Choose Life!

    Moses knew he wouldn’t make it into the promised land with the Israelites. He had one last chance to give them a sermon about how to live God’s way before they would go on without him. The passage we just heard from Deuteronomy is a small portion of that speech, an important warning to them to keep the faith.
    He told them they had two choices, the same two choices we all have every day – to choose life and prosperity or death and adversity. Obey and live or disobey and suffer. Shape up or ship out.
    Not something any of us want to hear. It brings to mind a picture of God sitting on the clouds wagging a finger at us, judging and shaking his head like a scolding parent. Tsk, tsk. We don’t want to hear that. We’d rather think about grace. I’ll get to that later.
    When I was the mother of two young children, I wanted to avoid repeating the mistakes my parents had made, to find a parenting method that would free me from having to scold or spank them in an effort to change their behavior. I took a class called “Parenting with Love and Logic” by Jim Fay and Foster Cline, MD. Their technique is to give the kids rules and let the consequences of disobedience fall on them. If the natural consequences of a choice are too severe, then alternatives are imposed, like loss of video game time. Stopping a small child who is running toward the street is one of the only times they recommend a spanking. Better a sore bottom than being flat as a pancake. Small children need the most limits. You also act as a consistent role model, talking about and acting out your values in front of them. Kids learn the most from watching what you do.
Unlike the parents who are helicopters, who hover and rescue their kids if they get into problems or the drill sergeant parents who give orders and expect automatic obedience, this technique teaches kids how to make decisions. A parent could say, “If you don’t do your homework, you’ll probably get in trouble at school. You decide.” Or when you can’t get your kids to go to bed, you can tell them what you’re going to do. “You decide when to go to sleep. We’re all going to wake up at 6:30. See you then.” At 6:30 the next morning, you turn on loud music and get them up. They might even choose to go to school in their pajamas. That experience is usually all they need to see the wisdom in an earlier bedtime.
As they get older, you work on their thinking skills more and remove some limits. If a child wants to do something there is no rule about, instead of giving them a simple “yes” or “no” answer, you ask the kid how it will work out. If they have a problem, you say, “That’s a tough one. What are you going to do?”  If the child doesn’t have any idea, you make a really silly (but safe) suggestion, then ask how he/she thinks that will work out. It’s okay if your child thinks you’re dumb. You can always suggest some other things that won’t work until she or he asks for a better idea. Eventually, the child learns to think things through before they act and to make good choices, at least most of the time.
    God invented this parenting style, using the law to show us what the natural consequences of our choices will be and how to make good ones and avoid bad ones. It’s not rocket science. If you follow God’s laws, you’ll have a better, happier life, and so will your community. The law is God’s wisdom in a nutshell, an owner’s manual for life. We are to love God with our heart, our mind and our soul, and walk in God’s ways of righteousness, justice, and loving-kindness toward our neighbors as ourselves. If there isn’t a rule about something specific, the general ideas and values are there along with the Holy Spirit to guide our decisions. Following the law is a matter of overcoming our selfish sin natures by choosing what’s best for everyone in the long term over what would feel good in the moment. That’s choosing life.
We choose death when we choose the selfish way, the lesser way, giving ourselves to activities or people that don’t really matter or hurt others or the planet. We chose death when we let our frustration with a situation lead us to say or do things in anger that damage our relationships. We choose death when we believe that we are wiser than God.
    Choosing life is obedience to God. It involves more than logic. It takes thought and thoughtfulness, using the heart even more than the head. When struck by a selfish impulse, the head can rationalize the decision to, for example, take something that isn’t yours. “They have more than enough” you can tell yourself. Or even “They’ll never catch me.” But your heart considers how the other person will feel, or how your conscience will react. “If I take this, they’ll be angry, sad, and hurt, and I’ll feel guilty. I’d better not.”
    Loving God with our heart, mind, and soul and being grateful for the gifts God gives us are fundamental and compelling reasons to do the right things, to say the right things. It’s not just about avoiding trouble. It’s about pleasing the God who loves us, gives us life and wants us to be happy. Loving God is sitting quietly and listening to the still small voice of the Holy Spirit so she can help us make better choices.
Choosing life is finding the more excellent way laid out for us in God’s Word.
•    It’s choosing to have self-control, even when someone is pushing your buttons.
