Believing in what we cannot see

The Bible says that “Faith is the realization of things hoped for, the confidence of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1) Perhaps you, like others, struggle to put your confidence in something or some-one you cannot see. Some people believe that if they can’t see it, it can’t possibly be real.

Imagine that I am holding in my fist a 1941-42 wartime mercury dime. A friend of mine tells me that such a piece is valued at $250. Because my fist is closed, you can’t see it. You simply have my word that it’s there. Whether you can see it or not, however, doesn’t make it any less real. Reality isn’t limited by what you see anymore than it is limited by what I see.  Let’s say that I wanted to determine whether you really trust me. Imagine that, in my system of values, whether you believed me was more important than all the things you did to impress me.

The best way for me to determine the sincerity of your belief is for me to ask you to put your confidence in me for that dime even though you have not yet seen it. If you do only that, I say, the dime can be yours. But you must believe even though you cannot see. When someone asks me if I believe in Jesus as my Lord and Savior, my answer is a definitive Yes!  When they ask me how I can believe in what I cannot see, my answer is that I believe God when He says He cannot lie (Titus 1:2) and that His promise of eternal life to those who believe in His Son (even though they haven’t yet seen Him) is true (John 1:12).

And one other thing, I believe that one day He will open His hand, but I won’t look upon a $250 dime. Instead I will see for the first time the scars from the nails that bought my salvation.  Do you still want to believe only in what you can see?

Why it feels like it somebody else’s fault…

Have you ever felt like you only do what you do because somebody else did what they did? In four brief paragraphs author Paul Tripp brings insights that are at once clarifying and convicting.  Read them first, then go read Romans 7:14-25, and then read them again.  While he applies these thoughts to regret in the middle of your life the broader application is appropriate for each of us.

The reason regret tends to hit us so hard in midlife is for years we have been convincing ourselves that the problem isn’t really us. Perhaps the biggest and most tempting lie that all of us tend to embrace is that our greatest problems exist somewhere outside of us. This is an attractive distortion because we are surrounded, in this fallen world, by people and things that aren’t operating as they were designed – so there are plenty of available things to blame. I can always find someone in my life who hasn’t responded to me properly. I can always identify a difficult situation that I have had to go through. We all tend to take the unrealistically demanding boss, the consistently rebellious child, the all too impatient spouse, the rude neighbor, or the gossiping extended family member as proof that the seeds of what we are harvesting, in fact, belongs to someone else.

There is an important spiritual dynamic in operation here. Because we are believers, the heart of stone has been taken out of us and has been replaced by a heart of flesh (Ezekiel 36:26). This means that when we think, desire, say and do what is wrong, we experience a God-given unease of heart – conscience. When this happens we all seek heart relief. There are only two ways to find this relief. We can place ourselves once again under the justifying mercies of Christ and receive forgiveness, or we can erect some system of self-justification that makes what is wrong acceptable to our conscience. An angry father who has just ripped into his rebellious son will tell himself that it is vitally important for his son to respect authority. This justification re-colors his sin of anger against his son. Or a wife, who has developed regular patterns of gossiping about her husband’s sin to her friends, will tell herself she is seeking prayer and accountability. She now feels comfortable doing something the Bible calls sin. Or a teenager who lies to his father about what he is doing tells himself all the time that he has to because his father just “lives for control.”

It’s an old argument that goes something like this, “His sin makes my sin not sin.” We have all used it, and it does us harm. Our growth in grace, our relationships with others, and our harvest as God’s children have all been crippled by our strategies of pseudo-atonement. We have been given a Savior who is magnificent in love and grace, yet in the face of his mercy, we function as our own replacement saviors again and again.

Notice how radically different Paul’s perspective is in Romans 7. The whole logic of the passage is based on the fact that Paul is locating his struggle with sin inside of himself.  For Paul, the foundational war is not a war with difficult situations (in many places Paul recognizes they exist) or sinful people (Paul tells stories elsewhere of having to deal with them), but a war with the gravitational pull of sin within. Romans 7 can be uncomfortable for us because it takes us to the very place of self-indictment that we have tended to work so hard to avoid. In our skill at avoiding this place, we have set ourselves up for the shock of regret that tends to hit so hard at midlife…

Paul David Tripp in Lost in the Middle, p. 113-114

Words that build up

The Bible regularly addresses our speech patterns. It specifically discusses the way that we should talk to one another. James says it so well,

From the same mouth come both blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be this way (James 3:10).

