Sunday, August 25, 2013

When to Speak and When to Be Silent

What if openly sharing the plan of salvation with your co-workers would almost certainly result in your termination from that job?  What if sharing the gospel each time you come together causes friends and family to avoid your company completely?  What if you live in a country where the simple act of proclaiming your Christianity will most surely result in your execution?

Is that what Christ asks us to do, this in-your-face type of evangelism?  Is it more effective to share the Word of God those few times? To proclaim one's allegiance to Christ? And then have no more chances to minister to that lost person?  Or is it better to live your life as a witness for Christ, naturally weaving Christ into your conversation and lifestyle that you demonstrate before them but without being confrontational about the question of their lost soul?  

Simply put, what style of witness gives us the most influence for Christ? Bring Him the most glory?

These are difficult questions to answer.  I've heard good, honest debates on both sides.  I've listened to good-hearted Christians criticize other Christians for not fulfilling their definition of what a Christian should be, do, say.  And in all honesty, I've felt the same way about other Christians at times, too, wondering how they could stay silent if Christ were really their Lord.

Yet, the more I read in Scripture and the further I go on my own journey with the Lord, I see that there is a time and a place for everything--for speaking, for being silent, for confronting in love, for biting my tongue...and that I must not judge others who choose silence and behind the scenes influence for Christ. 

Jesus told His disciples, "you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth" (Acts 1:8).  He also said, "Whoever acknowledges me before others, I will also acknowledge before my Father in heaven. But whoever disowns me before others, I will disown before my Father in heaven" (Matt. 10:32-33).  

The conclusion one can draw from these verses is that Christians must live unashamed of the gospel, openly being a witness for Christ. In other words, others should see Jesus in me, should know I am different even if they're not sure what's different.  The definition of being a "witness," though, varies, especially when considering how "in your face" should one be when sharing the gospel?   
As I read through the prophets of the Old Testament and even through Jesus' own words, I'm noting how their witness changed depending on the situation. 

1 Kings tells of a man who followed the Lord in secret.  Scripture says, "Now the famine was severe in Samaria, and Ahab had summoned Obadiah, his palace administrator. (Obadiah was a devout believer in the Lord. While Jezebel was killing off the Lord’s prophets, Obadiah had taken a hundred prophets and hidden them in two caves, fifty in each, and had supplied them with food and water" (1 Kin. 18:2-4).

Scripture refers to Obadiah as a "devout believer."  That's saying something right there.  Yet, while one may associate the word "devout" with someone who prays publicly at the window like Daniel, witnesses on the street corners like Paul, or points fingers at the sin of the unrighteous like the Prophet Elijah, this man's devotion to the Lord was a secret.  

Obadiah was in a place of authority in evil King Ahab's palace.  He was quite influential in the kingdom.  Had Ahab or his evil wife Jezebel caught wind of Obadiah's true allegiance, it is likely that Obadiah would have lost his life in addition to losing his position. 

Because of this position of influence, this "devout" man did not confront King Ahab about his sin.  He did not criticize the king for trying to kill all the Lord's prophets.  He simply worked in secret.  In a way, he infiltrated the enemy's camp for the Lord and so he could save the lives of a hundred of the Lord's prophets.

Even with his mouth not speaking of his devout beliefs, he was a witness for the Lord.  We will never know if he advised Ahab towards righteousness even if Ahab ignored such efforts.  What we do know is that Obadiah's actions to save those 100 prophets were a demonstration of his devout faith in God and that this demonstration made his very existence fraught with danger. 

Constantly supplying 100 prophets with enough food and water to sustain them in the desert would not have been an easy task.   First there was the problem of gathering the food and water.  Simply procuring that many supplies in a nation wracked by famine must have been almost impossible.  There just wasn't food or water available for that many people to be fed, especially over an extended period of time--months and months.  It makes me wonder if Obadiah stole from Ahab's own household to provide the needed sustenance, making this ministry all the more dangerous.  

