Fear and Flooding in Moab: Connecting God's Grace with His Presence in Our World

 

I had forgotten how majestic and breathtaking the view was. As I pulled into the visitor center parking lot I caught a glimpse of it to the left. "My, it looks like the Grand Canyon.” Most of the “God’s Word, God’s World” expedition crew had already made their way down to the edge of the overlook. Miles and miles of canyons stretched out in front of us, and the drop before our feet was perhaps several thousand feet. It does take your breath away. But as I stood looking at the first of our stops in Canyonlands National Park, what spoke to me most deeply was not the view, but the story it told. Before me, bigger than life, was a landscape that could only have been made by a water catastrophe of global proportions. I knew that nothing else made sense, that no other explanation could really fit the reality of what was carved in front of me. And one more time I was sobered by connecting with the truth that the religion I get paid to work in is about a real God who engages with this world.

That chilling, sobering thrill is why I do the “God's Word, God's World” class on the Genesis Flood. It is why I take people to Moab. And it touches one of the most important dimensions of my faith.

I have been reading Exodus in my quiet times. It has been intriguing to think about how the process God has used to initiate relationship with fallen human beings. As God begins to take Abraham's descendants to be a people in relationship with Him, He begins by devastating Egypt. God made Egypt the most powerful nation on earth at the time, and then revealed Himself in history by demanding that Pharaoh let His people go. Pharaoh refused, responding that he did not know Jehovah. But when the 10 plagues were finished he no longer said that. He yielded to a Force outside of himself, one that was real and that did real things which affected his life. Both the Israelites and the Egyptians knew that there was a real God with a mind and a will and a power that could not be resisted. 

From there God led the Israelites to Mount Sinai and made a covenant with them there. He appeared to them on the mountain and it smoked and burned and thundered until they were terrified. God's purpose was to make them very afraid. He then said, "O, that they had such a heart in them that they would fear me always that it may be well with them and their sons forever." (Deuteronomy 5:29)

It seems that as God comes to men, His first step is to make them realize that He really exists, outside of themselves, and that His existence is a cause for Holy fear. God wants us to understand first that He really exists outside of us. I note that because I believe the fear of a real God is what is most missing in Christianity today. We earnestly pursue right doctrine, which is right understanding of God. But we don't see that the basis for that doctrine comes from the actions of God in the history of our world; that God really created a people from the descendants of one man; that God really confronted and destroyed the largest nation on the earth at one time, killing every firstborn son; that God has really judged and destroyed our world with a flood; and that the God who created and who has done these things really came as a man into this world He has made and lost. 

Because of the world's rejection of biblical history, the church has retreated from a God who is here and turned to a message about conceptually loving God. And we seek finding our grounding for God inside us rather than outside us. I fear we understand grace much better than we know the God that is supposed to have granted it. It leaves us making grace more about us than about God. 

I once heard someone say they had been experiencing a lot of anxiety about the times we live in until they remembered God was in control, and then they felt peace. I understand that perspective and I agree with it. But I had just been reading the minor prophets, and my inward thought was, “No, I remember God, and I have a lot of anxiety because I know God judges wicked nations.” He judged Israel and He judged the nations around Israel and His judgments are very severe. We are a wicked nation and if God judges us it will bring circumstances that no human being will want to live in. If we really believe in God we will be very unsettled. But I think very few believers in God really see God as someone who has acted in history. And so we have lost our basis for a fear of God. 

Without a fear of God we will not be able to overcome our sin. And that is exactly what is plaguing the church today. No one will really be changed by a God of ideas. "A servant will not be instructed by words alone, for though he understands, there will be no response." (Proverbs 29:19) We understand. But we don't respond, because we don't believe in a God who has been here.

Or perhaps in all of this I am only describing my own problem. Certainly it is my problem. But I sense I am not alone. I fear that we believe in God the way an average college freshman believes deeply in the importance of studying, but somehow never has the time to get to it. Until he flunks his first test, or his first semester, or fails out of college entirely. At some point, most college freshmen come to believe in studying in a different way; they find a belief that saves them. 

