IMG_3460

It is understandable that we want to live stress-free and pleasant lives. If it’s available, we will use air conditioning or electric fans to make us more comfortable when we are sweltering in the heat. Without question, we prefer health over sickness. If possible, we would rather have money in our pockets or the bank versus a lack of funds, a life of poverty, and possible economic devastation. A new car that is less likely to break down on the road is better than an undependable junker held together with duct tape and baling wire. However, even an old car is preferable to long journeys on foot or stifling, crowded buses. We like our cupboards stocked with food rather than shelves that are empty. We would prefer not be beaten and imprisoned for our faith. The downside to this reasonable need for comfort is our tendency to become at ease, and that predisposition may lead to a creeping, sleepy self-satisfaction. If we are not careful, this wellbeing can be deadly to our faith, because we are in danger of no longer being in desperate need of God. There is a reason Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3). Considering ourselves rich in spirit is a self-satisfied path to dangerous, spiritual poverty. When we adopt the humbling attitude that we are poor in spirit, regardless of how well we are or are not doing, we are admitting that we are dependent upon God for all that is good and necessary in our lives. The Lord has been aware of our deadly tendency to forget Him in our untroubled and secure lives since the beginnings of His people:

“For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land, a land of brooks of water, of fountains and springs, flowing out in the valleys and hills, a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey, a land in which you will eat bread without scarcity, in which you will lack nothing, a land whose stones are iron, and out of whose hills you can dig copper. And you shall eat and be full, and you shall bless the Lord your God for the good land he has given you. Take care lest you forget the Lord your God by not keeping his commandments and his rules and his statutes, which I command you today, lest, when you have eaten and are full and have built good houses and live in them, and when your herds and flocks multiply and your silver and gold is multiplied and all that you have is multiplied, then your heart be lifted up, and you forget the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, who led you through the great and terrifying wilderness, with its fiery serpents and scorpions and thirsty ground where there was no water, who brought you water out of the flinty rock, who fed you in the wilderness with manna that your fathers did not know, that he might humble you and test you, to do you good in the end.     Beware lest you say in your heart, ‘My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth.’ you shall remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth, that he may confirm his covenant that he swore to your fathers, as it is this day” (Deuteronomy 8:7–18).

Because the Lord loves us, He will do what He must to keep us from being at ease and inattentive. Therefore, if you are a Christian, it is helpful to know that the Father at times wants you to be uncomfortable, uneasy, and unsure. No, He doesn’t want you to be unsure of your salvation, His grace or love, but He does want you to be uncomfortable enough in your life so that you will turn to Him and learn to trust Him when, in His sovereign wisdom, He considers that necessary for your spiritual good.

2013-05-27_1808-56_SigmaCam6333

In spite of the misery and grief experienced by God’s people, the Lord is a God of comfort: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God” (2 Corinthians 1:3–4).1 Jesus told us that the Lord will comfort those who are grieving from loss: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Matthew 5:4).

However, Jesus also said this:

“I came to cast fire on the earth, and would that it were already kindled! I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how great is my distress until it is accomplished! Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division. For from now on in one house there will be five divided, three against two and two against three. They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law” (Luke 12:49–53).

And this:

“In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).

Experiencing tribulation in the world is a promise from Jesus Himself. Thankfully, our experience with tribulation is not the end of the matter. Jesus finished His statement by proclaiming that He had overcome the world. He is our hope, comfort, and ultimate Victor. In addition, we have this deeply joyful pronouncement from the apostle Paul: “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us” (Romans 8:18 NKJV). Everyone, including believers in Jesus Christ, will encounter suffering of one kind or another in their brief lives on this planet. However, Christians are encouraged to faithfully believe that all suffering will pale in comparison to the glory that is to come.

The Lord gives both comfort and discomfort? Peace and division? Victory along with tribulation and defeat? Yes. The reality is that the Lord’s peace and comfort become truly meaningful only when peace and comfort are absent. As was noted above, He “comforts us in all our affliction” (2 Corinthians 1:4, emphasis added). Before peace and comfort arrive, conflict and discomfort break out—which may have been caused by Jesus Himself. For example, when we read the account of Jesus walking on the water to the disciples who were afraid they were going to drown during a storm on the Sea of Galilee, it is clear that Jesus purposefully caused or allowed this event to transpire so He could intervene during their distress (Matthew 14:22-33). Why would He do that?

1Unless noted otherwise, all scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.

Thanks to Ben Williams for the photo.

 

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

When Laurie and I lived in India, our job assignment was to mentor national pastors and leaders. One evening, on our way to a Bible study with a small group of believers, I became violently ill and vomited repeatedly inside the church van that was transporting us to the study. I became so weak in just a matter of minutes that I had to be lifted out of the van like a ragdoll, put on a gurney, and taken to the hospital. I had never experienced this level of sickness in my life. On another night, not long after that incident, I awoke in our bed fully dressed. As I looked around, I saw that several of our friends were in the room. They had come to take me to the hospital—again. I had had a seizure in my sleep. I had never had a seizure before. Thankfully, my hospital stay was brief. Shortly after we arrived in India, I began to suffer from allergies that made my nose run like a faucet. That, in conjunction with the pollution of the large city in which we lived, caused me to get asthma. I had never had asthma before. However, this condition eventually necessitated our departure from India. Could the Lord have prevented these illnesses and healed the allergies and the asthma so that we could have continued our ministry there? Yes, indeed. All things are possible for Him (Mark 14:36). Nevertheless, He did not.

