Be Wise (1 Corinthians)

If there was ever a church full of problems, it was the one in Corinthians in the NT era. The church was divided over their favorite preachers. Blatant immorally was tolerated. They turned the Lord’s Supper into a feast which showed up who had plenty and who did not. They were proud of their gifts.

But Paul didn’t wash his hands of them, at least not without trying to help them first. He wrote them in one letter that we don’t have. They responded with questions, and 1 Corinthians is his answer to them

In Be Wise (1 Corinthians): Discern the Difference Between Man’s Knowledge and God’s Wisdom, Warren W. Wiersbe gives us some insights into Paul’s letter.

Wiersbe points out that “when you have proud people depending on human wisdom, adopting the lifestyle of the world, you are going to have problems. In order to help them solve their problems, Paul opened his letter by reminding them of their calling in Christ” (p. 20, Kindle version). Everything Paul would say to the Corinthians would be couched in and would spring from that truth.

Then Paul thanked God for them and commended them. This was not just a softening in preparation for the hard things he would have to say to them, but a recognition that God was at work in them. That’s a good reminder for us when we tend to have “all or nothing” views about people’s standing with the Lord. The Corinthians had some severe problems and some stern truths which needed to be pointed out, yet there was evidence God was at work in them.

Then Paul addresses the Corinthians issues while also answering questions they had sent him. He discusses their divisions, sexual immorality in the church, their ungodly way of handling disputes with each other, marriage, how to handle differences of opinion concerning food offered to idols, the Lord’s Supper (communion), spiritual gifts, and the resurrection.

All of these issues are vital for us today. Most of the world doesn’t have to deal with food offered to idols, but the principles Paul discusses are helpful with differences of opinions believers face over other issues today.

1 Corinthians also contains classic passages like chapter 13 on godly love (placed, interesting, in the middle of discussion about spiritual gifts) and chapter 15 about the resurrection (which we tend to hear a lot from during funerals, but we need its truths daily.

Paul wraps up his letter, as he often does, with personal greetings, news, travel plans. It’s easy just to breeze past this section, but Wiersbe points out good food for thought here as well. For instance, Paul mentions Apollos, one of the preachers that a “fan club” had developed around. The fact that Paul urged Apollos to go to the Corinthians showed that there was no animosity or competition between the men themselves.

Then Wiersbe gives a brief history of Timothy and Priscilla and Aquilla, who are also mentioned in this section, and how their ministries intertwined with Paul’s.

Here are a few of the quotes in the book that stood out to me:

Paul depended on the power of the Holy Spirit. It was not his experience or ability that gave his ministry its power; it was the work of the Spirit of God. His preaching was a “demonstration,” not a “performance” (p. 35).

To “have the mind of Christ” does not mean we are infallible and start playing God in the lives of other people. Nobody instructs God! (Paul quoted Isa. 40: 13. Also see Rom. 11: 33–36.) To “have the mind of Christ” means to look at life from the Savior’s point of view, having His values and desires in mind. It means to think God’s thoughts and not think as the world thinks (p. 43).

A mature Christian uses his gifts as tools to build with, while an immature believer uses gifts as toys to play with or trophies to boast about. Many of the members of the Corinthian church enjoyed “showing off” their gifts, but they were not interested in serving one another and edifying the church (p. 50).

Perhaps we cannot help but have our personal preferences when it comes to the way different men minister the Word. But we must not permit our personal preferences to become divisive prejudices. In fact, the preacher I may enjoy the least may be the one I need the most! (p. 57).

There can be a fine line between a clear conscience and a self-righteous attitude, so we must beware (p. 63).

Church discipline is not a group of “pious policemen” out to catch a criminal. Rather, it is a group of brokenhearted brothers and sisters seeking to restore an erring member of the family (p. 73).

Knowledge can be a weapon to fight with or a tool to build with, depending on how it is used. If it “puffs up” then it cannot “build up [edify]” (p. 99).

“A know-it-all attitude is only an evidence of ignorance. The person who really knows truth is only too conscious of how much he does not know. Furthermore, it is one thing to know doctrine and quite something else to know God. It is possible to grow in Bible knowledge and yet not grow in grace or in one’s personal relationship with God. The test is love, which is the second factor Paul discussed (p. 99).

It is interesting that Paul mentioned the offering just after his discussion about the resurrection. There were no “chapter breaks” in the original manuscripts, so the readers would go right from Paul’s hymn of victory into his discussion about money. Doctrine and duty go together; so do worship and works. Our giving is “not in vain” because our Lord is alive. It is His resurrection power that motivates us to give and to serve (p. 178).

As always, Wiersbe’s knowledge and insights were very helpful in navigating the important truths in this book of the Bible.

Treasures of Encouragement

Although Treasures of Encouragement: Women Helping Women is not primarily about author Sharon W. Betters, the book grew out of her situation. Her teenage son and his friend were killed in a car accident within minutes of leaving the Betters’ home in 1993.

The book’s theme verse comes from Isaiah 45:3, where Sharon found hope in her deep grief: “I will give you the treasures of darkness and the hoards in secret places, that you may know that it is I, the Lord, the God of Israel, who call you by your name.” Though God sometimes leads through dark valleys, treasures are there that can’t be found anywhere else.

