Sunday, November 25, 2012

When Your Family Tree is Sick: Part II

These are the people I am most thankful for.  My husband. My parents. My children.

Given the chance, I would willingly exchange my own life for theirs, and in many small ways, I do that already each time I devote minutes, hours, days, and years to express my love to them. A true love is sacrifice.  Yet, that love can only go so far, do so much.

Last week, we began a two-part glimpse into a Christian's role in others' salvation.

In Part I, we looked at those in our family tree who are hopelessly lost and how we are unable to save them with either our own righteous, loving obedience to God or our prayers on their behalf. Although we who are Christians want to save the entire world and especially our loved ones, each person is ultimately accountable for his or her own soul.

As God said through the prophet Ezekiel, "'if a country sins against Me by committing unfaithfulness, and I stretch our My hand against it...even though these three men, Noah, Daniel, and Job were in its midst, by their own righteousness they could only deliver themselves,' declares the Lord GOD" (Ez. 14:13-14)*.

Part II of the question asks what the Christian's response should be if he can't pray someone into heaven.  Does he just give up and stop praying for them entirely?

In the previous verse and in verse twenty of the same chapter from Ezekiel, God mentions three pillars of faith who give insight into this part of the question.  Noah, Daniel, and Job interceded for those around them.

Noah is recorded as "a righteous man, blameless among the people of his time, and he walked faithfully with God" (Gen. 6:9).  Later, Peter refers to him as "a preacher of righteousness" (Gen. 6:9, 2 Pet. 2:5). While I don't find a specific example of Noah praying for the people before the flood, the word "preacher" in the previous verse means "God's ambassador, and the herald or proclaimer of the divine word"**  

Throughout The Old Testament, a pattern appears of God's ambassadors interceding for the unrighteous after they receive a divine warning of impending wrath.  Moses repeatedly interceded for Israel while Abraham interceded for the cities of Sodom and GomorrahSurely after God's warning and throughout the 90+ years it took him to build the ark, Noah not only shared with everyone what was going to happen but also prayed to God for their deliverance.

Sadly, as history records, not one repented; not one was delivered.

Unlike Noah, in the cases of Daniel and Job, it is more obvious that they interceded for their people.

In the story of Job, Scripture specifically records him praying for family and friends.  

For his children, he continually prayed: "Job would send and consecrate them, rising up early in the morning and offering burnt offerings according to the number of them all; for Job said, 'Perhaps my sons have sinned and cursed God in their hearts.' Thus Job did continually" (Job. 1:5).

Job also "prayed for his friends" (Job 42:10).  But neither his children's deliverance nor his friends' deliverance came through his intercession.  

Instead, his friends' deliverance came from their own actions of offering a burnt offering in repentance before the Lord. As the Lord said to them, "My servant Job will pray for you. For I will accept him so that I may not do with you according to your folly" (Job. 42: 8).  They obeyed and were spared by their own actions.

Daniel, as well, prayed for his people.  

In a quite lengthy prayer, Daniel "prayed to the Lord my God and confessed and said, 'Alas, O Lord we. . .have sinned, committed iniquity, acted wickedly and rebelled, even turning aside from Your commandments and ordinances.  Moreover, we have not listened to Your servants the prophets, who spoke in Your name to our kings, our princes, our fathers and all the people of the land" (Dan. 9:4-6).  

He requested God to relent in His wrath on Israel: "let now Your anger and Your wrath turn away from Your city Jerusalem, Your holy mountain; for because of our sins and the iniquities of our fathers, Jerusalem and Your people have become a reproach to all those around us" 

Yet, even Daniel could not save the city of Jerusalem because of the people's sin.

 What, then, should a Christian's response be?  

The answer is clear--the Word of God demonstrates that the righteous must still stand in the gap, must still intercede for those who do not know Christ. 

In the New Testament, the apostle Paul encouraged us to do likewise: "First of all, then, I urge that entreaties and prayers, petitions and thanksgivings, be made on behalf of all men" (1 Tim 2:1).

May we be able to say with conviction that "my heart’s desire and my prayer to God for them is for their salvation" (Rom 10:1).

*I wanted to note that some commentators believe that the Daniel mentioned here is not the same man who wrote the book of Daniel.  Although I humbly disagree, the idea that the righteous intercede for others is a sound tenet found throughout scripture.  I can't help but believe if this text does refer to another Daniel, he, too, would have interceded for his people.

**Blue Letter Bible Online.  

Monday, November 19, 2012

When Your Family Tree is Sick: Part I

What do you do when your family tree is filled more with people who want nothing to do with God than with people who want to serve Him?  Can you save them by your own prayers and righteousness?  And if not, do you just give up?

These are honest questions I have asked God more than once.

My immediate family is devoted to the Lord.  From my Grandfather's devotion to the Lord came four daughters who loved Him, three of whom are married to Godly husbands who helped those daughters raise seven grandchildren to serve Him as well.  Slowly, these seven grandchildren are marrying, seeking to choose Godly spouses and create another Christan home to nurture their children. 

