Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Missing the forest for the trees

My daughter and I were having one of our usual theological discussions last night. During the conversation, she said something to the effect of,

"Sometimes we think the Bible is just a PowerPoint presentation. The verses get turned into bullet points. We're interested in getting the answer to a question, so we cherry-pick the "bullet point" and forget that the verse is part of a chapter that's part of a whole book that's part of God's revelation."

This was good reminder because it's easy to miss the forest for the trees or the leaves for that matter.

If I'm looking for an answer to a question, I could look up all the verses that use a word related to my question. I could then draw a conclusion based on those verses. There's nothing inherently wrong with doing word studies, but my answer may be incorrect because I've pulled "bullet points" out of context.

For example, my pastor preached a sermon recently on Matthew 6:1-18 which covers giving, prayer, and fasting. If I focus solely on verses 16-18 and treat them as a treatise on fasting, I will miss the main point of the passage, which is verse 1 - "Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven."  There may be a helpful application regarding fasting, but if that's all I've gleaned, I've missed the forest for the trees.

"Greeting card" verses are another example. How many times have you heard "I can do all things through him who strengthens me" cover just about everything but the contentment Paul was referring to? (Phil. 4:10-13) I also recall a chorus that exhorted the singer to "Lift Jesus Higher." One line actually quotes John 12:32, but the subsequent verse refers to the crucifixion, not exalting Christ with our praise. Context makes a difference.

It may seem like nit-picking, but I want to read the Bible carefully. It can certainly answer questions and help me in very practical ways, but it's more than a spiritual search engine. It's God's Word about Himself, and I don't want to miss that.


Related articles:

Never Read a Bible Verse  Greg Koukl
Must I Learn How to Interpret the Bible?  D.A. Carson
Exegetical Fallacies  William Barrick

What Bible study tips or resources have helped you? Do you have a "favorite" out-of-context verse? Please share in the comments.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Count it all joy

The apostle James doesn't waste any time. After a brief greeting, he launches right into exhortation:
Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds. (James 1:2)
Joy? Joy in my trials? Who likes to have a trial, let alone rejoice in it?

James does not say, "endure the trials," or "look for the silver lining in your trials." He says "Count it all joy." He also doesn't say "Find it joyful when the trial is over." No; it's when we meet those trials. John MacArthur, in his commentary on James reminds us that it is to be genuine joy:
We are not just to act joyful, in reluctant pretense, but to be genuinely joyful. It is a matter of the will, not of feelings, and should be the conscious determined commitment of every faithful believer.
Notice that he says it is a matter of will, not emotion. We may not feel like we want to rejoice but the verb rendered "count" is an imperative; a command. This is something we must seek to obey.

We don't always react with rejoicing. Often, our first reaction is grumbling; we may react with anger, or blame others. We ask "Why me," when we should be thinking "Why not me?" Negative reactions are not rejoicing.

The trials are "various." They can be financial difficulties, family problems, job issues, or other relational issues. It can mean serious illness, or it can mean persecution for your faith. We live in a fallen world; struggle and trials are part of this world.

There is a reason for trials:
for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. (James 1:3)
What does it mean to be steadfast? It means to be patiently enduring. It is a permanent condition which increases with each trial we face. Steadfastnesses means we don't give into despair, or reject God. We press on. And if we have a moment of uncertainty and stumble a bit, we pick ourselves up and keep going. The only way out of a trial is through it.

James reminds us that steadfastness has lasting effects:
And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. (James 1:4)
Trials push us to confront our weakness apart from Christ, and our total dependence on Him. It is in this recognized weakness that we are truly strong (2 Cor. 12:10). As we depend on Christ we are made perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. Trials often leave scars, but those scars are beautiful because they have drawn us closer to Christ. They become part of our character, and they bring about changes that help us with each subsequent trial that comes along. Our confidence, our joy, comes from knowing that if we belong to Christ, whatever chaos or pain the trial brings, nothing can take us out of His hand (John 10:29).

If we are having trouble rejoicing in trials, perhaps it is because we don't understand God's character. God is good, and all of his dealings with us flow from His nature. Everything He gives is good, including trials. If you are having a trial, and you don't understand, delve into the riches of God's character and you will begin to see that God does nothing that isn't entirely for our good and His glory.

If you are interested, these books which deal with suffering come highly recommended:

Hearing Jesus Speak into Your Sorrows, Nancy Guthrie
Be Still, My Soul, Nancy Guthrie, Ed.
From Fear to Faith, Martyn Lloyd-Jones
Faith on Trial, Martyn Lloyd-Jones
The Hidden Smile of God, John Piper

If there are any resources you have found helpful during times of trial and suffering, feel free to share in the comments.

