Purpose

A blog that 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, December 27, 2014

Prove It

Many Christians are pretty shallow when it comes to faith. At this point I'm not even referring to how strong or how enduring faith is, but merely about the areas in which they choose to utilize faith. Many Christians want to exercise faith primarily in the personal realm. (Ex. God will give them a particular job or will heal their cancer). True faith is based on the stated words of God. (Ex. Abraham's faith in a specific promise from God or any Christian's faith in the statement that God will supply his needs).

An area of faith that I believe is sorely lacking is faith in the character of God. Modern society has developed numberless variations of what it believes God to be like. The reality is that God's nature is defined precisely by how God Himself reveals it in the Bible. Even Christians struggle to maintain a valid and genuine picture of God's character. They suggest, "I don't think God would . . . ," or, "I think God should . . . ." When they fail to see what they want to see, they adjust their picture of God or demand that He prove Himself by showing them what they want to see.

For example, God describes Himself as loving. The world might say there are certain nations or geographic regions that God does not love. They might present certain socio-economic groups or certain organizations of people as being outside the love of God. Christians might be wise enough to state that God loves the entire world, but then modify their belief at times to claim that God doesn't love them personally today or during this stage of their lives.

It is undeniably true that challenging times come into the life of every Christian. At these times, it may be difficult to observe God as loving or good or merciful or compassionate or gracious or wise or powerful or faithful. Failure to observe God's character, however, does not negate it. A Christian who states, "I wish God would have compassion on me," or, "I wish God were wise enough to know what to do," or, "I remember the days when God loved me," is denying the character that God says He has. This is a failure of faith. God's Word is always true. What God reveals about Himself is always true.

God is loving - not because believers always see it, but because He says so.
"We have come to know and have believed the love which God has for us. God is love, and the one who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in Him" (I John 4:16).

God is good - not because believers always see it, but because He says so.
"The LORD is good, a stronghold in the day of trouble, and He knows those who take refuge in Him" (Nahum 1:7).

God is merciful - not because believers always see it, but because He says so.
"But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us" (Ephesians 2:4).

God is compassionate - not because believers always see it, but because He says so.
"Just as a father has compassion on his children, so the LORD has compassion on those who fear Him" (Psalm 103:13).

God is gracious - not because believers always see it, but because He says so.
"And He has said to me, 'My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness'" (II Corinthians 12:9a).

God is wise - not because believers always see it, but because He says so.
"Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways!" (Romans 11:33).

God is powerful - not because believers always see it, but because He says so.
"'Behold, I am the LORD, the God of all flesh; is anything too difficult for Me?'" (Jeremiah 32:27).

God is faithful - not because believers always see it, but because He says so.
"For He Himself has said, 'I will never desert you, nor will I ever forsake you" (Hebrews 13:5b).

I do not doubt in the least that there are times, perhaps even extended episodes of life, in which the believer does not see these qualities of God. There may be long seasons in which God's characteristics seem to be veiled from view. That does not prevent them from being true. Man's observational skills may be clouded by his limited human understanding, his curtailed mortal perception, or even his restrictive sinful nature. While he does not currently see God's love, for example, that love emanates just as brightly now as it always has. The believer is surrounded by it just as much as he was in previous situations of life during which he was aware of that love.

A believer with faith will say something like this: "At this point in my life, I do not see God's power. It seems that He is not doing anything on my behalf and is not changing my difficult situation. HOWEVER, I know that God is powerful, because He tells me so in His Word. Therefore, by faith I will believe that God is exercising His power in this situation even though I do not see it. I choose to believe that God's power has everything under control, that He is working good and limiting evil perfectly in accord with His plan. Someday I may see how His power was shown through this time, or maybe I never will, but regardless of what I see or do not see, I know that God is powerful and that He is exercising His power in my life now."

God does not have to prove Himself. A believer does not need to see God's character in order for it to be true. Demanding such a display indicates a lack of faith. A reticence to believe God without proof denies the faith that a believer claims to have.

"For we walk by faith, not by sight." II Corinthians 5:7 (NASB)

Saturday, December 20, 2014

The Child

Christmas is a wonderful time for reflecting on who God is and what He has done. Two Christmas songs have recently caught my attention, each of which pointed me to the incredible gift of my Savior.

The first, though common, is not what I would consider to be a theologically deep church hymn. The elementary children sang it at our school concert this past week. "Do You Hear What I Hear?" describes the night when Christ was born and the response to His birth. The final verse ends with these words:

"The Child, the Child, sleeping in the night -
He will bring us goodness and light.
He will bring us goodness and light."

I thought of this beautiful insight into the purpose of the Christ-child. On that night so long ago, He slept as any newborn baby would. However, He was not just any newborn baby.

This Child who slept in His humble surroundings brought to the world something that no one else could ever bring. He showed us His goodness - God's goodness - and He provided a way for those who believe in Him to reflect that goodness. His salvation will ultimately usher in a new world where evil will be permanently defeated and goodness will reign forever.

The Savior also brought light. He brought hope and truth to a dark world. The truth of salvation shines forth to any who will accept it. Without Christ the world would be hopelessly trapped in darkness, but His coming changed all that. He shines more brightly than any star.

The other Christmas song is completely at the other end of the spectrum in terms of Biblical depth, as its words come directly from Scripture. I have been listening to a Christmas CD at work, and of all the songs on the CD, this is the one that makes me want to sing along every time I hear it. From Handel's Messiah, it is "Unto Us a Child Is Born."

"For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given, and the government shall be upon His shoulder; and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace."
(Isaiah 9: 6)

Again, the unique nature of this Child is focused on. He is the one who will ultimately rule the world. He is Wonderful. No one else can bear that title as Christ does, and in all honesty it falls short of fully capturing His person. He is the Counselor. He guides, comforts, teaches, and defends His own. He is the Mighty God. Unsurpassed in power, He is able to do anything that needs to be done, and He does things beyond the imagination. He is the Everlasting Father. He claims me as His own, and there is no end to His love. He is the Prince of Peace. No earthly ruler, in spite of the extent of his achievements has ever brought world peace. None of them can. But the Savior can.

In this Christmas season, it is refreshing to still see some nativity displays amidst all the emphasis on Santa Claus. Believers cannot, however, limit themselves to sentimentality about the sweetness or cuteness of the manger scene. Instead, they must remember the unique wonder of this Child who was born. He is the wonderful Savior, accomplishing both for me personally and for the world at large amazing things that no other child has ever or will ever achieve.

