Submission to God
Three days into 2017, are your New Years resolutions still intact? I’m not one for making such resolutions, but I do strive (however feebly) to live by the Scriptures every day of my life. The very end of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians gives us some good things to shoot for as believers in Jesus in 2017 (and beyond, should the Lord tarry). His last three statements (prior to the “amen”) are powerful:
- “Our Lord, come!”
- “The grace of the Lord Jesus be with you.”
- “My love be with you all in Christ Jesus.”
If we could wrap all of that into one resolution for the new year, it would look something like this: Long for the Lord’s return while living in the light of His grace and loving one another.
Can you imagine how transformed the Church of Jesus Christ would be if our lives were so defined? Can you imagine the focus we would have? Can you imagine the trivial things that might fall by the wayside in our lives as the things that really matter rise to the forefront? Can you imagine the impact we might make for Christ?
Who defines evil?
The book of Judges in the Old Testament contains an oft-repeated statement: “And the people of Israel again did what was evil in the sight of the LORD.” In fact, the story of the book of Judges is one of Israel turning away from God, God delivering them into the hands of an enemy, Israel eventually crying out to God for deliverance, and God raising up a leader–a judge–to lead Israel to victory and into a time of walking with God. This cycle runs throughout the book.
God never applied His hand of discipline to Israel for doing what was evil in the eyes of their culture. He never did so for their doing what was evil as determined by polling data. Nor did He do so for their doing what was evil per the influential pundits of the day. Israel faced discipline from the hand of the LORD for doing what was evil in the sight of the LORD.
Mankind does not have the luxury of defining what is evil, nor do countries, regions, states, cities, communities, social groups, or individuals. If God considers something to be evil, then it is evil, even if only one person out of seven billion would agree with God. In fact, even if NO person agreed with God, His definition of evil would still stand. Man may decide to call evil good, but it remains, in fact, evil, for the One who will judge everyone considers it so. We all stand before God on the basis of HIS standard, not any standard of our own. Mankind may try to vote God out; they may try to storm the castle; they may try to let the Supreme Court decide. But if God calls something evil, it is evil.
The beautiful thing, though, is that we who have a proclivity for evil (i.e., sin) are made perfectly righteous in the sight of God when we trust in the sacrifice made for our sins by Jesus on the cross–in other words, when we receive Jesus as our Savior–when we believe on the Lord Jesus Christ. He bore our sin so that we might take on His righteousness, even though, in practice, we still sin. Wonder of wonders, if not for this salvation that comes only through faith in Jesus, we would all have no hope at all, for we are so quick to run to what God calls evil. Have you received Jesus as YOUR Savior?
I am going to be very transparent here, not in a passive-aggressive attempt to gain anybody’s sympathy but in the hopes that someone might be helped by my experience.
I have this calling from God to preach His Word. He brought the calling to me so strongly one night that I had to fall on my face and surrender. That moment was phenomenal, but the calling has been difficult for me over the years. I have always been a self-doubter, and I struggle with the idea that I could ever do anything that really matters. Don’t get me wrong; I envision myself in more great moments than Walter Mitty, but when it comes to reality, I am more like Winnie the Pooh’s pal, Eeyore.
And so, all these years later, I find myself at the stage of life where it seems most pastors who have pastored as long as I have pastor churches of at least an average size. I, though, pastor a little church that not many people attend. The people who do attend are dear to me, and I love being their pastor. But honestly, we could all fit into two or three of the church’s pews. I sometimes wonder if we will ever be even an average sized church. But visitors are rare, and even my friends and family in the area choose to worship elsewhere. This leads me into periodic moments of confusion, wondering if anyone likes me, and sometimes questioning whether I heard my calling correctly. (Like I said, just being transparent). Those moments can become quite dark and debilitating. However, no sooner do I question the call than the Lord reminds me of the night I fell face down in surrender to Him, and I am reminded that I do not deserve to pastor even one person. And so I press on, doing the only thing on this planet that I want to do and that which gives me joy like nothing else, even though I have questions that remain unanswered.
But that’s how we shine the light of Christ; we press on in faith. Whether you’re a pastor or a plumber, a missionary or a manager, pressing on with Christ is no big deal if everything is lining up nicely for you. Even as I type this, thoughts of confusion begin to swirl in my head. “Why, Lord? I’m faithful to teach Your Word. I’m not asking for a mega-church. Maybe 150 or 200 people. Even just 5 or 10 new families would make a huge difference. Is that asking too much? Am I doing something wrong? Did I mishear the call to preach all those years ago? Etc.”