Sharon writes:

The healing balm of encouragement eventually stopped the spread of despair’s infection and began replacing it with hope’s healthy glow. God’s Word was the healing balm, and God’s people applied it lavishly to sooth the searing pain in my soul. Biblical encouragement is soul work. God unleashes its mysterious power every time a child of God follows the Holy Spirit’s direction and steps into the suffering of another person (pp. 9-10).

Each chapter starts with one or two women’s testimonies about being either on the receiving or giving end of encouragement.

Throughout the book. two points are repeatedly emphasized. First, encouraging someone else spiritually is the outgrowth of our own walk with the Lord and time spent in His Word. Second, because we have those resources–God’s Word to inform and guide us and His Spirit within us—we have what we need to encourage others.

Part 1 of the book explores thinking Biblically: defining and exploring what encouragement involves and what our responsibilities are as believers to each other.

To ease the guilt of noninvolvement, we charge the church with the job of meeting needs. We forget that we are the church! (p. 18)

Biblical encouragers know that their role is part of a process; it is seldom, if ever, the solution. They understand God is doing soul work through the interaction of members of His body. They recognize that He uses circumstances to strip people of obstacles that keep them from knowing Him, and so they ask themselves, How can I help this person through the peeling process of sanctification without hindering what the Holy Spirit is doing?

Often we want to rush into a difficult situation and make everything better. But that is not God’s method. He uses the rough spots of life to sand away the rough spots in character so that the reflection of “Christ in us” becomes increasingly clear (p. 73).

Because of who our Father is, and because of the riches of our inheritance, we always have something to offer to others (p. 37).

Part 2 covers living Biblically: the necessity of prayer, listening well, helpful vs. non-helpful words, spiritual mothering, pursuing restoration rather than judgment, Biblical exhortation, letting God use your spiritual gifts in large or small ways, offering practical help.

The church, like a home, is not a place where perfect people enjoy each other’s company. It’s a place where spiritual nurture, training, and discipline help imperfect people take on the image of their perfect heavenly Father. The church is not a place for hibernation; it’s a place where we learn, grow, take risks, make mistakes, and get up and try again (p. 99).

Will it be easy? No. Initially, obedience is hard, but in the long run, disobedience is harder (p. 131).

When we have a clear picture of our own sinfulness and inadequacies, we may conclude that we are unfit to carry the great gospel message. But our wrong conclusions will not thwart God’s purposes. For reasons we do not understand, God has chosen us to spread His message of hope and redemption (p. 198).

Spiritual mothering often happens more around a kitchen table that in a structured study (p. 213).

Though the book can be read by individuals, it’s designed for a twelve-week group study. Each chapter ends with six day’s work of questions or exercises. On one hand, I didn’t want to take twelve weeks to read the book. But on the other, I didn’t want to skip over the “homework” between chapters. I felt the time exploring further or meditating on each chapter’s truths would help the ideas take firmer root. I did sometimes combine some of the individual days’ exercises, though.

One appendix shares 50 very practical ideas for extending encouragement to others. All 50 won’t appeal to or be possible for everyone, but they give a rich variety to choose from.

I appreciated the address to older and younger women in the church with encouragement to settle the differences that can sometimes arise between the two groups (pp. 137-138).

This book was originally published twenty-five years ago. It was updated and reprinted in 2021.

Just occasionally, I found the tone in the book got a little more authoritarian than encouraging. One example from the exercise questions after the first chapter: “Who will you encourage today? Write a brief statement about how Christ, through you, can encourage that person. Now do it!” (p. 26).

But overall, I found much good food for thought on both the necessity to be an encourager and the ways God can work in and through us. This is a book I am sure I will return to in the future.

(I often link up with some of these bloggers.)

Book Review: Be Available

The book of Judges is one of the oddest in Scripture. The phrases “There was no king in Israel” and “Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” are repeated. In the preceding book, Joshua was the nation’s leader who had followed Moses. Now there was no national leader and Israel had by and large fallen away from following God as they had promised. The behavior in the book dramatically shows the need for godly leadership and personal righteousness.

Warren Wiersbe helps readers navigate through the book of Judges in Be Available: Accepting the Challenge to Confront the Enemy.

Wiersbe points out that, ““Deuteronomy 6 outlined the nation’s basic responsibilities: Love and obey Jehovah as the only true God (vv. 1–5); teach your children God’s laws (vv. 6–9); be thankful for God’s blessings (vv. 10–15); and separate yourself from the worship of the pagan gods in the land of Canaan (vv. 16–25). “Unfortunately, the new generation failed in each of those responsibilities” (p. 18, Kindle version). “The sin in our lives we refuse to conquer will eventually conquer us” (p. 26).

“The first step the new generation took toward defeat and slavery was neglecting the Word of God, and generations ever since have made that same mistake” (p. 23). Wiersbe applies this across the ages: “I fear that too many believers today are trying to live on religious fast food dispensed for easy consumption (no chewing necessary) by entertaining teachers who give people what they want, not what they need” (p. 23).

Wiersbe makes this interesting observation: “Whether in a nation or a local church, the absence of qualified leaders is often a judgment of God and evidence of the low spiritual level of the people” (p. 112).

By the time of the Judges, ““Unfortunately, God’s people aren’t working together to defeat the enemy, but here and there, God is raising up men and women of faith who are experiencing His blessing and power and are leading His people to victory” (p. 20, Kindle version).

