What God Sees in You

So after a long, unintentional hiatus, I find myself writing a new post for this blog. Part of it is the New Year; I really enjoyed the short amount of time when I was regularly writing for this blog, and starting this year I would like to get back into it for various reasons.

One large reason for me in particular is that I am going to be leading a Bible study with my local church, sort of. It’s a responsibility, a leadership position. Of course, that doesn’t mean that I need to be the one who talks all the time, but it does mean that in some form or fashion, people are going to be looking to me in various ways for various things. And that scares me in some way.

Now, as I have spoken with friends and family, they’ve reassured me that I’ll do a great job. I’ve seen some of those short sayings like, “You are never too small for God to use you,” and “God doesn’t call the qualified, he qualifies the called.” Yet there is something about these interactions that I have not found fulfilling. They don’t really answer the thoughts of my heart and soul.

So, as I was thinking about all of this, my mind happened on the story of Gideon, found in Judges 6. When the angel appears to Gideon, he is beating wheat in the winepress because the Midianites are stealing food from Israel so that there isn’t enough food to eat. In other words, Gideon is either hiding or has been hidden away. Based on that alone, he appears either a weakling or a coward.

Then, when the angel of the Lord appears to him, he says, “The Lord is with you, o mighty man of valor!” (v. 12) Gideon protests the first part of that statement by asking how it’s possible for God to be with Israel when they are being starved by their enemy, but the part that I clue in on is the second part. The angel of the Lord called Gideon a mighty man of valor, i.e. a strong and courageous person, at a point when there has been no evidence of such traits in Gideon. If anything, he looks like a weakling at best, a coward at worst.

So why did the angel say this? Because God knew what Gideon was going to become, because God knew what Gideon had the capacity to become. And the same is true for those who are trying to follow Jesus: God knows who we are and he knows who we can become. I think that oftentimes, when I read that God knows me better than I know myself, I’m intimidated by that because, well, I know that there’s sin in my life that even I haven’t noticed…but I often forget that this also applies to the good in us.

This, I think, is a deep and profound truth. God declared Gideon to be a mighty man of valor, even though on the surface Gideon wasn’t that person. But God knew what was in Gideon, and he knew that Gideon could and would become that mighty man of valor who would lead God’s people. The same is true for you. God knows the good you can do and the person you can become. Not only has he put good things in you, but if you are trying to follow Jesus and have his Spirit within you, He is in you. We can’t just allow ourselves to say, “I can’t do this; I don’t have it in me.” If the Spirit of God is in you, then you will always have it in you.

Now, what that looks like may depend on who you are and what your challenge is. God’s power in your life may be that you have the humility to ask someone for help with a serious fear you have. It might be wisdom to ask the right questions as you try to make a life-changing decision. It might be nothing more than confidence and contentment through a dark and stormy season of life. It might be the strength to triumph over things that have chained you.

Whatever your situation, I think it is really easy to fall into the trap of feeling like life has presented you with a challenge that you cannot face alone. In a way, this is true: I believe that at some point, everyone hits a problem they can’t face alone. But if you are following Jesus, you aren’t alone. You are with Jesus. And guess what: he forgives us and, instead of seeing the sins we’ve committed, he sees who we can become if we walk by faith. The question is, will we trust him?

The Sabbath: For Our Benefit?

“Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work,but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns.For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.
–Exodus 20:8-11

Ever reach a point where you have just been going too hard and too fast for too long? That’s kind of where I am this afternoon. It seems like there is way too much going on to keep up with and all of it is urgent. It’s on days like today that I try to give myself a little more time to just rest. I try to take a Sabbath, which literally means “stop.” I try to use Sunday afternoons as my stop day, a time when I can reset my meter and get ready for the week ahead.

Now, there is considerable debate in Christian circles about “should we keep the Sabbath by not working on Sundays,” which in turn leads to a whole lot of other discussions about what the Sabbath was, how Jesus addressed it, how all of the New Testament addresses the topic and so on. As much as I would like to engage in that discussion, today I would much rather discuss the purpose behind the Sabbath, the “stop day” that God commanded. What if it was more for our benefit?

Did I just use “lolcat” in my blog about Jesus and faith? Yes, yes I did.

You see, Western culture today is a place where our collective attitude seems to be, “You need to be working all the time.” Some of us (and perhaps, many of us?) feel like we are constantly on the razor’s edge, that at any moment our lives could fall apart if we aren’t working. That breeds fear inside of us, and fear is never from God. God works through faith, and taking a Sabbath – taking time to do nothing except relax, honor God and reset your meter – is an act of faith. Taking a Sabbath is an implicit statement that honoring God is more important than anything else we can do, even if that means that we don’t get some really important things done.

However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that you get less done as a result of taking a Sabbath. In fact, I believe that when you honor God in this way he gives you the strength to get more done. Although I think there is a body of scientific studies to back me up, it is my personal belief that those who take a stretch of time to relax not only get about the same amount done, but they live happier and healthier lives too. That contrasts with most of us who try to work 24/7, which I believe is a contributing factor to the rise in stress-related illnesses and other problems that are becoming more widespread in our work-obsessed culture.

