Monthly Archives: July 2011

Disturbingly wonderful stories in the Old Testament

What are the purpose of stories? Why did God choose to reveal himself through historical narratives, and not merely as a set of propositions or pithy sayings?

Stories are built into the very fabric of the universe. They set the imagination alight. They provide us with perspectives and experiences. To read that fire is hot is not the same as reading of listening to the crackle and watching the comforting orange glow of dancing flames radiating a gentle warmth on a cold winter night.

The Bible is full of strange and wonderful stories. To call something a story does not mean it is fictional. A story is merely a recounting of an event, either true or fictitious. The stories of the Bible are true, and give us a perspective of reality that is firmer and surer than any other.  Yet they are strange, and even disturbing at times, especially in the Old Testament. What comes into your mind when you read of God telling Abraham to sacrifice his only son Isaac? Or when he calls Hosea to marry a prostitute?

Have a read of this article. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Our God is disturbingly wonderful.

Apologies!

I’ve had an extremely busy week and will be having a pretty packed weekend as well. I’ll resume posting next Friday!

Psalm 5: You Will Have Enemies

We’re only 5 Psalms in and a pattern is already starting to emerge.

Solzhenitsyn wrote that “the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.” So far, the Psalms we have read have only served to confirm this very insight. There is the way of the righteous and the way of the wicked. Every man must choose between the two ways. We can scoff and reject or kiss the Son. Every man must choose what he does with the Son. In doing so, we make ourselves out as a people belonging to God or as enemies of God. Humanity is divided by where they stand in relation to God.

It is easy to think very little of this division. We all have non-Christian friends or relatives who are not opposed to our faith, and can be rather supportive to a good degree. This is a blessing we should thank God for – that those who are enemies of God are not our enemies. Yet there are undoubtedly many Christians across the world, today and in ages past, who are virulently and violently persecuted for their faith. They show us with certainty that there are those among the enemies of God who will also be our enemies.

There are three things to note from this Psalm.

First, God’s people will always have enemies. But let our enemies be our enemies because they are God’s enemies. Don’t make others out as enemies of God simply because they are our enemies. David describes his enemies (v.8) as those who have rebelled against God (v.10).

Second, it is a fearful thing to be an enemy of God. He hates all evildoers (v.5), he destroys those who speak lies (v.6), he will cast out rebels because of the abundance of their transgressions (v.10).

Third, the dividing line can be crossed. David was far from sinless. The story of Bathsheba is a tragic account of how sinful the human heart is. But he was spared from destruction. How can an evil man enter the presence of God (v.4)? He may do so through the abundance of God’s steadfast love (v.7). In the wake of recent books challenging the reality of hell and God’s wrath,  it must be noted that this is not a sentimental, ‘grandfatherly’ love. It is a holy and righteous love that will not sweep sins under the rug and pretend they never existed. All our sins will be accounted for, and God’s justice will finally run its course.

The question is who that wrath falls upon. It can fall upon us, or it can fall upon Jesus, “whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness at the present time, because in his divine forebearance he had passed over former sins (Romans 3:25).”  David was allowed to enter the house of God because in faith he looked forward to the day when Jesus would finally pay for his sins. Today, we can enter into the presence of God as we look back and believe that Jesus paid for our sins in full on the cross.

Therefore,

let all who take refuge in you rejoice;
let them ever sing for joy,
and spread your protection over them,
that those who love your name may exult in you.
For you bless the righteous, O Lord;
you cover him with favor as with a shield. (v.11-12)

Dealing with disappointment

If there’s a lesson God is teaching me this year, it’s how to deal with disappointment.

We were made with the organ of ambition. We have dreams we want to realise, objectives we want to accomplish, and purposes we want to satisfy. To this end, we make plans, a road map for achieving what we desire. But our plans do not always work out. Like driving with a GPS in badly mapped territory, real life seldom matches the calculated route. We have to take long detours, and dead-ends are not uncommon. Oftentimes, we are forced to abandon our journey and either go home or go somewhere else. Disappointment sets in.

