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 

 

A Christmas Devotion for Easter

Yesterday was Easter Sunday and I trust everyone had a wonderful time of celebrating the most momentous event in world history.  As my thoughts and meditations were focused on the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus, I recalled something that occurred to me last Christmas.  Certainly, I’m not the first to notice that these two holidays and what they celebrate are inextricably linked; but while listening to a Christmas sermon this past December, something hit me that I’d never seen before.

Much of what we see and hear at Christmas has been adopted, and therefore corrupted, by a world that’s growing increasingly bitter to the full message of Jesus Christ.  It’s not unusual, during the Christmas season, to see banners and billboards with phrases like “Joy To The World,” and “Peace on Earth.”  No doubt, a world that is otherwise hostile to the message and purpose of Jesus Christ, can easily embrace calls for peace on earth. But the problem with that is the angels aren’t calling for peace on earth, they are announcing it.

The phrase, “Peace on Earth” comes from Luke 2:14, where we find the multitude of the heavenly hosts saying, “Glory to God in the Highest. Peace on earth, good will toward men.”  This, of course, is how the King James says it, but perhaps a better translation, may be found in the NASB. It reads, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace among men with whom He is pleased.”  Considering this proclamation, there are two questions we should ask.  What is the nature of this peace?  And, for whom is this peace intended?

Easter provides the answer to these questions, especially as explained by the apostle Paul in his letter to the Christians in Rome.  Romans 4:25 says, “He [Jesus] was delivered over because of our transgressions, and He was raised because of our justification.”  This tells us that this child, proclaimed and celebrated by the angels, was betrayed and nailed to the cross as payment for our sins; and, He was triumphantly raised from the dead as proof positive that God had accepted this sacrifice. This was God’s intention from the beginning.  His Son would atone for the sins of those who would then stand before Him justified. But Paul doesn’t stop there. Continuing into chapter 5, he goes on:

“Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom also we have d obtained our introduction by faith into this grace in which we stand; and we exult in hope of the glory of God,” (Romans 5:1–2, NASB).

The peace that the angels announced on that starry night is not peace among neighbors or nations.  Nor is it peace among social and political rivals.  It is peace with God bought and paid for by the blood of the baby in the manger. Peace that was broken by the tragedy of sin.  This peace brings eternal joy.  And those, who by Christ’s sacrifice, stand justified before God share in this deep and satisfying joy.  However, there are many who willfully reject the saving work of Christ; and for them, the temporal joy of presents, bunnies and baskets represents the only joy these holidays can possibly bring.

Christ’s resurrection is cause for celebration 365 days a year!  As we celebrate let’s not be shy about telling the full story of Christ to those for whom this life stands to be the best life they will ever know.

Romans 8:28 – Does God have a plan for me?

Rom_8-28_v6_Wreath_WebDoes God have a specific plan for me? This is a question that has been weighing heavily upon me recently.  I have a good friend who is convinced that God does not invest Himself in the day to day events of our lives; but rather, His expectation is that we will be obedient to His word, share the gospel, and remain faithful through life’s many ups and downs.

Recently, I came across an article written by someone I respect addressing this very question. Citing Romans 8:28, the article was affirming that God does, in fact, have a definite plan for my life.  Unfortunately, I found the author’s biblical support rather unsatisfying.  Not that he said anything particularly wrong, he just didn’t answer what was troubling me.  I want to know if God is bringing about His will for me in this life, or am I simply careening from one trial to another, trying to be obedient and persevering until my earthly body wears out.

Romans 8:28 is a verse we all know. However, it has been so often taken out of context and used, with good and kind intentions, to tell us that this particular rainstorm is going to abate and we will soon be basking in the glorious sunshine of unforeseen blessing. Since tribulations are a promised element of the Christian life, most of us have been quoted this verse at one time or another.  Many of us have even used it in this way.  But what does this verse really tell us?

And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose,” (Romans 8:28, NASB95).

Is this a “Cheer up, it’ll all be ok” kind of verse? Not really.  Should this encourage us?  Yes, absolutely.  In looking at this passage of Scripture the first thing we should recognize is that God is absolutely sovereign.  “God causes all things…” tells us that He has the power and authority to harness everything in our lives and bring them harmoniously into His perfect will and purpose.

The second thing we see is that this is meant for a specific people. The “good” that God intends is for those who love Him and are called according to His purpose.  So, what is the “good” that Paul is talking about?  What does it mean to be “called according to His purpose”?  Thankfully, we don’t have to look very far.  He answers this question in verse 29.

For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brethren…,” (Romans 8:29, NASB95).

Here, we see that God foreknew and predestined who would love Him and be called by Him. And, the “good” that He works “all things together for” is their conformity to Christlikeness.  Our conformity to Christ is the purpose which we, the redeemed, are called.  In addition, verse 30 reminds us that His ultimate plan for us is our own glorification.  Glorification made possible by Christ Himself.

and these whom He predestined, He also called; and these whom He called, He also justified; and these whom He justified, He also glorified,” (Romans 8:30, NASB95).

It turns out that it will all be ok.

So, does God have a plan for our lives? In a word, yes.  His plan is that we, as those called by Him, will be conformed to the image of His Son, and He will use “all things”—failure, success, sickness, pain, and even our own sin, to bring about this sanctifying work. This is His plan.  Is it yours?

