The God Who Spanks


In my lifetime the US has moved from being a culture that believed in corporal punishment for children to one that looks with serious mistrust at anyone who would lay a finger on a child to discipline him or her.

At the same time, we’ve moved away from God, and in particular we’ve moved away from belief in God as a just and righteous judge who also disciplines for our good. He is actually our loving heavenly Father and yet He disciplines His children for our good.

For consider Him who has endured such hostility by sinners against Himself, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.

You have not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood in your striving against sin; and you have forgotten the exhortation which is addressed to you as sons,

“MY SON, DO NOT REGARD LIGHTLY THE DISCIPLINE OF THE LORD,
NOR FAINT WHEN YOU ARE REPROVED BY HIM;
FOR THOSE WHOM THE LORD LOVES HE DISCIPLINES,
AND HE SCOURGES EVERY SON WHOM HE RECEIVES.”

It is for discipline that you endure; God deals with you as with sons; for what son is there whom his father does not discipline? But if you are without discipline, of which all have become partakers, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Furthermore, we had earthly fathers to discipline us, and we respected them; shall we not much rather be subject to the Father of spirits, and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as seemed best to them, but He disciplines us for our good, so that we may share His holiness. All discipline for the moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful; yet to those who have been trained by it, afterwards it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness. (Heb. 12:3-11)

In some ways I feel like I should bring this post to a close with an Amen and a period. Another part of me wants to launch into the positive effects of discipline on children and the Biblical admonition to parents not to neglect the same.

But the real issue, I think, is that we as a culture no longer like a God who judges, who disciplines.

Recently I’ve seen various people respond to portions of Scripture that identify God as a judge, as a God who brings upon an oppressor the consequences of his own acts. The best I can say is, people—Christians—are uncomfortable with it. In one instance, a person ignored the point of the passage and turned it into something that was not there, something related to God’s forgiveness.

God is forgiving. We can never forget that. But one way He brings us to a place where we ask for forgiveness is by applying the rod of correction to our derrieres. God lovingly, kindly, and with our good at heart, allows us to suffer the consequences of our own actions.

Why? Why would He not rescue us from all trouble, even the trouble of our own making?

Because God has greater things in mind for us than our immediate comfort and ease. God wants good things for us, no doubt. But the highest good is that we become conformed to the image of His Son. That’s what Romans 8:29 tells us: “For those whom He foreknew He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son so that He would be the firstborn among many brethren” (emphasis mine).

“Become conformed.” How does that happen?

The same way silver or gold is refined—by the application of heat. The same way an orange tree produces abundant fruit—by being pruned.

God disciplines, not because He’s angry or wrathful, out of control and intolerant of those who don’t see things His way.

He disciplines because He loves us. He knows what we sometimes ignore or can’t see—that our wayward path leads to death. That we’re headed for destruction.

What kind of parent would allow his child to sit down with a knife beside an electric outlet? Or unsupervised, play with a pile of matches?

We would consider parents that turn away from danger and let their kids “learn the hard way,” neglectful and even abusive.

The great danger before us as humans is what is ahead of us in eternity. The fire we want to play with is the fire of hell. God in his great love calls us to Himself. When we turn away, He pursues us and disciplines us and judges us so that we will know Him. So that we will turn from our wicked ways, see Him as the Savior our hearts long for, and call to Him in repentance and trust.

Yes, God spanks. But like all loving fathers, He also holds us as we cry against His shoulder, as we tell Him we’re sorry and that we will amend our ways.

He spanks and He comforts because He wants us to grow up to be like Jesus.

Published in: on March 22, 2017 at 5:53 pm  Comments (5)  
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A Look At Complaining


old_testament008-quails-for-meatA little background. I have been a complainer for … just about as long as I’ve known me. 😦 This is not an easy confession. I wish I could say I’ve developed the habit of trusting God in all things and never get wadded up inside over things that seem unfair, dangerous, unwise, wasteful, unkind, unhealthy, ungodly …

But the truth is, my first thoughts are usually of the “lash back” variety. And if not directly, then indirectly, to the first ready listener I can find. Of course, some call the latter by the ugly name, gossip.

Some years ago, as I was working my way through the book of Philippians in the Bible, I came across verse 14 in chapter 2: “Do all things without grumbling or disputing.” Some translations say complaining.

