Sunday, July 26, 2009

Debating God

Then the LORD spoke to Moses, "Go down at once, for your people, whom you brought up from the land of Egypt, have corrupted themselves. They have quickly turned aside from the way which I commanded them. They have made for themselves a molten calf, and have worshiped it and have sacrificed to it and said, 'This is your god, O Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt!'" The LORD said to Moses, "I have seen this people, and behold, they are an obstinate people. Now then let Me alone, that My anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them; and I will make of you a great nation." Then Moses entreated the LORD his God, and said, "O LORD, why does Your anger burn against Your people whom You have brought out from the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians speak, saying, 'With evil intent He brought them out to kill them in the mountains and to destroy them from the face of the earth'? Turn from Your burning anger and change Your mind about doing harm to Your people. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, Your servants to whom You swore by Yourself, and said to them, 'I will multiply your descendants as the stars of the heavens, and all this land of which I have spoken I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.'" So the LORD changed His mind about the harm which He said He would do to His people. (Exodus 32:7-17, NASB)

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You cannot look at this without first considering Moses earlier debate with God. It was in the desert and involved a burning bush. If you recall, that particular debate didn’t turn out so great for Moses. God gave him a directive to go to the king of Egypt and demand the release of His people. Moses came up with excuses and questions at every turn. He didn’t know what God’s name was, so God told him his name – I AM THAT I AM. Moses didn’t speak well and would fumble the words. God referred him to his own silver-tongued brother Aaron who would act as his mouthpiece. Moses flat out begged God to send somebody else. God humbled Moses and sent him off to Egypt.

Now, many years have passed. God and Moses have just spoken on the mountain and God has given Moses the tablets of the law. Moses had to be on an absolute spiritual high, likely the highest of his life to that point. And then it happens. Moses comes down from the mountain and the debauchery of the people comes into full view. God is absolutely disgusted with them and is threatening to wipe them out and start again with Moses. Showing years of wisdom beyond that we can imagine, Moses engages God in a debate of sorts. His basic premise is not all that surprising, but his opening argument seems rather odd. Moses basically asks God, “If you do this, what will the neighbors think?”

We are never forbidden to engage God. The call to obedience is not the same as giving over our free will. Our approach and the outcome may vary greatly (look at the two attempts Moses made), but God isn’t looking for a bunch of robots. He wants men and women who have learned and studied His heart to the point they can engage Him and grow. Yes, we are to completely trust what God does. I’m sure Moses would have accepted God’s verdict if He had carried out His statement and wiped out the children of Israel. But I don’t believe that was the point of this exchange at all.
I believe the point was to reinforce in Moses the proper way to approach the I AM and engage Him in a way that brings the servant closer to the Master. It isn’t about refusing to do something God asks, but rather about a deeper understanding of what hurts our Father’s heart and grieves Him. In understanding that and going through a productive and proper “debate” we can grow into the men and women God can use in incredible ways to further His kingdom and His cause. Just look at Moses. After his debate with God, he continued to shepherd the people onward to their promised home. To be certain, it was a crooked path, but God lead the whole time.
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  1. Have you ever had occasion to “debate” with God? What were the circumstances that resulted in that exchange?
  2. Do you view this activity as dishonoring to God, or do you believe there are times when it is a good and necessary part of the struggle to grow in our walk with Him?
  3. How had Moses grown between his first discussion with God and this one? Are you, like Moses was, truly out to protect God’s reputation?

NASB - Scripture taken from the NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE®, Copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by the Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

How God Treats His Friends

One day when the angels came to report to God, Satan, who was the Designated Accuser, came along with them. God singled out Satan and said, "What have you been up to?" Satan answered God, "Going here and there, checking things out on earth." God said to Satan, "Have you noticed my friend Job? There's no one quite like him—honest and true to his word, totally devoted to God and hating evil." Satan retorted, "So do you think Job does all that out of the sheer goodness of his heart? Why, no one ever had it so good! You pamper him like a pet, make sure nothing bad ever happens to him or his family or his possessions, bless everything he does—he can't lose! "But what do you think would happen if you reached down and took away everything that is his? He'd curse you right to your face, that's what." God replied, "We'll see. Go ahead—do what you want with all that is his. Just don't hurt him." Then Satan left the presence of God. (Job 1:6-12, The Message)

* * * * * * * *
I still recall the first time I read Eugene Peterson’s perspective of Job. I had read the story before (not to mention heard it over again from the time I was “knee high”), but never had I see the story told in this light. God counted Job as a friend, and a faithful one at that. Yet, as we know all too well, the book continues to recount event after event that brings only misery and devastation. His family is taken, his livelihood disappears, he is stricken with physical affliction, and he finds himself accused by those he considered his own close friends. I don’t know about you, but seeing that God “allowed” it to happen makes me wonder a bit.

In another account, God has so much trust and fondness for one of His prophets that He gives him a special task. He tells Hosea to go marry a prostitute, have children with her, and name them Nobody and No Mercy. Again, quite a story when you look at Hosea’s record of service to God. In our humanness, we might very well be more than a little stunned. I’ll admit, I find it a bit difficult to take and I’m not sure I could step up to this challenge or the one put to God’s friend Job. Both just seem too much to bear.

