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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Things That Will Still Be True After Election Day

Things that will still be true after Election Day. God rules.

Vitriol and mud-slinging are not new to politics, but the last two presidential elections have been the worst in my memory. Emotions and tension are high on both sides.

But no matter what the outcome is on Tuesday, several things will still be true.

God reigns. “God reigns over the nations; God sits on his holy throne” (Psalm 47:8). Our church has read through large chunks of the Old Testament over the last year. No matter who was in charge of what earthly kingdom, God was always at work, sometimes overtly, sometimes “behind the scenes.” “The Lord has established his throne in the heavens, and his kingdom rules over all” (Psalm 103:19).

This doesn’t mean we don’t vote. God often uses means and circumstances, and voting is the means by which rulers are elected here

Authorities come from God, even when they are not godly, even when we don’t agree with everything they do.

For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. (Romans 13:1b-2)

He changes times and seasons; he removes kings and sets up kings; he gives wisdom to the wise and knowledge to those who have understanding. (Daniel 2:21)

The Most High rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whom he will and sets over it the lowliest of men. (Daniel 4:17b)

We’re responsible to pray. “First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way” (1 Timothy 2:1-2).

We’re to respect our leaders. Peter instructed, “Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor” 1 Peter 2:17). He wrote that, inspired by the Holy Spirit, when one of the worst rulers ever was on the throne: Nero. That doesn’t mean he obeyed authorities who told him not to do what God told him to do. That doesn’t mean we never speak up when a ruler is in the wrong: John the Baptist did, as did Daniel and many of the OT prophets (though they also faced consequences for speaking out and disobeying). Paul said the same thing: “Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed” (Romans 13:7), echoing what Jesus said: “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Mark 12:17).

We’re to be subject to authorities. “Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people” (1 Peter 2:13-15). The only exception is when the government tells us to do something wrong. The Hebrew midwives didn’t kill Jewish babies as instructed. The disciples still preached in the name of Jesus when told not to. People hid and helped Jews during WWII. People still printed Bibles behind the Iron Curtain.

Our responsibilities are not over. Very early in my first voting forays, some people seemed to breathe a sigh of relief and then sit back when their candidate was elected, as if to say, “Whew! That’s done. We’re okay for four more years.” But, we still need to be aware and use the voice we have, because . . .

No ruler is perfect. Some are better than others, but we can’t put our total hope in any of them. They may not see all sides of an issue or may be getting bad advice, so it’s important to be aware of issues and communicate our concerns and preferences.

We still have a voice. In this country, we have the right and responsibility to let our voice be heard, to vote, to write our representatives. No ruler has carte blanche.

Government can’t meet all our needs. It was never meant to. It has taken on responsibilities the church and others are supposed to bear. And while we need it to do what it’s designed for, ultimately our hope is in God. “Put not your trust in princes, in a son of man, in whom there is no salvation. When his breath departs, he returns to the earth; on that very day his plans perish. Blessed is he whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord his God, who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, who keeps faith forever” (Psalm 146:3-6).

God’s promises are still true. He has promised to supply our needs, answer prayer, never leave us or forsake us. God’s power and wisdom and love are not limited by earthly rulers.

I have preferences, hopes, and fears for this election. I know God doesn’t always answer prayer the way we think is best, but I am sure hoping He does this time. I’m praying, and I’ve voted. My responsibilities are the same: pray, trust, do His will moment by moment, love my neighbor, let my light shine. But ultimately, He is on the throne working out His perfect will. My hope is in Him.

This is my Father’s world:
O let me ne’er forget
That though the wrong seems oft so strong,
God is the Ruler yet.
This is my Father’s world:
Why should my heart be sad?
The Lord is King: let the heavens ring!
God reigns; let earth be glad!

Maltbie D. Babcock, This Is My Father’s World

The Most High rules

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A Christian Philosophy of Things

My daughter-in-law recently shared a scenario I remember occurring with my own children. Her son, my grandson, accidentally broke something and was upset. In an effort to comfort him, his parents assured him it was all right, it was just a thing, it could be replaced.

Then the next time something broke, he nonchalantly said, “It’s okay, we can get another one.”

