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)