What Do You Depend On?

May 31, 2013

What do you depend on in an emergency?

Memorial Day morning was perfect for a long bike ride: About 60 degrees, almost no wind, and very little traffic because of the holiday. I decided on a 28 mile route and got out the door early.

Eight miles into the ride, on an isolated, beautiful road, after a long downhill, something didn’t feel right. I pulled over and found that my rear tire had lost a significant amount of pressure.

No problem. I always carry a spare tube, as well as a carbon dioxide container to inflate the tube quickly. Indeed, this was the same spare tube I had carried with me for the last five months.

I removed the wheel, took the tire off the rim, examined the tire for thorns or glass, and inspected the rim – all looked fine.

A few minutes later, with the new tube on the rim and the tire remounted, I inflated the tire with the CO2 container and was ready to go.

Except I immediately heard “Whoosh!” Air coming out of the tube.

My spare tube had a hole in it.

That spare tube was defective. It had always had a hole in it.

I had carried that tube with me for 1000 miles of biking. I always thought I was prepared, ready for a flat, because I had that tube.

And all along, I wasn’t prepared at all. I was deceived. I had no security. What I thought would help me in an emergency was of no use at all.

So: What do you depend on in an emergency?

Much of what we depend on is like that tube. It looked fine. No defect was apparent. It came from a reliable company. The tube that had lasted a thousand miles was the same brand. Yet in my hour of need, it proved to be worthless.

Just so, our own strength and fortitude will fail us. Other people will fail us. Our philosophies will fail us.

All of us will face trials and tragedies in this life. Eventually, we will all face death. What will you depend on?

As the author of Hebrews assures us,

[God] has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” So we can confidently say, “The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me?” (Hebrews 13:5-6)

And the Apostle Paul asks:

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? . . . No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:35, 37-39)

When that same Apostle came to the point of death, knowing that he was soon to be beheaded, he wrote:

The Lord will rescue me from every evil attack and will bring me safely to his heavenly kingdom. To him be glory for ever and ever. Amen. (2 Timothy 4:18)

So once again: What do you depend on?

Don’t depend on a defective tube. Lean instead on the solid rock:

His oath, His covenant, His blood,
Support me in the ‘whelming flood.
When all around my soul gives way,
He then is all my hope and stay.

On Christ the solid rock I stand,
All other ground is sinking sand;
All other ground is sinking sand. (Edward Mote, 1834)

Sovereignty and Evil in an Iranian Prison

May 25, 2013

A ravaging tornado destroys entire neighborhoods and kills dozens, including many children. A government agency abuses power by singling out certain political viewpoints for invasive questioning. One country in the Middle East falls further and further into chaos, while another moves closer and closer to building nuclear weapons.

Where in the world is God? Is He really in control? Does He care?

Scripture assures us that “our God is in the heavens; He does all that He pleases” (Psalm 115:3). So how do tornadoes and government corruption and political chaos and the threat of nuclear terrorism please God?

Consider these questions in light of a recent book, Captive in Iran by Maryam Rostampour and Marziyeh Amirizadeh. These two friends came to Christ, and were active in distributing Bible and sharing their faith with anyone who might ask. Eventually they were arrested.

Fearful and suffering, they do not know what they might encounter in the hellhole of the notorious Evin prison. But what they find is many hurting people who are willing to hear Jesus’ story and their story:

We were in the best place we’d ever been for witnessing to people hungry for the gospel of Jesus. The living conditions weren’t very good, but we didn’t have to deal with travel and traffic! And we could tell our fellow prisoners the story of Jesus openly because no one would come into this rat hole to spy on us. (647 – the numbers after each quotation are Kindle locations)

Our conversation with [a prisoner] was another reminder of how God had moved us on from what we thought we should be doing to what He wanted us to do. We had hosted two home churches and distributed twenty thousand Farsi New Testaments, evangelizing while avoiding the regime. It was a slow process. Now that we were in prison, we could talk openly about our faith. Whereas before we had searched for people to speak to, now they came looking for us: “Go see the Christian girls!” The very prison system that tried to silence us was now our megaphone. (2843)

