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Deuteronomy 8: The Dangerous Blessing of Prosperity

6So you shall keep the commandments of the LORD your God by walking in his ways and by fearing him. 7For the LORD your God is bringing you into a good land, a land of brooks of water, of fountains and springs, flowing out in the valleys and hills, 8a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey, 9a land in which you will eat bread without scarcity, in which you will lack nothing, a land whose stones are iron, and out of whose hills you can dig copper. 10And you shall eat and be full, and you shall bless the LORD your God for the good land he has given you.

11Take care lest you forget the LORD your God by not keeping his commandments and his rules and his statutes, which I command you today, 12lest, when you have eaten and are full and have built good houses and live in them, 13and when your herds and flocks multiply and your silver and gold is multiplied and all that you have is multiplied, . . . 17Beware lest you say in your heart, ‘My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth.’ 18You shall remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth, that he may confirm his covenant that he swore to your fathers, as it is this day. 19And if you forget the LORD your God and go after other gods and serve them and worship them, I solemnly warn you today that you shall surely perish. 20Like the nations that the LORD makes to perish before you, so shall you perish, because you would not obey the voice of the LORD your God.

After living for forty years in a hot, dry, terrifying wasteland full of deadly snakes and scorpions, the people of God are about to enter the land of promise.  The contrast is huge.  These people were the second generation of Israelites.  They knew nothing but the desert.  Few remembered anything about living in a real town with crops and fruit and plentiful water.  Most had probably never experienced the wonderful things Moses lists: brooks of water, fountains and springs, wheat and barley, vines and fig trees and pomegranates, olive trees and honey, bread without scarcity, plentiful minerals and metals.  “You shall eat and be full” is an unknown experience for these people.  Talk about sensory overload!  They have every reason to “bless the LORD your God for the good land he has given you” (10).

Yet Moses’ very next words are a severe warning of danger: “Take care!”  The dangerous wilderness tempted the people toward sin: fear, anxiety, worry, discontent, complaining, self-protection, self-promotion, turning to other gods whose promises seem better.  We have strong tendencies toward these kinds of sins when we’re going through hard times.  But living in the blessedness of a land of plenty has its own temptations.  Moses describes them thus: you will be tempted to forget the LORD your God (11); you will be tempted to disregard God’s commands (11); you will be tempted toward pride, arrogance, conceit, self-satisfaction, self-sufficiency, self-praise (17-18); you will be tempted to steal the credit for these good things (17); you will be tempted to “go after other gods and serve them and worship them” (19).

Sometimes individuals suffer under hardship.  We need to understand that we also suffer under plenty.  That’s why calling these good things “blessings” can be misleading.  Calling material prosperity a blessing may imply that there is no danger involved, or even that it is a reward for our godliness.  For example, you may hear something like, “America has been greatly blessed because we were founded on Christian principles.”  Oh really?  You think the prosperity of the West has brought only good for Western Christians?  Has our prosperity led us to be more deeply devoted to Christ, more radical in our commitment to his kingdom, more urgent in our proclamation of his gospel, more desperate in our prayers for his help?  Haven’t we plunged into the very sins Moses knew would tempt God’s people as a result of prosperity?  We easily forget the Lord because our situation is not desperate.  We disregard his commands because we don’t seem to suffer many consequences for ignoring them.  We are proud, arrogant, conceited, self-satisfied, self-sufficient, and full of self-praise.  We steal the credit that belongs to God.  We go after, serve, and worship false gods of money, possessions, sex, power, comfort, convenience, religion, etc.

Some of us are going through the desert.  We must recognize the dangers involved and turn to God.  Some of us are enjoying the promised land.  We must also be keenly aware of the dangers involved and turn to God.  In reality, most of us are going through both of these situations at the same time.  Some aspects of our lives are hard; other aspects are “blessed.”  In those areas where we are experiencing prosperity, Moses gives us this instruction: “keep the commandments of the LORD your God by walking in his ways and by fearing him” (6); “bless the LORD your God for the good land he has given you” (10); “Take care lest you forget the LORD your God by not keeping his commandments and his rules and his statutes” (11); “Beware lest you say in your heart, ‘My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth'” (17); “remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth” (18); fear God and repent, recognizing that if you continue to pursue other gods, “you shall surely perish” (19).

