Thursday, May 31, 2012

All things for good?

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. And we know that for those who love God ALL THINGS WORK TOGETHER FOR GOOD, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he PREDESTINED he also CALLED, and those whom he called he also JUSTIFIED, and those whom he justified he also GLORIFIED (Rom 8:26-30).

What exactly does it mean that "all things work together for good?" Can we expect our circumstances to turn to from bad to good? Can we count on our circumstances to at least eventually improve, maybe not in quite the way we picture them improving but improve nonetheless?

It’s interesting that God inspired the Apostle Paul to write Romans 8:28 because it was Paul who said:

Five times I received from the Jews thirty-nine lashes. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, a night and a day I have spent in the deep. I have been on frequent journeys, in dangers from rivers, dangers from robbers, dangers from my countrymen, dangers from the Gentiles, dangers in the city, dangers in the wilderness, dangers on the sea, dangers among false brethren; I have been in labor and hardship, through many sleepless nights, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure (2 Cor. 11:24-27).

It was also Paul who plead three times with our Lord to fix his “thorn in the flesh” (2 Cor 12:7-8). But God didn't say to him, “Whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith.” Instead, He told him “My grace is sufficient for you” and “…My strength is made perfect in weakness...” (2 Cor. 12:9).

It seems to me that Paul’s whole attitude about suffering changed as a result of this prayer experience because He says that he learned to “take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ's sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong (2 Cor. 12:10).”

Instead of grumbling at his infirmities, he boasted in them. Not vainly or morbidly, but “for Christ’s sake he had suffered the loss of all things.” In fact, he described them as “light affliction which is for the moment, working for us more and more exceedingly an eternal weight of glory,” and continues, “while we look, not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal (2 Cor. 4:17, 18)." And, "...I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us”(Rom. 8:18).

Then in Philippians 4:11-13 he says, “Not that I speak from want, for I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am. I know how to get along with humble means, and I also know how to live in prosperity; in any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of being filled and going hungry, both of having abundance and suffering need. I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.”

So looking at Paul's life, the "for good" in Romans 8:28 does not necessarily mean our circumstances will improve, because they may well not. What does it mean, then?

The context tells us that the "for good" is according to God's will, and that the Holy Spirit intercedes for us in accordance with His will — because we don't even know how to pray. Well that's certainly true. We pray for healing when it is far better to be at home with the Lord; we pray for needed jobs and think God has abandoned us when we don't receive them; we pray for deliverance from all sorts of problems and when they're not removed, wonder if God even cares. Not that we shouldn't pray for these things, of course, because we're told to pray about anything and everything (Phil 4:6-8). But the fact is, we always want God to fix our problems, when what He wants to show us is the sufficiency of His grace, and His power working within us, conforming us more and more into the likeness of His Son (Gal 5:22-23).

"All things for good", then, doesn't mean that all things will be good in this life — or that our circumstances in this life will improve — but that God is working through all things to our benefit.

Predestined, called, justified, glorified — may we too, like Paul, learn to look beyond our circumstances to Christ and our home beyond, and rejoice in the glory to which He calls us.

Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen (Eph 3:20-21).

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Agree to pray believing... (cont)

Though no one may dare limit what God will do for the believer today, we need to realize that in this age of grace, we live by faith not by sight, and that ours is a higher privilege as those “who have not seen and yet have believed (John 20:29).” If everything we asked for was given to us, faith would sink to a lower level, and the whole standard and character of the believer's walk would be altered. In fact, when we look at Paul’s life, we see that the sufferings toward the end of his life show a higher faith than the miracles of his earlier ministry.**

Would receiving everything we ask for even be good for us in “this present evil age? (Gal 1:4)” Just think of all the trouble we’d get ourselves into! But the wonderful fact is that we have far more than this now.

Romans 8:26 tells us:

...we do not know what to pray for as we ought...

Paul goes on to explain that the Spirit makes intercession for us according to the will of God, adding:

And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose (Rom 8:28).

We know that "the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now, and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies" (Rom 8:22-23) but few of us appreciate the fact that the Holy Spirit groans with us in our present state. He sympathizes deeply and "intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words" (Rom 8:26). In this way, God, by His Spirit, comes alongside us to help.

It's true we don't receive whatever we ask for in the darkness of this age, but...

