Joyful Incompetence

I was driving home yesterday, listening to a song that was talking about Christ coming in the form of a man and being crucified, (it was more upbeat than it sounds, I swear!)  that referred to Christ’s words on the cross: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34a).  I’ve always thought of that in light of the Roman soldiers who were torturing and crucifying Jesus without any grasp of what the Sanhedrin was really doing, or who He really was — in its context in Luke, it does seem to be referring to that.  But as I was listening to that, it hit me in a whole new way: Jesus was talking about all of us.  Jesus was talking about me.

A lot of our difficulties in life are from a lack of understanding.  From when we are children and fall or break things because we don’t really have a grip on the whole gravity concept (or are teaching ourselves about it through extensive experimentation!), to when we are teenagers and do crazy things because we really lack an understanding of our own mortality or the long-term consequences of our actions, many of our mistakes come from just not really getting the full picture.

I like to think of myself as a competent person, someone who does a good job (or given my standards, an excellent job) at whatever task is in front of me.  I like to feel like I know what I’m talking about and make it a point to do my research before I speak about something so I’m not saying something that I don’t feel pretty confident in.  I like to do things really well, and it drives me crazy when I can’t do something excellently because of circumstances or having too much on my plate or whatever.  I am all about being competent – capable, knowledgeable, experienced, skilled and all the other synonyms that go with it.  I want to know what I’m doing and do it well, and to be respected for both.

Everyone has their idols.  Some worship money and would do anything to get more, while others worship attractiveness, or pleasing others.  For me, competence would have to be one of the biggest idols.  I’ve always wanted to feel like I am competent, and anything that bumps up against that has revealed to me by my reaction that this is waaaaaaaaay more important to me than it should be.  Someone says something that seems to come across like they doubt I can do something (God help them!), or like I don’t know what I’m talking about, and I can just feel the “claws” coming out in my mind and heart, even if by the grace of God I don’t come across that way to them or say or do something that shows how much it really bothers me.  I really think being competent by my standards and being perceived as competent is my cow made of earrings.  Or at least the biggest one.

So what does this have to do with Jesus saying to “forgive them for they know not what they do”?  It hit me as I was driving along with the force of a lightning bolt: Jesus was talking about meI am the one who is doing things without really knowing what I am doing or grasping the magnitude or consequences of it. Just like Adam and Eve, I am making decisions based on my very limited perspective (compared with God, we all have very limited perspective!).  They chose to disobey God because they thought they really wanted what the serpent said God was holding back from them – the knowledge of good and evil.  But think about it – they didn’t know evil or death before this.  They had no understanding of pain or suffering or separation from God or shame or grief or guilt or anything bad before this.  All they knew was perfect intimate relationship with their Creator – who had told them that if they ate the fruit from that one tree (in a GIGANTIC garden with every fruit imaginable) they would die.  God knew what suffering and shame and death and separation from Him would be like for them, and so He gave them that command from His infinite knowledge to spare them all of that out of the infinite love He had for them.

We don’t often see God’s commands that way.  Usually, we see them (as Adam and Eve did) as an incursion on our liberty in some way, as unnecessary or overkill or just some kind of God “bossiness” because we think He wants to control us (Which is kind of funny and pathetic when you think about it, since He could most definitely control us if He chose to!).  But what dawned on me in the car is that God is the only one who is truly competent.  He is the only one who does everything perfectly, who knows everything about everything, who never makes mistakes, and who always knows what He is talking about.

And what Jesus is saying on the cross is the most wonderful thing in the world to hear if you have decided you no longer want to be ruled by that merciless, tyrannical idol of competence: you are incompetent.  You have no idea what you’re doing.  You have no idea what your sin really represents and you have no idea what the far-reaching impact of that sin really is.  You have no idea what perfect union with God looks like or feels like, so you don’t even know what you’re giving up every time you choose sin over honoring God’s commands.  You have no idea what hell is like, so you are making decisions about your relationship of God without a true understanding of what you will face if you choose wrong.  You have no idea what other problems you are causing for yourselves, your family, your friends, and people you don’t even know by your choices which you think you are making out of some ocean of wisdom and knowledge that is in reality a tiny, pathetic teardrop.

How wonderful to think of finally letting that stupid, painful idea go: I am incompetent!  I don’t have to feel guilt or shame when I get things wrong because I am incompetent and who would expect an incompetent person to get things right?  I don’t have to know everything about everything and have the right answers for everything after doing research on everything, because what incompetent person can do that?

Even better than that, the One who actually knows what my sin represents, what the impact of that sin is, what perfect union with Him is like, what hell is like, and what other problems I am causing for myself and others in sinning are has already suffered and died for my sins and drawn me near to know Him and accept Him as my savior and I am forgiven for all of it.

I don’t have to be competent, because He isAnd you don’t have to be competent, either, if you come to know Him and accept His competence and forgiveness on your behalf. 

Who knew incompetence could be so wonderful?!

This Is Worship

When the worship pastor at our church spoke on Sunday about worshiping God as a family it felt like the culmination of what I feel like God has been walking me through over the last couple of weeks: worship, worship, worship.

