We all know what parables are. Those little stories that teach us moral or spiritual lessons like The Goose Who Laid The Golden Egg, The Tortoise and the Hare, or any number of Aesop’s Fables. Many times, these fables, or parables, demonstrate lessons by using real world examples, like The Ant and the Grasshopper. You know, the one where the grasshopper pokes fun at the ant, who is working hard storing up food for the winter, only to have to beg that same ant for food once the seasons change. These stories impart valuable wisdom to us, but the most valuable parables come from God Himself.
Sometimes, God uses our history to write parables to us over time. If we look at the story of Abraham, we see that he had children with two different wives. This story is accepted as truth, as literal history. In Galatians 4, Paul uses the story of Sarah and Hagar as a parable to describe our affiliation to Judaic law. In this way, we are able to look back at our own history and learn from it, apply the lessons to our own lives, and avoid making the same mistakes as our prior generations.
Give ear, O my people, to my instruction; listen to the words of my mouth.
I will open my mouth in parables; I will utter things hidden from the beginning, that we have heard and known and our fathers have relayed to us. We will not hide them from their children, but will declare to the next generation the praises of the LORD and His might, and the wonders He has performed. For He established a testimony in Jacob and appointed a law in Israel, which He commanded our fathers to teach to their children, that the coming generation would know them—even children yet to be born—to arise and tell their own children that they should put their confidence in God, not forgetting His works, but keeping His commandments. Then they will not be like their fathers, a stubborn and rebellious generation, whose heart was not loyal, whose spirit was not faithful to God.
The archers of Ephraim turned back on the day of battle. They failed to keep God’s covenant and refused to live by His law. They forgot what He had done, the wonders He had shown them. He worked wonders before their fathers in the land of Egypt, in the region of Zoan. He split the sea and brought them through; He set the waters upright like a wall. He led them with a cloud by day and with a light of fire all night. He split the rocks in the wilderness and gave them drink as abundant as the seas. He brought streams from the stone and made water flow down like rivers. But they continued to sin against Him, rebelling in the desert against the Most High. They willfully tested God by demanding the food they craved. They spoke against God, saying, “Can God really prepare a table in the wilderness? When He struck the rock, water gushed out and torrents raged. But can He also give bread or supply His people with meat?”
Therefore the LORD heard and was filled with wrath; so a fire was kindled against Jacob, and His anger flared against Israel, because they did not believe God or rely on His salvation. Yet He commanded the clouds above and opened the doors of the heavens. He rained down manna for them to eat; He gave them grain from heaven. Man ate the bread of angels; He sent them food in abundance. He stirred the east wind from the heavens and drove the south wind by His might. He rained meat on them like dust, and winged birds like the sand of the sea. He felled them in the midst of their camp, all around their dwellings. So they ate and were well filled, for He gave them what they craved. Yet before they had filled their desire, with the food still in their mouths, God’s anger flared against them, and He put to death their strongest and subdued the young men of Israel.
In spite of all this, they kept on sinning; despite His wonderful works, they did not believe. So He ended their days in futility, and their years in sudden terror. When He slew them, they would seek Him; they repented and searched for God. And they remembered that God was their Rock, that God Most High was their Redeemer. But they deceived Him with their mouths, and lied to Him with their tongues. Their hearts were disloyal to Him, and they were unfaithful to His covenant.
And yet He was compassionate; He forgave their iniquity and did not destroy them. He often restrained His anger and did not unleash His full wrath. He remembered that they were but flesh, a passing breeze that does not return. How often they disobeyed Him in the wilderness and grieved Him in the desert! Again and again they tested God and provoked the Holy One of Israel.
They did not remember His power—the day He redeemed them from the adversary, when He performed His signs in Egypt and His wonders in the fields of Zoan. He turned their rivers to blood, and from their streams they could not drink. He sent swarms of flies that devoured them, and frogs that devastated them. He gave their crops to the grasshopper, the fruit of their labor to the locust. He killed their vines with hailstones and their sycamore-figs with sleet. He abandoned their cattle to the hail and their livestock to bolts of lightning. He unleashed His fury against them, wrath, indignation, and calamity—a band of destroying angels. He cleared a path for His anger; He did not spare them from death but delivered their lives to the plague. He struck all the firstborn of Egypt, the virility in the tents of Ham. He led out His people like sheep and guided them like a flock in the wilderness. He led them safely, so they did not fear, but the sea engulfed their enemies. He brought them to His holy land, to the mountain His right hand had acquired. He drove out nations before them and apportioned their inheritance; He settled the tribes of Israel in their tents. But they tested and disobeyed God Most High, for they did not keep His decrees.
