Our Body of Believers Improves Through Peace

This week I was encouraged twice to resist negative people in my life, once in a Facebook post, another in a chapter of a book I am reading by a Christian author.  We hear a lot about avoiding “negative people or energy” these days, and there are probably many ways to interpret the idea. However, in “No is a Beautiful Word,” the author is particular. “Our world is filled with negativity and incivility, and these seem to be increasing exponentially. Here is my challenge. You can refuse the lure of pessimism, toxic attitudes, and never-ending negativism. Choose to fix your heart and mind on what is good, beautiful, positive, and edifying. (Philippians 4:8)” (1) Our culture has a powerful influence on us, so we need to be careful about its interpretation of what is good, especially since so many “bad” things are called right today. Just think of the current slang words used to describe something good, like “dope” or “sick.” But Christians are called to walk with the Lord in a way that builds up the body. That is our primary calling, whether we are living in Europe, Latin America, Africa, or America. Our culture should not determine whether or not we live independently of each other. 

“Grace frees you from the dissatisfying claustrophobia of your individualism to enjoy the fulfilling freedom of loving and serving God…Individualism is not freedom; it is bondage. Living for yourself is not liberty; it is a self-imposed prison…The entrance of sin into the world and into our hearts teaches us that we were not hardwired for independence. It…complicates things. The fall made us all a danger to ourselves. Because of the sin in us, we think bad things, we desire bad things, we are attracted to bad things, and we choose bad things—and we are blind to much of this going on inside of ourselves…It really is true that individualism is a delusion, that joyful submission is the good life, and that Jesus alone is able to transport you from one to the other. If you find more joy in serving God than yourself, you know that grace has entered your door, because only grace has the power to rescue you from you.” (2) 

Every book in the Bible reflects God’s desire that we live as a community. When people ask me what I miss about living in Africa, I always speak of the communal aspect of life in sub-Sahara Africa that I miss. In developed nations, however, people are inclined to live independently, having little contact with those outside of their small circle of family, friends, and co-workers. Yet we have the opportunity to develop a community life that reflects biblical principles which I learned in the African community and experienced in the churches there. In Kenya, a women’s guild of the local church started a home for children with AIDS/HIV. In Ghana, 200 church members came to our village to gift us with food for the children living there. In Liberia, a church is the main sponsor of a home for severely disabled children. These churches are made up of individuals who use their peace and well-being to assist others in a big way. This is how the body of Christ is meant to work. We were not created or designed by God to be independent of him or each other, but to live as a well-functioning body for his glory and pleasure. (See 1 Corinthians 12:12-27; Ephesians 4:4, 12-16.)

Three times in Acts, Luke writes how the church grew and improved after a time of trials, during a time of peace (Acts 6:7; 9:31; 16:4). As we look at the early church, we find Stephen stoned, Saul attacking Christians, but then converted. The apostles were confused about his conversion until Barnabas brought him to Jerusalem. The apostles were settled,  but when he spoke against the Hellenists they tried to kill him, so he was sent to Tarsus. We don’t know exactly how it happened, but “…the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria had peace and was being built up. And walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it multiplied.” (Acts 9:31) In His exposition of Acts 9:31, John Gill described the effects of the church’s peace, resulting in five particular areas. The church, having “…a godly fear, which has the Lord for its author, is not of a man’s self, but of the grace of God, and is encouraged and increased by the discoveries of his grace and goodness…it shows itself in [1] a hatred of sin; in a departure from it; [2] in a carefulness not to offend the Lord; [3] in withholding nothing from him, though ever dear and valuable, he calls for; [4] and in attending to all the parts of divine worship: [5] and walking in it denotes a continuance in it, a constant progression in all the acts of internal and external worship, which are both included in the fear of the Lord…” (3) 

As I look at these five outcomes of God’s peace on the churches and the body of Christ, I wonder if I manifest these characteristics to others, to encourage them in their faith. Do others know that I resist and detest my own sinfulness? Or do I offend God by offending others by my insensitivity or neglect? Are my hands open to give anything and everything to God, even my “irreplaceable” time and energy without fearing their loss? How do I worship Him, with my whole heart, or superficially on Sunday mornings only by my appearance in church? Is my life worshipful? Do my walk, my choices and decisions reflect spiritual growth and an increased appreciation and love for Christ? What am I doing with the peace God has given our local church, after a time of grief? When my brothers and sisters have peace after a particular struggle, am I aware of their underlying sensitivity and vulnerability, to comfort and help them with God’s Word? 

“Now may the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, equip you with everything good that you may do his will, working in us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever.” (Hebrews 13:20-21)  As the Spirit works in you, he works in us for his glory. Let’s welcome the work of God during times of peace, to give us hearts for God and each other, calling us away from the love of independence and individualism.

(1) Harney, Kevin G., “No Is a Beautiful Word” page 146, Zondervan, Kindle Edition.

(2) Tripp, Paul David, “New Morning Mercies,” May 29, Crossway, Wheaton, IL, 2014.

