This blog focuses on the quest to know and please God in a constantly increasing way. The upward journey never ends. My prayer is that this blog will reflect a heart that seeks God and that it will encourage others who share the same heart desire.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Study Guide: Song of Solomon

Why is the book of Song of Solomon in the Bible? I know I’m not the only Christian who has ever wondered that. One day a single insight from someone else (I believe it was the second key below) piqued my interest and sent me on perhaps the most rewarding Bible study I have ever done. I lived in the book all day for several days and emerged with an understanding of why this book is called “the Song of Songs” (1:1).

There are three keys to unlocking the mystery of this odd little book. First, it tells a story – a love story about Solomon and one of his brides. It follows the ups and downs of their relationship, including her arrival at the palace, their courtship, wedding, honeymoon, and maturing love. If you don’t see the story line, the content seems random, repetitive, and purposeless.

Second, the story is given in form of conversation. The speaker shifts throughout the book as Solomon and his bride take turns speaking to (and about) each other. There are occasional statements made by others (often referred to as the daughters of Jerusalem), but basically the book is a dialogue between two lovers. If you don’t understand the switch in speakers, the book is very confusing.

Third, the story has a pretty obvious figurative meaning; the relationship between Solomon and his bride pictures the relationship between Christ and the Christian. God designed marriage as His best illustration of what He wants the believer’s relationship with Him to look like. (See Eph. 5:22-32.) Taking the time to state the story line in one’s own words will very quickly illuminate clear applications about the Christian’s relationship with God.  And, if perchance, none of the marriages you know inspire you regarding your relationship with God, the Bible provides a divinely-inspired picture of what marriage can and should be – an honest examination of the challenges combined with an uplifting display of the sweetness. If you don’t understand this deeper level of meaning, the book appears to be (at best) an example for marriage and (at worst) inappropriate.

While the book certainly contains insights about marriage that can be profitable for married couples, the primary message is deeper than that. The theme of the book is the journey toward intimacy between Christ and the believer. Stated more fully – fulfilling intimacy is achieved when the Christian recognizes Christ’s incredible love for him and yields himself in complete openness and surrender to Him.

The synopsis below is designed to aid in understanding the content of the book. The chapter summaries reveal the progression of the story line. The notes following each summary identify the changes in speakers by verse number (h=he, s=she, o=others). These deal primarily with the first and second keys above.

Chapter 1: Introduction and Betrothal - s: 2-7; h: 8-11; s: 12-14; h: 15; s: 16; h: 17
Chapter 2: Courtship - s: 1; h: 2; s: 3-6; h: 7; s: 8-13; h: 14-15; s: 16-17
Chapter 3: Readiness for Marriage and the Wedding - s: 1-4; h: 5; o: 6-11
Chapter 4: Wedding Night and Next Morning - h: 1-15; s: 16
Chapter 5: Bride Shuns Then Seeks Her Husband - h: 1; s: 2-8; o: 9; s: 10-16
Chapter 6: Restoration of the Relationship - o: 1; s: 2-3; h: 4-9; o: 10-13
Chapter 7: Increased Intimacy - h: 1-9; s: 10-13
Chapter 8: Mature and Lifelong Intimacy - s: 1-3; h: 4; o: 5; h: 6-7; s: 8-14

Once you understand the story line, it is fairly easy to see the parallels to the Christian’s walk with God, the third of the keys to understanding the book. The following questions and statements are designed to enhance that appreciation. These paragraphs are written in terms of the bride and groom, but remember that they are really about the believer and Christ. Consider them in that context.

Notice the intense love of the groom. Where in the book do you see his love faltering or failing? Was she worthy of such love when she came to him? Look for displays of his patience and tenderness. Notice how he waits for her to be ready for each deeper step rather than forcing her. Look at the things he did for her out of his love, and think of New Testament parallels.

Notice the tremendous change in her from the beginning (1:5-6) to the end (6:10-13 and 8:5). How did the change come about?

Notice the strong emphasis on fruitfulness. How important is fruitfulness to a woman? Is the groom’s desire for intimacy selfish or does he want blessing for his wife through it? Think about intimacy as having the purpose of fruitfulness. Consider the technical side; fruitfulness can only happen as he puts his seed into her, and that fruit will look like him because it comes from him.

From the beginning, his descriptions see her as what she will become rather than what is actually true and how she sees herself. What do his descriptions of her say about his estimation of her beauty? Most of them fit into the categories of jewels, objects of great beauty and admiration, spices and perfumes, fruitful plants and animals, and sweet things. Do his descriptions make sense, showing thoughtful consideration and careful examination of her parts? How well and how completely does he know her?

In light of the above paragraph, how completely does the bride need to yield and open herself to her husband? What can she hide and hold back from him? (You may find it insightful to look up the Hebrew meaning of the comparison in 7:1b.) Think about why this particular description receives some of his most outstanding praise. What is so special about it?

