Adding the Spice of Grace

“Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion that it may give grace to those who hear.  And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.  Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice.”  Ephesians 4:29-32

Several years ago, my parents, knowing that my family occasionally uses hot peppers in our cooking, bought me a ghost pepper plant.   As the summer went on the plant yielded several of the small, red, peppers, and so I set about preparing them for use.  Most people don’t eat them whole, or even use an entire pepper chopped up in any cooking because they’re just too hot for that.  The way most people prepare them is either to make pepper oil out of them or to dry them and make chili powder; that way you can control just how much spice you want to add.  I made chili powder, as that can also be saved for a long time.   Several months later, I was making a large crock pot full of chili.  I thought to myself “I’ll just add a pinch of that chili powder and see if anybody notices.”   We all noticed.    Even just a small pinch of that chili powder made the chili so spicy we couldn’t eat it.   Just a pinch ruined the whole pot.  In today’s passage, Paul tells us that our words can have a similar effect; like an ingredient we add when cooking, our words can either bless or corrupt those who take them in.

First Paul tells us not to let “corrupting” talk come out of our mouths. Literally the word he uses, “sapros,” means rotten, but when used of words, as in today’s passage the word points to the rotten effect they can have. Like a bad apple will cause other apples to decay, rotten words corrupt those who listen.  In addition, such talk “grieves” the Holy Spirit, by whom we’ve been sealed for redemption.    The Spirit is the One who brings out new life in us, and when we revert to talk that belongs to the old man, it grieves Him.   This should grieve us.   What, then, qualifies as “corrupting” talk?  Bluntly, anything which glamorizes sin or gives voice to the sinful inclination of our hearts is corrupting talk which belongs to the old man.  But in today’s passage, Paul gives several examples: bitterness (acting like there is no hope when we ought to cherish hope), clamor (feeling like we always must be heard), slander (hurting someone’s reputation), malice (seeking another’s harm), and anger and wrath are all examples of ‘corrupting’ talk.  Consider each of these examples and see how they convict us all.   You may be asking “Is Paul really saying that all words of wrath or anger wrong?”  Clearly not, as just a few verses earlier (vs.26) he says “be angry and do not sin”.   The question is the motive and manner of the words.  Angry words are a sin if:  they are directed toward a brother in the Lord and are not motivated by love; if they communicate untruth; if they are designed to injure; if we speak them while we are holding a sinful attitude; if we speak them at an inappropriate time without regard for their impact.   So then, while angry words are not inherently sinful, the list above should give us enough pause to realize we must be very careful when it comes to anger.  What should we do, then?  Any honest child of God will acknowledge they struggle with this.   I think there are several responses we should strive for.  First, we should be proactive, deliberately trying to be reserved about what we allow ourselves to say, and certainly giving more thought to our words.  Second, when we recognize that we have grieved the Holy Spirit with our mouths, the right response is to repent.  Since words generally involve another person (unless we are talking to ourselves) our repentance should be directed not only to God, who deserves the first response, but then also to the person whom we have corrupted with our words, and finally, our repentance should be expressed toward anyone whom we have sinned against by speaking evil of them.  Imagine, just for a moment, how sin’s devastating effects could be cut short by listening to God on this issue; it could be life-changing! How many bridges would be left un-burnt?  How many walls left un-built?  How many scars prevented?   How much witness it would be to the transforming power of God’s grace!  Though it’s true that words can’t be unsaid, yet never underestimate God’s power to use true repentance.

Paul also tells us that our words, spoken in the right moment, can ‘build others up’ and ‘give grace to those who hear’.   Don’t let those words slip by you, reader!  Paul is saying that we have the opportunity when we open our mouths to literally bring others the grace of God!    Every time we open our mouths, we have an opportunity to be a messenger of God, delivering that note of grace to a heart hurting with sin! Christ may use our words to build someone up!  Words of God’s grace, when used by God’s Spirit for God’s glory have power we can not measure. Think of how many lives have been set on a good course simply by an apt word of encouragement said at the right time.  Most of us at the very least can look back without much effort and identify a time in our lives when someone’s words seemed to come to us from God and built us up at a time we needed it.  That is no coincidence, and today’s passage indicates that it is in fact God’s plan.  We, who have experienced the gift of God’s astounding and completely undeserved favor are equipped and given purpose in this world to share it with others. Won’t you pray with me, that God will train us to so love the grace of Jesus Christ, that our lips are quick to bless and slow to corrupt?