This verse follows a section about Jesus humbling Himself and coming to earth in the form of a man, humbling Himself to the point of death. And yes, following those lines is the declaration of God exalting His Son above all names. But then this:

So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure. Do all things without grumbling or disputing.

Some time ago I looked back on the all grumblers recorded in Scripture (people like me)—the Israelites. They finally escaped Egypt, only to have Pharaoh send his soldiers after them to bring them back.

The people saw the Red Sea in front of them and the Egyptians behind them, and they were afraid. Legitimately so, I would think. So they called out to God, but not just, Save us. Instead, they accused Moses of being irresponsible for bringing them out of slavery to die in the wilderness.

Nevertheless, God saved them.

Then they ran out of food and grumbled against Moses. Except, didn’t they really need food?

Next they couldn’t find water and they quarreled with Moses saying “Give us water that we may drink.” Was that unreasonable?

Of course there was the ultimate incident, when the spies returned from checking out their destination and ten stated, There are giants in the land. The people then grumbled in earnest, going so far as to discuss choosing a different leader to take them back to Egypt.

The grumbling didn’t end there either. But here’s the question. The Israelites weren’t making up the circumstances that frightened them. The Egyptians were indeed closing in behind them, they really did need food, and water, and there really were giants in the land.

So when does crying out to God about real concerns become grumbling and complaining?

Legitimate cries to God appear everywhere in Scripture, but perhaps the book of Psalms has the most concentration. Rescue me, get even for me, protect me … those kinds of pleas intermingle with why? and where are You?

Some people today use the Psalms as proof that it’s OK for us to rail at God, to be angry, to be disappointed with Him. I don’t agree. The difference between crying out to God and complaining is in our heart.

Complaining, I’d suggest, is actually an accusation against God. It’s not a request for Him to intervene but an assertion that He messed up.

Back to the Israelites. When they were in legitimate, life-threatening danger from the on-coming Egyptians, they didn’t just say, Save us. They said, Why did You bring us out here to die? We knew this would happen. Didn’t we say that to Moses back in Egypt when he told us the plan?

Same song, second verse when they needed food. Followed by the third verse when they needed water. It was never, God will supply because He brought us here, knows our needs, won’t leave us or forsake us. Rather it was an inference that the people knew better than God what their circumstances should be.

Here I see myself.

And unfortunately, many in my culture. We American Christians seem to have adapted a sense of entitlement, perhaps because we believe in a Bill of Rights. In addition, we say we have been endowed by our Creator with the right to life, liberty, and happiness.

Of course, I changed the wording on that last point from the right to pursue happiness, but truth be told, the way I wrote it is exactly what Americans believe, and unfortunately what many American Christians continue to hold on to.

Sadly, we’ve missed the central point of what our founders wanted to establish. Rather than entitlement, we were to be a nation of people responsible for what takes place.

But even that principle, when taken to the extreme, is off base. It can breed political activism instead of prayer. Expectation of governmental solutions instead of God’s answers. Grumbling and disputing instead of contentment.

I can’t get the image out of my head of Paul and Silas, beaten and in chains, singing God’s praises in the middle of the night.

Would American Christians be doing the same? Would I?

This post is an edited compilation of two that first appeared here in July 2008.

Published in: on March 2, 2017 at 6:52 pm  Comments (2)  
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God At His Best


hubble-view-of-stars_and_spaceSome doubtlessly will say God was at His best in His redemptive work at the cross. That’s where He outsmarted Satan and beat death, where He extracted triumph from defeat, where He displayed His matchless power and glory.

But a good case could be made that God was at His best when He brought the universe into being. No wonder the statement “In the beginning God created” has come under such fierce attack.

You see, the act of, the fact of, creation displays God’s character. From my point of view here’s one of the most powerful passages of Scripture. It’s the section in Isaiah 40 leading up to the “mounting up with wings like eagles” passage we know so well:

Who has measured the waters in the hollow of His hand,
And marked off the heavens by the span,
And calculated the dust of the earth by the measure,
And weighed the mountains in a balance
And the hills in a pair of scales?

Who has directed the Spirit of the LORD,
Or as His counselor has informed Him?

With whom did He consult and who gave Him understanding?
And who taught Him in the path of justice and taught Him knowledge
And informed Him of the way of understanding?

Behold, the nations are like a drop from a bucket,
And are regarded as a speck of dust on the scales;
Behold, He lifts up the islands like fine dust

Even Lebanon is not enough to burn,
Nor its beasts enough for a burnt offering.

