Posts Tagged ‘words’

Most of us are  familiar with this guy: according to the bible, he and his wife Eve were the prototypes for the human race, created by God in His image and His likeness (and yes, those are two different things – one speaks to appearance, the other to characteristics, but that is a topic for another time).  Sometimes Christians can be harsh and judgmental towards this “first couple”, which is a shame; in truth we are not really very different, and certainly not any better!

The bible tells us that from the very beginning, God’s plan was that His creatures were integral elements of His plan; as we read the first two chapters of Genesis we see that Adam and Eve lived together in this perfect world, with all their physical needs met; their roles and purposes established; and enjoying the companionship of their Creator. So what went wrong? Adam did, that’s all…he did what came naturally to him, even though he knew better.

Adam was given power, and authority, and above all else, the one thing that separates humanity from the animals: free will. With this gift came an opportunity to either succeed or fail, of his own volition; to submit himself to the commandment and intentions given to him by God (remember, at this point there was only one explicit prohibition – to not eat the fruit of one particular tree), or to set out on his own path, contrary to the wishes of the One who made him. We know which path Adam chose, and the consequences of that decision, and it is easy to blame him for all that has happened since – I have heard more than one person joke that the first thing they wanted to do upon reaching heaven was to kick Adam in the shin! But what makes us think we would have done any differently? How many of us have been given everything we ever wanted or needed, at the cost of simple obedience, and yet cannot maintain this minimum standard? No wonder we needed a Savior, a new Adam to replace the original and restore humanity to the original purpose, free from original sin.

Jesus, in His incarnation, was also given power, and authority, and the same free will as Adam – yet He consistently chose to submit His will to the will of the Father; there are dozens of verses, but allow me to quote one of my favorites – John 6:38-40:

For I have come down from heaven, not to do My own will but the will of Him who sent Me. And this is the will of Him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that He has given me, but raise it up on the last day. For this is the will of My Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in Him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”

As we approach Easter, I am reminded again that I am grateful that Jesus came to be the New Adam, and that by Him, we have opportunity to be restored to our original place and purpose in God’s plan. This wonderful gift is available to any who will acknowledge the grace of God which supplies our need, and accept the words of Christ right above,  and receive eternal life.

Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them, and those who are mistreated, since you are also in the body.

This weekend I am serving with the Kairos prison ministry at Eastham Unit in Lovelady, TX. Please be in prayer for the men, the volunteers, the staff, and for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.

Nevertheless he ought to be slow to believe and to act, nor should he himself show fear, but proceed in a temperate manner with prudence and humanity, so that too much confidence may not make him incautious and too much distrust render him intolerable.

– Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince

For an author who derided the concept that moral virtue was a necessary condition for an enduring government,  Machiavelli does on occasion offer advice that all leaders would do well to remember. Here, he is referring to a prince who has newly come into his power, and is in the early stages of consolidating his base…but temperance, prudence and humanity ought to be the hallmarks of any person who would take on a position of authority, don’t you agree?

Recently I wrote about how well-meaning people sometimes try to use a bible verse to comfort or reassure Karen or me, while she is doing cancer treatments and I am trying not to feel helpless or sorry for myself. These people want to be supportive, and who wouldn’t think that a favorite exhortation or encouragement from the bible would be appreciated? Well, in principle this is a great idea – the Word of God is an awesome place to find support or advice in trying times; but what usually happens is the person will take some verse out of context, or misappropriate a promise or command that was not intended for what they are doing with it. Being who I am (a word geek with an acquired taste for exegesis and hermeneutics – not one to trifle with when bible quotes start flying), I call these “Inigo Montoya moments”, after the character from one of my favorite films, The Princess Bride. Here is a clip of the classic scene:

