Our Sin Is Too Small – Reprise


Years ago a little book came out entitled Your God Is Too Small by J. B. Phillips (reissued in 2008). The title seemed to say it all. Christians were losing a proper view of God as transcendent, sovereign, majestic, holy, all powerful, omniscient.

Instead, we were turning God into whoever we wanted Him to be. He could be our buddy, for example–one that wouldn’t mind if we were too tired on a Sunday morning to keep our appointment with Him. He was OK with taking a back seat to . . . pretty much anything.

What a far cry that view of God is from the one Jesus showed us when He proclaimed that His followers would have to hate their family members and even their own lives if they were to be His disciples.

Today, it seems, a good many professing Christians have taken another step along the continuum of making God small. The way they’re going about it, though, is not by making less of Him, at least not initially. It’s by making less of sin.

Sin, you see, was never so egregious that sinful people deserved a death sentence. In fact “sin” is such an ugly, old fashioned word. People all make mistakes, but sin?

Most of us are simply living out learned behavior. It’s society who taught us to be prejudice and selfish and greedy.

Not to mention that a good many people are sick. We have addictions and paranoia and all kinds of disorders that make impulse control difficult. But none of it is sin.

Then there’s our DNA. I mean, really, is it our fault if our genes put us on a path toward alcoholism? Forget the old “the devil made me do it” line. It was our genes which we can’t control or choose. This “sinful” stuff is simply not our fault.

So how can anyone ever think God should condemn people to death for such petty things as complaining against their leaders? Or eating a piece of fruit. OK, that killing your brother thing was pretty bad, but King Saul got condemned for actually sparing someone’s life. God apparently can’t make up His mind.

That kind of reasoning sounds so rational, it’s a little scary. The problem, however, is with the reduction of sin. Because God is sovereign, any command He gives is to be obeyed. Ultimately He gave us two: to love Him with our whole being and to love other people in the same way we love ourselves.

Basic. Short and sweet. But no matter how hard we try–and people in religions all across the world have tried for centuries–we continue to fall short. We can’t love God the way He deserves to be loved or the way He requires us to love. And though we fully understand how we love ourselves, we can’t manage to treat other people in our lives the same way.

Instead of being heart sick at such utter failure, however, we simply shrug and say God is too demanding, too filled with wrath, too petty, too unloving.

Unloving!

When our sin becomes so small, our egos seem to grow in compensation, and they apparently block our view of who God actually is. Which leads us to say nonsensical things about His character.


After all, WE would never strike down Korah and his 250 followers for simply wanting to share in the priestly duties. (See Numbers 16) Why should their desire to better themselves be viewed as rebellion toward Moses and Aaron, and why should rebellion against their leaders be viewed as rebellion against God?

WE would be kinder and more willing to listen and probably commend the Gang of 250 for their initiative. And if we’d react that way, then God has to be a monster for not seeing things the way we see them.

Yep, we are now the measuring stick, not only of sin but of God Himself. We can declare homosexuality off the sin list, just as we did wives submitting to husbands, adultery, premarital sex, abortion, and any number of other things. And because God wanted those things to actually be punished, well, that makes Him a tyrant.

Because, you see, when our sin is too small, we judge God by our standards instead of accepting His judgment of us.

This post, apart from some editing and minor revisions, originally appeared here in September 2013.

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Published in: on October 5, 2017 at 4:59 pm  Leave a Comment  
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God’s Purpose In Man’s Suffering – Reprise


The recurring question from the time of Job until today seems to be, Where is God in the midst of suffering? The problem is, there doesn’t seem to be a single answer.

One purpose, and the one people often camp on, is that God uses suffering to punish the wicked. The best example of that is the flood that wiped out all the inhabitants of the earth except for Noah and his family. Another clear illustration, which I mentioned in “Have We Neutered God?” is the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah — two cities whose inhabitants maintained depraved lifestyles.

A second purpose for suffering according to Scripture was to test a believer’s trust in God. Satan initiated such a test of Job, and God gave him permission to do so.

Abraham was tested similarly when God uprooted him from his home and told him to go to a land He would give him. Of course that test was followed by years of infertility though God had promised to make of his descendants a great and numerous nation.