All the nations are as nothing before Him,
They are regarded by Him as less than nothing and meaningless.

To whom then will you liken God?
Or what likeness will you compare with Him?

As for the idol, a craftsman casts it,
A goldsmith plates it with gold,
And a silversmith fashions chains of silver.

He who is too impoverished for such an offering
Selects a tree that does not rot;
He seeks out for himself a skillful craftsman
To prepare an idol that will not totter.

Do you not know? Have you not heard?
Has it not been declared to you from the beginning?
Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?

It is He who sits above the circle of the earth,
And its inhabitants are like grasshoppers,
Who stretches out the heavens like a curtain
And spreads them out like a tent to dwell in

He it is who reduces rulers to nothing,
Who makes the judges of the earth meaningless.

Scarcely have they been planted,
Scarcely have they been sown,
Scarcely has their stock taken root in the earth,
But He merely blows on them, and they wither,
And the storm carries them away like stubble.

“To whom then will you liken Me
That I would be his equal?” says the Holy One.

Lift up your eyes on high
And see who has created these stars,
The One who leads forth their host by number,
He calls them all by name;
Because of the greatness of His might and the strength of His power,
Not one of them is missing.

Why do you say, O Jacob, and assert, O Israel,
“My way is hidden from the LORD,
And the justice due me escapes the notice of my God”?

Do you not know? Have you not heard?
The Everlasting God, the LORD, the Creator of the ends of the earth
Does not become weary or tired
His understanding is inscrutable (Isaiah 40:12-28; emphasis mine).

God’s power is matchless, His understanding inscrutable, His ways unsearchable. From eternity, He is.

Simply put, He is over all of nature—that which is here on earth and that which is in space. He is greater than the nations, which He also made, sovereign over their rulers, Judge of their judges.

Creation establishes Him as Greater.

And Satan can’t stand that.

Why wouldn’t he bend his might to undermine the fact of God’s work of creation?

Let them believe in God, he seems to say, but a god stripped of his essential power. Let him be relegated to a cheerleader, watching from the sidelines, cheering Humankind along on his journey through life. Let them think god is kind and good and loving … and powerless.

Powerless to impact the world in a meaningful way—so it’s up to people to take things into their own hands and do what they can to clean up this mess. God? He can give them a shoulder to cry on, an occasional thumbs-up atta-boy, a timely “well done” to let them know how important they are to his plans.

After all, what would he be without them? A myth, a mirage, a bit of undigested cheese.

NOTHING, NOTHING can be further from the truth, but it all starts with accepting the Word of the One who can testify about where the world came from: In the beginning, God.

This post is an edited version of one that first appeared here in October 2010.

Published in: on February 9, 2017 at 6:00 pm  Comments (2)  
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Creation And The Bible


fullmoonovermountains-benjamin-child
Nothing might be more controversial today than creation. Atheists and liberals will collectively begin scoffing as soon as they read the word. Or mocking. Idiot right-wing Trumpite. She believes in creation. Ha-ha-hah! She probably believes in the Tooth Fairy, too. Or the White Rabbit.

For the record: not a Trumpite. And while I’m a fantasy writer, I have a pretty keen ability to discern what is make believe and what is true. You might even say I lean toward the skeptical.

But here’s the thing. Once you have confidence in the source of truth, you don’t need to constantly check it’s reliability.

For instance, in the course of my writing/editing day, I look up a lot of words using the Oxford-American Dictionary app on my computer. I do not immediately switch to the Internet so I can find that same word on Merriam-Webster or one of the other online dictionaries. I trust the source I’m using.

I have confidence in the Bible for a multitude of reasons which I’ve written about before (here’s one such post, the beginning of a short series, and here’s another).

I don’t mean, by saying that I have confidence in the Bible, that I don’t ask questions. I do. In fact, I’ve asked a lot of questions about the Genesis account of creation. For instance, when did God create the water that covered everything before He created the earth and all that is on it? And how did He create light before He created the sun and the moon and the stars? And the one that consumes so many people’s attention, did God really create everything in six days—the 24-hour days we know?

In some cases, in all my question asking, I come up with what I think might be the answer, but in most instances, the Bible hasn’t made a definitive statement, so I have to be content with what seems reasonable—given that God is omnipotent and sovereign and good.

What can I say about creation, then? What is categorically and uncompromisingly clear according to the Bible? Only this one thing: God created the heavens and the earth, the seas and all that is in them, the heavenly host, those who fell and those who serve him in joy and obedience. There simply is not anything made that was not made.

