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, December 27, 2015

Stains in the Christmas Story

Matthew's account of the Christmas story begins by clearly identifying who was to be born - "Jesus the Messiah" (Matthew 1:1). The detailed genealogy that follows closes with the same identification: "Jesus . . . who is called the Messiah" (1:16). God wanted to make it very evident that this was an eminently special child. Many other names and descriptions occur throughout the narratives in Matthew and Luke. I found the following:

Matthew: "the son of David" (1:1); "the son of Abraham" (1:1); "Jesus Christ" (1:18); "conceived . . . of the Holy Spirit" (1:20); "Jesus" (1:21); "He will save His people from their sins" (1:21); "Immanuel" (1:23); "God with us" (1:23); "King of the Jews" (2:2); "the Messiah" (2:4); "a ruler who will shepherd My people Israel" (2:6); "My [God's] Son" (2:15).

Luke: "will be great" (1:32); "the Son of the Most High" (1:32); "the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David; and He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and His kingdom will have no end" (1:32-33); "the holy Child" (1:35); "the Son of God" (1:35); "blessed is the fruit of your womb" (1:42); "my Lord" (1:43); "a horn of salvation" (1:69); "the Most High" (1:76); "the Sunrise from on high" (1:78); "a Savior, who is Christ the Lord" (2:11); "the consolation of Israel" (2:25); "the Lord's Christ" (2:26); "Your [God's] salvation" (2:30); "a light of revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of Your people Israel" (2:32).

This was indeed a special Child. There has never been another in the history of the world who can compare to Him. There is none other who has been given such exalted titles by God. There is none other who has been entrusted with such incredible responsibilities. There is none other who has changed the course of the entire world or who has had such an impact on mankind.

Here's something interesting. God has all power and all control. He could have brought about the birth of this Child in any way He chose. He could have made the entire process so blameless and exalted, so pure and incredible, that no aspect of Jesus' birth or preparation thereunto would contain the tiniest speck of sin or distaste. Such is not the case; God purposefully includes a list of all the people who preceded Christ, who were part of His lineage. Found in Matthew 1, the genealogy through Joseph unashamedly gives a list of forty varyingly unsavory people.

Not a single one of these men was perfect. If someone were to take the time to study the lives of these men, he would find instances of lying, faithlessness, trickery, polygamy, incest, adultery, murder, idolatry, spiritual apathy, and other forms of wickedness. Why would God choose these sinful people as precursors to the Christ? A large part of the answer is that every man is a sinner. If God had needed to choose perfect people to form the line of Christ, He would not have found anyone, nor would Christ have been needed.

What specifically caught my attention were the added explanations included in the genealogy. Most of the time God gives only the names of the father and son. On a few occasions, however, He includes something extra. Why does God give extra detail for a handful of people?

Perez was the son of Jacob, and his mother Tamar is mentioned as part of the story. Tamar presented herself as a prostitute and tempted her father-in-law Jacob into an incestuous relationship, resulting in the birth of Perez.

Boaz was the son of Salmon, and his mother was Rahab. Rahab was the prostitute who, during the time of Joshua, protected the Hebrew spies. This former prostitute trusted God and lived among the Jews, marrying Salmon. Boaz was born to this couple.

Obed was the son of Boaz, and his mother was Ruth. While Ruth is presented as noble person, she was a foreigner. God had commanded His people not to marry foreign women; in escaping a famine, however, Elimelech took his family to Moab where his sons married foreigners. After the death of one of these sons, the widow Ruth married Boaz as her second husband and gave birth to Obed.

Solomon was the son of David. Of David's many wives, Solomon was the son of Bathsheba, the one with whom David had an adulterous relationship and whose husband David ordered to be murdered.

Jeconiah was king at the time of the deportation of Israel to Babylon. God's people had become so wicked, idolatrous, and rebellious that God was compelled to send this harsh judgment. Jeconiah was one of those wicked people, whose brief reign did nothing to stem the wickedness or delay the judgment.

These five stories are not attractive. In a story so beautiful about a Savior so pure, God could have left out these sordid details, but He didn't. He purposefully included them, resulting in a remarkable Christmas story that is tainted with stains. But, oh, what a wonder! Those stains serve to highlight the necessity of a Christmas-born Savior and also to show the effectiveness of Christmas - that God can take any sinner, no matter how vile or defiled, can save him and use him to bring glory to God. Anyone who thinks his heritage or his history is so bad that God could never choose or use him can take heart from these sad stories that were incorporated into the most joyous story of all.

"Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God. Such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God." I Corinthians 6:9-11 (NASB)

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Music Made Personal

I was talking one day with my church music director about an idea for incorporating hymns into my daily life. Thinking of the positive impact I expected from this, I jokingly said, "Because you know music doesn't affect me at all!" He smiled and replied, "I know. You're one of the people I can't look at," (meaning as he directs music in church). Yes, I'm one of the most likely people in our church to cry during songs.

I took my song leader's reply as an encouragement. It meant that not only do songs affect me, but that other people notice that effect. There is something special about music; it should impact the heart and cause a noticeable response. That does not have to be tears; it might be a smile, a joyful face, a thoughtful gaze, a deepening faith, a pointed encouragement, or some other tangible reaction. Without any response or appreciated value in singing, a church's song service is basically a waste of time.

I was not always so sensitive. As a child, I enjoyed hymns with catchy melodies. When requesting favorites in church, I chose the longest hymns because I wanted my choice to last a long time. As I got into college, there were a few special hymns that were meaningful to me because of their words and their challenge to my heart. I began to enjoy singing more, recognizing the joyful aspect of it.

I can't say specifically what caused me to become more aware in song services and more conscious of the message of the hymns. I don't recall any particular catalyst. I suppose it was just growing maturity. As my heart grew closer to God, it was more ready to sing to Him and about Him. I'm still not perfectly consistent at this, but I began to purposefully think about the words as I sang. I worked to eliminate the mindless parroting of words and to focus on what the songs were saying. I began to see the song service as an important part of church, valuing the songs for their message.

Singing is an important part of corporate worship. It allows a congregation to unify in its affirmation of truth. It challenges members to adjust their thoughts as they prepare for the message. It gives believers the words to say to express the longings of their heart and to proclaim their aspirations and commitments. Very often Sunday's songs continue in the heart throughout the week, reinforcing truth and convictions.

Good hymns have power to positively impact a believer's heart, both in and out of church. Because of the melody, rhyme, meter, and repetition, hymns are easier to remember than other expressions of biblical truth. This "remember-ability" makes them wonderful tools in the life of the believer - reminding him of truth about God, calling his heart to worship and submission, providing encouragement, and allowing him to talk to God.

Over the years I've had a few ideas for incorporating hymns into my daily life and therefore profiting from them on a more consistent basis. The most obvious and simple way is to listen to recorded music. There is a lot of good music available that can fill most of the day if someone chooses to do - listening at home, in the car, maybe even at work. Although the mind can easily wander due to the activities of life and the music can become background noise, even some reminders are better than none.

Something that requires a little more effort is deliberate memorization of hymns. This is a wonderful tool, enabling a believer to sing at any time, not just when he has a hymnbook in front of him. Christians who have been in church for any length of time often have many hymns memorized just from repeated singing at church. This memorization is often incomplete, however. It may be limited to the first stanza or maybe just the chorus. Song leaders often joke about the neglected third stanza, and Christians are probably not as familiar with the middle stanzas of hymns, even though they also contain great truth. The good news is that memorization isn't too difficult, due to the factors of music that are listed above, as well as the fact that partial memorization already exists.