The reader may be familiar with more upsetting, even tragic, accounts in his or her own life of diseases that were not cured, premature babies that did not survive, and accidents that could have been averted. Perhaps a business failed. A personal calling to ministry languishes and remains unfulfilled. These situations bring forth questions, cause doubt, and challenge faith. Therefore, a legitimate question can and should be asked: Is it possible that our loving God and Father would ever want His people to suffer discomfort? The biblical answer to this question is not one we would prefer to hear. Scripture, both in the Old and New Testaments, is bursting with accounts of the discomfited saints of God.

God’s People: A Fellowship of Discomfort

According to evidence throughout Scripture, it is clear that God, according to His gracious will and purpose, permitted or caused His people to experience difficulties. Here are a few notable examples:

After losing almost everything, including his children, Job was reduced to scraping his boils with a piece of broken pottery (Job 2:8).

Abraham was compelled to fight a battle in order to rescue his nephew, Lot, and his family (Genesis 14:8-16).

Jacob was tricked by his uncle into working seven more years than was agreed upon so he could marry Rachel, the woman he desired.

Joseph was peddled as a slave to a caravan of Ishmaelite traders by his brothers. He was subsequently sold to an official in Pharaoh’s house. Afterward, he was falsely accused of sexually assaulting Potiphar’s wife and thrown into prison.

God allowed His people to suffer in bondage as slaves in Egypt for hundreds of years. He even told Abraham generations earlier that this oppression would come to pass (Genesis 15:13). As powerful and God-glorifying as the accounts of the defeat of Egypt, its gods, and the Exodus are, if you had been born during the four hundred years of captivity, all that you would have known as one of God’s people is slavery. You would have been born a slave, and you would have died a slave.

When the Lord struck Egypt with pestilence, God’s people suffered the first three plagues along with the Egyptians when the Nile turned to blood and when the land was overwhelmed with frogs and gnats (Exodus 7:14-8:22).

After the Exodus from Egypt, Moses was opposed by his own people in the wilderness (Exodus 17:1-3), and once they attempted to overthrow him (Numbers 16:1-3). In fact, his own brother Aaron and sister Miriam rose up against him because he had married Zipporah, a woman of whom they did not approve (Numbers 12:1-2).

David was persecuted and relentlessly pursued by King Saul, who wanted to murder him (1 Samuel 18:10-11), even though David was an extremely close friend of Saul’s son, Jonathan, and twice demonstrated that he had no desire to kill the anointed ruler. After David became king, his own son, Absalom, dethroned and humiliated him (2 Samuel 15). Absalom was subsequently killed by Joab, in defiance of David’s instructions, which caused the king great grief.

The Psalms are bursting with outcries for the deliverance from the troubles experienced by David and the other psalmists.

Solomon, with all his wisdom, wrote that a man’s “…days are full of sorrow, and his work is a vexation. Even in the night his heart does not rest. This also is vanity” (Ecclesiastes 2:23).

After preaching repentance to Nineveh, Jonah sat under the shade of a plant to seek respite from the sweltering heat. The Lord sent a worm to sever the life of that small measure of comfort, even though Jonah was suffering so greatly that he wanted to die (Jonah 4:7-8).

Jeremiah was lowered into the muck at the bottom of a well for speaking the word of the Lord (Jeremiah 38:6) and was threatened with death (Jeremiah 18:23).

Jesus told Peter that Satan demanded to sift him like wheat and that He would pray for him, but He gave no promise that He would stop Satan’s activity against him (Luke 22:31-32).

James, one of the three apostles who were closest to Jesus, was beheaded, and Peter was imprisoned, although briefly (Acts 12:1-5).

Paul and Silas were beaten with rods because of their ministry and locked up in jail (Acts 16:22-24). Paul was again incarcerated (2 Timothy 2:8-9) and, tradition tells us, martyred.

Church tradition also tells us that all of Jesus’ disciples, except perhaps John (and Judas, of course), died as martyrs.

John was imprisoned for a time on the Isle of Patmos (Revelation 1:9).

In the troubling passage that follows, the Lord tells His people what will happen after someone called “the beast” appears in the book of Revelation:

“Also it was allowed to make war on the saints and to conquer them. And authority was given it over every tribe and people and language and nation, and all who dwell on earth will worship it, everyone whose name has not been written before the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb who was slain If anyone has an ear, let him hear: If anyone is to be taken captive, to captivity he goes; if anyone is to be slain with the sword, with the sword must he be slain. Here is a call for the endurance and faith of the saints” (Revelation 13:7–10).

