Lead me to the Rock that is higher than I

A line in Psalm 61 grabs my heart and fills me with hope.  It is found in the latter half of verse 2 and the whole of verse 3: “Lead me to the rock that is higher than I; for you are my refuge, a strong tower against the enemy.”

When we are confused in life and don’t know where to go or what to do, this is what we need: “Lead me to the rock that is higher than I.”  “When the ethicist John Kavanaugh went to work for three months at ‘the house of the dying’ in Calcutta, he was seeking a clear answer as to how best to spend the rest of his life.  On the first morning there he met Mother Teresa.  She asked, ‘And what can I do for you?’ Kavanaugh asked her to pray for him.  ‘What do you want me to pray for?’ she asked.  He voiced the request that he had borne thousands of miles from the United States: ‘Pray that I have clarity.’  She said firmly, ‘No, I will not do that.’  When he asked her why, she said, ‘Clarity is the last thing you are clinging to and must let go of.’  When Kavanaugh commented that she always seemed to have the clarity he longed for, she laughed and said, ‘I have never had clarity; what I have always had is trust.  So I will pray that you trust God.’” (told by Brennan Manning in Ruthless Trust, p. 5)  In other words, “Lead me to the rock that is higher than I.”

When troubles bombard our lives, this is what we need: “Lead me to the rock that is higher than I.”  When Dr. Tom Dooley was a medical missionary to Southeast Asia in his early thirties, he contracted cancer and died at the age of 34.  On December 1, 1960, in the depths of his battle with cancer, he wrote a letter from his hospital bed in Vietnam to the president of the University of Notre Dame, his alma mater: “Dear Father Hesburgh, They’ve got me down.  Flat on the back, with plaster, sand bags, and hot water bottles.  I’ve contrived a way of pumping the bed up a bit so that, with a long reach, I can get to my typewriter…. Two things prompt this note to you.  The first is that whenever my cancer acts up a bit, and it is certainly ‘acting up’ now, I turn inward.  Less do I think of my hospitals around the world, or of 94 doctors, fundraisers, and the like.  More do I think of one Divine Doctor and my personal fund of grace.  It has become pretty definite that the cancer has spread to the lumbar vertebra, accounting for all the back problems over the last two months.  I have monstrous phantoms; all men do.  and inside and outside the wind blows.  But when the time comes, like now, then the storm around me does not matter.  The winds within me do not matter.  Nothing human or earthly can touch me.  a peace gathers in my heart.  What seems unpossessable, I can possess.  What seems unfathomable, I can fathom.  What is unutterable, I can utter.  Because I can pray.  I can communicate.  How do people endure anything on earth if they cannot have God?”  In other words, “Lead me to the rock that is higher than I; for you are my refuge, a strong tower against the enemy.”

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Welcome those who were excluded

In Ephesians 3, Paul shares a little of his biography.  He talks about the mystery of God that was revealed to him and he talks about the commission that was given to him to share the good news of Christ with the Gentiles.  He presents a very minimal biography here, but it is helpful to know a little more of Paul’s biography.  He was born into privilege as a Roman citizen, which means that his father was a Roman citizen.  He was born into an affluent family that could afford to send him to Jerusalem to study under Gamaliel, one of the most renowned Jewish scholars of all time.  Paul advanced beyond others of his age as a respected Pharisee.  The driving force in his life was to maintain the purity of his religion, pushing away those who didn’t fit in the religious structure he loved so deeply.  He took on the responsibility of hunting down and locking up those whom he considered to be polluting his religion.  But on his way to Damascus to lock up Christians, Christ appeared to him in a vision and transformed his life.  After that, it became the driving force in Paul’s life to welcome those who had previously been excluded.

In his book Messy Spirituality, Mike Yaconelli tells the story of Margaret, who experienced deeply the pain of rejection.  After Margaret rushed late into class at nine years of age, Ms. Garner placed Margaret at the front of the class and said, “Boys and girls, Margaret has been a bad girl.  I have tried to help her to be responsible.  But, apparently, she doesn’t want to learn.  So we must teach her a lesson.  We must force her to face what a selfish person she has become.  I want each of you to come to the front of the room, take a piece of chalk, and write something bad about Margaret on the blackboard.  Maybe this experience will motivate her to become a better person!” (p. 45)

Yaconelli shares, “Margaret stood frozen next to Ms. Garner.  One by one, the students began a silent procession to the blackboard.  One by one, the students wrote their life-smothering words, slowly extinguishing the light in Margaret’s soul.  ‘Margaret is stupid!  Margaret is selfish!  Margaret is fat!  Margaret is a dummy!’  On and on they went, until twenty-five terrible scribblings of Margaret’s ‘badness’ screamed from the blackboard.” (p. 46) 

Over the years, the trauma stuck with Margaret to the end that she slowly became what the students wrote.  Eventually Margaret sought the help of a counselor.  After two years of intensive work together, Margaret’s counselor said to her, “I guess it’s graduation day for you.  How are you feeling?”

