God behind and before us

For you shall not go out in haste,
and you shall not go in flight,
for the LORD will go before you,
and the God of Israel will be your rear guard.

Isaiah 52:12

Right before the “suffering servant” passages we have this promise for Israel in the midst of subjugation by the foreign world power of that time, Assyria. All the promises of God we’re told are yes and amen in and through Christ. So, there’s something we can take from this for ourselves this day and time.

God is behind and before us to guide and protect us. We need to live appreciating that. It might well be true for us and is as long as we have faith. But we may not much if at all have any sense or experience of it. This truth should help us not to be afraid or panic as the passage above tells us. Because we have a certain inward rest even in the midst of difficulty, trial, whatnot, just all the inevitable twists and turns that life brings.

God will take care of it. God has our backs and knows all that lies ahead. There’s a certain mysticism which faith in God elicits. We can’t explain or understand it fully, except we know there’s one that fully understands, and though much seems out of control, and is definitely beyond our control, we also know that God is at work in all things for good, somehow in control in the midst of it all. So that our full confidence is only in God. In and through Jesus.

strongholds

I myself, Paul, appeal to you by the meekness and gentleness of Christ—I who am humble when face to face with you but bold toward you when I am away!— I ask that when I am present I need not show boldness by daring to oppose those who think we are acting according to human standards. Indeed, we live as humans but do not wage war according to human standards, for the weapons of our warfare are not merely human, but they have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every proud obstacle raised up against the knowledge of God, and we take every thought captive to obey Christ.

2 Corinthians 10:1-5; NRSVue

The strongholds here refer to everything that is set up in opposition to the knowledge of God, all that is contrary to God. I think now of systems of evil benefiting some, often a relatively small number of the rich and powerful at the expense of many. Oftentimes such an arrangement is seen as necessary for this or that reason, with arguments like that’s the way things are, and that’s the way life works. Those on the bottom rung can be thankful they have work and an existence, even if it’s dismal. But the dismal aspect is ignored if not denied on the basis that somehow this is all these people deserve or are able to achieve. And that those over them even somehow are being generous. That is so antithetical to the good news of God in Christ which is not only about the individual soul, but about all things, all of life. Unless the entire Bible doesn’t matter. Only through reading it all can we fully understand and appreciate the good news in Christ.

What Paul is directly talking about here is everything set up against the knowledge of God as given in the good news of Christ. This is especially critical to those who do not have faith, who have not yet received it. But Paul is writing here to a church that indeed has received it yet are thinking and acting in ways contrary to it. The good news in Christ is meant to crush all strongholds. And what is especially critical in Paul’s mind which we see time and again in his letters, not the least in this letter is the relationships believers have with each other and how believers relate to the world. It’s meant to be all in love in accordance with the gospel.

When I think of strongholds, I typically think of that which hinders us from the fullness of experience of the gospel, by God’s grace the righteousness and peace and joy that accompanies it. It is noteworthy that just two chapters later in our Bibles, Paul talks about the thorn in the flesh, the tormenting messenger of Satan that Paul pleaded three times for the Lord to remove. But the Lord wanted Paul to live in that. It’s hard to parse this out, because I don’t believe such weaknesses would include bents toward sin which would leave us susceptible. But such experience can help us draw near to God in ways we otherwise would not.

I believe we need to seek to claim and live in God’s promises which are “yes and amen” through the good news of Christ. We need to plead and insist that God answer. Such prayer is probably entirely necessary for us, because we’re so given to being not that serious about whatever it is. So it’s good that we keep praying for ourselves and others and not let up. And even wrestle with God in the process.

It is the gospel, the good news in Jesus which tears down all kinds of strongholds, whether systemic evil in the world, the sin which binds people, or the struggles we experience as believers in the spiritual battle we’re in. Something to think and pray about. God will help us as we persevere. What once was a stronghold can be like Paul says above, destroyed. With the new thoughts Christ gives us as we commit ourselves to full obedience together. In and through Jesus.

our mothering God

A Song of Ascents. Of David.

LORD, my heart is not lifted up,
my eyes are not raised too high;
I do not occupy myself with things
too great and too marvelous for me.
But I have calmed and quieted my soul,
like a weaned child with its mother;
my soul is like the weaned child that is with me.

