RECOMMENDING THE SEA

RECOMMENDING THE SEA

Turmoil. Grief. Anxiety. Are you acquainted with any of these? Of course, you are, especially during this pandemic. How do you soothe them? Where do you find solace? Allow me to recommend the sea.

Few things soothe my soul like the sea. Visiting the shore is an opportunity to engage with God through the majesty of his creation on a level that is difficult to achieve in a neighborhood crowded with houses. The sea’s voice is unmatched by any other except possibly the sky – but that is an article for another day.

Standing on the shore, facing out to sea feet planted inches from the breaking waves with the world of men behind and nothing but sun, sky, and water before, the disrupted parts of your soul begin to settle.

I think I know why. See if you agree.

The sea is expansive. It speaks of the omnipresence of God, massive, immense, all-encompassing, filling the field of view until it disappears over the horizon. The largest ships look like tiny toys across the distant waves.

The sea tells us nothing is too big for God. Nothing happens that is outside of his perception. Nothing happens in our life that is beyond his field of view.

Where can I go from your Spirit?

Where can I flee from your presence?

If I go up to the heavens, you are there;

if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.

If I rise on the wings of the dawn,

if I settle on the far side of the sea,

even there your hand will guide me,

your right hand will hold me fast. [1]

The sea is constant, ever-moving yet never moved. It speaks of the unchanging God. The shore is never silent. Even on dead calm days, the quiet lapping of water on sand or rock is present. It is unchallengeable, indisputable, unchanging. On stormy days it reminds us of our storm-tossed lives. But even then, it does not change. The waves gather and curl and crash into each other and finally spill themselves onto the sand to instantly disappear, their fury spent, their conflict gone. So too our lives but the sea, the life upon which all others depend, lives on.

God is constant. God does not change. Our lives toss about, curling and crashing into one another, spending our energies in furious conflict. And then they are gone, the fury spent, the battle finished. But God remains.

The sea is mighty, often challenged, but never conquered. You can feel it, standing there at the top of the tide. Your visceral senses tell you, “this thing can go where it wants and take you along with it.” When sun and sea, pressure, and temperature meet in perfect hurricane pitch, nothing can stand in its way. Only God is more powerful. He marks the boundaries of the sea. It travels not one inch further than his will. He gathers the waters of the sea into jars; he puts the deep into storehouses. (Ps 33:7 NIV)

The sea is majestic. It speaks of the omnipotent God. Nothing he has called us to do is beyond his power to help. Without his permission, nothing can reach past the boundaries he places around our lives.

The seas have lifted up, O LORD, the seas have lifted up their voice; the seas have lifted up their pounding waves. Mightier than the thunder of the great waters, mightier than the breakers of the sea– the LORD on high is mighty. (Ps. 93:3-4 NIV)

Turmoil, grief, anxiety, make a longer list if you want. I recommend the sea. Nothing is too big for God. Nothing changes God. Nothing is too powerful for God.

[1] The Holy Bible: New International Version. (1984). (Ps 139:7–10). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

THE REASON FOR GOD’S WRATH

Wrath’s purpose in our lives, as well as the way it operates, is not what we imagine.

Someone once asked, “Do you believe people can change?”

“Yes,” I said, “I’ve seen it happen. I’ve also experienced it.”

“What makes them change?” He asked.

“The power of God working from within, but there is only one way to get that.”

“What is it?”

“Humility. Usually precipitated by pain.”

“Huh?” My friend didn’t like where this was going, but I could tell he was still interested so I pressed on.

“Most of us won’t do what the Bible calls repentance—giving up our role as Lord and Master of our lives, as well as giving up our sins, and giving ourselves over to God—until our way of doing things has caused enough pain and frustration to make us consider that God might have a better plan.”

What I didn’t tell him was that the pain that we experience is a manifestation of the mercy of God through the exercise of his wrath. It is one of his greatest, though severest, blessings.

Temporal wrath, the kind we experience during our earthly lives, as well as the way it operates, is not what we imagine.

When we think of God’s wrath we often think of cataclysmic natural phenomena: the great flood of Genesis or the Ten Plagues of Egypt. Some have even said that hurricanes and the like are evidence of God’s wrath. But a passage in Ezekiel, along with others in the New Testament, offers a different take.

