Here I Am: the Curious Phrase in the Abraham and Isaac Tale

“Mommy, the juice spilled.”

I’m here.

“Mommy, I need help with my Lego set.”

I’m here.

Mommy, I can’t find my other shoe.

I’m here.

Mom, I am feeling confused about something my friend said and I need to talk to you.

Here I am.

Do you see the shift? “I’m here” is literal: I am present.

“Here I am” is something more. Yes, the physical presence is indicated, but a willingness, an offering of self is also swelling in that phrase.

LEARNING THE PHRASE HINENI

I discovered I’m here/here I am difference when the Holy Spirit had me pause in my reading of Genesis in chapter 22.

Parents, you know the one.

When Abraham has to lug his own son—the one rightful heir who was meant to father multiple nations— up a mountain to be slaughtered by his own hand?

I don’t know about you, but every time I read this, I silently pray, “please, God, never test me to this extent.”

Something leapt out at me (again, through the Holy Spirit) as I was reading this passage:

Abraham repeats one phrase three times: “Here I am” or hineni in Hebrew.

I did a little digging online, and I found the distinction I mentioned earlier: hineni is not merely presence. In Hebrew to indicate mere presence, someone says Po ani (I also saw this phrase as ani Po).

But hineni carries connotations of submission: I am ready, willing, and able to serve you. To use an idiom, hineni means “I am at your service.”

HINENI IN RESPONSE TO GOD

Let’s examine the three mentions of hineni.

Rightly, Abraham uses hineni when God calls his name to give him this test:

After these things God tested Abraham and said to him ‘Abraham!’ And he said ‘Here I am.’ He said ‘Take your son, your only son, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains which I shall tell you.

Genesis 22.1-2, ESV

When God calls Abraham’s name, Abraham is ready and willing to do whatever comes next.

And what came next was absolutely heart-wrenching. Take note of how many qualifications are used in that phrase: your son, your only son, whom you love.

God is emphasizing just how great of a sacrifice this will be for Abraham.

If you are a parent, you know that this request is as unthinkably as it gets. As if the stakes could get any higher, there is the added sacrifice of Abraham’s legacy. If Isaac dies, so does his progeny.

But Abraham does no hemming, no hawing. The offer of hineni, or “Here I am” means— I turn myself over to you.

The offer of hineni, or “Here I am” means— I turn myself over to you.

If a mark of obedience is the haste with which it is performed, then Abraham scores the highest marks in obedience.

The very next verse tells us that “So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac” (22.3).

Can you imagine the tightness in Abraham’s chest? Was his stomach flipping itself this way and that as they silently walked up a mountain in the early morning sunlight? But he forged ahead.

HINENI A SECOND TIME

A curious interchange happens between Abraham and Isaac before they reach the top.

Isaac breaks the (implied) silence with “My father!” And Abraham responds with hineni Beni “Here I am, my son.”

He uses the same phrase that he would use in respect to God. Not “what do you want?” Or “be quiet—we are almost there” or “well, you should have gone to the bathroom before we left!”

No. He speaks to his son with the tenderness and respect that this phrases carries.

Why is this notable?

The use of this phrase indicates how much he loves his son.

For anyone who might try and argue that this experience for Abraham is the same as schlepping a goat up the mountain — just a means to an end— is sorely mistaken. No, this is deeply personal. Even in what would be Isaac’s final hours of life, Abraham speaks to him with the tenderness and honor that only a loving father would.

This phrase emphasizes the sacrifice. He loves Isaac so very much, but his love for God is even greater still.

A HINENI UTTERED WITH RELIEF

And to give this tale beautiful shape, the resolution holds one final Hineni.

As Isaac is bound, and Abraham is holding the knife (is it poised for striking?), an angel appears and calls Abraham’s name twice in a manner that suggests frenzy: “Abraham! Abraham!”

And what does he respond? Hineni. If the first hineni were out of submission, and the second out of tenderness, I have to imagine this final utterance is brimming with hope and relief.

