Let God Speak to Your Inner Wilderness


I’ve written recently about John the Baptist[1], who announced the coming of Jesus, baptized Him, and led the way for His ministry to begin.  This John was identified with “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight’”[2] prophesied by Isaiah.  Today I want to describe a little more about the passage from Isaiah 40:3-5, which says:

A voice cries: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD;
            make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
            and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
            and the rough places a plain.
And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed,
            and all flesh shall see it together,
            for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.’”

Is Isaiah talking about a massive, miraculous geological event, creating an easier route for Jesus to take to His kingdom?  Perhaps in the future something like this will happen, but I think Isaiah is saying that God’s power over nature is a symbol of His power to reform and perfect us into the character of His Son Jesus.

Before Jesus comes into our lives, we are a spiritual “wilderness” full of “uneven ground” and “rough places.”  The path of our salvation begins in this wilderness, an unorganized chaos of thoughts and desires.  We are like “children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.”  However, the power of the LORD enters our low valleys – our guilty secrets, shame and depression – which will be raised up.  It progresses through our mountains and hills – areas of pride, self-sufficiency, and our desire for power – which will be made low.  God, with the same power that created the universe, removes all obstacles to the coming of His kingdom to us, and to the world.  He has given us His word, His Spirit, and fellow believers to strengthen us, “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, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.”  (Ephesians 4:13-14)

John the Baptist called his followers to confession and repentance.  In announcing the coming of the kingdom of God, John anticipated a time when our internal and external wildernesses will become a paradise.  Until then, we each have different hills and valleys, different uneven and rough areas.  Until then, the world remains full of false doctrine, cunning, craftiness and deceit.

Today, pray that the powerful voice of our LORD will reach into your wilderness and remove obstacles on the path to His kingdom.  Pray that His word and His Spirit will reveal His glory.  Pray that all believers will answer the call of “the voice of one crying in the wilderness” to build up His church.

Amen.


[1] See recent post here.
[2] Isaiah 40:3, quoted in Matthew 4:3.

What We Need For Christmas #2: A Wonderful Counselor


According to James Montgomery Boice (see last post if you missed it), if you asked people to honestly describe their needs, they might describe one as: “We have minds. So we have a need to know things rightly, to understand. We need wisdom.”  In Isaiah 9:6, Jesus, the Christ of Christmas, is described as our Wonderful Counselor, who meets our need for wisdom.

But what is wisdom?  Wisdom is about taking the right action, not about being book smart, or accumulating facts.  You don’t need to be brilliant to have wisdom.  Wisdom looks forward.  It is proactive and specific to you.  Nobody else’s situation is your situation, and nobody else has the same history, relationships, abilities, and resources. Your path is your own.

Why do we need wisdom?  Because our inner conscience is not one, clear voice with the right answer.  It is a jumble of influences and desires, which I’ve described as a multi-voiced “Moral GPS.” How do you even choose from among your own wants?  Everyone is limited by time and resources.  Also, what if your wants conflict with each other?  “I love junk food, but I want to be healthy.”  Also, how do you decide what is “good” to do?  Who decides what is “harmful”?  What if someone else’s desires harm you?  Can you tell them their desires are wrong, or even disagree on what “harm” is, in a world where everyone just lives by their own messy conscience?[1]

We are never truly free.  Absolute freedom is not good, or even possible, and therefore we need a reliable filter and that is what wisdom is.  Wisdom enables us to choose the best possible path from among the many choices before us.  This is especially tricky as multiple paths may look “true” or “best” to us, and most paths have ripple effects we can’t possibly anticipate.  In our world information is more readily available than ever before, but many people just seem more overwhelmed by it all.

Only someone who knows us perfectly, who knows every possible consequence of our choices on us and on others, and who loves us with our best interests in mind is qualified to be our Wonderful Counselor and worthy of our trust.  Others can provide incomplete guidance – parents, teachers, ministers, writers, philosophers – but each of these also needs its own filter.

In the gift of Jesus as Wonderful Counselor we can satisfy one of our deepest needs: “To know the truth! Jesus Christ is the truth, and he is for us a Wonderful Counselor.” (Boice)

As God, He has no gaps in his knowledge or biases and therefore His words to us are not an inadequate abstraction or wishful thinking.  He alone is perfectly trustworthy.  He does not want to scold or punish you, but to guide you in perfect wisdom that only He can provide.  He does not magically tell you everywhere to go, holding up signs, but desires a relationship.  To walk with you and guide you to life eternal. He wants us to invite Him into our lives, and He is Wonderful.

This is the first gift of Christ in Christmas.


[1] Keller, Timothy.  Making Sense of God (2016).  This paragraph draws from Chapter 5.