Whatever method God used to provide daily bread for his chosen prophets, Obadiah was the secret hand God used to fulfill His will for His glory. 
Then, there was the problem of delivering the food and water to the prophets.  Surely, Ahab had spies everywhere.  Everyone in the kingdom must have been under suspicion of helping Elijah, especially since Scripture speaks directly of Ahab's man hunt for the prophet. 

Imagine months and months of providing daily bread and water for one hundred people.  Imagine the daily fear of being caught.  This was Obadiah's secret ministry for the Lord.

The Prophet Elijah, though, obviously didn't think too much of Obadiah's commitment to the Lord.  Even after Elijah met Obadiah, he told the people of Israel, "I am the only one of the Lord's prophets left" (1 Kin. 18:22).  It seems Elijah also believed that if you are for God, everyone should know about it.

Pastor R. T. Kendall says, "There is a time to shout out our witness for Jesus, but also a time to protect our testimony by a discreet silence.  In other words, there are exceptions to the biblical principle of acknowledging Jesus Christ and showing openly that we are unashamed of Him" (p. 69).*

No, I don't think God gives examples such as these in Scripture to give us a license to close our mouths and shirk our responsibility to share the gospel with those around us.  Sharing the gospel is importantI do, however, believe God shows us examples like Obadiah's to demonstrate how we should be open to the Spirit's leading in our own lives and how we should avoid judging others whose witness looks different from out own.

Let us not be militant in our belief that the way we witness is how all should witness for the Lord or even that the way we witness is how we should witness for the Lord at all times and in all circumstances.  

*Kendall, R. T.  These are the Days of Elijah.  Bloomington: Chosen P, 2013.

Monday, August 19, 2013

How Your Life Affects Mine

It started five weeks ago,  an unignorable ache in husband's jaw after a routine dentist visit.  The dentist repeatedly assured him this ache was normal after a new crown.  Still, he knew in his gut that something was wrong.

Days passed as the throbbing steadily grew to where husband could feel each steady heartbeat pulse in his cheek.  After two weeks, he went to a specialist who easily identified the true problem. When filling another small cavity that same day, the dentist had drilled directly into a nerve, killing the tooth.  

One tiny nerve, invisible to the naked eye, was powerful enough to affect the entire body.  What's more, one tiny nerve didn't just affect my husband.  It drained our entire family, with the children not being able to play with daddy as they were wont to do and this wife having to pick up the slack when husband was too sick to help out around the house.

It never ceases to amaze me how something so small can have such a big impact.  An invisible grain of pollen settles inside my nose, and I have a full blown allergy attack that puts me to bed.  A rose thorn pierces a pin-sized hole in my child's finger, and the pain is enough to make her intolerably grumpy for the next few days.  Even something as simple as a half hour less sleep at night is enough to throw the body out of whack the next day.

The human body is a fine tuned machine and a fragile one at that.  The fact that it functions at all is a miracle.  One cog loses a spoke, and it is weakened, to affect one body that affects another body that affects an entire entire world.

Paul makes a similar comment about the importance of all body parts functioning together, only he speaks not of the physical body but the corporate body of the church.  

Paul states, "For even as the body is one and yet has many members, and all the members of the body, though they are many, are one body, so also is Christ...For the body is not one member, but many.... But now God has placed the members, each one of them, in the body, just as He desired. If they were all one member, where would the body be? But now there are many members, but one body. And the eye cannot say to the hand, 'I have no need of you'; or again the head to the feet, 'I have no need of you.' On the contrary, it is much truer that the members of the body which seem to be weaker are necessary; and those members of the body which we deem less honorable, on these we bestow more abundant honor, and our less presentable members become much more presentable, whereas our more presentable members have no need of it..... And if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it"  (1 Cor. 12:12, 14, 18-23, 26).

Just as I tend to forget how each part of my body must be in perfect working order for the rest of my body to work as it should, I also forget the same about the body of Christ.

