RESOLVING ANGST

Christ-following, Discipleship, Worship

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.

Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what he has done has been done through God. John 3:16-21

A few weeks ago I shared my nomination for Best Gospel Passage as Titus 2:11-14. This flies in the face of the majority of Christendom who prefer John 3:16. My stated position is that the former gives a more complete version of the work of grace. Not wanting to be completely dismissive of most believers Favorite Verse, I now take up John 3. Yes, there’s my issue: I can’t blithely quote verse 16 without the context of the whole of John 3.

The conversation with Nicodemus centered around the way to see the kingdom of God, which is contingent on being born again. Jesus explained that ‘born first’ is birth via the flesh, the birth of our natural selves. But to be ‘born again’ is birth via the Spirit. Nicodemus experienced a brain tilt over this concept and Jesus gently chided him since he was a Pharisee, one who was responsible to teach the people of Israel the ways of God. Rather than giving an intellectual explanation of how one is born again, Jesus told Nicodemus that what he really needed was to believe in Him. He cited an incident from Israel’s history as an illustration: “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.” (John 3:14-15) The incident He referred to is found in Numbers 21:4-9 When I read this story, I find the worldly thought patterns that crop up by auto-pilot asking their regular type of questions: “How does that work? How does a bronze snake on a pole cure people of deadly snake bites?” I am bent to want to understand rather than believe. I think Nicodemus was thinking like me and Jesus doesn’t satisfy that desire for him or for me. He puts a much higher premium on belief and gives understanding in time, sometimes not until after the Day of Christ.

Because my above-mentioned thought patterns are persistent, I proceed to try to understand what it means to believe. I wonder this both to reassure my own heart, since so much depends on it and also to better teach others. I am commissioned to preach the gospel and I want to help others understand how to believe, too. But John 3 doesn’t indulge this desire to understand. Instead of straining to get the scripture to give me what I want, I have to yield to the Spirit and let Him instruct me with what it actually says. Verse 8 says, “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” It took me years before this ‘aha’ broke in on me: I had no choice in being born of the flesh. It was an occurrence that happened through the choices of other people. My responsibility has been to take what I was given and make good on it. This is particularly relevant for me because the choices those other people made were never intended to result in ME. That was an unlooked-for consequence. This has caused me periodic seasons of existential crisis. So for me to acknowledge my healthy response is no small thing nor was it automatic. That said (that ‘born of the flesh’ is not voluntary), what makes us think that to be born of the Spirit is? The weight of scripture reinforces to truth that it is solely the choice of God. Our responsibility is to make good on it.

So here’s the wrap up of my rambling thought (trust me: the real-time process was very long and rambling): Instead of trying to figure out what it means to believe in order to be born again, being born again is the work of God and, if I have been, I will believe. Belief is the indicator of the saving work of God, not the initiator. My Wesleyan Arminian upbringing made it hard for me to get around to this, but I want my thoughts to flow with the Word, not a tradition. For years, the Spirit has kept pressing upon me the sovereignty of God and I have struggled with existential angst similar to that of my natural birth. The last verse of John 3 brings me to a place of peace: “But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what he has done has been done through God.” God births His own through the Spirit and the hearing of the Gospel brings the response of belief in those He has drawn to Himself. I don’t choose them. They do not choose themselves. He does it. We respond. That is the end of the matter.

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THE ETERNAL MARVEL

Christ-following, Discipleship, Uncategorized

Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the goal of your faith, the salvation of your souls.

Concerning this salvation, the prophets, who spoke of the grace that was to come to you, searched intently and with the greatest care, trying to find out the time and circumstances to which the Spirit of Christ in them was pointing when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow. It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves but you, when they spoke of the things that have now been told you by those who have preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven. Even angels long to look into these things. 1 Peter 1:8-12

Peter wrote enduring words that have resonated with hope and courage in the hearts of God’s elect for generations. I am one who has been greatly encouraged by them. When I consider the goal of my faith, the salvation of my soul, I am strengthened and filled with joy. But I find throughout the Word the indications that my and all humanity’s salvation, absorbing as it is to us, is a source of wonder to the rest of creation that causes them to be in awe of Christ, not of us. We are not the most interesting part of the story.