(3) Gill, John, “John Gill’s Exposition on the Whole Bible,” Acts 9:31, https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/geb/acts-9.html

Our Peace Should Glorify God

Over the last couple of months, I watched “The Voice” on TV because I enjoy seeing vocalists strive for excellence. I am also encouraged by those who make a public profession of their faith in God, and this season there was one young man in particular who wore a visible cross when he performed and acted as one has God as his Father, giving thanks to him. He is an example of someone who, hopefully, is in the midst of an intensely personal and public project, driven to succeed, for God’s glory as well as his own satisfaction. He came in second, and I am sure that God can use him, if he is willing, in the music industry, as he uses Lauren Diagle, Mercy Me, and others. Some of us boldly speak our faith when the light is on us, and others are shyer. But when the spotlight is gone, the crowd has gone home, and quietness descends, do we find ourselves to be peaceful and motivated to glorify God? It is rare for some to experience shalom in their lives, when they are at peace within themselves, with God, with others, and not undergoing any momentous ventures, family adjustments, trials or struggles physically, emotionally, mentally, or spiritually. You may not even be able to identify the last time you would describe life as peaceful, internally, and externally. Those of us who are retired, without children at home or workplace expectations, have more of these days, although physical challenges and the illnesses of others may creep in to disturb our peace. The question for this devotion is not how much peace we have, but, “How do we glorify God with it?” This is very closely related to a previous devotion, two weeks ago, asking, “How do we use our peaceful times to grow spiritually?” Since our spiritual growth is not for our benefit alone, but to build up the body, it is logical to consider how we bear fruit in our peace, to bring God praise and generate thanksgiving for him.

When David wanted to build the Lord a temple, God revealed his plan to have Solomon, his son, a man of peace, build it instead. “Behold, a son shall be born to you who shall be a man of rest. I will give him rest from all his surrounding enemies. For his name shall be Solomon, and I will give peace and quiet to Israel in his days.” (1 Chronicles 22:9) David’s life was about war—fighting for the Lord—that was how he glorified God. When the wars were over, as King of Israel, David succeeded in organizing all the people to serve in the temple, the finances to build it, ordering the army, and providing leadership for the nation of Israel (See 1 Chronicles 23-29). He used peace to continue glorifying God as King, within the constraints God had provided for him. David didn’t pout over God’s denial of his dream to build a temple, and he didn’t grumble and fight the Lord plan. The Lord gave David and Israel rest from their opposition for a purpose. God did not require David’s approval of his plan; he said, “I will give him rest…I will give peace and quiet to Israel in his days.” God will, so Solomon will build the temple. Period. No discussion, no majority vote. The King of kings, David’s holy boss, did not need or want David’s or Solomon’s consent. The Lord had a purpose for removing the non-believers from Canaan—to protect his people’s worship and devotion to him by limiting the influence of idolatrous nations. And so the Lord had a purpose in calling the war quits when he did (although not all the Canaanites and other “ites” had been removed). It was time for the people of God to have a magnificent place of worship. This huge thirteen-year building project required peace. 

You and I often consider our peace a time of recovery and refreshment, which it should be. I think, though, that we stop short and don’t consider how we might use our time more purposefully. Families might think about how they might help another family before beginning their vacation or help an elderly neighbor before going to the movie. We don’t have to forgo our pleasurable enjoyments, but we also aren’t glorifying the Lord if we don’t consider the needs of others along with our enjoyable pursuits when resting from our work or trials. I try to use my rest times (as I sit here with an ice pack on my knee) to write, and perhaps that is one way to glorify God—writing notes to friends or family, remembering those we love with encouraging thoughts, or writing devotions, Bible studies, or even testimonies to share with others. Studying to teach, texting to those who are living alone or going through a difficult time, and calling someone on the phone are all ways to glorify God without exerting ourselves physically. Some mistaken Christians think that a believer’s life is one of ease, without difficulties or struggles. The Bible says no such thing; Jesus stated that we would have “tribulation” in this world. But since we don’t all have it at the same time, it makes sense that we will help others when our trials are minimal or completed. Matthew Henry commented on our passage, “David gives Solomon the reason why he should build the temple…Where God gives rest, he expects work.  Because God had promised to establish his kingdom…God’s gracious promises should quicken and strengthen our religious service.” (1) 

After coming close to burnout twice in my work life, I am a great believer in balance and times of refreshment. It’s almost impossible, though, to think logically and biblically about those “down” times when your body, mind, and emotions are exhausted and in need of recuperation. The Bible contains many warnings about the trappings and dangers of the world, and even Solomon fell to them after building God’s temple and writing scores of wise proverbs that are used by billions of people to remind us of God’s statutes. The Lord named Solomon as the one to build his temple; he has named us believers as those who will bring him praise through our inheritance. “In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will, so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of his glory. In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.” (Ephesians 1:11-14) This passage reminds us (twice) that we are saved to eternal life, by God, for the “praise of his glory.” 

Solomon did not stop building after he completed the temple. He erected many other important buildings in Jerusalem and Israel, including his palace with a Hall of Judgement where he met with people to dispense his wisdom and judge between them. In this way, Solomon continued to glorify God with his and Israel’s peace. King Solomon also constructed a water system for Jerusalem and places of defense, a commercial depot, and a military outpost for Israel. It was the “golden age” of Israel, who had the wises king who ever lived. (2) Even the Queen of Sheba, came from far away to hear Solomon’s wisdom. But you and I know One who is wiser than Solomon. “…behold, something greater than Solomon is here.” (Matthew 12:42) We are, hopefully, not in danger of being judged for our unbelief in Christ, the Savior, as were the Pharisees, who were being warned by Jesus in Matthew 12. But we do have the Spirit of Christ in us, who convicts us of our calling to listen to his voice to fulfill our roles in the kingdom, even and especially when we are at peace. 