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Disciplining the Mind

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“Finally brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me – practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.” Philippians 4:8-9
“Sir, I wanted to show you a drawing I made.” I had recently completed a drawing class over the summer term at the university. Not having been an art major, I found the class difficult, but I had learned some techniques. Afterwards, I had worked, as a labor of love, on a drawing of my fiancé. I was pleased with how it came out, and felt I had created a good likeness. But I wanted to go back to my professor and get his feedback. “That’s nice,” he replied, “but you were working from a photograph, weren’t you?” I admitted I had been: at the time, my beloved and I lived several hours away from each other. Also, the work was meant to be a surprise. “You see,” the professor continued, “photographs are a two dimensional representation of a three dimensional object. So photographs make a poor subject for painting or drawing, because you are working from a distorted image, and your work will, by necessity, reflect that distortion.” The work I had done reflected the distortion that I had spent so much time carefully focusing on. Likewise, in the Christian life, what we focus our attention upon will be reflected in what comes out of us. And so, Paul tells us to discipline our thinking.
Paul tells us then both what to think about and why. As for the “what”, Paul tells us to think about things that are true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent and praiseworthy. Take a minute and consider each of these items in turn. We are being called to purposefully make a distinction about those things that receive our attention, and to choose the good. But how can we do this? While it’s true, we can’t always control what may cross our mind, yet often we do make choices about those things we focus upon. There are, for most of us, many things that may regularly ask for our focus: we may watch television or movies; we may read things, either in a book or on our computers or cell phones; we may participate in social media; we may listen to music, either during a commute, while at work, or at home; we may engage in dialogue with a friend or family member. Each of these situations, and a host of others, call for us to focus our attention. While none of these things is inherently wrong, yet we are called to be discerning in what we take in; we must ask “in this situation, is this true, honorable, just, pure, etc…” We may be called to make inconvenient or difficult choices, or merely to learn new habits. Why? Because if those things we give our focus are highly distorted by sin, we will find that our sinful nature resonates with sin’s distortion of what is good and true. But when we focus on virtue, that same virtue can inspire our new man to love, good deeds, and further virtue, especially if we give it a lot of thought. Those things which receive the most attention from us will influence what comes out of us, and as Christians, what the Lord desires for us is Godly virtue, and not merely a reflection of the times.
Therefore, Paul closes with this application: “What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me – practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.” When we train our minds for virtue, it becomes easier for us to practice what we know to be right. And so, right thinking leads to right practice, and this leads to peace. May the Lord continue to work in our hearts to train our minds for virtue, to live lovingly, and to dwell in his peace.

Stay Thirsty

2016-07-03-17-33-14“Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations… The Spirit and the Bride say, ‘Come.’ And let the one who hears say, ‘Come.’ And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires take the water of life without price.”  (Revelation 22:1-2, 17)

