Finding joy in an unexpected place

“Though you have not seen him, you love him, and even though you do not see him now, you believe in  him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy.”–1 Peter 1:8 (NIV)

I confess that I have a naturally gloomy outlook. It’s getting better, thank God, but joy has been an elusive concept for me. Imagine my surprise, then, when I really looked at this verse in 1 Peter, one of the so-called general epistles.

Unlike Paul’s usual practice, Peter did not write either of his epistles to particular congregations. He did not address them to any local issues. He intended that they be read, believed, and applied in any congregation. I am part of a local congregation, and therefore it is addressed to me and my local church body as much as it was to any of Peter’s contemporaries.

Here is what it says: 1) I have not seen Jesus, but I love him. 2) I do not see Jesus now, but I believe that ultimately I will. 3) I am filled with joy.

Jesus had died, risen, and ascended to heaven before any of Peter’s readership ever heard of him. They had no advantage that I, living much later, lack. I have no trouble believing that I love Jesus. I have no trouble believing his promise that he will return.

How, then, can I have trouble believing that I am filled with joy? What this verse tells me is that, while my mind naturally turns to the negative, joy is nearby, within me. I can stop wondering how to find joy. I can train my mind to turn away from negativism and towards the joy that is already a part of my spirit.

Someone else’s struggles may be very different from mine. Someone else may have no questions about joy at all, but stumble over something else. Ultimately, all Christians must face one question, though: when we read a promise in Scripture, do we really believe it, or merely agree with it? Will we allow it to change our thoughts, words, and deeds?

God’s Servant Stands

“Who are you to judge the servant of another? To his own master he stands or falls; and stand he will, for the Lord is able to make him stand.”  Romans 14:4 (NASB)

Why do Christians find it so easy to criticize other Christians? Perhaps because Jesus so greatly desires unity in the Church. It is not easy to build unity if everyone has cause to be on the defensive against carping criticism from everyone else. It is not easy to build unity if everyone is attuned to pointing out everyone else’s weaknesses and failures.

From time to time I like to go back through old, worn-out Bibles that I no longer carry. In one that used to be my primary study Bible, I underlined the first part of that verse, but as I read the chapter over again, “and stand he will” captured my attention. The matter has already been decided without any input from me at all.

The part I first underlined asks, who am I to get upset with, say, a store clerk who is taking too much time on things that seem unnecessary to me and keeping me from hurrying on my way? After all, he or she does not work for me, but for the manager of the store.

It asks, who am I to question why a member of my church hasn’t gotten over some habit or attitude I disapprove of? But then, that’s not really the same case. After all, that looking askance at that person makes me wonder whether he or she is serving God at all. Well, who asked me to determine that? Whether I’ve succeeded in living up to it or not, I have known and understood that concept for years.

The part that stood out in my most recent encounter with that verse builds on the same point. It is the boss’s responsibility and privilege, not mine, to measure whether a member of his or her staff does a good job or not. It is God’s responsibility and privilege to measure whether one of his servants stands or falls. And he has already decided and announced that his servants, one and all, will stand.

That part of the verse also means I have no business criticizing myself or wondering if I have messed up so thoroughly that I’ll fail in God’s sight. He has already determine–and revealed for all to read and believe–that he is able to make me stand, and that he will.

Protected in the shadow of God’s wings

“Have mercy on me, O God, have mercy on me, for in you my soul takes refuge. I will take refuge in the shadow of your wings until the disaster has passed.” — Psalm 57:1 (NIV)

David, anointed king of Israel, hid in a cave from the wrath of Saul, anointed but deposed king of Israel. Through Samuel, Saul knew that God had decided to remove him as king. After a while, he recognized David as his eventual replacement. Instead of retiring gracefully, Saul sought to defy God and kill David.

Probably no one in American society is in such danger with, in human terms, so little support and so few resources. And yet every one of us goes through utterly disastrous seasons in our lives. It may be the loss or a job or even career. It may be the crumbling of an important relationship. It may be betrayal at the hands of someone we trusted. Whatever calamity befalls us, we can take the same comfort David did, if only we will.

As he hid in a cave, the cave was not his refuge. God was his refuge. The image “in the shadow of your wings,” as opposed to “under your wings”  indicates that David did not even experience really tangible support. He took refuge in a shadow, but God himself cast that shadow. David neither needed nor desired anything more.

