The Righteous Will Live By Faith

“Look at the proud! They trust in themselves, and their lives are crooked, but the righteous will live by their faith.”

Habakkuk 2:4

Is it rational to believe in God? About three and a half centuries ago, the French philosopher, Blaise Pascal, drew up what is now known as “Pascal’s Wager.” In it, he gives a “rational” justification for belief in God (theism). In it, he posits that if God doesn’t exist, it doesn’t matter whether or not we believe that He does. But if God is real, the consequences of our belief or denial are crucial. If the God of the Bible exists (along with heaven and hell, sin and salvation), the failure to believe will lead us to lose everything; the decision to believe will lead us to gain everything…there is no in between.

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I’m not a big fan of Pascal’s Wager. Not because it’s bad logic, per se, but because it depends on belief, but not faith.

What’s the difference? Belief says that God exists–that He is supreme, that He controls our destiny, and that He must be obeyed. It will produce a life of theistic obedience to God’s Law, including a life of “good” works, moral conduct, and “right” thinking. But it will not produce a Godly character. It will not be a life of righteousness.

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Faith, on the other hand, believes that God not only exists, but that He rewards those who earnestly seek Him (Hebrews 11:6) and that He so loved the world, that He gave His only Son (John 3:16) to save us from Sin and Death (1 Corinthians 15:56-7). It is not our belief in God’s existence that saves us and gives us life; rather it is Faith by His Grace! (Ephesians 2:8-9) in the nature and character of God– in the atoning work of Jesus as revelation and proof of His character– that saves us from Sin and Death.

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Pascal’s Wager is a way of thinking about God. It can lead someone to believe, which can produce a life of Faith. But it can also produce a kind of life that is ruled by grudging obedience, resentment, and pride in one’s own powers of self-control and understanding. Faith lives in dependence and humility, and joyous gratitude for God’s gifts.

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The prophet Habakkuk, who first wrote the phrase, “the righteous will live by faith,” learned this lesson in dramatic fashion. He “believed” in God– in His righteousness and justice. He spoke to God about the wickedness he saw all around him, among his own people. God gave him a difficult answer: Justice was coming in the form of an invasion by the Babylonians– a group known for their wickedness and cruelty and lack of justice! God’s answer was shocking and counter-intuitive. But Habakkuk chose to believe in God’s Eternal Character, as God revealed the “rest of the story.” Israel would suffer; justice would be cruel–but God’s glory and His salvation would triumph. Habakkuk’s response was a song of praise and faith. Regardless of his circumstances, Habakkuk would wait and rejoice, knowing that God’s ways are perfect.

It’s not difficult to say we believe in God. But are we living in Faith? I find it easy to let circumstances–especially injustice and wickedness–overwhelm me and rob me of peace and joy. But I find it comforting to know that my momentary doubts cannot stop God’s promises, His Mercy, or His power to help me live by Faith. That’s due to His righteousness, not mine, but through Christ, I can trust in it, walk in it, and live in it!

Avoiding the Heat

We’ve been experiencing a heat wave. The temperatures are high, but the humidity makes it feel even hotter. People are doing whatever they can to avoid the heat– everything from driving around to stay in the air-conditioned car, wearing loose fitting clothes, wearing wide-brimmed hats for extra shade, drinking lots of cold water, or staying indoors with fans. Others have no alternative– they must walk in the heat, work in the heat, or try to find whatever shelter or shade is available, even if it offers only relief from the harshest rays of the sun.

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Today, we are getting rain– blessed relief– cool drops of water and lower temperatures, along with clouds to hide the sun’s piercing rays. Even so, the rain has come with wind and even some flooding and storm damage. So even our “relief” poses some danger. So there is limited relief from the heat, but once the rain front passes, the temperature may rise, and the humidity will once again make the air steamy and oppressive.

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Watching how people work and plan and worry about avoiding the heat of summer reminds me of how we work and plan and worry about avoiding another kind of “heat”– accountability and judgment. Hell is described as a “place of eternal torment”, a “lake of fire,” and a “blazing furnace.” People will do almost anything to avoid such a place. They try to pretend it doesn’t exist; they create “air-conditioned” philosophies and religions that block the reality of judgment and punishment; they worry and work and plot ways to escape their fate.

