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Joyful vision

Many centuries ago, King David described his joyful vision of life with God.

“You will show me the way of life,” he wrote in Psalm 16, “granting me the joy of your presence and the pleasures of living with you forever.”

It is a vision that captures my mind and heart – the pleasure of living with God forever.

But it is not a vision that is shared by everyone – in fact, I wonder if it is shared by all believers.

A while ago, the Gallup organization did a survey questioning people about their perception of God’s nature and character.  Only 23 per cent believed in a benevolent God who is forgiving and accepting of everyone who repents.

Like many Christians, I have wondered in the past whether God is pleased with me, especially after I have done something wrong.

But I have clung to the truth that he loves me.  He knows that I am weak and imperfect.  That’s why Christ came to die for me and all who believe, knowing that nothing would be good enough to pay for my sins except the Lord himself.

For me, this is the great hope for all people.  And yet apparently most people either don’t believe in a loving God or don’t believe in God at all.

The apostle Paul put the issue well in 2 Corinthians 2:16 where he notes that the good news of Jesus is a “sweet perfume” to believers and “a dreadful smell of death and doom” to those who don’t.

I admit that we Christians have often been a bad advertisement for the love of God.  We need to do as David did when he messed up – he confessed his wrongdoing and sought God’s “way of life” as he wrote in Psalm 16.

God was paramount in David’s life.  He penned these lovely lines in Psalm 27:4:

“One thing I ask from the Lord, this only do I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze on the beauty of the Lord and to seek him in his temple.”

Those are words I need to take to heart.  Gazing upon God and seeking him is an essential step to God’s “way of life” and the joy and pleasure that go with it.

God gave Paul a foretaste of heaven in a vision described in 2 Corinthians 12 – an overwhelming sense of God’s love and glory.

That awaits everyone who believes in Christ.

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God is good

When you’re suffering, it’s hard to believe that “God is good”.

Is the Bible wrong when it declares the goodness of God?  No, I don’t think so.

In the Book of Ruth in the Old Testament, Naomi leaves Judah for Moab with her husband Elimelech and two sons to escape a famine.  But Elimelech dies and a few years later her married sons die.

So, she sets off for her old home town in Judah, hearing that the crops are good again. Ruth, her Moabite daughter-in-law, goes with her, declaring that she will go with Naomi wherever she goes and cling to Naomi’s God.

Naomi’s friends and relatives greet her with excitement at her old home in Bethlehem.

But then she tells them to call her “Mara” instead of “Naomi” “for the Almighty has made life very bitter for me” (Ruth 1:20).

She adds: “I went away full, but the Lord has brought me home empty.  Why call me Naomi (‘pleasantness’ in English) when the Lord has caused me to suffer and the Almighty has sent such tragedy upon me?”

For anyone who has suffered, her response is understandable.  The Psalms are littered with cries of “Why have you done this to me, God?”

Yet, the Book of Ruth is really about God’s loving care.

As you may recall, Ruth, a non-Jew, ultimately marries Boaz, a kinsman to Naomi, and provides the offspring that Naomi lost when her two sons died.

And even more wonderful, Ruth’s descendants include King David and ultimately Jesus.

Of course, Naomi didn’t know this when she returned home from Moab.

And we often don’t know about the good things God has in store for us when we swim through troubled waters.

All we can see is pain.

God never promised us a trouble-free life.  Quite the contrary.  The moment that evil entered the world, so did suffering.

But the apostle James was quite right when he said: “‘Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.” (James 1:17)

God is good.

 

 

God and politics

As Christians, it’s easy to believe that God would vote the way we do in national elections.

That would be a mistake.

For one thing, Christians often find themselves in opposite political camps.  We can’t all be right.

But far more important, God doesn’t think the way we do.  As God says in Isaiah 55: “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts higher than your thoughts.”

In fact, God can be downright unpredictable.

A good example pops up in the book of Habakkuk where God says he is raising up the Babylonians to conquer other nations, the Israelites included.  The prophet Habakkuk is astonished and pleads with God.

But God makes clear that this is in response to the Israelites own sin, turning away from God.

However, the Lord goes on to say that he will ultimately judge Babylon, a cruel and rapacious nation.

Why does God do this?  Because of his long-term plan to bring his people home to the Lord and away from false gods – whether wooden idols or modern-day replacements that we consciously or unconsciously worship.