Presently, there are seventeen of us this side of eternity, plus my small children and a few potential mates.  When we are together, it seems like a large group serving the Lord.

But all I have to do is trace back and follow any other branch in the family tree to see faithlessness, blood after blood going another direction, seeking after their own pursuits.

When I look at the whole tree, I see how tiny our healthy little branch truly is.  The bulk of my family tree is infected to the marrow, sick with sin.  My heart grieves over my relatives' souls.

Today's article will be part of a two-part post since it's a two-pronged question.  First, can my righteousness save my relatives?  And secondly, if it can't, should I just give up praying for them?

For the first part--can my obedience to God, my prayer for others--can it save their souls?

In Ezekiel 14, God says no.  He tells the prophet, " 'if a country sins against Me by committing unfaithfulness, and I stretch our My hand against it...even though these three men, Noah, Daniel, and Job were in its midst, by their own righteousness they could only deliver themselves,' declares the Lord GOD" (Ez. 14:13-14)*.

In other words, not even the most righteous pillars of faith could save another person from the pits of hell's judgment.

Throughout the remainder of the chapter, God methodically presents one method of destruction after another--famine, wild beasts, sword, and plague.  With each of these four judgments, He repeats the same phrasing about deliverance, emphasizing that one can only save his/her own soul, not the souls of others...not even the souls of their children. 

God soberly states, "even though Noah, Daniel and Job were in its [the country's] midst...they could not deliver either their son or their daughter.  They would deliver only 
themselves by their righteousness" (Ez. 14:20).

These verses together emphasize the principle of personal accountability.  God doesn't let us shift the blame and evade responsibility for our actions.

Four chapters, later, Ezekiel quotes a common proverb of his day: "The fathers eat the sour grapes, But the children's teeth are set on edge" (v. 2).  In other words, the Israelites were doing much what our culture does today--blaming their parents.  Here, the proverb means that because their fathers had sinned, they inherited their fathers' bitterness or punishment by having to live in exile in Babylon.

The problem is that in shifting the blame to their parents, they weren't acknowledging their own personal guilt before God, and God wasn't going to have it.

The entirety of Chapter 18 explains what the righteous man with the unrighteous father, the unrighteous man with the righteous father, and so on can expect from God.

He concludes, "The son will not bear the punishment for the father's iniquity, nor will the father bear the punishment for the son's iniquity; the righteousness of the righteous will be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked will be upon himself" (Ez. 18:20).

Personal accountability.

God ends with a plea to His people: "Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, each according to his conduct,' declares the Lord GOD. 'Repent and turn away from all your transgressions, so that iniquity may not become a stumbling block to you.  Cast away from you all your transgressions which you have committed and make yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! For why will you die, O house of Israel?...Therefore, repent and live'" (Ez. 18:30-32).

It hurts my heart, knowing I cannot bring my family to salvation.  The New Testament is clear that that is a work of the Holy Spirit.

No matter how much I pray for them, my prayers, my righteousness cannot save my children.  They cannot save my mother, my father, my husband.

Next week, we will discuss in this space what a Christian's response should be if her righteousness cannot save another.

But for now, Ezekiel 18 says we each must make a choice--life or death.  Yes, it's really that simple.

Life in Christ or death without Him.

God is asking us, "For why will you die, __________? Therefore, repent and live."

Monday, November 12, 2012

Praying It Forward

My children know mommy demands immediate obedience. And yet they struggle daily to balance the desire to be independent and do it their way with the desire to make mommy happy by obeying her.

Sadly, all too often, I’ve played out the same scenario with my heavenly Father. On a spiritual high, I will become totally engrossed with in-depth Bible study and prayer, rooting myself so deeply by His life-giving river that I feel I cannot possibly be drawn away from His presence again.

And then step by wayward step, I allow the cares of this world to draw me from the water’s edge. Disobedience, apathy, children, friends, job, household chores, spouse, sheer laziness, exhaustion—they all beckon me away from His presence until His Holy Spirit convicts me, sending me humble, repentant, ashamed, parched as I crawl face-down to Him for a long drink.

In Scripture, King Solomon was on one of the biggest spiritual highs of his life—what God had not allowed his father, David, to accomplish, he had been able to complete. After seven years, the temple, the house of the Lord, was finally finished. The Ark of the Covenant was placed in the holies of holies. The people of God were “sacrificing so many sheep and oxen they could not be counted or numbered” (1 Kings 8:5). The glory of the Lord Almighty had descended upon earth to fill the temple with a cloud so thick that “the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud” (1 Kings 8:11).

And yet when Solomon prayed to dedicate the temple, he did not merely rejoice over how close he and Israel were to God at that present moment. Instead, his prayer looked ahead to those times when God’s people would not be walking in obedience to Him:

When the heavens are shut up and there is no rain, because they have sinned against You, and they pray toward this place and confess Your name and turn from their sin when You afflict them, then hear in heaven and forgive the sin …. And send rain on Your land” (I Kings 8:35-36).