When the Lord warns Christians that they will be conquered and in need of endurance and faith, it should cause them to sit up and take notice. Without dispute, this will be a life-threatening and grievous time for the followers of Jesus Christ. Until the end of the Church Age, God will allow His people to be exposed to arduous hardship.

Ladies' Bibles 00012

I know the confounding questions that troop through my head like disoriented soldiers when I consider the truth concerning those whom God chooses. How in the world would God’s blueprint for preferring the lowly and mundane ever work? How would we get anything done? The choices that God makes are so contrary to our church-culture paradigm that we cannot even imagine their implementation. This, however, unnerves me. It frightens me because this is exactly the way the Jews thought at the time of Jesus. They simply could not, by any stretch of the imagination or their knowledge of Scripture, understand that their Messiah would be a despised and weakened sacrificial Lamb. Today, we look back at Scripture and ask, “How could they have missed it? How could they not have considered Isaiah 53? How could they not have put together Micah 5:2 and Isaiah 7:14?” I might also ask in the same way, “How could we have missed 1 Corinthians 1:25-29, concerning those whom God chooses? How could we have not understood the overwhelming testimony of Scripture concerning those whom God selected to do His will? Why did we think that God needed us to be strong and winsome by the world’s standards in order to fulfill His purpose on the earth? How could we have missed the glaring truth that Jesus Himself was considered of little consequence and even despised in the eyes of the Jewish and Roman worlds, as were His disciples?”

Bringing to Nothing the Things That Are

In light of the truth from 1 Corinthians 1:27–29 and the New and Old Testament examples, we should think that claims about our influence, success, and results—“things that are”—which we too often mislabel as “the fruit of the ministry,” is not something that the Lord would especially care for. Perhaps that is far too generous. He does not want it in His presence at all, because His stated intent is “to bring to nothing things that are.” This sovereign activity of God sounds a bit destructive. Or perhaps humiliating. Or both. He ordains this so no one might boast in His presence. He will not be deterred in His purpose. Therefore, should any person or entity that operates with a perception that he, she, or it is “something,” be a bit alarmed in light of this truth? I certainly am. Being “something” is my default response, it seems, concerning how I want to be perceived.

So, fellow Christian brothers and sisters, welcome to the appalling fellowship of the worthless and the weak. We are people who are never to boast about themselves and their success and thus become “significant.” Therefore, if your desire is to understand His will and please Him, you would remain unknown, unpromoted, and unadvertised.

There Are No Undemanding Answers

I don’t know why most church and parachurch organizations diminish over time. I am sure there is a multitude of reasons, but it appears evident that almost every last one of them has. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised since He made it clear that His desire is to “bring to nothing things that are so that no human being might boast in the presence of God” (1 Corinthians 1:29). When Christian leaders become significant and use that significance to promote their ministries, does that put them on the list of things that the Lord considers “things that are” that He will “bring to nothing” so “no human being might boast in the presence of God”? I tremble at the thought.

What shall we do? There are no undemanding answers. I have come to realize that following Jesus may be simple, but it is not easy. Therefore, this is where any solutions would begin: with Him and His turning-our-religious-world-upside-down Word. He told us plainly that He was the way, the truth and the life. All that we need to know about how to follow His astonishing ways are in Him and His Word. We should realize the life-upending importance of His uncomfortable truths, be challenged, and humbly bring them to Him. It is wise to ask Him how to walk in His truth, life, and way. He is everything there is, and all that I can offer. This is the right, good, and devoted place to abide in the light of the knowledge of the God we do not know.

Students 004

The Lord’s use of insignificance continues in the New Testament. The most outstanding example is the Lord Jesus, the Creator of all things, who came to earth as a completely helpless baby, born to a poor couple in an obscure place called Bethlehem, a small town in a little-known, weak nation that had been conquered yet once again by a very powerful one. Why would the Lord God incarnate be born, grow up, minister, die, rise from the dead, and ascend into the heavens in an obscure part of the world such as Palestine? Why was it His plan that no one outside of the immediate area would even be aware of His existence while He walked the earth?

We could also ask, who were the disciples of Jesus when Jesus called them to follow Him? In our way of thinking, it would seem unwise to choose only twelve (later eleven), very fallible men to establish His Church. What notoriety, status, or importance did any of these individuals possess when they were chosen? Peter, Andrew, James, and John were fishermen. Matthew was a despised tax collector.

Who was the only person in the Bible about whom Jesus said this? “Truly, I say to you, wherever this gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will also be told in memory of her” (Matthew 26:13). A woman who anointed Jesus for His burial. We do not even know her name.

Who were the first people to whom Jesus revealed Himself after His resurrection? Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, Salome, and Joanna. Women whose testimony in that culture was almost worthless.Why would the Lord choose such inferior individuals to be the first to testify about the greatest event in the history of the world?

