Thursday, May 29, 2008

Proverbs . . . the good, the bad, the ugly.

A simple glance through the book of Proverbs will quickly reveal that it is unlike anything else in the Bible. Outside of the first few chapters and the last, most of the book is a rather loosely connected collection of sayings.

Some have worked there way into popular Christian thought:
  • The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (9:10).
  • There is a way that seems right to a man, but in the end it leads to death (16:25).
  • As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another (27:17).

Some stand out for their vividness:

  • The purposes of a man’s heart are deep waters, but a man of understanding draws them out (20:5).
  • A word aptly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver (25:11).
  • As a dog returns to its vomit, so a fool repeats his folly (26:11).

Others seem like they should have come from something other than the Bible:

  • A bribe is a charm to the one who gives it; wherever he turns, he succeeds. (17:8).
  • Give beer to those who are perishing, wine to those who are in anguish; let them drink and forget their poverty and remember their misery no more (31:6-7).

What does one make of this great variety? What is one to do with the proverbs that seem, well…anything but good advice? The first key to interpreting the book of Proverbs is recognizing what type of book it is. It’s obviously not a historical book like Kings or Chronicles or even the gospels. It isn’t a book of law like Leviticus. It is instead considered a book of wisdom (along with both Job and Ecclesiastes).

Most likely collected during the reign of Hezekiah, the book of Proverbs is a collection of wisdom sayings from many different sources and sayings. Its purpose was to train young boys in the King’s court in the way of wisdom. This wasn’t just some theoretical training, but rather practical training on how to make choices that would lead to the desired results in life. Proverbs assumes an ordered universe, one governed by truth and justice. It does not have much room for mystery or suffering. It assumes that if one works hard and does what is right, one will succeed. Of course, the other two examples of wisdom literature (Job and Ecclesiastes) challenge this assumption.

What then are we to make of the book of Proverbs? First, the book speaks of what is generally (but not always) true in life. Take Proverbs 13:21 for instance: “Misfortune pursues the sinner, but prosperity is the reward of the righteous.” True, most of the time hard, honest work usually does pay off while sin most often leads to trouble. This is good advice. But we must always keep the book of Proverbs in the context of the rest of scripture. The rest of scripture highlights that there are times when the wicked prevail at the expense of the righteous, and that suffering is sometimes a sign of faithfulness not folly (just look at the example of Jesus). However, if we’ll exercise these cautions, the book of Proverbs will provide us with some true gems of godly wisdom.

My favorite this week:
Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life (4:23).

Praying that the peace of God will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus this week (Phil 4:7).

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Decision making and the will of God (part 4)

One of the great blessings of modern life is the abundance of choices we have at our fingertips (or better yet our taste buds). Sonic Drive-In boasts 168,894 drink possibilities on their menu. If you tried just one combination per day it would take you over 500 years to try them all. It’s easy to see how this “blessing” of modern life can also feel like a curse. The sheer number of possibilities overwhelms us. We become stressed over what is the right choice and whether or not we’ll miss out on something good if we make the wrong choice. For Christians, we often add the stress of worrying about not just making a poor choice, but in that poor choice missing God’s will for our lives. It’s enough to cause us all to long for simpler days.

But even simpler days included tough choices. The question we’ve been addressing over the last few weeks is how do we know God’s will as we attempt to make those choices? We started remembering that God loves us and is not out to get us. Then we remembered that in many decisions God has already told us what his will is in the Bible (ie. we shouldn't murder, we should be kind to others, we should consistently worship with other believers, etc.). We also noted that sometimes, but only sometimes, God will make his will known in unmistakable ways (ie. burning bushes, angelic messengers, etc.).

But what about when he doesn’t? That really is the question we’ve been getting to all along. What do we do when faced with two (or more) choices for which there is no clear guidance in the Bible and no direct word from God? For example, suppose a college student is trying to pick a major. She’s narrowed it down to biology or accounting. She’s searched the Bible, there’s no prohibition (or encouragement) towards either profession. She’s prayed, consulted godly counsel, waited . . . but no miraculous word from above, not even a nudge. What next?