We have a nation of people who say they believe in God. But as I look at my world and my own life, I find myself asking, which kind of belief is it? When God judged Israel, mothers ate their own children. Should our belief in God's sovereignty give us comfort at that thought?

So, as I was saying, I’ve been reading and thinking about Exodus, and asking myself if I see it as the real history of my world. And I go to Moab and take people with me. And I look at really big canyons. And I see God's Word and God's world fuse together and God becomes very near and very big. Even scary. My faith gets a little more grounding in the God Who is There.

The idea of grace all by itself is a wonderful thought. But if the God described throughout the Bible is actually all around me and has extended undeserved grace to me, then there is one thing in all the world more amazing than that grace: the God who has been gracious to us. It is God first, then His attributes. "Without faith it is impossible to please Him, because the one who comes to God must believe that He exists and that He is the rewarder of those who seek Him."  (Hebrews 11:6) May we know the faith of Hebrews 11.

Happy Reformation Day!

 

Yes, today is Halloween, but for us Protestant folks, October 31 should have a deeper meaning than candy and the Peanuts TV special. Today is Reformation Day. For on this day in 1517, Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany, instigating this little side-note of history we like to call the Protestant Reformation.

Most of us probably aren’t aware of this, or we’re so preoccupied with figuring out our costume that we forget the significance of this day. I include myself in the latter camp.

Pastor Mitch’s greeting to me this morning when he walked in the building was, “Happy Reformation Day!” (But he would remember because his dog is named after the guy who started the whole thing, so that’s not fair.) Mitch wrote a blog post a couple years ago about Reformation Day, and I’d like to share an excerpt from it, as it speaks many important truths about this day, our context, and our culture:

 

Today is a day to celebrate the perseverance of the most attacked message in history. It was in Martin Luther's day. It is today. And, as it survived utter distortion in Luther's day, it will survive every attack today. The Gospel of Jesus Christ's death in the place of sinners as the sole ground for their salvation will remain. … 

 

There is good reason to be thankful for Luther's crisp, bold and unqualified affirmations. It took tremendous courage to pound those nails and God used them to fasten the Gospel on the centuries that followed.

 

But the attack continues. So on Reformation Day it is fitting to celebrate the sovereign preservation of the Gospel while being mindful of the steady assault. Where do you find your significance? What determines your stature or your reputation? What is your food? Where do you find peace and security? Wherever the answer is something other than the cross of Christ, there you have found the attack.

 

The whole post is worth the read, as Mitch links to a bunch of resources and additional sites with lots of good stuff regarding the Reformation and what Luther did on that October day long ago.

So, while everyone is running around tonight frantically hunting for candy like Adam Sandler’s “Crazy Newspaper Face” guy, it would be more than appropriate to spend some time thanking our Father for the work He accomplished through men like Martin Luther. And while the Gospel battles we fight in our lives will most likely not reach in scope of that as Luther’s, we can take inspiration from the reformer, who was so gripped by the holiness and supremacy of Christ, that when he found himself in the middle of the battle, he found his refuge and identity in the only thing that mattered:

 

I cannot choose but adhere to the word of God, which has possession of my conscience; nor can I possibly, nor will I even make any recantation, since it is neither safe nor honest to act contrary to conscience! Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God! Amen.

 

Vote! A Faith-Filled Approach to Casting Ballots

 

Don’t you just love fall? I mean, what’s not to love? Think of the crisp mornings, the multicolored foliage, that certain glow in the mid-day sun and those oh-so-charming little yard signs! 

It is that magical time of the year when the temperatures fall and the rhetorical heat climbs. For some of us, election season is the mental equivalent of being stuck in traffic. We just want the noise to end. Others find a certain life in the fray and politics is one of the few places left to mix it up and “fight the good fight.”

If you feel trapped in the stop and go of campaign ads, speeches and debates, beware. It’s easy to grow indifferent to the issues and even find a moral “high ground” in purposely ignoring the conversation. Politics, after all, is the place of cheats and liars. Who can you really believe? I remember my grandfather being pretty strident in his assessment of the whole political affair: “Never trust a man in a tie.” But checking out, regardless of the rationale, probably isn’t an expression of faith.