When his son was finally born, Abraham then faced the test of giving him up in obedience to God. Some might not count that test as “suffering,” but I suspect the emotional and spiritual testing he endured were equal to any physical pain he could have gone through.

A third purpose of suffering is to discipline God’s people. When Israel, for example, arrived in the promised land, they lived with God as their king, but they continually disobeyed Him and followed after the gods of the nations around them. God would then bring the people of Moab or the Philistines or one of the other people groups against them. They would live under the dictates of these oppressive conquerors until they cried out to God for deliverance, then He would send a judge to liberate them.

This pattern continued, with some variation, even after God granted the people’s demand for a king. The ultimate discipline was when first Israel, then Judah, was carried into exile.

Israel serves as an example of another purpose of suffering. Having forsaken God from the beginning of its existence, the northern kingdom fell to the Assyrians. Their suffering served the dual purpose of disciplining them but of warning Judah.

Luke records that Jesus used two local disasters as a means to warn his listeners of their need to repent (13:1-5).

Finally, Jesus also explained that some suffering was for the purpose of giving God an opportunity to be glorified. He said this specifically about the man born blind whom He then healed. He also seems to have allowed Lazarus to die for the same reason.

What does all this tell us about suffering today?

For one, that we don’t know what God is doing. He’s not limited to the five purposes I’ve identified in Scripture, but even if He was, I still wouldn’t know any better than Job’s friends did, what God is doing in someone else’s life.

Secondly, we should realize that He is using suffering to accomplish His purposes in the same way that He uses blessings. Though they may look un-caused or haphazard to us, they are neither, if God is indeed sovereign.

Sometimes the cause is evil. I have no doubt that Satan employed evil against Job. And Joseph said plainly that his brothers meant evil when they sold him into slavery. Certainly the people who stoned Stephen and the ones who crucified Christ had evil motives. None of that thwarted God’s purposes. Instead, He took the evil and made it good to advance His plans, or He took it and used it to convict of sin, in Job’s case, and advanced His plans.

Third, all suffering should remind us that we are not in charge. We can diagram and explain, analyze and hypothesize all we want, but in the final summation, we need to allow suffering to call us back to God. The message is never for someone else. It’s for those of us who hear. We should examine our own hearts, not point the finger at others.

And finally, suffering affords us an opportunity to reach out in the name of Christ to minister to those in need. We don’t have to be rich. We can always, always pray for those in need — for their spiritual needs as well as their physical needs. We can pray that God provides people to come alongside them. We can pray for His mercy to spare them from more tragedy. And we can pray for His mercy to save their souls.

What we shouldn’t do, is act as if He isn’t involved.

This post first appeared here in May 2011.

Published in: on August 14, 2017 at 5:21 pm  Comments (3)  
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Shoe Laces And Life Lessons


Sometimes I’ve thought, as I’ve worked to connect some electronic device or tried to find something on my map or read something I didn’t quite understand, “It ought not to be this hard.”

Those are minor examples, but I think you get the idea. The same thought might be true of something in the bigger areas of life—finding employment, getting involved in a relationship, selling a piece of property. I see other people doing what I’m trying to do, and they don’t seem to struggle as much as I am. Why, I wonder.

I know people who go through such experiences and conclude that someone is out to get them. The boss hates them or their father-in-law is against them. The store clerk is mean to them.

More troubling, some may think God is behind their troubles. Well, He is in the sense that He is sovereign and in control, but not in the “He’s out to get me” kind of way.

The other day I had an experience that clarified such situations a bit. I was getting ready to go for my daily walk, and I had slipped on one tennis shoe, but when I went to tie the laces, I tugged and tugged and couldn’t get one to move. Well, I’ve tied shoe laces nearly every day of my life since that moment I first learned how. That simple act ought not to be this hard.

I figured the lace must have gotten tangled in something somehow, so I took a closer look. Actually the problem was that in the process of putting on the shoe, I also managed to put it, with my foot now inside, on top of the end of the lace. Essentially as I pulled on the lace, I had been pulling against my own weight.

In other words, I was my own obstacle.

I wonder how many times when we’re struggling in life, that might not be the way things are.

