Archive for the ‘Promises’ Category

Absolute Futility? Really?

January 22, 2014

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“Absolute futility,” says the Teacher. “Everything is futile.” (Ecclesiastes 12:8 HCSB)

Too many of us fall prey to the notion that everything we do is futile. I’m in a situation right now where every investment (financial and work ethic energy) didn’t pay off, which means I lost the day and it’s time to leave the field. To be honest, I felt the need to change paths years ago but hated giving up before trying every avenue to make self-employment work.

It hasn’t.

Oddly though, I don’t sense futility or despair in its failure. Certainly I know feelings of frustration, loss, sadness and failure but no real sense that I didn’t give it my all. That said, I probably continued plowing through when I should have walked away a couple of years ago. I just didn’t know–did you?

The reason this blog is called Jonny’s Habit is because I make it a practice to study what I believe is God’s Word twice everyday even if it means just reading a verse without comprehension. Habits form our behaviors as well as influence our attitudes and outlooks. This blog entry probably sounds too personal for most but let me be clear that it was always intended to be. I am not someone who philosophically looks at life through a telescope at a safe distance because I don’t believe we can always be certain of our conclusions.

The last nearly twenty-odd years have been educational, humbling and revelatory for me. Through so many experiences I have come to realize personal limits and understand the world around me through that perspective. That said, I also realize someone else in my position would have made a better profit of the opportunity than I did because they have that knack.

I don’t.

Saying so doesn’t make me negative on myself nor does it mean I’m giving up on life. It does mean I recognize time and chance defeated certain goals while prospering others. Being honest about myself and others is about seeing life for what it is over dreaming of what could be. While the latter is great for moving forward, sometimes it limits the now and the hard choices we have to make. I have also learned I am more resourceful and able than I ever thought possible before now. Saying that doesn’t mean I think I’m the greatest thing since sliced bread came into existence, rather I’m better at seeing where my abilities truly lie versus just guessing.

All that said you’ll now understand what I say next in context of Solomon’s declaration that everything is futile. I think I understand the truth of his words and where he’s coming from, but I don’t buy his conclusion as the final word on the subject.

“Resistance is useless,” the Vogon guard declared. I read Solomon’s solemn statement and laughed because the book, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy made them mindlessly true for the situation the protagonist, Arthur Dent and his companion found themselves in. This part their story was the very first thing that came to mind when I read Solomon’s conclusion. If you’ve ever read the series (there are 5 books in the trilogy–yes, I said five!), you’ll know how things turned out and that the seeming impossible took place. Hey, it’s a book where the impossible is probable, ok. The point is that we sometimes borrow trouble in the form of worry about the future when all we can do is plan as best we can for as many eventualities as possible and live in the now.

As much as any of us hate change it comes anyway, inexorably, steadily, yet sometimes so fast we don’t have much time to adjust while at other times so slow we don’t even realize it’s happening. The one thing time teaches is as much as things change much stays the same. As much as the cosmetics, methods and attitudes adjust, they are still variations on a theme which remains constant.

For example: We might have conquered certain forms of slavery but it still exists. Prejudice still operates strong in the light of human activity though it wears a disguise of acceptance in certain circles. If you’ve ever heard yourself or someone else say, “I accept everybody and can’t see why people don’t accept everyone too…”, you have just demonstrated why prejudice remains strongly entrenched in the human psyche. As another example, attitudes about providing basic necessities might have changed in the way we access it but the need is still there at the root.

Modern society only thinks itself different because we have procedures and styles our history didn’t–or did but we don’t recognize it.

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Concluding thought: The outcome of truth in Solomon’s paradigm is not in ours since the cross. Jesus changed our reality. It doesn’t make Solomon’s words any less true for his era, but it does change the outcome and hope for the future. A life merely lived for the now will be futile, one lived for Christ holds lasting promise. It also changes how the truth is perceived. Perception is the key here not just the words. Truth doesn’t change our understanding of it does. For instance the sun has always been something humans knew about but its place in the solar system (another unknown until recent history) was misunderstood. The truth of the sun didn’t change our perspective did.

Again, another example is the bread analogy. Basic flat bread is oil, water, salt and flour. The moment we add anything to the bread we change its consistency and possibly flavor. Solomon’s assertion of no afterlife in death, the futility of industry while we live and the need for us to go ahead and live anyway is like the basic flatbread. Jesus’ gospel adds yeast and honey to end up with something that rises and tastes good. We call both bread (truth) but the latter one changed the way we perceive what is possible.

The ingredients are basically the same in both Solomon’s and post-Jesus’ era except Jesus takes away the futility by adding eternity as a final outcome. This changes everything by adjusting our priorities. What we do on earth counts in heaven if we continue to live and think in the paradigm of Christ’s life and message.

The Context of Investment

December 3, 2013

Ship your grain across the sea; after many days you may receive a return. Invest in seven ventures, yes, in eight; you do not know what disaster may come upon the land. If clouds are full of water, they pour rain on the earth. Whether a tree falls to the south or to the north, in the place where it falls, there it will lie. Whoever watches the wind will not plant; whoever looks at the clouds will not reap. As you do not know the path of the wind, or how the body is formed in a mother’s womb, so you cannot understand the work of God, the Maker of all things. Sow your seed in the morning, and at evening let your hands not be idle, for you do not know which will succeed, whether this or that, or whether both will do equally well. (Ecclesiastes 11:1-6 NIV)

 

The Trouble with Vows

January 30, 2012

When you make a vow to God, do not delay in fulfilling it.  He has no pleasure in fools; fulfill your vow.  It is better not to vow than to make a vow and not fulfill it.  Do not let your mouth lead you into sin.  And do not protest to the temple messenger, “My vow was a mistake.” Why should God be angry at what you say and destroy the work of your hands?  Much dreaming and many words are meaningless.  Therefore stand in awe of God.  Ecclesiastes 5:4-7.

 

I’m pretty sure this is one of those passages many would rather relegate to the Old Covenant and never think of again.  The reasoning goes, “Jesus revealed God as loving and personal.  How can He also demand such special treatment?”

And right there is the problem with most of our “modern” views of God.

