Saturday, June 25, 2011

It Is Not Glorious

"It is not good to eat much honey, not is it glorious to seek one's own glory. A man without self-control is like a city broken into and left without walls" (Proverbs 25:27-28).

Self-control is a good thing in the Bible. Paul instructs Titus to urge the older men, the older women, the younger women, the younger men, and finally everyone, to live "self-controlled, upright and godly lives in the present age" (Titus 2:1-14). Self-control is self-denial (denying one's "self" ). It's so often painfully counter-intuitive to us.

Honey (or pizza or homemade ice cream on a hot summer day) is good and when we sit down to eat it, we want to eat our fill and more. Yet to do so is used in Proverbs as a metaphor for seeking one's own glory. It is an indulgence to our flesh. In the end, the result of indulging our fleshly desires will be the same as a city overcome and overrun by an enemy, the sad remnant of its former glory being its crumbled, broken-down walls. That city is no good anymore. It no longer offers a safe place to live and work; its former industry, its warm homes and friendly neighbors are now a thing of the past. The city is no good to anyone anymore.

To biblically exercise self-control is to deny yourself, take up your cross and follow Jesus. It means saying "no" to many indulgences that the world takes for granted as being ok. It can mean saying "no" to indulgences in food, but the emphasis of Scripture is on saying "no" to "ungodliness and worldy passions" (Titus 2:11-12). It  means denying our hearts the "right" to cling to bitterness or anger or lust. The reason for this self-control, this self-denial? We are people who are waiting for something better, a prize that we may forfeit if we indulge in these things. The prize is "our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works" (Titus 2:13-14).

It is not glorious to seek one's own glory (to indulge our worldly desires). However, it is glorious to live as those anticipating the soon appearing of another's glory, that of our great God and Savior, Jesus. When he comes, all the self-denial we are called to will seem a small thing. It will be seen simply as the reasonable way to have lived in light of the greatness of the reward. In this way God's people, the church, will remain the light of the world, a city set on a hill, zealous for good works until he appears.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

That Your Trust May Be In The Lord

"Incline your ear, and hear the words of the wise, and apply your heart to my knowledge, for it will be pleasant if you keep them within you, if all of them are ready on your lips.

"That your trust may be in the Lord I have made them known to you today, even you" (Proverbs 22:17-19).

At first glance it may not seem apparent how making the words of the wise, their instructions and warnings, known to our children leads to their trusting the Lord. But here's what occurs to me: the trust in him comes because the root of wisdom and knowledge is the fear of him (Proverbs 1:7). Fearing him leads to trusting him.

So it's maybe like this: the moral commands of God in the Bible are ones we dare not fail to keep, but they are also ones we quickly learn we are not able to keep. This immediately brings about a crisis, a dilemma. The fear of the righteous Judge wells up. The consequences promised for our immorality, our lack of holiness, are fearful. We are undone.

But then good news appears. The Lawgiver and Judge has also become our merciful Advocate. In fact, our only rescue will come from the One who is holy and will judge our sins accordingly. He appears; we cling to his saving promise in hope and faith. There is no one else to rescue us from the consequences of our moral failure. We are saved by the Judge himself.

This is how Proverbs teaches fathers to appeal to their sons. The parents' own fear of the Lord leads to an urgent appeal to their children to incline their ears, hear (really hear) the words of the wise, to apply their hearts to knowledge. In doing so their children will learn, as the parents have learned, both the fear of the Lord and to trust the saving work of Christ on their behalf.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Prayer and Listening to God Part 6: The Myth Of The Still, Small Voice

(This is Part 6 in a series of posts on Prayer and Listening to God. Click here for Part 1).

I've been writing on the topic of prayer and listening for God's voice because it's an important doctrine to get right. Many people today believe that we should expect to hear God speak to us apart from his voice in Scripture. They teach that we should be "tuned in" to God's inner leading in order to learn his will for a decision we must make, for instance. I don't believe the Bible teaches this at all, and that in fact, it teaches something far better.. This is the sixth in a series of articles explaining why. So far, here's what I've talked about:

Part One: A lot is at stake in what we believe about prayer and listening to God (the way we view Scripture, for starters). Every Christian needs to understand his own position on this.

Part Two: The Bible itself teaches what biblical prayer is and what it isn't. The Bible teaches that prayer is our speaking to and making requests of God. I'm trying to make the case that the Bible does not teach that we are to listen for his voice (apart from his word) as part of prayer or at any other time.

