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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Speak Lord, For Your Servant Is Listening


A year ago, almost to the day, I revised and re-posted an article entitled “Does God Speak Through Nature?” The premise was simple: God used “natural” phenomenon in Egypt to pry His people free from Pharaoh’s grip. Could He not continue to use the world around us to speak to us?

So many people today—and this includes many Christians—say, No, floods and earthquakes and hurricanes and pandemics have known, scientific causes. They occur because of natural law.

But my question is, Who created and controls natural law? Did not God hang the stars in place? Does His hand not maintain what He created? Scripture indicates He is the One who makes DNA coding and tides and mutating viruses work the way they work—and keeps them doing so.

And He [God’s Son] is the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature, and upholds all things by the word of His power. (Heb. 1:3a; emphasis mine)

Then there’s this passage in Colossians:

For by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things have been created through Him and for Him. He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together. (1:16-17; emphasis mine)

All this to say, I don’t believe things happen in the world for no purpose.

God hasn’t sent a modern day prophet to tell us why things happen as He did during Israel’s history before their exile. But we don’t actually need a modern day prophet because we have the ancient ones.

Someone has to be pretty blind not to see parallels between the world today and the world of the ancient Jews. Including this passage:

Come, my people, enter into your rooms
And close your doors behind you;
Hide for a little while
Until indignation runs its course.
For behold, the LORD is about to come out from His place
To punish the inhabitants of the earth for their iniquity;
And the earth will reveal her bloodshed
And will no longer cover her slain. (Isaiah 26:20-21)

But who knows? Maybe the Coronavirus is just your run of the mill viruses and we shouldn’t think twice about it in spiritual terms.

Then again, maybe it is the wake-up call to remind us that God will bring judgment on the earth one day. Not today. Maybe not in five years or ten or fifty. But assuredly, God will bring judgment. Again, something—in this culture—that’s uncomfortable to say. I mean, we’ve heard from the likes of Rob Bell and his Love Wins best seller of nearly a decade ago. He clearly lays out his belief that no matter what a person believes, he’s on his way to paradise with God.

Well, for one thing, I know a lot of atheists who would be horrified if this were true. They don’t want eternal punishment, that’s for certain, but neither do they want to be with God for eternity.

But more importantly the “everyone’s on his way to heaven” idea is not what God revealed. Pretty much the opposite:

“THERE IS NONE RIGHTEOUS, NOT EVEN ONE;
THERE IS NONE WHO UNDERSTANDS,
THERE IS NONE WHO SEEKS FOR GOD;
ALL HAVE TURNED ASIDE, TOGETHER THEY HAVE BECOME USELESS;
THERE IS NONE WHO DOES GOOD,
THERE IS NOT EVEN ONE . . .
THERE IS NO FEAR OF GOD BEFORE THEIR EYES.” (Rom. 3:12-18)

Which brings us to God’s warning and the need for repentance.

At one point God sent the prophet Jonah to the main city in Assyria, Nineveh. I won’t get into Jonah’s issues here, but the people there were known to be a warlike nation, violent and cruel. They seemed to devise ways of killing people that would cause the most pain. Jonah’s message was simple: “Yet forty days and Nineveh will be overthrown.” He apparently didn’t even offer them any hope.

Still, the people knew what was the cause for this judgment, and they bowed before God and repented.

God’s response? “When God saw their deeds, that they turned from their wicked way, then God relented concerning the calamity which He had declared He would bring upon them. And He did not do it” (Jonah 3:10).

Those people in that place and for that generation, were spared God’s judgment.

The prophet Joel brought the same message to the people of Israel:

Alas for the day!
For the day of the LORD is near,
And it will come as destruction from the Almighty.

Revelation echos this idea of “destruction from the Almighty,” which Christians know as the Tribulation. Are we there yet? Not close. Jesus Himself when asked when He would establish His kingdom went into some detail about the things that will take place first, including this:

You will be hearing of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not frightened, for those things must take place, but that is not yet the end. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and in various places there will be famines and earthquakes. But all these things are merely the beginning of birth pangs. (Matt. 24:6-8)

The beginning of birth pangs, not yet the end. I think that’s where we are. And these events that seem so out of the ordinary (because they are) serve as reminders that “the wages of sin is death,” that God will bring His judgment to bear on this world.

The prophet Joel said it to his generation in Israel, but I think it is just as true today:

“Yet even now,” declares the LORD,
“Return to Me with all your heart,
And with fasting, weeping and mourning;
And rend your heart and not your garments.”
Now return to the LORD your God,
For He is gracious and compassionate,
Slow to anger, abounding in lovingkindness
And relenting of evil. (Joel 2:12-13)

I admit the word “evil” has troubled me. I looked it up and in the original, used as a noun as it is here, evil means distress, misery, injury, calamity. In other words, it does not mean wickedness. The idea is clear: repentance alters God’s judgment. His nature is to be slow to anger, to have heaps upon heaps of lovingkindess, and turn away from bringing His judgment.