Sometimes those leaders were a surprise: ““When God goes to war, He usually chooses the most unlikely soldiers, hands them the most unusual weapons, and accomplishes through them the most unpredictable results” (p. 31). “Never underestimate the good that one person can do who is filled with the Spirit of God and obedient to the will of God” (p. 36). Others were a disappointment: though they yielded to God and were used by Him, at other times they yielded to the flesh.

The last few chapters show the low level Israel sank to and set us up for the monarchy to come. But even though some of the future kings were godly and inspiring, all of them failed in various points. One of my former pastors used to say that throughout the OT, we see the best of the judges and kings, but we also see the worst. These point us to the only completely righteous and perfect King, the Lord Jesus Christ.

C. S. Lewis: Christian Reflections

Reading C. S. Lewis’ nonfiction is always a stretch for the brain muscles. Even Elisabeth Elliot, a deep thinker herself, said that she could follow his line of reasoning but couldn’t always reproduce or explain it.

Lewis’ writings for the general population, like Mere Christianity, are accessible–I would not want to scare anyone away from them.

However, I checked out Lewis’ Christian Reflections several month ago–and laid them aside several times. I was about to give up on them completely when I decided to try once more, praying for understanding and discernment. And then I was able to follow the gist of what he was saying.

This book is a collection of Lewis’ essays on various topics pertaining to Christianity or from a Christian point of view. They were assembled and published by Walter Hooper, Lewis’ longtime secretary, after Lewis’ death. In Hooper’s preface, he shares which of the essays had been previously published or never before published. Many were written for Lewis’ peers, which explains the elevated level of philosophic thought (and the plethora of unfamiliar Latin phrases. I wished I had read this in my Kindle app, where at a touch I could get the translations).

There are fourteen essays in all, touching on topics like Christianity and Literature, Christianity and Culture, ethics, church music, and the psalms. Others delve into things like subjectivism and historicism and de futilitate. I’ll try to give a sentence or two about each:

“Christianity and Literature.” These first two were the ones I was most looking forward to, but they were also the most difficult. I can’t really sum them up in a short sentence or two. I think I need to come back and read them again some time in the future to get more out of them. This blogger has created a helpful outline of the essay.

“Christianity and Culture.”

“Religion: Reality or Substitute?” This essay discusses faith vs. reason and whether religion is a substitute for reality.

“On Ethics.” Lewis discusses whether “the world must return to Christian ethics in order to preserve civilization, or even in order to save the human species from destruction” p. 44).

De Futilitate.” Lewis debunks the idea that we can’t really know anything so therefore everything is futile. Doesn’t that sound depressing?

“The Poison of Subjectivism.” This sounds a lot like the postmodernism of our era: maybe the seeds of it began here. “There are modern scientists, I am told, who have dropped the words truth and reality out of their vocabulary and who hold that the end of their work is not to know what is there but simply to get practical results” (p. 72). Indignation against another person’s or country’s morality . . .

is perfectly groundless if we ourselves regard morality as a subjective sentiment to be altered at will. Unless there is some objective standard of good, over-arching Germans, Japanese and ourselves alike whether any of us obey it or no, then of course the Germans are as competent to create their ideology as we are to create ours. If ‘good’ and ‘better’ are terms deriving their sole meaning from the ideology of each people, then of course ideologies themselves cannot be better or worse than one another. Unless the measuring rod is independent of the things measured, we can do no measuring (p. 73).

“The Funeral of a Great Myth” takes a look at evolution not in the scientific sense but in the sense of society. Lewis says the thought of humanity continually getting better has been around longer than Darwin but at no point has been witnessed or proven true. Rather, just the opposite seems to be the case. Nor does the complex arise from the simple, but the complex often offers the seed of the simple.

“On Church Music.” In Lewis’ day, church music “glorifies God by being excellent in its own kind; almost as the birds and flowers and the heavens themselves glorify Him. In the composition and highly-trained execution of sacred music we offer our natural gifts at their highest to God, as we do also in ecclesiastical architecture, in vestments, in glass and gold and silver, in well-kept parish accounts, or the careful organization of a Social” (p. 95). “But in most discussions about Church Music the alternative to learned music is popular music” (p. 95) which he says can be shouted and “bellowed” as well as sung. Either one can be done to the glory of God—or simply because it’s what people like. Each one could be done with pride and condescension. Or, the musician “of trained and delicate taste” can “humbly and charitably sacrifice his own . . . desires and give people the humbler and coarser fare than he would wish” (p. 96), and the the less musically learned could “humbly and patiently, and above all silently, listen to music which he . . . cannot fully appreciate, in the belief that it somehow glorifies God (p. 96). To both, “Church Music will have been a means of grace; not the music they have liked, but the music they have disliked. They have both offered, sacrificed, their taste in the fullest sense” (p. 97) for love of others, the glory of God, and the good of the church.

“Historicism.” ““What I mean by a Historicist is a man who asks me to accept his account of the inner meaning of history on the grounds of his learning and genius” (p. 101). He doesn’t have a problem with those who find “causal connections between historical events” (p. 100), a work belongs to historians. “The mark of the Historicist, on the other hand, is that he tries to get from historical premises conclusions which are more than historical; conclusions metaphysical or theological or (to coin a word) atheo-logical” (pp. 100-101).