The angel calls Abraham to a halt, and in a nearby thicket is a ram to be offered instead of Isaac.

DO WE RESPOND HINENI IN OUR CALLINGS?

I couldn’t help but scan my recent callings from God to see if I was responding in a manner of hineni: I am yours for the taking, Lord.

Did I respond with hineni when He asked me to bring up the gospel to the young mother I just met?

Did I respond with hineni when He asked me to stop advertising during Lent?

Did I respond with hineni when He asked me to send a tee shirt to someone I know is struggling?

My answer is often, “okay, God, soon I will.” But I can’t imagine that God is pleased by the answer “soon.” He wants the complete offering of hineni— the abandonment of self-centered comforts, desires, and timeline.

Again, it was the immediacy and the no-looking-back dedication with which Abraham responded that makes him such a faithful servant.

And we know how the story ends. Isaac is spared, and God declares to Abraham:

I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand on the seashore… and in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice.

Genesis 22. 17-18, ESV (emphasis mine)

God values obedience. God rewards obedience. Here I am, Lord.

with His love,

Adelaide

Thoughts on Revelation: He Sends Wings

So, here I am: Revelation. I’ve read the final book in the New Testament and met my goal for 2020. It feels wonderful. I feel much more empowered to speak about the New Testament in contrast to the embarrassing way I would try to piece together the scraps of knowledge from reading it piecemeal.

That being said, I have only read the NT through once, so I am nowhere near an expert, but I now have a much fuller picture of what God was doing through these gospels, letters, and accounts.

Though I can’t say Revelation will be my go-to comfort read, I am glad I read it and it holds important truths for our modern lives.

GETTING STARTED WITH REVELATION

To supplement my reading, I have been working through Shanda Fulbright’s study of the seven churches in Revelation, and touching base with the Bible Project’s videos on Revelation (my absolute favorite way to orient myself before a new book of the Bible).

The Bible Project framed the book of Revelation in the most helpful way:

Revelation is an apocalypse (from the greek ἀποκάλυψις) which was a category of literature familiar to the Jewish audience. “Apocalypses recounted a prophet’s symbolic dreams and visions that revealed God’s heavenly perspective on history and current events, so that the present could be viewed in light of history’s final outcome” (Bible Project).

Because the sheer amount of prophetic images given to John were extensive, I am going to focus in on just one part that revealed some of the truth of God to me, the start of Chapter 12.

THE SYMBOL OF THE BIRTHING MOTHER

In John’s vision, when the seventh angel blows his trumpet, “God’s temple in heaven was opened” and the first sign that appears in heaven is this one:

A woman

clothed with the sun

with the moon under her feet

and on her head was a crown of twelve stars.

She was pregnant and was crying out in birth pains

and the agony of giving birth.

Revelation 12.1-2, spacing mine

As someone who went through three labors and births without medication (not trying to sell you on this, by the way), it may not surprise you that the passages that evoked a response in me were those of the birth of the Messiah by the celestial woman.

The woman (whether she represents Mary or a more general prophetic image) is clearly revered and holy because the number twelve (in her crown) is reserved in John’s revelation for the sanctified.

THE ENEMY’S CAREFUL TIMING

Here is the part that made me feel something resembling strong vulnerability—a feeling of violation perhaps— a feeling beyond anything I have truly felt in my actual life. I wanted to recoil in horror and fight for protection all at once.

And the dragon stood before the woman who was about to give birth, so that when she bore her child he might devour it

Revelation 12.4, ESV

Of course the dragon (representing Satan) would come at this point. Yes, he wants to destroy the King of Kings, but he also appears to the woman, this particular symbol of righteousness, at the peak of a trial—in the middle of a good work for the Lord—when her guard is down, and she is in the midst of suffering.

Our enemy doesn’t always come when we are armored up and standing tall for battle. Sometimes he sneaks in when we are curled in the fetal position, riding the waves of pain, feeling desperate for relief.

And this is when God intervenes.

