The Plumbline

I’ve been thinking about the way people tend to cherry-pick teachings, commandments, and moral ideals from the Bible (and other religious/philosophical texts for that matter). I confess, I am often guilty of this. I ignore the parts of scripture I don’t like, or cannot obey, spouting rhetoric only about those I find palatable. Or worse, only those I think others will find palatable. Sometimes I worry that in an effort to offend nobody, we will reach them. Pay careful attention to what I’m not saying, before I go about trying to explain what I am saying; I’m not saying “offending people doesn’t matter!” Not at all. What I am saying though, is that there is something inherently offensive about the gospel to the natural man. No one desires to be wrong. No one sets out with the goal of going against the truth. The gospel is offensive on a deep and intrinsic level because it tells us “You are wrong. You are broken. You are desperate. You cannot help yourself.” The Words of God are offensive to human ears because they tell us that we cannot simply pursue whatever base impulses or perversions of the truth we may desire.

But God has preserved in us an innate understanding that there IS right and wrong, even though we, apart from Him, cannot keep the two straight in our minds. How do we know this innate understanding is from God? Well, let’s look at the alternatives, and seek out their logical conclusions.

If our morality comes from ourselves only, then we will not share a standard of morality, and are each justified in doing what pleases us at the time, and there ought not to be consequences to actions, as any behavior can be moral to any person at any time. That, I hope, does not sit well with you. Additionally, we don’t see this in human society. So we cannot, as individuals, be deciding our own moral standards. Perhaps then, moral standards are a construct of society?

If our morality comes from the society in which we were raised, from a mere general consensus of what is right and wrong, it would certainly explain the shifts in cultural behaviors over time. Unfortunately, if this is the case, we must admit that there are behaviors and acts in history, and currently happening in other cultures, that we may view as heinous, but that, for a given time or place, are good and moral to do. If society sets the standard of morality, then the majority rules, and in their ruling, may choose which, if any, rights should be maintained for the minority. This may sound right (though I hope it does not), but the position that society dictates morality loses tenability upon deeper analysis. Consider a man who views morality as a general societal construct, and nothing more. What if the general society in which he lives were to dictate that he no longer had rights? By his own view that society is able to dictate morality, he would be obligated to consent to any abuses targeting him, acknowledging  them as moral to commit. Again, we do not see this. Rather, we see oppressed minorities rising up, seeking justice, seeking reparations, seeking equal treatment.

So if morality cannot be decided by the individual, nor can it be contingent on the mere whims of society, it must come from something outside both ourselves and our culture. It must be sourced from somewhere both deeper than the heart of an individual and yet more universal than the collected ideologies of a people. And if it is set by an outside source, which it must be, a person or people’s specific opinions about the standard of morality will not affect it. The implications of this are huge.

If morality is set by an outside standard, our belief about that standard affects only whether or not we conform to it, not whether or not it exists. The common analogy is that even should I claim no belief in gravity, I will still plummet when I step off a ledge. If something is real, believing in it or not cannot alter its realness. I may attempt to shield myself from criticisms by claiming everything is “just an opinion,” but boiling water will scald me even should I hold the opinion that it is not so hot.

Interestingly, our innate moral compass serves the paradoxical purposes of both demanding that there be a good and loving and just God, and condemning us for our inability (or unwillingness) to conform to His standards. We look at His statutes and  balk at the ones which require us to give up debauchery or scoff at those that insist we adopt attitudes of humility. Yet, we will cry out for justice and an end of evil just as easily. We want the world to be without evil, and yet we want a place for ourselves in that world, with all our evil desires intact. We long for a God who will punish the wicked, so long as we are not counted among them.

Sadly, this has led many to worship or scorn different, custom designed “gods.” They look for a pacifist Jesus in the gospels, ignoring the righteous anger He displayed when clearing the temple, hoping it will allow them to avoid confrontation. Or perhaps they seek to defame God as violent and spiteful through passages in the Old Testament, ignoring the mercy He showed to Nineveh, hoping to excuse themselves from obedience. Each of us has constructed our own little god, built around our own opinions of right and wrong, and as a result, our faith is idolatry.

