Faith And The Rock


I am mystified when people who don’t believe in God refer to Christians as people who don’t think. Their argument seems to be, Since God is invisible, you are only imagining anything spiritual or supernatural. You have no proof—by which they mean, scientific evidence—so you simply believe a lie or a myth or something in your imagination.

It doesn’t matter how many times a clear demonstration is offered that “belief” is not blind, those opposed to God insist it is. And yet the Bible says just the opposite.

As one illustration of what the Bible says about faith (I couldn’t possibly enumerate every instance in which we learn more about faith—there are too many), Jesus told a story about a wise man who built his house upon the rock. When the wind and rain buffeted the house, it stood firm. However, another man, a foolish man, built his house upon the sand. The winds came and the rain, and the house fell.

Jesus had prefaced the story by saying that the wise man was the one who heard His words and acted on them. In contrast, everyone who hear His words and doesn’t act on them is like the foolish man.

The point is simple, “belief in Jesus,” the faith that undergirds a Christian, is reliant upon God’s word.

Oh sure, some false teachers have invented “other gospels” and some have twisted Scripture to say what it does not say, but in the end, the one who takes God at His word is building his house on the rock.

Romans spells out what God’s word is which leads to salvation:

the word of faith which we are preaching, that if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved (10:8b-9)

Pretty simple really. Jesus is Lord, Jesus rose from the dead.

Of course how can we KNOW those things? Romans gives us that piece of information, too.

How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? How will they believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how will they hear without a preacher? How will they preach unless they are sent? Just as it is written, “HOW BEAUTIFUL ARE THE FEET OF THOSE WHO BRING GOOD NEWS OF GOOD THINGS!”

However, they did not all heed the good news; for Isaiah says, “LORD, WHO HAS BELIEVED OUR REPORT?” So faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ. (10:14-17; emphasis mine)

Clearly faith is not dreaming up something and hoping, hoping, hoping that it will come true. I could do that. I could imagine a billionaire philanthropist who wants to give away his millions, and he pulls my name out of the hat. He’ll come tomorrow with a check that will make me rich beyond my wildest dreams. Now that is pie-in-the-sky imagination.

Believing in God is nothing like that. To begin with, I don’t tell Him what He’s like. He tells me. I listen, is all. “Faith comes from hearing.”

Another important aspect of faith comes from Hebrews 11—“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (v. 1). Assurance, not guess work; conviction, not irresolution or doubt.

How can a person possibly be sure of what you hope for?

Well, the assurance comes completely from the One in whom you put your trust.

For instance, if I want to know about basketball, I need to listen to someone who knows the sport, someone who has played the sport. I would not ask someone to explain the game whose credentials say he’s seen a game once, played between two elementary teams. “But I know baseball,” he adds. “I was a minor league pitcher for five years. So I can tell you want ever you want to know about basketball.”

Uh, sorry, but basketball and baseball are two different sports. If I want to know basketball, I have to talk to someone who is informed, who knows the game, who can answer my questions. Because I will have questions, undoubtedly. So I need someone to help me who I trust.

Faith is nothing more than taking someone at his word. And for the Christian, that someone is Jesus Christ.

Atheists take scientists at their word all the time. They do not observe space phenomena or record data or run experiences that lead them to believe in a big bang theory of the origin of the universe. Instead, they let someone else study and form opinions and postulate hypotheses, and they simply put their trust in what these individuals conclude.

Here’s the thing that is difficult for me to understand. These scientists, with their list of qualifications and all, admit they are fallible. Atheists admit that science has been wrong and is bound to be wrong again. But regardless, they trust the process, the results (which will be wrong in some unknowable way).

God, on the other hand, is infallible. He isn’t wrong about what He says. And yet His word is suspect and unreliable and can’t be trusted—because it requires faith.

That would be the assurance of things hoped for. The assurance. Why can there be assurance in an unsure world? Only if Someone trustworthy, reliable gives you His word. You know, a word that is rock solid.

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Published in: on November 13, 2017 at 6:28 pm  Leave a Comment  
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No One Can Earn Heaven


The second tenet of the Reformation is “sola fide,” or faith alone. Of course atheists have a field day with such a statement. So many believe that Christians simply decide to believe in God because they like the idea of salvation or heaven and we have no actual reason behind our faith.

Nothing could be further from the truth. And though I’ve had numerous discussions about the difference between faith and blind faith, the conviction seems entrenched: Christians believe in pie-in-the-sky with no supportive reason behind their decision to do so.

In truth, faith is far from this simplistic understanding. In reality, Christians trust the source that informs them about spiritual things: the Bible. The Bible has been proved to be reliable, and in it we learn about faith that is assurance, faith that provides the means to grace:

For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9; emphasis mine)

Spiritual things. Christians believe in things not seen. We believe in spiritual beings and a spiritual world that is beyond our physical senses. I know for those who don’t believe in the spiritual, they consider such belief to be akin to superstition. But here’s the difference. Our faith is not in ourselves or what we can do.

That’s the “sola” part. We can’t give any amount of money to a church or a ministry, to the poor or the orphaned. We can’t say enough prayers or memorize enough Bible verses. We can’t stand against social injustice or for life or preach about what makes a healthy marriage, or any number of other things, as a means to buy our way into God’s grace.

No. God gives grace. We can’t earn it. We can never be good enough. We can never do enough. It’s simply not possible for us to deal with our bent toward rebellion against God all by ourselves. We can’t curry His favor. We can’t change our circumstances.

