I came to a living faith reading the Sermon on the Mount. The transforming moment came when my reading unexpectedly turned into a conversation. Jesus was present in his words.
As I moved through the sermon each segment stirred a response and some questions. What Jesus said about sin startled me. So much so that I asked a spontaneous question: “So what do you expect of me?” He answered in what I read next: “You, therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Again, I was stunned.
It didn’t end there. The cycle of questions and answers continued until I reached Christ’s call, “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness . . .” So I responded, “Yes, Lord. I will!” And with that everything changed. In that moment I became devoted to my new conversation partner. And I kept reading and asking more questions!
That experience transformed my Bible reading. I now come to the Bible as the place where the conversation continues. I bring my questions and I get to hear the Father, Son, and Spirit God offering answers. The Spirit, as promised, continues to open my eyes and ears.
At a basic level that first meeting gave me a new focus in life. While my values and too many of my sinful choices didn’t change at once, my sensitivity to sin came alive. I was more aware of my selfishness and hated it. So my old struggles continue—and I still manage to disappoint others—yet Christ’s “once, for all” forgiveness continues to invite me forward. He’s profoundly attractive as one who loves me even in my weakness.
Why confess to this awkward place of being both “changed” but “still changing”?
I write in order to ask what other Christian readers are doing with the Bible. And to offer the Bible as a coffee shop for the soul: as a place where God is available for conversations about how to change. God, I’ve discovered, loves to talk about truth, restoration, rest, and hope. And much, much more!
So my surprise is that many Christians seem clueless about the opportunity we have to hear God’s heart. I’ve raised this issue before. Let me come back to it.
But first let me say what I don’t promote.
I don’t promote Bible reading as a discipline. No one, for instance, will ever find a Bible reading schedule posted on my blogsite or in anything else I write. Many of my friends like reading programs but I refuse to go there. What I do suggest is an aggressive reading pace—and by aggressive I’m only talking about 30-40 minutes of uninterrupted reading each day. And even more as opportunities allow. That just happens to result in three or more Bible read-throughs each year.
Why not a schedule? Because Bible reading is a conversation with a real companion—the Triune God—offering himself through the pages! And a more involved conversation just might emerge if we ditch the schedule. It’s a natural feature of love relationships!
To use the analogy of marriage—something the Bible promotes—how would a marriage work if it only operated with scheduled daily meetings: if the spouses came together to talk for ten minutes each day, and then stepped apart to journal privately about how to apply that conversation?
It doesn’t suggest a great relationship. In fact it actually tells me they aren’t very engaged with each other!
For another, I don’t promote daily Bible study. The key word here is “daily.” I do study the Bible rather often when I’m preparing to preach or teach on a given text. But I do it separately from my Bible reading: it plays a different role in approaching God and offers a very different benefit.
But why not daily study? Because it’s not particularly relational! And worse than that, it actually reduces the prospect of enjoying God. In a study he’s more of an object to be inspected than a person to be enjoyed.
Let me go back to the marriage analogy as a relational touchstone here. Would a marriage prosper if two partners gave each other a paragraph-for-the-day to study? Especially if that was the total substance of the marriage? What nonsense!
Instead we get to know another in the flow of life. So in the Bible God’s word comes to us mainly as a set of extended narratives or units of thought—as faith stories that stir and invite our own growth in faith. The more we read, the more we see parallels: how God has engaged others. The Spirit then uses these to say, “This fits you, too!”
This morning, for instance, I read Amos, Obadiah, and Jonah in one go. And through these books God raised lots of conversation points with me!
What I do promote is what Jesus called for: “Abide in my word.”
What does that mean? I certainly don’t know all the elements but in the context of John 8—where Jesus gave this invitation—he spoke of the contrast between those who listen to him because they hear God’s heart in his words: “If God were your Father you would love me.”
But for those for whom his words find “no place” and who “cannot bear to hear” what Jesus offers there is another explanation: “your will is to do your father’s desires” and “you are not of God.” And, by the way, Jesus was speaking to men from among the “many [who] believed in him.” Staggering stuff!
So let’s try abiding—engaging Jesus as in a delightful marriage. It’s a transforming opportunity!
With the rhythm of a drummer the prophet Ezekiel called on readers to know and respond to God—Yahweh—as the only true God. His repeated refrain was a promise: “Then they shall know that I am the LORD.”
What brings about this “knowing”?
Mainly it comes by experiencing promised disasters when they arrive. Tragedies are God’s wake-up alarms. But knowing God can also be generated in a positive way—as he shares himself in a unique way with certain people.
On the negative side of this refrain God assures nations that ruin will be coming to all who despise him and his ways: who prefer moral independence. Death and disaster lies ahead. Why? Because God rewards the promoters of spiritual and behavioral independence with the relative absence of his own goodness.
In one of many examples God warned the people of Edom, “I will deal with you according to the anger and envy that you showed [Israel] because of your hatred against them” (Ezekiel 35:11). So when national disaster did, indeed, arrive it should have dawned on Edom that this was what God had promised!
