The Angel and the Donkey


The Bible story of Balaam and his talking donkey recorded in the book of Numbers has always mystified me, and it seems like the more I think about it, the more I find mystifying.

My initial problem comes in what appears to be God changing His mind. Here’s the background. The king of Moab wants Balaam, evidently a prophet of God, to come and curse Israel, the people of God, as they are making their way to the Promised Land.

OK, we can overlook the king’s ignorance, I guess, assuming instead that he hadn’t put two and two together—that the God who was protecting and blessing these people was the same one Balaam consulted for his prophetic words.

But on to the story. When the envoy from the king arrived, Balaam said, Let me see what God has to say about this. He came back to them and faithfully reported God’s word—No, I’m not to go with you, I’m not to curse them.

Perhaps the king had been spoiled as a child because he didn’t take no for an answer. He sent his representatives to Balaam a second time. The prophet said he’d check with God to see what else He had to say. And this time God told Balaam to go with the men but to speak only that which He told him to.

Off they go, accompanied by two of Balaam’s servants. And Balaam’s faithful donkey which he’d ridden all his life.

Along the way, an angel of the Lord lies in wait for Balaam with drawn sword in hand. The donkey sees the angel and avoids him. Three times.

Balaam, apparently frustrated by his wayward donkey, beats the animal. And then the second miracle—the donkey asks Balaam what he did to deserve the beatings. Balaam says he would have killed the donkey if he’d had a sword because the animal was mocking him.

The donkey asks if Balaam has ever known him to act this way before, and when the prophet admits he has not, his eyes are opened and he sees the angel.

The angel says to Balaam, why did you beat your donkey seeing as he saved your life?

Balaam then repents, says he sinned, and that he’ll return home if that’s what the Lord wants. The answer? No, go ahead and go, but speak only what God tells you.

Besides the God-changing-His-mind issue, I saw for the first time the God-versus-God aspect of the story. The angel of God stood with a sword to kill the prophet of God, but a miraculous talking donkey saved him. Who but God opened the eyes and the mouth of the donkey? So God saved His prophet from His angel.

Now I have to admit, I decided to post these questions because often times in writing things down, I see more clearly. And I think that might be true here.

Apparently there is something Scripture doesn’t give us in these verses—Balaam’s decision to say something he wasn’t supposed to say.

Consequently, in the same way he viewed his donkey as wayward and beat the animal and would have killed it, God stood against Balaam with sword in hand as the prophet went, apparently wayward in his heart, to meet with the king.

Except God had mercy on Balaam and gave him a second chance—well, actually three chances, as it turns out, because that’s how many times the king took Balaam to a place where he could overlook Israel and where he offered sacrifices as a way of seeking God’s curse.

Three times. The same number of times the donkey saved Balaam’s life. Coincidence?

Now, about that God-changing-His-mind issue … 🙄

This post is an edited version of one that first appeared here in September 2009.

Published in: on March 24, 2017 at 5:00 pm  Comments (5)  
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The God Who Spanks


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Become conformed.” How does that happen?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published in: on March 22, 2017 at 5:53 pm  Comments (5)  
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Guilt/Innocence Or Shame/Honor


Just last week, a man here in the LA area who served 32 years in prison was released from custody because of a wrongful conviction. How will this man be perceived in society? The answer to that question can be easily determined by the kind of society from which he comes.

Anthropologists study humankind, including the way culture works. One such scientist, Franz Boas, and his student Ruth Benedict, first identified differences in cultural patterns, claiming that Eastern cultures follow an honor/shame arrangement and Western cultures, a guilt/innocence mode.

Benedict endorsed and popularized what some called “Boasian conceptual kernel” of US anthropology:

Human behavior is patterned. There exist within historically specific populations recurrences in both thought and behavior that are not contingent but structurally conditioned and that are, in turn, structuring.

Those patterns are learned. Recurrences cannot be tied to a natural world within or outside the human body, but rather to constant interaction within specific populations. Structuration occurs through social transmission and symbolic coding with some degree of human consciousness.

If I understand the first point correctly, the idea is that people groups behave and think in identifiably similar ways, because the people have been conditioned to do so. In turn they teach others to also be structured in the same way.

