Archive | November 2016

What “Mighty God” could not do and cannot do

baby-jesus

In Isaiah 9:6, Isaiah prophesies the coming of the Messiah, declaring, “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders.  And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”

To the people of Isaiah’s day, the term “Mighty God” would have spoken volumes, reminding them of the powerful things God had done.  They would reflect upon God as Creator (bringing into being the heavens and the earth) and Deliverer (rescuing them from slavery in Egypt) and Miracle-worker (bringing them water from a rock and manna from heaven as they wandered through the desert) and Sovereign (ruling over nations and over history)!

Surprisingly, though, Isaiah applies the term “Might God” to “a child is born.”  There are few things we encounter in life that are as weak and vulnerable as a newborn baby who cannot stand or crawl or feed himself or sit up or even hold his head up on his own.  Yet Isaiah declares that this weak, vulnerable newborn child is “Mighty God.”

Indeed, the gospels reveal to us that when Jesus grew, He displayed the power of God as Creator (turning water into wine and feeding thousands from just two fish and five small loaves of bread) and Deliverer (rescuing persons from demons and diseases and blindness) and Miracle-worker (healing a paralytic and walking on water) and Sovereign (calming the storm and forgiving sin and overcoming death).

What amazes me is that this Mighty God loves us so much that He would become one of us so fully as to begin life among us as a newborn child lying in a manger in the little town of Bethlehem!

It also strikes me that there is one thing this Mighty God could not do and one more thing He cannot do.

As Jesus hung upon the cross one of the criminals who hung upon a cross near Jesus said to Him, “Aren’t you the Christ?  Save yourself and us!”  But Jesus couldn’t extricate Himself from the cross.  Actually, He could have commanded the nails to fall off, and they would have.  It wasn’t really the nails that held Him to the cross; it was His love for us that held Him there.  The very character of God is forgiving love and self-sacrificing love.  Jesus could not extricate Himself from the cross for this reason: God could not contradict His own character.  The Mighty God was struck down because of the greatness of His love for us.  Yet, because He is Mighty God, even death could not keep Him down.

What Mighty God cannot do is force us to love Him.  Though God has sovereignty over our lives, He made us in His own likeness, with free will to choose for Him or to choose against Him.  In his book, The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis remarks, “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’”  The former will enjoy God’s love forever; the latter will miss out on God’s love forever.  Though God has sovereignty over us, God cannot force us to love Him, because love is contingent on free will.

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Looking beyond the circumstances of Christmas

wonderful-counselor

As we enter the Advent season I get to reflect on the meaning of Christmas.  Our society promotes the idea that Christmas should be an entirely happy time for everyone—that it should “nearly be like a picture print by Currier & Ives.”  But we would do better to understand Christmas as the goodness of God breaking into the mess of our world and the mess of our lives.  Christmas is not so much about idyllic circumstances but of a great God stepping into messed up circumstances with us.

I love Isaiah’s prophecy about the birth of Jesus in Isaiah 9:2 & 6: “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned…. For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders.  And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”

These are uplifting words, but I need to remember that they were written in the midst of a huge mess!  It was a time of great “darkness” for the people of Judah.  Israel and Syria had recently attacked Judah, killing 120,000 Jewish people and taking 200,000 as prisoners.  Judah appealed to Assyria for help.  Assyria came to the rescue…kind of.  The Assyrian army swept through Syria and Israel and Judah ruthlessly, burning down cities, burning the countryside, burning people, impaling victims on stakes, chopping off people’s hands, and chopping off people’s heads.  They rescued Judah from Israel and Syria but turned out to be a far more terrifying bully.  The people of Judah understood that what was done to Israel and Syria would be done to them if they rebelled.  At the same time, several smaller neighboring nations continued to harass them, darting in to capture cities and citizens.  Internally, things were no better.  Their king, Ahaz, was a horrible king.  He promoted the worship of the pagan god Molech who demanded human sacrifices.  Ahaz went so far as to kill his own sons in sacrifice to Molech.  A king who would sacrifice his own children could not be counted on to lead his people with justice, righteousness, and compassion!

