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Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Iron Sharpens Iron, so Encourage One Another

As Christians, but more generally as human beings, we can tend to get together and grumble with our friends and family about what is not happening in our lives, what results we are not seeing, and the needs that have not been met.  Now, I want to mention that it is good to gather with friends; in fact, I believe it is God-ordained.  However, it isn't spending the time well if everyone walks away feeling as bad as they did before.  What can we do to make the troubled times easier for our friends?  If suffering produces perseverance, perseverance produces character, and character produces hope (Romans 5: 3-5) what can we do to help each other bear those fruits in our lives?
The Bible says, "As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another," (Proverbs 27: 17 NIV 2010).  Iron was one of the hardest substances available to the common man in the ancient world, and its strange physical properties were readily used as metaphors for human behavior.  Iron scraping iron could produce an extremely hard, sharp edge and rid things of brittle rust; similarly, one person's good counsel and leadership by example can help others remove bad habits and damaging character flaws from their lives.  Iron pounding heated iron could produce any number of shapes, all harder than the material before it was heated; similarly, discipline, and yes, persecution from others can prepare a person for tough jobs and struggles they may encounter in the future.

I am not suggesting that we persecute each other to "toughen each other up," but I think it is a good habit to think of how we can build each other up.  Here are a few things we should think about doing to "sharpen" each others' faith, so that everyone feels refreshed, and I hope strengthened to face their troubles.

  • Pray together.  It isn't enough to just nod your head in agreement that your friends' troubles are bad.  Pray with them!  Jesus said, "For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them," (Matthew 18: 20 NIV 2010).  There is nothing more powerful than offering to help them get our Advocate involved in resolving their problem (see John 14: 15-17; 1 John 2: 1-2).
  • Remind them of God's power and provision.  When we are presently struggling, those troubles tend to consume all of our thinking and fill up our view.  We can't remember what used to bring us hope and joy.  Be a friend to a struggling friend by reminding that person of the miracles you have witnessed together, and the times of joy and celebration you have shared.  Paul wrote to struggling Christians, reminding them of how far they had already come with God, so that they would feel encouraged to stay the course (see, for instance 1 Corinthians 1 : 4-9).
  • Give them a gift that meets a deep need.  When some of the early prophets were hungry, people welcomed them into their homes and fed them; when one early church member needed a cloak, another who had an extra, gave it to him.  When David was depressed, Johnathan showed up and encouraged him.  We can do something similar by preparing a meal for an elder who lives alone; offering to babysit someone's children for an evening; or mailing a friendly letter for no particular reason except to say "hello."  I am not saying that we should give gifts expecting reciprocation, nor that we should do things out of a condescending sense of charity or personal importance.  The goal is to stave off depression, worry, or physical needs in your friend, which can, like rust, tear down their strength and bring their faith to the breaking point. 
  • Give truthful counsel.  If a friend asks for advice, tell the truth,  particularly that which is derived from many sources in the Bible, and temper it with love.  Not all good and truthful advice feels like affirmation; as the proverb goes, "Wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses," (Proverbs 27: 6 NIV 2010).  A metalsmith polishes off rust and lifts his hammer to remove flaws and direct the metal toward its strengths.  Our counsel should be the kind used by God for the same end--to build up and discipline a believer toward good behavior and victorious living.  Since all good counsel truly comes from the Lord (Proverbs 8: 14), we should always present it with the gentleness and humility that comes from listening to the One who has counseled us.
 I am sure there are more things that can be done to "sharpen" each other's faith.  If you think of any, I welcome you to share them in the comments section.  In fact, by sharing them, you will be doing just that.

Until next time, I want to encourage you to stay savvy, and work to sharpen your faith, so that no attacks from Satan can harm you.  Be built up!