Ezekiel 20:25-26 is a record of God’s wrath against Israel for her sins. It reads: “I also gave them over to statutes that were not good and laws they could not live by; I let them become defiled through their gifts—the sacrifice of every firstborn—that I might fill them with horror, so they would know that I am the LORD.”

Israel had become hard of hearing. God had sent plenty of warnings by previous prophets; notables like Elijah and Elisha and Jeremiah. But Israel had refused to listen. So God “gave them over.” In other words, he let them experience the full consequences of their choices. Instead of his civilization-building, order-preserving, life-giving Ten Commandments they ended up with a system of frustrating laws under which no one could flourish. Worse, instead of the purity and peace of temple worship they ended up sacrificing their firstborn, murdering their children to appease the new gods they had chosen over Jehovah. This was God’s merciful wrath in action: That they might be so filled with horror at their own behavior they would recognize their folly and return to him.

God’s merciful wrath is also visible in the New Testament. Jesus, responding to his disciples concern over some false teachers, said “let them alone, they are blind leaders of the blind, they will both fall into a ditch.” Paul, in Romans chapter one, repeats the phrase, “gave them over” when explaining God’s wrath. God “left them alone” so to speak. Each time the result is the same: people experiencing the painful and destructive consequences of their choices.

God’s temporal wrath works to induce revulsion in us, disgust at our own behavior, and such horror at the consequences of our choices that we are willing to consider another way to live.

Every one of us deserves God’s wrath, the eternal as well as the temporal consequences of rebellion against him. As Paul wrote to the Romans, “Are we any better? Not at all! … There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God. All have turned away. They have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one.”[1]

Thankfully, eternal wrath—the eternal consequences of our rebellion against his goodness—is not the end God has for us, at least not for those who hear the message in painful consequences of ungodly choices. “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”[2] Christ absorbed the wrath of God for us so that the only version of it we would experience is the kind that helps us change, not the eternal version.

God’s wrath in our lives is a blessing in disguise. It is designed to help us see the awfulness of sin so that we will turn to the savior.

[1] Romans 3:9-12.

[2] Romans 5:6-8.

GOD’S LOVE AND HELL

A book by a well known evangelical casts doubt on some things Jesus said about hell and judgment. The basic question is: If God is love, why does he send people to hell?

But there is a twofold problem with the question. It assumes that we understand human nature and God’s love as they are presented in the Bible.

We do not.

We have childish, unbiblical notions of human nature. We believe that we are better than we are–that sin somehow does not corrupt us. We also have confused ideas about responsibility. We tend to blame God for our choices. We misunderstand his nature, imagining his love as grandfatherly sentiment, his holiness irrelevant, and therefore, his wrath is considered impossible.

When we do think of God’s wrath, we equate it with human rage. But Tim Keller has a good definition of God’s wrath: “It is not an out-of-control temper. Wrath is the settled opposition and hatred of that which is destroying what we love.” Imagine your reaction to cancer in a dear friend. That’s wrath. God hates the things that destroy us, including the things that come from inside us.

We are capable of much evil, much selfishness, much that is perverse and opposed to that which God holds dear. We destroy the bodies he gave us with toxins, neglect, and inadequate care. We destroy the souls he gave us with greed, gossip, lying, self-righteousness, self-pity, and lust. And we destroy others with cutting words, economic oppression, relentless criticism, and betrayal.

We also assume that Jesus was too kind to mention hell. But he said more about hell than anyone else in the New Testament. He warned us, “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” (Matthew 10:28 NIV).

He also taught that hell is self-chosen saying, “This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil.” (John 3:18-19 NIV).

C. S. Lewis said it like this: Unless someone wants God and God alone he would be utterly miserable in heaven. It would be a crime to send him there for heaven is all about God.

Finally, the good news that Jesus came to proclaim is that God wishes to save us from hell. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16). That’s God’s love at work, absorbing the wrath that we deserve, and making it possible for us to know him now and join him in eternity.