The positive side of God’s promise is a dramatic contrast. First he warned his chosen people that they too would face chaos in return for their own moral chaos: death and exile was their reward. But within this standard arrangement God promised to some “a new heart, and a new spirit …. And I will put my Spirit within you … and you shall be my people, and I will be your God.”
So these favored people are rescued from the pendulum rhythm of evil versus evil. But is it fair that only some are rescued?
Fairness, of course, can be an uneven, self-serving standard. What is fair—using elementary moral logic—is that evil is its own just reward: sin bears the fruit of more sin. Falsity produces corruption. Death generates death. And God’s ways are always good and right as he allows evil to run its course in a fallen world.
So God’s fairness, properly framed, is that he always allows humanity its greatest desire: independence. From Adam onward humans have always been ambitious to be like God; and with that, to have the freedom of self-determined good and evil.
By now this autonomy is viewed as essential to life. God, in fairness, allows us to discover how life works when we use our free will to do whatever happens to be right in our own eyes.
The outcome of this freedom? Decay, distrust, death, and ruin—at personal, regional, national, and international levels. Not all at once, but over time. Not as a tight tit-for-tat arrangement but as a principle of human history that sees evil sloshing freely throughout the world as the prophet Habakkuk discovered.
As one current and tragic example of this chaos the religious radicals who recently attacked Paris would have been convinced of their own rightness. By killing ordinary people and tourists they believed they were defeating immoral representatives of crusading Westerners: the people who refuse to submit to the version of Allah they embraced deserve to die.
Were they right in pressing their own version of good and evil on Paris? Is ISIS the true source of God’s will for humanity? Could the West actually be guilty for its dismissal of God and its past invasions of Middle East countries? Is ISIS right to reject Western atheism, materialism, licentious sexuality, and secular justice?
Or is ISIS wrong and the West right? Is ISIS terrorism intrinsically evil: a massive moral distortion even in the face of perceived wrongs from the past? And with that, don’t we in the West have the endorsement of sound and enduring civilization on our side? Don’t the personal freedoms and self-fulfillments of democracy express an inherent rightness compared to the lethal claims of the Paris killers?
The point is that in such debates each side presumes a keen sense of self-righteousness. By their personal and national measures they are holy while others are evil.
And that’s been true throughout the ages. Were the Japanese right to seek self-protective measures at the outset of WWII? Or were the Americans right to have blocked their economic aspirations? Were the Germans right to invade Poland to extend their national security? Or were the Allies right to bomb Dresden? And was the Soviet Union right to subjugate many of their neighbors after the war as a defensive measure?
In their own day the answer to each of these questions was different depending on who was asking. And with the distance of decades we can now see how often the aphorism “might makes right” formed such judgments.
That brings us back to our first question: what will it take for us to “know” Yahweh—revealed to us in Christ Jesus—as the sole ground of righteousness? When the day of final judgment arrives will our personal views of morality prepare us to meet with God?
The awkward answer is that God is still allowing disasters that answer, “no!” We are still living in the folly of trying to be “like God” and are finding terror, death, and corruption as the fruit of our relative autonomy. So his promises should haunt us as human efforts to bring about competing versions of justice slosh back and forth with dire consequences in world history.
But a day will come when all that gets straightened out. And in the meantime God has been gracious to send his wooing Spirit. So Jesus, by the Spirit, has awakened some people—his “sheep”—to hear his voice. We know him and his father; and we follow him.
In the meantime we can expect more wars and rumors of wars. At least until the cycles of life finally end. And then we all will all know that only Yahweh is God.
So please, LORD, come quickly!
This entry repeats an entry already offered at the Cor Deo site – please offer any responses there: thanks!
The Bible is an epic story: a true and transcendent portrayal of reality. It invites us to live in light of God’s purposes and in line with his truth.
In this story God—the Father, Son, and Spirit God—is the protagonist. And the Son’s captivating qualities set the scene: to know him is to love him. The Father delights in the Son and wants him to have a Bride who can love and enjoy him as the Father does. The Spirit’s mission is to arrange the marriage: he sets up introductions.
God’s motive in this is love—a giving heart—and marriage is his venue for sharing. The story began before the foundation of the world as the Father, Son, and Spirit communed in a shared glory. It was in this period that the Bride was anticipated: “chosen” even before creation.
Of course this marriage transcends human marriage: it is neither physical nor temporal. Instead the Bride is the collective body of men and women who respond to the Spirit’s wooing. So the Bride is spiritual in the sense that she is “one” not in any tangible sense but in the reality of the shared Spirit.
How the divine Son can take a bride from the creation is central to the plot. First, humans were made in God’s “likeness” to be suitable candidates. But another step was needed. The Son had to join humanity: to share the tangible life of the Bride. And as such he became a bridge for the Bride to join the Father’s family. The Son was already united to the Father in his divinity and then by a physical birth he joined humanity to take his Bride. And all—Father, Son, and Bride—share the one Spirit. By this bond the Bride has eternal life.