“The Psalms.” I’ve always appreciated the psalms for their humanness, their depth of emotion. So I was a little surprised Lewis called them “shockingly alien,” until he described his religious experience of “Anglican choirs, well laundered surplices, soapy boys’ faces, hassocks, and organ, prayer books” (p. 114). He has an interesting discussion on the call for justice in the psalms, “not something that the conscience-stricken believer fears but something the downtrodden believer hopes for” (p. 123), “the continual hope of the Hebrews for ‘judgement’, the hope that some day, somehow, wrongs will be righted” (p. 124). I would disagree with his view of imprecatory psalms, but I admit I don’t always know how to interpret them.

“The Language of Religion.” Lewis begins by discussing different kinds of language: ordinary (his example: “It was very cold.”), scientific (“There were 13 degrees of frost.”), and poetic, with several lines from Keats. He discusses how each type conveys some level of accuracy and elicits some degree of emotion, yet each has its failings. Then he applies this to apologetics, which he compares to trying to convey a certain shade of color to a blind man who has never seen color.

“Petitionary Prayer: A Problem Without an Answer.” Lewis struggles here with the difference between biblical promises that we receive whatever we ask for in faith vs. Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane that the cup be removed, yet “not my will but Yours be done.” He doesn’t have a problem with a loving providence saying no. But he seems to have a problem with so many promises of answers to prayers of faith for what one asks, even of mountains being moved (acknowledging the metaphorical aspect), that it would seem that Jesus did not pray with that kind of faith. But I think Jesus did pray with that kind of faith–faith that the Father’s will would ultimately be done. To me, the mystery is that Jesus prayed that the cup would be removed when that cup was the very reason He came, as He said earlier. I’ve only been able to conclude that this shows the human side of our Lord. And it shows that deep dread of a coming crisis in the will of God is not necessarily sin. Jesus had planed and prepared for this before creation–it was His own will (I lay down my life, no on can take it from me) as well as the Father’s. Yet His human side shrank from it. That gives me great comfort.

“Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism.” This essay was not only fairly easy to follow, it was delightful. Lewis takes on the problem of modern theologians who “ask me to believe they can read between the lines of the old texts; the evidence is their obvious inability to read (in any sense worth discussing) the lines themselves” (p. 157). These Biblical critics “seem to me to lack literary judgement, to be imperceptive about the very quality of the texts they are reading” (p. 154). “I have been reading poems, romances, vision-literature, legends, myths all my life. I know what they are like. I know that not one of them is like this [the Biblical text]” (p. 155).

Lewis speaks not as a theologian, but as a “sheep telling shepherds what only a sheep can tell them” (p. 152). He claims some authority on the basis of how people have wrongly evaluated his writings and that of his friends, assuming things about the background and meaning which weren’t true. A longer quote:

A theology which denies the historicity of nearly everything in the Gospels to which Christian life and affections and thought have been fastened for nearly two millennia—which either denies the miraculous altogether or, more strangely, after swallowing the camel of the Resurrection strains at such gnats as the feeding of the multitudes–if offered to the uneducated man can produce only one or other of two effects (p. 153).

Those effects, Lewis goes on to say, would be to look elsewhere for spiritual truth or to become an atheist.

“The Seeing Eye.” Lewis here refers to the Russian astronauts who said they had not found God in space. He replies, ‘It is not in the least disquieting that no astronauts have discovered a god of that sort. The really disquieting thing would be if they had” (p. 167).

Space-travel really has nothing to do with the matter. To some, God is discoverable everywhere; to others, nowhere. Those who do not find Him on earth are unlikely to find Him in space. (Hang it all, we’re in space already; every year we go a huge circular tour in space.) (p. 171).

He then discusses various scenarios of what kinds of other creatures we might find on other worlds and how we’d likely respond to them. He explored this to a degree in his science fiction series.

In the end, I was glad I persevered. I did enjoy and benefit from several of the essays, though it would take multiple readings to really grasp everything Lewis was saying in some of them. But it’s good to give one’s brain a workout.

I’m counting this book for the essay category for the Nonfiction Reading Challenge.

Be Right (Romans): How to Be Right with God, Yourself, and Others

Warren W. Wiersbe sheds some light on the book of Romans in Be Right (Romans): How to Be Right with God, Yourself, and Others. The title comes from the fact that some form of the word “righteousness” is used over sixty times in Romans. Also, the most important pursuits in the world are being right with God and our fellow humans.

Romans has some of the most familiar verses in the Bible, but also many difficult passages.

We typically use verses from Romans when sharing the gospel with others.

“For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).

For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23).

God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8)

“If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved” (Romans 10:9-10).

But these are not isolated verses. They come from a context of Paul’s detailed explanation of man’s sin, Christ’s sacrifice, and more.

Chapters 6-8 detail the struggle between the flesh and Spirit.

Romans also discusses God’s plan for Jews and Gentiles. He has not forsaken the Jews, but he has “grafted in” the Gentiles (chapters 9-11). Paul shows that this was God’s plan all along. The section about election and free will from Romans 9 was very helpful to me.

Then chapters 12-14 are full of practical instructions. Paul often deals with the doctrinal first, then shows how doctrine manifests itself in everyday lives. Romans 14:1-15:7 particularly deal with disagreements among Christians over what we call “debatable” matters.

Romans ends with Paul’s warm greetings to several individuals.

As always, I have several passages marked. Here are a couple that stood out to me:

In the Christian life, doctrine and duty always go together. What we believe helps to determine how we behave. It is not enough for us to understand Paul’s doctrinal explanations. We must translate our learning into living and show by our daily lives that we trust God’s Word.