Evangelism centers on the idea that the whole world needs to hear the Gospel of Jesus, so they may be saved. This is in fact one of our assignments as His followers remaining on earth until He returns, but…my heart is broken for those people in the world who have heard the Word, but they either heard it wrong, or someone interpreted it for them incorrectly, and they just accepted it without checking for themselves. Given that I now have a platform to help combat misinformation, I have decided to periodically take one of these misused Scriptures, look at it in its proper context, and figure out what it really says; if it’s not appropriate to that application, I will try to suggest a better passage instead. I shall call these The Inigo Files, in homage to both the movie, and to my secret passion, The X-Files, because I want to believe…

In this installment we will examine a classically misused verse: Philippians 4:13. Here’s a typical scenario – a friend at church will notice I seem kind of down, and will ask how I’m doing. I will answer that I’m struggling with trying to balance my responsibilities at home against my tendency to compulsively volunteer  over-commit be involved in many activities. (I refuse to confirm or deny whether any of these actual events actually happened or not.) Friend will make sympathetic sounds; tell me about all the commitments she is currently holding up (since nothing soothes more than shame, right?); and then drop this on me:

“Remember, the bible says, ‘I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.’  Just pray for strength, and God will help you accomplish everything you want!”

Really? Anything? To borrow an extreme example from a pastor friend who used it in a great sermon on Philippians 4: Does that mean that I can, through Christ who strengthens me, finally do a 360-degree tomahawk slam dunk like Michael Jordan, even though I’m 5’8″ with bad ankles, if I just pray hard enough? In a word, no…and while that is a pretty specific misuse, it does illustrate my point – this verse gets co-opted to justify almost anything and everything that someone wants to do, by appealing to the idea that being a Christian gives us some mystical access to success in any endeavor; the power of God is on our side, how can we fail?

How, indeed? Well, for starters, we can fail by reading only one verse. As the famous quote says, “A text without a context is a pretext for a proof text.” So our first step to determine the meaning of a verse is to see it in its larger context. Here is the entire relevant passage, Phil 4:10-13 from the NKJV:

But I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at last your care for me has flourished again; though you surely did care, but you lacked opportunity. Not that I speak in regard to need, for I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content: I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound. Everywhere and in all things I have learned both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.

The Apostle Paul is closing out his letter to the church at Philippi, taking a moment to give thanks to God for the way He has used them to supply his needs while in prison in Rome. Paul makes it a point of instruction to tell them that he was not suffering for the lack of support, because he has learned to trust that God will always provide for his needs…so there is no reason to be worried, or unsatisfied with what we have – whatever we have is what God wants us to have, and His strength is promised to make up for any deficiency. This echoes the words of Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, when He tells us not to worry about the necessities of life, because God preserves and provides for those who seek after Him. Paul, in verse twelve, spells out specifically what things he is able to do, by the strength of Christ living within him, by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, a gift promised to all who follow Jesus. This becomes even more clear if we see this passage in a different translation, the NIV, which renders the Greek more accurately.  Here is verse 13 in that version (emphasis mine):

 I can do all this through Him who gives me strength.

So, what Paul is teaching is that the power of Christ is the means by which he can trust and believe that God will provide enough for his needs; this faith frees him from some of the greatest temptations we face – greed, envy, bitterness, resentment; and what a great gift this is! But a promise that Jesus will help me live like Jesus is not going to dunk that ball…or fix my schedule, either. So what passage (remember, never read just a verse!) should Friend be holding out to me in my time of need? Here’s one from Colossians 3 that really helped me learn how to prioritize my time and commitments. I would love to hear what others have to say, so post yours in the comments below, I promise to respond to every one!

23 Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, 24 since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.

When I weigh the various opportunities and obligations before me in light of how they serve the Kingdom, it gets much easier to say Yes, or No, as required to allow sufficient effort and attention to a few things, rather than a flurry of distracted activity that actually does very little, and costs the heart so much. This is an accurate, effective, and Christ-honoring use of Scripture, which is why we have it in the first place; I am humbled and honored by the calling He has placed on me to help combat false doctrines and errant teachings, that He may be known as He knows us – in Spirit and in truth. I hope you, Dear Reader, find value in what I do here, and if so, please share what you learn with those around you – we all need a little more truth in our lives, and a little more Jesus, too.

