Monday, January 30, 2012

"Gotta Let Go!"

Spirit & Truth # 258
“Gotta Let Go!”
By Greg Smith
(C) 2012 

“I throw my hands up in the air sometimes
Saying ayo
Gotta let go!”
--Taio Cruz, “Dynamite!”
From the album Rokstarr

            Lots of people love roller coasters.  Some people are roller coaster junkies, visiting every new amusement park they can, just so they can feel the raw power of these amazing rides.  I like roller coasters—in theory.  Actually these days I can only ride one or two before nausea reminds me that I’m now solidly middle-aged.  But when I was a kid, I loved them.  I remember the first time I rode one, how scared I was.  I white-knuckled the entire ride, with my body rigid and eyes bugging out in fear.  I didn’t like my first coaster ride very much.  It wasn’t until I learned to throw my hands up in the air and let go, that it truly became fun.

            Some people go to church the same way I took my first roller coaster ride.  They arrive with fearful hearts, not knowing what might happen.  They’re afraid of abandoning themselves to the movement of the Holy Spirit.  They sing their hymns with bugged-out eyes, white-knuckling the backs of the pews until they’re told they can sit down.  

            Others have learned the art of letting go.  You can see it in the way they carry themselves.  Their bodies are relaxed, and they sing with adoration in their eyes.  Every now and then, you might even see hands slipping up into the air, like a child letting go to enjoythe raw power of a coaster ride.  These two different ways of approaching worship are also the same ways that two different types of people approach the wild ride of life.  

            Some Christians approach life with fear, knowing that there was a Master Designer who planned out their ride, yet distrusting the Builder’s good plan.  They fear that if they let go of all control, they will somehow fly out of the seat to their doom.  So they hang on with all they’ve got, never fully abandoning themselves to the joy of the ride.

            Other believers have realized that while the ride can be intense sometimes, the Designer knows every curve on the track ahead, every loop, every corkscrew.  He built it with you in mind, and all He asks is for you to let go and enjoy.  Scream.  Laugh.  Let Him show you the sheer power that is His.  Let the wind of the Holy Spirit blow through your hair and fill you with exhilarating joy.

            In Acts 1:8 (HCSB), Jesus told His disciples, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come on you, and you will be My witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”  Perhaps Jesus’ followers were excited about their mission, but maybe they were scared.  Either way, Jesus told them that their journey would be one in which they would experience His power.  As you find your purpose in life and learn to follow His calling, you might feel like white-knuckling through the whole ride.  Or, you can relax, let go, trust that He will carry you from start to finish, and enjoy the thrilling journey He’s designed for you.  Feel His power.  Trust His power.  Let go, and enjoy the ride.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Sunday Night's Bible Study on Spiritual Warfare - January 29, 2012 - Session 3

Where Is God When We Lose the Battle?

Psalm 44


            Inherent in warfare is the idea that there are winners and there are losers.  One of the most frustrating things in war is when both sides reach a stalemate.  In the trench warfare of the American Civil War and World War I, many soldiers wrote that they would sooner accept defeat than remain in a deadlock.  No one wanted to continue trading death for death, neither winning nor losing, moving back and forth to conquer a couple of miles of muddy ground.

            Sometimes the Christian life feels like a stalemate.  Some days you win the spiritual battles of temptation, or you see victory in the lives of the loved ones you’re supporting in prayer.  Other days, it seems like you’re losing ground.  At times you’re walking in God’s blessing, and then something happens that makes you feel utterly defeated.  Many believers wonder what makes the difference between win, lose, and draw.

            Like Job’s friends[1], the author of Psalm 44 seems to believe that if things are going well then God is favoring you, but if you’re suffering, God must have removed His favor.  If you’re blessed, it’s certainly because you have been faithful, but if you’ve been defeagted, you must deserve it in some way.  Yet this runs contrary to Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:45, that God “makes His run to rise on the evil and the good.”  He underscores this by saying, “Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. ‘Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great; for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you (Matthew 5:10-12).”  In many other passages, Jesus indicates that sometimes the righteous suffer, and sometimes the wicked seem to prosper.  But the psalmist doesn’t see it that way.

            Psalm 44 is a cry for God’s help.  Verses 1-3 recall the way God was always faithful to the psalmist’s ancestors.

1We have heard with our ears, O God;
our fathers have told us
what you did in their days,
in days long ago.
2With your hand you drove out the nations
and planted our fathers;
you crushed the peoples
and made our fathers flourish.
3It was not by their sword that they won the land,
nor did their arm bring them victory;
it was your right hand, your arm,
and the light of your face, for you loved them. 

            The psalmist remembers the days of God’s favor, when enemies were driven out by God’s hand.  He attests to God’s greatness, stating that it was not by human power that enemies were defeated.  Instead, it was God’s power that won their battles for them.