Merry Christmas!

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Through the Bible in a Year

As readers start to think about the approaching new year, I want to share some observations about a particular devotional method: reading through the entire Bible in a single year. There could be people to whom this idea has never occurred. Others have attempted to do so, maybe multiple times, but have consistently given up sometime between January and March. A few readers may have pulled it off once or twice by reading like crazy over Christmas break to finish. Still others have followed this practice faithfully for many years. Is reading through the Bible in a year a good devotional method?

This method has several advantages. Because of its routine and clearly defined nature, this method lends itself well toward consistent and faithful time in the Word. It can be a good tool for guiding devotional time. This method especially helps the indecisive or directionless reader, because he never has to wonder what to read next. Each day is clearly laid out.

This method helps Bible reading to be more well-rounded. It gets Christians into parts of the Bible they might not otherwise read, and it prevents time lapses of multiple years since they have read certain books. All of the Bible is profitable, and it can be rewarding to realize one has read the Bible in its entirety. Reading each book of the Bible at least once should be a minimum goal for every believer.

This method enhances overall Bible knowledge and understanding. Believers might be amazed to see things they never knew before, never remember hearing before, and, in fact, did not even know came from the Bible. Reading the entire Bible in a year can identify areas of questions or reduced understanding, and it can help the reader to connect different parts of the Bible to each other in a more cohesive way.

Finally, this method of Bible reading provides the great advantage of giving an overview of an entire book of the Bible in a short space of time. It yields better overall understanding of individual books as it enables the reader to identify common themes, topics, and moods of books. This initial grasping of the overall message of a book can then prompt deeper and more focused study.

There are also disadvantages to using this method. Done incorrectly or carelessly, this method can undermine the whole idea of devotions. If keeping on schedule or checking off boxes becomes more important than learning from the Word, Bible reading time will become mindless and  routine. The reader will find himself quickly skimming the chapters for the day and will see the required number of minutes to do so decreasing. Spiritual profit will correspondingly decrease. If this method is used repeatedly year after year, Bible reading can lose its freshness. It can become boring and meaningless; resulting frustration at the lack of progress can discourage continuing to read the Bible at all.

Failure or success with this method can lead to some troubling extremes. Failure is easy; falling behind by one day is easy to do, and if a reader is not faithful, he will find himself hopelessly behind. The discouragement factor can be high. The opposite result of success can also be dangerous. Some people who faithfully read through the Bible each year allow it to become a matter for boasting or pride. They somehow equate their spiritual status with the number of years in a row they have been successful.

Another disadvantage of this method occurs when Christians view this as the only thing they should do. Reading through the Bible in this survey fashion is not a substitute for deeper study. If no other Bible reading or study is done, the believer is missing something very important. Rigid adherence to the daily schedule can also prevent other study that is more pertinent and critical. There are times in a believer's life, based on his life situation or on God's work in his heart, that he needs to devote himself to study of a specific topic. Unwavering insistence on a routine can prevent timely treatment of an emerging issue.

Having examined the pros and cons of this Bible-reading tool, I want to address the awkwardness of the tool. I believe there are two primary reasons why people fail to successfully use this method. First, the daily task seems too daunting. Readers get overwhelmed by the number of chapters per day, and sometimes by the length of those chapters. Second, they start at the beginning of the Bible and get bogged down after a month in the Pentateuch. If they manage to power through that, they are done in when they reach the prophets, and they never get to easier reading like the New Testament.

Over a period of several years, I gradually adapted my approach to arrive at a schedule that I believe minimizes the awkwardness of the method and allows greater potential for success. There are two key components. First, the daily reading is based not on number of chapters, but on number of verses. There is a vast difference between reading Psalms 1-3 and Luke 1-3. My schedule still works with complete chapters, but combines them in a way to remain as close as possible to the daily goal of 85 verses. Second, the scheduled reading alternates between the Old and New Testaments. After reading a few books in the Old Testament, the reader moves to a New Testament book. This alternation alleviates some of the "heaviness" associated with certain sections of the Bible.

I don't recommend this method across the board for all Christians for all years. However, I certainly would recommend it for certain groups. First, for those who find themselves directionless in their devotions and therefore unfaithful or sporadic. This can provide a helpful structure. Second, for those who are fairly new at having devotions (maybe a few years). New believers may need to focus on key areas or specific books, but after a while, there is a need to take in the scope of all of Scripture. Third, for any long-time believer who has never done it. This isn't necessarily something for every year, but profitable to do at least once. Fourth, for those who have time to do this in addition to deeper focused studies. Regularly reading the entire Bible provides a solid base of knowledge for personal study and for edifying others.

I close with this important caution. The method cannot be an end in itself. The goal is to learn the Bible and to learn about God through the Bible. Incorporate this method into the complete scope of devotional pursuits. Focus on learning by pausing to reflect, to summarize, or to jot down chapter headings, questions, and insights. There is no mystical blessing that will come just by checking off the entire calendar, but there is blessing in the focus on daily learning.

If you are interested in the Bible-reading schedule I have developed, email me at peggyaholt@gmail.com to request a copy. I can send a PDF version. It is not specific to 2015, so the dates won't align with the days of week, and it is designed for 365 days, so you'll have to adjust if using it in a leap year. I suggest making or saving a copy in case you want to use it multiple years. That way you can highlight or cross off days as you do them.

"All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness." II Timothy 3:16 (NASB)

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Impossible

         Impossible (Sonnet 13)
To live my life in constant victory,
To give You thanks for gifts and hardships, too,
To yield myself completely unto You,
To love You more and others fervently,
To trust Your plan in peaceful certainty,
To wisdom have for knowing what to do,
To live by faith based on Your Word that’s true -
Each one remains impossible for me.
These vict’ries happen by Your pow’r alone.
Your promises of help will never fail;
When I depend on You, You will prevail.
It’s through Your work the victory is shown.
Impossible for me, without a doubt,
But possible for You. You’ll bring me out.

The first seven lines of the poem enumerate what were my spiritual burdens and goals at one particular point in my life. All of them are still pretty good goals. Over time and through changing stages of life, the particular goals that are most pertinent change as God works in different areas at different times. One thing that does not change is my own inability to achieve those goals.

I am reminded of Benjamin Franklin's experience. It is unlikely that he was a Christian man, but at one point in his life he made a list of goals for morality and personal character. His plan was to focus on one objective each week and to track his progress. He believed that within a few months he could greatly transform his character. It is not surprising (or should not be) that he failed to see the success he had hoped for. If anything, he became more acutely aware of how much he struggled in each area and how incapable he was of producing change.