I am one of those people who loves to sing along with music in the car. (The people in the car with me may not love it quite as much.)  I long ago gave up on trying to pretend that I was just chatting on my bluetooth while I was driving, and have just given myself fully over to people giggling at me from nearby vehicles while I sing along to blasting praise music on my way to work.  But recently I started really trying to focus on the words of the songs and what they were saying about God while I was singing them – instead of just making sounds with my mouth and making neighboring drivers snicker. I wanted to really worship God and not just sing along.

What I found was that my drive to work became this incredibly sweet, intimate time with God that put everything that has been going on in my life in right relation to a beautiful, holy, perfect, omnipotent, loving God.  I began to look forward to that time (which soon expanded to the drive home as well), and missed it when I did not have it for whatever reason.  I loved the feeling of being so close to God.

Given the limited time in a day and the long list of things to do, however, the trip to and from work is one of the best times to return phone calls and catch up with friends. (Once I get home, I run the risk of attempting to have a conversation while my eleven year old wails “Maaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahmeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee! You’re allllllllllllllllllllllllllllllways on the phoooooooooooooooooooooooone!”  Which – I want to say in my defense – isn’t true since I avoid being on the phone at home so that I can spend time with the aforementioned eleven year old!  Hmmph! But I digress…). One morning when I was driving to work, I was thinking about calling a dear friend who I had been playing phone tag with for a week or so.  But I was torn: I didn’t want to miss out on that experience of worship I had been having singing along to the praise music – but I really did want to talk to my friend, and thought it was unlikely we would catch each other at any other time.

So I called her.  She told me all that had been going on in her life recently – incredible challenges and incredible blessings.  She was so excited to see how God was working in her life and the life of her family, to see His loving hand in every difficult circumstance.  It was wonderful and encouraging and uplifting, and as I hung up it dawned on me: it was worship.

At the end of the same week, I was driving home from work and was about to reach for my mp3 player when I remembered another phone call I needed to make.  It was a phone call that I knew would be tough to do on a Friday when I was emotionally spent – one of those phone calls where I knew I probably wouldn’t hang up feeling encouraged or uplifted.  But as I started to play some music instead of making that call, I thought of how often I have been on the other end of a prayer where I was pleading with God for the same kind of reassurance I needed to give in this situation – and He has always come through! So I called.  And as I put down the mp3 player and picked up the phone, it hit me again: this is worship.

Pastor John Piper defines worship this way: “Worship is an inward feeling and outward action that reflects the worth of God”.   What’s easy to miss is that the outward action does not necessarily involve music or singing – we actually have about a thousand opportunities a day to worship God in a variety of different ways.  It can include (as I realized) worshiping God by celebrating His work in a conversation with a friend, worshiping God through serving as He served, and worshiping God through sacrificing and loving as He sacrificed for and loved us.  (And a bunch of other stuff!)

James (the brother of Jesus) writes this: “In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead” (James 2:17, NIV).  He is talking about action as the natural outgrowth of faith, and how a belief without action is dead.  You could easily replace “action” with “worship” – at least in the way we are talking about worship here: the outward action coming from the inward feeling that reflects the worth of God.  If our hearts are truly transformed by the love of Christ, our actions should reflect that – it’s how we acknowledge and show the awesomeness of God to the world.  If our hearts are not truly awed by and grateful for the extravagant gift of grace and reconciliation that God has bestowed upon us, our actions will be a forced attempt to mimic the actions of someone who is truly awed by those things.  God doesn’t just want our right actions, He wants our hearts – our sincere love of Him that flows out into worship of Him, and that naturally results in actions that glorify and worship Him.  As Paul says in his letter to the Roman church: “Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship” (Romans 12:1, NASB, my emphasis).

So I’m not quite so rigid in how I spend my time to and from work anymore.  There is an infinite array of possibilities in how my time and my life can rejoice in the incredible God who would so change my heart that I would want to worship Him at all.

Abraham and Isaac

I’ve been thinking a lot about Abraham and Isaac lately – such a challenging story in so many ways!  If you haven’t read it before, the story is basically that God tells Abraham that he needs to sacrifice his son, and Abraham obeys and immediately leaves town with Isaac in tow to go to Mount Moriah for the sacrifice.  They get there, and Abraham prepares Isaac to be sacrificed.  In a very suspenseful moment – to put it mildly! – Isaac is laying in the wood for the fire, Abraham has his hands raised over him with a knife to sacrifice him, and God stops the whole thing and provides a ram for the sacrifice instead.

Some of the other interesting pieces of this story are that the journey takes three days – which must have been the some of the most difficult three days of Abraham’s life – and that Isaac is most likely in his teens or early twenties at the time that this is happening.  That makes the image of Isaac’s astounding obedience in not fighting against Abraham while he was preparing him for sacrifice all the more striking!

I thought about how as parents we have so many Abraham and Isaac moments – so many moments where we have to step back from our children and trust God’s provision for them, and how it really feels like we are offering them up to God in so many ways.  It happens in smaller moments over the years as they become more independent, and it happens in more of the “big” moments where we sometimes have to watch them make a terrible decision and then face the consequences of it.  These moments also happen when our children are physically or emotionally ill, and when no matter how hard we try, we do not have the power to make them well or make it all better for them.

