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Commit Your Work to God

We usually think of the Proverbs as a collection of sayings about how to live wisely in the world, how to be shrewd and successful in business, the high value of hard work, the practical benefits of honesty. If a business operates according to the proverbs, it will no doubt have many happy customers, not to mention happy shareholders. But where does the practical wisdom of the proverbs come from?

The proverbs are wise precisely because they view the world as God’s world, created and directed by him. God is the Maker, the Creator. The world in which we live and act belongs to him, and the rules by which the world operates flow from him. So to live well in his world a person has to constantly acknowledge God as Creator and then submit to him; this is what it means to fear the Lord.

But even as a person works diligently in God’s world, still the outcome of all work rests with the Lord. This is how the proverbs view the sovereignty of God, his absolute right to rule in every aspect of his world. So that even though a person is expected to make plans and work hard to accomplish them, the outcome is always from God. “Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the Lord that will stand” (19:21).

First Implication: Work Hard

God’s work matters more than my work, but this doesn’t diminish the meaningfulness of my work. God expects us to plan, strategize, and work hard. In fact, he accomplishes his purposes through our diligence, not apart from it. Therefore, do not lessen your ambitions, but heighten them. Rather than being slothful or idle, we should work all the harder knowing that God intends to integrate our efforts into his purposes. Work for him and not for yourself. Labor so that he might be exalted, not you.

Second Implication: Commit Your Work to God

“Commit your work to the Lord, and your plans will be established” (16:3). The most appropriate response to the primacy of God’s purposes is the daily recommitment of myself and my work to God. I am his, I am living in his world, my energy and my opportunities are from him, and the eventual result of all my labors today is completely in his hands.

All our daily work, both the mundane and the monumental, must be committed to the Lord. I may prepare a business plan, yet the success of the business is completely dependent on God. The same is true with parenting, developing ministry strategy, resolving conflict, working at a good marriage, or anything else. Pause at the beginning of each day, and throughout the day, to give your work to God. “Father, these efforts are enabled by you, and I ask that you might use them for your purposes.”

Third Implication: Leave the Outcome to God

“The horse is made ready for the day of battle, but the victory belongs to the Lord” (21:31). Do you ever finish some project or presentation and then immediately begin to guess at how it will be received by others? Will they be impressed? Will it have an enduring impact? The anxiety of self-interest. Or have you ever despaired over the meaningless of your work? Perhaps at the end of a long day you wonder, was it worth it? The proverbs remind us that as we work diligently, giving our work to God, that our work is meaningful and God will accomplish his purposes through it.

A prayer of daily commitment might look like this. Father, you are the maker of me and all things. I am yours and I want to be useful for your purposes today. Please give me the energy that I need to do the good works that you have prepared for me. Please help me to steward with wisdom the opportunities you have given me, for I have nothing but what I have received from you. Please make my plans and efforts successful in the economy of your kingdom. I am yours and my work is yours so please use me to make your glory visible in the world today.

God’s sovereignty over our work in the book of Proverbs, a non-exhaustive sampling:

  1. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths (Prv 3:6)
  2. The Lord by wisdom founded the earth; by understanding he established the heavens (3:19)
  3. The Lord does not let the righteous go hungry, but he thwarts the craving of the wicked (10:3)
  4. The plans of the heart belong to man, but the answer of the tongue is from the Lord (16:1)
  5. Commit your work to the Lord, and your plans will be established (16:3)
  6. The heart of a man plans his way, but the Lord establishes his steps (16:9)
  7. The lot is cast into the lap, but its decision is from the Lord (Prv 16:33)
  8. Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the Lord that will stand (19:21)
  9. The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the Lord; he turns it wherever he will (21:1)
  10. The horse is made ready for the day of battle, but the victory belongs to the Lord (21:31)

 

 

The Church is a Lion Tamer: Importance of Precision in Theology

In Orthodoxy, G. K. Chesterton has a chapter on the paradoxes of Christianity. At the end of the chapter he points out that the beauty of these paradoxes demands accurate proportion. To shift the proportion is to ruin the paradox altogether, with disastrous results for humanity. For this reason, he calls the church the “lion tamer” of bad doctrine.