He continued to pray that "When they sin against You (for there is no man who does not sin) and You are angry with them and deliver them to an enemy…if they return to You with all their heart and with all their soul in the land of their enemies who have taken them captive, and pray to You…then hear their prayer and their supplication in heaven Your dwelling place, and maintain their cause, and forgive Your people who have sinned against You and all their transgressions which they have transgressed against You” (I Kings 8: 46, 48-50).

There is a lesson we each must learn from Solomon’s prayer. We must realize our human frailties will eventually draw us from that mountaintop, even if for a short while. Knowing this truth, in those uplifting seasons of indescribable closeness with God, we must pray, asking Him to convict us of our sin during those future times when we will undoubtedly go astray and then forgive us when we truly repent.

This week, start praying in this manner. Pray for God to never give up on you, to never just let you have your own disobedient way, to never let your heart harden to His voice, to never stop hearing your prayers and offering forgiveness, and to never cease prompting you with the Holy Spirit towards a life of complete obedience and a closer walk with Him.

(Photo: Our '05 family trip to Hawaii, looking down from the mountain at the ocean)

Posting here from the archives on this Veterans' Day weekend.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

What Happens to a Stubborn Nation?

Thirty million Christians did not vote in the last presidential election in 2008.  That number just astounds me.  But this isn't a post about why you should vote or who you should vote for this coming Tuesday.  There have been enough heavyweights weighing in with the call for Christian men and women to cast their vote.

Instead, I want to look at what Scripture says about the destiny of a land that refuses to be refined by God.

When God tests a nation, gives it a chance to repent, what happens when that land refuses the purification process? When it flagrantly insists on clinging to wickedness and persistently, continuously defiling God's laws?

Throughout Scripture, God speaks of Himself as a silversmith, one who stands before a furnace of intense flames and works to melt the rough silver, bring the impurities to the surface, and then skim this "dross" off.  The divine metal worker repeats the process again and again until that silver is purified to the point where He can see His reflection in the melted metallic pool.

The Psalmist explains that the Father seeks to purify all men in this way: "For You have tried us, O God; You have refined us as silver is refined" (Ps. 66:10). Such a refining process may be accomplished through the refining Word of God (Ps. 12:6) or through trials where "the Lord tests hearts" (Prov. 17:3).

Yet, it is possible for individuals and nations alike to refuse to be cleansed by the refining process.  They may, instead, cling stubbornly to their impurities, refusing to be separated from what is not holy and pleasing to God in their own lives.

The nation of Israel did just this.  As a result, the Lord said, "the house of Israel has become dross to Me; all of them are bronze and tin and iron and lead in the furnace; they are the dross of silver" (Ez. 22:18).

In this passage, Israel had become not the purified silver but the dross, the part composed of nothing but worthless impurities that were destined to be skimmed off and discarded. In short, Israel had become unrefineable, irredeemable

The nation's problem was that she had refused to be purified by the refining process.  No matter how hot God made the testing and trials, Israel was "a land that is not cleansed or rained on in the day of indignation" (Ez. 22:24).  No amount of heating over intense flames had caused (or would cause) her to relinquish her death grip on idolatry, harlotry, wickedness...her sin.

The Lord gives a similar image of Israel's stubbornness through the prophet Jeremiah:

"The bellows blow fiercely,
The lead is consumed by the fire;
In vain the refining goes on,
But the wicked are not separated.
They call them rejected silver,
Because the Lord has rejected them." (Jer. 6:29-30)

Here, the image is of a workman pumping up and down on the bellows, forcing more and more air into the furnace, thereby increasing its temperature.  The hotter the fire, the more the impurities would be released to rise to the surface as dross to be removed.  

Yet, again, no matter how hot God caused the fire to become for the nation of Israel, it has all been "in vain." Israel refused to let the trials sent by God separate it from its wickedness, and as such, God had no choice but to reject what would not be purified.

This is where I believe our nation stands today, as liquid silver in the crucible of the heavenly refiner.  Every Supreme Court decision, every election of a public official, every citizen's choice to uphold or trample upon God's Word in his / her personal life---no matter how large or small these choices may seem, each one is a choice to submit to the refiner's fire or cling to impurities. 

Tuesday's presidential election is one of those choices. 

No matter the results, though, the prophet Zechariah speaks hope to those of us who have submitted to the refining process and allowed our hearts to be purified:

And I will bring the third part through the fire,
Refine them as silver is refined,
And test them as gold is tested.
They will call on My name,
And I will answer them;
I will say, ‘They are My people,’
And they will say, ‘The Lord is my God.’" (Zech. 13:9)

If we are breathing, we can choose to keep a death grip on our sin or let it go and be purified.  It is not too late.  Praise God, in Christ, there is hope.