A Work in Progress

If there was ever an extra-biblical word of wisdom that I believe with my whole heart it is this. “Do not think, believer, that your sorrows are out of God’s plan; they are necessary parts of it.” Charles Spurgeon. Like you, I have experienced sadness, sorrow, shock, grief, despair, anguish, and brokenness in my life, and often wondered why God would allow it. What good can possibly come from such pain? But I have learned, and am still learning, that these are the tools He uses to shape me into the image of His Son.

When the great Michelangelo was asked how he could take a block of marble and bring from it his beautiful sculpture of David, he replied, “I took my chisel and removed everything that didn’t look like my vision of David.”  That is God’s purpose for our sufferings and sorrows.  God uses them like a hammer and chisel to remove everything that does not look like the vision before Him – the vision of His Son (Rom 8:29).  It is not always pleasant – in fact, it is very painful – but it is necessary because our hearts are often as hard as a block of marble. 

It reminds me of the work of the ancient craftsmen who made the priestly garments for Aaron. The Scripture says that “they hammered out thin sheets of gold and cut threads from them” to weave into the fabric  (Ex 39:3).  Can you imagine the amount of dedication and intricate work that required? Beloved, that’s nothing compared to how God is working on you And He’s not just weaving the glory of His Son into your life. He is making you into His very image.

You may not welcome it at the moment, but one day, when you stand before your Savior you will be so glad for every blow and every tear that made you into the reflection of your King.  The Bible says that Jesus was made perfect through suffering.  Do you think it will be any less for you?  Oh, Beloved, there is great purpose in your pain. As Paul said, “I want to know Christ and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of sharing in His sufferings, becoming like Him in His death . . .” (Philippians 3:10).

The God of the Bible

We’re New Testament Christians – why should we read the Old Testament? What good does it do me to study old laws and rituals? Why should I learn about people so far removed from my own life? Because we don’t study the Bible to learn about laws and rituals and long-dead people – we study the Bible to learn about and draw hope from God. I am in a group that is writing through the Bible, we’ve been mired in Job for months. Lots of misery and grumbling and arguing. But by slowing down the pace and paying attention to the text, we’ve come to understand Job – and God – from a whole new perspective.

Paul said, “Everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through the endurance taught in the Scriptures and the encouragement they provide we might have hope” (Romans 15:4). He’s talking about the Old Testament. When I am discouraged, I go to the stories of God’s deliverance in Exodus. When my life has fallen apart I turn to Nehemiah where God enabled His people to rebuild the broken-down walls. When I face a frightening situation Esther is my go-to book as I remember how God rescued His people. And when the world looms dark and evil, I turn to Daniel and witness God’s sovereign control over human events.

The Old Testament is filled with evidence of God’s power, purpose, love, and faithfulness. The same power, purpose, love, and faithfulness is found in the New Testament and in my life two-thousand plus years later. In the Old Testament, I find the God who delivered Israel, rebuilt Jerusalem, and rescued the Jews. In the New Testament, I see the same God who delivered mankind, broke the bonds of sin and death, and changed the world. He is the same God I call to in this present season of struggle. I know He is able to do for me today all that He did then. I put my name in those verses of rescue and promise and the God of the Hebrew people, of Nehemiah, Esther, and Daniel becomes the God of Dorcas Elizabeth. He hasn’t forgotten how to rescue and restore. His power hasn’t diminished one bit. This God is your God too if you have trusted in Jesus. Beloved, get to know the God of the whole Bible. Get to know the God of your life.

Hebrews: Passing on the Blessing

A father’s role is different with every culture and every era. Dads today are more involved with the care and nurturing of their children than they were even in my generation. My Dad was the provider first and he taught my brother about working on vehicles. But the emotional care of my brothers and me was largely left to my Mom. He wasn’t really a disciplinarian either. He usually forgot that he had grounded me after a couple of days. But if Mom grounded me for a week it stuck to the minute. 

Still, some things haven’t changed. Fathers in the days of the patriarchs were also providers, then teachers especially of religion and the family trade. First-century fathers had one other very important role in their family – passing on the blessing. In Hebrews 11:20-21 we see Isaac and Jacob doing just that. “By faith, Isaac blessed Jacob and Esau in regard to their future. By faith Jacob, when he was dying, blessed each of Joseph’s sons, and worshiped as he leaned on the top of his staff.” That’s pretty cut-and-dried without any of the drama that surrounded them.

