persistent prayer

And Elijah said to Ahab, “Go, eat and drink, for there is the sound of a heavy rain.” So Ahab went off to eat and drink, but Elijah climbed to the top of Carmel, bent down to the ground and put his face between his knees.

“Go and look toward the sea,” he told his servant. And he went up and looked.

“There is nothing there,” he said.

Seven times Elijah said, “Go back.”

The seventh time the servant reported, “A cloud as small as a man’s hand is rising from the sea.”

So Elijah said, “Go and tell Ahab, ‘Hitch up your chariot and go down before the rain stops you.’”

Meanwhile, the sky grew black with clouds, the wind rose, a heavy rain started falling and Ahab rode off to Jezreel. The power of the Lord came on Elijah and, tucking his cloak into his belt, he ran ahead of Ahab all the way to Jezreel.

1 Kings 18

God was confronting Israel over its idolatry and the evil that came with that. The land was suffering from drought. We see in this chapter what probably Elijah is best remembered for, God making himself known as God, and Baal as no god.

What follows that is most interesting. Elijah tells King Ahab (his wife, Jezebel) that there is the sound of heavy rain coming. There’s not a cloud in the sky. And then Elijah goes off and prays, literally on his knees. And his request is for rain. He was surely led to thus speak to King Ahab, and then to pray. But it didn’t come easily.

Six times Elijah prayed with seemingly no answer. But the seventh time a small cloud emerged. Elijah then somehow knew God had answered, and sent word to King Ahab to be ready, precisely to escape the downpour. And then we read more Elijah like stuff. God’s power comes on him, and he runs by foot, and actually outruns King Ahab on Ahab’s chariot. Remarkable stuff.

But we can’t forget the entire narrative, what follows. Elijah is paralyzed in fear over Jezebel’s threats, and comes crashing down into a depression in which he asks God to take his life, feeling in despair and clearly exaggerating that he was the only follower of God left. James points to this incident for our application today:

Elijah was a human being, even as we are. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops.

And notice what preceded that:

Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.

James 5

We’re to pray, and keep on praying until God’s answer comes. Really pray. What people used to call, “pray through.” We may need to pray only one time. But ordinarily we’ll have to pray repeatedly for whatever reasons. Something God has given us, a vital role for us to play here and now, in and through Jesus.

Jesus blesses children

Then people brought little children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them and pray for them. But the disciples rebuked them.

Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” When he had placed his hands on them, he went on from there.

Matthew 19:13-15

I’m not sure what happens when we become adults. We easily become hard and cynical. And with the idea that we more or less have the measure of things. And it’s hard not to be that way in a world where so much is wrong, and in which we carry some of that wrong with us, even right in our hearts.

Jesus’s words here concerning children speak volumes to us, as to what God wants us to be, and how we will be when we fully arrive in the life to come when we see Jesus, and become like him in a finalized sense. And this is dynamic, by the way, and not static, so that there will be an ever increasing growth in the fixed state we’ll be in there. Exciting of course.

Jesus always spoke of God as Father, and taught his disciples to pray to God in that way: “Our Father…” And he taught that unless we change, are converted, and become like little children, we will never enter God’s kingdom (Matthew 18:3). We’re to have the faith of a little child.

And Jesus loves children. There is surely a special blessing from him for them, even to this very day. Childhood is an opportune time for children to meet Jesus in a new and lasting, eternal way. So that through the rough patches that come their way later, and through possible bad turns, God can help them come back to the life that is truly life. In and through Jesus.

 

speaking against other believers unlawfully

Brothers and sisters, do not slander one another. Anyone who speaks against a brother or sister or judges them speaks against the law and judges it. When you judge the law, you are not keeping it, but sitting in judgment on it. There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy. But you—who are you to judge your neighbor?

James 4:11-12

James has a lot to say about the tongue. This section follows, or perhaps (as NIV heading might suggest) is part of what preceded on submitting oneself to God, and one can see the possible connection with the opening thought on quarreling and not getting along.

