The Challenge of Paradoxes



In our desire to walk out our Christian life as a disciple of the Lord, one of the things we can easily stumble on is how we deal with the biblical paradoxes that we read. One of these came up in the recent book I reviewed by Barry C. Black (Nothing to Fear: Principles & Prayers to Help You Thrive in a Threatening World). It is one we are all familiar with in Matthew 10:16:


“Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” ESV


It is one of the admonitions Jesus gives as He sends out his disciples as they are to prepare for persecution and the trouble ahead as they seek to follow Him and share his gospel message.


Barry Black defines the two parts of the paradox as follows:


“The innocence of the dove refers to gentleness and purity; the wisdom of the serpent has to do with being aware of the presence of evil.”


I think that sounds clear enough, don’t you? It is in the details of how we operationalize it that I need to look more closely at the passage.


The Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible gives me some insight:


“Alone, the wisdom of the serpent is mere cunning, and the harmlessness of the dove little better than weakness: but in combination, the wisdom of the serpent would save them from unnecessary exposure to danger; the harmlessness of the dove, from sinful expedients to escape it.


The descriptions used point to the life Jesus was living out before them as they walked with Him in his earthly ministry. He was ever wise not rushing into danger or brashly confronting the evil of the day whether it was in the government of Rome or the Pharisees of the day. That was one of the things that seemed to cause some who heard Him to question whether or not He was truly sent to set things in godly order and establish his Kingdom on earth. There was plenty of injustice and religious hypocrisy going on, but He didn’t charge in to correct it all. Justice will not be fully balanced with righteousness until He returns again to establish his Kingdom.


I think it can be easy for me (and perhaps you) to be tempted to jump in with a strong response to something we see as clearly ungodly without waiting to determine if we know the whole story or if we are called by the Lord to reconcile what we see with what we perceive to be His truth. Sometimes we are blind to our own perspectives and self-interest that draws us into an issue or situation as a result of the shrewdness of the serpent (Satan). If we read the gospels carefully, it is clear Jesus was not unwilling to deal forthrightly with many issues of the day, but He did not address them all. He chose his battles for when it would most glorify his Father and reach the hearts of those listening.


Sometimes with the social media we all have available, it can be easy for us to respond to nearly everything we read or see on one or the other side of the issue. If we are honest, I think we can see that is a ploy to shift our focus and tempt us to carnality on our walk and divide us one with another. We also need to be careful when we point out others who fall prey to it and miss how often we succumb to the very same temptation. Paul warns us of that in Romans 10:2 ESV: “For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge.”


It can be so easy when I (or we) are stirred up about someone or some thing to feel we are called on to respond and when we do, we neglect wisdom in both our character and our actions. Black’s advise in his book is simple and straightforward: “Strive to be unmixed with evil.”


I know I often need to take a deep breath to allow not only oxygen to cleanse my physical being but also allow the breath of the Holy Spirit to adjust my humanity to line up with His character and how He would have me respond. In that moment, I am often reminded that He has already empowered me to deal with the paradox of the serpent and the dove if I allow Him to guide me. That is the key to the temptations that can easily come.


Sometimes He may well be calling me to be silent. Wisdom knows when to speak and when not to speak. Most of us have heard the wise adage of Abraham Lincoln:


“Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.”






Nothing to Fear: Principles & Prayers


It seems that everywhere I look I see or hear the word fear. It comes moment by moment in newscasts and the posts on social media. It shows up on titles of blogs and new books. Perhaps it even can whisper in our ear when we are not paying attention. It reminds us that we live in a dangerous world. What we may need to hear and see more of are the evidences of ‘God with us’ in the midst.


To that end, Nothing to Fear: Principles & Prayers to Help in a Threatening World by Barry C. Black, Chaplain of the United States Senate, speaks truth in reminders of who we are in Christ and how to find our way back to focus on Him when we slip down the primrose path fear might tempt us toward.


In the Author’s Note he lays it out plainly for the reader:


Believers in God shouldn’t be surprised by the realities of a sometimes predatory world. After all, didn’t Jesus say that ‘here on earth you will have many trials and sorrow’?”


“But didn’t he also say, ‘Take heart, because I have overcome the world’? The apostle Paul warned his protégé Timothy that godly living invites persecution. Are you prepared to live fearlessly in a threatening world?”


Black’s words feel much like someone has opened a window to allow fresh air into a room that is filled with heavy oppressiveness. In truth, he holds each of us as believers to account without using those words if we have been tempted to ring our hands in the midst of this life.


The book is divided into seven sections based on seven principles that Black defines as those that Jesus gave his disciples before sending them into a dangerous world. That too stands as a clear reminder that this world has always been a dangerous place and never more so that for those in any era who sought to follow the Lord.


What are the seven principles that form the backbone of this book?