O Israel, hope in the LORD
from this time on and forevermore.

Psalm 131; NRSVue

Probably the most important thing I learned in my first year of college is just what little I know. A world of knowledge was opened up to us, and what I thought I knew was set aside. In that kind of education, one not only sees how little they know, but that oftentimes what we think we know is flat out mistaken.

This psalm touches on that, but that’s not really the heart of it. It’s more about our relationship with God and life from that perspective. I’ve never been a mother, so I can’t speak firsthand here, but the relationship between God and each person is likened to a mother and child, in that culture a weaned child being between three to five years of age (The New Oxford Annotated Bible with Apocrypha, New Revised Standard Version). A child at that age wants to explore and learn, but they’re still quite dependent on their mother.

Childishness is spoken of in Scripture as a sign of immaturity, but childlikeness quite the opposite, a mark of maturity. Jesus said we must repent and become like children to enter into God’s kingdom. In that sense remaining a child.

I’m not sure I’ve ever learned this, or maybe I should say not obviously so to me, though in indirect ways I’m becoming more that way. Just the sense of need for God correlates to this, even if we aren’t aware of enjoying and experiencing enough of that care.

Yes, it’s motherly care that God’s care is likened to here. But as the psalm tells us here, the child is to take it on themselves to calm down. Probably God is calming us down as well, since surely God does that for all of us as God’s children. But we often resist that, for whatever reasons. Instead we’re to let down our guard and let God. You might say in the well known if often misunderstood phrase: “Let God and let God.”

We are completely dependent on God for everything. Do we really believe that? Do we really believe that we truly understand nothing aright or well apart from God’s help? Do we really believe that God in God’s love will take care of us, or even that we’re actually in need of that care?

None of this means that we can be immature. In fact in this picture immaturity is a denial of this, and maturity an acceptance. A hard one for us to accept on our own. I’m having trouble with this right now. I want to unlearn so much and learn what God directly would like to teach me. I would like to experience so much more of God’s motherly care.

And we’re all in this together. Together we’re to put our hope in God in this way from now on and forever.

torn from limb to limb (living in the real world)

“Do not human beings have a hard service on earth,
and are not their days like the days of a laborer?

“All the days of my service I would wait
until my release should come.”

Job 7:1; 14:14b; NRSVue

Job had not only lost his children to disaster along with being devastated from head to toe, but he had no real human support. His wife had told him to curse God and die, and his friends’ promise in being with him seven days without a word turned into a correction which was nothing more to him than hollow, empty platitudes.

When one is beat up physically, emotionally, mentally, socially, you name it, we can easily add to that spiritually, because it’s easy to become despondent and potentially prey for more. Thankfully though that’s not the end of the story in Job, nor of our own story, or the world’s story.

But we have to be ready for such an experience, although really you can never be quite ready, if so at all. But at least when it comes it doesn’t have to take us completely by surprise.

God will help us in answer to prayer. Like in the case of Job, we might have to argue with God with a faith that doesn’t let go, but insists on God’s answer, God’s help.

Faith in such darkness and difficulty doesn’t put on a happy face and pretend all is good. Yet such faith also always looks insistently to the One who can and ultimately will intervene and is present before that day comes to help us all the way through. In and through Jesus.

faith feels its way through (against dogmatism and certainty)

So we are always confident, even though we know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord— for we walk by faith, not by sight. Yes, we do have confidence, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to be pleasing to him. For all of us must appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each may receive due recompense for actions done in the body, whether good or evil.

2 Corinthians 5:6-10; NRSVue

J. Richard Middleton is a first rate scholar, evangelical, and I found this podcast interesting and stimulating. I’m not qualified to say much of what I say, but pick it up from those who really are, and he definitely is in that company. Among what I especially took home from listening was his point that the value of “worldview” has been hijacked by those who are voicing it in dogmatic terms, instead of having a stance of both faith and learning, yes learning from others on our ongoing walk of faith as well as following and learning from Christ. That’s my way of putting it. You could give that podcast a listen yourself. I would do well to hear it a second time. Doesn’t help listening to it in an old car with all the background noise.