Paul became an apostle only after he lost all of his Pharisaical positional authority and status. The picture that is drawn for us in Scripture should be clear, and it is probable that Paul was thinking of the individuals in Scripture and drawing from his own knowledge and experience when he penned those Holy-Spirit-inspired words to the Corinthians. Regardless of how we define significance in our cultures, it is biblically evident that the Lord chooses inconsequential individuals living in inauspicious places through whom to accomplish His hard-to-comprehend purposes.

He is the God of insignificance.

However, this should not amaze us. He is the God we do not know.

Has the Lord Been Thinking Clearly?

Is it surprising that God chooses people who are foolish, weak, and despised? It should, because it seems that we require those who are intelligent, strong, and influential. The idea of selecting the weak comes from the mind of God, but these are not the kinds of people whom we would prefer to get our work done, move the vision along, and thereby influence and change the world. These are not the individuals whom the Church would endorse to spread the Gospel and represent Christ. Never. Does the Lord know what He’s doing? Absurd question, clearly, but it needs to be asked in light of the staggering dissonance between His ways and ours. The answer to the question is, of course, yes; because in comparison to what He accomplishes by His incomparable power, everything we do is foolish and weak. He told the disciples plainly that without Him they could do nothing at all (John 15:5). The problem is that we think otherwise. We embrace “leadership material”—strong, attractive, and talented men and women to be our leaders and preachers. The Church thinks that these gifted people, if we train them properly using “leadership principles,” will advance the cause of the Gospel. We want only these kinds of individuals representing us. This makes perfect sense to us. We do not choose losers. After all, who desires to be ridiculed in the eyes of the world? However, our amazing God is not necessarily looking for culturally impressive people in order to accomplish His irrational and powerful purposes. He is not put to shame at all if we are humiliated or derided. After all, He was. The prophets were. Noah, Moses, David, Micaiah, Elijah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Micah, Amos, and Jesus Himself were all scorned either by their families, the world, or religious leaders. Is this what we seek? Do we truly want to be included in that noble company? I doubt this in the extreme. We want to be cool. Attractive. Culturally clued in and appealingly humorous. We say we want to be like Jesus, but we have no idea how to deal with these words of blessing in the context of leadership:

“Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you and revile you and spurn your name as evil, on account of the Son of Man! Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven; for so their fathers did to the prophets” (Luke 6:22–23).

We want to be enormously influential and liked, but apparently it is not our preference to be blessed or have great reward in heaven.

Instead of displaying how strong and worthy of notice we are, we should reveal how weak and unimportant we are. Instead of proclaiming our strength, we should boast of the things that show our weakness, as Paul did (2 Corinthians 11:30). Instead of contending for significance, we should contend for insignificance. This is the way our God, He who is lowly in heart, chooses to do business. When we read about those whom the Lord chose throughout Scripture, we cannot avoid this inescapable truth. We should line up on the side of the basketball court where all the wimps and losers stand. Talk about counterintuitive. This is clearly not how the world and the Church think about how to “win.” We want people with swagger.

Is it possible that the Lord could make it any easier for us to understand? In spite of a multitude of biblical examples, it just seems too difficult for us to grasp. Even if we do lay hold of this truth, all too often, as soon as He chooses us and performs something wonderful and God-glorifying through us, we too easily shift from being “nothing” to desiring to be “something.” It is just one, little, intoxicating step away.

Warhol was right. Everybody wants to be somebody and experience their fifteen minutes of fame. But that is not what the Lord wants for His people.

2009-02-25_1204_1_OrphanSchoolStudent

The truth about those whom God chooses is found not only in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. According to all of Scripture, it is evident that the powerful Lord God of the universe chooses people who are, to sum up, worthless in the world’s way of thinking. The Word of God plainly says this, although we shrink back from perceiving those whom God selects this way. Let’s start our study at the beginnings of Israel, chronicled in Genesis. Who was Abraham, for example? Before the Lord called him, he was simply a man whom his father had taken, along with his family, to a place called Haran, a city in Mesopotamia, which was the center for the cult of the moon god, Sin. Had Abram achieved any significance when the Lord called him? No, he was just a man living in a pagan city. Why did God choose him over any other man in Haran? We do not know. Actually, we do, because Paul tells us in First Corinthians 1:27–29: Abram was insignificant, foolish, and weak. Abraham is the prototype for those whom the Lord chooses.

Leah was a woman who was unloved by her husband, Jacob. He rejected her from the beginning. When Jacob had been fooled by his uncle and had marital relations with Leah instead of Rachel, Jacob cast her off, even though they had become one flesh. However, this verse will give us an insight into how God thinks: “When the Lord saw that Leah was hated, he opened her womb, but Rachel was barren” (Genesis 29:31). Leah bore four sons, one of whom was Judah, the forefather of Jesus.

Who was Joseph when the Lord gave him a dream that changed his life and the lives of everyone in his family; indeed, that so dramatically changed the history of Israel? The second-to-youngest son in a family whose siblings detested him so greatly that they wanted to kill him but instead wholesaled him as a slave to a caravan of traders headed to Egypt.