...God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work (2 Cor 9:8). His grace we have so much more than this, that Paul proclaims:

Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen (Eph 3:20-21)

The highest expression of faith today can be found in Philippians 4:6-8:

Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God (Phil 4:6).

"And" what? And "Whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith"


And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus (Phil 4:7).

Here's plenty of proof that God has not closed His ears to our cries today. He has not abandoned us. Rather, He urges us to pour out our hearts to Him, to tell Him everything, and not to worry about anything, because He will work all things together for good.

So don't be anxious. Instead, pray about everything — and then think about good things!

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things (Phil 4:8).

**Who can fail to notice the difference between the earlier and later chapters of the book of Acts? In the beginning of Acts, we see the apostles performing extraordinary miracles in Christ’s name, and “to the Jew first” is stamped on every page. When Paul comes on the scene in the middle of Acts, he too performs many miracles, and it was by divine appointment that he went first to “the chief of the Jews” in every place he visited. I believe that the purpose of miracles in the NT was to accredit the Messiah to Israel (or the messenger bringing a message), and not, as generally supposed, to accredit Christianity to the world (Lk19:36-38; Jn 2:11; 10:25, 32, 38; 14:11; 15:24; 2 Cor 12:12). That men were relieved of their sufferings was a loving byproduct, not the main purpose for these miracles. Therefore, as the Jews continued to reject their Messiah and the gospel went out to the Gentiles, miracles greatly decreased and soon entirely ceased.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Agree to pray believing...

I often hear (and read) that we must agree to pray believing we are going to receive or it's no good, that we won't get what we ask for. But is this true? Are we really not getting what we request because we're not agreeing and/or praying with enough faith?  No, I don't believe this is the case at all.

What about such plain passages as these, then:

Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours (Mk 11:24).

And whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith (Matt 21:22).

Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven (Matt 18:19).

Amazing promises, aren’t they. "WHATEVER—you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith"! "If two of you agree on earth about ANYTHING THEY ASK, it will be done for them..."!

Many sincere believers have been encouraged by these verses to expect physical healing, a much needed job, and solutions to all sorts of problems in answer to their prayers. Yet who can deny that many godly people, claiming these promises in simple faith, have been deeply disappointed to find their requests ungranted? Such experiences can, and do, leave deep scars. In fact, one of my close friends from church, who is currently going through a very difficult time, tells me she feels that God has abandoned her.

So how can we explain this seeming failure on God’s part to keep His word?

The answer is largely one of progressive revelation. God has not abandoned my good friend. The promises quoted above weren't made to us in the first place, and we have no right to claim them.  They were made to Israel.

The fact is, the "whatever" promises are found in only one small portion of the Bible and deal with our Lord's earthly ministry (though they are alluded to in the Hebrew epistles). Never in the Old Testament, or in Paul's epistles do we find that "whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours." 

Why is this? Simply because these promises had to do with the establishment of Christ's kingdom on earth. They were being proclaimed as part of “the gospel of the kingdom.”  In other words, these will be the conditions during our Lord's reign on earth.  And in the gospels (and first part of Acts), the kingdom was being preached “at hand” (Matt 4:17)

Prayer has undergone several important changes since then. For example, the death, resurrection and ascension of Christ affected it significantly. It was in view of His ascension that He said:

Until now you have asked nothing in my name. Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full (Jn 16:24).

Even though this statement was also made with the kingdom in view, it was from this time on that they were to begin praying to the Father in Christ's name. Today prayer is to be offered to the Father, in the name of the Son and "in the Holy Spirit" (Jn 16:24; Eph 3:14; 6:18).

Also, prayer in Israel was based upon a covenant relationship with God, while prayer in the Body of Christ is based solely upon God's grace through the cross-work of Christ.

By grace we, the members of Christ's Body, have a closer relationship to God than Israel of old had. While Israel was called to make God's name great in the earth, our position is in the heavenlies at the right hand of God (Eph 1:3; 2:4-6; Phil 3:20). And even though Satan tries to keep us from occupying that position experientially (Eph 6:10-17), we have a right to occupy it and are told to do so (Col 3:1-2). So, positionally we are seated in the heavenlies, while experientially we have "access by faith into this grace in which we stand" (Rom 5:2; cf Eph 2:18).

(to be continued)

Sunday, May 27, 2012

1 Corinthians 3:12-13

Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw—each one's work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done.