As we see in the passage above, it’s not like we don’t have confidence, because in Christ we most certainly do. But it’s a confidence born of faith that is not walking by sight, in other words we could say, feeling its way ahead, actually fully dependent on God. And this being not just a private venture, but one together with others whose hearts are set on the same course.

The Bible is not an answer book for life. Instead it’s meant, I believe, to help us embark on a journey of faith like characters we read of everywhere in the Bible. And to be open to the same revelation and experience that they lived in.

Part of Middleton’s thinking is that along with our reading of Scripture, our experience of life is included. And after all, don’t we find that time and time again in the Bible? We go on, yes with the joys, but also with the hard knocks, the ongoing questions and dilemmas, every part of life. We go on with God, seeking to follow Christ with others, not beginning to think we have all the answers. But confident, just the same, at least in the sense that we’re primed and poised and one might even add we continue to be pumped to keep going. Even when it’s most difficult. Certainly the case for Paul if we consider the entire book of the passage quoted above. In and through Jesus.

finding the rest that is only in God

For God alone my soul waits in silence;
from him comes my salvation.
He alone is my rock and my salvation,
my fortress; I shall never be shaken.

For God alone my soul waits in silence,
for my hope is from him.
He alone is my rock and my salvation,
my fortress; I shall not be shaken.

Trust in him at all times, O people;
pour out your heart before him;
God is a refuge for us.        Selah

Psalm 62:1-2, 5-6, 8; NRSVue

Only in God do I find rest;
my salvation comes from him.
Only God is my rock and my salvation—
my stronghold!—I won’t be shaken anymore.

Oh, I must find rest in God only,
because my hope comes from him!
Only God is my rock and my salvation—
my stronghold!—I will not be shaken.

All you people: Trust in him at all times!
Pour out your hearts before him!
God is our refuge!        Selah

Psalm 62:1-2, 5-6, 8; CEB

“If only such and such were the case,” or “if only such and such were not the case.” How often do our thoughts and wishes for inward peace go back to circumstances? We think all would be OK if only circumstances or things were different. We’re forgetting that living in the broken world in which we live means inevitable trouble, inescapable problems.

Where do we find rest? On whom do we wait in silence? The psalmist makes it clear: On God only. Paul tells us in Romans 8 that no matter what we’re facing in this life, the list including some of the darkest and worst experiences, that nothing, nothing, nothing at all in all creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

It’s not enough to try to be faithful in doing the right thing, though that’s an important beginning. We indeed do have to position ourselves in the place in which we can experience God’s blessing so that we might be a blessing. That’s not enough. We have to come into the experience where anxiety isn’t a constant weight on us, in fact an experience where we find rest in God in spite of what otherwise would fill us with anxiety.

Do we believe that God is for us? That God delights in us? That God is sheer love through and through? And that whatever we’re facing, God will take care of everything? Even through the darkest times and death itself? Do we really believe that?

What is more important than our faith is the ever-faithful God. God is present for us and wants us to do what the psalmist is getting at. To wait in silence before God and for God. And to find our rest in God alone, not in good circumstances, in fact in spite of bad circumstances.

That is an important legacy that would be good for us to leave to others. How God can help us, as normal and struggling as anyone else to experience something of the fullness of God that God wants to share with us in this life. So that we’re no longer troubled but learning to live more and more at rest. In God alone. In and through Jesus.

that same “thorn in the flesh”

It is necessary to boast; nothing is to be gained by it, but I will go on to visions and revelations of the Lord. I know a person in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows. And I know that such a person—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows— was caught up into paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat. On behalf of such a one I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses. But if I wish to boast, I will not be a fool, for I will be speaking the truth. But I refrain from it, so that no one may think better of me than what is seen in me or heard from me, even considering the exceptional character of the revelations. Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” So I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ, for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.

2 Corinthians 12:1-10; NRSVue

I am in an off and on, seemingly perpetual battle to overcome anxiety over this or that or something else. Usually house related over this or that concern, which sometimes for me can seem overwhelming. I would like to get rid of anxiety once and for all. I think decades back I naively wanted to simply make a commitment with necessary follow through to not be anxious, never worry again. If we seek to apply passages like Philippians 4:6-7 which tells us not be anxious about anything, but what to do so that in the end the peace of God which surpasses all understanding would guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, that’s all well and good. But we have to apply those scriptures and keep doing that, realizing that we’re never going to do it perfectly, and that it’s a matter of being in a process of spiritual growth.

