Friday, February 27, 2015

When you meet trials of various kinds

One thing I love about James and the book of the Bible that bears his name: he pulls no punches. James is a straight shooter and I like that. In fact, I am currently teaching through the book and I told my class this past week that sometimes I feel as if he's explained himself so very plainly that all I need to do as a teacher is read the text and conclude with "Yeah; what he said."

I don't, of course. But sometimes I feel like I could, what with all James' plain speech.

Consider how he begins his letter. Barely two verses in and already he is tenderly admonishing his brothers and sisters in Christ to "count it all joy...when you meet trials of various kinds." See how straightforward he is? How realistic? Trials are not an "if" in James' economy; they are a "when." He knows life is hard and struggles will come and he doesn't shy away from that truth.

In fact, he acknowledges that these difficulties can be varied. Naturally our minds turn to the "big" trials--the heartbreaks, the diagnoses, the losses. But we will endure trials of various kinds, the seemingly big as well as the seemingly small, and regardless of how big or small we may consider their relative importance we are to count them all joy.

All joy. Count it all joy when these sure and varied struggles come to you, James encourages us, and were he to stop there we would have to respond with either disciplined stoicism (clinch your teeth and just get through it) or Pollyannish denial (what trials?).

But James tells us exactly why we can count it joy: "for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness..." In other words, count it joy because there is a purpose and that purpose is for the testing of your faith through these varied trials to produce steadfastness in you.

How does this work? Some difficulty arises, big or small, and I am faced with the testing of my faith: "Is God there? Does He hear me? Is He good?" As I wrestle with these questions, how will steadfastness have its full effect in me?

There is not time or space here for a full theology of suffering but here are three truths that feed my endurance when faced with trials, big or small:

1. How I react to the trial reflects what I really care about. This is an ugly truth, but one worth considering with great soberness. Whether it is a sudden devastation or a lingering irritation, what I value will be exposed by my reactions and most often this will require confession and repentance as I work through the sin and idols that are exposed.

2. The Lord is my only true hope and comfort. This truth is closely related to #1. As my false comforts and selfish desires are exposed, I must rehearse to myself the sufficiency of the Lord. Whatever it is I think I want or need I will find it in the Lord!

3. The Lord was faithful yesterday, He is faithful today, and He will be faithful tomorrow. How easily I forget the countless ways He delivers me and sustains me! Rehearsing His past faithfulness fuels my trust in Him.

So when the trial comes, searching my reaction will expose my true desires and my false idols. Confession and repentance call me to cast myself on the truth that my only true hope and lasting comfort is the Lord alone who is always, eternally faithful despite my feelings or questions. I remind myself of the gospel, of Jesus who died to save me a sinner, and of the grace and freedom that is mine as His child. My faith may be tested but I can endure as I trust Him in the sufficiency of His grace.

Life is hard. These varied trials may be big, they may be small, they may last for a short time, they may not cease until the Lord calls you home. But we can count it all joy, all of it, all joy, because we trust our good and gracious God.

That's straight-shooting, plain gospel truth. 

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Standing on the Promises

Due to a series of unexpected events, the book review I planned will have to wait a few more weeks. Today's entry was posted on my personal blog earlier this month.

Something came out of the blue this week-end which left me feeling anxious in a way I hadn't felt in a long time. I knew I shouldn't worry, but my stomach twisted itself into a big knot. I had taken all the necessary steps I could at the moment. I knew I should trust God, but it was so hard to overcome that sinking feeling. In the past, I tried to get relief by listening to sentimental Christian-ish songs to drum up a different set of emotions, but it never lasted. Dealing on an emotional plane only addressed the surface problem, not the root.

I tried to fight the internal churning but didn't hide it very well. My daughter gave me that look which said, "I know you're worrying. It's not good. Do you need to talk about it?" So I confessed my worries and fears to her. In turn, she reminded me of the gospel and paraphrased Romans 8:32. If God chose to save me, if Jesus died to make that happen, did I really think He didn't care or wasn't big enough to handle this current situation? Obviously not, but how quickly I forgot.

To take my mind off the situation, I vacuumed. As I vacuumed, I prayed and began to rehearse the gospel which led me to 1 John 2:1 and back to Romans 8. Jesus Christ was my advocate before God the Father. God in his holy and righteous wrath without any intermediary is the worst thing any human being could face, but the wrath that I deserved was placed on Christ. I receive mercy and forgiveness. Instead of being outcast now and forever, I am His child and part of the bride of Christ. God is for me. Who can be against me? God loves me. What can separate me from that? The more I dwelt on the truth, the knot began to untie in my stomach. The more I focused on the facts of Christ's work and its ongoing and far-reaching effects on my behalf, the worry began to lift.

To cap it off, during my pastor's sermon on Genesis 22, the significance of God's promises clicked perhaps for the first time in my 40+ years as a Christian. They aren't just inspirational snippets from the Bible, a heavenly Hallmark greeting to make me feel better about myself and my situation. God's promises are declarations of His commitment to His purpose and to His people based upon His character. His promises are sure because He is sure. His faithfulness to keep those promises can be traced through history from creation, to the Cross, and up to today, which includes me. I am one of those grains of sands promised to Abraham in Genesis 22:17 and confirmed by Paul in Galatians 3:7-9. So I don't have to wonder whether I am outside of God's care. My salvation is proof that He keeps His promise from Genesis to the present and until time gives way to eternity.

