Definitions and Consequences

Words have definitions and ideas have consequences. When definitions of words are no longer static and dependable, the consequences to the culture can be unnerving, unfortunate, and detrimental to society.

Over the past 2 years, at the risk of their own health, doctors, nurses, and other medical personnel have cared for those suffering the effects of a dangerous virus. We don’t know their names, but we call them heroes; and, they are heroes.

Edward C. Byers is a retired Navy Seal who, at great risk to his own life, saved the life of a civilian hostage in Afghanistan along with several of his own team members. For this, he was awarded the Medal of Honor. Most have never heard his name. He’s called a hero, because he is a hero.

In India, in the midst of this dangerous pandemic, a Christian man named Sandeep knew of the desperate needs of people living in surrounding villages. Risking his own health, he traveled to a remote village where people hadn’t eaten in three days and provided them with food and other necessities. Sandeep was faithful to love his neighbors, no matter the cost, for the opportunity to meet their needs and tell them about Jesus. Very few among us know his name. Call Sandeep a hero, because he is a hero. 

Everyday, police, firemen, and EMTs charge straight into dangerous situations to save and protect the rest of us from harm. Rightly, they are called heroes.

In 1st Century AD, a innocent man suffered the most violent form of execution ever devised by mankind in order to satisfy the wrath of God and keep us from paying for our own wickedness. As we read in Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth, “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him,” (2 Corinthians 5:21, NASB95). Those of us who know Him call Him Lord. He’s our hero.

A hero is someone who performs acts of tremendous bravery in disregard for their own safety or well-being. Most often their names do not appear in news stories. We don’t fawn over them while their drama unfolds on TV, or listen to talking heads gush over them.

The big story coming from the Tokyo Olympics this week, is about Simone Biles–perhaps the greatest gymnast in history. She stepped out of competition due to a mental condition called, the “twisties”. Other gymnasts will tell you the condition is very real and very dangerous. Later, she was able to make adjustments and return to competition, winning the bronze medal on the balance beam. We all know her name. People call her a hero. Is she?

Simone Biles is a world-class athlete competing on the world stage. She’s garnering well-deserved praise from all corners for her accomplishments. Millions have enjoyed watching her do what she does, and she’s arguably better than anyone else in the world at it. She’ll return home to parades in her honor. She’ll go on Oprah telling her story to adoring fans. Is she a hero? Whose life did she save at great risk to her own? When we lower the bar of heroism the word no longer means anything.

Words have definitions and ideas have consequences.

2 Corinthians 4:16-18 – The Minor Pains of Life

“Therefore, we do not lose heart, but though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day. For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison, while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal,” (2 Corinthians 4:16–18).

I remember, as a young man, watching TV with my grandmother.  I remember a certain commercial that would upset her whenever it came on. It was advertising a particular pain medication that claimed to relieve the minor pains of arthritis.  She would get so angry at the phrase “minor pains of arthritis.”  I would suggest that the drug likely only affected the arthritis pains that were minor.  She would say, “There’s no such thing!”.

Life’s afflictions never seem minor when we are in the midst of them.  They absorb our attention, takeover our thoughts, and easily become the only things that matter.  But here, Paul is suggesting that we view our various trials with an eternal perspective.  He is saying that, because God’s grace abounds—what “therefore” is there for—we should not allow our trials, which are temporal, to take us captive to the pain and cause us to lose our joy over the reality of eternal glory in Christ.  Paul is teaching us that the temporary pains of afflictions and trials are actually serving an eternal, divine purpose by producing in us a greater anticipation for this eternal glory.  The greater the pain, the greater the anticipation. 

Pain and affliction are real, but when we recognize that these various trials are temporary and we place our focus on eternity with Christ, we truly experience what it means to abide in Him and live fruitful lives in the midst of this life’s troubles, (John 15:4). By focusing on eternity we can truly know the fullness of joy in Christ (Psalm 16:11).

Psalm 79:9 “Help us, O God…”

“Help us, O God of our salvation, for the glory of Your name; and deliver us and forgive our sins for Your name’s sake.”

So often in the psalms of lament, we see the psalmist cry for deliverance from the circumstances causing his lamentation. This particular psalm is also an imprecatory prayer in that he calls on God to pour out His wrath on those kingdoms who do no know Him, (Psalm 79:6). Here, as we see in most of these types of psalms, the motivation for the psalmist’s plea is God’s glory. He is calling for God to avenge His holy name.