Monday, April 14, 2014

In the Heat of the Moment

It was one of those days, and it was a busy one. For the schedule to work, we would have to operate like a well-oiled machine. My family, however, consists of real humans, not machine parts. They also seemed to have adopted the motto “Why think for yourself when you can just ask Mom?” and I was annoyed by the constant questions. To top it all off, a misunderstanding with an acquaintance caused my kid to miss out on something fun.

By the end of the day I was mad. But there was nobody to be mad at. The evening’s schedule was confusing. My acquaintance had been trying to help. Nothing could be done about any of the evening’s foibles. And the kid who missed out on the fun event really wasn’t that torn up about it. And though I knew I was being irrational, that just annoyed me even more.

A couple of hours later the real reason for my mood became clear: migraine. My migraines are usually mild enough that I can take medication and carry on as normal, but this time I was down for the count. All I could do was lie still and wait for the pain and nausea to pass.

The interesting thing about migraine is that the process begins before the sufferer feels it. Sometimes I have an aura an hour or so before it hits. Sometimes I notice that I stumble over words a lot in the hours leading up to it. Some people yawn a lot. And, like what happened to me that night, some people become easily agitated.

After the migraine fog lifted, I thought back to the previous day. My irritation, which had felt quite justified at the time, seemed ridiculous. I was thankful that circumstances kept me from expressing my frustration, because now the situation then seemed incredibly petty.

Anybody who has spent time with a tired or hungry toddler understands that our physical bodies affect our emotions. But in the heat of the moment we often don’t realize it. As a teenager I felt very weepy one week of the month. Now? I either wonder why everyone has to keep breathing so loud, or I am convinced that something horrible will happen and it will all be my fault.

As my middle-age hormones continue to mess with my mind, I find I have to be careful to focus on the truth rather my feelings. But what can we tell ourselves when our feelings are getting the upper hand? What is the truth?

Our emotions are God-given, but they are also fallen

As Allender and Longman say in their book Cry of the Soul, “Our emotions connect our inner world to the ups and downs of life.” Just because they aren’t always accurate, doesn’t mean they should always be ignored. The joy and delight we feel on earth is a foretaste of the greater joy of heaven. And sometimes sadness and anger are legitimate reactions to the trouble of the world. It is appropriate to mourn when we encounter evil.

Taking care of my physical body helps

In 1 Kings 19, Elijah is fleeing from Jezebel. In his weariness and fear, he sits down under a tree and wishes for death. Then he sleeps, and after he sleeps, the Lord sends him food. I think it’s interesting that part of God’s help involved meeting his physical needs.

I’m not 25 anymore. Although it’s important to care for our bodies at all ages, I’m more sensitive to it now. I fail a lot in this area, but when I take the time to eat properly, rest, and exercise, I can handle life much better.

Just because I feel it, doesn’t mean I need to express it

Proverbs 29: 11 is a verse I find myself going to a lot these days: “A fool gives full vent to his spirit, but a wise man quietly holds it back.” My emotions often come on like a firestorm. Even though I may feel very strongly about something, that’s usually not the best time for me to speak. I can’t take back angry words spoken in the heat of the moment. It’s better if I take some time to think things through.

Keep doing what needs to be done

Some people like to keep moving when they’re upset. I prefer to curl up in a ball and whimper. But life doesn’t stop just because I’ve decided to host a private pity party. Pushing through with the daily tasks of life often makes me feel better. Even if it doesn’t, at least I’m not behind when I emerge from the funk.

Be thankful for God’s grace

I have always been an impulsive, emotional person. But God is refining me. I sometimes have to pray through gritted teeth, but he is faithful to give me the strength I need when I ask for it.

Sadly, I don’t always remember to do this. In the days since I began this post, I’ve had to apologize to someone for angry, hurtful words I said, words that she did not deserve. I’m embarrassed about what I said. I can’t take the words back. All I can do is point to the perfect Savior. He lived the life I should have lived and died the death I should have died. Through him, all my sins are forgiven. Even the hasty, hurtful words I sometimes speak.

Friday, April 11, 2014

The World Series, tightropes, and ordinary plodding

Back in the early 90's my husband and I were newlyweds living in the Atlanta area. The sports fans among us will know this was the heyday of the Atlanta Braves baseball franchise, 1991 marking the Braves' berth (and loss) in the World Series. It was crazy. Everyone, everywhere, was talking about the Braves. The excitement was palpable, the city seemingly gripped by baseball fever.

A rather large church in our area made mention of the Braves on its sign. I don't remember the exact wording but I do remember it had something to do with the Lord being on the side of the Braves, the familiar "God = winning" boast. I was a young twenty-something with the world at her feet and still something didn't ring true in this avowal of God being a Braves fan and thus the contributing factor behind their pennant run.