Of course the New Testament paints the entire picture for us. God turns away His wrath from those who bow before Him because Jesus accepted that wrath, poured out on Him. And those of us who accept this free gift of grace? We have peace with God through Jesus.

Even in the midst of a pandemic. We’re not facing His angry judgment. Ever. We may die from the virus or from something else, but we will enter into His presence, the way the thief dying beside Jesus, did. That’s something far different from judgment.

So in one way (there are others), this virus thing is a blessing in disguise. It gives us an opportunity to face our mortality, and to repent for turning our backs on God, for living for ourselves instead of living for Him. It’s an opportunity of a lifetime, so to speak—an eternal lifetime.

Praise Is More Than Positive Thinking


A number of studies reportedly show the benefit of a hopeful attitude. Patients, for example, who expect a positive outcome in their circumstances have a higher recovery rate. Praise supposedly helps students perform better as well. So along with discouraging corporal punishment, society now pushes positive reinforcement.

This has been going on for some time. Now, in order to make all little leaguers feel loved and accepted, everyone receives a trophy. Regardless of talent or ability (or attendance at practice), all kids must play. Never mind that the idea behind competitive sports is competition—the kind that produces a winner and a loser, or a runner up, if you prefer. But clearly, not everyone playing is a winner.

Many of the kids may have shown a work ethic or the ability to cooperate or a team spirit. But in the end, some kids are better than others; one team is pronounced the champion. Others may have done their best, but their best didn’t produce enough points or enough defense to put them ahead on the scoreboard when the last out was recorded.

Praise, as it turns out, is only temporary unless it is tied to truth. I can say all day long that I’m the best basketball player in my age and gender group, but that does not make it true. I might feel good about myself because of my perceived ability, but what happens when I play against someone better than I am?

As it turns out, a study some years ago indicates a connection between “too much” parental praise and narcissism in children.

True praise will not ascribe something false to another just to puff them up.

In contrast to the fakery of parental praise—or if not feigned, then manipulative (if I tell him how great he is, then he’ll perform the way I want him to)—praise offered to God stands on the truth of God’s character. He is worthy to be praised because He genuinely is the greatest, the sovereign, the almighty.

Praising God starts with recognizing Him for who He is. He is kind, consequently He deserves praise for His kindnesses that are new every morning. He is love, consequently He deserves praise for His love that never fails. He is just and therefore deserves praise for his righteous judgments. He is merciful and therefore deserves praise because His mercies never cease.

When we recognize the truth about God—about His Person, plan, work, and/or word—either we can respond directly to Him in the form of thanksgiving (publicly or privately) or we can reflect what we see by offering Him praise (corporately or personally). Scripture refers to these responses as sacrifices—of thanks or of praise.

I will render thank offerings to You.
For You have delivered my soul from death,
Indeed my feet from stumbling,
So that I may walk before God
In the light of the living. (Psalm 56:12b-13; emphasis mine)

No, we do not live under the sacrificial system any longer. Jesus Christ died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust so that He might bring us to God.

But God delights in our sacrifice of praise:

Through Him then, let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that give thanks to His name. (Heb. 13:15)

Jesus modeled this act of praise to God. Many who Jesus healed and even those who witnessed the miracles praised God for His marvelous work. Some of the disciples, when they were persecuted, responded by praising God with psalms and hymns.

In fact, the sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving is the very mark of His Church:

you also, as living stones, are being built up as a spiritual house for a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. (1 Peter 2:15)

Praising God is not wishful thinking or hoping for the best or positive mind speak or any of the other human endeavors many engage in. Praising God is anchored in the truth of His character, His promises, His acts of mercy, His way of salvation. In other words, God deserves recognition.

When the President of the US comes to California on one of his fund raising trips, nobody ignores him. He has police escorts and roads are closed off to allow his motorcade to pass. The media reports his arrival and covers his activities. People pay attention.

Recognizing someone’s existence or presence is not the same as praising them, however.

God wants more than our awareness of His existence or our willingness to meet with Him regularly. He wants us to shout our gratitude for His traits, for the wonders He performs, for the rescue He pulled off in transferring us from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of His beloved Son.

The psalmist rendered thank offerings for a reason: because God delivered his soul from death and his feet from stumbling. Our praise today should be no less anchored in truth.

This article, with a few minor revisions, first appeared here in March, 2015.

BTW, have you noted today’s date: 02/20/20, 😉

The Character Of God


What’s God like?

Many people shape God in the image they want for Him. They’ll tell you what a good buddy He is or what a kindly grandpa He seems to be.

On the other hand, some will accuse Him of being cruel and spiteful and selfish and wicked.

So how do we know the truth?

