100 Years of Groaning

Throughout my life, there has been one thing that I have resisted more than any other. I wish this could be some form of sin or another, but it’s not. Naturally, there are many sins I’ve dealt with but those are not what drive weariness down in my soul. Rather, I have resisted spending my time in prayer unless I’ve felt it absolutely necessary. I have not been what you would call a man of prayer.

Prayer is one of those disciplines that we Christians are taught to do and are expected to be good at. If you’re a good Christian, you pray. Yet, regarding prayer, I find myself to be more like the Israelites in the days of the Judges than any of the Christians that I look up to.

When I read over the passages in the Old Testament, I see page after page of Israelites suffering under the oppression of their enemies. Sometimes, the opponent would dominate for 50 or 60 years, sometimes it would be 200 or 300 years. Then God would finally respond to the crisis saying something like, “I have heard the groaning of the Israelites, whom the Egyptians are enslaving, and I have remembered my covenant. Ex. 6:5” Then the people would be delivered.

The reasons listed for the oppression vary, but they all come essentially to the same root: nobody cares to pray to God and He knows it. They often would rather sit in suffering or ask help from somewhere else than do the simple thing of asking the Lord for deliverance.

For that matter, I could be worse than the Israelites. Often, I find that I don’t want to ask anyone for anything. It’s a simple thing to call the bank when my card is not working, but I don’t want to do it. Instead, I wait and try again later, “maybe it’s fixed?” Still nothing.

But Chronicles tells us the real answer to the problem. Rather than sitting in the dust groaning and wondering if anyone out there will take interest and show mercy, there is a direct route to receiving rescue. Second Chronicles 7:14 says, “Then if my people who are called by my name will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sins and restore their land.”

The recipe is simple. God may rescue us if we moan about something long enough to no one in particular. But He will forgive us and heal our broken land if we repent of our wickedness and seek after him.

If this doesn’t work then consider James 4:2b-3 “You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.”

If you have checked yourself and know that your prayer is humble and that your desire is for the Lord and your prayer is still going unanswered then look to the example of the Israelite exiles in Babylon. “Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego replied, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you. If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God whom we serve is able to save us. He will rescue us from your power, Your Majesty. But even if he doesn’t, we want to make it clear to you, Your Majesty, that we will never serve your gods or worship the gold statue you have set up.”” Daniel‬ ‭3:16-18.

You see, this is the kind of prayer we need. The Lord desires to answer us and bring us back to Him. He wants us to have good things. But, he also wants us to desire Him above all else. The hard part about prayer isn’t asking God to give us things, rather it is praising Him and turning from our wickedness even if we might not get the thing we’re after.

If we could humble ourselves and pray, maybe we wouldn’t have to sit in the dust, groaning for a hundred years.

The Strangest Nation

As we rise this morn and look to the hills, the son rises over.

His star, shining bright against the backdrop of night, the seraphim stand in awe.

The birth of a child, holiness rending the night.

Warriors stand guard, awaiting the coming of the great King. Should they fight? Is his reign threatening?

Kings and emperors seek their signs, what could they mean?

For today we witness the birth of the one true King and the rise of the strangest nation.

It is not for reindeer or gifts or sleigh that we celebrate this winter day.

The start, the flash, of the immortal come to inhabit this earthly portal.

The birth of the one who battles not with sword or arrow, but with holiness and power.

The beginning of a new kind of people who follow a new kind of way.

For it is not flesh against flesh or spirit against spirit this King does battle.

Love and righteousness are his weapons and his enemy, death.

And by death, his nation is shattered. And by new life his nation established.

And who are these people following the King? The strangest nation, rising into suffering.

For it is not by sword and arrow that they do battle. But by justice and love they bring peace.

Obedient, they pay taxes to kings that are not their King.

Dual citizens, they fight battles against enemies that are not their Enemy.

Rich, they give what they have to the poor, yet great is their increase.

Who are this number who claim allegiance to One but devote service to others?

It is none but the strangest nation, rising at the birth of the one true King.

Every tribe and every language, bound up in holiness, loyal to He who comes on seraph’s wing.

Immortal, born mortal to end our suffering.