The structure of those in Eastern cultures is based on honor/shame, which largely identifies the way a culture “manages” its citizens. Individuals care a great deal about their standing in the community, so they don’t want to do something that would cost them respect or high standing.

What the community deems deplorable, then, takes presidency over individual desires or beliefs of right and wrong. I assume the community values are also somewhat fluid. If a society softens its position against a certain behavior, presumably an individual would no longer bear shame for engaging in it.

A guilt/innocence society follows a different paradigm. Rather than conforming to the community based on their praise or condemnation, a guilt/innocence outlook is more concerned about the individual’s adherence to law. The idea of innocent until proven guilty emphasizes the difference in the two approaches.

In the shame/honor culture, an accusation brings shame. In a guilt/innocence culture, an accusation needs to be proved.

A third cultural outlook is the fear/power model. Tribal cultures and totalitarian regimes and perhaps gangs operate on the fear of a group and their desire for power to counter it.

The general knowledge about these ways of grouping cultures, has simplified them as Eastern or Western. Little mention is made of fear/power, and Eastern cultures are believed to be shame/honor driven, while Western societies operate according to the guilt/innocence model.

One aspect of cultures adhering to the guilt/innocence model is that they are more concerned with the individual, whereas shame/honor groups care more for the community. As a result, some clear differences have emerged:

Individualistic cultures, primarily located in the West, appeal more to legal notions of right and wrong to govern social behavior. Morality is internalized, so people experience guilt for misdeeds. Guilty persons become innocent when they are forgiven or justice is served. (“Honor and Shame Societies,” the Zwemer Center)

Consequently, the man I mentioned at the outset, who was wrongly convicted of murder, has no shame because he spent half his life in prison. He was innocent.

What I find fascinating about the study of these cultural differences, is that I can see elements of both in the Bible. The Old Testament deals primarily with Hebrew culture, and there is much of the shame/honor culture apparent in the story of the Jewish nation, but at the same time God is the one who departs from the norm and tells the people that a man’s family is no longer to be considered guilty just because the man is guilty. In other words, no more guilt by association. A guilty person was to die for his own crimes, but his sons were to go free.

The New Testament with its teaching about sin and the forgiveness bought by the blood of Christ further built the guilt/innocence culture that took hold in the Greek and Roman societies where Paul ministered.

As I view Christianity, I see the perfect marriage of both shame/honor and guilt/innocence. What I don’t see is fear/power, unless it involves Satan and what he wants to accomplish.

All this to say, I wonder if through globalization and perhaps through the devaluation of Christianity, Western culture is sliding more and more into the shame/honor camp. I mean, all the politically correct approach to life is little more than putting pressure on an individual by the group to get people to conform to a societal norm, regardless of Law.

What’s particularly interesting is that bullying is taboo, but group bullying is the means by which we attempt to put an end to individual bullying.

In this climate, everyone is easily offended, every position expresses hate or abuse, no one is innocent any more as long as they hold beliefs that contradict the “group.” As yet, the “group” is not society at large, but certainly it’s growing in numbers.

As I see it, this kind of shame/honor approach is divorced from reality. Someone who gets away with a crime has no shame because he has not reflected badly on his community. Never mind that he might be hurting the less fortunate. Never mind that he makes his money on the backs of the weak.

The real problem with the shame/honor approach is the loss of the sense of personal sin. In light of the fact that Christianity alone offers mercy and forgiveness, I wonder if the concept of a Savior might be lost if our culture slides more and more toward shame/honor.

Of course, there is great emphasis in the Old Testament about God’s people upholding the honor of His name. One reason that God didn’t do away with the complaining people of Israel after the Exodus was precisely because of what the people around them would think about God. In fact, the point of a nation entering into a covenant relationship with God was to show the other nations the blessings God wanted to shower upon them as well.

Israel as a community was to be God’s ambassador to the world. Today we believers have that role. Individually, but collectively as the Church. We are to love one another in such a way that the world notices.

But we receive forgiveness for sins, not as a collective community, but as individuals, foreknown, predestined, called, justified, glorified by God because we as individuals believe that Jesus died for the sins of the world, that He was raised on the third day, that He is now at God’s right hand interceding for us.

