Monday, April 28, 2014

Where We Put Our Hope

A lot of people I love are hurting right now. Since they’re not my stories, they’re not the kind of thing I can write about. If I were to write about any of them in the most general terms, though, several people would think I was writing about them.

I find myself saying on their behalf, “How long, oh Lord?” (Psalm 13) So many people seem to be in a season of suffering, where the trials come in wave after wave.

John 9:1–3 shows that it’s unwise to speculate why God allows suffering to come into the lives of his children. Joseph languished for years in an Egyptian prison. Paul was beaten and hauled off to jail nearly every place he went. And the ultimate example is Christ on the Cross. In other words, God is often doing his greatest work when things look hopeless.

We put our hope in so many different things. Money, career, marriage, family. All of them good things, but all of them capable of breaking our hearts. And as my friend Gloria Furman reminded me the other day—on Twitter of all places—we don’t have time for fake hope. Only one foundation is strong enough to bear our weight, and we need to be standing on it when the storms come.

Preserve me, O God, for in you I take refuge.
I say to the Lord, “You are my Lord;
I have no good apart from you.”
As for the saints in the land, they are the excellent ones,
in whom is all my delight.
The sorrows of those who run after another god shall multiply;
their drink offerings of blood I will not pour out
or take their names on my lips.
The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup;
you hold my lot.
The lines have fallen for me in pleasant places;
indeed, I have a beautiful inheritance.
I bless the Lord who gives me counsel;
in the night also my heart instructs me.
I have set the Lord always before me;
because he is at my right hand, I shall not be shaken.
Therefore my heart is glad, and my whole being rejoices;
my flesh also dwells secure.
For you will not abandon my soul to Sheol,
or let your holy one see corruption.
You make known to me the path of life;
in your presence there is fullness of joy;
at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.

Psalm 16

Friday, April 25, 2014

Jonah, pity parties, and me

I think I have mentioned to you that I recently taught an overview of the Old Testament prophets. Yes, you read that correctly. Isaiah, Jeremiah, Nahum, Obadiah, we covered all those guys, the familiar and the not so much, the more accessible and the, shall we say, slightly more remote.

Jonah is perhaps the most familiar of the prophets, certainly among the minors. I imagine we would hard pressed to find anyone who couldn't at least recite the basic facts of Jonah and his encounter with the big fish: the prophet's reluctance, the big gulp, the three days within, the vomiting, the preaching, and the resulting revival.

But that's not all of Jonah's story. After Nineveh's great awakening, the Bible tells us Jonah went out of the city and made a booth for himself. There he sat, watching and waiting. Maybe he thought doomsday was yet to come, who can know? While he waited...

[T]he Lord God appointed a plant and made it come up over Jonah, that it might be a shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort. So Jonah was exceedingly glad because of the plant. But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the plant, so that it withered. When the sun rose, God appointed a scorching east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint. And he asked that he might die and said, "It is better for me to die than to live." (Jonah 4:6-8) 

I always chuckle a bit there when the prophet of God throws his big pity party over the loss of the plant and, rather dramatically and with great histrionics, at least in my imagination, he declares his desire to die. Drama, much?

Chuckles aside, there's some truths worth considering here. Most importantly, we note the Lord's provision in relation to the plant and the worm and the wind. The plant, the worm, the wind, all were of the Lord's appointment. In his exposition of Jonah in his book Promises Made, Mark Dever makes the following statement...

God provides for our comforts (like the vine). He provides our losses (as caused by the worm). He provides our trials (as through the wind). 

Think on it. We are quick with our gratitude for our comforts. I, like many bloggers, have devoted posts on my blog cataloging the Lord's many blessings. The Lord has given and we praise Him. Losses and trials are far more difficult to consider in terms of the Lord's provision and the Lord's appointment. But the Bible is clear: God is sovereign over all, the good and the bad, the happy and the sad, the gains and the losses, the vines, the worms and the winds. He appoints and He provides; there is purpose and there is a plan.

Yet Jonah declared life no longer worth living after the shade from the vine was gone. And here's where we laugh a little. I mean, a vine? Really?