Well, we couldn’t know anything about God unless He made Himself known. But that’s exactly what He’s done. First He showed Himself in and through what He made. Second, He showed Himself in what He told us about Himself—through prophets, within the pages of Scripture. Third, and finally, He showed us Himself by taking human form and becoming like one of us. Except He lived His life in a way that none of us have been able to do. He was without sin. Then, to top things off, He demonstrated His power as God by His resurrection from the dead.

In many respects you could say God bent over backwards to let us know what He’s like. He makes things very clear in Romans 1: look at creation and you can see what God is like.

But Hebrews 1 spells out the other two means by which He made Himself known: through His prophets in the Holy Scriptures, and finally through His Son.

And He is the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature, and upholds all things by the word of His power. (v. 3a)

Clearly, God wants us to know Him.

So, what’s He like?

I made a list of things we can know about God just by looking at the world. Here’s the short version, which certainly is not exhaustive:

1) Even single cell organisms contain complex parts. Complexity requires a complex designer.

2) The existence of language, including DNA coding. Suggests a communicating originator.

3) Genetic code, a “set of rules.” Laws of nature exist. Mathematics exists. Requires an ordered Source.

4) Human ability to recognize and appreciate beauty. Suggests a Creator who has an aesthetic sense.

5) Coherence in the big philosophical issues such as What is truth? Why are we here? Where did we come from? What is our destiny? Science gives no meaning to life and no explanation for why we even ask these questions. God gives meaning and significance.

6) Morality. Humans have a sense of right and wrong. Fair and unfair. Truth and falsehood. Requires a moral designer.

7) Evil. How could humans know evil if good does not exist? The world is not neutral and not homogenous. God explains this, not science.

8) Worship. The nearly universal sense that there is a spiritual force or forces at work in the world. Far from “no god” being the default position history bears out that “there is a god” is the default position. The question then becomes who is he and does he matter?

9) Joy. C.S. Lewis in Surprised by Joy explained this far better than I ever could. The idea is that at times something seems so perfect—so beautiful, moving, uplifting, peaceful, “right”—that we simply want to capture it and stay in that moment for always. He identifies this as “joy.” But in fact the sense of perfection is fleeting. Nevertheless, it shows us that there is something more. And if we experience the taste of more, it’s likely we were made for more, God being that “more.”

10) Eyesight. If eyesight were a product of evolution, a sightless creature would have had to simultaneously evolve by growing eyes and by developing the brain function that would translate the light into something meaningful. Belief in a designer is far more plausible.

11) Hearing. Same with ears and the development of brain function that translates vibration into sound.

Of course we know much more about God from what He told us about Himself. He is holy, righteous, good. He is love and merciful and kind. He is also jealous and just and Judge. And yes, the Bible—the New Testament, even—speaks of His wrath.

We also know His ways and thoughts are not the same as our ways and thoughts, that He is “intimately acquainted” with us, to the point that He knows what we’re going to say before we say it. He has no beginning and no end. And He is the Source of all that’s in the universe. He made it and upholds—or maintains—it.

Just naming things that are true about God may not really tell us what He’s like. He knew that. So He came in bodily form and lived among us, so we could see Him in action. We could see His compassion, His power, His wisdom, His love, His holiness. Even His confrontation with evil as He declared the lying Pharisees to be like their father the devil.

I guess you could say, God is more complex than we often allow Him to be—in our minds. I know atheists who hate God. I know Christians who only see Him with a halo hovering over His head. Of course God is wrapped in holiness and love, but those traits do not negate the rest of who He is. Accepting God as He reveals Himself is the most meaningful way of entering into a relationship with Him. We can “re-image” Him into what we think He should be, or we can accept who He says He is, even when we don’t understand how He can be so complex.

I mean, it really starts with the idea that God is One, in three manifestations. Not three persons. He is not three Gods. He is One. And He is Three.

Not such an easy thing to comprehend. So why do we think the other things God reveals about Himself will be easy? They aren’t, but the more I learn of Him, the more I love Him.

Published in: on February 17, 2020 at 5:08 pm  Comments (11)  
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Job And Our Organic God


My church started a short sermon series in the book of Habakkuk this month. This fairly obscure prophet wrote at the end the Judean Kingdom. He saw idol worship and all kinds of evil things, and he took his concerns to God. Sort of a, “Aren’t You going to do something about this” question. God answered by saying, in part, “Yes, I’m sending the wicked, violent Chaldeans against Judah.”

Habakkuk’s response was so much like any of us might have given: Really? You’re sending a nation that is more wicked to punish a wicked one? How does that work?

God, as our pastor pointed out, reserves the right to do surprising things. Actions we can’t always get our heads around. He made the comparison with what Job experienced.

I found this post, that is an expanded and revised version of an earlier one, that addresses the issue.

