You Can Be Lifted

An interesting conversation between two women occurred beside me at my super-secret restaurant hideout this past week. I was alone with a gift card, my phone, a chicken salad sandwich, and a desire to get a moment of solitude with some required reading materials.

You should know I don’t try to overhear anyone’s conversation. On the contrary, to avoid distractions of every kind, I prefer to sit as far from everyone else in the room as possible. And yet, you know the sort of dialogue to which I’m referring. No matter where you sit, one person is speaking with uncomfortable volume and animation—almost as if she craves the admiration of everyone within a ten-table radius. And the other person at her table isn’t saying a word, only bobbing her head in agreement with everything shared.

As it would go, the story she told was dreadful. She spoke of their mutual friend’s shortcomings in the worst ways, pinning this and that personal injury upon her, making her seem like a ruthlessly unfeeling villain. After a few minutes of unrestrained mockery, it became clear that the two conversing women were related, and the target of their ill-witted ire was also a family member. However, I couldn’t quite figure out the person’s exact location on the family tree. Nevertheless, so goes William Thackeray’s observation that if “a man’s character is to be abused, say what you will, there’s nobody like a relation to do the business.”

Amazingly disheartening. And vicious. I couldn’t imagine living in such a family.

If you recall, I began by calling the conversation interesting. I meant that. Nearly all the grievances described by the blustering woman (and heard by everyone else in the restaurant) occurred while serving together at their church. Fascinatingly, this woman was utterly ignorant of the Christian witness she was portraying. And the fact that a man wearing a clerical collar was sitting a few tables away betrayed her confidence in her behavior. She knew I was there. Usually when someone is misbehaving, so to speak, and a clergyman happens by, they tend to alter their behavior, if only to keep from embarrassment. They go from cussing about their neighbor to suddenly explaining how often they read their Bible. That happens in my presence quite often. Not this time. In fact, I think she was counting on my approval.

Firstly, I’ve learned over the years that people who speak about others this way are usually far more capable of the actual atrocities in any failing relationship. I’ve also learned that in the economy of offenses given and received, they always ensure the scales are tipped in their favor. In other words, their sins are never as horrific as those committed against them. They’re bad, but not that bad. In fact, they’re pretty good—much higher up the ladder of decency and deservedness than so many other wretches.

There’s a portion in John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress that goes:

“He that is down needs fear no fall, he that is low no pride. He that is humble ever shall have God to be his guide.”

Saint Paul’s words concerning the truest depths of our guilt are Bunyan’s inspiration. He wrote, “Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Corinthians 10:12). Of course, inspired by the Holy Spirit, Paul’s instruction is undoubtedly born from his Savior’s words, such as the Lord’s concluding remark to a parable about a wedding feast: “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 14:11). Four short chapters later, Jesus would repeat this teaching word for word, once again demonstrating in unequivocally crisp detail what He meant by His preceding parable.

“To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (Luke 18:9-14).

I think what’s most interesting about this particular parable is the tax collector’s words. In English translations, he’s portrayed as humble, but it seems little more than humility that knows its sinfulness in a basic way. The English renders quite plainly, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” In the original Greek, it’s so much more than that. He doesn’t just call himself “a sinner” but refers to himself with the demonstrative definite article “τῷ,” which means he is calling himself what Paul called himself in 1 Timothy 1:15—the chief, the epitome, the sinner of all sinners. In other words, Jesus is portraying the tax collector as someone unconcerned with the sinfulness of everyone else in the room by comparison, preferring to take his place before God not as one of many but as the only one—and the worst one. No one is lower. No one is more horrible. No one is more deserving of God’s rightful wrath.

He is not a sinner. He is the sinner.

Jesus ends the parable so abruptly that it must have shocked His listeners. He didn’t describe a propitiating sacrifice, which would have been expected. He didn’t mention negotiations between the tax collector and God—that he would work harder to be a better person. Jesus simply describes the man as calling himself the worst sinner and then caps the parable by saying, “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God” (v. 14). A contrite confession born from faith was enough at this moment. Knowing his truest identity as a contemptible sinner, he asked God to give him something other than what he deserved, something he knew was relevant to God’s innermost character: mercy. And that’s what God gave him. The tax collector left God’s presence forgiven.

Bunyan’s words ring true. You cannot fall if you’re already as low as you can be. But you can be lifted. And for all who know their sins, as Jesus describes, God promises to be the One to do the lifting. Look to the cross. You’ll see the One who submitted Himself to depths far lower than any of us could imagine. That’s the mystery inherent to Paul’s words, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21).

I’ll never get my mind around what it means that Christ actually became Sin in my place. But I don’t have to understand it for it to be true. I believe it. That belief, established by the power of the Holy Spirit through the Gospel, moves me to remember my place before Him. I was as low as is humanly and spiritually possible. He lifted me up. I was Sin through and through. He took my place in its dust. But then He went even lower, taking into Himself anything that Sin, Death, and hell could ever inflict. As He did this, He won my innocence before the Father. Humble repentance and faith receive this victory in its absolute fullness.

