Refuge


One of the themes in the book of Psalms, especially those psalms written by King David, is refuge. The “sweet singer of Israel” often wrote of things he knew well—“The LORD is my shepherd,” for example, from a man who spent his youth tending sheep. After a meteoric rise to prominence as a result of his victory over Goliath, David experienced an equally sharp decline in favor. Although he did nothing wrong, although King Saul was simply motivated by jealousy, David found himself on the run—for his life.

He had no one he could trust, so he looked to hide out in a part of the country that was nearly uninhabitable. It was called a wilderness for a reason. So, far to the south of the center of power where the king resided, where David once sat at his table, the fugitive now lived in caves and wherever else he could go—often on the run just to stay one step ahead of King Saul and his army.

David knew about not having refuge, and finding refuge. So no wonder he wrote a lot about the subject in his psalms. One of the psalms that addresses the subject most thoroughly is Psalm 91. There’s no “signature” telling us that David wrote this particular portion of Scripture, but regardless, it is consistent with what a man on the run, what someone facing trouble, would know to write.

Unsurprisingly, the psalmist, whoever he was, wrote that God is the ultimate refuge, the One who provides a “safe space.” Here’s a sample:

He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High
Will abide in the shadow of the Almighty.
I will say to the LORD, “My refuge and my fortress,
My God, in whom I trust!” (vv 1-2)

Interestingly, the psalmist is rather expansive when he describes what God can shelter someone from, but he includes pestilence—“fatal epidemic disease”—in some of his earliest thoughts:

For it is He who delivers you from the snare of the trapper
And from the deadly pestilence. (v 3)

A few verses later he adds

You will not be afraid of the terror by night,
Or of the arrow that flies by day;
Of the pestilence that stalks in darkness (5-6a)

I think it’s significant that God’s refuge not only provides safety but also freedom from fear.

In a few verses the psalm takes on a prophetic, Messianic meaning—to the point that Satan actually quoted from it when he was tempting Jesus. These verses may sound familiar:

For He will give His angels charge concerning you,
To guard you in all your ways.
They will bear you up in their hands,
That you do not strike your foot against a stone. (vv 11-12)

The debate, then, is this: are the promises of refuge only promises to the Messiah? Can the everyday Christian turn to God as his refuge?

I don’t think that’s a question that’s too hard to answer, since this passage is not the only one that talks about taking refuge in God.

In fact, the book of Psalms is not the only place where we learn about taking refuge in God. One of my most favorite verses is in one of the minor prophets (not “minor” because of their importance, but identified so today by Biblical scholars because of their length). This one is found in the book of Nahum.

Ironically, the book starts off with anything but a tone of refuge. Rather, it describes God’s righteous anger, as in this verse:

The LORD is slow to anger and great in power,
And the LORD will by no means leave the guilty unpunished. (1:3a)

The passage reaches a climax in verse 6:

Who can stand before His indignation?
Who can endure the burning of His anger?
His wrath is poured out like fire
And the rocks are broken up by Him.

And then the shocking, surprising, unexpected twist:

The LORD is good,
A stronghold in the day of trouble,
And He knows those who take refuge in Him. (v 7)

So yes, God’s wrath being poured out like fire? That’s from the LORD who is good. But more so, this is the same good God who is a stronghold in the day of trouble, including the pestilence mentioned in Psalm 91. As if that was not enough, God knows those who take refuge in Him. Not in government or medical progress or the “human spirit” or anything else so many rely on today. God can use all those things if He chooses, but He is the One, the only One who is a refuge in the day of trouble, no matter what kind of trouble. No matter what source stirs up that trouble.

Like the plagues of Egypt, God can bring judgment, but in the same way He protected Israel from the consequences of those plagues, those who take refuge in Him today will be protected, too.

I say “in the same way,” but the truth is, taking refuge in God is not a way to insure we won’t contract the Coronavirus. I have heard of Christians who have fallen ill and some who have died. But the thing about refuge in God is that it’s win-win. We are in the same place Paul was when he said, “To me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” We can live in God’s protection, or we can die and gain a more complete relationship with Christ, free from the dark glass we look through today.

There is no bad result from taking refuge in God. One way or the other, we are free from the fear of the terror by day or the pestilence by night. Why? Because we know God is good, a stronghold in the day of trouble, and He knows those who take refuge in Him.

Published in: on April 7, 2020 at 5:02 pm  Comments (3)  
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Facing Our Fears


Recently a good friend of mine posted a quote from C. S. Lewis on my Facebook page. He wrote about the reaction many in the mid-twentieth century had to the atom bomb. Living under the cloud of possible annihilation was something no one had known before, and it engendered fear.