How do we do that? By receiving him into our lives as Lord, as Jesus also explained, “He who receives me receives the one who sent me.” (John 13:20 ESV). And, “Whoever wants to save his life will lose it. But whoever loses his life for me will find it.” (Matthew 13:25 NIV).

So the question is not, “Why does God send people to hell?” But rather, “What do I really want? Do I want Jesus Christ and God the Father who sent him? Or do I want my own life, my own way?”

Either way, the choice is ours.

ELUSIVE CHRISTMAS JOY

Joy, for many of us, is elusive at Christmas. Instead of mounting happiness as October fades and November cools, our moods fall like spent leaves, wind drifts of brown on grass no longer green.

Reasons for sadness pile up as the year runs out.

“Holiday sales” burnout plays a part. Holy awe, and the joy it builds, is dulled by crass commerce that begins before Halloween ends. Only in America, where glitz is king, can the latest Mercedes induce more wonder than the Word made flesh.

But that’s not all the sales and marketing do. They remind many of us of things we’d rather forget, visual cues of tragedies past. Loved ones lost as the holidays arrived, graveside services in the snow. Or simply beautiful seasons of life that have come and gone, and will never come again, as children grow and jobs carry us away.

Then there is the actual gathering of family members, long dispersed and often better off that way. Seasonal expectations of heightened happiness against the backdrop of broken promises and dreams create a special kind of emotional dissonance. It’s hard to sing NOEL when your heart is full of Lamentations.

It was to people like that that the angel announced “good news of great joy.” People just like you and me. “For all people,” this news was come, “peace on earth, good will toward men.”

Ponder those words.

Men have peace with God. More to the point, God has declared peace to men. The relationship broken in the Garden of God, the fellowship lost when our first parents were banished from the place of blessing (read “Joy”) has been restored–restored not by man returning to the Garden, by earning or breaking his way in, but by God leaving the Garden and coming into the world. Truly, those who walked in darkness have seen a great light.

And the good news is “for all people.” Not for some, but for all. Not for the elite, but for all. Not for the powerful, but for all. Not for the popular, the famous, or the merely well-liked, but for all. Not for the religiously pure or the morally righteous, but for all. Not for one race, or kind, or nation, but for all. Not for someone else, no, the good news is for me, and for you, and for all.

A great assumption lies behind the angels’ news: That our estrangement from God is worse by far than all of the stress, all of the loss, all of the tragedies, and burnout combined. Indeed it is, because that estrangement is the root of all other alienation. And the reconciliation made possible by the babe of Bethlehem, the first step of God again into the world, was the beginning of true hope, the well-spring of lasting joy.

This Christmas, don’t look for joy from a brightly wrapped package under a tree, in family, or parties, or songs. These are just the trimmings. Look for joy in the face of Jesus. He has come to reconcile all who will believe, and he will come again to restore all things.

FINDING GOD ON LIFE’S BATTLEFIELDS

The summer of 2009 was an exciting time. I had just finished my first book, JUNGLE FLIGHT, my wife and I were taking a two week trip for our 25th anniversary, and the last week was to be spent at the largest air show in the world: The Experimental Aviation Association’s AirVenture (aka Oshkosh). There I would get to sell the book and meet someone who had walked with God through the battlefields of life: Gracia Burnham.

Gracia and I shared a table for the authors of Christian books on mission aviation. People from all over the world came up to greet her and ask for her autograph. (It didn’t hurt my book sales to be seated next to her either).

Gracia is a beautiful woman because her soul, like her name, is full of grace. If you know her story you might expect otherwise. She and her husband Martin were the missionaries, kidnapped by the Philippine terrorist group, Abu Sayyaf, that half the world was praying for back in 2001 and 2002. They endured an excruciating year together of hunger, squalor, brutality and several near misses with death before the final rescue attempt in which Martin was killed.

Here’s what Gracia said about how that affected her faith.

“I used to have this concept of what God is like, and how life’s supposed to be because of that. But in the jungle, I learned I don’t know as much about God as I thought I did. I don’t have him in a theological box anymore. What I do know is that God is God—and I’m not. The world’s in a mess because of sin, not God. Some awful things may happen to me, but God does what is right. And he makes good out of bad situations.”[1]

Gracia isn’t the only one who has faced trauma and come out on the other side with a sweet soul and a deeper understanding of God. Study the lives of Moses in Exodus, David in 1 Samuel, or Peter and the apostles in the New Testament. Each man met God in moments of great trauma.

