Respect: words or actions?

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.”

Matthew 7:21

Some people love titles. Whether it’s “Sir”, “Ma’am”, “Pastor”, “Dr”, or some other honorific, it makes them feel important and respected. It makes them feel like they matter more to the person speaking.

I have to confess, I’ve never really understood this sentiment. That’s probably because I was raised in a household where we spoke fairly casually and informally to one another. My parents weren’t big on pomp and ceremony; they didn’t hold much stock in those kind of traditional outward displays of respect. As a child, I joked around with my mother and father in a way that I imagine more traditional adults might have seen as disrespectful.

But my parents knew better. They knew I respected them, despite my casual language, because they observed my actions. They saw that I did what they asked, and they saw that I modeled my life and my values on how I’d seen them behave.

Respect via action

“Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say?”

Luke 6:46

I struggle sometimes with the way language is used Western Christian culture. I dislike the way we often emphasise knowing the “right” phrases to use about God. We turn speaking about God correctly into a moral virtue. We stress the importance of calling Him certain titles and addressing Him in a certain manner. But a lot of the time, all this verbal “respect” turns out to be nothing more than a deflection from the fact that our actions aren’t showing any respect at all. If we’re not doing anything like what Jesus asked or modeled, then the words we use to honor God have very little meaning.

What represents respect and honor to you?

If we're not doing anything like what Jesus asked or modeled, the words we use to honor God have little meaning. Click To Tweet

Silence and speaking: a time for both

The wisdom of silence

I like making people laugh. It’s my way of getting to know someone, breaking the ice, or smoothing over an awkward social situation. Sometimes it’s a good thing: it puts people at ease, and lets them know I’m on their side. Sometimes it works really well as a way of starting a friendship, or healing a misunderstanding.

But making people laugh can also be a defense mechanism for me. There are times when I jump too quickly to make a joke — maybe to deflect from my own embarrassment, or to show off to someone who I’m trying a bit too hard to impress. Or sometimes it’s just because I don’t know what else to say. I cringe when I think of all those times I’ve made some clumsy joke, when really I should have just kept my mouth shut and listened.

The writer of Proverbs has much to say on the wisdom of keeping one’s mouth shut. When words are many, he writes in chapter 10, transgression is not lacking, but whoever restrains his lips is prudent. And he goes on:

Whoever restrains his words has knowledge,
   and he who has a cool spirit is a man of understanding.
Even a fool who keeps silent is considered wise;
   when he closes his lips, he is deemed intelligent.

Proverbs 17:27-28

Sometimes I need to remember that it’s not my job to fill every gap in the conversation. Sometimes I need to have the discipline to be silent, to listen, and to learn.

The wisdom of speaking

But this is not true in every situation. There are other times I can recall when I’ve kept silent in a conversation out of fear, and later regretted it. There are countless moments I can think of in my life where I should have spoken up, but didn’t: to defend a person being treated unfairly; to prevent a wrong decision being made; to speak truth to power, when I was scared of how that power might react.

Proverbs acknowledges, too, that in some situations we are called to use our voices! Silence is not always the answer:

Open your mouth for the mute,
  for the rights of all who are destitute.
Open your mouth, judge righteously,
   defend the rights of the poor and needy.

Prov 31:8-9

So it seems Scripture is telling us both things! We should speak, and we should keep silent. Which is right? Perhaps the writer of Ecclesiastes sums it up best:

There is a time for everything,
    and a season for every activity under the heavens:
a time to tear and a time to mend,
    a time to be silent and a time to speak

Ecclesiastes 3:1,7

There’s a time for silence, and there’s a time for speaking. The challenge is knowing which is which.

If I’m honest with myself, I usually do know whether that still, small, Holy Spirit voice inside me is calling me to speak out, or to keep silent. I just need to slow down and be obedient to that voice, instead of letting my fears and insecurities drive me.

Lord, grant me the wisdom to know when to keep silent, and the discipline to do so. And grant me the wisdom to know when to speak out, and the courage to do so. Click To Tweet

A lamp to my feet and a light to my path

Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.

Psalm 119:105

When I was a kid, there was a computer game called Goldfields that we played in school sometimes. It consisted of a series of educational puzzles and adventures, one of which involved finding your way through a maze in the dark as quickly as possible. You were equipped with a torch, so you could see inside the maze. But the catch was that the torch had low batteries, so you could only see a very short distance ahead. This meant that reaching the end of the maze was a slow and frustrating process. You’d go down each path with no idea where it was leading, or if you might need to turn back.

There are times when following God’s Word feels a lot like fumbling my way through that maze in Goldfields. Like all I’ve been given is a lousy torch with low batteries, when what I really want is a floodlight. Or a map! A map would be nice.

But God hasn’t promised me a roadmap for life. As much as I think I want it, He’s not going to lay out for me precisely all the twists and turns my life is going to take. God’s Word isn’t a floodlight that I can shine all the way down to the end of my journey, enabling me to see every obstacle that exists on the way. Frankly, if that were the case, I’d probably be so discouraged by all those obstacles that I’d give up before I even started.

