Monday, May 31, 2010

On Hair and Choices

Now Lot, who went with Abram, also had flocks and herds and tents. And the land could not sustain them while dwelling together, for their possessions were so great that they were not able to remain together. And there was strife between the herdsmen of Abram's livestock and the herdsmen of Lot's livestock. Now the Canaanite and the Perizzite were dwelling then in the land. So Abram said to Lot, "Please let there be no strife between you and me, nor between my herdsmen and your herdsmen, for we are brothers. "Is not the whole land before you? Please separate from me; if to the left, then I will go to the right; or if to the right, then I will go to the left." Lot lifted up his eyes and saw all the valley of the Jordan, that it was well watered everywhere - this was before the LORD destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah—like the garden of the LORD, like the land of Egypt as you go to Zoar. So Lot chose for himself all the valley of the Jordan, and Lot journeyed eastward. Thus they separated from each other. Abram settled in the land of Canaan, while Lot settled in the cities of the valley, and moved his tents as far as Sodom. Now the men of Sodom were wicked exceedingly and sinners against the LORD. The LORD said to Abram, after Lot had separated from him, "Now lift up your eyes and look from the place where you are, northward and southward and eastward and westward; for all the land which you see, I will give it to you and to your descendants forever. "I will make your descendants as the dust of the earth, so that if anyone can number the dust of the earth, then your descendants can also be numbered. "Arise, walk about the land through its length and breadth; for I will give it to you." Then Abram moved his tent and came and dwelt by the oaks of Mamre, which are in Hebron, and there he built an altar to the LORD. - (Gen 13:5-18 NASB)
Like every woman I've ever known, I have ongoing battles with my hair. I don't know what it is about having two X chromosomes that makes us immediately hate our hair, but mark it well: the woman with curly hair wishes it were straight; one with straight hair longs for curls; brown-haired girls wish to be blondes; and no one wants to be gray!!

Recently my hair and I have had a serious falling out. I don't get my hair cut a lot but when I do I have the perennial struggle of the ages, that classic question of life: bangs or no bangs? I grow my hair out and wish I had bangs; I get it cut and wish I didn't have to have my forehead covered. So when I went in for my haircut, I was thoroughly undecided even in the chair. I ended up going with modified bangs, sort of a compromise where I could brush them to the side. Within a week I wished I had wispy bangs, so I went back for a slight adjustment. My stylist didn't make them wispy enough so later at home, I trimmed them shorter myself. Uh oh. I was hit immediately with haircut regret. Too late to change my mind, I spent a week settling into a style I can live with - for now.

All this to-do over my hair choices has proven one thing to me: I need help with my choices. If I can't even manage to choose a hairstyle, why would I think that I should attempt larger decisions with my fickle mind?

This question looms large in my life right now because I've been pursuing God's guidance during this season of rest. I've been asking Him what opportunities He might have for me and where He wants me to focus the gifts and skills He's given me for maximum benefit to His Kingdom. In the process, I've learned that I can have an idea a minute. I have so many interests and passions and find myself thinking of great opportunities within each one. Sometimes I'll even go partway down a road and then realize that I really am not ready to commit to that choice after all. I'm learning that sometimes my ideas are for later, sometimes they are for prayer, and sometimes they are for others to pursue while I support. (I can't tell you how many articles or books I've conceived in my mind, then found online or in a bookstore! So I read them and recommend them to others.)

Years ago, when God first called me to lay down a ministry I loved and embrace a different ministry, He led me through a study of Abraham's life. I had always thought that Lot chose his land, then Abraham chose his land. But when I studied the passage above more closely, I realized a profound truth: Abraham didn't choose his land -- God did. Abraham initially had one thought in mind -- take whatever Lot doesn't want -- but God had a different choice. In the end, Abraham had more than he imagined, and he moved from Canaan to Hebron after God made His choice clear.

Five months into this "season of rest" I've already discarded something that were on "my" list to pursue. There are others that are still pending, but life seems to keep me from pursuing most of these projects. Still others are on my heart and I know God's answer is "wait". During this same season, though, God has opened up doors I couldn't have imagined at the beginning -- opportunities to teach, to go deep in prayer, to serve where I'm planted and take relationships to new levels. Things are looking different than I imagined, but I'm okay with that -- because my sovereign God knows what is best, for me and for His Kingdom.

If you are struggling today with a decision, try laying it down and asking Him to make His choice obvious. At the heart of God's Word to the Psalmist to "Cease striving and know that I am God" is the idea of trust. We can trust Him to open doors and make His will plain to us. His will is not the needle in the haystack for which we much search aimlessly. His will is discovered in relationship to Him. Through the process of getting to know Him, we will learn His voice. We'll know His heart and our own weaknesses. We'll be okay with relinquishing our own lesser choices because we will learn that His choices for us will always be best. No one on earth longs to see His kingdom come and His will be done more than He does!

If you are struggling with your ability to hear, STOP! Trust in His ability to lead. He is greater than your heart, and knows all things (1 John 3:20). Your job is to stay yielded. Yield your choices to Him, and He will keep you in His will.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Repentance and Mission

"But you must return to your God, by maintaining love and justice, and by waiting for your God to return to you." Hosea 12:6

Reading through the Minor Prophets, I find it impossible to conceive of any type of compartmentalized faith that would be okay with God.