We give the president of the United States more respect than the Creator of the universe far too often.  To treat God as a common being is a mistake, in my opinion; one which the contemporary church in America has perpetuated to its own hurt.  We buy into the “name it, claim it” variety of Christianity forgetting His sovereignty and ignoring all the lessons of those who came before.  We read NT stories like Ananias and Sapphira, recoiling at the thought God would actually punish such an action with death.  Our reasoning is faulty, our conclusions about godliness and righteousness out of step with Jesus and our sense of what true love is based on brokenness few desire to fix.

How do I know this attitude pervades the church?

I own it.

Oh, I admit to fighting it in this public arena, but I struggle to like this part of God’s personality/character.  I don’t want strictness but leeway.  And if we’re all honest with ourselves, in some area of our lives or another we all want the same thing—that is, for God to excuse some trait or sin in our lives so we can keep on doing it or so we don’t have to look at it.  To get even this reconciled to our text has taken me years.

Yet our reaction in the West has much to do with the attitudes which pervaded the East and Europe in times past.  Jesus made God approachable by proclaiming Him personal.  This changed how we see God as a whole for we look at Him through the cross.  However, in contrast to the austere, severe and disinterested God of past centuries (perpetuated by church hierarchy often to secure their own power and position), twentieth century Christianity took it to the other extreme and made approaching Jesus a casual thing.  Now I’m not saying this is everywhere in the church, rather that I’ve experienced these two extremes in an almost schizoid (which means out of touch with reality) dual personality way.  The reality is somewhere in between these two extremes, which makes both of them true, although only a half truth taken by themselves.

In my late twenties I made a vow to God, which I have tried to fulfill to the best of my ability.  Before that I made another vow which I kept for a long time until the pressure to conform took over, so I compromised.  I’m not sure of the ultimate consequences of either, though I know there are some in minor areas for the latter.  However, the vow I kept has resulted in censure from leadership, mild interventions on the part of family or friends and lastly a lack of financial security.

Though I know grace covers all, every act carries natural consequences—and not just the bad deeds have outcomes.  There’s a sarcastic saying which goes, “No good deed will go unpunished” which is snide way of saying doing good often results in loss and ingratitude.  The losses I have endured have been mostly in the relationship arena.  I can’t sustain certain relationships because of how I choose to live.  Some important people in my life keep their distance and avoid any conversation about my work.

You wouldn’t think being dedicated to working for God and working hard to not be a burden on the church would arouse censure, but it does.  Or, may be a better way to say it is the way I interpret the calling on my life definitely does.  This is gist the first vow (which I found recently in a Bible dating from 1987):  “I vow to serve God in whatever capacity I can full time, full tilt, no holds barred.”

The second one dealt with media.  I grew up Seventh-day Adventist and in most circles around that time they frowned on going to movies or watching TV shows except for news.  So I vowed to abstain from all media and keep my head clear of all these distracting voices.  The problem came with my band—they all did both, not being raised the way I was.  One day the leader of the band told me the rest of the folks felt I didn’t want to hang out with them.  We had a long talk about my vow and what it meant.  In his mind I had made a foolish promise that God would look on as silly.  The pressure continued for a couple of weeks.  I know my story probably sounds ridiculous to some of you reading this, but I’d like us to consider the nature of our take on God through my experience.  I eventually folded after much prayer and agonizing over the issue.  Not only was I bucking the conditioning from my heritage but also working against this very text, which I knew well at the time.

For years afterward I feared God would destroy the work of my hands.  In some ways the suspicion is still with me in the dark corners of my psyche that the current state of my music career is due to this broken vow.  Whether or not this is true, I can’t really say.  What I can say is that I came to God humbly aware that for me to reach into people’s lives I couldn’t be a recluse.  Writing songs amounted to some worth for the kingdom but it was in relationships where the real work began.  I realized my vow had isolated me from not only my friends but most people I would reach out to for Jesus.

I began watching TV and going to movies with the band.  Not a lot, but enough to show friendship.  To this day I limit how much I take in, not as part of the vow but for the sake of focus.  At this point in my life I can safely say I’m not a conservative or liberal in my thinking about these things.  In other words I don’t buy into either ethic as sacrosanct or the final word on righteousness.  My purpose here is different than you might imagine.

Our mistaken perspectives push us into all sorts of vows, arbitrary rules and foolish “spiritual” takes on very ordinary things.  As I grow in a knowledge of Christ, I realize more and more how very broken we all are and in our efforts to staunch the hemorrhaging in our spirits we create elaborate rules and erect formidable walls of doctrine to limit our baser passions.

All for nothing.

Jesus made something clear,  “Of yourselves you can do nothing.”

Anyone—and I mean Anyone!—who believes we change our own natures by personal effort misses the point of the cross.  Later Paul chimed in on this subject by stating emphatically, I can do all things through (Christ) who gives me strength!  Do you see the difference?

My vow had to do with my own efforts to be remain pure and untainted by the world—a godly goal.  The only problem was it didn’t work to keep me pure.  My thoughts were no less sinless than anybody else; my actions no less arrogant spiritually or more in tune with God’s Spirit.  What I find is that we fail as believers to strike a balance between what is and what should be.  To be blunt, I doubt most people really have a good (or even fair) grasp of what “should be” over anyone else.  Legalism is based on human efforts to improve ourselves so that we can approach God.  Since no one can approach God except through Christ, our efforts and rules are wasted.

What brought me to my senses about vows came in the form of a small story in the book of Judges (10:6 to 12:7) where Jephthah made a vow to God to sacrifice whatever came out of his front door first for a winning edge in the war he was about to fight.  His vow came from a lack of faith, first off, and in the second place, he forgot or didn’t know the law concerning sacrifices.  The first one to greet him on his return wasn’t a dog or goat or lamb but his only daughter.  I don’t know what he expected when he made the vow but the wisdom of it seemed to escape him.  He sacrificed her to the Lord as he promised.

Unnecessarily.

The law clearly prohibits human sacrifice.  Look it up and study what God said through Moses about such things.  Jephthah’s ignorance set him up for heartache.  His God (as opposed to gods of the nations around him) considered such a sacrifice abhorrent and abominable.  The sad truth is his daughter died for a foolish vow.

