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.

Saturday, December 8, 2018

The Tax That Changed the World

Taxes are evil! No one likes taxes. A rallying cry for the U.S. Revolution was "No taxation without representation." The elder President  Bush was famous for promising, "Read my lips. No new taxes." Some taxes, like sales tax and gas tax, are so built-in that it is possible to forget about them. Others, like income tax and property tax, are much more noticeable and significant. Is there any tax that is actually good and that can be viewed in any positive light?

"Now in those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus, that a census should be taken of all the inhabited earth. This was the census taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. And everyone was on his way to register for the census, each to his own city. Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David, in order to register along with Mary, who was engaged to him, and was with child. While they were there, the days were completed for her to give birth" (Luke 2:1-6). It is commonly assumed (and implied by the Greek wording) that this census was linked to a taxation; the familiar rendering of the KJV reads, "That all the world should be taxed. ... And this taxing was first made. ... And all went to be taxed."

This particular tax mattered. In fact, it was pivotal in the history of the world - not merely because it was the first of its kind, but on a far grander level, because it set up the conditions necessary for the birth of the Messiah. Approximately 700 years before the birth of Christ, God had foretold, "But as for you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you One will go forth for Me to be ruler in Israel. His goings forth are from long ago, from the days of eternity" (Micah 5:2). Mary, who was carrying the Child, and Joseph her fiancée lived in Nazareth, seventy miles away. The actual connection by road likely required over ninety miles of travel. At a walking pace of three miles per hour, the trip would have required five six-hour days.

Why would a young couple travel for a week under the travel conditions of that era to get to a place that had little connection to them, particularly at a time when the woman was very pregnant? They wouldn't, unless they were compelled. God needed them in Bethlehem in order to fulfill prophecy, so He compelled them by directing a powerful world leader to enact a tax that was both unwelcome in its reality and inconvenient in its implementation.

God knew when the time was right. In modern medicine, doctors can still only estimate the time of birth, but God knew Mary's due date precisely. God knew when the Messiah's forerunner, John the Baptist, would be born and would start his ministry. God knew when the world would be at relative peace, unified by language and transportation, making conditions advantageous for the spread of the gospel. God knew when the Jewish people would be looking expectantly for their Messiah, having already faced captivity and now being under oppressors again. God knew when the age of law would have clearly demonstrated its ineffectiveness, as the Jews had gone through periods of unbelief and empty ritual, always unable to keep the law's demands.

Ultimately, God knew precisely the time line that He Himself had laid out in Daniel 9, and He directed all these aspects of history - personal, Jewish, and world - to come together at the right time. "But when the fullness of the time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, so that He might redeem those who were under the Law, that we might receive the adoption as sons" (Galatians 4:4). God had a very definite and precise plan, and He brought that plan to fruition by whispering into the mind of Caesar Augustus that he ought to institute a world-wide census and that he should facilitate that census by causing people to have to travel to designated locations within certain time constraints.

Under the sovereign design of God, a tax changed the world forever by serving as the framework for the birth of the Savior. Joseph, Mary, and the others of their day probably didn't like the tax any more than people of today like the taxes required of them. Joseph and Mary found their compulsory trip uncomfortable and inconvenient, but God accomplished through that taxation and through that trip something beyond what the people of that time could understand.

The same sovereign God continues today to use uncomfortable and inconvenient things for His purposes. He continues to work through (and even initiate) the actions of governments and other leaders. When God has a plan to accomplish, nothing can stop Him. Furthermore, everyone and everything yields to His superintendence. God is in control!

"The LORD of hosts has sworn saying, 'Surely, just as I have intended so it has happened, and just as I have planned so it will stand'" (Isaiah 14:24).

Saturday, December 1, 2018

The Purity That Changed the World

"Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, a virgin will be with child and bear a son, and she will call His name Immanuel" (Isaiah 7:14).

I have heard (and I assume it is true) that the Jewish people were very aware of this prophecy. I have also heard that this prophecy would have held special interest for young girls, as they anticipated the possibility that they might be the one. I don't know how common that fantasizing or imagining actually was, but there must have been some girls and some parents who wondered if their family could be involved in the fulfillment of this prophecy.

The prophecy was ultimately fulfilled through a young Nazarene lady named Mary. There was obviously a miraculous aspect to the conception of Christ, but there was also a requirement on the part of Mary. She had to be a virgin.

I did a small amount of research on recent statistics in the U.S. In 1991, 45.9% of high school students (grades 9-12) were still virgins. By 2013, that number had risen to 53.2%, still barely half. A study done in 2014 found that only 17% of women age twenty-two were virgins, and in 2017 it was reported that the average age when females lost that status was 17.2 years old. An undated report gave the following breakdown for loss of virginity in females: 26% by age fifteen, 40% by age sixteen, 49% by age seventeen, and 70% by age eighteen. While the various studies differed somewhat in their guidelines and even in their results, the consensus is that approximately half of girls are no longer virgins when they graduate from high school.

There is no way of knowing how common it was for young ladies in Mary's culture and historic setting to meet such a requirement. Perhaps a general idea could be gained through ancient histories. We would like to think that people were more moral back then, particularly within the Jewish system. People have always been sinners, however, and the sad reality is that ever since the Fall, young men and ladies have fallen short of that standard in great numbers.

Mary was almost certainly in the age range discussed above. She did not give in to pressure, even though she was engaged. She did not become part of the immorality around her and did not succumb to her fleshly desires. Mary made that decision and commitment because it was right; she didn't know she would be chosen to bear the Messiah. She was just a young lady trying to do right before God.

While she met the criteria of being a virgin, that was not the only reason she was chosen. Mary was a "favored one" in the eyes of God (Luke 1:28). She was humbly willing to do God's bidding. She responded, "Behold, the bondslave of the Lord; may it be done to me according to your word" (Luke 1:38). These were not words to be spoken lightly. Her resulting pregnancy could have had significant consequences in regard to the rest of her life. She certainly did not know how Joseph would respond. She fully yielded, however, to what God asked of her.

Like He did with Mary, God calls all Christians to holiness and submission; believers would do well to follow her example in both areas. God instructs, "You shall be holy, for I am holy" (I Peter 1:16). This concept permeates the Scriptures, as God asks His children to be set apart, purified, and pursuing godliness. The Bible gives specific requirements for certain people, such as pastors and church leaders. There is no doubt that God forgives sins, even sins that are considered particularly offensive; God is merciful. There are times, however, when certain opportunities for service could be forfeited, just as Mary would not have been able to carry the Messiah if she had not been a virgin.

When opportunities for service do come to those who are qualified to fill them, they must like Mary have a humble and submissive response. It is not up to individuals to determine precisely how God will use them. His plan might be far different from their preferences, and it may not even line up with what they think their talents are. What God asks may bring risks, and it might mean hardship, opposition, fear, and misunderstanding. The only appropriate response is "Yes, Lord."

While Mary provides a good example of being both qualified and willing for service, I want to focus also on God's role. When God promises something, He is able to do it. It doesn't matter how unusual or socially aberrant the conditions are. God makes sure there is a way to carry out His plans. If He says there will be a godly virgin available at the right time, there will be. If He says a chosen godly virgin will supernaturally bear a child, it will come to pass just as He has said.

