February 15th, 2021

Here a Weed, There a Weed

1 Corinthians 9:1 “Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? Are you not my work in the Lord?”

Observation: Paul has just finished saying in 1 Corinthians 8:13: “Therefore if food causes my brother to stumble, I will never eat meat again, that I might not cause my brother to stumble.” In other words, when the question at hand is morally neutral, then love should govern our behavior. In 9:1, Paul further illustrates his point by asking the obvious: “Are you not my work in the Lord?” Is this a trick question?

Application: If I am Paul’s work in the Lord, if I am his spiritual offspring, grown up in the Lord due to his example, training, and coaching…this is making me nervous, Paul. Where exactly are you going with this question? You seem to be saying you’re willing to be accountable for whom I have become in Christ. Surely you don’t expect me to pass it on, do you?

Deep down, peeking tentatively around the corner of my understanding, a light is coming on. The reality setting in is this: like Paul, I ought to be able to look at those around me, those whom He has given me to protect and train, to shelter and teach. I must be both able and willing to say, “Are you not my work in the Lord?” Ouch.

I’ve cultivated some lovely flower gardens in my day, but they have never become truly beautiful on their own. If I relent in weeding or fail to properly fertilize and water, things quickly begin to look a bit shabby. So I keep at it because deep down I’m sure there’s an enormous sign somewhere in the sky with a neon arrow, flashing, “Dave’s Garden. Dave’s Garden.” There are days when I’d like to be able to turn the thing off, to give in to the advancing army of weeds and just wash my hands of the whole mess. But that sign will still be there, won’t it? “Dave’s Garden.” For all the world to see. For me to see. For God to see. “Are you not my work in the Lord?” Your life…my child, my spouse, my friend…testifies of me, of my influence in your life. Hmm, I may want to rededicate myself to this project, to spend a little more time and effort knowing that you, my work in the Lord, speak well of me both to Him and to the watching world.

Prayer: Father, thank You for the people You have put in my life, relationships that bless me and challenge me every day. Stir me to pour myself out for them even as You poured out Your life for me on the Cross. Give me Your wisdom in this, Father. I care passionately that those I’m accountable for reflect very well indeed upon me, and upon You.

February 14th, 2021

A Good Reflection?

1 Corinthians 7:35 “This I say for your own benefit; not to put a restraint on you, but to promote what is appropriate and to secure undistracted devotion to the Lord.”

Observation: Paul was sharing what he understood God’s desire to be regarding marriage. He addressed whether to marry and the importance of both spouses giving themselves fully to each other. He said what a widow’s next step ought to be, what should happen in the event of a separation, how couples that are unequally yoked spiritually ought to behave, and the merits of remaining single. He even touched on arranged marriages and remarriage…a long litany indeed! But consider what he did not discuss: why God instituted marriage in the first place.

Application: For at least part of the answer, I need to go back to Genesis 2. God had created male and female versions of all the animals, and Adam. As each pair of animals paraded past Adam so he could name them, his heart must have yearned for something he had never yet known. It is one thing to be in a loving marriage and to experience longing for your mate when separated. But Adam had never been married; how did he know he was lacking? God decided to make a wife for Adam, saying, “It is not good for the man to be alone” (Gen. 2:18).

Yet in 1 Corinthians 7, Paul encouraged singles to remain single. What’s going on here? Everything Paul taught comes down to verse 35, “to secure undistracted devotion to the Lord.” That is my primary purpose. God made me, as an individual, in His image. But His image wasn’t just “Him,” was it? No, His image included not just the Father, but also the Son and the Holy Spirit. He intended that my coupling would be in His image: “She shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man. For this reason a man shall…be joined to his wife; and they shall become one flesh” (Genesis 2:23–24).

What is that an echo of? Didn’t Jesus say that He and the Father are one? That if you’ve seen Him you’ve seen the Father? He may have created marriage so I would be surrounded at every turn by a walking, talking image of the unity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. If He intended my marriage to be a perfect reflection of His own unity, how hard should I be willing to work on that most important of relationships? It’s not about me only, is it?

Prayer: Father God, I am so thankful for the wife You gave me, but even more thankful for the model of perfect unity You present as I consider Your relationship with your dear Son. Forgive me for ever entertaining the thought of casting aside what You joined together. Thank You for this additional glimpse of Your passion for me.