Of course we know the words we shouldn’t say. But what about the words we should say?  The apostle Paul reminds us of some of those words when he writes,

Therefore encourage one another, and build up one another . . . (I Thes. 5:11).

The word for encourage one another is the Greek word paraclete. It is translated elsewhere as the word comfort. In John’s gospel it speaks of the Holy Spirit coming as the comforter. Literally it means to come along side someone. What a picturesque word. You can almost see someone who is stumbling being supported by the words of someone who is coming along side of the–almost like they can lean on that person’s shoulder. Also included in this passage is the word for building up. It is the word edify. It is a word that is used for construction. Coupled with the word encourage, it means that we are not only hoping to get someone through a difficult time, we’re hoping to rebuild them.

When I was in high school I looked forward to watching the Six Million Dollar Man. Six million dollars wouldn’t go very far today in rebuilding a person with genuine bionic parts. Nonetheless, the opening of that show was always the same: We can rebuild him, we can make him faster, stronger, better than he was before.

That’s the kind of thing that we’re talking about when we speak of words that build up. We’re making them better with our words. Our words are known to encourage and edify.

There is a marked contrast here to poor speech. Unfortunately, sometimes Christians are known to gossip or slander. That is language that tears others down. But edifying is a language that builds others up.

This week try to concentrate on speech construction, not speech demolition.

The spiritual benefits of fasting

In our world of instant gratification and fast-food restaurants most of us assume that when we’re hungry that means we should eat. But what might happen if our stomach’s prompting was a reminder to pray, not simply to eat? Such is the purpose of fasting.

In his excellent article, Nine Reasons to Fast other than It’s Swimsuit Season Don Whitney references Biblical occurrences for fasting. Here they are as food for thought (sorry I couldn’t resist that one).

1-To Strengthen Prayer (Ezra 8:23; Neh. 1:4; Dan. 8:3; Joel 2:12; Acts 13:3)

There’s something about fasting that sharpens the edge of our intercessions and gives passion to our supplications.

2-To Seek God’s Guidance (Acts 14:23)

Fasting does not ensure the certainty of receiving clear guidance from God. Rightly practiced, however, it does make us more receptive to the One who loves to guide us.

3-To Express Grief (2 Sam. 1:11-12; 1 Sam. 20:34)

We may also fast because of grief over our sins. Although it’s not a spiritual self-flagellation, biblical confession does involve at least some degree of grief for the sin committed. And inasmuch as fasting can be an expression of grief, it can serve as a voluntary, heartfelt part of confession.

4-To Seek Deliverance or Protection (Esther 4:16; 2 Chron. 20:3, 4)

Fasting, rather than fleshly efforts, should be one of our first defenses against “persecution” from family, schoolmates, neighbors, or coworkers because of our faith. Typically, we’re tempted to strike back with anger, verbal abuse, counter accusations, or even legal action, instead of appealing to God with fasting for protection and deliverance.

5-To Express Repentance and a Return to God (1 Sam. 7:6; Joel 2:12)

This is similar to fasting to express grief for sin. But as repentance is a change of mind resulting in a change of action, fasting can also signal a commitment to obedience and a new direction.

6-To Humble Oneself before God (Psalm 35:13; 1 Kings 21:27-29)

Fasting, when practiced with the right motives, is a physical expression of humility before God, just as kneeling or prostrating yourself in prayer can reflect humility before Him. . . Remember that fasting itself is not humility before God, but should be an expression of humility. There was no humility in the Pharisee of Luke 18:12, who bragged to God in prayer that he fasted twice a week.

