More Thoughts on Faith…

I was reading the other morning about Jesus’ ministry in his hometown of Nazareth, recorded for us in Mark 6:1-6. The town’s people marveled at his wisdom and teaching, and yet they apparently did not believe that he was the Messiah because they knew him and his family. “He grew up here, we’ve known him since he was a kid and we’ve known his brothers and sisters. He certainly has gotten a good education somewhere, but he’s just one of us. Who does he think he is getting off acting like the Messiah?” They were scandalized by him. Jesus responded by saying “a prophet is without honor in his own country.” And consequently “he could not do many mighty works there because of their unbelief.” However, the text goes on to add, “but he did lay hands on a few sick people and healed them.” 

What are we to make of this? Is it true that God can only work where there is enough faith, and if he does not work does it show that the faith that is present doesn’t measure up?” Many years ago, during a serious back injury that sidelined me for 3 months, someone came to my house to pray for me.  This person told me that if someone prayed for my healing and yet I remained bedridden, it was because I did not have enough faith; because God can’t work where there is no faith. This was not an encouragement to me. How much faith is needed before God can work? Is there a barometer in heaven that has a base-line for the amount of faith we must have before God answers prayer?  I have always found solace in the words of Jesus that even if we have faith the size of a tiny mustard seed, we could move mountains. I’m not sure what that means, but apparently it doesn’t take a hyper-faith to be preset for God to work. The problem at Nazareth was not a “little faith,” but “no faith” that stemmed from stubborn unbelief.

One commentator said of this passage that it teaches us “there are certain situations where we can ‘tie God’s hands’… because of our lack of faith.” I strongly disagree. Our faith, or the lack of it, does not rule God. I do not believe that this is the lesson of Mark 6:1-6. Instead, I believe the among the lessons of this text is that familiarity with the messenger can often interfere with accepting the message. (Sometimes the hardest people to reach are those in our own family.) The text also teaches that God works where he wills; in most cases he has chosen to work in response to our faith, but sometimes he chooses to work where there is no faith in order to produce faith in hearts filled with unbelief. We see elsewhere in Mark that a person’s faith was not necessary for a miracle (Mark 1:31). We also see the sometimes it was the faith of friends and family that was recognized (Mark 2:5; 7:32). At other times (Mark 9:24), it was a matter of “Lord I believe, help my unbelief.” Even in this little town of  “no faith” (Nazareth), God chose to heal some who were sick.  

Faith is not a commodity we offer God in order to merit a hearing. Rather, faith is a position that we adopt wherein we choose to trust God and submit to his will for us no matter what the circumstances. No sincere child of God should ever be judged for a lack of faith just because they do not receive that for which they ask—they are probably hurting enough as it is. Instead, they should be encouraged to trust in the Lord with all their heart, even in the midst of God’s silence (Mark 7:26; Matthew 15:23). It is in this position of trust alone that they will find the growth of a deeper dependency on their Heavenly Father and a greater usefulness in his Kingdom because they have learned how to persevere (James 1:3).

Thoughts on Faith…

I am sitting here drinking barium and waiting in the doctor’s office to get a CT scan that will reveal what impact 12 treatments of chemotherapy have had on my pancreatic cancer. As I was praying, I was reminded of Jesus’ Gethsemane prayer in Matthew 26… “nevertheless, not my will but yours be done.” If Jesus were to pray this prayer today as a member of the “hyper-faith” movement, he would probably say, “Father, by the authority given to me as your Beloved Son, I claim the victory in advance over this coming Crucifixion! In your Name, I command that the forces of evil be defeated and that this cup of suffering be taken away from me! Vindicate me according to my faith.” 

Instead, what we hear from the lips of our Lord is an agonizing prayer that would not cut it in a more charismatic gathering. “My Father, if it is possible (Matthew), everything is possible for you (Mark), if you are willing (Luke)… take this cup from me. Yet, not as I will, but as you will.” The bottom line for Jesus was to do the will of God, not to escape his pain. It is faintly reminiscent of the faith-statement of Daniel’s three friends who were threatened with death in the fiery furnace if they did not bow down to Nebuchadnezzar’s golden image. “Our God, whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O King. But even if He doesn’t (if He is not willing), we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image you have set up.” (Dan 3:17, 18)

Do you honestly think that such a prayer made by Jesus and the confessional by Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego demonstrate a lack of faith? There are some who would claim so—that praying for God’s will to be done is a default position that shows a shallow faith. I once heard a TV evangelist say, “For those who do not have the faith to boldly ask God for something, they always tend to meekly ask him for his will to be done.” Really? 

