How Well Do You Know God?

In my last post, we looked at Jeremiah 9:23 where God exposes the things that we trust in (or boast in–same thing). Our wisdom, our strength, or our riches. He then challenges us to boast in one thing: That we understand and know Him.

According to God, knowing Him is THE most important thing. But what exactly does that mean? A lot of people today assume that they know God, but do they really? Technically speaking, we only know of God what He chooses to reveal about Himself. In verse 24 of this passage, there are three specific things God reveals about Himself, three essential things to know about God.

1. His Kindness–We are urged to boast in the fact that God exercises kindness. The Hebrew word used here is the word “Hesed”, which is an incredibly significant word in the Old Testament. Hesed refers to God’s covenant love. It is a loyal love, a love that continues and endures, even when we fall short.

In Christ, God’s ‘hesed’ was fully realized. Jesus died on the cross to secure our relationship with God, a relationship that is absolutely permanent and unending. God wants us to know this love.

2. His Justice–Often we focus only on the love of God, but there is more to Him than that. In vs 24 He specifically reveals His justice. “That I am the Lord, who exercises kindness, justice…” God is absolutely just, which means He has every right to judge sin and rebellion.

For many of us, this aspect of God is a bit more difficult to swallow. Some choose to ignore this attribute all together. But when we do so, we end up with a God is not worthy of our worship. What would we think a judge who, because of his love,  allows criminals to go free? There would be outrage and with good reason. Justice and love go hand in hand. It is not loving to let wrongs go unpunished. A loving God without justice would be a moral monster, certainly not worthy of worship.

3. His Righteousness–vs 24 “That I am the Lord who exercises kindness, justice and righteousness on earth, for in these I delight.” God delights in righteousness. This word speaks of moral perfection, of holiness.

In human relationships, we might refer to this attribute as “integrity”. A person with integrity keeps their word. They do the right thing, even when it is not easy. They are faithful. They speak truth. They can be depended upon. Aren’t you glad God is righteous?

Let’s not settle for a “knowledge” of God that fails to embrace the fullness of who He is and what He values: Loyal love, justice and righteousness.  How well do you know Him?

 

What Are You Boasting In?

Everyone boasts in something. I’m not necessarily talking about the obvious, verbal asserting of self that often happens at dinner parties. There is a more subtle form of boasting that reveals our hearts idols. From a Biblical perspective, what we boast in is what we’re trusting in. It’s that thing in which we place our worth, our confidence, our identity.

Another way to identify this is by filling in the blank: “As long as I have _______________, I can face each day with confidence.” What is that for you? A job, a significant other, a healthy stash in the bank, our health, our appearance, the approval of others, success? What do we boast in?

While reading in Jeremiah 9 the other day, I was struck by God’s clear directive to us—and how with laser like precision He diagnoses our hearts:

 “Let not the wise man boast of his wisdom, or the strong man boast of his strength, or the rich man boast of his riches. But let him who boasts boast about this: that he understands and knows me, that I am the LORD, who exercises kindness, justice and righteousness on earth, for in these I delight,” declares the LORD.  Jeremiah 9:23-24

We are not to boast in our intelligence, our physical attributes, our financial resources or possessions. Instead, we are to boast in the fact that we “understand and know the Lord”. “To know” is a word that elsewhere in the Old Testament refers to sexual intimacy. “ Interesting. What most delights the Lord are those who boast in their intimate relationship with Him.

What would that look like? What would it look like to be a person who boasts in knowing God? God actually gives us some idea of this at the end of this verse. He lists some specific attributes of Himself in which He wants us to boast/trust. Let’s explore the first of these in this blog. (We can examine the rest in my next post).

The first is that we might know Him as LORD. Whenever you see the word LORD in all caps in your Old Testament, it refers to a specific name of God. Yahweh. Yahweh is the personal name God used when revealing Himself to Moses in Exodus 3:14-15. So holy is this name that Jews refused to even pronounce it. What it literally means is “I am.” He is…period. He is all sufficient, all powerful, complete in every way. He is all that we need.

How amazing to be in relationship with a God like that. Now that would be something to boast in. A God who is all that we need—no matter what our circumstances, our bank account, our appearance, our approval from others—no matter what, He is. Do you know Him?

 

“THE” Holy Spirit

A few weeks ago in a conversation, I mentioned to someone that I was in the process of writing a book about the Holy Spirit. This person expressed excitement about the topic, but then gently corrected me on how I was talking about the Spirit.