Have you ever thought about the word ‘disappointment’? We all know what it means to make and keep appointments, though perhaps Malaysians tend to be poorer with the latter. But this is not the type of appointment I have in mind. By appointment, I refer to the act of designating someone for a position, as in “Joel was appointed as the country’s leader by the people in a stunning landslide victory at the polls yesterday” or (a more modest example) “God appointed David as King over Israel”. The word disappointment therefore carries the idea of being removed or denied from a certain position. When we are disappointed at an outcome in life, there is a very palpable sense of our ambitions being rejected.

Disappointment is a state of life and is as morally neutral as being appointed to something. Disappointment is God’s way of closing certain doors in our life. But disappointment is often accompanied by its sinful brother discontentment. We don’t feel disappointed; we feel discontented. Discontentment is a state of heart reflecting our dissatisfaction with our lot in life. Because we believe that we are entitled to a life that pans out according to the way we envision it, we are naturally unhappy when things don’t go our way. It’s like walking in with a winning raffle and being denied the prize, or paying $200 for a steak that is frozen and overcooked. We feel shortchanged. If we do not actively deal with our weeds of discontentment, they can choke out our spiritual life and lead us to reject God himself.

I’ll be the first to admit it. It’s difficult to avoid discontentment in the midst of disappointment. As certain as the fact that thunder follows lightning, discontentment is always hot on the heels of disappointment. I am well acquainted with the loss of purpose, the gnawing sense of rejection, the churning of the mind, the turmoil of the heart, the sleepless nights, the innumerable whys, the relentless introspection, the never-ending stream of regretful if only’s, the wrestling with God, and the simmering unhappiness that flows over into everything else.

You might think that I am making too much of a small thing. But there are small things, like seeds, when nurtured grow into big things. Discontentment begins with a sense of denied entitlement. To have a sense of denied entitlement requires us to name a benefactor. Otherwise, who is it that owes us something but denies it to us? If there is a God, then surely he is the benefactor. But what kind of benefactor would deny us something that we are entitled to? Only a sadistic, malevolent deity would do such a thing. And if we believe that God is not good and not loving, then we are right to reject him.

The problem is that God is good and loving, and we have absolutely no right to reject him. He is not the one that owes us anything; on the contrary, we owe him everything, including the very breath you are currently breathing. If there is someone who has a proper sense of denied entitlement, it is not us but God. He is entitled to our honour and worship but we have denied it. Yet though we are entitled to wrath and fury, we are denied it for a while longer. God is graciously at work to save individuals from all the peoples of the earth. Because of Jesus we are richly blessed with every blessing that we have absolutely no entitlement to, and denied the very judgment which we are entitled to.

In other words, we need to remember the gospel. By keeping the gospel central to our hearts and minds, we are able to drive out discontentment in the midst of disappointment. We need to remember that all that we have been appointed to and disappointed from comes from the gracious hand of a God who loves us. Yet his love does not obligate him to fulfill our every whim and wish. This is reassuring because we are not as wise as God, and must trust that he knows which appointments are best for us. More than that, it means that the goodness of God is grounded in the reality that he loves us because he chooses to love us and not because he is obligated to anything in us.

We need to remember the logic of Paul in Romans 8:32 – if God did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Our appointments and disappointment pale in comparison to God’s eternal appointment of us as his children through Jesus. By this eternal appointment, we will never lack any good thing. Because we are in Christ, God is working all things for our good. Whether he is at work to appoint us to or disappoint us from certain stations in life, it is ultimately for our good. In this we can learn to be content whatever our lot in life.

Psalm 4: The Ground of Praying Boldly

When it comes to prayer, I have to admit that I find it hard to ask with confidence. I don’t mean that I lack confidence in prayer. I know full well that I can boldly approach the Father because of what Jesus has done for me. But I can’t quite wrap my head around Jesus’ words in John 14:14: “If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it.”

Really? Anything? Yes, Jesus did qualify his statement with the phrase “in my name”, meaning that we should only ask for things that will bring honour and glory to his name, but even with this qualification, there remain numerous things we can ask for in his name. Yet, I always feel the need to qualify my prayers: “Please do this and this, if it’s in accordance with your will.