Quietness and peace allow us the opportunity to hear the Lord’s voice more clearly in our hearts and minds as we open his Word and yield to his Spirit in us. Will we desire this, for his praise without fear that he will require of us more than we can do? Some of us are challenged by the many ideas we have about what we can do for someone or how we could help with a project, which may not be God’s priorities for us. Every time we engage in something from our imagination, we are like David when he desired to build a temple for the Lord. It was not God’s calling for him. Will you wait patiently, and continue resting, before jumping into something new, even if it seems right? How might the Lord want you to serve and glorify him when he gives you peaceful circumstances and a quiet, contented spirit? “The wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere.” (James 3:17)

(1) Henry, Matthew “Matthew Henry’s Complete Commentary on the Bible,” 1 Chronicles 22:6-16, https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/mhm/1chronicles-22.html

(2) Easton’s 1897 Dictionary of the Bible, software version, on “Solomon,” M.G. Easton.

May 22, 2019

Facing Death with Peace

I am dedicating this devotion to the memory of Hannah Ross, Christ’s daughter.

I began studying for this devotion last Wednesday, one week ago. It is inconceivable to me that the precious daughter of my friends would die tragically a few days later. God has proved his grace and mercy, along with his sovereign omnipotence and omniscience through his guidance this week. He knew that I, along with some of my followers, would need to meditate on his grace to face the death of a loved one. I am single, never married, and without children. I personally know the pain of losing a parent, but I can only feel the angst of losing a spouse or a child through the grief of my friends. After burying ten of his eleven children, John Owen wrote “…a due contemplation of the glory of Christ will restore and compose the mind…[it] will lift the minds and hearts of believers above all the troubles of this life, and is the sovereign antidote that will expel all the poison that is in them; which otherwise might perplex and enslave their souls.” (1) I hope you find comfort in these three passages.

“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” (Psalm 23:4) Our sovereign Lord sends us into some scary territory in this life, just as he did in biblical times when he sent Abraham away from his home country and sent Moses back to Egypt, where men wanted to kill him. In Psalm 23, David, who confronted his share of enemies, including Goliath and Saul, reminds us that the Lord doesn’t send us alone. He accompanies, protects, and comforts us in these times when we fear for our lives and the lives of others. God helps us not only when we are suffering alone, but when our entire community grieves, as is the case for my friends’ daughter. “God is in the midst of [Israel]; she shall not be moved; God will help her when morning dawns.” (Psalms 46:5) Being surrounded by our brothers and sisters in Christ reminds us that our believing departed loved ones are in God’s care, and though we may be devastated to lose them, we need not fear for them or ourselves. I am so grateful for our church body and community of love who gathered together today to say goodbye to Hannah and remember her precious, creative spirit. 

Death casts a dark shadow into what feels like a low valley of despair and helplessness. We are the sheep who cannot see our way forward or out of its grip. The Lord, our Shepherd, knows what lurks in the shadows and, with his omnipotent rod, he banishes our demons. He uses that same rod to guide us onward when it is time to climb out. When death confronts us by taking our loved ones or even threatens our lives, our Shepherd eases our fears with his ever-peaceful, constant presence. We need not fear “…since everything…is determined by God, and comes not without his knowledge and will, and works for good, and cannot separate from the love of Christ… in a word, the presence, power, and protection of Christ, in and by his Gospel and ordinances, are what are here intended, and which are the comfort and safety of his people, in the worst of times and cases.” (2) As my pastor said today, in Hannah’s funeral message, we look to Christ for our strength, assurance, and resurrection—this is how we face the “valley of the shadow of death.”

“When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: ‘Death is swallowed up in victory.’ ‘O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?’” (1 Corinthians 15:54-55) Death stings. And the worst kind of death is sudden death, which stings like an arrow coming out of the bushes. In Africa, guards in the bush are sometimes trained to shoot arrows rather than guns because it is almost impossible to determine the source of the quiet shaft, as opposed to a loud gunshot. The silence of the arrow as it travels to its destination makes it even more dangerous because the shooter cannot be located. When death strikes suddenly, without warning, or time to prepare ourselves, its sting feels lethal—and is physically for its victim. But for the Christian, death is not a fatal bite of the Serpent, but a temporary trial, since the redemption of Christ, our antidote, is applied to the deep, bleeding wound. We may not relate easily to the idea of death being swallowed up, and I hope you will forgive my mixed metaphors. I appreciate the irony here since it’s usually a snake (serpent) that swallows its victim, not the other way around. However, here we have death boasting of victory, but Christ swallowed it whole on the cross, taking the sting of sin out of physical death for us so that we might have His life in our death and that of our loved ones. Hannah, and others like her, who have died in Christ have left their perishable, mortal bodies to exist in their imperishable, immortal souls fully, and will, in glory, inhabit imperishable, immortal bodies. Oh, how we will cherish our reunion with them! Jesus Christ has swallowed up the danger and pain of Hannah’s death for her as He has done for us, and we will know it when it is our time. As Matthew Henry stated, “Death may seize a believer, but it cannot hold him in its power. How many springs of joy to the saints, and of thanksgiving to God, are opened by the death and resurrection, the sufferings and conquests of the Redeemer!” (3)

 “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way, though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble at its swelling.” (Psalm 46:1-3) God gives us evidence of His safety and comfort amid scary events; when the earth trembles, He won’t. The Lord holds onto us as we shake until we can melt into His mighty, loving embrace. The people of Christ are safe and secure even when the ground under us seems to move because God is our security. I almost didn’t write this devotion today because Hannah’s death is too new, our grief too raw, the pain of losing her too close to the surface. But who am I to change God’s sovereign plan for my writing, or question His ability to hold us, to be our sufficient refuge as we mourn and grieve today? And, can we accept that we will be sad but do not have to also be afraid of death, or of going on to live without our beloved? Since God is our refuge and strength, we will not have to tremble in fear. We may indeed be very sad, but we are looking out from under His wings of hope and protection until that day when He also takes us out of this world, and its harrowing traumas. 

