I am currently delving into a deeper understanding of the true meaning of the cross of Christ, how it relates to salvation and how it reveals God's heart.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Come to the Cross


I am launching into a new project that I have felt drawn to do for years. The true meaning, purpose and implications about God meant to be revealed in the cross of Jesus have become so darkened and distorted with lies, insinuations and traditions of men for over 1700 years that they have blocked any clear view of the intense glory of God's true character of love that the cross was intended to unveil.

I spent most of my life in confusion about the cross. As I got older it became increasingly clear that the explanations offered me by religion, culture and every other source had little consistency except to infer or outright make God out to be very different than the loving Father Jesus saw Him to be. I could never reconcile the idea of love as Jesus defined it with the assertions of religion about God, particularly in His supposed involvement in the violent death of Jesus.

Not until recent years as God has pushed me to question, challenge and examine more closely every assumption, teaching and doctrine I had ever acquired concerning the true nature of God's character has the subject of the cross finally begun to make any sense in relation to salvation. But once my perceptions of God began to be radically changed from the dark views I learned as a child, my own heart is starting to increasingly warm in response to the faint glimpses of real love that can be found in the story of the cross of Christ.

For at least the next few months and possibly much longer (if the past is any indicator), I plan to immerse myself in an intense, focused examination challenging all the disturbing questions swirling around this event in an honest search for the real truth that has so long been subverted by established religion. I have little interest in reviewing all the conflicting theories of atonement or explanations of the cross that implicate God as an accomplice in killing Jesus in order to satisfy some dark side of His character. I say this primarily because I take seriously the words of John that the core of the message of God is that He is light and in Him is nothing dark whatsoever (1 John 1:5).

I invite you to join me in seeking to discover the real truth about God in this defining event that He says will reveal His heart of love more than anything in the history of the universe. The most famous verse in the Bible says that God in love gave His Son to save this world. But what does that actually mean and how does it work out in the events surrounding the pivotal turning point of all history?

This morning as I began reviewing the stories of this event I stumbled across something compelling, at least for me. I discovered that the word used in the Greek describing the betrayal of Judas is the very same word I previously discovered is used to define God's wrath in Romans – paradidomi. This word literally means to hand over, to release, to let go. It has nothing to do with punishment or inflicting intentional harm on others as has often been taught. This incredible insight about the truth of God's version of wrath has been very liberating for me. (see Romans 1:18:24,26,28; 4:25; 8:32)

Recently I discovered that part of this word – didiomi – lies at the core of John 3:16 where we are told that God gave His Son to this world. That makes interesting connections since I am now seeing that both the biblical definition of God's wrath and the betrayal of Judas both involve the same word. We can either attempt to rationalize this away or we could start to see that the insistence of religion that has so long implicated God in the death of Jesus in some sort of appeasement or pay-off is a sinister lie.

Either God is hardly different than Judas in character in His relation to and treatment of Jesus at the cross, or something else is going on here we have not taken seriously. It is dangerous to insist on trying to see it both ways. Jesus insisted that God is no different than Himself (John 14:9-11). But if God is a betrayer like Judas then He must be considered just as guilty of betrayal of Jesus as Judas. That is a rather strong charge, a slander that I am not willing to accept.

On the other hand, if God really is like Jesus as Jesus insisted and is not a betrayer like Judas, betraying friends from selfish motives, then we should seriously challenge all long-held assumptions about Him that have infiltrated so much of Christian theology over the centuries.

Hopefully one thing should be unquestionably explicit – we must never come to think there is no difference between the character of Jesus and that of Judas. Otherwise we have no real Savior, our Father is untrustworthy and all the promises and claims of love on God's part are nothing but a sham. Yet this is the ultimate outgrowth of most of the popular teachings about the cross in circulation today.

Those who insist on clinging to mixtures of light and dark ideas about God's character and how He feels about and treats sinners are misleading many who become deceived by such convoluted logic and persuasive arguments. To make matters worse, they often cover or ignore the confusion of their logic by claiming that salvation is so very complex and full of mystery that it allows for conflicting assertions and we should not question them. Such teaching creates a smokescreen behind which to hide conflicting assertions about God that only ends in confusion, uncertainty and despair for those in desperate need of deliverance from sin (that would be all of us).

Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil; who substitute darkness for light and light for darkness; who substitute bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter! Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes and clever in their own sight! (Isaiah 5:20-21)

I tire of the endless debates, the obfuscation of clear salvation taught by Jesus and I long to escape the power of sin. I reject the muddying of the beautiful waters of life that Jesus came to offer. I am thirsty for deep drinks from His life-giving fountain, a spring gushing with fresh, clean, pure water of life filled with the real truth about a Father who is pure love, who is only light and in whom there is no darkness at all (1 John 1:5).

Join me in allowing the drawing beauty of the real truth about this love that was exposed at the cross and that is intended to attract and heal every sinner that becomes exposed to the truth as it is in Jesus.

The Spirit and the bride say, "Come." And let the one who hears say, "Come." And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who wishes take the water of life without cost. (Revelation 22:17)

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Rejoicing


Her neighbors and her relatives heard that the Lord had displayed His great mercy toward her; and they were rejoicing with her. (Luke 1:58)
Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had been very kind to her, and they shared her joy. (GW)
And her neighbors and her relatives heard that the Lord had magnified his generosity toward her; and they rejoiced with her. (CGV)
And her neighbors and relatives heard how the Lord had had great compassion on her; and they rejoiced with her. (WNT)
Her neighbors and relatives got to hear how the Lord had been so mercifully kind to her, and they celebrated with her. (WIKI)


There are clues that I notice in this text that are drawing me to want to experience more of this kind of thing in my own life. No, I don't mean I want to have a baby and get lots of attention. What is coming to my attention here is something that is increasingly foreign to our Western way of living and relating to each other – a kind of celebrating in the lives of those around us that is counter to the independent mentality of our culture that is squeezing the life out of our souls.