I found what Lewis said to be quite interesting because I saw similarities, too. I lived through the Cuban Missile Crisis and saw any number of people installing bomb shelters and storing up dried foods. I don’t remember anything like the run on grocery stores we are seeing today, but the emotional reaction is so similar.

Here’s what Lewis wrote:

In one way we think a great deal too much of the atomic bomb. ‘How are we to live in an atomic age?’ I am tempted to reply: ‘Why, as you would have lived in the sixteenth century when the plague visited London almost every year, or as you would have lived in a Viking age when raiders from Scandinavia might land and cut your throat any night; or indeed, as you are already living in an age of cancer, an age of syphilis, an age of paralysis, an age of air raids, an age of railway accidents, an age of motor accidents.’

In other words, do not let us begin by exaggerating the novelty of our situation. Believe me, dear sir or madam, you and all whom you love were already sentenced to death before the atomic bomb was invented: and quite a high percentage of us were going to die in unpleasant ways. We had, indeed, one very great advantage over our ancestors—anesthetics; but we have that still. It is perfectly ridiculous to go about whimpering and drawing long faces because the scientists have added one more chance of painful and premature death to a world which already bristled with such chances and in which death itself was not a chance at all, but a certainty.

This is the first point to be made: and the first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things—praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts—not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs. They may break our bodies (a microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds.

(“On Living in an Atomic Age,” 1948 in Present Concerns: Journalistic Essays by C.S. Lewis)

Fear is pretty much always with us. I had a personal experience that taught me a lot about fear when I was a young teacher living in Southern California. One summer we received report after report of a serial killer the press dubbed, the Night Stalker. We were informed that many of the victims lived near the freeway and that the killer entered through an unlocked door or open window.

This was summer, and hot, so I was sleeping with open windows and even an open door, albeit a locked screen. I lived a mere two blocks from a freeway. And one of the killings was in my town. Night after night I had to face the fear that this killer would take advantage of my circumstances and I would be his next victim.

It seems a little silly now, all these years later, realizing how slim the odds were that he would actually attack me. But the very random nature of his crimes created greater fear.

I was forced to face what I believe. Either I could trust God in the face of what felt like dangerous circumstances, or not.

This was not something that was an easy fix. The killing rampage went on for months. And each hot summer night I had to decide if I should close the windows and bolt and lock the door—which would mean a sleepless night amid the high temperatures—or do what I would normally do, which was to lock the screen and go to bed.

I’m still fearful of many things, but that summer I came face to face with the choice of trusting Jesus for my life—or not.

I didn’t write down my thought process, so I can’t be more specific. Did God use a sermon? Some passage of Scripture? Counsel from a friend? I don’t remember. But I know that I had to choose to trust God.

And I’ve chosen to trust Him time and time again when I’ve been face with dangerous things or hard things or new things and unknown.

Yes, I was scared as a young person during the Missile Crisis. I remember asking my mom what our family would do if the air raid siren sounded. At that point I was looking to the adults to have answers. I knew the fear, but I didn’t need to act to change what I was feeling. I needed to trust that they’d make the right decisions for me.

But my parents were trusting God and His promises. Ultimately I figured that out, and I suspect that served me well when I was faced with my own fear that fateful summer of the Night Stalker.

What I’ve learned since only reinforces what I learned then: God is faithful. Which doesn’t mean that I will automatically be spared hard things. I haven’t been. But even in the hard things, God shows Himself to be faithful. He watches over His people like a shepherd does his sheep. He gathers the lambs and carries them close, right next to his heart.

That’s the same God who will walk with us through this virus thing, and the ensuing panic and fear our friends and neighbors, and even we ourselves, may be tempted to display.

Published in: on March 17, 2020 at 5:26 pm  Comments Off on Facing Our Fears  
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What’s The Answer?


Lots of people are now talking about the latest virus spreading around the world, in part because of the measures the governments are taking to stem the spread, and in part because of the overreaction of people who apparently think toilet paper is a sanitizer.

I can guarantee that more toilet paper will not stop the virus from encroaching. So what’s a person to do?

I’ve thought about the fact that experiencing an illness with no known cure and which is highly contagious, is new to the twenty-first century. A hundred years ago there was an influenza in the pre-antibiotics days that killed thousands. My mom’s older half sister died of it when she was 15.

In centuries earlier, people dealt with the Black Plague and cholera and yellow fever and any number of other deadly diseases. People in those times understood that life didn’t come with a guarantee. You lived with hope, but you held your life loosely, viewing it as God’s to protect or to move “across the river.”

But in this new technological era, we know nothing about incurable, fast moving, deadly illness. AIDES came close, but the general population wasn’t necessarily at risk. You had some control over being exposed. Not so with an air-born virus. Or one that stays on a surface an infected person (or a carrier who has the virus but not the symptoms) has touched.