As a Christian, I have the help of the Holy Spirit working in my heart. I have a loving God who desires for me to grow in godliness, and I have a Savior who intercedes for me. With this divine help, I have the potential for much greater success than Franklin experienced. The key, though, is that divine help. Based on my own efforts, all attempts at reform, revival, growth, and maturity will fail. God, on the other hand, has all the power and resources necessary to bring about every change that He wants to make in my life.

This does not free me from all responsibility. God calls me to seek Him. I am to imitate Christ. I must yield myself to His molding, and I need to obey in what He asks of me. Those responses are easier said than done, but when I place myself humbly before God, desirous of His work in my heart, He will do it. Ultimately, the change, growth, and success rest in God's abundant and gracious help.

"I can do all things through Him who strengthens me." Philippians 4:13 (NASB)

". . . Apart from Me you can do nothing." John 15:5 (NASB)

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Get the Picture?

Many Christians set aside a portion of their day for "quiet time" or "devotions" - time spent in the Word. While variety abounds, a typical approach is reading a chapter of the Bible per day. Unfortunately, that might be all that people do - read through the twenty or thirty verses in front of them before moving on with their day. There is no mystical power in simply reading words. The value of spending time in the Word is achieved when the reader understands what he is reading. Too often the reading is done so quickly that the Christian is largely unaware of what he has read. Even immediately after reading, he might not be able to tell what the passage was about.

Obviously, taking the time to concentrate and ponder the Scriptures is very important. One aspect of the Bible that requires some time for consideration is the use of pictures or illustrations. It has been said that a picture is worth a thousand words; good writing utilizes comparisons such as similes and metaphors. Considering the pictures found in the Bible can yield profitable insights. For example -

"Are not two sparrows sold for a cent? And yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. So do not fear; you are more valuable than many sparrows." Matthew 10:29&31 (NASB)

If Matthew 10 were the daily reading, these are just two of the forty-two verses. With such a long chapter, the reader might have to read quickly to finish in the allotted time. If asked what he had read, he might reply, "Jesus was talking to His disciples." He may not be able to give any specifics; the Bible reading for the day was checked off the list but didn't yield much profit.

Let's take those two verses and consider the picture they present. Jesus was making a comparison between His followers and birds. In particular, He was talking about His followers' value to Him. The simple statement is that God knows when every sparrow falls to the ground. He tells His disciples that they are more valuable than the sparrows. The implication is that God also knows about everything that happens to His followers. He watches over them and their lives because of their value to Him.

There is a bit of understatement going on here. It isn't that the value of God's children barely exceeds the value of a few sparrows; Jesus says that even if many sparrows were under consideration, His disciples would be more valuable. There is an underlying assumption that the disciples are much more valuable. Who would suggest that birds and people are on the same level? The point is clear, but why does Jesus specifically mention sparrows? What is the picture?

Jesus Himself realized that sparrows had little monetary value and could be bought very cheaply. They aren't big enough to provide a good source of food like chickens or turkeys; they don't lay eggs large enough to be used for human consumption. They aren't a comforting or entertaining pet like a parrot or cockatiel, and they aren't valued as a songbird like a canary.

Sparrows are small, most measuring only five to six inches from beak to tail. They are fragile and can be easily injured, crushed, or killed. In harsh weather, they can be blown about by the wind and must work hard to find enough food to stay alive. They are not like a powerful hawk or mighty eagle that preys upon its food.

Sparrows are plain. In general, they are nondescript brown birds with streaked feathers. Only a few species have any outstanding markings or eye-catching color. They are so plain that people who try to distinguish one species from another often have trouble. Sparrows can be easily overlooked in a field, yard, or brush pile. They are not bright and beautiful like a cardinal, goldfinch, bluebird, or peacock.

Sparrows are incredibly common. They are widespread across the globe. Twenty-three different species can be found in Pennsylvania, and rarely do people point them out as interesting. They are found in cities and towns, where other types of birds are scarce. Sparrows hop about on sidewalks, build nests in the large letters on storefronts, and even become trapped inside large stores.

Sparrows are plentiful, one of the world's most abundant species. Sparrows abound so much that they are often deemed unpopular, maybe even unwelcome or a nuisance. While many bird species have become endangered or threatened, the sparrows have no such problem. There is no need to protect them like other less common birds.

What's the point? Jesus did not choose an eagle or a peacock for His comparison. He did not choose a swan or a macaw. He didn't even choose a warbler or vireo. He chose the lowly sparrow - the almost valueless, small, fragile, plain, common, plentiful sparrow. People look over these birds without really seeing them and without giving them a second glance. Not God. God says He sees when every one of those tiny birds falls to the ground.

Returning to Jesus' statement, His children are much more valuable than an abundance of sparrows. If God gives such conscious oversight to these nondescript birds, there is no doubt that He looks with great care over His children. Spending time to examine the picture provides a reassuring comfort that God does indeed care deeply for His children. The few minutes spent in reflection of these two verses provide far more profit than using the same time frame to skim the entire chapter. Christians seeking profit from their time in the Word must slow down and consider the pictures.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Thanksgiving: Who, How, Where, When

In addition to providing many worthy reasons for praising God, Psalms 145-150 also provide other insights regarding praise. These psalms also give instruction about who should praise God, and how, where, and when one should do it. I realize that the key word in these psalms is praise, which is not exactly the same as thanksgiving; the two concepts, however, are very closely linked. The application of giving praise and giving thanks are essentially the same. When someone thanks God publicly, he is praising Him. Both terms are used in these psalms, and they go hand-in-hand very nicely.

Who should praise/thank God?
Some of the answer to who is actually what? The sun, moon, and all the stars (148:3) are to praise God. God is to be praised by the highest heavens and by the waters above the heaven (148:4). Fire, hail, snow, clouds, and stormy winds are to praise Him (148:8). God is to receive praise from the mountains, hills, fruit trees, and cedars (148:9). The sea monsters, beasts, cattle, creeping things, and winged fowl are to join in praise (148:7,10). In short, all of God's works (145:10) are to bring Him praise.

If the creation can so powerfully bring praise to God, man certainly ought to do his part as well. These psalms request praise from men in general (145:6) and from all flesh (145:21). This call to praise extends to the heavens, including all of God's angels and all of His hosts (148:2). Praise is specifically elicited from Jerusalem, Israel, and the sons of Zion for the works God has done especially on their behalf (147:12; 149:2). Praise should come from both great and small: kings, princes, judges, and all people (148:11). It should come from all age groups and genders: young men, virgins, old men, and children (148:12). One generation is to share God's praise with the next generation (145:4). Most appropriately, all of His godly ones are to lift God up in praise (145:10). Indeed, everything that has breath is to praise the Lord (150:6).