One personal frustration with recorded music is that often a particular CD includes many songs that I know, maybe even several favorites, but also songs that I'm not as familiar with. It can be difficult to find recordings with a completely satisfying mix of songs. To address this issue, I have made several CDs of my own. I chose the songs and the stanzas I wanted, and then I sang and recorded them, using my computer to burn them onto CDs. I'm not a great singer, and I'm not super tech-savvy, but I was able to figure out how to do it. Now I have CDs of just the songs I want to hear, and since no one else will hear them, it doesn't matter that the quality isn't that great. They are just right for me to sing along with and tailor-made to remind me of pertinent truths. 

Finally, I have taught myself to play the piano - not to master it, but just enough to plunk out a simple melody. It really didn't take that long, and it has allowed me to enjoy extended seasons of playing hymn after hymn, allowing them to minister to my heart. A simple keyboard is not very expensive, and as long as the expectation is that of rudimentary piano skills, this is a great way to direct the heart through music.

Two great aspects of each of these methods, whether memorization, creating CDs, or playing the piano, is that one does not need to be a great musician to carry them out, and he can choose the songs most appropriate to him. He can concentrate on specific areas in which he needs to be challenged, he can collect songs that are specially designed to bring encouragement, or he can choose songs that will purposefully help him to concentrate on truth about God. The more a believer pursues these types of activities, the more he will find hymns to be meaningful in his life.  What a blessing it is to have songs to sing in the darkest of nights, when waking up in the morning, and while going through the routine of life! Some days are far from perfect, but I am encouraged by how often appropriate hymns come to me, keeping my mind fixed on God and my heart tender toward Him.

"Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God." Colossians 3:16 (NASB)

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Are You an Extremist?

Much has been said lately about extreme or radical Muslims. It is not my intent to discuss whether we should fight these people, allow them into our country, keep a registry of them, or close their mosques. Instead I would like to share a viewpoint that I have rarely heard and then apply that truth to Christianity. Regardless of the specifics of one's personal political stance, I believe anyone who thoughtfully considers this discussion will recognize truth.

I would like to start with what will seem to many to be a controversial statement: Not all Muslims are out to kill (or control) the rest of the world, in particular Jews and Christians. I recognize that there are many Muslims who do have that goal. I recognize that there are "sleeper" agents that don't currently seem to have that goal but who will reveal it in due time. I realize that, due to their Muslim identification, some who are now peaceful have the potential to become radicalized or to take the extremist side if it comes down to a choice. All of these recognitions are easily backed up by facts and historical records.

Many people, whether Christians, political conservatives, alarmists, or white supremacists, would take umbrage at my statement in the previous paragraph. They would say things like, "Read the Koran." "Look at all the instructions to kill the infidel." "There is no way to escape that this is their mission and that it is what the Koran teaches." I acknowledge those realities. I believe the mistake comes when people assume something of Islam that is not true of other religions.

Let me start with my experience in Mexico, which illustrates a truth borne out around the world. According to wikipedia, 96% of Mexicans identified as Catholic in 1970. This number was down to 83% in 2010, but that's still a pretty high percentage. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Religion_in_Mexico). When I, or other missionaries, talked with these people, we found that there were some who attended church weekly and who attempted to live moral lives based on the Bible. There were also many who would identify themselves as Catholic, but then readily admit that they attended church only a few times a year, if at all. Some had terrible habits or tragic lives filled with immorality or degradation - yet, without a doubt, they were born Catholic and would die Catholic.

These Mexican Catholics likely had a Bible in their home, although they were strongly discouraged from reading it. They had teaching in their Bible that instructed them on how to live. The Apocrypha notwithstanding, their Bible is very similar to the Christian Bible, so these people had instruction to love one another, to tell the truth, to keep their bodies separated to God, and so on. Did the fact that their Bible (or their church) told them to live a certain way guarantee that they would do so? Not in the least. Did the fact that they claimed Catholicism as their religion provide a reasonable expectation that they would live out that religion? Decidedly not. Was the country morally strong and were the churches filled on Sundays? No, and no.

Let's bring the discussion closer to home. According to a Gallup poll from 2012, 52% of Americans identify themselves as Christians. (An additional 23% are Catholic, and 2% are Mormon.) (http://www.gallup.com/poll/159548/identify-christian.aspx). If these percentages represented people who truly believed, understood, and lived out the religion they claim, our country would be a far different place. Like the Mexican Catholics, however, many American Christians do not read the Bible, do not know its teaching, and rarely attend church. We could look at the Bible and see its teaching about such major areas as salvation by grace alone, the exclusivity of the gospel, requirements for pastors, separation, godly lifestyle, abortion, and homosexuality. Not only do many average Christians ignore or reject the Bible's teaching, but even a lot of ministers and entire denominations reject the Bible's truth on these topics, allowing for church-sanctioned gross violation of the Bible's teaching.

Catholicism and Christianity easily illustrate that claiming a religion is not the same as living it. The adherents of these religions (usually) identify as they do because of how they were brought up. For hundreds of years everyone in their family and nearly everyone in their community claimed that religion, and the new generations claim it also. This is what is called "nominal" Christianity or Catholicism; the people are Christian in name, but not in practice. If this is true of the major world religions with which we are most familiar, why would Islam be any different? Most Muslims were born into a culture where Islam was the only religion. Everyone in their family and in their town claimed to be Muslim, and the new generations do the same. That does not mean that the average Muslim knows, believes, and lives out his faith any more than it would be true of a Christian or Catholic. Like a Christian, a Muslim may follow a few basic instructions while quietly ignoring or rejecting the parts that seem too violent, out-dated, or unappealing.

"But there are some who do follow it whole-heartedly," someone would protest. "Those are the dangerous ones." That is precisely my point. It is the radical, extreme, fundamental adherent of any faith who makes a difference. Those who are content to claim a religion without living it make little if any impact. Those who know and live their faith, however, dedicated to its teaching, can make a difference in the world. That's what makes radical Muslims so dangerous, and the same dedication would enable Christians to impact the world around them. To do so, Christians must know what the Bible teaches and must follow it to the extent that it shapes their purpose for life and drives every aspect of life, whether or not the truth is popular, comfortable, or easy. Only the extreme make much of a difference.

"For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain." Philippians 1:21 (NASB)

A note regarding Muslims: Without Christ they have no hope of salvation, but they do have that opportunity open to them. Over the past weeks, my heart has been touched with stories of Muslims who have come to Christ and of Christians in the Muslim world who have taken a (dangerous) stand for their faith. God is saving people out of that false religion. Our church has a missionary in Lebanon, and he has said that some view Lebanon (or the Middle East) as an oil field or as a terrorist training field, but it is, in fact, a mission field. While we may be concerned about the danger of attacks and may hate their false religion, we must love these lost people and pray for God to do His work in them. That is the best answer for America, for the rest of the world, for the Muslims themselves, and for the exaltation of Christ, our great Savior. "Not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance" (II Peter 3:9b). We must also pray for our brothers and sisters in Christ who are living in dangerous places. "Remember the prisoners, as though in prison with them, and those who are ill-treated, since you yourselves are also in the body" (Hebrews 13:3).

Saturday, December 5, 2015


Whom does God choose to use to do His work? There is no exclusive answer; however, it is surprising how often God chooses people that men would never choose. In many cultures the eldest son is the one who is most expected to be strong. He typically is groomed to take over the family business. He might be the spokesman for the family and the one who makes decisions. Often he inherits the father's land and holdings. America was built by many second (or third) sons who had nothing in England but who could make their own opportunities in the New World.

