The Call of God (Hebrews 11), Part 9

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Faith and Reason.

“Stop!” Abraham heard God command in no uncertain terms. It was time to interrupt Abraham’s obedient display of faith. A ram ensnared in a nearby bush would be the substitution for Abraham’s son Isaac who had been awaiting his fate upon the hilltop altar. Listening to God had brought Abraham and Isaac here, and listening to God would take them home. This father and son were given a new vision of God. He is God the Great Provider.

This is the story, first recorded in Genesis, to which Hebrews 11:17-19 refers. It’s an unnerving and unsettling story in many ways. We’re left feeling less sure of the boundaries within which God contains Himself. God had emphatically labeled the pagan practice of child sacrifice a “detestable” thing, a practice “I did not command, nor did it enter my mind.” Yet God used Abraham and Isaac as actors in a display that would foreshadow the ransoming sacrifice of God’s One and Only Son, Jesus, two millennia later. How could Abraham have agreed to obey God’s direction, not knowing what the outcome of his obedience would be? The author of Hebrews explains “Abraham reasoned that God could raise the dead, and figuratively speaking, he did receive Isaac back from death.”

Abraham reasoned.

Reason, the process of thinking in logical, orderly and rational ways, is a gift of God to us humans. It enables us to take what we know about God and this world and infer conclusions that then inform how we ought to behave. Abraham, listening to God’s directive to offer up Isaac as a sacrifice, needed to use a high level of reason to be obedient.

He first reasoned that having heard this command spoken directly from God, it must be a good command—God is good, therefore His every command will result in ultimate good for His followers. Abraham reasoned that he could entrust the outcome of his obedience to a good God.

Secondly, Abraham reasoned that God is all-powerful. A humanly speaking hope-destroying event such as death was as nothing to God. God would be able to bring Isaac back to life. Abraham could see compatibility between God’s promise to build his family through Isaac and God’s command to sacrifice Isaac.

But “Reason,” muses Dante in Paradiso, “even when supported by the senses, has short wings.” Abraham must have second-guessed himself with every step he and Isaac took climbing the hill toward the spot God had directed him. Reason moved his feet but his heart was aching. Wasn’t it more reasonable that he a centenarian should die, Abraham must have thought, rather than this young son of his—this son of the promise? Abraham needed something to support and gird up his commitment to reason. So Abraham added to reason the wingtips of trust.

Trust took Abraham the final steps of that distressing trek. Trust kept his ears open, listening for the slightest sound of God’s voice. Trust focused Abraham’s mind on the only One who is ultimately trustworthy, so that even the promise took second place to the Promiser. And trust enabled Abraham to hear God halt the test and joyfully exclaim, “because you have done this…I will surely bless you…and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.”

Each of us walk a similar trek. Subconsciously we reason out each action we take, each decision we make. But do these reasons include the goodness and greatness of God? Do we consciously remember what we know to be true of Him? Do we consider His great love for each of us and His unlimited power as we rationalize how we live?

To entrust ourselves to the One who is unmatched in trustworthiness is the pinnacle of reason. Faith and reason together lift us up over the valleys and crags we face in our lives and bring us to the blessing God promised us through Abraham and finally accomplished through His Son Jesus. Listen to God’s voice and find faith and reason come together.

 

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The Call of God (Hebrews 11), Part 7

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Enabled.

“By faith Abel…”; “By faith Enoch…”; By faith Noah…”; “By faith Abraham…” So launches the author of Hebrews into the historical examples of people who listened to God and let faith guide their lives. There is much to learn from these individuals’ lives. We’ve most recently looked at Abraham’s but we’re not done with him yet; twice more “By faith Abraham” is mentioned. His place in the ‘Hall of Faith’ has much to teach us about how a person actively heeds the call of God.

“By faith Abraham, even though he was past age—and Sarah herself was barren—was enabled to become a father because he considered him faithful who had made the promise. And so from this one man, and he as good as dead, came descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as countless as the sand on the seashore.”

The key word here is promise. The promise was an oath God had made first to Adam and Eve and then expanded upon to Abraham. Adam and Eve heard it as a promise that God would crush the head of Satan’s venomous lies; Abraham heard it as a promise to bless all peoples through his family line; much later Isaiah would hear it as a promise that God would enter Abraham’s line as a God-in-the-flesh infant and be “pierced for our transgressions”.

