Hand Over Hand

nes

I introduced my daughter to the joys of the original Super Mario Bros. a couple of weeks ago. Of course, to do it right, this isn’t run in emulation, downloaded to the Wii U virtual console, or any other non-authentic experience. She’s seeing the game in full 8-bit glory running off of the NES I got from my parents some 25 or so years ago. She’s had the privilege of blowing off the cartridge, and she even got to use an original NES controller.

At first, I just handed her the controller and let her have at it. Unsurprisingly, she figured out how to move and jump all by herself. Where she had more problems was in coordinating those two elements. She probably spent a solid five minutes repeatedly running headlong into the first goomba until she successfully jumped over it. Then she successfully jumped over a few other obstacles, but the second pit proved to be too great a challenge.

Eventually, my daughter asked for help, and we began playing the game hand over hand. At first, I held the controller with her thumbs on top of mine.  After a few minutes, we switched positions, and something really interesting happened. At first, her thumbs were very tense, and she would press buttons without guidance. After a few repetitions, however, she relaxed, fully trusting that I could help her through the obstacles that lay ahead if she would just give up control and let me.

Trust in His Hands

This is the type of complete trust we should have in our own Heavenly Father. Psalm 56:3 simply says:

When I am afraid, I will trust in you.

I Peter 5:6 – 7 speaks of trust this way:

Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you.

Finally, here’s how Jesus addresses this kind of trust in Matthew 6:25 – 34:

Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.

But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.

God is there holding His hands over ours, but we so want to take control from him. My little girl learned, through trial and error, that I would guide her through the parts of Super Mario Bros. that were giving her troubles, but she had to relax and let me have that control. Sometimes all we have to do to give God control is relax.

Releasing Anxiety

So many things tempt us to tense up and grow anxious. People on the news tell us of terrible events from around the world, and they do so in a way that encourages stress and discouragement. Editorialists and pundits tell us what we should be stressing out over and what we should be feeling angry or fearful about. There are the daily stresses that seem to pile up so much. These influences and others tempt us to misalign our priorities and try to seize control from God.

Jesus and His apostles tell us to do the opposite. This is a way we should be separate from the world. Instead of letting these things tense us up, we should be simply giving control over to God and letting Him guide us. Let’s humble ourselves under His hands and trust Him to guide us before all of the obstacles this world places before us.

A Spiritual Mind

In Philippians, Paul addresses the Christian mindset. Like the Beatitudes of Christ’s sermon on the mount, these words focus on who we should be inside, and these internal attitudes should then affect everything we say, think, and do. Philippians 1:21 initially proclaims that to live is Christ, and Paul feels torn between his desire to join Christ in Heaven and his need to continue helping Christ’s cause in this life. All Paul does is focused on living Christ and drawing closer to a home with Him, and he encourages his fellow Christians to have that same focus. Like him, our single-minded focus must be Heaven and the expectation of our salvation.

In chapter 2, Paul turns his thoughts to having the same mind as Christ. In verses 2-3, he calls on us to have one love and one mind in humility. He calls on us to have a humble and submissive mind. Paul goes on to emphasize that this was the mind Christ had in this life, humbling Himself, obedient even unto death. This Jesus, equal to Father and Spirit in the Trinity and instrument of Creation, submitted Himself to become a sacrifice for the sins of the world. He had a right to resist, to refuse, but He did so willingly. He did so sacrificially. He put on submission and humility, and we should be likewise willing to submit and abase ourselves despite the rights we think we have.

Chapter 3 touches on having a spirit-centered mind. For several verses, Paul lists his own qualities that could allow him to boast among his peers – a Pharisee, a zealot, a Jew’s Jew one might say. He had power, admiration, and respect in his previous life. By verse 8, however, Paul claims to see these physical accomplishments as nothing compared to his relationship with Jesus Christ. The accolades and praises of man mean nothing compared to spiritual victory in Christ.

Finally, in Philippians 4, Paul calls on Christians to have a contented mind. Verse 7 describes a peace that surpasses all understanding, a peace that comes from a life of prayer and rejoicing in God. Verse 11 encourages contentment, and verse 13 reminds us that our strength comes from Christ. How do we accomplish this? Verses 8-9 tells us to meditate on the true, the honorable, the pure, and the lovely.