Part Three: There is a history about how we've come to believe that listening for God's voice in prayer is taught in the Bible. It is a belief that has been infiltrating conservative, orthodox Christianity over the past 50 or 60 years. It's largely based on misuses of Scripture.

Part Four: Though we are not to listen for God's voice in prayer, we do enjoy fellowship and communion with God in the ways the Bible teaches. Thank God for His Spirit, the Spirit of truth!

Part Five: There is a correct and fairly straightforward method (though not always easy) of interpreting Scripture (2 Timothy 2:15). Taking care to read the Bible in context will help us get the right meaning and purpose of biblical texts.

This sums up where I've gotten to so far. If you haven't had a chance to read those articles, it might be helpful to do so before reading this one. As promised, I'll now offer an example of  a misinterpreted text. The misuse of one simple phrase in this passage seems to have been the cause of a lot of misunderstanding about prayer. It all has to do with the concept of the "still, small voice." The story is in 1 Kings 19:9-18.

... he [Elijah] came to a cave and lodged in it. And behold, the word of the LORD came to him, and he said to him, ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’ He said, ‘I have been very jealous for the LORD, the God of hosts...

And he [God] said, ‘Go out and stand on the mount before the LORD.’ And behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind tore the mountains and broke in pieces the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire the sound of a low whisper. And when Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his cloak and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. And behold, there came a voice to him and said, ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’

The "low whisper" (as the ESV translates it) was indeed a sound Elijah heard, just as he'd heard the wind, the sound of rocks splitting and breaking, and the roaring of the fire. But the low whisper was not words God spoke to Elijah. (Notice that God did speak words,  both prior to and after the sound of the low whisper. But the low whisper was not verbalized communication. Elijah heard the words God did speak next and responded to them, like one does with words, and they are recorded for us.) The low whisper, though, was not words, and seemed to serve as a metaphor of God's dealings with his prophet and as a revelation of His ways.Here's what I mean.

The great wind, the earthquake, and the fire all testified to God's awesome, even fearsome power. They seemed to reveal something about the God who governs all things, who shakes the earth and who is a consuming fire. Elijah cowered in terror before these demonstrations! But when Elijah heard, at last, the low whisper, he wrapped his face in his cloak, signifying his meekness before this awesome God, and took courage to step out onto the mountain. The still, small voice (maybe better translated "sound" from the Hebrew) was not God speaking to Elijah, and this passage is not mean to teach us to seek a similar experience. But the passage is meant to teach us something true about God-- that he is compassionate, merciful and kind, as illustrated by his gentle dealing with his repentant prophet.

Arthur Pink, an esteemed teacher and preacher in the 20th century, comments on the passage:

It evidenced afresh the kindness and tenderness of the Lord, who would assuage Elijah’s disappointment and cheer his heart. Where the soul is reassured of His Master’s love the servant is nerved to face fresh dangers and oppositions for His sake and to tackle any task He may assign him. It was thus also He dealt with Isaiah: first abasing him with a vision of His glory, which made the prophet conscious of his utter sinfulness and insufficiency, and then assuring him of the remission of his sins: and in consequence Isaiah went forward on a most thankless mission (Isa. 6:1-12). The sequel here shows the Lord’s measures were equally effective with Elijah; he received a fresh commission and obediently he discharged it.
More could be said, but maybe this will suffice to illustrate the need for care in using this passage, and this phrase, to teach that we should listen inwardly for God's voice. The passage in 1 Kings 19 is certainly meant to instruct us, but not to teach us to listen for a message from God. Rather, it teaches us important things about God's dealings with men, and about His character and his ways. It's also a historical narrative, important simply for that sake. The history in the Old Testament is the heritage of every believer, and we should be well acquainted with it!

Next time I'll talk a bit about a couple of other ideas along this line: how the ideas of "feeling led" and "having a peace" about decisions (and such) have been used in ways the Bible doesn't use them! Eventually, I'll try to tackle this whole concept of listening for God's voice from a positive angle. God does speak! And he does guide us. The truth about that is very reassuring... and freeing.

The Scathing Good News of the Gospel

In Luke chapter 3, John the Baptist has begun to preach. He said things like this to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him:

"...You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father', for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire...

"I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I... will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire."

And this is how Luke characterizes such fiery preaching:

"So with many other exhortations he preached good news to the people" (verse 18).

Only God makes such scathing indictments good news to sin-weary people. May all God's preachers faithfully preach thus.