Not exactly a fast: the substitution principal.

“. . . to grant those who mourn in Zion, giving them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of the spirit of fainting, so they will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, that He may be glorified.”–Isaiah 61:3 (NASB)

Twice in one recent day, I encountered the concept of fasting from bad attitudes. I see what the two people are getting at, but I don’t think “fasting” is quite appropriate. Fasting generally means not eating for a period of time. Jesus and Moses each fasted for forty days. Fasting doesn’t get more serious that that. On the 41st day, they resumed eating.

Fasting from a bad attitude smacks of what one of my college classmates went through. She decided to give up swearing for Lent! For forty days, she would start to make a characteristic comment, hold her hands over her mouth, and say something a little different. Monday after Easter, she was gleefully back in her element.

So I don’t want to fast from a bad attitude, and I don’t want to urge anyone else to engage in that kind of fast. That is, I don’t want to give a bad attitude up for Lent. I want to get rid of it. A bad attitude is a bad mental habit. No one can break a habit by deciding not to do something any more. The way to break a bad habit is establish another in its place. As we go through Lent, consider the following substitutions:

Instead of judging others, seek Christ’s love for them.

Instead of thinking of illness, think on Christ’s healing power.

Instead of speaking words that pollute, speak words that purify.

Instead of anger, develop patience.

Instead of discontent, seek out what to be grateful for.

Instead of bitterness, practice forgiveness.

Instead of discouragement, develop hope.

Instead of feeling overwhelmed by problems, pray prayers that strengthen.

I could go on, but probably no one can keep all of that in mind at the same time. Ask God what he wants to work on with you–from this list or some other attitude. = “blank”Expect him to bring scriptures to mind; to bring articles, conversations, sermons, etc. to your attention that relate to your new habit; and to bring you to situations where you will have to deliberately choose not to respond in the old way in order to practice your new habit.

And then, after a hard struggle that may at times seem endless and pointless if you let it, amaze yourself and all of your associates with your new habit. You haven’t given up anything for Lent, but for life

A promise about prayer, with conditions for abiding

“If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it shall be done for you.” — John 15:7 (NASB)

I’m sure every Christian loves Jesus’ promises about prayer. So many of them seem, on the surface, to say that we can ask for anything and our heavenly daddy will do it. Of course, every Christian has the experience of praying and not having it done.

Jesus never made that promise glibly. In the Garden of Gethsemane, he made it in the context of comparing his church to a grapevine. He is the vine and we are branches. Branches of grapevines must undergo periodic severe pruning. Otherwise, they will will bear lots of leaves but not much fruit. The vinedresser cuts off whatever is not necessary, leaving the rest of the branch firmly attached to the vine.

And so the promise about prayer here comes with two conditions: that we abide in the vine and that Jesus’ word abides in us. According to Strong’s concordance, “abide” means to stay in a given place, state, relation, or expectancy. Assuming, for this post, that we abide in Jesus, what does it mean for his word to abide in us?

Jesus said elsewhere, out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. Measuring what comes out of our mouth against the written word of God tells us what abides in us. It’s not like we have to be quoting Scripture all the time, but the words of our mouth ought to be faithful, hopeful, and loving.

If we speak words of frustration, unbelief, quarreling, gossiping, etc., those words line up with the words of the devil, not the words of Jesus. They indicate an area where the word of God abides on the pages of our Bibles, but not in us. We can’t expect all of our petitions to be granted if we fail to meet Jesus’ conditions.

Dwelling in the secret place

“He who dwells in the secret place of the Most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty.” — Psalm 91:1 (NKJV)

The secret place of the Most High means nothing less than the inner sanctum of the heavenly temple, and the shadow of the Almighty is located between the wings of the cherubim on the ark of the covenant. What does it mean to dwell there?

In the natural, I have had several dwelling places, including dorm rooms, apartments, and houses. In every case, I have been able to visit other people’s dwellings, but my own dwelling is always different. I do not spend all of my time, or even most of it, in my dwelling, but I have special privileges there like I have nowhere else.

First of all, I have the key to my dwelling. I can go in and out any time I want. Not only that, I can relax there like nowhere else. If someone I’m visiting says, “make yourself at home,” that doesn’t mean I can help myself to whatever food I’m in the mood for, undress, spend the night, or any of the other things I can do at home. I can safely be more vulnerable at home than anywhere else.

Second, most of my stuff is there. Even when I lived in a tiny furnished apartment and didn’t own much but clothes, books, and stuff for the kitchen and bathroom, I kept it at the apartment.

