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.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

When God Can't Be Trusted

Where do we draw the line? When have we been tested too much? At what point does life become so desperate that we can no longer trust God? What has to happen before we give up, believing God has let us down?

"Although the Lord has given you bread of privation and water of oppression, He, your Teacher will no longer hide Himself, but your eyes will behold your Teacher." Isaiah 30:20 (all verses NASB)

Though the fig tree should not blossom and there be no fruit on the vines, though the yield of the olive should fail and the fields produce no food, though the flock should be cut off from the fold and there be no cattle in the stalls, yet I will exult in the LORD, I will rejoice in the God of my salvation.” Habakkuk 3:17-18

"Though a host encamp against me, my heart will not fear; though war arise against me, in spite of this I shall be confident." Psalm 27:3

"Though I walk in the midst of trouble, You will revive me; You will stretch forth Your hand against the wrath of my enemies, and Your right hand will save me." Psalm 138:7

"When he falls, he will not be hurled headlong, because the LORD is the One who holds his hand." Psalm 37:24

"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." I Peter 1:6-7

"For if He causes grief, then He will have compassion according to His abundant lovingkindness." Lamentations 3:32

“For He inflicts pain, and gives relief; He wounds, and His hands also heal.” Job 5:18

"Therefore we do not lose heart, but though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day." II Corinthians 4:16

"Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me." Psalm 23:4

Though He slay me, I will hope in Him.” Job 13:15

"Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change and though the mountains slip into the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains quake at its swelling pride.” Psalm 46:2-3

"'Come now, and let us reason together,' says the LORD, 'Though your sins are as scarlet, they will be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they will be like wool.'" Isaiah 1:18

"For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord." Romans 8:38-39

I guess that pretty much covers it.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Hocus-Pocus

I just read an advertisement that caught my attention. The title at the top read "The Original Prayer of Jesus the Christ." I expected it to advertise the Lord's Prayer arranged in a special presentation, or perhaps the first prayer of Jesus recorded in Scripture explained in a unique way.

From the examples given at the top of the page, however, I realized this was something along the lines of the prayer of Jabez that was popular several years ago (albeit less Biblical). Whatever this prayer of Jesus was had the power to transform lives; the cited results included "incredible change . . . that was only the beginning," someone who "found the true love that eluded her," "a remarkable change" of a man's "abrasive manner," "the fulfilment [sic] of . . . dreams," and a man who "loses everything on the stock market - only to get it all back again."

Especially the first few examples sounded good (depending on how they are interpreted); they are accurate representations of what does happen when someone prays to accept God's gift of salvation. That, however, is not a prayer that Jesus ever prayed. Additionally, it was clear from other examples and from the remainder of the article that the remarkable changes were primarily in the arena of life circumstances. "Whatever your need, it can be met." "Personal fulfilment [sic], peace of mind, unlimited personal happiness, romance, friendship, soaring self-confidence, the defeat of foes" as well as "true good fortune, inner joy, glowing health, freedom from pain and suffering," and more are all promised from reading this book. The idea was that if someone uses this prayer, his life will improve remarkably.

I say "uses" the prayer, because the advertisement did not require believing the prayer or even praying it. It talks of these incredible results from simply carrying the prayer or reading it. "Merely reading the text in this booklet heals and inspires!" "No rituals to perform. No 'magic words.' No hocus pocus. Merely reading this booklet is enough."

What is, in my opinion, most surprising is that the alleged power of this prayer is not dependent at all on the Bible. The authors of the advertised book debunk the Bible as corrupt based on their premise that Jesus' original words were spoken in Aramaic and then were translated into Greek, which is the basis of our current unreliable translations. The impression given is that everything we know about Jesus and God is invalid, and that only this prayer contains real truth. "Over the years much nonsense has been written about Jesus. . . . Most of it cannot stand up to objective scrutiny. It is all so confusing and one ends up not knowing what to believe. The authors of this booklet have only been interested in what Jesus actually said, rather than what he is supposed to have said!" They declare that the truth they possess, which is "unknown to most Christians," is "far more exciting than anything in any supposed historical work on Jesus!"

These statements give every impression of rejecting even the Bible itself. The authors criticize such "half-baked ideas about Jesus" and "any theories about Jesus' supposed family." They even go so far as to question "was he crucified or wasn't he - all of which you may consider irrelevant once you've read this booklet." The truth that these authors claim to have diligently sought out "contains a spiritual potency that far outshines what we've been brought up to believe!" They assert that the Lord's prayer as presented in their book is "the most authentic Christian text you will ever read!" They claim to provide the truth about God, about prayer, and about the trinity.