After a long silence, Margaret replied, “I…I’m okay.”

Yaconelli reports, “The counselor hesitated.  ‘Margaret, I know this will be difficult, but just to make sure you’re ready to move on, I am going to ask you to do something.  I want to go back to your schoolroom and detail the events of that day.  Take your time.  Describe each of the children as they approach the blackboard, remember what they wrote and how you felt—all twenty-five students.’

“In a way, this would be easy for Margaret.  For forty years she had remembered every detail.  And yet, to go through the nightmare one more time would take every bit of strength she had.  After a long silence, she began the painful description.  One by one, she described each of the students vividly, as though she had just seen them, stopping periodically to regain her composure, forcing herself to face each of those students one more time.

“Finally, she was done, and the tears would not stop, could not stop.  Margaret cried a long time before she realized someone was whispering her name.  ‘Margaret.  Margaret.  Margaret.’  She looked up to see her counselor staring into her eyes, saying her name over and over again.  Margaret stopped crying for a moment.

“‘Margaret.  You…left out one person.’

“‘I certainly did not!  I have lived with this story for forty years.  I know every student by heart.’

“‘No, Margaret, you did forget someone.  See, he’s sitting in the back of the classroom.  He’s standing up, walking toward your teacher…. She is handing him a piece of chalk, and he’s taking it…. Now he’s walking over to the blackboard and picking up an eraser.  He is erasing every one of the sentences the students wrote.  They are gone!  Margaret, they are gone!  Now he’s turning and looking at you, Margaret.  Do you recognize him yet?  Yes, his name is Jesus.  Look, he’s writing new sentences on the board.  “Margaret is loved.  Margaret is beautiful.  Margaret is gentle and kind.  Margaret is strong.  Margaret has courage.”’ 

“And Margaret began to weep.  But very quickly, the weeping turned into a smile, and then into laughter, and then into tears of joy.” (p. 55-56)

In Ephesians 3:6, it is as if Paul erases what had been there before and writes a new declaration about those who were previously excluded, “The Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.”  In verse 8 he adds, “Although I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given to me to bring to the Gentiles the news of the boundless riches of Christ.” 

With the love of Christ flooding his soul, the driving force of Paul’s life became the quest to welcome into God’s family those who were previously excluded.  Shouldn’t that be the driving force of our lives as well?

Be Honest with God

Psalm 60 convinces me that it is permissible for us to express to God whatever is on our heart.

Scripture identifies Psalm 60 as having been written when David “struggled with Aram-naharaim and with Aram-zobah, and when Joab on his return killed twelve thousand Edomites in the Valley of Salt.”  Scholars therefore determine that the psalm was written at the time of 2 Samuel 8:1-8.  The author of 2 Samuel 8:6 presents glowing words about David’s successes: “The Lord gave victory to David wherever he went.”  But Psalm 60 begins with David’s genuine gloom and frustration: “O God, you have rejected us, broken our defenses; you have been angry; now restore us!  You have caused the land to quake; you have torn it open; repair the cracks in it, for it is tottering.  You have made your people suffer hard things; you have given us wine to drink that made us reel.”

David does not feel compelled to talk to God with nice spiritual sentences or with glowing expressions of trust.  He simply sets before God the frustrations and fears that are percolating in his heart.  Philip Yancey sees merit in what David does.  He writes, “I am convinced the main requirement in prayer is honesty, approaching God ‘just as we are.’”

In his book Prayer: Does It Make Any Difference?, Philip Yancey expands on the importance of honesty in our prayers, and on how he learned this lesson through the psalms: “Psalms keep me honest by furnishing words to prayer I would not pray apart from the their prompting.  I have learned to pray more humanly by reading the psalms and making them my prayers.  As I read psalms of anger and revenge, I have to face the same tendencies in myself.  The psalms expose to the light resentments and wounds long hidden.  I find it liberating that God welcomes, even encourages, me to face into my dark side in my prayers.  I can trust God with my secrets.” (p. 173-174)

Yancey also shares, “A physician friend of mine who learned I was investigating prayer told me I would have to start with three rather large assumptions: (1) God exists; (2) God is capable of hearing our prayers; and (3) God cares about our prayers.  ‘None of these three can be proved or disproved,’ he said.  ‘They must either be believed or disbelieved.’” (p. 79)

If you believe that God exists, that God is capable of hearing our prayers, and that God cares about our prayers—or if you are willing to take the risk of giving these assumptions a try—then go ahead and pour out your heart openly and honestly to God.  I believe he cares deeply about all that is percolating inside of you.

May our Hostilities be Nailed to the Cross

Hostilities, tensions, conflicts.  These problems simmer far too often in churches.  Thus Paul addresses this problem in his letter to the Christians in Ephesus.

The church in Ephesus was made up of Jews and Gentiles.  These groups had experienced deep hostilities, tensions and conflict between each other for decades. 

