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Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Waiting for God? Part 2: Submit?!? Why?

Last time I was talking about "Waiting for Godot," a stage play that some interpreters have suggested is about how God abandoned us during World War II, or how the fairy tale of God was destroyed during the war.

I spoke about how important it is to recognize that we are not talking to an equal when we demand an explanation from God for anything He does. However, respecting God's authority is only a part of this question. When we are in trouble, we need to understand that God is not a sadist who likes to torture us. Far from it. He wants a strong, loving relationship with us. There's a problem, though. God has told us that the only healthy relationship with Him is one of obedience and submission to Him. That's a hard line to swallow if you have grown up with the secular humanist worldview.

I'll admit it was hard for me as an unsaved child, even though I was raised in church. I treated friends as equals, but never betters. Sometimes I even tried to treat my parents that way, but the ensuing punishment reminded me that they were still in charge. I found myself always plotting for the day I would become "my own person" and escape the control of others. How did I ever arrive at the point where I could submit to God and obey Him? Wasn't that relinquishing control and denying myself my "rights"?

The following are some arguments people have presented about why we should submit to God. They are valid, but they have problems when taken alone.

Argument 1: Submit to God Because He Could Whip Up on You

I've heard it said that we should submit to God because He's the most powerful Being in the universe. If He wanted to wipe us out, He could, and no one could stop Him.

The problem with that argument is that it establishes a relationship of fear, not of love. Submitting to God under those circumstances alone is like submitting to the will of a man holding us at gunpoint. It's not real submission unless it's truly voluntary.

Mind you, God really is powerful enough to irrevocably destroy us. Apparently Adam and Eve forgot God's power for a moment in their humanistic zeal to get what they thought should be coming to them. God had to remind them that He was still God by carrying out the punishment He had promised them if they disobeyed--death, and expulsion from the Garden. We don't have to fear God's wrath if we are obedient, in the same way we don't have to fear a policeman if we have broken no laws.

If God was going to use His power to make us submit, why would He give us the ability to decide whether we want to obey Him? The fact that we have freewill proves to me that God doesn't want people to obey Him by compulsion. He wants volunteers. I'll come back to this point.

Argument 2: Obey God because He's Older and Wiser Than You

I've also heard that we should submit to God because He knows more than we do. This is the quintessential parent argument. It gave Mom authority when we were children, when she shouted after us, "Don't play in the street, or you might get run over by a car." Surely she knew more about cars and getting run over than we did, because she'd lived longer and seen more.

Unfortunately, we didn't always listen to our mothers. If we survived, we might have thought we knew more than Mom. In the same way, when God tells us not to do something because it could hurt us, and we do it and don't seem to be hurt, we might think that we know better than God. Then we're back to behaving like little gods of our own destinies again. If we know better than God, why listen to anything He says? Why let Him lead us, if He's wrong?

God wants us to know that He is right. This is why we have the Bible. God saw to it that some of His knowledge was in writing, so we could have a record of it, just in case it came true at some point. If you read it, you see that it is true, and at some point, even secular humanists will have to acknowledge this. I know I did, before I finally submitted my heart to Jesus.

Argument 3: Submit to God Because the Bible Says You're a Sinner

The argument here depends on whether or not you accept the authority of the Bible, and what it says about sin and repentance. If you don't accept the Bible as true, you won't be willing to call anything a sin. Sin is a transgression against God and everything He calls "right." It is disobedience and a lack of submission to God. Who can accept that sin is sin, and is worthy of death in God's law, if that same person won't even accept that God's word is true?

Just to prove again that the Bible is true, I'll show you that it even predicts this rebellious response:
For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written:
"I will destroy the wisdom of the wise;
the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate."
Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe....For the foolishness of God is wiser than man's wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man's strength. (1 Corinthians 1: 18-21, 25)

The Straw That Broke the Camel's Back

If you've ever spent time with a camel, you would know that camels are stubborn and cranky. They are barely what you would call "tame." That seems like a perfect description of me when I was nine years old. I'd heard all of the arguments I've presented, and yet I was still resisting God. People thought I was a sweet little angel in Sunday school, but what they didn't know is that I was in a state of total rebellion against God. I didn't want to submit to anyone's will. I was waiting for my chance to act out. I'd basically been waging all-out war on my parents for the better part of the year.

Then one night, I just realized I was tired of all of it. The effort of resisting God was exhausting. I knew that I was lying to myself to say that I didn't have to acknowledge God. I was lying to myself if I didn't think what I was doing was causing harm to me. That's when I understood what sin really was (Argument 3). I realized that God was really right, and looking out for me, when He told me not to rebel (Argument 2). Finally, I knew that God wasn't mean, or He would certainly have done something to me for the way I'd behaved--although I knew that He could. If God was right about that much, and was really looking out for me when He told me "no", why wouldn't I want a relationship with Him? That's when I decided to volunteer. I didn't give up my freedom--I got it when I turned loose of all of those things that were tying me up. God's been my best friend ever since, and I know now that He always was.