It’s been a couple of decades since my own were very young, and I can’t remember how I handled this with them. I think over time and experience, they learned that accidents are ok, but deliberate destruction is not; some things can be replaced easily, some things cannot.

I’m not prone to watch talk shows, but I caught part of one years ago in which a child said that when he got into trouble for jumping on the couch, it made him feel like his parents loved the couch more than him. I remember thinking, “It’s not unloving to teach a child to take care of property.” But perhaps the way the situation was handled added fuel to the fire. I remember a song my parents used to listen to told a story about a man getting after his daughter about not messing up the grass in the yard that he had worked so hard to maintain. Now he had a beautiful yard, but he was estranged from his daughter.

It’s possible to love our “stuff” more than we love people, or at least to give them the impression that we do. But teaching a child to take care of things in itself is not putting the things above the child. I’ve known adults with an “Oh, well” attitude towards things which they probably think is non-materialistic, but which seems careless.

How do we find that balance between not esteeming things too highly or too carelessly?

Here are some principles that help me.

Everything we have belongs to God. We don’t have anything that didn’t ultimately come from God. We’re just stewards of our possessions.

“The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein” (Psalm 24:1).

Who has first given to me, that I should repay him? Whatever is under the whole heaven is mine. (Job 41:11)

“All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made” (John 1:3). Even if we grew, carved, crafted, or assembled something, the raw materials as well as the ability to do anything with them came from God.

We can’t take it with us. “As he came from his mother’s womb he shall go again, naked as he came, and shall take nothing for his toil that he may carry away in his hand (Ecclesiastes 5:15). Ecclesiastes speaks often of the vanity of working for things and then leaving them behind to someone else.

We’re accountable for what we do with our things. “One who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much, and one who is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much. If then you have not been faithful in the unrighteous wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful in that which is another’s, who will give you that which is your own?” (Luke 16:10-12). “Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found trustworthy” (1 Corinthians 4:2).

Good stewardship includes careful use of things. This verse always convicts me, and I like the way the KJV puts it: “The slothful man roasteth not that which he took in hunting: but the substance of a diligent man is precious (Proverbs 12:27). According to the Pulpit Commentary at the bottom of this page, this could refer to someone who caught game but was too lazy to roast it, so it went bad (that’s the part that convicts me when I clean rotted stuff out of the refrigerator), or someone who catches game but then doesn’t attend to it, so it escapes. Either way, the slothful, or lazy person, doesn’t attend to what he has, but “the substance of a diligent man is precious” (some translations say “prized.”)

I hate to see people throw out perfectly good items just because they don’t need or want them anymore. Sometimes people will come by and take for themselves anything you have on the streets to be thrown out. Some people like to “dumpster dive” for treasures. So maybe people who take their unwanted stuff to dumps figure someone might find it there. But our local recycling and trash center doesn’t allow anything to be taken out, probably for safety purposes. I don’t like to mess with sales, but I like to take any unused items in good condition to the local thrift store.

Possessions are not wrong. I fear that some in the minimalist camp equate what they consider excess as sin. There’s nothing in the Bible that says we have to live as starkly as possible. We shouldn’t be covetous, and we have to understand that things cost money and take up space and time to maintain. But different people have different tolerance levels for “stuff.” I used to wonder whether it was wrong to want to wear pretty clothes or decorate my home. But I realized that God could have made the world just utilitarian, yet He didn’t. He created a wonderful variety of vibrant colors, animals, flora, etc. Edith Schaeffer made a strong case for this in a chapter on Interior Decorating in The Hidden Art of Homemaking. One of her quotes there:

If you have been afraid that your love of beautiful flowers and the flickering flame of the candle is somehow less spiritual than living in starkness and ugliness, remember that He who created you to be creative gave you the things with which to make beauty and the sensitivity to appreciate and respond to His creation (p. 109).

Possessions are temporary. “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.(Matthew 6:19-21). 

Possessions can be idols. Jesus called one man who laid up many goods but did not prepare for eternity a “rich fool.” He reminded His listeners “one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions” (Luke 12:15). The “rich young ruler” came to Jesus once to ask what he needed to do to get to heaven. Jesus told him to sell all he had and give it to the poor. Note: this is not something He says to everyone, but He knew that this man’s riches were an idol to him. The man “went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions” (Matthew 19:22). Jesus went onto say that it is “only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 19:23). Paul writes to Timothy:

 As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life. (1 Timothy 6:17-19).