The Sure Eternal Path


“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” – John 3:16
“We have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters into the inner place behind the curtain, where Jesus has gone as a forerunner on our behalf, having become a high priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.” – Hebrews 6:19-20

We have all seen the John 3:16 signs.  At seemingly every sporting event, someone with a spot guaranteed to be on camera has one.  T-shirts, bumper stickers, frisbees, and probably even iPhone cases have this verse.  This verse is so popular because it is a concise and easy to remember summary of God’s message to humanity: although the world has turned on Him in rebellion, He has not given up on it, but loves His people enough to make the ultimate sacrifice of His own Son to save them from perishing.  In the last post, I wrote: “God’s purpose in creating His kingdom, populated by His family, will not be thwarted by sin because sinners are the only people available to join His family… Through the death of His only begotten Son on the cross, God became Father of His people”

But what’s “eternal life”?  What is God offering?

It’s not that those who believe in Jesus will simply live forever, because that’s actually true for everyone.  The Bible explains this, but I like this quote from C.S. Lewis[1]:

“There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations – these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.”

So, this “eternal life” is different than just biological existence for all time.  In my last post, I wrote: “Wisdom is the ability to choose between the path of righteousness and the path of the wicked.”  However, the Bible also contrasts the two paths as representing “life” and “death”.  If “life” is being on the path of righteousness, then eternal life means that the destiny of those who follow Jesus is to eternally choose the path of righteousness.  This eternal life is also lived in community where everyone else is always on that path, and everything that exists in that world will reflect righteousness.  Every decision we make will be in the Spirit; we will always have the right Answer.  This does not mean that we will be robots following orders, but it means that our morality and creativity will be unconstrained by our fallen nature.  Righteousness and justice will “come naturally”.

In the meantime, Christians can taste this future, but incompletely, as they imperfectly try to follow Jesus.  It can be quite frustrating as nobody can meet the standard no matter how hard they try.

The Inner Place Behind the Curtain
Now the 2nd introductory verses, from Hebrews 6, contain one of my favorite Biblical metaphors.  Hebrews 6:19 starts with “We have this”, but what is “this”?  Earlier in chapter 6, the writer wants his readers to “have the full assurance of hope”[2] and tells them that Abraham was blessed and multiplied into a nation, not by Abraham’s efforts, but by the promise and oath of God, who cannot lie[3].  After all, the famous hymn is called “Great is Thy Faithfulness”, not “Great is My Faithfulness”.  The destiny of the Christian is founded on the cornerstone of Christ’s completed work, and God will not change His mind.  Verses 19 and 20 were written to make this statement as emphatically as possible to the 1st Century Jewish reader.

For other readers in the 21st Century, some background might be necessary:  The book of Hebrews, written for Jews who had become Christians, includes a lot of imagery they would recognize like “the inner place behind the curtain”.  In the Old Testament, God’s tabernacle, and later temple(s), were indications of at least two things: that He was present with His people, and that He could only be approached in the way He prescribed.  God is Holy and Just, unable to tolerate sin, so entering His presence is serious business.  In the very early days of Israel, the Levite priesthood were commanded to kill anyone who came too close to God’s presence[4].  A vastly elaborate sacrificial system was implemented to illustrate God’s requirements for meeting with sinners: an innocent creature had to die.  Animals symbolized the later sacrifice of Jesus Christ.  Even the altar upon which the animals were sacrificed required its own sacrifices to be acceptable.

But the “Holy of Holies” was the ultimate statement of how serious approaching God is.  This innermost room of the temple was only entered once per year (on the Day of Atonement, or Yom Kippur), and only by the high priest, who only can enter after hours of preparation.  Once there, the high priest would sprinkle the blood of a sacrificed bull on and in front of God’s “mercy seat”, the cover of the ark of the covenant and a sign of His presence[5].  Later Jewish tradition (not found in the Bible) indicates that others would stand outside the room holding a rope that was tied to the high priest, who also had bells tied around his waist.  If those outside heard the bells jingling, followed by silence, they would assume the high priest did not atone properly for the sins of the people, died in God’s presence, and needed to be dragged out by the rope.

While being dragged out, the high priest would pass under the veil, or curtain, that covered the entrance to the Holy of Holies.  This curtain was a physical reminder of the barrier to God represented by His holiness.

Anchor and Forerunner
Hebrews 6:19 is the only place in the ESV Bible that refers to a metaphorical anchor.  Literal anchors are mentioned in the book of Acts and nowhere else.  As you know, an anchor is a heavy object, usually metal, attached to a boat or ship by rope or cable for the purpose of securing the vessel to the bed of the body of water.  Typically, an anchor is used to keep you in place.  However, Hebrews mentions a forerunner because this anchor is used to secure you to a destination, not to keep you in place.  Where you are now is not your eternal home and God does not want you to anchor there.

In the early centuries A.D., a “forerunner” was a boat sent to meet larger boats at sea, take their anchor, carry it into the harbor, and deposit it at the destination.  Thus, the incoming boat was still at sea, but assured of reaching its destination.  It just had to follow the path of the rope to the anchor, which would also keep it from going too far adrift.

