The US National Day Of Prayer—A Reprise


This coming Thursday is the National Day Of Prayer here in the US. In a country with the freedom to worship when and how and who we please, it seems a little odd that we have a designated National Day of Prayer. I’m glad we do because it makes me think more about the subject, but part of my thinking is that, for most of us, the National Day of Prayer means very little.

For one thing, prayer, as an activity in and of itself, has no efficacious value. Isaiah illustrated that most clearly in the passage about idols that I included in Friday’s article. Here it is again, with a couple additional verses.

Surely he cuts cedars for himself, and takes a cypress or an oak and raises it for himself among the trees of the forest. He plants a fir, and the rain makes it grow. Then it becomes something for a man to burn, so he takes one of them and warms himself; he also makes a fire to bake bread. He also makes a god and worships it; he makes it a graven image and falls down before it. Half of it he burns in the fire; over this half he eats meat as he roasts a roast and is satisfied. He also warms himself and says, “Aha! I am warm, I have seen the fire.” But the rest of it he makes into a god, his graven image. He falls down before it and worships; he also prays to it and says, “Deliver me, for you are my god.” They do not know, nor do they understand, for He has smeared over their eyes so that they cannot see and their hearts so that they cannot comprehend. No one recalls, nor is there knowledge or understanding to say, “I have burned half of it in the fire and also have baked bread over its coals. I roast meat and eat it. Then I make the rest of it into an abomination, I fall down before a block of wood!” (Isaiah 44:14-19; emphasis mine)

Praying to a block of wood, Isaiah is saying, has no value. Clearly, then, value is not in the act of praying.

Consequently, in a country with people of many faiths, telling us all to pray on a certain day, accomplishes nothing. The only prayer that matters is the one offered to a Person interested enough to listen and powerful enough to do something about what He hears.

But should we limit ourselves to pray to such a Person on one day out of the year? Surely, if we knew President Trump would take our phone call every morning and would do all within his power to fulfill our requests, we wouldn’t limit ourselves to a phone call one day a year. Why then would we make prayer a one-day event?

Clearly it should be a regular part of our relationship with God—the One who commands us to pray, who promises to hear us, and who delights in giving us what we ask. Anything, that is, which we ask in His name, according to His will.

No, that isn’t a formula for getting what we want. The specifics God laid down about prayer are relational doors. We are to ask “in Jesus’s name” not as a cool way to bring a prayer to an end or as a magic mantra to insure that God has to come through and deliver on His promises. We ask in Jesus’s name in the same way that we might go to an exclusive “by invitation only” dinner. We reach the door and give our name. Oh, but we’re not on the list. Rather, the guest of honor invited us to be in his party, so we give his name. Because of his name we are ushered into the banquet hall and seated at the head table. In the same way, we ask God for things, not because of who we are but because of who Jesus is.

Consequently, we can’t ask Him for things that would contradict who Jesus is. Well, we can ask, but God isn’t going to hear us if we ask for selfish things in His Son’s name. Jesus is not in the business of rubber stamping all the selfish requests people make of the Father.

Which brings us to praying according to God’s will. Jesus Himself before He went to the cross asked for something He didn’t get–to bypass the sacrifice set before Him. But God actually did answer Jesus’s prayer because He stipulated that He wanted God’s will more than He wanted what He wanted. It was Jesus’s way of prioritizing. He wanted A and if God wanted A for Him, then Yay! But if He wanted A and God wanted B, then Yay! Jesus would change His mind and want B also. Because God’s will mattered more to Jesus than His own will did.

In praying according to God’s will, essentially we are stepping back and agreeing that God knows more than we do, is good, loves us, and won’t make any mistakes. It’s as if we’re looking at our lives and our circumstances through a straw, but God sees the entire picture. From our straw perspective we ask God for what looks like the thing we need or want. God answers from his entire-picture perspective, however, which means we don’t always get what we thought we wanted.