Possessions can be a distraction. Amy Carmichael told of a woman she was trying to share the gospel with in Japan. The weather was cold and Amy suffered from neuralgia, so she wore some fur-lined gloves. The women listened and seemed to be just about to turn to God when she noticed Amy’s gloves and asked about them.

She was old and ill and easily distracted. I cannot remember whether or not we were able to recall her to what mattered so much more than gloves. But this I do remember. I went home, took off my English clothes, put on my Japanese kimono, and never again, I trust, risked so much for the sake of so little (Frank Houghton, Amy Carmichael of Dohnavur, p. 59).

Similarly, in Isobel Kuhn‘s early ministry in China, she was a newlywed taking joy in setting up housekeeping. When a couple of Chinese women came to visit, she was thrilled to receive them. They were among the poorest people, and their culture was very different. One of the women blew her nose in her hands and wiped them on Isobel’s rug. The other held her child apart from her while the child wet on the rug. The women had dirt floors in their homes, so they were unaware they had done anything “wrong.” Isobel “managed to remain courteous” while the women were there. But once they left, “Hot resentment rose in my heart, and then there followed my first battle over things.” She concluded:

If your finery hinders your testimony throw it out. In our Lord’s own words, if thine hand offend thee, cut it off; He was not against our possessing hands, but against our using
them to hold on to sinful or hindering things.

So I faced my choice. In our first home—what was to come first? An attractive sitting-room just for ourselves? Or a room suited to share with the local Chinese?

Our engagement motto hung silently on the wall—God first. Mentally I offered that pretty rattan furniture to the Lord to be wrecked by the country peasants if they chose (Isobel Kuhn, Whom God Has Joined, pp. 21-22).

When they moved to their next station, she sold these items and bought easily washable furnishings like the Chinese had.

We’re commanded to be generous. It’s easy to look at millionaires and think, “Yeah, those rich people need to be generous!” But the Macedonians were commended for giving “according to their means” out of “extreme poverty” (2 Corinthians 8:1-5). We’re all richer than someone. What’s considered poor these days would be considered quite rich by people in some other countries or by people from a hundred years ago.

We only give back to God what is His. David and other leaders donated materials for Solomon to build the temple. David prayed before the assembly, acknowledging “all that is in the heavens and in the earth is yours” (1 Chronicles 29:11-13)(See point 1). Then he said:

But who am I, and what is my people, that we should be able thus to offer willingly? For all things come from you, and of your own have we given you . . . O Lord our God, all this abundance that we have provided for building you a house for your holy name comes from your hand and is all your own. (1 Chronicles 29:14, 16)

We hold possessions loosely. Rosalind and Jonathan Goforth’s lost nearly everything not once, but four times in their missionary experience: through fire, flood, the Boxer rebellion when they fled for their lives, and damage when they were on furlough and others moved their things to a leaky storage shed. Rosalind found this fourth loss “the hardest to bear,” possibly since it came about “because ‘someone had blundered'” (Rosalind Goforth, Goforth of China, p. 210).

When, in the privacy of their own room, the “weaker vessel” broke down and wept bitter, rebellious tears, Goforth sought to comfort her by saying, “My dear, after all, they’re only things and the Word say, ‘Take joyfully the spoiling of your goods!’ Cheer up, we’ll get along somehow” (p. 211).

Jonathan quotes there from Hebrews 10:32-35, where the writer recalls some of the sufferings the Hebrews had endured:

But recall the former days when, after you were enlightened, you endured a hard struggle with sufferings, sometimes being publicly exposed to reproach and affliction, and sometimes being partners with those so treated. For you had compassion on those in prison, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one. Therefore do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward.

We trust God for things we need. “Daily bread” is one of the things Jesus instructs us to pray for (Matthew 6:11). He also said, “Do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?” (Matthew 6:25). He pointed out the birds and flowers that our heavenly Father feeds and cares for. Then He reminded His listeners, “Your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (verses 32b-33).

