Sometimes Jesus’ parables are hard to understand, but the one he tells of a persistent widow at the beginning of Luke 18 should not be. And it should not be difficult to understand because Luke tells us why Jesus told the parable. Luke wrote: “Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up.” So there you have it. If you read Jesus’ parable of the persistent widow and come up with a different “moral to the story,” I'm pretty confident you’re not reading it right.
I bring up Luke’s summary of Jesus’ parable because of an interaction I had with a man today. I first met him probably four years ago. We have gone to numerous lunches, but in terms of conversations about God or Jesus or the Bible I have never gotten much traction. This week as I was trying to fill in a couple of last-minute cancellations, I wondered whether it was worth it to reach out to him again, or whether I should turn my focus elsewhere. Lunch answered that question.
After taking our seats in a small, lunch-time dive, it took less than five minutes for my friend to bring up a question about the purpose of life. In no time, we were talking about God and how we can know he exists. Then our conversation took us to Jesus and his sacrifice for us and the difference he can make in our lives. Finally, we concluded by talking about the Bible and agreed to read Luke’s gospel and get together to discuss what we are reading.
And to think I was just about to give up on this man.
Sometimes people ask me when it is time move on from an effort to reach out to someone. I usually say that even if there is a time that we should move on, it is probably way further down the road than we think. Today, I needed to listen to my own advice. Certainly, there are times when God sets the table and I am able to go from 0 to 60 with someone in a first meeting or two, but sometimes it takes years of cultivating a relationship before there is a readiness to talk meaningfully about God things. The question is will I persist.
If you are reading this as a Christian, my guess is there is someone in your life that you hope will see Jesus for who he is. You’ve tried to further conversation personally or invited him or her to this or that gathering to explore Christ. And nothing seems to have come of it. It’s just at these times that you can walk away. But maybe, like me, that's just the time you need to make one more call and set up one more lunch.
Some people ask me what I do with Search. Sometimes it's just about praying and not giving up.
Have you ever thought to yourself, “I wish God would show up”? Or perhaps, you phrased it like this, “It would be a whole lot easier to believe in God, if He just made Himself visible.” Or, “I’d do what God said, if He just made it clear what He wanted me to do.” Those last words are ones I have asked myself over the years.
Recently I listened to a dialogue between Christian podcaster Justin Brierley and atheist David Smalley, both who have many followers. During their discussion, Smalley stated that it would be a whole lot easier to believe in God if every time you did something He wanted, you got a big reward, and every time you did something bad you were punished in some clear way. I can understand what he is asking: If God is really there, why doesn’t He make himself more easily identifiable?
Not long after hearing the podcast, the thought went through my head, “Would we really be more likely to follow God if He showed up in some visible form before us, or if He rewarded us or punished us on the spot for following Him or not?”
Your quick response to a question like this might be, “Of course, we would.” Whether you are already a believer in God or not, if God showed up or made Himself very visible in some form or fashion, you probably tend to think it would be a game changer. But I am not so sure that would be the case. At least, that’s not what we see played out for us in the Bible.
There are a few periods in biblical history when we could say God really showed up. One period is the time surrounding the Exodus, when God moved the nation of Israel out of Egyptian captivity and into a new land. During that period, God made His presence super evident through plagues and parting water, pillars of fire, food from the sky, and words sent through Moses. Some of those words, set up the very scenario David Smalley asked for in his podcast.
They went like this: "If you fully obey the LORD your God and carefully follow all his commands I give you today, the LORD your God will set you high above all the nations on earth. All these blessings will come upon you and accompany you if you obey the LORD your God: You will be blessed in the city and blessed in the country. The fruit of your womb will be blessed, and the crops of your land and the young of your livestock—the calves of your herds and the lambs of your flocks…The LORD will grant that the enemies who rise up against you will be defeated before you. They will come at you from one direction but flee from you in seven. The LORD will send a blessing on your barns and on everything you put your hand to."