 

He said, “You shouldn’t use a ‘the’ when you talk about Holy Spirit. After all, He is a person. You don’t say ‘The Jesus’ or ‘The Father’. You address them by their names: Father or Jesus. ‘Holy Spirit’ is His name. So don’t say ‘the Holy Spirit’. Just call Him ‘Holy Spirit’”.

 

Hmm. I had never thought about that before, so I began to chew on the idea. I totally agree that we often think of the Spirit in distant, impersonal terms—an ethereal force, an impersonal power—when in Scripture He is obviously a real Person, Someone we can experience personally. I’m in total agreement about that.

 

But does calling Him “the Holy Spirit” communicate that He is less personal? On that, I don’t agree. While I don’t call Jesus “The Jesus”, I do often refer to the Father as “The Father”. That doesn’t make Him any less personal in my mind. I’m talking about Him. Jesus often talked about the Father and was quite comfortable using “the” in doing so.

 

For  instance, in Acts 1:7-8, we read “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by His own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you.”  He refers to them as “the Father” and “the Holy Spirit”. It would seem weird to say “It is not for you to know the times or dates Father has set…” Whose father? Which father? By saying “the Father” we know who Jesus is referring to.

 

Now there is a time when I drop the “the”, and that’s when I pray. When praying to God, I do call Him “Father” because I am addressing Him personally. Likewise, when talking to the Spirit, I say  “Holy Spirit” because I am speaking directly to Him.

 

So, I’ve decided that I’m not going to change the way I talk about the Holy Spirit. I will still freely use “the” when talking about Him.

 

Now I realize I may totally be missing something here, so I’d love to hear your feedback on this. Any thoughts?

Very Grateful

I just got a phone call from someone I hadn’t spoken to in 38 years. Kip was a youth pastor at the church my family attended when I was in the 8th grade. As we chatted, we began comparing notes and I realized, Kip was the person who actually prayed with me to receive Christ.

I remembered where and when it had happened (July 15, 1975 at Osage Hills Bible Camp) but I couldn’t remember who had given the talk that night. It was Kip. He shared a message to that group of unruly teenagers. I’m sure he wondered if anything was getting through. It was.

After that talk that I went up and asked Kip what I needed to do to have an assurance of my salvation.  He shared the gospel with me and I prayed with him to receive Jesus.

I know the actual date because I still have the Bible where I wrote in the front: “I excepted Jesus on July 15, 1975” Even though my spelling needed some work, that day marked a beginning of a new life for me.

I’m deeply grateful for Kip and his faithfulness to share the gospel with a bunch of teenagers that day 38 years ago. My life will never be the same.

 

What Greek Mythology Teaches Us About Holiness

 

In Greek mythology, one of the dangers of traveling the seas was the possibility of encountering the Sirens. The Sirens were beautiful creatures who used their seductive voices to try and lure sailors into their dangerous waters to be shipwrecked. Most ship captains were unable to resist the destructive pull of these creatures.

 

However, in the mythology stories, we learn of two people who were able to resist the Sirens. Their methods were very different and provide us a vivid picture of two contrasting ways we pursue holiness.

 

Odysseus’ chose the white knuckle approach. Having been warned about the power of the Sirens, he commanded his sailors to place beeswax in their ears and then tie him to a mast. He then ordered them to not untie him, no matter how much he begged. When in earshot of the Sirens, he begged to be released. But they refused, finally letting him go once he was out of earshot of the seductive voices.

 

Jason also successfully resisted the Sirens, but he had a much different approach.  He brought along on his journey Orpheus, who was able to play the lyre quite beautifully. When the Sirens began their seductive song, Orpheus took out his lyre and played more beautiful music—which ended up drowning out the voice of the Sirens. Their seductive power was mitigated by a more beautiful reality.

 

In our struggle with temptation, we often only use the Odysseus approach. All our energies are focused on how to resist the temptation. Do whatever it takes to build walls of resistance. This approach can at times help us avoid a particular sin—but it relies heavily on external factors. When those external factors are removed, our heart still desires the sin.

 

Jason’s example provides another approach. The way to say no to one desire is to have in our heart a greater desire. A teenager who loves to sleep in all summer long suddenly begins getting up at the crack of dawn. What happened? Football practice. His desire for sleep was overtaken by a greater desire—to be a part of a winning football team.

 

What might happen if in our battles with certain sins, we focused not only on resisting the sin but also on stoking in our hearts a greater desire, that of intimacy with Jesus? The melody of His love can offer our hearts way more than any sin ever can.  

