Trading division in the church for unity, conflict for humility

Jesus made only one petition in the garden for those who would become believers through the disciples’ testimony: for their unity. David wrote Psalm 133 about how beautiful it is to live in unity. Perhaps because God values it so much, it is one of the most fragile things in the church. After all, it requires humility. Conflict and division come more naturally.

A thousand years ago, the church divided into the Eastern and Western church. About five hundred years ago, the Western church divided into Catholic and Protestant. Conflict among Protestants caused division into a number of denominations, and then the denominations fragmented into smaller groups. Even individual congregations have had bitter divisions over such things as what color the carpet in the sanctuary should be.

Paul tells us to watch out for those who cause divisions, for those who put obstacles between church members and each other, or for that matter, between church members and Christ. He is not warning us about enemies of the church. He is warning us about fellow church members.

Or perhaps, he is warning us about ourselves, lest we, for want of humility, put obstacles in someone else’s way. After all, he did not know very many people in the Roman church. When he wrote to congregations he knew, he was very forthright in his criticism of church members who quarreled or otherwise hindered unity and caused division.

When church people band together as a small group, united mostly in their opposition to some other band of people in the same congregation, they do not serve Christ. They serve their own desire to seem right, to seem important, to seem somehow better than those other folks. Of course, when Paul warned to keep away from such people, he meant not only not to participate with them in gossip and criticism, but also not to participate in gossip and criticism against them.

Paul identifies the key to serving Christ and fostering unity as being “wise about what is good and innocent about what is evil.” That sounds great, but think about it. It’s humanly impossible without divine intervention.

In Adam, all die. Adam sinned by eating the forbidden fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Why would he do a thing like that? He already knew good, because he knew God. Adam disobeyed only so he could know evil.

The desire to know evil is in our spiritual genes. In warning about divisions in the church, Paul calls on us to forsake the ways of Adam in favor of putting on the nature of Christ. Gossips and critics become obstacles between the church and God. They have not chosen the way of God themselves and prevent others from choosing it.

God is not calling us to identify and oppose these less perfect Christians. Nowhere in any list of spiritual gifts or fruits will you find “critic.” He opposes division and conflict in the church. He expects humility and unity. He demands that we choose his Spirit for ourselves and encourage each other along the way.

Robbing God in tithes and offerings

As Christians, we don’t pay tithes to our church; we pay them to God. The check may be made out to our church, but we pay them to God. Suppose instead of putting your tithe in the offering plate, you decide to keep the money for bills. Chances are no one at the church will notice. You would not be taking from the church, but the prophet Malachi says you are robbing God.

What is the tithe? Ten percent of gross income. Don’t try to tithe on the net, unless you consider the government and whoever else gets your deductions more worthy than God of the first portion of your income.

The tithe essentially amounts to rent for the right to live in the world God created and man desecrated with sin. It is the least we can give to God. Offerings represent gifts beyond the tithe. I do not want to get into the details of tithing or the question of whether Christians must tithe to their local congregation or may send it elsewhere. As I say, we pay it to God.

In all of Scripture, there is only one invitation to test God: Test me by bringing the whole tithe to the storehouse. And what will he do to prove that he passes the test? The tithe opens the windows of heaven, and the offerings determine what blessings he pours forth from the window. Or, to change metaphors, the tithe plants a vine and the offerings determine the extent of the crop.

Tithing on unemployment checks is not easy. At the other end of the scale, the larger a person’s income, the harder he may find it to tack all those zeros on the end of the tithe. Obedience to God is never easy, but he makes such wonderful promises. In this case, he even dares us! I have taken up his dare, and my worst times now are better than my best times before I took the plunge.

One more thing: God is love. If we rob him by neglecting to pay the tithe, we are robbing love!

Judgment and grace even for Nineveh

The prophet Nahum decreed destruction for the Assyrian capital of Nineveh. At that time, Assyria ruled the entire Middle East, including Egypt. Only the kingdom of Judah, ruled by King Josiah, remained independent.

We learn from Jonah’s experience that God loved Nineveh, but his patience has limits. The Assyrians, at his direction, had destroyed the kingdom of Israel and resettled all its people. God chose them as his instrument of judgment on Israel, but did not tolerate their cruel pride and arrogance. So he destroyed them, but only after a prophetic warning.

