Maybe it’s me, but it seems that our society is growing in its arrogance – if that’s possible.
I’m no photographer, but I enjoy nature and people photography. At the top of Trail Ridge Road in the Rocky Mountain National Park, I found myself standing next to a woman with a monster lens, the kind that NatGeo photogs use. I felt unworthy standing next to her with my 70 – 300 zoom lens. I said, “Now that’s a lens!” She rolled her eyes. Not worthy.
Later that afternoon, I read Ps 49. The short story of the Psalm is this: regardless of life’s circumstances – rich or poor, white or black, blue or white collar, the most important thing about a man or woman is that they have “understanding.”
I wondered: what is the “understanding” God has in mind that distinguishes a person. If a poor man with understanding is better off than a rich man without it, what does that mean?
A quick search limited to just the Psalms revealed ten benefits to the one who has understanding God’s way. The one who values understanding . . .
- Discerns his errors (Ps 19:12). How crucial is that? How many people do you know who are completely ignorant of their condition before God? How many of them think that God loves and accepts them just because they are? They haven’t got a clue about why God would be angry with them at all. By the way, how often do you discern your own errors?
- Values the works of God, including his rewards (Ps 28:5).
- Receives God’s instructions and counsel about how to live life to the fullest and most enjoyable (Ps 32:8-9). This one is important!
- Submits to God as the clay to the Potter (Ps 33:15). So it this one!
- Fears the Lord and hopes in his lovingkindness (Pss 33:18; 107:43). Ditto!
- Knows God’s eye is on him or her for good and refuses to be stubborn (Pss 33:17; 94:7). Help, anyone?
- Knows righteousness will triumph over evil and so patiently, prayerfully waits on God (Pss 37:10; 73:17; 96:6-8). Comforting!
- Walks in the light of Christ and hates the works of darkness (Ps 82:5).
- Is teachable, obedient (and prays for help) and meditates on God’s word (Ps 119:27, 34, 73, 95, 100, 104, 125, 130, 144, 169).
- Is known by God (139:2). Easily the best of the ten.
That day at nearly 12,000 feet above sea level, I learned that understanding is better than a NatGeo camera lens any day.
Someone maliciously and publicly ruins your reputation. You are deeply hurt and pay a heavy price for something that isn’t true. Everything in you wants to pray like David:
May his children be fatherless and his wife a widow! May his children wander about and beg, seeking food far from the ruins they inhabit! May the creditor seize all that he has; may strangers plunder the fruits of his toil! Let there be none to extend kindness to him, nor any to pity his fatherless children! May his posterity be cut off; may his name be blotted out in the second generation! May the iniquity of his fathers be remembered before the LORD, and let not the sin of his mother be blotted out! Let them be before the LORD continually, that he may cut off the memory of them from the earth! (Ps 109:9-15)
Ouch! It hurts just to think of it. Your conscience cries out “No! Don’t go there! Trust the Lord. Don’t be a fool!”
Many have weighed in on the subject of a Christian’s relationship to the prayers of David that call down fire and hail stones on the heads of those who wound us. Sometimes they are unbelievers and we might be willing to let them off the hook. But sometimes they are sitting next to us in church Can we use David’s “imprecatory prayers” when we are deeply wounded by betrayal, lies or bullying of others? The answer is “yes” and “no.” The “no” part goes like this: remember that the substance of an imprecatory prayer contains wording that calls down curses on our enemies. You may feel like that will bring about the justice you deserve but it won’t. To this Jesus says us to love those who persecute us and to pray for them and even do good to them (Matt 5:44).
Can we use David’s “imprecatory prayers” when we are deeply wounded by betrayal, lies or bullying of others? The answer is “yes” and “no.” The “no” part goes like this: remember that the substance of an imprecatory prayer contains wording that calls down curses on our enemies. You may feel like that will bring about the justice you deserve but it won’t. To this Jesus says us to love those who persecute us and to pray for them and even do good to them (Matt 5:44).
The “yes” part is this: there is a legitimate way to pray about what’s happened to you. Here are seven things I’ve noticed about David’s approach to God in prayer about his enemies:
- It’s perfectly legitimate to pray for vindication from God.
