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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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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Mark 3 – Sneak Preview


rubber_bandMy church is reading a chapter a day from the New Testament this year, then different members of the congregation write a meditation on the passage. It’s very cool. We have read chapters together as a church before, but the accompanying devotionals are new.

Because I’m a writer, I’ve been included on the slate, so I thought I’d post my very short article here today. It’s scheduled for August 7, but the deadline to turn it in is tomorrow.

First, it really is important to read the chapter. There’s lots happening. In Mark’s rather abbreviated style, he doesn’t linger much on any one event. Rather, he packs a lot into a few verses. One online source where you can read the passage is the Blue Letter Bible.

Secondly, I have to explain something a recent guest preacher, Pastor Caleb Kaltenbach of the Discovery Church in Simi Valley, CA, shared as part of his sermon. He began with a little of his background Pastor Caleb.

When he was young, his parents divorced, both going into the homosexual lifestyle. Caleb was raised by his mom and her partner. They were very involved in the LGBT community, and he marched along side them in gay pride parades. In fact, when people screamed nasty things at them or threw urine or waved offensive signs, he’d ask his mom why those people did those things. Because they hate us, she’d say. But why? he asked. She’d answer, Because they’re Christians.

Caleb was determined to stay away from Christians, but God had other plans. In yet another testimony of someone out to disprove God’s truth, during his study of Scripture Caleb found faith in Jesus. He was clear that he believes what the Bible teaches, including what it teaches about marriage—that it is a union between one man and one woman.

What’s more, long story short, both his mom and his dad have found faith in Christ.

After giving us his personal background, he preached from John 8 about the adulterous woman thrust before Jesus. His take away was that Jesus offered the woman grace and truth.

We Christians too often offer only grace or only truth. Grace, he said can be seen in the constant admonition to love, love, love, love; everything is love, without any accountability. Truth can be seen in the litany of things we stand against and the priority we give to those things.

Jesus offered both, grace and truth.

Caleb illustrated the point with a large rubber band. If you handle it on one side, let’s say, the grace side, it hangs limply with no purpose. If you handle it on the opposite side, the truth side, it hangs limply with no purpose. If you handle it on both sides simultaneous, you now have a powerful tool that can be used to its appointed purpose. But the power comes from the tension between the two sides. So too with grace and truth!

That’s important for you to know as you read the following sneak peek of my article. It’s short. We can write no more than 250 words. (You can imagine how that taxes me, long winded as I am!)

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Jesus declared that those who do His will are His family.

The Pharisees didn’t qualify. They only paid attention to Jesus in order to catch Him in some kind of compromising action or errant teaching. They didn’t care that the will of God included care for the lowly, such as the man with the maimed hand. Their concern was that people followed the traditions regarding the Sabbath. Traditions, not Scripture.

Likewise when the unbelieving Jewish leaders accused Jesus of casting out demons by the power of the chief rebel, Satan himself, they didn’t care that a fellow human had been delivered from demonic power. They only cared that Jesus was getting attention they wanted.

Even Jesus’s own family didn’t qualify as people doing the will of God. They portrayed great concern for Jesus when they saw that He didn’t even have time to eat because so many people were crowding in on Him, seeking healing. They made an attempt to “save Him from Himself” instead of letting Him do the work of the Father.

stretchedrubberbandIn contrast, Jesus did His Father’s will. He healed and cast out demons and hand-picked His inner circle of followers and told stories to warn His listeners about Satan. He confronted those who lied about Him.

His “Father’s business” as Christ once called God’s will, was to serve others and to stand against the evil one; He lived his life with that tension between grace and truth. As should we who desire to do His will.

Published in: on June 30, 2016 at 7:10 pm  Comments (2)  
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The Thing Atheists Hate The Most


Abraham005Of course I can’t verify that I actually know what atheists hate the most. Some might hate warm beer more than they hate anything else. Some might hate the Dallas Cowboys more than they hate anything else. Some might hate spending Christmas at their in-laws more than they hate anything else. So this generalization I’m making comes with a caveat—I’m speaking specifically about theology and what the atheists I’ve encountered hate about Christianity and specifically about God.