This epic story explains both our creation and, for the Bride, salvation. Yet to many of us it sounds odd and unfamiliar. Why?
Because an antagonist muddles this true story with false accounts.
This is the Liar: an angel gone bad. In his beauty and free self-expression this figure became an arch-narcissist: loving himself in place of God. And with that he sought to take over the creation by forming a counter-kingdom: a realm of moral opposition.
He was, of course, only a creature himself and unable to form his own creation. Instead he plotted to take over humanity and through seduction to rule the creation through humans. His ploy has been to replace good with evil in every aspect of reality. This is the moral equivalent of making old-style film negatives: he converts light to darkness and vice versa.
In his plan he presumed God, as pure goodness, would lose access to all who were part of this morally-reversed realm. And when the Holy Spirit’s bonding love was quenched in Adam—and the Spirit now stood outside human souls—humanity as a whole turned instead to the reversed narratives offered by the Unholy spirit.
And this spirit—Satan—reconceived each element of God’s goodness by overt reversals. His new realm treats God as a disaffected singularity rather than a God who is love; it offered animated death in place of Life. It replaced love for others with a love of self; a devotion to light with a fascination for darkness; the power of love with the love of power; a proper form of marriage with improper forms; and much, much more.
So the Bible calls him the Serpent, the Devil, the Accuser, and more. The Son called him the Liar and the Father of lies. No truth will ever be found in him or offered by him.
His ultimate Lie is that we can “be like God.” As if humanity, apart from God, can do just fine. God may still be useful since he sustains the creation but he seems to be impotent.
The Bride in God’s story is gathered from those who accepted the Lie and were then devoured by Satan’s living death. But, in an amazing turn, the Son devours death for those who love him. He entered death to rescue us and to reverse our moral polarities. Satan didn’t anticipate this.
How did the blameless Son die? In the great exchange of marital properties he took on our evil; and we received his life. He, as God, swallowed our death and was raised from death on the basis of his unquenchable life. And so we now live in him by faith.
So the true Epic ends with the Bride returning to the Living Truth and sharing his glory—the glory of the Father—with the new life of the Spirit making it all work. The Unholy spirit, on the other hand, still has death—along with all who spurned the Son’s Life—forever.
It’s an epic reality that brings us to the one True Love worth living for.
Job, an epic sufferer in the Bible, was both confronted and affirmed by God. God confronted him as a “faultfinder” (40:1) but he also affirmed Job for having “spoken of me what is right” (42:7) in contrast to Job’s moralistic friends.
God’s contrasting references to Job invite attention.
First, what in Job pleased God? A clue comes in Job 23:12 where late in the story Job’s ultimate focus was still clear: “I have treasured the words of [God’s] mouth more than my portion of food.” Job said this even as he complained about his divinely disrupted life.
Job’s terrible circumstances were a key feature. The book began with a conversation between God and his archenemy Satan. Job’s devotion to God was the issue. God pointed to Job’s character: “there is none like him on the earth” and that’s where the disruptions began for Job.
Satan’s ready answer to God was that human comfort always explains faithfulness. If Satan could turn Job’s happy life upside-down he would be predictably human: he would blame God. This was and still is central in Satan’s arsenal of big ideas. We humans, he believes, can all be controlled by our ambitions for security and comfort. When things go well we’re happy with God. If, on the other hand, we aren’t happy and well fed we will be hostile to God.
In Job’s case Satan was wrong.
As we get into the account we find an illustration of divine double-agency. The dark events—including the loss of Job’s children in a storm—belonged both to God and to Satan. Satan initiated Job’s losses but in Job 2:3 we read that God also owned them. Satan, in other words, was the immediate cause or agent as he acted with an evil intent. God, on the other hand, was the greater agent and his purpose was to use Satan’s evil actions for good.
The reality of double-agency in the Bible is critical in grasping how a good God deals with evil: God intends everything for good for those who love him, even things that his enemies intend for evil. Both the patriarchal story of Joseph—see Genesis 50:20 here—and the happy tragedy of Christ’s crucifixion illustrate this. Paul also took up this truth in Romans 8:28.
In the overall story what separated Job from his unhelpful friends was his recognition of God’s double-agency. He hated his painful experiences but he also recognized that in the end he would come out “like gold” (23:10). There is, in other words, always a benefit in suffering. His friends, by contrast, saw a strict sin-and-punishment linkage: Job’s dramatic suffering could only be explained by his equally terrible sins.
We readers now know Job was right and they were wrong.
Even more to the point was Job’s confidence in God’s character and his word. He remained certain that God is trustworthy. And with that confidence he also had grounds for treasuring God’s words.
What explained Job’s confidence? If a reader goes through the book at a pace certain qualities in Job stand out. Three of these invite comment. First, Job relied on God’s full engagement with him in his plight: everything he was going through ultimately came by way of God. Second, he still trusted God’s goodness. And third, he was so sure of God’s engagement and goodness that he regularly pressed God for an explanation of, and solution to, his pain.