God often provides through honest work: Proverbs and Ecclesiastes say much about diligence, hard work, and reward. The New Testament condemns “idleness” (2 Thessalonians 3:6-10) and commends work:

If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat. For we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies. Now such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living. (2 Thessalonians 3:10-12)

We not only work for our needs, but to provide for our families. In the context of the church providing for destitute widows, Paul writes, “But if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Timothy 5:8).

So, though God usually meets our needs through providing opportunity and strength to work, when no work is available, or it’s not enough for the needs, we’re not to worry. We seek Him and trust Him to provide. I heard one preacher say that when his car had a problem and he didn’t have the money to fix it, remembering that all we have belongs to God, he prayed, “God, Your car needs work.”

It seems the more I search, the more I find in the Bible concerning how we should think about things. Other aspects include not stealing other people’s things, covetousness, and contentment.

But these prevailing truths help me. Everything we have comes from God and belongs to Him. Some day we’ll give an account of how we handled what He gave us. Therefore we take care of them, use them wisely, hold them loosely, give generously to others, and trust Him to provide. He “richly provides us with everything to enjoy” (1 Timothy 6:17). It’s okay to enjoy the material blessings He provides. But we don’t set our hearts on them or esteem them more highly than we should. We understand that God, people, and eternal truths are more important.

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Alone with God

Community is a great gift. Many of us have come to appreciate it now more than ever, since gathering with others has been restricted for several months. There’s nothing like being with, singing with, exercising the “one anothers” of the Bible, encouraging and being encouraged by God’s people.

So many have fallen away from regular church attendance, leaders have stressed the importance and benefits of Christian community in the last several years. But as often happens, the pendulum sometimes swings too far the other way. Some admonishments have overstated the importance of community. In one tweet I saw, some advocated changing the pronouns in hymnbooks from singular to plural!

I believe strongly in Christian community, in gathering regularly together as believers. I wrote about it here and here and here and here.

But some of the most poignant moments of life occur between the individual and God alone.

Joseph spent years isolated from a believing community after he was sold into slavery before his family came. If he had not known how to walk with God alone, his story would have come out very differently.

Two of the major events in Jacob’s life occurred when God met with him alone. One was in a dream on his journey to his uncle’s house; the other occurred when he wrestled with the angel of the Lord on the way back home to face Esau.

Daniel had three friends, but he faced the lion’s den alone, received visions from God alone, and prayed for his nation alone.

David spent much time alone and used much of it to write psalms.

The psalmists speak of remembering God’s word, work, and character and communing with Him alone in the middle of the night.

Elijah met with God alone after the great victory over Jezebel’s priests.

Paul traveled and ministered with companions, at times he had to stand alone.

Jesus ministered to crowds, small groups, and individuals, but sought time with His Father alone.

One of the blessings of the Christian life is that we have access to God directly. “For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father” (Ephesians 2:18). We don’t have to go through a priest or anyone else to get to Him. And, though sometimes we come with others, there are times we interact with Him alone.

God formed us individually. Psalm 139:13-16 tells about God forming us, knitting us together in our mother’s wombs, making us in secret.

We’re born again individually. Someone might be with us; someone might have explained what salvation meant and prayed with us. But we’re saved when we individually believe on Christ. No one can do that for us.

We’ll give account of ourselves. “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil.” (2 Corinthians 5:10)

We have our own relationship with God. I wrote recently that the Christian life is a relationship with God, not a set of rules and rituals. We have a relationship all together as a family. But most families don’t relate to each other just as a group all the time. Each individual child has a relationship with the Father.

We meet with God individually. As vital as it is to meet together to hear God’s Word preached and explained, we need to partake of it on our own. Many verses compare God’s Word to food. We don’t eat just one or two times a week. We’d be pretty malnourished spiritually if we did. When I attended a Christian college, students were often reminded that it was an easy place to get away from the Lord. It was easy to coast on the atmosphere, to read the Bible for class assignments, to attend many Christian meetings, etc., without personally meeting with the Lord.

We walk with God individually. Just as we’re saved in a one-on-one exchange with God, so also our obedience, growth, and sanctification occur between us and God. Again, others help, teach, encourage. But they can’t obey and grow for us. They might help us resist temptation, but we need to apply the Word of God and yield to Him in our own hearts.

