No Thank You, Mr. Buffett


Suppose I decide I want to talk to Warren Buffett, the American business magnate. I hunt up a number, call, and wonderfully am answered on the first ring by one of his many assistants.

I explain I want to talk to Mr. Buffett himself. The assistant tells me he just happens to be on site and available. In seconds I hear Mr. Buffett’s energetic voice.

I eagerly identify myself, then move on to the reason for my call. “Thank you,” I say, “but Mr. Buffett I’ll have to say no. I just can’t accept a million dollars from you.”

He pauses, clears his voice, then says, “There must be some mistake. I never offered you a million dollars.”

As you know, this scenario is completely fictitious, but I think there are parts that are analogous to our perception of humankind’s relationship with God.

Jesus clearly said that

he who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. (John 3:18; emphasis mine)

As I understand this passage, there are only two camps—he who believes and he who has not believed. In other words, no one is in the state of my fictitious scenario in which no offer has been made.

We frequently talk about accepting Christ, yet we don’t take much time thinking about what rejecting the Son means. Instead, we assume that first a person hears about Jesus, then he “makes a decision.” That way of looking at things suggests the third category—those who have not heard.

I want to postulate that the decision to reject the Son of God has more to do with our heart attitude than it does with hearing the name of Jesus.

I realize I am walking a dangerous line here, one I think some of the universalists traverse. However, I hope I am coming at it from a Biblical perspective.

More and more, people claiming to be Christians speak of the “innocent” people who haven’t heard the gospel (as Rob Bell did some years ago in his ABC interview with George Stephanopoulos). At best that position is tapping into the “blank slate” theory, that man is born neutral and can decide to be good or evil. At worst, it aligns with the belief that man is good and something from the outside—society or government or Satan or an evil parent or traditional religion—drags him into sin.

The truth is, none is innocent. None is righteous. We are all in “reject” mode, dethroning God and enthroning ourselves.

Let me turn the page for a minute. When Jesus was teaching in the temple one day, He began a discussion with the Pharisees about who their father was. They claimed God was their father, but Jesus said no. Their father was the devil (see John 8:18-59).

Whether Jesus stood in front of them or not, their father would still have been the devil. He did not become their father because they rejected Jesus as their Messiah. The devil already was their father.

Jesus, of course, knew this about them because He is omniscient. He knew they were slaves to sin. The only thing that could free them would be His shed blood.

But today so many are coming to the issue of salvation as if it is a matter of imparting information—giving everyone a chance to hear the truth, and if they haven’t had that chance, then God is either unfair or He’ll give them that chance later or the information we thought they needed, they didn’t really need because their own belief system is a good substitute.

All of this rejects the idea that an omniscient, all powerful, good God who forms us in our mothers’ wombs can know our hearts and that He calls those who are His. It’s an uncomfortable idea.

We don’t know, can’t understand why God put us in America where we could so easily hear the gospel.

But we must marvel just as much about Tisquantum, better known as Squanto, who was kidnapped with the intent to be sold into slavery. As a result, he had the opportunity to learn about Jesus and escaped the plague that wiped out the rest of his people group.

Or how about Mincayani, one of the Huaorani tribesmen that killed Jim Eliot and the others martyred with him. His act of violence did not stop the truth of God from coming to his people and specifically to Mincayani himself.

The stories of people coming to Christ are many, varied, and no less miraculous if the miracle is about being born where the gospel is readily heard or if it is about one hearing the unexpected and unsought truth of God’s Son.

My point is this. I don’t believe anyone will be judged for rejecting an unoffered gift. God is not Warren Buffett.

This post is an edited version of one that first appeared here in March 2011.

Groaning


This world is groaning. It’s the weight of sin that causes it, and it’s been going on for … well, since Eve believed Satan over God.

I can’t help but wonder, though, if we as human beings aren’t more aware of the groaning than at any point in history.

Terrorism has people across the globe on heightened alert. War and rebellion are tearing nations apart. Famine is on the increase, and the economy of the rich countries vacillates beyond our control. Add to all this earthquakes in places like Haiti, Chile, and Japan; the tornadoes and flooding in the US; hurricanes on the East coast.

We’re groaning.

Professing Christians are leaving the church. Government—democratic government that was supposed to have the necessary checks and balances–is self-serving if not corrupt. Marriage is being redefined. In other words, civilized institutions are crumbling.

We’re groaning.

The weight of sin is too big. Drug addiction isn’t lessening. Anxiety isn’t disappearing no matter how much we medicate. Neither is depression. Interpersonal conflicts haven’t ceased. In fact divorce is still a growing problem no matter that so many people now practice at marriage before making “lifetime” vows. Abuse continues or perhaps is on the increase. Child slavery and sex trafficking are problems that seem without end.

We’re groaning.

Worst of all, who can we trust? The person we love the most is the person who shatters our hopes and betrays us by their unfaithfulness.

We are indeed groaning.

Should I go on to mention cancer or AIDS or fears of a worldwide pandemic? I suspect it’s not necessary.

At every turn, we’re groaning.

Like any number of crises recorded in the Bible, God is standing with open arms saying, Your way leads to destruction. My way leads to life.

Over and over stiff-necked people ignored Him or shook their fists in His face, denying His right to rule. So it seems, we’re doing today.

We think if we just get the right person in the White House, if we only raise taxes or cut spending, if we only marry the right guy or girl, pass this piece of legislation or that, solve one key problem then another, use this green technology or drill that oil well, then, at last, the world will come round aright.

In that foolish thinking, we are ignoring the One who wants us to fix our eyes on His Son.

“See to it,” Paul said to the Colossians, “that no one takes you captive through philosophy or empty deception according to the traditions of men, according to the elementary principles of this world, rather than according to Christ.”

The philosophy and empty deception of our day says we can solve our own problems, that we don’t need anything outside ourselves. We have the power within us.

And yet, with all this great power within ( 🙄 ), we don’t seem any closer to bringing the groaning to an end. We’re looking in the wrong places.

There isn’t a chemical high or an alcohol-induced haze that will mask the pain long enough, there isn’t a movie or video game or concert or ballgame that will distract us sufficiently, there isn’t a better relationship that will heal our shattered heart.

