Wednesday, July 17, 2019

A Matter of Mercy

Why does it matter whose fault it is that your life isn't going as perfectly as you want it? Why is it so important for us to be able to confess our own sin? A popular television psychology proclaims that you can't change what you don't acknowledge, so maybe that's it. Maybe we just need to be honest with ourselves because until we are, we aren't going to change and be any different. 

That's certainly part of it, but it's much deeper than that for us as a people of faith. Failing to confess our own sin keeps us from truly experience the depth of God's love for us. 

Specifically, in this case, His mercy. 

Mercy is the idea that we don't get what we deserve. We deserve punishment. We deserve death. We deserve consequences. But the only way to experience mercy - to know that we're not getting what we deserve - is to be honest about what we deserve. We have to be honest about the ways that our mess-ups ought to be messing us up if we ever want to see God's hand in sheltering us from it. 

The mercy of God, His goodness, it's become too cheap in our Christian culture, and it is precisely for this reason. We believe ourselves to be basically good, especially if we start comparing ourselves to some of those "others." And as basically good human beings, we expect that our lives should also be basically good. And as basically good Christian human beings, we believe that our God should give us basically good things.

He has become a wish, a fantasy, a fairy godmother, a genie who is just supposed to protect our lives and keep them basically good, no matter what. We expect good from God because we deserve good from God and God says that He is good. Good, good, good all around. Why would we ever mess with good?

Because we're not good. Sorry, but we're not. If we were good, if we were even basically good, not a single drop of Jesus' blood needed shed on that Cross. Not one. If we were good, if we were even basically good, God would not have had to set in motion a plan to redeem us. We're not good. And the goodness of God's mercy isn't a given;

It's predicated on our sin.

God's mercy depends upon our being sinners. It depends upon our deserving something that we then do not receive because He is gracious and merciful to forgive us. Whatever we're experiencing of God right now in our basic goodness, it's not mercy. And if our God is not merciful to us, how can He be so many of the other things He claims to be? How could He even be good if it were not in contrast to our deserving less-than-good?

If God only gave us what we deserve, that wouldn't be "good." It would be natural. It would be expected. It would be...not at all amazing. Not at all worth worshiping. Not at all worth loving. After all, if you give to a man who can pay you back, if you invite someone who can return the favor, if you do good to someone who does good to you, what even is it? Even the pagans do this.

Our God is so much more.

So confess your sin. Own it. Fall down on your knees and bring it before the Lord. For there, in the place where you've most messed up, is the place where He will raise you up. There, in the depths of your sin, you encounter the depths of His love. In your hour of greatest need, you receive His mercy, you sinner.

And it's glorious.

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

The Blame Game

Whose fault is it that your life isn't going exactly perfectly? When bad things happen, are you quick to look for someone to blame? It's a natural impulse, it seems, for most of us; who can I pin this on? Or in today's world, who can I sue? 

David has his share of psalms citing his enemies, talking about the oppression and persecution he's come under and how much of his time he has to spend running from those who are trying to kill him. But in Psalm 27, when he talks candidly about how his life is not what he desires it to be, how he's falling apart, his enemies are not the first ones he blames.

His sin is. 

Imagine that. David's life is not what he wants it to be, and the first thing he does is to consider that maybe it's his own fault. Maybe his life isn't what he wants it to be because he's not the man that he wants to be. He's not the man that he professes to be. He knows the inmost parts of his being better than any of us looking in on his life, and he confesses that there are some dark parts there. He confesses that he's messing up, that he's not getting it right, that he's falling short. 

And maybe, just maybe, that he deserves what he's getting because it's the natural consequence of what he's doing. 

It's a lost art in our present day. Most of us don't consider that we bring a lot of our troubles on ourselves. We've been taught and conditioned, through media and social media and advertisements for lawyers, to blame everyone but ourselves. Coffee's too hot? Well, someone should have put a warning label on that telling us that coffee could potentially be hot. Relationship ended? Well, we should have known that other person was toxic; all the warning signs were there. 

