Archive for February, 2010

God Responds to Suffering & Fear – Exodus 3

When We Groan God Hears (2:23)

Israel had reason to doubt the effectiveness of God’s ears.  They had been suffering for some time.  Their suffering began before Moses was a baby.  By the time we get to verse 23 Moses has grown up in Pharaoh’s house, become aware of the injustice, killed a man in rage, ran to the desert, learned to be a shepherd, married, had children, and grown comfortable with his life.  That is a long time to suffer and pray.

Exodus 2 answers the questions on the heart of Israel, “Does God really care?  Does God express His care by listening? If He does listen, is He capable of freeing us from this powerful oppression in a land full of other gods?”  As we will see in our study of Exodus, they hoped “yes” but feared/believed “no.”

Preparing to Study Exodus:  As you prepare for this study, read it as much from the vantage point of Israel (the delivered) as Moses (the deliverer).  This will help alleviate the self-righteousness we so easily fall into as we read their doubting, fear, and fickleness.  Reflect on the life they have lived for many generations and that the current generation had experienced for several decades.  Then reflect on the besetting struggles of your life (both sin and suffering).  As you study Exodus, walk with Israel on their journey from slavery to freedom.

Who Am I?

When presented with the greatest challenge of his life, Moses asked a very natural question, “Who am I (Exodus 3:11)?”  God could have answered Moses directly, “Moses, you are the only Jew who has access to the throne room of Pharaoh by virtue of being his adopted son and the only Jew who has learned to navigate the desert by being shepherd since the rest have been brick-building slaves.  That is who you are and why I have chosen you.”

Instead, God simply said, “I will be with you (Exodus 3:12).”  In effect, God is saying, “Although I have sufficiently equipped you to carry out the task set before you, the task is not primarily about you.  You will not be the one who delivers the people, you will simply be my ambassador to Pharaoh.”  God sought to deliver Moses from his insecurities by changing Moses’ focal point.  Like us, Moses was not immediately cooperative with this change.

Use the following questions to help you make application of this dialogue between God and Moses.

  • What challenges are you currently facing for which you feel inadequate (Exodus 3:10)?
  • How has God proven himself faithful with comparable issues (Genesis 12-50)?
  • What life experiences do you have that have prepared you for this moment (Exodus 1-2)?
  • Who else has been praying for this life challenge (Exodus 2:23)?
  • How are you currently framing this challenge that highlights your inadequacies (Exodus 3:11)?
  • What promises from God are you doubting through your fear (Exodus 3:12)?

In light of these personal reflections, return to the words of God to Moses and take comfort, “I will be with you.”  Notice that in light of Moses’ fear and doubt that God comforts by reaffirming His presence.  These are not only words to change Moses’ focal point but to calm his fearful heart.

What’s In A Name? (v. 15)

Do you find it odd (as I do) that God created people, related to them personally, and directed them through centuries of history before He told them His name (Yahweh – LORD)?  That is a long time to relate on the basis of an informal title (Elohim – God).

Assuming God’s timing is perfect, we must ask, “Why wait?”  I do not believe the answer has anything to do with God being insecure or coy.  The answer is more likely to be found in man’s ability to understand and receive the significance of God’s name.  Until God’s people had lived for centuries, in both good and bad times, had a collective identity, and lived in various locations they would not understand the full meaning of this name.

Reflection: Begin with Abraham and reflect on the history of God’s people up until Exodus 3.  Then also consider what they will experience in the coming weeks and months.  How would this moment be ideal for them to more fully grasp the significance of God as the “Great I AM” (Yahweh) – transcending time, space, power, and authority while still being personal enough to have a name and being willing to share it?  That same God invites you to know Him by name in the midst of your challenges as well.

Introduction to the “Living Our Faith” series.

Jesus at the Cross — Mark 15

Wanting to Satisfy the Crowd (v. 15)

We must be careful how quickly we vilify Pilate.  His sin may only be larger because of a difference his opportunity from ours, not a difference in his heart from ours.  Place yourself in his shoes.  The man tried.  He listened to Jesus.  Pilate was fair-minded with Jesus – he found no fault.  He offered a lopsided alternative to swing the scales in the direction of justice.  The people just would not be satisfied.

There was pressure beyond the “public opinion polls.”  Social disturbances could result in his being removed from office by the Romans.  He was catching it from below and above, politically speaking.  This was not mere insecurity.

Reflection:  The goal here is not to say, “We are just as bad as Pilate;” which is true.  The goal is to see the fierce context into which obedience and faith call us.  As we will see in the next heading, temptation requires overcoming these kinds of situations.  It calls for a wisdom that is beyond our ingenuity (do you have a “neat” answer for Pilate?).  Let us never forget our utter dependence upon God and our perfect model in Christ for living our the truth we have in Scripture.

