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).

Thoughts on the night sky

What do you see when you look at the night sky? What do you think about yourself when you think about the night sky?

A lot of people today see the vastness of the heavens. Scientists tell us that our solar system is off in a corner of a vast galaxy, and there are other galaxies just as large. Life on earth doesn’t seem very important in comparison. As a song in a Broadway musical puts it, “You can’t even count the stars in the sky, and compared to the sky the sea looks small. And two little people, you and I, we don’t count at all.”

What did people think of the night sky before we got all this scientific knowledge? One ancient astronomer wrote that in comparison with the distance to the stars, the earth is a point without magnitude. The vastness of the heavens is not a new idea.

But it was not the vastness that caught their imagination; it was the brightness. By day, the sun lit the earth. When it went down, all was dark—except for the moon and the stars. The heavens were glorious. The earth was not. And so many people decided to worship the sun, moon, and stars, which were so obviously greater than anything or anyone on earth.

Whether it’s the vastness of the heavens or the glorious brightness, there is something that makes people think of themselves as puny, weak, and insignificant in comparison. Even David wrote, “When I consider of your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him?” (Psalm 8:3-4). But where the pagan mind answers, “man is nothing,” David answered, “You have made him little lower than God.”

David looked not only at the night sky, but considered the God who had made both the heavens and mankind on earth. Isaiah did, too. “Look to the heavens. Who created all of these?” (Isaiah 40:26). The sun comes up. The sun goes down. There is a predictable rhythm. The moon comes up. The moon goes down. There is a different rhythm. The stars have their own rhythm. And everything is always where it is supposed to be. No one has ever looked at the night sky and noticed, “There are only two stars in Orion’s belt tonight. What happened to the other one?”

In all the vastness of space, nothing gets lost. That’s because God is even vaster. The stars know nothing and care nothing about life on earth, but God knows and cares. God knows every time a sparrow falls to the ground. God knows how many hairs are on each of our heads. If we look at the sky and think only about what we can see, the universe gets very lonely. If we look at the sky and think about the God who created it, only then can we think of the greatness of his love for all of his creation. Even us.

All things are become new

“As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and lighting on him.” — Matthew 3:16 (NIV)

Last week it was 2009. This week it’s Twenty-Ten. Just think. Last week when we wrote a check, we might have had to think about the day, but not the month or the year. I suppose for most of us it will be another month before writing 2-0-1-0 becomes second nature.

When the calendar changes, our whole society is programmed to think of other changes, too. Many years ago, I resolved never to make New Years Resolutions again, and I have been successful. Most people seem to be less resolute about that than I, and so most of the population is looking forward to all the changes they expect to make over the coming year.

Of course, life does not wait for a particular day on the calendar to bring momentous changes. Think of December 7, 1941; June 6, 1944; September 11, 2001; or for that matter, your wedding date, the birth of your children, starting a job that caused you to move to another town.

Everyone experiences all kinds of turning points. Hardly any of them actually occur on the first of January. In fact, on New Years Day we cannot anticipate more than a very few of the turning points the year ahead will bring.

As the third chapter of Matthew opens, John the Baptist was having a fairly normal day denouncing sin, preaching repentance, and baptizing those who came to him. Then Jesus showed up. We know from John 1:31 that John did not yet know that Jesus was the Messiah whose way he had prepared, but somehow he recognized that Jesus was different from anyone else. He felt uncomfortable baptizing him. At Jesus’ urging he did, having no idea that it would literally change everything.

First, it changed Jesus. Jesus had always been both Son of God and Son of Man, but just as priests did not begin their ministry without a ceremony when they turned 30, and just as kings of old had not begun to reign without being anointed, Jesus did not become empowered as the Christ until his baptism.

Second, it changed John. By preaching and baptizing, he prepared the way for someone greater than he. Only when the heavens opened up and Holy Spirit descended on Jesus like a dove did John know who it was. From that moment on, his ministry decreased as Jesus’ increased.