Job’s complaints were sharp enough to invite the confrontation as a “faultfinder” from God. Job was particularly pained to have his authentic faithfulness to God challenged by his friends. So while he wasn’t perfect he kept his confidence in God’s ways and words. Even in his suffering he knew God is always achieving good.
By the end of the account God gave him relief and Job’s character was reaffirmed. But the reader is left wondering, what happened to Satan after chapter two?
Here’s a guess. Satan had an empty hand with Job so he folded his cards and left the table. Job’s friends then took up his cards. Satan’s departure reminds us that Job was written in the shadow of Genesis chapter three.
Then Satan used the same two devices: he first challenged God’s character by focusing on God’s single restriction—not to eat fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil—to portray him as unfair. The restriction blocked Adam from being “like God.” Second, and tied to the first, Satan held God’s word to be false. While God promised death if Adam ate from the tree, Satan promised, “You will not surely die.”
God, of course, came and confronted the lying Serpent. Adam did, in fact, die spiritually that day. And God promised Satan his end was on the way. So Satan went silent and disappeared from the scene.
What does Job offer us here? At least this: even in the face of Satan’s twin lies he still trusted God’s goodness and his words. As a result Job’s response to suffering makes more sense: “I have treasured the words of [God’s] mouth more than my portion of food.”
Satan was silenced; Job’s faith in God is now legendary; and we who know Christ are certain to have our own opportunities to live like Job.
Let’s be sure to take up Job’s treasure.
My friend and colleague Dave reached me last night with the news. The UK visa authorities are revoking his family’s permission to live in England. Given his wife’s late pregnancy he now needs to close up their Chippenham home and move back to the States in the next two weeks. Similar revocations have hit other mission agencies so the shock is widespread.
Why this abrupt change? Apparently some shifts in government policies were instituted that his mission agency wasn’t meeting. So the agency, after years of service, and others like it are no longer approved to have missionaries in the UK. No appeals are possible.
The whole thing is humbling and unsettling. The visas were expensive and hard to get but they seemed worth the trouble for the promise of stability in planning ministry for days to come. Now that promise—and planning for the next year or two—is a tumbled apple cart.
So let’s chase the matter of disruptions. The image of an upset apple cart describes life for all of us: at some point something related to our work, family, church, or social circumstances has been tipped over. The result? All the related daily events we counted on for security seemed like tossed apples tumbling away in every direction.
Some events are more disruptive than others—those with broken relationships are the worst. But every upset has one feature in common: the cart needs to be turned upright, the apples restacked, and we need to move on.
That may be easier said than done if the cart is full. Dave’s family, for instance, has a full load of apples to restack in a short time: airline tickets to buy; arrangements made to leave a home and to find another in a different country; revised preparations for the coming baby; a change in churches; a need to reconfigure ministry; and more.
But remember that with our disruptions we get to return to a biblical certainty: upheaval always comes with a living faith. Israel’s troubles in the Exodus and Exile are early examples. Jesus, God’s Son, also faced resistance and rejection from the entrenched religious forces of his day until he was finally crucified. The early church faced pressures from the same forces and soon lost James and Stephen.
Paul’s life, especially, was characterized by ongoing disruptions—shipwrecks, beatings, stonings, and more are listed in 2 Corinthians 11—so that he could say well before his eventual martyrdom, “I am crucified with Christ” (Galatians 2:20).
So here’s a theme of faith. God’s heart for humanity has and always will be opposed by both overt and covert spiritual resistance. He has an ultimate enemy, Satan, “the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience” (Ephesians 2:2). He is perpetually stirring resistance to God and his people. And his efforts will only end with Christ’s return.
In the meantime God calls us to live as Paul lived. A second element in Paul’s crucifixion quote is key, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”
So we find the Bible offers a perpetual good-versus-evil opposition: we who trust God will always invite the wrath of an angry world.
And with that we’re reminded that God doesn’t want us to see this world as our home. We’re just passing through an age of rebellion—the age unleashed by Adam’s ambition to live as if he could “be like God.” He turned everything upside down by trusting the serpent’s words rather than God’s word. And we now see what that offered.
So during this period we have the promise that God is with us no matter how challenging our upheavals may be. His Son is our companion and keeper even as the “nations rage” against him and the Father—the reality of Psalm 2.
But there are complexities in all this. The UK government, for instance, shouldn’t be seen as raging against God’s people. Their visa revocations were more procedural, based on broader policies, rather than overtly anti-Christian. Yet those who love Christ do feel a growing resistance to God and what he represents in the Western world. In an earlier day we may have had more help! So let’s call this the covert work of our enemy.
And overt hostility is growing in places where Christianity is more vulnerable. In India, for instance, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party—the BJP—is allied with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh movement to form a Hindu-only religious world in India. Christianity, along with Islam, is faced with growing and systematic suppression.
As a result more apple carts will be tipped over. More visas will be revoked and denied. More anger will be expressed against authentic faith. Shall we mention Russia too? Or countries in the Middle East where radical Islam is spreading like a wildfire?