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May 15, 2010 Posted by | Bible, God | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Deuteronomy 8: The Trial of Wilderness Wanderings

1The whole commandment that I command you today you shall be careful to do, that you may live and multiply, and go in and possess the land that the LORD swore to give to your fathers. 2And you shall remember the whole way that the LORD your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, that he might humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments or not. 3And he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD . . . 14who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, 15who led you through the great and terrifying wilderness, with its fiery serpents and scorpions and thirsty ground where there was no water, who brought you water out of the flinty rock, 16who fed you in the wilderness with manna that your fathers did not know, that he might humble you and test you, to do you good in the end.

What was it like to wander for forty years through the desert?  What did the people of Israel experience during that time?  What were their emotions like?  Here in Deuteronomy 8, as Moses prepares the people to finally enter the promised land, he tells them that God “led you through the great and terrifying wilderness, with its fiery serpents and scorpions and thirsty ground where there was no water” (15).  Living in a dry, dangerous desert for forty years was terrifying, according to Moses.  The people were assailed daily by fear and anxiety.  There were dangerous animals, dangerous enemy nations, and no food or water.  Yet it was God who led them there.  They weren’t there by accident.  Yes, you could blame the sin of the generation who initially refused to enter the land out of fear.  This time of fearful wandering was a punishment for that sin.  Yet Moses reveals a further divine motive for God’s leading them through this time of trouble.  He says God did it “that he might humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments or not, . . . that he might humble you and test you, to do you good in the end” (2, 16).  God’s purposes were to humble, to test, and to do good in the end.

God’s purpose was to humble and test the people.  Moses focuses on God’s daily provision of manna.  How humbling to admit that you can’t provide for your own family.  You live in a desert where there is no food or water.  No farming land; no crops; no gardens; no orchards; and no grocery stores!  Imagine living in a country where you go to bed each night with an empty pantry, an empty fridge, neighbors who also have no food, the communal food pantries are empty, the grocery stores are empty, and no food is being grown on farms or gardens.  An entire nation of millions with literally no food for the next day!  You have no hope.  You are all going to die.  All you have is one thing: a promise from an invisible being that he will miraculously provide food the next morning.  Humbling?  Testing?  Moses tells the people that it was God who “let you hunger” (3).  Their hunger was part of God’s doing.  It was part of the testing and the humbling.  God wanted them to “know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD” (3; hey, doesn’t Jesus quote this somewhere?).  In this context, the “word” from the LORD by which the people must live is his promise that food will “magically” appear on the ground the next morning.  That’s all they have.  That’s all they can cling to.  They can’t trust in riches or power or status.  They can’t eat any of that.  And they have no stores of food to trust in.  All they have is the promise of God for the next day.  What an amazing and humbling test!  How would I have responded?

This test was “to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments or not” (2).  Did God not know what was in their heart?  Was he really trying to figure something out that he didn’t know?  Of course not.  The ones who needed to know the heart of the people were the people themselves.  God put them through this test so they would know the tendency of their own hearts toward weakness and fear, but also the potential for daily faith.  How could the condition of their hearts be judged?  Not by what they said, but by their actions–their obedience or disobedience to the LORD’s commands.  The heart is always revealed by actions.  The tree is known by its fruit.  What do my actions say about my heart?

Notice that God’s purpose for leading them through a terrifying desert, letting them hunger, and then feeding them daily was “to do you good in the end” (16).  God didn’t just respond to a bad situation they happened to be going through, or one that they or others had put them in; neither did he “allow” them to go through the intense hardship; rather, he actively led them into the wilderness, into the hunger, into the daily terror.  But he did it out of love.  He had their long-term best interests at heart.  You either believe that or you don’t.  It doesn’t make the desert any less hot or terrifying.  It doesn’t make the belly any less hungry.  It doesn’t make the necessity of faith any less difficult.  But it does give at least a glimmer of hope.  And a glimmer is all we need.  Do I believe God’s purposes are good, even when times are hard?

God sometimes leads us through the terrifying desert with its fiery serpents and scorpions and parched ground.  But he does lead us.  He never leaves us.  He leads us in ways that seem harsh and fearful, yet his purposes are actually tender and loving.  He forces us to abandon the fantasy of being able to live life without him (“by bread alone”), and invites us to trust in his promise to provide what we need for the next day: grace, mercy, forgiveness, strength, patience, love.  But he doesn’t give us excess.  Only what we need for the day.  It seems harsh, but he wants us to trust him daily.  And, like the Israelites, we know our own hearts not by how we feel or what we say, but by whether or not we obey him in the wilderness.

