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

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Failed Heroes: Samuel

Why does it matter that these heroes failed? See introduction to series.
How was Samuel a hero? Samuel is perhaps best-known for the story of his childhood. When God wanted to speak to him, Samuel's ready response was "Speak, for Your servant is listening" (I Samuel 3:10). His exemplary service for God went far beyond that initial willing disposition. He faithfully judged Israel all his life (7:15-17) and was a major influence in Israel's deliverance from the Philistines (7:5-14). One of his prayers during this conflict was answered by a thunderstorm so mighty it caused the Philistines to flee. Samuel often led Israel in sacrifices and worship, and he passionately challenged the people to serve God (12:14-25). In fact, the word of God had been mostly absent in those days, and it was Samuel's ministry that brought a renewal of God's revelations to His people (3:1 & 21; 4:1). Samuel's fervent desire was to direct the people's hearts to God (7:3). Samuel fearlessly proclaimed the truth to Eli, to the people, and to Saul. He obeyed God in anointing Saul and then David as kings of Israel. He then confronted Saul when he sinned (13:11; 15:14). In spite of his great sorrow over Saul's failure (15:11), Samuel would not compromise or condone Saul's actions (15:26 & 35).

How did Samuel fail? This great man's failure is most clearly noted in the lives of his sons. He had seen Eli's failure with his sons, and had in fact relayed God's message of judgment to Eli concerning his wicked sons. In spite of this example, Samuel was not able to direct his own sons to follow God. Even worse, although he knew the condition of his sons' hearts, he still appointed them as judges to take over for him when he was old (8:1-3).

What was Samuel's heart response? From a very young age, Samuel's heart was directed toward God. It would be easy to imagine the opposite. His mother had "abandoned" him at the tabernacle when he was a young boy; he then had no choice but to live and serve there. His mother dedicated him to God's work. Instead of rebelling against the path of service to God that someone else had chosen for him, Samuel gave every indication that he had chosen to serve God of his own accord. The story of Eli and Israel is repeatedly punctuated with God's statements about Samuel. The repetition in these statements is very interesting. "But the boy ministered to the LORD before Eli the priest" (2:11). "Now Samuel was ministering before the LORD, as a boy wearing a linen ephod" (2:18). "And the boy Samuel grew before the LORD" (2:21). "Now the boy Samuel was growing in stature and in favor both with the LORD and with men" (2:26). "Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the LORD before Eli" (3:1). "Thus Samuel grew and the LORD was with him and let none of his words fail" (3:19).

Readers may be tempted to believe that Samuel's dedication to God was a given - a natural result of his growing up in the tabernacle and with a priest as his mentor. This would be an erroneous conclusion. Eli's sons grew up in the very same atmosphere and from an even earlier age. They had their father the priest to guide them, yet they were very wicked. "Thus the sin of the young men was very great before the LORD, for the men despised the offering of the LORD" (2:17). These brothers abused the offering of sacrifices by taking for themselves first rather than allowing the people to sacrifice properly. In addition to this desecration of worship, they habitually committed adultery right at the tabernacle. In the rebellion of their hearts, they "would not listen to the voice of their father" (2:25). The way Samuel turned out was not dependent on his upbringing or circumstances. Samuel had a heart for God alone (7:3), recognizing the danger of following someone other than God (10:19).

How did Samuel's story end? The saddest part of Samuel's life was the negative influence that he unwittingly had on the nation of Israel. Samuel himself discouraged Israel from following a king, warned them against the dangers of having a king, and encouraged them to simply follow God instead. The reality, however, is that it was because of Samuel that the people wanted a king. As he grew older and established his sons as rulers in his place, the people saw the wickedness of his sons. They did not want that kind of leadership, and they requested a king instead (8:3-5). Samuel himself remained true to God through the end of his life. As Saul fell into disfavor with God, Samuel compliantly transferred his support to David. When he died, he was appropriately mourned by Israel (25:1).

Application: Samuel's story puts the emphasis on the heart of the individual. Neither Eli's nor Samuel's heart for God transferred to their children. Neither was it Hannah's heart for God that transferred to Samuel. Samuel personally desired to follow God, and that is the way it must be. No believer can depend on anyone else or rely on anyone else's testimony; dedication to God is personal. It is good and right to challenge others toward God, but no one can force another person to follow God, nor can one person make that decision for someone else. God is interested in the condition of the individual heart, a principle that is highlighted repeatedly throughout the story of Samuel's life. Samuel challenged Israel to follow God with all their hearts. "Then Samuel spoke to all the house of Israel, saying, 'If you return to the LORD with all your heart, remove the foreign gods and the Ashtaroth from among you and direct your hearts to the LORD and serve Him alone; and He will deliver you from the hand of the Philistines' " (7:3). After Saul was established as king, Samuel again challenged the people. "Samuel said to the people, 'Do not fear. You have committed all this evil, yet do not turn aside from following the LORD, but serve the LORD with all your heart' " (12:20). When Saul sinned, Samuel confronted him with what was truly important, stating, "But now your kingdom shall not endure. The LORD has sought out for Himself a man after his own heart, and the LORD has appointed him as ruler over His people, because you have not kept what the LORD commanded you" (13:14). After Saul's next failure, Samuel again highlighted the importance of an obedient heart even over seemingly good actions. "Samuel said, 'Has the LORD as much delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as in obeying the voice of the LORD? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed than the fat of rams' " (15:22). God Himself reinforced the importance of the heart at the anointing of David. "But the LORD said to Samuel, 'Do not look at his appearance or at the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for God sees not as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart' " (16:7). The challenge for each believer is to have a personal heart relationship with God and a desire to serve Him with the whole heart.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Failed Heroes: Gideon and Samson

Why does it matter that these heroes failed? See introduction to series.