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Jesus clearly taught that Hell is real, and that it is a place of darkness, suffering, gnashing of teeth, and despair. Someday there will be a “heat wave,” as all those who have rejected God’s offer of forgiveness and His Sovereignty face His judgment and righteous wrath. There will be no rain to bring relief or refreshment; no shade or cooling breeze of grace– only the unbearable oppression of guilt, shame, and self-torment that comes from being outside of God’s loving care.

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There is a way to “avoid the heat” of God’s wrath– He offers complete restoration and eternal life for those who turn from sin and follow Him. Jesus, through His life, ministry, death, and resurrection, made it possible for us to live in God’s presence– His Light, His Glory, and His Love– in joyful eternity. We do not have to worry and work and plot how to “avoid the heat.” We need only put our trust in the one who sends the heat and wind and rain in their seasons, and whose Grace shades us from His wrath.

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Part of this trust is being able to call out to God in our times of “heat”– whether from guilt or oppression–and ask for His blessed relief. Sometimes, we need to call on His Grace and forgiveness. Sometimes, we need to call on His promises– not to remind Him, but to remind ourselves that our “heat” is temporary, and His relief is eternally effective. This week, our “relief” from the heat came in the form of rain storms. We might be tempted to complain about the manner of God’s response to our cries for help in the moment. But we must remember that the storms and the heat waves of this life are temporary– the fires of Hell, and the blessings of Heaven are eternal.

I Can Only Imagine…

I live in the Midwestern United States, in an area known for lots of lakes and streams, woods and forests, and fertile farmland. I don’t have to imagine the smell of pines, or the sound of frogs at night, or the sight of cornfields turning ripe in the summer heat. I don’t have to imagine frost on late autumn mornings, or ice and snow on tree branches in January. But I’m not as familiar with mountains, deserts or the ocean. I have visited such areas, but I have to remember the scent and sting of saltwater coming off the ocean, or the dry heat of the desert, or the thin air of the mountains.

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Thankfully, there are photographs, and videos that help refresh memories and capture some of the wonder of jungles and plateaus, waterfalls, tundra, and dunes. We live in an awesome world, and our Creator has filled it with beauty, grandeur, and majesty. Even more amazing, God has created solar systems, and galaxies beyond our ability to visit. We cannot experience such places “in person,” but we can see dazzling views through telescopes of stars and worlds millions of miles away.

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But there are places that are beyond our ability to view– even beyond our imagination.

Heaven is one of those places. We have limited descriptions of Heaven in the Bible– a place of joy and perfection; where God himself is the light and source of life. A place where there is no disease, no death, no sin, and no fear. Several people have tried to depict it, but there is really no way to picture it accurately. Some people imagine a place of boredom, filled with “saints” sitting around playing the harp through all eternity. Others imagine a place filled with all their loved ones– an eternal family reunion, with laughter and singing. But the Bible is clear– Heaven is where God lives and reigns–HE is the focal point of Glory and Dominion and Eternal Praise and Purpose.

Another place we cannot imagine accurately is Hell. Again, we have a few clues in the Bible, and many attempts to depict what Hell might be like– a place of eternal torment and regret, without the presence of God– without light, love, comfort, or hope. We don’t like to imagine going there. We don’t like to imagine anyone being there– not really. Even in anger, we should not want to waste all of eternity watching anyone else suffer the agonies of Hell, and we certainly don’t wish to have a “front row” seat!

The Bible doesn’t give us lengthy descriptions of either of these eternal destinations– and for a reason. We have a life to live here and now! While our eternal destination is of vital importance, it is not for us to spend precious time creating an imaginary set of expectations– pearly gates or fire and brimstone–in our minds. Rather, we are to concentrate on THIS life– THIS gift of God to use and enjoy for His glory.

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Sometimes, we get a small glimpse of eternity– a transcendent moment of such natural beauty that we are hyper-aware of God’s Sovereignty; or a horrific scene of destruction and Sin that makes us shudder and recoil. But the rest is better left to eternity as we pursue God in this life.

Laughing With the Sinners

There is a line in a song by Billy Joel (Only the Good Die Young) which reads, “I’d rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints. The sinners are much more fun.”

