Intelligent Fools

The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.”
    They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds;
    there is none who does good.

Psalm 14:1 (ESV)

Only fools say in their hearts, “There is no God.”
They are corrupt, and their actions are evil;
not one of them does good!

Psalm 53:1 (NLT)
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One thing that seems to surprise many intellectuals is the discovery that other intellectuals are Christians! There is a certain class of thinkers who believe that only ignorant people “need” to believe in God. Many of them posit that the concept of “god” is outdated and primitive, steeped in superstition, and unnecessary for anyone. Others claim that any belief in a supreme deity, a Sovereign God who has authority over all humankind, and all of nature, is actually dangerous

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If God could be discovered by intellect alone, this might be disturbing for those of us who are not certified “geniuses.” If mere knowledge about God could save us, we could trust intellectuals to be our “saviors” and spiritual guides. But just because someone is intelligent and learned doesn’t mean that they have attained wisdom. Wisdom is a gift of God, and it begins with acknowledging a simple fact– God exists. This does not come automatically with knowledge about God–such knowledge can be dismissed, twisted, and even lost. If God exists– not just as a concept or a long-lost myth–certain other truths must be acknowledged. Chief among these is the truth that I am NOT God.

Fools come in all shapes, sizes, colors, and intellects. There are people of limited intellectual capacity who are very wise. There are intelligent people who live as fools. Foolishness comes when we deny God– whether we deny His very existence, or His authority over our lives– and live as though we are the supreme authority in our own lives.

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“The Fool says in his HEART, ‘There is no God.'” Foolishness doesn’t begin in the brain. It begins in the heart. The more I believe that I KNOW better than others–including God–the less I will listen to instruction, advice, and wisdom. The more I will do what I want– and justify it, even if others get hurt. The Apostle Paul–no intellectual slouch himself– warns us in 1 Corinthians 8:1 that “Knowledge puffs up..” Not all intellectuals are snobs, but it is easy to become hardened to others if they believe they know more or better than everyone they meet. And Paul’s warning is to believers! Just because we believe that God exists, we can be foolishly puffed up by our very knowledge of scripture, and ignore God’s sovereign call to love our neighbors! We can be foolish “Christians” who acknowledge that Christ exists, but deny His Lordship in our lives.

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There are many intelligent Atheists. Some of them lead moral lives, and do many things that we might see as “good.” They give to charities, advocate for healthful living, a clean environment, and world peace. So why does the Bible use such strong language to denounce them as fools, who are corrupt and even abominable? Doesn’t God see their good works? Doesn’t God give them “credit” for doing the “right” things (sometimes more than their Christian neighbors!)?

God sees us from a different perspective– He looks on the heart. The heart of someone who denies God is the heart of someone in rebellion. It may be a quiet rebellion; it may be vocal and even violent. But once a person denies the very one who created her/him, their heart is corrupted and opposed to giving God His proper place. Even “good” deeds done in defiance of the God of all goodness will become twisted by the selfishness and pride of the doers. The smartest among us may have many great ideas for achieving world peace, but they do not have the power to control all of humanity, nor the authority to force others to accept their “brilliant” ideas. In the end, they will either face disillusionment and despair, or they will become tyrannical in their efforts to “fix” the world’s problems according to their own plans.

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God asks us, first and foremost, to trust Him. Second, we are to obey Him. Third, we are to live with, and love, others– to share the love and wisdom He gives! Fools may know about God, but they stop short of trusting Him, obeying Him, and learning to serve others. They deny His wisdom; they deny His Grace, and their need for it. They deny themselves the joy of relationship with the God of Love. There is nothing wrong with learning and intelligence– they, too, are gifts from God–but when we depend on them ahead of leaning on God’s wisdom, we become fools.

Father, I don’t want to be a fool. Help me to acknowledge You in everything I say and do. Help me to recognize Your wisdom, and cling to it. And help me to appreciate the wisdom of Your Word in guiding my intellect and learning.

Blessed Are Those Who Mourn

I’ve been exploring the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:1-12) and how I think they relate to prayer. Today, I want to look at the second one: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (v. 4).