Tempted in Every Way – Mocking (v. 20, 31)

When Hebrews 4:15 says that Jesus was tempted in every way we are, but managed to live without sin it refers in part to this passage.  Jesus faced the derision of those he came to save.  Those he was preparing to die for were presently mocking him.

Who hasn’t said, “I do and I do and this is the thanks I get!” or “Do you even notice all that I do to make your life easier/better?”  In these moments we even begin to question that fairness of God.  Why doesn’t God do something about this?  Doesn’t God see what is going on?

This reflection does not necessarily mean that you just need to suck it up and keep giving.  I don’t know the circumstances of your sacrifice.  It is meant to help you see that you are not alone.  Often it is the sense of isolation in these struggles that cause us to hyper-personalize our situation and respond with greater anger, despair, or self-pity.  Allow this passage to give you companionship in your sacrifice so you can think more clearly about what is most wise and God-honoring in your circumstance.

Using the Psalms Like Jesus

Jesus teaches us (and not just saves us) in his death.  In his greatest moment of agony (physical, spiritual, emotional, mental) he reached to the psalms to bring meaning to the suffering beyond understanding.

In the midst of suffering we may be too quick to quote Romans 8:28, not recognizing that God through Paul introduced that great truth with Romans 8:26, “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.”

We Jesus did not know what to pray (even as all things were being worked for the good of those who love him) he turned to Psalm 22 for the Spirit’s help in his weakness.  He found words that were as deep and personal as his suffering.  Those words were placed there by his Father (and ours).

Here are some suggestions for using the Psalms during times of intense suffering.  These suggestions pertain primarily to reading the Psalms pre-suffering, so that they are a more useful resources for you mid-suffering.

  • Read the Psalms regularly.  It is much harder to turn to what you have not read.
  • Write words in the margin (i.e., rejection, betrayal, despair) that capture the experiences of the psalmist.  This will help you find relevant psalms more quickly during your suffering.
  • Let you imagination consider the context of the psalmist.  Pay attention to when and how the psalmist mentions God and what God is doing when he is mentioned.
  • Write your own version of a given psalm. Try to capture the same meaning and imagery in circumstances familiar to you.  Train yourself to think psalm-like before the emotional crisis.
  • Talk about the Psalms (Eph 5:19).  It will be hard to be convincing to yourself (even with the help of the Holy Spirit) if you are not at least comfortable talking about the Psalms with others during neutral times.

I pray the time taken to implement these suggestions will serve you well the next time you are in a circumstance when Romans 8:28 (and 26) is a passage you are wrestling with.

Introduction to the “Living Our Faith” series.

Learning God’s Presence (with Thomas C. Oden)

Too often we miss the most amazing and profound aspects of our world.  We miss the smile of a loved one.  We miss the miracle of creation.  We miss the calm and rest of quiet and stillness.  We miss seeing blessings because we are lost in our grumblings.  Most of all we miss the hope of God’s presence.

The following quote comes from The Living God by Thomas C. Oden pages 68-69.

“The presence of God was thought by classical exegetes to encompass the widest possible range of creaturely activity:

1. God is naturally present in every aspect of the natural order, every level of causality, every fleeting moment and momentous event of natural history (Ps 8:3; Isa 40:12; Nah 1:3ff).

2. God is actively present in a different way in every event of history, as provident guide of human affairs (Ps 48:7).

3. God is in a special way attentively present to those who call upon his name, intercede for others, who adore God, who petition, who pray earnestly for forgiveness (Matt18:19ff; Acts 17:27).

4. God is judicially present in moral awareness, through conscience (Ps 48:1-2).

5. God is bodily present in the incarnation of his Son, Jesus Christ (John 1:14; Col 2:9).

6. God is mystically present in the Eucharist, and through the means of grace in the church, the body of Christ (Eph 2:12ff; John 5:56).

7. God is sacredly present and becomes known in special places where God chooses to meet us, places that become set apart by the faithful, remembering community (I Cor 11:23-29), where it may be said, “Truly the Lord is in this place (Gen 28:16, 23:18; Matt 18:20).”

Use these seven items as a scavenger hunt over the next week.  Notice what is in front of you each moment.  When you see God speak to Him.  Say “Thank you.”  Say “I love you.”  Say “Hello.”  Seeing God in the details of life allows prayer to be more conversational than a discipline or an appointment.  Knowing where and how to look for God fuels hope when the rest of life seems dark.