The same was true in the Jewish culture, only more so. The eldest son got everything - birthright, blessing, status, wealth, etc. While those first-born sons may have been preferred by culture and by people, God often chose someone further down the line - a nobody. The reason is that God sees the heart rather than a person's position, and God is far more interested in the heart. Even a brief examination of Scripture reveals that God makes some unusual choices.

David is perhaps the person who most readily comes to mind regarding this topic, because his life very clearly teaches that the heart is more important than position. When Samuel was sent to anoint a new king for Israel from among the sons of Jesse, he watched as seven sons passed before him. Three of these were soldiers in Saul's army. God did not chose any of the seven. Instead, David, the eighth son, was sent for and then anointed.

David's father said of David: "There remains yet the youngest, and behold, he is tending the sheep" (I Samuel 16:11). He had not even been considered at first, yet when David arrived, God chose Him. God had said of the firstborn son Eliab, "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" (I Samuel 16:7). When God looked at David's heart, He found the quality of servant that He was seeking, saying, "I have found David the son of Jesse, a man after My heart, who will do all My will" (Acts 13:22).

It is unclear how many older brothers Gideon had, but this unlikely leader told the angel who came to him, "My family is the least in Manasseh, and I am the youngest in my father's house" (Judges 6:15). That did not matter to God. It is not stated what God saw in the hearts of the brothers, but He saw in the heart of Gideon a man who would obey Him. Gideon had some doubts and needed some reassurances, but he did not flinch in carrying out the commands that God gave to him. Gideon had the kind of heart that God could use.

Although Samuel was Hannah's long-awaited firstborn son, he was not his father's oldest child. At a young age he left his family and went to serve in the temple, where the priest with whom he worked already had sons. It would seem incredible for Samuel to be the one to "take over" and even rise to a higher level of leadership than Eli, but Samuel is the one God chose. Even as a child, "Samuel was growing . . . in favor . . . with the LORD" (I Samuel 2:26). God saw in Samuel a heart that was quick to obey, and God chose Samuel over the "worthless" sons of Eli, who "did not know the LORD," even though they had already moved into positions of leadership (I Samuel 2:12).

Joseph was the eleventh of twelve sons and was hated by most of the others. While the brothers engaged in hatred, malice, deceit, and dark secret-keeping, God saw in Joseph a sensitive heart. Even before he was sold as a slave, he had a heart to receive God's messages to him, and he was obedient to his father. During his long years of trial, Joseph continued to faithfully serve God, without harboring resentment or bitterness. His heart pleased God because he was willing to believe in God's plan for his life even when he could not see anything good working out for him. Joseph is the one God chose to save his family and nation - "to preserve many people alive" (Genesis 50:20).

Jacob's story is most amazing, because for many years he lived up to his name - a supplanter, trickster, and deceiver. Amid his struggles, though, there was some desire in his heart to serve and please God (Genesis 28:18-22). Therefore, God chose Jacob, the younger brother, rather than Esau, the older brother, who seemed at every turn to belittle God's ways. God saw the imperfectly-devoted heart of Jacob and was patient for him to mature in godliness; in the meanwhile, God still chose, protected, and blessed Jacob.

These stories of God choosing the younger sons should not be surprising - not when one realizes what God is looking for. "Now, Israel, what does the LORD your God require from you, but to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all His ways and love Him, and to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the LORD's commandments and His statutes which I am commanding you today for your good?" (Deuteronomy 10:12-13).

God doesn't look at size, age, status, might, wisdom, and so forth. He looks at the heart. Many Christians might look at themselves and think, "I am nothing. God wouldn't use me to do His work. He'll use someone important and someone with potential like the pastor's kids or the missionary's kids." Oh, friend, God sees the most potential in a heart that is willing to submit to Him and to obey Him. God is looking to use people who love Him, regardless of how anyone else estimates their value. With a willing heart, any Christian can be useful to God.

"For consider your calling, brethren, that there were not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble; but God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, and the base things of the world and the despised God has chosen, the things that are not, so that He may nullify the things that are, so that no man may boast before God." I Corinthians 1:26-29 (NASB)

Saturday, November 28, 2015

God Is Good - Part 2

God is great, and God is good. The first two posts in this study drawn from the gospel of Mark focused on God's greatness: His power, authority, boldness, knowledge, and wisdom. The third segment looked at God's goodness, specifically as seen through Jesus' character, devotion to His Father's purposes, and aspects of His ministry. This final segment examines the goodness of God in the context of personal interactions. Jesus consistently showed His goodness through His loving treatment of people.

One major aspect of this goodness is compassion. Jesus characteristically expressed compassion for those in need, whether that need was physical or spiritual. Wonderfully, Jesus' compassion was not limited to stirrings within His heart. When Jesus experienced compassion, He evidenced His compassion by doing something to alleviate the situation. When a leper came to Jesus and asked for healing, Jesus had compassion on the leper, healed him, and sent him on his way (1:40-43). Jesus had compassion on a man whose daughter was sick; He accompanied the man to his house for the purpose of healing the girl (5:22-24). Jesus had compassion on a Gentile woman, who normally would not have drawn the notice of a Jew. Jesus responded by releasing the woman's daughter from an evil spirit (7:25-30). When onlookers discouraged a blind man from bothering Jesus, Jesus had compassion. He called the blind man to Him and healed his blindness (10:46-52). When a large crowd of people had listened to Jesus for several days, He had compassion on them because of their hunger and inaccessibility to food. He responded by providing food for the entire crowd so that they could return home without fainting (8:1-8).

Jesus also had compassion for people's spiritual needs. This is well-expressed by Mark 6:34. "When Jesus went ashore, He saw a large crowd, and He felt compassion for them because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and He began to teach them many things." On two recorded occasions, Jesus showed compassion for children, although others wanted to minimize their importance. Jesus spoke out strongly against anyone who would cause a child to stumble (9:42). When others tried to keep children from coming to Jesus, Jesus rebuked those men and readily welcomed the children (10:14). When James and John came to Jesus with a rather questionable request, Jesus did not verbally attack them. Instead He gave a compassionate response designed to help them understand the import of their question (10:38).

In addition to compassion for those who were needy, Jesus also demonstrated His goodness by providing comfort for those who were hurting or troubled. When He reached the home of Jairus, an official announced that Jairus's daughter was dead. Jesus responded first with words of comfort; He followed His words with comforting actions as he revived the daughter and restored her to her father's arms (5:35-41). The disciples were caught in a fierce storm that was too mighty for them and that overwhelmed them with fear; upon Jesus' arrival, He immediately comforted them with His words of assurance and then silenced the storm (6:47-51). Later Jesus was informing His disciples about the challenging days that would come. He prepared them with words of advice, explanation, and comfort so that they would not be overwhelmed by the troubling prophecies (13:7-13).

Finally, Jesus expressed the goodness of God through the kindness that permeated His interactions with others. He showed His kind affection for His followers, claiming them as His own family (3:34). Jesus cared about His disciples in the midst of a storm. He arose from His nap and calmed both the storm and the disciples (4:37-40). When the disciples returned from a busy time of ministry only to be overwhelmed with more crowds of people, Jesus provided a time of rest for them (6:30-32). From afar Jesus observed His disciples in a situation of great need, and He went to them so that He could help them (6:48). Even when Jesus was aware of a betrayer in the midst of His disciples, He was not vicious or unkind (14:17-21).