Except the one God offers through Christ Jesus. He is our Hope, and He is our Salvation.

In Him the groaning will one day come to an end. And even while we wait for that day, we find comfort and peace and joy in the presence of the only One who can see us through. The Psalmist says, “He Himself knows our frame.” And Moses in Deuteronomy says, “The Lord your God is the One who goes with you. He will not fail you or forsake you.” God through Isaiah says, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you.”

Paul tells us in Romans that the Spirit groans, too. For us. “The Spirit intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.”

The world groans under the weight of sin, but God through Jesus Christ has conquered sin. Praise His Name.

Easter, which is coming up later this month, is all about commemorating what Jesus Christ did to free us from the slavery to sin. But unless we acknowledge the weight of sin, we won’t appreciate what God accomplished through His Son.

Sometimes I think people have to be blind not to see the effects of sin. But we are so used to the things that break God’s heart and that harm humankind, we take them as “normal.” They aren’t. What God created was good. What we’ll enjoy in the new heaven and the new earth will be free from the “slavery to corruption.” And even now we can enter into the “freedom of the glory of the children of God.”

This post is a revised and expanded version of one that first appeared here in September 2011.

Published in: on April 7, 2017 at 6:49 pm  Comments (22)  
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The Patience Of God


Manasseh repented002There are two kings, one of Judah and one of Israel, who were despicable. The Bible doesn’t mince words about them—they built idol temples and instituted idol worship and for one of these kings that turned into child sacrifice.

The thing is, that latter king, Manasseh, reigned the longest of any in both kingdoms—fifty-five years. The other, Ahab, wasn’t some brief footnote in history himself, holding his throne for twenty-two years.

They shed innocent blood, worshiped gods who were no gods, “seduced” the people to do evil, and in Manasseh’s case, involved himself in the occult.

But other kings who didn’t do half the horrific acts these two did, had short reigns: Jeroboam, the first ruler of the divided northern kingdom, Israel, was succeeded by his son Nadab who reigned two years. Omri, Ahab’s father, reigned twelve. Manasseh’s son Amon was on the throne for just two years.

Then there were the final four—the last kings of Judah who reigned for three months, eleven years, three months, and eleven years, respectively. All short in comparison to Ahab and Manasseh. Why did those evil kings stay in power so long?

Scripture spends a little more time on Ahab and his reign than many of the kings. Remarkably, despite Ahab’s waywardness, God sent prophets to him time and again, unbidden apparently, to help him in what appeared to be impossible circumstances.

The great threat of his day came from the north. The group of city-states known as Aram—the area we identify as Syria—came together under one powerful king and mustered a huge army to go against Ahab.

Israel’s forces were in decline. They’d had wars against Judah and were greatly weakened, so they were no match for the 100,000 Aramean troops that surrounded them. Enter the prophet of God. His message to Ahab was, God will get you out of this:

Behold, I will deliver them into your hand today, and you shall know that I am the LORD. (1 Kings 20:13b)

Ahab asked one question: by whom? God answered, By the hand of the young men of the rulers of the provinces. Turns out that was a group of 232 young men—a smaller force than Gideon lead in an earlier generation.

Nevertheless, as the prophet said, God delivered this huge army into Israel’s hands.

The powerful Aramean king who’d apparently expected a pretty easy victory, raised another army as big as the first and he put military men in charge. Further, he changed the location of the battle since his advisers told him the God of Israel was a God of the mountains and not the plains.

Again the prophet came to Ahab:

“Thus says the LORD, ‘Because the Arameans have said, “The LORD is a god of the mountains, but He is not a god of the valleys,” therefore I will give all this great multitude into your hand, and you shall know that I am the LORD.’” (1 Kings 20:28)

Israel did, in fact, reap a miraculous victory again, but Ahab let the Aramean king escape God’s retribution. God rebuked him for that. Ahab responded by allowing his wife to steal land he coveted from a neighbor and have the man killed. This time Elijah confronted Ahab and pronounced judgment on his house.

Up to that point Ahab’s legacy was abominable:

Surely there was no one like Ahab who sold himself to do evil in the sight of the LORD, because Jezebel his wife incited him. He acted very abominably in following idols, according to all that the Amorites had done, whom the LORD cast out before the sons of Israel. (1 Kings 21:25-26)

And yet, when he heard Elijah proclaim God’s judgment for his sins, he repented. He tore his clothes—the Middle East way of mourning—put on sackcloth, and fasted. There was a change in his demeanor, too.

God explained it to Elijah: “Do you see how Ahab has humbled himself before Me?” (1 Kings 21:29a) The attitude change had to be genuine and deep. After all, God sees the heart. He wouldn’t be fooled by a hypocritical outward display that held no real change.

So as near as I can determine, God allowed Ahab to remain on the throne all those years, sending him prophets to help him and rebuke him, to give him opportunity to humble himself. What a display of God’s patience and mercy!

Same thing with Manasseh. We don’t know as many details about the events that turned him to God after all those years of evil, but here’s what 2 Chronicles says:

The LORD spoke to Manasseh and his people, but they paid no attention. Therefore the LORD brought the commanders of the army of the king of Assyria against them, and they captured Manasseh with hooks, bound him with bronze chains and took him to Babylon. When he was in distress, he entreated the LORD his God and humbled himself greatly before the God of his fathers. When he prayed to Him, He was moved by his entreaty and heard his supplication, and brought him again to Jerusalem to his kingdom. Then Manasseh knew that the LORD was God. (33:10-13)

God patiently waited for this man so many of us would have written off as hopelessly, despicably evil and beyond God’s reach, to humble himself and know that the LORD is God.

I wonder what Ahab or Manasseh might be sitting in some Senate seat or governor’s mansion or state office today. Perhaps we should be praying that God will demonstrate His loving patience so that they can humble themselves and know that the LORD is God. Perhaps we should thank Him for His patience that extends to us that we too might humble ourselves and know Him.

This post is an edited version of one that first appeared here in November 2014.

My Least Favorite Book of the Bible


I don’t like admitting I have a least favorite book of the Bible. I mean, all Scripture is profitable, given for teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness, so I feel like I shouldn’t have dis-favorites.

