Think before you make a promise…

Jephthah's Vow I am reading through the book of Judges and once again ran across the account of Jephthah (ch. 10, 11), which has often been misunderstood. I am reposting an updated version of something I wrote several years ago to help clarify this fascinating story.

Jephthah lived in the area of Israel called Gilead. Though he grew up in a large and important family, Jephthah was never accepted. This wasn’t something he imagined; his rejection was very real. You see, he was born as the result of his father’s sin. His mother was a prostitute and Jephthah was such an embarrassment to his family that they disowned him. In fact, he was considered such a misfit that the entire town rejected him.

He ran away to a barren land and started hanging around with other rejects. They actually became a gang and made Jephthah their leader, and they probably made their living by robbing traders and fighting as mercenaries.

In those days Israel was made up of a loose confederation of tribes with no central government or army. When attacked or abused by a more powerful nation-state, God would raise up a leader (Judge) who would be the means of rescue and protection. Gilead’s nemesis was the Ammonite nation just across its boarder to the east, which had just declared war on Israel.

The Elders of Gilead were desperate and so they sent a request that Jephthah and his little army come and help them. “Why do you come running to me after you didn’t lift a finger to help when I got kicked out of my family?” Jephthah said. “OK, we screwed up. We are sorry that we didn’t do the right thing. Hey, we’re eating humble pie here by asking you to come and help us,” the Elders replied. Jephthah agreed on condition that they take him back into the community and allow him to lead the entire army against the Ammonites. They agreed.

This was Jephthah’s chance to start over and he grabbed it. He moved his family back to his home town and was thankful to God for the opportunity to regain his honor and establish a heritage for himself when his beloved daughter (his only child) was old enough to marry and bear him sons.

Like a wise leader, he negotiated with the Ammonites trying to clear up some historical baggage between them and Israel. However, the Ammonite king was hell-bent on revenge and nixed the peace negotiations. He basically said what we hear from a lot of politicians, “My mind is made up, don’t confuse me with the facts.”

Jephthah had no other recourse except the sword. He gathered his troops and prepared to march toward the enemy. Before he left, he made a vow to the Lord that “if you give the Ammonites into my hands, whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me when I return in triumph will be the Lord’s or/and I will sacrifice it as a burnt offering” (Judges 11:31).

This was not a bargain, but a vow of gratitude and devotion. Leviticus 27 describes this kind of vow in detail. There was a redemption factor built into most vows so that one could buy back a vowed item by paying a certain value set by the priest. However, if someone dedicated another person in the family (1 Sam. 1:11), animal or family property, these could not be redeemed because they became holy (set apart) to the Lord.

So, when Jephthah returned and saw that it was his beloved daughter who first came out of his house to meet him, he was horrified. Was it because he had to kill her as a burnt offering to the Lord? Here we need to interpret Scripture by Scripture; human sacrifice was an abomination to the Lord and was forbidden because Israel was not to be like the surrounding nations (Lev. 18:21; 20:2-5; Deut. 12:31; 18:10).

Instead, Jephthah was horrified because he had to sacrifice his only hope for a lineage that would come through the marriage of his daughter. Instead she would now live perpetually as a virgin, as one of the women who ministered to the Lord at the Tabernacle (Ex. 38:8; 1 Sam. 2:22). This is why she mourned her virginity; not because she was going to die, but because she would never have children.

The rashness of Jephthah’s vow was not because it condemned his daughter to death, but because it sacrificed her future. It also dashed his hopes; of a family he never had and a dignity that he had never experienced. “Do not be rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be hasty to utter a word before the Lord…It is better that you should not vow than that you should vow and not pay” (Eccles. 5:2-5).

So, think before you make a vow to the Lord! Just a thought…

What God cannot do (2)

While we believe that God is All-Powerful, we also believe that there are some things that God cannot do. That statement may come as a surprise, but skeptics and atheists alike love to propose such things, so let’s beat them to the punch.

We have already mentioned in a previous post that God is limited by things that are illogical. The questions whether God could make a rock so big that he could not lift it or make a snowball so big he could not roll it are illogical – not even logical contradictions. Why in the world would anyone (let alone God) want to do these things in the first place? Such questions remind me of the character Herod in the rock opera “Jesus Christ Superstar.” He wanted to meet Jesus so he could ask him to walk across his swimming pool. And just as Herod’s interview was met with silence by Jesus, so questions like these do not merit serious consideration.