Jesus' kindness clearly extended beyond the realm of His closest followers. Instead of rebuking with harsh words, Jesus responded kindly to a woman who interrupted His ministry to someone else (5:34). Jesus took time for the children and interacted kindly with them (9:36). A man came to Jesus seeking the way of eternal life. In spite of his interest, the man had some challenges in understanding the extent of his need. Jesus responded with a heart of love to this seeking man (10:21). A poor widow gave a measly offering of a few coins; others minimized her gift, but Jesus commended the lady and appreciated her gift (12:43). When another lady gave a gift of perfume to Jesus, He defended and honored her sincere worship, although it was misunderstood by others (14:6-9).

Jesus, as the manifestation of God on earth, consistently displayed His goodness through compassion, comfort, and kindness to people. These loving actions are multiplied throughout the rest of the Bible and, in fact, throughout the entirety of history. God is indeed good, and He clearly loves people. What a blessing to have a good, benevolent God who seeks and provides the best for His followers!

"How great is Your goodness, which You have stored up for those who fear You, which You have wrought for those who take refuge in You, before the sons of men!" Psalm 31:19 (NASB)

Saturday, November 21, 2015

God Is Good - Part 1

The previous two posts have examined the reality that God is great. God's greatness includes the parts of His character that show Him as powerful, amazing, awesome, divine, and outstanding. Jesus' power was revealed through His incomprehensible ability to heal any illness, His incredible capacity to cast out evil spirits, His impressive strength to perform miracles, and His inimitable act of rising from the dead. Jesus' greatness was also revealed through the impressive authority revealed through His life, ministry, and teaching. His greatness was shown through His intrepid boldness when confronted by falsehood and sin. Finally, His greatness was displayed through His infinite knowledge and inscrutable wisdom.

It is wonderful truth to know that God is great. God's power, control, authority, and wisdom are sources of great encouragement to the believer. They cannot, however, be fully appreciated if they are not understood in conjunction with God's goodness. God's goodness refers to His integrity, motives, love, care, compassion, and kindness for people. It is essential that a God so great would also be good. Without goodness, a powerful God would be a fierce dictator who would abuse His followers. Without goodness, an all-knowing God would not work to properly arrange the details of life; He would not reach out in love to those whose pain and struggle He knew.

God is good, and that goodness was demonstrated through the life of Jesus (for this study, as seen in the gospel of Mark). Jesus was good in regard to His purpose in life. It is common to refer to those who live sacrificially and who dedicate their lives to serving others as good people. Jesus displayed this type of goodness to the ultimate level. He could have stayed in heaven and avoided the pain of His earthly life and the shame of His bodily death. Because He is good, however, He was willing to leave the glories of heaven and live in a human body on a sin-cursed earth.

Jesus was dedicated to pleasing the Father and doing the Father's will. Jesus accomplished this even from the beginning of His ministry. When Jesus was baptized, the Father spoke from heaven, "You are My beloved Son, in You I am well-pleased" (1:11). When Peter expressed opposition to Jesus' teaching about His impending death, Jesus described Peter's mindset, which was much different than that of Jesus Himself. Jesus told Peter, "You are not setting your mind on God's interests, but man's" (8:33). Jesus knew very well the good and noble purpose for His life. "For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many" (10:45). In the fulfillment of His good determination to please the Father, Jesus suffered terrible abuse at the hands of His enemies (15:15-19) and then gave up His life to provide the hope of salvation for the world (15:37).

In addition to goodness displayed through the purpose and motive for His earthly life, Jesus also showed His goodness through His ministry. The way in which He conducted His ministry and the things that He did within His ministry were good. Jesus' ministry was good in that He reached out to people who were truly needy; He interacted with the outcasts of society and with those who were rejected and looked down upon by others (2:15-17). Jesus' ministry was good in that He gave the people the truth they really needed; His ministry was filled with preaching good news to sinners (1:14,21,39). Jesus' goodness was displayed when He forgave sins (2:5). Jesus showed His goodness in His ministry as He gathered and called to Him men whom He would appoint to share in His ministry (3:13-14). He wanted His ministry to continue beyond His earthly sojourn, and He made preparations to accomplish that goal. Jesus was good in His interactions with those chosen men; He gave them careful instruction and training to prepare them for the ministry they would carry out (6:8-11).

Jesus revealed His goodness in His interactions with His followers. These interactions were permeated with patience and filled with encouragement and explanation. When the disciples misunderstood Jesus' instruction to them, He took the time to remind them of what He had done in the past. His words were intended to encourage them that they had no reason to be concerned with earthly things, because He would abundantly provide for them (8:17-19). Jesus prepared His disciples for His coming death, wanting to be sure they were not shocked or defeated by a major change they had not seen coming (8:31). Jesus gave His disciples a realistic but hopeful understanding of discipleship, as He explained the temporal and eternal aspects of such a life (8:34-38). He acknowledged that a life devoted to serving Him would bring hardship and loss, but He also assured His disciples that He would abundantly repay every loss (10:29-30). Jesus was good to His disciples, as He did not hide the hardships, but gave assurances and encouragement that would uphold them through the hardships and give them the courage to go on.

Jesus earthly ministry was a brief demonstration of the eternal goodness of God. Everything that was true of Jesus' ministry is reflective of the heart and mind of a good God. God is good, as He unceasingly seeks to reconcile fallen mankind to His own perfect self. God is good to extend grace to sinners. God is good to encourage, instruct, guide, and bless those who seek to follow Him. God's heart overflows with goodness, and His actions repeatedly reveal that goodness.

"I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down His life for the sheep." John 10:11 (NASB)

Saturday, November 14, 2015

God Is Great - Part 2

Only a Biblical understanding of God's character portrays Him accurately as the great and good God that He is; anything less warps or diminishes God in the eyes of man. The previous post recounted the power of God as revealed in the life of Jesus, who had the ability to heal all kinds of diseases, to work incredible miracles, and to rise from the dead. This post continues the study from the gospel of Mark by revealing that God's greatness was also expressed through Jesus' great authority, boldness, and knowledge.

Jesus displayed greatness because He truly is great. When accusers questioned His actions on the Sabbath, He stated that He was greater than any tradition or ritual. He was, in fact, "Lord even of the Sabbath" (2:28). When Jesus forgave the sins of a paralytic man, the scribes were incensed. They knew that no one "can forgive sins but God alone" (2:7). They were right. Imagine how great God is that He is able to forgive sins, something that no person can ever hope to do. Jesus' greatness was widely recognized even by evil spirits. These spirits who, due to their nature, had some spiritual sensitivity, were quick to cry out, "You are the Son of God!" (3:11). His greatness was evident, and perhaps never more so than on the Mount of Transfiguration. This great God, the Savior, "was transfigured before them; and His garments became radiant and exceedingly white, as no launderer on earth can whiten them" (9:2-3). Jesus shone with the glory and splendor that are His as the great God.

Jesus' authority was widely recognized by the people to whom He ministered. Even early in His ministry, people realized there was something special about Him; He taught the Bible in a way they had never seen before and that their leaders could not duplicate. "They were amazed at His teaching; for He was teaching them as one having authority, and not as the scribes" (1:22). Some rejected who He was; they thought Him to be merely another son of Joseph and Mary. Although they were confused about His background, they could not deny His authority. As they listened to His teaching, they were "astonished," marveling at His great wisdom and knowledge of the Bible (6:2). What is perhaps most amazing about this authority is the way in which it transcended tradition. Much of what Jesus' taught discredited the traditional teaching and expectations that people had believed all of their lives. In spite of this, His following was so widespread and overwhelming that the religious leaders were afraid to do anything against Him. Because the leaders "feared the people [who followed Jesus], . . . they left Him and went away," although their desire had been "to seize Him" (12:12).

