Archive for December, 2009

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.”

The Disappearance of Discipline December 17, 2009

For centuries, believers practiced a plethora of spiritual disciplines designed to focus attention on the things of the Lord and promote prayer and true repentance. Fasting, monasticism, meditation, pilgrimage,  and even self-flagellation were fairly common to the life of the church. By the 16th century, however,  the reformers  proclaimed (in most cases, very correctly) that such external practices of the Catholic church were all for show and served only to cover up the lack of commitment in the heart. Zwingli, it is said, went so far as to stage an “œostentatious public sausage-eating*” during Lent to mock the futility of fasting for salvation.

In modern Evangelical Christianity, very little, if anything has changed about the general attitude toward many of the liturgical practices associated with more formal branches of the Church (Roman Catholicism, Eastern/Russian Orthodox, and Anglicanism).

Scripture, however, is not wholly on the side of either interpretation. Both the Old and New Testaments are replete with references to fasting and meditative prayer. Christ’s teaching on fasting in Matthew 6:16-24 presupposes its practice: He begins by saying “œWhenever you fast . . .”, not “œif you fast”. Jesus Himself fasted, most notably for the 40 days culminating in His temptation by Satan. While Protestant tradition is correct to point out that spiritual disciplines alone have no power to save, nor to change lives, it often misses the larger point that such habits serve to break up the flow of everyday life and remind us of our true calling. The liturgical tradition, while enforcing a spiritual mindset through discipline, fails to differentiate between means and ends and can very easily promote self-righteousness through what should be very selfless practices.

To a degree, the idea of spiritual discipline is one of “œself-induced suffering”. God promises that suffering and persecution will follow Christians (1 Peter, for instance), but also that He will sustain us and use such occurences to shape us into the men and women He desires us to be. When we partake of a fast, a prayer retreat, or sacrificial service of others, we are voluntarily laying aside the worldly clutter that so easily hinders our prayers. To do so is an open invitation for God to work in our hearts. It is during those times when He is most able to point out and excise sin from our lives and renew our commitment to His purposes.

Fasting in particular can also be a way to empathize with brothers and sisters around the world who go hungry everyday by no choice of their own. It is far easier to have a genuine concern for the poor when you’ve gone to bed hungry. It can serve as a motivator to proactively involve yourself in their lives. As Isaiah 8:6-7 says “œIs this not the fast which I choose, to loosen the bonds of wickedness, to undo the bands of the yoke, and to let the oppressed go free and break every yoke? Is it not to divide your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into the house; when you see the naked to cover him; and not to hide yourself from your own flesh. Then your light will break out like the dawn, and your recovery will speedily spring forth; and your righteousness will go before you; the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.”

Perhaps it is time to reexamine the balance of our Christian life. Perhaps we desperately need to refocus – to follow Christ alone and not the muddled images of Him that we so often pursue. Discipline alone is no help in the journey, but when coupled with a broken and contrite heart and an ear inclined to His wisdom, it can be a tremendous step in the right direction.


Bearing Burdens December 15, 2009

“œIf we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit. Let us not become boastful, challenging one another, envying one another.  Brethren, even if anyone is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual, restre such a one in a spirit of gentleness; each one looking to yourself so that you too will not be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and thereby fulfill the law of Christ. For if anyone thinks he is something when he is nothing, he deceives himself. But each one must examine his own work, and then he will have reason for boasting in regard to himself alone, and not in regard to another. For each one will bear his own load“ (Gal. 5:25 – 6:1-5).

I heard this passage faithfully exposited by Dan Wilson from Harvest USA ( in the context of several sessions on biblical masculinity and the call to fight the fight of faith at our church’s men’s retreat earlier this year.

I have to confess that I’ve often glossed over this passage, reading it (through the lens of our cultural feminism that is so hard to escape) as a “œwarm fuzzy” reminder that we’re not in this alone, that we should support each other in the faith. It’s so much more than that, however. A little contextual reading and a little Greek exegesis can help us see what Paul is really saying here.

Galatians, it has been said, is “œRomans written while Paul was angry.” He covers many of the same themes as are addressed in Romans (i.e. – justification by faith, struggle  against sin, etc.) in a much more terse fashion, punctuated with refrains of  ”do you not know“ or “œbut you know“œ”“this was material they had already covered, and Paul is firmly reminding them that these truths should have a hold on their lives. The immediate context of this passage is a discourse on circumcision (more specifically, the spreading heresy that it was necessary to follow the Jewish law to attain salvation), the bondage to sin that comes from  the rejection of grace, and the freedom that comes when we crucify our flesh with Christ. Paul here reminds the Galatians how to flesh out grace-filled living in a Christian community”“he tells them to take sin seriously and contend for one another’s spiritual health.

The word translated “œwalk” in 5:25 is the verb stŏichĕō, which speaks of marching in cadence and conformity to a leader. The NIV’s translation of this phrase as “œkeep in step with the Spirit“ is a more correct rendering of the meaning. Often Paul uses the verb pÄ•ripatĕō to refer to our spiritual walk, but his use of a different verb here sets a military tone to let us know that we should listen to the Spirit as soldiers listen to a commander”“that failure to hear and obey quickly and accurately can have disastrous results. Therefore, as we listen to the Spirit’s leading, we should be alert to the dangers of sin and contend for those who succumb to temptation, lovingly but firmly restoring them to right relationship with God and the Church.

The “œburdens” that we are to bear together (6:2)  are the Greek word baros, which always has the connotation of weight pressing down upon someone or something. Temptation and sin  are a crushing load that individual believers should not have to (and indeed, are not able to) deal with alone. There is a definite call to brotherhood and mutual accountability among believers in dealing with sin in the Body. The command is a two-way street: brothers are not to let an individual struggle alone, nor is an individual to attempt to. If he thinks he can handle sin on his own, he is deceiving himself (6:3).

The apparent contradiction of the statement that “œeach one  shall bear his own load“ (6:5) so soon after we are told to “œbear one another’s burdens“ is resolved in the Greek. The word for “œload” is phŏrtiŏn, meaning “œsomething carried”. The idea of weight and struggle is not attached to this term”“it is the word Christ used when saying that His “œburden is light.” The concept here is that while a body of believers is necessary to confront the baros of sin, each individual is responsible for his own phŏrtiŏn  of the spiritual disciplines (prayer, study, and meditation on God’s Word);  phŏrtiŏn is  like a soldier’s pack that contains his provisions, ammunition, and everything he needs to participate in  battle and neglects at his own peril.  Other believers  are not accountable  for our personal devotion”“that’s between us and the Lord”“but they are called to rescue us from the pits we fall into when we neglect our responsiblity.

Living this out is tough (we don’t like confronting our fellow men about their sins, and we like it even less when the shoe is on the other foot), but it is an absolutely crucial command for the Church. We cannot live for Christ in a vacuum”“without brothers to encourage us and chastise us, our witness is shot full of holes by “œthe sin which so easily entangles us“ (Heb. 12:1). I pray that more men of the valiant faith that Paul describes will be raised up in our churches to rescue them from the  mire of irrelevance, cowardice, and unfaithfulness that so often characterizes them today.

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