On this Memorial Day in the United States, I wanted to take a moment to express my ultimate gratitude to those who have stood in harm’s way and made the ultimate sacrifice–and for those who have been willing to do so–on our behalf. They did this to help build the greatest nation under God that the world has ever known and to maintain freedom for all. I pray their sacrifice was not made in vain.
Today was Pentecost Sunday, the day on which God breathed the Holy Spirit into the early church believers, just as Jesus had promised would happen. The scene is depicted at the beginning of Acts chapter 2. The funny thing about the Holy Spirit is that He is kind of the underrated part of the Trinity, especially in many of the more “rational” western churches. Maybe like that weird third kid who used to hang around with you and your best friend, who couldn’t tell how awkward he or she could make things. Father, Son, and that other guy.
And yet, the Holy Spirit is the presence and power of God that dwells within us. Because of this, He may be the voice we hear when we feel like God is speaking to us or directing our thoughts. Also, and I’m not trying to split hairs with this speculation, but He may be the aspect of God that knows us better than we know ourselves.
Ultimately, so long as we cultivate a deep, personal relationship with God, it doesn’t matter if we feel like we are communing with the Father, the Son, or the Holy Spirit. Nevertheless, our outstanding senior pastor at New Life Church, Brady Boyd, has encouraged us to start each day with this simple prayer:
And so I do, right before my quick trip to the bathroom! (I’m in my 50s…). It’s a great way to start the day.
As a brief postscript, I felt God–OK, probably specifically the Holy Spirit!–tap me on the shoulder to suggest that I include this odd little poem that I wrote way back when I was a baby believer. I never knew why I had kept it all these years, but now I guess I do, LOL. Anyway, here it is:
I was speaking with an atheist friend of mine yesterday about some concerns I have with things going on in my life. Interestingly, his response to me was, “Trust God.”
Even though he doesn’t believe in God, he knows that I do. And his belief is that what I think of as God is some sort of cosmic force that he refers to as “the universe.” Regardless, it was a good reminder that whatever is going on in my life or in the world, I need to trust that God is in control and that He is working for my good. And I need to remember that I make a lousy god, so I should stop trying to do God’s job for Him.
It was just funny that this reminder came from someone who doesn’t believe in God, or at least thinks that God is “the universe”, but sometimes that’s just how God works. I wonder if He ever gets a chuckle out of using an atheist to accomplish His purposes…
There is perhaps no greater illustration of God’s love for us than a mother’s love for her child. A mother’s love is fierce and boundless, just like God’s love is for us. Our mothers love us on our worst days, just like God does. A mother’s love for her child is sacrificial, and God’s is, too.
It is with this simple assertion in mind that I wish a Happy Mother’s Day to my wife and daughter, and to the memory of my mom.
This past week, those of us journeying through the Bible in a year with Daily Audio Bible completed our trudge through the book of Judges. This book represents a dark period in the history of God’s chosen people. And in plain language, I think the author, inspired by the Holy Spirit, explains why. There’s a phrase woven throughout the book–in fact, they are the final words of the book: everyone did what was right in their own eyes.
The book of Judges is difficult to read (or listen to). It has some very strange and disturbing stories that result from the degraded moral condition of Israel during the period between Joshua’s death and the establishment of the monarchy. Throughout this time, the Israelites continuously fell into idolatry and sin, leading to periods of oppression and suffering at the hands of their enemies.
And it was all because everyone did what was right in their own eyes.
Doing what is right in your own eyes means making decisions based on what you want, and your own definition of right and wrong. This means that everyone can have their own definition of truth. It is a self-centered way of living that disregards God’s laws and His will for each of our lives. It leads to moral decay and chaos.
In one challenging example, described in Judges 17-18, there’s a story about Micah. He created his own shrine, complete with an idol, and hired a Levite to be his personal priest. This behavior was a clear violation of God’s commandments, yet Micah saw nothing wrong with it. He had made up his own religion, which he believed was right in his eyes.
The most disturbing and disgusting story in Judges (and maybe the whole Bible) is told in Judges 19. A Levite traveling through Gibeah was offered hospitality by an old man, but during the night, a mob of men from the city came and demanded that the Levite be handed over to them so that they could sexually assault him. The old man offered his own daughter and the Levite’s concubine to the mob instead, and the Levite’s concubine was brutally raped and murdered.
The behavior of the men from Gibeah was a clear violation of God’s commandments, but they saw nothing wrong with it. They were doing what was right in their own eyes, and their actions led to unimaginable suffering and violence.
Not How It Was Supposed to Be
Yuck. This isn’t how it was supposed to be.
So, why do I bring this up? Why focus on such a challenging book in the Bible?