These accounts happened so long ago, we might be likely to put them in a “softer light” and just count them as lessons specifically chronicled in the Bible four our edification. They certainly occurred, but perhaps things don’t happen in quite that way anymore, right? I mean, does God still require so much of His friends and servants?

Consider the case of Charlie with me. Charlie served God faithfully as a missionary and pastor for many years. Charlie has a son my age that I have gotten to know better in the past couple of years. I had only begun to know Charlie when he began to lose his mind. My most vivid memory of him stems from a missions conference at my church where he provided the translation to the Vietnamese congregation worshipping with us that day. Since that time, Charlie now struggles to put together many words or coherent streams of thought. When I asked somebody how God could let this happen to Charlie, the reply was “Maybe because Charlie can handle it.” Charlie’s son told me “Maybe it’s because Mom can take it.”

Another man about my age, a man who was active and athletic, found he had a degenerative hip disorder. Though not yet forty when this came about, his activity began to be limited and that included curbing his soccer and running. Paul could have been very upset and bitter (I’m not sure I wouldn’t be). I’m sure his human perspective was ready to lash out at God for doing this. But as he watched his wife start off on a local mini-marathon, one he could no longer participate in, God laid a song on his heart and Paul penned the words “The next time I run, it will be to the arms of my Savior.” The words to that song blessed me when I lost my brother Mike several years later.
So all this has me thinking that maybe I shouldn’t question God’s actions so readily. Maybe I need to trust Him a little more to take good care of His friends and servants in ways that I cannot begin to imagine. And maybe I need to recognize once again that the path I am walking is crooked and things like Charlie, Paul, Hosea, and Job deal with are meant to bring strength and a deeper devotion to the God who has walked the path ahead of me. After all, nothing escapes His watchful eye, and that brings me comfort.
* * * * * * * *
  1. Have you personally felt God’s friendship in a way such as Job or Hosea felt it? How deep is your trust in God’s grace to sustain you even when your world doesn’t make sense to you?
  2. Do you look to your own strength when things “turn against you,” or have you developed a keen sense of God’s presence in your life?
  3. Does the story of Job strike a personal chord with you? Do you find yourself marveling at what God required of Hosea? Are you willing to take the next step on the crooked path fully assured that God has walked it forwards and backwards before you and has promised never to leave your side? How can that faith change your outlook on your life and circumstances?

The Message – Scripture taken from The Message. Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002. Used by permission of NavPress Publishing Group.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Full Bellies and Forgetful Minds

When you have eaten and are satisfied, praise the Lord your God for the good land he has given you. Be careful that you do not forget the Lord your God, failing to observe his commands, his laws and his decrees that I am giving you this day. Otherwise, when you eat and are satisfied, when you build fine houses and settle down, and when your herds and flocks grow large and your silver and gold increase and all you have is multiplied, then your heart will become proud and you will forget the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. He led you through the vast and dreadful desert, that thirsty and waterless land, with its venomous snakes and scorpions. He brought you water out of hard rock. He gave you manna to eat in the desert, something your fathers had never known, to humble and to test you so that in the end it might go well with you. You may say to yourself, “My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.” But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth, and so confirms his covenant, which he swore to your forefathers, as it is today. (Deuteronomy 8:10-18, NIV)

* * * * * * * *

God had clearly done a miraculous thing for His chosen people. He had wrenched the hearts of the Egyptians until they begged them to leave and provided them with all they could possibly need for the journey. God had been infinitely patient with them as they repeatedly whined and complained in the desert. He had provided food and water, shelter and protection, leadership and guidance. He had given His Law along with an intricate system of social welfare that would ensure none of the Israelites would go wanting as long as He was left in charge.

After Israel thumbed their collective noses at God in Numbers, He caused the older generation to continue wandering while preparing the younger generation to finally enter the Promised Land. The book of Deuteronomy is a restatement of the Levitical law and covenant. In what we have as chapter eight, God reminds the people of the need to be obedient, especially given that their lives were about to change for the better. They would have a great deal of permanence where before they had only the transient. As their society grew and prospered, the warning went out to remain true lest they experience God’s judgment. In fact, if I read the passage literally, it seems as much a prophecy as it does a warning. And the historical account we read bears out that prophecy in spades.

So here I sit, in my own land of plenty. I have a nice house, a good job, and a great church family. I struggle with contentment issues just as much as any man, but still I will admit I am successful by most standards. In fact, as I write this particular segment it is Thanksgiving and we are preparing for the traditional family meal and remembrance of all we have. But (and you knew there was a “but” coming) how do I stack up against the Israelites?

If I face myself honestly, I am guilty of the same neglect. My belly is often full, my house is warm (or cool), and I don’t have to deny myself much of anything. While I am not rich, I certainly am well enough off that I don’t have to go begging for my daily bread. And in my state of satiation, I don’t think about the God who provided it all nearly as often as I should. I tend to attribute my house and provisions to the job that feeds my bank account. I attribute my health to clean sources of water, sanitary living conditions, and decent medical care. I call myself generally “happy” without usually acknowledging the true source of Joy in my life.

