Archive for the ‘Old Testament’ Category

Lament October 28, 2011

Lamentations 1:12-14, 20.

Is it nothing to all you who pass this way?
Look and see if there is any pain like my pain
Which was severely dealt out to me,
Which the Lord inflicted on the day of His fierce anger.

From on high He sent fire into my bones,
And it prevailed over them.
He has spread a net for my feet;
He has turned me back;
He has made me desolate,
Faint all day long.

The yoke of my transgressions is bound;
By His hand they are knit together.
They have come upon my neck;
He has made my strength fail.
The Lord has given into the hands
Of those agiainst Whom I am not able to Stand.

See, O Lord, for I am in distress;
My spirit is greatly troubled;
My heart is overturned within me,
For I have been very rebellious.
In the street the sword slays;
In the house it is like death.

Lamentations is one of my favorite books of the Old Testament. Its intense grief over the destruction of Jerusalem gives way to a profound picture of God’s hand in both good and evil that shows clearly that He is the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen. What I sometimes gloss over in reading this book, though, is that the destruction wrought upon Jerusalem that moved Jeremiah’s pen came from within. The blight on Israel was a result of their collective sins, and they recognized it (though only after it was too late).

The implications for daily life are painfully real. I so seldom lament the sin in my own life and the destruction it causes. Even when I do, the tendency is always to lament the consequences and fail to connect them to the sin. We are the child caught with his hand in the cookie jar, regretting our lack of cookies rather than the breach of trust and relationship with our parents our actions caused. We go on this way, stumbling from transgression to transgression without considering the brokenness of our own hearts.

When God allows our sins to bear fruit in pain and suffering, it is really His special grace to call our attention to our eternal destiny through such temopral consequences. The destruction wrought by our sinful actions should move us to consider our sinful hearts and our cardinal sin of rebellion against our Great and gracious Creator. The brokenness that comes when sin “catches up to us” should drive us to the cross, where the consequences of all man’s sin are on full display, heaped on the Son–”once for all, the just for the unjust” (1 Pet. 3:18). As Charles Hodge put it, “It is obvious that no severity of mere human suffering, no destroying deluge, no final conflagration, not hell itself can present such a manifestation of the evil of sin and of the justice of God as the cross of his incarnate Son.”

When we fail to recognize these connections, to lament and mortify our sin, we heap further guilt on our heards. What is lament but to dwell on our own failure in the face of God’s holiness and to consider ourselves as He does? For the believer, lament is a crucial discipline, the result of which is not despair but the joy of Christ’s sacrifice considered anew. It is only through lamenting the sin that stains us that we can see the grace of God in full. This is what allows Jeremiah to say from the depths of sorrow, “This I recall to my mind, therefore I have hope. The Lord’s lovingkindnesses indeed never ceases, for His compassions never fail. They are new every morning; Great is Your faithfulness” (Lam 3:21-23).

Posted by Justin Lonas

But He Died!: The Cross and God’s Sovereignty April 13, 2011

My dad used to say all the time that the older he got, the more convinced he was of God’s absolute sovereignty and the less sure he was of his own free choice in the developments of his life and faith. As a child (and later a brash teenager), I was disinclined to see things that way–something about our human nature always chafes against any notion that we aren’t in control of our daily lives–but now I couldn’t agree more.

We are born into this world thinking ourselves the masters of our domain, seeking every opportunity to manipulate our situation to our advantage. Paradoxically, we learn to expect that our demands will be met whenever we make them precisely because we are utterly helpless. A parent doesn’t meet the needs of a child because the child’s cries obligate action, rather they do it out of love and concern for their child. A parent, not their child, creates and sustains the proper environment necessary.  We grow up predisposed to believe that our parents exist to serve us, and  we drag that image into our understanding of God.

Immature prayer  often sounds  like a more polished and polite version of a  young child’s  begging: “Lord, please give me (insert desire here);” “Lord, please take away (insert bad situation, illness, or difficulty here).” Is there anything wrong with that? Certainly not, as we are exhorted to ask God for His good gifts–even self-centered prayer acknowledges God as the source of the blessing. When the content of all our prayers is centered around such supplication, however, we are clearly missing something. A God powerful enough to give us these blessings and good enough to answer when we ask is deserving of so much more in our relationship to Him.