– – – – –

One of the things writers talk about is creating stories organically. The alternative is to force a story to become what you want it to become by reducing it to a formula. Organic stories are the ones that seem real, that last long after you’ve closed the book, that affect you rather than merely entertaining you.

There is no one key to writing organic stories, but they must have characters that seem like real people with believable motivations, realistic emotional patterns and true-to-life psychological mechanisms for handling problems.

The formulaic characters are little more than place holders. In a formulaic romance, for example, insert heroine on page 1, the opening paragraph; slot in romantic lead in chapter 2. Almost it doesn’t matter who these people are. They will have some problem that keeps them apart for a third of the book, then they will begin to draw close, only to run into a wedge that drives them further apart for another third. When all seems hopeless, after the heroine experiences the black night of the soul, the two resolve the conflict and come together. Or something like that. You get the gist. There’s a pattern, one that romance writers are taught in writing workshops to follow.

I’m not trying to pick on romances. I think westerns can be just as formulaic and so can mysteries. Character X discovers crime Y with suspects A, B, and C. With a little detecting, he uncovers clues 1, 2, and 3. A formula.

I don’t know enough about any of these genres to say whether there is a way to write them organically—to make them come alive and therefore to separate them from the pack. I do know that readers of formulaic books have a hard time remembering if they’ve already read Busted, Bashed, or Butchered. (I just made up those titles, but that kind of title connection in a series is another part of the formula). Even by reading the back cover, readers can draw a blank. Is this the book they read? It sounds vaguely familiar, but so do the other two.

What does all this have to do with God and the book of Job?

Job’s friends saw God as a formulaic figure. He was as good as programmed, in their minds, and had to act in manner y if person A did action x. In other words, they were not seeing God as organic—alive and relational. They were talking about Him as if He were an it, a force, a thing they could predict. Perhaps a thing they could manipulate.

While Job was wrong to complain against God and to accuse Him of wrong doing (which is why he repented in the end), he nevertheless got it right that God is a free and independent person, transcendent, able to act however He wants to act. He’s organic. He’s more than that, of course, because He’s sovereign.

In the past some professing Christians have accused traditional, Biblical Christianity of putting God in a box. Let him be organic, in other words, by which they mean, let him bend with the culture—change to fit the changing times.

Well, funny thing. The most organic thing a person can do is reveal who he is. “You want to know me? Let me tell you about myself so that you’re not reading your own thoughts or feelings or motives into my actions.”

This, God chose to do.

However, instead of embracing His story about Himself and His relationship with humankind, many people, even “religious” ones, decide they get to say who God is and what He is like. What these people are doing is “re-imaging” Him into the formula they’ve created.

That is what Job’s friends did.

They determined that God dealt with people in a formulaic, foreseeable way. He punished sin by bringing suffering down on the sinner. He rewarded those who lived righteously by giving them prosperity and long life.

Consequently, they left no room for God to do anything else with an unrighteous man other than bring disaster down on his head. And since disaster hit Job five fold, he was clearly, according to their formula, an unrighteous man.

People today do essentially the same thing: God is loving and kind and forgiving and tolerant and an advocate for peace. Therefore he would never send people to hell, order the death of . . . well, anyone but most certainly not a whole nation, though He said they were people who lived in debauchery. Above all, the loving and kind and tolerant God would never punish the entire human race because one person ate a bite of forbidden fruit. That’s not God, they say. (I mean, it’s just fruit!)

Maybe punishing sin is not the formulaic God these progressive Christians have concocted, but the organic God who is sovereign, just, and good, can do, and does do, all the things He revealed in His word. And more.

He’s not bound by a formula. He can, and did, take the form of a mam. He can, and did, live a sin-free life. He can, and did, sacrifice Himself to pay for the sins of the world. Why? Not because we did a satisfactory quota of good deeds, certainly. He, being living and self-existent, chooses to do what He chooses to do.

The point is, God isn’t limited by our expectations. He can forgive the repentant, even someone like King Manasseh who had instituted child sacrifice. Undoubtedly Job’s three friends would have demanded that God strike the wicked king down in the midst of his wickedness.

But God, who is merciful and all-knowing and just, forgave that man instead.

God can be trusted to do what is right with the lives and souls of the people He created. He doesn’t have to fit the formula Job’s friends created—in fact, He doesn’t. Theirs was a works theology—do the right things and God has to bless. Stray from His demands, and He will rain suffering down.

They didn’t understand what it meant to believe God to be sovereign, to trust Him to do what is right, even when His action is surprising and unexpected and even sometimes painful. They didn’t know Him and love Him. They more nearly knew about Him and used Him—in Job’s case, to chastise a man suffering horrific loss. But that’s what happens when someone believes God must follow their formula.

Published in: on January 14, 2020 at 4:42 pm  Comments (4)  
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Tornadoes, Drought, Fire, And Death


Some years ago, a handful of Christians infamously claimed that hurricane Katrina was God’s judgment on New Orleans, or later that the devastating earthquake that hit Haiti was His judgment on the culture of voodoo and the occult practiced there in times passed.