Suddenly life seems out of our control. The only way we can “fix” things, apparently, is to buy lots of toilet paper! And canned goods. And now, today, produce, as if that will not go bad within a week or two.

The problem, of course, is that our lives are not our own. We did nothing to bring about our birth and can do nothing to stave off the enemy of our soul and body: death. We don’t like having to face our mortality, but there it is.

So, what’s the answer? When the deadly virus stares us in the face, do we panic buy? Climb into our bomb shelters and pull the sanitized curtains around us?

I’ve seen some people act out of panic and buy things they clearly don’t need simply because they are trying to build a hedge against the desperation they feel. I’ve seen others mock the very problem, as if it is no problem at all. Most people have made some small concessions, a change here or there to their life style.

Some changes, of course, are foisted upon us by governments shutting down schools, the NCAA cancelling March Madness, the NBA bringing a halt to their season, and MLB putting a stop to spring training.

Other changes have come as people in leadership make decisions to cancel conferences or meetings, including church gatherings.

These changes must be dealt with and they can bring more fear along with them. They make the seriousness of this virus seem more real, more dangerous. I mean, a National Emergency? Various counties mandating quarantines?

Are these changes the answer?

Not to the fear people feel. Not to the reality of our mortality. That’s still there, whether we avoid contact with others or not. Whether we panic or self-quarantine or mock or make small concessions.

Fortunately, God does not leave us without counsel for such a time as this. Here’s a key verse from Psalm 16, though there are more great verses following. This one makes the point I think we need most:

I have set the LORD continually before me;
Because He is at my right hand, I will not be shaken.

I read that and thought of Peter, walking on water, heading toward Jesus . . . until he looked away at the wind and the waves.

In a traumatic situation such as a spreading virus, it’s tempting to look at the “wind and the waves,” and consequently start to sink into fear. It’s a temptation for us all, I think. But, God lets us know that He’s beside us. Whatever He calls us to go through, He’ll be right there with us. He will not now, or ever, leave us or forsake us.

Of course, for that to be true, He has to be part of our lives to begin with.

For anyone who puts his or her trust in Jesus, we have an anchor, a Father who holds us by the hand, in times of joy, sorrow, danger, peace. He does not leave us or forsake us.

It’s up to us to keep our eyes on Him. As Colossians 3 says

if you have been raised up with Christ, keep seeking the things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on earth. (vv 1-2)

Here are three practical things, based on Scripture, that we can or cannot do:

  1. Christians should behave in a way that marks us as Christians. We should still be kind to our neighbors, to the people in the never-ending grocery line.
  2. We should resist the urge to take over for God. We can’t hedge ourselves against death. Our times are in God’s hands. Buying extra canned goods will not extend our lives a single day beyond God’s plan for our lives.
  3. We should remember that God is faithful, not just in good times. He is faithful even when the storm swamps the boat, even when we’re pushed into the fiery furnace, even when we’re trapped between the Red Sea and Pharaoh’s army. He’s faithful when we face a giant and all we have is a sling. He is faithful when we’re beaten and imprisoned for our stand for Jesus. He is not faithful in fair weather, only to abandon us in foul.
  4. We should pray. Pray for God’s comfort for the fearful (and that might include us), for protection, for His mercy so that He would stay His hand, even when we deserve His righteous judgment.

I’m sure there are lots of other things to talk about in regard to what we can do to be good neighbors and friends and family members. Already I’ve had several people check up on me just to be sure I’m doing OK. That’s kind and caring, and it’s a cool thing to do for others.

Who knows what else God might direct his people to do if we keep our eyes fixed on Him.

Published in: on March 16, 2020 at 5:47 pm  Comments (9)  
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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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The Christmas Spirit


Christmas treesChristmas is a cherished holiday with any number of traditions. Consequently, the “Christmas spirit” has been fashioned out of the best of the season. In fact, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, his well-loved story about this season, takes to task those who disparage the qualities we most associate with the Christmas spirit—generosity, love, and joy.

Noticeably missing is fear. Odd, since fear played a great part in the first Christmas. Joseph was afraid to go through with his planned marriage because Mary turned up pregnant. He and she both were afraid, at separate times, when an angel visited them. So were the shepherds. Joseph again, having moved his new family to Egypt to keep Herod from killing their baby, was afraid to move back to Judea.

In other words, the first Christmas wasn’t about the warm and fuzzy, the beautiful lights and winter-scene cards or a warm fire with stockings all hung by the chimney with care. In fact, no presents showed up that first night. Some gawking strangers smelling like sheep did, parroting something about good tidings of great joy. All Mary could do was to file their words away to think about later. After all, she had a baby to feed—her first born, and what did she know about being a mother? Might she have been just a little fearful?