Theologically, this teases itself out in debates about the nature of salvation, righteousness, and responsibility. Who is the actor when we pass from death to life? How can we do right and cease from sin? Why do bad things happen in the world if God could stop them? Most of us at least at some point struggle with the interplay between personal autonomy and God’s absolute authority, and the Scriptures give precious little on which to build a sound case for the unilateral triumph of either position. I’ve broken it down before into a too-simplistic set of statements: Those who see God’s authority rigidly (to the point of denying man’s responsibility for anything) view God’s sovereignty correctly (He is either sovereign over all or not at all), but they impute to Him man’s motives and attitudes in the application of that authority in such a way that misses the the vastness of His love and mercy. Those who see man’s autonomy rigidly (to the point of diminishing God’s power) correctly see that we are responsible for our choices, but they impute God-like motives to us that undercut the depth, darkness, and totality of our sinfulness.

 I know a lot of people who grew into  belief in God’s sovereignty and then have had that confidence shattered by personal experiences or simply an overwhelming awareness of the trauma of life in a fallen world. When we witness a horrific crime or natural disaster, we can’t  help but wonder how and why God would allow such things. To some, the assurance that “God is in control” is no comfort and seems a hollow brush-off of visceral suffering.

God is in control, however, just as He was in control the day His beloved, holy, innocent  Son Jesus Christ was brutally beaten and crucified in Jerusalem. The cross of Christ (vis-a-vis God’s sovereignty) is not simply a lesson in how God’s plan through what appears to be abject evil  is  in reality  an unimaginable good (a la Gen. 50:20), though it is the ultimate example of that. The cross is not just a lesson in the ways in which God’s plan is beyond our understanding, though it is that too.  Though a  display of His grace and power and authority to  erase our sins, it is still more.  Perhaps the way the cross most boldly proclaims God’s sovereignty is through showcasing His willingness to suffer.

Christ was God, the Word made flesh (John 1:14), not another created being.  Christ, “who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself…humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death…” (Phil. 2:6-8). He came from a position of equality with God and yet became a man, “so that He might become a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God to make propitiation for the sins of the people” (Heb. 2:17). He came down to know the full measure of temptation (Heb. 4;15), pain, and separation from the Father: “In the days of His flesh, He offered up both prayers and supplications with loud crying and tears to the One able to save Him from death, and He was heard because of His piety. Although He was a Son, He learned obedience from the things which He suffered” (Heb. 5:7-8).

When Satan tempts us to believe that God is somehow out of touch or incapacitated by the scope of natural and moral evil in the world, we have to cling to the cross. When he tells us that God could not know our pain, could not feel our inner turmoil, and is not interested in the details of life in this world, we have to throw the battered, bloody body of Jesus in his face and shout, “But He died!”

When we are tempted to doubt God’s goodness and compassion, when we read of divinely-ordered genocide (as in 1 Sam. 15) in the same book as we discover His everlasting lovingkindness and are told to see this as a contradiction that undermines our faith, we have to fall on the cross. The justice and love of God are predicated on the finished work of Christ: He knows “everyone whos name has…been written from the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb who has been slain” (Rev. 13:8). Everything about our understanding of and relationship with God has to hold up under the power of the cross; otherwise, it is incomplete and is “no gospel at all” (Gal. 1:7).

As I said, the older I get, the more I understand my dad’s statement. The driving factor in this shift isn’t so much that I’ve learned more about God’s sovereignty from growing in His Word (though I have), but that I am daily confronted with magnitude of my sin. The more I recognize my own rottenness, the more I recognize that any standing I have before God is His doing alone. The less sound my case seems  in the face of  God’s holy justice, the more His love breaks through in all its glory. If I though I deserved even a snippet of it, it would be cheapened to me beyond recognition. I’ve got no right whatsoever to live with God, but He died!

Charles Wesley’s words ring true: “And can it be, that I should gain an interest in my Savior’s blood? Died He for me, who caused His pain, for me, who Him to death pursued? Amazing love, how can it be, that Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?”

A blessed Holy Week and Easter to you all.

Posted by Justin Lonas

Judgment and Mercy in New Orleans August 27, 2010

I wrote this for my student newspaper during my senior year of college after a trip to Louisiana to assist with hurricane relief. I’m reposting it here in honor of the 5th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina’s landfall  on the  Gulf Coast on 8/29/05  and as a reminder that God is at work in even in the worst disasters we witness around the world.

“œEverybody keeps saying that God sent this thing as an act of judgment on our city. I think it was really an act of mercy ““ there are people who have been praying for something like this for years ““ just waiting for an opportunity to get out of a bad situation.”

These level-headed words from  the wife of a New Orleans Baptist  Theologial Seminary student  didn’t blend with their context.