Joni Eareckson Tada is a good example of this principle. When she broke her neck as a seventeen year old, she prayed to be healed. She was an active, athletic teenager who couldn’t imagine how God could possibly want her to spend her life in a wheelchair as a quadriplegic. Eventually, however, she bowed before His will, and today, fifty years later, she gives testimony of her willingness to do whatever He asks of her, no matter how hard it seems. That has included living with chronic pain and the onset of cancer.

So Joni is an example of answered prayer? She is, because she testifies of God’s love and goodness and mercy for her as she has gone through suffering. He has given her according to His will, and as a result, Joni has reached thousands upon thousands of hurting people with the gospel of Jesus Christ. Her impact for eternity is far beyond anything she could have imagined as a teen.

So, a day of prayer? Sure, it’s good to be public about our thoughts on prayer. But it’s much better to make prayer a key ingredient in our relationship with God. We wouldn’t think of limiting conversation with our spouse to one day a year. So, too, a strong relationship with God is built by talking to Him each and every day, not just once in a public forum because it’s the US National Day of Prayer.

This article is an edited version of one that first appeared here in May 2013, then resurfaced in May 2015.

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The Call Of God


Paul_the_Apostle_conversionThe apostle Paul received the call of God. So did any number of other people in Scripture—Abraham, Jeremiah, Isaiah, Elijah, Samuel. The thing about Paul’s call was that it was so public.

He saw a light so bright it blinded him for days. In fact, he needed a man sent by God to restore his sight. In the midst of that light, Paul heard a voice and what this Person said was a distinct message for him. First a question: Why are you persecuting Me?

Paul’s answer was natural: “Who are you, Lord?”

Then, The Call: “And He said, “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting, but get up and enter the city, and it will be told you what you must do.” (Acts 9:5b-6)

I suppose Paul could have said no. After all, Jonah did. Balaam and an unnamed prophet also resisted God’s directions. But the fact is, Paul obeyed. He did exactly what he’d been told.

And though the men with him saw the light (not in the way Paul did—they weren’t blinded by it), and though they heard the voice (not the way Paul did—they didn’t understand what the Speaker said), this call was for Paul alone.

It was dramatic. It was personal. It was convincing. We don’t have any record that Paul ever looked back from that moment on. He had been pursuing Christians to arrest them and bring them to judgment which would lead to their executions. Now he was a Christian who other zealous Jews were trying to put to death.

Despite his calling, others questioned what he was doing. Ananias, the man God sent to heal Paul, was the first one. God told him who he was to go to, and Ananias answered, Really, Lord? This man has been actively seeking to KILL Christians.

How like so many of us. We act as if we need to remind God of the dire circumstances we’re in or the offense against us or the plans we’d made, as if God had forgotten or maybe wasn’t aware. In reality it was Ananias who wasn’t aware:

But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of Mine, to bear My name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel” (Acts 9:15).

I still marvel that the “before the Gentiles” part didn’t throw Ananias, but to his great credit, he obeyed God.

He wouldn’t be the last person to doubt Paul’s calling, though. When this new, enthusiastic convert arrived in Jerusalem, “he was trying to associate with the disciples; but they were all afraid of him, not believing that he was a disciple.” (Acts 9:26b)

Can’t blame them really, but I think that’s typical. We don’t know what the calling is that others have received. Really? we say; you’re going to be part of a prison ministry? or an unwed mother’s Bible study? or a medical ministry to Russia? or a missionary to … shhh . . . a Muslim country.

Even more, we might say, What? You’re giving up your writing to take care of your disabled sister-in-law? Or, you’re giving up your stable job to become a writer? Or, you’re turning your back on that great guy who loves you because you feel called to the mission field?

The part that’s inexplicable is the calling. Paul knew he was called, though no one else heard what he heard, and he acted accordingly. Eventually others realized he was serious, though they may not have understood. And certainly his old Pharisee buddies did not get it.