What does the bride do to prepare for their times together? How does that change throughout the book? Why does she do it? Think of the parallels between conditions conducive to intimacy in marriage and proper conditions for intimacy with God. Take note of the extreme pleasure he has in being intimate with her. Is there any doubt that he thoroughly enjoys these times?

Notice the bride’s increasing appreciation for intimacy. Does she initially appreciate his advances? Do her initial statements reflect passion/infatuation or true love? How many times does she put him off or shut him out? How does this change throughout the book? At the end of the book, who is doing the seeking (8:1 and 8:14)?

I think 4:16 is the key verse of the book. On the morning after their wedding night, he compares his time with her to a lovely garden full of wonderful things. In essence, he says, “Wow! That was incredible! I totally enjoyed it.” Then he kind of waits to see how she will respond. She answers with an open invitation: “If you enjoyed it that much, then I am yours. Partake of the garden as much as you want.”

After the sweetness of the passage above, you would think that nothing could ever come between them, so chapter 5 is somewhat shocking. Who is the one to allow the breach? If love exists, will the parties be content for the breach to continue? What is involved in pursuing a return to intimacy? She is asked two questions. Why is he so special (5:9)? Where would he have gone (6:1)? She knows the answer to both right away. This is a good place to mention 2:7, 3:5, and 8:4. You may have noticed I attributed these parallel statements to the groom, though some translations show them as from the bride. I believe this to be a mistranslation, as it is the feminine form of the word for lover. Throughout the book, who is likely to leave? The groom relishes their special time together; as long as she is willing to continue resting at his side, he will do everything possible to protect and elongate that time.

God uses the most intimate of human interactions to picture the communion He wants to have with His children. That special closeness will not happen every day, but it had better be happening on a regular basis. If it isn’t, do you see the threat to the relationship?

There’s much more in this book; my own study is nearly 50 typed pages. This is enough to get you started into this wonderful gem of a book. I’ve noticed something interesting about people who have studied and understood Song of Solomon. They don’t make mundane comments like, “I learned a lot” or “That was an interesting study.” No, after capturing the heart of Song of Solomon, people say things like, “Wow. What an incredible and special book!” Such a jaw-dropping, heart-quickening response won’t come in a mere reading of the book or a brief hour spent in its pages. It will come, however, with focused and extended study, because this book contains a phenomenal treasure for those bold enough to seek it.

“Awake, O north wind, and come, wind of the south; make my garden breathe out fragrance, let its spices be wafted abroad. May my beloved come into his garden and eat its choice fruits!” Song of Solomon 4:16 (NASB)

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Is Love a Need?

We’ve probably all heard the common statement that there is a God shaped-hole in every person, an emptiness that can be filled only by God. I know there are some Christians who don’t really like that statement; I’m not sure I remember exactly what they don’t like about it, but I think it has to do with the statement’s potential for minimizing the necessity for God or trivializing the magnitude of salvation. I think we can all understand, however, what is intended by the statement. Man without God is constantly searching for something without knowing what it is he seeks; his quest will never be satisfied until he finds God, because God is the only answer to man’s greatest needs.

I would like to give my own variation of that statement. I believe there is a love-shaped hole in every person. The picture presented by my version isn’t quite right. Better wording might refer to man is a love-starved sponge. Without love, man is missing something essential. He is like a dried-up sponge with no vitality. When we think of the necessities of life, we think of food, clothing, and shelter – things that man cannot live without. I believe love needs to be added to that list. Love is a fundamental need.

I don’t think I’m making up any of the evidence to follow. Consider children who are behavior problems, whether mildly as class clowns or to the more extreme level of involvement in gangs and violence. Do we not find that these children are often crying out for someone to love them? Think of how many criminals you’ve heard about who describe a childhood without love. Why will young ladies go home with a guy they meet in a bar or marry someone they barely know after meeting him on the Internet or in a singles’ club? Why will they marry abusive men, men with criminal records, and so on? It is because they are looking for love and are settling for the best they can find; sadly, some of them are glad to have found something that resembles love better than anything in their previous experience. Why do single people (or those without significant others) have a shorter life expectancy than married people? Why does it seem a widow or widower often dies shortly after the death of the spouse? Why did hospitals start encouraging parents and nurses to hold preemies rather than the previous tendency to keep them in isolation? All of these evidence a conscious or unconscious display of the importance of love.

God made humans as social beings. He made us to give and receive love. Man, by his very nature, seeks love. He will seek it from friends, family, parents, spouses, and children. Some even seek it from a dog or other creature. Man will receive some love from any or all of those sources. That love (within proper boundaries) is good. That love, however, will never completely satisfy. Each of those relationships is both temporary and imperfect. People will eventually die or move away. People will change, sometimes becoming involved with new people or activities or even abandoning those who were previously important to them. Every human relationship will at times disappoint, and no relationship will completely satisfy.