How should the godly ones praise their God?
Praise is often expressed by speaking with the mouth (145:6), but it ultimately comes from the soul (146:1). Another very common way to praise God is by singing to Him and of Him (146:2). Praise can also be shared through instrumental music; these psalms mention the lyre, timbrel, trumpet, harp, stringed instruments, pipe, and cymbals (150:3-5). Although this clearly means something different than our modern, sensual definition, dancing is also mentioned as a way of praising God (149:3). The way a man lives also plays a part; God is praised when man rightly executes justice (149:6-9). In these psalms and throughout Scripture, speaking of God's works and singing (or music) are the chief methods of praise.

Where should the godly ones praise God?
These psalms instruct to praise God both in the heights and from the earth (148:1,7). Men are to praise Him in the mighty expanse of creation (150:1). Praise can be private, done on one's bed (149:5). Praise is never complete, however, if it is not also done in God's sanctuary (150:1) and in the congregation of the godly ones (149:1). Part of the purpose of praise is to lift God up in the eyes of others.

When should the godly ones praise God?
While the fourth Thursday of November is definitely an appropriate time to praise God, the reality is that believers should praise God every day (145:2). There is no end to praising God, and Christians should be careful to pass that praise from one generation to another while they still have the opportunity (145:4). Believers should continue to praise God as long as they live and as long as they have their being (146:2). In fact, after death a believer's praise does not cease, as praise belongs to God forever and ever (145:1). Never will man be able to completely exhaust all the reasons for praising God nor praise Him adequately for all that He is and has done. May Thanksgiving Day be  a focused day of expressing the thanks and praise that resides constantly in the heart of God's children.

"I will praise the LORD while I live; I will sing praises to my God while I have my being." Psalm 146:2 (NASB)

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Why Thanksgiving?

The book of Psalms ends with a crescendo of praise to God found in the final psalms. I don't know that the human compilers of the psalms purposefully arranged the psalms in this order, but I believe God did. As one studies through the book of Psalms, a great God is revealed to him. It is entirely fitting to end this collection of psalms with praise to that great God.

It is too easy for believers to take God's blessings for granted. The Thanksgiving season is a reminder to take note of God's goodness and thank Him for it. The reality is that God's blessings are too numerous to count; the challenge is to have eyes open to recognizing those blessings. While it is good to thank God on a daily basis, this season allows believers to pause in a special way to lift their hearts in praise to God.

Psalms 145-150 provide a long list of things for which God is worthy of thanks and praise. Some of these go beyond the traditional Thanksgiving statements and can lift one's praise to a higher level than that of the standard testimonies. The following characteristics give praise to God both for who He is and for what He has done.

God deserves praise because He is great (145:3). He has unmatched power (145:11) and He is abundant in strength (147:5). He has used that power to do many mighty acts (145:4) and to perform countless wonderful works (145:5).

God's greatness includes His splendor (145:5). His kingdom is full of glory (145:11). God executes judgment on the wicked (149:7), and someday will do that in the ultimate judgment of making all things right and establishing His eternal kingdom.

God's greatness includes His understanding, which is infinite (147:5). God was wise enough to make the heavens and earth (146:6), including every amazing part of creation. He knows and controls every star (147:4).

God's greatness includes His care of the earth. God is the one who provides rain (147:8) and causes vegetation to grow (147:8). He supplies food for all the creatures of earth (145:15). He controls the weather (148:8). He sends and then thankfully melts the snow (147:16-18).

God deserves praise because He is abundantly good (145:7). This goodness is seen through many of His character qualities: righteousness (145:7), graciousness (145:8), mercy (145:8), longsuffering (145:8), lovingkindness (145:8), and kindness (145:17).

God's goodness is expressed as He meets the physical needs of His people. God gives food to the hungry (146:7). He supports the orphans and widows (146:9). He executes justice for the oppressed (146:7). He protects the strangers (146:9). He sets the prisoners free (146:7). He opens the eyes of the blind (146:8). He builds up Jerusalem and gathers Israel (147:2).

God's goodness is expressed as He meets the emotional needs of His people. God sustains those who fall (145:14). He raises up those who are bowed down (145:14). He heals the brokenhearted (147:3). He supports the afflicted (147:6).

God's goodness is expressed as He meets the spiritual needs of His people. God is near to those who call on Him (145:18). He hears their cry (145:19). He saves them (145:19). He keeps them (145:20). God keeps faith forever (146:6). He gives peace (147:14). He gives His words to His people (147:19).

God's goodness causes Him to go beyond meeting needs. God blesses His people (147:13). He takes pleasure in them (149:4). He favors those who fear Him (147:11).

All of these are wonderful reasons to praise God. How many of these things has God done for you? Take some time to ponder these qualities and to add them to your praise and thanks this year.

"Praise the LORD! For it is good to sing praises to our God; for it is pleasant and praise is becoming." Psalm 147:1 (NASB)

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Facebook Semi-participants

If you have a Facebook account, you know that people have very different approaches to Facebook. Some people keep their group of friends small, choosing only those they know best, while others try to have as many friends as possible. Some people post nothing but pictures and videos, while others post links to stories they've read and quizzes they've taken. There are people who share significant aspects of their lives and others who write nothing but nonsense. Some people choose to update their status multiple times per day, and others never post anything at all.

It is this final group that interests me at the moment. (Please don't be offended if you fall into this group; I'm sure you have your reasons, and the level of your participation is your choice.) It seems a little odd to me that people would choose to be part of a social media network for the purpose of staying in touch with others, and then not contribute anything to staying in touch. I am okay with their knowing about my life, but I also want to know something about theirs.

I don't know why people choose only to see what others post and not to share themselves. Some of the reasons are probably legitimate and quite sensible, but I can think of a few reasons that are not so palatable. Some of these people could be snoops, gossips, busy-bodies, or even stalkers. They are just hungry for news about other people and are seeking ways to learn more information. Also, people in this category might be showing a form of pride. Although they consider it quite acceptable for others to share, they consider themselves to be walled off and unapproachable. They have determined not to let others get to know them well.