To slander is to speak some untruth against someone, but the word might only mean to speak against someone, period, even if what is said is the truth. Only God knows the entire truth, and the truth through and through, so that we must beware of thinking we know in any final sense.

And when we speak in that way we also somehow put ourselves in the place of God. God alone gave the law, and God alone can make judgments based on it. Our judgment invariably won’t measure up to God’s, nor will our application of the law. In fact we will be so amiss, that we in effect will be judging the law itself. Exactly what that means is hard to pinpoint, except to say that our judgment on others inevitably means we are judging the law, and not getting at the true meaning of it, making the law into something other than it is. It is for living according to God’s will in love. We simply are incapable of making any such judgments on others.

And that’s what might be key to understanding the passage. It is referring to judging others in a sense in which we can’t. There are necessary judgments in life which we must make and receive. And best to do so together, always in a prayerful attitude.

What we might take home from this is simply to be cautious, so that if and when we speak we will do so in complete humility, emphasizing mercy, and God’s work in the entire process. Only God can convict the wrongdoer, and bring them to repentance. We can’t. We may necessarily have to confront someone, but we do so gently in love, realizing that we can easily fall into sin ourselves. But we are included in God’s work of restoration (Galatians 6).

We must beware of taking matters in our own hands, and brashly applying the law, when inevitably we who judge do the same things ourselves (Romans 2). When we stand in that kind of judgment of others, inevitably we not only distort what they did due to our own sin, but we also distort the law itself, somehow making it conform to our own understanding, beset with a heart not right, and therefore not seeing everything clearly. Only God can judge, convict, sentence, and redeem. We can’t.

So we best take a cautious attitude. And not slander or speak against our brother or sister even when our gut reaction is to do so. When we have to consider problems, we best do so before God, and when necessary, together. And not tolerate anything that doesn’t accentuate mercy along with the utmost humility concerning our own weakness and shortcomings.

neither underestimate nor misunderstand the grace of God (nor think we can comprehend it)

For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope—the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.

Titus 2:11-14

We find again and again in scripture that God’s grace is key in our lives, in the lives of others. There are differences in teaching on this, as one might and should expect. There is what theologians call “common grace,” in which God pours down his blessings on all, in sunshine and rain, and provisions for life and more. This is not the grace described in this passage which brings salvation, according to scripture.

This is a big subject, but this post will touch mainly on one aspect of it, while addressing one common misunderstanding. God’s grace is alive and well in the world, and there is the light which enlightens every person (John 1). But the goodness and kindness of God is meant to lead people to repentance (Romans 2). There is no salvation apart from faith in Christ. It’s not just that somehow in an inexplicable, mysterious way that in the end all are saved through Christ. The NIV avoids this misunderstanding in the translation above, even if less literal. God’s grace is at work in all kinds of ways, but the special grace of salvation is always linked to repentance which means a turning from sin to God, and to faith, which means a trust in God and in God’s word, the message of the good news in Jesus.

Theologians also refer to “prevenient grace” which means the grace by which people receive the good news of the gospel for themselves by simple faith and trust in Jesus. Through Jesus’s death for our sins, and resurrection. We trust in what God has done for us through Jesus’s death, and receive forgiveness of our sins and new, eternal life.

So the grace which saves, to which the passage above refers, is not a cheap grace by which people get in with no change of life. Not at all. But at the same time grace is at work in spite of us, not because of us. That’s not to say that our efforts toward understanding and entering into this grace are a waste of time. Grace termed as prevenient by theologians might well include some of this striving, making every effort to enter into God’s rest (Hebrews 4). But also we have to remember that we still sin and have indwelling sin (1 John 1). And that is all the more true of those who have yet to cross over from death into life. They are sinners, period. Maybe Christians are both sinners and saints (Luther), depending on what you mean by that. God’s grace at work in people’s lives is in spite of so many things. God in his grace accepts us completely exactly where we’re at, but in God’s good grace, he certainly doesn’t leave us there.

