Overzealous Faith?


smokestack-1402448-mA number of years ago I read a book that had me a bit steamed. There are lots of reasons, but not the least is the subtitle: “Avoiding . . . dangers of overzealous faith.”

Certainly we are to avoid the things listed where I typed an ellipsis—pride and exclusivity—but why would those be associated with “overzealous faith”? Why would any “danger” be linked to overzealous faith? For that matter, is it possible to be overzealous in our faith?

If you think about it, God’s word tells us the first command, the one that’s most important, is to love God “WITH ALL YOUR HEART, AND WITH ALL YOUR SOUL, AND WITH ALL YOUR MIND, AND WITH ALL YOUR STRENGTH” (Mark 12:30; the all caps indicate a quotation from the Old Testament). If this is what God commands of His followers, I don’t see much room for over-the-top zeal. Already what God asks is . . . well, everything.

He wants us to take up our cross, to die to ourselves, to lay down our lives, to be living sacrifices. I don’t see how this clear teaching of Scripture, that we as believers in Christ are to be all in, lends itself to zeal that goes beyond those requirements.

Rather, I expect this “plea for balance,” as many of the positive reviews of the book labeled it, is looking for wiggle room for comfortable American Christians who want to stay comfortable and still be “good Christians.”

Thankfully there is a counter thrust among evangelical pastors to the health-and-wealth message which distorts Scripture. But a look at the values which the Bible teaches in the areas of physical health and finances calls into question a lot of what Americans do and even preach as “best practices” or “good stewardship.”

Along comes this book, Accidental Pharisees, and most probably others like it, and we have an intentional reining in of concepts calling for a radical or crazy or counter-cultural approach to doing church.

The message I got from this book is, let’s be content with the status quo. After all, Paul said we should learn to live quiet lives, and that’s good, because then I can have my big house and my fancy cars and not feel like I’m a lesser Christian than brothers who have moved to the inner city or are giving away 90% of their income.

Honestly, the premise of this book makes me a little crazy. The idea is that Christians who “get out in front of the following-Jesus line” start to look around and compare where they’re at with where other Christians are at and then they start looking down on believers who aren’t up with them at the head of the line. So their “overzealous faith” has led them into pride.

I submit that anyone who is looking around and comparing his spiritual progress with others has already succumbed to pride.

I submit that someone afraid of crazy love or radical faith or sold-out evangelism or whatever else is the latest call for Christian devotion, is really afraid of the Bible. It’s more comfortable to be content with the status quo—the American Christianity that doesn’t demand too much, that lets us alone to do what we want, except for an hour or so on Sunday.

Scripture does call Christians to be content and to live quiet lives, but it’s in the context of sometimes going hungry or serving someone by going the extra mile or by thinking more highly of a fellow Christian than of myself.

The thing is, I understand it is possible to be overly zealous about all kinds of things, some dangerous, some merely silly. But faith? Genuine faith in Jesus Christ? I don’t think so.

Genuine faith in Jesus Christ is built on the Word of God. Consequently, a zealous Christian will know what Jesus thinks about looking down on others or about holding people to high standards for salvation (as if we set standards for salvation in the first place!) or any of the other “dangers” supposedly inherent in “overzealous faith.”

I suppose the best conclusion about this book is this: since Jesus called the Pharisees hypocrites (7 or 8 times in Matt. 23), any “faith” of “Pharisees” isn’t real faith at all, so being overzealous for a hypocritical “see how spiritual I am” substitute for faith is definitely something to avoid.

OK, in that light, it’s a good book. 😉

This post is an edited version of one that appeared here in September, 2014.

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Christians Should Not Be Silent


African_sunsetWhen I say Christians should not be silent, I don’t mean Christians should complain more or rail against our culture more or even call out false teaching more. We do those things with some frequency. I’m one of those who does.

Some time ago, I was reminded that I’d much rather be known for what I believe rather than for what I oppose. In a discussion on another site, I made a comment that included these words: “Christ offers healing. He gives us grace. He made a way of escape from sin and guilt. His plan and work is Good News.”

