Praying for Happiness

A while ago, I was following a thread on Facebook. It was about good parenting, and the idea being discussed was about what a good parent would do to ensure their child’s happiness. Several of the people on the thread agreed that happiness was the highest priority, and that they would do anything to ensure that their child was happy.

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I disagreed, but I felt it was better not to argue as part of the thread. I never raised any children of my own, and threads on social media tend to pull out our gut reactions, rather than our studied ones. At first glance, it seems natural and good to want the people we love to be happy. I certainly don’t want my family and loved ones to be miserable! But is happiness the very best I can wish for– pray for? So often in life, true and lasting happiness is a process that involves going through struggles and periods of frustration and even failure. I don’t enjoy seeing loved ones struggling, but I want them to learn the life lessons that will help them become all they were designed to be.

I think of the life of Samson (Judges 13-16). Samson was set apart from birth to be a Nazarite. During his childhood, his parents followed the rules set aside for such a designation. The Biblical account makes much of the rule about never cutting his hair, but there were other rules his parents likely followed as he was growing up, such as keeping him away from grapes, wine, wine vinegar, or any other fermented drink, and keeping him away from defilement by dead bodies. It’s never easy to be “different” when you’re growing up. I’m sure Samson had many questions, and moments of unhappiness as a child. But somewhere along the way, his parents seem to have made Samson’s happiness more important than his character development.

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Samson grew to be petulant and spoiled. He seemed to think he was entitled to whatever whim took his fancy. Now the Bible is clear that some of Samson’s desires were part of God’s plan to confront the Philistines, but Samson’s parents put up only a token resistance when he told them he wanted to marry a Philistine woman. At the wedding feast, Samson posed a riddle which exposed his lack of respect for his Nazarite vows. Not only had Samson killed a lion; he had come back later and eaten honey taken from the lion’s carcass– a defilement that broke his vow. Later, of course, he would use the unclean jawbone of an ass to kill a thousand Philistines in a single incident. Samson could have made an offering and renewed his vow, but we have no record that he ever did.

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The most famous story of Samson is his infamous liaison with a prostitute named Delilah. Though she does little to hide her intention to learn the secret of his strength and betray him to his enemies, Samson toys with her, lies to her, and finally reveals his sacred secret. Once his hair is cut, Samson loses his great strength and is captured by the Philistines and tortured. Only when he is blind, imprisoned, and shamed does Samson seek the Lord and ask for God’s blessing.

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Samson pursued a life of pleasure, and gave full vent to his lust, anger, and other strong emotions. I’m sure there were many moments of happiness in his life, but there were also moments of pain, tragedy, betrayal, and shame.

I think the story of Samson is full of lessons for us today. One of those lessons is that even when we are not faithful, God can still use us for His good purposes. God used Samson to judge the nation of Israel, and to bring punishment on the Philistines for their cruelty toward them. God could have disqualified Samson for having broken his vows time and time again, but God used even Samson’s weakness to highlight His strength.

But another lesson, I think is that God showcased exactly what can happen when we place happiness, pleasure, and ease ahead of everything else. Samson caused his own unhappiness and torture. There is no record of Samson bringing happiness to anyone else– only shame, tears, violence, and retribution. God caused Samson to be a model of all that the book of Judges is about– at the end of the book, there is a significant verse, “In those days, Israel had no king: everyone did as he saw fit.”

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I don’t want my family and friends to be “happy” at the expense of their character, or at the expense of others. I pray that they develop Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, Goodness, Faithfulness, Gentleness, and Self-Control (Galatians 5:22-23). In the end, this will bring them a level of happiness that surpasses anything the world can offer.

When Half-Spent Was the Night

‘Tis the season for Christmas Music– hymns and carols, ancient songs and modern tunes celebrating the Advent and Birth of the Lord Jesus. Joyful, passionate, somber, or even a bit silly, such music can lighten our spirits, and remind us of the incredible gift of God– Emmanuel–His very presence among mankind.

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Christmas lyrics often use wonderful imagery to retell this amazing story. The Bible accounts tell of shepherds, angels, wise men, and stars– the songs give us the immediacy of a dark night– “silent”, “still”, “earth as hard as iron; water like a stone”, “a midnight clear”, “half-spent was the night”…

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Most of us live in a world that rarely gets so dark. If we live in a town or city, we are surrounded by street lights, security lights, even night-lights in the hallway. Even so, we have a feeling for how the midnight and early morning hours seem darker, colder, quieter, and more dreary than any other time. And there is a significance in remembering that Jesus came to earth in the midst of literal and metaphorical darkness, “when half-spent was the night.”

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God is Omnipresent– it is not as though God leaves us when all is merry and bright– but His presence is often most keenly sought, and unexpectedly found, in darkness and distress. When all seems bleak, cold, and hopeless, Jesus comes silently, small and fragile as a baby, bringing light, hope, joy, and peace. He comes when the night is “half-spent”– when the darkness is deepest, the silence weighs heaviest, and the cold is most bitter; when hope and light seem lost.

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Jesus’ Advent came after four hundred hears of silence. Prophets, such as Isaiah, Zechariah, and Micah, had spoken of Messiah rescuing Israel from captivity. But the years had passed, and Rome ruled the Jewish people with an iron fist. God had stayed silent, and hope seemed remote. Rome would continue to rule the world for another four hundred years. But when Messiah arrived, He didn’t come to break the power of Rome. He didn’t come at the end of that particular “night”; rather, He came when the night was “half-spent.” He came gently, quietly, and humbly. He came to deliver Israel from something much darker, colder, and deadlier than a foreign occupation. Jesus, through His life and death and resurrection, came to deliver Israel, and the rest of the world, from the power of sin and death.