Those are agonizing moments for parents.  As a parent, we can feel like it is our job to protect them from all pain and suffering, to fix all the broken situations and hurt feelings – and we can feel like we’re not doing our job in those moments when they are hurting.  But there are no verses anywhere in the Bible that say that it is our job to “fix it” for our kids.  There are no verses in the Bible that say we are supposed to protect them from pain and suffering.  There are no verses in the Bible that say we are supposed to save them from the consequences of their decisions.

The Bible (if I could summarize it very generally) says that we are supposed to discipline – or teach – our children.  More specifically, it says that we are supposed to teach them about God and His Word:

“Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD is one! You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. These words, which I am commanding you today, shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your sons and shall talk of them when you sit in your house and when you walk by the way and when you lie down and when you rise up” (Deuteronomy 6:4-7, NASB).

God has given us stewardship over our children, to take care of them and love them and teach them.  If we really want to “save” them, the best thing we can do is teach them about Christ, who can actually save them!

A great exercise when we are doing Bible study is to look at whatever part of it we are reading and figure out what it is saying that God does, and what it is saying that we do.  (I am inevitably surprised by the results no matter what the passage is which I guess means I am a little delusional about my importance in the universe!).  Here’s an example of it with what we do in bold with one of my favorite passages about spiritual warfare:

“Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm. Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and, as shoes for your feet, having put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace. In all circumstances take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one; and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints, and also for me, that words may be given to me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains, that I may declare it boldly, as I ought to speak”(Ephesians 6:10-20, ESV).

So here’s what we do in that passage:

  • Be strong in the Lord
  • Put on/take up the whole armor of God
  • Fasten on the belt of truth
  • Put on the breastplate of righteousness
  • Put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace
  • Take up the shield of faith
  • Take the helmet of salvation
  • Take the sword of the Spirit
  • Pray at all times in the Spirit/Make supplication for the saints
  • Keep alert with all perseverance

Notice that our strength is “in the Lord and the strength of His might”, our armor is “the armor of God”, the belt is truth (the Word of God), the breastplate is righteousness (which we only have through Christ), our readiness is in the gospel (the Word of God), the shield is faith (in Christ, of course), the helmet is salvation (again, through Christ), the sword of the Spirit is the Word of God (notice how often that comes up!), the prayer is in the Spirit, and even our “keeping alert” is with all perseverance in supplication (prayer).

The other thread that goes through that whole passage and through a ton of passages throughout Scripture is the idea of “standing” or “standing firm”.  The passage above has us standing against the schemes of the devil, withstanding in the evil day, standing firm, and standing with the belt of truth and the breastplate of righteousness.  Notice that it does not say that we “fight by ourselves with a little help from the Lord”!  Some other examples:

  • Moses just before God parts the Red Sea for the Israelites to go through to escape from the Egyptians (who are then destroyed by the sea crashing down over them after the Israelites have made it through): “And Moses said to the people, “Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the LORD, which he will work for you today. For the Egyptians whom you see today, you shall never see again. The LORD will fight for you, and you have only to be silent” (Exodus 14:13-14 ESV).
  • In 2 Chronicles 20, the Holy Spirit comes upon Jahaziel the prophet as the Moabites are about to attack Jehosophat and his people: “And he said, ‘Listen, all Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem and King Jehosaphat: Thus says the Lord to you, ‘Do not be afraid and do not be dismayed at this great horde, for the battle is not yours but God’s…You will not need to fight in this battle. Stand firm, hold your position, and see the salvation of the Lord on your behalf, O Judah and Jerusalem’.”

So what does this have to do with parenting?  We do take care of and nurture and love on our kids, but above all we need to teach them, and pray for them, and stand firm and hold our position even when it’s difficult or when we are scared of what will happen to them.  We need to trust that God will provide for them – and for us.

When God told Abraham to sacrifice his only son to “test” him, He knew what the outcome would be.  He knew both that Abraham would do what He commanded and that He would provide the sacrifice and that Isaac would not be lost.  God was not surprised by any of this.  So who was the test for? It was for Abraham – and for Isaac.  For parents, there is not much that would be worse than losing a child.  It is probably most parents’ worst fear.  But we cannot parent out of that fear.  We cannot parent out of the fear that our children won’t like us or our decisions.  And we cannot place our children above God in our hearts or our lives, no matter how much we love them.

Abraham made a number of bad – and disobedient – decisions in his life out of fear. Some of the most memorable were when he pretended that his wife was his sister on two separate occasions in an attempt to avoid what he thought kings (of Egypt and Gerar, respectively) would do to him if they realized that beautiful woman was his wife. In spite of the plague that resulted from the first time, Abraham does it again a second time!

There’s a very tough passage that follows in Genesis 21 where Sarah decides that Hagar (the maidservant Sarah suggested Abraham impregnate so they can have heirs to “help out” God when they hadn’t had any of their own yet) needs to go away – and take Ishmael with her.  For quite a while Ishmael was the only son that Abraham had, but after Isaac is weaned Sarah wants him and his mother out.  There was taunting both by Hagar and Ishmael, but sending them out to die seems pretty extreme, and Abraham was pretty upset about it.

