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.

“He came up to me as the church was emptying, beaming and bowing. ‘How grateful I am for your message, Fraulein,’ he said. ‘To think that, as you say, He has washed my sins away!’

“His hand was thrust out to shake mine. And I, who had preached so often … the need to forgive, kept my hand at my side.

“Even as the angry, vengeful thoughts boiled through me, I saw the sin of them. Jesus Christ had died for this man; was I going to ask for more? Lord Jesus, I prayed, forgive me and help me to forgive him.

“I tried to smile, I struggled to raise my hand. I could not. I felt nothing, not the slightest spark of warmth or charity. And so again I breathed a silent prayer. Jesus, I cannot forgive him. Give me Your forgiveness.

“As I took his hand the most incredible thing happened. From my shoulder along my arm and through my hand a current seemed to pass from me to him, while into my heart sprang a love for this stranger that almost overwhelmed me.

“And so I discovered that it is not on our forgiveness any more than on our goodness that the world’s healing hinges, but on His. When He tells us to love our enemies, He gives, along with the command, the love itself” (p. 233).

Now the comfort to forgive your pain, the comfort in mourning which Jesus gave to Corrie, he offers to you.

Last, many of us mourn over tragedies in our lives and world. The illness or death of people we love. Atrocities such as September 11. Do you mourn over grief?

Then give your grief to God in faith. Know that he walks with you through the valley of the shadow of death, that he feels all that you feel and hurts as you hurt. Know that those you love who died with their faith in Jesus are with him now in paradise, and that it will be only a moment as they reckon time before they see you again. Know that one day there will be a new heaven and a new earth, with no more death or mourning or crying or pain (Revelation 21:4). Claim the last promise: Jesus has come to proclaim “release from darkness for the prisoners.” Welcome his comfort for your grief and separation and hurt, no matter how deep or dark your prison.

Arthur John Gossip was one of the greatest preachers of the 20th century. I first encountered his most famous sermon, “But When Life Tumbles In, What Then?” more than 20 years ago. It is still the most moving statement of God’s hope in the face of death I’ve ever heard. Here is what he said in his first message after his wife’s dramatically sudden death:

“In the New Testament … you hear a great deal about the saints in glory, and the sunshine, and the singing, and the splendour [sic] yonder. And, surely, that is where our thoughts should dwell. I for one want no melancholious tunes, no grey and sobbing words, but brave hymns telling of their victory. … Think out your brooding. What exactly does it mean? Would you pluck the diadem from their brows again? Would you snatch the palms of victory out of their hands? Dare you compare the clumsy nothings our poor blundering love can give them here with what they must have yonder where Christ Himself has met them, and was heaped on them who can think out what happiness and glory?

“I love to picture it. How, shyly, amazed, half protesting, she who never thought of self was led into the splendour [sic] of her glory. … To us it will be long and lonesome: but they won’t even have looked round them before we burst in. In any case, are we to let our dearest be wrenched out of our hands by force? Or, seeing that it has to be, will we not give them willingly and proudly, looking God in the eyes, and telling Him that we prefer our loneliness rather than that they should miss one tittle of their rights. … When we are young, heaven is a vague and nebulous and shadowy place. But as our friends gather there, more and more it gains body and vividness and homeliness. And when our dearest have passed yonder, how real and evident it grows, how near it is, how often we steal yonder. For as the Master put it: Where our treasure is, there will our heart be also” (quoted in Yandall Woodfin, With All Your Mind, 231).

Dr. Gossip was right. Now comfort in grief, the comfort in mourning which Jesus gave to him, he offers to you.


The prophet promised that Jesus would “comfort all who mourn.” And he will. He will “bless” you with happiness beyond all your circumstances: sin, failure, pain, grief. He will comfort every mourner here today.

But you must receive this gift. You must confess your sin, or admit your failure, or release your pain, or share your grief with him. You must open your hand to receive the joy he longs to give. If you will pledge your allegiance to him in such faith, you will receive his allegiance, his comfort. This is his promise to you today.

When we take together our Lord’s Supper, we receive concrete proof of God’s forgiving, comforting love. The bread and cup which are his gifts to our bodies symbolize the body and blood of Jesus, gifts to our souls. His death for our life. His suffering for our salvation.

I invite you to his table of grace. Bring whatever causes you to mourn. Lay it here. And receive his grace in its place.

Will you be “blessed” today? The next step is yours.

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.

C. S. Lewis: “We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition, when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”

Settle for nothing less than righteousness as the central attribute of your character. Seek it with desperation and passion. Then you can receive it from God: “they will be filled,” satisfied completely. If you hunger to be righteous, your hunger will be satisfied. But you must hunger first. You must want this food before you can have it.

