In John 13, we find Jesus teaching some last lessons to his disciples before he went to the cross. Jesus was celebrating the Passover with his disciples when he decided to take a very unusual course of action — especially for the one they called “Master”.
Ever been on a job interview? I wouldn’t exactly call them fun. You spend a lot of time (hopefully) preparing for an all-too-brief opportunity to impress your audience with your charisma, intelligence, character, and skills trying to convince the person on the other side of the table that you’re clearly the best candidate for whatever it is they need you to do. You try to demonstrate why you’re qualified for the work, and how you have the capacity to do the job.
In John chapter 5, we see Jesus facing significantly more scrutiny than one of my job interviews, but in the end, it might have felt like one. He was dealing with a group of people that doubted Him, questioned His authority, and asked for His credentials.
Jesus began this interaction by demonstrating His power. He healed a man who had been bed-ridden for nearly four decades. He told the man to get up and take a walk. The man did so. Seems simple, right?
The religious leaders of the day, more than a little unsettled by the astonishing actions and teachings of Jesus, spotted a problem, at least as far as they were concerned. You see, Jesus had healed the man on the Sabbath, telling him to take his mat and go home. According to their very strict interpretation of the Old Testament law, that meant both Jesus and the man who was healed were guilty of working on the Sabbath.
They began to question Jesus… mostly about why He thought He had the right to do something so outrageous.
Jesus answered them with several reasons and proofs, but before He did He made the startling claim that God was His Father, a claim they interpreted as meaning Jesus was equal to God, and certainly above them.
Jesus’ claims (think of them as His resume) went something like this:
- He did the things God would do and He had seen God do.
- He claimed the authority to judge the world and the righteousness to be just.
- He predicted the dead would hear His voice and respond.
- He offered eternal life to all who believed in Him
He also offered several references. Here are a few of those who would vouch for Him:
- God the Father — who had testified, audibly, at Jesus’ baptism
- John the Baptist — who also testified before and after Jesus’ baptism
- Jesus’ Own Miracles — which served as very obvious demonstrations of His power
- Moses — whom they revered, and who wrote about Jesus long before His birth
Unfortunately, these hard-hearted religious zealots wasted their opportunity to put Christ in the position He deserved in their lives. They refused to recognize Him for who He is, and decided to keep the position of leader of their lives to themselves.
They lost far more than they knew.
We don’t have to make the same mistake.
In the second chapter of John, which you can read by clicking this link, we find Jesus at a party, then getting angry, and finally making a startling prophetic prediction. Let’s take a quick look at what each one reveals about the passions of the Savior.
“Well, that’s a familiar sight.”
I pull into the parking space and start to get out of my car, and notice, not at all for the first time, I’m being watched. No, not by some creepy stalker, but by the parking space vigilantes, the placard police, as I like to think of them.
When they see me pulling into the handicap accessible space, they’re not quite sure what I’m doing there. From the shoulders and above view of me they get while I’m pulling in, I certainly don’t look feeble enough to need the space.
Then, I get out.
As I begin my very obvious Cerebral-Palsy-induced wobble to the store, I can see them looking at me. As soon as they see my peculiar walk, they usually realize they were mistaken. When I make eye contact and give them a friendly smile, they usually look embarrassed and then look away.
You might think I would never behave that way, myself — making a snap judgment about someone else’s need for help or physical capabilities — but, you’d be wrong. If I pull into the lot and can’t find one of those precious reserved parking spaces available, I tend to wonder if all those people parked there really need the space as much as I do.
And there it is: does that other person deserve the parking space (or the promotion at work, or the blessing from God, or the whatever-it-is) that I think I should have? Maybe they need it more.
We can easily make a full-time profession out of comparing ourselves to one another, and we can do it for every reason imaginable. We’re especially good at it in the Church. We wonder if we can ever hope to measure up to the pillars of the Church, or we thank God we’re not as bad off as “them”, whoever “they” happen to be.
Oh, both kinds of comparisons, the ones where we think we don’t measure up, and the ones where we think someone else doesn’t, can actually start with the very best of intentions.
When we attempt to model the spiritual maturity we see in admirable folks around us, we can be engaging in a healthy comparison. The Apostle Paul encourages his readers to “follow me as I follow Christ”, after all. How are we supposed to follow Christ if we never examine how we don’t measure up. I try to emulate parents, pastors, and teachers I know and respect — and I hope you have such good influences in your life, as well.