My fear is that a lot of the people I hear about who are walking away from ministry (and even from the Lord) might be doing it because of questions like that. The confusion I have expressed is about ministry, but maybe someone is confused over other matters in their walk with the Lord and is growing tired of asking the “Why, Lord” questions and is on the verge of throwing in the towel on ministry or faith. If that’s you, I hope you hang in there. It really is worth it, and there are eternal benefits to doing so. Your questions may not ever be answered. Mine, either. We may be in the company of those mentioned in Hebrews 11:32-40, who suffered and pressed on and endured much more than we may ever endure, all to reach the ends of their lives without tangibly receiving what they were pressing on toward. But it was never the Lord’s plan to fulfill in their earthly lifetimes the promise they pursued. Their involvement with the promise was as links in the chain that would one day lead to the promise’s fulfillment. Eternity will show that their faithfulness was worth the cost and that God did keep His promises.
And so it is for us. Eternity will show that pressing on through the waiting and the disappointment and the confusion was more than worth it. Such will be the case for you and for me if we press on in faith, faithful to our calling, no matter its difficulties or the fact that it bears no resemblance to what we had expected when we began the journey. Over time, we learn that the Lord knows just what He is doing. And the end of the journey–in the presence of the Lord where we will know as we are known–will tell the true tale of what the Lord was doing through us.
For about six years of my life, I acted in community theater productions. In the first year of that experience, I landed the role of Officer Krupke in a production of my favorite play, “West Side Story.” I was thrilled to be part of telling that story and listening to Leonard Bernstein’s amazing music as I sat in the wings when not on stage. Ah yes, that music.
Krupke makes his initial appearance in the story during the musical “Prologue.” A street fight has broken out between the Jets and the Sharks, and at a certain point in the music, Krupke rushes on stage, blowing his whistle, followed by Lt. Shrank, and they break up the fight. The entry and blowing of the whistle have to be precise. There is a brief pause in the score where the whistle is to blow, followed by the orchestra playing its final measure or two. Therefore, Krupke has to blow his whistle at exactly the right time, which means he also has to enter at exactly the right time. The problem I had with this precision requirement was that the music at that moment in the score is all over the place. It’s hard to pick out a discernible melody, from which you can find a cue, upon which you know to blow the whistle. And I was having a terrible time trying to get it right (which greatly humbled me because I usually have a good ear for music).
One night, during a performance, I was waiting in the wings with Shrank, listening for my cue. Shrank actually knew the cue better than I did, and on that night, when I mistakenly thought I had heard it and headed for the stage, in character, whistle in mouth, ready to blow, I heard the actor playing Shrank whisper-yell “No!” But it was too late. I was already in the sight of the audience. I had a fraction of a second to decide that turning back at that point would look like a huge and obvious mistake, so I pressed on. I would have to improvise until the cue came up in the music and I could blow my whistle and break up the fight.
The problem was, though, I couldn’t think of a single thing to do once out I was out there in the midst of the two gangs at war with one another. And to make matters worse, I had gone out a full minute early. So for 60 seconds, I stood there, baton in hand, whistle in mouth, frozen behind the action. And if you’ve ever been in such a situation on stage, in front of an audience (and there were a few hundred there!), you know that one minute feels like about fifteen minutes. It was horrible – my most embarrassing moment on stage by far.
The next day, I went to Borders and found myself praising God that they actually had on hand, in the store, CDs of the original Broadway soundtrack to “West Side Story.” I bought one, took it home, popped it into a CD player, and played the “Prologue” until I heard the whistle blow. I then backed it up a few seconds and listened again. Over and over, I backed it up and re-listened. I must have done that fifty times. By the time I was done, I knew that cue cold. And at that night’s performance, I was right on time, as I would be for every performance thereafter.
Out of curiosity, just before writing this, I put on the “Prologue” to see if I could still hear the cue. It’s been about eight years, and that cue sticks out to me like a sore thumb. If I ever play Krupke again, I will be right on time with my entry and whistle.
As I was reliving that incident in my mind this morning, it got me thinking about how important it is to get the Word of God into our hearts and minds. Psalm 119:11 says, “I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you.” What this is saying is that, when we take the Word of God into our hearts again and again and again – in other words, we make a regular practice of ingesting the Bible – its truths will speak to us during those crossroad moments when we decide how we will act or speak or think. The more we take it in, the more we will hear its cues – KNOW its cues – and we will be better adept at being where we need to be, when we need to be there, in our walks with God.
This Scripture ingestion can take the form of memorizing Bible verses, which is usually the way I hear Psalm 119:11 applied, but it also involves just reading the Bible regularly – daily, even. Sometimes, people try to read the Bible and then stop because they don’t understand it. Just keep on reading. Ask God to make it clear to you. The more you read it and put it into practice, the more you will understand about your own human condition and about God. In fact, in time, you will begin to think biblically, sometimes without even realizing you’re doing it. The Word will become to you what that musical cue became to me when I listened to it over and over and over again. It will guide you as you walk with God.