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I know a lot of people who are mourning. I know people who have lost loved ones to COVID, to suicide, to cancer, etc. I know those who are mourning the loss of a job or a house. I know those who are mourning the loss of health– either their own or that of a loved one. And I have been a mourner. I know those moments when the grief hits unexpectedly– a song comes on the radio, or a certain photo pops up in my Facebook memories; even the smell of freshly cut grass or the taste of popcorn can remind me of loved ones lost, and bring a tear to my eye.

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I also know the mourning that comes from regret– the painful consequences of ill-chosen words or reckless actions– even missed opportunities. Mourning is painful. It is uncomfortable. The world around us is made uncomfortable by our mourning. People spend billions of dollars and spend countless hours trying to avoid mourning; trying to deny, placate, drown, or forget their grief and sadness. We take pills, we binge watch entertaining programs, we run away, we distract, we seek to mask our feelings, suppress them, or eradicate them.

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Jesus calls on us to mourn. He wants us to bring all the ugliness of our grief and shame and give it to Him. He will not ask us to cover it up, or hide from it, or “get rid of it.” He will not tell us to “get over it” or “put it behind us.” Instead, He will comfort us. That doesn’t mean we will never again feel grief or shame or sadness in this life. But our mourning will be transformed into Joy. Joy is not the absence of, nor a denial of grief. It is the triumph of life over death; of hope over despair; of purpose over futility. We are not commanded to be “shiny, happy” problem-free people. Nor are we to let mourning and grief overwhelm us or turn us sour and despondent. Instead, we are to share our grief– and to share in the grief of others–just as we can then share in the comfort we have found!

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In the same way that the “poor in spirit” can embrace all the riches and glory of the Kingdom of Heaven, those who mourn can receive from God the kind of Peace that “passes all understanding” (Philippians 4:7), and the joy the “comes in the morning” (Psalm 30:5) God does not want us to be forever depressed or wallow in our despair–but He also does not want us to pretend that we are invincible, or untouched by sorrow. Jesus wept. Jesus felt sadness and frustration during His earthly ministry. He was tired, He was misunderstood, He was betrayed. He suffered losses. And He grieved over broken relationships and the horrible consequences of Sin in the lives of those around Him.

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Those who do NOT mourn– who do not feel sorrow or regret or loss– will never know the healing power of God’s consuming comfort. They will never know the full measure of Grace. They will never cry out for it, never be surprised by the light in the darkness, never feel the joy of being held and cradled by compassion. And they miss out on the true Joy that comes from being comforted and being able to comfort others.

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So the question I have to ask myself today is– what have I mourned lately? When was the last time I collapsed under the weight of my own grief or shame, only to find myself upheld and wrapped in the arms of the Lover of my Soul? When was the last time I extended comfort to someone else by mourning with them?

Do You Love Me?

15 When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?”
“Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.”
16 Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”
He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.”
17 The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”
Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” 
He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Feed my sheep. 18 Very truly I tell you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” 19 Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then he said to him, “Follow me!”

John 21:15-19 (NIV)
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Today is Valentine’s Day, and many people will be saying, “I love you,” or asking, “Do you love me?” And many others will reply, “Yes, I love you,” or “I love you, too!” Cards and gifts may be exchanged; some couples will dine out or have romantic candlelit dinners at home. It is a day to celebrate love. There are thousands of poems and songs about love– ooey, gooey, gushy love; unrequited love; first love; true and lasting love; even “puppy” love.

But Valentine’s Day can also be a painful reminder– of lost love, betrayal, and loneliness. The story of Peter’s betrayal and reinstatement is not a “Valentine” story of romantic love, but it carries some lessons for today about love in general, and the Love of Christ in particular.