Even some of the guards seek out their prayers:

“I’m tired of working here,” [one guard] admitted. “I don’t think I’m cut out for it. Would you pray for me?” “I will be happy to.” And so I prayed for my captor, secure in the presence of the Lord that washed over me in waves, in the deepest recesses of the most feared ward of the most notorious prison in one of the most oppressed nations of the world. Surely I had never felt more blessed. (2498)

Uncharged, they are kept in prison for many months. Finally they appear before a judge, facing the charge of apostasy – which can lead to execution. The judge asks:

Miss Amirizadeh, are you a Christian? Are you called to follow Jesus? Explain to me what you mean by that.” As the questions hung in the air, I felt chills run up and down my body. They were the same questions, asked the same way, I had been asked during my baptism ceremony. . . . Today, October 7, was the four-year anniversary of that day. . . . The first time I was asked the questions, I was free, happy, and surrounded by friends. Now I’m under the threat of death. God is asking, “Are you still a Christian?” The path to Christ is never the easy way. As Jesus said to His disciples in Mark 8:34, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” Today I renewed the promise I made to God on this date years ago. I promise to take up my cross and follow Christ. I want to die for God. I will follow Him forever. Sometimes God puts us in a difficult situation and tries us. This is the real test. “When you are in fear, will you still be true?” I decided in court to follow God even if it kills me. (3719)

After an international outcry leads Iranian authorities to look for a way to release the women while saving face, the chief prosecutor assures them he is on their side and is willing to help them, if they will negotiate with him. Maryam answers:

“I sincerely thank you for your kindness . . . but my trust and reliance are with God. I believe it is the Lord’s will that Marziyeh and I should be in prison, and that our freedom lies in His hands alone. If the Lord wishes to release us, no one can stand in His way. Of course, we don’t like staying in prison and we would rather be free, but we prefer to wait for the Lord’s decision on the matter.” (3905)

They are released, without apologizing for anything they have done.  God showed His sovereignty and His faithfulness to these two brave women.

In the case of Maryam and Marziyeh, we see the end result; God did indeed use even the evil acts of evil men to bring about His good purposes. Their faith was strengthened; the Gospel spread to some of the most downtrodden in Iranian society. But remember: When the authorities first threw them in prison, they had no idea how God was acting. They faced the possibility of death time and again. Others in similar situations had died.

As these two women clearly say, God’s sovereignty does not imply that we will have easy lives. It does not imply that God will get us out of every difficult and dangerous situation.

Rather: Our God is in the heavens, doing all that He pleases. We will face confusing, dangerous, and difficult times. Sometimes in retrospect – as in this case – we see how He worked for good in the midst of danger; often we do not. But Scripture assures us: He is at work. So we are to live by faith and not by sight.

He is sovereign. Trust Him with your life.

The Authority of Scripture, Part 4: References

May 22, 2013

The argument presented for the authority of Scripture in the three previous posts is non-standard and idiosyncratic. Here are some references that provide more standard arguments, as well as addressing many points that I don’t mention:

(For printing these references together with part 3, download this pdf file.)

Why Did a Davidson Math Major and Stanford PhD Submit Himself to the Authority of Scripture? The Authority of Scripture, Part 3

May 17, 2013

Over three blog posts, we’re considering our position before God’s revelation in Scripture. Two weeks ago, we looked at the biblical image of us as two-year-olds before God. Last week, we considered the impact of sin on our ability to think and reason. Today, I’ll tell my own story of coming to submit myself to the authority of Scripture.

I graduated from Davidson as an excellent student and an accomplished athlete. I believed I could do anything I set my mind to doing. For to that point in my life, I either had – or had a good excuse for why I hadn’t.

I called myself a Christian. I read the Bible – occasionally. I had read all the New Testament, and perhaps eighty percent of the Old. I thought I knew it.