In fact, later in Paul’s ministry when he was called to Jerusalem, a number of his Christian friends and disciples, including a prophet, tried to dissuade him. Don’t go, they said. If you go to Jerusalem, you’ll be arrested.

Paul had listened to those warnings before. After his conversion, in Damascus, when the staunch Jews were planning to kill him, his disciples lowered him in a basket outside the city wall so he could escape. Another time, when there was a near riot because of his preaching, he wanted to enter the arena to speak to the crowd, but the other Christians told him no. He left Philippi because of death threats and traveled by himself to Athens to wait for his companions. So Paul was not a stranger to heeding the warnings of others.

But he’d been called to Jerusalem, so to Jerusalem he went, regardless that this calling didn’t insure a happy end or many converts—at least not in the short term.

That’s also true about following God’s call. There is no guarantee that there will be fruit from your labor. Jeremiah, in fact, knew going in that no one would listen to him. Yet God called him to warn the people of God’s judgment.

In other words, the veracity of God’s call can’t be confirmed by results that people here and now can see. The widows of the men martyred with Jim Elliott may well have thought initially that their calling had ended in fruitlessness. It hadn’t, but they couldn’t know that at the time.

But it can be “confirmed,” I guess you’d say, by Scripture in the sense that God isn’t going to call a person to do something contrary to His written word. He isn’t going to “call” someone to have an affair, for instance, or to preach a different gospel from the one Scripture teaches.

I’ll be honest—I don’t like this notion of God’s call. I know it’s easy to act on our own, to be deluded by our own desires, to want something so much we talk ourselves into believing God wants it for us too. I feel on shaky ground when someone else says they’ve been called. But the few times I’ve known God’s call in my life, it’s been clear—convincingly clear. But maybe not necessarily to everyone else around me. Undoubtedly there are some still saying, Really? I get that. I wish I had a bright light to point to.

Or not. Some scholars think that perhaps the thorn Paul wanted removed was his poor eyesight which, though restored, was never as good as it had been. Of course his poor eyesight could just as easily have come from one of the beatings he took or the times he was stoned and left for dead.

Either way, it’s clear callings come with a cost—people not always “getting it,” some even opposing it, and lots of people doubting you ever got such a calling in the first place. That’s OK.

Like Lucy in Prince Caspian, we can respond to the call of Aslan, even though others don’t see or hear, or we can fall in line and go the way everyone else is going. It’s a matter of trust.

“Yes, wasn’t it a shame?” said Lucy. I saw you all right. They wouldn’t believe me. They’re all so—”

From somewhere deep inside Aslan’s body there came the faintest suggestion of a growl.

“I’m sorry,” said Lucy, who understood some of his moods. “I didn’t mean to start slanging the others. But it wasn’t my fault anyway, was it?”

The Lion looked straight into her eyes.

“Oh, Aslan,” said Lucy. “You don’t mean it was? How could I—I couldn’t have left the others and come up to you alone, how could I? Don’t look at me like that . . . oh, well, I suppose I could. Yes, and it wouldn’t have been alone, I know, not if I was with you.” (pp 135-136)

This post first appeared here in June, 2014.

Published in: on April 26, 2018 at 5:24 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The Mercy Of God


Another thing that I’ve learned from my FB atheist group (technically a group where atheists and theists talk to one another), is that one claim against God is that He is cruel and genocidal.

Of course He is neither of those, or any of the other horrible things people accuse Him of. They remind me of Psalm 139 that says of those David identifies as “the wicked,” “For they speak against You wickedly / And Your enemies take Your name in vain.” (v. 20)

I don’t think I ever understood before how a person could speak wickedly against God.

In actuality, the accusations against God could not be further from the truth. His judgments, for example, always were preceded by warning, of one kind or another.

Take the death of the first born of each household in Egypt—the plague that forced Pharaoh’s hand so that the Egyptians actually drove the Israelites out of the land. Moses asked and repeatedly asked, and God sent signs, then nine other plagues that became progressively worse, showing Pharaoh’s need to obey.

