Scripture tells us that we have been carefully and lovingly made by the Master Sculptor of the universe. Genesis 2 describes us as being personally and intimately shaped into being by God, with the very breath of God being blown into us, giving us life. Genesis 1 proclaims that we were formed in the very image of God and declared to be “very good.” Psalm 139 announces that we are “fearfully and wonderfully made.”
Sadly, something went wrong, and people became marred by sin. It is as though we have fallen into “the wrong hands.”
In his book Lessons from a Sheep Dog, Phillip Keller illustrates what happened to us by describing what happened in the life of a border collie named Lass, whom Keller adopted. When Keller first found Lass, she was “chained from her collar to a steel post, but also was hobbled by a second chain from her neck to her back leg.” Keller recalled, “As I approached Lass on the day that I found her in such a forlorn state, she met me with blazing eyes, low growls, and bared teeth. She did not want me to touch her. She trembled at the tone of my unfamiliar voice. This was not surprising. She had been misused, abused, twisted and torn in spirit.” (p. 6)
Keller explains the problem: “Unfortunately, Lass had fallen into the wrong hands. Under the mishandling of the wrong owner, her talent had been twisted and subverted for destructive ends. Her vitality and instincts were being wasted on chasing boys and bicycles. Her capacity for worthwhile work was expended on the empty pursuit of cars. The upshot was, day by day, she herself unwittingly was forging the shackles of steel that bound her.” (p. 5)
Lass was intended for great things. She was bred with intelligence, speed, stamina and skills that were meant to be used in the fine art of herding sheep. But under the care of the wrong master, she was not living up to what she was meant to be.
Paul says the same about us in Ephesians 2:1-3: “You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient. All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else.”
In this sin-filled world, we have fallen into “the wrong hands,” and we have failed to live up to what we were intended to be. Keller makes the connection between Lass and us: “For in the dusty dog, hobbled with chains, I saw portrayed the plight of men and women who, originally destined for noble service, have fallen into the wrong hands. Now they groveled in the despair of wasted, misspent years.” (p. 3-4)
The good news is that Keller adopted Lass, and in that adoption Lass found new life. Keller writes, “Lass discovered, to her delight, that what she had found was not new chains, abuse, or bondage. What she had come home to was warmth, understanding, affection, and the thrilling freedom to fulfill the purposes for which she had been bred. All she had to do was to follow me! It was I who would introduce her into a remarkable relationship of mutual trust, undivided loyalty, happy comradeship, and worthwhile work she had never experienced before.” (p. 19-20)
This new life happened because Keller reached out and rescued Lass even when she was a broken & angry dog. It was Keller’s love that freed her.
That’s the message Paul shares with us in Ephesians 2:8-10: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.”
For Lass, the change from angry dog to contented companion took time. She had to learn to trust Keller. But the new life began as soon as she came into the care of the master who loved her and would handle her well.
The change for us takes time as well, but it begins as soon as we come into the care of our Master who loves us and leads us well.
I try so hard to be a “good Christian,” but my efforts at being a “good Christian” often leave me living a façade type of faith—trying to keep up appearances as a “good Christian.”
There are a couple of significant problems with trying so hard to be a “good Christian.” 1: As long as I am focused on my efforts to be a “good Christian,” my faith is focused on me rather than on Christ. What good is a faith like that? It is basically a self-improvement kind of life, which often leads to defeat and disappointment. 2: The harder I try to keep up the façade of being a “good Christian,” the more I grow out of touch with the actual feelings and struggles inside of me. One writer expressed accurately what goes on inside of me: “Anger tops the list of feelings ‘good’ people shouldn’t express, so they bury the anger they feel about the imperfections they see in the environment, in others and in themselves.”