- It’s perfectly legitimate to pray that my enemies are frustrated in their plans.
- It’s perfectly legitimate to plead my innocence with God (if I am!) and make the case for vindication.
- It’s perfectly legitimate to tell the Lord what I know and think about the characters and spiritual condition of my adversaries. (believe it – he already knows!)
- It’s perfectly legitimate to pray that my opponents become ashamed of their work. An awakened conscience might lead them to repentance.
- It’s perfectly legitimate to promise to rejoice in the ways God answers.
- It’s perfectly legitimate to tell others afterward of the marvelous thing God has done for you so they can join the chorus of praise. (Do this without trash talking your enemy in the process).
In contrast, here are five illegitimate things:
- It is illegitimate to go first to others and tell them about your enemy’s hurtful actions or words. First, to God and leave it with him.
- It is illegitimate to be disappointed in the way God answers.
- It is illegitimate to renege on the promise to praise God.
- It is illegitimate to get impatient with God; so, admit it and ask for help!
- It is illegitimate to gloat when the answer comes; be ready to pray for them the way God directed Job to pray for his “counselors.”
For your own further reflection check out Pss 5, 10, 17, 35, 58, 59, 69, 70, 79, 83, 109, 129, 137, 140. Then pray for them the ways you would want others to pray for you.
We all like heroes because they make us believe there is still some good in the world. We like heroes because they show courage in the face of crisis and exude confidence, even if they will admit later they were scared to death or they were just doing their jobs.
The Bible has heroes too; heroes of the faith. But they are also people like us, made of the same stuff. What sets them apart isn’t so much their courage as their faith. When a crisis comes, the residuals of the world and flesh are revealed and faith is proven for what it is. A crisis can call out the faith in us or deplete us.
Two such heroes are Mordecai and Esther. Faced with a genocide of the entire Jewish population in captivity, the two endured the crisis and revealed the nature of true faith. Mordecai said, “Esther if you don’t do something about this crisis, deliverance will come from another place. But how do you know that you haven’t come to the kingdom for such a time as this.” Esther said, “I’ll do. You pray and fast, I’ll pray and fast and if I perish, I perish.” Sounds heroic, right?
Here are 10 things in now particular order about the crisis they faced that brought out of their faith:
- True faith is both optimistic and willing to “lose.” They believed God and left the outcome in his hands.
- True faith sees opportunities and expresses encouragement.
- True faith is sensitive to God’s timing and willing to wait.
- True faith takes risks for big things.
- True faith is born of confidence in God.
- True faith acts; it makes wise plans and executes them patiently.
- True faith looks to God first in every circumstance; crisis or not.
- True faith recognizes personal inadequacy and calls for the Spirit’s help; a sort of spiritual 911.
- True faith is not afraid to alert others to the dangers ahead.
- True faith rallies a network of help.
Father, we may not be facing a crisis yet but we have a situation for which we can’t plan well. Give us faith to face the changes we see on the horizon. Reveal your plans so we can walk in true faith. Father us into your will as you’ve done before.
Can we agree that David was an imperfect man? Although God chose him to be the great ancestor of Jesus, he too was, in the words of John Newton, a great sinner in need of a great Savior. Though he committed adultery with Bathsheba, conspired to have her husband killed, took a census he should not have, wasn’t a model father, mourned more bitterly over the death of Absalom than was appropriate for a leader and gave his son Solomon a “hit list” to execute at his death, he claimed that he “walked in his integrity.” This means that David understood himself to be “complete,” “full,” “perfect,” “upright,” and “innocent.” Even God, who saw it all, agreed with David’s self-understanding. We know this because God favored David with the title: “a man after my own heart.”
It eluded me for years how David could make this claim. David wasn’t one to boast in his own accomplishments; he boasted in the goodness of God. And I understood that he walked in the promised righteousness of the (for him) coming Messiah, yet I winced whenever I read a psalm that said, “You have upheld me because of my integrity.” Did David really think he earned God’s favor because he attained a level of spiritual and moral perfection that obliged God? “May it never be!” Hard to imagine.