GOD SENDS HELP

The woman could not have fought the dragon in her condition. So, without much detail, we know that God does not allow the devil to obtain the child:

She gave birth to a male child, one who is to rule all nations with a rod of iron,

but her child was caught up to God and his throne

and the woman fled to the wilderness to a place prepared by God

in which she is to be nourished for 1,260 days

Revelation 12.5-6, ESV, spacing mine

A war arose in heaven. God sent the angels to battle the dragon on the woman’s behalf while he created a safe place for her.

But the dragon doesn’t let bygones be bygones.

When God’s angels were the victors of the cosmic battle, the dragon was thrown down to earth with his own angels. And what did he do first?

And when the dragon saw that he had been thrown down to earth, he pursued the woman who had given birth to the male child.

Revelation 12.13, ESV

He wasted no time in seeking revenge. The woman no longer has the child, but that seems not to matter to the dragon. He is ready to punish her straight out of his anger.

THE HELP MAY NOT BE WHAT WE EXPECT

So here is the part that struck me:

But the woman was given the two wings of a great eagle so that she may fly from the serpent into the wilderness, to the place where she is nourished for a time, and times, and half a time

Revelation

God could have removed the dragon. He has that power. He could have smote him on the spot. But for whatever reason, God allows the enemy to exist. Why he allows the enemy to roam is a question bigger than my human mind can comprehend.

The only answer I can provide is that without an enemy, there would be no spiritual battle. There would be no good and evil. There would be no right and wrong. There would be no need to rely on God, nor need to ask for help.

And help is what I am getting at.

God may not choose to remove the enemy or evil forces from your life, but that does not mean He does not help.

  • He didn’t remove the dragon, but He sent great wings.
  • He didn’t erase my anxiety disorder, but he sends medical help.
  • He may not remove your financial debts, but he sends you a job.
  • He may not cure your infertility, but he sends you a sweet babe to adopt.

Priscilla Shirer once said “God may not put things in your hand, but he puts them in your reach.”

We need not be passive rag dolls waiting for God to scoop us up— no. We are made in His image. We can take the tools He offers to battle the enemy down here on earth.

And Revelation offers us the truth that God will aid us in this broken, battlefield of a world until Satan will meet his ultimate defeat.

HE SENDS HELP, AND ONE DAY WE WILL NOT NEED IT

One day, there will be a new earth and a new heaven, and the description here should be read with reverence and gratitude:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying: ‘Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore for the former things have passed away

Revelation 21.1-4

No pain, sadness, or tears. No hurt. Just peace and communion with our God.

Read that passage again if you need hope right now. All difficult and sorrowful things will pass away.

We will get to be with God.

Hallelujah.

with His love,

Adelaide

Thoughts on Hebrews: A Smoky Skies Kind of Faith

For the umpteenth time, I tapped the weather app on my phone, and once again saw an Air Quality Index (AQI) of over 170– unhealthy. I dropped my phone glumly and planned for another day confined to the walls of my house.

Typically, September is one of my favorite times of the year. Our scorching valley heat starts to wane and the mornings are delightfully cool. I take my mug out after the sun spreads its meager September light for some quiet mommy time. I plant mums. I eagerly await the start of autumn.

Not this year.

As I am sure you know, California wildfire season has raged more furiously this year than an any point in recent history. And the Creek Fire has hit very close to home as it tears through the local mountain community. We know many people who have been personally affected by the fire, and I have been to my local evacuation site to offer the little that I could.

So many people are suffering serious devastations from the Creek Fire, and the battle is not over yet.

I realize that being confined to my house because of hazardous air quality is nothing compared to the displaced and those suffering serious losses.

But in a pandemic that has already placed serious restrictions on where I can go and what I can do (though I understand why), facing weeks of an even tighter confinement really got me down.

I prayed for God to contain the fires, and then I had to admit to Him that I wanted them contained for myself in addition to the mountain community. Selfish as it sounds, I asked that he clear up the air so my family could go outside again.

And in my prayer I told God that I know blue sky is up there, and I had full faith that I would see blue sky again.

