Faith: A Practical, Living Teacher

Photo by Thomas Somme on Unsplash

Years ago, I saw a picture of a child suspended in the air, clutching the string of a single balloon, with the caption: “Faith isn’t faith until it’s all you’re holding on to.”  It was a very simple picture, but it made me think: Where does this kind of faith come from?  A faith that turns intellectual trust into action, especially potentially dangerous action?

One way is that we can learn it from others.  I’ve read a lot of Christian apologetics – or writings in defense of Christian faith.  Writers such as Josh McDowell and Ravi Zacharias were held in reverent awe by many in my college years, the logic being that “if someone that smart can be a Christian, it must be reasonable to believe!”  While there is definitely value in learning from others, there is also the hazard of learning to trust our teachers (instead of our Teacher).  Then when they fall, it hurts us personally and can damage our witness.  We know what ended up happening to Ravi Zacharias[1].

There is also the testimony of the Bible.  In the book of Hebrews, chapter 11 chronicles the faith of many in the Bible, and Hebrews 12:1 calls these our “cloud of witnesses.”  We can learn a lot from these people, but they don’t just teach us facts about God.  The writer of Hebrews adds that because of these witnesses, we should “lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.[2] He is our Lord, and these witnesses tell us to follow Him, not just be able to describe Him.

One of the best lessons on this comes from G.K. Chesterton, who is well-known for his arguments in defense of the reasonableness of Christianity.  However, near the end of his book Orthodoxy, he says that he has a better idea: “And that is this: ‘that the Christian Church in its practical relation to my soul is a living teacher, not a dead one. It not only certainly taught me yesterday, but will almost certainly teach me tomorrow.’”  Apologetics is not about winning arguments, but about growing our ability to trust Him and learning to explain that to others.

While we can learn from others and from the Bible to build up our faith, what God has done for us personally is the best testimony because it is the most real to us.  Everything else is hearsay, as they say in court.  We are all learning to let Him tell us where to go and what to do.  To discern not only His truth, but His will, in the testimony of modern apologists and in the Bible.  To make our own Ebenezers, or memorials to His faithfulness to us when we’ve acted in faith in Him, even if it meant holding on to nothing else.  Therefore:

“Oh, taste and see that the LORD is good!
Blessed is the man who takes refuge in him!” – Psalm 34:8

The best way to know that He is good is to try for ourselves, even when it’s hard or doesn’t make sense.  This has been the loose theme of this week’s posts, which will continue in the next post in the Psalms of Ascent series, hopefully tomorrow.

[1] If you don’t know, after Ravi died it was revealed that he had inappropriate relationships with massage therapists and others.  A once-influential ministry ended up in tatters, and many of Ravi’s followers ended up embarrassed and wondering what to believe.
[2] Hebrews 12:1b-2

Don’t Ignore Ebenezer Today

Reminders of God’s word can guide our daily lives, but only if we follow those reminders.  A while ago, I introduced the blog’s mascot, “Ebenezer, the ‘But God…’ Squirrel.”  Ebenezer is a reminder that however difficult or frustrating our situation, if we actively and intentionally inject God into the situation, He can and will show us the best way forward.  However, what if we try to say “But God” but take the wrong path anyway?  If we do, we are not alone.

Ebenezer, trying to get your attention.

A search of the exact words “but God” in the ESV Bible gives 43 results, and the first one is found in Genesis 3:3, which says “but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.’”  This verse occurs when the serpent in the garden questions God’s word that Adam and Eve were limited by God in what they should and shouldn’t do.  Eve, the speaker in the quote above, responds rightly that God had been specific about what not to do.  As most of my readers will know, even though Eve knew God’s word, the serpent was able to convince her to ignore it.

As they say in the financial industry, “past performance is no guarantee of future results,” but I will guarantee anyway that today and every day every one of us face temptation to do something God wants to protect us from.  I also am confident of the words “but God…” that “If you recall them daily and live by them, they will transform your life completely,” as I quoted earlier from James Montgomery Boice.  But we must live by them to be transformed by God, not just quote them.

Today, pray that we all would be distracted by God’s word as easily as we are sometimes distracted by a passing squirrel when we are tempted to ignore His voice in our souls.  And if God delivers you from temptation today, make a note, a perpetual “stone of help” that God’s word is good!

Keep an eye out for Ebenezer as an ongoing series here, covering the 43 direct “but God” references, but also others.

Consecrate Yourselves (aka Don’t Do It for Johnny)

Have you ever used the phrase “Do it for Johnny”?  When I was about 10, I yelled this slogan in a soccer game, after one of our best players (named Johnny) left the game with an injury, not even knowing where the line came from.  Only recently I found out the line is from the movie version of The Outsiders, based on the book by S.E. Hinton.  As the character Dallas, Matt Dillon’s delivery of the line (9 second clip below) is classic and everyone should give it a try at least once.  I’ll wait if you want to do it now.