Resistance to Christ is what comes in a fallen world. So our hope is ultimately in eternity. The stability we long for will only arrive then. And then every tear will be dried and faithful love will be a constant. That’s where real truth and justice will reign.
In the meantime we have some apples to restack.
I noticed the two questions Jesus asked his audience in Luke 18: “And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them? I tell you, he will give justice to them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”
Jesus linked two seemingly unrelated questions by his “nevertheless.” Why?
The first question was rhetorical—God’s righteousness is set over against the corruption of an unjust judge. The judge rendered justice to a persistent widow who annoyed him with her requests until he acted. An unspoken element is that any justice the judge offered certainly came at a price and the widow didn’t have the necessary cash. God, by sharp contrast, is not like this corrupt judge.
The form of argument Jesus used—starting with a negative illustration before offering a contrasting positive—is not common today but it’s still easy to understand. The point is that God is absolutely righteous. He doesn’t need to be bribed. He’s fully responsive when his people cry out for help in an unjust world.
So why the second question about finding faith on earth?
Jesus framed this question with his second coming: would his earthly ministry bring about lasting reform? Would Christian faith spread after his resurrection and ascension? Or would his ministry merely repeat the cycle of Old Testament initiatives that were eventually washed away by the tidal flow of human sin?
In reading the Bible a possible answer emerges. Adam was brought into a pristine world but he still fell. God’s intervention in the time of Moses eventually crumbled as mostly lackluster judges tried to guide a faithless nation. And then a string of mostly unfaithful kings replaced the judges with the result of a civil war, a divided nation, the collapse of Israel, and the captivity of Judah.
Again, why the second question? God is meant to be our focus of faith in all of life. And in the story of the unjust judge we have a snapshot of how broken life can be in an unjust world. But Jesus tells us he and his Father are absolute opposites to a fallen world: he is a God who invites our complete confidence and devotion. He wants us to trust him in every moment of life.
Yet the context of Luke 18 text points to an underlying problem: human faith is instinctively directed by self-interest. When people face difficulties in life the immediate impulse is to solve the challenges with self-guided efforts. We prefer a happy future and strive to achieve it.
This is not just a pagan impulse. In searching for stability, security, and success in life even Christians can treat God as a useful resource and not as our ultimate end. God, after all, is more than a judge. He’s our creator who loves us and made us to share in his Son’s eternal community.
So with Christ’s second question we have another implicit question: where is our vision for life aimed? At personal happiness and security? At achieving a standing before others: to be a good person who deserves respect and appreciation from others, including God?
With that question in mind listen to what Jesus said in his next parable: “He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt.” Jesus then compared a repentant sinner—a corrupt tax collector—and a religious man whose success in life was obvious to himself and to others. Yet his man’s “success” didn’t have God as its focus. Read the story and notice how many times this Pharisee says “I” as he honors himself as a success story.
The set of stories and events offered by Luke continue with similar contrasts. Next is a reminder of God’s pleasure in those who come to him with the sort of dependence small children have on their parents. And then the story of a wealthy ruler who while morally impressive still maintained his own pathway in life . . . even when Jesus invited him to give up everything to “follow me.”
So Christ’s two questions still confront us. Do we view God as completely trustworthy? Do we cry out to him for life, and then embrace him in life? Or, even with his invitation to trust him in mind, do we ultimately trust our own wits and ways in life?
Thank God for these two questions—especially if they unsettle us.
In the Bible—1 Samuel 5—we read of Dagon, the Philistine God of Samuel’s era. For a brief time Yahweh, the God of Israel, shared a room with Dagon. And it wasn’t a happy time for Dagon’s team.
Let me summarize the events. At this stage of Bible history Israel was only superficially devoted to Yahweh—“the LORD”—and Israel’s priests epitomized a drift away from God.
The LORD’s role in the Dagon story was tied to the Ark of the Covenant. Earlier in the Bible we read that the space between two cherubs molded onto the lid on the Ark—the Mercy Seat—was God’s earthly throne. Here the invisible LORD would speak to Moses; so the Ark was God’s connecting point on earth.
By Eli’s day the Israelites had demeaned this gift and were treating the Ark as no more than a religious good luck charm. So in a battle with the neighboring Philistines Eli’s two morally and spiritually corrupt sons carried the Ark to the front lines. The Philistines were terrified—“woe to us” is repeated twice in the text—because they knew the LORD had already defeated the mighty Egyptian army. But the project didn’t work: Eli’s priestly sons were killed and the Ark was captured. When Eli heard this he collapsed and died.
This meant the Philistines now held Israel’s supposed connecting point with the LORD. They would have been both pleased and a little bit nervous. Capturing another nation’s god could be risky business!
They knew, for instance, not to discount the reports from an earlier era of the LORD’s power over Egyptian gods. Yet on this occasion the Philistines prayed to Dagon for victory over Israel and it worked. So in their view Dagon had the upper hand; but Yahweh—the LORD—still needed to be respected.