What a day that will be! I thought. I will praise Him with all my heart when I see that blue sky.

I will praise Him with all my heart when I see that blue sky?

Let’s put a pin in that statement and revisit it in a bit.

THE MANUAL FOR FAITH

I read the book of Hebrews for my September reading, and my pre-reading investigation led me to understand that the unknown author is trying to convince Jewish Christians that Jesus is greater than all that they hold dear from the Torah.

Jesus is compared to angels, to Moses, to priests, and to sacrifices, each time making the case for why Jesus surpasses them all.

And then the final chapters of Hebrews meditate around the idea of faith. In fact, our pastor refers to Hebrews as “the manual for faith.” And it is this subject, these verses, that sauntered into my heart and took up residence there while I battled the gloom of the smoky skies.

Chapter 11 starts with two definitions of faith:

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for,

the conviction of things not seen.

Hebrews 11.1, ESV

The definition first pairs hope with assurance that our hope will manifest.

The second definition is the certainty or belief in things we cannot see, or at least we cannot see yet.

So, if we go back to my example about the blue skies, it stands that I had faith in that moment. I hoped for blue skies and felt assured that I would see them again. And though all I could see was a smoky sky, I was certain that the smoky sky would been replaced by a blue one.

And yet… (it seems I always have an “and yet”), I was saving my praise for the Lord until I saw the results I wanted.

Is faith complete with suspended praise? I would argue probably not.

Making praise conditional on the end result is a faith half-baked.

Does God only love us when he sees results? Certainly not.

So why would I hinge my faith on results?

And so, rather than waiting for the blue skies to say God you are SO good because you answered my prayer, I need to say Him, amidst to the smoky skies, God you are SO good. Always.

It’s hard to do.

But radical faith is the catalyst for unimaginable goodness.

Radical faith is the catalyst for unimaginable goodness.

TO WHOM SHOULD WE LOOK AS MODELS OF GREAT FAITH?

The author of Hebrews uses almost an entire chapter (11) to recount some of the hall-of-famers of faith in the first five books of the Bible (the Torah)— the text this particular audience will value.

And for each faith role model mentioned, I started asking myself questions:

  • Did Abel wait for God to reward him before offering the firstborn of his flock? (Gen 4.4; Heb 11.4)
  • Did Enoch only walk with God after God had blessed him with many sons and daughters? (Gen 5.22-24; Heb 11.5)
  • Did Noah wait for the rains to start before building his ark? (Gen 6.11-22; Heb 11.7)
  • Did Abraham wait for the bestowment of the promised land to be obedient to God? (Gen 15.18-21; Heb 11.8)
  • Did Sarah wait until Isaac’s arrival to delight in the blessing of a child? (Gen 18.12; Heb 11.11)

Spoiler alert: the answer is no— a resounding no to all of the above.

These faith role models exhibited the important byproducts of faith: praise, obedience, and a close relationship with our Lord. Incomplete faith waits on results, whereas complete faith waits for nothing.

Incomplete faith waits on results, whereas complete faith waits for nothing.

The chapter goes on to list many more examples of great faith in early believers: Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Gideon, Barak, Samson, and Jepthath are all mentioned for their great faith. All of these individuals are what the author calls the “cloud of witnesses” as he/she begins the next section.

WE LOOK TO THE PERFECTER OF OUR FAITH

The first two verses in chapter 12 are so rich in poignance that I had to create a graphic for them:

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses

let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely,

and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us,

looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith,

who for the joy that was set before him

endured the cross, despising the shame,

and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12.1-1. ESV).

The fourth line holds so much for us to unpack. First, Jesus is the founder of faith in that before him, salvation came from adherence to the law. Paul writes in his letter to the Galatians that “Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law…So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith” (Gal. 3.24-25).

Faith is the gift that was bought and paid for by the body of Christ. Faith is a gift; the least I can do is not take it for granted– not continue to offer incomplete faith. And this fact ushers in the next part of that line: Jesus is the perfecter of our faith. Faith isn’t a black-or-white entity; it is not always “you have it or you don’t.” We can improve the faith we have. We can make our faith whole and complete.