The peace Jesus gives

“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubles and do not be afraid.” — John 14:27 (NIV)

“Give peace a chance,” says one bumper sticker. “War is not the answer,” says another. The U.S. government operates a long-running Middle East peace process.  We all want peace, but there doesn’t seem to be much of it.

I remember well what too many Vietnam-era peace rallies were like; in the name of peace, people shouted angry slogans, got into fierce arguments, sometimes even threw bricks through windows or set buildings on fire.

We can avoid arguments, of course. How many relationships suffer under the strain of issues neither party dares to talk about as they seethe privately? What looks like peace is too often an illusion. That’s how the world gives peace.

If Jesus does not give peace as the world does, then doesn’t it follow that it might not look at all like peace? Doesn’t it follow that Jesus does not mean papering over differences for an uneasy truce or an absence of conflict?

The peace Jesus offers is first peace with God. Jesus took care of sin on the cross. Without the cross, everyone from the most callous mass murderer to the most generous and tenderhearted person on earth deserves hell for sin; in Adam all die. By grace, Jesus took our just punishment, and gave in its place the right to be adopted as beloved children of God.

Second, the peace of Jesus is peace within. Being troubled or not is a choice. Being afraid or not is a choice. In principle, we can all choose not to be troubled or afraid, but left to ourselves, everyone lacks the strength to stick with that choice. Jesus sent the Holy Spirit to strengthen, guide, and shield our hearts and give us the strength not to be troubled or afraid.

Third, the peace of Jesus does not promise an avoidance of outward conflict, only the ability to remain at peace within in the midst of it. Mere hours after he spoke our verse, a band of armed men arrested him. He suffered beating, illegal judicial proceedings, the anger of his adversaries, the mocking of the crowd, and finally the agony of execution by torture. He never lost his peace. His disciples panicked and fled, but later they, too, learned the secret of peace within.

Someone who knows the peace of Jesus has the ability to experience times of trouble without becoming emotionally overcome by it, to withstand abuse from others without retaliating, to respond to a crisis with prayer and calm assurance of deliverance rather than panicking and looking for shortcuts.

Who can understand the peace Jesus offers? Probably no one. He doesn’t ask us to understand it, only to receive it from him.

Visions of heaven

I’m sure we’ve all wondered what heaven will be like. It’s odd, though, how often people talk about heaven without mentioning God. Maybe that’s why there are so many glimpses of heaven in the Bible—to remind us of whose idea it was in the first place.

Most of us can only imagine a place much like earth, but with no troubles. Even inspired writers had trouble envisioning much more than that. Isaiah’s vision contemplates people having children, planting fields, building houses, and living as long as trees. He tells us heaven will be a new creation. That means it doesn’t exist yet, but what will it be like?

There will be a new city. God put the first man in a garden, and the city was sinful man’s attempt to organize the world for himself without God. In the end, God will even redeem what we have invented in sin.

There will be a new society. It will be happy, secure, peaceful. The harmony will extend even to animals. No creature will kill or even hurt any other creature.

Most important, people will have an intimate relationship with God, surrounded by his blessings. Today, we pray and wait for the answer, sometimes painfully long. Not so in heaven. There, if anyone asks for anything, God will accomplish it while they are still speaking.

How do we get there from here? Jesus is the door. As we approach the Advent season, it is appropriate to remember that when God pronounced the death sentence in the garden, he promised that the seed of the woman would destroy the devil. After thousands of years of prophetic preparation, Jesus was born to a virgin. He lived as a man, died for us as a criminal, and rose again as Lord of the universe. Whenever people acknowledge him as Lord, his blood cleanses them from all unrighteousness. This utterly mind-boggling heaven becomes their heritage, our heritage, which we will possess at the appointed time.

Forgetting former things

“Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the desert and streams in the wasteland.”–Isaiah 43:18-19 (NIV)

Yesterday is gone. We can’t live there any more. Maybe yesterday I felt like a real winner and everything clicked. That was great, yesterday. If I am going to be a real winner today, I need to think about today. Maybe yesterday I made a huge mistake. That was terrible yesterday. If I’m going to avoid making another just like it, I need to think about today. That is one obvious application of Isaiah’s message, but there must be much more.

In context, Isaiah had just mentioned the exodus, when God made a path through the sea many generations earlier. That, in fact, is the former thing Isaiah told Israel to forget–a pivotal and definitive time in the nation’s history.

In a way, it was important for them to keep the memory alive. Isaiah preached during a time of national turmoil, when Israel, under the godly but politically weak King Hezekiah, was a vassal of the Assyrian empire and under constant threat of invasion.

