Archive for the ‘Faith’ Category

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The Lord’s discipline

February 10, 2015

disciplineThe other night in youth group we were spending quiet time simply reading and studying the Word.  I was flipping through Hebrews when chapter 12 caught my eye — particularly the passage called “God’s discipline.”

The author begins by quoting Proverbs 3, “My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and he chastens everyone he accepts as his son.”

And then he follows that by saying that the suffering we experience can indeed be part of our discipline: “Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children. For what children are not disciplined by their father? …God disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.”

I’ve got to say that this passage is one of what I internally dub a “profoundly uncomfortable teaching” that we come up against here and there in the Bible.  It’s one that you kind of wish God didn’t convey to us, because it’s challenging, tough, and doesn’t coddle us with happy feelings.  I mean, I don’t want to be punished, I don’t want to be rebuked, and I don’t want to have to endure suffering!  Who does?  And here God is not only saying that his children will be disciplined, but that it’s for a specific purpose.

I’ll admit that my mind immediately took the word “discipline” and paired it with “punishment,” although upon successive readings I don’t think that’s the case.  Some discipline can involve punishment for bad behavior, but not all discipline is punishment.  In fact, the act of discipline is to shape and mold a person to obey and conform to a certain standard.

In other words, discipline makes us disciples.

This passage flies against prosperity gospel teachings and other feel-good notions of the gospel to grasp a fundamental truth of being a Christian: We will suffer, and through that suffering we will understand more what Jesus went through and become better people.  It is part of our training, just how a runner will have to push through the burn and dominate his or her body to perform even better.

And once I got past my immediate reaction of a fear of suffering and pain, I read the encouragement that exists here.  First, it makes a strong and repeated case that discipline means that we belong to God as God’s sons and daughters.  We are not abstract strangers that he is smiting for evil pleasure; we are his children that he is training to be the best that they can possibly be.

As a father, I can understand that.  My children outright resent my discipline, because that correction doesn’t let them continue doing the bad or selfish act they wanted to do.  I see that anger and frustration in their faces when I sit them down to talk, and I hear it when I listen to what they have to say in defense of why one kid pushed another kid into a wall for taking his toy.  But the discipline I perform on them is not out of anger or dislike, but out of love.  I want them to grow up to be wonderful people, full of faith, compassion, love, and selfless giving.  And that attitude is not going to come naturally, but must be trained for constantly.  They may resent me for it now, but one day I pray that they will thank me that I cared enough to do it.

Second, the discipline mentioned in this passage has a very specific purpose for our lives.  We will share in God’s holiness and will produce a harvest of peace and righteousness.  When I think of the type of person that I wish I could be for all of my faults, it would be to be like the men and women of faith that I’ve admired — the ones who do desire holiness, who do project peace, and who do prize doing what is right.

It may be the hardest prayer to pray in saying, “Dear Lord, please discipline me.  Please help me to thank you for the hardships and rebukes that I will encounter.   Please help me not to resent you, but to hold fast to these verses and the hope that lies within.”

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The Christmas Story: Why did Elizabeth go into seclusion when she became pregnant?

December 16, 2014

elizabethEvery so often when I’m reading the Bible, I come across a verse or a detail that is really puzzling to me and sends me into a bit of a research mode so that I can understand the proper context and meaning behind it.  It’s important to remember that while we read the Bible from a 21st century viewpoint, it wasn’t written with our culture and modern mindset.  What readers back then would naturally understand sometimes escapes us and prompts study to understand it.

Last Sunday we were listening to the story of Elizabeth’s pregnancy and came across this strange verse in Luke 1:24:

After this his wife Elizabeth became pregnant and for five months remained in seclusion.

What I couldn’t answer was, why did she go into seclusion?  It seems like the opposite thing you’d want to do if you were the subject of a miracle baby (as both Elizabeth and Zechariah were “well along in years” and “an old man,” respectively). 