However, I also pointed to things with which I disagreed, and consequently, the ensuing discussion, as far as concerned me, centered on my opposition (not on what I was opposing but on the fact that I was opposing). That taught me a lesson

I should talk more about Christ—the Way, the Truth, the Life—and how He came to show us the Father. I should talk about how Luke compiled his report for Theophilus “so that you may know the exact truth about the things you have been taught.” I should talk about how John ended his book by saying, “This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and wrote these things, and we know that his testimony is true.”

In essence, the issue at stake is the certainty or uncertainty with which we can know God. One perspective is that we cannot know with certainty and it is arrogant to say we do know with certainty. Somehow knowing is assumed to contradict faith. Never mind that the Bible defines faith as “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Heb. 11:1).

The assurance. The conviction. About what do I have assurance? These are the things I think Christians should chat up. We are too often silent about the things about which we have assurance. Why? Do we think everyone else already knows and believes the things about which we have assurance? Or the opposite? No one believes as we do. Neither position provides sufficient grounds for us to remain silent. The first is false and the second is the very reason we need to speak the truth in love.

So, what am I assured of? First, that God is.

I had occasion years ago to do some hiking in Colorado. One adventure was supposed to be a short mile hike to a small lake, but my hiking buddy and I both agreed when we arrive, it was far too short and there was too much day left, so we headed for the high country. At the end of our trail we stood on a glacier field looking up at rocky spires more glorious than any cathedral I’d visited. Over our heads was a canopy of blue, so rich and pure. Everywhere I looked, I saw God’s fingerprint.

I’ve seen His creative glory when I looked at the stars from Catalina Island or watched the sun sink below the western horizon of a Tanzanian sky as a full moon rose in the east. I’ve marveled at bull elephants protecting their herd and ostrich scampering across the grassland.

Who is God, but the LORD?
And who is our rock, except our God? (Ps. 18:31)

I know God is. I’ve seen His work.

I’ve also experienced His presence. His Spirit has taken up residence in my life. I am now one of those living stones Peter talks about:

You also as living stones are being built up as a spiritual house for a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ (1 Peter 2:5).

I know God is. I’ve read His Word. The Bible is a lamp, a light, and what it illumines is God’s person, plan, and purpose. Where creation paints the general outline of God’s existence, the Bible fills in the details.

It shows through the narrative, from beginning to end, His love and power, His mercy and justice, His patience and faithfulness. He shows His redemptive purposes in His dealings with Israel. He shows His plan to rescue the condemned in His provision of the ram for Abraham to substitute for his son. He shows His patience when He rescued Jonah on his way as far from God as he could get. He shows His faithfulness in holding back a pride of lions from devouring Daniel when he refused to back off from his worship of God Most High.

The Bible is rich, so rich—filled with the greatness of the Author and Finisher of our faith.

I know God is. Jesus showed Him to His followers. He is the image of the invisible God. It was the Father’s good pleasure for all the fullness to dwell in Him. In Him all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form. Look at Jesus, and you see God.

So yes, the first thing about which I have assurance is that God is!

This post is an edited and updated version of one that appeared her in October, 2013.

Published in: on August 15, 2018 at 5:34 pm  Comments (1)  
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The Bible Plus …


Most obviously, if someone wants to know what Christians believe, they need to read the Bible. But some people don’t seem to be content with letting God reveal Himself through the words given through the Holy Spirit.

In the past I’ve read that people would do well to read a particular book (which I am not naming) in order to understand how language and argumentation work, because it serves as a model by which to actually understand what Scripture means.

Earlier, from a different source, I was told repeatedly that I needed to get in touch with a Jewish rabbi in order to understand the Old Testament as it was intended to be understood.

All this troubles me.

Has the Bible stopped being good enough for the average person to understand?

Have we decided that something else needs to come alongside God’s authoritative Word to make it make sense? Do we no longer see it as sufficient? Or perhaps it never was really authoritative and we need to find some other source that gives the final word on who God is, how we should pray, and how we should understand Scripture itself.

But if someone needs all these extra-biblical helps, why did Jesus say we should come to God as a child?

“Truly I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it at all.” (Mark 10:15)

How complicated must the way into the kingdom be if we are to come like a child? Must we learn Greek and Hebrew in order to accurately handle the Word of God? Or can we trust that the Holy Spirit will guide us into all truth as Jesus said?

Scripture makes it abundantly clear that God wants to be known. He isn’t hiding and hasn’t made His plan of reconciliation hard to understand.

