07/25/17

Keep on Knocking

© Eugene Sergeev | 123rf.com

The first sentence for the Step Eleven essay in Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions succinctly says: “Prayer and meditation are our principle means of conscious contact with God.” Bill W. went on to say there were some who recoiled from meditation and prayer “as obstinately as the scientist who refused to perform a certain experiment lest it prove his pet theory wrong.” Yet for those who made regular use of prayer come to see it as necessary for their survival as air, food or sunshine: “We all need the light of God’s reality, the nourishment of His strength, and the atmosphere of His grace.”

“Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him! (Matthew 7:7-11)

In verse 7, there are a series of commands: ask, seek and knock. All three are in the present tense, which suggests we are to persist when we come to God in prayer. We should petition God “with an expectant attitude,” according to Craig Blomberg. In verse eight, we have a repetition of what to expect when we pray: all who ask receive; everyone who seeks something will find it; when someone knocks on a closed door, it will be opened. But it would be a mistake to use this as a kind of incantation with which we can petition and receive from God whatever we desire.

Bill W. astutely noted that when we ask for specific solutions to specific problems, and for the ability to help other people as we think they need to be helped, “We are asking God to do it our way.” We should consider each request carefully to see its real merit. His advice when making specific requests was to add a qualification: “ . . . if it be Thy will.”

We discover that we do receive guidance for our lives to just about the extent that we stop making demands upon God to give it to us on order and on our terms.

Not too long before this passage in Matthew was Jesus’ counsel to not pray like the hypocrites or use empty phrases (Matthew 6:5-15). Instead, we should pray humbly to our Father in Heaven, asking for His will to be done; for our daily bread (needs); for our debts to be forgiven; and to keep us from temptation. This passage, of course, was on the Lord’s Prayer. So when we self consciously acknowledge God as our Father in heaven, and seek for his will to be done on earth as it is in heaven, we can trust that He will provide for our needs. So we can confidently, ask, seek and knock. And when we ask according to His will we will receive; we will find what we seek; we will open what was closed to us when we knock.

The rhetorical questions in Matthew 6:9-10 imply a negative answer: of course a human father would not be so obtuse when responding to the requests of his son. He would not give a stone when asked for bread or a serpent when asked for a fish. Bread and fish would have been common foods for the people listening to Jesus give the Sermon on the Mount, again pointing back to relying upon God for our daily needs.

There is also a possible allusion to a sense of trickery—bread can be shaped to look like a stone; snakes can be mistaken for a certain eel-like fish catfish in the Sea of Galilee.  If a human father can be trusted to give good things to his son, can’t we place even greater trust in God the Father? Jesus is reasoning from the lesser to the greater here. If such trickery or obtuseness would be unthinkable in a human father, “how much more” can our heavenly Father be trusted?

So the lesson of the passage is that we can trust God to answer our prayers. When we ask according to His will, we will receive. When we seek our daily needs, we will find them. And when a door appears closed to what we ask or seek, if we knock it will be opened for us. Here the call is for hope and perseverance. We are to continue asking, seeking and knocking until the seemingly closed door to us is opened, because we can trust God to meet our needs.

This call for persistence in prayer also applies to those who have tried to give up drugs and alcohol but failed repeatedly. There is a sense of dread that overcomes the person who has made repeated attempts to stay abstinent and failed. They begin to think there is no hope for them; that they are “constitutionally incapable of recovery.” This is a mistaken belief about recovery and relapse. In his booklet Mistaken Beliefs About Relapse, Terence Gorski said: “A mistaken belief is something that you believe is true and act as if it were true when, in fact, it is false.”

Continue trying to establish and maintain abstinence. Ask for guidance; seek help; keep on knocking (persist in asking and seeking) until you obtain it.  Because you won’t be tricked or be given something that won’t meet you needs (a stone or snake).

This is part of a series of reflections dedicated to the memory of Audrey Conn, whose questions reminded me of my intention to look at the various ways the Sermon on the Mount applies to Alcoholics Anonymous and recovery. If you’re interested in more, look under the category link “Sermon on the Mount.”