I mean the monstrous wars about small points of theology, the earthquakes of emotion about a gesture or a word. It was only a matter of an inch; but an inch is everything when you are balancing. The church could not afford to swerve a hair’s breadth on some things if she was to continue her great and daring experiment of irregular equilibrium.

It was no flock of sheep the Christian shepherd was leading, but a herd of bulls and tigers, of terrible ideals and devouring doctrines, each one of them strong enough to turn to a false religion and lay waste the world. Remember that the church went in specifically for dangerous ideas; she was a lion tamer.

The idea of birth through a Holy Spirit, of the death of a divine being, of the forgiveness of sins, or the fulfillment of prophecies, are ideas which, anyone can see, need but a touch to turn them into something blasphemous or ferocious. The smallest link was let drop by the artificers of the Mediterranean, and the lion of ancestral pessimism burst his chain in the forgotten forests of the north. Of these theological equalizations I have to speak afterwards.

Here it is enough to notice that if some small mistake were made in doctrine, huge blunders might be made in human happiness. A sentence phrased wrong about the nature of symbolism would have broken all the best statues in Europe. A slip in the definitions might stop all the dances; might wither all the Christmas trees or break all the Easter eggs. Doctrines had to be defined within strict limits, Even in order that man might enjoy general human liberties.

The church had to be careful, if only that the world might be careless.

The Scars That Have Shaped Me

full_the-scars-that-have-shaped-me-8mx0s41nI just finished reading a friend’s newly released book, The Scars That Have Shaped Me: How God Meets Us in Our Suffering. I can’t think of a better way to have spent my Monday. My wife Stacy read the book as well, so as we went for a long walk on Monday afternoon, we reflected on our reading.

The personal tone of the book and the short chapters make it a perfectly suitable gift to give someone in the midst of suffering. This is no abstract, academic approach. It’s raw and revealing (as is her blog).

Embracing Lament

In numerous places Vaneetha highlights the importance of not glossing over our suffering with plastic happiness. “Lament highlights the gospel more than stoicism ever could” (33). “Deadening our desires may make us stoics, but it won’t make us passionate followers of Christ” (87-88). Don’t encourage those who are suffering to simply think positively. The Christian can fully acknowledge the pain of life, and in fact, this leads all the more to casting ourselves on Christ. She points to Spurgeon’s saying, “I have learned to kiss the wave that throws me against the Rock of Ages” (94).

She points out that we are often uncomfortable listening to the lament of others (35). I know this is true of me. I confess this as my own sin, and was reminded that both in my marriage and in ministry, I am called to acknowledge the full reality of suffering in order to help others suffer well.

Her counsel for the one suffering is to avoid a positive thinking facade and embrace grief fully (141). Don’t cover up your grief with happy stoicism. Only those who can lament and grieve understand their need for God.

Personalities and Suffering

Vaneetha describes how personality types can multiply the experience of suffering. She suffers from post-polio syndrome, which severely limits her physical stamina and capabilities. This often renders her unable to serve others in ways she’d like to. This would be difficult for anyone, yet its even harder for Vaneetha who is very much wired to serve others. She sees herself as a “helper personality.” This is hardwired into who she is, which only heightens the grief of her inabilities  (87). Although her suffering has opened up opportunities to serve that she never imagined, it also limits her capability to serve in so many other ways.

Individual personality and desires can intensify the experience of suffering. Some losses are felt more acutely based on pre-existing desires. For someone who loves the outdoors and enjoys exercise, it will be extremely difficult to deal with physical limitations like chronic joint pain. Whereas for someone who likes being inside and would rather read a book than go for a walk, physical limitations while still difficult, might be easier to bear.

This is important to remember in walking with someone through pain or suffering. If they seem to be “blowing things out of proportion,” we should remember that what might seem like it should be small or manageable to us may be of much greater significance to another person. We should avoid dealing with problems by offering solutions, and rather deal with individual people by listening to their experience of suffering and how they are processing it.