It’s much harder to pummel others for their crimes when we know this about ourselves.

I want you to know I did two things before I left the restaurant. First, I paid for the women’s meal. It wasn’t that much more than what I had left on the gift card. Second, I left a note for them. I wrote one thing on it: Luke 18:9-14. I don’t know if they read the text. I’m hoping my first gesture stirred them to at least consider it. If they do eventually read it, I don’t know if they’ll get the point. What I do know is that God’s Word is powerful. It has everything necessary for converting and convincing proud hearts. I also know that our reflection of the Gospel’s light before the world around us has muscle, too (Matthew 5:13-16). I hope they read the text, take a chance on what Christian humility truly is—what it means relative to Sin—and then beam that humble trust in Christ to others.

Musk, Depp, and the Final Court

There’s quite a lot happening in the news these days. Do you have some time this morning for thoughts on some of it? Go get some coffee, because I have a few.

Elon Musk’s offer to buy Twitter was accepted. Admittedly, this was a bright-beaming ray of sunshine in my newsfeed. A few more beams poked through the dreariness of April’s war between chill and warmth when I saw the mainstream media folks throwing fits on live TV over Musk’s stated intentions, which were, essentially, that he wanted Twitter to be a true public forum for free speech. An important lesson here: the folks at MSNBC, CNN, and other such drivelous news agencies betrayed their ideological innards when they became enraged over Musk’s determination to halt the banning and shadow-banning of alternative points of view (namely, conservative viewpoints) so that genuine conversation can once again occur.

I mentioned online earlier this year—much to the repulsion of some—that I was starting to admire Elon Musk. This is one reason why. He may be eccentrically different from me in so many ways, and yet, he seems to have a good grasp of certain fundamentals that matter, one of which is the First Amendment. Yes, the Gospel will go forth with or without the freedom of speech. Still, the First Amendment is in alignment with Saint Paul’s concern in 1 Timothy 2:1-3, which includes engaging in the public square for the sake of maintaining a civil context that preserves the freedom to preach and teach Christ crucified. That being said, we should be on the side of anyone pulling for the First Amendment.

Interestingly, a few days after Musk’s purchase was announced, the Biden administration established the DGB or the “Disinformation Governance Board.” Hmm.

Political Commenter, Steven Crowder, pointed out another notable government in history that did the same thing: The Nazi Party. Crowder didn’t mention the Nazi board by name, but students of history will remember it as the Reich Ministry for Public Enlightenment and Propaganda (Public Relations). It was established in 1933, not long after Hitler came to power. Its stated goal was to “protect” Germans from disinformation. Joseph Goebbels was the ministry’s director. If you’ll recall, Goebbels was a principal architect of the “Final Solution,” that is, the extermination of the Jews. In other news, and perhaps strangely relevant, Holocaust Remembrance Day was this past Thursday in Israel. The whole country came to a literal standstill to remember the six million Jews murdered by the Nazi regime. I watched a video of the event. It was eerie; cars stopped on the freeways and their occupants standing outside the vehicles perfectly still. On the sidewalks, people stopped mid-stride, as if frozen. Maybe someone could do a quick PowerPoint presentation on this at the next DGB meeting.

Anyway, I could go deeper into this, but let’s just say for now that I hope Musk’s effort with Twitter is a success. What’s more, I may even rejoin the platform. I left Twitter a few years ago not only because I was being shadow-banned, but because Twitter was taking it upon themselves to delete my followers. I had several thousand, and then one day the number was cut by half. The very next day, the remaining followers were cut by half, again—and so on. On top of that, the “cancel” brigades were becoming exceptionally wily with my account. Believe it or not, the final straw for me was when Donald Trump’s account was permanently canceled, while Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader of Iran (and visceral sponsor of global terrorism and hatred toward America and Israel), his account was preserved. It remains to this day.

I’m also hoping that what Musk is doing with Twitter makes the folks at Facebook at least a little bit contemplative, if not nervous. Facebook owns Instagram. Right around the time I left Twitter, I was permanently banned from Instagram for posting a meme that stated men are men and women are women. Someone reported my post as hate speech. I was jettisoned from the platform. I tried opening another account a few weeks ago, but somehow, they knew it was me. I received messages reminding me I’d been banned permanently for violating platform policies.

I’m not so worried about this stuff, which I’ll get to the reason for in a moment.

So, what else is in the news?

Well, believe it or not, I’ve also been following the court case between Johnny Depp and Amber Heard. I don’t normally care all that much about celebrity trials, however, this one caught my attention. Why? Because while we hear so much about abusive (toxic) masculinity (i.e., the “Me Too” movement, and other default mantras), Johnny Depp was insisting on an alternate narrative. After a bit of reading, my gut began telling me we were finally seeing a man in Hollywood push back against abusive femininity. Having listened to several hours of the broadcasted trial (which is far less than the content of what I’ve read), I’m definitely rooting for Depp. He isn’t perfect by any means. He’s wrestled with drugs and alcohol. He’s been a neglectful father on far too many occasions. Admittedly, He’s been a lousy husband. But among these things, he’s never been one to abuse a woman. He appears to be the kind of man who, when verbally and physically abused, will never respond in kind—even if it means being belittled daily or having one’s fingertip sliced off.