Rather, it seems that I am the cog that makes coming to God impossible. Where is that humble, child-like attitude Jesus said I must have? Where is my trust in what He has said? Where is my willingness to obey because my Father has told me so?

I’m not saying other books, articles, blogs, sermons, or conversations aren’t helpful. God can open the eyes of my heart to see Him more clearly in any number of ways. But it seems to me, people are becoming too eager to search other sources rather than the primary one.

It’s not a good research technique.

 

This post is a revised and updated version of one that appeared here in August, 2010.

Published in: on August 10, 2018 at 5:22 pm  Comments (2)  
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God Means What He Says


In truth, faith can be defined very simply as believing that God means what He says. That’s the same kind of faith other people have when they say they believe the earth is round or that the Stock Market ended the day at such and such closing price or that George Washington was the first President of the United States.

Most everything we believe, someone else told us and we simply take their word for it. That “someone” might be a parent or a school teacher or a boss or a news reporter or Wikipedia.

Of all the people we should trust, you’d think God would be the One people would listen to first and have the greatest amount of belief in what He says. But in reality, that’s not the way it works.

Oh, sure, lots of people say they believe in God, but then it turns out, they qualify this statement by referring to “their idea of God” as if He morphs to suit each person’s taste. I have a commenter on my Facebook page (a hacker, I believe) who said, “Religion was created by man, simply that. God CAN be whoever each individual person wants him to be.”

Of course if humans invented god, then they certainly could decide he was whatever they wanted—a cosmic force; a universal savior absent of any judgment; a kindly but impotent grandfather; an indifferent clock maker that put the world in motion and now has nothing to do with it; one of a pantheon of gods; nature itself; and many, many more possibilities.

The problem there is that none of these is what God said about Himself. Now it’s true that I haven’t read all the holy books of all the religions in the world, even all the major religions. But I know Judaism’s tradition and I know Christianity. The Scriptures of the two overlap, to be sure, but in both and for both God “spoke, long ago to the fathers, in the prophets, in many portions and in many ways” (Heb. 1:1b).

In those many revelations of God about Himself, we have a pretty good picture of Who He is. The greatest statement of His identity may be His declaration to Moses of His name: I AM WHO I AM.

What in the world, or out of it, does that mean?

It means that God is self existent. That He is present, and always present. That He is when nothing else is or was.

There’s so much else that we learn about God from the things He spoke, but He also said, “In these last days [He] has spoken to us in His Son” (Heb. 1:2a).

So we all have a decision to make—do we believe what He said, or not? If we do, it’s hard to say, I believe in God but I hate my neighbor. It’s just as hard to say, I believe in God, but Jesus can’t be the only way to Him. Those statements and many, many more indicate the person making them doesn’t actually believe in God. They only believe in the god of their own imagination.

I find it hard to imagine a reason for so many people down through the ages all believing in God or gods, if God did not actually exist. How could a person with no experience of God come up with the idea of God? And not know that he was intentionally imagining someone who was not real? And sell it to lots of other people? And people across the planet imagine and sell as real the same concept? It’s like a giant conspiracy theory.

It’s much more believable that God exists, revealed Himself to people, and some believed and continued to believe, while others decided God should do things their way or for their benefit, so they tweaked what God had said about Himself until they believed a copy which we call an idol.

Of course it’s possible that some people had encounters with evil spirits and adopted them as their god or gods.

The fact remains. The God of the Bible tells us He alone is God. We can believe what He says, or not, but faith demands that we take God at His word.

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Photo By Gilbert Stuarthttp://www.clarkart.edu/Collection/7577, Public Domain, Link

Published in: on August 1, 2018 at 5:11 pm  Comments (1)  
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Faith In Christ Is Falsifiable


“Falsifiable” seems to be a scientific argumentation tool to sort out what is or isn’t true, what does or doesn’t exist. One definition states it this way:

Unfalsifiability (also known as: untestability) Description: Confidently asserting that a theory or hypothesis is true or false even though the theory or hypothesis cannot possibly be contradicted by an observation or the outcome of any physical experiment, usually without strong evidence or good reasons.