Culture can't stop the plans of God. Individuals can't stop the plans of God. Governments can't stop the plans of God. Nothing can stop what God has determined. "For nothing will be impossible with God" (Luke 1:37). On the other side of that same coin, it was absolutely imperative that Mary remain a virgin. Her purity became part of God's plan that changed the entire history of the world. It mattered immensely that she did what was right.

Christians today are also called to holiness, but holiness is possible only because the Holy One came to make the way for sinners to become His holy and redeemed children. When God sent the Savior, He changed everything!

Saturday, November 24, 2018

Thanksgiving - Part 3

The previous two posts have examined aspects of God for which to be thankful. The first post (Psalm 115) considered God's infinite superiority to idols; He is the true God who sees and hears His children and responds in power toward them. The second post (Psalm 36) considered God's vast superiority to mankind; the abundant excellence of God's character shapes His dealings with man. While these two psalms present merely a partial picture and limited reasons for thanking God, they illustrate that God is definitely worthy of thanks.

When one does determine to thank God, what does that look like? How can mankind begin to adequately express his thankfulness to such a great God? When one considers how much God has done for him, a simple "Thank You" seems so trivial. There must be a fuller and more effective way to give thanks. The psalmist of Psalm 116 examines this very question. He specifically recalls God's answered prayer and His deliverance, shaped by God's wonderful character, and the grateful psalmist asks, "What shall I render to the LORD for all His benefits toward me?" (v. 12).

First, the psalmist determines to offer prayer. "I shall lift up the cup of salvation and call upon the name of the LORD" (v. 13). God has already answered prayers for this man. He remembers those answers and determines to continue praying to God. He will keep looking to God at all times, including future times of need. His dependence will be on God. It is actually a flattering response to be dependent on someone else, because dependence expresses confidence in the other's ability. It displays trust, acknowledgment, and admiration for the competence of the other person, in this case God, to properly and adequately respond to the needs.

Second, the psalmist determines to offer public service. "I shall pay my vows to the LORD, oh may it be in the presence of all His people" (v. 14, 18). His specific vows are not revealed, but this aspect is so important that he lists it twice. There are actions that the psalmist will do in the house of God. Perhaps those will be publicly spoken words. Perhaps they will be gifts rendered. Perhaps they will be acts of service. Whether in words, wealth, or works, this man is going to actively do something in a public setting that will express His thanks to God.

Third, the psalmist recognizes the value of an entire life of godliness. "Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of His godly ones" (v. 15). When God receives one of His devoted saints in death, the event is special and precious to Him. What a wonderful gift then to give to God - a life dedicated to pursuing godliness. The psalmist understood that precious gift, and apparently determined to life in such a way that would bring God pleasure at the conclusion of his life. He wanted to give God that consistent godly life.

Fourth, the psalmist was devoted to a life of service to God. "O LORD, surely I am Your servant, I am Your servant, the son of Your handmaid, You have loosed my bonds" (v. 16). His service was not to be a one-time response. Rather, he was giving his life to serve God. He willingly placed himself under bondage and viewed himself as a slave who owed his entire life to God. All his days were devoted to the God he loved.

Fifth, the psalmist anticipated giving thanks. "To You I shall offer a sacrifice of thanksgiving, and call upon the name of the LORD" (v. 17). For some reason, he called his thanksgiving a sacrifice. Perhaps he viewed it as a deliberate offering, similar to the animal sacrifices. Perhaps he realized it would be a sweet and savory expression. Perhaps he recognized that sometimes giving thanks is not easy. Regardless, it is hard to imagine this man sitting silently through a Thanksgiving service. On the contrary, this was a man who would regularly open his mouth to give thanks to God.

Sixth, the psalmist valued praise to the Lord. "In the courts of the LORD's house, in the midst of you, O Jerusalem. Praise the LORD!" (v. 19). Particularly in the place of worship, he would praise God, and he called on others to join him in praise. Based on the other intended demonstrations, it is likely that this man praised God wherever he went.

God does not act on behalf of His children so that He can receive prayer, service, godliness, thanks, and praise. God acts as He does because of His character. He is good and loving and compassionate. He is faithful and just and righteous. He is aware of the needs of His children, and He is powerful to meet those needs. God's character determines His actions, but it is right and appropriate for His children to respond to the blessings of God with devotion. They ought to be so thankful that they will express that thanks both with short-term acts of praise, thanks, and worship, as well as with long-term dedication, service, and godliness. Such a great God who does so much is worthy of all that one can give.

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Thanksgiving - Part 2

The previous blog (Psalm 115) examined the contrast between false gods and the true God. The true God is worthy of thanks because He is infinitely superior; in essence the false gods are dead, unresponsive, and unable to help, while God is living, involved, and powerful.

Psalm 36 is another great Thanksgiving psalm; it contrasts God with unregenerate man. While the false gods are merely powerless, man is actively wicked. The first four verses describe a man who hears transgression speak to him within his heart. He has no fear of God. He feels flattered when his acts of wickedness are uncovered, especially when people are offended by them. His words overflow with wickedness and deceit. He has stopped being wise and has stopped doing good. He lies awake at night planning more wickedness, and he deliberately places himself in evil paths.

What a terrible world to live in, surrounded by such depths of evil! If this depravity were all that man knew, this world and this life would be dark indeed. Thankfully, a righteous God exists and makes Himself known in phenomenal contrast to the wickedness of man. While man reaches the deepest abysses and darkest quagmires of ugliness and sin, God excels by contrast, as He reaches the highest levels of holiness and wonder.

"Your lovingkindness, O LORD, extends to the heavens" (v. 5). God's kindness and tender goodness are beyond the reach of any human. His love is greater than the world itself is even able to hold. There is no limit to the kind, tender love of God, and He is constantly pouring it out upon His children.

"Your faithfulness reaches to the skies" (v. 5). People cannot be relied on, but God is completely trustworthy. He is firm and steadfast, never changing. Again, there is no way to reach beyond the realms of God's faithfulness. In every area of life, in every promise of His Word, and in every aspect of His character, God is flawless. His record is spotless and irreproachable, because He continually acts as He has said He will act, and He constantly is who He claims to be.

"Your righteousness is like the mountains of God" (v. 6). God is completely just, righteous, and ethical. He never does wrong or makes the wrong decision. He can be completely trusted to do the right thing. Not only is God's righteousness far higher than man can attain, but it is also unshakeable and firm. Nothing can disturb, displace, or destroy His righteousness.

"Your judgments are like a great deep" (v. 6). The decisions, actions, and verdicts that God decrees are another important aspect of His being. God never makes an error in judgment, regardless of the thorniness of the dilemma. Man can be too shallow and too limited to understand a scenario, but God's judgments are profound. There is no plumbing the depths of them. There is no reaching the bottom, or the limit, of what He can handle.

"How precious is Your lovingkindness, O God! And the children of men take refuge in the shadow of Your wings. They drink their fill of the abundance of Your house; and You give them to drink of the river of Your delights" (vs. 7-8). God's character is very precious. What a wondrous privilege and blessing to have a God who is so loving, so nurturing, and so caring. He provides all that His children need, and there is no end to His resources. God's blessings are so abundant that man cannot even absorb them all.