How was Gideon a hero? Gideon is identified by God as a man whose exploits were achieved by faith (Hebrews 11:32). Although Gideon was naturally a timid man, and though God instructed his tiny army of 300 not to use traditional weapons, and though the enemy numbered 135,000, Gideon led his troops forward to the battle. God gave a great victory, as Gideon delivered Israel from oppression by the Midianites.

How did Gideon fail? When God called Gideon to serve Him, Gideon was a man controlled by doubts and insecurity. He was hiding while quietly trying to meet the needs of his family. He claimed that God was not doing anything in his life, which was comprised of disaster and problems and ruin. When asked to serve, Gideon mentioned his inability, referring to both his position as the youngest in his family and his family's low position. Gideon was uncertain of God's call and asked for a sign, which the angel gave by burning up the food. Gideon's fear of others affected how he did his first job of breaking down the altar. Still in doubt, Gideon then asked for two confirmations with the fleece and the dew. Knowing that Gideon was still fearful, God sent him into the enemy camp to overhear a story and advised him to go with a friend if he was afraid.

What was Gideon's heart response? While Gideon needed a lot of reassurance from God, the beauty of his story is that he obeyed God and went to battle in spite of his insecurity. Because of Gideon's nature, this was not an easy undertaking for him under the best of circumstances. God made the challenge to his faith that much greater by drastically reducing the size of his army and by instructing him to use a radically untraditional battle plan. The fact that Gideon obeyed indicates his deep faith in God. After several assurances, Gideon was finally convinced that he could trust God. "When Gideon heard the account of the dream and its interpretation, he bowed in worship. He returned to the camp of Israel and said, 'Arise, for the LORD has given the camp of Midian into your hands' " (Judges 7:15).

How did Gideon's story end? Gideon returned from the victory filled with resolve to tie up the loose ends. He boldly executed judgment on both the kings he had conquered and the Israelites who had refused to help in the battle. Sadly, Gideon was a bit of a "one-hit wonder." The Israelites appreciated Gideon's bold actions against Midian and desired him as a strong leader. Whether or not God intended for him to continue as a leader is unclear, but Gideon expressed his unwillingness to do so. In reality, though, he was looked up to whether he liked it or not. Gideon had potential to continue influencing Israel for good. Instead he collected their gold and formed it into an idol, leading to false worship not only for Gideon and his household, but for the rest of Israel (Judg. 8:27). When Gideon died, he left no legacy of righteousness or respect (8:33-35).

Application: The beginning of Gideon's story is very encouraging. Many Christians can relate to his fear, doubt, and insecurity. They believe themselves incapable of doing anything significant for God. Through Gideon's story, God shows that He can use even those people in a great way. The key is that believers must trust in God's strength and yield themselves to obey Him. When they do this, God can accomplish His work through them. When one recognizes that his success was all from God, he does not need to be intimidated about future service. A human response might be to view the dramatic victory as beginner's luck and then to stop while ahead, doubtful of ever repeating the victory. This mindset forgets the true source of the victory; if God could work once through an incredibly weak vessel, He can do so again. God asks not for strength, but for surrender.

How was Samson a hero? God also calls Samson a man of faith (Heb. 11:32). Samson is an exciting physical hero. He easily killed a lion with his bare hands (Judg. 14:6), single-handedly killed thirty men at once (14:19), set the Philistines' fields on fire with 300 foxes he had "recruited" (15:4), slaughtered a group of Philistines (15:8), broke the ropes that bound him and killed 1000 men with the jawbone of a donkey (15:14-15), ripped off the city gates and carried them to the top of a mountain (16:3), broke anything that bound him (16:9-14), and pushed down a great building with his two hands (16:20). He did all of this as he relieved Israel of the burden of the Philistines.

How did Samson fail? Samson had an area of recurring weakness; he made wrong and foolish choices regarding women. He first saw a Philistine woman and demanded her as his wife. Based simply on her looks, he desired her though she was from the very nation he was fighting against (14:2-3). She manipulated him with her emotions, causing him to give in to her (14:17). In his anger he neglected her at the end of the wedding feast, which led to her being given to another man (14:19-20). This prompted another angry attack (15:3). Later Samson became involved with another Philistine woman, this time a harlot (16:1). A third woman was the famous Delilah, with whom he had a relationship (16:4). He was again manipulated by a woman's emotions, this time with the disastrous result of revealing the source of his strength (16:17). This mistake caused him to lose the help of the Lord, and he was blinded and enslaved.

What was Samson's heart response? It is actually a little hard to believe that God chose to use Samson. Although the Spirit of God came upon Samson to enable him to do his mighty deeds, there is no indication of spiritual sensitivity on the part of Samson. His life and decisions were controlled by what he wanted to fulfill his appetites - sexual pleasure, gratification of hunger, control over others, anger, revenge, and gratification of thirst. He rejected the cautions of his parents, and the only time he is recording as calling out to God is in complaint (perhaps accusation) when he thought he was going to die of thirst (15:18). Only at the end of his life does the Bible reveal any serious spiritual awareness by Samson. His prayer seems to evidence humility and recognition that he is willing to accept the consequences of his life choices (16:28). Even then it is not clear that he wants to act for God's benefit, as his own stated reason is that of vengeance.