The statements David and God made could not be contradictory, much less wrong. So, during my scheduled reading through the Bible, I decided to pay careful attention to the things David did and said and what God said about it. I marked every place where I thought David’s heart was revealed with “D’s H.” It wasn’t until my reading took me to 1 Kings that I discovered the nugget of truth I’d been looking for.
The way to explain this will involve an observation about the story or the statements said (by David, God or others).
That’s what this series of blogs will be about. But the big goal is to see our hearts changed to be like David’s. Stay with me won’t you?
Who wrote these words?
“God takes pleasure in Himself and rejoices in His own perfection.”
If John Piper sprang to mind you are obviously steeped in his theology. Good! Perhaps you went further back and thought of Jonathan Edwards. Terrific! Both pastors have written these words or words like them. But, the answer I’m looking for is A. W. Tozer.
My wife and I are reading through a book of a collection of Tozer’s writings called The Attributes of God (Camp Hill, PA: Wing Spread Publishers, 2007). The sentence above is from a chapter entitled “God’s Infinitude.”
Tozer goes on to explain how God delights in his creation and his Son. Jesus delights in the Father and the Spirit delights in the Father and the Son. Then quoting from a “dear old hymn writer,” Tozer tells us of Jesus’ delight in his incarnation: he did not “abhor the virgin’s womb.” “The second person of the Trinity, the everlasting Son,” Tozer wrote “the eternal Word made Himself flesh – joyously!”
This little section of Tozer’s book sparked a timely discussion for my wife and me. Does God delight in our losses? If so, isn’t that cruel and mean-spirited?
Here’s the background. Our youngest daughter is soon moving out of state – way out of state; sixteen hundred miles and seven states away. Our oldest daughter and her husband and their children (our grandchildren, I might add) live nearly twelve hundred miles and four states away. For the first time in thirty plus years, our family will be living in three different states.
Granted, that’s not unusual by today’s American standards. It’s just that it is unusual for us; and uncomfortable. For nearly thirty plus years, our family has lived in close proximity to each other. No more than thirty minutes away at the farthest.
My wife isn’t delighted about this.
I am not delighted either.
But what about God? Tozer, Piper, Edwards and the Bible agree: God delights in all that he does. In fact, my wife pointed out to me that “All the paths of the LORD are steadfast love and faithfulness, for those who keep his covenant and his testimonies” (Ps 25:10).
Because we are committed to the sovereignty of God at work in our lives, our daughter’s move falls under the category of his “steadfast love and faithfulness.” Fair enough. But how does “his delight” square with our dis-delight?
As we talked, we reminded each other that God cannot do anything wrong; he does all things well (Mark 7:37). The problem isn’t with God’s doing things, but our perspective of them. Is it possible to see something we dislike as something that will bring pleasure to God?
My wife reminded me further that plenty of biblical parents had to relinquish their children: Jacob had to let Joseph “go,” assuming he’d been killed (Genesis 37). Hannah had to let Samuel go for the service of the Lord (1 Samuel 1). Eventually, Moses’ mother had to let him go too (Exodus 2). Need it be mentioned that God “gave up” his Son for our salvation?
Does that mean he doesn’t care about how we feel about the loss of a daughter to the East Coast? No, not at all. Piper says it: God taking pleasure in himself is the way he blesses us and does good to and for us. God has never been unhappy or lonely.
“He has always rejoiced with overflowing satisfaction . . . God is not constrained by any inner deficiency or unhappiness to do anything he does not want to do . . . This is what distinguishes us from God. We have an immense void inside that craves satisfaction from powers and persons (our family) and pleasures (proximity) outside ourselves. Yearning and longing and desire are the very stuff of our nature. We are born deficient and needy and dissatisfied.”
Part of the answer for God’s delight in himself and all that he does is so that there is an overflow from the reservoir of his goodness into our souls as we delight in God. “God is not like an insecure bully, who likes to show off his strength by putting weaker people down. God loves to show off his greatness by being an inexhaustible source of strength to build weak people up. His exuberance in delighting in the welfare of his servant is the measure of the immensity of his resources (Phil 4:19).”