Christian living depends on Christian learning; duty is always founded on doctrine. If Satan can keep a Christian ignorant, he can keep him impotent.

The law was a signpost, pointing the way. But it could never take them to their destination. The law cannot give righteousness; it only leads the sinner to the Savior who can give righteousness.

Does a strong Christian think he is making a great sacrifice by giving up some food or drink [for the sake of a weaker believer]? Then let him measure his sacrifice by the sacrifice of Christ. No sacrifice we could ever make could match Calvary.

A person’s spiritual maturity is revealed by his discernment. He is willing to give up his rights that others might be helped. He does this, not as a burden, but as a blessing. Just as loving parents make sacrifices for their children, so the mature believer sacrifices to help younger Christians grow in the faith.

Spiritual gifts are tools to build with, not toys to play with or weapons to fight with. In the church at Corinth, the believers were tearing down the ministry because they were abusing spiritual gifts. They were using their gifts as ends in themselves and not as a means toward the end of building up the church. They so emphasized their spiritual gifts that they lost their spiritual graces! They had the gifts of the Spirit but were lacking in the fruit of the Spirit—love, joy, peace, etc. (Gal. 5: 22–23)

This is a fairly short commentary, so Wiersbe didn’t go into as much detail as he could have in some sections. But I think this is a good book for those who want more insight from Romans without slogging through a massive volume.

The Devil in Pew Number Seven

“The story you are about to read actually happened, every last detail of it. As the plot unfolds, my hunch is that you’ll need to remind yourself of this reality more than once.” So Rebecca Nichols Alonzo opens her book The Devil in Pew Number Seven.

Her hunch was right.

Rebecca tells the story of a man who harassed—no, terrorized her family for several years as she was growing up.

Rebecca’s father was the new pastor of a small church in Sellerstown, NC, in 1969. He found that one man, a Mr. Watts, held key positions in the church even though he was not a member. Recognizing Mr. Watts’ “stranglehold” on the church, Pastor Nichols “made changes to end his dominance” (p. 48).

Mr. Watts did not take his loss of position well, nor the pastor’s difference of opinion over issues like the style of the new church roof. Mr. Watts started acting up in church from pew number seven, making faces at the pastor while he preached, tapping on his watch, walking out and slamming the door loudly before the sermon was finished.

The Nichols family started receiving threatening anonymous phone calls in the middle of the night and unsigned letters. One letter promised the pastor’s family would leave “crawling or walking, running or riding, dead or alive” (p. 54).

Then followed several incidents of escalating attacks: home invasions while the family was away, which one time included water in the fuel tank and oil in the water pump; shots fired at the outside walls; dynamite set off near the house.

The Nichols family, the neighbors, the church, and even the police knew who was behind these attacks, but no one could prove it. Some of the incidents occurred while Mrs. Nichols was pregnant and then while the family had a newborn.

Finally events came to a tragic head. (It’s no spoiler to say this since it’s mentioned in the first chapter).

The rest of the book tells of the long-term effects these years had on the family and the necessity of learning to forgive those involved.

Rebecca was a child when much of this happened, but she read her parents’ journals, newspaper reports, court documents, and interviewed several people from the town.

It’s hard to fathom how far this man went to drive out the pastor. Rebecca’s father felt he couldn’t leave, because that would mean Mr. Watts would again assert his dominance over the church if Pastor Nichols left. The pastor and his wife also believed and modeled for their children “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44).

I first heard of this book from my friend Lou Ann. But I kept passing it by on my TBR list because I thought it might be too hard to read. I finally listened to the audiobook nicely read by Pam Ward. Then I checked the book out of the library to see the pictures and read the afterword.

The book was not hard to read or listen to. Rebecca doesn’t sensationalize the violence. She begins with the climactic incident, but then backtracks to tell how her parents met, were called to the ministry, how they came to Sellerstown, and other “normal” occurrences.

Some of my favorite quotes:

With a few rare exceptions, everyone in Sellerstown was related to one another in some way. Which is why at times, shotguns in hand, they watched out for one another. The Sellers kin are true salt-of-the-earth people . . . although some were saltier than others (p. 31).

I knew [God] said in the Bible that He’s a father to the fatherless and to the brokenhearted. I was both, so we had a perfect fit. There was one more insight I came to embrace. I needed God more than I needed to blame God (p. 235).

I didn’t ask for this abrasion on my soul to be a part of my life; it just is. Now, day by day, I have the choice to forgive the two men who took so much from me, or I can choose to wallow in a toxic brew of bitterness. True, I forgave . . . a long time ago. But that doesn’t mean I still don’t have to forgive him again and again . . . (p. 250).

I’m the one who remains in jail if I withhold God’s grace by failing to forgive when wronged (p. 251).

My one critique is that the author seems to belabor some points overmuch. For instance, with the first threatening phone call, a little more than a page is spent on describing what happens inside the phone when it rings, explaining how phones in those days didn’t have optional ring tones and couldn’t be left off the hook without setting off a warning tone, how her father couldn’t take the phone off the hook anyway because a country pastor was “on call” 24/7 just like a country doctor was. Maybe this was supposed to build suspense with three rings leading up to the first threat, but it just seemed extraneous and a touch irritating. But, this is a minor criticism and for the most part doesn’t hinder the story.