There is another more serious consideration, however, that is often used to question the All Powerfulness of God. Since most of the evil in this world comes from other humans, and if God created humanity as free moral beings, why could he not have created them free but without the ability to abuse that freedom? Another form of the question might be to ask why God allows people do such terrible things without stepping in to prevent those things from happening?

These questions are not merely exercises in intellectual gymnastics. They often come from an honest response to tragedy and pain that has been inflicted by wrong-headed or wrong-hearted people. Why did God allow this holocaust, this abuse, this injustice to take place? We are not struggling with why God created us free moral beings and not robots, but with why God allows the evil to exist that flows from the exercise of that freedom.

I think we already know the answer. If we are free in our choices, then implicit in that freedom is the ability to choose evil. CS Lewis said “…God is good; that He made all things good and for the sake of of their goodness; … one of the good things He made, namely, the free will of rational creatures, by its very nature included the possibility of evil; and that creatures , availing themselves of that possibility, have become evil” (The Problem of Pain, 69).

We like the idea of being free to live and choose as we please, but then we hold God responsible when he doesn’t stop people from doing terrible things that are consequent of that freedom. What do we then expect God to do when people freely act in an evil way? Do we expect a club to turn into spaghetti, a knife into a cucumber, a bullet into a paintball before they strike and do harm? If he did these things would we really be free, and how evil would the deed have to be before he intervened? After all, shouldn’t we be allowed to live as we please just as long as we don’t hurt others?

To sum up: God cannot grant us freedom and withhold freedom at the same time; create human beings free without giving them the ability to abuse that freedom. It is a logical impossibility, much like making a surface that is both smooth and rough at the same time. (JonTal Murphy)

Someday, in God’s heavenly kingdom, we will be recreated to always freely choose to do good – just like Jesus. However, he did not create us that way originally. We were created as free moral beings with sinless natures, with the potential of using that freedom to choose good or evil. We chose evil, and our natures have become corrupted.

We can continue to argue with how God made the world, but we cannot blame him for the evil we freely do to one another. We can also marvel at how his Sovereign power can restrain evil (Job 1:12; 2:6; Rom 8:20-23); how, in his Providence, he can make good come out of evil (Gen 50:20; Rom 8:28, 29); and how he dealt a fatal blow to evil through Christ’s death and resurrection (1 Cor 15:50-57; Col 2:15, 16).

But there is one more thing that God cannot do…next blog.


Thoughts from a doctor’s waiting room…

I am waiting for a scan to be taken to see if I am cancer free. I have been here in the waiting room for an hour and have consumed 2 large glasses of barium- yuck. This room is where it all started last April- a scan to show I had a mass. Now I will find out whether all the chemo and radiation and surgery have accomplished their work.

I feel very lonely even though I have a great support system, and my thoughts are restless with concern. I’m not afraid, but I am worried. On the one hand, I trust the Lord and know he has this in his control. On the other hand, I’m plagued by the thought “but what do I do if I’m not clear? Is it the beginning of the end? How do I break the news to the kids?”

Once again, I am not accomplishing anything by sitting here shoveling smoke like this except to make myself nervous and anxious. The Lord already knows the outcome and he will not leave me. “Father I consciously surrender myself into your living care. I trust in your plan for me and will not pull myself away from that plan. As a father has compassion upon his children so you have compassion upon those who fear you. And I do!”

Ok, they just called me to come and get scanned. Here goes…

Later in the evening:

I just received word from my oncologist that my scans were clear and my C19-9 antigen (a marker for cancer) was normal. The scans and blood test will be repeated in 3 months.

I feel a burden lifted, as if one of my teachers had just cancelled the final exam in a class where I didn’t understand the subject. I praise the God of Grace who has given me relief, undeserving as I am. It was God’s will to call one of my friends home to himself this past weekend, while it was his will to give me an extension. “Who has known the mind of the Lord or who has been his counselor?”

I just WhatsApp ‘d all my kids with the news and am going to bed now to receive another gift from God- sleep. “He gives to his beloved sleep.” Thank you Lord!

Thoughts on Job

In my reading through the Bible,  I am once again in the Book if Job. The following is a re-post of a blog written the last time I read through Job:

Quite honestly, the Book of Job is a disappointment! When we suffer, we go to Job to find answers for why and how to cope. However, all we get are a bunch of grumpy old men arguing, some young guy giving his two-cents, and God showing up and blasting everyone. Then we’re back to where we started, as if nothing happened in the first place.