So here is my challenge to each of you: As I continually tear down my ideas of who God “should” be and attempt to replace them with the truth of who He is, I challenge each of you to scour scripture and seek the ways you may have misunderstood God.

The Promises of God

When I look at the state of the world I cannot help but wonder “What are you doing, Lord?”

With the Islamic State, the Ebola virus, the Houston subpoenas, the droughts permeating the American Southwest, and a myriad of other social, economic, geopolitical, and environmental issues facing both the United States and the planet as a whole, it’s so easy to throw up my hands and despair.

Last night, I felt close to that point. While sprawled across my bed at home, a deep anguish began to settle over me, thicker, even than the comforter on which I lay. Stephanie, my wife, entered and saw me, and knew right that I felt burdened.

I remember saying “I can’t quite put my finger on it. I just feel sad.” Her response demonstrates why I fell for her so easily and completely.

“We should have some prayer time tonight.”

I want to share with you some of what we prayed.

Psalm 46 popped into my mind, as it so often does in the midst of strife. I’d encourage you to read the whole thing, but a few verses that struck me right away were 1-3

“God is our refuge and strength,
    a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way,
    though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea,
though its waters roar and foam,
    though the mountains tremble at its swelling.

I felt a touch better; just remembering that God is here with us. He isn’t a distant God who we hope will get here in time to save, but a “very present” God who by our sides, walking with us through even the worst suffering our broken world can throw at us. And this Psalm ends with a promise.

I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth!” God says in verse 10. It’s not a question of if God will be totally and unquestionably honored and worshiped, or even where He will be. It will happen. It will be throughout the world.

Then Stephanie and I read II Chronicles 7:13-14.

When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command the locust to devour the land, or send pestilence among my people, if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land.”

Though I don’t know the state of locust populations in the US, we have drought, and I’d call Ebola pestilence. This verse, though technically directed to Israel, spoke volumes to me last night, and convicted me that I never pray for revival. I do try to repent, personally, when I know I need to, but I rarely if ever ask God to stir the hearts of this nation (much less this world) and bring revival. What would it look like to see large-scale repentance and a deep, abiding desire to know God more and worship him fully? I confess, I cannot even fathom what that would entail. But I know what would cause it: The Holy Spirit moving in our lives. And there, once again, is a promise of God: “I will hear… forgive… and heal.” If I really believe we need forgiveness and healing, why am I not praying for and seeking revival?

Then the Lord lead us to Revelation 21 and 22. Again, I recommend reading the whole thing when you have time. Here’s the verses that I want to focus on:

“And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.’

“And he who was seated on the throne said, ‘Behold, I am making all things new.’ Also he said, ‘Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.'”

No matter what, regardless of what happens with all the pain and sickness and persecution and disobedience, God has promised us that a day is coming when those things will end. He makes all things new. His promises are trustworthy and true. We have nothing to fear from this world because the worst of the worst that Satan can dish out is dwarfed by the goodness of God.

As Stephanie and I prayed through these promises of God, we praised Him for His goodness. We asked Him to remember what He has said He would do, and petitioned Him to do it in our time. To be quite frank, I had never really prayed for that; at least, not in a way that was genuine or full of faith. We asked Him to strengthen our faith, telling Him we do believe while asking Him to help our unbelief.

And during our time of prayer, I thought of Acts 4:27-30, where the church, faced with persecution and revulsion, asks for boldness and to see God move, not for a decrease in pain or suffering. My heart broke as I thought of how often I’ve prayed for my comfort and to avoid troubles. Another promise of God bloomed in my mind: “In this world you will have troubles. But take heart, I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)

I want to exhort you, whoever you are reading this, to think over these promises of God. Understand that God’s promises will be fulfilled. God is sovereign and we have no need to fear the future. We do not serve a god of “oops” or “darn-it” or “uh-oh.” We serve the One, True, Omnipotent, Omniscient, Omnipresent, Eternal and Benevolent God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. And with the knowledge of who God is, I ask you to consider and pray over the final promise of our Lord, recorded in Revelation 22:20 -“I am coming soon” to which we ought to respond, as John did, “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!”

Creepy crawlies

Infestations always start with something small and totally manageable. Before your house can crumble from the damage of a million termites, a single termite queen must begin laying eggs in the walls. If you could find the queen before the eggs are deposited, you would avoid the entire ordeal with no more effort than a quick stomp of a shoe.

