Posted by MK | Filed under Bible Study
A few weeks ago, my wife made a casual statement on Sunday afternoon:
“Do you think we could renovate our bathroom ourselves?”
If we know each other well, you’re probably laughing right now. That’s because you know that I have an incredible propensity to mess up virtually home improvement project. I have left behind a wide swath of destruction littered with everything from light bulbs to paint cans. And yet here was my wife, perhaps naively, wondering if we could take sledge hammer to toilet (or something like that) and renovate our bathroom.
Part of me wanted to immediately go find the crowbar because, hey, what’s the worst that could happen right? But after considering that last question more fully, we decided to wait. And ask questions. To talk to some people who had actually done this before to learn what we could about the process. Maybe watch a youtube video or two to help us know where to start.
In other words, we started slowly crawling toward tackling this project.
Having started to crawl, and learned a little bit about it, I can’t imagine what it’s like to stand in the middle of a situation like that. Maybe someday I will, but not right now. I’m not ready for that. I guess the adage is true – you do indeed have to crawl before you walk. Except when you don’t:
“Therefore, since we have been declared righteous by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. We have also obtained access through Him by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God” (Romans 5:1).
The gospel doesn’t make crawlers; the gospel makes standers. When we believe the gospel, we aren’t propelled straight down to our hands and knees to slowly, arduously, crawl toward the grace of God. We don’t have the burden of bruising our hands and knees as we try and prove ourselves over and over again, all the while hoping that at some point we can prove ourselves worthy of His acceptance.
No, instead of that, we are propelled not as crawlers but as standers right into the middle of God’s grace. And though we might pass by this detail, it’s important for us to pause for a moment and realize the implications that single word has for us:
- Standing is a position of confidence.
- Standing is a position of stability.
- Standing is a position of strength.
Pretty amazing when you think about it. The gospel doesn’t enroll us in some kind of spiritual probation; it propels us into the presence of God. The same presence of the One who crumbles empires and flings stars into the heavens. The same presence of the One who destroys impurity and sin, and the same presence of the One who was and is and always will be.
Here we stand.
It’s no wonder, then, as we stand, that we indeed “rejoice in the hope of the glory of God.” What else can we do? For of no merit of our own, nothing to justify ourselves before Him, no words in our mouth to explain why we ought to be there… we stand. We stand up, because Jesus laid Himself down for us.
“ For I know the plans I have for you”—this is the Lord’s declaration—“plans for your welfare, not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope…” (Jeremiah 29:11).
There is a school of “Christian” thought which looks at this verse as an open and shut case in determining the will of God for every individual. That line of thinking looks and sees a promise of prosperity across all facets of life – prosperity in health, prosperity in finances, prosperity in career – more prosperity than you can shake a stick at. True enough, the promise in this verse is indeed for prosperity. It is the Lord’s plan to prosper and not to harm, and because of that unshakable plan we can hope for the future.
So God promises prosperity… but not yet.
We would do well to remember that this verse was part of a letter the prophet Jeremiah wrote to the exiled Israelites. These were the people who endured the siege of their city, bore witness to the destruction of the temple, and were at present living under the rule of a foreign king in a foreign land. And most, if not all, of those who heard these words would die in the state they currently found themselves:
“When 70 years for Babylon are complete, I will attend to you and will confirm My promise concerning you to restore you to this place…” (Jeremiah 29:10).
70 years. That’s not an overnighter. That’s seven decades of deportation. Seven decades of lack of national identity. Seven decades of foreign oppression. So yes, Israelites, God will prosper you. But not yet.
We, as post-resurrection Christians, face much of the same dynamic today. Much as we might want to believe that the prosperity of God is a present-tense reality, we have our own seventy years to live. Seventy years of cancer. Seventy years of persecution (in some parts of the world). Seventy years of living out the values of an eternal kingdom in a hostile culture. Seventy years as exiles. And who knows what that seventy years equates to in our case. It might be over tomorrow, or we too might live and die in this foreign land without seeing the true prosperity of the Lord come to pass when Jesus comes back.
