Spiritual Amnesia is a Killer

remember

ReDiscovered Word 10

(Numbers 14-15)

How easily we forget what God has done. How easily we forget His power. 

While the children of Israel were camped on the border of the Promised Land, the twelve spies described the land’s beauty and fruitfulness. Then they described its inhabitants, enormous giants living in unconquerable cities.

“Compared to them, we’re grasshoppers. This is a fight we can’t win,” they insisted.

Joshua and Caleb disagreed. God had promised them the land, and God would give them the land. But those two optimists were outnumbered. In a frenzy of fear and unbelief, the people nearly stoned them to death.

They wanted to head back to Egypt. In Egypt they were safe. They had enough food in Egypt. Of course, they were also slaves in Egypt, but why dwell on small details?

“Let’s head back! Maybe Pharaoh will take us in! Why are we even out here in this God-forsaken place?” the people cried. “Why did God bring us here to die?”

Of course, God didn’t bring them there to die. He brought them there to give them the land. He brought them there because He loved them.

How easily they forgot that God defeated the Egyptians over and over and over and over again. How easily they forgot the moment of liberation, when they walked across the Red Sea on dry land, just before the strongest army in the ancient world drowned in their wake.

It was a case of spiritual amnesia. Their fear of the Canaanites drove away their trust in God. It’s not that they couldn’t remember what God had done for them in the past. It’s that they chose to forget.

We aren’t immune to their disease, by the way. “Do not worry about your life,” Jesus said. “Seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.”

Yet we so easily forget that God raised Jesus from the dead. We so easily forget that no enemy is too strong for Him. We worry and worry and we choose to forget God’s power.

We fear other people, we fear financial loss, we fear for our health, and we fear for our families. We wallow in our fear and spin it around in our minds until it takes over and paralyzes us.

The worry gives us a sense of control and safety. We believe, in a twisted way, that worrying will somehow fix our problems. It never has before, and all it does is enslave us. But why focus on small details?

Spiritual amnesia is a killer.

So each morning, choose to remember God’s love and power. Write it on your mirror. Recite it when you wake. Tell it to your friends. Record it and play it back from your phone.

God loves you, and He is strong. His promises never fail. Never forget it, and never give in to the fear that enslaves you and keeps you from doing what He’s called you to do.

Choose to remember the truth. God is love, and God is strong, and the Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you. Death will lose, fear will one day disappear, and His promises will come true.

Do not be enslaved by fear. Choose to remember the truth.

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Stars and Sacrifice

iStock_000002887780SmallReDiscovered Word 3

Genesis 12, 15, 22, Hebrews 11:8-20

(Note: This is the first of two posts about Abraham and Isaac. I’ll publish the second one next week, and you’ll want to read them both in order to get the whole picture). 

He had to kill the boy. It would be next in the line of innumerable deaths in the old man’s life. This would be no glorious death on the battlefield, no quiet death in bed. It would be close, just the old man, his son, the knife, and God.

Yes, God would be there too. He would ascend the mountain with Abraham, quiet yet present. He would see every violent and terrible moment. God would watch Isaac die by his father’s hand.

Abraham shifted his feet and looked at the sky. So many stars. He had tried to count them once. It seemed like a lifetime ago. Abraham had felt old at the time. Certainly too old to leave home, to fight wars, to start a family. Tonight, though, he was ancient. He was one of the stars, having no beginning and no end, his origin long forgotten and his future uncertain. So many stars, but he was only one of them. A lonely and dim star at that.

Ever since the Promise, death had hounded his steps. Every day in this life of faith was a new death. Death to dreams, death to safety, death to nations. Death to sons.

But there was no other way. Abraham knew it, as sure as the approaching sunrise. The God who gave the Promise would fulfill it. God was unpredictable and even dangerous, but He was true. For four decades, Abraham had watched his own life unravel, with a mixture of awe and despair. Despite everything Abraham had lost, God remained his only provider, the only Living God. So there was nobody else to trust. The gods of Chaldea were safe, but they were impotent. The God of Abraham was often terrifying, but real. There was nobody else to trust. So he had to kill the boy.