And how do we perfect our faith? The answer is in that same fourth line– we look to Jesus.

And how do we perfect our faith? We look to Jesus.

We remember what he endured in faith to atone for our sins and save our souls. We remember this when we are enduring a long race– even when the road ahead stretches farther that the eye can see.

We remember Jesus’ endurance when the smoky skies settle heavy for days on end with no hint of blue above.

Ash may be falling from the sky, but we need not let it coat our hearts.

with His love,

Adelaide

Thoughts on Ephesians: What it Means to be Rooted in Love

As I work my way through the New Testament, I am sometimes struck by a pattern or motif in the writing; I’m thinking back to when I discovered the link between faith and healing.

At other times, God focuses my attention on an overarching theme like the blindness that Paul sat with and then shed to be given a new outlook.

But strangely, this time, it wasn’t a theme or motif but a tiny phrase that lodged itself into my mind. For a writer, a curious or memorable string of words is often a signal to lean into that phrase.

ROOTED AND GROUNDED IN LOVE: THE TINY PHRASE THAT SPEAKS VOLUMES

The phrase that God pointed my attention to is a little clause in the middle of a prayer that Paul is offering to the people of Ephesus:

“For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven on earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you being rooted and grounded in love, may have the strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with the fullness of God.

Ephesians 3.14-19, ESV

Yes, that was one sentence.

Paul is not known for being economical with his language.

So let’s first break down the sentence to its backbone— not because the prepositional phrases aren’t important— but just to first grasp the core of what Paul is praying. I’ll pull apart this verse, and do a little re-organizing to ensure that we are understanding his earnest (albeit lengthy) prayer.

I bow my knees before the Father

that he may grant you [people of Ephesus] to be strengthened with power

through his Spirit

so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith

that you may have the strength

[that comes from] being rooted and grounded in love

to know the breadth and length and height and depth of that love

a love that surpasses (human) knowledge

so that you may be filled with the fullness of God.

NARROWING IN ON THE PHRASE ABOUT TAKING ROOT

So according to Paul, when Christ dwells in our hearts and we have faith, we are being rooted in love.

I looked up the Greek word in this passage, rhiza, which translates to to cause to take root.

This definition implies that the rootedness in love did not exist until a catalyst— in this case, Christ dwelling in our hearts— causes the rooting to occur.

Put another way, when we turn our hearts over to faith in Christ, we are not just growing the roots deeper into our existing soil; rather, we are being transplanted into new soil where our roots will then affix us.

And not just any soil— the soil of His love.

We are being transplanted into new soil where our roots will then affix us.

And not just any soil— the soil of His love.

THE IMPORTANCE OF THE SOIL WE ROOT IN

Soil is the lifeblood to the plants: “The right soil composition allows roots to perform their function properly. Roots capture water, nutrients, and minerals as well as anchors plants to the ground. Whenever the health of roots in compromised, plants are weakened, and without fertile soil, roots cannot grow” (Bayer Cropscience).

Soil surrounds, holds, and feeds the plant.

The quality of the soil determines the quality of the plant.

And if we are not rooted in the soil of love, then what are we planting ourselves in? What are we allowing to feed and sustain us?

Am I rooted in busyness, productivity, and worldly achievement?

Sadly, this is the first answer that comes to mind for me. I am task-driven, and on some level, I mistakenly believe that my value is wrapped up in what I produce.

If I get everything done on my weekly to-do list, I pat myself of the back for running a household well. If I don’t get some things done, I start shaming myself: you only work part-time, why isn’t all of this completed? You are letting your family down.

And that’s not what Jesus wants for me. There is no prize in heaven for “accomplished most household tasks” or “had it all together” or “very responsible.”

If I am feverishly climbing the rungs of the to-do list like a ladder, to where will I ascend? I won’t. It’s a trick ladder, you see. There are always more rungs ahead. It doesn’t end.