            In verses 4-8, the psalmist recognizes God’s sovereignty.
4You are my King and my God,
who decrees victories for Jacob.
5Through you we push back our enemies;
through your name we trample our foes.
6I do not trust in my bow,
my sword does not bring me victory;
7but you give us victory over our enemies,
you put our adversaries to shame.
8In God we make our boast all day long,
and we will praise your name forever.       Selah

            Verse 4 points out that all victories are by the decree of God, and not because of human action.  In verse 5, it is God who pushes enemies back, and it is through the Name of God that we trample on our foes.[2]  Note that verse 5 has God pushing back enemies in the present tense, and God’s people trampling foes in the present tense.  Verse 6 continues with the psalmist not trusting his bow in the present tense and his sword not bring present victory.  Verse 7 draws out the theme, with God giving victory and putting adversaries to shame—all the in the present tense.  God is God of the present, giving present victory in the battles of life.  Because of this (verse 8) we make our boast all day long, in present-tense, continual action.  This continues even into the future, for “we will praise your name forever.”  (And don’t forget to ponder this at the end of verse 8—selah.  Perhaps if we pondered this longer, we’d never need to go on to the rest of the psalm, for we’d have a better understanding.)

            Beginning with verse 9, we see a change in the psalmist’s attitude.  Where there used to be a sense of victory, all of a sudden, now that the story of his life has changed, his outlook has also shifted.  Military defeat has got him living in spiritual defeat.  Rather than remembering God’s faithfulness in the past, he wallows in self-pity.  Instead of glorifying God for His present deliverance and worshiping God and trusting God for the future, the psalmist allows the current troubles to cloud his faith.  Believers who engage in spiritual warfare need to remember that God is always faithful—in the good times and in the bad.  If Satan can keep you in a defeatist attitude, he has already won.  So the following verses are an example of how not to think, when things get tough.

9But now you have rejected and humbled us;
you no longer go out with our armies.
10You made us retreat before the enemy,
and our adversaries have plundered us.
11You gave us up to be devoured like sheep
and have scattered us among the nations.
12You sold your people for a pittance,
gaining nothing from their sale.
13You have made us a reproach to our neighbors,
the scorn and derision of those around us.
14You have made us a byword among the nations;
the peoples shake their heads at us.
15My disgrace is before me all day long,
and my face is covered with shame
16at the taunts of those who reproach and revile me,
because of the enemy, who is bent on revenge. 

            It’s natural to feel that God has abandoned you when things get tough.  Even Jesus felt abandoned when He hung on the cross, saying, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me (Mark 15:34)?”[3]  We have to understand verse 9, not as a statement of fact, but as a statement that this is how the psalmist feels.  God does not reject His people.  Psalm 94:1 says, “For the LORD will not abandon His people, nor will He forsake His inheritance.”

            In verse 10, the psalmist goes on to blame God for their retreat and for being plundered.  Verse 11 has God giving them up for devouring and scattering.  In verse 12 the psalmist accuses God of selling them into slavery, and bemoans the fact that God didn’t even get a good price for His people.  God bears the blame for the reproach, scorn, and derision the people feel in verses 13-16.  Surely the psalmist has not only lost a physical battle, but he is losing the spiritual battle as well.

            Often it’s difficult for the spiritual warrior to understand why painful things are happening to them, when they perceive that they have done nothing wrong to deserve it.  The psalmist indicates this kind of confusion in verses 17-22.

17All this happened to us,
though we had not forgotten you
or been false to your covenant.
18Our hearts had not turned back;
our feet had not strayed from your path.
19But you crushed us and made us a haunt for jackals
and covered us over with deep darkness.
20If we had forgotten the name of our God
or spread out our hands to a foreign god,
21would not God have discovered it,
since he knows the secrets of the heart?
22Yet for your sake we face death all day long;
we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered. 

            It would make sense for God to judge violently if the people had been rebellious, but since the psalmist perceives the people to have been faithful, he can’t understand this.  Two answers may be important here.

            First, just because the psalmist doesn’t perceive the people’s sin, that doesn’t mean that they haven’t sinned.  In Joshua 7, Israel’s armies experienced defeat in battle, and they couldn’t understand why.  Eventually, God pointed to the reason:  One man’s sin had caused the nation’s defeat.  By human reasoning, Israel’s leaders would never have figured out that mystery.  It took the Spirit of God to reveal the truth.  Just because you don’t understand the reason God’s judgment falls, that doesn’t mean you aren’t experiencing God’s wrath.

