Act Justly, Love Mercy, Walk Humbly

Sometimes it’s hard to summarize a big concept, especially when you’re talking to young children. Explaining complex and heavy topics, such as racism or wars, takes a bit of thinking. How much historical background should I provide? Should I go deep or just stay on the surface? Recently, in one short car ride home, my 1stgrade son and I went from his question: “Why did someone shoot Dr. King?” to the negative effects of European colonization of his birth country, the Democratic Republic of the Congo. I may have gotten a little lost in the weeds.

 

I’ve been reading through the Minor Prophets—the books of the Old Testament of the Bible which cover more than three decades when God’s people are in one of three periods: about to face the extreme punishment of exile from their homes, in exile, or after they returned from exile to rebuild Jerusalem. It’s been a fascinating study, but one where it’s easy to get tangled up in the frustrating details and dense poetry.

 

This week, I’m reading the Book of Micah. He’s a prophet during the reign of three different kings, so he spent a lot of time mostly being ignored. It was before the people in his region were carried away, human plunder for their enemies, and they didn’t want to listen to Micah’s warnings. Still, Prophet Micah was dedicated enough to walk around naked and shoeless for a time to let the people know just how bad things were.

 

A lot of the writings of the Minor Prophets can be pretty depressing. There are 14 “Woe to…” exclamations in those 12 short books. (Example – “Woeto you who lie awake at night, plotting wickedness…”) Micah goes city by city, describing their upcoming destruction. He chastises the leaders, scolding them for not doing what’s right. He prophesies about a future day when the people will come back to their Promised Land to live in peace and prosperity. Sinfulness followed by punishment followed by mercy.

 

Then, in chapter 6, Micah says what his original audience must’ve been thinking: “Yikes! So what can we do to fix our relationship with God?” He tells them that God doesn’t want thousands of rams or rivers of olive oil or their children sacrificed on some altar. Instead Micah summarizes what God wants from them:

 

“And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humblywith your God.” (NIV)

 

I’ve heard this verse hundreds of times, but I’m appreciating it more now than ever. You can use Micah 6:8 as the standard 3-part test for nearly any situation. I can ask myself: Am I being fair? Am I showing mercy? Am I humbly following the example of Jesus?If the answer is noto any of those questions, then I’d better get a new plan.

 

If I let this verse penetrate into my thinking, then justice, mercy and humility can become my default yardstick for how to conduct myself. And then it can change my relationships with others.

Surprise ending

I rarely watch a movie or read a book more than once. There’s a part of me that says, “I already know how this ends, so I’m not really interested in going through all of it again.” I mostly prefer the excitement of finding out what happens more than moving step-by-step through the plot. Still, there are times when I will get so engrossed in an already familiar story that either I forget what will happen or I hope it will turn out differently this time (pointless, I know).

 

The beauty of hearing a story for the first time, with no spoilers or hints of the final outcome, is that you are evenly informed with the protagonist. You, the spectator, know as much as the main character. There are some stories I’ve known from infancy that I wish I could hear as an adult but for the first time.

 

One of those stories is the account from the Book of Genesis about Joseph. Here’s a quick summary: Jacob, Joseph’s father, gives Joseph—his favorite son of his favorite wife—a special coat. This gift along with Joseph’s penchant for telling his dreams which feature his brothers bowing down to him gets Joseph thrown in a pit by his scheming brothers and eventually sold as a slave to a wealthy Egyptian named Potiphar. Potiphar’s wife takes a liking to our boy Joseph and when he thwarts her advances, he gets put in prison. While in prison, Joseph interprets the dream of a baker and a butler. The dreams come true: the baker is killed and the butler is released from prison. After which, the butler tells dream-vexed Pharaoh about Joseph and his ability to explain dreams. Pharaoh tells Joseph his dream and Joseph replies, “I can’t explain it, but God will give Pharaoh the answer he desires.” Joseph explains that Pharaoh’s dreams mean that the land would have 7 years of good crops followed by 7 years of famine. So Joseph becomes Pharaoh’s right hand man. Joseph puts his plan into action, saving up good grain for those bad years. Eventually, Joseph’s brothers back in Canaan become desperate for food. Ten of his brothers (all except the youngest—Benjamin) go to Egypt to collect the grain. Joseph plays some crazy mind games with them because they don’t recognize him, the brother they long ago assumed had died. Joseph calls them spies and thieves. He even puts them in prison, all a ruse to get his youngest brother Benjamin to come to Egypt. (And maybe exact a little sibling revenge?) Finally, after Joseph runs out of tricks, he reveals his identity. He weeps as he holds his brothers who tremble at thought of their persecuted brother now holding their lives in his hands.