Second, admit that you are not righteous without God.

Here’s what God says of us: “There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God” (Romans 3:10-11).

This is the biblical doctrine called “total depravity.” It means that every part of our lives is affected by sin. The cancer has metastasized throughout the body of the patient. The patient can still read the paper, drink coffee, even go to work perhaps; but the disease is everywhere, and death is inevitable.

In the eyes of a holy God, “there is no one righteous.” Let’s see. Think about your last sin. That one sin alone is enough to keep you out of God’s perfect heaven.

Admit that you cannot be righteous without the help of God.

Third, make Christ your Savior and Lord. This Beatitude is addressed to Jesus’ disciples, his faith followers. You cannot keep this principle unless you first join his family. First ask him to forgive your sins and be your Lord.

Fourth, seek the righteousness of God by faith.

You cannot make yourself righteous. That’s why Jesus’ Beatitude is in the passive tense: “they will be filled.” Not “they will fill themselves,” for we cannot. This is not a call to try harder to be better. Not works righteousness. We can do better for a while, but ultimately we’ll fall and fail again. I’ve tried. So have you.

Instead, accept this fact: “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). Christ is our righteousness. He will impart to us his Spirit, his holiness, his character. This is the exchanged life. Believe that Christ lives in your heart, by faith. Ask him to make himself real through your character, your personality. Ask him for his righteousness for yourself, others, and God.

Give him time to do so. Meet him in Scripture, so he can transform your mind. Meet him in prayer, so he can transform your spirit. Meet him in worship, so he can transform your soul. Let the carpenter work with the wood, molding and shaping it into his own image. And believe that he is.

So, where do you need to be righteous this morning? Where are you grappling with sin or temptation—with yourself, with others, with God? Identify that issue right now. Hunger and thirst for the righteousness of God. Admit to him that you cannot make yourself righteous. Be sure that you’ve made Christ your Savior and Lord. Ask him for his character, his holiness, his power, his righteousness. Spend time with him, allowing him to transform you into his image. And you will be “blessed” indeed.


John Rippon became pastor of the Carter’s Lane Baptist Church in London in the year 1775. His ministry saw some of the most chaotic days in English history. He served God in that one pastorate for over six decades. Rippon published one of the best-known hymnals of his era. And he discovered the truth of these words his hymnal made famous:

How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord,Is laid for your faith in His excellent Word!What more can He say than to you He hath said,You, who unto Jesus for refuge have fled?

Fear not, I am with thee, O be not dismayed,For I am thy God and will still give thee aid;I’ll strengthen and help thee, and cause thee to standUpheld by My righteous, omnipotent hand.

When through fiery trials thy pathways shall lie,My grace, all sufficient, shall be thy supply;The flame shall not hurt thee; I only designThy dross to consume, and thy gold to refine.

The soul that on Jesus has leaned for repose,I will not, I will not desert to its foes;That soul, though all hell should endeavor to shake,I’ll never, no never, no never forsake.

You can make his words your experience. The next step is yours.

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.

For the rest of your life you will be a ransomed sinner, a condemned criminal. But you will also be someone loved beyond words by someone of great standing, of enormous power, of the highest significance.

This is exactly who you are.

When we see ourselves as God does, our twin problems with humility are solved. We are set free from performance anxiety, the intense “drivenness” to impress people with our value, because we are valued by the Lord of the universe. And we are set free from debilitating, demeaning, demoralizing humility, because we are valued by the Lord of the universe.

You are a person of indescribable worth, not because of who you are but because of whose you are. See yourself as God does, and you’ll be freed for genuine humility.

See others as God sees them

Value humility as God does, and see yourself as God does. The third step to biblical humility: see others as God sees them. Greek scholar Fritz Rienecker has this definition for “praus:” “The humble and gentle attitude which expresses itself in a patient submissiveness to offense, free from malice and desire for revenge.” To be “meek” is to “submit to offense,” no matter how others have offended you.

To do this, we must see others as God sees them. As people of infinite worth, for they are the creation of God. As sinners just like us, saved by God’s grace as we are. To be humble before others, do not judge them as better or worse than you are. Choose to pardon them when they hurt you, for God has pardoned you. Release your anger, or need for revenge, or pain.

When we do this, we are free to be humble before every person we know. Not just before those people we judge to be superior to us, those who humble us with their abilities or success. But also before those we consider inferior to us, those we judge and criticize and condemn. We can be humble before the lowest sinner, when we see him as God does.

