October 31, 2012

Long sentences in the Bible

Authors are told to vary the length of their sentences to make their manuscripts interesting and readable. Some authors ignore that advice. A search for the longest printed sentence gave me a list of six, beginning with 1,288 words for an entry in the Guinness Book of World Records. It says the longest sentence in English is from William Faulkner's novel Absalom, Absalom!

However, that sentence seems a mere phrase compared to another one. Nigel Tomm's one-sentence novel, The Blah Story was written without a proper subject-verb interaction. It contains 1,000,000 words.

In the Bible, the longest one in the King James version is the genealogy of Jesus in Luke 3:23-38. This sentence is more than 300 words. However, there are several long sentences in Paul’s epistles, particularly Ephesians. In the KJV, Ephesians 1:3-14 forms one sentence and is about 240 words. 

Right after it, verses 15-21 contain 167 words. It is this passage that contains today’s devotional thoughts.

For this reason, because I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers, that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might that 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 rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. (Ephesians 1:15–21)

The devotional focuses on the section where Paul tells how he asks that God will reveal Himself and enlighten the hearts of those on his prayer list. Yet this section is so rich, that I have trouble limiting my focus to only part of it. Besides, I’ve never liked to insert sentence fragments because I’m not sure how to punctuate them.

After digressing into our human penchant to ramble on without ending a sentence or giving our readers a place to come up for air, I tried to edit these seven verses into shorter thoughts. Not easy. Even a modern version like The Message uses the same amount of words, just more periods. My conclusion: Paul was so enraptured by what he had to say that he wasn’t concerned about being verbose or creating run-on sentences.

He was thankful for the faith and love of others.
He wanted them to experience God’s wisdom and His revelation of Himself.
He wanted them to know the full hope of their rich inheritance.
He also wanted them to know the great power of God, power that raised Jesus from the dead and put Him at His own right hand.

When I am at prayer, I’m sometimes similarly overwhelmed at the riches that God has revealed to me and deeply desire that others experience the same revelations and more. I don’t count commas and periods as I think about the greatness of God or as I try to verbalize my desire for others to my Father, the God of glory. 

Not only that, I don’t think God is standing over my shoulder and editing what I say. He is not concerned about the length of my sentences or if I put my commas in the right places. Just as we catch the heart of Paul when we read his lengthy outbursts of truth, God also catches my heart (and every heart) as we offer Him our fragments and run-ons, even our mixed-up and confused words of praise and requests for help. 

As a writer, I want my words to be clear so others understand, but when I communicate with God, I don’t worry about that. He knows the heart of me and listens to that and to the Spirit who lives in me, not my fumbling, tumbling words.

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. (Romans 8:26–27)

For this reason, I do not cease to give thanks!

October 30, 2012

Choosing to Sail

James MacDonald in his book, “Gripped by the Greatness of God” gives an illustration that helps me with the age-old debate concerning the free will of man and the sovereignty of God. He says to imagine a ship leaving England and sailing for New York. As the ship leaves Liverpool, the passengers begin to make choices: what they will eat, what to wear, what activities they will enjoy. Some will read on deck, some will play shuffleboard. Some will eat steak and others will go for the salad. Yet no matter their individual choices, the ship is going to tie up at the pier in New York.

So it is with the plan of God. Human choices can either enhance this plan or appear to mess it up. Our meddling started with the first choice. Adam and Eve decided to disobey God and eat from the only thing forbidden to them, the tree of knowledge. They wanted to know on their own what was good for them rather than rely on God for that understanding.

At that point, sin entered the world. The power of choice remains and was always there, but the ship seemed to have run aground and God’s perfect plan seemed to be thwarted. At that point…

(God) drove out the man, and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim and a flaming sword that turned every way to guard the way to the tree of life. (Genesis 3:24)

The rest of the Bible tells of God’s redemptive plan, culminating in the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In dying for our sin, God offered a new choice. We can turn to Christ and accept Him as our Savior. When we do, He forgives our sin and becomes our life. In Him, we can live forever. 

When we step from this life onto eternity’s pier, God will give us another look at that tree once guarded by the angels.

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. (Revelation 22:1–2)

Today’s devotional adds a marvelous thought by Alexander Maclaren …

How remarkable and how beautiful it is that the last page of the Revelation should come bending round to touch the first page of Genesis! The history of man began with angels with frowning faces and flaming swords barring the way to the Tree of Life. It ends with the guard of cherubim withdrawn; or rather, perhaps, sheathing their swords and becoming guides to the no longer forbidden fruit, instead of being its guards. That is the Bible’s grand symbolical way of saying that all between—the sin, the misery, the death—is a parenthesis. God’s purpose is not going to be thwarted. The end of His majestic march through history is to be men’s access to the Tree of Life, from which, for the dreary ages that are but as a moment in the great eternities—they were barred out by their sin.

God provides the sailing ship and His invitation for everyone is the wonderful glad cry: “All aboard!”

Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they may have the right to the tree of life and that they may enter the city by the gates. (Revelation 22:14)

October 29, 2012

Do not despise small things

When starting out on my journey with Jesus Christ, the ambitions of my old life came with me. I wanted to do great things for God, but God has a different plan. He starts small and if a person is faithful in those little things, maybe then the responsibilities will increase, but only then. As Jesus said,

One who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much, and one who is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much. If then you have not been faithful in the unrighteous wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful in that which is another’s, who will give you that which is your own? No servant can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money. (Luke 16:10–13)

This is about money, but money is not the only master that a person can serve. What about pride, achievement, popularity, personal passions and ambitions? Before I became a Christian, I had all sorts of grand ideas. After my conversion, I tried to sanctify them. “Doing this for God” seemed super-spiritual and I wanted to reach great heights in whatever I attempted.

A fragment of a verse comes to mind. It is about the attitude of God’s people as they work to rebuild the temple. The prophet reproves them for thinking it wasn’t a big deal compared to the first one.

For whoever has despised the day of small things shall rejoice… (Zechariah 4:10)

The people scorned this humble replacement, but Zechariah knows they have begun a great thing. He affirms that their progress in the work, though not as grand, would result in success because God’s hand was upon this work. Their problem was not the job they were doing but their attitude toward it.
Today’s devotional writer talks about the common activities of life. We can consider them insignificant. However, it isn’t the actions that God wants to be above all else, but the motivations. When a Christian has Christlike motives, then even ordinary tasks are elevated to godly service.

(Jesus) rose from supper. He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around him. (John 13:4–5)

Jesus was demonstrating God’s love to His disciples by doing a task ordinarily done by a slave. It was a ritual of hospitality, like hanging up a visitor’s coat or offering them a cup of tea, but in those days, slaves did the service. Peter was so horrified with Jesus offering this that he refused, but Jesus told him that even the act of receiving loving service was an important part of being a child of God. 

When I apply this to my ambitions as a beginner Christian, I can see where I started out with foolish ideas. Jesus wants His people to do ordinary things in a sanctified and extraordinary way. Washing feet is only one example of how I can minister to others. The idea is that I humble myself and do what blesses other people in the power of the Holy Spirit and by the grace of God. It might not be a great thing. In fact, it usually isn’t. Yet in the doing, I’m not thinking about myself, but how I can serve them and please God.

Furthermore, Jesus wants me to start small. I think I’ve figured out why. Small, common acts of service are never going to put my ego on a pedestal. I may not be thanked either. Besides that, He wants me to learn that the details of life are never insignificant. Instead, the issue is my inability to make these details an interpretation of the love of Christ. I’m to stop despising small things and focus on doing whatever tasks God asks of me with gratitude aiming for His glory, no matter their size.

So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. (1 Corinthians 10:31)

October 28, 2012

Pray in Jesus’ Name

One classic book on prayer affirms that prayer is the most important work that any Christian does. Perhaps that is why it is so difficult. 

The Bible tells me to pray without ceasing, but hours can go by when I do not think about praying. My life is too comfortable. Prayer is far easier when life is difficult, but I’m not ready to ask for trouble just so I can be more diligent. I’d rather practice this spiritual discipline because of promises like this one…

So also you have sorrow now, but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you. In that day you will ask nothing of me. Truly, truly, I say to you, whatever you ask of the Father in my name, he will give it to you. Until now you have asked nothing in my name. Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full. (John 16:22–24)

Jesus was talking about His coming crucifixion and resurrection. Even though the disciples did not understand at that time, this promise remains for them and for us, for me. 

The first thing He speaks of is a joy that cannot be taken away. This is part of what makes my life comfortable. No matter what happens, His joy is there and ready to bubble up and overcome sorrow. When your soul is happy, events and circumstances mean very little. Joy overcomes all.

Then Jesus makes an incredible promise beginning with “whatever you ask” which covers everything. However, there is one caveat; I am to ask the Father in Jesus’ name. These are not words to be tacked on to the prayer, as if they are a magical incantation. They are an attitude of the heart.

In this life, I am an ambassador for God. I represent Jesus Christ while I walk this earth. This role seems too lofty and is also far too easy to forget, but the Bible declares it. I stand on this earth as God’s representative to others. Yet in the above verses about prayer, Jesus says that I also stand before God as His representative. I come to the Father in the name of Jesus, asking in that name (not my own) for those things that are on my heart. Incredible! How can this be?

In his second epistle, Peter explains how God has, in His divine power, given me all I need for life and godliness through the knowledge of the Lord. He has called me and granted to me His precious promises. Through all that He has given me, I have become a partaker of His divine nature and escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desires. 

While I am not saved by works, Peter makes it clear that I’m to add to that gift of faith a disciplined life that includes virtue, knowledge, self-control, steadfastness, godliness, brotherly affection, and love. He says that if these qualities are mine and increasing, they keep me from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ. Goodness and good deeds are the marks of a saved person.

Yet even as a saved person, I can lag in spiritual disciplines and good deeds. For that, Peter says if I lack these qualities, I am nearsighted to the point of blindness and have forgotten that I was cleansed from former sins. That is, my assurance of my salvation can be muddied up by my behavior. Peter adds, “Therefore, brothers, be all the more diligent to confirm your calling and election, for if you practice these qualities you will never fall.” (2 Peter 1:3–10) 

When I mess up my life by sin, or even by negligence to practice spiritual disciplines — including prayer — then I forget who I am in Christ. I even forget that I represent Him to others and to God. When that happens, I cannot pray in Jesus’ name for I’ve lost that sense of being His ambassador. I’ve also lost the fullness of joy that He promises to those who ask in His name. And who knows how much goes unanswered that I could have prayed?

October 27, 2012

Disciplined children

In public places, I sometimes see a child behaving badly but receiving no correction. I suppose these days, young parents fear repercussions or are of the mindset that discipline is not politically correct. Many of them are more worried about “what will people think?” than they are about what lack of discipline does to their children. In my opinion, correcting bad behavior is a sign of love.

I’ve often told the story of the most popular girl in high school telling me that she envied me and my sister because “your parents love you enough to discipline you.” If she figured that out, could it be that the wild antics of some children are attempts to gain a show of love? For some, a spanking is better than being ignored.

That said, I’m not a great fan of being disciplined, at least when people do it. Their motivations vary, but most are prompted to correct me out of their own desire to feel superior, or a desire to get me out of their space. On the other hand, God is not like that.

And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons? “My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him. For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.” It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. (Hebrews 12:5–8)

The Lord disciplines me because He loves me too much to leave me the way that I am. Selfishness and sinful behavior does not make me a better person. He cares that I grow in character and goodness, that I become more like Jesus. His discipline is actually a sign or mark that I belong to Him. 

God disciplines several ways. The one I prefer is a rebuke from His Word. This is much easier than a slap on the side of the head. However, He rarely gives me a boot (figuratively) without hugging me at the same time. 

He can also discipline through the consequences of bad behavior. If I will not learn one way, He will persist using some other way to teach me the folly of whatever I might be doing. He follows up with correction so that I will learn how to behave in better ways.

All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the (child) of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:16–17)

I’ve thought many times that if God didn’t care about what I do, I would not worship Him. Like my classmate in high school, I know that discipline is an indication that I am loved and a pathway to becoming complete.