Thursday, June 24, 2010

On Trusting God

This is an excerpt from my weekly newsletter, The Dogwood Digest. It is in answer to a question I was asked on a recent retreat. If you would like to subscribe to the newsletter, use the link on the right of this page. Thanks!

How can I trust God when he took my husband and left me to raise my 3 ½ month old daughter alone?

My heart absolutely goes out to this young mom, struggling to trust God in her daily life while struggling with the loss of her beloved husband.

Trusting God through grief is perhaps one of the most challenging things we will face in this lifetime. It is true that God sometimes does things that defy human logic. We are hurting, and knowing God could have stopped the death from happening makes it even harder to accept.

I wish I could quote a verse that would answer why God allows bad things to happen. But finding answers is not always that easy. God is about our relationship with Him, and He works in each circumstance to bring us into a deeper, intimate knowledge of Him. This knowledge most often comes at a price; only after painful searching and struggle do we begin to see and understand Him on a deeper level. This is why pat answers ring false in our ears. There is nothing easy about the process. Trying to make things better with a few pithy words only trivializes the struggle.

Our God's ways are far beyond our level of comprehension. He makes no apologies for not making sense to us at times. Deuteronomy 29:29 states, "The secret things belong to the Lord our God." Paul remarked on our limitations of understanding as well: "Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who became His counselor?" (Romans 11:33-34)

While we may not have specific answers on why God allows tragedy in our lives, Scripture does give us guiding parameters as to where the answer must lie. One of my favorite seminary professors, Jonathan Master, illustrated this by drawing a playing field on the board. He used the following Scripture as the "fence posts" which defined the boundaries of the field.

1. God is not the author of sin (James 1:13)
2. Sin is the direct result of conscious moral volition (Genesis 3:1-6, James 1:14ff)
3. God sovereignly chooses to allow sin and its consequences (Romans 9:18-23)
4. God limits and controls evil (Job 1-2)
5. God will one day fully separate sin from us and from His new creation (Revelation 19:11-20:5)

Whatever we conclude about God's involvement in our tragedy must fall within the parameters of these truths.

One additional truth that has helped me in recent years is in knowing God is totally good. He cannot be anything but good-it is a part of His nature. Therefore, I can consciously count on His goodness even when circumstances might tempt me to think otherwise.

So what do we do while in the process of the struggle? When my mom died, my grief threatened to overwhelm me. As a leader on our church worship team, I could hardly sing praises on Sunday morning, because God remained silent in my pain. My agony became a spiritual battle as I prayed without answers. Yet in my head, I knew that God could be trusted, and so I kept on serving Him, even though my heart was broken and I had lost any sense that the Lord was with me. My husband kept telling me, "Just keep on being faithful. This storm will pass." It did. And instead of losing ground, I gained a deeper understanding of the Lord, and learned to trust him on a deeper level.

Our trust cannot be based in our circumstances or how well we interpret them or guess at God's intentions. Our confidence must be based in the character of God alone. And the better we know Him, the deeper will be our level of trust.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

A Living Hope

"Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His great mercy has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead." 1 Peter 1:3

When I was a little girl, our family of four bravely ventured on a trip from our home in Connecticut to visit relatives on the Gulf Coast of Florida. We Zines weren't big travelers, so this trip was a very big deal. It was summer. We would drive for three days, stopping at hotels each night. Exciting times.

The first day didn't go too badly. We drove as far as Washington, D.C., and took a quick tour of the sights. The second day was not as pleasant. Margie and I had already blown through the new toys my mom bought for the trip. We were tired of being in the car. Poor little Margie got carsick-- and we had to make several stops for her to be sick on the side of the road. And it was HOT. The south was in the middle of a record heat wave. Our car did not have air conditioning (few did in those days) and the constant humid, hot air blowing in on us didn't do much to cool us down. By the time we hit South Carolina, every one of us was wilted and desperate to get out of that car. Dad pulled into the first decent motel and got out to rent a room. They were full up. That began a nightmarish hour of going to hotel after hotel, to no avail. Every one we tried had no room at the inn. Finally, an angel disguised as a hotel clerk got on the phone for my dad and found us a place to stay. When we wearily pulled up to our hotel, we just about kissed the ground of its parking lot.

The next morning, Dad took a new tactic. Using his road map as a guide, he called ahead to the next planned stop location and made a reservation. We traveled that day in the security of the knowledge that no matter what happened on the road, a swim in a hotel pool and a cool, soft bed awaited us at the end of that day's travel. It made all the difference in how we faced another day's journey.

