We Are Not the Sum of Our Bad Choices

Written By Ruth Lawrence, UK

You might have encountered them on the streets. The lonely, the homeless, and the addicted. They started off just like the rest of us, but somewhere along the line, one wrong choice after another led them on a downward spiral. Now, they think it’s too late for them to try and amend their ways—God wouldn’t possibly want anything to do with them anyway.

Or perhaps you have a friend or have heard of someone struggling to take care of her baby on her own after a series of bad choices. Life is hard and lonely for her. Even if God exists, He wouldn’t know or care about her predicament, she tells you.

All around us, there are plenty of such people. In fact, some of my neighbours have the exact mind-set like those homeless guys on the streets. I find it sad that they’ve allowed their past choices to trap them into living such defeated lives—because it doesn’t need to be this way.

That’s what I’ve learned from my recent study on Nehemiah 9. At this point, the people of Israel are making their way back to Israel, after spending 70 years in exile in the land of Babylon. Nehemiah has been rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem amid some fierce opposition. Now all those who have returned are gathered together and they have a decision to make: Would they follow God?

The answer is a resounding yes—they want to follow God. Nehemiah 9 therefore is their prayer of repentance. It’s a long prayer and it covers all that God did for them as a nation and all their mistakes. Just like the people we see around us, the Israelites made some very poor choices. They rejected God and did what they wanted, even when they had just witnessed God doing amazing things for them—like rescuing them from slavery.

They must have been filled with regret and shame as they recounted their past mistakes. But what struck me about their prayer was not so much the extent of their sinfulness, but how God responded to them each time they failed. Interspersed through Nehemiah 9 are beautiful phrases like these:

But you are a forgiving God, gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love. Therefore you did not desert them,” (Neh 9:17)

Because of your great compassion you did not abandon them in the wilderness.” (Neh 9:19)

But when they were oppressed they cried out to you. From heaven you heard them, and in your great compassion you gave them deliverers, who rescued them from the hand of their enemies.” (Neh 9:27)

And when they cried out to you again, you heard from heaven, and in your compassion you delivered them time after time.” (Neh 9:28)

But in your great mercy you did not put an end to them or abandon them, for you are a gracious and merciful God.” (Neh 9:31)

And that made me think, wow! What an amazing God we have, who has compassion and still loves us even when we do our own thing and ignore Him. In my own life, I too have failed God’s instructions like the Israelites. And one of the things that gets to me the most is when I choose not to tell someone about Jesus, because I’m afraid how that person might react.

In the UK, people often don’t know or don’t speak to their neighbours. In my street, we might say hello to each other as we leave our houses at the same time, but our conversations never go further than the weather. So even though I can see that my neighbours need Jesus, I say nothing more than “hello” when I see them, because I’m afraid that they will think that I am crazy.

When I think of all the opportunities that I’ve missed this way, I’m left feeling horrendously guilty. I know I’ve been ignoring what God has instructed to me to do: to tell people about Jesus. And I can’t help but think that He must be really mad at me.

So to read these verses is a huge relief. It feels like someone has lifted a heavy weight off my shoulders. And that is what God promises if we take time to pray, confess and ask for His forgiveness; He will free us from guilt and cleanse us from our sins. Sure, I still need to be responsible to tell people about Jesus, but I can do that because I want to obey God and not because of my guilt conscience.

So here’s the thing. Maybe you’ve made some bad choices. You’re hanging out with the wrong crowd or you’ve gone too far in a romantic relationship and you know that your actions haven’t honoured God. Or maybe the choices you are making leave you feeling hollow and guilty. If you’ve messed up and feel like there is no way God could forgive you, then have a look at what God says in His Word. Look at who God is and what He has done for you on the cross.

Come back to the God who is “gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love.” He won’t turn you away. Let’s not be trapped in our past choices.

ODJ: Red Houses

July 26, 2016 

READ: Luke 10:25-37  

A despised Samaritan came along, and when he saw the man, he felt compassion for him (v.33). 

An organisation in South Africa began a compassionate project many years ago. The group buys houses in impoverished areas and paints them red. They then hire house parents who live in the red houses, providing beacons of light to the troubled communities. Over the years, these houses have become havens for children at risk and other hurting people in need of a safe place, a hot meal, a listening ear and a warm hug.

Jesus once told a story to an expert in religious law who was trying to trick Him. The religious leader had asked Jesus what he should do to inherit eternal life (Luke 10:25). Jesus told him that he should follow the law of Moses: “ ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your strength and all your mind.’ And, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’ ” (vv.26-27). When the man asked who his neighbour was, Jesus told him the following story.