Our minds define who we are. As followers of Christ, we should be content, spiritually-minded, and Christ-centered in our hearts and minds. If we can have these qualities in place, then we can have peace and contentment in Christ incomparable to any other peace we can have here in this world, and we can then share that peace with others, continually helping the cause of Christ in this life.

lesson by Tim Smelser

Do Not Fret

Psalm 37 is a Psalm of David that contrasts the ways of the wicked with the ways of the righteous. David is in a good position to comment on the things listed in this Psalm, for David really did face almost every high and low a person can experience in their life. He faced trials, violence, poverty, betrayal, and hunger alongside the wealth and power he would have later in his life. Many wanted him to fail. Many wanted him dead. Still, time and again in the psalm, David admonishes his readers to “fret not.”

We worry about the harm we perceive as possible from others. We sometimes become envious when we see those we perceive as less righteous succeeding financially where we struggle. Other times, we may feel we have no choice but to become like the wicked if we are going to be successful ourselves. Still, our admonition is the same: “Fret not.”

Purging the Stress of Comparisons

David first suggests to us that God is ultimately in control. We may look around and see a world spiraling out of control, but verses 7, 12-13, 17-18, 25, and 40 reinforce God’s involvement in upholding and preserving the righteous. It may be hard to remember, but our God is in control of eternity.

David also encourages us to take positive action. Verses 3 and 27 admonish us to actively do good. Instead of dwelling on all others are doing wrong, we can make an effort to be a light of goodness in this world, just as Peter tells Jesus did in the face of detractors (Acts 10:38). Romans 12:21 encourages to overcome evil with goodness, and Galatians 6:10 tells us to work good toward all. Finally, I Peter 2:12 reminds us that our good works glorify God, even in the face of persecution and discouragement. When we are engaged in active good, it’s all the harder to waste our time fretting over the evil we see in others.

We also to direct our minds to higher goals and higher ideals. Instead of focusing on succeeding in this world, we should be lifting our eyes higher. Psalm 37:4 tells us to delight in Jehovah, and Colossians 3:1-2 reminds us to set our minds on things above instead of upon this world. Our aim is not to get ahead in this life. Rather, it is to achieve a heavenly goal. If our eyes are lifted to Heaven, the burdens of this world way much less.

Psalm 37:5 encourages us to commit ourselves to God, just as Jesus said to seek God’s kingdom first above all things. Philippians 1:12-14, verse written by Paul while in jail, speaks of the progress Paul makes in the Lord’s work while in captivity. Instead of looking upon all he had lost, Paul focuses on the accomplishments he can achieve for God in the circumstances he is in. Regardless of our own circumstances – perhaps pressured to compromise morals, loss of income or friendships, alienation of peers – we can remain committed to God’s work.

In the end, we have to fall back on a foundation of patience in God. We are used to instant gratification, but God’s timetable is not our timetable. In Psalm 37:7, David encourages on us to wait in the Lord. We need to trust in Him and not let impatience derail our spiritual peace.

Conclusion

In Romans 5:3, Paul says that endurance is sometimes developed in times of trial. When we face difficulties, we find out what we are really made of. Paul goes on to remind us that those trials redirect our minds toward the hope we should have in Christ. When we are in pain, when we are worried, when we are facing trials, it is easy to lose sight of this. Our hope is in Him, though, and we can be patient in Him, keeping our eyes on things above.

Proverbs 3:5 encourages us trust God. Verse 7 admonishes us to reverently honor Jehovah, and verse 9 calls on us to honor Him. He will uphold us and protect us if we seek refuge in Him. Our minds should be set on Him, honoring and trusting in Him, rejecting the strains of this world so we can reach for a home above.

lesson by Tim Smelser

Fulfilling the Whole

Many Christians are familiar with the general outline of Ecclesiastes. The first couple chapters follow the author – very likely Solomon – searching for fulfillment in the accomplishments and possessions of this life, and none of these bring satisfaction. He then turns to various states of emotion, of intelligence, of sorrow, and ignorance. Throughout this, we see glimpses of the conclusion he comes to at the end of his book:

The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.

