rejoicing in the Lord (spiritual warfare)

Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!

Philippians 4

I haven’t actually wondered much over this exhortation from the Apostle Paul. I think I’ve summarily dismissed it during difficult times. And too often I’ve been in a thinking mode which might hide a lack the humility needed to simply praise the Lord no matter what. It’s not like I haven’t tried to put it into practice. I can exist in lament much of the time when I think about the troubles near me, maybe even on me, as well as the problems of the world.

Yesterday for a time I felt overcome in a kind of spiritual malaise and darkness accompanied with fear. Usually there’s some kind of reason behind it, even if it’s not entirely rational. Sometimes there’s really not much of any reason at all.

Then I thought of this exhortation or imperative, even command, although I prefer to take it as a gentle pastoral directive, that we’re to rejoice in the Lord, or be glad in him always, yes always. That made no sense to me in the present, but by faith that is exactly what I began to attempt to do.

What I found by and by, and actually sooner than not was a lifting of the clouds, darkness and chill, and a return of a sense of the presence and peace of God. By rejoicing in the Lord, even when I didn’t at all feel like it. By faith. All of this, as always, in and through Jesus.

pursuing, being attentive to, and following the wisdom of Proverbs

The proverbs of Solomon son of David, king of Israel:

for gaining wisdom and instruction;
    for understanding words of insight;
for receiving instruction in prudent behavior,
    doing what is right and just and fair;
for giving prudence to those who are simple,
    knowledge and discretion to the young—
let the wise listen and add to their learning,
    and let the discerning get guidance—
for understanding proverbs and parables,
    the sayings and riddles of the wise.

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge,
    but fools despise wisdom and instruction.

Proverbs 1

I am going through the book of Proverbs right now in my slow ponderings. And I am reminded of a number of things. But I begin with the fact that when we read the Bible, we have to read it first of all in its original context as best we can. That may be limited, though we can get some good helps. But we have to remember it was written at a specific time in a specific cultural context. But if we read it no other way at all, then we have to read it from the context of all of scripture, and especially of Jesus, considering his fulfillment of it all. In Christ we are told are hidden all the treasures of wisdom (Colossians).

But back to the book of Proverbs itself, if we need to err in any way, we need to really seek to take to heart all it has to say. We don’t do everything literally, but the essence or point of every saying, or thought, what it’s getting at, the underlying principle one might say, we do want to understand, and seek to hold on to it for dear life. It is a matter of life and death, but too often we drift away from that, since we either think we know better, or we don’t take it seriously enough.

Proverbs helps us both explicitly and implicitly in giving us direct specific instruction and in helping us have discernment in areas in which it doesn’t directly speak. Proverbs helps inculcate in us a capacity for learning and implementing wisdom for life.

And of course this wisdom begins with the fear of the Lord. We don’t trifle with God. God is love, and God is God. That sense of fear has to do with respect which becomes awe for pursuers of God, and dread for those who fail to pursue him. And that is all by grace in and through our Lord Jesus.

Read Proverbs slowly. The best reading is slow reading, I think. We need to let it soak into our bones, into our heart, and out from that, into our very lives day after day. An essential part of our growth in and through our Lord Jesus.

does God do a good job being God? (does our understanding of God measure up?)

“Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.”

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.

John 3

Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God!
    How unsearchable his judgments,
    and his paths beyond tracing out!
“Who has known the mind of the Lord?
    Or who has been his counselor?”
“Who has ever given to God,
    that God should repay them?”
For from him and through him and for him are all things.
    To him be the glory forever! Amen.

Romans 11

It’s common nowadays to question the God of the Bible in more ways than one. And as N. T. Wright points out, when people use the word God, they don’t at all mean the same being as much as they once did. For a good many people God just seems to fall short both in the Bible, and in life. Anyone who reads the entire Bible will understand that the Bible itself is about real life with most of its characters flawed, and even in the case of one remarkably unflawed character, Daniel, he includes himself in his confession to God of Israel’s sins.