There are a few snares waiting to trap us when we make those kinds of comparisons, though. Let me share a few of them with you.
Sadly, we can be let down when those we admire make mistakes — and they will. Only one person, Jesus Christ, ever lived a life completely devoid of screw ups… everyone else falls short, sometimes. We need to recognize when our heroes do stumble, forgive them, help them up, and not make the same mistakes.
We can also set ourselves up for frustration when we try to be someone we’re not. That icon we look up to may never struggle with the issues that hound us because they are not us. We might find they would struggle as much as we do, if not more if they were in our shoes. But, because they aren’t us, we can set an unrealistic standard for ourselves. We can wear ourselves out trying to be them when God has uniquely equipped us to be us, instead.
Not only can we get tripped up when our examples falter and when we assume we ought to be able to handle everything as well as they do, but we also run the risk of following them too closely. Just because someone I deeply respect and admire focuses their life on ministering one particular way does not mean God has that same path in mind for me. Maybe my path is going to run close to theirs for a while, but no story is exactly the same. I can’t hijack their path — at some point, God will steer me to something different, if I don’t allow myself to become fixated on doing it exactly the same way as someone else.
Yes, comparing myself to Godly examples can be helpful, but not if we carry the comparison too far.
What about the other kind of comparison: you know, the kind where we size up the other guy and come to the conclusion we’re the ones out front? I know that sounds judgmental, but it doesn’t have to start that way.
At first, we’re truly trying to help, and the Bible does tell the more mature to instruct the less, so there’s definitely a scriptural precedent for providing Godly counsel; and there are times when each of us really does need a little correction, but there’s a fine line between counseling and criticism. Our tendency to try to help one another can quickly become judgmental in nature.
Those Judaizers, the group Paul was dealing with in Galatians 5, fell into this trap of thinking their way of doing things was superior. Even if they meant to help, and I am not sure they did, the result was predictable. One group decided the other group was somehow “lesser than” because of their “holiness” checklist. Judgment and confusion crept in.
As we mentioned last time, God didn’t call us to follow a new and better list of do’s and don’ts; but, we often revert to one — ours — and we start the comparisons. We think we’re comparing others to Him when we’re really comparing them to some imaginary version of ourselves that “has it all together.”
Appearances can be deceiving. Like evaluating my physical disability before I’ve gotten out of the car — not all struggles are obvious. This is especially true when we get to spiritual, emotional, mental, or moral struggles. We tend to think of others in terms of ourselves, but they’re not us.
We might not be so much better, and they might not be so much worse. Our evaluations about others are flawed, limited by an external view of the other person. Our opinion of ourselves can also be very flawed. We might never know just how far someone else has already come in their struggles when we make our snap judgments and quick comments — which have the power to crush as much as help. Such was the case with the group demanding the Gentiles needed to “get right”. Turns out, they were the ones in the wrong!
So, how do we avoid the traps that arise when we start comparing ourselves to others?
I find it helpful to realize that God wants to work in me as much as He wants to work in them. If He hasn’t finished with me, yet, maybe I shouldn’t expect Him to already be done working on them. We are all a work in progress, and I don’t know about you, but I suspect my time would be better spent figuring out how I can be more like Jesus than worrying about how someone else needs to improve.
As parents, my wife and I often find ourselves in the role of the makers of the to-do lists for our children. You know how it goes… we call them into wherever we are, and we tell them the list of chores, tasks, or responsibilities we want them to complete before they will be allowed to get back to whatever it is they really want to do. They proceed to roll their eyes, do a fairly decent job of tackling the list, and try to get back as quickly as they can to their reading or digital device or whatever else they have planned.
Sound familiar? It should, even if you’re not a parent. They’re not the only ones with a list, are they?
As I write this post, I have my own list of at least four other things I would like to get done before I head to bed, tonight. At this pace, I’ll probably get two of them done, and miss out on the others. But, not to fear, I can just pile the remaining items on my list for tomorrow, right?
I routinely ask my wife what’s on her list for the day, and I am usually astonished how many tasks she juggles each day. My list always seems quite a bit shorter. All of us, it would seem, have a list in our heads, and we often get frustrated because we measure our success by how much of our list we accomplish, right?
As our children grow, we try to help them learn to make their own list… we want them to be able to get themselves ready for the day, accomplish the work they need to do, behave as they should, and do it all without us having to remind them all the time — we want the list not to come from us, but to come from them. We often measure their growth by how well they perform their tasks for the day without our intervention.