Romans 8 gives the Christian some amazing statements about our relationship with God. Here are a few:

* God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose. For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son (from vv 28 and 29)

* If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him over for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things? (from vv 31 and 32)

* 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. (vv 38 and 39)

In spite of these great promises I come across people all the time, either face to face or on the internet, who say they are mad at God or disappointed with Him or simply don’t believe in Him any more because this or that happened and they don’t think a loving God would do that.

Well, the truth is, we humans are standing on our own shoe laces. And we as individuals are often standing on our own shoe laces. The trouble isn’t with God at all. It’s with us.

God is good and wants to pour out His love on us, but we’re too intent on loving ourselves so we get in His way. We need to stop pulling against our own weight. We need to allow Him to be the God who leads, beside quiet waters and through the valley of the shadow of death. He isn’t beside us in the one but not the other. He wants to go with us through all of life. If we’ll simply get off the lace we’ve been standing on.

Published in: on August 11, 2017 at 5:25 pm  Comments (2)  
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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.

Reprise: Does God Care Who Wins The NCAA Tournament?


NCAA_tournamentI don’t usually reprise an article that I first published so recently (March 2015), but I didn’t think I had anything to add to what I wrote two years ago about the cultural phenomenon known as March Madness, which is the NCAA Men’s Division I basketball tournament. So here, with only the smallest revision, is that post again.

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Even the person least into sports here in the US is likely to know that the top division in men’s basketball is holding their tournament to determine the 2017 champion. We’ve fondly dubbed this time each year, March Madness.

It’s not quite as mad as it used to be. Yes, there are still upsets which scrambles everyone’s game by game predictions, but one TV network used to cover the games so there were split screens and much jumping from scheduled game to updates and even the endings of close games. The games, of course, start during the week, so working people were taping the games they most wanted to see and trying to avoid hearing final scores.

Things have changed. Cable TV is now part of the mix. All games can be viewed by whoever has that service. Or has the Internet and enough data minutes to see the games they can’t otherwise get. In other words, there’s far less scrambling, far less madness connected with seeing the games.

Still, many people put a lot into picking winners and following the games to see how well they’re doing and what chance they have of winning office pools or more. In other words, a lot of people are interested in what a bunch of college students are doing the three weeks of the tournament.

Factor in interested parties which include fellow students at the competing universities, friends and family, alumni, teachers past and present, people who live in the communities where the different schools are located. In other words, beneath the layer of unattached fans, you have a layer of attached fans.

At the core, of course, are those intimately involved with the basketball programs—players, coaches, athletic directors, trainers, cheerleaders, ball boys, those who work the games, scorekeepers, timers. People involved are invested, some to a greater degree than others.

In all this, does God care who wins the NCAA men’s basketball championship?

That question comes to mind in part because I spent thirty years as a coach—of various middle school, and then high school, girls sports teams, including basketball. Since I worked at Christian schools, we always prayed together as a team, but most often we were playing against other Christian schools which also prayed as a team.

Early on I confronted the dilemma—could I expect God to hear our prayers and not theirs if we both prayed to win the game? And if we prayed to win and yet lost, did that mean there was sin in the camp, that God was somehow displeased with us, that we had more to learn spiritually before He would reward us with a championship?

In other words, I wrestled with the issue of praying for a victory in a basketball game. In the end, I decided not to pray for wins.

The temptation is to conclude that God simply doesn’t care. Whether team A or team B wins certainly doesn’t change who He is or what He wants to accomplish. But I believe God cares about games because He cares about us.

In fact, one of the reasons I loved coaching so much was that I viewed sports as a microcosm of life. During a season of basketball, a team faces in miniature many of the things that they’ll have to deal with on a larger scope later on: adversity, success, hard work, togetherness, failure, discipline, teamwork, obedience, response to injustice, doing your best, bouncing back from not doing your best, and more.

Don’t get me wrong. Winning is sweet. But there’s so much that goes into winning, and I think God cares a lot more about those things. Ultimately, He cares more about the people than He does about the winning. Sometimes the greatest affect on a person comes from losing. In other words, some people need to lose to be the people God wants them to be. Some players need to forgive a teammate for making a bad decision or taking a bad shot. God cares more that they learn to show compassion and forgive than He does about their winning.