Who was Moses when the Lord called to him by means of a voice in a burning bush? An inessential shepherd in the wilderness—and a murderer who had fled from his own people.

Who was Gideon before the angel came and sat under the terebinth tree at Ophrah while the mighty man of valor threshed wheat in the winepress? We are not told. He was just a man who was a member of the weakest clan in Manasseh and the least in his father’s house (Judges 6:15), laboring in secret to insure his family’s survival.

What about the other judges? What was it about them that caused the Lord to choose them?

Deborah was a woman and a prophetess, a member of a culturally unimpressive gender class.

Jephthah was the son of a prostitute.

At first glance, Samson seems to be an exception. He was a supernaturally strong man. However, his strength came from that which is not strong at all—his hair, which was a symbol of a Nazarite, one who is set apart before God. When Samson rejected that unique place, he became a man who thought his strength was his own and therefore regressed into someone through whom God could not be glorified. It wasn’t until he was blinded, bound, debilitated, and determined to die that he became weak enough for Israel’s enemies to be substantially destroyed, so that the Lord was glorified, not Samson.

Who was Ruth? A woman from among the Moabites, a pagan people who worshiped the god Chemosh; a widow living on the edge of starvation. She became the wife of Boaz, the father of Jesse, the father of David, the forefather of Jesus.

Who was David when the Lord chose him to be king? The youngest son in the family, a child so inconsequential, so forgotten, that Jesse did not even bother to call him to the house when Samuel visited and summoned all the sons to be gathered. David fits well into the description of those whom God chooses. He was almost non-existent in the eyes of his father.

Who was Esther, who helped deliver God’s people from annihilation? She was an orphan who was picked to become a concubine in the harem of the king of Persia.

Who was Elijah? A Tishbite, a man from an irrelevant village called Tishbe, a place unknown to world history.

Who was Elisha? A farmer.

Who was Daniel? Although he was apparently a member of the royal family, he was also a refugee, a displaced person in a foreign culture.

Who was Jeremiah when the Lord called him to prophesy to Judah? A priest from Anathoth, a city about which almost nothing is known.

Who was Isaiah when the Lord called him to prophesy to Israel? He was the son of Amoz and a nephew of Amaziah, a murdered king of Judah with a mixed record of rulership.

Who was Hosea when the Lord called him to prophesy to Judah? Again, we are not told. He is introduced as Hosea, son of Beeri.

Who was Amos? He tells us in his response to Amaziah the priest: “I was no prophet, nor a prophet’s son, but I was a herdsman and a dresser of sycamore figs” (Amos 7:14).

Who was Malachi? We do not know.

The prophet Zechariah? Berechiah’s son and the grandson of Iddo.

The prophet Joel? He was Pethuel’s son.

Do we need to continue?

Orphans. Widows. Farmers. Forgotten children. Disregarded, poor, and powerless women. People chosen by God because they were unimpressive from birth or diminished in some way so God could be glorified, not them.

Thanks to Ben Williams for the photo.

IMG_3456

“But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God”

Paul, in First Corinthians 1:27–29

Andy Warhol is credited with saying, “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for fifteen minutes.” If he were alive today, Mr. Warhol probably would not be surprised by our contemporary vanity-driven attempts to gain those fifteen minutes of fame. However, as reality irrupts, that search for significance turns out to be quite elusive, although it may require the entire sweep of one’s life to come to terms with that unsettling truth. Very few of us will be considered “somebodies” by the world’s measure. Thus, we may attempt to rid ourselves of the consequences of that certainty by any means necessary, and many of those efforts—perhaps all of them—are quite destructive. Happily, it may be surprising to discover that being somebody—being significant and important in the world’s eyes—is in fundamental opposition to the Christian God’s truth about one’s significance.

For many of us, the sense of feeling insignificant or “less than” began early in our lives. Perhaps when the neighborhood kids gathered to play a game, you were picked last. You may have struggled in school, and it seemed obvious that other students were brighter than you. A chorus of voices, perhaps including those of your own parents, may have attempted to impress upon you the inevitability of a life of inferiority. Maybe you were not as pretty or handsome as other children and didn’t meet the standards for attractiveness in your culture. Hearing a person more powerful, attractive, or intelligent shout, “Loser!” in your direction was an announcement to everyone within earshot that you were on the pathetic, losing side of the way things were.

If this is you, take heart. This is precisely the kind of person whom the Lord chooses.

The Lord’s Preference: Those Who Are Insignificant

We have learned that in addition to God’s sovereignty, wisdom, power, and all of His other amazing attributes, He is, to our astonishment, low and humble in the core of His being. Therefore, knowing this about Him, a question comes to mind: What kind of people does He choose through whom to glorify Himself? Paul gave the Corinthians the answer to that question in the passage presented in the heading for this chapter, First Corinthians 1:27-29: God chooses people who are foolish, weak, low, despised, and are nothing. Here are BDAG’s definitions for these words:

The first word, “foolish,” is straightforward. It simply means foolish or stupid.

“Weak” is defined as “of relative ineffectiveness, whether external or inward.”

