The Transcendence Of God’s Mercy


God is transcendent, of that I’ve been sure. He is higher than His creation and therefore surpasses our ability to dissect Him, analyze Him, pigeonhole Him into our compartments of understanding. In fact, if He hadn’t chosen to reveal Himself, we would be forever shut out of His presence in ignorant misery — desperately longing, incapable of reaching.

In fact, one of my favorite passages of Scripture spells out this transcendent nature of God:

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. (Isa 55:8-9)

I’d never thought much more of transcendence—just that God is. But one day, I came across a passage from Psalm 103 that caught my attention:

The LORD is compassionate and gracious,
Slow to anger and abounding in lovingkindness.
He will not always strive with us,
Nor will He keep His anger forever.
He has not dealt with us according to our sins,
Nor rewarded us according to our iniquities.
For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
So great is His lovingkindness toward those who fear Him. (vv 8-11, emphasis mine)

There, nestled in the middle of the section (it continues for several verses) about God’s compassion, mercy, lovingkindness, is the same line Isaiah used to describe how high God’s ways and thoughts are above ours: as high as the heavens are above the earth.

I realize now I’d never taken the idea of God’s transcendence to its logical conclusion. If He is higher than we, if His thoughts are, His ways are, then it stands to reason that what forms Him, what defines Him as a person—His traits—also will be higher than ours. Hence His love will be higher than ours, His compassion higher than ours, His patience, His forgiveness, His justice, and His mercy—or as some translations have it, His lovingkindness.

Sometimes God’s lovingkindness mystifies me, and sometimes His justice does the same. Why, for example, did David who had Uriah killed become known as a man after God’s own heart? Apart from God’s mercy and forgiveness, it doesn’t make sense. And why, when Ahab let his wife Jezebel murder Naboth in order to take his property, and God said Ahab and his descendants would be removed from the throne, why, I ask, did God relent and tell Ahab he would leave him on the throne after all? In fact, why did one of his sons ruled for twelve years after Ahab’s death? God was merciful, and I’m pretty sure I would have been inclined to throw the book at the whole family. At once. No delay.

Yet how grateful I am for God’s delays in my life. He gives me mercy and help in time of need. He doesn’t slam His door in my face but graciously answers prayer. Over and over and over.

I originally connected this discussion of God’s mercy with the report I heard of an agent friend wh0 was diagnosed with brain cancer. At the time he’d received an all clear from the doctor, but his cancer came back, and he passed away.

More recently, my friend Brandon Barr, who had battled leukemia for a number of years, received a doctor’s report that he had 1 to 2 months to live. He died the day before Thanksgiving.

I had specifically prayed that God would be merciful. And I prayed for healing. But God didn’t restore either man to health. Did He extend His mercy to them? How can I know?

Trying to discern what God is up to is really impossible unless He tells us, because He has the big picture in front of Him. He certainly cares for us in the here and now, but this blip of time that He refers to as a vapor, as a fading flower, a bit of grass that’s here today and gone tomorrow, is not the whole story. God cares about the whole story. He cares about our eternal destiny. He cares about the people we can influence by our dying as much as by our living, by our suffering as much as by our victories.

We are limited in what we can see, as if we’re staring at the sky through a straw. But God has no such limitation. He sees the big picture and He sees it from beginning to eternity.

So really, when it comes to understanding God’s great, transcendent mercy, pretty much all I’ve got is His word. His word and my experience of His keeping His word. His word and my experience and the experiences of believers across time and from all over the globe.

But still, when we can’t know the eternity side of things, how do we know that God is merciful to people like Jim Elliott who was martyred or Betsy ten Boom who died in a concentration camp or Dietrich Bonhoeffer who was executed mere months before Germany signed the peace treaty. How do we know?

Because He promised. He has told us that His mercy endures throughout all generations.

He followed that up by promising a Messiah. Then Jesus came. Died. Rose from the dead.

Could anything be a greater demonstration of God’s great mercy?

A verse in Romans explains:

He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? (Rom. 8:33—ESV)

God already took care of our greatest need. Is He going to overlook lesser needs now? He won’t. Our problem is that we are still looking at the night sky through a straw. More often than we like, our view of things is bleak, as if Satan is winning.

Unless we fix our eyes on God’s transcendent mercy that shows us our Savior, that shows us Himself. We can’t actually see the crowns, the glory, the joy, the triumph. But we can see Jesus. Hebrews says as much:

But now we do not yet see all things subjected to him.
But we do see Him (Hebrews 2:8b-9a)

If all things were subjected to him now, no one would be dying of cancer. We’re not there yet. But we do see Jesus, the One who rendered “powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil.” We have His act of mercy and His promise of mercy, and that transcends anything we can see through our straw.