"Wood, hay, and stubble symbolize anything subversive to the truth—doctrinally or in works.  A program set up through the wisdom of men, worldly ways and carnality, tends to detract from the power of the Word of God, which is the power of the Gospel that brings salvation. We are kept by the power of God; we overcome by faith, faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God.  Therefore if Satan can substitute the wisdom and ways of men and the methods of the world for the Word, he will not only damn souls who are not born again, but he will also render worthless the believer who remains a babe in Christ, never growing in grace and in the knowledge of the Lord and Saviour—for such a Christian will never become a vessel unto honor nor a good soldier of the cross."

- O.B. Green in The First Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Blue Like Jazz

Another pop culture book I read on my recent reading jag was Blue Like Jazz.  A New York Times bestseller written by Donald Miller, I was curious what all the hubbub was about.  He makes a few good points, and I'll list them, but I see this book a little differently than a lot of people out there because overall I was unimpressed.

Donald is right on the money when he says that we love God because He first loved us, and that it's because of His love for us, and consequently our love for Him**, that we obey Him.  This is taken right out of Scripture itself (1 Jn 4:19; Titus 2:11-12).

"Rick says that I will love God because he first loved me.  I will obey God because I love God.  But if I cannot accept God's love, I cannot love Him in return, and I cannot obey Him.  Self-discipline will never make us feel righteous or clean; accepting God's love will.  The ability to accept God's unconditional grace and ferocious love is all the fuel we need to obey Him in return.  Accepting God's kindness and free love is something the devil does not want us to do.  If we hear, in our inner ear, a voice saying we are failures, we are losers, we will never amount to anything, this is the voice of Satan trying to convince the bride that the groom does not love her.  This is not the voice of God.  God woos us with kindness, He changes our character with the passion of His love." (pg 86)

Then again toward the end of his book he says this:

"And so I have come to understand that strength, inner strength, comes from receiving love as much as it comes from giving it.  I think apart from the idea that I am a sinner and God forgives me, this is the greatest lesson I have ever learned.  When you get it, it changes you.  My friend Julie from Seattle told me that the main prayer she prays for her husband is that he will be able to receive love.  And this is the prayer I pray for all my friends because it is the key to happiness.  God's love will never change us if we don't accept it." (page 232)

Donald get more points, from me anyway, when he talks about the typical 'Trendy Writer" on pages 91-94 of his book:

"Trendy Writer talked about how Khwaja Khandir is his fishing guide.  He described Khwaja Khandir as the Islamic version of the Holy Spirit: Khwaja Khandir tells him where the fish are and teaches him things about life like how to manage his money or achieve inner peace or please his wife.  It was all hokey and hoo-ha.  I felt as if I were being visited by the ghost of Christmas future, and the ghost was saying, 'Hey, Don, you're going to end up like this guy: A yuppie Christian writer with no backbone!' ... For me, Trendy Writer coming to town was the beginning of something.  It was the beginning of my authentic Christianity.  Trendy Writer, Khwaja Khandir, and Tony the Beat Poet were the seeds of change.  I knew Christ, but I was not a practicing Christian.  I had the image of a spiritual person, but I was bowing down to the golden cows of religiosity and philosophy.  It was one of those enlightenments, one of those honest looks in the mirror in which there is no forgetting who you are.  It was a moment without make-believe.  After that moment, things started to get interesting."

I couldn't agree more.  Why are so many Christians taken with every trendy book or speaker that comes along?  Ironically, though, I put Blue Like Jazz in the "trendy pile." 

Why?  If you look closely you'll notice that Donald never really defines what "a spiritual person" or "Christian spirituality" (subtitle of his book) is.  He comes close on page 57, "And I love this about Christian spirituality.  It cannot be explained, and yet it is beautiful and true.  It is something you feel, and it comes from the soul." and on page 103, "I don't believe I will ever walk away from God for intellectual reasons. Who knows anything anyway? If I walk away from Him, and please pray that I never do, I will walk away for social reasons, identity reasons, deep emotional reasons, the same reasons that any of us do anything."  Then at the end of his book (page 239) he says, "I think Christian spirituality is like jazz music. I think loving Jesus is something you feel. I think it is something very difficult to get on paper." 