We encourage ourselves in the Lord. Other Christians are a great source of encouragement, and I have leaned on them many times. Yet sometimes we have to stand alone. David experienced one such instance when everyone was against him, even threatening to stone him. But David “encouraged himself in the Lord” (1 Samuel 30:6). So many of his psalms were written when he was alone, or at least they were written about being alone. Yes, the psalms were sung congregationally. Some dealt with God’s people as a whole. But many of the situations written about were experienced individually, written down, and sung with the congregation so that they then could individually be encouraged and apply the truth of them.

We can pray individually. Yes, Jesus said, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” (Matthew 18:20). But He also said, “But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret (Matthew 6:6a). He’s not forbidding public prayer in the latter verse, but illustrating that it’s not something we do for “show” (compare with verses 1-5). I’ve often requested prayer from the whole church body or texted a Christian friend with an urgent prayer request. But have you ever noticed how many times in the Bible people prayed alone? Take as just one example Elijah, of whom James says “Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. Then he prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit” (James 5:17-18). Kevin Schaal says in This Is No Time for Timid Prayers:

Sometimes we minimize the power of the prayer of a Christian individual. We tend to view prayers like votes—ours is only one among many millions and God somehow looks at the collection of prayers before Him instead of the heartfelt cry of an individual. The Bible never presents prayer like that. James 5 does not say “the effectual fervent prayers of a large group of righteous people accomplishes a lot.” The individual prayer of one righteous person can change the world.

I’ve read in some missionary biographies of great victories that were followed a few weeks later by a note from some faithful supporter saying, “I felt strongly led to pray for you on this date. Was anything in particular going on?”

We worship God individually. Even when we’re worshiping with a congregation, we worship and praise in our own hearts. And we can and should worship and praise when we meet with God alone.

Meeting with God isn’t meant to happen either alone or with a group. We need both. Our time alone with God will inform and enrich our time with each other, and our time with each other should do the same for our individual walk with God.

I’ve appreciated the creative ways people have developed to keep in touch with each other through this pandemic. Let’s use all of those ways as much as possible. But be encouraged: you can pray, worship, serve, and walk with God in any circumstance, alone or with a group.

I could not do without Thee,
I cannot stand alone,
I have no strength or goodness,
No wisdom of my own;
But Thou, belovèd Savior,
Art all in all to me,
And perfect strength in weakness
Is theirs who lean on Thee.

I could not do without Thee!
No other friend can read
The spirit’s strange deep longings,
Interpreting its need;
No human heart could enter
Each dim recess of mine,
And soothe, and hush, and calm it,
O blessèd Lord, but Thine.

I could not do without Thee,
For years are fleeting fast,
And soon in solemn loneness
The river must be passed;
But Thou wilt never leave me,
And though the waves roll high,
I know Thou wilt be near me,
And whisper, It is I.

From “I Could Not Do Without Thee” by Frances Ridley Havergal

Psalm 62 God alone

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What Grace Does

Most Christians are familiar with the word “grace.” If asked about it’s meaning, we could come up with something about “unmerited favor.” Pressed further, we’d explain that grace is God giving us what we don’t deserve: salvation first of all, then answered prayer and abundant blessings. We could differentiate grace from mercy: God not giving us what we do deserve: anger and punishment. We know that we’re saved by grace through faith: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God”. (Ephesians 2:8)

Yet for the first time, I was struck this weekend not just by what grace is, but what it does. Thanks to Jen Wilkin in her book In His Image, who shared these first two points in chapter 6, “God Most Gracious,” and sparked a mini-study and a lot of thought.

Grace teaches:

For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.

The NIV and KJV and a few other versions say “teaching” instead of “training.” Others say “instructing.”

And what does God’s grace teach us? “To renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age” (verse 12). Since Jesus “gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works,” His grace enables us to obey and live for Him and say no to self. This is one reason why the thought that grace will encourage people to sin because they can “get away with it” is so erroneous. That’s not what grace teaches.

This paragraph also demonstrates that good works come after and from salvation. Our good works don’t count for our salvation.

Grace strengthens:

You then, my child, be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus. (2 Timothy 2:1)

Do not be led away by diverse and strange teachings, for it is good for the heart to be strengthened by grace, not by foods, which have not benefited those devoted to them. (Hebrews 13:9)

Grace gives comfort and hope:

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

Grace makes sufficient:

And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work.