Why should we fear God and keep His commandments? Why should we honor and revere Him, and what does it mean to be the “whole of man?”

An Unfulfilling Relationship with God

Some might serve out of a base fear of punishment. It is less an act of reverence than an act of self-preservation, much like a child might follow certain rules – not because they understand the rules or respect the authority behind them, but because the fear consequences. Others may serve God because they inherited it from their parents, blindly following a tradition passed from generation from generation. Finally, we may follow God for selfish reasons, for the benefits and blessings we believe we have in Him. None of this, however, is what Solomon speaks of in his book, and none of these attitudes will satisfy our relationship with God.

Nothing in this life completes us the way our God completes us. Until we recognize that, until we stop superficially serving while seeking other answers, we will never achieve true contentment and peace in this life.

Finding Fulfillment in God

Our Emotional Needs

God fulfills our emotional needs. All of the feelings given to us by God, those emotional needs and responses given by Him, are fulfilled by His presence in our lives. Take Noah, in Genesis 6:9, who is described as man who “walked with God,” implying that God also walked with Him. Job, like Noah, is pictured as a perfect man. Abraham and God, chapter after chapter, have a close relationship in the book of Genesis, and David, the man “after God’s own heart,” shares a mutual love with God. To these individuals, God is not pictured as a distant being. They commune closely with their God.

John 3:16 begins with “God so loved the world,” and when we read that, we should see ourselves in that. God so loved me that He gave His only son. Romans 5:6 describes the mercy with which God looks down upon us and His willingness to love us even when we are unloving. Where it is easy to love those who reciprocate our love, God continually loves us even when we do not love.

We love because He first loved us.

– John 1:19

Our Intellectual Needs

Mankind is an inquisitive and curious species. We are always trying to do more, discover more, accomplish more. Genesis 1:26-27 records God placing Adam and Eve in the garden, He affirms that all He has made is for the fulfillment of His Creation. There is so much to enjoy in this world; there is so much to pursue and try to understand; so much to create and discover; but none of these things can ultimately fulfill us.

Hebrews 1:1 reminds us that God has always spoken to man, and II Peter 1:2-3 encourages us to grow intellectually, learning more of His word, understanding all things pertaining to life through Him. It is a knowledge of God that leads to a deeper understanding of who He is and who we are. No other wisdom can satisfy our minds like God can.

Our Spiritual Needs

Returning to Genesis 1:27, we see ourselves created in God’s image. This is not a reference to God’s physical appearance. Instead, as reinforced in Genesis 2:7, it is a reference to our living souls. Our spiritual nature reflects God’s spiritual nature, and that eternal spirit longs for a fulfillment that this world is unable to provide. Every human being has eternity in their hearts.

Romans 6:23 tells us God’s gift to us is eternity for our souls. Luke 10:25 and Luke 18:18 both demonstrate individuals who are contemplating the fates of their individual eternal souls. Romans 1:19-20 even reminds us of the eternal nature testified by the world we see around us. Our souls long for something we cannot find in this world.

Conclusion

God’s sacrificial love for us should elicit a response from us. He fulfills us as spiritual, intellectual, and emotional creatures in a way nothing physical can. We can return His love; we can know His plan and intentions for us; We can accept His gift of eternity. In Him, we find the only true answer for the deepest needs of our souls. His word, His love, His gift – these complete mankind. He is, as Ecclesiastes states, the whole of man.

lesson by Tim Smelser

The Tao of Christ

We don’t often study world religions and philosophies in our Bible studies and classes, and, often when we do, we study these faiths merely to disprove them. We are dismissive of the belief systems around us. I believe, however, that we can learn a great deal about ourselves when we look at these faiths openly and honestly. In Ecclesiastes 3:11, the Preacher passingly remarks that God “has put eternity into man’s heart.” I take this to mean that God has placed an awareness of the divine nature in man, enabling us to be aware of the divine even before we experience it.

If we truly believe the entirety of our world is the result of the efforts of one divine being, then the ancient faiths of this world can be seen as reflections of His divine nature. They are expressions of man wishing to experience the eternity in his heart and trying to touch the divine. Therefore, just as the Hebrew writer tells us we can see shadows of Christ in the workings of the Old Testament, I believe we can see God’s nature reflected in the ancient faiths of our world. One of these ancient faiths is the East Asian philosophical tradition of Taoism.