This should give us pause for a few reasons. First, we must recognize that God’s name is synonymous with His person. In Exodus 3 when Moses inquired of God His name, God responded with “I AM WHO I AM,” (Exodus 3:14). God is the absolute ultimate being, and His name is not a simple moniker. It is, in essence and in reality, who He is. God’s ancient people understood this clearly and forbid His name to be uttered. Jesus also knew this to be true, a fact that gives such gravity to Christ’s words when He said, “…before Abraham was, I AM,” (John 8:58). There, Jesus is saying, just as to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.”  Jesus Christ is, in fullness, God.

Second, we need to understand that God’s care for us is not simply because He’s nice, and we’re so lovable and deserving of good treatment. God is preserving for Himself, “…a people of His own possession,” that we would “…proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called (us) out of darkness into His maervelous light,” (1 Peter 2:9). In short, He has saved us and continues to preserve us for Himself—for His own glory.

Third, we need to feel the full weight of the position this puts us in as His people. We are His, living among people that will look to us to model Christ in a world that grows increasingly more hostile to Him. We cannot claim the salvation of Christ while rejecting the lordship of Christ. He is, to us, both or neither.  Our purpose and primary mission is to present Christ to a broken and fallen world regardless of the circumstances we find ourselves in. We are to faithfully serve Him, and He will take care of the rest.

While it is right for us to pray for God’s care and provision, we must remember that God is absolutely sovereign and He takes His own glory seriously. Likewise, so should we. When we pray for Him to provide for our needs, right our wrongs, and fix our circumstances, is it His name that is supreme in our minds? Or do we think that because we have taken the time to pray that we somehow deserve His favor? We must remember that we are simply clay in the Master Potter’s hand. Pray that what He makes of us will bring Him glory.

Psalm 77 – Remember God

This psalm consists of four stanzas, each separated by the Hebrew word Selah. In the first two, Asaph is focused on the trials and tribulations of the Hebrew people. Here he asks if God has turned away from His people forever. In the third stanza his focus moves from the troubles around him to the Lord and all that God has done for his children. The final stanza, he offers praise to God for His power, sovereignty, and glory.

In this song Asaph is a troubled soul. While it’s unclear what is specifically happening to cause his grief, it is clear that his concerns are not only for himself, but also for the nation. It’s not that he isn’t mindful of God’s graciousness to Israel, it’s just that remembering doesn’t lift the cloud over him.

It can be the same for us, can’t it? In the midst of a storm, we remind ourselves of the love and power of God, but that doesn’t always make us feel better because it doesn’t make the storm go away. The problem may be that our perspective needs to change. Just as in the picture, the tornado and the rainbow can seemingly converge at the same spot–right where we are.

Psalm 77:10 is where Asaph’s perspective changes. “Then I said, “It is my grief, That the right hand of the Most High has changed.” He remembers who God is and what He has done. Suddenly his lamentations turn to praise. The trial has not abated for him, just his grief.

God does not promise that life will be easy, or that He will always take away our trials. But, He has promised that He will never leave us or forsake us. He may not always calm the storm, but He will give us all we need to weather it.

“Sometimes He holds us close, and lets the wind and waves go wild; Sometimes He calms the storm and other times He calms His child.” –Kevin Stokes and Tony Wood

Psalm 76 – God whom we fear

Psalm 76 paints a picture of a fearsome God. That God is to be feared is all through Scripture, both Old and New Testaments, and I wonder if we are mindful of what it means to “fear the Lord”. We gather every Sunday morning and we sing songs praising Him for His love, His mercy, and His tenderness; but, how many songs do we sing praising Him for His fearsomeness?

We fear God for what He can do. We fear Him for what He has done. And, we fear Him for what He’s promised to do. For the unbeliever, this fear brings about denial and eventually trembling. For His children, fear of the Lord brings obedience and praise.

God’s fearsomeness is on display in His power, and His willingnees to use it. He demostrates His power in defense of His people. He uses His great power to bring about His intended ends. As we praise Him for His love, His mercy, and His tenderness, may we never forget that He is also to be feared.