So, we now have the parts of the metaphor about what provides our “full assurance of hope”: anchor, curtain, and forerunner. (Melchizedek I’ll leave for another time)

What Hebrews is telling us is that our hope is in God’s promise, and that the promise is secure because Christ Himself took our anchor and secured it inside the Holy presence of God where atonement has been made for His people.  When Jesus died on the cross on Good Friday, He cried “it is finished”[6], and “the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.”[7]  In one moment, all of the elaborate Old Testament ceremony symbolizing the requirements for being in God’s presence became irrelevant, and Jesus became “the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh”[8]  Once for all, His flesh was the only sacrifice necessary for us to know God.  For His people, there is no longer a veil or curtain as a barrier, but through the tearing of His own flesh, we have sure and eternal access to Him.

While we remain metaphorically at sea tossed by waves of chaos, Jesus is in the Temple, and the Holy Spirit is at sea with us “hovering over the face of the waters”[9].  The Spirit is both a connection to the “sure and steadfast anchor of the soul”, Christ our forerunner, and also a voice telling us what to do in the meantime.  We’re surrounded by, and are, a creation in progress, and He gives us our task, but also the certainty of ultimate success.  While our purpose can be frustrated, God’s purpose is sure, and His promise is for His people.

Consider this: If God wanted to change His mind about you, He’s had plenty of opportunity before now.  Hours passed while Christ was on the cross.  He was mocked as helpless and unable to save Himself, while Jesus knew at any moment, He could ask His Father to send twelve legions of angels to save Him[10]!  (Or He could just save Himself).  In those hours, Omniscient God considered all the sins of all His people over all of time and decided: “Worth it”.  The all-powerful actively chose to embrace powerlessness in the face of hours of torture to save His people.  He will not turn His back on you now, or ever, if you are His.

“And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” – Philippians 1:6

Upgrading the Moral GPS
Remember that the purpose of the forerunner metaphor is that we may “have the full assurance of hope”, enabling us to walk in the path of righteousness.  Confidence that our hope is in God’s promise and Christ’s faithfulness has several implications.

First, having Jesus as our forerunner means that our Moral GPS is always pre-programmed with salvation as the ultimate destination.  2 Corinthians 5:5 says “God…has given us the Spirit as a guarantee” and the Life Application Study Bible notes: “His work in our lives today assures us that the healing process will be thoroughly completed in Christ’s presence. Each time the Holy Spirit reminds you of Scripture, convicts you of sin, restrains you from selfish behavior, or prompts you to love, you have evidence that he is present. You have the Spirit within you beginning the transformation process.”

We all take wrong turns along the way, but we end up with Christ in the end.  Our mistakes don’t cost us our salvation, because God already knows them and has taken them into account.  This doesn’t mean we haphazardly proceed without any concern of consequence, but as I wrote in an earlier post: “We should not be afraid of God, where we are motivated to passivity – avoiding mistakes that would anger the one we fear.  We fear God in that we revere Him and respect His authority, thus actively seeking to please Him.”

If you are in Christ, the Spirit prays for you, “groaning”, while speaking to your spirit internally.

Until Jesus returns, the other voices in the GPS don’t turn off, and we’re not always 100% sure of what God wants.  There may seem to be more than one “good” option.  Security in Jesus makes us tend toward moving forward.  Mistakes are part of the process, and we can learn and grow from them.  Even if you have some doubt, it’s God’s faithfulness that counts.

Second, God called you for a reason, and it might be related to your current circumstances.  1 Corinthians 7:17 says “Only let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him. This is my rule in all the churches.”  You have a role in God’s family, and it’s a role only you can fulfill.  Therefore, in your Moral GPS, fear God’s voice for you alone, not what God has called others to do.

In the book “Compassion” cited in earlier posts, the authors write: “Saints and ‘outstanding’ Christians should…never be perceived as people whose concrete behavior must be imitated.  Rather, we should see in them living reminders that God calls every human being in a unique way and asks each of us to become attentive to His voice in our own unique lives.”[11]  You are called to be you, not the Apostle Paul, Billy Graham or Mother Theresa.

Third, knowing you won’t lose God’s favor may give you courage to not live to please men.  God might tell you to do unexpected things.  Perhaps things that are outside the norm or have not been done before.  Therefore, in the Moral GPS, we must discern what part of our “rebelliousness” needs repentance, as being outside of God’s justice and righteousness, and that which merely violates social and other convention.  Sometimes being yourself as God intended means being unlike what others expect by earthly standards.  You may be called to meet a specific, timely, need for something creative.  There may be a powerful, but unconventional way to encourage others.

“Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.” – 1 Corinthians 15:58

Coda
Lauren Daigle’s hit “You Say” is a great closer for this post.  It is a reminder of the reliability and strength of Jesus and His voice when other voices, including perhaps your own, are turning against you.  An anchor of hope in the midst of trouble.  Only God can tell you who you are.