However, God tells Abraham to do what Sarah says.  He tells Abraham that it is through Isaac that Abraham’s offspring will be named (meaning those would be God’s chosen people that God had promised Abraham), that Ishmael will also be the father of a nation.  And then Hagar and Ishmael are sent out into the wilderness of Beersheba with some water, seemingly to die of exposure.

So that’s what happens with son #1 (at least from Abraham’s perspective.  There’s a LOT more to that story, but that will have to wait for another day!).  Then, a chapter later – and probably 16+ years, at least – God tells Abraham to sacrifice Isaac.

As I mentioned earlier, Isaac was most likely in his late teens or early twenties during this particular event – he even carries the wood for the sacrifice himself (echoes of Jesus carrying His own cross!).  Abraham gets up and starts preparing to go immediately after God tells him to offer Isaac as a burnt offering.  Can you imagine what it was like for him to go out and cut the wood for the fire he will use to offer his only remaining son?!  Or what it was like to walk for three days with Isaac on the way to offer him? Or to hear Isaac ask, “Behold, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?”

Abraham’s answer is an interesting one for someone who had some issues with trusting in God’s provision when it came to kings who might want his wife for themselves: “God will provide for Himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son” (Genesis 22:8). Abraham has grown in his faith since those incidents with the kings.  God knows this, but Abraham probably does not know to what extent he has come to trust God until the moment when he holds the knife over his son, prepared to offer him to the God he loves and trusts above all else.

Most of us have wondered what we would do if we were in a situation like this, a situation where our faith is put to the test.  Will we be more like Peter before the crucifixion and resurrection, or after? Will we deny Christ or will we profess our faith with both our mouths and our lives? There are many of these moments for parents, moments when we have to decide what we hold to be ultimate: God or our children.  Do we follow God’s commands, or live in fear of what could happen to them? Do we teach them, and allow them to learn some of the harder lessons through their mistakes, or do we cushion blows and clean up messes for them so they don’t feel the weight or the pain of their mistakes?

When a child is physically or emotionally sick, every decision can feel even more weighty and terrifying.  When we really are looking at situations where we could lose our most precious gift outside of our salvation, that weight can be paralyzing.  What will happen if I do this?  What will happen if I don’t do that? Will she be ok?  Will he survive?

Abraham came face to face with the reality that in the end, his kids were not his at all.  Ishmael was God’s and Isaac was God’s and it was for God to decide where and how they would be provided for, and to measure out their days according to the plan that He made for them – and for their lives to end when He ordained that they would.  God’s plan for our children does not depend on us “getting it right” each and every time.  Surely our omniscient (all-knowing) God is not surprised by our faults and mistakes!

What Abraham came face to face with in that final moment before the ram appeared to be sacrificed instead of Isaac was that at last he had come to know God more deeply and come to trust Him implicitly with the most priceless gift God had trusted him with: his son, his one and only son.  As a result, he got to see how God had grown him and how God would provide for Him – the test revealed where Abraham was, after everything that had happened.  How incredible for Abraham, and how incredible for Isaac! What a legacy of faith to be passed on from father to son! The test was for Abraham and Isaac – and the results were for God’s glory.

Now What?!

A few years ago there was a time where I hit the wall — just could not handle anything else and crashed in bed for a few days.  There was a lot going on, but in particular I felt overwhelmed by the stories I heard from so many people — stories of tragedy and grief and loss and you name it, and I was trying to slog through under the weight of all that and somehow also be a wife and mother and daughter and friend.  I was exhausted. And part of the reason I was exhausted was that I was trying to “handle” all of that while continuing to “perform” at the same level at work and at home.  It was crushing.

I was reminded of this recently as I was looking over the posts on this blog so far and thinking how hard it can be to see our disobedience as it really is — and how easy it is to slide into despair when we see it.  So few Christians (including me, for a long time) really understand what the process of sanctification is really supposed to look like!  We hear all these words (like sanctification) in church and kind of nod and smile, but so frequently we really don’t know what it’s supposed to look like or feel like and are afraid to ask because we think everyone else has got it figured out.  (There are actually about a million things that are like that in Christianity — things that people don’t really know what they mean and are afraid to ask about, and that everyone assumes everyone else understands, but that is a blog post for another time.) People kept talking about sanctification, but no one really explained who is supposed to do what in that process.  I wondered:

  • What does God do in the process of sanctification and what do I do?
  • How do I pursue holiness?
  • How does change happen in the life of a Christian?
  • How does change happen in my heart and not just in my actions?