God loves us – that’s why Jesus came to give his life for us so that we would find a hope and a future with our Lord.  He wants to pull us away from the false gods so that we will have that hope and future.

So, despite the coming oppression, Habakkuk chooses to give himself to the Lord in hope, declaring these great words:

“Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Saviour.  The Sovereign Lord is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, he enables me to tread on the heights.” (Habakkuk 3:17-19)

Because God is God, we always have hope.  His plan is perfect.  He is working things out for the good of his children in God’s time.

Darkness before dawn

It’s easy to get discouraged by the dark forces at work in our western world today.

But a glance back at Bible history reveals that periods of turning away from God often led to people repenting and turning back to the Lord.

In other words, the darkness was often followed by the dawn of a new day in Israel – a spiritually strong day.  The people hit rock bottom and threw themselves upon the Lord and he responded.

As I look back at our own history in Canada, faith in God played a large part in the formation of our country.

There is still a strong remnant of belief in this country.  The church is declining but remains significant.

Yet there is little doubt that the prevailing winds in society are anti-Christian.

Our small study group has been looking at the Book of Judges in recent weeks.  It’s a raw and bloody book with constant war between Israel and its neighbours.

But worse than the wars was the tendency of the Israelites to turn away from God and adopt the religious viewpoints – and gods – of the surrounding nations.

As they worshipped these foreign idols, their morals declined and their belief in Yahweh – the Lord God – evaporated.  And God left them to their own devices.

Gradually, the neighbouring nations defeated them in battle and oppressed the Israelites.

After a period of time, the people would cry out to God in repentance for their sin and God would stir someone to lead the people out of slavery to the oppressors.

In Canada, we are not yet under foreign oppression.  But the country is largely turning away from God and adopting the philosophies of the larger world.

What will this mean in the long run for those who follow Jesus?

It could well mean that times will get even more troubling for believers.

But I take heart from Bible stories that show God is still at work even in the worst times.

Dark times often lead to a new dawn.

A call to action

I am constantly amazed at how God works in the lives of followers of Jesus.

Weak as we are, he often calls on us to do what we feel is impossible.  And, if we accept the challenge, he steps in and gives us his strength.

This last weekend, I heard a conference speaker describe how he felt God’s prodding to break out of the comfortable, traditional cocoon he lived in to reach the outside world for Christ.

He obeyed.  He had no plan, no grand strategy.

Instead, he spent time listening to God and studying the Book of Acts for two years.  Then, he and the little church he pastored changed the way they “did church”.

They realized that Jesus spoke often about spreading the good news of the kingdom of God – not just about a one-time encounter with the Saviour.  Many of Jesus’ stories – “parables” – are really about God working to transform the world around us through his followers.

The conference theme was about intimacy with God leading to influence in the world.  Often, this involves personal sacrifices.

The results can be great, although I know that people can work faithfully for a lifetime without seeing any obvious fruit.  Yet a simple word can change someone’s life and you may never know until you see that person in the life to come.

The speaker’s church, which he calls an “apostolic centre”, has succeeded in encouraging people to use the spiritual gifts God has given them.  The people are taking seriously the call to advance the kingdom of God and I understand they are having a considerable impact in their community and beyond.

In fact, that little church has now built a network of connections that have spread internationally.

The conference, organized by our son and daughter-in-law, was a call to action – a call to step out of our comfort zones, listen to God, and trust the Lord to take us where he wishes.

The scriptures are full of stories of people like that.

Gideon, for example.  Gideon believed he belonged to the weakest clan in Israel and was terrified when God asked him to lead his people to freedom from the enemy.  But he listened and obeyed – a faltering step at a time.  And God provided the power he needed.

A call to action – not an easy message for timid people like me.

But the benefits can be eternal – for us and for others.

Wonder

I wonder if I have lost my sense of wonder.

I heard of a foreign student who was busy snapping pictures of squirrels.  When asked why he was doing that, he said he was fascinated by squirrels because there were none in his country.

That story makes me realize how many things I take for granted in the world around me.

Mark Batterson, author of Primal: A Quest for the Lost Soul of Christianity, says: “When we lose our sense of wonder, what we really lose is our soul.”