  • Prepare to be sent (Matthew 10:1; Luke 10:1)
  • Do a reality check (Matthew 9:37-38; Luke 10:2-3)
  • Thrive in a predatory world (Matthew 10:16-20; Luke 10:3)
  • Be as wise as a serpent (Matthew 10:16)
  • Be as innocent as a dove (Matthew 10:16)
  • Concentrate on the task (Matthew 10:5-8)
  • Persevere through rejection (Matthew 10:11-14; 21-23)


Barry Black has had many experiences in his life to face tests based on these principles. He has served as chaplain of the United States Senate since 2003 following his retirement from the U.S. Navy after 27 years in the military, ending his service as a two-star admiral and chief of Navy chaplains. He is also a husband and father of three sons.


Black puts at the front of the book the questions some of us may think, but not verbalize:


“Perhaps you’re wondering why our Good Shepherd would send his lambs out among wolves? Perhaps it’s because our Shepherd knows that hardship builds strength and character.”

 “Perhaps it’s because he knows he will protect his sheep, just as David delivered his flock from the lion and a bear. Perhaps our shepherd puts us in a precarious situation because he is always there with us.”

 “Or maybe we are placed in a predatory world because the master provides us with the equipment we need to survive, and he wants us to trust him.”


These precepts are expanded with specific direction as each section of the book moves forward providing the reader with encouragement and reminders of whose we are and whose we are to be as disciples living in a dangerous, predatory world.


To comply with new regulations introduced by the Federal Trade Commission, Tyndale House Publishers provided me with a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for my review.





The Ploy




How easily we succumb to the temptation one-by-one! It is not unlike an avalanche that can begin with the smallest unstable thing that begins to tumble down creating and attracting other unstable things. Gradually it becomes larger and moves faster creating more and more destruction in its wake.


Century after century Satan uses his wiles in the same pattern. He uses ploy as his most effective strategy. By definition a ploy is “a cunning plan or action designed to turn a situation to one’s own advantage”. There is no need for him to alter his strategy because it has proven effective time and time again no matter how erudite we may think we are.


Any of us can name specific wiles and wickedness he produces as a result of the ploy, but if we look at the ‘big picture” we must come to grips with his ultimate desire and that is to divide. First, he would seek to divide us from the Lord for nothing would please him more than to rob Him of us, His trophies won on the cross. Second, he would seek to divide us from one another weakening and destabilizing one and then another. Whether the result is our worship of him in fact matters little to him so long as we forfeit our commitment to the crux of our connection to Him and one another.


Daily life provides Satan with the fodder he needs. Nearly any situation or circumstance can be used to distract us from our focus on the Lord and who He has created and called us to be. ANYTHING. I know it and you know it. I have experienced it and you have experienced it as well.


Inevitably one of the results is to become anxious or fearful because things are not under our control. What any of us does next will determine how successful the ploy will be? If we quickly recognize it for what it is and turn our focus back on the Lord, our faith and trust is strengthened and he loses the skirmish. If we do not and let’s face it, none of us do so all of the time, then he nudges us to try to take control ourselves in more ways than we can even count or want to admit. (I don’t want to give him credit by listing them here.) He can be effective in this because he has duped us into allowing fear to become larger than life and larger than God.


We lose sight of the key words from 1 John 4:18 ESV:


“There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.”


Okay, none of us love perfectly or perhaps even come close to it, but God does love perfectly. He loves us perfectly. He shows us that in countless ways despite our fallibility, our station in life, or our current circumstances. If the ploy causes us to doubt that and the truth that such love will always be faithful in providing for us, we will quickly look to what John Eldredge calls “less wild lovers” to rescue us or provide for us. Those “less wild lovers” can come in many forms, sizes, and disguises. They can include any and all addictions, self-protection, staying in a victim mode, operating in self-righteousness that belies the truth of our pride, looking to someone who will agree with us whether they speak truth or not, and more. They can include relying on organizations, institutions, or any other entity instead of the Lord.


These then open us to the second punch of the same ploy. We start to fear and distrust others unless they agree with us and support our shaky position. Our fear of others points to the downfall of not loving others as ourselves.


The end result of the interweaving of this two-pronged ploy is increased division. If we, His children, are one body destined to live with Him in one Kingdom then when we fall prey to the ploy, we exemplify what Jesus taught in Matthew 12:25:


“But Jesus knew their thoughts, and said to them: “Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation, and every city or house divided against itself will not stand.”


In the end of all time and all things, scripture makes clear that what we will be judged on will be whether we have loved the Lord with all our heart, mind, and soul and if that has brought forth His character in us so that we demonstrate that by loving one another. That is the litmus test each of us faces.


At present, it would seem the skirmishes in the two-pronged ploy are succeeding with too many of us so that we find ourselves arrayed in battle one against another while proclaiming we are a part of the same Kingdom. Our rhetoric has shifted from eloquence based on Kingdom truth to empty rhetoric replete with hateful, fear mongering words and tones whether our position has merit or not. I might think we are in danger here of not only harming whatever cause we believe in, but more importantly tearing down the Kingdom.


