Understanding God

A continuing difficulty facing not only the believer but the unbeliever as well, is understanding why some people prosper, in both their health and wealth, and some do not. How much of this prosperity is afforded by God, and how much is arbitrary?

In a world where, all things being equal, we expect fairness of outcome to be conditional to and resultant of judicial effort, we are sometimes dismayed by the unfairness we see. I say all things being equal, because we have to allow for disparities of our expectations due to inequalities caused by corruption. A lot of mumbo-jumbo to say that life ought to be fair for fair-minded people.

In a previous discussion on the sovereignty of God, I wrote of how the events we encounter each day are either by His active or passive will. God is in control, whether He actively causes an event to happen, or if He allows it to proceed by His inaction.

It isn’t hard to imagine how people can say that, “If God is in control, why __________________?” (Fill in the blank) Two things come immediately to mind. Our idea of fairness doesn’t necessarily reflect God’s; and who are we to dictate to God what is fair. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the LORD. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” Isaiah 55:8-9

“God has mercy on whom He wants to have mercy, and He hardens whom He wants to harden… “…who are you, O man, to talk back to God? Shall what is formed say to Him who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?’ Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for noble purposes and some for common use?

“What if God, choosing to show His wrath and make His power known, bore with great patience the objects of His wrath—prepared for destruction?  What if He did this to make the riches of His glory known to the objects of His mercy, whom He prepared in advance for glory—” (Romans 9:18, 20-23)

Understanding our plight from an earthly prospective is like trying to negotiate an obstacle course blindfolded. We can’t know how our tribulations or those of our loved ones contribute to the Kingdom’s glory. Remember – ‘it’s not about us’! Did God simply allow Joseph’s brothers to kidnap and sell him as a slave; or did He cause them to do it. It doesn’t matter – in either case God was glorified – His will was done.

Through Joseph’s actions as a slave – through his obedience and faithfulness to God, His people, the nation of Israel was spared from the famine—as well as the Egyptians – even though they did not worship the one true God, and therefore we might think them unworthy of His mercy. No doubt God could have devised any number of methods to spare His chosen people, leaving the Egyptians shortchanged of His grace, but that wasn’t part of His perfect plan and it isn’t for us to know why.

Paul said, “For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears. “Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” (1 Corinthians 13:9-10, 12) God reveals to us all He wants us to know.

In John 9 :1-3 we read the story of a blind man – “As he went along, He saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked Him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life”

Jesus’ message here was that the man was blind through no fault of his own, nor of anyone else. His sin had not caused his blindness, as he was so from birth – before he ever had an opportunity to sin. He was born blind so that as Jesus would heal him, God would be glorified.

Even Paul, whom God chose to take the message of the Cross to far flung nations, was afflicted with a ‘thorn in his side’, of which he asked God three times to remove. In 2 Corinthians 12 we find that this newly ordained apostle wasn’t to do Kingdom work without some daily reminder of his vulnerability and Who was in charge. The Lord responded to Paul’s plea, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness”; to which Paul said, “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.  That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Corinthians 12:9-10)

Learning to “delight in our difficulties” is probably much like loving the unlovable. It is only as we draw strength from Christ that we are able to overlook our human frailties and shortcomings and see that God is glorified as we turn to Him and proclaim, “Thy will be done”, regardless of our condition or circumstance.  The ‘valley experiences’ of suffering from any number of physical, emotional, and relational are just part of life.  Whoever said life would be fair?  Jesus said that “In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.” John 16:33b

I think that we must assume the attitude demonstrated by Joseph.  It is certain that he could not have known how his story would end. . .none of  ever know how our story ends.  But Joseph’s faith in God never waivered, even as he endured being sold by his brothers, being enslaved, then living a life of luxury, and then being falsely accused and imprisoned, only to once again become rich and powerful.  What a roller-coaster ride that was!

God alone knew how Joseph’s story would end and He alone knows how our story will end – He’s already written the ending. (Psalm 139:16)  We must trust that Romans 8:28 is indeed true and relevant in our lives.  Though we might question “the good” of our valley experience, we will, we must, choose to believe in the goodness of our God, and the promises He has proclaimed of  His love and His charity and His faithfulness.