This past summer, my family traveled north to visit our family in Pennsylvania.  My wife’s folks live in Jonestown, Pennsylvania, deep in the heart of the state’s Appalachians – literally in the shadow of a great mountain that stretches from horizon to horizon.  Ever since Terri and I started dating, some 26 years ago, I have loved visiting her parent’s area, both because of seeing family and because of seeing the mountains.    And so every time we visit, I love to walk the lonely roads and just look.   This past summer was no different.   And as I walked, eventually the road took me over an old familiar rise, and there was the sight I had been looking for; there, with Jonestown mountain towering behind it as a backdrop was the little mountain church grandma and grandpa had attended- they’re buried in its churchyard.  A number of times, I have stood near that church, or even just pictured it in my mind from far away, and thought to myself ‘What a beautiful sight.’   Even though it’s not my “home”, the sight makes me feel homesick, because it’s been a part of my experience for so long that I feel a sense of belonging there.  Isn’t it odd to think about being homesick for a place you’ve never really known as home?  The other day as I was reading the verses before us from Revelation 22, I suddenly found myself crying, and as I asked myself why, I realized it was because I was homesick for heaven.  I’m convinced that the apostle John, and indeed the Lord Himself, want us to have that longing as we read the words.    Longing makes the heart grow fonder and gives us hope.   Let’s look at the verses and see what sort of lovely hope awaits us, friend.

We’re told that the river which flows from God’s throne and down the main street of Jerusalem is the “river of the water of life.”   He describes this river as “bright as crystal”; you can just picture the sparkling waters, can’t you?   Indeed, in the last verses, Jesus bids us “come take of the water of life without price.”    And yes, I’m aware that elsewhere Jesus links the “living water” to the work of the Holy Spirit, saying that when he gives living water it will “become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life”. (John 4:14)   I take this to mean that the Spirit is the source of life, but I don’t think it means there isn’t a real, genuine, river in heaven whose waters bring life (by the power of God’s Spirit, I would assume.)  I don’t think the river is symbolic, as Ezekiel had a similar vision with the very same river coming from God’s throne. And in Ezekiel’s vision, not only are people blessed by the life giving water, but the earth itself and the seas as well.  The waters God has in mind bring new life to his creation.  Jesus bids us be quenched. Our refreshment with this new life begins now as we trust Christ and receive his Spirit, but it finds its fulfillment in Glory.

We’re told that the Tree of Life grows on the banks of this river, and John speaks both of its fruit which is good to eat and of its leaves which bring healing to the nations.   The tree, which makes its first appearance in Scripture in Genesis 2, again seems to be tied to eternal life; Adam and Eve are banned from the garden, and God drives them away “lest he …take also of the tree of life and eat, and live forever…” (Genesis 3:22).  Something about the tree makes it good to eat, healthy, and healing.   And of course, friend, if you’ve believed Christ, you’ve already tasted salvation and have eternal life.   But isn’t it interesting to know that God has planted a tree in heaven whose fruit will bless you, and whose leaves will bring healing to the world?

And most of all the Word tells us that in heaven we will be with the Lord (John 14:3).    Probably the greatest pleasure of what waits for us will be the grace of being with the Lord himself- of seeing him with our eyes, of hearing him with our ears, of enjoying his physical presence every bit as much as we enjoy his spiritual presence with us now.  Along with this, we have the promise (I Thessalonians 4:17) that we will also enjoy the company of those others who have believed.

And so, the Lord himself bids us to come.   Are you thirsty? Jesus bids you come. Friend, drink his grace now; believe on him for forgiveness and life.  And then one day, you will find yourself on the banks of that great river, drinking to heart’s content.   You will find yourself whole complete, and a better person than you’ve ever been.   You will find yourself warmed to the soul by the presence of the Son.   And you will be feeling more at home than you ever have.

Waiting for the Sunrise: the Hope of Advent

“And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death to guide our feet into the way of peace.”  (Luke1:76-79)

“Daddy, come help!”   Having been a father, now, for 22 years, I find that those words still have the power to bring me out of a sound sleep into an adrenaline fueled state of alarm in an instant.   Each of my children has uttered those words (or some variant) at some point.  I have been summoned because of strange noises (‘I think that might just be the wind, buddy’), because there’s a guy sitting across the room (‘No, honey, that’s just your coat’), because there’s a monster in the closet (‘nothing there’), because of nightmares (‘Here’s a hug!’), because there’s a kitten in the room (‘No, sweety, there isn’t, and besides, you LIKE kittens!’).    Most of the time, fears are allayed pretty quickly when I come into the room, turn on the light and speak lovingly (Ok, well, I TRY when it comes to that part). Light and love seem to be a winning combination when darkness and fear torment us.