No, this post is not really about Facebook. It is about Christian semi-participants. On one level, there are Christians who limit their participation by being "pew warmers." They may be fairly faithful to church services, but don't do anything else. Just as Facebook would fail if everyone chose to read but not post, so a church will fail if everyone chooses to come but not be involved. Neither a social network nor a community of believers can survive that unbalanced approach.

Also concerning to me is Christian semi-participation on another level. Many Christians are involved in the church ministry, but their participation is from "the skin out." In other words, their service is routine or obligatory; it is impersonal and detached. They may be doing an incredible amount, but they are not sharing. Their ministry to other members is from an unapproachable pedestal that does not allow others to know them well. They learn all about others in the church, but offer no window into their own souls.

Christians are to edify and encourage one another. The reciprocal nature of "one another" means that both parties are at both ends. All Christians should be edifying and encouraging others, but all Christians also need to be edified and encouraged. Each Christian on his spiritual journey experiences high and low points. Even a mature Christian sometimes has struggles in which he needs the help of someone else who is doing well at the moment.

Some believers seem to set themselves up as always stable and never needing help. They shy away from admitting that they are human and have struggles. They are the ones who serve, listen, or counsel, but who never need served, listened to, or counseled. It is admirable to want to be a servant like Christ was and not to want to put a burden on others, but the reality is that God put us into a church to minister to each other. This is God's plan. Believers are to be concerned about one another, to encourage one another, to each do his part to edify the body. That can't happen when people refuse to share their needs.

When going through a difficult time, failing to share creates two deficiencies. It deprives that believer of the help he needs. It also takes away the opportunity for others to edify. Ultimately, this detracts glory from God, both because His church fails to operate the way it should, and also because one member continues struggling when he could have victory.

It is also important to share during times of blessing and growth. The one who is blessed reinforces the blessing in his own heart by sharing it, and others are encouraged by hearing what God has done. A lesson learned by a new convert or a mature believer can be instructive and beneficial to the listeners. Subsequently, God receives glory through the situation.

I like churches that incorporate a testimony service into their program. I don't mean testimonies just about answered prayer, healing, or blessings, but also testimonies about what God is doing and teaching in the life. Whether in a public service, a smaller group, or one-on-one, this kind of interaction should happen. Each believer should encourage and edify when he is able, and should receive encouragement and edification when necessary. This reciprocal edification helps all parties to operate correctly within the church, bringing glory to God. It is when members know one another that their love can grow and their ministry can expand.

"Therefore encourage one another and build up one another, just as you also are doing." I Thessalonians 5:11 (NASB)

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Book Review: Bonhoeffer Biography

Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas 

I had heard of Dietrich Bonhoeffer as a Christian author. (His best-known book is The Cost of Discipleship.) While perusing book titles about World War II, I came across Bonhoeffer's biography. With a German pastor as the focus, the book provides an interesting perspective on Hitler's Germany. On that troubled stage, Bonhoeffer was influential as both a political and a religious figure.

Bonhoeffer seems an unlikely religious leader. His father was not a Christian, his family did not attend church, and his only early religious instruction was from his mother.  Nevertheless, by age thirteen Bonhoeffer had decided to become a theologian. He studied at Berlin University, where the head of theology viewed the Bible merely as a book to analyze, not completely true,  and not intended to promote a personal relationship with God. After graduating and then spending a year in Spain, Bonhoeffer was still not old enough to be ordained, so he spent a year in America studying at the very liberal Union Theological Seminary.

Bonhoeffer gradually grew in his understanding of Christianity. His father had taught him to analyze carefully, to think independently, and to be absolutely certain of his beliefs before speaking. Perhaps these qualities led him toward theology. As a teenager, Bonhoeffer visited Rome. Impressed with the pomp and ceremony, he equated this to devotion and believed he was beginning to understand the concept of the church. At the university he did have one professor who taught strongly about a relationship with God.

Oddly, it was during Bonhoeffer's time studying in America that his life changed dramatically. Disappointed with the liberal theology of the school and the spiritually dead churches he visited, he found a church that was different. At an African-American church in New York City, and later as he traveled in the southern United States, he was exposed to genuine Christianity - people who possessed, taught, and lived the truth. He returned to Germany a changed man.

Bonhoeffer's ministry was varied and international. He did a great deal of writing as well as preaching. He gave lectures and met with small groups of young people for discussions. He was a pastor for a time in London and also visited other countries for religious meetings and conferences. Probably his most influential work was as a nationally-respected church leader. The church faced an intense battle as the Nazis intended to destroy Christianity in Germany. Though the Nazis' initial changes were small and subtle, Bonhoeffer was perceptive to recognize the danger early on. The German Christians (officially-recognized churches) faced the question of compromise. In order to establish a clear foundation for truth, Bonhoeffer gathered a group of pastors to write a doctrinal confession to which the church must cling.

Some churches compromised, but many others became part of the Confessing Church, so named because they affirmed the confession that had been written. Bonhoeffer was the leader of these uncompromising churches and worked both within Germany and internationally to have the Confessing Church recognized as the true church of Germany. Since no institutions were available to train pastors for the unrecognized Confessing Church, Bonhoeffer started a seminary. When the seminary was shut down, he came up with an internship program in which groups of aspiring pastors could train under supervising pastors. The church faced increasing oppression but remained strong. In one year more than 800 pastors and lay leaders were arrested by the Nazis, yet the churches were overflowing every week.

Bonhoeffer was also important in Germany's politics. This role is less surprising, as both of his parents came from distinguished backgrounds. The family was quite well off and had numerous important connections. When World War II started, Bonhoeffer was convinced the war was unjust and decided that he could not fight in it. As a well-respected leader of the Confessing Church, he found himself in a quandary. If he refused to enlist, he would be killed, and he did not want his example to create pressure for all Christians to do the same. Bonhoeffer avoided military service for as long as he could; when his mandatory enlistment became imminent, he procured a last-minute deferment of his enlistment for one year by returning to America to study.

After less than a month in America, Bonhoeffer rethought his decision and realized that he must return to his work in Germany. Still under his one-year deferment, he applied for a non-combat position, but was denied. He then joined the Abwehr both to avoid fighting and because of the powerful movement within the Abwehr to overthrow Hitler. As part of the intelligence community, Bonhoeffer was closely involved with the conspirators, involved in actions including the Valkyrie plot, and he used his international connections to solicit support for the conspirators. He continued his pastoring ministry, ironically as his cover in his intelligence position.