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All the promise of deliverance and salvation that came in the middle of that bleak night so long ago, remains for us to celebrate– even in the middle of our “half-spent” nights.

We may not see the dawn in the middle of our struggles. We may not hear the angels singing or feel the warmth of the new day coming. But because of this “Rose e’er Blooming”, we can rejoice. We can find hope and peace in the present night, knowing that Emmanuel is with us!

Jesus Died

On this Good Friday, it may seem redundant and unnecessary to point this out, but Jesus died. As the world around us faces a global pandemic, we are forced to face our own mortality. People are dying from COVID-19– people we know; people we know about; people we have never met. Their deaths are more than just statistics. They represent personal loss to all their friends, family, and people in their communities. Jesus’ death was more than just another execution– more than just another dead body to be disposed of before the start of the Sabbath.

Jesus. Died. Emmanuel– God with us– died. Ceased to live. Bled out and stopped breathing. His body was cold and lifeless, wrapped in burial cloths and laid in a tomb. This was not just like sleeping, or missing a heartbeat. He was gone. This is not normally cause for celebration– this was not a “Good” Friday.

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Jesus was not the only religious leader to die at the hands of enemies or rivals. The fact that his followers would commemorate or memorialize his death is not unusual or incomprehensible. But Jesus wasn’t just assassinated. He was condemned to die as a criminal. His death wasn’t just shocking or violent– it was humiliating, vile, excruciatingly painful, and involved public ridicule and anguish. There is nothing glamorous or brave or victorious about a cross. Christians who wear cross necklaces or t-shirts with blood-covered spikes might just as well wear handcuffs or ankle bracelets, or a picture of Jesus in an electric chair to show their devotion to a man who died as a criminal. Even though Pilate declared that he could find nothing wrong, he still allowed the conviction and death sentence to stand. Jesus didn’t win against his enemies– he lost, and he lost everything.

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In our rush to celebrate Easter, and the “rest of the story,” sometimes we lose sight of the cross. Jesus– creator of the universe, perfect in the eyes of the law, beloved by God the Father–died a cruel, humiliating, senseless death. Those who are dying today of COVID-19 are struggling for their next breath, exactly as Jesus did so long ago. Jesus did not just “give up,” he didn’t just go into a coma as a gesture, knowing he would wake up in three days anyway, so why struggle for that next breath, or push through that cramp in his arm or leg, or let the sweat and blood from his forehead run into his eyes, unable to wipe them away or keep the flies from landing around his nose or ears… Jesus died– He heaved and strove and agonized until his heart and lungs and muscles could do no more.

We talk about Jesus as the “Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). Earlier in Israel’s history, God rescued the entire nation of Israel from their slavery to the Egyptians. He caused the angel of death to visit all of Egypt and kill all the first-born throughout the land. (https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Exodus+12&version=ESV)

All of Passover is a foreshadowing and visual representation of what was to happen at the crucifixion. Jesus became the sacrificial lamb, whose life would be given, and his blood be used, to save us from death and destruction, and allow us to be free. His body was broken, just like the bread of the Passover, to give us life.

Just as the lamb’s blood was placed on the sides of the door posts, Jesus’ blood stained the two ends of the cross where his hands were nailed. It stained the top and bottom of the cross where his head and feet bled, just as the lamb’s blood was placed on the top of the door frame and dripped to the ground beneath.

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Jesus became a metaphysical “doorway”, painted with blood, through which we can enter into a place of safety, forgiveness, and promise. But only by going through the door– only by trusting fully in the work of Jesus’ death (and resurrection)– that we can be saved.

It wasn’t merely the act of painting the lamb’s blood on a door that saved anyone– it involved going into the house, and obeying the word of the Lord. It was wrapped up in preparing for a journey in which they would leave behind their slavery and old way of life, and walk through uncharted territory, led by God’s spirit, to a land of promise they had never seen. No Egyptian, by merely smearing blood on the doorposts or wrestling with the angel of death, or wearing a mask or staying behind locked doors, could defeat the plague. No Israelite could ignore God’s instructions, and roam the streets, trusting the the blood on the doorposts would cover him three blocks away. Death–and life– came on God’s terms. Wearing a cross necklace and “looking the part” won’t substitute for true faith that results in repentance, obedience, and discipleship.

Jesus died. And he rose again! But he didn’t do it so we could sail through life on our own terms. He came to show us that God can take our slavery, our sin, our failure, our sickness and sorrow, even our death– even senseless, humiliating, forsaken death– and give victory, life, and peace to those who follow Him.

And THAT makes this a very Good Friday, indeed!

Whom Shall I Fear?

Psalm 27

Of David.
The Lord is my light and my salvation—
whom should I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold of my life—
whom should I dread?
When evildoers came against me to devour my flesh,
my foes and my enemies stumbled and fell.
Though an army deploys against me,
my heart will not be afraid;
though a war breaks out against me,
I will still be confident.
I have asked one thing from the Lord;
it is what I desire:
to dwell in the house of the Lord
all the days of my life,
gazing on the beauty of the Lord
and seeking him in his temple.
For he will conceal me in his shelter
in the day of adversity;
he will hide me under the cover of his tent;
he will set me high on a rock.
Then my head will be high
above my enemies around me;
I will offer sacrifices in his tent with shouts of joy.
I will sing and make music to the Lord.
Lord, hear my voice when I call;
be gracious to me and answer me.
My heart says this about you:
“Seek his face.”
Lord, I will seek your face.
Do not hide your face from me;
do not turn your servant away in anger.
You have been my helper;
do not leave me or abandon me,
God of my salvation.
10 Even if my father and mother abandon me,
the Lord cares for me.
11 Because of my adversaries,
show me your way, Lord,
and lead me on a level path.
12 Do not give me over to the will of my foes,
for false witnesses rise up against me,
breathing violence.
13 I am certain that I will see the Lord’s goodness
in the land of the living.
14 Wait for the Lord;
be strong, and let your heart be courageous.
Wait for the Lord.