Two quotes challenged me this week: “Only God is in position to look down on anyone;” and, “Any experience which makes me feel superior to other people is not of the Lord.” See others as God sees them, and you’ll be humble before every person you know.

See your gifts as God sees them

Here’s the last step: see your gifts and abilities as God sees them. James Montgomery Boice defines “praus” as strength under control. He illustrates the word this way: a powerful stallion, strong and fast, completely bridled and submitted to the control of its master. To be “meek” is not to depreciate the stallion’s strength, speed or abilities. It is to submit them to the control of their master.

How does God see your abilities? As his gifts, entrusted to you to be used for his glory.

It is not biblical humility to debase yourself. Neither can you be humble when you exalt yourself.

It is biblical humility to embrace and affirm the gifts, abilities, opportunities, education, and experiences God has given to you, and then use them to glorify your Lord. Develop them fully, and engage them completely.

One of my mentors said to me, “The Holy Spirit has a strange affinity for the trained mind.” Develop fully all that God has given to you. But yield it to the control of God, and use it for the glory of God.

The great scholar J. I. Packer made this incisive point: “It is impossible at the same time to give the impression both that I am a great Christian and that Jesus Christ is a great Master.” For what purpose am I preaching this sermon—to impress you or to glorify Jesus? For what purpose will you teach a class today, or sing an anthem, or lead a ministry? For what purpose will you earn money this week, engage clients, help patients, finish tasks?

Mother Teresa, the tiny Albanian nun, became the world’s most famous Christian next to Billy Graham. But her goal was just the opposite. From the time she first entered ministry, her life purpose never changed. In her words, she wished only to be “a tiny pencil in the hand of God.” And what he wrote with her gifts changed the world.


Do you value humility today as Jesus does? Do you see yourself as he does—a redeemed sinner, loved for whose you are? Do you see others as he does—fellow sinners, equal in value with you as your sisters and brothers? Do you see your abilities as he does—gifts to be used in his will for his glory? Then you are “praus,” “meek.” And you are “blessed.”

Here is one of the finest faith commitments I know, from a Muslim who became a Christian and prayed: “O God, I am Mustafah the tailor and I work at the shop of Muhammad Ali. The whole day long I sit and pull the needle and the thread through the cloth. O God, you are the needle and I am the thread. I am attached to you and I follow you. When the thread tries to slip away from the needle it becomes tangled and must be cut so that it can be put back in the right place. O God, help me to follow you wherever you may lead me. For I am really only Mustafah the tailor, and I work at the shop of Muhammad Ali on the great square.”

Whose thread are 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.

Forgiving is not pretending that you’re not hurt. You can carry on, but the pain remains and often grows.

Forgiving is not tolerating. You may have to tolerate your employer, or your sibling, or your son-in-law. That doesn’t mean that you’ve forgiven him.

To forgive is to pardon. It is to refuse to punish, even though you have every right to do so. It is the governor pardoning the criminal—he doesn’t forget about the crime, or excuse it, or pretend it didn’t occur, or tolerate the behavior. He simply chooses not to punish, though he could.

So who needs your pardon this morning? As Smedes observes, you may need today to pardon a parent who died and left you. The birth mother who gave you away. The “invisible ghost” in the organization who fired you, or mismanaged your investments, or cut your son from the squad or your daughter from the drill team. Someone who appears not to care if you forgive them or not. God. Yourself. Who most needs your pardon today?

Why should you be merciful?

Why issue it? First, to stop your personal cycle of pain.

This beatitude promises the merciful will be “blessed” by God. This “blessing” transcends your pain. God offers you a ticket off the roller coaster of hurt. But you must extend mercy to receive it.

You see, if you give back what others give to you, you are constantly their victim. They pitch—you catch. You’re trapped by your circumstances. Your soul is a genie in their bottle—how they rub it determines who you are.

If you refuse to pardon the person who hurt you, he hurts you still. Every time you plot your revenge you feel again your pain. Every time you nurse your pain you increase it. The person who hurt you may not even know you’re harboring your grudge and wounding your soul. He or she may have gone on with life. You’re hurting no one more than yourself. But you can stop today.

The second reason follows the first: pardon to receive mercy. Jesus promises the merciful that “they will be shown mercy.”

This is not a transaction, a legal arrangement, as though my mercy obligates you and God to be merciful to me. Mercy is not a means to your end, but a free gift you choose to give.