7-To Express Concern for the Work of God (Neh. 1:3-4)

A Christian might feel compelled to fast and pray for the work of God in a place that has experienced tragedy, disappointment, or apparent defeat. This was the purpose for Nehemiah’s fast when he heard that despite the return of many Jewish exiles to Jerusalem, the city still had no wall to defend it. After his fast, Nehemiah then went to work to do something tangible and public to strengthen this work of God.

8-To Overcome Temptation and Dedicate Yourself to God (Matt. 4:1-11)

There are times we struggle with temptation, or we anticipate grappling with it, when we need extra spiritual strength to overcome it. Perhaps we are traveling (or our spouse is traveling) and temptations for mental and sensual unfaithfulness abound. At the start of school or a new job or ministry there may be new temptations, or it may seem appropriate to dedicate ourselves anew to the Lord. . . In times of exceptional temptation, exceptional measures are required. Fasting to overcome temptation and renew our dedication to God is a Christlike response.

9-To Express Love and Worship to God (Luke 2:37)

Fasting can be an expression of finding your greatest pleasure and enjoyment in God. Fasting honors God and is a means of worshiping Him as such. It means that your stomach isn’t your god as it is with some (see Phil. 3:19). Instead it is God’s servant, and fasting proves it because you’re willing to sublimate its desires to those of the Spirit. . . Another way of fasting to express love and worship to God is to spend your mealtime in praise and adoration of God. A variation is to delay eating a particular meal until you have had your daily time of Bible intake and prayer. Just remember that your fast is a privilege, not an obligation.

The above article was adapted from the book, Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life by Don Whitney (chap. 9, NavPress, 1991).

God’s promises when people suffer…

Suffering doesn’t differentiate among its victims—both the child and the retiree get cancer.  The parent lies awake for the choices that their prodigal son or daughter make. Suffering is unavoidable.  

The book of 1 Peter was written as an encouragement to those who were suffering. It concludes with a wonderful verse and four action words that God promises to perform in our lives as we trust him through the difficult times.

And after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you into his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you (1 Peter 5:10).

He will restore. The ESV Study Bible captures it well:

God will eventually restore whatever they have lost for the sake of Christ. Though suffering will come first it will be followed by eternal glory.

That’s beautiful. Is your suffering a result of standing with Jesus? Then whatever you have lost will be returned and more.

He will confirm. This is a word used only here in the entire Bible. It has the idea of strengthening in spiritual knowledge and power. This means there are things to learn from the midst of suffering. There are life lessons in the pain. There are truths you can discover from the suffering that you could have learned no other way.

He will strengthen. Luke tells us that when Jesus was moving towards the crucifixion that he set his face towards Jerusalem (Luke 9:51). Set comes from the same Greek word as strengthen. This is a word of resolve. The Spirit of God is strengthening, purposefully preparing, and readying your will to face the difficulties.

He will establish. The word means to lay a foundation. It is also translated: founded, grounded, and stable. God is in the process of laying a sure foundation for you that will stand against the storms of life. He has no problem laying this foundation while you are in the storms of life. While it may not feel that way now, he is making you stable.

There is no promise today that the suffering will cease or even become more bearable. There is, however, the promise that God will restore, confirm, strengthen and establish you, giving the unbearable suffering a sense of purpose.

Sexual abuse and the victim

Whenever I am ministering I am consciously aware that there are those in the audience whose hidden past is painful beyond words. They are the victims of sexual abuse. Those who have been victims of such crimes often feel guilt and shame. There are questions that haunt them. Could I have told someone? Would they have believed me? Could I have stopped the abuse, even if I was a child? Sometimes these questions further the guilt that the victim struggles with.

In helping victims of sexual abuse I have often turned in my Bible to an obscure passage in the Old Testament. Thousands of years ago the Bible acknowledged that there would be this kind of abuse among mankind. And although God’s plan entailed justice for the offender, He wished to alleviate the guilt of the victim. And so He had Moses record the following words for the young woman (or young man) who had been sexually abused.

You shall do nothing to the young woman, there is in the young woman no sin (Deut. 22:26).