Your besetting sin, or propensity toward what’s unhelpful (Hebrews 12:1-2) might be something different. Let’s add to that felt weakness, which actually might not be categorized as besetting sin. It is important that we seek to address all such in the best way we know how. And that might well include some professional counseling in the mix. But seeking to apply scripture prayerfully throughout.

But now to the main topic. The thing is that our experience in this life is going to be pretty bumpy with ups and downs, sometimes down and outs. We just can’t control how we feel, at least not directly. Indirectly we can have some influence on our experience by doing what Paul did in the passage above. He certainly prayed to the Lord to take his thorn in the flesh away, three times, likely extended times. What was that thorn? We don’t know. That’s part of the genius of this passage. It might have been some human enemy since thorns are said to be that in the Hebrew Bible. Or maybe Paul’s eye malady. Whatever it was, Paul’s description and application open the door for its application to us, regardless of what our own “thorn in the flesh,” even a tormenting “messenger of Satan” might be.

We seek to do all that is right in total dependence on God, waiting on God. But if the answer we want doesn’t come, we continue on regardless with the promise that God’s grace is sufficient. That power probably meaning the Lord’s power (as in some Greek manuscripts) is made perfect in weakness. So we press on, looking forward to the day and time when this is removed, but realizing that it can all be somehow for our good and the good of others. God will help us, even if it’s not the help we would choose ourselves. And in that we’ll find something far greater than the help we wanted. Yes, even in the midst of the weakness. God’s strength and presence. In and through Jesus.

what is “the W/word of God”?

Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light.

Genesis 1:3

By the word of the Lord the heavens were made,
and all their host by the breath of his mouth.

Psalm 33:6

Your word is a lamp to my feet
and a light to my path.

Psalm 119:105

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

John 1:1, 14

So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ.

Romans 10:17

An evangelical pastor and scholar wrote to me that the Bible itself never claims to be the word of God. The church fathers of the early centuries made no such claim, calling it Holy Writ or Scripture. The canon in those days wasn’t complete and solidified as it is today. I am guessing, and from what I think I’ve picked up, the Bible was called the Word of God in the flow coming out of the Protestant Reformation, of course referring to the 66 books of the Protestant canon. 

All that aside, I believe the word, or if you prefer Word, though my own preference is to preserve the capitalization in reference to Christ, refers to God speaking to bring into existence and make things happen, to God’s Word Christ, and to the good news- the gospel message about Christ. So we might say that the word of God as found in Scripture is God’s spoken word, Christ and the gospel, and all related to each other. λόγος (logos) and ῥῆμα (rhēma) are the two primary Greek words translated “word” in our Bible translations. They are certainly related, and perhaps could to some extent be interchangeable. But λόγος refers to something established, existent, whereas we might say ῥῆμα is more of the act of something becoming established. It is good to note that distinction in various passages. And this post is not about trying to deal with that, which I’m not qualified to do anyhow, though we do have so many good helps in books, commentaries and online nowadays to at least give us a clue and some good direction on this.

Based on this, I go to Scripture to “hear” and receive God’s word to me. And I realize at the same time that the word is Christ, and whatever word that comes to us from God comes through Christ. And that the gospel, the good news in Christ is central in all of this. After all, the gospel is really the entire point of Scripture. All else is beside that point, because the gospel in Christ ultimately judges as well as shapes everything.

Scripture is not strictly speaking the W/word of God. But through it, God’s word comes to us. And I want to add here, that all of Scripture is important for this, every bit of it. I would add the Apocrypha to the mix, also called the Deuterocanonical books (see NRSV Bibles which include that, for the most complete inclusion of all accepted by Christian traditions). Inerrancy is unnecessary. All of Scripture is inspired by God for its express purpose, the gospel penetrating and changing our own lives, as well as ultimately everything else. So I’m ideally more than less in Scripture all the time. That is where God’s word breaks through to me more than anywhere else. But we do well to try to hear God’s word through our experience, through what others say, etc. Of course with discernment, and comparing with Scripture. But even Scripture itself is critiqued, and from no one less than Christ himself. But that’s another subject, well above my “pay grade.” 

