August 22nd, 2019

The Freedom of Choices

Deuteronomy 28:2, 15 “All these blessings will come upon you and overtake you if you obey the Lord your God. … But it shall come about, if you do not obey the Lord your God, to observe to do all His commandments and His statues with which I charge you today, that all these curses will come upon you and overtake you.”

Observation: This chapter is broadly divided into two parts. The first recounts the blessings God will pour onto those who obey Him and follow His commandments. They are far-reaching, profound, and encompass every aspect of life. The second part, much longer, is a description of the devastation to be loosed upon those who do not obey God and do not follow His commandments.  These, too, are far-reaching and profound, touching every aspect of life. Even more importantly, this devastation and destruction goes beyond this life into all eternity.

Application: As I read of these blessings and curses, the Lord reminded me how redemptive suffering can be. I see it in Luke 15, where the Prodigal Son chose to squander his inheritance and ended up living with pigs. But ultimately, the depth and breadth of his loss drove him back into the arms of his father. 

I think about a man I know, formerly lukewarm in his faith, who found himself in a horrible marriage. Today, the marriage is no better, but his heart is good, having been ignited with love for Jesus. I think of dear loved ones who struggle with unforgiveness in their hearts over past offenses—for one an imagined offense, and for another, an offense against his grandfather. Both men are in deep bondage to their judgment. One struggles, wanting freedom that can only come with a surrendering of pride. The other is consumed by his unforgiveness and appears poised to go into eternity in his lost condition. 

And I think about my wife, Cindy, and me. We struggled over the years to come to grips with the reality that we have a very, very good God who could have healed her of MS but didn’t. He did, however, heal our hearts through lessons learned while waiting on Him. 

God decrees that rebellion, judgment, and pride will necessarily result in the horrible consequences of Deuteronomy 28, but He also gladly offers a way of escape—a way that tears us from the grip of sin in our lives and binds us to the renewing life of Christ.

Prayer: Thank You, Lord, for giving me the ability to make choices. Thank You that I am free to choose You, even ‘til the moment of my death. Lord, cause me to be conscious of each unsurrendered area of my life so I can repent of that sin and bind that part of my heart to the life of Christ in me.

February 27th, 2020

Positive Confession

Psalm 59:9, 16-17 “O my Strength, I watch for you; you, O God, are my fortress, my loving God…But I will sing of your strength, in the morning I will sing of your love; for you are my fortress, my refuge in times of trouble. O my Strength, I sing praise to you; you, O God, are my fortress, my loving God” (NIV).

Observation: In other verses of Psalm 59 David’s oppression is palpable. Saul had sent soldiers to watch David’s house in order to kill him. Israel itself would later find other applications for the Psalm when the nation was besieged, yet attention for today is drawn to David’s situation and to three verses using three words three times to describe God: He is David’s strength, his fortress, and He is loving.

Application: Imagine David’s life in those days, ardently pursued by an army of 3,000 and seeking effective hiding places in an uncomfortably small region. David’s confidence in God’s deliverance never wavers even as he realistically portrays the wickedness of his enemy. Yet in the midst of unremitting danger, David’s characterizations of God remain consistent: Strength, fortress, and love.

David’s repeated confession of who God is provides much-needed comfort to his soul in the midst of great trial, yet it contrasts with great swaths of the church today as believers presume to take this Scripturally sound principle one better, thereby falling into error. Many embrace secular management and sales training techniques even in today’s church, encouraging us toward repeated confession of goals to which we aspire. Driven by desire to attain “x” we are encouraged toward behavior “y” by listening to success tapes, reading success books, and making positive confessions to immerse ourselves in an I-can-achieve-this environment.

And it works. Growing out of Scriptural principles here modeled by David, we can indeed achieve what we envision. But that was precisely the danger attending construction of the Tower of Babel. God Himself said, “Nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them” (Gen 11:6).

I must always keep primary the one prize truly worth pressing toward: the prize of being called heavenward in Christ Jesus (see Phil 3:14). Any other prize is a pursuit less worthy of Christ’s sacrifice, and can become cunningly deceptive in pulling my heart away from the pure Gospel. Positive, accurate confession of who I am in Christ (beloved of the Father, seated with Christ in the heavenlies, healed, victorious) together with David’s confession of God’s attributes are the focuses I must keep before my soul above all others.