Man is left then with a hunger for love. Ultimately, no human or combination of humans can meet the need for love. As hard as he seeks, and as many relationships as he pursues, man will not find completely satisfying love until he finds it in God. The fact that God answers the need for love only makes sense. After all, God defines Himself as being love. “God is love” (I John 3:8). Finding God is finding love. We might assert that man’s greatest need is salvation. In considering whether it is salvation or love that man needs, it is interesting to note that God’s gift of salvation is, in fact, the greatest expression of God’s love. “By this the love of God was manifested in us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world so that we might live through Him. In this is love . . . that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (I John 3:9-10). God’s love and salvation are so closely linked that they cannot be separated.

Salvation, however, is just the beginning of finding God’s love. We need to be always growing in knowing the love of God - always getting deeper into His boundless love. Sadly, we often don’t appreciate or crave God’s love like we should. Perhaps we are content with the partial satisfaction found in the love of others. Maybe we are too busy seeking it elsewhere. It is even possible that we simply have no idea of how great God’s love is, and therefore we are unaware that there is anything more to seek.

I recently listened to a series of lessons that Nancy Leigh DeMoss taught on the Song of Solomon. She titled the series How to Fall and Stay in Love with Jesus. I wouldn’t teach the book quite the same way she did, but she was definitely on target with the main idea. The relationship between Christ and the Christian should be incredibly sweet. The love God has for us is limitless and the potential for an intimate relationship with Him is profound. No other relationship and no other pursuit is more important than knowing God and His love. This pursuit is worthy of our time and effort. We need to grow both in knowing God’s love and in loving Him more. In spite of our greatest efforts, we will still fall short of loving God properly and understanding His love, but thankfully God will never fall short in loving us or in acting on that love. As humans, we need and seek love, and the love of God is sufficient to meet our deepest need.

“And that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled up to all the fullness of God.” Ephesians 3:17b-19 (NASB)

Saturday, August 24, 2013

I Don't Get It - Part 3

We’ve considered why Christians sometimes have difficulty understanding the Bible on their own, and I didn’t want to end that examination without taking a look at the following verses.

Concerning him we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing. For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you have need again for someone to teach you the elementary principles of the oracles of God, and you have come to need milk and not solid food. For everyone who partakes only of milk is not accustomed to the word of righteousness, for he is an infant. But solid food is for the mature, who because of practice have their senses trained to discern good and evil. Hebrews 5:11-14 (NASB)

This passage contains several insights about understanding Scripture.
First, there are some things in the Bible that are harder to understand than others. The author wanted to give additional teaching regarding Melchizedek, and he identifies the topic as one that is hard to explain.

Second, some Christians are not prepared to understand the more difficult concepts of the Bible. The writer implies that some Christians would be ready for this difficult teaching, but these Christians were not.

Third, there is not always a valid excuse for not being prepared to understand the difficult concepts. It’s logical for a baby (Christian) to need milk and not be ready for meat. These Christians, however, were no longer babies. They should have been ready not only to eat spiritual meat, but to teach it to others also. They had at the very least stagnated, but more likely regressed to the point of not being able to take in more than very basic teaching (and they needed reminders even of that).

Fourth, there was a reason for their stagnation or regression. They were dull of hearing. Many things are sharpened with use or are kept effective by care and regular use. These Christians had been so lax in their listening that they had lost their mental sharpness when it came to spiritual things. All they could manage now were the fundamental, foundational principles.

Fifth, there is a remedy for dullness of spiritual understanding. The dullness of these believers was because they were not accustomed to the Word. They weren’t used to it or familiar with it. They were not used to studying it and therefore didn’t have the skill to understand it. In order to eat the meat of the Word, they needed to be mature, and the verse tells how to arrive at maturity. It is by training the senses through practice. If they were weak because they weren’t used to studying the Word, the way to become strong was to train through practice. They needed to work and give effort. People don’t become mature overnight, but they will never become mature if they don’t start to exercise and start making attempts at a more solid diet.

This passage seems a bit negative in its approach. In fact, the writer was scolding the Christians for their dullness in understanding. We can view the passage, however, from a very positive standpoint. The passage reveals what to do to turn things around. Many of the reasons that we saw last in the previous post for why people have trouble understanding the Bible (and therefore many of the solutions to improve understanding) have to do with precisely what this passage is talking about – practice.

With practice comes improvement in the skills needed to enhance understanding. With practice the confusing wording becomes more familiar. With practice come increasing levels of success. With greater success, Christians start to expect more from their reading and therefore start to give greater effort. They have hope as they begin to understand that they can profit from the Word. All of these are issues addressed in the previous post. All of them, along with this passage from Hebrews, are tied to the final and most critical issue mentioned last time – the aspect of time spent in the Word. We can’t practice and build our spiritual senses without time. The more time we spend training, the better we will become at chewing solid food. We need to become accustomed to the Word and to spending time in it. If we spend the time seeking, God will help us to mature, and our understanding of the Word will increase.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

I Don't Get It - Part 2

Many Christians make comments about not being able to understand the Bible on their own. We saw four reasons last time for why that should not be true - but sometimes it seems to be true. Why do people struggle to profit personally from the Bible?