I have watched as tear-filled eyes have fallen upon those words for the first time. Guilt is a hard taskmaster – even when it’s not deserved. But the Bible wishes to clear the abused individual of the guilt that they often impose upon themselves, and so it uses the phrase no sin.

Do I wish to infer that it is an easy road back for the individual that has suffered abuse? No. There are always emotional scars. Do we grieve with them for the pain they still may feel? Absolutely. But God doesn’t hold the abused individual responsible for sin that was perpetrated upon them, even though they may feel like it. And the Bible makes that clear. 

God is not angry with them. He loves them, and is concerned about their future. And such a thought is the beginning of healing for the individual who has carried secrets to painful to talk about for as long as they can remember.

The benefit of waiting: Dependence

Next time you feel like you’ve waited long enough for God to do something, reflect upon the characters of the Bible. Author Joann Weaver is bold enough to say what many of us were thinking when we read these stories.

Was it really necessary to leave Joseph rotting in an Egyptian prison cell for such an extended period? Was it vitally important that the Israelites wander in the desert for forty years and Noah drift on a flood for months in a boat that took perhaps a century to build? Were twenty-five years really necessary to move Abraham from the promise to Pampers? Surely there had to be simpler, not to mention faster, method by which to fulfill God’s purposes (Lazarus Awakening, p. 61).

We deeply desire independence. As we enter our teen years we crave it, and in our senior years we fear the loss of it. Perhaps it is because we long for that independence so much that God has us wait, even for a lifetime, for some of the things we desire. Waiting, like fasting, has the potential of developing a greater sense of dependence on our God. His leading. His plans. His purposes. If we respond properly to the waiting process we end up desiring our will less, and God’s will more.

With that understanding consider the following Scriptures.

Be still and know that I am God (Psalm 46:10)

May integrity and uprightness preserve me, for I wait for you (Psalm 25:21)

Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord! (Psalm 27:14)

Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him; fret not yourself over the one who prospers in his way, over the man who carries out evil devices . . . For the evildoers shall be cut off, but those who wait for the Lord shall inherit the land (Psalm 37:7, 9)

But for you, O Lord, do I wait; it is you, O Lord my God, who will answer (Psalm 38:15).

I waited patiently for the Lord; he inclined to me and heard my cry (Psalm 40:1).

And Isaiah 40:30-31 remind us,

Even youths shall faint and be weary, and young men shall fall exhausted; but they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint.

I once saw an eagle ascend on hot air thermals when I was fishing the Madison River in Montana. He continued to ascend effortlessly until he disappeared from my vision. In the five minutes that he was within my view, I never saw him beat his wings. He simply rode those hot air currents higher and higher. He was dependent on something other than his own strength.

The waiting period was intended that you and I might sense our weakness, inability, and frailty, and depend wholly on the Lord.

Give us this day our daily bread…

He was from Nigeria, but I met him in Hungary. I was teaching for five days, and he was one of fifty international students studying the Bible in an old communist castle. Over lunch one day, he asked me the question: “Is it right for me to marry an American woman, and expect her to return with me to Nigeria?” I countered, “Why not?” After all the man was tall, handsome, articulate, loved God, and loved his people enough to return to them upon concluding his Biblical studies. His eyes met mine, and he spoke again, “Because it would be a hard life for her there.” He paused. “Sometimes we might go 4-5 days without food. There is nothing available.”

It shouldn’t have surprised me, but it did. When you first begin to travel outside of the United States, you meet poverty of a different kind. In many places it isn’t just the poor that don’t have food, it’s often everyone.

I spent 10 days teaching an apologetics course at a seminary right outside of Kiev, Ukraine. The pastors traveled 6-8 hours for these courses. They gathered once a month to complete their master degrees. But these men were not only hungry spiritually, they were also hungry physically. One of the pastors shared that while he enjoyed the classes, he really enjoyed the lunches. It was the most food he would have the entire month. I looked down at my bowl of soup, and wondered if I had ever really been hungry.