  • Love is a choice– freely given and freely accepted (apologies to Elvis Presley and others who have sung about not being able to help falling in love…) When Jesus first called Peter (and in the above passage as well) He simply asked Peter to “Follow me.” He made no demands, offered no bribes, used no intimidation. There is no long list of requirements or expectations; no bargaining; no “quid pro quo.” That said, Love is not a light-hearted or whimsical thing. Peter’s choice to love Christ, and to follow him cost him his life. Christ’s choice to love us led Him to humble Himself to death, even death on the cross (Philippians 2:8). Jesus could have escaped this fate several times over– He CHOSE to die for each of us!
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  • Love is more than just a feeling. “Follow me” demands an action and a commitment. There are many today who “love” the idea of Jesus; they love the parables, or the gospel story; they are in love with “love.” But the idea that “Love” is all you need (apologies to the Beatles) misses the mark. Feelings change; feelings are transitory and often dependent on circumstances. Love chooses to follow– even when the going gets rough; even when it is not convenient, even when it involves sacrifice.
  • Loving someone involves taking the risk of being hurt, denied, or betrayed. There is no Biblical passage describing the amount of hurt Jesus must have felt when Peter denied Him three times, or when Judas betrayed Him. The Biblical account tells us that Jesus already knew and predicted these two events, but how agonizing–every bit as painful as the nails in His hands and feet! Jesus loved those who spit at Him, abandoned Him, condemned Him, and persecuted Him. And we also see Peter in this passage being hurt at Jesus’ questioning him a third time; Peter was shocked and hurt when Jesus predicted his denial, and when Jesus said to him, “Get behind me, Satan.”(Matthew 16:23) Love is never free from risk– especially the imperfect love we have as humans.
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  • Love leads to restoration and forgiveness. Peter’s denial of Christ could have haunted him for the rest of his life. Had Jesus said nothing; done nothing to address this hurt, it would not have changed the fact that Peter was forgiven. But in publicly restoring Peter, Jesus made it clear that it was “all good” between them– Peter wasn’t just conditionally forgiven, he was completely restored!
  • Love is stronger than death! It is stronger than sin, or betrayal, denial, or hurt. Love is eternal and limitless, everlasting, and enduring. God IS Love and to know God is to know love. To speak to God and to hear His voice and read His Word is to converse with Love. Whether in the presence of saints on a mountaintop, in the midst of a raging storm, or on a quiet beach– Love is closer than our next breath, and more powerful than our deepest fear. Love never fails (1 Corinthians 13: 8)

And that’s a love worth endless celebration!

Could You Repeat That?

“Peter, do you love me?” Three times asked. Three times answered. (See John 21) Once for each time Peter had denied his Lord. You’d think the lesson had been learned. But when Peter had a vision filled with food that he refused to eat, it took another three times before he got the message.(Acts 10) We could say that Peter was consistently stubborn. But maybe Peter is not so different from us.

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Fear not. Do NOT be afraid. Be strong and courageous. The Bible is filled with such messages. Over and over, God’s people need reminders to look beyond fear and find faith. Go and preach the Gospel. Go out into all the world. Go make disciples. Love one another. Love your neighbor. Love your enemies. Pray without ceasing. Run the race. Don’t give up. Ask. Seek. Knock.

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God is not annoyed or afraid of repetition. He uses it when speaking patiently to us. He welcomes it from us in prayer. Sometimes, I feel like I’m “nagging” God about certain things. After all, He already knows my needs, so why am I bringing the same request for the 19th time this month? Except God not only knows about my need, He knows my tendency to get discouraged and distracted. God doesn’t need to hear my request again, but He wants to hear me ask. More than that, He wants to hear me ask with confidence, knowing that He HAS heard and WILL provide– in ways and times I cannot know.

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God hears. God knows. God cares. It’s worth repeating! It’s worth asking– again!

Stop, Drop, and Pray!

Does it ever feel like you spend your days “putting out fires?” Taking care of little problems before they become bigger problems? Never getting a chance to rest or relax before the next crisis hits? Trying to put out a fire that keeps getting out of hand?

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Fires can become very dangerous very quickly. Experts advise that we shouldn’t try to stay and fight a fire for which we are not equipped–it puts you and others at far greater risk. There is a simple phrase that can help people survive and escape a house or building fire: Stop. Drop. And Roll. A similar phrase can be helpful in facing the spiritual and emotional “fires” we face: Stop. Drop. And Pray!