I don't know how many people would be enticed to buy this book. There are a lot of curious people, even some religious people, who are willing to examine and try anything that promises relief and deliverance from trouble. They may claim a prayer and use it if they think it will make a difference. They may be willing to consider a truth that somehow they (and every other Christian) have always missed.

Most Christians, however, should be able to see through the sham of this advertisement. While there certainly is Biblical truth that each of us has still failed to master, all truth must be Biblical. There is no spiritual truth outside of the Bible, which is God's preserved record and the basis of all truth about God and our relationship to Him. It matters that Jesus was crucified. It matters what Jesus told us about His Father and about prayer. The teaching of the Bible is what will transform and guide our lives. We will not be freed from all trials until heaven, but we can have God's peace, love, and joy.

While they may not carry around a "magic" prayer, I wonder if Christians do sometimes want to rely on spiritual hocus-pocus instead of on the truth of Scripture. They may cling to a decision point in their past, a certain level of church attendance, or a faithful commitment to read daily from the Bible as their talisman for spiritual "good luck." They may place their confidence in  a prescribed routine for devotions or be reassured as they follow the teachings of a popular or charismatic Christian figure. Their hope for prosperity might be based on following Jewish dietary laws or using a single verse from Proverbs as the springboard for their financial philosophy.

Any number of those things can have some profit, but ultimately our plan for life must be rooted in the Bible. The authors quoted above stated that even Christians don't know where to look for truth and that the discovery shared in this book outshines Scripture. That is impossible! There is no truth anywhere that supersedes the Bible, and the Bible has all of the truth that we need. While there is no hocus-pocus that can guarantee a "good" life, the Bible is the source of instruction and empowerment for living a godly life that is pleasing to our Lord. There is no point in looking elsewhere, regardless of how intriguing the source may be.

"Simon Peter answered Him, 'Lord, to whom shall we go? You have words of eternal life.'" John 6:68 (NASB)

(Advertisement found in The Old Farmer's Almanac 2012, p. 141. Authors of the booklet are Juan de Santos, Jose Lopez, and James F. Cullinan, with book available through Finbarr International in Kent, England.)

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Book Review: Hinds' Feet on High Places

Hinds' Feet on High Places
by Hannah Hurnard

I have read this book more than once, and it is one of the special books that I feel like I should read every year. The theme of the book very much fits the heart of my blog, reflecting a desire for upward spiritual growth. The story is an allegory; the surface-level story is about a crippled girl named Much Afraid who seeks to leave her oppressive family and hometown. She wants to journey up the rugged mountains to what is named the High Places, the home and kingdom of the good shepherd for whom she works.

The underlying message is of a Christian who is dissatisfied with the constant temptations and mundane nature of “life as usual”; he desires instead the abundant life of blessing found in a vibrant and intimate walk with God. It reflects the heart of someone who knows there is something more to Christianity and who longs for what he has observed in the lives of others. As the reader moves through the story, the underlying spiritual meaning repeatedly and powerfully bounds to the surface. It is at times difficult to see a precise distinction between the time of salvation and subsequent decisions for spiritual growth; I believe the book is best understood by considering the main character to be a Christian from the beginning.

The journey described in the book is poignantly reflective of the battle for Christian growth. It portrays the gradual, at times apparently indistinguishable steps of growth that make up so much of the Christian life. It also reflects special times of more noticeable growth. Some of those advances are “altar” moments of deliberate submission of the will; others are spurts of growth brought about through the catalyst of specific situations of life. The upward journey makes its way through times of loneliness, adversity, temptation, confusion, pain, and sorrow - all of which work to transform the Christian into someone he could never have been without those trials. The story relates the continued struggle and gradual victory over besetting sins as well as the transformation as one dies to self and gives himself in service to others as he learns God’s love.

I see new truth and appreciate this book more every time I read it. I believe that someone just beginning the spiritual quest can read this book with profit and can relate to the lessons taught. That profit will increase, however, as the Christian travels further on the journey. Over time he will be able to more fully grasp the lessons he thought he had understood before. The author truly had some great insights into the quest for Christian growth, and it is obvious that she took this journey on her own. As I read a chapter or two at a time, my heart invariably turned toward God and my thoughts toward prayer. The truths aroused and strengthened my desire to grow and progress. They challenged my heart to be tender and to rely on God.