Maybe she was ashamed of being pregnant as an elderly lady or worried that the townsfolk would think she was cheating on Zech, but that seems contrary to her praise to God in the very next verse, saying that the pregnancy has taken away the public shame from this once-barren lady (this also echoes the same sentiment of Rachel in Genesis 30:23).

Other thoughts that come to my mind is that Elizabeth was taking it easy, since pregnancies are hard and probably more so for an older lady, or that Elizabeth was worried that the pregnancy might end in miscarriage and was waiting until she knew one way or the other to reveal her state to the community.

In looking around for other thoughts on this passage, I found some that echoed what I was thinking as well as the following:

  • One writer says that “seclusion” wasn’t isolation, but a time of preparation for the upcoming birth.
  • This author disagrees and says that seclusion was hiding entirely.
  • She was using the time to pray (verse 25) and to be with the Lord, and not be distracted by the community.
  • She was waiting to spring the big baby bump reveal on the community with God’s miraculous work.
  • She is waiting to see if her unborn son would indeed be filled with the Holy Spirit, which happened in verse 41 when Mary arrives to visit and John senses Jesus.  She is also waiting to see if God would fulfill his promise to Zechariah and her (verse 44).

It could, of course, been a combination of any of these factors, but the time in spiritual preparation as well as the difficulties of this particular pregnancy make the most sense to me.

Of course, this detail is insignificant against the larger teachings of this passage, especially how Elizabeth thought that her barrenness was a punishment and shameful, but God had planned and used that to show his glory and great work.

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Confidence in Prayer

December 2, 2014

Praying-Hands-over-BibleMy devotion reading today took me through the end of 1 John, where I read these arresting words in 5:14-15:

“This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us.  And if we know that he hears us — whatever we ask — we know that we have what we asked of him.”

This is such a great summation of why the Christian prayer is so effective and unique, but also how it should be performed that I wanted to comment on it.

First of all, prayers from God’s children do not go unheard.  We do not need to be like my children, who ask me the same question a hundred times just to make sure that I’m listening (although I admire their persistence in getting an answer!).  John says that we can indeed have confidence that God hears our prayer.

But there’s a big clause there that needs to be noticed, understood, and implemented into our prayer life: “if we ask anything according to his will.”  This radically adjusts prayer from being a selfish litany of our wants — a one-way wish list — to a responsive, submissive conversation with the Almighty.  We should desire, first and foremost, God’s will for our lives and pray according to that.  We are the tree that bends to God’s trunk instead of demanding that God shape himself to our life.

Jesus illustrated the proper way to pray before his death when he asks, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.” (Luke 22:42)  He had a request to avoid the pain that was coming, but his ultimate desire was for God’s will to be done.  And God heard and responded to that prayer.

To pray with confidence, we need to pray in submission to God’s will.  We are invited to bring our concerns and problems to the Father, but we are not in a position to make demands of him or ask him to change his will.  When we stop trying to force God to capitulate to our demands and begin seeking his will in all things, God shows us how prayer is answered — and answered boldly.

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Quote of the Day: Reactionary morality

September 17, 2014

“Because we have, by and large, abandoned God’s revealed Word as the standard for our morality, we have taken another standard: peer pressure and the media. The reason such wishy-washiness prevails is because it feeds our self-righteous desire to feel and act very moral while saving us the hard work of studying to know and do God’s Word.”

~ The New Morality

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Unconditional love

July 1, 2014

hug-88440689334_xlargeMy son came up with this saying that he likes to pull out every once in a while that goes like, “I love you when [something] and I love you when [not something].”

For instance:

  • “I love you when you’re sick and I love you when you’re not sick!”
  • “I love you when you’re mad and I love you when you’re happy!”
  • “I love you when you’re here and I love you when you’re not here!”

You kind of have to imagine this 5-year-old saying it with a beaming face and a soft voice.  It’s pretty charming, I have to admit.