Friday, March 25, 2011

Weekly Snippet: Don't Worry, but Be Wise to Plan Ahead

The news has been buzzing with really bad news lately.  It seems like the end of the world (and perhaps it is)!  We hear of terrible natural disasters (Haiti, Chile, Christchurch, Japan, etc.), of people brutalizing other people (Egypt, Libya, and others), of economic crises of varying degrees in so many countries around the world (the US, Greece, Spain and Portugal, etc.), of sickness and poverty and starvation (many nations in South America, Africa, and Asia).  To top off that load of disconcerting news, we have our individual troubles to deal with every day, from making sure the bills are paid, to wondering if we remembered to take our prescription this morning.  Such news is enough to make a person worry all the time, yet God has called us not to worry.

What is God asking of us when He tells us not to worry?  Does God mean, don't feel concern about bad news you've heard, don't plan for contingencies, and don't talk or even think about anything negative?  I don't think that's what God meant, since Jesus Himself said to be "wise as serpents and harmless as doves," (Matthew 10:16 KJV).  The way I read it, God has called us to be faithful, and faith-filled, but He has also told us to be informed, and ready to take any necessary action.

Jesus famously told us not to worry, because God is taking care of our necessities and our futures.  I think that gets at the heart of what worrying is.  We feel a dread for what could happen if we cannot successfully fend it off by our own efforts.  Then, when our own efforts don't appear to be working toward fighting off our sense of doom, we worry.  That is, we fearfully contemplate our ruin until the fear makes us sick and shuts down our effectiveness.

Jesus taught against worry because He wanted us to learn to trust Him to save us.  The only thing people truly need to fear is the death that comes from sin; any other doom cannot ultimately harm us, no matter what comes.  The Bible is filled with God's assurances that He would take care of us (for example Psalm 37: 25-29), so can we have faith to wait for it, even when it doesn't seem to be coming?

Waiting On God Does Not Mean Being Unprepared

I have heard people say before that they didn't want to take any precautions concerning the future, because they are waiting on God to deal with the future.  I don't take issue with the level of faith it takes to trust God with the future; however, there seems to be ample evidence in the Bible that God does not want us to stop thinking of the future when we make our decisions today.  God wants us to plan, as far as it is within our power, for the trouble that we have not seen yet.  Whether it is something we believe we can handle, or if it is beyond our power to predict or our strength to resist, the future is in God's hands.  Still, when God gives us warning, He expects us to take action.  Isn't this part of how He takes care of us?

I can think of many examples when God directed people to take action against an uncertain future, but I'll just touch on one here.  Joseph was directed, through Pharaoh's dream, to store up grain for a famine that was still seven years in the future (Genesis 41).  He didn't know whether he would live to the end of those seven years, or whether his precautions would be enough to sustain Egypt and the surrounding countries through the famine.  In fact, his position was always an uncertain one; at any moment Pharaoh could have taken away all that he had.  All of those uncertainties were in God's hands, and only God could guard against them.  Joseph could have spent the time worrying, but instead, he saw a job to do, and he did it.

In the same way, many of the things that could come, or even will come, are completely out of our hands.  We should not live in fear (worry) of these things, because God is stronger than any of them, and He is certainly more capable of fixing them than we are.  On the other hand, we should not be unprepared, or oblivious, when we look toward the future.  There are things we can do right now, that God can use to benefit us in the future.  This is part of being as wise as a serpent--learning about our enemy, understanding how the world works, and having the knowledge (or the skills, or the resources) with which to better meet Satan in the field.  Victory over evil is assured, but our preparation can make it an easier, less painful battle.

How have you prepared for trouble, without worrying endlessly about it?  I hope the first precaution you took was to seek a good relationship with the Lord, and a good foundation of knowledge about His Word.  Those who learn to properly understand evil, and the end of evil, have a huge advantage over those who don't.  After that, every individual needs a different kind of preparation, which is between them and the Lord.  Have you asked Him what you need to do?  Have you done what He asked?

These are things to think about this weekend.  Until then, this is my warning, telling you to stay savvy and plan for the future!