The memory of God’s supernatural intervention kept faith alive in a way, but it stirred the hope that he would come back and do the same thing again. God wanted to do something new. The nation, under God’s judgment and wrath, faced a long decline and a succession of mostly Godless kings, ending in destruction and deportation–the desert in Isaiah’s prophecy.

Streams in a desert do not flow constantly. Sometimes  water rushes through them; the rest of the time they appear as parched as the rest of the ground. Godly people clinging to hope of a dry path through the sea as they pass through a desert will not be vigilant enough to notice and take advantage of the streams (grace) God wants to provide for them.

Promises in the Bible nearly always apply more to the community than to individual members. Therefore, today’s application of Isaiah’s promise applies more to the church as a whole than to any individual member. I have no prophetic word at the moment for the whole church, but the application I see for individuals and one former church probably applies in some way.

Whatever God did for me in the past is not the same as what he plans to do today. Whatever he did then was before my latest spiritual growth and before my latest sin. I don’t suppose he wants me literally to forget either yesterday’s victories or yesterday’s sin, but they both have consequences today. God expects to meet me where I am, not where I was. If I become so involved in what yesterday was like that I can’t seek God today, I will miss him.

I was once part of a church that had to dismiss its pastor for adultery and embezzlement. It was not a Methodist church, so it is not as if it could just see whom the bishop would appoint. The congregation had to call a new pastor, but it was still bound up in the hurt caused by the financial mismanagement of a pastor who had been forced out 17 years earlier. They turned down the candidate I thought God had in mind and have suffered two failed pastorates since then. They missed the stream in the desert.

The pain God allows, and doesn’t

“The steps of a man are established by the Lord, and He delights in his way. When he falls, he will not be hurled headlong, because the Lord is the One who holds his hand.”–Psalm 37:23-24 (NASB)

I went through years of struggle with doubting that God really loved me. Now that that is settled,  I’m learning so much more. And in case anyone else is struggling, God not only loves you, he delights when you walk in the way he has established for you.

God does not delight in rebellion, of course. Doubts of God’s love come to people who think they’re doing all the right things, but troubles keep crashing in upon them. One thing we all need to learn is that we’re never as yielded to God as we think we are in our most self-approving moments and never as far from God as the think we are when we are most ashamed to ourselves over something.

David here tells us that God establishes our steps. Another psalm says that God’s word is a light to our feet and a light to our paths. Yet another scripture promises that God will speak to us about our path when we depart from it to the right or to the left. God cares very much about our steps, and it delights him when we move in the right direction.

Because of our participation in original sin, we can’t walk very well and it’s easy to stray from the path. Think of a toddler. I have no children, but I have taken enough delight in watching nieces, nephews, and children of friends learning to walk that I can well imagine the joy that their parents constantly experience.

I have also seen that delight disappear when toddlers get into something they know they are  not allowed to have. God, after all, is our Father, and the coming and going of an earthly parent’s delight reflects God’s.

David makes another important point when he says that a man will not be hurled headlong when he falls. That’s when he falls, not if he falls. It always takes me by surprise when I fall. I have no idea why, but I suspect I’m not alone. Particularly unpleasant consequences of falling offer plenty of opportunity to doubt God’s love.

“If God really loved me, he wouldn’t have allowed. . .” But David says that man trying to walk in the path God established will fall. A little reflection will remind us that we fall not because of anything God does or doesn’t do, but because of sin.

David also says that when a person falls, God holds his hand. That is, whatever pain God allows pales to insignificance in comparison to the pain he does not allow. When we fall, we will not be hurled headlong. Our pain is probably limited to the equivalent of scraping our knees on the path or our shoulder hurting as our Father breaks the fall. It’s a sign of his love, not a negation of it.

Present protection and future victory

“I am like an olive tree flourishing in the house of God; I trust in God’s unfailing love forever and ever. I will praise you forever for what you have done; in your name I will  hope, for your name is good. I will praise you in the presence of your saints.”–Psalm 52:8-9 (NIV)

David was running for his life from Saul and stopped to see the priest Ahimelech. An Edomite named Doeg saw him there and told Saul, who ordered death for Ahimilech and all the other priests who served with him. No Israelite would obey the order, so Doeg was happy to slaughter them.

What does that have to do with today’s verses? They come from a psalm David wrote when he heard about Doeg’s evil deed. Most of it concerns Doeg and his sort of people: folks who seek positions of power, the patronage of people more powerful than they, and who trust only in themselves, their perceptions, and their possessions.