 

Does “Happy Holidays” Frustrate You?

Often during this time of year, I hear Christians express frustration with the removal of specifically “Christmas” greetings as well as nativity scenes in public settings, etc. We take personal offense if “Happy Holidays” is offered by a store clerk rather than “Merry Christmas”.

I certainly understand the frustration—after all, this is Jesus we’re talking about! But the more I have thought about it, the more I’m convinced that our concern about these things is misguided. Why should our experience of this holiday be impacted by how our society chooses to promote it?

What is really at stake is our understanding the difference between Christianity and Christendom. When we fail to separate these two things, problems inevitably arise, and our frustration level increases.

Christianity is the dynamic experience of a personal relationship with Jesus, changing the way we live, the way we love, the hope we have. The book of Acts shows what happens when Christianity begins to take root in people’s lives.

In contrast, Christendom is institutional Christianity. It’s what happens when elements of Christianity begin to take hold in a society and soon many people begin embracing “activities” of Christianity without truly embracing Christ.

The history of Christianity is replete with examples of what happens when Christianity becomes the dominant, officially endorsed religion—and it’s not good. The true power of the gospel often gets lost amid the “practices” of Christianity.

Why should we care if a town counsel chooses to remove a nativity scene from a government building? Does that minimize anything about our celebration of Christmas? It shouldn’t. Does that in any way impact the expansion of the gospel? Certainly not. What we should be far more concerned about are those people who understand that Christmas is about the birth of Jesus but have no true encounter with Him as Lord of life.

The fact that we at times care so much about our society officially endorsing Christianity is perhaps an indication of how far we have drifted from the dynamic, “unofficial” faith we see in the books of Acts. Neither Peter, nor Paul, nor any believer at that time cared anything about whether or not Rome had crosses on the wall or nativity scenes in the town square. That stuff didn’t matter.

What mattered was the authentic gospel going forth in love and power.

Our ultimate goal is that everyone experience the true meaning of Christmas—but that won’t happen through public displays, Christmas music being played on buses, or making sure everyone uses “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays.” It will only happen as people see in us the power of a life transformed by Christ, and they want what we have.

Some Practical Thoughts on Fasting

This past weekend at Christ Community, we looked together at 2 Chronicles 20 where Jehoshaphat, in the midst of overwhelming circumstances, calls the people to fast. Fasting is a very effective form of seeking God that adds import to our praying. If you are needing a spiritual breakthrough in some area, I would encourage you to consider fasting.

So how do we go about fasting? What are some practical ways to experience this? In this post, I’d like to describe a simple fast that is a great place to begin and also can be a way to regularly incorporate fasting into your spiritual routine.

It’s called a 24 hour fast and involves fasting from dinner to dinner. You begin this fast immediately after dinner and then break the fast eating dinner the next day. So in essence, you skip two meals: breakfast and lunch.

Now what makes fasting so spiritually powerful is the combination of going without food AND seeking God. What I like to do is to pray during those times I would be eating. Instead of just skipping breakfast and working through lunch, go to a quiet place during those meals and spend time with the Lord.

It is critically important that you drink lots of water during your fast so that you remain hydrated. Sometimes you may get headaches during a fast. What I have found helpful in that case is to drink juices instead of just water. That seems to help relieve some of the hunger or headache pains.

Once you have experienced a 24 hour fast, you can begin lengthening the time, if you sense the Lord calling you to do that. While food is the predominant fasting vehicle in the New Testament, there are other things we can fast from in order to seek God more earnestly.

A number of years ago, some friends of mine who lived in another area were at a place of spiritual dryness and a critical career decision. They decided to fast from watching TV at night. Instead of their usual 9:00pm routine of Law and Order, they chose to read a Christian book together and pray. They also called on some of their friends and asked us to pray with them.

After a few weeks of this fasting, we all gathered together for a time listening prayer regarding their situation. It was an amazing experience. As we together listened to God and sought God on their behalf, He made His will for them clearly known. I believe fasting was a critical aspect of God bringing clarity to them in the midst of a period of spiritual dryness.

One disclaimer: In terms of fasting from food, if you have potential health concerns, please ask your doctor before doing this. Interestingly, many health professionals believe that fasting can be of physical benefit to us for several reasons. But it is important to check with your doctor if you have specific concerns.

So if you are facing a situation in which you need to hear from God or are needing a spiritual breakthrough, why not consider a 24 hour fast?

