As Easter comes near, there is much focus placed on Jesus’ resurrection and the victory it claimed. Today, though, I’d like to focus on the scene of his death. Even these heart-wrenching moments hold heavy, glorious meaning, and I’d love to share some of it with you! Let’s start by reading in the book of Matthew.
Two rebels were crucified with [Jesus], one on his right and one on his left. Those who passed by hurled insults at him, shaking their heads and saying, “You who are going to destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! Come down from the cross, if you are the Son of God!” In the same way the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders mocked him. “He saved others,” they said, “but he can’t save himself! He’s the king of Israel! Let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God. Let God rescue him now if he wants him, for he said, ‘I am the Son of God.’” In the same way the rebels who were crucified with him also heaped insults on him. -Matthew 27:38-44
This is the most evil moment in history. The blameless, humble, holy Son of God has been beaten and literally torn apart for hours, then nailed to a cross. Suspended by the iron spikes in his wrists and ankles, he suffers the slowest, most agonizing and humiliating death the Romans could dream up. He is being tortured and crucified at the hands of the very humanity he came to save and the evil he came to destroy.
Insults roar and swarm the air. Jesus’ mockers are relentless and many. Commoners passing by, priests, elders, and both criminals beside Jesus join in. I cannot imagine the humiliation and pain he suffered: physical, emotional, and spiritual.
Death rejoices, giddy at the prospect of Jesus’ imminent defeat. A festering crowd of demons lean in, watching the scene with sickly glee. Angels turn their tear-stained faces away, burdened with grief.
The jeers of these demons are about to be stupefied, though. Let’s turn our focus to the thieves dying beside Jesus.
Two other men, both criminals, were also led out with [Jesus] to be executed. When they came to the place called the Skull, they crucified him there, along with the criminals—one on his right, the other on his left . . .
One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!”
But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.”
Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
-Luke 23:32-33, 39-43
These are quite the guys. They’ve committed crimes deemed worthy of death on a cross, and just moments earlier we saw them “heaping insults” on Jesus. They are criminals, thieves, and outright mockers of Jesus Christ.
However, as one thief’s death and final damnation to Hell inch nearer, everything changes in the breath of just four sentences. By some grace of God or swift perspective-change, this man’s eyes are thrown open to realize humbleness in the presence of God, his own sinfulness, Jesus’ innocence, and Jesus’ power to save his soul.
And in that very moment, Jesus saves him. Although this man has quite a few things going against him, his simple confession of faith saves him instantaneously. His eternity is transformed.
What a picture of pure grace! There is absolutely nothing this criminal could have done to earn his salvation. He was literally nailed to a cross: bleeding, dying, and utterly helpless. Unable to move any limb. Unable to even take a full breath. He hadn’t been baptized. He didn’t build up enough good works to ‘earn’ heaven. He probably hadn’t studied God’s Word or Jesus’ teachings at all. Faith alone saved him.
God’s wisdom alone placed this perfect gospel-portrayal at such a profound moment in history. This thief stands out to me as one of the first people to be saved by Jesus’ death. His story screams of God’s grace for even the most reprehensible sinners!
We miss the true message, though, if we don’t realize that we are just as helpless to save ourselves as this thief. His situation forced him to see himself truthfully, but his is the same story as yours and mine. We are all hopelessly careening towards hell without Jesus’ intervention.
All this man could do was to confess his faith. And that’s all he needed to do. How could there be any pride or smug self-sufficiency left in him? In his most hopeless moment, he humbled himself further and cried for Jesus’ help. I pray that we’d be blessed with this perspective of our salvation.
There’s another profound truth to this story: Even in the dismal territory of Jesus’ death, life staked a victory. I can imagine the sly grins and smacking lips of evil being suddenly sobered as they watch this man’s soul be saved: a man they were surely readying to usher into hell! Jesus' power and victory shuns even death in its greatest moments of euphoria.
Three days later, Jesus would rise from the dead: shattering the power of death, satan, and sin once and for all. On that day, salvation became a free gift to all who believe. The thief’s confession of faith on the cross is now an example of the freely-given love and grace poured out by Jesus.
