Where Is God In Infant Sickness or Deformity?

Published on September 20, 2011 by CT in Blog, Theology

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One of the great aspects of blogging as a medium for writing is its form, particularly for a student and proponent of the Bible.  Blogging holds the potential for one of Christian writers’ dearest pastimes, a practice that is far too easy and far too enjoyable to pass up without intentional avoidance.  I’m talking about proof-text posting.

After all, blog posts are relatively short in nature (not this one).  Why build a doctrine in a post when you can cite a verse and, BOOM, make your point?

I suspect we’re all guilty of this to some degree.  Our beliefs are precious to us, and we want to hold tightly to them, probably for the sense of security and control they give to us.  I know there are certain aspects of my faith that I would literally die for, so if someone wants to challenge them, it only seems natural that I would fight for them in the easiest way possible.

I was asked to contribute to another blogger’s Theology Week, and I was more than happy to oblige, so I posted a call for topics.  Each response was thoughtful and creative, and each was attractive for its proof-text posting (PTP) potential.

@hockeypreacher suggested “[a Christian view of] self-defense.” This was an intriguing topic, one that I hadn’t thought much about, and one that seems particularly relevant given the global violence we see playing out in our day.  It’s also ripe for a left jab and an uppercut PTP response:  “If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also” (Matthew 5:39).  BOOM.  Question answered; problem is down for the count.

@justantinople suggested “cannabis in relation to Judeo-Christian theology and the modern believer.” Another interesting topic given the national debate on the merits of medicinal usage of marijuana.  And this is another topic that has PTP potential wrapped tightly around it just waiting to be lit:  “O man of God, there is death in the pot!” (2 Kings 4:40).  BOOM.  You could take that response and smoke it.

But then @matthammitt suggested a topic that you can’t just drop a proof-text post on—at least not if you have any sort of heart.  He suggested “Psalm 139:13-16 in relation to children who are born sick or deformed.”  If you don’t know this Psalm right away, you’ve likely heard it before.

“For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb.  I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.  Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well.  My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth.  Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there were none of them.”

So what are we to make of this question in light of this testimony of Scripture? My initial reaction was I would be a fool to comment on such a sensitive subject given my lack of exposure to it.  I have a good friend from college whose son has had years of medical issues, but I’ve only seen him once in the last 7 years, so it’s not like I’ve had to face this issue regularly.  And while I am a father of one, our daughter has not had significant issues so far in her first year.  So it feels as if I shouldn’t comment until I’ve walked through a hard season of life like this.

The difficulty of this question doesn’t make speaking to the issue any easier either.  I would like to just cite Genesis 3 and Romans 8 and say that creation has been groaning since the Fall, and then point to John 12 to show that Satan is the rule of this world, and conclude in Revelation 21 by saying God didn’t mean for things to be this way and that He is making all things new, and simply be done with it.  But then we’d be left with the testimony of other parts of Scripture that would challenge my conceptions of this God we serve, and I would be faced with explaining them away or ignoring them altogether.

As the global priesthood of believers, we are given the privilege of speaking on behalf of God—or more accurately, we are given the privilege of passing along the words of God in a way that is faithful to them and glorifying to their author.  But, of course, that’s the trick, and we do well to offer Biblical counsel with the praise Luke gave to the Bereans who “examin[ed] the Scriptures daily to see if [what they were told] was so” (Acts 17:11).

So with the Berean mindset, and with the willingness to allow Scripture to test and approve our own beliefs about God, perhaps we could begin by reflecting on some of the things God is telling us about Himself in Psalm 139.  In this passage, we see that:

  1. God formed him from conception.  “You formed my inward parts…you knitted me together in my mother’s womb.”  The actor in this creation was God; the psalmist’s parents conceived him, but it was God’s hand that formed him with deliberate care and purpose.
  2. God formed him with great care.  The psalmist was not simply made—he was “fearfully and wonderfully made.”  He was a miracle from God, formed in mystery and wonder by a God who inspires awe in every act of conception, and he was fashioned with the attention of a careful creator.
  3. God saw him clearly as He made him. “My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret.”  Nothing was hidden from God in the making of this child.  He knew everything about him and even saw into the secret places as he was being formed.
  4. God authored the formation of his days.  “In your book were written…the days that were formed for me.”  The psalmist’s life was a book written by God Himself, and his days in his mother’s womb were the opening chapters.  God saw his unformed substance like a blank page, and with careful creativity, He molded and shaped the words of his life into a story with a purpose.

It’s not in the nature of an infinitely perfect being to err, and it seems clear that the psalmist is testifying to the great intentionality and thoughtful care with which He was made.  God formed Him, and He made no mistakes in doing it.

The psalmist was not alone.  God said to Jeremiah:  “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you” (Jeremiah 1:5).  Isaiah testified to God’s hand on his life before birth in saying, “The LORD called me from the womb, from the body of my mother he named my name” (Isaiah 49:1).  Job tells of God’s care in creating him:  “Your hands fashioned and made me…you clothed me with skin and flesh, and knit me together with bones and sinew” (Job 10:8, 11).  And the psalmist also testifies to us:  “Know that the LORD, he is God!  It is he who made us, and we are his” (Psalm 100:3).

So we see that God is the creator and caretaker of life from the very beginning.  But what does this show in relation to the sick or the deformed?  Could not God be the creator of life in one sense, but sin has corrupted His creation in the here and now?