Isaac and Jacob were passing on the promise of God that had been first given to Abraham for a land of their own – Canaan. The author of Hebrews said those blessings were given “by faith” because the land that had been promised was not yet in their possession. Abraham believed God would be faithful to the promise and he passed that confidence and faith to his son and grandson. But it would be many more generations before they would take possession of the Promised Land.

But the promise and the blessing were about more than the land. The “everlasting covenant” the Lord made with Abraham was “to be your God and the God of your descendants after you” (Gen 17:7). For a season the Jewish people lost possession of the land. From the fall of Babylon in 586 bc until May 14, 1948, Israel was under foreign rule. But she was never without God. Nor are you. In their seasons of disobedience and rebellion, God disciplined them, but He also kept a loving eye on them and brought them back to the land – and to Himself. I find a lot of hope in that. You can too. Jesus said, “Surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matt 28:20). He meant it Beloved. Every word.

The Providence of God

I caught myself the other day thinking, “If I could change one thing about my past…” The problem is I found a lot of things. Choices. People. Places. Priorities. Desires.  I’ll bet you can finish that sentence with a few thoughts of your own. Who hasn’t lamented something in their past? For some, the choices were huge and life-altering. For others, they were moments, that while not quite as monumental, we wish we could do over. I have spent so much time living with regrets, living in the “if only’s,” and wishing I had made wiser decisions, or that circumstances had turned out differently. I have discovered that when I live in constant regret I set myself up for a very sad life.

But I am learning to trust in the sovereign providence of God. Those are words we don’t use much in our contemporary religion, but they are powerful. In the original Hebrew, the word combination has a rich and significant meaning. The word “sovereign” speaks to God’s rightful authority as Creator over nature, nations, mankind, and individual lives. Likewise, the word “providence” is speaking to God’s charge over everything He has made – including you and me.  The root word means “to pay attention, to care for, to be in charge of.” This is His tender, loving oversight as our Good Shepherd and Heavenly Father. God has pledged to pay attention to you, to care for you, and to be in charge of your life – not as a dictator – but as One who seeks always and only what is best for you. Job 10:12 expresses this duality beautifully. “You gave me life and showed me kindness, and in Your providence watched over my spirit.” The combination of terms tells us that God is always looking out on your behalf, knows what you need and He has the authority to move heaven and earth to accomplish all things for you – because He loves you.

If you have grieved over your past, know that Your sovereign, providential Father has been watching over and caring for you all along. In His hands, the very thing that caused you the most pain can be the seed for a whole new life. Beloved, God loves you too much to waste the struggles of your life. He has a plan. He has a purpose. And He has you in the palm of His great hand.

Hebrews: By faith Abraham . . .

“Abraham! Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love . . . and sacrifice him as a burnt offering . . . (Genesis 22:1-2).

As I meditate on Hebrews 11:17-19 (grab your Bible and read it) two questions come to mind: Why would God make such a horrific demand of Abraham and why would Abraham obey it? As I pondered those questions, two points emerge about Abraham and Isaac’s story.

To the first question, the author says that “God tested [Abraham],” (v. 17) and, as He often does, the Spirit whispered in my heart: “what does that mean?” The word “tested” actually has two meanings: to temp or to examine. How can you know which is happening? The difference is in the tester’s purpose: the devil tempts that the believer might fail God’s standards of faith and sin; God tests that He might determine and sharpen true character, with no desire of making the believer fail. God was examining Abraham’s willingness to obey Him, even in the most difficult requests.  Sometimes it’s difficult to understand who’s behind the test, but the way through is always the same. Keep your eyes on Jesus and your heart firmly planted in the Word. In either case, you will emerge with deeper roots of faith and a testimony of God’s power and goodness.

As to Abraham’s part, I never understood how he could willingly sacrifice his son until I studied his story alongside this Hebrews passage and Romans 4:18 – 20: “Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed . . . he did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God.”  Did you catch it? Abraham believed the promise because of Who made it. He fully expected that God would still build a nation through Isaac and that meant Isaac would have to live. In his reasoning, he expected God to raise Isaac from the dead after the deed was done. But God stayed his hand at the last moment and provided a replacement sacrifice instead. The point is that Abraham’s faith was not in the promise – it was in the Promise-maker. And so must ours be.

