Finding Words of Comfort

February 24, 2017

All of us face death. We are confronted with times when we search for words to say to a friend who is bereaved. Sometimes people say things that are insensitive. Others with few words may convey great comfort.

Grief is a difficult process. A person feels shock and numbness at hearing of a loss. A sense of denial or unreality may come next. It’s common to feel like the lost loved one may be in the house with us or will walk through the door at any minute. Powerful emotions come with grief. We need to allow people to cry and express their feelings. Comforting the bereaved is not to cheer them up. Rather, we are willing to be there for someone, to be emotionally supportive, while allowing them to express the full range of emotions that come with their loss.

It is important never to minimize someone’s loss. Allow them their feelings. Don’t come across as if you know exactly how they feel, instead use words that invite them to express how they feel. I ran across a list of some alternative statements when confronting the crises of grief. Maybe these will help us in finding words of comfort.

    INSTEAD OF: “I know exactly how you feel.”
    TRY: “I can only imagine what you’re going through.”

    INSTEAD OF: “At least he doesn’t have to suffer anymore.”

    TRY: “He suffered through a lot, didn’t he?”

    INSTEAD OF: “It’s God’s will.”
    TRY: “One comfort I find is God’s promise never to abandon us.”

    INSTEAD OF: “Don’t you think it’s time to get on with your life.”
    TRY: “Everyone has to grieve in their own way, don’t they?”

    INSTEAD OF: “She wouldn’t want you to grieve.”
    TRY: “It’s hard to say good-bye, isn’t it?”

    INSTEAD OF: “Don’t cry — you’ll only make it worse.”
    TRY: “Sometimes tears are the best way to express our feelings.”

    INSTEAD OF: “This death is a victory for God.”
    TRY: “Even with the promise of the resurrection, it hurts to give someone up.”

    INSTEAD OF: “You’ve got to be strong.”
    TRY: “I want you to know it’s OK to be yourself around me.”

    INSTEAD OF: “You can’t be angry with God.”

    TRY: “God understands even when we’re upset.”

I do not remember the source of these sayings at this point in my life, but I believe they contain wise counsel. The point is not so much to memorize the better sayings, but to catch the spirit of them. We don’t want to minimize someone’s grief, artificially attempt to cheer them up, or tell them how they should feel. We want to be there for them and allow them to express their grief even though it means sharing in their pain.

Why Read the Old Testament?

February 17, 2017

If I am a New Testament Christian, that is I’m under the new covenant, why should I read the Old Testament? As a reader of the entire Bible, I recognize that the question is short-sighted. It fails to listen to the testimony and evidence of the New Testament. Many reasons for reading the Old Testament alongside the New can be given.

  1. The New Testament quotes the Old Testament 96 times without indicating that it is a quotation. We are simply supposed to be familiar enough to recognize it. It cites the Old Testament 238 times with indications of it being a quotation, and it alludes to the Old Testament 1640 times.* Many times, it is helpful for us to be familiar with these passages in the Old Testament context to understand them in the New Testament. The New Testament also mentions by name over 100 people from the Old Testament.
  2. Luke reports of Jesus, “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27, ESV). We cut ourselves off from some of the evidence for Jesus being the Christ, the Messiah, if we do not know the Old Testament prophecies concerning the Christ.
  3. Paul writes in Romans 15:4, “For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (ESV). The Old Testament scriptures still serves the New Testament people of God in encouraging endurance.
  4. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 10:11, “Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come” (ESV). Paul had just surveyed some of the history of the Exodus and Wilderness Wanderings. These Old Testament examples still instruct those under the new covenant. We see good examples to follow, and bad examples that warn us of the paths not to follow.
  5. Paul writes in 2 Timothy 3:16-17, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (ESV). He has reminded Timothy of the sacred scriptures that he had been acquainted with from his infancy. This is a clear reference to the Old Testament scriptures. So, all scriptures would include both the old and the new. The Old Testament still has a teaching, reproof, correction, and training role in our lives.

Clearly, we must distinguish between the covenants so that we properly understand our covenant obligations. Christians don’t practice animal sacrifices for example. But the New Testament itself gives us ample reasons to continue to read the Old Testament.

*Jeffrey Glen Jackson, New Testament Use of the Old Testament

Vanity of Vanities

February 10, 2017

Ecclesiastes begins with the striking phrase “Vanity of vanities … All is vanity.” The ESV provides a helpful footnote on “vanity” in 1:2: “The Hebrew term hebel, translated vanity or vain, refers concretely to a ‘mist,’ ‘vapor,’ or ‘mere breath,’ and metaphorically to something that is fleeting or elusive (with different nuances depending on the context). It appears five times in this verse and in 29 other verses in Ecclesiastes.”

I think the idea of something that is fleeting is more helpful to me in reading Ecclesiastes than some other modern language attempts.

