who do we identify with in the gospel narratives?

As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.

That evening, at sunset, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed by demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door. And he cured many who were sick with various diseases and cast out many demons, and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.

Mark 1:29-34; NRSVue

I’m in a devotional time where we’re working through the gospel according to Mark. As we go into it, and consider this writing, I was thinking who I identify with. We’re to be followers of Christ, so one might think we ought to identify ourselves with him. And in a sense, that’s so true. Christ fully identified himself with us, so that we might fully identity ourselves in him, find our true identity in him. But none of us in this life gets everything right the way he did. We have to be far more humble knowing that we simply can’t have the same assurance he did. We not only won’t get everything right, but there probably is some measure of wrong or mistakenness in all we do, everything. That doesn’t mean that God isn’t in it as we depend on Christ and seek to be led by the Spirit.

This makes me think I identify more with Jesus’s disciples, bumbling and slow as they were. I have no problem connecting myself with that. I almost always am struggling over something or another. But I can also identify well with bystanders in the story so to speak, participants like the man whose son was suffering terribly from a demon which Jesus’s disciples couldn’t cast out. Jesus comes, and asks if the man believes he can do this. He says I believe, help my unbelief! Yes, I can identify with that. And with the disciples at what’s called “the Great Commission” at the end of Matthew’s gospel account, when they worshiped him, but as the NRSVue renders it, doubted as well (“they doubted” not just “some doubted”) which might be a better rendering from the Greek.

People in Mark’s gospel account are in a position of receiving from Jesus. And as followers of Jesus we’re meant to be those who can bless others, mostly through our prayers and simply being available to them, hopefully being led by the Spirit to help them in anyway we can, whatever God gives us. At the same time I often feel like I’m the one in need of Jesus’s touch, of his cure and healing.

We are part of the ongoing story. Jesus is ascended, we fast as the Bridegroom is gone, at least in our attitude, though Christ is very near us by the Spirit. But the Spirit was with Jesus’s followers when he was present. How can you beat that? Yet Jesus said it was better that he depart so that the Comforter could come, the Spirit in whom he would be present. So the story continues.

As we read and work through such gospel accounts, may God help us to find our footing, where we fit. And to go on, seeking to follow Jesus entirely in every way to the very end.

In and through Jesus.

by faith we have an understanding

By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible.

Hebrews 11:3; NRSVue

But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

John 20:24-29; NRSVue

Although you have not seen him, you love him, and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.

1 Peter 1:8-9; NRSVue

Our Christian faith rests on Christ and Christ’s resurrection from the dead. There are many things in scripture which can’t be verified historically, and some are contradicted by findings. Given our modernist rationalist mindset, we want to verify anything and everything before we believe it. But scripture insists that we have it backward. As Augustine well said:

For understanding is the reward of faith. Therefore, do not seek to understand in order to believe, but believe so that you may understand.

We don’t have to have everything verified, in fact not anything. Though I think one can make a good case for the historicity of Christ’s resurrection (see N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God) but when it’s all said and done, I’m not sure it can actually be proven. Yet if you read the gospel accounts (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) along with Acts and what follows, I think it’s much easier to accept than not. Certainly the apostles and early disciples believed it along with those who followed, and right up to the present day.

But the point of this post is that though we can’t see it, though it may contradict our understanding and senses, whatever may be the case, we will enter into whatever reality there actually is only through faith. We have to accept the testimony concerning the gospel, the good news in Jesus. That may be a struggle, but if we set our hearts and minds to that, it will come. God will help us. In the meantime, we need to be patient with ourselves and others. We can’t force it; God gives it. Like Thomas we need to ask, seek and knock. God will assuredly answer and give us much more than rational knowledge and all the answers, but will help us begin to enter into the reality ourselves. In and through Jesus.

vindication from God

Of David.

Vindicate me, O Lord,
for I have walked in my integrity,
and I have trusted in the Lord without wavering.
Prove me, O Lord, and try me;
test my heart and mind.
For your steadfast love is before my eyes,
and I walk in faithfulness to you.[a]

I do not sit with the worthless,
nor do I consort with hypocrites;
I hate the company of evildoers,
and will not sit with the wicked.

I wash my hands in innocence,
and go around your altar, O Lord,
singing aloud a song of thanksgiving,
and telling all your wondrous deeds.