When someone is absent from worship service, when someone in the body is suffering with family issues, when someone in the body is physically ill--I have the tendency to think it doesn't affect me, personally.  Don't get me wrong.  I sympathize with their situations.  I pray for them.  I might even cry in sincere grief over the pain they're going through.  Yet, still, for the most part, I don't really realize the impact they have on me and me on them.  I look at it as their problem, as my problem. 

But according to Paul, I am dead wrong.

Each of these persons is a member of the body of Christ, just as I am.  Each person in the body is needed to work as it should to fulfill its kingdom purpose.  As Paul makes clear in the verses above, I can no more say "I have no need of you" to another believer in Christ than I can say to my feet, "I don't need you today."

Yet, I am guilty of thinking just that, of writing off immature believers, of unreliable believers...of thinking it's just easier to do the work without them.

What's worse, I forget that "if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it" (v. 26).

No wonder Christians are not having the impact in the world that they should.  We don't envision the body of Christ as we do our own physical bodies--composed of frail, individual parts; dependent on each body part to function at its greatest potential; impacting the rest of the body even when one part suffers, is righteous, sins, fails, or succeeds.

As a result, we're going out on the battle field blind with one arm in a sling and one leg amputated beneath the knee...and that's if we make it off the sidelines at all because we have too many body parts missing or because one body part is burnt out, exhausted because it is trying to do the job of two or more body parts.

I don't know the complete solution to make the church body function as the body Christ intends us to be.  But I do know it begins with each of us reaching out to those around us in the body.

We must seek out those who have fallen away.
We must minister to those who are in need.
We must disciple those who lack maturity in the faith.
And we must not allow our egos to convince us that we are more important than another part of the body. 

Image: Poor husband ready for his first root canal.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Would You Serve A God You Can't Tame?

When I was a child, I lived next door to my aunt, uncle, and cousin, Kimberly. It was like having a sister--Saturday morning omelets, trips back and forth between our houses, late night rounds of my uncle cheating at Monopoly, and too many sleepovers to count. Then, baby Allison was added to their family. Now, I would have two sisters to share everything with!

But, suddenly, our close-knit world was rocked when my aunt and uncle felt God calling them to be international missionaries. They then accepted that calling, leaving behind careers, family, and friends to become missionaries on the island of St. Maarten in the Caribbean…and taking with them my two “sisters.”

After that, our families came together maybe once a year. We were still close, but it just wasn’t the same. Many years into their ministry, they rode out a very serious hurricane that destroyed much of the island. While their lives were spared, our church had to send a team to help repair/rebuild their home.

What kind of God asks His people to leave their family? Stable jobs? Country? What kind of God puts those same people who are obediently serving Him in the path of a killer storm?

Yahweh. The God of Moses, Abraham, and Isaac.

Scripture gives us several examples of God asking His people to give up everything to serve and obey Him. One such man was Ezekiel, a priest whom God called to prophecy to an exiled Israel: “Son of man, I am sending you to the sons of Israel, to a rebellious people who have rebelled against Me; they and their fathers have transgressed against Me to this very day. I am sending you to them who are stubborn and obstinate children…” (Ezekiel 2:3-4).

Ezekiel wasn’t a Jonah. He didn’t run the other way or ask God to send somebody else. Instead, even with God continuously reminding him that his prophesies wouldn’t result in Israel’s repentance or turning from its sin, Ezekiel was obedient in doing what the Lord asked of him.

And then in the midst of that obedience, God required Ezekiel to make yet another sacrifice, which would serve as a sign to a rebellious Israel of Jerusalem’s coming destruction: “And the word of the LORD came to me saying, ‘Son of man, behold, I am about to take from you the desire of your eyes with a blow; but you shall not mourn and you shall not weep, and your tears shall not come. Groan silently; make no mourning for the dead Bind on your turban and put your shoes on your feet, and do not cover your mustache and do not eat the bread of men.’ So I spoke to the people in the morning, and in the evening my wife died. And in the morning I did as I was commanded” (Ezekiel 24:15-18).

