When It Looks Like Evil Is Winning

Sometimes when I am dismayed over the state of the world or a personal problem, I am tempted to think, “God, why aren’t you winning? You’re stronger than evil. You’re bigger than this problem. Why isn’t all of this taken care of? It would be nothing to You to right these things.”

The psalmists wrestled with this question in a slightly different way. In Psalm 73, Asaph struggled with not only the presence of the wicked, but the fact that they prospered. He even came to the point of thinking that his efforts to live purely had been in vain. Job’s friends’ asserted that God blesses the righteous and punishes the wicked, and therefore Job must have done something wrong to be experiencing so much trouble. One of Job’s arguments against their theory was that the wicked often prosper in this life.

But nothing in Job’s circumstances indicated that God wasn’t “winning,” that He was absent, didn’t care, or had lost control of the situation. God was with Job all along, even though Job couldn’t sense His presence. God displayed mercy and compassion to Job, even though it looked different from what we might expect. All of the physical, material blessings that God restored to Job at the end of the book are items that he once again lost at the end of his life. But through the first loss of them, God taught him eternal truths and drew Job closer to Himself. Job’s relationship with God and the spiritual truths he learned would affect the rest of his life. Though it might have looked like Satan was winning, God was working out His purposes.

I love the Psalms for their honest emotion. Whether the psalmists faced personal danger or lamented the seeming triumph of evil in the world, they brought their own thoughts and those of their listeners back to the truth they knew about God. Psalm 10 (ESV) starts out, “Why, O Lord, do you stand far away? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?” But the psalmist reminded himself, “But you do see, for you note mischief and vexation, that you may take it into your hands; to you the helpless commits himself; you have been the helper of the fatherless.” He concludes back on solid ground:

 The Lord is king forever and ever;
    the nations perish from his land.
O Lord, you hear the desire of the afflicted;
    you will strengthen their heart; you will incline your ear
to do justice to the fatherless and the oppressed,
    so that man who is of the earth may strike terror no more.

When God seems far away, we remind ourselves of the truth we know about Him from His Word. He sees what is going on. He loves us. He will deal justly. He might be waiting to answer for a number of reasons. We ask Him to search us and show us anything that might be hindering His answer to our prayers. And we rest in His wisdom, love, righteousness, and strength.

Trusting that God has control of the situation doesn’t mean inaction on our part. Only God can take care of all the needs of the world, but He often works through people. A needy world is a call to pray and then to look for ways to help those in need. William Wilberforce and Hannah More not only prayed against the evil of slavery but fought against it. We may not be able to solve world pproblem, but we can help those within our sphere of influence.

In the May 19 selection of Spectacle of Glory by Joni Eareckson Tada, she wrote:

On the whole, the good that we are able to tally in this life doesn’t seem to outweigh the bad that we observe. We keep praying, but we don’t see some of the answers closest to our hearts. Only heaven will reveal a clear picture of how the sweet fragrance of our faith in Jesus, even in times of grief and loss, influenced the lives of those around us. Only eternity will show how our fainthearted prayers changed the destinies of people on our prayer list. Great faith believes in God even when He plays His hand close to the vest, not showing all His cards. God wants to increase your “measure of faith.” He does this whenever He conceals a matter and you trust Him nevertheless (p. 156).

The Bible tells us the world will get worse before the end. “But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 3: 14-15).

God not only wins in the end. He is winning now. He’s working out His purposes even now.

Ye fearful saints fresh courage take,
The clouds ye so much dread
Are big with mercy, and shall break
In blessings on your head.

His purposes will ripen fast,
Unfolding ev’ry hour;
The bud may have a bitter taste,
But sweet will be the flow’r.

Blind unbelief is sure to err,
And scan his work in vain;
God is his own interpreter,
And he will make it plain.

(From “God Moves in a Mysterious Way” by William Cowper, 1773)

Revised from the archives. I had another post in mind for today, but then was inclined to this one.

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What’s Normal, Anyway?

God is faithful though any circumstances

The transition from December 31 to January 1 is just a change from one day to the next. But January 1 is not just a new day or even the start of a new month: it’s a whole new calendar of blank pages, full of hope and possibilities.

The most prevalent hope I hear is that life gets “back to normal,” especially in regard to the coronavirus. We’d love for it go away completely, or at lease recede to rare occurrences, like the swine flu or the bird flu. We want to go about our business without worrying about exposure and masks how many people are gathered in one place.