Monday, March 21, 2011

Spiritual Lamp Oil for The Long Wait: God's Promises Fulfilled in Due Time

In the first part of Matthew chapter 25, we read Jesus' parable concerning ten young women who went out to join the wedding feast.  Five of them planned ahead, and brought extra oil for their lamps, but the other five did not (and got left out).  Obviously, five of them fully expected a long wait in the dark, while the others thought that it would not be an endurance test.  From what Christ indicated in His concluding remarks, this story was a warning that endurance despite a lack of visible change is a certainty when it comes to being a Christian.

We read that in other prophetic passages and stories in the Bible, as well.  Prophecies and promises from God came long before their fulfillment.  Abraham and Sarah waited until the winters of their lives to have Isaac.  Caleb waited until he was very old to see Israel entering the Promised Land.  David was anointed king in his youth, but before he could take the throne, he had to be hunted and threatened by King Saul for many years.  Thinking beyond them, it took thousands of years for the prophecies concerning Jesus to be fulfilled, and so far it has taken thousands of years to see the prophecies concerning the end of the world beginning to take shape.

In the mean time, from the least to the greatest of these, there was a long, tedious, even unpleasant wait.  They waited in camps in the desert, they waited in exile, they waited through mockery and violence, and they waited through the discouragement and hopelessness I'm sure they all felt from time to time.  Today, in my personal devotions, I read Psalm 89, which was written during the long wait between God's promise to establish his throne forever, and God's fulfillment of that promise through Christ's resurrection and ascension.

How did believers in the Bible survive the wait?  How can we learn from them during the long waits in our own lives?
  • They remembered the day they began.  To cite one example, David frequently recalled the days in his childhood, when he first came to know God, when he first saw God's power acting on his behalf, and when God anointed him king and promised to establish his throne forever.  He also wrote in the Psalms about the early days of the nation of Israel, and all the things that had started their covenant with God.  If the virgins waiting for the wedding party had forgotten what they were waiting for, they might have given up.  It is clear that the ones who didn't bring enough oil did forget why they came.  They forgot how important it was, to them, to see the bridegroom, so they planned as if it wasn't important, or as if they could take or leave him and the party.  How important is it, to us, to see the fulfillment of God's prophecy and promises in our lives?  That is demonstrated in how determinedly we look forward to that day.
  • They took God at His Word.  Frequently, in the lives of David, Abraham, and others, we see them speaking to God and reminding Him of the promises He had made to them.  This demonstrated to God that they hadn't forgotten what He said (in fact, that they were constantly thinking about it), and that they still believed He had told the truth when He made the promise.  Of course they were struggling and feeling impatient with the hardships of the wait, but that didn't mean that they were unwilling to wait.  They believed, unshakably, that it was all going to be worth it in the end.  We, too, are subject to long waits between the promise and the fulfillment of the promise in our lives.  Are we willing, even in the darkest, hardest times, to just believe that God keeps His promises?  This is a testing of the genuineness of our faith.
  • They trusted in God's timing.  as Paul wrote, "The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance," (2 Peter 3:9 NIV 2010).  Steadfast Christians recognize that God is not lazy or irresponsible, but rather, that He keeps Himself to a timeline that He designed.  Everything that has happened was orchestrated to bring about the salvation of as many souls as possible.  While we may feel at times that the wait for our own needs is unbearable, we must understand that God planned it to deepen our faith, to allow for time to minister to others, and to give resistors a chance to change their minds before all opportunity is lost.  Maybe the reason why the bridegroom came so late to the party was to allow some people to change their minds at the last minute and show up. Certainly, all the other guests had to wait, but the party was that much better when it did start.  During the waiting periods of our lives, can we trust that God is watching the clock just as closely as we are?  Can we trust Him enough to accept His plan?
  • They encouraged each other by talking about the promise as if it had already come.  Caleb and Joshua, as two leaders and survivors of their generation, most likely hung out and talked about the day when they were going to go back to the promised land.  The fighting men around David, and even Jonathan, often said "when you come into your kingdom..." when talking to David.  The prophets, when speaking about Christ, wrote in positive, precise detail about what it would be like when their salvation came.  No doubt the virgins were talking about the wedding they were about to attend while they sat there in the night with their lamps.  Likewise, we should make the wait easier by anticipating what is coming, rather than dwelling on the present troubles or feeling afraid to dream about the future.  If we truly believe in the promises and prophecies we have heard, we should encourage each other to boldly cling to those things.  Any other talk produces doubt that erodes our faith, and the faith of others.
So, friends, I encourage you to follow the same example as you wait for God's promises to be fulfilled in your lives.  We all need to remember the promises God has made to all of us, as well--promises of salvation, eternal rest, and Heaven.  Are we still watching for Jesus to come back?  Are we ready for Him, and have we judged the reward worthy of the wait?  Finally, are we excited about what is coming?