I believe that such a perspective shows how Satan can twist the Scripture (example of the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness) in order to sow seeds of confusion and disagreement among God’s people—all under the guise of super-spirituality. It reminds me of the teaching of the Pharisees whose twisted interpretation of the Law kept God’s people in bondage.

What has been helpful for me to think through this issue of faith and God’s will is the analogy that Jesus drew between the good gifts our Father desires to give us as his children and those we wish to bestow on our own children.  “If you then, who are evil (not a perfect parent like God), know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Heavenly Father give good things to those who ask him.” (Matt 7:11) The context is where Jesus encouraged his followers to continue to ask, seek, and knock for things they desire from God. 

Let’s say your older child comes to you and presents a request in this way: “Dad (Mom), on the basis of the authority you have given me as your beloved child, I claim in advance the right to be given $250 of my future inheritance in order to pay for the repairs on my car!” Do you have any initial reactions to this scenario?

However, let’s say your child comes to you in this way: “Dad (Mom), I know that it is possible and completely within your ability to take away the burden that I have of not being able to pay my car repair bill. I also know that you love me and know what is best for me, so I trust you to do what is according to your will because what you want for me is more important than what I want for myself.” After you picked yourself up from off the floor, how would you respond to this request? Which request demonstrates the greatest amount of trust in you? 

How much more your Heavenly Father…

A Spiritual Diagnostic for 2020…

“Now this is what the LORD Almighty says: ‘Give careful thought to your ways.’” Haggai 1:5 (NIV)

The Prophet Haggai urged the post-exilic remnant to reflect on some of the things happening to them and to evaluate their slipshod spirituality in light of what God had commanded them. It is a good thing to pause and think about the direction of our lives from time to time- kind of a spiritual evaluation. No matter who you are, no matter how long you have served the Lord, we believe this type of introspection, examination and reflection is a good and necessary thing.

As you face the new year, here is a diagnostic tool for you to use to do your own intentional spiritual tune up. Answer the questions honestly and prayerfully in the presence of God so that you can gain a more accurate idea of where you are in your spiritual formation and what you need to work on by God’s grace.

This is not an exercise in navel-gazing. Many Christians aren’t growing spiritually because they have no plan for growth, they are unwilling to pay the price for growth, and they have not called someone else alongside to hold them accountable so that growth can take place. So here are some questions to help you “give careful thought to your ways.” Your responses could also provide helpful information to a mentor whom you might ask to help you in your growth.

1. Do I struggle with God’s approval of me? (In what way?) [The issue of grace or God’s approval of us is formative to how we live our lives – Titus 2:11-12]

2. What are the ungodly heart-attitude(s) in me that may compromise my usefulness to God? [A question to uncover heart issues not just behavior- Matt.7:15-20; 2 Tim.2:20-21]

3. What do I need to do to strengthen my walk with God? Is there a spiritual discipline that I must implement? [1 Tim. 4:7]

4. What is the single biggest time-waster in my life, and what will I do about it? [Eph. 5:15, 16]

5. What one thing do I most regret and how am I dealing with that? [How we deal with past baggage is important to how we live in the present- Phil.3:13]

6. What’s the single most important thing I could do to improve the quality of my family life this year? [If unmarried, answer with your family of origin in mind.]

7. For whose salvation will I pray most fervently this year? [2 Peter 3:9]

8. What is the most important decision I need to make this year and how will I keep God in the middle of my future concerns so they are not merely my own dreams? [Phil.4:6]

9. What is my most important financial goal this year, and what is the most important step I can take toward achieving it in a way that honors God? [Financial stewardship- 1 Tim. 6:17-19]

10. What could I do this year to enrich the spiritual legacy I will leave to my children and grandchildren? [Stewardship of the family- Psalm 71:17,18]

11. Who will I ask to come alongside of me to help challenge me to love and good works? [Heb. 10:24)] Who will I come alongside of to do the same thing? [The importance of mentoring and being mentored.]

12. Who could I welcome into my life that looks and talks differently than I do? [The love of the “stranger”- Matt 25:31-40

Living Life with No Regret

As we watch the Christmas season festivities converge with the New Year’s celebrations, we naturally think about the past and future and recalibrate how we want our lives to count for something. As a cancer survivor whose life span will be shorter than most of yours, I find a certain urgency in wanting to make sure that I do everything I can to live my life with no regret. One may ask whether that is even possible, but I believe it is and I’d like to share that with you if you have time (20 min.).

