Know Bulls From Bears

Know Bulls from Bears

Matthew 5:4, Isaiah 61.1-2

Dr. Jim Denison

The Pledge of Allegiance has been much in the news, as you know.

To clarify things, the Ninth Circuit judges in San Francisco did not remove one nation “under God” from the Pledge. They don’t have the power to do that. They did rule that using the Pledge in a public school is an unconstitutional violation of separation of church and state.

But the lawyers I’ve consulted believe that the rest of the Ninth Circuit judges will likely overturn this preliminary ruling, and if they don’t, the Supreme Court undoubtedly will.

In a nation which places “In God We Trust” on our money as our national motto, where Congress begins each day with prayer and the Supreme Court with the words, “God save the United States and this honorable court,” “one nation under God” is not likely to be changed.

During this Fourth of July week, after the events of the past year, we need to pledge our allegiance to God more than ever before.

This morning let’s consider the reverse: how God pledges his allegiance to us. Each of Jesus’ Beatitudes shows us a different way God is ready to bless those who will let him. Today let’s learn how God comforts us when we mourn. When you’re in a bear market with your investments or your marriage or your health or your soul, what do you do? Jesus will show us.

Comfort for every pain

In Isaiah 61, God makes four promises about the Christ who would come to comfort us: he would preach good news to the poor, bind up the brokenhearted, proclaim freedom for the captives, and release from darkness for the prisoners. In this way he would “comfort all who mourn” (Isaiah 61:1-2). Let’s explore the causes of mourning, and find the personal comfort of Jesus for each one.

First, many of us mourn because of our sins, our immoralities. We feel deep sorrow for our immoral thoughts, words, and actions, realizing that they nailed Jesus to his cross and grieve the very heart of God. Do you mourn for sin today?

Then claim the prophet’s first promise: Jesus has come “to preach good news to the poor.” Here is the “good news,” the “gospel:” Your Comforter died to pay for every sin you have ever committed, to purchase your forgiveness, to offer you God’s pardon. He died in your place, taking your punishment. Now he promises: if you will confess your sin, he is faithful and just to forgive you for your sin and to cleanse you from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9). “All” unrighteousness.

Augustine was one of the most unrighteous men of his generation. He drifted from mistress to mistress, satisfying every lust and desire he felt. Here’s how he later described his condition:

“I was held fast, not in fetters clamped upon me by another, but by my own will, which had the strength of iron chains. The enemy held my will in his power and from it he had made a chain and shackled me. For my will was perverse and lust had grown from it, and when I gave in to lust habit was born, and when I did not resist the habit it became a necessity. These were the links which together formed what I have called my chain, and it held me fast in the duress of servitude” (Confessions 8:5).

Until the day he took up the Scriptures, and read of God’s salvation in Christ, and confessed his sins and gave his heart to Jesus. And Jesus made him the greatest theologian after Paul in all of Christian history.

Now the comfort to be forgiven, the comfort in mourning which our Lord gave to him, he offers to you.

Second, some of us mourn for personal failures in our lives. Failures in business, school, or relationships. Failures in marriage or family. Do you mourn for failure today?

Then, give your failure to God in faith. Admit it specifically and honestly to him. Mourn for your part in it, in genuine repentance. And claim the prophet’s second promise: Jesus has come to “bind up the brokenhearted.” He has come to restore your heart and your life to service and ministry.

Gordon MacDonald was a successful pastor when he engaged in an extramarital sexual act. Immediately he confessed this sin to his wife and congregation, and resigned from his pulpit and the ministry. He entered into a long process of counseling and accountability, with no plans ever to reenter the pulpit ministry. Then a church called him to consider its pastorate. He said that he was too broken to come. They said, “We’re broken people, too.” And through them, God restored the repentant, broken, mourning preacher to his ministry.

Now the comfort to be restored, the comfort in mourning which Jesus gave to him, he offers to you.

Third, some of us mourn over deep disappointments with others. Family, friends, those close to us who have hurt us. Personal betrayals and injury. Do you mourn for such pain?

Then, give your pain to God in faith. Ask him to help you pardon those who have hurt you, choosing not to punish even when you could. Ask for his grace to forgive as you have been forgiven. And claim the prophet’s third promise: Jesus has come “to proclaim freedom for the captives.” To free you from your chains of bitterness and injustice and hurt.

Corrie ten Boom’s story is familiar to you, I hope. She and her family harbored Jews in their home in Holland. For this the Nazis arrested their family. All but Corrie died during the Holocaust. Years later, she returned to Germany. In her best-seller, The Hiding Place, Corrie describes what came next:

“It was at a church service in Munich that I saw him, the former S. S. man who had stood guard at the shower door in the processing center at Ravensbruck. He was the first of our actual jailers that I had seen since that time. And suddenly it was all there—the roomful of mocking men, the heaps of clothing, [my sister] Betsie’s pain-blanched face.


