Little by Little

I hope all is well with you so far this year. That might seem a strange thing to say, especially since we’re only a week into 2023. Still, we both know a lot can happen in a week. In truth, a lot can happen in mere seconds. Anything can change in an instant. An honest person—someone who knows by faith the inner workings of this fallen world—will not only admit to this but will embrace it as inevitable.

I’m guessing that for those looking in on faith from the outside, a Christian who rolls with change’s inevitability might appear to be living a disinterested life. Amid good or bad change, a Christian can speak alongside Job, saying, “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21). Such a person might appear to be drifting through life as though it were a mighty river sweeping him away feebly in its current.

On the other hand, perhaps the Christian can roll with life’s punches because he understands the intricacies of life and its changes in a way that onlookers cannot.

Admittedly, I’m somewhat of a mixed bag regarding change. Some people thrive on change. I don’t. I prefer most things to remain the same. There’s certainty in the steady things. Although, like most people, now and then, I get the urge to move things around in my personal spaces. I’ll be sitting at my desk, and then suddenly, I’ll rise and move an entire section of books from one shelf to another. I’ll be sitting at the bar in my basement, and then somewhat abruptly, I’ll rearrange the movie memorabilia sitting on cabinets and hanging on the walls. Those landscape alterations might not seem like a big deal to most. However, the urge that stirs them is genuine, and it acknowledges something deeply relevant to life. The seemingly innate need to change things is a reminder that something is seriously wrong with this world, and whatever it is, it needs to be made right.

But there’s something else proven by the exercise. The urge to rearrange things returns. It might be a week later. It might be two years later. Either way, it returns. This proves that no matter what I do to get things in the right places, the deeper disorder remains.

By faith, Christians can get along in such a world, no matter the changes. Good or bad, we’re the kind of people who endure.

I’m sure I’ve shared before that I appreciate Washington Irving. I read his infamous The Legend of Sleepy Hollow at least once a year. I do this not only because he spends his best energy delving into classical tales from early America but because, unlike modern writers, Irving handles the frightful things with a poetic style. Or perhaps a better way to say it is that he seems to take hold of scary things and presents them nonchalantly, almost as though they ought to be expected even while they are surprising. For a Christian, that kind of storytelling makes sense. As someone fitted by the Holy Spirit to endure, Irving makes sense to us when he writes, “There is a certain relief in change, even though it be from bad to worse…it is often a comfort to shift one’s position and be bruised in a new place.”

Perhaps that’s part of what the Lord meant when He instructed His followers to turn the other cheek (Matthew 5:39). He doesn’t intend for His Christians to be punching bags. He means for us to know we should never expect to be hit only once. More will come. And so, don’t be foolish. Situate yourself for endurance.

Thinking about these things, I should mention that Christians are by no means complacent about change. Christian endurance is far different than giving up and floating helplessly downstream. The knowledge of the deeper disorder keeps us vigilant. Because of this, we’re far more attuned to change than the rest of the world around us. It seems for most people in the world, change is of little consequence so long as it doesn’t bring personal inconvenience. In one sense, that’s how things got so bad in Nazi Germany. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum attempted to memorialize that reality with a wall plaque of Rev. Martin Niemöller’s words, which were:

“First, they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”

Little by little, changes were made that targeted particular groups of people. Eventually, those changes crossed over into Niemöller’s sphere. But when they did, it was too late. Collectively, the little modifications had become unstoppable juggernauts. Truth be told, for as many people who lived relatively untouched lives during the 1930s and 40s, Christians were the first to see the dangers and sound the alarm, ultimately doing all they could to trip the Nazi jackboots. Many died trying. Rev. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was one. But he wasn’t the only one. There were plenty of others.

I suppose with the New Year comes both the awareness of and inclination for change. Mostly, I’m guessing a person’s New Year resolutions exist within the Niemöller-type frame. They’re personal, and it’s likely they’ll only allow inconvenience if a personal benefit is involved. People try to eat better, to exercise more, to be healthier. The intent in these things is good. And I’m certainly one to root for their success. I suppose what’s coming to mind this morning is not only the need to encourage continued endurance amid discomforting changes in our world but to encourage awareness of change beyond the safety of self. In other words, just because it doesn’t affect you doesn’t mean it isn’t worth your attention. It might be hurting someone else. That should matter to you. If it doesn’t, the time may come when you’ll have no choice but to be concerned.