King David lived no façade-like faith. Nor did he bury his anger while trying to be a “good” believer.” The first eight verses of Psalm 58 read, “Do you rulers indeed speak justly? Do you judge uprightly among men? No, in your heart you devise injustice, and your hands mete out violence on the earth. Even from birth the wicked go astray; from the womb they are wayward and speak lies. Their venom is like the venom of a snake, like that of a cobra that has stopped its ears, that will not heed the tune of the charmer, however skillful the enchanter may be. Break the teeth in their mouths, O God; tear out, O Lord, the fangs of the lions! Let them vanish like water that flows away; when they draw the bow, let their arrows be blunted. Like a slug melting away as it moves along, like a stillborn child, may they not see the sun.”
David did not try to hide his anger over unjust rulers in the land. He did not present to God a façade of being a “good” believer. He came to God with all that was actually percolating inside of him. He poured out his genuine heart to God.
That’s what God wants from us. Only when we give to God what is really in us, can God deal with the real us.
From psalms like this, I learn the importance of being genuine with God—even if it does not seem to be the “good Christian” thing to feel or do, for only when we are genuine with God can God genuinely deal with us.
As I read Paul’s prayer in Ephesians 1:15-23, three things grab my attention.
#1: Paul provides a model of persistent prayer.
Many of us have a tendency to be erratic or haphazard about praying. Ben Patterson sums it up well: “Prayer is always getting nudged aside, neglected, or perfunctorily performed as more pressing concerns take center stage. Many of us feel we just have too much to do to have time to pray. That is the problem. At the bottom, we don’t believe we are really doing anything when we pray—other than pray, that is.” (LEADERSHIP Journal, Winter, 1995, p. 93)
But Paul writes to the Ephesians, “I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers.” For Paul, bringing people to God in prayer is a persistent matter because Paul recognizes the value of prayer.
Paul Kreeft comments, “I strongly suspect that if we saw all the difference even the tiniest of our prayers make, and all the people those little prayers were destined to affect, and all the consequences of those prayers down through the centuries, we would be so paralyzed with awe at the power of prayer that we would be unable to get up off our knees for the rest of our lives.”
I can recall several times, in my own life, when I have felt the urge to pray for someone, and I prayed for the person, and I found out later how timely my prayers were. I can also recall times when I have felt the urge to pray for someone, but never got around to lifting up a prayer. I wonder about what I missed.
#2: Paul sets an example of expressing gratitude in prayer.
He says to the Ephesians, “I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers.”
Near the end of my mother’s life, she began to repeat herself frequently. What she repeated most often were stories. Sometimes they were stories about me. Quite often they were stories about my children. I never minded hearing her repeat her stories because they were all full of love. As a father, I was always delighted to hear her speak with such love about my children.
Don’t you think that’s how God feels when we pray with thanksgiving for people in our lives—people whom God loves even more deeply than I love my children?
I sometimes think that my prayers for others ought to be focused on asking God for good things for them, and that it is a waste of time simply to thank God for them. But the deeper truth is that when we thank God for those whom he loves, we come close to the heart of God, and nothing that brings us close to the heart of God is ever a waste of time. I would like to learn from Paul to let my prayers for others abound with thanksgiving for them.
#3: Paul prays for things that matter deeply.
Often my prayers for others stay as shallow as praying for good health of for success on a particular venture. But Paul goes deeper. Listen to what he prays for on behalf of the Ephesians in verses 17-19: “I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power.”
Paul’s prayer for the Ephesians helps me to see that God is interested in more than simply stringing together a record number of nice days in a row for us. God is most interested in the kind of people we are becoming. Phillips Brooks advises, “Do not pray for easy lives; pray to be stronger men and women. Do not pray for tasks equal to your powers, but pray for powers equal to your tasks. Then the doing of your work shall be no miracle, but you shall be a miracle. Every day you shall wonder at yourself—at the richness of life which has come to you by the grace of God.”
Palm 57 is identified in Scripture as a psalm of David “when he fled from Saul, in the cave.” Geographically, David took refuge in a cave, but the psalm emphasizes that David looked to God for a more secure refuge than a cave could provide. David begins the psalm with this plea, “Be merciful to me, O God, be merciful to me, for in you my soul takes refuge; in the shadow of your wings I will take refuge, until the destroying storms pass by.”