There’s a song that goes right to the heart of this matter by Laura Story. It’s called “Blessings”:

We pray for blessings, we pray for peace
Comfort for family, protection while we sleep

After a catalog of other things Christians have been known to pray for, the song turns and asks in the chorus, penetrating questions:

‘Cause what if Your blessings come through rain drops
What if Your healing comes through tears
What if a thousand sleepless nights are what it takes to know You’re near
What if trials of this life are Your mercies in disguise

Sports can be a training ground for young athletes, and we who are on the sidelines, or on this side of the TV, watching have no way of knowing what God is doing in the lives of those people running up and down the court. I think God cares a great deal for each one of those student-athletes, but I don’t know if that means He’ll calm a nervous heart so a young man can play up to his potential or if He’ll prompt a player to say a kind word to an opponent or allow a TV camera to distract him so he misses a key free throw.

The book of James makes a couple clear statements about prayer:

You do not have because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive because you ask with wrong motives so that you may spend it on your pleasures. (James 4:2b-3)

So God wants us to ask—just not with wrong motives, not selfishly.

Does He care about who wins the NCAA Tournament? In the grand scheme of things, probably not, but how the winning and losing and all that leads up to those results affects us, absolutely: God cares because He uses raindrops for His purposes. Or teardrops.

You have taken account of my wanderings;
Put my tears in Your bottle,
Are they not in Your book? (Psalm 56:8)

Published in: on March 16, 2017 at 5:21 pm  Comments (1)  
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Atheist Accusations Against God: He’s A Tyrant


I think the first time I heard an atheist say that God was a tyrant was at a debate between atheist Christopher Hitchens and professor of theology and apologetics William Lane Craig. Hitchens, who has since died of cancer, claimed his great concern was for freedom, and God doesn’t allow for freedom. Rather God is Hitler on steroids. If He existed. From one of my posts discussing the debate:

[Hitchens said]

It’s degrading to say that morality comes from on high. It’s servile. A kind of heavenly North Korea.

He added that he believed in free will, though he didn’t know why. But a bossy god would seem to reduce free will because then we would be accountable.

Then towards the end of the debate he said:

Emancipate yourself from a celestial dictatorship and you’ve taken the first step to being free.

. . . Above all else, it seems he wants his autonomy, even though he believes his life serves no lasting purpose and will end in oblivion.

Since that debate, I’ve encountered any number of other atheists who throw out this accusation—God is an insufferable dictator. The claim is leveled at God because He’s “bossy,” but also because of the heinous things He allows others to do.

King David, for example, committed adultery and contracted a murder, so God is heinous.

In truth, God is forgiving, though David still had to suffer the four-fold consequence for his sins which the prophet Nathan explained.

But if God had not forgiven David, if He had judged him and required his death, I feel fairly certain atheists would have used such action against God as well to prove how cruel He supposedly is. Whenever God brought judgment on people, atheists cry foul. God isn’t loving because He drowned the people for their wickedness in the Great Flood. God is hateful because He ordered the Amalekites “exterminated,” and so on.

If God does not punish sin, He is weak or wish-washy, or not sovereign. If God does punish sin, He is cruel and monstrous and genocidal.

The point is clear. No matter what God does, atheists will accuse Him of wrong doing. They don’t want a sovereign who sets down the rules and tells them to live according to His moral laws. They want the autonomy Christopher Hitchens sought.

The sad thing is, God gives them exactly what they want. Take Israel, for instance. Over and over Scripture records that God told the prophets the people who would suffer His judgment would get exactly what they earned by their actions. Here’s one such declaration:

The people of the land have practiced oppression and committed robbery, and they have wronged the poor and needy and have oppressed the sojourner without justice. I searched for a man among them who would build up the wall and stand in the gap before Me for the land, so that I would not destroy it; but I found no one. Thus I have poured out My indignation on them; I have consumed them with the fire of My wrath; their way I have brought upon their heads,” declares the Lord GOD. (Ez. 22:29-31, emphasis added)

Instead of rushing to judgment, God shows time and again His patience. He searched for someone to stand in the gap. If He’d found someone, I have no doubt that the results would have been different. But because there was no one, He brought their way on their own heads.

