Archive for the ‘God's Presence’ category

This list is incomplete!

January 23, 2010

Along with the fantasy/reality issue, Mike Erre’s book raised the question of what it means to be a Christian man. Specifically as we think about what we see in the Scriptures, things like this come out:

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Against such things there is no law.

Galatians 5:22-23

This is a great list, but the list applies as well to Mr. Rogers as it does to Jesus Christ.

So what gives? Did Paul err in giving us an incomplete list?

I don’t think so. You may have noticed that verse 22 begins with “But” — But what? Like the rest of the Bible, verse 22 isn’t a systematic theology; rather, its function is to show the contrast vs the “works of the flesh” (verse 19). Additional insights come if we look around that passage a little more. Verses 13-15 warn against selfishness and malice; verses 16-17 urge us to live by the Spirit, as opposed to the flesh (which the NIV renders “sinful nature”). Again, verses 25-26 urge us to walk with the Spirit and avoid selfishness and malice. So verses 22-23 are part of the overall argument: rather than idolatry, hatred, fits of rage, etc., better to have joy, patience, self-control and the like.

So if that’s not the complete list, what are some other things we would expect to see in someone following the Lord Jesus? I remembered another list:

Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs. But you, man of God, flee from all this, and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith.

Like the list in Galatians, this isn’t just a list; it’s a list against something — in this case greed, as the Galatians list was against selfishness, hatred, greed, etc. And immediately after the list is an exhortation to fight–which, come to think of it, is something Fred Rogers actually did, though it wasn’t always visible on his show.

What’s my point? Just this: though I’m a fan of Scripture memory, we need to take the entire Bible in, not just favorite verses. This is as much of a problem if we only memorize Galatians 5:22-23 as if we only memorize Psalm 139:22.

And also that I want to read more of Mike Erre’s book.


What did God have in mind when he decided to create you?

December 5, 2009

Whatever else spiritual growth is about, it must have something to do with becoming whatever (or whoever) it was that God had in mind he had the idea of you.

It’s a question worth thinking about, and now that I think of it, should lead us to worship.

Placing our bets

November 30, 2009

Every day, we decide with our hearts, with our feet, with our checkbooks, what we think about God’s presence with our lives. Put differently, we’re placing a bet.

If I had to bet my life on one possibility or the other, which one would I bet it on? If you had to bet your life, which one would you bet it on? On Yes, there is God in the highest, or, if such language is no longer viable, there is Mystery and Meaning in the deepest? On No, there is whatever happens to happen, and it means whatever you choose it to mean, and that is all there is?

Frederick Buechner, Secrets in the Dark, pp. 172-173

As I go through my day, through my week, what do my decisions say I actually believe about God’s work in the world, in my life. My mouth may recite that “our citizenship is in heaven, from which also we eagerly await a savior, the Lord Jesus Christ” (Philippians 3:20) but what do my feet, my calendar, my checkbook say?

And what does my prayer life say?

Are we going through the expected, habitual motions of prayer, without vigorous belief in what we are doing? Have we lived as functional atheists until faced with personally desperate situations, prompting us to pray deeply only then?

Keith Swartley (ed.), Encountering the World of Islam, p. 435

A son of our friends was hit by a car, and our prayer life has rather intensified since then. I think Swartley’s rather pointed questions are right on the money for most of us, at least some of the time.

Now I’m not a fan of navel-gazing, but it’s important to reflect from time to time on where we are, and where we’re headed — where our bets are currently placed, and where we want to place them.

Why did God put that tree in the garden?

November 7, 2009

…where “that tree” is the Tree-of-Knowledge-of-Good-and-Evil — Genesis 2:16-17, The Message.

What a great question! I wasn’t sure what I thought about it. My assumption was that this incident wasn’t historical, that this story was in Genesis to say we’re a race of a moral agents rather than a race of mindless slaves (the predominant creation myth of the day implied the latter). But looking at Romans 5:14, as well as other passages, it became clear that Paul considered Genesis 2-3 historical.

So the tree was historical — why did God put it there? I looked at an Old Testament commentary (Keil and Delitzsch), which said the tree was put there “to train his (Adam’s) spirit through the exercise of obedience to the word of God” (p. 84–parenthesis mine). This reminded me of what Lewis wrote in Perelandra, book #2 of his space trilogy: that some commands are given just so we’ll have an opportunity to obey.

I think He made one law of that kind in order that there might be obedience. In all these other matters what you call obeying Him is but doing what seems good in your own eyes also. Is love content with that? You do them, indeed, because they are His will, but not only because they are His will. Where can you taste the joy of obeying unless he bids you do something for which His bidding is the only reason? When we spoke last you said that if you told the beasts to walk on their heads, they would delight to do so. So I know that you understand well what I am saying.

C.S. Lewis, Perelandra
(MacMillan Paperbacks Edition 1965) p.118

In other words, we can’t exercise obedience by doing what we were going to do anyway; it’s when we do what we wouldn’t otherwise do, and we do it because God commands it — that’s exercising obedience.