Check Out Those Golden Calves

One of the best things about the Bible is that the lessons it teaches grow with you. When I was a teenager, I set out to understand Christianity as it is rather than the spiritually ambiguous thing that I had grown up with. The best way I knew how was to read the Bible since that was the holy text of the religion. What I found was not a list of do’s and don’ts but rather the story of the people of Israel. One of my favorite sections outlines the rule of Kings or Israel and what went wrong in their lives.

The one judgement that is repeated most often in the books of the Kings was a line, “but King _____ continued in the sins of his father and did what was evil in the sight of the Lord.” When I was younger, I did not understand what that meant but merely thought, “this king is a bad dude, I wonder what else he did.” The text would often tell of one or two terrible infractions and then move on to the next king. What I had failed to notice in those statements about the sins of their fathers was that they were all following in the sins of this man called Jeroboam, son of Nebat.

So… what did Jeroboam do that set up generation after generation of Israelites to sin a sin so bad that it led to the ultimate downfall of Israel?

King Jeroboam  was the first king of Samaria, the Northern Tribes of Israel. While king, he did many things that would cause Samaria to fall out of favor with the Lord, including building temples to worship Baal and Asherah. This would probably have been enough to justify God’s punishment of his people, however the Lord often showed a great deal of mercy when dealing with this kind of sin. For example, Judah, the southern two tribes of Israel, was not destroyed until much later even though they too had alters devoted to the pagan gods of the Canaanites.

The sin that led Jeroboam’s people into destruction had to do with something he did at the start of his reign. In order to prevent Israel from worshiping the Lord YHWH in Jerusalem, he made a pair of golden calves and set them up on two mountains for the people to worship instead. This particular idolatry was more significant than the others because of something that had happened in Israel’s past.

In the days of Moses, the people of Israel were brought to the Lord at Mount Sinai and He appeared to them as a great and terrible fire, consuming the whole mountain. YHWH called Moses up from among the people to establish a covenant between YHWH and this nation but the covenant took a long time to prepare. When the people saw that Moses had left them there in the desert at the base of this burning mountain, they crafted a calf  from gold and proclaimed it as their rescuer from Egypt… right there in front of the Lord and his burning mountain. They even set up a feast in the name of YHWH to worship this golden calf as if it was the Lord.

This was so outrageous that the Lord desired to destroy the people right there in front of His mountain. Moses interceded for them and turned back the Lord’s anger. However, as a punishment, Moses ground up the golden calf and made the people drink it causing many to fall ill and others to die.

So, why was God so angry? Why did He get so mad that He desired to destroy them? It’s not because they were worshiping another god, which is a problem in itself… what they were doing was worshiping something other than YHWH and calling it YHWH. They worshiped the calf as though it were YHWH. They attributed all of the actions of the Lord, the ten plagues against Egypt, the cloud and pillar of fire, the parting of the Red Sea, all of it to a mere metal image they had made from their own jewelry. It’s not surprising that the Lord would think to destroy them.

Fast forward again to Jeroboam the son of Nebat. Not only had he set up the calves to worship, but the worship of these calves was to be a substitute for the worship of YHWH, stumbling the people for generations to come. They completely misidentified who their God was and turned from Him. 2 Kings 17 gives a full account of their sin and declares that they “went after worthless things and became worthless themselves…”

So what does this have to do with us? We don’t offer sacrifices anymore, but we are not immune to this kind of substitutionary idolatry either. It’s easy to look at ourselves and say that we have done no such thing, yet Christian history is marred time and again with religious copies of the golden calves. By reading our own desires and wills into the words of the Bible, Christians have found ways to justify slavery, sexual abuse, gluttony, debauchery and all forms of hedonism.

One example could be pressuring someone to do something you want because you had a dream “from the Lord” about it. Another, might be divorcing someone because “the Lord wants you to pursue someone else.” On more than one occasion, I’ve declined  helping someone in need because I “needed to focus on the Lord right now”.

Some of my friends have left the faith in pursuit of authentic worship of God. I’ve seen whole cults develop under the guise or “truly worshiping God” when in reality the Lord has been substituted with another.