A lamp to my feet: showing the next step

Instead, what God does promise me is that His Word will be a lamp to my feet, and a light to my path. He promises to give me enough wisdom and clarity to see my surroundings clearly, so I can determine the next thing that I need to do.

When you hold a lamp up in the dark, you can just see where you are now, and what the next step is, and all you have to do is take that step. And then you can take the next one, and then the one after that. You don’t have to leap across large chasms of belief and opportunity; you just need to keep taking one single step at a time. That’s how you end up in the place where God has led you; that’s how you end up doing whatever it is that God has designed you for. You go step by step.

Fulfilling God’s plan for our lives is only ever about just taking that next step. Beyond that, he wants us to trust Him, and to stay in relationship with Him.

Imagine how much the world could be changed if we all stopped making excuses, and took the next step.

Fulfilling God's plan for our lives is only ever about taking the next step. Click To Tweet

When the prayers aren’t pretty

Lead me, Lord, in your righteousness
    because of my enemies—
    make your way straight before me.
Not a word from their mouth can be trusted;
    their heart is filled with malice.
Their throat is an open grave;
    with their tongues they tell lies.
10 Declare them guilty, O God!
    Let their intrigues be their downfall.
Banish them for their many sins,
    for they have rebelled against you.

Psalm 5:8-12

I have mixed feelings about this Psalm. On the one hand, sure, I can certainly relate to some of the emotions it describes. There are many times I’ve wanted to rant and rail at God to deal with that awful person, already!  Declare them guilty, Lord! Let them know how wrong they are! Give them enough rope to hang themselves, embarrass them and bring them to justice in front of everyone!

Sure, I’ve wanted to pray like that sometimes.

The problem is, it usually sticks in my throat. It’s a bit hard to pray, Lord, declare my enemies guilty! — when I’m all too aware of my own shortcomings, and of all the ways God has given me grace. Besides, isn’t this what the New Testament tells us: that we should love our enemy, not condemn them? That we should forgive, as we’ve been forgiven?

Yes, of course we should! So where does that leave us with Psalm 5? Do we toss it out as irrelevant, in light of Christ’s message of grace and redemption?

God can handle our angry prayers

Not so fast. I think we can still learn a great deal from Psalms like this one, although they might sit uncomfortably with us at first.

To me, Psalm 5 says that we can confess to God honestly, no matter what is on our minds. And it says that we should continue to do so, even during those times when what’s on our minds feels like the kind of stuff we’re not supposed to say. Psalm 5 says we can trust God to be big enough to handle our angry prayers, even if they’re not pretty. It says that we can trust Him to turn that anger into something good.

Trust Him with the outcome

Who knows what that good might be? Maybe that person you’re furious with really is in unrepentant sin — and perhaps God will remove them from your life, and allow you to move on. Or maybe they’ll come to repentance, and having allowed God to deal with your anger, you’ll be in a better position to offer them forgiveness and grace.

Or maybe, through praying, your own heart will be changed, and you’ll come to see this person with an empathy you didn’t have before, and realise the situation isn’t as straightforward as you thought.

“Loving our enemies” doesn’t just happen by pretending hurt isn’t there. Instead, we need to acknowledge the hurt, and work through it with God first. God doesn’t need us to pretend our feelings are “right” all the time. He just wants us to come as we are, angry prayers and all. Trust Him to take it from there.

God doesn't need us to pretend our feelings are right all the time. He just wants us to come as we are. Click To Tweet

A psalm for restless nights

 Answer me when I call to you,
    my righteous God.
Give me relief from my distress;
    have mercy on me and hear my prayer.

Psalm 4:1

You know those nights where whatever you do, you just can’t get to sleep? We all have them sometimes, don’t we? Tossing and turning, throwing the blanket off you to cool down, pulling it back on because you’re too cold, mind whirling, anxieties weighing in, memories you’d rather forget replaying over and over in your mind…

You know, those nights.

I suspect the author of Psalm 4 was having one of those nights. One where all he wanted was relief from distress. One where his every problem seemed magnified, and nothing seemed to silence his mind.

But notice how this Psalm takes us on a journey. We start out hearing the author’s restlessness and anguish, but it doesn’t end there. Rather than trying to deal with the anxiety on their own, the author cries out in prayer, asking for mercy. He lays it all out before God, searching his heart, confessing that these troubles are beyond what he can deal with on his own.

 Tremble and do not sin;
    when you are on your beds,
    search your hearts and be silent.

Psalm 4:4

We don’t find out if these particular troubles were solved. Taking the time to pray about it may not have changed the situation right away. But it did bring peace to the author. At the close of the Psalm, I will lie down and sleep, he writes — finally, sleep! — for you alone, Lord, make me dwell in safety. There’s such a beautiful sense of calm about that final verse.

In peace I will lie down and sleep,
    for you alone, Lord,
    make me dwell in safety.

Psalm 4:8

At 3am, when every problem seems insurmountable, and we’re at our least rational, sometimes we forget that God is still there, and still listening. But it’s worth remembering. Let him quieten your spirit on those restless nights.