We simply must believe that God meant what He said—that He has provided for us what we could not provide for ourselves.

The thing is “belief” is not enough. The book of James states that the demons also believe (and tremble). They aren’t saved for their belief. Why not? Because they persist in their rebellion against God.

The faith that saves is not faith alone. James calls that kind of faith useless and likens it to the body without the spirit—in other words, a corpse, a lifeless corpse.

Instead, the faith that is the conduit of God’s grace, is faith with teeth, faith that signs us up, that puts us all in. We can’t simply say the words. We have to live the life. So believers are people who do what Jesus said, not just give passing agreement to the idea that He was a wise teacher.

No. Jesus specified two commands: love God with all of you and love your neighbor as yourself.

The guy who approached Jesus about how he could please God did a follow-up: who is my neighbor? Jesus replied, as he often did, by telling a story. The essence of this parable which we call The Good Samaritan, is that our neighbor is whoever is in need that crosses our path, be it friend or enemy. We aren’t to step over a fallen traveler along life’s way because we want to keep ourselves from getting our hands dirty. We need to serve others sacrificially.

That’s the kind of faith James is talking about—faith in action. That’s the kind of faith that changes a life, that turns us from living for ourselves to living for God and for others. It’s no accident or coincidence that Christians were at the forefront of the establishment of hospitals and the leaders in medical practice, founding universities and pioneering nursing, advocating for abolition and any number of other social issues.

Of course, there’s a temptation to take the cart without the horse—to do the works as a replacement for the faith that God asks of us. In other words “sola fide” is not simplistic. It’s not a “say this prayer then live how you want” affair.

Paul says it in Romans 6: “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase?”After all, the more I sin, the more God has to forgive, so lots of people will see His grace.

Paul goes on, though, and says, “May it never be! How shall we who died to sin still live in it?”

The next verses show our relationship with Christ, that our identification with Him means we died with Him so that, as He was raised from the dead, we might have newness of life.

Newness of life! That’s why old things have passed away. That’s why we can set our minds on things above, not on things on the earth.

In short, faith is the conduit of being “born again.” That phrase has fallen into disrepute of late, but the Bible uses the term and the concept more than once. Jesus, for example, tells Nicodemus he must be born again. Being a literalist, apparently, Nicodemus asked how he was supposed to pull that off since he couldn’t re-enter his mother’s womb.

Not that kind of birth, Jesus seems to say. This is spiritual birth, the kind that revives dead bones. “I will put My Spirit within you and you will come to life (Ezekiel 37:14a)

Published in: on October 24, 2017 at 5:00 pm  Comments (2)  
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What Atheists Don’t Understand About Faith


I’m not a physically violent person. I’m not even physically intimidating, but I have to say, there are times in my discussions in the FB atheist group I visit, I would like to shake one or two people.

The problem comes from their complete dismissal of faith. They simply don’t believe anyone should have faith. Ever. Because THEY certainly don’t. Oh, no, all their cherished beliefs stem from their reason and from science.

Never mind that I have said over and over that they haven’t done any of the scientific experiments or observations or mathematical calculations they are constantly trotting out as evidence. No! They are simply trusting that some scientist they’ve heard about has done the work and drawn the conclusions they parrot. In other words, they are simply putting their faith in a scientist rather than, say, in a pastor or mentor or in the Bible.

And horrors if you use the Bible as part of the discussion about how you know there is a God. Because that’s a circular argument. The Bible says there’s a God, so you look to the Bible to find evidence for God.

In other words, the Bible in its whole must be dismissed because it claims there is a God. You can’t look at the history, the testimony of any of the authors, the reports of miracles, none of it.

Basically, any evidence or documentation must be of the approved sort. No personal experience because that can’t be verified. No Biblical evidence because that’s circular. No supernatural evidence because that hasn’t been proven to exist.

So just cross out anything that leads to God and then claim that you don’t believe in God because there’s no evidence of His existence.

But faith is all around us. If you are sitting down, you have faith that the piece of furniture you’re on will hold your weight. When you drive a car, you have faith in the men and women who built the car. You also have faith in the drivers before and behind you, on your left and right, and the ones coming in the opposite direction. You have faith in the mechanic that put on your tires.

I could go on and on.

When I was in the hospital after my stroke, I put my life in the hands of the medical personal who cared for me. I took the medicine they gave me, ate the food they provided, followed the directions of the therapists. I was putting my faith in these people who I didn’t know because I believed they had knowledge I did’t.

Every passenger on an airplane does the same thing.

Faith is nothing more than believing that someone is not lying to you and that they really can do what you’ve been led to believe they can do. So the pilot is sitting in the cockpit, and no one is asking to see his credentials, or his flight record, or his medical record. Generally speaking passengers trust that the guy saying “Good morning ladies and gentlemen . . .” over the intercom, would not have access to the controls of the plane if he weren’t qualified. We let him do his job and we sit back and enjoy the flight, as we’ve been told to do.

Now that’s faith.

I’m going to trust the guy that’s flying the plane, not because I have proof that he’s able to do the job, but because . . . it’s his job. He wouldn’t be working with the airline if he wasn’t qualified. We assume. We trust. We believe.

We believed our teachers when they taught us that 2+2=4. We believed our teachers when they said that George Washington was the first President of the United States. We believed our teachers when they showed us how to write starting from the left and going to the right. (Who knew not every culture writes that way).