How did Samson's story end? Samson's wrong choices led him to the pitiful state of a blind prisoner who was forced to work for his enemies. In addition to physical labor, he also served as a source of amusement and mockery (16:23-24). Essentially he killed himself, while in the process killing more of his enemy that he ever had before. This ending added a tiny flicker of accomplishment to what was a troubled and tumultuous life.

Application: There is no doubt that God used Samson, but in few stories is it more evident that the work was all of God. God used Samson in spite of himself. This story really is a testament to God's ability to use all things for His glory. No believer should desire his service to God to be so limited. How much better it is for God to use a believer who is small in his own eyes and yielded to God's control than someone who thinks himself strong and fights God at every turn! It is sad that Samson's brokenness came only at the end of his life, when it was almost too late for him to do anything. Again, it is far better for a believer to humbly serve God with his entire life, giving Him the best years and the full measure of strength.

"And what more shall I say? For time will fail me if I tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson . . . who by faith conquered kingdoms, performed acts of righteousness, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, from weakness were made strong, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight." Hebrews 11:32-34 (NASB)

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Failed Heroes: Moses

Why does it matter that these heroes failed? See introduction to series.

How was Moses a hero? No other Old Testament character is referred to in the New Testament as often as Moses. (Abraham is a distant second.) Moses is the author of several books of the Bible, as well as a few psalms. He rejected the status and riches of Egypt and followed God instead. Moses is the man who stood before Pharaoh to demand Israel's freedom. He was the visible leader through the ten plagues, the exodus, the parting of the Red Sea, the receiving of the Ten Commandments, and the journey to the Promised Land. He exercised extreme patience with the fractious children of Israel. He faithfully followed God's commands in building the tabernacle. He had an amazing relationship with God that allowed for open communication and that caused his face to shine after meeting with God. He was one of two men chosen to meet with Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration. God said that since Moses' death, "no prophet has risen in Israel like Moses, whom the LORD knew face to face" (Deuteronomy 34:10). Moses' testimony of faithful obedience to God was so exemplary that it was used to illustrate Jesus' faithfulness (Hebrews 3:2&5).

How did Moses fail? The first instances occurred at the beginning of Moses' ministry. He didn't start out very well. He took the matter of justice for his people into his own hands when he killed an Egyptian (Exodus 2:11). Forty years later, when God was ready to use him, Moses came up with a series of excuses for why he was not the right man (Ex. 3:11-4:13). Later in his ministry, Moses failed by disobeying God's instructions for providing water for the people. Instead of speaking to the rock, he struck it (Numbers 20:11).

What was Moses' heart response? In regards to becoming the leader of God's people, Moses' response was that of submission and obedience. At Moses' reluctance to speak, God had offered Aaron as a spokesperson. At no point in Moses' interactions with Pharaoh or the people, however, is Aaron seen speaking. Instead Moses is consistently the speaker. In spite of his initial reluctance, Moses went on to do what God had asked him to do, regardless of how he viewed his own qualifications. He was submissive to God's plan. Time and time again when God sent Moses to Pharaoh with a message, Moses went and delivered that message. It would seem then that he accepted and depended on the answers that God had given to his excuses - that God would be with him, that the message was from God Himself, that God would give him signs to verify his calling, and that God would help his speech. These promises from God were enough to give Moses the courage to trust God and obey Him.

As far as his disobedience in striking the rock, there is no indication that Moses' response was anything other than submission to God's decree. No argument is expressed in either the Numbers 20 passage or in Deuteronomy 32 & 34, when God carries out the consequences for Moses and reiterates the reason. What is revealed in the aftermath of the event is obedience. Aaron was implicated in the disobedience as well. Unlike Moses, Aaron's consequences came quickly. God instructed Moses to take Aaron aside and pass his priestly garments on to his son, as Aaron was about to die. "So Moses did just as the LORD had commanded" (Num. 20:27). His obedience indicates his submission to God's judgment. In fact, when it was Moses' time to die and God again gave the reason, the only response recorded of Moses is his obedience (Deut. 32:49-52 and 34:1).

How did Moses' story end? Moses died at the edge of the Promised Land, having seen the land (Deut. 34:1-4), but not being allowed to enter it. Although it is sad that he did not experience the culmination of the journey on which he had led Israel, God did give the special blessing of allowing Moses to see the destination. God took Moses on a special trip all by himself just for that reason. The journey had been a long one, lasting over forty years. Moses, who had started that journey back in Egypt and had been with Israel for all those decades, was able to see that God was accomplishing what He had said He would do. God blessed Moses, giving him great physical strength right up to the time of his death, before giving him a special burial place known only to God (Deut. 34:6-7). Israel mourned his death for thirty days (Deut. 34:8), and Moses was respected not only in his own day, but down through the time of Christ, when the Jews still looked to him as great leader (Matthew 23:2, John 9:28).

Application: Moses' initial failure in resisting God's call was resolved when he believed God's promises and did what God asked, even though it was not comfortable to him. He subjected his personal insecurities to God's command, and obediently followed God. Every believer can likewise trust God to enable him to do whatever God requires. Humanly speaking, believers today are no more capable of doing great deeds than Moses was. With the help and promises of God, however, one can obediently follow God and see His plan worked out.