When we do things like this we set stumbling blocks in front of ourselves and our children, keeping us from worshiping the Lord. When we worship other things and call them God, we are in danger of inciting the Lord against us, generation after generation.

The Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,  is our Mountain. When we turn to Him, His fire reveals to us the darkness hidden in our ways. We must examine our hearts and break down the altars we have set up in the wrong places and turn our worship from ourselves and put it back on the Lord lest we find ourselves overcome by our enemies.

Reform takes time and our actions do have costs. Let our cost be what it takes to worship the Lord, not the ruin of our children and our children’s children.

How to Have Hairy Faith

In my last few posts we discussed what the spiritual disciplines were and how they can put some strength into your spiritual life through practice. There is a problem though… The list of disciplines is long and challenging and doesn’t seem like a basket full of fun. It’s worth it to gain some level of competency in each discipline for your own spiritual growth and longevity in the Christian faith, but what happens when you forget to do what you set out to do? What do you do when you try to do what is good and right and fail?

Enormous volumes have been written in the business and fitness sectors under the topics of goal setting and personal growth. They tell us that we can be motivated and that it takes a special sort of motivation to get good at any sort of skill… but they only cover the mental and physical aspects of the problem. You can do great things under the tutelage of mentors like Jon Acuff, Tim Ferris, Amy Cuddy, Angela Duckworth, Anders Ericsson and others. I highly recommend their work. However, these writers often come from a strictly nonspiritual perspective and can only address behavior from the physical or psychological standpoint.

To gain wisdom in all areas of spiritual, physical, and even psychological truth the Bible provides us with many examples and a whole body of advice for life. More often than not, Biblical examples are narrative and descriptive rather than prescriptive, meaning that they don’t tell you what you should or should not do but rather what someone else was doing or thinking and then let you figure out how you can apply the story to your situation. Reading these stories is the first of the spiritual disciplines. The second is meditating on them, which gives us a gateway into understanding and application.

For example, in the New Testament, Paul spends a long time explaining that he just can’t make himself do the things that he knows he should. Also, he does those things that he knows he should not, things he hates doing. This is the scenario I find myself in constantly. When I get mad at my dog and throw away her treats in frustration or when I refuse to do something my wife asks “because I don’t wanna,” I know that I am acting as a child. When I sit and stare blankly at my Bible or look at my phone during what should be my prayer time, I know that I’m not doing what I ought. My knowledge of sin does not prevent me from sinning.

According to Paul, there is no amount of time or effort that can keep me from failing to do as God asks. I, like the Hebrew people of the Old Testament, am too stubborn and thick necked, unyielding in my commitment to self-devotion. My desire to be better cannot not simply bear for me the fruits of the Spirit.

Keeping this in mind, there is still hope for us. The Bible offers us an example for how we can move forward in faith when we have failed: Samson.

Most of us know Samson for having strangely long hair and performing unusual acts of strength. What we often miss is the terrible lifestyle he led and the fact that, in spite of this lifestyle, he goes down in history as a great Hero of the Faith.

Samson began his life as a Nazarite. His mother dedicated him before he was born to live as a Nazarite, serving under the high priest for his whole life. Now, we know from the book of Hebrews that Samson had great faith. However, when we read his story it’s easy to wonder if he had any faith at all. Samson was known for partying hard, drinking a lot of wine, and most notably, killing a lot of people and several animals. He was also selfish, ignored many of the commands God laid on his people, and acted out of anger at perceived wrongs against him.

Samson married a Philistine woman named Delilah who made it her goal to find out his greatest weakness in order to sell him out to the Philistines. When Samson finally gave in to Delilah and told her the secret of his strength, he told her that he was a Nazarite and it was his hair that gave him his strength. His mother had made a promise to the Lord that no razor would ever touch his head and so far, none had. When Delilah cut off his hair Samson became weak as any man and a group of philistines seized him to mock him and God.

After capturing Samson, they gouged out his eyes and chained him in the temple of their own god, putting him on display as if to show that the hero of Israel and the God that he represents were weaker than Dagon, the god of the Philistines. Now stripped of his sight, and his hair, the symbol of his faith and the God he worships, Samson is in a dire situation.