The underlying meaning of the allegory is not difficult to follow, and the book itself is not difficult to read. With few exceptions the action of the book moves along. Perhaps the quirkiest thing about the book is the author’s sometimes random use of Scripture. That is, she uses phrases from the Bible that are completely out of context. Rather than teaching error, however, these phrases strike the reader as coming from someone who is saturated enough with the Bible that her speech mimics Biblical terminology.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Fast Forward and Repeat

Have you ever read a book or watched a movie that seemed cyclical? That is, the events described on page 137 sounded just like what was recounted on page 78? As children, my siblings and I enjoyed reading the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys books. We also laughed at them sometimes. We could be pretty sure that in nearly every book, Chet's car (jalopy) would be stolen, someone would be kidnapped, and the police would arrive in the nick of time to save Nancy and her crew. The Hardy boys, of course, would end up on a case that just happened to intersect with their father's case, they would go on a dangerous stakeout in the middle of the night, and at least one of them would get tied up before being rescued by their father.

These predictable elements of books or movies often allow us to predict the ending or cause us to say, "I've seen this before." That's the position of the psalmist in Psalm 71. The psalm is written by an old man who looks back on his life and sees a familiar pattern. From the time of his birth and through the years of his youth, God has helped him in times of trouble (vs. 5-6). In fact, God's habitual intervention in his life has given him a reputation (v. 7). People talk about him with amazement as they notice God's work on his behalf.

Now as an old man, the psalmist faces another difficult situation in which he calls out for God to help him again. In this new adversity, people are watching to see what will happen, and they have differing expectations. There are enemies of the psalmist, and they expect disaster (vs. 10-11). They know that God has helped him in the past, but they don't expect that to happen this time. They believe God has forsaken him and that he is left without help.

The psalmist knows better. God has always been faithful. God has always delivered. This man's confidence is still placed in God with an expectation of help from Him. Why is he so confident? It is because he is focused on the predictability of God (otherwise known as His faithfulness). If this man had his life on video, he could start at the beginning and watch the events of his life. In the first difficulty, he would see God deliver. He could fast forward to the next difficulty and see God deliver. Fast forward to the next problem - same result. As the author pauses to consider each obstacle in succession, he sees the repeated pattern of God's intervention.

Is there any doubt about what God will do now? No, the psalmist is so confident of God's help that he not only vows to praise God for the deliverance, but he praises God before it even happens. Like the psalmist, we can trust in our faithful God. Like him, we should also be ready to declare to others our confidence in God, whether or not we see the deliverance yet. God is faithful.

"You who have shown me many troubles and distresses will revive me again, and will bring me up again from the depths of the earth." Psalm 71:20 (NASB)

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Fort Indiantown Gap

The nearby town of Fort Indiantown Gap has a rather unusual name. I know there is some history behind the name, not only because there always is, but also because a historical marker beside the highway features the town's name. I don't know what the history is, however, because I don't have any way to read the sign. There is no place to pull off to read the sign, and even slowing down to take the exit ramp, I'm not driving slowly enough to read the sign. It seems a little crazy to me to put an informational sign at the side of a four-lane highway. My only hope is to read half a dozen words each time I drive past. Even if I am able to remember what I read the previous time, however, and am able to find the starting place fast enough to read the next set of words, it will take some time before I'll be able to read the entire sign and have understanding of the name's history, especially when there are several weeks between visits.

This method is a very ineffective way to read and terrible in terms of comprehension. Sadly, this explains why our understanding of the Bible is sometimes shallow. If we think within the context of a single book of the Bible, we typically read that book in disjointed segments (a chapter at a time) separated by spaces of time (once per day). Using this (or a similar) approach, it would take two months, for example, to read the book of Isaiah (if we don't miss any days). Can we gain understanding of the book when we read it this way? Do we still remember at the end of April what we read at the beginning of March? To some extent, yes, so there is value in reading the Bible even if we can read only a little bit at a time. Like with the historical marker, however, it is an ineffective way to read if we seek any level of mastery in our comprehension.

I have found significantly more profit in a more intense approach. It is quite helpful to read an entire book all at once, or at least reasonably close to that. This method helps us to understand the continuity and flow of the book. We can still remember the beginning when we get to the end. Common themes jump out at us, or an underlying tone emerges. We might even capture the primary reason that the book was written, understand something about the group to whom it was written, or find ourselves summarizing the book's thrust in a single sentence. We use this very reasonable method when reading other books, and a front-to-back reading within a short space of time is also effective and profitable for our understanding of the Bible.

How practical is this idea? With just a quick estimation, I find twenty of the Old Testament's thirty-nine books and nineteen of the New Testament's twenty-seven books that could likely be read in less than an hour. Most of them would take a half hour or less. We might not be able to do that every day, but it certainly is not out of the realm of reality to do that once a week. Another idea, especially with the shorter books, is to read a book straight through in one day, and then to read that same book straight through every day for the next week. This method really helps a book to become familiar.