There is so much more. All these things in the past and the present are simply faith at work. Us believing someone we trust to the point that we do what they say or form a conviction based on what they taught.

So what’s the surprising thing about faith that atheists miss? First, that they too have faith, that they depend on it every single day. Second, that faith is placed in a source you believe to be trustworthy.

I might add that people who believe are not stupid for having faith (otherwise, you’d have to say everyone in the whole world is stupid). But further, if someone trusts a source you believe to be unsound, they still aren’t stupid.

There are people who put their faith in parachutes every day. I’m not one of them. But I don’t think they’re stupid for doing so. I simply have no desire to trust my life to the thing they are willing to trust.

Same with tightrope walkers or high wire acrobats. Same with platform divers. Same with window washers. All those people have lots of reason to do what they do. I don’t want to put my faith in the things they trust.

It’s self protection, I guess.

And I wonder if that isn’t what’s at the bottom of the atheists’ unwillingness to trust God. It’s not that there isn’t evidence, because there is. It’s that they don’t trust the source of that evidence as a means of self-protection.

From what?

My guess is, from God. From a sovereign authority who defines right and wrong. They’d rather be in charge because then they can move the lines whenever they want.

Apart from that guess, I have no idea why someone wouldn’t believe the source material pointing to God. It is comprehensive and coherent—logical and consistent—and the alternative seems to be chaos and chance. And at the end of life, annihilation. Really?

The atheist conclusions don’t fit the facts. Including the fact that they are just as dependent upon faith as the rest of us.

Published in: on October 19, 2017 at 5:20 pm  Comments (60)  
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The Certainty Of The Bible – Reprise


chicken-3-1392636-mWhich came first, the chicken or the egg?

It’s a conundrum to many people, but for those of us who believe the Bible, not so much. God created the animals, including birds, so clearly the chicken came first.

In truth, belief in the Bible is a similar chicken-or-egg puzzle for many people. How do you know the Bible is true? Short answer: God’s fingerprints are all over it. But how do you recognize God’s fingerprints? The Bible gives us a portrait of Him.

So which comes first, belief in God or belief in the Bible?

I’d say, both. Scripture is important throughout . . . well, Scripture. For example, Philip explained to an Ethiopian the Scripture he was reading, and the man consequently believed in Jesus; in His teaching ministry, Jesus Himself elaborated on the Law of Moses; Paul and Peter quoted frequently from Old Testament prophets; and so on. Scripture values Scripture.

But there was a time before people had Scripture, and God still made Himself known, so faith in God must not be tied exclusively to faith in the Bible. In fact the book of Romans explains that God first made Himself known in what He created.

In addition Scripture records any number of direct encounters God or one of His angels had with various people. Sometimes He appeared in a dream such as He did to Jacob. Sometimes He talked directly to an individual as He did with Adam and Abraham and Samuel. At other times He appeared in the form of a man as He did to Gideon or Jacob–which may have been an angel as His messenger or Jesus before His coming to earth in the form of a baby.

Then there are the indirect messages God gave people through prophets–men who spoke His message at His prompting. People like Hosea and Jonah, Ezekiel and Jeremiah.

But here’s the thing: we know about these encounters today through the Bible. So how do you have faith in God’s ability to make Himself known apart from the Bible except by believing that the Bible record is true?

There seems to be a sort of synergistic relationship with believing God and believing the Bible. One leads to the other and the other leads back to the starting point. The Bible reveals God and God validates the Bible. Or God points to His word and His word points back to Him.

The idea that God points to His word might seem doubtful, but it’s actually Biblical. 😉 Jesus explained to His disciples that the Holy Spirit would come and guide them, and us, into all truth (John 16:13). In fact, He said,

When the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, that is the Spirit of truth who proceeds from the Father, He will testify about Me (John 15:26).

The Holy Spirit, then, is our source of truth, and as it happens, it was the Holy Spirit who breathed His truth into Scripture through the agency of humans.

But know this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, for no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God. (2 Peter 1:20-21)

In turn, Scripture tells us about the Holy Spirit and all His work.

Seems very eggish and chickenish, doesn’t it. Except, remember, there really is an easy answer to the question that appears, on the surface, to be a puzzle. So, too, with this matter about believing the Bible.

The first step is to ask, can we know about God apart from the Bible? The answer, which the Bible verifies, but which countless humans down through the ages have discovered apart from the Bible, is yes. When we look at the vastness of space–and more so now that we can look into deep space using advanced technology–or the beauty of a sunset or the majesty of purple mountains or the thunderous power of the surf or the intricacy of a butterfly or the astounding birth of a baby or . . . pretty much anything in the natural world, we recognize we are part of all that exists, not the maker of it. There is something beyond us.

Today a popular position is to say that “something” is nature itself. This position has many problems. But here’s the thing. Having recognized that there is something beyond us, we then see God saying He has chosen to disclose Himself to us.

We ought not to be shocked if some people respond by saying, Really? I mean, it is a rather fantastic claim. An Other, a Greater, wants to stop by for a chat? Wants to introduce Himself and become friends? It’s . . . incredible.

So we can say, NOT POSSIBLE, meaning that we have determined we know what is and isn’t possible in a universe we did not create and do not fully comprehend; or we can say, the One who is Other and Greater is also Incredible.