Jesus' greatness was expressed through boldness. When Jesus was confronted with traditions that over the years had shifted away from truth, He boldly declared what God had ordained (10:2-9). He did not fear to proclaim the truth even when it clashed with tradition. The religious leaders of Jesus' day enjoyed great respect and prestige. Jesus was not intimidated by their reputation or influence. He boldly taught the truth and warned people about these hypocritical and empty leaders (12:38-40). One of the greatest displays of Jesus' boldness was when He saw the temple being disgraced as a place of merchandise. There was a sense of authority about Him as He overturned the tables of the merchants, drove them out of the temple, and prevented them from walking through the temple with their goods (11:15-16). Physical strength was required for this act, but even greater was the bold authority that allowed one solitary man to have such power over large numbers of merchants. Finally, Jesus' boldness and internal strength was displayed when He was falsely accused and faced death. Jesus had the control to stand quietly and endure the accusations without responding and without condemning or destroying those who accused Him (14:61; 15:5).

God's greatness is also displayed through the incomprehensible knowledge and wisdom of God. Jesus knew things that no mere man could possibly know. He had wisdom to powerfully face the accusations and to avoid the traps that men tried to set for Him. When accused of being possessed by "the ruler of the demons," He gave a logical and irrefutable defense (3:22-27). When opponents challenged Him with a question, He responded with His own question that they could not answer (11:27-33). When men came, attempting to trap Jesus into saying something incriminating, He answered each deceptive question with such wisdom and skill that "no one would venture to ask Him any more questions" (12:13-34).

Jesus' knowledge extended far beyond the ability to answer difficult questions. Jesus was able to see the faith of men's hearts (2:5). He was able to see through the hypocrisy of men to know the insincerity of their hearts (7:6-13). Jesus was able to accurately discern the heart condition of individuals who came to Him (10:21). While man might have some insight or suspicion about the hearts of others, man can never have the heart-piercing knowledge that Jesus had.

Finally, Jesus' knowledge was incredible; it saw the unseen and knew the unknown. Jesus knew the thoughts and the content of a private conversation of His disciples (9:33-37). He knew how much money people had, and not just how much they had with them at the moment, but also how much they had left at home (12:41-44). Jesus sent His disciples into a village; before they went, He knew they would find a colt tied up as soon as they entered, and He also knew that no one had ever ridden that colt (11:2). Another time when He sent His disciples into the city, He knew they would meet a man walking, who would be carrying a pitcher of water, who would lead them to a particular house, and who would then offer them the use of a room that was already prepared (14:13-16). How could He know such things? He knew because He is a great God who has all knowledge and wisdom.

These teachings are practical for believers. God has the authority to do whatever He chooses in a believer's life. He has the boldness to act even when He knows He will be opposed or misunderstood. Wonderfully, He has the wisdom to know exactly what to do in every situation. If God seems to be taking no action, it is never because He does not know what to do. If the nature of His actions is troubling, the believer must remember that God knows what man cannot know. Only God has full knowledge and perfect wisdom.

"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 (NASB)

Saturday, November 7, 2015

God is Great - Part 1

What is God like? Too many people decide individually what they think God is like. Some of those conjured descriptions come close to the truth, while others minimize God, lower Him to human standards, or present a warped, inaccurate picture. A valid description of God cannot come from man's opinion, man's experience, man's reasoning, or even from tradition. An accurate understanding of God's character comes from His own revelation of Himself through the pages of Scripture. Below is an overview taken from the gospel of Mark. These references display the greatness of God's person as revealed through the person of Jesus Christ.

One major category in terms of God's characteristics is His greatness. God is great. That is, He is powerful, amazing, awesome, divine, and outstanding. Perhaps the most commonly known displays of God's greatness are instances of physical healing. Many passages reveal Jesus' ability to heal the sick; some do not mention specific diseases, but they do mention vast quantities of people. Large crowds descended on Jesus simultaneously, presenting a great variety of diseases, none of which were beyond the power of the Savior.

On one occasion people brought to Jesus "all who were ill" to the extent that "the whole city had gathered." These people were "ill with various diseases," and Jesus healed them (1:32-34). This is amazing. No doctor is able to heal (or even correctly diagnose) every disease, even with the advantages of vast research, availability of resources, accessibility to medicines and treatment, and a staff of medical personnel. No clinic or hospital, even with a team of doctors, can meet the needs of so many people in such a short time. Jesus did not give medications, perform surgeries, or prescribe bed rest. He did not deliver bad news to anyone or write off some illness as incurable. With nothing other than His power, Jesus was able to heal them all.

Other passages also speak in general terms of Jesus' ability to heal (6:5 and 6:55-56). In at least some cases, Jesus did not even touch the people or speak to them, yet they were healed. In addition to these large crowds, Jesus also healed individuals. Peter's mother-in-law had a relatively minor ailment, a fever. Many women "push on" when they are sick, but this fever had her laid up in bed. When Jesus healed her, she was immediately able to get up and serve her many guests.

Others came to Jesus with more serious conditions, including those that doctors had been unable to remedy in spite of continued efforts. These were people who had tried everything and had realized there was no hope of ever being healed through the efforts of the medical community. Even with modern medicine, some of these are conditions that man still has no hope of curing. Not one of the cases was too difficult for Jesus, who gave instantaneous healing. Jesus healed a man with a withered hand (3:5). He healed a woman from a twelve-year hemorrhage (5:29). He healed a leper (1:41) and a paralyzed man, who without rehab, stood, picked up his bed, and walked away (2:12). Jesus healed a deaf-mute (7:35) and two blind men (8:25 & 10:52). Even death itself was not too great a challenge for Jesus; He brought a girl back to life after she had already succumbed to her illness (5:41-42).

Jesus' healing ability extended to a realm that is incredibly serious but rarely identified in modern times - demon-possession. This is much more severe than a mere physical illness; it involves a spiritual dimension that is beyond man's comprehension. Jesus sometimes healed many demon-possessed people within a crowd (1:34,39). He also healed individuals who came to Him (1:26). He healed a little girl in this condition without even going near her (7:30). He healed a man with multiple demons (5:13). Jesus even bestowed upon His disciples the ability to cast out demons (6:7), but when a case arose that was too difficult for any of them (or for all of them combined), Jesus was successful (9:26).

Jesus' power reached beyond the realm of illness. He performed amazing acts that no one would even consider attempting. These are stories that people would be unlikely to believe if they had not seen them with their own eyes, or at least without the testimony of many witnesses. In Jesus' day, however, it was common knowledge that He had power to perform miracles (6:2). One day Jesus went for nourishment to a healthy-looking fig tree. Sadly, it had no fruit, and Jesus cursed it. The next day the disciples discovered this tree "withered from the roots up" (11:20).

On one occasion, Jesus looked upon a hungry crowd of 4,000 people. They had been listening to Him for three days and were far from any source of food. Jesus used seven loaves of bread and a few small fish to feed the entire crowd. The people ate until they were satisfied, after which seven large baskets of leftovers were collected (8:6). On another occasion, there were 5,000 men gathered (plus their families). Jesus fed them all (until they were satisfied), having available only five loaves of bread and two fish. Then the disciples gathered twelve full baskets of leftovers (6:41).

