Archive for October, 2009

A Psalm of Two Ways — Psalm 1

A World Without Uniforms (v. 1):

Wouldn’t it be nice if the good guys really wore white hats and the bad guys really wore black hats?  It would make the application of the Psalm 1 (and many other portions of Scripture) so much easier.  The problem is that the line between good and evil goes straight down the middle of the human heart (credit to Alexander Solzhenitsyn).  So as we seek to apply Psalm 1, we cannot take a strictly us-versus-them approach.  As Pogo said, “We have seen the enemy and he is us.”  As you seek to apply this psalm consider:

  • What is your counsel of the wicked; both what you are prone to believe and what you dispense as “common sense”?
  • What is your way of sinners?  In your journey with Christ, which detours from the straight and narrow have trouble growing grass from frequent trodding?
  • Where is your seat of mockers?  What do you find delight or humor in that is not in keeping with the character and delight of God?

The goal of these questions is not guilt but delight.  Until we take the time to examine our heart we will miss out on what God declares “blessed.”  We will be settling for second best.  As C.S. Lewis rightly declared, “We are far too easily pleased.”

Fads of Chaff

Don’t we all have a love/hate relationship with old pictures?  The nostalgia is wonderful.  The fashion is dreadful.  But we cling to the axiom, “All fashion eventually comes back in style!”  Awkwardly, this is the message of Psalm 1.

The wicked are like chaff.  They are blown away quickly.  Yet the mere fact that the Bible so frequently addresses the same errors of folly and rebellion indicates that they (too) quickly come back in vogue.

This is true of cultures, generations, and individuals.  We are foolish.  Hence, we need a wisdom psalm like this one.  Our foolishness brings large scale life disruption (God’s judgment—whether it be natural consequence or divine retribution).  Yet we disgustingly return to our folly (Proverbs 26:11).

Our goal is to finally learn from our folly and God’s judgment so that we learn to love God’s wisdom over our folly (the message of Psalm 1).  Use the following reflective questions to help you make application of Psalm 1.

  • Make a list of your bad choices.  Divide them into three headings: (1) All time greats; (2) day-to-day misdemeanors; and (3) I still don’t understand why it doesn’t work.
  • Examine the list to determine the common lies embedded in these choices or common objects of pursuit in those choices.
  • Study to determine the truths that counter the lies or the way God intends to meet those desires.
  • Be honest with God about your doubts about His ways and ask that He change your heart.
  • Confide in a trusted, mature Christian friend of the same gender regarding the commitments you are making (Hebrews 3:12-13).

Introduction to the “Living Our Faith” series.

A Psalm for the Afflicted Soul — Psalm 102

Thoughts on Teaching Psalm 102:

This psalm is as awkward as the subject and experience of suffering.  It begins desperate and then quickly plunges into despair.  The despair is self-loathing, full of self-pity, and bears many marks of deep depression (changes in eating habits, sleeping patterns, intense isolation, and a world reduced to the size of one’s suffering).  As abruptly as the psalm plunges, it emerges in tones of great hope and faith.  However, this faith is awkwardly third person.  The first person pronouns prominent in verses 1-11 are completely absent in verses 12-22.  It is as if the author lives in two mental worlds—one with hope (theology and the future of Jerusalem); one without (personal).  Finally, verses 23-28 make some effort at bringing these two worlds together.  Yet these connections are not as neat and satisfying as the writer would seem to like.

When teaching Psalm 102, I would advise not trying to make it neater than it is.  Point out the disjointedness as part of God’s awareness and compassion for those who suffer.  God included words that match how we think when we suffer in Scripture.  There is a real tension that exists as we live in between the “already” and the “not yet” of God’s work in history.  One of the great comforts of Psalm102 is not its answers to hard questions, but how it relates to our struggle to bring Truth and life into harmony.