Ananias and Sapphira, on the other hand, made a similar promise to pay the entire proceeds of the sale from a piece of property then lied to renege.  Peter’s question to Ananias was paraphrased, “You could’ve given any portion to God you chose because the land belonged to you.  If you hadn’t wanted to give it all, God would not have had a problem with that.  But instead you promised all then held some of it back, which made your promise a lie.”  The vow turned out badly for both he and his wife.

Solomon’s assertion that we need to be reverent and differential when approaching God, however, still applies.  Yes!  He is interested in us.  Yes!  He loves us with a passion we can barely comprehend.  Yes!  He longs for us with an aching heart we cannot begin to fathom.  Yes!  He is personal.  Yet in all of this He is still wholly other and set apart (the meaning for the words “holy” and “sacred”) for specific reverence, respect and communication.  Jesus came to show us how personal God is in contrast to what the law seemed to imply (which it didn’t, we just interpreted it this way), at the same time, never do we see Him suggesting God as common.

My conclusion?  Instead of grabbing onto a specific view of God and running with it we need to add it to our list of characteristics.  If a human being is both good and evil, happy and sad, successful and failing—and the list could go on—all at the same time, then God created multidimensional creatures capable of being many things at once.  If this is true of His creation, then what does it say about the Creator?

As to vows, I say we should stay away from them until we have some inkling as to what we are doing.  Much heartache and unneeded stress comes from ignorant promises.  A vow—any vow—before God is never to be taken lightly or left unfulfilled.

Circling the Block

December 12, 2011

Whatever has already been, and what will be has been before; and God will call the past into account.

And I saw something else under the sun:  In the place of judgment—wickedness was there, in the place of justice—wickedness was there.

I thought in my heart, “God will bring to judgment both the righteous and the wicked, for there will be a time for every activity, a time for every deed.”  Ecclesiastes 3:15-17.

Let’s digest this together for a bit, what ya’ say?

Before we go on I need to declare my belief and faith in this book as intrinsically factual and true.  This is an important statement because what comes next flies in the face of convention.

When we say we need to take an account of some part of our lives, business (social, economic or religious practices) or possessions/wealth, it’s the same as saying “take stock of…” in another context.  To check the accounts of financial records simply means adding and subtracting the ebb and flow of it in order to see if they balance out on the side of profit or loss.  It’s not that deep of a concept, really.  The phrase “take stock of” just needs to be dissected minimally to see from where it originates:  The stock house or room.  To check the stock means (I’m really not trying to insult your intelligence here, just focusing on why we use these phrases) to count what’s available or lacking.

Ok, why was that word study important to our take on the judgment?

God will take the past into account, meaning weigh up the good with the bad, right?  So if this is true, then what has to happen for the “financial” (in the spiritual sense, of course) to be in the black or at least even?  I can answer this from two perspectives, I think, with ease, but first let’s work with Solomon’s question from his worldview.

Habits are behaviors or attitudes which come back around on either a regular basis or when a stimulus of some sort pushes a specific habit button.  What has been will be again.  Though Solomon is probably speaking about inventions, conventions and human relationships or accomplishments, his words can also apply to our deeds.  Why else would he include the subject of the judgment in a discussion of things going around in a circle (or cycling back around) to reinvention?  But what caught my attention was how he looked at the judgment, so let’s dwell on that, since we’ve already discussed the repetition of history.

In the Jewish economy the law provided forgiveness through sacrifice, yet it required restitution through either paying four times the amount stolen, a payment of some type to those wronged by rape, accidental death or debt, and, finally, death in extreme cases where premeditated murder or violent theft occurred.  But in every case, repentance did bring mercy from God; the debt to Him could be paid through sacrifice.  I don’t know what happened in Solomon’s case since we aren’t given anything past this book and the accounts of Kings and Chronicles, but the book seems to suggest something happened at the end of his life to turn him back to his God.  Oddly enough this works for me, given the copious examples in Scripture of some real scoundrels receiving mercy.  A man who lived most of his life in pursuit of pleasure and wealth found it all to be meaningless at the end of a race he won by all accounts and standards.

From the perspective of one whose life is now hidden with Christ in God, it seems to me to be easier to find grace in the sludge of human relationships—at least from the One who counts.  In this case we know a grace Solomon could only hope for but had no chance to see.  If I stand on my own in the judgment, my life is weighed by how my deeds balance out.  The bad thing is:  If I sinned even once in my life, the sin outweighs everything else good I did by God’s accounting, so I’m lost anyway; so one tiny sin or an excessive amount matters little when coming to the judgment.

Yet here’s where it really gets good:  if I’m like the thief on the cross, about to die for a life of crime and violence, and repent with a sincere heart, the blood of Jesus covers me like a white wedding garment and all my stinkiness is erased.   In other words, His good outweighs the world’s bad by the infinite power of the death and resurrection of Christ.  His good is weighed on the scales of the nature of His being, the Son of God; which makes Him God as well (see John 10:31-38).  The infinite nature of God outweighs by infinity the rebellion it takes to deny Him, which is the essence of all sin.

Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord prevails in the accounting.  Like a good friend of mine, Jerome says constantly, “When someone asks me how I made it into the kingdom, I’m gonna’ say,  ‘I don’t know.  I’m with Him!’”  then he’d point over his right shoulder to signify Jesus.  That’s all we get in the judgment; it’s the all or nothing clause; it’s a winner (Jesus) take all (anyone who submits to Him and all creation) situation.  Nothing can be added to Him and certainly nothing taken away.

But there is one final addendum to this subject I’ve just begun to understand.  The issue of the reward for the righteous never really made it on my radar until a few years ago when I read it again in the book of Revelation.  I’m not going to go into this in depth right now, but what came out of it and every other text which speaks of this subject is that our salvation is guaranteed by the blood of Christ.  The crown and rewards in the kingdom however are based on the trend of our life in His service.  If the good outweighs the bad, we receive a reward; if not, we squeak through the fire of His judgment saved, but with the sludge of sin burned away and all that remains of our entire lives is the foundation of Christ and the apostles (refer to 1 Corinthians 3 for Paul’s illustration).

I’m good with that, how about you?