Jesus walked on the water. He did not have special shoes. He was not walking in water so shallow that it looked like He was walking on it. He did not have a jet ski, water skis, or a surfboard. He walked on top of the water. Walking on water is so impossible that the setting does not really matter, but the water Jesus walked on was out in the middle of the sea during a fierce storm (6:49). Speaking of storms, Jesus calmed that storm by causing the wind to immediately stop (6:51), and He quieted another fierce storm simply by telling it to be still (4:39). The waves that had been filling the boat to a dangerous level "became perfectly calm" and "the wind died down."

The climactic display of Jesus' power was when He conquered death, rising from the dead after three days (16:6). God has all power. He can do anything. He is not a wimp or a weakling. He is not in a battle with a devil or with forces of nature that are sometimes stronger than He is. There is no situation in which a Christian can accurately say, "I wish God could have done something about this" or "I wish God could have stopped this from happening." If something has not happened in a believer's life, it is never because God is unable. If something did happen, it is never because God could not stop it. God's power gives the believer the confidence to believe that God can do anything He says and everything that He deems best.

"For nothing will be impossible with God." Luke 1:37 (NASB) - Oh, and the context of this verse is that two women were going to have babies - one an old woman and the other a virgin!

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Thankful Things

"In everything give thanks; for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus" (I Thessalonians 5:18).

There are some times in life when it is easier to give thanks than at other times. Regardless of the ease or difficulty, however, God wants His children to always give thanks. His ultimate instruction is to give thanks in and for everything. That is certainly a great challenge. The very least one can do is to focus on the aspects of life for which he can be thankful, even if he still finds it difficult to give thanks in the harder things.

To be honest, there are days that if I made one list of things for which to be thankful and a second list of things that are troubling, I would find it much easier to make the second list, which would probably be longer. I'm trying to learn not to focus on the negative things. Yes, they happen, but dwelling on them and how hard they are is not at all helpful, nor is it in keeping with God's desire for me. I have found that even on the "worst" days, there is always something for which I can genuinely give thanks. Here is a sampling from the past few months.
  • blessing of special music in church - "My Heavenly Father Watches Over Me"
  • a compliment from my supervisor at work over a suggestion I presented
  • a compassionate and encouraging email from a friend when I shared a struggle
  • two friends shared book titles that were very appropriate for me
  • hugs from a lady at church for no reason other than she wanted to
  • laughter through watching I Love Lucy episodes
  • discovered a path near work that is a great place for me to walk after work
  • had the opportunity and courage to invite my neighbor to church again
  • had a nice phone call from a new friend at an especially helpful time
  • my doctor's determination to continue treatment in spite of opposition
  • thinking of a hymn "Never Alone" in the middle of a troubling night
  • my children's class really enjoyed a Bible memory game I made for them
  • finally cool enough to sleep without the air conditioner
  • a dinner invitation from busy but caring friends
  • on a few occasions at church when my heart was struggling with God, He made my heart tender
  • able to hold a friend's little baby
  • safety for my parents who were driving on a trip while exhausted
  • had the best opportunity I've ever had at work to share my belief in God
  • able to do some cleaning without any seeming effect
  • had a good opportunity for an extended talk with my little friend about sin and related topics
  • beautiful mountains along a drive home
  • fun with my niece and nephew
  • God helping me to figure some things out as I walked and talked with Him
  • God reminded me that I have His armor to protect me from the attacks of Satan
  • an excellent week of special meetings at church
  • the church song leader was able to find me an old hymnal that I can use
  • enjoyed a half day off work - doing errands and going to volleyball tournament
  • able to locate an important package that had been badly delivered
The "thankful things," as I call them, fall into every category - physical, practical, social, emotional, and spiritual. They happen at work, home, church, and elsewhere. If I'm not trying to make a list, I sometimes (or often) miss these blessings. When I do list them, however, I am encouraged to see how much God has done as He has poured out His love upon me. Is every day good? No, I wouldn't say so - but God is always good.

"Oh give thanks to the LORD, for He is good, for His lovingkindness is everlasting." Psalm 107:1 (NASB)

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Where You End Up - Part 2

In the previous post, I looked at the life of Job, a man who faced great trials and who struggled intensely as a result. In the end Job gained the victory and was blessed by God. From Job's example, I pointed out that where a believer starts out is not nearly as important as where he ends up. I also noted that the only way for a better conclusion to result is for a believer to have dependable anchors to keep him in the right place.

Job recalled many great truths about God - truths that sustained him and kept him from falling away in the midst of his struggles. Eventually the scattered stabilizing truths grew to the point that they became the overwhelming body of truth that gave him victory. Job is not the only Bible character to go through a similar process of clinging to God's truth until the testing has passed. In fact, while Job's example is inspirational for long-term trials, other Bible passages illustrate that the same process must be applied in short-term struggles.

In the frustrations of daily life, in the troubling thoughts of ordinary existence, and in the regular struggles of common human experience, the believer's starting point (of frustration, anger, fear, discouragement, worry, confusion, or doubt) is not nearly as important as where he ends up. The end result may not be months or years down the road as in Job's case. There are struggles that take place often within the scope of a single day, or even within a few hours or even minutes. However serious the nature of the struggle and however long the duration, the believer must focus on truth that will bring him to a victorious result.

Many of the Psalms illustrate this principle. Psalm 2 begins with concerns over the threats of heathen nations and over their desire to break free of God's control. Then the psalmist focuses on God's unstoppable power and on the universal control that He will easily exercise over every nation. The psalmist concludes with a warning to the haughty kings, a call to worship, and an assurance in his great refuge.

Much of Psalm 6 is filled with David's intense discomfort. He senses the anger of God and describes the intense suffering of both his body and spirit. He is overwhelmed by tears and grief. In the midst of this trial, David then remembers God's graciousness, His healing power, and His lovingkindness. David affirms his belief that God hears and answers prayer. These truths calm David so that he concludes with confidence in God and an expectation of deliverance.

In Psalm 10, the psalmist feels that God has abandoned him and that the wicked are about to triumph over him. Then he remembers the accountability that God holds over the wicked and His characteristic helpfulness to the needy. The psalmist ends with a recognition of God's invincible kingship and with confidence in God's strengthening and deliverance of the vulnerable.

In Psalm 12, David despairs that almost all the righteous people have disappeared. All that seem to remain are the wicked with their lying, abusive, and destructive speech. David then thinks about God's attention to the afflicted and the purity of God's words. He ends up resting in the assurance that God will preserve the godly.

In Psalm 13, David begins in anguish, believing that God has forgotten him, experiencing great sorrow, and thinking he is about to die. He then recalls God's lovingkindness and salvation, and he concludes with rejoicing and praise to God.

As Psalm 36 begins, David's eyes are filled with the wicked, with their iniquity and their schemes. Then he focuses on God's lovingkindness, His faithfulness, and His righteousness. He ends up rejoicing in the precious refuge found in God and in the abundant delights provided by God.

The psalmist of Psalms 42 & 43 speaks of his sorrow, his lack of opportunity to come to God, and his despair. He is mourning and believes himself to be forgotten by God. This soul burden is not easily overcome, but throughout these psalms, the writer repeatedly brings himself back to a place of hope and trust in God. While he goes through ups and downs in his soul struggle, he tenaciously remembers various truths about God and pulls himself back to the necessity of trusting in a good and helpful God.

In Psalm 73, Asaph shares that he had very nearly come to the point of stumbling; he was overcome with envy at the wicked who are too vile to imagine, yet seem to have success in their lives and impunity from any judgment. He saw them defying God with no apparent consequence, and he believed that he had lived for God in vain. Then he remembered God's pending righteous judgment of the wicked. Asaph turned the bitterness of his soul as he exulted in the constant nearness of his God, his home in heaven, and his satisfaction with such a good God.

