This passage has always convinced me that Jesus had a sense of humor. If what he’s saying wasn’t so completely serious, it’d be downright hilarious.

Try to visualize the image he paints:

Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, “Let me take the speck out of your eye,” when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye (Matthew 7:1-5).

I like The Message’s paraphrase:

That critical spirit has a way of boomeranging. It’s easy to see a smudge on your neighbor’s face and be oblivious to the ugly sneer on your own. Do you have the nerve to say, “Let me wash your face for you,” when your own face is distorted by contempt? It’s this whole traveling road-show mentality all over again, playing a holier-than-thou part instead of just living your part. Wipe that ugly sneer off your own face, and you might be fit to offer a washcloth to your neighbor.

You know what he’s talking about, right? The church-member who’s happy to point out the faults of everyone else at church but completely oblivious to her own. The guy you work with who tears your work apart but who (apparently) never makes a mistake.

To get the full impact of Jesus’ words, think of someone who’s got a 2×4 sticking out of his eye while he’s trying his best to help someone get the splinter out of hers.

Jesus is pretty blunt: Look, worry about the big stick of wood in your own eye before you start obsessing over everyone else’s splinters. You’ve got your own problems to think about.

The mentality he’s talking about is the nitpicking, fault-finding, hypercritical spirit that we’ve all experienced before—and maybe received a time or two.

But here’s the clincher. Though it’s easy to think about someone we know who judges harshly, we’ve probably done the same thing more than we’d like to admit.

I wonder how many kids are discouraged by parents who criticize everything they do? How many women feel like their husbands never see anything good they do but never miss a single mistake they make? Are there husbands whose wives ignore their strong points but freely point out their shortcomings?

The thing is, it makes us feel better. If I can think about, talk about, and shake my head about all of yourproblems, it makes me feel better about my own. “Well, Lord, I know I’ve got a few problems, but at least I’m not like . . .” As long as I use a microscope on your sins and ignore my own, I can feel pretty good about my Christian walk.

It’s wrong, of course, and it devastates the morale and spirit of the people around us. Jesus warns us of the danger of whitewashing our own sins by pointing out others’ faults. He’s telling us that it’s hypocritical, hypercritical, and sinful.

Let’s pray about it today. Maybe your prayer will go something like this: “Father, forgive me for being too judgmental and critical. Shine the light of your word onmy life, my sins, my struggles, and help me first to deal with my own issues before I start helping other people with theirs. Convict me when I start to get hung up on everybody else’s mistakes instead of my own. Help me never again to embrace the secret pleasure of reveling in anyone’s sins.”

Some of you lay awake last night worrying about something. It may have been the blood panels that made your doctor want to do a few more tests. “It’s probably nothing,” he said, but your mind has gone crazy ever since.

A few of you were thinking about your kids, worrying a little (or a lot!) about some choices they’re making. Why don’t they just listen to me? Or, This is probably just a phase they’re going through . . . right?

You may have been fretting over your job. It’s nothing definite yet, but the numbers aren’t looking good, and you’ve heard through the breakroom grapevine that layoffs are almost certainly coming. People in your department aren’t optimistic.

And then there’s retirement. How long will Social Security be around? And what if I don’t have enough invested? What about this healthcare mess?

Or it could’ve been just a general sense of unease with nothing specific. I’ve had sleepless nights where I felt like I needed to be worried about something but couldn’t figure out what it was. (Yeah, I’m good at this worrying thing)

I know folks who don’t worry at all—they know it doesn’t do any good, won’t change anything, etc.—so they don’t do it. I don’t know for sure, but I suspect those people are in the minority. Worry invades the hearts of good Christian people, even people with strong faith.

Like most of our struggles, Jesus speaks quite directly to anxiety. Below is a longer passage than usual, but please take time to read it:

Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? Therefore do not be anxious, saying, “What shall we eat?” or “What shall we drink?” or “What shall we wear?” For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble (Matthew 6:25-34).

There’s a lot in that passage, but it all comes down to one thing.

Trust . . . or the lack of it.

I don’t want to oversimplify what Jesus says, but here’s the gist of it: Your heavenly Father feeds the birds, and he clothes the grass of the fields—can’t we trust him to take care of us as well?