The great Christian reformer, Martin Luther wrote, “Next to the Word of God, the noble art of music is the greatest treasure in the world. It controls our thoughts, minds, and spirits.” In 1529 he composed “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” based on Psalm 46. (4) It is fitting to close with the hymn and its powerful reminder that in God alone is hope, safety, and ultimate peace.

A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing; Our helper He, amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing: For still our ancient foe doth seek to work us woe; His craft and pow’r are great, and, armed with cruel hate, On earth is not his equal.

Did we in our own strength confide, our striving would be losing, Were not the right man on our side, the man of God’s own choosing; Dost ask who that might be? Christ Jesus, it is He.  Lord Sabaoth His name, from age to age the same, And He must win the battle.

And though this world, with devils filled, should threaten to undo us, We will not fear, for God hath willed His truth to triumph through us; The Prince of Darkness grim, we tremble not for him; His rage we can endure, for lo, his doom is sure, One little word shall fell him.

That word above all earthly pow’rs, no thanks to them, abideth; The Spirit and the gifts are ours through Him Who with us sideth; Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also; The body they may kill: God’s truth abideth still, His kingdom is forever.

(1) Quoted by Reeves, Michael, “Rejoicing in Christ,” Chapter 4, InterVarsity Press, 2015.

(2) Gill, John, “John Gill’s Exposition on the Whole Bible,” Psalm 23:4,  https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/geb/psalm-23.html

(3) Henry, Matthew “Matthew Henry’s Complete Commentary on the Bible,” 1 Corinthians 15:54-55,https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/mhm/1corinthians-15.html

(4) Morgan, Robert J., “Then Sings My Soul,” Nelson Publishing, 2003.

May 16, 2019            

Using Peaceful Times to Grow

“You keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on you, because he trusts in you.” (Isaiah 26:3)

“First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” (1 Timothy 2:1-4) 

Consider a time of crisis or significant change in your life. How did (or do) you spend your time? Were you consumed with organizing details, contacting people for help, finding a plumber, an electrician, or a builder, hiring health workers, doing pre-op medical appointments, looking for rehab services, trying to figure out why your child is failing in school or not talking to you, working on your marriage, or getting an animal to a vet quickly? These things all could threaten our security; they either hinder our relationship with God or strengthen it. But peace is meant to strengthen the peace and security we have with Jesus Christ. The prophet Isaiah gives us an example to follow in life, to think first of God and then think of everything in relationship to him. In Isaiah 1-2, we have a hint about God’s complaint against his people: they have been treated as the most privileged with all the advantages of royal descendants, yet they have forsaken God and “they have despised the Holy One of Israel” (1:4). After punishing Israel for their apostasy and accepting their repentance stimulated by the prophets who proclaimed his love for them, the Lord will give them peace and return them to their land.* But Israel did not use her external order well, and we are guilty of the same. We squander God’s provision of quietness in our lives frequently. I wonder if we just don’t know what to do with it. 

Paul wrote to Timothy, about two thousand years ago, to pray for the leaders and to “lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” (1 Timothy 2:2-4) Here we have an implied connection between a quiet, peaceful life and godliness with dignity, along with salvation in Christ. Now, Paul probably means that the character or temperament of a person who is dignified and godly will be peaceful, even in the midst of intense activity. Perhaps this was in contrast to the false teachers in the church, who were stirring up controversies. I think it’s reasonable, though, to make the application that a quiet life stimulates meditation, reflection, and prayer. One of the reasons I choose to write is the positive effect of the quiet around me, that helps me to turn down the noise of the world and ramp up thoughts of God and his work in my relationships, activities, and circumstances. When TV and music are off, no one is calling me, I can think—even if I am exercising or swimming—I can think. 

Paul wrote to the Philippians to think about particular things, which would help them draw near to the Lord of peace. “…whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.” (Philippians 4:8-9) I don’t know about you, but I find it hard to think at all in a store, with the TV going, or even in the middle of a conversation, let alone with the quality of thought Paul has described in this passage. Rather, I am like the droopy flowers in my garden right now that are waterlogged from too many days of rain and not enough sun. Over-stimulation wearies me and makes me want to do nothing—just zone out in front of the TV, a good book, or Prime Video. Then there are the crises that drain us entirely of our ability to think appropriately.

Physical or emotional danger or threats to our security will have us running around, figuratively or literally, to fix the problem or find a way out of trouble. I imagine this may be what Ezekiel was referring to in his prophecy of chapter 34, during Israel’s tumultuous exile. God will “banish wild beasts from the land, so that they may dwell securely in the wilderness and sleep in the woods.” He would cause the earth to “yield its increase, and they shall be secure in their land. And they shall know that I am the Lord, when I break the bars of their yoke, and deliver them from the hand of those who enslaved them.” The Lord would rescue them from danger, to “dwell securely, and none shall make them afraid…And they shall know that I am the Lord their God with them, and that they, the house of Israel, are my people, declares the Lord God. And you are my sheep, human sheep of my pasture, and I am your God, declares the Lord God.” (Ezekiel 34:25-31) The last two verses speak to the purpose of the external peace God will provide—to know him as their God, their Shepherd who cares for them. God will break their yoke, reminding us that Christ has broken our yoke to sin; we are free to enjoy his external and internal peace. He has done it so that all will know him. We are sheep, though, who like extremes, and too much quiet and lack of stimulation might have the opposite effect of drying up our thoughts, like writer’s block. We become blasé and blind to what the Lord is doing because we have withdrawn. Rather than consider this a peaceful time, it becomes boring and restrictive; we act like patients in the hospital who can’t get out to enjoy a spring day or a meal in a restaurant with friends, not to mention doing any meaningful work or ministry. 