Consistently, God's prophets point out the relational and moral failures of His people, linking those sins with their idolatrous practices. What's fascinating to me is that God doesn't just call them to lay down their idols and resume the religious practices He established in Leviticus. Instead, He calls them to return to Him and let their actions demonstrate heartfelt repentance. Put in modern terms, He didn't want a dynamic Sunday morning worship experience. He wanted their entire lives.

"Love and justice" - that was the fruit of the repentance God was calling Israel to pursue. Though Israel claimed innocence, God charged them with cheating businessmen and dishonest scales. Amos addressed the oppression of the poor and needy (Amos 2:6-8; 4:1). As God's covenant people, Israel had been blessed to be a blessing. Israel was supposed to be a witness to the surrounding nations - a glimpse of the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven. Their failures of love and justice hindered that mission, making Israel look like the surrounding nations, or worse.

It seems to me that the message for the church today is obvious. As the people of God, Jesus said we should be known for our love. Paul exhorted the Galatians to bear each other's burdens and meet each other's needs. And we shouldn't stop there - Jesus spoke of the great white throne judgment where true and false believers would be separated not by what they claimed to believe or what rituals they followed, but by their response to the needs confronting them throughout life.

Don't misunderstand -- this isn't salvation by works, or minimizing the importance of sound doctrine or the person of Jesus. Through following Jesus we are empowered by the Holy Spirit to live the life God wants us to live based on His sacrifice. Observing Him in the Gospels we see what that life should look like, and sound doctrine throughout the centuries has taught Christians the priority of love. Salvation is by grace alone through faith alone. But none less than the reformer himself, Martin Luther, wrote, "Faith alone saves us, but the faith that saves is never alone" -- meaning, as James wrote, "Faith without works is dead".

The purpose of this blog is to encourage missionaries and all those who desire to be on mission with God wherever you are, whatever your season of life. The witness of Scripture - and the reminder from the Minor Prophets - is that we can't be passionate about missions without returning to the basics. Love and justice.  Passing on our blessings. And ultimately, God's heart flowing through us to a world desperately in need of Him.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Psalm 128: A Blessed Life

Blessed are all who fear the Lord, who walk in His ways.
You will eat the fruit of your labor, blessings and prosperity will be yours.
Your wife will be like a fruitful vine within your house,
Your sons like olive shoots around your table.
Thus is the man blessed who fears the Lord.
May the Lord bless you from Zion all the days of your life;
May you see the prosperity of Jerusalem,
And may you live to see your children's children.
Peace be upon Israel.

Blessings come with following God.

Those of us who rightly reject the "prosperity gospel"  movement often shrink back from the fullness of the Biblical concept of blessing. We spiritualize it and relegate blessing to the eternal realm. In so doing, we limit our understanding of God's work on our lives here and now.

It's imperative that we have a sound theology of suffering. Scripture makes it clear that suffering is part of the Christian experience; Watchman Nee called it "The Normal Christian Life". However, it's just as important that we recognize that God, in His wisdom, balances the suffering He allows with blessings beyond measure.

I think it's hard for us to get our minds wrapped around all Paul meant when he wrote that God is "for us". Let that sink in. God is "for us". He wants our best. Scripture tells us that His commands were not meant to enslave, but to free. Simply put, doing things God's way makes sense. It makes sense because He's God, but it also makes sense because it works! When we fear God and walk in His ways, our lives are filled wholeness - with shalom.

That shalom is manifest in many ways. Peaceful marriages instead of turmoil and slammed doors. Wonderful relationships with adult children instead of bitterness and emotional distance. Solid, long-lasting friendships that go deep. Living long enough to see true revival after praying for it for years. And yes, based on this passage, grandchildren.

"Count your blessings, name them one by one", goes the old song. What blessings have you failed to even recognize lately, much less count? Life is hard, but God is faithful. Where has His faithfulness been evident in your life? That is a blessing.

Here's the beautiful thing about blessings: God doesn't want us to keep them to ourselves. We are "blessed to be a blessing". Every blessing we have can be turned into a way we can bless someone else. Have a wonderful home? Open it up to your small group. Have more produce or meat than you know what to do with? Share it with someone who has a need. Have you been blessed with an extra car? See if a missionary needs to borrow it while on furlough. The list goes on and on. I would like to challenge you to take the list of blessings you thought of in the previous paragraph and go one step farther. Ask God how He wants you to use each one to bless someone else.

God blessed Israel and she was supposed to be a blessing to the nations around her. The idea was that the nations would be drawn to God through Israel. Not because God made Israel rich but because their lives were so enriched by the blessings of God. God's plan hasn't changed. Today, He still wants the nations to come to know Him. He still blesses us and asks us to pass it along. As the previous Psalm proclaimed, the nations will say "The Lord has done great things for them."

As I've memorized this Psalm a song kept ringing through my ears. A song from a Christmas album, it is essentially a prayer for blessing based on different Scriptures. It's a wonderful example of how to pray Scripture, but it also beautifully demonstrates how the spiritual and temporal blessings can be beautifully interwoven in our lives to bring us to a place of blessing and wholeness. May God use this to encourage you and help you truly embrace His desire to bless you ... so that you can be a blessing to many.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Psalm 127: Unless the Lord

Unless the Lord builds the house, its builders labor in vain.
Unless the Lord watches over the city, the watchmen stand guard in vain.
In vain you rise early and stay up late, toiling for food to eat -
for He grants sleep to those He loves.
Sons are a heritage from the Lord, children a reward from Him.
Like arrows in the hands of a warrior are sons born in one's youth.
Blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them.
They will not be put to shame when they contend with their enemies in the gate.