I wondered then what the sign might say should the Braves lose? What about those seasons before...and since...that were, shall we say, not quite of World Series caliber? Where is God then? Is He only the God of the winning? A brief perusal not only of church signs during winning seasons but of acceptance speeches and post-victory interviews could lead one to conclude that yes, indeed, "God = winning."

I suppose one could consult the Bible and present various scenarios whereby God secured victory, say for the Israelites in the Old Testament by way of example. We like battle imagery, particularly so in our passion for sports. However, were we to survey the whole of the Bible I daresay we would find at least as many, if not more, instances of God's people on the losing end and this despite the Lord's evident presence and favor. Take Isaiah. Or Jeremiah. Or, for that matter, the gruesome and horrific death of Jesus, God's one and only beloved Son.

I thought these same thoughts last year during the whole tightrope across the Grand Canyon stunt. I actually didn't know a thing about it, not until it was happening and my Twitter feed blew up with various exclamations of surprise and horror. Intrigued, I turned on the TV and caught the end of the stunt, the kiss on the ground, and the swell of Twitter commentary regarding Nick's invocation of Jesus to help him.

I am glad Nick is a believer, don't get me wrong. I was glad that he unashamedly testified of Christ on national television. I was troubled, though, by echoes of the "God = winning" boast, particularly so given that this stunt was so far fetched and crazy and radical. Look what faith in Jesus does, it seemed to say, it walks on a tight rope across the Grand Canyon in Jesus' Name!!!

I wondered, as I did back in 1991, what if, God forbid, it all went wrong? Where is God then? Would Jesus' name still be exalted? Would we then have talked about 30 mph winds and this piece of equipment or that bit of unexpected weather?

The reality of life as a believer is not so much winning as losing. Persecution, struggle, opposition--the Bible is clear that these are part and parcel to following Christ. The problem with thinking that "God = winning" is not only the fact that so few of us actually, you know, win but that even more of us aren't anywhere near the limelight. We may dream a dream of tightrope-type daring but instead we find ourselves folding laundry. Or we get up and go to work at a job that offers little in terms of excitement and thrills. Or we make the thousandth peanut butter and jelly sandwich of our lifetime. And sometimes, but only some times, we feel like we want to scream from the ordinariness and the mundanity and the boredom of it all.

Most of us aren't walking the tightrope of risk; we live lives of ordinary plodding, day in and day out.

My friend once described her current state as "plodding contentment" and I like that. I know that. I understand that. I am not living the life of which movies or books or church signs are made of and chances are neither are you. We aren't on national television risking our lives on some life threatening stunt or playing in the World Series. Is God better pleased with such famed drama? Or isn't He glorified in the contented heart of a humble servant who chooses to serve Him with gladness in mundane obscurity?

Our utter ordinariness reveals the glory of the Treasure. Our willingness to lose all for Christ shows His worth. We need not fret over our lack of glory and glamour, wins and losses, feats or failures. Serve Him well, where you are, win or lose, and know He delights to show the glory of His surpassing power as Treasure in a humble clay jar.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

I will never leave you

I lost it on Sunday afternoon. Hormones, weariness, taxes, and painful memories combined together to create a perfect storm of emotions, and I had a meltdown. I wanted someone to talk to, someone who could understand all that had led up to this moment. But as much as loved ones can wrap their arms around me and pray, they aren't able to enter the deep recesses of my heart where the sorrow resides. I was left feeling very alone. But when the tears dried, I had a choice to make. I could believe self-pity and fear, or I could listen to the truth. Thankfully the Holy Spirit enabled me to chose the latter and receive Words of comfort from a God who cannot lie.  I hope you will be comforted as well.

As a father shows compassion to his children, so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him. For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust. Psalm 103:14-15
Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. Hebrews 4:14-16
… for he has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” Hebrews 13:5b

"I will never leave thee nor forsake thee." It is almost impossible to reproduce in English the emphasis of the original, in which no less than five negatives are used to increase the strength of the negation, according to the Greek idiom. Perhaps the nearest approximation is to render it, "I will never, no, never leave thee, nor ever forsake thee." In view of such assurance we should fear no want, dread no distress, nor have any trepidation about the future. At no time, under any circumstances conceivable or inconceivable, for any possible cause, will God utterly and finally forsake one of His own. Then how safe they are! how impossible for one of them to eternally perish! God has here graciously condescended to give the utmost security to the faith of believers in all their difficulties and trials. The continued presence of God with us ensures the continued supply of every need.
                                                                                                                                       
An Exposition of Hebrews, A.W. Pink, Baker Book House, 1993, pg. 1151.