Then there are the Amalekites, a favorite group of people among the atheists because God told His people to wipe them out. These were the people Saul was to defeat utterly in battle. The people who accuse God of wrong doing simply ignore the part about the attacks which the Amalekites carried out against the Israelites when they were on their way to the Promised Land. Not open warfare, mind you, but raids against the back of the line where the weak and elderly and children were most likely to be.

God pronounced judgment on them then, but He didn’t order King Saul to carry out the punishment until some 200 years later, after the time of Joshua, after the time of all the various judges. In other words, the Amalekites had two hundred years to repent and turn from their wicked ways. And they apparently did no such thing.

In fact, the Amalekites fought along side the Midianites who Gideon faced—these were the guys who stole the crops of the Israelites so that Gideon had to thresh his wheat in a wine press to keep it out of their hands.

Because of Midian the sons of Israel made for themselves the dens which were in the mountains and the caves and the strongholds. For it was when Israel had sown, that the Midianites would come up with the Amalekites and the sons of the east and go against them. (Judges 6:2b-3)

Years later, when Saul became king, he led Israel against the nations that were coming after them, including the Amalekites: Saul “defeated the Amalekites, and delivered Israel from the hands of those who plundered them.”

So apparently throughout Israel’s history, from the early days before they’d even arrived safely in the land which Abraham had owned, the Amalekites pillaged, raided, ransacked, ravaged the people of God. Even with that defeat by Saul, they did not relent or repent.

The consequence was that God told Saul to carry out His judgment against them:

Thus says the LORD of hosts, ‘I will punish Amalek for what he did to Israel, how he set himself against him on the way while he was coming up from Egypt.

Two hundred years to repent, and they continued in their wicked way, so God acted. Compare that to what happened to the Assyrians who Jonah finally warned:

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

The truth of the matter is that all we like sheep have gone astray. We have all turned from God in our own way, some more angry and adamant than others, but we all shake our fist at God and declare we are captains of our own fate. James gives a practical example:

Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, and spend a year there and engage in business and make a profit.”

The point he’s making is that we plan and project and strategize as if God doesn’t even exist. He goes on to say,

Instead, you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and also do this or that.”

Because, the truth is, the wages of sin is death. We all deserve to die, and the fact that we live a day is an example of God’s mercy. That we live and thrive and have productive lives, that the rain falls on the just and the unjust, that God sends us warnings, that His Holy Spirit convicts us of sin—these are all examples of God’s great mercy.

Matthew records this statement of Jesus:

“What do you think? If any man has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go and search for the one that is straying? If it turns out that he finds it, truly I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine which have not gone astray. So it is not the will of your Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones perish. (Matt. 18:12-14; emphasis mine)

God’s heart is a heart of mercy. He will rescue those who will be rescued.

Published in: on March 6, 2018 at 6:09 pm  Comments (57)  
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A Closer Look At Faith And Prayer


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

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

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

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

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

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

Later Jesus said much the same to His disciples:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published in: on February 1, 2018 at 4:54 pm  Comments (1)  
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Praise The Lord


A sneak-peak of my article for my church which is due to post June 14. The passage is Psalm 113:

1 Praise the LORD!
Praise, O servants of the LORD,
Praise the name of the LORD.
2 Blessed be the name of the LORD
From this time forth and forever.
3 From the rising of the sun to its setting
The name of the LORD is to be praised.
4 The LORD is high above all nations;
His glory is above the heavens.
5 Who is like the LORD our God,
Who is enthroned on high,
6 Who humbles Himself to behold
The things that are in heaven and in the earth?
7 He raises the poor from the dust
And lifts the needy from the ash heap,
8 To make them sit with princes,
With the princes of His people.
9 He makes the barren woman abide in the house
As a joyful mother of children.
Praise the LORD!

On April 12 I had a mild stroke. Praise the Lord.