Here is a prophecy directed not at God’s chosen people, but an enemy state who only knew enough about him to hold him in contempt. Is there any grace in this prophecy? As a matter of fact, yes there is. The opening chapter introduces God as avenging and wrathful, but in the midst of this dark and stormy prologue, we find a ray of light: “The Lord is good, a stronghold in the day of trouble, and He knows those who take refuge in Him” (Nahum 1:7).

In perhaps the most wantonly cruel empire in all of ancient history, who would take refuge in God? Hypothetically at least, I see five distinct groups.

1) First of all, Judah’s independence resulted directly from Josiah’s faithfulness. He took refuge in God. God knew it and preserved Judah from destruction as long as Josiah lived.

2) Israel had been ruled by a long succession of kings who worshiped the golden calf idol set up by Jeroboam I specifically to keep its citizens from worshiping at the temple in Jerusalem. And yet, there continued to be godly people there throughout its history. Some of them must have been among those exiled from their land and resettled. They must have known the prophecies of Israel’s doom and continued to seek God in captivity. God knew when they took refuge in him.

3) If any apostate Israelites who had scoffed at the prophesies repented in exile and turned to the living God, God knew and rewarded them

4) We know that later, people in the Babylonian and Persian empires turned to the one true God after witnessing the godly example of devout captives from Judah. The Bible does not say that any Assyrians took refuge in God under the influence of either faithful or repentant Israelites, but if any did, God knew them, even if he did not cause them to be mentioned in Scripture.

5) We know from 2 Kings 17 that when the Assyrians exiled all of the Israelites, they sent other captive people to repopulate the land. When God sent lions to devour some of them, they appealed to the King of Assyria, who sent a priest of the Lord to teach them how to worship properly. Thus the race of Samaritans was born. They turned to God initially not out of faith, but carnal fear. But for whatever reason they took refuge in God, he knew it.

To the extent that any of these five groups knew about the others at all, they would not have seen much in common. They would probably have disapproved of some of the others, even though God honored them all. All of them, like all of everyone else, were right in their own eyes.

When I first started meditating on this verse and tried to identify modern equivalents of these groups, I immediately ran into trouble. The first group would seem to be people with genuine Christian faith, and the second somehow representing a watered down, partly false understanding, but who goes in which group?

I can only make judgments, only see who most closely resembles me. I cannot know. Like everyone else, I am right in my own eyes. Nahum 1:7 says that God knows who takes refuge in him. That should be comfort enough for anyone, that God takes time out from pronouncing judgment in order to shine some light for and on people who will obtain his grace.

Seed sown in rocky places: the dangers of shallow faith

In gardening or farming, sun gives life to well-rooted plants, but death to others. That is why, in Jesus’ parable of the sower, seedlings in rocky places and scorched by the sun represent people who hear the word of God and fall away in times of trouble and persecution.

American Christians may not suffer persecution, or at least not to the extent that Christians in other places and times have, but no one gets through life without trouble and affliction. I don’t suppose that many would compare persecution, trouble, and affliction to the sun, but Jesus did.

The sun is good; it gives power and light. The sun is dangerous; it burns and blights. In our bodies, vitamin D comes from the sun, but so does skin cancer. The same sun that feeds plants most of the time kills them and dries them up in times of drought.

Although we don’t like to admit it, persecution, trouble, and affliction are good, at least for people in whom the word of God has taken root. It gives the power and light we need to “be transformed by the renewing of our minds” (Romans 12:2), but if the word has not taken root, that same power causes people to fall away.

How many people have gone to church for years, undergone some kind of trial, prayed frantically, not gotten what they wanted, and then declared that all that religion stuff doesn’t work. Of course religion doesn’t work, if religion means going through all the motions at church. Faith does work, but only to the extent that a person has given up his or her own will to seek God’s.

Jesus’ parable speaks not of drought, but of sowing seed on rocky places–poor soil where seedlings do not take root. Ancient farmers lacked our machinery for preparing soil and planting seed. I’m sure they did their best to confine the seed to the best soil, but they could only throw it. The wind, if any, determined where it fell. Whatever fell on the path, the rocks, or among thorns did not last.

When the seed is God’s word, as in the parable, the sower has no business determining what the soil is like. The person who hears it bears responsibility for what to do about it. We are the soil in which Jesus by various means plants the word. Every Christian must seek to understand, let it take root, and prevent it from being choked out. God intends the holy seed (the word) to produce a robust crop of faith.

Affliction will come. No one gets through life without it. It is up to each one of us to determine whether the word of God has put down deep enough roots in our spirit so that affliction will benefit us by growing our faith, or merely scorch the holy seedling until it dies.