Grace means we’re satisfied with nothing less than God’s salvation, which doesn’t mean only the forgiveness of sins, but also new life, a new way of living. By the Spirit in the love of God. Which means a changed life, a transformation both complete at conversion, and incomplete until Jesus returns (Philippians 1:6), meaning there is a process involved.

This grace gives us hope, and helps us to get out of God’s way, simply presenting the gospel, and trying to be responsive to God’s word. But this grace teaches us, teaches others. God’s full, unmerited, undeserved favor in helping us in ways beyond us, but in ways that indeed reach us in and through Jesus.

fights or grace?

What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? You desire but do not have, so you kill. You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight. You do not have because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.

You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world means enmity against God? Therefore, anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God. Or do you think Scripture says without reason that he jealously longs for the spirit he has caused to dwell in us? But he gives us more grace. That is why Scripture says:

“God opposes the proud
    but shows favor to the humble.”

Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil,and he will flee from you.Come near to God and he will come near to you.Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.

James 4:1-10

Jeff Manion at Ada Bible Church gave another helpful message (they’re all good from him, as well as from others there) on this passage (not yet available online, but it will be the fifth in the series).

Conflict is a fact of life. Over and over again we encounter it here and there. I’m thankful to experience little of it, but it does occur at times. Sometimes we hold it in, but that can’t last forever. One way or another, for good, but mostly for ill, it will come out. If we can let it out to God like the psalmists of old, that is good. And sometimes after we let it cool down, we might be able to address the problem, first in ourselves, and then maybe we can help someone else.

James points out that our problem is desire, maybe the desire to be right, respected, things that may or may not be legitimate, but certainly out of place here. At the heart of this is pure idolatry. James calls those who fight and quarrel adulterers, certainly meaning in a spiritual sense. His hearers/readers were at least primarily Jewish, steeped in what we call the Old Testament, in the scriptures, and knew the theme of spiritually adultery in God’s people departing from God to serve and worship other gods, which were no gods at all, but idols.

When God is God to us, then we are enabled by grace to love the God who loves us, who is love, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. But when other things become our gods, idols in our hearts, which includes a whole host of possibilities, really anything, even including ourselves, we find that getting along with others can be a challenge, or maybe not on the table at all. God brings his people together in harmony, in contrast to idols which divide, in significant part due to the demonic influence behind them, which is bent on division and destruction.

Jeff Manion’s message is much better than what I just shared, a bit of what I’ve said reflected from it. The part that especially hit home for me from what he said is how God is the God of grace, who loves to give and give and give some more. How after these strong words, it is made clear that God gives more grace. What we need to do is ask in prayer, and not to fulfill our pleasures, either. God wants to give generously, over and over again.

Then there’s a list of what we’re to do, one thing after another, at least eight in all depending on how you count. We are to respond to this word, to take action, the starting point, submitting ourselves to God, after which we can resist the devil and do all the rest. We are to get serious about our own problem, rather than focusing on the problems of others. Coming near to God with the promise that as we do so, God will come near to us.

Grace from God to help us live in submission to him in our every day lives with others. In and through Jesus.

what life throws at you

Ecclesiastes is one of my favorite books. And it’s about not so much what life throws at us, but what we want out of life. We want to suck it high and dry, as if somehow we’re going to get life out of that. But the writer as well as the observer and “Teacher”, the one who experienced this said that it was all futile, even meaningless.

It’s not like the details of life don’t matter, because they certainly do. We want to do all that we should, and do it well. Although in the nature of things, we are limited. And there is always more that either needs to be or could be done. As long as life shall last.

Maybe the conclusion of the matter at the end of Ecclesiastes, along with wisdom woven throughout, is what we need to set our sights on. Particularly that ending that declares when it’s all said and done we’re to fear God and keep his commandments. We let life get to us, with all its obligations, demands, and expectations (real or imagined) pressing in against us.