Those are two solid truths you can build your life upon. God will never test you to make you fail and He will never make a promise He doesn’t intend to keep. Abraham is known for his great faith. Beloved, are you? Am I?

Eyes of Faith

It’s the same routine every morning. As soon I walk into the kitchen my cat Celina starts demanding her breakfast. She dogs my steps as I pick up her food bowl, take it to the bin under the sink and add a scoop of food, then take it back and set it down in its usual spot. I’ve tried to replenish her bowl before she comes into the room so that it’s ready for her, but she won’t eat unless she watches me do the whole thing. It’s as if she doesn’t trust me unless she can see it all happen with her own eyes.

The Spirit told me that I am much the same with God and my prayer concerns. He reminded me of the post-resurrection encounter between Jesus and his disciple Thomas. When Jesus appeared to His disciples after His resurrection Thomas was missing from that gathering. When they later told him what happened, he refused to believe. He said, “Unless I see the nail marks in His hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe it” (John 20: 25).

Jesus appeared again a week later and Thomas was there. Jesus singled him out saying, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe” (v. 27). Thomas, of course, had an immediate change of heart and said to Jesus, “My Lord and my God!” (v. 28). To which Jesus replied, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe” (v. 29).

There’s someone that I’ve been praying over for a long time. It’s getting hard because I don’t see any improvement. I only see them becoming worse instead of better. But God keeps assuring me that just because I can’t see change doesn’t mean He’s not working.  I have to trust Him. I have to believe what I can’t see. Mind you, that’s not “blind faith” that’s faith with my eyes fixed on God, not on the situation. That’s faith that gives me peace despite appearances.

You can have that peace too. Looking only at the problem breeds doubt, but keeping your eyes on God builds faith.  Beloved, take your stuff to the Father and leave it there. You can trust Him even if you can’t see Him working.

This Little Light of Mine

The power went out at our house for five hours during a very strong storm last week. We immediately started grabbing flashlights. There’s something about darkness that is unnerving. Maybe because the Bible equates darkness with sin and evil and emptiness. Before God created all that exists, there was only darkness (Gen 1:2); the first thing He did was call forth light (v. 3-4). But He didn’t create the sun and moon and stars until day four (v. 14-19). So where did that first light come from? From Himself. It was His light breaking through the dark, empty void.

When men were lost in darkness and sin, and could no longer see the light of God, He brought His light down to us. John said that Jesus, the very Son of God, is “the true light that gives light to every man” (John 1:9). John also said, “The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not overcome it” (1:5). When we turned on the flashlights and lanterns the darkness dissipated. It was driven away because darkness is nothing more than the absence of light. Wherever light shines, darkness cannot exist.

The same is true spiritually. Consider this – Jesus declared that He is “the light of the world.” He added, “Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12). Did you catch that – “will never walk in darkness?” That is both a hopeful promise and a statement of character. Jesus brought the light of God so that we won’t stumble in darkness and sin. But John also said, “If we claim to have fellowship with him yet walk in darkness, we lie and do not live by the truth” (1 John 1:6). Simply put – Christ-followers WON’T walk in darkness. And if we do we should recheck the validity of our claim. If we have the light of Christ, there should be no place for darkness in our lives.

Paul says that we are “sons [and daughters] of the light . . . We do not belong to the darkness” (1 Thess 5:5). We belong to Christ. Darkness and all it implies have no authority over the believer. Our testimony in the world is the light of Christ. Jesus said that now “we are the light of the world” (John 5:14). That means that you, Beloved, need to let your little light shine.

You Asked for it – You Got it!

As I was reading the book of Amos an old commercial from the 70s came to mind.  You might remember the jingle: “You asked for it, you got it. Toyota!” Amos was a prophet to Israel just before the Northern Kingdom fell to the Assyrians. God sent him with a message of warning and destruction because Israel had rejected Him. But they told Amos, “Do not prophesy against Israel and stop preaching against the house of Isaac” (7:16). In other words, stop giving us God’s Word.

Well, they asked for it and they got it. The Lord said he was sending a famine – “not of food or a thirst for water, but a famine of hearing the words of the Lord” (8:11). That chills my heart. I do not think I could survive without God’s Word. But the present culture is making the same demands. “Don’t tell us what that antiquated fairy-tale book says! It has no authority over us. It is intolerant, racist, and sexist.” Isn’t it strange that the generation that shouts for “tolerance” is intolerant of the truth?