There are a number of possible reasons, and not all of them apply in every situation. Looking at the reasons for difficulty in understanding should help to provide answers for how to change that.

First, some Christians struggle to understand the Bible because they are immature or worldly. I Cor. 3:1-3 “And I, brethren, could not speak to you as to spiritual men, but as to men of flesh, as to infants in Christ. I gave you milk to drink, not solid food; for you were not yet able to receive it, for you are still fleshly.” Paul says these Christians struggled to understand the deeper concepts of the Bible due to their fleshly nature. They were still focused on themselves and their own pleasures rather than on God; this improper focus was evidenced by jealousy and strife. While there is nothing we can do about how long we have been saved, there is something we can do about the focus of our lives. As we turn away from our past worldly and selfish lifestyle and turn more to God, we will be better able to understand His Word.

Second, some Christians struggle with comprehending the Bible because they are convinced they can’t. This mindset may come from early frustration in reading the Word. It may be reinforced by others who make it sound like understanding the Bible is impossible. It is sometimes fostered by spoken or implied impressions that only pastors can understand the Bible and that’s why we go to church. When we are convinced that reading the Bible is pointless, we probably don’t even try, or if we do, our efforts are minimal. The previous post, however, clearly showed that we can understand the Bible.

Third, limited effort can lead to limited understanding. Low expectations or sometimes a lack of guidance can lead to a very casual approach to the Bible. A previous post examined the need to read the Bible with purpose. We ought to be looking to learn. If we have nothing to look for as we read, we will read very casually and will not profit much from our reading. We’re all familiar with students whose eyes pass over all the words in their history assignment, but they have no idea what they've read because they were not concentrating or seeking to learn.

Fourth, on the opposite side, sometimes our frustration in understanding the Bible is because we expect too much. Sometimes we expect complete understanding. Some passages in the Bible are harder to understand than others. Even in the “easier” passages, it is completely normal to gain additional understanding in subsequent readings. The fact that we don’t understand everything should not discourage us from learning what we can. The reality is that there are some things in the Bible that we will never understand (at least in this lifetime). Rather than giving up because we lack complete understanding, we should be grateful for each little step of progress. While we may not be scholars, we can learn enough to make our reading profitable.

Fifth, sometimes the wording of the Bible is challenging to understand. Among other things, there is unfamiliar vocabulary. We may lack insight into the customs or historical context. There are sentences that stretch for several verses at a time. Depending on the translation being used, these challenges may be noticed to greater or lesser extents. It is not my intent in this post to open a controversy about translations; I merely observe the reality that some translations are more difficult to read. Without literal comprehension of what the passage actually says at face value, it is impossible to have deeper levels of comprehension. The answer to this issue may be found in an easier translation, a dictionary, repeated readings of a passage, or stating the passage in one’s own words. The reader must work to achieve comprehension.

Sixth, Christians struggle to understand the Bible because they lack helpful skills. There are tools that can be used to help understanding. These may be things like a Bible dictionary or concordance, but I’m more focused on ways of thinking. There are too many things to be shared in this post, but future posts will address more of this topic. Many of these tips can be learned by listening to a good preacher. There are considerations like studying a paragraph rather than a single verse, recognizing that “for” often means “because,” learning to look back when seeing the words “therefore” or “wherefore,” reading within context, properly linking verses together, and recognizing lists. These are all things that should improve with practice. In many ways, it is similar to mastering a video game, computer program, or type of word puzzle. You start to recognize patterns and strategies so that progress comes more smoothly.

Seventh, and I believe most critical, Christians fail to understand the Word of God because they don’t spend enough time in it. The Bible is powerful, and the Holy Spirit is there to help. God will reward those who seek His truth. Time in the Word will bring learning. So the largest deterrent to understanding is a lack of time in the Word. Ten minutes a week is not enough to develop mastery of anything, Bible comprehension included. For illustration purposes, let’s assign one tidbit of learning for ten minutes in the Bible. At ten minutes per week, a Christian gains 52 tidbits per year. At an hour per day, however, the number of tidbits would be 2190. The difference is huge, and that difference is compounded over a period of five or ten years.

If we limit our understanding of the Bible to what others share with us, we limit our learning to time in church and available money to spend on books. There is nothing wrong with profiting from what others have learned. There is something precious, however, in digging out on one’s own the unlimited truth contained in the Bible. There is joy in that profitable time with God in which He is personally doing the teaching. It is exciting to see the Scriptures come alive and to realize that God has a message to share. It may take work, but the profit comes through the effort. God can give understanding if we will ask.