I have meditated on this a lot over the years. This paragraph in 1 Peter is one of the prompts. It first considers the prophets. I have great respect for the prophets. They were a motley cast of characters with diverse backgrounds, but they all wound up with something in common: They caught a glimpse of Christ and it ruined them for anything else. Granted, some saw longer glimpses than others, but for all of them, it was as if the shutter opened for an instant to reveal a flash of what was to come and then closed again, leaving them with inexplicable images that were, nonetheless, vivid enough to consume them with longing to see more. “[They] searched intently and with the greatest care…” They glimpsed the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow and the marvel of it enthralled them. No individual saw very much and collectively, though the people of God understood from them that Messiah was coming, no one saw the full, appalling truth of how Messiah would save His people. Jesus himself, in his resurrected state, had to put the pieces together for them and bring them to that “Aha” of understanding that made the truly committed believers who would go on to their deaths proclaiming the gospel to the nations. Thus the faithfulness of the prophets was fulfilled, when their words became reality: Christ suffered and glory followed.

But it is the last sentence of the above paragraph from 1 Peter that intrigues me more: “Even angels long to look into these things.” I know I am absurdly unqualified to intelligently guess what goes on in the minds of angels, but working with the bits I have in scripture, this is what I imagine. As creatures with no experience of personal sin, but are instead those intimately acquainted with the beauty of the holiness of the Godhead, they also had to have been unable to anticipate the lengths that He would go to to redeem wretched mankind. They know that we are dust animated by His breath, flesh and spirit combined, who squandered the spirit and separated ourselves from our Glory. They know that He is the maker of heaven and earth, holy and eternal, to whom all honor and obedience belongs. Yet they witness His persistent interaction with us, not treating us as our sins deserve and revealing himself to this unworthy mass with glimpses that they probably couldn’t decipher any better than Isaiah, Ezekiel or their brethren. The prophets knew the need for our salvation. The angels knew the glory of God. Neither had the others’ depth of insight. And no one knew the fullness of the heart of God but He Himself. So as the story unfolded, everyone was stunned and awed at what God did. And He is not done yet. Until the Day of Christ, all creation watches with wonder to see how He will complete the tale. And from what I read in Revelation, we will all, mankind and angels and the rest of creation that we are yet unacquainted with, will bow down before the throne, proclaiming our praise of what He did. Each will be able to praise Him for the part we experienced, with the various points of view enriching the story to increase our awe of Him. But that’s the point I want to emphasize: it will all be about Him.

I am grateful that He is saving me. I recognize what I deserve and have an inkling of what is in store for me instead, because of His great mercy. But more and more, I realize that the best part of my salvation is that I will be able to contribute my wee bit, my testimony, to the glorious account of God’s goodness that all creation will be recounting for eternity. It is, and always will be, all about Him.

THE BRIDE AND BROKEN CISTERNS

Christ-following, Discipleship, Worship

The word of the Lord came to me: “Go and proclaim in the hearing of Jerusalem:

“I remember the devotion of your youth, how as a bride you loved me and followed me through the desert, through a land not sown. Israel was holy to the Lord, the firstfruits of his harvest; all who devoured her were held guilty, and disaster overtook them,” declares the Lord.

Hear the word of the Lord, O house of Jacob, all you clans of the house of Israel. This is what the Lord says:

“What fault did your fathers find in me, that they strayed so far from me? They followed worthless idols and became worthless themselves. They did not ask, ‘Where is the Lord, who brought us up out of Egypt and led us through the barren wilderness, through a land of deserts and rifts, a land of drought and darkness, a land where no one travels and no one lives?’

I brought you into a fertile land to eat its fruit and rich produce. But you came and defiled my land and made my inheritance detestable. The priests did not ask, ‘Where is the Lord?’ Those who deal with the law did not know me; the leaders rebelled against me. The prophet prophesied by Baal, following worthless idols.

“Therefore I bring charges against you again,” declares the Lord. “And I will bring charges against your children’s children. Cross over to the coasts of Kittim and look, send to Kedar and observe closely; see if there has ever been anything like this: Has a nation ever changed its gods: (Yet they are not gods at all.) But my people have exchanged their Glory for worthless idols.

Be appalled at this, O heavens, and shudder with great horror,” declares the Lord. “My people have committed two sins: They have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water.” Jeremiah 2:1-13

 I know I tend to include long passages of scripture with my articles, but the alternative is to cherry-pick a pertinent excerpt and then summarize the parts I left out. This is not always feasible. Sometimes the Word must speak for itself. Such is the case today with Jeremiah 2.

This passage has always weighed heavy with me. It calls the people of God to remembrance of a state of communion that so obviously pleased the Lord and then proceeds to such a strong indictment. I am always compelled to soberly reflect on my own state of relationship and sometimes to quake for the state of the Church.

It begins with the remembrance: “I remember the devotion of your youth, how as a bride you loved me and followed me through the desert…” This describes a relationship of perfect love and trust. I see a bride so in love and confidence with her husband that where ever He is is home and is safe and is perfect. Even in the desert, the unsown place of drought and darkness, all that mattered was that He was there, leading the way. He was enough. He led her through the barren wilderness, keeping her safe and providing for her until she was led into a fertile place to settle.