Put simply, they hate that God’s ways are not our ways. In one discussion, an atheist kept insisting that an omniscient God would have to act this way or that way. Which is it, he kept asking. He, of course, isn’t omniscient, so I couldn’t figure out how he knew that an omniscient God, who’s ways and thoughts aren’t like ours, had only those two choices.

In a more recent discussion, the point is one that Christians have struggled with, and disagreed about for centuries: is God sovereign or does humankind have free will? As I read Scripture, I have to conclude God is both sovereign and has given humans who He made in His image, free will.

There are lots of verses in the Bible that people use to support the idea that God is sovereign. There are also lots of verses in the Bible that people use to support the idea that humans have free will. The natural conclusion seems to be, then, that both are true. It’s not a matter of either-or, but of both-and.

To reinforce this idea, there are a few verses that mesh the two. One is Philippians 3:12. I need to give the context though so that the meaning is clear. Here’s what Paul said about knowing Christ:

More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish so that I may gain Christ, and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith, that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death; in order that I may attain to the resurrection from the dead. (vv 8-11)

So Paul doesn’t count anything in his past as worthwhile. By far the greatest thing in his life is knowing Christ Jesus, which isn’t a result of any of his own good deeds, but is because of faith. The result is that Paul knew Jesus, suffering and all, anticipating the resurrection from the dead. Then the key verse:

Not that I have already obtained it or have already become perfect, but I press on so that I may lay hold of that for which also I was laid hold of by Christ Jesus. (v 12, emphasis mine)

Christ laid hold of Paul and Paul laid hold of faith in Christ.

On the flip side, 1 Peter 2 contains a verse that shows the same synchronistic relationship between God’s sovereign plan and humankind’s rebellion against Him. Again a little context:

And coming to Him as to a living stone which has been rejected by men, but is choice and precious in the sight of God, you also, as living stones, are being built up as a spiritual house for a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For this is contained in Scripture:
“BEHOLD, I LAY IN ZION A CHOICE STONE, A PRECIOUS CORNER stone,
AND HE WHO BELIEVES IN HIM WILL NOT BE DISAPPOINTED.”
This precious value, then, is for you who believe; but for those who disbelieve,
“THE STONE WHICH THE BUILDERS REJECTED,
THIS BECAME THE VERY CORNER stone” (vv 4-7)

The stage is set. Believers are part of a spiritual house, with Jesus as the Cornerstone. But the next verse discloses the truth about those who do not believe. Peter gives another quote from the Old Testament, then draws the conclusion:

and,
“A STONE OF STUMBLING AND A ROCK OF OFFENSE”;
for they stumble because they are disobedient to the word, and to this doom they were also appointed. (v 8, emphasis mine)

Some, Scripture says, find Jesus to be a “rock of offense.” But how did they arrive at that position? By being disobedient to the word, a doom to which they were appointed.

This is enough to cause headaches. In general, we don’t like the idea that people are appointed to doom. We don’t like the idea that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart. Of course Scripture also says Pharaoh hardened his own heart.

How can both be true?

We want things to be clear, easy, tied up in a neat bow, we want answers that makes sense to us.

“For My thoughts are not your thoughts,
Nor are your ways My ways,” declares the LORD.
“For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
So are My ways higher than your ways
And My thoughts than your thoughts. (Isaiah 55:8-9)

Here’s the thing. There really is a clear, easy, tied up in a neat bow truth which we can rely on: God is trustworthy. That’s the truth.

So when God told Abram to leave his home, even though Abram didn’t know where he was going, he trusted Him. When God promised to give Him more descendants than the stars, even though Abram was childless, he believed Him. When God told him all the nations would be blessed through him, though Abraham never lived to see the fulfillment, He counted that promise to be a done deal.

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

Gideon003That’s the response of faith to the transcendent God whose ways are higher than ours.

Not that there’s no room for questions—something atheists accuse Christians of is never asking questions. Of course we ask questions—as Gideon did when he was tapped to go up against the Midianites. As did Mary when the angel told her she’d give birth to the Messiah. As did David and other psalmists who cried, How long, oh Lord; or, Why do the wicked prosper; or, Have you forgotten your people?

