July 31, 2008

Believing is seeing . . .

Many people decide that the only way they could believe in God is if they could see Him. Because He is spirit and not visible, this makes for a good reason, in their mind, to dismiss Him as nonexistent.

Interesting that the Bible addresses this in two ways. It says that the evidence of God is clearly seen, and that the evidence of God is not seen. It depends on where I am standing.

Romans 1:18-23 says that God’s wrath is revealed against ungodliness and unrighteousness of those who “suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because what may be known of God is manifest in them, for God has shown it to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse, because, although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools, and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image. . . .”

Psalm 19:1 says the same thing, “The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament (expanse of heaven) shows His handiwork.

Like electricity and the wind (both invisible), people know the existence of God by what He does. Those who deny that evidence do it, not because they are blind and cannot see it, but because they do not want to glorify Him or be thankful. Instead, they make up false gods and idols, and God, in wrath against that unrighteousness, lets them walk out of the light they had and into darkness.

I used to think that the farther a person walks away from this evidence of God’s handiwork, the more blind they become to spiritual realities. Now I realize that the darkness or oblivion to the things of God is always related to matters of the heart, not lack of evidence. God can be found, but many people don’t want to find Him. Jesus gave the reason in John 3:18-20.
He who believes in Him is not condemned; but he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. And this is the condemnation, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For everyone practicing evil hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed.
It is never ignorance or lack of evidence that keeps a person from knowing and believing that God exists; it is that sinful I will run my own life determination. Again, if a person wants to find God, He is not lost or in hiding. Instead, that person needs to walk toward the light.

Yet there is a sense where spiritual things are unseen to those who are in the light. Hebrews 11:1-3 says that “faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. For by it the elders obtained a good testimony. By faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that the things which are seen were not made of things which are visible.

Faith in God produces an inner knowing that what He says is true, with or without any visible evidence. That is, God’s people know what they know about God, not primarily from what we see, but by faith. We walk by faith, not by sight.

For instance, these verses describe my experience regarding creation. When I became a Christian, I thought evolution was more reasonable than God speaking and the world happening. God gifted me with faith to trust Him for forgiveness and eternal life, and as I did, I started to realize that His power is so great that He actually could speak the world into existence. I had no visible evidence for that, and if pressed would have said it went against human reasoning, yet I soon was convinced that God is the Creator, not time and chance.

Like the people described in Romans, at first I’d denied the visible evidence, but when Jesus came into my life, faith showed me that what I had denied was true, and with the gift of faith, I knew it without the evidence. Then God, in grace and mercy, allowed me to see the truth of His creative power not just by faith, but in the evidence that I first rejected.

Seeing is believing? Yes, if I see the handiwork of God in creation, but no if I expect God to suddenly appear so that I can see Him.

Believing is seeing? Yes, if I see God by faith, because after faith became part of my life, I can see much more than I ever imagined was there.

July 30, 2008

Speak Up

Yesterday I drove three hours one way to attend a 6oth wedding anniversary celebration. It was a lot of time behind the wheel, yet I am glad for the opportunity to share in such a delightful event. After a short program with music and comments from their family, the couple thanked everyone and shared some of the reasons that their marriage had endured. At the top of the list was, “We are Christians.”

I’m sure most of the 200 plus in attendance knew that, but even if they didn’t, this couple would have said it. When God does wonderful things in our lives, we have to tell people. We know that we didn’t make these things happen ourselves and that He deserves the glory.

In the New Testament, after Jesus ascended into heaven, His apostles did the same, but what they had to say was not always as well received as yesterday’s testimony. The chief priests were angry with them and put them in prison. That wasn’t God’s plan so He sent His angel to open the doors and bring them out, saying, “Go, stand in the temple and speak to the people all the words of this life.

They obeyed. However, when the chief priests got their hands on them again, they said, “Did we not strictly command you not to teach in this name? And look, you have filled Jerusalem with your doctrine, and intend to bring this Man’s blood on us.
But Peter and the other apostles answered and said: “We ought to obey God rather than men. The God of our fathers raised up Jesus whom you murdered by hanging on a tree. Him God has exalted to His right hand to be Prince and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. And we are His witnesses to these things, and so also is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey Him” (Acts 5:29-32).
These were courageous men. The church of Jesus Christ could use more of them. We are living in a culture where the sharing of our faith is not popular. In some parts of the world, speaking for Jesus is even dangerous. This week, one country is preparing to pass a law that puts the death sentence upon any man, and life in prison on any woman, who becomes a Christian.

God says “Go and speak.” Man says, “Shut up!” If it were illegal to speak in the name of Jesus where I live, what would I do? What would any of God’s people do? Some have spoken and were martyred for their faith. Others decide to keep quiet and by so doing, compromise their faith and stifle their own spiritual lives.

Peter shared what God had done in bringing Jesus to this world, what happened at the cross, and what happened after that. He told his listeners the reason for Jesus. These people who had killed him could be forgiven. In fact, His very death was the grounds for that forgiveness. He also shared that he had experienced all of this and was sharing it as a first-hand witness. He said that the Holy Spirit also speaks this same truth to the hearts of those willing to listen. They were not willing.

Peter was bold in the face of opposition. Today, God’s people are called to be bold too. In some cases our testimony about the power of God is well-received, or at least politely tolerated. In others, the listeners become defensive, angry, even violent. It is okay to talk about God, but not about Jesus, perhaps because He said that He is the way, the truth and the life, and that no one can come to the Father but by Him. The human condition (called sin) wants to do its own thing, even in the realm of how we are to find God.

I’m glad we live in a country where it is still possible to say, “We are Christians” without incurring an arrest or worse, but those days may soon be over. The world does not want us to fill it with our doctrine, and at least one country is planning destruction for those who do.

All of this is making me think about my own boldness (and sometimes lack of boldness), and realize how important it is to obey God rather than men, even at those times when it is far from easy to speak up.

July 29, 2008

Doubts and Putting out a Fleece

Every summer the Family Bible School committee in our church asks me if I will teach in the Fall. Every year, my immediate response, inside and out, has been “Of course!” but this year, I hesitated.

That inner response confused me. Teaching is my passion. Seeing others discover truth in the Word of God is as exciting to me as finding it myself. But the hesitation was there. My question was, Is this from God, or am I just tired?

I waited, prayed, and after a few weeks of continuing to sense that I should say no, I was still feeling a bit uncertain. At that, I did something I’ve hardly ever done; I put out a fleece to the Lord.

A fleece is a one-time occurrence in the Bible. It happens in the Old Testament. Israel is under oppression from the Midianites. God says to a meek man named Gideon, “The LORD is with you, you mighty man of valor.

Gideon almost says, “Who me?” yet the Lord tells him, “Go in this might of yours, and you shall save Israel from the hand of the Midianites. Have I not sent you?

Gideon wasn’t sure he was hearing correctly. His tribe was the “least” and he was the “least” in his family. He wanted to make sure of what he heard before he moved ahead into what seemed a certain disaster.

My devotional reading today puts a positive spin on this kind of doubt. It says (slightly edited, as this older book needs it), “Doubts of (God’s power to save) are to manifestations of (that power) what hunger is to food, nakedness to clothing, a thunderstorm to a shelter, a gallows to a reprieve, and death to a resurrection. These things precede, prepare, and open a way for the other. The first is nothing without the last, nor the last without the first. Thus, next to a testimony of God’s power, the best thing is spiritual doubt. To know we are right is the best thing; to fear we are wrong is the second best. To enjoy the witness of the Spirit is the most blessed thing this side of the grave; to pant after that enjoyment is the next greatest blessing. . . . I am speaking only of spiritual doubts; that is, doubts in a spiritual man, for natural doubts are as far from salvation as natural hopes. For those who believe in God, the path through the valley of Baca is “from strength to strength,” that is, according to the eastern mode of traveling, from one halting-place to another, where wells are dug, and “the rain fills the pools.

Gideon trusted God and had heard a word of command from God. This is important. I’ve known of people who wanted to do something and put out a fleece to God to confirm their own wants. One was the story of a woman who said to God, “If You want me to leave my husband for this other man, then have three people phone me today.”

This sort of “fleece” is not biblical. Gideon’s fleece was to make sure that he had correctly interpreted the word that he heard. His uncertainty was based on his own sense of inadequacy to hear and to do what God asked, not on what he wanted. In other words, he was not asking God to rubber stamp something he’d already decided.

In fact, he was so unsure, that he actually put out a fleece twice. Judges 6:39-40 describe the second time. “Then Gideon said to God, ‘Do not be angry with me, but let me speak just once more: Let me test, I pray, just once more with the fleece; let it now be dry only on the fleece, but on all the ground let there be dew.’ And God did so that night. It was dry on the fleece only, but there was dew on all the ground.

My fleece was not literally a hide and the wool of a sheep. Instead, I asked God to verify to me what I was supposed to do. If I was hearing wrong, on a certain day when I was with His people, I wanted Him to have one of them say to me, “What are you teaching this Fall?” This often happens, so it would not be a miraculous thing (like dry where there should be dew), yet I trusted God to control the mouths of His children.

Silence. During that time frame, no one said anything to me at all about upcoming classes, what I would teach, or whether I would teach. I’ve been asked since then, but by then had the certainty of my response. I know that God told me to say no this year.

A few have asked, “Why not?” with some consternation—for I always teach. I’ve tried to imagine what God’s reasons might be, but have no idea. I tell them that He has told me to take a break this year, and I cannot argue with the Boss.

July 28, 2008

No truancy

We smile at the commercial in which a child in a highchair mimics his father by saying “antidisestablishmentarianism,” yet no one would teach such complex words to a two-year-old. Further, most adults have no idea what this word means, never mind a child. It is known more for its length than its meaning!

Even adults have to start at the beginning when it comes to learning. Language lessons start with simple words and grammar. Mathematics begins at the basics, not with trigonometry. When I upgrade some of my software, I am glad that I’m working on an upgrade. If I had to start with the latest version, the learning curve would be too steep for me.

When Jesus talked to His disciples, He also realized that they were not ready for the answers to all their questions. Most of them didn’t yet know how little they knew; they were just getting started in their spiritual education. In John 16:12-15, Jesus told them:
I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. However, when He, the Spirit of truth, has come, He will guide you into all truth; for He will not speak on His own authority, but whatever He hears He will speak; and He will tell you things to come. He will glorify Me, for He will take of what is Mine and declare it to you. All things that the Father has are Mine. Therefore I said that He will take of Mine and declare it to you.
I’m comforted by this. I know it applies to me too. I know that I don’t know everything and that spiritual understanding ties closely to experiences. Some of the things that I don’t know are related to experiences I’ve not had, even to some experiences that I hope I never have!

Jesus did say that the Spirit would guide His followers into “all truth” though, and if I want to know all, I need to be willing to sit in His classroom. In this place of being teachable, I find only two basic items on the curriculum.

One is that the Holy Spirit teaches me who I am. This course has two subsets: who I am as a helpless sinner who cannot do anything apart from Christ, and who I am as a child of God who is able, through Christ, to do all things.

This basic course begins at salvation and ends when I die. Many of the lessons are difficult, but as long as I am willing to daily wade through the subject matter, and sometimes be overwhelmed by the enormity of what He is showing me, He will teach me all that I need to know.

The second course is “To know the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom he has sent” (John 17:3). The Holy Spirit introduced me and continues to teach me about Jesus and what He has done to atone for my sin, purge my guilty conscience, and help me to be conformed to His image. Daily, if I stay in the classroom, I learn that no matter how low my old nature takes me, the power of my Savior means forgiveness, cleansing and new life. This course takes care of the negatives learned in the first one.

In these lessons I also learn that He supplies all my needs. I need daily care, contentment, the ability to deal with everything that comes at me in life, a biblical sense of self, and a whole host of other things. Truly, Jesus is all that I need. The Holy Spirit teaches me that reality.

Of course I didn’t learn all this on the first day of school. I could not have taken it in, never mind used it in my life. Instead, He wisely guides me as I need it and can bear it, both in the knowledge of my own sinfulness and in the awareness of His great saving power.

Besides all that, what He teaches is valuable and relevant. I may or may not ever need to know the meaning of antidisestablishmentarianism, but what I do need, He teaches, and He teaches it well. All I need to do is make sure that I stay in school.

July 27, 2008

It started in the garden . . .

Adam ate the apple, or whatever that forbidden fruit was, and his disobedience became the attitude of every person since. This seems unfair, but I’ve been reading a book that describes how the negatives in the lives of the parents become part of the molecular structure of the children. That is, even the cells of our body are programed to respond to life afterward by what happens in the environment of childhood. Surely this includes the predisposition to sin.

The idea of original sin is offensive to some, but practically speaking, it cannot be denied. No one has to teach a child to resist authority, lie, disobey, or be selfish. This is our human condition. Adam and Eve were not like that before they disobeyed God, but after they did, they passed on that tendency to their children. While the world has always experienced the results of sin, it seems to me that lawlessness and selfishness are increasing with every generation.

Romans 5 compares the disobedience of Adam with the obedience of Jesus Christ. The first man ruined things, but the One the Bible calls the perfect Man came to repair the wreckage. Verses 19-21 put it this way:
For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so also by one Man’s obedience many will be made righteous. Moreover the law entered that the offense might abound. But where sin abounded, grace abounded much more, so that as sin reigned in death, even so grace might reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.
These verses are a summation of spiritual history. Adam’s sin plunged humanity into spiritual darkness; the law of God brought to human attention that we cannot obey God as He intended; then the obedience of Jesus Christ brought light into that darkness. Jesus offers eternal life to those doomed to death and eternal separation from God. Instead of selfishness, lawlessness, lies and rebellion, sinners can be made righteous and enjoy the grace of God for now and eternity.

Apart from grace, that human tendency toward sin would have destroyed civilization long ago. It is not that sinful human beings haven’t tried to be good, but how many cultures have died because of war and disease inflicted by those who didn’t care about anything or anyone other than their own self-interests? How many individual lives have been ruined because they could not overcome a legacy handed to them by their upbringing (or lack of it)?

Yet grace breaks in, interrupting the downward spiral of sin passed from one generation to the next. Apart from grace, that spiral would go deeper and wider and create far more terrible havoc than it does.

Way back in my family, there was child abuse. Abusers create abusers, yet when one person in that branch of my family became a Christian, the grace of God brought an end to the chain. The abuse stopped and has not happened or been passed on in any of the three generations since. Grace reigns through righteousness because of Jesus Christ. He changes lives and human history.

Does God change individuals at the molecular level? It would not surprise me. The Bible says, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new” (2 Corinthians 2:17).

That and other verses use the word “all” and it seems reasonable to believe that it does mean all. Every part of a believer’s life is regenerated, even the damage done in childhood. Of course, each person has to deal with his past. Resentment, unforgiveness, and repressed anger will be brought to the light and must be confessed and forsaken, but the grace of God reigns, and as God’s people live in that grace, He breaks the destructive power of sin, even generational sin.

July 26, 2008

What’s the big deal about sin?

Sometimes we ask the wrong questions based on incorrect assumptions. I found a blog yesterday where the author wanted an explanation of redemption and original sin. He thought that redemption was the removal of original sin, and didn’t understand why God would punish anyone for something done by two people thousands of years ago.

His ideas about redemption are in error. Redemption means to be purchased or bought out of slavery, in this case, slavery to sin. And while Jesus’ death covers the original sin that is ingrained into my life, it also covers the sin I commit every day. Salvation and redemption are about setting people free from our bondage to that propensity to want things our way, ignoring what God says or wants for us.

Today’s Bible reading is about the refining work of the Lord to rid me of the dross of sin. The author says that some metals are stubborn; their dross is deeply ingrained into them. These require a hotter fire than others, but after the fire does its work and the dross is purged, the hot furnace is not usually required again.

For the dross of sin, God could bring His refining fire in the form of a trial, a temptation, sickness, family affliction, difficult situations in life, persecution, deep discoveries of my sinfulness, a hiding of His face, even denials of His presence. These things not only try my faith but wean me from depending on myself or anything the world might offer. They produce humility, meekness, and break my stubborn spirit. My mind begins to think with greater simplicity and sincerity and I am more willing to obey God with a greater desire to know His will and do it.

The Old Testament tells the story of God’s stubborn people and the refining process He put them through. Zechariah 13:7-9 says:
“Awake, O sword, against My Shepherd, against the Man who is My Companion,” says the Lord of hosts. “Strike the Shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered; then I will turn My hand against the little ones. And it shall come to pass in all the land,” says the Lord, “That two-thirds in it shall be cut off and die, but one-third shall be left in it: I will bring the one-third through the fire, will refine them as silver is refined, and test them as gold is tested. They will call on My name, and I will answer them. I will say, ‘This is My people’; and each one will say, ‘The Lord is my God.’ ”
Some will not pass the tests, but God will bring a portion through the fire to the place where their hearts and lives are in line with His will for them.

The writer of the blog that I read questioned God’s right to do any of this. Why couldn’t He be merciful and change the rules? Why do sinners need to be punished? Why did we have to “murder His Son” to be saved from eating the forbidden fruit?

All of his questions are based on “I want things my way” and the blogger misses the point. God is holy, hates sin, and knows that sin will not only destroy our relationship with Him, but ruin our lives while we live them. I’ve been reading a book by a doctor about the effects of negative thinking and how a negative lifestyle ruins our immune system. Sin makes us sick. The doctor makes no link to Scripture, but the Bible repeats the same thing. Sin is a great enemy.

Instead of asking why God doesn’t change the “sin and death” rule and do things in ways that seem logical to us, we need to ask why am I so stubborn that I will not listen to the One who created me? We go to the owner’s manual for directions on how to operate everything from automobiles to electronic equipment. Why are we so determined to run our own lives without checking what our own Owner’s Manual says?

This determination is at the root of every problem. Sin, whether it is that ingrained tendency to want my own way, or the outworking of it in the actions that I take, is not to be lightly dismissed by thinking God should simply change His rules about it. Sin destroys us, and asking Him to change the rules is the same as asking Him not to care.

July 25, 2008

How do I know what I know?

Years ago, we lived in a town that held a plebiscite regarding abortion in the local hospital. As the people in our church talked about it, one woman said that she knew the people would vote against abortion. As soon as she said it, I knew that she was wrong, that the vote would go the other way.

The vote did go the other way. How did I know that? And what about the other person who was sure that she knew otherwise?

During more than sixty-five years of life, I’ve experienced this intuitive knowing many times. Maybe my memory is bad, but I cannot remember failures, only one. At least that one thing that I thought I knew would happen has not yet done so. Maybe for me it was more like wishful thinking, not intuition, which seems to be the key to understanding why this knowing is sometimes real and sometimes not. The failures happen because they are based on a strong I-want rather than finding their source in this mysterious intuitive thing.

While intuition is not the same as faith, they are closely related. According to Hebrews 11:1, faith is “the substance (or realization) of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” Faith, in a similar way to intuition, is knowing the truth of something that cannot be seen or necessarily proved. I’m not sure I can explain how or why this can happen, but these verses offer a hint. They are from John 3:31-36, where John is describing Jesus.
He who comes from heaven is above all. And what He has seen and heard, that He testifies; and no one receives His testimony. He who has received His testimony has certified that God is true. For He whom God has sent speaks the words of God, for God does not give the Spirit by measure.
One sentence says that no one receives Jesus’ testimony and the next one says those who have received it certify (or know) that God is true. What is he talking about? If no one receives it, then how can someone receive it?

My devotional reading spells it out. He says that we can only “set to our seal that God is true in any one point of doctrine, experience, or precept when we feel an inward witness that God indeed has declared it.”

That is, I can read the Bible, agree that it is right, but there is an additional step that takes truth from my head to my heart. It is the inner manifestation of God’s goodness to my soul. It is that “aha moment” when what I have read burns into my heart and becomes part of how I think. This is the work of God. I cannot make it happen.

This devotional writer also says that this is the only way to know the power and reality of true faith. I must read and understand the Scriptures, but I must also experience a convincing testimony that God is my God, Christ is my Savior, the Holy Spirit is my Teacher, heaven is my eternal home, and the Lord Jesus Christ has guaranteed me everlasting salvation.

All of this is not and cannot be what we sometimes call “head knowledge.” Instead, it is a divine certainty that it is true, even though we cannot see it or prove it. It is like those times that I knew the result of the plebiscite vote, or knew that we would live in a certain house that had already been rented to someone else, or knew that I would win the draw for a book at a particular meeting.

How does a person know such things? Putting the vote, the house and the book aside, I could say I know certain things about God because His Word says they are true. Yet sometimes it seems as if I cannot believe anything. I read the words and I know in my head that they are true, but my heart cannot “set its seal” to them. These truths might even seem a mass of confusion and my ignorance so great that I cannot set my seal to anything. Human intellect or head knowledge does not produce the certainty of genuine faith.

But when the blessed Holy Spirit is pleased to witness to my heart about the testimony of Jesus Christ, suddenly there is a holy certainty of God’s truth. This is divine faith, and it is this faith, not the head knowledge, that brings me through all trials and sorrows and temptations—because, no matter what my eyes and ears may tell me, I know in my heart that God is true.

July 24, 2008

It doesn’t depend on me . . .

One day this week was filled with frustration. I had several items on my to-do list that required input from other people, but they were either not home, or unable to answer my questions. Completing those jobs is a matter of dependencies. If other people could do their part, I could do mine.

The world is filled with this interdependence, most of which we never think about until it breaks down. If a clerk calls in sick and no one can fill in, I stand in line at the checkout. If a delivery truck breaks down, I need to drive a little farther to fill my car with gas. If a piece of paper slides unnoticed under a desk, I will get another bill for something I’d already paid.

The work that I do depends heavily on the work that others do, but not so with God. When He says He will do something, who can thwart His plans? When He makes a covenant, even with people who will fail to keep their end of it, the covenant is kept.

For instance, God made a covenant with David. This is found in 2 Samuel 7:12-16:
When your days are fulfilled and you rest with your fathers, I will set up your seed after you, who will come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for My name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be his Father, and he shall be My son. If he commits iniquity, I will chasten him with the rod of men and with the blows of the sons of men. But My mercy shall not depart from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I removed from before you. And your house and your kingdom shall be established forever before you. Your throne shall be established forever.
Part of the covenant was conditional, at least for some generations. Many in the line of David and heirs to his throne disobeyed God and never sat on it. However, God says in Psalm 89:30-37:
If his sons forsake My law and do not walk in My judgments, if they break My statutes and do not keep My commandments, then I will punish their transgression with the rod, and their iniquity with stripes. Nevertheless My lovingkindness I will not utterly take from him, nor allow My faithfulness to fail. My covenant I will not break, nor alter the word that has gone out of My lips. Once I have sworn by My holiness; I will not lie to David: his seed shall endure forever, and his throne as the sun before Me; it shall be established forever like the moon, even like the faithful witness in the sky.
What does all this have to do with me? Well, for one thing, God made many promises that I can claim. Some of them start with, “If you obey me, I will. . . .” Yet others begin with a simple, “I will. . . .” God’s promises ask for my cooperation, yet I know my own heart. Sometimes, no matter how I try, I mess up.

There are some who think that if they mess up, God will turn His back on them, particularly in His covenant of redemption. In other words, they think that their salvation starts by faith, but if they don’t diligently perform, they will lose it. Like the Galatians, they “begin in the Spirit” and then try to “be made perfect by the flesh” (Galatians 3:3).

Paul called this notion foolishness. He knew that the covenant of salvation, unlike some of the other covenants, is totally unconditional. We do not deserve it; we could not earn it; we cannot make it happen. God is its author and finisher. He works in us both to will and to do His good pleasure (Philippians 2:13), and even when we sin, the blood of Christ covers our sin and Christ Himself stands at the right hand of God to intercede for us (1 John 2:1; Hebrews 7:25).

However, I’m far from being a passive recipient. God puts His Spirit in me and my heart is infused with this magnificent desire to please Him. Through trial and error, I’ve learned that apart from Him, I’m totally useless to make godliness happen, but with Him, I can do all things.

I’ve also learned that when I resist, like the generations of David, He will punish my transgressions, yet His faithfulness and lovingkindness never departs from me. God is doing His part regardless of my failure to do my part. While I need to obey Him, His redemptive to-do list does not totally depend on me.

July 23, 2008

No editing required

Writers are taught to vary the length of their sentences. We are also cautioned about sentences that are very long because they are often difficult to understand. Keep things short, say the editors.

I’m sure that the Apostle Paul had never been given this advise. While Bible translators could shorten some of his sentences, the version I’m using doesn’t do that. My reading today is supposed to be Ephesians 1:17, but it is a phrase in the middle of a very long sentence that begins in verse 15 and ends at verse 21. As I read it, I can sense the enthusiasm of this man for his Savior and for the people who will read these words and learn from them.
Therefore I also, after I heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints, do not cease to give thanks for you, making mention of you in my prayers: that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give to you the spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of Him, the eyes of your understanding being enlightened; that you may know what is the hope of His calling, what are the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints, and what is the exceeding greatness of His power toward us who believe, according to the working of His mighty power which He worked in Christ when He raised Him from the dead and seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly places, far above all principality and power and might and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age but also in that which is to come.
In 166 words, this man tells of the faith and love of the people at Ephesus, his attitude toward them, and how he prays for them. True to his passion for Jesus Christ, the rest of the sentence is about the wonderful riches of knowing and following Him.

Verse 17 is the phrase, “that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give to you the spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of Him.” This statement is a cardinal truth about Christianity. Christians know God because God reveals Himself and His truth to us. Otherwise, we are blind to spiritual realities.

My reading in Ears from Harvested Sheaves describes this truth in a way that is so familiar to me. What the author describes is what happened in my life. With some editing (this author didn’t have the same rules as today’s writers either), he makes these points:
Revelation means literally an uncovering or unveiling of a concealed or covered-up object. It is used sometimes in the sense of making known, or bringing to light what had before been hidden in darkness and obscurity. This revelation is either outward in the Word, or inward in the soul. The two strictly correspond to and are counterparts of each other. Immediately when, by the power of divine grace, a sinner turns to the Lord, the Spirit of revelation removes the veil off the Scriptures and off his heart. (This part describes me . . . ) The Word of God was once a sealed book. We read or heard it without one real ray of light to illuminate the dark page because of the thick veil of ignorance, unbelief, prejudice, self-righteousness and unrepentance over our heart. But the gracious Spirit of revelation took this double veil away. By giving us the light of life, He made the word of God a new book, and gave us a new heart. Ever since the day when the entrance of His word gave us light, God’s word has been a lamp unto our feet, and a light unto our path. Yet the Spirit of revelation is chiefly given to lead us into a spiritual, experiential, and saving knowledge of Christ. Without this blessed Spirit of revelation Christ cannot be effectually or redemptively known. That is why when Peter made that noble confession of his faith in Christ as “the Son of the Living God,” Jesus said to him: “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah; for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.”
For many years I read the Bible every day, but did not understand a word I read. Then the Spirit of the Lord illuminated it to me and my heart to it. The lights came on regarding His book and to this day, I am utterly astounded at His power to open blind eyes.

This revelation is needed by everyone, educated or not, old or young, rich or poor. Understanding spiritual things is not about intellect or human wisdom, nor is it earned or deserved. Instead, knowing Him and His Word is the work of a light-giving God in a sinner’s heart, and He does it because of His mercy and grace.

July 22, 2008

Did God turn away . . .

When I was in Bible school, I heard a taped sermon about the cry of Jesus from the cross, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?

The preacher said that Psalm 22, from which this cry is the first line, was often said by the Jews when in deep distress. While Jesus could repeat only the first line, it was common to say the entire psalm. Because of this cultural and religious practice, my understanding of that cry from the cross has changed.

Most Christians would say, based on this line, that when Jesus hung on the cross bearing our sin, the awfulness of that sin was so great that God could not look at it. Instead, He turned His face away from His own Son.

The preacher challenged that. He said that we should read the rest of the psalm. Even the next few verses cast aside the idea that God forsakes His people, never mind His Son.
My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me? Why are You so far from helping Me, and from the words of My groaning? O My God, I cry in the daytime, but You do not hear; and in the night season, and am not silent. But You are holy, enthroned in the praises of Israel. Our fathers trusted in You; they trusted, and You delivered them. They cried to You, and were delivered; they trusted in You, and were not ashamed.
Later on, verses 23-24 say, “You who fear the Lord, praise Him! All you descendants of Jacob, glorify Him, and fear Him, all you offspring of Israel! For He has not despised nor abhorred the affliction of the afflicted; nor has He hidden His face from Him; but when He cried to Him, He heard.

Of course the average student of the Bible would not know about this practice of reciting this psalm in distress, not as a cry from someone abandoned, but the cry of someone who feels abandoned, but knows that this is not true. The psalm is an affirmation that no matter what, God is always near and hears the cries of those in trouble.

This does not diminish the awfulness of sin, nor lessen the extreme ugliness of the sins of the world piled on Jesus. What it does do is magnify the glory of God. Certainly God is holy and hates sin, but if sin makes Him turn away, what difference is there between one sin and a million? All are awful in His sight, but are they a threat to His holiness? Does He have to turn away to preserve His own goodness? Nonsense. He is light and truth. In His presence, darkness and lies must flee, not the other way around.

God tells me that He will never leave me or forsake me. If I thought that He turned away every time I sinned, I would be mocking that promise. If I thought that He abandoned His own Son because of the sins everyone else committed, how could I ever cry out to Him when I sin?

When I sin is when I need Him the most. Would I call on Him if I even suspected that what I had done was so terrible that had turned His back on me? He promises to hear those who humbly call on His name. If He would not listen to Jesus, how could I depend on Him to listen to me?

Thankfully, He doesn’t leave me in any guessing games. He said that He will be here, no matter what. The psalmist knew it, and so do I.

I’m also certain that the Father did not forsake the Son either. For the man Jesus, it felt like it, just as I sometimes feel like God is far away. During that time when Jesus suffered and bore our sin, He no doubt felt the weight of guilt that tends to make anyone feel like God will not stand by them. Jesus expressed that sense of being abandoned in that one line, but He also knew the rest of Psalm 22 (after all, He had a hand in writing it).

His pain and suffering robbed Him of the strength to say the rest of the psalm, but any Jew standing there would have known what He was doing. Besides, the psalm is preserved for me to read. As I do, I realize that God never abandons His people, no matter what we do. The very worst of sinners can cry out to Him and He will hear them. When I sin, I can cry out to Him; He will not turn away. When Jesus bore my sin and in His extreme agony, cried out, surely God also heard Him and did not abandon Him either.

July 21, 2008

. . . His wonders to perform

Prayer is answered . . . a prodigal comes home . . . a hardened heart is made soft . . . “God works in mysterious ways” is a common response to these or any unexpected good news, yet I’ve not heard anyone say it when tragedy strikes.

God’s use of calamity and disaster is the deeper mystery. He takes what looks like the worst thing that can happen and uses it for His purposes. How can this be?

For instance, Zechariah 13:7 refers to the coming Messiah, the Good Shepherd who would come to save His people. The Jews expected a strong leader who would deliver them from oppression and all their enemies, but their expectations were crushed in this prophecy, even before Jesus came:
“Awake, O sword, against My Shepherd, against the Man who is My Companion,” says the Lord of hosts. “Strike the Shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered; then I will turn My hand against the little ones.”
This verse says that God’s Shepherd is literally, “the man of my union.” The Hebrew word used here is “a mighty man,” one peculiarly man in his noblest ideal. It could also be translated “My fellow,” “My associate,” “My equal” or “My nearest kinsman.”

This is the One that God calls the sword to strike. He was His equal, His own Son. What could be more mysterious? And then, when the Messiah was killed, those who followed Him would be scattered too. God would even “turn His hand” against them too. How could any of this be good news?

My study Bible says “against” could be “upon” and therefore refer to His protection, which fits better with the verses to follow for they tell how God will save a remnant of those who believe. Yet even then, He says they will be brought “through fire” and be refined as silver is refined and as gold is tested. In other words, not only will the Good Shepherd suffer and die for His sheep under the plan of God, but we who are His sheep will also suffer as part of His plan and His mysterious ways.

The only way that this mysterious plan of God makes sense to me is when I remember the seriousness of sin and the reality of its power in my life. Sin permeates everything. My most noble deeds can easily turn into acts of self-centered glory. When I am deeply and truly worshiping God, the thought ‘do people notice my love for Him’ can pop into my head. Sin is an insidious, seductive and stealthy enemy that creeps into my life even as I focus on the only One who can save me from it.

God knows that defeating such a terrible enemy requires terrible measures. His pure and sinless Son would take sin’s penalty, an act of mercy from a Judge who rightly could strike us all with a sword for our sinful rebellion and resistance toward Him.

Did the disciples scatter for fear they would be next? They loved Jesus, but their desire to protect themselves came first. That “I will take care of me” attitude must become “God will take care of me” and it did, but only after God took them through the refining fire of His mysterious ways.

He taught them, as He teaches me, that unexpected goodness and mercy AND unexpected difficulties and tragedy are both in His plan for my life. He uses both to defeat and destroy my great enemy, that selfish, me-first attitude that is at the root of godlessness.

This is a great mystery, not just that He uses tragedy or tough things to deal with my sin, but that He persists! Jesus died for me yet I still sin against Him so easily. However, God persists in this mystery of using all things, even tough times, to change and purify my life.

July 20, 2008

Untying the Knots

In an interesting, even at times disturbing book, a Canadian doctor describes the connections between the emotions and relationships in a person’s life and their health. He says that if the primary relationship between mother and child is negative that alone predisposes the child to illness. In other words, we are more apt to get chronic and life-threatening diseases if we do not experience the love of our mothers.

When the Body Says No, by Gabor Mate, is a difficult read and there is much more to this than my simplistic description. However, when I overlay my knowledge of what the Bible says, the parallels are astounding.

For instance, this observation about mother-child relationships includes the receptivity of the child to the parent. That is, if the relationship goes awry, the adult child can hold resentment and anger against the parents, and those emotions have a negative effect on that adult child’s health. Therefore, when God tells us to honor our parents that we “may live long on the earth,” His command was based on a physiological principle. He should know; He created our bodies.

Enmity with anyone has a negative effect. Several psalms describe how fear and persecution rack the psalmist’s body with pain and physical suffering. Most people know the knot they get in their stomach when in conflict with another person.

Mate explains why. He says that the “gut” sends more signals to the brain than vice versa, and that these signals have a direct bearing on the proper functioning of the body’s immune system. Too many knots equal a suppressed immunity and make the person open to everything from asthma to rheumatoid arthritis.

While this book does not talk about enmity with God, it makes sense that being at odds with my Maker would also knot my stomach and affect my health. Amazingly, the Bible agrees.

Deuteronomy 5:29 says, “Oh, that they had such a heart in them that they would fear Me and always keep all My commandments, that it might be well with them and their children forever.” A few chapters later, God promises that if His people obey Him, He will “take away from you all sickness, and will afflict you with none of the terrible diseases of Egypt . . .” (Deuteronomy 7:15). In chapter 10, verse 13, He says that keeping His commands is “for your good.

Enmity with God leads to eternal death. I never thought about it before, but this very core enmity leads to physical death as well. When a person is separated from God by sin that knotted up state ruins the body’s ability to protect itself. We are sitting ducks and eventually shot down by something that terminates our life here on earth.

God knows. His response to the effects of sin is Jesus. Jesus came to reverse this curse and give us eternal life. Romans 5:10 says, “For if when we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life.

By bringing my sin to Him, Jesus removes the enmity and sets my soul free from the curse of sin. This can extend to my body (reread those promises from Deuteronomy), but this old body will not live here forever — I started dying the moment I was born. I still get knots in my gut. In my human flesh, I still worry, still have relationship problems, even sometimes am at odds with God because I resist His will (silly me).

However, the big core relationship problem is solved, cured, fixed. My Creator has reconciled me to Himself. Because of that, death no longer has any power over me, and He has even untied many of my knots. Knots or not, I know that my body will eventually stop working, but because of Jesus, I also know that I will live forever.

July 19, 2008

Expectations cloud reality

Sharon (not her real name) first married “a prince of a man” who treated her wonderfully well. When he died and she remarried, she expected her second husband to be the same. Finally reality set in; she realized that he was mean spirited and difficult to live with, not at all what she expected.

Expectations can confuse me. If I think someone will be harsh and they are kind, I’m unsure about trusting them. This has nothing to do with reality for that person may be genuinely a nice person, but for some reason, I thought otherwise. When this happens, my expectations mess with my head.

This happened to John the Baptist. He preached of a Messiah who would judge sin and “burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” When Jesus came and began a ministry of healing and John himself wound up in prison, no wonder he thought he had misunderstood. These expectations motivated him to send his disciples to ask if Jesus was really the “Coming One, or do we look for another?

Jesus replied, “Go and tell John the things which you hear and see: the blind see and the lame walk; the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear; the dead are raised up and the poor have the gospel preached to them. And blessed is he who is not offended because of Me” (Matthew 11:4-6).

Because John was not sure why Jesus came, it is safe to assume that others do too. Was He here to make people feel guilty? To show love to all, no matter what they did? What was this man all about? What is His agenda?

My devotional reading asks the obvious question, “What is the gospel?” If I asked ten people that question, I’m sure I would get ten different responses. Looking into my own heart and experiences, these might be some of them.

If I stuck by my pride, particularly my spiritual pride, I would say that the gospel is a salvation that depends on me. If I am good enough, do righteous deeds, and please God and others, then I will go to heaven when I die. But that is not the gospel.

If I stuck by my independence, I would say that the gospel is a nonsense created by cripples who use God as a crutch. I would declare that I am not needy like they are and do not need any saving because I can get along quite well by myself. Certainly, that is not the gospel.

If I stuck by my money (what little there is), I would say that God is pleased by those who give. I would claim a salvation based on my charitable giving, which in essence is a declaration that salvation can be purchased. If a widow’s mite can please Jesus, imagine His pleasure at my generosity! But that is not the gospel either.

If I stuck by my intellect, I would say that the gospel is for those who understand the deep mysteries of God. I would puff up when people say, “You know the Bible so well” and base my standing before God on my grasp of His truth. Even though this eliminates those who cannot read, small children and others, I would be certain that because I am so smart, I would go to heaven. This is not the gospel either.

However, when I realize the depth of my spiritual poverty, when I acknowledge that I am nothing and have nothing but massive sin and guilt, then I am in the place where I get the correct definition. The gospel is none of those things that human pride and vanity expect. It is God, in mercy, pardoning my sins, covering them with the blood of Christ. It is God who loves me no matter what I am or have or have done, shedding abroad in my heart His love, guiding me into goodness, and making Himself known to me.

The gospel is not for those who think they can secure it by themselves. It is for those whose poverty of spirit has prepared them to receive that amazing gift from God for which there is no payment, no earning, no deserving. The gospel is the good news that Jesus died for our sins, was buried and rose again on the third day that we can be forgiven and adopted into the family of God, just as we are. It is eternal life, not earned or bought or deserved. It is God’s amazing grace.

Those other notions about the gospel can affect me even now that I’ve finally figured it out. If I let the pride of my old nature rule, or if I hang on to any of those things that supposedly give me merit, then I will look on others with expectations too. I will think that the saved with talent should be performing, that the saved with money should be generous and the saved with brains should never be wrong. Those expectations totally ruin fellowship with those who came into the kingdom of God the same way I did; without earning or deserving any of God’s blessings and without any merit of our own.

The gospel is good news only for the poor in spirit. Whatever else a person has doesn’t matter, but if anyone thinks it does, that expectation will keep them from experiencing the saving power of God. The gospel is for those who have no expectations about themselves or about what God will do; their only hope is in His mercy and grace.

July 18, 2008

Grace from start to finish

One neat thing about using a devotional guide every morning is that it makes me look at verses that I might otherwise pass by. It also gives me the perspective of a saint who has gone before me, someone who has studied the Scriptures with a history differing from mine. This gives the Holy Spirit opportunity to fill in the blanks in my thinking and challenge me in ways that might not happen if I picked the places I wanted to read.

Today, Ears from Harvested Sheaves takes me to Zechariah 4:7. Verse 6 I know: “ . . . This is the word of the Lord to Zerubbabel: ‘Not by might nor by power, but by My Spirit,’ says the Lord of hosts.”

It is a well-known admonition that reminds me that neither brute force nor subtle persuasions are effective in working the will of God. Instead, I am to rely on His Spirit.

Verse 7 was also spoken to Zerubbabel. He was trying to rebuild the temple under mountain-like opposition. God says, “‘Who are you, O great mountain? Before Zerubbabel you shall become a plain! And he shall bring forth the capstone with shouts of ‘Grace, grace to it!’

With the temple, in fact with the entire Old Testament pointing to Jesus Christ, this grand statement is also a type of what is going to happen in the distant future, not just what will bring that ancient temple to completion. The temple was God’s “dwelling place” (even though no building can contain Him). Now, God’s dwelling place is in the hearts of His people individually and in the church corporately. This temple is still being built as God adds to it daily even in our modern world.

As I pray for the salvation of souls, I’m encouraged by what the author of today’s reading says. He affirms that only those who know the opposition of the mountain and the failure of their own might and power will be able to shout, “Grace, grace to it.” He adds this:
Who will have most reason to say, “Grace, grace?” (It will be) the lost and ruined wretch, who has feared that he should go to hell a thousand times over, and yet has been delivered by sovereign grace and brought to the glory and joy of heaven. No other person is fit to join in that song; and I am sure no other will join in it but he who has known painfully and experimentally the bitterness of sin and the evil of a depraved heart; and yet has seen and felt that grace has triumphed over all, in spite of the devil, in spite of the world, and in spite of himself, and brought him to that blessed place where many times he was afraid he should never come.
As God, by grace, saves sinners, the day will finally come when His living temple will be complete. All opposition will be leveled and the capstone or final stone of the building will be put in place. Then shouts of joy will repeat that from beginning to end, this is God’s mighty work of grace. My commentary says:
The repetition expresses grace from first to last. Thus the Jews are urged to pray perseveringly and earnestly that the same grace which completed (the temple) may always preserve it. “Shoutings” of acclamation accompanied the foundation of the literal temple (see Ezra 3:11, 13), so shoutings of “Hosanna” greeted the Savior in entering Jerusalem (Matthew 21:9), when about to complete the purchase of salvation by His death: His Body being the second temple, or place of God’s inhabitation (John 2:20, 21). So when the full number of the saints and of Israel is complete, and God shall say, “It is done,” then again shall “a great voice of much people in heaven” attribute all to the “grace” of God, saying, “Alleluia! Salvation, and glory, and honor, and power, unto the Lord our God” (Revelation 19:1, 6). Psalm 118:22 regards Him as “the headstone of the corner,” that is, the foundation-stone. Compare the angels acclamations at His birth (Luke 2:14). Here it is the top-stone. Messiah is not only the “Author,” but also the Finisher (Hebrews 12:2). “Grace” is ascribed “unto it,” that is the stone, Messiah. Hence the benediction begins, “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 13:14).
I woke up this morning with the words of “Our God is an Awesome God” running through my mind. As I read this and think about the amazing grace that started God’s work with mankind in general and in my own life in particular, and the amazing grace that will complete His work in us, there is nothing left to say. God is an awesome God!

July 17, 2008

Pressures >>> obedience

Our granddaughter called last night from her new apartment home in South Korea. She arrived 8:30 Wednesday. Since her clock is 15 hours ahead of our time, when we talked to her she was preparing for her first day of work. This gal hit the ground running.

What an incredible adventure. Jet lag, new home, foreign country, different language, no food in her frig, a few thousand Korean Won to get her started (the exchange rate is 1000 to one), and starting a new job her first day in town. I can hardly imagine the complications of all this in her mind, but I am so glad that I can talk to God about it on her behalf, and that God can use all of this to draw her into a relationship with Himself.

What will she learn from her difficulties and challenges? Many things, I’m certain. Two verses in my reading this morning suggest two possibilities in regard to her spiritual life.

The first is in Proverbs 27:22, “Though you grind a fool in a mortar with a pestle along with crushed grain, yet his foolishness will not depart from him.

This is the worst case scenario. In Proverbs, a fool is someone who has rejected God. The figure of speech is an image for extreme difficulties. These pressures grind all stubbornness and self-will to powder, yet the fool remains foolish. All their suffering produces no change.

The second option is illustrated by Jesus. Hebrews 5:8 says, “though He was a Son, yet He learned obedience by the things which He suffered.

My initial question about this verse was why did Jesus, who never sinned, have to “learn” obedience? It was not His nature to disobey. He knows everything, so why did He have to “learn” anything? He is God the Son, yet this verse sets Him out in His humanness. “Though He was the Son” of God, He was also the Son of man.

His obedience as a man depending on His Father was tested by trials. Whatever happened to Him, every circumstance, confrontation, and opportunity, called for a choice. Even though He would always make the right choice, no one, not even Jesus, would see that reality unless He first experienced the tests and trials that put Him into a position of choosing and obeying.

Learning obedience to God is the same for every human being. Proverbs 29:19 says, “A servant will not be corrected by mere words; for though he understands, he will not respond.

As I read His Word, I hear His voice telling me His will. I know what He wants from me, but unless I’m in a place where I must choose to do something about it, I’ve not actually “learned” obedience. It might be in my head, but it is not part of my life until I obey.

I don’t like suffering. My first response ought to be, “God, how can I obey You in this?” Yet too often I complain and look for a way out. I fear this is also true of most Christians. Instead of seeking the will of God when we suffer, or instead of discerning why He allows such things and learning from them, our usual response is a prayer request that the suffering be removed. I’m somewhat amazed that God sometimes does remove the problem. He is so incredibly merciful. Or maybe He removes it because (sadly) He sees we are not going to “learn” obedience from it after all.

My hope for our granddaughter is that these pressures that she is experiencing will not crush her to no avail, but that they will result in a heart’s cry to the One who can rescue her. Hebrews 5:7 says of Jesus, “who, in the days of His flesh, when He had offered up prayers and supplications, with vehement cries and tears to Him who was able to save Him from death, and was heard because of His godly fear . . .” May this be true of her.

Yet I must also remember that God, who knows all things, can see what will produce a change of heart and what will not. If she manages to get through all of this without “learning obedience” then that too is by His mercy.

July 16, 2008

Christians can change current affairs

Today’s newspaper stories make my heart heavy. Yesterday offered some good news (a surprise), but I could find nothing good this morning, except that the price of crude oil took a drop. However, the person who wrote that story made it sound like bad news also.

Now as I read 1 Timothy 2:1-6, I’ve no problem agreeing that there is one thing I can do about all the calamities, disasters, and horrible things people are doing to one another. While educators and philosophers try to come up with something that will move the multitudes to change direction, God offers me this one option to ensure that we live in peace and see people make godly decisions.
I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone—for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all men—the testimony given in its proper time.
No one can convince another person of the truth that is in Jesus Christ. We can share, talk, argue, debate, even live out a godly life before them, but unless God works in their heart, they will follow the dictates of their own selfishness. They might know that they are being selfish, but without an alternative, they are stuck in that rut.

The headlines and stories in the news reveal the results of that rut. All the bad news is rooted in a “me-first” and an “I know what I am doing” attitude. Those who are bent on “my way” wind up in trouble. A woman dies because she didn’t wear shoes in a jungle and stepped on poisonous insects. A man sits in prison for life because he wanted to have some fun and killed a person. A government is in debt because those in charge were more concerned about “me right now” than “us in the future.” The list goes on and on and on.

I could get on a soapbox, but God doesn’t tell me to do that. Instead, He says that I need to pray. He uses four words to describe how I should pray, indicating the scope and importance of talking to Him about the needs I see in the world. I cannot speak to kings or those in authority and get very far, but I can speak to God who says, “The kings’ heart is in the hand of the LORD, like the rivers of water; He turns it wherever He wishes” (Proverbs 21:1).

I don’t understand the ways of God though. Since He can turn the hearts of kings, why doesn’t He turn all of them toward Himself? Why does He allow African rulers to destroy their own people? Or leaders in the Middle East form cells to terrorize the rest of the world? And why do those who claim to know Him behave in ways that seem to mock their own claims?

But God is God. He wants all to be saved. He wants all to know the truth. There is only One of Him, and there is only One mediator who can make peace between all persons and Himself. He sent Jesus Christ, God the Son, who pulled on humanity like I pull on a pair of jeans. He is our Mediator. He purchased our sin-captured souls with His own blood. We do have a Redeemer. We do have a way out of our selfishness.

I’m careful as I read the paper. I know that adage “there but for the grace of God go I” is true. I know how difficult it is to say no to sin, to shed selfishness, to shun my me-focus. Even more, I know how difficult it is to continually pray for all people. I’d rather write, or make quilts, or work in the garden, or even clean toilets, than do the work of prayer.

Prayer is difficult, but when God’s people pray, things happen (or don’t happen). We have a job to do. We may not connect the peace, or the lack of peace in the world to our praying, but God says there is a connection. When I read the news and am distressed by it, this is God’s signal to me to get on my knees and do my part to make a difference.

July 15, 2008

The Perfect Man

When my daughter was much younger, she thought that the person portrayed in the television show MacGyver, was the “perfect man.” Now she might say there is no such thing, but then and now I’d have to answer that there is one perfect man, only one.

When Adam ate the forbidden fruit and brought sin into the world, perfection ended. Every person since then is tainted, some more than others, but all fall short, even MacGyver. This was not God’s intention. When He created mankind and gave them dominion over the earth, He intended just that. The writer of Hebrews quotes an Old Testament passage about this: “You have made him a little lower than the angels; You have crowned him with glory and honor, and set him over the works of Your hands. You have put all things in subjection under his feet” (Hebrews 2:7-8).

This was God’s intention, but it didn’t work out like that. We do not see ourselves exercising lordship over all things, and if anything is put under our human subjection, the intent and attitude behind that rule is entirely different from what God intended. Our dominion is exploitive, power-driven, and generally without godly care and protection. We fall short.

Hebrews 2:9 goes on to say the same thing: “For in that He put all in subjection under him, He left nothing that is not put under him. But now we do not yet see all things put under him.

Then it points our eyes in a different direction to the One man that changed everything: “But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, for the suffering of death crowned with glory and honor, that He, by the grace of God, might taste death for everyone.

Jesus did what Adam and every other sinful human being could not do; He lived the way God intended human beings to live. He was sinless, the perfect man. Then He tasted death for us so that we, who all our lives live in bondage to fear of death, might have hope (see Hebrews 2:14-15) and be forgiven for our sin and falling short of His desire.

Note four important words in verse 9: “But we see Jesus.” We ruined things, BUT Jesus can undo and repair our mess. WE can see Him, not with literal eyes for the time being though. The Greek word used here is a verb that means we see Him by faith. Faith is “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1).

Jesus is just as real SEEN through the eyes of faith as any solid object is real through physical vision. Yet it must be JESUS who is seen. My brother belongs to a cult that talks about Jesus and uses His name, yet he has never seen the real Jesus. That cult teaches that Jesus is not the perfect God who became perfect man presented in Scripture, but a being who was once an angel, didn’t really die to rise from the dead in a real body, and who deceived his disciples. My brother does not see the same JESUS who is the focus of this verse.

The real Jesus was made a little lower than the angels and is seen by faith, which is a gift from God (Ephesians 2:8-9). He is the One who died for our sins, was buried, and rose again the third day. We behold or look at Him with deliberate intention because He was willing to become less than His creation (angels) to suffer and die for His rebellious creation — you and I. We gaze at Him knowing that He tasted death for us so that we do not have to die ourselves, at least spiritually. Our eternity is secure, made so by this one Perfect Man.

Jesus is already crowned and given honor, although still unseen by us (except by faith). The author of my devotional reading says “If you have ever seen Jesus by the eyes of faith, and ever had a tender affection going out toward Him, you will see Him in glory. But you will never see Him in glory if you have not seen Him in grace. You will never see Him eye to eye in the open vision of eternal bliss, unless you have seen Him now upon earth by the faith of God’s elect in your heart.

My focus verse this year is Psalm 27:8, “When You said, ‘Seek My face,’ my heart said to You, ‘Your face, Lord, I will seek.’

I’m grateful that He not only invites me to seek His face, but also provides the faith I need to see Him, the Perfect Man, as I respond to His invitation.

July 14, 2008

He alone can do it!

Early tomorrow our granddaughter is flying from here to San Francisco, then to South Korea where she will be teaching English to elementary and middle-school children. For those who know the story, this is an astounding change in her life.

She came to live with us two years ago. She was unable to take care of herself and had no sense of direction or hope. Our desire for her is that she knows and follows Jesus. While that has not yet happened, God has done some wonderful things in her life.

Now, as she goes to the ends of the earth, our hearts and prayers go with her. She goes to a place that is not devoid of Christian witnesses. Perhaps she will meet good people who will be a blessing to her. Certainly her life will change because of this experience.

At one point, she has said what others say, that lots of people get along just fine without God. Some even think that Christianity is the religion of white Caucasians only. However, there are countries all over the world where faith in Jesus is far more common than in North America. The church grows rapidly in the far east, and the largest churches in the world are in South Korea. These churches even send out more missionaries than the churches here. They know that everyone needs the Lord.

This morning’s devotional reading is based on Isaiah 45:22, “Look to Me, and be saved, all you ends of the earth! For I am God, and there is no other.

As I read that, I thought that it makes no difference where a person lives, or what color their skin; everyone needs to be saved. The Bible says that “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” Some might be better in the eyes of the world than others, or more moral, or less selfish, but no one measures up to the standard demonstrated in the person and life of Jesus Christ. We all fall short of that lofty target.

Jesus said that those who come to Him will be saved. Simply put, that means He will pick us up from where we have fallen short, and carry us to where we need to be. He forgives our sin, gives us Himself and His righteousness, and becomes our loving Guide and Best Friend.

There isn’t a person alive without sin. While they may be happy, healthy and doing well in this life, Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me” (John 14:6). We cannot get there by our own efforts, no matter how good they might be.

The one who claims to be truth also invites “the ends of the earth” to look to Him and be saved. Christianity is not for a few, but for everyone. All have sinned, all need salvation, and this salvation is in God the Son who died for our sins.

We don’t know if the Lord will answer our prayers for our granddaughter in this faraway place. He could. Away from home, family and familiar, she may feel a need for Him there that she denies here. She may meet people so sweetly filled with the Spirit that she cannot resist His call. Whatever happens, we are trusting the only One who can do it.

Who else can we rely on? Who else can change lives and bring peace out of chaos? He has already done so much in her life, whether she realizes it or not. We continue to look to Him to finish His work of grace and save her. Only He can do it, here or at the ends of the earth, for there is no other.

July 13, 2008

What is a carbuncle?

Symbolism can easily fall into the current philosophy of subjective truth; what is true for one person is not so for another. The symbolism of the Bible can be rich for those who seek it, and seem silly for others who take a more objective approach to interpreting Scripture.

I’m a bit mixed about today’s reading. The verse is God’s promise to His people while they are struggling and in bondage. He says, “I will make your pinnacles of rubies, your gates of crystal, and all your walls of precious stones” (Isaiah 54:12).

The New King James Bible translates a word from this verse as crystal. The old King James says it is a carbuncle. I can understand why the translators changed it. The word carbuncle immediately brings to my mind a severe abscess or boil in the skin, not exactly a positive image. When I ‘Googled’ it, the resulting images were awful.

However, my Oxford dictionary gives a second meaning: a bright red gem, in particular a polished garnet. My search did turn up a handful of dark red jewels. However, the dictionary adds that the origin of this word is from the Latin carbunculus or small coal. The first is a gem, but a small coal is not a particularly positive image either.

The writer of my devotional takes carbuncle and the image of a red gem and extrapolates the possibility that this gate God will give His people is made out of a red precious stone and that stone refers to the blood of Jesus Christ. He says (slightly edited for clarity):
The Lord speaks of Zion’s gates and “thy gates of carbuncles.” The carbuncle is of a blood red color. Why should the Lord have chosen that Zion’s gates should be of this peculiar hue? May we not, without wresting the figure too closely, believe that there is some mystic allusion here to the blood of the Lamb? As scarlet wool was taken by Moses, when he sprinkled the people, and as Rahab’s house was marked by a scarlet thread, may there not be something here significant in the color of the gates? Gates or doors not only give an exit, but admission. How does God hear prayer, and answer it too? Only through the “gate of carbuncle.” Prayer ascends through Jesus, and answers descend through Jesus; groans through Jesus enter the ears of the God of Sabaoth, and through the same bleeding gate of mercy do answers drop into the soul. Our poor self-righteous hearts can hardly comprehend this. . . . Through “gates of carbuncle,” the open wounds of the Lamb (the first image), every prayer ascends. Through these, every answer comes down. If we set up anything else, or make a gate of human merit, we do despite to the Spirit of God, and pour contempt upon the grace and blood of the Lamb.
Everything he says about prayer is true, but the color of the stones didn’t seem too important to many modern Bible translators. Perhaps they stumbled over the word carbuncle like I did, or maybe they were not tuned in to see Jesus everywhere in the Bible like this devotional writer does.

How is this practical for me? I’m thinking that if I want to see Jesus, I will see Him in every place I go, everything that happens. He is here, and there, and everywhere. That is a reality. Seeing Him will not stretch my imagination; it will merely shut out every other vision and thought. Also, instead of thinking as everyone else, I might see each word of Scripture as having great significance, not because of the word itself, but because He spoke it.

July 12, 2008

God’s Sapphires

During a convention a few years ago, a presentation was made by several disabled people. The main speaker, John MacArthur, came to the platform next. Perhaps he sensed that too much was being made of the presenters (whose effort was to glorify the Lord and not themselves), so he said, “In the eyes of God, each one of us is handicapped. . . .”

I thought of that yesterday after watching a fascinating and deeply touching video at GodTube. This video must be viewed right to the end and you will weep. I showed it to my husband this morning, and after my third time seeing it, we both wept.

This morning, my devotional reading takes me again to Isaiah 54:11. “O you afflicted one, tossed with tempest, and not comforted, behold, I will lay your stones with colorful gems, and lay your foundations with sapphires.

Those who do not believe accuse our faith as a crutch, yet I say, "Who is not limping?” MacArthur is correct; we are all handicapped. Who has not felt affliction? Who has never experienced a comfortless tempest? For some, trials last only a brief time; for others a lifetime, but everyone knows what helplessness feels like. Everyone knows the struggle to get through, to overcome, to make it to tomorrow.

But there is God. He, in the middle of our sorrows, can give us colorful gems and set our foundation with sapphires. My reading today makes me weep as the video did. It (a tad of editing) says this:
Before we can stand firm in the things of God, we must have a good foundation, something solid for our faith, our hope, our love, our all, to rest upon. This God promises to lay for us: “I will lay your foundations with sapphires.

A gift is a precious stone in the eyes of its possessor” (Proverbs 17:8). Every testimony that God gives to the soul, every promise brought into the heart, every manifestation of mercy, every visit of love, or application of truth, we may call a sapphire. It is indeed a precious stone, radiant with heaven’s own hue. When God lays His sapphires in the soul, they afford a solid foundation for faith. As they are laid by the hand of God Himself, they must be firm. As they are sapphires, they must be indestructible. These sapphires may be buried in the dust of carnality and worldly-mindedness. The filth and sewage, the mud and slush of our fallen nature may roll over them flood after flood. But are they injured? Is their nature changed, their value impaired, their hue tarnished, their luster faded and gone? They may be hidden from view, their setting obscured, and their faces for a while dimmed, but one ray from the Sun of righteousness will bring them again to light. One touch of the Polisher’s hand will restore all their beauty.
Our daily newspaper occasionally features a column in the religious section called “Offerings.” Today’s column expressed the author’s experience of being with a dying friend who was thankful and gracious throughout. The writer says, “People with strong religious or philosophical convictions find meaning in experiencing all the seasons of life, including suffering and death” and explains that all of life is to be embraced and experienced, not avoided or turned from. At the end, she writes,
Viktor Frankl, the great Viennese psychiatrist, said ‘ . . . everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms -- to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances. . . .’ And so my friend did, leaving me a lasting legacy of what it means to fully live out each season of life.
Putting all these elements together, that column, the video, memories, and the Scripture, created a mosaic that assures me that no matter how tough life is (or how easy), my Lord is with me, even carrying me, and I can experience it all with grace because of Him.

July 11, 2008

I see another Carpenter

One of my neighbors is building something. I can hear the sounds of hammer and saw, the movement of wood. What he is building remains to be seen, but these are pleasant sounds.

Among other things, my father was a good carpenter. He taught me how to use his tools and I’ve fond memories of being in his shop learning how to make a boat to sail on the creek, or how to fix a broken bridle rein with copper rivets. I have my own set of tools, from pliers, wrenches and screwdrivers to a high-speed router. I’m no expert, but am not afraid to build simple things.

This morning I read from Isaiah 54 again. Verse 11 is highlighted as a promise from God for the restoration of His people. They are suffering in exile, yet He will restore them to their place of worship in Jerusalem.

The verse says, “O you afflicted one, tossed with tempest, and not comforted, behold, I will lay your stones with colorful gems, and lay your foundations with sapphires” yet the restored Jerusalem was nothing like what Isaiah describes here. Instead, this verse points beyond that restoration to the creation of a beautiful city, the new Jerusalem. It is a heavenly city, yet coming down from heaven and will appear after till the return of the Lord and the establishing of His kingdom. Revelation 21:18-21 describes it:
The construction of its wall was of jasper; and the city was pure gold, like clear glass. The foundations of the wall of the city were adorned with all kinds of precious stones: the first foundation was jasper, the second sapphire, the third chalcedony, the fourth emerald, the fifth sardonyx, the sixth sardius, the seventh chrysolite, the eighth beryl, the ninth topaz, the tenth chrysoprase, the eleventh jacinth, and the twelfth amethyst. The twelve gates were twelve pearls: each individual gate was of one pearl. And the street of the city was pure gold, like transparent glass.
Theologians disagree on whether this is a literal or a spiritualized description of the heavenly city. Either way, it will be fabulous to look at.

I thought of something else while reading Isaiah 54:11. What if this verse is pointing to Jesus Christ? Those who study the Bible in those terms have found great riches. They see how God pulls together the history of His people and the history of His Son. The story of the nation is filled with shadows pointing to the story of Jesus.

For instance, the Israelites were not a significant people when chosen; Jesus was born in a very insignificant place and time. The Israelites were exiled to Egypt; Jesus was taken by His parents to escape Herod’s determination to kill Him.

Throughout the Old Testament we are given many clues about the coming Messiah. The first is in Genesis 3 where God promises that the Seed of the woman would eventually come to destroy the evil one, Satan. The psalms and prophets speak of Him. He is illustrated in types such as Joseph who saved his people, and David who ruled with wisdom and justice.

Here in Isaiah, the description is about God’s people, but it could also describe His Son who was “despised and rejected . . . a Man of sorrows and acquainted with grief . . . stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted” (Isaiah 53). There was no comfort for Jesus as He died on the cross for the sins of the world.

Yet He was also promised an everlasting kingdom where He would rule with wisdom and power. His throne would be established in the new Jerusalem. One description from Revelation 4:2-3 says this throne is “set in heaven, and One sat on the throne. And He who sat there was like a jasper and a sardius stone in appearance; and there was a rainbow around the throne, in appearance like an emerald.

If Isaiah 54:11 is pointing to Jesus, then the verses that follow also point to Him. In them, God says, “I will make your pinnacles of rubies, Your gates of crystal, and all your walls of precious stones. All your children shall be taught by the Lord, and great shall be the peace of your children. In righteousness you shall be established; You shall be far from oppression, for you shall not fear; and from terror, for it shall not come near you. Indeed they shall surely assemble, but not because of Me. Whoever assembles against you shall fall for your sake.

Whatever the correct interpretation of these verses, I am never wrong in letting myself see Jesus in any part of the Bible. He is the author and finisher, the Alpha and Omega, and from beginning to end, He graces the pages of His Book, and in it, He reveals Himself to me.

July 10, 2008

I may be a klutz but God isn’t . . .

People disagree about gender differences, but I’ve noticed that men are often more objective than women. If a man stumbles over a chair, he will say, “Who put that chair in the middle of the room?” If a woman stumbles over the same chair, she will say, “Oh, am I ever clumsy.”

Gender isn’t the only reason that I often blame myself for things that go wrong; sometimes it actually is my fault. In the matter of having children that do not believe in God, I am mixed. I know that I taught them as well as I could at the time, but hindsight clearly sees many failures. I also know that no one comes to Christ unless God is at work in their lives. Apart from the work of the Holy Spirit, it doesn’t matter what I do. Psalm 127 begins with, “Unless the Lord builds the house, they labor in vain who build it.

Caught in this tension between my responsibilities and God’s, I can teeter one way or the other. Sometimes I’m overwhelmed that I messed up as a Christian mother. I came to the Lord too late. I didn’t do this. I should have done that. This focus can be spiritually unhealthy.

Other times I look at the promises of God and am assured that He hears my prayers and He will bring them to Himself. This focus can keep me from doing what I ought to do. However, even when I am trusting God and obeying Him, when I cannot see anything happening, or only very small things, that lack of evidence tips me into subjectivity. Yikes, tipping back and forth is not fun.

Every now and then God surprises me concerning this teeter-totter. Today’s reading is from Isaiah 54. (Again, I know that in context this is about Israel, yet the Holy Spirit can use any Scripture to tell me what God is like, and give me comfort and hope.)

Verses 8-13 tell me that yes, I have disobeyed God, and yes, He is using the unbelief in my family to teach me, to refine and purify my life. I accept that even though reading the first part made me feel remorseful. But there is hope too. It says:
“With a little wrath I hid My face from you for a moment; but with everlasting kindness I will have mercy on you,” says the Lord, your Redeemer. “For this is like the waters of Noah to Me; for as I have sworn that the waters of Noah would no longer cover the earth, so have I sworn that I would not be angry with you, nor rebuke you. For the mountains shall depart and the hills be removed, but My kindness shall not depart from you, nor shall My covenant of peace be removed,” says the Lord, who has mercy on you. “O you afflicted one, tossed with tempest, and not comforted, behold, I will lay your stones with colorful gems, and lay your foundations with sapphires. I will make your pinnacles of rubies, your gates of crystal, and all your walls of precious stones. All your children shall be taught by the Lord, and great shall be the peace of your children.”
For a little while God can hide His face from me. As I seek Him, I learn His will and what displeases Him. Any sense of falling short brings confession, repentance, and opportunity to become more like Jesus. God is not angry with my sin because all His wrath was poured out on His Son on the Cross, but He can use the consequences of sin to draw His people closer to Him. Certainly He has done that for me.

At the same time, He promises to never leave me or forsake me. He has blessed me with salvation and all that entails. I have assurance for now and eternity. He even says my life is being built on precious gems, most certainly a figure of speech for the riches that are found in Jesus Christ.

Then verse 13 adds another jewel, another precious promise from God. He will teach my children and give them great peace, a peace that can only refer to that peace that passes understanding, that peace that comes from knowing and trusting Him.

If the salvation and blessing of God on my family depend on my goodness or worthiness, it will never happen. God’s blessing, mercy and grace are about Him, not about me. Being reminded of this again and again keeps me from blaming others for my clumsiness, from focusing on my mistakes, and every now and then keeps me from stumbling over that chair in the first place.