Prayer: Lord, You are my strength. I am weak, but You are not. You are my fortress. I search frantically and find only ineffective hiding places, but You are the true fortress. You are love. Even in my self-seeking, You are love.

February 26th, 2020

Never Forsaken

Psalm 9:10 “Those who know your name will trust in you, for you, Lord, have never forsaken those who seek you” (NIV).

Observation: The psalmist began by declaring that he will praise God with all his heart and testify of His wonders. He had seen God cause his enemies to stumble and turn back, which led to his declaration that the Lord reigns forever. It is in that reigning that God has established His throne for judgment, leading to this confident declaration: “He will judge the world in righteousness; he will govern the peoples with justice” (Ps. 9:8). He went on to say that those who trust in the Lord have never been forsaken by Him.

Application: O psalmist, are you sure about that last statement? My life has at times seemed littered with the detritus of forsakenness. I have gone through seasons when the thing I had clung to crumbled within my grasp, leaving me feeling lonely and forlorn in the midst of life’s disintegration. It is one thing to piously look at the mess of someone else’s life and ascribe it to some shortcoming in their walk with God, but in this view my vision is skewed, my assumptions fleshly, at best. The person who has lost employment (or spouse or health or…) may well mope in apparent forsakenness. But what then shall I make of countless believers around the globe who have never enjoyed the things whose loss I mourn, yet still exude the radiance of His presence?

The hard reality is, it is the goodness of God to confront me with loss so as to test in what, more properly in whom, I am trusting. How else am I to learn about myself the thing that He already knows so well? Jeremiah 17:9 says, “The heart is deceitful above all things.” What today’s verse is saying is that if my circumstances lead me to forlornness, it is because I have been trusting in someone or something other than God.

Jesus put it this way in John 16:33, “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” As the psalmist so rightly says in 9:7–8, the Lord does indeed reign; He will judge the world in righteousness. “He is a stronghold in times of trouble” (v. 9). In the midst of trouble, it is my choice to run into His protective stronghold trusting His provision of all I truly need, or to mourn on the pile of life’s rubble.

Prayer: Lord Jesus, as tough as it is to admit sometimes, I am grateful for those times when I have been confronted with forsakenness. Thank You for reminding me to surrender, then to call upon You. Cause me in my worst moments of apparent forsakenness to choose to go deeper into You.

February 25th, 2020

A Profound Forfeit

1 Chronicles 5:1 “He could not be listed in the genealogical record in accordance with his birthright” (NIV).

Observation: The early chapters of 1 Chronicles contain a blur of nourishment easily left undigested if not approached by a heart hungry to discover their insights. They are filled with genealogical details about tribes and offspring—who lived where, who was honorable, and who was not. The passage about Reuben, firstborn of the twelve sons of Jacob, is interrupted by a parenthetical phrase that stops us dead in our tracks. Reuben had forfeited his birthright by defiling his father’s bed by having sex with Jacob’s concubine (see Gen. 35:22). The birthright contained three parts lost to Reuben: dominion over the rest of the family, a double portion of inheritance, and the right to be listed in the genealogical record of our Lord. His one-night stand caused those rights to devolve to others, namely, Joseph’s sons.

Application: Does Reuben’s forfeit seem a small thing? A close reading of the story in Genesis 49 reveals the depth of Reuben’s loss. As firstborn son, Jacob called Reuben “the first sign of my strength, excelling in honor, excelling in power” (v. 3). But his night of sin produced this stark penalty: “You will no longer excel” (v. 4).

What is it to no longer excel? In Reuben’s case, it meant to no longer have dominion or a double portion of the family estate. No longer singularly excellent, he became ordinary, surrendering the profound blessings God intended for him. Reuben had been born to something far better.