What then can’t He do? If He chooses to disclose Himself in a written record, who am I to say, no, He didn’t.

This post originally appeared here in October 2013.

Published in: on October 3, 2017 at 5:58 pm  Comments (4)  
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Children Believe


427707_boy_and_his_grandpaChristians believe Jesus was completely God and Jesus was completely a man. I realized how such an apparent impossibility must sound to a rational mind. Or perhaps to a grown-up mind stripped of its creative wonder.

Children have that creative wonder and believe easily. I remember believing that the earth is round long before I saw a photograph of our round earth taken from space. I remember believing that one day my daddy would be President, and I remember believing that my brother could score a touchdown by dragging me across the goal line while I had the football.

When I learned that my dad had no interest in being President, I was disillusioned, I have to admit. And when I learned that my brother had figuratively, as well as literally, pulled my leg, I was disillusioned in another way. But the point for this post in recalling these childhood memories is to illustrate that I believed without requiring proof or explanation.

I believed the teacher who said the earth was round because she was the teacher! I believed my dad would be President because he was Dad. And I believed my brother’s version of the rules of football because he was my brother. Children believe easily.

Jesus said as much when His disciples tried to get people to stop bringing their children to Him.

“Permit the children to come to Me; do not hinder them; for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it at all.” (Mark 10:14b-15; emphasis mine)

Jesus was not saying we need to be childish, but childlike. Trusting. Not skeptical. That isn’t to say that skeptics can’t come to Christ.

Of His twelve chosen disciples, one was a skeptic. Thomas determined that he wouldn’t believe Jesus had risen from the dead unless he personally verified the fact with his own eyes. Can you blame him? I mean, he saw Jesus die. Most likely he saw them wrap his body for burial, put him in the tomb, and roll the stone in front of the entrance. Who wouldn’t be skeptical about this “He is risen” message?

Well, little children wouldn’t—not when they hear it from someone they trust. And adults wouldn’t if they are willing to hear what God says in the same way children hear—with wide-eyed wonder, with hope and expectation, with confident dependence.

The thing is, this kind of childlike faith does not replace reason. I believed my dad would become President up until the day when he told me why that wouldn’t happen. I didn’t keep believing in the face of contrary evidence. But here’s the important point—I learned from the very father I believed in. I went to him and asked him. The answer he gave me wasn’t the one I wanted to hear, but I knew he was telling me the truth. I knew I could still trust him.

Interestingly, God deals with us in a similar way. When we trust Him, we can ask Him all kinds of questions. We may not hear the answer we wanted, but we can be sure He won’t lie to us. We can be sure He’ll give us what we need when we need it.

I’m reminded of the story Corrie ten Boom told. She was struggling about whether or not she could handle some difficulty in the future. Her father helped her understand, by comparing the circumstance to when he gave her the train ticket she needed–not too soon but right when she needed it—that God would give her what she needed when she needed it.

Children are great question askers. They believe easily, but they also want to understand why. When Jesus said we are to become like little children, I’m confident He knew precisely what that entails, including their curious minds that want to know why. The great thing about God is that He satisfies the curious minds. In fact He authoritatively states that He is the Truth–the source for the answers to all our questions.

For people who want to make up their own truth, that’s not a satisfying statement. But like my brother who was quite inventive in coming up with his own football rules to benefit himself, there will come a day when those who live by their own truth will meet Truth. There will be no way to escape the fact that all those points they said they were scoring by using their own made up rules, count for nothing.

This post is a revised and edited version of one that first appeared here in April 2013.

Published in: on April 3, 2017 at 6:14 pm  Comments (2)  
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What Does “Believe In Jesus” Mean?


woman-praying-840879-mI’m glad I didn’t sit under some of the Bible teaching as a young person that I’ve heard as an adult. Don’t get me wrong. I respect the preachers and I believe what they say, but it’s not what I needed to hear as a young, immature Christian who often doubted my salvation.

The message these pastors are giving is undoubtedly intended to counter “easy believe-ism.” This false teaching wasn’t familiar to me, but apparently some people claim that as long as you say “the sinner’s prayer” you’re going to heaven no matter what you do thereafter. It sounds sort of like a “works” salvation, with “works” reduced to one—saying a prayer “accepting Jesus into your heart.”

I understand why pastors are standing against this approach to salvation. There’s so much it leaves out. Where’s the part about repentance, about taking up our cross and following Christ, about entering into a relationship with Him, about obeying God, loving Him first and loving our neighbor more than we do ourselves?

The truth is, though, I became a Christian by asking Jesus into my heart.

I was young, a small child. I don’t remember the specific time I first prayed to receive Christ (yes, first—I’ll get to that in a bit), but I do remember asking a Sunday school teacher how Jesus, pictured as a man on a flannel graph, could fit into my heart.

Chuckle if you must, but I think that’s a good question. It’s not normal to invite a person “into your heart.” Anyone who does so without understanding what he’s doing, very well might not actually be doing it.

That poor, dear, wonderful teacher did her best to explain that it wasn’t Jesus’s body that would come live inside me but His Spirit. So, I wondered, why don’t we say we’re accepting the Holy Spirit, but I don’t think I actually asked that question, possibly because the teacher explained that it was Jesus who died for me, Jesus who paid for my sins.