Sin is the same. Before your life dissolves into a puddle of sex, drugs and rock-n-roll, a single act of the flesh must be ignored (or even justified). The tiniest little sin, something that doesn’t even feel wrong or trigger your conscience, can lead to all kinds of deep-seated issues. Additionally, sin can be like an infestation in the sense that sometimes the damage is such that you have to start by doing a little deconstructing of your own before you can start over.

I know this is true because it is in scripture (James 1: 14-15 says “But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.”

Unfortunately, I also know it is true because of my own extensive experience as a sinner. There is a well known statistic that it takes 10,000 hours to master a skill. Though I’m not prepared to defend this contested idea, I can say with all certainty that if it’s true, my 24.8 years on this earth have given me well over 100,000 hours of practice (and that is if you, rather graciously, assume I only have sin in my heart 50% of the time). So that makes me a master ten times over. But when you master sin, it’s really sin that masters you. And it all starts with a tiny little thought.

The creepy crawly sins in my life right now are materialism and laziness. Exactly where and how they started, I don’t actually know, but I’m finding it really hard to remove from my life. But recognizing the issue is not the same as dealing with it, and when the issue is laziness and materialism, it’s easy to think “I’ll deal with this tomorrow… but for now, why don’t I buy another gizmo, that will make me feel better!”

Only it doesn’t. Not that I really, deep in my soul, think it will or should. And, to be sure, I can justify my sin so easily. I’m not going into debt to feed my desires for more stuff. I’m not missing deadlines at work to watch another season of Doctor Who on Netflix. In fact, I don’t actually buy many things, I just sort of fantasize about having a newer car, a bigger TV, or a faster computer. And I don’t indulge my desire to waste time when I have no time to waste. No, the problem is not that my relationships are in shambles and I am a shell of my former self; the problem is that I have a termite queen laying eggs in my heart, and I’m questioning whether I should stamp her out now.

Praise God for the life, forgiveness, and help He gives! My prayer, right now, in this exact moment of writing, is that He would show me the severity of my sin and remind me that to leave a “small” sin un-squashed is disastrous and foolish. In fact, my prayer is that He would re-teach me the grace He showed at Calvary and help me see that He squashed sin for me. Fortunately, because I know He is good and desires to sanctify those who are His, His answer to requests for help crushing sin will always be yes.

Broken and Breaking

I think there are strategies used by the enemy to wage war against the Lord of heaven and earth that are more effective than I tend to realize. One that the Lord has opened my eyes to most recently is Satan’s desire to make us think this world is a comfortable and good place. The reason it’s so dang effective? We know, deep down we can feel it, the world should be a comfortable and good place. We sense the bit of truth in the lie, and it shuts down our defences and lulls us off to sleep through the battles raging around us.

But sometimes, because of His great mercy and love, God will break us of this silly notion. Pain and brokenness surround us, and recently one friend’s trial has been one of a series of events God has used to remind me that this world has been tarnished and cannot function as He intended it to. Scott Frazier and his wife recently had a beautiful baby girl; beautiful, but far from healthy. Davy’s diaphragm didn’t fully form which allowed her abdominal organs to settle in her chest cavity. This in turn hindered the development of her lungs, which has caused a host of other issues.

This news, in conjunction with the tragedies of other friends over the last few weeks, has shaken my faith more than I want to admit. How could this happen? Why would God allow it? My sadness and grief over the heartache of my friends cannot begin to match that of people going through such trials themselves. I am a third party observer of little Davy’s struggle, and I know that my soul could never cry out in anguish the way Scott and Chelsea’s do. But the truth is, even they do not grieve to the extent God does when He looks at the world. His world, mangled and marred by sin and death, causes Him more pain than we can fathom. The world ought not work this way.

And finally, I begin to understand why trials are a blessing, and it’s not because Christians are sadists and masochists. We are not called to enjoy pain, but to rejoice in it. I never seek out calamity, and I don’t find pleasure seeing others in pain, but still I praise God in times of pain because He is reminding His people that this is not our home. This world is broken by sin, but He is fixing it by grace through Christ Jesus.

1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 says: “But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. Therefore encourage one another with these words.”