We will also have our battlefield moments when we are shocked, angry, exhausted and numb and the demands just keep on coming. The bills have to be paid. The car has to be fixed. The grass has to get mowed. The job has to be done and we’re the ones to do it. We don’t have time to grieve, still less to whine. We have to lead. We have to absorb the bitterness and grief of others and keep on trucking. We have to help others make sense of the chaos. We have to help others find their vision and their purpose again and make progress on their own battlefields.

The hardest part is when God seems far away and our emotions are in total lock down; we can’t feel anything anymore.

We might be numb, but we still have a choice: to let the battle come between us and God, or to let it push us right up against him; to travel away from Him in our grief, or further in and farther on into the mystery of his majesty.

2 Cor. 1:8-9 reads: We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about the hardships we suffered in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life. 9) Indeed, in our hearts we felt the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead. (NIV)

When that happens, when we stop relying on ourselves and our Sunday School flannel graph understanding of God, we begin to know Him who raises the dead. But here’s the thing: We have to die to ourselves before we can know him that way. When we want to find God on the battlefields of life, the rendezvous is always at the Cross.

[1] Corrie Cutrer, “Soul Survivor,” Today’s Christian Woman (July/Aug 2003), p. 50

 

PRACTICE THESE THINGS

Three Principles for Success in 2016
Believing that God’s principles for life exist won’t do anything for you. You have to commit to them. You have to put them into practice.

IRON LADY is a film about the late Margaret Thatcher, the first female Prime Minister of Great Britain. Meryl Streep gives a brilliant performance, as usual, but the movie had conflicting effects on me.

First it was a bit depressing, because it shows Thatcher as an elderly woman, struggling with dementia, living in flashbacks of her years in politics. And given that the producers are no friend to her conservative principles, the film gave short shrift to her successes emphasizing instead the upheaval caused by her policies as well as the strain her leadership style put on her relationships. Comments like, “When I’m out of politics I’m going to run a business, it’ll be called rent-a-spine,” did not endear her to her friends, much less her enemies.

However, the film couldn’t completely hide her achievements. Thatcher’s principled leadership helped bring down the Soviet Union, rescued the UK’s economy and kept Great Britain from becoming a 1980’s version of Greece, among other things.

In the process of telling that story the movie highlighted something that Jesus said and that the Bible teaches on practically every page: Believing in principles is one thing, but it’s the practice that changes things.

Jesus summed it up nicely in Matthew 7:24-27: “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.” (Emphasis added).

We can break down what he said into a four-part formula.

1. God has given us principles to live by.
2. We cannot be passive about them, noncommittal. We have to put them into practice.
3. We can expect a crisis.
4. We will reap a harvest.

Three Principles for a Successful 2016

Financial Security – Work hard. Spend less than you earn. Give away a tenth. Save a tenth. Do it for a long time and you will experience prosperity. (See Luke 6:38; Proverbs 6:6-8).

Successful Relationships – Look for the good in people and they will look for the good in you. But be discerning. Not everyone is worthy of your confidence. (See Matthew 7:1-2, 6.)

Leadership
(See Proverbs 18:13 & 15)
I love the way the late Stephen Covey formulated these: Seek first to understand, then to be understood.

The Bible is first and foremost the revelation of God’s plan, through the sacrifice of his son, to rescue his highest creation from the penalty, power, and presence of the most destructive force in the universe: sin. But in the process of that revelation God gave his people bushels of principles for living life on a sin-cursed planet. Tom Minnery, in Focus on the Family Citizen, explained it this way, “[When] I was younger, I tended to believe that certain principles were true because they were in the Bible. But year by year, as I have read much of the social research, I have come to look at this a new way–that certain principles are in the Bible because they are true. They are true and helpful for all people, regardless of whether they accept or reject the Bible’s central claim. ”

The Bible is a book of principles, all kinds of principles for all kinds of life situations and God has been very gracious to give them to us. Put them into practice for 2016 and you will see their fruit for the rest of your life.