Are you ready to give up? Isn't it more foolish to avoid something good, just to maintain control? Always getting your way isn't always the best way to live. Surely you see the wisdom in this. When you're ready to submit to God and let Him prove Himself to you, try praying something like this:
"Dear Lord, I'm ready to let you lead my life, because I can't. Please forgive me for the way I've acted all this time. I've done wrong. Help me to obey you, so I can have peace in my life, and let me see your promise fulfilled--that I can have eternal life and happiness with You. In Jesus name I pray, Amen."

Next time--When being a Christian doesn't seem fun any more...

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Waiting for God? Part 1

For some reason I find myself thinking about a play I studied in college called, "Waiting for Godot." In case you aren't familiar with it, it appears that the characters are World War II resistance fighters who are standing around talking and waiting for a person named Godot. Only, Godot never appears before the play ends. We are left wondering where Godot is, or what has happened to him. Was he discovered and perhaps killed by the Nazis? Did he abandon his friends? The viewer is never told.

I brought this up because my professor told the class that some people believe the name Godot is a sort of pun or homophonic reference to God. Going with that interpretation, I've heard it argued that the play is really about how God abandoned the world during the war, or that God was just a figment of our imagination (an ideal or fairy tale) that was destroyed during the war.

This troubled me then as much as it troubles me now. The topic of war is not my issue today. But I am taking on, at least in part, the discussion of God that comes up when we talk about that stage play. When horror and tragedy disrupts our existence, can we accuse God of abandoning us?

At Issue with Secular Humanism

The first problem I have with that question is that it assumes that God owes us something. Does God obey us, that we should be able to shake our fists at Him and demand He bail us out of the messes we make? Even when we are the victim of another person's evil, is God obligated to care? By accusing God of abandoning us, we both acknowledge that God is the Supreme Being in the universe, so powerful He is capable of solving any problem, and simultaneously put Him on a leash and order Him around like a dog!

Before you start to think that I am telling you that God doesn't care or that He is not involved in our lives, I'll say that is not the case. The real truth is that God doesn't have to care, and He doesn't have to give us anything--but He does because He loves us.

The idea that man is supreme is a subtle one, but it has slipped into the consciousness of most of Western culture, especially in the U.S. I learned in college that English is really the most humanistic of the world's languages, because so much of our speech suggests (through connotative meaning) that the individual is in control of his surroundings, circumstances, and destiny. The U.S. constitution and law frequently reference this humanistic viewpoint. Nowadays, since court rulings have been steadily removing Christianity from that body of law, American culture is beginning to forget the supremacy of God.

Secular Humanism and the Bible

The earliest example of secular humanism in the Bible is the argument Satan presented to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden (Genesis chapter 3). Satan questioned God's authority and suggested that Adam and Eve didn't have to take God's word as law in their lives. Beyond that, Satan suggested to them that God was denying them something that they had a right to have.

This may be a very simplistic interpretation of Adam and Eve's fall, but it appears to me that at least a small part of what made Adam and Eve's action a sin was that they were usurping God's supremacy in their lives. After Adam and Eve sinned, they hid from God because they still recognized His power; yet they had the nerve to stand before God and put the blame for their own actions onto others.

Human beings still try to make themselves into "supreme beings," or little gods of their own destinies. We go on doing this, even though we know we can't even preserve our own lives. Although mankind is not supreme, we have a history of refusing to acknowledge God's supremacy.

To begin to answer interpreters of "Waiting for Godot," we have to start by recognizing that God is the powerful one and that we are supposed to obey and submit to Him. God doesn't owe us a showing, and He doesn't have to explain His actions to us. This is part of God's answer to Job when he demanded an explanation for all of his suffering.

That said, God doesn't end the discussion there. God is not aloof from our problems. He does have an answer to why people suffer, and where He is when we feel He has left us. The searching soul can still reach Him. I'll continue with this discussion in my next post.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Studying Your Life Instruction Manual

As I said last time, we should read up on our teachers, so we can catch on if their teachings are deceptive, and leave such teaching behind. I don't know the best way a person can learn the basic principles of God's Word if he/she is not willing to take the time to read and study the Bible daily. How can we say we know anything about a book if we haven't read it?

One way you can accelerate the learning process is to search for passages that focus on scriptural topics you find interesting. If you haven't found them in the Bible before, however, you're going to need some sort of indexing system to find them. That's where concordances, topical guides, commentaries, and dictionaries come in. These aren't just for beginners. Most pastors own at least some of these reference works and use them when writing sermons.