Open my eyes, that I may behold
Wonderful things from Your law. Psalm 119:18 (NASB)

Saturday, August 17, 2013

I Don't Get It - Part 1

In my limited experience as an adult Sunday school teacher, and just in the process of conversations, I’ve heard Christians make comments like the following:
       “I don’t understand the Bible when I read it.”
       “I can’t study the Bible without a devotional guide.” 
       “I never knew what that passage was talking about.”
       “I avoid the Psalms because I don’t understand them.”
It wouldn’t be completely surprising to hear these statements from new Christians or from young people, but I have heard them from adults who have been in church all their lives and who have been saved for decades.

I find these statements both sad and troubling. They are sad because they come from people who aren’t receiving the blessing they should be receiving from the Bible. They are troubling because they should not be true. A Christian should be able to pick up his Bible, read it for himself, and profit from his understanding of it.

We should be able to understand the Bible because the Bible itself is powerful. The Bible is not like any other book. It is written by God in a way that allows it to minister to hearts. It convicts, instructs, guides, and transforms because of its nature and inspiration. Its truths are accessible to anyone, even a child.
·         All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work. II Timothy 3:16-17 (all verses from NASB)
·         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. Hebrews 4:12
·         Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path. Psalm 119:105
·         The unfolding of Your words gives light; it gives understanding to the simple. Psalm 119:130
·         The law of the LORD is perfect, restoring the soul; the testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple. Psalm 19:7
·         But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit. II Corinthians 3:18
·         “Truly I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it at all.” Mark 10:15

We should be able to understand the Bible because it reveals the clear and powerful words of Jesus. No one else has ever taught like Jesus taught. From the time that Christ lived on the earth, people have been amazed by His teaching and have held it up as valuable. As Christians, we profit more than others from the teaching of Jesus. Unlike the people in Jesus’ day, we have His words written down so that we can continue to read and study the divinely-chosen selections in their inspired accuracy. By their very nature, Jesus’ words reveal truth.
·         The officers answered, “Never has a man spoken the way this man speaks.” John 7:46
·         Then they were amazed at His teaching, for He was teaching them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. Mark 1:22
·         Then beginning with Moses and with all the prophets, He explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures. They said to one another, “Were not our hearts burning within us while He was explaining the Scriptures to us?” Luke 24:27&32
·         Then He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures. Luke 24:45
·         “For this I have been born, and for this I have come into the world, to testify to the truth.” John 18:37b

We should be able to understand the Bible because we have the Spirit to help us. One of the primary functions of the Holy Spirit is to help Christians understand God’s truth. This is not true for the unsaved, but it is true for every Christian. We have a divine Helper for our understanding.
·         “I will ask the Father, and He will give you another Helper, that He may be with you forever; that is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it does not see Him or know Him, but you know Him because He abides with you and will be in you.” John 14:16-17
·         “But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said to you.” John 14:26
·         “When the Helper comes, whom I will send to You from the Father, that is the Spirit of truth who proceeds from the Father, He will testify about Me.” John 15:26
·         “But when He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you into all the truth; for He will not speak on His own initiative, but whatever He hears, He will speak; and He will disclose to you what is to come. He will glorify Me, for He will take of Mine and will disclose it to you.” John 16:13-14

We should be able to understand the Bible because God wants us to understand His Word. The Bible is God’s communication to us, His instruction for how to live life. God includes in it everything we need to know, and He does not intend to withhold something so necessary from us. God wants to teach His truth to His children. He gives us the Spirit on purpose to help accomplish this task.
·         Seeing that His divine power has granted to us everything pertaining to life and godliness, through the true knowledge of Him who called us by His own glory and excellence. II Peter 1:3
·         Let my lips utter praise, for You teach me Your statutes. Psalm 119:171
·         “If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him?” Luke 11:13 [We just saw the Spirit’s role in spiritual understanding.]
·         For to us God revealed them [the wisdom God has prepared for those who love Him] through the Spirit; for the Spirit searches all things, even the depths of God. Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may know the things freely given to us by God. But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised. I Corinthians 2:10,12,&14

Based on these four truths, a Christian should be able to understand the Bible as he reads it. The next post will look at some reasons why this seems not always to be true.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

What We Know When We Don't Know

                  Profit (Sonnet 18)
It’s hard to face the tests by God decreed;
They often leave me puzzled and in pain.
Yet they’re acceptable and meet a need;
Beyond okay, they’re good and give great gain.
My eyes are dim, my knowledge incomplete.
Though I can’t fully understand or know,
I still can worship thankful at His feet
For skillful work that He’s designed just so.
I cannot grasp the profit just for me;
In growth and trust, there’s so much I have gained.
Beyond my “now,” there’s much that I can’t see;
To me alone His work is not restrained.
Aware or not, I’ll thank Him all my days,
And for His glorious work give Him much praise.

I’ve been reading lately about Joseph. As we trace the story of his life, we see him obeying his father, being diligent in his employment, resisting temptation, showing kindness to others, making the best of bad situations, and trusting patiently in God. His upright actions were “rewarded” with hatred, betrayal, false accusation, imprisonment, and neglect.