Speaking what’s right of God: thoughts from Job on pride and humility

The Book of Job presents tremendous difficulties to anyone who really wants to understand it. In the prologue, we learn that Job was perfect in God’s sight, but to teach a lesson to Satan, God stripped Job of his wealth, his health, and his children. Three friends come to comfort him, but get into a nasty argument instead. Through it all, we see human pride at its worst.

All of them say things that sound very religious. Without careful study it is hard to pick out the rightness and wrongness of anyone’s comments. Then God shows up. What he says appears to have nothing to do with anything anyone said earlier. Job agrees with him.

“And it came about after the Lord had spoken these words to Job, the Lord said to Eliphaz the Temanite, ‘My wrath is kindled against you and against your two friends, because you have not spoken of Me what is right as my servant Job has'” (Job 42:7, NASB).

How did Job speak what is right? Throughout the dialog, Job and his friends had all been arguing for the correctness of their own thoughts. Each speech implicitly or explicitly makes the claim, “I’m right.” That serves well as a definition of the sin of pride. None of the protagonists, including the upright Job, show a trace of humility.

There is probably only one statement that everyone on earth instantly accepts as true, although only coming from their own mouths: “I’m right.” When anyone gets into an argument, isn’t that the central point that both sides want to make? And doesn’t it implicitly claim, “I might as well be God?”

That is such an easy trap to fall into that between beginning this post and finishing the first draft, I got into a spat with my wife. Twenty years of knowing better, and we can’t stop getting sucked into the same sin over and over.

When God said that Job spoke right of him, he specifically meant these two comments:

“Behold, I am insignificant; what can I reply to Thee? I lay my hand only mouth. Once I have spoken, and I will not answer; Even twice, and I will add no more” — (Job 40:3-5).

“I know that Thou canst do all things, and that no purpose of Thine an be thwarted. ‘Who is this who hides counsel without knowledge?’ Therefore I have declared that which I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. ‘Hear, now, and I will speak; I will ask you, and you instruct Me.’ I have heard Thee by the hearing of the ear, but now my eyes have seen Thee; Therefore I retract, and I repent in dust and ashes” — (Job 42:1-6).

In other words, God did not endorse any of the comments Job made in the heat of controversy, only his repudiation of them. Eliphaz and the others could have humbled themselves the same way, but didn’t. Therefore, God was angry with them for maintaining their pride.

The antidote to pride is humility. The antidote to “I’m right” is “I’m not God.” Maybe the book, taken as a whole, isn’t so hard to understand after all–just hard to accept and live. Prideful humans always have a hard time giving up the illusion of being God.

Hope deferred? Don’t let it happen

“Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but desire fulfilled (lit. coming) is a tree of life.” — Proverbs 13:12 (NASB)

I have still not seen very much of what I hoped for when I was in my 20s. I used to ache over this verse. For years, I asked God fervently why my hope was still deferred. My heartsickness was obviously all his fault.

As I thought about it again much later, I guess my prayer was answered in a way. God answered that I had misinterpreted and misrepresented the verse for years. I eventually realized that hope is not the same as the thing hoped for, and desire is not the same as the thing desired.

Hope means expectation. It can work over a very long span of time. In Genesis, Abraham continued to hope for a son even after his wife was post-menopausal and he himself was apparently impotent. Paul says he hoped against hope. That hope kept him faithful to God until, finally, Isaac was born.

During all that time, Abraham had hope. He just didn’t have a son. We do not see Abraham heartsick, because we do not see hope deferred. The person who, disappointed at delay, gives up hope has deferred, or put off, hope. No wonder he or she has a sick heart.

Another verse puzzled me greatly: “Delight yourself in the Lord, and He will give you the desires of your heart.”– Psalm 37:4 (NASB) I poured out the desires of my heart to him over and over. Why did nothing happen?

Obviously, in hindsight, I spent so much energy scolding him for not doing my bidding that I couldn’t possibly delight in him. More to the point, again, desire is not the same as the thing desired. First, delight yourself in the Lord, then he will put a desire in your heart.

As the NASB’s marginal note in the proverb makes clear, the coming of the desire is a tree of life, long before the object of desire manifests. When God gives a desire, he also gives the promise of its fulfillment. Then we wait for it in hope. We wait with the expectation that God will keep his promise, for that is his nature.