Their oppression of the sojourner, their robbery, the wrong they committed against the poor—all of it resulted in a collapse of their society, a breakdown of their alliances, and the ruin of their security as a nation.

Other prophecies spell out that the leaders let the people down. The prophets spoke words that God did not tell them to speak. The priests sacrificed to gods they’d been commanded to forsake. The kings lived willful, compromised lives. And the people went so far as to give their children up for sacrifice to idols.

But to listen to atheists, God is a horrific megalomaniac, acting against people for no reason whatsoever.

The corollary to “God is a tyrant” is “Humans are good and innocent and not deserving of judgment.”

So the “good” Amalekites who hounded the people of Israel as they made their way to the promised land, attacking their stragglers—the weak, the elderly, the children—were horribly mistreated by God for bringing judgment on their heads.

Mind you, this judgment that God ordered came some two hundred years later, when the people of Amalek had had several generations to repent, to make peace with Israel, and to seek God. Clearly, they remained as brutal and hostile and idolatrous as they had been.

And here’s the thing: an omniscient God knows exactly what is in each person’s heart. He doesn’t make mistakes. It’s not as if a “good Amalekite” slipped His notice. Just as He later searched for someone to stand in the gap for Israel, God exercised His patient restraint toward Amalek.

Further, God says He takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked (Ezekiel 33:11), that it is not His will that even one should perish (Matt. 18:14), and that He desires all men to be saved (1 Tim. 2:4).

In light of such statements, are the atheists right that God is not actually sovereign? Not at all. Rather, He made humans in His image, with the freedom to choose. Because of the very fact that He is not a tyrant, He does not force anyone to believe in Him or to love Him.

The fact is, some people simply want the kind of autonomy Christopher Hitchens craved. The sad thing is, Scripture informs us that we are going to be slaves one way or the other:

Do you not know that when you present yourselves to someone as slaves for obedience, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin resulting in death, or of obedience resulting in righteousness? (Romans 6:16)

So we can be freed from sin and enslaved to God, which results in sanctification and eternal life. Or we can be slaves of sin and free in regard to righteousness—slaves to our addictions, or lusts, our fears, our words and deeds that hurt and degrade, both others and ourselves.

Simply put, “the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23)

God is not the tyrant. Sin is. God is our rescuer, redeeming us from the kingdom of darkness and transferring us to the kingdom of His Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins (Col. 1:13).

Published in: on March 7, 2017 at 5:52 pm  Comments Off on Atheist Accusations Against God: He’s A Tyrant  
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Thoughts About Job, His Friends, And God


job003Today I finished reading the book of Job, which means I’ve been thinking about Job and his sorry friends of late. For one thing, the real subject of the book of Job seems to be God’s character. I’ve read snatches of commentary about the book and heard sermons and even read fiction based on Job’s story and much of it seems to focus on the “wager” between God and Satan.

Oddly, I don’t see a wager. That would reduce the exchange to a “betcha he will/betcha he won’t” argument. There is no “betting” when it comes to omniscience, as if God might actually be wrong in His assessment of Job.

Instead, He pointed out Job to Satan as an example of righteousness, and Satan turned around and accused God of buying Job’s loyalty. Job only loved God because of all the good stuff God gave him—wealth, a loving family, protection, health.

God basically said, See for yourself if that’s true, which it wasn’t

Here’s the part that I’ve come to understand. Job’s friends, perhaps the first health-and-wealth theologians, in essence agreed with Satan, though they came at it from the opposite side. They said, Job, you’re suffering because you did something wrong. If you will just do right (or stop doing wrong), God will reward you for it. Which is another way of saying, God pays people to love Him.

In other words, they were putting God in a box and telling Job he had the capacity to manipulate God into blessing him and prospering him.

Job countered by saying, No, he hadn’t done anything to bring down God’s wrath. He still loved God, still believed in doing what was right, but God was punishing him anyway.