The following was my last chapel message as chaplain of the Wheaton College Graduate School, preached on May 1, 2019. It is a portion of a longer series that I have developed for several Men’s Retreats that I have done in the past and would love to do for your church’s men’s retreat in the future. I hope you find it helpful as you go about living a life with no regret.

The Darker Side of Christmas…

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One of the more unpleasant events surrounding  the Christmas story is found in Matthew 2, and has been described and depicted as the “Slaughter of Innocents.” It was the results of Herod’s, the ruler of Judea, paranoid reaction to being told by the Magi that they had come from the East to venerate he who was born King of the Jews. He wanted to make sure that no baby king was going to usurp his throne so he ordered the extermination of all male children 2 yrs and less in the little town of Bethlehem where the the Magi had gone to worship the Christ child.

Many scholars do not believe that such an event took place because there are no historical indications, not even in Josephus who usually recorded such things. Also, none of the other gospels mention it. However, historian Paul Maier reminds us that while this was a tragedy, it was local and limited in its impact. Bethlehem at that time had approximately 1500 citizens.

Dr. Maier says, “In my actuarial study, Bethlehem at the time wouldn’t have had more than about two dozen babies two years old and under — half of them female… Josephus may have heard about it and not used it because you don’t have hundreds of babies killed… only about 12. And so this is not a big deal [historically], and I think that is why Josephus either never heard about it or didn’t feel it important enough to record. So this does not militate against Matthew’s version by any means.”

Obviously, no matter how small the number, we should still consider it a tragedy—an example of the fallenness of humanity, the abuse of power over the poor by tyrannical government, and a foreshadowing of the future tragedy that would be heaped upon another Innocent; the Lord Jesus Christ, who would die for your sins and mine.

As an addendum to Matthew’s account, I want to address a fragile and tender subject. I have received a number of questions over my years of pastoral ministry concerning babies who die.  What happens to them? Much of our perspective has been influenced by Roman Catholic theology, which has developed the category of “limbo”—the place where unbaptized babies go upon their death. It is depicted as a place where they would never see God, but neither would they suffer. The problem is that the Bible never says anything about “limbo.” It also never teaches that baptism saves anyone – only faith in Christ.

Unfortunately, there is no definitive biblical teaching on what happens to babies who die and so we are left to look for principles that might help answer this question. We know that while babies cannot exercise faith, they do possess a sinful nature that one day will affect their whole lives. We also believe that their consciences have never been awakened so as to understand the nature of sin, repentance, or the essence of the gospel. Therefore, because they can neither accept nor refuse grace, I do not believe that a gracious and merciful God will hold them accountable for their sin. They will be covered by the blood of Christ.*

In addition, Jesus used little children as an analogy of what we must be like in order to enter heaven. Matthew 18:1-10 is a very interesting text, which may indicate that the situation of a helpless child (or the lowly disciple) will always come to the attention of and be addressed by their Father in Heaven. Thus I believe God in His mercy will graciously provide for the weak and vulnerable child. I think that these same principles could also be applied to the person who is mentally incapacitated from birth.*

*These are my interpretive opinions that have given me a place to stand as I have rendered pastoral care to many who have lost their little ones. I am open to more learning on the subject.

Your Father sees and knows…

My dad died when I was a junior in college—back before dinosaurs roamed the earth. He taught me a lot about God in our short life together. I remember having this habit of hiding whenever I felt guilty about something—I was perhaps 5 or 6 yrs old at the time. It had to be in a dark place, like under a bed or in a closet. My dad figured out what was happening and instead of treating it like some childhood quirk, he took the opportunity to teach me something about God’s character that I have never forgotten. He referred to a passage in Psalm 139:11-12, which when paraphrased says that if some little boy thinks that darkness will hide him from God then that little boy needs to realize that darkness is not dark to God—it is as bright as standing outside in the sunshine. “So, Davey (that’s what he used to call me some times), if you feel guilty or bad about something you’ve done, just tell God you’re sorry—don’t hide.”

Fast forward to this morning and I’ll tell you another thing I’ve learned about God. I was reading in Matthew 6 and was struck by what Jesus said about our Heavenly Father in verse 8. Again, when paraphrased says, “So Dave, when you pray, don’t flaunt it and don’t keep babbling on thinking that the Father will give you things commensurate with your theological vocabulary. Instead, keep it simple—know why? Because the Father already knows what you need.”