So what does it mean to dwell in the inner sanctum of the heavenly temple? For one thing, it means dwelling in a family. For part of my life, I lived alone. No one will dwell in the secret place of the Most High alone. After all, God lives there, too.

Christians, one and all, are adopted sons of God and part of the church, which is the bride of Christ. (There is no male of female in the body of Christ. If any woman is queasy about being a son or if any man is uncomfortable being the bride, get over it!)

Additionally, it does not mean we spend our whole time in church, or in a personal quiet time, or anything else that’s “religious.” There’s no religion in the secret place. I’m not always at home here on earth, but I’m always married to my wife whether I’m home (or she is) or not. Love constrains me from being unfaithful.

Most importantly, if I dwell in the secret place, in my Father’s house, I must know he loves me and desire to please him. Absent my love for God, I can hardly expect or even desire the privileges of home. The key of the kingdom, and dwelling within it, is Peter’s confession of the lordship of Christ. Don’t think about house rules, by the way. The concept of rule keeping entirely negates the whole concept of grace.

To love God as I ought utterly requires that I love nothing else more. Jesus said to store up treasure in heaven, and that our heart is where our treasure is. In a materialistic society like ours, that means that we can’t love our stuff so much that it gets in the way of loving God.

My dad has had a lifelong hobby of woodworking, and for twenty years or so, he also blew glass. Glass objects and furniture he made are my most prized possessions. I love them more than anything comparable made by professionals. I do not love them more than I love him. How much more, then, must I love God, in whose house I want to dwell, more than any of the stuff I can accumulate or the money it takes to get it?

Fear of God: the wrong way

Superficially, the Parable of the Ten Minas resembles the Parable of the Ten Talents, but the differences are probably more important than the similarities. Jesus told the parable right before his triumphal entry into Jerusalem. His followers thought he was going there to claim his kingdom. In fact, he intended to go to his Father to receive it. In the parable, he traveled to a far country.

Mina, like talents, is a unit of money. In this parable, though, the minas represent spiritual gifts. The nobleman gave a mina to each of ten servants. (In the parable of the talents, he gave three men different amounts according to their differing ability.) Then he returned, having received the kingdom, and called the servants to find out how they had done. This parable does not give account of all ten of them. It lets three represent them all.

Remember: the nobleman did not lend the minas. He did not appoint his servants as stewards of the minas. He made a gift of ten minas to each of them and told them to do business.

The first servant reported earning ten more minas. Commending him, the nobleman did not take back either his gift or the increase on it. Instead, he awarded the servant with authority over ten cities. The second reported earning five minas. Again the nobleman commended him, allowed him to keep the original gift and the increase, and gave him authority over five cities.

Notice he initially rewarded all ten servants equally, but the gave the later reward on the basis of what they accomplished with the first. Then came the third servant. He simply gave the one mina back and said some rather insulting things about the nobleman’s character–things that the nobleman’s generosity toward the first two utterly disproved. The nobleman did not commend him; he scolded him, reclaimed his gift, and gave it to the first servant.

The third servant testified that he behaved out of fear. Since the nobleman so clearly represents Jesus himself, this servant was motivated by the fear of God. Aren’t we commanded to fear God? Then why the biting criticism for him?

Proper fear of God does not fail to recognize his generosity and his love. Proper fear does not paralyze us from doing works for him. It does not lead us to hardness of heart, harsh words about God, or hatred of him. It does not paint a false picture of his character or acts. How many people today fear God the way that third servant did?

Notice that the nobleman in the parable gave ten minas. He took back the mina only from the servant who despised the giver and refused to do anything with the gift. And he did not keep that mina; he gave it to someone else. When God gives a gift, he does not take it back for himself.

In the very last verse of the parable, the nobleman commands the execution of those who had refused to accept him as king. That refusal is the only thing that can keep anyone out of the kingdom of God.

The unbelieving servant, the one who out if improper fear did nothing to exercise his gift, did not die, did not suffer exile, did not lose any of his rights as a subject of the kingdom. He only lost what he had already despised.

Until Jesus returns and asks for an accounting, we all have the chance to learn to act in the proper fear of God and cease from the paralysis of any improper fear we may have

God’s steadfast love–and hatred of sin

“Through the Lord’s mercies we are not consumed, because his compassions fail not. They are new every morning. Great is your faithfulness.” — Lamentations 3:22-23 (NKJV)

“Then he said to them all, ‘If anyone desires to come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me.'” — Luke 9:23

God’s mercy is new every morning. God calls us to take up our cross daily. Do those concepts seem somehow at odds?