Own The Right Things

Own the Right Things

Matthew 5:6

Dr. Jim Denison

Tiger Woods has been on the front pages all last week, seeking his second British Open championship. After becoming the first player in 30 years to win the Masters and U. S. Open in succession, he was in position to win the Grand Slam—all four major tournaments in the same year. He has amazing gifts, but even more amazing determination. Dallas resident and golfing great Lee Trevino said “A lot of these guys can’t touch that bar Tiger is setting right now. The problem is, the best player right now is the most motivated.”

Lance Armstrong at the Tour de France; Barry Bonds in baseball; Shaquille O’Neal in basketball; Bill Gates in business—men whose determination is even greater than their talent. They are driven people. Driven to excellence, to achieve and then achieve still more. And our culture loves them for it.

What drives you today? What defines success for you? If you could be anything in the world, what would you be? What should you be? Let’s ask Jesus.

What do you want?

“Blessed are the ones hungering and thirsting,” he begins in the literal Greek. Our Lord assumes that we all hunger and thirst for something. He doesn’t say, “Blessed are you if you hunger and thirst …” He knows that we do. And of course, he’s right.

In his day people knew physical hunger and thirst every day. People died without food or water. Droughts weren’t a nuisance for the lawn but a threat to life itself. Crop failures didn’t mean debt but death.

While our society is past that place, we’re no less hungry and thirsty for the things that matter to us. We’re all driven by something.

Theologian Paul Tillich was right: we each have an “ultimate concern.” Something or someone which matters more than anything else to us.

There’s something in your life which means success and significance to you. Raising successful children; becoming president of your company; retiring at 55; publishing bestselling books; getting into the right school, making the right grades, having the right friends; becoming a famous artist or doctor or lawyer or scientist or singer or teacher; being “happy.”

What drives you? What should? How can you be sure that when you climb to the top of the ladder, it’s not leaning against the wrong wall? What constitutes success with God? What makes us “blessed” by God? For what should we “hunger and thirst” this morning?

What should you want?

“Hunger and thirst after righteousness,” Jesus continues. The Greek word here reduces to the idea of uprightness, of doing what is right. But there’s more to the word than that. Unpack it with me for a moment.

First, there’s an internal sense here—personal character and morality. Not just what you do, but who you are. Dwight Moody said that your character is what you do in the dark. Bill Hybels says what you are when no one is looking, is what you are.

“Righteousness” here requires personal, intimate holiness. A person whose attitudes and motives are just. The word means to be the same thing in private that you are in public, to be godly in character both places, every day.

One reason to value such righteousness is that what we are in the dark is usually exposed in the light. We read daily of business leaders who lied about the bottom line, fabricated profits, misrepresented in shareholder reports, and have to “take the fifth.” But there’s no fifth amendment with God.

Sandra Baldwin was president of the United States Olympic Committee until it was discovered that she lied on her resume about graduating from the University of Colorado and finishing her Ph.D, and she had to resign. George O’Leary was head football coach at Notre Dame for five days, until it was learned that he lied about his background. Tim Johnson was fired as Toronto Blue Jays manager after he made up tales to his players about fighting in Vietnam.

A friend called me this week with this statement: “happiness depends on circumstances; blessedness depends on character.”

“Righteousness” is first internal, and second horizontal. It points to our actions with others. The word means to practice uprightness and justice with all we know.

Abigail Adams, wife of our second president, once wrote to her sister Elizabeth, “To be good, and do good, is the whole duty of man.”

Such horizontal righteousness is vital to our society. Speaking recently about corporate dishonesty, President Bush made this eloquent and perceptive statement: “All investment is an act of faith, and faith is earned by integrity. In the long run, there’s no capitalism without conscience; there is no wealth without character.”

“Righteousness” is internal, then horizontal. And it is vertical as well: being right with God. Righteous in the sense of keeping God’s commandments, living by his word, fulfilling his will. Confessing our sins when we commit them, being sure nothing is wrong between us and our Father, walking close to him.

Jesus makes this the key to character, the attribute for which we must “hunger and thirst” each day, the pathway to “blessing.” If you can be only one thing, be righteous.

Nicolo Paganini was in concert with a full orchestra when a string snapped. He continued, improvising his solo. But then a second string snapped, then a third. Three limp strings hanging from Paganini’s violin. He continued and finished the difficult piece with one string. Then he played an encore piece on that one string. And then he held up the violin and said to the crowd, “Paganini and one string!”

What should your “one string” be? Jesus makes the answer clear today.

How do we achieve it?