Watch the video
Or read the lyrics


[1] Lewis, C.S.  The Weight of Glory (1941).
[2] Hebrews 6:11
[3] Summary of Hebrews 6:13-18
[4] Numbers 1:51. The Levites were a type of priest, after whom the book of Leviticus is named.
[5] Leviticus 16:1-16
[6] John 19:30
[7] Mark 15:38
[8] Hebrews 10:20
[9] Genesis 1:2
[10] Matthew 26:53
[11] McNeill, Donald P.; Morrison, Douglas A.; Nouwen, Henri J. M.  Compassion: A Reflection on the Christian Life (1982).

More than Truth


“The poor is disliked even by his neighbor, but the rich has many friends.
Whoever despises his neighbor is a sinner, but blessed is he who is generous to the poor.” – Proverbs 14:20-21
“The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” – Mark 1:1

In May, I heard a sports update on the radio that eight members of the New York Yankees baseball organization, including players and staff, had tested positive for Covid-19.  Then the radio host raised his voice in alarm and added: “and all of them were fully vaccinated!”  The next day, I read a different report online about the Yankees that said all who tested positive were asymptomatic.  The first report didn’t mention that they were asymptomatic, and the second report didn’t mention that they were vaccinated.  Both reports were factual, but both reports were misleading.  One sounds like good news, and the other bad, but it’s the same story.  I can’t judge the intent of either source, but the point is that there is more to discernment than telling the difference between truth and lies.

While there is absolute truth, not all truth is the way, and not every way leads to life.  In the last post, I introduced a “Moral GPS”, our internal chatterbox of voices that influence our decisions.  In choosing between these, I wrote “Facts matter, but any voice can have facts.”  You can choose the wrong direction even if the signs pointing that way were “true”. A key input to that system is the media.

During the pandemic, many became increasingly frustrated with the idea of “truth”, and this has at least in part been intentionally engineered.  Bogeymen were everywhere, and you or your neighbor might be one!  Frustration is good for politicians and journalists, which is nothing new – consider these quotes and their dates:

“The biggest big business in America is not steel, automobiles, or television.  It is the manufacture, refinement and distribution of anxiety” – Eric Sevareid, CBS journalist, in 1974

“The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by an endless series of hobgoblins, most of them imaginary.” – H. L. Mencken, in 1923

Feeding this frenzy is the fiction that if journalists and others are telling the truth, they are “objective” or “unbiased”, and therefore “ethical”.  This claim of objectivity is not only light years from the truth, but also theoretically impossible for anyone but God Himself.  I studied journalism at what is considered a top school in the United States, and although they didn’t outright teach bias, they taught us to think about what goes into making the following decisions and others:

  • What stories do you publish “above the fold” of the newspaper, where people are most likely to see it?
  • Which quotes do you place early in an article (people usually don’t read the entire article, but please keep reading this one), and which do you place later?
  • Which sources do you work harder to get a quote from, and which do you give up on after leaving one voice mail?  The ones that support your view, or the ones that contradict?
  • Which statistics do you cite, or not cite (to save space and make deadline)?
  • What term do you use to describe a person or idea?  The term used by advocates, or by adversaries?

There is no “lying” going on behind many of these decisions, just “editorial discretion”.  There were, of course, manipulated polls and other things I learned about, but very few outright lies.  In the more modern media age, though, these things are elementary.  Now technology even allows companies to make these decisions for other people’s content!

Of course, not all journalists are unethical, which is just like any profession, but the industry trend seems to be downhill, and those who get the most attention are often the worst examples.  It’s an industry in need of a revival.

Frustration is also good for some economically.  “Big tech” businesses made a ton of money during the pandemic, partly by feeding your anxiety.  Algorithms and clickbait aren’t interested in informing you, only manipulating your emotions to draw you to advertising.  They analyze in labs how the chemical reward system of the human brain reacts to different things so that you will return for that “high” repeatedly.  They’re making you emotional on purpose.  Bad news sells.  Thoughtful news, not as much.  Again, the intent and the business model are nothing new, but technology has made it ruthlessly efficient, and a pandemic-panicked population created a captive audience with so many “normal” activities unavailable.  One of my best moments of 2020 was getting to a movie theater in November.  It was a needed distraction and a healthy sense of normalcy[1].

Consider also this quote:

“One of the most tragic events of our time is that we know more than ever before about the pains and sufferings of the world and yet are less and less able to respond to them…There appears to be a general assumption that it is good for people to be exposed to the pain and suffering of the world…If we let the full content of newscasts enter into our innermost selves, we would become so overwhelmed by the absurdities of existence that we would become paralyzed” (emphasis mine)

This comes from a book I just read titled “Compassion”[2], written in 1982.  Before the internet and smart phones.  Let that sink in.  The suffering of the world is not a yoke you want to carry, but it’s in the interest of many journalists, politicians, and computer programmers to make you feel it.