Lord, I love the house in which you dwell,
and the place where your glory abides.
Do not sweep me away with sinners,
nor my life with the bloodthirsty,
those in whose hands are evil devices,
and whose right hands are full of bribes.

But as for me, I walk in my integrity;
redeem me, and be gracious to me.
My foot stands on level ground;
in the great congregation I will bless the Lord.

Psalm 26

God in a true sense never needs vindication, but in the end God will vindicate God’s name. God does that various ways, and ultimately in and through Jesus. But God also vindicates God’s people, God’s servants. Although none of us are worthy of complete vindication.

To vindicate is simply to prove one to be in the right, in what’s good, in the clear. We could see it as judicial or perhaps helping people to see that such is the case in real life by good works and the good results which follow.

In this life God and God’s people and servants will be not only questioned, but doubted, and sometimes even cast out as evil.

It is interesting that this is a Davidic psalm, attributed to, of all people, David. Which is true of many of the psalms. But the idea of vindication and integrity (or blamelessness, NIV) seem pretty far removed from reality when we consider David. What is the first thing that comes to mind when we think of David? The gospel does not hide his sin since right from the beginning in Matthew David’s sin with Bathsheba which involved what amounted to murder as well is mentioned. We know that repentance followed. Some might think of Psalm 23 which David may have penned (“The Lord is my shepherd…”). And in Acts David is remembered as a man after God’s own heart (also 1 Samuel) who would do all God wanted him to do. As well as serving God’s purpose in his generation.

This should be encouraging to us. There are times when we doubt ourselves, and maybe even doubt the Lord’s relationship to us and work in our own lives, never mind the fact that others doubt us. Vindication from God is entirely from God’s grace and goodness to us. We can’t and shouldn’t try to do this ourselves. That will amount to no vindication at all. Notice of course that it’s a prayer here. We need to remain low, and let God do what only God can do.

And in doing so, it is God who will be glorified, even while God chooses to glorify God’s servants as well. In the end certainly all the glory rightfully goes to God. Yet somehow God lifts us up into that same glory, might we say glorification? which indeed will happen in a final sense.

So we need to entrust ourselves, our reputations, all of us including the dark places in our lives into God’s hands. Believing that God will work it out for good, not just for ourselves, but for and including everyone else as well. In and through Jesus.

unhealthy doubt

If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you. But ask in faith, never doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind; for the doubter, being double-minded and unstable in every way, must not expect to receive anything from the Lord.

James 1:5-8

God does not despise the one who struggles with doubt. The classic example of Thomas the doubter comes to mind. There is a gentle rebuke in our Lord’s dealing with him, but the Lord did not reject him.  Actually the raising of doubt can be an expression of faith. We see it throughout Scripture, Job being one prime example. Job along with many psalmists questions God, raises concerns, in essence they are honest to God.

What James is talking about here is fundamentally different. In the context it’s referring to doublemindedness, no longer really grappling with God, or taking God at God’s word. According to James, it isn’t necessarily that the doubter isn’t praying. But evidently it’s either an empty religious exercise, or becomes that since the one praying is not believing God will come through, not trusting God. It comes across to me as a kind of half hearted prayer in contrast to the healthy doubter who is fully engaged in their wrestling with God.

What I believe we can be assured of is that God will honor our sincere attempt to pray as James (and our Lord in the gospels) tells us to here. It’s not like we have to be perfect, though God can give us a certain faith during such times. We seek to be fully committed to God, open to God’s correction along the way. God will help us to grow in faith and offer the prayer of faith, giving us the needed wisdom we’re asking for, or whatever else we may request in God’s will. In and through Jesus.

blessedly not let off the hook (by James)

My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.

If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you. But ask in faith, never doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind; for the doubter, being double-minded and unstable in every way, must not expect to receive anything from the Lord.

James 1:2-8

James gets right to it, but throughout the letter from start to finish there’s no letting up. He’s certainly a pastor, but gives us needed insight into one aspect of pastoral ministry as well as what the church is to be. Yes, there’s mercy and patience. But for those who really follow Christ, there are certain nonnegotiables.