The way it works is like this:

A statement, hypothesis, or theory has falsifiability (or is said to be falsifiable) if one can conceive an empirical observation or experiment which could refute it, that is, show it to be false. For example, the claim “all swans are white” is falsifiable since it could be refuted by observing a single swan that is not white. (Wikipedia)

I’ve encountered a number of atheists who use this tool against Christian arguments in support of the existence of God. In truth, the supernatural does not pretend to be “scientific,” so it ought not be held to the standard of scientific investigation, but that fact seems to escape those who pull the “falsifiable” card every now and them.

However, it dawned on me the other day that falsifiability can serve Christianity as much as it can the atheist position.

The first thing I noted was that this claim of Scripture—the wages of sin is death—is clearly falsifiable. If someone could be identified as without sin who also did not die, then the Biblical principle would be proved to be false. But the opposite is true. While the statement is falsifiable, all people sin and all people die.

So Christianity is true in its assessment of humankind’s problem.

In addition, we know that Christ’s resurrection was falsifiable: all anyone every, at any point in history, had to do to disprove the resurrection was to reveal a body or a tomb containing a body. Since that never happened, the truth of Christ’s resurrection must be affirmed.

In a quirky sort of reversal, falsifiability can also prove what saving faith looks like, I think.

Any number of current atheists claim that they were once Christians. But the claim of Christianity is that saving faith continues:

yet He has now reconciled you in His fleshly body through death, in order to present you before Him holy and blameless and beyond reproach—if indeed you continue in the faith firmly established and steadfast, and not moved away from the hope of the gospel (Col. 1:22-23a)

That statement would be false if one example of a person who continued in the hope of the gospel and was not saved, could be found.

Of course who does or doesn’t have saving faith isn’t for us to determine, so maybe the idea breaks down there, but it seems to me that the possibility exists and yet has no evidence to support it, which should prove the statement to be true: only those who continue in the faith are saved.

Of course there’s always the question about the prodigal. Since Jesus told the story of the son leaving his father, making a royal hash of his life, coming to his senses and returning home with the intention of taking a servant’s position, only to be met by his father and treated like the son he was—since Jesus told that story, it seems pretty clear that prodigals are real, and welcome.

Since Jesus also told the thief dying on the cross beside Him that the man would be with Him in paradise, the idea of “continuing” doesn’t seem to include any kind of time limit, like, you need to be at this for at least XXX number of days or years.

If fact, Jesus told a story about that too. An employer went out to hire day laborers, came back at various times, including the last hour of work. When he paid them, he gave all the same amount, the last as much as the first.

I have to admit, that used to bug me. I mean I was raised with the good old capitalist mindset that you got paid for your work. But God’s ways are higher than our ways. As it turns out, He’s not grading on our efforts. Rather, we who come to the cross of Christ, be it early or late, can claim reconciliation with God through His blood and our faith in what He’s done, not through our efforts.

If a person has that faith, he or she has that faith. It’s not a “I used to, but now I don’t” proposition. How could it be? God either accepted Christ’s sacrifice for sin, or He didn’t. We either believe the sacrifice paid for our sins, or we don’t.

The question is, I guess, can you change your mind? Well, that’s not falsifiable. Did you have saving faith and then give it up? There’s simply no evidence to verify that claim.

Published in: on May 17, 2018 at 6:20 pm  Comments (3)  
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Walking The Tight Rope – A Reprise



Blondin carrying his manager, Harry Colcord, on a tightrope

A few years ago, self-designated King of High Wire, Nik Wallenda, took his act to Niagara Falls.

It had been a hundred and fifty years since anyone made the attempt to cross the raging waters balanced on a wire stretched from shore to shore.

I’m sure there would have been other attempts, but state law banned the feat inside the State Park. Wallenda, following in his famous grandfather’s tragic footsteps, was able to cut through the red tape and gain permission to make the try directly above the Falls, not further downstream where other famous performers worked.

Charles Blondin was one who successfully made the walk. A famous circus performer in the middle of the nineteenth century, he gained special fame for his “different theatrical variations: blindfolded, in a sack, trundling a wheelbarrow, on stilts, carrying a man (his manager, Harry Colcord) on his back, sitting down midway while he cooked and ate an omelet and standing on a chair with only one chair leg on the rope” (from Wikimedia, “Charles Blondin”).