But Paul the apostle doesn’t pray like this. For example, in Romans 1:9, we find him “asking that somehow by God’s will I may now at last succeed in coming to you.” The will of God is not preceded by an if. Paul is asking that God will order things in such a way that he can come to the Romans. I confess I do not pray with the same degree of boldness.

What lies behind my lack of boldness? Why do I find it difficult to say with David, “the Lord hears when I call to him.” (v.3) I think at some root level, I do not fully trust in the goodness of God. David knows otherwise. He knows that God is merciful, and hears us in spite of the imperfection of our prayers. So when he was in distress, he prayed boldly for relief. He doesn’t hedge his prayers with “let me suffer more if that is your will.”

Yet there was one who prayed such a prayer: “Father, remove this cup from me. Yet not my will but your will be done.” And the Father’s will was that Jesus would drink the cup of his wrath till it was empty. Because Jesus was obedient until death,  he secured for us an infinite bounty of goodness. Our bold prayers for our good are bought with the blood of Jesus. God will not turn a deaf ear to such valuable prayers. This brings a new dimension to the last few lines of the Psalm:

There are many who say, “Who will show us some good?
Lift up the light of your face upon us, O Lord!” (v.6)

Having seen Jesus, there can no longer be any doubt about God’s goodness to us. The request that the Lord lift up the light of his face upon his people has been answered in full. It is none other than Jesus Christ himself (see 2 Corinthians 4:6). He not only shows us some good; more than that, nothing but goodness comes to us from his hand. Even the evils and sufferings we face are but a momentary affliction working for us an eternal weight of glory and goodness.

Do we perceive the goodness of God towards us? More often than not, we dwell bitterly on the things that God denies us for our good, thinking that we know better what we need. But we are not as wise as God, nor do we love ourselves as much as God loves us. Left to our own devices, we would soon destroy ourselves. But thanks to the goodness of God, we can say with the Psalmist:

You have filled my heart with greater joy
than when their grain and new wine abound.
I will lie down and sleep in peace,
for you alone, O LORD,
make me dwell in safety.

This is the ground of praying boldly. Because of Jesus, God is working all things for our good. In him we can find an inexhaustible supply of goodness dedicated to our joy and peace. That God would show such goodness to undeserving sinners like us is unthinkable but undeniably true. O the depth of the love of God!

Should I read my Bible if my heart is not in it?

From an Unmotivated Christian,

Should I read my Bible if my heart is not in it?

Dear Unmotivated Christian,

Yes. Please do not stop reading your Bible, all the more when your heart is not in it. God has promised to work through his Word so that our hearts desire to be with him more.

Let me begin by saying that I understand where your heart lies in the matter. You feel that it would be dishonouring to God if we came to him with our minds distracted and our hearts desiring to be elsewhere. I appreciate your desire to come before God with a pure heart, knowing that he is holy and deserves our best.

The bad news is that none of us will ever have a heart pure enough to come before God. Our best is not enough. Jesus himself called us evil (Mt 7:11)! We are natural sinners. Paul describes us as dead in our sins, and objects of wrath. Yes, God hates our sin and is right to be angry at us. We have belittled him, and not given him the honour he deserves.

But through Jesus a new way has been opened up to God. If we believe in our heart and confess with our mouth that he is our Lord, we will enjoy all the benefits of his death and resurrection. We are forgiven. We are made alive. We are declared righteous. We are adopted as children of God. We are loved eternally.

And all this comes through no merit of our own. We can do nothing to contribute to our salvation. It is wholly of grace, wholly of Jesus. He is the basis by which we can approach God with confidence, without fear of divine wrath. As the old hymn says, “nothing in my hand I bring, simply to thy cross I cling”. We come empty-handed before God, and are given immeasurable riches. It sounds like a crazy deal. But such is the lavishness of his grace and love towards us. Our God is a God who is happy to welcome humble and penitent sinners to him. He does not require that we clean up our act first. He asks that you acknowledge your dirtiness and come to him to be washed.

At this point you might think that I have said nothing more than the gospel. You are correct. But let me try to help you see that the truths of the gospel are just as relevant to us every day of our lives as the day of our conversion.