Psalm 75

When studying a psalm, there are three questions I like to ask. What does it tell me about God? What does this psalm reveal about me? And, how am I to respond? Psalm 75 reminds me that, in my flesh, I am a prideful, selfish creature with an insatiable need to blow my own horn. More importantly, Psalm 75 speaks of God as the ultimate, perfect, absolute judge over all His creation—who both exalts the righteous and condemns the wicked. And, my response, in light of who I am in Christ, is praise.

In this song we see attributes of God that are, at the same time, encouraging and frightening. We see His mercy and His justice. We see His compassion and His judgment. We see His transcendence and His immanence. Psalm 75 reminds us that God condemns the wicked and rewards the righteous.

That God sits in judgment over creation is seen throughout Scripture. This is a given. But there are things we must understand if we are to have a useful perspective on this. First, we must understand His judgment is perfect. He needs no witnesses, He sees everything. Phrases like “beyond a reasonable doubt” and “to a moral certainty” do not apply to the Most High God, who knows and sees all things; who sees me as I truly am.

But, this raises the question in my mind, who could, in this wicked and fallen world, attach himself to the camp of the righteous? Can anyone look in the mirror and with confidence say, “Doing good! Keep it up!” Certainly Paul, in the midst of penning his great letter to the Roman church, didn’t presume as much. After proclaiming his own struggle with the flesh, he cries out, “Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death?” (Romans 7:24). Then, of course, he immediately answers his own question, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”

We who belong to Jesus must always be mindful that, without Christ, we are no better off before a holy God than the worst of man walking the earth. However, in Christ, the Judge is also our advocate. He is our defense. He is our righteousness. The blessed truth is that, in His perfect judgment, He doesn’t overlook or ignore our wickedness. But rather, He sees us for the new creatures we are, (2 Corinthians 5:17). God sees Christ in us, (Galatians 2:20).

“I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me.”

Hope and Praise

Today, I find myself drawn back to a psalm that has meant so much to me over the years. We tend to do that with the psalms, don’t we? Because they cover the full spectrum of human emotion and experience, we are able to navigate through and around them as our hearts, circumstances, and temperament direct us. Psalm 42 has become, for me, a place of refuge. Not because it’s particularly joyful or uplifting. It isn’t.  Psalm 42, as well as 43, is a song of despair and depression meant for our instruction. Interestingly, it doesn’t teach us how to get out of depression, but rather, it teaches us how to respond while in it.

So, what is in this psalm of despair that I find encouraging?  Very much, actually, but more than anything else, there’s a twice repeated phrase in 42 and again in 43 that provides, not so much an cure for despair, but a path to endure it.

Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation,” (Psalm 42:5, ESV).

This small phrase in the last half of verses 5 and 11 give us an answer to our desperate state in which we can so often find ourselves.  Our depression can either be the result of known circumstances and trials; or it can be, as for this psalmist, of some hidden cause or reason.  Within this phrase, we have a three-fold response to our down-trodden condition–and a response to it is better than a reason for it.

Hope in God

Our Creator made us for the purpose of glorifying and enjoying Him. He made us, by His own pleasure, to be drawn into the joy of His presence; and outside of His presence is where true despair resides. The Lord God must have exclusive claim on our hope. Our hope, is that we will again know the joy of His presence.

There are times in a believer’s life when God “feels” far off and unreachable.  In those times, if we are honest, we find that it is not God who has moved away from us, but rather, we have moved away from Him.

…again praise Him

Regarding the phrase, “…I shall again praise Him,” I’ve heard it said that the psalmist is saying something to the effect of, “I cannot praise you now, but I know someday I will.” I know this has been expressed by men of much higher exegetical abilities and training than I, but I don’t think that is what the psalmist is expressing, nor do I think it’s what should be our takeaway from this most important phrase.

First, the Hebrew word for again can also be translated yet or still. Even in English again could easily be interpreted to mean now as in the past. This takes the verse from being something to look forward to in the future, to being an answer for the present.

Perhaps the most obvious indication that he is not referring to some future ability to praise God, is the praise that he offers within the psalm itself. In verse 2, he calls God “the living God”; in verse 5 he refers to His acts of salvation; he calls Him “the God of my Life,” and “God, my Rock.”  Clearly, in the midst of his despair, the writer continues to offer praise to his Lord and Creator, just as we should.

