In Psalm 119:33-40, the Psalmist recognizes his complete dependency upon God to do for him what he cannot do for himself. This is nowhere more clearly stated than in v. 36, “Incline my heart to your testimonies and not to covetousness.”
There are two things gleaned from this verse to consider on this Ash Wednesday, the day when we publicly declare our frailty and sin, as well as the hope of forgiveness that we have in the cross of Jesus Christ:
1) In this verse there is a clear recognition of our sinful condition and corruption; that we are not naturally inclined to the things of God. David asks God to incline or bend his heart, which is not inclined to the law of God and not to leave him to his natural bent, which is to covetousness. (cf. Ps 141:4)
There are things towards which we are naturally inclined, but they are not the things of God. Paul’s depiction of the human condition in Romans 3 is hauntingly accurate; not only is there “no one righteous, no not one,” but there is “no one who understands or seeks after God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, no not one.” The Scripture is filled with examples of those who followed the natural inclinations of their hearts to covetousness at the expense of love and obedience to God:
- Balaam whose desire for earthly gain caused him to rebel against the very strong warnings of God.
- Ahab, whose desire for power blinded him to prophetic warnings and drove him to murderously possess what wasn’t his.
- David, whose covetousness took the form of lust and brought sexual dysfunction into his family.
- Achan, whose covetousness led him to steal and bring death to his family.
- Judas, whose greed led him to betray our Lord Jesus and bring overwhelming guilt to himself.
- Gehazi, whose greed led him to misuse his authority, lie to Elisha, and inherit Naaman’s leprosy.
This is why we believe (must believe) that God is sovereign in salvation and it is only by the power of the Holy Spirit that anyone can overcome the inclinations of their own corrupt hearts and come to faith.
Jesus said, “This is why I told you that no one can come unto me me unless my Father draw him.” (John 6); “Flesh and blood did not reveal this to you but my Father who is in heaven.” (Matt 16); “Unless a man is born again, he cannot perceive the kingdom of God.” (Jn 3) Also, in Acts 16 we read, “And the Lord opened Lydia’s heart to pay attention to what Paul was saying.” (Acts 16)
And so, the Psalmist acknowledges the natural corruption and crookedness of his own heart and asks that he be bent in a God-ward direction. “Incline my heart to your testimonies and not to covetousness.” I think David put this request in another way when in deep repentance he cries out in Ps 51, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit in me.”
2) The second thing I glean from Ps 119:36 is that we need to be vigilant and pay close attention to the condition of our souls, even as believers. Paul warned the Ephesian Elders to “pay attention to yourselves and to your flock” and told Timothy to “pay attention to yourself and to your teaching.”
The reason is, once again, that even as believers (those for whom Christ died) we are still engaged in a struggle between the flesh and the Spirit; between the law of sin in our members and the law of our mind; between the things towards which we are naturally inclined and the things of God. St Augustine and Martin Luther both described our natural inclination as incurvatus in se, to be curved in upon ourselves. We are naturally drawn to those things which are a means to the end of satisfying and glorifying ourselves. SELF- the greatest enemy of the follower of Christ which is why we are told to deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow Christ. SELF- is the greatest enemy of the church; a failure to consider others above ourselves. SELF- the greatest enemy of relationships, especially marriage where I have learned that the opposite of love is not HATE, it is SELF!
There are a thousand forms of covetousness which flow out of our self-preoccupation and which dis-incline us to love and obey God:
“You cannot love God and mammon… you cannot serve two masters.” (Matt 6) “But the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth, and the desires for other things come in and choke the word, making it unfruitful.” (Mk 4) “But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction.” (1 Tim 6) “For Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me…” (2 Tim 4)
And so, we must come to the place along with the Psalmist and daily ask God to bend our hearts to His testimonies so we might listen, turn our eyes away from worthless things, and to love our God with our whole heart. This is the way of repentance, not just for today, but every day it should be our constant prayer; that our hearts be bent towards God, towards love and good works, and away from the natural inclination to love ourselves. If we are not vigilant in this repentance, then the weeds will grow and will begin to choke out the very life of God from our souls and make us unfruitful.
I will lift up my hands into your commandments which I have loved. Open my eyes and I shall see, incline my heart and I shall desire, order my steps and I shall walk in the way of your commandments.