For two reasons. First, to point out that this is not the way God intended things to be. He created us to live in close relationship with Him, not so He could watch us like a mean overlord, making sure we didn’t have any fun. Quite the opposite, actually. He wanted us to live close to Him so that what happened in the book of Judges doesn’t happen to us. This is the reason He gave us His laws–He wants us to enjoy life unfettered by anything that will lead to our destruction.
I wonder how it came to be that our culture seems to believe the contrarian lie from the evil one that God is against us, that He condemns us, that He doesn’t really care all that much for us.
It’s not easy–in fact, it’s impossible–for us to live 100% according to God’s law. But that’s OK. God wants us to depend on Him to help us live the way He wants us to. But when we screw up and try to become our own gods, He will accept us back with open arms if we only repent for our ridiculous behavior.
The Light of God’s Redemptive Power
That leads to my second reason for discussing this strange book of the Bible–in the midst of chaos and sin shines the light of God’s redemptive power. I’ve already mentioned the benefit of this to each of us personally, that God forgives us when we repent of trying to be our own little gods. He receives us and restores us, thanks be to God.
But the seed of redemption on a broader scale is also planted in the awful story that takes place in Gibeah. The actions described led to a civil war within Isreal, one in which the tribe of Benjamin is nearly eradicated. And yet, many years later, when Israel begged God to give them a king and God allowed it, He selected Saul as the first person to fill that role. Saul came from the smallest of Israel’s tribes–the tribe of Benjamin.
Would you like to take a guess where Saul was from? Gibeah.
This is not because God condoned what had taken place there many years earlier. No, I think it could be God’s way of assuring us that no matter what filthy, disgusting things we have done before, He can redeem us. Nothing is too far gone for Him to reach us.
How It Was Supposed to Be
All we have to do is recognize the mercy–not judgment–in His eyes and reach out our hands to grasp the one He has already extended to us. He pulls us out of the dumpster fire of our past. He grabs some ashes while He’s at it and paints a beautiful picture of the people He intended us to be. And He helps us try to live into that.
He wants us, after all, to walk with Him in the garden in the cool of the day, the way things were meant to be.
I don’t know about you, but I often struggle to hear God’s voice with everything else rattling around in my brain. At least, that’s the way it seems.
But maybe it’s because God answers me in ways I don’t expect, so I don’t think I’m hearing His voice.
It would be just like God to act in ways that we don’t expect or understand. I mean, we just recently passed through Good Friday and Easter. What more explanation is needed than that?
So, I often pray for discernment, that I can determine what God’s will is for a big decision in my life. What I hope to get from God when I do that is a clear picture of what He wants me to do. But then again, I wonder if I am trying to avoid making the decision myself, so I pawn it off on God. Hey God, I don’t know what to do here, so You decide for me.
I also often wonder if God isn’t helping me to know His will in ways I don’t recognize. Like maybe the feeling I have about the decision after praying about it is really Him nudging me–or kicking me in the pants–C’mon already, beloved son! How obvious do I have to make this for you??
And here’s another thing. In hindsight, sometimes I am able to recognize that God has shown me His will through the words of people who love me. People who He has placed in my life. I think He gives us each wisdom, but it is never complete. I wonder if this isn’t so that we will realize that we need each other. No one person has all of the answers, but collectively we have many more of them.
For example, this morning, as we were getting ready for church, my wife and I were having a discussion, during which we reached a disagreement. With a few moments of reflection, I realized she was right. She was speaking wisdom into my life. I sure didn’t want her to be right, but she was.
Now, I’m not saying that she’s always right, but neither am I. That’s one of the benefits of having people I love and trust in my life. They can help me see things from a different perspective–one that might very well represent God’s will in my current situation. That’s also the benefit of speaking and listening to one another.
For better or worse, God gave us all each other. It can be messy sometimes, but I think He intended for us to help each other navigate life and, ultimately, find our way to Him.
Last week, I wrote about how Jesus restores us when (not if) we screw up. Peter was the biblical example I used, referring to Jesus’ beautiful restoration of one of His best friends, since He knew Peter would have been beating himself up over betraying Jesus.
Today, I wanted to take a peek at what happens as a result of being restored.
Fast-forwarding a little bit in time, and jumping from the Gospels to the Book of Acts (which is really the second volume of Luke’s Gospel), we see a new Peter. He had been so afraid (after promising to be brave) that he swore he didn’t know Jesus. But in the second chapter of Acts, we see the birth of the church, thanks in large part to Peter’s bold proclamation that Jesus was and is the Messiah (and I’m sure God had something to do with creating the church, too).
Then a few days later, Peter has an opportunity to recall how he felt after Jesus had restored him following his darkest days. He must have remembered this with tremendous fondness when he said this:
He’s telling anyone who will listen–including us–that God does not leave us to wallow in the filth of the bad things we have done and said and thought. As he remembers his friend and Savior extending a hand of grace to pull him out of his pit of self-pity, he says that we have the same opportunity. All we have to do is repent and grab hold of Jesus’ extended hand–or probably even just the hem of his robe–and He will restore us.