But it’s also a surprisingly deep statement from a little kid.  What he’s trying to articulate is the enduring presence of his affection — the outpouring of unconditional love.  He both craves and gives a love that is not subject to the whims of change and circumstance.  He wants consistancy.  He wants others to know that they won’t lose his love just because they leave the house or deliver a punishment.  And he says that in the hopes of hearing it in return.

I think that we are often afraid that God is as fickle with how he hands out love as we often are.  It’s really difficult to believe that God loves us wholly, unconditionally, and eternally, especially when we look deep within the well of our own sins and shortcomings.  We don’t deserve love, we think.  We don’t even love ourselves most of the time.  Others’ love toward us is often imperfect and capricious.  Why would God be any different?

Because our God loved us not when we became perfect, but while we were still self-centered sinners (Romans 5:8).  He put his life on the line for us to save us because of that great love (John 3:16).  When God looks at his creation, as rebellious and ugly as it can be, he cannot help but tenderly love each and every one.  And best of all, God’s love cannot be taken away from us (Romans 8:35).

Today I just needed to remember God’s love for me.  His love that is patient, kind, refuses to keep track of my wrongs, is faithful, and abounds in truth.  God is complex beyond comprehension, but his love is as simple as that of a five-year-old.  He always loves, no matter what.  It’s hard to hate someone who loves you that fully; the best thing to do is to surrender to it and reciprocate.

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God’s former home: The Holy of Holies

June 11, 2014

Tabernacle1

I’ve been reading the saga of King Solomon’s construction of the temple in 2 Chronicles, including all of the decoration details that most folks probably gloss over.  Today I got to 2 Chron. 3, where he built the Holy of Holies, which reminded me of how fascinating this one room was in all of Israel.

He said to me, “This is the Most Holy Place.” (Ezekiel 41:4)

To understand the Holy of Holies, you have to trace the path of God’s relationship with his people.  In the beginning, that relationship was intimate and familiar; Adam and Eve walked with God, talked with him, and had no reason to hide from him.  Sin changed that by severing the relationship, causing God to expel the people from his sight because he could not bear to be in the presence of sin.  But God still loved us and strived to reunite with his people, but that process would be long and somewhat complicated.

Some of the first steps back to reestablishing that relationship was God descending to be among his people in a safe, acceptable way that would not incur the proper penalty for his wrath among sinful folk.  God gave the Ten Commandments to Moses as a sign of his perfect law to be delivered to the people.  The Commandments were put in the Ark of the Covenant, which became the physical vessel and symbol of God being among his people.

Behind the second curtain was a room called the Most Holy Place,which had the golden altar of incense and the gold-covered ark of the covenant. (Hebrews 9:3-4)

However, when the people stopped to make camp, they had to sequester the Ark in the tabernacle, in an inner room that was designated for the “Holy of Holies.”  It was in this 15x15x15 cubed room that the Ark rested, in the midst of the people but still cut off from them — again, both physically and symbolically.  Solomon’s temple (and the subsequent second temple) had a more permanent Holy of Holies, still separate from the people by a three-foot thick curtain and inaccessable except by the high priest once a year.  God was still among and with his people, but he was not united with them.

But only the high priest entered the inner room, and that only once a year, and never without blood, which he offered for himself and for the sins the people had committed in ignorance […] They are only a matter of food and drink and various ceremonial washings—external regulations applying until the time of the new order.  (Hebrews 9:7-10)

The author of Hebrews does a great recap in chapter 9 as to the purpose of the Holy of Holies and how it connects to the lives of believers.  In these verses he illustrates how the high priest would arrive in that room with a sacrifice that wasn’t fully able to absolve sins, but were commanded to keep the people mindful of the need for forgiveness and cleansing by the blood of the innocent.

And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit.  At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. (Matthew 27:50-51)

The detail of the temple curtain tearing often goes unnoticed in the death narrative — there’s a lot going on, of course.  But notice that here in Matthew, it happens the second Jesus dies on the cross.  He dies, and the curtain separating the Holy of Holies from the people is torn in two.  Jesus’ death accomplishes God’s plan to reunite with his people by delivering a perfect sacrifice for the forgiveness of sins.  The barrier between God and man is lowered, and God no longer needs to be hidden from his people.