Some of this post is revised from an article that appeared here in December, 2011.

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Published in: on November 29, 2018 at 5:33 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Accusations Against Christians — A Reprise


There’s quite a litany of accusations against Christians these days, from both non-Christians and others who call themselves Christians. Those charges include things such as Christians can’t do art or create good speculative fiction. More seriously, some say Christians are greedy and hypocritical and hateful.

Sadly a selection of very visible individuals or groups claiming the name of Christ have reinforced some of these ideas—pastors who end up having affairs, televangelists who preach health-and-wealth rather than sacrificial giving, sign-waving funeral crashers who condemn rather than present the good news.

But then there are individuals like the owner of Chick-fil-A who became the brunt of accusations because of his stand for monogamous, heterosexual marriage. He too was accused of being hateful.

Recently, as I was reading Scripture, I realized, we might as well get used to these sorts of recriminations. All the way back in the Old Testament, people proclaiming the truth about God and man’s sinful condition were tarnished with the brush of accusation.

Even Elijah. He prophesied during the reign of one of the most sinful kings Israel would know. Ahab married a pagan and proceeded to lead his people into idolatry like no king before him. He built temples and altars and assigned priests and made sacrifices to these false gods, all the while persecuting those who were faithful to the Lord God who lead them out of Egypt.

As judgment on the nation, God, through the prayer of Elijah, withheld rain from them for over three years. Needless to say, they suffered severe drought and famine. Ahab apparently conducted an extensive search for Elijah, thinking perhaps to force him to beseech God for rain. His search failed because God kept Elijah safe and supplied with food and drink.

When at last God told Elijah to return to Ahab, his first assignment before dealing with the drought was to confront the prophets of of the false god Baal. But before he could propose a showdown, Ahab accused him of troubling Israel.

Elijah didn’t let the accusation stand. Rather, he turned it back on Ahab:

He said, “I have not troubled Israel, but you and your father’s house have, because you have forsaken the commandments of the LORD and you have followed the Baals. (1 Kings 18:18)

Of course today such a statement would be seen as further evidence of a hateful, intolerant, unloving attitude.

I think this is why New Testament writers like Paul and Peter were instructing Christians about how to handle things like false accusations and suffering. Peter in his first letter makes a strong case for suffering for the sake of righteousness, not for wrong doing:

and keep a good conscience so that in the thing in which you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ will be put to shame. For it is better, if God should will it so, that you suffer for doing what is right rather than for doing what is wrong. (1 Peter 3:16-17 — emphasis added)

In the end, it seems the only thing we as believers in Jesus Christ can do is live godly lives. Earlier Peter said

Keep your behavior excellent among the Gentiles, so that in the thing in which they slander you as evildoers, they may because of your good deeds, as they observe them, glorify God in the day of visitation . . . For such is the will of God that by doing right you may silence the ignorance of foolish men. (1 Peter 2:12, 15)

Apparently Jesus flipped the script, and Scripture says we are to follow His example:

And while being reviled, He did not revile in return; while suffering, He uttered no threats, but kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously (1 Peter 2:23).

“Hypocrites! Hateful! Greedy!” The accusations will come. The key is to silence our critics, not by taking a defensive stand, but by exhibiting good behavior with which the accusers cannot argue, then trusting God for the results.

With some minor revision, this article is a re-print of one that appeared here in November, 2012.

Published in: on November 26, 2018 at 4:43 pm  Comments (7)  
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Gratitude, Day 1—The Books Of The Bible I Used To Skip


A number of years ago, I began reading through the Bible from cover to cover. When I first started the process, I’d inevitably bog down when I got to certain parts that seemed . . . well, boring. I thought they weren’t relevant, didn’t give the spiritual nourishment I needed.

So one year I got the idea to skip the parts that were too hard, that I didn’t find engaging.

But since then, I’ve changed.

As it happens, the Bible is constructed in such a way that one passage builds upon another, and before I realized it, I was reading the hard passages and even taking notes and asking questions.

Specifically I’m referring to the books of Leviticus and Numbers. There were other passages—a portion of 1 Chronicles, for example—that dive into genealogies, and they were on my “To Be Avoided” list, too, but primarily, I dodged Leviticus and Numbers.

I’m not at all sorry I did because I’m convinced that decision kept me from quitting my reading plan, as I tried to work my way through the entire Bible.

The amazing thing is that God has turned around my attitude toward those books. I realized it some years ago when I felt a sense of sadness that I was finished with Leviticus. When did that happen? And how?