What about me? Does my rebirth into Christ not carry with it an inheritance of His excellencies? 1 Timothy 3:13 tells me that if I have served well I have gained an excellent standing in Christ. The horrifying implication is that, like Reuben, I might not serve with excellence, which is not to say my kingdom membership has been cancelled, but that in failing to live in the “most excellent way” of 1 Corinthians 12:13, I will be left in a place of unfulfilled promise at the end of the day. I must put to death anything of my own excelling, that the grace of Christ might be exalted above my own poor gifts. Such voluntary death to my own supposed excellencies enables Him to increase to the point where it is no longer I who am seen, but Christ.

Prayer: Lord Jesus, I know I fall short of Your ideal, never more so than in the choice of becoming utterly dependent upon You. Let me look upon my own strengths until they have completely disgusted me, so what might shine forth is nothing but You.

February 24th, 2020

Hobson’s Choice

1 Samuel 11:2 “I will make a treaty with you only on the condition that I gouge out the right eye of every one of you” (NIV).

Observation: Ammonites led by Nahash besieged Israelites living in the area of Jabesh-Gilead. Preparing to surrender, the men of Jabesh told Nahash that they were willing to be subject to him if he would agree to peace. His response was that he be allowed to gouge out the right eye of all the townsmen, the price required to end his siege.

Application: Think of it! The men of an entire city—your city or mine—first blinded in their right eye, then enslaved, but promised to be overrun and killed if they don’t agree to such terms. A Hobson’s choice, indeed.

What would have been my choice had I been a member of that community? Willing to surrender to enslavement in exchange for the lifting of my enemy’s siege, I then receive word that something more would be required: a mutilation that would still permit servitude, yet assure that I could never again aim a weapon at my oppressor. 

As difficult as it is to imagine my response in that situation, my own reality is far worse. The men of Jabesh-Gilead had a profound advantage over us who today face similarly stark choices: they knew their enemy. He was self-disclosing. They had dodged his slings and arrows. He was approachable under the white flag of temporary truce. They could hear his terms of surrender and thoughtfully weigh their response. But the enemy of my soul gives me no such advantages. He is a master of self-concealment, and he comes with enticements intended to ensnare by their sensory appeals, thence to lead to my destruction. He would indeed enslave and blind me, but he is far too cunning to so freely advertise the consequences of surrender. The damnable thing about his sensory enticements is that he so masterfully counterfeits the very pleasures God created for my enjoyment. 

Lust and greed, pride and selfishness are but poor substitutes for the far greater pleasures God lays before me. Pascal addressed the problem of seeking happiness and fulfillment from things that can never satisfy when he wrote in Pensées, “But these are all inadequate because the infinite abyss can only be fulfilled by an infinite and immutable object, that is to say, only by God Himself.” Without wholehearted, passionate devotion to Him, I run the risk of being both enslaved and blinded without even being aware of the battle raging ‘round about me.

Prayer: Father, open my eyes to Your majesty and beauty. Cause me to so focus on You in all Your glory that all else fades into insignificance. I choose today to violently command my soul to find its satisfaction only in You.

February 23rd, 2020

Mud Pies

Ruth 3:4 “He will tell you what to do” (NIV).

Observation: Ruth told Naomi, her widowed mother-in-law, that Boaz had been extraordinarily kind to them. Ruth gleaned Boaz’s fields after harvesters had done their work, and Boaz had gone out of his way to be both generous and protective toward the two women. As Ruth tells her mother-in-law about the day’s events and reveals Boaz’s name, Naomi responds with excitement; she knew Boaz to be her late husband’s near relative, which would give him legal right to redeem the family estate. She also knew him to be an honorable man, and confidently told Ruth to go to the threshing floor at night and, as Boaz slept, to uncover his feet after which “he will tell you what to do.”

Application: Ruth’s obedience is admirable; in lying uninvited near Boaz, she risked her reputation and her very life. Perhaps even more striking than Ruth’s obedience, however, is Naomi’s confident faith. Naomi understood the rules of Hebrew law; she knew that based upon his being a near relative, Boaz was positionally able to redeem the family assets, but she had no guarantee that he would do the right thing. Apparently, her instructions to Ruth flowed from a reservoir of deep and abiding faith that Boaz would respond well. Naomi, the widow; Naomi, whose only sons were dead; Naomi who had been left without inheritance or any means of support in the alien land of Moab—it is out of this same Naomi that flowed such words of faith and trust. “He will tell you what to do,” she had said.