O Lord, be my God, and let there be no other before you. Grant me to worship you and serve you according to your commandments: with truth in my spirit, with reverence in my body, with the blessing upon my lips – both in private and in public…
Help me to overcome evil with good, to be free from the love of money, and to be content with what I have. Help me to speak the truth in love, to be desirous not to lust, or to walk after the lusts of my flesh.
O Lord, help me: To bruise the serpent’s head. To consider the end of my days. To cut off occasions to sin…To make a covenant with my eyes. To bring my body into subjection. To give myself to prayer. To come to repentance. Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
(A Prayer by Bishop Lancelot Andrewes, 1555-1628)
The Book of Esther is one of the most intriguing books in the Bible. It has all the makings of a Father Brown mystery on PBS. The story takes place in Persia during the 5th century BC and gives a picture of the Israelites who were still in Captivity and did not choose to return to Jerusalem under Ezra or Nehemiah. Esther, a Jew, became queen of the empire and her cousin Mordecai the prime minister, and together they saved their people from the terrible Haman, a Persian official who wanted to eradicate the Jewish minority.
The book shows the Providence of God; his sovereign and faithful care over his covenant people. It is readily acknowledged that although the name of God is never mentioned, his fingerprints are all over this mystery, using human instruments to accomplish his purpose. My new look at the book still holds to the main theme of God’s Providence, but it reveals a different take on why the name of God is never mentioned. I arrived at this because I am reading the Bible through again and just finished Ezra and Nehemiah.
The events in Esther occur roughly between those of Ezra and Nehemiah. If you compare them, you will soon notice that the Jews back in Jerusalem under the godly leadership of Ezra and Nehemiah were always being led to pray, repent, and strive to make God’s Law the center of their lives. This God-centeredness was also demonstrated in the lives of Daniel and his three friends, who were Jewish captives under the Babylonians and who rose to prominence under pagan leadership. Yet, they remained faithful to God’s Law and never gave up the privilege of prayer.
In Esther, however, you see a Jewish people who were holding onto their Jewish cultural identity, but who no longer had God at the center of their lives. There was no apparent interest in God’s Law, no concern about the condition of Jerusalem or of the Temple, no response of repentance or prayer in the face of persecution. Mordecai’s counsel, Esther’s appearance before the king, and the plan that Esther and Mordecai hatched to do away with Haaman were all accomplished without any conscious reference to God or dependence upon his power or strength.
Esther certainly demonstrated courage, but her “If I perish, I perish “differs greatly from Nehemiah’s “But now, O God, strengthen my hands.” Thus could it be that the name of God was never mentioned in the book because the people of God had forgotten God; lost sight of living for his glory, obeying him, and seeking his guidance and direction? They had hunkered down in a pagan culture and instead of influencing the culture for God’s glory, they were more concerned with their own self-preservation and power.
I apply this in two ways: 1) God’s covenant faithfulness for his people, using political circumstances to work out his purposes for them, continues even though his people forget him and move him to the periphery of their lives; 2) Is God mentioned in my life? This last application is a convicting one to me. Do I make it through the day in my own wisdom or do I pray for God’s guidance and direction?
It came to me the other day that while I prayed for wisdom in the process of selecting a new car, I never asked the Lord whether I should have one in the first place. I know that it is not in a man (or woman) to determine the course of his life, so why do I live as if it is? It may surprise you how God led me in this.
I have a dear friend (Richard Burr) who has a ministry of prayer called PRAY THINK ACT. When he started the ministry I always mixed up the title and said THINK PRAY ACT. It was funny but unfortunately it said a lot about me. I have a tendency to think first, pray later, and then act, hoping that God would bless what I have done. I see growth in my life in this area, but more is needed. I would like not only to demonstrate the courage of Esther, but also the God-centered prayer life of Daniel. I want to be a man who prays as a first response and not as a last resort.
Today is the 45th Anniversary of my ordination; when a 24 yr old inexperienced seminary grad was set aside for the gospel ministry by the laying on of hands by faithful men.
Gloria and I were married 2 weeks later and then started as the Associate Pastor of the Bethlehem Community Church- 2 weeks later. I had the privilege of working under Pastor Art Gay and being mentored in ministry by this faithful man.