For the Israelites, then, the question was how to respond: What does one do when you know God will prosper you and yet that prosperity will come some time from now? That truth can be paralyzing; they might have hung their heads in the midst of their deportation and exile and simply tried to wait it out. Or they could be motivated to a different end:
“Build houses and live in them. Plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters. Take wives for your sons and give your daughters to men in marriage so that they may bear sons and daughters. Multiply there; do not decrease. Seek the welfare of the city I have deported you to. Pray to the Lord on its behalf, for when it has prosperity, you will prosper” (Jeremiah 29:5-7).
The other option is to live. Live for the sake of the true kingdom in the midst of a foreign one. Take life a day at a time and make the most of the moments you have rather be lost in the idyllic vision of the future. The same thing is true for us.
When will our own deportation end? When Jesus comes back. When we see our own selves caught up in the resurrection that Jesus began with His own resurrection. Then we will know what true prosperity is. But in the meantime, we are to seek that kingdom in the midst of this one. We are to live with contrary values and contrary ideals right in the middle of this hostile territory. And the motivation for that kind of live is the face that God will indeed prosper us. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow… but the prosperity of the Lord is coming, just as it has come. And His name is Jesus.
Posted by MK | Filed under Bible Study
Miriam and Aaron criticized Moses because of the Cushite woman he married (for he had married a Cushite woman). They said, “Does the Lord speak only through Moses? Does He not also speak through us?” And the Lord heard it… (Numbers 12:1-2).
Let’s get on the table from the outset what we know about Miriam and what has brought us to this moment in the history of God’s people. Miriam was the sister of Moses and Aaron. She was the one who, even at a young age, defied the decree of Pharaoh and put her baby brother Moses in the basket, saving his life from the horrific order to kill the firstborn boys of Israel. Along with that, Miriam was a prophetess (Ex. 15:20).
The children of Israel, meanwhile, have been delivered miraculously from Egypt through the Red Sea. They have been divided into tribes and had leaders appointed over each tribe. The law and instructions for the tabernacle have been given, and they are currently following Moses around in the desert. The attitude of the people, Miriam included, was at best tenuous. They had developed a penchant for complaining, and now here, the complaining turns to personal criticism directed at Moses.
Now on the surface, the complaint is about Moses marriage. He had married a Cushite woman. But is that the real reason? I wonder.
I wonder if perhaps there was a reason behind this criticism, and the reason I wonder is because I know my own heart. And rarely, if ever, is criticism born out of sincerity. Oh, I’m sure it might happen that way at some point – I might criticize a leader, a friend, a family member, a whatever because I have a completely pure desire to see some wrong brought into the light. But that hasn’t happened yet. At least not many times.
No, for me, there is always a reason behind the criticism. Most of the time that reason is because of personal jealousy and insecurity. Of course, I can’t say it like that. Just like Miriam couldn’t say it like that. Instead, she hid behind a sanitized version of her true complaint. For her true complaint was that Moses had more attention. More prominence. More stage time. He had more, and she wanted an equal share.
“And the Lord heard it…”
The Lord heard the true reason behind the criticism even if no one else did. The Lord hears the insecure and prideful cry of our hearts and not the insincere sanitized version of that comes from our mouths. And because He did with Miriam, He doled out a very ironic form of discipline. As you continue reading the text in Numbers 12, you see that Miriam was stricken with leprosy. According to the law of God, she would be put outside the camp for 7 days. In addition, if they followed Leviticus 14 closely, her reinstatement might include animal sacrifice, ritual sprinkling, and even shaving of the head.
God, then, exposed her greatest insecurity. He stripped her greatest pride. He put her out from the middle of the people she so desperately thought she should be leading. The discipline is, as it always is with the Lord, appropriate to the offense.
Sometimes, because our hearts are so deceptive, the only way we can hear the true cry of our hearts is when the Lord exposes it. And when that happens, we are left like Miriam. Broken, and exposed. But this discipline is not punitive; instead, the discipline brought to light what previously was only known to the ears of the Lord. It’s through discipline that we become aware of the reason behind the criticism, the heart behind the sin, and once brought to light, we can at last begin to heal as we return to the Lord. Except this time, we repent not merely of the action itself; we repent of the state of our hearts that led to that particular action.