Lesson 490

October 21, 2011

            Then he said,  “Take the arrows,” and the king took them.  Elisha told him,  “Strike the ground.”  He struck it three times and stopped.  The man of God was angry with him and said,  “You should have struck the ground give or six times; then you would have defeated Aram and completely destroyed it.  But now you will defeat it only three times.”

 

In some ways we are operating in the dark here.  It’s not like we don’t have the guidelines for life spelled out clearly in Scripture, though the prophetic stuff sure messes some people up.  Our grasp of what is necessary is skewed by what we consider to be reality or truth.

When Louis Pasteur experimented with raw meat in an effort to determine whether flies and gnats spontaneously generated from it or not, his conclusion bucked hundreds of years of tradition.  If I remember my history correctly, he was derided by some as a charlatan and others objected on the basis of tradition.  Fast forward only a hundred years and no one believed the “tried and true” anymore because science had advanced beyond that simple experiment into discovering germs and other organisms so small that one had to use a microscope to see them.

So this means literally hundreds of years of practice were blown out of the water because of one man’s doubt about the accepted reality.  It means that much of what we believe about life might be so far off as to be night to day concerning what is really there.  It means Galileo died because ignorant people were more powerful than those with truth.  It means that subjective truth isn’t always accurate or even true.  It means we need to be more cautious about what we praise and what we criticize.  It means we need to question more things and doubt more so that we can actually enter into the realm of truth.

We can laugh or put Jehoash down for his failure and boast that we wouldn’t fail Elisha but the reality is our beliefs about any situation affects how we react to it.  I have no idea how I would respond to such a request outside the specific circumstances the king found himself in.  With my understanding of the story now I know the best choice because of Elisha’s reaction, but without hindsight to guide me I would be just as lost as to what needed to be done as this king.

Still, this doesn’t mean I can’t learn from the situation and move to correct my attitude in the future.  Jehoash failed to push through with all his might in a situation that didn’t demand much of him, yet cost him when it mattered.  This revealed his heart and attitude to be lacking in either strength of purpose or simple chutzpah.  Whatever the case, he failed because he just didn’t see the point.

I don’t get how to follow God all the time.  There are situations where I have absolutely no idea how to proceed.  There come circumstances where I think I know what God wants and it turns out I’m assuming in my human nature completely outside His thinking.  I get lost at times with His will because I want miracles over sweat, success over opposition and a sense of well-being over the feeling of being on the outside.

The conundrum, of course, is that we are always on the outside if we follow Jesus.  To operate within the bounds of spiritual minded wisdom, we have to think completely outside our own box.  Yet His operation procedures aren’t really outside our parameters since we live by faith no matter what we do.  Think about it:  When we get in the car and turn the key, we expect it to start by faith in the system and people who designed it—and probably personal experience.  In reality we have no idea how the wear and tear on the vehicle affects it and thus our faith might be misplaced at some point in time.  When Paul tells us God works all things to the good of those who love Him, then life explodes with terrible stuff outside our control, we are told to hold on in faith, which is not easy, given our broken trust bone.

Do you see what I’m driving at?  The choice to have faith in God can’t be based on whether the “car” starts when we expect it to or not, for it will let us down at some point.  Our faith must be placed in something higher, more substantial and considerably more stable than a machine given over to entropy.  If God is the same yesterday, today and forever, then something must adjust in our thinking for us to live that way and trust this is true.  If we can do all things through Christ who gives us strength, then our job is to submit to His mind so that we can thrive in the world not merely exist.

Jesus promised His disciples a full life, then, through Paul, expanded that promise of supply beyond what we can think or ask.  To live in the now as if life were full we have to reshape our thinking or it becomes impossible.  The full life cannot be had just by asking for it, we have to be open to the all things and possibilities or it’s just words.  Also, what advantage is there in belonging to Jesus if we live like slaves, act like victims, look at the world through jaundiced eyes and demonstrate a hate or loathing for all things created outside of heaven?  What makes anyone in the world who doesn’t know much about Jesus except that He died for our sins and (as Christians claim) rose again want this life we claim is so much better…if we’re clearly miserable?

Without some selling point none of us will ever buy a product.  It must meet our needs or it rots by the wayside.  The same is true for the gospel.

Where does grace enter into this scenario for us post Christ’s resurrection?

Well, here’s the kicker:  to my knowledge there are still no “do-overs” offered in Christian theology or anywhere in the NT.  So where does that leave us with the lesson above?

Though we don’t get repeats or a chance to retry something specific, the overall outcome of the situation might still be salvaged if we change our attitude and methods.  Granted there are some things we will never change but that isn’t always the problem we’re facing overall.  It’s how we live, think, and breathe that matter here not our successes or failures.  No one lives in the highs constantly nor do we wallow in the lows without choosing to because normal, humdrum, mundane life usually takes over at some point.  If we have a job, we still go there everyday we’re scheduled.  If we have dishes to wash, we still have to wash them.  The realities of life never leave us and it’s in between the highs and lows everybody lives more consistently.

The troubling thing about human nature, however, isn’t our existence but our expectations.  One of the defining characteristics of an addict in my experience is their insatiable expectation that they either deserve or should be able to sustain the high at all times.  The fail point for this expectation comes from the plateau or leveling out at a certain state of mind or body.  In other words, if we use pot twice a day, for example, that will come to feel “normal” for both our body and mind so that we plateau at that physical state which then becomes our norm.  To feel any different from our norm we have to do something more.  This continued desire for the high will eventually lead to overdosing and death because it’s not sustainable for the body to remain in a drugged state over long periods of time.

The same can be said of our spiritual being.  A constant euphoria (or desire for such) from revival or praise will become normal to us and our expectations of God will beg for something new to happen so that we can experience the spiritual “high”.  Unfortunately, God didn’t make us for the spiritual high as a constant state of being, which disappoints the spiritual partiers because they believe this is what being spiritual means.  The reality of God’s creation fails to register with them at all.  Normal existence was designed by Him to result in a daily routine, while the highs of taste, touch, orgasm, color, or smell, are all there to be experienced in doses of joy not as an unvarying condition.  Otherwise, the high loses its effect and we lose the fun.

Here’s where mercy, grace and forgiveness enter in.