            Second, we need to understand that sometimes painful things happen.  There’s nothing you can do about them, and you don’t need to figure out the reason why.  You may never understand why you’re suffering, but you can trust that God is working His purposes out.  Romans 8:28 says, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.  In Romans 8:37, Paul in fact quotes Psalm 44:22, saying, “For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.”  But then he addresses the attitude of those who complain like this, contradicting the attitude of the psalmist.  “No,” he says.  “In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

            Not long ago, I watched an interviewer try to back a celebrity preacher into a corner with the age-old question about suffering in the world:  There are three possibilities about God’s nature.  Either God is good and all-powerful, but doesn’t see the suffering in the world, and is therefore not omniscient; or the good God sees suffering and is powerless to do anything about it and therefore isn’t omnipotent; or God does both sees the suffering in the world, is able to do something about it, and yet does nothing about it, and is therefore not good.  “Which one is it?” asked the interviewer.  But the celebrity preacher refused to take the bait, quickly changing the subject.  In verses 23-26, the psalmist chooses to believe that God is good and that God is omnipotent, yet challenges God’s omniscience.  He believes that God is asleep.

23Awake, O Lord! Why do you sleep?
Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever.
24Why do you hide your face
and forget our misery and oppression?
25We are brought down to the dust;
our bodies cling to the ground.
26Rise up and help us;
redeem us because of your unfailing love.

            The psalmist believes that if God would simply rouse Himself, lift His face from the celestial pillow, and see that we are brought down to the dust, then God would rise up to help us.  Verse 26 attests to the idea that God is able to help.  God’s unfailing love reflects divine goodness.  So the solution is simply for God to “rise up” from His slumber, breaking God’s sleepy ignorance, and for God to help.  This perspective can’t be further from the truth.  It is simply the way the psalmist feels, much like Jesus saying that He feels like God has abandoned Him when in fact God has not.  Psalm 121:3-4 says, “He who watches over you will not slumber; indeed, he who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep," 

             In my opinion, the evangelist made a mistake in evading the question.  The interviewer made the mistake of assuming that everything that is painful must also be bad.  In fact, God uses painful things in our life to bring good things about.  Paul gives radical encouragement in Romans 5:3-5 when he says, “And not only this, but we also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us.

            The Christian life is warfare.  Some of the warfare is external.  We struggle with sickness, accidents, relationship conflicts, praying for the struggles of our loved ones, and many other things.  But most of our spiritual warfare is internal.  We face temptations to sin, spiritual depression, mental exhaustion, difficult decisions, doctrinal confusion, perplexing emotions, and a host of other soul-level enemies that wage war against us.  Sometimes we win these battles, and sometimes we lose.  Instead of blaming God for our troubles, we need to pray Psalm 44 as if it ends after the selah at the end of verse 8.  Selah means “pause and reflect.”  If you’re a Christian, then you need to pause and reflect on all that God has done for you in the past, so you can have faith that He will sustain you today and into the future.  Then you will be able to pray with the psalmist, “In God we make our boast all day long, and we will praise your name forever (44:8).”

[1] For more on this, read the entire Biblical book of Job.
[2] See the Name of God, “Yah” in Psalm 68:1-4. 
[3] Many claim that in this verse, Jesus is stating fact, rather than feeling.  They often quote the first part of Habakkuk 1:13 (KJV), which says, “You are of purer eyes than to behold evil, and can not look on iniquity.”  They say, “See, God had to turn His face away from Jesus, so in this instant, God did abandon Him.  They say this because they don’t want to believe that Jesus ever said anything that was factually inaccurate.  But Jesus was not in error when He said this.  He factually felt abandoned at this moment, and He was saying what He really felt.  Proponents of the view that God cannot look on evil should read the rest of Habakkuk 1:13, which says, “Why do you look upon them that deal treacherously, and hold your tongue when the wicked devours the man that is more righteous than he?”  Obviously, the psalmist knows that God can see the evil that’s going on.  His problem is trying to understand why God does nothing about it.  The truth is that God does see evil, and does do something about it.   Genesis 6:5-8 says, “Then the LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great on the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.  The LORD was sorry that He had made man on the earth, and He was grieved in His heart. The LORD said, “I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land, from man to animals to creeping things and to birds of the sky; for I am sorry that I have made them.” But Noah found favor in the eyes of the LORD.”  God sees sin.  God judges sin.  But God also offers grace. 

Sunday, January 22, 2012

"To Be a Nathanael!"

Spirit & Truth # 257
“To be a Nathanael!”
By Greg Smith

            The August, 1989 edition of Today in the Word (page 40) shares a story about integrity: 
“It is said that as the great Michelangelo painted the magnificent frescoes on the ceiling of the Sistine chapel--lying on his back for endless hours to finish every detail with great care--a friend asked him why he took such pains with figures that would be viewed from a considerable distance. ‘After all,’ the friend said, ‘Who will notice whether it is perfect or not?’ ‘I will,’ replied the artist.”
            It has been said that integrity is when a person is the same person when no one is looking, as they are when everybody is watching.  Michelangelo believed that his artistic integrity made a difference, because if his workmanship was poor, he would know about it—whether others knew it or not.  Jesus calls God “The Father who sees in secret (Matthew 6:18).”  He sees not only your secret actions but also the secret places in your heart.  God measures your integrity, in part, by how you handle your privacy.  John 1:47-50 (NIV) says:
When Jesus saw Nathanael approaching, he said of him, “Here truly is an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.”
            “How do you know me?” Nathanael asked.
            Jesus answered, “I saw you while you were still under the fig tree before Philip called you.”
            Then Nathanael declared, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the king of Israel.”
            Jesus said, “You believe because I told you I saw you under the fig tree. You will see greater things than that.”  He then added, “Very truly I tell you, you will see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man (John 1:47-50 NIV).”