This is why we can say, along with the writer of Hebrews, that “no discipline seems enjoyable at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it yields the fruit of peace and righteousness to those who have been trained by it” (Heb. 12:11).
Because our hearts are liars, sometimes something that seems as simple as criticism to us has a different ring in the ear of the Lord. And that’s why we can endure through discipline, because we trust that God knows us better than we know ourselves.
Posted by MK | Filed under Bible Study
Our youngest child started kindergarten last week. Because this is our third time down this road, we have a pretty good idea of how this is going to go. We know, for example, that this week is going to be rough. He’s going to be exhausted all week long as he adjusts to this new schedule. We know that he’s going to have to become accustomed concentrating for a longer period of time. And we knew that the first few days of class would be a kind of assessment of where he is currently in his learning so that his teacher will have a good gauge of where to begin the class.
Part of that assessment was for Christian to display his counting skills. He’s been practicing for that assessment for a while, and Christian is a good counter. He can go all the way to one hundred and further unassisted, but he came by that through practicing counting over and over again. He has counted fruits; he’s counted insects; he’s counted pennies; he’s counted virtually everything around him in increasing levels for the better part of the last year.
As he grows, he will be able to count more and more, and that counting will become more and more instinctive. But counting is not just a skill for kindergartners; counting is a learned practice for every Christian. In fact, much of the Christian life is indeed about counting:
- In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus (Romans 6:11).
- I consider (count) that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us (Romans 8:18).
- But whatever were gains to me I now consider (count) loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider (count) everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider (count) them garbage, that I may gain Christ (Philippians 3:8-9).
- As you know, we count as blessed those who have persevered (James 5:11).
Christians count. We count ourselves dead to sin; we count our present sufferings not comparable with the glory to be revealed; we count all things as loss; and we count persecution as blessings. When we count as Christians, we look at the truth we behold in Scripture, then we being that truth to bear on the present situation. Through our counting, we get an accurate assessment of what’s before us. Many times, it’s only through counting that we are able to see through the present circumstances and instead behold the truth of a situation by faith.
When, for example, we are tempted to sin, we count. When we count, we remember what Christ has done for us. This is an objective truth, as objective as 1+1=2. We know that we have died to sin and been raised to life in Jesus. Through our counting, then, we see that sin no longer has any power over us.
When, for example, we are tempted to despair because of the suffering in our lives and in the world, we count. When we count, we remember that circumstances and fallenness do not have the final word. We bring to bear the truth of what is to come onto our perspective in our current situation.
Like a kindergartner learning his numbers, so do we practice the discipline of counting, and it is indeed a discipline. We take a step back, realizing that we need truth to interpret our situations and accuracy to drive our feelings. And of course, we can count because Jesus Himself has first been counted:
“It is written: ‘And he was counted with the transgressors’; and I tell you that this must be fulfilled in me. Yes, what is written about me is reaching its fulfillment” (Luke 22:37).
Because Jesus has been counted among the transgressors, we can count ourselves as the righteous children of God, dead to sin and alive in Christ. This is a skill we learn over time, starting with 1+1. But as we count more and more, that counting becomes more and more instinctive. So count today, Christian; bring the truth of the gospel to bear on life.
Posted by MK | Filed under Bible Study
Once upon a time, Philippians 4:13 was my football locker verse. There, in the midst of my stinking shoulder pads and disgusting workout clothes, I taped in my locker a notecard that bore the words, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”
At that time, what I intended by putting that verse in my locker was to remind myself that I could run one more 40 yard dash through Christ who strengthens me. I could do one more drill through Christ who strengthens me. I could knock one more guy over through Christ who strengthens me. But then one faithful Friday night, my high school football team lined up across from another team – the Dumas Demons. And after the game, I saw a group of those Demons kneeling in prayer on the 50 yard line. And though it hadn’t struck me before, I suddenly came to the realization that there were probably actual Christians who played for the other team. In fact, there might even have been one Christian with Philippians 4:13 taped in their locker. So as I was trying to knock someone over with the power of Christ, so also might someone have been trying to knock me over with the same power.
It was a crisis of faith, born under the lights of Friday night Texas football.