Have a blessed Easter as you celebrate these wonderful truths!
Find my post from last Easter here: The New Way to God.
What matters more: what you do or who you are?
My default is to focus on the doing things of life. What are my plans for the weekend? What will I get done today? Who will I spend time with? What will I cook for supper? And for the most part, this works. It’s life, and it’s good and joyful.
The problem is, task-focused living can become spiritually stagnant. When I focus on the tasks in a day instead of the type of person I’m becoming, I forget that the way I live matters. For example, a day full of selfishness can feel successful if I’ve completed my to-do list: even if I missed opportunities to serve others or pray.
We must pay attention to how well we’re reflecting Christ: because when we don’t, we subconsciously assume we’re doing fine. We sure notice others’ slip-ups and flaws, but avoid turning the searching eye to our own hearts.
God’s desire, though, is to see us being constantly transformed to live more like Christ:
For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters.
-Romans 8:29, emphasis added
But if anyone obeys his word, love for God is truly made complete in them. This is how we know we are in him: Whoever claims to live in him must live as Jesus did.
-1 John 2:5-6
“God is far more interested in what you are than in what you do. We are human beings, not human doings.” – Rick Warren, The Purpose Driven Life.
(See also Eph. 5:1-2, 1 Peter 2:21, and 2 Cor. 3:18)
As you can probably tell, I’ve been hit over the head with this concept lately. It’s filled my journal and prayers for the past week. I just can’t stop thinking about it: Honestly, do I live a Christ-like life? Or am I too selfish and busy to bother? Here are a few things (selected from a seriously extensive list) that God has shown me I need to work on:
Even that is quite an exhausting lineup. Doesn’t it overwhelm you to think of the things you want to change? Thank goodness for God’s Spirit in us and grace for us!
We also have the Bible, which is full of commands, examples of Godly men and women, and the words and life of Jesus. His commands don’t exist to exasperate or annoy us, but to show us the best life he designed from the very beginning. He created us, and knows what’s most fulfilling, effective, and healthy for us. Living like Christ turns out to be a marvelous blessing!
At this point, you could be thinking a few things. Maybe you know something specific you want to change about how you live. Maybe you’re intimidated by the thought of truly inspecting your heart. Or maybe you don’t think there’s much you need to change.
No matter where you’re at, know that God desires to shape and change every Christian throughout their entire life. It is his joy when his children look increasingly like him!
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful.” -John 15:1-2
I encourage you to ask God how he wants to change you. Try your hardest to be totally honest and open with him. Don’t attempt to guard any corner of your heart, desires, or motivations: he already knows it all anyways.
If you’re having trouble pinpointing what he wants to tell you, read the Bible. Journal about it. Read about Jesus’ life of love, selflessness, service, and obedience to God. Pray about it consistently. I’ve been focusing on and praying about this for a week, and he’s continued to give me new things to put into action.
The main idea is to make sure you’re intentional about it. We don’t become Christlike by living on autopilot. Righteous living is simply not human nature. This means that we have to rely on God power and equipping, and also put in the effort necessary to make changes. Honesty and accountability with close Christian friends is also helpful.
It’s at this point that I feel we need a reminder: We do not work on ourselves to gain value, prove ourselves, or earn salvation. This is not simply self-improvement, and Jesus already gave his life that we could be saved.
Instead, we do this to follow the original blueprints of humanity as God’s image. We live for him as an enthusiastic response to his offer of a better way, for his glory in us. And ultimately, we look forward to the day we’re united with our Savior and finally become perfected images of him!
Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. All who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.
-1 John 3:2-3
Set your heart on this heavenly day as you strive to live your earthly days like Christ. I'm right there beside you!
It’s 12:45 am. I shift in my bed once again and sigh, pulling twisted sheets over my shoulder. I have a long day tomorrow, and lots to get done. But this realization is only an intermission in the stream of worries that have seized my mind for the past hours: worries about my upcoming summer job. My future. Grad school. And oh yes, all the details, too.
I am a worrier. I don’t say that flippantly. For years, I’ve overanalyzed situations, tortured my mind with possibilities and assumptions, and expected the worst.