But then the relationship changed. He was not her all in all anymore. In the fertile place, with need and danger seemingly far away, she grew comfortable and forgetful. Where once His Presence was the single most important need in her whole world, now she no longer even asks where He is. She no longer asks because she prefers a less demanding lover who speaks more pleasant words. God’s summary of the situation is “…my people have exchanged their Glory for worthless idols.” I have always been moved by the inclusion of the capitalization of ‘Glory’ in the NIV. To me, it emphasizes that their Glory is a Person with whom they had relationship, only to abandon Him for a cheap imitation.

At this point, God brings the indictment. He declares, “Be appalled at this, O heavens, and shudder with great horror. My people have committed two sins: They have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water.” I am confident that the unstained members of Creation who dwell in heaven and observe the goings on here on earth do not need to be commanded to be appalled and horrified. I’m sure their sinless eyes see clearly the devastating choice God’s people made and continue to make. It makes no sense. It is inconceivable. How could anyone who had once beheld Glory be turned away to inanimate idols? How could anyone who had once drunk from the spring of living water reject it in favor of stagnant tanks that leak and grow fetid? And yet they did and yet we do. Can there be anything more appalling?

Every time I read Jeremiah 2, I weep for I am a digger of cisterns. There is no explanation for it other than that I am a sinner. How desperately I need my Savior! I am one who will exchange my Glory for a worthless idol and I don’t understand why. I know it happens when I want to exert an illusion of control. But the cisterns I dig really do fail to hold water and the idols I reach out to truly are worthless. But I return to the Lord for my salvation. I ask again, “Where is the Lord?” because it is the only sane thing to do under the circumstances. And do you know what happens when I do? He forgives me and receives me! How is that possible?! I participate in that which horrifies heaven and He pardons and cleanses and restores me. That must be even more amazing to the heavenly onlookers than anything else.

If this passage speaks to and accuses you, I encourage you to do the same. Abandon your cistern and run back to the Spring. Drop the idol and seek Glory. He promises to be found by the earnest ones who seek Him.

HOPE OF HEAVEN

Christ-following, Discipleship, Worship

After this I looked, and there before me was a door standing open in heaven. And the voice I had first heard speaking to me like a trumpet said, “Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this.”

At once I was in the Spirit, and there before me was a throne in heaven with someone sitting on it. And the one who sat there had the appearance of jasper and carnelian. A rainbow, resembling an emerald, encircled the throne. Surrounding the throne were twenty-four other thrones, and seated on them were twenty-four elders. They were dressed in white and had crowns of gold on their heads. From the throne came flashes of lightning, rumblings and peals of thunder. Before the throne, seven lamps were blazing. These are the seven spirits of God. Also before the throne there was what looked like a sea of glass, clear as crystal.

In the center, around the throne, were four living creatures, and they were covered with eyes, in front and in back. The first living creature was like a lion, the second was like an ox, the third had a face like a man, the fourth was like a flying eagle. Each of the four living creatures had six wings and was covered with eyes all around, even under his wings. Day and night they never stop saying;

“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was, and is, and is to com.”

Whenever the living creatures give glory, honor and thanks to him who sits o the throne and who lives for ever and ever, the twenty-four elders fall down before him who sits on the throne, and worship him who lives for ever and ever. They lay their crowns before the throne and say:

“You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they were created and have their being.” Revelation 4:1-11

 

A few days ago, I marked the anniversary of my life in Christ: 40 years. I was nine years old when I first prayed to be born again in response to an invitation given at a children’s Halloween costume party. I knew nothing from the scripture except for the basic details from the Christmas story. Needless to say, my understanding of God and His creation were unformed or fictitious. Over time, I read the Word and received revelation and understanding from the Holy Spirit. One concept that underwent major renovation was my understanding and anticipation of heaven. All I had gleaned from books and the kids on the playground who had been taught more than me turned out to be radically different from what I read in scripture. My childish picture of heaven was a place where one experienced a better version of all the best parts of this life. It was a happy, fun, and rather self-indulgent place where I would get to endlessly do all the things I liked best with all my favorite people and pets.

