The Voice of God

Joy has watched 101 Dalmatians at least 101 times. I’m trying to coax her to branch out so this weekend I introduced her to Meet the Robinsons. She loved it. We were snuggled together enjoying the movie when I recognized one of the voices.  The adult version of the main character was voiced by Tom Selleck. I knew it was him because I had watched every episode of Magnum PI in the 80s. I knew his voice well.

Yesterday the Christian radio station posed a question: “How do you hear God’s voice above the noise?” I thought about how I recognized Tom Selleck’s voice in the movie – it was because I had heard it many, many times before. Even without seeing his face, I knew it was him. I realized that the key to recognizing God’s voice is familiarity.

Jesus said, “My sheep listen to my voice, I know them, and they follow me” (John 10:27). Listening implies a couple of things: first, to recognize God’s voice we have to spend time in His Word. Studying the Scriptures helps us to know what God does – and does not say. You can trust the voice you’re hearing if it’s saying the things God says in His Word. If what you hear doesn’t sound like the Scriptures, then that voice is likely not God. He will never contradict His Word.

Another important key to listening and recognizing God’s voice is obedience. James said “Do not merely listen to the Word and so deceive yourselves.  Do what it says” (1:22). When we tell our granddaughter to pick up her toys and she doesn’t do it, we have to ask her again and again. It’s only when she obeys that we know she heard us. (And, honestly, sometimes she determines to not hear us.) Hearing means “to attend to; to consider what has been said.” Hearing means obeying. And obeying opens up opportunities for further communication. I can’t tell Joy we’re going to the park until she has heard and obeyed and picked up her toys.

When you learn to listen and recognize God’s voice it will be so familiar that your spiritual ears will tune in like a mom picking up on her child’s cry in a noisy room filled with kids. Then, Beloved, you will know without a doubt, “That’s the voice of my Father.”

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?

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

Just Obey

Joy has a fascination with our cat. Celina does not share the same feelings. She chases her, picks her up, and totes her around the house. All the while we are telling her to “Put that cat down!” It’s not that Joy doesn’t know she shouldn’t aggravate the cat. She has been told countless times to leave her alone. She has sat in her time-out chair multiple times and has taken a couple of swats to the behind over it. And she’s gotten a few scratches from said cat. She knows very well that she is not to harass the cat but she is determined to do it anyway. Joy has trouble obeying.

She is one small example of the human race. Paul said you and I know the reality of God. “What may be known about God is plain to them, because has made it plain to them” (Rom 1:19). And we know God’s law. It has been written on every person’s heart (Rom 2:15). We know what sin is; we are without excuse (Rom 1:20). We know that sin brings death (Rom 6:23). And yet we disobey. And we do so with pride. Why? Because like Joy, we want what we want and we will break every commandment on our way to get it. And we will pay the price for it.

There is a better way, you know. Just obey God’s Word. The Psalmist said, “I will hasten and not delay to obey your commands” (Psalm 119:60). When God handed down the law through Moses he didn’t say, “Here are ten suggestions for a happy life,” He said, “These are my commandments,” meaning they are not optional. Writer and speaker Priscilla Shirer said, “God doesn’t speak to be heard, He speaks to be obeyed.” Believe me, I am preaching to myself here. I know God’s law – I’ve studied it for many years, yet I still have trouble obeying at times. Like Paul, I know what is right, but I still do what is wrong (Rom 7:15-23). And if you’re honest, you will admit the same. There is great blessing in obedience. The Psalmist said, “I run in the path of your commands, for You have set my heart free” (Ps 119:32). Peace. Joy. Freedom. Beloved, let’s walk the path of obedience together.

Tell Them About Jesus

As I study the Scriptures I see three types of people:

Those who by faith receive Christ and follow Him – the Bible calls these righteous, saints, and children of God.

Those who attempt to live up to a standard of “goodness” but find the load impossible to bear – the Bible calls them lost, burdened, weary souls.

Those who reject all thought of God and every standard of right living. These the Bible calls evil, wicked, lovers of self, and children of the devil.

The first group has found hope in Christ and the promise of eternal life. Their lives are marked by the fruit of the Spirit: “love, Joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23). They look at life with eternal vision and they live to serve the Kingdom of God. They show their love for Christ by their obedience. They will gladly give their lives for the name and the gospel of Christ (Rev 12:11).

The second group knows there is a God but they do not know Him. There are weighed down under a constant burden of trying to live up to the traditions of men in a vain attempt to gain God’s favor. Their lives are marked with worry and anxiety (Luke 8:14).  To them, Jesus says, “Come to me all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matt 11:28). Some come and receive His rest. Some do not and never find it.