            Oh, to be a Nathanael!  What an unsung hero of the faith! In Jesus’ day it was commonly known that the fig tree was a place of privacy, where a man could hide out beneath its broad leaves and get away from everybody.  Some people use their privacy for selfish, silly, or sinful things, but Nathanael used his privacy well.  From Jesus’ words we get the impression that Nathanael used the fig’s privacy screen for prayer and meditation.  Publicly he was upright, but privately also he kept his integrity.  In him there was no deceit.  Jesus knew this because He knew Nathanael’s heart.
            Ask yourself, “Am I the same person when I think no one is watching me, as I am when all eyes are on me?”  Jesus promises a reward for people with integrity.  He says, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God (Matthew 5:8).”  He tells Nathanael, “You will see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man (John 1:50).”  God sees you—but do you want to see God?  In this world or in the next, God promises this blessing for those who are pure, who walk with integrity of the heart.  I want to be a Nathanael!  Don’t you? 

Sunday Night's Bible Study on Spiritual Warfare - January 22, 2012 - Session 2

Imprecatory Psalms

The murder of Absalom,  J. Paul Getty Museum

Psalm 3

            Are there some psalms that bother you because they seem to advocate violence?  Some of these psalms ask God for strength to defeat foes, while others ask God to directly inflict injury on enemies.  Psalms 55, 59, 69, 79, 109, 137 give examples of a whole genre of Hebrew poetry, called imprecatory psalms.  Imprecatory psalms often utilize very colorful language when praying injury and judgment for enemies.  How do Christians deal with these kinds of Psalms, since they seem so contrary to the love taught by Jesus?
            Some have suggested that the Old Testament authors often reflected a pre-Christian ideal.  In some sense, this is true, because they did not have a full revelation of Jesus Christ, who He was, and what His teachings would be.  But taken in its fullest sense, this presents a difficulty because we also say that God’s word is inspired.  If what we find only expresses human struggle and not divine qualities, then Psalms is no more than a book of poetry.  But if we understand the Bible as fully divine with no human characteristics, then we would never see human personality peeking through (which, of course, we do).  It’s important to have a balanced view of what we mean when we say that God is the author of the Bible, and that David also wrote this psalm.  The Bible is both fully human and fully divine, and does reflect qualities of both.  We hear divine truth coming through human pain, anger, and struggle. 

Have you ever been so angry that you wanted to “pray against” somebody?  What feelings were inside you at the time?  Were you afraid to pray against them?  Did you feel justified?  Did you actually do it, or did you just think about it?  Let’s look at Psalm 3, one of the psalms where David prays against his enemies.

1 LORD, how many are my foes!
   How many rise up against me!
2 Many are saying of me,

   “God will not deliver him.”  Selah
 3 But you, LORD, are a shield around me,
   my glory, the One who lifts my head high.
4 I call out to the LORD,

   and he answers me from his holy mountain.
 5 I lie down and sleep;
   I wake again, because the LORD sustains me.
6 I will not fear though tens of thousands

   assail me on every side.
 7 Arise, LORD!
   Deliver me, my God!
Strike all my enemies on the jaw;

   break the teeth of the wicked.
 8 From the LORD comes deliverance.
   May your blessing be on your people.  Selah

            The Bible student has to remember here that David is not praying this prayer out of vindictiveness or hatred.  In fact, the foes he is talking about are his son Absalom and his followers.  Absalom led many in revolt against David, upsetting his kingdom and threatening his throne (2 Samuel 15-18).  When Absalom’s forces are finally defeated and Absalom is killed, David’s grief overflows with tears.  “The king was shaken.  He went up to the room over the gateway and wept.  As he went, he said:  “O my son Absalom!  My son, my son Absalom!  If only I had died instead of you—O Absalom, my son, my son (2 Samuel 18:33)!”  

David prays for justice to come to Absalom and his followers.  In imprecatory psalms, the original speakers, in the original contexts, had some right to pray for God’s justice in dealing with the ungodly.  This is no more than praying for what God plans to do anyway.  In his article, “Do the Imprecatory Psalms and Christian Ethics Clash?” Jason Jackson observes:
If these prayers of malediction were intrinsically sinful, one would have a difficult time explaining the Lord’s “curse” upon Capernaum (Matthew 11:23-24), Paul’s prayer of anathema upon false teachers (Galatians 1:8-9), the apostle’s denunciation of Alexander the coppersmith (2 Timothy 4:14), and the prayer of those martyrs who, under the altar of God, asked for vengeance from the Lord (Revelation 6:10).[1]
If hatred is not the motivation for imprecations, what is the motivation?  How can David pray about his son, “Strike all my enemies on the jaw; break the teeth of the wicked (Psalm 3:7)?”  (Almost) more importantly, how can Christians read these words and receive instruction or inspiration from them?