Which of course made me wonder if Philippians 4:13 was possibly not about my ability to block the right person in a football game. As I discovered by reading just a few of the verses around it, Paul didn’t intend this verse to be applied as some kind of energy steroid for athletics. This verse was about contentment:
“I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am. I know both how to have a little, and I know how to have a lot. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being content—whether well fed or hungry, whether in abundance or in need. I am able to do all things through Him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:11-13).
Paul wasn’t speaking to the future linebacker; he was talking to every single person in Christ, for every single person in Christ will know the experiences he outlined in these verses. We will all have more and less at different points in our lives; we will all be both in abundance and in need. The seasons of life will change; they will ebb and flow; and yet according to Paul, through Christ we can maintain a stable source of joy and contentment through Christ and Christ alone.
We will not have to live our lives craving the ever-elusive “else” – our lives will not be characterized by the constant pursuit of more. More money, more renown, more power, more recognition. Instead, we will always be able to know that we have enough, for no matter how our circumstances change, we will always have Christ.
Now you might look at this passage and feel a sense of discouragement. It’s not particularly uplifting to recognize the reality that at some point, circumstances will change. You, like me, will experience points of loss and need and sadness in this life. The encouraging part of this verse isn’t that we aren’t going to feel the pain of those things. No – the encouraging part of this verse is that Paul learned the secret of being content.
In other words, contentment isn’t our natural state, but it can be learned. We can develop a certain aptitude for contentment. And the school in which we learn contentment is the school of loss. When we feel the sense of despair and when we feel the temptation of accumulation, we can remember that we are sitting in the classroom of life. And through these lessons, we will learn how to trust in Jesus for our self-worth, our joy, and our comfort. And slowly but surely, we will find ourselves progressing in this school.
We will learn contentment, over and over again. Let us then apply ourselves to our lessons. Let us choose to fix our eyes on Jesus over and over again so that we might be reminded that no matter what else happens, we will always be rich in Him.
Posted by MK | Filed under Current Events
This weekend, my daughter and I drove through a parking lot that came up beside a small pond and found that some ducks had congregated by that pond. So we stopped; these ducks were obviously used to the traffic; they expected some kind of treat coming from the car rather than running away back to their water.
That’s when my daughter and I got into a discussion about what exactly a duck eats. We had seen them eat bread, but she also pointed out that ducks will dip their beaks into the water presumably to eat something. But what? Fish? Bugs? Just a drink of water? So we did what anyone would do when they have a question in our day and time: We pulled out my phone and typed in the question, and in two seconds we had the answer.
We live in this age of easy education. Never before has more information been more available to us. You can count on the fact that virtually anything you’ve been curious about, someone else has already been curious about, and has recorded the answer somewhere in cyberspace. It’s a pretty amazing thing when you think about it. And yet the breadth and depth of these facts and figures of all shapes and kinds brings with it a question:
To what end?
Back to the example of the ducks. Now we know what ducks eat, but to what end? We don’t have ducks. We don’t plan on raising ducks. We rarely encounter ducks. So to what end do we now know what ducks eat? This is the danger that we run into because with the wealth of information comes the bloated ego associated with it. What I mean is that because we don’t have ducks, but now that we know what ducks eat, the only real application point for that piece of information is our own pride.
We get to now answer a question on a TV quiz show, or we get to show how much we know in a conversation that for some reason centers around ducks. We get to be the ones who know the answer that others do not, and therefore we get to be the ones who look like duck experts although we have never raised a single water foul. Knowledge without application leads to pride:
“Knowledge inflates with pride, but love builds up” (1 Corinthians 8:1).
In the case of the Corinthians, some considered themselves enlightened with knowledge which enabled them to freely eat certain kinds of food which others considered unclean. It was a data point which led to pride, and the pride led to division. But Paul had a better way – beware the kind of knowledge which inflates the ego so you can float above the crowd. Love is the needle that pops the balloon of pride and sinks us back down to earth.
In this day of easy education, beware the pride that comes with it.
Posted by MK | Filed under Theology
Our kids love hotels.
I can see why. For sure.