I am a product to a large extent of this culture. All my life I have struggled to relate to others easily. Even as a teenager, the time when many people integrate widely into a network of friends and find it easy to bond with others, I felt mostly alone, different, outside, independent. Much of that had to do with my austere religious mentality that tended to keep me at a distance from others. Yet even that had to do with the assumptions I had about what it means to be a Christian. The idea of living collectively, sharing emotions and experiences readily with others has always felt strange to me. On top of that the concept of celebrating was generally viewed with suspicion to start with.


But beyond my own idiosyncrasies, I have observed that Western culture in general fosters and encourages a fierce spirit of competition and independence that I believe disempowers us from experiencing life together in ways that are more natural in many Eastern cultures. I am sure those cultures have their drawbacks as well, but as I study the Kingdom principles that I am discovering in Scriptures, I can't help but see deficiencies in our typical approach to life in contrast to the kind of intimate fellowship that marked the lives of so many who closely followed God.


I am sure that this text is largely reflective of the culture of that time and society. Neither is this necessarily completely absent in our own society. Many people love to celebrate with others and some are willing to be involved in sympathizing with problems of others. But there is still a widespread and increasing tendency today to pull away more and more from sharing our hearts with others in a vulnerable way, to share our lives, our homes and to open ourselves up to be transparent and allow others in to our personal lives.


Yet I am fully convinced that all those who become serious about following Jesus and allowing Him access to their hearts will find themselves compelled to be more involved in each others experience. It seems to be an inevitable symptom of being an genuine follower of Christ. What is described about the early group of believers after Pentecost was no accident. The intense bonding and unity and joy that marked the lives of those early disciples will again be seen in the lives of all who today become filled with that same Spirit that compelled them to passionately share the good news about God with a hurting, deceived, isolated world.


Another thing that caught my attention in this passage was the reference to God's character and attitude towards us. I liked the way that various translations rendered this. Mercy, kindness, generosity, compassion. These are attributes of God that I have been learning to meditate and focus on over recent years with amazing results. I find that to compel myself to intentionally focus on the real truth about God's character, especially when my own emotions and fears and feelings are hiding His goodness from me, I can begin to dissipate the suffocating effects of such negative feelings and can literally feel the life of God rejuvenating my own spirit in short order. By beholding I really am changed.


Putting these two observations together it is starting to become obvious that it is necessary to not only focus on the truth about God's goodness individually but to allow ourselves to collectively celebrate His goodness and generosity in the lives of others around us. But that is the part that I find a bit strange given my life-long tendency toward isolation and solitude. I do believe there are advantages to not allowing group-think to control my decisions and beliefs. But at the same time there can also be a danger in living so isolated that I become incapable of knowing the kind of joy that is seen being experienced during this celebration that swirled around Elizabeth.


I found the variety of translations of this verse helpful to me even in this regard. They celebrated with her; they rejoiced with her; they shared her joy. Given the improved definition of joy that I have learned in recent years, that joy is what we experience when someone is keen to simply be with us in our emotions and experience, I have become more aware of my own deep need for far more joy in my own life and the enhanced strength that it would bring me.


But to experience joy one has to be willing to make themselves more open to allowing others to share in their life. It is not enough for someone else to want to be with you and enter into what is going on in your life, as important or rare as that may be. It takes two or more to share joy which is the part that I seem so far to be rather handicapped in being able to practice. When I observe people around me or in stories like this who have far greater capacity and willingness to readily share joy with each other, it highlights my own deficiency in this area. Thankfully God is working to remediate me.


In this text it says that it was her neighbors and relatives who were sharing in her joy. I find that a bit convicting in the light of the fact that I know almost nothing about any of my neighbors and most of my relatives are not only distant physically but we have never known how to be emotionally close like what I see in this verse. So many of us, especially in our current culture, have been taught to emphasize the training of our intellect, to learn as much as possible and memorize all the answers to any potential questions that might come along. We have learned all sorts of skills and have supplemented our knowledge base repeatedly for many years. Yet when it comes to easily joining in genuinely with the emotions of those around us we often find ourselves feeling clumsy and awkward and resistant. And that seems especially true in my own life.


Of course I could attempt to remedy this by trying to learn skills to try to practice activities that make it appear I know how to experience joy with others. I could study carefully all the techniques of what it looks like to join into a good party. I could try to mimic the activities of others who appear to be having a rollicking good time and I suspect that millions of people are doing exactly that every day. However, it also is evident that such attempts usually end in frustration, feelings of despair and sometimes even in disaster. I believe our world is scarred by the many attempts to fill the yawning chasm of emptiness that most of us feel inside that can only be filled by experiencing true joy. But instead we are only medicated by any number of desperate attempts to mask our real need with shots of pleasure. There is a vast difference between getting temporary pleasure and finding real satisfaction at a much deeper level.


I have noticed that Jesus talked about joy in rather interesting ways that I find quite compelling. He spoke of entering into the joy of the Lord. He talked about fulness of joy and other such references that tells me He knows we are missing something vitally important to us. For much of my life even the word 'joy' seemed like little more than a taunt to me. Biblical instructions to rejoice were just religious clich├ęs that had no meaning for me personally. Yet all the time my heart longed for this experience of true joy and connectedness to other hearts and it still haunts me. I have certainly learned a great deal of wonderful information about joy and have filled my mind with all sorts of truths about God that make me increasingly hungry to know Him much better. But I am still far behind when it comes to actually living in joy and benefiting from the enormous power that I am seeing will only come from experiencing genuine joy as we were intended to have.