When Jesus was born, the circumstances were a mess once again.  The Jewish people were now under the thumb of a Roman army that ruled the land with a heavy hand.  In particular, the “king” over Palestine, Herod the so-called “Great,” was a vicious man.  He had risen to power through trickery and murder.  He remained in power by murdering all who posed a possible threat to him—including his wife and two of his children (and a whole city full of infants in Bethlehem).

What this tells me is that I don’t have to wait for things to be idyllic in order to celebrate Christmas, nor do I have to feel guilty or despondent if things are not entirely happy during the Christmas season.  What I need to take to heart is that God has a history of stepping into the mess of our circumstances to be with us.  Circumstances might be frightening or frustrating or disheartening, but Christmas is not about idyllic circumstances; Christmas is about God stepping into the mess of our lives and the mess of our world to be with us.  And in it all, He is Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace!

Develop a Practice of Gratitude

psalm-100

What is the place of gratitude in our lives?

I am finding that if I make no place in my daily life for the actual practice of gratitude, then something vital is missing from each day.

Psalm 100 is identified as a psalm “for giving thanks.”  I find in this psalm some helpful counsel for a daily practice of expressing gratitude:

EXPRESS GRATITUDE.

Psalm 100:4 instructs us, “Enter His gates with thanksgiving and His courts with praise; give thanks to Him and praise His name.”  In other words, do it.  Express gratitude.

Joseph Addison remarks, “There is no more pleasing exercise of the mind than gratitude.  It is accompanied with such an inward satisfaction that the duty is sufficiently rewarded by the performance.” John Henry Jowett adds, “Life without thankfulness is devoid of love and passion.  Hope without thankfulness is lacking in fine perception.  Faith without thankfulness lacks strength and fortitude.  Every virtue divorced from thankfulness is maimed and limps along the spiritual road.”

Something vital is missing in my life if I don’t make it a habit to express gratitude.

EXPRESS GRATITUDE BOLDLY.

The opening of Psalm 100 instructs us, “Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth…come before Him with joyful songs.”

One of my problems in life is that I tend to live in a very constrained manner.  This, however, is not a psalm of constraint.  This psalm invites me and calls me to unbind my gratitude and allow it to break out in joy-filled shouts and in joyful songs.  When I constrain my gratitude my joy is constrained.  When gratitude is unbound, then joy can become unbounded.

EXPRESS GRATITUDE KNOWLEDGEABLY.

Verse 3 instructs us, “Know that the Lord is God.  It is He who made us, and we are His; we are His people, the sheep of His pasture.”  Verse 5 adds, “For the Lord is good and His love endures forever; His faithfulness continues through all generations.”

These verses provide the content of the psalmist’s thankfulness.  They help us to know what he was thankful for and what we can be thankful for.  Thornton Wilder points out, “We can only be said to be alive in those moments when our hearts are conscious of our treasures.”   It is important for us to be conscious of what we are thankful for.

To be more deliberately conscious of that for which we are thankful, my wife and I practice the “Examen” of St. Ignatius each night by answering two questions: For what are you most grateful this day?  (What brought most life to your soul?)  And for what are you least grateful this day?  (What most drained life from your soul?)

EXPRESS GRATITUDE PRACTICALLY.

Verse 2 instructs us, “Serve the Lord with thanksgiving.”

If I use only my voice or my words to express gratitude then something is missing.  The richest expression of gratitude is when we extend a kindness toward another in keeping with the kindness that has been extended to us!  Service unto God and to others is the richest expression of gratitude.  Johannes A. Gaertner comments, “To speak gratitude is courteous and pleasant, to enact gratitude is generous and noble, but to live gratitude is to touch Heaven!”

Finding Hope even in the Hardest Times

psalm-42

When I became a Christian many years ago, many Christian friends told me how much they liked the psalms.  I didn’t.  I looked upon David as a whiny wimp, continually complaining about how bad things were and about how sad he was.  I believed Christians should be victorious and full of Godly confidence.

