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?
These days, there seem to be a lot of people renouncing the Christian faith they formerly claimed. It’s happening a lot with young celebrities who, as they were coming to fame in their teens, might have been vocal about their faith but now are saying they have left it behind. It’s happening a lot with young adults who, rather than making the transition from youth group to so-called “big church” are leaving church and the faith altogether. It’s happening as people read and hear the so-called new atheists who, because of the Internet, are able to have a more vast visibility and influence than atheists of the past.
I watch this going on – and I’ve seen it with people I know, people I’ve formerly pastored, and even blood relatives – and I go back and forth between weeping and scratching my head. I weep because of the eternal destiny that lies ahead for those who deny Jesus and will one day stand before him. I scratch my head because, while I have wrestled with doubts as much as anybody, I don’t get how someone can just walk away from Jesus. Having known him all these years, I can only surmise that people who walk away from him never really knew him in the first place. Perhaps they grew up in a Christian home or joined a church because of the nice people there, all while never really having a true, spiritual encounter with Jesus. They knew the lingo; they could recite the gospel message; they even learned the various arguments for the faith; but they never really knew him. That’s the only thing that makes sense to me.
Why would I walk away from Jesus because of the influence of small-minded, straw-man arguments put forth by so many of the “new atheists?” I once saw Sam Harris speak on TV, and I’ve skimmed a couple of Bart Ehrman’s books while sitting in bookstores. They don’t move me. In fact, I thought there were so many holes in their arguments that I might use them to drain spaghetti.
Why would I walk away from Jesus because of how Christians have sometimes treated me (and folks, it has sometimes been bad). It wasn’t Jesus who mistreated me; it was people. Christian people sometimes, yes, but still people. What does the failure of people who follow Jesus have to do with his death on the cross for my sins, his resurrection from the dead, and his promise of eternal life through believing in him? Nothing, that’s what.
Why would I walk away from Jesus because of disappointments and struggles I’ve had in life? Have I sometimes been mad at God because of life’s disappointments? Yes, I have. And I’ve told Him so. But His Spirit has always worked on my heart in those moments, and hindsight has inevitably revealed life’s difficulties and disappointments to have been good training exercises for things that have lain ahead, as well as protections from situations I might have encountered had I had my way. Additionally, I’ve seen God use disappointments in my life to enable me later to counsel others with comfort I would not have had to share had I not known myself the disappointment they were facing. I love the words attributed to the second-century bishop of Smyrna, Polycarp, as he was about to be put to death for his faith and was given one last chance to deny Christ and live: “Eighty and six years have I served him, and he has never done me injury. How then can I now blaspheme my King and Savior?” I concur.
Why would I walk away from Jesus because of questions about the eternal, infinite God that my puny, finite brain might not be able to answer? For instance, I don’t understand the concept of the Trinity. I can define it, but I don’t understand it. So should I deny its reality? A better question would be, why should I expect that I would be able to understand it? After all, the Trinity is entirely unique, in the truest sense of that word. Is there anything in the experience of mankind that is three, distinct things and yet, at the same time, one thing? Not one thing with three parts; we have lots of things in the world like that. But there is nothing where the three are one, and the one is three. This is why Muslims accuse Christians of being polytheists; they say we worship three gods. But we worship one God who is three distinct persons. In human terms, that sounds like a committee of three or a Federal court with three justices, but it’s not like those things at all. In those scenarios, the individual members are entirely distinct; it is only the framework in which they serve that is one. They can hide things from each other and play politics with one another. They can disagree with each other and manipulate one another. None of those things is done by the Trinity because, in God, the three are truly one, and the one is truly three. The fact that it can’t be perfectly compared to anything means that it cannot be fully understood, but that doesn’t make it not worth believing. After all, does outer space have an ending? If so, how? If somewhere out in space, one were to come to a wall – a dead end – that wall would have to have thickness, so it would go on beyond the limits of space. And beyond that wall’s thickness, there would have to be something; how could there not be? And yet, we have nothing in our human experience with which to compare a never-ending thing, but that does not mean it’s not true. If such a conundrum exists in thinking about a created thing, how much more so in thinking about the Creator? No, it would be arrogant for the limits of my puny mind to walk away from Jesus simply because I can’t answer all the questions I might have. In fact, I’m not sure any god whom I could fully comprehend would be worthy of my worship.
Why would I walk away from Jesus? To paraphrase the Apostle Peter, where would I go? Jesus has the words of life.
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.
One of the things about God that blesses me so much is his capacity for forgiveness. Those who come to know God’s forgiveness do so initially when they place their faith in Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of their sins. Doing so makes one a child of God. But while our experience of God’s forgiveness may begin at the cross, it doesn’t end there, for once we become children of God, we proceed to demonstrate what wayward children we are.
There are different levels of waywardness. Some stumble here and there in the details while maintaining an overall walk with God, but others can seemingly tend to wander away from God altogether. Either way, God’s forgiveness is always on the table.
In the Scriptures, Israel and Judah, the two nations that comprised the one people of God (i.e., the Jews) showed a great propensity for wandering away from God. And yet, again and again we see God offering them a way back and receiving them when they would turn back to him. Hosea chapter 6 gives us some good insight into God’s forgiveness of his wayward people. We read in verses 1 and 2: Come, let us return to the LORD, for he has torn us that he may heal us; he has struck us down, and he will bind us up. After two days, he will revive us; on the third day, he will raise us up that we may live before him.
A child of God who wanders away will inevitably face difficulties in being away from God. Our Father just won’t let us walk away comfortably. And we see in this passage that at least some of the difficulties we face when we walk away from God come directly from him. The way most people view God would suggest that such difficulties are because he wants us to know just how mad he is about our wandering away. But this passage gives a different view of God: namely, that he hurts us to help us. God wants his wayward children back where they belong (i.e., with him), and the difficulties we face in walking away from God are for the purpose of driving us back to the place that is best for us – the place of refuge and safety. They are for the purpose of directing us back to the God who loves us.
But notice that God’s intention in doing this is not just so we can live happy, self-directed lives doing whatever we want to do. He does it so that “we may live before him.” The self-directed life of doing whatever we want in the belief that God is the ultimate tolerant Being is actually the life of wandering away from God. Living “before him” rather than away from him means that we have a conscious awareness that we are in the presence of the holy and righteous Creator and Judge of the universe. It means taking God seriously in how we live our lives. Will we fail? Absolutely. All the time. That is why we require his forgiveness, which, from a New Testament perspective that Hosea didn’t have, comes through faith in Jesus Christ, God in the flesh, who came to earth to bear our sins on a cross, paying the penalty our sins have earned for us, and offering us forgiveness free and clear through faith in him, a forgiveness which results in a life of fellowship with God and, ultimately, eternal life.
And yet, even when we have this eternal life, we can have times when we wander away from our Lord. When we do, we can be certain that he will (as Hosea says) tear us so that he may heal us, strike us down so that he may bind us up, all in an effort to draw us back to the place of refuge and safety – the place of living before him.