Truth + Perspective
So, how do we start to filter all of this?  Proverbs 14:20-21 quoted above provides one example of how the Bible deals with and presents truth.  Both verses are “true”, but each has its own perspective.  Verse 20 describes the world as it is: “The poor is disliked even by his neighbor, but the rich has many friends”.  No matter the economic and political system you live under, you recognize this as generally “true”.  Ancient Israel had the same “truth” as the modern world.  But what do you do with this information?  Your self-determined Moral GPS might tell you to pursue riches, because it is “good” to be liked and have friends.  Who wants to be disliked?  If this is “just the way it is”, why go against the grain?  Greed is good.  More on this later.

This isn’t the only Proverb that states things as they are, with no value judgment attached.  Another example would be Proverbs 17:8 – “A bribe is like a magic stone in the eyes of the one who gives it; wherever he turns he prospers.”  This doesn’t mean one should give bribes, but it’s “true” and helpful to know how bribes function, even if your goal is to avoid them.

Fortunately, verse 21 adds perspective in God’s value judgment on the truth of verse 20: “Whoever despises his neighbor is a sinner, but blessed is he who is generous to the poor.”  If you fear God, your course of action is not to reinforce the truth of verse 20, but to seek to correct the situation with righteousness and justice.  A Christian must be concerned about what to do, in addition to what is true.

The Illusion of Pax Romana
Also, at a higher level, there’s “Gospel Truth”, a sort of master narrative that adolescent truths and narratives want to be when they grow up.  In “Evil and the Justice of God” by N.T. Wright, he says, “the word gospel itself…was a direct confrontation with the regime of Caesar, the news of whose rule was referred to in his empire as ‘good news’, ‘gospel’”.  Before Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, the “gospel” was an existing genre of literature, or more accurately propaganda, exalting successive Caesars as bringing in and sustaining the Pax Romana[3], or “Roman Peace” which lasted roughly the first two centuries A.D.  Wikipedia describes it “as a period and golden age of increased as well as sustained Roman imperialism, order, prosperous stability, hegemonial power and expansion”.  These gospels sometimes assigned miraculous powers to Caesar and ordered that he be revered as a god.

The Christian gospels are not “biography” by genre, but “gospel”, a narrative to challenge the existing narrative.  Jesus operated in the environment of the world’s greatest empire, which would endure no rival, no other gospel.  From this perspective, His ministry looks different.  All He had to do was walk down the street – any street – and find problems not being solved in Caesar’s great empire and He was promoting a different narrative.  Mark’s gospel says those who saw Jesus “were astonished beyond measure, saying, ‘He has done all things well. He even makes the deaf hear and the mute speak.’”[4]  Actual miracles showing that He could solve every problem He encountered, while He promised a world where all problems are solved for those who believe in Him.

However, those who were happy with the empire didn’t go quietly.  Proverbs 14:20 truth was just fine with them since they were the rich ones enforcing the rules.  “They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger.”[5]  Preservation of the “Pax” often led these leaders to clash with, and ultimately crucify, Jesus.  John 11:48 records the panic of religious leaders about Jesus’ activities: “If we let Him go on like this, everyone will believe in Him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.”  When Jesus healed on the Sabbath, they protested because it was “against the rules”, which they needed people to follow, otherwise the Romans would have to step in, re-establish order, and probably put in new leadership.  Their fear of Caesar was so strong that they determined to kill someone who was able to raise the dead. Make sense to you?

Early Christians faced similar problems.  Much of the persecution of the early church was because “The exclusive sovereignty of Christ clashed with Caesar’s claims to his own exclusive sovereignty,” according to historian Earle Cairns[6]

Conform Wisely
Back to the original topic of this post: journalism.  Part of the genius of the founding fathers of the United States was that, by granting freedom of the press, they were putting government and journalism in opposition to each other (at least in theory) and opening the way for multiple perspectives to get a hearing.  They knew that limiting distribution of “truth” to those in power was dangerous.  The powerful would be satisfied with Proverbs 14:20 truth.  In the world of Pax Romana, Caesar is god and loyalty is required for the prospering of the kingdom.  There can be only one narrative.

If you live in a country with press freedom, be thankful.  Diverse information is needed to rightly understand the broad situation of our world and immediate surroundings, but too much of that knowledge can be soul-crushing, draining us of compassion needed for the problems right in front of us.  The wrong truth can make us despise our neighbor, or to support the wrong gospel.