Pray for Healing?

“In the midst of broken dreams and reinventing pain, how should we pray? Should we pray for healing and deliverance, believing that we just need to ask because God can do anything? Or should we relinquish our desires to God, trusting that even in our anguish he has the perfect plan for us? Yes. When life falls apart, God invites us to do both.”

In this section and throughout the book, Vaneetha strikes a helpful balance in encouraging prayer for healing without putting hope in the healing itself. Our hope is in God and not in his gifts (66). Abraham’s faith wasn’t in the promise alone. His faith was rooted in the Promisor (80). God’s refusals remain his mercies (82).

In this sense she says we can consider the future and ask God for healing. There is no need to fear the “what if” of the future. What if the healing doesn’t come. What if the suffering doesn’t end. Rather, we can pray for change, and yet remain confident in God’s mercy “even if” the change never comes. “Replacing what if with even if in our mental vocabulary is one of the most liberating exchanges” (118)

Where to Go in Suffering

At one point, Vaneetha says that the best place to go in the midst of suffering is the Bible and prayer. “Read the Bible even when it feels like eating cardboard. And pray even when it feels like talking to a wall” (123). These answers might sound simplistic if they didn’t come from someone  who has walked through so much suffering and has found through the experience the reliability of this counsel.

Throughout the book she shows how God’s Word has ministered to her in the midst of her suffering. It was instructive to me to see many familiar passages from “the sufferer’s perspective” (71-72).

The Word and prayer are deep wells. I should encourage the sufferer to return to these wells even when they seem dry. And then I should pray that the Lord would give refreshing through these means of grace.

Seeking to minister to a friend in suffering will include asking God to bring them comfort and hope through his Word and through their prayers. While it may not always be right for me to instruct a sufferer in truth (as in the ill-timed exhortations of Job’s friends), I ought to pray that God would speak to the heart of my suffering friend through the Spirt and by the Word.

Five Warning Signs: Have you abandoned your first love?

In a short letter to the church in Ephesus, Jesus told them, “You have abandoned the love you had at first” (Rev 2:4).

1. What does it mean to abandon your first love?

It means that at one time in the past you had greater love than you do now. You aren’t necessarily running on a completely empty tank, but you’re on fumes. That original fullness of love has been diminished.

Think back to your conversion and the kinds of spiritual experiences you had at first. Maybe your had some poorly formed understanding of the gospel, not really a developed knowledge of God. Yet while the mind wasn’t fully informed, the heart was beating fast, passionate.

For me that early period was my high school and college years. I was excited about discovering new things about the faith. I stayed up late nights in my room reading Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology and any book by John Piper I could find. I memorized Scripture. We had a group of guys that met each week and read books together and kept each other accountable for growing in the faith and prayed together. We were going to downtown Madison to talk about the gospel with university students. There was vitality and zeal.

You can probably think back to some of those early formative experiences in the faith. Maybe some of you are going through that period right now. It’s like a budding romance, the honeymoon phase, the newborn. And Jesus says that first love should be our always love. And so we have to honestly ask…

2. How do you know if you’ve lost it? How do you assess that? Here are five warning signs.

Warning sign #1 is that you talk about spiritual growth in the past tense. When you think about transformative truth you’ve learned, or dominating sins you’ve defeated, they aren’t recent things. Maybe God has done some amazing things in your life, but that was in prior years or decades. If you aren’t learning new truths and taking new steps in following Jesus, then maybe your first love is long gone.

Warning sign #2 is that you have a hard time loving others. You’re easily irritated with those around you. Criticism of other people is a steady part of your conversation. Or when you think of those who disagree with you politically or doctrinally, all you feel is disdain and disgust. John says to you, “He who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. Whoever loves God must also love his brother” (1 John 4:20-21). Or else he is a liar. You may be able to explain the Trinity with precision, but does your own family, or whoever you live with, do they really believe you love God wholeheartedly, and do they see that love reflected in the way you treat them? If you have a hard time loving others, then maybe your first love is long gone.