Some scriptures sneak up on me, weaving their truths into the fabric of my life gradually. Slowly, the truth sinks in and begins to make sense to me. Other passages, though, are like a brick dropping from the sky -- I can hardly miss the point they make. Psalm 127 is in the latter category.

"Unless the Lord builds the house" ... "unless the Lord watches over the city". What an amazing reminder that our best efforts are pointless - in vain - without the divine touch of God. All the marriage counseling in the world, the best national defense systems ... are a waste of time without God's intervention.

This Psalm lays out before us a picture of what the Puritans called "Common Grace" - the unmerited favor God bestows upon believer and unbeliever alike. It's a term used to refer to the character of God revealed in Matthew 5:44-45: "But I say to you, love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be like your Father in heaven, since he causes the sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous."

In God's common grace, He builds houses, guards cities, provides food and sleep, and fills households with children who can protect parents. He doesn't just do this for people who love and follow Him. He doesn't have to do it at all. But He does - and it shows His character. He is a gracious God.

As you look across the landscape of your life, what do you see that wouldn't be there "unless the Lord..."? Unless the Lord reached down and touched me, I would still be an emotional wreck. Unless the Lord intervened, my marriage would not be the touch of grace that it is. Unless the Lord had stopped the explosion, Times Square would have been filled with death. Unless the Lord gave you tremendous insight, you couldn't have taught that lesson in another language. Unless the Lord ...

What circumstances have you burdened and overwhelmed today? "Unless the Lord" steps in, the weight will be too much for you to carry. But with His grace flooding your circumstances, your load will be lifted. Ask Him to wrap His chains of mercy and grace around the weak vessel of your life today - and pull you to a place to which you would never arrive ... unless the Lord.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Psalm 126

When the Lord brought back the captives to Zion, we were like men who dreamed. 
Our mouths were filled with laughter, our tongues with songs of joy. 
Then it was said among the nations, "The Lord has done great things for them." 
The Lord has done great things for us, and we are filled with joy. 
Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like streams in the Negev. 
Those who sow in tears will reap with songs of joy. 
He who goes out weeping, carrying seed to sow, 
will return with songs of joy, carrying sheaves with him.

Today's pain is not the end of the story. 

It's easy, in our fallen humanity, to pessimistically focus on the trials and struggles today as ultimate. It's never been this bad, we think, and it can only get worse. 

Israel knew that tendency all too well. Sent into captivity by the God they had rejected, Israel was told to plan to stay awhile in Babylon. God knew very well that the time away from the land of Israel was crucial to their spiritual well-being. At the time, though, it had to seem to them like the end of the world. 
And yet it wasn't. Their pain and suffering, their loneliness, their sorrow, was not the end of the story. God brought them back so dramatically that they could hardly believe it themselves - the Psalmist says they were like men who dreamed. Likely, men who were afraid to wake up from a dream too good to be true. 

But it was true. And as they began to praise God for His deliverance, the nations began to take notice and say, "The Lord has done great things for them." To which Israel could only say, indeed He has. 
I think it's significant that their praise and joy came first, and then the nations began to notice. Paul tells us that joy is a fruit of the Spirit. There is something about joy that's contagious! We were created for praise, and when God shows Himself strong in our lives we should be the first ones to celebrate Him. From small things like finding a parking spot at Wal-Mart on a Saturday afternoon, to big things like the return of a wayward child, and everything in between, we should be calling attention to what God is up to. "To know God and make Him known" - this is the essence of glorifying God. 

Keeping before ourselves what God has done makes it easier to pray things like verse 4 "Restore our fortunes, O Lord". When we know that He is FOR us - when we truly believe it and have hard evidence from what He has already done - we realize that like any Father He delights to do good for His children. We don't always know what that good will be, but we can delight in knowing that He loves to bless us. Especially when we're committed to blessing others and glorifying Him in the process.

The Psalm ends with some of the most encouraging words in Scripture: Tears today, but joy coming. The Psalmist didn't write these words as a theoretical statement. He had lived them. He knew that tears can be turned to joy by the intervention of a loving and sovereign God. 

A lot of you are sowing in tears right now, sowing seeds with faith and not sure if anything will come up. Rest assured, God has a plan. Joy will follow. The harvest will come. Our job is to drop the seeds in the ground and water them with our tears. The rest is up to Him. Just trust that He wants to bring you full circle back to verse 3. "The Lord has done great things for us, and we are filled with joy." 

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Politics and Idolatry

“In the total expanse of human life there is not a single square inch of which the Christ, who alone is sovereign,does not declare,'That is mine!'” - Abraham Kuyper

For reasons I can't really explain, I've always been an activist at heart.

I organized my first petition drive at 11, when NBC was rumored to be considering moving "Little House on the Prairie" from Monday nights to Wednesday nights. My reasoning was partly logical, partly selfish: I had to attend church on Wednesday nights, and I wanted to still watch my favorite show. I reasoned that lots of other churchgoers felt the same way, so I marched to our small country church armed with petition in hand. I'm sure the churchgoers who signed my petition had quite the giggle at this passionate 11-year-old taking on NBC. When the move didn't happen, I felt like somehow I was the reason, and an activist was born.