Judy and I have a spar and parry we often recite regarding God’s goodness and I incorporated part of it in the old logo for the Weekly Witness: “GOD IS GOOD”

“God is good”

“All the time – and”

“All the time”

“God is good”

May He richly bless you and yours, and may you be a blessing to others.

First Impressions

What are first impressions? The very word impression connotes vagueness; a notion or a belief. In the context of today’s message I am referring to appearances, whether visual or conceptual. “Beauty is only skin deep.” “You can’t tell a book by it’s cover.” “Beware a wolf in sheep’s clothing.”

These slogans exhort us to ‘look before we leap’ into our appraisals of people (and things) with which we probably are not thoroughly knowledgeable.  The latter slogan is derived from Matthew 7:15. It warns us to be judicial in our assessments of others; to be watchful of false prophets. My message today is not about our being deceived so much as our tendency to make hasty judgments.

I confess to you here and now that being judgmental is a sin I have struggled mightily with. Those of you that know me well know how often I have ask for prayer on this matter. I have, by God’s grace, seen improvement over time, and though mercifully I am still on the Potter’s wheel, I find the impulse to judge too easy, too natural.

We see someone who does not dress like we do and we put them in X category; someone who doesn’t like the same music that we do, well then surely, they must go in Y category; and those whose appearance we find objectionable, or distasteful, or just different, we ‘pigeon hole’ them into such and such group. We take a snapshot and proclaim our perception and visionary depth is in Technicolor and Cinemascope.

By doing that we can (in our own mind) immediately place ourself on a plateau above them. Subconsciously, or maybe consciously, we convince ourself that my values are more upright than yours, my character is of greater regard, and my choices and my ideals are more highly admirable. Because of the way they may appear we dismiss any worthiness or distinction not in evidence.

There is the story (true) of a couple dressed in less than what then would be called finery, who travelled to Harvard to see the University president. Due to their modest appearance they found themselves unwelcomed and unwanted in the president’s office, and their offer to build a building in memory of their dead son. who had attended there for just one year was arrogantly dismissed. Subsequently the couple, Mr. and Mrs. Leland Stanford, went west to Palo Alto, California where they established the university that bears their name, a memorial to a son that Harvard no longer cared about.

Yes it’s a mistake we’ve all been guilty of at one time or another. Judging others based on what they look like is a human trait that’s hard to overcome. One reason we make such judgments is because sometimes they work; sometimes a person does reflect their character in how they look. Then as we find “suspicions confirmed” we rush to judgment again, being pridefully sure of our self-serving ‘discernment’.

Judging others by first impression hurts everyone involved. If we voice our impression, the subject of our conjecture, and those with whom we share our dissatisfaction, must overcome an unfair, often baseless assessment. We may cause them to have to vindicate or defend whatever issue we find fault with. We then are also victims of our appraisals as we may miss opportunities for friendship and understanding, and may in fact find we have to defend ourselves, thus reducing our selves from the judge to the judged.

Jesus made it clear that such judging will come back to haunt us – “Do not judge, or you too will be judged.  For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” (Matthew 7:1-2) James warns us about being biased and judgmental: “…if you show partiality, you commit sin, …judgment is without mercy to the one who has shown no mercy” (James 2:9,13)

If Jesus would choose some smelly, uneducated fishermen, a hated tax collector, and an impulsive political zealot to take His message to the far corners of the world; if He would trust His legacy to ordinary, unremarkable men full of doubt and fear, then surely we can be more compassionate in our judgment of those He surrounds us with. Perhaps He sends them to us to test our own integrity.

Be blessed.

 

 

Hard Times

There is a perception out there that the Christian life is supposed to be free of pain, suffering and sorrow.  There is an unspoken undercurrent within the Christian community that if we do not wear a “happy face” and say all the “churchy” things that maybe we are not real Christians.

Let us be perfectly honest. The same struggles and pains that inflict the world at large can and do afflict Christians as well.  We have doubts.  We stumble and fall.  We can be angry with God. We can go through times of trial and tribulation.  We suffer the same mountaintop and valley experiences.