God did His work, is what happened. How? By the power of His Spirit and the incisive word that cuts to the heart. I don’t honestly remember when I decided to keep going when I finished Exodus.

To be honest, there are big parts of that book that are not your edge-of-the-seat fare, either. It’s there that God gave the specifics of the tabernacle—its construction and furnishings—as well as the Ten Commandments and a variety of other laws.

Leviticus, then, sort of slides right in behind, carrying on where Exodus left off. The thing is, the more familiar I become with the rest of the Bible, the more these books of law and records make sense to me, and the more they help me understand other parts of the Bible. Cyclical, I know.

Not that I don’t also have questions about them. I do. Questions and observations.

Here’s one note, for instance, across from Exodus 21:16—“He who kidnaps a man, whether he sells him or he is found in his possession, shall surely be put to death.”My note:

By this law, Joseph’s brothers would have been put to death.

Joseph’s brothers—the patriarchs after whom the twelve tribes were named. Their sin against Joseph was of the nature that would have cost them their lives under the Law. Instead, they were forgiven and given places of prominence among the nation of Israel for all time. Who could do that but a God of grace?!

Or how about this note next to Leviticus 17:11-12—“For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it to you on the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood by reason of the life that makes atonement. Therefore I said to the sons of Israel, ‘No person among you may eat blood, nor may any alien who sojourns among you eat blood.’ ” My notes:

How radical was Jesus’s statement “This is my blood . . . drink this . . . ” ! The blood is the life, so Jesus’s blood spilled for sinners was His life spent for the atonement of sinners. And the cup of the Lord’s supper? His life in us symbolized by our drinking of the cup.

These notes were compiled over at least three different readings of the passage. Each time something new about the verses came clear and one thought built on another.

Or how about Numbers 7. It’s 89 verses long, but most of it is repetition, enumerating the dedication offerings for the altar. Each day for twelve days a leader of one of the twelve tribes brought the exact same offering, and these are listed throughout the chapter, one after the other. All twelve of them:

On the [__ numbered] day it was [name of tribal leader] the son of [tribal leader’s father], leader of the sons of [name of tribe]; his offering was one silver dish whose weight was one hundred and thirty shekels, one silver bowl of seventy shekels, according to the shekel of the sanctuary, both of them full of fine flour mixed with oil for a grain offering; one gold pan of ten shekels, full of incense; one bull, one ram, one male lamb one year old, for a burnt offering; one male goat for a sin offering; and for the sacrifice of peace offerings, two oxen, five rams, five male goats, five male lambs one year old. This was the offering of [tribal leader] the son of [tribal leader’s father].

I don’t know why God repeated those lines twelve times, inserting, of course the different tribal names and their respective leaders and their fathers. But what I’ve noticed is that the margins of my Bible are covered with notes here (mostly questions). This was a passage I once skipped, then skimmed, then tried to memorize, then began to ask questions about and notice details.

For instance, the order in which the tribes presented their sacrifice is not the same as the order of birth of the patriarchs or their listing by the name of their mother (the two most common ways they are listed throughout the first five books of the Bible). Instead, they’d been grouped in companies, three tribes to a group, each under the leadership of one particular tribe. By the order of these companies they were to camp and by the order of these companies they were to travel. It is this order, then, that they presented their sacrifices.

Significant? In thinking about the dynamics of the nation, it’s interesting and informative, especially in relation to its division into two kingdoms later on.

Back to the sacrifices: part included flour or incense offered in 12 bowls, 12 pans, and 12 dishes. Only the pans holding the incense were to be made of gold. The others were silver. Is there a reason for that? Was the incense a particularly important part of the worship or was it a practical matter—the blend of burning spices would have tarnished silver?

I don’t know, but it’s interesting to note that in Revelation the prayers of the saints are referred to as incense.

When He had taken the book, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each one holding a harp and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints. (Rev. 5:8)

All this to say, there are all kinds of interesting connections, some literal and some symbolic, that I am beginning to see, especially in the New Testament, as a result of reading Leviticus and Numbers. I understand the book of Hebrews better, for instance, and a number of things that the gospels chronicle make more sense.

I have to mention this one: one of the laws in Leviticus was that a person with an “issue of blood” would be unclean—i.e. not able to join in the worship ceremonies and feasts. Furthermore, anyone that person touched would also be unclean.

So in the New Testament when the woman with the “issue of blood” touched the edge of Jesus’s clothing, she didn’t want to touch Him to cause Him to become unclean. He, on the other hand, didn’t rebuke her, but had compassion on her because her suffering had been much deeper than the physical. She’d been ostracized and separated from worship for all those years. And still she believed.