We can understand this in a couple of different ways.  First, we see that these are not prayers that express hate.  They are, instead, prayers that recognize that God is not mocked; God’s enemies will not endure.  These prayers simply ask for God’s justice.  In Hard Sayings of the Old Testament, Walter Kaiser writes:

They [these hard sayings] are not statements of personal vendetta, but they are utterances of zeal for the kingdom of God and his glory. To be sure, the attacks which provoked these prayers were not from personal enemies; rather, they were rightfully seen as attacks against God and especially his representatives in the promised line of the Messiah.[2]

We have to see Psalm 3 as a king and father’s response to a satanic attack against not only himself, but against the line that would eventually sire the Messiah.  Throughout the Psalms we see David’s insight into the Messiah who would eventually come through him.  Jesus would be born out of Solomon’s line (legally-speaking) on Joseph’s side (Matthew 1:6-7), and out of David’s son Nathan’s line (Luke 3:31) on Mary’s side.  If Absalom had succeeded in his rebellion, David’s line would have continued, but Satan would have thwarted the intended birth of Jesus.  So when David prays against his enemies, he prays not only against Absalom and his followers.  He prays against Satan and his demonic hoards.

Still, for the Christian, it is sometimes hard to stomach these imprecatory passages of scripture.  This is when we have to see the imprecatory psalms in a different light for the modern reader.  Remember Ephesians 6:12 which reads, “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.”  Believers need to remember that behind every natural struggle is a supernatural one.  The man who you think to be your enemy really is not your enemy.  The supernatural power behind him, standing against the things of God—that is your enemy whom you can pray against.
In verses 1-2, the psalmist considers his enemies, saying, “LORD, how many are my foes!  How many rise up against me!  Many are saying of me, ‘God will not deliver him.’  Selah.”  The selah at the end of those verses becomes very important when we start thinking about praying against our enemies.  Selah means “Pause and reflect.”  First, as any good general knows, it’s important to assess the size of the enemy army.  But second, the word reminds the psalmist and the singer/prayer to pause and rest.  “Before getting too angry, pause and reflect.  Find a place of peace before you pray the rest of this prayer.  Selah.”
Verse 3 says, “But you, LORD, are a shield around me, my glory, the One who lifts my head high.”  God is our defender.  Ephesians 6:11 says, “Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes.”  Most of the armor listed in the next passage is defensive, including the helmet of salvation, breastplate of righteousness, belt of truth, shoes of the readiness of the gospel of peace, and shield of faith.  Only one piece is offensive, the sword of the Spirit.  This passage in Psalm 3 seems reminiscent of the shield of faith and the helmet of salvation, which protect both the head (thinking) and the whole physical person.
Verse 4 says, “I call out to the LORD, and he answers me from his holy mountain.”  This verse is about prayer.  Ephesians 6:18 echoes this with these words:  “And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people.”  Praying in the spirit means expressing your heart to God, trusting Him to meet your needs, and resting in His care.  It means being so in tune with God’s will that what you pray is already in God’s will.  The more you get in touch with God’s spirit and discern what God’s will really is, the more you’ll find your prayers being answered—not because you’ve become better at convincing God to do what you want, but because you’ve become better at discerning God’s will and praying it.

If you find yourself in a season of exhausting spiritual warfare in your life, then verse 5 is significant to you:  “I lie down and sleep; I wake again, because the LORD sustains me.”  It is important to get adequate rest, especially during times of struggle.  The irony is that during the times of greatest struggle, often stress robs the body of sleep.  The psalmist reminds the reader that even during these times, his confidence is in God.  Because he places his total trust in the Lord, he knows he can rest secure.  Both rest and wakefulness are a gift from God.  Verse 5 reminds us to take care of ourselves.  Get proper rest.  Practice good self-care.  Then, when you’re in a position of spiritual battle, you’ll be prepared for whatever comes.

 In verse 6, David says, “I will not fear though tens of thousands assail me on every side.”  How can this be?  Because he knows that he has a purpose to fulfill.  Just as he was confident in the face of Goliath, so he is confident in the face of all his enemies.

Verse 7 begins the imprecations against David’s enemies:  “Arise, LORD! Deliver me, my God! Strike all my enemies on the jaw; break the teeth of the wicked.”  Keep in mind that David (1) is praying for God’s justice and not out of hatred towards his own son; (2) is likely using figurative speech and doesn’t actually want Absalom’s teeth broken, nor a hair on his head injured (In 2 Samuel 18:5, David says, “Be gentle with the young man Absalom for my sake.”); and (3) is referring to his spiritual and demonic enemies, that deserve God’s swiftest wrath.