What I didn't know at 11 - and what I'm still learning at 41 - was that there is a fine line between activism and idolatry. My Scripture reading this week fell in Hosea, in advance of a significant primary election next week for which I've done loads of research because I've been blessed with the time to do so. It's prompted me to reflect hard on the role of the Christian in politics and when to know if my activism has crossed a line.

Let me stress here that I believe very strongly that Peter's admonition to "honor the king" is applied within a democracy in part by being engaged in the political process. Yes, it means to respect our leaders, but in a form of government "of the people, by the people, and for the people", it means more than that. We don't truly "honor the king" in America if we sit on the sidelines. Years ago in a high school honors civics class we had to defend the proposition either that voting was a right, or that it was a responsibility. My lot fell to the side of responsibility. The truth is that voting is both a right and a responsibility for all Americans -- but as Christians we are dually charged to fulfill that responsibility well.

However, neither our political process, my well-researched vote, nor my activist heart are ultimately in control of our country. It's when we forget that God is sovereign and begin to put all our hope in "the process", certain leaders, or ourselves that we cross the line into idolatry.

Hosea prophesied to Israel during a time when such idolatry was rampant. Chapter 7 particularly stresses the fallibility of man's efforts in the face of a jealous God who refuses to tolerate any semblance of idolatry. Hosea's message highlights the relationship of Israel's crime rate and political games to their idolatry: They failed to recognize thievery and street gangs as not merely signs of fallen humanity, but indicators of a people who had forgotten God. Similarly, the evil schemes and plotting in the palace only underscored the rejection of their true King. The end result: "All of their kings fall - and none of them call on me." (v. 7)

We have to come face to face with evil in order to be healed. We have to seek God for provision, protection, leadership. Anything else is idolatry. And this self-examination has to start with the church, as Peter noted. So how can we know if we cross the line from responsible engagement and appropriate activism into idolatry? I've asked myself that question a lot lately, and for me, here are some things I'm guarding my heart against:
  • Partisanship. If I immediately refuse to consider a candidate because of his or her party affiliation, I need to ask myself why. Am I concerned about the direction of the party as a whole? Or am I simply allowing party politics to play a bigger role in my decision-making than prayer? If it's the latter, then it's possible that I've allowed the party to become an idol. Similarly, if I refuse to support proposals just because they come from "the other side", I'm also at risk of elevating a party to a position of supremacy rather than reserving it for God alone. 
  • Judgmentalism. If I see the wrong done by "them" (other parties, other people's choices for candidates, other people because of their choices, etc.) and fail to evaluate those I support by the same standard, then I'm violating one of the key principles of appropriate discernment given in Matthew: maintaining the same standard of judgment for others that I use for myself. In so doing, I run the risk of having as an idol those that I support, rather than seeing them as servants to God as the ultimate ruler.
  • Expecting Perfection. We live in a fallen world. No leader is going to be 100% right on every issue all the time. Even if I find someone in complete agreement with me, I may later find out that I was wrong! If I expect perfection and "drop" someone at the first disagreement, then I'm really elevating that person rather than depending on God to turn his or her heart in the right direction. And I also run the risk of forgetting that there may be reasons God allows what seems like a bad path to continue - reasons like the rejection of what is morally good, which for Israel resulted in pursuit by the enemy in Hosea 8:1-2 or the rejection of God's messenger which led to further corruption in Hosea 9.  
  • Polarization. It's easy to see the polarization in U.S. politics today. Every issue (it seems) is approached in an either/or, with/against fashion, rather than recognized for the complexity it deserves and approached on the common ground of truth and love. It's also tempting to allow myself to be polarized against someone whom I felt strongly was a poor choice for a candidate, or to dig in my heels and defend my stand on an issue as if it were the ultimate answer. Giving in to such polarization makes my own opinions an idol, because I fail to see that ultimately God is in control. Only by His authority do leaders rise or fall. And when it comes to "issues", Scripture is very clear about those worth digging in our heels; on all others we can have different opinions and responses within appropriate biblical limits. Polarization also often violates the command to speak the truth in love when we're busy castigating rather than loving.
  • Prayerlessness. This is probably the biggest hint that idolatry might be on the horizon. Scripture portrays God's people as being incredibly prayerful about their leaders and lands. Isaiah and Nehemiah confessed national sins. Jeremiah confessed the sins of his ancestors. Daniel not only confessed national sins, but fasted and poured out his heart to God for 3 weeks when he understood something from God's Word related to his far-away homeland. Paul commands us to pray for our leaders and thank God for them. If I'm politically engaged and involved in activism but not praying, then I'm in danger of the process and my own activism becoming idolatrous substitutes for God Himself. Paul's prayer is instructive: We don't just pray for the leader to do what we think he or she should do; the ultimate goal of the prayer is missional. The goal is for us to live quiet, peaceful, godly lives that result in the spread of the Gospel. Sometimes what seems like a good political decision would really hurt the spread of the Gospel. Other times, an advance of the Gospel will require the success of leader we would never have wanted. We should pray this passage for all of our leaders - perhaps especially those we didn't personally select. 
This week's study has come at a good time for me. I'm thrilled to have had the time to do ample research and feel good about my vote Tuesday. I don't regret a single minute I spent on the computer, emailing, and calling. But as the results tick across the screen and we head into the general election in November and in the years ahead to the next presidential election in 2012, I want to remember that my role in this process is not ultimate. The outcome of this or any election is not my ultimate hope. True transformation comes only from the hand of God. As Kuyper noted, ultimate authority belongs to Christ alone. The nations - including ours - are His inheritance. He will be the supreme activist for His sovereign purposes.