I tried to wrap my imagination around the descriptions recorded by Isaiah and the Apostle John, but their versions seemed so foreign to mine. First and foremost, they make it clear that God is the center of attention and no one seems to be preoccupied with themselves or their long-lost loved ones. Secondly, the scenes they recount include beings that are obviously hard to describe because they were so different from anything known on the earth. Finally, the activity of heaven is so emphatically focused on worship. “Day and night they never stop saying: ‘Holy, holy, holy…’”

Here comes my childish confession that remained true beyond my childish years: I could not imagine an eternity of perpetually repeated worship. I’ve been in church services where the worship leader repeated a song or a chorus a few times too many and I found my heart growing cool. I have served as a worship leader and I have observed the same problem in others. We do not seem to have the passion or the attention span to keep repeating “Holy, holy, holy” and not revert to autopilot. I was confronted, in honest moments of prayer and reflection, with the possibility that I wasn’t suited for heaven. What a devastating admission! What hope is there if that which is promised is undesirable!

But our God is merciful and compassionate. “He knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust.” (Psalms 103:14) When we honestly confess the truth, He meets us with redemption. When I asked for help with the pitiful condition of my soul, He gave revelation and insight.

About this time, a friend of mine visited Yosemite National Park for the first time and recounted her experience to me. She told me about a jaw-dropping vista she saw and how all she could say was, “Wow!” Then she hiked a bit further along the trail, turned a corner and was confronted with a whole new view of beauty. Again, all that came out of her mouth was, “Wow!” The next bend in the trail, new scenery, “Wow!” She told me that she spoke little else that day beyond a steady repetition of “Wow!” She said that she was sure she could have continued hiking for a week or more and never come to the end of uniquely beautiful scenes, each one eliciting another “Wow!” Recounted to a third party, her monologue would sound boring quickly. But for her, each “Wow!” was not a repetition but a fresh, spontaneous expression of wonder and awe at each new revelation of glory.

When I heard this story, I started crying for joy. I understood Revelation 4 with a clarity of insight that forever changed me. God is infinite in all of His attributes. All that is created is not. Though the four living creatures before the throne seem quite exalted beyond you or me, they, too, are created and therefore are not infinite. Heaven is the opportunity to come before the Uncreated and know Him better…and there is no end to Him. Created beings stand before His infinite glory, receiving revelation after revelation and responding with fresh, spontaneous expressions of wonder and awe. Day and night they never stop saying, “Holy, holy, holy…” This is the living creatures version of my friend’s “Wow!” No auto-pilot. No wandering attention. Perpetual, jaw-dropping, breathtaking awe for ever and ever. Who would want anything else?

I am forty years in Christ. Later this month I will turn fifty. My anticipation of heaven grows year by year and I find my spirit longing to be before Him. All that I know of Him stirs longing to know Him better. I cannot think of anything better than to receive more of him for eternity. “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was, and is, and is to come.” Wow!

HIS DIVINE POWER ENABLES HIS DIVINE NATURE

Christ-following, Discipleship, Worship

His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature and escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires. For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. But if anyone does not have them, he is nearsighted and blind, and has forgotten that he has been cleansed from his past sins. 2 Peter 1:3-9

I want you to look at that first sentence above and mull on those words for a bit. “His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness…” First of all…WOW! Is our God generous or what! But most of us are immediately confronted with the fact that we don’t seem to be utilizing everything that we have been given and might not have a clue how to lay our hands on it. If we read the rest of the sentence, the reason presents itself: “…through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness.” If you go back through the previous articles I have written for this blog, you’ll see that this issue of knowing Him is a repeated theme. This is why! So much depends on my knowledge of Him. Not about Him, but Him personally, intimately, actually. He initiated relationship with me and has persistently revealed His glory and goodness, but if I’m not paying attention or if I become myopic and forget Him or I listen to my own thoughts more than His Voice and His Word so that I magnify my ideas over Him, then I don’t know Him and I don’t access the ‘everything I need’. But His divine power has given it, nonetheless.

“Through these [his own glory and goodness] he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature and escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires.” Our gloriously good God has been revealing Himself to His people for generations and has communicated many very great and precious promises. They resound throughout the scripture for our strengthening and encouragement, but most fundamentally, so that we can know the God we serve. He is gracious and compassionate, loving and forgiving, holy and just, wise and powerful, righteous and good. This is His divine nature and it is in His image that we were created. The Fall marred that image horribly, and thus, we are mired in the corruption in the world caused by our and everyone else’s evil desires. But He took the initiative to redeem us and restore us so that we can now live in godliness and participate in His same nature. But we can’t remotely begin without knowing Him. Only God can demonstrate, define or teach godliness.

“For this reason, make every effort to add to your faith…” Faith to goodness to knowledge to self-control to perseverance to godliness to brotherly kindness to love. This is our road home, the path of life, the way of the divine nature. Make every effort to add them. That still amounts to knowing Him, hearing Him, learning from Him, yielding to Him. But I am exhorted to make every effort: pray, worship, read the Word, repent, do what it says.