  • “Meaningless, meaningless … Everything is meaningless!” NIV
  • “Absolutely pointless! Everything is pointless.” GW
  • “Everything is nonsense … nothing makes sense!” CEV
  • “Life is useless, all useless.” GNB

I’ve suggested to people who struggled with reading Ecclesiastes that it might be helpful to substitute their translation’s rendering of hebel with vapor or fleeting, and some have found this helpful.

In Ecclesiastes 2:14-16, the fleeting nature of life is observed in the contrast of the wise and the fool. Clearly, being wise is better than being a fool. Wisdom is said to mean that you have your eyes in your head, which is probably a way of saying the wise can see where they are going. In contrast, the fool is walking in the dark. Yet the tension of the book is this: “How the wise dies just like the fool!” (Ecclesiastes 2:16, ESV)

The fleeting nature of life is observed in work (Ecclesiastes 2:18-19). A person with wisdom may work very hard to accomplish something that will last beyond his or her lifetime. But Ecclesiastes sees this as a vexing problem, because the heir didn’t toil for it but merely inherits it. And it is possible that the one who inherits the fruit of someone’s labor will turn out to be foolish.

Yet some of the pessimism of the book involves looking at life from the vantage point of “under the sun.” This phrase occurs twenty-eight times in the book. It is looking at life from the vantage point of this physical life. It is the contrast of the land of the living with the realm of the dead.

Life is fleeting, and the brevity of life brings to us many vexations. But the book ends by pointing us to the one who is eternal.

The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil. (Ecclesiastes 12:13–14, ESV)

Not by Compromise

February 3, 2017

David Haskell notes that the mainline, liberal denominations in the US are shrinking by one million members per year. Twenty years ago, John Shelby Spong had attempted to address this decline in a book entitled Why Christianity Must Change. Spong is a bishop in the Episcopal Church. His title reflects the argument of his book. Spong no longer believes in theism, virgin birth, the resurrection of Jesus or that there is any external objective standard to govern behavior for all times. He argued that Christianity must change its beliefs. His book was praised by liberal clergy at the time of publication, but twenty years later the decline continues.

Haskell himself was involved in a five-year study of churches in Canada. The results of this study concluded that liberal churches are declining and conservative churches are growing. And more importantly they found: “Conservative Protestant theology, with its more literal view of the Bible, is a significant predictor of church growth, while liberal theology leads to decline.”

To help us understand the difference between conservative and liberal beliefs found in this study, Haskell gives examples.

Believe in a bodily resurrection of Jesus and an empty tomb.
93% of conservative ministers
83% of conservative worshipers

56% of liberal ministers
67% of liberal worshipers

In addition, conservatives took seriously Jesus’ command to make disciples, while liberals tended to think it was culturally insensitive to share their faith outside their own faith group.1

Admittedly there is concern when we see those in the atheist, agnostic or disconnected category grow from 16.1 percent in 2007 to 22.8 percent in 2014 in the US according to a Pew Research Center poll. Much hand wringing is going to occur and ill-advised solutions proposed. I am convinced that the path to growth will always involve going back to the Bible and teaching what it says with faithfulness.

We are going to face a situation much closer to what the first century church faced. The Christian message must go into the marketplace of competing worldviews and effectively communicate our message. I believe Christianity is rational, has sufficient evidence, and provides the best explanation for human existence. But we may not be able to begin our conversations with people assuming a common background in the Bible as Christians did in the 1950s. Communicating the faith may be more difficult, but it still can be done. The first century church proves it can be done.

Growth will not come by changing our message. The growth we seek is not by compromise.


The Good Eye or the Bad Eye?

January 20, 2017

The lamp of the body is the eye. If therefore your eye is good, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If therefore the light that is in you is darkness, how great is that darkness! (Matthew 6:22–23, NKJV)

Jesus’ discourse on the good eye or the bad eye occurs between his section on treasuring up treasures in heaven versus treasuring up treasure on earth and the danger of serving two masters — God or Mammon (Money).

What does Jesus mean by a good or bad eye? One idea in our translations is the idea of health: “healthy/bad” ESV, “clear/bad” NASB, and “healthy/unhealthy” NIV (but note the NIV’s footnote1). But is Jesus merely telling us that we have light with healthy eyes and darkness with unhealthy ones?

A helpful place to start is the fact that the bad eye in several places in scripture refers to the greedy person. In the parable of the workers in the vineyard, the first hired grumble that the workers who have not borne the burden of the day also receive a denarius. The owner replies: “Or is your eye evil because I am good?” (Matthew 20:15b Note the footnotes in the ESV, NASB and the more literal translation of the NKJV.)

In the Old Testament, we find several places where the bad eye refers to stingy or greedy person.

Do not eat the bread of a man who is stingy (literally, evil eye); do not desire his delicacies, (Proverbs 23:6, ESV see footnote)

A stingy man (literally, man of evil eye) hastens after wealth and does not know that poverty will come upon him. (Proverbs 28:22, ESV see footnote)

On the other hand, the person with a good eye is generous.