We don't take responsibility for our actions any more, intentional or unintentional. That last bit is important because most of us, given the choice, wouldn't choose to do wrong; it just sort of happens. Sometimes, it's clearly wrong and we do it anyway, but for most of us, it seems right or we wouldn't do it. It's only in hindsight or in a bigger lens that we're able to see that it wasn't as good a choice as it seemed. 

There's no reason we have to beat ourselves up over our sin, as some are prone to do. We don't have to chastise ourselves forever. But we should be humble enough to confess that we've done something we shouldn't have and to accept that often, what's happening in our lives is the natural consequence of our own action. 

David does it here. His life is falling apart, and the first place he looks is in the mirror. Yes, he will come around and talk about his enemies by the end of it, but he starts with himself. And so should we. 

Not just because it's often true, but because it also gives us an opportunity for a greater Truth. What's that? 

Come back tomorrow and find out. 

Monday, July 15, 2019

From the Womb

Psalm 22 (and other places in the Scripture) say that God was your God from the womb, and this raises an interesting and important question. Is God your God from the womb because He knows you before you know Him...or because you know Him before you know anything else?

We often say, without hesitation and without even giving it much of a second thought, that passages like this are there to remind us how intimately God knows us, that He has known us before we knew ourselves, that He has counted every hair on our heads and knows our lying down and our getting up. So from the very beginning, He has known us and loved us. And, we assume, He has been our God - watching over us, disciplining us, growing us, guiding us, and guarding us. Yes, it is clearly because He knows us that He is our God from the womb. 

Because, also, we were in the womb; we didn't know anything. How could we? 

Or could we?

I don't think we give the depths of our spirit enough credit. I don't think we give our inmost being much thought. If God knit us together, then every fabric of who we are has His touch on it. 

As we grow and as we get older, we know things that we don't know how we know. We sense them with absolute certainty. We come to call this our gut or our intuition or or just plain knowing, and most of us don't even question it. In fact, we come to trust it all the more the more we follow it because something about it is usually right. (It can, of course, be tainted by our experiences in this world, but at its purest, there's something incredibly accurate about it.) Some of us call it our spirit. Our spirit just knows. We don't know how it knows, but it knows.

And yet, we don't consider that perhaps our spirit has known before we could understand its knowing. Perhaps it has known from the very beginning. Perhaps from the very first beating of our heart, or even before that - from that electrical burst of life that happens when sperm meets egg, something inside of us has known God. Known Him beyond what we could ever consciously know of Him. 

After all, doesn't there have to be some reason human beings spend their lives looking for transcendence and meaning and...God? From the very beginning, we have sought to know Him, to understand Him. We have created Him in our image in an attempt to satisfy our longing without all the messiness of real faith. We have worshiped the sun and the moon and the stars and all sorts of created things, hoping they'll get us closer to what something in the depths of us just aches for. Something we can't put our finger on, but we know it's out there. We've convinced ourselves it's in here. 

The only thing we haven't been able to do, in all of human history, is rid ourselves of the longing for God. The only thing we haven't been able to do is convince ourselves that there isn't one. (Even atheists have faith and participate in worship; they just don't direct it toward something that would be typically called a god, but they have made it their god all the same.) 

Something inside of you knows God. Has known Him from the very, very beginning. From the womb. It's not foolishness, then, to seek Him. It's not odd to build a life of faith. It's not crazy to believe there's something more than you know, even in your knowing; you already know that there is. It's woven into you. 

By the One who knows you so well. 

Isn't that something?

Friday, July 12, 2019

The Fear of the Lord

Perhaps one of the most confusing phrases in all of Scripture is "the fear of the Lord." It seems, to most of us, or at least, we have heard, that the fear of the Lord is something that we're supposed to have, something we're supposed to live in. We know that it doesn't mean that we're supposed to be afraid of God, that we're supposed to be fearful; there's enough in Scripture to tell us that fear is not ever what God desires of us or for us. And we know that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. But that leaves us with a lingering question: what is the fear of the Lord? 