Shame. Guilt. Fear. Jesus Christ dealt with all of it. He is the most cross-cultural person who ever lived. But that is what I’d expect from the Savior of the world. No wonder the gospel penetrates the Amazon jungle and the Russian steppes equally.

Reprise: Does God Care Who Wins The NCAA Tournament?


NCAA_tournamentI don’t usually reprise an article that I first published so recently (March 2015), but I didn’t think I had anything to add to what I wrote two years ago about the cultural phenomenon known as March Madness, which is the NCAA Men’s Division I basketball tournament. So here, with only the smallest revision, is that post again.

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Even the person least into sports here in the US is likely to know that the top division in men’s basketball is holding their tournament to determine the 2017 champion. We’ve fondly dubbed this time each year, March Madness.

It’s not quite as mad as it used to be. Yes, there are still upsets which scrambles everyone’s game by game predictions, but one TV network used to cover the games so there were split screens and much jumping from scheduled game to updates and even the endings of close games. The games, of course, start during the week, so working people were taping the games they most wanted to see and trying to avoid hearing final scores.

Things have changed. Cable TV is now part of the mix. All games can be viewed by whoever has that service. Or has the Internet and enough data minutes to see the games they can’t otherwise get. In other words, there’s far less scrambling, far less madness connected with seeing the games.

Still, many people put a lot into picking winners and following the games to see how well they’re doing and what chance they have of winning office pools or more. In other words, a lot of people are interested in what a bunch of college students are doing the three weeks of the tournament.

Factor in interested parties which include fellow students at the competing universities, friends and family, alumni, teachers past and present, people who live in the communities where the different schools are located. In other words, beneath the layer of unattached fans, you have a layer of attached fans.

At the core, of course, are those intimately involved with the basketball programs—players, coaches, athletic directors, trainers, cheerleaders, ball boys, those who work the games, scorekeepers, timers. People involved are invested, some to a greater degree than others.

In all this, does God care who wins the NCAA men’s basketball championship?

That question comes to mind in part because I spent thirty years as a coach—of various middle school, and then high school, girls sports teams, including basketball. Since I worked at Christian schools, we always prayed together as a team, but most often we were playing against other Christian schools which also prayed as a team.

Early on I confronted the dilemma—could I expect God to hear our prayers and not theirs if we both prayed to win the game? And if we prayed to win and yet lost, did that mean there was sin in the camp, that God was somehow displeased with us, that we had more to learn spiritually before He would reward us with a championship?

In other words, I wrestled with the issue of praying for a victory in a basketball game. In the end, I decided not to pray for wins.

The temptation is to conclude that God simply doesn’t care. Whether team A or team B wins certainly doesn’t change who He is or what He wants to accomplish. But I believe God cares about games because He cares about us.

In fact, one of the reasons I loved coaching so much was that I viewed sports as a microcosm of life. During a season of basketball, a team faces in miniature many of the things that they’ll have to deal with on a larger scope later on: adversity, success, hard work, togetherness, failure, discipline, teamwork, obedience, response to injustice, doing your best, bouncing back from not doing your best, and more.

Don’t get me wrong. Winning is sweet. But there’s so much that goes into winning, and I think God cares a lot more about those things. Ultimately, He cares more about the people than He does about the winning. Sometimes the greatest affect on a person comes from losing. In other words, some people need to lose to be the people God wants them to be. Some players need to forgive a teammate for making a bad decision or taking a bad shot. God cares more that they learn to show compassion and forgive than He does about their winning.

There’s a song that goes right to the heart of this matter by Laura Story. It’s called “Blessings”:

We pray for blessings, we pray for peace
Comfort for family, protection while we sleep

After a catalog of other things Christians have been known to pray for, the song turns and asks in the chorus, penetrating questions:

‘Cause what if Your blessings come through rain drops
What if Your healing comes through tears
What if a thousand sleepless nights are what it takes to know You’re near
What if trials of this life are Your mercies in disguise

Sports can be a training ground for young athletes, and we who are on the sidelines, or on this side of the TV, watching have no way of knowing what God is doing in the lives of those people running up and down the court. I think God cares a great deal for each one of those student-athletes, but I don’t know if that means He’ll calm a nervous heart so a young man can play up to his potential or if He’ll prompt a player to say a kind word to an opponent or allow a TV camera to distract him so he misses a key free throw.

The book of James makes a couple clear statements about prayer:

You do not have because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive because you ask with wrong motives so that you may spend it on your pleasures. (James 4:2b-3)

So God wants us to ask—just not with wrong motives, not selfishly.

Does He care about who wins the NCAA Tournament? In the grand scheme of things, probably not, but how the winning and losing and all that leads up to those results affects us, absolutely: God cares because He uses raindrops for His purposes. Or teardrops.

You have taken account of my wanderings;
Put my tears in Your bottle,
Are they not in Your book? (Psalm 56:8)

Published in: on March 16, 2017 at 5:21 pm  Comments (1)  
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Truth And Love


Instead of starting with Love or even with Truth, I want to start with a discussion of post-truth.

Post-truth: adjective

Relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.

‘in this era of post-truth politics, it’s easy to cherry-pick data and come to whatever conclusion you desire’

‘some commentators have observed that we are living in a post-truth age’ (English Oxford Living Dictionaries)

As it happens, the Oxford Dictionary picked post-truth as their Word of the Year for 2016. Fitting, some might say. Truth is having a hard time because so many politicians and media people and Washington insiders lie regularly.

But there’s more to that definition: in place of facts we’re apparently forming our opinions based on our beliefs. Which implies that our beliefs are already divorced from facts. So we’re believing something because . . . ? What’s the basis for our beliefs if not something we can label as True?

Are we believing what makes us feel good? I believe I’ll win the lottery. I believe it will not rain this weekend. I believe the Dodgers will win the World Series this year. I believe I’ll sell my fantasy series for a six figure advance. Silly stuff, that. Those aren’t beliefs, though they’ve been framed as belief statements. They would more accurately be called wishful thinking or pipe dreams—unattainable, unlikely, or fanciful desires.

Truth is not part of that kind of wishful thinking.

But clearly our society has moved belief out of the camp of truth and into the camp of post-truth.

Yet Jesus, standing with his disciples turned to Thomas, the doubter, and said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.” (John 14:6; emphasis mine) He went on to say that if they’d seen Him, they’d seen the Father. So Jesus is Truth, ergo, God is Truth. Essentially He said, You’re looking at God, who happens to be Truth.

But God is also Love. As it happens, Jesus is the proof, the evidence, the tipping point that demonstrates God’s attribute of Love:

The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love. By this the love of God was manifested in us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world so that we might live through Him. In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. (1 John 4:8-10; emphasis mine).

In other words, when God sent Jesus, He demonstrated to the world that He is Love.

How so? Because He stood in the gap for the world, according to John 3:16. “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.” We on our part must do nothing but believe. God, manifesting His Person as Love, sent His Son to do what we could not do for ourselves.

We could not deal with the sin in our lives and in the world. We could not bridge the gap between us and God. We could only suffer the consequences for sin: “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23).

So why the big deal that God is Truth and that God is Love?

In our post-truth culture, we live as if the truth and love are mutually exclusive. If I have the truth and you disagree with me, then you are engaging in hate! Of course, my truth might not be your truth unless you say that your truth is absolute and unshakeable and eternal. Such a statement marks you as a hater because the only truth we can know for sure is that there is no absolute truth. How we know this has never been explained, but our post-truth society embraces it.

But what if we Christians step out and do the ministry of reconciliation in our communities and families—what if we Love in Truth and what if we speak Truth in Love? What if we show by our lives that God is Truth and God is Love; what if we, His children who house His Spirit, reflect His qualities by what we say and do?

Too often people look at Christians and see us at war with our culture. Or they see us withdrawing from our culture. We either embrace Truth and seek to stand by it or die trying. Or we embrace Love and shy away from anything that could offend or stir up ill will or that could be misunderstood. We want above all to clasp hands with our neighbors in hopes that they realize we love them because of God’s love (which we never talk about because *gasp* we might offend someone) in us.