It’s harder to hope for some of the other issues prevalent during the last year. We still have a long way to go in race relations. And I don’t know if the political landscape will ever improve.

But desiring normalcy for the last several months has led me to wonder—what’s normal, anyway?

America has always had its troubles, but we’ve had it a good deal better than many. We have poverty here, but people who travel to third-world countries are often stunned by the breadth and depth of poverty in other places. Some countries are almost perpetually in a state of war. Some areas are rife with corruption. Armed guards regularly patrol some streets. Some citizens risk their lives to vote.

Through the Bible, Israel was in captivity to Egypt 400 years, Babylon 70 years. Most of their rulers were evil.

Early Christians were persecuted under wicked emperors. More recent believers suffered under Communist oppression. Many are persecuted in several countries even now.

The prophet Habakkuk complained to the Lord:

Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise. So the law is paralyzed, and justice never goes forth. For the wicked surround the righteous; so justice goes forth perverted. (Habakkuk 1:3b-4)

He basically asked God, “What are you going to do about this?

God replied that he was sending the “dreaded and fearsome” Chaldean army (vv. 5-11).

Habakkuk wonders, “What? You can’t let that happen!”

But in their further conversation, God established that He can and He will. But, He says, “but the righteous shall live by his faith” (2:4b).

By the end of chapter 3, Habakkuk concludes that, though his body trembles and lip quivers (3:16):

Though the fig tree should not blossom,
    nor fruit be on the vines,
the produce of the olive fail
    and the fields yield no food,
the flock be cut off from the fold
    and there be no herd in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
    I will take joy in the God of my salvation.
God, the Lord, is my strength;
    he makes my feet like the deer’s;
    he makes me tread on my high places. (3:17-19)

I hope with everything in me that life improves on every front this year. But whatever happens, these are some of the truths I carry with me:

  • God is good, even if circumstances aren’t.
  • God is at work, even if it doesn’t look like it.
  • God loves me, even if life is hard.
  • My job is the same: trust in Him, live for Him, rejoice in Him, love Him, grow in Him, fortify and feed myself with His Word.

In the book of Deuteronomy, Moses repeated God’s instruction to Israel before they entered the promised land after 40 years of wilderness wandering. One of the things He promised them was:

But the land that you are going over to possess is a land of hills and valleys, which drinks water by the rain from heaven, a land that the Lord your God cares for. The eyes of the Lord your God are always upon it, from the beginning of the year to the end of the year. (Deuteronomy 11:11-12)

Though our context is different, I think we can take comfort and courage in these same truths. Through the “hills and valleys” of the coming year, God eyes are on us and He cares for us.

The righteous shall live by his faith

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What God Tells Us to Remember

Many of us spend the last days of the year looking back at it. Maybe that reminiscence is sparked by the Christmas letters we wrote loved ones, or by the pause before putting up our shiny new calendars for the new year.

There used to be a saying on memes that went something like, “Don’t look back—you’re not going that way.” However, though we shouldn’t live in the past, we benefit from considering it at times.

I jotted down for my own remembrance the ESV Study Bible note for Isaiah 44:21, where God pointed out the futility of idols and told Israel to remember certain things:

Remember. God calls his people to focused thought, in contrast to the muddled delusions described in vv. 9-20 about “these things,” both the all-sufficiency of the God who makes true promises to his people and the emptiness of the false gods with their lies (p. 1321).

The note on Isaiah 46:8 says something similar:

Mental focus on who God is must be renewed, for the idolatrous culture of the world erodes clarity (p. 1326).

God calls us to remember, to exercise “focused thought.” Verses came floating to mind about what God tells us to remember. So I did a quick word study, which resulted in four pages of references. I can’t put all of them here, but I’ll share several.

“Remember all the commandments of the Lord, to do them, not to follow after your own heart and your own eyes, which you are inclined to whore after. So you shall remember and do all my commandments, and be holy to your God.” (Numbers 15:39-40)

“Remember the whole way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, that he might humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments or not.” (Deuteronomy 8:2)

“Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth, before the evil days come and the years draw near of which you will say, ‘I have no pleasure in them’” (Ecclesiastes 12:1)

“Remember the days of old; consider the years of many generations; ask your father, and he will show you, your elders, and they will tell you”. (Deuteronomy 32:7). (The rest of the chapter details God’s gracious dealings in Israel’s history.)

