So Help Me God

*Steel-toed boot warning.

Court scenes in movies, television, and books generally show witnesses and defendants swearing to tell the truth with their right hand on a Bible. The practice of swearing an oath goes back to antiquity. In twelfth-century England the practice of swearing on the Word and name of God to declare one’s truthfulness became law. The custom came over with the pilgrims but was never made law as it was one of the many reasons they left the oppressive religious rule of England.
In the day when the Bible was considered sacred text and God was revered, the practice of swearing an oath “on the Bible” was the norm. That is no longer the case and the courts have determined that a witness could simply “affirm” to be honest. But putting one’s hand on the Bible has never been a guarantee of truthfulness, has it? People swore on the Bible and still lied. Even claiming to be a Christian these days doesn’t mean a person will be godly. So what good is the Bible anyway? And who needs it if it can’t make you a better person?
Here’s the ugly truth: we often use the Bible to comment on the ungodliness in our culture and to point out sin in the world. But remember, the Bible was written to the people of God, not to the world. The Old Testament was written to the Israelites and the New Testament is written to the church. Who needs the Bible? I do. You do. The Pastor and the deacons and every member of the Church. Every person who claims the name of Jesus Christ. Because God is speaking to His people. God is calling the church back to Himself. He is telling His people to stop living in sin and repent. He is drawing those who claim the name of Christ into holy living. We can’t hold the unsaved world to biblical standards not following. We can’t rant about homosexual marriage when the divorce rate in the church is the same as outside the church. We can’t judge unwed mothers when pornography addiction is rampant in the church. We can’t demand righteousness we don’t have ourselves. Don’t read the Bible to convict the culture, read it to convict your own heart. “For it is time for judgment to begin with God’s household . . .” (I Peter 4:17).

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.

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.

The Voice of the Lord

My voice is naturally loud, especially if I’m excited – like when I’m teaching about the Bible. Sometimes I want to type in all caps when I’m writing a devotional so I can pump up the volume. Voices communicate more than words. Our inflections reveal what’s happening in our hearts. The tone and timbre of my voice change when I talk to Joy depending on what I’m trying to relay to her. If we’re playing together, I will use a silly, happy voice. If I’m comforting her my voice is soft and gentle, and if she has picked up the cat for the third time, my voice is firm and somewhat sharp.

In Psalm 29 David was meditating on “The voice of the Lord.” He said the Lord’s voice “thunders over the mighty waters” (v. 3), it is “powerful” and “majestic” (v. 4). “The voice of the Lord breaks the cedars” (v. 5), “strikes with flashes of lightning” (v. 7), shakes the desert” (v. 8), “twists the oaks and strips the forest bare” (v. 9). Those are frightening images of the fierce power of God’s voice.

But God also speaks with a softer voice. The prophet Elijah was at his lowest point, running from the wicked Queen Jezebel who wanted to kill him. He was worn out and worn down. He told the Lord, “I have had enough” (1 Kings 19:4). He was hiding out in a cave when God called him. Elijah listened for the Lord, expecting to hear Him in “a great and powerful wind,” an earthquake, and a fire. But God was in none of these. He came to Elijah in a “gentle whisper,” in “a still, small voice” (vs. 11-13).

I have not always walked faithfully and obediently. I have made some big, ugly mistakes and fallen into sin. God has never once yelled at me or spoken to me in anger or disgust. He has always spoken in a gentle voice, especially when I am broken. Just as He speaks to you, Beloved. Even if he has to chastise you He speaks with grace. Those harsh voices that shout at you are never God. If you listen closely you will hear that the voice of the Lord is always the voice of love.

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.

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.

The Valley

This morning I was thinking about something I needed to do, something I didn’t really want to do because it often raised up a temptation I’ve been trying to put down for a long time. I prayed for help and a verse came to mind. It comes out of Psalm 23 – The Shepherd’s Psalm. Verse 4 says “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” Now, what does that have to do with temptation?

This valley is not a pastoral scene of gentle slopes between the hills but a steep, narrow gorge where the sun never reaches. The valley most attributed to this passage was the Valley of Hinnom outside the walls of Jerusalem. It was a horrible place of death as bodies of criminals and animals and the town’s rubbish were thrown there and fires burned continually to consume them. The ”shadow of death” is a place of extreme danger and thick darkness – an apt description of the valley. It was also a place where kings and priest sent their own children to be burned alive to appease the gods – a horrible sin.

Death and sin go hand in hand. From the very beginning, God told the first humans that when they sin (disobey God) they “will surely die” (Gen 2:17). Paul said that “The wages of sin is death” (Rom 6:23). The valley was a terrifying place of sin and death. But it was also a place people had to pass to get to the gates of the city. Here’s where this all comes together. You and I will be faced with sin and its consequences as long as we are on this earth. We can’t escape it. But we don’t have to fear it. God is with us. If we walk closely with Him we can traverse the sin and death of this world without falling into it. That’s what God was saying to me this morning. “Don’t be afraid of what you need to do. I am with you. I will not let you fall.” And He didn’t.

Beloved, the world is filled with sin and death, but if you belong to Christ you can face it with faith in your Shepherd. Your very Good Shepherd who died to save you – His precious little lamb.

You can be Free from Shame

If your life has always been sunshine and rainbows, you can skip it today. But if you have scars on your body or on your heart, if you carry a backpack of sorrow and shame, please stay. God has a word for you.