Our losses and the suffering and the dis-delight they bring become for us an opportunity to receive from the Spirit everything his Names imply: Intercessor (he will plead for us), helper (he will get in there and shoulder the work on our behalf), Counselor (he will help us see what we need to see by faith), and Comforter (Someone to lean on in times of sorrow). The loss opens an opportunity for us to delight in Christ’s all-sufficient riches. Our dependence on his riches delights God and shows that we really do believe he is greatest treasure we have. Piper writes, “If we hold fast to him ‘when all around our soul gives way,’ then we show that he is more to be desired than all we have lost.” Paul said, “Gladly then will I boast in my weakness that the power of Christ may dwell in me . . . for when I am weak (lacking something, dis-delighting in something), then I am strong” (2 Cor 12:9-10).
So, although our daughter will move, we will miss her and feel the sadness of the loss of her company. We will call her and write to her and definitely create excuses to visit her. This new circumstance will become for us a way to live in and magnify Christ’s grace in delighting to move her away for a time and depend on him for our delights.
Every pastor who has endured the rigors of seminary training will graduate having had wonderful professors under whose hand and guidance they learned about God; not just about how to study the Bible. Four of them left an indelible mark on my spiritual growth and I count them among my friends today. Not only do I think of them fondly, but I carry with me their examples of diligence in the word and the habits of study that they passed along to me. In one sense, the congregation I serve is being served by these men and many others. So, when a former student learns that the man who had so much to do with his theological and spiritual development has gone home to be with the Lord, it is good to reflect on the good deposit they have left in others.
One of my friends was a student of Dr. Howard Hendricks’ of Dallas Theological Seminary. Many pastors have benefited from Dr. Hendricks books on how to study the Bible, Christian education and so much more. Below is what my friend, who studied under Dr. Hendricks, had to say about the man known as “the Prof.”
“One of my beloved seminary professors, Dr. Howard Hendricks, went to glory last week at age 89. He taught Bible Study Methods and many other Christian Education courses for over 60 years at Dallas Seminary, to the staff of Campus Crusade, and all over the world. I never met even one of his students who was not marked for life by him. Below are a few quotes “Prof” was known for. I pass them on to you. Heb. 13:7 says: “Remember those who led you, who spoke the word of God to you; and considering the result of their conduct, imitate their faith.” Here is a man worthy of this statement!
· Heaven is a person: Jesus.
· Never traffic in unpracticed truth.
· You are able to do many things. But be sure you find the one thing you must do.
· There’s no one without significant creative potential.
· You never graduate from the school of discipleship.
· If you’re just like someone else, we don’t need you.
· How big is your God? The size of your God determines the size of everything.
· There’s no such thing as faith apart from risk-taking. Creativity takes risk. The people who are most secure in Jesus Christ shouldn’t be scared to try new things.
· You cannot impart what you do not possess.
· The teacher has not taught until the student has learned.
· Nothing is more common than unfulfilled potential.
· The Bible was not given to make us smarter sinners, but to change our lives.
· The greatest curse that pervaded the university is apathy.
· The measure of you as a leader is not what you do, but what others do because of what you do.
· In the spiritual realm, the opposite of ignorance is not knowledge, it’s obedience.
· A belief is something you will argue about. A conviction is something you will die for.
· It is a sin to bore a child with the Word of God.
· You can impress people at a distance, but you can impact them only up close.
· Biblically speaking, to hear and not to do is not to hear at all.
· In the midst of a generation screaming for answers, Christians are stuttering.
· You can control your choices but you can’t control the outcome of those choices.
· If you want to continue leading, you must continue changing.
· Experience is not the best teacher; evaluated experience is.
· If we stop learning today, we stop teaching tomorrow.
· Leaders are readers, and readers are leaders.
Forgiveness is probably that hardest thing we do with one another. It is not easy to forgive. The reason is simple enough: the wrong done against us is too great when compared with our greatness. Not only did I not deserve your angry words, bitter comments, slight, etc., but you should have known the importance of my person refuses any offense due to my lofty position in the universe. Besides, coddling our grudges nestled close to our hearts can be such a comforting self-justifying companion.
No Christian that I know would voice such a self-exalting idea about him or herself. But the heart speaks it quietly in the silence of the night.