The Bible does not equivocate on this point. Right from the start, this is the point the Bible makes: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.”

God’s work as Creator is not a minor point. The Bible actually makes it clear that His work as Maker of the heavens and the earth set Him apart from pretend gods. Psalm 115 is a classic comparison between God and idols:

Why should the nations say,
Where now is their God?
But God is in the heavens.
He does whatever He pleases.
Their idols are silver and gold,
The work of man’s hands.

Then towards the end:

May you be blessed of the LORD,
Maker of heaven and earth.
The heavens are the heavens of the LORD,
But the earth He has given to the sons of men.

The verse of course implies that the earth is the Lord’s to give. Which makes sense if He is the Maker.

Other passages confirm this understanding, particularly the distinction between God and other gods or idols:

For all the gods of the peoples are idols,
But the LORD made the heavens. (Psalm 96:5)

Or how about Psalm 146:

How blessed is he whose help is the God of Jacob,
Whose hope is in the LORD his God,
Who made heaven and earth,
The sea and all that is in them (vv 5-6)

The passage goes on to name an impressive list of things we can praise God for, but it starts with his work as the maker of the heavens and the earth.

Here are other clear statements about God’s work as creator:

Psalm 33:6
By the word of the LORD the heavens were made,
And by the breath of His mouth all their host.

Psalm 148:5
Let them praise the name of the LORD,
For He commanded and they were created.

Jeremiah 10:11-12
Thus you shall say to them, “The gods that did not make the heavens and the earth will perish from the earth and from under the heavens.”
It is He who made the earth by His power,
Who established the world by His wisdom;
And by His understanding He has stretched out the heavens.

Jeremiah 32:17
‘Ah Lord GOD! Behold, You have made the heavens and the earth by Your great power and by Your outstretched arm! Nothing is too difficult for You,

John 1:3
All things came into being through Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being.

Colossians 1:16
For by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things have been created through Him and for Him.

Revelation 14:7
and he said with a loud voice, “Fear God, and give Him glory, because the hour of His judgment has come; worship Him who made the heaven and the earth and sea and springs of waters.”

This list is hardly exhaustive. More like it’s the first ray of morning light. But I think the point is clear: the Bible identifies God as the creator of all that has been created.

But here’s the thing: in these verses I quoted, there’s hardly agreement concerning the process of creation. The two Psalms say it was by His word and commandment. The earlier Jeremiah passage says it was by His wisdom and understanding. The second Jeremiah passage says it was by his power and outstretched arm. And the three New Testament passages made no statement about how God went about creating.

So does this difference constitute a contradiction—the Bible writers couldn’t agree with each other about the method of creation.

That, unfortunately, is how some read Scripture. They miss the poetic expressions that tell us more about God than about the creative process. He is so great that all He needed was to speak a word, but He is also so authoritative that His word was a command. All that He made was done as an expression of His wisdom and understanding, and His outstretched hand and power identify His sovereignty.

Rather than disagree, these passages of Scripture, written centuries apart in some instances, and by different men, in different circumstances, agree about the fundamental truth: God created. How, the Bible only gives us glimpses. It is not myth, but neither is it a text book, explaining the particulars one step at a time.

The big picture is crystal clear: God created.

His work as Creator sets Him apart from all other gods—all the pretenders and wanna-be usurpers, the idols that have mouths but cannot speak, and even from we ourselves and our thoughts of grandeur.

God created. God. Created. It’s the dividing line between people who believe and people who don’t.

Photo credit – Benjamin Child via Unsplash.

Published in: on February 8, 2017 at 5:32 pm  Comments (1)  
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Education And The Bible


student-peter-hersheyFor weeks a number of people have picketed and posted against President Trump’s choice for Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos. People have mocked her, belittled her, and cast insinuations that she’s corrupt. Take, for example, the meme that found its way on Facebook, comparing Ms. DeVos to the fictitious Dolores Umbridge who abused her students and her power in one of J. K. Rawling’s Harry Potter books.

The great cry from those who actually say something intelligent on the subject is that Ms. DeVos will be bad for public education here in the US. First she has no experience in the field of education, and second, she’s been a supporter of charter schools—also funded publicly and therefore, also part of the public education system.

