This Holy Fight: Wrestling with the Word
Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. The fourth chapter of Hebrews, verse twelve
I had this dream once that I was a frog. But not just any frog, I was a frog lying on my back, which sounds fantastic some days. Just kicking back, all Kermit the Frog style, Rainbow Connection playing in the background. Sounds amazing, right? Except this wasn't that.
I wasn't sitting beside some stream or kicking back next to a cozy little forest. Instead, I was kicked back, pinned to a lab tray. It was so real and so weird and all at the same time so terrifying. And there was Muzak playing in the background. Not sure where that came from, but I think it was Barry Manilow.
Then, in walks this big body in a lab coat with a doctor's mask on their face. I hear a tray rattle, and out comes a scalpel and some of those dissection pins that I remember from junior high school. And just like in one of those corny '80s music videos, this big person and these big hands and their big utensils starts moving slowly over to frog-me. Right then, I wake up. Completely covered in sweat, I'm breathing heavy, and I quickly move my feet to make sure they're not pinned down to anything.
Fortunately, everything is moving, including the beagle who just got knocked off my bed in a panic of thrashing former frog feet. Needless to say, she wasn't pleased.
I regained my composure and calmed my breathing. I was supposed to be sleeping, but here it was 2am. "Come on, brain, I have to get up in a couple hours and go to work." I really didn't need the extra unconscious cardio workout, to be honest.
This passage from Hebrews 4 talks about the rest that God provides, and talks about how the faithful will have rest. Not nightmares, but a real finish to what we're doing here on this earth. A completion. This chapter of Hebrews starts off pretty serenely, talking about God's rest, and who gets it, then it goes on to talk about something that scares the daylights out of us.
That's the discerning, critical view God is privy to of our hearts. Kritikos is the word here, just like in critique.
Speaking of which, self-critique is never easy. Not just because we're too hard ourselves, but because sometimes we just don't get as real or as honest with ourselves as necessary. Jeremiah prophesied that the heart was deceitful, and lamented that it was unknowable for man. The reason that the heart is so deceitful is that despite what the rock band April Wine thought, it isn't love that hurts. It's the truth that hurts. Truth, in this case, is God's word. The truth of God's word forces us to wrestle with our frailties, and that alone can be a nightmare.
When seen from a healthy point of view, dealing with our shortcomings means learning a whole new way to do things.
The reason the Bible tells us that God chastising us is good, is that it changes us for the better. That requires us to feel safe in doing that in a day and age where safety can be just plain scarce.
With all the talk about safe spaces, it's interesting to note that there really are none. There is no real safe place, there is no place that isn't up for being targeted in some way by someone. If you go to a safe space at a school, you can end up stigmatized. Many kids who would benefit from a safe space at their grade school, high school or college don't use them because of the brand they'll get from their friends. Or worse, the brand they'll get from themselves.
We're one of the few species on this planet that struggles with a self-traumatizing nature. There are just no safe places to go where we won't be weighed, measured, or found wanting.
It happens in our churches. It happens in our schools, in our workplaces, on social media. The common thread is that human nature displayed in place of God's character. Our perceptions over God's purpose.
It's challenging to be really real, really vulnerable in this day and age. In so many tangible ways, vulnerability has become a long four-letter word. So, as a result, we have created a society that curates everything it does.
All you have to do is go to someone's Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, or whatever feeds to see that they're living a perfect life. They're smiling, eating great food, and living the life. A week later, we find out they're in the hospital for an eating disorder, a mental breakdown, or worse, someone has discovered they have committed suicide.
Cutting and self-harm are up among teens. We're an undeniably prosperous nation, and yet our levels of happiness, and clinically diagnosed depression continue a steady march forward.
We bought the curation lie.
We don't "get real" about our issues. In our church, we practice joys and concerns, and even that can be scary. Raise your hand if there is any time when you wanted to share something during a joys and concerns prayer time, but were afraid to be that vulnerable.
Alright, don't raise your hands if you felt vulnerable in being asked to raise your hands about your concerns over vulnerability.