I got it. But I had another question. Again, I don’t have a clear recollection of the sequence of these events, but at some point when I was six or seven, I wasn’t so sure if I agreed that all had sinned and come short of God’s standard. I knew a few Bible stories by this time, so I figured if I could just think of one person in the Bible who hadn’t sinned, then maybe I could be like him. (I shared a little more about this incident in this post: “My Deceitful Heart.”) I mean, what evil had I done at six? Obviously I hadn’t yet learned about pride and self-righteousness.

I was probably in fifth grade, maybe fourth, when I came across John 3:18. I was playing alone in my room, pretending to be a preacher (I hadn’t learned yet what the Bible says about women and teaching in the church, either 😉 ). I opened my Bible to about the only passage I knew by heart, John 3:16, and started in explaining what it all meant to my pretend congregation. But when I got through that verse, I had more sermon I wanted to preach, so I went on to verse 17, then verse 18. And when I explained the part about Jesus not coming to condemn but that those who didn’t believe in Him were condemned already because they didn’t believe, I got it.

Salvation wasn’t about toeing the line, because none of us could. We were all condemned. Believing in Jesus gave us a pardon.

I was still confused about a lot of things—most particularly why I continued to sin. It gave me no end of doubt about my salvation and contributed to my “accepting Jesus” any number of times because I just didn’t know if it was enough that I meant it when I said it but later acted like I didn’t.

What was it I meant? That I knew I was a sinner, that I knew Jesus had died in my place, that He would forgive me if I believed in Him, and that I would have everlasting life, which meant I’d go to heaven.

I didn’t want to go to heaven particularly. Everything I heard about it made it sound kind of boring, but I knew I didn’t want to go to hell, so I pretty much just wanted to keep living on earth.

That changed, many years later when I read C. S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce and came to understand that eternal life is Real Life.

I could go on and tell how one by one God added to my understanding and corrected my misunderstanding. But the point is, my “faith journey”—actually my walk with Christ—started because someone asked me if I wanted to pray to accept Jesus into my heart.

Are there false conversions, people who prayed “the prayer” and who have not continued with Christ? I’m sure there are. That’s what Jesus said in the parable about the sower and the seed. Some seed sprang up, but weeds choked it. Some seed fell on the side of the road and was trampled or the birds snatched it away (Luke 8:5-7). Jesus explained it this way:

Those beside the road are those who have heard; then the devil comes and takes away the word from their heart, so that they will not believe and be saved. Those on the rocky soil are those who, when they hear, receive the word with joy; and these have no firm root; they believe for a while, and in time of temptation fall away. The seed which fell among the thorns, these are the ones who have heard, and as they go on their way they are choked with worries and riches and pleasures of this life, and bring no fruit to maturity. (Luke 8:12-14)

So who, then, believes in Jesus? I’m convinced I was “born again” when I first put my trust in Him as a small child. My faith wasn’t grounded in theology and it wasn’t mature. It didn’t need to be. It only need to be, because the work wasn’t mine. It was and is Christ’s.

After all, that’s what Scripture says:

but these [signs] have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name. (John 20:31)

And after [the jailer] brought [Paul and Silas] out, he said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”

They said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved (Act 16:30-31a).

This post is an edited version of one that first appeared here in February 20011.

The Purpose Of Prayer


I don’t understand much about prayer and its purpose. In fact, for years my prayer life was … sad.

For the longest time, I prayed pretty much for no other reason than that Scripture tells us to pray. From my experience, it seemed mostly like a crap shoot as to whether or not God would give me what I asked for.

When I was a kid, I prayed for things like a bike—didn’t get one until I was in junior high and then we lived where there was no place to ride.

As a young adult, I prayed for things like our friend who mysteriously disappeared one Sunday morning, never to be found again.

Later I prayed for a spouse. I’m still single. I prayed for people to get well who died, and for others, who lived. I prayed for families to stay together that split up.

As a teacher I prayed for my classes and my lesson prep and my work load, and I was never sure when God answered. When things went well, was it because of His provision or the natural course of things? When they went badly, was He telling me I’d neglected something I was supposed to be doing?

At some point, I pretty much stopped trying to figure prayer out. I knew what it wasn’t. It was not God’s vending machine—insert faith, push the desired prayer button, wait for answer to automatically spit out.

Prayer as vending machine had been my philosophy when our friend went missing. I knew God was powerful enough to bring her back, whole and healthy, even. I believed He wanted to protect her and to return her to her role as a pastor’s wife. I asked, believing she would be found. I fully expected it. But days turned into weeks, then years, and eventually it was clear God had not answered my prayer—at least not by giving me what I requested. Now I understand that’s not the way prayer works.

In fact, prayer doesn’t “work” as if it’s a tool to fix what’s broken. Rather, prayer is our “spiritual media” (in contrast to our ever demanding social media)—our means of communicating with God.

So I guess that defines at least part of prayer’s purpose. God wants us first and foremost to talk to Him. I mean, we’re in a relationship. Healthy relationships need healthy communication. Clearly, communication involves a lot more than simply asking for things.

I find it interesting that there were times in Scripture God said He wouldn’t hear His people’s prayers. In other places, however, He seemed to promise answers. If two or three are gathered in His name, if we have the faith of a mustard seed, if we pray without any doubt, if we pray according to His will.

That last point is a stickler. How are we to know His will? Does He want my friend to be healed of cancer or does He want to glorify Himself by how she approaches death? How am I to pray? Or is my every prayer to be, This is what I want God, nevertheless not my will be done, but Yours.

If so, aren’t we back to the crap shoot idea since I really don’t know how to pray or what God plans?

Here’s the shocking thing I’ve learned in the last few years. When it comes to asking for things, God has told us in Scripture what things He wills. Over and over He’s told us.

But silly me, I persist in asking for things without having a clue what God wants instead of asking for the enduring provisions God wants to give me.

Look at this one passage in the book of James, and think how life-changing it could be if I were to pray for these things that I know are God’s will:

Submit therefore to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you. Draw near to God and He will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts you double-minded.

Or how about this from Philippians:

Make my joy complete by being of the same mind, maintaining the same love, united in spirit, intend on one purpose. Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves. Do not merely look out for your own personal interests but also for the interests of others.

And later in the same chapter:

Do all things without grumbling or disputing so that you will prove yourselves to be blameless and innocent, children of God above reproach in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you appear as lights in the world.

Prayer changes things, I’m convinced. Until recently, though, I don’t think I understood what things God wants to change most of all.

Sure, in answer to prayer He could have changed Jesus’s status as the Suffering Servant who would die to redeem mankind. He didn’t because He knew the stakes. And Jesus knew to pray, “Not My will but Yours” because He knew the stakes, too.

He also knew His Father to be good, to be loving and merciful. So He put His trust in the Father’s will.

The purpose of prayer? First as communication between us and the Father. I think God wants us to pour our our heart to Him, to unload our burdens, to plead with Him for comfort or strength or even for change. We know God hears, but like a kind Father, He will only give us what is good for us.

But of equal importance, a key purpose of prayer is as a means for us to be involved with God to accomplish His will—things we know He wants because He has stated them in Scripture. These things we can pray knowing God hears and answers, though we may never see the outcome. God’s time is not ours, just as His ways are not ours. But praying with perseverance means we wait eagerly for God’s perfect answer.

This post is a an updated and revised edition of one that first appeared here in May 2011—because I still need to re-read thoughts on prayer.

Published in: on January 23, 2017 at 6:15 pm  Comments (1)  
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Why Shepherds?


Two distinct groups of people received notification that Jesus was born.

The wisemen we understand because… they were wise! And they had something to give the infant King. Three somethings: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Gold, the fitting mineral for a king; frankincense, the fitting incense for worship; and myrrh, the fitting perfume for embalming a body. OK, the last one may have had Joseph and Mary wondering, but I digress.

In reality, despite the many manger scenes to the contrary, the wisemen, who had some distance to travel once they recognized that a king had been born in Judea, were late arriving. The first group to show up was a collection of local shepherds.

Shepherds in first century Judea were hired workers, poor men with little future. Which is precisely why the angel announced the Messiah’s birth to them, conventional wisdom says. They fit what we now understand as Jesus’s purpose for coming to earth. He’s for the Everyman.

Maybe. Maybe that’s why the shepherds received the angelic announcement that Christ had been born. Kind of a bookend from the poor side that, along with the opposite rich wisemen, would encompass people of every station in life. It’s a good theory.

The shepherds also represented the people who weren’t doing all the religious ceremonies to make themselves acceptable to God. So some scholars have speculated that’s why they got picked.

They were lowly, they were without pretense as to their standing before God, they were poor.

All this might be true, but I think there’s something else more important, and it has to do with why these shepherds received the announcement and not another set, say from Bethel: they believed.

The angel of the LORD stood in front of them and God’s Shekinah, His glory, shone around them. Needless to say, they reacted like virtually everyone else who had an encounter with an angel: they just about passed out with fear. They may have fallen on their faces, covered their heads with their arms, ducked behind the nearest boulder. Anything to ward off this person of obvious power.

Before anything else, the angel calmed them down. They didn’t have any reason to fear him or his message. In fact he’d come to give them great news. And not just for them, but for, well, everyone. Then the announcement:

today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.

He didn’t stop there. He went on to give them a sign. A strange sign, I think. I mean, God’s glory shining around them seems like a pretty powerful sign.

    More of that, please. Aimed at those owners of the vineyard just the other side of the plateau who chased away our flocks last week. They need a good dose of God’s awesome power, I’d think! Let them quake in their sandals for a few minutes. Or an hour. Just saying.

But no. The sign the angel passed along provided identifying features that would allow them to find the newborn baby. What would mark Him as different from any other baby that might be born that same night? Well, for one thing, He would be wrapped in cloths.

Some scholars say that was normal—babies in those days were all wrapped in cloths; no cute little baby outfits for them. Some say the cloths were akin to the strips used to wrap a body in preparation for burial—definitely out of the ordinary. Not sure, but I tend to lean toward the idea that this was uncommon. Otherwise, why mention it as an identifying feature? It would be like saying today, you’ll find the baby wrapped in a baby blanket.

    Well, thanks very much for all that help distinguishing this baby from all other babies!!

No matter, the second part of the sign the angel gave is irrefutably unique. The baby they’d be looking for was in a manger. Clearly, a feeding trough was not the normal bed for a newborn. Find the manger holding an infant, wrapped in cloths, and you’ve found the Christ Child.

The_Shepherds011What does all this have to do with the shepherds believing?

I mean, they saw the angel and God’s glory and then a host of other angels praising God. They were eyewitnesses.

To the announcement.

They still had to respond to what they heard. They could have sat around and debated what they’d just experienced. They could have discussed whether or not the message was true or whether any parent in their right mind would put a baby in a feeding trough.

Apparently they did none of those things. Rather they made the decision to track down this baby. They knew exactly what to look for.

So they’d need to knock on a few doors, make a few inquiries and find out what woman may have just given birth. Then they’d stop by and check out the sleeping quarters of the little guy. Shouldn’t be too hard.

I wonder how many doors got slammed in their faces. How many times they got yelled at, or ignored. But they persisted.

No matter how many people they roused from their sleep or disturbed with their questions, they needed to go to see “this thing that has happened which the Lord has made known to us” (Luke 2:15b).

They determined to “go straight to Bethlehem.” They did not doubt that “this thing” had really happened. They didn’t dismiss the announcement as something not intended for them.

    Some mistake. The angels got the wrong field. In fact they were probably looking for the palace. It’s a few miles west. Up the hill. Can’t miss it.

No, the shepherds believed that Messiah was born that very day, that God had made it known to them, and that they could find this baby based on the sign given them by the angel. So they went. No hesitation.

They put feet to their belief. And when they found Jesus, “they made know the statement which had been told them about this Child” (Luke 2:17).

Two reactions to their announcement: “all who heard it wondered.” Let the debate begin!

“Do you think they really saw an angel?”

“How else would they have known a baby was born?”

“But they’re shepherds!”

“Yeah, but what they said matches what we’re seeing here—a baby in a manger! Who would make that up?”

“Maybe they saw the baby first and decided to claim some oracle told them about it.”

“But why would they do that?”

And on and on.

The second reaction was Mary’s. She treasured what they said, pondering it all in her heart.

She’d take this one bit of evidence, this second declaration that her child was special, this account delivered by shepherds who said they saw an angel, just as she had when she first learned about this little boy she’d just brought into the world.

She’d think about it all, and as the years went by, in the end, after Christ’s resurrection, she’d add her faith to that of the shepherds.

Published in: on December 23, 2016 at 2:36 pm  Comments (8)  
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A Cat Claim And The Existence Of God


savannah_cat_portraitEarlier this week I spent the better part of one day in a discussion in the Facebook group for theists and atheists. One person (who I will refer to by the generic pronoun he) wrote, “If someone told you they had a cat, yet there was no evidence they owned a cat wouldn’t that be evidence against their cat claim?”

My answer was simple: their claim that they owned a cat must be considered as evidence, unless they’ve proved themselves to be liars or delusional.

His response was simply this: produce the cat.

But there’s the problem. What if the cat is an indoor cat? Or what if, for safety reasons, the owner only wants the cat to be allowed in the backyard?

Anybody claiming that the cat doesn’t exist has to doubt the word of the owner. Some might even go so far as to doubt the existence of a backyard. Oh, you say he’s in your backyard, but I’ve never seen your backyard. In fact, you don’t actually have a backyard. It’s more likely a park that lots of people share, and any cat that might have been spotted back there is likely someone else’s cat, or it’s not a cat at all. It’s probably a small dog or maybe even a squirrel. I’ve seen squirrels in your tree before, so your supposed cat is probably just another squirrel.

Those who question the existence of God operate from the same premise: what is true must be verified by an approved method—either by first hand knowledge (because eyewitness accounts are notoriously unreliable) or by passing the hard-evidence test.

Therefore, since I have not seen your cat, you don’t own a cat. Or, since there is no litter box contents going into your trash can, since you never bring home a new bag of cat litter, since you don’t bundle your cat into a cage and drive him to the vet from time to time, and since there aren’t cat hairs clinging to your clothes, you don’t own a cat.

Even though you say you do.

This discussion can be frustrating, especially if the cat is somewhere else at present. Suppose the owner took it with her on a trip abroad, only to have it quarantined when she returned. Roughly thirty days, the customs officials said. So day after day the owner tells the neighbor she has a cat, one he’ll see when it gets home.

The neighbor, however, refuses to believe she has a cat because he says, “Faith is no path to truth as it can be used to justify anything.” In other words, he refuses to believe the owner’s word. That would not be evidence. That would be faith, and faith is just wishful thinking.

But what if the owner’s son also said, “Yes, we have a cat.” And the vet who gave the animal shots before the trip abroad said, “I know she owns a cat.” Are three eyewitnesses enough?

To complicate things, what if the discussion was about a former cat, not a current pet. What if she told her neighbor she once owned a prize-winning Savannah she sold for $30,000. The neighbor demands proof. “Produce the bill of sale or pictures,” he says.

But then he disqualifies the bill of sale she brings out because it is handwritten. “Anyone could have forged that document,” he says. The pictures could just as easily have been photo-shopped from ones on line. So how can she prove that she indeed owned the cat? Eyewitness accounts are out, documentation is out, and “faith” in the owner’s word is out.

I don’t want to belabor the analogy. The point is, the neighbor has decided he doesn’t believe the woman owned a cat which she sold for $30,000. It’s not in his experience that a cat could cost that much, and he never saw the cat himself. He’s not going to be so foolish as to believe the woman because she could tell him anything. Is he supposed to believe any old story that she or others choose to tell?

The fact is, the man does have faith: primarily in his own knowledge and experiences. If he had seen the cat, he’d believe. Others might believe once they see the bill of sale. Still others might be convinced by the pictures. But all of them have faith in something or someone.

Faith is nothing more than trusting a source.