Friday, March 18, 2011

Weekly Snippet: Some More Christianese

Christianese, as it has been dubbed, is that list of  strange idiomatic phrases that Christians use and understand, but which make little or no sense to those outside the circle.  Some time ago I covered several examples, which you can read here, or by clicking the "Christianese" tag at the end of this post.  Today I thought I'd touch on a few more relating to prayer and the Christian way of life.
  • The Army of God--This is not the name of some hidden, nutty cult, or any sort of political group.  God has instructed us to obey the laws of the land, and to respect the leaders He has put in charge of us (Romans 13: 1).  So when Christians talk about being "soldiers of God" or doing "spiritual battle," it has to do with resisting spiritual forces by sharing our faith, standing up for what we believe in, and doing what is right despite pressure to sin.  It is not a doctrine directing Christians to go out and beat up on people for Jesus, or to convert people forcibly through military action and threats.  More often than not, the most violent action Christians take in spiritual battle is saying the word "no," but they receive violence in return (see Acts 4: 1-21; Acts 5: 17-42; Acts7).  Spiritual battles may end up having a physical component, but they are not actually fought with muscle and weapon; ultimately they are fought in the mind and heart, and there alone can victory be won. 
  • Prayer walking--When Israel marched in to the land of Caanan (what is now called Palestine), they encountered a fortified city named Jericho.  God instructed the army to march around the walls of the city once a day for six days.  Then, on the seventh day, He told them to march around again, seven times, and when the priests blew their trumpets, everyone was commanded to shout.  At the sound of their voices and the trumpets, the walls collapsed and the army moved in. See Joshua chapter 6.  A popular trend among Christians these days is to repeat this activity--walking around the perimeter of a place, such as a campus or mall, while praying against evil.  The idea is that we may not encounter physical walls, but there are entrenched supernatural forces of evil that we are resisting, in a spiritual battlefield.  For those who don't believe that evil can take up residence at a place, this doesn't make any sense.  For those who do believe, this prayer walking is done to remind us that our trouble is not from people, but from Satan, who wishes to destroy our souls and who wants to convince us he is not behind it all.  As Paul wrote, "For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms," (Ephesians 6:12 NIV 2010).  By the way, it is not necessary to walk around a place to pray for it.  God hears our prayers, wherever we are.  If it is needed to focus, or if God directed you to do it (often for the purpose of helping you focus), I say do it.
  • Agreeing in prayer--Jesus said, "Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven.  For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them," (Matthew 18: 19-20 NIV).  Basically, when Christians all get together and pray as a group for something, they are "agreeing in prayer."  Now, let me clarify something here.  If a group of people all pray for something that is opposed to God's purpose and plan (i.e., God's will), they should not expect God to honor their request.  For instance, if they are all united in asking God to postpone judgment at the end of the world, He will not.  This is why it is important to ask God's will and to learn what is pleasing to Him by reading the Bible, before asking for something.  When we come together in Jesus' name, that is, like an army assembling under a banner, we should ask for things that are in agreement with His will, and pray that His purposes win out over the solutions we think are right.
 Thanks for reading!  Do you have other examples of Christianese you'd like to see explained?  I welcome comments.  If you like this post, please subscribe to my blog or share the link with friends (just don't send it to them if they don't want it).