In fact, we often measure our spiritual maturity the same way, don’t we? Do we want to know if someone is a “good Christian”? Time to check the list. A mature believer in Christ reads their Bible every day, prays every day, attends church at least once a week, faithfully gives of their time, talents, and finances to the ministry, speaks kindly to others, tells the truth, and a whole host of other behaviors. What about the things a “good Christian” doesn’t do… that list can get pretty long. No murder, hatred, adultery, rudeness, crudeness, inappropriate thoughts, uncharitable words, and so on. That checklist is getting longer.
In a strange way, this all reminds me of an issue Paul the apostle dealt with in Galatians 5.
5:1 So Christ has truly set us free. Now make sure that you stay free, and don’t get tied up again in slavery to the law.
2 Listen! I, Paul, tell you this: If you are counting on circumcision to make you right with God, then Christ will be of no benefit to you. 3 I’ll say it again. If you are trying to find favor with God by being circumcised, you must obey every regulation in the whole law of Moses. 4 For if you are trying to make yourselves right with God by keeping the law, you have been cut off from Christ! You have fallen away from God’s grace.
5 But we who live by the Spirit eagerly wait to receive by faith the righteousness God has promised to us. 6 For when we place our faith in Christ Jesus, there is no benefit in being circumcised or being uncircumcised. What is important is faith expressing itself in love.
7 You were running the race so well. Who has held you back from following the truth? 8 It certainly isn’t God, for he is the one who called you to freedom. 9 This false teaching is like a little yeast that spreads through the whole batch of dough! 10 I am trusting the Lord to keep you from believing false teachings. God will judge that person, whoever he is, who has been confusing you.
11 Dear brothers and sisters, if I were still preaching that you must be circumcised—as some say I do—why am I still being persecuted? If I were no longer preaching salvation through the cross of Christ, no one would be offended. 12 I just wish that those troublemakers who want to mutilate you by circumcision would mutilate themselves.
13 For you have been called to live in freedom, my brothers and sisters. But don’t use your freedom to satisfy your sinful nature. Instead, use your freedom to serve one another in love. 14 For the whole law can be summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 15 But if you are always biting and devouring one another, watch out! Beware of destroying one another.
The church got its start as an offshoot of the Jewish faith, and the same God who announced freedom and grace through Jesus had given the Jewish people a pretty long list of do’s and don’ts to follow in what we Christians call the Old Testament Law. By the time Paul wrote the Galatian church, though, lots of folks who were not Jewish had joined up and had never followed those rules. Some folks who were used to the Old Testament rules were trying to tell these non-Jewish (or Gentile) believers they had to start following them, too.
Paul, being a Jew, and a scholar of the Law they were quoting, understood something we need to understand, too:
It’s not about the lists of do’s and don’ts, anymore.
In fact, it never really was.
Oh, God’s instructions in the Law established the behaviors God wanted for His people. But, when Jesus taught the people about those same laws, he revealed that God’s purpose was much bigger than changing what we do — He wants to change who we are.
Reading in Matthew tells us adultery is bad, the underlying lust is worse. A single act of murder is bad, the hatred harbored to be willing to murder is actually worse. Breaking an oath is bad. Being a person without integrity is worse. If you read the Sermon on the Mount, you’ll see Jesus emphasizes being the right person on the inside more than doing the right things on the outside. A clever person can say and do right things for the wrong reasons and get away with it for a while, a righteous person with Godly character will find they no longer need the rules.
Paul explained the Law was given to show us we can’t do enough good works or avoid enough bad ones to measure up to the standard of God’s holiness. One failure to do a good deed when you could have, one mistake in doing something you should not have, and your record is tarnished — none of us is capable of getting it all right all the time.
Just like with my kids, I don’t really expect them to follow my list all their lives. If I held them to the same standard, to always follow my instructions, they’d already have missed a time or two. Instead, I want them to grow into the kind of people who can make their own decisions when the list doesn’t seem to cover the situation. I want them to become people who do right because they are righteous, not because I told them so, but because their own walk with God leads them to want to maintain a lifelong relationship with Him and with others that is rewarding and fulfilling.