Yes, praise the Lord. He who is exalted over all the nations, whose splendor—or glory, as the NASB says—is above the heavens, who is beyond compare, lifts the needy from the place of desperation. He bends down, or stoops, to give attention to His creation—to our plight, to our needs.

I know the truth of this Psalm from an experiential point of view. I’ve lived it as God has brought healing and help, often through His people, through some of my church family, the blogging community, former co-workers and students, fellow writers, family and friends.

Yet one day, the truth is, we will all come to our end here on earth. Will God be less worthy of praise on that day? He will not.

Through the life or the death of His saints, God can glorify His name. I’m taking this opportunity to praise Him because He saw fit to preserve, protect, and restore me, but even if He had taken me home, I’d be the winner, and He would deserve praise.

So, one way or the other, I stand in awe of His grace, and I say a loud AMEN to the psalmist’s statement: Praise the Lord!

Published in: on May 19, 2017 at 5:00 pm  Comments (6)  
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God’s Indictment Of His People


Old_Testament sacrificesThe books of prophecy are filled with warnings–some against the nations surrounding Israel and Judah, but most directed at God’s chosen people themselves. Micah is no exception, but the things he points up seem a little different.

Others, like Isaiah and Hosea and Jeremiah seem to focus most on God’s people forsaking Him by worshiping idols or by not keeping His Sabbath or by mistreating the orphans and widows and strangers.

Micah, on the other hand, focuses more on the restoration. Israel, God’s chosen people, will face a day of reckoning, but redemption will follow. Nevertheless, God indicts them for some pointed things: cheating in business, bribery, lying to one another, and violence.

Here’s a sample:

Now hear this, heads of the house of Jacob
And rulers of the house of Israel,
Who abhor justice
And twist everything that is straight,
Who build Zion with bloodshed
And Jerusalem with violent injustice.
Her leaders pronounce judgment for a bribe,
Her priests instruct for a price
And her prophets divine for money.
Yet they lean on the Lord saying,
“Is not the Lord in our midst?
Calamity will not come upon us.”
Therefore, on account of you
Zion will be plowed as a field,
Jerusalem will become a heap of ruins,
And the mountain of the temple will become high places of a forest. (3:9-12 – emphasis mine)

A few chapters later Micah points out to the people that they can’t bring enough offering to make right what they’ve done.

With what shall I come to the Lord
And bow myself before the God on high?
Shall I come to Him with burnt offerings,
With yearling calves?
Does the Lord take delight in thousands of rams,
In ten thousand rivers of oil?
Shall I present my firstborn for my rebellious acts,
The fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? (6:6-7)

Rather God has made plain what He expects:

He has told you, O man, what is good;
And what does the Lord require of you
But to do justice, to love kindness,
And to walk humbly with your God? (6:8)

We can’t earn a place with God by doing justice, loving kindness and walking humbly with Him, but we can live up to our relationship with Him by practicing those things.

The relationship, interestingly enough, comes because God did what was needed—He paid that insurmountable price which thousands of rams and ten thousand rivers of oil couldn’t satisfy. He presented His Son for my rebellious acts, for the sin of my soul.

With my certificate of debt canceled, nailed to the cross, I can “walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, to please Him in all respects” (Colossians 1:10).

What does that look like? Well, Micah said it, didn’t he. God has told us what is good, what He requires of us: do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with our God.

This post is an edited version of one that first appeared here in May 2013. The YouTube music video below is a new addition.

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.

– – – – –

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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Is God’s Power Limited?


quail-2-703602-mI suspect if most Christians who believe the Bible were asked if God’s power is limited, we’d say, No, of course not. Some who identify as Christians but think Peter walking on water was symbolic and Daniel’s friends surviving a fiery furnace was myth, probably have some reservation about God’s power.

The thing is, whether we say God’s power is not limited or if we hedge the question, we mostly live as if we don’t think God has unlimited power. Not a surprise really. Even Moses wasn’t so sure about God’s power.