“For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. But if anyone does not have them, he is nearsighted and blind, and has forgotten that he has been cleansed from his past sins.” Like I said, God is not stingy, but if I fail to cooperate with Him, I will squander the life-giving knowledge He pours out on me. Make the effort to participate in His divine nature and life and godliness will abound effectively and productively.

This Word should be encouraging. I know there is a temptation for some (like me) to take a wrong turn down the path of discouragement because, self-absorbed as we are, we look at all the missed opportunities and play the ‘I tried but it didn’t work’ card. Or others can take another wrong path with anger and offense at the suggestion that their level of godliness is lacking anything. I pray for us all, that we will avoid these fruitless positions and, instead, take heart from God’s very great and precious promises and press in to know Him better and participate in His divine nature.

THE GOSPEL IN A NUTSHELL

Christ-following, Discipleship, Worship

For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men. It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope – the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good. Titus 2:11-14

During my lifetime, John 3:16 has been recognized as the #1 verse in the Bible and the basis of most modern, American gospel presentations. Bumper stickers and signs at football games proclaim to all the way to be saved. I’m not going to dispute that this verse is encouraging, but unless it is included with at least the rest of the third chapter of John, I think it tells an incomplete story. In the one verse, we learn that God is loving and sacrificially generous, and that belief in the Son is the difference between perishing and eternal life. All true, but as I said, an incomplete story.

I would like to submit Titus 2:11-14 as a better alternative, in terms of clarity and brevity, for communicating the gospel message. Please allow me to elaborate my thinking:

“For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men.” Grace is unmerited favor and John 3:16 could be referred to as a great example of what that looks like. Here, Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross is included in that grace, but it is not the whole picture. And salvation-bringing grace has appeared to all men (humanity). All need it. All have access to it.

“It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passion, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age,…. “ IT would be the grace of God referred to in the first verse. As I said, unmerited favor extends beyond the work of the cross and includes the work of the Holy Spirit whom Christ sent to continue what he started. Grace teaches us. We are not left to figure it out by ourselves or be browbeaten by others into modified behavior. Grace teaches us how to say “No” and “Yes”. Before grace begins its instructive work, we cannot even scratch the surface of right awareness of what ungodliness and worldly passions are because they are all we have known. We might be able to identify ungodly deeds we have done, but we cannot know the depths of the motives and thought patterns that grace will point to and teach us to say “No”. And the idea that an unredeemed person can formulate a correct idea of what a self-controlled, upright and godly life is made of is preposterous. We can’t. Only God is qualified to define ‘godly’. But the grace of God can teach us (and this is particularly powerful) in this present age. We will be made perfect on the day of Christ, but we can, with the grace of God, be moving in that direction in this present age.

“….while we wait for the blessed hope – the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ,….” When John 3:16 speaks of the promise of eternal life, I have heard most believers elaborate their own ideas of what that includes: health, clean air and sunshine, reunion with loved ones, friends and pets, endless leisure to pursue their favorite activities. But when I read the scripture, the only thing that seems to matter is the Presence. The heroes of the faith and the prophets who had visions of eternity all seem profoundly preoccupied with the glorious appearing and rest all their hope on that. Anything less seems to make for unsubstantial faith.

“….who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.” The beginning and completion of the work of grace. Jesus’ death on the cross began the act of redemption – from all wickedness, that we are utterly unable to extract ourselves from – but also to…something new. Too often, the gospel presentation is about what we are rescued from, leaving the what now as a vague idea about being good and going to church until we die and go to that happy place of sunshine and reunion. Here in Titus and truthfully, throughout the Word, we’re told this: “to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.” Through the instructive work of grace we are purified, not for our own glory, but to be more intimately identified with Christ, to the point that not only our understanding of what is good is aligned with his, but our desire to participate in doing good becomes singular and without competing interests.

Know many Christians who can be described like that? Does that describe you? It’s not me, yet, but it is the word of my encouragement. Whenever I lose my way or become discouraged at the either the magnitude of my sinfulness or the persistent discipline of the Holy Spirit, I come back to Titus 2:11-14. The grace of God that brings salvation….It teaches us….in this present age….the blessed hope….gave himself for us….to purify a people that are his very own….Grace is still at work and redemption is ongoing. Blessed be He!

Whether I am encouraging my own spirit, instructing another Christ-follower or presenting the gospel to someone who doesn’t know Christ, I find this passage of tremendous value and help. What a great summary of the whole story of the Good News!