Although we serve a Merciful and Faithful God, we are fallen people living in a fallen world. We can get hurt. We can hurt one another even within the church. We can get sick. We can lose our jobs as companies move offshore for cheaper labor. We can be the victims of random violence.  We are not immune to any of this worlds maladies and malaise that besets our non-believing neighbors.

Becoming a Christian is not a shield that keeps all the darkness of the world at bay.  If we look around and see that only perfect, happy little Christians surround us all the time, we are living a lie.

Do not misunderstand me.  There is incredible joy in knowing Christ.  There is freedom beyond measure.  There is hope that spans beyond time.  There is peace that transcends all understanding.  It is just that there is also every day life as well.  You need not be surprised when hard things happen.  The Bible tells us that they will.

“Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” James 1:2-4 NIV

“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ!  In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade–kept in heaven for you, who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time.  In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials.  These have come so that your faith–of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire–may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. 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.” 1 Peter 1:3-9 NIV

In the midst of our troubles, we have an advantage over the world of non-believers.  We have the hope of Christ to sustain us.  “In this world you will have trouble.  But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33 NIV) and He has promised that “No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.” 2 Cor. 10:13 NIV  That word ‘temptation’ also includes all the trials and tribulations that we endure  daily, sometime hourly.

The ability to rejoice in the midst of it all is a gift.  Rejoicing is not the same as happy.  Happy depends on circumstances.  Rejoicing is a deep feeling that can come through even in the midst of pain.

Until next time, even in the midst of the deepest trial remember that you can rejoice in the Lord.

 

A THORN IN THE FLESH

We read of Paul’s ‘thorn in the flesh’ in the 12th chapter of 2nd Corinthians.  Paul wrote that he received his thorn in the flesh: “lest I be exalted above measure” (NKJV), “to keep me from becoming conceited” (NIV), and “to keep me from becoming proud” (NLT), and all versions say “a messenger from Satan”.

There is no consensus as to exactly what the thorn in the flesh was. Speculation runs the gamut from malaria, to epilepsy, to a disease of the eyes.  Whatever it was tormenting enough that three times Paul prayed the Lord would take it away.  We know well the answer Paul received; (vs9) “And He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.”

This was our topic of discussion Friday night at our neighborhood Bible study.  Several suggestions were offered as to what ‘our own’ thorn in the flesh might be.  We agreed that as Paul had written, anything that could cause us to be proudful could be that thorn.  Paul was told his thorn was given him to humble him due to the vision he had been allowed.  Had I been allowed such a vision I can certainly understand the proclivity to becoming puffed up in self righteousness.  There would be that ‘messenger from Satan’ to tell me how important I was.  We know that Paul’s messenger from Satan was very busy at trying to keep him from Kingdom business.  Stonings, shipwrecks, beatings, imprisonment were all attempts to deter his spreading the message of the Gospel.

So we agreed that anything that stands between us and God or spreading His message, particular those things recurring and from which we are unrepentant, would be our personal thorn.  Guilt and unforgiveness were two early culprits mentioned.  Satan uses our guilt about as successfully as any of our weaknesses.  Guilt of what we should have done and what we should not have done.  Unforgiveness he loves as it keeps us from loving our neighbor as Jesus taught us to do.  Pride would be another miscreant as it manifests itself in so many ways – intolerance, judging, self-aggrandizing, impatience, and success.  How about envy, covetness, anger, and greed? We know all of these are things come between us and our Redeemer?

Although verse 7 is rather ambiguous as to Paul’s particular thorn in the flesh, I think we could all recognize our own thorns.  And just as surely as God told Paul that His strength was made perfect in Paul’s weakness, so God’s strength is made perfect in our own weaknesses.  We cannot rid ourselves of our thorns in the flesh; only God can do that.  And for that to happen we must become humble, recognize our weaknesses and give them over to Him.  Then as Paul said in verse 10, “That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”

In Acts 14:19, Paul was stoned and left for dead, but God raised him up, and the next day he walked at least twenty miles into the next town and started preaching again. The Lord did not stop the persecution, but God’s strength was certainly made perfect in Paul’s weakness. Can you imagine what those that stoned him must have thought? They could see Paul’s humanity in the cuts and bruises, but they could also see the supernatural strength of God flowing through him. “For when I am weak, then am I strong.” As His strength becomes perfect in our weakness, we become strong in Christ. Praise His Holy Name.