You’ve got a pool, a TV, and a breakfast with all the packaged bakery goods you could every imagine right there at your fingertips. Who wouldn’t love gorging yourself on Little Debbie powdered donuts, taking a brief dip in the hot tub and then watching some Cartoon Network?
The hotel is one of the great parts of vacation; of course, it’s also one of the great scourges of the vacation. You pack, in our case, two adults and three kids into a single room and it’s just a matter of time until someone lights a match to the emotional powder keg you’ve created. By day 3, the room is full of thrown aside dirty clothes, used towels, toothbrushes, and road trip toys you brought in the car but couldn’t be left there. And that’s why by day 3 you are fully reminded that although pleasant for a while, this room is much, much different than home.
Of course that’s true. And it’s even more true when we think about all of what God has provided for us in our current context. These bodies? These homes? These jobs? Even these relationships? These are enjoyable; they are glorious; but they are not the end game. They’re not home. C.S. Lewis would say it like this: “Our Father refreshes us on the journey with some pleasant inns, but will not encourage us to mistake them for home.”
It’s interesting that this quote from Lewis came during his treatise regarding suffering in the world, The Problem of Pain. To Lewis, one of the redeeming parts of human pain is the heavenly reminder that we are living in a hotel. A pleasant hotel, sure – but still a hotel. It is through loss that God sometimes graciously reminds us of where our true value and lasting residence lies.
Ironically, my daughter and I will be going on a short trip together this weekend and, yes, we will stay in a hotel. The hotel will be pleasant, but it will not be home. And it’s always the best to go home.
This year, there will be three backpacks.
Three lunch boxes
Three kids dropped off at the entrance to the elementary school.
And one empty house for several more hours a day.
All three of our children, for the first time, will go to school this year. This will be the last first day of school. And though I’ve prided myself on not being “that parent,” I’m for sure “that parent.” I’ve done my share of fretting and wondering whether or not we have rightly prepared this kindergartner, like his brother and sister, for this first real entrance into the big, wide world. When I think about those things, and I think about my big boy walking away with his newly minted lunch box in his hand into a classroom for the first time, my heart hurts.
There are moments like this that happen periodically in our lives that remind us of the acute pain of trust. These are the times when we remember that trust is not am emotion; nor is it the default human condition. It is a choice, and it hurts to make that choice when it comes to things as precious as your children.
Trust hurts. It hurts like having someone much stronger than you pry your hands, one finger at a time, off of the thing that you have clutched so tightly. It hurts because it’s a tangible reminder that you, and I, are not nearly as in control as we all think we are. It hurts because our illusions of that control are popped like balloons, and the sound of the popping leaves our ears ringing.
What is the salve for the acute pain of trust? It’s not the promise that everything will be okay, because the truth is that everything might not be okay. At least not in this life. Stuff is going to happen, and that stuff will no doubt be even more painful. When we cling to the hope that everything will be fine in this life, we are grasping at smoke – it’s just one more attempt to hold onto that bursting balloon of control. No – the false promise of prosperity and ease and comfort cannot sooth the soul during times like this.
The only thing that really can – and that truly does – is thinking deeply on the character of the One in whom we are trusting. Of knowing that while we lack control, He does not. Of knowing that while our strength is limited, His is not. Of knowing that while we sleep, He is wide awake. Of knowing that our plans and dreams may fail but His never will. God and God alone is where we must turn when trust hurts. And when we do, we will not find Him unaware.
Posted by MK | Filed under Bible Study
Disciples of Jesus are followers of Jesus. They walk not only where He walks, but in the manner in which He walks. It means that we acknowledge the lordship of Jesus and seek to see that lordship actualized in every area of our lives. That’s what disciples do. Jesus’ first call to discipleship in Scripture gives us a good picture of how a disciple responds to Him:
As He was passing along by the Sea of Galilee, He saw Simon and Andrew, Simon’s brother. They were casting a net into the sea, since they were fishermen. “Follow Me,” Jesus told them, “and I will make you fish for people!” Immediately they left their nets and followed Him. (Mark 1:16–18)
Notice particularly what happened in that passage. The call of Jesus went out, and the men dropped their nets. Now I’m sure there’s a practical component to this—they dropped their nets because that’s what they were holding at the time. You can’t really walk off following some random rabbi with a bunch of fishing nets in your hands. Still, it does seem like a strange detail to include in the account. Mark didn’t say, “They shielded their eyes from the sun” or “They took a step out of the boat.”