Through the arrest of another conspirator, Bonhoeffer came to the attention of the Gestapo and was arrested, though only for minor charges. After the plot to kill Hitler failed, Bonhoeffer was implicated and transferred to a Gestapo prison and then Buchenwald. When the assassination conspirators were gathered together to be killed, Bonhoeffer was missing. He had been mistakenly put with the wrong group of prisoners in a different location. Gestapo guards arrived at Bonhoeffer's location just as he was completing a worship service, and he was taken to be executed with the others. He died only two weeks before the Allied troops arrived.

I would recommend this biography about a man who lived by convictions and remained faithful to the end. It was interesting to see the aspects of World War II and Christianity combined to illustrate what it is like for a devoted Christian in a difficult situation. My biggest caution is that Bonhoeffer did not begin with a strong fundamental foundation; even with his great Biblical insight, he was heavily involved in ecumenical work. Most notably he worked hard to establish a strong national church as well as to strengthen religious institutions with international oversight and guidance. He also expressed interest in learning from and imitating aspects of Catholicism and learning of Gandhi's methods. 

The book is well-researched, supported with many excerpts from letters and other writings. I found the story compelling, especially for someone with an interest in history. The overall action of the story moves well and presents a clear idea of this man's life. This biography also incorporates some information not previously available which clears up some of the shadows that have previously fallen on Bonhoeffer.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Bonding Time

There are times in life that draw us closer to other people. This bonding can happen through sharing good times. I had friends who once invited me along on a three-day trip to a place that was special to them. We spent hours together in the car. We ate together, relaxed together, and played games together. We lived in the same cabin, shared the same facilities, and saw each other first thing in the morning when we weren't quite at our best. That was a special bonding time, fostered by love and acceptance, by inclusion in the personal life of others, and by the reassurance that everyone was comfortable doing that.

Bonding time can happen simply through working or serving together. At the moment I don't recall any friendship-defining moments that fall into this category, but I have nevertheless observed the principle. On numerous occasions I have worked with someone that I previously didn't know well - in VBS, in church ministry, in outreach opportunities, etc. By the end of the day or week or quarter, I felt a closer bond to the person I had worked with, maybe wanting to give a hug to someone that previously I hadn't really known.

I believe that bonding time happens most effectively in going through difficult times together. I remember a mission trip to Mexico. Our team arrived to find that most of our team was staying in an empty apartment - with no beds and no doors, not even for the bathroom. The rest of the team was crowded into a small house with no running water. The days were very hot. We battled rain and super-sticky mud. Perhaps most challenging was the unpredictability of our days. We never knew when we would get food, and our ministry plans changed so often that it seemed there was no plan. At the end of our two demanding weeks, when we were very close to home, our flight got grounded, and we were stuck overnight. Through those shared experiences, there was a bonding with other members of the team. There was a rapport established by having gone through those challenges together.

I don't believe my experience is unusual. This is why support groups work; the members share the same difficult experiences, and a bond is created. Veterans can have a bond with each other, never having served together, based simply on their common background. A family can draw closer together during a serious illness, death, or crisis. Church members can bond through financial or legal challenges, a church split, death of a pastor, and so on. There is something about going through difficulties together that brings a closeness that other factors cannot bring.

In light of that truth, I want to consider that God shares every difficult experience with His children. "For He Himself has said, 'I will never desert you, nor will I ever forsake you'" (Hebrews 13:5). God will never leave His children, no matter how rough things get. He will always be there, even if everyone else deserts. Other friends may prefer to share only the happy times; those friends might become scarce when trouble arrives, maybe most scarce when the trouble is deepest. God is not like that. There is no trouble so deep, no trial so severe, no difficulty so challenging, that God decides He has had enough. There are no limits to what God is willing to go through with His children.

Such faithfulness by a loving God should promote a deeper bond between the believer and his Savior, as the believer realizes that God remained right by his side through the darkest hours. The believer recognizes that God stayed with him from beginning to end of the trial and never gave up. The believer becomes aware that God listened to his heart cry over and over again; God listened when no one else wanted to, or when the believer struggled even to express any words. God's love and comfort were constant. Beyond all of this, God gave the help and grace that no one else could have given. With these assurances, the bond should deepen. When God and the believer work through these challenges together, they should emerge with a rapport beyond what existed before.

Some might protest that there is still something missing. It is one thing for someone to remain faithful to give support during a trial and to be available, but there is a different, higher level of support from someone who has gone through the same thing. There is a difference between empathy and sympathy - between support and understanding. While a sufferer may appreciate someone who is willing to stand by him, he may feel that something is missing when the helper can't really relate. The support can seem insincere or ineffective if the helper doesn't share experiential knowledge; he is like an outsider looking on. There is a special, somewhat inexplicable bond and rapport with someone who has lived through the same things.

This is the beauty of the Savior. He was absolutely perfect, but Hebrews 2 teaches that He added to His perfection something that no one would have thought to require, making Him even better than perfect. "Therefore, He had to be made like His brethren in all things, so that He might become a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. For since He Himself was tempted in that which He has suffered, He is able to come to the aid of those who are tempted" (Hebrews 2:17-18). Jesus came to this earth and learned about sorrow, pain, and temptation, so that He has a heart-level understanding of what His children are talking about when they come to Him. Jesus can sympathize. He can understand and relate very specifically to the trials of His people. He is absolutely equipped to go through every situation of life with them.

The believer has a Savior who not only is faithful but who also can sympathize. A trial is an opportunity to relish that relationship and watch it grow stronger. Each challenge is an opportunity for the believer to bond more deeply with His Savior and to emerge closer to Him than ever before. These are wonderful truths. The believer never goes through anything alone. At his side is someone who knows and understands him. God is always faithful and constantly shows His love and support. These truths form the foundation for a deep bond that cannot be matched with anyone else.

"When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they will not overflow you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be scorched, nor will the flame burn you. . . Since you are precious in My sight, since you are honored and I love you." Isaiah 43:2&4a (NASB)

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Is God Reliable?

"Why has my pain been perpetual and my wound incurable, refusing to be healed? Will You indeed be to me like a deceptive stream with water that is unreliable?" Jeremiah 15:18 (NASB)

In chapter 15 of his prophecy, Jeremiah expresses the frustration and difficulty of his life. He calls himself "a man of strife and a man of contention to all the land" (v. 10). "Everyone curses [him]" (v. 10). The Lord has told Jeremiah that things will be different, that people will look to him for help (v. 11). At this point, however, Jeremiah does not see the good.

Jeremiah calls out in prayer to God. He first gives three requests. He prays that God would remember and notice him, that God would protect him by taking vengeance on his enemies, and that God would not end his life (v. 15).