Or we retreat into our own. We trust Team Jesus, and we’d just as soon keep all our dealings with the home team. No offense. We’d just rather not have to deal with, you know, The World. That’s one of the enemies, right up there with The Flesh, which we pretend has disappeared when we became Christians, and The Devil, which we must guard against. So, to avoid fighting battles on two fronts, we’ll separate ourselves from The World.

It’s not quite that simple.

The World doesn’t refer to the latest movies or songs on iTunes. It doesn’t refer to today’s fads and fashions in clothes or piercings or tattoos. It refers to the system by which the world operates. The system that opposes God, that denies The Truth about God, that lies about who we are and how we got here and why we exist.

We can only counter The World by submerging ourselves in The Truth and engaging those who need to hear it with the same love Christ had for us while we were yet sinners. In other words, we must be proactive, not reactive.

We must not play favorites with God’s nature. His Truth can’t be ignored. His Love can’t be ignored. Otherwise we’re representing a God who doesn’t actually exist. He’s not a kindly grandfather trying to give every boy and girl a lollipop and a pat on the head. His Love is radical and dangerous and transformative.

As is His Truth. But His Truth does not make God hard-nosed, unkind, or insensitive. He isn’t a drill sergeant waiting for recruits to mess up so he can send them on a night run as punishment. He isn’t playing some game of “gotcha.”

No. His Truth is fueled by His Love. And Jesus exemplifies both.

Now it’s our turn—those who believe in Jesus—to go out into the world and preach Jesus as The Turth which the post-truth generation needs, and to do so in The Love that will enable them to hear what we’re saying.

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For more on Truth and Love see this RZIM article, “Truth Or Love: What’s Your Choice?”

Atheist Accusations Against God: He’s A Tyrant


I think the first time I heard an atheist say that God was a tyrant was at a debate between atheist Christopher Hitchens and professor of theology and apologetics William Lane Craig. Hitchens, who has since died of cancer, claimed his great concern was for freedom, and God doesn’t allow for freedom. Rather God is Hitler on steroids. If He existed. From one of my posts discussing the debate:

[Hitchens said]

It’s degrading to say that morality comes from on high. It’s servile. A kind of heavenly North Korea.

He added that he believed in free will, though he didn’t know why. But a bossy god would seem to reduce free will because then we would be accountable.

Then towards the end of the debate he said:

Emancipate yourself from a celestial dictatorship and you’ve taken the first step to being free.

. . . Above all else, it seems he wants his autonomy, even though he believes his life serves no lasting purpose and will end in oblivion.

Since that debate, I’ve encountered any number of other atheists who throw out this accusation—God is an insufferable dictator. The claim is leveled at God because He’s “bossy,” but also because of the heinous things He allows others to do.

King David, for example, committed adultery and contracted a murder, so God is heinous.

In truth, God is forgiving, though David still had to suffer the four-fold consequence for his sins which the prophet Nathan explained.

But if God had not forgiven David, if He had judged him and required his death, I feel fairly certain atheists would have used such action against God as well to prove how cruel He supposedly is. Whenever God brought judgment on people, atheists cry foul. God isn’t loving because He drowned the people for their wickedness in the Great Flood. God is hateful because He ordered the Amalekites “exterminated,” and so on.

If God does not punish sin, He is weak or wish-washy, or not sovereign. If God does punish sin, He is cruel and monstrous and genocidal.

The point is clear. No matter what God does, atheists will accuse Him of wrong doing. They don’t want a sovereign who sets down the rules and tells them to live according to His moral laws. They want the autonomy Christopher Hitchens sought.

The sad thing is, God gives them exactly what they want. Take Israel, for instance. Over and over Scripture records that God told the prophets the people who would suffer His judgment would get exactly what they earned by their actions. Here’s one such declaration:

The people of the land have practiced oppression and committed robbery, and they have wronged the poor and needy and have oppressed the sojourner without justice. I searched for a man among them who would build up the wall and stand in the gap before Me for the land, so that I would not destroy it; but I found no one. Thus I have poured out My indignation on them; I have consumed them with the fire of My wrath; their way I have brought upon their heads,” declares the Lord GOD. (Ez. 22:29-31, emphasis added)

Instead of rushing to judgment, God shows time and again His patience. He searched for someone to stand in the gap. If He’d found someone, I have no doubt that the results would have been different. But because there was no one, He brought their way on their own heads.