So how can a raucous law breaker, taken captive in a foreign land find himself among the famous faithful?

The text indicates that Samson’s hair began to grow back, foreshadowing a future return of his strength. But Samson went down in history as a hero of the faith, not as a champion of hair growth. In his final day of need he remembered that his strength came not from the hair on his head but from the Lord, the God of Israel.

The same is true for us. Losing in our struggle to be faithful to God is part of our journey. We are going to suffer embarrassing defeats, wreck the good things that God has given us, accidentally (or intentionally) encounter unclean things, and so much more. However, like with Samson, the true strength in our relationship with God is God, Himself. The secret to a strong, heroic faith is believing that God, having started a good work in us, is going to complete it. He is faithful to us in that so that we can be faithful to him.

Any can grow hair, only God can provide strength.

 

A Fighting Faith: The Disciplines

In my last post, I talked about the importance of spiritual discipline. I gave an example of a woman in my church who excelled in her spiritual life so much that others would seek her out for prayer and counsel. If I had to describe a list of qualities she had, I would probably put together a list that looks one this:

  1. Love
  2. Joy
  3. Peace
  4. Patience
  5. Kindness
  6. Goodness
  7. Faithfulness
  8. Gentleness
  9. Self-Control

You might recognize this list as the “fruit of the spirit”. When I came to faith in Jesus, I used to think that just because I am a Christian I have those things along with improved wisdom and street smarts.

Boy was I wrong.

I think it’s fair to say that a measure of that fruit is implanted into us automatically when we are saved. However, it’s more accurate to say that we begin to desire those things as a result of the Holy Spirit’s work in our lives. The list of the fruits of the spirit is a list of the rewards of spiritual discipline. To get those rewards we have to do as Paul says and work out our salvation through the disciplines of godliness. Donald S. Whitney said that “the Spiritual Disciplines are scriptural paths where we might expect to encounter the transforming grace of God.” If that is true, then it is fair to say that the good things of the Spirit are attainable through the diligence of practice and perseverance in disciplining ourselves.

So, what are the disciplines? What are the the ways for us to discipline ourselves for the purpose of godliness? How do we pursue the fruits of the spirit?

There are many, many ways to discipline ourselves for the purpose of godliness and to achieve even greater faith. The major disciplines are as follows:

  1. Bible consumption (reading, listening, study, and discussion)
  2. Prayer
  3. Worship
  4. Meeting in Community
  5. Serving
  6. Stewardship (of time, wealth, or other resources)
  7. Fasting
  8. Evangelism
  9. Learning
  10. Journaling

These disciplines can stand alone but are often better done in some combination with each other. Journaling your prayers, thoughtful worship, or insights about what you’re reading in scripture is an example of combining multiple disciplines.

Now, if you’re like me, these don’t all sound equally enjoyable and I certainly don’t want to do them every day. Some things are scary to me, like Evangelism. Others are really inconvenient, like serving others. However, just because I don’t feel like doing these things doesn’t mean that I should avoid them. The reason we discipline ourselves is because they help us move closer in godliness to our savior, Jesus.

As you start flexing your spiritual muscles, you’ll find that you are particularly gifted in certain areas. Pursue these areas the most, without neglecting the others. The Lord equips us with talents and gifts so that we can experience deeper meaning in some areas. By exploring these strengths within the spiritual disciplines, we can discover how God has called each of us individually to live in his kingdom. However, we must not forget to exercise in the disciplines that we are not particularly gifted or strong in or else we will miss out in entire aspects of God.

I have only recently begun practicing many of these disciplines and cannot elaborate on the full practices for these. For a fuller understanding of how and what spiritual disciplines to practice, I recommend Donald S. Whitney’s Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life. This book came to me highly recommended by my wife and it has proven incredibly useful and interesting.

In my next post, I will discuss what to do when we miss our mark and fail to discipline ourselves the way we want to.

Having a Fighting Faith

When I was growing up, there were a few people in my church that everyone knew had something special in their spiritual life. I remember specifically Miss Juanita. I don’t really remember much about her other than that at the time that I knew her she was who you went to if you wanted someone to pray for you. Everyone knew that if someone was going to actually intercede for you, she was the one who would do it without fail. You also knew that her prayers got answered.