The point Batterson is making is that we are living in God’s creation and wonder is a sign that we are awed by what God has done.  It should be a natural reaction of God’s followers.

In Psalm 24:1, David writes: “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it.  The world and all its people belong to him.”

I have pondered this verse often in the last little while.  It tells me that everything I see and touch really is God’s and bears his fingerprints.

That should spur me to praise and thanksgiving.

Batterson asks: “Is it possible we’ve studied the God of logic without truly worshiping the God of wonders?  When you descend the flight of stairs into the soul of Christianity, what you discover is primal wonder.”

It is often said that many astronomers and astrophysicists believe in God because they realize the wonders of the stars and planets must have been created by a creative mind and not by blind chance.

Others have pointed to the intricacies of the human eye as the work of a supernatural genius.  Batterson says God designed the retina to process close to 10 billion calculations every second so that we can see a particular image.  Mind-boggling.

The author points out that God loved creating the universe.  In Genesis 1, we see that God’s reaction to his creation was that he saw that it was good.  He was pleased with it.

When I think of it, God created even the little ant.  The ant is an amazing creation.  Very intricate with a certain God-given sense of purpose.

All of this is reminding me that I need to keep my eyes open to what is going on around me.

And I need to be thankful for God’s creative impulse.  He loves me and he loves his creation.

He is the giver of good gifts, even the so-called humble things.

God be praised!

Lesson from a heron

Spiritually, I am learning a lot from watching the blue heron near our home.

Specifically, I can see the value of waiting watchfully and patiently – until the right moment arrives.  That’s a quality I need as a follower of God.

I have started observing the heron in the last month or so – just after we moved into a new condo opposite a nature preserve.

He stands like a statue in a pond, occasionally moving his head but nothing else.  He ignores ducks paddling noisily by.

Then, suddenly, his long beak flashes down and he’s caught his prey.

As a Christian, I find it hard waiting to see what God will do.  I don’t think I’m alone in this.

Part of my problem is that I have preconceived ideas as to how God should act.  By clinging to my ideas, I may miss how God is moving in the world around me.

I have learned a little about opening my mind to what God wants through a prayer group I belong to.

The group plans an annual week of prayer for our city in January, beginning work months ahead.

Wisely, the group leader begins the meeting with an extended prayer time rather than plunging immediately into the agenda.  We worship God, pray for our city, our churches and our leaders.  Gradually, we pray about the agenda issues.

Interestingly, ideas filter through our prayers and sometimes we find ourselves coming together on the issues we are to discuss.  That can shorten the discussion time considerably.

I believe that is God at work in our prayers as a group.  We are open to what God wants and he responds by dropping ideas into our minds.

The heron doesn’t rush around stirring up the water frantically looking for his next meal.  He stands quietly observing and ready for whatever comes.

This teaches me that I should take my needs and requests to God and then keep my eyes peeled for what he is doing.  It may be completely different than my own ideas.

And his ideas matter.

Helping each other

The story of Moses teaches me a lesson: I can’t do what God wants me to do without help.

I need God’s help – and I need the help of other believers.

Moses was a reluctant leader commissioned by God to lead the Israelites out of Egypt and to the land promised them by the Lord.

Yet, despite his weaknesses, he led the people to the edge of the promised land before his death.

How did he do it?  He obeyed God, developed a close relationship with him, and by faith trusted the Lord to do what he said he would do.

And he relied on others to share the load of leadership.

I love the story of Moses.  For me, it’s another example of God choosing the least likely people to carry out great missions for our Lord.

God miraculously preserved Moses’ life as a baby when the Egyptian pharaoh was killing young male Israelite children.  He wound up being brought up as an Egyptian by an Egyptian princess.

After fleeing the court when he felt he was going to be charged with murder, he spent many years in the wilderness, marrying and tending his father-in-law’s flock of sheep.

Then, amazingly, God spoke to Moses from a burning bush, telling him that he was to lead the persecuted Israelites out of Egypt.

Moses resisted, saying he couldn’t speak well.  But God brushed aside that excuse and told him to appoint his brother Aaron as a spokesman.

That was Moses’ first step to finding human help in carrying out his great commission.