But what about events in Mid-America such as violent tornadoes? That would be the area of the US famously known as the Bible Belt. A number of years ago, spring tornadoes, numbering more than a hundred strong, tore through Oklahoma, Iowa, Kansas, over to Nebraska and Missouri, and up into Indiana, killing and destroying.

Not to be outdone, wildfires devastated Colorado, and drought consumed crops throughout the Great Plains and over to the Appalachians. In fact, the USA Today reported that 64% of the US was experiencing drought conditions.

And of course there are the shootings that have become all to common in all parts of the US.

All this, of course, comes to mind because of the horrific fires currently devastating Australia.

In the after-math of the natural disasters, news cameras often catch survivors picking through the ruins, thankful that they lived and vowing to keep going. Some way. Some how.

After shootings, there’s talk of the gun culture and insane people trying to grab the spotlight so that the world will look at them for a few fleeting days. Undoubtedly gun legislation again comes under discussion.

All of it is white noise to the real issues that we need to talk about. God works in the world today, as He has throughout history. Because we understand and can predict weather patterns does not mean God has no part in them. Because a psychotic killer picked up a gun and attacked a theater full of people does not mean God is indifferent or uninvolved.

These events remind me so much of the things Job experienced, all engineered by Satan, but permitted by God, used by God. Why do we think He has changed?

No, He did not cause shooters to open fire on unsuspecting victims. That’s an act of evil, and God doesn’t tempt anyone to do evil (see James 1:13). But He works His will in and through these circumstances. And He does so in order that we will look to Him rather than to our own supposed strength and goodness.

God allows fires and floods and wind and drought so that we can see we are weak, not strong. He allows evil men to kill and steal and destroy so that we will see, Mankind is not good.

Only God is strong. Only God is good.

When will we look to Him instead of looking to ourselves for answers?

We are so much like Israel of old. They were a religious people, keeping their feast days, offering sacrifices in their holy cities, and God said, I’m not interested. Instead He brought war and famine so that they would turn to Him.

Offer a thank offering also from that which is leavened,
And proclaim freewill offerings, make them known.
For so you love to do, you sons of Israel,”
Declares the Lord GOD.

“But I gave you also cleanness of teeth in all your cities
And lack of bread in all your places,
Yet you have not returned to Me,” declares the LORD.

“Furthermore, I withheld the rain from you
While there were still three months until harvest.
Then I would send rain on one city
And on another city I would not send rain;
One part would be rained on,
While the part not rained on would dry up.
So two or three cities would stagger to another city to drink water,
But would not be satisfied;
Yet you have not returned to Me,” declares the LORD.

“I smote you with scorching wind and mildew;
And the caterpillar was devouring
Your many gardens and vineyards, fig trees and olive trees;
Yet you have not returned to Me,” declares the LORD.

“I sent a plague among you after the manner of Egypt;
I slew your young men by the sword along with your captured horses,
And I made the stench of your camp rise up in your nostrils;
Yet you have not returned to Me,” declares the LORD.

“I overthrew you, as God overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah,
And you were like a firebrand snatched from a blaze;
Yet you have not returned to Me,” declares the LORD. (Amos 4:5-11 – emphasis mine)

Are we somehow beyond God’s reach, that He would not be at our shoulder, calling to us, telling us we need to return to Him? Are we so oblivious to our egregious behavior, putting to death thousands and thousands of unborn babies year after year; calling evil good and good, evil; giving credence to false prophets who lie about God and His character, that we think God is pleased with us and will continue to bless us as a nation?

What will it take for us to realize, God might be trying to get our attention because He wants us to look at Him, listen to Him, bow before Him, and recognize that He is God and we are not.

This post is a revised version of one that appeared here in July, 2012.

Meeting Expectations


In case I haven’t mentioned it recently, I’m a big sports fan. The problem with being a fan is that more often than not, an expectation exists to win, and the truth is, most teams lose a good percent of their games.

Sure, there are the teams like the Alabama University football team that can reel off a good streak, but when they lose the “big game,” the expectations of the fans are dashed. Or how about the Dodgers’ baseball? They held something like a 20 game lead in their division, clinched a playoff spot before any other team, and still didn’t even make it to the World Series.

Never mind all the mid-tier teams that probably have no realistic shot of even making the playoffs. Like my Denver Broncos in the NFL. When the season started, I expected them to be pretty good. And they are. But they have lost 4 games in the final minute of play, once by not scoring and 3 times by allowing the other teams to score. Four loses in football are highly significant. A team that is 8-4 in December has a legitimate chance at a playoff spot. But the Broncos are languishing at 4-8 instead. My expectations for the team aren’t being fulfilled.

But that’s really life. There aren’t a lot of times that our expectations in life are all met. Something tends to gum up the works. It might be a transfer from a comfortable location to one that is far from family. It might be a promotion that went to someone else, or a love interest that did not reciprocate the feelings. It might be a leaky pipe that requires hours of plumber work. It could be as disastrous as a tornado or blizzard or wild fire. I’ve heard people who lost their homes saying things like, Yes, this was our dream home and now it’s gone.

Or how about illness or injury? Or a son or daughter who doesn’t like the same stuff you love. You want to share your passion with them, but they just don’t care. Then there are new pastors who don’t handle the job the way we thought a pastor would, or should.

What about the program you worked hours and hours on, practicing, preparing, and the night of the big performance, the mic doesn’t work properly and no one can hear what the performers say.

I could go on and on. I probably have too long already. I think it’s pretty clear that all of us, in whatever walk of life, are acquainted with unmet expectations.

I can only think of one instance in which we are never let down. That’s spiritually. Jesus Christ never lets us down.

Oh, sure, people might expect the wrong things from Him. They might expect that He answer their prayer the way they want and according to their timetable. Well, in that case, they can just put “answered prayer” in the column of unmet expectation. God doesn’t operate according to our dictates. He doesn’t take orders from us, because quite clearly He’s the one in charge. And He works stuff out for our spiritual good.

Our spiritual good is not necessarily the same as our physical good. I think of the Christians who left such strong witnesses by their suffering and even their deaths, and I know that the “momentary, light affliction” of this life is in no way comparable to the eternal weight of glory we will experience through God’s work in our lives.

It’s like putting temporary on one side of the scales and eternal on the other side and seeing which weighs more. Yeah, not even close. The scales tip so drastically toward the eternal, that it’s not even a contest.

So when something in the temporary doesn’t meet expectations, but all things in the eternal always meet expectations, how are we to react?

Honestly, if we were looking at the whole picture, we’d see how silly frustration or disappointment over the temporary actually is. It’s a lot like not doing well in practice. We might try hard, but if we come up short, what have we lost? Maybe a start in the big game, maybe even a chance to play at all. But what have we actually lost? Our poor play in practice did not hurt the team, and it might have actually taught me what I need to know for the game. It might actually be for my good.

Shocking, I know. But that’s actually how God works with us in life. We might face failed expectations and have to endure suffering or hardship. But the experience will never be wasted. God will use it to prep us for eternity. He might even use it in the here and now: like He did for Corrie ten Boom or Elisabeth Elliot or Joni Eareckson Tada. Suffering and hardship in the here and now, but astounding accomplishment and success in the here and now, also.

But even that success is spiritual. I mean, any number of lives have turned to Christ because of the witness of people like these three, or like Greg Laurie who lost his son, but not his faith in the goodness of God.

So in among all the disappointed expectations, we will never see our faithful God fail us or forsake us. But who is “us”? Any and all who believe in the name of His Son, the promised Messiah, the Christ, who takes away the sins of the world. We can go to the spiritual bank with the capital of His shed blood, and we will be spiritual millionaires.

Published in: on December 2, 2019 at 5:14 pm  Comments (94)  
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Learning From Leviticus


Leviticus might be the least read book of the Bible.

Almost exclusively, the book lists out laws God gave to the people of Israel who were just coming out of slavery. They didn’t have a national identity apart from their history and their servitude. They didn’t have a command structure and barely had a culture—their language was undoubtedly mixed with the Egyptian tongue; their tastes in food, Egyptian; even their religious beliefs, heavily influenced by Egypt.

In fact, when they faced difficulty, what did they want to do? Go back to Egypt. That generation of Hebrews only knew Egypt as their home. Undoubtedly they wanted the abuse to stop: they didn’t want to be forced to expose their male babies so that they died; they didn’t want to be forced to reach an impossible work quota; they didn’t want to be beaten in punishment for not doing what they were told; they didn’t want to be kept against their will. But their will often was to stay in Egypt.

God changed that. He not only freed them, but He gave the nation structure. He gave them their own government. He gave them their own religious ceremonies and celebrations. And He gave them a new home. Not new really. They were going back to the land Abraham had bought, the land God had promised to give to his descendants. To them.

But what does Leviticus have to say to Christians? We are not, Christ said, a worldly kingdom. Israel was. Our citizenship is in heaven. Theirs was on earth. God governs our hearts. But for Israel, God governed. His word was the law of their land. And the law as they traveled to that land. Leviticus is that law.

It lays out things the people were to do involving health, safety, worship, celebrations, treatment of one another, and more.

So what can Christians learn from a book whose purpose isn’t for us? I think there’s a couple things, at least.

First, God shows that He cares about daily stuff. Not just how or when to do worship, but how to deal with poop, too. Yeah, I know. It’s not something we really are particularly interested in reading—what did those Israelite traveler do about human waste? But if God cares about something so . . . human, so ordinary, so un-glamorous, clearly He cares about all of our lives.