There is a myth about sin– that sin is fun and obedience is drudgery. Sinners laugh and live carefree, happy lives, while “saints” lead gloomy lives filled with tears, worry, and anguish. Heaven will be filled with sour-faced do-gooders playing harps, while Hell will be an eternal party.

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Nothing could be further from reality. While sin gives momentary pleasure and temporary laughter, it also leads to devastating pain and haunting regret. Broken families, lost relationships, stress, and guilt are just some of the consequences of sin. The idea that “I’m not hurting anybody– I’m just doing what makes me happy” is a false comfort.

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Similarly, while obedience may require us to make sacrifices or suffer momentarily, it also leads to great reward–discipline, wisdom, integrity, and a legacy of hope and help. The idea that “I’m missing out on the fun” is also a false one. “Saints” may cry, but often their tears are for the misfortunes of others!

Unfortunately, the common stereotype of sinners laughing while saints cry or, more often, sit in judgment, is based on observation. I have known some very sour Christians. They may not be crying, but they frequently make others around them cry! They nag, scold, wag their fingers, consign their neighbors and family members to Hell, and act as though they are too good for everyone else. When challenged about their negative attitude, sometimes they suggest that they are just “waiting for Heaven.” Others plead a genuine concern for others, and they worry that the laughter they hear now will turn to mourning in the future.

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But I have also known joyful Christians– laughing, singing, encouraging others, whistling while they work, even laughing in the face of suffering and persecution! They, too, are “waiting for Heaven.” But in the meantime, they are celebrating their new and abundant life in Christ. Their attitude and actions attract others, and reflect the love, joy, peace, and hope that transcends the mere “happiness” of a moment’s sinful pleasure.

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The Bible says much about the value of both laughter and tears; of joyous celebration and sober reflection. In the end, ALL of us are “sinners”–no one is righteous on her/his own. Jesus, when He walked the earth and interacted with people, wept and celebrated with them. The Pharisees reprimanded Jesus and His disciples for their “feasting” and spending time with prostitutes and tax collectors. And yet, Jesus had harsh words about sin and Hell, and often spent time alone and in anguish of heart.

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The crying of saints is not, in itself, of any more value than the laughter of sinners. But laughter and happiness in the moment cannot save us from the sting of death or the yawning emptiness of an eternity without God. And that is no laughing matter! Unfortunately, the song is based on an empty myth. Death comes to all of us, young or old, “good” or “bad,” gloomy or exuberant in life. What makes the difference is not our laughter or tears, or even our efforts to obey or live “good” lives– what makes a difference is GRACE and FAITH. And I’d rather live with the redeemed than die with the defiant!

Who Do I Think I Am?

I was struck the other day by the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man (Luke 16: 19-31). I’ve heard sermons and talks and done Bible studies on this passage, and the focus is always on the rich man. In life, he did nothing to help the poor beggar who was literally on his doorstep. In death, he ends up in torment, and seeing Father Abraham with Lazarus in Heaven, he tries to strike a bargain with Abraham to ease his own tormented soul.

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But I was struck by several things I had never considered:

  • Jesus named Lazarus, but not the Rich Man. This is a parable– a metaphorical story– so Jesus did not need to have specific names for any of the characters. He often told such stories with no names. This one contains a specific person, Lazarus, and very specific details about his earthly life. He was not just a beggar, but a beggar covered with sores and starving. Jesus even related that the “dogs came and licked his sores” (v.21). And Jesus makes it clear that the rich man recognized and knew Lazarus by name. Yet he had done nothing to help Lazarus when he had the chance. We never hear in the story whether or not Lazarus was ever cured or helped; we don’t know if he had been a wealthy or prominent man at one time, of if he had always been a diseased beggar. The point is that Jesus, and Abraham, and the rich man all KNEW Lazarus. He mattered enough to call by name. The Rich Man in this story also had a name. He probably was well-known in the town or city where the story took place. And we know that he had five brothers who were likely well-known and highly respected. But NONE of them are named in the story. Only Lazarus.
  • The Rich Man looks up into Heaven. He can see and recognize Lazarus and Father Abraham. But he never looks for, sees, talks to, or wonders about the Heavenly Father. He never asks for comfort from God– he doesn’t even ask a favor of the Patriarch– he only considers that someone like Lazarus should be made to help him and/or his brothers.
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  • Abraham explains that Lazarus cannot and will not be allowed to do as the Rich Man requests– but the parable does not tell us that Lazarus can either see the Rich Man or hear his requests, nor does it say that Lazarus is unwilling to help.
  • Jesus tells this story in a straightforward manner, even though it is a Parable and has hidden meanings. The Rich Man wants help in his hour of torment, even though he was unwilling to help others in their need. But he isn’t without feeling or pity– he loves his brothers enough to try to warn them. Jesus could have used this parable to say much more about Social Justice, and the plight of the poor and the wealthy. He could have said much more about greed or apathy. He could have pressed the point about loving one’s neighbor. He did NOT make some of the connections we add to this story. We often assume that the Rich Man is in hell only because he did not help Lazarus during his lifetime, and that Lazarus is in Heaven solely because he was oppressed and afflicted in life. But is that really what Jesus says?
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What struck me the most about this story is that I always look at it as an outsider. I don’t relate with either of these characters. Of course I don’t want to think that I am cold and selfish like the Rich Man in this story, but neither do I think I am Lazarus. So who do I think I am when I read this parable? Do I pat myself on the back for sending a check to a charity a couple of times a year, or speaking up for the poor or marginalized in my community? Do I indignantly point out all the “others” who are not doing their part to help? Do I see myself, not as a poor diseased beggar, but as someone who has been “oppressed” by nameless, faceless rich people– someone who deserves to be rescued and comforted while “they” suffer through eternity?

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I don’t have any answers as to how I “should” see myself (or others) in this parable. But I think Jesus wants us to grapple with some of the realities it presents:

  • Our world is filled with situations like that of Lazarus and the Rich Man–situations of injustice, struggle, disease, poverty, inequality, suffering, and luxury. And while it is clear that we should do what we can to help others, and to bring justice and mercy, and to reach out and connect with our neighbors in love, it is also clear that such situations are not for us to make blanket judgments. I know many who see poverty as a judgment– those who are poor are lazy or unworthy. And I know others who see luxury and wealth as a judgment–those who are wealthy are greedy and selfish and unworthy. God will not judge us by our circumstances or the injustices done against us. He WILL judge us by our response to Him– when we look toward Heaven, do we see Him, or do we see the place we think we deserve to be?
  • Our ultimate situation has very little to do with our earthly circumstances. Are we sick, poor, suffering, grieving, or in pain? God is aware, and He offers eternal comfort. We can endure and hope because we know that this is not all there is to life. Are we blessed with comfort and ease right now? We should not take our circumstances for granted, but be willing to share in our abundance, knowing that our future is sure, and that God will care for our needs as we care for others. But wealth or poverty, status or shameful circumstances, do not predict our eternal destiny.
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  • God sees us! He sees our circumstances, and He cares! He sees our heart and our motives. He knows our every thought.
  • We need to look with God’s eyes. The Rich Man in this story thought he was important– in life and even in the afterlife. He thought Lazarus was worthy only to serve him or stay out of his way as he enjoyed life’s luxuries. But he also thought he was more important than Heaven! Sitting in eternal torment, he was not humbled or repentant– he was still trying to see the world through his own self-importance. Lazarus may have spent his life thinking that he was NOT important– a beggar, alone, forgotten, and unwanted. But God knew his name and saw his suffering. Lazarus could have been bitter, cursing God for his circumstances, or spending his days trying to steal or take revenge on the Rich Man.
  • I need to look with God’s eyes, not only at who I am in relation to God and others, but at OTHERS in relation to God and to me. I may see someone like the Rich Man– selfish, pompous, self-important– and dismiss them as unlovable and unworthy of mercy or grace. But God sees someone He created; someone who is needy and lost– someone He loves enough to die for. I may see someone like Lazarus–hurting and forgotten– and think they are a lost cause or fear that they will prove to be “undeserving” of my help. But God sees someone He created; someone He aches with; someone He loves enough to die for!

How Can You?!

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14 But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, 15 but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, 16 having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame.