There are reasons for the friction between traditionally public and public charter schools. Generally those can be broken down into two categories: who gets the money and who has the power? Some chafe at the idea that “school factories” run by corporations might get their hands on education. I get that. I’m not particularly happy about it either, especially when I watch some of the self-serving twaddle that passes as “news” or “pre-game coverage” (here’s looking at you, Fox).

Will our kids’ schools start selling naming rights for their mascot? Wearing advertisement slogans on the sports jerseys? Ugh. The possibilities are a bit frightening.

But, the schools here in California are a mess as it is. We may not get the corporate party line, but we do get the welfare state party line. Meanwhile, kids in the inner cities fall further and further behind. Further, they’re exposed to gang violence and threats, drug abuse, sexual promiscuity, and all kinds of other activities that anywhere else would be labeled, Not age appropriate.

But they can’t get out. Their parents don’t have the money to send them to a private school or the wherewithal to get them to a charter school or the time and expertise to homeschool them. So in the public school system they stay.

What, if anything, does the Bible say about education?

Not a lot. Some mention is made of groups of prophets—the New English Translation (NET) calls them prophetic guilds—which might be thought of as training grounds for prophets.

Although no specific mention is made of education, we know that Moses was schooled in the courts of Pharaoh because Pharaoh’s daughter took him to be her son. He would therefore have received whatever training any of the other royal children received.

In various passages in the Old Testament, God commanded His people to instruct their children in the way of the Lord. Here are a few:

“what great nation is there that has statutes and judgments as righteous as this whole law which I am setting before you today?

“Only give heed to yourself and keep your soul diligently, so that you do not forget the things which your eyes have seen and they do not depart from your heart all the days of your life; but make them known to your sons and your grandsons. (Deut. 5:8-9; emphasis added here and in the following verses).

These words, which I am commanding you today, shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your sons and shall talk of them when you sit in your house and when you walk by the way and when you lie down and when you rise up. (Deut. 6:6-7)

Psalm 78 is a little more specific:

We will not conceal them [the things “we have heard and known”] from their children,
But tell to the generation to come the praises of the LORD,
And His strength and His wondrous works that He has done.
For He established a testimony in Jacob
And appointed a law in Israel,
Which He commanded our fathers
That they should teach them to their children,
That the generation to come might know, even the children yet to be born,
That they may arise and tell them to their children,
That they should put their confidence in God
And not forget the works of God,
But keep His commandments, (vv 4-7a)

In short, God’s instruction was for the parents to teach their children the Law and the history of Israel—God’s work of redemption that brought them to the Promised Land.

Other references to education in the Bible include Daniel and his friends who were taken into the Babylonian court. The king instructed his chief of officials “to teach them the literature and language of the Chaldeans.” Which he did, though Scripture credits God for their accomplishments: “As for these four youths, God gave them knowledge and intelligence in every branch of literature and wisdom” (see Daniel 1 for this and the previous quote).

In summary, a few individuals had the opportunity for what we might consider a formal education, but God put parents in charge of the spiritual education of every child.

I say, spiritual education, but God’s work in the history of Israel was foundational, and it was their history that parents were to pass on to their children, along with the Law and the commandments.

This parental instruction is reinforced in many verses in Proverbs. Parents are instructed to train up a child in the way he should go, and children are admonished to heed the instruction of their fathers.

In the New Testament, we see this idea continued. Paul commends Timothy’s mother and grandmother, for instance, for their example of faith which Timothy shared. Timothy, who had a Greek dad, saw the faith of his mom and his grandma, and Paul saw this same faith in this young man. Paul doesn’t come right and say these women taught him spiritual things, but the implication is plain.

Paul also instructed the dads in the church in Ephesus to “not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Eph. 6:4).

Discipline and instruction. The two go hand in hand. So in Hebrews 12:4ff the writer compares God’s disciple of His people with a father’s discipline of his son. Though it may seem sorrowful for a moment, the end game is “the peaceful fruit of righteousness.”

In some ways homeschooling seems to more closely mirror the kind of instruction people in the Bible received, but God did not endorse a particular educational style. He did put parents in charge of what their children were to learn. Whether that means they are to take a hands on approach in all matters or only in spiritual matters, they are to be a part of the process.

But does this involvement in education extend beyond the things of God? Again, Scripture doesn’t prescribe what or how the rest of their education was to take place.

We know that Paul, a strict, traditional Jew, sat under the instruction of Gamaliel. In fact scribes likely had places of learning where they penned the many copies of the Torah. On the other hand, the Pharisees referred to Peter as an unlearned man. He clearly did learn, but not in a formal setting. He learned largely at the feet of Jesus.