Maybe it’s time to stop and ask what really matters. To really fear God, and be intent on keeping God’s commandments in and through Jesus is what in the end matters. At the same time, we need God’s wisdom to navigate the bumpy, rough, and sometimes puzzling terrain of life. Enjoying all the good gifts from God, and even finding satisfaction in the work we do. Maybe we can find a rhythm in it all, which can help us live in what is really life. A challenge indeed. God will help us in and through Jesus.

1 Corinthians 13

And yet I will show you the most excellent way.

If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

1 Corinthians 12:31-13:13

wrestling with God no less

That night Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two female servants and his eleven sons and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. After he had sent them across the stream, he sent over all his possessions. So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man. Then the man said, “Let me go, for it is daybreak.”

But Jacob replied, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”

The man asked him, “What is your name?”

“Jacob,” he answered.

Then the man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.”

Jacob said, “Please tell me your name.”

But he replied, “Why do you ask my name?” Then he blessed him there.

So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.”

The sun rose above him as he passed Peniel, and he was limping because of his hip. Therefore to this day the Israelites do not eat the tendon attached to the socket of the hip, because the socket of Jacob’s hip was touched near the tendon.

Genesis 32:22-32

Jacob’s circumstances were ordinarily difficult and at times even dire thanks in large part to himself, but not without the help of a broken, “dysfunctional” family. He was given to taking matters into his own hands as if all depended on him. His mother Rebecca wasn’t any help here, since she set up the deceptive plot to steal father Isaac’s blessing intended for his favorite, Esau for her favorite, Jacob. She didn’t trust what God had told her before the boys were born, that the older would serve the younger.

Now Jacob was returning home after two decades away to meet Esau for the first time after Esau had been intent on killing his brother. Jacob was in trouble, or at least there was nothing he could do himself to assure a good outcome, unlike numerous other times in his life. Not that he didn’t go to great lengths to do so, and not in an altogether admirable way when you think about it.

But the night prior to that Jacob wrestled with the angel of God, considered a theophany, “a visible representation of God.” He had it out with God, and God with him in the form of a man who wrestled with him until daybreak, touching his hip socket, and putting it out of joint, which really had to be painful. And interestingly, Jacob walked around with a limp the rest of his life. I’m sure he had to keep learning over and over the lesson and truth given to him that night.

Hosea gives us an explanation of what happened:

In the womb he grasped his brother’s heel;
    as a man he struggled with God.
He struggled with the angel and overcame him;
    he wept and begged for his favor.
He found him at Bethel
    and talked with him there—
the Lord God Almighty,
    the Lord is his name!

Hosea 12:3-5

And I think this scripture implies that the very tendency in Jacob which kept him from faith became the means of at least a renewed faith, probably in his experience a new faith altogether.

What about us today? We seem to like easy answers. Just know this or that, or have some experience and everything will be okay. But scripture doesn’t seem to line up well with that idea. In the end of course all will be light and clear, and complete peace, joy, and love. But here and now, where we see through a glass darkly and know in part, we must continue on, which means we need to struggle on in faith. Yes, having it out with God so to speak, indeed a wrestling with God. That is where our faith can be rekindled, or perhaps even given spark for the first time. And where the needs that we are facing for our loved ones, and for ourselves can begun to be met. In and through Jesus.

 

becoming Bible people with tradition and in spite of prevailing thought

There is no question that simply being in the Bible and citing scripture is not foolproof against the deceptive wiles of the devil. Numerous sects and heresies which is a term meaning deviations from the truth have been spun out of just that sort of practice. So the answer can’t simply be to just get back to the Bible, unless that’s qualified as to specifically what is meant.

Scripture itself points to the church as the pillar and foundation of the truth, so that any biblical interpretation apart from consideration of what the Spirit has been saying to the churches and the church at large is automatically suspect. Individuals have divided over mistakenly supposing the Spirit had given them insight which either contradicted others, or gave a needed insight. The richness of scripture and Christian orthodoxy, the Christian tradition is apparent when one begins to look and dig deeper into scripture itself, and the patristic (church fathers) sources.