04/11/17

Love Your Enemies

© Lane Erickson | 123rf.com

Some people mistakenly think that the proverbial saying, “God helps those who help themselves” is some where in the Bible. Well it’s not. Actually, it came from one of Aesop’s fables, Hercules and the Waggoneer. A waggoneer driving a heavily loaded wagon became stuck in a muddy road. The more the horses pulled, the deeper the wheels sank in the mud. So he prayed to Hercules for help, who then replied that the wagoneer should get up off his knees and put his shoulder to the wheel. The moral of the fable was: “The gods help them that help themselves.”

In a similar way, Jesus corrected in Matthew 5:43-48 what had become a misapplication of the commandment to love your neighbor in Leviticus 19:18. In preceding passages of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus introduced teachings from Scripture with the phrase that begins 5:43: “You have heard it said” (Matthew 5:21, 5:27, 5:33, 5:38). But here “what was said” was not from Scripture. Instead of the command to Love your neighbor as yourself,” it seems that what was being taught was “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” Nowhere in the Old Testament does it say, “Hate your enemy.”

There were passages that called for the destruction of Israel’s enemies (Deuteronomy 7:2) or counseled to keep your distance from non-Israelites (Exodus 34:12). Yet you were to feed your enemy (Proverbs 25:21-22) and help them when they were in need (Exodus 23:4-5). The Old Testament teaching on how you were to treat your enemies was complex, according to Leon Morris. In his commentary on Matthew, he said:

All this means that those who summed up Old Testament teaching as calling for love for neighbors and hatred for enemies were oversimplifying. The call for hatred is certainly the kind of addition to the command that many have put into practice.

Again, instead of lowering the bar to the common social standard he quoted in 5:43, Jesus said his followers were to love their enemies and pray for them!

You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5:43-48)

Jesus named two groups who were widely seen as enemies by the ordinary Jew—tax collectors and Gentiles (non-Jews). Don’t they take care of their own; don’t they love one another? So if you love only those who love you; if you only greet others like you (your brothers), how are you different from the tax collectors and the Gentiles?

While tax collectors are never popular in any culture (think of the Internal Revenue Service in the U.S.), in first-century Palestine they were particularly unpopular. Not only would they collect taxes for the Romans, they would also be sure to get some extra for themselves. Leon Morris commented, “In the eyes of Jesus’ audience there were no more wicked people than tax collectors as a class.” That’s the point of the encounter Jesus had with Zacchaeus, who was a tax collector (Luke 19:1-10).  They were the last ones you would expect to show love to others. The implied question is shouldn’t your love for others be greater?

The verse about greeting your brother is deeper in meaning than most people realize. When first-century Jews greeted one another, they would say “Peace,” which was in fact like saying a prayer; something like this: “May the peace of the Lord be upon you.” In our culture we say “good-bye” without remembering we are actually saying a shortened form of: “God by with you.” So making a sincere greeting meant you expressed goodwill and welcome to your brother. Shouldn’t your wishes and greetings to others be more sincere than the Gentiles?

The final command in verse 48, “to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” seems to set an unreachable standard—be as perfect as God the Father.  But that’s not what it means. The sense of the Greek word for “perfect” here pertains to you being fully developed in a moral sense. Look, your Father in heaven lets the sun rise and the rain fall upon both the evil and the good; the just and the unjust. Shouldn’t you do the same? The command to love your neighbor as yourself includes loving your enemies.  Isn’t that the same message as in the parable of the Good Samaritan?