“Low” is “insignificant.”

Something that is “despised” is “an entity (that) has no merit or worth.”

“Things that are not” is uncomfortably frank. God chooses people who, in the eyes of the world, do not even exist.1

Why does the Lord choose such people? Paul tells us:

  • to shame the wise
  • to shame the strong
  • to bring to nothing things that are

The final result of that shaming and bringing to nothingness is so “…that no human being might boast in the presence of God.”

The significance that so much of the world’s people struggle to obtain is, astonishingly, an aspiration that places them in opposition to their Creator, who formed them in His image, not in the image of a fallen world.

1Arndt, W., Danker, F. W., & Bauer, W. (2000). A Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament and other early Christian literature (3rd ed.) (352). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

2009-02-20_1651_1_ChurchPlaque

One of the saddest portions in all of Scripture, in my opinion, is 2 Kings 25:8–17, where we read that the beautiful house of the Lord was burned down, the wealth of the temple was looted, and God’s city, Jerusalem, was laid waste by Babylon.

“In the fifth month, on the seventh day of the month—that was the nineteenth year of King Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon—Nebuzaradan, the captain of the bodyguard, a servant of the king of Babylon, came to Jerusalem. And he burned the house of the LORD and the king’s house and all the houses of Jerusalem; every great house he burned down. And all the army of the Chaldeans, who were with the captain of the guard, broke down the walls around Jerusalem. And the rest of the people who were left in the city and the deserters who had deserted to the king of Babylon, together with the rest of the multitude, Nebuzaradan the captain of the guard carried into exile. But the captain of the guard left some of the poorest of the land to be vinedressers and plowmen. And the pillars of bronze that were in the house of the LORD, and the stands and the bronze sea that were in the house of the LORD, the Chaldeans broke in pieces and carried the bronze to Babylon. And they took away the pots and the shovels and the snuffers and the dishes for incense and all the vessels of bronze used in the temple service, the fire pans also and the bowls. What was of gold the captain of the guard took away as gold, and what was of silver, as silver. As for the two pillars, the one sea, and the stands that Solomon had made for the house of the LORD, the bronze of all these vessels was beyond weight. The height of the one pillar was eighteen cubits, and on it was a capital of bronze. The height of the capital was three cubits. A latticework and pomegranates, all of bronze, were all around the capital. And the second pillar had the same, with the latticework.”1

This is what the Lord warned Judah would happen. He had warned Israel, as well. He repeatedly told His people to turn away from idols and return to Him. Nevertheless, all that the Lord had planned for His chosen people, to whom belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, the promises, the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, the Christ (Romans 9:4–5) was lost to them. Thankfully, they can be grafted back into the olive tree (Romans 11:23).

However, something else saddens me even more. It is this warning concerning the Church and what must happen before the Day of the Lord comes:

“Let no one deceive you in any way. For that day will not come, unless the rebellion comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction, who opposes and exalts himself against every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, proclaiming himself to be God” (2 Thessalonians 2:3–4).

Let’s try to wrap our brains around the certainty of that event. That falling away, that apostasy will happen, just as surely as the sun rises.

When Jesus’ disciples asked Him, “Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” (Matthew 24:3), the very first thing He said—and therefore I conclude the issue about which He was most concerned—was not earthquakes, wars, and signs in the heavens. The first thing He said was, “See that no one leads you astray. For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and they will lead many astray” (Matthew 24:4–5).

I don’t know what it will take for those who are called Christians to be led astray by people coming in Jesus’ name, claiming to be the Christ. I know this has happened in limited ways at various times in the last two thousand years, but it hasn’t been “many” as Jesus said it would be. In my opinion, a series of catastrophic events must take place, things so life-threatening that people will yearn for a savior to come and rescue them. Going to church had been great for them. They knew their church’s doctrine and considered it good. Fellowship was encouraging. But something or a series of somethings will occur that will cause them to turn away.

Perhaps that falling way is happening now. Perhaps it has been in motion for longer than I know. I am greatly disheartened by what I see happening in the Church.

The following passage troubles me, and I think it should trouble you, too, if you are a believer in Jesus Christ.

“And the Lord said, ‘Hear what the unrighteous judge says. And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them? I tell you, he will give justice to them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” (Luke 18:6–8).

I want to be one who has faith when the Son of Man comes.

This one engenders a large measure of concern, as well:

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’” (Matthew 7:21–23).

Because of these truths and warnings, I am compelled to pray for the Church. It is my duty. I encourage you to do the same.

The days are short. Jesus said two thousand years ago that night is coming when no one can work (John 9:4).

1All scripture quotations from The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2001). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.

Thanks to Ben Williams for the photo.

McWay_andreo_4096

Perhaps I was just inattentive. Yes, that’s what I was, because I have thought for a very long time that the account of Elijah and His encounter with the Lord at the cave on Mount Horeb in 1 Kings 19 was about hearing God’s “still, small voice.”