What if it's not something we do, but something God Himself gives us? What if the fear of the Lord originates from Him, not us?

Psalm 19 seems to create the impression that this is exactly the case. 

If you look closely at this psalm, you see a certain structure set up. The Psalmist is here talking about the ways that God has given us to live, the things that He's tried to teach us, the guidance He's provided for us. And it sets up across a parallel. 

It starts with the instruction of the Lord. That is, the overt, deliberate teachings where God has told His people yes or no, this or that, left or right. He has taught them plainly what He wants them to know, and these teachings are recorded in many cases for us. 

Then comes the testimony of the Lord. Here are the things that God has said about Himself, the things He wants us to know from His own experience so that we can trust His understanding and presence in our world and in our lives. 

After that come the precepts of the Lord. Precepts are general rules that are meant to set up a structure around how we live or think or act. So again, we have God giving us something that's supposed to mean something to us, that tells us in itself what to do with it.

And then...the fear of the Lord. 

And after this, the ordinances of the Lord. Ordinances are akin to laws, and we know that the Old Testament is full of laws for us to live by. 

One of these things is not like the others. Or is it?

By our common understanding, we here have four things that originate in God and one that originates in us. We have four things God has given us - His instruction, His testimony, His precepts, and His ordinances - and we have one thing we're supposed to just figure out and have - the fear of the Lord. 

It's quite a stretch to say that that would then be true. Why would anyone set up a list this way? It doesn't make any sense. 

But if we come to understand that the fear of the Lord is also something that originates in God, is also something that He gives to us, then we start to build a new framework for understanding just what the fear of the Lord even is. It's the beginning of wisdom - but the Scriptures never say it is the beginning of our wisdom; what if it is the beginning of His?

That changes things.

Thursday, July 11, 2019

After the Rescue

David's psalms are praised for how true-to-life they are, how honest and raw he is when crying out to the Lord. It's something we can all relate to, we're told. Something we know so well as real human beings ourselves, as persons who are persecuted, oppressed, concerned, stressed, and just trying to do our best with this thing called faith.

For all that there is in David's psalms to relate to, there are also some dramatic ways in which David is very, very different from us. Ways in which we need to pay close attention and to learn from him. 

Take, for example, Psalm 4. In this psalm, David cries out to the Lord after the Lord rescues him. 

When was the last time you prayed to God after your immediate need had passed? 

We are a people who have to be taught, it seems, to pray at all. Our souls cry out, but we learn through life and through our experiences to stop them. Or at least to stop paying attention to them. It seems so silly that our natural instinct is to cry out to God, so in order to not appear foolish in the eyes of others, we stop - and then we have to learn all over again.

And most of us spend so much of our lives just trying to learn how to cry out in our need that there's not time, really, even in a long, full life to add any depth of prayer to our crying out. There's not time to think about other things. It takes us a lifetime, and sometimes longer, to even master praying to God when we need something (rather than trying to solve it ourselves). 

Most of us don't even think about going back afterward to say Thank You. Or, you know, to just visit and enjoy being with God. To just chat and be close to Him. 

Who has time for that?

David, a man after God's own heart, has time for that. He pens this psalm after the danger is gone, after the need has passed, after the Lord has rescued him. It's weird to us to see a prayer that is not, "Lord, rescue me!" but rather, "Lord, You rescued me...." 

No wonder we too easily forget who God is and how much He loves us; we aren't using our prayer, our intimate time with Him, to remember. 

No wonder when another need arises, we cry out desperately all over again; we don't know, don't remember, what He's already done. 

No wonder we always find ourselves wondering if prayer even works; we neglect it entirely when it does. 

Maybe the reason it's so hard for us to pray is because we only do it when we're desperate, and not when we are simply dearly loved. 

When was the last time you prayed to God in anything but a panic? When was the last time you prayed in love and not in need?