May 14, 2010 Posted by | Bible, God | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

New Books!

I had a $50 gift card to LifeWay Bookstore, so I went to the one on campus yesterday and bought some books.  Woo Hoo!  I love books.  I bought one called Justification by N. T. Wright.  He represents a different way of thinking about the apostle Paul and his doctrine of justification than the traditional view.  I’ve heard about the so-called “New Perspective” on Paul and wanted to find out about it.

I also got a book called The End of the Law: Mosaic Covenant in Pauline Theology by Jason Meyer.  It’s about Paul’s view of the Mosaic Covenant in relation to the New Covenant.  He puts his main thesis this way:

“Paul conceives of the Mosaic (old) covenant as fundamentally non-eschatological in contrast to the eschatological nature of the new covenant.  Paul declares that the Mosaic covenant is now old because it belongs to the old age, whereas the new covenant is new because it belongs to the new eschatological age.  This distinction has determinative effects.  The old age is transitory and impotent, and therefore the Mosaic covenant is both transitory and ineffectual.  The new covenant is both eternal and effectual because it belongs to the new age and partakes of the power of the new age, the Holy Spirit.

Another way to state the difference is as follows.  As the eschatological covenant, the new covenant consists of what one could call ‘eschatological intervention,’ while the old covenant does not.  God intervenes through His Spirit in the new eschatological age in order to create what He calls for in the new covenant.  The Mosaic covenant lacked this power to produce what it demanded.  One could illustrate this point in the following poem:

To run and work the law commands,

Yet gives me neither feet nor hands;

But better news the gospel brings:

It bids me fly and gives me wings.”

Good stuff.

February 10, 2010 Posted by | Holy Spirit, Poetry, Theology | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Daily Bible Reading

I bought an Every Day with Jesus Bible: A One-Year Reading Bible published by Holman for $5 yesterday.  It’s the whole Bible, but it’s divided into daily readings so you can read through it in a year.  Each day has an OT reading, a Psalm reading, a Proverbs reading, and a NT reading, about four pages total per day on average.  I started reading it this morning.  Here are a few thoughts:

Exodus 25-26  The Plans for the Tabernacle

God gave very detailed plans to Moses for building the Tabernacle and everything in it.  “Make an ark of acacia wood, 45 inches long, 27 inches wide, and 27 inches high.  Overlay it with pure gold.”  There were many other very specific details, and God said, “Be careful to make everything according to the model of them you have been shown on the mountain.”  I’m not sure what to make of this.  Does it show God’s attention to and care about even small details?  God isn’t just in the big things of life, but the details, also.  Maybe it was important because everything in the Tabernacle was symbolic of some spiritual truth.  Finding symbolism in every detail, however, is speculative, since God doesn’t tell us what the details symbolize (if anything).  Maybe God cared about the asthetics of his Tabernacle.  He wanted it to have a particular look and feel about it, since it was going to be the place of his presence where his people would worship.

Exodus 25:30 “Put the bread of the Presence on the table before Me at all times.”  The tabernacle contained the “bread of the Presence,” symbolizing, I suppose, God’s presence with his people.  Why bread?  It’s interesting that when God’s presence really came to be with us as Jesus, he said “I am the bread of life” (John 6:35).  Jesus is alluding to the manna in the wilderness, but I wonder if there’s also a connection to the bread of God’s presence.

Psalm 20:7-8 “Some take pride in a chariot, and others in horses, but we take pride in the name of the LORD our God.  They collapse and fall, but we rise and stand firm.”  Taking pride in, placing confidence in, or finding security in chariots and horses leads to disaster.  Only God is faithful, firm, and able to make you stand.  All else is weak, temporary, and disappointing as a source of power or security.  God-substitutes will always fail, but God will never fail.  Trust in anything else, and you will ultimately fall.  Trust in God, and you will ultimately stand firm.