Well, yes, we can and should, but we don’t always do it.

Pause and think about this today. Ask yourself what’s going in in your life that’s robbing you of peace. What’s keeping you awake at night? What’s causing your stomach to churn? What’s keeping you from enjoying the blessings God has given you?

Whatever that thing is, turn it over to God. He’s big enough to handle it, don’t you think?

He is, and he will, so give it to him. Ask him to take it off your shoulders. Ask him to work things out according to what he knows to be best. And then ask him to help you live the life of joy he wants to give you.

And sleep better tonight.

Competing for your heart

February 14, 2014 — Leave a comment

Whether we recognize it or not, we’ve already made a big decision today: What (or whom) are we going to serve? What will determine our decisions, our priorities, our attitudes? What’s going to define who we are?

And it’s important to remember that the thrones of our hearts only seat one, so we can’t give two answers to these questions. We’ve got dozens of important concerns in our lives, but only one is Lord. Only one calls the shots.

Your heart’s throne is a coveted place, so you’ve got all sorts of things competing to sit on it. Your job might be a competitor, either because your boss demands it or because you seek fulfillment and happiness there.

You might feel compelled to put your family on the throne—after all, Christianity is a family-oriented life, right?

It could be a hobby—sports, shopping, hunting, fishing, decorating. We all know the person who works all week only so that he or she can _____ on the weekends, don’t we?

And, of course, it could be money. Yes, Jesus is still talking about money. We might wish for him to move on, but he’s got one more thing to say before he changes subjects:

No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money (Matthew 6:24).

Notice how absolute his first statement is. There’s not much wiggle room here: No one can serve two masters. I’ve tried it before, haven’t you? I’ve thought that I could serve God and _____ without really choosing one or the other. Maybe God and career. Maybe God and family. Maybe God and entertainment. Maybe God and self.

It doesn’t work, because we’ve only got one throne. Something—a principle, a person, a pursuit—determines everything that we do.

In fact, we can summarize the Bible’s message in one sentence: God wants to be Lord of our lives. He wants to be in charge of everything about us, not because he’s some egotistical, self-centered deity, but because he knows it’s best for us to run wholeheartedly after an infinitely loving, merciful God.

Every day we make the choice, and then we live according to our answer.

Who’s Lord of your life today? What’s really most important to you? To paraphrase Jesus’ words, you cannot serve God and anything else at all.

A vision checkup

February 13, 2014 — Leave a comment

You probably heard the news last week about the movie star who died of a drug overdose. It’s sad and tragic on so many levels, but honestly, it wasn’t surprising. Not that I expected it with this particular actor—I knew nothing about his drug problems—but it’s happened so many times with superstars that it’s not really unexpected.

In a way it’s hard to understand. Why do so many wildly successful people turn to drugs? Why aren’t they happy with all their money and fame? They’re on top of the world, right?

Or maybe they’re not.

If we follow Jesus, we already know the answer:

The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light, but if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness! (Matthew 6:22-23)

Just before these verses he was talking about money, and that’s probably what he’s got in mind here. When people’s eyes are focused on their money—and what it can do for them—their hearts are filled with darkness.

But in a sense money stands for everything tangible and temporal in this world. It gets our attention, then grabs our hearts. We start seeing it, then we can see nothing else. That’s what a “bad eye” is—it’s focused on stuff that can’t fulfill and doesn’t last.

On the other hand, the “healthy eye” sees beneath the surface to what really counts—things of God. Love, mercy, peace, hope, obedience, eternity.

That’s the contrast Jesus sets before us. Will our eyes see only the things of this world? Will we think too much about the world’s cheap thrills—money, superficial entertainment, empty pursuits?

Or will our eyes see God? Will we see what he’s doing in the world, in us, in his people? Will we see what he sees?

It’s not overstating it to suggest that our lives are determined by which kind of eye we have.

How’s your vision?

Some investment advice

February 11, 2014 — Leave a comment

I’m not an investment expert, but I understand some of the basics. I know that when I’m deciding about where and how much I’m going to invest, I need to look at risk and reward. I know that if I invest money and there’s a 90% chance I’ll lose it all, that’s a high-risk investment.
I also know that if I invest, say, $1,000 this month, and that money will only be worth $100 at the end of the year, that’s a terrible investment.