Following hard after Him,

Nicky

I just had this thought rolling around in my head, and needed to share it so it will let me sleep tonight – thanks for reading!

When someone hurts us, it is our natural instinct to cry out for Justice – We have been wronged, and a price must be paid. (This is the essence of God’s case against humanity – He has been wronged, grieved, injured by our sin, and His justice demands propitiation.)

The difference between vengeance and grace is in what we are willing to accept as payment: Vengeance says, “I have suffered,  so you must suffer as I have;”  while Grace says instead, “I have suffered, and I do not wish another to suffer like that. I will therefore give my pain to God, and accept His peace instead.”

– Nick Ortega

You say, “If I had a little more, I should be very satisfied.” You make a mistake. If you are not content with what you have, you would not be satisfied if it were doubled.

– Charles Spurgeon

A good workman can accept the reward of his labor with assurance, but one who is idle and shiftless cannot look his employer in the face. That is why we must devote ourselves heart and soul to the task of well-doing, for everything comes from the hand of God and He has already warned us,“See, the Lord is approaching, and His reward before Him, to pay every man as his work deserves.”

– Clement, 4th bishop of Rome, 90-100 AD

1st Epistle to the Corinthians, Ch.34

I’ve been reading a lot of early Church writings lately, because I have this crazy idea that maybe they understood what Jesus intended His disciples to be doing with their lives, and why, with more clarity than we tend to display today. (Of course, that idea is not original to me; I am indebted to my friend and spiritual director, Phil, for handing me Pagan Christianity to challenge me, and then Justin Martyr to convince me, that we have gone a really long way down a side path, and making it really hard to hear our Shepherd’s voice.) Every so often I get another confirmation that I am on a more fruitful track now, and I wanted to share this one with anyone out there who ever wonders why we do what we do – don’t be afraid to ask questions! There may be very good reasons why, but you should know what they are, not just take things for granted.

OK, not starting a rant, just sharing a thought. What do you think about the way the early Christians lived out their faith? Is there a valid criticism of “modern” practices implied or expressed by the words of these men who followed so very closely to our Lord, not least in time? I would like to hear your opinions.

“Jesus promised His disciples three things—that they would be completely fearless, absurdly happy, and in constant trouble.”

-G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy

This one makes me smile – I am reminded of Jesus’ letter to the church at Smyrna, where He tells them (please excuse my paraphrase)  “I know you’ve had a hard time, but you have this to look forward to – it’s gonna get worse!”

I love a good running gag in a movie – a particular scene, prop, gesture, or phrase that occurs again and again, with a better laugh every time it comes. Many will recognize the line above from “The Princess Bride”, one of my favorite movies of all time, yet I find it oddly appropriate for so much of the rest of my life. (My wife and I seriously considered adding that  line into our renewal vows earlier this year – with the closer, “…but I’m gonna hold you to it anyway!” We were out-voted by our kids.)

Strangely, this line has become a running gag in real life, as Karen goes through chemo, and people try to comfort and reassure us that everything will be OK (in between telling stories about every person they ever heard of who had cancer…and was miserable all through treatment…and died anyway). They often quote scriptures meant to inspire, but…here’s the rub: I write and teach specifically about reading the whole of what the bible teaches, and not selecting only that which supports whatever point you want to make. Most people who do this are not malicious in their intent; they are simply passing on something they learned (wrongly) from someone else. If they think to check what they were told, the verse is usually quoted correctly, or “pretty close, I guess,”…and that’s as far as they go; they simply accept whatever interpretation someone tells them, if it makes them feel good; and hold on dearly to that “promise”. The problem is, “I don’t think that means what you think it does” applies most of the time.  Here’s one example I see a lot: someone in a small group will share with about some disappointment or new difficulty that has arisen, and they don’t know exactly what to do yet. Inevitably, someone will rush to tell them,”I know it’s hard right now, but remember Genesis 50:20 : “What the devil means for evil, God uses for good.” So have faith that God will turn this around and make it all work out good for you.” And once again I fight down the urge to “shot-block” that prayer right back at them. (h/t to  Jon Acuff for that awesome phrase!) So, how does “I don’t think…” apply here? Let’s look at the context surrounding the verse, and see if the popular interpretation holds up.