So today, I’m especially grateful for the books of Leviticus and Numbers and for the way God makes His word come alive. He is a faithful God.

Much of this post is a revised version of one that appeared here in September, 2014.

God Knows


I find myself saying “God knows” a lot these days. God knows about the person who is living an immoral life style. God knows about the unfair treatment the church person is meting out. God knows about the corruption in our government and the lies from the politicians. God knows about the problems I see at so many different levels.

I am comforted by the fact that God knows. It’s a reminder to me that even the things that seem so out of control actually aren’t.

I think of young Joseph, gang tackled by his older brothers and hauled to a pit, even as he pleaded for his life. Did he think in those darkest moments when he was fished out of the hole and pushed into the hands of the slavers, that God knows?

Certainly, years later Joseph knew that truth. God knew and as a result had the whole circumstance under control. In fact, all the evil directed at Joseph, God turned to the good for … well, the world.

Because He sent Joseph ahead to preserve the lives of his entire family, He set in motion so many things related to Jesus—His lineage and numerous important types that show the story of salvation. There would have been no exodus if Joseph hadn’t gone to Egypt. There would have been no Passover lamb, no passing through the sea on dry land, no giving of the law, no priestly office, no serpent lifted up for the sick to look at and be healed, no daily portion of manna, and on and on.

After the fact, Joseph could tell his brothers that he got it—God knew, and what was evil, He made good. Now we can read the story and see too, the way God worked it all out. But what was Joseph thinking at the time? Wouldn’t he have been comforted if he could have glimpsed the end?

Of course, God had graciously given him just such a glimpse. Remember the dreams? God had shown Joseph his family bowing to him. Not once, but twice.

Did the memory of those dreams comfort Joseph when all seemed so horribly wrong? Did he think, I don’t know how this will happen, but God said He would put me as a ruler over my family. He knows I’m a slave now instead.

I suspect Joseph did hold onto the truth because he clearly held onto God. When his master’s wife wanted to sleep with him, he didn’t say, Your husband might find out. He said, How can I sin against God?

That’s the answer of a man who understood that God knows.

This article was first published here in October 2010.

Atheist Arguments: Who Can Believe The Bible?


Without realizing it, I’ve been answering, from time to time, the various arguments atheists make against Christianity, against God. For example, I wrote “The Early Church and Problems” back in July. Before that I wrote “Deductive Reasoning” back in May. A month earlier I wrote “Daniel’s Prophecies—Evidence That The Bible Is True..”

Without much difficulty, I can turn these posts into a series. So today is the first official post in the series, Atheist Arguments.

The common atheist argument is to say that Christians have no evidence that God exists. When someone says, sure we have evidence: take a look at the Bible, what follows is a litany of reasons we should not believe the Bible.

In a comment to another post, a regular visitor here, an atheist, brought up one of these many reasons: he claims the Bible has too many inaccuracies, too many controversial interpretations.

I’d like to examine these points.

First, inaccuracies. According to Biblical scholar Dr. Daniel B. Wallace, a professor at Dallas Theological Seminary, there are about 400,000 textual differences among the existing New Testament manuscripts. On the surface, that number seems to legitimize the atheist claim. But one reason for so many variations is that so many copies of the New Testament exist—more that 5,800 in Greek alone. “But the New Testament was translated into various languages early on—languages such as Latin, Syric, Coptic, Georgian, Gothic, Armenian, and Arabic.”

True, not each of these copies is complete. Some are mere fragments, but the average size is 400 pages long. In other words, we have lots of manuscripts we can compare to one another.

It works like this. If there were ten news accounts of the last Dodger game, and nine said Manny Machado hit a three-run home run, but one said Max Muncy hit a three-run home run, it is a pretty fair deduction that the nine are accurate and the lone Muncy claimant is wrong. So too with Scripture.

Obviously, the more manuscripts you have to compare, the easier it is to spot the inaccuracies. But there’s more.

This one, I had never heard before, but Dr. Wallace included it in an article about the New Testament, in the newly released third edition of Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus by Nabeel Qureshi. Apart from all the early copies of the New Testament in existence, scholars also have extra-Biblical sources that quoted the Bible.

Kind of like I do from time to time on this blog. Apparently early Church scholars wrote “homilies, commentaries, and theological treatises” that include more than a million quotes from the New Testament. “Virtually the entire New Testament could be reproduced many times over just from the quotations of these fathers.”

But what about all these inaccuracies? A better word actually is variations. More than 70 percent are spelling differences. You know, the same kind of spelling differences we have in English between America and Britain: color vs. colour and the like.