Reading through the book again, as well as reading a recent book by John Walton and Tremper Longman III, “How to Read Job” (IVP, 2015), I have seen some themes often hidden by our expectations. The book is really about the Wisdom of God, which is why it is included as Wisdom Literature in the Old Testament. The Wisdom of God is compared with the wisdom of the world based upon experience and observation (revealed by Job and his “friends”). The challenge of the book is whether we will trust God’s Wisdom even though we do not understand what is happening to us or going on around us.

The book contains challenges to how God runs the world. If it is God’s standard operating procedure (SOP) to bring prosperity and blessing to people who are righteous, then isn’t he creating a world of “mercenaries” who worship and serve him just to get rewarded? What would happen if God took away those benefits (thus Job’s first trial)? Would people still love and serve him? One can see that this is not just a question about SOP, but an implication that God might not be worthy of worship just for who he is. Hmmm…good question. Is my love and service for God based upon a quid pro quo (this for that)? What about the times of drought and despair when I feel like there is nothing in it for me? Do I still trust in his Wisdom?

The second challenge to God’s SOP comes after Job has already begun to suffer. It questions why God is ganging up on a righteous man when, in fact, he is supposed to bless the righteous. This challenge is replicated over and over again in the Psalms as the writers struggle with why the righteous suffer while the wicked are the ones who seem to prosper.

“These two challenges set up the focus of the book (Job) as it pertains to God’s policies in the world: it is not a good policy for righteous people to prosper (for that undermines the development of true righteousness by providing an ulterior motive). In tension with that, it is not as good policy for righteous  people to suffer (they are good people, the one’s who are on God’s side). So what is God to do?” (Walton and Longman, p. 15).

Thus God is assailed both coming and going. To put it in a sanitized version of a colloquial expression: He is darned is he does (bless the righteous) and darned if he doesn’t (therefore, allowing the righteous to suffer). Will Job still maintain his righteousness (integrity) even though there is nothing in it for him and God’s ways seem so incomprehensible? Will we? That seems to be the biggest issue that needs to be resolved both in the book and in our lives.

“The entire debate between Job and his friends and then God’s showing up at the end and restoring Job’s fortunes, shows us that God does not run the world by justice (at least as we understand it), but by His Wisdom. ‘I am God, who is supremely wise and powerful, so I want you to trust me even when you do not understand.'” (Walton and Longman, p. 16)

As the world cries out for justice and mercy in the face of so much suffering, we are called to trust in a God of Wisdom who is working out his purposes behind the veil of our finite understanding. “Deep in unfathomable mines of never failing skill, He treasures up His bright designs and works His sovereign will…Blind unbelief is sure to err and scan His works in vain; God is His own interpreter and He will make it plain.” (William Cowper) Someday…

A brief history of (my) cancer

From my journal entries… Today I had my last chemo-radiation treatment for cancer! After my diagnosis of pancreatic cancer in April 2017, the chemo regimen began in early May through end of June; then there were the 28 radiation treatments plus chemo by pill from early July until today, August 11. The treatments have taken their toll, as they should, with the main effects being fatigue and loss of appetite. Scans and surgery await next month…

I’m thinking that I should have gained some deep theological insight in order to show the positive spiritual impact of this trial; something that would produce awe and wonder because of its depth and profundity.  Unfortunately, nothing… Nada…zilch. I just want to sleep and forget all of this. I just want to be back to normal and yet I know that I will never be normal again. This mortal life will have changed forever and I will be living on the edge of eternity…

I should be feeling stronger everyday as I prepare for surgery mid-September, but I’m feeling worse and worse. I have spiked a fever of 103F and we are heading to the ER. I will now spend 5 days in the hospital while the doctors figure out that I have a liver infection most likely caused by all of the poison I have taken into my system through my treatments. They lance the infection and determine the bacteria and send me home with drainage tubes and instructions for my wife to push the antibiotic through me every day using my port and draining my Liver drain. All of this will delay surgery until mid- October…

The infection has been dealt with and I am cleared for surgery. The doctor wants me to gain weight in order to prepare for surgery scheduled for October 18, my oldest daughter’s birthday. It’s ironic that I have spent most of my adult life trying to lose weight; now I have orders to gain it… I feel good for the first time in 5 months. Can’t I continue like this? No, you wuss- you have cancer inside of you and it needs to come out and the only way is through the knife…

The day of surgery arrives and I scrub myself down before we head to the hospital. Will I return to sleep in my bed again or will this be it?  My son and his wife are there to meet us before they go to work. Hugs all around. We are ushered into a small cubicle and the curtain is drawn while I scrub down again and put on my gown and my street clothes in plastic bags. My brother-in-law and another couple show up and pray with Gloria and me. The anesthesiologist comes in and explains things and starts an IV. I say good bye as they wheel me out and I don’t remember anymore. Some friends came and sat with Gloria in the waiting room and …wait.