Appropriate to this topic are words Jonathan Rogers quoted in his blog some years ago:

I love Andrew Peterson’s song “Labor of Love,” sung like an angel by Jill Phillips on Behold the Lamb of God, my favorite Christmas album ever. Here’s the first stanza and chorus:

It was not a silent night
There was blood on the ground
You could hear a woman cry
In the alleyways that night
On the streets of David’s town

And the stable was not clean
And the cobblestones were cold
And little Mary full of grace
With the tears upon her face
Had no mother’s hand to hold

It was a labor of pain
It was a cold sky above
But for the girl on the ground in the dark
With every beat of her beautiful heart
It was a labor of love.

But not without fear.

In fact, fear followed Jesus throughout His life. He provided a miraculous catch of fish for Peter and he was afraid. He healed the guy who couldn’t walk, and the whole group of witnesses were afraid. He walked on water and His disciples were afraid. He raised a young man from the dead and the whole crowd was afraid. He kicked out the demons from a possessed man, and everyone in the entire district was afraid.

Actually Jesus seemed to validate their fear. At one point He said, “But I will warn you whom to fear: fear the One who, after He has killed, has authority to cast into hell; yes, I tell you, fear Him!” (Luke 12:5). As it turns out, Jesus is that One.

Yes, He is the Judge. Granted, His first appearance as a baby wasn’t to bring judgment. That will come when He returns. Isaiah says the government is on His shoulders. In Revelation it is the Lamb Himself who breaks the seals issuing in the final judgment of the world.

What’s my point. Only that the true Christmas spirit should include reverence. Love, sure. Generosity, joy, gladness, definitely. But worship—the bowing down part of Christmas—shouldn’t be neglected. The events surrounding Jesus’s birth created awe in those who witnessed them. In the same way, I’d do well to look with awe on our Savior. After all, fear is part of the Christmas spirit.

Published in: on December 21, 2015 at 6:46 pm  Comments (4)  
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Shame And Trusting God


RockClimbingA growing concern connected to Internet communication is shame. I read a post yesterday that cited several instances in which shame campaigns grew up around something a person posted—either a picture or comments. In the end, more than one person lost their job.

I’m not linking to the article because I disagree with the solution—and that’s not really my topic. The problem of shame is.

I have a friend who recounts ways a particular family member shamed others. The baggage from that cares over to adulthood.

I’d never thought about shame before. I came from a family with parents who loved me. It wasn’t perfect. My siblings and I were quite competitive and always struggled with the idea that one or the other (but never me—and we all thought this) was favored. Still, though I suspected I wasn’t the favorite, I still knew I was loved.

As a teen, of course, I was sometimes embarrassed about my family and even about my faith, but I didn’t feel shame in the way my friend describes it.

I wonder now if freedom from shame was connected to my being a Christian. What I’m discovering in Scripture, though, are verses addressing shame.

I suppose it would help if I gave a picture of what I perceive shame to be. Let’s say a person is expected to be the top of his class, but in the last semester, he forgets to write down the due date of a major paper, turns it in late, and gets a B. Someone else claims top honors. He had his chance and blew it. He bears the shame of his failure.

Shame is also something a person feels when a person you hold in high esteem says they’re disappointed in you. Or they tell others things like, he probably won’t have the grades to get into med school. It’s a public declaration of inadequacy.

So here are the verses about shame that have caught my attention. There are four. First, in Philippians:

Yes, and I will rejoice, for I know that this will turn out for my deliverance through your prayers and the provision of the Spirit of Jesus Christ, according to my earnest expectation and hope, that I will not be put to shame in anything, but that with all boldness, Christ will even now, as always, be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death.(1:18b-20)

Paul was essentially saying he knew he’d be delivered (he was imprisoned at the time), and that he would not be put to shame for believing so, whether he lived or died because Christ would be exalted either way.

1 Peter 4:16 is the next passage:

but if anyone suffers as a Christian, he is not to be ashamed, but is to glorify God in this name.

At first this verse seems to address the kind of embarrassment I felt when I was a kid having to tell people I belonged to the Mennonite denomination—which most people in my SoCal public high school had never heard of. But the context would seem to indicate there’s much more to this. Peter was addressing believers who were being persecuted because they believed in Jesus. Writing to the churches in Asia Minor, the Apostle Peter wanted to assure them that their suffering was not a sign of defeat. He encouraged them by reminding them that it was temporary, that it was expected, that it gave glory to God, that they were blessed that God had chosen them to suffer for His name’s sake.

In other words, suffering as a Christian was not a mark of failure but of accomplishment. Therefore, they had nothing to be ashamed about.