Zechariah, giving his prophecy at the birth of his son John (the Baptist) seems to be well aware that darkness and fear are the universal human condition.  We live as a sinful people born into spiritual blindness living in a world that is cursed because of our sin.    And so there is much we don’t understand, and much that we fear.   Because of this, as he looks forward to the Messiah, Zechariah is exuberant for he knows that the Messiah brings God’s love and light as the perfect antidote to our fear and darkness.   So how does Jesus bring us love?    Well, Zechariah says that he will “give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God…”   So Jesus demonstrates to us the love of God in that he provides for us forgiveness that we might know salvation.    In reading the rest of the gospel account, we know he did this by bearing our sin before God at the cross.  Jesus brings us God’s love by personally securing for us God’s pardon.  How does Jesus bring us light?   He does it by revealing the truth both about ourselves (that we are sinners) and about God (that He is merciful and wants to pardon his people’s sins).    And so the coming of Jesus is like the sunrise, bringing both light and love.    And, dear friend, I believe these verses also speak to a yet greater day when Jesus will come again.    And what a sunrise that will be.  Darkness and all the evil that dwells within it will be banished forever!   And as for the love of God – we shall know it, believe it, and understand it in a much fuller way!

Perhaps even as you read this, you find your heart yearning for that sunrise.    Maybe the darkness has become oppressive.    Dear friend, take heart in Jesus.    If you’ve not known him before, Jesus offers you the opportunity to be reconciled to God and to have hope!    If you already know Jesus, then you’ve experienced that personal sunrise of forgiveness and understanding.    But how quickly we misplace the joy that goes along with it.  Trials become heavy, and we often feel alone.   We allow pain and loss to darken our hopes.  It’s very difficult not to lose hope sometimes.  And if such is the case for you right now, take consolation in Jesus; you have in him one who alone is able to really lighten the burden of the soul.    And never forget, especially now in this season of Advent, that we must wait in hope for the coming of that truly grand sunrise which we ‘ve been promised.   The darkness of this world will not last forever, nor will your struggles.    One day, dawn will come, dispelling the chill of the Fall, as the warmth of full redemption and the brightness of glory encompasses God’s broken earth and his fallen children.   And all shall be well; therefore, child of God, do take hope.sunrise1_cs

Why, God?

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“Nevertheless, I am continually with you; you hold my right hand.  You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will receive me to glory.  Whom have I in heaven but you?  And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you.   My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.  For behold those who are far from you shall perish; you put an end to everyone who is unfaithful to you. But for me it is good to be near God; I have made the Lord God my refuge, that I may tell of all your works.”  Psalm 73:23-28

 

“God, WHY?!   Please let it not be so!”   I remember the occasion I had for those words very well.   The year was 1997, and Bill Clinton had just been elected for a second term to the presidency of the United States.    I was seething with indignation and upset.   There had already been so many scandals with his first term (for an interesting note, just look up Wikipedia’s entry on Clinton administration scandals – there are so many they have to be alphabetized!), that it seemed inconceivable to me that our great country could possibly vote him in for a second term.   And, even now, as our country’s election season wraps up, many of us are bracing ourselves, because it seems unlikely that anyone who is truly a champion of God’s people or, indeed, of goodness in general stands even a modest chance in the elections.    So perhaps it’s a good time to look at the question “What hope do God’s people have when the wicked prosper?”