A standard program of the day was to collect as many gods as possible so the Philistine priests placed the Ark next to Dagon’s stone image in his Ashdod temple. The power of two gods might be greater than one.
A nice idea, but the next morning the priests found Dagon’s statue toppled from his pedestal. So they set it back in place and, no doubt, talked about building a better pedestal. Had a very local earthquake caused this? Were some blasphemous pranksters involved?
An answer dawned on them the following morning when they came back to the temple and found Dagon toppled a second time and lying on the ground “before the Ark” with head and arms chopped off—both acts of desecration. And reports came at the same time of a plague spreading among the Philistines. A Bible summary follows: “the hand of the LORD was against the city, causing a very great panic.”
Soon the Philistines started pawning off the Ark to other cities: Ashdod sent it to Ekron and a “deathly panic” followed there as well. It may have spent time in Gaza, Gath, and Ashkelon too—we aren’t sure. Finally, after seven months of illness and death among the Philistines the national authorities found a way to send the Ark back to Israel where it belonged.
Here’s the lesson: God is still in charge and he is greater than Dagon!
By now, of course, we don’t struggle with that debate. No one worships Dagon these days—and the Philistine religion is seen to be just so much nonsense. Dagonism may have had some demonic affiliations that offered religious punch in its day but it was only a passing pretense. Israel, alone, worshipped the one true God.
Another debate exists today. Is God is greater than our current deities?
Which deities? In the West we don’t often have the wood, stone, and metal idols of biblical times but we do find other forms of idolatry. An idol is anything that replaces God’s primacy in life. Paul, for instance, spoke of greed as idolatry.
But our purpose here isn’t to identify modern forms of idolatry. Instead let’s follow up the story of 1 Samuel 5 with a question.
Why did God allow his Ark to be captured? And—to suggest a present parallel—why is God so quiet in the face of widespread disregard for him today? Even in the church we can find spiritual and moral carelessness similar to the conduct of Eli and his sons.
Is it possible that God still refuses to be a good luck charm? Is he still working from positions of apparent weakness . . . while tipping over idols at night? If, for instance, someone claims to have faith in God while also living a life full of self-centered ambitions, is it possible that God might tip things over as a mercy meant to catch that person’s attention?
The question applies both in community settings—to church and state—and personally. Yet there’s always an alternative. Later in the same narrative God found a man “after my own heart” (1 Samuel 13:14) to lead his people in new directions.
With that in mind let’s be bold to ask God to search our hearts and to tip over any idols he finds. And then let’s follow his heart wherever it may lead.
“Thank you” is a bonding phrase. When our service or kindness receives a smile and a “thanks” a satisfying relational loop is completed. The other person’s words recognize our action not as a duty but as an expression of care.
But thanksgiving is not as common as it could be.
I know a man, for instance, who as a rule doesn’t express thanks. He accepts whatever comes his way as an expected benefit—a service appropriate to his status. And it seems that he treats almost all his exchanges with others as transactions—not tied to mutual grace as much as to his unending expectations and to our ongoing duties.
Some other people, by contrast, are genuinely touched even by small kindnesses. They never take people for granted. What’s more they often recall things from the past—as if friendships are treasures they savor.
All of us will recognize these social contrasts. But what explains the difference? Is it just a matter of differing dispositions? Or differences in nurture; or life circumstances? It’s true that a well-cultivated life and a good disposition plays a role. But if we accept an ultimate measure found in the Bible the answer is no—it’s not a natural quality but a supernatural gift. A thankful response to Christ displays a truly changed heart.
Let’s chase this. In the Bible, we learn that thanksgiving—or the lack of it—is a heart condition. Thankfulness is an indicator of where we stand on a scale ranging from honest humility to unrealistic self-regard. Genesis chapter three—with Satan’s invitation to “be like God”—sets up the ultimate basis for dismissing thanksgiving. His deities are all at least deeply self-concerned and, in the extreme, committed narcissists.
Paul treated thanksgiving issues as a global reality in his letter to the Romans. In chapter 1:21 he set out thanklessness as the obverse of recognizing God’s status as God: “For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him.”
This linkage of thanks and proper honor of God is an eye-opener. It reminds us that recognizing and appreciating God’s place as our creator and sustainer is crucial. It orients us to our place as his beloved creatures.
It isn’t that God is petulant, demanding proper recognition. Instead Paul saw the human experience of life as the main issue. Our orientation to reality is disrupted by thanklessness: “they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise they became fools.”
Paul then repeated the consequence of thankless-dishonoring-of-God-as-God three times with the ominous warnings in Romans that “God gave them up” to their folly (in 1:24, 26, 28). And today many of Paul’s identified follies are prominent world values. Godlessness is rife today.
A second feature of giving thanks to God is the pathway into mature spirituality it offers. Paul said as much to the young Christians in Thessalonica when he urged them, “give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thess. 5:18).
This Trinitarian ground for thanksgiving invites reflection: the Father’s “will” is “in” Christ “for you.” It seems a bit cryptic if taken out of context. The call comes as a concluding feature in a letter meant to reassure its readers of God’s redemptive purpose in history: “to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ” (in 5:9). The placement of a call to ongoing thanks as an application is key. It treats thanksgiving as a restorative process offered to us.