In the bible , we read in Genesis the story of Joseph, hated by his brothers, sold into slavery, his death faked to hide the crime. God brings Joseph into Pharaoh’s house, and blesses him for his faithfulness (even while imprisoned on false charges of attempted rape), eventually making him Vice-Pharaoh of all Egypt. So it is Joseph who the poor, starving sons of Israel must come to, begging to purchase enough grain to survive the famine which has struck the land. Initially concealing his identity from his brothers, he at last breaks down in joy at the reunion. Their surprise turns to fear when they realize they are face-to-face with the man they tried to kill – and he has ALL the power now.  He forgives them, explaining that by what he understands the bigger picture to be, summed up in the referenced verse:

“You intended to harm me, but God intended it all for good. He brought me to this position so I could save the lives of many people.” (Gen 50:20 NLT)

So, how does our friend’s proffered reassurance match up to the real verse? First, it is misquoted: Joseph says his brothers’ intent against him was evil; he does not attribute this to Satan, but allows them to be responsible for their own actions, just as God allows us to be responsible for our sin – we do not need forgiveness for things we are not responsible for, do we? Second, the blessing is misplaced: it is not Joseph that God is concerned with doing good for…reading the rest of the verse shows it is the people whose lives were saved by placing Joseph in a position of authority, and guiding him in wise decisions by prophetic dreams and interpretations of dreams. Any good that befalls Joseph along the way is entirely collateral to the purpose of God’s plan. To be sure, this is an encouragement to the believer: when the circumstances of life go against us, we have the assurance that God is aware of our suffering, and will sustain us through hardships, because we serve a part in His plan. But it is most certainly NOT a guarantee that “things will turn around, you’ll see” . They might, they might not; but getting this wrong…promising someone the wrong thing…is a faith-killing trap for anyone “going through it”, waiting for their “good” to happen… and getting discouraged when it doesn’t turn around. For me and Karen, life is not “turning around”; if anything it is gaining speed and momentum as it careens downhill. (Sorry, feeling kind of tired and cranky tonight, but I’m not going to edit out an honest thought!) We have been blessed by God, and sustained through this time of trial…but the good is being done on behalf of others – those who are encouraged that they also can be sustained, can endure whatever is happening to them, for the same reason…because God has a purpose for them and He will take care of hem along the way. That is the true promise of Gen 50:20 – that people and things will try to hurt me, and often succeed; but God is in control, and as long as I trust in Him, it will be OK in the end – as He defines OK; maybe not as I define it, but as I should define it, and as I am learning to define it.

I cringe when I hear or see this kind of lazy, false teaching being propagated. It’s the biggest reason I started writing again – to try to help people learn to read and understand the bible the way it was always meant to be: for what it really says as a whole, not sliced and diced into pleasant little sound-bites. I will probably not reach the world, and some people will never be convinced; but if even one person learns something from what I write, it was all worth it…and now we are two, and may reach one or two more; and so on, and so on, and so on…I did not intend this to be a manifesto, and it does not encompass enough to suffice for one, but it’s a start. We will visit this again.

Following hard after Him,

Last weekend, I was privileged to teach  the second part of a seminar on the Spiritual Disciplines. Doing the research in preparation for presenting this material has been a humbling and eye-opening experience, and has led to a greater understanding of the connection between faith and action…between merely believing in something, and living based on that belief.

Then I pick up a copy of C.S. Lewis “The Screwtape Letters”, and here is the same truth, expressed much more elegantly than I ever said it – once again, I will let the master have his last words, as Uncle Screwtape reminds his nephew Wormwood to keep his “subject” distracted and busy with unworthy things:

“…for they constantly forget what you must always remember – that they are animals, and that whatever their bodies do affects their souls.” (emphasis added)