That is the very question with which the psalmist Asaph (of whom we know very little) was wrestling as he wrote this psalm.    He describes the situation in these words “For I was envious of the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.  For they have no pangs until death …They are not in trouble as others are… Therefore pride is their necklace; violence covers them as a garment.”   The psalmist goes on to talk about during times like this, God’s people ask “How can God know?  Is there knowledge in the Most High?”    It’s natural when you see evil thriving to feel like either God doesn’t know or doesn’t care.    Asaph goes on to describe how he felt like his good deeds had all been in vain.  And then he goes into the sanctuary, and God gives him an understanding: evil men may seem to prosper, but they are balanced on the precipitous edge of disaster.   They will lose everything in a moment when the time comes.   Whereas God’s people may enjoy these blessings:

  • God is with us. (vs. 23) Whatever difficulty we face, we do not face it alone.
  • God gives us direction (vs. 24 ) Whatever uncertainty we face, God guides us.
  • God gives us hope beyond our struggles (vs. 24) when our struggles are over He will receive us into Glory.
  • Heaven, and even more specifically the One who rules Heaven, is a greater blessing than anything the wicked may have. Consider here what life in heaven will be like.   Consider what your rewards will be like in a place where “moth and rust do not destroy.”  And most of all, consider the abundant, extravagant, forever-enduring, graciously given love of the One who promises to take us to be with Him.   And consider his singular determination to accomplish such a redemption – a determination that showed itself, perhaps most startlingly at the cross.   God desires you enough to endure evil to have you, and so you may set Him as your highest desire.

So Christian, should the evil prosper, then do remember these things.   The evil of our world is not a cause for bitterness.  While we don’t enjoy it, while we don’t understand why God may permit it, nevertheless, we may endure it, knowing without doubt that our blessings are only all the sweeter.

Pro-Life?

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“For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb.  I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.  Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well.  My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth.  Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them.”  Psalm 139:13-16

The basic teaching of the entirety of this beautiful psalm is simply this:  we should be in awe at the depth of God’s love for us and at the scope of His providential care.  The verses cited above have been often and rightly used as theme verses for Sanctity of Life Sundays for years.  It is entirely a legitimate unfolding of these verses to say that God regards human life in the womb as personal human life, not merely tissue.  These verses do in fact teach that even in the womb, each person has been designed and formed by God with a special plan for his life.   And, as well, it is a legitimate application to say that we should respect human life in the womb as sacred, having been formed at the hands of Almighty God.  We should regard the deliberate taking of that life as an offense to God, and, indeed, as murder.  But friend, we must recognize that these verses have powerful implications and applications outside of the settled question of the origin of life.   Consider again – if we believe, and these verses say we MUST, that human life has its origin at the hand of God, and if we believe, then, that life is sacred in the womb, then we are required to believe that human life is sacred throughout its entire span, from the womb to the grave.   So then, as with all scripture, there is no room for pride in us for having believed the truth these verses teach; for the truth always convicts us of our own sin.  How do these verses convict us?   Let us count the ways:

-We sin when we treat other human beings even with polite condescension because they have disability or less ability. Consider how we treat elderly folks who suffer dementia or even a normal loss of memory or ability.  Consider how we treat the developmentally disabled (and also how we still use hurtful derogatory terms related to retardation – when we disagree with someone’s thinking, or lack thereof people sometimes slander others by saying ‘retard’, etc…)  Consider how we treat children, when we only regard them as cute, and don’t listen to what they say, because they haven’t grown up yet.

-We sin when we harm someone else, threaten to harm them, or wish harm upon them.   The exceptions to this are, of course when harm must be done to stop further evil; people who must kill to protect our country do not sin in doing so, nor do our police when they exercise their duty to defend against evil, nor do those who must intervene in order to stop harm from happening to themselves or others.    But we are often tempted to harm, to wish harm, or to threaten harm upon others when good does not require it.  And when we do, we show we don’t believe Psalm 139 well enough.

– We sin when we use hurtful language toward others, pretending that it’s ‘just words’, but knowing personally the pain that other peoples’ words cause us.

-We sin when we refuse to value the life of someone of whom we disapprove.   Lots of folks offend us, but how do we handle offense?   Do we try to look past it and show grace and seek to help them have the dignity that sin has taken from them, or do we count that person as worthless?

– We sin when we hold a grudge against our enemies.   Even our personal enemies are people whom God created specifically and personally, people whose story was written by God long ago.   If we are truly pro-life, we will try to find value even in someone with whom we’ve clashed.