The Bible doesn’t tell us explicitly about the formation of the deformed or sick in utero.  But three passages come to mind as pressing on this discussion, and they reveal for us some truths about God that we may not expect.

The first passage is from Exodus 4 and addresses God’s active hand in deformities.  Moses is making excuses for why he won’t go to Pharaoh and the people of Israel to lead them out from Egypt, and he is appealing to his slowness of speech and tongue.  God replies with this:  “Who has made man’s mouth?  Who makes him mute, or deaf, or seeing, or blind?  Is it not I, the LORD?” (Exodus 4:11).  Here, God tells us that He makes men mute, or deaf, or blind, or gives them sight.  These deformities are not oversights on God’s part, nor are they out of His control.

The second passage is from 2 Samuel 12 and addresses God’s active hand in sickness.  David has committed adultery with Bathsheba and has murdered her husband.  The prophet Nathan comes to David to convict him and to reveal God’s judgment.  After David confesses to his sin, Nathan says, “Because…you have scorned the LORD, the child who is born to you shall die.”  The writer goes on:  “And the LORD afflicted the child [born] to David, and he became sick…[and] on the seventh day the child died” (2 Samuel 12:14-15, 18).  Here we see God afflicting the child from birth—and this is noteworthy—and doing so irrespective of anything the child had done.  It was the sin of David that led to this affliction at the hand of God, but it was God’s hand and purpose nonetheless.

The third passage is from John 9 and addresses God’s purpose in deformities.  Jesus and His disciples passed a man who was blind, and John tells us this man was “blind from birth.”  The prevailing notion of the day was that the deformed were born as a result of sin, and the debate was over whose sin it may be.  Jesus’ disciples asked Him:  “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”  Jesus answered, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him” (John 9:1-3).  Jesus passes on His disciples’ initial question because He recognizes it as the wrong question to begin with.  Instead, he points to the point:  This man was born blind so that God might be glorified in him.

All in all, we see God’s hand and purpose in creating us from our very beginnings, carefully authoring the pages in which we live out our lives, and purposefully bringing about our circumstances, whether we consider them to be good or bad, in order that He might be glorified.  These are hard truths, and this question is worth far more time and exploration than these humble thoughts.  For many, the question may seem of little relevance if our lives aren’t touched by these sorts of challenges.  But I would suggest that we are all impacted by our own answers to this question.

Do we believe that God is sovereign over sickness and deformity, and that His purposes in them are good, for His glory, and for our joy?  If He is not, then is He sovereign over our broken family, or our lost job, or our estranged child, or our broken friendship?  As His caring hand molds and shapes us from our first beginnings, and as His narrative plays out in our lives, are we to assume He is not authoring the peaks and valleys of our stories?  Does He not intend to “work all things together for good, for those who are called according to His purpose?” (Romans 8:28) and that these “all things” must include all things?

May we approach these kinds of questions with great humility and trepidation, seeking to find what God testifies about Himself, and careful not to come to any conclusions without great searching and prayer.  May we see that life is not about us, that we are created in order to magnify the glory of God, and that we are to go to war with our conceptions of fairness and good.  May we find ourselves with great empathy for broken vessels in any way we find them, whether in utero or in person, recognizing that we are all spiritually broken as well.  And may we all seek to embrace God’s loving sovereignty as He carries out His own good purposes in our lives, so that He might be glorified in us as we find the contentment of joy in every circumstance, knowing that our Father and Creator never makes mistakes.

Question:  What do you see as God’s role in the hard parts of life?

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Be Overwhelmed

Published on January 17, 2011 by CT in Blog, Theology

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You remember the passage in Genesis 18 where Abraham petitions God over and over? God has come to “see whether [Sodom and Gomorrah] have done altogether according to the outcry that has come to me,” and He hangs behind as the two angels go down towards Sodom.  This is where Abraham approaches Him to inquire:

“Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked?  Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city.  Will you then sweep away the place and not spare it for the fifty righteous who are in it?  Far be it from you to do such a thing, to put the righteous to death with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked!  Far be that from you!  Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?”

And God responded:

“If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will spare the whole place for their sake.”

This goes on and on, with Abraham petitioning God five more times, until the point where God has promised that He will not destroy the city of Sodom if only ten righteous people are found within its walls.  Of course, you know the rest of the story, that not even ten are found, and in His mercy, God saves Lot and his wife (for a time) and his daughters, and that these two great cities are completely destroyed.

As I consider this passage, a few observations come to mind:

  1. God’s foreknowledge does not preclude His listening, and even responding to, His people whom He knows.  In fact, His foreknowledge enables it.  God knew that not even ten would be found in the city, yet He permitted Abraham to petition Him six times on the city’s behalf, in order to show Abraham, and us by observation, something about His nature, such that…
  2. …God’s love overcomes His wrath.  Our perfect God is just to show His wrath on sinful people like us who have not kept to His perfect standard.  Yet His mercy overcomes.  His mercy overcomes so much that God was willing to spare an entire city, full of people who were long in rebellion to Him, if only to be merciful to even ten of His people.  That’s because “the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials,” (2 Peter 2:9), because…
  3. …There is a kind of righteousness that comes in believing God.   “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness (Romans 4:3).”  And Lot believed God as well through Abraham, as he went with him to this distant, promised land.  Even though Lot was a man of mistakes, some quite grievous, he knew enough about God so that he was “greatly distressed by the sensual conduct of the wicked (for as that righteous man lived among them day after day, he was tormenting his righteous soul over their lawless deeds that he saw and heard)” (2 Peter 2:8), which reminds us that…
  4. … “God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).