In a wicked world filled with wicked men, in which even Christians can discern the wicked inclinations of their own hearts, God is holy and righteous. While man is shallow and limited, God's character knows no limitations. The aspects of His character are more lofty than man can scope and more profound than man can fathom.

I am thankful for a God whose lovingkindness is so elevated. I am thankful for a God whose faithfulness is so towering. I am thankful for a God whose righteousness is so indomitable. I am thankful for a God whose judgments are so profound. I am thankful for a God whose loving care is so limitless. I am glad that no one can come close to matching the magnificence of my God.

Certainly, it is right and appropriate to be thankful for the specific blessings of life, for material provision, and for practical displays of God's goodness. Let us not neglect, however, to be thankful for the incredible character of God that prompts His practical provision. He is a great God!

"Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ" (Ephesians 1:3).

Saturday, November 10, 2018

Thanksgiving - Part 1

Psalm 115 is not traditionally connected to Thanksgiving, but it provides wonderful truth for inspiring thankfulness regarding God Himself. This psalm contrasts false gods with the true God.

Since the earliest years of time, man has invented his own gods, either out of ignorance of the true God or in rebellion against Him. Man has offered his service and worship to these false gods, giving them of his wealth and resources. He has made sacrifices to these gods, often of the most hideous and unthinkable nature. Man has tried to gain the favor of these gods so that his life would go well.

Perhaps the most incongruous aspect of false religion is that man actually makes with his own hands the gods to whom he will give his allegiance and worship. "Their idols are silver and gold, the work of man's hands" (v. 4). Psalm 115 presents the sad truth that these man-made false gods have absolutely no power.

"They have mouths, but they cannot speak" (v. 5). These gods cannot communicate anything to their worshipers, leaving men to guess as to what they should do and leaving them in profound doubt and ignorance.

"They have eyes, but they cannot see" (v. 5). These gods do not see what is happening in a man's life, nor do they see the sacrifices he makes. Man's efforts are vain, because the god he is trying to influence cannot even observe his actions.

"They have ears, but they cannot hear" (v. 6). These gods cannot hear the spoken words and desperate prayers of their followers. Much less can they hear the unspoken outcries of the heart.

"They have noses, but they cannot smell" (v. 6). These gods cannot smell the aroma of the sacrifices, nor can they breathe one breath of air. These gods are lifeless.

"They have hands, but they cannot feel" (v. 7). These gods cannot do a single thing to help those who worship them. They cannot uphold their worshippers, and they cannot do any action on their behalves.

"They have feet, but they cannot walk" (v. 7). These gods cannot even move themselves from place to place. They remain stationary, utterly dependent for transport upon the men who fashioned them.

"They cannot make a sound with their throat" (v. 7). Beyond their inability to speak, these gods cannot even make a sound. Perhaps this applies to gods in the form of animals, but the bottom line is that these false gods cannot make even the most insignificant expression of guidance or approval.

In summary, the false gods are totally worthless and completely powerless. In their impotence, they leave their followers helpless as well. "Those who make them will become like them, everyone who trusts in them" (v. 8).

The true God is very different, infinitely superior in every way. God speaks to His people through His Word and through His Holy Spirit, telling them clearly what is important to Him and guiding them in their lives. God sees every detail in the lives of His children, and He watches over them every day. God hears the prayers of Christians, both those that are spoken and those that remain in the heart. God breathes the aroma of spiritual sacrifices and is pleased. God's hands have unlimited power, and He constantly works on behalf of His followers both in routine and in miraculous ways. God has no restrictions on His movements; He is everywhere. God humbles Himself to communicate with those who are far below Him.

The true God is everything that the false gods could never be. Because He exists of Himself, He is superior to man rather than inferior. The only true God, the Creator and sustainer of the world, has total control. "But our God is in the heavens; He does whatever He pleases" (v. 3).

The list of what God can do is limitless, but this psalm does recount some things that God does for His people. He shows lovingkindness (v. 1) and maintains truth (v. 1). He is a help and shield (v. 9-11) and is worthy of trust (v. 9-11). He is mindful of His children (v. 12). He blesses His followers (v. 12-13). God gives increase to His children and their families (v. 14). He made the heaven and earth (v. 15). He gives the bounties of the earth for the benefit of mankind (v. 16).

This powerful and living God does all these wonderful things (and more) for His children for a far different reason than what is attributed to false gods. God doesn't work and bless because His followers give their money, cut their bodies, go through torture, choose deprivation, put their lives at risk, or sacrifice their children. No, the true God blesses His followers and does wonders for them because He loves them. It is His own heart that dictates His actions, not the feeble attempts of man to influence Him.

I am so thankful that my God acts toward me in love. I am thankful that I didn't have to create Him so I could have a divine source to look to. I am thankful that God speaks to me and guides me. I am thankful that God sees me every day, observing every need and every corner of my heart. I am thankful that He hears and cares about my every prayer. I am thankful that my God is living. I am thankful that my God can work on my behalf. I am thankful that He is everywhere I go as well as everywhere that has influence on my life. I am thankful that God clearly and effectively communicates with me.

What a blessing to know the true God! What a deliverance not to be trapped in darkness and ignorance! What a privilege to belong to and to serve the living God!

"But as for us, we will bless the LORD from this time forth and forever. Praise the LORD!" (v. 18).

Saturday, November 3, 2018

Answers Provided

In the course of life, there are sometimes situations that call out for guidance and needs that require provision. We wait and we wonder. Where is God's answer? When will He step in and do what needs to be done? Doesn't He know? Doesn't He see?

Of course, He does. God always knows the answers, and He always has the provisions to meet our needs. Usually when the situation is serious and matters are desperate, we bring our needs to God; whether or not we tell Him, however, God already knows everything we need. "For your Father knows what you need before you ask Him" (Matthew 6:8).

While we are usually unaware that God is doing anything, He is often at work, preparing the answer ahead of time so it will be ready when the time is right. We don't always realize the advance preparation God makes in order to meet a need, but He often works out the provision before we ask and even before we are aware of the need. "It will also come to pass that before they call, I will answer; and while they are still speaking, I will hear" (Isaiah 65:24).

God certainly has the ability to meet a need on the spur of the moment with no apparent preparation. The manna for each day appeared in the morning. An angel appeared and made cakes for Elijah to eat. The disciples' nets suddenly filled with fish when there had been none all night.

More often, however, God's answer comes after deliberate preparation. God often requires our obedience before He pours out His provision. The widow's pitcher held a miraculous quantity of oil, but she and her sons first had to collect the empty vessels to hold that oil. The ark protected Noah and his family, but Noah spent many decades obediently building that ark. Jesus turned the water into wine, but first the servants had to obey His command to fill the pitchers with water. God often asks us to take steps of obedience; through those steps, He prepares both us and the situation to receive His provision.

At other times God does the preparation without any knowledge or realization on our part. The answer is wholly independent of us and serves as a tremendous display of God's ability to provide - and to prepare that provision ahead of time.