There is an interesting grammatical structure in verse 5:45b called a chiasm, named after the Greek letter chi, which looks like an “X.” The verse reads: “For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” The crossing/chiasm is between the “evil” and “unjust” as well as the “good” and the “just.” The crossing pattern is accomplished by taking the first pair of contrasting words, evil and good, and then reversing the position in the second pair of contrasting words: just and unjust. So the chiasm looks like this:

The chiastic structure helps to reinforce the point of the passage. It gives a visual warning to the followers of Jesus: they are not to follow the contrasting advice of loving their neighbor and hating their enemy. Rather, just as their heavenly Father sends sun upon the evil and the good, and rain upon both the just and the unjust, they are to love and not hate their enemies. This action of God’s is known as the principle of common grace, where the good things of the world like sun and rain fall equally upon the evil and the good; the just and the unjust. God does not withhold the gifts of rain and sunshine from people who are evil or unjust. So followers of Christ should withhold love from their enemies.

In an active addiction, addicts and alcoholics make a lot of enemies. The hostility in these relationships can be either a one-way or a two-way street. You resent one another in mutual hostility. But you resent what someone did—or they resent what you did—in one-way hostility. The remedy for this in recovery is stated in Matthew 5:44: love and pray for your enemies. In order to do so, you have to let go of your resentment.

When discussing the Fourth Step in the “How It Works” chapter of Alcoholics Anonymous, Bill W. said: “Resentment is the ‘number one’ offender It destroys more alcoholics than anything else.” It leads to various forms of spiritual disease—“a life which includes deep resentment leads only to futility and unhappiness.” If the alcoholic is to live, they have to be free of anger. Realize that the people who wronged you were perhaps spiritually sick as well. “We asked God to help us show them the same tolerance, pity, and patience that we would cheerfully grant a sick friend.”

This is part of a series of reflections dedicated to the memory of Audrey Conn, whose questions reminded me of my intention to look at the various ways the Sermon on the Mount applies to Alcoholics Anonymous and recovery. If you’re interested in more, look under the category link “Sermon on the Mount.”

05/8/15

The Deep Desire of True Ambition

© Balefire9 | stockfresh.com

© Balefire9 | stockfresh.com

Recently I watched the 1947 movie, Gentleman’s Agreement for the first time. Starring Gregory Peck and Dorothy McGuire, it told the story of a reporter, Phil Green (Gregory Peck), who poses as a Jew to uncover anti-Semitism in post World War II America. In a climatic scene, Phil’s fiancée, Kathy (Dorothy McGuire), realizes it’s not enough to privately abhor prejudice; you have to do something about it. In the context of Matthew 5:13-16, you have to be salt and light.

Further developing what he’d been teaching his disciples, Jesus said: “You are the salt of the earth. . . . You are the light of the world.”  In verses 5:3-10, he described the blessings available to those who were his disciples. He warned them in 5:11-12 of the persecution they would face simply because they wanted to live righteous lives on his account. Here he said you can’t fly under the radar and avoid persecution. Theirs was not to be a life of quietism and retreat from the world. Rather, as Craig Blomberg said, they “must permeate society as agents of redemption.”

The first metaphor was a statement of fact—you are salt of the earth. In our time we think of salt as something that adds flavor—as a supplement—to what we eat. But up until the invention of refrigeration, salt was an essential preservative. That is the meaning of the salt metaphor here. Jesus is saying his disciples are to be a preserving influence on earth. According to Sinclair Ferguson in The Sermon on the Mount, “Christians whose lives exhibit the qualities of the ‘blessed’ will have a preserving impact” upon society.

Salt losing its taste is another saying that makes no sense to moderns, who get pure granulated salt from a Morton’s salt container at the grocery. But the salt used in first-century Palestine was most likely taken from the Dead Sea, where it would have been mixed with other minerals. If the sodium chloride somehow dissolved out of the mixture, it would leave “salt” that had lost its “saltiness” (sodium chloride).  Good for nothing, it was tossed into the street, which was the garbage can of ancient cities.

Once again in Matthew 5:14 Jesus directly addresses the disciples, now saying they are (factually) the light of the world. It’s the same message as in the previous verse, but with a different image. In each case the target is broadly described—the earth and the world. It’s like saying, if you didn’t get it the first time, I’ll tell you again another way: “you are the light of the world.” You can’t hide; and you shouldn’t hide.