Oh, I’ll break with the norm and give thanks today, but will I make a habit out of thanking God as the true Provider of all? Can I possibly learn the lessons taught to the Israelites, especially since they had the opportunity to learn them over and over and over again? Am I willing to challenge my state of satiation and truly seek after the One from Whom all blessings flow?

May God convict me of my apathy and wrong thinking. May He be as patient with me as he was with the children of Israel so long ago. As I sit in my house, my car, my office, or my church, may I be prompted to ever give thanks and praise to the Lord. And may my prayer always be that I will not grow complacent because of what I have, but humbled because of what He has done. My path is crooked enough without me forgetting the One who is my constant Guide and Provider. I don’t need to pretend I walk alone.

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  1. When is the last time you truly gave thanks to God for everything He has provided? Do you feel truly rich because of it?
  2. Are you guilty of having a full belly and a forgetful mind? Are you willing to challenge yourself to think about it in a different way and ask those around you to hold you accountable?
  3. Do you have a spirit of thanksgiving even when things don’t seem to be going as you would like them to go? Do you need to remember that God is still God and that nothing happens without His knowledge?

NIV - Scripture taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Living in the Orphanage, Advantage ... Me!

I have said all these things to you to keep you from falling away. They will put you out of the synagogues. Indeed, the hour is coming when whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God. And they will do these things because they have not known the Father, nor me. But I have said these things to you, that when their hour comes you may remember that I told them to you. I did not say these things to you from the beginning, because I was with you. But now I am going to him who sent me, and none of you asks me, “Where are you going?” But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your heart. Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you. And when he comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment: concerning sin, because they do not believe in me; concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father, and you will see me no longer; concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged. I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine; therefore I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you. (John 16:1-15, ESV)

* * * * * * * *

I have lately come to see the final “sermon” of Jesus to His disciples as a bookend to His earlier offering from Matthew 5-7 (the Sermon on the Mount). In the former, He told His disciples and the others gathered around about a Kingdom that could be theirs. The point of entry was low, so low that in fact the seeming dregs of society were the ones who qualified. You needed to be beaten down, scorned, and have little to no sense of self-worth. Possessing this (which really meant possessing nothing) you were uniquely qualified to be a part of this new Kingdom.

Jesus spent the next couple of years walking His followers through a multitude of teaching all meant to point them to their Heavenly Father and this Kingdom which was yet to come. Many, if not most, of the followers believed their Messiah had come and they would play a role in this new Kingdom. The only problem was, they thought it had come right then in a temporal, political way. They couldn’t look much farther than their oppression by the Romans at the time and they thought Jesus had come to reclaim the throne in Jerusalem.

Now, nearing the end of His time with them physically, Jesus has broken the news that He is leaving. The Disciples are confused and bewildered (as noted in an earlier writing). Their path has never seemed as crooked as it did at that moment. Then, just when they thought their confusion had reached the limit, He tells them of another Comforter He is sending. This Comforter will not “take His place” in the same physical manner, but will lead the disciples to a new level of understanding the Kingdom. He lays out the tasks of the Spirit and tells them it is actually to their advantage that He leaves and sends the Comforter. And, while they might be at their most bewildered state now, if we skip ahead to Acts chapter 2, we see just what the Spirit brings.

Often in my past, I’ve struggled with the role of the Spirit. I was raised in a conservative manner, so it almost seems like the Spirit took on a lesser role among the other Persons of the Trinity (at least to me). I was raised to believe the “sign gifts” that others practiced were not what the Bible taught and were certainly not the work of the Spirit. While this is not intended to be a debate about the Trinity, I will say the teaching of my upbringing was at least partially right. The Spirit, according to John 16, has a much greater work to do in the world and in my life.

Christ told his disciples that their advantage was much greater with the Spirit and without His temporal presence. The Spirit would teach them things they could not possibly understand in their current state. The Spirit would bring conviction to the world at large. The Spirit would provide a level of comfort they could not imagine and they were soon to be in a position where they would need that above all else. Their life in the orphanage and walking the crooked path was not going to be easy by any definition. What it was going to be was bearable and instructive. The Spirit would teach them and everything they learned would bring glory to the Son and the Father.

Perhaps we can all take heart in the words of that final sermon from Jesus. He did not stay on earth with us, but He does provide a level of comfort and learning beyond anything we have experienced to date. Praise God that Jesus returned to Heaven to finish preparing the Kingdom. And thank God for the Spirit who teaches and comforts in a way nobody else can. As I walk the crooked path, that is a great security to me.

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  1. Have you thought lately about the work of the Spirit in your life? Have you felt His presence and the unique comfort only He can bring?
  2. Do you feel privileged and advantaged that Jesus left the disciples and sent the Spirit? Can you see the work of the Spirit the world around you?
  3. Do you find yourself wishing the Kingdom was here on earth now, or are you content to live as an adopted child and learn by the teaching of the Spirit?

ESV - Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.