As Abraham climbed Mount Moriah, anticipating having to sacrifice Isaac, he didn't know how God would provide. His best guess was that God would raise Isaac from the dead after Abraham had completed the sacrifice. What Abraham didn't know was that God had provided a ram. That ram was caught in a nearby thicket. Abraham didn't know it was there waiting for him until God told him, but God had led that ram to the right spot and had caused it to become entangled in a bush, where it remained until Abraham arrived.

With marriage, prior preparation is always in play. When someone starts praying for or seeking a spouse, God doesn't mysteriously create the spouse at that time or cause the person to be born then. No, the person already exists and is already being trained by his or her parents and is already being molded by God's hand to be prepared for marriage. In Isaac's case, the dynamic of preparation is even more amazing. When Abraham sent his servant to seek a bride, he didn't know how long it would take to find one. God, however, led the servant directly to Abraham's relatives. Rebekah appeared at the well before the servant finished praying and had probably left home before the servant even arrived at the well. Both she and her family were in agreement to the marriage, so a task that could have required months or years was accomplished in an incredibly short space of time.

Jesus fed thousands of people with a little boy's lunch. At the end of the day, the people were hungry. They still needed to travel back to their homes, and there were no markets nearby to purchase food. The people had apparently consumed earlier in the day any provisions they had brought with them. This little boy still had his lunch. It had been with him all day, packed before he left home. Those important steps were made ahead of time so that Jesus could meet the need when it became crucial.

Peter needed money to pay the taxes for himself and for Jesus. When he told Jesus of the need, Jesus sent him on a fishing expedition. Peter pulled up a fish with coins in its mouth, enough to pay the taxes. Certainly a miraculous answer is possible, but it is more likely that the fish had already lived for quite some time. It had gone about its regular journeys for months or years. On this day, it came across something shiny and alluring on the bottom of the sea floor. Someone had dropped some coins - maybe earlier that day, but maybe even weeks or years earlier. The coins and the fish most likely existed before Peter even knew he needed them, but when the time was right, God brought everything together.

God knows every answer. He holds every provision. He may be working to prepare us during the waiting time, leading us in steps of obedience. Very likely He has already been at work for days, months, or years - putting into place everything that will be needed when He makes His answer clear. We can trust Him to arrange those details and to organize each factor in preparation for His answer.

"The LORD is good to those who wait for Him, to the person who seeks Him. It is good that he waits silently for the salvation of the LORD" (Lamentations 3:25-26).

"But as for me, I will watch expectantly for the LORD; I will wait for the God of my salvation. My God will hear me" (Micah 7:7).

Saturday, October 27, 2018

Selective Sacrifice

I didn't watch game three of the World Series, but I woke up during the night and noticed my friend's Facebook comment about wanting to go to bed. Her friends were commiserating with her; the game had gone on long enough. It was after 3:00 A.M., so I assumed the game was now over, but when I checked online, I discovered that the still-active game was in the top of the eighteenth inning. I laughed and went back to bed. I found out in the morning that the game had lasted a record-breaking seven hours and twenty minutes, not ending until 3:30 A.M (EST).

This incident got me thinking. I wonder how many people stayed up and watched that game until its bitter end (or triumphant end, depending on team preference). How many people will stay up again and watch game four? How many people paid $800 for an admission ticket or even $20-$35 for a team shirt? Certainly not every fan would make those sacrifices . . . but many did.

I thought some more. How many people would make those same sacrifices for spiritual purposes as they would for an athletic contest? Would they stay up till 3:30 A.M. to counsel someone in crisis or to pray for an urgent need? Would they attend all four nights of services at church, when the end time was an inconvenient 8:00 or 8:30 P.M.? Would they give $800 for a special need at church or to purchase a plane ticket to go on a mission trip? Would they give even the $20-$35 to help with a pressing need or to assist someone else who wanted to go on a mission trip?

It's not my intention to pass judgment on anyone or condemn the decisions of others. In fact, there are many people who would sacrifice to this extent for both causes and other people who wouldn't sacrifice for either. There are other people who would sacrifice to lesser degrees, while still making a meaningful investment. My point is that we do sacrifice our time and money for what is important to us. If we never give sacrificially (or even inconveniently) to God of our time and money, that says something about our level of dedication. It reveals something of the passion that we have for God (or lack thereof).

When it comes to giving money to God's work, the Bible shares the following truths.

"But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in or steal; for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also" (Matthew 6:20-21).

"Now this I say, he who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and he who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each one must do just as he has purposed in his heart, not grudgingly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver" (II Corinthians 9:6-7).

"That in a great ordeal of affliction their abundance of joy and their deep poverty overflowed in the wealth of their liberality. For I testify that according to their ability, and beyond their ability, they gave of their own accord, begging us with much urging for the favor of participation in the support of the saints" (II Corinthians 8:2-4).

The Bible also speaks of the sacrifice of our time and of our lives.

"For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel's will save it" (Mark 8:35).

"Therefore I urge you brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship" (Romans 12:1).

"But whatever things were gain to me, those things I have counted as loss for the sake of Christ" (Philippians 3:7).

The Bible also provides examples of people who gladly gave of themselves, sacrificing their lives for the sake of Christ.

Epaphroditus : "Because he came close to death for the work of Christ, risking his life to complete what was deficient in your service to me" (Philippians 2:30).

Paul: "In far more labors, in far more imprisonments, beaten times without number, often in danger of death. Five times I received from the Jews thirty-nine lashes. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, a night and a day I have spent in the deep. I have been on frequent journeys, in dangers from rivers, dangers from robbers, dangers from my own countrymen, dangers from the Gentiles, dangers in the city, dangers in the wilderness, dangers on the seas, dangers among false brethren; I have been in labor and hardship, through many sleepless nights, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. Apart from such external things, there is the daily pressure on me of concern for all the churches" (II Corinthians 11:23-28). "I will most gladly spend and be expended for your souls" (II Corinthians 12:15).

When it comes to the World Series, I can imagine some die-hard fans avowing, "It was no sacrifice for me. I love my Sox/Dodgers." Do we love God enough that our efforts for Him are no sacrifice, but a gift of love? What will we give or sacrifice for what really matters? Will we give our money to God's work? Will we only ever give the minimum or will we sometimes give something extra? Will we occasionally give until it hurts? Will we spend personal time with God? Will we faithfully attend church? Will we invest some of our time in ministry? Will we give ourselves - our lives - to be dedicated to living for God and serving Him? There is no greater cause for which we can make sacrifices. 

Saturday, October 20, 2018

John Mark

John Mark was a man with great potential and tremendous opportunities. While his record is not spotless, he was indeed a noteworthy leader in the early church, and his story provides insight regarding the training of leaders.

John Mark grew up in an active Christian family that was involved in Christianity from the beginning. There is speculation that John Mark was present when Jesus was betrayed; some suggest he was the young man who fled naked (Mark 14:51-52). As the gospel's author, he would have known that detail but doesn't refer to himself by name, similar to John's habit. Even without that supposition, John Mark's family followed Christ from the early years of the church. His cousin was the well-known and influential leader Barnabas.  It also seems that a body of believers met in John Mark's home. That is where the prayer meeting was held when Peter was in prison with his life threatened. "And when [Peter] realized this, he went to the house of Mary, the mother of John who was also called Mark, where many were gathered together and were praying" (Acts 12:12). It is interesting that John Mark's name is included in the identification, as if his name held some significance in regards to that church. This prayer meeting took place around A.D.44.