© Suzanne Tucker | 123RF.com

© Suzanne Tucker | 123RF.com

We lose some of the power of the metaphor today as we live with electricity in huge cities, where darkness is typically an annoyance or inconvenience, not something that stops human work and activity until the sun comes up the next day. Rural living or wilderness vacations get moderns closer to an understanding of the image. Until the widespread use of electricity, nightfall was DARK. A city on a hill, with its cooking fires and torches would have been an incredible contrast to the surrounding darkness. You could not hide it.

Conversely, it makes no sense to light an oil lamp and then put a basket over it. You put it on a lamp stand where it can illuminate the entire room. Now the light from an oil lamp doesn’t compete well with that from even a forty-watt light bulb. But recall how grateful you were to get that one candle lit when your electricity went out and the batteries in your flashlight were dead.

Notice also the contrast between the light of a city on a hill that can’t be hidden and that of an oil lamp that could be hidden. The disparity of the two images suggests that, whether your “light” is big or small, you shouldn’t try to hide it. It makes no sense and ultimately can’t be done. Rather, let it shine so others can see it.

The “light” is the light of righteousness in verse 5:10 that is ultimately from Jesus Christ. He is the great light who has dawned upon those dwelling in darkness (Matthew 4:16). He is the light of the world (John 8:12). His disciples, those who have been brought out of the kingdom of darkness into his kingdom of light (Colossians 1:12-13), are to now live as children of the light (Ephesians 5:8). Again turning to Sinclair Ferguson:

Jesus is underlining the challenge, which is stated so clearly in his Great Commission (Matt. 28:18-20): the whole world is to be our sphere of influence. To reduce it to anything less would be tantamount to restricting the power, authority, and grace of the Lord Jesus Christ.

This is not a Christianized “jihad,” calling for forced conversion or subjection. The light of Christ in the Sermon on the Mount is seen in his disciples as they are poor in spirit, mourning for sin, meek, hungering and thirsting for righteousness, merciful, pure in heart, and peacemakers in their daily lives with other “earth” people living in this world. “In the same way, let your light shine before others so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Mathew 5:16).

Parallel to the followers of Jesus living out the beatitudes as they are salt and light to the world, members of Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A.) put their program into action as well. Bill W. said repeatedly that “A.A. is more than a set of principles; it is a Society of alcoholics in action. We must carry the message, else we ourselves can wither and those who haven’t been given the truth will die.” You can find this statement in The Language of the Heart (p. 160), Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age (p. 139), and the pamphlet, A.A.’s Legacy of Service.

In A.A. Comes of Age, Bill added that action was the magic word. “Action to carry A.A.’s message is therefore the heart of our Third Legacy of Service.” He defined A.A.  service as “anything whatever that helps us to reach a fellow sufferer—ranging from the Twelfth Step itself to a ten-cent phone call and a cup of coffee. . . .  The sum total of all these services is our Third Legacy of Service.” The Twelfth Step reads: “Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and practice these principles in all our affairs.” The linked pamphlet, A.A.’s Legacy of Service, goes on to tell some of the early history of A.A. More detail of that history, focusing on the Three Legacies, can be found in The Language of the Heart and Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age.

The life of service and recovery within A.A. is not identical to that described by Jesus within the Sermon on the Mount to his disciples. But I suspect they would all agree with this statement from Bill W.’s “Step Twelve” essay in Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions: “True ambition in not what we thought it was. True ambition is the deep desire to live usefully and walk humbly under the grace of God.”

This is part of a series of reflections dedicated to the memory of Audrey Conn, whose questions reminded me of my intention to look at the various ways the Sermon on the Mount applies to Alcoholics Anonymous and recovery. If you’re interested in more, look under the category link “Sermon on the Mount.”

03/6/15

One Day at a Time

© Field of tiger lilies by elwynn | stockfresh.com

© Field of tiger lilies by elwynn | stockfresh.com

“There may be greater sins than worry, but very certainly there is no more disabling sin.”  (William Barclay)

In his book Running Scared, Ed Welch pointed out how many psychiatric conditions have to do with fear. There was a time, he said, when you were either psychotic or neurotic. “Psychotic meant that your were out of touch with reality and afraid; neurotic meant that you were in touch with reality and afraid.” Today there are many more shades of fear and anxiety. Within the DSM-5, there are 22 distinctly coded conditions just within the section on Anxiety Disorders.