February 10, 2010 Posted by | Bible, God | , , , , | Leave a comment

Anthony Norris Groves

For Christmas I finally got my very own copy of the excellent biography of Anthony Norris Groves, called The Father of Faith Missions by Robert Bernard Dann.  You’ve probably never heard of Groves.  I hadn’t until I picked up his biography at random from a church library and began to read.  The book is well written and well researched.  I would normally find a 600 page book impossible to finish, but this was interesting from beginning to end, and I read it quite quickly.  Reading about Groves not only was interesting because of the very different age in which he lived, but it also moved me emotionally and challenged and encouraged me spiritually.

I appreciated especially that Groves was not the usual kind of spiritual giant about whom one reads in missionary biographies.  Groves was originally a dentist in England in the early 1800’s.  He was not a great public speaker.  He was not a great linguist.  He did not oversee any large, successful missionary endeavors.  He considered himself to be a miserable failure in his service to God.  He did not preach to the masses and see thousands saved; neither did he organize extensive networks of churches.

So what did he do?  Groves was a man who endeavored to read his Bible, interpret it faithfully, and do whatever it said.  Out of love for Christ and for the lost, after using up all his possessions for Christ, he and his family traveled to Baghdad in 1829 to be the first modern Western missionaries in the heart of the Muslim world.  Groves went without ordination, without a formal theological degree, without the support of any denomination, relying solely on the Lord and on his personal contacts in England.  After leaving Baghdad, he spent much of his life ministering in India.  Decades before anyone else, he argued against pressuring new converts to conform to a Western form of Christianity.  His study of the Bible led him to refuse ordination from the Anglican church or any denomination, to adopt believer’s baptism, to use all his possession for the work of Christ, and to espouse interdenominationalism.  All of this was extremely radical in Groves’ day.

What do I appreciate most about Groves?  1. His humility and love.  He was an unassuming, unpretentious man who cared more for others than himself.  His enemies could condemn his beliefs, but they always admitted that he personally was a humble, gentle, loving man.  2. The simplicity of his faith and practice.  He studied the Scriptures carefully and practiced what they said, even if it meant abandoning long cherished traditions or suffering the loss of material things.  3. His gracious and merciful heart.  Groves often sought out those who had been rejected by others and gave them another chance.  He never wrote anyone off.  4. The effect of his personal mentoring of other Christians.  This is where Groves excelled and had huge effects on Christian missions for over a century.  I noted earlier that he personally led no great movements, but the effect of his character, teaching, and testimony on other individuals led them to do the “great” things Groves never accomplished.  George Muller married Groves’ sister, and it was through Groves that Muller developed the faith and devotion for which he is famous.  Indian men who were mentored by Groves went on to establish large networks of completely indigenous churches that led thousands to Christ.  Everyone who had personal contact with Groves was challenged and stirred to greater devotion to Christ.  The ripple effects of his character are seen in the ministries of Hudson Taylor, Amy Carmichal, Watchman Nee, Jim Elliot and many others.  All of this not by starting a large movement, but by personal mentoring of individual Christians.

Coming from a separatistic, dispensational background, I found the contrast between John Nelson Darby and Norris Groves very interesting.  At one point in my life, I would have identified with Darby.  I now identify with Groves.  I could go on and on, but I’ll conclude promptly by saying that I really enjoyed Groves’ biography and highly recommend it.

January 1, 2010 Posted by | Biography, Christianity, Missions | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Two Perspectives On Forgiveness

There are two main perspectives on forgiveness: the emotional and the transactional.

The emotional perspective is held by most people in our society and by many Christians.  This view equates forgiveness with a change in emotions.  Forgiveness is giving up emotions of anger, bitterness, or hatred that I hold toward another person.  I have forgiven someone when my emotions toward them change from negative to positive, or at least neutral.  If I say I cannot forgive someone it means I cannot or will not stop feeling negatively toward them.  Usually, Christians who have this understanding of forgiveness believe in unconditional forgiveness.  I should change from anger/bitterness to love/acceptance–i.e., forgive–regardless of whether or not you repent, because it is wrong to harbor anger and bitterness in my heart.

The transactional view is held by far fewer people.  It views forgiveness as a transaction in which you ask for forgiveness and I grant it.  When I grant forgiveness it means I am making a promise or commitment to not bring up your sin to anyone–myself, you, others, or God–for the purpose of seeking justice.  I have forgiven someone when I keep this promise.  If I say I cannot or will not forgive someone, it means I cannot or will not make or keep this commitment to give up my quest for justice in this case. Christians who have this understanding of forgiveness usually view the change in emotions and the making of the forgiveness promise as separate things.  The giving up of anger/bitterness/hatred should be done unconditionally.  The transaction of forgiveness, however–the promise to stop pursuing justice–is conditional on repentance.  If someone refuses to repent, forgiveness should not be granted; that is, justice should be sought.