Third, it changed baptism. John had preached a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins (Mark 1:4). It had no power to help anyone live free from sin afterward. Christian baptism initiates believers into a new way of life that is otherwise impossible.

Because fourth, Jesus’ baptism started a ministry that led to the cross, where he died for the sins of the whole world and ushered in an era of grace. Before, godliness had been defined by keeping the law. No one could keep it all, and only the most prideful ever thought they could. In Christ, anyone can become righteous by faith, and then through the grace of sanctification live more righteously than he or she could have ever imagined.

John preached that the Messiah would come with a judgment of fire, and so he will, but his ministry began not with the sign of fire, but of a dove. For the first time, God’s kindness was revealed before. not after, the display of his severity.

Herod–and us

“When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he  had learned from the Magi.” — Matthew 2:16 (NIV)

Christmas, it seems, ought to be such a beautiful time. We celebrate the birth of a darling baby to wholly admirable parents. A bright star shone. The angels sang. The shepherds left their flocks to see the baby. Magi came from a great distance to offer gifts fit for a king. All is calm and beautiful. Except for Herod.

Why would God allow such an atrocity to cloud this season of wonder and hope? What is the point of it?

Back in the Garden of Eden, God made Adam the lord of everything he could see. Adam, assisted by Eve, was supposed to tend the garden, take care of the beasts, and rule the earth. Only one thing was off limits–the fruit of one tree. Having given his instructions and the one small prohibition, God left the two alone.

Satan came immediately to take the word of God away from them. They chose to obey Satan’s dishonest suggestion instead of God righteous commandment. In so doing, they turned their authority and rulership over to Satan. He became the god of this world.

God gave Herod–and all the rest of us–free will for the same reason he gave it to Adam: to demonstrate to the rebellious Satan that he, God, could indeed create a being who could freely choose to love and obey him. He could do that only by creating a being who could freely choose to hate and reject him.

Either way, God had a plan that the fall of mankind could complicate, but not thwart. Satan had not won a lasting victory. God immediately decreed that the seed of the woman (hence, a man born of a virgin) would defeat Satan. Satan has bullied mankind by deception and fear ever since.

Why did Herod kill all of those children? Because he feared anyone who could conceivably occupy his throne. Caesar Augustus once commented that he would be better off as Herod’s dog than his son. His murderous fear of a baby makes no sense,  but then neither do a lot of the decisions we see and hear about every day–including, we must all admit, decisions by the person who stares back at us from the mirror.

But remember, Satan is the god of this world. The Old Testament records the lives of many people who freely chose to obey God, although none did so perfectly. Satan has managed to corrupt everyone, some by causing them to stumble in their walk with God (Moses or David, for example) and some by controlling them completely (Herod, for example).

Satan has always feared children and sought to kill them. Every dead baby is one who cannot grow up to choose God over Satan. And Satan knew that one baby, born of a virgin, was destined to defeat him.

Children suffer the  most in times of war, in times of famine, in times of epidemics. The ancient Canaanites practiced child sacrifice as an important part of their religion. In modern affluent societies, largely safe from such plagues, abortion has become Satan’s primary means of destroying children.  Herod’s rampage fits this pattern perfectly, all the more because the baby he feared was precisely the child of the virgin Satan feared.

At Easter, we sing “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord,” the implied answer being, yes, we were all there. We were the indifferent majority who didn’t care what happened to this country preacher. We were the priests and synagogue leaders so opposed to this new move of God that they stooped to an  illegal trial to put an end to it. We were the  howling mob shouting for the crucifixion. We were the followers of Jesus so scared for their own skin  that they ran away and hid rather than stand up for him.

What is the point of the slaughter of the innocents at Christmas? We were there, too. Thank God for his great mercy. God still had the same plan in Bethlehem as he had in Eden. He has the same plan today. Except now, the child born of a virgin has already dealt Satan a crushing defeat. In Jesus, we can truly see the character of God, and it has become easier than it was before to turn to him, to chose to love and obey him.