But when Christ came as high priest of the good things that are now already here, he went through the greater and more perfect tabernacle that is not made with human hands, that is to say, is not a part of this creation. He did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption. (Hebrews 9:11-12)

Hebrews pontificates on the theological implications of Jesus’ sacrifice.  Jesus is the ultimate high priest who does what every high priest before him cannot.  He enters the Holy of Holies, he absolves sin with the blood offering, and the people are made righteous before God.  The Holy Spirit then moved out of the temple for good and into the new temples — the lives of believers.

For we are the temple of the living God. As God has said: “I will live with them and walk among them, and I will be their God,and they will be my people.” (1 Corinthians 6:16)

We are the temple of God.  What the people of Israel could only imagine seeing in their lives in the Holy of Holies now exists inside of each of the elect.  This verse in 1 Corinthians is a joyous proclaimation that God has finally reestablished that long-broken relationship — he lives with us, walks with us, and belongs with us.

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What does God require of me?

June 5, 2014

micah6-8Continuing my exploration of Micah, I reached the sixth chapter today and came upon a famous verse — with some added context that I never noticed before.

Basically, God is challenging the wicked people to appear before him and plead their case in a court of law.   God is the plaintiff who accuses his people of doing him and his loved ones wrong.  He reminds them of the good that he’s done for them in the past, using the word “remember” over and over.

For the repentant people, the defendants, they know they are guilty and that resitution must be made.  So the question is asked, “With what shall I come before the Lordand bow myself before God on high?” (Micah 6:6).  In other words, what does God want from me?

God begins by telling the people what he does not want.  He doesn’t want what the people assume, what other nations and their gods practice.  He does not want nor need their gifts of cattle, or precious oil, or even their children.  He does not want what they own, but as he soon makes known, he desires what they are to be better.  In verse 8, God says that what he requires of us is not a secret: “He has told you, O man, what is good;and what does the Lord require of you…”

Then he outlines three of his most desired aspects for his followers:

1. “To do justice”

The prophetic books of the Old Testament are rife with complaints about the wickedness of the people against each other.  The abuse of violence, of lying, of false testimonies, of cheating, and particularly of abuse from those in power and with wealth against those weaker and poorer.  God is the ultimate judge and final arbiter, but he charges us to promote and seek justice in the world.  We are not meant to be insular, caring only of ourselves and blind to the pain around us, but to stand up for what is right and to do what is right.

2. “To love kindness”

This is also translated as to have “steadfast love” or “love mercy.”  It’s a developed quality that follows God’s heart — to love others completely and fully, without condition or prejudice.  The heart full of love has no room for hate, and the life lived in love is one that pleases God greatly and makes this world a better place.  We do not exalt “kind” people as much as we should in our hero worship, but we should.  We should emulate those who have grasped the kindness of God and extend that to everyone.

3. “To walk humbly with your God

Not just to walk with God, but to walk humbly.  The theme of arrogance vs. humility is one that is repeated so often throughout the Bible that a reader really has to be blind not to pick up on how important it is to God.

It is possible to walk arrogantly with God, assuming that one is above the law and looking down on everyone else.  It is very possible to expect God to capitulate to one’s personal whims and be at one’s beck and call, but not to do the same in reverse.

A humble walk with God paints a picture of a soul that knows the true need for God’s saving grace and continuing forgiveness.  A humble person does not demand of God, but requests.  A humble person remembers God’s kept promises and praises him for them.  A humble person knows that he or she does not know everything, and that it is always important to keep a reign on ego and extend grace as much as possible.  The humble person puts God first, others second, and themselves third.

It’s very difficult to do, and I’m ashamed to say that I often lack the humility needed for this walk.  Reading this is a good reminder that these three qualities are goals to strive for as I grow spiritually.

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