I’m not saying I should shirk my responsibilities, of course. God has entrusted me to be a wife and to raise three little boys to be men of Faith.

But the busyness I am referring to almost never describes my core purpose; it’s simply an exercise in the mundane. It ultimately doesn’t matter if I price-check dog food or get birthday gifts mailed out in time.

Being rooted in His love means letting go of striving to produce and achieve, and remembering to rest in Him. To talk to Him. To listen to Him.

Am I rooted in other people’s opinions or worldly praise?

If we are saturated in the desire to please or impress people, we make every decision with that desire feeding us.

  • Perhaps we buy trendy or designer clothes rather than tithing.
  • Perhaps we stifle the truth of our hearts so not to offend anyone.
  • Perhaps we mask our identity in Him to be cooler or more popular in the eyes of man.
  • Perhaps we work and work to see the numbers of our “likes” and followers go up without once asking God if he likes what we have been doing.

Ironically, it is all futile. We can do everything perfectly by the world’s standards and people will still find ways to criticize us.

But if we stretch our roots deep into the soil of the love of Christ, we will strive to be perfect in His eyes and the result is eternal prosperity.

Am I rooted in comfort and the desires of the flesh?

If you have internet connection and a device on which to read this, it is safe to say you are living comfortably. In fact, have you ever considered that the majority Americans can avoid temperature discomfort at all times?

Think about it, you emerge from your blanketed bed and step into a shower with instant warm water. You get into your temperature-controlled car and drive to your place of work that likely has central heat and air.

One can go an entire day in perfect bodily comfort, and many of us do.

Now, of course there are exceptions, and of course I am not suggesting we risk hyper- or hypo-thermia in order to make a point.

What I am suggesting is that we often are driven by what will satisfy the flesh and not the Spirit.

I am entirely guilty of this.

  • I get antsy if it’s been too long between meals.
  • If I have a stacked day of work and adulting, I believe I deserve a fancy drink from a coffee shop.
  • If the water heater doesn’t warm my shower in time, I get impatient and irritated.

A significant portion of first-world inhabitants, myself included, are not conditioned to deal well with discomfort.

But then what of our spiritual condition? What message am I sending when I am guilty of the above? That the desires of my flesh should be met at all costs?

Paul’s letter to the Galatians indicates the exact opposite:

But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other

Galatians 5.16-17

Again, am I saying we discard the comforts of modern life? I am not.

What I am saying is that being rooted in the soil of love means we serve the Spirit above the flesh and strive to produce its fruits: love, joy, peace patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control (Galatians 22).

That last one— self-control—means I can ask the Spirit to help me engage in moderation with bodily comforts. I can turn over desires and impulses to him— particularly ones that would prove damaging to the bearing of fruit.

WHAT IS THE SOIL OF LOVE LIKE?

When we accept Christ into our hearts and become transplanted into the soil of love, we are experiencing a complex, multifaceted love.

We are rooted in unconditional love

We do not have to earn God’s love— and even if we mess up, we still have it: “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5.8, ESV).

We are rooted in everlasting love

His love does not end; it is eternal: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3.16).

We are rooted in love so valuable, it was worth the life of Jesus

If you are a parent, you will be able to grasp the magnitude of this sacrifice: This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1 John 4.9-11).

FINAL THOUGHTS

Do our roots sometimes stray into other soil— the soil of chronic busyness, the soil of pleasing others, the soil of bodily comfort? Sure, we are human.

But when we remain rooted in earthly matters, we are in a soil that doesn’t feed us well. We don’t grow, we don’t blossom, we don’t bear fruit.

So we ask for grace and forgiveness, and for our roots to find their way back to the soil of His love where we produce the good fruit.

with His love,

Adelaide

Thoughts on 2 Corinthians: How to Respond to Comparison and Judgment

The human brain contains what is called the comparative frontoparietal network which allows us to take in stimuli and compare, contrast, and categorize as part of our biological makeup. Making quick decisions based on comparison must have been important in agrarian life: pick the clean fruit; leave the bug-ravaged fruit.