Asking for forgiveness is probably the second hardest thing we do with one another. You can tell this is true by the way in which public figures (or we) ask: “If (with all the weight of the subjunctive mood bearing down on this remotest of possibilities!) I have done anything to offend anybody out there, I’m sorry.” Subject over; never to be spoken of again. The bruised ego now wants nothing more than “to move on.”
Of course, the implication is that “I couldn’t have done anything to offend anybody; but if you think I did, then I’m sorry for you that you felt that way because in reality I was just being me and you know, I have to be me; and just because you don’t like me being me is no reason for me to have to apologize. I will never apologize for being me.” Seriously! Besides asking this way keeps me shielded from having to talk to you face-to-face. I can hide behind the duplicitous mask of “an apology.”
When Christians engage in the practice of forgiving (Matt 18:15f) we take too many cues from the culture or psychology. We should take our cues from Jesus. The culture tells us to apologize or even to pair forgetting with our forgiving. Psychology teaches us that apologizing and forgiveness is good because it rebounds on us with benefits.
Neither of these are at the heart of Jesus’ teachings on forgiveness. Forgiveness makes us like the Father who has forgiven us in Christ (Eph 4:32). While there may be a residual blessing in forgiveness (and there is), Jesus’ first concern was that forgiveness reflected the believer’s union and identification with him. He gets the credit for our obedience in forgiving.
William Gurnall (1617-1679), Puritan pastor and author of the massive work, The Christian in Complete Armour, points out why Christians forgive and what Christians need most in forgiving. Forgiving one another is another circumstance in the progress of our sanctification. Justification (being made right with God) is a grace and instrument for our sanctification (being made holy as God is holy). Faith unites us to Christ the way a pipe carries fresh water from a fountain. Jesus said that this union with him would be like a river of living waters flowing from us (John 7:38). This river will flow with thirst quenching grace to others. This river includes forgiving those who have wronged us, whether they know they have or not.
Christians may think that what we need to forgive is more love and realize they have to pray for that grace, too. Praying for more love is a good thing. I pray for it every day! More love for God, for Christ, for my wife, my children and grandchildren, my church. But that’s not what we need first when it comes time to forgive. What we need is more faith.
Sounds contradictory, but Gurnall makes his case from Scripture. When Jesus told the disciples they had to forgive seventy times seven – in one day – Peter blurted out the truth. He did not said, “Lord, increase our love!” Or “Lord, give us more tolerance!” No. He said, “Lord, increase our faith!” (Luke 17:1-5). (Actually, Luke doesn’t tell us it was Peter. He says only, “the apostles.” I just imagine it was Peter because that statement at that time was so typical of him: to say what everyone else was thinking. Do you think I may have to ask him to forgive me when I see him in heaven?)
The reason Jesus said we needed faith (he did affirm the apostles’ response in v. 6) is because forgiveness is difficult and this is a very hard lesson to learn. So, the question is “why faith?” Gurnall answers helpfully.
If they could get more faith on Christ, they might be sure they should have more love to their brother also. The more strongly they could believe on Christ for the pardon of their own sins, not ‘seven’ but ‘seventy times’ in a day committed against God, the more easy it would be to forgive their brother offending themselves seven times a day . . . [It is] as if he said, “You have hit on the right way to get a forgiving spirit; it is faith indeed that would enable you to conquer the mercifulness of your hearts. Though it were as deeply rooted in you as this sycamore-tree is in the ground, yet by faith you should be able to pluck it up.” When we would have the whole tree fruitful, we think we do enough to water the root, knowing what the root sucks from the earth it will soon disperse into the branches. Thus that sap and fatness, faith, which is the radical grace, draws from Christ, will be quickly diffused through the branches of the others graces and tasted in the pleasantness of their fruit. (The Christian in Complete Armour, 2:16, 17)
Praying for an increase of faith with you,
It’s probably not often that a Sunday school class gets attention in blogs. But the one my wife and I attended last Sunday at Third Ave Baptist Church (Louisville, KY) deserves attention. The teacher was a church elder, Scott Croft. His subject: suffering. It may even seem odd to have a class that teaches Christians about suffering, but as has been wisely said, the best time to learn and prepare for suffering is before you suffer, not during.