Jeremiah then gives four responses of his heart. First, he delights in his dedication to God and His Word (v. 16). Second, he is lonely since he has not joined in the frivolity of others, but has been consumed with his service to God (v. 17). Third, he is hurting; Jeremiah describes constant pain that finds no remedy (v. 18a). Fourth, he is uncertain. He doubts God's constancy. At times God seems to be deceptively near to him, but at other times completely absent (v. 18b).

This questioning of God's faithfulness is common for believers who are suffering. They want to know if God is reliable. They want to know how God can promise the things He does and then seemingly let His people down. This doubt is particularly troubling for those, who like Jeremiah, believe that they themselves have been faithful. So where is God?

God responds to Jeremiah with reassurance. God first calls Jeremiah to return to Him and be restored (v. 19). Jeremiah was apparently not quite as close to God as he thought he was. God desired to restore Jeremiah.

After this call for Jeremiah to draw near, God gives him three promises. He promises that Jeremiah will stand before Him as His spokesman who carries His message (v. 19). He promises to make Jeremiah strong, like a fortified wall of bronze (v. 20). He promises to protect Jeremiah so that his enemies will not be able to conquer him (v. 21).

God is faithful. He is reliable. He declared His dependability to Jeremiah and spoke anew of His promises. God is the same for His people today. God never changes. His Word is always true. His promises are always reliable. His character is steadfast, so that what was true of God in the past is still true today. This changeless God can always be relied upon.

Every aspect of God is reliable, and nothing about His character ever changes. The poem below references aspects of God that He specifically declares to be forever: His Kingship, His righteousness, His mercy, His truth, His love, the sufficiency of His death, His Word, and His presence. These things cannot and will not change.

The Same (Sonnet 5)
In days gone by, the reigning King was He,
And He was righteous, merciful, and true.
His love was real, His death enough for me.
His Word endured; He stayed right with me, too.
In life today, as mighty King He reigns,
I see His mercy, truth, and righteousness.
I know His love; His death still breaks sin’s chains.
His Word holds firm; His presence is no less.
In years to come, almighty King He’ll be.
His mercy, truth, and righteousness He’ll show.
His love will last, His death sufficient be.
His Word will stand; He’ll always with me go.
So yesterday, today, forever, just
The same is He - so worthy of my trust.

People change, but God does not change. Believers need not fear that He is fickle. They need not doubt that He is dependable. There should be no worries that He is weak and therefore cannot maintain the character He once had. God is just as strong, just as true, just as reliable as He ever was. Believers can safely rest in this unchanging Rock. The dependable God of Jeremiah is the one who still faithfully keeps His people today.

"For I, the LORD, do not change." Malachi 3:6 (NASB)

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Required Courses

In college I had to take required courses. Some were general coursework: literature, history, science, and physical education. Others were foundational courses and prerequisites specifically for my major. There were also the major content classes for my degree.

Sadly, as an eighteen- to twenty-two-year old, I wasn't always entirely perceptive of the value of each course. Too often my mindset was that I was taking the class because I had to. I slid through the two semesters of History of Civilization with a D and a (gracious) D-. Other classes were easier; I aced Physical Science Survey. Volleyball and Badminton were fun. Here's the point. Regardless of how well I did or how much I liked a class, I was mostly checking requirements off my list. I did the homework, completed the projects, took the tests, and moved through each unit until I finished the course. My accomplishment was in completing the class, hopefully with a respectable grade.

What I did not appreciate was the value of what I was learning. Even within my major, I often evaluated that one class was boring, another required a lot of projects, and another was all about memorizing lists. I thought of my classes primarily as educational, rather than instructional. That is, taking them helped me to earn a degree, but I didn't see them as teaching me how to be prepared for life.

I doubt that I was the only student who ever thought that way. Overall, I enjoyed college, but I had a limited perspective of the real value. Professors have some insight into this immature appreciation for learning. A history professor might be satisfied for the students to finish the course unable to rattle off dates and specific facts, but with an understanding of God's overarching control of history. A literature professor may rest in the confidence that his students will know how to evaluate what they read in the future, though they don't remember themes of specific works. A Bible professor might understand that his students will throw away the projects they submitted, but will have learned how to study the Bible and how to teach it to others. A wise teacher will focus on building skills rather than knowledge, since a student with skills can later pursue knowledge on his own.

There is, therefore, value in the course whether or not the student fully appreciates it, but good teachers design their courses to maximize learning. Probably the most value is achieved when the professor gets the students engaged in the process - participating actively in class and doing projects outside of class. The content becomes more practical when a student verbalizes it in discussion or writes a paper that gives increased understanding of a particular facet. For the most part, the more actively involved the student is, the greater is his long-term value from the course.

A wise student can increase his profit from each class by deliberately focusing on it. If it is computer applications, he will learn that topic thoroughly during the time the course is offered in order to best utilize those skills in the future. If it is a 101-level course, he will strive to master that information, knowing it will prepare him for 102 or 201. A wise student does not concern himself with 201 material while he is taking 101. Some of the more advanced content may be introduced to him, but he is content to master what is currently before him and then tackle the other lessons when they come.

An insightful student knows that tests will check his mastery. Instead of cramming so the content sticks in his mind just long enough to make it through the test, he genuinely learns the material so that he still knows it when exam time arrives or when his future boss assigns him a project. He regularly reviews the material, stating it out loud or rehearsing it with someone else. An exemplary student does not expect the teacher to spoon-feed him. He enhances his learning by reading his textbook, seeking out resources, and studying on his own. He embraces each project, not just to check it off his list, but to earn deeper knowledge or practical experience.

God also has required courses for His children, and the combination of classes is tailor-made for each student. Some of the lessons may seem mundane, some incredibly demanding, and others unpleasant. Instead of focusing just on "graduating with a degree" or making it into heaven, the believer must seek to gain the maximum profit from each course. Failing to do may result in mere overviews of topics rather than mastery. Since God's lessons for life are more important than college courses, a believer must give due diligence to truly learn the lessons. Then instead of just passing the course with a D and earning the credit, he is able to pass with an A, while at the same time gaining true knowledge for life. He is prepared for the next time he is tested over the same material or for the harder course of study for which this class is intended to prepare him.