The gospel reminds us that Jesus is the ground of our confidence for coming before God. Because of what he has done, the throne of God is a throne of mercy. The one seated on the throne is not an angry judge but our good and loving Father. Nothing has changed since your conversion. He is just as eager to welcome dirty and wounded children as he was to welcome dirty and wounded sinners. He would not want you to think that you have to now earn your way into his presence. Our relationship with him will always rest on the work of Jesus, and not the condition of our hearts. The fact is that even on our best days this side of heaven, our sincere hearts will never be sufficient to let us enter the presence of God.

Does sincerity count for nothing then? Absolutely not! Though it can never be the ground of our coming before God with confidence, any Christian who remembers that Jesus is the basis of his confidence cannot help but approach God sincerely. As the writer of Hebrews puts it, “since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.” Note the order of the words. Because Jesus is our great priest, we can draw near with a true heart. What is it that makes our heart true? It is a heart that believes it can only come before God because of Jesus.

Now that you know this, I hope you let nothing stop you from reading your Bible. God your Father eagerly waits for you to come to him, faults and sins and all. Sit a while and listen to him. All that I’ve said is found in the Bible. God wishes to remind us every day that our relationship with him is of grace, from first to last. If we forget this, we have been fooled by the devil into thinking that our hearts must first be right before we listen to God. To the contrary, we must listen to God if our hearts are to be right. And where else can we hear his voice but within the very pages of the Bible itself?

Psalm 3: Salvation belongs to the Lord

The story of David’s son Absalom is a rather messy one. His story begins in 2 Samuel 13, with the tragic rape of his sister Tamar by his half-brother Amnon. Amnon went unpunished, while Tamar was forced to live with her shame. And so hatred burnt within the heart of Absalom. Hatred blossomed into murder and upon completion of the foul deed, Absalom fled the country.

David loved Absalom, and eventually brought him back to Jerusalem, with a single condition: Absalom was to never enter the presence of David. For two years, Absalom lived in Jerusalem without laying eyes on David. But Absalom longed to see his father, and forced his way into David’s presence. Despite his disobedience, David welcomed Absalom with a kiss.

Yet Absalom conspired against his father, stealing the hearts of the men of Israel as to usurp his father’s throne. David, receiving word that the conspiracy was coming to fruition, fled Jerusalem. Psalm 3 was borne out of the treachery of Absalom and Israel and David’s desperate flight to safety.

The story of Absalom raises many questions. Why did David not punish Amnon? Was Absalom’s response justified? What drove him to conspire against his father? Who was at fault for the breakdown in their relationship? And let us not forget the words of Nathan in 2 Samuel 12:10-11: “Now therefore the sword shall never depart from your house, because you have despised me and have taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your wife.’ Thus says the Lord, ‘Behold, I will raise up evil against you out of your own house…”

The consequences of sin are far-reaching and deadly. The words of Nathan would have haunted David as he fled. God himself had decreed that evil would fall upon David out of his own house. And so it came to pass. But David did not curse God for the evil that had fallen upon him. Instead he acknowledged God as his salvation – as his shield, his glory and the lifter of his head. Even as his enemies pursued him intently, God would shield him from harm. Even as the people shamed David for the loss of his throne, God would be his glory. And even as David felt dejected and downhearted over his son’s betrayal, God would lift up his head.

Living on our side of the cross and resurrection, we see that this is but a glimpse of the full salvation of God that came through Jesus Christ. Jesus is our shield, our glory, the lifter of our heads and more. He has disarmed our enemies at the cross. He has made us more than conquerors through him, subjecting our enemies to our good. He has given us the right to become children of God. He has promised that we will share in his glory. He shall glorify us on that final day. He has lifted from us the weight of our condemnation. He has set us free from the deadly slavery of sin. He is the joy of our souls.

David rightly recognised that salvation belongs to the Lord (v.8a). This is an eternal truth. Because it belongs to him, he is free to give it to whoever he desires to give it to. And he desires to give it to those who genuinely ask for it. Jesus will never turn away any who come to him for salvation.