Psalms: Poetry for the soul

Blessed is the one
    who does not walk in step with the wicked
or stand in the way that sinners take
    or sit in the company of mockers,
but whose delight is in the law of the Lord,
    and who meditates on his law day and night.
That person is like a tree planted by streams of water,
    which yields its fruit in season
and whose leaf does not wither—
    whatever they do prospers.

Psalm 1:1-3 (NIV)

The Psalms have always been a part of the Bible that I find I can to return to again and again. Even during those times when I struggle to focus on Scripture and to let it sink in, the gentle poetry of the Psalms still manages to penetrate whatever anxieties and walls I have in place, and quieten my spirit.

I love the honesty of the Psalms. There’s so much emotional range in this book: from praise and adoration right through to grief, lament, confusion. There are those verses that trumpet the surety of God’s goodness, that resonate with us when we’re full of joy about everything that’s happening in our lives. But there’s also the brutal candour of those Psalms that cry out: Why, God, why? Where are you? in those moments that are not so certain. There’s no shying away from any part of the full experience that is life here on earth.

So I’ve gone back to the beginning of this favourite book of mine, starting at Psalm 1. Blessed am I, it tells me, when I turn away from those who mock and do evil, and instead delight in the law of the Lord.

The Psalms call us back home

I’ll be honest, I haven’t been delighting in the law of the Lord much in recent months. I’ve been in one of those periods I mentioned above, where it’s hard to open the Bible, where the words of Scripture don’t seem to sink in, don’t seem to be alive like they’re supposed to.

But reading this Psalm doesn’t feel like a judgement on my bad habits. Instead, it feels like a welcoming home. This gentle but powerful poetry assures me that no matter where I might have walked, sat, or stood in the past, I am still invited to come and be blessed, and to delight in that which is good.

Reading Psalm 1 is like a welcoming home. It invites us to come and be blessed, and delight in that which is good. Click To Tweet

Tending to my corner of Creation

For you created my inmost being;
    you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
    your works are wonderful,
    I know that full well.

Psalm 139:13-14 (NIV)

For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

Ephesians 2:10 (NIV)

It’s that time of year when we make resolutions to better ourselves. Exercise more! Floss regularly! Eat more fresh food! Spend more time in prayer and meditation! But after a few weeks (days?) of good intentions, too often these resolutions fall by the wayside, and old habits come back into play.

Why does this happen so easily? Shouldn’t it be natural to want to spend time on ourselves, improving our health and our habits? And yet it’s often easier to let the focus drift back to other things, other people — more important, higher priority tasks.

Sometimes even a sense of guilt might creep in when we carve aside time for ourselves — whether it’s an hour spent working out at the gym, or spending quiet time with God. It often feels like there’s no room left for quiet time in today’s fast-paced, time-is-money society. And even from a more spiritual point of view, it can feel strangely selfish — I mean, shouldn’t we be spending that time focusing externally, not internally, ministering to others, out in the world helping people?

Perhaps, though, there is something to be said for placing a higher value on our own well-being. My own mind, body, and soul is a part of the greater creation. Looking after myself well is doing God’s work in the place where, indeed, I have the most impact and influence. If I’m going to do any good at all, then right here is the place to start.

Looking after myself well is doing God's work in the place where I have the most impact and influence. Click To Tweet

Interruptions and Routines

See, I am doing a new thing!
    Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?
I am making a way in the wilderness
    and streams in the wasteland.

Isaiah 43:19

It’s often said that God likes to interrupt our best-laid plans – that the Holy Spirit works not in the way we expect, but rather through a series of sacred interruptions that overturn our routines and our expectations and our preconceived ideas. Along with this idea comes the implication that we need to make sure we’re open to these interruptions – not so wedded to our day-planners and task-lists that we say no to God when he comes knocking, because he didn’t send a Google Calendar invitation.

And all this is true! But it’s also true that for there to be any sort of interruption, there must be something going on to interrupt. I’ve come to realise it’s also possible for me to go too far in the other direction – to avoid any sort of fixed regime out of fear of becoming too tied down to any one thing at a particular moment, in a misguided desire to be more open to the Spirit’s promptings. The result is an unfocused mind – one that isn’t disciplined enough to discern God’s voice apart from my own untethered thoughts.

We still need discipline and routine, only not to make an idol of it. When God comes crashing into our daily schedule, we need to be ready to lay it all to one side and follow Him without hesitation. But this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have such a schedule in the first place.

For the Holy Spirit to interrupt us, there must be something going on to interrupt. Click To Tweet

In the beginning…

1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
2 He was in the beginning with God;
3 all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made.
4 In him was life, and the life was the light of men.
5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

John 1:1-5

We all need to begin somewhere.

Starting a new phase of life—whether it be a new job, a new relationship, a new project of some kind—can be challenging, scary. Often we put off taking that first step, preferring to stay in the comfort of well-trodden paths rather than risk branching out into the unknown.

But whatever it is we’re starting, we can be assured that God has been there first. God, who has been there since the beginning, has walked these unknown paths before us, and will be there alongside us as we step out in faith.

So take that first step—and trust that you are not alone, and that the journey which follows will be worth it.