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It’s funny how things hit you when you are reading the Bible, especially when you are going straight through. The other day I finished reading the book of Esther, and I was struck by the story of Haman’s bad day. Then today I started reading Job, and the first chapter tells about Job’s bad day. This led me to think about these two men and the contrast between them.
First of all, let me recap the stories. Haman woke up one morning in a great mood because he had just built a 75 foot gallows and was going to ask the king to hang Mordecai. When he gets there the king asks how a man should be honored. Haman, assuming that he must be the man, tells what he would like to have done for him, only to find that the king wants to honor Mordecai. So after Haman leads the parade for Mordecai, he is rushed off to eat dinner with the king and queen. He must have been thinking that surely the day couldn’t get any worse. Then Esther reveals that she is a Jew and Haman is plotting to kill her and her people. Then when Haman stays behind to beg for his life, the king walks back in the room to see Haman fall onto Esther’s bed and accuses him of molesting her. In a twist of poetic justice only God could think up, Haman is killed on his own gallows.
Job, of course, wakes up one day with everything a man could want – material possessions, a big happy family, and his health. Then a messenger comes to tell him that his livestock has been stolen and his slaves killed. Another messenger tells him that more of his animals have been killed by fire from the sky. A third messenger is right behind to tell him that his camels have been stolen. Then, the final blow, a messenger comes to say that all of his children have been killed.
Both men had really bad days, but the stories are very different. Haman has trouble because of his pride. He suffers the result of his previous bad behaviors, and ends up being killed. Job, however, suffers as a test of his loyalty and commitment to God. He responds with humility and faith, and in the end is rewarded.
So when I am in a difficult time the question I have to ask myself is this: How do I deal with hardship? Am I suffering because of things that I have done wrong? If so, how will I respond to that? Will I repent of my sinfulness, or will I stubbornly maintain my course. If not, is my faith being tested? If so, am I going to remain faithful and continue to trust in God to sustain me? Will I remain humble and resist the temptation to become prideful?
Lao-Tzu said that “Favor and disgrace would seem equally to be feared.” He explains that “disgrace is being in a low position after the enjoyment of favor. The getting that favor leads to the apprehension of losing it, and the losing it leads to the fear of still greater calamity.” I have observed that throughout the Old Testament people are judged by their response to great success and great loss. It is during these times that we see what a person is truly about – what they are really made of. How much more will I be judged by my response to success or difficulty, with the advantage of all this knowledge?
I just finished reading “The Good Earth” by Pearl Buck – the daughter of missionaries who lived in China for half her life. I read it in my attempts to learn more about Chinese culture, and in that respect it is a great book. It painfully illustrates the effect that natural disasters have on those who are already living in a poor economy, especially as at times they were forced to sell their daughters to be slaves. This is seen as the only hope of survival for the family and their daughter.
The greater benefit from this book to me, however, is a greater understanding of the cyclical nature of life. As the book begins, Wang Lung is a poor farmer with a small piece of land. Through several good crops, he makes wise decisions and is able to purchase a new piece of land. Throughout the book, when Wang Lung comes upon some money he, knowing the temporary nature of silver, seeks to purchase land that will endure. He knows that the land cannot be taken from him. During a drought and famine, Wang Lung and his family have to leave their home, but he knows that it is temporary and that if they can survive, they have land that will produce a crop. The way that Wang Lung deals with adversity and trouble is admirable.
However, more telling about his character is the way he deals with prosperity. When they return home and buy more land and build up their stores against a future disaster, things are well. Then there is a flood, and Wang Lung is idle. Because he doesn’t have to work, he turns his attention to himself. He is concerned about what the people in town think of him, so he buys fine clothes and goes to the tea houses where others go. He falls in love with a prostitute and eventually brings her home as another wife. He later buys the great house in town and moves there, and he finally takes a mistress who is just a young slave girl. Because of these selfish actions his children become spoiled and rebellious with no respect for their father or the land. At the end, he has become just like the lord that he despised at the beginning, and his sons are preparing to sell the land just as Hwang’s sons did. The very thing that provided for him his whole life was forgotten and taken for granted.
So after reading this I begin reading about Solomon. He asked for wisdom and God gives it to him. He is also given a time of peace and prosperity such as was never before (or since) experienced in the nation of Israel. He was given the task of building a temple for God. He does this and then turns his attention to building a palace for himself. Then, when these things are done, he turns away from God. He sets up places of worship for the gods of his many wives, and begins to worship them. He forgets the One who gave him everything, and began to follow his own desires. Once again, prosperity provides an opportunity for apostasy.
I feel that there is a message here. I seek peace in my job and in my life, and when I don’t have it I feel that there is something wrong. Deep down we believe that the promise of God is the absence of conflict or trouble, when throughout the Bible and history in general men rise to meet the challenges during times of persecution and turmoil, but become base and common during periods of ease. Maybe during conflict we are motivated to do for others, but in prosperity seek what is good for ourselves.