Now let’s return to the scene of yesterday’s post, where Joshua was about to lead Israel over the Jordan.  Imagine someone in the crowd yelling “let’s do it for Moses!”  In The Outsiders, Dallas was rallying his troops to action against a rival gang, who had killed Johnny, so maybe remembering that Moses didn’t make it would inspire Israel?  Sadly, that would be completely missing the point.

Knowing why has to do with knowing why Moses wasn’t there.  While leading Israel, he decided out of frustration to add his own input to God’s easy instructions.  The story is from Numbers 20, where Israel was in the wilderness, but there was no water (that they knew of).  Moses and Aaron, responding to the ongoing grumbling of the people, went to God asking for a solution.  God responded not with anger or judgement, but with a provision for His people.  Moses was told: “Take the staff, and assemble the congregation, you and Aaron your brother, and tell the rock before their eyes to yield its water. So you shall bring water out of the rock for them and give drink to the congregation and their cattle.[1]  What Moses actually did was to say “Hear now, you rebels: shall we bring water for you out of this rock?”  Then “Moses lifted up his hand and struck the rock with his staff twice, and water came out abundantly, and the congregation drank, and their livestock.[2]  Therefore, God told Moses he would die before Israel made it to the promised land “because you rebelled against my word in the wilderness of Zin when the congregation quarreled, failing to uphold me as holy at the waters before their eyes.”[3]

Why exactly Moses actions deserved such a harsh rebuke is debated, but it’s clear that Moses mixed what he wanted with what God told him to do, and therefore tried to take glory that belonged to God for himself.  Moses led God’s people for a time, but their success was from God.  Moses learned, and we learn through him, that honoring God first, above all others, is necessary to receive God’s promises.  No honor for God; no promised land.

In Joshua 3:5, Joshua tells the people before miraculously crossing the Jordan to “Consecrate yourselves, for tomorrow the LORD will do wonders among you.”  He was not telling them to consecrate themselves to Joshua as Moses’ replacement leader.  The point wasn’t to transfer loyalty from Moses to Joshua, but the point was to eliminate all loyalty other than to God.  Israel wasn’t supposed to consecrate itself to Moses, then when he was gone, consecrate itself to Joshua.  Israel needed to focus on glorifying God alone and eliminate any other motives from their hearts.  The first time Israel tried to enter the promised land, mixed motives resulted in 40 years wandering the wilderness.

So, whatever your preferred slogan, whether it’s: “Do it for Johnny”, “Do it for [insert any leader]” or “Let’s go [fill in the blank],”[4] it will be replaced with only one in eternity, where God will welcome His people from all tribes and nations:

Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty,
            who was and is and is to come!” – Revelation 4:8

Therefore, “Consecrate yourselves” because although none of us will achieve perfection this side of paradise, Jesus declared in Matthew 10:33 that “whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven.

Crossing the Jordan was hard, and sometimes life is hard on purpose.
Sometimes if we want to cross a river, God wants to teach us first how to trust Him and Him alone.

Soli Deo Gloria

[1] Numbers 20:8-9
[2] Numbers 20:11-12
[3] Numbers 27:14
[4] Yes, dear Americans, I’m including that sarcastic slogan in this too.

Sometimes Life is Hard on Purpose

Photo by ål nik on Unsplash

Joshua was very aware of the consequences of failing to trust God.  After being delivered from Egypt, Israel was led to Canaan – their promised land – and God had Moses “Send men to spy out the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the people of Israel.[1]  The purpose of the spy mission was not to decide whether or not to move into the land.  God promised to give it to them.  However, when the 12 spies returned, 10 of them said “We are not able to go up against the people, for they are stronger than we are.[2]  Only Joshua and Caleb said they should take the land anyway, because God’s promise and strength was enough for them.  Because the people rebelled, trusting 10 disloyal spies rather than Him, God said Israel must wander the wilderness for years and only Joshua and Caleb would live long enough to enter the land.

After taking 40 years to make what could have been an 11-day journey[3] to the Jordan River where Israel would enter the land, God knew, and Joshua knew, that divided loyalties could doom everyone to another 40-year wilderness adventure.

Then in Joshua 3:15 we find this note: “(now the Jordan overflows all its banks throughout the time of harvest)”.  Why is this phrase important?  Israel arrived at the Jordan at the most difficult time to cross.  The river would be as deep and as wide as ever, and likely the current would be stronger as well.  A sensible person would avoid crossing at this time, but God chose the most “difficult” time to perform this miracle to show that nothing is difficult for Him.  This phrase is there because entering the promised land should glorify God and God alone.