Yesterday, I also had the special privilege of being a part of the 50th Anniversary celebration of Bethlehem Community Church, Delmar, NY and saw some very special friends.
My life-ministry verse is and has been 1 Thess 5:20, “Faithful is he who has called you who will also do it.” Praise God for his faithfulness and I thank him for a faithful life-time partner in ministry, my wife Gloria.
Please pray that we would continue to be faithful to our faithful God until he calls us home.
I wanted to write an informative blog on the origin of April Fools’ Day, but there are so many claims that I gave up and personally don’t care. So I thought instead I would share some memorable hoaxes that have been foisted upon our family over the years, but I couldn’t think of any. Finally, I thought I would tell you about the incredible April Fools’ joke I played on my parents when I found out I was adopted (April Fools), but I can’t.
On the one hand, it is fun to be a bit of an intentional ninnyhammer on one day of the year when we often act or say foolish things quite naturally at other times. On the other hand, it is too bad we take so much time thinking of some untruth to tell someone when the time could be better spent thinking of something encouraging to do or say to them.
Instead, I think I’ll share a bit on the three types of fools that are revealed in the Bible. I would highly recommend the book Fool’s Talk: Recovering the Art of Christian Persuasion by Os Guinness, especially the chapter, “The Way of the Third Fool.” Guinness writes that there is, first of all, the Fool Proper; applied to a broad category of people who have no time for God. There are those who make the outright claim that there is no God (Ps 14:1) or those who live with no conscious consideration of God (Lk 12:20).
The second kind of fool that the Bible mentions is the Fool Bearer. This person is the one who has been treated as a fool for Christ sake (1 Cor 4:10). Like Dostoevsky’s Idiot, this is a person who is misunderstood, mistreated, persecuted, and rejected for the sake of following Christ. He or she is willing to be laughed at by the world just as their Savior was mocked and treated as a Fool King when he was dressed in purple, given a fake scepter, and a crown of thorns as part of his suffering.
The third kind of fool that Guinness describes is the Fool Maker. The Fool Maker is one “…who is prepared to be seen and treated as a fool, so that from the position of derided folly, he or she may be able to bounce back and play the jester, addressing truth to power, pricking the balloons of the high and mighty, and telling the emperor he has no clothes… The cross, Martin Luther wrote, was the devil’s mousetrap. The devil smelled cheese, and wham, felt steel…Everything that climaxed in that sultry Passover week was spring-loaded with a deeper, history-shaking truth, although under a disguise so strange that it bewildered even the closest and most ardent followers of Jesus–and the devil himself fell for the smell of cheese. Just so did God shame the world’s folly, subvert the wold’s pride and put death to death through the death of his Son.”
And what I find most insightful is the fact that Guinness shows that this kind of foolery is what God uses to win the world. He quotes Reinhold Niebuhr who claimed that there is a limit to what even the power of God can do as power alone, for “such power does not reach the heart of the rebel.” Guinness adds, “power can fence us, in but only sacrificial love can find us out. Power can win when we are ranged against it, but it cannot win us…There was no other way. It takes the full folly and weakness of the cross to find us out and win us back.”
And so on this April Fools’ Day, which has so closely followed the “foolery” of Holy Week, let us not fall prey to the idea that power and dominance will be the way the gospel will win the world. It will be through our suffering as “fool-bearers” and our loving others as “fool-makers” that the gospel will subvert the wisdom and power of the world, and find and win the lost .
Did you know that this phrase is not in the Bible? Jesus told the man healed in John 5 to “Sin no more, that nothing worse may happen to you,” and he told the woman caught in adultery to “Go and sin no more” (John 8:11). Jesus never told anyone to “repent and sin no more.”
However, Jesus did use the word repent with a far different word in Mark 1:15, “The kingdom of God is near, repent and believe the gospel.” Not just repent, but repent and believe. Both are in the present imperative, active, 2nd person plural. In other words, it was a command to do these things continuously: “You all out there, continue to repent and continue to believe the gospel!”