Remember God’s provision: “Beware lest you say in your heart, ‘My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth.’ You shall remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth, that he may confirm his covenant that he swore to your fathers, as it is this day.” (Deuteronomy 8:17-18) (Jesus reminded his disciples, when they discussed having no bread, about his past provision of loaves and fishes. Matthew 16:5-12.)

“Remember the wondrous works that he has done, his miracles and the judgments he uttered.” (1 Chronicles 16:12)

“Remember and do not forget how you provoked the Lord your God to wrath in the wilderness. From the day you came out of the land of Egypt until you came to this place, you have been rebellious against the Lord.” (Deuteronomy 9:7). (It’s not that God wanted to hold their past rebellion over their heads forever, but they needed to remember their tendency to sin so that they might be humbled and appreciative of His grace.)

Remember how God dealt with other people’s sin, to learn from their example. “Remember what the Lord your God did to Miriam on the way as you came out of Egypt” (Deuteronomy 24:9); “Remember Lot’s wife” (Luke 17:32).

“Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent.” (Revelation 2:5)

Remember his Word:

“Remember his covenant forever, the word that he commanded, for a thousand generations.” (1 Chronicles 16:15)

“This is now the second letter that I am writing to you, beloved. In both of them I am stirring up your sincere mind by way of reminder, that you should remember the predictions of the holy prophets and the commandment of the Lord and Savior through your apostles.” (2 Peter 3:1-2)

“But you must remember, beloved, the predictions of the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Jude 17)

“Remember, then, what you received and heard. Keep it, and repent. If you will not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come against you.” (Revelation 3:3)

Remember the nothingness of idols and the greatness of his salvation (Isaiah 44:9-26, “Remember these things,” v. 21; Isaiah 46, “Remember this and stand firm, recall it to mind, you transgressors, remember the former things of old; for I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me,” vv. 8-9).

“Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them, and those who are mistreated, since you also are in the body.” (Hebrews 13:3)

“Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.” (Hebrews 13:7)

Besides imperative sentences, I noticed some sweet examples of focused remembrance about God, his truth, his ways, his past provision, and the effect of this remembrance. Some were in Psalm 77, Psalm 78, and Isaiah 63. One was in Psalm 63:5-7:

“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.” 

Another is in Psalm 143:3-6:

“For the enemy has pursued my soul; he has crushed my life to the ground; he has made me sit in darkness like those long dead. Therefore my spirit faints within me; my heart within me is appalled.

“I remember the days of old; I meditate on all that you have done; I ponder the work of your hands. I stretch out my hands to you; my soul thirsts for you like a parched land.”

One more in Lamentations 3:19-26:

Remember my affliction and my wanderings, the wormwood and the gall! My soul continually remembers it and is bowed down within me. But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope:

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. “The Lord is my portion,” says my soul,  “therefore I will hope in him.”

The Lord is good to those who wait for him, to the soul who seeks him. It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord.

Any time is a good time to remember God’s character and dealings with us. But I hope that before the year ends, you’re able to have some “focused thought” on his particular provision and expressions of love in your life.

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Merry Christmas! Come Behold the Wondrous Mystery

I wish for you and yours a special time of wonder remembering God’s love for us and showing His love to each other.

Come behold the wondrous mystery
In the dawning of the King
He the theme of heaven’s praises
Robed in frail humanity

In our longing, in our darkness
Now the light of life has come
Look to Christ, who condescended
Took on flesh to ransom us

From “Come Behold the Wondrous Mystery” by Matt Papa, Matt Boswell, Michael Bleecker

Not the Savior They Were Looking For

From the first book of the Bible, from the first instance of sin, God promised that some day a Redeemer would come. God repeated and expanded on the promise all through the Old Testament. The coming One, the promised One, the Messiah, would be a perfect prophet, priest, king. He would overthrow evil, rule in justice, defeat all Israel’s enemies. Though he was particularly given so the Jews, he was also promised to the Gentiles.

And in that day there shall be a root of Jesse, which shall stand for an ensign of the people; to it shall the Gentiles seek: and his rest shall be glorious. (Isaiah 11:10)

And he said, It is a light thing that thou shouldest be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob, and to restore the preserved of Israel: I will also give thee for a light to the Gentiles, that thou mayest be my salvation unto the end of the earth. (Isaiah 49:6)

Multiple prophecies foretold his coming. Multiple images depicted him: the Passover lamb, the scapegoat, sacrifice for sin, the suffering servant.