Verse 8 says, “From the LORD comes deliverance. May your blessing be on your people.  Selah.”  In spiritual warfare, we are reminded that our deliverance comes not from our own cleverness, not from our own strength, but from the Lord.  David ends his psalm with a blessing on God’s people, and a second call to pause and consider, to meditate on the things he has just said.  Don’t enter into spiritual warfare lightly, but carefully consider all these things when confronted with an enemy.

[1] Jackson, Jason. “Do the Imprecatory Psalms and Christian Ethics Clash?”
[2] Kaiser, Walter. 1988. Hard Sayings of the Old Testament. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Sunday Night's Bible Study on Spiritual Warfare - Session 1, January 15


St. George and the Dragon

Since the 1980s, spiritual warfare has been a topic of great conversation among evangelical Christians.  Fiction books depicting epic battles between angels and demons have fueled the imaginations of many believers.  Handbooks for spiritual warfare detail methods of identifying demon possession, breaking satanic strongholds, casting demons out of our homes and souls, and guarding against spiritual attacks.  While many of these books contain some elements of truth, they often sensationalize spiritual warfare to the extent that many Christians have begun to seek it out as something exciting.  
When we realize the similarities between physical and spiritual warfare, we see the dangers of sending novice believers into battle, under the pretense of “claiming their authority in Jesus.”  Just as physical warfare is not for the young or weak or untrained, so spiritual warfare is not for those who are unprepared for battle.  Entering the fray without proper spiritual maturity, strength, or training would be spiritual suicide.  So the purpose of this study is to prepare the believer for the spiritual conflicts that every Christian must at some point face.
            In 1988, evangelist Jimmy Swaggart suffered the humiliation of a ministry spoiled by his involvement with an exotic dancer.  His denomination, the Assemblies of God, mandated that he leave ministry for a time, but he resign his pulpit.  His reason: the devil made him do it.  The only catch was that while comedian Flip Wilson had been attempting humor when he said it, Swaggart really meant it.  Citing demon possession as the culprit, he took no personal responsibility for his actions.  Instead, he reported that his friend and fellow televangelist Oral Roberts had cast demons out of him during a phone call.  Because he’d been delivered from this oppression, he was now fit for ministry.  So Swaggart continued on, business as usual, ignoring the ecclesial authority of his denomination.  
While I make no judgment as to the reality or fiction of Swaggart’s demons, I will say that evangelical Christianity gained a renewed perspective on demonic possession.  Many believers began to see demons hiding in every shadow, ready to pounce with their temptations and attack with their treachery at any moment.  Instead of taking personal responsibility for their sin, they felt justified in blaming Satan and his devils for their misdeeds.  They ignored James 1:14-15, which says, “Each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.”  Certainly the devil can and does tempt believers to sin, but we often do a very good job on our own, thank you very much.  We make his job easy, so that all he has to do is provide the catalyst for temptation, letting our own depraved souls do the rest.