So here’s the practical question: how do we achieve “righteousness” with ourselves, others, and God? How do we play our lives on this string?

Here’s the first step: want to be righteous. Decide that you will be godly in character, actions, and faith if you are nothing else. Choose holiness above everything. Hunger and thirst for it.


Set The Right Goals

Set the Right Goals

Matthew 5:5

Dr. Jim Denison

President Eisenhower has been in the news recently as the one who added the phrase “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954. He was a man who sought to live his life “under God,” trusting his Lord in humble faith. So did his mother.

One day during the Second World War, when her remarkable son was supreme commander of the Allied forces, the elder Mrs. Eisenhower was traveling by train. The woman next to her on the train had no idea of Mrs. Eisenhower’s identity, and spent the entire trip bragging about her son who had just been made a corporal. Finally she asked Mrs. Eisenhower, “Tell me about your son.” Her entire reply: “He’s in the army too.”

Today, let’s talk about humility and “I trouble.” Not “eye” trouble but “I” trouble. The middle letter of “sin” is “I.” The middle letter of “pride” is “I.” The root cause of all our trouble is “I trouble.” The third Beatitude is the cure. Here are steps to biblical humility.

Value humility as God does

First, value humility as God does. The Third Beatitude shows what God thinks of this characteristic: “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.”

“Blessed”—happy beyond all circumstance, the kind of blessing only God can bestow.

“Are the meek”—the Greek word is “praus.” It has several hues within its spectrum of meaning, but it reduces to the idea of humility before God.

Such people will “inherit the earth,” being blessed by God in every way. Not just part of the earth, but all the blessing God might give. No conqueror has ever won what God promises here.

But we try. We try to inherit the earth through our performance, possessions, and perfectionism. By trying harder to do more, have more, be more. And so genuine humility is hard for many of us.

Like many of you, I am a performer by nature. It is my natural personality to want you to like me, to be impressed by me, to affirm me. Many of us are this way. We live in a performance-dominated culture, where we are rewarded for what we can produce. But it’s hard to want to impress people and be humble at the same time. Performing makes biblical humility hard.

On the other hand, many of us also struggle with self-esteem issues, making the wrong kind of humility easy.

I read recently this profound statement by psychologist Paul Tournier: “I believe there is a great illusion underlying both the despair of the weak and the unease of the strong—and the misfortune of both. This great illusion is the very notion that there are two kinds of human beings, the strong and the weak. The truth is that human beings are much more alike than they think … All … in fact, are weak. All are weak because we are afraid. They are afraid of being trampled underfoot. They are all afraid of the inner weakness being discovered. They all have secret faults; they all have a bad conscience on account of certain acts which they would like to keep covered up. They are all afraid of other men and of God, of themselves, of life, and of death” (quoted in Ten Habits for Effective Ministry, 21).

Many of us feel badly about ourselves, leading to a self-punishing, demeaning kind of humility. A performance-centered society and low self-image both make biblical humility hard for us.

But listen to what Jesus said about such humility. He described himself as “gentle and humble in heart” (Matthew 11:29); he promised us, “Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:4); he warned us, “everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 14:11). And he taught us, “Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you” (John 13:14-15).

The blunt fact is that we cannot be “blessed” by God unless we value humility as he does.

See yourself as God sees you

But valuing humility doesn’t mean that we know how to experience it. Here’s the second biblical step: see yourself as God sees you. Dr. Martin Lloyd-Jones defines “praus” or “meek” as “a humble and gentle attitude to others which is determined by a true estimate of ourselves.” To be “meek” or “humble,” develop a “true estimate” of yourself. Learn to see yourself the way God does.

So, how does God see you? As a redeemed sinner. A person who sinned and fell short of his glory; a person whose sins cost his Son his life; a person worthy of eternity in hell. And also a person he loves so much he gave his Son to die in your place, to pay for your sins, to purchase your salvation. A sinner, redeemed by his love.

A rabbi once said, “A man should carry two stones in his pocket. On one should be inscribed, ‘I am but dust and ashes.’ On the other, ‘For my sake was the world created.'” Both inscriptions are true.

Imagine yourself a condemned criminal on death row, scheduled for execution.

All appeals are exhausted; the final hour has come. You are strapped to the gurney, and tubes are inserted in your arm. The doctor is about to administer the lethal injection when the phone rings. The governor of the state is coming over.

But when he arrives, something unprecedented occurs. He does not pardon you. He insists that your sentence be carried out. But he then orders the guards to remove you from the table. He takes off his coat, and lies on your gurney. He rolls up his sleeve, and orders the doctor to connect your tubes to his arm. He receives your injection; he takes your punishment; he dies for you.