Similarly Constructed Passage:

When trying to understand and apply a passage that “wanders” like Psalm 102 it can be helpful to study a passage that follows a similar pattern.  In this case Lamentations 3:4-26 follows a similar pattern.  In this passage Jeremiah (the author of Lamentations) begins by describing his suffering and despair (v. 4-20).  The description is vivid and intense.  Then there is an abrupt change (v. 21) before the listing of many truths (v. 22-26).  In this passage I believe we can see clearly that Jeremiah “calls to mind (v. 21)” those truths and attributes of God that his suffering most caused him to question.  As modern readers, we take comfort in seeing that even the great prophet Jeremiah wrestled with his own mind to affirm and cling to the same truths that we question in our suffering.

If this parallel between Psalm 102 and Lamentations 3 is accurate, it causes us to ask this question, “What truths and attributes of God in 102:12-22 did the experiences of 102:1-11 cause him to question and how is he finding comfort from those in 102:23-28?”  As we answer this question, we will (at least) find a pattern for our troubled heart to follow and probably much regarding how God comforts us in our hardships.

Three Dots with Dotted Lines

Psalm 102 is not neat.  It contains despair (v. 1-11), hope-filled truth (v. 12-22), and some attempts at connections of comfort (v. 23-28).  The psalmist, like us, is not able to connect the dots as well as he would like.  Use the three column chart below to organize Psalm 102.  When you face personal times of despair or affliction you can use a similar chart to try to maintain hope and perspective during times of intense, disorienting suffering.

Evidences of Despair & Suffering
(Verses 1-11)

Truths Concerning God’s Activity
(Verses 12-22)

Comfort Connections between
Truths and Suffering
(Verses 23-28)

Introduction to the “Living Our Faith” series.

A Psalm for the Soul that Envies the World — Psalm 73

Outline of Psalm 73:

v. 1-3 – Asaph summarizes what the entire psalm is about.
v. 4-14 – Asaph tells of his thoughts when he envied the world and questioned God’s justice.
v. 15-22 – Asaph tells of the truths and process by which God brought him to his senses.
v. 23-28 – Asaph testifies to the superiority of God’s presence and guidance to the temporal pleasures that once led his heart to question God.

Modern Question in Light of Psalm 73:

Have you ever questioned the fairness of God as you considered the person who comes to faith on their deathbed after living their life exactly as they wanted their entire life?  Did you feel cheated as you recounted the things you have sacrificed and the conviction you received for having done the same things; yet they get to experience the same heaven?  These question parallel Psalm 73.

The problem with the questions above is that they assume the “good life” is based upon temporal freedom and liberty of conscience.  The discontentment is rooted in the lie of Genesis 3 – God is holding out on us and we could do a better job of defining good and evil for ourselves. Too often we view conviction and restriction as a bad thing.

Consider your initial response to the questions above.  How much do they parallel Psalm 73:4-14?  Read Psalm 73:15-28 and ask God to shape your heart in the same way that He shaped the heart of Asaph.

When I Tried to Understand… It was Oppressive to Me

The big battle of Psalm 73 is trusting God when the world seemingly does not play by God’s system of blessing and curses.  As we see in Asaph the twin temptations during these times are envy towards the world (v. 3) and bitterness towards God (v. 21).

As Asaph wrestled with this question it overwhelmed him (v. 16) and has many others since Asaph.  As we wrestle with similar questions in our day, it is important that we ask ourselves good questions so that our answers point us to greater trust in God.  Read through the list of question below twice.  First, answer the questions from your common experience.  Second, answer the questions with the insight you glean from Psalm 73.

  • Where do you see the “bad guys” winning and the “good guys” losing?
  • How does this make you question the fairness, power, or presence of God?
  • Where does this disparity tangibly touch your life?
  • What is the “good thing(s)” that the bad guys get and you are withheld?
  • What emotions do you feel stemming from this disparity?
  • How do you act in light of the emotions you feel?
  • Who is affected by these actions?
  • What values may be exaggerated or distorted by your (possible) fixation on this good thing?
  • How would changing these values also change your emotions?
  • What actions would change as your values and emotions changed?
  • Who would be blessed as a result of these changes?
  • How have you come to understand and trust God more in light of these reflections

Introduction to the “Living Our Faith” series.