1 Peter 3:14-16 (ESV) via biblegateway.com
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I was approached years ago by an angry non-believer, who asked me in disdainful tones how I could possibly believe in God, Jesus Christ, heaven and hell, and other Biblical tenets. At the time, I was taken aback by the vehemence and anger. I stammered an answer, heart-felt and, I hoped, theologically “correct”–I think I quoted scripture and gave a short version of my personal testimony. The other person was not impressed or convinced. I felt like I had failed. The other person sneered at my belief–and at God!

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I spent weeks going over in my mind what else I might have said. I came up with clever arguments, gripping counter-questions, self-deprecating “homey” zingers, I read books on apologetics, and studied the words of great thinkers…I would be ready next time. I would not be left looking or sounding naive and unprepared. I would have the tools to “win” the argument, and God would be proud of me.

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But in the years since, I have done more thinking (and reading, and praying!) And this past month, as I’ve been reading through the Old Testament prophets, I have found a new perspective. Prophets like Isaiah, Habakkuk, Amos, and Malachi spoke the very words of God to people around them. They spoke to ordinary people, and to the religious and political leaders of their day. And almost none of them listened! In fact, the prophets were hated, sneered at, smeared, imprisoned– some of them were even killed.

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These prophets were prepared. They were not being ambushed with “gotcha” questions, because they were the ones presenting and challenging people with the truth. The truths they spoke were often harsh and offensive. They were truths about coming judgment and destruction, followed by restoration and revival. There was nothing “welcoming” or attractive about their message. But the people remained stubborn, sinful, and unimpressed.

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We live in the post-Resurrection age. Our message contains warnings about judgment and destruction– but unlike the prophets of old, we have a message of immediate and eternal Hope and Salvation. We have centuries of prophecies that have been fulfilled; of testimonies to the power of a risen Christ and the Holy Spirit. Yet even Jesus warned us that “..in the world (you) will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33b ESV)

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We often feel that if we cannot “win over” those who challenge us–if we cannot prove to their satisfaction that we are “right” in our beliefs–that we have failed. Yet we have so many examples of faithful witnesses who suffered and died without seeing the results of their faithfulness. God does not ask us to “win” every battle in convincing and decisive fashion. That’s HIS job! What He does ask is that we should be prepared to give an answer– and that we do it with gentleness and respect.

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I don’t have to silence the critics. I don’t have to have “mic-drop” moments. I don’t have to “win” every debate. God calls me to be faithful, honest, and humble. My words may not change someone else’s mind. But my changed life and God-honoring attitude may plant a seed that someone else’s words and life, and the power of the Holy Spirit will cause to grow into faith– even if I never live to see it!

In answer to the question, “How can you believe?” The answer often lies, not only in what we say about our belief, but how we live it out!

“Piece” of Mind

I gave that fellow a piece of my mind! I let him know how wrong he was, how backward, how ill-informed. And he just wouldn’t see reason.
He had the nerve to call me hateful, judgmental, and “toxic!” Doesn’t he understand? He is selfish, rebellious, arrogant, and “lost.” I was just trying to give him a warning. If he doesn’t repent, he will end up in Hell. I was good enough to spend my valuable time trying to set him straight, and all I got for it was abuse! Well, you know what they say, “Hate the sin, love the sinner.” At least I tried.

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I gave that woman a piece of my mind! I let her know how judgmental and backward and hateful she is. Who is she to tell me what to think? She called me a sinner and told me I was going to Hell– and then she wants me to thank her for it?! She was completely unreasonable. Why would I want to spend time with someone like that? People like her are what’s wrong with this world. They talk about love, but only if you act and think exactly like them– what kind of “love” is that? What a hypocrite!

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Christ’s Example of Humility
So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, 2 complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mindDo nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Lights in the World
12 Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, 13 for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.
14 Do all things without grumbling or disputing, 15 that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, 16 holding fast to the word of life, so that in the day of Christ I may be proud that I did not run in vain or labor in vain. 17 Even if I am to be poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrificial offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with you all. 18 Likewise you also should be glad and rejoice with me.

Philippians 2:1-18 English Standard Version (ESV) (www.biblegateway.com) Emphasis added.
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Lord Jesus, help me to give others the “Peace” of Your mind today, rather than a “piece” of mine!