Peter wrote about a "living hope" that we have in Jesus Christ. It is part of the package that we received at the time of our salvation. First Corinthians 6:11 tells us we were justified. This term is a legal term, meaning we were declared innocent of all unrighteousness. We were also sanctified. The Greek root for this word means set apart for a new relationship with God. Finally, Romans 8:30 tells us we were glorified. Usually we think of our glorification as something that will be done for us in the future. Yet when Paul wrote about it in Romans, he used a verb tense which denotes an action already completed.

In other words, the living hope believers have for glory is a done deal. Already accomplished. Checked off the list. Our name is written in the book of life, in indelible ink (Rev 20:12). We have a guaranteed reservation for Heaven, with all of the benefits that living there will entail.

In fact, God has done more than just give us a promise of that eternity. He has marked us as His, by sending the Holy Spirit to live in each believer. His living presence is like a down payment on a property someone intends to purchase-- earnest money-- given to demonstrate the seriousness of the buyer. Ephesians 1:14 tells us the Holy Spirit is given as a down payment of our inheritance, with a view toward our coming redemption. Someday we will be changed, from perishable to imperishable bodies. We will reflect the glory of Jesus Christ perfectly. The old nature will be gone forever. No longer will we struggle with sin or its destruction. And we can bank on this hope because the Holy Spirit has been given to us to guarantee its fulfillment.

Knowing this should impact how we conduct ourselves in the journey.

I wonder if that is why Peter called it a living hope. It is not only a hope which affects our eternal future. It is a hope that has a tremendous influence on us right now. Being secure in our destination makes the trip through this life bearable. Hope makes all the difference.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Biblical Submission

In my most recent Dogwood Digest, a reader asks a question about submission in a marriage. I get a lot of hits on this blog when people Google the words "doormat mentality." Obviously submission is a controversial topic! The following is the result of my study on the Biblical concept of submission within the marriage relationship.

There are three places in Scripture that tell wives to submit to their husbands: Ephesians 5:22-24, Colossians 3:18, and Titus 2:5. Looking at the context of these passages gives us some clues as to what Paul meant by asking wives to submit.

Many people equate the word submit with obey. I do not believe Scripture supports this interpretation. In Ephesians 5, the instruction to the wife is preceded by a command for all believers: “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” The Greek word, hupotasso, is the verb used in both this and the command to the wives that follows. Therefore submit cannot be synonymous to obey here, since obviously everyone can’t obey everyone else. In Colossians 3, Paul tells the wives to submit to their husbands. Two verses later, he instructs children to obey their parents. The Greek word translated as obey, hypakou┼Ź, is a different word than submit. If Paul meant obey in both cases, why would he use different words?

So if submission does not necessarily mean obey, what does it mean?

The word hupotasso originally came from a military term, which meant to put the troops into order under a commanding officer. Eventually it took on a non-military usage as a “voluntary attitude of giving in, cooperating, assuming responsibility, or carrying a burden.”

From the contexts in both Ephesians and Colossians, that second nuance of meaning makes a bit more sense. I like the idea of cooperation or bearing a burden. If we as wives did everything in our power to enable our husband to fulfill what the New Testament defines as his role, what would that look like? There is no doormat mentality there. Rather, it is an idea of partnering together to help each other be obedient to the Word of God.

I don’t think submission in a marriage is about obedience at all. Instead, it is the decision on the part of the wife to support her husband in a sacrificial way, with no thought to herself. It is placing her husband’s needs above her own, with the purpose of enabling him to fulfill his role as her husband. It is just another opportunity to die to self. “For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may be revealed in our mortal body” (2 Corinthians 4:11)

In order to better understand the wife’s role, we must look at the husband’s part in the relationship. Paul states in Ephesians 5:23 that the husband is the “head of the wife as Christ is head of the church.” There are two Greek words for “head”: one is arche, which denotes “first” in terms of power and importance. Paul did not use this word. He used kephale, which means foremost in terms of position (like a cornerstone in a foundation). It was also a military term, indicating the one who went first into battle. Kephale was never used to mean leader, boss, or ruler. It describes the person who is out in front, serving those who follow him.

Submission is a voluntary act on the part of the wife. Husbands are never told to make the wife submit. In fact, the biblical definition of a leader is far removed from a dictatorial figure: “Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care...not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock.” (1 Peter 5:2-3)

I think that we as wives sometimes can hinder our husbands from obeying God’s commands. When we second guess everything he says, or contradict him in front of the children, or even show a lack of faith in his ability to be head of the family as Christ is head of the church, we make it difficult for him to fulfill the Scriptures defining his role. Yet when we love and support him in his efforts and respect him as the head of the home, he is enabled to love us as “Christ loved the church, and gave Himself up for her.”(Ephesians 5:25)

A wife, by her submission, sets the tone in her home. A wise older woman once told me that it was my responsibility to teach my children to respect their father. I took that advice very seriously. I determined to never speak disparagingly about my husband to my children. The larger part of that instruction, however, occurred as I lived out my commitment to love my husband in front of the kids.