After seven verses of stern condemnation, David abruptly turns to his own testimony. The olive tree is one of the longest living trees, as close to immortal as David could imagine. There is no evidence that priests ever grew olive trees within the confines of the tabernacle, but that’s not what David means.

The house of God, the secret place of the most high, is the presence of God himself. As cultivated trees, olive trees were valued, well cared for, and fruitful. David declared himself all of that, plus personally loved and protected.

So exactly what has God done that David praises him for? The narrative of David’s life at the time he heard about the slaughter of the priests gives no clue of any recent or current praiseworthy deliverance. Saul still threatened David’s life, and David had not yet raised an army of supporters.

God had taken care of his people, including David, in the past, and it must be for past deeds that David gave thanks. In fact, the next thought, David’s expression of  hope, fairly well demonstrates that he had not yet seen God’s deliverance. Who hopes for what he already possesses?

David’s word of praise distinguishes him from Doeg and his  ilk more than he could know. While Doeg trusted in Saul, whom he could see and from whom he could expect an  immediate and tangible reward, David trusted in the invisible God, who rewards the faithful in ways they cannot see during the time of their suffering.

Love of money, or contentment?

“Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have because God has said, ‘Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.'” Hebrews 13:5–NIV

We need to trust God with all our heart, mind, and body. That, alas, means to trust him with our money. That’s what the tithe and savings accounts are for. We should all live on 80% of our income. 10% belongs to God, payable to a local church congregation or some other ministry that is doing his work. 10% belongs in savings or investments so that when hard times come (and they will to everyone at one time or another) we have resources to see us through.

The borrower is servant to the lender, and we cannot serve two masters. For tithers with credit card debts, it is a constant struggle to keep serving God and not be overwhelmed with the debts. And how can they save for the time of trouble? They’re already in trouble. For people who run up debts and do not tithe or save, for people trying to live on more than 100% of their income, isn’t it clear that they are serving their own appetites and whatever companies they owe money to more than they can possibly serve God?

Whatever choices we have made in the past are not irrevocable. That should comfort those who have made bad choices and warn those who have made good ones.

Roundabout to Victory–part 5

While it still looked to the Egyptians like they had time to make it safely to shore, God  told Moses to stretch his hand over the sea. The sea flowed back to its rightful place, covering all the chariots, men, and horses.

Remember, it was daybreak. In Romans 13:12, Paul reminds Christians that the night is almost gone and the day is at hand. Two thousand years later, that is still true and will remain so until Jesus returns. The night is a time for sleep. Paul warns us to wake up, be alert, and put on the armor of light even though it is still night.

Late night, just before daybreak, is when enemies attack. If God’s people are alert, they will get out of danger. The devil, who loves the darkness because his deeds are evil, will pursue prey that is no longer where he expects and become vulnerable to God.

We must always remember that we have no human enemies. Pharaoh and his army were not the enemy, but merely Satan’s pawns. Satan intends for people to obey him. He will use soft tactics when he can and rough tactics where he must. If he seems more formidable than God, it’s because Satan runs roughshod over people’s will, motivated by hatred.

Whatever his tactics, God knows all about them. He seeks to reform a person’s will, motivated by love. Satan has no understanding of love (although he certainly understands the counterfeits he has made), and so cannot predict God’s tactics.

Romans 13:12 reminds us that deliverance comes at daybreak, which in the broad sweep of world history has not happened yet. We need to put off the deeds of darkness (not only slumber, but sin) while it is still dark. The parting of the sea is a biblical milestone, but not a complete victory. Satan corrupted all but two of the adults that experienced that victory; no one else lived to enter the Promised Land.

So here’s our unending challenge: to be more alert than the Israelites were. As they crossed the sea on dry land, looking over their shoulders in fear of Egyptian chariots, they had no faith. As they watched the sea go back to its place, they still had no faith. It was only when they saw corpses on the shore that they began to trust God and Moses. They spontaneously poured out their praise in the song in the fifteenth chapter. Their trust did not last very long.

When we see any kind of victory, we, too, ought to praise God with a spontaneous outpouring of joy and relief, but it’s not enough. At that time, God has broken one of Satan’s weapons, but not  his whole arsenal. Until we see Jesus face to face, we must resist the temptation to sink into complacency at the time of victory. In the midst of celebration, we must remain on guard. It helps greatly to remember to maintain an attitude of praise and trust when it is difficult–when we feel the full force of the enemy at our heels. We ought to be just as sure of victory then as when we can actually see some evidence.