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Psalm+27&version=CSB
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There are a lot of scary things in our world– war, disaster, taxes, death, violence, injustice, disease, uncertainty, evil, darkness, even supernatural and spiritual darkness–enough to keep us frightened and sleepless every night! And we spend a lot of our time fearing the unknown–worrying about the future; worrying about things that have not happened, and may never happen! We worry about things that matter– the health and well-being of our loved ones, uncertainty about our job or home, crime and civil unrest in our nation or neighborhood, difficult decisions with serious consequences. We worry about things that are less urgent–someone laughing at us, hair loss, dropping a phone call, running out of gas, losing a game or an argument…

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David had some real reasons to be fearful as he wrote Psalm 27–evildoers, enemies, war and armies, false witnesses, and violence. Yet, he found safety and strength in the Lord. We can take comfort in the message of this Psalm–God is faithful. He is strong. He is eternal and unchanging. He is a stronghold we can trust.

But before we get too comfortable, let’s take a closer look. David’s trust is not based on a superficial knowledge about God. David’s trust comes as a result of seeking God’s face and following in “your way” (v. 11). David’s life was proof of God’s strength and protection, because David’s life was filled with fearsome adversaries!

Many generations after David penned this Psalm, the prophet Amos wrote to the people of Israel– people who knew this comforting psalm, but had lost their fear–people who no longer sought the Lord’s protection or His ways.

Amos 5 Christian Standard Bible (CSB)

Listen to this message that I am singing for you, a lament, house of Israel:
She has fallen;
Virgin Israel will never rise again.
She lies abandoned on her land
with no one to raise her up.
For the Lord God says:
The city that marches out a thousand strong
will have only a hundred left,
and the one that marches out a hundred strong
will have only ten left in the house of Israel.

For the Lord says to the house of Israel:
Seek me and live!
Do not seek Bethel
or go to Gilgal
or journey to Beer-sheba,
for Gilgal will certainly go into exile,
and Bethel will come to nothing.
Seek the Lord and live,
or he will spread like fire
throughout the house of Joseph;
it will consume everything
with no one at Bethel to extinguish it.
Those who turn justice into wormwood
also throw righteousness to the ground.
The one who made the Pleiades and Orion,
who turns darkness into dawn
and darkens day into night,
who summons the water of the sea
and pours it out over the surface of the earth—
the Lord is his name.
He brings destruction on the strong,
and it falls on the fortress.
10 They hate the one who convicts the guilty
at the city gate,
and they despise the one who speaks with integrity.
11 Therefore, because you trample on the poor
and exact a grain tax from him,
you will never live in the houses of cut stone
you have built;
you will never drink the wine
from the lush vineyards
you have planted.
12 For I know your crimes are many
and your sins innumerable.
They oppress the righteous, take a bribe,
and deprive the poor of justice at the city gates.
13 Therefore, those who have insight will keep silent
at such a time,
for the days are evil.
14 Pursue good and not evil
so that you may live,
and the Lord, the God of Armies,
will be with you
as you have claimed.
15 Hate evil and love good;
establish justice in the city gate.
Perhaps the Lord, the God of Armies, will be gracious
to the remnant of Joseph.
16 Therefore the Lord, the God of Armies, the Lord, says:
There will be wailing in all the public squares;
they will cry out in anguish in all the streets.
The farmer will be called on to mourn,
and professional mourners to wail.
17 There will be wailing in all the vineyards,
for I will pass among you.
The Lord has spoken.

18 Woe to you who long for the day of the Lord!
What will the day of the Lord be for you?
It will be darkness and not light.
19 It will be like a man who flees from a lion
only to have a bear confront him.
He goes home and rests his hand against the wall
only to have a snake bite him.
20 Won’t the day of the Lord
be darkness rather than light,
even gloom without any brightness in it?
21 I hate, I despise, your feasts!
I can’t stand the stench
of your solemn assemblies.
22 Even if you offer me
your burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them;
I will have no regard
for your fellowship offerings of fattened cattle.
23 Take away from me the noise of your songs!
I will not listen to the music of your harps.
24 But let justice flow like water,
and righteousness, like an unfailing stream.
25 “House of Israel, was it sacrifices and grain offerings that you presented to me during the forty years in the wilderness? 26 But you have taken up Sakkuth your king and Kaiwan your star god, images you have made for yourselves. 27 So I will send you into exile beyond Damascus.” The Lord, the God of Armies, is his name. He has spoken.

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Amos+5&version=CSB
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The people have an outward confidence– they believe themselves to be under God’s protection and blessing. They offer sacrifices and sing worship songs and revel in their success and peace. But God’s words are frightening and urgent. Those who arrogantly call for the “Day of the Lord,” expecting God to pass judgment on their enemies will find to their shock and horror, that God’s wrath falls on them as well. Their confidence has been misplaced, because it has rested on a false picture of God, and an exaggerated sense of their own righteousness. God warns them that judgment is coming– and even as He does, He issues an invitation– “Seek me and live!” (v. 4– see also v. 6 and v. 14). God has withheld judgment, He has given His people opportunity to follow His way. Instead, they have followed the ways of the very enemies they used to fear! Their feasts and festivals have become nothing but a mockery and an affront to God–the same people who claim to worship Him are perverting justice and oppressing the poor. They cheer for evil and refuse to listen to the truth.