A Psalm for the Fearful Soul — Psalm 56

Points of Resonation:

Where does this psalm speak of difficult things you can relate to?  As you look over the experiences found in Psalm 56, where/when do you experience these kinds of things?

v. 1 – being attacked by others
v. 2 – slander from prideful people
v. 3 – fear
v. 5 – having your words distorted
v. 6 – people looking for an opportunity to take advantage of you
v. 8 – seeking comfort from God
v. 9 – looking for confirmation from God
v. 11 – having to remind myself of God’s truth during hardship

It is important for us to not just learn from the psalms, but also to identify with them.  God gives us the Psalms as a way to put our difficult experiences into words (one way that God fulfills His promise in Romans 8:26-27).  Now that you have identified where Psalm 56 intersects with your life, walk with David as he seeks to trust God in the midst of fearful circumstances.

When I Am Afraid…

Often we view our moment of temptation as everything that happens before we become fearful or anxious.  Our tendency can be to believe that once we have given into fear that we have lost.  All that is left to do now is to repent and wait for the next opportunity to trust God (and “do better next time”).

This is not the perspective of Psalm 56:3.  As David faces fear, we do not hear the tones of shame at failure, but opportunity – “When I am afraid, I will trust in you.”  David did not view his current fear as a violation of Philippians 4:6 (not that it had been written yet), because he recognized that where he turned during his fear was what mattered.  Where we turn in our fear is what reveals what we truly trust.

Use the following questions to assist you to avoid a sense of shame and failure during moments of fear and anxiety.  The goal of these questions is to provide you with the insight to fulfill I Peter 5:7 – “Cast all your anxiety on [God] because He cares for you.”

  • What is it that is (i.e., people or events) making you afraid or anxious?
  • What is it that these people or events might take from you?
  • What does this thing mean to you?  What makes it so significant?
  • Where is God in the midst of this situation?
  • Who is God in reference to this predicament?
  • What has God promised regarding these matters?
  • What does faith in God look like in this situation?
  • In what aspects of this situation does God call you to rest in His provision/protection?
  • In what aspects of this situation does God call you to wise obedience and action?

Introduction to the “Living Our Faith” series.

Teachers Equipping Ministers Through Prayer Time

Most Sunday School classes, small groups, and other Bible studies begin (or end) with a time of shared prayer requests and prayer.  This is more than routine and meeting spiritual expectations.  It is a recognition that information alone (even biblical information) does not change our hearts—God does. It is also a recognition that we were made for relationship with God and that to study God’s Word without consulting the Author is like buying your children battery operated toys for Christmas and not getting batteries.

I believe more can be done during these prayer times to fulfill the model of church leadership found in Ephesians 4:11-13:

And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.

I would like to propose the following steps be taken regular by those who teach in order to more effectively make their teaching a time of equipping the saints for the work of ministry.

1. When preparing the lesson, identify the core life struggles to which the passage speaks (i.e., suffering, communication, hope, love, forgiveness, etc…).

2. When you ask for prayer requests ask for the class to consider prayer requests that emerge from that area of life struggle.  With this you are preparing the class to reflect on the areas of their life to which they will make application.

3. Provide the class with a “Prayer Request Journal” page to record prayer requests in the class.  This will enhance the expectancy with which requests are given and is very important if members are truly going to minister to “one another” (Gal 6:2).

4. Ask the class to keep the journal in their Bibles and review it as they have their times of personal devotion.  This again raises the level of expectancy that prayer requests will be regularly prayed over.

5. Ask the class to write one letter, note, or e-mail that seeks to encourage another member of the class with a portion of the lesson.  This repetition increases learning.  It also places the class in both the position of student/learner and teacher/minister.

6. Ask the class to seek to follow up in one practical way per week to a prayer request given in the class.  As they pray for the request, if an idea comes to mind, they can write it on the “Follow Up” line beneath the request.  Once they follow through on God’s prompting there is even a nice box to check :-)

I hope this serves as an enriching part of your teaching experience.  One of the marks of good teaching is that it raises up new leaders and creates a context for each person to utilize his/her gifts.

SIDE NOTE:  If you use the PDF handouts for the Bible Study Application Supplements found in this blog, then you can print the handout on the back of the “Prayer Request Journal.”  This makes for an efficient use of paper (very important for cultural relevance these days) and places another ministry tool in the hands of those you are called to equip as they pray over one another’s struggles.