Questions are not anathema to God. What He wants is a broken and contrite heart, though. Questions from a broken and contrite heart are very different from questions coming from a heart of pride that harbors a desire to be like god.

Sacrifices Of Thanksgiving


NOT the drive thru I was at

NOT the drive thru I was at

On another site I’ve had a discussion with an atheist about the context of Scripture—for instance, how God gave the Mosaic Law to the Jews because they lived in a theocracy. These same laws, then, are not intended for Christians to slavishly obey. In fact, the Law shows us we cannot please God by trying to do good and obey, primarily because . . . sin.

Then what’s the point of the Mosaic Law? Why are those chapters describing the sin offering and the guilt offering and the peace offering and the thank offering in the Bible?

Undoubtedly there are many reasons, but one certainly is that an understanding of the system of sacrifices gives us a picture of offering up to God that which pleases Him.

Always the requirement of sin has been shed blood. Adam and Eve sinned, and God covered their nakedness with the skin of an animal—an animal that had to die. From that point on, men offered sacrifices to God. Spilling the blood of an animal was part of worship. Noah, Abram, Jacob, Moses, Joshua, and on, the people of God built altars and made sacrifice to God.

And then Christ.

Jesus died once for all, the just for the unjust. He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. As a result, we’re free from the need to offer sacrifices over and over so that we may be in right relationship with God. Because of His grace and forgiveness, Jesus became the final sacrifice. His blood is sufficient to save, and no other sacrifice is necessary.

Then what are these sacrifices of praise and thanks? I wrote a post on this topic back in March entitled “Praise Is More Than Positive Thinking” but I think the topic is worth revisiting.

Scripture makes a case for the fact that God is delighted by our sacrifices. Paul equates the monetary donations he received from the church in Philippi with “a fragrant aroma, an acceptable sacrifice.” Not to him. Their giving to Paul was a form of worshiping God.

The writer of Psalm 107 said

Let them also offer sacrifices of thanksgiving,
And tell of His works with joyful singing. (v 22)

Because he coupled “sacrifices of thanksgiving” with telling of His works through song, I suspect the former isn’t referring to the animal sacrifices but actual verbal expressions of thanks.

The writer to the Hebrews clearly was referring to words:

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

Paul identified thanking God as something consistent with His will:

in everything give thanks; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. (1 Thess. 5:18)

Amazing, isn’t it, to think that we can be sure we’re praying according to God’s will if we’re thanking Him. I mean, how many times do we think, if only I knew what God wanted me to do. Well, there it is. God’s will is for us to thank Him.

I was feeling a little peevish this morning. I was on my way to the grocery store and stopped for some breakfast at a fast food place. I decided to treat myself to a combo! But the attendent was trying to over charge me and couldn’t seem to understand what I was ordering. I got a little brusque with her and even said I’d leave if they didn’t have the combo I requested at the posted price.

When I reached the window I was starting to wonder if she might not be new to the job. She kindly asked me how many creams and sugars I wanted for my coffee, but when she brought them, I had to request a stirrer. She came back with one and apologized, “All I could find was a straw.” Well, the stirrers at that restaurant do have straw-like properties, but now I was sure she was new. So my peevishness turned into guilt. And as I was eating, I wondered why I hadn’t at least apologized for being short with her.

What a bad morning!

Except, not really. I started thinking about events that had happened before I reached the fast food place, and I began thanking God for them. And as I type, I can thank God for His forgiveness for my shortness with that fast food server. How kind of Him to not treat me the way I treated her.

Sacrifices of thanksgiving?

One more point. I posted on Facebook just this week how much I appreciate people who share my posts. If I feel that way, why wouldn’t God? When we praise Him or thank Him, we are recognizing who He is and what He’s done.

Without question, what we do can please God:

Finally then, brethren, we request and exhort you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us instruction as to how you ought to walk and please God (just as you actually do walk), that you excel still more. (1 Thess. 4!)