God is a stronghold and a light to banish fear and darkness–but a stronghold or tower cannot protect you if you are wandering alone and unprotected or worse yet, if you are leaving the tower to embrace the enemy in the dark! God doesn’t just want to be a light at the end of the tunnel– He wants to be a light to show us the road right in front of us, and a light to banish the darkness where our enemy hides! When we have a proper “fear” of the Lord– when we recognize His wisdom, strength, and sovereignty– when we seek Him in humility and awe and need, and dwell with Him, we need not fear anyone or anything else. When we make empty boasts about God’s favor and protection while ignoring His ways, we drown out His loving warning and His call to return to safety…we should be afraid– very afraid!

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Father, may I find my confidence only in You. I want to dwell in Your house and seek Your face today and every day. Thank You for being eternally strong, righteous, faithful, and merciful! Thank you for giving us warnings and providing restoration, hope, and salvation. In Jesus’ Name, Amen.

Five Smooth Stones

God’s ways are not our ways. God often turns our expectations on their heads– choosing Abraham and Sarah to become parents at an advanced age; choosing Moses, reluctant, disgraced, and hot-tempered, to shepherd close to a million refugees across the wilderness; choosing David, young and poorly armed to defeat the mighty giant, Goliath; choosing to send His Messiah as an infant, the son of a teenage girl stranded miles from home in a cattle shed…

Not only that, but God chooses to include cryptic and seemingly random details in many of the stories we read in the Bible. When Abraham and Sarah received news that they would become parents, Sarah laughed. Such a small detail, but God called attention to it, even giving the name Isaac (Laughter) to this promised son. When God called Moses, He didn’t just include the details of the burning bush and the miraculous signs, He chose to include Moses’s excuses and objections, and a curious command to Moses to remove his shoes.

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Recently, I found a short discussion about the “five smooth stones” David used to defeat Goliath. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1+Samuel+17%3A26-50&version=MSG Some teachers spend time talking about the number of stones– why five? Did David doubt God’s power and provision? Can we attach significance or apply principles to each stone? But someone commented (I’m sorry, I lost the reference, or I would attach a link) on the fact that the stones were smooth–I’d never really noticed that detail before. David chose five smooth stones from the brook, not five heavy rocks, not sharp-edged stones of flint, not round balls made of iron– five smooth stones. The smooth stones in the brook may seem like a strange choice to us if we are not used to using a sling, but to David, such stones meant greater accuracy and speed. Five such stones would have been about a handful– easy to carry, load, and fire in rapid succession, if necessary.

I would like to suggest that there are some principles here that apply to both prayer and Christian living, especially involving how we can pray for and interact with the “giants” and “enemies” in our lives:

  • First, understand the reality of the “Giant”—Goliath was huge; bigger than any single warrior in Israel. But he wasn’t bigger than God. Goliath was also hampered by his heavy armor, his size, and his arrogance. David was offered armor and weapons similar to Goliath’s, but David’s greatest weapon was his understanding that Goliath was no match for the God of Angel Armies! We often make the mistake of magnifying our enemies. We see their size, their shining armor, and heavy weaponry. We forget that God is the maker of smooth stones!
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  • Second, actions really do speak louder than words. Goliath inspired fear; he taunted the army of Israel. Yet he never landed a blow against David. Goliath scoffed, bullied, and talked a good game, but David paired his words with action. Goliath demanded that David (or any other warrior) “Come down to me..” He had a javelin and a spear, but he never used either one. I find it interesting that many “enemies” of the Church behave the same way. They want to challenge the followers of Christ in debates; they publish books and articles filled with arrogant words, accusations, and complex arguments. It is tempting to respond in kind– to get into a war of words; to match their arrogance with our self-righteous assertions. What if we fought their words with action, instead of spending so much of our time answering and defending ourselves against empty arguments and accusations. We will not “win” any culture wars; we will not “win” the hearts and minds of the next generation; we will not “defend” morality by using bigger, better, or more persuasive words, or by having better armor and sharper weapons than our enemies. We need smooth stones from the brook–small acts of kindness and humility and grace that defy all the logic and brute force of those who trust in their own understanding.
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  • Third, accuracy is better than power. Goliath had one spear–and it was impressive–” His spear shaft was like a weaver’s rod, and its iron point weighed six hundred shekels.” (verse 7). Still, Goliath had a javelin, a sword, and several pounds of armor. David had no armor, one shepherd’s staff, and his sling and five smooth stones. But he only used one stone! It was accurate and true; it was sufficient, and it won the battle! Sin likes to flaunt it’s power–shiny armor, impressive weapons.. But if we are “true”–if we hold fast to the truth and follow the words and example of Jesus Christ–if we are faithful in our everyday walk with Christ, it is sufficient.
    There is an amazing climax in the movie, Star Wars (episode 4, A New Hope), where the young Luke Skywalker is sent with a group of fighters on a seemingly impossible task– destroy the “indestructible” Death Star! There is only one weakness–one small target. Luke’s small fighter plane is old and outdated; he and his fellow soldiers are under attack, and the pressure is on. But Luke’s accurate shot leads to victory. It is a modern retelling of the story of David and Goliath (with several space-age gadgets and extra plot twists).
    How many of our interactions with others get “sidetracked” by anger, envy, bitterness, and pride, to the point that we no longer reflect Christ accurately? How often do we consistently pray to stay “true” to God’s word, rather than praying for more powerful opportunities or platforms?
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  • Fourth, know your strengths and weaknesses (and those of your enemy). David knew that his strength was, first and foremost, in God. And David’s passion for God’s honor gave him focus and commitment beyond all that was found among the skilled soldiers of either side. He knew that fancy weapons and armor could not improve his skill with the sling, and that his skill had been tested in battle before.
    But David also knew better than to aim the stone at Goliaths’s breastplate, shield, or greaves. Goliath’s weakness was in his head! His first weakness was in thinking that his power was enough to defy the God of Israel’s army. But he also left his head unprotected from attack. Some scholars have even suggested that Goliath may have had very poor eyesight– that he was a fierce warrior in hand-to-hand combat, but literally could not see the stone coming at his forehead. Perhaps all his blustering and taunting was, in part, to distract from his very real vulnerability.
    I am reminded that this is also true of many of the “giants” we face. Their weakness is in their head and in their vision–they trust in their own understanding and in human arguments, or in their “vision” of who God is, or “isn’t”, or “should be”. They rely on what they can comprehend and control. They wave their swords and rattle their shields; they have gleaming armor and they “talk a good game”. They have locked away their hearts and bodies, often hiding painful scars and deep hurts.
    Goliath was a giant–but he wasn’t a god. He was once a little boy (or maybe never a “little” boy, but a young boy..). David was a young man (probably in his mid-to-late teens), who was a simple shepherd.
    How do we see ourselves? How do we see others around us? Do we know our weaknesses? Do we see the vulnerability in those who would threaten us?
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  • Last, God’s “weapons” are not like those of the world. Five smooth stones do not look like weapons. In fact, five smooth stones from the brook may have looked charming and harmless and even comforting in David’s hand. Four of those stones may have gone back into the brook, to be polished some more by the current, or carried out to the sea.
    Christ’s followers have armor and weapons, but they are spiritual in nature. We are to put on the “whole armor of God” (https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Ephesians+6%3A11-18&version=ESV, including the “sword of the Spirit”, which is the word of God. Truth, Righteousness, Peace, Good News, Faith, Salvation– This is how we prepare for battle! And we are to pray at all times! Imagine dropping the weapons of sarcasm and self-righteous posturing, and picking up a smooth stone of grace!
    God calls us to use unconventional “weapons”– not to kill or destroy those around us, but to demolish lies, tear down walls of hatred, and defend the helpless. Has God placed you in a situation where you need to pick up “five smooth stones” today?