Holy Terror

All Hallow’s Eve, or Halloween, brings out the fearsome, garish, gory, scary, and macabre in many people.  Movies, costumes, and stories concentrate on death, mystery, nightmares, ghosts, and terror.

I am not a fan of horror in any of its forms.  I don’t like to be scared, startled, tricked, haunted, or frightened.  I don’t like seeing others being terrorized, tortured, or hurt.

So it is with great interest and some surprise to find that the Bible tells us to fear.  Of course, it also tells us NOT to fear– several times, in fact.  We are told that we need not fear the future (Matthew 6:34), struggles, battles, or long journeys (Joshua 1:9), shame or disgrace (Isaiah 54:4), terror, evil, and the “shadow of death” (Psalm 23:4),  actual death, angels or demons (Romans 8:38), or anyone at all (Psalm 27:1; Psalm 188:6).  But there is one fear the Bible does nothing to dispel.

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There is a Holy terror that comes from the recognition that God is Holy– and we are NOT.  There is a very real, very terrible chasm separating us from an eternally sinless and perfect God.  There is nothing we can do on this side of the chasm to close the gap– no way to escape the eternal. hopeless and horrific state of being separated from all that is good, and noble, and peaceful, and joyous.  In life, we get glimpses of glory–flashes of amazing grace at work in the world around us.  Even though we live in a fallen world, we do not live in a place rejected or abandoned by God.

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This should cause us to have a healthy “fear” of God– a soul-deep awe of His “Other-ness”, His Authority, and His Pre-eminence.  And it should give us a terror of remaining in separation from Him– especially as He offers the very restoration and renewal we can never achieve for ourselves.  And He offers it as a free gift to ANYONE who will receive it!

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Far from trying to “scare someone into Heaven,” sermons and admonitions about Hellfire and eternal damnation are meant as very real warnings with real and eternal consequences.  No horror on earth can compare with an existence devoid of all joy, peace, love, light, help, and hope–and filled with the knowledge of “all that might have been.”  Zombies, vampires, ghouls, and monsters can terrorize in the movies for an hour or two, or in books for a week or more, but what makes people willing to entertain such horrors is the latent hope that we will close the book cover, exit the theater, and wake up from the nightmares presented there.  The idea that Good will eventually triumph; that order, peace, and justice can be restored; that love conquers all, and “something” will survive, re-emerge, and carry on into the future.  All of these hopes are possible because God exists and is eternal.  When we reject God’s authority; His sovereign direction and His call to salvation, we reject all that comes with it.  While we live on His earth, we will still see the glimpses of glory– we can pretend that it is enough for now, or choose to settle for false “hope” of emptiness in death.  But we cannot escape the search for meaning and purpose that drives us to build and plan for a future we have never seen; nor can we know the peace that comes from looking forward and seeing more than darkness, doubt,  and destruction.

Promises, Promises…

God keeps His promises.  Not just small promises, not just some of them, or some of the time.  God Keeps His Promises!  Every single one.  Every single time.

In this world of failed promises, assumed promises, “campaign” promises, and broken promises, it is almost impossible to believe.  Surely there must be some promise that God has not fulfilled– some promise that he has taken back or “modified” somehow…

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Isn’t there?  There are people who claim to have examples– proof that God cannot be trusted.  They list tragedies that God allowed to happen, or dreams that did not come to fruition.  They list times they could not feel God’s presence, or understand His ways; times He seemed silent or harsh.  Didn’t God promise His unfailing presence?  Didn’t He promise peace and love and joy?

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Good questions–just what DID God promise?  To whom did He promise it?  When?  Were there some promises that were conditional, and, if so, what are the conditions?