I did a message on the idea of submission based on 1 Peter 3. You can hear it by clicking HERE. The message title is: Relationships that Reflect Hope: In the Home.

Friday, June 4, 2010

In Jesus' Name

Before I had a dog, I used to see pet owners out walking; dog and man strolling along at a companionable pace. I thought every dog was like that. Then we welcomed Sasha into our home.

On our walks, there is no easy, mutual enjoyment of the great outdoors. Sasha goes out the front door like a bullet, dragging me down the steps and driveway. No leisurely pace for this dog. She plows on ahead, leash strung tight, determined to get to where we are going. (Which is back home. I don't get it.) But every morning, I can be seen scurrying down the street behind the dog in an effort to keep from getting dragged off my feet.

I don't walk the dog. She walks me.

I hope you now have a visual picture of my less-than-genteel morning constitutionals. Because we all can tend to do the same thing-when we pray.

Jesus knew our tendency would be to pray just like Sasha likes to walk: charging forward with a laundry list of our own wants, showing little concern for the Master. So He qualified how the disciples should pray: "Ask anything in my name and I will give it to you." (John 16:23) What did He mean by this? Was He giving us a phrase to tack on to the end of a prayer like a stamp of approval? (In Jesus' name we pray, Amen.) Or did Jesus mean something more?

Some might invoke the name of Jesus in an effort to tap into the power that comes with the name. In Acts 19, there were men casting out demons using the name of Christ. "In the name of Jesus, whom Paul preaches," they intoned, "I command you to come out."

One day, an evil spirit answered them. "Jesus I know, and I know about Paul, but who are you?" he demanded, then proceeded to beat them to a pulp. Obviously, the name of Jesus is not an incantation used to summon some kind of magical power. So what is it?

To pray in the name of Christ is to acknowledge that our prayers are heard because of the sacrifice and redemptive work of Jesus. Approaching God was a problem because of our sin. Now that sin is covered, and we are told to boldly approach the throne of grace. Hebrews tells us Jesus "lives to intercede" on our behalf. When we pray in His name, we recognize without Him, our prayers would be ineffective.

But it is even more than that. To pray in the name of Christ is to pray in accord with His desires. To do or say something "in the name of" someone else is to assume their approval of that action. Peter used this very phrase in Acts 3 when he commanded a lame man: "In the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene-walk!" Peter not only identified the power source for the miracle here. He also identified on whose behalf the miracle was being performed. Peter was acting as an ambassador for Christ.

Paul identifies himself as an ambassador in 2 Corinthians 5:20. "We are therefore Christ's ambassadors, as though God were making His appeal through us. We implore you on Christ's behalf: Be reconciled to God." Paul's goal was to present the message of God to others. An ambassador is a representative of his commander. He is not there to expound on his own viewpoint or opinions. He is there to make the desires of His chief known.

When we pray in Jesus' name, we are praying as ambassadors for Christ. This means our requests need to fall in line with what Christ would have prayed. That's a tall order. How can we know what He would ask?

Richard Foster tells us how: "When we have immersed ourselves long enough in the way of Christ, we can smell gospel. So we ask and do as we know He would ask and do. How do we know what Jesus would ask and do, you may ask? Well, how does a couple who has been married many loving years know what each other thinks and wants and feels? We know, even as we are known. This is how we pray in Jesus' name."

The ability to effectively pray in the name of Jesus results from a relationship with Him. When He instructed His disciples in John 16, they had just spent three years traveling by His side as He healed the sick and fed the hungry. They heard His teachings and listened to Him go head to head with the Pharisees. They were in an excellent position to pray in Jesus' name, because they knew Him so very well.

What about us? Our ability to pray in Jesus' name is also dependent on the relationship. We need to make it our business to know Him better and better. And as we learn His ways and develop the mind of Christ, our prayers naturally will fall into line with what He would have us pray.

Don't be discouraged if you feel you don't have that kind of relationship with Him. He'll welcome you right now (and every time you come) just as you are. A deeper relationship happens one baby step at a time.

This article is the latest Dogwood Digest, a devotional newsletter. If you would like to receive this weekly email, use the link on the right of this page to subscribe. Thanks!