Why do we do that? Here in God's house, we should be able to ask for our family's love. We should be able to share our joy and share our needs. We should be open to saying, "Hey guys, I'm not OK today, and I just need some support here."
Being real is being free. Christ sought to free us so that we could free others. Did you notice that Jesus had this tremendous ministry? He had a lot of people following him. Still, the savior poured himself into only 12 disciples, and principally into just three. Jesus died for us all, but he demonstrated a relationship with three specific men in the gospels.
He was real with them. Jesus told them his truths, regardless of how cuckoo it must have sounded at the time. He shared his most significant need for prayer with them. Fail, fall, or fight, they loved him, and he loved them.
I recently learned that in a secular study conducted by Dartmouth University that they concluded the human brain is hardwired for a relationship with a higher being. A secular study by a modern university told us precisely what the Bible has been telling us for centuries. Why do you suppose that is?
I believe it's because this is how God continues to mold us, not just to overcome the hurt the world has put on us, but to exceed our expectations of who we can be.
Again, that requires an honest assessment of where we are, though, and if we don't allow God to be honest with us, how will we ever get there? How could we even think of getting others to be honest with us? Everything starts and ends with God, especially honesty.
Compared to our past, our society is a stressed-out mess. Out of this, we're seeing so much depression.
We're so on edge that we bite each other's heads off at the drop of a hat when we are pushed just the slightest bit too hard. We not only want to rest, but we also need to rest. Rest means time for the rebuilding of ourselves and our minds, and it is proven that we get precious little of that day in and day out.
We talk about self-care, but do we actually practice it? I mean, a recent study by DE Jonas from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, states that only 6.6% of Americans over the age of 25 report engaging in self-care daily. When they did, it was for a duration of only around 15 minutes. Why is that? What is causing us to place so little value on caring for ourselves?
In the same place that Paul talks about rest, he breaks out that God is capable of discerning everything down to the very atoms of your being. If you're anything like me, that means we have a lot for which to answer. We'll answer not to some disinterested and uncaring God on a throne but to a God whose word is alive, vibrant, active, and powerful. That alone is scary when you think about how we're under the authority of that kind of power.
There's a line from the character King Baldwin in the film, "Kingdom of Heaven" where he tells Balian that God will except no escuses.
If we put this in the context of an already stressed-out society, we have a beautifully crafted opportunity for anxiety overload. That's not what God wants. Micah didn't prophesy that God said, "to act justly, love mercy and walk like a stressed-out mess with your God." Anxiety overload doesn't come from Him, it comes from us, and when we wrestle with the word of God in our lives, we have to keep God's intention in plain sight.
The most notable disconnect here happens when we trust God based on how we have experienced trust with one another. As a pastor, we have to take a class on sacred trust. What it boils down to is shepherding the faith development of our flock in the same way that God shepherds our faith development.
That's not always possible to handle that sacred trust very well, and this leads to further brokenness in the lives of others. This spills over into society having issues trusting the church, and subsequently who the church represents. The one thing they don't know is that God's ways are not our ways. Our failings aren't His.
We're prone to living life into our human nature instead of into the characteristics of God. In fact, one of the most critical parts of our faith maturity is to start taking on the grace characteristics of God. The sooner we do this, the sooner people who are around us can experience God's grace.
God's grace is actually something we wrestle with regularly. Living into God's grace over our human nature is something we all struggle with to some degree or another. Some days you win, and some days you lose. On the days when we lose, that's when we stand the substantial possibility of breaking the trust of someone who needs to hear the good news of Jesus Christ.
The main focus of the book of Hebrews was to get Christians living, most likely in Jerusalem, to keep pushing toward the goal. That goal is the rest pointed to here, desperately needed by persecuted Christians at the time. That's the same message we need to get out to the people God is calling us to reach.
When we live back into our brokenness, however, it can betray that, regardless of whether or not we mean to betray anyone deliberately.
When I was a child, I can vividly recall one of the times my dad dropped me off at home after visitation. I remember running to my bedroom and slamming the door, and grabbed my teddy bear, not even saying goodbye. I ran over to the window and peered around the edge of the frame to watch him leave. Everything is very sharp to me in this memory.