SEHNSUCHT

Christ-following, Discipleship, Worship

How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord Almighty! My soul yearns, even faints, for the courts of the Lord; my heart and my flesh cry out for the living God. Even the sparrow has found a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may have her young – a place near your altar, O Lord Almighty, my King and my God. Blessed are those who dwell in your house; they are ever praising you. Blessed are those whose strength is in you, who have set their hearts on pilgrimage. As they pass through the Valley of Baca, they make it a place of springs; the autumn rains also cover it with pools. They go from strength to strength, till each appears before God in Zion. Hear my prayer, O Lord God Almighty; listen to me, O God of Jacob. Look upon our shield, O God; look with favor on your anointed one. Better is one day in your courts than a thousand elsewhere; I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of the wicked. For the Lord God is a sun and shield; the Lord bestows favor and honor; no good thing does he withhold from those whose walk is blameless. O Lord Almigty, blessed is the man who trusts in you. Psalm 84

Since I was a child, I have experienced a pain in my heart that I have spent my life trying to articulate with the hope of easing the ache. At various stages I have tried words like ‘longing’, ‘yearning’, ‘desire’, ‘craving’, ‘pining’, ‘homesickness’ and, nearly 50 as I am, I would say that all of those words are valid. I have more recently discovered the German word ‘sehnsucht’ which seems to encapsulate all of the above in one word. There have been distinct moments throughout my life when bits of satisfaction have come, but they have always been incomplete and fleeting. They have served to intensify, rather than mitigate, the longing. They stand as memorials or landmarks that to point to that SOMETHING that I continue to yearn for. I can recall those moments or sensations with pristine clarity: The day I discovered small basin near my home that was, for that one day, completely filled with buttercups so that, when I sat at the bottom, all I could see was shiny gold all around me and blue sky above. Hiking up a hill covered with old growth evergreens on a foggy day and reaching the summit in dazzling sunlight on an island surrounded by a sea of fog. Listening to Massennet’s Meditation or music from George Winston. Standing on the shore after a storm. Particular days in corporate worship when the Presence of the Lord left me weeping and shaking with joy and such inconsolable longing to remain that I did not want to get up off the floor. The pain was in the moments because of how deeply they pierced me with joy and remained because the moments were fleeting and could not be repeated at will. The flowers faded. The fog rolled away. The songs or times of worship did not provoke the same sensation with repetition. I was left with a desire that I could not fulfill.

One very important point about this sensation: while I describe it as a pain, it is not a pain that I want to go away. In fact, the thought of it fading away without satisfaction is a horrible thought. I use its presence and intensity as one of the gauges of the health of my heart. If I find it absent, I strive to remember those moments when it was most profound, heeding the warning in Revelation 2:5, “Remember the height from which you have fallen!” This is because I have learned that what I long for is my place near God’s altar. I was made for Him and, though there are experiences in this life that are hints of the fullness that is Him, they are only that. C. S. Lewis called them “tantalizing glimpses, promises never quite fulfilled, echoes that died away just as they caught your ear.”

Lewis also wrote, “Our commonest expedient is to call it beauty and behave as if that had settled the matter. Wordsworth’s expedient was to identify it with certain moments in his own past. But all this is a cheat. If Wordsworth had gone back to those moments in the past, he would not have found the thing itself, but only the reminder of it; what he remembered would turn out to be itself a remembering. The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things — the beauty, the memory of our own past — are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.” (Lewis is my favorite author primarily because he put this most intimate of pains into words that brought understanding and encouragement. Bless him!)

Though I ache for that which I have never completely had, I believe I will. This is my living hope, my inheritance kept in heaven, the goal of my faith. I ache for Him and that ache is precious to me. It is in this that I am most alive. Paul said, “For while we are in this tent, we groan and are burdened, because we do not wish to be unclothed but to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. Now it is God who has made us for this very purpose and has given us the Spirit as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.” (2 Corinthians 5:4-5)

Do you ache for Him? Consider you own moments of piercing joy and translate up. You were made for Him and will never know joy apart from Him.

ENTER THE SANCTUARY

Christ-following, Discipleship, Worship

Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. Those who are far from you will perish; you destroy all who are unfaithful to you. But as for me, it is good to be near God. I have made the Sovereign Lord my refuge; I will tell of all your deeds. Psalm 73:25-28

Please read all of Psalm 73. This confession of Asaph, the worship leader of the people of Israel under King David (see 1 Chronicles 16:1-37 and 25:6-7), is a valuable bit of insight that, at some point in life, will likely be very relevant to any believer. He begins, “Surely God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart. But as for me, my feet had almost slipped; I had nearly lost my foothold.” (v.1-2) Sound familiar? Have you ever nearly (or actually) lost your foothold? Even if the issue you were slipping on was different than Asaph’s, you can feel empathy with the condition. I’m here to tell you, even before I talk about the problem Asaph had, that the solution he found is universally applicable. Even if you never fall into his particular pit, the remedy works for all of the pits.