Sometimes the circumstances were hard to read about and illustrated how “truth is stranger than fiction,” But I highly recommend this book. Ultimately it’s about God’s grace and strength through the most difficult of times.

Be Strong: Study of Joshua

Our church has been reading through the book of Joshua the last few weeks. I read Be Strong (Joshua): Putting God’s Power to Work in Your Life by Warren W. Wiersbe along with our daily Bible reading.

Joshua marks two major transitions in Israel’s history. First, Moses, their leader of over forty years, had just passed away. Then the Israelites had just finished forty years of wandering and were about to enter the land God had promised their ancestors long ago.

Either situation would be daunting to a new leader. So God encourages Joshua right off the bat:

No man shall be able to stand before you all the days of your life. Just as I was with Moses, so I will be with you. I will not leave you or forsake you. Be strong and courageous, for you shall cause this people to inherit the land that I swore to their fathers to give them (Joshua 1:5-6).

God also gives Joshua vital instruction:

Only be strong and very courageous, being careful to do according to all the law that Moses my servant commanded you. Do not turn from it to the right hand or to the left, that you may have good success wherever you go. This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success. Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go (Joshua 1:7-9).

Joshua seems to have followed God’s instruction faithfully throughout the rest of his life. He made a couple of costly mistakes: going up to Ai and making a pact with the Gibeonites without seeking counsel of the Lord. But Wiersbe spends a lot of time pointing out that when we err, we don’t give up: we confess our sins, pick up again, and get back on the right path.

Wiersbe discusses the difficulty of God having His people slaughter the nations in Canaan. He points out that the Canaanites weren’t innocent: they were known for cruel acts like sacrificing their children to their gods and vile sexual acts in the name of worship. And he reminds that God gave them plenty of space to repent. Rahab was one who heard of the God of Israel and turned to Him in faith (eventually becoming an ancestor of the Messiah).

Some hymns have portrayed the promised land as symbolic of heaven. But Wiersbe repeatably points out that the symbolism doesn’t fit: we don’t battle our way either into heaven or after we get there. He says that entering the promised land symbolizes our maturity in Christ. God often said that He was the one driving out the nations before Israel, yet they had to pick up their swords and fight (most of the time. Jericho and some of the other cities had different battle plans). So with us: we’re saved by grace through faith plus nothing. And we’re sanctified by grace as well. Yet we only become mature Christians as we pick up our “sword of the Spirit,” God’s Word, and believe it and apply it. We can and should pray for God’s grace and help in taking temptation away and helping us overcome, but He expects us to read and apply the Word He gave us. “What Paul’s letter to the Ephesians explains doctrinally, the book of Joshua illustrates practically. It shows us how to claim our riches in Christ. But it also shows us how to claim our rest in Christ (p. 22, Kindle version). Wiersbe discusses briefly the different kinds of rest Hebrews 4 and 5 tell about, then says, “This ‘Canaan rest’ is a picture of the rest that Christian believers experience when they yield their all to Christ and claim their inheritance by faith” (p. 22).

The victorious Christian life isn’t a once-for-all triumph that ends all our problems. As pictured by Israel in the book of Joshua, the victorious Christian life is a series of conflicts and victories as we defeat one enemy after another and claim more of our inheritance to the glory of God (p. 23).

The main point of Joshua is that God kept His promises to His people. Not only did He give them the land He originally promised Abraham, but He provided for each of the tribes. At the end of the book, Joshua tells the people, “You know in your hearts and souls, all of you, that not one word has failed of all the good things that the Lord your God promised concerning you. All have come to pass for you; not one of them has failed” (Joshua 23:14). He encourages them to “cling to the Lord your God just as you have done to this day” (23:8) and warns that just as God kept His promises to give them the land, He’ll keep His promise to punish them if they go after other gods.

Wiersbe has a closing chapter of the example of Joshua himself in his following the Lord and leading the people.

As always, I appreciate Dr. Wiersbe’s insights into this book of the Bible.

 

Gentle and Lowly

When I first saw Dane Ortlund’s book, Gentle and Lowly, I thought the subject would be encouraging Christians to be humble and kind in their dealings.

But then I learned that the book explores the gently and lowly aspect of Jesus. Jesus described himself this way, but often when people emphasize His gentleness, they deemphasize His holiness, His righteousness, His anger at sin, etc. I wasn’t familiar with Dane Ortlund, so I wasn’t sure how he would handle this topic. I began the book warily.

I need not have worried. Ortlund takes great care to keep in mind the whole picture of who Jesus is.

Yes, he is the fulfillment of the Old Testament hopes and longings (Matt. 5: 17). Yes, he is one whose holiness causes even his friends to fall down in fear, aware of their sinfulness (Luke 5: 8). Yes, he is a mighty teacher, one whose authority outstripped even that of the religious PhDs of the day (Mark 1: 22). To diminish any of these is to step outside of vital historic orthodoxy. But the dominant note left ringing in our ears after reading the Gospels, the most vivid and arresting element of the portrait, is the way the Holy Son of God moves toward, touches, heals, embraces, and forgives those who least deserve it yet truly desire it (p. 27. All page numbers are from the Kindle version).

As we zero in on the affectionate heart of Christ, how do we ensure that we are growing in a healthy understanding of the whole counsel of God and a comprehensive and therefore proportionate vision of who Christ is? Three comments are needed here. First, the wrath of Christ and the mercy of Christ are not at odds with one another, like a see-saw, one diminishing to the degree that the other is held up. Rather, the two rise and fall together. The more robust one’s felt understanding of the just wrath of Christ against all that is evil both around us and within us, the more robust our felt understanding of his mercy (pp. 28-29).