If we’re to follow Christ we do what we’re told here. If we fail to do that, and I’m referring to sincere honest attempts, not letting up, then we aren’t following, indeed can’t follow Christ. We either consider it nothing but joy, whatever trial we’re in, letting endurance have its full effect toward full maturity in Christ, or else we’re not. We either ask God for wisdom, as indeed we’re all lacking in that of ourselves, and ask in faith without doubting. Or we plain don’t. There might be something in between, but James would tell us that’s a part of being double-minded, and thus unstable in every way. As Eugene Peterson points out in The Message, that can be simply a matter of “keeping all your options open.” No, we either trust God or we don’t. The difference between darkness and light.

This has been helping me immensely, but I can’t let go of it. And it’s not like we’re passive and no longer involved in life. But that God is there to help us through whatever it is we’re facing, whatever responsibilities we have to fulfill. God wants to use all of life to mature us, and to help us gain wisdom. As we not only commit ourselves to this course, but follow through on it, God helps us to live in God’s peace, as well as get God’s help.

An important part of what it means to follow Christ along with others in this life. In and through Jesus.

a believing faith(?)

My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.

If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you. But ask in faith, never doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind; for the doubter, being double-minded and unstable in every way, must not expect to receive anything from the Lord.

James 1:1-8

The title, “a believing faith” may seem redundant. Isn’t faith enough? The fact of the matter though is that our faith can be exceedingly weak. What James seems to be even railing against here is not the weakness of faith so much, as a lack of commitment to trusting God. Eugene Peterson’s rendering is helpful here:

People who “worry their prayers” are like wind-whipped waves. Don’t think you’re going to get anything from the Master that way, adrift at sea, keeping all your options open.

James 1:6b-8; MSG

We might struggle, even with doubt, some of us more than others. In spite of that we need to press on with the desire to be committed to faith in God, looking to God for the help we need in any given situation. I included the entire passage above, because though there may be and sometimes is value in taking a verse out of context, it’s always best seen, understood and applied in context, with the full intent of the passage in view.

So what we’re looking at here are the trials of life, any trial, which we’re to consider nothing but joy because of the endurance God wants to work in us through it, for our maturity toward full development as Christ followers. We are so prone to old default practices like taking matters in our own hands, hardly if at all looking to God. Trying to solve the problem ourselves, even if we pray to God to bless our efforts.

Instead God wants us to take what for us is the radical commitment of complete trust in God. In the words of Proverbs:

Trust in the Lord with all your heart,
and do not rely on your own insight.
In all your ways acknowledge him,
and he will make straight your paths.

Proverbs 3:5-6

What God would be after here in part, it seems to me, is an entire renovation of heart, mind and practice. Much more for us than just trying to manage the next crisis, barely holding on, sometimes the wheels clearly falling off. No, God wants to change us over time. James does make it more abrupt than that, so that evidently, and quite frankly I think, we need that word. We’re so inclined to excuse ourselves, rationalize, and not change at all.

What we need to do is look past the present difficulty, be willing to walk through that instead of trying to escape on our own terms. And thus find God’s help, all the help we need in the process. Not only short term, but medium and long term as well. Toward the maturity God wants for us. In and through Jesus.

not fiction, but reality

Recently I noticed the thought that some people, even leaders have left the faith because they were supposedly too Bible-centered, and not sufficiently centered and grounded in God and the gospel within the tradition God has given the church. While I think there may be some truth in that, I would like to push back a bit. (See this helpful post.)

Yes, there’s no doubt that the gospel and the church and the tradition in and from that is far more central to our faith than many realize, or at least they’re supposed to be. We can find that to be the case from the Bible itself.

Comparing real life with the Bible can be instructive. Yes, over and over again in the Bible, which calls itself Scripture and God’s word we find cases in point which either don’t make sense to us, or necessarily ring true at the time. But don’t we find that to be the case over and over again in life? Life just doesn’t make sense for so many reasons. The autistic child, a relatively young person just ready to enter their calling who dies, militias terrorizing common people with brutal killings, a loved spouse saying they love no more, a child who rejects the faith, the never ending problems of everyday life, etc., etc., etc.