But when he came, when he claimed to be the Messiah, his people did not recognize him. “He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him” (John 1:11). The Jews of New Testament times looked for a warrior king who would overthrow Roman oppression and establish his physical kingdom. When he pointed out their errors and sins, they had him killed.

People today make a similar mistake. They want a particular kind of Savior:

One who will solve their problems but never require anything of them.

One who will align with and carry out their political aspirations.

One who will increase their health and wealth.

One who will smile indulgently at their sin and never chasten.

One who would never let anything unpleasant happen.

One who will never require anything difficult.

One who never says no to their desires and plans.

Instead of worshiping the Savior as he is, they’ve created one from the own imagination. And when He doesn’t perform according to expectations, well, then, who needs Him?

We all need Him. But we need Him as He truly is, not as we think He should be. Even those of us who have been Christians  for a long time still have to continually “renew our minds” and adjust our thinking according to truth. We come to know Him as Savior and Lord, but then we spend the rest of our lives getting to know Him better and adjusting ourselves away from our preconceived notions and expectations and toward who He really is. And we’re not disappointed, because in the end He’s a much better Savior than we could ever have imagined.

Do you know Him today as He truly is? Get to know Him through His Word. If you’re new to the Bible, start reading the gospel of John. See what He does and what He says about Himself.

And if you’ve known Him for years, keep getting to know Him better. Keep learning more and more what a wonderful Savior He is.

(Revised from the archives)

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Christmas Lights

symbolism of Christmas lights

Christmas lights are my favorite holiday decorations. Just when the landscape becomes bare and dreary and the nights are longest, cheery lights go up inside and outside. I miss them when we take them down at the end of the month.

I don’t know if I did a good job teaching my children the symbolism behind many of our Christmas customs. But the symbolism behind Christmas lights is a favorite.

God began creation by saying “Let there be light”. But He soon saw His world engulfed in darkness when sin came in. Nevertheless, He promised light would shine again.

“I am the LORD; I have called you in righteousness; I will take you by the hand and keep you; I will give you as a covenant for the people, a light for the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness (Isaiah 42:6-7).

“But for you who fear my name, the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings. You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall” (Malachi 4:2).

The Isaiah passage that foretells of the child born, the son given who will take David’s throne, rule in righteousness, whose “name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” begins with “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone” (Isaiah 9:2).

Scripture points repeatedly to Jesus as the light.

Jesus said, “ “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” (John 8:12).

In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it (John 1:4-5).

When we believe on the Lord, His light shines through us:

At one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true), and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. For it is shameful even to speak of the things that they do in secret. But when anything is exposed by the light, it becomes visible, for anything that becomes visible is light (Ephesians 5:8-14a).

The NKJV renders that last phrase “But all things that are exposed are made manifest by the light, for whatever makes manifest is light.”

This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin (1 John 1: 5-7).

Someday, for God’s children, “night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever” (Revelation 22:5). How desperately we need to choose light now, because those who don’t will be “thrown into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 8:12).

For now, though we have the light, we live in a dark world.

Who among you fears the Lord and obeys the voice of his servant? Let him who walks in darkness and has no light trust in the name of the Lord and rely on his God (Isaiah 50:10).

Keep looking to the light!

In your light we see light. Psalm 36:9

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How to Get Out of a Bible Reading Rut

How to get out of a Bible reading rut

Routines can help us establish good habits. Half the battle in establishing a regular quiet time or devotional time is staking out a workable, regular time and place. Some days—and some seasons of life—upend our schedules, and all we can do is watch for any available minutes. But we usually do better when we plan to work Bible reading into our day.

But a routine can become—routine. A rut, even.

How can we keep our Bible reading from becoming routine—or dig it out of the rut if it’s already there?

Pray. Ask God to remind us of the treasure His Word is. Sometimes I pray Psalm 119:18 just before starting my Bible reading: “Open my eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of your law.” Or Psalm 119:25: “My soul clings to the dust; Revive me according to Your word” (NKJV).

Remember. Perhaps make a list of reasons to read the Bible or read Psalm 119 to renew our appreciation of it.