Jesus’ point is similar, and really quite simple:

Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also (Matthew 6:19-21).

If you invest your money and accumulate material things, Jesus says, what’s your reward? What’s your payoff? Well, you’ll be worried about them—what will happen to them, how long they’ll last, if someone might steal them, if you’ll have enough. In other words, invest your money down here and the reward is bad, really bad. But if you invest them in things that last—in spiritual, eternal things—the reward is unbelievable.

Money’s one of those touchy subjects we try to avoid in polite conversation, but Jesus is pretty direct here. Where’s your money going? Do you have a big retirement account? Are you building wealth by investing in real estate, or maybe stocks, bonds, and mutual funds? Are you using it to buy more and more stuff?

Jesus never taught that it’s wrong to prepare for the future, but I wonder what he might say about the way we accumulate things? He once commended a widow who gave away everything she had, and then he condemned a man who seemed to be investing wisely (cf. Mark 12:41-44; Luke 12:16-21). In other words, he reversed the investment advice we normally give.

Is it possible that we’ve let our money-crazed culture convince us that the accumulation of things is wise, maybe even godly? It’s worth considering, at least.

Jesus tells us to use our money to do good. “Laying up treasures in heaven” isn’t just giving to the church (though that’s good too); it’s using the money God gives us to help others. It’s giving money and food and clothing to the poor. It’s sending money to missionaries so they can share the good news about Jesus. It’s supporting relief efforts in war-damaged parts of the world, or areas that have been devastated by storms, tsunamis, or earthquakes. It’s helping the orphans and widows.

I saw a quote this week that convicted me—it relates to what Jesus is talking about: “No one is getting into heaven without a letter of reference from the poor” (James A. Forbes).

That’s pretty close to what Jesus said: No one’s getting into heaven without a proper perspective on the relationship between money, happiness, and eternity.

When we invest in things God is interested in, our hearts won’t be tied up in this world . . . and when this short life is over, we’ll follow our investments to where God lives.

Moth, rust, and thieves

February 10, 2014 — 1 Comment

There’s a reason Jesus said so much about money—millions of people lose their souls because they start loving it too much. The problem is, it grabs your heart and won’t let go. Several years ago I remember hearing a particular man in our community described as someone who’s “got money on his mind.”

It’s a struggle, isn’t it? Here’s the caveat you’re expecting—there’s nothing inherently wrong with money; lots of rich folks will be in heaven. But even though that’s true, it’s just as true that there’s something terribly wrong with many people’s attitude toward it.

Often we choose careers based more on their average salary than we do about our particular set of gifts, what we enjoy doing, or the kind of family life we’ll have. Some of us lose sleep over our 401(k)s because we’re afraid we’ll run out of money before we die, while some of us spend it like it’s burning holes in our pockets.

Either extreme is equally wrong—one seeks happiness in hoarding money for later, while the other thinks it’ll bring him happiness if he spends it all now. Both look to money to give them something it can’t. Oh, it teases and hints and cajoles, but it never delivers. “Get enough of me and I’ll fill that hole in your soul—I’ll make you blissfully happy,” it whispers. But it lies.

Here’s one of the Lord’s warnings about money:

Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal (Matthew 6:19).

It won’t last, no matter how much you’ve got invested. Eventually—maybe before you die or maybe a few years after—it’ll rot away, be spent away, or get stolen away. If it survives the moths and the beneficiaries and the thieves, one day it’ll be burned up. This world isn’t going to last.

And really—that’s the point Jesus is getting at here. Don’t live your life chasing depreciating assets, and everything you can measure is losing value. Don’t run after stuff that gives you a temporary thrill but does nothing to salve that ache in your soul.

But what about us normal Christians?

Oh, his warning is for the rich folks, you say? Not quite—sometimes the not-rich are just as obsessed with money as the ones they envy in the prestigious neighborhoods. They crave what they can’t have, while the rich obsess over having more.

Truth is, all of us struggle with losing perspective over money, with giving it a prized place in our hearts. Some very religious folks have been corrupted by an unexpected windfall.

So we ought to listen to Jesus. Be careful, ridiculously careful, obsessively careful, and don’t let money get inside your heart. It won’t bring you what you think it will.