Just as we cannot imagine a follower of Jesus without faith, so we should not imagine the same follower without the continuing character of repentance. We should not just call ourselves Believers but also Repenters, for we will not stop repenting until we stop sinning. Unfortunately, this continual character of repentance is sadly lacking in our churches, in our Christian colleges and graduate schools, in our interpersonal relationships and in our marriages, where we readily admit to our brokenness but when it comes to repentance, we act as if other people need to repent, but not us.
I would like to clarify what repentance is because I think many people are often confused as to the meaning of the word. So over the next few blogs let me unpack the biblical concept of repentance by describing it in 3 different ways:
- Repentance is not penance
- Repentance is without regret (remorse)
- Repentance is without excuse
First, Repentance is not Penance
Roman Catholic Theology defines Penance as a sacrament consisting of contrition, confession, and the carrying out of certain works which render satisfaction for the sin committed since baptism. Certainly repentance and inner sorrow is a part of this, but penance is an act performed that makes amends or satisfaction for sin.
Not to be out done, we “Prots” have our own version of penance. Though we confess to being saved by grace alone through faith in Christ alone, we are still driven to act in ways that seek to curry favor with God. Many co-opt the Lenten season with acts of self-denial and self-abnegation to demonstrate contrition to God by the sincerity of outward actions, while failing to comprehend that the real issue is the inner condition of the heart. It becomes more of a “flesh formation” rather than a spiritual formation.
Not only does penance divert our attention away from the real need of our souls, but it can also anesthetize our consciences so we gain momentary relief from our guilt. In so doing we actually set up a vicious cycle for ourselves: do good things to make up for our bad things; then after being good for a while we think we deserve a little bad, which we then try to make up for by being good and… so on and so forth. Penance makes us like little gerbils on a never-ending wheel of trying to deal with guilt.
The prophet Isaiah held out the free grace and mercy of God for his people when he cried, “Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for things that are not bread, and your labor on things that do not satisfy” (55:1, 2). And in the closing chapter of the New Testament, the Spirit and the Church cry out, “Come, and let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires to take the water of life without price” (Rev. 22:17).
If we can do nothing to achieve our salvation, why do we think our actions (now that we are God’s children) are in any way meritorious or sanctifying? Why do we measure God’s love for us by how much we do for him rather than by what he has done for us? Penance may drive us to a bed of nails, but true repentance will always drive us back to the cross! Repent and believe the gospel of God’s love and mercy which continues to flow for us because of Christ. The same gospel that saves also sanctifies.
More on this next blog… let me recommend an excellent book on this subject by Richard Owen Roberts, “Repentance: the First Word of the Gospel.” (Crossway Books, 2001)
Happy Valentine’s Day!
I want to take this opportunity to write something about marriage that you do will not read about in the superficial and unrealistic cards that have to be plowed through in order to find one (if you are lucky) that you are not embarrassed to give. You will never see mentioned the fact that marriage needs to be a discipline if it is going to last; sounds so unromantic.
While it is true that only 7% of marriages today reach the 50 year mark, there are certainly a lot of things that necessitate against long-term marriages, not the least of which is death. However, one factor rarely considered is the lack of a disciplined commitment. I write this blog cognizant that many of my divorced sisters and brothers may feel discouraged by what they read. Please understand that my intention is to challenge all of us (especially myself) to recognize the seriousness of our marriage vows, even if we have been divorced and remarried. Sadly, our culture has undermined such seriousness.
Karl A. Pillemer, professor of human development at Cornell University and professor of gerontology in medicine at the Weill Cornell Medical College, has done research examining how people develop and change throughout their lives. In a recent set of studies, Pillemer decided to find out what older people know about life that the rest of us don’t. This project led to the book, 30 Lessons for Living: Tried and True Advice from the Wisest Americans (Penguin/Hudson Street Press, November 2011). Much of this advice had to do with marriage. I have distilled his findings as follows:
In my efforts to understand the elders’ view on commitment, I came to a revelation. They were talking about marriage as a discipline As that word is used in fields from spiritual development to business management, it does not have anything to do with the idea of punishment– far from it. Rather, a discipline, is a developmental path where you get better at something by mindfully attending to it and by continual practice. Most important, it is a lifelong process—you don’t “arrive” at success, but rather you spend your life mastering the discipline. In all disciplines—from learning a martial art, to running a marathon, to meditating—short-term sacrifice is required to reap the long-term rewards from your effort.