Grace covers our inability to make the grade.  So if we don’t know what to do with the “arrows” God hands us to strike the ground with, it isn’t the end of the story.  Our growth is the point of mercy, grace and the cross.  To grow period means to fail somewhere in the journey, because failure is a part of learning how to walk both in the physical and spiritual realms.  Birds don’t fly the moment they leave the egg.  Neither can we expect to grasp the spiritual truths in one fell swoop.  It’s ludicrous and dangerous to preach or contemplate any other reality than the one God demonstrated in the disciples and Scripture in general.

Grace presents an offer to strike the “arrows” again. Oh, may be not in the same way, but certainly in a similar or, often times, greater situation than before.  We will fail because we’re sinners saved by grace, and that not of ourselves, it is a gift of God.  So when our personal Armenians threaten attack, we might fail and wet ourselves.  Yet that is not the end of our journey in Christ; this is not the defining moment in our history.  We die to self daily and live to Christ eternally.

Within the Bounds of Determination

October 11, 2011

Now Elisha was suffering from the illness from which he died.  Jehoash king of Israel went down to see him and wept over him.  “My father!  My father!”  he cried.  “The chariots and horsemen of Israel!”

            Elisha said,  “Get me a bow and some arrows,”  and he did so.  “Take the bow in your hands,”  he said to the king of Israel.  When he had taken it, Elisha put his hands on the king’s hands.

            “Open the east window,”  he said, and he opened it.  “Shoot!”  Elisha said, and he shot.  “The Lord’s arrow of victory, the arrow of victory over Aram!”  Elisha declared.  “You will completely destroy the Arameans of Aphek.”

            Then he said,  “Take the arrows,” and the king took them.  Elisha told him,  “Strike the ground.”  He struck it three times and stopped.  The man of God was angry with him and said,  “You should have struck the ground give or six times; then you would have defeated Aram and completely destroyed it.  But now you will defeat it only three times.”

            Elisha died and was buried.  2 Kings 13:14-20a.

 

This story has been bouncing around in my mind for a long time, and though I’ve used it as an illustration a time or two, I have never just worked it over completely.  It might take a while for me to explore the nuances of the story, but I plan to come back to it every now and again to update my understanding.

What I get out of it now is this:

The king comes to Elisha with a seemingly insurmountable problem—he’s worried his army won’t be enough to beat the Arameans, and he’s probably right.  Jehoash lacked character by dent of his idolatry and devotion to power and pleasure.  In the four verses preceding this story we see this king imitated the ways of Jeroboam, who led Israel into idolatry and some pretty evil practices.  So Jehoash is already a conflicted man when he comes to Elisha as a new king, which divides both his loyalty to God and hurts his determination to lead.

Since Jehoash has been born into privilege, there’s more than a little likelihood he’s also not very disciplined as far as being a leader and example to his own people.  His father wasn’t that great a king and also ignored the God of Israel to his own destruction.  All this to say, it doesn’t take a geneticist or psychiatrist to figure out the son failed from lack of character.

Still, he came to the one person who could probably have helped him, Elisha.  Significant actions on the part of even those who don’t follow God with their whole hearts declare what they truly believe.  Jehoash might have been given over to the temples of other gods for the convenience of the pleasure it afforded not really out of devotion.  When the chips were down, the invading army at the door, and his head in a noose, he came to the one person who could give him any kind of advice or connection with real power.

The first part of Elisha’s prophecy must have filled the king with gratitude and hope—“The arrow of the Lord!”  What happens next should have warned him but it didn’t.  Whether he was so elated by being the “arrow of the Lord” or just simply too spiritually dense to grasp Elisha’s actions, we’ll never know.  I’m going with both, since human nature tends to follow well worn paths. Whatever the case, he failed the test.  I looked up the word “strike” (which is “smite” in the KJV) and it has a variety of connotations but the main meaning is to “touch” or “wound” depending on its context.  In one instance of its use, the story of Abimelech and Sarah (Abraham’s wife), it indicated sexual contact, which illustrates the striking nature of touch in the act of sex in the Eastern mindset.  I believe in this case, Jehoash wasn’t asked to break the arrows but to strike the ground with enough force to show determination.  I also think from Elisha’s response, he probably should’ve broken them.

At this point, I have to say, I feel a lot of sympathy for Jehoash.  I don’t know what I would’ve done in his place exactly, though to be honest, I probably would’ve kept beating the arrows on the ground until Elisha told me to stop.  I follow commands pretty well, I just don’t always grasp the underlying limits of them unless the one who gives them verbalizes them.  At the same time, I can honestly say I wouldn’t have known what to expect/do either.  May be there’s a nuance I’m missing about the Jewish thinking here, but the fact that Jehoash stopped speaks loud and clear he didn’t get the point either.

There are probably more options than I will list but these are probable reasons I think he stopped:

 

  1. Arrows were hard to make so you just didn’t break them or damage them without good reason
  2. His head was spinning with worry about the impending invasion and being a new king, so his focus was a little off.
  3. Elisha didn’t specify in his instructions what to do other than strike the floor, Jehoash might have hit the floor three times then stopped to look up and check with the prophet.
  4. He lacked enthusiasm for the prophet’s input and instructions.
  5. He lacked conviction in his own life which led him to be half-assed about everything.

 

I can’t think of anymore right now, but you get the idea.  How we approach each directive may or may not have to do with past experience such as over the top enthusiasm got us laughed at in school, we broke something that required a delicate hand so our gung ho moves worked against us, or we just aren’t that type of person in general.  Whatever the truth about us, we all react differently to these kinds of instructions.

How determined are we to follow the Lord’s will, instructions or be conformed to His mind?  Think about this story today and ask yourself,  “Would I have broken the arrows?”

The Truth About Anxiety

September 15, 2011

What does a man get for all the toil and anxious striving with which he labors under the sun?  All his days his work is pain and grief; even at night his mind does not rest.  This too is meaningless.

A man can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in his work.  This too, I see, is from the hand of God, for without Him, who can eat or find enjoyment.  Ecclesiastes 2:22-24.

 

Jesus said,  “Don’t worry…” for a reason—it’s chasing the wind.  When we worry about what hasn’t happened or what might happen, our perspective becomes constricted and obsessed with the problem, which makes seeing the solution a lot harder.  Jesus’ teaching on worry might not have been taken directly out of this text but the relationship between the two cannot be ignored.