The thing is, when someone trusts God and then continues to suffer and even to die, the world can point the finger as they did at Jesus Himself and say, See, if your God was real, He could get you out of this mess. He’s failed you because He doesn’t care or isn’t strong enough or because you didn’t believe enough or He plain isn’t there.

Peter was assuring these early Christians that none of those accusations was true. In fact, in chapter five, he specifically mentions the devil, who, among other things, is the Accuser of the brethren. It’s easy to miss the connection between what Peter says about the devil and what he says right afterward about suffering, but I think it’s the issue of shame. Here’s that passage:

Be of sober spirit, be on the alert. Your adversary, the devil, prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. But resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same experiences of suffering are being accomplished by your brethren who are in the world. (5:8-9)

Suffering, Peter says, is an experience Christians all over the world are going through. It’s not a sign of failure. It’s not something to be ashamed about.

There’s another one in Psalm 37, but I’m going to cut to the last one since I sneaked in a second passage from 1 Peter. This last one is the one that has helped me tie my thoughts together about this. It’s a short verse: Psalm 71:1.

In You, O LORD, I have taken refuge;
Let me never be ashamed.

The unidentified psalmist is putting his life, his destiny, his soul in God’s hands, and if that decision turned out to be foolish—if God failed Him—he’d be ashamed before those who didn’t think God could take care of him.

I view this as sort of his “Lord, I believe, help my unbelief” moment. He’s tying himself to God. There is no one else to which he could go—just as Peter said about Jesus. But he knows how this must look to those who haven’t made God their refuge. It looks dangerous, foolish.

You know the old joke, about the guy who falls from a cliff but is able to grab hold of a safety rope. He starts yelling for help: “Is anybody up there! I need help!” Suddenly a voice from heaven says, I’m here. What do you need. “I can’t hold on much longer,” the guy says. “Can you help me get back to the top?” No problem, the voice from heaven answers. Let go of the rope, and I’ll catch you. The man hesitated a moment, then yells, “Is anybody else up there?”

Dangerous. Sometimes the things God asks of us feel dangerous. Or foolish.

We aren’t risk takers. We’ve been taught to be good stewards of our resources, so we want to know we have enough money stashed away for retirement, for example, to cover our expenses should we live to be 143. We cringe when we read about Abraham going, not knowing where, just because God told him to pull up stakes and head in the direction of the Great Sea. Most likely Abraham didn’t even know there was a Great Sea. He was simply going until God told him to stop.

He wasn’t ashamed to be a friend of God, even when it meant marching to the top of a mountain with his son as the intended sacrifice. He did what others may have thought risky, foolish. But he had confidence in God. Ah, one more passage:

yet, with respect to the promise of God, he [Abraham] did not waver in unbelief but grew strong in faith, giving glory to God, and being fully assured that what God had promised, He was able also to perform. (Romans 4:20-21)

Fully assured—not in himself, but in God and His promise! I’m pretty sure that’s what keeps a person from being ashamed.

Published in: on June 2, 2015 at 6:05 pm  Comments (8)  
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What Does God Have To Do With Fear?


Daniel003I read the end of the book of Daniel today, and one thing that struck me was the fear Daniel experienced in the presence of the angel who came to answer his prayer. By this time Daniel was an older man who had been faithfully serving God from his teen years. He knew suffering and persecution and he also knew God’s blessing as he walked in obedience to Him.

So here’s this seasoned believer who has stood before kings, been thrown into a lion’s den, interpreted dreams, and ruled the magicians of Chaldea, but he’s so afraid he can hardly stand.

Here’s a glimpse of what Daniel experienced:

I lifted my eyes and looked, and behold, there was a certain man dressed in linen, whose waist was girded with a belt of pure gold of Uphaz. His body also was like beryl, his face had the appearance of lightning, his eyes were like flaming torches, his arms and feet like the gleam of polished bronze, and the sound of his words like the sound of a tumult. Now I, Daniel, alone saw the vision, while the men who were with me did not see the vision; nevertheless, a great dread fell on them, and they ran away to hide themselves. So I was left alone and saw this great vision; yet no strength was left in me, for my natural color turned to a deathly pallor, and I retained no strength. (Daniel 10:5-8)

He started out deathly afraid, and his fear grew. He fell into what we’d call a coma, but a hand touched him and he came to. Still, he was on his hands and knees and was trembling. So the being spoke to him, and he was able to stand, still trembling, though. The heavenly being told Daniel not to be afraid, but Daniel “turned his face to the ground and became speechless.”

Then a heavenly being who looked like a man touched him and he was able to talk. What he said makes it clear he wasn’t over his fear:

“O my lord, as a result of the vision [of the man dressed in linen—the person he was talking to] anguish has come upon me, and I have retained no strength. For how can such a servant of my lord talk with such as my lord? As for me, there remains just now no strength in me, nor has any breath been left in me.” (Daniel 10:16b-17)

Remember, this isn’t God he was talking to—“just” a messenger of God.

