January 17th, 2019

The Problem with Restraint

Judges 4:2 “So the LORD sold them into the hands of Jabin, a king of Canaan” (NIV).

Observation: Ehud delivered Israel from its Moabite enemy. He had personally killed the Moabite king and then led the Israelite army to victory over Moab, ushering in an eighty-year reign of peace for the nation (see Judg. 3:30). Following Ehud’s death, Israel began sinning again, leading the Lord to “sell” them into the hands of a Canaanite king.

Application: Apparently the peace that followed Ehud’s victory led to wanton idolatry after his death. Ehud was no doubt a good ruler, but the quick turning to sinful behavior after his death suggests that he may have been more feared than was God. We are told nothing of Ehud’s methods of ruling, but restraint clearly died with him, exposing once again the unredeemed hearts of the people.

The striking phrase to consider in all this is that “the Lord sold” them. How can a free people be sold? The following verses indicate that Israel was militarily oppressed, yet the specific language here suggests a people enslaved, not defeated, although defeat surely accompanied enslavement. What is this saying to us? Weren’t the Hebrews living in the Promised Land? Hadn’t they been established there as a free people rescued from Egyptian bondage generations earlier? A people truly free could never be sold; only from enslavement could that occur.

Eighty years of peace had obviously not been used to cultivate a deepening relationship with God. That’s the problem with long stretches of peace. My best growth has occurred not on life’s mountaintops, but in its dark valley recesses. The question bears asking: am I any different from these Hebrews? What is the quality of my secret life in God? Does it govern my mind and heart even when no one is looking, or do I pursue sinful habits when I am convinced no one will know? An honest assessment of my heart in concealment is far more accurate than during exposure.

I have learned to look good outwardly, to be well mannered, and to appear an honest citizen. But it is in the darkness, in my alone moments, when my true character is exposed. It is then that I know whether I am enslaved to some dark practice or truly free in Christ. He died for a far higher purpose than to simply reform my behavior; His purpose is to capture my heart. A heart once fully captivated can no longer incline toward slavery; instead, it will revel in intimacy with God and long for even more. My secret life in Christ must explode into greater realms of joy as my identification with Him is complete.

Prayer: Father, who or what are the restraining Ehuds in my life? Show me, Lord. What will be left of my character when Ehud is gone? I willingly crucify those things that stunt my character. Thank You, Lord, for Your finished work.

January 16th, 2019

Serving Up Turkeys

Joshua 21:44 “The LORD gave them rest on every side, just as he had sworn to their forefathers. Not one of their enemies withstood them; the LORD handed all their enemies over to them” (NIV).

Observation: The tribes of Reuben, Gad, and Manasseh had been in Canaan fighting alongside the rest of the nation to possess the Promised Land. Those national campaigns now concluded, these tribes prepared to return to their homes east of the Jordan. At this point we read this curious verse: they had rest, no enemies withstood them, and the Lord handed their enemies over to them.

Application: The verse seems possessed by internal conflicts. We are on the one hand told that they were given rest, suggesting secure borders and defeated enemies all around. The same breath that asserts rest, however, also states that none of their enemies withstood them. Which was it? Were they at rest, or were they busied withstanding enemies? Surely both cannot be true, can they?

The passage seems to indicate that powerful attempts were made to defeat the fledgling nation, to no avail. Attacks had been withstood, overwhelmed, utterly defeated. How restful could that have been? But insight comes with the last phrase, shedding light on how a warring army can be at rest in the midst of battle: the Lord handed their enemies over to them. This is not to suggest that Israel’s army reclined at banquet as angelic beings flew in from the front lines serving enemies on platters like so many turkeys. No, this was an army fully engaged in warfare. Taking possession of the land God intended them to own required active fighting. Yet in the midst of battle, they relied confidently upon His superior abilities to empower them.

Something akin to this must accompany troops avenging terror attacks today, a sense of being in the right, backed by overwhelming superiority. Despite ever-present danger, regardless of the heart-stopping adrenalin rush, confidence in their cause surely grants a sense of rest even as they war. What of the battles I now fight? Do I find myself striving in fear and sleeplessness, or am I enveloped in a cocoon of confidence in His ultimate victory? Do I fully engage the battles yet trust in Him, or have I elbowed God aside to fight this particular enemy in my own strength? At day’s end, am I fearful and exhausted, drenched in the sweat of self-effort, or am I truly at rest? Joshua understood the nation’s source of effectiveness in battle. Do I?