Because of its consequences, the failure at the rock is perhaps more sobering. Due to his disobedience, Moses was not able to enter the Promised Land. What makes the story particularly sad is that an outstanding quality of Moses was his careful obedience to God's instructions. The details for the tabernacle and for worship were very specific, and Moses followed them implicitly. Eight times in Exodus 40:16-32, it is stated that Moses did things "just as the LORD had commanded." On this particular occasion, however, Moses did not obey. God said that Moses "broke faith" with Him (Deut. 32:51). It is commonly believed that Moses struck the rock in a fit of anger with the people (Num. 20:10). For whatever the reason, he had an unguarded moment in which he disobeyed something that he normally would have obeyed. What a sobering reminder that Christians can never take for granted their ability to withstand temptation on their own. There can be no relaxing in the constant spiritual warfare. Instead, there must be constant dependence on God for daily strength, realizing that one is vulnerable even in his most successful points. It only takes a single moment to fall. While God is faithful to forgive those who repent and often continues to use them, there are at times lasting consequences of those choices made in unguarded moments.

"Now Moses was faithful in all His house as a servant, for a testimony of those things which were to be spoken later." Hebrews 3:5 (NASB)

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Failed Heroes: Jacob

Why does it matter that these heroes failed? See introduction to series.

How was Jacob a hero? Jacob was one of the patriarchs in the beginning of Israel's history. It was through Jacob's immediate family - his twelve sons - that the nation finally started to expand in numbers. God acknowledged him as heir to the promises given to Abraham. When God changed Jacob's name, He told him, "As a prince hast thou power with God and with men, and hast prevailed" (Genesis 32:28 KJV).

How did Jacob fail? Jacob had a way of taking messy situations and making them worse while trying to fix them. When his brother was hungry and wanted a bit of food, Jacob forced him to surrender the birthright in exchange (Gen. 25). Later when it seemed that his father was about to die, Jacob participated in a deceitful scheme in order to receive the blessing intended for his brother (Gen. 27). When his brother vowed to kill him, he had to flee his family and home. He had children by the maidservants of his wives (Gen. 30). His original plan to stay away from home for a few days (27:44) turned into fourteen years, and then he decided to stay even longer in order to gain more possessions (30:25-43). When he did finally leave, he sneaked away (31:20). He then had great fear to meet his brother again (32:7). Jacob also compounded the tensions among his children by having a favorite son (37:3-4).

What was Jacob's heart response? It seems that it took a while for God to really get Jacob's heart. His early life was filled with plans, schemes, and deceit. There was no lack of drama in his life, drama often brought on by his own choices. Not only did Jacob have his own ideas about how to handle life, but he also manipulated in order to achieve his plans. For the most part, he was pretty successful at getting what he wanted. Jacob's important heart change came in Genesis 32, when he finally recognized that he needed something that he could not produce on his own; he needed God's blessing. After this encounter with God, his body and will were broken, but his spirit had a strength it had never had before.

How did Jacob's story end? Even Jacob's later years do not reveal a perfect man.  There are times that he still knew what he wanted (in particular regarding Joseph and Benjamin), and he did all that he could to protect those desires. He was, however, a changed man. Much of the selfishness was gone, as he involved himself in meeting the needs of his family. In his old age, he made another trip away from home, but this time it was at the command of God (46:3). God took Jacob to a place where his family (the blossoming nation of Israel) could be protected and provided for and where they would be able to flourish and expand into a great nation. Jacob was by this time settled in God's promises and faithfully looking for the fulfillment of them. His faith was clearly expressed in his interactions with his children and grandchildren (Gen. 48-49). He was confident that God would bless them and bring them again into the land He had promised.

Application: Jacob was a man of ups and downs. His failures came when he tried to arrange his own life, and his blessings came when he looked instead to God in faith and in recognition of his need. Christians often have an idea of what they think is best in their lives. They have ambitions for position, wealth, and family just as Jacob did. Those ambitions are often self-driven. Even if they are in God's plan, man's schemes to achieve those goals through his own personal design will only result in greater chaos. Too often people fight to achieve things that God does not even intend for them. The world instructs people to dream big and fight for their dreams; God intends for His children to allow Him to create the dreams and to rely on Him to bring them about in His way. As with Jacob, the peace and stability come when one is trusting in God and resting in His promises and His care. God's desires for His children are achieved far better through His own personal intervention than through the self-sufficient endeavors of His children.

"By faith Jacob, as he was dying, blessed each of the sons of Joseph, and worshipped, leaning on the top of his staff." Hebrews 11:21 (NASB)

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Failed Heroes: Lot and Abraham

Why does it matter that these heroes failed? See introduction to series.

How was Lot a hero? It may seem a bit of a stretch to refer to Lot as a spiritual hero. Based only on the Old Testament record, support for his heroism would be limited to his leaving his homeland to travel with godly Abraham, although the reason for his leaving is not defined in Scripture. The New Testament, however, calls him "righteous Lot," declares him a "righteous man," and speaks of his "righteous soul" (II Peter 2:7-8).