Abraham knew in his heart that death was not the end. He would slay Isaac, but God would raise him. But it was the slaying that troubled him. Before the next sunrise, he had to raise the knife and plunge it into the heart of his beloved son. Resurrection would console Abraham’s grief, but would it assuage his guilt? What would he say to Isaac in the moment before the knife entered his chest? How could he even look at him during the long and quiet climb up Mount Moriah?

God had promised him descendants as numerous as the stars. He had promised blessing and land and life. Abraham would be the father of a great nation, a nation that would multiply like the stars and bless every nation on earth. Abraham knew that God’s word was true, but the pain was still so real. Did he have the strength to endure this terrible death, for the sake of the life God had promised?

Enough. The dawn was approaching and Abraham needed to prepare. What do you take to a human sacrifice? Water. Wood. Rope. Isaac.

The sun was rising. The stars were disappearing now. Maybe they were an illusion all along.

Time to get moving.

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Doubt Lets the Grace In

 

Sometimes I doubt.

That might be surprising, even disconcerting, to some. Is it normal for a Christian to doubt what he believes? Is it alright for a pastor to have doubts?

I used to ask myself the same questions and wonder what was wrong with me — why couldn’t I attain absolute certainty about matters of the faith? Yet the more I’ve studied the Bible and talked with mature Christians, I’ve come to recognize that faith seldom (if ever) exists without a degree of doubt. To take it a step further, most people who are absolutely certain of everything haven’t really wrestled deeply with the bigger questions of life. Faith is not the same thing as certainty. Faith, by its very nature, is trusting in God even when we cannot attain certainty — I think this is the key point of Hebrews 11. We believe what we do not see. If we saw everything clearly, we would no longer have any reason to trust in the unseen.

Absolute certainty about anything is an illusion. Why? Because we are finite creatures. Whether we’re talking about scientific discovery or spiritual truth, my limited point of view necessarily means that there will be a bit of doubt lingering around the margins of my faith. (That’s why doubt is not merely a part of the Christian experience, but a part of the human experience.)

Most of us freak out when we experience doubt, and as a result I think we often miss one of its greatest benefits: Doubt is often a conduit for the grace of God. Doubt inherently places us in a position of helplessness and need. We cannot see everything, we cannot understand the things we think we do see, so we are utterly dependent upon the wisdom and kindness of God.

When James tells us that the doubting person will not receive anything from God, I don’t think he means that absolute certainty is required when we approach the Father in prayer. I think he means quite the opposite, in fact. The word for “doubt” in the Greek language carries the idea of “double-mindedness.” I think James is telling us this: The person who approaches God for wisdom, yet thinks he already understands everything with certainty, isn’t truly inclined to listen to what God has to say. He’s curious about God’s wisdom, but isn’t desperate for it. As a result, he doesn’t receive wisdom. Wisdom comes to those who approach God single-mindedly, asking Him to provide what we do not possess.

When Peter experienced his own bouts with doubt (see, for example, Matthew 14:22-34), they became stunning opportunities for the grace of Jesus to pour into his life. True, Jesus chastised Peter for his doubt, but it was sinking into the water that caused Peter to cry, “Lord, save me!” Only by sinking did he learn to cry out to the one who could pull him out. Peter had to learn faith through the troubling lens of doubt and fear, and Jesus knew that. The bold Peter we see on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2) would not have existed were it not for the lessons he learned on the water, and the pain he experienced when he denied His Savior.

I’ve learned to view doubt as a frustrating but necessary element of the Christian life. Until we see Jesus face to face, we will have to operate by faith rather than certainty. In the meanwhile, God uses our limitations and our doubt to reshape us. Through the process of wondering and questioning and asking God for the wisdom we lack, we slowly begin to grow in our own faith. Seeing God move in our lives despite our doubt and fear encourages us to take another step closer to Him.