So too, our words, our praise, our thanks can be pleasing to God—a fragrant aroma, an act of worship, a sacrifice of thanksgiving.

Published in: on November 19, 2015 at 6:07 pm  Comments (3)  
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Elisabeth Elliot: 1926 – 2015


Elisabeth ElliotElisabeth Elliot died on Sunday. From my perspective, she is one of the great heroes of the faith.

She influenced countless thousands in any number of ways, not the least in the area of foreign missions. After all, she not only lived sacrificially among the Ecuadorian nationals responsible for her husband’s death and preached the love of Christ to them, she also wrote about her husband and the four other missionary martyrs:

The story of Jim Elliot, Nate Saint, and companions Peter Fleming, Roger Youderian, and Ed McCully—most famously narrated in Elisabeth Elliot’s Through Gates of Splendor—is perhaps the most chronicled missionary account of the past 100 years, and remains an inspiration for many. (Christianity Today)

Yes, an inspiration to many.

Elisabeth Elliot had strong views and didn’t couch them in buttery, inoffensive terms. I heard her speak once. A friend was going on a short term mission trip and Elisabeth Elliot spoke at the commissioning service. I don’t remember precisely what she said—sort of, why are you young people doing this? Get your heads out of the clouds. Living on the mission field is not pleasant or easy. Specifically I remember her saying, contrary to popular opinion, she didn’t go to the jungle of Ecuador because she loved hot, humid weather and poisonous snakes. She said it was no easier for her to endure those discomforts and fears than it was for anyone else.

But ultimately, Ms. Elliot was not telling the prospective missionaries to “suck it up.” That’s not the way she thought. Rather, she had a passion for God’s word and for God Himself. She held to the fact that God can and should be obeyed and trusted.

Blunt—not ungracious, not impetuous, not snappy or gruff. But direct, unsentimental, no-nonsense, tell-it-like-it-is, no whining allowed. Just pull your britches on and go die for Jesus—like Mary Slessor and Gladys Aylward and Amy Carmichael and Gertrude Ras Egede and Eleanor Macomber and Lottie Moon and Roslind Goforth and Malla Moe, to name a few whom she admired. (“Peaches in Paradise: Why I Loved Elisabeth Elliot” by John Piper, Desiring God)

She challenged believers to move out of our comfort zone and trust the God who knows the end from the beginning:

Because of her, I dared to leave my comfort zone.

I am not alone—many in my generation found similar courage and peace through her books, speaking, and radio program. There is little telling the breadth of her global heritage. I am grateful for her life, and for the profound influence she left on my own. (“This wife of a murdered missionary has died. Here’s why Elisabeth Elliot’s life mattered to so many” by Tsh Oxenreider, Washington Post)

I think Elisabeth Elliot’s influence was so profound because she spoke the truth, but it was a truth she lived. She knew romanticizing missions would give people a false view of service. She knew sentimentalizing discipleship was the opposite of what Christ required of us.

Finally, Elisabeth Elliot has had a strong influence on women in the Church and on our ideas of our place in God’s plan. Above all, she adhered to Scripture, even the growingly less popular parts that identify a wife’s role as that of being subject to her husband:

A Christian woman’s true freedom [and, of course, she would also say a Christian man’s true freedom] lies on the other side of a very small gate—humble obedience—but that gate leads out into a largeness of life undreamed of by the liberators of the world, to a place where the God-given differentiation between the sexes is not obfuscated but celebrated, where our inequalities are seen as essential to the image of God, for it is in male and female, in male as male and female as female, not as two identical and interchangeable halves, that the image is manifested. (399—Piper quoting from Elisabeth Elliot’s chapter “The Essence of Femininity: A Personal Perspective” in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood)

I said “finally” but there’s really this overarching message of Elisabeth Elliot’s life, ministry, writing, speaking—she trusted God no matter what the circumstances. As it happened, she spent the last ten years of her life in the grip of dementia, a gradual death of who you are, at least in the here and now. Her third husband (her second husband died of cancer four years after their marriage) addressed her response in an interview at World Magazine:

Last year, as Elliot’s health declined, WORLD interviewed her third husband, Lars Gren. Elliot met him while he was a student at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, and they were married for 36 years, until her death. The magazine reported:

    Gren says Elliot has handled dementia just as she did the deaths of her husbands. “She accepted those things, [knowing] they were no surprise to God,” Gren said. “It was something she would rather not have experienced, but she received it.