How did Lot fail? Lot's initial step of choosing the well-watered Jordan Valley as his home may not seem serious, but his choices spiraled downward from there. "Lot settled in the cities of the valley, and moved his tents as far as Sodom," where the men "were wicked exceedingly and sinners against the LORD" (Genesis 13:12-13). Lot ended up living in Sodom, and continued residing there even after his temporary captivity during a local military conflict (Gen. 14:12). The sin of the city was "exceedingly grave" (Gen. 18:20), to the point that God determined to destroy the city. Lot was not part of the wickedness; in fact, he was "oppressed" by it, and "by what he saw and heard . . . his righteous soul [was] tormented day after day" (II Pet. 2:7-8). Nevertheless, he continued living in that wicked place.

What was Lot's heart response? At best, Lot's response was weak. He did want to protect the visiting angels from the townspeople, but he was willing to give his virgin daughters to the same sexually perverted men. From all appearances, he believed that the advantages gained from his location were worth the torment to his soul and the risk to his family. His soul's oppression did not lead him to take action. On the very brink of Sodom's destruction, Lot hesitated in following God's leading (Gen. 19:16). He even asked God to modify the escape plan so that he could remain in the civilization he loved (Gen. 19:18-20).

How did Lot's story end? Sadly, Lot's family was so tied to the city that some refused to escape with him. As the others fled, his wife turned back and was lost. His remaining daughters had been so influenced by the sexual wickedness that had surrounded them that they seduced their own father. All was lost.

Application: Lot made significant life decisions through the filter of what seemed to promise success, and he did not recognize the damaging consequences that were linked to those decisions. He was a true follower of God; today's parallel would be a Christian who really loves God and wants to live for Him. That Christian, however, is so caught up in the temporal blessings of this world that he is unwilling to live without them. Even in the crisis moment, when things should have been crystal clear, Lot and his family still clung to what they wanted. Lot was blinded to the damage his choices had made to his family and to his own spiritual sensitivity. His choices were based on the present life, starkly contrasting with Abraham.

How was Abraham a hero? The answer to this is so big that it's hard to include everything. He is repeatedly referred to in the New Testament as a man of faith who believed God. He is a pivotal character in the lives of both Jews and converted Gentiles. All the nations of the earth are blessed through him. In terms of specifics, he left his homeland at God's command, though he did not know where he was going. He believed God concerning the nation that would come from him and the land they would inhabit, though he never saw it happen. He believed through long years of waiting for the impossible son that God would give, and then obeyed when God asked him to sacrifice that son.

How did Abraham fail? Although Abraham's faith was great, there were times that it wavered. While in strange lands, Abraham twice feared being killed by someone who might want his wife. Instead of trusting God to protect them, he resorted to lies and deceit (Gen. 12:10-20; 20:1-18). When the promised son was delayed, Abraham heeded his wife's pleas to have a son by her servant (Gen. 16:1-4). At one point he laughed when God told him he would have a son (Gen. 17:17), and he tried through human reason to identify an heir (Gen. 15:1-4; 17:17-18). These failures of faith led to some serious and dangerous actions on his part. He potentially sacrificed his wife's purity, when his lies led to her being taken twice into the harems of other men. Realistically, he didn't know if he would ever see her again. He also sacrificed his own faithfulness to his wife by having a child with another woman, creating stress in the household, and ultimately introducing a perennial conflict for the nation of Israel. Instead of completely conquering these failures, he repeated them, falling more than once in the same areas.

What was Abraham's heart response? Specific responses are not always recorded. Only after the second episode of lying about his wife does Scripture record any response, which is that Abraham prayed for the household involved. In his situations of trying to suggest solutions to God, Abraham's responses were faith and obedience. After he suggested his servant as his heir, God repeated His promises to Abraham, who then "believed in the LORD" (Gen. 15:6). When Abraham suggested that Ishmael be his heir, God reiterated that it would be a son born to Abraham and Sarah. Abraham subsequently responded by obeying the command God had given to him in that same conversation (Gen. 17:23-27). Through all of these situations, Abraham wanted to obey God. He just didn't understand how God was going to work His plan, leading him to reliance on his own plans. I believe his faith grew over time, as he reached the point of being able to obey God in difficult things, even when he did not understand. Again, Scripture repeatedly states that he believed God; this belief was his anchor.

How did Abraham's story end? There is victory and fulfillment in Abraham's story. The promised child was born, and Abraham enjoyed many years in the land that would later belong to the nation of Israel. Future generations are able to see the greater fulfillment of the prophecies, that God did make a mighty nation from Abraham. Personally, Abraham's faith reached the point that he was willing to sacrifice the son of promise at God's instruction. Instead of the previous doubts, he obeyed in what was probably the hardest challenge he faced.

Application: Unlike Lot, the key to Abraham's status as a hero of faith is his eternal vision. Abraham's life was not controlled by the immediate. Hebrews 11 reveals that he was waiting for a better dwelling place than the land of Canaan. He was content to be a nomad on earth, because he was looking forward to his permanent home in heaven. If he had been focused on earth, he would have ceased following God and would have returned to his homeland. Because he was focused on his eternal dwelling, however, he lived a life of faith and obedience. He wavered, sometimes repeatedly in the same area, but because of his faith in God, he looked past the immediate and trusted in God's ultimate plan. Likewise, believers today must realize that if they are to be spiritual heroes, they must look past the things in the immediate that seem to promise success, and they must instead obey God without protest so that God can lead them in the paths of true success. Lot thought he knew how to make himself successful, and he ended in failure and disgrace. Abraham trusted and obeyed God - with an altogether different outcome.