Grace enables:

But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.

In addition, Paul often mentions how God’s grace enabled him to do what God called him to. One example: “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.” (1 Corinthians 15:10)

Grace helps:

Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. (Hebrews 4:16)

The entire Godhead is involved with grace: The Father: 2 John 1:3, Philippians 1:2; The Son of God, full of grace and truth: John 1:14; The Spirit of grace: Hebrews 10:29.

Thankfully, grace is something we can grow in (for more information, see What does it mean to grow in grace?. 2 Peter 2:18 says “But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be the glory both now and to the day of eternity.” And who does He give His grace to? “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” (James 4:6)

And where does this grace come from? It’s not a separate entity: it comes from God. What a marvelous gift we have in God’s grace!

’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears relieved;
How precious did that grace appear
The hour I first believed.

John Newton

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What do you look for when you read the Bible?

What do you look for in the Bible

Many look for something to meet their current need. They are sad and want comfort. They have a problem they need help with. They feel lonely and unloved, and they need affirmation that God cares for them. They’re frightened and anxious and need to know God is in control and will take care of them.

Those aren’t wrong motives in themselves. The Bible does help and comfort us. God wants to meet our needs. But the Bible is so much more than a momentary fix.

We talked a couple of weeks ago about reading the Bible to foster our relationship with God. Part of getting to know God is learning truth about Him.

Most people don’t approach their time in the Bible eagerly wondering what doctrine they are going to learn that day. The word “doctrine” smacks of theological arguments, dry, dusty old books, and difficult academic language.

But what if we thought of doctrine as bedrock truth that helps us get to know God better and helps us live for Him?

Which is better?

To feel momentary relief from loneliness, or to be convinced beyond all doubt that God will never leave us or forsake us?

To question God’s handling of a situation, or to rest in the fact that the Judge of all the earth will always do right?

To struggle with feeling unloved and unworthy, or to remind ourselves that God has accepted us in Christ and has always dealt with us in grace, not according to what we deserve?

One way to mine the Bible for truth about God is to write down that truth as we come across it. Several years ago, Mardi Collier told her husband she wanted to get to know God better. He suggested she go through the psalms and write 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?

You may or may not want to do a full-fledged study like that. It would certainly be beneficial. But at the very least, the mindset shift of actively looking for truth rather than looking to the Bible as just a problem-solver, as something to make us feel better, or as just part of our routine for the day, will enrich our time in the Word and our relationship with God.

We still need to read the Bible, even when we feel we have a good grasp on particular truths. We’re forgetful. We need reminders and reinforcements. We can always learn truth more fully.

The better we get to know Him, the more we see Him as He truly is, the more we love Him, and the better we represent Him to others.

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The Struggle Is Real

God's purpose in our strugglesDid you know that if you help a butterfly out of its chrysalis, it will probably not be able to fly and might die? There’s something in the process of breaking out of the chrysalis that exercises and strengthens wings and gets fluids where they need to be.

Similarly, a baby chick pecks its own way out of a shell. It can sometimes be aided if it’s stuck, but it’s risky. A baby joey climbs from its mother’s uterus to her pouch even though it can’t see yet.

Even a human baby’s struggle to crawl and then walk comes about with many fits and starts until he or she develops the strength to progress.

I’m not sure why so much of life involves struggle. Maybe struggle is one result of the fall of man into sin in Genesis 3. But God uses struggle in our lives for good.

Yet, we don’t like struggle. We do everything to escape it if we can. Labor-saving devices created more time but took the natural exercise out of our lives. I’m not ready to go back to toting my water from a creek or beating my laundry with rocks. But I’d probably be more fit if I did.

Trials act in the same way spiritually. We try to reduce them or get out of them as soon as possible. But if we don’t exercise our faith, it won’t grow strong.

Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. (Romans 5:3-5)

Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. (James 1:2-4)

Just like any other struggle, our “faith muscles” may grow weary. But God has promised to be with us, strengthen us, and help us. And people see that the grace and strength to endure come not from us, but from God.

 But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. (2 Corinthians 4:7-11)

Trials test the genuineness of our faith plus result in praise to God.