Even the happy description of this celebration in the life of Zacharias and Elizabeth when their son was born falls far short of God's desire for each one of us. I suspect that as intense as that celebration must have been and as unusual the circumstances were that precipitated that party, what those people experienced was just a teaser compared to what God intends for all of us to experience in fellowship with Him and the body He is knitting together. I believe that sin has damaged all of us and causes us to keep our distance from each other to a greater or lesser degree. But keeping others at a distance is not something Jesus practiced when He came to show us the real truth about God. And all those who are serious about following in His example will sooner or later must deal with this same issue in the way they relate to others, especially those who are being integrated deeply into His body.


It is one thing to talk about joy, to dissect and analyze and become intellectual experts on it or even to attempt to imitate those who appear to know how to live it readily with others. But somehow God has to get so integrated into our lives that our own emotions can be released to again function as originally designed and we start to be freed from all the fears, inhibitions and lies that have for so long locked us in reclusive isolation in our own homes or chasing after counterfeit ways of finding happiness.


I look with great anticipation to the day when I can more fully experience what I am learning that my heart was designed to experience. I want to be released to express the unique design that God created in me and to share and celebrate the uniqueness of others. The more I learn and discover about this kind of joy the more I want to know it for myself.


A thought thta keeps coming to my attention is that I have yet so much to learn from little children. They seem to be about the only experts in this world when it comes to knowing how to be genuinely joyful – joy-filled without inhibitions, at least before they are carefully taught how to be afraid or be prejudiced or suspicious. No wonder Jesus told us that until we are willing to become like a little child that it is impossible to enter into His kingdom.


Jesus promised that He would never leave us or forsake us, that He would be with us always. That sounds like a promise of potential joy to me. Yet the thought just crossed my mind that because of some of the things I was taught growing up tend to contradict that, I may well have been caused to increasingly doubt His positive presence in my life. For instance, I was told as a young person that if I were to enter a theater that my guardian angel would remain outside until I emerged again. Other such warnings that God would leave me subconsciously led me to assume that God only wanted to be with those who were obedient, that I needed to be good enough for His approval. Yet over the years I increasingly never felt good enough for God and thus subconsciously assumed that He does not want to be with me until I get my act together better.


In the increasing light of the real truth about how God relates to sinners, I am now learning that many of my early assumptions were not only false but were designed by Satan to frighten or discourage me from being drawn toward God. We live in a world immersed in myriads of lies about God, most of which go undetected and unchallenged. But God is at work increasingly to expose these lies with the real truth about His own trustworthiness, His constant love and presence. Joy is never far away but is waiting for anyone willing to simply believe Him. Sounds like something Jesus might have said.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Finding God's Favor


And coming in, [Gabriel] said to [Mary], "Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you." But she was very perplexed at this statement, and kept pondering what kind of salutation this was. The angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary; for you have found favor with God." (Luke 1:28-30)

There is something here I don't want to miss. Something very deep inside of me intensely resonates with desire to personally find whatever this means – the favor of God.

For most of my life I have struggled to please God, to find His favor, often to appease Him. In my early years it was mostly about appeasement because so many fears and misapprehensions about Him darkened my mind and heart. Oh, I wasn't some heathen far away from 'the truth' with no knowledge about God. Far from it, I was raised in much 'truth' and I was loaded with advanced information about all sorts of biblical knowledge distilled from many years of research by the pioneers of our faith.

But when it came to knowing God personally and perceiving His goodness, His compassion, His tenderness, His kindness (which by the way is meant to lead me to repentance according to Paul) I had very little of that kind of knowledge. About all I knew was that if I didn't ferret out every last sin in my life and convince Him to forgive me, that God would in the end 'discover' that one little fault or unconfessed sin and use it against me in His day of judgment.

I now shudder at how close to the character of the great accuser became the view of God in my own heart back then. And I still shudder at how much residual from those monstrous ideas still linger in my heart yet today even though I have been blessed with so much fresh truth about Him that totally counters all of those lies. But God is still faithful as He always will be and is continuing the work He has begun in me and will not relent until He has purged all these lies about Him out of my system and restores me to the full joy of His salvation. Praise His name!

So I come back to pondering this thing about the favor of God found in the words of Gabriel. Just a few verses before this Elizabeth exclaimed in wonder over the way God suddenly treated her with extreme favor. Other passages also come to mind such as when the angels appear before the shepherds to announce the birth of Jesus and sing to them that that day of the Lord's favor has arrived.

But I too am troubled by what sort of salutation this is myself. What is wrapped up in this word 'favor' anyway? I suspect it is a shortened version of the word 'favorite,' but that creates it own complications. In my normal way of thinking (which is unfortunately distorted too many times), to be someone's favorite strongly implies that they value me at the expense of other people. But somehow this doesn't fit into what I am now learning about God. In fact, this notion directly contradicts other places that explicitly declare that God doesn't play the favorites game. So what is Gabriel talking about here?

There are other stories in the Bible that speak of people finding favor in the eyes of God. (Just now I did a simple word search to find where people found God's favor and uncovered a rich treasure of resources and insights that could keep me feeding for a long time. I am now beginning to see many more connections between passages that help to explain each other as the Bible always tends to do. I will include the references I just found at the end of this piece.)

One thing that I find compelling about favor is that Moses seems to be the one most obsessed over living in the favor of God. Even when he gets upset because his own compassion for the ungrateful, sorry bunch of rebels he is caring for is wearing him out, he insists God is not giving Moses favor. It is almost like favor is the pivotal element of their relationship around which everything else revolved. When Moses doesn't feel God's favor on him he refuses to move another inch.

It would be easy to miss what I sense is an important insight about God's favor by simply assuming that the people listed in the Bible really were somehow more valuable in God's sight than the rest of us. It is easy to assume that in spite of declarations to the contrary, God might just play a favorites game after all. The devil is quick to reinforce that notion to tear us away from trusting God by insinuating that we are not one of His favorites. But this is yet another lie of the enemy that I need to face head-on and expose it for the fraud that it really is.

But still my heart longs to know the favor of God even more than my head wants to figure out the right answer. What is this thing called favor and how can I begin to experience it for real personally?

Then Peter began to speak: "I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism."
(Acts 10:34 NIV)

If God is not the one choosing who is going to be His favorites, yet it appears that certain people are observed as having God's favor, then about the only thing left must be that finding God's favor is determined by our own choice. This fits perfectly with everything else I have been learning about God's character over the past few years. He is not arbitrary or partial but rather is passionate to have a genuine and intimate relationship with any who are ready and willing to engage His heart.

Another text that comes to my attention in regard to this is found in the faith chapter. And that makes perfect sense since trust (the real definition of faith) is vital to having any sort of healthy relationship with anyone. If I want to not only understand but to enter into an experience of knowing God's favor myself, I have to discover how to get there from here by learning how to find His favor.

And without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him. (Hebrews 11:6)

I really like the way another version puts this even more clearly.

You see, it's impossible to please Him well without faith. Because, whoever wants to come to God must believe that He exists and that He rewards those who are eagerly searching for Him. (2001)

This verse has stimulated my heart for years as an important key to understand for having a real relationship with God. It states two simple but inescapable principles that must be realized if one is ever to enter into a kind of saving faith relationship similar to those listed in the rest of this chapter.
I must be willing to believe that God even exists to start with or everything else is hypocrisy. When one thinks about that logically it makes sense of course. But how because my head has been taught that God is real I assume my heart believes it too. Yet what I have been sensing more and more is that what is going on at the heart level can be very different from what I believe with my intellectual capacities. Yet it is my heart's beliefs that have far more influence over my eternal destiny than the assumed beliefs acquired by my head through typical education.

It is this heart-level kind of faith or trust that I find so much more difficult to manage and even impossible to control. I cannot force my heart, or anyone else's for that matter, to believe anything. I can certainly do and say things that have great influence over what my heart feels and believes, but the opinions of the heart can only be controlled through indirect influence. But then that is the nature of love isn't it? If we could control love by our intellect it would lose most of its charm and attraction.

The problem arises when we realize how difficult it is to believe in an invisible being that says He wants an intimate relationship with us. We usually have little problem feeling attracted toward having intimacy with another human being that we can see and maybe even touch. The closer we come to another attractive person the more intense the attraction can become. But how can we better sense the drawing power of an invisible God who insists that His love is exponentially more intense for us than any earthly lover we might ever encounter?

It appears that we somehow have to perceive Him with some kind of senses enough to convince our heart that He is real and that He longs to connect with our heart. And while this may not come easy for many of us, it seems to be vital in the process of salvation, being restored to the kind of relationship with God that Adam and Eve originally enjoyed without any inhibitions. But I am reminded that part of this process of restoration requires that I cooperate with His drawing influences on my heart. And that means I must be willing to expose myself and respond to His romancing gestures towards me while increasingly tuning out everything else that dulls my capabilities to appreciate His love for me.

The second part of this verse from Hebrews is just as important as the first. Not only must I begin by choosing to believe that God actually exists, but at least just as importantly I must somehow change my heart's opinions about what kind of God He is like. That requires a transformation away from the influence of the many lies about Him that have so saturated this planet for six thousand years. I must become willing to embrace the truth in this verse that, to anyone who choses to pursue a real relationship with Him He will respond and will reward them richly for their efforts.

Even while I am writing these words, my own heart is right now contemplating the powerful implications of these revelations. I feel my heart yearning to experience this kind of faith, this far deeper level of intimate trust with Someone who actually cares about me deeply, who unconditionally loves me and is fiercely loyal to our relationship no matter what happens or what anyone else may say or think about me or even how badly I may mess it up myself.

I desperately need this kind of transforming intimacy and trusting relationship with a heart who not only cares about me but also has the resources, power and passion to actually change me with this kind of love. Yet I find that the closer I get to love the more afraid I become many times. But no surprise there, for nearly every time God showed up or His messengers came to relay love messages from Him to His children, they almost always had to be instructed not to be afraid.

Sin has hard-wired us to be afraid of real love, even while desperately longing for it. We have been conditioned to be afraid of God by the myriads of lies circulation about Him. But I like that this verse gives such a short list of things I need to work on to open the door to learning to live in love. I just need to be willing to believe that God is real no matter what protests, objections or excuses may arise from any direction, and I must increasingly believe the real truth about Him, that He is consistently good and kind and gracious and compassionate and is not at all like His enemies (and too many of His friends, sad to say) have made Him out to be. That is how I can come to believe that He rewards those who are serious about wanting an intimate relationship with Him.

What is starting to emerge in recent years from exploration of the larger picture of what is really going on, is that all of Satan's accusations against God are designed to do one thing – get others to stop trusting God's heart. All the other problems and sin and dysfunction Satan has caused all flow from this one issue. When we do not trust that God is totally love, then believing that He is less than pure love sets us up as vulnerable to any number of other lies that only increase sin. So it just makes sense that to be restored to a relationship where we can please God and can love Him again, we have to start by believing the truth about Him so that trust can be awakened in our own hearts. For without trust it is impossible to have any kind of meaningful or rewarding relationship with anyone.

If I desire to pursue a love relationship with Him, this verse implies He will reward every effort I make in His direction. In fact, I have been told that even the desires I feel inside to even want to move in His direction all come from the promptings of His Spirit working within me to motivate me in His direction while on the other side He is eagerly moving as close to me as I will allow Him to come.

So again, what does it mean to find God's favor? I am starting to see this is not a decision or relationship that God determines but rather happens when I give Him permission to lavish His favor on me by my choosing to enter into this relationship that He longs to have with me.

Moses was not a favorite of God just because God arbitrarily decided to pick him and make him more important than everyone else. And while God's foreknowledge of who will respond to Him allows Him to predict such relationships ahead of when they even occur, in truth any one of us can enter into the same level of intimacy with God as did Moses if we would only be willing to allow God as much access to our own hearts as did Moses.

The clearest illustration of the kind of intimacy that God's wants each of us to experience with Him is the example of Jesus, the Son of God. We often think of Jesus as in a class of His own because we assume it was easier for Him because He was already God. But that thinking actually prevents us from learning the very lesson He came to show us. Jesus did not come to live as God on earth and parade around to live a perfect life to show us how sinful we are by contrast. No, Jesus came laying aside every advantage He had as God to become a vulnerable human being just like us while showing us how to live in total dependence on His Father's passionate love and care for Him every moment of His life. By living in total dependence on a divine power outside of Himself rather than depending on His own power even for a moment, He demonstrated that any of the children of Adam could also live in a saving relationship with the Father who could also keep them from sinning.

Jesus lived out Hebrews 11:6 and demonstrated to the universe what can happen if a weak human being lives believing that God exists and that He rewards all who eagerly seek Him. Jesus passionately pursued God's heart each morning and at many other times in order to stay vitally connected to the only Source of all life. In doing so He showed how we too can live free, living and thriving as we increasingly experience the transforming power of God's goodness changing us back into perfect reflections of His glory. This is what I believe it means to find God's favor.

I believe the reason Gabriel told Mary that she was highly favored was because she was a person who had been passionately pursuing an intimate knowledge of God for herself. In reality, Gabriel's message to her was not all that different than what he had said to Zacharias, in that her prayers for a deeper intimacy with God had been heard and were answered. God was looking for a young lady with this kind of attitude to be the mother for His own Son, and Mary was the woman who was so hungry for God's heart that He could trust her to be a mother who would humbly cooperate with His Spirit.

The good news is that God's favor is available for anyone who will choose to believe that He favors them. Maybe that is why the Bible speaks of people who 'find' His favor. It is not about somehow being selected arbitrarily to be a winner of some 'heavenly favor lottery' and becoming His chosen. Rather it is coming to discover that God is so much more loving and passionate than we ever dared to imagine before as He draws us to His heart. As we give Him our hearts He makes us His 'favorites.' And in so doing we discover not only His favor but we begin to enjoy all the riches of His glory.

Father, train my heart to favor You above every other attraction. I want to discover Your favor, not to think I have to somehow earn it, but to simply embrace the reality that You already have favor for me.
Noah – The LORD said, "I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land, from man to animals to creeping things and to birds of the sky; for I am sorry that I have made them." But Noah found favor in the eyes of the LORD. (Genesis 6:7-8)

Abraham – When [Abraham] lifted up his eyes and looked, behold, three men were standing opposite him; and when he saw them, he ran from the tent door to meet them and bowed himself to the earth, and said, "My lord, if now I have found favor in your sight, please do not pass your servant by." (Genesis 18:2-3)

Lot – When they had brought them outside, one said, "Escape for your life! Do not look behind you, and do not stay anywhere in the valley; escape to the mountains, or you will be swept away." But Lot said to them, "Oh no, my lords! Now behold, your servant has found favor in your sight, and you have magnified your lovingkindness, which you have shown me by saving my life; but I cannot escape to the mountains, for the disaster will overtake me and I will die;" (Genesis 19:17-19)

Moses – Then Moses said to the LORD, "See, You say to me, 'Bring up this people!' But You Yourself have not let me know whom You will send with me. Moreover, You have said, 'I have known you by name, and you have also found favor in My sight.' "Now therefore, I pray You, if I have found favor in Your sight, let me know Your ways that I may know You, so that I may find favor in Your sight. Consider too, that this nation is Your people." And He said, "My presence shall go with you, and I will give you rest." Then he said to Him, "If Your presence does not go with us, do not lead us up from here. For how then can it be known that I have found favor in Your sight, I and Your people? Is it not by Your going with us, so that we, I and Your people, may be distinguished from all the other people who are upon the face of the earth?" The LORD said to Moses, "I will also do this thing of which you have spoken; for you have found favor in My sight and I have known you by name." Then Moses said, "I pray You, show me Your glory!" (Exodus 33:12-18)
Moses made haste to bow low toward the earth and worship. He said, "If now I have found favor in Your sight, O Lord, I pray, let the Lord go along in our midst, even though the people are so obstinate, and pardon our iniquity and our sin, and take us as Your own possession." Then God said, "Behold, I am going to make a covenant. Before all your people I will perform miracles which have not been produced in all the earth nor among any of the nations; and all the people among whom you live will see the working of the LORD, for it is a fearful thing that I am going to perform with you. Be sure to observe what I am commanding you this day...." (Exodus 34:8-11)

When the dew fell on the camp at night, the manna would fall with it. Now Moses heard the people weeping throughout their families, each man at the doorway of his tent; and the anger of the LORD was kindled greatly, and Moses was displeased. So Moses said to the LORD, "Why have You been so hard on Your servant? And why have I not found favor in Your sight, that You have laid the burden of all this people on me? Was it I who conceived all this people? Was it I who brought them forth, that You should say to me, 'Carry them in your bosom as a nurse carries a nursing infant, to the land which You swore to their fathers'? Where am I to get meat to give to all this people? For they weep before me, saying, 'Give us meat that we may eat!' I alone am not able to carry all this people, because it is too burdensome for me. So if You are going to deal thus with me, please kill me at once, if I have found favor in Your sight, and do not let me see my wretchedness." (Numbers 11:9-15)

Gideon – The angel of the LORD appeared to him and said to him, "The LORD is with you, O valiant warrior." Then Gideon said to him, "O my lord, if the LORD is with us, why then has all this happened to us? And where are all His miracles which our fathers told us about, saying, 'Did not the LORD bring us up from Egypt?' But now the LORD has abandoned us and given us into the hand of Midian." The LORD looked at him and said, "Go in this your strength and deliver Israel from the hand of Midian. Have I not sent you?" He said to Him, "O Lord, how shall I deliver Israel? Behold, my family is the least in Manasseh, and I am the youngest in my father's house." But the LORD said to him, "Surely I will be with you, and you shall defeat Midian as one man." So Gideon said to Him, "If now I have found favor in Your sight, then show me a sign that it is You who speak with me." (Judges 6:12-17)

David – David found favor in God's sight, and asked that he might find a dwelling place for the God of Jacob. (Acts 7:46)

For this reason also, since the day we heard of it, we have not ceased to pray for you and to ask that you may be filled with the knowledge of His will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so that you will walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, to please Him in all respects, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God; (Colossians 1:9-10)

And without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him. (Hebrews 11:6)

For the LORD your God is the God of gods and the Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God who does not show partiality nor take a bribe. (Deuteronomy 10:17)

For there is no partiality with God. (Romans 2:11)

And masters, do the same things to them, and give up threatening, knowing that both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no partiality with Him. (Ephesians 6:9)

Friday, July 5, 2013

The Three Step Program


Every day as I come back to this passage I have been soaking in for weeks now, I keep discovering fresh insights in stories I thought long ago were very familiar and mundane. That's the way it is now with almost everything I read in the Word and it has made it extremely difficult to have any time left over for reading other books.

I decided to begin marinating in the book of Luke for the foreseeable future, but after several weeks I still have not gotten past even half of the first chapter. But I don't mind that for I now enjoy gaining a deeper appreciation of these passages over covering a lot of territory like I used to read. Now it matters not how long it takes me to finish anything in the Bible. I would much rather sink my attention much deeper into the Word and have it bring more convictions and blessings to my soul rather than being able to say that I have read the whole Bible through in a certain amount of time. And while I don't discount the importance of reading the Bible as a whole, I feel I may have done that for enough years that I now find the Spirit is eager to begin making connections between its different parts that amplify each other rather than just rehearsing over and over what I have already learned.

This morning I found myself again back in the story of Gabriel and his compelling interaction with Zacharias. Maybe it is because I want to flush out more openly unbelief from my own heart and be free of it myself that I keep finding nuances in this story that apply to myself. I resonate all too readily with the skepticism of Zacharias and sympathize with his mixed feelings when suddenly his years of prayers are given an answer that is so stunning that it throws him completely off balance. What I want to receive from God in this study is a new attitude myself, what Gabriel described as part of what Elijah did and what this new prophet would do – turn the disobedient to the attitude of the righteous.

I find this interesting in that I learned long ago that obedience is much more than on outward issue. I grew up like many others, believing that obedience was all about doing the right thing, i.e. keeping all the rules. Over recent years it has been emerging that true obedience can only come from a heart experience, and that forced obedience, whether that force comes from others or even from within, will only result in fostering a spirit of resistance and eventually rebellion. This should be like a siren of warning for all those with responsibility for raising young children, for typical parenting techniques that rely on force and intimidation always produces similar results inwardly no matter what is accomplished externally.

Getting someone to comply to demands and rules is in sharp contrast to turning the disobedient to the attitude of the righteous. I see this as a parallel to the earlier part of this announcement where Gabriel says that John will turn the hearts of the fathers back to the children. Again the emphasis is all on the internal part of our being rather than on external conformity. And this is the area that I have been the weakest in experiencing, having been brought up to pay far more attention to keeping up proper appearances and behavior, yet without learning how to really receive and give true love and affection.

And he will turn many of the sons of Israel back to the Lord their God. It is he who will go as a forerunner before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah, TO TURN THE HEARTS OF THE FATHERS BACK TO THE CHILDREN, and the disobedient to the attitude of the righteous, so as to make ready a people prepared for the Lord. (Luke 1:16-17)

I have often pondered how the ministry of Elijah accomplished what is described here. Maybe I don't yet appreciate enough a true awareness of what Elijah was like. What does come to mind of course, is the most famous story from Elijah's life – that spectacular display of God's power on Mt. Carmel when fire came down out of heaven and wowed the majority of people into returning their allegiance back to the true God. Yet even that story leaves one wondering just how much heart change actually took place in most of those people or how much of their subsequent obedience had to do with simply tracking to the god who displayed the most power. Stories that follow that event seem to give mixed messages in this regard.

As I think back again on that story, it also occurs to me that quite possibly Elijah may have inadvertently 'snatched defeat from the jaws of victory' as an old saying goes. Most Christians today assume without question that the wholesale slaughter of the priests of Baal by Elijah was the righteous thing to do and was ordered by God. But there is no evidence that God instructed Elijah to directly kill these men while on the other hand there seems to be a lot of evidence that this choice led Elijah down a trail that left him soon very vulnerable to threats of a single woman against his own life.

I have commented on this extensively elsewhere and have come to the firm conclusion that this act of violence on the part of Elijah was parallel to the sin of Moses when he struck the rock in disobedience to the command of God that cost him dearly afterwards. One clue that leads me to this conclusion is that when Elijah finally meets God again on Mt. Horeb he is given a rehearsal of the lessons he was supposed to have already learned about how to listen to God properly. And following his own impulses from his aroused passions after such a display of the spectacular was not the correct way to discern God's voice as was made plain during his review time on the mountain with God later on.

I ponder what might have happened if Elijah had made a different choice right after God's fire fell from heaven on his sacrifice to draw the people back to God. I sense that this event could have produced dramatically different results, similar to what could have taken place had Moses chosen to display more accurately the true character of God by not allowing the spirit of anger and bitterness to overcome him when he struck the rock. In both cases it seems very possible that God's Spirit might have had a tremendous breakthrough in the hearts and lives of the vast majority of people if God's servants had been more faithful to their advanced knowledge about Him. I believe history in both cases could have been dramatically altered had God not been robbed of His real glory through the sad choices of His servants in those instances.

This brings me back to the prophecy of Gabriel to Zacharias, and by extension to all of us who believe we have been called to again present a similar message as Elijah and John the Baptist. For many years I have heard it repeated that God's people in the last days are supposed to revive the prophetic ministry of Elijah and John to prepare a people for the coming of Jesus. I don't dispute that truth in the least. However, what has been far more confusing is just what that implies when it comes to both the content of our message and more importantly, the spirit with which we present this message from heaven.

Maybe the original message entrusted to Elijah became distorted by the tragic choice of Elijah himself to take things into his own hands just when God was about to accomplish a great victory in the lives of His people. It appears that John the Baptist was more faithful to his calling than Elijah in that he did not indulge in resorting to violence, even though some of his language seemed rather strong. But warnings have to be strong at times to get the attention of people so jaded and numbed by sin that they cannot hear anything else. I believe God has to do that at times.

But just as Moses was disciplined for misrepresenting God's character before the Children of Israel in the desert, I believe that Elijah was corrected on Mt. Horeb for forgetting how to rightly listen to the quiet promptings of the Spirit. Elijah had allowed his adrenalin to control his choices instead of God's Spirit. So too, we also need to learn the lesson of reflecting more accurately the real truth about God's attitudes towards sinners and learn from their mistakes to avoid repeating them again and again.

Jesus stated something that sounds rather shocking to our way of viewing things, yet makes complete sense when observing things from heaven's perspective. Jesus said that John was the greatest prophet who ever lived, even while he was considered the least – by this world's standards. What did He mean by this seemingly contradictory statement? I believe He was contrasting how heaven's view of things is almost always the very opposite of our assumptions about how things are supposed to look like.

John, the prophet that Gabriel was talking to his father that day, was faithful to the promptings of the Spirit that filled his life from even before birth. If anyone was tempted to resort to using force to accomplish the desires of God, I suspect John faced that intensely early on. Anyone familiar with the political and social climate of that day would know that the injustice and abuse and violence taking place around Palestine under Roman occupation was so severe that many attempted violent insurrections, albeit all unsuccessfully. Most of these insurrections had one thing in common: they all assumed that God's will for His people involved resorting to methods of force when circumstances were too extreme for less violent approaches.

This thinking is extremely prevalent today, both in and out of our church. What is worse is that there is even open hostility among many of the people of God toward anyone even suggesting that God does not need to resort to violence to get His way. This issue is becoming such a controversial topic among Christians today that it is beginning to polarize not only our own church, but the whole world is starting to take sides on this issue. In fact, I have wondered it it may well be one of the main issues that brings about full completion of this polarization resulting is what is described in Revelation 22:11:

"Let the one who does wrong, still do wrong; and the one who is filthy, still be filthy; and let the one who is righteous, still practice righteousness; and the one who is holy, still keep himself holy."

I used to assume that righteousness had to do with what a person does rather than what was inside of their heart. I have been disabused of that lie many years ago, yet I still struggle to experience full freedom from the many lies that cause me to act out in ways that are unlike Christ – lies about how God feels towards me along with lies about myself. I have learned that probably every sin that besets me has at its root some lie or cluster of lies that needs to be exposed and replaced with glorious truth that will banish them from my heart. Jesus said that when we know the truth it will make us free. And the truth He was speaking of definitely was not a list of doctrines to memorize. Jesus said, I am the Truth, the Way and the Life.

Gabriel told Zacharias that the essence of the message that John would bring to God's people would do three things:

  1. It would turn many of God's people back to the true God (reflective of Elijah's ministry).
  2. It would turn the hearts of fathers toward their children (linking to another prophecy in Malachi 4).
  3. It would turn the disobedient to the attitude of the righteous.

Even as I wrote this out it suddenly became obvious to me that there is a natural progression here. The first step can easily be more external in nature. While many in Elijah's day switched their allegiance back to worshiping the God of heaven, there is doubt as to how many of them actually had their hearts transformed significantly, especially after watching Elijah's demonstration of wrath that brought confusion into the truth about God's wrath and His methods.

The second step takes things deeper however, down to the heart level and addresses closer relationships as seen in the family. Not only would this message realign religious allegiance back toward the true God of heaven but it works to repair the damage that sin has brought into our homes and our family relationships at the heart level where the reflection of God has become so distorted.

Yet the last step that must also take place is even more invasive than just a switch of external allegiance or even a turning of the heart. This last step describes a complete attitude change, a transformed disposition, a settling into thinking and feeling and perceiving and relating that is reflective of what is described in Philippians 2 as the mind of Christ.

What is becoming clear to me now is that this is likely the answer I have been seeking for many years about something constantly talked about in my church. There is a lot of talk about getting ready for Jesus to come. Early on the assumption has been that to get ready for the Second Coming of Christ means working very hard to get all sin out of the life. Of course, if one has unclear ideas about what the word sin means to start with they will come up with all sorts of conclusions about what it means to get rid of it. But the deeper problem with this assumption is that the focus is still on the externals, on behavior and fails to effect any real heart change which is where the roots of sin find their nourishment.

According to Gabriel's message here, these three things that John the Baptist was to bring to light are the things needed in order to make ready a people prepared for the Lord. I believe it is safe to assume that the same message is needed today just as much as it was needed for Christ's first coming.

It is not enough to simply switch allegiance back to the right God as important as that is for a first step.
It is not even enough to take it deeper and have our hearts to be affected by the Spirit of God, as important as this step is as well.
What is really needed is a complete conversion, 'the whole enchilada' as it is sometimes described. Without all three steps experienced no one will be truly ready to meet the kind of Jesus that will shock the vast majority of religious people when He shows up with the intensity of His true glory along with His holy angels to receive those who have put their full trust in Him and who reflect His kind of love.

This has powerful implications about the nature of the messages we may be trying to take to those around us. Just what kind of God and what version of the gospel are we embracing that we assume is going to get us ready for Jesus to come? Even those among us who have been thrilled with fresh, new revelations about the true character of God in contrast to the dark views we learned from religion in the past. Have we really taken seriously the last two steps of this Elijah/John message? How accurately does our attitude and spirit towards those around us reflect the true nature of Jesus as He revealed the heart of the Father to a confused universe in the way He related to those who opposed Him? Have we really been turned to the attitude of the righteous? Are we really allowing the mind of Christ be in us as described in Philippians 2, or are we content to hold back a step or two and just be content to talk about these things without fully submitting to the close work that the Holy Spirit must do inside of us to prepare our hearts to not shrink back at His coming?

Now, little children, abide in Him, so that when He appears, we may have confidence and not shrink away from Him in shame at His coming. If you know that He is righteous, you know that everyone also who practices righteousness is born of Him. (1 John 2:28-29)

Earlier in this chapter it was reported that Zacharias and Elizabeth were righteous in the sight of God. I am not disputing that in the least. But it appears that a deeper work needed to yet take place, especially in Zacharias, given the unbelief and skepticism that emerged when good news was announced to him by an angel from heaven. His attitude was not yet aligned well with the righteous but he reacted in fear and maybe even shame. His skepticism was so dangerous that Gabriel found it necessary to close his vocal chords for a few months to protect others from becoming infected with his doubting spirit.

I find the comment that Zacharias made that elicited this response from the angel very revealing.

Zacharias said to the angel, "How will I know this for certain? For I am an old man and my wife is advanced in years." (Luke 1:18)

How often have I heard this sentiment expressed by those with whom I am seeking to share good news about God. But more disturbing, how often has my own heart resonated with this attitude myself. I want to know things conclusively. I want overwhelming, conclusive evidence to eliminate every last doubt before I am willing to embrace some emerging truth. Many call this approach a 'healthy skepticism' or label it 'critical thinking;' it is even lauded in higher education circles as a virtue. Yet when I read this story it appears that heaven has a very different opinion of this attitude, and it doesn't seem to fit into what Gabriel described as the attitude of the righteous.

Zacharias was not expressing deception or telling lies here. He was simply relating 'facts on the ground' as we would call it. There was nothing false about these statements, for he and his wife really were too old to have children according to normal standards of measurement. But then, so too was Abraham and Sarah, and they had had similar conversations with God that should have served as a lesson for those who knew his story.

As God's people living at the very end of time with all the history of the world at our disposal, we have even less excuse for our unbelief than did Zacharias. It might be safe to say that about every mistake that can be made has been made by this point in time so we have no excuses left for resisting the work of God's Spirit to lead us into the full revelation of truth as it is in Jesus.

What I see happening at this point in the story is a transition by Gabriel from offering incredibly good news to the mode of disciplining someone for resisting belief in good news because there is not yet enough evidence to satisfy demands for more evidence before embracing it. There comes a point in our encounters with God where a line can be crossed that will elicit a similar response in our own lives if we continue to unreasonably resist embracing truth to let it transform our hearts and our attitude.

One thing that is compelling about this warning for me personally is that part of this truth presented to Zacharias includes the announcement that not only were his many years of prayers about to be answered but that there would be a great deal of celebration and joy and rejoicing in the process. Part of me that has been trained for years in the ways of austere religion rises up in religious protest over such notions, insisting that God does not approve of such 'dissipation.' But apparently heaven carries on in many ways that religious people here would not approve of, and that puts many of us crosswise with God's desires for our lives.

Father, continue to cleanse me of the many lies about You and Your ways that continue to inhibit me from simply believing Your amazing good news to the world and celebrating it with more freedom. Help me to fully embrace the glorious truth as revealed in Your Son about what You are really like and what You want to make me look like as Your reflection as well. Take me fully through all three steps of the Elijah/John message and so transform me that I too can become one of Your last-day prophets to proclaim this life-changing good news to darkened minds around this world. Glorify Your name in and through my life and increasingly in the lives of those are influenced by me.