I love the image of David (or of us) taking refuge under the wings of God. I love it even more when I consider the difference between a mother bird whose natural tendency is to run from danger as opposed to a Savior who willingly gave his life for us.
Following a horrible forest fire that swept through Yellowstone Park many years ago, an urban legend made its way across the internet claiming to have been reported in National Geographic: “Forest rangers began their trek up a mountain to assess the inferno’s damage. One ranger found a bird literally petrified in ashes, perched statuesquely on the ground at the base of a tree. Somewhat sickened by the eerie sight, he knocked over the bird with a stick. When he struck it, three tiny chicks scurried from under their dead mother’s wings. The loving mother, keenly aware of impending disaster, had carried her offspring to the base of the tree and had gathered them under her wings, instinctively knowing that the toxic smoke would rise. She could have flown to safety but had refused to abandon her babies. When the blaze had arrived and the heat had scorched her small body, the mother had remained steadfast. Because she had been willing to die, those under the cover of her wings would live.”
The story concluded with Psalm 91:4: “He will cover you with His feathers, and under His wings you will find refuge.”
But those who research urban legends have debunked this story, explaining, “We’ve been getting a lot of emails about this. It’s an inspirational story—which is why we regret that we have to debunk it. The incident was never reported in National Geographic. Nor did it happen at Yellowstone, according to the park’s ornithologist, who adds that it doesn’t ring true of bird behavior anywhere.”
Birds don’t bear the flames of a fire to shelter their loved ones. No animal does that instinctively. But Jesus did. On the cross, he covered us and bore the entire consequence of our sins. It was far, far, far from easy, but he took us under his wings and gave his life for us.
A cave could not really give to David the refuge that he sought. He could only find true and lasting refuge under the wings of a Savior who would never desert him and who would willing lay down his life for us. In Christ we find such a refuge.
Charles Spurgeon once remarked, “When I went to school, we drew such things as houses, horses, and trees, and used to write the word house, under the picture of the house, and the word horse under the picture of the horse. Otherwise, some persons might have mistaken the house for a horse. So there are some people who need to wear a label around their necks to show they are Christians, or else we might mistake them for sinners.”
In the days of the apostle Paul, there were people who insisted that the necessary “label” to indicate that a person belonged to God was the mark of circumcision. But such a “label” applied only to men and was not easily visible. Paul argues that God is using a different mark on people now.
In Ephesians 1:13, Paul states that when the Ephesians believed in Christ, they “were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit.” In ancient times, to create a seal by which a person could indicate his or her ownership of some piece of property, a symbol or figure that would represent the person was engraved into stone or metal or some other hard surface. This mold would then be pressed down upon a soft substance such as wax or clay, leaving behind the impression that represented the owner. The imprinted seal provided evidence of the ownership of the one whose seal it bore.
Paul tells us that those who receive Christ are marked with such a seal to provide evidence that we belong to God. We are marked with a seal that bears the likeness of the owner—a seal that bears the likeness of Christ. This seal leaves it mark not upon our flesh, but upon our soul. Thus we reveal evidence that we belong to God not by something on our bodies but through the way in which we live.
In Matthew 7:16, Jesus says, “You will know them by their fruits.” Jesus makes it clear that our lives become the evidence by which people discern the presence of God. In Galatians 5:22-23, Paul spells out that the fruit that reveals Christ is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control. In John 13:35, Jesus stresses, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
Significantly, for the mold to make its mark, the substance on which it is applied must be soft enough. A mark cannot be made on something hard, like metal or stone. Likewise, the Holy Spirit can only imprints its mark upon a soul that is humble and receptive. The Holy Spirit cannot imprint its mark on a soul that is overly proud or bitter or stuck in its ways.