For example, back in 2021, Scott Smith could have cared less about the demands of LGBTQ, Inc. in schools. But then his 15-year-old daughter was raped by a transgender student in the women’s bathroom at her high school. He responded angrily against the Loudoun County School Board (as any loving father should have), was arrested, and branded a domestic terrorist by the National School Boards Association, Merrick Garland, and President Biden. Interestingly, it took such a startling tragedy to stoke nationwide parental concerns for these and other issues. Now countless seats on School Boards across America have been seized by parents intent on jettisoning these radical—but already very entrenched—ideologies from our schools. They’re discovering and unbinding the dangerous grip of Critical Race Theory. They’re uncovering and dismantling the attempts by progressive ideologue teachers to read pornographic literature to 1st graders. They’re finding all these things and more, and they’re waging war against the disorder.

As the saying goes, Rome wasn’t built in a day. Little by little, changes were made. And now we’re cleaning up some pretty big messes. As Christians, we know the sources of these messes: Sin, Death, and Satan.

These are the powers at work in the deeper disorder.

Again, be encouraged to pay closer attention in the New Year. Perhaps a personal resolution for change might be to become more aware of what’s changing around you—whether the change is good or bad, who it affects, and what you can do to help. Doing this, I’m certain you’ll find ways to flex the already empowered muscle of faith in a world that desperately needs what you have to offer, not only for the sake of living peaceful and godly lives (1 Timothy 2:2) but for leading others to the only One who capable of bringing an all-surpassing order to the deeper disorder. Jesus accomplished this on the cross. He proved it by His resurrection. Now we live in this Gospel, owning the spoils of His victory, and employing them in the world around us.

We are not drifting through life. We are engaging in it with an altogether different kind—a divinely impenetrable kind—of endurance and discernment amid change.

Wisdom and Greatness

What makes a person wise?

The default answer for many Christians (and it’s a good answer) is to recite Proverbs 9:10: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom…” Although, take care to notice King Solomon refers to faith (the fear of the Lord) as wisdom’s beginning. A beginning, by nature, leads to other things. And so, what comes in the second half of the verse makes sense: “and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.”

Insight is born from faith. Insight discerns and then acts along life’s way.

Just so you know, my question was prompted by the text of Job 32:9. I crossed paths with it this morning during my short devotion. The text reads:

“It is not the great that are wise, nor the aged that understand judgment.”

I explored the context of the words, and as it would go, Elihu is the one who spoke them. It seems to me that from among Job’s so-called friends, Elihu was the only one who really tried to help Job as God would desire, which explains why neither Job nor God rebuked him in the final analysis. It’s from that angle we can learn from Elihu’s words. They resonate with Godly authenticity. Essentially, he speaks them to dispel some of the foolishness of Job’s critics. The first point he makes for Job is that just because someone is considered great does not mean wisdom inhabits his or her innards. And Elihu’s right. You and I both know people who’ve attained the title of greatness in this world, and yet have done so in ways that were not all that wise or virtuous. Look at Hollywood and pick a celebrity. Consider Washington DC and choose a politician.

Taking that point a little further, Elihu adds that age isn’t necessarily relevant to one’s ability to wield wise discernment. This is definitely true. While I know plenty of older folks I’d consider wise, I know plenty more undeserving of the descriptor. The man in the White House is an example. I’d trust a salamander to better understand the difference between right and wrong before trusting Joe Biden. On the flip side, I also know people well beneath my age who have firm grips on insight’s steering wheel and understanding’s chrome gear-shifter. Charlie Kirk is one of those people. He’s hard to outthink, and when it comes to discernment, he’s pretty solid. When he hits the gas pedal, my first inclination is to get in the backseat and simply enjoy the ride.

Still, I suppose the question remains: What makes a person wise?

Or perhaps thinking from another angle—since Elihu brought it up—maybe I should also be asking, “What makes a person great?”