I no longer think that the Holy Spirit inspired the author of this story to teach God’s people that His voice is not in the earthquake, wind, or fire. It’s about understanding that God sometimes works very powerfully in quiet, not spectacular, ways.

Please allow me to explain.

This is the chronology of events 1 Kings 19, after Elijah had run away from Jezebel and ended up on Horeb, the mount of God.

The Lord asked, “What are you doing here?”

Elijah responded, “I have been very jealous for the LORD, the God of hosts. For the people of Israel have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword, and I, even I only, am left, and they seek my life, to take it away.” (vs. 10).1

The Lord told him, “Go out and stand on the mount before the LORD.”

The Lord passed by, and a strong wind tore the mountains and broke the rocks. But the Lord “was not in the wind.”

Then there was an earthquake, but the Lord “was not in the earthquake.”

Then there was a fire, but the Lord “was not in the fire.”

Please note that we are not told anything about the Lord speaking in those events. These verses tell us that He was not “in” them.

Then, “And after the fire the sound of a low whisper” (vs. 12b).

Notice that it doesn’t say the Lord spoke to Elijah in a whisper. It simply says, “And after the fire the sound of a low whisper.”

This makes sense because of what happened next.

Elijah then went and stood at the entrance of the cave.

The Lord asks him the same question. “What are you doing here?”

If God had spoken earlier with a whisper, Elijah hadn’t gotten the message, because he responded with exactly the same words he had before. “He said, ‘I have been very jealous for the LORD, the God of hosts. For the people of Israel have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword, and I, even I only, am left, and they seek my life, to take it away’” (vs. 14).

The Lord then told him to:

Anoint Hazael to be king over Syria.

Anoint Jehu king over Israel

Anoint Elisha to be prophet in your place (vs. 16).

Elijah went and anointed Elisha (vss. 19-21); however, he didn’t do the other two things. Elisha did.

In 2 Kings 8, Ben-Hadad sent Hazael to Elisha to find out if he, Ben-Hadad, would recover from his sickness. Elisha told Hazael that Ben-Hadad would recover, but then, weeping, informed Hazael that he would be king of Syria. (Elisha wept because Hazael would set on fire Israel’s fortresses, kill their young men with the sword, dash in pieces their little ones, and rip open their pregnant women (2 Kings 8:12)).

The history of Israel changed with two sentences from a prophet. No fire. No wind. No earthquake.

In 2 Kings 9, Elisha sent one of the sons of the prophets to anoint Jehu king over Israel, which he did. He prophesied over him as well. Then he fled, as he was instructed.

The history of Judah changed with four sentences from a messenger from Elisha and a bottle of oil. No fire. No wind. No earthquake.

The account of Elijah in the cave has nothing to do with God’s people learning how to hear His “still, small voice” as He gives us truth or direction. It has to do with what the Lord is “in.” This passage doesn’t tell us that God doesn’t speak or act in the wind, the earthquake, or fire, because the Bible clearly indicates that He does; but that He was not going to accomplish His will in strong, noticeable, spectacular ways in the events to come. Elijah may have thought the Lord would or should act in this way, because He had just done so. He had consumed the sacrifice, the water, and the rocks with fire when Elijah challenged the prophets of Baal. In addition, He had just ended the three-year drought quite suddenly: “And in a little while the heavens grew black with clouds and wind, and there was a great rain” (1 Kings 18:45). The Lord was notifying Elijah that He was going to perform His will in a way that was quite different from what He had just done. He was going to act quietly.

And that’s just what He did.

Sometimes the Lord accomplishes His will with fire.

Sometimes it is with a sentence and a bottle of anointing oil.

1All scriptures are from The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2001). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.

Photo courtesy Rogelio Bernal Andreo (DeepSkyColors.com)

2009-02-25_1137_3_OrphanSchoolStudents (2)

If tithing to the Church is not a binding principle for Christians, to whom, then, should we give?

We have seen in our look at the Lord’s instructions for the tithe in the Old Testament, that God’s people were to use their saved tithes to feed the poor, the widow, the orphan, the sojourner, and the landless, which included the Levites. There are many passages in the Old Testament about caring for the poor. Please feel free to drag out your hard-copy or online concordance and look them up. I think these verses sum up very well how the Lord wanted His people to regard the poor—actually, it’s a command:

“If among you, one of your brothers should become poor, in any of your towns within your land that the LORD your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart or shut your hand against your poor brother, but you shall open your hand to him and lend him sufficient for his need, whatever it may be. Take care lest there be an unworthy thought in your heart and you say, ‘The seventh year, the year of release is near,’ and your eye look grudgingly on your poor brother, and you give him nothing, and he cry to the LORD against you, and you be guilty of sin. You shall give to him freely, and your heart shall not be grudging when you give to him, because for this the LORD your God will bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake. For there will never cease to be poor in the land. Therefore I command you, ‘You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land’ (Deuteronomy 15:7–11).1

A strong case can be made that this concern for the poor carried over into the New Testament.