The ploy can be defeated. The power of the Lord exceeds any and all that Satan can and does throw at us. The answer comes when we lay aside our sin, our self-righteousness, our pride, and anything that is not like the Lord. The Lord showed us the principle and our purpose before He returned to His Father. I think it behooves each of us to reflect each day on what He pointed to as the foundation for our speech and our actions and we can only do it when we first submit our will to Him:


“Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?”  And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment.  And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”   Matthew 22: 36-40 ESV


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Thieves Hiding in Plain Sight



When I have what can seem like an ordinary day, it can be easy to allow my mind to drift. I have discovered that when it does that I can either look back over my shoulder at something from the past or I scan the horizon for something in the future. I am guessing most of you know what I mean. It can happen without thinking.


When I look over my shoulder, it can tempt me to look at ‘what was’. Depending on my disposition that means I will either review some very special days that warm my heart or very difficult days that hurt my heart in some way. The source of the temptation on such a day will likely determine which scrapbook of memories I review in my mind and that choice will affect what sets the tone for the rest of that day. I might be spurred to drop a note, make a phone call, or set up a coffee date, but I might fall prey to disappointment, bitterness, and anger.


When I scan the horizon for something in the future, I may scroll through my calendar to look at things that are plotted there. That might include when I am next going to see my children or grandchildren, meet a friend for coffee, or return to a favorite vacation spot. If I look at the empty spaces on the calendar, I might be tempted to yield to thoughts of whether or not anyone cares about me or even realizes I exist. Before long I can be swirling down a long dark tunnel if I yield.


I am confident that this tendency to look back over our shoulder or to scan the horizon and look ahead is common to us all to one degree or another. I see it in Facebook posts, on Twitter feeds, in magazine articles, in conversations with friends, and on the news. We either love the ‘good old days’ or we try to forget, degrade, or minimize them and the impact they had on us. On the other side we might also spend much of our time focused on looking forward to the next thing, the next season, the next promotion, the next raise, the next…


I think there is no doubt that either choice (looking backward or looking ahead) has some value. When I look backward I can both appreciate where I have been and what I have done and also learn from those things to make my life now even better. When I look ahead I can know the joy of anticipating something I am planning toward, but I can also be tempted to see aging, future losses, and more.


As with most things in our lives, I think it is impossible to eliminate these behaviors even though we can (with God’s help) allow them to be used more positively than negatively. The issue is more about how much time I give to either of the choices in my view.


If I spend a great deal of time relishing or lamenting the past or yearning for or fearing the future, I miss today.


I love how the Amplified Bible reads in Hebrews 3:13:

But continually encourage one another every day, as long as it is called “today” (and there is an opportunity), so that none of you will be hardened (into settled rebellion) by the deceitfulness of sin (its clevereness, delusive glamour, and sophistication).”


I see often in scripture in both Old and New Testament passages the word “today” is used as a linchpin. My choice of the word linchpin is very deliberate because of its definition: “a pin passed through the end of an axle to keep a wheel in position”. Is it a word God uses often to try to help keep us in position, to remember that what we have is today and to steward it well? I think it very well may be.


As I was reading in Cindy Liggett’s new novel, The Sisters of Sugarcreek, I read these words:


“Regrets over yesterday and fear of tomorrow are twin thieves that rob us of today.”


Let us be wise not to miss these thieves hiding in plain sight.


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The Sisters of Sugarcreek



Everyone in and around the small town of Sugarcreek, Ohio, located in the heart of Amish country, seemed to know each other. The shops in town full of homemade furniture, crafts, homespun ideas, and home-baked goods never failed to attract visitors from miles around. When the tragic fire that destroyed Faith Community Church took two lives, the loss seemed unbearable to this quiet community.


Jessica’s aunt had been central to her life, but when she died in the church fire her shop, Rose’s Knit One Quilt Two Cottage, fell to Jessica to manage. Jessica loved the shop, but knew little about the knitting and quilting world it represented. Trying to sort out how to keep the shop open, answer questions from the clients, and make a profit so she and her son, Cole, could survive felt impossible even though her aunt’s close friend, Liz, offered to help.


Liz had known Jessica’s Aunt Rose well and introduced Jessica to the Secret Stitches Society Liz and Aunt Rose had originated. Then on one of their secret missions of the society they sought to comfort the Amish widow, Lydia, whose husband was also killed in the fire. Nothing turned out as they had hoped on that mission, but through a curious turn of events they get acquainted with Lydia and discover she may be exactly who Jessica needs to turn things around in the shop.


As The Sisters of Sugarcreek by Cindy Liggett unfolds page-by-page, the losses and trials facing Jessica, Liz, and Lydia bind them together in powerful and delightful ways. Their different personalities and life stories leave the reader eager for the next page as each of them come face-to-face with unresolved relationships and the testing of their faith in God.


When you follow along in the story, your heart becomes knit into the life of each of the three women as you join their prayers and hope for answers that aren’t clearly seen.


You also come to understand what Liz recognizes as the story nears the end,


the real depth in life—as in knitting—came in being brave and trying out new colors and patterns. Being open and accepting of the new situations and new people God had brought into her life.”


 This beautiful fiction story by Cindy Liggett filled with the interweaving of life, loss, and love will pull you into the story and the sisterhood of the Secret Stitches Society. You might also find yourself yearning for the sense of community that resides in Sugarcreek.


To comply with new regulations introduced by the Federal Trade Commission, Tyndale House Publishers provided me with a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for my review.