Scripture teaches God is to be feared. Psalm 130:4 states that a purpose of God’s forgiveness is to create fear. Of course, there is fear and then there is fear. So what are we talking about when we say forgiveness generates fear of the Lord?

Quite apparently this fear is not the dread of coming retribution. Forgiveness eliminates that kind of fear completely. Rather, I think it is an awesome awareness of what God is capable of—perhaps the fear Daniel experienced.

By illustration, think of a little kid watching his dad swat ball after ball in the batting cage. Afterward he looks up in wonder and says, “Wow, Daddy, I didn’t know you could do that.”

God’s forgiveness does the same thing—it generates awe and makes us think, If He can forgive my sin, what can’t He do.

The interesting, and perhaps confusing, thing is that the God we bow before in amazement is the same God who ought to generate great fear, according to Jesus, because He has the power to judge and to condemn:

Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell. (Matt. 12:28)

So which is it? Fear or fear?

Perhaps another illustration would be helpful. All kinds of things here on earth should generate healthy respect—guns, dynamite, fire, knives, lightning, speeding cars, pounding waves, steep cliffs, electricity, and so on.

lightbulb-1-922847-mTake electricity, for instance. It makes life as we know it in the western world possible, so if we think of it at all, our attitude is most likely gratitude. Rarely do we think to be afraid of electricity. Yet if a small child picked up a screw driver and headed for an electrical outlet, most adults would rush to intervene. And if a toddler is a regular in a home, it’s not unusual to find all the vacant outlets protected with plastic caps.

Adults don’t need to be afraid of electricity, but we have a healthy fear of it. We aren’t going to abuse it or misuse it or let small children play with it because we know the results could be deadly. At the same time, we flip switches and change light bulbs and plug and unplug electrical cords with care but not with fear. We don’t lie awake at night trembling at the thought of a potential electrical shock.

In the same way, when we are in right relationship with God, we don’t tremble in the fear that He will turn His wrath on us. Nevertheless, we recognize His wrath, and that it is a fearful thing. In fact, our fear—our awareness of His power, our awe at what He is capable of—should make us quick to run to the aid of someone who is “carelessly handling” God, who is putting himself in jeopardy because he does not himself yet fear the Lord.

Paul says it well:

For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil. Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade others. (2 Cor. 5:10-11a, ESV, emphasis mine)

Of course false teaching about hell and God’s wrath and God’s righteous judgment might dissuade genuine Christians from seeking to persuade others of the fear of the Lord. Will we become so numb to the seriousness of falling into the hands of an angry God that we forget to run to the aid of those who are about to thrust their fingers into a live light socket?

A portion of this post appeared here in April 2011 under this same title.

Published in: on April 9, 2015 at 6:56 pm  Comments (4)  
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The Biblical Answer To The Question Of Evil


dawn-457770-mWhere did evil come from? This is the question atheists either don’t try to answer or can not answer. It’s part of the weakness of that belief system—there are too many things that can’t be explained.

Biblical Christianity, on the other hand, has a clear, concise answer (so this post might turn out to be rather short).

Solomon spelled out the answer in the book of Proverbs. In the first chapter, he personified Wisdom, and it is Wisdom that gives the answers to the question of evil.

“Because I called and you refused,
I stretched out my hand and no one paid attention;
And you neglected all my counsel
And did not want my reproof;
I will also laugh at your calamity;
I will mock when your dread comes,
When your dread comes like a storm
And your calamity comes like a whirlwind,
When distress and anguish come upon you.

“Then they will call on me, but I will not answer;
They will seek me diligently but they will not find me,
Because they hated knowledge
And did not choose the fear of the LORD.

“They would not accept my counsel,
They spurned all my reproof.

“So they shall eat of the fruit of their own way
And be satiated with their own devices.

“For the waywardness of the naive will kill them,
And the complacency of fools will destroy them.

“But he who listens to me shall live securely
And will be at ease from the dread of evil.” (Prov. 1:24-33)

In a nutshell, humankind hated God’s way, so He gave us over to our own way.

This is the point that atheists who say evil proves there is no good and loving God don’t get. Our good and loving God delegated to us the care of the rest of creation, and He told us what we needed to know to be successful.

Instead of embracing God’s way, we hated His way, thought we could figure out a way around it, and decided we knew better than He.

Simply put, that’s evil. There is no better way than the perfect way. Our embracing something less than perfect drags us further and further from God and from His plan for us. If it weren’t for His intervention, we would have no hope.

But thanks be to our loving, good God who knows exactly what we need, we have a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ who has brought us out of darkness into His marvelous light.