What!? Did I read that right? God required Ezekiel to not only lose his beloved wife but to also not publically mourn her death? Yes. And Ezekiel obeyed.

How? Why?

Because Ezekiel knew the God he served. He knew of God's mercy and His judgment.  He also knew God’s kingdom agenda was more important than one man or one woman.

In our modern culture, I fear we are just the opposite--we don't really know the God we serve.

When we hit those passages in Scripture that are disconcerting, that depict a God who doesn't jive with the image in our head of the one we serve--that's when we attempt to tame God.

Sometimes, in our attempt to tame Him, we ignore the mystery.  We simply don't read those parts of Scripture we deem "inexplicable," confusing, or just too hard, such as the book of Revelation.  We believe the lie that only scholars have a chance of really understanding, so we lay persons shouldn't bother.  It's not a mystery if we refuse to accept it as such, so we stick our heads in the sand and stop up our ears.

Then, there are the times we take the mystery and try to nail it down on all four corners, to explain it all away with such conviction and certainty that we grow angry or defensive when anyone suggests our interpretation of Scripture could be incorrect.  Here, we reject the mystery and insist there can only be one interpretation, one spiritually-gleaned conclusion drawn from our reading of God's Word.  If you think differently, you obviously weren't led of the Spirit to your conclusion.

While some things are black and white in Scripture, there are too many that are not.  Brilliant scholars fall of both sides of several theological issues, which should warn us against this type of taming God.  When we attempt to explain everything away with such certainty and allow that certainty to be divisive in the family of God, we forget the words of the prophet Isaiah: "'For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,' declares the Lord. 'As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your  ways and my thoughts than your thoughts'"(Is. 55:8-9).

Other times, we tame God by refusing to read entire sections of the Bible because they "don't apply" to our modern society.  Using this logic, we excuse ourselves from trying to come to grips with a God who ordains murder, who condoned mass genocide of entire people groups.  In other words, we explain away any Old Testament characteristic of God that depicts anything other than a kind, good, merciful God such as Christ shows us in the New Testament.  And in doing so, we think we have such a good grasp on who God is that, at times, we believe we can even speak for Him, like we're best chums.  Yet, in truth, we haven't even begun to understand Him.

Although we may not like to think of God as one who requires such large sacrifices of his obedient servants, such as the earlier example of Ezekiel, that doesn’t mean we can ignore Scripture that tells us otherwise.  Although we may not be comfortable with what the Word says about who God is and what He has done throughout the course of history, we still must accept every part of who Scripture says God is...or not accept Him at all.

Likewise, although we may not understand every Scripture, that doesn't excuse us from not trying.  Yet, when we try, we must leave room for those who may draw different conclusions, for who knows if ten years from now, the Spirit may reveal that we were wrong all along.

God is and always will be a mystery to us.  If you're serving a God who can be graphed in black and white on a piece of paper, then you're not serving the God of the Bible.  Your God isn't big enough.

The God of The Bible is one who cannot be tamed.  He will not be watered-down.  He cannot be placed in a box.

He is The mystery of mysteries.

If we have Jehovah God all figured out, then we're not serving Him but a false God of our own making.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Expecting God To Repeat Himself

I like patterns.  It's my way of making sense of the chaos that is life.  There is the simple understanding of cause and effect, inductive reasoning that makes life smoother, such as knowing that if my children go to bed after 8 pm, there will be an afternoon meltdown the next day or that if I skip a single day of my daughter reading to me, the day after will be like pulling teeth with her sounding out words she flew through the day before.

Then, there are those patterns that require more observation, a stepping back and seeing the whole picture, mysteries that can leave me scratching my head for months until I finally crack the code. 