When it comes to God and His existence, He is the primary source. He demonstrates His existence in what He has made. He tells us of His existence in His written revelation. Ultimately He exhibited His existence by taking on the likeness of humankind. Currently He verifies His existence by His presence in the lives of those who believe Him.

How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord,
Is laid for your faith in His excellent word!
What more can He say than to you He hath said—
To you who for refuge to Jesus have fled? (“How Firm A Foundation,” Timeless Truths)

Published in: on December 7, 2016 at 6:00 pm  Comments Off on A Cat Claim And The Existence Of God  
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Picking A President: What Matters Most?


zebra_02When a Christian makes a decision, should faith play a part?

I’d say, yes and no. Faith should play a part as far as we’re concerned, but it shouldn’t necessarily be a factor when we evaluate someone else. For instance, when I go to the grocery store or stop at a fast food restaurant, I don’t believe a Christian should interview the check out clerk and produce manager, or the server and cook when deciding which store or which fast food spot to visit. On the other hand, I should be a Christian in how I deal with those people—I should be kind, respectful, a person of integrity.

Like all people, Christians can and should expect others to do what they’ve said they’d do. For example, when we take our car in for maintenance, we shouldn’t expect favors, but we can expect good work and honest dealings. We aren’t holding the car mechanic to high standards because of our faith necessarily. And we ought not expect more or less from someone because of their religious affiliation. Further more, we have every right to change to a mechanic that meets the standard of excellence we expect.

When it comes to picking a President, not so much is different, I don’t think. We should pick a President because we think he or she is qualified and because we think the person will do a good job. However, there are a lot of factors that come into play—not the least of which is that we have no good measuring stick for whether or not a President has done a good job. He might do an outstanding job, but another country attacks us months into his Presidency, and the whole course of his tenure is changed. Or the economy might take a dive because of the policies instituted by a predecessor.

Presidents don’t work in a vacuum, either. They are to work with Congress. In fact, the original idea of those who wrote the Constitution was that Congress would write the laws and the President would make sure those laws got carried out. The Presidency was never meant to be about what this one leader would do. He was not a monarch or a dictator.

You’d never know it these days if you listen to what the Presidential candidates say. They tell how they’ll do this or that to bring more jobs and improve the economy, how they’ll fix the problems of illegal immigration, how they’ll stop ISIS, how they’ll cope with racial injustice. If someone from a different country heard all this, I suspect they’d never guess we had a Congress.

Listening to what a candidate says he or she will do, then, is really little more than an opportunity to discern their values and character. And do values matter? Does character? I mean, I opened this article by saying faith “shouldn’t necessarily be a factor when we evaluate someone else.”

The key to the above statement is the word “necessarily.” I don’t necessarily evaluate a car mechanic by his character unless I learn that he’s trying to con me into services I don’t really need, or is charging me too much, or says he’s changed a part he hasn’t. Then, of necessity, his values and character will enter into my decision whether to ever take my car to him again. (Thankfully my present mechanics—yes, I have two, which you need when you drive a really, really old car—are exceptionally honest!)

Most of what a President actually does is our of the public eye, so it’s hard to evaluate what kind of job he’s doing until something catches in the media which we either agree with or disagree with. What we end up judging is the over all state of the country. Is it better or worse than when the President came into office?

In the early twentieth century, for instance, President Woodrow Wilson ran his reelection campaign on the slogan “he kept us out of war.” After he was re-eleced, however, the US did, in fact, enter World War I. No surprise, then, that a candidate from the opposing party won the next election.

So what should a Christian look for in a President? For the most part, I think we should look for the same things anyone else looks for: integrity, leadership, the capacity to work well with others—which we used to call statesmanship. If a Christian is running for the office, I think that’s a plus. If someone claims to be a Christian and is not, that’s a huge minus.

I understand we aren’t to judge a person, but when someone says he’s a Christian and then clearly demonstrates he doesn’t understand what it actually means to be a Christian, then it’s not judging to say he’s not a Christian. It’s common sense.

It would be like me saying, I’m Latin American. If questioned about this, because I have no Hispanic features, I’d say I’m Latin American because I attended the University of Mexico one summer and lived in Guatemala for three years.

That’s well and good, the other person might respond, but that doesn’t make you Latin American.

And they’d be right. My misunderstanding of what it means to be Latin American would not alter the fact that I am not Latin American. Same with those who say they are Christian.

The thing is, if a President says it, then acts in a way contrary to Christian beliefs, he brings great harm to the name of Christ.

So what matters most when picking a President? Their stand on gay marriage? Gun laws? Immigration? Abortion? Terrorism? Trade? Taxes? The environment?

We aren’t going to find someone who agrees with all our positions, and even if they did, they are not acting alone ad cannot insure that their policies will be enacted.

What matters most is the person’s values and character.

It’s particularly distressing that the two leading candidates are know for their lack of integrity, bullying, and condescension.

Can any policy statements that we agree with and hold to dearly outweigh who a person actually is? A donkey painted with black and white stripes is still a donkey, no matter how much people say it’s a zebra. Same with an elephant, in case anyone thinking I’m making a statement about the Democratic candidate with that analogy. I’m not. It’s something I read that’s on an entirely different topic. But the analogy fits for candidates who say they’ll do this or that but are mean-spirited, untrustworthy, and egotistical.

No, I suggest we keep looking for a real zebra instead of settling.

Published in: on October 3, 2016 at 7:53 pm  Comments (4)  
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