As the years have passed, I discover the problem is not with David but with me.  The problem is that David was honest and I am not.  David was courageous enough to deal genuinely with the things he was feeling, whereas I have consistently hidden from my feelings of sorrow, fear, and depression.

Every year 16 million Americans suffer from serious depression.  One in ten Americans struggle with depression.  This tells me that it would be wise to pay attention to how David handles feelings of depression.

Though Psalm 42 is not identified as a psalm of David, many scholars believe David wrote the psalm.  Though the psalm is identified as “A Maskil of the Sons of Korah,” scholars believe this to mean not that it was written by them but that it is written for them for use in worship.

Psalm 42 reveals five keys for handling depression:

#1: Face your sorrow.

In verses 3, 5, 6, 9, 10, and 11, the writer of the psalm speaks of crying day and night, enduring the heckling of others, being downcast and disturbed, feeling forgotten by God being oppressed by his enemies, and hurting down to his bones.  David did not put on a mask and pretend everything was fine.  He did not hide from his pain.  He faced it genuinely.  So long as we cover up our sorrows, they cannot be dealt with effectively.  David demonstrates that facing our sorrows is a vital part of being able to get through our sorrows

#2: Look for hope in the person of God.

Though the circumstances that surrounded the psalmist may have been horrible, he focused his attention on the person (or the character) of God.  In verse 8 he recalled that God directs His love toward us.  In verse 9 he takes to heart that God is his Rock, a firm foundation when everything else might be slipping away.  In verses 5 & 11 he considers that God is his Savior, the One who will rescue him and hold him securely even amidst the tumult of adversaries and adversities.

#3: Look for hope in the presence of God.

In tough times, we need more than just the knowledge of God’s good character; we need the assurance of God’s closeness to us.  The psalm begins with this longing: “As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for You, O God.  My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.  When can I go and meet with God?”  Herein is our deepest longing, our deepest need, and our greatest hope: to experience the closeness of God.

#4: Look for hope in the praise of God.

In verses 5 & 11, David stresses, “Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise Him, my Savior and my God.”  Praise is the deliberate act of remembering and declaring the goodness of God.  It is in the process of doing this that our hearts begin to settle into the truth that God’s goodness withstands all of our sorrows!

#5: Look for hope in the people of God.

In verse 4 the psalmist remembers the joy he had in the company of God’s people.  God made us with a need for one another.  Isolation increases our sorrow.  In friendships and in fellowship we find the care and encouragement and comfort we need.

Shame-based identity or Grace-based identity

self-identity

I have found that there are two basic ways of approaching a sense of personal identity and self-esteem.  One is a shame-based identity; the other is a grace-based identity.

The foundation of a shame-based identity has to do with what you do or achieve or accomplish as the gage of your worth in life.

A shame-based identity believes that you are only as good as your successes.  Therefore, when you fail you are a failure.  When you make a mistake, you are a mistake.

A shame-based identity believes that your worth is determined in comparison to others.  Therefore, we end up rooting for others to fail or to do worse than us so that we look better in comparison.

With a shame-based identity, since our worth is contingent upon out-shining others, it is easy for us to develop habits of denial (not admitting to our faults or failures), lying (pretending to others that we are better or more successful than we are), envy (resenting the successes of others), judgmentalness (looking upon others with a critical heart), or depression or even self-condemnation (kicking ourselves for not achieving what we demand of ourselves).

A shame-based identity produces a difficult way for us to live with ourselves, and a difficult way for us to live with others.  No wonder rates of depression are so high in our nation!

The foundation of a grace-based identity has to do with finding worth and identity in being loved rather than in accomplishing something.  For love is not something that is earned but is that which is received as a gift.

A grace-based identity believes that your worth comes not from what you do or fail to do but from the love that God extends to you.  It is not that you are as good as your successes or as bad as your failures; it is that you are as good as God’s love for you.  So when you fail, your identity need not be that you are a failure but that you are one who is loved nevertheless.  When you make a mistake, your identity does not become that of a mistake; your identity remains that you are one who is deeply loved.