Things That Make You Wonder…(Daniel, Chapter 3)

The Biblical book of Daniel can be difficult to read. It contains stories, but they don’t seem to tie together. And sprinkled among the stories are visions, dreams, and prophecies. In chapter two, King Nebuchadnezzar threatens all the wise men of Babylon in his fear over a disturbing dream. (https://pursuingprayer.blog/2019/07/17/daniel-prayer-under-pressure/ and https://pursuingprayer.blog/2019/07/19/daniel-prayer-under-pressure-part-2/) At the end of the chapter, Nebuchadnezzar falls prostrate in awe of the God of Daniel, and rewards Daniel with a high position. He even rewards Daniel’s friends who prayed for him.

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None of this context seems to carry over into the next chapter. If Nebuchadnezzar listened to Daniel’s interpretation; if he was in awe of the God of Daniel (the God of Israel– the God of Jacob), he forgot it all. The events of chapter three may have happened months or even years after the earlier episode; they may even have happened before(!)– we don’t know. But chapter three feels almost like a wholly disconnected story. Another thing that makes this story perplexing is the absence of the central character of Daniel. His name never appears in the story, and his friends are only given by their Babylonian names (unlike in chapter 2, where both the Hebrew and Babylonian names are given).

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The story in Daniel chapter 3 is a familiar one to many children. (https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Daniel+3&version=MSG) Nebuchadnezzar orders an enormous statue to be built in Babylon. When it is complete, he orders all the administrators of his kingdom– minor rulers, judges, treasurers, advisers–to come to the dedication, where they are to fall prostrate and pay homage to the statue as soon as they hear the music that has been commissioned for the event. This is not a suggestion, it is an order, and anyone who fails to do this will be thrown into a fiery furnace.

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Suddenly, there is a group of troublemakers (some translations call them astrologers or fortune tellers, others list them as Chaldeans–a people whose empire predated the Babylonian dynasties and whose culture and religion had produced great scholars and sorcerers). These men come forward with a single purpose– to denounce the Jews. Oddly, they only mention three names– Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. They don’t mention Daniel, nor do they mention any of the other Jewish captives who were in service to the king as administrators. Not only are Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego accused of disobeying the king’s order, they are described as being disrespectful and contemptuous of the king (and the ancient gods of Babylon and Chaldea).

Much is made about the amazing things that happen next–Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego are called before the king, who gives them a chance to answer the charges and he offers to give them another chance to bow down before the great image. When the three men refuse, Nebuchadnezzar is furious and orders the fire to be made seven times hotter. Men are killed in the process of stoking the flames, but Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego are thrown in, and begin walking around unfazed. Not only so, but Nebuchadnezzar is astounded to see a fourth figure walking with them, and looking like “a son of the gods.” He calls the three men out, and everyone is astonished to note that they are completely unharmed. Their clothes and hair are not singed or scorched, they are not hot, and they don’t smell of fire.

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Just as in the previous story, Nebuchadnezzar’s reaction is emotional and immediate. He gives praise to the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, and makes orders that will protect them from future harassment. But there are some interesting undertones in this story that I think we ought to consider, and things we can learn about prayer in the process.