So when you feel overwhelmed by your own sin, be more overwhelmed by God’s mercy and love, which we see most clearly at the cross.  He listens, and rescues, and gives us His righteousness, and loves us more deeply than we know.

Question:  Do you experience a lot of guilt about your own sins?

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Change You Can Believe In

Published on January 3, 2011 by CT in Blog, Theology

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Change is good. Except when it’s change for the sake of change.  Then it’s short-sighted, ineffective, and not entirely useful to anyone.

But real change, deep change, heartfelt change, individual change, is its own revolution. And I don’t mean to use the term revolution too lightly.  This kind of change is nothing short of a miracle.

Here’s what I have in mind when I talk about this kind of deep, heartfelt change.  Paul was a religious man who set out to destroy the church of God (so he hoped) in order to please God (so he thought).  And one day, he encountered Jesus.  Here’s what he said:  “Who are you, Lord?”

Paul goes on to be saved, begins preaching in the synagogue, goes to Arabia, goes back to Damascus, ends up in Jerusalem, and begins his missionary journeys.  Thirty years go by, and here is what we find him now writing:  “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain…My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better [than remaining in the flesh]” (Philippians 1:21, 23).

Since we have the whole Bible and know Paul’s story, we overlook this change as no big deal.  But the change here is stunning.

“Who are you, Lord?”

…to…

“My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.”

So I wonder at what can produce this kind of change in a man.  I said earlier that this kind of change is a miracle, because a miracle involves the supernatural piercing the natural.  And that’s precisely what happened with Paul.  “But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles” (Galatians 1:15-16).

According to the testimony of Paul, it was the calling of God by grace through the revealing of His Son that changed him.  This was his miracle.  The Spirit confirms this through Luke:  “I am Jesus, who you are persecuting” (Acts 9:5).

And this is our miracle as well.  If God is in us and for us, then He has called us by His grace through the revealing of His Son as well.  “Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God” (1 John 4:15).  And we are changed people because of it—may we never forget it!

Question:  How has God changed you most since He called you by His grace?

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Where to Find Grace in Marriage

Published on August 23, 2010 by CT in Blog, Theology

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Anna and I have been reading John Piper’s recent book on marriage, entitled This Momentary Marriage.  The premise of the book is simple:  that marriage is the doing of God and is meant to be the display of God.

Piper looks to two amazing descriptions of marriage in the Scriptures to develop this thesis.  The first is in Matthew 19, where Jesus reaches back to quote and explain the first statement about marriage in Genesis 2.

“[Jesus] answered, ‘Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh?’  So they are no longer two but one flesh.  What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate’” (Matthew 19:4-6, emphasis added).

Jesus is telling us that marriage is the doing of God—that we come together to make covenant vows, but it is God who joins a man and his wife together.  In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul cites the same passage as Jesus did, but he adds another element to the purpose of marriage:

“‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’  This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church” (Ephesians 5:31-32).

Paul is telling us that marriage is the display of God—that the covenant of marriage, joining two into one, points to a higher, eternal covenant between Jesus and His bride, the church.  What Paul is saying is that the purpose of marriage is to display the glory of God as seen by Christ’s sacrifice for, love of, and eternal commitment to all of His people.

As Anna and I read last night, we considered what it means for our marriage to be a display of God’s glory, as rooted in God’s work.  Marriage is unbelievably joyful at times, and it’s frustrating at other times.  I am learning to see the depths of my own sin—selfishness, pride, self-righteousness—and nothing has revealed this to me more than marriage.

Part of the encouragement we read in one of the chapters was the notion that a man and woman are to view each other in marriage as God views each of us—as righteous as Jesus.  This isn’t easy, because we know, and have to deal with, each others’ faults and sins all the time.  But being justified by God means He has applied, or imputed, Jesus’ righteousness to us, so that when God sees us, He sees us as righteous as His Son.

This is astounding, and it has enormous implications on how we all treat our spouses in marriage.  If we see each other in this way, that the other is perfect in the eyes of God, specifically because of Jesus, then we’re going to find grace to forgive and the freedom to make allowances for one another’s faults.

This is where we can find grace in marriage:  the sins of our marriages can be overcome with grace because of the greater reality of God’s grace triumphing over our sin against Him.  May we be the kind of husbands and wives who receive grace from God so that we can share that grace with others—all so that the world may see the work and display of God in our marriages.

Question:  Have you considered marriage to primarily be a display of God’s glory in Jesus?

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Can We Move On From Jesus?

Published on July 19, 2010 by CT in Blog, Theology

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You ever feel like you’re ready to move on from Jesus? You hear a sermon about the cross, or the gospel, and you feel like you’ve heard that before?  Like it’s time to move on to something else?

I think this is a fair question, particularly with the branches of gospel-centered ministry rising high about the ground of our church culture.  After all, the Bible is full of characters, and stories, and principles, and commandments; it offers more than a life-time of study and understanding can fathom.