There’s an additional benefit to learning to become more like Christ instead of just following His rules. When we stop focusing on doing the right things and start focusing on becoming the kind of person He wants us to be, we can move past judging the others by our list, too. If we recognize our own weaknesses, first, we can offer grace and forgiveness to others who mess up — the same way we want them to forgive us when we make mistakes. We’ll talk more about how this freedom affects our relationships with others, soon.
Yes, a growing Christian will begin to do more and more of the right things, but not because they need to do so to be forgiven; but, because they have been forgiven, they are freed to become more like Christ, and freed from the power sin and temptation once had.
So, what should we do with this freedom?
For now, ask God to help you become the right person, a person like Jesus. When the inner person is right, the actions will follow. Seek to become the man or woman of God He always meant you to be, and the rest will come.
“A weary traveler stumbles under a blistering sun, seeing nothing but sand for miles. Struggling to take each step, wanting nothing more than cool, clear water, the wayward soul smiles weakly as he sees a small pool, really nothing more than a puddle, in the distance. Nearly delirious (whether from exhaustion, dehydration, or relief) he makes his way to the small reservoir and drains what little water he finds.”
No, that’s not quite right. Let me try again.
“A marathon runner strains to push past the wall of pain wracking her body to make each new stride. Her muscles ache, her breath comes in gasps, and she is drenched with the sweat of her efforts. She looks ahead and sees the hydration station up ahead. She knows she needs to rehydrate if she’s going to keep up the pace. As she pushes past, she reaches out and grabs the cup extended in her direction by the helpful volunteers. As she gulps the generous gift, she races on, reinvigorated. The fluids cool, refresh, and even relieve her, and she forges ahead.”
Still not quite right… How about this one:
“The two old friends sit down at their favorite little coffee shop, looking forward to a few moments away from the craziness of the daily rush. They each order their favorite beverage and settle in to chat about their day. As they sip from their steaming mugs, they relax, enjoying the bold flavors, the rich aromas, and the refreshment of the drinks and their time together.”
Hmm… getting closer, but still not right.
“As she approached the falls, she was overwhelmed by the immensity of the sight, the power of the innumerable gallons of water roaring every second into the pools below, and the sparkle of the fantastic rainbows shimmering through the spray. As she drew closer, the sound was deafening, drowning out all other distractions, and she got close enough she couldn’t even see the entire falls in one look, anymore. She could only imagine what it would feel like to plunge under the deluge.”
I’ve just described God’s love in one of these word pictures. The question is: which one?
Your answer may well depend on your experiences.
For some of us, our history with love and those who would claim to love us looks as barren as the desert. People who should have cared did not, and who should not have abused us, did. We don’t even really know what real love looks like, but we’re desperate to find it — and must be very careful not to be fooled by a mirage. If we are careful to come to God, however, we can finally quench the thirst we acquired from living in the desert for so long. His love can begin to repair the damage our deserts have done.
For others, we’re not in the desert, but we’re struggling to keep the pace. We’re doing everything we can to serve our families, our friends, our employers, and our God. We come home tired every night, only to realize we get to go to bed, get up, and do it all again, tomorrow. We’re sore and tired but determined to keep going. For us, God’s love can give us rest, then re-energize our flagging souls, as we rely on His love — not the opinions of others, or even our own warped self-image — we can attack the next challenge, soothe our cramped muscles, and draw strength from His tenderness toward us.
When we regularly, personally pursue Him, we will grow to look forward to our times with Him as if we were settling in for a refreshing conversation with our best friend. Our daily devotional excursion into His Word and into prayer will no longer seem like a chore but like the very best part of our day. Some days, we’ll learn about how we should proceed. Others, we’ll discover more about Him. On some of the best, we’ll just relax in His presence, and not even need to say or do anything… just being with Him will be enough.
As we continue to draw closer to Him, we will begin to learn just how much He loves us. 1st John says this:
See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are! The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him.
— 1st John 3:1
God’s love is not just a puddle in the desert, though it refreshes like one. It isn’t just a cup of thirst-quenching liquids for the passing runner, though it can reinvigorate better. It’s not even the large, warm mug of coffee, though it can comfort like one.
No, when we’re talking about how much He loves us, think waterfalls. Think Niagara Falls. Better still, think of a much bigger waterfall that dwarfs all the waterfalls on earth, combined. We cannot fathom the depths of His love, which He “lavishes” on us. We’re too small to even be able to imagine the smallest part of His love for us.
That, my friend, is how much He loves us…
…how much He loves you.