the thorn in the flesh: my reluctant go-to passage

I must go on boasting. Although there is nothing to be gained, I will go on to visions and revelations from the Lord. I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know—God knows. And I know that this man—whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows— was caught up to paradise and heard inexpressible things, things that no one is permitted to tell. I will boast about a man like that, but I will not boast about myself, except about my weaknesses. Even if I should choose to boast, I would not be a fool, because I would be speaking the truth. But I refrain, so no one will think more of me than is warranted by what I do or say, or because of these surpassingly great revelations. Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

2 Corinthians 12:1-10

One of my favorite parts of the recent Paul, Apostle of Christ film was their treatment of Paul’s thorn in the flesh, and showing how it tormented him all of his life as a Christ-follower. And how that was addressed immediately after he was beheaded. Love is the only way I can describe my reaction to that. What they chose as his thorn in the flesh was a possibility I had never heard of before, and was rather compelling, at least for the film. But the main point is beside the point of what it actually may have been. The fact of the matter is that everyone who seeks to follow Christ will be living in opposition to the world, the flesh, and the devil, and we will experience opposition in terms of what is expressed in scripture from the devil, the demonic. And like Paul, these are actually allowed into our lives to keep us from becoming proud, which for reasons far less than Paul’s we are all too prone to become. To keep us humble, and dependent on Christ, and I would add, interdependent on each other.

I am faced with this myself, maybe not as much as in the past, yet it seems to come crashing in on me just as hard, usually in one form in my life. I think there is genius so to speak behind the concealing of what specifically Paul’s thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment him, was. We simply can’t say for sure. There has been more than one reasonable answer. That means whatever it is that torments us as we seek to follow Christ, we can chalk up as something of the same, in fact our thorn in the flesh. Flesh could mean physical weakness, but in scripture it’s most basic meaning is one’s life. It may involve some physical debilitation or weakness, but doesn’t have to, and I would go so far to think, most often doesn’t. What it doesn’t mean is out and out sin. We deal with everything, and especially our sin through Christ’s death for us, confessing it, and receiving God’s forgiveness and cleansing as part of our ongoing walk in Jesus.

Who likes to be tormented? In the film as I recall Paul seems to be frequently tormented in his thoughts, and clearly in his dreams. And yes torment is a good word to capture this experience. I don’t so much dread it, myself, as simply hate going through it. Going through it is a good way to describe what it’s like for me. For Paul it may have been more chronic, ongoing, something present with him all the time. I tend to think so. My weakness which gives rise to this activity in my life is certainly as close to me as the next thought, which could hit me at any time when all was well, or okay before.

It’s the experience part which frankly I hate. Life is hard enough in itself, without having to feel miserable, yes tormented inside. But it seems in part what at least some of us who are believers in Christ will be up against in this life.

The necessity of hanging in there by faith, and knowing that Christ’s strength is made perfect in our weakness is key here. We realize that God is at work in this malady, even when the source of it is from the evil one, the demonic. The world and the flesh in the sense of unredeemed humanity and creation included.

To come back to this passage, and yes, the entire book of 2 Corinthians, but especially this passage is always helpful for me. To remember that the Lord in love is at work in our lives in a way that helps us live as he did, in weakness, even the weakness of the cross (see the end of 2 Corinthians). Not where we want to go, except that there we find the Lord’s power at work in our own lives, and through us into the lives of others.

Maybe someday I’ll be able to say to some degree along with Paul that I have learned to embrace my weaknesses at least much more since in them I find Christ’s grace and power, and learn to be strengthened in that awareness and reality. In and through Jesus.

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becoming Bible people with tradition and in spite of prevailing thought

There is no question that simply being in the Bible and citing scripture is not foolproof against the deceptive wiles of the devil. Numerous sects and heresies which is a term meaning deviations from the truth have been spun out of just that sort of practice. So the answer can’t simply be to just get back to the Bible, unless that’s qualified as to specifically what is meant.