I think one of the most difficult things to get my head around has been the reality that only God can change my heart.  I can choose the right behavior, “do the right thing”, but my heart doesn’t get there until God moves in it.  What I have found is that I will see something through Scripture — a place where I don’t match up with what God commands, where I don’t match up with the example that Jesus set — and then it feels like I see it EVERYWHERE in my life and in my heart for a while.  A lot of times my tendency is then to start trying to “fix” myself: making resolutions, coming up with a plan, memorizing a verse or two or ten, etc.. I inevitably get frustrated because it feels like change is SO SLOW, and frustrated because even when I am able to “act right”, I can’t change my own heart — and it is the heart that my actions are coming out of, after all:

“The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks”(Luke 6:45, ESV).

You can see how I would end up exhausted.  There’s nothing like trying to fix yourself to wear a person out!  When I was sitting there in bed recovering, the verse that came to mind was this:

“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:8-10).

And then this:

“He who began a good work in [me] will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6).

Look at what those verses are saying!  They were exactly what I needed to hear at the time, and still need to be reminded of frequently:  I am — we are – His workmanship!  He began a good work in me — in us! He will not forsake the work of His hands! What they said to me was that I didn’t create myself, I didn’t begin anything good in myself, I am not the one who saved myself, and I am not the one who will complete myself by making myself into a project!

What I realized in all this is that if I try to set the agenda for who I am supposed to be, if I make the plan, if I make a project of myself, I am in essence trying to make myself God.  I am not seeking Him and His will in that way of thinking.  The other thing I realized is that I am voluntarily giving up the freedom Christ has given us through His death and resurrection if I try to “achieve” righteousness through my own efforts:

“For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God.  I have been crucified with Christ.  It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.  And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me. I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose” (Galatians 2:19-21, emphasis mine).

Christ died so that we are no longer under the law, but under grace instead, so if I am putting myself back under the law (essentially, trying to “get it right” all the time, and then punishing myself mentally when I don’t), it’s like there was no point in Christ dying for me!

And when I’m trying to “get it right”, I am missing out on the good news of the gospel — the rest and freedom that we have through Christ:

“All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:27-30, my emphasis).

“The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor;
he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and the opening of the prison to those who are bound” (Isaiah 61:1, quoted by Jesus in Luke 4, my emphasis).

The “captives” and the “bound” in this are us — who are captive and bound to sin without Christ’s intervention — but because we have forgiveness through Him, we have liberty!  (And then, at least in my case, we go back and forth between basking in that freedom and then putting ourselves back in chains by trying to ‘get it right’!)  And through that freedom, instead of boasting of “my” work or successes, I can boast of Him — who He is, and what He has done in and through me:

“Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:9b-10).

Sanctification, as I understand it, is beyond our ability to do on our own.  As God reveals more and more of Himself to us, as we come to know Him more and more through His word, as we come to see ourselves more and more clearly, we are to grow in dependence on Him — not to grow by our own will and efforts.  We do need to pursue Him — to come to know Him more and more through His word and prayer, and to willingly choose to depend more and more on Him — but He will work the change in our hearts, not us.  My hope and prayer is that we will all experience more and more of the freedom to be had in Christ and less and less of the slavery of performance, and that our response to conviction would be to throw ourselves at the feet of the cross and not to torture ourselves with regret and despair.  He did begin that good work in us and He will be faithful to complete it.

Cows Made of Earrings, Part 2

Last week we were looking at some of the ways we worship cows made of earrings, which is kind of an Old Testament way of referring to how we end up worshiping things that we make with our hands – or just worshiping ourselves.

It’s easy to think of obedience as almost a niggling detail, like obedience in the sense of doing your homework or making your bed.  But as I’ve dug into it further from a Biblical perspective, it has become obvious that disobedience is a lot bigger and a lot deeper than that.  Here are a few Old Testament examples:

  • Lot’s wife disobeys and turns back to Sodom after God has told them not to look back – and is turned into a pillar of salt.
  • In Exodus after the gold jewelry is made into a cow-shaped idol, Moses returns from the mountaintop where he has been getting the law from God (gotta love the irony!), burns the idol and makes them drink idol-ash water. Then…

“Now when Moses saw that the people were out of control – for Aaron had let them get out of control to be a derision among their enemies– then Moses stood in the gate of the camp, and said, ‘Whoever is for the LORD, come to me!’ And all the sons of Levi gathered together to him. He said to them, ‘Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, ‘Every man of you put his sword upon his thigh, and go back and forth from gate to gate in the camp, and kill every man his brother, and every man his friend, and every man his neighbor’.’ So the sons of Levi did as Moses instructed, and about three thousand men of the people fell that day” (Exodus 32:25-28, NASB).

  • And from the fifth book of the Bible…

“If your brother, your mother’s son, or your son or daughter, or the wife you cherish, or your friend who is as your own soul, entice you secretly, saying, ‘Let us go and serve other gods’ (whom neither you nor your fathers have known, of the gods of the peoples who are around you, near you or far from you, from one end of the earth to the other end), you shall not yield to him or listen to him; and your eye shall not pity him, nor shall you spare or conceal him. But you shall surely kill him; your hand shall be first against him to put him to death, and afterwards the hand of all the people. So you shall stone him to death because he has sought to seduce you from the LORD your God who brought you out from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. Then all Israel will hear and be afraid, and will never again do such a wicked thing among you” (Deuteronomy 13:6-11, NASB).