(“Missionary Pioneer Elisabeth Elliot Passes Through Gates of Splendor” by Kate Shellnutt, Christianity Today)

In receiving the suffering of life which a good God put into her hand, Elisabeth Elliot became one of the great saints of the Christian faith. She is an example of living out what the Bible tells us, right here, in our sophisticated twenty-first century culture.

elisabeth-elliot

Does Anybody Have A New Recipe For Manna?


Gathering mannaBoiled manna. Fried manna. Mashed manna. Manna a la quail. Manna sauteed. Baked Manna. Raw manna. If there’s a way to prepare manna, my guess is, the people of Israel figured it out. After all, they had a steady diet of the stuff for forty years.

The people themselves didn’t take long to start complaining.

We remember the fish which we used to eat free in Egypt, the cucumbers and the melons and the leeks and the onions and the garlic, but now our appetite is gone. There is nothing at all to look at except this manna.” (Num. 11:5-6)

Nothing to look at. Only manna.

Apparently it didn’t occur to them that without manna they would have had nothing. Apparently it hadn’t occurred to them that their “free fish” in Egypt required them to be slaves.

So it is today. We seem so rarely contented. Rather, we live life for the next thing, and the next after that. We want the vacation to Tahoe until we hear about our friend who is heading off to Italy. So we add that to our “Bucket List,” which is nothing but a glorified “I want” list—I want this, I want to do that.

When we own our own home, we complain about the property taxes. We enjoy amazing technology, only to long for the newest gadget now out. We love our cars but can’t wait to trade them in for the upgraded model. Our jobs provide us with the money to pay for food and clothing, but we can hardly wait for the weekend so we don’t have to work. Or for vacation.

Life has become one big stress.

Or has it? Maybe life is not the stress, but we are looking at manna—or life—with dissatisfaction because we want something God hasn’t given us.

We take for granted God’s provision and we even diminish its value because we’re longing for something else—something we had in the past or something we think we’re entitled to in the present.

We replace gratitude with complaining, appreciation for disgruntlement. We disdain the security and constancy God provides in favor of something risky or edgy.

I do anyway. I hate to admit it. God is so faithful, and yet I grow complacent—so unlike Abraham. He considered God’s promises and “did not waver in unbelief, but grew strong in faith, giving glory to God” (Romans 4:20b).

I have ample reason to give glory to God, but I tend to think more about what He did not give me rather than what He has given me.

The crazy thing is, some of the things God withholds become things I’m so thankful later on that I haven’t been burdened with. Who knew? Good things can become burdensome.

Let’s take books, for example. Every writer wants above all else to publish her book. But publishing only leads to the need to promote the book and to follow it up with another and another. In short, the very good thing of having published a book grows into a larger requirement, a burden, even.

Perhaps God withholds that good thing—a published book—because He wants to spare that writer the burdens and responsibilities that would come with it. I’m aware, for instance, of a writer who did not receive an expected book contract. While waiting, though, a family member contracted a serious illness which required a great deal of family involvement. How would it have been possible for this writer to navigate the waters of publishing at the same time as meeting the necessities of family life?

Of course, it’s so easy to say, Why didn’t God give the book contract and withhold the illness? No one can answer that for someone else, and sometimes we can’t answer it for ourselves. God simply hasn’t disclosed all His plans. But then, He doesn’t report to us, does He. He isn’t required to check in with us or get our approval to exercise His will.

In reality, He knows precisely what we need. And sometimes it’s not fish. It’s more manna.

The US National Day Of Prayer (A Reprise)


867434_prayer_at_sunrise

Today 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 a passage about idols:

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)

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 Obama would take our phone call every morning and would do all within his power to answer 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 Yea! But if He wanted A and God wanted B, then Yea! 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, forty-seven 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, sans some minor editing changes, first appeared here in May 2013.