Whoever has a bountiful (literally, good) eye will be blessed, for he shares his bread with the poor. (Proverbs 22:9, ESV see footnote)

The good in this description of the eye in Matthew 6:22 refers “to being motivated by singleness of purpose so as to be open and aboveboard, single, without guile, sincere, straightforward.”2 This may connect to the person who serves one master, God.

Certainly, if we have a healthy eye we will have light in our life. But the contrast of light and darkness in scripture is often moral. We inwardly will be very different people if we look at life with generosity versus greed. Which kind of eye do you want to have: the good eye or the bad eye?

1The footnotes on healthy and unhealthy state: “The Greek for healthy here implies generous. The Greek for unhealthy here implies stingy.”

2BDAG, s.v. ἁπλοῦς, p. 104

One Day at a Time

December 31, 2016

I like the phrase at the end of Matthew chapter 6: “Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.” Jesus is arguing against worry and excessive anxiety. In Matthew 6:34, he is not talking about moral evil, but problems or troubles that come our way each day. The modern versions are quite correct in rendering it: “Each day has enough troubles of its own” (e.g., NIV and NASB). Jesus is urging that we have a deep trust in God and handle our problems one day at a time.

Jesus argues against worry in a number of ways in this passage (Matthew 6:25-34). First, he argues from the greater to the lesser. If God has given us life and a body, will He withhold the lesser things — food and clothing — which are needed to sustain the greater gift? Second, he argues from the lesser to the greater. Jesus teaches that God provides for the birds and the lilies of the field. Since we are more valuable, won’t he provide for us as well. Third, he informs us that the pagans — those without faith — pursue the same things, but our heavenly Father knows that we have need of them. Our perspective should then be: “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. (Matthew 6:33).”

Francis C. Ellis tells of a businessman who drew up a worry chart to track his worries. His findings were:

  • 40% probably will never happen
  • 30% concerned that past and couldn’t be changed
  • 12% other’s criticism of him
  • 10% concern over health
  • 8% legitimate concerns changed

This aptly illustrates Jesus’ maxim: “Each day has enough troubles of its own.” We need not borrow problems from the future to ruminate on, let us live each day with trust in God.

Certainly, there are times when disasters come, and anxieties press us down, but the solution is still found in “But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Matthew 6:33, ESV). Or, as Peter encourages, “Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7, NIV). Only trusting in God will see us through.

One sage has remarked, “The most pleasant and useful persons are those who leave some of the problems of the universe for God to worry about.” Let us take one day at a time.

Becoming a Regular Bible Reader

December 20, 2016

With its 66 books and 1189 chapters, the Bible can seem formidable in size. It is a library of books after all. You may have said to yourself that you would like to read it. But moving from talking to doing can be difficult. The end of the year can be a good time to think about projects that can be spread out over a calendar year. I use the end of the year to plan my next year’s Bible reading. Of course, one can begin at any time, but the beginning of a new year is an excellent time.

Goal. Most things do not get accomplished until we have set a goal for ourselves and made a commitment to that goal. The same is true for Bible reading. If you would like to be regular in your reading or read through the Bible in a year, the first step is to set that goal for yourself and make a commitment to that goal.

Plan. Secondly, we need a plan for reaching our goal. A system that proposes how we are going to achieve our goal and gives us a yardstick by which to measure our progress. You can have smaller plans like reading the gospels or reading the New Testament. Progress might simply be tracked with a book mark or a simple log of chapters read. In some Bible apps I’ve seen plans as short as five days on a particular topics. These shorter plans are to get someone started in reading. Doing several shorter plans in a row may build up someone’s confidence as a reader.

For reading through the entire Bible, there are many Bible reading guides available. We have paper ones in the foyer, but several Bible apps for phones and tablets have built in reading plans that can be used. I’ve been using electronic guides since switching to phone and tablet for my regular reading. Guides may take you through the Bible chronologically, through the Bible in canonical order, or they may give you readings in the Old and New Testaments each day. Some guides may give you two readings a day and others give you four different readings a day. I’ve particularly enjoyed M’Cheyne’s Bible reading guide and the Discipleship Journal Bible Reading Plan. But these latter two take you through the Old Testament once and the New Testament twice. M’Cheyne’s also takes you through the Psalms a second time, so you may want to check on the amount of reading a plan has. However, I’ve found variety in readings help keep me from getting bogged down.

Finally, it is helpful to set up a routine. Having a special time during the day when you do your reading will help you form “the Bible reading habit.” Use a translation which you feel comfortable with and which is easy for you to read. A pencil or pen can be helpful to mark verses that are especially meaningful to you or to write down questions on things you don’t yet understand (many apps also allow highlighting and note taking). I typically make a pot of coffee first thing in the morning and then do my Bible reading. Others may find time in a coffee break, meal time, or right before going to bed.

With the right goal, plan, and routine you can begin to explore the exciting treasures of the Bible.

Your word is a lamp to my feet
and a light to my path.” (Psalms 119:105, ESV)