When God gives a desire, it may feel so clear and definite that we’ll get the object in hand in about fifteen minutes. Remember: Abraham was 75 when he first believed God’s promise, 86 when he thought it was fulfilled with Ishmael, and 99 when Isaac finally came along. The wait can disappoint. Hope cannot. Don’t defer it.

The wrath of Jesus

Christ Preaching at Capernaum. Wrath of Jesus
Christ Preaching at Capernaum

Christ Preaching at Capernaum

“And you, Capernaum, will you be lifted up to the skies? No, you will go down to the depths I the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Sodom, it would have remained to this day.” — Matthew 11:23 (NIV)

Christians today like to think of Jesus as loving, kind, gentle, and accepting. He is certainly all of that. The thought of Jesus getting angry or rejecting anyone bothers us. The Greek for “the depths” is Hades, or hell. That makes us very uncomfortable. Let us not make the mistake of ignoring Jesus’ wrath

Early in his ministry Jesus moved from Nazareth to Capernaum. No one seemed to mind having him there. In fact, after a few supernatural healings and exorcisms, he became so popular he had to leave town for a while until the excitement subsided (Mark 1:45).

Jesus condemned Capernaum shortly after receiving a delegation of disciples of John the Baptist. In other words, it was still early in his ministry. What made Jesus angry? What can we learn from his wrath?

Before he had assembled all of his disciples, he entered the synagogue of Capernaum and taught. The people seemed to accept his teaching pretty well. They noticed that he taught with authority, unlike other teachers they knew. It looks like a promising beginning. Just then, a demon, who possessed a member of the synagogue, interrupted the service, and Jesus cast out the demon (Mark 1:23-26).

How many time in modern churches do members of the congregation tell each other how much they enjoyed the sermon and then to all appearances forget about it before they get to their cars? Did Jesus’ initial reception in Capernaum mean any more than that?

More seriously, they had a demoniac in their midst. Did his disruptive behavior bother anyone? Had they noticed he was possessed? Did they care, either about the man himself or their ability to worship in his presence? For that matter, even though Jesus already had a reputation as a healer, the demoniac did not address him and ask for healing. It was the demon who spoke up. Was the man content to have a demon living in him?

How many modern churches have troubled people in their membership and everyone else ignores them? How many modern people with serious problems contentedly decline to look to God to take them away?

By the next time Jesus taught in that synagogue, he had already aroused the professional jealousy of the scribes and Pharisees. They strongly took exception to his claim that as Son of Man, he was Lord of the Sabbath. They made sure a man with a shriveled hand was present, almost daring Jesus to heal him on the Sabbath. He did, of course, but not until he had looked around the room, angry at people’s stubbornness and hard hearts (Mark 3:5).

The wrath of Jesus pronounced judgment on Capernaum for a number of reasons. Several appear in these two visits to the synagogue. Complacency in the presence of suffering makes Jesus angry. Judgmentalism and legalism about fine points of the law in the absence of love and faith makes Jesus angry. Indifference to real sin makes Jesus angry. Godless thoughts and attitudes dressed up as religion makes Jesus angry.

A hymn says, “What a friend we have in Jesus.” How many residents of Capernaum would have considered Jesus a friend? A little odd, maybe, but surely a nice person. The people of Capernaum must have been stunned to hear of Jesus’ condemnation of the whole city. Without presuming to judge anyone else’s worship, let us ponder whether we are acting like a friend to Jesus or indifferent to him.

Am I singing hymns of praise and then doing things that make Jesus angry? I certainly do not want to be surprised by the wrath of Jesus.

Strange instruction from Scripture: Praise God in suffering

Light after darkness

Light after darkness

What does the Bible say to do when something wonderful happens? Praise God. That’s obvious enough. What does the Bible say to do when something awful happens? When life is so awful that we wonder if God cares at all? Praise God. Now that’s just not fair!

But it works. When we’re suffering and feel like God doesn’t care, that’s all it is: just a feeling. In reality, he does care, but not necessarily the way we’d find most comfortable. We want to get out of our troubles as quickly as possible. He wants to give us long-term joy and conform us to the image of Christ.

Could it be that doing things his way will solve our immediate problems faster? Look at the deliverances described in Psalm 107. We see people enduring various kinds of suffering. They cried out to the Lord (vv. 6, 13, 19, 28) and he delivered them.

The refrain culminates a couple of verses later (vv. 8, 15, 21, 31), and I love the rendering in the KVJ and NKJV: Oh, that men would give thanks to the Lord [“praise the Lord” in KJV] for His goodness, and for His wonderful works to the children of men!

