Friday, December 27, 2013

Romans And Proverbs And The Fear Of The Lord

The book of Romans is both very plain in its meaning and message and filled with puzzles that require meditation and brain work to "solve." Paul is brilliant and logical, and is also the apostle God chose to receive a revelation of grace and of the gospel like no other. Paul truly considered himself to be the least among the apostles because of his past persecution of the church. 

But back to Romans: it's both very plain in meaning and message and in places, "hard to understand" (as Peter famously characterized Paul's writings). But not impossible. As mentioned, those places simply require more thinking, more lingering upon the text and context, more Spirit-helped brainwork. Logic is involved. (Spiritual understanding doesn't preclude logic.) It's all important, both the plain parts and the more difficult ones; all for the sake of seeing Christ as more lovely, and God as greater and more good, than ever. 

That's the way it is not only with Paul's writings but with all of Scripture. The Bible describes itself to contain, in it's wisdom, proverbs and riddles (Proverbs 1:6). To understand it, and thus God, one must "receive," "treasure up," "make your ear attentive to" and "incline your heart to" God's words and commandments. One must call out for insight, raise one's voice for understanding, seek for those things like silver and search for them like hidden treasure (Proverbs 2:1-8). This is all done because of, and in order to learn, the right and proper fear of Yahweh. To behold his beauty. 

All this is true work! God never said that insight and wisdom into his ways would be handed over easily and casually. He has always been a God who has been all about being sought as treasure, as more desirable than the finest silver or gold. That's how truly worthy he is. 

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Adoring The God We Behold

God deserves our adoration. He deserves, as Scripture tells us, our highest praises. What exactly does this look like, how is it accomplished, in reality?

I realized some years ago that simply saying "Praise the Lord" or "I praise you Lord" is not praising the Lord! The words "praise the Lord" in the Psalms are actually a command to God's people to open their mouths and say something about God. First of all, it is a command to open our mouths and say true things about God's greatness and goodness. Secondly, speaking these true things must spring from genuine admiration for him and thankfulness to him. And finally, we are to speak these things in this way both to others and to God himself. Praise is telling others about God, and praise is telling God about God, as we see in the Psalms.

Now, understanding that praising God consists of saying true things about his greatness and goodness with admiration and thankfulness, both to others and to God himself, we must remember something else we we learn from Scripture: it is from the abundance of the heart that we speak (Luke 6:45). If our hearts are not really filled with love and admiration for God, words of praise won't come spilling out of our mouths. We'll hardly know what to say about him. If our hearts feel stony and cold toward him, if we're hurt and confused by difficulties in our lives, for example, and we're unfamiliar with God's word and ways, this will stop up our hearts from admiration and thankfulness, and our words (or lack of them) will reflect this.

If we find ourselves in continuing (not temporary) difficulty with the biblical command to adore and praise God, the first thing to do is to realize that this is our lack; there is no lack in God's worth. If our knowledge of God through the Scriptures has not resulted in the assurance that we know him well, that we are on accepted and intimate terms with him, that he is our constant friend and ally, and that we may trust him completely with all our sorrows as well as all our joys, then our journey of faith may have gone amiss. We need to realize that it's possible to belong to him yet not know him well, if our knowledge of him has been gained through other means than a much-opened Bible and a Scripture-saturated life of prayer. If our hearts remain dull toward him, and words of praise and thanks are hard to find, then we must re-examine what we think we know of him.

The apostle Paul, in his second letter to the Corinthian church, exhorts the people to pay close attention to the message of the apostles because they, the apostles, have been made the ministers of the new covenant, wherein God's glory has been most fully revealed and made known. Paul says in 2 Corinthians 3:4-11 that the apostle's teaching is in fact the ministry of the Spirit, revealing the glory of God through Christ in a way that far surpasses what was seen through Moses. The message of the apostles "portrays Christ" in this way (Galatians 3:1), as do the rest of the Scriptures. This is why Paul says that when the Spirit of God removes the veil that blinds, we are set free to behold the glory of the Lord (2 Corinthians 3:16-17). And it is as we behold, as we see and gaze upon this glory, that we are transformed into the same image. We become, by degrees of glory, like that which we are gazing upon (2 Corinthians 3:18).