That said, let’s consider his pit, because it’s a big, yawning one that many fall into. “For I envied the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.” (v.3) Asaph became jealous of the godless. He described their freedom to do whatever they felt like. He claimed that they lived lives of ease and easy wealth. He began to resent the life of discipline and purity to which he was called. His lot began to feel like a burden and he became bitter. His climax to this pity party was “All day long I have been plagued; I have been punished every morning.” (v.14) Not a good headspace for anyone, let alone the worship leader of Israel. He acknowledged how unacceptable this attitude was by stating, “If I had said, ‘I will speak thus,’ I would have betrayed your children.” (v.15) Jesus said that men are defiled by what comes out of their mouths and verbalizing his wretched thoughts would have defiled Asaph and been harmful to those under his leadership. There is no room for such unfaithful thoughts for believers, but even worse is the venting of them to others. We have a responsibility to build up the Body. Asaph realized that his thoughts had the potential to tear down the faith of his people.

“Surely God is good to Israel.” As Asaph continues in his testimony, things were becoming oppressive “till I entered the sanctuary of God.” (v.17a) Everything changed with the revelation of God and His goodness. Asaph was brought to a right perspective and he realized with clarity the temporal nature of this life in comparison with eternity. Suddenly, everything looked different. He saw the looming disaster in store for the wicked. He saw the goodness of God. He saw his true desire. And he saw the great mercy shown to him.

Asaph found the solution to his wretched condition in the place of worship. His theme song was “He is good; his love endures forever” (2 Chronicles 5:13b) and, when he gave himself to that truth, he saw how true it was. Think about how good God was to Asaph. After rescuing him and drawing him back to Himself, He prospered the ministry of worship in Israel under David, and then under Solomon, so much so that on the day that the Ark of the Covenant is brought into the newly constructed temple, Asaph and the other Levitical priests who led worship were pressed to the ground by the glory of the Lord that filled the temple. I don’t know about you, but that has always stood as one of the gold-standard days of worship in history. And Asaph was there as the one who had decided, “But as for me, it is good to be near God.”

Enter the sanctuary.  Worship His goodness.  Seek right perspective in His Presence.  There is nothing else worthy to desire besides Him.

THE MANY AND THE FEW

Christ-following, Discipleship, Worship

Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it. Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them. Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles? Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’ Matthew 7:13-23

This passage has always been very potent to me. It is as if the Holy Spirit used a supernatural highlighter to ensure that I took notice. I have endeavored to heed and come back regularly, lest I forget. I read in it a warning to not be influenced by appearances or by popular opinion and the stakes are very high. Failure to heed can result in destruction, ravaging by wolves, being thrown into the fire and repudiation by Jesus Himself, none of which I want anything to do with. We are exhorted to find the small gate and narrow road to life and those good trees that are sometimes obscured by the forest of bad ones. We are called to be genuine subjects of the actual Lord and not busy name-droppers. But this alternative lifestyle has temporal consequences that, if we are not careful, can intimidate us back onto the broad road.

It is difficult to choose to be numbered among the few rather than the many. The many do not endorse the choices of the few. There is, temporarily, strength in numbers and the many have a tendency to use it against those who have the audacity to be different. Additionally, the odds are great that people you love and desire the good opinion of are amongst the many and so the pressure increases. But is that any reason to march off to destruction with them?

How about the warning against false prophets and bad trees? Jesus tells us to look for good fruit as verification of a good source. This seems easy, but apparently is harder that we’d like to think. What does good fruit look like? I think Galatians 5:22-23 is an excellent, though not exhaustive, list of what we should be on the watch for: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” I just want to point out that the fruit of the Spirit was perfectly on display in the life of Jesus and, if you were to pick out specific anecdotes and put yourself in them, you might realize the problem with objectively acknowledging good fruit. Could Peter have taken offense at Jesus when He responded to his well-intentioned rebuke with, ‘Get behind me, Satan’ (Matthew 16:21-23)? Could James and John have been miffed when Jesus refused their request for favor (Mark 10:35-45)? Is it difficult to imagine someone (surely not Peter, James, John or you) getting their panties in a twist in those situations and making a case that Jesus was not loving or gentle or good? And yet a right perspective readily acknowledges that He was all of those things and perfectly so in those cases. He was single-minded in His mission to serve the Father’s will and lead His disciples to do the same. The issue is that often the only fruit we consider good is the fruit that gives me what I want. That’s what false prophets preach most often and that’s how ferocious wolves disguise themselves so successfully as fluffy, appealing, non-threatening sheep. The best ones give us what we want: affirmation, endorsement, directions to the wide gate and many companions.