Call it courageous or call it fool-hearty, these incredible performers know that one misstep may be their last, as was the experience of Nik Wallenda’s 73-year-old grandfather, Karl. There’s no place for detours or side trips, no wandering astray for a time, not even mentally. This is life or death on the straight and narrow.

What a metaphor for life. All of us can take the straight and narrow–choosing the only Way, Jesus Christ who reconciles us with God–or we can step out into the wide open spaces and float or sail or dive merrily toward destruction.

How restrictive, some say, to walk that one path, that only way. Why can’t a different path get us to the other side just as well?

The wire might look scary and the walk might be buffeted by winds, but there simply is no other way. In contrast, free falling might look like fun, but that’s a way down, not a way across.

Myself, I’d rather not make the crossing, but of course, in life, we don’t have that option. One way or the other, we will leave this shore. Knowing this, it seems imperative to learn everything I can about walking the wire.

Of course we can change the metaphor. Rather than me walking the straight and narrow, I can instead put my trust in the skilled and practiced King to carry me across. On his back, in the wheelbarrow–He can take me however He chooses. It’s His show, not mine.

This article is an edited version of one that appeared here in June 2-12.

Published in: on March 20, 2018 at 6:09 pm  Comments Off on Walking The Tight Rope – A Reprise  
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God’s Plan And The World—A Reprise


For God so loved the world, John 3:16 says. And yet there are people who think Christians are some kind of exclusive club looking to keep out people who aren’t like us.

First, Christianity doesn’t belong to Christians. It belongs to God. Second, it isn’t a club, though it is a relationship—first with God.

Jesus told a story to illustrate how His plan of redemption and reconciliation works.

A rich ruler decided to put on a banquet. He sent out invitations, but one after the other the people he wanted at his feast sent their regrets: A new responsibility needed attention. Another important relationship had to take priority. Too busy to squeeze in the time.

Fine, the ruler said to his servants. They don’t want to come, then they don’t get to come. Invite people from all walks of life, no matter what their status, what their occupation, even the beggars.

When everyone arrived, there was still room for more people, so the rich man sent out his servants again, this time to the places where criminals were apt to hang out, and told them to compel the people to come.

At last the banquet got underway, but one person wasn’t dressed appropriately. Why aren’t you wearing banqueting attire? the host asked. The guest had no answer, so he was put out.

The banquet is a metaphor for the “marriage supper of the Lamb,” the great celebration God has prepare for His people. But “His people” aren’t necessarily who you’d expect. They aren’t an exclusive set handpicked for their charm, wit, intelligence, skill, power, prestige, or money. They are simply those who accepted the invitation. In contrast, those who are too self-important, too determined to go their own way, won’t accept the invitation. And some might accept but won’t come prepared.

This story, this word picture (actually two versions—one in Matt. 22 and the other in Luke 14—which I’ve compressed into one), makes several things clear. First, those who ended up at the rich man’s table, enjoying the feast, did nothing to earn their invitation.

Most of them were going their own way, expecting to do something different, be somewhere else, and suddenly the invitation comes—there’s a banquet, and you’re invited.

To accept such an invitation, it seems to me a person would have to realize what an honor, what a privilege had come their way. If they thought, No big deal; I can throw my own banquet if I want to—then chances are, they wouldn’t put a great deal of priority in attending. If they had plenty of food and weren’t particularly hungry, they could easily have thought ill of the invitation—what a bother, in the middle of the work day? he can’t expect me to drop everything and come just because he’s throwing a party.

But for the people who were out of work, who begged just to buy a scrap of food, who had never sat at a banqueting table in their lives, this invitation had to be the best news they’d ever heard.

Of course, there may have been some who didn’t think the invitation was real. What, you think you’d be invited up to the mansion for a party? You’re deluded. Or someone is scamming you. You’ll show up and somebody will jump out from the bushes and shout, April Fool, and you’re it. I mean, no one, no one in their right mind, invites a bunch of riffraff to share their table.

So the people who benefit from this invitation don’t earn it, but they must trust that the invitation is true.

The_Marriage_Feast_by_MillaisThe part of the story that has long given me trouble is the part about the guy getting put out for not wearing the proper clothes. I’d think none of those beggars or poor or the ones coming in from the highways and the byways would have the proper clothes either. I can only conclude, the banquet attire was something the host provided for his guests, so the man who was dressed inappropriately had no excuse. Which his silence would seem to corroborate.