I heard the Bruce Springsteen song “Glory Days” while driving into the office this morning. If you don’t know the song, the first verse talks about him running into an old friend who had been a great baseball player back in their high school days. They sit down to do some catching up, and all the old friend can talk about is his “glory days.” It got me thinking about the glory days for me that never were.
Now, before you stop reading, thinking that this blog entry is just going to involve my reminiscing about my past, let me assure you that I am going somewhere with this.
In high school, I was not one of the “cool kids,” and I tended to look up to the “jocks.” I had not been particularly athletic prior to high school. In fact, I remember an incident in Jr. High P.E. where we were playing flag football and, in one game, I intercepted two passes just by being in the right place at the right time, standing there not knowing what to do. In both instances, as I held the intercepted football in my hands, I froze, still not knowing what to do, as my teammates yelled, “Run!” So I did.
By the time I got to high school, I was starting to take an interest in sports, and as I approached my junior year, I had become quite a good basketball player and seemed to have hands like glue as a receiver in pick-up football games. My friends tried to talk me into going out for the basketball team, but I was afraid to try. The star tight end on our football team even tried to talk me into going out for football, but, once again, I was afraid to try. So I contented myself with excelling among my little group of friends and missed out on the glory moments that might have been mine in a packed football stadium or basketball gym. And then, following high school, I kicked myself over and over again for years.
I kicked myself for being afraid to go out for sports. I kicked myself for being afraid to ask a girl to the prom. I kicked myself for learning to play guitar and then being too afraid to play it in front of my best friends. And when I got serious about my faith as a young adult, I hated that I would become intensely fearful when, at a Bible study, we would go around the circle we were sitting in and would tell our names and something about ourselves. As my turn would draw near, I could feel my heart pounding and my palms getting sweaty, and when I spoke, it felt like the air that came out of my mouth was restricted. And in spite of all of this, God called me to stand before people and preach and teach His Word. Go figure.
I can’t really explain how I knew that God had called me to preach and teach His Word. It was something I just knew in my heart – deeply in my heart – and when I tried to run away from the calling, I felt like Jonah running from Nineveh. The first opportunity I got to teach adults was in the College and Career Sunday school class I attended. There were probably about 60 people in that class, and our teacher, Herb Williams, gave me a chance to teach a four-week series on the book of Habakkuk. On day one of that series, Herb introduced me, and I walked to the podium, my legs feeling like Jello. Before beginning, I went to a table on the wall behind the podium to get a drink of water from a cup I had placed there, turning my back on the audience so they could not see how much my hand was trembling as I pulled the cup up toward my mouth. I was shaking so badly that I had to brace my hand against my body as I lifted the cup so that no water would splash out over the rim. I don’t know that I have ever been more scared than I was in that moment. I approached the podium in abject fear, set my Bible and my notes upon it, said to the audience, “Turn to the book of Habakkuk,” and all the fear instantly went away.
Since that day, my life, regardless of what else it has been about, has been about preaching and teaching God’s Word – the Bible. I have either been planning for it, training for it, looking for opportunities to do it, or serving as a pastor. And as much as I love life – my family, spending time with Nancy, going on vacations, playing fantasy football, petting my dog Molly, etc., etc., etc. – there is nothing that cranks my clock like standing in the pulpit delivering God’s Word. I’ve never had large congregations (in fact, they’ve been downright small); I don’t speak at conferences; I don’t have any book deals; I don’t have any of the things that many would deem evidence of success at what I do. But, as the Apostle Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 15:10, “By the grace of God I am what I am.” The boy who was afraid to try, and the man who was afraid to say his own name and favorite color when sitting in a circle among friends, is doing what only God could have brought about in his life.
Maybe someone who reads this is thinking, “That describes ME!” And perhaps you quote 2 Timothy 1:7 over and over again – “God has not given you a spirit of fear” – only to wind up in frustration at your failure to rise above the fear that God has not given you. Let me encourage you with something I’ve learned from experience: the fear may not leave until you take the step of faith. And this is not just something I’ve learned from experience; I’ve also learned it from the Bible. Moses was scared to death to do what God was calling him to do, but, after failing to talk God out of the idea, he stepped out and did it anyway, and it was in that stepping out that he found God was there with him. When it came time for the Israelites to enter the Promised Land, one thing stood between them and their destination: the Jordan River at flood stage. If they had stood there waiting for the river to be held back, they would still be waiting (or at least their descendants would). God’s plan wasn’t for them to wait until the obstacle subsided; His plan was for them to line up in procession, with the priests carrying the Ark of the Covenant at the head of the line, and then to march as if the river wasn’t even there. It wasn’t until the soles of the priest’s feet touched the water that God held back the river, and Israel crossed over on dry land, even as they had done forty years earlier when God had parted the Red Sea.