Treat People Well

Treat People Well

Matthew 5:7

Dr. Jim Denison

Lewis Smedes wrote in 1984 the best book I know on today’s subject: Forgive & Forget: Healing The Hurts We Don’t Deserve. 400,000 people have bought his book and been helped by its profound insights. For years it has been crucial to my life and ministry. It has served as something of a commentary for me on today’s Beatitude.

Here’s the parable with which Dr. Smedes begins his classic:

In the village of Faken in innermost Friesland there lived a long thin baker named Fouke, a righteous man, with a long thin chin and a long thin nose. Fouke was so upright that he seemed to spray righteousness from his thin lips over everyone who came near him; so the people of Faken preferred to stay away.

Fouke’s wife, Hilda, was short and round… Hilda did not keep people at bay with righteousness; her soft roundness seemed to invite them to come close to her in order to share the warm cheer of her open heart.

Hilda respected her righteous husband, and loved him too, as much as he allowed her; but her heart ached for something more from him than his worthy righteousness.

And there, in the bed of her need, lay the seed of sadness.

One morning, having worked since dawn to knead his dough for the ovens, Fouke came home and found a stranger in his bedroom…. Hilda’s adultery soon became the talk of the tavern and the scandal of the Faken congregation. Everyone assumed that Fouke would cast Hilda out of his house, so righteous was he. But he surprised everyone by keeping Hilda as his wife, saying that he forgave her as the Good Book said he should.

In his heart of hearts, however, Fouke could not forgive Hilda for bringing shame to his name. Whenever he thought about her, his feelings toward her were angry and hard; he despised her…. When it came right down to it, he hated her for betraying him after he had been so good and so faithful a husband to her.

He only pretended to forgive Hilda so that he could punish her with his righteous mercy.

But Fouke’s fakery did not sit well in heaven.

So each time that Fouke would feel his secret hate toward Hilda, an angel came to him and dropped a small pebble, hardly the size of a shirt button, into Fouke’s heart. Each time a pebble dropped, Fouke would feel a stab of pain like the pain he felt the moment he came on Hilda feeding her hungry heart from a stranger’s larder.

Thus he hated her the more; his hate brought him pain and his pain made him hate.

The pebbles multiplied. And Fouke’s heart grew very heavy with the weight of them….Weary with hurt, Fouke began to wish he were dead.

The angel who dropped the pebbles into his heart came to Fouke one night and told him how he could be healed of his hurt.

There was one remedy, he said, only one, for the hurt of the wounded heart. Fouke would need the miracle of the magic eyes. He would need eyes that would look back to the beginning of his hurt and see his Hilda, not as a wife who betrayed him, but as a weak woman who needed him. Only a new way of looking at things through the magic eyes could heal the hurt flowing from the wounds of yesterday.

Fouke protested. “Nothing can change the past,” he said. “Hilda is guilty, a fact that not even an angel can change.”

“Yes, poor hurting man, you are right,” the angel said. “You cannot change the past, you can only heal the hurt that comes to you from the past. And you can heal it only with the vision of the magic eyes.”

“And how can I get your magic eyes?” pouted Fouke.

“Only ask, desiring as you ask, and they will be given you. And each time you see Hilda through your new eyes, one pebble will be lifted from your aching heart.”

Fouke could not ask at once, for he had grown to love his hatred. But the pain of his heart finally drove him to want and to ask for the magic eyes that the angel had promised. So he asked. And the angel gave.

Soon Hilda began to change in front of Fouke’s eyes, wonderfully and mysteriously. He began to see her as a needy woman who loved him instead of a wicked woman who betrayed him.

The angel kept his promise; he lifted the pebbles from Fouke’s heart, one by one, though it took a long time to take them all away. Fouke gradually felt his heart grow lighter; he began to walk straight again, and somehow his nose and his chin seemed less thin and sharp than before. He invited Hilda to come into his heart again, and she came, and together they began a journey into their second season of humble joy.

Who is your Hilda? Who is the person who has hurt you most deeply or recently? Who is the person you think of first when I ask you for someone you need to forgive? Let’s ask Jesus to help us do just that.

What is mercy?

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy,” Jesus teaches. What is this “mercy”? Here’s the short answer: grace is getting what you don’t deserve—mercy is not getting what you do deserve. It’s mercy to be forgiven. It’s mercy to forgive. That’s what mercy is; now, what is mercy not?

Smedes offers these answers:

Forgiving is not forgetting. God can forgive our confessed sins and forget them. In fact, he does: Isaiah 43:25 promises that he “remembers them no more.” But you and I cannot do this. Human beings cannot simply reformat the disk or erase the tape. You can pull the nail out of your soul, but the hole remains.

Forgiving is not excusing the behavior which hurt you. The person chose to do that which hurts you today.