I’ve found it to be such a frustrating problem! While I know that worrying is pointless and harmful, it feels impossible to stop. When there’s a perceived problem on the horizon of my life, my mind’s eye loves to linger. What if I don’t think through all the details? What if something goes wrong? Oh, what can I do?! I feebly try to plan my way out of pain.
Recently, though, I studied Jesus’ teaching about worry in Luke 12. Here, he has just finished talking to a man whose primary concern was his family’s inheritance. Jesus told the parable of the rich fool to show that greed in this life leads to poverty in eternity.
He then turns to his disciples and warns them about worry. Could this mean that there’s a link between selfish greed and worry? Hang onto that thought as you read the passage! His words are incredibly powerful, and have largely shifted my perspective about worry in three ways.
1. Worry ignores God’s provision and promises.
Then Jesus said to his disciples: “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat; or about your body, what you will wear. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothes. Consider the ravens: They do not sow or reap, they have no storeroom or barn; yet God feeds them. And how much more valuable you are than birds! Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to your life? Since you cannot do this very little thing, why do you worry about the rest?
“Consider how the wild flowers grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you, not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today, and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, how much more will he clothe you—you of little faith! -Luke 12:22-28
After reading that, doesn’t worry seem illogical? God takes care of the birds and wildflowers. How much more will he take care of those he calls his children? Those he sacrificed his son’s life for?
Worrying requires us to squeeze our eyes shut to God’s history of provision for us and his promises to us. It’s no wonder that our heads start spinning when we think that way!
2. Worry is self-focused.
And do not set your heart on what you will eat or drink; do not worry about it. For the pagan world runs after all such things, and your Father knows that you need them. -Luke 12:29-30
Think of the most recent thing you worried about. In all those fateful scenarios you played out in your head, whose safety was at stake? Whose pride? Whose comfort, money, future, health, or happiness? Most likely, it was your own.
It’s exactly what I’ve found in myself. I’m most prone to worry about things in my life going downhill. I know we worry about our loved ones too, but it’s usually the exception to the rule: and even then, we worry about how we’ll be affected!
Worry is a result of selfishness: that disastrous disease we can’t quite get enough of. It’s a result of our hearts being set on the wrong things.
For example, why do I worry about my future so much? Because my heart is set on it. I’ve set it up as what I need to be truly fulfilled. The thought of having a husband, a tidy home, beautiful children, and a job I love is so attractive to me that I become desperate when I realize it might not all work out perfectly.
Worldly plans, concepts, and possessions cannot handle the pressure of fulfilling us, but we keep trying to force it to work. Then, when we detect a crack in our reasoning or a flaw in our plan, we worry ourselves sick over fixing it.
[Self-centered expectations of life + the knowledge that worldly things will never fulfil them = worry]
3. Worry is cured with an outward focus.
And do not set your heart on what you will eat or drink; do not worry about it. For the pagan world runs after all such things, and your Father knows that you need them. But seek his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well. “Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. -Luke 12:29-34
God knows what we need, and he’s just as tuned into our physical and emotional needs as our spiritual needs. I tend to forget that and assume that I have to take care of those aspects of life myself. In this passage, though, Jesus lovingly reminds us that we don’t have to worry about any of our needs.
Our lives’ primary focus is to be on our Father’s kingdom. How? We are told to invite others into it, invest in it, and set our hearts on it. We are also told to live generously: outside the fear of not having enough. This frees us to build up treasures in heaven that will last!
This is a fascinating way to dissipate worry. The more we focus on and give ourselves to eternal things, the less obsessed we will be with the details and troubles of our own existences. This perspective shift is hard and painful for sure, but we will not know true peace or contentment without it.
The most worry-filled moments in my life are the most selfish and inward-focused. But the most joyful, soul-filling moments are the most generous and outward-focused!
Is constant prayer possible? I’ve always thought it sounded kind of weird, like something a regular person couldn’t do. But it also confused me that it’s a command in the Bible: “Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” -1 Th. 5:16-18 It’s God’s will for us. Doesn’t that mean we should all be doing it? (Find more verses about continual prayer at the end of this post!)