In fact, Jesus’ holiness and righteousness makes it all the more a marvel that “The point in saying that Jesus is lowly is that he is accessible. For all his resplendent glory and dazzling holiness, his supreme uniqueness and otherness, no one in human history has ever been more approachable than Jesus Christ” p. 20). “This is deeper than saying Jesus is loving or merciful or gracious. The cumulative testimony of the four Gospels is that when Jesus Christ sees the fallenness of the world all about him, his deepest impulse, his most natural instinct, is to move toward that sin and suffering, not away from it” (p. 29). “His holiness finds evil revolting, more revolting than any of us ever could feel. But it is that very holiness that also draws his heart out to help and relieve and protect and comfort” (pp. 69-70).

Ortlund reminds us that “’Gentle and lowly’ does not mean ‘mushy and frothy,’” and “This is not who he is to everyone, indiscriminately. This is who he is for those who come to him, who take his yoke upon them, who cry to him for help” (p. 21).

What elicits tenderness from Jesus is not the severity of the sin but whether the sinner comes to him. Whatever our offense, he deals gently with us. If we never come to him, we will experience a judgment so fierce it will be like a double-edged sword coming out of his mouth at us (Rev. 1: 16; 2: 12; 19: 15, 21). If we do come to him, as fierce as his lion-like judgment would have been against us, so deep will be his lamb-like tenderness for us (cf. Rev. 5: 5–6; Isa. 40: 10–11). We will be enveloped in one or the other. To no one will Jesus be neutral (p. 53).

Even after so many years of walking with the Lord, we can feel that He gets tired of us falling, failing, begging for mercy again and again. But “He does not get flustered and frustrated when we come to him for fresh forgiveness, for renewed pardon, with distress and need and emptiness. That’s the whole point. It’s what he came to heal. He went down into the horror of death and plunged out through the other side in order to provide a limitless supply of mercy and grace to his people” (p. 36).

For those united to him, the heart of Jesus is not a rental; it is your new permanent residence. You are not a tenant; you are a child. His heart is not a ticking time bomb; his heart is the green pastures and still waters of endless reassurances of his presence and comfort, whatever our present spiritual accomplishments. It is who he is (p. 66).

These qualities of mercy and accessibility and readiness to forgive come from the whole Trinity, the Father and Holy Spirit as well as the Son. ““Our redemption is not a matter of a gracious Son trying to calm down an uncontrollably angry Father. The Father himself ordains our deliverance. He takes the loving initiative” (p. 60).

A few more quotes:

Your salvation is not merely a matter of a saving formula, but of a saving person (p. 91)

The mercy of God reaches down and rinses clean not only obviously bad people but fraudulently good people, both of whom equally stand in need of resurrection (p. 177).

Do not minimize your sin or excuse it away. Raise no defense. Simply take it to the one who is already at the right hand of the Father, advocating for you on the basis of his own wounds. Let your own unrighteousness, in all your darkness and despair, drive you to Jesus Christ, the righteous, in all his brightness and sufficiency (p. 94).

Nothing can now un-child you. Not even you (p.196).

I’m so thankful for Linda sponsoring a book club to read through this book together the last few weeks. I had seen the book mentioned and thought, “Hmm, I might look into that some time.” But the opportunity to read and discuss the book with others spurred me on to read it now. It will stay with me for a long time.

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The Good Portion

Most of us don’t get terribly excited about doctrine. We don’t rub our hands together before opening the Bible eagerly, anticipating what doctrine we’ll encounter this time. We think of doctrine as dry and dusty, full of highfalutin polysyllabic words that go over our heads.

We think doctrine is boring.

But right doctrine is our bedrock. Knowing what we believe and why comforts us and keeps us on course.

If we’re feeling insignificant, lonely, unloved, we might be inspired by an Instagram meme or a friend’s compliment—for a little while. But what truly ministers to our hearts is the foundational truths that God is with us even if we don’t “feel” Him, that He loves us even when we feel most unlovable, that we matter to Him because He created us and redeemed us.

Almost every NT book encourages right doctrine and warns against false doctrine. Doctrine determines and directs our thinking and actions.

With that in mind, Keri Folmar wrote The Good Portion: Scripture: The Doctrine of Scripture for Every Woman “to shed light on the treasure and sweetness of the sacred Scriptures. The book attempts to summarize the doctrine of the Word of God in a way that keeps the relational nature of the Bible at the forefront. After all, the Bible is God speaking to us. It is God revealing Himself with words and calling us into relationship with Him.” The title comes from the example of Mary of Bethany, who chose “the good portion, which will not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:42) by sitting at Jesus’ feet and listening to His teaching.

The eight chapters cover how we can know God through His Word, the Bible’s inspiration, trustworthiness, authority, clarity (ability to be understood), necessity, and sufficiency. Keri does a wonderful job keeping ” the relational nature of the Bible at the forefront.” The chapters are not “dry” at all, and each feeds into knowing God better and developing our relationship with Him.

A few of the quotes I noted in the book:

God is not silent. He has revealed Himself. He will speak to us if we will take our Bibles off the shelf and taste and see His goodness. It is through regularly hearing God speak that we can know Him and enjoy relationship with Him.