The third group has no concern for nor belief in God. They don’t need Him nor want Him. They have no thought of eternity. Life ends and that is all there is. They believe themselves wise and think the gospel is for fools. They fail to see that they are deceived by the devil and most to be pitied (Rev 12:9).

Should the first group respond differently to the second and third? No. We respond to everyone in the same way – with the gospel. It is the truth for all mankind. Its message will be a welcome comfort to the lost, but it will be an offense to the wicked. Still, whether it falls on closed ears or receptive hearts, we must tell the world the way to eternal life. Let it land where it may, but never stop proclaiming the beautiful Gospel of Jesus.

How to Calm a Restless Life

I almost did it. I almost gave you a devotional with a verse taken out of context. I’ve taught the importance of context, context, context for years and I was about to break the rule. Let me explain. James 1:6 says, “But when he asks, he must believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind.” This verse, plucked out of the surrounding passage, sits nicely on a platter of “pray and believe and you will receive.” But wait. What is that “but” all about?

James was writing to encourage Jewish believers who were under great oppression and persecution for their faith in Christ. He said their trials were God’s tools to make them “mature and complete, not lacking anything.” (v. 4). Then he adds, “If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him” (v. 5). Put all the pieces together and James is saying that wisdom is the mark of a mature, complete Christian and that God will give wisdom to anyone who asks.

But there’s the “but” and that’s where verse 6 above comes in. By now you know that believing = obedience. The wisdom God gives is not just a head full of theology, it is practical action He expects you to take. God doesn’t speak just to be heard, He speaks to be obeyed. The opposite of believing is doubt, so the corollary to our equation is doubt = disobedience. “Doubt” means to make a judgment and thus to hesitate. When we doubt God’s Word, when we hesitate to obey we are judging His wisdom – or more to the point, judging Him – and deciding to reject His Word – and His authority. Hesitance is disobedience.

James calls that being “double-minded” and “unstable” (v. 8 ). A double-minded mind is a divided mind – a mind with two opposite opinions. A double-minded heart is a divided heart – a heart with two opposite affections. Being unstable means being inconsistent – acting first one way and then another. It’s a restless life. It’s no wonder the person who doubts God’s wisdom is “blown and tossed by the wind like a wave of the sea.” 

Beloved, if you’ve been tossed around by life lately, maybe it’s time to take God’s Word – all of God’s Word – to heart. Obedience is a sturdy foundation.

Adam and Eve and the Hall of Faith

I was up very late trying to finish my last assignment for school. I am so tired. I don’t have the brainpower to think very hard. I’m going to share an observation as we work through the Hall of Faith in Hebrews 11. School is over until Fall for me. More profound things will come later. Anyway, just read this while I go get more coffee.

Think about all the people listed in this chapter. You know what strikes me. Adam and Eve aren’t here. The first two people – the Lord God’s hand-made human beings are not in the Hall of Faith. Why? Because they sinned? Yes, but not entirely.  This chapter is all about faith and their sin showed they had none. Faith = obedience. That’s what James was pointing out: “Faith by itself if it is not accompanied by action [aka obedience] is dead” (2:17). The corollary then is disobedience = no faith. Yet Adam and Eve had the most intimate knowledge of God of any human being in history. They walked with Him in the Garden every evening ((Gen 3:8). They saw His face. Their eardrums vibrated to the sound of His voice. Don’t you imagine He put His hand on Adam’s shoulder as He pointed out the animals?

Do you know what that tells me (the seminary grad student and Bible teacher)? Knowledge of God doesn’t equal faith. Remember that the writer of Hebrews said “the message [the Israelites] heard was of no value to them, because those who heard did not combine it with faith” (4:2). You can know all about God and still not know God. You can even believe that He is real and not believe Him. James also said, “You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that – and shudder. You can even memorize every word in the Bible and still not have faith. Jesus talked about the religious leaders who “diligently study the Scriptures” but did not believe Him (John 5:39-40). Beloved, with all my heart I plead, don’t let Jesus say that of you. If all you want is a head full of knowledge, go study philosophy. But if you want Jesus and eternal life, apply your mind and heart to the Scriptures and bend your knee to the Word.

Bought Lessons

If you’ve read my devotionals for very long, you’ve heard me quote my Mom who used to say “Bought lessons stay with you longer than taught lessons.” It is the most profound thing she ever told me and I have the scars to prove that she was right. I’ve done some very foolish things in my life that I will never, ever do again. Her mantra reminds me of Psalm 119:67: “Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I obey Your Word.”

