I used to get beat up a lot in elementary school. Like, a whole lot. I won two of the countless fights. First against one kid, then later against two. From then on, I lost every fight because they typically involved a sizable gang of soccer players against one bookworm. My idea of fights changed from an unpleasant but sometimes necessary confrontation to something I should avoid at all cost.
But it wasn't fights I hated. I hated having people gang up on me. With every essay I wrote throughout this series of The Twelve, I had a growing sense of dread that another crowd of aggressors would soon form to pummel me.
After finishing Malachi, I let out a deep breath and thought to myself, "I made it. On to the next topic." But then I felt the Holy Spirit confront me through scripture in a few passages. He had more hard lessons for me in Matthew 13 and Deuteronomy 8:11-19.
The parable of the sower comes from Matthew 13. Instead of reciting what we may assume as familiar and recognizable verses, I'll paraphrase in hopes we will begin to recognize the hard truth of this passage. A man went into his field to sow, or scatter seed. Some fell onto the hardened pathways and were eaten by birds. Some fell on rocky soil where the plants soon sprouted. But the shallow soil didn't allow for deep roots and the sun caused the plants to wither. Some seed fell among thorns and the plants could not compete with the weeds for nutrients. They also died. But some of the seed fell on good soil. These plants grew strong and their roots went deep. The seed and grain they produced in their growth multiplied many times over.
Jesus later explains this story to His disciples. The soil represents our hearts and how they respond to the Word of God, or the seed. The heart may be so hard that it doesn't at all recognize or accept the truth of God's word, so like birds, an enemy to the farmer, our Enemy steals the seed away.
The heart may have a surface conveniently covered in soil. It may look ready for life to grow in it, but the hardness of the path lies below the surface, preventing firmly established roots. When trouble or pain comes like the inevitable heat of the sun, the showy plants wither away and die. If the farmer didn't know what lay beneath the surface, it may have come as a surprise. Those plants appeared healthy and vibrant, but they had no substance in the soil of the heart.
The heart may have soil where the word could grow, but thorns and weeds also occupy that heart. Jesus explained how the thorns represented "the worries of the world and the deceitful glamor of wealth". They vie for attention in the heart, take its energy, and cause the word planted to "produce nothing". One might look at this patch of soil and think, "Well, there's a plant there. They've obviously accepted Jesus enough to invite Him into their heart. It's just a shame about all those thorns..." But in Matthew 13, it doesn't appear Jesus would agree. What's the difference between a plant growing among stones and thorns if neither produces a yield?
It's the heart removed of harness and worldly cares which grows strong and bears goodness.
Moses warned God's people of the hardness and thorns before they entered the Promised Land in Deuteronomy 8:11-19. "Be careful not to forget the Lord your God by not obeying His commands, rulings, and regulations that I am giving you today. Otherwise, after you have eaten and are satisfied, built fine houses and live in them, and increased your herds, flocks, silver, gold and everything else you own, you will become proud-hearted.
"Forgetting the Lord your God - who brought you out of the land of Egypt, where you lived as slaves; who led you through the vast and fearsome desert, with its poisonous snakes, scorpions and waterless, thirsty ground; who brought water out of flint rock for you; who fed you in the desert with manna, unknown to your ancestors; all the while humbling you and testing you in order to do you good in the end - you will think to yourself, 'My own power and the strength of my own hand have gotten me this wealth.'
"No, you are to remember the Lord your God, because it is He who is giving you the power to get wealth, in order to confirm His covenant, which He swore to your ancestors, as is happening even today. If you forget the Lord your God, follow other gods and serve and worship them, I am warning you in advance today that you will certainly perish."
God brought the people of Israel through the Sinai Desert for them to learn this lesson: They were weak and helpless. He is their only source and hope for life. That last verse stung like a kidney punch when I thought of the message of The Twelve. If you follow other gods and despise God, who is your source of life, you will die.
So here I sit before you all with purpled eye-sockets, hugging my stomach after getting dog-piled by every minor prophet, Moses, and Jesus Himself. Revisiting the theme of each minor prophet, I experienced heavy, heavy conviction. It was so easy to write as if I were on the side of God and prophet, shaking my head in disbelief at the foolishness and evil pervading God's people. After a few days of prayer and reflection, I realized that I am as wicked and foolish an idolater as any of God's people in the days of the prophets.
When I applied for my job, I went to that particular business because I believed God wanted me there to speak into peoples' lives. He made it clear to me - this job wasn't about the paycheck. Over time, I let little cares, little weed-seeds, take root in my heart. I began to care about my pay. I began to care about career advancement. I was proud of my financial responsibility and strong work ethic. As Moses put it, I began to say to myself, "My own hard work and abilities have given me favor and success."