If you love the battle and can’t wait for the next heated conversation, beware. It’s easy to be consumed with anxiety. “What if the vote goes the wrong way? What will happen then?” That’s me. Personally, I’m squarely in the “decided” column. Another debate or op-ed article will not sway my vote. And yet, I study the polls, listen to all the analysis and check RealClearPolitics on the hour, waiting for the outcome and the fate of the nation. 

It’s clear we need some Bible here. We need it to rightly understand the issues but, more importantly, to discern and correct our own hearts. I believe the Bible would call us to engage this election cycle with gratitude, a biblical worldview and trust in the one who removes kings and sets up kings (Daniel 2:21).

Vote! With gratitude.

In Romans 13, Paul reveals that authorities have been instituted by God to reward good conduct and punish evil. Governments have always been more than happy to do this. But they have this curiously consistent tendency to assume the authority to define good and evil. It’s your standard “might-makes-right” approach to human existence and that’s bad, especially when the “might” rules over millions. As old as Eden, it is the root of untold suffering. 

On November 6, you have the opportunity to do something novel in human history. Your vote will make a statement regarding good and evil. This is novel because, in the lion’s share of history, God’s people have defined good and evil by literally becoming the lion’s share and stirring the conscience of their culture on the back of their suffering (1 Peter 3:14-17). How glad we should be that, for now, we can contribute to the definitions of good and evil with ink instead of blood!

Vote! With a biblical worldview.

We must be careful, though, to “lean not on our own understanding” as we cast our defining votes. To proclaim and uphold God’s definition of good and evil, we must, um, you know, know God’s definition of good and evil. We have a responsibility to think biblically at the polls. 

There will be biblical “non-negotiable” issues on your ballot. Some are explicit while others are implied. 

Life

God has created human life with the incredibly weighty purpose of bearing His image (Genesis 1:26-27). Someday it will be abundantly clear to everyone that no one has a right to choose to destroy that image. We honor God by honoring his image in human life. Your vote can express that honor. 

Marriage

God is purposeful in His designs. He doesn’t simply operate with what is convenient or expedient. Marriage isn’t merely pragmatic. Marriage speaks (Eph. 5:22-33). God expresses His character and His devotion to His people through the institution of marriage. To change His design is to alter His communication and, without that, we are hopelessly lost. 

Beware of the over extension of the “Golden Rule” here. To do to others as we would have them do to us should include stopping self-destructive behavior. We need that. Three seconds at the Drudge Report is all we need to reveal that our natural inclinations aren’t always good. Accepting the actor does not require approval of their every action. This is a sure path to give freedom to that which enslaves. 

Vote! With trust.

He changes times and seasons; he removes kings and sets up kings; (Daniel 2:21)

 

For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. (Romans 13:1)

 

Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, and from Jesus Christ the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of kings on earth. To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood and made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father. (Revelation 1:4–6)

 

God is not surprised at the outcomes of history and He is not needy (Psalm 115:3). We have a God who is in absolute control. He calls us to fight the good fight of faith not because he needs us in some tenuous battle but because He is conforming us into the likeness of His Son (Romans 8:28-32). How could he call us to not be anxious about tomorrow if that were not so? 

If the results are up to me, I shouldn’t sleep. My every action should be focused on victory. Any slip in effort, any conversation that doesn’t produce the right vote could be the decisive one. And the loss would be on my shoulders. Thankfully, that is not so. God has orchestrated the world so that the joyful, grateful obedience is mine and the results are his. Consider Psalm 4:4-8:

 

Be angry, and do not sin; ponder in your own hearts on your beds, and be silent. Selah Offer right sacrifices, and put your trust in the LORD. There are many who say, “Who will show us some good? Lift up the light of your face upon us, O LORD!” You have put more joy in my heart than they have when their grain and wine abound. In peace I will both lie down and sleep; for you alone, O LORD, make me dwell in safety.

 

Our duty is to walk into the polls with a good conscience and a sincere faith and to let the results rest with God. Vote like a person whose God is the King of Kings. Vote like a citizen of a new Kingdom. Offer right sacrifices and put your trust in the Lord. Your confident convictions and peaceful trust might just change the world.