One lesson I bought is that when I ignore the Word of God I will wind up in trouble. Jesus told the parable of the wise and foolish builders in Matthew 7:24-27. He said the wise man built his house on the rock and the foolish man built on the sand. The wise builder illustrated a person who built his life on obedience to Jesus’ words. No storm could destroy the house built on the rock, and no storm can destroy the person who builds their life on – not just by reading the Bible – but by putting its teachings and principles into practice. Knowing and obeying the Bible can save us so much trouble and heartache in life.

But I’ve also learned a gentler lesson: God doesn’t give up on us just because we messed up. He won’t write you off, wash His hands of me or turn away from us because we stumble. All through the Bible God tells us that He is patient, forgiving, compassionate, merciful, and full of grace. He loves you, even when your knees are bloody because you fell. He loves me, even when I am covered in the muck of my own choices. Jesus died so you and I can be forgiven, so we could have a second chance at life.

Have you made a mistake somewhere along the way? Have you run in the wrong direction, played with the wrong people, touched something that left you in pain? Take heart, Beloved, God has not given up on you. Take this affliction, this difficulty, and the pain it has caused and place it before your loving Heavenly Father. Then put your hand in the nail-scarred hand of Jesus and start walking, a little wiser, in the right direction.

But I don’t want to, God!

I love the Word of God with all my heart. The Bible has transformed my mind and heart and life. It has become my passion, my calling, and my ministry. I believe every verse is true and right. I believe as Paul said, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness, so that the man [or woman] of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Tim 3:16-7). I honor the Scriptures as the authority over all creation – especially over me. But I don’t always like what it says. Sometimes the Bible meddles. Like Philippians 2:14: “Do everything without complaining or arguing . . .” Uh-oh.

I believe that obedience to the Scriptures is vital to God’s people. It was a major issue with the Israelites. They wanted God’s blessings without obedience. I strive to obey God every day. I don’t always get it right, but I so want to follow Him and walk in His ways. But sometimes I do so with a chip on my shoulder and a bit of an attitude. “I’ll do it God, but I really don’t want to.” “I will make this sacrifice, but it’s not fair, they’ve done nothing to deserve it.” “Why do I have to take this on God? Don’t I have enough on my plate?” I’m like a petulant child stomping her feet in protest on the way to bed. I sure hope you’re nodding your head in agreement, otherwise, I’m the worst kind of Christian.

But Paul said God expects obedience with a humble and grateful spirit. That is exactly what Jesus did. Hebrews 12:2 says that Jesus went to the cross – to His death with Joy. How could that be? Crucifixion was a horribly painful and humiliating way to die. Because He knew what the end result was going to be. Granted we don’t have that same advantage. But we have the same Heavenly Father who has never failed us, who works all things to fulfill His good purpose. We have a God we can trust when we are told to do something hard.

What is the end result of our humble obedience? We “become blameless and pure children of God [who] shine like the stars in the universe” (v. 15). In other words, we become like Jesus. And that is the desire of my heart. How about you, Beloved?

I Want to See Jesus

She called out my name – not the name “Beth” that folks in Tallahassee called me, but “Dorcas,” a name I hadn’t used since we left home a dozen years before. I was surprised that I would hear my “real” name. She said, “You haven’t seen me since I was a kid,” and then she told me who she was and everything clicked. Her family had lived next door to us for a few years and I had watched her and her brother a few times for her mother to run errands. I asked “How did you recognize me? It’s been so long and you were so young when we moved away.”  She hugged me and said, “I’d know that smile anywhere!”

People change so much – ask anyone who’s gone to their high-school reunion. I was so glad the reunion committee put our senior yearbook pictures on our name badges or I would have been completely lost. We all walked around with puzzled faces until we glanced down at the badge and – “Oh, it’s you!”

Heaven will be filled with faces both strange and familiar. I know I will be scanning the multitude, looking for my mom and dad and brother Jim and my friends Judy, Joey, Dorothy, Virginia, Mavis, Bob, and so many more. But there’s one Face I want most to see. One person who changed everything for me. I want to see Jesus. But how will I recognize Him?

The Bible gives no physical description other than “He had no beauty or majesty” (Isaiah 53:2). Nobody really knows what Jesus looked like and the paintings we have are not true representations of the Lord. I highly doubt he was a light-skinned, auburn-haired man with a chiseled, European face. True, we can make assumptions based on His nationality. But how many people will have the same olive complexion and middle-eastern features in heaven? Yet the Bible does say that we will recognize Him when we see Him. How? I imagine the crown on His head and His throne at the right hand of the Father and the glory that will emanate from Him will be big clues.  But there’s one other way. When He appeared to the disciples John said, “He showed them His hands and side [and] the disciples were overjoyed” (John 20:20). There be no doubt about which one is Jesus – we’ll know Him the same way they did – by His scars.