He picks us up–He picked me up. He dusts us off. He renews our relationship with Him. He tells us to go forth and sin no more, knowing that we probably won’t live up to that for even a day. Maybe not even an hour. But He is so patient with us that He doesn’t mind how quickly we end up back there, reaching again for His hand of grace.
But do you think He does this just so we will feel better about ourselves?
I don’t think so. His primary motivation seems to be so that we can spend eternity with Him in paradise–the result of our acceptance of His grace and mercy and forgiveness.
But that’s not all.
Returning to Peter’s story, we see that he is telling others about his story, his walk with Jesus. He is making the world a better place by building a body of believers who are sharing literally everything they have with each other and anyone in need. He makes a lame man’s day (probably his life) by healing him.
Obviously, God gave us all different gifts, so He does not expect that we all will respond in exactly the same way as Peter to His gift of restoration. Maybe your response could be something as simple as speaking kind words to everyone you encounter–even someone who was rude to you. Or it could be a random act of kindness, like paying someone else’s tab at a restaurant. Maybe you could really go crazy and write a positive blog, or post an affirming message on social media.
This is our chance to shine God’s Light into the darkness all around. Let’s each of us decide how we can reflect the incredible lightness of having been restored by the Savior of the world. And then do it.
God blessed me with a rich season of Lent, and a Holy Week during which I felt His presence. I hope the same was true for you.
Unfortunately, though, it didn’t take me long to duck away from His presence here and there as soon as Easter was over, returning to some things God had put on my heart to give up for Lent and beyond. I don’t know why I did this. I was so frustrated and disappointed in myself. It had seemed so easy to give things up during Lent, and then almost impossible to avoid them the day after the season ended.
Did you experience anything like this over the last week?
If so, welcome to the human race.
I don’t say this as an excuse for doing things we wish God didn’t see. Instead, I say it to remind myself and all of us that there was only one perfect person in the whole Bible–Jesus.
But what about all the famous people in the Bible? you may ask. What about Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? Nope, all flawed. Moses? No, he was a murderer. David? Sorry, the whole story surrounding Bathsheba brought him down to our level.
One of the things I love about the Bible is that it’s full of stories of flawed people accomplishing great things for God simply because they trusted Him and walked Him like they would a best friend. Also, this is another reason why I find the Bible to be so believable–if you were going to make up a religion, you would not admit so freely that the people who carried the narrative forward were so broken and ordinary, so much like you and me.
In fact, what I experienced this past week closely resembled what happened to Peter. He had been one of Jesus’ closest and most trusted friends. Jesus had said He was going to build His church on the rock that was Peter. When Jesus had been describing what was going to happen to Him, Peter bravely declared that he would follow Jesus through it all, including to the grave, if necessary.
But Jesus told him otherwise. He prophesied that Peter would abandon Him when He needed His close friends the most.
And Peter did just that–He denied knowing Jesus three times.
So I wonder how Peter had been feeling up to, and even after, Jesus’ resurrection. If it were me, I would have been wondering how in world I was going to be able to live with myself, knowing that I had abandoned my best friend–especially one whom I had believed to be my Messiah–during such terrible moments. I can imagine Jesus’ words rattling around my brain, breaking off little pieces of sanity as they went: “Before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times!”
But Jesus, our compassionate Savior, must have known how Peter would be feeling. In fact, in Mark’s retelling of the story when some of the women followers of Christ discovered the empty tomb, he points out that the angel specifically called out Peter by name:
This doesn’t mean that the angel was characterizing Peter as not being one of Jesus’ disciples. It means that Jesus must have lovingly directed the angel to mention Peter because He knew that Peter’s heart would be aching because of his denial of Jesus.
The story gets even better.
Chapter 21 of John’s gospel describes it. Distraught with grief, Peter and the other fishermen must have decided to return to their prior profession, since evidently this “Jesus’ disciple” thing wasn’t going to work out after all. After Jesus gave them another miraculous haul of fish, Peter jumped out of the boat early and ran to see Jesus–an exuberant returning to God.
And what did Jesus say to His friend? None of the things I probably would have said (“Well I warned you!”, or “It went down just like had said it would!”, or even “See, you need to listen to me!”). Nope, not Jesus. He pulled His friend to the side. Knowing how much Peter had been beating himself up, Jesus lovingly restored him. You may be wondering why Jesus asked Peter three times if he loved Jesus (see John 21 verses 15, 16, and 17), to the point where it seemed to be hurting Peter’s feelings. I think it was to match the number of times Peter had denied Him. It was as if each time Jesus asked Peter the question and Peter responded, Jesus was erasing one of Peter’s denials.
He was fully restoring His beloved friend.