There’s a passage in Hebrews that almost sounds like an encouragement to move on.  It says:  “Therefore let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity” (Hebrews 6:1).  Doesn’t this tell us there’s a time to move on—that the doctrine of Christ is a step along the path towards maturity?

When I first read this passage, I got stuck on the “elementary doctrine of Christ” part.  Was the writer saying the “doctrine of Christ” is elementary?  What is the doctrine of Christ anyway?

Then followed logical next questions.  Aren’t we supposed to move on to meat?  Aren’t we supposed to go on to maturity?  Isn’t our understanding of salvation by Christ’s work on the cross the foundation of our faith–but we’re then supposed to build a house of obedience and bear fruit on top of it?

I think part of the answer appears in how the writer goes on to define the “elementary” parts of the doctrine of Christ; namely: repentance from dead works, faith, washings, laying on of hands, resurrection, and eternal judgment.  And we find that these are not the gospel.

Another part of the answer may be found in the previous chapter.  The writer has just argued that Jesus is greater than Moses and that He is now our Great High Priest.  And he details that Jesus, in being made perfect, became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him (5:9) through what he suffered (v. 8).  And then in v. 11, the writer says, “About this we have much to say, and it is hard to explain…”

I think this is where we find our answer. This is the gospel—that Jesus, our Great High Priest, the perfect Son of God, suffered on the cross for our sins, rose from the dead, and became the source of salvation for all who believe.  And there’s much to say about it, because it’s hard to explain.  But it’s also a mine worth exploring because of the vastness of treasure within.

So I would say two things: first, that Jesus is a person, not a doctrine, and we never move on in our faith from the person of Jesus; and second, that we have much to say about this glorious gospel of Jesus and His work on the cross, and as the Lord permits (6:3), we will go on to maturity as we grow in grace and knowledge of Him.

Question:  Have you ever felt like moving on to something else in your faith?

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In Order To…

Published on July 6, 2010 by CT in Blog, Theology

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I write at this blog in order to create a platform to be read more widely.  I want a larger platform in order to provide me with a sense that my life and my work have value.  I want this sense of value in order to satisfy my longing for joy in life.

In short, I write for the wrong reasons.

In God’s Passion For His Glory, John Piper teaches us:

The essence of authentic, corporate worship is the collective experiment of heartfelt satisfaction in the glory of God, or a trembling that we do not have it and a great longing for it…[So] if the essence of worship is satisfaction in God, then worship can’t be a means to anything else.  We simply can’t say to God, ‘I want to be satisfied in you so that I can have something else.’  For that would mean that we are not really satisfied in God but in that something else.  And that would dishonor God, not worship him.

But, in fact, for thousands of people, and for many pastors, the event of ‘worship’ at [church] is conceived of as a means to accomplish something other than worship.  We ‘worship’ to raise money; we ‘worship’ to attract crowds; we ‘worship’ to heal human hearts; to recruit workers; to improve church morale; to give talented musicians an opportunity to fulfill their calling; to teach our children the way of righteousness; to help marriages stay together; to evangelize the lost; to motivate people for service projects; to give our churches a family feeling.

In all this we bear witness that we do not know what true worship is.  Genuine affections for God are an end in themselves.  I cannot say to my wife:  ‘I feel a strong delight in you so that you will make me a nice meal.’  That is not the way delight works.  It terminates on her.  It does not have a nice meal in view.  I cannot say to my son:  ‘I love playing ball with you—so that you will cut the grass.’  If your heart really delights in playing ball with him, that delight cannot be performed as a means to getting him to do something.

I do not deny that authentic corporate worship may have a hundred good effects on the life of the church.  It will, just like true affection in marriage, make everything better.  My point is that to the degree we do ‘worship’ for these reasons, to that degree it ceases to be authentic worship.  Keeping satisfaction in God at the center guards us from that tragedy.

I think Piper is on to something here.  I think the picture he is painting can be seen in Paul’s exhortation to each of us:  “Whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31).

May God grant me a heart that desires to write for His glory alone with no subsequent end in view.  And may He give you, or continue to maintain, a heart to do the same for whatever work you do.

Question:  What is your “in order to…”?

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God Is…

Published on June 17, 2010 by CT in Blog, Theology

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God is…

Sovereign, because all things hold together in Him.

Foremost, because all things exist for Him.

Supreme, because no gods or men compare to Him.

Above all things, because nothing exists apart from Him.

Majestic, because He reigns over all.

Glorious, because He is eminently worth celebrating.

Holy, because there is no impurity in Him.

Merciful, because He delights to forgive.

Just, because He esteems truth.

Personal, because He lives in His redeemed.

Infinite, because He cannot be contained.

Love, because it is the essence of His nature to love.

More than words can say.

Question:  Your turn.  God is…?

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Keep Asking Why

Published on June 7, 2010 by CT in Blog, Theology

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I have started to read The End For Which God Created The World by Jonathan Edwards, and I realize I am in for a difficult read.  But I am also immediately reminded of a behavior we see in children every day that we should seek to emulate:  the constant question of “why?”

I don’t have any children yet (at least one that can talk), but I suspect my daughter and I will have a conversation in a few years which will end with me saying something and her saying, “Why?”  To which I’ll respond with another answer, and she’ll ask, “Why?”  And on and on we will go.

Edwards answers the ultimate “why” question in this book, and he takes a longer road to get there, for which we are all better off.  He begins with a discussion of terms, and one of the terms he uses in his argument is an “ultimate end.”

Edwards describes an ultimate end as follows:

An ultimate end is that which the agent seeks, in what he does, for its own sake; what he loves, values, and takes pleasure in on its own account, and not merely as a means of a further end.  As when a man loves the taste of some particular sort of fruit, and is at pains and cost to obtain it for the sake of the pleasure of that taste which he values upon its own account, as he loves his own pleasure, and not merely for the sake of any other good which he supposes his enjoying that pleasure will be a means of (emphasis added).

If we were to say this another way, we might say:  “An ultimate end is the last and final reason something exists.”  Or to make it more personal:  “Our ultimate end is the last and final reason we exist and do what we do.”  Or to make it more divine:  “God’s ultimate end is the last and final reason He exists and does what what He does.”

These are not simply questions to be addressed by philosophers and theologians; they are questions we must all wrestle with if we are going to go further and deeper into our worship of and service to God.  We are already living out our answers to these questions whether we know it or not, so resolving them Biblically in our minds is the means to living more Biblically.

The key to thinking about an ultimate end is the exploration of why that end exists.  In other words, ultimate ends are done for their own sake and not some other reason.  They are the end of a chain, not the links.  There are no “in order to” or “so that” statements that follow an ultimate end.  They just end.

Each one of us should consider the ends of our own chains, starting with thinking about some aspect of our lives and then asking ourselves the question “why?”  For example:

I have a job.  Why?

In order to provide for my needs and the needs of my family.  Why?

So that our needs will be met.  Why?

So that we can continue to live.  Why?

So that can serve God.  Why?

And so on…

Pick any part of life.  There’s a frog on my porch.  I got married 4 years ago.  I exist.  Jesus died on a cross.  The sun is 93 million miles from earth.  Water exists in three forms.  Ask why.  Keep asking why until all the branches of answers converge into one massive and glorious trunk that reveals a truth that is meant to fill our lives with inexplicable joy.

I suspect I know where Edwards is headed in his exploration of the ultimate “why” question, but before we get there, I wanted to ask you to thoughtfully consider, and weigh in on, the following:

Question:  What is your ultimate end?

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Have you ever practiced something for 24 years before realizing you’re still not very good at it? If it were golf, I would have sold the clubs in a garage sale for $15 years ago.  If it were guitar, I would have long since burned my Takamine in a men’s retreat campfire.  Yet I’ve been practicing prayer for more than two decades, and I’m amazed at how little I still know of this discipline.

We can think of this kind of practicing from another perspective. Can you imagine being a coach of someone for 24 years who remains woefully ineffective at your craft?  Suppose you were the golf or guitar instructor—how many years could you endure with a student who could never seem to get it right?

Prayer is God’s kind of craft, because prayer only happens when God is involved.  Speaking to the air is not prayer if the speaking is not directed the God who listens for the prayers of His people.  Listening to the silence is not prayer if the listening is not tuned to hear the voice of a God who speaks in the quiet places.

So while my slice is still in place, and my bar chords are still not strong, and my prayer life still lacks discipline, our God has been gracious to teach me the baby steps of prayer with the patience and care of a doting father and a devoted coach.  Another lesson came this morning through Hebrews 4.

The writer to the Hebrews tells us to “draw near [with confidence] to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:16).  Here are 7 observations to encourage us to persevere in our practice of prayer.

  1. Drawing near means actively coming before God.  If we were to enter the throne room of a king, we would have to deliberately and physically bring our bodies before the king because we had a request to make of him.  I can’t say how many times I lament my ineffective prayer life without failing to see how many times I fail to physically bring my body before God in prayer.
  2. Drawing near with confidence is no small matter.  For subjects of the kings of old, to approach the throne without being summoned was to invite certain death.  You may recall Queen Esther’s boldness:  “I will go to the king, though it is against the law, and if I perish, I perish” (Esther 4:16).  Of course, Esther’s confidence came from her trust in the sovereignty of God over life and death, and our confidence comes because we rest in the advocacy of a great High Priest who is perfect and is sovereign over life and death.
  3. Drawing near with confidence to the throne means drawing near a throne.  Where God is seated.  God.  Who created and upholds all things by the power of His word.  And we are approaching His throne to stand in the immediacy of His glory-filled presence, and all of His attention is on our lips to hear a request He already knows.  This is stunning.
  4. Drawing near with confidence to the throne of grace means this throne is unlike any other kind of throne.  Many kings have been vicious tyrants; some others have been benefactors.  But there is no throne upon which a mortal king has sat that can be called a throne of grace.  Our God is so bent towards grace that He seats Himself upon it and surrounds Himself by it.  His throne alone is a throne of grace.
  5. Drawing near with confidence to the throne of grace to receive mercy may seem a paradox.  A guilty man coming before a king to beg for mercy does not come with confidence; he comes with wobbly knees and a trembling voice.  But the promise we have in drawing near the throne of grace with the advocacy of our perfect High Priest allows us the freedom to expect mercy when we come.
  6. Drawing near with confidence to the throne of grace to receive mercy and find grace means the God who seats himself upon a throne of grace offers grace to us as well.  He is the source of this grace but does not hoard it.  He means not only to give us grace but for us to find it as well.  When we seek at the throne of grace, we find what we are seeking.
  7. Drawing near with confidence to the throne of grace to receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need means the grace we find when we approach the throne of God, with confidence, finding mercy, is the kind of grace that is meant to help us.  His grace not only forgives; it enables.  It not only absolves sin; it sustains.  And this kind of grace is the kind of grace that addresses all kinds of needs because it is a grace from a God who is sovereign over all things.

Praise be to God for the instruction of his word and the patience with which He teaches us! And let us continue to practice prayer, with steadfastness and perseverance, because we serve a great Coach and a mighty King who invites us to enter His throne room with confidence wrought by faith in the God-man who perfected prayer:  Jesus.

Question:  What has God taught you about the practice of prayer?

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Something For Nothing

Published on April 26, 2010 by CT in Blog, Theology

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What shall I do to inherit eternal life?

This is the kind of question that is a primary question.  We have many questions in life, but only a few are primary.  This is one of those questions.

If our lives are but vapors, and if the choices we make in this life—the primary kind of choices related to the primary kinds of questions—have eternal consequences, then above all else, we need to be firmly settled in what we believe, and how we relate, to these kinds of questions.

You may be like me, and at some point in the past, you’ve said to your friend or spouse or parent that you have a question for God.  Maybe it’s a question to settle an argument, or a question about life’s purpose, or a question about why God did or did not do something in your life.  And you imagine yourself standing before God with the chance to ask your question.

A lawyer in the first century got to do just that.  His question was:  “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?” (Luke 10:25).  And Jesus answered him, in so many words, by saying he must love God and love his neighbor perfectly.

This answer presented a huge problem for the lawyer—and presents a huge problem for us today—because none of us love God or love our neighbors perfectly.  Here is where we desperately need the gospel.  But the lawyer’s response didn’t probe Jesus’ words to find the gospel.  He instead sought to justify himself (vs. 29), asking who his neighbor was, and in doing so, fell short of gospel soil.

Jesus, as He did with the woman at the well, met this man where he was, inviting him further into the conversation.  And He told this amazing story of the good Samaritan in response to the man’s question (vss. 30-37).

As we read this story, we should keep in mind that Jesus is answering the question:  “Who is my neighbor?” But more specifically, he is answering the question:  “What does it mean to love my neighbor?”  Or to say it another way, “How is the sacrificial, giving nature of love put on display towards others?”

When we see the question posed in this way, we will find that there are at least four different kinds of exchanges going on—the kind where love is properly or improperly used as the basis for the exchange.

  1. Nothing for something.  The thieves on the road to Jericho befall this man, beat him, strip him, and leave him for dead.  They give nothing and take something from the traveler.  They do not love him in the way that consuming does not love.
  2. Nothing for nothing.  The priest and the Levite pass by the man on the road.  They may have felt they had good reasons for not stopping, but they give nothing and take nothing from the traveler.  They do not love in the way that ignoring does not love.
  3. Something for something.  The innkeeper cares for the injured traveler, likely nursing him back to health.  There is a sense of compassion in this act, but he does so because he is asked, and paid, to do so.  He gives something to the traveler because he receives something in return.  He does not love in the way that bartering does not love.
  4. Something for nothing.  The good Samaritan stops, dresses the man’s wounds, takes him to safety, and pays for his care.  He gives something to the traveler but receives nothing in return.  He loves in the way that freely giving loves.

Jesus commends the good Samaritan because of the way he loved his neighbor—the traveler he had never met and did not know.  He teaches us to love in this kind of way because this is a love that freely gives without expectation of return.  We shouldn’t draw from this that we never receive blessing back from God when we freely give this kind of love, but we should see the others-oriented, freely-given kind of love that is put on display as a model for the kind of love that, in fact, gains us eternal life, although it may not be our love by which we profit.

We recognize this when we see the story is not entirely about the good Samaritan, nor is it entirely about giving.  It is also about the traveler, and it is also about receiving.  This man was as good as dead but received mercy and life from a man he did not know.  The traveler himself received something for nothing.

This is grace, is it not? This is the gospel.  We receive something—a glorious something, a glorious everything—for nothing.  We owe God nothing as payment for grace.

So, in light of the glory of the gospel, may we be good Samaritans, not only to those in need on the side of the road, but to everyone we encounter each day, with an others-orientation that seeks to give freely without an expectation of due payment.  And may we also recognize we are the traveler, having received a gift of grace from a God who gives freely, and liberally, without demanding payment in return.  When we truly, deeply receive this kind of grace, we will find our hearts transformed so that we in turn give freely and offer all we have, and all we are, to the One who stopped by the roadside for each of us.

*I have borrowed the framework (i.e. something, nothing) for looking at each character in this parable from Pastor Mike Minter.

Question:  Which kind of exchange do you find yourself making most often?

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The New Fig Leaf

Published on February 22, 2010 by CT in Blog, Theology

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Picture yourself naked.  In public.  What do you feel?  Exposed?  Self-conscious?  Ashamed?

Adam and Eve knew what it was like to feel this way.  They also knew what it was like to feel something else entirely.  Or perhaps what they also knew shouldn’t be described as a feeling at all.  Perhaps they simply had a lack of awareness of the fact that something was wrong with them, because nothing was wrong with them at first.

They lived in the garden and walked among the trees and made their home there, all while being naked.  Moses tells us:  “The man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed” (Gen 2:25).  But then something changed.  They were tempted, they sinned, they knew they were naked, and they hid.  All of a sudden, the freedom they had in relationship with God and one another was consumed by an overwhelming awareness of self.  And what they knew about themselves caused them to hide.

We’ve been hiding in the same way ever since.  Every human sins and therefore knows what it’s like to feel guilty or ashamed.  And every human hides these darker parts of themselves from other people.  Sometimes it seems that we, as Christians, can become especially adept at hiding, perhaps because we think we know what a “good Christian” looks like and talks like, and it’s not too hard to put a good face on a downtrodden spirit.

Our pastor, Pastor Mike, has been teaching a series called “What Do You Think God Thinks About You?” and he has been discussing our feelings of guilt and shame and how the gospel provides healing for us in these ways.  Pastor Mike has taught us to make a distinction between shame and guilt, and he describes shame as the feeling of not measuring up to society’s standards or expectations for us.  He makes a compelling argument for this, but as I thought about the difference between guilt and shame, I wondered if I could take his point one step further.

Perhaps we feel guilt because of what we’ve done and shame because of who we are.  Or to put it another way, we experience feelings of guilt because of the sins we’ve committed, and we feel ashamed because of the sinners we are.

If this is the case, then the gospel does provide the answer to both of our problems, but it does so in slightly different ways.  Our guilt creates a need for righteousness, which no amount of effort on our part can produce.  Here the power of the gospel brings us freedom from guilt in that Christ has become righteousness for us (2 Cor 5:21).  Our shame, however, creates a need for a new identity, which no amount of effort on our part can produce either.  Here the power of the gospel brings us freedom from shame in that we are new creations in Christ (2 Cor 5:17).

So living within the power of the gospel means trusting in Jesus as our righteousness to deliver us from guilt, and it means embracing our identity in Christ as a new creation to deliver us from shame.  In this way, the gospel has become the new fig leaf for us, not to cover up as it once did for Adam and Eve, but to cover over once for all for those of us who trust in Him and find our hope in Him.

So when we feel guilt, let us turn to Jesus as our righteousness, and when we feel shame, let us turn to Jesus as our identity.  As we do, our sense of exposure and self-consciousness and shame will slowly be replaced by a growing awareness that we stand, naked and exposed, before a Holy God, who declares us righteous and beloved, so that we never need feel ashamed again.

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Why The Cross Matters Most

Published on February 15, 2010 by CT in Blog, Theology

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Is it possible to talk too much about the cross?

I ask this question only because some preachers and writers and teachers seem to talk about the cross a lot.  Some do so almost continually.  We can understand why they might carry on in this way because we know the primacy and weight of Calvary.  But there are still times this thought crosses many of our minds:  “Great, so I understand the cross is important.  But can’t we move on to the next topic?”

We say this sort of thing when we feel our faith is about more than Jesus.  And in one sense, we can say this is true.  Our faith is about God’s glory, and our joy, and loving others, and meeting the needs of the oppressed, and being made holy, and sojourning through life, and laying up treasures in heaven, and all sorts of other things.  In this way, we are saying the expression of our faith is about many things.

But in another sense, the entirety of our faith is about Jesus.  God’s grand, redemptive story begins with a foretelling of the coming Seed.  His chosen servants foreshadow His mission.  His prophets herald His arrival.  As history progresses onward, we begin to see the entirety of God’s revelation to humanity as pointing towards the advent of the Messiah.  This is perhaps why Paul says, “All the promises of God find their Yes in Him” (2 Cor 1:20).  In this second kind of way, we are saying the purpose of our faith is about one thing:  Jesus.

So when we find the purpose of our faith is about Jesus, we have to ask ourselves the question:  why is this so?  What is it about the person of Jesus, the mission of Jesus, the work of Jesus, which makes Him the reason for our faith?  And this is what leads us to the cross.

Here’s why the cross matters:  It is at the cross that we see God most clearly.  If history were the vastness of space, the cross would be its brightest star.  We see the fullness of God’s being most clearly at the cross.  We see the fullness of His active purposes most clearly at the cross.

At the cross

…We see God’s sovereignty—reigning with absolute control over humanity’s greatest sin.

…We see God’s purpose—making known the mystery of His will prepared before time.

…We see God’s plan—to unite all things, on heaven and on earth, in Him.

…We see God’s judgment—requiring recompense for guilt.

…We see God’s holiness—demanding the perfect sacrifice.

…We see God’s power—crushing the Son of God according to the purpose of His will.

…We see God’s wrath—punishing the wretchedness of sin.

…We see God’s sorrow—wailing as only a forsaken son can.

…We see God’s mystery—the Son, as God, separated from the Father, committing His Spirit to God.

…We see God’s compassion—pleading to the Father to forgive the ignorant.

…We see God’s gift—His one and only Son, bruised and broken on our behalf.

…We see God’s mercy—making unrighteous sinners righteous.

…We see God’s love—Christ dying for sinners.

…We see God’s rescue operation—delivering us from the domain of darkness to the kingdom of His Son.

…We see God’s proposal—pledging Himself to His bride forever.

…We see God’s revelation—the Word of God speaking His last so He might speak on behalf of many.