Warning sign #3 is that you can’t remember the last time you shared the gospel with a non-Christian. Christians can do all our evangelism in an echo chamber. We talk about doing evangelism but never actually do it. And that slowly morphs over time to the point that we love the fact that we’re right about the gospel and care little about the fact that others don’t know it. We have a zeal to be right, but not a zeal for Christ to be known. If you haven’t talked about Jesus with a non-Christian lately, maybe you’re low on love.

Warning sign #4 is that your love for the world is stronger than your love for the Father. John says, “If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him” (1 John 2:15). God gives earthly gifts to be enjoyed. Paul said, “Everything created by God is good…and should be received with thanksgiving” (1 Tim 4:4). The question isn’t whether you enjoy earthly things, but whether you’re enjoying them more than God.

Warning sign #5 is that you are harboring some known sin. David’s secret adulterous sin with Bathsheba was corrosive to his love for God. He thought he could continue as God’s king without honoring God’s laws. When David finally repented of that sin, he pleaded with God, “Renew a right spirit within me…Restore to me the joy of your salvation.” A lot of people try to worship heartily on Sunday morning and harbor sin all week long. You can’t grip God and sin with the same fist.

3. How do you get it back? If you’ve lost your first love, how do you recover it?

If you have in your head an initial diagnosis of having left your first love, don’t ignore that thought. Paul says “the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh” (Gal 5:17). What the Holy Spirit wants is the death of your sin. The Spirit’s interest revolves around revealing your sin, and leading you to put it to death. Don’t ignore that diagnosis if that’s what you’ve come up with.

But don’t go to self-condemnation over that either. Psalm 103 says that God knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust. Jesus was divine righteousness. We are dust from the earth. And God doesn’t expect divinity out of humanity. He forgives our failings and is sympathetic with our weaknesses. So don’t respond with neglect, but don’t respond with despair either. Instead, consider how to recover that first love. Here are five suggestions.

First, repent of known sin and reconcile where needed. Let’s go back to that known sin we were just talking about. We all know that there is a lot under the surface of life, and the reality is that we all are walking in forms of hypocrisy, where our belief is better than our conduct. But are you hiding and covering sins, or are you actively dealing with them, repenting? The Christian is not marked by perfection, but by repentance. And if your sin requires relational healing with someone, attend to it immediately. Love toward God grows along with love toward others.

Second, after repenting of sin, ask God for growth in love. Follow the example of David in Psalm 51, go back and read that passage, where after repenting from sin, he pleads with God, “Restore to me the joy of your salvation.” Where does love for God come from? Where do we go to get it? 1 John 4:7, “Love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God.” To love God is a gift that he gives. Ask him, and don’t stop asking. Repent of sin, then ask God for growth in love.

Third, apply the gospel to yourself every day. A mature Christian is one who applies the truth of the gospel regularly to their heart and life. John Newton said the word that is most descriptive of the mature Christian is “contemplation” (Newton, Select Letters, 14). Because the mature Christian has tried to maintain obedience for a long time, and has realized the inevitability of our failure, and the insufficiency of our self-effort, and thus the absolute necessity of the forgiveness that is offered through Jesus Christ. And the more our self-understanding is shaped by the forgiveness of the cross of Jesus, the more we will love God and others. To have the “first love” is to be constantly aware of the forgiveness that has come to you through Jesus Christ. Apply the gospel to your sin.

Fourth, share the gospel with others. Remember, Jesus intended for the church in Ephesus to be a lamp stand (1:12, 20, 2:1). To remedy the loss of love, Jesus says, “remember from where you have fallen, do the works you did at first.” He calls them to renew their status as an effective gospel lampstand. Let your light shine before men that they may see your good works and give glory to God (Matthew 5:13-16).

Fifth, do all this as part of the church. This letter to the church in Ephesus addresses the church as a whole: “You all have left your first love.” We should each examine ourselves individually, but it is also true that just as you have individual flaws and virtues, so also your church has distinctive flaws and virtues that reflect patterns among its many members. Every Christian has to own the responsibility of their church as a whole. No one wants to be blamed for the sin of others, but here in Revelation the church is addressed as a whole. And so we must think not only of our own individual health, but also of the health of our church.

