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.

The Prince of Peace

“For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” — Isaiah 9:6-7

Thank God for this tremendous promise. We have not seen the entire fulfillment of it. Jesus has indeed been given to us. To all who know him, he is indeed a Wonderful Counselor, this son revealed as Mighty God and Everlasting Father. And how we need a Prince of Peace.

Saying so does not imply that Jesus is not the Prince of Peace, but we certainly do not yet see the government on  his shoulder. I lose track of how many wars are active in our world at this very moment.

When my dogs are out in the yard and I call them by name come in, they look up to acknowledge their names (at least more often than not) and then go back to whatever they were doing. One in particular specializes in finding weakness in the barriers I have set up to keep her out of the rose bushes and other places they shouldn’t go. The whole human race responds to Jesus pretty much the same way.

During my college days, some people wanted peace in Vietnam so intensely that they through bricks through windows, set fire to cars and buildings, and even rioted in the streets. That’s not how Jesus wants to establish peace!

Today, I see bumper stickers that proclaim, “War is not the answer.” We don’t have peace riots against our current wars, but we certainly do say nasty things about whomever happens to be the President. That’s not how Jesus wants to establish peace, either.

In fact, Ecclesiastes 3:8 tells us there is a time for war and a time for peace. As much as we’d like to, we can’t get peace by demanding that our human leadership provide it. We will not achieve freedom from war until the nations rally to Jesus’ banner. It will happen eventually. In the mean time, what kind of peace can we expect, if Jesus is truly Prince of Peace to us?

As we prepare to celebrate Christmas–doesn’t it feel about a week earlier this year than usual?–lots of us are getting worked up into a stew of frustration about all the preparations we need to make, or think we do. On top of the usual daily routines, which do not stop for holidays, we have shopping, mailing, decorating, and food preparation. We also contend with traffic jams, full parking lots, bad weather, and a worse economy that keep (or at least delay) us from getting it al accomplished.

When we give Jesus our frustrations and trust in him that his kingdom and his righteousness are more desirable than finishing our ever-expanding to-do list, we can find peace in the midst of the bustle. For now and the foreseeable future, peace does not mean an absence of pressure or conflict. It means the ability to stay calm under pressure while conflict swirls around us. Fortunately, that’s as close as a deep breath and a prayer of thanks.

Reclaiming the remnant, the next time around

The time leading up to Christmas, Advent,  prepares worshipers to receive the coming of the Lord in at least two senses. Christ has come once as a baby and will return as a conquering king. Scripture often contains multiple meanings and multiple layers of fulfillment. A familiar passage in Isaiah, delivered probably in the days of King Ahaz, refers to both arrivals.

The “stump of Jesse” in verse 1 indicates that David’s line will be cut down, which it was about 120 years after Isaiah delivered the prophecy. Just as a tree, having been chopped down, can grow again from the stump, so will a shoot arise from the destruction of the Jewish kingdom. Later prophets Jeremiah and Zechariah copied Isaiah’s use of “Branch” to refer to the coming Messiah.

Verse 10 says “in that day” the nations will rally to this “Root of Jesse” and that the Lord will  reclaim the remnant of his people from Assyria, Egypt, and other places a second time!. In what day? It must be whatever day is described in verses 1-9. And what is the first time? I know of no general return of exiles to the land before the return from Babylonian captivity more than 200 years after Isaiah first preached these words. Could the second time refer to the recreation of a Jewish state in 1948? Certainly no event any earlier qualifies, but it depends on the “day” described in earlier verses.

We can easily see Jesus’ lineage and character in verses 1-5, and therefore see the gospels as a fulfillment of this prophecy. We cannot recognize in verses 6-9 anything ever observed on the earth. This chapter therefore beautifully illustrates the image of two mountains, which from a far enough distance looks like one mountain. From where we stand, Jesus has come once. At no time since have herbivores been safe from carnivores or babies from poisonous snakes. At  no time since  have the nations rallied to him to find rest. What to Isaiah looked like one mountain looks to us like at least two. If the events of 1948 are a second fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy, then there must be a third yet to come.

Isaiah began his ministry in about 740 BC. Ahaz began his faithless and disastrous reign five years later. The final stage of the Babylonian captivity, a direct outgrowth of Ahaz’ policies, took place in 581 BC. Isaiah saw that, as well as the first restoration 70 years later. Then he saw the earthly life and ministry of Jesus 500 or so years after that. We are now living about 2000 years later and have not yet seen in history the rallying to Jesus that Isaiah also saw.

There are only two kinds of  prophecy in the Bible: those that have been fulfilled and those that haven’t–yet. As we prepare to celebrate Jesus’ birth, we ought also be prepared all times for his return. It will happen.

Joseph: the forgotten man at Christmas

I just heard a speaker say she had searched the web for contemporary Christmas songs about Joseph and found only three. I know of a few more than that from the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Most of them are secular pieces that mock him for being a cuckold. Poor Joseph deserves so much better than that.