Oddly enough Solomon spells out the problem with way humans think by asking the question, What does a man get for all the toil and anxious striving with which he labors under the sun?  All his days his work is pain and grief; even at night his mind does not rest.  Thus he defines Jesus’ point for Him by expounding on the nature of those who worry about useless stuff.

It’s a poignant question:  What does a man gain from all the toil and anxious striving?

My first answer is heart disease and mental breakdown.

The second answer is much more complicated because this lifestyle demands certain things of us which have nothing to do with happiness or finding enjoyment.  I’ve known plenty of people who work like there’s no tomorrow yet find no sense of fun in their efforts.  The intensity with which they push for their goals is almost admirable except that they hate their lives pretty much.  I’ve known so many workaholics who condemn anyone who isn’t as miserable and driven as they are.  At the end of the day, there has to be some sense of satisfaction with our work or what’s the point?

Now while I agree with a good work ethic and healthy pursuit of our dreams or goals, those who worry about things that can’t be controlled by anybody are simply chasing the wind.  It says something about a society when the prevalent social norm is telling people you can accomplish anything you set out to do no matter what, when the reality is no where near that simple.  We all know this conundrum to be true but most people rarely think it through.

For instance, say a woman builds her business up to where it’s successful by anyone’s standard.  One day her warehouse is robbed and the next her store is burned to the ground.  The cost of rebuilding is prohibitive even with insurance, so she’s ruined and now not able to rebuild her business back to where it was because it will take nearly two years to get the financing and inventory up enough just to open the doors, not to mention to the place she was before the disaster struck.  All of her work and striving came to nothing due to situations completely outside her control.  Yet who thinks about this type of stuff?  Worriers, that’s who!  On the same note, however, if the woman had inventory she hadn’t paid for because she was waiting for sales to take care of the credit card, she’s not only lost her means to pay but become a liability to the credit company through no fault of her own.  The vicious cycle of losing is as unpredictable as the winner’s circle.

I believe both Solomon and Jesus argued for the purpose of mankind in a subtle way.  The fact that the basics of our existence seems to be a theme both emphasized should give us a clue about our own purpose.  If we are to find enjoyment in our work, then working at anything but that which fulfills us must also be outside God’s plan for us.  In other words, those who go into a career just for the money do so outside of God’s design for their lives because a life is more than our possessions or means.  On the other hand, if our career path leads us into greater and greater income, I don’t think that’s outside of God’s “plan” necessarily, it’s just a perk of the path we’re on.

I’m a musician, so my bent is artistic and rather impractical by most people’s standards since there’s no guaranteed income.  Yet, if people like me didn’t exist, the music we all listen to on our iPods and whatnot wouldn’t exist either.  It takes these “impractical” boneheaded people who don’t adhere to the business minded world to create that which entertains us.  The fact that some end up being mega hits and others don’t is simply the luck of the draw, or from specific interference from on high (or below depending on the influence).  I don’t believe every success story out there was directly promoted or influenced by God.  He set in motion certain rules of conduct and nature which, if adhered to loosely or even strictly, usually equal some form of return.  This doesn’t mean we will see a guaranteed return on all our investments, but we will see something.

So worry, anxiety and toil without finding enjoyment or satisfaction are not God’s plan for us.  Telling, isn’t it, that some of the most driven dissatisfied people I know are followers of the Way.  For some reason we’ve come to believe that our happiness doesn’t matter to God at all just because it’s not His number one priority.  This book of wisdom debunks that notion by telling us that a man can do no more than fall in line with how God created the world to operate.  Anyone who gives in to the anxiety of toil has set themselves up as a little god on earth, for only a belief that I control my destiny by my own power over all circumstances and people keeps me on such a path.  The lie of this belief is so obvious none of us admit to believing it in a discussion of the facts.  Our daily routine and attitude tell a different tale altogether, however.

To find peace, harmony and a sense of satisfaction and happiness we must let go of trying to be gods and let God be in charge.  Our attitudes and routine must align with the reality He made or we can kiss contentment goodbye.

The Best of the Uselss Choices

September 12, 2011

I saw that wisdom is better than folly, just as light is better than darkness.  The wise man has eyes in his head, while the fool walks in darkness; but I came to realize that the same fate overtakes them both.  Ecclesiastes 2:13, 14.

 

Remember Solomon is speaking from a point of no eternal hope.  He has no knowledge of Jesus or any real understanding of redemption as we know it because that revelation had not been born or even clarified until Isaiah’s time.  I’ve heard critiques of his POV and wondered how anyone would think to dismiss the truth in his words just because he lacked the knowledge of salvation in its revelation through Christ.  I know that in past discussions on this blog I’ve called the Jewish leaders on the carpet for rejecting Jesus, but they were different in some respects to Solomon for they watched a revelation unfold in front of their eyes and still chose to crucify Him.  Their POV held more value to them than the God they claimed to serve.

Solomon’s wisdom guided him to experiment with life, sure, and he failed God badly, but in the end this book declares the simple profound truth of what he discovered about our bottom line as humans.  In this declaration he left nothing to doubt but openly stated God should be our number one priority.  By this statement of loyalty, I see a sliver of hope for redemption for this wayward king.  I know the story, but I think this book opens a window into this man’s soul, jaded, bitter and remorseful as it was.  I believe, though, had he met Jesus, wisdom would’ve won him over to follow Him.  It might seem to be an assumption on my part, yet look at the evidence written here in the book and you’ll see this man was guided by wisdom.  The only wisdom which exists comes from God and even those who don’t acknowledge ours as Lord of the universe cannot attain any platform of wisdom without tapping into His mind directly or indirectly.

The difference wisdom brings to a life over one of foolishness is being able to see versus being left in the dark.  Clarity brings a certain satisfaction to it that ignorance can never attain.  The old sarcastic saying, “Ignorance is bliss,” communicates the stark line between reality and fantasy.  The wise at least are able to enjoy all that life has to offer without being ruled by anything.  In other words, though the wise understand the futility of chasing the temporary pleasures of life on earth, they also know that these pleasures are supplied by God for mankind to enjoy.  They were never meant to be lasting things, so trying to capture them is chasing the wind.