I’d love to hear how it goes…

Do We Have A Mercy Deficit?

Not long ago, I was eating dinner with a group of people, all of whom are Christians. We ordered our meal, and then waited…and waited. Finally, after nearly an hour, our food arrived—lukewarm. One of our party had ordered soup, which didn’t come. The waitress then told us that that soup was actually not available that evening. Why hadn’t she let us know that when we were ordering? Even though she was very apologetic about the poor service, it didn’t change the disappointment of our experience.

As I later reflected on the evening, I realized that “good service” wasn’t the only thing missing. Mercy was missing as well. Around our table were responses of criticism and anger directed towards the waitress. We were all very focused on her shortomings. What we didn’t offer her was mercy.

Here’s a definition of mercy: To not get what we actually deserve.  In other words, we mess up and someone chooses to be kind and forgiving to us—that’s mercy. It is undeserved. This kind of mercy is hard to find these days…and yet it is something we as Christians are supposed to excel at. Because we have received mercy, we are to be the biggest dispensers of mercy around us. So are we? Is it our instinct to extend mercy when someone has not performed the way they were supposed to?

And if not, why not? Here’s my theory. We struggle to extend mercy because we struggle to receive it. Even though God has abundantly given us mercy, we don’t live in that reality. Instead, we live with what I once heard Pastor Tim Keller refer to as a mercy deficit. We don’t really believe in our hearts that we are loved and forgiven. We don’t live in the joy of that experience.

Keller illustrated it in this way. Imagine an investor who has tons of money. That investor will invest money freely and generously in various opportunities. Now imagine an investor who is short on cash. That investor will invest much more cautiously, carefully, hesitantly.

As Christians, we are called to be mercy investors. We are to invest mercy whenever possible into the lives of people around us. But which kind of investor are we? Rather than giving mercy generously and freely, we tend to give it cautiously, carefully, hesitantly…if at all. We are critical, angry, and unkind when people don’t perform.  Why? Because we are not living in the reality of God’s mercy given to us. We are living with a mercy deficit—demanding from others what we ourselves are unable to receive from God.

What would it look like for you and me to live today in the fullness of God’s mercy? How would it impact our response to the person at the traffic light who fails to move forward the second the light turns green? How would it impact our response to the person at work who didn’t get done what they said they would get done?  How would it impact our response to a waitress who messed up our order?

What a beautiful fragrance we have to offer the world—the fragrance of mercy. It is a fragrance that, though desperately needed,  is rarely demonstrated in homes, workplaces, restaurants, etc. But we can offer it…freely. Out of the mercy we have received, we can be dispensers of mercy. No wonder Jesus said, “Blessed are the merciful.” (Matthew 5:7)

When You Have Doubts (Part 4)

In my last few blogs posts, I have been wrestling with the question: What do we do when we have doubts about God? What do we do in those moments when we silently wonder, is this stuff really true? Most every Christ follower has moments where they experience these kinds of doubts. It’s a normal part of walking with Jesus. However, if these doubts go unacknowledged or if we try to ignore them by keeping busy, they can eventually eat away at our faith.

So what can we do when we have doubts about God? What I find helpful is to “reground” my soul in certain things that I know to be true—things that are very real evidences to me of God’s existence and His goodness. In the last three posts, I looked at three of these:

  • The wonder of creation
  • The plausibility of God’s story of humanity
  • The Person of Jesus

In this post, I would like to offer a fourth evidence that helps strengthen my faith: My own experiences with God. As I look back on my journey with Jesus, there are certain moments where His Presence was so powerfully at work. Some were fairly dramatic—like the time when I was struggling with panic attacks and had gone to see a counselor in another city. During a free afternoon, I was in my room praying and decided to put on a worship tape (yes, that would be a cassette tape). As I listened to the words, I began to feel a powerful sensation in my entire body—it was like electricity. My heart was suddenly filled with joy and I began to laugh uncontrollably. This whole experience lasted several minutes and was such a profound experience of love and joy. It’s hard to put into words. I only know that I never had a panic attack after that afternoon.

While that is a fairly dramatic experience, there are other experiences that are less dramatic but just as powerful. Recently I was traveling with a friend who, during our trip, mentioned that he had been experiencing significant pain in his hand for a number of weeks. He was unable to tie his shoes and work on the computer. When we landed and were headed to baggage claim, I asked him if I could pray for healing. He said yes, so we stopped right there and prayed. It was a very brief prayer for healing. A few days later, he emailed me that his pain left completely after we prayed. His hand is now functioning normally. How cool! I wish I would see more frequent answers to healing prayer, but that instance was an encouraging reminder to me that God is alive.