The Bible commands: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” – Romans 12:2

How do we do this?  Maybe God could tell us the “right” network to watch, the “right” amount to watch, and the “right” solution.  However, nobody but God is the Answer.  Therefore, each person must practice discernment as the Spirit guides and give grace to others.  Each must learn to fear God and let Him overrule the other voices in our Moral GPS.  If we pay attention, we know the Bible is not silent.  Proverbs alone contains a lot of relevant wisdom on the subject:

“Whoever walks with the wise becomes wise, but the companion of fools will suffer harm.” (13:20)
“A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion.” (18:2)
“The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him.” (18:17)
“Unequal weights and unequal measures are both alike an abomination to the LORD.” (20:10)
“Make no friendship with a man given to anger, nor go with a wrathful man,
lest you learn his ways and entangle yourself in a snare.” (22:24-25)

Find news that suits God’s purpose for you and helps you glorify Him.  The world needs Proverbs 14:21 truth, and God requires it.  Like Jesus did wandering the streets of His day, look in your circles – family, church, neighborhood, workplace, state – and have compassion for those who need good news that isn’t in the news.  For some of these people, the institutions of your particular “Pax Romana” failed them – family, community, the courts, the government, even the church.  Perhaps a judge declared against them wrongly?  Perhaps they were a victim of abuse nobody knows about?  Maybe there is some other secret struggle or sin?  A disability, either permanent or temporary?  Perhaps they just don’t fit in with the clique of your neighborhood?  Maybe their employer made a “business decision” that cost them their job?  Some might have been hurt by the pandemic in less-obvious ways: they lost their life savings when their small business went under, they struggle with mental health, they saw their college dreams fall away, and any other number of things.

You won’t hear about many of these people on the news, and often politicians aren’t interested in their problems, especially if it makes their narrative look bad.  Anyway, these lost sheep don’t want publicity.  They just want compassion first, then perhaps help and a way forward.  Or perhaps just compassion and hope.

Individual people can be understood and shown compassion; narratives and statistics can overwhelm us and shut us down.  In the book “Compassion” quoted earlier, the authors write: “When information about human suffering comes to us through a person who can be embraced, it is humanized”.  They also write that the expression “to be moved with compassion” occurs 12 times in the New Testament, always in relation to Jesus or God the Father.  The original Greek behind it suggests not just a passing feeling or sentiment, but something you feel in your guts.  When Jesus found hurting people everywhere He went, His compassion compelled Him to help them.  In feeding people, healing people, and spending time with outcasts, Jesus made it clear that the Pax Romana wasn’t “good news” for everyone.  He wasn’t necessarily trying to pick a fight, but He couldn’t help it.  God is love after all.

You may upset the “Pax Romana” of your time and place, but every “Pax Romana” is illusory and temporary.  Break some rules.  Be creative.  Don’t let anyone recruit you into a cause that isn’t yours and that isn’t God’s.  Don’t let them lay heavy burdens on your shoulders that are impossible for you to bear.  The weight of the world was on the cross, but not your cross.

I’m horrible at compassion but working to do better.  I hope that a lot of us can do better as we emerge from the pandemic more aware of the impact of only seeing the world through windows.

If you are one of the hurting people, reach out for help.  There are likely more people who care, and more resources available, than you know.  You’re not a statistic.

Thank you for reading.

Coda
If you can spare a few more minutes, check out the song, “Never Take It” by twenty øne piløts.  It’s an upbeat sounding, yet defiant, take on how media tries to “weaponize you and I”.  The lyrics are fantastic.
Lyric video
Lyric page

[1] One of the worst things about 2020 was that I knew there were people who hated me for going to a movie theater and “putting lives in danger”
[2] McNeill, Donald P.; Morrison, Douglas A.; Nouwen, Henri J. M.  Compassion: A Reflection on the Christian Life (1982).  I bought this book in 1993 but never read it until re-discovering it recently while looking for another book someone texted me about during a nap.  I decided to read it since compassion is so needed given the societal damage done by the pandemic and related trends.  Glad I did.
[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pax_Romana.  Yes, Wikipedia is a lousy source, but this is a blog.
[4] Mark 7:37
[5] Matthew 23:4
[6] Cairns, Earle E. Christianity Through the Centuries: A History of the Christian Church (1996).

Tuning in to Wisdom


“But with you there is forgiveness, that you may be feared.” – Psalm 130:4
“The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.” – Proverbs 9:10

So far, I’ve written about Jesus as the only Answer to our need for purpose.  He is the only one qualified to be the Truth we can rely on, the Way to our salvation, and the Life that can restore us to what we are intended to be.  Jesus is the cornerstone upon which we must build our lives and impact the world around us, as a witness to the God who loves us and offers us a new heaven and new earth where His purpose and our purpose are perfectly aligned.

God’s “perfect system” exists only in heaven, but in this world, He calls His people to do His work, pointing the way to His kingdom. But if we are to create for His glory, we require His wisdom, which I briefly mentioned last time as “set up, at the first, before the beginning of the earth”, and there, “like a master workman”[1] To all the people and kingdoms of the world, His call is to repentance. If you want utopia, you need to go through Him.