 

Seven Marks of a Healthy Church

The seven letters to the churches in Revelation 2-3 represent Jesus’ assessment of what was good and what was not good in these churches. These were actual churches in historical cities in modern-day Turkey (Asia Minor), but in many ways, these individual churches represent churches of all time. The virtues they demonstrated as well as the flaws that marked them are shared in common by churches of every age.

So we can take these letters together, and assess the health of our own church by what we find here. The overall themes are doctrinal fidelity, holy behavior, gospel witness, and sincere, lively love toward God. Any church could assess itself against the seven qualities that Jesus calls these churches to exhibit. Each point of assessment could be accompanied by a set of diagnostic questions to help determine the church’s state of health.

  1. Authentic Love (2:1-7, Ephesus). They were commended for rejecting false apostles, but critiqued for abandoning their first love. They had doctrinal fidelity without sincere love. Jesus calls them to correct this discrepancy in their church by pursuing authentic love which combined concern for doctrine with zealous affection for God.
    • Is our church high on doctrinal fidelity, but low on spiritual passion, especially in the form of witnessing of Jesus to non-Christians? Do new people tend to come to our church because of our doctrinal depth or because of our spiritual passion?
  1. Enduring Faithfulness (2:8-11, Smyrna). Jesus has only commendation for Smyrna. Because of their faith in Christ, they are materially poor, and yet they are spiritually rich. As slander, economic exclusion and persecution increased for them, Jesus calls them to enduring faithfulness. The need is for fidelity in the midst of oppression.
    • Is our church prioritizing faithfulness to Jesus over acceptance in society? Where dominant cultural trends are at odds with the Christian faith, are we maintaining a counter-cultural stance?
  1. Pure Teaching (2:12-17, Pergamum). In some ways, the church in Pergamum was the opposite of Ephesus. Pergamum was holding fast to Jesus amid extreme opposition, and yet they were permitting false teaching in the church. Jesus calls them to repent and remove the false teachers from the church. Jesus calls them to pure teaching.
    • Is there any teaching in our church that does not align with Scripture, but we aren’t dealing with it because it would be too difficult, or we’re afraid it might hurt feelings?
  1. Holy Separation (2:18-29, Thyatira). Jesus commends them for being full of good works, but rebukes them sharply for tolerating sexual immorality as well as pagan idol worship. Jesus calls them to separate themselves from every form of idolatry and immorality.
    • Are we turning a blind eye toward members in our church that we know are indulging in various forms of immorality or blatant worldliness? What are some clear examples of worldliness that cannot coexist with faith in Jesus?
  1. Gospel Behavior (3:1-6, Sardis). Jesus commends a handful of Christians in Sardis who have been faithful, but he has nothing good to say about the church as a whole. They have not continued in living as faithful followers of Jesus. The letter is not specific about precise features of their unfaithfulness, but there are some clues that they have not continued witnessing the good news of Jesus Christ. Beale points out that if Christians in Sardis had “maintained too high a Christian profile in the city, they would likely have encountered persecution of various sorts.”
    • Does our church’s service in our local community reflect the gospel to anyone outside the church who observes us? If our church vanished from the city tomorrow, would anyone notice that we were gone?
  1. Bold Perseverance (3:7-13, Philadelphia). Jesus has nothing negative to say to the church in Philadelphia (as with Smyrna). Philadelphia receives a similar exhortation, but with a particular emphasis on continuing to speak of Jesus with others, even though they may feel weak or intimidated. Jesus encourages them continue in boldness despite opposition.
    • How frequently are the members of our church (collectively) speaking of Jesus to those around them? As society more broadly rejects theistic explanations of reality, how faithful are we in continuing to point others to transcendent truth as revealed in Jesus?
  1. Spiritual Vitality (3:14-22, Laodicea). Smyrna was spiritually rich but materially poor. But Laodicea is the other way around. They say, “I am rich and prosperous.” But Jesus says, “You are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind and naked.” This church is on the verge of not being considered a believing community at all. Jesus says to them to beware of the dangerous position they are in, repent of these obvious patterns of sin in their faith community, and to renew their sincere commitment to Jesus.
    • Is there clear evidence that members of our church are regularly repenting of sin? What demonstrations of continuous renewal of commitment to Jesus do we see in our church?