I had a similar wake-up call in Haiti in the fall of 2010. Following the earthquake a group of us were on a house-building mission. We completed two small block homes that were 10 feet by 20 feet. The average two car garage is twice that size. When I was praying with Jeordan, a single mother of six, she commented, “My friends say my house is a gift from God…after the earthquake I never thought I’d live inside again.”

There’s a good chance that you have never had to go five days without food, because there was none in the village. Though you might have wondered where the next house payment was coming from, you probably never considered the possibility of sleeping outside the rest of your earthly life.

Jesus reminds us that we should ask the Father for our daily bread (Matt. 6:11). Such a request adds a sense of dependence to our prayer. We don’t assume we will eat because there are leftovers in the fridge. We ask God to provide what we need that day.

What if this was our attitude of prayer in all things? What if, when we prayed, we had this 24-hour sense of urgency to our prayers.

What if we prayed that way for our kids? Truly believing that unless God intervened, they would not grow up to serve him.

What if we prayed that way for our church? Acknowledging our deep dependence on the Lord for the work of His Holy Spirit in our midst.

What if we prayed that way for ourselves? Fully realizing that without God we could accomplish nothing.

What if the purpose of prayer is that we might develop a dependence on the Lord, and grow in that daily?

The prayer guide of Jesus

Jesus gave us a guide to prayer. He tucked it right in the middle of his sermon on the mount (Matt. 5-7). We call it the Lord’s Prayer. It begins: “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name (Matt. 6:9).  The word hallowed is closely connected with the word holy, and it means to be set apart. Another way to think about this is that “God is God, and we are not.” Because he is God we are to reverence him.

This is a great way to start your prayer (Matt. 6:9), and to end it (Matt. 6:13).

But how do we remember this truth daily? How can this idea of reverencing God become a natural part of our prayer time? Perhaps the answer is also found in that opening line of the prayer: “hallowed be your name” What if we recited and reflected upon the names of God in our prayer time? We could also include his attributes in this list. How might that shape and deepen our time of prayer? I’ve included a PDF listing of those names and attributes of God that I trust you’ll find helpful. It is not exhaustive, but a good start. The Hebrew names have been transliterated with a phrase giving their meaning.You may access the list here:  The names and attributes of God

My recommendation is that when you pray you take a few of these qualities and dwell upon them. Express your thankfulness to God that He possesses these attributes. Following Jesus’ pattern, give significant time to praising God before you move on to the rest of your prayer time. In this way your prayer, just like Jesus’, will begin with a time of reverence.

Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel, who alone does wondrous things. Blessed be his glorious name forever; may the whole earth be filled with his glory! Amen and Amen!  (Psalm 72:18-19)

The great willingness of Jesus…

For those who are unfamiliar with the story, I suppose that Jesus Christ might look like a victim in a heinous crime. Jealous religious leaders plot his death. He is lied about. A mob cries for his crucifixion. Political leaders who are more concerned about politics than leadership succumb to the demands of the crowd. And he is crucified.

 But Jesus makes it clear, while he prays in the garden of Gethsemane that He is no victim (Matt. 26:39).  He requests of His Father to not go through the crucifixion, and then because His Father’s will is more important than His upcoming pain He willingly submits.

Travel back with me to the foot of the cross. Author Max Lucado writes so lucidly of that moment in world history:

When human hands fastened the divine hands to a cross with spikes, it wasn’t the soldiers that held the hands of Jesus steady. Those same hands that formed oceans and built mountains. Those same hands that designed the universe. Those same hands that blueprinted one incredible plan for you and me.

Take a stroll out to the hill. Out to Calvary. Out to the cross where with holy blood, the hand that placed you on the planet wrote the promise. ‘God would give up his only Son before He’d give up on you.’

 Ponder that thought: The God of heaven was so interested in you and me that He gave His only Son. Before you and I were ever born, He ordained Him to pay the penalty of our sin by dying on the cross. Everything you’ve done that was wrong was paid for in one act: the crucifixion of Jesus. That forgiveness is granted to those who believe in Him. Make no mistake about it: Jesus Christ was no victim. He died willingly on your behalf and mine. Have you invited Him, who gave His life so willingly to be your Savior? Why not consider doing it today?