In Ephesians 1:14, Paul describes the Holy Spirit as “the pledge [or the deposit or the down payment] of our inheritance.” Our spiritual inheritance is not complete during our lifetime on earth. It will not be complete until we get to heaven. Yet the Holy Spirit gives to us a down payment, or foretaste, of what will be coming. The way in which the Holy Spirit ministers to us now, comforting us, encouraging us, lifting up our sagging spirits, gradually transforming us into the likeness of Christ’s character, is a glimpse of how graciously and thoroughly God will care for us in heaven.
I believe Don Kimball captures the essence of this dynamic in “Traces”: “I spoke to the apple tree: ‘Speak to me of God,’ and the apple tree blossomed! I spoke to the sky: ‘Speak to me of God,’ and the sun shone. I spoke to the grass, and it offered me a place to rest. I spoke to the bird, and it soared a little higher. I spoke to the child, and he offered to play with me. I spoke to the water, and it refreshed me. It seemed to me that everything I spoke to spoke about God because it spoke of the source of life. Finally, on my journey, I spoke to my own heart, ‘Speak to me of life,’ and my heart cried out for God!”
For now, we have received in our souls the Holy Spirit as a down payment and foretaste of the glory that lies ahead for us when we are truly united to God.
Psalm 56 was written by David during a time of deep discouragement. The preface to the psalm tells us that David wrote this psalm “when the Philistines had seized him in Gath.” David opens the psalm lamenting over how “people trample on me,” and complaining that his foes oppress him all day long (verse 1). He goes on to mourn over people seeking to injure his cause (verse 5) and stirring up strife against him (verse 6).
It is verse 8 that particularly grabs my heart. David says to God, “You have kept count of my tossings; put my tears in your bottle. Are they not in your record?”
I am encouraged by the emphasis here on how attentive God is to us. Elsewhere we are told that God knows the number of hairs on our head (Matthew 10:30), the thoughts we think (Psalm 139:2), when we get up and when we lie down (Psalm 139:2-3), the words we will speak even before we say them (Psalm 139:4), all the days of our life (Psalm 139:16), and the groans of our heart when we don’t know how to pray (Romans 8:26-27). Psalm 56:8 assures us that God counts how many times we toss about in bed on sleepless nights, and he puts all of our tears in a bottle. God is that attentive to us and that interested in the aching of our heart.
The tradition of collecting tears in a bottle stretches back several millennia in various cultures. It has always been a way of honoring a person’s anguish and treasuring a person’s sorrow. By the time of Jesus, in the Roman empire and in Egypt, mourners would fill small glass bottles or cups with tears and place them in burial tombs as symbols of respect. Sometimes women were even paid to cry into these vessels as they walked in the procession of mourners. In the Victorian Era, tears were collected in bottles with stoppers that allowed the tears to evaporate. When the tears had evaporated, it was determined that the period of mourning should end. During the American Civil War, women were reported to have cried into tear bottles, and saved them (with better stoppers) to show their soldiers how much they were adored and missed.
Christian singer and writer Sheila Walsh shares her experience: “When I opened the gift from my friend, I wasn’t quite sure what it was. The small glass bottle was a beautiful blue, about two inches tall, covered in silver filigree. I thought it might be a perfume bottle, albeit a very small one, but her note explained that it was actually a tear bottle she’d found in an antique store in Israel. I did a little research and discovered that tear bottles were common in Rome and Egypt around the time of Christ. Mourners would collect their tears as they walked toward the graveyard to bury their loved one, a tangible indication of how much that person was loved…. I treasure this little blue bottle because it reminds me of a profound spiritual truth David wrote about in Psalm 56, when he was at one of the lowest points of his life. David had been captured by his enemies in Gath (he had actually feigned insanity to survive), but he found comfort in the fact that God saw everything he was going through and caught every tear he shed.”
You and I matter so much to God that he counts our tossings on sleepless nights and puts our tears in a bottle that he holds dear.