Monday, March 14, 2011

5 Names That Strike Fear into Modern Christians

I was sitting with a friend and my younger sister Saturday, and at one point we ended up discussing a name people call Christians, and our feelings about it.  It jogged my memory of other conversations about this, and other insults that I have received on account of my faith.

You know, I have been called many names in my life, and I am young yet.  I don't want to discount the fact that getting called a name, especially in front of an audience, will bring you up short, leave a scar, or even cause you to question or doubt yourself.  Still, as Christians, we have cause to celebrate--yes, I said celebrate--names that we have been called.  It is true that slander and insults hurt us deeply, and God never promised they would not, but we have a confidence that our persecutors do not:  We are on the side that has already triumphed, and the God we serve will defend us against those who have treated us badly.

Despite the victory that we have already achieved as followers of Jesus Christ, many Christians these days stagger and stop when they are called certain names.  I suspect the problem is that they are afraid there is a grain of truth in the lie they have heard.  They are afraid to question the insult, in case somehow the false accusations might stick.  So, are they true or aren't they?  Well, lets take a look at a few well-worn favorites:
  •  Crazy--This is a classic favorite, which apparently even Paul had encountered, since he frequently spoke about the "foolishness" of Christianity and how the world rejected what we believe.  It is true that Christians believe some things that seem unbelievable, like a man who claimed to be God, whose mother was a virgin; people rising from the dead or being miraculously healed without medical intervention; and life after death and supernatural beings.  The fact of the matter is that all true Christians do believe these "crazy" things, but they didn't begin with them.  Even the sanest, most logical person could come to believe in Christ, but first that person must be convinced that (1) God exists, (2) We owe God something, (3) His assessment of our situation is truthful and correct, (4) God's solution is a good one, (5) God is powerful enough to make anything happen.  If we can believe these things, it is not a stretch to believe in supernatural or "crazy" events.  The question is, can we believe these things?  I'm not presenting evidence here, but I firmly believe that with enough research, the most basic tenants of Christianity can be logically defended and proven, from any angle or area of knowledge.
  • Naive--While it is true that some Christians are naive, even about their own Bibles or the way the world works, it cannot be said that Christianity as a whole is naive.  The Bible is full of hefty and grown-up topics, and it doesn't shy away from the harsh and sometimes grim realities of life.  Of course, the Bible doesn't talk about technological advances and modern conveniences, but that hardly makes it naive.  When it comes to guile and a proper understanding of human behavior and motivation, I honestly believe Christianity is the least naive belief system out there.
  • Old-fashioned--While it is true that the Bible is full of teachings that older generations adhered to, and it is also true that the Bible was written thousands of years ago by people long dead, I don't believe that Christianity is truly old fashioned. This "name calling" only reveals that Christianity is no longer fashionable, and that people wish it could be forgotten so they no longer have to deal with it. The true test of the Bible is whether its teachings really apply to modern people and situations, or whether it has truly been disproven. Are people still disobedient? Are people still cruel? Is God's idea of universal justice still just? If what we believe is so transient that it can survive only the length of one man's life, then it should be discarded. If, on the other hand, Christianity holds up to serious scrutiny, it should be worthy of our attention, and dismissing it is foolish.