Not a bad place to start. Scripture tells us the fear of the Lord is the beginning both of wisdom and knowledge. And Scripture tells us parents are to instruct, train, discipline, all with the goal to bring up children in the way of the Lord.

In the end we can argue about the different educational programs and systems, but if parents neglect their responsibility, the programs and systems won’t matter. First the parents must own their responsibility and take whatever role they need to take to give oversight to their child’s learning.

There’s more I can say on the subject, but I’ll leave it here for now: Parents, part of parenting is doing the “passing down to your sons and daughters the things they need to know” work—that’s a long way of saying, teach your kids what is right. 😉

Anger, Sin, And God’s Work


two-men-arguingA friend of mine once told me about an online encounter with someone who claimed his anger wasn’t sin. And yet he was so mad he was leaving the cyber-community in which this discussion took place. No apparent interest in reconciliation or a willingness to confront, coupled with a desire to restore relationship. No thought that he was letting the sun set on his anger and was therefore indeed sinning.

That storming-off-angry guy reminded me of something I recently thought concerning Paul. Yes, the apostle. I think he might have been a similar storming-off-angry guy.

He had to be at least “righteously” indignant before his encounter with Christ, because he was dedicating his time and energy to killing Christians.

But when he became a Christian, all that old nature was gone, wasn’t it? Well, yes, in the sense that God forgave Paul and clothed him in the righteousness of Christ. But no, in the sense that Paul still struggled against sin in his life. As he said in Romans 7, “I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate” (v. 15). Could anger have been his thorn in the flesh?

Why do I think anger was part of what he struggled with? For one thing after his first missionary journey, he and his partner Barnabas, who the Holy Spirit called to minister together, split because they had a disagreement.

Paul suggested they revisit the churches from their first trip, and Barnabas was evidently agreeable—except he wanted to take John Mark along. John Mark, who later wrote the gospel of Mark, had started out with them on the first trip but left right about the time the persecution started.

On this second trip, Paul refused to take John Mark along. Barnabas insisted. Paul refused. Barnabas insisted. “And there occurred such a sharp disagreement that they separated from one another” (Acts 15:39a).

Sharp disagreement. Though the Holy Spirit had called them together, they separated. Seemingly as a result of Paul holding a grudge against John Mark. Or at least, not forgiving him, not being willing to give him a second chance. Of course, Barnabas might have been the angry one. Except I’m not convinced only one angry person would create a “sharp disagreement.”

But what did God do? Despite the disagreement, He used both missionary teams to further the gospel. Paul chose a new partner—Silas—and Barnabas set out with John Mark.

But that’s only one incident.

What about the event that took place on that second trip with Silas? In Philippi Paul and his new partner were doing what they did—meeting with people in the place of prayer and baptizing believers—when a girl with an evil spirit started following them. “These men are bond-servants of the Most High God, who are proclaiming to you the way of salvation,” she cried out. Day. After. Day. (Acts 16:17b-18a)

How did Paul react? I would think he’d kind of like it. I mean, he had his own PR person, for free. I imagine people weren’t ignoring Paul and Silas with this girl trailing them. I mean, she was a person people used to hire to tell their fortunes, and here she was, for free, telling the crowds that Paul and Silas were proclaiming the way of salvation.

Apparently Paul didn’t see it the same way:

But Paul was greatly annoyed, and turned and said to the spirit, “I command you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her!” (Acts 16:18b; emphasis mine)

Great miracle! And undoubtedly the girl was joyful to be free of the evil spirit.

Her masters, not so much. They seized Paul and Silas, dragged them into the marketplace and before the chief magistrates accused them of throwing the city into confusion and advocating illegal activities, “being Jews.”

A crowd rose up against them, stripped off their clothes, beat them with rods. Then they arrested them, putting them in the “inner prison” with their feet in stocks. It took an act of God (an earthquake) to release them. In the meantime they testified of their faith in God by singing praises to Him.

When the prison door opened, the jailer attempted suicide because he feared the prisoners had escaped. Paul and Silas stopped him, told him the way of salvation, and baptized him. But not him only—his whole household.

So here’s the point. Paul and Silas could have had an effective witness and brought many to Christ because of the girl who followed them telling people they were proclaiming the way of salvation. Paul’s anger—or annoyance, at least—landed them in jail.

But God’s plan wasn’t thwarted. He used the circumstances to bring people to Himself.