The smell of the curtains, the warmth of the sun on my face, the grass outside in the front yard needing to be mowed, the shadow of my dad's car as it drove off, all of it is still sharp as a tack to me. The one thing I also remember is saying, "Please come back, I'll do whatever I have to do to get you to stay. I'll be good, Dad. I'll be better. You'll see."
It was one of the biggest betrayals and abandonments of my life. And my dad never intended me to feel that way.
It doesn't change the fact that I broke even more in that situation, though. The fact that my mother and father were dysfunctional, broken people, led them to break the lives of myself and my two brothers.
In our church, we are every bit as broken as the people were are trying to reach. The weird thing is, we just don't realize it.
Until we do know it, one of our most powerful witnesses to the Gospel will not be put into play. Our honest-to-goodness "realness."
The starting point for us is to trust God completely. He's not there to dissect you and leave you pinned to some lab tray.
He's there to expose and divide you from your weaknesses so that He can show you the strength He built into and pours into you.
In the verse after Hebrews 4:12 the word "tetrachēlismena" is used, and it is translated as "laid bare." It comes from the word "trachelos," where we get our word "trachea," which is a part of your throat.
That word used by contemporaries of Paul elsewhere means taking the point of a knife and placing it at the throat of someone. This was done to lift a person's face to look the knife-holder in the eye.
Make no mistake, as deep and hidden as our wounding and sin are, this is precisely what it takes for God to expose them. Desperate situations call for extreme measures. To be absolutely clear, this is having the word of God used like it's the point of knife to lift up our shame-filled face, so He can see us eye-to-eye while we account for ouselves. That's terrifying visual imagery.
This is where the disconnect comes in, and what we expect because of our experience with people isn't what we get in our encounter with God. The thing is, we know God is continually referred to as being patient with us and full of love for us. Psalm 145:8 tells us, "The LORD is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and rich in love." In my opinion, the only reason He uses His word like in this way is that simply reaching down and picking up our faces with his hand wouldn't be effective. We'd just pull away. I know that patience and love is His nature, but I also know that sometimes we need the stark truth at the tip of His word.
The turning point is when we look up and see His face. We don't see a God there who is just waiting to shillelagh us upside the head. We don't see the betrayal or abandonment we've often seen in others.
We see grace. We see compassion. We see a lavish love that we just didn't know was there. I bet many of you have had this type of meeting with God through the conviction of His word.
I know I have. I dreaded it at first, but it got easier as I went along, and I began trusting God more and more.
It's all about the grace we find in God, dissecting our problems, our failings. When we give our account, He offers His correction that can heal us. He stands up for us and understands us, which is contrary to what we expect. Nothing we could ever do surprises him. And I mean that.
Don't think for a second He didn't know what happened in the Garden, that He couldn't see Adam or Eve, or that the Lord didn't know where Abel was when He asked Cain about him.
This realization changes not only how we react to God, but how we treat one another. Trust first is established with God in loving Him because it empties us of ourselves, refilling us with God's love. Removing our old nature and creating that new heart within us.
Out of that, we move on to further live that love into the lives of other people. I've often said that while Jesus called us to love one another as we love ourselves, it would appear that many of us don't love ourselves very much. That lack of self-love can be traced directly back to their relationship with God in every single instance.
Look. No one likes to have a knife put to their throat. I don't, and you don't. God doesn't like having to do it, either, but if that's what it takes, that's what He'll do. The thing is, He uses His word for our good and in a way that won't harm us, but instead will build us and show us His love for us.
When we look around at how we relate to others, we have to wrestle with how we process them, their situations and who they are, basing our actions either in our human nature or in God's character. In our perceptions, or in God's purpose.
That choice is up to us, and it directly leads to someone either experiencing God or not. As we struggle to make that choice day in and day out, remember it's also a choice for which we'll have to give an account. Remembering whose face we'll see in that accounting and how we were treated in that encounter should make our course of action much less complicated to choose.
Roland Millington is a United Methodist Church pastor serving Brimfield United Methodist Church in Brimfield, IL. He's the author of two books available digitally through our store, or as hard copies through LuLu Publishing.