It’s OK, I guess, to have favorites. People have life verses, for instance, and particular passages they turn to in times of great need. But somehow, admitting there’s a book I don’t like very much just seems wrong. But it’s a fact.

What makes this worse is that a good number of people I “met” in my first online writing community, Faith in Fiction, declared this book their favorite. Yikes! I thought, how can this be?

I thought the same thing again recently as I plowed thro read a portion of Ecclesiastes. Yep, Solomon’s angst-filled, nihilistic, existential treatise is my least favorite book.

And why shouldn’t it be? After all, like the violent, anarchic, everyone-did-what-was-right-in-his-own-eyes book of Judges, Ecclesiastes shows life without God in control—until the very end. (With maybe a glimpse or two of Him along the way).

Somehow, Ecclesiastes seems worse to me than Judges. After all, I know Solomon. Of course, some people don’t think he was the writer, and honestly, I’d feel better if I believed that. Then the wrong decisions and fallacious thinking would belong to someone other than David’s son. God’s chosen ruler. His beloved. The wisest man who ever lived.

How, I keep wondering, could a wise man, beloved by God, come to some of the conclusions Solomon came up with in Ecclesiastes? Things like, wisdom and foolishness don’t really matter because we all die. Or, there is one fate for the righteous and the wicked. Or, whatever you decide to do, do it with all your might because there’s nothing after you die. (Ironic that the first half of 9:10 is often quoted as a verse to inspire industry when it’s actually the beginning of a statement of existential fatalism).

In the end, I guess I can be glad for Ecclesiastes because it helps me understand how people without God may think. But Solomon? With all his advantages? I mean, he met with God, had an “ask Me for anything” moment, and was rewarded four-fold for answering selflessly.

His destiny was set. His father had been collecting the materials he would need for his life’s work—building God’s temple. Solomon didn’t ever have to figure out what his purpose was. In addition, he had admirers, success, influence, wealth.

And from it all, he concluded life was all vanity.

Poor guy. First he relied on himself, not God when he made decisions: “I said to myself, “Come now . . . (Ecc 2:1a)

Then he went through a wisdom phase in which he tried to make sense of life from the standpoint of wisdom. He reasoned out what was generally true about the wise and what was generally true about the foolish. The conclusion he came up with? They both die in the end, no matter what.

He also went through a pleasure phase during which he enjoyed all the pleasures a man could want: sex, wine, all the foods that pleased his palate. But again, the end of this phase met with the same nihilistic conclusion: after all the merriment, we die.

His third phase was a work phase: build, and they will come, or something similar. He poured himself into doing, building, acquiring. And as his desire for more and still more faded, he concluded, all this labor is for nothing because when I die, whoever inherits may or may not take care of what I’ve build.

Yikes! I really don’t like Ecclesiastes. I want to shake Solomon and say, Don’t you realize you’re studying life without factoring God into the equation? He changes everything!

And of course, Solomon came to that realization in the end:

The conclusion, when all has been heard, is: fear God and keep His commandments, because this applies to every person. For God will bring every act to judgment, everything which is hidden, whether it is good or evil. (Ecc 12:13-14)

Well, I suppose that statement puts Solomon ahead of a good number of professing Christians today who deny that God will in fact bring every act to judgment. I just wish it hadn’t taken him twelve chapters (thankfully, short ones) to get there. 😕

But I also wish he had seen the joy of the LORD in the legitimate pleasure God give us to enjoy; that he would have offered his work as a sacrifice to God; that he had seen his wisdom as a means by which he could glorify his Creator.

There are hard, important lessons in Ecclesiastes, as there are in all books of the Bible. I just don’t look forward to climbing into the bleak outlook on life that Solomon had when he wrote the book. All the same, I’m not going to stop reading it.

Not everything we eat can be chocolate or cake, and not everything that nourishes our soul can be happily-ever-after. Sometimes it’s good to look at what life is like “under the sun,” without God’s counsel and guidance.

Honestly, it makes me happily run back to a passage like the end of Romans 8—“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.”

Now that’s the kind of passage I’d put on a list of favorites.

A portion of this post is a revised and edited version of one that first appeared here in Mar. 2010.

God And Disappointment


Some years back Christians started talking about how God could disappoint us and how honest it was to admit that, how right it was for us to tell God when we were angry with Him. I’ve written a number of posts on the subject (here and here are two, and the second has links to three others, if you care to read more), so I don’t want to spend a lot of time on that aspect of disappointment and God.

Let me introduce my thoughts on that aspect of the topic with a quote from one of the articles:

Please understand, I’m aware that a believer can go through a crisis of doubt, especially when difficulties arise, but the new thinking seems to be that to be mad at God is normal, even somehow healthy, and certainly understandable.

Today I came across a verse in Lamentations I had marked:

Why should any living mortal, or any man,
Offer complaint in view of his sin?
– Lamentations 3:39

In the margin of my Bible I wrote “Satan counters with his great lie—man is good so that gives the feel of justice in complaining to God.” Or against God. After all, if man is good, then he doesn’t deserve the consequences of sin he must live with—sickness, pollution, crime, cruelty, hatred, death. We are, instead, innocent victims of God’s inexplicable abuse of His omnipotence. And of course we should be mad about it.

Complaining against God has two problems: 1) only someone who views himself as an equal takes it as his right that he can complain (face to face) when he is dissatisfied. So complaining against God is a way of bringing Him down from His position of sovereignty; 2) only someone who believes he deserves better, complains. Hence, we are elevating humankind above the assessment God gave—that we are sinners and that the wages for our sin is death.

No, we say, when we shake our fists at God, we deserve better. Not death. And not pain or suffering or hardship or abuse or trauma or tragedy or illness or anything that might lead to death. We deserve life and happiness and wholeness and comfort.

Why do we believe such things? Possibly two disparate answers: 1) we long for, in our heart of hearts, the relationship with God that we lost at the Fall; 2) our culture is selling us on the idea that we are good, not sinful, and therefore deserving of much more than what God has told us is our destiny apart from faith in His Son.