When the elders talked about commitment, it’s this kind of discipline they have in mind: persevering, working out creative solutions for problems, and seeking help when necessary. The mental image of a lifelong commitment—where it is not easy to get out—makes partners work intensely to overcome challenges. Lora, 70, told me:
“My generation was not accepting of divorce, and my husband and I were of that mindset. Because that wasn’t an option in our mind to separate, you really figured things out. It wasn’t, ‘Well, it’s not working out and I’m not happy right now. Let’s give up.’ It wasn’t an option, so therefore we needed to figure things out.”
Sheldon, 88, whose marriage went through difficult periods, agreed:
“We have had some pretty hard arguments, believe me. You’ve got to deal with it and not to have in the back of your head that you’re going to split. You’ve got to get that out of your head. That whatever it is that goes on, you’re going to stay together and work it out.”
And the elders are clear that no one can make a commitment at a single point in their lives, then simply relax and forget about it. Commitment is enacted every single day, as part of the discipline of marriage. Mae Powers, 70, also had a rocky road in marriage, but chose to remain in the relationship for 42 years. She eloquently summed up the meaning of commitment this way:
“It’s continually committing, actively deciding to stay together. During the rough times, you have to decide to recommit yourself to the relationship. My husband and I joke about having ‘gotten married’ many times. Things happen that cause people to question their relationships, and then they have to make a decision to recommit or not recommit, and how to recommit if they decide to do so. So when I recommit to staying together today after a huge blow-up, it’s with the knowledge of all of those limitations and what I have decided I’m willing to live with.”
Searching for a way to characterize this attitude among the elders, I found myself using the word spirit. That is, many of them have a spirited approach to the discipline of marriage, to get better, to forgive, and to innovate. There’s a spirit of initiative to overcome problems and an indomitable attitude to move on despite problems.
Sound idealistic? For me, seeing was believing. Nothing convinces you of the value of making a lifelong commitment like being in the presence of couples who have done just that. Most people who make good on the “marriage is for life” assumption freely admit having considered splitting up at least once over the decades (and often more than once). They’ve lived through sloughs of unfulfillment, periods where passion waned and nothing appeared to replace it, and bouts of simmering resentment. But they hung in, they endured, they worked feverishly on the relationship – and they won out in the end.
They won out by reaching a level of fulfillment that is difficult to describe. I’ve introduced you to a number of such partners in this book, and perhaps you have seen it in an older couple you know. When you are in the presence of two people who have weathered life’s predictable and unpredictable storms together and emerged as true and inseparable partners at the end of life, there’s a feeling of “Ahhh, so that’s what it’s all about…” I had the opportunity to observe this apotheosis of married life many times, and each time I came away inspired and enriched.
Because when people make it the whole way, it’s so good that it’s better than almost anything else you can imagine. It’s better than the titillating excitement of dating, better than the heart-pounding passion of a new relationship; yes, even better than the mid-life lure of trading the old spouse in for a new model. It’s good enough that it may inspire you to give your marriage a second, third, or fourth chance. Because to wind up at the last years of life in the arms of someone you fell in love with 60 or 70 years ago is sublime. It’s a part of a well-lived life that is so transcendental that for many elders who are there, it defies description. I learned this from the elders: there are some life experiences for which you need the whole thing to reap the benefits – marriage is one of them.
I believe that such a perspective exemplifies God’s meaning for marriage–it is a faith commitment that excludes all alternatives. However, there is an additional layer that we need to speak about as Christians. I believe that the overriding reason for me staying in my marriage together is because I want to please the God who made me and loves me in Christ, and who said “I hate divorce.” (Malachi 2:16)
Thus my continuing commitment to my wife of 44.5 years is not just to provide a stable example for my kids and grandkids or to maintain my ordination and the ability for me to minister in a church, but because it is my duty and responsibility before God and a gospel witness to the world that Christ will never divorce the one who trusts in Him.
Gary Thomas in his excellent book Sacred Marriage (Zondervan, 2000) issues this challenge: In a society where relationships are discarded with a frightening regularity, Christians can command attention simply by staying married. And when asked why, we can offer a platform of God’s message of reconciliation, followed by an invitation: Would you like to hear more about that good news of reconciliation?