Jesus, in other words, achieved salvation for believers and that salvation extends into daily life. So believers can step more and more into this reality with ongoing steps of faith—a faith displayed in each expression of thanks to God for his ongoing care for us.
So as much as Adam’s fall turned humanity away from recognizing God’s providence, our new thanksgiving displays a heartfelt reversal of that trajectory. And it now bonds us to the Father as an applied feature of our reconciliation that started with the Son’s sacrificial work. Thanksgiving reflects our exploration of and appreciation for the new life we have in the Son: we now live in light of God’s love for us! And the Father, we can be sure, is pleased.
Finally, it’s good to note a range in Spirit-formed thanksgiving. Paul called the Thessalonians to give thanks “in all circumstances” rather than “for all circumstances.” This suggests that we aren’t called to thank God for a given exposure to evil that may come our way. But we can be sure that God is still certain to be working in that event—something we find supported in well known texts like Genesis 50:20 and Romans 8:28.
This allows us to trust God’s care for us in every circumstance: he’s fully in charge of the creation and in every moment his people get to experience of it. All the hairs on our heads are counted; and everything is working for good for those of us who love him and are called according to his good purposes.
So thanksgiving helps us to see God’s loving providence. If, for instance, a loss or a tragedy strikes us we’re invited to start thanking God even before we start to see him turn it for good. Faith, in other words, is our confidence in God’s character and our assurance of his love rather than in his providing us with happy circumstances. It also means our lifestyle of thanksgiving will both display and expand that faith.
If you aren’t already there, try it. You’ll soon enjoy God’s smile that comes with it!
Change is constant—there’s no escaping it. And our changes in life can range from profound to unsettling—though most land somewhere in between.
Nothing we experience in a given moment will ever return in exactly the same way. Our bodies grow and then decline and finally give up. Our primary relationships emerge in the heyday of life, flourish, and then begin to fade in old age. The cycles of birth, childhood, puberty, social emergence, family, career, retirement, and death are constants of life.
Change comes especially in our social settings. Childhood dependence shifts into interdependence as we become adults. A complex and shifting web of family, friends and colleagues surrounds us and in some measure defines us. Our choices both open and close options for us as they define who we engage and how we reach new opportunities.
In the process we grow and mature. This all reveals our collective desires, personality, and character—and this profile is what meets and engages others. We take on a discernable presence and trajectory that will eventually be eulogized at our funeral.
And this reminder of a coming end underscores the moral quality of growth and change. Some people change in ways that are productive and attractive; others reveal an unattractive brokenness. Some are selfless and others are selfish. Some respond to Christ while others prefer autonomy. Some wear garments of glory; others are clothed in humility.
So each of us is a work in process. Yet our changes are often so gradual we don’t notice how we look to others. Yet it’s easy for others to see and describe us so we may be able to catch reports about our current shape and trajectory. And we may or may not like what we hear.
Here’s a practical question, then. How do we change for the better? What sets up the direction of change, whether for good or for ill? If we hope for maturity with honor, how do we get there?
The Bible language of “heart” is a starting point. We read in Proverbs 4:23, “Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life.” This is not a one-off aphorism. The Bible language of heart is regularly repeated in speaking of our motivations. David, for instance, was contrasted to King Saul as being a man “after [God’s] own heart.” The great commandment starts with a love for God with “all your heart” in its every expression.
The heart is said to guide our thinking and choosing, and not the other way round. Jesus affirmed this in Mark 7:21: “For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts [and choices].” And in Psalm 139:23 David recognized the heart as his point of moral contact with God, “Search me, O God, and know my heart.”
The heart is properly called the defining center of the soul: the unique “us.” Yet it is also shaped by our relationships. So others move our hearts. We respond to lives that touch us: as a son to a father; as a wife and mother to a husband and children; and so on. We respond to others and we stir others. And, as believers, we love God because he first loved us.
So how does our life as a responder connect with the ebb and flow of life-change?
Life is too complex—too full of prior conditions—to suggest any one-for-one links in what changes us. Each moment is woven with innumerable threads. Yet there is an affective explanation that is greater than any particular causes. Think about the heart.
First the heart sets out a direction of travel. We all follow our heart-desires—doing what we “want” to do. Call these our priorities. So if God’s love, poured out in our hearts by his Spirit, draws us to his priorities, changes will follow after his ways. The Spirit uses Scriptures and his people in this process.
If, on the other hand, our heart is shaped by a vision of personal success, comfort, entertainment, and more, our choices will follow a self-focused track. It’s what we want.
Second, a heart drawn by God’s love allows us to hear other hearts. We move beyond the limits of our own concerns. Compassion and affection for others emerge. We can see things from another point of view—not just our own. And this is what God’s love always does: it draws us into the love for others we were made to enjoy.