Do you see it?  Donald's idea of spirituality is all feelings-based. What a scary place to be!  Emotions and feelings change constantly.  They should never be the driving force behind what we do or don't do.  Donald is putting the cart before the horse. True Christian spirituality is based on faith in what God says is true.  In other words, it's taking God at His Word.  When we're in the Word, believing the Word, looking at the world through "Word-colored glasses," living out the Word, that's true Christian spirituality.  The Word is the horse, feelings are the cart — they come after because the Word is pulling them along, keeping them on the right track.

Basing everything on feelings is typical of post-modern thinking: You come up with a list of things that you think are necessary to follow — what feels right to you — and the rest doesn't matter. And if someone should happen to call you on anything you're believing or doing, well they're just being judgmental and unloving (chapters 12 and 18).  Basically, it boils down to this: It doesn't really matter what you believe (because "who knows anything anyway") or how you live, just as long as you're following Jesus (and whatever that happens to look like to you).

The ramifications of this kind of thinking are even more troubling.  If, as Donald says, Christianity should be replaced with Christian spirituality ...

"For me, the beginning of sharing my faith with people began by throwing out Christianity and embracing Christian spirituality, a nonpolitical mysterious system that can be experienced but not explained" (pg 115).

... which to him is all about experiences and what you feel (because nobody "knows anything anyway"), ...

"At the end of the day, when I am lying in bed and I know the chances of any of our theology being exactly right are a million to one, I need to know that God has things figured out, that if my math is wrong we are still going to be okay. And wonder is that feeling we get when we let go of our silly answers, our mapped out rules that we want God to follow" (pg 205).

... then Scripture is no longer authoritative — experiences and feelings are.  Another reviewer of Blue Like Jazz explains this particularly well:

"A million to one is very low odds that "any" of our theology is right. What about the theology of the atonement? Is our chance of understanding that a million to one? What about the theology of Jesus Christ's return? Can we possibly know whether or not He is coming back? And what about the theology of biblical inerrancy? Can we even trust the Bible? With the odds Miller suggests, no, we can trust nothing about God's Word at all. Praise God, that Miller's odds are completely wrong!"

**There are two words for love in the original Greek Scriptures — phileo and agapePhileo means "to be a friend to (fond of [an individual or an object]), i.e., have affection for (denoting personal attachment, as a matter of sentiment or feeling); agape means "love, i.e., affection or benevolence — embracing especially the judgment and the deliberate assent of the will as a matter of principle, duty and propriety — the former [phileo] being chiefly of the heart and the latter [agape] of the head."  In other words, agape love is not just a feeling, it's also a decisionAgape love is the only love believers are instructed to have for God.

Friday, May 4, 2012

The Hunger Games Trilogy

I've been on a reading jag lately, catching up on some pop culture reading.  It seems that ever since the movie The Hunger Games came out, everybody's been talking about it.  So I decided to read the book.  I wasn't sure I'd like it going in because it really isn't written for my age group.  But I enjoyed it.  If fact I enjoyed it so much, I ended up reading the other two books in the trilogy as well.

The Hunger Games trilogy are young adult books by Suzanne Collins.  They are written from the perspective of 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen, who lives in a post-apocalyptic world in the country of Panem where the countries of North America once existed. The Capitol, a highly advanced city, dominates and rules over the rest of the nation. To maintain its iron grip, the Capitol holds an annual event called The Hunger Games, to which each of the 12 districts surrounding the Capital must send one boy and one girl aged 12-18 to compete in a televised battle until only one person is left.

The 12 districts rise up and overthrow the Capitol by the end of the third book, and Katniss and Peeta marry and have children.  Still the story ends on a rather sad note because Katniss is afraid their peaceful lives won't last, that The Hunger Games and war will begin again. 

Interestingly, toward the end of the story the author has Katniss asking Plutarch if he's preparing for another war to which Plutarch replies, "Oh, not now. Now we're in that sweet period where everyone agrees that our recent horrors should never be repeated," he says. "But collective thinking is usually short-lived. We're fickle, stupid beings with poor memories and a great gift for self-destruction. Although who knows? Maybe this will be it, Katniss." "What?" I ask. "The time it sticks. Maybe we are witnessing the evolution of the human race. Think about that."

Is this what we're all waiting for — the evolution of the human race into something better?  Wishful thinking, that, because the Bible tells us a different story.  Man is fallen; he cannot improve.  That's why we so desperately need a Savior.