Later in the book, Solomon says

The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom,
And the knowledge of the Holy One is understanding. (Prov. 9:10)

God is entwined in it all—the beginning of wisdom, our response to wisdom, the reproof when we ignore wisdom, the consequences for hating wisdom. And the point of wisdom is to lead us to the fear of the Lord.

It’s self-fulfilling. The more we fear the Lord, the more we fear the Lord.

But “fear” doesn’t mean get all terrified, though that’s a part of it. The Hebrew word is yir’ah, and it’s various meanings are these:

I. fear, terror, fearing
A. fear, terror
B. awesome or terrifying thing (object causing fear)
C. fear (of God), respect, reverence, piety
D. revered

It is use C that applies here—fear, respect, reverence, and devotion. These are the heart attitudes, applied to our relationship with God, that yield wisdom.

Today there are a lot of ideas about God—he’s our buddy, he’s our Sugar Daddy, he’s an it or a she or an unknown, he’s nonexistent. All these are ways of neglecting wisdom’s counsel. We think we can ignore God or deny Him or treat Him with disrespect and still reap the benefits of His kindness and mercy. We don’t realize how much we pay for the existence of evil.

All the sin and sickness and death that plagues the world and all that’s in it is a direct result of turning our back on God instead of fearing Him.

Evil is here because of how humankind treats God. If we don’t love Him with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength (the first commandment), then how can we think we’ll be able to love our neighbors as ourselves (the second commandment)?

That we ever even try is a recognition of God’s law serving as a moral compass inside us. But that’s another matter for discussion another day. Suffice it to say, evil is not something rightly dropped at God’s doorstep. He created a perfect world, and it is we who let Him down, not He who bungled the oversight of what He made.

My guess is, the same pride that said we could bypass the regs God laid down, also is the reason we don’t want to admit evil exists in us and on earth because of us. But that’s the truth—the Biblical answer to the question of evil.

Published in: on January 27, 2015 at 6:58 pm  Comments (2)  
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Fear And The Christian


King_Saul006Yet another serial killer surfaced in the US this week. The Stock Market took a beating last week, Ebola is killing more people (more Africans have died in this last outbreak than Americans who died in the World Trade Center), and ISIS is threatening yet another town.

All this on top of the usual fears about aging and relationships and child rearing and politics and job stability and drought (or hurricanes or floods or earthquakes, depending on what part of the country you make your home).

I see people talking about fear and panic, especially in connection with Ebola—though only two people contracted it on US soil. The news ran a piece about not needing to be afraid of the people returning from quarantine. The CDC put in new guidelines to protect medical personnel caring for Ebola patients. And there’s some quick response team that’s being prepared—part of the National Guard, I think, but don’t quote me.

All these preparations sound logical and necessary, but what we haven’t learned yet is that God is not subject to our plans and precautions. Should He wish to judge this nation or any other part of the world by sending pestilence, all our careful plans will not stop what God intends to do.

King Saul never learned that lesson.

He was disobedient to God and lied about it. As a result, Samuel, speaking the word of God, told Saul the kingdom would be torn from his hands. Instead of repenting and acknowledging God’s sovereign right to do as He chooses, Saul tried to hold onto the kingdom God said he’d lose.

At first he pretended he was doing it for his son Jonathan. Except, there came a day, Saul tried to kill Jonathan because of his friendship with David. Scratch the “I’m doing it for my son” excuse.

Irony of irony, when Saul was about to go into his last battle, he inquired of God whether or not he’d be successful. God was not answering. Saul went to the priest, offered sacrifices, used the ephod which was apparently some form of divining God’s will, and uniformly, he got no response.

He really didn’t need one. God had already given His verdict on Saul and his kingdom, but Saul didn’t like what God had to say. So he persisted. He went to a spiritist—apparently someone who could divine the future through some means apart from God.

Again, he didn’t hear what he wanted to hear. Yes, the woman he went to, the medium, brought up Samuel who Saul wanted to talk to. But Samuel’s message was anything but comforting:

The LORD has done accordingly as He spoke through me; for the LORD has torn the kingdom out of your hand and given it to your neighbor, to David. As you did not obey the LORD and did not execute His fierce wrath on Amalek, so the LORD has done this thing to you this day. Moreover the LORD will also give over Israel along with you into the hands of the Philistines, therefore tomorrow you and your sons will be with me. Indeed the LORD will give over the army of Israel into the hands of the Philistines!” (1 Sam. 28:17-19)

Not only did this message confirm God’s judgment, but now Saul knew it was imminent. He reacted like most people would react—with fear.

Then Saul immediately fell full length upon the ground and was very afraid because of the words of Samuel (v. 20a)

This occasion is one of the few times in Scripture when a person responded in fear to a spiritual being and wasn’t told not to fear. In other words, Saul received no comfort. He was faced with God’s judgment and he was afraid.