Each individual who heard the promise, heard it in terms and language that spoke to his or her need. The promise always spoke of something grander, more incredible and incomprehensible than they could fully envision. But He also enabled them to believe it if they set aside their cognitive pride. So when Adam and Eve or Abraham believed the promise they heard, their faith was based more on God’s faithfulness than on their own comprehension. They had a seed of understanding of what God meant, but the greatest reason to believe God was that God is believable.

God recognizes this challenge for those of us who listen to Him. To Abraham He gave both a broad promise and then more specific commands to enable Abraham to enter into the partnership of realizing God’s promise. Listening carefully to the broad overview of God’s plan gave Abraham perspective; and then listening to God specifically spell out Abraham’s part in the grand scheme of things gave Abraham an opportunity to demonstrate his faith. He was to make a general habit of trusting God for his welfare, and then to take specific steps of obedience such as building a family line only through his wife Sarah. God was asking Abraham to show his faith by acting on what God had revealed to him—be it general or specific.

Abraham did pretty well in living out his faith—that’s why he’s mentioned here in Hebrews 11. But he wasn’t perfect. He made several foolish mistakes in the realm of trusting God implicitly. One of Abraham’s errors led him into a scheme to produce a long-awaited son through a woman other than Sarah. But God’s promise entailed specifics in that case and the specifics included Sarah. Abraham’s attempts to steer and maneuver events outside of God’s commands led to marital tension and a social conflict that has festered for thousands of years between the Jewish and Muslim peoples. Abraham learned that attempts at self-enabling—manipulating either the generality or specifics of God’s call—lead not to improving upon God’s plans but only to complicating our own lives.

Eventually Abraham learned patience and trust, and God enabled him to participate in conceiving a child through Sarah. Hundreds of years later a great grand-descendant was born named Jesus and in every respect He was the complete fulfillment of The Promise. Abraham did not live to see that day, but his trust in the faithfulness of God to ensure that day would come enabled Abraham to become a recipient of his great grandson’s redemption.

God’s over-arching promise to bless anyone whose hope lies in Jesus, the Promised Redeemer, is for us too. The promise enables us to become humans capable of eternity. Like Abraham, we must listen to God’s words. We must admit God’s rights of sovereignty and accept His plan for our redemption. And we must live in submission to His call on our lives—a call clearly expressed in the letter to the Hebrews and in the rest of the Scriptures. It’s a promise with eternal potential where simple, life-changing listening is the means of access. Find a Bible and determine to listen. Then find yourself becoming enabled.

(Photo Credit: By Arches National Park – Delicate Arch at Night with HeadlampUploaded by AlbertHerring, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=29670283)

Learning to Love (I Corinthians 13), Part 13

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Always Trusts.

Taking something at face value can be instinctive. It can be an almost unconscious reflex to unthinkingly react to the surface appearance of something. Yes (we admit later, when we are in a more reflective mood), we failed to employ deep thought and discernment but it seemed efficient at the time to just ‘see and do’ or ‘hear and say.’ Author Os Guinness tells the story of the blatantly chauvinistic Norman Mailer’s invitation to speak at the University of California Berkeley in the early 1970s amid a crowd of young feminists. Recognizing the brewing friction, Mailer invited his adversaries to speak up.

“Everybody in this hall,” invited Mailer, “who regards me as a male chauvinist pig, hiss.” “As if perfectly on cue,” chronicles Guinness, “the feminists broke out at once in loud, derisive hissing and booing…Mailer stepped back to the microphone, looked over to them, paused just a second or two, and said, ‘Obedient little women, aren’t you?’ (To sanitize his words somewhat).” Rather than freeing them from Mailer’s misogynistic domination, the audience’s surface reaction had reinforced their rival’s potency.

God is not like that. He never encourages superficial thought or action. Perhaps that is why our species contains little of the instinct the other creatures on this planet possess. Rather, God provides humans with the ability to access a higher-level process of thinking and problem solving; we observe something in our environment, we reason so as to fit this information into a coherent worldview, and finally we respond with fitting emotions and actions. The deliberate and conscious use of each of these steps will help us delve deeper and respond more wisely than superficially reacting to prima facie stimuli.

