatory conversation with the brother.  Then he can return to truly worship.  This illustration teaches us, the community of the King, that the emphasis of living kingdom righteousness is on the internal cultivation of Christ’s character which is what gives integrity to external expressions of worship.  If we’re not actually overcoming our anger issues and reconciling relationships through Christ’s redemptive character, our expressions of worship are actually hypocritical.

The second picture is set in the context of a conflict that could be leading up to a courtroom showdown.  Jesus isn’t specific about the details of that conflict; what Jesus is specific about is how he expects his followers to live out a righteousness that might keep such a conflict from ever getting as far as a courtroom, where by then the damage to our kingdom witness is already done.  This picture paints us, the community of the King, into the role of “peacemakers” whose priority is not to get the better of others, but to overcome our anger issues and conflicts with others in order to bring many sons back to their heavenly Father.

Much of the hypocritical nature Jesus confronts in this text is the presumption that how we treat people has nothing to do with how we relate to God.  Jesus’ words and illustrations reveal that much of our relationship to the King is expressed by how we do relationship with others.  Kingdom reality is not simply vertical, between us and God; it’s quite horizontal, as kingdom righteousness is lived out amongst people, both the community of the King and all others.

Jesus’ brother James would later write “the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God”.  What does is the disciple who takes the righteous character of Christ more seriously than any past slight or self-pitying bitterness our pride often nurtures; these things will be gradually discarded in the dust stirred up as we follow in the footsteps of Jesus, his peacefulness genuinely permeating our innermost person.