In their article “The culture of social comparison,” Baldwin and Mussweiler posit that “comparative thinking can be observed in humans even as early as infanthood. This evidence suggests that comparison is one of the most basic building blocks of human cognition.”

So the mechanism to compare is a key part of being human, and it has a couple of avenues: evaluation or judgment.

Aren’t those the same thing?

There is a slight difference here: evaluation means to assess objectively, whereas “judgments are emotional in nature and often suggest a moral, self-righteous approach” (Jameson).

And in James, amongst other books, it is clear that judgment should be left to God alone: “There is only one lawgiver and judge, he who is able to save and to destroy. But who are you to judge your neighbor?” (James 4.12, ESV).

But in Paul’s second letter, he experiences both comparison and judgment by those to whom he is addressing the letter—the followers of Christ in Corinth.

In chapter 10, he references one of their criticisms against him:

His letters are weighty and strong, but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech is of no account

2 Corinthians 10.10, ESV

In this criticism, the Corinthians are suggesting that Paul is not strong enough to lead them, and there is the additional insinuation that he falsely represents himself in his letters.

Ouch. This is quite a harsh judgment upon Paul, who has devoted himself to this population.

HOW DOES PAUL RESPOND TO UNFAIR JUDGMENT?

Paul acknowledges his faults but defends his character

He begins his defense in this way: “Even if I am unskilled in speaking, I am not so in knowledge.” And he goes on to indicate that he never suggested otherwise: “in every way we have made this plain to you in all things” (11.6-7, ESV).

Paul warns the Corinthians of the “apostles” to which they are comparing him

Paul even refers to these other leaders as as “super-apostles” which makes me think he is offering a tone of sarcasm. He insists “such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles for Christ. And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light” (11.13-14, ESV).

Paul implores his audience to indulge him in a little hypothetical comparison scenario

Paul responds to the comparisons the Corinthians initiated. He is saying, ok, pretend I were someone who boasted, let’s see how I stack up:

Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they offspring of Abraham? So am I. Are they servants of Christ? I am a better one—I am talking like a madman—with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea [he continues to list the dangers he encountered]… in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on my of my anxiety for all the churches

PAUL ENGAGES IN THE COMPARISON, BUT JESUS HAS A BETTER WAY

Paul continues to make his case for why he is a worthy apostle: “l must go on boasting. Though there is nothing to be gained by it, I will go on to visions and revelations of the Lord” (12.1, ESV).

Did you note in this excerpt that Paul acknowledges that boasting gains nothing? If he knew that, why did he do it?

Perhaps he feels so strongly about aiding the population of Corinth that he wants to try and win their trust back in any way possible. Or—and this is not mutually exclusive—perhaps Paul fell victim to the human response to harsh judgment: defense. We spring to defend ourselves in the face of unfair judgment.

But Paul writes of his growing conceit, and how he was humbled:

Three times I pleaded with the Lord about (the thorn of the flesh harassing him and checking his conceit), that that it should leave me. But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

2 Corinthians 9-10, ESV

So from verses 9-10 Paul determines:

  • God’s grace is of so much more value than the opinions of others.
  • Why would we need Him if we were without faults and flaws?
  • We should not boast of our strengths but of our shortcomings because then God is glorified all the more.
  • Weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, calamities— we accept all for the sake of Christ.

WHERE DOES COMPARISON AND JUDGEMENT OCCUR FOR US?

On Social Media

We take the curated, exterior lives of others and compare them to our messy interiors. It’s an exercise in disappointment every time.

I understand that none of us want to highlight the low points and messiness— but at what point does what we put forth present a false version of ourselves? I don’t know about you, but my favorite accounts are the ones with a balance of the beautiful curation paired with the real and the messy.

When I started this account, it was a hard decision for me to go filter-free when I film my face on stories, but I decided that people deserve to see the real me, for better or worse. Don’t get me wrong, I still cringe every time I watch my own stories; vulnerability is not always pleasant.

In the Workplace

Are you in a position working alongside other people in similar positions? I am. Situations like these naturally lend themselves to comparison.