But I did not believe in the authority of Scripture. I was not under the Word; rather, I was over it, judging it. If Scripture seemed reasonable to me, I liked it and followed it – and used it to justify what I already believed. If it didn’t seem reasonable to me, I didn’t follow it. So in the end, my own reason was my authority – my own fallen reason, my own sin-soaked reason.

I had grown up in the Washington, DC area. Many of my friends in high school had parents with bad marriages – usually because the father was a workaholic, neglecting his wife and children. So even while I was in high school, I told myself: Should I ever get married, I won’t be like that. I will make the marriage work.

By the time of my Davidson graduation, I was seriously involved with the perfect woman, Beth. There was no question: Our marriage would work. We loved each other; we were committed to each other; and we were both wonderful. Of course our marriage would be wonderful.

Yet two and a half years after our wedding, the marriage was in disarray. Indeed, it was falling apart. One pivotal night thirty-one years ago, I had to acknowledge that I was destroying our marriage, Beth, this supposedly perfect woman, was destroying our marriage, and there was nothing I could do to keep it from dissolving. Indeed, I had to recognize that, left to my own devices, I would continue to destroy it.

I was an economics PhD student, but I was not maximizing my utility. Instead: I was destroying what I really loved and wanted most.

That night, I confessed my sin before God, and asked His forgiveness through the blood of Jesus.

God worked powerfully that night. I still didn’t believe in the authority of Scripture. But I did see that my putting myself above scriptural authority was part of the problem. I had ignored parts of Scripture that I didn’t want to listen to – and some of those parts spoke directly to the issues in our marriage.

So I began reading the Bible in a fresh way. I asked God to give me insight into it. I prayed for wisdom to understand His Word. I beseeched God to change me through His Word.

As I approached Scripture as a supplicant, I began to see more and more of myself described in it. Particularly powerful was Romans 7, where Paul describes exactly what I had gone through:

I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand.  For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! (Romans 7:21-25)

As I read this and other Scriptures over the course of the next eighteen months, God convinced me of Scripture’s authority. Though I wouldn’t have used these terms at that time, this is how it came about:

I recognized that I had been seeing God as the coach and myself as His quarterback, or God as president and myself as Secretary of State. And I had to acknowledge that I was not even His second string defensive tackle. I had thought that God was fortunate to have someone with my talents and abilities to call himself a Christian; and I had to acknowledge that I was the problem, not the solution to God’s problems.

I had made my own reason my ultimate authority, judging Scripture by it. Because of the noetic effects of sin, I had to acknowledge that my reason could never play that role; I could not understand His Scriptures apart from Him, apart from His help. Indeed, I would without fail distort them and misinterpret them for my own selfish – and ultimately harmful – purposes.

But when I approached His Word with humility, I discovered the truth of Proverbs 2:3-6:

If you call out for insight and raise your voice for understanding, if you seek it like silver and search for it as for hidden treasures, then you will understand the fear of the LORD and find the knowledge of God. For the LORD gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding.

I then saw that I was only God’s two-year-old. That is, I had nothing that would make Him want to choose me, nothing that would make Him want to have me on His team.

“Only” His two-year-old – that was a humbling thought. However, I was His two-year-old! I was His precious child! This process of putting myself under the authority of Scripture was not solely an intellectual process, a way of coming to Truth – but it was fundamentally relational. I was His beloved child – He chose me out of His own goodness and mercy, He gave His Son for me, He welcomed me into His presence.

He accommodated Himself to my capacity; He spoke baby talk to me so that I could be like a weaned child with his mother: so that I could rest in Him and delight in Him.

So that’s how a Davidson math major and Stanford PhD came to submit himself to the authority of Scripture.

So where are you? Do you doubt the authority of Scripture?

If so, take this test: Commit yourself every day to come humbly before the Word of God. Follow some systematic plan for reading through Scripture (the Bible Unity Plan is one option). Before you read each day, pray to God something like this: “God, if You exist, and if the Bible is indeed Your revelation, then it tells me I cannot understand it on my own. In my inner being, I really do want know the Truth; I want to submit to the Truth. So if the Bible is Your Word, open up this passage to me. Enable me to understand it and apply it. If it is Your revelation, open my eyes to see that truth.”

I challenge you: Make that commitment. And then go to the Word in that way every day – for thirty years.  I trust that God, by then, will have answered your prayer.

(A final blog post will point to other recommended references concerning the authority of Scripture.)

(For printing, download this pdf file.)

We Can’t Think Straight: The Authority of Scripture, Part 2

May 10, 2013

Over three blog posts, we’re considering our position before God’s revelation in Scripture. Last week, we looked at the biblical image of us as two-year-olds before God. Today we consider the impact of sin and the Fall on our ability to think and reason.

Two-year-olds push the limits against their parents. They rebel against authority.

Scripture tells us that this holds for every one of us: All humans have rebelled against God. This rebellion so permeates our being that we cannot think straight. Our reasoning is distorted. Our view of the world is twisted. Some theologians term this the noetic effects of sin.

Many passages bring out this truth. Perhaps the most in depth discussion is found in 1 Corinthians 1:18-2:16. I commend the entire passage to you; here are a few excerpts:

1: 18 For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.  . . .  21 For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe.  22 For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom,  23 but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles,  24 but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.  . . .   27 But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong;  28 God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are,  29 so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.  30 And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption,  31 so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” . . . 2:14 The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.

Note three points from this text and related passages. These points then lead to a few corollaries:

First, Scripture says that the truths it presents will be rejected – indeed, that those whose minds have not been renewed by the Spirit are not able to understand these truths (see especially 2:14). Put that idea in the context of the overall storyline of the Bible: God created mankind in His image as the pinnacle of His work, to glorify Him by enjoying Him forever. Yet the first man and the first woman rejected God’s purposes for them, choosing to believe Satan’s lie that God was withholding good from them. They chose to disbelieve God, and to establish themselves as the arbiters of what was in their own interest. They then deserved to be wiped out. All of their descendants normally born display that same rebellion. Yet God in His mercy established a plan of redemption which He implemented over the centuries, eventually sending His Son to live the life all men should have lived, and to die to pay the penalty we deserve for our rejection of Him. God raised Him from the dead, and will send Him again to usher in a new heavens and new earth, in which redeemed and perfected humanity will indeed glorify Him by enjoying Him forever.

In this interim period between the first and second coming of the Son, all mankind is stained by the Fall. Should we hear this story, should we read Scripture, we naturally reject it; we belittle it; we mock it. Unless God intervenes, our very thought processes are infected with a disease we do not notice that keeps us from seeing Truth.

This leads to a corollary: When a skeptic launches a broadside assault on Scripture, he is fulfilling Scripture. Now, clearly this corollary does not in and of itself prove that Scripture is true. But we must realize that attacks on scriptural authority are perfectly consistent with Scripture being true.

One more corollary of this first point: If we are to understand Scripture, we will have to come to God as supplicants, asking for His Spirit to open our minds, to clarify our vision, so that we might understand His Word.

Second point to note from 1 Corinthians 1 and 2:

b) God predominantly does not choose to renew by His Spirit the minds of the most intelligent of men. (see especially 1:27). He does renew the minds of some of the most intelligent (including the Apostle Paul himself). But God’s redeemed people are not exclusively or even on average from among those who, based on their worldly accomplishments and education, would be considered the brightest men and women on the planet. Paul tells us here why God works this way: So that no human being will have any grounds for boasting before Him (1:29). That is, so that no one might think, “God picked me because I was so smart. God needed me on His team. I have so much to contribute to His cause that God had to draft me.” No. God works in such a way that all of our boasting can be only in Him. Otherwise, we would be glorifying ourselves, not Him.

This leads to another corollary, but some personal information first: My undergraduate degree in mathematics is from Davidson; my PhD is from Stanford. Here’s the corollary: God is not impressed by a Davidson bachelors or a Stanford PhD. He doesn’t need me. He doesn’t need my intellectual abilities or my credentials. Indeed, no intellectual accomplishment is impressive to God. No intellectual accomplishment earns merit with God. Should He open my mind to see Him, the only reason will be His grace and mercy.

Third point: The wisdom of God is not intellectual only or primarily. The wisdom of God is fundamentally relational. Through His plan of redemption, God is reconciling men and women to Himself. Through Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, God restores men and women to an intimate relationship with Him. So Paul says that Christ becomes to us no only wisdom, but also righteousness (granting us what we lost in the fall), sanctification (setting us apart for God Himself as His precious possession), and redemption (covering the relational distance necessitated by our rebellion) (1:18-24, 30).

This point also flows from the summary of the overall storyline of the Bible: Since God created us to glorify Himself by enjoying Him forever, His plan of redemption must restore the relationship, and not only enable us to appraise truth intellectually.

One final corollary: God is not and cannot be solely the object of our study. If the Bible is true, God is not an impersonal unmoved mover; He is not some abstract force or principle. He is personal. To know Him truly is to love Him deeply.

Similarly, my wife Beth is not and cannot be solely the object of my study. In order to be a good husband, I should learn all I can about her. But if I treat her as an object, I will fail miserably as a husband. My knowledge of her must lead to greater love and more effective service for her.

Just so, our knowledge of God must be relational – for it originates with His reaching out to us. He is the offended party. We are under His judgment. We owe Him everything – for life, for breath, for food, for shelter, for intelligence. We are not blank slates rationally looking at the evidence and deciding if Scripture reflect truth. If Scripture is true, we are rebels against Him, grasping at any straw we can find that will indicate, “I am in control; I am wise; I can forge my own path.” He graciously offers us His love and mercy; indeed, He graciously offers us Himself, a relationship with Him, for all eternity.

So consider those points from 1 Corinthians. Next week we’ll ask: Why did a Davidson math major and Stanford PhD submit himself to the authority of Scripture?

(For printing, download this pdf file.)

You Are God’s Two-Year-Old: The Authority of Scripture, Part 1

May 2, 2013

Over three blog posts, we’ll consider our position before God’s revelation in Scripture. This post may not seem to have much to do with scriptural authority, but be patient; we’ll get there.

How do you picture your relationship to God? What images do you use?

  • Perhaps you use a business image: He’s the boss, you’re His right hand man.
  • Or a political image: He’s President, you’re His Secretary of State.
  • Or a sports image: He’s the head coach, you’re His quarterback.
  • Or a military image: He’s a general, you’re a colonel.
  • Or a family image: He’s a big older brother – stronger, wiser, more experienced than you, while you are His faithful and loyal younger brother.

Does something disturb you about all those images? I hope so.

Surely the difference between God and me is far greater than the difference between Barack Obama and John Kerry.

So to get this right, do we just need to diminish our role in these images?

  • Business: He’s the boss, you run a local branch.
  • Politics: He’s the President, you’re a congressman in His party.
  • Sports: He’s the coach, you’re the second string defensive tackle.
  • Military: He’s a general, you’re an inexperienced lieutenant.  
  • Family: He’s the father, you’re His teenage son.

Do those changes solve the problem?

Or do these images still make you too smart, too important, too able compared to God?

How should you picture your relationship to God?

How do you picture your relationship to God?

Consider Psalm 8:3-4:

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?

As soon as we consider the heavens, the moon, the billions and trillions of stars, the extent of the galaxies, we have to conclude that if they have a Creator, we are indeed minuscule in comparison to Him. I can’t possibly be His advisor. I can’t possibly be his quarterback, or even His branch manager.

But if these images make us appear as too close to God, what image should we use?

Consider yourself God’s two-year-old.

This is one way to understand Psalm 131:

O LORD, my heart is not lifted up; my eyes are not raised too high; I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvelous for me.  But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child is my soul within me.  O Israel, hope in the LORD from this time forth and forevermore.

The psalmist thinks of himself as a child – perhaps a two-year-old. Whether or not this child is still nursing, at the moment pictured he has finished eating. He is well satisfied. He is clean. He is secure. He is caressed. He is loved. Surrounded by all of Mommy’s welcome smells, embraced by her warmth, he is completely secure. Completely at rest. Completely content. All he wants is right there: He has his Mommy. He has his Daddy. They provide. He trusts them. He is confident in them.

That is how Scripture says we should be before God.

That’s the picture of Psalm 131. What else do we know about two-year-olds from our own experience?

I have six children. We thus spent six years with a two-year-old in the house (and more than thirteen years with at least one child two or under). Here are five characteristics of two-year-olds I have observed:

  • They are completely dependent; they will die apart from the attention of their parents or other adults.
  • They assert themselves, they test their limits, pushing those in authority over them to define what they really mean.
  • They are perfectly able to think, and make surprising connections and observations; nevertheless, they have many misunderstandings and misapprehensions.
  • They simply are not able to understand many things that their parents say; in order to communicate effectively, their parents have to talk in a way the two-year-old can derstand.
  • They also cannot understand many things about the world around them that their parents know; thus, they have to learn to listen to their parents, to trust them, to obey them.

With those characteristics in mind, let’s turn from two-year-olds to John Calvin. He writes:

The majesty of God is . . . far above the reach of mortals who are like worms crawling upon the earth (Institutes 2.6.4).

So how can a worm have any relationship to such a God? That doesn’t seem possible.

Calvin continues:

The Father, who is infinite in himself, becomes finite in the Son because he has accommodated himself to our capacity, that he may not overwhelm our minds with the infinity of his glory. (emphasis added)

We can have a relationship to God because God chooses to make that possible. We are nothing before Him. We are insignificant – unless He gives us significance. But He has chosen to reveal Himself through redemptive history; through His living Word, Jesus Christ; through His written Word, the Bible.

He  accommodates “Himself to our capacity.” He speaks to us in language we can understand. He uses images from everyday life so that we can know all we need to know of Him and His work.

Commenting on this passage of the Institutes, Derek Thomas links this idea with the image of us as toddlers:

What we know of God we know only in part, only to the extent to which he has revealed himself. And even that revelation is just so much “baby-talk” and we must always remember that it is so. (emphasis added)

“Just so much baby talk.”

When God speaks to us, He speaks like we speak to toddlers.

Consider: When you speak to a two-year-old, how do you talk?

From Beth’s first pregnancy, we decided we weren’t going to speak what’s often called baby talk – “wad dus da widdle bebee wunt do do?” We were going to enunciate clearly, just as when we would speak to each other. For we wanted to communicate clearly to our children, and to teach them how to speak clearly.

That’s what God does for us. “Baby talk” in this sense is not a distortion of speech. Rather, it is speaking in terms and in words that can be understood by the little one.

Now, in our home we explicitly pushed our children to grow in their understanding. One way we did this was by reading them books that challenged them. But at two-years-old, we didn’t read them War and Peace; rather, we read The Narnian Chronicles.

That’s how God speaks to us.

We are two-year-olds before Him. There are many things we cannot understand. If He explained to us the intricacies of His creation, of His thoughts, of His plans, it would be like our reading War and Peace to a two-year-old. Nothing would get through. We wouldn’t learn a thing. Instead, He accommodates Himself to our capacity. He speaks to us true words, in helpful images, in the Bible. He tells us of His workings throughout history. He shows us what He is like through God incarnate, Jesus Christ. And so we get an incomplete, but a true picture of who He is, and what our relationship to Him can be.

God is beyond us. We can never comprehend him on our own. If left to our own reason, we will never figure out who He is – just as a two-year-old who never grew up could never understand his parents. But God has chosen to reveal who He is to us – through His Word.

Next: The Noetic Effects of Sin

(Several years ago I preached two sermons on Psalm 131: first, second. Part of this post is based on the first of those sermons).

(For printing, download this pdf file.)