Let’s return to David who had a heart aligned with God’s heart. He was called to be a shepherd to the nation of Israel as a man who loved God. So we aren’t talking about a tautology here. The ultimate source of change is God’s presence in our lives. And in Christ he offers his love to all.
So the great question of life—the question we will still be asking for the rest of eternity—is how were we moved by Christ’s love? For all who want Christ we will be privileged to learn more of his love for the rest of eternity. For those who ignore him—living in favor of self-interests—there will be an alternative place: the eternal cul-de-sac of autonomy.
It’s not to late to change. Even if we love autonomy right now, we still have an alternative. We have time to start listening to the Spirit’s whispers of love. It changes everything.
This entry has also been submitted to the Cor Deo site
In ancient days a violent storm or a volcano eruption were readily explained: “The gods must be angry!” “The gods” seem to have been capricious beings who used the earth as a whipping post.
So what about the true God’s anger and our experience of the storms of life—both metaphorical and tangible? Is most of life best explained by a theology of God’s capricious wrath?
No. God, no matter how he’s portrayed by his critics, does not struggle with anger management issues. Instead the Bible explains God’s wrath by starting with the serpent’s promise in Genesis 3, “You can be like God.”
This bold lie—a claim that replaces God as the single center of reality with a host of alternative centers—was embraced by humanity and instantly distorted every human perception of life.
The distortion is seen in human motives. Adam was made to be other-centered, with God’s love as his ultimate delight. But when the first man embraced the serpent’s premise of being like god it led him to a new self-concerned orientation—to focus on his nakedness and needs. An ambition for autonomy had replaced his prior rest in God’s providential love.
And with the resulting departure of the aggrieved Spirit each of Adam’s offspring now has to be wooed by God. The Spirit is no longer an indwelling companion but now stands outside the soul calling and inviting a response to God’s love.
This is where human anger emerges. Anger is a motivational defect of an upended metaphysic. From Eden onward our true being as creatures—made by God, for God—is denied. And anger is the sense of being violated while trying to achieve the destiny of a god. Or, more to the point, a given bout of anger almost always points to a circumstance where our ambition to be a god isn’t working.
Yet we must say “almost” because there are times when anger is a proper affection. Paul warned, for instance, “Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil” (Eph. 4:26-27).
So when and how is anger proper?
We need to turn to the Trinity and to the first creation for our answer. As we probe the events of Eden the dispute between God’s word and the serpent’s word involves even more than a conflict about death and autonomy.
We recall the starting point of the debate as “you shall surely die” versus “you will not surely die.” This featured the nature of life. Jesus later exposed the ultimate issue as a contention about whether a life “born of the flesh” is the same as a life “born of the Spirit.” Life, he made clear, actually consists in God’s participation in the soul by the Spirit. The devil was offering a realm of ongoing animation apart from God’s life: a living death. Jesus exposed this as a false option.
There was another implicit element in this debate: how does God’s life actually exist?
The premise of Genesis chapter one is that God exists as a being-in-communion. He is a God who speaks in a plural voice: “let us make man in our image.” The rest of the Bible presents the substance of this statement as the Father-Son-Spirit reality unfolds over time. He was fully present from the beginning but after the fall his reality needed to be restated and demonstrated.
The serpent in his hubris dismissed this relational reality as he invited Adam to a new vision of deity: to singularity and autonomy as the basis of being. Why this arrangement? Because he needed to stake out metaphysical space for challenging God. And by positing being-as-a-singularity he could deny any need for dependence. In this scheme every “relationship” is strictly utilitarian and self-serving—a negotiation among gods who, when violated, become angry.
So after Eden the functions of individual thought and action were treated as the basis for being. And in this presumed reality deity is linked to every thinking-choosing creature. Taken in biblical terms this meant that any bond between the true Creator and his creatures is re-envisioned.
But the vision is nonsensical—given that God still sustains the creation—even as the devil redefines life, death, being, and morality on the basis of autonomy. He needs God’s gracious docility to make it work. The serpent, in effect, presumed on grace to dismiss grace. He declared each animated being to be a carrier of deity—the stuff of polytheism—and tried to make it work.
Without ever saying so the devil was and still is the guiding spirit in this presumed realm of autonomy. He was, in other words, still deploying the relational bonds of our creation in God’s relational image to slip into the coaching role once held by the Holy Spirit. As an unholy spirit he thought he could devour all God’s people by simply employing his ultimate Lie to redirect faith away from God while calling people to trust his Lie.
Now, back to anger. In John 3:35-36 God sets out the basis for his own anger. It has everything to do with the Father’s devotion to his Son—the bridegroom of the faithful (cf. 3:29): “The Father loves the Son and has given all things into his hands. Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.”
So when is human anger proper? Only in the moments where we have our hearts aligned with God’s heart. When is it improper? Whenever our hearts are aligned with the Lie. That’s the realm of God’s wrath.
As we embrace the triune God, then, let’s allow him to make things right in the end. That means we don’t need to take anger to bed at night. We’ve dismissed the Lie; we love the Son; and we are certain that God is still God.