Some of the variations have to do with Greek syntax and can’t be translated into English; some with synonyms such as Christ or Jesus. The meaning’s the same.

Yet there are some variations that are significant. This is where the number of copies available to study comes into play. “Because of the poor pedigree of the manuscripts they are found in (usually few, or very late manuscripts), no plausible case can be given for them reflecting the wording of the original.”

When we pare all those away, we’re left with 1% of the variations actually being significant and realistically plausible. Of these differences none impacts the central doctrines of the faith. In many cases, scholars have a good idea which verse or two have been added because “they do not fit with the author’s known syntax, vocabulary, or style.”

In modern English translations, there are two passages I’m aware of that have footnotes stating that those particular verses come from later manuscripts and likely are additions. In a couple other places, questionable verses have been included in the footnotes and identified as probable late-date additions.

In short, what comes from this type of careful scholarship is the verification of the accuracy of the Bible, that in spite of human fallibility, God has preserved and protected His word. We can, in fact, trust that the Scripture we have today is true to the original inspired by the Holy Spirit.

It certainly makes sense. I mean, God who is so powerful as to breath His very words into the writings of a man, certainly is also powerful enough to preserve and protect those words down through the ages.

We can and we should have every confidence in the reliability, the authority, the accuracy of the Bible.

Upside Down Commands


Like other elements of society, the Church follows trends, even fads. They might show themselves in worship styles or catch phrases (how many times have I heard a preacher “unpack” a passage of Scripture? 🙄 ) Those are certainly harmless. Less so, however, are the shifting points of emphasis which seem to change with the winds of preference.

One such shift has been toward creating “seeker friendly” (also a catch phrase) churches, which, in my opinion, seem to miss the point of believers assembling themselves together weekly. Then too, of late there’s been a noticeable increase in the attention churches are giving to service. No longer do we want to sit on the sidelines, but we are admonished to “be the hands and feet of Jesus” in our community.

And we don’t stop with admonishing individuals. We are organizing programs and partnering with para-church organizations to feed children, care for orphans, tutor those struggling with literacy, provide clothes for the needy, beds for the homeless, medical and dental care for the poor.

In short, we’ve left the comfortable pews behind and have made a determined effort to charge out into the highways and byways to reach the unreached through our good deeds.

“About time,” some say. The church in America has been trying for far too long to create a safe, wholesome place where our needs are met and our sensibilities aren’t offended. We’re overdue for a little boat rocking. In fact, the whole thing needs to be turned upside down.

There’s a lot of truth in that position, which, I’m discovering, is the place where a lot of error starts. Just as in every other area, we must look at Scripture and take our lead from God, not from what sounds good, and certainly not from what is currently trendy in the church.

So what does God think about caring for the poor and orphaned and widows? He’s all for it!

Problem solved? Not so fast.

There’s something He’s even more all for. He’s all for us loving Him. That’s the first commandment, the greatest one, according to Jesus. We are to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength.

Then and only then are we to love our neighbor as ourselves. It seems to me we are in the process of flipping the order of the two commands, as if doing for others is more important than loving God.

Over and over the people of Israel were admonished to love God or fear Him, then to obey and serve.

Now, Israel, what does the LORD your God require from you, but to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all His ways and love Him, and to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul (Deut. 10:12).

So here’s the critical point. It is in loving God that we will genuinely be concerned for serving others. It won’t be a passing fancy or a program that we’ll swap out for another one later on down the road.

No, if we love God with our whole being, we will want what He wants, go where He sends, do what He says. Loving Him seems like the only sure way we will end up loving our neighbor self-sacrificially. After all, these are the people the One we love passionately came to save. Why wouldn’t we in turn love them too? Isn’t that the way it works when two people love each other—they take on each other’s interests and passions. They pay attention to what they had never cared about before.

So, sure, it’s time the church in America became less self-satisfied and self-centered. It’s time we stopped loving ourselves more than we love God. But the answer isn’t to try to make ourselves love other people more than we love ourselves. That might be an admirable goal, but it has the commands Jesus enumerated upside down. Unless we do the first, we won’t be doing the second either—not the way we could or should. We’ll simply be trending.

Re-posted from the original article published November, 2011.

Published in: on October 9, 2018 at 5:03 pm  Comments (2)  
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Enjoyable Sin


Jimmy Dean—actor, singer, entrepreneur who died at 81

Years ago I read this line on Facebook, credited to Jimmy Dean: “Being a Baptist won’t keep you from sinning, but it’ll sure as hell keep you from enjoying it.”