As we explore the ‘Love Chapter’ of I Corinthians 13, we come to the phrase “love…always trusts.” What does that word ‘trust’ mean? Is it blind hope in the midst of hopelessness? Is it a crutch for the slow-witted and aged? Is it nothing more than Marx’s “opium of the people”? No, God never invites shallow, mind-numbing confidence.

The word ‘trust’ is translated from a Greek word meaning to believe in someone or something to such an extent that one entrusts oneself to the not yet fully fulfilled promises of that person or thing. Wedding this definition with the above-mentioned higher-level process of problem solving, we can understand the Corinthian phrase better—but only if God is the sole object of our trust. To “always trust” then means to observe the love and faithfulness of God toward people—most notably in the ransoming achievement of Jesus’ death and resurrection; then it means to reason that God will for eternity personalize that faithfulness individually to each of us who embrace His gift (we call this ‘saving belief’); and thirdly, it means to respond with emotions of thankfulness, faith, and joy which lead us into actions aligned with our well-reasoned belief.

Scripture is teeming with reminders to trust in God:

“Not to us, O LORD, not to us but to your name be the glory, because of your love and faithfulness…You who fear him, trust in the LORD” (Psalm 115:1,11).

Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight” (Proverbs 3:5,6).

“This is what the Sovereign LORD, the Holy One of Israel, says: ‘In repentance and rest is your salvation, in quietness and trust is your strength’…” (Isaiah 30:15).

“Then Jesus answered…Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me” (John 14:1).

We are never called to trust in people, situations, or things, only in God. Therefore, among the aspects of love described in I Corinthians 13 that can be generalized to teach us how to love both God and people well, trust is the first trait whose object is restricted. God alone is worthy of our trust. God is emphatic about this, because He knows that the object of our trust intrinsically influences us. God wants that position because He is Sovereign, and because only He can bring ultimate good into our lives. When we trust in people, social movements, finances, or anything other than God Himself to meet our needs, we will become disappointed and even jaded. We will become less and less of who God designed us to be and eventually we will be unable to trust anything or anyone at all.

Love—embodied in God—invites us to trust in God. Love encourages us to entrust everything from our daily moments to our lifelong hopes into His care. And as we practice this trust day by day we will develop the ability to respond to life’s successes and defeats, its joys and sorrows, with depth and wisdom. And the more we trust in God, the more we will be able to love people around us well. So take the leap and become known as one who “always trusts.”

(Photo Credit: Meghan Bustard Photography)

Opening the Door to Psalm 119, Part 24 (Conclusion)

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‘Taw’

“How Should We Then Live?’ asks the provoking title of Francis Schaeffer’s documentary which bears the sub-title ‘The Rise and Fall of Western Thought and Culture.’ The documentary is an expression of Schaeffer’s defense of Presuppositional Apologetics—the view that Christian faith is the only basis for rational thought. Remove that basis and rational thought decays. It’s a bold presupposition, isn’t it?

We all make sense of our experiences from presuppositions we hold. That is why two observers seeing the same thing can come away with two very different impressions. These suppositions, inferences, even hunches create the worldviews through which we make sense of everything we observe. Christian faith, explains Presuppositional Apologetics, presupposes the universe, the Bible, and Jesus, the Son of God are divine revelations without which every other worldview is lacking essential information for rational human life. There are no neutral assumptions from which reason can arise. Only the assumptions that arise from God’s revelation provide us with full rational thought that leads to full flourishing life.

As the psalmist brings us to his concluding stanza of Psalm 119, he summarizes Scripture’s teaching on the personal nature of God. He connects his experience of God with the rational basis of human thought: the Scriptural revelation that God alone is worthy of worship, that God’s precepts alone are faithful guideposts for life, and that God has created one salvation, the ultimate solution to every human problem.

“May my cry come before you, O LORD; give me understanding according to your word. / May my supplication come before you; deliver me according to your promise. / May my lips overflow with praise, for you teach me your decrees. / May my tongue sing of your word, for all your commands are righteous. / May your hand be ready to help me, for I have chosen your precepts. / I long for your salvation, O LORD, and your law is my delight. / Let me live that I may praise you, and may your laws sustain me. / I have strayed like a lost sheep. Seek your servant, for I have not forgotten your commands” (Psalm 19:169-176).