Just following those words, God added this: "However, if you do not obey the LORD your God and do not carefully follow all his commands and decrees I am giving you today, all these curses will come upon you and overtake you: You will be cursed in the city and cursed in the country...The fruit of your womb will be cursed, and the crops of your land, and the calves of your herds and the lambs of your flocks. You will be cursed when you come in and cursed when you go out. The LORD will send on you curses, confusion and rebuke in everything you put your hand to, until you are destroyed and come to sudden ruin because of the evil you have done in forsaking him…The LORD will cause you to be defeated before your enemies. You will come at them from one direction but flee from them in seven, and you will become a thing of horror to all the kingdoms on earth."
These words are pretty straight forward, and you can find God saying even more in this vein throughout Deuteronomy 28-30. Simply put, God says to the nation of Israel, “Obey me and you will see visible rewards. Disobey me and you will see bad things happen.” Was God just spouting off when He said this? I don’t think so. If we study the history of the Israelites, this stuff played out just as God said. When the people obeyed, things went really well for them. But when they disobeyed it went poorly for them to say the least. Now, you would hope that the Israelites would have been reasonable and that after a few instances of experiencing the consequences of obeying and disobeying, they would line up to get on team God and start singing His praises. But that’s not what happened. As time went on, they flat out ignored God and His instructions. They even started worshiping man-made gods until final destruction came on them just as God had predicted.
But this is hardly the only time God showed up in biblical history. If we want to talk about God showing up, we certainly can’t skip past Jesus. Jesus declared that he was God in the flesh, and angels from heaven confirmed it. To help people understand he was God, Jesus did all kinds of miracles, fulfilled all kinds of impossible prophecies, and even told people he would rise from the dead, which is exactly what he did.
So here was God on Earth, for some 33 years, doing all kinds of incredible things before countless people. You would think that as a result there would have been thousands, even millions who would be falling in line, especially after Jesus came back to life. But that’s not what happened at all. The Bible tells us that in the days following Jesus’ resurrection there were only 120 who banded together as believers (Acts 1:15). A lifetime of God showing up and only 120 believers!
So, what’s my point? It’s this: maybe the problem for us is not that God has not shown up enough, or hasn’t revealed Himself enough to us, or hasn’t given us enough evidence of His existence. Maybe the problem is that despite all this we just want to chart our own course. We would rather close our eyes to His work in our midst. We’d rather play the skeptic and keep demanding that He prove Himself one more time. We would rather ignore His instruction, even if we know He’s saying something that’s for our own good.
I know, I know, we want to think that God showing up would be the definitive factor in getting on board with God. But history doesn’t bear that out. Like it or not, in many regards the issue is not about God and what He has done to make Himself known to us. That’s already a done deal. The issue is about us, and whether we are willing to receive what He has made known about Himself, about us, and about His way. You might even say the real issue today is not whether God will show, but whether you and I will.
All of us have a hard time with hypocrites. Parents who wake up with a hangover on Saturday morning will have a hard time telling their son to avoid the drinking scene on Saturday night. The doctor who is overweight will be less effective at telling her patients they should lose weight. And the teacher who tells his students to be organized but is always fumbling to find the chalk probably won’t inspire his class. Explain it any way you like, but when we see people who do not live the walk they are prescribing, they do not get our ear or our respect.
No doubt this same dynamic is true when people see Christians, and particularly Christian leaders, not living very Christianly. Can we really trust a pastor when he speaks of living an honest and upright life only to find out later that he has absconded with the church funds and the church secretary?! And when a church-going mom tells her children they should “give things over to God” when she is the most worry-filled person they know, do the kids really give any weight to her words? The problem of hypocrisy is true in every arena of life, and for many this hypocrisy is the stumbling block that keeps them from considering the claims of Christ. No one likes a hypocrite, but a religious hypocrite we disdain even more.
Jesus hated hypocrites too!