Jonah figured his life was forfeit without the vine and this somewhat dramatic declaration exposes his idolatry. And what about me? What comforts do I take for granted? What gifts from the Lord do I value over and above the Giver? What deprivation would cause me to despair of living? My stuff? My husband? My children? My ministry? These are all good gifts, blessings, comforts appointed to me by the Lord. What if I were to suffer their loss?

Could I say with Job, "The Lord gives, the Lord takes away, blessed be the name of the Lord"? Or would I say with Jonah, "It is better for me to die"?

Friends, family, money, ministry are all gracious blessings from the Lord but they are not the purpose and definition of our lives. We must take care to examine what we hold most dear. What am I grasping so tightly for validation or comfort or meaning? If it is not the Lord it is idolatry.

Above all else Jonah cared mostly, exclusively, for Jonah and Jonah's comfort. His self preoccupation shows itself in stark contrast to the Lord's compassion on the city of Nineveh. The Lord asks Jonah directly "You pity the plant...should I not pity Nineveh...?" The loss of the plant and Jonah's ensuing pity party expose the true condition of Jonah's heart. Not only does he place a premium on the plant but he bitterly resents the Lord extending grace to those he esteems as unworthy. His arrogance and his presumption on the mercy of the Lord are on full display as he pouts and whines.

Let us thank the Lord for the vines in our lives, the blessings and comforts He grants us out of His grace and His mercy. When He appoints worms and winds, struggles and losses, may we humbly search our hearts and should we suffer the exposure of our idolatry may we repent and turn to Him in grateful submission.

This is a hard truth and my heart is tender to those of you who are enduring a difficult season of trial and loss. I encourage you to cling to what you know to be true: God is good and He loves you and His arm is not too short to save. No matter your present circumstance--vine, worm, or wind--you can trust Him.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Missing the forest for the trees

My daughter and I were having one of our usual theological discussions last night. During the conversation, she said something to the effect of,

"Sometimes we think the Bible is just a PowerPoint presentation. The verses get turned into bullet points. We're interested in getting the answer to a question, so we cherry-pick the "bullet point" and forget that the verse is part of a chapter that's part of a whole book that's part of God's revelation."

This was good reminder because it's easy to miss the forest for the trees or the leaves for that matter.

If I'm looking for an answer to a question, I could look up all the verses that use a word related to my question. I could then draw a conclusion based on those verses. There's nothing inherently wrong with doing word studies, but my answer may be incorrect because I've pulled "bullet points" out of context.

For example, my pastor preached a sermon recently on Matthew 6:1-18 which covers giving, prayer, and fasting. If I focus solely on verses 16-18 and treat them as a treatise on fasting, I will miss the main point of the passage, which is verse 1 - "Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven."  There may be a helpful application regarding fasting, but if that's all I've gleaned, I've missed the forest for the trees.

"Greeting card" verses are another example. How many times have you heard "I can do all things through him who strengthens me" cover just about everything but the contentment Paul was referring to? (Phil. 4:10-13) I also recall a chorus that exhorted the singer to "Lift Jesus Higher." One line actually quotes John 12:32, but the subsequent verse refers to the crucifixion, not exalting Christ with our praise. Context makes a difference.

It may seem like nit-picking, but I want to read the Bible carefully. It can certainly answer questions and help me in very practical ways, but it's more than a spiritual search engine. It's God's Word about Himself, and I don't want to miss that.

Related articles:

Never Read a Bible Verse  Greg Koukl
Must I Learn How to Interpret the Bible?  D.A. Carson
Exegetical Fallacies  William Barrick

What Bible study tips or resources have helped you? Do you have a "favorite" out-of-context verse? Please share in the comments.

Monday, April 14, 2014

In the Heat of the Moment

It was one of those days, and it was a busy one. For the schedule to work, we would have to operate like a well-oiled machine. My family, however, consists of real humans, not machine parts. They also seemed to have adopted the motto “Why think for yourself when you can just ask Mom?” and I was annoyed by the constant questions. To top it all off, a misunderstanding with an acquaintance caused my kid to miss out on something fun.

By the end of the day I was mad. But there was nobody to be mad at. The evening’s schedule was confusing. My acquaintance had been trying to help. Nothing could be done about any of the evening’s foibles. And the kid who missed out on the fun event really wasn’t that torn up about it. And though I knew I was being irrational, that just annoyed me even more.