Isaiah prophesied the coming Babylonian captivity. Why was all this happening? Because they were a “sinful nation, a people loaded with guilt, a brood of evildoers, children given to corruption! They [had] forsaken the Lord; they [had] spurned the Holy One of Israel and turned their backs on Him” (Is 1:4). They were steeped in sin and idolatry. Judgment was coming.

Can you relate? I sure can. I have a past filled with regret and shame. I have been places, done things, and been with people I should have given a wide berth. I have made some foolish, disastrous decisions. I hurt people. I hurt myself. You may be nodding your head right now. You understand. You’ve done the same. Maybe you’re still doing it.

But maybe your past wasn’t your foolish actions, but someone else’s. You were abused, misused, rejected, stepped on, then stepped over. I understand that too. Mixed in with my own sin is the stain of others’ sins. A counselor once told me that my actions were a reaction to others’ actions against me. If you hear, “You’re so stupid!” enough you start to act stupid. If you’re treated like you’re worthless you believe you’re worthless and you act like you’re worthless. This is my life story, but I bet I’m ringing some bells.

However you got your backpack of shame, I want you to listen to God’s words: “Do not be afraid, you will not suffer shame. Do not fear disgrace, you will not be humiliated. You will forget the shame of your youth” (Is 54:4). “How?” you ask, “it’s a huge, heavy burden”. Jesus. Jesus is how you can be free from shame. Because Jesus took it all to the cross. And to the grave. And when He rose to life three days later, He left it all in the ground. God declared, “The former things will not be remembered; nor will they come to mind” (Is 65:17). In Jesus you are “a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” (2 Cor 5:17). That’s your story now, Beloved. Set your backpack down and go live like who you are. Forgiven and free.

Hebrews: Noah and (more than) the Ark

I grew up on Bible stories: Adam and Eve, David and Goliath, Daniel in the Lion’s Den, Joshua and the Battle of Jericho (if you’re my age you just sang that one), and Noah and the Ark. Bible stories are great – when you’re a kid, but at some point, we have to grow up. We have to dig deeper into the familiar stories of our childhood and find the treasures under the surface. Noah and the Ark is a good place to start.

The writer of Hebrews placed Noah in this chapter of heroes – not for the ark that he built, but for the reason he built it.  “By faith, Noah, when warned about things not yet seen, in holy fear built an ark to save his family” (Heb 11:7). What was the “thing not yet seen?” Rain. Since creation “streams came up from the earth and watered the whole surface of the ground” (Gen 2:6). So when God comes to Noah and says, “I will send rain on the earth for forty days and forty nights” (Gen 7:4), Noah had no idea what “rain” was. He had to believe in something he had never seen. Noah obeyed because he was sure that God was going to do what He said He would do.

But there’s another phrase in the verse that gets overlooked: “in holy fear.” Wait – Why was he afraid of God? He is all love, love, love. “Holy fear” means Noah reverenced God. He was in awe of His greatness and power. He respected God. That has been lost and it shows. Noah believed when the Lord said, “I am going to bring floodwaters on the earth to destroy all life under the heavens . . .” (Gen 6:17). He also believed in God’s promise to save him and his family (Gen 6:18). He did what God told him to do because he believed in God’s power and authority to destroy all living creatures and in God’s salvation.

That’s the foundation of the gospel. I know we’re not supposed to re-write the Bible, but I want to tweak John 3:16 just a little: “For God so loved the (sinful, disobedient, condemned) world that He gave His one and only (perfect, holy) Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish (as he deserves to) but have eternal life.” The gospel of love is incomplete without the truth of man’s sin and condemnation. We have to tell people why they need to be saved. Noah believed in both the judgment and the mercy of God. Do you, Beloved?

Oh, What a Mess!

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Joy loves to play with the box of paper clips on my desk. This morning she grabbed her treasure knocking it off my desk and spilling the paper clips on the floor. “Oh no!” she said dramatically. “It’s okay baby, you just dropped it. Can you pick the paper clips up, please?” All of the sudden my sweet, compliant girl backed away from the mess and shook her head, “No.” I asked her again. She ran to the other corner of the room “No.” She tried to climb in my lap and I said, “Go pick up the paper clips and then you can sit with Nana.” “No, I can’t.” Mommy said, “Joy, pick up the paper clips.” The more we insisted the more she resisted. Instead, she demanded, “I want my cup.” Her sippy cup is her security blanket so I knew that she was getting agitated.

I said, “I think she’s overwhelmed.” Mommy said, “How about we pick the paper clips up together, I’ll help you.”  Immediately her face brightened, she set her cup down and chirped, “Okay!” and the paper clips were picked up in less than a minute. I thought about how many times I’ve told her to pick up her toys and she will lay on the couch and bury her face. Big light bulb moment: the bigger the mess she’s faced with, the more resistant she becomes to cleaning it up. Not because she’s defiant, but because she’s overwhelmed. And then I realized that she is just like me. And probably you too. Big messes make us want to run and hide.

Israel was in a big mess. After a long rebellious state, Isaiah prophesied the judgment of God. He said the Lord was going to send Assyria and Babylon to destroy their cities and take them captive. That’s a huge, overwhelming mess that they could never manage on their own. But then God said, “Do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you . . .” (Is 41:10). God promised to help them out of their mess.

Beloved, I don’t know what kind of mess you are in or how you got there, but I know that you don’t face it alone. “‘Don’t be afraid,’ declares the Lord, ‘for I myself will help you’” (41:14). Until the work is done.