This would be Moses who saw a burning bush that didn’t burn up, who talked with God, who had his staff turn into a snake at God’s word, who initiated the plagues of Egypt, who parted the Red Sea, who met with God to receive His commandments.

Yes, that Moses wasn’t so sure about God’s unlimited power.

The situation was this: after more than a year of manna for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, the people of Israel started to complain. Seriously complain. There was a Back to Egypt faction, and a Down with Moses faction brewing. Already they were looking back at their old life with nostalgia. Things were better in Egypt. They could get good food for free. Never mind that they’d been slaves, so nothing from the Egyptians was free. Still, their complaints mounted.

Finally Moses brought the matter to God. The people were too much for him. He couldn’t handle the pressure alone. God gave him a group of elders to share the burden, but still there was the matter of food. The people specifically wanted meat.

God, as He so often does, said, Fine. They want meat, I’ll give them meat. In fact, I’ll give them so much meat they’ll be sick of it:

Therefore the LORD will give you meat and you shall eat. You shall eat, not one day, nor two days, nor five days, nor ten days, nor twenty days, but a whole month, until it comes out of your nostrils and becomes loathsome to you; because you have rejected the LORD who is among you and have wept before Him, saying, “Why did we ever leave Egypt?” (Num. 11:18b-20)

Excuse me, God, Moses answered. You may be forgetting something. We’re talking about 600,000 people, and You’re saying You’re going to give them meat for an entire month? Actually it was Moses who was forgetting something. The rounded off number of 600,000 was the men listed in the census and did not count women and children. The total could easily have been a million and a half.

But even underestimating the number of people who needed meat, Moses didn’t see any way God could do what He said He’d do. No way, Moses said. If we killed off all our livestock, there wouldn’t be enough meat to satisfy the demand for a month. Even if we over fished the sea we’re camped beside, there wouldn’t be enough for the whole company.

Here was an odd situation: God said it; Moses didn’t believe it.

Some how, because Moses questioned the limitless power of God, I feel a little better about the times I question God’s ability to do what He says He’ll do. I shouldn’t feel better. My excuse is that Moses had the advantage over me because He got to see God turn water to blood and cause darkness to fall on the land for three straight days and to send locusts to eat up their crops and hail to strike any living thing left in the fields. He saw the angel of God pass over Israel and strike down the first born of Egypt. Of course He should have believed God could do the impossible. He’d already seen it. Advantage Moses.

Except, I have the advantage of the cross and the risen, resurrected Lord Jesus. I have God’s written revelation chronicling fulfilled prophecy. I have His Holy Spirit living in my life, guiding me into all truth, acting as my Advocate with the Father.

Advantage Becky.

The point is, Moses didn’t really have a more sure way of knowing that God would fulfill His word. He had to trust and I have to trust.

Moses, quite frankly, thought God couldn’t pull it off. But to his credit, he didn’t start painting Return To Egypt Or Bust signs. His questions went straight to God.

You’re kidding! Six hundred thousand people? Meat? For a month?

God simplified things:

The LORD said to Moses, “Is the LORD’S power limited? Now you shall see whether My word will come true for you or not.”

Somehow, miraculously, God sent quail up from the sea. The birds surrounded the camp within a day’s walk. There were so many of them they stacked up a yard deep.

summertime-wild-flower-meadow-2-1354217-mIs the Lord’s power limited? Yeah, that would be NO.

If He wants to send quail to teach a lesson to His people about craving more than what He’s given, then He can send an impossible number of quail. So, too, today. If God says He will not fail or forsake His people, we His people can know He won’t fail or forsake us.

His word is sure, settled in Heaven, and unlike the flower of the grass that withers, it will stand forever.

This post first appeared here in September 2014.

Grumbling Is Sin?


In the past I’ve been pretty hard on the poor Israelites fleeing Egypt for the Promised Land. They had just witnessed God’s amazing judgment on their oppressors, I reason, and walked out of Egypt a rich people. As if that wasn’t enough, God dried up a path through a sea and wiped out the army of charioteers following them.