Don’t expect high excitement every time. A Thanksgiving feast is wonderful and memorable. But the monthly tuna casserole and everyday peanut butter sandwiches nourish us as well. Some devotional times leave us overflowing with joy or conviction or inspiration. Most quiet times don’t end that way, yet the Word feeds us every time we partake of it.

Remember the purpose of time in the Word: not just to get through a certain number of chapters or a certain amount of time, but to meet with the Lord and get to know Him better.

Change your plan. If you usually read the Bible through in a year, maybe switch to a two-year plan or a five-year plan—or a 90-day plan. Or a biographical plan or a chronological plan. Bible Gateway lists 18 different plans. Near the end of the year you’ll see a number of posts and articles about ways to read the Bible in the New Year (though you don’t have to wait til then to start).

Change your style. We benefit from both reading and studying the Bible, but most of us are inclined one way or the other. If you usually read large chunks for an overview, perhaps study a particular book in more detail. If you like to camp out in one passage for days, maybe get the bigger picture by reading several chapters or a whole book at one sitting.

Add aids. I’ve only had a study Bible the last few years. The background information and notes help so much in comprehending more of the passage. One year I used Warren Wiersbe’s With the Word as a companion. This year I am using his “Be” commentaries.

Have a Bible reading project. Once I read through the gospels looking particularly for claims Jesus made about Himself. I put a “C” in the margin beside every verse of Jesus’ claims and then put them all together. Doing so provided a valuable resource plus woke me up from falling into familiar patterns from familiar passages. I’d love to read through the Bible noting every reference to God as Creator and what the passage shares about Him (His greatness, His power, etc.) I’d love to do the same thing with every passage where God promises to be with someone. Mardi Collier started reading the Psalms, jotting down every truth about God that she came across. As she came to a new truth, she’d write it across the top of a notebook page, and then list verses underneath as she found them. Some of the page titles focused on what kind of Person God is: My God is holy, My God is good, etc. Others shared God’s actions: My God hears me, My God is in control, and so on. Her study ended up covering the whole Bible and eventually became a book, What Do I Know About My God?

Ask different questions. When I first started reading the Bible on my own, I was instructed to look for a command to follow, a warning to heed, a promise to claim. I underlined them in different colors as I found them. Later I heard of asking the old journalism questions of a passage: who, what, when, where, why, and how. Those are great questions, but If you’ve asked them several times, chances are you already know the answers. Maybe ask, instead or along with those, what does this passage show me about God? Or, how does this person change over the course of his story? For example, the first few times I read Genesis, I missed the transition of Judah from Genesis 37-50. Now, reading in Exodus, I am noticing Moses’ change from arguing with God that he couldn’t fulfill His calling in Exodus 3 and 4 to becoming a great leader over the rest of the book. The changes in people in the Bible come about as God works in them and enables them through the circumstances He puts them in. That can inspire us that He is doing th same in our lives.

Try a different translation. I used the KJV for some 25 years. When I read the NASB and ESV, I saw passages with new eyes. I prefer to stay with the translations that are as close to word-for-word as possible rather than paraphrases. But sometimes I look up the paraphrases as commentaries.

Remove the references. Before we could cut and paste from the Internet, one of our former Sunday School teachers suggested that we type out some of the epistles as the actual letters they are without the verse numbers and headings. The chapter and verse numbers weren’t in the original text, but they do help us find and discuss passages. Sometimes, however, they are not well placed. One sentence can be broken up into several verses. So sometimes reading without the verse numbers can help us not to fragment the verse. Now you can buy Bibles printed without chapter and verse numbers.

Stop and think. Paul tells Timothy in 2 Timothy 2:7: “Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything.” It’s easy to sail through a familiar passage. In the narrative portions, we see how everything turned out just a few pages later. Remember the people in those situations—David hiding in caves from Saul, Joseph in prison, Daniel facing the lion’s den, etc.—didn’t know how everything would turn out. If we put ourselves in their situations the passage opens up to us more.

Make notes. I stopped journaling during my quiet time when I found I was spending more time writing than reading. But recently I’ve gone back to just writing a few notes both to reinforce what I just read or to remind myself later. My notes are usually just a short summary, but thinking about how I’d describe the passage helps me not gloss over it. Some people like to draw charts and diagrams and arrows and circles to engage the Scriptures more.