Many of us grow up wondering whether we are wanted in life. John and Stasi Eldredge tell the story of Lori who longed to know that her father wanted her but kept receiving contradictory messages: “When her elementary school held a father/daughter dinner, Lori desperately wanted to go. She invited her father to go; she begged him to come, but he would have none of it. Lori assumed he did not want to attend because he was ashamed to be seen with her…. Lori took ballet lessons. She felt so pretty in her pink leotard and tights that she asked her father to please come and watch her dance. He answered her that when she was on a real stage, then he would come and watch her. As you might know, dance classes end with recitals, and so, the day did come for little Lori to dance on a real stage. Pretty in her shimmering costume, she eagerly waited and watched for her father’s arrival. He never came. Later that evening, friends of her father had to carry him into the house, as he was too drunk to walk in by himself…. The message was that she wasn’t worth his time. She wasn’t worth loving. She felt that there must be something terribly wrong with her.” (Captivating: Unveiling the Mystery of a Woman’s Soul, p. 65-66 & 68)
The apostle Paul begins his letter to the Ephesians with a very different message. He begins his letter with the report of a loving adoption by a heavenly Father who deeply wants us as his children: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will.”
Adoption was no trifle matter in the Roman world in which Paul wrote this letter.
1: By Roman law, adoption was volitional. No one was forced into adoption. The one being adopted and the one doing the adopting would stand before a judge. The judge would ask the one who was adopting, “Do you want to adopt this person?” That person would answer, “Yes, I want to.” Then the judge would ask the person being adopted, “Are you willing to be adopted by this person?” That person would answer, “Yes, I am willing.” This set of questions was repeated two more times. Both parties had to affirm three times that they wanted to legalize the adoption.
In similar manner, we are adopted into God’s family. No one is forced into such an adoption. God chose to adopt us as his children “before the foundation of the world,” but God will force no one to be his child. It is left to each of us to affirm the adoption or to reject it.
2: Adoption in the Roman culture was rewarding. When a person was adopted into a Roman family, the newly adopted child was given all the rights and privileges of family membership. Indeed, it was often the reason for adoption in Roman culture—to choose an heir to the family wealth.
Likewise, when we are adopted into God’s family, we are granted access to all of God’s riches and resources. God chooses us to be the heirs of his riches!
3: By Roman law, adoption was permanent. After standing before a judge and affirming adoption, the one who adopted a child cannot back out of the deal, and the one who agreed to adoption cannot nullify it.
Similarly, when God adopts us as his children, it is permanent. We need never fear that God will grow tired of us and boot us out. We belong to God forever.
4: According to Roman culture, adoption changed one’s very identity. At adoption, all records of a person’s prior life are destroyed. Upon adoption, a person’s biological parents lose any claim upon the child’s life. The adopted person’s name is changed; the old family name is dropped; the new family name is taken. Even the person’s birthday is forgotten. From then on, the “birthday” to be celebrated is the day of adoption, not the day of birth.
Equally, when we are adopted into God’s family, we are given a new name and a new identity. We are now known as Christian, one belonging to Christ.
Psalm 55 begins in despair and anguish. In the first five verses, the psalmist speaks of being troubled and distraught (verse 2), of being in anguish and terror (verse 4), and of being overwhelmed by fear, trembling and horror (verse 5). By verses 6-8, the psalmist is ready to run away from it all: “O that I had wings like a dove! I would fly away and be at rest; truly, I would flee far away; I would lodge in the wilderness; I would hurry to find a shelter for myself from the raging wind and tempest.”
As the psalm continues, we learn that the psalmist’s emotional pain stems from being betrayed by a friend: “With speech smoother than butter, but with a heart set on war; with words that were softer than oil, but in fact were drawn swords” (verse 21). Betrayal by a friend or loved one is one of the cruelest injuries a person can experience.
Norma Swetnam shares, “Some theologians interpret hell as alienation from God. I have experienced such a hell while in the throes of depression—a terrible sense of aloneness and isolation from everything, from everybody and from God. This results in a loss of hope for the future, and without hope what is there?” That seems to be the experience of the psalmist.