To put it simply, doubt lets God’s grace come in. That’s true, if we view doubt as a renewed opportunity to trust Him. On the other hand, if we push away the doubt with our own reasoning, our own intelligence, and a sense of arrogant self-sufficiency, then we will not find the faith we’re seeking. Nor will we find certainty. Instead, we’ll become proud and distant from God. It’s only by acknowledging the doubt and bringing it to the feet of our all-knowing God that we can grow. Wisdom isn’t found in certainty, but in a growing understanding of our own limitations and our utter and absolute need of God’s wisdom.

So what do you think? Is doubt inappropriate for Christians? Do you ever struggle with it? How do you handle it? 

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Why Don’t My Prayers Move Mountains?

A student recently asked me about Matthew 17:20. Jesus’ disciples asked Him why they were unable to cast out a particular demon, and He responded by saying, “Because of your little faith. For truly, I say to you, if you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you.”

Is Matthew 17:20 a promise that God will always answer our prayers affirmatively if we have enough faith? 

Some believe it is. They argue that if you’re sick and not getting better, the problem must be your lack of faith. If you have an unmet need, God has to provide for it if you pray with enough faith. After all, if you have the faith of a tiny mustard seed, you can move mountains, right?

But that belief seems to run counter to our daily experiences. I’ve certainly known people who have prayed in faith and been healed, but I’ve also known people who have prayed with equal or greater faith and yet remained sick (or even died). So what’s the deal? It’s important to consider the context of Matthew 17:20 and the counsel of the entire Bible on this subject.

First, in Matthew 17:20 Jesus is talking to His disciples about a particular situation. They were unable to cast out a demon, and Jesus tells them it’s because they lacked faith. Nothing is impossible for the one who has faith, and in fact just a tiny bit of faith is sufficient to move a mountain. But all of that assumes that casting out the demon was God’s will in the first place. And we know that in this case it was. Why? Because Jesus proceeded to do what the disciples could not. We can’t assume, though, that our every prayer is in line with God’s will, a will that is often mysterious and unknown. The principle to take from this passage is that God is fully capable of doing anything He wants, and He uses our prayers as a means to do His work. The point is not that He’s obligated to do anything we want if we just believe Him enough.

Second, there are biblical examples of faithful people whose prayers weren’t answered as they wished. For example, the apostle Paul prayed three times for his “thorn in the flesh” to be removed, but God told him no (2 Corinthians 12:7-9). David prayed that his child would live, but God chose to allow him to die (2 Samuel 12:15-20). Paul and David were faithful, believing men, yet God didn’t do what they wanted. It’s presumptuous to assume that their prayers weren’t answered because they lacked faith. After all, if these guys were unfaithful, I don’t stand a chance of being heard!

Third, there are many reasons why our prayers aren’t answered. Sometimes it’s because we lack faith, as in Matthew 17:20. Sometimes it’s because we’ve been unkind to others (e.g. our spouses, cf. 1 Peter 3:7). Sometimes it’s because we’re sinful and haven’t confessed our sin (Isaiah 1:15-17). Sometimes, though, it’s because God has a plan for our character that won’t be accomplished by answering our prayers the way we want (again, see 2 Corinthians 12:7-9). Sometimes we simply don’t know why God doesn’t answer.  Why did God preserve Peter’s life but allow James to be killed (Acts 12:1-11)? Do you think it’s because nobody prayed for James like the church prayed for Peter? No, sometimes God’s specific plan is a bit mysterious — and we simply can’t manipulate it or control it.

Finally, prayer is still the most powerful resource we have as we seek to serve Him. Despite the fact that God doesn’t always answer affirmatively, He still listens and responds (James 5:15-18). The Scripture is filled with God’s amazing answers to prayer. My own life is full of examples of how God has answered prayer. Prayer is very powerful. Never believe that it’s a waste of time and energy. It’s not.

We should never assume, though, that prayer is a means to getting whatever we want whenever we want it. Prayer draws us closer to God. It empowers us to do His work. It connects us to God’s power in a way that no other activity can do. Nonetheless, God controls the outcomes of our prayers. It’s our job to trust Him, to obey His Word, and to try to pray in keeping with His will.

What questions or thoughts do you have on the subject of prayer? Do you struggle with the concept of unanswered prayers? Why or why not? 

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