Now we come down from the almost cosmic level of the prior posts to the level of the individual.

Learning Fear

What follows started with me pondering Psalm 130:4: “But with you there is forgiveness, that you may be feared.”  I read this a few weeks ago and initially thought it was backwards: why does knowing that God forgives make us fear Him more?  Shouldn’t we fear Him less when forgiven?  Also, if “the fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom”[2] then to find purpose we need wisdom, and to have wisdom we need fear.

Getting Psalm 130:4 to make sense with the order of forgiveness, fear, and then wisdom required a re-thinking of repentance.  My conclusion was: the one who has not been forgiven has not repented, and the reason they did not repent was that they did not fear God.  They did not understand Him properly.

But the one who has been forgiven has repented, and they repented because they understood that was the best thing for them to do.  A proper understanding and respect for God’s character makes us turn to Him with our guilt, rather than run away from Him.  We should not be afraid of God, where we are motivated to passivity – avoiding mistakes that would anger the one we fear.  We fear God in that we revere Him and respect His authority, thus actively seeking to please Him.  When we pray and ask for forgiveness, it’s often a simple prayer made with the proverbial faith of a child, but if you unpack the implications, prayers of repentance acknowledge:

1) Him as the source of the law, the ultimate arbiter of right and wrong
2) Him as the righteous judge who is personally offended by our sin
3) His omniscience, knowing we cannot hide our sin
4) His uniqueness, as there is no other God to turn to
5) His steadfast love for us, knowing He bore the cost of our sin, and therefore we can approach Him
6) His compassion since He lived as a man
7) His power and willingness to heal us
8) His consistency of character: that He is not arbitrary
9) …and more

If we don’t implicitly or explicitly believe these things, then why repent and ask forgiveness from God?  Why expect to get it?  Exploring that set of statements could fill multiple volumes of theology books, but we don’t need that knowledge.  Fortunately, in His grace, He honors our heartfelt confessions.  He paid the price for all our inadequacies – even when we don’t fully understand our own prayers or who we’re praying to.  The Spirit pleads with the Father on our behalf[3].  Without His inexhaustible grace, our doubt on any one of these points might prevent us from repentance.  Mercifully, our forgiveness is based on His faithfulness to us: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” – 1 John 1:9

The righteous must live by faith because otherwise God would be playing whack-a-mole with our doubts for eternity.  Faith – our trust in God – is imperfect but it is the only thing that can bridge the gap between the faith of a child and the omniscience of God, who knows all our doubts and all their answers.  We come as we are.

In pondering Psalm 130:4, I better appreciate how complex, and in fact, miraculous, repentance really is.  Genuine repentance leads to forgiveness, which gives us a better appreciation of who God is.  We will have lived Psalm 34:8 for ourselves:

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

Only through your acceptance of the cross, where Christ’s atoning blood was shed for you, can God in His Holiness commune with you.  Only through forgiveness will the Holy Spirit come and live in you – the indwelling referred to last time.  Only by tasting of His goodness do we really know what He is like.  It requires participation on our part.  If you never repent, you don’t know what it tastes like, only what you’ve been told.  And you might not have been told the truth.

So, forgiveness enables proper fear of the Lord, and the fear of the Lord enables wisdom, but what’s wisdom?

Upgrading Wisdom

I’ve had some sort of working definition of “wisdom” for most of my life.  As a teenager, I remember joking that it was the ability to learn from other people’s mistakes.  Sounded teenager-wise, but how do I know what’s a mistake?  Later, I read somewhere about wisdom being “skill at living life”.  Also sounds useful, but perhaps vague and worldly feeling.  Even later in life, I started thinking of it as “being able to make decisions based on facts, instead of wishful thinking.”  This has been even more useful, but which facts do you follow?  How do you choose between two “true” options?

Now I have a new definition: Wisdom is the ability to choose between the path of righteousness and the path of the wicked.  Reading the Psalms and Proverbs specifically, there is a contrast between these “paths”, and an idea that moral decisions are like a route between places.  You can be on one path or the other, and with wisdom, “you will understand righteousness and justice and equity, every good path”[4]

You may be thinking: “that sounds like a moral compass!”  I’ll respond with: “you need to upgrade your technology.  We use GPS now!”  Let me explain.

A compass is too simple a metaphor.  Wisdom is usually not like a clear sign pointing the way, although God can use whatever means He chooses.  In our experience, wisdom is more like one voice among many on a broken Moral GPS system, that speaks about all “political, social, cultural, personal, moral, religious and spiritual”[5] factors in our environment and from our experience.  It tells us to go places we shouldn’t and not to go places we should, weighing pros and cons in multiple voices.