 

So I hated life, because the work that is done under the sun was grievous to me.  All of it is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.  I hated all the things I had toiled for under the sun, because I must leave them to the one who comes after me.  And who knows whether he will be a wise man or a fool?  Yet he will have control over all the work into which I have poured my effort and skill under the sun.  This too is meaningless.  2:17-19.

 

The wise man dies and leaves all he worked so hard for to someone else—not knowing whether his successor will treat it wisely or squander it foolishly.  There’s something to this which is best understood in verse 22-24:

 

What does a man get for all the toil and anxious striving with which he labors under the sun?  All his days his work is pain and grief; even at night his mind does not rest.  This too is meaningless.

            A man can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in his work.  This too, I see, is from the hand of God, for without Him, who can eat or find enjoyment.

 

The problem with those given over to death is that our Designer never intended us for sin, which in turn means we weren’t designed to die.  Our accomplishments were meant to be enjoyed forever as we grew into more and more able projects.  The heart which sins dies; and any heart which is born under our sun is subject to sin therefore subject to death, which brings futility with it.

But do you see how smoothly Solomon brought God into the picture?  He makes it abundantly clear that a man cannot find satisfaction or enjoyment without Him.  This is what convinces me that Solomon repented at the end of his life because he writes this truth down for his posterity to ponder.  He’d spent his life searching out what was good for man to do under heaven and finally comes to this conclusion, which is quite telling coming from such a wealthy and accomplished man.  Yet he adds a promise to his statement above that takes us one step further into God’s mind, verse 26:

 

To the man who pleases Him, God gives wisdom, knowledge and happiness, but to the sinner He gives the task of gathering and storing up wealth to hand it over the one who pleases God.  This to is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.

 

How this works out for those who follow God is not clarified in Solomon’s statement of God’s intent.  As a follower of Christ I know how the promise works itself out in the end.  Solomon saw a bare glimpse of the fact in his day from a limited perspective of the works of God.  Jesus revealed the true meaning behind these words by showing us the wealth of God grew in our spirits—those who worship Him will do so in spirit and in truth.  What we possess or own is of little consequence to God, rather the truest form of wealth is in who we are in Christ; that pearl of great price, the treasure we would sacrifice all we have to obtain.

Still, even in the temporary wealth we gain on earth, the promise of wisdom, knowledge and happiness proves a sure thing.  Yet we need to clarify at this point just who the sinner is in contrast to the man who pleases God.  Through Christ we know a righteousness based on faith and not works —for without faith it is impossible to please Him.  Therefore this promise is for those who walk by faith in Christ for they alone please God.  We are all sinners, for sure, but those found to have a righteousness not of their own but through Jesus move from death to life—the greatest treasure of all.

Let This Be So…

August 8, 2011

To our God and Father be glory for ever and ever.  Amen.  Philippians 4:20.

 

Paul wrote a thank-you letter to the Philippi church.  Almost every word written spoke to his desire to encourage and stabilize their community, small as it was.  He started out greeting them and ends with another.  These people were more than just acquaintances they were family.

His instructions to them came from a concern he held for all the churches—pure gospel and deliverance from not only sin but the tyranny of idolatry in the guise of pleasing God.  For that’s what legalism really is—the setting up of man’s efforts to please God through man’s methods.  Oh, we give lip service to the law and whatnot, but really we’re out to either save our own necks or earn that extra bit of reward and honor at the Great Supper of the Lamb.

One of the reasons I love the letter to the Philippians so much is that it troubleshoots statements made to other churches which would otherwise lead us down another understanding.  Paul delves deep into Christian growth in all his letters but never does he deal a blow to man’s wisdom as much as he does in the instructions to this church.  Every one of his points refocuses our attention on the whole reason for the gospel in the first place:  reconciliation with God and mankind.

What’s so different about his take on it all, though, is he knows none of us can accomplish the necessary changes in our natures to pull it off.  The confession that he himself had not attained perfection or a sinless state at the time of the letter testifies to the fact he didn’t expect anyone else to either.  If I summed up his point to the Philippians in one terse statement, it would be “stop being anxious and grow up in Christ!”

The rest of the message is not simply a self-help how-to manual but the only way to be like Jesus.  When Paul tells them, Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus…, he’s not giving them a suggestion but a definitive description of the mind of Jesus.  In the NT “amen” means “let this be true” or “let it be so,” or in our modern vernacular it could be said like “that’s a fact.”  Paul wants them to catch the attitude demonstrated in the cross, for our natural tendencies lead to be self-serving, be self-gratifying and to worry about self-preservation over any form of sacrifice.

If we have nothing for which we need to worry or be anxious about because God will supply all our needs, then the attitude of Christ makes sense.  If we can’t trust God with our present or future needs, then fear and anxiety make sense, because it’s all on us.  If, however, we experience God’s provision and contentment, any anxiety on our part becomes foolish and faithless.

Yet, I know God understands where we come from and how far we have to go in this journey of faith.  It’s not like we can just snap our fingers and be changed over night.  I also don’t think that this instant kind of change brings about the necessary heart adjustments failure does.  To clarify that last point:  our efforts to be like Jesus almost always fail when we attempt them in our own strength; we learn more from this failure than we do from our success.  Yet without the Spirit to guide our efforts, we will fail to retain the mind of Christ, trading it for a form of godliness while denying the power.  However, once we submit, the change is a natural state of mind because He begins to live in us as the only God in charge (as opposed to our attempts to be little gods).  Once He lives in us, our efforts to be like Him don’t come from any human methodologies or self-help lists but from the sheer power of His glory in our hearts.  Where Jesus lives as the reigning power, sin holds no sway.  Yet this state of being is a progression not an instantaneous one.  The word “growth” implies progressive stages of being.  In other words, we don’t begin the journey of faith with anything but what Jesus called a “mustard seed” sized faith, which grows into a big plant.

Submission doesn’t come natural to us, though it is the very essence of our growth in Christ.  If we are to grow at all, submission must be the first act of righteousness we perform.  Resisting the devil doesn’t come from our confronting him but our submission to God.  By default the positive action of submitting to God automatically resists the devil; drawing near to God draws us away from the devil.  Instead we somehow buy into the “truth” that we are strong enough to beat our own natures by methods bastardized from Christian teachings.  In another book Paul warns the prevalent attitude of the last days would have a form of godliness but deny the power.  When we attempt to use Christ’s teachings while subtracting Him from command we will fail.  The only way to success in Christ is complete utter submission to Him.