Sadly we remember that although Paul was given ‘a’ thorn in the flesh, our Lord Jesus was unmercifully and mockingly impaled with a crown of thorns on His way to Calvary – certainly a messenger from Satan.

 

Suffering Successfully

“Consider it pure joy, my brother, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” James 1:2-4

Suffering is real, as real as pleasure. Sickness, loneliness, humiliation, frustration, temptation to sin – all rain on us like bricks falling out of a dump truck – only slowly – sometimes singularly – sometimes in bunches. And they all are painful – often moreso than if we had been physically bruised by a brick. Murphy’s Law laments, “If anything can go wrong, it will”, and I have heard adjuncts of “…at the worst possible time, under the worst possible conditions, and that Murphy was an optimist.”

There is another law – we might call it James’ Dictum or James’ Edict; the law of our suffering, its purpose, and how we respond to it. Pain and suffering are not an obstacle to our spiritual growth, but in fact are the condition of it. They are the means by which we gain the graces and virtues we aspire to and that which we pray for. It is the way we become mature and complete. Without it we would never make the most of our lives.

James defines our trials as “the test of [our] faith.” The Greek word here “dokimion” means “tested and approved.” The word is found on the bottoms of ancient clay vessels that had been formed, fired, inspected, and found flawless. It served the same purpose as our “Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval”

“Faith,” the other word James uses, is reliance on God and on His unfailing providence for us; that He will see us through the trials of this world. It is unyielding belief in Romans 8:28; “And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose.” It is more than mere belief; it is a focused, conscious determination that by the Holy Spirit’s indwelling presence and power, we will turn what we believe into godly behavior. Suffering is the means by which that perfect end is accomplished. Here’s how it works:

When we are beset with a malady, a heartbreak, a temptation – whatever the test – we have the God-given ability to choose how we will respond. We can look inward and commence our pity party, or we can look to God and ask Him what He is trying to teach us.

Let me give you an example. Last week I had an appointment with the dentist to have two implants placed. The procedure was extraordinarily long – much longer than I anticipated and I know it was longer than my dentist planned. Without going into detail, suffice it to say there were several complications and I ended up in the chair for over eight hours. The antiseptics were not as effective as supposed so the additional injections (I estimate 25-30) caused some additional suffering. In addition to that I missed my lay counsel training session that night and it was raining and I and I and I and………. Do you see how I might have been inclined to have a real pity party. But my friends I promise you my first thought was to thank God for the patience and diligence of my dentist and his assistant, for their expertise, and the sacrifice of their time (it was 9:15PM before I left and they still had to clean up the treatment room). I thanked Him that the procedure had been completed, not only successfully, but had been done with such loving care and concern for my well being. If I was to endure such a session I can only thank God for blessing me by placing Dr. Caudill and Rene in my path.

Now I won’t suggest that ordeal was intended by God to be a learning experience for me – it could have been. What it did was to reinforce for me how God has changed my thought pattern. Once I would have railed to all who I could corner on what a terrible ordeal I had endured. The choice I now make is to look for the “good” that Paul promises in Romans 8:28 and be quick to thank God for His providence. When we lose a loved one, when we lose employment, when we or a loved one suffer with disease or impairments, when life seem just to overwhelm, God is giving you a chance to turn to Him, to trust only in Him and “lean not on your own understanding.” He knows better than we do what our torments and troubles are. Babies do not learn to walk without first falling down a few times. Without trials and temptations in our lives we would just stagnate – we would never know the joy of victory.

Oswald Chambers wrote, “To choose suffering makes no sense at all; to choose God’s will in the midst of our suffering makes all the sense in the world.”

Corrie ten Boom wrote, “God uses our problems as building material for His miracles.”

Be blessed!