Very funny. Several people laughed and more hit the “Like” button.

But what’s to like about the idea that sin is enjoyable? What’s to like about the idea that the enjoyment of sin is spoiled by a religion that calls it sin?

The Jimmy Dean conclusion would seem to be, Better not to be a Baptist so you can enjoy your sin. How sad! Really. There are so many things wrong with this way of thinking, I’m not sure where to begin.

First, I suppose it’s essential to recognized the part of the statement that’s true: sin is enjoyable. If sin was only hurtful, heinous, disgusting, and it separated us from God, why would it hold a lure? It wouldn’t. But just like the Tempter who appears as an angel of light, sin is dressed up as something pleasurable—something good to look at or to experience or to own or by which to be empowered.

That pleasurable something, however, is temporary (Heb. 11:25-26). No matter how wise or wonderful or sexy or rich or strong sin makes a person, the end of is still destruction.

For many walk, of whom I often told you, and now tell you even weeping, that they are enemies of the cross of Christ, whose end is destruction (Phil. 3:18-19a)

Furthermore, the consequences of sin are here and now.

Behold, the Lord’s hand is not so short
That it cannot save,
Nor is His ear so dull
That it cannot hear,
But your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God
And your sins have hidden His face from you so that He does not hear. (Isaiah 59:1-2)

The third thing that makes this statement so not funny is the fact that personal enjoyment is held up as a higher good than obeying God or pleasing Him.

If you’re going to disobey God, you might as well enjoy it, which is another way of saying human enjoyment supersedes the conviction of the Holy Spirit. So the real thing that is bad isn’t the sin, but the guilt that spoils the fun of sin. I think that’s pretty much the way the world looks at sin.

Note, the answer isn’t to stop sinning—that’s apparently something we humans must concede, according to Jimmy Dean. The answer is to quench the Holy Spirit so we don’t feel His displeasure.

After all, life is all about pleasing ourselves, isn’t it?

Well, actually, no, it’s not. Which brings me to the next point that makes this quote anything but humorous. According to Paul in Colossians, we are to “walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, to please Him in all respects, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God” (v. 10).

Our goal as Christians should be to live in obedience to God, not in submission to our fleshly lusts. When we sin, it’s something to grieve, not celebrate. James says our laughter should turn to mourning and our joy to gloom.

Of course there’s the chance that the Jimmy Dean quote was poking fun at Baptists who believe certain behaviors to be sin that others think are perfectly fine—not sins at all.

Well, that’s perhaps the saddest of all the others. To think that one Christian would be so arrogant as to think another’s convictions are laughable.

If he’s a weaker brother, the stronger Christian is expressly instructed in Scripture not to act in a way that would tear down his faith.

For through your knowledge he who is weak is ruined, the brother for whose sake Christ died. And so, by sinning against the brethren and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. (1 Cor. 8:11-12)

If a person is in error, then he should be lovingly won to the truth. If he’s a false teacher, then he needs to be prayed for and perhaps rebuked.

But made fun of?

I know a little enclave of professing Christians that think mocking other people’s beliefs is the way to turn them from the error of their ways. The problem is, these arrogant self-appointed judges get those ideas from some place other than the Bible.

Scripture directs us to love—our neighbor, fellow believer, enemy, all men. There’s no room for mocking someone for their convictions.

Here’s the bottom line—sin might be enjoyable, but it’s no laughing matter. When Christians don’t see this, we’re playing right into Satan’s hands.

This article is an edited version of one that first appeared here in October, 2011.

Published in: on October 8, 2018 at 5:36 pm  Comments (1)  
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The Effective Prayer Of A Righteous Man


At the end of the book of James, there are a few verses that deal with prayer. The context is specifically prayer for someone who is sick, which seems like a lot of prayer from Christians in 21 century America. I used to take prayer requests from my students, sometimes publicly, so we could pray together, and some times privately, for my eyes only. And for God’s. The vast majority of the requests were for health issues.

But that’s beside the point, because, though that was James’s starting point, it’s not where he ended up. Instead he went to a general statement, then to a specific example. First the statement: “The effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much.”

What kind of “much” can prayer accomplish, James?

He answers this question with his example:

Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the earth for three years and six months. Then he prayed again, and the sky poured rain and the earth produced its fruit. (5:17-18)

I love the explanation of who Elijah was—a guy just like the rest of us. No super saint. He didn’t have angelic blood. He wasn’t special in any way. But he did have two things going for him. 1) His prayer was earnest. 2) He was righteous.

Whenever I read these verses, I think, I should be praying more. I mean—rain! We could use rain in Southern California.