She spoke them while inspecting her salt-encrusted Chevy Cavalier to the background noise of six men from Bryan College stripping appliances and furniture from her neighbor’s apartment.

I never associated mercy with destruction. The mold-blackened walls, rancid refrigerators and pervasive stench of flooded homes more closely matched my conception of hell than of God’s love. Pausing from our grim task to hear her wisdom sharpened the meaning of our work there.

Before heading to Louisiana for a week of ministry, I wondered how I could show God’s love to people who thought He Himself had destroyed their lives. The words of the seminary wife caught me off guard with the simple truth that God was behind the whole story of Hurricane Katrina, in ways that I never conceived.

New Orleans needed judgment. The city of gamblers, drunkards, prostitutes and revelers, was ripe for sentence to be passed. Gulfport and Biloxi in neighboring Mississippi weren’t much better. Then again, neither is any place on this earth. What cities and towns don’t play host to people who are financially irresponsible, those who depend on alcohol and drugs, the sexually promiscuous and self-absorbed partygoers? “œNormal” places carefully pass over these woes as those who partake of them deftly cover their tracks to avoid condemnation.

New Orleans wore her sins on her sleeve. Did we rush to proclaim the wrath of God on the Big Easy because she deserved it or because we were glad that our own closet hadn’t been blown open by the storm?

Too often we mistake nudges from the Almighty as blows from His sword. We forget that He works in mysterious ways. If He wanted to destroy the city, He could have ““ beyond the shadow of a doubt. Looking at roofs crushed by trees, windows exploded by 130-mph winds and 10-foot-high piles of trash that were once the contents of a home, it’s very easy to think of judgment.

Looking deeper, mercy overtakes judgment as the theme of this saga. A city of 500,000 people losing only a little more than 1,000 to a direct hit by a monstrous hurricane for which it was almost completely unprepared is mercy. Letting people see the Church do the work of restoring lives wrecked by the storm  when the government bungled its attempt at the same is mercy. Leading National Guard soldiers and Red Cross relief workers to salvation is mercy. Allowing the terrible beauty of a hurricane to thrash our lives so that we wake from the slumber of Christless apathy is mercy.

New Orleans needed mercy. We all need mercy. God loves to show us His gracious care. We’re just slow to pick up His frequency.

New Orleans was not destroyed. Today, just a few weeks later,  it is bustling with the activity of reconstruction. The South isn’t about to let the bosom of its culture wash by the wayside. More importantly, Christ isn’t about to let hurting people go untouched through this upheaval. I’ve never seen as positive an outpouring of energy and resources from the Church in my lifetime.

Those of us who could go offer tangible help did, some more than once, and I’m sure many will continue to go for months to come. Those who could give to the cause gave generously; so much so that there has been an overabundance of supplies for the refugees. The hand of the Lord has been active the whole time. It touched refugees herded into shelters with hot meals and listening ears. It touched uninsured homeowners by preparing their homes for reconstruction free of charge. It touched people living in makeshift trailer parks with welcoming embraces and simple services. It touched relief workers from Bryan with the strength, patience and generosity we needed to be that hand to the people of southeast Louisiana.

Years from now, when we look back on this incredible story of God’s redeeming mercy, no one will think of it as a judgment from on high. We can’t waste the gift He has given us. If we allow our lives to return to “œnormal” after the dust of all this settles, the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina will not be the destruction of the Gulf Coast but the destruction of spiritual fervor by comfortable circumstances.

The words of the prophets linger in the background. “œ“˜I struck all the work of your hands with blight, mildew and hail, yet you did not turn to me,’ declares the Lord.” (Hag. 2:17).

God got our attention and allowed us to rebuild His Body with a righteous work ethic. To Him be the glory, even (or, should I say, especially) when we can’t immediately see His purposes.

Posted by Justin Lonas

Friday Thoughts: Great is Thy Faithfulness July 9, 2010

“Great is Thy faithfulness, O God my father;
There is no shadow of turning with thee;
Thou changest not, Thy compassions they fail not;
As thou hast been, Thou forever wilt be.

“Summer and winter and seedtime and harvest,
Sun, moon, and stars in their courses above
Join with all nature in manifold witness
To Thy great faithfulness, mercy, and love.

“Pardon for sin and a peace that endureth
Thine own dear presence to lead and to guide;
Strength for today, and bright hope for tomorrow,
Blessings all mine and ten thousand beside!

“Great is Thy faithfulness!
Great is Thy faithfulness!
Morning by morning, new mercies I see.
All I have needed, Thy hand hath provided,
Great is thy faithfulness, Lord unto me.”

© Thomas O. Chisholm, 1923

Chisholm’s hymn is dear to many of us, but perhaps so near that we forget the power of its meaning. This is not just a hymn praising God for His abundant blessing or His steadfast support. In point of fact, the text for this songbook standard comes not from Psalms but from Lamentations – from the lowest point of the lowly life of Jeremiah. And the affirmation of God’s faithfulness comes not after a blessing, or even after deliverance, but after God’s chastisement of Israel. So confident was Jeremiah of God’s purposes in His punishment, that he echoes Job’s cry, “œThough He slay me, yet will I hope in Him“ (Job 13:15a).

“œMy soul has been rejected from peace; I have forgotten happiness. So I say, “˜My strength has perished, and so has my hope from the Lord.’ Remember my affliction and my wandering, the wormwood and bitterness. Surely my sould remembers and is bowed down within me. This I recall to my mind, therefore I have hope. The Lord’s lovingkindnesses never cease, for His compassions never fail. They are new every morning; Great is Your faithfulness“ (Lamentations 3:17-23).

That is the true test of our faith – do we trust God enough to know that even the troubles we encounter are part of His plan? Do we believe, as Jeremiah did, that “œWho is there who speaks and it comes to pass, unless the Lord has commanded it? Is it not from the mouth of the most high that both good and ill go forth?” (Lamentations 3:37-38).

Posted by Justin Lonas

Who is a Leader? June 30, 2010

My apologies for only breaking the 3-week post drought with a non-original piece, but it’s too good to pass up.

Tim Challies, who you may recognize as a periodic contributer of articles to Disciple, raises the issue of just who is qualified to be a leader in the Church  (and the dangers associated with following after the wrong leaders) with a masterful exposition of Jeremiah 23.

Don’t let this one slip by you today.

Posted by Justin Lonas

Faith of the Faithless? June 3, 2010

That God answers prayer is an essential article of our  faith. We know that He answers according to His perfect  will and His mercy (not according to  our desires and finite plans), and in His time (which is not ours). We even know that He answers at least some of the prayers of the unsaved, as He answered the first prayer of each believer for salvation (which was prayed from “outside” of His family). He is not deaf, and He is active in the lives of men.

What about, however,  the prayers of those who neither know God nor worship Him? In Genesis 24, we see  an interesting display of the prayers of a man  seemingly in  such a position. The scene opens with Abraham, advancing in years, concerned for the spiritual well-being of his son Isaac and the perpetuation of His line according to the promise of God.  Abraham wants Isaac to marry from among his own people, not from among the pagans in the land of Canaan, and so he asks his servant (whose name is not given in this passage) to swear to travel to his relatives and find a wife for Isaac. The servant obliges, and sets out on his errand.

Upon his arrival in Mesopotamia, he utters a prayer that belies 1) his position outside of Abraham’s beliefs, 2) his confusion at Abraham’s orders, and 3) his worry that he cannot complete his task. “O Lord, the God of my master Abraham, please grant me success today, and show lovingkindness to my master Abraham. Behold, I am standing by the spring, and the daughters of the men of this city are coming out to draw water; now may it be that the girl to whom I say, ‘Please let down your jar so that I may drink,’ and who answers, ‘Drink, and I will water your camels also’–may she be the one whom You have appointed for Your servant Isaac; and by this I will know that You have shown lovingkindness to my master” (Gen. 24:12-14). He sounds unsure of himself and detached from the God to whom he prays. He prays not so much for himself but according to Abraham & Isaac’s faith and makes an outlandish “damp fleece” request of the Lord–but he prays! He steps out in the faith he has seen modeled in his master’s household and calls out to God with at least some recognition that only the Lord could accomplish the task he was sworn to by Abraham.

God not only answers the servant’s earnest plea for a successful completion of his mission, He does so immediately. “Before he had finished speaking” (v. 15), Rebekah walks up to the well and performs exactly the unusual set of actions he had prayed for as a sign. “Then the man [the servant] bowed low and worshipped the Lord. He said, ‘Blessed be the Lord, the God of my master Abraham, who has not forsaken His lovingkindness and His truth toward my master; as for me, the Lord has guided me in the ways to the house of my master’s brothers” (vv. 26-27).   He proceeds from there to seal the deal with Rebekah’s family and bring her back to marry Isaac, praising the Lord for His provision (vv. 42-49).