Taoism: Some Background

The central text of Taoism is a collection of writings called the Tao Te Ching, which can be translated loosely as the Way of Virtue. A more literal translation might be The Book of the Virtuous Way. It’s difficult to fully appreciate East Asian culture – particularly that of China – without having some understanding of the Tao Te Ching, for the text influences Chinese religion, art, and philosophy in fundamental ways. It is very much to them as the Christian Bible is to Western European culture.

The text is some 2600 years old, dating back to around 500 BCE. There is some debate surrounding this date for numerous reasons, mostly due to the ambiguity of its author or authors. The book is attributed to a man named Lao Tzu, translated Old Master or Ancient Child, who served as the Imperial Archivist under the Chou Dynasty and was possibly a contemporary to Confucius. Some debate surrounds whether or not Lao Tzu actually existed or if he is a mythological figure who embodies a collection of writers, both male and female.

The Tao and Christ

In many ways, Christ is the Christian Tao Te Ching. He is our Book of the Virtuous Way. The teachings of His and His apostles lay out the case that He is the essence of Tao.

  • Tao, the Way. Chapter 21 of the Tao Te Ching says, “The greatest virtue is to follow the Way and only the Way.” In John 14:5-6, Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth, and the light…” He claims to be the path to experiencing the divine. He is our Divine Way.
  • Te, Virtue. Chapter 60 of the Tao says, “Guide the world with Tao, and evil will not be a problem; not that it will not be around, but it will not find an opening.” Jesus says much the same thing in Matthew 5:43-48: Evil is in this world, but the spiritual person has no room for it in their life. Christ is our example of virtue.
  • Ching, the Book. Chapter 1 of the Tao says, “Tao existed before words or names, before heaven and earth, before the ten thousand things. It is the unlimited father and mother of all living things.” John 1:1-5 shares how all things were created through the Word, and John 1:14 then claims that Christ is that word. You might also recall Peter, in John 6:68, saying Jesus contains the words of eternal life. He is our Book of Life.

To the Christian, Christ is our Tao. His are the footsteps we should follow after if our way is to be one of virtue.

Christian Tao

What then is the Tao of Christ? The way, or the path, that we walk should align with the path He has set before us. We should walk in His footsteps in our lives as spiritual individuals. Here are just three parallels between Tao and Christ’s Way.

  • Humility. The Tao Te Ching chapter 7 teaches “…the wise person puts himself last, and thereby finds himself first,” and Matthew 20:28 records Jesus saying He came to serve rather than be served.  Prior to this, in verse 16, Jesus is recorded as saying the last will be first. Furthermore Tao 40 reads that “Reservation is the action of Tao. Quietness is how it functions,” and we see Jesus facing injustice and mockery silently in Matthew 27:11-31. Jesus’ Way is one of humility and quietness.
  • Contentment. Tao 80 teaches, “Let people’s responsibilities be few…Let them be content with their clothes, satisfied with their homes, and take pleasure in their customs.” Jesus’ teachings on contentment are similar in Matthew 6:25-34. Also Tao 9 says, “Amass possessions, establish possessions, display your pride: Soon enough disaster will drive you to your knees.” Does Jesus not warn as much in Luke 12:13-21? Luke 9:58 reveals that Jesus claims no home as His own, but He goes about His work as the embodiment of contentment rather than ambition.
  • Peace. Tao 43 reads: “The soft overcomes the hard in the world as a gentle rider controls a galloping horse.” Isn’t this similar to how Jesus says we should answer enmity in Matthew 5:43-48? In chapter 31, the Tao teaches, “A person of Tao values peace and quiet…His enemies are his enemies second, his own brothers and sisters first.” Do we not see this epitomized in Jesus’ life when the mob comes to get him in John 18, and Jesus heals one attacked by Peter. By His life, Jesus shows us He is the Prince of Peace.