Here’s where Job sinned. He accused God too. Accused Him of wronging Job, to the point that he justified himself at God’s expense. (God even asked him, “Will you condemn Me that you may be justified?” – Job 40:8b)

But the critical point comes when God spells out for all of them the truth about Himself:

Who has given to Me that I should repay him?
Whatever is under the whole heaven is Mine. (Job 41:11)

Satan was wrong in his accusation of God. God doesn’t need to pay off His creatures to love Him. Job’s friends were wrong in their description of God. He can’t be manipulated into giving us good things as payment for our obedience. Job was wrong because He said God had turned against Him for no reason. He was measure God’s goodness by how He treated Job.

Of course, God also called Job to account for his pride.

His description in verses 12 through 33 of chapter 41 sounds like that of a dragon, the very term used of Satan in the book of Revelation. Then God adds verse 34:

He [the creature He’s just described] looks on everything that is high;
He is king over all the sons of pride.

Did Job at that point see himself as a son of pride? as a son of Satan? Most definitely he saw God aright, and I think that must have also made him see himself aright. As a result he retracted his accusations and repented “in dust and ashes.”

One more cool thing. The message of Job seems clear: God doesn’t pay us for right behavior. He doesn’t owe us anything nor does He need anything from us. He is over all and owns all. But He juxtaposed this book with the book of Psalms, so full of promises like

How blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked …
He will be like a tree firmly planted by water
Which yields its fruit in its season
And its leaf does not wither;
And in whatever he does, he prospers.

So which is it? God doesn’t repay or God blesses the person who doesn’t hang with the wicked? Both.

It’s like the parable Jesus told about the landowner who hired workers at different times during the day. When those who worked all day received the same pay as those who worked only one hour, they were miffed and accused the owner of wrong doing. But he said, are you mad because I was generous?

God can be generous to whomever He wishes, to whatever degree He wishes.

The thing we too often miss is that His greatest gifts aren’t the external things that make this life more comfortable. The real gifts are the spiritual things that are eternal, and those we have no way of measuring here and now.

This post is a revised, updated version of one that first appeared here in January 2009.

Published in: on January 16, 2017 at 5:30 pm  Comments (3)  
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The Clay Is Talking Back


But now, O LORD, You are our Father, We are the clay, and You our potter

But now, O LORD, You are our Father,
We are the clay, and You our potter


“God did not make us.”

I hear atheists reject God’s work of creation all the time, but more recently I’ve heard people claiming the name of Christ reciting a companion falsehood.

Isaiah prophesied about the twisted thinking that creates these untruths:

You turn things around!
Shall the potter be considered as equal with the clay,
That what is made would say to its maker, “He did not make me”;
Or what is formed say to him who formed it, “He has no understanding”(Isaiah 29:16; emphasis added)

Atheists like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens popularized the first part of that prophecy: He did not make me.

And “progressive Christians,” who believe in universal salvation, are saying in essence, He has no understanding.

Their belief system questions God’s plan of salvation by implying that sending “billions and billions” of people to hell for eternity is beneath Him. Judgment of sinners doesn’t measure up to the progressive Christian’s idea of what God should be like. In essence, they are saying God must not judge and punish as He sees fit. If he does so, he’s a “monster” as one supporter of author and former pastor Rob Bell called it.

“We do these somersaults to justify the monster god we believe in,” [Chad Holtz, former pastor of a rural United Methodist church in North Carolina] said. “But confronting my own sinfulness, that’s when things started to topple for me. Am I really going to be saved just because I believe something, when all these good people in the world aren’t?” (from “Pastor loses job after questioning hell’s existence”)

In other words, if that’s the way God is, then he’s wrong. Their answer is to ignore the clear statements of Jesus about His children, His followers, His sheep, in favor of a few isolated passages taken out of context and made to say things they were never intended to say.

In addition, the fundamental error in the thinking of those who indict God comes out loud and clear. Man is good. It is God who is suspect.

The thinking seems to be, Since we know Man is good, and we want God to be good, then hell can’t possibly exist, at least in the form that the “traditional church” has taught.

The answer, then, is to re-image God. And hell. And even heaven. But our idea that Man is good? In spite of evidence to the contrary, we’ll keep that belief intact.

The truth is, Man is not good.

A just God warned Man away from the tree that would bring death and a curse. Man ignored God and succumbed to temptation. He has not been “good” at his core ever since.

As Man went his own way, God chose an individual to be His, from whom He would build a nation that would be an example to all the nations of what it meant to be God’s people.