Joseph must have wondered what was going on. He could not have known what God had in store for him or that all of these trials were necessary to bring about an amazing plan. It would have been easy to ask, “Why removal from family? Why slavery? Why prison? Why forgotten when it seemed justice was finally in sight?”

If Joseph asked these questions, they are not recorded in Scripture. Instead of questions about what he did not understand, we see Joseph making wonderful statements about what he did understand. (Granted, he made these statements after seeing some of the purpose revealed, but he had lived faithfully through the preceding years because of his trust in God, a trust based in the knowledge that God was at work in his life. In these verses he says with his words what he had previously said with his life.)
Gen. 45:5 “God sent me before you to preserve life.”
Gen. 45:7 “God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant in the earth, and to keep you alive by a great deliverance.”
Gen. 50:20 “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result, to preserve many people alive.” (NASB)

Did Joseph know all of this when he was in the pit? When he was being carried away as a slave? When he was cast into disfavor by an outright lie? When he was living in the darkness of the prison? No. Many years passed before he saw what God was doing.

Can you imagine the light of understanding that dawned when Joseph saw his brothers appear at the great storehouses he had constructed, desperate for food in the midst of the great famine? Can you see his mind putting two and two together, thinking, “So this is why God has me in this position”? Knowing that five years of famine remained, he understood that the difficult and distasteful events of his life were purposefully arranged by God in order to preserve the nation of Israel, which otherwise would have starved into extinction.

We don’t see the outcomes in our lives either. Weeks, months, years, and even decades may pass, with each one bringing additional confusion and hardship. We wonder why God is doing such things. In time, we may come to see the individually bizarre pieces fitting together in a rapturous masterpiece of God’s design. Then again, maybe we won’t. But God knows. Whether we see it or not, and no matter how long it takes for us to understand, God knows exactly what He is doing. He crafts each event to fit perfectly into His master plan. While we don’t know what God is doing, we do know that He is doing, and for that we can praise Him.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Some Golden Daybreak

"Some Golden Daybreak" by C. A. Blackmore
1. Some glorious morning sorrow will cease.
Some glorious morning all will be peace.
Heartaches all ended, school days all done -
Heaven will open–Jesus will come.

2. Sad hearts will gladden, all shall be bright.
Goodbye forever to earth’s dark night.
Changed in a moment, like Him to be.
Oh, glorious daybreak, Jesus I’ll see.

3. Oh, what a meeting, there in the skies.
No tears nor crying shall dim our eyes.
Loved ones united eternally.
Oh, what a daybreak that morning will be.

chorus: Some golden daybreak Jesus will come.
Some golden daybreak, battles all won.
He’ll shout the victory, break through the blue -
Some golden daybreak, for me, for you.

This hymn is fairly new to me but has quickly become one of my favorites. Anticipation of the return of Jesus and the hope of heaven give great stability and encouragement as we go through this life. I can think of four major reasons for which we ought to long for heaven.

“Jesus I’ll see.”
First, we will be united with our Savior. We will see face to face the one who loves us better than anyone else, the one who suffered and died to give us eternal life. We will finally be able to see Him, enjoy His presence, and worship Him forever.

“Oh, what a meeting, there in the skies.”  “Loved ones united eternally.”
Second, we will be reunited with our loved ones who have gone before. Those who have lost a spouse, parent, or child find this hope especially sweet. It is a blessing to know that goodbyes here on this earth are not forever when both people know Jesus as Savior.

“Sorrow will cease.”  “All will be peace.”  “Heartaches all ended.”  “Sad hearts will gladden, all shall be bright. Goodbye forever to earth’s dark night.”  “No tears nor crying shall dim our eyes.” “Battles all won.”
Third, we will be free from the troubles of this broken world. This is the most mentioned aspect in Mr. Blackmore’s hymn and seems to be the facet most often mentioned by God’s people. While some might view this as a somewhat selfish hope of those desiring to escape hardship, it is a legitimate hope that is presented in numerous Bible passages.

“School days all done.”  “Changed in a moment, like Him to be.”
Fourth, we will be free from this body of death that struggles to learn and grow. This aspect has come to be more and more meaningful to me, and I want to focus on it for a moment. I am reminded of Paul’s battle in Romans 7, in which he wanted so earnestly to do the right thing, yet his flesh fought against him, and he often failed. I think also of James 1:3-4 (among other passages) that make it clear that the trials we face in life are designed to grow us in godliness. They are teaching times that are designed to mature and mold us into the image of Christ.

I love the phrase from the hymn, “School days all done,” and not in a humorous way as a teacher; I love it because it offers a longed-for hope that so accurately reflects life. Learning is not always easy; some of the lessons of Christian growth are, in fact, very challenging. Not learning the lessons, however, is not the answer. It is frustrating to try to do a job or live life without having learned the necessary foundation and skills. Just like in school, the lessons provide necessary preparation for life, but in light of how much there is to learn and my difficulty in learning, I do long for “graduation.” While it is too long to post here, one of my favorite original poems deals with this concept.