Scripture itself points to the church as the pillar and foundation of the truth, so that any biblical interpretation apart from consideration of what the Spirit has been saying to the churches and the church at large is automatically suspect. Individuals have divided over mistakenly supposing the Spirit had given them insight which either contradicted others, or gave a needed insight. The richness of scripture and Christian orthodoxy, the Christian tradition is apparent when one begins to look and dig deeper into scripture itself, and the patristic (church fathers) sources.

We can’t rightly or even possibly consider the Bible apart from tradition. Our translations of scripture are dependent on interpretation to some extent, an interpretation that does do justice to the Book at large, but does provide answers where interpretations might vary. The church in the early centuries is an example of this: reacting to various heresies, like the idea that Jesus had a beginning and is a created being, not God. The church instead came up with the truth from scripture that Jesus is both completely God and completely human, two natures separate, not intermixed, yet indissoluble (permanent) in the one person. And the teaching of the Trinity, that God is one God, so that we can speak of God that way as one person, yet three equal Persons in that one God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. When the Protestant Reformation occurred, these past formulations were not under consideration for revision. Martin Luther didn’t want to leave the church, but reform it. But when what is called the Radical Reformation occurred, it was essentially a restorationist movement, with the goal of becoming strictly a church in accordance with scripture, specifically the New Testament. The Anabaptists were one such group, and Menno Simons early on was misunderstood to be a heretic when it came to those early formulations, and soon realized that one can’t leave tradition behind. He made it clear that the Anabaptists accepted the teaching of the Trinity, and of Christ’s two natures as formulated by the church in those early councils.

It does seem to me like we live in a day in which people need to get back to scripture. Certainly not to read it as a flat book, as if it is all equally applicable today. To see it as the unfolding story it is, fulfilled in Christ, and to be completed when he returns. But scripture itself seems to have fallen on either deaf or complacent ears to a significant degree among believers. The diminishing of biblical knowledge among church goers seems to have been occurring incrementally for decades now. And today, either people don’t know, or little care, or they easily misread scripture in defense of an agenda which is actually based on something other than God’s word and will. Not to say that any of us are immune to any of this; we most certainly are not.

Maybe we lack interest in scripture in part because our expectations are elsewhere. We love this or that, and feed on such, with just a bit of time left to maybe get to a reading from the Bible. We fail to dig and ponder, read and wonder, study and think, and pray. We connect elsewhere, finding scripture irrelevant.

Instead in this day maybe like in none other, we need to regularly plug in and find our way through God’s word, which is called a lamp for our feet, and a light for our path. We need to look at current thinking in light of scripture and the gospel. Including of course our own thinking and practice, which so easily is and can be misguided.

And we need to find our way to a church which believes and practices the word, with of course the realization that the gospel, the good news of God in Jesus is the point of it all. And all the richness and vitality that comes out of that.

May God help us to live out what we are as God’s people together by the Spirit through the word in and through Jesus.

 

who is wise and understanding among you?

Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom. But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. Such “wisdom” does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.

But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness.

James 3:13-18

Who is wise and understanding among you? We ought to stop there and meditate on that. What is our own take on just what that means? Does it line up with what’s said here and elsewhere in God’s word? Probably many of us know the truth well enough so that it’s good to stop dead in our tracks and consider our own lives in light of that. We likely through Jesus will see some movement in our hearts and lives toward that ideal, but will also most certainly understand that we fall short of experiencing any of it at times, and need to grow both in depth, and in consistency in practicing such.

Remember that this word of James is in the context of what he was saying about the danger of the tongue (entire context: chapter 3 in our Bibles). We are good at talking, but not so good at walking. And our talk easily gets off track and out of hand. So James counsels slowness to speech and eagerness to listen, not to mention slowness to anger as well.

It’s our lives that will speak volumes, and either validate or invalidate what we profess, or say. Our words can certainly drown out our profession. “I hear what you say, but I see how you live.” On the other hand, our lives can make people want to know just what makes us tick. We show we’re receiving this grace from God through how we live in mostly small and larger ways each and every day.

Gentleness or humility is what should characterize us, demonstrated with good deeds. This is wisdom; this is understanding. It’s not a long or even short discourse that enlightens others. It’s our lives that speak, out of hearts receiving wisdom from God in God’s grace to us in Jesus. And it’s not something we can hardly put our finger on. We certainly can’t take credit ourselves. Perhaps we could say it’s shutting our mouths, and getting out of the way, so that we can finally be in God’s way in Jesus. Growing and living in that way.