Fortunately, we are in good company. Jesus hated hypocrites too. In fact, it is not overstating things to say that Jesus reserved his harshest words for hypocrites. Yes, there were those who lived rather shady lives that he asked to walk to a different beat, but he always did that in a rather even keel fashion. Not so when it came to religious leaders who put on a front but could care less about loving others or loving God on any terms but their own. In one particular tirade, he called these leaders out in public, labeling them hypocrites seven times and adding descriptive phrases like “blind guides,” “whitewashed tombs,” and “brood of vipers.” If you think Jesus always spoke in gentle tones, think again. He got in the grill of hypocrites, especially if they had any tinge of arrogance.
But as much as Jesus hated duplicity, he recognized that all of us to some degree or another fail the hypocrisy test. We tell others to be more disciplined but find ourselves watching another game on Saturday afternoon and ignoring the toilet that has been broken for weeks. Or perhaps, we tell our children to speak nicely to their siblings but do so with anger in our voice. Suffice it to say, if we discounted any and everyone on the account of hypocrisy, we couldn’t even listen to ourselves!
Truth from a hypocrite shouldn’t be ignored
This all said, I think it is valuable for us to look beyond hypocrites themselves when we consider the veracity of their words. True, they may be despicable when they yelp about things they don’t even live up to, but that says nothing about the truth of their words. Suppose you had a jerk of an English teacher. She was the rudest teacher you knew. Throughout the year, she told you over and over again the proper use of the words “then” and “than.” Because she never listened to her students if they asked a question, you decide you won’t listen to her instructions. When “then” is called for, you write “than,” and vice versa just to irk her. In one way, your act of rebellion is justified; why listen to a teacher like that? But in another way, you are acting rather foolishly. “Then” and “than” serve different purposes in English writing, and there simply is a right way to use them regardless of your teacher’s behavior.
Or consider this example. You live in a small town far away from sophisticated medical care. You have not been feeling well of late, and though you hate to do so, you visit the town doctor who is rather full of himself and has proven himself rather untrustworthy in a host of business related transactions. He runs a test on you and even sends the results to a big city lab where it is determined you have an aggressive cancer. He says you are in bad shape, and if something isn’t done immediately you are going to die. Now, you are in a dilemma. You can’t stand this doctor. In fact, you would love for him to be wrong for no other reason than that it would take him down a notch or two. But shunning the truth of his words about your cancer would be very costly. So you follow what he is advises, even though you don’t like him.
Many today have had bad experiences with Christians or with the church or with those who are religious in any form or fashion. I understand that. I have had bad experiences with people like this as well. They are not fun to be around. And sadly, I must admit that sometimes I have been the Christian who has given others a bad experience. But when you are around such people, you still must ask yourself if what they are saying is true. Ultimately Christianity is not about Christians or about how they conduct themselves. Ultimately it is about Christ and his words. If Christ is found wanting, then you can go on your merry way, but if Jesus’ words are well-grounded, you would be foolish to ignore them regardless of what Christians say or do.
Sign on with the original
No one likes to be blamed for something they didn’t do. Let’s suppose you start up a new delivery service called OTET (for “On time, every time”). Your number one priority is customer service, and you’ve worked hard to maintain a near perfect on-time delivery record. Seeing the success of your company, someone starts using the name OTET to secure business, but does not provide the level of service you do. Before long, bad reviews start showing up on your website. You don’t understand. Your delivery record is impeccable. Soon you discover the problem. Someone is using your name, but not living up to it.
I am afraid this kind of scenario is what happens when it comes to Christianity. Christians use Christ’s name but often don’t live up to his name. No wonder people want to stay clear. As the owner of OTET you hope that people will not blame the poor delivery service on you and are still willing to sign on with the original. I think this is the case with Jesus too. He knows that those who use his name will often fall short and hopes that while you might be discouraged with Christians at times you nonetheless sign on with the original.
John likes to help people wrestle with the big questions of life in his work with Search Ministries. He served as a pastor in Houston for 16 years, earned his doctorate at Biola University, and is a contributing author of Reasons to Believe: Thoughtful Responses to Life’s Toughest Questions.