And what did they do? They had the gall to complain when they got thirsty. They had the nerve to grumble about heavenly food provided for them on a regular basis.

Despite my judgment of that conflicted historical people group—which, by the way, coincided with God’s judgment of them—I’ve somehow avoided putting all the pieces together to see that MY grumbling, MY disputing is sin. I can see it in ancient Israel. I can’t see it in me. Or don’t want to.

In my post “The Lesson Of The Bee,” I pointed out that the problem of grumbling must first be addressed when we grumble against God. But directly hurling angry words at Him is not the only grumbling that displeases Him.

The passage to the Philippian believers, in which Paul commands them to do all things without grumbling, in no way limits this to their communication with God. In fact, since the point of their not grumbling was so that they might appear as lights in the corrupt and perverse world, it seems to me the lack of grumbling and disputing would have to be true of conduct and conversation in the public arena, not just the church.

In thinking of this command in a hierarchical manner—first don’t grumble against God—my natural second question is, Who is next in line?

I’d have to say, logically, that would be governmental leadership. For us in the Us that would start with … the President.

Ouch! That hurts, doesn’t it? I mean, isn’t it sort of one of the American pastimes to shred the President if we didn’t vote for him? Some, of course, shred all Presidents since they don’t vote, or don’t vote for a major-party candidate. Others “only” go after a President in the “opposition” party.

I know it sounds old fashioned, but I was raised to respect the President because he was … the President. It’s right there in the Bible, after all:

Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God. (Romans 13:1)

Well, that doesn’t say “respect.” It says “subject.” Can’t we put ourselves in subjection to a leader and not respect him? Paul goes on to say more about our response to those in authority in his letter to Titus:

Remind them to be subject to rulers, to authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good deed, to malign no one, to be peaceable, gentle, showing every consideration for all men. (Titus 3:1-2)

Since rulers would fall into the “all men” category, I think it’s safe to say the “malign no one” part applies to pretty much every President.

But what if the things we say against a leader are true?

Well, the things Israel said against Moses were true. They didn’t have water, and at one point, the water they had wasn’t drinkable. They didn’t have the strong-tasting foods they’d grown used to in Egypt, and there really were giants in the land.

The reality of those conditions didn’t mean they therefore had a pass to rebel against the man God had put over them. No, they could not stone Moses and return to Egypt because they were out of water.

Peter spelled out what was expected of the early Christians, many who suffered under the persecution of Roman rule, and why:

Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether to a king as the one in authority, or to governors as sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do right. For such is the will of God that by doing right you may silence the ignorance of foolish men. (1 Peter 2:13-15 – emphasis mine)

So are we muzzled? Can we say nothing critical about our President?

I think we are free to voice our opinion and even point out when we disagree with the President. I think we can state what we wish he would have done instead. For example, I have no problem saying I think the President was wrong in the decision he made about health care.

That’s a far cry from hurling verbal stones—the kinds of disrespectful invective that come out of the mouths of and onto the screen from many professing Christians.

It’s as if we think we have a better plan than the one God is working. When He said we could be light to a crooked and perverse generation by not grumbling or disputing, we come along with plan B: Grumbling and disputing when it comes to “a bad President” is desirable and to be encouraged. It’s the American’s right, even responsibility, because that’s what you do in a democracy if you get involved. And good Christians get involved.

There’s the insidiousness of this argument. Christians should get involved. But how shocked would our culture be if we disagreed respectfully, without maligning anyone, treating all with gentleness, showing consideration even to those with whom we take issue? Wouldn’t that have the kind of effect that, say, God said it would?

And even if we never see any results from subjecting ourselves to our President, we will have accomplished the greater goal—to please our Sovereign King with our obedience. After all, He’s the one who’s told us not to grumble or dispute. He’s the one we sin against when we disobey.