Having devoted our lives to Christ means interacting with the world, but not to the extent that we become saturated with the world’s values or priorities. The gospel turns worldly thinking upside down. Recalling Paul’s admonition to the Philippian Christians, what is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, and worthy of praise is not the newest fashion, the latest version of the iPhone, or the most recent inside scoop on Washington politics. The things and people that strengthen our faith, that make it possible to help others practically and who encourage us to grow spiritually will satisfy these criteria. We can share about a TV show if it sharpens our discernment, or talk about the song lyrics of a new hit if they help us to appreciate God’s providence and Christ’s wisdom. As a matter of fact, I recently heard a song on the radio while driving by Meredith Andrews, titled “Soar.” The words helped me to think about this piece. “Here I remind myself what You said over me, Here I remind my soul who You are. You said You won’t relent Won’t let go, won’t forget, Every promise You have whispered to my heart. As I wait, As I wait on You I’m gonna run and not grow weary, I’m gonna walk and not grow faint,  Rise up on wings like eagles, To soar.”

Are you missing quiet times by always having something stimulating your senses? Are you over-working? Do you have too much quiet that is disturbing and not peaceful? How might you have and use your peace to draw close to the Lord more deliberately and effectively? How can you soar spiritually with Christ?

* ESV Study Bible Notes, Intro to Isaiah, (digital edition), Crossway, 2008.

May 8, 2019  

Peace in the Midst of Confusion and Disappointment

Do you care for aging parents, grandparents, or siblings? One of the things I appreciate about God’s providence for me, far away from my family (who are all healthier than I am, at this time), is being surrounded by people who are older than me and who need TLC. Over the last year, my understanding and appreciation of physical weakness has increased dramatically through my two surgeries. Now I realize, in a new way, how physical pain or weakness dramatically changes our perspective and our ability to see beyond it, which is essential for the best quality of life. Many seniors withdraw because it is just too complicated and beyond their ability to reach out to others; therefore, they need others to reach out to them. If you had asked me about how to connect with the elderly who are chronically affected by illness or pain several years ago, I might have had some advice, but it would not be informed opinion based on understanding. Job’s friends advised Job about God based on their limited knowledge of suffering and pain. Their advice wasn’t all wrong; it just wasn’t well-informed. Perhaps they had never been confronted by this situation before, where someone was suffering mysteriously, with a dramatic onset, affecting his entire life and family, by an unknown cause. There were no natural catastrophes, no tornados or earthquakes; there was no plague. Only Job’s household and Job were affected. So they naturally assumed that Job had done something to deserve God’s dramatic discipline—something you and I probably never consider. Kudos to them for connecting the sudden change in Job’s life to something about God. But perhaps they should have focused more on God’s sovereign right to do what he chooses instead of insisting on a formula of confession + repentance = blessing. In the end, the Lord argues his sovereign case as the Creator and Ruler (Job 38-41). That’s what brings Job to repentance of his  questioning of God, and leads to blessing and peace.  

Eliphaz wasn’t wrong about the way the Lord disciplines us when he preached to Job at the beginning of his speech. “Behold, blessed is the one whom God reproves; therefore despise not the discipline of the Almighty. For he wounds, but he binds up; he shatters, but his hands heal. He will deliver you from six troubles; in seven no evil shall touch you. In famine he will redeem you from death, and in war from the power of the sword. You shall be hidden from the lash of the tongue, and shall not fear destruction when it comes. At destruction and famine you shall laugh, and shall not fear the beasts of the earth. For you shall be in league with the stones of the field, and the beasts of the field shall be at peace with you.” (Job 5:17-23) Eliphaz wasn’t wrong—God does reprove those he loves, and after the reproof and repentance comes peace, rather than anxiety in all aspects of life.  On a more personal level, Eliphaz’s implication that Job was suffering because of some sin on his part is entirely off-base. He isn’t wrong that Job needed reproof—we all do because every aspect of our being is corrupted by sin and needs to be transformed by the gospel. But Eliphaz is wrong that Job is suffering because he hasn’t repented. And isn’t it ironic that Eliphaz says Job will be delivered from the lash of the tongue—like his? 

Today I have a few takeaways from Job 5:17-23, in the context of Job’s suffering and need for comfort. One is that we are all in need of comfort for something and our friends are the likely ones to share God’s comfort with us, but with limited understanding of our situations. I don’t share my inner-most struggles with very many people, and some, not at all. So how can I expect others to empathize? So, when my friends or family try to help me, I should be gracious to accept their best comfort, rather than complain about their limitations, no matter how much pain I am in at the time. 

Secondly, my peace doesn’t come without some submission and humility on my part, in light of God’s authoritative, good sovereignty in all matters. The rulership, control, and power of God are not overbearing to those who are in Christ. Instead, we rejoice and delight to know that the best One to rule over the world is, in fact, on the throne, watchful, purposeful, and actively ordaining that which will yield salvation for the most people. Peace with God comes with my realization that he who rules has already lovingly and mercifully accepted me in Christ, for all eternity. Of course, the more I rest in Christ’s love and acceptance of me, the more peace I will have with others, and the less I will try to comfort myself with the things of this world (through food, entertainment, shopping, drugs, alcohol, etc.). Peace in Christ—being bought by him, to live for him—rescues me from my dread, evil, death, war, the lash of the tongue, destruction, and famine (or the temptations of abundance, in our case, here in America and the developed world). Circumstances and situations lose their power to overcome my security and don’t shake me up. 