Jeremiah, lamenting over the destruction of his beloved Jerusalem, comforted himself in the fact that some of God’s people had survived, even if their capital city and its temple had not. Jesus, going resolutely to his death, warned his followers that they would have to take up their own crosses.

In context, then, both Jeremiah’s word of praise and Jesus’ word of warning have to do with death and destruction. Jerusalem’s destruction took place as an act of divine judgment that culminated centuries of prophetic warnings about Jerusalem’s sin. As Jeremiah had already prophesied, God in his grace restored his people, his holy city, and his temple seventy years later.

Jesus died for our sins–both in the sense that he bore the penalty and paid the price and that his judicial murder resulted from sins no different than the ones each of us commits. Then, three days later, Jesus rose from death. All who believes in him have the right to be adopted as God sons.

The two scriptures above, therefore, provide two more illustrations of the general pattern that judgment always leads to grace. The daily opportunity to take up the cross to crucify the flesh is a daily mercy, uniting judgment and grace in one divine gift.

Joseph in Egypt: what did he forget?

“Joseph called the name of the firstborn Manasseh: ‘For God has made me forget all my toil and all of my father’s house.'” — Genesis 41:51(NKJV)

By the time Joseph had any sons to name, he had led rough life and suffered much injustice. It didn’t start out that way, of course. As the eldest son of his father’s favorite wife, Joseph became his father Jacob’s favorite son. He enjoyed such favor that his older brothers despised him. Then came the dreams, which earned a rebuke even from Jacob.

Why did Joseph stay home when Jacob sent the older sons out to take care of the cattle? Was Joseph too young for that work, or just another example of coddling a favorite? In any case, when Jacob sent Joseph to look after them and report back to him, they beat him up.

Most of them wanted to kill him, but Reuben, the eldest, already in trouble for sleeping with one of Jacob’s concubines, urged them to throw him into a pit instead. Reuben may have wanted to rescue him later, but Judah, figuring they might as well get some good out of the boy, persuaded the rest to sell him into slavery.

There is no need here to recount the story of Joseph’s diligence and faithfulness in slavery and how others took advantage of him until he came to Pharaoh’s attention. When he interpreted Pharaoh’s dream and suggested that Pharaoh appoint leadership to plan for the coming years of plenty and years of famine, Pharaoh designated Joseph as his prime minister and gave him a wife.

Joseph had two sons, and named the firstborn Manasseh, which means “causing to forget.” God, he said, had caused him to forget both his slavery and his father’s house. But as the story unfolds from there, he obviously did not forget his father’s house or what his brothers had done to him. When they came for food, he recognized them immediately, and also recognized in their behavior the fulfillment of his youthful dream.

What, then, had he forgotten as he named his son? He forgot his pain, his anger, and his bitterness. Years later, his brothers were in his hand. He could have killed them. He did mess with their minds a bit, but he desperately wanted to see his father and younger brother again.

After Jacob’s death, the older brothers feared him, but he had forgiven them long before. Their nephew’s name could have served as a daily reminder that Joseph remembered what they had done, but forgotten how to be offended by it.

Leaving Jesus behind

We have only one story of Jesus’ childhood, when he sat in the temple questioning the teachers while his parents had already started to return home. Surely every parent can identify with the multitude of emotions Joseph and Mary must have felt as they searched for their son.

Men traveled separately from women and children in those days. A twelve-year-old, one year from adulthood, could have plausibly traveled with either group. Only when they stopped for the night and families reunited did Joseph and Mary recognize that no one had seen Jesus. They had to return to Jerusalem to find him.

More than one preacher has commented about the last verse that even Jesus had to learn wisdom from his youthful carelessness.

But wait a minute. This is the incarnate Lord of the universe we’re talking about. Mary and Joseph, like good church people, went on about their business simply assuming that Jesus was with them. Isn’t it the parents’ responsibility to know where their children are? And isn’t it the church’s responsibility to follow Jesus instead of assuming he’s with them?

God is everywhere. He has promised never to leave us or forsake us. We can’t wander away from his presence. Unfortunately, we can easily lose the experience of his presence. When we leave that experience behind, it can be a long time before we notice. It can take even longer to remember where we were and what we were doing the last time we noticed him.

Throughout his earthly ministry, Jesus performed a lot of his miracles when he was on his way to do something else. He frequently allowed the opportunity to minister to the needs around him to change his plans, always sensitive to the Father’s leading.