And as I heard recently, and it seems to me to have merit: Scripture, tradition, reason and you can add to that with some caveats- experience can all be in the mix, and actually are so in different orders. We need the Spirit of God to help us sort that out, and central in that is to understand fulfillment to be not in Scripture itself, but in Christ.

All of this is not to relegate the Bible to some secondary status. It is actually central in helping us to hear God’s word, to “see” Christ, to hear and accept the good news of Christ. And I can guarantee you that I definitely need God’s word every single day. After all, just as Jesus quoted from Deuteronomy, we don’t live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God. Something we depend on not just every day, but every moment. And we need it. It definitely makes the needed difference for us. 

In and through Jesus.

glimpses of light, but the darkness not lost

We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.

Romans 8:28

When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to the one who put all things in subjection under him, so that God may be all in all.

1 Corinthians 15:28

Scripture is loaded with stories which can make you wonder. If we read the Bible as though it were flat, then we put it together like a jig saw puzzle. And what is often said is that one part is as legitimate as another, for example Jesus’s words not to resist evil and to turn the other cheek do not at all cancel out the violence in the Hebrew scriptures, but both somehow are equally legitimate, though inevitably contradictions won’t stand. Jesus himself did not allow such, rebuking his disciples for suggesting fire should come down and destroy the Samaritans who did not receive him, telling them they didn’t know by what spirit they were speaking.

There are things both in Scripture and in our lives which are broken and need redeemed. And that is not an easy process. But God is faithful, and we can actually help the process and reduce the pain and trouble if we commit ourselves as well as hold on to faith in God, that God will see everything through to the good end in Christ. That is not unlike the messes we see in Scripture, even including arguably either the accommodations or mistaken notions or projections we find there about God, what God is doing.

Everything really needs to be understood in term of the God who is love, who makes that love known which we find everywhere in Scripture, but is revealed fully only in Christ, and Christ on the cross. We have to read and see all of Scripture in that light, as well as all of our life in the same light as well. There are inevitable difficulties from simply living in the world, as well as from our own errors, mistakes, missteps, sins. God is out to redeem all.

What we need to do is to hang on by faith in spite of what we’re going through, what our experience is. To the extent that we do, we’ll begin to at least sense, and hopefully begin to experience what is the end of God’s purpose in Christ: complete, unmitigated love, with nothing whatsoever able to withstand that ultimately, and if we can only trust God, what we’ll more and more experience here and now, the same reality which will be ours and all of creation forever in the redemption and reconciliation of all things in Christ.

Something we not only look forward to, but begin to experience now, even with the inevitable even in part necessary difficulties we go through. In and through Jesus.

the psalms: where we live

To the leader: with stringed instruments. A Psalm of David.

Answer me when I call, O God of my right!
You gave me room when I was in distress.
Be gracious to me, and hear my prayer.

How long, you people, shall my honor suffer shame?
How long will you love vain words, and seek after lies? Selah
But know that the Lord has set apart the faithful for himself;
the Lord hears when I call to him.

When you are disturbed, do not sin;
ponder it on your beds, and be silent. Selah
Offer right sacrifices,
and put your trust in the Lord.

There are many who say, “O that we might see some good!
Let the light of your face shine on us, O Lord!”
You have put gladness in my heart
more than when their grain and wine abound.

I will both lie down and sleep in peace;
for you alone, O Lord, make me lie down in safety.

Psalm 4

Part of the reason I think the psalms are so valuable is they talk a lot about experience. And that after all is where we live. We have our highs and lows, where we usually live, and oftentimes they’re punctuated with doubts and fears, being troubled. Then there are those times of peace and rest, sometimes even a sense of a kind of exaltation and joy. Well-being. But we sooner than later normally fall back into our default mode, which is whatever that might be. Hopefully with an increasing intentional drawing near to God as we go on, but sometimes mired in the depths.

But that is in large part why the psalms are so valuable and invaluable to us. We do well to read a psalm or two daily. And it is good from time to time to go meditatively through all the psalms. A part of God’s help for us as we live in the limitations and difficulties of this present existence and life.

In and through Jesus.