“Give me understanding according to your word,” pleads the psalmist. He is convinced that the wealth of wisdom (rational thought and the behaviours that arise from it) for the present, and hope for the future come from God. As modern thinkers, we may be tempted to think social consensus or political charters make Scriptural revelation obsolete. But can charters of rights and freedoms really trump the noble virtue God’s character and principles express? What about when society or nature and their current cohort of ‘freedoms’ and restrictions fail us?

The psalmist’s hope is in the Lord. “May your hand be ready to help me,” he prays, and “I long for your salvation…” So the psalmist guides us to look to the Hope of the Nations, the Lord’s salvation—Jesus—who alone offers a rational basis for believing that there is hope for us.

How ought we live each day in order to reflect the rational foundation of our faith? By coming to the Shepherd of our souls admitting we are “strayed…lost sheep” and “servant(s)”, and asking for His help to live lives of integrity, lives aligned with the truth of His revealed will. That is the message the psalmist has painstakingly taken 176 verses in twenty-two stanzas to communicate. Without God we are nothing. With His salvation we become everything He imagined. That’s more than epic. That’s rational.

Twenty-eight Days With Jesus, Day 25

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The Seen and the Unseen.

Our world is full of mysteries, of things we can’t see, of things we don’t know or can’t fully understand. We don’t generally like unknowns, though, so we tend to do what we can to fill in the blanks, to have the information we need to make our decisions, to live our lives.

This is the basic premise of our western philosophy of human reason: we are faced with a world of external and internal mysteries—from forensics to finance, from meteorology to astronomy to astrophysics, from psychology to sociology—and we use our human capacity for reason to solve these mysteries more or less successfully. We do it by using the known to help us explore the unknown; we employ the seen to envision the unseen.

We ought not be surprised to discover, then, that God’s plan for the world from the moment of its conception would include both the seen and the unseen. He Himself is Spirit, invisible to eyes like ours, eyes designed to capture only objects within the physical realm. Yet, His plan involved expressing Himself in human form for roughly thirty-three years—a tiny blip on the map of human history—using that moment of His visible presence to explain the millennia before and after it when His presence has been invisible to human eyes. He expects us to use our God-given aptitude for reason to fill in the blanks so that our lives are congruent with reality—the reality that He still exists, He still inhabits our world even though He is unseen by us just now.

In Chapter 25 of Matthew’s gospel we are given a glimpse of how the seen and the unseen are going to cohabit in our world until the time God brings a conclusion to this era.

In this chapter, Jesus tells a parable. He describes a scene, a social panorama of in-group and out-group members, of people today we would call ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’. The ‘have-not’ individuals are described as wounded and needy people. They are those who are hungry and thirsty, strangers, disenfranchised, impoverished, sick and unfairly imprisoned. The ‘have’ individuals are us, you and me.

Jesus explains that in each of our lives we will rub shoulders with people who, in comparison to us, will be ‘have-nots’. They will have fewer resources than us, fewer social or emotional supports and less financial freedom. They will have suffered under more unjust systems, or they have been more carelessly treated by society as a whole than we have been. How we treat the ‘have-nots’ of our world matters, because Jesus says He sympathizes and identifies with them.

“Whatever you (do) for one of the least of these brothers of mine,” explains Jesus, “you (do) for me.” In fact, caring for others’ needs is both descriptive and prescriptive of accessing a full and eternal relationship with our Creator. Listen:

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink. I was a stranger and you invited me in. I needed clothes and you clothed me. I was sick and you looked after me. I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’

This doesn’t negate the need for us to accept Christ’s redeeming sacrifice on behalf of us—that was the purpose of his 33-year sojourn on earth. But having become ‘righteous’ in God’s eyes as followers of Jesus, we must show proof of our faith extending into every part of our lives. We must live out our redeemed lives, giving of ourselves to our unseen Master by serving His precious ‘brothers’, the needy in our world.

We can’t excuse ourselves from reaching out to our needy neighbours, the hurting and hungry world of people around us. We can’t expect amnesty from responsibility stating that Jesus is ‘unseen’ in our generation. Jesus tells us to open our eyes. Loving Him and serving Him by loving and serving the needy go hand in hand. There’s no excuse for being short-sighted, is there?

(Photo Credit: By Nevit Dilmen – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3894055)