And though this is talking specifically about mourning those who have died in Christ, I think it applies to those who are suffering in Christ by other means, too. We do weep when we feel sorrow, but it’s a weeping that comes from hope and a certain sense of homesickness at the knowledge that one day Christ will return and set things right, restoring what was lost.

When I look at my life and think “things are going well” I’m tempted to love this world, rather than the God who created it. Sometimes, I foolishly decide to settle for the best the world has to offer because I have forgotten that the world’s best is always countered by the world’s worst. For every “pay it forward” chain at a coffee shop, there is a string of killings by a twisted regime. For every beautiful sunset, there is a blood spattered patch of earth. For every sweet and loving relationship, there is a manipulative and abusive one. And, although that is a sobering and miserable thought, it points me back to Christ and the hope I have for the future outlined in Revelation 21:1-6

“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem,coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”

“And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” And he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give from the spring of the water of life without payment.””

Scott Frazier has a blog of his own called Numbered Days which I highly recommend. His outlook on his duaghter’s situation has been a huge source of encouragement to me. Please visit his blog and be in prayer for his daughter, Davy.

Hedonists!

In my most recent update letter, I mentioned that I have been learning about Christian Hedonism, the idea that it’s actually good to seek pleasure because God is the greatest pleasure there is. We are called not just to obey God, but to enjoy obedience! We should delight in the Lord!

Frankly, I often stink at this. It’s common for me to be trudging along, desperately trying to obey when everything in me feels very rebellious. Over the last week or so I’ve found myself feeling especially disconnected from the joy that is, according to scripture, supposed to come with obedience to God.

Today, while reading in Psalms, I came to Psalm 116, and God revealed Himself to me there. In this chapter, the psalmist explicitly states that he loves the Lord because the Lord hears his prayers. The writer was tangled up by death, and God responded when he cried out. God rescued him, thus he loves God.

Starting in verse 12, the tone shifts and he seems to be explaining what his love for God brings about in his life. He starts by questioning what he could do to repay God’s kindness. We know from other passages of scripture that the answer is “nothing.” There is nothing we can do to pay God back. But the psalmist doesn’t say “Nothing, so I’m going to offer nothing.” In fact, he chooses to offer public vows of service, and the “sacrifice of thanksgiving.”

This is clearly a man who is finding joy in serving God. This is not a sense of obligation. He knows he cannot repay God, so we know his motivation for service is not paying off debt. So what is his motivation for serving God? Based on the delight that is evident in his words, I think it’s pleasure. The author of this psalm is serving God because he loves God and it’s pleasurable to serve Him. So here’s the question I had to ask: was I truly finding pleasure in my service to God? If not, why?

And as I re-read the text, I saw a flow: God hears the cry of the distressed, God meets their needs, they love God for his attentiveness, they begin to serve God, God blesses them with abundant joy from their service… But in my fallen perspective, God didn’t seem to be meeting my needs or answering my cries, so my service wasn’t motivated by love for Him. I was believing in a god that is inattentive to the calls of his people. But taking that a step further, the only way I could still have unmet needs is for Christ’s provision on the cross to be insufficient for all my needs. Stated in that way, my mind and soul (and I hope yours too) reject immediately the idea that Christ’s sacrifice was anything less than supremely sufficient.

The God I serve is not just attentive to my needs, and He certainly is not inattentive to them; rather God is pre-attentive to my needs, meeting them long before I even know what they are or have the capacity to cry out to Him for help. I recognize now that the reason God isn’t responding to my cries in my timing is simply that He has already resoundingly responded to every cry in His timing, through the cross at Calvary! And because He has heard my cry and responded before I cried it, I find my love for God restored, my desire to serve Him returning, and my joy in serving replenished!

Psalm 119:14, 16, 24, 35

“In the way of your testimonies I delight
as much as in all riches.”

“I will delight in your statutes;
I will not forget your word.”

“Your testimonies are my delight;
they are my counselors.”

“Lead me in the path of your commandments,
for I delight in it.”