This mastery can be achieved with much the same strategies that an enlightened college student would utilize. When a particular issue comes up in life, an area in which God is working, a Christian must likewise take full advantage of that course of study. Instead of muddling through the eighteen-week course like a college student might do just to check off that requirement, a wise Christian will seek to fully learn that lesson during the time it is being offered.  He will realize the wisdom of focusing on the current lesson, rather than agonizing over every other lesson yet to be learned. He will ask the Teacher questions about what he does not understand. He will seek out tutoring from the Instructor or from a designated representative. He will read the Textbook. He will review what he is learning, perhaps writing it down, verbalizing it aloud, or sharing it with others. He will do research projects, using the Bible as his source, and striving for complete mastery of that topic.

To make this last aspect practical, I want to briefly share a few examples from my own life. As someone who became increasingly emotional through age and illness, I was troubled by the suggestion that tears are stupid and inappropriate; I studied the Bible to find out what God reveals about tears - who cried, and why, and whether they was condemned. After more than one person presented me with an understanding that Christians shouldn't need friends, I studied friendships in the Bible to see what God had to say about friends. I once came to the troubling realization that I barely loved anybody, and I looked to see what the Bible has to say about love between Christians. During a missions trip to a challenging field, I did a study on peace. Currently, my heart tells me I need to know more about the love of God, so that's what I am studying.

Too many Christians struggle through life's required courses, talking to their friends about how they feel, reading books by "experts," drowning their trouble in increased activities or entertainment, internalizing their angst, or simply holding on till things get better. God has the answers for every situation in life; sometimes He wants us to do a research project. What do you need to study?

"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 (NASB)

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Hero: Joseph

If life were filled with one disappointment after another - if it were a series of disillusionments and frustrations  - if nothing ever seemed to work out right - could a believer still trust God? Joseph did. Joseph was a man who earnestly desired to serve God, yet it seemed that nothing could go right for him. When someone evidences a heart for God and does his best to serve God, shouldn't there be a more ideal answer than continued trials?

Here is a summary of the difficulties and disappointments Joseph faced. His mother died when he was young. He was hated by his half-brothers. His brothers attacked him with the intention of killing him. His brothers sold him. He was forced to serve as a slave. He was falsely accused and put into prison. He was forgotten by someone who could have helped to bring about his release. He was separated from his family for 22 years.

As a faithful servant of God, Joseph didn't deserve judgment, and his repeated disappointments seem illogical. In fact, with the large portion of Scripture about Joseph, there is no revealed failure like those in the lives of the heroes examined in recent posts. (Obviously, Joseph did sin, but God choose not to record that.) Even as a young man, God revealed things to this tender young man who sought to follow Him. Joseph was obedient to his father and concerned over the evil behavior of his brothers. As both a slave and a prisoner, Joseph's work prospered, an indication of God's blessing. He resisted daily temptations from Potiphar's wife. To the cupbearer and later to Pharaoh, Joseph identified God as the source of his help. Pharaoh himself recognized the divine spirit that was in Joseph. Joseph acknowledged God in the naming of his children. He gave repeated gifts and grace to his brothers, rather than exhibiting hatred, bitterness, or revenge. His concern for his father denied any resentment over the life-altering effects of his father's favoritism. Joseph offered forgiveness to his brothers because his thinking was focused on the work of God. He knew, even through the wrongs committed against him, that God had sent him to Egypt and was using these trials for His purposes.

With human reasoning, it is easy to question why such a godly man had to experience these repeated trials. Wouldn't it have been fitting and right for God to have delivered this faithful man? Why didn't God do things differently? It is not hard to imagine ways Joseph's story could have turned out differently.

God could have spared the life of Joseph's mother, which likely would have alleviated some of the tensions in the home. God could have caused Jacob to see the negative effects of his favoritism. He could have changed the hearts of the brothers to look kindly on their little brother. He could have held Joseph's dreams back for a few years or prevented Joseph from sharing those dreams with his brothers. Jacob could have refrained from sending Joseph to check on his brothers. Joseph could have failed in finding his brothers. God could have controlled the brother's hateful thoughts, causing them to abandon or limit their evil plans. Reuben's plan of protection could have been successful. God could have prevented the band of traders from passing by at that precise time or from buying Joseph. Joseph could have escaped from them. The brothers could have told Jacob the truth and Joseph been recovered. He could have been sold to someone who had connections in Canaan.

Joseph could have been so respected as an overseer that he gained his freedom. Potiphar could have known his wife's ploys and given second thought or evaluation to the case. A witness could have been available to tell the true story. Joseph could have been given a fair chance to defend himself. He could have escaped with all of his clothing. The wife could have responded in a different way to Joseph's rejection. There could have been an end to his sentence or a general amnesty. The favor of the guard could have resulted in his freedom either legally or surreptitiously. Joseph could have used his privileges to find a way to escape. The cupbearer could have remembered Joseph immediately. Someone else in the meantime could have spoken on his behalf. Pharaoh could have had his dream sooner. When he was released from prison, Joseph could have found a way to return home. Pharaoh might have learned his story and sent him home. The famine and whole story could have been put into a shorter time frame to reduce the years of separation. At some point the brothers could have become guilt-ridden and could have revealed the story.

Such a list of possibilities actually puts the story into even clearer focus. Any of those things could have happened to have made Joseph's personal life more pleasant, but if they had happened, they would have messed up the bigger story. Many of the above-mentioned possibilities were tiny details, and every one of those details had to happen in order for the overall plan to work out. So not only did God not choose to employ any of those other solutions, He purposefully orchestrated each detail that did happen, often in direct opposition to the alternate solutions. God needed His nation to grow in a place that would nourish it. Egypt was that place, and God had to get His people there. God had to set up the scenario with Joseph as the means of relocating His people and blessing them once they did relocate. Without this provision, Israel would have died in their own land, or without an advocate in Egypt, they would have been rejected and died anyway.

God had a much bigger plan than just Joseph's comfort or mistreatment, and Joseph understood that. He didn't know all the ramifications of what God was doing, nor where everything would end up, but he knew that God was in control of his life. His understanding must have grown as he saw the events of his life play out, but even before that, he submitted to God's plan for him, knowing that God had good purposes in all that He did. In his varying life situations, Joseph continued to live for God. There is no verbal expression of his faith until after he was reunited with his family, at which time he stated his faith very clearly. Although words like these had not previously been recorded, Joseph had obviously believed through all those years the truth that he finally expressed. His brothers had hated and sold him - God meant it for good. He had been falsely accused and imprisoned - God meant it for good. He had been forgotten by the cupbearer - God meant it for good. Life didn't make sense - but God meant it for good. What a tremendous truth from a great hero!

"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." Genesis 50:20 (NASB)