What about the twenty-seven or so longer books? If a book is too long to read all at once, we can break it down into manageable chunks. Genesis, for example, contains fifty chapters. At five chapters per day, it only takes ten days. We get enough of the story each day to grasp some of the overall picture, and it's a short enough range of time from beginning to end that we can still piece things together. When using this method, I recommend not longer than two weeks for any book of the Bible, with the possible exception of the Psalms. Most can be effectively handled in one week. Again, this method can be modified to yield greater profit if we read the book repeatedly - maybe three times in a row over the course of a month.

This should not be the only approach to Bible reading, but it is a very helpful one to use from time to time. Obviously, to get a deep understanding of the Bible's truth, we might need to spend several days or weeks on a single chapter. The concentrated reading, however, provides us with the big picture that prepares us for the more in-depth study. When reading through a book in a short space of time, I often find my interest piqued. I find myself saying, "This is a book that I want to come back and look at more closely."

"Your testimonies are righteous forever; give me understanding that I may live." Psalm 119:144 (NASB)

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Thirsty

In Psalm 63, David was thirsty. Literally. According to the psalm title, he was in the wilderness. Verse one reveals that he was "in a dry and weary land where there is no water."

David had a greater thirst, however, than his physical thirst. His dry mouth and parched tongue reminded him of how thirsty his soul was for God. Man cannot live long without actual water, and David realized that the same was true in the spiritual realm. He could not survive without God.

As David experienced these two types of thirst, he set priorities in seeking to meet his needs. We don't read that he scanned the horizon, searching for an oasis. He didn't dig in the sand, hoping to discover a spring. He didn't use landmarks to travel in a particular direction, anticipating a source of water.

No, instead of searching for physical water, David sought God. He sought God "earnestly" (v. 1). Some translations say that he sought "early," indicating a priority. He yearned for God, and he put forth dedicated effort to meet that need.

Could David have dehydrated and died in the wilderness? Yes, it could have happened. David himself realized that. Surviving, however, was not at the top of David's list of priorities. Life was not the most important thing. David states in verse three that God's "lovingkindness is better than life."

David had two needs - physical and spiritual. God chose to meet both. But if David had to choose between one and the other, he chose God. Experiencing God's love was better than life itself. If he lived, he would continue in God's love. If he died, he would still have God's love.

Not only was God the more important choice, but He was also the more satisfying choice. When David had his next drink of water, he was relieved of his thirst - but only temporarily. Sooner rather than later he would thirst again. Spiritually, the answer is much different. In respect to his relationship with God, David states that his "soul is satisfied" (v. 5). His thirst for God was satisfied with a relationship so abundant that it was the cause for great rejoicing.

We may have needs on multiple levels, but we must never forget that our greatest need is for God. We must earnestly seek Him to meet our deepest needs, and that pursuit must be more important than less critical pursuits. It is right for us to be grateful when our various needs are met, but in the midst of our relief, we must remember that God satisfies our needs better than anyone or anything else.

"O God, You are my God; I shall seek You earnestly; my soul thirsts for You, my flesh yearns for You, in a dry and weary land where there is no water." Psalm 63:1 (NASB)

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Hungry

We all know what it is like to be sick. A recent bug in circulation seemed not to promote extreme symptoms, but just made people feel lousy. Maybe these aren't all linked to the same illness, but people have talked of losing their voice, having a scratchy throat, having a headache, having body aches, being extra tired, and generally feeling "blah." If I was fighting what it seems other people had, I also didn't have much appetite. When we are sick, we often don't feel much like eating.

Sometimes there are obvious reasons why we can't eat during an illness, but hopefully that only lasts for a day or two. When we are unable to eat or don't eat as much as normal, it doesn't take long for our bodies to feel the effect. As we fail to get nutrition into our systems, we become weaker. Even with something minor, it seems to take a few days to get back to normal. Those who go through a severe illness may need weeks to get their strength back.

As much as we may not want to eat due to illness or some other reason, we need to eat anyway. Even if it is just a token amount, it is still important to give our body sustenance. Failure to do so leads to increasing weakness, until we eventually reach the point that we are unable to do much of anything, (including having the energy to eat).

Even if food is ingested in small bits here and there, we must eat something to keep our body from shutting down. As we eat and are strengthened, we will want more and more food, and we continue building back to our previous condition.

The same is true of our spiritual health. There are times, whether during a significant event or something minor, that we don't feel like eating spiritual food - reading the Bible, going to church. Just like with our physical body, we must provide nutrition for our spiritual body. Failing to do so will lead to weakness and gradual decline until we reach the point that we are unable to do much of anything spiritually. The longer we go without consistent and substantial spiritual food, the more danger we are in.