Also, God is in charge. He made it clear He gave the laws, and He didn’t share His authority with other pretenders.

Third, God gave the people hope. He constantly referred to things that were future by saying things like, when this or that happens to your house. They didn’t have houses. They lived the nomadic life of travelers, in tents. They didn’t farm, but God told them to have a celebration at harvest time. They didn’t have cities, but God told them about refuge cities. So much of what God laid out for them had to do with the future. This forward looking dovetails with the forward looking God has given Christians. Life is now and not yet. We are looking for the return of the King. We are looking for our heavenly home. And one thing that gives us confidence in God’s promises is that He fulfilled His promises to Israel.

Another thing we can learn about God is His justice but also His mercy. More than once when the people disobeyed and worshiped and served other gods, He could have abandoned them, broken the covenant—the agreement, the pact—He’d made with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. After all, the people had said they would follow Him, worship Him, and they weren’t. God didn’t let the wrong go unpunished, but He also didn’t forsake them.

In comparison to these bigger issues, this next thing seems kind of trivial, but it does reveal God’s nature: He is a God of order. In reading about the various sacrifices, I’ve noticed that some were to be performed in one place in relation to the altar and others in a different place. Bulls, for instance, were to be dealt with in one place, but lambs in a different place. I can think of some practical reasons behind this, but the Bible doesn’t tell us why. It just shows us that the details mattered. The little things mattered. The where and the how mattered. Those things come from an orderly mind.

Part of Leviticus describes the process of constructing the portable worship center—the tabernacle. In those chapters, more than once God says the particular items were to be made for beauty as well as for whatever function they had. He also named the main artisan and his main helper who were in charge of crafting the utensils used in worship, the alter, the table for incense, the ark, the basin used for washing, the curtains that made up the tent, the clothing the priests were to wear—all of it. For beauty as well as for function. That says a lot about God, too. Beauty is His idea. He made beauty and He wants us to make beauty.

This list is not exhaustive, by any means, but it serves to illustrate a point: even in the parts of the Bible where we least expect to find something important, lo and behold, important truths are there. Makes me aware of just how amazing God’s word is.

Published in: on October 30, 2019 at 5:47 pm  Comments Off on Learning From Leviticus  
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God And Senseless Shootings



Photo by Specna Arms from Pexels

Recently, when I was looking through the archives, I saw this post, but I assumed it was too dated to run again. Sadly, as it turns out, with the new rash of shootings (and one stabbing here in SoCal), it seems as relevant as the day I wrote it in response to a shooting in Arizona some eight years ago. So without revision here is the article that I ran in January, 2011.

When something tragic happens—man’s willful, wanton violence on man—such as happened a few days ago in Tucson, Arizona, I can’t help but wonder why everyone doesn’t believe in a God of justice.

Atheists make sense in a situation like that, their reasoning being that if God existed, He wouldn’t allow such horrific events. They, at least, accept the idea that God should be just.

But there is a group of people who claim to believe in God, even claim to believe in Jesus Christ as their Savior, but who reject the idea that God is just. These people seem out of touch with reality when someone opens fire on a crowd, killing a nine-year-old, a number of senior citizens and others, and sending more than a dozen people to the hospital.

How can someone think God will overlook this?

No, these false teachers who reject God’s right to serve as Judge of the world He created, might say, God doesn’t overlook such acts. Jesus came to show a better way, and we’re simply slow learners. I’m not sure how this position helps the victims, or the criminals. Some might even say Jesus came to bear the penalty for all Mankind, so the nihilistic, chaos-seeking mass murderer is forgiven like everyone else.

The latter view overlooks the conditional aspects of forgiveness in Scripture. There is the belief requirement:

    • “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” They said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” – Acts 16:30b-31

 

    • that if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved – Rom. 10:9 [emphasis added]

 

    • But the Scripture has shut up everyone under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe. – Gal. 3:22

 

    • This precious value, then, is for you who believe – I Peter 2:7a

 

    • But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name – John 1:12

 

  • 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

There is also the forgiveness requirement:

    • And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. – Matt. 6:12

 

    • For if you forgive others for their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. – Matt. 6:14

 

  • And his lord, moved with anger, handed him over to the torturers until he should repay all that was owed him. My heavenly Father will also do the same to you, if each of you does not forgive his brother from your heart. – Matt. 18:34-35

In other words, a forgiven person forgives. He doesn’t go out and gun down a bunch of strangers.

Non-Christians understand and require justice, though their human efforts often turn into vengeance instead.

Finally, Christ’s death on the cross only makes sense in light of God’s justice. Unless the sinless Messiah was paying for the sins of those under condemnation of death, then He died senselessly. He would be a tragic figure—a great teacher cut down in his prime, a noble example turned victim, a caring mentor taken from those he discipled. The best anyone could say about him would be, He died well.