Keil and Delitzsch have more to say about the tree, and the effects of this kind of voluntary and joyful obedience:

The tree of knowledge was to lead man to the knowledge of good and evil; and, according to the divine intention, this was to be attained through his not eating of its fruit. This end was to be accomplished, not only by his discerning in the limit imposed by the prohibition the difference between that which accorded with the will of God and that which opposed it, but also by his coming eventually, through obedience to the prohibition, to recognise the fact that all that is opposed to the will of God is an evil to be avoided, and, through voluntary resistance to such evil, to the full development of the freedom of choice originally imparted to him into the actual freedom of a deliberate and self-conscious choice of good. By obedience to the divine will he would have attained to a godlike knowledge of good and evil, i.e. to one in accordance with his own likeness to God.

That is, Adam was supposed to learn about good and evil by abstaining from that fruit. As he continued in abstinence, he would

  • come to see that [against-God’s-will ⇒ evil ⇒ to be avoided];
  • develop real freedom (become better at resisting evil); and
  • come to a true knowledge of good and evil.

This knowledge would have been of a “godlike” nature, i.e., corresponding to the fact that we were created in God’s image. That sounds really good, actually! If only he had listened….

This idea, that obedience brings strength and knowledge, reminded me of a theory that if we obey God in little things, we become better able to obey him in the big things. Oh, right, that theory came from Jesus, in Luke 16:

“Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much. So if you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches? And if you have not been trustworthy with someone else’s property, who will give you property of your own?

I’ve usually taken this to mean that if we esteem material things correctly (i.e., not taking them to be more important than they actually are), that’s a kind of prerequisite for being trusted with really important things — the care of men’s souls for example. So that’s why it’s important for me to tell the truth on expense reports and tax returns, even if I were certain I wouldn’t ever be caught. And why it’s also important to be kind to all, patient when wronged, etc. (from 2 Timothy 2:24).

One more thing this reminded me of:

[Y]ou need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food! Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil.

This passage, too, points to the way things work: by obedience, we gain strength and discernment and maturity. I’m not saying we should go looking for more things to obey (e.g., giving up bacon and shrimp), but that by doing what we already know we should do and avoiding what we know we should avoid, the Lord will help us to grow up in every way (Ephesians 4:15 NCV). That sounds pretty good.

Sometimes, grace just happens

October 17, 2009

I love it when I have the chance to talk with young people about their faith. The other day I had breakfast with a college student I’ll call “Jill,” who had come to a new appreciation of God’s grace and mercy during the preceding months.

As Jill tells it, she was busy with classes and work and recreation, and didn’t seem to have much time for meditation or quiet reflection. Then she made some not-quite-optimal decisions related to, uh, boys — in particular, boys who don’t share her faith; this shrank the time available for sleep and studying. If I have this right, she turned a paper in late and went into an exam with insufficient preparation. She ended the term exhausted and discouraged, and headed off for a short-term mission trip, where she fell ill and spent some days in bed.

So what happened on the paper, the exam, the short-term mission?

Before I tell you, I’ll trot out the old saying that sometimes the people who benefit most from short-term trips are the people who go to serve. What I mean is, if a few dozen (or a half-dozen) people from the US go overseas to build a house or paint an orphanage or teach a few Bible lessons, the family or orphans or students get some benefit. But whose life is changed? Whose view of God has grown? In many cases, the kids have seen other short-term workers come and go, and the new homeowners have seen another family in the community get a house built by “rich” Americans. Sure, it was somebody else who got the house last time, or maybe a church building was erected before and this time they added an extension. But very often what they see is incremental.

Now consider the experience of a hypothetical first-time team member. Maybe they’ve read appeal letters from World Vision; perhaps they’ve seen flood victims on the news. But on a short-term mission they build a house and talk to the people who move in; they erect or paint a church building and go to the church members’ homes and eat a meal there.

Thus a middle-class American encounters the developing world directly — in person, not on the screen or printed page, but face to face. And they’re changed. It’s not just that they get a heightened sense of gratitude; they see with their own eyes how God is at work in some faraway place, and they experience being an answer to someone’s prayer — in a way they typically don’t when they’re at home in the US. God gets larger for them.

You probably guessed it: Jill wasn’t docked for turning her paper in late, and she did fine on the exam (the questions were on things she had down cold). And on the short-term mission (not her first trip by the way), her teammates accepted her and cared for her lovingly; she recovered quickly. Jill loved the kids she went to serve, and came away with a renewed sense that children’s ministry is in her future.

The Bible says that the Lord

… does not treat us as our sins deserve
or repay us according to our iniquities.
For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
so great is his love for those who fear him;
as far as the east is from the west,
so far has he removed our transgressions from us.

Psalm 103:10-12 NIV

For those who have spent a lot of time around churches, this is not particularly new. We’ve heard many times that Jesus died for our sins, that we’re forgiven for our envy, selfishness, lust, greed, or whatever. But we also “know” that actions have consequences. And sometimes they do; sometimes bad things happen when we miss a deadline, and exams sometimes don’t go well if we’re unprepared.