"By faith he lived as an alien in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, dwelling in tents with Isaac and Jacob, fellow heirs of the same promise; for he was looking for the city which has foundations, whose architect and builder is God." Hebrews 11:9-10 (NASB)

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Failed Heroes: Job

God deliberately recorded the failures of numerous Bible characters who are typically viewed as heroes of the faith. The tendency to gloss over those failures and focus only on the successes robs Christians of the benefit God intended to provide through their stories. A mark of a true spiritual hero is how he responds to failure. For a fuller introduction to this series, please see the initial post.

How was Job a hero? The very first verse of Job identifies him as "blameless, upright, fearing God, and turning away from evil" (Job 1:1). Job was very concerned with the spiritual condition of his children and regularly interceded on their behalf (1:5). God Himself made the declaration, "There is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, fearing God and turning away from evil" (1:8). Under an intense attack from Satan, Job lost everything in the space of probably just a few hours - his wealth, investments, livelihood, servants, and all ten of his children. In this unimaginable trial, Job responded humbly, stating, " 'The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away. Blessed be the name of the LORD.' Through all this Job did not sin nor did he blame God" (1:21-22). God observed Job's response and noted that "he still holds fast his integrity" (2:3). Even when he was subsequently struck with a horrible illness and when his own wife turned against him, Job still maintained his integrity and "did not sin with his lips" (2:10). It is difficult to imagine such a godly, submissive response in the face of such staggering catastrophes.

How did Job fail? As his illness extended, Job's focus shifted and his soul wavered. He pronounced curses on the days of his birth and of his conception (3:3). He wished he had died at birth (3:11) and desired to die (3:21). He grieved over the poisonous arrows sent to him by God (6:4) and asked God to kill him (6:9). He freely complained of the bitterness of his soul (7:11). He stated that God had wronged him (19:6) and demanded an answer from Him (10:2). He found himself separated from God to the point that he was unaware of His presence (23:3,8). He defended himself as respectable and righteous (29:7-17). These types of statements and sentiments by Job were repeated throughout his speeches. Toward the end of the book, Job himself gave an evaluation of his words by admitting that he had spoken "without knowledge." He stated, "Therefore I have declared that which I did not understand" (42:3). In essence, he had determined that he had valid ground for defending himself and challenging God.

What was Job's heart response? Job's heart is what allows him to emerge from his story as a true hero of faith. Although he struggled deeply, his statements of failure were mingled with moments of remembering truth. He periodically redirected himself to foundational statements of faith. Even in his anguish, he did not deny God's words (6:10). He acknowledged the unmatched power of God (9:10). He recognized God's sustaining throughout his life (10:12). He knew that God was in control of everything (12:9). He recalled God's great wisdom (12:13). He asserted his trust in God even to the point of death (13:15). He was confident in his Redeemer (19:25). He affirmed God's plan to work good for him (23:10). He resolved to speak what was right regarding God (27:4).  He acknowledged God as the only true source of wisdom (28:23). Job clearly had great moments of clarity and truth in the midst of his struggles.

For many chapters these statements of faith and stabilizing truth were merely temporary interludes among Job's expressions of deep struggle and doubt. In the end, however, he returned firmly and definitively to his anchor. He repented of his failures and waited upon God (42:6). This final breakthrough came when he realized that God did not have to give him the answer he was waiting for. Job put his hand on his mouth and ceased speaking his own foolishness and demands (40:3). He allowed God to have the answers without having to tell him. He was content to wait for the outcome God would give. Job's victory of faith came when he realized that all of his arguments, even if they were valid, were not enough to overturn the fact that God was sovereign - the ultimate in power and wisdom.

How did Job's story end? Job's story ends in victory regarding the circumstances of his life. Job's friends who had battered him with their words returned very humbly to him. God restored Job's health. His family came to comfort him, as well as to bring him gifts of wealth. God blessed Job financially and materially so that he ended up with twice as much as he had before. He even had ten more children, and he lived for many years to see his descendants and the blessings they enjoyed. Job's story ends in victory for himself spiritually. God responded to Job's confusion perhaps not by giving the answers Job wanted, but by teaching him very important truth about God's absolute greatness. Although this was in some ways a rebuke for Job, it was also a comfort, as God reassured Job of how mighty the One in control of his life was. With such a God as this, there was no reason for despair. Finally, Job's story ends in victory in terms of his reputation and legacy. His testimony still stands thousands of years later, and God Himself set Job as the standard of patience and endurance.

Application: Job's struggled primarily in two areas. First, he despaired in waiting for the end of the story. His trial was temporary, but he forgot to hope for the end that must surely come. Failure can come to believers when they are not content to wait for the outcome that God will give. God knows the end of the story. Humans don't know how or when the story will end; if their faith quits before they see the blessing or deliverance, they fail. Second, Job demanded understanding that God had reserved for Himself. As much as man seeks answers, he simply does not have the wisdom to understand but what God understands. God knows exactly what He is doing and why. When a believer refuses to allow God to be God, making decisions according to His wisdom, he fails. Success comes when the believer trusts God without understanding and is willing to wait for God's answer in God's time. God is good, and He can be trusted to do what is best within His plan 

"We count those blessed who endured. You have heard of the endurance of Job and have seen the outcome of the Lord's dealings, that the Lord is full of compassion and is merciful." James 5:11 (NASB)

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Failed Heroes: Noah

Christians, in considering spiritual heroes, have a tendency to focus on the successes and ignore the failures. All spiritual heroes, whether contemporary, from church history, or from the Bible itself, have experienced times of failure. While it is beneficial to consider the successes and learn how to do the right things, it is a mistake to gloss over the failures. God deliberately recorded them in the Bible to provide benefit to His children.

