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Meaningless Effort

The days in which we now live go in circles, don’t they? Whirling tornadoes of activity. A person labors for a good life. People pour themselves into buying a home, raising children, belonging to groups of good friends, supporting a better community, doing all sorts of positive things. Yet all their labor seems to amount to well-meant but meaningless effort. It’s undone in an instant.

Look at the emptiness all around us. Every morning the news tells us about someone who was so desperate she robbed a bank or he raped a woman. The offspring from not only the ghetto shoot each other over nothing but also those of the middle class home shoot schoolmates. The world isn’t going to hell in a hand basket. It’s already there! A parent’s hope and dream for a child is destroyed, by the child’s own action, or someone else’s infantile deed.

Look at the emptiness. The excitement of so-called reality shows is artificial, unreal, yet they are popular evening viewing. People who seek meaningful relationships keep looking for them in one bar after another, and seldom find their “soulmate.” A lay-off at work is followed by arguments over money at home until home life is under-appreciated. Politicians spout the same causes as in the last election without the admission that nothing was done to improve on the problems, except to make them worse. The whirling circles of life spin the mind and heart until we are disoriented.

How can human effort become meaningful?

Write a self-improvement book. Develop labor saving products. Enter medical school. Clean up university locker rooms. On and on, we could list positive, life-affirming actions that people take. I admit that doing good works will improve the world. Something edifying always builds instead of tears down. Yet these actions don’t change much, don’t make permanent improvements in the world as a whole. A little good is better than no good, I suppose.

But how can human effort become meaningful for all time?

Only by improving the human being. And this takes a divine hand together with a surrendered heart. God must act to remake the human being, and the human being must cooperate through surrender. This happens every day. People finally realize all their efforts are meaningless, because they are mis-directed. So they give up in a positive sense. They give up to the Lord. They surrender their souls to Jesus Christ, whose Spirit has been prodding them for years to drop their guard and dare to believe. When they surrender, God is able to put new meaning where emptiness used to be. He is able to re-create the surrendered heart and make it consistently good. The divine effort and human effort then combine to remake the world. Even this is not a complete re-manufacturing of a broken world into a good one. There has to be an end made of the vain world, and this God alone can do and plans to do. For the moment, those who find Christ also find an abundant life that’s worth the effort.

 

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Posted by on January 23, 2012 in FaithLife

 

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Prayer

Oswald Chambers explained prayer by saying, “We are based on the platform of Reality in prayer by the Atonement of our Lord Jesus Christ. It is not our earnestness that brings us into touch with God, nor our devotedness, nor our times of prayer, but our Lord Jesus Christ’s vitalizing death; and our times of prayer are evidences of reaction on the reality of Redemption, so we have confidence and boldness of access into the holiest. What an unspeakable joy it is to know that we each have the right of approach to God in confidence…”

 
 

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Is God Ever Mean?

Now this is a loaded question: Is God ever mean? People, whether Christians or not, don’t like hearing that God might be hard to get along with. They want the divine to be manageable. They like a God who obeys the laws as they understand them, who doesn’t get frustrated or angry. Unfortunately for such people, God’s own revelation of himself is different. God can appear to be very mean to us humans who become subject to his wrath, even if we live according to all the rules.

I’m not speaking of his wrath focused on people who don’t choose to follow Jesus Christ. I’m thinking of how mean God can seem to those who do choose God’s Son as Savior and Lord. When adversity comes upon them, Christians sometimes ask, “Why me, Lord?” After all, if we have faith in Jesus Christ, we’re redeemed people. So where is the power and gift of redemption when fatal illness comes over you or unemployment overwhelms? Adversity seems to fly in the face of promises that life goes better with Jesus in it.

Yet God promises to be mean to his rescued people if they should sin. To the Israelites of Moses’ time, he declared,“Because you did not serve the Lord your God joyfully and gladly in the time of prosperity, therefore in hunger and thirst, in nakedness and dire poverty, you will serve the enemies the Lord sends against you. He will put an iron yoke on your neck until he has destroyed you” (Dt. 12:47-48, NIV). There is no way around it: God is mean to his people when they need it. If they sin, he will punish them.

“Wait a minute!” you say. “That was the Old Testament. God isn’t like that now. Saved in Christ now, our sins are all forgiven. Grace is ours always.”

Do you really believe that it makes no difference how you live after coming to faith in Christ? Does your conduct not matter? Can you do anything you want? I doubt it. Our activities must line up with God’s grace in Christ. If Jesus has redeemed us, we have to live as redeemed people. When we don’t, God is good and right to be mean toward us. He can send—actively send—trouble our way.

The adversity you experience may be the simple result of living as a faithful Christian in a world that wants nothing to do with godliness. You’ll have to grin and bear such trouble. Yet it is possible that some of your adversity is God’s deliberate action toward you which is aimed at dealing with a new or recurrent sin in your life. You should not grin and bear this trouble. You should examine it and learn if you have transgressed. You ought to admit whatever sin brought this trouble from God. Indeed, the only way out of the trouble, could be confession and repentance.

The apostle Paul taught this clearly in Romans 2:9-11, when he wrote, “There will be trouble and distress for every human being who does evil: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile; but glory, honor and peace for everyone who does good: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. For God does not show favoritism” (NIV). Adversity comes to everyone, to the Jew first, that is, to those who are chosen and blessed, to Christians. Hard times are not only for faithless people. The faithless get what they deserve, but the believer who sins gets what he needs, help toward repentance.