The Jews took pride in their lineage—that they were descendants of God’s covenant with Abraham.  They believed their ancestry made them better than others.  And they took pride in being followers of the Law of Moses, believing the Law made them holier than everyone else.  For these reasons, they looked down on the Gentiles and wanted nothing to do with them.

The Gentiles in Ephesus had taken pride in their wealth, their position in society, their successes and their power.  They looked down upon the lowly Jews and wanted nothing to do with them. 

But in Ephesus Jewish people came to Christ and Gentile people came to Christ.  Both groups found themselves thrown together in the same church and told that they were now brothers and sisters with one another.  How are Christians to overcome such long held hostilities?

Paul asserts that the bridge between them is Christ.  In Ephesians 2:13-14, he writes, “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.  For he is our peace; in his flesh he had made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.”  In verse 16, he asserts that Christ “might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it.”

How can the cross of Christ put to death the hostility between people and reconcile us into loving relationship with one another?

Picture it in this way: When Jesus died, my sins were hung on the cross with him and taken away from me.  By that, I have been reconciled to God.  And when Jesus died, your sins were hung on the cross with him and taken away from you.  By that, you have been reconciled to God.  You and I have both been reconciled to God through what Jesus did on the cross for us. 

But when I hold onto a grudge against you, it is as if I deny its place on the cross.  It is as if I refuse to let your sin (that for which I hold a grudge against you) be forgiven.

When your sin is on the cross, Christ forgives you and takes away that sin.  But I don’t want your sin to be taken away.  I want to hold onto my grudge against you. 

How ridiculous is that!  I am holding onto that which Jesus died to take away.

I may not like something you have done.  You may not like something I have done.  But Jesus has already taken your sins and my sins to the cross and done away with them.  That’s where we should leave them, too.

When our children were young, we read to them The Bronze Bow by Elizabeth George Speare.  It is the story of a zealot named Daniel, who hates the Romans.  The driving force in his life is the longing to take revenge on the Romans for the suffering they have caused to his family.  At one point, Jesus asks Daniel to follow him:

“‘Daniel,’ he said, ‘I would have you follow me.’

“‘Master!’ A great burst of hope almost swept him to his knees.  ‘I will fight for you to the end!’

“Jesus smiled at him gently.  ‘My loyal friend,’ he said, ‘I would ask something much harder than that.  Would you love for me to the end?’

“Baffled, Daniel felt the hope slipping away.  ‘I don’t understand,’ he said again.  ‘You tell people about the kingdom.  Are we not to fight for it?’

“‘The kingdom is only bought at a great price,’ Jesus said.  ‘There was one who came just yesterday and wanted to follow me.  He was very rich, and when I asked him to give up his wealth, he went away.’

“‘I will give you everything I have!’

“Something almost like a twinkle of humor lighted for an instant the sadness of Jesus’ eyes.  ‘Riches are not keeping you from the kingdom,’ he said.  ‘You must give up your hate.’”

In the midst of the hostilities that often scar the Christian church, Christ is saying to us, “You must give up your hate.” 

God our Fortress

King David went through a lot of struggles in his life.  He wrote Psalm 59 during one of those times of deep struggle.  The introduction to Psalm 59 in our Bibles states that the psalm was written “when Saul ordered his house to be watched in order to kill him..”  Thus David writes, “Even now they lie in wait for my life; the mighty stir up strife against me” (verse 3).  Twice he writes, “Each evening they come back, howling like dogs and prowling about the city” (verses 6 & 14). 

How does a person hold up amidst such struggles?  Amidst such opposition?  Amidst such threats to one’s life?

What enabled David to get through this struggle was the conviction that God was a fortress surrounding him.  He concludes the psalm with these words: “But I will sing of your might; I will sing aloud of your steadfast love in the morning.  For you have been a fortress for me and a refuge in the day of my distress.  O my strength, I will sing praises to you, for you, O God, are my fortress, the God who shows me steadfast love.”

David held tightly to the conviction that God was with him, that God was capable of handling his troubles, and that God was holding him securely.

I believe David knew in his heart what A.W. Tozer wrote centuries later, “An infinite God can give all of himself to each of his children.  He does not distribute himself that each may have a part, but to each one he gives all of himself as fully as if there were no others.” 

Annie Johnson Flint puts it this way:

               When we have exhausted our store of endurance, when our strength has failed ere the day is half done,

               When we reach the end of our hoarded resources, our Father’s full giving is only begun.

               His love has no limit; his grace has no measure; his power no boundary known unto men;

               For out of his infinite riches in Jesus he giveth, and giveth, and giveth again.

When troubles bombard us, may we seek refuge in the fortress that is our God.

Rescued, Adopted, Restored

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. 

Don’t try too hard to be a “good Christian”

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.

Some Insights on Prayer

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.” 

Take Refuge under God’s Wings

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.

The Holy Spirit: Our Seal & Down Payment

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.