from the mountain to the valley

At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”

At once the Spirit sent him out into the wilderness, and he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him.

Mark 1:9-13

It is uncanny how often a kind of mountaintop spiritual experience is followed by a death valley spiritual experience. I’m not sure what to make of it. It does seem to follow the pattern we see in the gospels, as described above in Mark’s gospel account of Jesus’s experience.

We can say Christ experiences this for us, and that’s a good and little understood point. As long as I’ve been a Christian I don’t understand it well enough, partly I suppose because it’s not taught much. What is obvious is that if Christ experienced something, then we as followers of Christ can expect to experience something of the same.

A lot of times, I’ll want to dismiss it, or somehow get rid of it, or wonder what happened that my soul now seems to be immersed in darkness rather than blessed in light. But perhaps simply accepting that as part of our experience now and continuing on is exactly part of what needs to be done.

Who after experiencing a close and affirming work of grace by the Spirit want to be tempted by the devil? None of us. But there’s no escape from it.

Thankfully Christ did for us what we would fail to do ourselves. Unlike Israel of old, he met the temptation in the wilderness with unwavering, unflinching trust in God and God’s word. Christ does for us his people what we would fail to do ourselves. But in so doing, Christ opens up the way for us to follow. And in this world that following will include something of the same for us.

A part of our experience now.

 

taking pride in one’s progress

If anyone thinks they are something when they are not, they deceive themselves. Each one should test their own actions. Then they can take pride in themselves alone, without comparing themselves to someone else, for each one should carry their own load.

Galatians 6:3-5

This passage needs to be considered in context. It’s not about living in isolation. Just the same, it seemed to hit me in a new way recently.

First of all, the idea of taking pride in one’s self after testing one’s actions seems a strain to me. I have resisted the idea of being proud of myself at all. We do have to fight pride from time to time, and probably carry it in a sinful way more than we realize. After all pride is one of the “seven deadly sins,” said to be their fount.

The idea that came across to me is that it’s important to examine my life, to consider areas where I’ve struggled or not done well, and determine to become better and even make breakthroughs in such areas, so that what was once perhaps habitual would be rare or no more. Different habits would then replace my old knee jerk responses to what is thrown my way. Then I can be thankful for my progress, take pride in it, without comparing myself to others, but only with reference to God’s will. A pride that we actually might say is humble.

This takes the will to do so, and behind that, the faith in God to help us do what we can’t do on our own. Something I hope to keep working on the rest of my days. In and through Jesus.

holding on to progress in the faith

Only let us live up to what we have already attained.

Philippians 3:16

Paul is referring to the high call of God in Christ Jesus. A cross-shaped life for sure as we see in the passage itself (click above link). All that is contrary to that is to be considered as nothing more than garbage.

It is wonderful to receive insight and make significant changes. And then it may seem that you’re at a new level, which actually may well be the case. But it is remarkable and disconcerting how almost invariably over time one not only can, but will drift back into the old attitudes or actions.

So Paul’s words here are helpful. They shouldn’t be isolated from their context, but still need to be considered carefully. The emphasis is on how we live. And the context for that is the entire book of Philippians, and for that matter we can say the entire Bible, according to the gospel which is its ultimate focus and fulfillment.

There’s no doubt that once we’ve stepped into a new light and air, it is egregious to us to drift back into the old. We can be sure that all of our advances will be challenged by Satan, and we can say, tested by God. Are we committed to the new course come what may? Or will we yield to the temptation to go back to our old ways?

We need to hold on to what we’ve attained, live up to that. That is part of pursuing the high calling of God in and through Christ Jesus.

does the Bible really say that?

These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the culmination of the ages has come. So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall! No temptation[c] has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted[d] beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted,[e] he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it.

1 Corinthians 10:11-13

This is a good passage out of which this part is shared here (click link) to critique popular theology. Paul’s voice seems so foreign, yet it actually resonates with Jesus’s voice, and that of the rest of the Bible on matters like sexual immorality, idolatry, and simply putting God to the test instead of in faith, trusting and obeying him.

One popular take out of pastoral concern (as a friend pointed out to me) is the point that indeed God doesn’t give us more than we can bear; he actually does, so that we won’t depend on ourselves, but on God to see us through. There’s truth in that when you consider it with the rest of God’s word. But I want to take seriously just what is actually said in these scriptural passages.