But sometimes the Lord has something special in mind for us — he wants to express his love and mercy in an unusual way. And how nice it is when he does!

I hope that when this happens, we keep in mind the great mercy of our Lord, as it’s written in Psalm 107, and also here:

Who is a God like you,
who pardons sin and forgives the transgression
of the remnant of his inheritance?
You do not stay angry forever
but delight to show mercy.

Micah 7:18

What is the power of prayer, anyway?

October 4, 2009

A recent sermon study guide (click to watch) referred to unchangeable things, and asked which was most important to us personally: God’s character, the human condition, the mission of the church, the power of prayer….

Perhaps you’ve heard someone say, “If God lets me down this time, it’ll be the first time.” Perhaps you’ve agreed with them, or even said it yourself. But maybe that remark makes you feel like shaking your head. I met a man whose adult son has been beset by physical and mental health problems for decades; he doesn’t have much tolerance for this sort of happy talk. He believes that God is there, but sunny Sunday School phrases aren’t part of his vocabulary.

Another friend isn’t sure about the power of prayer. By his own account, he has nothing to complain about; he considers himself very fortunate. But how much does prayer have to do with his happy circumstances? Not much that he knows of. You can pray or not, and good things can happen or not; he doesn’t see much correlation.

I’ll be honest with you: I don’t completely disagree. Sometimes it seems like God acts in response to prayer, and sometimes it doesn’t. Yes, I know, sometimes God’s answer is “No” or “Wait” or even “Wrong question.” And as Lewis says, God isn’t obligated to do what we tell him; “He’s the King I tell you!” (from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe)

What can we say about the power of prayer? It’s not reliable — we can pray for something, and it won’t necessarily happen. A few comments, in no particular order.

First, does this mean that somehow we weren’t doing it right? Was there some specific prayer that we missed? Did we not have enough faith? Ah, no. Consider the Apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians 12; surely he had enough faith! And how about Moses in Deuteronomy 3:23-27? And Daniel heard about how an answer could be delayed (Daniel 10:12-13). It is completely inappropriate to say, “you weren’t healed (or whatever) because you didn’t have enough faith.” How much faith did Eutychus have when he was already dead? Or Jairus’s daughter in Mark 5 for that matter?

It’s tempting to say, “well, that wasn’t God’s will,” but I’m not willing to say that to anyone. Daniel’s answer was delayed, as we saw above. And some things certainly are God’s will — for example that everyone be saved (2 Peter 3:9). I have to believe that a prayer for salvation is always heard.

But for a particular person to be protected from physical harm, for an election to go a certain way… I don’t think we can know God’s mind on those things.

Finally, does this make anyone think that maybe God doesn’t care, or that maybe he just isn’t really out there? As my friend said the other night, Jesus Christ certainly came to earth; he predicted his death and resurrection—which actually did happen. And that proves that God cares, that he loves us, that he’s powerful to act on our behalf. Why he does sometimes (miracles do still happen!) and not others… well, we can’t really know all that.

But because Jesus Christ has died, and is risen indeed, we can be certain of his love and his power.


September 16, 2009

A “professional Christian” in youth ministry confessed in a recent seminar that

I can go a “long time” without thinking about God.

(K. Powell, May 2009)

She meant as much as several minutes, but in my case it could even be hours.

Have you ever had that experience? Sitting there, with your Bible open, it hits you: “I haven’t thought about God for some minutes now.” You’ve been thinking about a problem, maybe, or a regret. Or something you’re longing for — or dreading.

What comes next? A rush of guilt, or discouragement about being a “bad Christian” maybe? Now instead of thinking about what a bad Christian you are, here’s another idea: “Thank you Lord for reminding me that I belong to you. I’m glad you’re here and always want to listen to me.” Does that seem like a good idea? (No, I didn’t think of it; I probably read it in John White’s The Fight or some book like that a long time ago.)

A young friend pointed out a benefit of this approach: that whereas guilt is focused on myself (“Why am I such a bad Christian? Why can’t I keep the Lord in my mind for more than a few minutes at a time?” etc.) thanking God puts the emphasis on him (“Thank you, Lord for reminding me… you’re here and always want to listen”).

Who does this well? Dogs are pretty good at it! My old dog, Duke, would sometimes get sidetracked (literally) and forget what he was supposed to be doing. But when we called, he’d respond with enthusiasm and joy. No guilt, no angst — not even when it was warranted!

Where am I going with this? “Everything I needed to know I learned from my dog”? Not quite. But Duke’s joy and enthusiasm, his un-self-conscious attitude of worship, his focus on the present — he was a pretty good model of those. He was supremely confident in our affection for him, and in our ability to provide for his needs.

So if you’ve been woolgathering — and even if you haven’t — let us keep the Lord in view; Let us fix our eyes on Jesus. In the words of the song,

Let’s forget about ourselves
    and magnify the Lord
    and worship his holy name
O worship him
    Jesus Christ our Lord.

Bruce Ballinger

Easier said than done, but he will be our help.