Ugh. What a load of crap. James 1:17 is clear that every good thing in my life comes from God. In 4:13-16, he confronts my proud attitude. "Now listen, you who say, 'Today or tomorrow we will go to such-and-such a city, stay there a year trading and making profit'! You don't even know if you will be alive tomorrow! For all you are is a mist that appears for a little while and then disappears. Instead, you ought to say, 'If the Lord wants it to happen, we will live' to do this or that. But as it is, in your arrogance you boast. All such boasting is evil."
Why is it evil? Because I have put my trust in myself, in the wealth I could produce, and was frustrated over the wealth I didn't produce because I thought I deserved more. God appears nowhere in that line of thinking. I didn't put my trust in Him. My faith rested on me, on money, on success and a good reputation. Hosea likened this to adultery. Joel warned of God's wrath toward the proud. Amos told many "believers" they deserved this wrath. Obadiah encouraged his listeners to trust God's reputation more than surrounding circumstances. Jonah showed the futility of thinking anyone had the right to call God unfair in His judgment. Micah shattered the idea of acceptable worldliness or "harmless sin". Nahum reminded us that God alone is perfectly able to judge between good and evil. Habakkuk abandoned his attitude of entitlement and humbly, even joyfully, accepted God's judgment. Zephaniah condemned the worship of anyone or anything less than and apart from God. Haggai showed the how focusing on our circumstantial problems took away from worshiping God. Zechariah gave a plea to follow God instead of our own wisdom. Malachi shook us awake with a sober reminder that God wants our whole heart's devotion and nothing less.
I once noted how the pre-exile prophets often spoke against idolatry, serving false gods that promised fertility, prosperity, and security. The post-exile prophets may not have had to compete with Ba'al or Molech in terms of statues or furnaces, but the sin of the people remained the same. They worried over provision and security, failing to trust in God to give them all they needed, and thus living without faith. The writer of Hebrews drew a hard line in saying anything apart from faith is sin.
In the past two months, I have heard a large number of people use variations of this phrase: "Yeah, it's good to have faith, but you have to think about..." That's not to say we should live without thinking or having a plan, but the people who said these things were worried about the practical needs of everyday life. God tells people to avoid laziness and work hard in Proverbs, but Jesus also told His listeners not to worry about what they will eat or wear. Work hard, but know that God provides. Any anxiety takes your trust from Him and puts it in some worthless idol like the economy or your own abilities. One man looked at my fiance and said, "God forbid you get pregnant..." because he thought it would destroy us financially. Yes, it's good to have a stable home in which to bring a child. My future wife and I want very much to prepare before we have a family. Scripture is clear, however, that children are a blessing from God. Why would I want to forbid any blessing and call it a curse just because it didn't appeal to an idol of finance? Where is my trust in God if I carry that attitude?
After hearing from some of these men and women, it horrified me to think that I might have initially agreed with them and bowed to the same idols. In his discussion on Matthew 13, Francis Chan warned, "Don't assume you are good soil". My heart may not have been a hardened path, or full of stones, but I can see how weeds had begun to choke my trust in the Word of God which told me "Be anxious for nothing". I saw myself living and working for reasons other than God's glory.
I read Revelation 3:15-17 and felt the Holy Spirit calling me out on my sin. "I know what you are doing: you are neither cold nor hot. How I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm, neither cold nor hot, I will vomit you out of my mouth! For you keep saying, 'I am rich, I have gotten rich, I don't need a thing!' You don't know that you are the one who is wretched, pitiable, poor, blind and naked!" I was becoming lukewarm because of my growing trust in financial stability and the pride in achieving it. If I continued this drift into lukewarm waters unrepentant of my ways, would God have been right in spitting me out? Does that sound like one receiving salvation?
In this conviction, I read verse 19 and accepted it with resolution. "As for me, I rebuke and discipline everyone I love; so exert yourselves, and turn from your sins!" Even though I may have felt beat up on the playground, it was more like the time my mom tackled my brother to keep him from running away to a dangerous place. It was a hard, violent action, but it kept him from going toward willful destruction. I am sure of my salvation only because the Holy Spirit's conviction brought me to repentance. This isn't to say that my exertion saves me, but it lets me know that He is at work in me. I don't want to be casual about my salvation, so I'm willing to paddle out of these waters with both hands if necessary.
This essay is in part public repentance, but it is also a challenge. I learned a serious lesson. Why wouldn't I want you to examine your heart the same way? I'm asking you to please consider these questions. What makes you think you're good soil? What makes you think that you haven't been an idolater and let the cares of life pull you away from trust in God? If you were to look deep inside yourself and see sin choking the roots of your faith, would you be willing to go through the turmoil of letting God pull it out? Or is your world so precious you would rather go on living like the Pharisees who honored God with their lips while their hearts were far away from Him?
So maybe it wasn't a gang of people surrounding me in this time of conviction. I can see it now as God speaking to me in every passage, wrestling with me, poking His finger in secret places and dislocating joints. Like I said at the beginning, it's so much better when the confrontation is one-on-one, and this is one fight I feel good about losing.