Prayer: Lord Jesus, it is by You that restful victory comes. No legions of chariots nor scores of the latest weaponry will suffice. No amount of self-righteousness nor even the best lawyer’s arguments in my defense can produce rest amidst battle. Only You can, Lord. Only You.

January 15th, 2019

Better Than a Wizard

Psalm 47:2, 7-9 “How awesome is the LORD Most High, the great King over all the earth! . . . For God is the King of all the earth. . . . God reigns over the nations. . . . The kings of the earth belong to God” (NIV).

Observation: This celebratory psalm demands universal praise to God, praise from all nations, all people, and recognition by every king on earth that they belong to Him. We see here images of nations called to clap and shout for joy (see Ps. 47:1); we picture Him ascending His throne amid whoops of praise and sounding trumpets (see v. 5). All people, nobles, kings—everyone is called to exalt the Lord.

Application: David’s language is precise yet exuberant almost to the point of being otherworldly. He presents a God who is worthy of all praise, worship, and honor. He is above all a God who desires to be known and revealed to the hearts and minds of all mankind. This is no wizard hiding behind a curtain, wildly pulling strings and pushing knobs to appear impressive. No, He has completely removed the curtain, ripping it from top to bottom at Christ’s crucifixion. Now none are exempt from His call to passionate, unsurpassed praise. Every noble, every king, from the most benign to the profoundly evil, is owned by Him.

This is not one of those passages whose depth will be revealed in a quick reading before rushing to work. Rather, it demands quiet contemplation. God is calling us who much of the time live with locked hearts, to soar to new levels of release in consideration of His attributes. In the revelation of the beauty and majesty of my bridegroom God, my woundings don’t fade into insignificance; they are offered up to the one who suffered ultimate wounding in my behalf. In His presence fear isn’t simply dimmed; it is obliterated. When I command my spirit to purposefully contemplate what God says about Himself, my pain and resentment are washed away. When I give myself extended time to consider the goodness and depth of His character, my own limitations are replaced by identity with one who is limitless.

The reality is, I was made to be just like Him. In the councils of God before the beginning of time He purposed to love what he would create out of dirt—you and me. Amazing. To do that, He reveals glimpses of Himself so that through Christ I might assume His attributes. This psalm and others like it, sets a standard for worship. He calls me upward toward identification with Him even as my old flesh is given over to death.

Prayer: O Lord, You are worthy of all worship. I gaze upon Your beauty and am overcome by Your majesty and glory. How I praise You for Your excellence, Your mercies, and Your passionate pursuit of me. Thank You! Thank You!

January 14th, 2019

The Old Heave-Ho

I Corinthians 8:12 “When you sin against your brothers in this way and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ” (NIV).

Observation: In this short chapter Paul warned of problems caused when we act from our knowledge base without first bathing our actions in love. Using the metaphor of food sacrificed to idols, Paul recognized that a mature believer could well understand there is nothing inherently damaging to her life in Christ by eating such food. It contained no mystical properties, and could therefore be safely consumed. However if in the eating, a less mature Christian were to see her friend at the idol’s table, her own conscience might be blunted, thus increasing her potential to fall into future sin. So Paul admonished that knowledge isn’t enough. We must approach confidence in our own freedom in a spirit of love for the less mature so their weak consciences might avoid wounding.

Application: Does Paul seem to be straining to make a point? After all, knowledge is one of the spiritual gifts, isn’t it? Are we not encouraged repeatedly in Scripture to develop knowledge of the precepts of God? Think of it this way: We are each at a different place in our spiritual journey. Paul was simply making the very reasonable point that with maturity should come the realization that love trumps all.

Our every decision to operate in freedom must be run through a sieve of love. Only actions that can penetrate the sieve are acceptable in light of how the less mature among us might be impacted. Dross thus caught may not be personally harmful but ought to be avoided for the sake of how others might view it.

An example in our family occurred when our children were young. Dear friends were visiting, and since we had no permanent television in our home, everyone was excited to see our friends’ rented video on the portable TV. The movie had played only a few minutes before I became so offended at the foul language invading our home that I unplugged the TV and gave it the old heave-ho over the deck railing where it remained for the balance of the summer. Love requires that we act in a way that guards the hearts and minds of others so as to prize their efforts toward righteousness over my confident freedom. Here may be a useful test: if I knew that my impressionable young child saw what I was looking at or heard what I was hearing or did what I was doing, would it change what I chose to see, hear, or do? Moment by moment, these things do matter.

Prayer: Lord Jesus, You call me to a standard much higher than mere knowledge. You require that I moderate my behavior for the benefit of others. Increase my discernment toward areas of my life that might cause another to stumble. Thank You, Lord.