When the chosen nation went its own way, God sent prophets to warn them not to forsake Him. When they ignored the warnings, He sent more prophets, and finally He sent His Son in the form of man:

For what the Law could not do, weak as it was in 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 (Romans 8:3)

God’s Son didn’t come to judge—He will take that role later, when the just penalty for turning from God will be handed out to sinful (not good) Man, condemned by his own choice to go his own way.

Though Jesus came to save when He first entered the world, He created a dividing line.

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)

In summary, Man sinned, Man went his own way, Man rebelled, Man rejected God, his Maker. Clearly, by our nature we are not good.

The problem is ours, not God’s. God certainly does not need a make-over. He does not need progressive Christians to frame Him in a better light. Rather, we all need to stop going our own way, stop acting independently of God. We are but clay. Beloved by God, yes—not because we’ve earned His special consideration, not because we deserve His kindness and patience and love—but because of God’s own nature.

He is the potter. The clay really is not in a position to improve the potter, nor should it be talking back.

This post is a revised, updated version of one that first appeared here in May 2011.

I Am Not God


abraham027Of course, stating that I am not God shocks no one. Yet I see an increase of teaching—yes, even among Christians—that seems to promote individuals behaving as if we are God.

Let me explain.

There is this positive-think movement that talks about each of us being in control of our destiny. For instance, we need to think positively about our finances, and good things will happen. We need to have hope about our health, and disease will disappear. We need to believe in our abilities as writers, and contracts will come our way.

You get the idea.

The fact is, some of this is true. Health professionals have done studies about the power of the mind in the process of healing. Some brain studies have shown that “phantom” pain is a real brain message being sent to the body though there is no physical cause. Sociologists have shown that infants are drawn to people who smile and people who are attractive.

Like most false teaching, however, the facts can morph into error when they are misinterpreted. Many people look at the amazing things our brains can do and draw the erroneous conclusion that we are therefore capable of unlimited success, health, happiness. It’s all in our control.

Isn’t that just another way of saying, I am God?

Instead, any real understanding of facts about human abilities should lead us to gape in awe at our omnipotent God, not crow about our unlimited potential.

The most disturbing thing for me, however, is to see this “I can do all things because I’m empowered to do so” attitude creep into the church.

Sure, it’s couched in religious language, but at the heart is a belief that we are in charge. Not so.

Prayer changes things because God answers, not because I’ve put my mind to good health or happiness or hope. I don’t will myself into a better place because I’ve visualized it.

In fact, God seems to love coming through when all seems darkest, victory seems out of reach, despair seems the only option.

Think of Gideon and his small band of fighters up against insurmountable odds. Or how about the classic illustration—teenage shepherd David facing a giant. What about widowed Ruth, in a foreign land, scavenging for food to make a living for her and her mother-in-law.

More specifically, look at Abraham. What must he have thought when he took up the knife to slay his son? Was it happy thoughts? A belief in his own ability to make this situation right?

No. He went no further than trusting in God’s promise and obeying His word. God said Isaac was to be the beginning of a great nation. And God said Abraham was to offer Isaac to Him.

No amount of self talk could resolve these two contrasting facts. Abraham had to believe that God meant what He said, both times. He had to accept that God would do what to him seemed impossible.

He had to accept that God was God, and he was not.

This post is a revised and edited version of one that first appeared here in May 2010.

Published in: on January 9, 2017 at 6:35 pm  Comments (3)  
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God’s Great Story In Esther


pagankingA few years ago there was great consternation over the story of Esther. A pastor who has since fallen into disrepute preached a series of sermons from the book of Esther, and apparently pointed a finger at Esther and accused her of . . . wait for it . . . (gasp) sin! And feminists had a field day! Oh, how they stood up to defend Esther and how they accused this pastor of condoning rape and abuse and sex trafficking.

I have to say, ever since I heard the story of Esther, I’ve had problems with it. Yes, Esther was one of the exiles from Judah, and therefore, not free. But was she forced into a relationship with the king? Not really.

But my intention isn’t to rehash the debate over Esther’s choices—or whether she had any. Rather, I was struck by something about the opening scene, before Esther has been introduced.