Unfortunately, we, like Job are completely undone when our closest friends think the worst of us. Job wanted to die because of the useless comfort from his friends, and the oppressiveness of his circumstances. “I have heard many such things; miserable comforters are you all. Shall windy words have an end? Or what provokes you that you answer? I also could speak as you do, if you were in my place; I could join words together against you and shake my head at you.” (Job 16:2-5) Surely Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar were doing their best in an impossible situation—or were they trying to prove their wisdom, feeling superior because they weren’t suffering? I tend toward the first. And who can blame Job for his cries to be vindicated or die when he has no basis for understanding what is happening to him? Well, Job’s friends blame him, don’t they? God never calls Job to the mat for his pain or speaking his mind; the Lord only insists that he recognize God’s superiority over him and not be quite so sure of his innocence based on his self-righteousness. I admire Job’s honesty as he speaks his pain to the Lord, wholly overcome by his physical, emotional, and mental suffering, as if the Lord shot him with poisoned arrows, for which there is no antidote. (Job 6:4) 

Here is one of three helps in our suffering: speak honestly to the God who loves you, who knows your mind and heart, and who wants you to turn to him with your pain. I imagine that this was Job’s main source of relief, to get through his long days of confusion and disappointment. Others can’t comfort us with understanding, because they don’t know anything more than we do about our pain—they “why” of our suffering. However, having a Savior who endured even more than we have, who is with us as we struggle to get through one day at a time will strengthen our souls and therefore, our resolve to endure. Job asked that God would remove his rod from him; and Christ has done so—he has taken the rod of God’s wrath on our behalf if we are his. (Job 9:34; 21:9) We have his comfort and the Holy Spirit’s comfort which may have been given to Job for a time. “For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God.” (Job 19:25-26) 

Having Christ is our greatest help and peace in our suffering. “He dwells by faith in Christ, who is his peace, his peace maker, and peace giver; and in whom he has peace amidst all the tribulation he meets with in the world; the peace of God, which passes all understanding, keeps and guards him in Christ, as in a garrison, safe and secure; and he enjoys much peace, as the fruit of the Spirit…” * What do believers need when they are at the end of themselves? We need Christ, who is not only the one who died for us but also the one who lives to receive us into his presence, and in the meantime, intercedes for us with our heavenly Father, and gives us the Holy Spirit who works in us to keep us close to Christ. For our part, when we can do nothing else, we yield. We submit to the power and work of God trusting in him who wants us under his wing. “My soul will be satisfied as with fat and rich food, and my mouth will praise you with joyful lips, when I remember you upon my bed, and meditate on you in the watches of the night; for you have been my help, and in the shadow of your wings I will sing for joy. My soul clings to you; your right hand upholds me.” (Psalms 63:5-8)

Speaking our pain to the Lord and putting our trust in Christ, submitting to his perfect authority and wise, sovereign rulership results in peace and thanksgiving. Here is a third help—thanksgiving for God’s sovereignty leads us to redirect our thoughts with renewed faith in God. Soul peace is a result of God’s work in us, not a result of our work in ourselves. Look to James 1:12: “Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him.”

* Gill, John, “John Gill’s Exposition on the Whole Bible,” Job 5:24,  https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/geb/job-5.htmlMay 2, 2019    

God’s Peace Follows Submission to Him

In December 2016 I began a journal based on a word study of “peace” in the Bible, to help with my transition to retirement from mission work. Whenever I moved from one country to another in Africa or went on missionary leave, I would begin a Bible study to carry me through the entire time. So, if I would be on furlough for six weeks, I started a Bible study a week or two before, that would last for at least nine or ten weeks until I finished my journey or move. Of all the methods I developed for moving or changing jobs, this one has helped me the most. So, in 2016, as a means to encourage my peacefulness as I transitioned to retirement from full-time work of forty-four years, I began to study biblical peace. That study has led me to desire true “shalom,” godly well-being, which is only possible through submission to Jesus Christ, continually. 

Surely, it’s not a coincidence that I have remembered this as I begin a new women’s Bible study with the residents of my retirement community next week. My “brain memory” is like muscle memory, seeking God’s peace to begin something new. The hymn I have chosen for the first meeting also reminds me of the peace we have when we submit to the Lord to begin a new kind of ministry, vocation, or service for him, “I Need Thee Every Hour.” But it’s not just when things are unknown to us, or when we are stretched that we need God’s peace. It’s every hour of every day. “I need Thee every hour, most gracious Lord; No tender voice like Thine can peace afford…I need Thee every hour, stay Thou nearby; Temptations lose their power when Thou are night.” I wonder what would happen if we would sing this hymn whenever we are tempted to procrastinate or shrink back from something we are asked to do in our vocation, ministry, or for our families, out of fear of the unknown. We are inclined to stay comfortable, protect our “me time” and do what is convenient or pleasing. For most of us, that kicks in before we even pray about doing something new or unexpected. But when we are united in Christ, nothing brings us more peace than his commands and the reminders of his presence with us. 