But what about God in these pages? We find a God who again in the words of N. T. Wright is both passionate and compassionate. A God who takes seriously human decisions, and lets the weight of them (even if not fully), good or bad fall into place with the consequences. And yet we also see the God who created all things work to restore all things in a redemption and salvation which brings in nothing short of a new creation. And God does that through humans, specifically through choosing Israel to be his light to the world, coming to culmination and complete fulfillment in Jesus.

There is no question that at times in both the Bible and in life we can’t begin to make sense of at least parts of it, sometimes very large parts which can impact individuals and nations. Of course one would have to see the entire story and really get inside the story to really understand and appreciate what is going on. We often don’t have that vantage point. With scripture, we can read from cover to cover, from Genesis through Revelation and get the gist at least of the story in it, in all its complexity and beauty. If we want an easy read, and easy answer, it’s not there. But such is life. Yet with the faith of a little child, we can enter in, and begin to understand the account of a loving Father in and through Jesus.

As the doxology in the Romans passage quoted above suggests, we can’t follow God completely, it’s not like we can retrace God’s steps or fully comprehend what God is up to especially in the affairs of the world as the sovereign ruler. But the point in that passage is God’s dealings with his covenant people Israel in terms of the gospel and the change that brought. Romans 9 through 11 talk about that, and it’s an important read. And we can understand quite a bit, and at least what is essential for us to understand from that reading. But we do best in the end to echo the doxology which follows it, acknowledging that God is God and his working is beyond us. Yet at the same time we need to keep looking to God’s final word (Hebrews 2) Jesus, who himself is the essence of God, even as a human, of course one with the Father in the Triunity of God.

No, we don’t understand God all that well, except for what God has revealed to us, and actually it is quite a lot in scripture. But we need the Spirit of God to help us really begin to understand God beyond concepts, even if those concepts contain truth and avoid error. We need what begins as an acquaintance into a full relationship with God in and through Jesus. The God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And the God who is love (1 John). We need to learn to not only accept the revelation of God in Jesus, but to learn by faith to rest in that God who comes to us in Jesus.

love’s priority over knowledge

Now about food sacrificed to idols: We know that “We all possess knowledge.” But knowledge puffs up while love builds up. Those who think they know something do not yet know as they ought to know. But whoever loves God is known by God.

1 Corinthians 8

Discover the Word had for me what was a rather convicting program on love’s priority over knowledge. There is no doubt that knowledge is important, and that it can make the difference between success and failure, even between right and wrong. It’s not like we can simply toss it aside as unimportant, or unmeaningful. But it must be coupled with love to amount to anything. And that reminds us of what is called “the love chapter” in the same book, 1 Corinthians 13, which tells us the very same thing.

It is relatively easy to accumulate knowledge over time. Some of it is basic, yet important for life, and wears well, lasts. But other knowledge is certainly subject to revision, I think of science’s current adjustment from the theory of relativity into quantum physics. That’s an extreme example, not something most of us ever think about.

But much of what we know includes elements of the unknown. The problem for us is that we never know what we don’t know. It’s simply unknown to us. So that a big part of true, good knowledge is to acknowledge that there’s much that we don’t know, and that we know nothing at all in the way God does, completely and perfectly. Not that God doesn’t reveal knowledge to us, nor that we don’t have certain basics down well enough to carry on in life, like how to drive a car to work.

But to love is another story. Is that something we think about, and occupy ourselves with? Scripture says that in the last days people will be lovers of themselves. There is a proper love of self, but not the kind spoken of there, in which all that matters to people is what matters to them, and others are good only insofar as they fulfill that. No, the text quoted above says that we’re to love God, and we know elsewhere that we’re to love our neighbor, even including, according to Jesus, our enemies.

So love, beginning in the sphere of God’s love for us, is to be coupled with our knowledge, and is indeed to have priority over what we know. We don’t violate love ever. There is a place to put what we know (or think we know) aside, but never a time or place to put love aside. And this needs to be at the forefront of what we do, not on the sideburner, as we supposedly get the real tasks of life done. The priority in the midst of all we do, and all our work must be love. Because that is where God lives, the God who is love, and who we know in and through Jesus.

learning humility

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

Matthew 11

There are all sorts of ways God seeks to teach us humility. Scripture over and over notes that God will seek to help people become humble through adversity. That if God’s kindness doesn’t lead people to repentance, then hopefully the hard places and even consequences of their sin will. And we find in scripture, as well as in real life that people do respond to that, and they don’t.