I must ask myself: when everything I value has been lost, what then is my attitude? When loved ones die or I am abandoned without resources in an unfamiliar and uncomfortable place, what is it, exactly, that flows from me? When everything I value has cratered, when every support system I have relied upon has collapsed, what then will be revealed of my heart?

Those who know they truly have nothing will more readily rely upon the one who is their all-in-all. C. S. Lewis got it exactly right when he wrote in The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses, “If we consider the unblushing promise of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that our Lord finds our desires not too strong but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambitions when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.” Naomi, it seems, knew the truth of this. How well do I?

Prayer: Lord Jesus, You have come as my kinsman-redeemer and in doing so have set before me all the riches of Your creation. Forgive me, Lord, for so easily settling for so much less than Your fulness.

February 22nd, 2020

Longing for Home

Ruth 1:5 “Naomi was left without her two sons and her husband” (NIV).

Observation: Naomi and Ruth’s story is a portrayal of loss, commitment, restoration, and divine provision. Naomi had gone with her family to live in Moab due to Bethlehem’s famine. There, her husband died. She remained in Moab where her two sons married local women, but Naomi’s sons also died leaving Moabite widows, one of whom was Ruth. From the depths of her loss, Naomi spoke words of blessing and release to her daughters-in-law as she prepared to return to Bethlehem. Orpah kissed Naomi and went back to her people, while Ruth clung to Naomi and pledged to remain with her regardless. Together Naomi and Ruth returned to Bethlehem bereft of any means of support except to glean the “leavings” after fields had been harvested. In the fields of Boaz, Naomi’s husband’s relative, they found one who would take them under his sheltering wings.

Application: Who among us would not be smitten by a God of such love? In Boaz, the kind kinsman-redeemer, we see a picture of Jesus, the one who paid a price only He could pay to redeem that which would otherwise be lost forever. Ruth captures first the eye of the king, and then His heart. It is a stunning story we long to see played out in our own lives. We want to be the one chosen and have our needs met in the most lavish provision of the king. Ruth met Boaz, and her needs were met with enough to spill over and bless Naomi as well.

Scripture bears no hint that they had been in error to go into Moab in the first place: Bethlehem experienced famine, and they had simply gone to find food. But Moab never became home to them; they had not “settled in” after a decade. Once the men in Naomi’s life had died and she heard that the Lord was again providing for His people in Bethlehem, she set her face toward her true home, prepared to leave behind even her sons’ widows. Naomi’s heart was so attuned to God’s provision that she coached Ruth into a position of receiving all God was willing to pour out. Naomi’s loss in an alien land became her gateway to the Lord’s provision.

I, too, have run into the arms of the Savior after awakening to my need in Moab. Life’s pain is the tool God uses to plant within me a longing for my true home, not to “escape” per se, but to embrace something far better. Just as there was a glimmer of remembrance of her true home in Naomi’s mind, so He builds into each of us the faint echo of remembering a place we may have never yet been, but a place we long to be: safely home, held in His loving arms.

Prayer: Lord Jesus, I am in that alien land even now, yet my heart expands with longing for a place I have never seen. Only in You, Lord, is that longing fulfilled.

February 21st, 2020

The Strategy of Abandonment

2 Corinthians 2:1 “I made up my mind that I would not make another painful visit to you” (NIV).

Observation: Much of 2 Corinthians 1 and the beginning of the second chapter seem to be travelogue. Paul wrote in 1:15 about having tried to arrange his itinerary so as to visit the Corinthian church twice, but then, “in order to spare” them (1:23) “another painful visit” (2:1), he had kept his distance for a season. He went on to say that he had written a difficult letter to them so when they met again they would not be distressed; in other words, he wanted them to have a chance to digest his admonitions and make needed course corrections, thus to result in Paul’s rejoicing. He assured them that as tough as his earlier letter was, it was written through great distress, anguish of heart, and many tears not to grieve them but to convey the depth of his love for them (2:4).

Application: If we rush through this passage too quickly we may miss its revelation of the goodness of God’s heart to those He loves. It was for grace that Paul kept his distance for a season. It was for mercy’s sake that he wrote them a tough letter, motivated not by a desire to appear critical, but by a heart so filled with love for them that he wanted nothing to mar their next visit. So he stayed away a while longer. This causes me to reflect on those seasons when God Himself has kept His distance and remained silent. We cry out as Christ did from the cross, “Why have You forsaken me?” yet the heavens give evidence neither of hearing nor responding. We were left to twist painfully in our own place of death, sorrowful in His seeming abandonment.

Paul’s absence was motivated by love. God’s slowness to ride in on His celestial white horse and slay my attacking dragons was strategy; it was grace. What do I believe about God in such a moment? Scripture gives no suggestion that Christ interpreted God’s brief forsaking as permanent abandonment. His cry came in a horrible moment that seemed eternal, yet was a necessary step on His path to destiny’s fulfillment. So it is with me. God has given me this model: He would appear to forsake even His own Son. Do I count myself somehow better than He, somehow more deserving? In the forsakenness of my darkest turmoil, there is hope. Restoration to full effectiveness is an absolute certainty if I will but cling to this reality in my night seasons.

Prayer: Father, Your apparent forsaking is always for a purpose, isn’t it? Even in Your silence You are motivated by a love so great I cannot conceive it. Like a dried up old widow, I long for Your invitation to the bridal chamber of fresh relationship. I cling to You, Lord. I love You.

February 20th, 2020

Saturday’s Dance

Psalm 42:2 “When can I go and meet with God?” (NIV).

Observation: This psalm expresses the passionate cry of David’s heart to once again be in the presence of God. David was exiled from the house of Saul, hiding in a very small country with 3,000 soldiers in pursuit. Beginning in verse 5 he struggles to declare his confidence in God even though his soul is downcast, separated from His presence. Three times he addresses his heart, “Why are you downcast?” even as his epic struggle continues. His core struggle is to keep his eyes and heart focused on the only One who can restore peace and rest.

Application: “When can I go and meet with God?” In these words is the entirety of the Gospel. This is not an expression of mere curiosity along the lines of “When is our meeting with the accountant?” David’s words reveal the abject poverty of one who knows his separated condition, of one who has tasted the sweet presence of the Lord and longs for its restoration. 

The maiden wishing for a date to Saturday’s dance is possessed by a mere shadow of the well-married couple’s longing for reunion; they have feasted on something she has never tasted. For them, absence from the familiar banquet leaves a chasm of hunger and emptiness no earthly relationship can bridge. 

Elsewhere we are told that the kingdom of God is seized by violence (see Matt, 11:12), and there is within David’s cry a depth of longing that embraces such violence. This is the problem with divorce and widowhood, rebellion and abandonment. God has ordained for us relationships intended as an earthly reflection of the heavenly reality. He intended those relationships to reflect divine order: husbands covering wives and wives submitting to husbands; parents guiding and not frustrating children, and children honoring parents; employers treating fairly those who labor in their behalf, and employees working diligently as unto the Lord. In all these examples we see an exact representation of the relationship between Father and Son. 

When these earthly relationships are sundered by death or sin, we are left as David was: crouching in caves, cowering before an enemy smirking at our unwelcome condition. I have been as David was. I know what it is to force myself to speak to my soul as he did. “Why are you downcast? Arise! Turn your eyes to the only One who will never leave nor forsake.” I know the uneven result of a heart violently set to seek Him and Him alone. But I also know the victory that comes from perseverance, by wholeheartedly seeking the one who first sought me. My hope is as David’s: “Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise Him, my Savior and my God” (Ps. 42:5, 11).

Prayer: Lord cause me today to make choices to receive Your love rather than others’ rejection. Give me ears to hear Your night song.

February 19th, 2020

God’s Heartedness Scale

Jeremiah 29:11–13 “‘For I know the plans that I have for You.’ declares the Lord, ‘plans for welfare and not for calamity to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon Me and come and pray to Me, and I will listen to you. You will seek Me and find Me when you search for Me with all your heart.’”