In Psalm 79, Asaph begins with a lament over the destruction of Jerusalem. As a survivor, he looks around at the multitude of dead bodies, and he hears the mocking of the enemy. When he observes the waste and destruction, he believes that God is angrily bent on continued judgment. Then he calls to mind God's compassion, His salvation, His forgiveness, His power, and His merciful treatment of the needy. Asaph is able to end with a resolve to thank and praise God. He gladly acknowledges himself as belonging to such a God.

The Bible contains many more examples of this same process. God knows the weakness of man. He knows that Christians will struggle as they move through the challenges of life, and He provides the help and the answers. The Bible is filled with truths about the nature and character of God. These truths, when remembered and focused upon, are sufficient to stop the negative thoughts and the downward slide. They are sufficient to give the believer hope and confidence in God and to lift him to a place of victory. Truth about God can make all the difference, but only when the believer purposes within himself to consider it.

"Why are you in despair, O my soul? And why are you disturbed within me? Hope in God, for I shall again praise Him, the help of my countenance and my God." Psalm 43:5 (NASB)

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Where You End Up - Part 1

Even the most mature believers have times of struggle. All Christians go through seasons of discouragement, doubt, or disillusionment. I suppose Job was the most outstanding example. Job was an amazing follower of God. God Himself gave this testimony: "Have you considered my servant Job? For there is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, fearing God and turning away from evil" (Job 1:8).

This man endured a barrage of horrific trials while still worshiping God and maintaining his trust in God (Job 1:14-22). When a severe and prolonged illness quickly followed the previous disasters, Job reached a point of despair. He was filled with questions. He cried out to God for answers and for righteous treatment instead of what he believed he was undeservedly enduring. There is no doubt that this godly man Job went through a time of significant struggle.

The question for a believer is not whether or not those times will come; it is more a matter of how many, how often, and how intense the faith-threatening trials will be. I believe there are two very important, even critical, principles for a believer in such times of intense struggle. The first is that where the believer starts out is not nearly as important as where he ends up.

God understands human weakness. "For He Himself knows our frame; He is mindful that we are but dust" (Psalm 103:14). His response is one of compassion (Ps. 103:13) and sympathy. "For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin" (Hebrews 4:15).

Jesus had first-hand experience of what these shattering trials are like for someone living in the weakness of a human body. It does not shock God that believers struggle. I do not believe that it even alarms God when they waver. He understands that this is the completely normal human response when someone is dealt a powerful blow.

Everyone faces battles, and everyone struggles when facing those battles. Struggles - accompanied by perhaps doubt, fear, or despair - are the common plight of mankind. The above-mentioned troubling responses surface when a new trial appears. The question then is how to change the initial response in order to end up with a different conclusion. God understands how typical it is for believers to start out with confusion or discouragement. What He wants to see is where they will end up. He desires to see them emerge at the other end with a stronger faith, a greater God-dependence, and a more submissive heart.

How does the conclusion end up better than the beginning? The answer is found in the second principle, which is that in the midst of the trial, the believer must have dependable anchors to keep him in the right place. He must have unshakeable truths to cling to. These statements might be one statement of truth amidst ten or even one hundred expressions of doubt, but there must be at least one steadfast underlying truth that upholds the believer and keeps him pressing on through the trial.

Job had several such statements that provided him with anchors amidst the raging storm, lights within the stark blackness, and hope within the overwhelming despair. He made the following statements that helped to stabilize him and allow him to eventually emerge at a much better outcome. Job believed and stated the following:

"The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away. Blessed be the name of the LORD" (1:21).

"Shall we indeed accept good from God and not accept adversity?" (2:10).

"Though He slay me, I will hope in Him" (13:15).

"As for me, I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last He will take His stand on the earth. Even after my skin is destroyed, yet from my flesh I shall see God" (19:25-26).

"But He knows the way I take; when He has tried me, I shall come forth as gold" (23:10).

"I know that You can do all things, and that no purpose of Yours can be thwarted" (42:2).

Being sustained with such strong statements of faith in God and in His plan, is it any wonder that Job eventually ended up in a position of humble submission and complete trust? In the midst of his conflict, doubts, struggles, and despair, Job clung to some unshakeable truth that held him securely throughout the trial and enabled him to emerge at a much different position. He may have started out with intense struggle during the severe storm he faced, but he emerged victorious. Without the focus on truth, Job would never have been able to end up at the successful destination. Because he remembered truth, however, Job ended up being able to confess the following.

"Therefore I have declared that which I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. . . . I have heard of You by the hearing of the ear; but now my eye sees You; therefore I retract, and I repent in dust and ashes" (42:3, 5-6). "Behold, I am insignificant; what can I reply to You? I lay my hand on my mouth. Once I have spoken, and I will not answer; even twice, and I will add nothing more" (40:4-5).

Job had to fight through the battle, but he held onto stabilizing truth, and he came out on the other end with victory over the trial. God understood Job's initial struggle, He was patient through the extended crisis, and He was pleased by the victorious result. God does not expect men to be super-human, but He rejoices when mere humans cling to supernatural truth to overcome daunting trials. God is pleased when believers learn and grow enough to make the position in which they end up far different from the struggles along the way.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Wanting Two Things

Last week's post examined the Israelites, who on multiple occasions got what they wanted even though they didn't always realize what they were asking for. Wanting things is completely natural. In fact, I believe it is actually impossible never to want anything.  Last week's post focused in part on the fact that desires can be expressed in an improper way or out of a rebellious heart.

This week I would like to look at situations in which someone wants two things at the same time. Very often believers have a physical (personal) desire at the same time that they also have a spiritual (God-ward) desire. Generally speaking, the physical desires are short-term, while the spiritual desires are long-sighted.

What are some examples of physical desires? A person could want to watch a football game, eat ice cream, or go on vacation. He might desire to be rich or to be successful in his career. He may want to be married or have children. These desires range from the fairly trivial to the relatively serious. Some would change merely the course of an afternoon while others might prompt an entire life change.

How about spiritual desires? A believer may wish to please God or grow in godliness. He may want to learn contentment or submission. He might desire to be used in God's service or to see souls saved. He could want victory over a besetting temptation. He may long for a heart that is completely right with God. He may want to have a positive testimony to those around him or for his life to count for God. These desires are basically foundations for life. Many of them permeate every aspect of life as well as the entire breadth of life. They will not be completely achieved until the believer is glorified in heaven.

Physical and spiritual desires do not have to be mutually exclusive. In fact, God often blesses His children with physical gifts, especially when they are striving for the right spiritual desires. Job and Abraham are biblical examples. In Psalm 17, David describes how he had achieved his desire of living uprightly before God. "You have tried my heart; You have visited me by night; You have tested me and You find nothing; I have purposed that my mouth will not transgress" (v. 3). As a result, he reasonably expected some things from God. "Wondrously show your lovingkindness, . . . Keep me as the apple of the eye; Hide me . . . from my deadly enemies who surround me" (vs. 7-9). God granted David's desires of displayed goodness, special favor, and physical protection, while also helping David to achieve his goal of living correctly before God.

As long as a desire is good and legitimate, it is certainly possible that God will grant the desire. Psalm 37:4 instructs, "Delight yourself in the LORD; and He will give you the desires of your heart." Some believers have tried to exercise this truth as if it represents a blank check from God. They think that if they are Christians, God will give them anything they want. This is a misunderstanding of the verse.