Impetus

An unexpected chill shocked me as I stepped out into the pre-dawn grey. With nothing passing between us besides a brief acknowledgement of the cold, Kevin and I started our jog. I’d never been to “the rock” and it was too cold to waste precious warm breath making an Alcatraz joke. And so we ran, swift and silent, through the hazy glow of street lights. Soon, the sidewalk stopped, and with it, the convenient lighting courtesy of the City of Austin. Beneath the mostly barren canopy of trees who had yet to launch into their spring rituals, we trekked. What little light managed to climb over the horizon was thwarted by the woods. To me, the trail is indistinguishable from the thorny brush flanking it on either side. I see nothing but obscurity and hues of dark. Left on my own, I would inevitably be lost and injured, tangled in brambles I was never meant to encounter.

However, with my eyes fixed firmly on the one who goes before me, I mimic his movements around hairpin turns, over narrow plank bridges, onto the stepping stones that lead across the shallow stream. He ducks, and I instinctively lower my own head to avoid the unseen branch. He lifts his left hand to block wispy branches that reach out to claw his face, and though I have no visual evidence they are there, I follow suit and feel them slap harmlessly against my forearm. Each warning of “watch out for that rock” or “jump over that pothole” builds trust between us. In this world of shadows, where everything is colored in varied tones of gloom, I realized that running after Kevin, whose familiarity with the trail went far beyond my own, provides an excellent picture of the life of a Christian.

When I follow Christ, I don’t know where we are going. I don’t know what is around the next bend or on the other side of the trial I’m in the midst of. But I know that I’m following someone who does. I know that the more closely I can stick to Him the more timely His help will come, and the more able to stay on the path I will be. There will still be times when I grow weary; when each heartbeat feels like it will burst my head clean apart; when my legs feel like molten lead- dense, unsteady, and fiery hot… But in those times, I can look up and see my Savior- His pierced feet rhythmically thudding along, His loving voice sending me encouragement and warnings- and I can know that my path is known, and at the end of it sits the Rock.

1 Samuel 2:2

“There is none holy like the Lord:
for there is none besides you;
there is no rock like our God.”

Obedience

How would you react if God told you He intended to take your wife, and that you are not to grieve for her? Would you be angry? Would you be skeptical? Would you be wary, distrustful, or blatantly disobedient?

When I am faced with discomfort, sadness, or pain, I tend to react in one of those ways. I grow angry at God for His refusal to bless me. I begin to distrust Him and cling all the tighter the the illusion of control I have over my situation. And, sadly, I often choose to disobey the clear teaching of the Word with unflinching resolve. Clearly I wouldn’t make it as a prophet.

In Ezekiel 24, God explains that Zeke’s wife is to become an object lesson for the exiles in Babylon. He tells His prophet that by not publicly mourning her, he will be showing the displaced people what their response to Jerusalem’s fall should be. This is a hard fact to swallow. If God is good, loving, kind, gracious, and merciful, why is he taking the life of His servant’s lover? What’s more, why is it important that the prophet act as though the loss does not affect him? Athough it’s difficult to think on, the answer, I think, is that God cares much more about holiness (Both His holiness and our own) than he does about happiness. Perhaps He cares more about us being conformed to His image than he does about us being comforted?

And the shocking thing, at least to me, is that Ezekiel doesn’t whine, fuss, complain or disobey. He simply does all that the Lord asks of him. What would it look like in my life to obey so unquestioningly and trust God so completely? It’s easy to look at the trials God puts before us and despair. It’s common to see tragedy and think “no good can possibly come of this…” But who are we to judge God’s plans in our limited timescale? Ezekiel’s life and works are still teaching and giving insight about God to this very day. God, in His sovereignty and eternity, is not bound by what seems right in our finite minds, but is powerful, both willing and able to act in light of the span of human existence.

And, I must always remember, He doesn’t ask us to make sacrifices and make none of His own. In Ezekiel 24:21 God Himself tells Ezekiel ” ‘Say to the house of Israel, Thus says the Lord God: Behold, I will profane my sanctuary.’ ” God is acknowledging His role in the destruction of the temple. God is showing His own willingness to sacrifice things dear to Him for the sake of reaching the hearts of His people. I can think of at least one other example of God using the destruction of something dear to Him to reach the hearts of His people…

John 2:18-19, 21

So the Jews said to him, “What sign do you show us for doing these things?” Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”

…But he was speaking about the temple of his body.