They dropped their nets. They symbolically left their old way of life. They broke with the past—their past vocation, their sense of self, and their identity— and fully embraced the future. Those nets were the symbols of their livelihood—the very tools they would use to make their way in the world. And they dropped them and instead followed Jesus. That’s what a disciple does.
Disciples recognize the worth and value of the One who calls and see the “nets” in their hands in comparison to Him. They suddenly realize that they have a greater purpose than merely fishing; so they leave and follow Jesus instead. For disciples, following Jesus is both an exit and an entrance; an ending as well as a beginning. They charge off, not knowing exactly what the future entails, but knowing that whatever it is they’ll follow Jesus into it.
That’s how all of us started our life with Christ. And it’s a commitment that we renew day after day, moment by moment. Following Jesus is something that doesn’t only require a piece of a person; it requires the whole of who we are and what we have. It’s an all-the-time thing…
Excerpt taken from my book Boring: Finding an Extraordinary God in an Ordinary Life.
Posted by MK | Filed under Theology
Money is important.
It’s important not only from a pragmatic perspective; it’s more important from a spiritual perspective. Trying to emphasize the discipline and faith aspect of money, we have tried for several years to instill some habits into our children regarding the money they earn and receive for birthdays and Christmas. They know when they get money, it needs to be divided into four major categories: give, save, need, and spend. But they also know that while we as parents get to dictate much of what happens in the first three categories, they have a lot of freedom with their “spend” money.
That freedom is sometimes frustrating as a parent, especially one who has wasted as much money on stupid things as I have over the course of my life. Periodically throughout the year, one of the kids will see something they absolutely have to have. So begins the conversation about value in which I try (unsuccessfully most of the time) to convince them that what they have their heart set on isn’t actually worth it. It’s not as good as they think it’s going to be, and in the end, they’ll wind up not just frustrated, but frustrated and broke.
In other words, what they think is a fish is really a snake. It’s the opposite perspective that Jesus taught in Matthew 7:
“What man among you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask Him!”
Jesus’ point is that God knows what He’s doing. And He is generous. But by implication, He’s also saying that our good Father knows, better than we do, the difference between a fish and a snake. That’s important because often times we do not. And in my more reflective moments, I wonder if at a different level the same conversation happens between me and God that happens between me and my own children. If it does (and I’m pretty sure it does), then it might go something like this:
“Father, I’ve thought a lot about it, and I was wondering if you would give me this thing I see in front of me. I know I’ve asked for a bunch of stuff in the past, but I know this time it’s the right thing. Please… can I have this fish?”
“Son, this is not the best thing for you. I know you think it is, but it’s not. If you could see this from my vantage point you would see that it’s not really a fish at all. It’s a snake.”
“No, it’s not! I know what a snake looks like, and this is not a snake. It’s a fish. And it’s a beautiful and tasty fish. Give it to me! Please!”
“I know, son, that you think it’s a fish. But if you would pause and remember for a moment, you would realize that you’ve made this mistake before. You would have to admit that you tend to mistake snakes for fish from time to time. Trust me – I love you – this is indeed a snake.”
“You say you love me, but you won’t give me something that is clearly the best thing for me. You withhold fish – you don’t give them.”
“It may look like a fish to you. It may smell like a fish to you. It may feel like a fish to you. But I’m the One who made both fish and snakes. And I’m the One who knows the difference between them. And in time, you will see that this is indeed a snake.”
Maybe it sounds a little familiar to you? If it does, then you know how this story ends most of the time. You go and pout and mourn the loss of the thing you were convinced was the absolutely perfect for you. But perhaps today you and I both might be encouraged by the fact that there is one Son of God who didn’t pout. Who didn’t rebel. Instead, He accepted from His Father’s hand that which looked like a snake because He believed His Father when He told Him that it was a fish. Jesus, in the garden, bowed to His Father’s wisdom and said quietly but not easily, “You will be done.”
May it be also so with us, for we have a Father who knows the difference between snakes and fish.