  • Closed-Minded or Intolerant--At the core of Christianity lies the understanding that truth is exclusive; in other words, opposite things cannot both be true, and therefore something must be false.  When we have arrived at the point that we no longer need further evidence that something is false, we make a choice, to the exclusion of what has been disproved or discredited.  In that regard, I think Christians truly can call themselves closed-minded and intolerant, because they have shut their minds against falsehood.  They aren't even friendly to the notion that falsehood is good, because they have confidence that what they have found is much better and unshakable.  That said, Christians should take it to heart that debate and discussion of the truth is necessary, so that others can also enjoy it, and they should remember that even Jesus told us to be kind to those who oppose us and hate us (Matthew 5: 43-48).  Being right does not include haughtiness or unkindness toward others.  If we are to be condemned for knowing the truth and standing by it, it is good; but if we are guilty of refusing to share it, or for deciding, as if we were gods, who is worthy of it, shame on us!  In that case, we have earned a name far worse than "closed-minded" or "intolerant."
  • Religious or Pharisaical--At some point in history, each of these names were taken as a compliment, but in the past decade, they have suddenly become synonyms for spiritual death and hostility toward the unsaved.  How strange, since this is not a part of either definition!  Religion, as it is defined online, is "any specific system of belief and worship, often involving a code of ethics and a philosophy."  In other words, religion is a specific enumeration of do's and don'ts.  If this is so, Christianity, at its most basic, is religious: You must believe in Jesus; You must repent of sin; and you must obey God, to name a few core doctrines.  If you reject the most basic principles of Christianity, you are not a Christian--you believe in something else.  Pharisees were once commended, because they knew the details of what God had said and energetically rejected any departure from those words.  Unfortunately for them, they followed the letter of the law so strictly that they missed its intention and fulfillment in Christ!  They were so focused on looking like they were obedient that they stopped obeying God. I can't speak for every so-called Christian's behavior.  Some may act just like the Pharisees, rejecting the truth and choosing a form of outwardly good but inwardly wicked living.  If so, they are spiritually dead and cruel to others.  However, if you are a true believer, you are commended for rejecting wickedness and strictly adhering to the teachings of this religion.  What's the difference?   True believers take to heart two things: (1) They are ever conscious of the fact that they are sinners who needed God to save them from themselves (Romans 5: 8), and (2) Like their Savior, they are moved to compassion by the plight of those who are still suffering under the condemnation of sin (Matthew 9: 35-38).
Let us not shrink back and stumble when someone hurls an insult our way.  They are just words, and hollow ones at that.  I talked about name calling before, in my old Ad Hominem post (read it after this and have a good laugh).  I explained there that, behind name calling is a kind of desperation that comes when a person feels he has run out of logical arguments.  So when you are being called a bad name, enjoy the confirmation that you are on the right side, the winning side, of this great moral debate.