It sounds like a petition. People do not praise God enough for his goodness. Too often our prayers in crisis consist of demands to know why, accusations that God does not really love or care. Railing against God is not the same as crying out to him.

Crying out to God requires acknowledgement that he does care, love, and know best–in other words, it requires praise. Then it requires trusting him enough to notice his provision. We’ll be blind to it if our focus remains glued to the problem and how awful we feel about it.

Praise God in the midst of suffering. Keep at it, not for a few sentences, but for as long as it takes. As a result, you will find grace and peace in the midst of suffering. That will give you hope. And in hope you will find deliverance. Guaranteed. Praise God!


Photo credit: Light after darkness Some rights reserved by JD|Photography The following poem appears as the caption to the picture:

Light after darkness, gain after loss,
Strength after suffering, crown after cross.
Sweet after bitter, song after sigh,
Home after wandering, praise after cry.

Sheaves after sowing, sun after rain,
Sight after mystery, peace after pain.
Joy after sorrow, calm after blast,
Rest after weariness, sweet rest at last.

Near after distant, gleam after gloom,
Love after loneliness, life after tomb.
After long agony, rapture of bliss!
Right was the pathway leading to this!

Why everything–anything–goes wrong

“When God created man, he made him in the likeness of God. He created them male and female and blessed them. And when they were created, he called them “adam.” — Genesis 5:1 (NIV, marginal reading)

It is best to regard Adam and Eve not so much the first individuals as generic humanity. Both male and female are “adam,” and God intended them to be the god of this world. His answer to Job in Job 38-42 then is not the mean-spirited rant it may first appear. It is the job description of the god of this world, which he intended the human race collectively to fulfill.

That never happened. Adam (collectively) was given a garden to maintain, with godlike authority over it. God blessed them, told them to multiply, gave them rulership over every other living thing, and gave them every plant for food–except one.

And then God left the god of this world alone, for the same purpose as the Holy Spirit led Jesus to the wilderness: to be tempted by the devil. Sure enough, Satan pointed out the one forbidden tree and convinced Adam (all right, the woman) that God was stingy and dishonest in withholding it.

The future of the world hung in the balance. Whom would Adam obey? The woman could have trusted the man and God; she did not. The man could have taken authority and cast the serpent out of the garden; he did not.

Adam committed high treason in choosing to obey the voice of Satan rather than God. Adam subordinated all of his authority not to God, but to Satan. Both Jesus and Paul use “god of this world” or “ruler of this world” in reference to Satan, not “adam.”

Why do humans make war against each other? Satan, whose only objective is to destroy what God created, is god of this world. Why do we have to deal with famine, disease epidemics, slow painful death from cancer? Satan is god of this world. Why do we suffer destruction from tornados, hurricanes, tsunamis, volcanos, mudslides, etc.? Satan is god of this world.

Generations upon generations of humanity has been wondering how a loving God could allow all of this evil. He didn’t. We did.

What the God of love hates: false worship

Christians love to proclaim that we worship a God of love. We get uncomfortable when the Bible talks about what God hates. That’s all the more reason to pay careful attention. In Amos 5:21-24, God despises feast

Prophet Amos, old Russian Orthodox icon

days, sacred assemblies, offerings, and worship music. He commanded all of those things in the law. Why did he hate them? They had become false worship, a failure of love for both God and other people.

First, Amos spoke to the Northern Kingdom, where worship took place at unauthorized altars in the presence of idols. No one can worship truly when distracted by things of the world. We might not make our offerings to statues and images any more, but our world has values (concerning politics, economics, entertainment, lifestyle, etc.) that are incompatible with God. They distort worship. Let no Christian claim to be free of them without having had a prolonged struggle against them.

Second, God considers rote worship, without faith love, or obedience, an abomination. Why should he appreciate our worship “services” when we merely go through the motions and ignore him entirely?

Third, as we read the the rest of Amos and other prophets, the rich oppressed the poor. God always takes the side of the suffering. He will not receive the worship of those who complacently expect that their worship attendance justifies their bad treatment of others less fortunate.

God demands justice. In the same breath, he demands righteousness: right standing with God. Justice without worship will not please him any more than worship without justice. God himself is trustworthy. Every denunciation of sin in the Old Testament is in close proximity to a promise of grace, reconciliation, and God’s presence (cf. Amos 5:14-15).