it doesn’t come easy

When they came to the other disciples, they saw a large crowd around them and the teachers of the law arguing with them. As soon as all the people saw Jesus, they were overwhelmed with wonder and ran to greet him.

“What are you arguing with them about?” he asked.

A man in the crowd answered, “Teacher, I brought you my son, who is possessed by a spirit that has robbed him of speech. Whenever it seizes him, it throws him to the ground. He foams at the mouth, gnashes his teeth and becomes rigid. I asked your disciples to drive out the spirit, but they could not.”

“You unbelieving generation,” Jesus replied, “how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you? Bring the boy to me.”

So they brought him. When the spirit saw Jesus, it immediately threw the boy into a convulsion. He fell to the ground and rolled around, foaming at the mouth.

Jesus asked the boy’s father, “How long has he been like this?”

“From childhood,” he answered. “It has often thrown him into fire or water to kill him. But if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.”

“‘If you can’?” said Jesus. “Everything is possible for one who believes.”

Immediately the boy’s father exclaimed, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!”

When Jesus saw that a crowd was running to the scene, he rebuked the impure spirit. “You deaf and mute spirit,” he said, “I command you, come out of him and never enter him again.”

The spirit shrieked, convulsed him violently and came out. The boy looked so much like a corpse that many said, “He’s dead.” But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him to his feet, and he stood up.

After Jesus had gone indoors, his disciples asked him privately, “Why couldn’t we drive it out?”

He replied, “This kind can come out only by prayer.[a]

Mark 9:14-29

I remember the story of George Muller, that he prayed for two people faithfully over his lifetime, but that they didn’t receive Christ until his funeral, at least one of them, perhaps the other one later. But that goes to show the necessity of persistence and perseverance in prayer, and how some answers don’t come easy. Muller was known for being systematic and consistent, as well as a man who prayed and seemed to have a special gift of faith, though I think he wanted to deny that. He wanted his life to be an encouragement to Christians to seek God for their needs, and not think it all depended on them. Christians in those days would often work sixteen hours daily, I suppose six days a week to provide for their families. In the case of Muller and his wife, they prayed for God’s provision for orphans, opening up an orphanage which I believe continues on to this day. And by faith they saw over and over again God’s miraculous provision.

It is so easy to simply get lost in the tumble and actually rumble of the spiritual warfare. In the passage above, Jesus informs his disciples that they needed to pray (and in some manuscripts, fasting is added) to cast out the demon. What often happens is that we more or less get sidetracked and kind of take a plunge down and out of the sense that all will be well, not just out of step with God, but in no step at all. What can be behind that is simply the spiritual reality and resistance we’re up against. To think it’s easy to break strongholds that have perhaps been in place for generations is naive at best, and dangerous at worst. Sometimes answers seem to come easily, but most the time what is required is perseverance in prayer.

Some might ask (and I’ve wondered a bit, myself) why doesn’t a good and great God simply answer and change the situation for good, especially by grace moving people’s hearts to trust and obey? I think the obvious hard fact of the matter is that God simply honors the free will of people. And that the process from our perspective can be arduous, long, and difficult. And we have to hold on by faith and over time. In the case of Jesus’s disciples above, without Jesus’s presence with them, they might have had to pray for a night over the situation, though I imagine simply praying would have sufficed. Some manuscripts add “and fasting” which suggests that it would take more time and effort in looking to God in prayer.

What we need to remember is the reality we’re in, and what is required. God will move, though I don’t believe forcing his way on anyone. People with God’s grace given (called prevenient grace) still are involved in that they have to respond to saving grace. Of course apart from the grace preceding, no one would. But prayer from others can be essential in helping the breakthroughs take place. I’m sure I’ve been the recipient of such. And I hope to be a blessing to others that way. In and through Jesus.

a meditation on Psalm 51: our need of God’s grace

Psalm 51 is one of the great passages of the Bible. The NIV‘s translation of the superscription gives its alleged and at least possible setting. Scholars aren’t sure if the superscriptions were added later, or written when the psalms were. And even if added later, they could still be considered a part of scripture itself.

For the director of music. A psalm of David. When the prophet Nathan came to him after David had committed adultery with Bathsheba.

Many times people relegate the Old Covenant to the era of the Law, and fail to see that, while it is indeed preparatory for the fullness of grace (and truth) which came in Jesus, it was actually grace oriented itself. God’s grace, as in undeserved favor and sheer gift is foundational for all human relationships with God, certainly no less true for that time as it is today.

If there is one thing that we need to see when reading Psalm 51 above anything else, we have to see from this psalm the truth of David’s need, and our need today of this grace from God. Of course like the rest of scripture, we need every line, which contributes to the whole toward the understanding God wants to give. But unless we grasp this truth of our need of God’s grace, all the other truth won’t matter, and will be essentially lost, except to condemn us. If we read the psalm carefully and slowly, we will find this to be the case.

Theologians have a term for what I’m getting at here: prevenient grace. We need grace from God even to properly know and have understanding of our sin, and to properly be broken and grieved over it in repentance. The last thing we need to be doing over our sin is to beat ourselves up, and try to make some great sacrifice to God ourselves. Instead we need God’s grace, so that we can properly see and act in the faith which God in that grace gives us in and through Jesus.

Have mercy on me, O God,
    according to your unfailing love;
according to your great compassion
    blot out my transgressions.
Wash away all my iniquity
    and cleanse me from my sin.