As Jesus said, "Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.  Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you" (Matthew 5: 11-12 NIV 2010).  Can we take Him at His word, and rejoice, or do we trust Him enough?  Maybe this is what James was getting at when he wrote, by the guidance of the Holy Spirit, "Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.  Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything" (James 1: 2-5 NIV 2010).  Let us persevere, then, so that we can be complete in Christ, with well-developed character!

Until next time, this is my reminder to stay savvy, and press on toward our reward!

Friday, March 11, 2011

Weekly Snippet: Take Note of the Good Times

Circumstances all this week have been pulling me away from this computer, including a family funeral Tuesday and a bunch of necessary errands and unwanted distractions taking up today and tomorrow.   What can I say?  Life is a barrage of good and bad moments.  When life is coming at you full-tilt, it's important to grab on to the good things when they come, and not to dwell too much on the bad things that have steamrolled over us.  This is very hard (believe me, I know) but it is such a valuable skill.

Human beings in general are better at remembering the bad things than the good things.  I realized this when I reflected on my memories of the major family vacations I have taken.  I don't remember many details about the first time I went to Branson, Missouri, because pretty much nothing bad happened.  The details I have preserved are mostly a bunch of photos that make me say, "Oh, yeah!  I had forgotten about that."

I can, however, describe in great detail my family trip to Denver, Colorado.  My sister came down with a head cold on the first day (giving it to everyone else by the end of the trip). I can describe in lurid detail how the first hotel room we stayed in had what appeared to be blood splatters on the ceiling (I just hope I was wrong).  I can whine about how the air conditioner went out in our car and we had to spend many hours of our trip at an unfamiliar auto shop getting it fixed.  I can even remember how my sister fell asleep on the way down from the summit of Pike's Peak, only to wake up crying because her congested ears were killing her from the pressure change.  Finally, unlike many people I know, I have vivid memories of the road trip back home as well--how an electrical short made the car doors randomly lock and unlock themselves all the way back, as if they were possessed.  My memories of the sights and fun things on that trip are much more sketchy.  Why is that?

I think this is a bad habit the children of God need to break.  Paul wrote, "Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things" (Philippians 4: 8 NIV 2010).  I don't read this as the condescending dismissal, "Settle down, children.  Nothing is the matter," but rather, I see it as a reminder that we have been set free of the cares and troubles that weigh the world down.  We have time to think about (and enjoy) the good, because we can leave the bad things in God's capable hands.

There is a practical, personal usefulness in this.  It is good for both our physical and spiritual health to learn to hold on to the good things in our lives, and the habit can benefit others as well.  It isn't always easy.  In fact, it's a habit that takes effort and planning.

My great grandmother, who was one of the most upbeat Christians I've ever known, long ago developed the habit of writing in the margins of her Bible to keep her hope afloat.  Her little notes must have encouraged her on dark days, and even though I didn't know what they signified, they boosted my own hope when I discovered them a decade after her death.  For instance, in hundreds of places, I read things like, "Asked for 1-23-59.  Received 3-10-60," or "Prayed for 12-16-43 and God heard! God is so good to me!"  The dates signified a time of waiting on the Lord for something she really needed, but they bring hope even now because they prove, again and again, that with God, bad things are not forever!  Even better, the best things are yet to come!  May troubles all be forgotten, like a bad dream when we wake up.

 Before I go, I thought I'd share with you a song that has been encouraging me when I hear it on the radio.  Enjoy! 

As Moses instructed the people, concerning the Law they had heard on mount Horeb, we should also take note of what happened, so we don't forget it:
Only be careful, and watch yourselves closely so that you do not forget the things your eyes have seen or let them fade from your heart as long as you live. Teach them to your children and to their children after them. (Deuteronomy 4: 9 NIV 2010).
Have a good week (no matter what happens), and be sure to cherish the good when it comes along.  It is a blessing that could only come from the God who loves you.  You'll be happy you did! 

Monday, March 7, 2011

A Brief Thought for Today

A Foraging Male Pheasant
A Roosting Female Pheasant
Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes?   Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?  Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?--Matthew 6: 25-27 NIV 2010

Friday, March 4, 2011

Weekly Snippet: The Sacrifices of Cain and Abel

Earlier this week, I talked about the symbolic significance of Adam and Eve's efforts to cover themselves and hide from God in the garden.  I thought I would continue with the theme today, by talking about their oldest two sons, Cain and Abel, and the significance of their offerings to God.

We know that the covenant law, that is, the Law of Moses, had not yet been given to the world.  Given that information, we might ask pretty probing questions about Genesis 4: 2-7: "Was it fair of God to expect something of Cain and Abel that He had not instructed them to do at that time?  Why didn't it count for anything that Cain had brought some of the produce he had worked so hard to grow?"  After all, from a straight reading of the passage, it almost seems that Cain didn't know what would please God when he brought his offering.  In fact, that is how I read it when I was small, before I understood the symbolism in this scripture. 

Here is the passage, for reference:
Now Abel kept flocks, and Cain worked the soil.  In the course of time Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the Lord.  And Abel also brought an offering—fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock. The Lord looked with favor on Abel and his offering,  but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favor. So Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast.
Then the Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast?  If you do what is right, will you not be accepted?  But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.” 