With a grace-based identity it becomes possible to develop habits of humbleness (you don’t have to try to assert yourself as better than others), honesty (you don’t have to con people into thinking you are better than you are but can face the truth about your faults and failures), cooperation (your worth is not dependent on trying to out-shine others), mercy (as you learn to accept your own faults and failures, you can also accept them in others), security (you might lose your successes or the approval of others, but you will never lose the love of God), and hope and gratitude (as you learn to find your identity in the love of God, you begin to find evidence of God’s love and goodness all around you).

With a grace-based identity, we can begin to see ourselves and others as God sees us:

  • We are made in the image of God (Genesis 1)
  • We are fallen yet restored (Genesis 3 & 2 Corinthians 5:17)
  • We are precious in God’s sight (Isaiah 43:4)
  • We are reborn by the Holy Spirit (John 3:5)
  • We are the temple of God’s Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19)
  • We are God’s work of art (Ephesians 2:10)
  • We are the beloved children of our heavenly Father (1 John 3:1)

 

Condemnation or Conviction

woman-caught-in-adultery

Years ago I read a news report in the Santa Rosa Press Democrat that greatly troubled me:

“An 11-year-old girl…killed herself…. Donyelle McCall shot herself in the chest Wednesday morning with a .25-caliber pistol, Detective Pete Carrillo said Thursday…. When her mother came home at about 11 a.m., she looked for her daughter…and found the girl lying in her room, suffering from a single gunshot wound to her chest and the mother’s .25-calliber gun beside her….”

Donyelle left behind a note which read, in part, “Mom, I didn’t want to live to tell about this, so goodbye…. I’m sorry you don’t have a daughter anymore.  I didn’t want to hurt you like this, but I didn’t want to go through it.  I wanted to grow up and be somebody, but now that I’m dead I have to go down…. I love you so much, but I messed up.  I know that I have to live with it, but the way dad walked out of here I can’t get over it.  I wish we could just forget about it, but it’s not that easy.”

What was the horrible thing Donyelle did from which there was no coming back?  What was the terrible thing she did for which she felt that she had to take her life?  Her father caught her smoking a cigarette.

What Donyelle did was not horrible, but a voice inside of her convinced her that her future was now hopeless.  A voice insider of her condemned her.

This report about Donyelle hit me hard because I know that voice as well.  I have often heard that voice screaming at me that I am a failure, that I am a disgrace, that I am no good and never will be, that I am stupid, that I am incompetent.  That voice reminds me harshly of my failures and weaknesses.  It exaggerates my faults and failures and dismisses anything good I have ever done.  That voice tells me that my worth comes from my accomplishments and goes on to convince me that my failures and faults far surpass anything good I have done, leaving me far in the negative column as far as worth is concerned.

Whenever I listen to that voice I find myself in despair and I make a greater mess of myself.

What I am beginning to discover, though, is that this voice of condemnation does not come from God.

The voice that condemns me is the voice of Satan, whose aim is to tear us down and fill us with despair.  He is identified as our accuser (Revelation 12:10), and he is described as a prowling lion on the outlook for someone to devour (1 Peter 5:12).

Jesus, on the other hand, came not to condemn the world but to save us (John 3:17).

He had a perfect opportunity to condemn a woman caught in adultery.  He said to all gathered around, “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her” (John 8:7).  The one without sin was Jesus; he was the one who could have thrown a stone at her.  But instead of throwing a stone at her, he said, “Neither do I condemn you.  Go now and leave your life of sin” (John 8:11).

The voice we hear inside of our head or soul condemning us is the voice of Satan.  God’s voice to us is different.  The Holy Spirit convicts us of our sin so as to lead us to repentance (2 Peter 3:9), and assures us of our forgiveness (1 John 1:8-9), and affirms that in Christ we are God’s beloved children (Romans 8:16).