John Mark was noticed early on by Barnabas and Saul; even before they were sent as missionaries, they apparently saw his potential. "And Barnabas and Saul returned from Jerusalem when they had fulfilled their mission, taking along with them John, who was also called Mark" (Acts 12:25). They then chose him to accompany them on their first missionary journey. John Mark helped them in their ground-breaking ministry, going with them to Salamis and Paphos. "When they reached Salamis, they began to proclaim the word of God in the synagogues of the Jews; and they also had John as their helper" (Acts 13:5). For whatever reason, John Mark did not continue on the rest of the missionary journey. "Now Paul and his companions put out to sea from Paphos and came to Perga in Pamphylia; but John left them and returned to Jerusalem" (Acts 13:13). This abandonment was very disappointing to Paul but certainly not the end of John Mark's service. This missionary adventure was probably between A.D. 46 and 48.

John Mark then received a second chance. Paul was so disturbed by John Mark's previous departure that he wouldn't consider taking him on the second missionary journey. Barnabas, however, gave him another chance and continued this man's training. "Barnabas wanted to take John, called Mark, along with them also. But Paul kept insisting that they should not take him along who had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not gone with them to the work. And there occurred such a sharp disagreement that they separated from one another, and Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus" (Acts 15:37-39). The Bible does not record the details of the missionary trip of Barnabas and John Mark, but it was a time of more training and fuller partnership. This trip was likely between A.D.49 and 51.

After his missionary journeys with Paul and Barnabas, John Mark's next astounding service took place alongside the apostle Peter. While theories vary widely, it seems probable that John Mark authored the gospel of Mark in the mid-50s. His relationship with Peter existed even at the time of the prayer meeting and probably continued and grew through the rest of Peter's life. Perhaps with some of his own knowledge, though primarily relying on the perspective of Peter, John Mark was inspired by the Holy Spirit to write the gospel of Mark.

Over the years, it seems that Paul had continued contact with John Mark and probably some ministry together with him. Paul came to esteem John Mark as a valuable fellow worker. Both Colossians and Philemon were written around A.D. 60. "Aristarchus, my fellow prisoner, sends you his greetings; and also Barnabas's cousin Mark (about whom you received instructions; if he comes to you, welcome him)" (Colossians 4:10). "Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, greets you, as do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, Luke, my fellow workers" (Philemon 23-24). Paul speaks of John Mark with regard, listing him alongside many other men that he worked with and helped to train.

Peter's on-going influence of John Mark was significant. As Peter closed his first epistle, written around A.D. 64, he shares, "She who is in Babylon, chosen together with you, sends you greetings, and so does my son, Mark" (I Peter 5:13). The terminology indicates that John Mark was likely a pupil of Peter. Even after the previous years of ministry and training, Peter continued the process with John Mark, mentoring and guiding him. Nearing the end of his life, Peter labored to leave reliable leaders behind him.

The latest reference to John Mark comes again from the apostle Paul. Around A.D. 66, he wrote, "Only Luke is with me. Pick up Mark and bring him with you, for he is useful to me for service" (II Timothy 4:11). Not only did Paul recognize John Mark's usefulness, but he valued and desired it. At a time when he was nearly alone and needed help, John Mark is the man he asked for.

John Mark's accomplishments are note-worthy; they represent the grace of God channeled through several factors. His story starts with potential and a great heritage. He was given outstanding opportunities for service and was trained and mentored by some of the most prominent leaders of the church. He was given second chances and was invested in by multiple leaders.

John Mark's role, maturity, ability, service, and reputation grew over the years. His story reveals several important components of training leaders: encouraging parents, service opportunities, second chances, increasing responsibility, multiplicity of mentors, and progressive training. When various people are willing to get involved in complementary roles, God can tremendously use people who might otherwise stay on the fringes.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Thank You

There are times in life when we are particularly aware of the kindness of others. What they do to express that kindness might not even be a big thing: a touch, a meal, a prayer, a question. Other times the kindness might be greater, such as performing a significant task that we could never have done, or regularly intervening over an extended time frame. It can be easy to take those things for granted, maybe almost expecting them. However, when those kindnesses come at a particularly difficult or vulnerable time, we are so much more aware of how thankful we are for them.

When someone does for us something that we would never have been able to do or ministers to us at a time when we feel especially overwhelmed, our hearts are (or ought to be) stirred with deep gratitude. In fact, we might find ourselves offering thanks to that person repeatedly for the same thing, perhaps mentioning it again and again over a period of time, even to the point that our repeated thanks becomes awkward for the recipient. The excessive expressions of thanks are not intended to make the person uncomfortable; they merely reflect our recognition of how significant and special their action was at that particular time, of how intensely that kindness was needed.

As hard as it can be to notice and appreciate what other people have done for us, it is possibly even more difficult to be conscious and thankful for what God does for us. After all, when we receive His gifts and kindnesses, we don't have the same face-to-face interaction. Furthermore, He performs those kindnesses on such a routine basis that we don't even focus on all He is doing. Every day God is doing things for us, often in a behind-the-scenes way, so that we don't even realize what He is working out for us. God's kind actions are always what we need, and He performs them deliberately out of what His wisdom knows is best for us.

There are times when His displays are more obvious, perhaps giving a significant breakthrough, meeting an overwhelming need, or answering a heart-felt and long-standing prayer. Whether particularly noticeable in this way or whether in the routine care of life, God deserves our thanks and praise for all His kindness to us. "Bless the LORD, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless His holy name. Bless the LORD, O my soul, and forget none of His benefits" (Psalm 103:1-2).

This psalm goes on to list a great many significant things that God regularly does on behalf of His people. I once read this psalm on a birthday when I was feeling particularly low - not because it was a milestone number, but because it came at a time in my life when I was especially isolated and forgotten. As I considered this psalm, I was touched by God's expressions of goodness, and I organized the various aspects into a non-traditional poem that I entitled "My Birthday Gifts."

God gives me lovingkindness.
He abounds with it and places it on my head.
It is great, as high as heaven is above earth.
It lasts from everlasting to everlasting.

God gives me compassion.
He places His compassion on my head.
He is compassionate and gracious.
Because He knows my frail frame of dust,
He gives His fatherly compassion.

God gives me strength and blessing.
He is the healer of my diseases.
He gives me renewed youth like an eagle.
He gives me enough good things to satisfy.

God gives me His righteous rule.
His rule is sovereign over all.
He displays His acts to me.
He performs righteous deeds and judgments for the oppressed.
His righteousness extends through generations.

God gives me forgiveness.
He is slow to anger.
He has not dealt as harshly as my sins deserve.
He pardons all my iniquities.
He removed my sins as far away as east is from west.
He redeemed my life from the pit and gave me salvation.

Thank You, God, for Your gifts.
May I forget none of Your benefits.
Even the angels bless You.
I too should bless You.
Bless the Lord. Bless His name.

This combination of practical and spiritual gifts is typical of God's interaction. There have been some things in my own life recently that have caused me to focus on some notable kindnesses of God - special provisions and answers to long-standing prayer. I have been thankful for those things, but as my thoughts turned again to Psalm 103, I remembered that God has done and is doing for me a multitude of other very significant things. I don't want to take those for granted. I don't want to fail to see God's goodness to me.