It seems to me that the Bible doesn’t paint the picture any rosier than life actually is. There was once a well known painter who painted landscapes with human culture as if it all existed in Eden prior to the Fall. Something akin to that lies ahead. But such is not the real world now. Kudos to the Bible. It is rooted in a world that though culturally is often different from ours, in essence is the same, just as messed up as our own. Yes, with the promise of something wonderful to come. And it points us to where we can find the help we need to navigate through the storms, and even do well, come what may. But just like it presents life in its reality, not on our terms, so the blessedness that can be ours is not on our terms. It’s not the way we might write it. But in the end, it somehow will be better than all of that. At least that’s the case according to the Bible.

Life is hard, no doubt. It can seem that all of life is caving in. But we can find our way through the instruction, warnings, and encouragement the Bible gives. God’s very word to us and to the world. In and through Jesus.

trials, an open door

Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you. But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That person should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. Such a person is double-minded and unstable in all they do.

James 1:2-8

Trials seem to come like a door slammed in our face. I don’t care for any of them myself. But I’m beginning to learn the problem is more in my reaction than in the actual trial itself. Not at all to diminish the problem of the trials, and especially some of them. Usually they don’t involve life changes, but sometimes they do. You can be sure that the Lord does not think lightly of our trials; in all our distresses, he too is stressed (Isaiah 63:9).

It’s my reaction that’s the problem. I might take it to God in prayer, but at the same time act as if the answer to the problem depends entirely on me, that somehow I have to get to the bottom of it. It’s not like we throw our brain away, and toss knowledge to the wind. But where does our dependence lie? As Bill Gaultiere pointed out, we can either do it our way, or Jesus’s way, the way our Lord would direct us to do it.

James tells us to count it all joy because trials open up a door for us toward maturity in Christ. We’re especially glad when we get through them on the other side. But even when we enter them, as an act of faith we need to thank God for what God is going to bring about through them. That is part of the necessary answer: not just what God is able to do, but our reception of that through faith.

Often I’ve left James’s words about doubt out when reflecting on this passage, but I include them here because after all, they’re in the text. There can be the struggle of faith as it’s been called, and it’s not like we’re not tempted to doubt. But we need to act in faith apart from our feelings and how we’ve been conditioned to see everything so negatively and apart from God. As we ask the Lord for needed wisdom, we believe in him, that he will generously give it to us. And instead of doubting, we open ourselves up to receive that help from the Lord.

Something I’m working on myself. In and through Jesus.

not taking back our trust in God

Chuck Swindoll shared the wise insight that we should never take back the light God gave us. That is not easy, since we’re so experience oriented. That is true of myself as well, even though I tend to want to remain on the rational side against experience, or more precisely against what I’m feeling. That can be good up to a point since our emotions can run all over the place. But certainly never at the expense of taking back what God gave us. When we’re tempted to doubt God, we need to stand firm in our faith.

Along the way, God will continue to guide us as we trust in him. By the Spirit, through the word, through others, and through circumstances. We can and should count on that. But let’s not make the mistake of no longer accepting what God once gave us. In the dark, let’s trust God all the more. In and through Jesus.

faith for doubt, rather than certainty

The hymn many of us older folks grew up with, “Blessed Assurance,” is certainly in line with what we read in scripture, and specifically in the New Testament. There is no doubt that by faith in Jesus we are assured of forgiveness and eternal life. But what if faith is at least as much for wrestling with God over our doubts and problems, as being assured that everything will be taken care of?

In scripture we find this again and again, even beginning with the father of our faith, Abraham, and most notably in characters like Job and Habakkuk, and reflected time and again in the psalms. I am convinced that faith is for struggle over life as it is, and perhaps even over just what God’s promises really mean. If such is not the case, then we could judge faith as superficial and unconcerned about the world right in front of us, to the ends of the earth. It could actually tend toward a heretical mindset, for example, that the material world doesn’t matter, when in fact God became human because it does. Humanity so to speak, in the center of that blessing.

Wrestling with God, and taking everything to God in prayer ought to be at the heart of what is characteristic of believers. But also at the heart is the good news in Jesus which directly and indirectly addresses everything, God at work in our lives and in the world through that. And the church, consisting of all believers in Christ somehow involved at least in much of that outworking.

God will help us to be at rest in Jesus, even in this life. But a rest born in struggle, because faith inherently is not just about rest in God and in God’s promises, but it faces reality with that, so that it’s a case of going through the real world, rather than escpaping it. Even as we look forward to the new world to come, present already in the new creation, in and through Jesus.