The Bible provides an image of the kind of people we should be:
They are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither. In all that they do, they prosper. (Psalm 1:3)
What a beautiful image of life. The word that comes to mind for me is “rooted”. People who bear fruit and prosper have strong roots and are firmly planted.
Life today often seems to be the opposite. It seems rootless. So many things are out of our control. So many changes happen around us. So many things happen to us. We don’t know what to root ourselves in.
Today’s passage is written by St. Paul. As a young man, he rooted himself deep in his Jewish identity. This is what he says about his previous life:
If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. (Philippians 3:4-6)
He rooted himself in the law. Being a righteous person was very important to him. For him, being righteous was to be blameless under the law. This righteousness was based on what he did. It was based on his effort.
I realize that ultimately, this is how we live. Righteousness means right living, right standing, having a justified existence. After our basic needs are met, we want to know that we are living a life worth living. We are up at night because we are filled with worries about what we need to do. We feel pressure to be better parents, children and income earners. Even when we are still, we don’t feel rest because our minds are active and our hearts are restless. We believe that our existence will be justified based on what we do and the effort we put in. We try to root ourselves in what we believe will give us right standing in life.
When Paul met Christ on the road to Damascus, his whole belief system crumbled. Somehow, he realized that everything he had built his life on was wrong. When you realize that everything you’ve built your life on is wrong, that is not easy to deal with. It takes a long and difficult period of readjustment and reformulation. For three years, Paul went to Arabia.
And then he spent 10 years in Tarsus, his hometown. We don’t know exactly what he was doing. There is nothing written about these years. For me, he was reformulating his whole belief system. A new belief system that he would live out in his ministry to come. He eventually articulated this belief system in Romans.
St. Paul realized that he had rooted himself in the wrong thing. He rooted himself in his own effort. His own righteousness. But that was so small and insignificant to what he discovered – the love of God for him in Christ. He discovered the righteousness of God. Righteousness is God’s desire and work to save us. It is what God does. What God did was love him even when he was weak, when he was a sinner, and even when he was an enemy of God. Paul saw God’s loving desire and will for him even when he did not deserve it and was even opposed to God’s will.
He turned back to the example of Abraham. God made this promise to Abraham:
I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed. (Genesis 12:2-3)
Somehow, Abraham heard this promise from God. He believed that God had a loving will for him and his future. He believed that God’s promise would be fulfilled because of God’s faithfulness and love. He trusted the promise and good intention of God. He rooted himself in the promise of God. It was this trust that made him a righteous person.
Hoping against hope, he believed that he would become “the father of many nations,” according to what was said, “So shall your descendants be.” He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was already as good as dead (for he was about a hundred years old), and the barrenness of Sarah’s womb. No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. Therefore “it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” (Romans 4:18-22)
The very core of Christian belief is that God’s loving desire for us saves us. It is to root ourselves not on our own efforts, but in the love that God has for us. It is faith and trust in God’s promise and good will for us. This is what St. Paul discovered.
Believe in God’s Love
When we were in Los Angeles last week, we had a front seat view of my kids. They would play and bicker, play and bicker – the whole week! The way they spoke to each other made me cringe. It was like a mirror reflected onto me. I could see some of my worst tendencies reflected in the way they behaved. It made me feel so guilty and inadequate. In these kinds of moments, it is so hard to believe that my worth as a father is not dependent on what I do or how I am.
It is so hard to believe in God’s promise and loving intention for my children when I fear the road they are on due to the bad tendencies they are inheriting from me. Faith is difficult. Trusting in God’s promise is the difficult daily spiritual discipline we need to take on. Every day, we need to root ourselves in God’s love for us, even when we feel we don’t deserve it. We need to be honest about our shortcomings, our sins and our fears. We need to be humble and confess these things. But we need to focus more on God’s love for us and the promise God makes to bring good will to our lives.
A few years ago, one of our young people shared his experience with me. He had applied for a special program in university but didn’t get in. He wanted to get into this because it would help his career and also let him earn money that would alleviate the financial burden on his parents. It was a very competitive program, and he didn’t get in. He felt so disappointed and so sorry to his parents. He expected great disappointment from his parents and approached them warily. But much to his surprise, they said it was okay. That affirmation lifted a huge burden off his heart. He was so grateful and humble for the grace he was shown. He had tears as he shared this story with me.
When we believe in God’s love for us, we enter the world of grace. Grace lifts the burden from our hearts. It makes us humble. It makes us thankful. Grace empowers us and transforms us. It gives us power for life. St. Paul says this:
And not only that, but we also boast in our afflictions, knowing that affliction produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. (Romans 5:3-5)
Grace changes how we respond to difficult situations. We cannot control difficult situations that are thrown at us. But when difficulties hit us, they do not destroy us. Rather, we are able to endure them. Endurance builds character in us. Character produces hope. This hope will not let us down, because it is rooted in God’s love for us. When we are rooted in God’s love and promise for us, nothing can destroy us. We become strong and confident people.
While we were in LA, we took our kids to the California Science Centre. There was an exhibit on the COVID-19 pandemic. As I looked at the pictures and read about it, memories and feelings of the past few years came back. There was one picture in particular of empty freeways in Los Angeles the day after the pandemic was declared. For reasons I couldn’t articulate, I started to get tears in my eyes. I couldn’t describe what these feelings were.
Yesterday marked three years since the World Health Organization officially declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. The pandemic uprooted many people’s sense of security and stability. We have not recovered from it. All around us, we see fear, mistrust, anger, and loss of empathy. People have lost belief that institutions, governments and even other people are for them and looking out for them. People feel alone, lost and rootless. People are anxious, mistrustful and fearful.
Yes, I see all of that around me. I see all of this every day when I read the news. My heart is broken by the dysfunction and brokenness I see. But I refuse to fall into despair and lose hope. I refuse to do so because I still believe in a God who loves us and desires good for this world.
Faith and Grace
Faith has ethical implications. Faith is our refusal to accept permanent cynicism. Faith is our subversive, countercultural movement that says there is another possibility to what we see. Hope is not a fairy tale. I have seen people who are rooted in their faith that God loves them and this world.
They may not be shouting from rooftops, but with quiet humility they live their lives with compassion and faith. When they face challenges, they do not give up but they endure with faith. They do not become petty, or react to the environment around them, but they remain gentle, compassionate, and empathetic. They do not fall into despair but remain hopeful. These people are rooted in the promise of God. This faith gives me hope.
Grace is the place where we rest in God’s promise. Grace gives us hope for the future. Grace also changes how we see our past. I didn’t know why I had tears at that COVID-19 exhibit. But as I think about it, I think it’s because despite all of the difficulties we faced and the scars we still have, I see the grace that carried me through it. That grace moves me and brings me to humble gratitude. Those who are rooted in God’s promise are rooted in grace.
The prophet Jeremiah spoke about these people.
Blessed are those who trust in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord. They shall be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream. It shall not fear when heat comes, and its leaves shall stay green; in the year of drought it is not anxious, and it does not cease to bear fruit. (Jeremiah 17:7-8)
Yes, when things get difficult, they will not fear. They will not get anxious. They will continue to bear fruit.
No matter what your situation is, continue to bear fruit. Trust God with your whole heart. God will bless you. God will bless your family. God will bless those around you. That is God’s promise to you and me. Find rest and be rooted in God’s promise.