 In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. (1 Peter 1:6-7)

God watches over our trials in love. He won’t let them last any longer than necessary.

Though he cause grief, he will have compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love; for he does not afflict from his heart or grieve the children of men. (Lamentations 3:32-33)

Meanwhile, just as Jesus, who “for the joy that was set before him endured the cross,” so we keep our eyes on the future ahead of us.

So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:16-18)

A man in one of our former churches had an awful disease called Von Hippel-Lindau Syndrome which caused multiple tumors to grow throughout his body. He said once that he could endure it if he knew God had a purpose in it.

He does.

Our suffering and trials may be physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, relational, financial, or something else. It’s normal and acceptable to pray for quick relief. We may not know all the reasons why God allows our particular suffering. But we know He is using it in our lives and that of others. Ecclesiastes 7:2-4 says sorrow teaches our hearts things that could not be learned by feasting and laughter. God is producing something in us that wouldn’t come about any other way. Without those trials, we might end up as weak and helpless as a flightless butterfly.

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God Remembered

How can God remember when He doesn't forget?“God remembered Noah.” (Genesis 8:1)

Does that statement strike you as strange? God is omniscient. He knows everything from the names of all the stars to the number of hairs on our head. He doesn’t forget. So how could He remember?

Our church is reading through Genesis, and I am once again using one of Warren Wiersbe’s brief commentaries as an aide: Be Basic (Genesis 1-11): Believing the Simple Truth of God’s Word. He had some helpful notes on this passage.

The word “remember” in Genesis 8:1 doesn’t mean to call something to mind that may have been forgotten. God can’t forget anything because He knows the end from the beginning (Kindle location 2006).

Wiersbe uses as an example Hebrews 10:17: “I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more.” That doesn’t mean He somehow employs divine amnesia. Rather, He “doesn’t hold our sins against us” any more when we believe on Christ. They are no longer on our account.

So what does it mean that God remembered Noah?

It means “to pay attention to, to fulfill a promise and act on behalf of somebody” (Kindle location 2006).

“To pay attention to.” Sometimes it feels like God is far off. But He’s not. He has promised us His presence. He’s promised to meet all our needs. He’s shown us His love in hundreds of ways.

“To fulfill a promise.” “‘To remember’ implies a previous commitment made by God and announces the fulfillment of that commitment” (Kindle Location 2013). When God “remembers” a promise, He’s not thinking, as we do sometimes with our promises, “Oh yeah! I told them I’d do that. I guess I better get around to it.” Rather, when He “remembers” a promise, He’s saying, “Now is the time!”

“To act on behalf of somebody.The ESV Study Bible notes echo this: “When the Bible says that God ‘remembers’ someone or His covenant with someone, it indicates He’s about to take action for that person’s welfare” (p. 64). Though He acts on our behalf every day, when He “remembers” us in this way, He’s about to do something special.

In Genesis 8, Noah and his family had been in the ark for over a year. There were 40 days and nights of rain, the flood waters cresting, then slowly receding, then the land drying up enough for everyone to come out. We don’t know how they felt or got along for all that time. But it’s possible they could have felt forgotten or wondered how long this situation was going to go on. Yet God knew all along the time He had set for Noah and his family to disembark and start a new life.

In Psalm 77, Asaph writes of a time in which his “soul refuses to be comforted,” and being “so troubled that I cannot speak.” He got so low in spirit that he asked himself:

“Will the Lord spurn forever,
    and never again be favorable?
Has his steadfast love forever ceased?
    Are his promises at an end for all time?
Has God forgotten to be gracious?
    Has he in anger shut up his compassion?”(7-9).

But then he took himself in hand, took his thoughts captive, and directed them to what He knew of God:

I will remember the deeds of the Lord;
    yes, I will remember your wonders of old.
I will ponder all your work,
    and meditate on your mighty deeds.
Your way, O God, is holy.
    What god is great like our God?
You are the God who works wonders
you have made known your might among the peoples (11-14).

In Psalm 42, another psalmist experienced a low point.

I say to God, my rock:
    “Why have you forgotten me?
Why do I go mourning
    because of the oppression of the enemy?”
As with a deadly wound in my bones,
    my adversaries taunt me,
while they say to me all the day long,
    “Where is your God?” (9-11).