I remember that Miss Juanita didn’t have a whole lot and that if she had had a husband he was no longer in her life. She had few local family members and a small, older home. But, we all knew that she had a faith in the Lord that was unshakable.

So how does someone get a reputation like Miss Juanita? How does anyone achieve a faith so strong that others are drawn to it? How does anyone look so much like Christ that people actively ask for intercession with God? How can you have a faith that is unshakable, a faith that holds you together in the face of tragedy, a faith that fights?

Discipline.

When I think of discipline, I often think of punishment before I think of anything else. Fortunately, this is a limited view of what discipline really is. Punishment is a form of discipline, but it is the form that comes from without. This form can help steer someone towards a right path, but true and lasting changes come from within.

Lasting changes are ones created by taking hold of external truths and pursuing them with fervor and tenacity from your inner self. This is what’s known as self discipline. This means that discipline, or self discipline, is not something you have, but rather something that you do. Also, it’s not something done for the sake of itself but for the realization of the goal or purpose for which you grasp. In other words, discipline is the process or tool that you use to bring about the change that you seek.

Once, I thought this meant drudgery. I used to think that self discipline meant that I had to stop having fun so I could go and do the work that Paul talks about in his letter to the Corinthian church: “I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize. (1 Corinthians‬ ‭9:27‬ ‭NIV‬‬)

Paul is correct in his assessment of self discipline, but I was incorrect in my interpretation. Terry Crews once said, “why do you hate discipline? It’s just training!” If discipline is just training, then that means that I can take part and exercise in spiritual training.

Thinking of the spiritual disciplines this way lets me move on from the thoughts of punishment and into a healthy understanding of Paul’s message. It also puts perspective on what Paul means when he says “Have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths. Rather train yourself for godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come. The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance. For to this end we toil and strive, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe.” ‭‭(1 Timothy‬ ‭4:7-10‬ ‭ESV‬‬)

Training myself in spiritual discipline let’s me become more godly. If I must put off my sinful nature, then to do so can only come by putting on a nature of righteousness. However, since I am surrounded in what Paul describes as a body of death, I can do no such thing. So what then can I do?

Amy Cuddy puts it this way, “Fake it till you become it.” Jeff Haden says that you should change your language from “I can’t” to “I don’t” so that you no longer have a choice to make but an identity to fulfill. Paul’s advice is, instead of being a slave to your sinful nature, become a slave to Christ. That is, assume the identity of one who is righteous and do what they do. Before long, you will be more like one who is righteous. Before long, you will become like Miss Juanita, so strong in faithfulness that others come to you for prayer and guidance, not for your own virtue but by the virtue of the One who is inside you.

In my next post, I will begin describing the disciplines of the spiritual life. These exercises will help to train your faith so that it can stand up and fight when the world is doing it’s best to defeat you.

Why is Judaism important to Christians??

If there’s one thing that I’ve learned over the past 20 years, it’s that I am assuredly not Jewish. I am neither Jewish by nationality, nor am I Jewish by religion. These seem like obvious facts, and they are. However, Judaism and the Hebrew nation are extraordinarily important to Christians. The two, more than any other religions, share a deep and common foundation. The only problem is that many (if not most) Jews disagree with this claim.

This disagreement comes to a point primarily with the identity of the man called Jesus of Nazareth. Evidence of this disagreement is apparent in the gospels long before Jesus was crucified. While Jesus was performing his ministry throughout Judea and Galilee, he rarely had a moment without some heat from the local religious authorities. The vehemence and vitriol surrounding the controversy was exacerbated when Jesus entered Jerusalem for the last time and his body mysteriously disappeared from his tomb. Since then the divisions have grown and solidified, becoming a wall with a narrow gate that only a few go between.

A Troubling Message

Christian scripture includes two testaments, conveniently known as the Old and the New.  The Christian Old Testament includes the entirety of Jewish scripture which was concluded approximately four hundred years before Jesus walked the earth.

This tells us one very important thing about Christians: we believe that our religion is a continuation of the Jewish religion.