Over the past few weeks, there have been several times when my heart has overflowed toward God by simply saying, "Thank You. Thank You. Thank You." This gratitude for practical intervention is appropriate, but I don't want to forget the spiritual blessings that God has also provided for me. When I think of His love, His compassion, His blessing, His righteousness, and His forgiveness - all of which are described in Psalm 103 - may my heart also overflow with that same expression: "Thank You. Thank You. Thank You." Unlike with people, where repeated thanks could become awkward, my thanks to God will never be enough, nor will it ever be dismissed by the great God who deserves it.

"Bless the LORD, all you His hosts, you who serve Him, doing His will. Bless the LORD, all you works of His, in all places of His dominion; bless the LORD, O my soul!" (Psalm 103:21-22).

Saturday, October 6, 2018

Nature in Upheaval

When God wants to do something, nothing can stand in His way. Psalm 114 talks about when God rescued the nation of Israel from Egypt. In fact, the psalm doesn't even tell the whole story. God did some pretty amazing things through the time of the exodus, and most of them are not mentioned in this psalm. Nature was quite obviously under God's control and manipulated by His great power, and the psalm reveals that general principle.

          Reflection on Psalm 114 (God Versus Nature)

There’s knowledge sure that nature’s laws instill -
The seas lie flat and rivers flow downhill,
While mountains stand erect and hills are still.

When God performs with power strong and deep,
Away seas run and rivers form a heap.
The mountains skip; like lambs the hills do leap.

The earth should quake at God’s events so strange,
When He makes nature work outside its range;
For He can even rocks to water change.

What impact should this concept have on me,
Of His law-breaking capability?
I must submit in great humility.

The psalm clearly reveals God's power, and it also gives an application. "Tremble, O earth, before the Lord, before the God of Jacob" (v. 7). God has such remarkable control over nature, causing it to respond in totally unnatural ways if that is His desire. The earth itself is to stand in awe and fear of Him. How much more should people?

As presented in this psalm, the fact that God is so powerful is not primarily a source of inspiration and encouragement. It isn't designed to instill confidence that God will move heaven and earth on behalf of an individual. The point isn't that God will do miraculous or even incredible things for His children. Those things are possible and they might happen in some cases, but this psalm is written to instill awe in all who are aware of His great power.

If God can do the things described in this psalm, there is no way anyone should want to put himself in opposition to God. No one should have the audacity to lift himself up before God or try to exercise his own strength against God. It would be pointless to try, and it would also be foolish.

Because God has such incredible ability, the correct response of man is to humbly recognize God as the authority and to trust Him as the facilitator of all that must be done. It was true for Israel that when God chose to exercise Himself on their behalf, He did so in an extraordinary way. He may not perform such extreme actions today, but it is still true that He can do great things for His children. He is pleased when those children humbly and confidently rely on Him.

"Therefore humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you at the proper time" (I Peter 5:6).

Saturday, September 29, 2018

How and When

"And my God will supply all your needs according to His riches in glory in Christ Jesus" (Philippians 4:23). "God makes a home for the lonely" (Psalm 68:6). "He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap. . . . He makes the barren woman abide in the house as a joyful mother of children" (Psalm 113:7&9). "Who heals all your diseases" (Psalm 103:3). "Train up a child in the way he should go, even when he is old he will not depart from it" (Proverbs 22:6). "I will instruct you and teach you in the way which you should go" (Psalm 32:8).

These are a sampling of verses that Christians claim and cling to for action they want God to take in their lives. Often, however, believers are frustrated and discouraged when they don't see the desired answers. Their hearts cry out, "God, You have said this, but when will You do it? Why don't I see Your answer?"

As a starting point, one must accurately consider how to evaluate verses like these. Are they actual promises? Are there stated conditions for the promise? Are they promises to a particular Biblical character or group of people? Are they statements of general fact or habitual action? Are they general principles? Not every verse can be considered a promise for every individual.

Considering the healing of illnesses, for example, God does heal. He is the Great Physician, and His healing is often incredible to the point of being unexplainable by human doctors. Every disease that is healed is through God. God did make specific promises of healing to certain people and groups in the Bible, but He does not promise healing of every disease for every Christian. In fact, Scripture clearly reveals that the absence of healing is sometimes God's plan.

People will disagree to some extent about which of the verses above are actual promises for every individual and which are principles or general statements. Even allowing for possible misinterpretation of a verse's intent, however, there is a basic level at which these verses can unquestionably be understood. These verses definitely reveal God's character and reflect common ways in which His loving heart is practically displayed toward His children. Even with expectations at that level, Christians can still become frustrated and discouraged. Individual Christians wonder when God will show His love to them in these practical ways. They wonder when God will answer their prayers and intervene in their lives. They want to know when their faith will be rewarded.

Faith is always based on the Word of God. It is not merely a feeling or overwhelming sense that God is going to do something. Therefore, Christians must be careful about claiming specific personal results: I will get married, I will have a baby, I will get that job, I will have financial stability, I will be healed, or that individual will get saved. Certainly, Christians can have faith in God's power to be able to do those things. They can know that God can perform those actions, and they can even know that such action would be consistent with God's character, but they cannot know that He definitely will perform them in a particular situation.

There are promises that are unquestionably intended for every believer. "I will never desert you, nor will I ever forsake you" (Hebrews 13:5). "But if any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all generously and without reproach, and it will be given to him" (James 1:5). "Therefore let us draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need" (Hebrews 4:16). "Draw near to God, and He will draw near to you" (James 4:8). "Humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you at the proper time" (I Peter 5:6).

Even with these certain promises, Christians sometimes struggle to see the answers. They still become impatient and frustrated. It is instructional to note that even when there is a specific promise for a specific person, the manner and timing of that answer does not always fit human expectations. Abraham, for example, and many others never saw the fulfillment of what God had promised them, but that doesn't mean God did not keep His word. "All these died in faith, without receiving the promises, but having seen them and having welcomed them from a distance" (Hebrews 11:13).

In fact, these delays or disappointments in seeing answers are the perfect environment for exercising faith. Faith at its very core is about believing what is not seen or what cannot be seen. Faith does not require understanding how and when God will answer; it requires confidence that He will answer. While the how and when are sometimes overwhelmingly important to an individual in need, the manner and timing of the answer cannot consume him. Those aspects lie within God's wisdom and power. God will answer. He will act in love toward His children. He will respond in keeping with His character. The exact timing of His visible response and the precise method of His answer will be determined by Him.

While a believer waits for an answer that is in keeping with God's character and consistent with the principles of the Bible, or even that is clearly revealed as God's promise, he must continue trusting God. Rather than demanding immediate results, he must recognize the possibility of his own limitations and fallibility. Perhaps he has not accurately understood the verse he is claiming. Perhaps he hasn't understood the method of God's answer. Maybe he hasn't prayed enough or waited long enough.

Although there are things outside man's ability to understand, Christians can trust God. They can keep following and serving Him while they wait. They can respond with submission, praying, "Father, answer in Your time and in Your way. I choose to trust."