His presence–my salvation

Translations may vary, and one can appreciate the fact that interpreting an ancient text can be a daunting task.  That being said, it seems abundantly clear that the end of verse 5 and the end of verse 11 tells us that the key to enduring the despair of life in this fallen world is the saving presence of Almighty God. The nearness of God is my salvation in times of personal darkness and depression.

Psalm 42 teaches us how to respond to the inevitable times of spiritual depression when God feels far away.  So much of life is out of our control and it is not unusual for life’s circumstances to seem too heavy to bear.  We don’t choose despair, but we must choose to hope in God.  We must choose to praise Him.  Psalm 42 teaches us, more than anything else, that God is worthy to be praised–no matter what.

He was Hated First…

Sri Lanka graves

This past weekend, most of Christendom celebrated the most important event in world history, the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.  Needless to say, our celebration was dampened by the news coming out of Sri Lanka and the horrific murder of nearly 300 Christians. For some time, studies have shown that Christians are the most persecuted religious group in the world.  It has been said, and it seems to be true that Christians are the only group it is entirely acceptable to hate.  This should not come as a surprise to us.

If the world hates you, you know that it has hated Me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, because of this the world hates you” (John 15:18–19)

To belong to Christ is to be taken out of the world and made separate. We are then, at odds with the world and its trappings. Being free from these things, places us in a position to be objects of the world’s scorn. This should not be a surprise to us, for Jesus said it would be this way. Those who persecute us do so because they don’t know Christ or the one who sent Him (John 15:21). This should arouse our pity, not our wrath.

Being in Christ means that we see the world without the veneer of Satan’s lies. We see the world for what it is–a dark, sinful place. For those who don’t know Christ, there are just two possible responses to the truth of Christ. They either assimilate or repudiate. Those who assimilate to the world’s depravity, either accept it as reality and conform their own worldview to the godlessness around them, and live according to it.

But also, throughout history there have been those individuals outside of Christ who have seen it too. Poets, painters, and philosophers who have looked at the world and found it cold and cruel. In their desperation, many went mad. Without hope, many have taken their own lives.

When we look into the eyes of a Christ hater, do we see an enemy, or do we see someone made in the image of God but lost in the evil that so saturates the world around them? Do we see someone without real hope?

Too often we forget who our true enemy is. We tend to think it’s someone who doesn’t think the way we think, or worship the way we worship. Or, we think our enemy is the person so adamantly hostile to the truth that their anger is volcanic. We must remember that “Our struggle is not against flesh and blood; but against the rulers, the powers, the world forces of this darkness; against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places.”

It is appropriate and right to mourn the deaths in Sri Lanka as the horrible tragedy that they are.  But, it is also important to remember that those martyrs of the faith who died in Christ are now free.  Those who perpetrated this heinous act are not.

Psalm 42 – A Song of the Sons of a Rebel

Korah's_deathMost of us, when reading the Psalms, glance over the titles that often appear in the text; paying little attention to them unless they offer contextual insight into the psalm itself. Many may not even know that the titles are actually part of the inspired text. Here in the title of Psalm 42 we see that it was written to be sung by the temple choir, and that it is “A Maskil of the sons of Korah.”  We’re not sure what a Maskil is precisely.  It’s possible that it is a song intended to teach truth.  If that’s true, it’s important for us to read and learn.

The name Korah, for those who have studied the Old Testament, is synonymous with rebellion and judgment. We read about Korah’s rebellion in Numbers 16:1-40. Korah, Dathan, and Abiram challenged the leadership of Moses and Aaron. For their sin, fire from God consumed them and all those who followed them into their rebellious act. Then, ‎”the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up, and their households, and all the men who belonged to Korah with their possessions,” (Numbers 16:32).

But that isn’t the end of the tale. For the story of Korah is not only one of rebellion and judgment. It’s also a story of redemption, and God’s incredible, amazing grace. Later, we read in Numbers 26 where Moses records the results of a census taken. In it he comes to mention Dathan and Abiram, noting that these were the ones who were consumed along with Korah as a result of their rebellion. Then, in Numbers 26:11, there appears a short statement that “the sons of Korah, however, did not die.”

The significance of that little sentence can easily be past over without notice. But, it becomes significant if we consider it in light of the title of Psalm 42. In that, we see that God took the spared offspring of a rebellious man, and redeemed them, raising his descendents to an elevated position of leadership in temple worship.