That’s right, our Gospel is the Jewish Gospel. Everything that Christians believe is based off of everything that the Hebrew people wrote as scripture. Without God selecting Abraham and establishing the covenant to make him the father of a great nation, Christians would not be here.

If Christians believe that they practice Judaism 2.0 then they have to be getting this notion from somewhere. This idea of Christianity being the continuation is taught in several forms throughout the new testament but one specific occasion really heats things up for us and points to why people like me are concerned with Judaism.

In the book of Matthew, right before Jesus was accused of blasphemy and sentenced to death, he told a story to the chief priest and elders about some tenants and a wealthy landowner. The landowner had a large and fertile plot. This plot was an investment for him but he needed to take care of other matters. In the mean time, the land needed to produce income for him so he hired some tenants to produce a crop. In their contract, the tenants would get a place to live and money and food to live on so long as they sent the agreed upon portion of the profits back to the landowner.

Unfortunately for the landowner, the tenants did not keep their end of the bargain. At the appointed time the landowner sent some of his men to collect his portion, but the tenants abused them, murdering one, beating another, and attempting to kill the third. The landowner had cause to seize his land at this point, but being merciful he sent another round of servants, more this time than the last. Again, the tenants abused the landowner’s men and killed a few, totally disregarding the contract and disrespecting their benefactor’s wishes.

Finally, the landowner, still filled with mercy, sent his own son as representative for him. The son would go and collect the debt owed to the landowner as his family member and personal envoy. Surely, the tenants would realize how serious the landowner was this time since he sent his son. Again, the tenants were filled with disdain for their benefactor and jealousy over his possessions. They took his son and murdered him.

Jesus pauses here and asks his listeners what they think happens next. The elders respond:

 “He will put those wretches to a miserable death and let out the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the fruits in their seasons.”

Jesus then says a peculiar thing. He brings up a piece of the Psalms in response the the chief priests.

Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the Scriptures:

‘The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone;
this was the Lord’s doing,
and it is marvelous in our eyes’”?

Seeing the looks of confusion in their eyes and the question on their lips, Jesus explains what his means.

“Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruits. And the one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and when it falls on anyone, it will crush him.”

So this is where Jesus identifies two things:

  1. The elders and the chief priest are the builders. They were the tenants sent to prepare a harvest for their generous landowner.
  2. People like me will inherit the landowner’s property instead.

As you can tell, this is highly inflammatory. If Jesus is the Son of God as he identifies himself elsewhere, then he is the stone that the builders rejected and he is the one who will crush them. Jesus became that for Christians and we are broken at his feet. For Christians, Jesus is the cornerstone of the religion. Without him, the whole thing crumbles and we are all fools. However, this means that the kingdom of heaven was taken from the Hebrew patriarchs.

This is really unfortunate for someone whose identity is based on God selecting their forefathers to make a nation that will last forever.

Hope For the Future

Fortunately, this is not where the story ends.

In my last post, we talked about the primary differentiator between covenants and contracts which is that covenants, once established, never pass away. Before the New Covenant (which forms the premise of the New Testament), there were several covenants God made with his people. The good news for Hebrew people is that all of these covenants are still in effect. That means that all of God’s promises, including the fact that there will always be a remnant, will come to pass. It also means that through the Hebrew people, all of the nations are blessed.

If Jesus is who he says he is, then Christianity provides answers to the covenants that many Jews are still waiting to be fulfilled. Through Him, the nation of Israel gets to lay claim to the best of all claims. They are, in fact, the people of the promise, and I am only grafted in to that blessing.

The book of Acts and later the book of Hebrews demonstrate and explain this truth in depth. One of the most important messages of Acts is that that the Gospel is first for the Jew and then for the Gentile. The pattern of Acts demonstrates this truth. The first portion of the book is dedicated to the spread of the Gospel throughout Israel. Then the Gospel is spread to the Jews outside of Judea and then to the Gentiles. Hebrews then goes on to explain to the Jewish people the meaning of the Gospel according to the history of the Hebrew nation.

If anything is clear, the Gospel came first to the Jewish nation and then through them. This is good news, both in that it restores the identity of the chosen people and that Gentiles like me can share a heritage with them.