"Beloved, now we are children of God, and it has not appeared as yet what we will be. We know that when He appears, we will be like Him, because we will see Him just as He is.” I John 3:2 (NASB)

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

The Bible: Reliable and Necessary

I’ve been doing a fair amount of reading lately - specifically Christian non-fiction. A couple of thoughts have stood out to me.

First, God’s Word is reliable. Its reliability is shown by its ability to consistently provide truth for countless people in multiple time frames and in diverse situations. I’ve read books by several different authors; as they’ve shared from their own lives and from the lives of others, they all keep arriving at the same truths. They find hope and encouragement in the same verses.

What that tells me is that is that the specific circumstances don’t matter. People come to the Bible from countless life scenarios, and the Word of God is able to meet whatever the need is. Its truths are so timeless and fundamental that they are applicable to every situation life can present.

I am also reminded that the Bible (as a whole and in its individual parts) means something. The reason that multiple people can find help in the same verses is that those verses have a specific message which the readers independently discover as they read the same passage. The same meaning and therefore the same hope, consistently found by person after person in century after century, demonstrate that the Bible is reliable. Christians today can find the same help that has been found by Christians throughout history.

Speaking of help, the Bible is real, and it has a very real impact on lives. Following the recent church bus crash in Indiana, many observers were amazed at the faith and peace demonstrated by those affected. I read an Internet comment posted by a skeptic; he asserted that Christians’ acceptance of terrible events as being God’s will and having greater purpose was essentially an excuse to live a delusional, fairy tale life. He suggested that such statements are an empty mantra that Christians use to avoid dealing with pain.

I can understand why the writer would think this, but my heart responds that he thinks the way he does only because he has never experienced the inexplicable peace and inexhaustible grace that God gives. Those who have experienced those things know they are real, and the reliable Scriptures remind Christians of that hope through the same precious verses.

The second thought I’ve had in my reading is that we never outgrow our need for God’s Word. Regardless of the level (or perceived level) of our spiritual maturity, we still need to grow, and we still need the Bible to help us do that. I’ve recently read a couple of books by Elisabeth Elliot. She transparently shares the reality of Christian growth, admitting that at sixty years of age she still had areas of weakness and struggle. She shares personal testimony that reveals her continued striving for growth.

I wouldn’t put myself in the same group with Elisabeth Elliot, but I understand her position. I’ve often been very aware of my continued struggles; in light of such weakness, I’ve wondered how I can possibly be of service to God. I don’t think I’m alone in my evaluation of Christians in prominent positions: authors, radio personalities, pastors, pastors’ wives, missionaries, university presidents and professors. I see these respected leaders, those typically invited as public speakers, as being beyond any significant struggle, especially in the day to day elements of ordinary life. (They might be affected for a day or two by a major event like cancer or death of a loved one.) It’s easy to think that those people can serve God, but that I will never reach a level where I will be able to.

The truth is that these people struggle too. Occasionally we meet someone with the humility, bravery, and compassion to admit it. It would neither be right nor beneficial for these respected leaders to publically disclose or put the focus on every little (or big) struggle they have. There is something very encouraging, however, when a leader does that in an appropriate way. We “common” Christians are able to realize that even those we view as role models, leaders, and spiritual heroes are still in the battle. They still need God’s Word and help every day. In spite of the things that still trip them up and frustrate them, God uses them. God doesn’t require perfection for service. When we realize that and are willing to serve God while still in the pursuit of sanctification, He can use us in spite of ourselves. The key is that we must earnestly seek Him and the truth of His Word as we constantly pursue our journey toward godliness.

“All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.” II Timothy 3:16-17 (NASB)

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Multiplied Trials

       What happens when trials are piled on top of each other? When it’s not just one or two challenges, but a whole fistful? There are several Bible passages that specifically address the topic of multiplied trials.

II Cor. 7:5-6 For even when we came into Macedonia our flesh had no rest, but we were afflicted on every side: conflicts without, fears within. But God, who comforts the depressed, comforted us by the coming of Titus.
       Paul came into a new territory and was assaulted (squeezed into a narrow place) by multiple trials. The attacks were so numerous that he didn’t have time to rest or to absorb one attack before the next one hit. He could turn nowhere without seeing another assault. There were conflicts externally, with other people, and assaults internally, as he faced fears within. These multiplied trials left Paul in need of comfort. Paul’s description of God suggests that Paul was depressed by his trials. God knew that Paul was in this difficult time of multiplied trials, and He responded in characteristic manner by giving comfort. God expressed His love through a dear brother who brought encouraging news about other believers and their loving concern for Paul.