Saturday, September 22, 2018

Trust and Defer

Current life circumstances have me frequently pondering some familiar verses. "Trust in the LORD with all your heart and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make your paths straight" (Proverbs 3:5-6).
There are times and situations in life when we don't know the answers and don't know what steps to take next. Our hearts are inclined toward God, and we want to do the right thing, but we don't know exactly what that is.

Because we don't know, our own inadequate understanding is not a trusty guide. Instead of leaning on our own understanding, we must depend on God's understanding, which is infinitely superior to ours. What doesn’t make sense to us makes perfect sense to God. While we can't trust our own understanding, we can definitely trust God's understanding. He not only knows every answer, but He also knows the means of achieving each answer.

"Who has directed the Spirit of the LORD, or as His counselor has informed Him? With whom did He consult and who gave Him understanding? And who taught Him in the path of justice and taught Him knowledge and informed Him of the way of understanding?" (Isaiah 40:14-15).

"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).

"'For My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways,' declares the LORD. 'For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways and My thoughts than your thoughts'" (Isaiah 55:8-9).

God's immense wisdom is not the only reason to trust Him. God also has all the power and control necessary to direct every situation in life. From the largest situation to the smallest detail, God can powerfully and precisely intervene. I've seen Him do it repeatedly in my own life. I've seen intricately arranged timing and perfectly arranged circumstances. This is not a challenge for God. We can trust Him not only to know the right answer, but also to bring that answer effectively to pass.

"Lift up your eyes on high and see who has created these stars, the One who leads forth their host by number, He calls them all by name; because of the greatness of His might and the strength of His power, not one of them is missing" (Isaiah 40:26).

"All the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, but He does according to His will in the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; and no one can ward off His hand or say to Him, 'What have You done?'" (Daniel 4:35).

"The LORD of hosts has sworn saying, 'Surely, just as I have intended so it has happened, and just as I have planned so it will stand'" (Isaiah 14:24).

"For nothing will be impossible with God" (Luke 1:37).

Since God knows all things, since He can do all things, and since we can trust Him whole-heartedly, it is entirely logical to allow Him to make decisions for us. At each step along the way, we can acknowledge God. We can look to Him in each decision. We can seek His input, stepping aside and letting Him decide. We can leave every decision to God, resolved to follow whatever answer He chooses.

"I will instruct you and teach you in the way which you should go; I will counsel you with My eye upon you" (Psalm 32:8).

"But if any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all generously and without reproach, and it will be given to him" (James 1:5).

"Make me know Your ways, O LORD; teach me your paths. Lead me in Your truth and teach me, or You are the God of my salvation; for You I wait all the day" (Psalm 25:4).

When we consistently look to God to show His desire and to make the decisions for us, God will show us the right path. He will lead faithfully, and He will properly direct. He will produce the right and best outcome.

"As for God, His way is blameless; the word of the LORD is tried; He is a shield to all who take refuge in Him" (Psalm 18:30).

"I will cry to God Most High, to God who accomplishes all things for me" (Psalm 57:2).

Because we are human, it is hard for us not to know. It is hard to wait for situations to play themselves out. Even when we want to trust God and when we think we are trusting Him, we often find ourselves faltering. Our thoughts become anxious, and our minds become busy with trying to find answers. That is when we must deliberately stop ourselves and remember the truths of Proverbs 3:5-6. "I can trust Him. He does know. He will do the best thing." As long as we remember these truths, we can rest in the care He will give, and as long as we acknowledge God in each situation, we can be confident in the outcome He will arrange.

Trust His Understanding (Sonnet 27)
I cannot trust myself; I am too weak,
But I must trust in God with all my heart.
Completely helpless, He’s the one I seek.
I lean on Him to show me ev’ry part.
My God knows things that I can’t understand;
His thoughts are so much higher than my own.
I cannot lean on help from my own hand,
But humbly seek wise counsel at His throne.
In ev’ry path I must see my great need
And look to Him to be my trusty Guide.
Acknowledging His wisdom, not impede;
Remove myself and let my God decide.
Then He will wisely lead me through each gate,
And He’ll direct each path and make it straight.

Saturday, September 15, 2018

The Details

How significant are little things? Especially within the big decisions of life, we are often aware of the impact of minor components, either good or bad, on the bigger picture. We see how things could have turned out differently. Can we trust that delays and disappointments, though frustrating and seemingly defeating, are under the control of God and even purposefully orchestrated by Him to accomplish His purposes?

The book of Esther tells a story of enormous consequence: the Jews living in Persia were slated for annihilation. "Letters were sent by couriers to all the king's provinces to destroy, to kill and to annihilate all the Jews, both young and old, women and children" (Esther 3:13). With stakes that large, the solution was realized through a series of details that could easily be defined as chance.

King Ahasuerus decided to give a banquet (1:3).

Influenced by alcohol, Ahasuerus decided to parade Queen Vashti before his male guests (1:10-11).

Vashti refused Ahasuerus's demand (1:12).

In a fit of anger (2:1), Ahasuerus asked advice for handling Vashti's rebellion (1:13-15).

Ahasuerus's advisors feared widespread domestic rebellion inspired by Vashti's example and recommended her removal as queen (1:16-20).

Ahasuerus approved choosing a new queen through a "beauty pageant" (2:2-4).

Esther's parents had died, and her uncle Mordecai was caring for her (2:7).

Esther was beautiful and of an appropriate age to enter the contest (2:7).

Esther was chosen as a candidate, apparently not of her own volition (2:8).

Esther immediately found special favor with the custodian of the women (2:9).

In spite of being Jewish, Esther was accepted for the contest (2:10).

The annihilation plan was not initiated until after the year-long preliminary preparation of the contestants (2:12).

Esther's turn to appear before Ahasuerus happened when it did (2:13-14).

Without requesting any special provision for her "interview," Esther experienced unanimous favor (2:15).

Ahasuerus liked Esther more than all the other women; he ended the contest and chose her (2:17).

Esther had the habit of obeying her uncle (2:20).

Mordecai overheard a plot against Ahasuerus that two of his disgruntled officials were foolish enough to talk about (2:21-22).

Mordecai made the decision to warn Ahasuerus (2:22).

A certain man Haman found favor in Ahasuerus's eyes and was promoted to a position of power and influence (3:1).

On religious grounds, Mordecai repeatedly refused Ahasuerus's command to bow to Haman, prompting an angry Haman to devise a plot of destruction against all Jews, not just Mordecai (3:2-6).

Haman used a method of chance to determine the date for the proposed annihilation, and it "luckily" allowed the longest interval possible before execution (3:7,13).

Ahasuerus had such confidence in Haman that he didn't question or investigate the proposal, but gave Haman unrestrained authority (3:10-11).

Instead of being kept secret, the decreed plot was actually revealed immediately to the general public (3:14-15).

Esther didn't know about the  plot, but her servants told her of Mordecai's despair. The particular man assigned to Esther fulfilled her request to go to Mordecai to investigate (3:4-5).

Mordecai asked Esther to intervene with Ahasuerus, even though unsolicited visits to the king could result in death (3:8-11).

Esther hadn't been called to Ahasuerus in thirty days and didn't know when she might be called (3:11).