In truth, both possibilities might play a part. But I do see the culture crowding out the truth of God. The latest twist to our thinking about us and God comes in a strange reversal. The new line of thinking is that God is not disappointed in us. There are any number of articles online in the last couple years that affirm this: “No, God Is Not Disappointed in You,” “Is God Disappointed In Me? – Lies Young Women Believe,” “Father God Is Not Disappointed In Us,” to name a few.

One thing I found interesting in several of these was the focus on our faults, failings, mistakes, even issues. Yes, there was also mention of sin, but not of repentance, and only a nod at confession. The idea seems to be that our greatest danger is to keep beating ourselves up for our wrongdoing:

Our souls are wearied by the weights we put on ourselves. We are often dried up by self-criticisms and judgement. We try to motivate ourselves with fear and shame—the idea that we are bad people until we change. But that tactic simply isn’t effective.

Staying in shame keeps us stuck. And God knows this. So He chooses to motivate us by giving us knowledge of who we really are, and awareness of His unconditional kindness (excerpt from “No, God Is Not Disappointed in You”).

Well, there are numerous problems in this thinking. First is perhaps a lack of Biblical knowledge. If someone’s soul is wearied and weighed down by what we put on ourselves, ought we not repent of taking on what is not ours to take? After all, Jesus said His yoke was easy, and His burden light. Any heaviness simply does not belong!

Secondly, our problem is not merely to find what is effective. The idea that whatever works is right, undermines God’s authority.

Third, God is not our cheerleader, motivating us from the sidelines.

Fourth, God does tell us in His word exactly who we are: sinners. Sinners! We are not wonderful people deserving of salvation. God saved us while we were yet sinners. He saved us because of His love. We have nothing with which to commend ourselves.

I can understand people weighing themselves down with burdens if they think they have something they need to do to be more acceptable to God. But clearly, Scripture says more than once, our righteousness is nothing but despicable trash. Rubbish. Filthy rags.

The way out of shame is not talking ourselves into believing that God sees us as beautiful or worthy. God sees us for who we actually are: sinners. He loves us, not because we are lovable. We aren’t.

Nevertheless, by sending His Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, God extends His love to us. Why? Because He is love.

In so doing, He brings about a remarkable transformation in us, which is the great glory of salvation, and something this fallacious idea mars. We who were slaves to sin become children of God. We who were chained to the law of sin and of death have been released to walk in newness of life. We who have no righteousness of our own are now clothed in the righteousness of Christ.

But all this is God’s doing.

We are redeemed and made spiritually whole. Our debt is paid. Our sins forgiven. We are now heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ.

But it’s all Christ. Not our doing. Nothing we can take credit for. Nothing we can pat ourselves on the backs for and say, God loves me because I’m worth it.

My worth comes only as a result of what God has done on my behalf. He did not sacrifice Himself because of my goodness or value.

Here’s the point in bringing these two ideas together. In our day, belief in God has eroded. We have called into question the authority of Scripture, God’s existence, even the belief that Jesus actually lived. We have steadily brought God down. But in more recent times we have begun the process of lifting humankind up.

So now Christians will tell us that it’s OK for us to be disappointed with God but that God is never disappointed with us.

And who again is the one who lives in holiness?

We’re getting truth backwards.

I realize the argument that God is not disappointed with us draws from the truth about His self-sufficiency and from the sufficiency of Christ. Like any error, there’s enough truth in this idea to make it sound plausible.

But lest this post turns into a book, let me end by asking this: if God cannot be disappointed with us, why does Scripture tell believers not to grieve the Holy Spirit?

Published in: on March 30, 2017 at 5:50 pm  Comments (15)  
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A Quiet Conversation About Purpose, Meaning, And Destiny


115898_twins_1One day twin brothers were having a quiet conversation, and the meaning of life came up.

What do you suppose it’s all about? the first brother asked.

It’s about getting what you can in the here and now, brother number two answered. There’s nothing else after this.

Seriously? His brother wrinkled his brow. You mean, when we leave, we …

Go into oblivion. What else could it be? I mean, when you’re gone, you’re gone. If you go first, I won’t see you again and vice versa.

It all seems so pointless.

That’s why you have to make every minute count while you’re here. Grab what you can. Live for the moment. Eat and sleep like there’s no tomorrow, because there really might not be one.

I don’t know. I have this feeling that there’s more.

Crazy talk.

No. It’s talk that makes me think there’s more. I’ve heard things.

What kind of things?

You know, voices. One especially. Over and over I hear, ‘I love you boys.’

Your imagination.

I don’t think so.

Look around. You see any mysterious person who might be talking to us?

Well, no.

All right then.

But why couldn’t this person, you know, be somewhere else and when we leave here we join them there?

Because there is no other place.

How can you be sure?

Do you SEE another place?

Well, no.

Case closed. If you can’t see it, taste it, smell it, feel it, or taste it, then it doesn’t exist.

You said ‘taste’ twice and you left out hearing.

Do you hear anything now?

No.

All right then.

But I’ve told you, I hear this voice almost every day. Sometimes it even sings.

You’re losing it. And I’m stuck with a crazy for a brother.

Why is it so crazy to think there’s a world beyond the one we know?

Because you have no evidence, no proof.

I’m telling you, I do have proof. I’ve heard the voice of one telling me how much we’re loved.

That’s nothing but your wishful thinking tricking your mind into believing something that has no basis in fact.

How do YOU know there’s no basis in fact?

Show me this mysterious, invisible person. Where are they, huh?

Next time I hear their voice, I’ll wake you up.

Don’t bother. If I have a sour stomach, I can imagine things too. Hearing voices of invisible people is not proof.

Then what is?

How about an actual person, right in front of my face?

I don’t think it works that way. Somehow, I think we need to go to the I-love-you person, not the other way around.

You’re making this up.

No, actually I’m not. I’m on my way now.

And with that the first of the twin boys was pushed through the birth canal and born.

– – – – –

This post first appeared here in May 2013 as a rebuttal to the atheist notion that there are no “invisible beings with superior powers,” by which they mean God or any other spiritual beings. Of course what they miss is the limitations we humans have: how can we know of things beyond the scope of our ability to investigate? And they discount revelation simply because it contradicts their presupposition.