Though we are all made to have certain strengths and weaknesses, when we place two or more things (or people) next to one another, our human brains take note of what distinguishes one from the other.

I am struggling, for instance, with feeling like I have much to offer in the online capacity. As an educator, I have always felt more comfortable with in-person teaching situations, and here I am navigating the tech world as best I can and still feel like I am coming up short at times.

In Family Roles

Do you have a sister or brother to whom you were compared? Or perhaps you compare yourself to a sibling without any exterior influence. Did you marry in to a family and feel compared to the members within? Were you adopted and compare yourself to the biological children of the family?

Though I want to believe that all families were good about reserving comparisons like mine was, I know that just is not true. Many of you probably felt the sting of comparison and judgment just by being who you were designed flawlessly to be.

In Parenting

I remember hearing someone once say: “everyone is an expert in parenting… and then they have children.”

If you are not yet a parent, you do not yet know the world of scrutiny and judgment in which we parents currently exist: people watch how I parent at the grocery store, at a playground, at school drop-off, you name it.

This hyper-scrutiny of parents is relatively new, historically speaking.

Time was, if citizens heard about a child getting injured in an unusual way— falling from the top of a hay bale stack, let’s say—the response was usually sympathetic. “Poor child, poor parents,” was the general response; “I hope they are all ok.”

No longer. Perhaps it is our brazen online culture that seems to enhance unfriendly comments with the security of the screen to mask the commenter— but the reaction to the same situation is to find who to blame and blame them loudly: “Someone should call CPS! Some people should never be allowed to have children!”

Judgments like these take no account for human error—no account for the imperfection that occurs in all of us.

And those of us in the role of parent know that there is no harder or holier work on this earth— parents need grace upon grace upon grace.

And those of us in the role of parent know that there is no harder or holier work on this earth— parents need grace upon grace upon grace.

Speaking for myself and other parents with whom I interact, we do the very best we can with the children given to us and with the resources at hand. And it still isn’t enough. His grace has to take over. And thank goodness “his power is made perfect in weakness.”

LET’S APPLY WHAT PAUL LEARNED TO OURSELVES

His grace is of so much more value than the opinions of others. In the end, it really does not matter what other people think; I can do everything “right” and people will still form their own opinions of me. It is only what God thinks of me that matters.

Why would we need Him if we were without faults and flaws? If we were perfect, we would have no need for God. We are flawed beings—yes, even that seemingly perfect influencer on Instagram is flawed— and God delights in supplicating our needs.

We should not boast of our strengths but of our shortcomings because then God is glorified all the more. How many of us truly boast of— or even reveal—our shortcomings? We seem to think that if we share our weaknesses, we will not be accepted. And yet, the opposite is true.

Brené Brown, in her second Ted Talk, Listening to Shame, asked the audience if they thought the vulnerability they saw on stage at TED was weakness or pure courage? The audience indicated the latter.

But we as humans, and believers, don’t tend to boast of our shortcomings. God is pushing me deeper into this. He called me to share my struggles with anxiety this last March, and I felt as vulnerable and weak as you might imagine. But the response was lovely. Still accepted by my friends, I was able to boast of how God helped me out when I could not help myself.

Those of you who have been with the blog since the beginning probably remember Alexis talking about this very verse in our Sips&Scripts chat. She is a go-getter, and wisely reflected that achievement can often go hand-in-hand with chasing the approval of man and not God.

God cares not for our worldly achievement; he wants us to achieve total reliance on Him.

Weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, calamities— we accept all for the sake of Christ.

All four of Paul’s conclusions are easier said than done—that I recognize. But isn’t Christ worth it? Isn’t he worth enduring all of the above? Isn’t heaven worth it?

It is human to hide weakness, recoil from insults, actively try to avoid hardships, persecutions, and calamities.

But that is why God’s kingdom is upside-down from the impulses of the flesh.


Comparison can be unfair. Judgment can sting. But we are His beloved, no matter what the world might try to say otherwise.

with His love,

Adelaide