Suffering will come. You may have already experienced a measure of suffering, or you may be headed into a season of suffering. One thing is sure, all Christians will suffer. You can meet them in their suffering, coming out of suffering or on their way into suffering.
Christian suffering is distinctly and divinely different from other kinds. Christian suffering doesn’t alleviate the pain that may be felt. Pain, and loss are pain, and loss. But Christian suffering can be touched with the sweetness of the Spirit no matter how bitter the circumstances.
Suffering as God’s gift
Have you ever considered that suffering may be understood as a gift from God? For example, Phil 1:29 says, “For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake.” When God grants something, it is a gift for our good and his glory. And consider what Jesus said about suffering: “And he said to all, ‘If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me’ (Luke 9:23).” Would your elder Brother, who laid down his life for you, his friend, call you to something evil? (If you want to look for a biblical answer go to Luke 11:12).
The purposes of God in suffering
No one can tell why believers suffer. We might be able to make some broadly educated guesses. Know this: only God, as the Father, knows why he brings what he does into the lives of his children. It is not helpful to try explanations for those going through difficult circumstances. As Scott said, give them a hug and pray with them! That is not to say that there are no purposes in the suffering of believers or that we are left in the dark. Here are eight points from my notes for your consideration; all without comment.
1. For growth in holiness (Ps 119:67).
2. To build perseverance (Rom 5:3; 1 Cor 10:13).
3. For your maturity (James 1).
4. To teach us God’s word (Ps 119:71).
5. To equip us to be an encouragement for others (2 Cor 1:3-4).
6. To wean us from self-reliance (2 Cor 1:8-10).
7. To strengthen assurance (Heb 12:7-8).
8. To glorify God when all the benefits of following Christ are gone, yet suffering Christians joyfully persevere (Heb 11:26; 1 Pet 3:15).
As my wife and I discussed the morning worship on our way to Starbucks, we instinctively returned to the class on suffering. As we reflected on our lives we came to similar conclusions arising from a conversation from the night before. The night before, we had been with some new friends for dinner. In the casualness of the evening, and the laughter of good conversation, we also shared how we came to the Lord, what he had done and is doing in our lives, and what we’ve experienced in our different ministry settings. Everyone had a story to tell that included some kind of suffering. Each had very different stories; very real and really difficult circumstances. But even as they were told, the story-teller never once “tasted” bitter over the past events. The stories were told with a calm confidence in the Lord’s providential oversight and goodness that seemed to lift the weight of the suffering but none pretended it was easy.
My wife and I concluded that our circumstances of suffering were bewildering and stretching at the time. We admitted doubt and wonder about “surviving through the struggles.” But today, as we look back, knowing that the Lord brought us through, the memories are touched with the sweet drops of the Spirit and we have to ask, “was that really suffering when compared to Jesus’ suffering? Didn’t he suffer far more for me than I did then?” The question is designed to be answered only one way: “Yes!” Like the song says,
Through many dangers, toils and snares we have already come.
T’was Grace that brought us safe thus far and Grace will lead us home.
The Lord has promised good to me, His word my hope secures.
He will my shield and portion be as long as life endures.
In the words of Juliet contemplating her new heart throb Romeo, said, “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Juliet had a mad crush on Romeo who belonged to a long-time rival family in their fair city of Verona. Romeo was smitten too, of course, and listened in on Juliet’s soliloquy from below the balcony. As soon as he heard Juliet’s idea for a name change, he was ready to do anything to win his heart’s desire. Experience shows that changing names or meanings of words may work for a while but like a rubber band, they snap back to their etymological roots.
Such is the case with “Lent.” Growing up as a practicing Roman Catholic, I observed Lent. We were prepared by the nuns of our school to “give up something” for Lent. I can’t say that I remember why, except that the race to hold out to the end began on Ash Wednesday. On that day we were taken to the church and the Monsignor put ashes on our foreheads. For the next forty days we struggled to get by on fewer candy bars, and sweets, and fish sticks on Fridays.