The Big Four Bible Reference Guides

  • Concordance--A definitive, alphabetical listing of every word in the Bible and where it occurs, sorted by the order in which it occurs. It quotes the phrase where the word is used, substituting the first letter of the word for the word itself. Each listing also includes an italicized number at the end of the line. This refers you to an entry in either the Hebrew-Chaldean or the Greek language concordances at the back of the book. There, you can learn about the original word that was translated into English. One of the most popular is Strong's Exhaustive Concordance. That concordance is for the KJV, which means it includes words like "whomsoever." I use the NIV version, the Strongest Exhaustive Concordance (kind of a pun on the original concordance author's name).

  • Topical Guides--a listing of topics covered in the Bible, sometimes grouped in larger categories like "Judgement," with subcategories like, "According to Opportunity and Works." Each category contains scriptures and short phrase descriptors that relate to the topic or subtopic. A popular version is Nave's Topical Bible.

  • Commentaries--a list of every verse in the Bible, explaining in detail exactly what the passage means and how it fits into the context of the verses around it, as well as how scholars traditionally relate it to the bigger context of Scripture and history. Sometimes the commentary points out alternative translations from the original language. The best (and I think the only widely-accepted) commentary out there is Matthew Henry's Commentary on the Whole Bible. The language in it is a little old (I believe it was compiled in the 1800s), but it's still invaluable. It's also the thickest and heaviest book the average pastor might own.

  • Bible dictionary--an alphabetical listing of all of the keywords in the Bible, such as names of people and places, holidays, plant and animal names, and other significant words. There won't be an entry for "the," but there will be entries for things like "David," "hyrax," and "Feast of Tabernacles." It is similar to an encyclopedia, since it talks about the historical and cultural context of the word, as well as giving the etymology of the word, if known. Some dictionaries even have pictures. I use The New International Dictionary of the Bible.

How to Use These Bible Reference Books

Let's say I wanted to learn more about prophecy and prophets in the Bible, using these books.
First, I'll pick up my concordance and turn to the page where the word "prophet" is listed. In the Strongest Exhaustive Concordance, that listing would begin on page 912. If I've counted right, that's 299 times the word "prophet" is used in the Bible. If I was going to continue my study just from here, I might narrow the field a little bit by only looking up passages where the word "prophet" is used frequently in successive verses; this would eliminate all the times where "prophet" was only mentioned in passing. For instance, this would eliminate "Genesis 20:7 Now return the man's wife, for he is a p," because the word "prophet" is only used this one time in the entire book of Genesis. Now I'll look up the number at the end of most of the earliest entries for the Old Testament, 5566. The Hebrew concordance in the back says "nabi," and refers me to 5547, "naba" and comments there, "to prophesy, speak as a prophet; prophecy has its focus on encouraging or restoring covenant faithfulness, the telling of future events encourages obedience or warns against disobedience." Hmm, interesting, but I'll keep looking.

Moving on to the Nave's Topical Bible, I'll look up "Prophets." The reason I use the Nave's is because sometimes a verse is related to my topic, but the word I'm looking for is not actually used in the verse. A concordance can't find everything. Another great thing is that my topical guide has divided up the massive number of times the word "prophet" was used, so now I can get more specific. Say I wanted to focus on the subcategory "false," which lists passages under labels like "Denunciations against" and "Instances of." It also says, "See Ministers, False," in case you want to read still more related examples. Now I'm really getting somewhere with this topic!

Now I'll look up the first passage in the Nave's under "Prophets>>False>>Denunciations against," which would be Deuteronomy 18:20, in my next reference guide--Matthew Henry's Commentary on the Whole Bible. The commentary lists Deuteronomy Chapter 18, and lumps the discussion of my selected verse under "verses 15-22." I skimmed the left edge of the column until I found the number 20, and read after it that when God told people not to fear false prophets, He meant that people shouldn't be afraid when a false prophet is exposed and calls down curses on them. The prophet is a fraud, so we shouldn't be afraid of any harm this person predicts will come on us.

Now on to my dictionary, because I want to learn more about the word "prophet." My concordance told me the word was "nabi," but this dictionary tells me it's actually "navi" and has an unknown etymology. The entry goes on to say that the use of "navi" has a very specific meaning, sort of like a title for a person who delivers messages as a spokesperson from God. The sense that a prophet is not merely a person who sees the future, but rather an important emissary who speaks for God, is emphasized.

Find These Reference Books

If you have a tight budget, consider using sites like or The first is a totally free concordance for multiple Bible translations, and it also includes some commentary articles and Nave's Topical Bible entries. The other one contains numerous translations, reference materials, and even the ability to look at the original language of the verse.

If you can afford to invest in these books, and can't resist the smell of a new book, you can find the titles I've mentioned at just about any Christian bookstore or online.

Happy Bible studying!