Not only did he “feel” forgotten, but others added fuel to the fire.

But he talks to himself, just as we have to do sometimes:

Why are you cast down, O my soul,
    and why are you in turmoil within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
    my salvation and my God (11).

Whenever we feel forsaken, when It seems God is talking a long time to answer our prayers and come to our aid, we can remind ourselves of His love, His character, His promises, His past works in the Bible, and the way He has worked in our own lives. In His perfect timing, He will especially meet our need, come to our aid, and fulfill His promise.

Nevertheless, he looked upon their distress, when he heard their cry. For their sake he remembered his covenant, and relented according to the abundance of his steadfast love. (Psalm 106:44-45)

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Is Truth or Love More Important?

Why do we need to pit them against each other? They are both important. They are both needful.

Our church just finished reading through the book of Revelation together. In chapters 2-3, God lists seven different churches along with what was good and bad about each one.

The church at Ephesus was commended for testing “those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false” and for hating “the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.” (Revelation 2:2-7) But they were rebuked for having “abandoned the love you had at first.” They were admonished to “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.

The church at Pergamum (2:12-17) was commended for holding fast to their faith and not denying God’s name, yet rebuked for having some who held to false teaching. They were warned to repent, or “I will come to you soon and war against them with the sword of my mouth,” previously identified as His Word. The church in Thyatira (2:18-29) was commended for “your works, your love and faith and service and patient endurance” but rebuked for allowing false teaching.

God is love (1 John 4:8). And Jesus is “the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14:6).

God wants us to love Him with our heart, soul, mind, and strength (Mark 12:30). He searches mind and heart (Revelation 2:23).

Truth is so important to God that all the prophets and almost all the epistles warn against false teaching. Sound doctrine is brought up again and again. In fact, Paul instructs:

 If anyone does not obey what we say in this letter, take note of that person, and have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed. Do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother. (2 Thessalonians 3:14-15)

You are to deliver this man 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)

But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one. (1 Corinthians 5:11)

If anyone teaches a different doctrine and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that accords with godliness, he is puffed up with conceit and understands nothing. He has an unhealthy craving for controversy and for quarrels about words, which produce envy, dissension, slander, evil suspicions, and constant friction among people who are depraved in mind and deprived of the truth, imagining that godliness is a means of gain. (1 Timothy 6:3-5)

They must be silenced, since they are upsetting whole families by teaching for shameful gain what they ought not to teach. One of the Cretans, a prophet of their own, said, “Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons.” This testimony is true. Therefore rebuke them sharply, that they may be sound in the faith, not devoting themselves to Jewish myths and the commands of people who turn away from the truth. (Titus 1:11-14)

By rejecting this, some have made shipwreck of their faith, among whom are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have handed over to Satan that they may learn not to blaspheme. (1 Timothy 1:19b-20)

Wow, some of that sounds harsh. But how loving is it to let people go on in a false doctrine themselves or lead others astray? Spurgeon once said, “To pursue union at the expense of truth is treason to the Lord Jesus.” Paul aims for restoration as much as possible: “Warn him as a brother,” “that they may be sound in the faith,” “that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.”

We get into trouble if we stand for truth without love, if we use truth as a steamroller or sledgehammer, with pride in being “right.” “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. (1 John 4:7-8)

But we also get into trouble if we tolerate any behavior or aberration of doctrine for the sake of love. We need to be gracious, to give people time to grow, to realize we all make mistakes and stumble.

And we have to be careful that the truth we stand for is the bedrock truth of the Scripture: the gospel, the deity of Christ, the verity of the Bible, etc. There are many other areas where good people can differ, but we too often elevate those and defend our views on them with more vehemence than we do the fundamentals.

But if someone’s lifestyle and teaching contradicts the clear Word of God, we have to take our stand with God. The prophets and the apostles proclaimed truth and exposed and corrected errors and false doctrine. Every book of the Bible proclaims truth, and almost every one warns about those who would corrupt it.

We can’t follow the “nice” (to us) parts of Scripture and leave off the rest. All of God’s Word is inspired.

May God give us wisdom and grace as we walk in truth and in love.

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