After Esther's hesitant reply, Mordecai pressed his request. At the risk of her own life, Esther decided she would go (4:13-16).

Ahasuerus not only approved Esther's unsolicited visit, but he responded with favor, concern, and offers of help (5:2-3).

Instead of revealing her real motive immediately, Esther prepared for that disclosure through a series of two dinners that included Ahasuerus and Haman. Although planned on very short notice, the dinners were carried out (5:4-8).

The first dinner and invitation to the second gave Haman confidence to prepare to hang Mordecai, whom he happened to see when leaving dinner (5:9-14).

That night Ahasuerus couldn't sleep. He requested the reading of court archives, and the chosen record recounted Mordecai's previous warning to the king. Mordecai had never been rewarded, and Ahasuerus decided to reward him now (6:1-3).

Haman thought Ahasuerus meant to honor him; he gave extravagant instructions that he then had to perform for Mordecai (6:6-11).

After warnings from his wife and friends, Haman feared impending disgrace, and at that moment was called to the second dinner (6:12-14).

On learning that Haman wanted to destroy Esther and her people, Ahasuerus became angry and left the room (7:5-7).

A terrified Haman fell begging before Esther. When Ahasuerus returned, the physical interaction appeared inappropriate, and Ahasuerus commanded Haman's immediate death (7:6-10).

One of Ahasuerus's attendants knew about the gallows Haman had built the day before for Mordecai's hanging and informed Ahasuerus (7:9).

Although the command to destroy the Jews could not be repealed, based on Esther's entreaty, Ahasuerus gave approval (with still nine month's notice to prepare) for the Jews to defend themselves (8:3-13).

Most of the people now feared the Jews, leaving a limited number of enemies who chose to execute the annihilation command; all were killed (9:1-6). Instead of the Jews being annihilated, more than 75,000 of their enemies were killed (9:6,14-16).

The victory in this potentially devastating destruction was so great and the reversal so amazing, that the Jews have ever since celebrated the feast of Purim. The name of the holiday poignantly comes directly from the method of chance that Haman had utilized.

In His orchestration of major events, God uses little things: chance, impetuous decisions of others, coincidental encounters, overlooked situations, the favor of people, good and bad advice, timing of events, people's personal perceptions, misconstrued actions, legal intervention, and much more. Interestingly, the name of God never appears in the book of Esther, but His control and orchestration of all these chance events is strikingly obvious.

God does indeed use little things. He knows about all the details, and He knows how to use every one of them within His plan. When things seem to go wrong or result only in frustration, God can be trusted.

Saturday, September 8, 2018

Fluffy or Solid?

Personal confession. When it comes to ladies' events, such as retreats, luncheons, conferences, and so on, I haven't always had a very positive attitude. Hopefully I'm getting better at this, but historically several aspects have annoyed me.

First, there has probably been a fleshly tendency that has rebelled against the possibility that God might want to change me, and that such change might be called for through the event. Second, I have become annoyed when I observed other ladies being all excited, like somehow this would be a magical experience in which God would totally transform them, somehow far more significant than the other spiritual input that they regularly received and didn't get excited about. Third, I have too often been disappointed by the content of such meetings; sadly, they have sometimes focused disproportionately on a clever theme that didn't correlate well with Biblical truth, or on personal stories that were primarily emotional or entertaining.

While the first aspect must be a concern for me personally, and the second aspect potentially reflects poor perspective by others, the third aspect is a concerning trend within the broader realm of Christianity. A Christian ladies' meeting should have purpose and substance. It should not be to entertain or to tickle the ears. In order to be spiritually significant, an event must have substance. Unfortunately, many ladies have left such events believing them to have been successful and beneficial, when they were actually on the shallow side. Because these ladies laughed a lot or cried a lot or remained interested during the sessions, they perceived those sessions as meaningful.

Such events can be truly meaningful, however, only when they have spiritual depth. Ladies need the truth of God's Word just as much as men do. The challenges that women face are answered through the Bible just like they are for men. Ladies too need an ever-deepening understanding of the Bible and must be progressively challenged by it. Interesting themes and heart-wrenching stories don't provide what any believers truly need. In order to be edified and encouraged, all Christians need something solid, not fluffy.

Whose fault is a "fluffy" event? It might be the speaker's fault. The chosen speaker might unfortunately be a better entertainer than expositor and might not share the depth of spiritual purpose that is intended for an event. It might be the planners' fault. Either the planners deliberately promote enjoyment over substance, or they inadvertently divert away from spiritual depth through their choice of a theme that isn't very Biblical or through a disproportionate emphasis on other activities. It might be the audience's fault. If over the history of an event, the audience demonstrates a preference for entertainment over substance, the event might progressively cater to that preference.

Christian ladies, like all Christians, must not settle for fluff. They should choose wisely the events they attend, selecting options that have historically demonstrated an emphasis on substance. When Christians leave such an event, their strongest and most valuable impression should be about the sound teaching, not about the food, entertainment, fellowship, theme, or decorations.

Christians should choose their reading material wisely. Even many Christian books are filled with worldly philosophies. Characters in fictional books are often consumed with worldly ambitions, and their examples look more like the world than a believer. A steady diet of Christian romances is unhealthy and contributes to discontent. Christian biographies, on the other hand, can be inspiring and challenging, and books on theology or Christian growth can be instructional.

Christians should choose devotional material wisely. A devotional must provide more than a feel-good story at the beginning of the day. It must have more spiritual depth than a single Bible verse written at the top of the page before telling a story and never again mentioning the Bible. The content must not be purely from the secular world (nature, experience, object lesson), but must direct the reader's thoughts to the Bible.

Christians should choose their churches wisely. A pastor who mostly tells stories or who regularly relies on jokes is not doing his duty to preach the Word effectively. The sermons must habitually focus on presenting and explaining the Bible. Sunday school classes can't be primarily fellowship or open sharing of every person's opinion. The Bible must be central in the church, actively and accurately taught.

Christian growth comes through the Bible. Christian events must center around Biblical teaching. Christian books must teach or at least support Biblical truth. Devotional material must facilitate understanding of the Bible. Churches must promote the Bible as their central focus. "Avoiding worldly and empty chatter and the opposing arguments of what is falsely called 'knowledge' - which some have professed and thus gone astray from the faith" (I Timothy 6:20-21).

"All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work" (II Timothy 3:16-17).

Entertaining stories, personal experiences, nifty themes, extended illustrations, and constant fellowship cannot be the dominating substance in the Christian experience. Just as eating fluff will leave a person filled with blubber, so a fluffy Christian diet will leave a believer with little strength. Life is not easy, and when the storms and trials come, a Christian must have a strong foundation and a strong core. This strength will come from a firm footing and a thorough knowledge of the Bible. Instead of remembering a cute story about a butterfly or a waterfall, a believer will have understanding of Biblical truth and Biblical promises that can give true help. With some Biblical substance, a Christian can walk through life and can stand for God. With only fluff, he will falter and fall. Don't settle for fluff. "Their heart is covered with fat, but I delight in Your law" (Psalm 119:70).

"Strengthen me according to Your word. Remove the false way from me, and graciously grant me Your law" (Psalm 119:28-29).