I hope you’ve been following along the past two weeks as we’ve talked about the importance of our ordinary days and the truth about prayer, because this week, we’re putting those two concepts together!
First, I want you to know that I’ve been learning a lot about continual prayer lately, but I’m far from perfecting it. To be honest, I’m far from actually practicing it. However, the handful of days I have dedicated to prayer have been powerful. So, wherever you’re at with prayer right now, read this post as an invitation to take the next step. I have faith that God delights in and honors every decision that brings us closer to him.
So, what is constant prayer? It’s the act of staying aware of and connected to God all day long through continual conversation with him. Tell him everything. Turn everything into a prayer! Thank him for specific things in your day. Tell him what you’re doing in any given moment. Pray for people as they come into your mind. Ask God for help with something. Tell him why you love him. Even simply acknowledge his presence. Remember him! It’s that simple.
I’ve found that saying twenty short prayers throughout a day is more helpful for remembering God than one long prayer at the beginning of the day. (I, of course, am not putting a limit on our prayers. It’s best to do both!) Constant prayer brings both a Godly perspective and God himself into every situation throughout our days!
Approaching God in response to every situation has been powerful and eye-opening for me in the past few weeks. Here’s what I’ve found about prayer's power in the following common emotions:
When I’m stressed or angry:
Let’s get the ugly stuff out there right away. This semester, there have been many flustered, stressed drives from class to work. There have been many nights eaten away by my fear of the future. There have been conflicts and frustrations with people fueled by my selfishness. Many dramatic breakdowns in my peace. And so goes life.
The single hardest thing to do in these situations is to pray. Seriously. Think of the most recent time you willingly indulged in some good ole, fit-throwing self-pity. Did you feel like approaching God? Probably not, because prayer is humbling and sobering. It forces us to evaluate ourselves in the presence of holiness and the perspective of eternity. Usually, I realize that my problem isn’t as big of a deal as I thought it was!
But not every problem in life is caused by bad attitude. Real, deep pain and conflict exist. Prayer is the best approach here too, though, because it lets us ask for divine help! When we hand over our problems to God, we recognize that someone with far more power than we can comprehend is in control (Eph. 3:20-21). It gives us solid ground to stand on once again.
When I’m feeling neutral/apathetic:
This is the state we spend most of our days in. Neutral-ness. Routine and familiarity tend to reduce our minds to comfort and indifference. Here’s the antidote I’ve found: I look around, think a bit, then thank God for everything immediately surrounding me: the ability to have a job when I’m working. Light when it’s dark outside. Nutrition and taste when I’m eating. Legs when I’m walking up stairs. Warmth when I’m inside. Friends when I see them on social media. Even fingers when I’m typing! When I give it a bit of thought, I realize that literally everything is a gift undeserved.
You can do this, too! In fact, do it right now. Pause, look around, and find three blessings you usually don't notice. Thank God for them one by one, then decide to thank him throughout the rest of your day.
When I’m happy:
Thank God that there is so much good in life! There’s good news, outside air, hobbies, the feeling of a job well done, meals with family, closeness to God, special people. . . truly, there are so many wholly good moments in our days!
Prayer in these moments focuses everything on God instead of just how we feel. Praise him for his goodness! Look for his face, personality, and purpose in the joy you’re experiencing. This focuses everything outward instead of inward, and it's also a great exercise in thankfulness.
Constant prayer: this is how we bring Jesus into every moment of our lives, and live to his glory. This is how we abide in him and keep our minds on him. This is how we bring God glory and joy, and it’s how we can transform the shakable with the unshakable!
Try it. Start now, say a prayer—and don’t say amen.
More verses about continual prayer:
From the rising of the sun to the place where it sets,
the name of the Lord is to be praised.
O Lord, God of my salvation,
I cry out day and night before you.
-Psalm 88:1, ESV
Hello! I'm Anna, a college student living in the Midwest. I'm a strong believer in uncontrollable laughter, powerful words, and a morning cup of coffee. I pray these posts will encourage you to live a full life with and for God: unhindered. Look forward to new posts every Monday morning!