And I wonder, could it be He also was delivering correction to Paul concerning His anger? Just a thought.

This post is an edited version of one that first appeared here in July 2010.

Published in: on February 3, 2017 at 5:47 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Fooled Or Foolish


In Paul’s Colossians letter, he talks a little about his struggle on behalf of the Church—that believers will gain “a true knowledge of God’s mystery, that is, Christ Himself.” He goes on to explain why he’s putting such emphasis on Christ: “I say this so that no one will delude you with persuasive argument” [emphasis here, and in the following verses, is mine.]

A few verses later he adds,

See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ. (Col. 2:8)

As if that’s not enough, he revisits the issue again:

Let no one keep defrauding you of your prize by delighting in self-abasement and the worship of the angels, taking his stand on visions he has seen, inflated without cause by his fleshly mind, and not holding fast to the head (Col. 2:18-19a)

Paul is making a case for Christians to focus on Christ and who He is so they won’t be fooled by the false teaching that had begun to seep into the Church.

It’s such a timely warning for today too. Health-and-wealth Christians or name-it-and-claim-it believers pull helpless, hurting people into their wake, but so do the universalists who promise no hell. Others, with arrogance, teach that Christians don’t sin. Another group wants to re-image Jesus or lose the “angry” God of the Old Testament, and a bunch more want to ignore the entire book of Revelation.

False teaching to the left, false teaching to the right, and so many Christians being fooled.

At the same time, there are Christians holding other Christians up to scorn because their work for Christ isn’t artistic enough or profound enough or nuanced enough or purposeful enough or missional enough. It seems we’ve forgotten what Paul says in 1 Corinthians:

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, … so that no man may boast before God. (1 Cor. 1:27, 29)

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think we should purposefully go out and do a bumbling job of the tasks God gives us so that He has a weak thing with which to work. The fact is, He already has a weak thing with which to work—humans.

Some time ago, I had what was at the time, an epiphany: I am small. I didn’t realize so much that I am a small, unimportant human among the powerful rich, famous, and politically connected. Rather, I realized my smallness in light of God’s bigness, His unfathomable bigness.

Then He makes it clear in His word that His plan is to use His people—all of us small ones. Jesus, the head, wants His body the church to hold fast to Him so that we can grow with a growth which comes from God (Col. 2:19b). With growth comes fruit and the fulfillment of the Christian’s directive to make disciples.

None of it happens because we are clever or eloquent or intelligent or personable or influential. The Church grows with a growth which comes from God.

Jeremiah sums this up nicely:

Thus says the LORD, “Let not a wise man boast of his wisdom, and let not the mighty man boast of his might, let not a rich man boast of his riches; but let him who boasts boast of this, that he understands and knows Me, that I am the LORD who exercises lovingkindness, justice and righteousness on earth; for I delight in these things,” declares the LORD. (Jer. 9:23-24)

It seems to me, the foolish, though they may be criticized by fellow Christians for their inadequacies, are the people God can use, and the fooled—those so enamored with the “traditions of men … the elementary principles of the world … inflated without cause by their fleshly mind”—simply aren’t available because they’re distracted or unattached from the head who is Christ. They are not “seeking the things above where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God” (Col. 3:1). They haven’t set their “minds on the things above, not on the things that are on earth” (Col 3:2).

The bottom line is that the Apostle Paul was right. Small, weak, and foolish though we be, our focus should be on Christ.

On the other hand, if we bypass Christ for the imaginings of men, we’ve been deluded, deceived, fooled.

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

Thoughts About Job, His Friends, And God


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published in: on January 16, 2017 at 5:30 pm  Comments (3)  
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The Hedge Of God


Maasai_people_in_a_village_on_the_A109_road,_KenyaI’ve been reading in the book of Job recently, and again I noticed the word “hedge.” Satan uses it in chapter one in reference to God protecting Job. Later Job uses it in reference to God trapping him in his circumstances. I think it’s ironic—two different ways of looking at God’s work in our lives.

I wrote about the hedge of God back in January 2013. Here’s that post again, with some rewriting, revision, and editing.

– – – – –

When I was in Africa, we visited Serengeti National Park, known for its abundant wildlife. What surprised me was that people lived there too, particularly members of the Masai tribe. In order to protect themselves at night from lions, cheetah, or any other predatory animal, the people encircled their huts or villages with a bramble fence or hedge. From Wikipedia:

Villages are enclosed in a circular fence (an enkang) built by the men, usually of thorned acacia, a native tree. At night, all cows, goats, and sheep are placed in an enclosure in the centre, safe from wild animals.