The book is ostensibly about the salvation of the Jewish people from annihilation because of God’s intervention through Esther and her role as queen in King Ahasuerus’s (Xerxes) reign in Medo-Persia. But as a number of Bible teachers will tell us, every book of the Bible is about Jesus Christ.

The pastor I mentioned above certainly preached his series from that perspective. His sermons had titles such as “Jesus Is A Better King,” “Jesus Has A Better Kingdom,” “Jesus Is A Better Savior,” and “Jesus Is A Better Mediator.”

But of course Jesus isn’t mentioned in the book of Esther. Neither is God, though His fingerprints are all over the place. The writer alluded to God most clearly in 4:13-14 when he wrote,

Then Mordecai told them to reply to Esther, “Do not imagine that you in the king’s palace can escape any more than all the Jews. For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance will arise for the Jews from another place and you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows whether you have not attained royalty for such a time as this?”

So what about the opening struck me as so significant?

We’re introduced to King Ahasuerus who inherited his position as ruler of the greatest empire then known to man. It stretched from India to Ethiopia. He was the greatest sovereign of that time.

With his position came power and wealth—so much so that in year three of his reign, he declared a six-month-long party for all the nobles, leaders, soldiers of his empire. Anyone who was anyone was invited to this bash. He capped the lengthy celebration off with a seven-day feast for those who served him in his palace.

Seven days his men drank and feasted. And elsewhere in the palace, his queen also held a banquet. King Ahasuerus used the occasion to brag about all his power and wealth. At some point, when he was drunk, he also started bragging about how beautiful his wife was. He decided to show her off, so he summoned her to leave her feast and her guests and to parade in front of his men.

Some commentators suggest this had sexual ramifications—making his party to be like a stag party or using her as live porn. Scripture doesn’t say that, but it’s not too hard to imagine that he wasn’t telling her to model the latest evening gown and then return to her own feast.

It’s all very unsavory.

His queen, for whatever reason, refused to come to him. He was furious. As punishment, he removed her from her place as his queen. On the advice of one of his princes, he determined to replace her with someone more worthy.

So here’s the opening of the story:

  • an all powerful king summons his chosen wife to his banquet
  • she refuses to come
  • he removes her and gives her favored position to someone else

Here’s the key verse:

If it pleases the king, let a royal edict be issued by him and let it be written in the laws of Persia and Media so that it cannot be repealed, that Vashti may no longer come into the presence of King Ahasuerus, and let the king give her royal position to another who is more worthy than she. (Esther 1:19)

This opening, I suggest, is a metaphor for God’s dealing with humankind.

I know some people will object because King Ahasuerus is an unsavory character who did selfish, godless, unwise things. Some will call him a misogynist.

But throughout Scripture metaphors gave a picture of God’s work in the world and His plan of salvation, and they used sinful people to do so. Jesus even used a godless King in one of His parables to illustrate a point about God. The nature of this king should not blind us to the similarities.

  • God, the all powerful sovereign, calls His people to Himself.
  • His chosen nation refused Him, and finally rejected His Messiah.
  • In response, God chose a people from those who had not been a people—the Church—which has become His bride.

In other words, God’s plan of redemption is right there in the opening chapters of Esther.

Yes, the book is full of other great truths. Esther did have to make a life or death kind of decision, which she did on the strength of the prayers of the Jews she would intercede for. God did orchestrate a set of circumstances that we can only think of as providential because the chances of them all happening when they happened is just too coincidental to be believed . . . unless Someone was in charge.

How sad that in the cultural context of our day we can’t seem to see past the issues we’ve put on our human-centric pedestal.

Ahasuerus was an ungodly king, no doubt about it. He had a harem of untold number of wives and concubines. He made bad decisions and trusted the wrong advisors. He gave away his authority to a man who was prideful and wicked. What’s more, the king was unaware of the effect of his rule on the people in his empire. He wasn’t a good king, he wasn’t a good man, he wasn’t a good husband.

Scripture does not condone any of his behavior. It records it. And by doing so, a picture of God comes out of it all, like the phoenix rising from the ashes: God who is sovereign, calls His people to Himself. When they rejected Him, He created a new people for His own.

Published in: on January 5, 2017 at 6:55 pm  Comments (4)  
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