But the point is not to pray for stuff just because I want to see stuff happen. Like the Dodgers winning the World Series or even something more practical like safety for a friend who is on a trip.

The key, I think, is in the “righteous” part. It reminds me of a verse in Psalm 37, one people love to quote: “Delight yourself in the LORD / And He will give you the desires of your heart.” (v 4)

Health-and-wealthers use that verse as a limitless credit card that God has to honor. Atheists use that verse as evidence that prayer “doesn’t work.”

But both groups are ignoring the first phrase: “delight yourself in the LORD.” That’s like being righteous. It’s essentially saying, enjoy God so much you would not want to be doing anything He doesn’t want you to do. So why would we ever pray for something we aren’t absolutely sure God wants?

In Elijah’s case, he prayed for no rain, then three plus years later, for rain, because God told him what to ask for. So he was sure. He knew what God wanted.

But why does God even bother? I mean, He can send the rain whether we ask or not, and usually does.

Again in Elijah’s situation, God accomplished several things. Elijah didn’t ask for these things in secret. People, particularly the king of Israel, knew why there was no rain. God was showing His power, His sovereignty to a disobedient and godless man. At the same time, Elijah’s prayer was serving as an example down through the ages to all who knew his story but who later read James’s commentary on it. And finally, God delights in involving His people in His work.

That’s believers today, just as much as it was believers in the first century.

My tendency, when I do get an idea of what God’s heart might be, is to pray too generally. When I was a kid it was, “Bless Grandpa and Grandma and all the aunts and uncles and cousins.” Today is more apt to be, “Work in the hearts of this people group or that one.”

So general. How would I ever know if that prayer is accomplishing much?

I’ve said before that the secret to prayer isn’t that it “works” at all, yet this verse in James and the one in the Psalms makes me think I’m only partly right there. I do think the biggest part of prayer is sharing God’s heart, pouring out my concerns to Him, and recommitting myself to trust Him in those circumstances. But praying for a judgment on a disobedient land? I would most certainly have to be convinced that’s what God wanted, just as Elijah was.

But that’s the point. Prayer moves me closer to God so that I actually do know what He wants. I know, for example, I am to love my neighbors. Any time I am not loving my neighbor, I can know for sure that I am not delighting in God, I am not praying as a righteous person who can expect to accomplish much.

In short, I don’t really need to worry whether or not my prayers are too general or too selfish or whatever. I simply need to pray so that I draw closer to God, so that I can be used by Him when He shows me what He wants me to pray for.

Published in: on October 5, 2018 at 5:54 pm  Comments (6)  
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Ordinary People


Christians aren’t superstars. God hasn’t gone about picking the brightest and best, the richest or most handsome. He’s not finding out who’s the best speaker or writer or IT guy or teacher or sports star or supermodel. Actually, God enlists ordinary people to be his followers.

We can see this in the Bible. Take King David, for example. He was the youngest of his family. His job when the prophet Samuel anointed him to be king was—shepherd. He hadn’t acquitted himself on the field of battle or proved himself to be an astute leader of men. Those would come as God walked with him through days of exile, through nights of hiding and running. But when God put His finger on David and said, I want him, David was just an ordinary man.

Which is fitting because his great-grandmother was sort of a nobody. She was a widow, probably a little older than most marriageable women. She was from a foreign country. And she had committed herself to the care of her mother-in-law, which was why she went to Bethlehem in the first place.

Then there was David’s great-great-grandmother. She was also from a foreign country where she was a “working girl.” A prostitute. Some might even think of her as a traitor because she helped “the enemy” by hiding the Jewish spies which had come to search out the land, particularly the city of Jericho.

Yep, neither Ruth nor Rahab were special and yet God used these ordinary women, not only in order that they would be part of David’s lineage, but that they would be part of the Messiah’s heritage.

No one could have considered himself more ordinary than Gideon, but when Israel was harassed by an enemy who stole their crops, their livestock, pretty much everything that made life possible, God called him and put him in the position of delivering his people.

There are loads of other ordinary people who God chose to become heroes or behind-the-scene workers. What about the no-name widow who gave her last coin as an act of worship? Jesus commended her and said she would be remembered for her faith. Not for her status. She had none. Not for her wealth. She was poor beyond measure. What she had was a belief in a God who would not leave her or forsake her.

Or what about the thief on the cross, the last-second convert who still gives comfort and encouragement today for those who have lived all their lives apart from Christ. What hope do they have, so many are tempted to say. There’s every hope because Jesus accepted the thief who was dying beside Him. He didn’t have to have a lengthy resume of things he’d done for the kingdom of God. He simply had to believe.