Welch observed how various medications or psychological treatments, such as systematic desensitization, focus on thinking or bodily responses to fear and anxiety. But he suspected there was a deeper reality to our fears and worries. “Listen to your fears and you hear them speak about things that have personal meaning to you. They appear to be attached to things we value.” So to understand fear and anxiety, we have to look at ourselves, and the way we interpret our situations.

Within the short space of nine verses in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6:25-34), there are three commands for us to not be anxious. We are encouraged to not be anxious about our life or about our future. Jesus underlines the pointlessness of anxiety here, while providing good reasons for trusting God. The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament put it this way: “Worry is unnecessary. God has lifted it from man.”

There are also three “therefores” that initiated those commands, whose purpose was to connect the paragraph or passage to what was just said. So the command to not be anxious about our life in verse 25 connects back to what Jesus said in verse 24: “You cannot serve two masters”—God and money. Verse 31’s “therefore”—don’t be anxious about what to eat, drink or wear—proceeds from the discussion in verses 26 through 30 about how God provides for the birds, flowers and grasses.

Look at how God provides for the insignificant things of his creation. The birds never go hungry or thirsty—yet they cannot sow, reap or gather into barns. The wild flowers, which cannot clothe themselves in finery, are more beautiful than King Solomon in all his glory. If God is careful to provide for them, will He not do much more for you? “Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’”

These worries are what drive the “Gentiles,” those who don’t know or trust in God. When you are anxious, you are forgetting the one whom you serve. Robert Mounce said in his commentary on Matthew: “Worry is practical atheism and an affront to God.” Verse 33 is then the climax of the passage: our first priority should be to seek out the kingdom of God and his righteousness. As Craig Blomberg said: “When priorities regarding treasures in heaven and on earth are right, God will provide for fundamental human needs.”

Worry does not accomplish anything. Anxiety is futile. It cannot add a single hour to your life. The future we try to provide for is not in our hands. “Whatever happens will be under God’s control.”

The final “therefore” then leads us to the logical inference from previous ones. If we aren’t to be anxious about our life, what we are to eat, wear or drink, then we aren’t to be anxious about the future. “Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.” In other words, live one day at a time.

This advice is heavily steeped within the culture and life of recovery. An early AA Grapevine article  (“Yesterday … Today and Tomorrow,” July 1942, vol.2, no. 2) commented that it was not the experience of today that drove people mad. Rather, it was remorse for something that happened yesterday and the dread of what will come tomorrow. “Let us, therefore live but one day at a time.” In “Garden Variety” Sara S. said she was a garden-variety alcoholic. “I know that one day at a time my life is becoming all that God intended it to be.” J. S. R. of Philadelphia commented in “Sidebar,” published in the October 1954 (vol. 11, no. 5) issue:

When I decided to stay sober one day at a time, I had no idea what an impact this would have on my life. As time progresses it becomes obvious that I live one day at a time. This is a very great consolation. No longer do I project bridges into the future, nor am I particularly concerned about yesterday. I do concern myself about today’s effort and sometimes it isn’t a very pretty picture; however, with proper training along simple lines as advocated in the very essence of AA, I have no fear.

Leon Morris observed that when an individual lives one day at a time, they defeat anxiety. A shallow thinker might conclude from Matthew 6:33 (But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.) that a believer will have a smooth path through life. But that is not what Jesus is saying. All people have trouble. But there is “all the difference in the world between facing the problems we meet with firm faith in our heavenly Father and facing them with anxiety.”

This series is dedicated to the memory of Audrey Conn, whose questions reminded me of my intention in seminary to look at the various ways the Sermon on the Mount applies to Alcoholics Anonymous and recovery. If you’re interested in more, look under the category link “Sermon on the Mount.”