Beyond the Voting Booth

Here’s the bonus. There is an opportunity in the midst of this tense political season. Your confident convictions and peaceful trust might just change the world – the world you touch every day.

When the New Testament calls us to stand for convictions, it does so with an appeal to a certain kind and gentle manner (2 Timothy 2:24-25, 1 Peter 3:15), because the manner, not merely the conviction, reveals God. If we have confidence in God’s truth and sovereignty, we can be both steadfast and kind in the midst of the rhetorical bombing raid. This supernatural ability to “Keep Calm and Carry On” confirms God’s presence and reveals His character. Because to win any argument through angry force of will betrays a lack of confidence in God and it misses the opportunity to display God’s grace as well as his truth. And a ticket with Grace and Truth as the candidates can win more than a political office.

Jane Austen's Impact on Bible Reading, and Other Thoughts about the Literature-Bible Connection

 

When I was a kid, my family had a routine. From before I can remember, my parents would gather my younger brother and I into the same bedroom every night before bed, and we would read The Chronicles of Narnia and end our day by praying together. 

And, as I grew up, I found that I loved reading. I would find whatever failing flashlight I possessed at the time and read under the covers after my parents tucked me into my bed. Countless worlds were opened to me – and I longed to see the actual world, to understand the fathoms of history, to know how the stories continued after they ended. 

That transferred to my love of Scripture, as well. My mom set an amazing example, voraciously devouring Scripture – finding beauty and treasure in the themes and realities that arc through both testaments. Particularly, I love the Old Testament histories and the Books of Wisdom.

So it is normally a pretty good shock when I don’t desire to read my Bible and, recently, I was struck by how reading (or not, in this particular case) a good book can have on my desire to read other things (like my Bible).

I first noticed it when I started trying to read Jane Austen’s Emma a few months back. Now, Jane Austen and I are not great friends. Upon reading Pride and Prejudice for my literature class in high school, I realized that I needed another study plan because I kept falling asleep while trying to get through its chapters (highly unusual, because I very rarely have such a problem). As I continued to turn Emma’s pages, I found it had the same soporific effect. I slugged it out until the halfway point and realized that I was hardly opening my Bible.

Now, I don’t want to knock Emma. A lot of people love it and find it charming and delightful and satirical in just the right places. It’s just not the book for me. 

I started asking myself, “Why is it so difficult to pick up the Word of the Living God, which I love, while reading something that doesn’t engage me?” And I think I finally arrived at the answer: I didn’t find enough spiritual truth in its pages to stimulate my heart to desire more spiritual things. It’s one of those things where, once you have a tiny bite of something delicious (spiritual truth), you want more (Bible) – but before you had that little bite, you didn’t realize that you were missing something.

Here are a few examples:

Think of the beautiful redemptive truths in Aslan’s relationship with Edmund in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. They are timeless. Maybe you think that Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina is just a crazy and long Russian novel about a woman named “Anna,” but its reflection of the human condition and the realities and consequences of sin is something that brought me to my knees many times while I read it. And while Anne of Green Gables, by L.M. Montgomery, is a staple of girlhood, I (as an adult) re-read all eight volumes every few years because there is something in the simplicity of life and faith lived out there that grabs my very soul and challenges how I walk daily in the Spirit.

There are countless others sitting on my shelves, which (though predominantly “secular”) draw me to the foot of the cross: memoirs like Madeleine L’Engle’s Crosswicks Journals; contemporary fiction like Jan Karon’s Mitford series; mental wringers like Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows or Theodore Dalrymple’s In Praise of Prejudice; spiritual treasures like Kelly Minter’s No Other gods or Tim Keller’s The Prodigal God; older fiction like Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, C.S. Lewis’ Till We Have Faces, George MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin

Since I put Emma down and picked up something that more clearly displays a fatally flawed character, I’ve recognized more my own need for a Savior, and the result is that I am more ready and eager to seek refuge and answers in the one place they can be found. I don’t know why I work that way, but I’m realizing that I do. It’s a good thing to know.