Lovingkindness And Truth


Psalm 115 opens in verse one by ascribing glory to God because of His lovingkindness, because of His truth. I’ll admit, I was a little caught off guard by the marriage of those two nouns. Lovingkindness and compassion appear together quite often in the Bible. So do truth and righteousness.

But lovingkindness and truth? Not so very common. Or so I thought until I searched a little more.

It seems a number of Psalms couple these two qualities of God. Here’s a sampling:

All the paths of the LORD are lovingkindness and truth
To those who keep His covenant and His testimonies. (25:10)

You, O LORD, will not withhold Your compassion from me;
Your lovingkindness and Your truth will continually preserve me. (40:11)

I will give thanks to You, O Lord, among the peoples;
I will sing praises to You among the nations.
For Your lovingkindness is great to the heavens
And Your truth to the clouds. (57:9-10)

But You, O Lord, are a God merciful and gracious,
Slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness and truth. (86:15)

Righteousness and justice are the foundation of Your throne;
Lovingkindness and truth go before You. (89:14)

Clearly lovingkindness and truth are not, as I first thought, an unusual combination when describing God.

What caught my attention, however, was the way these two traits reflect God’s role as a judge.

So many people, including some believers, don’t want to talk about God judging anyone. He’s loving and kind and good.

All true. All. True. ALL. TRUE.

Nothing can take away or diminish God’s love or His kindness or His goodness. Nothing.

Not even His wrath. Not even His justice which requires punishment for sin.

In God is the perfect marriage of truth and mercy, or as the NASB states it, lovingkindness. God is Truth; His works are true and His ways just (Daniel 4:37). But God is also love, and His mercy endures forever.

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

For the LORD is good;
His lovingkindness is everlasting
And His faithfulness to all generations. (100:5)

Because God is Truth and there is no lie in Him, He is the perfect judge. No one can sway His understanding of the truth. There’s no slanting actions or thoughts so that they can be seen in a more favorable light. There are no excuses that will satisfy. There’s no bribe that would change His mind.

With God as the judge, all the facts will come out. The guilty will be condemned; the oppressed will find satisfaction and relief from the misdeeds of those who oppressed them.

But God is also merciful: “He Himself knows our frame. / He is mindful that we are but dust” (Psalm 103:14). So He does what we cannot do for ourselves. He doesn’t ignore our sin. He doesn’t dismiss the charges. He pays for our sins.

Romans 8 says it so beautifully:

For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh, so that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. (vv 3-4; emphasis mine)

So here’s the way things are, in a nutshell:
We humans are sinful and have no way to get out of our sin or escape punishment for it.
God sent His Son to pay what we owed.

That’s it. We needed to be rescued and God sent us a Rescuer. We needed to pay our debt, and God paid it for us.

Some people get hung up on several points of this simple plan of salvation.

  • Some do not admit they sin or are sinful.
  • Some think God is cruel to judge according to laws He established.
  • Some think God doesn’t have the right to judge.

Essentially the argument against salvation takes one of two angles: Either humankind is fine just as it is, thank you very much. We can either do for ourselves or we’re good as is and don’t need any doing on our behalf, from God or from any one else. Or God can’t judge because He’s either cruel or He doesn’t have the right to rule over humankind.

In other words, humans are better than God says we are, or God is not in a position to rule as He says He is.

Both positions question God’s word. God says, but a person with a rebellious heart refuses to take God at His Word.

So God tells us straight up: He is truth and He is lovingkindness. Then He demonstrates those qualities over and over, finally culminating by giving us His Son.

Like a good teacher, He presents the truth, then illustrates it over and over, then demonstrates it, and finally reinforces it. In this case, God sent His Holy Spirit as evidence of the new life His followers have.

Atheists would have us believe that humankind is good and God is cruel.

They would have us believe that humankind is capable of rescuing ourselves from the mess of our own making; and that God is why things are so bad.

The problem is, we humans can’t even agree about the nature of truth, let alone what is true and what is deception. Why would anyone want to believe that humans and truth are in sync?

Then there is lovingkindness. Should I list off the wars in just the last fifty years? I mean, Man’s inhumanity to Man is clearly documented. We as a group of people care more for revenge and getting our own way and power and greed than we do for justice and mercy. If that weren’t true, we, the so enlightened twenty-first century humans would not allow a single incident of slavery—child slavery, sex slavery, whatever. We know it’s wrong. We admit it and have signed laws to prevent it. And yet . . . we toss truth and mercy out the window when they don’t serve our purposes.

Not so with God. He is constant. He is trustworthy. He does what He says. “God is not a man that He should lie, / Or the son of man that He should repent. / Has He said and will He not do it? / Or has He spoken and will He not make it good?” (Numbers 23:19)

Published in: on March 27, 2017 at 6:34 pm  Comments (6)  
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The Angel and the Donkey


The Bible story of Balaam and his talking donkey recorded in the book of Numbers has always mystified me, and it seems like the more I think about it, the more I find mystifying.

My initial problem comes in what appears to be God changing His mind. Here’s the background. The king of Moab wants Balaam, evidently a prophet of God, to come and curse Israel, the people of God, as they are making their way to the Promised Land.

OK, we can overlook the king’s ignorance, I guess, assuming instead that he hadn’t put two and two together—that the God who was protecting and blessing these people was the same one Balaam consulted for his prophetic words.

But on to the story. When the envoy from the king arrived, Balaam said, Let me see what God has to say about this. He came back to them and faithfully reported God’s word—No, I’m not to go with you, I’m not to curse them.

Perhaps the king had been spoiled as a child because he didn’t take no for an answer. He sent his representatives to Balaam a second time. The prophet said he’d check with God to see what else He had to say. And this time God told Balaam to go with the men but to speak only that which He told him to.

Off they go, accompanied by two of Balaam’s servants. And Balaam’s faithful donkey which he’d ridden all his life.

Along the way, an angel of the Lord lies in wait for Balaam with drawn sword in hand. The donkey sees the angel and avoids him. Three times.