So there’s God’s plan for the world. He invites, and we either accept or reject. Nothing exclusive about it. In reality, none of us can provide our own banquet. We might think we can, but that’s delusional. Only God can provide what we need. Our role in the matter is to recognize our need and His provision, then trust that He will give what He said He would give. That trust, I believe, is the proper clothing we need. Trying to go to His banquet all dressed up in our own rags of self-righteousness will surely get us barred from the table.

This post is a revised version of one that appeared here in April, 2015.

A Closer Look At Faith And Prayer


1397392_mount_rainier
Here’s another in the series of Evangelical Myths

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I’ve thought a lot about the Pharisees and the traditions that they allowed to take over their belief system—to the point that their religious practice served their greed and their lust for power. Can the same thing happen today? In evangelical churches? Why not? It happened in Christianity before there ever was a Protestant/Catholic divide.

So what are some of the evangelical myths that could potentially start professing Christians on the road away from God and toward religious traditions that serve our greed and lust for power?

This position, included in an article by another blogger, seems common: “if I have enough faith, God will do it.” I’d even suggest we’ve taken this idea a step farther: if I have enough faith, God will HAVE to do it.

Certainly this idea of faith has its seeds in Scripture. In fact Jesus Himself said this to His disciples when they could not cast out a demon from a boy brought to them for that purpose:

Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, “Why could we not drive it out?” And He said to them, “Because of the littleness of your faith; for truly I say to you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible to you.” (Matt. 17:19-20)

Later Jesus said much the same to His disciples:

And Jesus answered and said to them, “Truly I say to you, if you have faith and do not doubt, you will not only do what was done to the fig tree [curse it so that it withered], but even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and cast into the sea,’ it will happen. And all things you ask in prayer, believing, you will receive.” (Matt. 21:21-22)

Certainly, from those passages, the issue seems to be the faith the disciples had. It was all up to them. If they believed, they could have sent the demon away or cursed the fig tree, but they didn’t have enough faith—not even the size of the smallest seed, or else they could move mountains.

The problem is, this passage is not the only one that addresses faith or asking things of God. So here’s an important principle: one way that myths become established is when believers take passages of Scripture in isolation and believe them “literally.” While I believe the Bible to be true—each word and in total—I do not believe each word alone communicates the intent of the whole.

My favorite example is the passage in Psalm 14: “There is no God.” Yes, that’s what verse one says . . . in part. The intro is, “The fool has said in his heart, ‘There is no God.'” What a difference putting the line in context makes.

So too the teaching of Scripture about faith and prayer. What we need to do is look at the various passages on these subjects together—things like God promising to give good gifts to His children (necessitating an understanding of what He means by “good”); saying if we “abide in Him,” and His words abide in us, we can ask whatever we wish and it will be done (necessitating an understanding of this “abiding”); and promising if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us (necessitating an understanding of “His will”).
Vending Machine 2

In other words, these passages can’t be taken in isolation from their context or from one another. Prayer is NOT a vending machine—put in the appropriate amount of faith and out comes the answer; too little faith and the prayer machine gets stuck with nothing shooting into the retrieval slot.

In fact, one of the greatest passages about asking God for something comes from the man whose son had the demon the disciples couldn’t cast out:

But if You can do anything, take pity on us and help us!” And Jesus said to him, ” ‘If You can?’ All things are possible to him who believes. “Immediately the boy’s father cried out and said, “I do believe; help my unbelief.” (Mar 9:22b-24)

His great confession was that even belief comes from God—it’s not something he could generate on his own.

James adds a couple different pieces to the faith puzzle. First he said it was great for someone to say he believes in God, but the reality is, the demons also believe. So there’s obviously more to “belief” than a mental ascent.

Secondly, he addresses the issue of asking God for what we need: “You do not have because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive because you ask with wrong motives so that you may spend it on your pleasures” (see James 4:2b-3).

Certainly this look at faith and prayer is not exhaustive, but by reviewing the various promises, commands, and instruction in Scripture, I draw these conclusions:

  • there is no prayer formula;
  • God wishes to give His people good gifts, but we mistake what we think is good for what He thinks is good;
  • believing God for the things we know to be His will should be our default prayer position.

Here’s my own personal conclusion: I don’t ask God for enough stuff or for big enough stuff—the things consistent with His will. I get wrapped up in “small ball,” the stuff that would make my life easier or more pleasant. So often God graciously gives me what I ask for, but I wonder—if I asked for more, for bigger, wouldn’t He be pleased to give that, too?

This post is a revised version of one that appeared here in June 2013.

Published in: on February 1, 2018 at 4:54 pm  Comments (1)  
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Which Comes First? – Thoughts On The Psalms


A few years back my pastor at the time discussed a study of the book of Psalms by Walter Bruegemann in which he categorized the various psalms in three groups: Orientation, Disorientation, or Reorientation.

The Orientation psalms view the world based on an orientation toward God. They praise Him all-out. They speak of His mercy, His wonders, His glory. There are no shadows in those psalms. Psalm 100 would be an example of an orientation psalm, I believe.

Shout joyfully to the Lord, all the earth.
Serve the Lord with gladness;
Come before Him with joyful singing.
Know that the Lord Himself is God;
It is He who has made us, and not we ourselves;
We are His people and the sheep of His pasture.

Enter His gates with thanksgiving
And His courts with praise.
Give thanks to Him, bless His name.
For the Lord is good;
His lovingkindness is everlasting
And His faithfulness to all generations.

They “express a confident, serene settlement of faith issues.” They “give expression . . . to the reality that God is trustworthy and reliable.” (Quotes from Spirituality of the Psalms by Walter Bruegemann).

As you might guess, then, the Disorientation psalms view the world as broken. They are the psalms that Job might have written at his lowest point. They could be considered laments. They mourn for what is lost and plead for God to hear and answer. And then they end. Psalm 88 is an example of a Disorientation psalm, ending with these lines:

They have surrounded me like water all day long;
They have encompassed me altogether.
You have removed lover and friend far from me;
My acquaintances are in darkness.

Then come the Reorientation psalms. These are songs that begin with questions, with a focus on the broken world, and then reach a turning point in which the psalmist sees the world more completely because he’s now taking God into account. Psalm 73 is a good example of a Reorientation psalm:

When I pondered to understand this,
It was troublesome in my sight
Until I came into the sanctuary of God;
Then I perceived their end. (vv 16-17)

The Reorientation psalms seem clearly to begin with a problem—affliction by enemies or an observation of the prosperity of the wicked or an unanswered prayer. As the psalmist cries out to God, he finds the answer to his situation in God.

But what about the Orientation and Disorientation psalms—which comes first? The implication from what my pastor said was that Orientation came first, then “reality” set in—or at least hardship did. In other words, all is well, so people praise God unreservedly. Then all hell breaks loose and people lament. At some point there’s a realignment of perspective that takes into consideration both the greatness of God and the disappointments of life.

But must it be so? Why couldn’t the order be Disorientation, brought on by the Fall, Reorientation, when the truth of God sinks in, and Orientation, when all is seen as under His sovereign ordering, so praise is not dependent upon circumstances in the least.

I’m mindful of this because of something I read by the late literary agent Lee Hough who was battling cancer for a year or more. As he awaited learning the effect of his latest treatments, he wrote in part

So, again, the cancer is back. Now what?

Whether I’m healed of cancer in this life or not – God is good.

Whether I’m healed of cancer in this life or not – God is faithful.

Whether I’m healed of cancer in this life or not – God is merciful.

Whether I’m healed of cancer in this life or not – God is loving.

His life was disoriented, but his faith was firmly oriented. What private laments did he and his wife express? I couldn’t say. But God was the hero of Lee’s story since he first began writing about his experience with cancer.

It is in reading his praise of God, his unswerving trust in God, his undiminished confidence in God’s character that my faith grows. Obviously, Lee did not write out of a naive trust in God when all was bright and sunny, with his future here on earth looking rosy. He wrote from the unknown, from the valley of the shadow, caught between Pharaoh’s army and the Red Sea. He wrote as one “going, not knowing.”

And his words make me think of Paul’s:

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

It seems to me, the clearer we see God—when we no longer put our eyes on the enemies chasing us or the friends betraying us or the cancer, the famine, the lost income, or the prosperous cheats—when we see God without distractions because we know nothing can separate us from His love, I think our praise will be like Orientation psalms, like the praise of the angels around God’s throne. The more nearly we understand Him, the more clearly we’ll sing His praise—not because of ignorance of suffering or out of naiveté. Rather, because of an awareness of suffering and evil, knowing that God is greater than all of it. Therein lines the purest praise, I think.