…We see God’s victory—disarming His enemies, putting them to shame, and triumphing over them.

…We see God’s glory—the name of the Father being magnified for the sake of all peoples.

But seeing God most clearly is not an end to itself.  If it were, then the point of all history would be our own clarity of sight.  But that is not history’s purpose.  Everything exists for Jesus, so that in everything He might preeminent.  We study the Scriptures to know more of God.  We look forward with great hope to the day we will see Him face to face.  But in the here and now, we know God most fully when we look upon the person and work of Jesus on the cross.

It is only when we behold the Son of God most clearly that we can magnify Him most fully, acknowledging His preeminence in all things, which reflects more brightly the reality of His glory.  This is why one day every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, because on that day, all will see Him as He is, either toward our greatest joy or our greatest sorrow.

So if you preach and teach about the cross, remember that we, as your people, need the lens of your preaching to continually focus our hearts on the crucified Son of God.  And if we hear or read about the cross and wonder what is next, that we’re ready to move beyond it, let us remember that the cross matters for our yesterday, and our today, and our tomorrow.

And let us always hold the best of our hearts, the fullness of our hearts, for the One whose scars will testify for eternity to the glory and horror of that day that made possible the one day we will enjoy with Him forever.

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A Theology of Tears

Published on November 5, 2009 by CT in Blog, Theology

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A Theology of Tears

As far as I can tell, tears show up in at least two ways:  1. They well up from within during times of emotional longing, or 2. They spill over from an reservoir of sin that is inside of us.

I cry at the part in Remember the Titans where Julius comes to see a just-paralyzed Bertier in the hospital, and they grab each other’s hand in a moment of regret for all the hatred they had sown on the ground of their budding friendship and the brotherly love they feel for one another.  I also cry at any movie where a father is reunited with an estranged son.  I don’t know if this means anything for me psychologically, because I have a great relationship with my parents and family, but I get all worked up over moments of reconciliation.

I don’t cry over sin spilling out from within, but that’s not because the sin isn’t there.  It’s just because I don’t feel deep shame or grief over my sin, which is a problem in and of itself.  But I know plenty of people who cry when they become frustrated, or to release anxiety, or when they are deeply hurt and feel bitterness in the hearts.

I don’t mean to make crying out to be a bad thing at all; Jesus calls those who mourn blessed (Mt 5:4).  Jesus Himself wept twice that we know of, one the silent tears of grief (Jn 11:35) and the other the wailings of an anguished soul (Lk 19:41).  So the God-man cried, just like we do.  But He did so perfectly, crying righteous tears.

Even so, the Bible promises a day when there will be no more tears (Rev 21:4), and I think it does so because in the presence of Jesus there will be no more longing and no more sin.  We will drink in the glory of the Living Water who satisfies and creates deeper cravings for more of Himself.

Until then, I want to be more like Jesus, to weep over the cities that are blind to the things that make for peace and to comfort those who mourn with gentle hands and shoulders.  And I want to see the tears of this world as drops that remind me of the Living Water who will dry every tear in that glorious coming day.

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A Jew, a Muslim, an Agnostic, and Pizza

Published on October 14, 2009 by CT in Blog, Theology

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A Jew, a Muslim, and Agnostic, and Pizza

I had dinner with a Jew, a Muslim, and an Agnostic last night.  Three sons of Abraham, and one who wasn’t sure, all sharing Italian food.  Good times.

The conversation focused on the different faith’s beliefs about God, Jesus, and salvation.  And it was a really great discussion—I even got to try out the Kingdom Circles approach.  Each guy articulated his beliefs well, and there was respectful listening and solid questions from all parties.

My Muslim friend talked about his pursuit of the Way, following the Five Pillars of Islam and relying on the mercy of Allah at the end.  My Jewish friend talked about the Mosaic Law and the Talmudic traditions and the growth that happens along the way of remaining God’s people.  When my Agnostic friend stated his belief that all religions were helpful because they all promoted adherence to a moral code, I had the opportunity to talk about the breathtaking uniqueness of following Jesus:  we enter the Kingdom by what He did for us rather than what we do for Him.

At this point, my Agnostic friend posed a very difficult question:  why do Christians do good things then?  Was it not to follow the teachings of the Bible and Jesus?  Was it not to enter into heaven?

I knew the reasons Christians don’t do good things, but I struggled a little more with the reasons we do them.  For the reasons we don’t:  we don’t do good works to earn God’s favor (works-based salvation); we don’t do them to pay God back for what He did for us (debtor’s ethic); we don’t do them to atone for our sins or to be justified.  But as I tried to articulate the reason we do good deeds, all I could come up with was that we do them because we love Jesus, and Jesus said if we love Him, we will obey His commandments.

I think that is right, but it’s also not complete.  There are broader reasons we are to be doers of the Word (Jas 1:22):

To follow the Greatest Commandment(s) (Mt 22:37-9)
To bear fruit and glorify God (Jn 15:8)
To complete our faith (Jas 2:22)
To secure our reward (1 Cor 3:14)
To obey God (Num 16:28)
To fulfill God’s plan for our lives (Eph 2:10)
To provoke praise to God from others (Mt 5:16)
To show our works are carried out in God (Jn 3:21)
To store up treasure and take hold of true life (1 Tim 6:18-19)

How would you have answered?

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