Here are some other examples of Moses accepting help from others:

  • Moses’ father-in-law Jethro watched as Moses tried to do everything as leader, including listening to every dispute among his people.  Jethro advised him to choose a lot of good men to deal with issues so that he could be free to lead the people as a whole.  Moses took that advice;
  • Moses trained younger men such as Joshua to take a leading role.  Joshua became a military leader in critical battles; and
  • Moses developed a strong spiritual mentoring relationship with Joshua, giving the young man insight into Moses’ close and obedient relationship with God.  Joshua was then ready to lead the Israelites into the promised land and to consistently point the people to God.

For me, the point is that we believers need to help each other out – as individuals and as groups of believers.

We can’t be as spiritually and lovingly effective as we should be if we try to go it alone – as individuals and as individual churches.

I am naturally a lone wolf.

But I know through experience that I have depended on many people – especially my wife – to grow as a follower of God.

I need others.  We all do.

Great expectations

Christians are as likely as anyone else to expect too much of other people.

An easy example: I’m a fan of a National Football League team and I eat up everything I can about that team.  If my team isn’t doing well, I’m disappointed.

In fact, I realize I get too consumed by the fortunes of my team.

Expecting too much of family, friends, workmates and church leaders is a common problem.  No one except Christ was ever perfect.

A glance through the Bible reveals that Bible heroes had their weaknesses.

David the King was a man after God’s own heart.  But he engaged in adultery and arranged for the death of Uriah whose wife he coveted.

Abraham claimed Sarah, his wife, was really his sister because he was afraid.  He feared that the Egyptian pharaoh might be attracted to Sarah, who was beautiful, and would get rid of Abraham so he could have his wife.  Pharaoh did take Sarah into his household and was angry when he discovered Abraham had deceived him and sent Abraham and his wife away.

Jacob was a congenital liar who deceived his own father to get the inheritance belonging to his older brother.

These men had their weaknesses – they sinned.  But God used them because they were people of faith.  They believed in God and were ready to do what God planned for them to do.

Great expectations of others can become an issue if we turn bitter and angry if they don’t live up to our hopes.  As others have noted, we will only find perfect bliss in heaven when we rejoice in the presence of God.

But Kerry Kirkwood, author of The Power of Right Thinking, says there is one place where we are justified in having high expectations – our faith in God.

God makes a number of promises to believers in the Bible.  Because they are God’s promises, we can be sure they will be fulfilled – in his timing.

“When expectation is based upon the Word of God, it’s no longer an assumption – it becomes a personal word direct to your heart,” writes Kirkwood.

He adds: “Wishful thinking is not faith; daydreaming is not faith.  Faith is tied to the Word of God, not a whimsical feeling.”

When we pray God’s words in scripture, we know we are praying his will.

And his will will be carried out.

Renew your mind

The apostle Paul calls on me – and all believers – to renew our minds.

That means changing the way I think and the things I think about.

The reason is simple: Satan uses my mind to fight a war with God.  He is trying to turn me away from listening to God and acting on what he wants me to do.

Paul knew well that our minds are often preoccupied with anything but God and godly things.

Paul’s words about renewing our minds have long caught my attention.  He says in Romans 12:1-2:

“Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God – this is your true and proper worship.  Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.  Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will.”

This tells me that:

  • I must give myself up to God completely – my ambitions, my desires.  This is an act of sacrifice which pleases God – it is worship;
  • To do this, I must turn away from all wrong thinking – thoughts of lust, revenge, greed – and seek a new God-centred way of thinking; and
  • Finally, I will find that I can hear God and know what he wants me to do.  I will find out what his will is and be able to act on it.

As all followers of Christ know, this is hard to do.  We are human and want to please ourselves first.  We are naturally self-centred.

But we can turn things around by focusing on who God is and how much he loves us.

Kerry Kirkwood, author of The Power of Right Thinking, says Christians need to know God better through studying the scriptures so that they can fight the wrong thoughts that Satan drops into their minds.

This means we need to ask the Holy Spirit to cleanse our minds; to understand God’s love for us; to meditate about God; and to deal with thoughts of disappointment, anger and revenge by looking at these issues through God’s eyes.

Understanding God’s love for us is a major step in combatting Satan’s lies.

Christian author and counsellor Neil Anderson has found that asking people to review regularly scriptures describing how God sees them has helped them gain new hope and spiritual strength.  For some, it has been life-changing.

May the Holy Spirit inspire us to seek his help in renewing our minds.