Ten or more hours later I wake up in ICU and see my son’s face with a smile on it. I am clear-headed enough to ask if they had to replace the portal vein. They report the surgery went well and that I should rest. I am parched but not allowed to have water. However, my wife gives me ice chips. I crave more and more, even at night when I am alone I constantly suck on ice chips…

A week later I am home, sutures still in and eating very little. I develop a blood clot in the leg from which they took a vein for the resection of the portal vein. I am put on blood thinner which I have to self inject every morning and evening. Together with my daily insulin injection, my tummy looks like a war zone of black and blue marks. I am also wearing a compression stocking and keeping my leg elevated…

My sutures are now out but still a little sore at the incision site. My leg is still swollen. I am trying to exercise but I have little stamina. I cannot sleep at night for more than 2-3 hrs at a time. Awake usually between 3-5 am to have some tea and bowl of oatmeal and have my devotions after I take my blood sugar reading and take my insulin and blood thinner. Then I dose from 5-8 am…

I am still trying to figure out my diet since 18 inches of my small intestine has been removed as well as a portion of my stomach and my gall bladder. I have lots of gas (you probably did not need to know that) and have just been prescribed with enzyme pills to help me in my digestion…

I just went to the oncologist who wants me to have 6 more chemo treatments. I was initially disappointed… Although they believe they got the cancer and the lymph nodes are clean, this chemo is part of the protocol. The doc explained that unlike the six hour sessions that I had before, these will be once a week for 1/2 hr, with a week off  between session 3 and 4. We will start in Dec and finish the end of January so hopefully I can still work…

Here I am, it’s December 20 and I am sitting in an oncology unit at the hospital while chemo is being infused through my port. I feel it; my fingers are already tingling and I’m a bit chilled. It is over and I drive myself home.

And so the story continues and the questions remain. They think they got it all, but who knows. How long do I really have? God alone knows. What I do know with certainty, and this is my de profundis,  that there has not been one millisecond of time throughout all of this in which God has not been present- he is the great Emmanuel!  I have never felt nor have I once believed that I am being punished for past sins.  And this certainty has translated itself into a fearless dependency that can honestly proclaim “for me to live is Christ and to die gain.”

One more thought in reference to the well-meaning way people have responded to my situation. These responses have ranged all the way from thinking I’m some kind of hero to feeling sorry for me. I can honestly respond by saying: “Don’t think I am some kind of hero or saint for going through this. I am still very much a sinner relying on the grace of God and the work of Christ to save me. And don’t feel sorry for me. I would rather be going through this than facing the issues you are facing. The real issue for both of us is that we are trusting in our Heavenly Father and are convinced that nothing comes to us which has not first passed through our Father’s hand.”

Christmas is not very jolly for some…

How easily we are drawn to the mysterious and the supernatural. We love to read books on the amazing religious conversions of some people in history or how others overcame great disability or tragedy to live successful lives.  However, we often skip over the years of waiting, disillusionment, pain, and sorrow that formed the context of these unusual lives. We love to think about the Christmas story in all its beauty and splendor, quietness and majesty but we tend to edit out the pain, the ordinariness, the smells, the frustration and raw conflict which form the backdrop of the Christmas event. It was the people that waited in darkness who would see a great light… Isa 9:1,2.

Could it be that our search for God leads us to the ordinary and the difficult rather than away from it? What I am saying is that God may be more present in the middle of our disappointment, pain, and disillusionment than He is in the mystical or in the monastery. God came into the grinding poverty and harsh reality of a young couple in Palestine and told them that the Son in Mary’s womb would be the Redeemer of the world. God’s Son was not born in a desert hermitage or in the Roman White House but in the back streets of Bethlehem.

There is one more thing about pain and disappointment; not only do they often reveal God but they reveal our own “unsanded” natures. A seventeenth century French mystic, Franois Fenelon wrote, “Slowly you will learn that all the troubles in your life- your job, your health, your inward failings- are really cures to the poison of your old nature.” Thus the very difficulties of my life which I abhor are the very means of grace in which I can find God and are the raw materials of my spiritual development. Pain is often God’s megaphone (C.S. Lewis).

Many of you are facing difficulty this Christmas; financially, emotionally, relationally and spiritually. Don’t give up hope, God is present and He is doing a deeper work in you. May the light of Jesus Christ shine into your darkness this Christmas and may the grace of our Lord be with you as He uses your difficult circumstances to sand smooth the rough surfaces of your inner life.