A couple of hours later the real reason for my mood became clear: migraine. My migraines are usually mild enough that I can take medication and carry on as normal, but this time I was down for the count. All I could do was lie still and wait for the pain and nausea to pass.

The interesting thing about migraine is that the process begins before the sufferer feels it. Sometimes I have an aura an hour or so before it hits. Sometimes I notice that I stumble over words a lot in the hours leading up to it. Some people yawn a lot. And, like what happened to me that night, some people become easily agitated.

After the migraine fog lifted, I thought back to the previous day. My irritation, which had felt quite justified at the time, seemed ridiculous. I was thankful that circumstances kept me from expressing my frustration, because now the situation then seemed incredibly petty.

Anybody who has spent time with a tired or hungry toddler understands that our physical bodies affect our emotions. But in the heat of the moment we often don’t realize it. As a teenager I felt very weepy one week of the month. Now? I either wonder why everyone has to keep breathing so loud, or I am convinced that something horrible will happen and it will all be my fault.

As my middle-age hormones continue to mess with my mind, I find I have to be careful to focus on the truth rather my feelings. But what can we tell ourselves when our feelings are getting the upper hand? What is the truth?

Our emotions are God-given, but they are also fallen

As Allender and Longman say in their book Cry of the Soul, “Our emotions connect our inner world to the ups and downs of life.” Just because they aren’t always accurate, doesn’t mean they should always be ignored. The joy and delight we feel on earth is a foretaste of the greater joy of heaven. And sometimes sadness and anger are legitimate reactions to the trouble of the world. It is appropriate to mourn when we encounter evil.

Taking care of my physical body helps

In 1 Kings 19, Elijah is fleeing from Jezebel. In his weariness and fear, he sits down under a tree and wishes for death. Then he sleeps, and after he sleeps, the Lord sends him food. I think it’s interesting that part of God’s help involved meeting his physical needs.

I’m not 25 anymore. Although it’s important to care for our bodies at all ages, I’m more sensitive to it now. I fail a lot in this area, but when I take the time to eat properly, rest, and exercise, I can handle life much better.

Just because I feel it, doesn’t mean I need to express it

Proverbs 29: 11 is a verse I find myself going to a lot these days: “A fool gives full vent to his spirit, but a wise man quietly holds it back.” My emotions often come on like a firestorm. Even though I may feel very strongly about something, that’s usually not the best time for me to speak. I can’t take back angry words spoken in the heat of the moment. It’s better if I take some time to think things through.

Keep doing what needs to be done

Some people like to keep moving when they’re upset. I prefer to curl up in a ball and whimper. But life doesn’t stop just because I’ve decided to host a private pity party. Pushing through with the daily tasks of life often makes me feel better. Even if it doesn’t, at least I’m not behind when I emerge from the funk.

Be thankful for God’s grace

I have always been an impulsive, emotional person. But God is refining me. I sometimes have to pray through gritted teeth, but he is faithful to give me the strength I need when I ask for it.

Sadly, I don’t always remember to do this. In the days since I began this post, I’ve had to apologize to someone for angry, hurtful words I said, words that she did not deserve. I’m embarrassed about what I said. I can’t take the words back. All I can do is point to the perfect Savior. He lived the life I should have lived and died the death I should have died. Through him, all my sins are forgiven. Even the hasty, hurtful words I sometimes speak.

Friday, April 11, 2014

The World Series, tightropes, and ordinary plodding

Back in the early 90's my husband and I were newlyweds living in the Atlanta area. The sports fans among us will know this was the heyday of the Atlanta Braves baseball franchise, 1991 marking the Braves' berth (and loss) in the World Series. It was crazy. Everyone, everywhere, was talking about the Braves. The excitement was palpable, the city seemingly gripped by baseball fever.

A rather large church in our area made mention of the Braves on its sign. I don't remember the exact wording but I do remember it had something to do with the Lord being on the side of the Braves, the familiar "God = winning" boast. I was a young twenty-something with the world at her feet and still something didn't ring true in this avowal of God being a Braves fan and thus the contributing factor behind their pennant run.

I wondered then what the sign might say should the Braves lose? What about those seasons before...and since...that were, shall we say, not quite of World Series caliber? Where is God then? Is He only the God of the winning? A brief perusal not only of church signs during winning seasons but of acceptance speeches and post-victory interviews could lead one to conclude that yes, indeed, "God = winning."