 

It’s a wild ride. There are soap operas with fewer twists. But, in the end, this is what Joseph tells his brothers in Genesis 45: “I am Joseph, your brother, whom you sold into slavery in Egypt. But don’t be upset, and don’t be angry with yourselves for selling me to this place. It was God who sent me here ahead of you to preserve your lives. This famine that has ravaged the land for two years will last five more years, and there will be neither plowing nor harvesting. God has sent me ahead of you to keep you and your families alive and to preserve many survivors. So it was God who sent me here, not you!” (NLT)

 

When young Joseph was sitting at the bottom of that dark and dirty hole, listening to the whispered voices of his big brothers above who argued over how to punish him, he wouldn’t have thought in a million years that the hole was a part of a bigger plan to rescue those same jealous brothers from starvation. And when he sat in chains in the prison of a foreign land for a crime he didn’t commit, Joseph couldn’t have known he would eventually be sitting next to the throne of the most powerful man in the world, advising Pharaoh and ordering servants to obey Joseph’s every command.

 

This is a reminder to me that when things aren’t working out the way I’d hope and I can’t figure out why it’s so difficult, it’s best to rest in God’s faithfulness. Four times in Genesis 39, we read “The Lord was with Joseph.” Joseph knew he wasn’t alone in the hole or in prison. The Lord was right there with him, crafting a surprise ending to Joseph’s tumultuous story.

Just

I’ve come to believe that words are very powerful. With only a slight change in wording, the intended meaning can be completely altered. For example, imagine you’re shopping with a friend and unsure how you look in an outfit you’ve tried on. Standing in front of one those giant dressing room mirrors, would you rather hear: 1.) “You are not fat.” 2.) “You are not thatfat.” Four little letters but the difference is night and day.

 

Depending on the language, vocabulary can be very confusing. As my African-born son can attest, English seems unnecessarily tricky with so many synonyms that mean the same thing and homonyms which sound the same but mean something different and words with multiple meanings. You could argue that its complexity makes our language richer, but if you’re new to English it just makes you want to plug up your ears and go back to bed.

 

One word with many varied meanings that I’ve recently noticed I may overuse is the adjective/adverb just. Beside its connection to fairness and morality, it can also mean now, only, barely, simply, recently. I use it all day long.

 

“Mom, when’s supper?” It’s just5:00. You can’t be hungry yet. Eat this carrot.

 

Later that night, around 7:00 pm: “Mom, I’m hungry.” What? We justate!

 

You made it justin time. Give me justa minute. We’re justgoing to one store. Justsit there and think about what you did!

 

I’ve also noticed how often we use the word justwhen it comes to faith. If you’ve got a very sick relative and people ask you how they can help during such a difficult time we often say, “Just pray.” There’s a note of last resort here, as if seeing that all the spots for bringing supper to the family are filled, you might as well give them the job of merely praying.

 

But in this context, it could also mean you are giving this goodhearted friend a very simple, specific yet important task. “Just pray,” you say. “Set aside whatever doesn’t need doing right away and beg God to intercede. Please make this your focus today.”

 

Looking at the lyrics to the gospel song “Closer Walk with Thee,” we see justused to describe a scene which would be anything but ordinary: “Just a closer walk with Thee/Grant it, Jesus, is my plea/Daily walking close to Thee/Let it be, dear Lord, let it be” We don’t merely walk with God like it’s no big deal. We strive for a complete connection, justas in onlyis the goal.

 

If you search the Scriptures for instances of the word just, you’ll have plenty of reading. You’ll find “Noah did everything just as God commanded him” in the Old Testament and “People brought all their sick to Jesus and begged him to let the sick justtouch the edge of his cloak, and all who touched it were healed” in the New Testament.

 

With a possibly ambiguous word like just, we have to pause and determine which meaning is intended. Then we see Noah’s preciseness in his obedience and Jesus’ mighty power to heal. Such a tiny word but packed with so much capability.