Look at him

February 7, 2014 — Leave a comment

I watched most of the Super Bowl this past Sunday night, and though the anticipated tight competition never panned out, it’s still entertaining. Watching some of the world’s greatest athletes compete on a huge stage is fun. These guys, to borrow an expression from another sport, are good—they’re big, fast, and strong. So, yeah, they’re entertaining.

What I don’t like is the showmanship. It happens at every level, but it always ramps up in the Super Bowl. A guy scores a touchdown, makes a big tackle, or gets an interception, and jumps up and faces the crowd. Look at me! Look at how good I am! Don’t you wish you were like me? The choreographed dance moves change, but the message doesn’t. Me. It’s about Me.

I wish I knew otherwise, but there’s probably not that much difference between my attitude and the one of the guy dancing in the end zone. His stage is much bigger than mine, so more people are watching, but the temptation he’s succumbing to knocks on my door too.

It probably knows where you live as well.

Of all the things Jesus talked about in his greatest sermon, he didn’t address anything as deeply or as thoroughly as he did this. I think he might mean it.

He did it with giving, he did it with praying, and now he does it with fasting.

And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you (Matthew 6:16-18).

The Pharisees were the football show-offs of their day, only their audience consisted of the adoring Jewish masses, and their stage was every street corner in Jerusalem. They strutted around and hoped everyone would notice how incredibly religious they were.

Me. It’s about Me. Look at how much I give. Look at how long I pray. Look at how strictly I fast.

Change the characters, their clothing, their city, and maybe what they’re doing, and you might end up at my house or yours, or maybe the church you attend or the one I call home.

The stage might be Facebook, a blog, a church bulletin, or a church pulpit, but the temptation’s there.

Me. Look at Me. Look at how much I give. Look at how many church services I attend. Look at how many verses I quote. Look at how committed I am. Can’t you tell how much I love Jesus?

The problem now is the same as it was then—it never has been and never will be about Me. It’s about Him, and only Him.

And when it’s about Me it’s not about Him, and God simply will not accept things I do—no matter how “religious” they are—when I do them for an audience other than Him.

Him. Look at Him. That’s a brief but quite accurate way of summing up the entire life of discipleship.

We all need prayer primers, I suppose. Most of us have prayed thousands of times, but we’re like the apostles—they came to Jesus and asked him how to pray, even though they’d been praying all their lives. They heard him pray and realized they were missing something.

Every time I study the Lord’s Prayer, as I have with you over the past couple of weeks, I remember again how much I need to sit at Jesus’ feet and let him teach me to pray. Something jumped out at me today that you can probably relate to: It’s easy to get into a rut so that our prayers become mechanistic and ritualistic.

I’ve noticed that the emphases of my prayers don’t always line up with what Jesus stressed. I pray hard for my family, as you do, I’m sure. And I pray for other here-and-now things—people’s health, their grief, jobs, struggles, relationships, and so on.

And there’s nothing wrong with that, of course, but Jesus calls us to reach higher. He includes one line about physical things in his prayer—“Give us this day our daily bread”—but the rest is about eternal, heavenly things.

At the end he says: “And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil” (Matthew 6:13). That, I think, is crucial. Jesus ends his prayer by focusing on our relationship to sin and evil.

Here’s a thought—Jesus cares more about your holiness than he does your happiness. The two don’t exclude each other, but he emphasizes what makes us more like him than he does on what brings us the most immediate pleasure.

It’s easy to get confused about that. It’s easy for me to ask him to protect my daughter at college and take care of my wife and keep my sons safe while they’re driving. But then sometimes I don’t pray about my relationship to sin as much as I should.

In this single request about temptation, Jesus brings us back to the reason he came to earth—to deal with sin. He didn’t come to give us a good job or a problem-free life or lots of things.

He came to save us. And really, that ought to be center-stage in our prayers.

So today, as you pray, talk to God about sin. Ask him to give you the courage to resist the devil’s tricks. Ask for the Spirit to give you the wisdom to discern the evil around you and the desire to avoid it.

Here’s an interesting analogy: Remember when Jesus was tempted in the wilderness after he’d fasted 40 days? At the beginning of that story, Matthew tells us that “Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil” (4:1).

The neat thing is, God led Jesus into temptation so he could lead you and me out of it. The question here isn’t if God is going to tempt you or if he will lead you into temptation (he won’t). The question is, Will we depend on him for that deliverance?

I like forgiveness quite a bit, don’t you? I like for my wife to forgive me when I’ve been rude or unkind. I like for my kids to forgive my impatience. I like others to extend heaps of forgiveness to me when I need it. I especially like God’s forgiveness. As believers, we revel in the fact that God doesn’t hold sin against us . . . that he removes our sins from us “as far as the east is from the west” (Psalm 103:12).

We like that.

But there’s a part of forgiveness that’s not as easy to enjoy. Jesus mentions it near the end of his model prayer: “and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matthew 6:12). And to make sure we didn’t miss that little phrase, he adds this postscript: “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (vv 14-15).

“Forgive us our debts”—we like that.

“. . . as we also have forgiven our debtors”—not so much.

I’m not sure why it’s so hard to forgive others, but it might be that withholding it gives us a little power over them. We can use it against them at some point—“Do you remember when you . . . ?”

Or maybe it’s that we think they don’t really deserve it. They might not be completely genuine in their repentance. Maybe they’ll do it again. They ought to get what they deserve.

But Jesus calls us to a higher road, of course. He asks us to forgive as we’ve been forgiven, which means that we can’t forgive only those who deserve it. Remember—we don’t deserve God’s forgiveness either.

It means we can’t be concerned about their getting properly punished, because we don’t get the punishment we deserve. And it means we can’t hold a grudge over their heads, because when the Lord forgives us, he never brings it up again.

Are you holding something against your spouse? Are you nursing a grudge against a friend? Do you have something against someone at church? Is your relationship with one of your kids strained?

Relationships are always complicated, but the first step you might take is to forgive, to let the past go, to drop the grudge. It probably won’t be the easiest part about your walk with Christ, but it’s crucial.

We forgive because we’ve been forgiven, and we forgive so that we will be forgiven.

Our daily bread

February 4, 2014 — Leave a comment

I don’t know what hunger is, not really. For me, hunger is a feeling I get about halfway between lunch and dinner—in other words, not real hunger. “I’m starving” is an exaggeration we use when we’ve gone maybe an hour longer than we want to without eating.

In Jesus’ world, food wasn’t as accessible as a walk to the vending machine or a short drive to the grocery store. They weren’t always sure what they were going to eat that day.

That’s why the Lord’s Prayer included this phrase (one we don’t often use): “Give us this day our daily bread” (Matthew 6:11).

The correct translation is probably, “Give us this day our bread for tomorrow,” but regardless, it says something we need to hear.

God is the one who gives. We tend to think that we earn what we get. I work hard, so I deserve this house, that money, this food. Not so, says Jesus. The food on our tables and the clothes on our backs come directly from God’s hand. When we forget that (and stop praying about it), we develop an entitlement attitude that produces ingratitude.

We don’t need to let thoughts of the future consume us. God, please provide enough food for us for the next twenty-four hours. I find myself praying about things way off in the future, but I think Jesus is urging us to be more present-focused in our prayers. What do you need today? How many of our problems are things that may or may not happen for weeks, months, or years? There’s nothing wrong with talking to God about something six months in the future, but we ought to focus on today. After all, God will be there tomorrow when you get there.

We should pray for the food we need, not the fortune we want. Have you heard of the prosperity gospel? It’s attracting millions of adherents by promising material blessings in the name of Jesus Christ. Have more faith, pray a little harder, and especially, give more money, and God will make you healthy, wealthy, and wise. Name it and claim it, we’re told. Problem is, the Bible doesn’t teach that, not by a long shot. God cares about your happiness, but he’s more interested in your holiness. And he’s not particularly concerned with providing all of us with late model sports cars and designer clothing. Pray for what you need, not what you want—sometimes in the affluent West, we have a hard time knowing the difference.

Has it been awhile since you asked God to provide you food for the day? If so, it’s probably because we’ve started assuming that it’s going to be there because it always has been.

If you’re like me, Jesus gives us a needed corrective.

Give us this day our daily bread.