For I know my transgressions,
    and my sin is always before me.
Against you, you only, have I sinned
    and done what is evil in your sight;
so you are right in your verdict
    and justified when you judge.
Surely I was sinful at birth,
    sinful from the time my mother conceived me.
Yet you desired faithfulness even in the womb;
    you taught me wisdom in that secret place.

Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean;
    wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.
Let me hear joy and gladness;
    let the bones you have crushed rejoice.
Hide your face from my sins
    and blot out all my iniquity.

Create in me a pure heart, O God,
    and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
Do not cast me from your presence
    or take your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation
    and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.

Then I will teach transgressors your ways,
    so that sinners will turn back to you.
Deliver me from the guilt of bloodshed, O God,
    you who are God my Savior,
    and my tongue will sing of your righteousness.
Open my lips, Lord,
    and my mouth will declare your praise.
You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it;
    you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings.
My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit;
    a broken and contrite heart
    you, God, will not despise.

May it please you to prosper Zion,
    to build up the walls of Jerusalem.
Then you will delight in the sacrifices of the righteous,
    in burnt offerings offered whole;
    then bulls will be offered on your altar.

God’s measuring line

It’s that more or less dreaded time of the year for job reviews, which in the case where I work end up being rather routine and relatively short, after which we might chat a bit about something else to not end our session too soon. Still, this is not my favorite exercise except that it can be a time of both encouragement and vision in terms of development. For me, I’m getting closer and closer to the end of my work days, even if to some extent I never plan to quit working altogether, as long as I’m able.

I think too of the assessment of others, either in terms of once accepting and even appreciating, but in time completely (so it seems) writing one off, or in terms of praise received. These can be both discouraging, as well as encouraging. What ends up being the bottom line for me is that I am simply a servant with significant limitations for sure, but one who offers the little I have to the Master who can take the five loaves and two small fishes and feed them to a multitude. This is certainly true for each and every one of us, in and through Jesus.

The evaluation which counts is the Lord’s evalution of ourselves, of our works. Everything is of grace for sure, we don’t do anything that is of God apart from God. There may be good humans do which moves God, as was true in the case of Cornelius the Roman centurion in the book of Acts, who feared God, gave to the poor, and helped the Jews in their religious setting. Prevenient grace, the teaching that God’s grace precedes so that only by that grace sinners can repent and believe and do well in God’s sight, as well as the common grace God gives to all by which mothers self-sacrificially care for their young, along with a whole host of other human activities we find good and even at times inspiring, these are all in the mix, when we consider the evaluation of our lives and what we do (and don’t do).

So for me, while I really do appreciate encouragement, and can see that as from the Lord, even when given by another human, perhaps helping overcome despair, the one evaluation which for me in the end matters, is exactly what our Lord will say on that Day, the day when our lives and works are evaluated.

One of the keys is to prepare well now. And a very necessary part of that is to judge ourselves, with the help of the Lord. In a certain sense, we can’t do that at all. God is the Judge, and only God sees everything as it truly is. But in a different yet related sense, we do need to judge ourselves, depending on God to give us discernment to do so, primarily in terms of confession of sin, and change in getting rid of whatever sin we might be dealing with since we have the promise of cleansing in this life, in the progressive sanctification for holiness that is ours in our Lord.

This never negates our need for further confession and cleansing, sanctification in being set apart to God to be holy, a life-long process. But other than never getting beyond temptation to sin in this life, we should be making progress, so that what might have been characteristic of us years ago, is now either unthinkable, or at least an exception to the rule, or at the very least we are ultra sensitive to the danger of such, so that we want to do our best to distance ourselves from it.

All of this to say that in the end it is God’s measuring line which counts. And that standard is Jesus himself. We are not only believers in Jesus, but followers of him, as well. So that our lives are to be taking on more and more of his likeness. So that even if in complying to the standards imposed on us elsewhere, we know we do so only because they are required of us in that context, of course as long as they don’t violate God’s will for us in Jesus, we want in everything to be pleasing to God which we know is always completely from and because of God’s grace, and to God’s glory.

Jesus is the measuring line for us all, and the Spirit helps us see just what that means for us in the course of a day, with reference to the demands placed on us, and concerning the issues which face us, especially in living and working with others, some of which might rub us the wrong way. The question for us remains, what does God want of us, even as we seek to comply with what humans expect from us.

We know it is the Lord’s evaluation which matters in the end. We want to encourage each other, but above all, pray for each other, for God’s greatest good, God’s best in each life. Knowing the Lord is able to make us stand in his grace, and go on, with the goal of hopefully being more and more formed into his likeness.

rumblings

I think I hear rumblings. The world is shaking a bit, and has over the years sometimes quite a bit. Some more cataclysmic changes seem inevitable in years and decades to come, should Jesus tarry.

I have to wonder in all of this if God isn’t trying in just another way, to get the full attention of the human race. We have our gods, and kingdoms, and what God does and is doing and wants to do in and through Jesus and his kingdom come in him, often does not sit well with us.

In and through Jesus though, God’s will can prevail on our lives. And not only in our lives, but through them into the lives of others. Indeed God’s kingdom come in Jesus is not just meant for when Jesus returns. But for this world here and now. But not in the ways of the world, though in the midst of them.

Whatever happens, or if life goes on essentially as it is, may we in Jesus sense God’s calling to us, and may we find our place in that calling together in his ongoing kingdom work in this world.