 It is clear that both men brought an offering to God out of their hard labor, in a gesture that was meant to please God.  Both expected their offerings to be received favorably, but only one got what he wanted.  Was God just being mean to Cain?  Clearly that is how he reacted.  I think more is going on in this passage than immediately meets the eye.  If you want to try to understand God's reaction, you need to delve into what Cain and Abel understood about God at that time, and what they intended by their offerings.

Now, we don't know how long it had been since Adam and Eve had been banished from the Garden of Eden, but I think we can safely assume that Cain and Abel had grown up hearing from their parents about what had gone on before.  They had probably heard about the clothing made of fig leaves, and the animal skins God had given them to clothe them.  They might not have fully understood the symbolism of the act of sacrifice--in fact, it seems no one did until Christ came--but they were aware of three things, to start with: (1) It was a practice God himself had initiated, (2) That God had preferred this over the first garments their parents had made out of leaves, and (3) That God had chosen this action over the violent punishment their parents had been expecting from Him.  In other words, though they might not have fully understood the concept of blood atonement, they comprehended, on some level, that it was an act that pleased God and held back His anger.

So, what did Abel mean by the animal sacrifice that he brought to God?  Was he just being a goody-goody?  I don't think so.  It seems to me that his offering of an animal on his own behalf was a way of admitting to God that he felt he had a part in the sin of rebellion that Adam and Eve had begun.  This was his spontaneous admission of guilt, and a humble acknowledgment of God's sovereignty over him. Abel realized that if he did not humble himself before God, God's wrath would build up against him for his sins.  The fellowship with God his parents had known had already been broken, but he did not want God to completely turn away from him and destroy him.  We cannot suggest, then, that Abel was a righteous man without sin, but rather, that he was righteous in God's sight because he recognized the seriousness of sin, and he willingly repented of his sins.  Though God prefers that we never sin, true repentance and regret for our sin still pleases God, because it acknowledges that His ways are right.

What, then, did Cain mean when he brought his offering of plants to God?  Like I have said, I am convinced that Adam and Eve had shared their experiences with their sons, even though they didn't understand the symbolism of Christ at that time.  That is why it seems to me that Cain was making a rebellious statement with the choice of offering that he brought.  Like his parents, who originally tried to cover their wrong (i.e. justify themselves) with their own efforts, he was suggesting that his hard work ought to be enough to please God.  He had taken his punishment ( Genesis 3: 17-19, 23), and though he was living the curse that had come from rebellion and sin, he was expecting restored fellowship with God without sacrifice.  That hadn't worked for his parents, before, so why did he think it would work now?  It appears that he was symbolically stating that he hadn't done anything serious enough to incur God's wrath; therefore, he didn't need to submit to God.

Despite Cain's continued rejection of God's sovereignty, and his lack of humility, God still had compassion on him two more times in recorded history.  First, when God rejected Cain's offering, He instructed Cain on what was required of him to please God, and He told Cain that he knew what was in his heart concerning Abel (go re-read the last paragraph of my quote from Genesis chapter 4, above).  Cain could have taken this instruction and come back with the proper sacrifice, since God had reinforced to him what was required--but he chose not to do so.  Later, when Cain rebelled again by killing Abel, God cursed him by putting Cain out of His sight (a foreshadowing of Hell), but spared him the immediate death that others would give him.  Clearly Cain regretted the consequences of sin, but he still did not bow his knee to the requirements God had set for restored fellowship.

Though Cain lived on, benefiting from God's mercy, he was living as one slated for destruction in the end.  It might seem that it was better to be like Cain in this story, because he got to live out his years with his wife, children, grandchildren, and so forth, building cities and innovations.  Meanwhile, Abel's repentant act seemed to have brought about his swift end.  Was it really true that Cain got the better end?  I don't think so.  When it comes down to it, Cain had all he wanted, except the one thing he had always both wanted and needed--God's approval and forgiveness.

May we never envy him!

Something to think about this weekend.  Your thoughts and comments are appreciated.  Until then, this is me reminding you to stay savvy--gain mastery over sin so that you can gain acceptance from God!