Churches want ‘customers’, so they work hard not to offend. Pretty soon the cross is bloodless, and Jesus becomes merely a good example for some to follow. It all starts with sidelining the Bible. We are told, “Let’s not put God in a box or a ‘book.”’ The Bible may remain a “participa[nt] in all our conversations,” but it loses its authority as the Word of God—all in an attempt to make Christianity more palatable to modern sensibilities. But the apostle Paul would not have agreed. He preached to pagan peoples, using the pure Word of God, declaring, ‘We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word’ (2 Cor. 4: 2). We should also refuse to tamper with God’s Word, not judging it to be obsolete, but letting it sit in judgment over us.

If we believe the Bible is universal truth, we should use it to interpret our experiences and circumstances, not the other way around.

God has communicated to us in a clear way, yet Paul tells Timothy to ‘rightly handl[e] the word of truth’ (2 Tim. 2: 15), implying that we can wrongly handle it. Our goal in reading, studying or teaching the Bible is to understand the author’s intended meaning. Hermeneutics can help us in this endeavor. Let’s look at several overarching principles or guidelines to interpreting the Bible.

Mary has chosen Jesus over completing her tasks. Mary has chosen Jesus over pleasing or impressing others with her clean house and good food. She has chosen Jesus over everything else that is tugging at her heart and her time. Mary knows what’s necessary. She wants to know Jesus.

Don’t miss the impact of this passage: Jesus was commending a woman, 2,000 years ago in the Middle East, for sitting under His teaching. He wants women to know Him and be grounded in the Scriptures. He wants women to be serious students of the Bible, studying it and hearing it taught. Godly women choose the good portion by going to Jesus in His Word. And Jesus says this good portion will not be taken away.

Keri writes as a pastor’s wife in Dubai. Her experience sharing God’s Word in another culture and dealing with people from other religions helps to illustrate the truths she shares.

This book is the first in a series of three. “This series of books on doctrine for women is an attempt to fuel your enjoyment of God by encouraging a greater knowledge of Him.” I’ve not read the others, but I greatly enjoyed and highly recommend this one.

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Call of a Coward

As Marcia Moston worked on laying slate stones for a patio outside her comfortable New Jersey home, a sudden thought came to mind. Her husband, Bob, was on a mission trip to Guatemala. What if he returned home saying their entire family should go back? Marcia brushed the thought off as absurd.

But two days later, that’s exactly what happened. The mission Bob had helped needed a couple to oversee a home for widows and orphans, and he felt God was calling his family to the job.

Marcia tells of her family’s experiences following God’s call in Call of a Coward: The God of Moses and the Middle-Class Housewife.

Marcia didn’t eagerly jump at the chance to go to a Central American country.

Years earlier we had pledged to follow the Lord wherever he led, but after ten years of marriage, my fervor had settled around me like a cozy comforter on a winter’s night. Zealous promises made on a beach under a starry sky lay buried under the security of paychecks and health insurance. Bob’s return from his mission trip with the conviction that we go to Guatemala unleashed a torrent of fears that shattered my tidily defined world (p. 17).

They were already heavily involved in Christian work. Guatemala was dangerous with rebel activity. What about their ten-year-old daughter, Lily?

Adamant as I was about not going, a glaring contradiction in my theology nagged me. I wondered how I could so easily believe in Someone who created the universe, parted the Red Sea, and rose from the dead, but not trust him to take care of my daughter (p. 18).

God kept working on Marcia’s heart until she finally surrendered. Then the family prepared to drive all the way from New Jersey to a Mayan village in Guatemala. Marcia tells the story of their journey, time in Guatemala, call to a small pastorate in Vermont, and the joy of leading several mission trips back to Guatemala. She writes with with both humor and conviction that God calls and works in and through His people today.

Marcia’s writing first came to my attention in columns for The Write Conversation. I enjoyed what she had to say and her style, and I loved the title of her book. So I bought it and finally read it.

Here are a few of my favorite quotes from the book:

Those kicking and screaming death-throes moments when you realize you aren’t and you can’t are God’s opportunities to show you he is and he can (p. 34).

Saying grace before eating took on a whole new importance for me. A blithely spoken, “Lord, bless this food” came to mean a seriously earnest, “Kill it, purify it, and give me the grace to eat it” (p. 36).

It’s a noble thing to say you would lay down your life for a loved one. It’s quite another if you are called upon unexpectedly to share your last bit of chocolate (p. 90).

The hepatitis had left us with about as much energy as a sloth on sedatives (p. 121).

Later, I found out that my sister in New York, who had no idea where we were at the time, had woken up that same night we were in the town of the sorcerers, with an urgency to pray for us (p. 133).

The downside of a miracle is the predicament required to precipitate it. That’s also the very place where faith grows (p. 155).

Reflecting on the biblical admonition that any works not built on Christ would be burned, I imagined the glow filling the eastern horizon of heaven as my works went up in a bonfire if I didn’t stop throwing myself pity parties (p. 162).

I looked at the engrossed, saucer-eyed faces and breathed a silent prayer of thanks for being witness to this “first” in someone’s life, for the privilege of bearing words of life (p. 181).

You can find an interview with Marcia here.

I’ve always identified with Moses’s list of excuses why he couldn’t possibly answer God’s call to lead the Israelites out of Egypt. And I identified with Marcia’s trepidation as well, and was encouraged by how God answered and enabled her. 

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