When attempting to understand the Word of God, I've learned how much can be understood simply by looking for patterns, which can only be accomplished fully by knowing the whole story.  Sometimes, that involves tracking a word's usage throughout the pages of the entire Old Testament, looking at historical context, taking the original audience's understanding into consideration, or simply looking at other parts of the specific book of the Bible. 

It's all part of allowing Scripture to interpret Scripture.

Yet, too often, when I read a passage that reminds me of another similar passage I've read before, I make the mistake of automatically reading it with the same interpretation in mind.  While God often repeats Himself, sometimes, He also often does the unexpected, reminding us that even when we're at the top of our game, God is still a mystery at His core.

The prophet Elijah learned this lesson when running from Jezebel.  At the lowest point in his career, the Lord told him, "Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by" (1 Kin. 19:11).

Scripture records, "Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave" (1 Kings 19:11-13).

Most Sunday School children know this part of the story.  God was not in the wind.  He was not in the earthquake.  He was not in the fire.  God was merely in a still, small voice.

Elijah would have known Israel's history quite well, a history in which the children of Israel had seen God in the wind, in the earthquake, and in fire.  In fact, a simple glimpse at the Israelites' escape from Egypt showed God in all three.

When the Israelites were trapped at the edge of the Red Sea, Pharaoh's army nipping at their heels, God was in the wind that held back the waters so an entire nation could cross on dry land: "Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and all that night the Lord drove the sea back with a strong east wind and turned it into dry land. The waters were divided, and the Israelites went through the sea on dry ground, with a wall of water on their right and on their left" (Ex. 14:21-22).  

As they wandered into the desert and camped at the base of Mt. Sinai, the children of Israel beheld God in both earthquake and fire: "Mount Sinai was covered with smoke, because the Lord descended on it in fire. The smoke billowed up from it like smoke from a furnace, and the whole mountain trembled violently" (Ex. 19:18).  That fire would go on to light up every night sky as they wandered in the desert for forty years until crossing the Jordan River into the Promised Land, a trek that all started with God appearing to Moses within a bush aflame.  And then, later, as Solomon dedicated the temple, fire would fall from heaven once more to light up the altar of sacrifice.

There was Biblical precedence for God being in all of the above.  What's more, Elijah, himself, had witnessed God in the wind and fire quite recently as he defeated the prophets of Baal atop Mt. Carmel (Ex. 18:38,45).

Yes, Elijah heard the wind and probably expected it to be the Lord.  He felt the earthquake and thought, surely this is the Lord.  And when the fire blazed, he must have expected this to be the Lord.

Yet, the Lord did not do the expected.

He came as He had never come before--in a still, small voice.  He came not in a display of power but in gentleness.

What's interesting is that Elijah, this man who loved and followed God with his whole heart--Elijah did not come out to meet God in the expected.  He waited and knew this was not the Lord.  Yet, He knew the Lord in this small voice even though there was not really precedence for the Lord appearing in such a manner.  Somehow, Elijah knew the Lord.

Pastor R. T. Kendall says, "When God repeats Himself it is easier to accept Him.  We love the familiar...The thing is, when something is repeated that was previously clearly the Lord's manifestation, most people assume hastily and uncritically, 'This is God showing up again.'...Jonathan Edwards taught us that the task of every generation is to discover the direction in which the Sovereign Redeemer is moving, then move in that direction.  It is easy to look for what has happened before" (Kendall 144).

Consider this statement and Elijah's experience in light of our Savior.  When Jesus came to earth in the wrappings of flesh, He did not come in the power of the wind, the earthquake, or fire.  He came in the gentleness of a sacrificial lamb.  Because of that, many missed His coming, for they were looking for God to appear in strength and power and refused to reevaluate their understanding of God and Scripture.

From these passages, we can take away two things. 

First, we must be cautious of boxing God in, expecting for Him to work or speak in always the same way He has done before.  God can and does do the unexpected. 

Secondly, we can be comforted.  Those who truly seek the Lord as did Elijah will know Him, even when He shows up in the most unexpected of ways.