They turned back and were faithless like their fathers, twisted like a faulty bow. They enraged Him with their high places and provoked His jealousy with their idols. On hearing it, God was furious and rejected Israel completely. He abandoned the tabernacle of Shiloh, the tent He had pitched among men. He delivered His strength to captivity, and His splendor to the hand of the adversary. He surrendered His people to the sword because He was enraged by His heritage. Fire consumed His young men, and their maidens were left without wedding songs. His priests fell by the sword, but their widows could not lament. Then the Lord awoke as from sleep, like a mighty warrior overcome by wine. He beat back His foes; He put them to everlasting shame. He rejected the tent of Joseph and refused the tribe of Ephraim. But He chose the tribe of Judah, Mount Zion, which He loved.
He built His sanctuary like the heights, like the earth He has established forever. He chose David His servant and took him from the sheepfolds; from tending the ewes He brought him to be shepherd of His people Jacob, of Israel His inheritance. So David shepherded them with integrity of heart and guided them with skillful hands.Psalm 78
This psalm outlines a certain pattern with humanity. It is a pattern that we see over and over, on scales both inauspicious and grand. Here is a general outline of the pattern to which I am referring:
- God works in our lives. This could be positive or negative work, but it is obvious to us that the work was done by God.
- We change for a short period as a result, but soon revert to our old ways.
It is a simple pattern, and it could be quite easy to dismiss if it weren’t so repetitive. I know that I can find this pattern in my own life, and I am sure that you can see it happening in your own life as well.
I remember when I first got my driver’s license, I was a timid and safe driver. I would constantly check my mirrors and my speed, I would make sure I was obeying every possible traffic law. Eventually, I became far more comfortable driving and began to relax a bit more. I was no longer stringently adhering to every traffic law in every scenario. I would speed on occasion or perhaps I would spin my tires for a cheap thrill. This activity came to a quick halt however, the first time I found myself staring at flashing blue and red lights in my rear view mirror. After my first encounter with the police, I was back on the straight and narrow. Unfortunately, this good behavior would not persist, and I began to relax into my old ways again. Next, I had my first accident. I ended up losing control of a vehicle at a high rate of speed. I considered myself rather fortunate not to have been injured, but to see the vehicle I was driving you would think that I should have been dead, and perhaps I should have been. Once again, I was on the straight and narrow.
This cycle persisted in my life for quite some time, and I had plenty of opportunities to change. Each time I would revise my behavior for a short period, and then return to driving recklessly. I would thank God that I had not been hurt or killed and promise to be a safer driver from then on, only to find myself going against my word in the future.
Essentially, this is what is being described in psalm 78. God’s people are freed from sin and doubt through great miracles, but then they begin to doubt the power of God. Again, God restores their faith through even more tremendous miracles, and again they begin to lose faith and fall back into sin.
What causes us to behave like this? What causes us to “learn our lesson” only to willingly unlearn it later on? Perhaps it is pride, perhaps sheer stubbornness and refusal to change permanently. For me, however, it is not a conscious act, at least not initially. It is just something that happens and once I notice it, I try to rectify it. Sometimes I am able to correct myself, other times I find myself overcome by the desires of the flesh. Paul struggles with this as well, and speaks about it in his letter to the Romans.
For I do not do the good I want to do. Instead, I keep on doing the evil I do not want to do. And if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.Romans 7:19-20
When we recognize God moving in our lives, it is a very motivating experience. It inspires a renewed vigor that can be harnessed to do good in His name, however, this motivation is not permanent. Eventually, the routines of life begin to emerge again, and before we know it, we are more focused on ourselves than our neighbors. This is not what we want to do, but it is part of a cycle that seems to take years, even decades, to break.
Our children see this cycle, and they can easily see us as hypocrites. They see us calling out each other’s sin and condemning one another, they see our gossip and the factions that build up in our church congregations. They see all of this, but they hear each of us talking about how Christ perfects and sanctifies us. We tell them about perfection, but we show them sin and then we deny it.
We try to hide our own sin from our children in an effort to be a role model, to show them how a “true Christian” behaves. But we aren’t supposed to be the models of Christianity, we are the beneficiaries of Christ. Christ is the model and we are merely lumps of clay hoping to be molded in His image. We are not perfect, we cannot do good works through our own flesh, it is only through Christ that we can do anything good.
So then, with my mind I serve the law of God, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.Romans 7:25
With our minds we serve the law of God, desiring to do what is good in His sight, but with our flesh we serve the law of sin and do that which we do not desire to do. It is time that we are honest about this as a community and put to death the deeds of the body.
For if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.Romans 8:13
Yes, we should strive to eliminate sin from our lives. If we claim to have already done this we are deceiving ourselves. A big part of the Christian life is accepting that we are sinners and that we do need forgiveness. We cannot do this by pretending to be perfect, we need to admit our sins to one another, bringing them out of the darkness and into the light. By doing this, we set an example of what it means to be a follower of Christ. Christ Himself instructs us to forgive one another in Matthew 18, would this be necessary if we were sinless as Christians? Of course not.
If we say we have fellowship with Him yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.1 John 1:6-8
By bringing our sins into the light and making them known to one another, we humanize ourselves. By forgiving each other for our sins, we glorify Christ’s work. In this way, we show the world that we all need Christ, and that we can all be forgiven for our sins, no matter how grave they may be.