The church and its individual members too often go through worship services, Sunday school classes, and personal quiet time as a routine, assuming that Jesus is around somewhere. If Jesus pauses to go about his Father’s business and we plod along out of force of habit, we will leave him behind. Should we then scold him?

The baby in the manger has grown up. Why are we so often astonished?

Scorning shame for joy

“Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” — Hebrews 12:2

“Do not fear, for you will not be ashamed nor be disgraced, for you will not be put to shame; for you will forget the shame of your youth and will remember the reproach of your widowhood no more.” — Isaiah 54:4

It may seem we’ve landed in a world without shame. Couples are no longer ashamed to live together without being married; women are no longer ashamed to bear children out of wedlock, and so on. I have heard people say we could use a little more shame in our society today.

Be that as it may, many people suffer private shame over little things. Some may be ashamed of not having money to buy the latest status symbol. Others might be ashamed at not going to college, or going to college and not being able to find work. Still others may be ashamed by reminders of past failures or dumb things they did or said some time in the past.

Shame can be a good thing if it leads to repentance and causes someone to return to God. Often, it just leads to another circuit on an emotional roller coaster. At worst, it can keep people from seeking God for fear of suffering even greater shame at his hands.

Isaiah assures such a person not to fear. God will not put anyone to shame who comes to him. What’s more, he will cause people to forget past mistakes and youthful indiscretions, as well as any shame over circumstances they can’t control.

Jesus shows us even more. He never sinned. He had nothing in his life to be ashamed of, yet he willingly experienced execution as a common criminal, including being beaten, mocked, and even stripped of this clothing. He knew shame for the first time in his life, but scorned it because his eyes were on the joy promised upon his resurrection.

Isaiah says not to be afraid. The writer of Hebrews explains how: keep an eye on Jesus. We, too, have a promise of joy. We, too, can look forward to better things than whatever causes us shame. The more we know him, the more we keep him in mind, the better we can shake off fear, scorn shame, and exercise faith in the joy to be revealed.

House of Eli: the outcome of a failed priesthood

Before Israel had a king, it was ruled by judges. The last two, Eli and Samuel, dominate the opening of the book of 1 Samuel. From all appearances, Eli, a senior priest, enjoyed high esteem during his lifetime, but no one admired his sons.

There does not seem to be anyone designated as high priest yet, but his seniority and the esteem he had as judge guaranteed him a great deal of authority and influence. It seems judgmental of him to accuse Hannah of drunkenness, but considering the times, he may have seen plenty of people treating the sacrifice as a party and getting drunk. He was quick to offer a priestly blessing and to add his prayers to hers. He seems very pious, very dedicated, and very conscientious.

But being judge and priest was not the highest calling on Eli’s life. He utterly failed at fatherhood. God had provided that priests would help the people offer up sacrifices. In return, they were allowed to eat a portion of the sacrifice. It appears that the ritual called for the fat to be burned on the altar and then the meat was cooked. The priest would come along later, stick a fork in whatever cooking utensil was being used, and eat whatever came up on the fork.

That was not good enough for Eli’s sons, Hophni and Phinehas. First, they did not come themselves; they sent servants. Second they did not even wait for the food to be cooked; they demanded it raw. Third, and most shocking, they did not even wait for the fat to be burned on the altar, and it was in the burning of the fat that people experienced their communication with God. That was the central act of worship. The priests’ bullying made it impossible for people to have a good worship experience. They compounded the sin by demanding sexual favors from the women who served at the temple.

Eli never took action when his sons were young enough to be subject to his influence. When he was very old, he still scolded them, but by that time they had tuned him out completely. I notice that every time we meet Eli, he was either sitting or lying down. He never actually got up and did anything. He was all talk and no action.

All of the previous judges heard directly from God and acted on what he told them. Eli was quite capable of discerning spiritual things, but if he ever heard the inner witness of the Spirit speaking to him about his sons, he ignored it. This is the first time I know of that God had to speak to a judge through a prophet.

He charged Eli personally with scorning the sacrifices and offerings by honoring his sons more than he honored God. Not only were Hophni and Phinehas getting fat by abusing the sacrifices, Eli, too, was fat. Considering the difficult conditions under which people lived at the time, there must not have been very many fat people. At the time, no one could get fat without oppressing someone else.

The sign of judgment for Eli was that both of his sons would die the same day, but as always with God, there was still time to repent and avoid judgment. The prophet told Eli exactly what to do, and I suspect that Eli had heard the same thing before in the inner witness of the Spirit. He could have–should have–withheld priestly office from them until they agreed to behave.