A false wisdom, surely looked at as great, but phony is out there. Wrong ideas of greatness, and how to get there. Worldly wisdom which is linked even to the demonic. We can’t separate what scripture calls the world (system), the flesh, and the devil.

Then there’s the real wisdom, that which is from above, from God. Full of love and active for others in accord with what’s given to us, and needed by them. Marked by making peace in a way that promotes or at least doesn’t get in the way of righteousness. And we receive from others that good ourselves. Something always needed, which we need to grow into and begin to live out more and more and never let go of, in and through Jesus.

God’s faithfulness no matter what

Habakkuk has always been an interesting book to me, some memorable lines, but most of all just the entire letter. The sky was falling, things really bad, especially with what was right in their face: injustice and unfaithfulness on the home front, and what seemed even worse looming on the horizon from an empire on the move, the Babylonians.

I guess it depends somewhat on one’s perspective, but it seem like the sky is falling to many. It’s certainly not an easy time for a good number of people. There are not only concerns, but surely much that needs to be done. And in a certain sense that seems ongoing in this life. All one has to do is open up a good, substantive history book, and one can see that troubles await on every turn, that there’s little that seems to turn out entirely right, that with the good, there’s always the not so good, and sometimes even evil.

And this is not to slap those on the wrist who are activists, and tell them to simmer down, that everything will somehow be okay in the end. There certainly is a time to speak out, as well as to be silent. This is not at all to challenge someone who might be an important player in what’s going on.

But it’s simply to say that God is faithful no matter what. That God is at work in the world: our world, the world around us, and the world at large. And like with the prophet Habakkuk, in ways that we can’t imagine or conceive. Not that everything is good in the end. And not that we don’t bear some responsibility, either. But God is at work to judge and bring salvation.

Habakkuk couldn’t see that, nor would he have if God would have shown him. It evidently would have made no sense to him; he would not have been able to track with it. I think oftentimes that’s a major part of my problem. I want to somehow see the light somewhere, which is certainly at the end of the tunnel. But I can’t. And I can’t begin to see the larger picture like God does. Perhaps what I need to envision in my mind is an empty canvas, with God being the one who is painting, perhaps over coloring which seems dark and meaningless, perhaps even chaotic. And God might use our hand a bit in the painting, most likely so if we’re open to that.

God is at work in the world. It’s important for us to trust God no matter what, and to remain in faith in God’s covenant faithfulness in Jesus. And to worship. Just as Habakkuk did in his day, the letter bearing his name preserved for us to be translated into our day. In and through Jesus.

don’t blame God (or the devil)

When tempted, no one should say, “God is tempting me.” For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; but each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.

Don’t be deceived, my dear brothers and sisters. Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created.

James 1:13-18

We are our own worst enemies. If only we would understand that, and take it to heart. It’s not like there isn’t a tempter out there, or that the stuff life throws our way makes it easy for us. Not at all. And reality is that the world (system), the flesh, and the devil are linked; you can’t separate them in reality. At the same time, we are sinful enough on our own; we need no help from the devil. That realm of evil, the demonic, does throw gasoline on the fire we’ve already lit.

James doesn’t so much as mention the devil here, though he does later in this letter (4:7), and chapter 3 definitely alludes to the demonic when speaking of the tongue as set on fire by hell itself. We are more than capable all on our own, just the point James makes here. It’s our own desire, tainted by sin which results in death. And the problem certainly doesn’t come from God, who instead is the giver of all that is good.

James turns our focus from ourselves and our sin to God and his goodness. But we must not be in a hurry to get to this point. We need to take seriously every letter and line James writes about temptation, and our own blame in giving into it. But then we need to remember God’s gifts, and especially the gift of his regenerating work through the word of truth, the gospel. Through that work we are made new, so that we can not only begin to understand the problem, but also overcome it. Otherwise why would James write this letter? He does so with the pastoral intent of helping us do what we hear and profess, as well as confess. In and through Jesus.

why don’t we trust the Father?