As I mediated on those words, I was overwhelmed with thanksgiving to my Father for not only knowing my needs, but blessing me beyond my imagination. Yesterday, we packed up all our earthly possessions into two PODS, which will be taken away on Monday to an undisclosed location on the east coast. We could not have done it without the gracious help of so many friends from our church who showed up to help move stuff and clean; to bring food, encouragement, and support. I don’t understand why they love us so much, but I receive it as part of my Father’s knowing our needs before we even articulate them in prayer. Add to it the blessing of my family and the love they have for me, the sale of our house and the purchase of another one in Lancaster, PA and those who helped in that arduous process. In addition, the blessings of a wonderful team of medical personnel that the Lord has provided as I continue the journey with Pancreatic Cancer (my last of 12 chemo treatments is this Tuesday!). I am a blessed man through no merit of my own—not being humble here, but very cognizant of my unworthiness and being so undeserving of anything from God apart from his mercy and grace.

So, my dear friends, keep your prayers simple because your Father can read your heart and knows what you need even before you ask. And if you are hiding from God because of your guilt, don’t waste your time. Come clean before him and receive his forgiveness in Christ.

[We will officially be seeing the Chicago area in our rearview mirror on December 23 and will be mooching off our kids until the closing of our new house in Lancaster PA on January 7. Our snail mail address will be made available at that time. You can continue to reach out to us at mcd7@sbcglobal.net]

Sampson the Narcissist

I made some notes for a future bible study or message on the character of Old Testament Samson. The overall point of which is to show that the people through whom God has worked and continues to work were/are far from perfect—perhaps we could even call them deeply flawed. And one of the most flawed (besides me) was Sampson. I thought you might be interested in seeing my notes and feel free to use them in developing your own study.

An overview of the life of Samson as a Judge in Israel (Judges 13-16)… note the way he treated his parents, women, enemies, and God. 

Principles gleaned:

  • We all have our weak spots and we must be aware of them. No one could defeat Samson, but Samson defeated himself. He was his own worst enemy. 
  • Temptations will come and will often come at us (“day after day”). We must be diligent to flee and not to play around, like Sampson did with Delilah.
  • I believe that Samson was a narcissist. (*See symptoms below) He was like a super planet that drew everyone into his orbit.
  • He played around the edges of his conscience until he got burned.

“Can a man carry fire to his chest and his clothes not be burned? Can one walk on hot coals and his feet not be scorched?” (Prov. 6:27, 28)

  • Samson had no interior life. There is a record of him praying only twice: 1) “You have granted this salvation by the hand of your servant (killing 1000 Philistines with a jawbone) and now you are going to let me die of thirst?” (ch. 15)  2) After he was captured and on display between two pillars in the Temple of Dagon: “O Lord God, please remember me and please strengthen me only this once, O God, that I might be avenged on the Philistines for my two eyes.” (16:28)
  • It was when Samson was broken and humble that he did his greatest work for God (“killed more Philistines in his death than in his life” 2 Sam. 16:30).
  • What a sad legacy.

*Symptoms of this Narcissim, as defined by the DSM-IV-TR (Diagnostic and Statistical Manuel of Disorders by the American Psychiatric Association) include:[1]

  • Expects to be recognized as superior and special, without superior accomplishments
  • Expects constant attention, admiration and positive reinforcement from others
  • Envies others and believes others envy him/her
  • Is preoccupied with thoughts and fantasies of great success, enormous attractiveness, power, intelligence
  • Lacks the ability to empathize with the feelings or desires of others
  • Is arrogant in attitudes and behavior
  • Has expectations of special treatment by others because of who he is

In addition to these symptoms, the person may display arrogance, show superiority, and seek power. The symptoms of narcissistic personality disorder can be similar to the traits of individuals with strong self-esteem and confidence; differentiation occurs when the underlying psychological structures of these traits are considered pathological. Narcissists have such an elevated sense of self-worth that they value themselves as inherently better than others, when in reality they have a fragile self-esteem, cannot handle criticism, and will often try to compensate for this inner fragility by belittling or disparaging others in an attempt to validate their own self-worth.[9]

Questions to ask:

  • Do I see some of these tendencies in myself, especially when it comes to issues of self-worth and shame?
  • Can I still be usable to God?
  • How could I find help in a passage like Isaiah 6:1-5?
  • How can I live with and pray for a narcissist?
  • Perhaps I’m not a narcissist; even so, do I believe that God can use my flawed personality in order to serve him?
  • What do I need to do in order to seek help for issues that regularly beset me? 

 

Remember to click on the menu at the top of this page and see mediations for every day of Advent.