Eli ignored the inner witness, ignored the prophet, ignored the law, and so God spoke to him again through Samuel. We see that Eli could discern spiritual things, because he recognized that God was speaking to Samuel and told Samuel how to answer. God told Samuel that no sacrifice would ever atone for the guilt of Eli’s house. Not even the sacrifice of Jesus? Samuel delivered a very serious message Eli’s response shows resignation, but not confession or repentance.

The judgment befell Eli’s family when the Israelites went out to fight against the Philistines. More than likely, it was a defensive fight against Philistine aggression. The oppressors won the first battle, so the Israelites got the bright idea to take the ark of the covenant into battle with them, as if it were some kind of magic charm. Hophni and Phinehas carried the ark.

Eli sat by the side of the road, waiting for news. He must have been concerned for the safety of his sons, but the Bible says he feared for the ark of God. When he heard the bad news, he collapsed and died.

Eli’s failure as a father disappointed the nation. Perhaps no one missed Hophni and Phinehas, but the loss of the ark was a national disaster. Shiloh forever ceased to be an important worship center. Eli’s family continued for several more generations, but in accordance with the prophecy, it did not prosper.

It’s easy to see the judgment in this story. Where’s the grace? God entrusted Eli, in his disgraced old age, to raise Samuel to succeed him. Plague broke out wherever the Philistines took the ark until they decided to return it. It ended up in the Israelite town of Kiriath Jearim, where again a priest ministered before it.

God continued to bless his chosen people and his priesthood. Centuries passed before any priest acted as disgracefully as Eli’s sons. And if Eli’s descendants did not prosper, they served honorably.

A special prayer for one of Paul’s friends: Philemon

One thing I’m starting to love about Paul’s letters is that so many of them contain prayers for the church receiving them. He wrote a brief letter to his friend Philemon, which also begins with a prayer.

While in a Roman prison, Paul met a man named Onesimus, grew quite fond of him, and came to rely on him. When Paul wrote letters, he couldn’t just put a stamp on them and expect the post office to get it where it was going. He had to enlist the help of trusted couriers. Who better than Onesimus to carry Ephesians and Colossians back to his home?

There was one problem. Onesimus was a runaway slave. Going back to Colossae meant risking his life. His master could beat him to a pulp or even kill him and no one would even sympathize. Perhaps he had been insulted or mistreated by his master once too often, and that is why he ran away. Fortunately, Paul knew his master and had led him to Christ. Philemon was Onesimus’ master and host of a house church.

So Onesimus carried back three letters, including one to Philemon. The newly saved Onesimus returned home with the intention of being the most obedient and loyal slave in town, as Paul had taught him. Paul’s letter asks Philemon not only to receive Onesimus back as a slave, but love him as a brother in Christ—as his equal.

Studying the letter reveals a fascinating array of ways that Paul seeks to persuade Philemon without issuing a direct order, yet without leaving him any possibility of denying the request. For example, the letter was addressed not only to Philemon, but also to the entire church that met in his house.

Paul writes that he always mentions Philemon in his prayers. That phrase occurs in many of the epistles. With all the churches he founded and all the individuals he led to Christ, he must have had a very large prayer list. In the days before Twitter, he could not possibly have known about very many specific needs.

He also had to pray intently for his own ministry and his own discernment. He had to meet people, preach, get in and out of trouble, and so on. Simply mentioning people in God’s throne room, without saying anything else about them must have enough power that we should certainly do it more than most Christians probably do.

We usually have someone’s needs in mind. Paul gives thanks for Philemon, remembering good things about him. That’s certainly a good way to pray for someone, especially considering that there are both good and bad things about everyone.

When we pray, it’s much more beneficial for us when we give thanks for the good instead of complaining about the bad. God already knows more about both than we can ever imagine.

Our prayers don’t inform God of anything, but as we pray, we remind ourselves. Until we all become more Christlike than I suspect most of us are, it is often easier for us to complain than to be grateful. Why drag that habit into our prayers, too?

I really like the NASB for v. 6: “I pray that the fellowship of your faith may become effective through the knowledge of every good thing that is in you for Christ’s sake.”

Paul is not talking about sharing faith by knocking on doors or shouting on street corners. He is talking about sharing faith by living a godly life. Philemon needs to know the good in him, and the people who meet him need to see it in him. As St. Francis of Assisi advised, preach all the time, and when necessary, use words.

After the prayer comes a word of personal testimony. Paul knows that Philemon loves him. He also knows that Philemon’s life and words refresh other Christians. Knowledge of that love gives Paul great joy and comfort. Praying for others is good. Sometimes we also need to let them know how much they mean to us.