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

“The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy,[a] your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are unhealthy,[b] your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!

“No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life[c]?

“And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.

Matthew 6:19-34

I like to quote more than less, and often include the context on the links. We have the unhealthy practice of taking verses out of context, so that our application of them might not be at all in keeping with the context.

Jesus’s words here from the Sermon on the Mount have to do with faith in the context of money, and devotion to God. And material things as well. Actually here, basic necessities for life. Of course, while we have to read all that’s said here in its own context, we also have to consider that in the context of all of scripture. When reading this, some might draw the conclusion that planning for the future is unnecessary. But Jesus was not saying that. And other scripture contradicts that (Proverbs 13:11).

It’s all a matter of devotion and trust. We are called to be responsible with money, but not devoted to it. Our devotion first and foremost is to be to God only. Which doesn’t mean we are not devoted to our spouses, families, or loved ones. True devotion to God will enhance our devotion to others. But we’re not to be devoted to money. Scripture tells us that the love of money (not money, itself) is a root of all sorts of evil (1 Timothy 6:6-10). Note Jesus’s language about the eye, and the NIV footnotes that it has to do with either being generous or stingy.

And Jesus teaches us to trust our heavenly Father. That he will indeed take care of us. That instead of worrying about whether our material needs will be met, we need to seek first God’s kingdom and righteousness. And then how all that we need will be then be taken care of.

I think that often a big part of our struggle is the desire to have our needs and I must add, wants fulfilled on the world’s terms. The world tells us we need such and such an amount of this and that. But as followers of Jesus, we are to live in a way in which, while we should enjoy all that God richly provides for us, we have a heart to bless others, the very heart of God (1 Timothy 6:17-19).

And so in this key, basic way we’re to follow Christ, as he taught in his foundational sermon. In utter devotion to and trust in God. In and through Jesus.

 

ignoring the sirens

I remember years ago at the Bible college I was at for a year, that a friend used to always pray whenever he heard a siren, probably for the people involved, particularly those in need, a good practice. My point is metaphorical, yet just as good, in fact quite important at least for me, in the walk of faith. I believe that there’s a sense in which we need to ignore the sirens that hit us off and on, sometimes repeatedly, over and over again for different reasons. The call is urgent and compelling; after all, I’m likening it to a siren.

Concern, even alarm, and urgent attention mark this call. Or maybe just plain dread. In biblical, and I would add, real life terms, we’re talking about what ultimately becomes a crippling fear, or an angst as in anxiousness, just plain, pure anxiety, which we cannot shake. These are all tell tale signs that something is wrong. And that these sirens in our head are getting us nowhere. If we respond to them, putting us on a never ending cycle of more and more of the same.

We simply need to ignore such siren calls, developing the discernment needed from God to tell the difference between the gentle, yet persistent promptings of the Spirit from the loud, edgy, restless, and ultimately accusatory, even condemning tones of what comes from the enemy. It might come from ourselves, and the way we have responded to life over the years, sometimes certain key factors or moments from childhood playing a part. Even so, in biblical terms the flesh and the devil, along with the world are all intertwined. I think of the world here as a system which does not acknowledge God, or God’s good rule. The flesh as our broken humanity which is set against God, even if religious, and trying to do what is well, right and good on our own. And the devil as the demonic element which while not at all equal to God, has full sway in both the world and the flesh, as depicted here.

There is no way we can simply get rid of fear and troubling thoughts from what we’ve taken in of the sirens that surround us, or come our way.  We simply have to turn our ears in a new direction, and get them in tune for a different sound all together, as well as learning to hear the other for what it really is, so that eventually we don’t hear it much at all, if at all, since we understand it’s actually a false alarm, not from God.

But in the meantime, we simply have to take the stand of faith, not letting such sirens move us. Instead, when we hear them, waiting for God’s direction, the still small voice, or gentle whispering of the Spirit (1 Kings 19:12). And accepting nothing less than God’s peace. And in that, finding God’s help to navigate all the questions, and difficult paths of life we encounter. In and through Jesus.