Don’t compartmentalize. Often we read for so many chapters or minutes and then pray, or vice versa. But we don’t have to separate prayer and reading. If we’re in a section of praise, we can stop and praise God. If a passage convicts us about something we’re doing wrong, we can stop and confess it to God right then.

How about you? What ways have you found to avoid or get out of a Bible reading rut?

I delight in God's Word

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God with Us

The guest speaker was pointing out bad prayer habits. One, he said, was asking God to be with us or another Christian. God is with believers all the time; He has promised never to leave us forsake us. So we don’t need to ask Him to be with us.

That made sense to me. So I tried to eliminate the phrase “be with” from my prayers. I’d get a little irritated when someone else said it. (Isn’t it sad how easily self-righteousness creeps in?)

Then a few days ago, I read Exodus 3 about God’s call to Moses. Moses had tried to help his brethren, the Israelites, forty years earlier. But his efforts had not been received, and he ended up fleeing for his life from Egypt. No wonder he didn’t jump at the chance to go back. His first objection to God’s call was, “Who am I?”

God answered, “I will be with you.” The ESV Study Bible‘s notes on this verse say:

Moses’ initial question is surely sensible, and God does not reprove him for asking it (v. 11). However, God does not answer Moses’ question in the way that he asks it, but instead says, “I will be with you,” indicating that his presence with Moses is essential to the call (v. 12). When the OT says that God is “with” someone, it stresses God’s power that enables a person to carry out his calling” (p. 148, emphasis mine).

The thought of God being with us in our calling was totally new to me, but this note brought it out in a way I hadn’t thought about it before. I recalled how God expressed this same promise to others when He called them: Isaac, Jacob, Joshua, Gideon, Jeremiah, Mary, Paul, and others.

I’ve often thought of God’s presence with us in terms of fellowship, comfort, and help. One of my favorite verses in Isaiah 41:10: “Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.”

And this passage from Exodus almost always brings me to tears. Israel had sinned in worshiping the golden calf, and God told Moses He would send the people on to the promised land, but He would not go with them (Exodus 33:1-3).

 Moses said to the Lord, “See, you say to me, ‘Bring up this people,’ but you have not let me know whom you will send with me. Yet you have said, ‘I know you by name, and you have also found favor in my sight.’ Now therefore, if I have found favor in your sight, please show me now your ways, that I may know you in order to find favor in your sight. Consider too that this nation is your people.”

And he said, “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.”

 And he said to him, “If your presence will not go with me, do not bring us up from here. For how shall it be known that I have found favor in your sight, I and your people? Is it not in your going with us, so that we are distinct, I and your people, from every other people on the face of the earth?” (Exodus 33:12-16)

In another favorite passage, God promises to be with us when—not if, but when trouble comes:

When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. (Isaiah 43:2)

Matthew shares in the first chapter of his gospel that an angel visited Joseph and told him that his betrothed was to be the mother of the Messiah, the one promised all through the Old Testament. The angel quoted a prophecy: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel, (which means, God with us)” (Matthew 1:23). Though God has always been omniscient and omnipresent, He was going to be with His people in a special way through this promised child.

Then Matthew closed His book with that child grown, crucified, and risen again, promising His disciples, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:18-20).

Does that mean we don’t need to ask God to be with us or our loved ones? I’m still inclined to pray that God will help someone know or rest in His presence rather than just that he will be with them. But I am not going to fuss with anyone about the phrasing. As I studied this concept, I noticed that Paul closed many of his epistles with a phrase similar to Romans 15:33: “May the God of peace be with you all.” Did that mean God had not been with them, and Paul was praying that He would be? No, not in the context of all he had written before. I think he means it in the same sense as when he said “that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings” in Philippians 3:8-11. Paul already knew Him. But He wanted to know Him better, to grow in his experience of Him. So when he says, “God be with you,” perhaps he is emphasizing that he hopes they know His presence in a fuller way.

The more I looked up passages about God being with us, the more I found—much more than will fit in one blog post. This would make for a rich study some day.

But as I considered them in light of our calling, I realized they are all bound up in our calling. When God calls us to Himself, He promises to take care of us. We have His fellowship, comfort, help, and whatever else we need.

Whatever God has called us to do—pick up and go to another location, teach our children at home, work in a busy office or store, or any other task—He has promised Himself. And with Him, we can do anything.