Whoa, huh? That’s the punishment we deserve for following other gods?! Good thing we don’t follow other gods…except…uh oh… Scripture says that we are slaves to whomever we obey, whether that is God or ourselves or a cow made out of earrings.  If I obey myself instead of God, I am exalting myself above Him – I am “following” myself instead of Him.  It’s interesting and very revealing to ask ourselves who we are following in any given situation – Our feelings? Other people’s opinions of us? God? What is ruling our choices and behavior and how we treat others?

One day, in a particularly self-righteous moment, it dawned on me: Jesus got the punishment I deserved. I follow myself and not Him; I’m the one who is serving other gods by my choices and actions.  But He took the punishment.  He is the one God turned away from even though I was the one who earned that. That is something that will deflate self-righteousness in a hurry!  How can we think ourselves better than anyone else when that is what we deserve?

So often, I think of my disobedience as no big deal. “It’s just this one little thing”, I seem to say to myself, as the one little thing snowballs into a bunch of little things – or maybe even one really big thing. “It’s just this one time – I’ll obey next time.” But it rarely seems to end there. I justify one thing to myself and that makes it easier to justify the next thing, and the thing after that, and the thing after that, until one day I discover that it is more of a reflex to do what I want to do or believe what I want to believe than it is to follow God. There is no “big” sin that isn’t preceded by a heart change that happens over time when we justify ourselves and our actions when we know that is not what God has – out of His infinite love – commanded for our own joy!

A great example of this kind of thinking is Eve, bless her heart (as they say here in Texas). The serpent draws her into a discussion about what God actually did or did not say regarding the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and as it happens you can see her starting to change her point of view from following God to following herself – what she can see and understand, and her own desires. She starts out reiterating what God has said (“You shall not eat from it”), but then adds to what God has said (“or touch it”), to listening to the serpent refute what God said entirely (“You surely will not die!”), to listening to the serpent accuse God (“For God knows that in the day you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil”).

She then decides that she will evaluate the situation for herself:

“When the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was desirable to make one wise, she took from its fruit and ate; and she gave also to her husband with her, and he ate” (Genesis 3:6, NASB).

Notice what happens here – it says that the woman saw, and that it was a delight to her eyes. The problem with Eve evaluating the situation that way is that her eyes do not see much compared to what God sees, so when she evaluates the situation based on what she can see she is making a decision based on very limited and inaccurate information. What she sees is ruled by her own desires and limitations – she sees the tree as “desirable to make one wise”, instead of seeing it how God sees it and what He has told her through Adam about it: “for in the day that you eat from it you will surely die” (Genesis 2:17).

It’s not hard to see all the ways in which we do the same thing.  We know what God commands, but we look at the situation from our limited vantage point and decide that we know what is best and so do what we think we should do, rather than what God commands. (I most definitely include myself in that!). We convince ourselves that our disobedience doesn’t matter or only matters to us. Romans 5 blows that whole idea up, however:

“Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men” (Romans 5:12a, my emphasis), and

“For as through the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners” (Romans 5:19a, my emphasis).

Looks like Adam and Eve’s one act of disobedience affects us all.  Understanding this makes it harder to see disobedience as merely being in the realm of not making our beds, doesn’t it?  It is easy to imagine Adam and Eve thinking, “It’s just fruit”, isn’t it?

Seeing all this can really be a beating.  We spend so much time justifying ourselves to ourselves that seeing our disobedience for what it really is can be pretty ugly. It should be ugly to us, as it turns out, but thankfully it doesn’t end there.  God so loved the world that He sent His only Son to die for our sins, to take the right and just punishment that our disobedience deserves, so we can be forgiven and reconciled to God.

In His infinite grace and mercy, God has made a way for us back to Him. The second part of Romans 5:19 says this: “even so through the obedience of the One the many will be made righteous” (my emphasis).  Talk about a happy ending! Through His power and might we can be obedient – because we can trust that what He sees and understands is infinitely more than what we can see or understand, and because He strengthens us through His Holy Spirit.  “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me, Paul tells us, and the same is true for us. We are not alone in this:

“And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose. For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brethren; and these whom He predestined, He also called; and these whom He called, He also justified; and these whom He justified, He also glorified. What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him over for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things?” (Romans 8:28-32, NASB).

O Great and Mighty…Dust?

I’ve been thinking about frustration and anger and irritation and a number of other difficult emotions that often seem to crop up in our dealings with other people (and in many cases in our dealings with ourselves!). I started noticing how often I’m feeling those things in the course of a day and in the way that Scripture so often “reads” us, it became clear that there is a real heart issue behind these emotions most of the time.  The shortest summary would be that I often get frustrated, irritated or angry because people aren’t doing or saying what I want them to do or say.  (Good luck trying to justify that attitude Biblically!)