Will God not judge the actions of those whom he loves and calls according to his purpose? I believe he will. I believe he does.

 
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Posted by on November 27, 2011 in FaithLife

 

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Have you read Jonah lately?

Jonah 1:1-4:11

The prophet Jonah got me into trouble once. I preached a series of sermons on his prophecy, and I made the “mistake” of referring to the whale as a big fish. But I was simply quoting the Bible translation we used in the pews. A woman in the church became angry with me for changing the Bible. She was in charge of VBS that year, and we covered the story of Jonah and the whale. As an award to the teachers, which she made sure I received, she gave out pins in the shape of a whale.

But Jonah’s message is so much more than a debate over what kind of aquatic animal swallowed him. The prophet was a Galilean, same as Jesus, and he tried to run from his call as a prophet by taking a ship to Tarshish, Spain, all the way across the Mediterranean Sea. This guy wanted to get away from the Lord, as far as he could! But he succeeded in running smack into God, and he had face up to his divinely given responsibility. He was supposed to preach repentance and salvation to the Ninevites, archenemies of his nation.

Jonah is about the unlimited grace of God. He cares for all humanity, and reaches out to every one of us all the time. The Lord wants to redeem us from our own bad behavior and morally corrupt nature. The mercy of God is far-reaching and encompasses even the people we would exclude.

This is not the ordinary way of seeing the Old Testament. Many people think the Old Testament God is a beast, eager to chew on anyone who strays from a narrow path. But the Lord is a God of grace in the Old Testament just as he is in the New. The prophecy of Jonah revealed this about God, as do other writers from the first two-thirds of the Bible. God is merciful. He is merciful to righteous and unrighteous.

He is not, however, nothing but mercy. The threat of judgment is firm in Jonah’s prophecy. If the Ninevites didn’t repent, they’d come under his wrath. Jonah’s own life was an illustration of the truth, too. He could not escape the Lord’s anger. He went into the water and the belly of the huge fish. His “leafy plant” was chewed up by a worm, also a punishment, although it was meant to lead Jonah to discover God’s compassion. The Old Testament God is not what people expect. He’s so much more.

Jonah’s character was a mixture of muscle and frailty. He walked in faith, and he vacillated in commitment. He was both a godly man and obstinate. He could be obedient to the Lord, though it might take a reprimand from God to get him to behave. He was childish and childlike. Jonah was a lot like me, and you, and many people.

Jesus said that the only sign people would have is the sign of Jonah. Matthew explained that as a reference to the resurrection, because Jonah was in the fish’s belly three days (see Mt. 12:39-42). But Luke took a different approach. He pointed out that it was the prophet’s preaching and the Ninevites’ repentance which is the sign. He didn’t hint at the resurrection. Perhaps the sign Jesus referred to was the amendment of life and attitude that comes when people who hear the gospel preached also repent.

It seems to me that’s what Jonah learned and taught.

 
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Posted by on November 26, 2011 in Behind the Bible...

 

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Beyond Human Expectations

The king asked, “Is there no one still alive from the house of Saul to whom I can show God’s kindness?”

Ziba answered the king, “There is still a son of Jonathan; he is lame in both feet.”

2 Samuel 9:3 (NIV)

 

King David’s throne had been made secure after the deaths of Saul and Jonathan, and he wanted to do an extraordinary thing. He wanted to show kindness toward his former opponent’s family. It was expected that he would slaughter those who might be rivals for the rule of the nation. Such was the way of ancient kings in the Middle East. But David wanted to show God’s sort of kindness in this situation.

When Ziba told him of Jonathan’s son, Mephibosheth, who was therefore King Saul’s grandson, David decided to restore the grandfather’s property to him, including the peasants who would work the land. He also made Mephibosheth a “friend of the king,” which meant he would be treated as an honored courtier in David’s household and even take his meals at the king’s table. This was done, despite the fact that he was lame in both feet because of a fall while he was fleeing from a Philistine attack when he was five years old. David received double credit for kindness because he helped his enemy’s descendent and because he was generous to someone who was impaired.

Although David later stripped half of his grandfather’s property away from Mephibosheth, he is not faulted for unkindness, because he was duped by the same Ziba who introduced him to Jonathan’s surviving son. Still later, when Saul’s sons were slaughtered to offer an olive branch to the Gibeonites, David kept Mephibosheth safe. David was a harsh warrior, but he was also capable of great kindness and loyalty.

As I think about the nature of kind behavior, I see that it is possible for a person who is cruel in some circumstances to be kind in different ones. In other words, kindness and cruelty have contexts; they can be practiced in measurements that are required by the people, places, and politics involved. Desperate times demand desperate procedures. Or do they? Isn’t it self-justifying to say that this circumstance allows me to be cruel or rude or nasty? Why can’t I be kind in a situation that others would use to justify ruthless or spiteful actions?

To do unto others as you would have them do unto you—Jesus Christ’s measurement of human action—demands kindness from me even when others would counsel a sterner conduct. Although a particular context may allow cruel behavior, it doesn’t rule out kindness, sympathy, and gentleness. What would happen if I chose not to retaliate evil with evil? Why can’t I press kindness beyond the limits of human expectation?

 
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Posted by on October 24, 2011 in Behind the Bible...

 

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