Every one of these letters concludes with this exhortation: “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” These letters demand reflection that results in Spirit-empowered transformation, both for individuals and congregations.

The Two Values that Bind Americans Together: The Isolating Coherence of an Incoherent Culture

What are the shared beliefs or “values” that hold our society together?

I’ve just finished reading a sociological work titled Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life, a collaborative effort by five sociologists led by Robert Bellah (University of California, Berkeley).

They highlight the central role of individualism in American life going all the way back to the analysis of Alexis de Tocqueville in Democracy in America (1835 and 1840). Tocqueville wrote about the mores (cultural values) of colonial America, which he called “habits of the heart.” And it was Tocqueville that helped to give currency to a new word. “‘Individualism’ is a word recently coined to express a new idea,” he said. Tocqueville went on,

Individualism is a calm and considered feeling which disposes each citizen to isolate himself from the mass of his fellows and withdraw into the circle of family and friends; with this little society formed to his taste, he gladly leaves the greater society to look after itself.

As the authors note, Tocqueville saw the isolation to which Americans are prone as ominous for the future of our freedom. They point out that individualism has a fragmenting and separating effect on society. As everyone pursues his own interest, society tears at the seams.

As they put it, the main question is “whether an individualism in which the self has become the main form of reality can really be sustained.” Is such a society sustainable? Their conclusion is that individualism develops into an incoherent society, “separation and individuation” become pervasive.

So they ask, “how is it that our culture holds together at all?” In the midst of incoherence, what common values hold us together?

  1. First, the dream of personal success, usually defined in material or economic terms. Whatever economic rung a person is on, they want to climb higher. This economic ambition is fed by television and media, which present a “consumption-centered version of the good life.” This is utilitarian individualism.
  2. Second, the portrayal of vivid personal feelings. This is expressive individualism, where the most important thing in life is to be true to one’s feelings. To accurately understand the self and effectively pursue the interests of the self in each situation or relationship.

But these two integrating themes of society are really “pseudo-integration,” not really binding us together but isolating us further as each pursues his own good but neglects societal good. As Matthew Arnold said in 1852, “in the sea of life ensiled… / We mortal millions live alone.”

Thus, the only two unifying narratives of American society turn out not to be unifying at all, but rather isolating. The values we have chosen to bring coherence actually bring further incoherence.

The sociologists not only critique, they also offer hope. Many of those whom they interviewed were hopeful, that “though the processes of separation and individuation were necessary to free us from the tyrannical structures of the past, they must be balanced by a renewal of commitment and community if they are not to end in self-destruction or turn into their opposites. Such a renewal is indeed a world waiting to be born if we only had the courage to see it.”

They envision a society that holds in balance the dignity and freedom of each individual, but also obligation to and participation in the wider community.

It struck me that the church should be a model of this kind of society. The church is a community bound together by an integrating narrative, the gospel. And around this narrative we affirm the role and dignity of the individual, as well as the necessity of the whole community and vital participation in it.

 

The Messiah in the Old Testament: Participant’s Guide

I’ve just finished teaching through a summer Bible study on the theme of the Messiah in the Old Testament. We studied the progressive development of the idea of messianic hope from it’s earliest form forward. Obviously in a ten week study we didn’t look at all the messianic passages in the Old Testament, but tried to select some of the most important based partly on how heavily the Jesus and New Testament rely on them. For instance, I included Isaiah 53 because by some counts it is alluded to over four hundred times in the New Testament.  Here’s the participant’s guide:

Messianic Hope – Participants Guide

I’m also happy to share my teaching manuscripts and weekly class handouts. If you’d like them just send me an email or leave a comment below.

messianichope