If this post was beneficial for you, then considering reading other blogs from my “Favorite Posts on Theology and Counseling” post which address other facets of this subject.

“Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing” & Contentment

Introduction to the “Living Worship” Series

Verse 1:
Come, Thou Fount of every blessing; Tune my heart to sing Thy grace
Streams of mercy never ceasing; Call for songs of loudest praise
Teach me some melodious sonnet; Sung by flaming tongues above
Praise His name – I’m fixed upon it; Name of God’s redeeming love.

Verse of Discontentment:
Each new day I long for something; Hoping it will fill my heart
Desire drives me, peace forsaking; Yearnings cause my mind to dart
How many times I’ve thought “If only!”; God would give me what I ask
God’s patient with hearts so stony; Free me from repeating past

Verse 2:
Hither to Thy love has blest me; Thou hast brought me to this place
And I know Thy hand will bring me; Safely home by Thy good grace
Jesus Sought me when a stranger; Wand’ring from the fold of God
He, to rescue me from danger; Bought me with His precious blood

Verse of Contentment:
Resting fully in Your blessing; Desires ring with fresh “thank You’s”
For the first time now I’m seeing; What has been in clearest view
Every good thing flows from Your hands; Discontentment blinds my eyes
Now I’m free from my heart’s demands; Joy is contentment’s surprise

Verse 3:
O to grace how great a debtor; Daily I’m constrained to be
Let Thy goodness like a fetter; Bind my wand’ring heart to Thee
Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it; Prone to leave the God I love
Here’s my heart, O take and seal it; Seal it for Thy courts above.

DEVOTIONAL:


“Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing”
& Our Battle for Contentment
(Click Here for PDF Devotional Handout)

In a culture that is so marked by affluence that it might well be called “a land flowing with milk and honey” we struggle to be content.  Often like young children three days after Christmas we are so saturated with blessings that we begin to grumble.

As we think about God’s blessing and our battle for contentment, it is helpful to consider the context in which Paul discusses grumbling in I Corinthians 10:9-13 (emphasis added):

We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did and were destroyed by serpents, nor grumble, as some of them did and were destroyed by the Destroyer. Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come. Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall. No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.

In discussing grumbling Paul emphasizes the faithfulness of God.  A lack of contentment is a passive-aggressive way of calling into question whether God has been good and faithful.

In the application lyrics to this song the key points being emphasized are (1) that discontentment is a distortion of reality based upon the demands our heart and (2) that contentment unlocks the door to the only source of lasting and true joy.

The Darkness Before the Cross — Mark 14

Negative Emotion Not Sinful (v. 34)

We can sometimes begin to use the categories of pleasant and unpleasant as synonyms for the categories of holy and unholy or right and wrong.  We prematurely assume pleasant emotions or situations are good (or an “open door”) and that unpleasant emotions are bad (or a “closed door”).

This can lead to compounded false guilt and poor decision making.  We feel bad for feeling bad and then make decisions based on those emotions.  Jesus, the sinless Son of God, said, “My soul is over-whelmed with sorrow to the point of death.”  This was not wrong.  While he did have Philippians 4:4 (“rejoice always”) in mind in terms of Hebrews 12:2 (“the joy set before him”), this in no way diminished the intensity of Gethsemane or Calvary.

Reflective Questions:  How do you know when you are suffering for righteousness sake or as a part of God’s will (I Peter 2:20, 3:17, 4:19)?  Are you prone to feeling guilty whenever you are over-whelmed?  How can we maintain faith and hope in the midst of our frailty and daunting circumstances?

Take This Cup From Me (v. 36)

On this verse Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in Reflections on the Cross:

“The cup of suffering will indeed pass by Jesus, but only insofar as it is drunk… Only by bearing suffering will he overcome and conquer it. His cross is the overcoming of suffering (p. 17).”

This is but one of many bold (but true) contradictions in the life and ministry of Christ.  “Blessed are the poor in spirit.”  “The last shall be first.”  By dying Jesus would conquer death.

We, like Jesus in his full humanity, do not waltz into these moments without hesitation.  No amount of faith (not even being God) steadied Jesus’ heart rate.  The natural question sprang from his lips, “Is there any other way?”  Yet this was the way, the truth, and the life… by death.

Reflective Question:  Consider from personal experience or testimony of others how God has faithfully dismantled evil by allowing or willing that you endure it.  How does this action of sustaining and prevailing create a unique faith (in contrast to God delivering you from evil)?  Thank God for both His grace and power to deliver from and conquer within evil.