  • God’s presence–Jesus said, “And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20 ESV)  There are numerous other passages where God says to Israel, or to one of Israel’s leaders, “I will never leave you or forsake you.”  The writer of Hebrews echoes this in chapter 13 of his letter as he seeks to encourage early Christians.  This is a solid promise, and one that we can trust.  But we won’t always “feel” God’s presence.  That’s one of the reasons for the promise– to give us an anchor for our faith when our feelings are confused.  God will be with us even (and often especially) when we feel alone, frightened, overwhelmed by our circumstances.  What makes the thought of Hell so frightening is that it falls outside of this promise– at the “end of the age”, there will be a time and place where God’s presence cannot be felt– God will not be there, nor will the essence of God be available.  No love, no peace, no light, no life, no joy, no hope.  Even those who utterly reject God in this life still have access to hopes and dreams, love and goodness, because God is still present in His creation.
  • God’s promises to Israel–God made hundreds of specific promises to the nation of Israel.  Some were made for specific circumstances and times.  Some were made to be eternal and never broken, canceled, revoked, or transferred.  Many promises (including those given through prophecies) were given to specific nations, including Israel/Judah/Judea as it existed at that time.  Others were given to a restored Israel– one that has not yet been completely restored.  Other promises were made to those who are the spiritual heirs of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob– regardless of their genetic heritage.  It is very easy to co-opt a promise that isn’t really ours to claim in the context of when or how it was given.

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  • “Circumstantial” or “Personal” promises– God fulfilled certain promises to individuals throughout the Bible.  These are recorded to remind us of God’s faithfulness and His power to bring about miracles.  They are not meant to act as personal promises to us because We want the blessings that God gave to someone else in other circumstances.

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  • “Difficult” promises– Not all God’s promises are ones we want to remember!  God has promised that we will suffer.  He promises that people will hate us, abandon us,  or persecute us on account of our faith.   Death and judgement are stark realities– God has promised that we will face both– and that we can face both without fear!  Jesus himself foretold of natural disasters, war, poverty, disease, injustice, hunger and other difficult circumstances that will continue until His return.

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  • “Victorious” promises– God has promised future restoration and renewal– eternal life, a new Heaven, and a new earth.  But He hasn’t promised easy victory.  He promises Justification, not “just a vacation” by Faith.  When we face struggles, it is not God breaking His promises.  And it is not always because we aren’t praying enough or don’t have enough faith.  Sometimes, God sends us into the thick of the battle for reasons we don’t understand.  He doesn’t give us the victory we think we deserve or the victory we dream of.  But we can trust that the victory already belongs to Him.

Prayer is more than just a wish or a vague hope– it is trusting my life, my future, my fears, and my heart to the one who can be counted on to listen and to respond.  Always!

The Road to Hell…

I started down the boulevard,
Freshly paved, smooth and gleaming,
Its lanes clearly marked and a gentle rise
Toward a glorious horizon.

New construction sites caught my eye;
Here was progress– here was the future!
I drove on, excited in my new course,
Dreaming of destiny and fulfillment.

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Gradually, the scenery changed.
Construction gave way to abandoned projects:
Half-finished high-rises, silent storefronts,
Driveways leading nowhere, weedy parking lots.

Now the road, so smooth at the beginning,
Twisted and turned without purpose.
Gravel and broken pavement lined with
Abandoned cars and broken glass.

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Frightening thoughts intruded–
I had seen no open stores, no gas stations,
No houses, or other cars for miles.  I was alone.
There were no crossroads; no places to turn around.

The road that had begun with so much promise
Was now a rutted path going nowhere.

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I woke up in a cold sweat– it had been a dream.
More– it had been a warning.

I had “good intentions” for my journey.
But the easy road, the appearance of future success
Had lured me away from the path marked with suffering
And paved with ancient truths.

I had packed no maps, ignored the GPS, and trusted to “instinct”
To lead me, not to a fixed destination, but to “discovery.”

I drifted back to sleep, and dreamed that I was back at the beginning.
Roads branched out all around me.
The gleaming new boulevard no longer held any appeal.
But now I studied the other roads.

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There were so many; roads leading to “enlightenment”;
Roads offering “fame” and “immortality”;
Narrow paths promising “mysticism”;
Superhighways advertising “happiness.”

Off to the right, there was a tiny filling station–
The old fashioned kind, with a service man.
He offered to fill my tank, but then he said,
“They all end up in the same place, you know.”

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I looked up into his eyes–eyes that held in them
The wisdom of the ages and boundless love.
“Enter in at the narrow gate…”
“I am the way, the truth, and the life…”
“This is the way, walk ye in it…”

He turned and walked through the back door
And I followed him down a sunlit path,
Up a small rise, and into glory.

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