If you are a child of God through faith in Jesus Christ, God has glory days ahead for you. They won’t be for your own glory; they’ll be for His, which is far greater and much more fulfilling. And stepping into the things that God has for you to do in those days in which you get to bring glory to Him will inevitably involve stepping out in faith. But you can do that, following His calling and His leading. Then, someday, when we meet in heaven, we can talk about glory days – i.e., the glory that God brought to His name through our unworthy and incapable lives. What a conversation that will be! I can hardly wait.
Have you ever tried to run from God? If so, you may have found that (a) it can’t be done, and (b) He will pursue you to the ends of the earth.
The idea that we can never get away from God can be either encouraging or terrifying, depending on our perspective. For instance, a woman who finds suddenly finds herself a victim of human trafficking can, in the midst of fear and off-the-charts apprehension, find some comfort in the fact that she is not out of God’s sight – indeed, God is right with her. But the monsters who have forced her into that world, if they have any regard for God at all, should rightly tremble in terror at the knowledge that God has seen, and is seeing, the whole thing.
But what about the seemingly more pedestrian situation in which a person of God wants no part in what God is trying to lead him into and says “No” to God by running in the opposite direction of where God wants him to go? That was the case for a man named Jonah.
God called Jonah to a task. It is a high privilege for the God of the Universe to give a person something to do on His behalf, but Jonah wanted no part of it. God was calling him to go to one of the great cities of the world at that time and preach against it, for the evil of that city had risen to God. The city was Nineveh; Jonah went, instead, to Tarshish, which was in the opposite direction of Nineveh, for he had decided that, instead of obeying God’s call on his life, he would run from the presence of the Lord.
Perhaps Jonah thought about what an impossible task it would be to preach against a powerful and godless city like Nineveh, but he had not stopped to consider how much more impossible it would be to flee from the presence of the Lord. That’s how it is when we try to run from God. We don’t stop to consider the unreasonableness of it; we just face the wrong direction and start walking – or running – thinking that God will somehow lose us in the crowd and leave us alone so that we can continue on in what we perceive to be safety. But, as David reminds us, there is nowhere to which we can flee where God is not there (Psalm 139:7-12).
Jonah hopped a ship bound for Tarshish and got as far out of God’s sight as he could imagine, aboard a tiny ship on a large sea and below deck on that ship. I wonder if he thought, “Not even God can find me here.” But then came the storm.
This was no arbitrary storm. It was not the result of two weather fronts colliding. The text tells us that this storm arose when the Lord hurled a great wind upon the sea (Jonah 1:4). The strength of the storm was such that it threatened to break the ship apart. To put it in baseball terms, the One who hurled that wind has a great arm. The storm was placed specifically where Jonah was, thinking he was running and hiding from God. And as the story unfolds in Jonah, chapter one, we see that Jonah himself realized this about the storm.
As Jonah was telling his shipmates that the way out of their desperate situation was to throw him overboard, I wonder if his thought was that God had thrown the storm upon the ship out of anger toward Jonah. I wonder if he thought that his drowning would appease the wrath of God and that his being out of the way would give God no further reason to inflict the awful tempest upon the others on the ship. But those shipmates of Jonah’s had what appears to be a more noble idea than throwing Jonah overboard to drown; they wanted him off their ship, yes, but they decided to try as hard as they could to row to land and let him step off onto dry ground. But God had other ideas; He actually wanted Jonah thrown overboard, but not for the reason that Jonah might might have been thinking. As the men attempted to row for land, the God-inflicted storm only grew stronger, preventing their success, and giving them no option but to throw Jonah overboard, which they reluctantly did.
Could it be that God had sent the storm in anger? That He had actually wanted Jonah to drown? That He turned His wrath upon that ship to give Jonah what he deserved for daring to attempt fleeing from God? The answer to all of those questions is “No.” We may sometimes view God in such ways, but God has more grace than that. And so we read in Jonah 1:17 that “the LORD appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.”
Jonah’s storm came upon him for the same reason the metaphorical storms of life often come upon us: We are out of step with God, maybe even attempting to flee from His presence, and He, in His love for us, graciously refuses to let us go blissfully away from Him. He is ever pursuing us and getting our attention, and the quicker we jump ship on running from Him the sooner we will get back to the joy of walking with Him.
Maybe God has brought a storm into your life for this very purpose. And maybe you are at a point where you have begrudgingly acknowledged that God has won the day, but you have still not submitted to His will. If that’s the case, you may be riding in the belly of a “fish” that He has prepared for you. It’s time to move beyond a sense of bitter defeat and move on into gratitude to the Lord for not ignoring you or giving up on you. And it’s time to move on into submission to His will.