But let’s flip this. What would our world be like – what would our churches and homes and hearts be like if we sought the Word of God? If we store it up in our hearts (Ps 119:11), rejoice in it (v. 14), and meditate on it (v. 15), What if we delight in and never neglect it (v. 16)? What if we choose the way of truth and set our hearts on the Scriptures (v. 30)? What if we obey it with all our hearts (v. 34)? How might it change us if we love the Word of God (v. 47)? What if we put our hope in God’s Word (v. 81) and let it light our way (v. 105)? What if we stand in awe of the Holy Scriptures (v. 120)? What if we faithfully walk in God’s Word (v. 133)?

My goal as a Bible teacher is to teach myself out of a job. It is to help you see the wonder and beauty and truth in the Scriptures and fall in love with the Bible all on your own. Do you want that kind of passion for God’s Word? Ask Him for it, Beloved. And you’ll get it.

Hebrews: Don’t Turn Back

“I wanna go home!” Joy wailed in my arms.  It was the last day of VBS and everyone was in the “big church” for the grand finale. She wanted no part of it.  I coaxed her into sitting on my lap, but it didn’t last long.  She was trembling when her mommy took her out after just a couple of minutes. It’s not unusual when facing challenges to want to run back to what we know is safe. Even if safe is not God’s will for us.

Hebrews says the heroes of the Bible considered themselves “aliens and strangers” not just in the new lands they settled, but “on earth” because they were “looking for a country of their own” (Heb 11:13b-14). The place of promise. Abraham was given that very promise and he did settle in the land of Canaan, though it was not his possession. The writer added, “If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return” (v. 15). They could have gone back home at any time. Case in point:

Abraham realized that he needed a wife for his son, Isaac, but not from the local, pagan women.  He tasked his servant with going back to his hometown to bring back a woman from his own people for his son. The servant asked, “What if the woman is unwilling to come back . . . shall I take your son back to the country you came from? (Gen 24:5). Abraham answered an emphatic “No.” “Make sure that you do not take my son back there,” (v. 6). Why? Because the promise of God was tied to the land of Canaan. If he went back the promise would be lost. Abraham was protecting the promise by his obedience (Gen 24: 6-8).

The writer of Hebrews was addressing Jewish believers whose conversion had caused heartache and struggle. Many abandoned their faith in Christ and returned to the laws and life of Judaism. They returned to a dead end. This world is the domain of the evil one; it will never be home for those who love and follow Christ. But our promised land is coming (more on that later). It’s tempting to take the easy way and return to the world. But the easy way is not the eternal way. “A ship is safe in harbour, but that’s not what ships are for.”1. Beloved, you were made for eternity.

  1. John A. Shedd, 1928

What You See is What you Want

If you’re of my generation you know whom I’m talking about when I say, “What you see is what you get!”  Flip Wilson created his female character, Geraldine, who uttered that famous catchphrase as “she” danced to show off “her” full figure. Vision is a powerful tool to draw people in. Advertisers depend on it. Beautiful women sell men’s shaving cream.  A buff, handsome man in a flannel shirt sells paper towels. One of the most iconic images in advertising is the Gerber Baby whose face sold countless baby food products. That smile and expression grabbed mothers’ hearts, hoping to bring the same to their babies’ faces. They paraphrased Geraldine, “What you see is what you want.”

Satan counted on that too when he enticed Eve to take the forbidden fruit. And, of course, it worked. “When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it” (Gen 3:6).  What Eve saw became what she wanted and she fell – and took the entire human race down with her. (Adam’s role in this is a whole other post.)

The start of sin for all of us happens when “our hearts are led by our eyes” (Job 31:7, paraphrased). Sin happens in much the same way as advertising: “We see it, we want it, and we buy it.” That’s why advertisers – and satan – put it in such appealing packaging. But sin also happens because we are looking for it.  James pointed out that temptation and sin tap into the evil desires in our hearts.  (James 1:14). Perhaps that is why the Psalmist said that he would “set before my eyes no vile thing” (Psalm 101:3). Consider that verse in a world where “vile things” are available at the tap of a finger. If you want vile, you can get it any time of the day.

How do we break that sinful pattern? We “guard our heart” by “letting our eyes look straight ahead and fixing our gaze directly before us” (Prov. 23,25). At what? David knew. “I have set the Lord always before me” (Psalm 16:8). If your eyes are always on the Lord, He will be the desire of your heart. And what you see is what you want.