Paul ends the letter with “Amen” or in our language, “let this be a fact.”  I desire more than ever that the mind of Christ take over mine in order that I might rightly divide His word and demonstrate His life.

Let this be so.

A Fragrant Offering

August 4, 2011

And my God will meet all your needs according to His glorious riches in Christ Jesus.  Philippians 4:19.

 

This is a pivotal life verse for me.  It’s one of the promises most likely to keep me from panicking when things don’t go as expected; and, of course, thwarted expectations are the key to understanding why we panic or get stressed at all.

The context centers on the offering the Philippians sent Paul.  He’s been supplied by them time and again, which tends to make a person grateful after a while.  The promised blessing grows out of their willingness to be a blessing to others, and herein lies the secret to Paul’s declaration of God’s supply.

The discussion of their gift to Paul at various stages of his ministry followed by the promise that God will supply their needs explains how and why this is true.  It isn’t enough that they believe in God or that they have the right understanding of the cross or even that they are nice people.  Where the rubber meets the road for God’s work in their lives is in their generosity.  In one sense, this spirit of giving tells the tale of their transformed hearts and declares their faith in action.  In another sense, it can be viewed as an investment with returns.  As they expend generously for the cause of Christ they open themselves up for the blessing of heaven—not only in goods and services but in connection to the Almighty.

The heavenly rewards are based on works, though eternal life is not.  What I mean is everywhere in the Bible the reward of accepting God/Christ is life, yes, but there are additional medals of honor given to those who stand for Christ through exceptionally harsh circumstances.  1 Corinthians 3 speaks to the house we build on the foundation of Christ and the apostles.  The teacher lays the foundation of Christ as the measuring line for it, of which the apostles make up the rest along with the prophets, then the person building the spiritual house (which can symbolize either an individual or church) must be careful what materials he or she uses.  The materials available are not only the doctrines but the works of Christ lived out and designed to declare who’s house it is.

Some might decry this idea as legalism, but as far as I am concerned, it’s the furthest thing from it.  Salvation is free to all, the rewards of a righteous life are not.  To receive a reward for a righteous life one must live a righteous life.  I know it sounds elementary to some, but the confusion around the teaching of rewards and punishment set off a lot of rabbit trailing ideas meant to clarify the subject which instead just muddy the waters.  The pursuit of righteousness has given us many crazy doctrinal bylaws and denominations.  The monastic design set out to accomplish the unhindered pursuit of God but ended up being something else many times entirely.  Jesus spoke to it when He spoke about the sheep and the goats—the former ministered to widows, orphans and gave generously, the latter ignored the world and its problems.  Both the sheep and goats claimed the name of Jesus as their identity, yet only one was declared a friend of God.

1 John 2:6 Whoever claims to live in Him must walk as Jesus did.

Walking is a physical activity—even spiritually.  Jesus traveled the country blessing others and taking care of His world.  He also taught faithful, earnest passionate pursuit of heavenly things and God; none of which is merely cerebral.  The practical nature of God’s law shouts out how well He designs things.  Sure, the Law couldn’t make us righteous but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t righteous.  Any problems we have with it didn’t come from it but from our sinful natures.

One of the problems I find in my own psyche is that my values in spiritual things are completely backwards.  See if God really is my Father and I’m an heir to everything in Christ, then worrying about supply is crazy.  Again, if God tells us we are His children and He’s gonna’ supply our needs, then anxiety over them is silly.  It would be like my son worrying about whether or not I’ll feed him at lunch time even though he knows full well we have food in the fridge and elsewhere.  We know God promised to feed, water and clothe us what else do we actually need?

In our minds, quite a lot.

It’s futility in the practical aspects of the story when we think somehow our faith is solid yet worry or grow anxious about our needs.  If the God we serve doesn’t come through, then we have something to worry about.  If we see ample evidence He does, then any anxiety on our part comes straight from distrust.  We cannot simultaneously trust and distrust God or anyone else.  Oh we might be able to selectively trust someone but total trust is out.

The big thing for me is following through on the belief that God will supply all my needs, without concerning myself with how.  What I’m finding out about myself tells the tale of someone who believes his “needs” encompass more than God promises.  God never promised a TV in every household nor did He ever promised prosperity beyond the basic needs.  Where all these twists in expectations come from is our own desire for security and prosperity in the here and now.  Remember the story of Lazarus and the rich man?  One sought to be well thought of in the here and now, while the other was poverty stricken and an outcast.

Before anyone thinks I’m condemning wealth or the wealthy, think again.  Paul’s warning to Timothy rings true, however, to the point we need to sober up and recognize our own pursuit of self-fulfillment many times mirrors the attitude of those who run after wealth.

 

But godliness with contentment is great gain.  For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it.  But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that.  People who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction.  For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.  Some people, eager for money have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.  1 Timothy 6:6-10.

 

The warning here could not be more timely in our study of Philippians for the values of the world infiltrate the church through wolves disguised as sheep and pierce the church with grief the Lord never intended His people to go through.  Rejection by the world is hard enough, being told one’s faith is not enough because we can’t pay the bills is a burden beyond comparison.  But the Word of God is sharper than any two edged sword and divides the truth from lies, light from darkness and reality from fantasy.

When Paul claims God will meet all your needs according to His glorious riches in Christ Jesus, he means just that, nothing more, nothing less.  We need to stop comparing our status, possessions or anything else to the world’s value system.  Our only rule for what is profitable is the Word of God demonstrated in our crucified and risen Lord.  Anything or anyone else who sidesteps this essential monolith of the Christian life and doctrine strips the cross and the resurrection of their power and makes both a lie.

The reward promised to the Philippians was that God would meet all their needs, right?  The reason is their hearts were generous towards Him and the offering they gave to Him through Paul went up to heaven like a fragrant offering.  Our giving to the saints in the pursuit of God’s will smells good to heaven and the rewards are He will meet all our needs according to His glorious riches in Christ Jesus.  If you have food and clothing, God has met your needs and you can consider yourself rich.