For you, it might be music, movies, sports, spending time with other human beings, or actual, physical artwork. Perhaps there is some piece of life in which you see the Gospel of Christ most clearly. My encouragement is to find that thing you enjoy that brings you closer to Christ and to His Word, because He is the best thing.

Quiet, Please: The Perils of Rushing Through Quiet Times

 

A few weeks ago, Chris Nickell shared some incredible thoughts about quiet times (what are they? why have them?) at the Rock. He challenged his audience to read from the Word daily, praying (both before and after reading) that God would speak through His Word. He also challenged us to daily share what God taught us with other believers for their encouragement. Our “homework assignment” was to wake up early the next morning so that we wouldn’t feel rushed in our time praying and being in the Word, and then to share a quiet time thought with someone.

I went to sleep excited to ace this homework assignment. The next morning, however, I slept through my alarm (not uncommon) and woke up an hour later than expected! I rushed to get ready, asking God to speak to me in the little bit of time I’d have in His Word before a morning meeting I’d be rushing to. With just a few minutes remaining, I sat down for my “quiet time.” Chris had mentioned the night before that we should all consider jumping into a reading plan to keep ourselves motivated for consistent reading. I have great memories reading through my ESV One Year Bible, so I hopped in, flipping to October 13. 

As I plowed through a few chapters, I was desperately searching for something to share with a friend who was coming to pick me up that morning, and then with the world! Instead of giving me a simple yet encouraging thought to share that morning, God gave me a convicting, love-filled spanking:

 

Thus says the LORD of hosts: “Do not listen to the words of the prophets who prophesy to you, filling you with vain hopes. They speak visions of their own minds, not from the mouth of the LORD.” (Jeremiah 23:16)

 

And just a few verses later, in Jeremiah 23:21, the spanking continued: “I [God] did not send the prophets, yet they ran; I did not speak to them, yet they prophesied.”

God was speaking straight to my rushed, unengaged heart as He referred to those false prophets. I was so excited to share an encouraging thought with people that day (whether it was from God’s mouth or not). I was more eager to speak to people, to inspire them, to change lives, than to sit before the Lord and listen to what He actually had to say to me.

My journey through this subject has progressed, as I’ve continued through the book of Jeremiah these past few weeks.

After Babylon had taken the land of Judah, and their appointed governor had been murdered, the remaining people of Judah asked Jeremiah to seek God on their behalf and tell them what to do. In Jeremiah 42:6, they state, “Whether it is good or bad, we will obey the voice of the LORD our God to whom we are sending you, that it may be well with us when we obey the voice of the LORD our God.”

However, when Jeremiah returned to them after seeking the Lord, telling them to stay in the land and not go to Egypt, many insolent men said, “You are telling a lie. The LORD our God did not send you to say, ‘Do not go to Egypt to live there,’ but Baruch the son of Neriah has set you against us, to deliver us into the hand of the Chaldeans, that they may kill us or take us into exile in Babylon” (Jeremiah 43:2-3). The people then declared, “As for the word that you have spoken to us in the name of the LORD, we will not listen to you” (Jeremiah 44:16).

Looking around, I’m sure these people noted that it seemed much “safer” and “wiser” to move to a land protected by a powerful ruler and army, rather than to depend on the strength, faithfulness, and kindness of God. It doesn’t take me long to recognize that same fear and tendency to cling to earthly wisdom in my response to circumstances in my life and everyday decisions. These verses really stopped me in my tracks. Am I willing to be still and really listen to the One who is orchestrating everything around me for His glory and for the good of those who love Him? No matter what His answer is in any given situation? If it seems hard? Uncomfortable? Financially unwise?

In Jeremiah 44:10, God described the people who would not listen to Him, saying, “. . . they have not humbled themselves even to this day, nor have they feared, nor walked in My law and My statutes that I set before you and before your fathers.”

Lord, please help me everyday to walk in humility, quick to believe and listen to You, to revere and fear You.

I really do want to have an encouraging thought to share from a long, prayerfully pursued quiet time every day, as prescribed by Mr. Nickell. How glorious will it be for those encouragements to really come from the Lord, given to me as my sustenance for the day, a gift for the refreshment of my soul that I can share with others.

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