Here’s where I’m going to sound pretty unspiritual, but hang with me. My advice to this young lady – do what you want. Look, God made you. He made your likes and your dislikes. Made you with talents and gifts and then in his grace gave you the freedom to go and be you. So part of decision making and the will of God is that sometimes, after we’ve sought the guidance of scripture and listened to the Spirit’s leading, we just need to do what we want, trusting that God’s will had a hand in shaping those desires. It’s what the Psalmist was getting at when he said, “Delight yourself in the Lord and he will give you the desires of your heart” (Psalm 37:4). Sometimes the most spiritual thing we can do is to do what we want, so long as we make that decision within the guidelines God set forth in the scriptures and carry the decision out to His glory.

May God set you free today to do just that.

Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men – Colossians 3:23.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Decision making and the will of God (part 3)

In Psalm 40:8, David confessed, “I desire to do your will, my God; your law is within my heart.” His confession has been repeated by countless believers through the ages who desire to do that which God commands. His words remind us of what we spoke about last week, that one of the first steps in seeking God’s will is to meditate upon and put into practice the commands we find in the scripture. To do so, helps create in us the character of God, which then enables us to live daily in God’s will. Of course, anyone who’s read the Bible faithfully knows that the Bible doesn’t address many of the decisions we must make every day. What job do I take? Do I move to this city or that? Should I date this person or that one? How do we know God’s will in these instances?

Often we look in the Bible to the stories in which God showed up in some major way (burning bush, talking donkey, voice from heaven, etc.) and want to use these instances as the norm for seeking God’s will. The first thing I notice in a quick survey of instances like this is that usually, when God shows up in some unmistakable fashion to inform someone of a new direction, he does so without invitation. We have no indication that Abram was looking for a move when God showed up and said, “Go to the land I’ll show you.” Moses seemed pretty content just being a shepherd when the bush burst into flames and God called him out to be the deliverer of his people. Paul was actively going against God’s will when the light of Christ knocked him to the ground and turned him around.

The second thing I notice, is that such instances of unmistakable divine communication are the exception, not the norm, for discovering God’s will. When we read the Bible, it’s easy to think that folks like Abraham had daily audible conversations with God. What we fail to realize, is that in between verses and chapters, decades sometimes pass between divine utterances. We need to constantly remind ourselves that the stories we read in the Bible are the highlights. There’s a reason they make the book. For most folks on most days (including Bible folks) God speaks in subtler ways. It’s much like the difference between watching a baseball game in its entirety and watching a baseball game on Sportscenter. Watch the highlights of a baseball game on Sportscenter and you may leave with the impression that baseball is action packed – homeruns, strikeouts, double-plays. Watch baseball in the stadium or on TV for the entire nine innings and you realize that there’s a lot more inaction than action (if you’re a baseball purist and I’ve offended you, just substitute soccer for the above illustration).

What point am I making with all this? As we seek God’s will in the various decisions of our lives we may be tempted to think that we need a voice from the heavens or a burning bush before we can act. If we believe the scriptures, we certainly hold out the possibility that God might act in such ways. We should be open and attentive to God’s mysterious movings, but we shouldn’t be discouraged if God doesn’t show up with fireworks. A careful reading of those same scriptures reveal that even for the patriarchs of our faith, such occurrences were pretty rare. In our entire lives, God might move in such powerful ways only one or two times if at all – think of the thousands of ancient Jews and Christians, mentioned and not mentioned that have no such encounters with God. We can rest assured that even if we don’t receive some unmistakable message from God, we can still be in his will. God’s given us other ways to know his guidance, ways that as we’ll see next week, are bathed in his grace.

Trust in the Lord and do good; dwell in the land and enjoy safe pasture. Take delight in the Lord and he will give you the desires of your heart – Psalm 37:3-4.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Decision Making and the will of God (part 2)

God’s will – it’s a huge topic. It can feel like a threatening topic. It can leave many folks paralyzed in indecision – What if I make a bad decision? What if I miss God’s will? Last week we started the conversation by remembering that God cares for us. He loves us. He is not out to get us or trick us. We can trust that the same grace that saved us covers us every day as we make decisions regarding God’s will. So basically, we can relax. Have a big decision ahead of you? Breathe easy, trusting that God is going to love you all the way through that decision.