This post is a revised edition of one that first appeared here in February 2013.

Published in: on January 10, 2018 at 5:37 pm  Comments (3)  
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Worry And Mrs. Job


I tend to be hard on Job’s wife. I mean, who takes a vow “for better or worse,” then when the worst happens, says, “Just give up. Deny God and end your life.” It’s a brutal response to someone who has lost everything. But I tend to forget: Mrs. Job had lost everything, too.

Scripture gives us the impression that, though many of the Jewish patriarchs practiced polygamy, she was Job’s only wife. Hence, the seven sons and three daughters who died where her seven sons and three daughters, too. We can postulate as well that when Job was stripped of his wealth, Mrs. Job was also plunged into poverty along with him.

It really ought not to be surprising, then, that Mrs. Job looked at the sudden destruction of all that had given her security and happiness, and fell into despair. What was she to do? Her husband was so sick he could do nothing but sit in the ashes and scrape his skin with a bit of a ceramic pot.

What did that mean for her future? Her children were gone, so there was no one she could count on to provide for her day after day or care for her into her old age. She was bereft of all that had given her stability.

In her mind, apparently, God had done this to her husband. Interesting, I think, that she didn’t curse Job, as if he was at fault. She had to have known that he was a man of integrity who revered God and turned away from evil. So the fault was God’s, she figured.

But what does all this have to do with worry? At its heart, worry is nothing more than fear of the future. What if X happens or Z doesn’t materialize? How will we make it if A turns into B? Mrs. Job was faced with the biggest questions of her life: how was she going to survive now that she was poor; how was she going to care for a sick husband; how was she going to live another day with a God who had turned against her?

But that was the critical issue. Had God turned against her? Some might argue that no, she just got caught up in the backwash of God’s dealing with Job and Satan. But that idea minimizes God’s omniscience, sovereignty, and lovingkindness for each person He created. Did He forget that what happened to Job would have repercussions on Mrs. Job? Unlikely.

So did God turn a blind eye to her? Not in the least. She and Job, I suspect, were much more of a package deal than we realize. Not until after Mrs. Job counseled her husband to curse God and die did he begin to rue the day of his birth (Job 3:1). True, his initial response to her was one of the great testimonies of faith:

But he said to her, “You speak as one of the foolish women speaks. Shall we indeed accept good from God and not accept adversity?” In all this Job did not sin with his lips. (Job 2:10)

But a week later he was questioning why he’d ever been born:

“Why did I not die at birth,
Come forth from the womb and expire?
Why did the knees receive me,
And why the breasts, that I should suck?” (Job 3:11-12)

Would he have reached that dark place of doubt without his wife’s suggestion? Impossible to know. But it seems clear they both came to a point where they were not looking at God and saying, in spite of their horrific circumstances, Blessed be the name of the Lord.

But that’s precisely where we all need to be, no matter what we have or what we’ve lost. God’s kingdom and righteousness are to be our focus, according to Matt. 6:33.

We aren’t to be seeking how to replace the 500 donkeys or to scrape up an army to go after the Chaldeans who stole the camels or campaign for storm-proof housing to spare our children—at least we aren’t to be seeking these things first. In reality, seeking God’s kingdom and righteousness might ultimately lead to a restoration of what we’ve lost. It did for Job. But first, he needed to see God as He is.

“I know that You can do all things,
And that no purpose of Yours can be thwarted.
‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’
Therefore I have declared that which I did not understand,
Things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.
‘Hear, now, and I will speak;
I will ask You, and You instruct me.’
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
.” (Job 42:2-6, emphasis mine)

I submit, the only worry-free zone is the space in which we are clinging to God rather than to our thousands of sheep, oxen, camels, and donkeys . . . or even to our children or our husband or our health. God calls us to make Him our focus, and one way or another, He’ll see us through, as He did Mrs. Job, to the other side of the dark valley in which we’re walking.

Apart from some slight editing, this article first appeared here in January 2014.

Published in: on December 28, 2017 at 5:10 pm  Comments (1)  
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