The only offering taken in the New Testament was for the poor: “At present, however, I am going to Jerusalem bringing aid to the saints. For Macedonia and Achaia have been pleased to make some contribution for the poor among the saints at Jerusalem” (Romans 15:25–26).

The apostle John wrote, “But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth” (1 John 3:17–18).

And we have this from Jesus: “Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you” (Matthew 5:42).

This seems straight forward, doesn’t it? We have no reason to refuse whoever begs from us. However, let’s slow down a bit. What should a believer give to the one who begs from us? Food? Clothing? Money? Money, unfortunately, is problematic. In both India and China, where we have served, evil people purposefully maim children and send them out to beg in order to profit from their wicked mistreatment of children. I cannot give money to support such a practice. Therefore, when we lived in India, our answer was to give the beggar a little food. At least he or she would have something to eat out there on the street, and no profit would be given to their depraved handlers. In addition, we were told in India not to give money to anyone because it would change the relationship with that person in the blink of an eye. The one who received the gift would thereafter see nothing but dollar signs in your eyes.

Giving to panhandlers in United States is not without its issues, either, including the giving of food. In our hometown, business owners have asked generous people to stop giving panhandlers food, because they just throw the uneaten, unopened food onto the owners’ property, creating a mess they have to clean up. These panhandlers don’t want food. Food can be obtained at food banks. These folks want cold currency. Tales abound of “homeless” people making more money than many hard-working individuals. Giving a ten spot to a panhandler may relieve the giver’s sense of guilt, but it’s an easy way out. Now, to be fair, some of the people we see may indeed have legitimate needs, but how would the giver know? Therefore, much more preferable would be stopping, taking the person out to lunch and having a conversation about life—true life. In addition, the generous one will discover where his or her money is going. However, most of us would rather not do that, especially since most beggars stand on busy street corners or on interstate highway entrance ramps, so we actually contribute in a way that often is not helpful but actually hurtful, to assuage our sense of guilt.

There are no specific guidelines in Jesus’ command to give to those who beg from us. Should we sell all our possessions or just some? Obviously, the people of Jesus’ time could not sell everything they possessed. A carpenter needs his tools in order to work his craft and produce income. A conveyance of some kind and agricultural implements are required for a farmer to cultivate and harvest his crops. Fishermen must have nets and boats. Ranchers need livestock. People everywhere require places to live with water, sanitation, warmth, and safety. What is the answer? There is no law in this passage from Matthew, just Jesus’ in-our-faces command about how we view money and possessions. Notice there is nothing about giving a tenth in Jesus’ words. He is addressing our hearts and our view wealth.

Jesus taught, “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:19–21).

I take comfort in Jesus’ qualification: “Do not lay up treasures for yourselves.” If my hands are open and willing to give to those in need, my savings account is not just for myself. My treasure, therefore—and hopefully, as I work out my salvation with fear and trembling—won’t be on earth for myself only but for others and therefore used for eternal matters.

Jesus taught in the parable about a rich man who, after an abundant crop, tore down his barns, built larger ones and said, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” However, “God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be? ‘So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God’” (Luke 12:19–21). Notice it wasn’t the man’s wealth that the Lord condemned. In his wealth, the fool was “not rich toward God.” One’s view of money is a matter of the heart before the Lord.

Too often, we Christians seek orderly guidelines about many topics, including giving, to systematize our beliefs. We tithe. Good—got that one covered. We go to church once a week and attend a small group. Done. We find a way to serve at church or at the homeless center. Soon, we begin to feel very good about ourselves. All the religious obligations have been fulfilled. We measure what we have done against the activities of others and determine that we’re doing well. Our guilt has disappeared. We think the Lord is happy with us because we have accomplished the biblical things that should be done. Then, slowly, we become a people who are legalistic, and, even with the best of intentions, have slipped into a guilt-eliminating cacophony of laws—or principles, as we prefer to call them. We should not be motivated by guilt or self-satisfaction. We should be motivated by our love for Jesus. We should be “rich toward God.”

Here is the last scriptural truth for us to consider, but it’s not in the New Testament. It has to do with the Sabbath year. If you’re not familiar with this, the Lord required Israel to do no work in their fields every seventh year. That which grew up on its own was to be left to the poor. Think about this with me. Can you imagine an agricultural family, which most families were at that time, receiving no benefit from their land for one year? This speaks volumes about how the Lord views money. Clearly, the Lord is asking His people to take a major financial hit. This would require an enormous trust in the provision of God. I am convinced that the Lord is astronomically more concerned about our relationship with Him than our material wealth.

So, to sum up, how much does the New Testament require a believer to give and to whom? It simply says to give to those in need. Who are those in need? To whatever needy person the Lord prayerfully directs.

In all of this, we must be careful. We must make knowing Jesus our primary aim. We should ask Him where, how much, and to whom to give. Use tithing as a starting place for giving, if that is helpful. Give to the poor wisely. Give to individuals, not to organizations, when possible. It opens up the possibility to develop or further a relationship.

1All scripture passages are from The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2001). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.

Thanks to Ben Williams for the photo.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 364 other followers