We’re told that God won’t let us be tempted or tested more than we can stand. But with that temptation will provide the way out, so that we can endure it. Plain and simple. Maybe not the way we want to hear it. We want somehow a miraculous breakthrough which requires no effort on our part. But as Dallas Willard pointed out, grace is not opposed to human effort. While God’s grace given to us in Jesus is nothing we can merit, earn, or deserve, that does not mean it is received passively by us. That happens, but it seems more often than not, we are active, at least in being attentive if nothing else.

If we think the Christian life isn’t without a struggle, or often against the grain of culture, then we have another thing coming. Or we may end up going, as a few leaders have in recent days, leaving the faith behind. There’s more to it than just this, much more. That is why we need to turn the pages of all of Scripture from beginning to end, and keep doing so. In prayer and with the commitment to a faith which receives and responds. Accepting the warnings of God’s word, even when they may seem to make little sense to us. So that God might do his work of grace in us, a process no less. In and through Jesus.

 

life as a trial (test)

Be careful to follow every command I am giving you today, so that you may live and increase and may enter and possess the land the LORD promised on oath to your ancestors. Remember how the LORD your God led you all the way in the wilderness these forty years, to humble and test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands. He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your ancestors had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD. Your clothes did not wear out and your feet did not swell during these forty years. Know then in your heart that as a man disciplines his son, so the LORD your God disciplines you.

Deuteronomy 8:1-5

All of chapter 8 is good to see more of the context (link includes it), but this passage quoted above is easily sufficient to make the point needed. One important aspect of life is that it’s essentially a trial as in a test from God. Who likes tests? Not many, myself included. But good tests in a healthy academic setting can be learning experiences both of what we need to shore up on, and actually providing a stimulus for better understanding.

We off and on run into matters we just as soon would escape. That was so true of Israel in the wilderness. They grumbled and complained about the manna God gave them, missing the food they had in Egypt, even though their lot there had been abject slavery. Instead of going through the trial, trusting in their God who had delivered them, they failed the test, resorting to their own thoughts and devices or way of living.

All Scripture is written for us, for our learning and benefit (Romans 15:4; 2 Timothy 3:16-17). In this passage we learn that we can look at life in significant part as a testing from God, to help us see where we fall short, our dependency on God and God’s word, and what we should do and not do if we’re to trust God.

Psalm 95 and Hebrews 3 warn us against failing to trust in God and his word. When we’re up against it, in an impossible situation, and really in any and every circumstance in life, we’re supposed to trust God and in faith hold on to his promises. The testing shows both the genuineness of our faith (1 Peter 1:6-7), and where we need to grow. Something we may not like, but all for our good. In and through Jesus.

faith is ultimately never on our terms, but God’s

Some time later God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!”

“Here I am,” he replied.

Then God said, “Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you.”

Genesis 22:1-2

I usually don’t care too much or even enough about titles for blog posts, which are more or less important to the overall post. But in this case, I think the idea that faith is never on our terms, but God’s, is actually crucial, the point of the post. What I’m wanting to get at is simply the idea that faith to really be mature biblical faith has to venture out into territory that none of us left to ourselves would do. Think of Jesus’s life on earth. And the passage above, where God tells Abraham what is infinitely awful, and just as infinitely makes no sense.

This doesn’t mean in the least that we shouldn’t bring all of our troubles and cares to God, because indeed we should. We need to come to God as the Father God is, and let God know the details that we are concerned about. Of course for our benefit and faith, thanking him for blessings, at the same time (Philippians 4:6-7). God as our Father does care about our wants and needs (Luke 11:11-13).

Faith finds God’s answer which oftentimes is simply God’s rest and peace through the most difficult circumstances, when we refuse to take matters in our own hands, and instead, put them in God’s good hands. Casting all of our cares on God, since he cares for us (1 Peter 5:7). But this requires a faith which holds on regardless of what the situation looks like to us. Oftentimes a big part of our problem is our focus. We are fixed on the problem itself, instead of the God who can fix the problem, and help us go through it. Of course sometimes the answer is simply to let it go.

And we either struggle or are weak in believing in both God’s greatness and goodness. Somehow we think it depends on us, when God in God’s infinite wisdom and grace, is going to work everything out for good somehow. The best we can do is far from foolproof. But what God does in his wisdom is ultimately meant for salvation.