But how do we see and gaze upon the glory of the Lord? We can put all the above paragraph in very simple terms. Paul is speaking metaphorically, but what he means is simply this: it is by the Spirit's work of opening our spiritual eyes to the message of the Scriptures that we come to know and admire and thank God for what he has done. The message of the apostles has been recorded and written down and is now the New Testament Scripture. The first-century church beheld the glory of the Lord when they heard or read, with spiritual understanding, the apostles' words about Christ and him crucified. We now behold the glory of God in the same way, the Holy Spirit opening our eyes to comprehend the message of  the Scriptures.

There in the written word we "see" the glory of Christ revealed through the various narratives, the explanations, and the teaching; this sight causes our admiration to blossom and swell and grow for all that God has done through the sending of his Son for our sin. There we see the hope for the resurrection of the body and the final restoration of all things. There we find the strength for going on, for how and why we are to hold on to hope in God (for how he holds us!). We need the Old Testament also, for it paints the epic and tragic portrait of man, and of God's dealings with man; there we learn man's true story and nature, and the greatness of God's plan of the ages for our rescue.

It is our wide and faithful reading of Scripture, through the new covenant, apostolic, Spirit-enabled "lens" of understanding, that enables us to obey the command of God through the Psalmist to truly praise him. Unless we have studied the portrait of Christ in this way both in the OT and the NT, unless we have gazed upon the glory we see building steadily from Genesis to Malachi, and then bursting into full view from Matthew to Revelation, we won't know the true things to say about God.

If we're only used to praising God for what we have temporally—our good health, our nice cars and homes, our healthy loved ones—then we will be at a loss when those things are taken away. We should always be thankful for our health and for what God has provided. But we very much need to set to work cultivating a taste for the things of eternity, don't we. This taste is only truly gained when we comprehend the message of Scripture as explained by Christ's apostles, his appointed ministers of the good news. We can only adore and praise the God whose glory we behold.

Open your Bible. Go to Ephesians 2:15-23 and pray along with Paul, for yourself and for all Christ's church, that "the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, having the eyes of your understanding enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe..."

And keep reading the Scripture, fastening your gaze on the glory of God revealed there.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

The Way To God

"Years ago, two cousins were visiting near the Okefenokee Swamp in Georgia. Although they were told by their parents not to venture into the swamp, they disobeyed. As the sun was setting, they decided to head home in hopes that their absence would not be detected. Neither boy made it back. When they were found dead a few days later, a note was attached to one of the boys. It read, 'I thought I knew the way, but I was wrong'.

"Do you know the way to God? Are you sure you are right?"

I appreciate Jim Elliff and his organization, Christian Communicators Worldwide. Here is a wonderful article to share with seekers: The Way To God

Thursday, October 3, 2013

In Grief: When We Want Our Loved One More Than God

Yesterday was the "anniversary" (too light a word for loss!) of my son Joseph's death nine years ago. This annual milestone arrived exactly 37 days after the death of my dear brother, just turned 49, from leukemia and its complications. He died on August 27th of this year, and my family is all feeling much grief and sorrow over this great loss to us.

But it's not a permanent loss for his family and friends who are in Christ, as he also is. We are all heading swiftly toward the same destination- away from the body, at home with the Lord, and therefore reunited with each other. For that reason... and because we know that it is God himself who "has fashioned us for this very purpose" (to be "clothed with immortality")... and because "knowing the fear of the Lord" (that we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ) we must, like the Apostle, live and speak so as to persuade others... for all those reasons, we must struggle, even in our grief, to honor and please the Lord.

I remember in the weeks after my son's death, as the initial shock began to morph into a relentless ache of grief and pain, I began to consider this. My one desire was to be with my son again. My initial desire had been to die, and be laid in the ground with him! I did not want to live in this world without him. I had other children though, and a husband, and knew I would have to go on. Knowing this, I began to consider how I would "go on"- in what manner? Begrudgingly... depressed... hopeless?