But when you give it, a miraculous thing happens: you put yourself in position to receive mercy from God and others. Not because you earned it, but simply because now you’re willing to receive it. The most legalistic people with others are equally legalistic with themselves. If I won’t forgive you until you’re punished, I won’t forgive myself until I’m punished. If I won’t show mercy to you, I won’t receive it myself.

I was once hurt by a deacon and his family in another church I pastored. The pain was real and deep. Every time I saw him in worship I felt my anger well up in my soul. I became short, irritated, on edge with others—and especially with myself. Intolerant of my own mistakes and failures. But the day I released my anger and chose to pardon that man, I found a new freedom with myself. A new willingness to be loved and forgiven by God.

If life must be fair, every injustice punished, we cannot forgive others. Or ourselves.

Here’s a third reason: pardon to break the cycle of revenge.

If I must return your hurt, then you must return mine. And I must return yours. Frederick Buechner is so perceptive: an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth is a rapid way to a sightless, toothless world. It must stop somewhere. It has been truly said: you can no more win a war than win a fire.

But when you pardon me, the cycle stops. There’s nothing left for me to do but to receive or reject your pardon. I have no cause to hurt you, and abundant reason to love you and learn to love myself as well.

Here’s a fourth reason: to show others the love of Christ.

Jesus identified one characteristic as a guarantee that others will know we love him: “By this all men will know you are my disciples, if you have love one for another” (John 13:35). Forgiving, pardoning, releasing love proves that God’s love in us is real.

During the depths of the Cold War, people in a particular East German town began throwing their trash over the Berlin Wall into the West German town on the other side. The West Germans, for their part, responded by tossing food and clothes to the East Germans. With this note: “Each gives what he has.”

How can you be merciful?

Let’s close with the practical question I hope you’re now asking: how can you be merciful? How can you do as Jesus teaches here, so that you stop your pain, experience mercy, break the cycle of revenge, and show others his love? What practical steps can you take this morning to offer mercy to the person who most needs it from you?

First, admit the reality of your hurt. Name it honestly and specifically. Describe in words how you feel about it and the person who caused it. Describe even what you would like to do in revenge. Get your feelings out, as openly and transparently as possible.

You may want to put them on paper. Write a letter to the one who hurt you, then tear it up. You may want to talk to a friend you trust, or a Christian counselor. Most of all, admit it to God. As someone said, “Tell God on them.” Pour out your pain and hurt. You must admit the cancer exists before the surgeon can help you.

Second, ask God to help you pardon the one who hurt you.

You are not expected to be “merciful” without Jesus’ help. That’s why these Beatitudes are addressed to believers, followers of Christ. Turn to the Holy Spirit who dwells in your heart and soul. Ask him for the power and pardon of God.

Ask him for the “magic eyes” to see this person as he does. And to see yourself as he does—both of you redeemed sinners. Ask him to help you give to your enemy the mercy God has given to you.

And act as though he has. Don’t feel yourself into a new way of acting—act yourself into a new way of feeling. Step out by faith. Every time the pain wells up inside your heart again, tell yourself again that you have released this person from the prison of their sin. That the ink on the pardon is dry, the deed is done, the forgiveness made.

Third, initiate restoration.

With God’s help, act in courage. Tell the person honestly what they did to you, and how much this pain has hurt you. They may not even know their injustice, or comprehend its severity. If I hurt you, I want to know it. I want you to talk to me, not about me. And I to you. Go to the person in question, with honesty.

Tell this person that you have pardoned him. He may not understand what you mean, or believe it, or accept it. She may never reciprocate what you have done. This is not yours to decide. You must begin the process of healing the relationship, whatever your partner in restoration decides to do.

And find an honest way to a new relationship. To forgive is not to be naïve. It is not to allow an unrepentant, unchanged person to hurt you yet again. Neither is it to assume that they will never change. Seek a wise balance with the wisdom God gives to know what and where you can trust. You may never have the old relationship, but you can have a new one by the mercy of God.

Last, be realistic. We humans forgive slowly, a little at a time, usually with anger left over. One day at a time. Remind yourself that you have forgiven as many times as the pain comes back. And over time, it will come back less. And one day, perhaps, not at all.


To forgive, you must first be forgiven. You cannot give what you have never received. Have you asked Jesus to forgive your sins, to pardon your failures, to be your Savior and Lord? He’s waiting to do just that for you, right now. And to help you give his forgiveness to the person most in need of this gift from you.

Take a little quiz with me. Name the wealthiest person in the world. Name the last Heisman trophy winner, or last winner of the Miss America pageant, or last recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize.

Now name the last person who forgave you. Remember the way their forgiveness changed your life. Is anyone remembering you right now? Will they tomorrow?