Interestingly, and perhaps paradoxically, the people in my life I’d label as great are usually the ones who don’t see themselves as being all that spectacular to begin with. What’s more, no matter what they do, their labors always seem to be aimed at faithfulness to Christ. Again, paradoxically, this most often results in them being counted as lesser to their friends, family, and co-workers in an onlooking world. The world may appreciate them as people, but they don’t necessarily consider them among the greats.

The first example that comes to mind in this regard are the parents who do what they can to protect their children from cultural influences—namely monitoring their video game and internet access, having absolutely no tolerance for foul language, forbidding clothing that promotes inappropriate sexuality, and so many other things—these folks are great people in my book, even though they’re often interpreted by others around them as backwater itinerants with unrealistic expectations. Another example is a person who prefers anonymity when giving a sizable gift to the Church. In most cases, the world considers this a wasted opportunity among peers for recognition. Other examples of greatness are the Christian business owners who stand their ground while the cancel-culture attacks; or the pastors who hold to the Word of God rather than bending a little here and there to fill the pews. It might seem foolish not to embrace woke ideologies that all but guarantee a business’ success, or as a small church struggling financially to bend one’s theology a little in order to see more money received through the collection plate.

In summary, I think maintaining a steady course of faithfulness to Christ and His Word when everyone and everything around you is moving in the opposite direction indicates greatness.

Of course, these are just random examples that come to mind, and I could go on describing similar people and contexts. Still, I imagine what I’ve shared already sounds somewhat familiar to another group of people I consider great: the ones who observe, interpret, and respond to the world around them through biblical lenses. Those are the folks who read the descriptions above and made mental comparisons to our Lord’s interactions in the Gospels. For example, when a woman cries out regarding the greatness of Jesus’ mother, He is quick to reply that those who hear the Word of God and keep it are even greater—nay, blessed (Luke 11:28). When the disciples want to know who’s the greatest in the Kingdom of heaven, the Lord sets before them a toddler—someone of simple faith, a little one who trusts Him no matter what (Matthew 18:1-5). When the disciples are again found wrestling with the issue of greatness, the Lord so crisply reminds them that whoever is to be counted as great among them must be a servant (Matthew 20:26).

Again, I could share so much more in this regard. The Scriptures are full of this stuff. Suffice it to say that to be great in a way that actually matters doesn’t mean being powerful or popular. It certainly doesn’t mean being the oldest and most experienced. It almost certainly doesn’t mean being the most eloquent, smartest, wealthiest, or best looking. Instead, it starts from faith, and then it moves forward with a desire for steady and ongoing alignment with the will of Christ. And this is only possible by the power of the Holy Spirit through the Gospel. Apart from this, there’s no beginning.

By the way, it sure seems like this could be what’s behind Elihu’s less-than-direct communication to Job in the verse right before the one I originally shared. It certainly seems like he’s insinuating that the real measures of both wisdom and greatness have more to do with God’s gracious in-reaching than it does the nature of man.

“It is the spirit in man, the breath of the Almighty, that makes him understand” (v. 8).

If this is true, whether or not Elihu could articulate it precisely, it means that parents can continue to fight the arduous fight of faith for their children confident they bear wisdom and greatness that are not their own, but rather, were established in them by God. They can be sure these things have replaced their flimsy desires for worldly prominence with a sturdy determination aimed at faithfulness. Likewise, a person can give generously in support of the Church’s efforts without needing to be recognized. A Christian business owner can stand his or her ground, and a pastor can hold fast to the Word, come what may, because of this wonderful truth, too.

It was Ralph Waldo Emerson who said, “To be great is to be misunderstood.” Thinking on what happened to Scott Smith recently in Loudon County, Virginia, or what’s happening to Jack Philips, or the struggles of Barronelle Stutzman, or my new friend Artur Pawlowski in Canada, I can’t help but think just how right Emerson was. The world doesn’t get it. It just doesn’t understand real wisdom. It just can’t identify true greatness. This is true because the world’s definitions are completely out of step with the Lord’s definitions (1 Corinthians 1:20-25). On the other hand, believers know there’s only one kind of wisdom born from a singular form of greatness that can and will carry a human being from this life to the next, and this wisdom and greatness has nothing to do with anything this world might try to set on a pedestal.