For those who believe that the God of the Old Testament is a God of judgment, and the God of the New Testament is a God of grace, they need to look no further than this song of the sons of Korah to see that God is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow; and He is eternally gracious.

‎“For the LORD is good; His lovingkindness is everlasting And His faithfulness to all generations.” (Psalm 100:5, NASB95)

Psalm 74 – How long, O God?

Can there be a more desperate state than to think that the creator of all that exists, the singular infinite power, has cast you aside? To feel as though God has rejected you?  I can think of nothing more desperate than to see myself forgotten by God.  Psalm 74 informs us how to respond when those thoughts overtake us, and we find ourselves full of despair—feeling useless.

I struggle with the 74th Psalm; particularly, with phrases such as “…why have you rejected us forever?” or, “remember your congregation which you have purchased”.  Does God reject His own?  Does God “need” us to remind Him of His promises? Does God forget?  These notions seem to challenge what we know to be God’s divine attributes, and what we see as absolute Biblical certainties.  Certainly, the psalmist cannot be affirming these ideas, but there is no question that he is struggling with feelings of abandonment by God, and those feelings can be consuming.

In this prayer, I see four stages that the psalmist goes through in his despair.  In the first three verses, he expresses to God his feelings of abandonment—feeling that God has forgotten him.  He feels that God has forgotten His promises to His people.  Even though we know that God has promised never to leave us or forsake us (Matt. 28:20, John 14:16, Heb. 13:5), there are times in our lives when we don’t feel the closeness of God.  There are times when it seems like our prayers bounce off the ceiling right back down on us, never to find the ear of our Creator.  I have actually prayed, “Dear God, I don’t know what to say and I don’t feel like you’re listening… amen.”  I’m not proud of it, but I’ve said it.

In the second stage, vs. 4-10, Asaph recounts the circumstances God’s people find themselves in. Their enemies have taken over the sacred meetings of God’s people and arrogantly “roared” in defiance of God.  They have burned the sanctuary to the ground, and there is no one to speak for the Lord (v.9) to tell them when this time of tribulation will end.  So, the psalmist asks again, “How long, O God?”.  Certainly, God doesn’t need me to tell Him what’s going on.  He knows better than I.  But, honestly and humbly taking stock of my troubles helps me to acknowledge that He is my only hope for deliverance.

The third stage is praise (vs. 12-17), and this is also one I tend to miss in my prayers.  It’s not that I don’t tell God how great, how powerful, and how marvelous He is.  But, far too often, those are just words I’m obliged to say.  The fact is, praise is hard when life is at its low points and God feels far away.  The importance of Asaph’s praise is that it not only ascribes God’s worth, but it also serves to remind Asaph who he’s talking to.  It renews his awe, and strengthens his faith.  It prepares his heart for the fourth phase of the prayer.  He knows that His Lord and Savior can, and will, deliver and care for His chosen people.

In the fourth and final phase, Asaph tells God precisely what he desires Him to do.  With confidence and faith, he petitions God to remember His people and avenge His holy name.  Asaph’s request is not only for the oppressed nation, but also for God’s glory.  Again, God doesn’t need our insight, our wisdom, or our perspective on what needs to be done.  Nor does he need our permission to do what He has promised.  The need, rather, is ours.  We need to remind ourselves of what is true, what is honorable, what is righteous, pure, and so on (Phil. 4:8).  It is then that “…the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard [our] hearts and minds in Christ Jesus,” (Phil. 4:7).

Something that needs to be noted is that when the psalm ends, there’s no indication that the trials are soon to be over.  There’s no indication that Asaph “feels” any better about the circumstances he and the nation are in.  The fact is, feelings can deceive us, and distract us from what is true about God’s character.  Let’s not forget that God wants the best for us, and only He knows exactly what that is.  He will always bring about His perfect will, and even though His will may be hard, He is always a good Father who hears and cares for His children.

Sometimes He calms the storm with a whispered “Peace, be still,”                                     He can settle any sea but it doesn’t mean He will.                                                Sometimes He holds us close and lets the wind and rain go wild,                  Sometimes He calms the storm and other times He calms His child.

“Sometimes He Calms the Storm” by Kevin Stokes & Tony Wood,
©1995 Universal Music – Brentwood Benson Publishing Universal Music – Brentwood Benson Songs