A Jewish man travelling from Jerusalem to Jericho was attacked by bandits and left for dead (v.30). When a priest saw the man lying there, he crossed to the other side of the road. A temple assistant noticed him, but he too crossed to the other side. Then, a “despised” Samaritan saw the man and felt compassion for him. He put the man on his donkey and took him to an inn, where he cared for him. The next day the Samaritan handed the innkeeper two silver coins and told him to look after the injured man (v.35).

Jesus asked the religious inquirer who had been a true neighbour to the hurting man. “The one who showed him mercy” (v.37), he said. Like that compassionate Samaritan, may we also let God’s love guide us as we care for the poor and hurting of this world.

—Ruth O’Reilly-Smith

365-day plan: Matthew 18:10-22

Read Luke 6:27-36 and be challenged by Jesus to love even those who aren’t loving to us. 
What has God given you—time, finances, ability—that you can use to help someone in need today? How has He compassionately met your needs? 

(Check out Our Daily Journey website!)

ODJ: Ox in the Street

June 3, 2016 

READ: Deuteronomy 22:1-4  

It is sin to know what you ought to do and then not do it (James 4:17). 

Picnics are usually a lot of fun, unless you realise—minutes before you leave—that you’re supposed to bring a dish to share! When this happened to me, I quickly put some meat in a pot, cranked up the heat and left the kitchen to finish other preparations. Several minutes later I smelled something burning. I ran to the kitchen, but of course it was too late to salvage the burnt offering.

Though I hadn’t actually done anything wrong, it was what I didn’t do that caused the problem. This principle relates to a Bible verse: “It is a sin to know what [we] ought to do and then not do it” (James 4:17).

In the Old Testament, Moses said if a person noticed his neighbour’s ox “wandering” around, he should capture the animal and deliver it to its owner (Deuteronomy 22:1). And if the ox fell down in the road, the person who noticed should help get the beast back on its feet (v.4).

In the New Testament, Jesus told the story of a Samaritan who stopped to help a man who had been robbed and beaten. Over the centuries, the kind man came to be known as the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). What made him good in Jesus’ eyes? He didn’t sin by failing to do the right thing. Referring to the Good Samaritan’s deed, Jesus encouraged His disciples, “now go and do the same” (v.37).

Today, we might be tempted to speed around the ‘ox’ in the street or the ‘beaten victim’ with a honk and a cheery wave to avoid being late for football practice. But what would God have us do? I believe He would want us to slow down, step out of our comfy confines and consider the needs of others. May we reflect God’s compassionate heart as He guides us today!

—Jennifer Benson Schuldt

365-day plan: Jonah 1:1-20

Read Philippians 2:4 and consider the importance of being concerned about the needs and interests of others. 
Does awareness of a need automatically translate into responsibility to meet that need? Why or why not? How does God’s compassionate heart affect you as you consider the needs of others? 

(Check out Our Daily Journey website!)

ODJ: feeling compassion

February 4, 2016 

READ: Luke 10:25-37 

The man wanted to justify his actions, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” (v.29). 

Stephen Crane’s story “The Open Boat” tells the tale of four men attempting to survive in a lifeboat at sea. One of the men ironically reflected on a poem he had read as a schoolboy about a soldier fighting in Algiers. The man realized that “he had never considered it his affair that a soldier of the Legion lay dying in Algiers, nor had it appeared to him as a matter for sorrow. It was less to him than breaking of a pencil’s point.” He hadn’t felt compassion for the soldier—until now.

The word compassion (Luke 10:33) literally means “to suffer with someone.” Our ability to feel others’ pain may be lacking until we find ourselves suffering through our own pain. We can so easily live selfishly—desiring to be kept from hardship and death. Like the expert in religious law who tested Jesus, we justify our own apathetic response when it comes to fulfilling the latter part of what Jesus said was the greatest commandment (v.27).

If narcissistic self-love is an effect of the fall, then we must understand what Jesus meant when He identified loving ourselves as the key to loving others (Romans 13:8-10). Not referring to eros (passion), phileo (brotherly love) or even storge (family affection), He commands us to live out God’s agape love, and in the words of C. S. Lewis, “Agape is all giving, not getting.”

Far more than an admonition to do good deeds, the Good Samaritan mirrors the power of the cross in his willingness to “suffer with” the injured man (Mark 8:31; Luke 24:44-47). Saving us from our sharpest place of desperation, Jesus showed great compassion as He gave His life for us. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, may we do no less for others (Luke 10:27).

—Regina Franklin

365-day-plan: Exodus 5:1-23

Read James 2:1-8 and consider how this passage reveals the importance of loving and caring for others. 
How can difficult circumstances be a training ground for learning compassion? What have you learned about compassion from others? 

(Check out Our Daily Journey website!)