Christians do need to take spiritual warfare seriously, but I fear that all too often we misunderstand what it means.  While demon possession and witchcraft certainly are realities, the truth is that most believers don’t come into overt contact with them very often.  Certainly angels and demons still do battle in the heavenly realms, even as they have done since Lucifer’s rebellion.  Yet our theater of war is more often the spiritual battle that wages in our own souls, rather than in celestial regions.  Most believers face spiritual conflict in the day to day decisions they make in life, and on their knees in prayer, rather than in some exorcist’s office.  
This inner warfare of the soul is the subject of our study.  While we will make reference to the many New Testament and Old Testament scriptures pertaining to spiritual warfare, we will focus primarily on the book of Psalms.  No book delves deeper into the inner person than the book of Psalms.  For this reason, Psalms has been a favorite book of spiritually-minded Christians for generations and indeed, since the dawn of our faith.
Psalm 1
            Most Christians don’t set out to sin—they just stumble into it.  Sin creeps up on you where you least expect it.  It begins with something as simple as walking in the wrong direction.  Imagine the alcoholic who decides to go for a walk.  The road forks to the right and to the left.  The road to the right leads to his church, where nearby live many of his new Christian friends and mentors.  The road to the left leads to the downtown district where he used to frequent bars and liquor stores.  He stands at the crossroads, deciding which way to walk.  He doesn’t say, “I think I’ll go and have a drink.”  He simply decides to walk down the road to the left and see what there is to see.  He’s walking in the counsel of the ungodly.
            The left-hand road leads to the streets where he finds his old drinking buddies on the corner.  They see him, and invite him to stop for just a bit.  He doesn’t say, “I think I’ll have a drink with them,” but he does decide to stop for a chat.  He goes from walking in the counsel of the ungodly to standing in the path of sinners.  It’s a subtle degeneration—one that he doesn’t even perceive.  But just watch the trouble it causes!
            “Why don’t you come in and take a load off your tired feet?” one of his old friends says to him.  He doesn’t intend to do anything but have a seat for a while, but before you know it he’s gone from standing in the path of sinners, to sitting in the seat of scoffers.  From walking, to standing, to sitting—and now he’s got a glass in his hand.  That glass that he never set out to find, has now found him.  It’s not because he decided to misbehave from the beginning, but because he just wasn’t careful about the little decisions he made along the way.
            Psalm 1:1 pronounces a blessing on the person who does not follow that kind of path.  Instead, verse two suggests a better obsession than the sin that so easily entangles:  “But his delight is in the law of the LORD, and in His law he meditates day and night.”  When you set your mind on the things of God, His word that lives in your heart will help you decide, when you stand at the crossroads. 
Psalm 48
Psalm 48 is a meaningless psalm to most believers, when we interpret it literally to be about Mount Zion.  However, it is a deeply profound psalm if we understand that the heart of the believer is the temple of God.  Then, this psalm is no longer about a holy city and now is about a holy heart.
Have you ever driven through a city, or part of a city, that was falling down and in disrepair?  Likely the city did not have enough resources to maintain itself the way it once did.  Perhaps it had fallen along way from its past glory.  Maybe the city officials didn’t take enough time to maintain it properly.  It is the duty of every Christian to 12 Walk about Zion, go around her, count her towers, 13 consider well her ramparts, view her citadels, that you may tell of them to the next generation.”  
            This means that the Christian should “walk circumspectly in the world (Ephesians 5:15).”  It also means we should take an introspective look at the heart’s condition.  Though Israel had a king, he could not always focus on local matters—so cities had the equivalent of a mayor.  God is the King of the believer’s life, but He leaves the believer to be the mayor of his own heart, able to examine his own condition, shore up any defenses, and take stock of spiritual and emotional provisions.  Verses 12-13 show that when the mayor of a city takes proper care to maintain its walls, towers, bulwarks, and citadels, he assures that another generation will survive to lean of God’s goodness.

            God’s desire is that your heart “be beautiful and lofty, the joy of all the earth…the very center of the world and the city of the great King (v. 2).”  This doesn’t mean that God wants believers to be proud and boastful, arrogant and egotistical.  It means that when the believer finds his center, when God becomes his center as the Temple was in the center of Jerusalem, then God will in turn make the believer the one to whom the world turns to find its center.

            “God is in her citadels.  He is known to be her sure refuge (v. 3).” Jerusalem wasn’t great because the Jebusites had made it so; it was great because the king chose to make it his stronghold.  So too the Christian who achieves greatness can take no credit for what he has achieved.  It was the King of kings, making His home in the believer’s heart,  that made the Christian great.  

            Vv. 4-8 show the result of a city that is strong in the Lord, inside and out:  4 For behold, the kings assembled, They passed by together. 5 They saw it, and so they marveled; They were troubled, they hastened away. 6 Fear took hold of them there, And pain, as of a woman in birth pangs, 7 As when You break the ships of Tarshish With an east wind.  8 As we have heard,  So we have seen  In the city of the LORD of hosts,  In the city of our God: God will establish it forever.”  

            As the Temple is at the heart of Jerusalem, a God is at the heart of ever believer, v. 8 is at the heart of this psalm:  “We have waited in silence on Your lovingkindness, O God, in the midst of your temple.”  It could appropriately be rephrased, “We have grounded ourselves at the Holy of Holies and prayed, waiting on Your lovingkindness.

            This is the core.  This is the center.  This is the heart: to wait on God in silence, to “be still, and know that [He] is God (Ps 46:10).”

            What is the result of a centered soul resting in God, waiting on God?  V. 9 says, “Your praise, like Your name, reaches to the world’s end.”  The believer becomes a beacon of praise, spiritually broadcasting God’s Name to the ends of the earth.  Through meditation, through emptying himself of anything but God, the believer becomes a conduit of divine love, that extends to the world’s dark corners.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Unto the Lord