When a Christian places a spiritual hero on an exalted pedestal of unblemished admiration, he creates a false standard and a faulty expectation. This selective examination of great men of faith leads to guilt or hopelessness, as the modern Christian realizes he will never be able to live up to that standard. Since he can't be as outstanding as those heroes, he assumes there is little he can do for God. This sense of unworthiness leads to a mediocre Christian life in which one merely muddles through until he makes it to heaven.

God intends for all of His children to serve Him and live for Him, even though they are imperfect. By revealing the weaknesses and failures of some great heroes, God reveals that someone can struggle and falter, even fail greatly, and still be used in a tremendous way. God's deliberate inclusion of the negative episodes in the lives of these heroes illustrates that it is not a single instance of success or failure that is most important. Rather, God seeks a heart dedicated to loving and serving Him - a heart that will return to that central focus even after a time of struggle. In other words, these men are heroes not because of any particularly amazing exploit, but because at their core they had a unwavering determination to please God. Their submissive heart minimized self and revealed God as the true hero who accomplished His work through the yielded vessel.

In order to become (or continue being) a hero, the heart determination must win out over the human failures. For some of the Bible heroes, their struggle was most evident before they became heroes. For others, it surfaced in the midst of their heroism, and for some, the inability to win the struggle ended their heroism. Just like in the past, Christians who give up today can end their spiritual impact and taint the success that has been previously achieved. On the other hand, any Christian who continually returns to that place of humble dedication can be a hero. Upcoming posts will explore the lives of various Bible heroes and their failures.

How was Noah a hero? God Himself evaluates Noah. In Noah's day, God looked around the earth and saw great wickedness and evil thoughts. The evil was so great that God determined to destroy all life on the entire earth. Noah was the one man who caught God's attention as being different. "Noah found favor in the eyes of the LORD" (Genesis 6:8). The Bible describes him as "a righteous man, blameless in his time; [who] walked with God" (v. 9). God told Noah, "You alone I have seen to be righteous before Me in this time" (7:1). In spite of ridicule from others, Noah obeyed God in carrying out some pretty extreme tasks: building a huge boat when it had never rained, assembling all of the animals, and providing provision for a lengthy exile. He faithfully waited through the many months of floating on the ark and exited only when God cleared him to do so, at which time he worshipped God.

How did Noah fail? Noah brought shame to himself and his family. Genesis 9:21-27 tells the story of Noah's drunkenness. While the wine was in control of his body and mind, he shamefully displayed himself naked in his tent. Unfortunately, his shame spread to his family. His son Canaan was responsible for his own actions, but the sad truth is that Noah created the situation in which his son responded incorrectly. Noah was so upset by Canaan's indiscretion of disclosing this sensitive situation to others that he pronounced a curse on him. He condemned Canaan to a life of servitude to his brothers, but Noah's indiscretion directly led to his son's.

What was Noah's heart response? The only response shared in the Bible is Noah's indignation. We do not see Noah accept responsibility for his own actions, admit guilt, or express repentance.

How did Noah's story end? Noah lived for many more years after this incident, but there is no additional record of his actions or evaluation of his character. He may have still lived a godly life, but God chose to leave this negative event as the end of Noah's story. Strife had been introduced to his family - strife over what in actuality was a minor incident, an incident brought on by a moment of weakness and by a poor decision in the life of Noah. His family was never the same again.

Application: Noah was a spiritual hero; God said so. Several passages in the New Testament refer back to Noah's righteousness, by reason of which God spared his family. One incident does not erase his eternal standing, but it does put a blemish on his story, and it deeply affected his family. It is never okay to rest on one's reputation or actions of the past. Just because one has always been above reproach does not mean that he cannot fall now. A moment of weakness, a poor decision, a temporary fulfillment of fleshly desires can change everything. The Bible makes it clear that God forgives failures when the believer repents, but sometimes the consequences cannot be reversed. There is no one who reaches hero status so permanently that it cannot be lost. Even mature believers must remain on guard and diligent to guard against fleshly appetites and times of uninhibited pursuit of pleasure. If a poor choice leads to damaging others, proper personal responsibility must be claimed, and steps must be taken to restore each person involved, directing affected parties back toward the right path.

"By faith Noah, being warned by God about things not yet seen, in reverence prepared an ark for the salvation of his household, by which he condemned the world, and became an heir of the righteousness which is according to faith." Hebrews 11:7 (NASB)

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Prayer Through Journaling

One of the greatest blessings of life is a good friend with a listening ear. Humans are made to interact with others, to be social, and to communicate. Much of that conversation is relatively insignificant. Friends talk about the weather, what they did today, and what they ate for supper. In the context of relationships, it is important to have that sort of relaxed talk, as it demonstrates an interest in the everyday life of someone else.

There is a deeper level of conversation, however. There is the sharing of struggles, discouragements, ambitions, passions, evaluations, opinions, and so on. In other words, there is conversation that goes beyond routine small talk to reveal what one thinks and feels. It is conversation that opens a window into the soul.