Reading   an attitude of skepticism into the servant’s prayers may be a bit “Western” of me (the language is such that He may have been simply honoring Abraham as his master even in prayer), but his amazement at the Lord’s sudden and exacting answer is palpable in the text. God will answer whom He will answer, and whether or not the servant was a partaker in Abraham’s faith “reckoned to him as righteousness” (Gen. 15:6), the Lord showed up in response to his earnest request. To say that the Lord answers the prayers of the faithless is, in any case, misleading–there are no faithless prayers. All true prayer is born out of a person’s honest belief “that [God] is and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him” (Heb. 11:6)–a request made from any other attitude is just hollow and meaningless talking to the ceiling.

Prayer is faith in action.

Posted by Justin Lonas

Happy New Year January 12, 2010

There is an appointed time for everything. And there is a time for every event under heaven–

A time to give birth and a time to die;
A time to plant and a time to uproot what is planted.
A time to kill and a time to heal;
A time to tear down and a time to build up.
A time to laugh and a time to weep;
A time to mourn and a time to dance.
A time to throw stones and a time to gather stones;
A time to embrace and a time to shun embracing.
A time to search and a time to give up as lost;
A time to keep and a time to throw away.
A time to tear apart and a time to sew together;
A time to be silent and a time to speak.
A time to love and a time to hate;
A time for war and a time for peace.

What profit is there to the worker from that in which he toils? I have seen the task which God has given the sons of men with which to occupy themselves. He has made everything appropriate in its time. He has also set eternity in their heart, yet so that man will not find out the work which God has done from the beginning even to the end. I know that there is nothing better for them than to rejoice and to do good in one’s lifetime; moreover, that every man who eats and drinks sees good in all his labor–it is the gift of God” (Ecclesiastes 3:1-13).

Of Donkeys and Such December 22, 2009

Reading the other day in Jeremiah (a book, I’ll confess, that has seldom been a focus of study for me”“though the Lord has been leading me in a “œrenaissance” of the OT of late) and came across a  passage I’d never noticed before: “œHow can you say, “˜I am not defiled, I have not gone after the Baals’? Look at your way in the valley! Know what you have done! You are a swift young camel, entangling in all her ways, a wild donkey accustomed to the wilderness, that sniffs the wind in her passion. In the time of her heat, who can turn her away? All who seek her will not become weary; in her month they will find her“ (Jer. 2:23-24).

Scripture is filled to overflowing with creative turns of phrase and vivid word pictures. I’m quite familiar with the prophets’ descriptions of Israel as a prostitute or adulteress for their unfaithfulness to God, but this one goes a step further, equating them with a wild donkey in heat. The difference is one of degree more than kind”“a prostitute or adulteress does what she does for selfish reasons, standing to gain something (temporally) by her wiles; a wild animal  does not reason through  her actions, driven into a frenzy by chemistry and exercising no control whatsoever. In other words, the Lord is saying through Jeremiah that Israel worshipped whatever false gods came her way with no rhyme or reason,  blindly following any and every path presented to her.

This is final stage of their degeneration before judgment”“they didn’t get to this point overnight.  In the historical books, there  seems to be a progression from casually disengaging from God and distrusting His provision and plan to  willful disobedience to God and turning to false gods for political, social, or economic gain  (prostitution) to devoutly worshipping false gods our of spite for the Lord (adultery) to the  utter degradation described here.

There is a clear lesson here for us, and not just in terms of our personal sin and wandering from the Lord’s presence. When we begin to drift from God, forsaking prayer and the fellowship of the saints, we open our hearts to deception. We are then tempted to accept false teachings (even, or especially, the subtle ones) because they are “œhip” or “œthe new way to do things”. Eventually we come to hold falsehood more closely than truth and are in danger of completely sliding off our foundation stone. Just as the whole nation of Israel slid down this slope, so whole churches and denominations can and do take the spill.

We do well to guard our hearts and take the “œdry spells” of spirituality as a call from the Lord to search our hearts and commit ourselves ever deeper to obedience to His will. As Peter cried out in John 6:68, “œLord, to whom shall we go? You have words of eternal life.” He is enough. Whenever we forget that, we demote Him in our hearts from God of the universe to “œpersonal assistant” and begin looking elsewhere for gratification.

 ”œOh to grace how great a debtor
  Daily I’m constrained to be.
  Let Thy goodness, like a fetter,
  Bind my wand’ring heart to thee.

  Prone to wander, Lord I feel it!
  Prone to leave the God I love!
  Here’s my heart, O take and seal it.
  Seal it for Thy courts above.”

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