– In short, we sin every time we treat another human being in a way that doesn’t reflect that their life is sacred.   We must not pretend that this Psalm does not convict us, each and every one.  For the lack of respect of human life and of God himself, in whose image that life was made, is bound up in our sinful hearts.   This psalm is a celebration of life and of God, but we need to let its teaching penetrate our hearts, because, though a celebration, it should also be a loud call to continuing repentance.   The more we see life is sacred, the more we ought to see clearly how we disrespect it.   This, in turn, dear Christian, ought to push you back into the arms of Christ for that grace you continue to need so much.   Let us regularly, then, drink till full of the grace of God, and let us pray that God will, by His grace, give us a genuine love for human life that paints an attractive reflection of the Love God has shown us.

Listening

“Now about eight days after these sayings, he took with him Peter and John and James and went up on the mountain to pray. And as he was praying, the appearance of his face was altered, and his clothing became dazzling white.  And behold two men were talking with him, Moses and Elijah, who appeared in glory and spoke of his exodus, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.”  (Luke 9: 29-31)      “…the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.’ We ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain.  And we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts….” (II Peter 1:17-19)

“Don’t cross a parking lot without holding mom or dad’s hand.”  That was the rule we taught our youngest son again and again.   And, cognitively speaking, he knew the rule.  But it never impressed upon his heart until one day, while the family was walking in a park, he ran ahead, leaving the grass and wandering into the parking lot. We called him to come back, but at first he did not.  To our horror, he began walking unaware in a path that was about to lead him behind a car that was preparing to back up.   We began to yell “Stop!”   And he did stop – just in time.   But until he saw our distress, our tears and our upset, he didn’t understand that his life had been at risk.  Suddenly for him, our rule took on new meaning, and to this day, it is impressed on his heart.   Most of the time, before we even tell him to take a hand, he seeks us out and says “I want to be safe.”  There is a difference between merely hearing someone and listening to him.

Before the Mount of Transfiguration, Peter had heard Jesus say that he was going to Jerusalem to die.   In fact, he had heard it a number of times, but he didn’t want to believe it, and so the significance of Jesus’ instruction had not impressed upon his heart, nor the other disciples’.  Because of this, God allows Peter, James and John to have an ‘experience.’    Suddenly Jesus is glorious.    Suddenly Jesus is talking with Moses and Elijah, and is preparing to accomplish an ‘exodus’ in Jerusalem.   And suddenly, God Himself is literally calling down from heaven “This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” “Listen to him.” (Luke 9:35)   Later, in his life, as Peter writes his second epistle, you can see that he is a changed man- Jesus’ teachings have impressed upon his heart – indeed he invites us to do more than just hear the words: “You will do well to pay attention”.   Because, you see, there is an exodus at hand:  Jesus died to give us peace with God in place of wrath, life in place of death, hope in place of despair.   All of these thing he accomplished at the cross, and applied to you when he sent his spirit to dwell in you.   You, who were a prisoner to sin, have been set free from it’s personal grip.    And just as Moses not only led the Israelites out of bondage, but out of the land of bondage, Jesus is preparing to take us to a new home, too.  I hope that even as you read this, your heart yearns for the sound of the trumpet call, and the Lord’s command, because those sounds will be the sweetest ever heard.

Dear friend, knowing that an exodus is at hand, as you wait for the dawn and that blessed morning star, will you take the word of God to your heart?   God says of Jesus “Listen to him!” So often we give the Word such a light hearing, even when we read it devotionally.  So often we insulate ourselves from being convicted and from repentance.  Will you seek to have the lessons the Lord teaches impressed firmly on your heart?  Remember that Jesus’ teaching comes from a heart filled with affection for us; listening to him always is for our good (and others’), and ignoring him always results in harm of some sort (spiritual or physical).  It doesn’t do to merely know what Jesus says – let us ‘pay attention’.         listening