  • We called Daniel’s dilemma in Chapter two “Prayer under Pressure”. The pressure was not just on Daniel, though he stepped up to face the king. When Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego prayed with Daniel–when they stood apart with him during their training– when they took a stand to follow the God of Israel in a land of ancient and powerful ‘gods’, they did so knowing that there would be pressure, powerful enemies, and potential persecution. God asks us to be faithful to him, regardless of our circumstances. Nebuchadnezzar had promoted Daniel and his friends to positions of power and privilege. They were grateful to the king, and loyal and devoted to serving him– except when that service called them to dishonor God. Many of us today face the pressure of honoring rulers or leaders who do not acknowledge or serve God; leaders who are corrupt or seem unworthy of our honor. We are to serve faithfully and show respect for their authority unless we are asked to disobey God’s laws or to disown or dishonor God. HE makes rulers to rise and fall. As we will see, Nebuchadnezzar’s power is far more precarious than it looks.
  • Following God will always bring confrontation and bring false accusations. Jealousy, guilt, envy, greed, anger, and malice will come to those who prosper under any circumstances. How much more to those who prosper at the hand of God? Those who have not schemed, stolen, or crushed others, and yet have been elevated to power, wealth, or honor– such people baffle and frustrate those who are grasping and clawing their way “to the top.” Those who deal in lies and stealth cannot accept truth and integrity. They will seek to twist others’ words, deeds, and reputations– sully names, destroy legacies, start rumors, invent grievances. We can let these little “fires” distract us from the “fiery furnace.” We can spend so much time defending ourselves, retaliating with our own rumors and grievances, or seeking revenge, that we become no better than our enemies. I know this from shameful personal experience. We can destroy ourselves in the struggle to justify ourselves. God doesn’t listen to rumors! God ignores false accusations, because He KNOWS the heart of every person. No matter how hot the “fire” gets, God is with us. He may not put the fire out. He may allow it to get seven times hotter, but He will be with us. If we are trusting Him, we will still have to walk around in the flames, but He will see to it that (ultimately) we are not singed or scorched!
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  • Frequently that attacks we face (see above) are not about us at all. They are about people in rebellion against the God we serve. The men who spoke against Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego may have had a personal grudge, but the Bible story points out a bigger plot. Daniel’s friends may have “felt the heat”, but the fire was not burning just for them. Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were recent captives from a conquered nation who rose very quickly to power by openly serving their “foreign” God. The Babylonians (and the Chaldeans before them) had risen to power through violence, intrigue, and reliance on sorcery, sacrifice, and ancient rituals that were abhorrent to the God of Israel. He had allowed them to do so to be the agents of punishment against His own rebellious people. But the power of the Babylonian empire was not of their own making, nor was it greater than God’s power to deliver the remnant of His faithful servants. Many times, we are oppressed by others whose anger and viciousness hide their rebellion against God. They fear those who serve Him, because they fear His justice and His wrath. They hate those who serve Him, because they hate Him. When we pray for deliverance from their schemes and violence, we need to know that God hates injustice; He hurts with us as we suffer; but He wants two things for our tormentors and bullies– 1) to see God’s example of faithfulness in our lives, so they have no excuse for their rejection; and 2) to give them an opportunity to repent and receive mercy. He also wants to do two things for us–1) to refine us and show us how faithful He is; and 2) to use our struggle to encourage and embolden others. Very few people would have noticed that three men out of several thousand disobeyed the king’s command. But because of the opposition they faced, and their total commitment to follow God in the face of it, crowds witnessed their vindication and God’s salvation.
  • Notice that Nebuchadnezzar, while he acknowledges that God has saved Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, does not tear down the statue, humble himself to serve their God, or abandon his arrogance. Twice, God has shown His awesome power to this proud and powerful ruler; twice Nebuchadnezzar has been impressed, even awed– but he hasn’t been changed. Yet!
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  • Where is Daniel? We don’t know. He may have been sent to one of the distant provinces and wasn’t in attendance for the dedication ceremony. He may have had a moment of weakness and joined the others in bowing down to the statue! All we know is that he is absent from one of the great miracles of his day. (He’ll have his own scary confrontation with a different king later in life.) This baffles me, but it also gives me hope. If Daniel DID bow down and worship the statue while his friends were faithful, God obviously forgave him and used him in a mighty way for the rest of his life. If he missed this fiery trial, perhaps God’s mercy was in it. God does not ask all of us to suffer the same trials, or have the same triumphs. God’s plan for each of us is unique. He doesn’t ask all of us to be “spiritual superstars.” He DOES ask each of us to be faithful for the fiery trials that come our way– whether fiery furnaces of persecution, or wildfires of hectic distractions and temptations, or the sudden flames of disaster or tragedy.
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Today, as we pray, let us remember to thank God that, even when trials and fires come into our lives, He knows why. He knows how hot they will get. He knows how long we will be in the flames. And He is right there with us, so that we, too, may walk around, unbound and unharmed by the fires meant to destroy us.

The “God of Jacob”– not “Jacob’s God”

For a blog about prayer, I’ve been spending a lot of time doing Bible study on the character of Jacob. But I think there is a huge connection. The stories in the Bible are powerful and important, not because of the human characters, but because, in them, we see how God interacts with a variety of His created people. And that can help us as we come to God in prayer.

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When we begin to understand that the “heroes” of the Bible are often ordinary people who encounter Almighty God, we see that little has changed in the course of history. God still chooses to bless and challenge ordinary people– for their own good, and as a witness to others.

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In today’s world, we often reverse the importance of the characters in our own stories. Christians talk about “my God” or “our God”, as though God belongs to us or serves us. But the Bible doesn’t speak in those terms. God is not “Jacob’s God” or “Solomon’s God” or “Queen Esther’s God,” or even “Israel’s God.” Instead, He is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob– the God of Israel. He is pre-eminent. God exists, rules, creates, and acts on His own terms, not ours. And He exists, rules, and acts universally. No person, group, or nation can claim that God blesses them because of who they are or what they have done. Thus, there is no African God or Caucasian God or Chen Family God, or Jean’s God, or Muscovite God, etc. There is only One God– but He wants to be the intimate and personal God of every person on the African continent, and in Moscow, and everyone named Shirley, Clarence, Chen, Smith, Martinez, or Klein. He invites each of us into a personal relationship, but He remains Holy and Unchanging and Sovereign.