I’m not promoting the “health, wealth and prosperity” gospel here; I’m not saying that God wants everyone to live lives of unending bliss. I hope that I’m simply asking the question, What if God actually gave us the Sabbath commandment so we can lead better lives, so that in honoring Him we find in Him the strength to do better? What if in setting time aside to honor God, He actually cultivates joy and strength in us that helps us to lead better lives?

Now, does that mean Christians have to refrain from working on the Sabbath? That’s a big topic for another day.

Whether you are or are not trying to follow Jesus, have you ever gone through periods of time where you refrained from working during certain periods of time? What did you do and not do to relax? Did you notice any change in your outlook on life during that time?

Romans 13: Respect for Government Leaders (seriously?!)

In one of my last posts on politics, I discussed how Jesus responded to the question of politics and taxes in his day. That naturally leaves us with the question of, what does the Bible have to say about our modern political process? That’s where we pick up in the book of Romans:

Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended.For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.

This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.

–Romans 13:1-7

Now, let’s acknowledge right up front that there has been abuse of this scripture in the past. In ages past, scriptures like this one were used as a hammer to beat down on people who challenged the authority of a “divinely-appointed” king. That is not at all what this scripture is saying. Let’s also acknowledge up front that our political sensibilities are very different from that of 2,000 years ago. In democratic societies of today, we at least have a say in who governs us. If we don’t like our political leaders, there’s always a chance that they’ll be voted out of office. In fact, in the United States we are taught that we have a right to do that. Paul and the Roman Christians had no such expectation. And by the way, that doesn’t make them less intelligent or sophisticated human beings.

The Roman Empire at its greatest extent. As it expanded, Rome incorporated worship practices from other people groups like the Egyptians, the Babylonians, and others.

The governing authorities that Paul was referring to when he wrote the book of Romans were not so different from the ones I discussed in my post on Jesus and politics. The Christians were subjects of Rome, which publicly endorsed the worship of any number of gods. If you take a look at Roman history, the Romans were about as religiously inclusive as they could be. As the empire spread to Egypt and the Middle East, the Romans would incorporate worship of Egyptian and Middle Eastern deities into their religious traditions. Not only did the Romans endorse pagan deities, but Rome as a whole rejected Christianity and even persecuted the Church. (It wasn’t constant, but it did happen.)

These were the same authorities that Paul told Christians that they had to submit to! Paul even told the Christians to honor their political authorities. What sense does that make? It seems that Paul is making an argument that because God made the world and all of mankind is a creation of God, all human authorities are ultimately responsible to God for how they use their political power. Even the political authorities that deny God are still responsible to him and God uses them to keep humankind from descending into chaos.

Now, that does bring us to a whole host of questions about authority: what about evil dictators who kill their own people? Do we respect them or is there not some point at which we should depose them for no other reason than to preserve human life? Those are hard questions and I would rather not try answering them until I have more of a chance to consider them carefully. Besides, that is not really the point I’m trying to make with this post.

My point is, the Bible’s unified message seems to be that if we are trying to be faithful to God and follow Jesus, we have a debt of respect and honor to our political leaders even if they hate God and hate us.

Respect is in short supply in today’s political discourse. If we were simply more respectful to people of differing political beliefs, that alone could bring health and wellness back to our discourse.

If there is one political issue that gets me worked up, it’s this issue of respect. When I was in high school, George Bush was still the President. It always grated on my nerves to hear people refer to George Bush as “the dumbest president we’ve ever had.” It wasn’t because I was particularly fond of Bush; it was because they were being so disrespectful to him, essentially saying, “Yeah, I could do a better job than Bush.” No, you couldn’t. In spite of his accent, he went to college and he spent years of his life as the president, giving him experience. Instead of using such extreme statements, wouldn’t it be more honest and respectful to just say, “I don’t like Bush’s politics?” or even “I don’t think he’s qualified to be president?”

Now I know people who refer to President Barack Obama as “the worst president we’ve ever had,” as though they could do a better job than him. I’ll admit that I don’t like Barack Obama as President. Why? I don’t agree with his politics. That’s all. But at the same time, he is my president and he deserves my respect. I’m not saying that everyone has to like their political leaders and I’m not saying that we can’t have a healthy, honest discussion about which politicians we disagree with. I’m saying that we can disagree with the decisions our leaders make and still show them respect.

It seems out of fashion to show respect to those whose politics are diametrically opposed to our own, but let me remind us all: Jesus showed respect to the Roman authorities who would authorize his crucifixion. Paul told the Roman Christians to be submissive to the political authorities who might have been responsible for the cruel deaths of their spouses, siblings and children at some point or another. Even in the Old Testament, David refused to kill Saul even though Saul was literally hunting David down to kill him (see I Samuel 24). If that is the standard for treating those who hate us, why are we so disrespectful and even hateful to our political leaders when their only crime against us is not believing what we believe?

Just so I’m clear, I also acknowledge that there’s plenty of room for me to grow in this area of respect. I’ve been known to have rant-fests about politicians from time to time and I’m not always respectful to those I am disagreeing with. So…

How can we show respect to our political leaders? How can we honor our leaders who believe differently from us, even when we are stating why we disagree with them?