The term Lent derives from an Anglo-Saxon word lencten meaning “spring” and lenctentid which means “springtide” and stands for the March (the month) and also from a Latin word meaning fortieth. Since becoming a follower of Christ, I have discovered that not everything I learned at St. Mary’s Catholic School was wrong; just some things; and one very important thing. That thing is what Lent is all about in the Roman Catholic Church.
Lent belongs to the liturgical calendar of the Roman Catholic Church. Church authorities claim that the practice of Lent has tradition and apostolic origins. They teach that the apostles of Jesus prescribed it and this rule can be seen from the writings of the early church fathers (AD 200-400).
The biblical grounds come from two Bible stories: Moses’ meeting with God on Mt. Sinai and Jesus’ resistance of Satan’s temptations while in the wilderness (Matt 4; Luke 4). One Catholic writer cited these stories as biblical justification saying:
Of course, the number “40” has always had special spiritual significance regarding preparation. On Mount Sinai, preparing to receive the Ten Commandments, “Moses stayed there with the Lord for 40 days and 40 nights, without eating any food or drinking any water” (Ex 34:28). Elijah walked “40 days and 40 nights” to the mountain of the Lord, Mount Horeb (another name for Sinai) (I Kgs 19:8). Most importantly, Jesus fasted and prayed for “40 days and 40 nights” in the desert before He began His public ministry (Mt 4:2).
So, I was very surprised to see a blog directing evangelical Christians to a devotional written by two evangelical pastors for spiritual practices during the forty days of Lent. I was even more surprised to see the idea spoken well of by an evangelical who writes for an evangelical organization. I have not read the entire devotional and found nothing in what I did read that gave me cautions. However, my concern is that evangelicals want to borrow from another tradition that they don’t really know. So, let me mention a few cautions for evangelicals who might think these are good ideas.
1. Recognize that there is in each heart a “bent” toward self-meritorious works. Something inside every one of us wants to take some credit—even the least little bit – for earning favor with God. But the gospel is all of grace. The “thing” I mentioned above that distinguishes Lent as Lent is called “penance.” “Doing” penance is the vernacular among Roman Catholics for “a supernatural moral virtue whereby the sinner is disposed to hatred of his sin as an offence against God and to a firm purpose of amendment and satisfaction.” It is this last little phrase that separates “penance” from “repentance.” Repentance is turning away from one’s love for sin and to Christ believing his work on the cross as the only sufficient sacrifice for one’s sin. Penance is different. Penance includes doing something – even the least little thing that I can do to make reparations to God – something that satisfies God’s justice. Lenten penance is the pathway of reparations. Penance may include saying the Rosary or the Stations of the Cross or some act of charity as Pope Benedict’s Lenten encyclical advises thus earning merit with God. Some verses that use the word “repentance” have the word “penance” instead, in the official Catholic Bible and liturgy. While the Catholic Church teaches repentance, it puts great weight on the notion that we can do something morally virtuous to answer the charges of sin against us. This is a different gospel (Gal 1:6); not the gospel of Jesus or Paul or the Bible – anywhere. In fact, the notion of gaining favor with God through personal merit undermines grace entirely and promotes pride.
2. Penance is a gospel-killer for gospel-trusting evangelicals. Lent is not about Jesus, as the bloggers want us to think; it’s about “climbing up to God.” The doctrine of doing penance to “make reparation to Divine justice,” is the very thing Paul warned against in Romans 10. Penance is not of faith. Paul said, “But the righteousness based on faith says, “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’ (that is, to bring Christ down) or ‘Who will descend into the abyss?'” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). But what does it say? ‘The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart’ (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.” (Rom 10:6-10; cf., Deut 30:14)
Paul says that we can’t do anything to gain a right standing with God. We cannot climb up to meet with God; he must condescend to us, which he has done in his Son. Yet in Pope Benedict’s 2013 encyclical Catholics are encouraged in Lenten practices because, “The Christian life consists in continuously scaling the mountain to meet God and then coming back down, bearing the love and strength drawn from him, so as to serve our brothers and sisters with God’s own love.”