Thankfully, it’s the same story for me, the same story for you. When (not if) we screw up, when we turn our backs on Jesus, we only have to change direction from our broken ways and return to Him. In fact, here is the description of the Greek word for repentance from Wikipedia:
The Greek term for repentance, metanoia, denotes a change of mind, a reorientation, a fundamental transformation of outlook, of man’s vision of the world and of himself, and a new way of loving others and God.
Like Peter, when we realize we need to do this, we should jump out of the boat so we can get to Jesus as quickly as possible. We shouldn’t worry about getting wet or what kind of mess it will make. Just get to Jesus.
Because Jesus told us in the story of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32) what He will be doing:
He will also be running to us as we run toward Him. He’ll throw His arms around us. He’ll kiss us. Nothing dignified about it, so overjoyed is He that we came back.
He will restore us. He restores me, erasing each one of the bad things I’ve done, setting me back to the way I was when I was walking with Him each day.
For that, I am forever thankful. It’s another Resurrection Day.
Even though the game is still going on, we know the final score:
Looking around the world today, it may not seem like it. Evil is rampant everywhere. Darkness pervades our culture. Some churches are closing their doors. People who follow Christ used to lead the way in politics, art, and science, but now it’s easy to believe we have been shoved out to the fringes of society.
And yet, there is Easter. The tomb is empty.
The same darkness that seems to be thriving in the world today tried to kill God on the first Good Friday a couple thousand years ago. And at first, it seemed like they had succeeded.
But in His typical style of smashing expectations, Jesus proved them wrong, not by climbing down from the cross and avoiding death, but by dying and then coming back to life!
What??? How is that even possible?
It’s not. Except that with God, all things are possible. Jesus said this in Matthew 19:26:
And then He proved it by physically coming back to life after being dead (see Matthew 28).
So what does this mean to us?
Well, for one thing, it means that we can trust God to achieve what we think is impossible. No matter how bad things are in the world or in your life, Jesus can repair and restore them. And He will, although the fix will almost never look like what you or I had envisioned.
It also means that we have this hope to latch onto–that in the end, death and misery and evil will be overcome. Jesus has already defeated them, but it will just take a bit more time for the story to unfold completely.
Finally, Jesus’ resurrection confirms that we have not placed our faith in something flimsy or fleeting. If nothing else does, it should prove to skeptics that Jesus is who He says He is. And it should assure us in our times of doubt that even though God doesn’t always make sense to us, He is for us. He is good. He is working to our benefit, even when we don’t see it.
For these and many other reasons, I am so thankful to God for this Resurrection Day, and that in the end, love wins.
So, this is Good Friday. The day God shows us the extent to which He will go to save us from ourselves. This is the God who bled and died for me and for you, to pay the price for all the stupid things we’ve ever done.
I know that it had to happen this way, that without Good Friday, there is no Easter.
But I have a confession to make: every time I reach the place in one of the Gospels where it describes the terrible ordeal Jesus endured on Good Friday, I wish it didn’t have to be that way.
It’s like watching your favorite movie for the tenth or hundredth time. No matter how many times or how loudly you warn the hero not to make that ill-fated decision, they still do it. They open the door to the closet where the guy with the chainsaw is hiding.
What’s especially challenging for me is a passage like this:
Another confession: every time I read this, I want Jesus to call out to God so the twelve legions of angels will swoop in and rain down all kinds of terror on the evil people preparing to torture to death the greatest man who ever lived.
Can you imagine the self-restraint Jesus exercised to not do that? I know I’d be much more inclined to bring in the angels than I would be to endure the misery Jesus knew was coming.
But that’s the difference–one of many–between Jesus and me. He did what He knew needed to be done to save rotten people like me and you. He knew He needed to walk through the crucifixion to storm the gates of hell to rescue us. He had to face death so He could defeat it and be raised to life again.
That’s the difference between a superhero and a savior.
We wanted a superhero to win the fight today, to wreak all kinds of havoc on the bad guys. We wanted a superhero who would kick the Romans out of Israel and restore God’s chosen people to their rightful place in the world order. We wanted a superhero who would automatically answer all of our prayers in exactly the right way (by our definition), like a cosmic vending machine.
But what we got was even better, albeit completely baffling to us.
I mean, who ever thought that the Messiah could be killed? That makes no sense. And just think how the Jews would have adored Jesus if He had found a way to defeat the hated Romans! But instead, He prayed for them.
What we got was someone who appeared to lose the battle, but who actually won the whole war, who settled things for all eternity.
What we got was a Savior who repeatedly exercised incredible self-restraint so that He could actually receive the punishment we deserve. He allowed Himself to be killed so that we could live.
Again, it makes no sense, but I’ll take it. With humility and gratitude, I accept His sacrifice. Reluctantly, I thank God for Good Friday, and I’m glad He sent us a Savior instead of a superhero.