We know how the story of Abraham and Isaac going to Mount Moriah ends. Abraham is pushed to the brink in trusting God, ready to plunge the knife into his son. God intervenes at that point. But when it came to God’s Son, Jesus, God did not intervene, not even in answer to Jesus’s plea to take the cup from him if possible. For Jesus it was a matter of not his will, but the Father’s will. For the joy set before him, enduring the cross, even scorning the shame. In and through Jesus, faith believes in God, therefore committing everything to God in trusting and obeying him.

By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice. He who had embraced the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son, even though God had said to him, “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.” Abraham reasoned that God could even raise the dead, and so in a manner of speaking he did receive Isaac back from death.

Hebrews 11:17-19

 

faith must be challenged

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.

James 1:2-4

James emphasizes that knowledge and profession of faith mean nothing at all, in fact, lend themselves to deception. And in this opening part of his letter, that faith actually has to be challenged to make the needed difference in our lives.

We often get out of sorts if things are not going wonderfully well, or when the bad comes. But a big part of life is learning by faith to walk through trials of all kinds which come our way pretty much everyday, and at least on a regular basis. Some of them might be imagined, and some real. But the point James makes here is our response to them. We’re to count it all joy, or nothing but joy when they come, because of what they can bring, if we are open to what God wants to do through them.

Maturity in the faith, in Christ, is not something to which we easily arrive. It requires effort on our part to hang in their through the difficulty, not allowing ourselves to be moved from our faith, but letting it be tested. Just what kind of faith do we have? Is it merely circumstantial, just good when things are going well? Or is it grounded in God, even when we don’t understand, or find it going against our understanding, or at least against what we think is good or acceptable.

God wants to work something quite good out of it. So it’s up to us to be willing to walk through it, to endure it, trusting God is at work in it for good, for our good to help us mature completely, so that we may lack nothing when it comes to what really matters: our Christian formation and character. In and through Jesus.

our part under trial: endurance

Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him.

James 1:12

James tells us a bit earlier that the testing of our faith produces perseverance, or endurance. A big part of that testing is simply remaining faithful in the trial.

As someone once told me, struggling is the default or norm in which we live. That’s why it’s nice to get away from time to time on a vacation with no cares in the world. And while “there’s no place like home,” there are always concerns, sometimes big that can well weigh us down. And some of those can seem well over our head, unmanageable, and in need of divine intervention. Actually we want the Lord’s help, and need it, whether the trial seems big or small.

James’s readers were facing problems from those who were wealthy (James 5). And James in the more immediate context referred to “trials of many kinds.” What is important for us is to remain faithful, and be willing to endure. Endurance is not something in and of itself enjoyable. We would rather escape. Yes, we’re to persevere, but endurance might seem to hit James’s thought in this letter more squarely for me, though to persevere is involved in that, as well. It seems like patience, and hanging in their through the tough times with faith in God is the point here.

And we have another promise from another book of wisdom, considered the basic book of wisdom in scripture: Proverbs:

Trust in the Lord with all your heart
    and lean not on your own understanding;
in all your ways submit to him,
    and he will make your paths straight.

Proverbs 3:5-6

In the midst of trials, we need to trust and obey. In submission to the One who will see us through to the end. In and through Jesus.

the predicament of Mary and Joseph

Mary (Luke 1:26-38) especially, but also Joseph (Matthew 1:18-25) faced a predicament over Jesus’s miraculous conception as a full human in Mary’s womb by the Holy Spirit. The church has called this the virgin birth. And it would have been as much a nose wrinkler and eye brow raiser then as it is today. No matter what Mary said, as noble a person as Joseph may have known her to be, Joseph was set to abide by the law of Moses, but to do so mercifully, avoiding the awful sentence of stoning, instead putting Mary away quietly and as privately as possible.

But then the angel appears to Joseph, and he finds out that something extraordinary has indeed happened. And that he is to be the step father of no less than the Son of God, the Messiah. How far along Joseph’s Christology was at this point, I don’t know, but we do know one thing for sure: Joseph was in a walk of faith over something he knew would be challenging in days to come, something he would have just as soon closed now. But with this new word from God, he did what for in all intent and purposes his wife, certainly his wife under the law already, what she had done. He obeyed God, even when in ordinary circumstances what he was doing made no sense, and even seemed to contradict his devotion to God.

When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife.

Matthew 1:24

Mary, of  course was in the same dilemma, only her trouble was heightened. She was to be the bearer of the child when she had yet to be joined to her husband for this to be possible. Of course this was all revealed to her at once by an angel, so that she had the full understanding of what was to happen right away, whereas Joseph did not have that advantage, but had to wrestle or work through it before an angel appeared to him.

Mary’s wonder along with her response are simply beautiful, and something for us to emulate, when we’re faced with God’s word, but would do something different if left to ourselves, something that may make all the sense in the world and seem right to us. It seems that Mary was not one who would come up with all sorts of objections and contrary thoughts. She was humble and open to whatever God would tell her, with a heart to serve the Lord in doing so, and considering what she faced, no matter what.

“I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.”

Luke 1:38a

And so the ones to raise the Christ child would themselves faced something of the same trouble their son would face in the scandal of God becoming flesh and being the good news that all of us need. And we might face, in a different category for sure, but still just the same, testings of our own as to whether or not we’ll listen and obey God’s word, or not. And the results, while again not in terms of salvation for the world, will still have the same sort of impact on our own family, or friends.

Are we prepared to listen and hear God’s word to us, or not? What are we doing, so that might be the case? What practices have we adopted so that like Mary and Joseph, Christ might be known even in and through us?

May the Lord make this Christmas to be a time when Jesus is more fully made known, even in that manger, and beyond that through us as well. Through God’s word in and through Jesus.

finding the way of escape from temptation to sin

These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the culmination of the ages has come. So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall! No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it.

1 Corinthians 10

There is a meme or thought that has been going around on the internet for some time which states that God won’t give us more than we can handle. Years back, our Pastor Jack Brown pointed out the fallacy of that statement, that in fact God does allow us to have more than we can handle ourselves, so that we will learn to trust in him, finding his strength in our weakness, words to that effect.  2 Corinthians is a great book to read with that theme in mind. As someone wisely pointed out recently, the 1 Corinthians 10 passage is not referring to struggles and burdens, but only to temptations.

I think the thought behind the meme might have had the above passage in mind, the truth that God won’t let us be tempted beyond what we are able, since he will provide the way for us to escape the temptation to sin. We need to keep both thoughts in mind. We live in weakness, up against forces and even the circumstances of life in a way in which we can’t navigate, or handle ourselves, so that we need to learn to cast ourselves on the Lord, and in our weakness depend on him and his strength. And we realize that we don’t have to yield to the temptation to sin in a given situation. That there’s a way out for us to escape. Think of Joseph running from Potiphar’s wife (Genesis 39).

In the prayer Jesus taught us, we are to pray, “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.” That certainly is an admission of our weakness, and complete dependence on God to deliver us from evil, spiritual warfare at least hinted at there. In passing, it’s good to note that the classic spiritual warfare passage, Ephesians 6:10-20 while involving armor and a weapon, is also to be accomplished in one simply standing their ground, not either turning back in flight, or advancing in conquest. That doesn’t suggest a passivity, nor is it to be confused with the advance of the light of the gospel even into places of darkness. This is certainly an important thought since our Lord taught us to regularly pray it.

It’s important not only what we do, but also what we don’t do. Temptation in this world through the flesh (James 1:13-15) and from the devil is very real. We had best not minimize it, but be prepared, because it is in fact a part of the present life. We can’t escape from the temptation itself, but we can escape from the sin which we’re tempted to commit. Temptation also includes sins of omission, in that we’re tempted to not do what we ought to do.

God is faithful, but we must take the way of escape. We must be aware of all of this, and instead of being upset because we are tempted, learn to find the way out which God provides. When we do sin, of course there’s always the confession of sin open for us. Although some sins will require much more as well, perhaps restitution, and carry a great cost. We should never trifle with sin of any kind, be it big (Psalm 19:13) or small. But some sin is to be avoided at all costs. There is a road back, no matter what the sin. But not an easy one, nor without serious consequences.

We look forward to the day when temptation to sin will be a thing of the past. Until then we take heed, and remain watchful. Trusting in God’s help and provision for us in and through Jesus.