So when in fear, skip the sentimental songs and the pithy platitudes. Their flimsy emotionalism will not support me. I can cast myself, burdens, doubts, and all, on the sure foundation of God's promises.

For when God made a promise to Abraham, since he had no one greater by whom to swear, he swore by himself, saying, “Surely I will bless you and multiply you.” And thus Abraham, having patiently waited, obtained the promise. For people swear by something greater than themselves, and in all their disputes an oath is final for confirmation. So when God desired to show more convincingly to the heirs of the promise the unchangeable character of his purpose, he guaranteed it with an oath, so that by two unchangeable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled for refuge might have strong encouragement to hold fast to the hope set before us. Hebrews 6:13-18.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Not Just for Scholars

I had been a Christian for years and participated in many Bible studies before I studied one book of the Bible from start to finish. Doing so changed the way I read the Scriptures. Instead of cherry-picking verses and passages, I found myself interested in the author's intent and and message. Later I would wonder how each particular book fit into God's narrative of redemption. But first I had to learn to navigate the murky waters of context and archaic language. Even though a study Bible was a tremendous tool, the brief notes didn't provide as much insight into passages or their application as I wanted. Then I noticed several friends were reading commentaries.

Perhaps you're having the same thought I had when I first heard about commentaries - I'm no Bible scholar. Why do I want a commentary? Granted, many Bible commentaries are written for the academics, far beyond any intellectual capabilities I may have. Some are just plain dry, filled with Greek lexicons and syntax. Would I be bored out of my skull?

The Reformed Expository Commentary Series put my fears to rest. I began with Esther and Ruth. Since then I have added several others, including Philippians and Acts. One of the latest volumes, Ecclesiastes, also adorns my bookshelf. Every one I've read is simple and concise enough for an armchair theologian, yet insightful enough for the most learned pastor.

 From the Series Introduction:
In every generation there is a fresh need for the faithful exposition of God's Word in the church. At the same time, the church must constantly do the work of theology: reflecting the teaching of Scripture, confessing its doctrines of the Christian faith, and applying them to contemporary culture. We believe that these two tasks - the expositional and the theological - are interdependent. Our doctrine must derive from the biblical text, and our understanding of any particular passage of Scripture must arise from the doctrine taught in Scripture as a whole.
 The chapters can be managed as extended devotional reading each day. For instance, all but one chapter in Ecclesiastes are under 15 pages. Douglas Sean O'Donnell's conversational style reads like a thoughtful sermon; he explains the passages and often uses cultural examples to make application of his point.

I've found the Reformed Expository Commentary Series has helped me understand and apply Scripture in my life far more than I ever thought possible.

Friday, February 20, 2015

He Is Present There

“And everywhere that we can be, Thou, God art present there.”

—Isaac Watts in his children’s hymn I Sing the Mighty Power of God

In him we live and move and have our being.
“Where is God?” The best I could do when my small children asked this question was answer, “He’s everywhere, but you can’t see him or touch him or hear him.” This, of course, leads to more questions: How can a being exist that we can’t see or touch or hear? And how can something be everywhere? (I have no child-sized answers to those questions. I’m not sure I have adult-sized answers, either. How could a finite mind hope to explain the infinite and incomprehensible?)

When an adult asks where God is, they’re usually asking in relation to a specific injustice they see in the world. I had a friend who asked this question because she wanted to know how a good God could stand by (so to speak) while her son endured months of excruciating pain after he was severely burned. She searched for an answer and settled for a god1 who created the world but then left everything to run on its own. He wasn’t present in his creation, at least not in an active way. He was simply watching from afar as history unfolded.

The biblical answer to the question of where God is—both the child’s and the adult’s—is that all that he is exists always everywhere in creation and beyond. Just as God is infinite in relation to time (eternality), knowledge (omniscience), and power (omnipotence), he is infinite in relation to space (omnipresence).

God Is Everywhere

Psalm 139 has a well-known description of God’s omnipresence:
Where shall I go from your Spirit?
Or where shall I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there!
If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!
If I take the wings of the morning
and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me. (Psalm 139:7-10 ESV)
There is no “going from” or “fleeing” God, because he is everywhere. He doesn’t just see into every place, but his being exists there. If God’s power—his “hand”—is in every place, then the whole of God’s essence exists in every space, since his power is one aspect of his indivisible essence. All that God is can be found in all places. 

God Is Not Contained in Space

Scripture also tells us that while God is everywhere present, he is not contained in space. King Solomon prayed:
But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you; how much less this house that I have built! (1 Kings 8:27 ESV)
The universe cannot hold our God; the boundaries of the highest heaven can’t encompass him. This is not just because there is nothing big enough to contain him, but because God is not spatial. As pure spirit, he has no physical dimensions. And as creator of space itself, God existed as all that he is when there was no space.