Thoroughly practical if you’re going to live in a dangerous environment.

But, then, what environment in this sin-wracked world isn’t dangerous? Here in the US, rather than thorned acacia, those who wish to put a hedge around their homes turn to fences or walls or gated communities.

I find it interesting that Satan, in his first conversation with God about Job, pointed to God’s hedge around His righteous servant as the reason for Job’s faithfulness.

“Have You not made a hedge about him and his house and all that he has, on every side? You have blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land.” (Job 1:10)

God didn’t deny it. Instead, He essentially lowered the hedge in order to let Satan put Job’s faith to the test:

Then the LORD said to Satan, “Behold, all that he has is in your power, only do not put forth your hand on him.” (Job 1:12a)

Flash forward a couple chapters. Job has suffered terrible loss, but refused to turn against God. Satan claims he’s holding to his faith because he still has his life. God gives Satan permission to touch his body but not to kill him. As a result, Job is afflicted with boils from head to foot—oozing, pus-filled, painful boils. Day after day after day. No antibiotics. They are not going away.

His friends come to sympathize with him, but they have nothing to say. Instead they take the posture of grief, tearing their clothes and putting dust on their heads. They sit with Job for a week, not saying anything.

Finally he cracks. “Why?” he cries. Not, “Why am I suffering?” but, “Why was I born?” He’s understandably depressed, but he’s slipped from trusting God into questioning Him.

Why did I not die at birth,
Come forth from the womb and expire?
Why did the knees receive me,
And why the breasts, that I should suck? . . .
Why is light given to him who suffers,
And life to the bitter of soul,
Who long for death, but there is none,
And dig for it more than for hidden treasures,
Who rejoice greatly,
And exult when they find the grave?
Why is light given to a man whose way is hidden,
And whom God has hedged in? (Job 3:11-12, 20-23—emphasis mine)

Maasai_Enkang_and_HutJob recognizes, as Satan had, that God hedges him in, but in his pain and suffering he gets things backwards. He doesn’t realize that the thing he accuses God of is actually the thing God uses to bless him, not curse him. He doesn’t realize that the problem is God’s removal of His hedge rather than His construction of it.

There is freedom with God:

For you have not received a spirit of slavery leading to fear again, but you have received a spirit of adoption as sons by which we cry out, “Abba! Father!” (Rom. 8:15; the following verses also address the contrast between freedom and slavery)

I imagine, in the same way, people today see God’s hedge as either a blessing or a curse.

I’ll never forget the late Christopher Hitchens saying that if there was such a God as Christians believe in, he would be an insufferable tyrant. Apparently Mr. Hitchens saw God’s hedge as a curse—as a thing that would close in around him and choke out the life he wanted to live.

On the other hand, I see God’s hedge and revel in His protection. I can’t imagine living without it.

In a way, God Himself is that hedge, standing between me and the “host encamped against me.”

The Lord is my light and salvation
Whom shall I fear?
The LORD is the defense of my life;
Whom shall I dread?
When evildoers came upon me to devour my flesh,
My adversaries and my enemies, they stumbled and fell.
Though a host encamp against me,
My heart will not fear;
Though war arise against me,
In spite of this I shall be confident.
One thing I have asked from the LORD, that I shall seek:
That I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life,
To behold the beauty of the LORD
And to meditate in His temple.
For in the day of trouble He will conceal me in His tabernacle;
In the secret place of His tent He will hide me;
He will lift me up on a rock. (Psalm 27:1-5; emphasis added)

The hedge of God, given for my protection, but viewed by some as restriction. The truth is, God’s hedge provides freedom within the circle. Should God remove that hedge, all hell could break loose. Literally.

The great news is, we Christians have the Holy Spirit in our lives. Part of God’s hedge, if you will. We’re not alone when trials come our way. And the book of James makes clear that trials will come. We can face them with God’s hedges firmly in place or with hedges down so that we’re exposed and vulnerable.

My prayer is that God will hedge me in all He wants!

Published in: on January 10, 2017 at 5:00 pm  Comments (1)  
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God’s Great Story In Esther


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what about the opening struck me as so significant?

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

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

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

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

It’s all very unsavory.

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

So here’s the opening of the story:

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

Here’s the key verse:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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