We must deal with our sin and our reluctance to seek the Lord’s will before we can experience his peace. In Psalm 32, titled “Blessed are the Forgiven,” David’s prayer to the Lord recounts his confession in the beginning, including this admission: “Blessed is the man against whom the Lord counts no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit.” (v. 2) Here is a warning for me about deceiving myself when I think I am obeying God’s will but am finding creative ways to avoid the most important thing he wants me to do. David also describes the opportunity we have to approach God in prayer, finding our refuge in him. So the progression seems to be that, having confessed my sin to the Lord, and rejecting that which is deceitful or false, I ask God for his protection and comfort because I know him to be gracious and merciful. This is often how my prayers go—confession, thanksgiving for God’s grace, then supplication. At this point, in verses 8 and 9, the speaker changes to the Lord, who says,  “I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go; I will counsel you with my eye upon you. Be not like a horse or a mule, without understanding, which must be curbed with bit and bridle, or it will not stay near you.” God has a plan for each of our lives. He wants us to seek his counsel and instruction, rather than stubbornly seek our own advice or opinions. Even after confessing our sins, we only fool ourselves and lose out on peace when we think we know what to do without seeking God’s help. Our mule-like obstinacy shows up when we hurriedly and without thought disagree with our supervisors or authorities, are quick to argue with our grown children, rush out to purchase something fun and distracting, turn to food for comfort, or complain about the way our leaders rule, without praying for them. We know how we avoid the Lord’s guidance by looking back with hindsight on those days or nights when we filled our time with “other stuff” or diversions. But the way to peace is found by confronting our errors and listening carefully to God’s Word, with the help of his Spirit.

“Verse 8 [of Psalm 32]…is written as if God is speaking directly to the restored individual, promising to ‘instruct,’ ‘teach,’ ‘counsel,’ and ‘watch over’ him…the true meaning seems to be that God will continually watch over us. The idea is of one who is offering direction to another so he can follow a certain path and reach a certain place. This one promises as well to keep an eye on him as he travels so he will not get lost and go wrong. I am glad God promises to do that for us. For great as forgiveness is, the one who has sinned and been forgiven does not want to repeat the sin or again fall into error but rather wants to go on walking in the right way and so please our heavenly Father. How are we to do that unless God continues to keep his eye on us? If we ignore that care and refuse that counsel, we will be like brute beasts that have no understanding (v. 9). If we persist in our folly, we will be like the wicked who experience many woes (v. 10). But if we listen to God, obey him, and so walk in his right way, we will be able to rejoice in God. And we will be able to teach others also, which is what David has been doing in the psalm.” (1)

At another time (probably), David sought to bring the ark of God to Jerusalem with thirty thousand men, after he and his arm routed the Philistines (2 Samuel 5:22-6:4). David and his men were enthusiastic to  retrieve the ark, the most holy possession in history at that time, symbolizing the presence of God, carrying the carved stones with the Ten Commandments, Aaron’s staff, and the mercy seat. Having the ark in Jerusalem meant having God with them. But they either forgot how the Kohathites were to carry the ark or chose to use their own method of transport. God had warned his people specifically against touching the holy ark, “When Aaron and his sons have finished covering the sanctuary and all the furnishings of the sanctuary, as the camp sets out, after that the sons of Kohath shall come to carry these, but they must not touch the holy things, lest they die.” (Numbers 4:15) Many casual readers of Scripture are offended when they read that the Lord struck down Uzzah, who tried to stead the ark and keep it from falling. Consider, though, that they violated God’s command in their enthusiasm. How many times do we get great ideas for ministry or “helping” others that go wrong, only to realize later that we were “doing our own thing” without God’s guidance or help? Now, there are some delightful things the Lord calls us to do and living the Christian life includes many regular activities, including church attendance for worship and service, Bible studies with our families, Sunday School classes, providing for our families, prayer, etc. But we might want to consider how we go about doing those things—what is in our hearts and minds; what is our motivation and attitude? David stepped back for three months after Uzzah’s death, afraid to do anything with the ark at that time. Then “it was told to David” that Obed-edom household had been greatly blessed (2 Samuel 6:11-12) John Gill writes, “[David] being animated and encouraged by the blessing of God on the house of Obed-edom, because of it, and thereby freed from those slavish fears he was before possessed of, and filled with hopes of being blessed also on account of it; if not with temporal blessings, he needed not, yet with spiritual ones.” (2) 

The peace I experience with God after writing my blog post, calling a friend who is down, meeting someone for our encouragement, fulfilling my volunteer service commitment, or serving at a worship service is spiritual and calming. Changing my plans because someone has a need that is greater than my need for predictability is pleasantly satisfying. I have found that when I have an attitude of quiet submission to the Lord, he often changes either my plans or my perspective on them, to have a long-range outlook. Eternity is the ultimate peaceful place, so when I am focused on forever, my peace increases. God is offering us shalom if we will follow him. “Be glad in the Lord, and rejoice, O righteous, and shout for joy, all you upright in heart!” (Psalms 32:11)

(1) Boice, James, Boice Expositional Commentary Series, Psalm 32, Baker Books, Software version, 1998.