Balaam, apparently frustrated by his wayward donkey, beats the animal. And then the second miracle—the donkey asks Balaam what he did to deserve the beatings. Balaam says he would have killed the donkey if he’d had a sword because the animal was mocking him.

The donkey asks if Balaam has ever known him to act this way before, and when the prophet admits he has not, his eyes are opened and he sees the angel.

The angel says to Balaam, why did you beat your donkey seeing as he saved your life?

Balaam then repents, says he sinned, and that he’ll return home if that’s what the Lord wants. The answer? No, go ahead and go, but speak only what God tells you.

Besides the God-changing-His-mind issue, I saw for the first time the God-versus-God aspect of the story. The angel of God stood with a sword to kill the prophet of God, but a miraculous talking donkey saved him. Who but God opened the eyes and the mouth of the donkey? So God saved His prophet from His angel.

Now I have to admit, I decided to post these questions because often times in writing things down, I see more clearly. And I think that might be true here.

Apparently there is something Scripture doesn’t give us in these verses—Balaam’s decision to say something he wasn’t supposed to say.

Consequently, in the same way he viewed his donkey as wayward and beat the animal and would have killed it, God stood against Balaam with sword in hand as the prophet went, apparently wayward in his heart, to meet with the king.

Except God had mercy on Balaam and gave him a second chance—well, actually three chances, as it turns out, because that’s how many times the king took Balaam to a place where he could overlook Israel and where he offered sacrifices as a way of seeking God’s curse.

Three times. The same number of times the donkey saved Balaam’s life. Coincidence?

Now, about that God-changing-His-mind issue … 🙄

This post is an edited version of one that first appeared here in September 2009.

Published in: on March 24, 2017 at 5:00 pm  Comments (5)  
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Knowing The Lord


My guess is that most Christians think of knowing the Lord as a process. We don’t become Christians and instantaneously know everything there is to know about God. Instead, like any relationship, there’s the initial getting-to-know-you phase, followed by increased closeness, depending on how much you invest in the relationship.

But for the purposes of this post, I’m thinking about the process of “first contact,” if you will (hey, I’m a speculative fiction writer—wouldn’t you expect a little Star Trek now and then? 😉 ). More accurately, I’m referring to that which brings us to the table to sign the peace accords.

The truth is, until that moment, we are essentially at war with God. Oh, we might ignore Him, even say that He died or that he never existed, but that’s just a passive-aggressive way of fighting Him.

People also fight Him by pretending to be on His side, then doing whatever they wish. Some treat Him like an extension of their own wishes. Others treat Him like a distant and invisible version of Santa Claus. Another group of people crowd Him into a room of other “special people” who they’ll ask for favors. These might be ancestors or saints or gods or idols.

None of these people actually know the Lord. They may think they do, but they are only familiar with a false idea of God, not the real Person. In short, they will not have a point at which they came to know the Lord. They’ve never sat down with Him to ink out that peace treaty—the one that says we have peace with God because Jesus paid all the reparations we owed.

That coming to know the Lord process might have some surprises in it. I suspect most of us think about coming to God because of His kindness and His love. There’s even a passage of Scripture that says as much:

But when the kindness of God our Savior and His love for mankind appeared, He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior (Titus 3:4-6)

Plus we know we’re saved by grace, and that God loved the world so He sent His Son. Love motivated God, and so we associate His love with our salvation. As we should.

But knowing the Lord isn’t always about us opening our eyes one day and saying, See how He loves me. I want to know Him too.

In fact, we, being sinful people, are often on the run. We’re more like The Fugitive than we are Daniel. Daniel was so obedient, even as a young man, and careful to do what He knew would please the Lord. By the time we meet him in the pages of Scripture, though, he already knew the Lord.

Now Paul, he was more like we are. He thought he knew God and was frantically killing people to prove it.

Or Peter. He knew the Lord, even made a public declaration of it. Well, in front of others who knew the Lord. Except, when circumstances turned inconvenient, even scary, He loudly proclaimed he most certainly did NOT know the Lord. So there. And here’s a few curse words to prove it.

But there came a day when the Holy Spirit filled Peter’s heart and changed him. Just as there was a day on the Damascus road when Paul met the living Christ and became a new person.

Were these happy encounters, full of sweetness and light?

Lots of Light, yes. But sweetness?

Paul saw Light, and it blinded him. For three days.

Peter encountered God in fire.

In various places of Scripture God is called the consuming fire. Moses met Him in a burning bush. The people of Israel experienced Him as a pillar of fire every night for forty years while they trekked through the wilderness on their way to the Promised Land. The Tabernacle, from time to time, was filled with the fire of God—His Shekinah glory.

Further, God pursued some of his saints to bring them into relationship with Him. I already mentioned Moses. He spent forty years trying to do God’s work his way; then another forty, determined to stay as far from God as possible. When God met him in that burning bush, Moses still resisted God’s call. Yes, he was on holy ground, he got that, but that didn’t mean he was planning to do what the Holy One called him to do.

Jacob was a runner too. He finally met God in a wrestling match.

Then there was Jonah. Talk about a runner! He had to nearly drown, then get eaten by a specially prepared fish God sent his way before he finally gave in and gave up.

Nothing is more adversarial, though, than God’s treatment of the various nations He sent messages to via His prophets. Take Judah, or Israel, or Edom, or a number of others in the neighborhood. God wanted them to know Him, so he sent His judgment on them.

Clearly they were not strangers to God. The problem was, they knew Him and turned their backs on Him. So He sent famine or pestilence or war. At every turn, He wanted the people to turn to Him. But they remained stubborn. Here’s a sample: “Thus I will execute judgments on Moab, and they will know that I am the LORD” (Ezekiel 25:11). And here’s another: “Thus I will execute judgments on Egypt, / And they will know that I am the LORD” (Ezekiel 30:19).

Judgment. It’s God’s way of pursuing people, not giving up on them when they turn their backs. The cool thing is, after the judgment comes restoration. For example, He judged Judah, but promised them a remnant and a return and a Messiah.

“Then they will know that I am the LORD their God because I made them go into exile among the nations, and then gathered them again to their own land; and I will leave none of them there any longer.” (Ezekiel 39:28)

I’ve mentioned “The Hound Of Heaven” before, a poem by Francis Thompson. The author, as it turns out, knew of what He wrote.

