Missing the Heart of the Matter

I have purposely stayed out of the current political and cultural conversations that have carried the headlines since the latest school shootings.  I’ve been heartbroken at the pain that the families and survivors of this violence have felt, and heartbroken over the levels of vitriol and derision that have escalated in our “debates” about the solution to our cultural crisis. I sympathize with those who are frustrated by the empty promises of “thoughts and prayers” when thoughts and prayers don’t lead to compassionate and sensible responses.  And at the same time, I am dismayed when genuine “thoughts and prayers” are ridiculed and rejected.

I’ve stayed out of the conversation because I haven’t had much to add. Then today, in studying for a lesson from 1 Corinthians 1:18-31, I read the following from John MacArthur*.  I think he summarizes what’s really wrong in our culture, and what we need most.

How much closer to peace is man than he was a century ago – or a millennium ago? How much closer are to we eliminating poverty, hunger, ignorance, crime, and immorality than men were in Paul’s day? Our advances in knowledge and technology and communication have not really advanced us. It is from among those who are intelligent and clever that the worst exploiters, deceivers, and oppressors comes. We are more educated than our forefathers but we are not more moral. We have more means of helping each other but we are not less selfish. We have more means of communication but we do not understand each other any better. We have more psychology and education, and more crime and more war. We have not changed, except in finding more ways to express and excuse our human nature. Throughout human history wisdom has never basically changed and has never solved the basic problems of man.

“Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age?”

Where have all the clever arguments and impressive rhetoric brought you? Are you better off because of them – or simply more self-satisfied and complacent?  Don’t you see that all the wisdom of your wise men, your scribes, and your debaters is folly? Nothing really changes. Life has the same problems; men have the same struggles.

Could the apostle have written anything more appropriate for our own day? Where have our great thinkers – our philosophers, sociologists, psychologists, economists, scientists, and statesmen – brought us? Never before has mankind been so fearful of self-destruction or been so self-consciously perplexed, confused, and corrupt.  Modern human wisdom has failed just as ancient human wisdom failed, except that its failures come faster and spread farther.  The outer life improves in a material way, while the inner life seems to have correspondingly less meaning. The real issues are not solved.

Human wisdom sometimes sees the immediate cause of a problem but it does not see the root, which is always sin. It may see that selfishness is a cause of injustice, but it has no way to remove selfishness.  It may see that hatred causes misery and pain and destruction, but it has no cure for hatred. It can see plainly that man does not get along with man, but does not se that the real cause is that man does not get along with God. Human wisdom cannot see because it will not see.  As long as it looks on God’s wisdom as foolishness, its own wisdom will be foolish. In other words, human wisdom itself is a basic part of the problem.

Peace, joy, hope, harmony, brotherhood, and every other aspiration of man is out of his reach as long as he follows his own way in trying to achieve them. He who sees the cross as folly is doomed to his own folly… The more man looks to himself and depends on himself, the worse his situation becomes. As his dependence on his wisdom increases, so do his problems.

This is God’s plan, as the words “in the wisdom of God” indicate. God wisely established it this way, that man could not know Him by the wisdom of the world. Man cannot solve his problems because he will not recognize their source, which is sin, or their solution, which is salvation.  Man’s own sinful nature is the cause of his problems, and he cannot change his nature. Even if human wisdom could recognize the problem it does not have the power to change it. But God has the power. God was well-please through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe. He chose to use that which the world’s wisdom counts as moronic, as foolishness, to save those of the world who would simply believe. Believing implies complete assent to all the truth of the saving gospel. For those who will exchange their wisdom for His, God offers transformation, regeneration, new birth, and new life through the power of the cross of Jesus Christ, His Son. This “foolishness” is man’s only hope.

* MacArthur, John F. The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: 1 Corinthians (Moody Press, Chicago. 1984) pg 42-44.

At Home in the Brokenness

“The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”
(Psalm 51:17)

At the end of the worship service on Sunday, I couldn’t remember the benediction.

It was just gone. Nada. Nothing.

We all got a chuckle out of it. It was a little humbling, a reminder that I am all too human, and an encouragement to everyone else who has experienced moments of forgetfulness.

Monday brought another reminder of my brokenness, but in an entirely different way. I was down for the day with another headache. Eerily similar to the headache that put me in the hospital for a week last year, this one came out of nowhere, with the feeling that a balloon was being inflated inside my head. Having learned from past experience, I didn’t try to push through the pain, but spent the day down, resting and praying that God would bring relief.

And God demonstrated His mercy.  Fortunately, the headache left as quickly as it came on. It only lasted for a day, but the lingering effects remain:

  • Physically, my head feels like its been beaten, tired and sore.
  • Emotionally, there’s now that lingering worry that another headache is just around the corner.
  • Spiritually, I know what it is to be broken.

I’m only 43.  I should be in my “prime active years.”  In running terms, I’m mid race, and should be striding out and setting the pace for the years to come. And yet, for almost an entire day, it was all I could do to just sit up from the couch for a glass of water.

This came as yet another vivid reminder of my brokenness.  I thought I was strong, and a headache brought me to my knees. I try to take on more and more, convinced that I can balance it all, and then I am reminded of just how delicate that balance really is. When I want to bring God my best, I find that my best is nothing more than a broken and ragged mess.

I am reminded of Paul’s warning in 1 Corinthians 10, “Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.” I am aware Paul’s dealing with temptation of idolatry here, but is not our tendency to slip into self-reliance and trust in our own ability another form of idolatry?

Psalm 147:10 reminds me that God’s “delight is not in the strength of the horse, nor his pleasure in the legs of a man, but the Lord takes pleasure in those who fear him, in those who hope in his steadfast love.”  Psalm 51:17 reminds us that, “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”

I’ve always considered the phrase “a broken spirit” to be synonymous with “a broken and contrite heart.” I assumed that it meant a humility in light of our sinfulness, an awareness of our desperate need for a savior, a penitent heart that seeks the mercy of God. All of that is true. But I’ve come to realize that “broken spirit” means much more. To be broken in spirit is to broken off from self. It means putting to death all confidence in the flesh, and resting entirely upon his gracious work within me.

But there is a beauty in brokenness; a grace found here that is rare elsewhere. In this weakness His strength is made perfect (2 Cor. 12:19). When we find we cannot hold on to Him any longer for our strength is gone, we find “the eternal God is your dwelling place, and underneath are the everlasting arms” (Deut 33:27).

No one asks to be broken, and yet it is only in our brokenness that we truly come to see and know the extent of God’s grace and mercy towards us. It is only in the acknowledgement of the absolute wreck that I have made of my life that I begin to understand the length to which Christ went to secure my salvation. It is only when I consider the frailty of my faith that I begin to comprehend the wonder of God’s steadfast and unchanging love in which I have been called.  It is only when I realize how small my strength is, how short I can reach, that I can rest secure in His “victorious right hand” (Isa 41:10).

Rich Mullins wrote a song that’s been speaking to me recently, appropriately titled, “We Are Not As Strong As We Think We Are.” The first verse and chorus go:

Well, it took the hand of God Almighty
To part the waters of the sea
But it only took one little lie
To separate you and me
Oh, we are not as strong as we think we are.

We are frail
We are fearfully and wonderfully made
Forged in the fires of human passion
Choking on the fumes of selfish rage
And with these our hells and our heavens
So few inches apart 
We must be awfully small
And not as strong as we think we are.

Here’s the video: