February 28, 2013

Discipline from a loving Father

Memory says I had a closer relationship with my father than with my mother. Reasons and examples would fill too much space, but this has had an impact on how I perceive God; He is like both of them. My parents loved us and never fought with each other. They sacrificed themselves for the family and did their very best to raise us with morals, character and a good work ethic. 

If my father had a flaw, it was related to his value for hard work; he was very critical of those who were lazy. This verse cannot help but put thoughts of my father, even my mother, in my head.

As a father shows compassion to his children, so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him. (Psalm 103:13)

Also, I read it understanding that many people do not experience good fathers, even good mothers. The word ‘compassion’ might as well be a foreign language for it is not experienced in many families. For those, the meaning of compassion might be clear and there is a deep desire to have it, but also a deep sadness knowing that it will never come from their parents.

I remember my father’s face when he had to discipline one of us (I have a sister and two brothers). He found this difficult and painful. Even if we made him angry, only determination to do the right thing kept him on track. Otherwise, I think he would not have done it. I’ve since learned that love disciplines, even if it doesn’t enjoy the process.

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. Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. (Hebrews 12:7–10)

These verses point out that love disciplines. God’s compassion may never more be felt than when He is allowing me to suffer affliction so that I might become more like Jesus. Whether the affliction is smoothing rough edges, teaching patience, or rooting out a sinful attitude, God would rather I learned it some other way. If He didn’t love me, He would not put me through the purifying process of discipline and trials.

Today’s devotional zeros in on a certain type of person that is one object of God’s compassion. In the category of those who fear Him are “the very best and brightest of his saints, the brave heroes, the well-instructed fathers, the diligent workers,” and any who sometimes “imagine that the very roots of sin have been eradicated out of their hearts.” In their estimation, they had arrived, lived without sin for weeks “except some wandering thought, but they could hardly refer to that as a fault.” 

The author says he pities people like that, and imagines God in His compassion saying to Himself, “Poor dear creatures; how little they know of themselves, and how different their estimate of perfection is from mine.” God feels compassion for those children who have become an embarrassment to the rest of His family, the self-righteous who have forgotten that such self-estimation is a sin also. 

The biggest lesson for today is that I am like my father, but am supposed to be like our Father. I can also be critical of others who do not see things the way I do, or have not yet learned the lessons I’ve learned, or those who think they know it all when and have missed God’s estimation. All of this puts me in the same place as those I criticize because I am doing the same thing. This makes me just as guilty and just as needy as they are. I also need to be more like my Father who has compassion on all His children who fear Him, even those who do not realize how much they need it or how much God is showing it to them.

February 27, 2013

Who gets God’s compassion?

Yesterday I watched a television program, total fiction, depicting a person whose child had been abducted. I felt compassion for this parent, not because I knew him (it was fiction anyway) or because I’ve ever had the same thing happen. My emotions were solely about how awful it would be to experience such a horror. 

Today’s devotional reading is about the compassion of God, and upon reflection, I realize some differences between His compassion and mine.

As a father shows compassion to his children, so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him. For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust. As for man, his days are like grass; he flourishes like a flower of the field; for the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place knows it no more. But the steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him, and his righteousness to children’s children, to those who keep his covenant and remember to do his commandments. (Psalm 103:13–18)

While the Bible is clear that the love of God is unconditional and freely offered to all, these verses say that His compassion has some criteria. It isn’t that God plays favorites, but notice that His compassion is for those who fear Him and do His commandments. Does this mean fear and obedience earn His compassion? Not at all. 

My Hebrew dictionary says that the word used in these verses is rĂ¢cham. It means: “to have compassion on, show mercy, take pity on, show love, i.e., have feelings and actions of kindness and concern for one in difficulty, regardless of one’s state of guilt for an offense, usually based in a relationship or association.” 

The key is that last line, “based in a relationship” which tells me that the love of God is directed particularly toward those who are in a relationship with Him. This does not mean God has no love for those who are not because He gave His Son for the sins of all. Yet, there is a special compassion for His children, those born into His family by faith, “adopted into the beloved” because they believe in Jesus and have received Him into their lives.

This compassion could be compared to how I would feel if my own child was abducted or injured. I might feel terrible pain to see an awful thing happen to someone else’s child, but if it were my own, that pain would be magnified, even unbearable because of the relationship.

These verses also say that God has compassion “on those who fear Him.” Does that mean He plays favorites? No, it does not. It means that His children are those who fear Him. This attribute, as well as the attributes of keeping His covenant and obeying His commands belong to His children. Those outside the family of God who are without faith and have never repented of their sin do not fit into the category of having a relationship with God. Therefore, the compassion that He feels for them is not the same as for those who are His children and in His family. 

I’m trying to wrap my head around this, but perhaps another way to explain it is by the way human love works. I might love someone but that love is not reciprocal. I feel a deep affection and longing, but it is not the same as being in love with someone who loves you in return. Similarly, God loves all, but not all love Him. Because of that, His compassion for the lost is still there, but without the relationship, those people never experience it the same way as those do who are in His family. Two-way love is different, deeper, richer. 

… love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God… In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. (1 John 4:7-10)

God’s love is there, in His heart, ready to be poured out. Those who receive it through a relationship of faith and new life are able to love Him and others. These are the children who fear and obey Him. These are the children who know His compassion. 

Knowing God’s compassion is not about the magnitude of our afflictions, nor is it about earning His favor. It is about being His children, and even then, we can only receive it — and be glad.

February 26, 2013

The emotions of God

Last night a team of young women curlers won the Scotties Tournament of Hearts. Their skip (leader) never showed any emotion until the game was over. Even then, her team members were laughing and crying, but she only smiled. I don’t know anything about her, but did wonder about her stoicism. 

Today’s devotional is about the emotions of God. Some say that He is stoic, indifferent to pleasure or pain. They think that biblical descriptions of Him that say otherwise were written for our sake, but are not the way He actually is, perhaps assuming emotions are evidence of weakness or making God in our own image? 

I don’t agree. He created us in His image. Being in the likeness of God, even with our sin and hang-ups, we have both positive and negative emotions that are like those in the descriptions in the Bible about God. This passage alone is filled with some of the emotions that God experiences.

The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. He will not always chide, nor will he keep his anger forever. He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us. As a father shows compassion to his children, so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him. (Psalm 103:8–13)

Slow to anger” does not mean “never angry.” Scripture describes the anger of God against sin. While He may laugh at those who shake their fist in His face (Psalm 2), anger is an appropriate response to evil from a Holy God. He continually tells us to be holy as He is holy, and to hate sin as He hates sin.
However, God is also abundant in love. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life." (John 3:16) 

Can that amazing sacrificial love be mere goodness without emotion? Notice the psalmist says that God’s compassion is like that of a father for his children. While a dad might be more objective than most mothers, their love and compassion is strong, full of feeling. Consider the new father when he first holds his first child. Stoic? Hardly.

One emotion from this passage points to me, not God. It says in two places, “those who fear him” indicating that the people who are able to experience His love and compassion are identified by that emotion toward God. The word is not terror though, but a word for fear that means reverential awe. 

I agree, but it is not the same awe that I felt the first time I saw the new bridge over the Hoover Dam, or the layers of horizons in the Blue Ridge Mountains or the face of my first grandchild. It is more than that. Awe for God is a mixture of wonder at who He is and that He chose to reveal who He is to me. If I think deeply about Him and what I know about Him, and about our relationship, I feel a strange emotion that is difficult to describe. Fear might be a good word, for I know that God can do whatever He wishes. He has power over life and death, sickness and health, well-being and disaster. Truly, our God is an awesome God and I am helpless before Him — but He loves me!

One more thought. I believe that the people of God can feel the emotions of God. Because His Spirit lives in my heart, I feel indignation at sin even when it has nothing to do with me. I feel love for His people even when we have nothing in common but Jesus. I also feel joy at the conversion of sinners, a joy that is unknown to those who do not have Christ in their lives. I am jealous for the souls of others, and compassionate toward my enemies. These are not ordinary human responses because without Christ and the Holy Spirit, I would not feel them or care at all about these things.

The line of a song pops into my head. It says, “Let the love of God enfold you…” Like some people resist being hugged, some also resist being loved by this perfect and merciful God. His love is without conditions and without restraint. Not only does He love, forgive and show compassion to those who fear Him, He also laughs and hugs and offers His unending joy. He wants to wrap us up in all that. Wow. He is an awesome God. 

February 25, 2013

God is not my personal magician

“If you just pray right, then God will answer your prayers.” Been there, tried that. 

“If you just do all that He says, God will answer your prayers.” Also tried that.

“If you just love God, He will repay your devotion with many blessings.” Tried that too.

What is it about the human heart that makes us think we have any bargaining chips with Almighty God, that we can do something that will turn His heart to us and make Him perform whatever we want Him to do, like some cosmic genie without a bottle? Such is the depth of our pride and sinfulness. 

We even misinterpret the Bible to make it say what suits our egos rather than what it does say. Psalm 37:4 has been a victim. In context, it is about being upset with the prosperity of the wicked, which reveals our tendency to envy and have temporary values. In this psalm, God first reminds readers of the eternal results of such ‘success’ then says,

Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart. Commit your way to the Lord; trust in him, and he will act. He will bring forth your righteousness as the light, and your justice as the noonday. (Psalm 37:4–6)

Before looking at what it really says, doesn’t this sound like, “Be delighted with God and He will give you whatever you desire”? Many think so. I might have thought so at one time, until a preacher corrected my thinking. God is not offering anyone a candy bag in this verse. Instead, He is saying that when my heart is delighted in Him, then whatever I want will be in line with what He wants. That is, His presence in my life makes a huge difference in my desires.

Once upon a long time ago, I was camp counselor for teen girls. One of them said to me that she didn’t want to become a Christian because she would not be allowed to do whatever she liked doing. She listed dancing, going to movies, and a few other social activities. I tried to tell her that giving her life to Christ did not mean signing up for a dark list of rigid rules. The reality is that when Christ comes into our hearts, He changes the desires of our hearts. What was once important is no longer a big deal. What once seemed ‘boring’ becomes exciting. I don’t think she believed me. 

Imagining a change of heart is a challenge. When I was a teen, I told my mother that I’d never stop wanting to be creative. She said that could change, particularly when I became old and tired. I thought she was wrong, but last night when I could have been working on a quilt, it seemed easier to sit in an easy chair and work on a crossword puzzle. 

Human desires of the heart come and go. If my activities rely on whims, who knows where the day will take me? But if I delight in the Lord and commit my way to Him, who knows what He will do? All that is certain is what the above verses say… that He will bring forth righteousness in my life. I will live justly, not because that is my nature or will, but because the Lord Jesus Christ lives in me. By delighting in God instead of focusing on my own way, I am giving Him permission to open me up. Not only will He bring out His desires through my motivations, He will also let the inner life of Christ display itself in righteousness.

A critic might say that sounds like being a puppet. Maybe it is, but what an adventure to let God pull my strings. When He decides what is important and what I should desire, good things never fail to happen.

February 24, 2013

Delayed gratification and eternity

Excellent art can raise in me an emotion that I cannot label. It doesn’t seem like envy nor total admiration. Perhaps it is a mixture of both. I would like to be able to do that well. Something in me nags that if I had made different choices, my skills would be more developed, that I could do that well. 

The problem with this thinking is that God did not lead me in that direction. I could have decided to work in several areas, yet had a problem with motivation. A Christian cannot press to excellence just to be better than others, win prizes, make money, or only for the personal pleasure of it.

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

Since I’ve learned that verse, I’ve realized that the only way to have this pure motivation is by having a willingness to abandon all else. This does not mean that God will not let me paint or create art in some way, or even do it well, make money, even win prizes. What it does mean is that those end results are not important to me. The goal is to be that I care about bringing glory to the Lord, not myself. 

This is not easy. Pride creeps in. A competitive spirit creeps in. So do greed and selfish ambition. Another problem is that of envying others who seem to be able to do whatever they wish, and do it well, without a thought of God being glorified. Some of them are even nasty in the process. They excel but trample on others and act in ungodly ways, yet are successful in their ambitions. This does not seem fair.

How true that we live in a sinful world that sometimes seems very upside-down. Christians struggle with illness and those who do not believe in Jesus Christ are healthy. Godly people struggle and ungodly people prosper. Spiritually rich people are poor, and professing atheists are rich. God knows that this can be a huge problem for His people so He says things like this:

Fret not yourself because of evildoers; be not envious of wrongdoers! For they will soon fade like the grass and wither like the green herb. Trust in the Lord, and do good; dwell in the land and befriend faithfulness. (Psalm 37:1–3)

Immaturity could be defined as “I want what I want when I want it” and of course, maturity is the ability to be content with delayed gratification. Christian maturity certainly is fits this description. When I focus on “me, myself, and I,” my desires are long and my patience is short. However, it is possible to feel otherwise, even when my circumstances do not change, but it takes time and the power of the Holy Spirit to learn the deep lesson that Paul writes about…

Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me. (Philippians 4:11–13)

Along with the goal of desiring only to glorify God comes several tests to see if this is really my motivation or do I have something else in mind? One test is time. Can I wait rather than demanding opportunities right now? Do I trust Him with all the matters of life, including their sequence? 

Another test is interruptions. Do I get upset and irritated? Or do I see them as tests of my trust in Him, even as opportunities to glorify Him? 

A third test is the way my heart reacts when I see the success of others in areas where I’d like to be successful. Do I resent it? Envy it? Wish I had what they had? Or can I joyfully share in their delight, glad that they are doing well, even glorifying God for their opportunities and talents? 

For all this, including envy, the Bible says fret not. The will of God is eternal. Nothing else lasts, and is like grass that is here today and gone tomorrow. Instead, I’m to think long term, even eternally. In the meantime, I’m also to trust Him and do what He says. Being faithful to His leading has far greater value that wanting and doing what I want, when I want.