The poem follows in it’s entirety (emphases are mine; it’s long, but it is worth reading—if not now, maybe another day).

I FLED Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears
I hid from Him, and under running laughter.
Up vistaed hopes I sped;
And shot, precipitated,
Adown Titanic glooms of chasmèd fears,
From those strong Feet that followed, followed after.
But with unhurrying chase,
And unperturbèd pace,
Deliberate speed, majestic instancy,
They beat—and a Voice beat
More instant than the Feet—
‘All things betray thee, who betrayest Me.’

I pleaded, outlaw-wise,
By many a hearted casement, curtained red,
Trellised with intertwining charities;
(For, though I knew His love Who followèd,
Yet was I sore adread
Lest, having Him, I must have naught beside)
.
But, if one little casement parted wide,
The gust of His approach would clash it to.
Fear wist not to evade, as Love wist to pursue.
Across the margent of the world I fled,
And troubled the gold gateways of the stars,
Smiting for shelter on their clangèd bars;
Fretted to dulcet jars
And silvern chatter the pale ports o’ the moon.
I said to Dawn: Be sudden—to Eve: Be soon;
With thy young skiey blossoms heap me over
From this tremendous Lover—
Float thy vague veil about me, lest He see!
I tempted all His servitors, but to find
My own betrayal in their constancy,
In faith to Him their fickleness to me,
Their traitorous trueness, and their loyal deceit.
To all swift things for swiftness did I sue;
Clung to the whistling mane of every wind.
But whether they swept, smoothly fleet,
The long savannahs of the blue;
Or whether, Thunder-driven,
They clanged his chariot ’thwart a heaven,
Plashy with flying lightnings round the spurn o’ their feet:—
Fear wist not to evade as Love wist to pursue.
Still with unhurrying chase,
And unperturbèd pace,
Deliberate speed, majestic instancy,
Came on the following Feet,
And a Voice above their beat—
‘Naught shelters thee, who wilt not shelter Me.’

I sought no more that after which I strayed
In face of man or maid;
But still within the little children’s eyes
Seems something, something that replies,
They at least are for me, surely for me!
I turned me to them very wistfully;
But just as their young eyes grew sudden fair
With dawning answers there,
Their angel plucked them from me by the hair.
‘Come then, ye other children, Nature’s—share
With me’ (said I) ‘your delicate fellowship;
Let me greet you lip to lip,
Let me twine with you caresses,
Wantoning
With our Lady-Mother’s vagrant tresses,
Banqueting
With her in her wind-walled palace,
Underneath her azured daïs,
Quaffing, as your taintless way is,
From a chalice
Lucent-weeping out of the dayspring.’
So it was done:
I in their delicate fellowship was one—
Drew the bolt of Nature’s secrecies.
I knew all the swift importings
On the wilful face of skies;
I knew how the clouds arise
Spumèd of the wild sea-snortings;
All that’s born or dies
Rose and drooped with; made them shapers
Of mine own moods, or wailful or divine;
With them joyed and was bereaven.
I was heavy with the even,
When she lit her glimmering tapers
Round the day’s dead sanctities.
I laughed in the morning’s eyes.
I triumphed and I saddened with all weather,
Heaven and I wept together,
And its sweet tears were salt with mortal mine;
Against the red throb of its sunset-heart
I laid my own to beat,
And share commingling heat;
But not by that, by that, was eased my human smart.
In vain my tears were wet on Heaven’s grey cheek.
For ah! we know not what each other says,
These things and I; in sound I speak—
Their sound is but their stir, they speak by silences.
Nature, poor stepdame, cannot slake my drouth;
Let her, if she would owe me,
Drop yon blue bosom-veil of sky, and show me
The breasts o’ her tenderness:
Never did any milk of hers once bless
My thirsting mouth.
Nigh and nigh draws the chase,
With unperturbèd pace,
Deliberate speed, majestic instancy;
And past those noisèd Feet
A voice comes yet more fleet—
‘Lo! naught contents thee, who content’st not Me!’
Naked I wait Thy love’s uplifted stroke!
My harness piece by piece Thou hast hewn from me,
And smitten me to my knee;
I am defenceless utterly.

I slept, methinks, and woke,
And, slowly gazing, find me stripped in sleep.
In the rash lustihead of my young powers,
I shook the pillaring hours
And pulled my life upon me; grimed with smears,
I stand amid the dust o’ the mounded years—
My mangled youth lies dead beneath the heap.
My days have crackled and gone up in smoke,
Have puffed and burst as sun-starts on a stream.
Yea, faileth now even dream
The dreamer, and the lute the lutanist;
Even the linked fantasies, in whose blossomy twist
I swung the earth a trinket at my wrist,
Are yielding; cords of all too weak account
For earth with heavy griefs so overplussed.
Ah! is Thy love indeed
A weed, albeit an amaranthine weed,
Suffering no flowers except its own to mount?
Ah! must—
Designer infinite!—
Ah! must Thou char the wood ere Thou canst limn with it?
My freshness spent its wavering shower i’ the dust;
And now my heart is as a broken fount,
Wherein tear-drippings stagnate, spilt down ever
From the dank thoughts that shiver
Upon the sighful branches of my mind.
Such is; what is to be?
The pulp so bitter, how shall taste the rind?
I dimly guess what Time in mists confounds;
Yet ever and anon a trumpet sounds
From the hid battlements of Eternity;
Those shaken mists a space unsettle, then
Round the half-glimpsèd turrets slowly wash again.
But not ere him who summoneth
I first have seen, enwound
With glooming robes purpureal, cypress-crowned;
His name I know, and what his trumpet saith.
Whether man’s heart or life it be which yields
Thee harvest, must Thy harvest-fields
Be dunged with rotten death?