Now that we’re relaxed, that still leaves us with the question, what’s the best decision? Do I take the job or not? Do I date this person or not? Do we put mom in the nursing facility or not? I may be resting in God’s grace trusting that he’s not out to get me, but I still may not be sure what choice is best. What next? Well, first, make sure that you’re taking care of the basics. That is, make sure you’re obeying those commandments that you know without a doubt are God’s will. The Bible makes some things very clear. We are to worship God together (Hebrews 10:25). We are to be kind to one another; we are to forgive one another (Ephesians 4:32). We’re to speak the truth (Ephesians 4:25). We are to honor our fathers and mothers (Exodus 19:12). We are to pray for one another (Colossians 4:2). We are to avoid sexual immorality (1 Thessalonians 4:3). We are to hate what is evil and cling to what is good (Romans 12:9). These and the many other commands in the Bible teach us to be the type of person we know God wants us to be.

And that’s the second step to decision making and the will of God. After we’ve relaxed in God’s grace, trusting that he has his best in store for us, then we must commit to being the type of person God wants us to be (think fruits of the Spirit here – Galatians 5:22-25). Practically speaking, it’s only by being obedient to the obvious commands of the Scriptures that we put ourselves in a position to hear and obey the subtle commands of the Spirit. Contrary to the way we normally approach things, it’s these smaller, everyday decisions about what type of person we are going to be that most shape who we are as a person. For it’s the every day decisions to obey God’s obvious commands that most determine how much we look like Jesus. And the more we look like Jesus, the more prepared we’ll be to make the big decisions that every life must face.

Next week, we’ll look at how followers of Jesus make those big choices. Is there always only one right choice? Does God even have an opinion on some of these things? If he does, how do we know what that opinion is? I hope you’ll join me for the conversation.

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit” Galatians 5:22-25.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Decision making and the will of God

I had the privilege to sit down with some of our seniors last week and talk about their post graduation plans. Most have, by this time, already decided where they’ll be headed next, either to college, a career, and at least one to the Marines. In some ways, I felt pretty inadequate to give any advice to these students – college has changed quite a bit since I was there (and that wasn’t that long ago). When I was in school only a select few had cell phones – and that was only for emergencies. We’d never heard of texting. Most of us were still using dialup on the internet. In one short decade, things have changed a lot. At the same time, many of the decisions facing these soon to be college students are the same type of decisions people have been facing for as long as folks have been leaving mom and dad and making a life of their own (even back when you had to write your papers on typewriters!). What should I study? What job should I take? Whom should I date? Whom should I marry? Big decisions. Life altering decisions. Stressful decisions.

I hate to break it to these young adults, but the big decisions of life don’t cease once you finish school. Life’s full of what seem to be make or break decisions. Decisions that stress out any sane person. Unfortunately, we Christians sometimes add an extra layer of stress by asking, “What does God want me to do?” Now, that’s not necessarily a bad question, but all of us have had times when we ask that question and find only silence on the other end. And we stress and worry and are afraid that somehow we’ll miss God’s will. Obviously, “God’s will” is a topic that can’t be exhausted in a short devotional like this. But as a first word, let me say to all who face life changing decisions – God’s not out to get you. He’s not trying to trick you. He cares for you. As we studied last night at prayer meeting, he is the Good Shepherd.

Elisabeth Elliot, borrowing Christ’s metaphor, put it this way: “It is manifest that the anxiety that shadowed too many of my days was that I should miss the path of righteousness. Better that anxiety, perhaps, than a cavalier carelessness, but the years have since proved to me over and over again that the heart set to do the Father's will need never fear defeat. His promises of guidance may be fully counted upon. Does it make sense to believe that the Shepherd would care less about getting His sheep where He wants them to go than they care about getting there?” That’s a good word. As much as you want to know God and do his will, God wants that for you even more. He’ll make a way, if you’ll trust in him. We’ll talk more next week about how we can make good decisions while resting in God’s care.

Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you.” 1 Peter 5:7