Proverbs: On the Wisdom of Parents

Listen, my son, to your father’s instruction
    and do not forsake your mother’s teaching.
They are a garland to grace your head
    and a chain to adorn your neck.

–Proverbs 1:8-9

After the initial statement of intention and the simple phrase, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,” the book of Proverbs opens with an instruction that can very simply be summed up as “Listen to the wisdom of your parents.” “Whoop-dee-do,” some might say. “If I wanted to know that, I would have just read the Ten Commandments.” But remember, we aren’t reading a law; we are reading wisdom literature.

The distinction is important. Some people read the book of Proverbs like it’s a law, so they read passages that say, “Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it.” (Proverbs 22:6) When they read that passage they think that that doesn’t make sense; if you’ve been trying to follow Jesus for long, surely you’ve met people who were raised to be faithful Christians only to fall away from their upbringing. Understand that Proverbs is not giving us spiritual laws to obey; it is merely giving us a formula that can be summed up in a New Testament passage where Paul says, “God will not be mocked; a person reaps what a person sows.” (Galatians 6:7) Proverbs is merely telling us that if we follow the laws of wisdom – if we will carefully sow good things – then we will reap good things.

So, when you are reading wisdom literature like Proverbs, it’s good to remember that the author is laying out principles that will work most of the time. That doesn’t make it a magic formula; there’s nothing magical about wisdom literature. Although it can vary from proverb to proverb, think of each proverb as stating a principle that works 80% of the time. Think of the 80/20 principle. So, taking Proverbs 22:6 above, it is essentially saying that the majority of the time children will respond to what the parents teach.

So, back to the wisdom of listening to your parents. What the book of Proverbs is stating right off the bat is, “You want wisdom? Listen to the wisdom of your parents.” Why should we? Because our parents have lived longer than we have, they have more life experience and (most importantly) they are more than happy to do everything they can to help you succeed to the best of their ability.

Parents, this is not the best way to get your childrens’ attention. Turn the throttle off…that’s better…someone going to go help him down?

We don’t like hearing this in today’s culture. In the United States in particular, it is assumed that starting in the teenage years, no one listens to what their parents say anymore. If anything, our culture has told parents to shut up and stop trying to teaching children when they become teenagers. Why? So children can get their morals and values from television, film and their peers without the “meddling” influence of the parents. So we have a dilemma where a lot of parents stop trying to raise their children when they become teenagers and most teenagers shut their parents out altogether.

In contrast, the book of Proverbs counsels us to listen to our parents. Once you get beyond the teenage years you don’t have to obey your parents, but that doesn’t mean you become disrespectful and stop listening to them. I’ve heard the phrase, “Once a parent, always a parent,” and that’s the truth. No matter how old you are, your parents (typically) still love you and want what is best for you.

Now, that doesn’t mean that all of the wisdom that your parents give you is the best advice. In fact, many people can give examples of parents who are a little crazy. What it does mean is that they are your parents and even if they are imperfect, there’s still a lot they can teach you about life even as you grow older, get married, have children, find new and better jobs and strike off on your own as an adult. Besides, in a world where most people are estranged from their parents as adults, it really is a relief to be able to take an adult problem to your parents and say, “Mother, Father, how can I deal with this problem? What do you suggest? What wisdom do you have for me?”

Where are you seeking wisdom from? Also, are there any particular proverbs that you would like to discuss on this blog?

Proverbs: What’s the Point?

Wisdom may be one of the most useful tools that anyone can grasp, and also one of the most neglected. I’ve sat through many sermons in my life and remarkably few of them have addressed the subject of wisdom. Of course, that may also be a product of living in the United State in the middle of what is often referred to as the Information Age of human civilization. In general, we are taught that when we have a problem that we can’t seem to solve, our problem is a lack of information. Although that is possible, what more often seems to be the case is that we lack wisdom. We aren’t practically applying the knowledge we already have. For instance, for the longest time I did not brush my teeth regularly. Why? It wasn’t because I didn’t know about tooth decay. It was because I was a fool. I thought that my mouth was immune to the laws of dental hygiene. Thankfully I corrected my foolishness after I realized that I too could get cavities.

In the comments to my previous post about Jesus and politics, a reader noted that Jesus always seemed to know what people were thinking even when their question didn’t seem to have any connection with their private thoughts. Was that a supernatural gift or was that the result of Jesus being, in his own advice to his disciples, “shrewd as a snake and harmless as a dove?” (Matthew 10:16) I don’t have the answer to that question; I personally think either answer has legitimacy, but the greater point is that Jesus told his disciples that they needed to be wise.

That being said, I would like to start making regular posts based out of the book of Proverbs in the Bible. I believe that the wisdom contained in Proverbs has the power to make your life better, even if you aren’t necessarily trying to follow Jesus. Much of what is contained in Proverbs is just common sense, which everyone can benefit from. In doing so, I hope to challenge myself to become wiser. In a world where I feel overloaded with information at times, I don’t always know what to do with that information. Perhaps in taking a look at Proverbs, we can all learn to live better lives and practically apply the truth we already know.