(2) Gill, John, “John Gill’s Exposition on the Whole Bible,” 2 Samuel 6:12, https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/geb/2samuel-6.html

April 25, 2019

Peace in Our Risen Shepherd

“Now may the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, equip you with everything good that you may do his will, working in us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.” (Hebrews 13:20-21)

Easter, like Christmas, can quickly become superficial and automatic. This year, Lent devotions, a Christian Passover Seder, and sermons on Jesus’s resurrection are helping me to consider more profoundly Christ’s great sacrifice and His victorious defeat of sin and death. Paul’s benedictions such as the one above remind us that God’s peace is acquired through the blood of Jesus, “the eternal covenant,”  that equips us for our Christian lives. But rather than meditate on Christ’s work we often turn these great biblical indicatives (truths) into imperatives (commands). There are no commands in Hebrews 13:20-21. What we have here are glorious truths: (1) God the Father is the “God of peace;” (2) the Father raised Jesus Christ, His Son, from the dead; (3) Christ is our great Shepherd, and we are His sheep; (4) the eternal covenant of grace comes through Jesus’s blood in His substitutionary atonement for us on the cross; (5) God equips us with everything good to do His will; (6) God works in us, through Christ [and the Holy Spirit whom He gives us] for His pleasure; (7) all of this is for the eternal glory of God; and (8) if we are believers we agree with Paul, being absolutely sure of this (“Amen”).   

Which of these truths plays a major role in your Christian life? Which do you struggle with, for absolute certainty in your heart? When you hear about global politics and conflicts, do you doubt that our God of Peace is the one who sovereignly reigns? God the Father is the “God of peace. “…until the Spirit is poured upon us from on high…Then justice will dwell in the wilderness, and righteousness abide in the fruitful field. And the effect of righteousness will be peace, and the result of righteousness, quietness and trust forever. My people will abide in a peaceful habitation, in secure dwellings, and in quiet resting places.” (Isaiah 32:15-18) See also: Psalm 10:12-11:7; Psalm 46; Luke 26:46-47; Matthew 24:29-31.

The Father raised Jesus Christ, His Son, from the dead. The resurrection of Christ is as important, if not more important than His atoning death on the cross. “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins…If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.” (1 Corinthians 15:17, 19) “He was foreknown before the foundation of the world but was made manifest in the last times for the sake of you who through him are believers in God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory, so that your faith and hope are in God.” (1 Peter 1:20-21) See also Luke 9:22; Romans 8:31-39; 1 Corinthians 15:1-8; Ephesians 2:1-10; Colossians 3:1-3.

As you go about your life, do you act more like a dependent sheep or a stubborn goat? Is it hard to trust Jesus to be your Shepherd, who provides, protects, and guides you to green pastures? Christ is our great Shepherd, and we are His sheep. In Him we have more than this world, we have abundant life in His places, designed for us. “Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep…If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture…I came that they may have life and have it abundantly. (John 10:7-11) See also: Psalm 23:2; Joel 2:21-29. 

Some of us are planners, others not so much. But God is a planner, and from the beginning He made an eternal covenant of grace that came through Jesus’s blood in His substitutionary atonement for us on the cross. God agreed with Himself to save us far before we knew we were lost in the chaos of this world, our sin, and Satan’s grasp. In spite of all our mishaps and sinful failings, we can be assured of God’s covenant because it’s not dependent upon us and we know that He is perfectly faithful. “‘For the mountains may depart and the hills be removed, but my steadfast love shall not depart from you, and my covenant of peace shall not be removed,’ says the Lord, who has compassion on you.” (Isaiah 54:10) See also Jeremiah 31:33-34; John 1:12; Titus 1:2-3; Hebrews 8:8-12.

When you and I wake up in the morning, we usually think of the children waiting to be dressed and fed, the crying baby that needs a diaper change, or the things on our schedule for the day. Our minds get wrapped around these activities even before we can consult Scripture in our quiet times. So we are already biased against the will of God, being occupied with what we will do, even if our thoughts are about our ministry, writing, or service. I need at least an hour with the Lord every morning, to change my thinking from the first few moments of waking life. Fortunately, God equips us with everything good to do His will, “for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” (Philippians 2:13) See also Isaiah 45:4-6; 1 Corinthians 12:7; Ephesians 4:9-14.

Most of us seek pleasure in a variety of ways: sports, culture, fellowship, parties, TV, music, or videos are just a few of them. God works in us, through Christ [and the Holy Spirit whom He gives us] for His pleasure and eternal glory. The Lord is gracious to share His pleasure with us; when we are united with Him in Christ, we delight in the things and ways of God as a side benefit to His glory. Christ lived as a man, died as our Messiah, and was raised to be our Great Priest and King for His entire kingdom. He relishes redemption of His people for inclusion in the kingdom. “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Galatians 2:20). See also John 17:1-11; Galatians 1:3-5; 1 Peter 5:10; Revelation 14:6.

Do you say “Amen!” to these truths? We all need someone bigger and stronger and greater than us. Hope in the world will be crushed (like a cathedral devoured by fire); hope in people will be disappointed and hope in ourselves, especially, is hardly reassuring when we can’t even do what we set out to do in one day or one week. If we are believers, we agree with Paul, being sure of this. “Regeneration…is a radical change of the governing disposition of the soul, which, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, gives birth to a life that moves in a Godward direction. In principle this change affects the whole man: the intellect…the will…and the feelings or emotions.”* “For all the promises of God find their Yes in him. That is why it is through him that we utter our Amen to God for his glory. And it is God who establishes us with you in Christ, and has anointed us, and who has also put his seal on us and given us his Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee.” (2 Corinthians 1:20-22) See also 2 Timothy 4:18; Hebrews 10:23. 

“Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself, and God our Father, who loved us and gave us eternal comfort and good hope through grace, comfort your hearts and establish them in every good work and word.” (2 Thessalonians 2:16-17)

Blessed Easter!

* Berkoff, L., Systematic Theology (page 468), Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, MI, Reprinted 1993