But the truth is that Jesus became the sin bearer who satisfied God’s just wrath. He is the substitute for everyone who believes.

Those who don’t—those who reject God’s sovereign right to rule and to judge—will stand before Him one day and receive justice. Think of them as perpetrators of cold cases that will assuredly be solved.

Published in: on August 15, 2019 at 4:37 pm  Comments Off on God And Senseless Shootings  
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Holiness: An Unpopular Topic


Photo by Narcis DRAGOI from FreeImages

I think it’s understandable that people who don’t believe in God or who have a theism based on some false religion or false teaching, don’t value holiness. After all, they don’t have a true model for what holiness looks like. Further, so many are focused on doing in order to gain: gain the highest heaven, gain happiness, gain salvation, gain Nirvana, gain acceptance—you name it.

But God calls Christians to be holy because He is holy. No other reason than that we are to be like Him. Reminds me of who God created us to be. Primarily God put Adam into the garden He prepared to act as His agent—to superintend what God had made. He was, after all, created in His image.

God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. God blessed them; and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” (Gen. 1:27-28)

In essence, our holiness is the way God wants us to live out this agency today, given that we now have a fallen nature and live in a world far from God. But is that possible?

Yes, and no. Clearly, when we come to God by embracing His Son and His work at the cross on our behalf, we receive new life, though we still grapple with an old nature (see Romans 7). The process of becoming like Christ is just that—a process, one theology calls sanctification. What it practically means is believers walking in obedience.

Romans 7 is helpful:

But now we have been released from the Law, having died to that by which we were bound, so that we serve in newness of the Spirit and not in oldness of the letter.

We’re not bound by Law. But we still serve. We still do what God wants us to do, but only in the “newness of the Spirit.” Essentially, learning to say no to the old self with its sinful and selfish ways, and to say yes to the indwelling Holy Spirit, is a process. A life-long process.

The Bible says a lot about how we are to live. In fact, that last day Jesus spent with His men, He said, If you love Me, you will keep My commandments (John 17). God wants us to obey Him, though our salvation doesn’t depend on our working to earn His favor.

He wants us to obey, I submit, the same way a parent wants a child to obey: it’s good for the little rug rat. 😉 Seriously, God’s commands are good for us, and not only for us as individuals but for the church and for our witness in the world.

Take this ONE command, for example, something probably most of us blow off as insignificant:

Do all things without grumbling or disputing (Phil 2:14).

Imagine living without grumbling. Imagine life without disputes. Yes, obedience to that one simple command would have a profound impact. Paul doesn’t leave it to our imagination. He tells us what would result:

[Don’t argue or complain] so that you will prove yourselves to be blameless and innocent, children of God above reproach in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you appear as lights in the world (Phil. 2:15)

Imagine! Blameless and innocent, shining as lights in the world. Well, isn’t that what Christ said we were to be, back in His Sermon on the Mount? Lights shining before men so that they see our good works and glorify our Father.

The point is, our heart attitude can’t stay inside. It can’t be our little secret. We can’t be undercover Christians. At some point, our relationship with God through Christ must spill out of our lives and splash onto our neighbors.

That’s pretty much what the whole book of James is about. Our faith—our inner spiritual life, our relationship with God—is real only if it gets up and walks.

Writers talk about cardboard characters versus the desirable kind—three dimensional ones that seem alive. Faith is like that, without the “seem.” Real faith is alive and therefore will show signs of life. James names three chief areas.

First we’ll be doers of the word, not merely hearers. In short, we’ll be obedient to God’s word. Second, we’ll bridle our tongues rather than deceiving our hearts. And third, we’ll be slow to anger, which means we won’t judge, quarrel with or complain about our “brother”—a term he uses consistently to refer to fellow Christians.

The first point alone can be overwhelming. If I read the Bible asking one thing—what in this passage must I obey—I can become paralyzed into inactivity because there’s too much. I’m not selfless enough to handle the one command from Philippians about not grumbling or complaining, let alone the ones about being a cheerful giver or being anxious for nothing or dwelling on what is true, honorable, right, pure, lovely and of good repute.

When I realize this, I am pressed back into God where I must learn to stay. It is His strength that makes it possible for me to obey. It is the prompting of His Holy Spirit that makes me want to.

In short, obedience which leads to holiness is not a thing I can achieve apart from God, but if I love Him, I’m heading for the heights, one shaky step at a time, holding onto Him as tight as if my life depended on Him. Which it does.

This post includes a large, revised and edited, portion of a 2011 article entitled Holiness In Practice. Others in series are
“Holiness Is Not A Dirty Word”
“Holiness Means What Again?”
“Inside Out – The Way Of Holiness”

Published in: on July 25, 2019 at 5:34 pm  Comments (51)  
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