February 13th, 2021

Pick It Up, Beloved

Job 34:10 “Far be it from God to do wickedness, and from the Almighty to do wrong.”

Observation: This chapter finds Elihu on a roll, convinced he has the root of Job’s trouble all figured out: it’s Job! Though Elihu’s theories will require some adjustment in future reading, he did make a point worth further consideration when he said, “Far be it from God to do wickedness, and from the Almighty to do wrong.”

Application: To the casual reader, Job’s situation may seem remarkable for the breadth, the depth, and the extent of his troubles. Yet thoughtful reflection will bring remembrances that I have similar dark places in my life. Without such seasons, how could I ever hope to be conformed to the image of Christ? His life was anything but the cakewalk I so often feel I deserve. Yet lurking in the depths of my spirit is the dawning realization that to get an invitation to the wedding banquet at the end of this deal first requires that I pick up a cross. Not just any cross, but “my” cross, the one He has crafted just for me. The truth is, He knows I would never do that voluntarily. Flesh cries out for comfort and relief; my sense of self is convinced I deserve to have things go my way.

One of the maddening things about God is that because He lives outside of time, He always remains exactly where I last dug in my heels. I may not freely move on from my last point of resistance though years may have passed. But when petulance has ended, He remains where I last encountered Him, gesturing lovingly toward my cross, saying, “Pick it up, beloved.”

Elihu got one thing especially right: God’s very nature is justice personified. No unjust impulse ever entered the mind of God. “But if that’s true,” I sputter,” why is this, this…thing I’m dealing with so hurtful? Why do I feel so alone in it?” Beloved, it is the potter, not the clay, who sets the standard for beauty. It is only in His eternal mind that the image of me made perfect resides. I have captivated the heart of God yet remain staggered by that thought precisely because His view of me is so different from mine. What I view as His unjustness, unfairness, even meanness, He knows to be essential in light of His passion that I would one day be like Christ.

Prayer: Father, Your ways are so vastly different from mine, I wonder sometimes if I’ll ever get it right. I’m so thankful that You see the end from the beginning. Cause me to cooperate with Your processes in my life, Lord. I surrender!

February 12th, 2021

Fathering

1 Corinthians 1:9; 2:14 “God is faithful. …But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God.”

Observation: Paul was a spiritual father to the Corinthians, having been first to preach the Gospel there on an earlier trip. Corinth was a remarkably wicked city, and the fledgling church was having a tough time wringing “the world” out of its midst. There were divisions among them as people identified primarily with Paul or Apollos or Cephas or Christ. Paul responded by reminding them that it is only by Christ’s Cross that power is granted sufficient for living the victorious Christian life. He went on to say that there was an irreconcilable gulf between the wisdom of the world and the wisdom imparted by the Spirit of God. He made it clear that we can only live in one or the other: “Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God. …But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised (1 Cor. 2:12, 14).

Application: Paul hammered away at what should have been obvious but was lost to their understanding since he had last been among them. He was deeply concerned for their spiritual condition, and called them to an essential reordering of their beliefs if they are to be Christ’s.

Who among us cannot relate to Paul’s pleading for correction? Which of us does not have friends or family whom we desperately long to see secure in the kingdom, but who need a major course correction in their beliefs? I can learn much from Paul’s loving approach in the letter’s beginning. Despite all he knew of their divisions and bad theology, he affirmed them by looking ahead to how things will be and spoke as though they were. He identified them as having been sanctified in Christ (1 Cor. 1:2), covered by the grace of God (v. 4), and enriched by Him in speech and knowledge (v. 5). He reminded them that God had given them gifts (v. 7), and that God would confirm them blameless in the end (v. 8).

Here, then, is my model. Paul understood and verbalized what Christ had accomplished before wading into the Corinthians’ alligator-filled swamp. They needed profound correction, but he began by painting a picture of what Christ had done before he began to teach how to walk it out. Gentle yet firm. Loving but direct. How have I grown under that model? How faithful am I to pass it on?

Prayer: Lord God, thank You for the example of Your Father-heart in Paul. You give me here a great example to follow as I seek to encourage and help others grow in the faith. Cause this lesson to sink deep into my spirit and take root, that I might model it for others.

February 11th, 2021

The Key Difference

Job 30:20 “I cry out to You for help, but You do not answer me; I stand up, and You turn Your attention against me.”

Observation: There are two elements to Job’s lament in chapter 30. First is a comparison of his present devastation with his former life. In the previous chapter he recounted the honor he had among his fellows and how quick he had been to help the needy. Later, though, they taunted and abhorred him and stood aloof. The second and more dominant element of Job 30 is his honest assessment of how utterly horrible his life is. There are no more comparisons to his former life or to other men. Simply, he is hurting in every way imaginable. Worst of all, he cannot hear God’s voice no matter the depths of his anguished cries.

Application: As I think about Job, at least part of my tragic view of him flows from the perceived uniqueness of his suffering. To have lost everything: children, wealth, respect, health (everything, that is, except a bitter, critical wife!), his loss is greater than the mind can conceive. But perhaps I resist honestly considering familiar parallels.

Do I not have burned within my mind the images of others who live similarly to Job? The crushed earthquake survivor who will revive only to learn all has been lost, the child running naked from her village ahead of napalming…are these not representative of countless millions around the world who live similarly? But in God there is no such thing as “countless” millions, is there? Each does indeed count.

They must choose, as I must, how I will view God in the midst of life’s devastation. But always remember: there is One who lost even more. And the great tragedy is, He was the sinless one. In His loss, heaven itself was forfeited. Perfect union with the Father was willingly surrendered. He was so brutalized that passersby could only wonder if that mass of blood and flesh had once been human. But in all of history’s suffering, this One was unique. The key difference is that He volunteered for His torment. Isaiah tells me that He turned His face toward His tormenters so they could rip more handfuls of beard and flesh from His face (see Isa. 50:6). Job may wonder why. The earthquake survivor and the napalm victim may mourn for the rest of their days. I, too, may struggle to understand God’s purposes. But this One willingly laid down His life; He knew exactly what He was doing. He had a strategy, a plan. His suffering was for love. How willing am I to identify with Him in that?

Prayer: Lord Jesus, You ask me to willingly take on Your attributes, which include loss of all that is dear, for the goal of a greater prize. Find me willing, O Lord. As best I know how, I lay down my rights, my pride, even life itself, to become more like You.

February 10th, 2021

Remembering Former Things

Job 29:2 “Oh that I were as in months gone by.”

Observation: Job 29 is a walk with Job back in time to the days before his afflictions began. He recalled what it was like to have been in the prime of life knowing that God’s friendship spilled over and blessed every part of his life. He recalled the joy of being surrounded by children and the honor paid him by young and old alike as he walked through the public square. He had championed the cause of the needy and opposed evil at every turn. He could recall a time when the roots of his life stretched to an endless supply of fresh water, and he remembered having the sense that it would never end, that life would always be as it had been. But then he said, “Oh that I were as in months gone by.” There is no trace of anger or blame over his current condition. Rather, we are simply given to understand that he longingly recalled what life was like, and no doubt wished he could be in that place once again.

Application: Where it seems that Job departs from me is that in honestly recalling what he loved about his former life, there is not a hint of sin in his words. There was nothing wrong in Mrs. Lincoln’s wish that they had skipped the play that evening. There was no sin in the Astors’ preference that they had booked another vessel as the Titanic sank beneath them.

My sin is in not finding contentment in God regardless of my circumstances. Like Job, I may well have known a time when relationships were fresher and more promise-filled. There was indeed likely a season when bodies were firmer and health more sure. There is no wrong in remembering those days with a grateful heart. But as time passes and once-promising futures don’t quite become fulfilled, what enters my heart then? Do I continue to trust in God in the midst of a rotten marriage? Am I still gladly His when death tears my heart asunder? Do I see Him as the God who provides when I have been unfairly terminated late in a career or when being chased by lawyers? Is He only my God in the good times, only the Author of life when I am at ease? How dissonant that would seem to most of the body of Christ in the hovels and shantytowns of the world.

Prayer: O Lord, cause me today to go deep into You, to get my eyes off outward circumstances. I want to value only what You value, to esteem what You esteem, and that has nothing to do with the outward things of life. I choose today to die to all this, that You might raise me in newness of life.

February 9th, 2021

Submerged into Him

Mark 15:5 “Pilate was amazed.”

Observation: Jesus found Himself in the belly of legal and religious systems run amok. Religious leaders clamored for His crucifixion while Pilate, the political leader, knew what a premium Rome put on keeping the peace at all costs. So what we have here was a merging of political and religious streams, both unrighteous, into a river of agreement on one thing: Jesus must die. Inexorable movement toward that decision, motivated and fed by their own insecurities, lead political and religious leaders to attempt to extinguish the purest source of love that had ever lived. Pilate seemed to have had some clarity about what was happening, but in his own weakness and fear, he willingly participated. He knew that envy motivated the chief priests (Mark 15:10). He knew Jesus had committed no crime worthy of death (verse 14), and he seemed to have some sense of what was at stake when he insisted that the dying Jesus be identified as “King of the Jews” (John 19:21–22).

Application: The Word says, “Pilate was amazed.” He had questioned Jesus as to the claim of His kingship, and Jesus had agreed with him (see verse 2). But after that, despite Pilate’s best effort to persuade Jesus to mount a defense against the growing demands for His death, Jesus remained silent. Pilate had never encountered a man like Jesus. Accustomed as he was to making life and death decisions over countless prisoners, he surely expected to hear pleas for mercy or protestations of innocence. But this prisoner, whom Pilate knew to be innocent, did not protest. He remained silent. There would be no pleading from the Lamb of God; in silence, He would become my scapegoat. Pilate could not know that Jesus looked beyond the cross, beyond the grave. In his ignorance, Pilate was amazed.

Jesus is silent before me, too. When I want to rail again life’s unfairness, my debates with Him are maddeningly one-sided. I do all the talking, staging defenses for my position, trying to justify past or planned behavior. But despite my best efforts, He will not be drawn into such conversation; the kingdom of God is not won by effective debating points. He simply waits. Arms open, He waits. He waits for me to go through my own death experience, to lay down my rights, to finally extinguish “self.” He waits for me to become so submerged into Him that we become indistinguishable. To decrease, so He might increase. Like Pilate, I am amazed.

Prayer: Lord, I am struck once again as to how completely finished is the work You came to do. Nothing remains except for me to yield.

February 8th, 2021

Finding God’s Seat

Job 23:3 “O that I knew where I might find Him, that I might come to His seat!”

Observation: In this reading, Job declared his great longing for God. The security, comfort, and health he had once known had been stripped away, and the counsel of his friends, while well motivated, had issued from their impoverished reservoirs of the knowledge of God. So Job cried, “O that I knew where I might find Him, that I might come to His seat.” See how honest Job was in his cry, and how well he expressed the longing of every honest heart in the midst of trials? Later, in verse 16, he acknowledged that his suffering is in God’s will: “It is God who has made my heart faint, and the Almighty who has dismayed me.” Still, the deepest desire of Job’s heart was to again find himself in God’s presence.

Application: Imagine the disciple John, reclining at dinner one evening with his body pressed close in front of Jesus, his head resting on Jesus’s breast, secure in a position of intimate touch that would be unusual between men today. That’s where Job wants to be. Isn’t it interesting that Job’s heart longs to be with the very One whom he knows has made his heart faint and who has dismayed him? 

Where else am I to go? What other source of true comfort and pure love is there? The nearest example I can think of is the laboring woman who, between hard contractions, glances sharply at her husband and exclaims, “You did this to me!” But later, she gladly surrenders to his loving embrace with their newborn between them. Job longed to be nestled once again in the warm cocoon of God’s loving embrace. He stubbornly clung to the only thing he was certain of as he said in verse 10, “When He has tried me, I will come forth as gold.” Yes, Job. You did understand.

O that I would have such clear vision of God’s purposes behind the testings that come to me today. But even with the benefit of New Testament writings that clarify the purpose of suffering, I can easily lose sight of His reasons for the difficult processes He takes me through. Let Job be my example, even as he foreshadowed the still more profound sufferings of Christ. For it is through Christ’s suffering and my identification with Him in His death, burial, and resurrection that the cry of Job’s heart, and mine, is fulfilled. “O that…I might find Him, that I might come to His seat.”