My view is the second view, the transactional view.  Ephesians 4:31-32 says, “Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice.  Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.”  In these verses, putting away anger, bitterness, slander, and malice is commanded unconditionally.  We are indeed commanded to love our enemies without condition and to love one another as believers.  Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’  But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matt. 5:43-45).  God is our example, and he shows goodwill and love even to undeserving, unrepentant rebels.

But does God forgive undeserving, unrepentant rebels?  No!  God damns them to hell.  In Ephesians 4:32 God is again our example: we are to forgive one another in the same way he forgave us in Christ.  And how did he forgive us in Christ?  In Christ he gives us his promise that he will not “remember” our sins.  This doesn’t mean he forgets things–that’s impossible!  To remember our sins means to bring them to mind for the purpose of holding us accountable.  “Remember not the sins of my youth” (Psalm 25:7).  “Do not remember against us our former iniquities” (Psalm 79:8).  “I, I am he who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins” (Isaiah 43:25).  On the day of judgment, those whom God has forgiven will not get what they deserve (condemnation); they will get mercy.  God will not pursue justice against us for our sins, because Jesus has already taken the punishment we deserved.  God’s forgiveness is a promise that he will do this.  But does he do this unconditionally?  No.  Only those (but all those) who repent are promised forgiveness.

This then is the pattern God teaches us: 1) He is good and kind to all people unconditionally; 2) He only forgives those who repent; 3) He fully forgives all who repent; 4) His forgiveness is a promise to not remember our sins; that is, to not bring them to his mind for the purpose of pursuing justice.

I use the word transaction for this view of forgiveness because it involves an interchange between two people.  One must repent; the other must forgive.  It’s also an appropriate word because Jesus often spoke of forgiveness using financial terms of releasing someone from a debt.  “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matthew 6:12).  “A certain moneylender had two debtors. One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty.  When they could not pay, he cancelled the debt of both. Now which of them will love him more?” (Luke 7:41-43).  Remember also the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant in Matthew 18 in which the servant is forgiven a huge financial debt by his master, then refuses to forgive a small debt owed by a fellow-servant.

I’ve held to this transactional view of forgiveness for many years now, but more recently I’ve come to understand some important points.

1) Forgiveness is not just a one-time transaction in which you promise to not bring up my sin again, end of story.  Rather, it may be a continual, day-to-day mental, emotional, and spiritual struggle to keep that promise.  In that sense, you may have to forgive me every day for the rest of your life, if the offense caused deep enough pain.

2) Continuing to feel hurt or even angry at times is not necessarily a sin.  Jesus felt both sorrowful and angry at times.  If someone has committed a severe injustice, it may be appropriate to have some sense of anger about what happened.  It may also be appropriate to feel emotional pain.  If, for instance, someone molested and killed your child and later repented and asked for forgiveness, you could make a commitment to them that you will not bring up their sin to yourself, them, or others for the purpose of seeking justice, but it would be entirely appropriate to feel pain and even some anger when you think about what happened.  You are never going to forget what happened, but you can come to the place where you treat the offender with love rather than justice.  Note: not personally seeking justice does not mean not allowing the government to pursue justice.  That is the government’s God-ordained role.  The state is not the church and is not required to forgive offenders; on the contrary, the state is to punish offenders (see Romans 13).

3) While I think the transactional view is biblical, it can be cold and harsh in the hands of one who loves the biblical ideal more than he loves people.  This is true of any biblical truth, but it is especially damaging in regard to the truth of forgiveness, since strong emotions are often involved.  Compassion for those who are hurting leads us to be patient with them, giving them time to work through their emotions and deal with their pain and anger.  Insisting that people bypass the process of working through emotions and simply conform to the ideal immediately is not loving or realistic.  It will not help anyone and will only lead to further pain.  The critical thing is that the offended person is committed to forgiving, even if they struggle daily to do so.  The struggle is okay; indeed, it is sometimes necessary.

November 25, 2009 Posted by | Emotions, God, Relationships | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment