Thursday, July 24, 2014

The Limitations of Man

Did you ever stop to think about the limitations of man?  Accomplishments, Opportunities, a good dose of self-reliance, and a rugged individualism are all we need to achieve... almost anything.  Man is constantly becoming, evolving, inventing:  Who knows what we can do?
The Bible gives us a healthy dose of realism instead.  It tells us what we can't do on our own.  We are never independent of God, even in rebellion.  It's pretty humbling.  Here's a list of man's limitations:
  • Man cannot direct his own course.  "I know, O Lord, that the way of man is not in himself, that it is not in man who walks to direct his steps." (Jeremiah 10:23)
  • Man cannot provide for his own needs.  "You shall remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth" (Deuteronomy 8:18).
  • Man cannot know or trust his own heart.  The Disney princesses (and Ralph Waldo Emerson) are wrong.  "The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately sick:  Who can understand it?" (Jeremiah 17:9)
  • Man cannot even keep himself alive.  "Which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life?" (Luke 12:25)
"In Him, we live and move and have our being" (Acts 17:28).  God Himself guides us, empowers us, provides for us.  He knows our hearts.  He holds us together.  "All things were created through Him and for Him.  And He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together" (Colossians 1:16-17).

Monday, January 13, 2014

Three Strikes

Why is it so hard to trust God?  Sin makes us so short-sighted and forgetful!  Ten plagues against Egyptian oppressors ought to be hard to forget.  A divided Red Sea and the annihilation of the Egyptian army ought to secure God’s position as the central figure in all future concerns.  Daily, the Jewish people watch a visible manifestation of God’s guidance and presence among them, in the pillars of cloud and fire. 
                Yet, the Israelites were already displaying an ominous propensity to whine before God about their circumstances.  In the desert, God tested them to see what was in their hearts.  Three times preceding the events at Kadesh-Barnea, Israel complained and incurred the wrath of God:
                Taberah- Because of a “strong craving,” the people complain about their misfortunes before the Lord and God gives manna.  The Lord’s anger is also kindled and outlying parts of the camp are consumed (Numbers 11:1-9).
                Kibroth-hattaavah- The people whine for meat and God gives quail for a month (Numbers 11:19-20), “until it comes out your nostrils and becomes loathsome to you.”  The people are also struck with a plague.
                Hazeroth- God challenges the authority of those who challenge Moses, even those in Moses’ own family.  He calls Moses, Aaron, and Miriam to the Tent of Meeting and defends Moses as “faithful in all my house.”  Miriam is given leprosy and sent outside the camp for seven days in shame (Numbers 12:1-16). 

Three strikes is bad preparation for inheriting the promised land.  It signals conflict yet to come.  However, before we stand in judgment on the Israelites whining trek out of Egypt, let us examine ourselves:
1.  Do we spend more time thinking about the promises of God or the circumstances of our lives?
2.  Do our prayers have a whining quality?
3.  Do others see in our relationship with God something attractive or desirous?
4.  In what ways have I faltered before the culmination of the promises of God?
It is possible, as the passages indicate, that the judgment of God falls even on His people when they refuse to trust Him.  A final question gives me pause.  Are there signs of God’s judgment at work in my life? 

Friday, January 10, 2014

Caleb: A Good and Broad Land

               God has been good to me.  There have been many times in my life when he has brought me to a land where I could say with the psalmist, “The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places” (cp. Psalm 16:5-6)   I have friends scattered throughout the world, good friends, who have stamped my soul with their care for me.  Though now they may have forgotten my name, I bask in the light of their kindness and love for me.  If any of them had need, I would rise with whatever zeal and resources I could muster to come to their aid.
                There have also been times when I have been discontented.  It was only later that I recognized the good land to which I had been led.  I had different expectations, and in the midst of what God had planned for me, I was disappointed.  God was to be my portion and my cup, and I missed it.
                I am no different than the Jews of Moses’ day.  The pattern of God’s blessing for me follows the same steps as the Exodus:
                1.  God sees our slavery.  In Exodus 3, God tells Moses, “I have observed you and what has been done to you in Egypt.  God is not oblivious to our sufferings.  He will come to our aid.  “The cry of the people of Israel has come to me.”  We are not outcasts in a random, barren world.  The love of God has heard our cries, understood our pain and risen to help us.
                2.  God announces His intent to provide full deliverance:  “I promise that I will bring you up out of the affliction of Egypt to the land of the Canaanites… a land flowing with milk and honey.”  God’s promise had two sides.  He would bring them out of slavery and into blessing, out of pain and into rest.  It was a good land.
                3.  God’s promise comes with an invitation to be accepted by faith.  Listen to the richness of God’s plan:
“For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land, a land of brooks of water, of fountains and springs, flowing out in the valleys and hills, a land of wheat and barley, of vines and figs trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey, a land in which you will eat bread without scarcity, in which you will lack nothing, a land whose stones are iron, and out of whose hills you can dig copper.  And you shall eat and be full, and you shall bless the LORD your God for the good land He has given you” (Deuteronomy 8:7ff).
The goal of His plan is always His glory and our good.  We will be satisfied and He will be glorified.  And our fellowship with Him will be sweet.
                To a man in slavery, that kind of promise and that kind of God can capture your imagination.  It can kindle a zealous heart for following Him.  “A land flowing with milk and honey” described a fertile and abundant harvest, a rich blessing in the agricultural world of the Exodus.  A good and stalwart man like Caleb will clutch the refrain tightly to his breast, not because it presents a change in his circumstances, but because it represents by faith a new and intimate relationship with a powerful, caring God.
                Like the children of Israel, God knows our suffering and has heard our cries.  He has announced His intent to deliver us from our sin, and to bring us into a good and broad land.  Like Caleb, I will arise and follow- only God has what I need.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Power and Faithfulness

     In seminary, I rented a room from a remarkable widow.  Bess Gresham was 87 and still president of the Poetry Society of Virginia.  She was preparing to turn over her responsibilities to others.  She told me, "If the organization you serve doesn't continue to grow after you leave, you didn't do your job."  She saw her service as a kind of stewardship.  She would serve in such a way as to prepare others to continue her success.  That is the proper stewardship of power.
     Let us serve and invest our power so that the cause of our Lord is furthered.  If the next generation serves Him better, may it be because we helped to prepare them.  And when we lay our power down, may we continue to be awed by the grace of a God who would use us to display His glory.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

The Stewardship of Power

      If leaders must given an account, then we are stewards.  We are responsible to a higher authority for the way we use power.  In an important sense, power in like money.  God owns everything because He created it.  When we give to God, we give what is already His (Psalm 50:9-12).  We do not own His resources, but invest them for His glory and the benefit of others.  We want to hear the commendation, "Well done, good and faithful servant" (Matthew 25:23).  Perhaps if we treated power the way we are taught to treat our money, we might be protected from its temptations.
     Concerning money, Paul said he had learned to be content in both plenty and want (Philippians 4:12).  It was the love of money that was the root of all evil (I Timothy 6:10).  Paul sought his satisfaction and contentment in his personal walk with God and money was only a tool to honor Christ.
     Power is also a tool.  When we have it, we must use it for the glory of God.  When we don't have it, we can still be content.  What is truly important to us is Christ.  When money and power become ends in themselves, the trouble begins.  Let me seek first the Kingdom of God and employ any resources of power or wealth to that end.

Monday, January 6, 2014

All Power is God's Power

     Power, like money, demands a kind of stewardship from the one who holds it.  In the end, all power is God's power.  He created all things and holds them together by His omnipotence.  Thrones, powers, rulers, and authorities were all created by Him and for Him (Colossians 1:16-17).  Absolute power laughs at the stratagems of kings (Psalm 2) to overthrow His authority.  Omnipotence will one day cause every knee to bow before Christ, in heaven, on earth, and under the earth (Philippians 2:11).
     If all power is God's power, then all authority rests with Him.  If I exercise authority in ministry, my power exists by His permission.  The authorities that exist have been established by Him.  Even Satan reports to God.  He is leashed, asking permission to minister destruction (Job 1).  Satan's cosmic rebellion serves the ends of a righteous God, who will one day turn everything to good for those who love God and are called according to His purpose (Romans 8:28).
     Our power, then, is delegated.  God sets the boundaries for the exercise of our authority.  Governments are given authority to administer justice and to punish evildoers (Romans 13:1-5).  If they require us to break a law of God, they abrogate their authority and we must obey God rather than man (Acts 4:19).  Church leaders are given authority so that they might speak the Word of God (Hebrews 13:7,17), but they must render an account to Him.  If there are credible witnesses when they sin, they are to be rebuked publicly so that others may take warning (I Timothy 5:19-20).  We are responsible for the way we use the delegated power of God, stewards of His power for good.

Friday, January 3, 2014

The Ebb and Flow of Power

     David knew the ups and downs of leadership.  One day, God promised him the kingship.  Another day, Ziklag was burned, his family kidnapped, and his 'mighty men' threatened to kill him.  Imagine also the struggles of Jesus, to whom all power had been given, choosing not to use it for His own deliverance.
     Throughout a person's life, there is a natural ebb and flow to power.  As children, we are powerless to provide for our basic necessities.  As adults, we learn to stand on our own.  When we form a family, God gives us power over our children so that we may produce a godly seed (Malachi 2:15).
     Our power in the workplace rises or falls over the course of our lives.  Good decisions increase our power.  Bad decisions weaken it.  Sometimes the decisions of others affect our power.  And at the end, parents, CEOs, presidents, and kings all lay their power down.
     My soul has followed this ebb and flow of influence.  I have known the elation of turning around the financial fortunes of a mission school and to have an accrediting team bless our efforts to reach Amerasian children with a Christian education.  Sometimes, there is a wonderful synergy of energies toward a common goal.  Everyone gives input, everyone shares in the excitement of accomplishment.
     I have also worked where the was an unusual stubbornness, competing goals, and an independent spirit that compromised spiritual accomplishment.  I have known the depression that comes from trying to be creative, yet feeling alone in ministry.  In conflict, I have played mediator to warring factions and I have had people vote to take my power away.  How can we protect ourselves from these inevitable struggles with power?

Thursday, January 2, 2014

How to Develop a Critical Spirit

"Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone?  Tell her then to help me."
In this question, we can sense the empty way in which ministry is being done.  Martha is tired and her focus has switched from joyful service to drudgery.  When we are empty, or burned-out in ministry, we do damage to the relationships around us.  Watch what happens:
  • From Emptiness to Burden- Any other day, Martha loved hospitality.  Today, ministry has gone south.  Joy has been replaced by drudgery.
  • From Burden to Loneliness- As Martha looks around, she feels alienated and lonely.  Only she is doing the work.  Others enjoy the fellowship with Christ and she would love to be sitting there too.  Her circumstances are different.  She's scrubbing pots.  Is she the only one who can see the essential nature of her work?
  • From Loneliness to the Criticism of Others-  Joyless service has caused her to resent her sister.  Mary is sitting at Jesus' feet listening.  She too is hosting.  There is work to be done and time is short.  Why isn't she helping? 
  • From Criticism of Others to the Criticism of Christ- The emptiness, the loneliness, the overwhelming nature of ministry, the lack of help in the task, lead Martha to question the care of her Savior.  Surely, if he knows all things, he can see her distress.  He knows the work she is doing alone.  Doesn't He care?  If He cared, He would DO something.  Right?
When she issues the invitation, she had no intention to become critical.  She wanted to serve, it was her joy to serve.  It was how she viewed ministry when she felt empty and burdened that was the issue.  It was time to examine motives and refocus, time to sit at Jesus' feet again.  Dinner can wait.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Keep Your Eye on the Ball

"Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone?  Tell her then to help me."

Martha and her family played a significant role in the ministry of Christ.  When Christ said, "Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head," it was quite literally true.  He and his disciples depended on the generosity of others to support their itinerant ministry.  It was Martha who extended the invitation and it is no small task to feed a group of hungry men.
To extend such hospitality meant a willingness to sacrifice both time and resources.  It would have been an amazing opportunity to be one of those believers who supported Christ's work.  Imagine:  Providing dinner tonight meant you had an investment in the parable spoken tomorrow.  Providing a place to sleep could lead to an investment in healing tomorrow.  Who knew what eternal profit would await?
Martha was the one who saw the possibilities.  She does not serve to be seen and acknowledged by others.  We see nothing of self-promotion in her invitation or her service.  She wishes to render hospitality to Christ because she and her family have come to love Him.
Like Martha, on my best days I count it a privilege to share in the ministry of Christ.  To serve Him and to serve His people is an unmistakeable privilege.  It is an eternal investment.  If I can keep my eye on the ball, if I can keep my focus on my real priorities, then I will do them with joy.  It is when I am weary, when I am empty, that the trouble begins.  It is emptiness that prompts her question to Jesus.  You can hear it in her voice. Whenever I hear this voice in my head, it's time to re-evaluate.  I must recapture the wonder of serving Christ or I will do damage to His cause.