The believer is first instructed to delight himself in God. This term refers to a luxurious splendor in the presence of God; the position is so delightful that it feels like soft and delicate surroundings that are welcoming and satisfying. If a believer relates to God in this way, he will certainly have the kinds of desires that God would love to grant.

Some have also interpreted this verse as meaning that when a believer so delights in God, God Himself will initiate or shape the person's desires so that they are exactly what God also wants. In other words, God will give (or place) right desires into the heart, after which He will then be able to bestow the answers. Because the word desire means a request or petition, I lean toward the interpretation in the previous paragraph. Either way, the application is basically the same. A man who delights in God has a heart that is inclined to want what God wants, and God delights to meet desires that are pleasing to Him.

It is important to realize that this harmony is not a given. Too often the Christian's unfulfilled desires (or desires met but accompanied by unpleasant consequences) are a result of physical desires that are in opposition to spiritual desires. A believer who watches football to the point of rarely attending church is not fulfilling his desire to please God. Someone who eats a half gallon of ice cream daily is not honoring God, because he is not properly caring for the body God has entrusted to him. A man who spends thousands of dollars on an extravagant vacation, leaving him without the resources to provide for his family, is not having a positive impact in his realm of influence. A believer who wants to be successful as a bartender is not achieving his spiritual goal of being a good testimony. A Christian who marries a non-Christian does not reach his goal of pleasing God. When the physical and spiritual desires are mutually exclusive, the believer must abandon the physical desire in deference to the greater spiritual desire.

What about when the desires could profitably co-exist, but God does not give the physical desire (or hasn't yet given it)? The believer must then rank his desires. The longing for a vacation may be good, but the longing to obediently provide for the family is more important. The desire to be successful in a career is good, but the desire to maintain a godly testimony is more critical. Wanting to be married may seem to be the strongest desire imaginable, but it must be secondary to the desire to please God, serve Him, and grow in Him.

Believers can legitimately live without football, ice cream, vacations, wealth, successful careers, marriage, or children; if they want their lives to be what God wants, however, they cannot live without striving to please Him, without obeying His commands, and without being moldable and receptive to His work. While it may be difficult to never see the fulfillment of certain physical desires, it would be tragic to receive the physical requests at the expense of falling short of the spiritual desires. The spiritual desires must be the most important.

"God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble. Therefore humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God." I Peter 5:5-6 (NASB)

Saturday, October 3, 2015

They Got What They Wanted

In reading through the beginning of the Old Testament, I was struck with how often the Israelites got what they wanted - though in a somewhat ironic fashion. They did not always know what was right or what was best for them, so their desires, wishes, and requests were not always wise. Nevertheless, God often gave them just what they wanted, albeit with consequences that were not desired.

In Exodus 16:3, the Israelites wanted food. God gave them a special food called manna. This food miraculously appeared every day (except the Sabbath) for forty years; it tasted like "wafers with honey" (v. 31); Psalm 78:25 refers to it as "the bread of angels." They got what they wanted. What was the result? Some of them went hungry or had the unpleasant experience of spoiled food when they wouldn't follow God's simple instructions for gathering the manna (Ex. 16:20,27). They also reached the point that they did not appreciate God's good gift to them. They complained about not having anything better to eat, and even said they no longer had an appetite because their food was so unappealing (Numbers 11:6). Although God gave them what they wanted, they came to hate His gift.

In Exodus 20:19, the people didn't want God to speak directly with them because they were afraid to come near Him. They wanted Moses to listen to God on their behalf and relate God's words to them. They got what they wanted, but the results were disastrous. God revealed that His reason for wanting the people to draw near to Him was so that they would see His imposing splendor and learn to fear Him (v. 20). Because they failed to come near and listen to God, they also failed to learn the reverence for Him that they should have developed. The result was continued rebellion and disobedience, resulting in hardship and judgment.

In Exodus 32:1, the people wanted a visible god to look at and to credit with their deliverance from Egypt. With Aaron's help, they got what they wanted. They donated their jewelry, which was then fashioned into a golden calf. As a result of God's displeasure and the judgment decreed by Moses, 3,000 of them died (v. 28). Not only that, the calf was ground into gold powder and thrown into the water, which the Israelites then had to drink (v. 20). In addition to being an unappealing experience, the people also lost their valued treasures without having anything to show for it.

In Numbers 11:4, the people wanted meat. In spite of the seeming impossibility of providing meat for such a large group of people, they got what they wanted. God gave them a month's worth of meat (v. 20). What was the result? They quickly came to hate it; the meat became "loathsome" to them (v. 20). Also "the anger of the LORD was kindled against the people, and the LORD struck the people with a very severe plague" (v. 33), after which many who had eaten the desired meat were buried.

In Numbers 14:2, the Israelites expressed the strange desire to have died in the wilderness. They found that option preferable to following Moses and taking the land as God had commanded. They got what they wanted. God promised that every adult (except Joshua and Caleb) would die in the wilderness (v. 33). This is such a sad result, compared with what God wanted to give them. This desire to die in the wilderness was linked to a desire for safety. They were afraid to die at the hands of the Canaanites. Again, they got what they wanted. They were not killed by the wicked nations - but they still died, and their deaths came after decades more of wandering in spartan and deprived conditions.

Oddly, when the Israelites realized the consequences of their choice, they decided in Deuteronomy 1:42-45 that they actually wanted to enter the land, even though God had now forbidden them to do so. They got what they wanted. They entered the land and engaged in combat. The result was that they were chased and crushed in battle.

In Numbers 16:41 (among other passages), the people wanted to be free of Moses' leadership. They didn't want to follow him. 14,700 of them got what they wanted, when they died of the plague that ravaged the people (v. 49).

In Numbers 20:2, the people wanted water. They got what they wanted when God gave water from the rock. In the process, however, they ultimately lost the stable leadership of Moses, as God cut his ministry short. He would no longer be available at a critical time in their history (v. 12).

In Numbers 21:4, the people wanted their miserable journey to end. Many of them got what they wanted when they were bitten by fiery snakes and died (v. 6).

In Numbers 25:1, the men wanted wives of Moab. They got what they wanted, but at great cost. As a result of the mixed marriages, the people's hearts were turned to false gods. Their idolatry sparked God's anger; the leaders were executed, and 24,000 others were killed by a plague (v. 4,9).

Not all of the desires of the people were bad. There was nothing wrong with wanting food, water, and safety. These requests, however, were rooted in wrong attitudes and in a lack of trust in God. The Israelites were not satisfied with what God had chosen for them; they did not believe that God was properly supplying for them.

Other requests were even worse, as they stemmed from disobedience and outright rebellion. The people rejected God's leader, His commandments, and His instructions. Their desires were so strongly in opposition to God's desires that following these desires automatically meant disobedience.

Their desires came from rebellious and mistrusting hearts that did not delight in God. If their hearts had been rightly devoted toward God, their desires would have been pleasing to God, expressed in ways that pleased God, and God would have been able to abundantly give their desires in ways that would have brought blessing. "Delight yourself in the LORD; and He will give you the desires of your heart" (Psalm 37:4). The challenge for the believer is to have a heart that seeks God's desires, rather than a heart that insists on its own desires. If the heart is wrong, leading to wrong desires (or wrongly expressed desires), God might give exactly what the believer wants, but the results could be disastrous.

"So He gave them their request, but sent a wasting disease among them." Psalm 106:15 (NASB)
"There is a way which seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death." Proverbs 14:12 (NASB)