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The Sacrifice of Praise

Some days it’s easy to thank and praise God. A prayer is answered just the way we wanted, an unexpected gift arrives, a loved one recovers from an illness. When God does something obvious for us, we respond in praise to Him.

But other times, praise is hard. The prayer is answered “No.” A loved one does not recover. Needs and hardships abound with no relief in sight.

Psalm 116:17 speaks of offering “the sacrifice of thanksgiving.” After speaking of the sacrifice Jesus made of His own blood so that we could be saved. Hebrews 13:15 says, “Through him then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name.”

Why would it be called a sacrifice to praise God?

Sacrifices cost something. They acknowledge the worthiness of the one sacrificed to. They encourage faith even as they express faith.

Why does God want our praise? Everyone appreciates a “thank you.” But God doesn’t need praise from us. He is totally self-sufficient. He asks for our praise because we need it. He lifts our chin upwards so our gaze rests on Him. When times are hard, looking to Him reminds us that He is sovereign, wise, powerful, loving, kind. When we praise Him, we acknowledge His greatness for our own hearts as well as others. We remind ourselves that all our answers and provisions come from Him. We don’t ignore the pain or heartache, but we acknowledge God in them.

As Nancy Guthrie shares in Hoping for Something Better: Refusing to Settle for Life as Usual:

When we choose to praise God for His goodness, despite His allowing what we would nor describe as good into our lives, that is a sacrifice of praise. When we praise Him for His sovereignty, even though we don’t understand the whys of His plans, that is a sacrifice of praise (p. 177).

In On Asking God Why, Elisabeth Elliot wrote of finding help to praise when she wasn’t feeling particularly thankful:

When I stumble out of bed in the morning, put on a robe, and go into my study, words do not spring spontaneously to my lips–other than words like, “Lord, here I am again to talk to you. It’s cold. I’m not feeling terribly spiritual….” Who can go on and on like that morning after morning, and who can bear to listen to it day after day?

I need help in order to worship God. Nothing helps me more than the Psalms. Here we find human cries–of praise, adoration, anguish, complaint, petition. There is an immediacy, an authenticity, about those cries. They speak for me to God–that is, they say what I often want to say, but for which I cannot find words.

Surely the Holy Spirit preserved those Psalms in order that we might have paradigms of prayer and of our individual dealings with God. It is immensely comforting to find that even David, the great king, wailed about his loneliness, his enemies, his pains, his sorrows, and his fears. But then he turned from them to God in paeans of praise.

He found expression for praise far beyond my poor powers, so I use his and am lifted out of myself, up into heights of adoration, even though I’m still the same ordinary woman alone in the same little room.

She goes on to tell how hymns also help her find words with which to praise:

By putting into words things on earth for which we thank him, we are training ourselves to be ever more aware of such things as we live our lives. It is easy otherwise to be oblivious of the thousand evidences of his care.

This year has been full of various hardships. Thanksgiving may not hold its usual luster. In fact, it might be hard to find something to thank God for. But I have found those times when I have to search for God’s blessings to be especially meaningful. He always leaves evidence of His care, and sometimes we miss them unless we’ve especially tuned our hearts to see them. 

One hymn which helps me praise is “O God, Beyond All Praising” by Michael Perry. A few lines express the truths discussed here:

And whether our tomorrows
Be filled with good or ill,
We’II triumph through our sorrows
And rise to bless you still:
To marvel at your beauty
And glory in your ways,
And make a joyful duty
Our sacrifice of praise.

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Do We Have to Choose Between Nice and Right?

I often see little memes extolling the virtues of being nice rather than right. And I wonder why we set up such a false dichotomy. Why does it have to be either/or? Why can’t it be both/and?

Most of us want to be right. No one wants to be misinformed or hold opinions that are known to be wrong or foolish. But most of us have at least enough humility to realize that we might unwittingly be wrong sometimes.

But we all know people who, no matter what topic you bring up, have a better idea or a superior way of doing things than what you just expressed. And there are some who have to have everything their own way because of course that’s the only right way. They can make everyone else miserable over the way the toilet paper is put on the roll or the way the toothpaste tube is squeezed. We each have our little idiosyncrasies and preferences for how certain things are done, but we need to learn to compromise and to be less self-centered.

However, in some cases, being wrong can be deadly. The wrong wire cut on the bomb. The wrong medical procedure or medicine. The wrong path to a broken bridge. The wrong opinion about who Jesus is or how one can know Him.

