I’ve had some health challenges in the last year and a half. “Challenges” is a nice way of saying it. Like the nice way a lot of my friends have said, “You look like you’ve lost some weight,” when what they really mean is, “You look like you need a long-term care facility.”
Funny thing is, once approximately 27 doctors, 478 blood tests, and 3500 random guesses/unsolicited advice/webMd visits were all involved? The answer was something no one expected. One of the drugs I’ve been taking for eight years to keep my body from rejecting my kidney was causing my body to reject basically everything else. Like food. And water.
Food and water are important. I think I learned that in health class at some point. But now I’m quite certain of it. Nutrients contained in food keep us alive. And my body was having none of them.
For a long time.
So something meant to make me healthy and well ended up poisoning me. It happens, to a select few.
Spiritually, I’m afraid it happens to many of us. I think automatically of the Pharisees that Jesus confronted time and again. His basic message to them? You have a good foundation. You want to know how to please God. But you’ve taken it so far from its purpose that you’re poisoning yourselves. And everyone else.
The Pharisees had rules. Lots of them. They began well enough—with a desire to obey and follow God. They began in Scripture. But they got a tad out of hand. Anytime there are 613 rules for getting through your day, things are out of hand.
My medication began well. It was intended to keep my body from killing a life-saving donor kidney. And it did that. But along the way, it started killing me instead. That’s a little out of hand. A bit of straying from the original intent.
I fear—no, I know—we’ve done that, too. We’ve looked at the guardrails God sent up for life as he intended and, instead of being grateful for their life-saving capacity, we’ve used them to beat others into anything but life. Too often, we’ve poisoned the body with something that was supposed to help it.
We begin well when we want to teach people God’s way to live, because we know it’s the only way to live abundantly. But when we start taking that basic moral bedrock and, instead of standing on it with arms outstretched to heaven in gratitude, we smack people’s heads on it? Poison.
This isn’t always true. Often Christians are awesomely gracious, and I have been witness to that beauty so many times. Yet the reputation Christianity in America has is well known and less than attractive. We can argue that it’s inaccurate, but one look at news stories and web comments will tell us it’s accurate enough, if we’re honest. Some people feel poisoned by the other people God meant to be good news. This is not good news. For anyone.
God’s word was intended to offer life and relationship. His kindness is intended to lead us toward him and to repentance (Rom. 2.4). Yet, like bad medicine, the church sometimes uses that Word to send people away, with no life-saving nutrition or life-giving water.
What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you shut the door of the Kingdom of Heaven in people’s faces. You won’t go in yourselves, and you don’t let others enter either. You cross land and sea to make one convert, and then you turn that person into twice the child of hell you yourselves are! What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees.
Hypocrites! For you are careful to tithe even the tiniest income from your herb gardens, but you ignore the more important aspects of the law—justice, mercy, and faith.
-Matthew 23.13-15, 23
What sorrow awaits those who were given words meant for life, justice, mercy, and faith and used them to poison the people God gave them to love. These are hard words. I am aware of guilt in my own soul. But more and more, I grieve deeply for the opportunities God gives his body to be life and light where we choose the opposite. More and more, I see these words repeated by Jesus, “What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law,” and I know I am a teacher and had best choose my words carefully. Jesus repeats it seven times not for the poetic beauty. He repeats it so often because this act grieves God more than any other. The act of taking what He meant for health and making people sicker.
Gratitude is November’s watchword in the US.
The way to respond to God’s guardrails is with gratitude, not self-righteousness.
I am grateful for rules that offer me the chance to live with fewer consequences for my dumb choices. But I am not free to glibly inform others that their consequences are their own dumb fault. I’m not even free to decide that this is true. Only God can decide if an effect is a result of some cause. It’s not in my bandwidth. It’s not up to me to call a tsunami or an earthquake or AIDS God’s judgment because I don’t get to be God. I don’t know. The complex nuances of cause and effect in my own body turned out difficult enough to navigate, let alone believing I can judge those effects on a cosmic basis.
Gratitude dictates that I fall on my knees in worship and then rise in service. Gratitude that I have what is life-giving should make me a life-giving conduit, not an arbiter of who gets to be in and who is out.
Making God’s life-giving Word into something that poisons those it comes in contact with is something for which we will surely answer. Matthew 23 makes that frighteningly clear. The last year and a half have taught me a great deal about turning something good into a weapon rather than a balm.
Strange, painful words for entering into a fall season of celebrating abundance and joy? Maybe. But as I’m celebrating no longer slowly dying of poison, perhaps Christians can take time to remember how grateful we should all be for that kindness that leads us to repentance. Perhaps it should lead us to repentance right now.
I tell you, her sins—and they are many—have been forgiven, so she has shown me much love. But a person who is forgiven little shows only little love.
Jill Richardson is the pastor of Real Hope Community Church near Chicago. She is the author of six books and a national speaker, as well as a contributor to books from Dayspring, Lillenas, and Christianity Today. Jill’s doctorate in "Church Leadership in a Changing Context" is helping her with her passion—passing on a healthy, creative church and doing it with the next generation. She is a graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, Bethel Seminary (St. Paul), and Washington University. Her focus is on church leadership, creative preaching, immigration and refugees, women’s issues, and intergenerational leadership. She has an unnatural love for Middle-earth, chocolate marzipan, old musicals, fish tacos, oceans, cats, and Earl Grey. She believes in Jesus, grace, restoration, kindness, justice, and the Cubs. You can find her work at jillmrichardson.com.