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  • Stop! Often when we face trials, our first reaction is to rush in and try to “save” things– ourselves, our loved ones, our possessions, our pride…the list goes on. This is a natural reaction, but not always the wisest course. In the initial panic, we are likely to make poor judgments, and miss warning signs. With the best of intentions, we can make situations worse: maybe we don’t have the skills, the equipment, the authority, or the knowledge to offer salvation or safety. That doesn’t mean that we must walk away from danger, or fail to offer help when we are able to do so. But it means that we must remember that Salvation and Wisdom come from God.
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  • Drop. Fire is an obvious danger, but smoke is a silent killer. We can see fire; we can feel the heat of it. But the smoke can immobilize us long before the flames reach us. Spiritually, we may be able to see obvious sins in others, but ignore the smoke of compromise and apathy in the air all around us. Smoke rises– just like pride, and arrogance, and denial. We need to be “on our knees” –lowly and humble– if we want to keep from getting choked and suffocated.
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  • Pray! Pray with a heart to listen for good advice and obey. Sometimes, we need to stay still and wait; sometimes we need to flee! Sometimes we need to get involved; sometimes we need to walk away. We don’t need to know the next seven or eight steps, however. We need to do the next right thing– even if it seems insignificant in the face of the threat. What we can see is not always where the danger is greatest, nor where the help is most available.
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  • Finally– Don’t wait until you are in danger to practice these steps or prepare for what may lie ahead. There is a popular but unbiblical phrase: “God helps those who help themselves.” But this is NOT what God says! God says that He will help those who humble themselves (Luke 14:11; James 4:10); those who seek Him (Psalm24:6; Amos 5:4); and those who believe (Mark 9:23; John 20:29).

The Truth Hurts

“I have told you all this so that you may have peace in me. Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows. But take heart, because I have overcome the world.” John 16:33

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=John+16%3A33&version=NLT

One of my favorite movies is “The Princess Bride.” The title character begins the story as a young, beautiful, wealthy, and spoiled young woman. She falls in love with the young farm boy who works for her father. The young man leaves to make his fortune, but word comes that he has been captured and killed by pirates. In utter despair, the young woman allows herself to become engaged to a spoiled and wicked prince. She has allowed her grief to consume her, and she cares nothing for the prince, his wealth or power, or even her own future. Before she can be married to the prince, she is kidnapped by villains, and “rescued” by a mysterious pirate. Instead of being grateful, she curses the pirate, telling him that he could never understand her great loss and pain. His answer, harsh, glib, but to the point, is to say that “life is pain, Princess. Anyone who tells you differently is selling something.”

There are certain truths in life that we would avoid if we could– death, pain, sorrow, grief, suffering, and Sin–we don’t want to hear the harsh reality of our situation. We don’t want to suffer or hurt at all; much less to discover that our suffering is commonplace or universal. Everyone will taste death; everyone will face pain and grief and suffering in this life. Everyone will suffer as a result of Sin– our individual actions have consequences, as do the cumulative actions of our culture, our ancestors, and the entire human race. This is a harsh truth, but it IS the truth.

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There are four common techniques we tend to use to avoid facing harsh truths– denial or avoidance, anger, bargaining, and depression or despair. Many people know these terms from the Kubler-Ross studies on patients with terminal illnesses and the five “stages” she identified as they came to terms with their impending death. https://psychcentral.com/lib/the-5-stages-of-loss-and-grief/ The fifth “stage” was acceptance. The five stages have been applied commonly to other forms of grieving and loss, including the loss of a loved one or the break-up of a marriage. While most of us go through some or all of these stages when we face suffering, we don’t all go through them the same way or even in the same order.

Many of us live in avoidance and denial– rushing headlong into meaningless pleasure, self-medicating with alcohol or drugs, staying busy with the pursuit of wealth or power. Others wrap themselves in anger– blaming everyone else for their pain, seeking revenge, driving away those who want to help. Still others try to bargain– seeking to avoid death by trying every new diet or fitness routine, or trying to be righteous enough to earn a supernatural blessing or “good karma.” And many wallow in depression and despair, lost in the swamp and mist, sinking into a pit of their own feelings.

These reactions are normal and human. Harsh truths hurt– they shock us, overwhelm us, shatter our trust, even shake our faith. But they ARE true. What is also true is that God has not left us without resources, even for the harshest realities we face. Even when we are in despair, or angry, or in denial, God can give us peace and strength to go on.