Observation: Jeremiah 29 is a letter Jeremiah wrote to the Jews in Babylonian captivity. Countering false prophets who were saying their captivity would be brief, Jeremiah said that it would be seventy years. He told them to build houses, plant vineyards, and plan to be there for a while. He told them to pray for Babylon, “for in its welfare you will have welfare” (see Jer. 29:4–10). 

Then comes this wonderful passage where God promises breakthrough. He reminded them that they were in a hard place by His hand, but while it seems for a season like calamity, it is really a place designed by Him for their welfare. There are essential lessons that need learning, and God knew they would be learned only in the context of great difficulty. But His promise was if they will pray to Him, He will listen. If they seek Him with their whole heart, they will find Him.

Application: Whole heart? What is that? It sounds important, but how can I tell when I have achieved more than half-heartedness or even quarter-heartedness? Here’s a horrifying thought: maybe I am stuck at one-tenth-heartedness and don’t even know it. The awful realization is there is in the kingdom a heartedness scale. Worse yet, God is always able to break the code to assess where I am on the scale. 

But verse 14 gives me hope: “‘I will be found by you,’ declares the Lord, ‘and I will restore your fortunes and will gather you from all the nations and from all the places where I have driven you,’ declares the Lord, ‘and I will bring you back to the place from where I sent you into exile.’” He promises that I will know when I have finally broken free from what binds me. My captivity may seem long, but it will be overcome when I have achieved whole-hearted pursuit of Him. I will be restored when I have pressed through successfully into the fulness of His kingdom. All that’s required is that I stop fighting against His disciplines, and pursue Him with a whole heart.

Prayer: Lord Jesus, thank You that I have lived long enough to see examples of this in my own life: wholeheartedness resulting in Your bringing deliverance from bondage. You have probably noticed, though, that work remains to be done in other areas of my life. I am encouraged today to press in afresh, to seek You again with my whole heart, that every last vestige of captivity will be overcome. Thank You for that wonderful promise.

February 18th, 2020

Resistance Is a Bad Idea

Jeremiah 27:6–11 “And now I have given all these lands into the hand of Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, My servant…It will be that the nation or the kingdom which will not…put its neck under the yoke of the king of Babylon, I will punish that nation with the sword, with famine and with pestilence…until I have destroyed it…But the nation which will bring its neck under the yoke of the king of Babylon and serve him, I will let remain on its land, …and they will till it and dwell in it.”

Observation: Jeremiah drew a sharp distinction between the two heart responses of the people of Judah to the disciplines of God. As Nebuchadnezzar conquered Judah, some were determined to continue their resistance. God warned them that their complete destruction would result. He advised the people not to resist, but to make their own yokes, their own bonds, to submit to the authority of the conquering power. Babylonian captivity was God’s chosen method of discipline, so much so that He referred to Nebuchadnezzar as “My servant.” There can be no doubt that resistance to Nebuchadnezzar would be resistance against the very God who designed this discipline.

Application: This must have been a hard message for the people of Judah to hear. These prideful people who knew they were descended from Abraham and David, who had been delivered from bondage in Egypt and given a covenant promise to occupy the land, who were to be the envy of all the nations—these are the very people who now found themselves under Babylonian captivity and were told to submit to it. 

As I cluck my tongue at those prideful Judites, realization creeps over my conscience:  I am as they were. It was the comic-strip character Pogo who said, “We have met the enemy and he is us!” I, too, resist the disciplines of the Lord. My inclination is to rationalize why I don’t deserve discipline in my life. But after discipline comes restoration. God promised the eventual overthrow of Babylon in much the same way as Christ holds out this promise in 1 John 2:28, “And now little children, abide in Him so that when He appears we may have confidence and not shrink away in shame at His coming.” 

If I will abide in Him even in seasons of discipline, then I will not be ashamed by His appearing. Like the people of Judah who would be allowed to continue to till their land even when governed by Nebuchadnezzar, so will I have a place in the kingdom when God’s disciplines have worked their purpose in my heart.

Prayer: Lord, You know my heart perfectly. You know how stiff-necked I can be when disciplines come into my life. But I realize that Your disciplines are thoughtfully crafted to fit my needs perfectly. Forgive my resistance, Lord. Have Your way with my heart.