January 13th, 2019

Death’s Sweetness

Joshua 18:3 “How long will you wait before you begin to take possession of the land that the LORD has given you?” (NIV).

Observation: The nation had entered the Promised Land and it was time for the tribes to establish themselves in regions of their own. A few tribes had already received their inheritance, but seven remained passive, making no effort to move into their special places. To them Joshua asked, “How long will you wait before you begin to possess what God has already given?”

Application: This remarkable verse plumbs the depths of the mysterious partnership God wants with each of us. Are we to be warriors or glad recipients of God’s largess? Yes. Are we to step out in boldness or wait on Him? Both. It is in both the substance and the timing of our assignment that we achieve perfect oneness with the heart and mind of God. From the tone of Joshua’s question, the seven hesitant tribes seem to have lingered too long.

I can see myself in those Hebrew tribes, sometimes moving smartly out to claim God’s promises, other times hanging back, needing a firm shove toward the finish line. Sometimes I need clearer vision of the finish line.

I well remember about six years before my wife’s death when neither she nor I could imagine her surviving more than a little longer. We prepared as fully as we knew how, and then we waited. In the morning she would say, or her eyes would convey, “Well, I’m still here.” Driven back to the Father with confusion and questions, we longed for her release, yet we began to understand that His higher purposes apparently held something more. Her last six years became a season of depth and richness in the Lord I could never have imagined as God showed me dimensions of my own heart that had not yet become fully His. With gradual descent into illness, God opened new doors of intimacy as dependence on Him became more profound.

Ultimately, we came to know that God had not abandoned or forgotten us. Exhaustion, fear, and disappointment were replaced with a sense of partnering with Him as I began to know at a deeper level the singular privilege of caring for one who was broken and utterly dependent. In this, I became what Cindy already was: broken, bruised, and trusting wholly in another to meet every need. I was no longer running ahead of Him, nor hanging back like the seven Hebrew tribes. Cindy’s last breath became a moment of perfect completion for us both. Death’s sweetness spread eternity before us, although now each was viewing it from radically different perspectives. I thought of 2 Corinthians 4:17, “For light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all” (NIV).

Prayer: Lord Jesus, I fall on my face before Your majesty, Your beauty. I fix my eyes upon You, Lord; with grateful heart I rest in You.

January 12th, 2019

Christ, the Couch Potato

1 Corinthians 7:4 “The wife’s body does not belong to her alone but also to her husband. In the same way, the husband’s body does not belong to him alone but also to his wife” (NIV).

Observation: Paul used a variety of metaphors to encourage us to be content in present circumstances so as to focus wholeheartedly on devotion to God. Whether always single or single again, whether slave or free, Paul asserted that we find ourselves in “the situation” (1 Cor. 7:24) God has called us to. As such we should be content and do all we can to devote ourselves to the Lord.

Application: Paul addressed the hope that we would become so consumed with the passionate pursuit of God that all other passions would be subsumed in that larger calling. The challenge for marrieds is, of course, that they by definition have divided loyalties. They must give their all to serving one another, as well as Christ. Paul’s language in verse 4 is interesting in its implications. By specifically referring to the wife’s and husband’s “bodies” belonging to one another, the application first evoked is sexual. When wedded, we are, with limited exceptions, to give ourselves wholly to one another.

Young newlyweds with raging hormones need no such instruction, but the realization soon sets in that life extends beyond the bedroom. A richness enters life as we learn to live out the fulness of our wedding vows: for better or worse, in sickness and in health, till death do us part. Paul’s metaphor of bodies given to one another may aptly be applied to the church at large, too, and in that sense is not limited to marrieds.

How energetic am I in seeking to serve those in my local fellowship, and in the greater world around me? How much personal comfort am I willing to surrender for their good? How much time and money do I regularly give to bless others? To serve effectively as a dues-paying member of the body of Christ surely requires among other things that I make daily choices against immediate fulfillment of sensory pleasures. Can I imagine Christ as a couch potato spending evenings in front of a television?

In determined pursuit of serving others, I become more like Him. Married or single, slave or free, I have unlimited capacity to choose my pursuits. As He becomes to me the “main thing” regardless of my “situation,” I become like Him. I am the product of choices made daily as to how my time and money will be used. God, through Paul, urges me to make the same choice the Son has made: to surrender all in order to gain rewards of surpassing value.

Prayer: Lord Jesus, I ask You today to bring Holy Spirit conviction to examine each decision I make as to how I invest my life. I want above everything for it to count in Your service.

January 11th, 2019

Fudged Numbers

Joshua 7:1 “But the Israelites acted unfaithfully in regard to the devoted things; Achan . . . took some of them. So the LORD’s anger burned against Israel” (NIV).

Observation: The tragic story of Achan’s sin was set in the context of enormous victory. As Israel prepared to overrun Jericho, Moses cautioned the soldiers that they would bring about their own destruction if they kept spoils for themselves, adding this ominous warning, “Otherwise you will make the camp of Israel liable to destruction and bring trouble on it” (Josh. 6:18). Despite the warning, Achan stole booty for himself. Ultimately, God exposed Achan and he, along with his children and all they possessed, were stoned and burned.

Application: Individual sin usually has broad consequences. The stiff-necked man raises children who are rebellious, and within a few generations there exist multiplied hundreds of offspring who live according to their own precepts. The senior executive with greed in his heart creates a corporate culture of duplicity that can sunder the mightiest enterprise. The pastor who fears teaching the clear precepts of Scripture produces a body inattentive to growing sin in its midst.

Disobedience and sin are never isolated in their impact. In the story of Achan we see this reality manifest in the fulness of tragedy. Is it likely that other soldiers failed to notice Achan carrying off his load of booty? Is it likely that his own family didn’t notice the fresh excavations required for Achan to have buried his booty under ground inside their tent? Imagine the spectacle and the labor involved for Achan to carry and then bury a beautiful Babylonian robe, two hundred shekels of silver and fifty shekels of gold. Surely others knew. By simply winking at his sin, were they not complicit?

I too often forget the “Achan principle,” that individual sin has corporate consequences. God calls me to purity, to righteousness, and in these things He is utterly uncompromising. I think, “Just a little pornography seen privately—what can that hurt?” Or, “The IRS will never discover these slightly-fudged numbers; besides, I pay plenty of taxes.” In failing to heed His calls for righteousness in all my dealings, I prefer not to think of myself as disobedient and rebellious. Rather, I convince myself that there will be time enough tomorrow to obey. But tomorrows become like an endless string of yesterdays—half-hearted, watered-down commitments by a heart never quite ignited by the fiery passion of God’s love for me. If I would but pursue Him, then my need for someone else’s beautiful robe and shekels of precious metals would fade into distant memory. The unsurpassed joy of intimacy with Him far exceeds the passing pleasures of sin. Why continue to give myself to anything less?

Prayer: Father, open my eyes to the joys of loving You with all my mind, will and emotions, that I might lay aside all those other encumbrances.

January 10th, 2019

Steely Resolve

Deuteronomy 30:4(b) “From there the LORD your God will gather you and bring you back” (NIV).

Observation: God spoke in this passage of restoration. Through Moses, He predicted that Israel would stray even though they were now poised to enter Canaan, their land of promise. But His emphasis in these verses was on their future return to the Lord and their subsequent restoration to their inheritance. He said if Israel would obey the law with their heart and soul, He would restore their fortunes and regather them “even if [they] have been banished to the most distant land under the heavens” (Deut. 30:4a).

Application: Today’s passage reminds again that the fulness of God inhabits all the pages of His Book. There are among us some who have overlooked love in reading the Old Testament, and who would discard law in the New. From the beginning, God has required both. He demands strict, complete obedience from those who would desire to be His, but He consistently says that His ownership is dependent not just on our rule following, but on the set of our hearts.

He has always sought far more than just my steely resolve to stop breaking His rules. Raw obedience has never been sufficient to achieve intimacy with Him. Having made me in His image, I should not be surprised that my heart works like His.

Remember that parenting episode when you were horrified to realize you had “lost” your child? You corrected one whom you saw walking in increasing disobedience. Earlier infantile petulance had blossomed into more open rebellion. Now, you face a son who increasingly alarms by the friends he runs with, or a daughter who has become too attracted to the provocative fashions of the day. Your pleading and admonitions fall on ears increasingly deaf and a heart sickeningly deadened toward your desire for intimacy. Are you to be satisfied by sullen acquiescence from such a child? Of course not. Such hollow commitment is of little comfort.

I inherently understand that if the child doesn’t wholeheartedly desire to please and obey me, he or she is still lost to me. Deep grieving over lost relationship is unfathomable to such a child, as his heart is walled off from mine. It matters little that he makes outward pretense of a renewed commitment to break no further rules, but an omniscient God always knows. Obedience is not credited to our account unless it has been led by our heart’s devotion to Him, a passionate commitment to loving God above all else. In the end, I must know that God will never be content with my most steely resolve. Only wholehearted devotion satisfies.

Prayer: Father, there have been seasons of great resolve in my life, but they were dry and lifeless. Thank You for reminding me of my own life experiences to understand why such resolve alone is so inadequate.

January 9th, 2019

No Other Shoe

Galatians 6:1-2: “If someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ” (NIV).

Observation: Paul emphasized how believers ought to relate to one another. He began by saying that gentle restoration should be extended to those caught in sin. The word restore suggests that we are to mend broken relationships as a fisherman works to mend torn nets, with a view to making things whole again.

Application: We’re not to crucify, we’re not to point accusing fingers, we’re not to humiliate nor punish but to mend, to restore what is broken, and to do so in a spirit of gentleness. No matter how much further we read, no other shoe will drop. We hope for one in vain. Our mind may be crowded with such thoughts as, “But what if they don’t agree? What if they don’t respond well? What if this gentle approach doesn’t work?”

The real motivation behind such questions is, “Then can I blast them?” See how quickly the heart tends toward the Sons of Thunder camp? Elsewhere we are indeed given backup strategy. Corrective discipline may need to be brought by “one or two others” and if they are unsuccessful, then “tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector” (Matthew 18:16–17). But notice this: even in such extreme circumstances, the goal is always reconciliation.

Ultimately, if my heart is purely motivated, I must come back to the simple instruction of Galatians, to deal in gentleness of spirit with a goal of mending brokenness. Chapter 6, verse 2 gives us a practical way to do that. “Carry each other’s burdens.” “But,” I say, “you can’t imagine how their sin has hurt me. They have gossiped and backbitten, they have plotted and connived and said all sorts of evil things about me.” Carry each other’s burdens. “But he is so unlovely. There’s certainly nothing attractive about him on the outside, and he’s got a mean streak a mile long on the inside.” Carry each other’s burdens. “But she’s got this ‘thing’ about her that is so limiting to my future success. We’ve grown apart, and now this other opportunity has come along.” Carry each other’s burdens.

Try this: sit with eyes closed and consider the most burdensome relationship currently in your life. Ask the Lord to bring a picture of that person before your mind’s eye. Now, quietly, spend just a few minutes asking whether you are carrying that person’s burdens. How would your day, and theirs, be different if you were to make a fresh commitment? In other words, if you were to obey Christ?

Prayer: Lord Jesus, the extent that this exercise is hard for me is a measure of my own distance from You, isn’t it? O Lord…

January 8th, 2019

Only Partly Dead

Galatians 5:1, 7 “Do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery. . . . You were running a good race. Who cut in on you and kept you from obeying the truth?” (NIV).

Observation: Paul’s direct words are self-evident in their meaning. He challenges the Galatian churches to stand firm in their new life in Christ while also warning them against trying to live under the law or somehow trying to blend life under law with grace through faith. The freedom Paul emphasizes is freedom to no longer be burdened with law. If the Spirit of Christ leads us, we will turn from sinful pursuits. Instead, our lives would manifest such Christ-like fruit as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (see Gal. 5:22–23).

Application: Is there anywhere in language a phrase more haunting than to “be burdened again”? There are indeed some afflictions in life that burden us again, often ones for which we have no antidote and which may be more difficult upon second appearing: recurring illnesses, investments that take yet another hit, or loved ones’ repeated rejection of our values. These are generally things we cannot avoid; life for most of us is not that tidy. But the truly awful prospect is that there are some things we permit to burden us again over which we do indeed have control.

Picture a three-year-old child seeing Grandpa approach the house and running to open the door for him. Grandpa, knowing nothing of this flurry of good intentions, pushes the door open, whereupon the child dissolves into wails of disappointment. Her response is poor, but not overly objectionable due to her age. She unfailingly receives correction, yet her response is the same the next time the scenario is repeated. Here, though, is the encouraging thing about a three-year-old: one day she will be four or five, and presumably no longer subject to the rants of her immature past.

Shamefully, I must confess that although I have been a Christian considerably longer than my granddaughter has been opening doors, an occasional rant still attends my behavior. What was Paul’s question again? “Who cut in on you and kept you from obeying?” Ouch. I’m doing pretty well in the debauchery and sexual immorality departments, but I begin to squirm at honest self-assessment of jealousy. And let’s not even think about those other categories. I’m only partly dead, aren’t I, Lord? What does the Manual say? “Live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature” (v. 16). “Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires” (v. 24).

Prayer: Lord Jesus, I think I understand a bit more as to why You have given me life and breath for yet another day. It’s for practice, isn’t it? Thank You for Your grace toward me as I lay before Your Cross those traits that are not yet fully crucified and dead.