Such communication has multiple benefits. Open and honest communication builds the relationship and strengthens the foundation upon which it is founded. The conversation can offer encouragement to one or both parties. Because of the trust involved as well as the investment of time and attention, these conversations are expressions of love. They can be therapeutic, simply from having the opportunity to talk things out, or by receiving valuable input from the other person. Two people talking together may be able to arrive at a proper conclusion that neither one may have reached individually. Serious conversation provides great opportunities for sharing godly wisdom, obtaining valuable guidance, and prompting meaningful prayer.

Rarely are humans blessed with a large group of people with whom to enjoy this type of conversation. Often there are just a few select people or a handful of special friends with whom this sharing can occur. A sibling can fill the role, as can a long-time friend. For younger people, it is often a high school or college friend. Later, that role is often taken over by a spouse. Sadly, there are people who, as diligently as they look, cannot seem to find anyone with whom to talk on that deeper level.

For those who lack such a valuable resource, the answer to their need is found in God. God is the friend who is always available and always interested. He has a heart of unfailing love and comfort. He knows all the right answers and can guide the believer into truth. Too often Christians think of prayer only as a means of thanking God for blessings and asking Him requests. Prayer can be so much more. It can be simply talking - including all of the types of conversation listed above - the burdens, the ambitions, the evaluations, and so forth. Who better to share those matters of the soul than the one who knows the soul so well?

I have found journaling to be an effective way of talking to God. Journaling can include so many different things, from prayer requests to sermon notes to Bible study insights and more. My journaling is almost exclusively just talking to God about life. I don't do it as often as I would like, but when I do, it is usually rather lengthy, as I talk out issues that have been building up without any other person with whom to discuss them.

Talking issues through with God provides all of the benefits listed above. It definitely builds the relationship with God, as I trust Him with issues that are at times too personal to share with anyone else. I am encouraged, as God responds by giving me His grace. These conversations are a wonderful expression of the love of God, as I know that He listens to and cares about everything that matters to me.

As far as the therapeutic aspect, there is no other listener who can give the level of help that God can give. As I deliberately and systematically type out my thoughts before God, He often helps me to recognize wrong thinking or to identify the root cause of a struggle. In fact, in some ways or situations, journaling may be an even better method of prayer than talking, because the words come more slowly, more deliberately, and with more thoughtful consideration. When I journal, I have to put the issues into real words rather than the somewhat nebulous, half-verbalized impressions that can characterize spoken (especially internal) prayer. My words may reflect error that needs addressed or foundational truths that I need to cling to. Journaling enables me to visually record my thoughts so that I can remember them long enough to adequately deal with them; I can even return to them at a later date if the topic is too big for one day or if I am initially unable to see truth. As I prayerfully consider those thoughts before God, He guides me from error to truth. He helps me to reaffirm the truth I know. He helps me to make determinations and decisions. He shows me how to pray.

When I have this type of written conversation with God, I never have to worry about the topic being uncomfortable, too personal, or off limits. I don't need to be concerned that God will reject me because of what I share, that He will look down on me for my weakness, or that He will shake His head at my confusion. I don't need to worry about how long or how often I talk about a particular subject; God has as much time as I do. He is ever patient, ever gracious, always ready to forgive. He always stands ready to hear my prayers for help, even when all I can ask for is that He will help me to want the right heart response.

Having a human friend to talk things over with is a great blessing, but conversations with God are even sweeter and can include things that I would not share with any other person. I would not want anyone to access my personal journaling with God, but knowing that the conversation is just between God and me, I can speak freely with no fears or inhibitions.

"Trust in Him at all times, O people; Pour out your heart before Him; God is a refuge for us." Psalm 62:8 (NASB)

Saturday, August 2, 2014

I Need Jesus

This old hymn by George Webster has been frequently on my mind of late, and it is such a blessing. The first stanza and chorus are shown below.

I need Jesus, my need I now confess;
No friend like Him in times of deep distress;
I need Jesus, the need I gladly own;
Though some may bear their load alone,
Yet I need Jesus.

I need Jesus, I need Jesus, I need Jesus every day;
Need Him in the sunshine hour,
Need Him when the storm-clouds low'r;
Every day along my way,
Yes, I need Jesus.

The first stanza presents a very important but simple truth. The believer needs Jesus. Whether it is in the crisis moment or simply under the daily burden, there are people who try to manage their lives alone. They think their problems are not serious enough to take to Jesus, or they believe themselves sufficient to carry on without His help. Neither belief is correct.

The Christian who humbly and honestly acknowledges his need is upheld by hands greater than his own. There is no shame in admitting that one needs God's help. Such a ready admission opens the doors for God to pour out His grace on the needy one. Admitting such need also prepares the way for God to receive glory when He meets the need.

The words of the chorus are also precious. The need for Jesus exists not merely during the stormy times of life. Some Christians may wait until those times to seek God's help, but the reality is that the believer needs God every day. The need for God is just as great in the "sunshine hour" as it is in the time of storm. The failure to lean on God during the more pleasant times only serves to weaken the relationship, leaving the believer less prepared to trust in the difficult times. It also creates the false impression that the believer is capable of handling some things without God.

When I look at this life, I know that I need Jesus. Whether I acknowledge my need or not, the need is still there. Yes, I need Him in the times of storm. I don't know how I could ever make it through those times without His help. I also need Him in the normal everyday and in the times of comfort and blessing. God invites me to come to Him at any time and find the help and grace that I need. How comforting it is to know that I can freely admit my need without any fear that God will fail me or look down on me because I am needy.

"Therefore let us draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need." Hebrews 4:16 (NASB)