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

Published in: on August 29, 2016 at 6:57 pm  Comments (2)  
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Does God Play Favorites?


ThreeSheepIn the atheist Facebook group I visit from time to time, one person brought up the idea that God favors the Jews, which is bound to make everyone else feel bad. I admit, when I was growing up, I was sad to learn that I was not one of the “chosen people.” But that was because of my ignorance.

Scripture states unequivocally that God picked the people of Israel to be His because of what we would consider their weaknesses. They weren’t strong, they were few in number, they weren’t influential.

So why them?

Scripture tells us that too:

The LORD did not set His love on you nor choose you because you were more in number than any of the peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but because the LORD loved you and kept the oath which He swore to your forefathers, the LORD brought you out by a mighty hand and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt. Know therefore that the LORD your God, He is God, the faithful God, who keeps His covenant and His lovingkindness to a thousandth generation with those who love Him and keep His commandments (Deut. 7:7-9)

The people of Israel benefited from God’s love and faithfulness, not from their own abilities or cleverness or obedience or wisdom or service. They were wayward, weak, needy, complaining, disobedient. But God had promised, and God is faithful.

The question still lies there: why choose any one nation at all?

God’s purpose from the beginning was to use His son to mediate between Himself and His creation. Adam filled that role at first when God put him in control of all creation, to rule it and subdue it. He was God’s ambassador to creation.

After the fall, God chose a nation, Israel, who he called His son, to show the way for the nations to find Him.

When their disobedience was complete, God sent His Son to be the beacon to the world.

Now He is building His Church to be those who reflect His glory, who shine the light of salvation to all the world.

So where is favoritism?

God hasn’t left anyone out.

Granted, He gave Adam and then Israel and now the Church unique roles. But certainly not favored roles. Would anyone say that God was showing favoritism to Jesus by sending Him to die at Calvary?

Israel wasn’t favored either. It was to serve as an example before the nations of a people who worshiped the one true God and obeyed Him, so that others would come to Him. They were sort of like the test case, the prototype. All the others could see how it was done, iron out the mistakes, and do it better.

If anything, Israel was under a microscope. They had to get it right, not just for themselves, but for all the watching nations around them.

But, of course, they didn’t get it right.

Their “favored nation” role became a place of judgment and condemnation, with a caveat: God promised them a remnant and a Savior.

Jesus is that Savior. Although His mission on earth was to teach and heal the people of Israel, as He Himself said (see Matt. 15:24), He made it clear that His ultimate goal was to seek and to save the lost. He came because God loves the world, not just the Jews (see John 3:16). He provided Israel every opportunity to claim Him as Messiah, but they would not.

Consequently, new branches were grafted into the vine, and now we who were not a people, have become the people of God.

Just like the Jews, however, we haven’t been chosen because of some merit in ourselves. Rather, God choose the weak and the foolish of this world, that His power and glory will be all the more evident.

For consider your calling, brethren, that there were not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble; but God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, and the base things of the world and the despised God has chosen, the things that are not, so that He may nullify the things that are, 29 so that no man may boast before God. But by His doing you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption, so that, just as it is written, “LET HIM WHO BOASTS, BOAST IN THE LORD.” (1 Cor. 1:26-31)

Such an ironic question—does God play favorites. Throughout Israel’s history, He instructed them to care for orphans and widows and strangers. When Jesus came, He spent a great deal of His public ministry healing people who were the castoffs of society. And His entire purpose for coming to earth was to rescue the perishing. All who believe, even the very last little lamb who’s gone astray.

Yeah, no, God isn’t partial and doesn’t play favorites. Peter, in his first letter, tells us God impartially judges. James tells us there’s no partiality with God. Scripture also tells us that God wants all to come to repentance, that He takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked.

God’s love is as complete and universal as it can be. It’s us humans who treat God unfairly, not the other way around.

Published in: on July 19, 2016 at 6:31 pm  Comments Off on Does God Play Favorites?  
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