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God isn’t “selling something” to make the pain go away or make our life “trouble-proof.”  Jesus never offered a comfortable life to His followers. In fact, He promised that our lives would be filled with trouble and pain and sorrow!  Christians who claim that they never face fear, or failure, fury or frustration, loss and sorrow– they are “selling” a false gospel.  Jesus faced and conquered death on a cross! He could have avoided it– He could have been angry at those who betrayed Him–He could have stayed buried in despair and failure.  But He arose! We don’t worship someone who has never wept, or faced betrayal or loss. Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life (John 14:6)– if anyone knows the harsh truth, it is the one who IS Truth!  And this Truth hurts– He hurts to see us grieving; He hurts when we reject Him to go our own way; He hurts even as He allows us to hurt.

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Faith, prayer, worship, promises– these are not God’s way of helping us escape the reality of harsh truths.  They are His tools for helping us to overcome and be victorious in the face of trials and setbacks, grief and pain, even death!  As Princess Buttercup discovers in “The Princess Bride”– “Death cannot stop true love!” And it cannot stop the Truth that IS Love!

Broken Prayers

In “Pursuing Prayer”, I want to explore ways to develop my prayers; to become “better” at praying– more confident, more Christlike.  But along the way, I have found that “better” doesn’t always mean what I think it ought to mean.  Sometimes, becoming “better” requires becoming broken.

food healthy yellow broken
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I don’t like being broken.  I don’t want to be shattered, ruined, like a broken vase.  I don’t want to pray like a broken record– sending up the same failures, the same weaknesses, the same painful memories.  I don’t want to be pinched, and cracked, and mangled.  I don’t want to be stretched and molded and squeezed.  I want to have comforting chats with God, not drawn-out confessions, or rebukes, or unanswered questions.

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It is tempting to avoid brokenness–cover it up, pretend, deny, ignore its existence.  I don’t want to bring God my questions, my fears, my hurts.  I don’t want to open up the dark places of my soul.  I want to wear a smile and make small talk with God–“How are you today?”  “Just lovely, Father, and how are you?”  “Fine weather we’re having.”  “Yes, thank you for the breezes yesterday.  And could I just put in a plug for my neighbor’s gall bladder surgery?  I told her I would pray for her, so could you just give her a speedy healing?  That’d be great.  Well, gotta run. Talk to you soon…Oh, and I’m sorry for the way I blew up at the kids the other day.  I don’t know WHAT got into me.  You know I’m just not that way, right?  So I’m just asking for grace to kinda cover that up and make it ok again.  Thanks.”

blur broken ceramic clay
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God is not fooled.  God is not impressed or amused at our shallow righteousness.  He’s not impressed or overcome by our brokenness, either.  But He wants it, anyway.  He wants all of it.  Because He wants to build honesty, intimacy, and most of all, restoration.  God doesn’t want us to wallow in our failures, any more than He wants us to gloat in our false perfection.  He wants to break the bondage they have over us.  He doesn’t get tired of hearing our voices, even in guilt or shame, rage or despair…if they are raised to Him.  He doesn’t want us to stay shattered and ruined.  But He needs us to be redirected, refreshed, rebuilt, rekindled, and renewed.

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There are many things that need to be “broken” to become better– we “break” in shoes, we “break” ground to create a new field or prepare for a new building.  We “break bread” to eat it and share it with others.  We “break” horses in order to prepare them to run or work more effectively.  We “break” bad habits.  We even “break” the ice in a new friendship.  The point is not to stay broken, but to “break through” whatever is keeping us oppressed and held down.

petaled flower drawing on white egg shell
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When I am feeling broken, and I cry out to God, He doesn’t deny my brokenness; He doesn’t turn away in disgust; He doesn’t stick a hasty bandage on my wounds.  God acknowledges my pain, He listens to my questions.  He loves me enough to come and stay with me through the worst moments–even when others have gone; even when I deny His presence and turn my face to the wall–and He begins the process of turning even those scars and cracks and tears into treasures.

Brokenness is inevitable in our fallen and broken world– God is not out to break us; people and time, circumstances, and even our own good intentions will cause us to fall and fail–am I willing to uncover my brokenness and need, and allow God to reshape my shattered dreams?

yellow and pink flowers view behind broken glass
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