•    It’s enjoying the simple things, like friends, family, children, pets, music, or art.
•    It’s learning something new that God can use to help people.
•    It’s laughing often and much, instead of getting frustrated.
•    It’s letting yourself cry when you’ve lost something or someone you love so you can heal.
•    It’s giving out of God’s bounty to your church or other causes you care about.
•    It’s forgiving someone, even if they don’t deserve it, even if they’ve never apologized and probably won’t.
•    It’s forgiving yourself so you can heal.
•    It’s being patient, especially with those who are struggling.
•    It’s having the courage to tell the truth when God’s values are being violated.
•    It’s keeping your hope for the future.
•    It’s pausing to give thanks, even for small things.
•    It’s helping someone who needs it without being asked.
•    It’s working to change the culture by advocating for justice, peace, kindness, and help for the hurting.
    Jesus expanded on these ideas to give us their spirit and intent in our passage from Matthew, which is a portion of the Sermon on the Mount. He talked about the dangers inherent in allowing yourself to be angry to the point of expressing it in a way that will allow others to judge you. That includes any form of pouting or name-calling. Anger is a normal emotion. Jesus was described as being angry several times, including when he overturned the tables of the moneychangers in the temple. But he only expressed it when God’s values were being violated, and he never physically hurt anyone. Feeling anger isn’t a sin, but nursing a grudge is. Anger can be transformed by choosing to live as a peacemaker.
Jesus called us to reconcile with anyone we’re carrying a grudge against before asking God to accept our gifts. The wisdom in this comes from the fact that unresolved issues tend to fester and escalate, causing hard feelings and distracting us from the good actions God wants us to take. God wants us to have the courage to approach the other person first, to come to terms with an accuser before going to court. In my experience, involving courts and lawyers makes everything more complicated and drawn out, not to mention more expensive. The process of ending an argument takes patience, time, prayer, and sometimes a mediator’s help. Failing to work on unresolved issues is poisonous. It can eat away at both sides and create lasting bitterness, not to mention landing you in jail. The more time and energy we put into an argument, the more it effects the larger community, with families and friends taking sides. That’s how wars get started. Being flexible enough to end a conflict is choosing life.
Jesus also spoke about adultery, saying that just looking at another person with lust is sinning in the heart. Today we’d call it treating the person as a sex object, not a human being. In Bible times, not only could a man divorce his wife by saying “I divorce you” three times, but seeking a divorce left the wife vulnerable to being charged with adultery. Jesus shifted the responsibility for maintaining a good marriage to a balance between the partners.
He also said to tear out your eye or cut off your right hand if it’s causing you to sin. Of course, he was exaggerating for effect, but wow! That’s really harsh. Think about it, though. One doesn’t sin without having the idea first. If that thought can be nipped in the bud, mentally tearing out your eye, the sinful actions won’t follow. Then the terrible pain and damage to the marital relationship that adultery can cause will be avoided. Even if no one ever finds out, the adulterer has violated the sanctity of the covenant instead of working to heal the marriage. Jesus wants us to focus on what we can control, examining ourselves in light of God’s laws for what motivates us. Choosing to turn to your spouse for affection, to treat each other with respect, to remember the good qualities that drew you together and to nurture your relationship is choosing life.
The section about oaths can seem a bit strange in this day and age. People used to swear by a god or by something else they valued as a way to assure the person they were talking to that they would fulfill their promise. Jesus said this is asking for trouble. You only have so much control over the future. Let your answer be “Yes” or “No” or even, “Let me get back to you.” That’s being honest. That’s having integrity. That’s choosing life.
So now let’s talk about grace. God knew that we humans are incapable of following the law perfectly, of keeping ourselves out of trouble no matter how hard we try. So God sent Jesus to take our sins away by taking the punishment for us. God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whosoever believes in Him will not perish, but have everlasting life. John 3:16.  I thank God for that every day.
Sadly, there are people who use grace as an excuse to do what they want, figuring that they can just confess and be forgiven rather than change. Jesus put a step in the middle of this journey that we’d like to skip– repentance. We have to be sorry for what we’ve done, be ready to repair any damage we’ve caused, then work to change our thinking with the Holy Spirit’s help to prevent the mistake, the sin, from happening again. That’s growing in our faith. That’s loving God and each other enough to choose life.

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