At some point, the parallel between the physical and spiritual breaks down. Physically, if recovering from an illness, it is somewhat true that the more we eat the better; we need that in order to make up for what we had lost and get back to a normal level. The return of a healthy appetite is a good indicator that health has returned. Physically, however, there is a line that needs to be drawn. We can't keep eating more and more and still remain healthy.

Spiritually we can have that same gradual increase. As we begin to eat, perhaps in small portions, our appetite returns, and we regain strength. An appetite for the Word indicates renewed spiritual health. The difference is that from a spiritual perspective, we can keep on eating. It is impossible to take in too much of God's Word.

Not hungry? Eat anyway. Once you start to eat, you might be surprised to find out how hungry you really were and how much your spiritual man was crying out for food.

"Like newborn babies, long for the pure milk of the word, so that by it you may grow in respect to salvation." I Peter 2:2 (NASB)

Saturday, January 4, 2014

My Foot Is Slipping

Winter weather can bring hazards and challenges. Cold is one of the challenges. The current news is talking about breaking low temperature records that go back nearly one hundred years. Last night the temperature dipped below zero, and next week promises to be even colder. Another challenge is snow - or, even worse, ice. Winter weather events can lead to slipping both in cars and on foot.

While navigating on ice can be treacherous, it is not the only situation that presents the possibility of falling. Falls can be prompted by physical frailty, exhaustion, or illness. They can happen when someone is walking on steep or otherwise difficult terrain. Falls can even occur for no apparent reason while walking in ordinary conditions.

In Psalm 38, David presents the idea of slipping. He is referring not to a physical danger, but to a spiritual one. In this psalm he is filled with contrition over his sin. As he seeks God's mercy, he refers to the heavy burden of his sin. His situation is so difficult that he is ready to fall (v. 17). In his prayer, he reveals what his enemies, those who seek his destruction, would like to do.

“For I said, May they not rejoice over me, who, when my foot slips, would magnify themselves against me.” Psalm 38:16 (NASB)

When David is weakest and most vulnerable, those who look on want to take advantage of the opportunity. When they see David's foot slip, they are ready to pounce upon him. They are ready to knock David down even more so they can exalt themselves.

No one needs that kind of acquaintance around during a difficult time. When our foot slips, we need someone who will help to hold us up, not someone who will push us down further and laugh at our fallen condition. Thankfully, we have such a person. Psalm 94 reveals a different response that also happens in slippery situations.

“If I should say, My foot has slipped, Your lovingkindness, O LORD, will hold me up.” Psalm 94:18 (NASB)

When it seems that this psalmist stands alone in his time of need, he knows that he is not really alone. God is carefully watching and listening to all that is going on (v. 9). When God sees His child's foot slip, His lovingkindness causes Him to step in and give His aid. God holds up the one who is falling.

What a wonderful truth it is to realize that God loves us so much that He has compassion on us in our struggles! When others might stand idly by or even contribute to our instability, God reaches out to us. His mighty arms hold and protect us. While it may be true that we have enemies who want nothing more than to see us fall, the God who holds us up is greater than they are. It is to this strong and loving God that David turns in Psalm 38:22: "Make haste to help me, O Lord, my salvation!" In our own slippery situations, we must also turn our gaze upon the one who can hold us up, rather than focusing on the dangers that threaten to pull us down.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Be Glorified

"In my life, Lord, be glorified, be glorified.
In my life, Lord, be glorified today."

This is a simple chorus I've heard several times. I was not able to identify a source for it, and with all the variations for additional verses, it seems that any number of people have expanded upon the original. I've come across variations including the following: "in my home, in my words, in this hour, in Your church, and in my heart."

At the beginning of 2014, may I suggest "in this year"? We all have aspirations and goals that we would like to accomplish or see happen in our lives. We work toward those goals (sometimes with extreme dedication), and we earnestly God to bring them about. While it is right to dedicate ourselves to what we believe to be the will of God, we must be careful that our greatest aspiration is for God to be glorified in our lives.

Our personal goals may be for things like health, freedom from debt, time with family, or success for a project. There is not necessarily anything wrong with any of those goals; each of them could be used to bring glory to God. Greater than the accomplishment of any of those specific desires, however, is the ultimate goal that God be lifted up. That might happen just as well or even better through a difficult illness, unexpected financial burdens, loneliness, or a failed project than it could through accomplishment of our desired goals. Good or bad, everything in our lives should be for God's glory.

“According to my earnest expectation and hope, that I will not be put to shame in anything, but that with all boldness, Christ will even now, as always, be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death.” Philippians 1:20 (NASB)