Their oppression of the sojourner, their robbery, the wrong they committed against the poor—all of it resulted in a collapse of their society, a breakdown of their alliances, and the ruin of their security as a nation.

Other prophecies spell out that the leaders let the people down. The prophets spoke words that God did not tell them to speak. The priests sacrificed to gods they’d been commanded to forsake. The kings lived willful, compromised lives. And the people went so far as to give their children up for sacrifice to idols.

But to listen to atheists, God is a horrific megalomaniac, acting against people for no reason whatsoever.

The corollary to “God is a tyrant” is “Humans are good and innocent and not deserving of judgment.”

So the “good” Amalekites who hounded the people of Israel as they made their way to the promised land, attacking their stragglers—the weak, the elderly, the children—were horribly mistreated by God for bringing judgment on their heads.

Mind you, this judgment that God ordered came some two hundred years later, when the people of Amalek had had several generations to repent, to make peace with Israel, and to seek God. Clearly, they remained as brutal and hostile and idolatrous as they had been.

And here’s the thing: an omniscient God knows exactly what is in each person’s heart. He doesn’t make mistakes. It’s not as if a “good Amalekite” slipped His notice. Just as He later searched for someone to stand in the gap for Israel, God exercised His patient restraint toward Amalek.

Further, God says He takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked (Ezekiel 33:11), that it is not His will that even one should perish (Matt. 18:14), and that He desires all men to be saved (1 Tim. 2:4).

In light of such statements, are the atheists right that God is not actually sovereign? Not at all. Rather, He made humans in His image, with the freedom to choose. Because of the very fact that He is not a tyrant, He does not force anyone to believe in Him or to love Him.

The fact is, some people simply want the kind of autonomy Christopher Hitchens craved. The sad thing is, Scripture informs us that we are going to be slaves one way or the other:

Do you not know that when you present yourselves to someone as slaves for obedience, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin resulting in death, or of obedience resulting in righteousness? (Romans 6:16)

So we can be freed from sin and enslaved to God, which results in sanctification and eternal life. Or we can be slaves of sin and free in regard to righteousness—slaves to our addictions, or lusts, our fears, our words and deeds that hurt and degrade, both others and ourselves.

Simply put, “the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23)

God is not the tyrant. Sin is. God is our rescuer, redeeming us from the kingdom of darkness and transferring us to the kingdom of His Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins (Col. 1:13).

Mercy And Justice


top_signIn one sermon which George MacDonald is purported to have authored, he addressed God and His justice. The only Biblical text I can find is that from which he seems to have wandered—Psalm 62:12, which states, “And lovingkindness is Yours, O Lord, For You recompense a man according to his work.

In the King James, which the sermon quotes, lovingkindness is rendered mercy. The writer then makes a case for his interpretation of justice, leading into a denial of justice resulting in punishment.

How odd this discussion seems to me, but perhaps that’s because I’ve had good Bible teaching all my life.

The cultures around Israel during King David’s time (Psalm 62 is one of his) did not practice justice. They practiced vengeance. Consequently, the declaration that God would recompense a man according to his work was a statement of mercy. He would not punish a man for something his father did or punish the brothers or the children. God’s mercy was demonstrated in His justice, set in opposition to their vengeance.

How simple and straightforward. How righteous.

We are accountable before a Holy God for what we do. He does not pile on more than we deserve.

But here’s the thing. We are required by law to stop at stop signs. If I run a stop sign and get pulled over by a cop, I am guilty of breaking that law. No matter that I’ve not run a stop sign the prior 2000 times, or 200 million times before that. Stopping at the stop sign is what I am required by law to do. Fulfilling my obligation does not earn me points against a future time when I might slip up and run the stop sign.

In other words, there is nothing I can do to make up for my situation. I can only recognize my condition—I am a lawbreaker deserving of the just (and merciful) penalty for my actions.

What great news, then, that Jesus, who was not a lawbreaker, and therefore, faced no penalty, stepped in.