I suppose one could consult the Bible and present various scenarios whereby God secured victory, say for the Israelites in the Old Testament by way of example. We like battle imagery, particularly so in our passion for sports. However, were we to survey the whole of the Bible I daresay we would find at least as many, if not more, instances of God's people on the losing end and this despite the Lord's evident presence and favor. Take Isaiah. Or Jeremiah. Or, for that matter, the gruesome and horrific death of Jesus, God's one and only beloved Son.

I thought these same thoughts last year during the whole tightrope across the Grand Canyon stunt. I actually didn't know a thing about it, not until it was happening and my Twitter feed blew up with various exclamations of surprise and horror. Intrigued, I turned on the TV and caught the end of the stunt, the kiss on the ground, and the swell of Twitter commentary regarding Nick's invocation of Jesus to help him.

I am glad Nick is a believer, don't get me wrong. I was glad that he unashamedly testified of Christ on national television. I was troubled, though, by echoes of the "God = winning" boast, particularly so given that this stunt was so far fetched and crazy and radical. Look what faith in Jesus does, it seemed to say, it walks on a tight rope across the Grand Canyon in Jesus' Name!!!

I wondered, as I did back in 1991, what if, God forbid, it all went wrong? Where is God then? Would Jesus' name still be exalted? Would we then have talked about 30 mph winds and this piece of equipment or that bit of unexpected weather?

The reality of life as a believer is not so much winning as losing. Persecution, struggle, opposition--the Bible is clear that these are part and parcel to following Christ. The problem with thinking that "God = winning" is not only the fact that so few of us actually, you know, win but that even more of us aren't anywhere near the limelight. We may dream a dream of tightrope-type daring but instead we find ourselves folding laundry. Or we get up and go to work at a job that offers little in terms of excitement and thrills. Or we make the thousandth peanut butter and jelly sandwich of our lifetime. And sometimes, but only some times, we feel like we want to scream from the ordinariness and the mundanity and the boredom of it all.

Most of us aren't walking the tightrope of risk; we live lives of ordinary plodding, day in and day out.

My friend once described her current state as "plodding contentment" and I like that. I know that. I understand that. I am not living the life of which movies or books or church signs are made of and chances are neither are you. We aren't on national television risking our lives on some life threatening stunt or playing in the World Series. Is God better pleased with such famed drama? Or isn't He glorified in the contented heart of a humble servant who chooses to serve Him with gladness in mundane obscurity?

Our utter ordinariness reveals the glory of the Treasure. Our willingness to lose all for Christ shows His worth. We need not fret over our lack of glory and glamour, wins and losses, feats or failures. Serve Him well, where you are, win or lose, and know He delights to show the glory of His surpassing power as Treasure in a humble clay jar.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

I will never leave you

I lost it on Sunday afternoon. Hormones, weariness, taxes, and painful memories combined together to create a perfect storm of emotions, and I had a meltdown. I wanted someone to talk to, someone who could understand all that had led up to this moment. But as much as loved ones can wrap their arms around me and pray, they aren't able to enter the deep recesses of my heart where the sorrow resides. I was left feeling very alone. But when the tears dried, I had a choice to make. I could believe self-pity and fear, or I could listen to the truth. Thankfully the Holy Spirit enabled me to chose the latter and receive Words of comfort from a God who cannot lie.  I hope you will be comforted as well.

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. Psalm 103:14-15
Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. Hebrews 4:14-16
… for he has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” Hebrews 13:5b

"I will never leave thee nor forsake thee." It is almost impossible to reproduce in English the emphasis of the original, in which no less than five negatives are used to increase the strength of the negation, according to the Greek idiom. Perhaps the nearest approximation is to render it, "I will never, no, never leave thee, nor ever forsake thee." In view of such assurance we should fear no want, dread no distress, nor have any trepidation about the future. At no time, under any circumstances conceivable or inconceivable, for any possible cause, will God utterly and finally forsake one of His own. Then how safe they are! how impossible for one of them to eternally perish! God has here graciously condescended to give the utmost security to the faith of believers in all their difficulties and trials. The continued presence of God with us ensures the continued supply of every need.
An Exposition of Hebrews, A.W. Pink, Baker Book House, 1993, pg. 1151.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Monday Motivation

These past two weeks have been busier than usual, and I didn't get to the book review (with giveaway!) that I intended. That will have to wait until I post again in two weeks. In the meantime, I'm sharing a favorite quote from a favorite book, Knowing God
Knowing about God is crucially important for the living of our lives…we are cruel to ourselves if we try to live in this world without knowledge about the God whose world it is and who runs it. The world becomes a strange, mad, painful place, and life in it a disappointing and unpleasant business, for those who do not know about God. Disregard the study of God, and you sentence yourself to stumble and blunder through life blindfolded, as it were, with no sense of direction and no understanding of what surrounds you. This way you can waste your life and lose your soul.