Spirit & Truth # 256
“Unto the Lord”
By Greg Smith
 (c) 2012

            Several years ago I went to Picayune, Mississippi, to do relief work after Hurricane Katrina.  Along with a large team from our denomination, I cleaned debris off of houses and out of yards.  The people I had gone to help were Mississippi’s poorest, who could never afford to hire the help they needed.  But one day we were sent to clear debris off the lawn of a mansion.  I was angry, because (in my perception) this homeowner could have payed for the help and not signed up to accept charity work.  I grumbled and complained until somebody took me aside and gave me a verse of scripture.  Today, I give it to you:
To the church at Colosse, the apostle Paul wrote: “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.”
My problem was that I’d forgotten who I was working for.  If I’d thought I was working for my denomination or for the poor I was wrong.  I wasn’t working for the owner of that mansion, either.  In fact, I was working for Jesus.  As long as I focused on the struggle of working for people, I became discouraged.  But when I put my eyes and my mind where they needed to be, when I gave my attention to the Lord who I was serving, things suddenly took on a different perspective.
In 1666, Nicholas Herman was admitted to a Carmelite monastery in Paris, changing his name to Brother Lawrence.  There he found a life of forgiveness, joy, and peace beyond expectation.  Brother Lawrence’s faith, however, was soon put to the test, for he was assigned to the kitchen.  Kitchen duty was a challenge, but the way that he tackled it provides guidelines for victorious living three centuries later.
Lawrence realized that even the most mundane and worldly task can be done in love for God, and doing it for the great King gives the most humble task a spiritual purpose.  In his little book The Practice of the Presence of God, Lawrence wrote, “The time of business does not with me differ from the time of prayer, and in the noise and clatter of my kitchen while several persons are at the same time calling for different things, I possess God in as great tranquility as if I were upon my knees….We ought not to be weary of doing little things for the love of God, who regards not the greatness of the work, but the love with which it is performed.”
God doesn’t usually ask you what you want to do.  He asks you to be obedient, and then he changes your heart so that you enjoy doing what He has called you to do.  What things are you working on, where you’ve lost the joy and resent having to continue on?  Your job?  Your marriage?  Your church?  Remember that you’re not doing it for people—you’re doing it as unto the Lord.  Let Him change your attitude, because that makes all the difference.

Monday, January 2, 2012

New Year's Restitutions

Spirit & Truth # 255
“New Year’s Restitutions”
By Greg Smith

(c) 2012.  All rights reserved.

16th c. woodcutting by Albrecht Duerer
"The Penitent David"
(By the way, no, I do not encourage self-flagellation.)

            Happy New Year!  By now, you’ve probably made and broken quite a few New Year’s resolutions.  Resolutions don’t generally work well for me.  Maybe not for you, either.  So in 2012, I want to issue you a challenge.  Instead of trying to do things right, let’s work on trying to make things right.  Instead of resolutions, let’s talk about making restitutions. 
            You might be saying, “What’s he talking about?  I’m not a criminal.  I don’t need to pay anything back to anyone.”  I’ll bet if you examine your life enough, you can find quite a few things you need to make right.  Are there apologies you need to make, forgiveness to ask for, reparations you must pay?  Has your poor behavior damaged your Christian witness, and you need to set things right?
            Once, upon hearing a sermon on restitution by F.E. Marsh, a young man named George came from the congregation, greatly troubled.  He told Marsh that for years he had been stealing costly copper nails from his employer, but that the sermon had pricked his conscience.  George knew that he must return to his employer, confess his sin, and repay the man for everything he had taken.  He was ashamed to do so, however, because he had often invited his employer to church.  The employer had, in return, scoffed at George’s religion.   “Now,” said the penitent man, “I have been guilty of something that, if I should acknowledge it to him, will ruin my testimony forever."
            After many weeks agonizing over his decision, George finally confessed his sin and repaid all.  When the preacher inquired how the employer reacted, George replied, "He looked queerly at me, then exclaimed, 'George, I always did think you were just a hypocrite, but now I begin to feel there's something in this Christianity after all. Any religion that would make a dishonest workman come back and confess that he had been stealing copper nails and offer to settle for them, must be worth having.'"[i]
            In Psalm 32:3-5 (NIV), David writes about his own sin: “When I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long.  For day and night your hand was heavy on me; my strength was sapped as in the heat of summer.  Then I acknowledged my sin to you and did not cover up my iniquity.  I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the LORD.’ And you forgave the guilt of my sin.”  David learned that not only did he have to confess his sins to God—he also had to do whatever he could to repay, restore, and make restitution for the damages he’d done.  Then, and only then, he could be at peace with himself.
            In 2012, instead of making resolutions, why not make restitutions?  You’ve already taken stock of those behaviors that you need to modify.  You’ve resolved to do things right this year—whether you actually will or not.  But instead of just doing things right, let’s make things right.  Who do you need to make things right with this year—before another day goes by?

[i] H.A. Ironside, Illustrations of Bible Truth, 1945, Moody Press, p. 104-106.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

What Does Auld Lang Syne Mean?

This evening (New Year's Day) I was helping my son practice for his spelling bee, and falling in love with etymology all over again.  (Yeah, I'm a geek.)  I came across one word which sent me to the dictionary, and I got pixie-led to the extent that it led me to "Auld Lang Syne."  This is pretty appropriate, considering the day.

What in the world does "Auld Lang Syne" mean, anyway?

I could answer this myself, or I could post a wonderful version of this song, complete with translations from Gaelic into English.  (My apologies, because the original poster of this video said "Scottish" instead of "Gaelic.")

Anyway--Happy New Year!