So all that God is in every place but God is not contained in space. Charles Spurgeon puts it this way: “His circumference is nowhere, but his center is everywhere.”
God Is Our Place

Paul told the Athenians that all people “live and move and have [their] being” in God (Acts 17:28). His statement makes me think of fish in a fish tank, living and swimming and existing within the environment of the tank.2 Just as fish are contained in the waters of the tank, swimming everywhere but never leaving its presence, we are contained within God’s presence. Wherever we are, he is there, “not far from each one of us” (Acts 17:27).

God Is Always With Us

If we belong to God, understanding his omnipresence is a great comfort. If an insignificant sparrow does not die apart from God, how much more does everything that happens to us take place in his presence? Every circumstance in our life is a time and place where the omnipresent God is. In all our trials, he is beside us and in us and around us with His guiding hand to lead us and hold us. He is present to help, either to rescue or give courage to endure.

Even when we confront death, we should fear no evil, for he is with us (Psalm 23:4). The death of a saint is precious in God’s sight (Psalm 116: 15), and he is not watching it from a distance, but sitting beside us while we wait, carrying us when we go, and welcoming us when we arrive. Because everywhere that we can be, our God is present there.

1] I can’t bring myself to capitalize this.

2] Like any illustration—and maybe more than most—this one has its limitations. For one, the whole essence of the fish tank doesn’t exist in every spot a fish does. A fish needs to move from one place to another to experience all the fish tank can offer it, yet all of God—all of what he is for us—is in every place we are. Second, the fish tank ends right beyond where the fish can go. The fish tank is contained in space, just like the fish are, only in a little more space; but there is nothing “containing” God.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Age With Zeal

There is all sorts of advice for women about how to age well. Much of it has to do with our health and appearance. Aging is a part of God's created order, and as Christian women, we don't want to be sucked into the pursuit of eternal youth. We want to embrace that grey hair, those hard won wrinkles, that extra girth around the middle which demonstrates the years of living which we've done. We don't want to look like those aging celebrities who inject their faces with stuff that makes them look as though they've been attacked by a vacuum cleaner. We don't want resort to dressing like we're twenty-one in the name of taking pride in our aging bodies. But aging is more than bodily changes; it's about our hearts, minds, and attitudes.

Maintaining zeal Godward

Such issues came to mind as I read J.I. Packer's little book, Finishing Our Course With Joy, which is a book about getting older. Packer intends this book for older people, 75 and older. His encouragement is that older people should shun the worldly notion that aging and retirement is a time of inactivity. He suggests that being older is a time to stay active, to keep running the race set before us. He points out that seniors have things that younger people don't always have: opportunity, maturity, humility, and intensity. And by intensity, he means focus and concentration insofar as one is physically able. Packer, himself, at the age of 88 is still very sharp.

Packer encourages the older crowd to embrace zeal. He admits that the word isn't popular any more, but zeal is something Christians ought to live with. Packer gives his rationale for this:
Zeal for his kingdom is a character quality of God himself, as he has revealed himself (Isa. 9:7). So zeal for God's cause, his kingdom, and his glory, all of which the temple symbolized, is one element of the image of God in his incarnate Son -- the image in which, so we are told, Christians are to be renewed, and actually are being renewed, by the Holy Spirit (2 Cor. 3:18; Eph. 4:20-24; Col. 3:10). Nowhere does Scripture suggest that this divine renewing process is programmed to go on hold as we age, however true it is that we can clog it up at any point with our own follies and wrong attitudes. 
Maintaining zeal Godward as our bodies wear out is the special discipline to which we aging Christians are called.
Living zeal

I am fortunate in that I know quite a few older women who are maintaining zeal Godward. There is a group of older woman at my church who gather twice a month to sew, making clothing for mission projects, or items for the crisis pregnancy centre. My mother-in-law, who is over 70, is still involved every summer with the youth day camps, as well as working with the women's ministry committee. Another woman, also about to move into her 70's, regularly serves in musical ministry as well as helping her husband with his ministry to the Caribbean farm workers who come here every year. Another senior woman organizes a dinner four times a year for singles who may not otherwise have someone to share a meal with on a Sunday. Singles of all ages attend, but most of them are older. Every month, the seniors have a gathering where they share fellowship for the morning followed by a meal. These people are not slowing down. They are zealous for God. These seniors encourage each other to press on. But I don't think they are the only ones who should be doing the encouraging.

Encourage zeal

Those of us who are younger also need to encourage the older people in our congregations. We need to build relationships with them beyond a handshake on a Sunday morning. We need to include them in areas of service where they can add their wisdom to the mix. We shouldn't always go to the young and eager teacher to lead that class or fill that need. We need to extend the invitation to the older generation as well. Perhaps they think they are expected to be inactive. Perhaps we should encourage them not to think that. It may be that all they need is to be asked to contribute. Older people have the benefit of life experience to go along with their theory. We talk a lot about the diversity in the church as it relates to race and gender; diversity should include older people, too. And insofar as they can be active, I think we should encourage them as much as we can.