Happy Monday, everyone.

Friday, April 4, 2014

God Created the Universe

"Let there be light," and there was light. 
The title of this post is, more or less, a restatement of the very first sentence in the Bible. Genesis 1:1 tells us, "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth." It’s talking about the origin of everything that exists except God himself. Everything — the earth and heavens, or the universe — exists because it was created by God.

Out of Nothing at His Command

Latin-loving theologians call this creation ex nihilo — or, to translate, creation "out of nothing"— meaning that God did not use preexisting materials. If God had created from material that was already there, his creation of the universe wouldn’t be the beginning, would it? 

Undergirding the existence of everything is God’s will (Revelation 4:11). God decided to create the world, not because of any need he had, but because he had a purpose he wanted to accomplish through it. He wanted to show his own glory through the things he made (Romans 11: 36; Psalm 19:1).

Based on his free choice to create the universe, God simply spoke, and the universe appeared. "Let there be," he said, and there was. He called out things that didn’t exist and so they began to exist (Romans 4:17).

It’s mind boggling, isn’t it? J. I. Packer writes, "To say that [God] created 'out of nothing' is to confess the mystery, not explain it."1 So if you can’t wrap your mind around something coming from nothing by means of God’s spoken word, you’re in good company.

One Triune Creator

The creation account in Genesis leaves room for only one God — the God who created everything. What we don't know from Genesis (although there are hints), is that the one God who created the universe exists as Trinity. Later, in other parts of scripture, we begin to see that all three persons of the Trinity were active in creation. For instance, 1 Corinthians 8:6 teaches that all things exist from the Father and through the Lord Jesus Christ. And it’s God’s Spirit who makes us and gives us life, says Job 33:4.

The three persons, however, did not work independently. Quoting Louis Berkhof:
The work [of creation] was not divided among the three persons, but the whole work … is ascribed to each one of the three persons.2
I’m not sure how this works, either. It’s another of the mysteries of God’s creative work.

Ruling the Universe

The God who creates everything that exists owns everything that exists. All creation and all creatures belong to him, and he rules over them. From a Mark Dever sermon on the book of Genesis:
[W]e should not be surprised to find him sovereign over what he has made. The author of all has authority over all.3
One way God rules the universe is by unfolding its history according to his plan. He accomplishes his will in every single thing that happens throughout creation in all of time.

Another way he rules his creation is by sustaining it and providing for the creatures in it. Creation only continues to exist because God continues to uphold it (Hebrews 1:3). Creatures continue to eat only because God feeds them. Creation is completely dependent on God who created it.

We Owe Him Everything

He made us; he sustains us. We owe him big-time.
Like the rest of creation, we were made to glorify God. We can glorify him
  • by acknowledging our dependence on him and trusting him to provide for us.
  • by being thankful for all his material gifts to us. God pronounced the material world good so we should receive his material blessings freely, with thanksgiving.
  • by living according to his purposes for us. We were made for God, so we should be God-focused people, finding our fulfillment in him.
  • by worshipping him for what he has made. To quote D. A. Carson: “The more we know about the created order — its vastness, its complexity, its physics … the more our response ought to be adoration and genuine awe.”4
What can you add to this list of appropriate responses to the God who created the universe?

Learn More

Here are a few ways to learn more about God’s work of creation:
  1. Read Genesis 1 and 2. 
  2. Read up on creation in your favorite systematic theology. Louis Berkhof’s chapters on creation—Creation in GeneralCreation of the Spiritual WorldCreation of the Material World—may be more difficult reading than a contemporary systematic theology, but they are especially thorough. 
  3. Watch or listen to The God Who Made Everything by D. A. Carson.