3. A reading into the text. The Roman Catholic Church’s biblical foundation for the practice of Lent is bad exegesis and worse pastoral application. Two things matter here and they are important. First, nowhere in the New Testament do we see the apostles teaching a tradition of Lent. Nowhere do they teach that we are to imitate Moses’ forty days on Mt. Sinai with God or Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness. These were one-time occurrences in salvation history. Surely, we learn from Jesus about spiritual warfare, but no one can reduplicate his redemptive purposes in the defeat of Satan in the wilderness or at the cross. Second, and by way of implication, the Lenten practice is based on very poor exegesis (reading out of Scripture) and qualifies as eisegesis (reading into Scripture). We must read the Bible according to its own rules.
4. The same gospel that saves sanctifies. I have been concerned about the rise of Roman Catholic practices of spirituality among evangelicals. One seminary that I know of uses exclusively Roman Catholic writers in their course on spiritual formation. Consider this: it he Roman Catholic Church gospel errs on the matter of grace and works for salvation, they err on spiritual formation, too. The gospel is all of grace. It is God alone who justifies the ungodly who deserve punishment not mercy. But, praise to his Name, he gives mercy to the undeserving! “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Eph 2:8, 9). I am not suggesting that evangelicals never read the works of Roman Catholics, but only that they be read with gospel-logical discernment. Thankfully, evangelicals in history are also getting a renewed focus, and they should be read. Read the Puritans, the 17th, 18th and 19th century evangelicals; study their lives (Heb 13:7) and learn how to grow in grace through the gospel rather than through self-reparations.
5. Celebrate your Christian freedom in Christ. This last comment was my son-in-law’s idea when we were discussing this matter. Surely the high point of our salvation is the death and resurrection of Christ. Paul says that if Christ isn’t raised from the dead, our faith is empty of any saving power or grace. Perhaps we should view the Easter season with joy and feasting rather than sorrowful introspection. Christ’s cross is our greatest freedom! Christ went to the cross willingly motivated by the joy set before him (Heb 12:2). Perhaps we should consider flipping the tone of the seasons of Easter and Christmas. Let Eastertime become the time of celebrating our freedom in Christ: “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Gal 5:1). So, feast! Feast on Christ and celebrate with good food and spiritual company! If you want a time of introspection about sin and repentance (not penance) (which should be a daily discipline anyway) perhaps Christmastime could serve that purpose. After all, Christ’s incarnation was in order to “save his people from their sin” (Matt 1:21). His coming reminds us of our need. But don’t allow yourself ever to fall into despair – look to have your joy of salvation renewed in Christ.
Matt Smethurst, “Lent is about Jesus: A Free Devotional Guide” [on-line]; accessed 16 February 2013; available from http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/tgc/2013/02/11/lent-is-about-jesus-a-free-devotional-guide and Fr. William Saunders, “History of Lent” [on-line]; accessed 17 February 2013; available from http://www.catholiceducation.org/articles/religion/re0527.html; Internet.
Benedict XVI, “Message of His Holiness Benedict XVI for Lent 2013” [on-line]; accessed 18 February 2013; available from http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/benedict_xvi/messages/lent/documents/hf_ben-xvi_mes_20121015_lent-2013_en.html; Internet.
I love preaching — hearing it and doing it. Opening God’s Word to his people is a blessing in every church where that ministry is faithfully executed. I can’t imagine doing any other thing. But there is one thing that would make all preaching so much more fruitful for the hearers — Prayer! Ed Welch, whose blogs are becoming a favorite wrote this:
“Biblical counseling, including my own counseling, can be guilty of this. My own life can be guilty of this. It can look good on the surface: I really am trying to think biblically about the daily struggles of life. But, in fact, my system is less than biblical; I live as though God’s job is to give me a relevant principle and then off I go to figure things out. I need less analyzing and more praying! Perhaps an app that gives me a mild shock every half hour would useful. It would remind me to talk through my thoughts, fears and questions with the Lord. In other words: it would remind me to pray.”
I loved reading the “messy” prayers Welch recorded. They sound like genuine pleas for help from the throne of grace (Heb 4:16).
Read the whole article here: http://www.ccef.org/blog/spiritual-analysis-new-prayer-substitute