II Cor. 4:8-9 We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not despairing; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed.
       Here Paul describes a new situation of multiplied trials in which he was afflicted in every way. Everywhere he looked he saw afflictions - personally, in ministry, in relationships, etc. Paul was perplexed; he didn’t know what to do in these multiplied trials. He was also persecuted, struck down, and in constant danger of death. In this difficult setting, Paul moderated his natural responses. As challenging and confusing as these situations were, the afflictions did not overwhelm him. He was not crushed, despairing, forsaken, or destroyed. While his place was narrow, God had a way of escape. Paul was at a loss for answers, but God knew what to do. In the persecution, God had not left him, and though beaten down, God continued to preserve him. Although the multiplied trials were very hard, because of Paul’s faith, they were not destructive.
       Surrounding verses show us something of the purpose of these multiplied trials. v. 7 “But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, so that the surpassing greatness of the power will be of God and not from ourselves.” v. 10b “So that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body.” Such trials definitely illustrate the weakness of our human bodies. Going through these difficulties without being destroyed gives evidence that a greater power sustains us. When we are preserved in spite of our weakness, God’s power is clearly displayed and Jesus in magnified.

James 1:2-4 Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.
       This passage refers to an assortment of different types of adversities that put us to the test. These trials surround us without warning and with nothing we can do to prevent them. Two instructions are given. First, we are to consider such circumstances to be a setting for all joy. This cheerfulness and calm delight is based not on the trials themselves, but in what we know. We know that the trials produce endurance, which leads to maturity. The trials are doing a long-term good work that outshines the temporary pain; they are accomplishing something worthy of rejoicing. Second, we are to let endurance have its perfect result of making us mature and complete. Instead of fighting against the trials or resenting the endurance they require, we must submit. An important reassurance is given in v. 5. “But if any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all generously and without reproach, and it will be given to him.” In the midst of such trials, it is not surprising that we don’t know how to respond. Whether we lack wisdom for maximizing spiritual growth or for responding practically to the trial itself, God freely offers the wisdom we need.

I Pet. 1:6-7 In this you greatly rejoice, even though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been distressed by various trials, so that the proof of your faith, being more precious than gold which is perishable, even though tested by fire, may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.
       Peter reveals the very natural effect of testing; it causes grief, heaviness, and sorrow. That is not the end; Peter also gives encouraging reminders about the trials. First, they are only for a little while; they will not last forever. Second, the trials are necessary. God leaves us in the trials only as long as they are needed for our profit. Third, the purpose is to prove our faith, like the value of gold is tested by fire. The test shows that our faith is real, because it is our faith that makes the difference in how we go through the trials. Fourth, the fact that our faith passes the test brings praise and glory and honor to God. Interestingly, the cause for the rejoicing mentioned is not one of those four things; that goes back to vs. 3-5. We can rejoice greatly even in trials because we have been born again, have been promised an eternal reward in heaven, and are kept by God until that time.

II Cor. 1:5 For just as the sufferings of Christ are ours in abundance, so also our comfort is abundant through Christ.
       The abundant suffering in this passage refers to hardships or emotional pain. Pain requires comfort, and God is a God of comfort (v. 3). He gives comfort by calling His loved ones near for exhortation and consolation, and He does so in all of their afflictions. When these sufferings occur in abundance, the comfort is also in abundance. He gives extra comfort sufficient to meet the level of hurt. God’s purpose in giving us comfort is so that we can take His comfort and pass it on to others (v. 4). Abundant trials, resulting in abundant comfort from God, equip us to give comfort abundantly.

II Tim. 3:11 Persecutions, and sufferings, such as happened to me at Antioch, at Iconium and at Lystra; what persecutions I endured, and out of them all the Lord rescued me!
        Paul doesn’t give a specific number of persecutions and sufferings he faced; he probably couldn’t. He simply refers to them as “them all.” The verse shows intensity as Paul recognizes how much he endured and how powerful the trials were. The greatest intensity, however, is reserved for his conclusion – that God rescued him out of every one of those trials, with no exceptions, no matter how numerous or how difficult the trials were.

        Times of multiplied trials do come, and they are hard. God always knows, cares, and comforts. He always knows what to do and is always able to deliver. These temporary trials, which have great gain both in our maturity and in the magnification of God, will end; in the meantime we can take hope in our salvation and eternal destination.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Book Review: The Red Sea Rules

The Red Sea Rules by Robert J. Morgan is a short but powerful book based on God’s ministering of truth to the author-pastor as he pondered a loved one who was in a time of trouble. God used the Exodus 14 account about the parting of the Red Sea to illuminate ten strategies for difficult times. The author’s primary foundation is that “the same God who led you in will lead you out.”

The ten rules are based on verses found throughout the Biblical account. They are good anchors for Christians in trouble, essentially helping the sufferer’s eyes to be properly focused on God rather than on self or on the challenge. While based in the study in Exodus 14, each of the rules can be supported by other Scriptures, and frequently the author does so.

The book is clearly written and easy to read. Each of the ten rules is divided into a few very brief sections, allowing the book to be read in small snatches per day. While some may prefer this devotional approach, the book is also short enough to be read at a single sitting. Whether new or mature, Christians in the midst of difficulty will find the truths of this book helpful and encouraging.