2 Chronicles 7:14 "Then if my people who are called by my name will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sins and heal their land." 

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Resting in Grace and Mercy: Lessons from Hebrews 4

Hebrews 4 is one of those chapters that we can easily read "over" ... having heard it a lot, the concept of "rest" often becomes just another Christian buzzword.  And unfortunately, it becomes one of those principles we extol verbally but inwardly question. It sounds good, but we sometimes question whether anyone ever experiences it. Or worse, we think everyone but us experiences it!!!

Digging into Hebrews 4 the last few weeks in preparation for leading it in Bible study this week, I was blessed to see multiple layers of richness. It helps to remember that the author is writing to Jews. Here, the author draws on commonly-known Jewish history to illustrate the Christian life. God not only wanted to deliver them from Egypt, He wanted to bring them to a place of rest in the Promised Land.

What do we need to know about entering God’s rest? What the author is going to tell us is that we enter the rest by faith, the rest goes hand-in-hand with obedience, and ultimately, it is a rest in relationship.

Rest in Faith

(1) Therefore, let us fear if, while a promise remains of entering His rest, any one of you may seem to have come short of it. (2) For indeed we have had good news preached to us, just as they also; but the word they heard did not profit them, because it was not united by faith in those who heard. (3) For we who have believed enter that rest, just as He has said, "AS I SWORE IN MY WRATH, THEY SHALL NOT ENTER MY REST," although His works were finished from the foundation of the world. (4) For He has said somewhere concerning the seventh day: "AND GOD RESTED ON THE SEVENTH DAY FROM ALL HIS WORKS";

Warnings are calls to self-examination. The examination called for here is: Are we in His rest? So, how do we know if we have entered His rest? Scripture gives us the answer: by faith. Hearing the word is profitable only if it is combined with faith. We enter His rest by faith. In essence, believing God equals rest!

How can we practically come to a place of believing God more? In some ways it’s not up to us – faith is a work of the Holy Spirit. In other ways, we do have a part to play. The faith “muscle” has to be exercised. Scripture highlights two key ways we grow in faith: hearing God’s word (Romans 10:17 So faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ.) and obedience.

Rest in Obedience

(5) and again in this passage, "THEY SHALL NOT ENTER MY REST." (6) Therefore, since it remains for some to enter it, and those who formerly had good news preached to them failed to enter because of disobedience, (7) He again fixes a certain day, "Today," saying through David after so long a time just as has been said before, "TODAY IF YOU HEAR HIS VOICE, DO NOT HARDEN YOUR HEARTS." (8) For if Joshua had given them rest, He would not have spoken of another day after that.

Today we can choose: Harden our hearts or keep them pliable. 

  • Pliable hearts want to understand. Pliable hearts repent and seek to walk in obedience.
  • Hard hearts don’t want to see because repentance is required (Matthew 13:15)
  • The path to a pliable, listening heart is worship.
(6) Come, let us worship and bow down, Let us kneel before the LORD our Maker. (7) For He is our God, And we are the people of His pasture and the sheep of His hand. Today, if you would hear His voice, (8) Do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah, As in the day of Massah in the wilderness, - (Psa 95:6-8 NASB)

K.P. Yohannan speaks of the importance of pliable hearts by comparing to a potter near his high school in India. He says: “If the clay is hard, the potter will spend days pouring water on it and pounding it thoroughly until it becomes soft. It took God 20 long years of ‘pouring and pounding’ until Jacob’s heart became soft enough. Moses needed 40 years of desert life to become the meekest man on earth who could lead Israel out of Egypt….It is possible for us as believers to have a tender heart for a season, but then when God speaks to us about an issue, to choose not to humble ourselves but rather to harden our hearts….The Lord will not just let us go. He will allow circumstances to pound us so our hearts will once again become soft and pliable.”

(9) So there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God. (10) For the one who has entered His rest has himself also rested from his works, as God did from His. (11) Therefore let us be diligent to enter that rest, so that no one will fall, through following the same example of disobedience. (12) For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.

In many ways this is the heart of the chapter. Joshua could not grant rest – only Jesus. Failure to enter this rest is a form of judgment. So, what is this rest?

If we believe, we have entered His rest (verses 3, 9) … resting from our works. Salvation is by faith, not works.  Obedience is not works – rest frees us from works and allows us to pursue a deeper level of obedience. Heart obedience, not works obedience, is what is desired. Spirit obedience is more, not less, obedient than legalism. The letter (legalism) looks for ways to get around the law; the Spirit looks for ways to obey God.

(1) Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. (2) For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. (3) For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh, (4) so that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. (5) For those who are according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who are according to the Spirit, the things of the Spirit. (6) For the mind set on the flesh is death, but the mind set on the Spirit is life and peace, (7) because the mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so, (8) and those who are in the flesh cannot please God. (9) However, you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. But if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Him. - (Rom 8:1-9 NASB)

The rest spoken of in most of this chapter is a refreshing rest. It is associated in other passages with encouragement and relaxation. We might call it "R and R". It’s a rest that depends on Christ and not self.

(28) "Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. (29) "Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and YOU WILL FIND REST FOR YOUR SOULS. (30) "For My yoke is easy and My burden is light." - (Mat 11:28-30 NASB)

(4) "Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself unless it abides in the vine, so neither can you unless you abide in Me. (5) "I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing. - (Jhn 15:4-5 NASB)

In Heb. 4:9, however, the word is very specific: literally “Sabbath rest” or rest as it relates to “Sabbath keeping”. Some interpret this to mean that Christians should keep the Sabbath in the same way that Jews did; however, Paul makes clear in Colossians 2:16 and Romans 14:5-6 that such observances are matters of conscience for individual Christians. So Hebrews 4:9 must mean something different than a command to keep the Sabbath.  This word is used only here in the New Testament, so we have to look to the Old Testament for a context to understand what this means and interpret that in light of the full counsel of the New Testament. I think the best answer is found by looking at Exodus 31:12-17 when God gave the Sabbath to Israel:

(12) The LORD spoke to Moses, saying, (13) "But as for you, speak to the sons of Israel, saying, 'You shall surely observe My sabbaths; for this is a sign between Me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I am the LORD who sanctifies you. (14) 'Therefore you are to observe the sabbath, for it is holy to you. Everyone who profanes it shall surely be put to death; for whoever does any work on it, that person shall be cut off from among his people. (15) 'For six days work may be done, but on the seventh day there is a sabbath of complete rest, holy to the LORD; whoever does any work on the sabbath day shall surely be put to death. (16) 'So the sons of Israel shall observe the sabbath, to celebrate the sabbath throughout their generations as a perpetual covenant.' (17) "It is a sign between Me and the sons of Israel forever; for in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, but on the seventh day He ceased from labor, and was refreshed." - (Exd 31:12-17 NASB)

The Sabbath is a sign between God and Israel that God is the one who sanctifies. The Sabbath was a day set apart to remind Israel they were a people set apart. For those of us in Christ, the Biblical principle is called sanctification. Thus, I believe that “Sabbath rest” is a rest of sanctification. This fits with the context of obedience spoken of in verse 11 (in contrast to the Israelites’ disobedience). So when we enter God’s Sabbath rest, we enter His sanctification as we rest from our works and move by the power of the Holy Spirit. This is an important concept as we will see in the next section, because through the Holy Spirit, God’s Word will show us areas of disobedience – and the revelation of God’s Word happens in relationship.

Rest in Relationship

(Heb. 4:13-16) (13) And there is no creature hidden from His sight, but all things are open and laid bare to the eyes of Him with whom we have to do. (14) Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. (15) For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin. (16) Therefore let us draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

Only after we enter His rest can we embrace Him as our faithful high priest. We have confidence to draw near and receive mercy and grace when we come through Christ, not works. He was fully God, but also fully man. In His humanity, His incarnation, He faced every temptation and overcame by the power of the Holy Spirit in His life – and that same power is at work in us. This links His incarnation and obedient life to our sanctification.

The help is in times of need, of weakness, of humanity. We get a rich understanding when we compare Hebrews 4:16 with 1:14 and 2:18.

In Hebrews 1:14 "help" actually means “minister” or “render service”; same word is used to refer to disciples. Practical acts of service. In Hebrews 2:18 "help" means “succor”, help in the idea of relief or rescue. But "help" as in Hebrews 4:16 is used ONLY twice in the New Testament, the other time in Acts 27:17:

(Acts 27:17) After they had hoisted it up, they used supporting cables in undergirding the ship; and fearing that they might run aground on the shallows of Syrtis, they let down the sea anchor and in this way let themselves be driven along.

John MacArthur describes this: “They would throw ropes around during the midst of the storm. throwing ropes around and securing and tightening and...with winches, to literally tighten the boards together so the whole ship wouldn't fall apart.” In classical Greek this word was used of the device used to make a ship secure, to help in times like Paul experienced. What are our supporting cables? Mercy and grace.

Jesus comes to our aid to relieve and rescue us from temptation – He knows what it is like. When the temptation builds, He provides the way out.  (1 Cor. 10:13) However, there are other times when we need more than a way out. We need to be held together! We need to be saved from falling apart due to our weakness. In those times He wraps His “supporting cables” around us to give us the two things we need most when we come face to face with our weaknesses: Mercy and grace.

I know God’s grace is there for my temptation – but sometimes I think my weaknesses don’t deserve it. Sometimes weaknesses aren’t even sins – physical illness; limitations due to disability; fatigue from having too many toddlers pulling at you all day. At those times, I don’t just need “succor”. I need His supporting cables of mercy and grace to hoist me up out of myself so I can see the throne of grace – the throne where He waits with nailscarred hands to welcome me to His table.

Even after salvation, even walking in freedom and wholeness and obedience, we still have weaknesses – physical and emotional, sometimes spiritual. Paul had them – 2 Corinthians 12:7-10 records what he learned:

(7) Because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, for this reason, to keep me from exalting myself, there was given me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me—to keep me from exalting myself! (8) Concerning this I implored the Lord three times that it might leave me. (9) And He has said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness." Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. (10) Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ's sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong. - (2Cr 12:7-10 NASB)

We can be strong when weak, because He supports us. In the storms of life, He puts His supporting cables around us, lifts us up, and undergirds us with mercy and grace. Mercy is not getting what we deserve. Grace is getting what we don’t deserve.

Baldwin Hall Bible Study describes it this way: “For those who have trusted Christ for salvation, mercy and grace are available in these tempests. Instead of being beaten by the waves and taken away to isolation in the deep, the grace of God secures us in place. A rope has been tied to our boat to secure us so we do not drift away in the storm. We are helpless on our own, but the grace of God keeps us from sinking or wandering away. His grace does not promise that the storms will not come, only that He sovereignly keeps us through them.”

Scripture says that David was a man after God’s own heart. We see a picture of this type of help in weakness in David’s dealings with Jonathan’s son, Mephibosheth.  Mephibosheth was crippled in both feet – 2 Sam. 4:4 says he was lame. He couldn’t walk. Here’s the story from 2 Samuel 9:

(1) Then David said, "Is there yet anyone left of the house of Saul, that I may show him kindness for Jonathan's sake?" (2) Now there was a servant of the house of Saul whose name was Ziba, and they called him to David; and the king said to him, "Are you Ziba?" And he said, "I am your servant." (3) The king said, "Is there not yet anyone of the house of Saul to whom I may show the kindness of God?" And Ziba said to the king, "There is still a son of Jonathan who is crippled in both feet." (4) So the king said to him, "Where is he?" And Ziba said to the king, "Behold, he is in the house of Machir the son of Ammiel in Lo-debar." (5) Then King David sent and brought him from the house of Machir the son of Ammiel, from Lo-debar. (6) Mephibosheth, the son of Jonathan the son of Saul, came to David and fell on his face and prostrated himself. And David said, "Mephibosheth." And he said, "Here is your servant!" (7) David said to him, "Do not fear, for I will surely show kindness to you for the sake of your father Jonathan, and will restore to you all the land of your grandfather Saul; and you shall eat at my table regularly." (8) Again he prostrated himself and said, "What is your servant, that you should regard a dead dog like me?" (9) Then the king called Saul's servant Ziba and said to him, "All that belonged to Saul and to all his house I have given to your master's grandson. (10) "You and your sons and your servants shall cultivate the land for him, and you shall bring in the produce so that your master's grandson may have food; nevertheless Mephibosheth your master's grandson shall eat at my table regularly." Now Ziba had fifteen sons and twenty servants. (11) Then Ziba said to the king, "According to all that my lord the king commands his servant so your servant will do." So Mephibosheth ate at David's table as one of the king's sons. (12) Mephibosheth had a young son whose name was Mica. And all who lived in the house of Ziba were servants to Mephibosheth. (13) So Mephibosheth lived in Jerusalem, for he ate at the king's table regularly. Now he was lame in both feet. - (2Sa 9:1-13 NASB)

Verse 5 is key to our point. David sent and “brought him” to the palace. The word used here is used in a form that can literally mean “carry”. Since Mephibosheth was lame, someone likely did carry him, quite literally, to the king’s table.  This reminds me of Deut. 33:26-27: “There is none like the God is Jeshurun who rides the heavens to your help, and through the skies in His majesty. The eternal God is a dwelling place, and underneath are the everlasting arms.”

A dwelling place. John 14 invites us to join Him and promises He will make His abode with us. Through the Holy Spirit, He does just that. When that happens, we are at rest in Him. We have His everlasting arms underneath us. One is Mercy – not getting what we deserve. The other is Grace – getting what we don’t deserve.

That’s the thought I want us to close with. Entering God’s rest happens by faith; the rest results in heart obedience; and we are carried along in that rest by relationship. When we enter His rest, we have the assurance of knowing that no matter how weak we are, His grace and mercy sustain us. We are always welcome at the throne of grace … even if He has to carry us there Himself.

Carried to the Table by Leeland

Wounded and forsaken
I was shattered by the fall
Broken and forgotten
Feeling lost and all alone
Summoned by the King
Into the Master’s courts
Lifted by the Savior
And cradled in His arms

I was carried to the table
Seated where I don’t belong
Carried to the table
Swept away by His love
And I don’t see my brokenness anymore
When I’m seated at the table of the Lord
I’m carried to the table
The table of the Lord

Fighting thoughts of fear
And wondering why He called my name
Am I good enough to share this cup
This world has left me lame
Even in my weakness
The Savior called my name
In His Holy presence
I’m healed and unashamed

You carried me, my God
You carried me

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Flinging truth to the ground

"(the horn) will fling truth to the ground and perform its will and prosper." (Daniel 8:12) 

It's a shaky vision for Daniel. At the end, he is exhausted and physically sick. There was no explanation. Among the many shocking things was a vision of truth being flung to the ground by a future ruler. Because Daniel is a favorite of teachers who emphasize end-times prophecy, I'm pretty familiar with the standard teaching that this passage was fulfilled partially by Antiochus Epiphenes and will be fulfilled completely by "the antichrist". But I've never really looked at the book devotionally until now. Asking God to show me something personally applicable from the midst of all these future prophecies has been enlightening.

What I learned today is that we so easily throw truth to the ground.

Oh, we don't go in our churches and toss the Bibles on the floor. Most evangelicals today don't question the inspiration of Scripture. But in our own way, day after day we fling truth to the ground. We see the results of this in our society and in our churches ... and in our own lives.

It's probably easiest to see the impact in our society. When we as a society call good evil and evil good, when people are encouraged to indulge in sin and promised no consequences, when a major children's filmmaker finds voodoo and images of the demonic an appropriate scene for six year olds -- we see what happens when lies are believed. When a society becomes enmeshed in a web of lies, the resulting fruit can be nothing but dark.

I think it's harder to see the impact of throwing truth to the ground in our churches. Maybe that's because we don't want to see it. Maybe it's because we're self-righteous. Maybe we've been too influenced by the culture. Or maybe we've just spent too much time learning how to study our Bible, and not given enough time to actually living out the truths written on its pages. I'll never forget a sermon I heard on James 1:22 ("be a doer of the word, and not a hearer only"). The speaker expressed God's reaction to all our Bible study like this in the form of a parable that went something like this:
A man went away on a long journey. He told his servants that they would be okay because they would have letters from him to help them know what to do. Be ready for my return, he said, and do what the letters tell you.

Years later he returned from the journey. He looked around at field with fruit fallen to the ground and rotted, at vineyards unkempt and lamps unlit. He gathered the servants together. They were ecstatic to have him back, and quickly came to his side.

"What's going on here?" he asked. "Why haven't you taken care of things? Didn't you read my letters?"

"Oh, yes, we read them" the servants answered. "In fact, we read them all the time. We get together and read them aloud. We have special dictionaries to help us understand what all your words mean. In fact, some of us even get together to talk about your letters one line at a time. Many of us have memorized large sections of the letters. We love your letters."

The man was at a loss. "But why didn't you ever do anything they said?"
That's how we can be in the church sometimes. If we don't outright deny God's word - increasingly a temptation in a postmodern society - we turn it into something to discuss and dissect and define. We find it easier to parse a Greek verb than to obey a hard command.  And little by little, as a church we fling truth to the ground.

Possibly the hardest to identify are those times when we individually fling truth to the ground. We do it so smoothly, rationalizing away the hard verses one at a time. We'd never say we don't believe God. But there's that verse that is just a little too hard to apply in our modern context (or so we think). So we turn away rather than face the limits of our own humanity. In the process, we miss a chance for deeper intimacy with Jesus as He helps us in our weaknesses.

The temptations and details are unique to each of us. "Do all things without grumbling or complaining" is a challenge for me at times - such as this week when I've spent hours on phone and email and chats with technical support at major companies. It's easy for me to think "all things" means less than "all things". I can face my weakness - or I can turn away and focus on something easier to achieve or worse, on the ways "the world" flings truth to the ground. The reality is, the upholding of truth in society will never be stronger than it is in the church. And the upholding of truth in the church will never be stronger than it is in the people who make up the church. One by one, day by day, our approach to truth defines our world.

So, how can we keep from flinging truth to the ground? How can we be sure we are embracing truth and not becoming legalistic about culturally-related passages such as "greet one another with a holy kiss"? Well, entire books have been written on the subject, so all I can really do here is share my own personal approach. I'd be interested in hearing your insights. Because I want to always lift truth up, not fling it to the ground.

How to embrace truth
  • First and foremost, be in the Word - all of it. Don't pick and choose favorite topics. If you have never read through the Bible, start. It doesn't have to be in a year or in a certain order. I read one chapter a day - takes 3 1/2 years. But it's amazing how much I see that I never grasped when I focused on favorite sections. 
  • Second, rely on the Holy Spirit. He is the One who leads us into all truth. Bible reading and prayer should go hand in hand. Pray before, during, and after your reading. Turn the passages into prayers. If there is a command, ask God to show you how to obey it. 
  • Third, be willing to obey. Always be willing to follow through a command in Scripture to its fullest extent. One of the principles of the New Testament is that while we are not under the law, our Spirit-obedience is always more, not less, than legalistic obedience which tries to do "just enough to get by". We should want to obey God because we have new hearts. Practically speaking, this principle means approaching each passage as if it means just what it says. Now don't get me wrong - we will discuss cultural context in a minute. But our "default" should be, "OK, how can I obey this passage?" 
  • Fourth, seek to understand the historical and literary context of your reading. There are several great books about principles of interpretation, but some of the key ones I use include: Let Scripture interpret scripture. Look up other books by the same author or other verses with the same subject. Get a full-orbed view of the topic, not an isolated passage. Never build a doctrine on an obscure passage. There is a lot in Scripture that is clear; God will shed light over time on what is unclear. A great Bible dictionary or encyclopedia, or a commentary written by someone with a high view of Scripture (as opposed to someone who doubts its inspiration) can often shed light on cultural elements that might impact an interpretation. One example would be Paul's instruction about women covering their heads. A comparison of all Paul's writings, will show this is an isolated command. Why? A good commentary will tell you that in Corinth, the prostitutes went uncovered and other women covered their heads. Paul was teaching them to avoid even the appearance of evil and approach their worship with covered heads out of respect and in contrast to the society in which they lived. In this way, you will begin to see principles that can be applied even when specific commands might be culturally driven. 
  • Fifth, seek immediate application of the command or principle that you uncover. I assume if a command jumps out at me in Scripture that God has a place for me to apply that passage. Often I ask Him to give me the opportunity that day; other times an event occurs and the passage jumps to mind, and I know I have the opportunity to obey or disobey. Obeying lifts up God's Word; disobedience flings it to the ground. 
  • Finally, believe God. When the command is hard ("leave everything and follow me" comes to mind!) - it's even more important to press in to find "mercy and grace to help in time of need" (Heb. 4:16-17). It's at those times that we are most tempted to rationalize throwing truth to the ground and pick up our own understanding instead. But when God's word is clear and the only barrier is what makes sense to us, we need to STOP - surround ourselves with believers - and remind ourselves of Solomon's wisdom: 
Trust in the Lord with all your heart
And lean not on your own understanding
In all your ways acknowledge Him
and He will direct your paths. (Prov. 3:5-6)