Unfortunately, people can sometimes use truth like a steamroller or bullhorn or club. Arrogance does not make the gospel winsome or inviting; harshness can turn people off to the truth. “The wisdom that is from above,” James says, “is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere” (James 3:17).

There are scores, maybe hundreds of issues where Christians can give each other grace, where they don’t have to agree on every little factor. Unfortunately, we waste a lot of time arguing over those issues, hotly defending them, stirring up discord and strife. “One who sows discord among brothers” is in the list of things God hates in Proverbs 6:16-19. Paul lists among the works of the flesh “enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions” (Galatians 5:19-26).

It’s okay to talk about them, if we can do so without heat. It helps sometimes to probe others’ minds as we think through an issue. But sometimes it’s best to let them go. Romans 14 says especially of “one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions.” Paul then gives some classic guidelines for handling some of those issues: don’t despise or judge the person with a different opinion (verse 3); .be fully convinced in your own mind (verse 5); do whatever you do as unto the Lord (verses 6-9); remember the other person is your brother (verse 10); remember we will all give an account to God (verses 10-12); don’t “put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother”—walk in love (verses 13-15, 21); “pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.” (verse 19); do whatever you do in faith (verses 22-23).

There are biblical issues, however, where a line is drawn in the sand and crossing it leads to heresy. Jesus corrected people’s grave errors in theology all the time. The apostles had to deal firmly and sharply with errors in the early churches in the epistles. Paul says at least three times (2 Thess. 3:6, 2 Thess. 3:14-15, 1 Cor. 5:9-11) that there are spiritual issues worth separating over. Paul tells the Corinthains to deliver one unrepentant member in serious sin (incest), “to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord” (1 Corinthians 5:5). The end he wanted was not the man’s destruction, but his eventual salvation. To avoid showing someone where their beliefs don’t line up with Scripture, to the point that their soul is in danger, is not the nice or loving thing to do.

Also, Jesus rebuked the disciples for being fearful and not having faith in a situation where fear would seem like a natural response: being in a boat in a storm at sea. Through Old and New Testaments, God is longsuffering and patient. But at times He had to deal firmly—sometimes seemingly harshly—when His people had long instruction and opportunity to do right but kept clinging to their own stubborn way.

The apostles could also seem harsh in their warnings against false teachers, but the truth in question was so vital, and error in its regard so eternally deadly, that strong warnings were needed.

Likewise, human authorities aren’t being kind by avoiding correction that might help one of their charges.

Sometimes Jesus shared truth that the other person did not receive, and He let him walk away, like the “rich young ruler.” He didn’t call him back, soften the message, or backtrack so the relationship could continue. When God brings a person to confront their dearest idol, it’s a crisis, and He wants them to see it for what it is and repent. Thankfully in His grace He’ll often bring a person to that point a number of times (I’ve always hoped that that man came back to the Lord at another time). Chris Anderson makes the point that in our day, there is a rush to get such a person to the “sinner’s prayer” and gloss over their heart issues: “How many such men have been led in a sinner’s prayer that salved their consciences but didn’t save their souls? How many have thus been unwittingly inoculated against the truth? How many have left churches lost and relieved rather than lost and sorrowful?” We need to allow time for godly sorrow to do its work toward repentance unto salvation.

So is it more important to be nice or to be right? It depends on the issue in question and the needs of the people involved. It’s best to be both if possible. The Bible speaks often of God’s kindness and admonishes us in many places to be kind. In interpersonal relationships, especially, we’re to “Put on therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, bowels of mercies, kindness, humbleness of mind, meekness, longsuffering; Forbearing one another, and forgiving one another, if any man have a quarrel against any: even as Christ forgave you, so also do ye” (Colossians 3: 12-13). When a right view is essential, we don’t need to convey or defend truth in an unnecessarily harsh, negative, gripy, or cynical way. But cutting corners on the truth in an effort to be nice is neither kind nor loving.

How we need God’s discernment and wisdom to know when to speak up, when to be silent, when to take a stand, when to let something go, when to rebuke or warn, when to cover someone’s foibles in love. How we need to soak our minds in Scripture to be guided His truth. How we need His discipline to deal with the logs in our own eyes before attempting to deal with the specks in others. How we need His love to look on others’ needs before our own. How we need His grace to speak the truth, yes, but in love.

(Revised from the archives)

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