The Spirit is Willing, But the Body is Weak

How do you hear these words?  Read them (v. 37-38) several times with different inflections: anger, despair, condemnation, numbness, compassion, or instruction.  Which fits the context and character of Christ best?

We learn something very significant about ourselves in these verses – our body must be cared for in such a manner that enables our hearts to express their obedience.  Consider the following areas of body health and mind skill that affect heart expression – stamina, attention span, literacy, drowsiness, nutrition, soberness, strength, etc…

In what ways do you need to strengthen your body and mind so that they are not an impediment to your spirit?

Do you view the practices you just listed as “spiritual”?  Walk through the areas of body and mind that you considered weaknesses that needed strengthening.  How does each on of these areas impinge your ability to love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength; and love your neighbor as yourself?

I do not propose that Jesus was trying to teach the disciples about physical and mental conditioning on this dark night.  I do propose that he was teaching (in a tone of over-whelmed instruction) a lesson that would prepare them to handle the hard days ahead in the life of the early church.

Take time to be a good steward of your body (the temple of the Holy Spirit).  Not to win a HGTV temple display contest, but so that full expression of your heart and soul will be unrestrained by the body and mind through which they are expressed.

Introduction to the “Living Our Faith” series.

Jesus on Living in Light of the End Times — Mark 13

Jesus Changes the Question (v. 4, 9ff)

Sometimes (in my more self-centered moments) I think the disciples were there only to ask the questions I would have asked, so that Jesus could direct me to the questions I should ask.  The disciples wanted to know “When will these things happen (v. 4)?”  They wanted to know when the end times would begin; when the new kingdom would be established.

Jesus gently directs them to a better question, “How should we live since this world and these political-economic realities will come to and end?”  Without condemning their thirst for information, Jesus directs their attention away from their curiosities (over which they had no control or impact) to the things they could impact for His kingdom.

We need to heed this same attention re-focusing.  In light of what we know about temporal life and eternal life, how should we be living now?  We so often get lost in the trivia and prognostication of things we have no control over.  Jesus teaching in Mark 13 can be summarized as do not worry about what you might do or say when something bad happens, invest your thoughts and energy in what God has given you control over and God will prepare/enable you for later moments later (see v. 11).

A Prerequisite to the Second Coming (v. 10)

There is one way (if any) to expedite the second coming of Christ.  Contribute to the gospel being preached to all nations.  This is a resounding theme of the Bible and about the return of Christ (Rev 7:9).

If we long for Christ’s return, if we long to taste heaven, if we long to see God’s will on earth as it is in heaven; then we must be sharing the gospel regularly and we must be contributing (prayer, time, and money) to the spread of the gospel to the ends of the earth.

As you examine yourself in this area, consider the following questions:

  1. Can you summarize the gospel in a few, short, clear sentences?
  2. If you cannot summarize the content of the gospel, are you sure you are a born again Christian?
  3. Do you know how your church participates in and supports missions work to unreached people groups?

Keep Watch

These two simple words (“Keep watch”) capture the main point of Jesus’ teaching on the end times in Mark 13.  The application Jesus gives of keeping watch is not primarily upon discerning events leading up to his second coming, but rather on living for his return in faith that he is coming.

It is easy for an employee to slack off when the boss is away (13:32-37).  Jesus promises he will come and (like a surprise visit from a boss) says his followers should be working and with evidence of their work.

Use the following questions to evaluate your “watchfulness” in light of Christ’s second coming using the boss-worker metaphor Jesus gave in Mark 13.

  • How often do I read my Bible to understand more clearly what my Lord has assigned me to do and how he will evaluate my life upon his return (Bible study)?
  • How often do I pray to talk about my progress and delays, get additional work instruction or insights, and clarify what I have read in his instructions (prayer)?
  • Am I excited about the project I have been given and use gratitude as a way to maintain my level of motivation during tedious work (worship)?
  • Do I stay well-connected with my co-workers and do we mutually stay on task to ensure our work is well coordinated and efficient (fellowship and accountability)?
  • Do I naturally and actively talk about the work I am privileged to be a part of and invite others to join the effort (evangelism)?
  • Do I manage my major resources of time, money, property, talents, and relationships around the job I have been entrusted (stewardship)?
  • Am I seeking the wisdom of those who have been the job longer to assist me in doing my job with increasing excellence (discipleship and mentoring)?
  • Am I looking for those new to the job and seeking to help them learn from my mistakes to advance the project as efficiently as possible (teaching)?
  • Am I resting in the fairness and wisdom of my boss as I work knowing that his plans and methods are best whether I see the whole picture or not (rest and trust)?

Introduction to the “Living Our Faith” series.