As I think about our congregation now, I see that we have been in a time of crisis. Financially we were making poor decisions and needed to change. We have done that and have, for the most part, corrected the problems we had. While this has been difficult on many, including me, it has, in retrospect, been a good thing. But now, with the possibility of selling our land and moving, we have the hope of returning to prosperity. But what will we do with that opportunity? Will we use it to build high places to glorify ourselves, or will we use it to invest in those things that will last eternally?
A final thought – in reading this book and the stories of Israel in the Old Testament, I am reminded that we are the history of the future. At some point people will look back on Greenwood Park and talk about what we did, and how we responded to the challenges that God has put before us. Will that history reflect favorably on us, or poorly? I know we will get through the difficult times. But how will we deal with the times of peace and prosperity? Will we make decisions that advance our own legacy or God’s kingdom? My prayer is that we will be wise and show ourselves to be men and women of faith in all times, good and bad.
“Now the general who wins a battle makes many calculations in his temple ere the battle is fought. The general who loses a battle makes but few calculations beforehand. Thus do many calculations lead to victory, and few calculations to defeat: how much more no calculation at all!”
Sun-Tzu, “The Art of War”
I really like to think of myself as a revolutionary. I want to live my life making a difference, not only in the lives of individuals but in the institutions and structures in which I find myself. I don’t want to conform to the world, the culture or even the church. Rather I want to be an agent of change – someone who can leave the world and the culture and the church better than when I found it. I find myself becoming very frustrated when I am unable to achieve the changes that I want to make, and I often assume that it is the fault of the institution rather than a failure on my part.
Then I read this quote by Sun-Tzu and come to realize that one of the reasons that I am unable to make the changes that I desire is that I do not spend time preparing for them. I am not purposeful and deliberate, but impulsive and rash. I have the talent and desire to make a change, but my energy is wasted as I flail away. I strike aimlessly at the small things that I encounter rather than deliberately dealing with the things that are truly a threat. I react too quickly.
I am reminded of this again in the story of David. He obviously spent a great deal of time with God and was sure of his role and his purpose. Even though he knew he was to be king of Israel, he refused to seize opportunities to strike Saul down. Even when Saul finally died, David punished the man who killed him. When two men killed the son of Saul, which ended the civil war and made David king, he punished them as well. The end result is recorded in 2 Samuel 5:12. “And David knew that the LORD had established him as king over Israel and had exalted his kingdom for the sake of his people Israel.” He didn’t think that he had established himself, but he knew that God had established him as king.
My goal for myself is that I will spend more time in my “temple” learning what God wants from me than in wasting time reacting to people and situations around me. I pray that I will see things from God’s perspective and be the revolutionary that He wants me to be – to change the church’s culture from one of passive observance to active service. And when it is done, I can look back and see that God brought about the change, and not me.
I realize that I have spent too much time on my blog venting or compaining. I hope that you (both) know that this is my primary outlet, and that by writing my thoughts and feelings out I can work through and think about my stuff. It all seems so complicated. So my hope is that I am able to use this space in the future to write things that are spiritually encouraging. That I can stop thinking so much about myself and focus on moving forward.
“Regard your soldiers as your children, and they will follow you into the deepest valleys. Look on them as your own beloved sons, and they will stand by you even unto death!”
Sun Tzu, “The Art of War”
As I read this I couldn’t help but think of how true it is. I think of those people I have worked with or for who have treated me as a son, and the intense loyalty that I have to them. I think of a supervisor I had in Harrodsburg who taught me most of what I know about group therapy and working with children and families. I think of my boss there who allowed me to sit in on interviews and taught me about leadership. Both of these men treated me like sons, and I would do anything still today if they needed something. One of the only difficult things about leaving that job was leaving them.
That Jesus knew this is obvious. Look at how He treated people. He was patient with the disciples. He spent time with them explaining their questions. He taught them the things that they needed to know to make it when they were on their own. He loved them despite their faults, and He forgave them when they let Him down. He loved them like a father loves his child. This helps to explain why they were willing to follow Him and ultimately die for Him.
So that brings us to today. We have taken a religion that is based on a loving relationship with a Heavenly Father and reduced it to a set of intellectual proofs and church traditions. We want people to love God, but all they experience is our list of dos and don’ts. We aren’t truly representing the heart of God’s message – that He loves us and wants what is best for us. Maybe we don’t experience it ourselves, so we are not very good at sharing it with others.
What kind of difference would we make in the world if we tried harder to love everybody than we try to convince them that God exists or that they should live by His moral standard? I have personally seen how loving a person or group of people can cause them to ask what makes you different. When people experience our love and then find that it is the result of God’s love, they will come to know God and love Him. This is the only thing that will cause a person to commit to following God – even to death.