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The very same God who wrestled with Jacob wants to be your best friend. He also wants to be your King and Lord of your life. When we pray to “the God of Jacob”– we are not praying to “Jacob’s God”. We are praying to the very passionate lover of our soul. He just happens to be the same God who loved Jacob enough to take him through a series of adventures many centuries ago; the same God who promised never to leave him; the same God who blessed him and preserved him and made him the father of a great nation. Just think of what He’s waiting to do for and through you!

Jacob Meets– His Maker

It is fascinating to study the life of Jacob. His story is rich with contradiction and confrontation. But it is also a magnificent story of God’s grace, protection, and redemption.

We’ve spent a lot of time discussing Jacob’s relationship with Laban, his uncle/father-in-law, and a man who made Jacob’s lies and duplicity look like child’s play. (See https://pursuingprayer.blog/2019/07/01/jacob-meets-his-match-part-one/ and https://pursuingprayer.blog/2019/07/03/jacob-meets-his-match-part-two/ ). While Jacob learned a lot from this stormy relationship, God was not finished putting Jacob to the test. As Jacob moved his family away from Laban, bringing them to their new home in Canaan, he encountered his estranged brother, Esau. (See https://pursuingprayer.blog/2019/06/28/jacob-the-brother-of-esau/). But, just before the encounter, Jacob encountered someone else. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Genesis+32%3A22-32&version=ESV He wrestled all night with “a man”, and he refused to let go until he received a blessing. “The man” touched his hip joint, so it was wrenched out of its socket, and gave him a new name, Israel. When Jacob asked the man’s name, he returned with a strange question: “Why do you ask my name?” He never answered Jacob’s question, but he didn’t need to. Jacob acknowledges that he wrestled with God– he met him, spoke to him, and grappled with him face-to-face– and his life was not only spared, but blessed!

I love this story of Jacob, and it gives me a great deal of hope for many reasons:

  • Jacob got a new name. This is significant throughout the entire Bible. Whenever someone gets a new name, it indicates that he/she has a new nature, a new future, a new relationship with God. Jacob was named for all the worst of his character attributes– he literally came out of the womb grabbing his brother’s heel, and his name means “heel-grabber” and “cheat”. But his new name, Israel, turns all of that on its head–Jacob “grabbed” hold of God and would not let go! He “struggled” with God, and God promised to be with him in all his struggles; to protect him, to bless him, to be on his side. When we come to Christ in faith, we may not get a new name, but we get a new nature, and a new relationship with God. Christ promises to be our advocate– he will struggle with us, uphold us, strengthen us, and bless us–all we need to do is grab hold of the grace that is offered!
  • God met with Jacob where he was– literally and figuratively. Sometimes, we meet someone who “struggles”– with every thing and everyone. Jacob had contentious relationships with nearly everyone in his life. He was accused, abused, cheated, hated, passed over, fought over, lied to, and aggravated. God didn’t come to him in glory and splendor– he came and wrestled with Jacob–down and dirty, gritty and unannounced. And when Jacob hung on and kept fighting, God let him. He even “cheated” by putting his hip socket out of joint to end the match. God could have showed up and overwhelmed Jacob with his glorious presence. He could have visited him as he did Abraham–stopping by for a meal and a visit. He could even have appeared in another dream. But he knew Jacob from the inside-out– he knew Jacob’s character and temperament; he knew Jacob’s fears and deepest needs. He grappled with a grappler, twisting and turning in sweaty combat. And when it was over, Jacob KNEW his God. He knew that God would not let go– would not send him away, would not let him sneak away in the middle of the night, would not destroy him. Instead, this God would hold him, struggle WITH him, and bless him afterward. I think we often forget that God is not just Holy and Awesome; he is not just a God who loves in a vague and universal way. God is very personal and intimate. He will engage with our doubts, our fears, our high-spirited, strong-willed natures, and he will embrace us with all the fierceness of death–even death on a cross.
  • God’s timing doesn’t always make sense, but it is always perfect. Jacob was leaving horrible situation, on the eve of a difficult confrontation with his brother, and, ultimately, on a difficult journey to reconciliation with his father. God didn’t need to give Jacob a pep talk, or a list of do’s and don’t’s. He gave him a new name and a new blessing to replace the past hurts and inspire Jacob to build a new life. Jacob was able to face his brother and father with renewed confidence that God would see him through.
  • Finally, it is in this story that God literally becomes “the God of Jacob” in a personal and profound sense. God still longs to be the God of __________”– fill in the blank with your own name! If you have been wrestling with God or against God, or just avoiding God, let this be the day that you receive the blessing of God’s grace. It’s yours for the asking. And likely, it will be less painful than Jacob’s encounter!
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Jacob the Brother of Esau

The Biblical story of Jacob and Esau has long baffled readers and scholars alike. I don’t pretend to have the answers to some of the tough questions it poses, but I’d like to take a close look at some of them.

Esau and Jacob were twins–the only sons of their parents–born just minutes apart. Yet their personalities, their destinies, and their relationships with God and others could not have been more different.

We spent the last post covering some of Jacob’s character flaws– his early years involved scheming and “cheating” this twin of his. Jacob’s life and actions are the focus of the story, after all. He is the one God chose to establish the nation he promised to Jacob’s father and grandfather. But why Jacob and not Esau?