We can learn a lot about him by juxtaposing Matthew’s account and Luke’s account of Mary’s pregnancy. When Mary told the angel, “May it be to me as you have said,” the Holy Spirit probably came upon her immediately. In the very next verse, she was on her way to visit Elizabeth.

We can only imagine what might have gone through Mary’s mind or what conversations she may have had after she realized she was indeed pregnant. It does seem almost certain, though, that she was not showing when she left for Elizabeth’s village. When she returned to Nazareth three months later it must have been obvious to everyone. Did she dare tell anyone about angel visitations and the power of the Most High? If she did, why would anyone believe her?

Pity Joseph. He was betrothed to this obviously pregnant woman and knew he could not be the father. By rights, he could have denounced her as an adulteress, and as a result, she would have been stoned to death. For whatever reason, Joseph rejected that course of action. He decided to divorce her quietly–perhaps send her out of town to have her baby and live as well as she could manage.

By the way, ignorant people who fancy themselves intellectuals sometimes explain away the “myth” of the virgin birth by saying that people two thousand years ago did not know as much science as we do now, so of course they would believe all kinds of impossible things. Joseph knew enough science to understand that he had not had sex with Mary, and that therefore she was not bearing his child. He and everyone else knew enough science to know that someone had to be the father, and not a one of them jumped to the conclusion that she became pregnant without having a sexual experience.

Matthew tells us that Joseph accepted this conclusion, preposterous on the face of it, after having a dream in which the Lord of the Universe spoke to him and told him to go through with the marriage. The two of them must have had a miserable time dealing with all the gossips in Nazareth. It is from Luke that we learn of the decree from Caesar Augustus that sent them to Bethlehem. What was probably a headache and inconvenience for most people forced to travel to an ancestral home must have seemed like gift from God to Joseph and Mary.

According to Luke, Jesus’ birth took place in a stable, where shepherds paid a visit after hearing a choir of angels singing. Probably the majority of creches show both the shepherds and wiremen gathered around the manger, but Matthew 2:11 clearly says that the wise men visited the holy family in a house. That Herod ordered the slaughter of all baby boys in Bethlehem up to two years of age indicates that Joseph had decided to settle there to be safe from the unpleasantness they had known in Nazareth. Another dream warned him that it was not safe from Herod, so he took his family to Egypt.

After learning that Herod had died, Joseph intended to return to Bethlehem until he learned that Herod’s son ruled in his place. Another dream sent them back to Nazareth, where whispers and looks of disapproval for Mary and pity for Joseph probably made life continually uncomfortable.

God chose his human parents with great care. It is not enough that both were descendants of David. Both had personal characteristics of obedience and faith that made them ideally trustworthy to care for the God/Man during his childhood and youth.

Joseph exhibited great love and tenderness when, believing Mary to have been unfaithful to him, declined to take steps to have her executed. He exhibited great courage as he chose to marry her, accept her shame as his own, and stand between her and the gossips. When God himself thwarted his evident hope to settle permanently in Bethlehem, Joseph exhibited great humility as he meekly and without hesitation moved back to Nazareth.

In him we see quiet strength sufficient to enable him to follow through with decisions that make no human sense at all and to live with the consequences without complaint or hesitation. After one more incident that happened thirteen years later, Joseph disappears from Scripture.

God apparently determined that we do not need to know anything more about Joseph in order to discern a character of monumental and heroic faith. Among other things, the Christmas season gives us an annual opportunity to marvel that such a man ever walked the earth and played such a critical role in preparing for the salvation of the whole world.

Photo credit: Some rights reserved by a.drian

1 Corinthians 13: The Christmas Version

A retired preacher friend of mine shared this with me, from an old Christmas card he found. It’s good enough to share some more.

If I decorate my house perfectly with plaid bows, strands of twinkling lights, and shining balls, but do not show love to my family, I’m just another decorator.

If I slave away in the kitchen, baking dozens of Christmas cookies, preparing gourmet meals, and arranging a beautifully adorned table at mealtime, but do not show love to my family, I’m just another cook.

If I work at the soup kitchen, carol in the nursing home, and give all that I have to charity, but do not show love to my family, it profits me nothing.

If I trim the spruce with shimmering angels and crystal snowflakes, attend a myriad of holiday parties, and sing in the choir’s cantata, but do not focus on Christ, I have missed the point.

Love stops cooking to hug the child.

Love sets aside the decorating to kiss the husband.

Love is kind, though harried and tired.

Love doesn’t envy another’s home that has coordinated Christmas china and table linens.

Love doesn’t yell at the kids to get out of the way, but is thankful they are there to be in the way.

Love doesn’t give only to those who are able to give in return, but rejoices in giving to those who can’t.

Love bears all things, believes all things, endures all things.

Love never fails.

Video games will break, pearl necklaces will be lost, golf clubs will rust, but giving the gift of love will outlast everything.