Now of that long pursuit
Comes on at hand the bruit;
That Voice is round me like a bursting sea:
‘And is thy earth so marred,
Shattered in shard on shard?
Lo, all things fly thee, for thou fliest Me!
Strange, piteous, futile thing!
Wherefore should any set thee love apart?
Seeing none but I makes much of naught’ (He said),
‘And human love needs human meriting:
How hast thou merited—
Of all man’s clotted clay the dingiest clot?
Alack, thou knowest not
How little worthy of any love thou art!
Whom wilt thou find to love ignoble thee,
Save Me, save only Me?
All which I took from thee I did but take,
Not for thy harms,
But just that thou might’st seek it in My arms.
All which thy child’s mistake
Fancies as lost, I have stored for thee at home:
Rise, clasp My hand, and come!’
Halts by me that footfall:
Is my gloom, after all,
Shade of His hand, outstretched caressingly?
‘Ah, fondest, blindest, weakest,
I am He Whom thou seekest!
Thou dravest love from thee, who dravest Me.’

Guilt/Innocence Or Shame/Honor


Just last week, a man here in the LA area who served 32 years in prison was released from custody because of a wrongful conviction. How will this man be perceived in society? The answer to that question can be easily determined by the kind of society from which he comes.

Anthropologists study humankind, including the way culture works. One such scientist, Franz Boas, and his student Ruth Benedict, first identified differences in cultural patterns, claiming that Eastern cultures follow an honor/shame arrangement and Western cultures, a guilt/innocence mode.

Benedict endorsed and popularized what some called “Boasian conceptual kernel” of US anthropology:

Human behavior is patterned. There exist within historically specific populations recurrences in both thought and behavior that are not contingent but structurally conditioned and that are, in turn, structuring.

Those patterns are learned. Recurrences cannot be tied to a natural world within or outside the human body, but rather to constant interaction within specific populations. Structuration occurs through social transmission and symbolic coding with some degree of human consciousness.

If I understand the first point correctly, the idea is that people groups behave and think in identifiably similar ways, because the people have been conditioned to do so. In turn they teach others to also be structured in the same way.

The structure of those in Eastern cultures is based on honor/shame, which largely identifies the way a culture “manages” its citizens. Individuals care a great deal about their standing in the community, so they don’t want to do something that would cost them respect or high standing.

What the community deems deplorable, then, takes presidency over individual desires or beliefs of right and wrong. I assume the community values are also somewhat fluid. If a society softens its position against a certain behavior, presumably an individual would no longer bear shame for engaging in it.

A guilt/innocence society follows a different paradigm. Rather than conforming to the community based on their praise or condemnation, a guilt/innocence outlook is more concerned about the individual’s adherence to law. The idea of innocent until proven guilty emphasizes the difference in the two approaches.

In the shame/honor culture, an accusation brings shame. In a guilt/innocence culture, an accusation needs to be proved.

A third cultural outlook is the fear/power model. Tribal cultures and totalitarian regimes and perhaps gangs operate on the fear of a group and their desire for power to counter it.

The general knowledge about these ways of grouping cultures, has simplified them as Eastern or Western. Little mention is made of fear/power, and Eastern cultures are believed to be shame/honor driven, while Western societies operate according to the guilt/innocence model.

One aspect of cultures adhering to the guilt/innocence model is that they are more concerned with the individual, whereas shame/honor groups care more for the community. As a result, some clear differences have emerged:

Individualistic cultures, primarily located in the West, appeal more to legal notions of right and wrong to govern social behavior. Morality is internalized, so people experience guilt for misdeeds. Guilty persons become innocent when they are forgiven or justice is served. (“Honor and Shame Societies,” the Zwemer Center)

Consequently, the man I mentioned at the outset, who was wrongly convicted of murder, has no shame because he spent half his life in prison. He was innocent.

What I find fascinating about the study of these cultural differences, is that I can see elements of both in the Bible. The Old Testament deals primarily with Hebrew culture, and there is much of the shame/honor culture apparent in the story of the Jewish nation, but at the same time God is the one who departs from the norm and tells the people that a man’s family is no longer to be considered guilty just because the man is guilty. In other words, no more guilt by association. A guilty person was to die for his own crimes, but his sons were to go free.

The New Testament with its teaching about sin and the forgiveness bought by the blood of Christ further built the guilt/innocence culture that took hold in the Greek and Roman societies where Paul ministered.

As I view Christianity, I see the perfect marriage of both shame/honor and guilt/innocence. What I don’t see is fear/power, unless it involves Satan and what he wants to accomplish.

All this to say, I wonder if through globalization and perhaps through the devaluation of Christianity, Western culture is sliding more and more into the shame/honor camp. I mean, all the politically correct approach to life is little more than putting pressure on an individual by the group to get people to conform to a societal norm, regardless of Law.

What’s particularly interesting is that bullying is taboo, but group bullying is the means by which we attempt to put an end to individual bullying.

In this climate, everyone is easily offended, every position expresses hate or abuse, no one is innocent any more as long as they hold beliefs that contradict the “group.” As yet, the “group” is not society at large, but certainly it’s growing in numbers.

As I see it, this kind of shame/honor approach is divorced from reality. Someone who gets away with a crime has no shame because he has not reflected badly on his community. Never mind that he might be hurting the less fortunate. Never mind that he makes his money on the backs of the weak.

The real problem with the shame/honor approach is the loss of the sense of personal sin. In light of the fact that Christianity alone offers mercy and forgiveness, I wonder if the concept of a Savior might be lost if our culture slides more and more toward shame/honor.

Of course, there is great emphasis in the Old Testament about God’s people upholding the honor of His name. One reason that God didn’t do away with the complaining people of Israel after the Exodus was precisely because of what the people around them would think about God. In fact, the point of a nation entering into a covenant relationship with God was to show the other nations the blessings God wanted to shower upon them as well.

Israel as a community was to be God’s ambassador to the world. Today we believers have that role. Individually, but collectively as the Church. We are to love one another in such a way that the world notices.

But we receive forgiveness for sins, not as a collective community, but as individuals, foreknown, predestined, called, justified, glorified by God because we as individuals believe that Jesus died for the sins of the world, that He was raised on the third day, that He is now at God’s right hand interceding for us.

Shame. Guilt. Fear. Jesus Christ dealt with all of it. He is the most cross-cultural person who ever lived. But that is what I’d expect from the Savior of the world. No wonder the gospel penetrates the Amazon jungle and the Russian steppes equally.