Conclusion

Taoism is an ancient tradition of philosophy and spirituality that curiously mirrors teachings found in our own faith. Had we the time, we could more closely examine the Taoist canon and compare it to the writings in Proverbs, in Ecclesiastes, and in the epistles along with the examples we see in the life of Christ. Taoism is sometimes criticized as being “The Art of Doing Nothing,” but I think it is more accurately described as “The Art of Self Control.”

As Christians, our lives are to be epitomized by self-control and restraint. The central key to living in peace and harmony with others, in living contentedly, and in living humbly before man and God is the simple quality of self-control. Sometimes, such restraint may seem foolish as does the word of God in I Corinthians 1:18-25 or in the Tao chapter 41: “When a wise person hears Tao, he practices it diligently…When an inferior person hears Tao, he roars with laughter.” We are not conformed to this world, but rather we are seeking to conform to the divine nature of Christ. That journey begins with a principle the Taoist understands well: self control.

The Good Old Days

Say not thou, “What is the cause that the former days were better than these?”

For thou dost not inquire wisely concerning this (Ecclesiastes 7:10).

Who has not heard of, or wished for, the Good Old Days?

In the eyes of a lot of people, things were better in those Good Old Days. A lot of people are confident that there was less sin and more righteousness in those good old days. People were more friendly, or more respectful, in the good old days. Life was easier and things were simpler in those good old days. There are a lot of people who think that it would be best to return to the Good Old Days!

While some of these matters may have some validity – it may be that people were more respectful, or that life was easier in some ways – it misses the overall point. There is a major problem with the Good Old Days. The Good Old Days do not exist!

Humans have an ingrained tendency to remember the best parts of things and to forget the less pleasant elements of life. The Israelites, for instance, vividly remembered the food and drink they had in Egypt, but not so much the slavery, oppression, and hard bondage (cf. Exodus 16:3, 17:3). When faced with the challenges of the present it is easier to romanticize the past and pine for it, but the past was not nearly as rosy when it took place as it is glorified after the fact.

After all, were there not people in the 1950s who probably thought that things were better in the Good Old Days? Would it not be the same in 1920? 1880? 1840? It would never end – things were always, apparently, better in the Good Old Days.

All of this shows the wisdom of the Preacher. It is not wise to wonder why things were better in the past than they are in the present. The reason is that things are not inherently better or worse – just different.

Was sin less public in the past? It would seem so. But does that mean that there was really less sin, or that sin was just kept covered up and behind closed doors? Was life easier in the past? Perhaps in some ways. Yet, then again, there were many diseases that caused great pain and distress that have since been cured, and tasks that used to take people days can now be done more simply. Do there seem to be serious threats to our welfare today? Certainly; but there were serious threats in the past also. Fear of terrorism has replaced fear of Communism which itself replaced fear of totalitarianism and so on and so forth.

Are there major moral issues in the forefront of our culture? Most certainly. But there always have been. They may change based upon the season, but there is always something that needs to be addressed. Today’s disputes regarding abortion and homosexuality were similarly engaged in the past regarding racism, prohibition, and a host of other moral ills.

Since the Garden people have been sinning. There have been threats to life and happiness. There have always been reasons to believe that society/culture is going to the dogs. And yet there have always been people who have been willing to stand for what is right and good and holy (cf. Romans 11:5). Societies uphold and enforce some of God’s purposes while leaving others to the wayside.

People often take comfort by looking to the past and wishing for the Good Old Days. The savage irony is that people in those Good Old Days likely looked back to the Good Old Days to them, and future generations will look back on these days perhaps as the Good Old Days. It is not wise to dwell on what probably never really existed and which, regardless, cannot be resurrected. Instead, we must focus on the here and now. How can we promote the Gospel of Christ and make disciples among those who live in the early twenty-first century (Matthew 28:18-20, Romans 1:16)? How can we be best conformed to the image of the Son in our own time (Romans 8:29)? How can we stand firm for the truth of God in our culture today, not in a culture that may be quite distant in the past (1 Peter 5:7-9)?

Yesterday, for better and for worse, is gone. Tomorrow will come, and it will have its sufficient troubles (cf. Matthew 6:34). Our responsibility is to live today and to serve Jesus today (Romans 6:16-23, Galatians 2:20). Let us do so!

lesson by Ethan R. Longhenry