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Test Your Prophets (and Your Teachers)

Mankind has always had an obsession with the ability to know the future and to know what is the right action to take in every situation. We follow prophets, who claim Divine insight into what will happen in the future, and we follow educators. Teachers are like prophets, because they pass on the experience of older generations, which can serve as predictions of future events. When our grandfathers did action A, they got result B; therefore, when we do action A, we can expect result B to follow.

This is a practical desire, because it's just another tool to help us avoid disaster. Trusting the word of prophets and teachers is like taking a flashlight down a dark, uneven path through the woods at night.

Sometimes,however(especially if we don't know how to test the advice these prophets and teachers give us), we can be led into a trap these leaders have set for us. Unlike the flashlight, prophets and teachers aren't always telling us the truth. We need the skills to know how to test them. For starters, the Bible offers us a 100% accurate prophet test.

The Prophet Litmus

The test of a prophet is pretty simple. We don't have to figure out what his or her agenda is or whether we think it's what God teaches us. We don't have to do anything but sit back and watch.

[A] prophet who presumes to speak in my name anything I have not commanded him to say, or a prophet who speaks in the name of other gods, must be put to death."
You may say to yourselves, "How can we know when a message has not been spoken by the LORD ?" If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the LORD does not take place or come true, that is a message the LORD has not spoken. That prophet has spoken presumptuously. Do not be afraid of him. (Deuteronomy 18: 20-22 NIV)

The real test is that what a false prophet predicts never actually happens, but real prophets are proven right with time.

A notorious (and potentially destructive) example of this is a story my mother tells. Shortly after my parents were married, a complete stranger walked up to Mom in church and said, "The Lord told me that you will soon meet the man of your dreams." Imagine the backpedaling when Mom told the person that she was already married! For the record, my parents still are, and always have been, faithfully married.

Historically, many people who make predictions about people's futures are accidentally accurate because they try to speak in generalities. For instance, if I was pretending to be a prophet and said, "You will be happy tomorrow, because a friend will brighten your day," I would stand a good chance of being right. If it came true, that wouldn't actually mean I knew anything about your future. It's just a sign of a good guesser. God has never made His prophets risk their necks and reputations for a guess, so if you catch a prophet in a guessing game, you should think of that person as something more like a fortune-teller than a real prophet.

This reminds me of another passage that points out that sometimes false prophets actually do seem to predict the future. There is a second test for them:
If a prophet, or one who foretells by dreams, appears among you and announces to you a miraculous sign or wonder, and if the sign or wonder of which he has spoken takes place, and he says, "Let us follow other gods" (gods you have not known) "and let us worship them," you must not listen to the words of that prophet or dreamer. The LORD your God is testing you to find out whether you love him with all your heart and with all your soul. It is the LORD your God you must follow, and him you must revere. Keep his commands and obey him; serve him and hold fast to him. That prophet or dreamer must be put to death, because he preached rebellion against the LORD your God...he has tried to turn you from the way the LORD your God commanded you to follow. You must purge the evil from among you. (Deuteronomy 13: 1-5 NIV)

If someone has managed to get past the first test, but claims that his/her power comes from any source other than the one true God, who sent His Son, Jesus Christ, for our redemption, that person must not be trusted. We should even go so far as to remove that person from our midst. Nowadays, we don't put to death people who are trying to mislead us in our faith, but we are able to throw them out of our churches and our homes. If we don't want to be led away into spiritual death and eternal damnation, we must separate ourselves from them. Let a tricky person hang around, and eventually his lies might sound convincing.

Teaching Test

The test of a teacher is more difficult, because it requires you to have a pretty broad grasp of Biblical teachings. If you don't, my best suggestion is to buy and use a Bible concordance, a Bible dictionary, a Bible commentary, or a topical Bible reference guide. In case you don't know what those are or how to use them, I'll talk about them in my next post.

A teacher's lessons must line up with God's commands. Anything that contradicts God is not from God (Matthew 12: 23-28 NIV). If a message is not from God, it's from man, or from Satan, and we should be careful not to be deceived by it. Remember, man knows nothing about your future, and Satan wants to make your future as hard and as horrible as possible. The Bible says,
See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ. (Colossians 2:8 NIV).

In another place, the Bible promises punishment on all such teachers:
Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of such things God's wrath comes on those who are disobedient.(Ephesians 5:6 NIV)

I'm doing my best not to be one of those misleading teachers. I understand the responsibility I have to my readers and I take it very seriously.

Some people do not take the responsibility seriously, or they prey on Christians who haven't caught on to their tricks. Such people can be dangerous. Sometimes they just want your money, but sometimes they want power over you. Please be careful who you follow.

In a few days, I'll be posting on how to accelerate your Bible studying, so you can arm yourself with knowledge and expose people who are trying to trick you. Until then, take care!