In many ways, this story echoes that of the very first brothers in the Bible. God chose Abel’s sacrifice over his brother’s. We are not given an obvious reason why Cain’s sacrifice was unacceptable– or why Abel’s was. In this case, God does not give Rebecca a reason why her boys would fight throughout their lives or why the elder son would serve his younger brother. At one point, the Bible even says that God “loved” Jacob and “hated” Esau! So we are left with a big question–Does God play favorites? Does He give His favor capriciously? If so, why bother to worship, serve, and obey Him if, in the end, He has already chosen who will be blessed?

We may never have a full explanation of God’s ways– we are told that they are not our ways; that they are higher and wiser than our ways–but there are several things I want to consider that may shed some light.

  • God is timeless. He lives beyond the boundaries of linear time, and he sees the end from the beginning. As we read through the story of Jacob, we see his progression, and the changes he makes as he matures and as he encounters the great God of his fathers as it unfolds in time. His beginning shows little promise, but God already sees Jacob as Israel, as the father of twelve tribes of people, as the ancestor of Moses, of King David, and of the coming Messiah. He sees all of this before Jacob is even born! It is part of His eternal plan that Jacob, the cheater, the underdog, the “lesser” brother should become all of these things.
  • God sees inside the human heart. Esau’s character is not fully shown in this Biblical story, but we get a few clues: 1) Esau despised his birthright– he was flippant about his inheritance, trading it for a bowl of stew. 2) Esau took foreign wives who caused his parents distress–this detail may almost escape the modern reader. We do not tend to live with our extended family, but it was (and in some cases still is) common to the society in which Isaac lived. Esau did not consider his parents when bringing foreign women into the family. They had different customs and different gods. And Esau didn’t learn from the first two wives..when Rebecca commented on the Hittite women, Esau married a daughter of Ishmael, a woman likely to resent her father’s rival (remember Ishmael was banished on account of his resentment of Isaac!) 3) Esau plotted his brother’s death. His anger and resentment over the lost blessing caused him to plot murder. Jacob was sent away, not only to find an acceptable wife, but to keep him safe from his brother’s vengeance. Even though the two brothers later met in peace (Genesis 33), the meeting was filled with tension and the brothers were never close. 4) There is not one indication in the Bible that Esau ever sought the God of his fathers—no mention of him praying, offering a sacrifice, or acknowledging God. In fact, the sons and descendants of Esau (Edom) would attack and fight with the nation of Israel for centuries to come, finally being conquered and forced to serve the descendants of Jacob. https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/the-edomites
  • God does not “love” or “hate” in the same way that we do. God’s love is universal and eternal. God loves even those who reject, mock, and hate him. So when God says, “Jacob have I loved, and Esau I have hated”, He is not talking about his feelings for individuals (see https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Malachi+1%3A1-5&version=NIV and https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Romans+9%3A6-16&version=MEV). Rather, He is talking about how He shows mercy. Jacob and Esau were real people, and God blessed both of them, and built both of them into great nations. But God showed mercy and favor on Israel for keeping his commandments, while destroying the nation of Edom because of its continuing wickedness. (God eventually showed wrath on the nation of Israel as well, sending its people into exile because of their unfaithfulness!) Even in their destruction, both nations retained a remnant and their peoples exist to this day.
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  • God did not abandon Esau. When Jacob finally reconnects with his older brother, Esau is the head of a mighty army. Esau’s sons became the heads of tribes and kings of Edom. God allowed Esau to prosper and grow strong. But Esau never sought God; Edom never showed humility, wisdom, or reverence–only arrogance, might, and hatred. God shows mercy to those who don’t deserve it, and grace to those who desire it, but He will not allow injustice and arrogance to go unchecked forever.
  • God’s grace is a gift–Jacob didn’t deserve to be favored; but neither did Esau, or Isaac, or Abraham. Nor do any of us. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Romans+3%3A9-18&version=ESV Not one of us has earned God’s blessing. God chooses to love us even in our sin, and chooses to give us the Grace to return and receive His blessing!
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Praise be to the God of Jacob!

Praying to the God of Jacob

Throughout the Bible there are stories of people –sometimes rather ordinary and even deeply flawed people–who end up in extraordinary and miraculous situations. I spent some time exploring Hannah, and her journey through barrenness and into motherhood. I’d like to go back several generations to look at the intriguing character of Jacob.

(For the story of the early life of Jacob, see https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Genesis+25%3A19-34%2CGenesis+27%3A1-28%3A9&version=NIV )

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Jacob often appears as an adjunct character– son of Isaac, and grandson of the patriarch Abraham, he seems to be something of a mis-step in God’s promise to build a nation and bless the world. Jacob seems to bumble through life– the second son, living in the shadow of a heroic older brother; a cheap con-artist, whose deception rips his family in two; a sly cheat who finally meets his match in a dishonest and conniving father-in-law; a beleaguered husband and father, juggling two feuding sisters, their two servants, a dozen warring sons, a tragic daughter… It would be easy to confuse this Bible story with a modern TV sitcom or reality show about dysfunctional family life.

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Yet…
Jacob, like his grandfather, Abraham, saw God face to face, even wrestling with him on one occasion. God gave Jacob the vision of a stairway leading to Heaven; God gave Jacob his blessing, independent of the one from Isaac; he chose Jacob over Esau to carry on the line of patriarchs; God gave Jacob a new name– Israel– which became fixed as the name of God’s people. Generations later, King David prayed to and worshiped “the God of Jacob” as a refuge. Jesus even referred to His Father as the “God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.”

What makes Jacob stand out? Why does nearly half of the book of Genesis cover the years of Jacob’s life? I want to spend some time in the coming days to look a bit closer at this flawed man, how God revealed aspects of His own character in his dealings with Jacob, and how knowing Jacob better can help us as we pray to “his” God (and ours).

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