Arriving at the flooded Jordan River, some people may have doubted whether Joshua get them across.  Joshua had just become their leader, and perhaps the failure of Moses, who recently died, meant the failure of their dreams of the promised land.  After all, they saw the Red Sea part for Moses.  Could Joshua get them over this river?

By coming to the Jordan specifically when it “overflows all its banks” God wanted to remind His people that only He can and will deliver them.  The Red Sea wasn’t parted because of Moses; it was parted because of God.  God could deliver Israel without Moses, but Moses couldn’t deliver Israel without God.  It was never about Moses.  Likewise, Joshua wasn’t going to get them to their land; God was.  The flood gave the people no reason to credit Joshua for their success.

As instructed, this is how they crossed the flooded river: “as soon as those bearing the ark had come as far as the Jordan, and the feet of the priests bearing the ark were dipped in the brink of the water (now the Jordan overflows all its banks throughout the time of harvest), the waters coming down from above stood and rose up in a heap very far away, at Adam, the city that is beside Zarethan, and those flowing down toward the Sea of the Arabah, the Salt Sea, were completely cut off. And the people passed over opposite Jericho.  Now the priests bearing the ark of the covenant of the LORD stood firmly on dry ground in the midst of the Jordan, and all Israel was passing over on dry ground until all the nation finished passing over the Jordan.” – Joshua 3:15-17

Joshua was very clear about giving God credit (more in tomorrow’s post), and it’s a lesson for Christians in all times and places.  When God raises up leaders, He also reminds us that they are but men and tools in His hand.  They are also profoundly fallible.  10 out of 12 human leaders being wrong left Israel wandering for 40 years.  Only God leads anyone to salvation and only when they trust Him alone for it.  He often works through fallen human leaders, raising them up to lead His people, not because He prefers sinful leaders over virtuous ones, but because there is no other kind of person and because He is jealous for His own glory.

Is there a flooded river God wants you to cross?  When we attempt things that only make sense because God told us to do them, we may be more likely to do or witness something that glorifies God and God alone, because only He could do it.

Are there rivers you have crossed in the past?  Like God told Joshua after this crossing to lay memorial stones so they would never forget (see Joshua 4), make sure to keep a record of God’s power and faithfulness in your life.

Sometimes life is hard on purpose.
Sometimes the river is flooded because God wants to show you something awesome.

Therefore, “Be strong and courageous.  Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the LORD your God is with you wherever you go.” – Joshua 1:9b

Tomorrow, more from the same story in Joshua…

[1] Numbers 13:1
[2] Numbers 13:31
[3] Deuteronomy 1:2

When All You Have is God

Photo by Greg Willson on Unsplash

Near the end of Book 3 in the Psalms (43-89), several Psalms read like cries for help by writers at the end of their rope.  In Psalm 86:14, for example, David writes: “O God, insolent men have risen up against me; a band of ruthless men seeks my life, and they do not set you before them.”  While the exact circumstance is unclear, David knows there is a wide conspiracy against him, and his only hope is to turn to God.  The Psalm opens with “Incline your ear, O LORD, and answer me, for I am poor and needy.”

Likewise, when we feel desperate and don’t know where to turn, these Psalms remind us that God will never turn us away.  On Psalm 86 John Calvin comments that “the more severely any one is oppressed, and the more destitute he is of the resources of human aid, the more inclined is God graciously to help him. That despair therefore may not overwhelm our minds under our greatest afflictions, let us support ourselves from the consideration that the Holy Spirit has dictated this prayer for the poor and the afflicted.”  In other words, because these Psalms are in the Bible, we can be sure that, no matter the mess our own choices or the actions of others have put us in, God in His steadfast love will listen.

Throughout the Psalm, David writes reminders of the character and works of God as a contrast to both his circumstances and his feelings of futility.  Like him we must always remember that our character is never so bad that God loving us is inconsistent with His character, and that our circumstances are never so bad that loving us is beyond His power to achieve.

Our character is never so bad that God loving us is inconsistent with His character

Even for the most desperate, there is always a way out, as Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 10:13 – “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 Psalm 86, David does not just pray for a miraculous deliverance, but in verse 11, David looks for the way of escape: “Teach me your way, O LORD, that I may walk in your truth; unite my heart to fear your name.”  A united heart is one that feels no anxiety because it knows it is seeking God’s will and willing to act on it based on reverence for Him.  God may urge us to merely wait for His deliverance, or prod us to actions we may not expect, but in all cases, He knows the way, because He is the Way. Only He can unite your heart.

Bring your desperate anxiety to Him and let Him show you the way forward.  When all you have is God, He is enough.  When you feel your faith is weak because you can’t see or feel God in your life or the world around you, begin with “Incline your ear, O LORD, and answer me, for I am poor and needy,” and He will listen.