To me, the preceding verses are build-up to the stark words in verses 20-23. I visualize the scene with trembling. It is the Day of Christ, the day on which Jesus takes up His authority to separate the sheep from the goats, the wheat from the chaff. Each of us will stand before Him to receive His righteous judgment. And as He has oft repeated, many will be taken by surprise at what they hear. He clearly states that the frequent use of ‘Lord, Lord’ or even supernatural activity in that name does not qualify one for the kingdom of heaven. Pay attention to what He says as well as what He does not say. Only those who do the will of the Father enter in. He states, ‘Many (there’s that scary word many again) will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’  Note that He doesn’t refute their claims. They apparently did prophesy, drive out demons and perform miracles (many of them!). And surely, there are a corresponding many who think they are overflowing with godliness. But none of that matters. They are not sent away for false claims. They are sent away because He never knew them. They are not His because they did not do the will of the Father. They imitate the activity of Jesus but do not imitate His obedience. And yet that is the crucial thing. On that broad road populated by the many are the whole spectrum of mankind, from the unapologetic pagan to the busy ministry worker. But they have lots of approving company and so are easily deceived into believing that they must be on the right path. The Day of revelation to the contrary will be grievous indeed.

Jesus calls us to the small gate, the narrow road, the good fruit and the will of the Father. These are the ones He claims as His own. Let the supernatural highlighter mark your spirit with this critical Word. Your eternity depends on it.

RIGHT PERSPECTIVE

Christ-following, Discipleship, Worship

Praise the Lord, O my soul; all my inmost being, praise his holy name. Praise the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits – who forgives all your sins and heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the pit and crowns you with love and compassion, who satisfies your desires with good things so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s. The Lord works righteousness and justice for all the oppressed. He made known his ways to Moses, his deeds to the people of Israel. The Lord is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love. He will not always accuse, nor will he harbor his anger forever; he does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us. As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him; for he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust. As for man, his days are like grass, he flourishes like a flower of the field; the wind blows over it and it is gone, and its place remembers it no more. But from everlasting to everlasting the Lord’s love is with those who fear him, and his righteousness with their children’s children – with those who keep his covenant and remember to obey his precepts. The Lord has established his throne in heaven, and his kingdom rules over all. Praise the Lord, you his angels, you mighty ones who do his bidding, who obey his word. Praise the Lord, all his heavenly hosts, you his servants who do his will. Praise the Lord, all his works everywhere in his dominion. Praise the Lord, O my soul. Psalm 103

I have become convinced over the years that one the most needed things that I require from God is right perspective. Faith, hope, love, peace, patience, clarity in prayer and right attitude are all affected by my perspective. When I become myopic, overly focused on myself and what is immediately around me, all of the above is weakened and I can lose my way. But with right perspective, what seemed like a mountain becomes a proper molehill and all the Spirit offers me becomes accessible. So instead of beginning prayer with a list of needs compiled according to my circumstances, I ask for God’s perspective first. It almost always edits that list and changes the landscape.

Psalm 103 has been one of His most effective tools to help me restore right perspective. I was prompted to memorize it and repeat it often to myself. It has been amazingly therapeutic! Composed by David, it is a wonderfully concise exhortation to get my head on straight. He begins with a direct command: Praise the Lord! In his wisdom, he worded it in such a way that I must command myself: “Praise the Lord, O my soul.” And lest I fall into the trap of feebly offering up generalities, he commands me to praise Him for specifics. All His benefits: forgiveness of my sins, healing for my diseases (physical, mental, spiritual), redemption from the pit, a crown of love and compassion, provision of good things, righteousness and justice. That’s quite a list and I cannot repeat it without a shift in the position of my spirit to a place of humble gratitude because He really has done all of those things for me. It’s crazy how a skewed perspective can actually cause me to forget His benefits, but it happens. Thus the need for the command: “forget not”! The psalmist continues with revelation God has given of Himself to His people throughout the ages: His compassion, grace, patience, love, forgiveness, forbearance. I am encouraged by all He has shown of Himself because He never changes. One of my favorite verses in this psalm is verse 14: “…for he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust.” Talk about right perspective! He is so compassionate toward my frailty because He made me and knows me. I am dust! I am short-lived. But He is everlasting and everlastingly Himself. Finally, David exhorts all those that have been created: His angels, His heavenly host, His works…and ME to praise the Lord. I am not the center, I am one of His vast creation and I was made to praise Him. THAT is right perspective. Now I in a better position to pray and recognize His will and walk in it.

I encourage you to spend some time meditating on Psalm 103, maybe even to memorize it. I am confident that it will do you good and keep your perspective healthy.