Think about the twelve men who Jesus chose as disciples. One was a dedicated enemy to the Roman government. He’d be considered a terrorist today. Another was a collaborator—a man who worked with the Romans and, in his own way, oppressed the Jewish people. Simon the Zealot and Matthew the tax collector should have been enemies, but they gave up their former pursuits and both followed Jesus.

At least four of these guys were fishermen. They hadn’t studied with Gamaliel, like Paul had. They weren’t rich like Joseph of Arimethia. They were just guys, working for their dads’ fishing businesses.

Thomas was an ordinary skeptic. No “rich in faith” guy, he. He was of the “show me” variety, and Jesus did just that: showed him his hands and feet, and the nail prints there.

The other three guys were so ordinary we don’t really know anything about them apart from the fact that they went where Jesus sent them, did the work God gave them.

And these are the men responsible for converting the Middle East. Well, not all of it. But this small band of Christ-followers, ordinary men without anything this world values to commend them to the people they talked to, were the people God used to spread the gospel.

And that’s continued. For every Billy Graham, there’s a J. Wilbur Chapman who no one has heard of, yet introduced the greatest evangelist of our time to Jesus.

For every Corrie ten Boom, there’s a Papa ten Boom who taught her the faith which prompted her to protect Jews from the Nazis, to forgive the German guards who persecuted her in the concentration camp and oversaw her sister’s illness and death.

Who was Papa ten Boom? A watchmaker. Who was Corrie ten Boom? An unmarried woman approaching her senior years. Just ordinary people who God chose, who were willing for Him to do with their lives as He pleased.

What about Ravi Zacharias? He was a young Indian man who had tried to take his own life, whose father said he wouldn’t amount to anything. The future was bleak for this ordinary man, but God saved him and used him to speak around the world, to facilitate an entire apologetics ministry.

He was willing, and that’s really all that matters. God is happy with the ordinary people because when each of us comes to Him, it’s a testament that God is the one who saves. Not our bank account. Not our talent, our looks, our status, our strength. God saves.

And how awesome, how mind-boggling, how incredible that He uses ordinary people to get the word out.

The Ups And Downs Of The Straight And Narrow


A Reprise.

Life is often compared to a path leading from one place to another. Jesus used the picture of a road in one of His teaching sessions to describe the journey to life or to destruction. The first has a small gate and is narrow. The latter has a wide gate and a broad road.

Elsewhere in Scripture the path God wants us on is described as straight. For example, Jeremiah 31:9b says

I will make them walk by streams of waters,
On a straight path in which they will not stumble (emphasis mine)

While many are familiar with the road metaphor and may even know of the narrow versus broad comparison or the straight versus crooked analogy, fewer of us realize that this road is as much like a roller coaster than anything else. Scripture is filled with examples of people who experienced great success only to turn around and encounter great adversity.

Elijah is one example. He experienced a great success when he confronted Baal’s prophets, and God proved Himself true. He followed this showdown by seeing God answer his prayer to bring an end to the three-and-a-half-year drought. But what happened next? Jezebel threatened to kill him, and he ran for his life.

Jesus experienced this roller coaster more than once. Right after He was baptized–a spiritual high point–He spent forty days in the wilderness being tempted by Satan. I’d call that a spiritual low point, if ever there was one.

There are even several of these high/low experiences connected to the Christmas story. After the magi made their visit, Herod, in his jealousy, attempted to kill this prophesied Messiah. Because of God’s warning in a dream, Joseph was able to steal away with his little family and head into Egypt. But back in the region of Bethlehem, male babies under the age of two were slaughtered. Part of the Christmas story, then, is the weeping and wailing of Rachel, lamenting for her children.

Thus says the Lord,
“A voice is heard in Ramah,
Lamentation and bitter weeping.
Rachel is weeping for her children;
She refuses to be comforted for her children,
Because they are no more.” (Matthew 2:18 quoting Jeremiah 31:15)

Of course the ultimate up and down ride connected to Christmas is that Jesus left the glories of heaven to be born as this sweet baby boy for the purpose of dying. But His death is the very means of life for all who believe in Him. Talk about a roller coaster!

No surprise, then, that life holds ups and downs for each of us. Not forever, though. There will be a day when the rough places will be made plain, when the mountains will be brought low and the valleys exalted.

Then the glory of the LORD will be revealed,
And all flesh will see it together;
For the mouth of the LORD has spoken. (Isaiah 40:5)

This post is a reprint of one that first appeared here in December, 2012.

Published in: on September 25, 2018 at 4:56 pm  Leave a Comment  
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