We can’t rightly or even possibly consider the Bible apart from tradition. Our translations of scripture are dependent on interpretation to some extent, an interpretation that does do justice to the Book at large, but does provide answers where interpretations might vary. The church in the early centuries is an example of this: reacting to various heresies, like the idea that Jesus had a beginning and is a created being, not God. The church instead came up with the truth from scripture that Jesus is both completely God and completely human, two natures separate, not intermixed, yet indissoluble (permanent) in the one person. And the teaching of the Trinity, that God is one God, so that we can speak of God that way as one person, yet three equal Persons in that one God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. When the Protestant Reformation occurred, these past formulations were not under consideration for revision. Martin Luther didn’t want to leave the church, but reform it. But when what is called the Radical Reformation occurred, it was essentially a restorationist movement, with the goal of becoming strictly a church in accordance with scripture, specifically the New Testament. The Anabaptists were one such group, and Menno Simons early on was misunderstood to be a heretic when it came to those early formulations, and soon realized that one can’t leave tradition behind. He made it clear that the Anabaptists accepted the teaching of the Trinity, and of Christ’s two natures as formulated by the church in those early councils.

It does seem to me like we live in a day in which people need to get back to scripture. Certainly not to read it as a flat book, as if it is all equally applicable today. To see it as the unfolding story it is, fulfilled in Christ, and to be completed when he returns. But scripture itself seems to have fallen on either deaf or complacent ears to a significant degree among believers. The diminishing of biblical knowledge among church goers seems to have been occurring incrementally for decades now. And today, either people don’t know, or little care, or they easily misread scripture in defense of an agenda which is actually based on something other than God’s word and will. Not to say that any of us are immune to any of this; we most certainly are not.

Maybe we lack interest in scripture in part because our expectations are elsewhere. We love this or that, and feed on such, with just a bit of time left to maybe get to a reading from the Bible. We fail to dig and ponder, read and wonder, study and think, and pray. We connect elsewhere, finding scripture irrelevant.

Instead in this day maybe like in none other, we need to regularly plug in and find our way through God’s word, which is called a lamp for our feet, and a light for our path. We need to look at current thinking in light of scripture and the gospel. Including of course our own thinking and practice, which so easily is and can be misguided.

And we need to find our way to a church which believes and practices the word, with of course the realization that the gospel, the good news of God in Jesus is the point of it all. And all the richness and vitality that comes out of that.

May God help us to live out what we are as God’s people together by the Spirit through the word in and through Jesus.

 

Psalm 18: holy warfare for today

With your help I can advance against a troop;
    with my God I can scale a wall.

Psalm 18

As one who is either a pacifist Christian, or almost completely so (see Miroslav Volf for his change, and why), warfare passages in scripture, specifically in the Old Testament can seen counter Jesus, and in a sense might well be considered so (though read the book of Revelation, but also see Michael Gorman’s book on it which I haven’t read). Tremper Longman in this lecture defends well the teaching of holy war in the Old Testament, countering Greg Boyd’s recent work.

Judgment is both present and future, and I let some of the hard questions go. What I’m settled in is that for the people of God today, holy warfare amounts to spiritual warfare. The apostle Paul’s words seem to address this for me:

For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.

2 Corinthians 10

Nevertheless all scripture was written for us, even if not to us. I find Psalm 18 completely encouraging and inspiring for the real life I have to face. We are not called to a passive existence where we do nothing, unlike what some advocate, as if anything else is opposed to God’s grace. No. In Christ we are given strength from God to do what we must. And any holy war today would never be physical:

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand.

Ephesians 6

We are in a battle no less. And like Longman points out for the actual physical warfare that went on in the Old Testament (and I would highly recommend listening to this lecture), we engage in spiritual warfare in the context of worship and submission to God as prescribed in God’s word.

Find your way to Psalm 18 in your own Bible. Read slowly, meditate, and pray. That is what I’m doing.  So that I can find my strength, what I need in God, and what God gives us, in and through Jesus.