No, I needed hope, and there was hope. I was not at the place that my one, burning desire was to be with the Lord- to see him face to face, to be free from the remaining sin that so hinders our love for him. I didn't yet know enough to have the right affections, but I knew that I didn't know, and was sorry for it. I was engulfed with pain for the loss of my son, and missed him desperately. But I believed God's word, though I couldn't always feel it. So I purposely focused on the hope I could feel: that of being reunited with my son one day.

I began searching the Bible for all that it had to say about this. I came across a great book that was very helpful, Heaven, by Randy Alcorn. This book brought together many things in the Bible that are reason for excitement both at finally being with Christ and with being reunited with all the saints, including our loved ones. I didn't substitute this book or anything else I read for the Scripture. I began becoming a student of God's word, and found rich comfort there.

So for a long while, when I thought of heaven and especially of the new heavens and the new earth, it was the hope of being reunited with my son that gave the most comfort. But I began, somewhere along the line, to confess this to the Lord, who I knew to be tender to our weak frames and an understanding Father. I remember asking him for his forgiveness for making more of my son, in a sense, than I did of him. I even found myself sometimes when being tempted by some desire or another to sin, that I would think about Joseph and decide that no, I will not fall into that temptation, I'll resist and flee from it for Joseph's sake, because someday I'll see him again and I don't want to dishonor him. You see how I almost substituted my son for the affections I needed to have toward God? Yet I knew I did this, and admitted it to the Lord, and asked him to work in me so that my affections became the proper ones I should have, the ones that would most please him and would be most useful to the people left here on earth.

And that did happen- over time, the Lord by his Spirit used his word, which I stayed careful in making use of, he used my prayers which I falteringly but persistently continued in, and he used the passage of time, during which occurred the many testings that try our faith and make it more genuine. He used all those means to gradually change my heart's affections, to make me more genuinely loyal to him and his designs and plans and will for this life, to lift my heart and mind to heavenly things and make me want heaven! and want himself for his own beauty, and power, and holiness. Now, I can truly say that to be reunited with those I love- my son, my mother, my brother- is the wonderfully glad "icing on the cake" of the glorious prospect of seeing our Lord, of knowing him in a state that is free from the hindering sin and wrong desires that so afflict us in this life. Of being at home, brought by grace to be safe at last with him.

It is amazing to me at how unproud God is in this, that he doesn't chastise or condemn the honest heart that sees what the Bible says about loving him supremely, above all else, but struggles with their heart's affections in doing it. He knows it anyway- he doesn't want us to hide it, but to confess it to him. I used my love for my son in those early days of grief to resist temptations to sin, to build hope, to provide an interest in heaven and in heavenly things. The more I read the Bible, the greater my interest became in God himself and in his ways. My love for my son eventually took its proper place, which is the very best thing; I so wish it had had its proper place when he was alive.

I guess the point of this article is to try to help a little with this aspect of grief. For many Christians, they build their grief around the loved one they've lost, due to their faith in God not yet being what it ought to be. I'm saying, if this is the case with you, recognize and confess it early on. Do what you can, when you can, to try to move your affections along toward a right placement of them in God himself, through becoming a student of his word and by prayer for him to help you in it. Keep an honest heart about it! This above all is pleasing to God.

Here's one very practical way I moved toward this in some of the early days; it's a practice I still keep up, that of praying Psalm 119:36-38 (this Psalm is all about God's word, the Scripture, and what it is to us):

"Incline my heart to Your testimonies, and not to gain.
"Turn away my eyes from looking at vanity, and revive me in Your ways.
"Establish Your word to Your servant, as that which produces reverence for You." (NASB)

The more I requested this help from the Lord the more I really desired it, and the more he supplied it. May the Lord encourage and help you on your journey through grief, may he incline your heart to his word and establish you in it, as you seek, however falteringly, to know and honor him.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

New Desires That Will Stand In The Judgment

"Rejoice, O young man, in your youth, and let your heart cheer you in the days of your youth. Walk in the ways of your heart and the sight of your eyes. But know that for all these things God will bring you into judgment" (Ecclesiastes 11:9).

The only thing that makes sense of this counsel— to follow your own desires, knowing that God will bring you to account for them at the last Day— is to have right desires. And the only way to have right desires is to desire what God approves. And the only way to desire what God approves is to be given new desires. And the only way to have new desires is through the new birth. 