How different life is for the Christian. Of course we face fearful things. Christians are not immune to cancer or ALS or car accidents or terrorists flying planes into the ground. Christians lose their homes in economic downturns and get laid off and don’t know how they’ll pay the phone bill.

We face the same problems in the world that our unsaved friends and neighbors face. But in all this there’s a difference. From Psalm 37:

When he falls he will not be hurled headlong,
Because the LORD is the One who holds his hand.

We’re not going to be hurled headlong, and we know it. We might die or be in a wheelchair for forty years or lose a spouse or have a stroke, but that is not the end, and we know it.

Through those circumstances we have the great comfort that we aren’t going through them alone, because the Lord is the One who holds our hand. He isn’t going to grab us after we fall (though there’s a pretty funny joke about that). He’s with us, holding onto us, keeping us as we go through those circumstances.

And for me, that changes everything.

Published in: on October 21, 2014 at 6:14 pm  Comments (1)  
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The Poor Church That Is Rich


Painting of the Gulf of SmyrnaIn delivering messages to the angels of seven first century churches, Jesus generally confronted them about problem areas. But there was one church that didn’t receive any “here’s what you’re doing wrong” counsel: the church in Smyrna, known today as Izmir, Turkey.

Jesus first lets them know that He’s aware of what they’re up against. He starts by telling them He knew of their trouble and their poverty. Instead of stopping there, though, He contradicts the statement:

I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich) (Rev. 2:9a).

They’re poor—Jesus didn’t say this was untrue. But they are rich. This could possibly be a comparative indicator similar to what we experience in the US: in comparison to “the one percent” most of us would say we are poor, but in comparison to the majority of the people in the world, we are rich.

More likely, I think, the statement shows the spiritual conditions versus the physical. The believers in Smyrna were in fact poor, but because of their relationship with Christ they were simultaneously rich.

God’s riches do not negate the conditions of this world. Our brothers and sisters who fled Mosul may be poor now. They’ve been forced out of their homes, have only the belongings they could carry, may not have a way to make a living in whatever refugee camp they’ve landed. They are poor and are suffering tribulation physically in the truest sense.

And yet they are still rich. They are heirs of the kingdom which God has promised to those who love Him. They have the Holy Spirit who lives in them, guides them, seals them, intercedes in prayer for them.

They have Christ whose work at the cross provides them with forgiveness of sins, redemption, the cancellation of their debt, who clothes them with righteousness, bears their burdens if they cast them on Him. In every spiritual way conceivable, they are rich.

The second thing Jesus said about the church was that He knew “the blasphemy by those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan” (Rev. 2:9b). Apparently pretenders were among them.

Jesus then moved to a prophetic message introduced by a command: Do not fear. They were about to suffer, Jesus said, and “the devil” was about to cast them in prison, they were about to face tribulation, though it would be for a specific, limited time.

He concluded with a command too: Be faithful until death.

Wow!

I’m not sure this message inspires me to not fear, and I’m not the target audience of this message. Or am I? I’d have to say, of course I am, as are all Christians who make up the body of Christ.

The details vary in our circumstances, but we are all rich regardless of our outward conditions. And we all have to cope with pretenders. We all are up against Satan’s attempt to imprison us in sin and guilt and the law.

Clearly, God does not promise us a Better Life Now here on this earth. He simply does not do so. This passage, written to the church in Smyrna, is still written, like all other Scripture, for all believers to receive doctrine, reproof, correction, and instruction in righteousness.

So, like Smyrna, we are to face what’s coming our way, unafraid and faithful until death.

The cool thing is, we, like Smyrna, have the promise for that faithfulness: the crown of life and, if we overcome, the escape from the “second death.”

Do I know what the second death is? No. But I figure it’s more important that I know how to overcome so that I won’t have to worry about being hurt by it.

But now I wonder if Christ isn’t the One who has already overcome. We know He has. And we know we who are in Christ will be like Him. So are not believers in the redemptive work of Christ already those who have overcome? Again, I think that’s the most logical understanding of the admonition.

In short, despite the way the world might look, with Ebola in Africa and tornadoes in Boston, with flooding in Las Vegas and bombs flying back and forth between Gaza and Israel, with Russian-backed terrorists fighting to divide Ukraine and ISIS attacking Christians, with Nigerian girls held captive by Muslim terrorists, the believer in Christ can laugh because we understand Jesus Christ has won and is winning and will claim His victory one day soon.

It’s not really complicated. We aren’t to fear, and we are to remain faithful for as long as God gives us breath.

Published in: on July 29, 2014 at 5:36 pm  Comments (2)  
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