The amazing love of God is beyond comprehension here, because God did not wave His hand and dismiss my sin. He bore it Himself. He transferred my sin in the same way that the sins of Israel were transferred to scapegoats. It’s a mystical process, if you will, something that sounds too incredible, too hard to fathom. The Holy God, unstained in His being, complete in His purity, piled my sin on His shoulders. He bore my sin and carried my sorrow.

He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness; for by His wounds you were healed. (I Peter 2:24)

And in more detail from Isaiah

But the LORD was pleased
To crush Him, putting Him to grief;
If He would render Himself as a guilt offering,
He will see His offspring,
He will prolong His days,
And the good pleasure of the LORD will prosper in His hand.
As a result of the anguish of His soul,
He will see it and be satisfied;
By His knowledge the Righteous One,
My Servant, will justify the many,
As He will bear their iniquities.
Therefore, I will allot Him a portion with the great,
And He will divide the booty with the strong;
Because He poured out Himself to death,
And was numbered with the transgressors;
Yet He Himself bore the sin of many,
And interceded for the transgressors. (Isa 53:10-12; emphasis mine)

Paid in full. The blood of Jesus Christ blots out my sin. I receive God’s mercy when I understand that my work is insufficient to pay what I owe, that Christ alone could afford to bear my sin because He bore none of His own. The angel of death passes over me as surely as he once passed over the Jewish homes that bore the blood of the spotless Passover lamb slain on their behalf.

What a clear picture of God’s redemptive work—the marriage of His Justice and Mercy—prompted by His infinite Love.

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

Published in: on March 3, 2017 at 5:16 pm  Comments (4)  
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A Look At Complaining


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nevertheless, God saved them.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here I see myself.

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

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

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

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

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

Would American Christians be doing the same? Would I?

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

Published in: on March 2, 2017 at 6:52 pm  Comments (2)  
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There IS a God


his_temptation007It seems to me that denying God’s existence is the main strategy Satan is employing in Western civilization.

Ironic that Satan’s rebellion centered around wanting to be like God—Humankind’s too—but since that didn’t happen, and never will, never could, his ploy shifted to bringing God down.

It dawned on me a number of years ago when I read the three specific temptations Satan gave Jesus, recorded in Matthew and in Luke, that he was really bringing into question Jesus’s divinity. In other words, he was trying to reduce Jesus to the status of a mere man. And of course that failed.

So it seems his ploy for the twentieth century and on into the twenty-first has been to kill God off, or make Him irrelevant, or non-existent. I mean, no need to do away with what never existed. Enter evolution and modern philosophy with its reliance on empiricism, followed by postmodernism with its relativistic view of truth. God might be “true for you,” but that certainly doesn’t mean he actually exists.

The sad thing is, as Western society has realized the vacuous nature of these beliefs, there has not been a return to what was known before, but a forging ahead into what is new. Or rather, what has the appearance of “new.” Specifically, these are non-god entities that promise to satisfy the spiritual hunger we humans have begun to acknowledge.

“Non-god entities?”

One such would be the idea that each person has the resources we need for wellness. We just need to learn how to tap into the secrets that will release our amazing potential. With all the verbiage, it’s not easy to recognize, but this is all another way of saying, “You, too, can be like God.”

“Non-god entities.” This would also include “spirit guides,” more commonly known as demons; elements of the earth or of the universe or Mother Nature herself; ancestors; prophets; saints and popes; healer-preachers. In other words, anyone or anything we elevate to the position God alone rightfully possesses.

God is a jealous God, not an attribute we find attractive in humans, and consequently one we don’t often talk about in connection with God. But Satan has been all about stripping God of His Personhood, about denigrating Him, discrediting Him, dredging up doubts about Him. Who can defend God in the face of such assaults?

Well, God can. God should. He’s like a loving husband who cares for his wife’s well-being. On top of this, God knows. He knows what Satan is all about. He knows how easily fooled we are. He knows what His own nature and power and character are.

The truth is, one day we will all stand before Him, in His splendor, and every knee will bow, every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Satan’s best efforts, for all time, will crumble to nothing. All doubts removed. Questions answered. There IS a God.

This post is a revised and edited version of one that first appeared here in November 2007.

Published in: on February 10, 2017 at 6:14 pm  Comments (3)  
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God At His Best


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Creation establishes Him as Greater.

And Satan can’t stand that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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