How gracious of God that the young may rejoice and be cheerful in good ways that will stand before His judgment. 

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

1 Peter 2:18-3:6 (Or, Let Hope In God Make You Pretty)

Submission to your husband— a command from Scripture every wife knows is true, yet finds so very difficult, at least at times (if we're honest). Submission means so much more than gritting one's teeth and perfunctorily going along with what one's husband says or wants to do. Biblical submission is from the heart, and evidences itself in true respect and love for our husbands; but this submission is contrary to what we might think, and must be based on truth about God, not on what we see in our husbands.

Submission is based on something we know, on something from Scripture we have grasped both intellectually and with spiritual affection. This knowledge is about God and Christ. One passage that makes it clear is in 1 Peter 2:18-3:6. If what is taught in this passage can be grasped and applied, one can make a lot of headway in having the kind of attitude in marriage that pleases God and brings good to the church and family.

Peter starts by speaking of servants being "subject to" (submissive and obedient to) their masters, with all respect. God is not interested in the mechanical obedience, or lip service, of these slaves to their masters; he wants their hearts and minds engaged and doing spiritual battle so that they display all respect. This requires a change of mind and heart, which can only come about by the Spirit of God working through the word of God.

Peter wants slaves to show this submission and respect not only to the good and gentle masters but also to the unjust ones. Under an unjust master, a slave may expect to endure sorrows while suffering unjustly. When this happens, Peter says it is a thing of grace, and of credit to the believer who suffers so. It is, in fact, his calling, because "Christ also (in the same way) suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps" (2:21). Peter goes on to portray how Christ paved the way for us to learn to suffer unjustly: "When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly" (2:23).

This entrusting of oneself to God is the key. Peter says that it is in this same way that a wife is to go about submitting to her husband. Even a Christian husband may sometimes fail in obeying God's word; his wife may suffer unjustly sometimes because of it. When that is the case, the wife has an example to follow: the Lord Jesus Christ! He has both set the example and made it possible. "Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps... when he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly."

Just like Sarah, as Peter explains in 3:5-6. "For this is how the holy women who hoped in God used to adorn themselves, by submitting to their husbands, as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord. And you are her children, if you do good and do not fear anything that is frightening." If you know anything about Abraham's failure in passing Sarah off as his sister, you see that Sarah's hope in God (not in Abraham's stellar performance) brought her through some harrowing times. Hope in God creates in us "the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God's sight is very precious"— makes us pretty in an eternal and imperishable way. Moths and rust can't corrupt such beauty.

Hope in God and in all his promises is what frees wives to biblically submit to and respect their husbands. If we suffer sometimes because of their failure to obey God's word, we are only being given the privilege of following in our Master's footsteps. And one important thing to remember: unlike our Master, "who committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth," we wives are not innocent! Christ's guiltlessness is our boast and our hope, but we have many remaining faults and failures, which should keep us humble and realistic if we are sometimes called to suffer. Most of the time I can see twenty ways in which I've also inflicted suffering upon my poor husband!

Just become a regular reader of Proverbs, and you'll see what I mean! :)

Now go out and adorn yourselves with what really makes you pretty.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Salvation Is Of The Lord

Michaelangelo's Jonah on the Sistine Chapel Ceiling

"I shall not die, but I shall live, and recount the deeds of the LORD" (Psalm 118:17).

"'But I with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to you; what I have vowed I will pay. Salvation belongs to the LORD.' And the LORD spoke to the fish, and it vomited Jonah out upon the dry land" (Jonah 2:9, 10).

God kept Jonah, who thought he knew better than God and who thought he could get away with it, safe in a death trap— the belly of a fish big enough to swallow a man whole. Three days and three nights in a horror of darkness were required in which Jonah learned to fear God, to "remember the LORD" (repent), to be brought to a vow. To see what before had only been heard of: that salvation is of Yahweh.

Then and only then did the fish spit Jonah out upon the dry, ready land.

(Here's a nice article on Michaelangelo'splacement of the painting of Jonah in the Cistine Chapel: Jonah, The Lynchpin Of The Cistine Chapel Ceiling. I think Michaelangelo understood.)