Prayer: Dear Lord, You do have a plan for my life, don’t you? It unfolds without surprise to You; You are never caught off guard by what we experience. How great must be Your love for me, as You wait for my race to be completed. Thank You, Lord, for loving me as You do, through every painful circumstance of life.

February 7th, 2021

Blathering

Mark 9:7 “This is My beloved Son, listen to Him!”

Observation: Peter, James, and John had gone with Jesus to a high mountain where Jesus was transfigured into a heavenly being whose garments radiated such whiteness as to be otherworldly. Elijah and Moses then appeared for a private conversation with Jesus which was apparently going fine until Peter began foolishly blathering about building three dwellings to shelter them. His inane remarks, borne of the awe-filled sight of Jesus chatting with Moses and Elijah, completely unhinged his tongue. Fortunately, God intervened by speaking out of a cloud, “This is My beloved Son; listen to Him!”

Application: Can you imagine some of the stupid things Peter might have said had God not intervened? Jesus and the disciples were making their way to Caesarea Philippi. Wherever they had gone, massive crowds had followed, with Jesus performing the miraculous at every turn. A number of times He had taken the Twelve aside to deepen their understanding of what they were seeing and hearing. He taught at every turn, but still they continued largely in ignorance of the profound drama unfolding around them. Finally, God thundered from heaven, “Pay attention! This is My Son! Listen to Him.”

I can see myself reflected in both sides of this story. How often as a father have I done my level best to convey truth to my children even as I know they aren’t “getting it”? Either figuratively or physically, I grab their shoulders, tell them to look into my eyes and say, “Listen to me! I’m talking to You! This is important!” But I can also relate to Peter, James, and John, who find it so much easier to focus on outward things rather than to hear and see at a deeper level. “We only have two fish, and this huge crowd is hungry” (see Mark 6:38). “No Lord, don’t wash my feet!” (see John 13:6). “Can I have the seat next to You in heaven?” (see Mark 10:37). “When can a man remarry?” (see Matt. 19:9–10). On and on it goes, with understanding attuned to the physical, not the spiritual. But He says, “Listen! Pay attention! Hear Me at a deeper level. Don’t be satisfied with your current, shallow understanding!”

Prayer: O Lord, Your word says that deep calls to deep (Ps. 42:7). I want to hear and understand what You say to me moment by moment. Stir the deepest places of my being to be attuned to Your voice, Lord. Give me ears that understand, and a heart to pursue You. Thank You, Lord.

February 6th, 2021

The Ultimate Scorecard

Job 21:7 “Why do the wicked still live, continue on, also become very powerful?”

Observation: Job was responding to the angry arguments of his friend Zophar. Zophar had made the claim that a wicked man’s prosperity is brief: “The triumphing of the wicked is short, and the joy of the godless momentary” (Job 20:5). “He does not retain anything he desires” (20:20). “The increase of his house will depart; his possessions will flow away in the day of His anger” (20:28). Job argues the opposite: that the wicked often prosper. “Why do the wicked still live, continue on, also become very powerful? Their descendants are established with them in their sight…Their houses are safe from fear, and the rod of God is not on them” (21:7–9).

Application: There is transitory truth in what each of these men was saying. Ultimate truth reveals both men to be shortsighted, focused on outward appearances while ignoring eternal realities. They argued over irrelevancies, trying to make their respective cases based on examples discerned through their natural senses.

Such shortsightedness is not uncommon even today. I consider men and women in positions of great affluence and influence and aspire to be in their shoes, all the while smugly assuring myself that, if given the chance, I would use such privilege better than they. Or, I may view down-and-outers as having missed God’s best and think to myself that my “better” life would never lead to such needy circumstances. But the ultimate scorecard is His, and in its writing He will not consult the latest Forbes ranking of billionaires; He cares not a bit for blueblood titles. Being recorded in the Lamb’s Book is not guaranteed for Nobel winners nor denied because of the abject poverty in which most of the world lives.

Only one question matters: “What have you done with My Son?” It is my personal answer to this query that creates my destiny. While Job and Zophar argue irrelevancies, God simply asks, “What have you done with My Son?”

Prayer: Lord Jesus, I confess I have been guilty of looking at outward circumstances and from that, judging the heart. How wrong that is! Forgive me, Lord. I’m thankful that You look upon men’s hearts, including mine, to lead me into eternal reward. Keep me near You today.