A pre-Christian GPS considers all these factors, and a person makes decisions as they see fit to prioritize among them.  Salvation requires realizing the GPS is broken, trusting someone who knows how to fix it, and then striving to follow the new instructions.  When this happens, a Christian gets an added feature in their Moral GPS, a “Holy Spirit download” that adds one more (heavenly, loving) voice to the cacophony.  The Spirit speaks of the justice and righteousness referred to in both Proverbs 2:9 and in Isaiah 28:17. The Spirit speaks with the wisdom needed to measure from the cornerstone and fulfill our purpose as individuals in God’s image.

As we make decisions in the world, they reflect an inner decision, as we consult our Moral GPS, but remembering that it’s still a broken system.  Proverbs 1 contains an interesting parable.  As we walk down the streets of our inner map, Wisdom calls out and raises her voice in the markets (Pr. 1:20): “If you turn at my reproof, behold, I will pour out my spirit to you; I will make my words known to you” (Pr. 1:23).  But the streets are noisy (also Pr. 1:20) and you continue down the wrong street (perhaps to take shelter from the voices in your head).  Wisdom refuses to answer when you discover your mistake too late.  If you respond to wisdom, you get more wisdom.

A funnier example is in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail”, where Lancelot is rescuing Galahad from the Castle Anthrax.  The women of the castle live alone without men and when the knights stumble by (fooled by a false Holy Grail), the women try to seduce them into staying.  Galahad should know the right thing to do, because 1) he is nicknamed “the Chaste”, and 2) the castle is named Anthrax. However, the lure of Zoot and the other women is so strong that Lancelot must forcefully drag him away.  They argue: “Can’t I have just a little peril?”  “No, it’s too perilous”.

Sometimes we have the grace of a Lancelot to save us from falling into the trap set by the wrong voices in our moral GPS.  Sometimes we’re alone.  Sometimes we’re among people who want us to do wrong.  In these cases, the strength to choose wisely must come from inside.  Back in Proverbs 1:29, wisdom says people go on the wrong path because “they hated knowledge and did not choose the fear of the Lord”, suggesting that’s the deciding factor.

Absent Lancelot dragging us away, it is the fear of the Lord that makes us listen to, and act in, wisdom instead of going any which way.  It is the fear of the Lord that makes us listen to the correct voice in the broken GPS, to weigh that voice above the others.  The Holy Spirit may or may not add facts to the conversation, but it adds God’s heavenly perspective, influencing us to choose what is eternally valuable.  God does not want to drag us kicking and screaming into righteousness; He wants us to be thankful for His love and trust Him to know what’s best for us.  He knows about, and cares deeply about, every possible consequence of our actions to us and to others, not just the ones we see, or even want.

Wisdom is about taking the right action, not about accumulating facts.  Facts matter, but any voice can have facts.  In context of the Great Commandments[6], wisdom is what tells us how to love God and others actively, but in a way based on obedience that leaves the results to God.  In the book of Acts, Ananias didn’t minister to Saul, the notorious persecutor of Christians, because he thought it would end up well for Ananias[7], he did it because God told him to, and God knew that future Saul was Paul, the author of much of the New Testament.  Ananias didn’t decide based on the facts as he knew them, but he adjusted the facts in light of revelation from God.  Also, wisdom might sometimes tell you the best action is to do nothing.  Sometimes wisdom flashes a red light while others are flashing green.  “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death” – Pr. 14:12 and 16:25.

Wisdom is why the Way, the Truth and the Life must be a person, not a set of rules or philosophy.   Truly, only you, in relationship with God through the Holy Spirit, can figure out what your purpose and identity in the body of Christ are.  Wisdom is proactive and specific to you.  Nobody else’s situation is your situation, and nobody else has the same relationships, abilities, and resources.  Books, advice, and experience can be helpful, but you need to “taste and see” the Holy Spirit in you, working at your very core where only He can reach.

Wisdom will put you on a path that provides you, and this world, a taste of heaven.  It is informed by a justice and righteousness – God’s law and Christ’s character – that is not of this world.  With wisdom you can build and create on the cornerstone of Christ.  The world might not like it, but the world is not your Creator.

Fulfilling our purpose requires Wisdom and Grace, motivated by Godly fear – perhaps even the boldness of Caleb in the wilderness to face giants despite the majority opinion[8].  The next post, God willing, will be about combating the other voices in the Moral GPS.

Future Topics: Mind Your Own Business, Learning from Chaos, Walking on Water, some song analysis, recycled posts from my old, defunct blog, and hopefully much more!

Thanks for reading – comment below and/or share if you want.  What was meaningful to you?  What did you disagree with?  How do you define wisdom?  How does the world?


[1] Proverbs 8:22-31
[2] Proverbs 9:10a
[3] Romans 8:26-27
[4] Proverbs 2:9
[5] See last post.  These are some arenas of opposition defeated by Christ on the cross, and that He wants His people to influence.
[6] Matthew 22:37-39.  In short, love God and love your neighbor.
[7] Acts 9:13
[8] Numbers 13:30

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