The verse that popped into my head on this one was this: “Do not trust in princes, in a son of man, in whom there is no salvation” (Psalms 146:3). It’s a little verse that is heavy with meaning:

  • “Do not trust in princes” – probably a reference to the many times the Israelites demanded a king for themselves instead of just following God.  To put it in a more modern context, how many times do we expect someone to do something – especially someone who is a leader – and spend no time in prayer for that leader or for what we want to have happen?
  • “in a son of man” – this one is especially interesting because of course we see Jesus referred to as the Son of Man over and over again in the New Testament.
  • “in whom there is no salvation” – this narrows down what the psalmist is talking about. He (most likely David) is specifying that we should not trust in a son of man in whom there is no salvation – but leaves the door open for trusting a Son of Man in whom there is salvation!

This really blew some things wide open for me.  How often am I frustrated because I am putting my trust in a person to do what I think should be done or to make things happen in the way I think I should?  I get angry at people (even when, by God’s grace, I have the self-control not to show it!) because I am trusting in them to make something happen or to say or do something.  To be blunt, this perspective is godless.  And it’s even more godless when I put tremendous pressure on myself to get it right, to fix it, or to make it happen because I think I am the one from whom “salvation” (in whatever form) will come.

I am putting my trust in a person, and sometimes that person is me.  It is a crushing weight that no person can bear, and the result is often crushing to relationships and individuals both.  If I trust in a person to do what only God can do, I am not only destined for disappointment, but that disappointment can color every interaction with that person – ever been around someone who made you feel like you disappointed them constantly? Ever felt disappointed in yourself constantly?

This mindset also makes it really hard to be loving to others.  It creates a scenario in which my love toward others has to do with their performance – and it is nothing like the love God has shown us, which is steadfast and full of grace and mercy. It’s also hard to be loving to others if you are constantly failing in your own estimation!

Being an experimental kind of gal, when this revelation came I wanted to see if and how it would apply to those situations where I was getting frustrated and angry.  The next time I felt myself getting wound up about how someone was doing something I reminded myself: “Your trust is not in PEOPLE.  Your trust is in God who is sovereign over EVERYTHING and in the end He is the One who orchestrates each and every moment and each and every situation.  I have to admit that even I was surprised at the sense of peace that came along with that.  And I was even more surprised at how many situations it applied to!

Does it mean we are not supposed to expect anyone to do anything ever? No.  But what it does mean is that we trust the outcome and the results to God, and that we trust Him to make things happen in the way the He knows will be best for everyone.  Not the way we think will be best for everyone.  So the pressure is off other people or ourselves in the moment because no matter what decisions we make God is over all of it and nothing happens that is not filtered through His loving hands.

An interesting and wonderful side effect of this change in perspective is that it has made me someone who prays a LOT more.  Think about it: if our trust is in people then we are going to spend our time and energy trying to get people to do what we want and then even more energy responding to what those people are or are not doing. If our trust is in ourselves, we are going to spend our time and energy agonizing over decisions or being deluded that we absolutely know what is best to do in a given situation and then exhausting ourselves in the attempt to do whatever that is.  And then chastising ourselves if we don’t get it right. However, if we believe that our trust is in God and that God ultimately decides what will happen and how it will happen, in those moments where we are frustrated or angry we will be more likely to go to Him to tell Him how we feel and to pray for the outcome that will be best for everyone involved.   Prayer is essentially an ongoing conversation with God, right? So if we are talking to others about a situation, or talking to ourselves about a situation, we are in a sense praying to other people – and less likely to seek God on those things. The Bible says that man is made from dust, and man is dust over and over and over again, and so we are essentially putting our faith in dust.  Can you imagine the prayer that would go with this? “O great and mighty…dust?”

Idolatry is one of those words that we hear a lot in Christianity and it can be a tough one to grasp. All those golden calves that the Israelites turn from God to all over the Old Testament seem ridiculous and it is hard to understand how anyone can worship them.  Really?  They are worshipping a sculpture made by someone out of their earrings?!?!!? But an idol is anything we take refuge in that is not God, or anything we look to salvation for that is not God.  This includes a lot of things that are functionally exactly as ridiculous as a cow made out of earrings, but are more socially acceptable and less overtly bizarre: our jobs, our marriages, our kids, our friends, our stuff, our neighborhoods, our appearance, and our social status are a few examples.

How many marriages are destroyed because one or both spouses are angry at the other for not fulfilling their expectations and doing things the way they think they should be done? Consider how adultery happens.  The reasoning behind it often looks something like this: “My spouse doesn’t listen/show affection/respond in the way that I want him/her to.  I shouldn’t have to live without that.  I deserve that.  I need to get that.  I am going to find it somewhere because it’s something I have to have, and it is okay for me to get it elsewhere because I should have it and they are not providing it.  It’s their fault for not giving me that.  It’s their job to do that.”  If we are doing that, instead of looking to God as our Provider, we are looking to our spouse, and when they fail (as any human will, at some point) we are looking to someone else to provide instead.  We go from “praying” to them to “praying” to someone else and it is totally godless.