Heard, on the other hand—someone who was known by her bodyguards to destroy Depp’s personal belongings, put feces into his bed, and whose friends testified that she hit them, too, for seemingly no reason—has been tested psychologically and deemed quite the opposite. I’m not surprised. Her documented behavior is hard to explain away, no matter how skilled the attorney may be. Perhaps worse, a recording played before the court proved her willingness to abuse Depp all the while hiding behind the current Hollywood (and dare I say, worldwide) mentality that men are, by default, toxically abusive and overlording. Heard’s recorded words were chilling. She implied that everyone would believe her before ever believing Depp simply because he’s a man and she’s a woman. In other words, he should just expect by default that her testimony would be considered true and his would not. She accentuated her arrogance by insisting that no judge or jury would ever side with a man in such a case, saying, “Tell the world, Johnny, tell them ‘I, Johnny Depp, a man, I’m a victim, too, of domestic violence… And see how many people believe or side with you.” When asked by his lawyer about his response to Heard’s taunting, Depp said rather simply, “I said, ‘Yes, I am.” What he meant was that he was, in fact, a man who was also a domestic abuse victim.”

Depp’s lawyer described Heard’s behavior as gross bullying—the kind that was only fed by Depp’s already burdensome sadness over his failings. It reminded me of Publius Syrus’ words: “Cruelty is fed, not weakened, by tears.” Indeed, Depp was already hurting. Heard used the tears of that hurt to increase her cruelty’s potency.

Shannon Curry, a clinical psychologist, testified against Heard using the term “code 36” to assert she has a personality disorder. Curry described this code, saying, “The 36 code type is very concerned with their image, very attention-seeking, very prone to externalizing blame to a point where it’s unclear whether they can even admit to themselves that they do have responsibility in certain areas.” She went on to say Heard is self-righteous, judgmental, and full of rage, with all these characteristics emerging from a deep, inner hostility. I think one place to see this is in the difference between Depp’s defamation suit and Heard’s countersuit. Depp is suing Heard for $50 million, which is what he believes he’s lost as a high-profile actor now considered toxically unemployable by most film studios. Sounds fair. Heard, however, is countersuing for $100 million, which is Depp’s total worth. In other words, Depp wants justice. Heard wants to completely decimate Depp. When someone can’t just walk away, but rather seethes with the desire to destroy another person’s life completely, that speaks volumes about what’s going on inside them.

As I said, I’m rooting for Depp. Equally, I’m hoping that the judge mandates for Heard to get treatment. Although, narcissistic personality disorders like hers are hard to cure, mostly because the one bearing them typically refuses to admit to needing help. Either way, and as I like to say on occasion, “The divine lights always come on in the end,” which means, do and say what you want now, but remember, the time will come for settling scores. That’s why I mentioned earlier that I’m not so worried about being slighted or maligned. God, namely, Christ Himself, will be the Pantocrator occupying the bench in the only courtroom that matters. It’ll be just as the Creed declares: “And He will come again with glory to judge both the living and the dead, whose kingdom will have no end.” He’ll settle things according to His standards, not ours. And no matter how right anyone thought they were, His “right” will be the final rule of measurement for all things and all people of all time.

That might sound scary to some. It probably should. That’s the benefit of God’s generous forewarnings. However, it doesn’t have to be menacing. Through trust in the person and work of Jesus Christ, believers can only ever be found guilty of one thing: saving faith. Jesus said as much in John 16:8-11 regarding the work of the Holy Spirit. He mentioned that when the Holy Spirit comes, He will bring three distinct counts of conviction. Jesus said the Spirit would convict the world “concerning sin and righteousness and judgment…” (v.8). The conviction in sin is an easy one. Jesus explained this will happen to those who “do not believe in me” (v. 9). In short, unbelievers remain trapped in sin. Skipping ahead to the last one mentioned—judgment—the Lord takes direct aim at the devil, saying that we can count on final judgment being leveled against Satan once and for all. It’s right in between verses 9 and 11 that the Lord says the Holy Spirit will convict “concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father, and you will see me no longer” (v. 10). In other words, we can’t see Jesus, and yet, we believe. These words Jesus is speaking on Maundy Thursday sound an awful lot like the ones He spoke to Thomas a few days later on Easter Sunday:

“Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed’” (John 20:29).

The points here: Firstly, saving faith is only possible by the power of the Holy Spirit. Secondly, on the Last Day, all believers in Christ will be accused and found guilty of faith in Jesus before the highest court in heaven and earth. And so, if you’re going to be convicted of anything before God, let it be that.

Between you and me, knowing my many failings, I’m counting on God’s justifying promise found in the life, death, and resurrection of His Son, Jesus. Confessing my sins and clinging to His righteousness, even as things could be rough in this life, I know everything is going to be okay for the next when the divine lights come on and all is revealed.