Ancient Words

Years ago, one Sunday evening our humble and beloved pastor was preaching a sermon, the content of which I don’t recall. In the midst of it he professed to us his ever-growing, never dying love for God’s word. He was a man of the Bible. We all knew this to be true. He was not a famous preacher, nor was he envious of those who were. His passion was simply bringing God’s word to those God had entrusted to him as their shepherd. In explaining the depth of his love for Scripture he said, “I believe every word in this book. I believe it, cover to cover. I even believe the covers.” That was how he spoke of his devotion to the Bible. Thankfully, I was not tempted to engage in a debate over the divine inspiration of the covers, but I understood his point and it had an impact on me.

I’m typing this on an electronic device that contains within its memory more versions of Scripture than I will ever read. I can’t even guess how many print versions of the Bible I have in my home. Those of us in the English-speaking world have what bible scholars call “an embarrassment of riches” regarding good translations of the inspired text. And the inescapable truth is countless martyrs paid the ultimate price in blood for this to be so. As we approach the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, it’s important that we remind ourselves of the price that was paid in order for us to hold this precious truth in our hands. May we never take it for granted.

Martyr’s blood stains each page
They have died for this faith
Hear them cry through the years
Heed these words and hold them dear

Ancient words ever true
Changing me changing you
We have come with open hearts
O let the ancient words impart

Ancient Words, Lynn DeShazo, 2001 Integrity’s Hosanna! Music

Romans 12:1-2 …by the mercies of God

Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Romans 12:1–2, NASB95)

After taking eleven chapters to comprehensively explain the full gospel, the great missionary now “urges” us to respond.  He urges a response, not for the purpose of salvation, but rather because of salvation.  Referring to us as “brothers and sisters,” he calls to worship by the mercies of God. By God’s great mercies we are to offer ourselves, living, holy, and acceptable on the alter of service to the one who grants us mercy.  For it is by God’s mercy that we have a life to offer. It’s by God’s mercy that we are made holy.  And, it’s by God’s mercy that our lives can possibly be found acceptable.

God created us for worship, He compels us to worship and He enables us to worship.  He transforms our filthy rags of worship into something pleasing to Himself.   And, He does all this by the wonderful blessings of His tender mercies.

Psalm 73 – Right thinking is true thinking

Whom have I in heaven but You? And besides You, I desire nothing on earth. My flesh and my heart may fail, But God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. Psalm 73:25-26

This is my third posting on Psalm 73.  Previously, we’ve seen that this Psalm is a song of repentance.  Asaph, the psalmist, is repenting from wrong thinking–wrong thinking about God, wrong thinking about himself, and wrong thinking about the world around him.  Upon his repentance, Asaph discovers the blessings of right thinking.  He sees that God has always been and will always be his source of wisdom, strength, and life itself.

In Psalm 73 we see the contrast between worldly perspectives and Godward thinking. Thinking rightly about God brings us back to what is true.  It calls to mind what we have as those called out of darkness, into His marvelous light, (1 Peter 2:9).  It reminds us that the treasure of our sweet communion with God surpasses the entirety of the riches this world can supply.

In this song, we have seen how wrong thinking on our part results in envy, despair, anxiety, fear, and every other kind of sin.  It clouds our view of both ourselves (who we are in Christ), and God (who has granted us every blessing in the heavenly places).  The fact of the matter is, the only way to have a right view of ourselves is to have a right view of God.  AW Tozer reminds us in his classic book, The Knowledge of the Holy, that “what comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.”  The most important thing about us!

What comes to mind when you think of God? Do you think about what you’d like Him to do?  Do you dwell on what He hasn’t done for you?  Or, do you find yourself in speechless awe that the creator of all that exists has a thought of you at all?

The best way to start the day is to meditate on who God is, what He has done, and what He promises yet to do.  In the first of his two epistles, the apostle Peter tells us that we are a “chosen race, a royal priesthood, a people for God’s own possession.”  Contemplate what it means that we are “God’s own possession.”  This is not true because we are something special in ourselves.  It’s true because we are in Christ and it’s Jesus Christ who’s special.

But as for me, the nearness of God is my good;I have made the Lord God my refuge,That I may tell of all Your works. Psalm 73:28

Psalm 73 and the blessings of right thinking!

When my heart was embittered and I was pierced within,Then I was senseless and ignorant; I was like a beast before You. Nevertheless I am continually with You; You have taken hold of my right hand. With Your counsel You will guide me, And afterward receive me to glory.” (Psalm 73:21–24, NASB95)

Psalm 73 is a song of repentance.  In it, Asaph realizes the grievous error of thinking wrongly of God. He recognizes that by thinking wrong of God, he also is thinking wrong of himself.  The denial of what he knows to be true of God drives him to the foolishness of his own counsel. Once he sees his error, he discovers something truly life-changing. He discovers what a truly amazing gift repentance is. By granting us repentance, God opens the door to a restored relationship with Him; and, upon walking through we can enjoy the multitude of blessings that come from right thinking. Right thinking about ourselves, and more importantly, right thinking about God Himself.

The envy of the wicked is treacherous. When this sin is present in our hearts it distorts our view of both life and its Creator. Our view of God becomes dangerously unworthy of Him. But God, in His faithfulness shows us our error and restores us to the plain and encouraging guidance of His counsel. He faithfully leads us through the traps and snares of this world until the time comes for Him to receive us to glory.

Repentance leads to a change of thinking. This change of thinking should lead us to feel compassion for those who live life within the deception that their prosperity and luxury will never end. It has been wisely said that for those without Christ, this life is the best they will ever know; and, it could all be gone before their next breath. May we who know redemption in Christ always remember that we are called to share the gospel with all who will listen, no matter who they are or what they think they have.