I’ve been working on writing a study on Hosea (Old Testament prophet) , which is a great book for exposing idolatry in our hearts and showing us with what astounding love God pursues us, even when we don’t realize it is Him we are really looking for. In it, the prophet Hosea is commanded to marry a promiscuous woman (Gomer) as a representation of how God’s people pimp themselves out to other things. (My paraphrase :-)).  She goes to other men over and over and over again while Hosea is called to continue to pursue her over and over and over again – regardless of what she is doing.  One of the reasons that it is such an awesome parallel to God’s love for us is that Hosea does not wait until Gomer has cleaned up her act to marry her, and he doesn’t wait until she cleans up her act to welcome her back.  He goes after her in a relentless, loving pursuit no matter what – which is really excruciating to watch at times!

That is exactly what God does with us.  The Creator of the universe, the one and only sovereign God comes after us in a relentless, loving pursuit which we have done nothing to deserve and in fact have done a lot of things to not deserve! Then, after He has done all this we inevitably fade in our affections for Him and get mad at Him for not doing things the way we think they should be done or giving us what we think we need, and start looking elsewhere.  We get caught up in our marriage, our kids, our job, whatever, and start looking to them to fulfill us and give us what we need. We essentially pimp ourselves out to the whatever our golden cow made of earrings is. (I know this is tough language, but it is the way the Bible describes turning away from God.)

Then, in an even more astounding display of love than He shows in calling us to Himself, He pursues us when we have turned from Him and draws us back and loves us exactly the same through the whole thing. Can you imagine doing that?  Your husband or wife turns away from you to someone else and your affections never even waver, and then you draw them back to you so that you can continue to love them and forgive them completely and endlessly. ONLY the God of the universe can pull that one off!  And does, constantly. How boundless and steadfast His love is!

So, He has brought me to a place where I can see those golden calves made of earrings in my life and has loved me so much that He showed this to me, and showed me the way through and out of it – and back to my One True Love: Him.  And He can and will do the same for you if you let Him.

Not a Surprise for Jesus

We have a tough time persevering and trusting God when we are suffering, especially because we feel like we don’t know what’s going on (and, from our limited vantage point, we don’t know and can’t know all that is going on!). It dawned on me, as I was reading about Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane praying to God to “take this cup” from Him, that Jesus is omniscient (or all-knowing) just as God is.  Which means that He knew exactly what was coming in the crucifixion, and exactly how horrible and humiliating and painful it would be.  How terrifying would that be?! The Bible said that as He was praying, Jesus was “in anguish, and His sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground” (Luke 22:44) — even while He was praying that not His will, but God’s would be done. Surely Jesus was aware of God’s will in this situation.  Surely Jesus knows all that God knows and so was aware of each and every agonizing moment that was to come — and the redemptive purpose behind all of it.

“Jesus went out as usual to the Mount of Olives, and his disciples followed him. On reaching the place, he said to them, “Pray that you will not fall into temptation.” He withdrew about a stone’s throw beyond them, knelt down and prayed, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.” An angel from heaven appeared to him and strengthened him. And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground. When he rose from prayer and went back to the disciples, he found them asleep, exhausted from sorrow. “Why are you sleeping?” he asked them. “Get up and pray so that you will not fall into temptation” (Luke 22:39-46, NIV).

Jesus spoke with the disciples repeatedly about His death and resurrection (Matthew 16:21, 17:22-23, and 20:18-19, Mark 8:31, 9:31-32, and 10:33-34, and Luke 9:22 are some examples).  In Luke, He describes in vivid detail what lay ahead for Him: “Jesus took the Twelve aside and told them, “We are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written by the prophets about the Son of Man will be fulfilled. He will be handed over to the Gentiles. They will mock him, insult him, spit on him, flog him and kill him. On the third day he will rise again.” The disciples did not understand any of this. Its meaning was hidden from them, and they did not know what he was talking about” (Luke 18:31-34, NIV).
Jesus knows God’s heart better than anyone, knows His purposes and intentions, knows what the results will be — because His heart is God’s heart and God’s heart is His:

“The Jews gathered around him, saying, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Christ, tell us plainly.” Jesus answered, “I did tell you, but you do not believe. The miracles I do in my Father’s name speak for me, but you do not believe because you are not my sheep. My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.” (John 10:24-30, NIV, emphasis added).

Jesus was facing more suffering, humiliation, and agony than any of us will ever face (including God turning His face from Him!) yet walked right into that suffering because He knew God’s purpose and what the result of His suffering would be. He knew what His suffering was for.  He knew what it would look like and feel like (again, omniscient). He knew on top of all of that how He would be betrayed by those who He had spent just about every second of the last three years with.  Yet He walked right into it, even though it is clear from the fact that He was sweating blood that He was terrified beyond imagination. (That would actually be an advantage to not being omniscient. How many of us would knowingly walk right into horrible suffering if we knew the scope and depth of the horribleness?) So the One person who had all the answers about His suffering that we seek about our own suffering — What will it be like? What will be the extent of it? How long will it last? Why do I personally have to be the one who is suffering? What’s it for? WHY??? — walked right into it. He knows God completely and intimately – His purposes, His will, and everything else about Him – and still walked right into horrific suffering, trusting God completely.  And He did it out of unfathomable love for us.  How’s that for compelling love?

Additional Scriptures: Philippians 2:5-8, Matthew 26:36-56, Mark 14:32-52, Luke 22:40-53, John 18:1-11