Yet, despite the betrayal and the feeling of despair, the psalmist clings to the hope that God is faithful and will carry us through our lowest times. Verse 22 declares, “Cast your burden on the Lord, and he will sustain you; he will never permit the righteous to be moved.”
Hudson Taylor, missionary to China in the late 19th century, was deeply discouraged and fearful that he would not be able to continue his work in China. As he prayed for strength and for the means to continue his work, he came upon this very verse: “Cast your burden on the Lord, and he will sustain you.” Springing to his feet, he cried, “This fear-allaying truth has evaded me too long! I see it all now. if we are obeying the Lord and still run into difficulty, the heavy responsibility rests with Him, not with us!” Then he prayed, “Lord, You shall have all the burden! At Your bidding I will go forward, leaving the results with You.” With lightened heart, Hudson Taylor went on to establish a great work in China.
“Cast your burden on the Lord, and he will sustain you.”
As we advance in years, and death looms closer, what do we have to look forward to? What can make life and death worthwhile?
For 40 years, Moses had been leading the Israelites through the desert, on their way to settling in the Promised Land. For 40 years that seemed to be Moses’ role in life and his purpose in living. But before he reaches the goal—before he can lead the people into the Promised Land—Moses dies. He climbs a mountain to the east of Jericho and gazes upon the Promised Land, but that’s as close as Moses gets.
Developmental Psychologist Erik Erikson suggests that in our final stage of life, we look back upon our lives, wondering whether we achieved our goals in life, whether our life has been productive, and whether our life was worth living. The answer to our contemplation will result either in bitterness and despair or with a sense of completeness and closure. Thus, we can face death either with dread or with peace.
When I first read the story of Moses’ death, I reacted to it with great sorrow. It seemed tragic to me that Moses got so close, but did not get to complete his life’s mission. But as I look more closely at the life of Moses, I realize that Moses had his heart set on something greater than entering the Promised Land. Exodus 33 tells us that Moses made three great requests of God:
- In verse 13, Moses asks, “Now if I have found favor in your sight, show me your ways.”
- In verse 15, he pleads, “If your presence will not go, do not carry us up from here.”
- And in verse 18, he requests, “Show me your glory.”
These are the things Moses longed for most deeply, and these are the things that were fulfilled in his life.
- Moses wanted to know God’s ways, and he gave to us the Ten Commandments.
- He longed for God’s presence, and Deuteronomy 34:10 records, “Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face.”
- And he longed to see God’s glory. This was a more difficult request. Indeed, God told him, “You cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.” As it turned out, God put Moses in “a cleft of a rock” and allowed Moses to see his backside as he passed by. That was good, but not quite enough. Moses was left still with the longing to see God’s glory. That longing would be fulfilled at Moses’ death. As Max Lucado points out, “We may speak about a place where there are no tears, no death, no fear, no night; but those are just the benefits of heaven. The beauty of heaven is seeing God!” Therefore the story of Moses death is not a sad conclusion to his life and but a joyful anticipation of heaven!
Moses’ life must not be considered a disappointment because he failed to lead the Israelites into the Promised Land; it must be recognized as a success because he teaches us how to love God more deeply and to trust God more fully. Ruth Haley Barton summarizes well the legacy Moses leaves to us: “Every time I read about Moses’ relationship with God I am filled with longing, and it is not the longing to get somewhere…. It is the longing to be a certain kind of person. A person who knows God. A person who is faithful against all odds and does not shrink back. A person through whom God can perform whatever deeds need to be done—mighty or otherwise—but also a person who can be just as content settling down beside a well or sitting on the side of a mountain in God’s presence. Someone whose face shines because she has been talking to God. Someone whose every move is a result of an attempt to listen to God and then do what he says. Someone who, when God says, ‘It’s time to let go; it’s time for you to come home,’ easily lets go and rests in the arms of this One whom she has grown to love and trust with her very being.” (Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership, p. 219)