But the deepest and truest way to learn humility, and eventually the way God would have everyone learn it is through Jesus. Yes, through his example in his incarnation, life and death (Philippians 2:1-11). And that’s important to keep in mind. And through the Spirit, Jesus’s own humility rubbing off on us, and in that dynamic, on each other. A humility that is of Jesus, no less. One that loves and lives and if need be dies for another.

In the entire scheme of things, that is what we need to learn, right from Jesus as he himself said in his invitation to the people of his day, and through scripture to us. The humility that will last, and grow on and in us to make us more like Jesus. By which we can see the emptiness of everything else, yet respond in love, knowing that the only final answer is in Jesus.

gently leading others

He tends his flock like a shepherd:
    He gathers the lambs in his arms
and carries them close to his heart;
    he gently leads those that have young.

Isaiah 40

Isaiah 40 is truly one of the great passages of scripture, like Romans 8. I hesitate to say that, because I believe we should consider every part important, even the most obscure passages that we might not understand well, if at all. But this passage comforts God’s people both with God’s immense greatness and immeasurable goodness and in terms of God’s great salvation.

What seems especially helpful is the idea of God’s gentle leading. Oftentimes when people, when any of us think of God, we think of an extension of our experience with authority figures, which too often has not been encouraging, but quite the opposite. Or perhaps for some of us, those people were largely absent from our lives. The picture of God given to us in scripture is that God is beyond everything and yet nearer than the breath we breathe. That God is just as much intimate as God is transcendent. That means that the God who is not overwhelmed in the least enters into the picture for humankind, for the world, yes, for us. And God cares for us.

I love the imagery quoted above (see NRSV in link, “[God] will gently lead the mother sheep.”) That God leads the sheep, us, gently. We need that. And in turn, that is how we’re to help the young among us. Not pushing them, or being gruff with them. But gently leading. In fact, we can take that as the cue on how we’re to influence each other. Not that we’re in life to manipulate, but instead we want to learn to follow God’s leading, and hopefully help others to do the same, since we know that is best, and in fact is wonderful.

When one looks at the entire Story in scripture, one also sees that God leads out of weakness, that actually God’s weakness is strength. It is the way of the cross, the way of suffering love for us and for the world. And a part of our salvation for us now in this world, is to learn in and through Jesus to take that same road for others in our commitment to Christ and the gospel.

Let’s pay attention to those who gently lead, and especially to our Lord God, and then learn to follow in those steps. In and through Jesus.

doing the same thing over and over again

Go to the ant, you sluggard;
    consider its ways and be wise!
It has no commander,
    no overseer or ruler,
yet it stores its provisions in summer
    and gathers its food at harvest.

Proverbs 6

In Jeff Manion’s new book, Dream Big, Think Small: Living an Extraordinary Life One Day at a Time, in his chapter entitled, “Ant Power,” Jeff competently and pastorally writes about the power of doing the good, right little things over and over again, so that over the long haul, such can make all the difference. Although doing something big at a certain point in time, for example going to a weekend for marriage enrichment, might be huge in changing the course of a failing marriage, only doing the same things over and over again, even from such a time, will make the difference needed.

This has to do with simply plugging away, day after day, in often thankless tasks that seem to go at least largely unnoticed, maybe apparent to no one, and which may seem in themselves quite mundane. But so much of that is not necessarily trivial. Whether we feel like it or not, we open the Bible day after day, and throughout the day, and we keep reading and pondering. Over time, since it is the word of God, that will make a big difference, of course our response to it being crucial (James 1).

We can’t let up, and we have to continue on, even if there seems to be little or no fruit coming out of it. Let God decide, or bring to pass whatever, but for sure the most important thing will be happening: our character is being shaped and will be forged. As we do this with each other in Jesus, the same things over and over again, to transform us more and more into the image and likeness of our Lord.