I think not only of instances of healing but also of deliverance. There have been a few times in my ministry I have been a part of a prayer experience where demons manifest themselves in a person we were praying for. It is frightening to see evil in such a tangible way. What I find amazing is how these demons respond to the name and the authority of Jesus. They hate Him and yet are less powerful than He is. To see demons who have had influence for years in a person’s life, now coming out simply because we are praying in the name of Jesus….is an incredible evidence to me of the reality of Jesus’ power.

I am so thankful as well for the Holy Spirit who lives in me, and in every follower of Jesus. I often feel His presence and His love. I at times hear His voice in ways that result in wonderful ministry being released in someone’s life. I have no other explanation for this except that God is real. He is personal. He is loving. I have experienced Him and continue to experience Him in real ways.

I wish I could say that I always feel His presence, that I always see Him answer prayers in dramatic ways, that I always hear His voice…but that’s not the case. Paul described our current spiritual journey as “seeing in a mirror dimly”. We can see the reflection but it is not as clear as would hope. But, Paul adds, one day “we shall see face to face.” (I Corinthians 13:12) I can’t wait for that day. Until then, we hold on to what we know to be true about God. Even when circumstances scream at us that God isn’t paying attention, we hold on to Jesus.

When You Have Doubts (Part 3)

What do you do when you begin to have doubts about your faith? In the aftermath of a tragedy, when reading some difficult passage in Scripture, when it feels like our prayers are going no farther than the ceiling….these kinds of experiences can awaken in our hearts significant doubts about the existence of God or the goodness of God.

When I find myself wrestling with doubt (yes, even pastors have doubts!), what I have found helpful is to reflect again on a few key, foundational evidences that remind me why I believe.

In my previous two posts, I shared two of those evidences:

  • The wonder of creation
  • The plausibility of God’s Story of humanity

In this post, I want to share a third foundational piece of evidence: the Person of Jesus. There has been no other human being that has so significantly impacted the world like Jesus has. What makes this especially remarkable is that He didn’t travel widely. He didn’t use social media or military power or government to influence. He actually spent only 3 years in any real “public” ministry, focusing most of His attention on a band of 12 quite ordinary men. And yet His influence today is remarkable—billions of followers making up a worldwide movement—a movement that promotes love and sacrifice and doing good.

But it is not just the extent of His influence that is so significant in my mind.  It is the nature of it. When one reads the eye witness accounts of Jesus’ life, it is hard to not be impressed with His incredible miracles, His brilliant responses to His adversaries, His resolute courage, His sacrificial love.

Some may argue that the disciples made this stuff up,  but I find that hard to believe. Who could make up a story like this? Most of the time, when people are trying hard to write exalted biographies of their heroes, it is fairly obvious. The gospel accounts don’t have any of that feel to them. I mean, often the disciples look like idiots. What disciple is going to make that up, and then get buy in from the others before it goes to print? The eye witness accounts of Jesus’ life as provided in the New Testament offer a plausible, believable, and accurate picture of Jesus.

I realize there are many supposed “new gospels” that are being discovered (a la Dan Brown, etc) but even a cursory look at these reveals numerous questions about their legitimacy. Unlike the New Testament accounts, all of these “new” gospels were written centuries after Jesus was on earth. The gospel accounts contained in the New Testament were readily accepted as legitimate by the early Christians.

Even with all of this evidence, there is one crowning demonstration of Jesus’ Deity and power—the resurrection. His tomb is empty. The arguments used to say that the resurrection didn’t happen are in my opinion highly improbable. Had the disciples stolen the body, why would they later all be willing to die for a lie?

And what about Jesus’ appearances to hundreds  of people, as described in I Corinthians 15:3-8? These words were written by Paul when many of those witnesses would still be alive and able to confirm or deny the assertion. What is clear is that the resurrection launched a movement of Jesus’ followers that continues today. What else could explain how this rag tag group of frightened disciples (before the resurrection) within days became a transformational movement that impacted the world?

The resurrection, if true, means that Jesus is exactly who He claimed to be. I’m willing to put my faith in this Jesus, even when I may not understand what God is doing at various times or why He seems distant or silent in the midst of certain tragedies.  Jesus truly is amazing.