The tone of God’s instructions

We’ve all experienced rules and regulations in life that do not have clear reasons behind them. While they may have had some logical justification at some point, that time has gone.

There are also laws in this world that may not be any better than another way of doing things, but they are enforced because there needs to be some sort of consistency. Think about what side of the road you drive on. The left or right side of the road is no better or worse; one is not a more morally superior option. All that it is really important is once a decision is made you stick with it.

Sometimes we see the path God lays out for us and we wonder, “Why?” Is there a good reason to follow? Is it just arbitrary? Does God just want me to follow his way, yet any other way could be fine, too? But he just wants me on his side?

While we do not always know the full benefits of following God, for we do not always see what is around the corner and we never can see what might have been, God doesn’t want us to think following him is arbitrary. He doesn’t want his people to worship him and him alone just because that is the way he happens to prefer us to act. God desires that we follow because his ways are good and true. And that doesn’t mean just for him. When we follow it is good for us.

That’s why when we read a psalm like Psalm 81, we get a clear tone from God. He says listen to my voice, remember what I have done, turn to me so I may provide! He is grieved when we turn away because he knows it won’t go well for us.

Oh, that my people would listen to me,
that Israel would walk in my ways!

God is pleading with us because he wants what is good for us. He’s not a hall monitor yelling at us, merely upset we’re not presenting our hall pass. He’s not demanding we retake some test because we used the wrong pencil. He’s certainly not trying to put up countless hoops of bureaucracy and paperwork, like we navigate to complete our taxes. He’s not looking to make life more frustrating or painful or arbitrary. God loves his people and he knows his ways are best. Let that help guide your reading and give you a sense of the tone we see in the words of God.

Can we find questions to the struggles of life?

There are a variety of types of questions in life. Those questions we have answers to, the questions we may one day be able to answer, and there are questions we may not ever be able to answer. Our curiosity may not be able to sit well with the idea that we don’t have every answer and that instead we’ll need to be satisfied with mystery.

You could put these extremes on a spectrum, with a sense of certainty about all things on one side and a belief that we can’t know anything on the other. We, the church, can get into trouble if we fall too far to one side. We can get dogmatic and argumentative about every minute detail, puffed up with a pride that we can know everything, even everything about God. On the other hand, the church may be too reactive to this and shrug its shoulders claiming “who are we to claim to know anything?”

The difficult task is then to discern what in fact God has shown us and what is kept concealed. Where can we have boldness and certainty and when must we patiently wait with our mouths quiet? And how do we learn the answers when we are able to find them?

John Calvin speaks well on this:

“Let us… permit the Christian man to open his mind and ears to every utterance of God directed to him, provided it be with such restraint that when the Lord closes his holy lips, man also shall at once close the way to inquiry.”

We ought to seek wisdom and answers and understanding throughout life. God has gifted us with our minds and blessed us with great understanding by his Spirit. The church should be a place of deep questioning and long meditation. Yet we must remain humble knowing that we have our limits and our place—a place far below the full understanding and wisdom of God. We must remain dependent upon God and his word.

All this to take me to the passage I read this week from Psalm 73. The psalmist is struggling with the way the world seems to operate. The wicked are finding such riches and comfort, and this seems to go against the ways that God has prescribed. He can find no answer for his questions. Does this question have an answer or not?

It turns out that this is the sort of question that finds an answer in only one place: the presence of God.

But when I thought how to understand this,
it seemed to me a wearisome task,
until I went into the sanctuary of God;
then I discerned their end. (Psalm 73:16-17 ESV)

We may not always know where this discernment will lead, but doing so holding the hand of God (v23) will lead us nearer to him. And while our flesh and heart may fail, God says he will forever be our strength (v26).

God be merciful to me – David chooses repentance over defensiveness

King David, while regarded as a great king of Israel and a man after God’s own heart, was by no means a perfect man. When we think of his failures, his infidelity with Bathsheba and murder of her husband is likely the first thing to come to mind. After this abuse, the prophet Nathan goes to David to confront him.

Now bear in mind that a king doesn’t have to listen to a prophet or even be nice to them. When Nathan calls out David for his sin, David could’ve made life miserable for Nathan. No one likes to be called out, criticized, judged. We don’t tend to seek out opportunities for our secret sins to be named. Yet, David, the man as king who could’ve done anything to continue to cover up his sin, doesn’t choose further defensiveness. When Nathan comes to him, David is broken and he repents.

The narrative of this is recorded in 2 Samuel 12, and in our readings this week David’s response is recorded poetically in Psalm 51. We may quickly skim the headings of the psalms, but there we see that 51 is written after Nathan rebukes David, leading to this long confession of sin.

It’s a beautiful psalm with a tragic backstory. It reveals a desire for real repentance, not merely to deal with the outward appearances or public actions. David asks that God create in him a clean heart and renew a right spirit. For while all the external actions and sacrifices could continue, we see in verses 16-17 that what matters most to God is the heart behind it.

May we learn from David’s mistakes and from his repentance, and rather than be defensive, be open to confess.

I’d recommend reading Psalm 51 and listening to this song taken from this scripture.

Send Out Your Light and Your Truth – Psalm 43

Have I already mentioned how much I like having songs pop to mind as I read the Psalms? Well, I’ll say it again!

How wonderful and beautiful a tool music can be to help us listen, process, remember, experience, reflect, share, understand… The list just goes on.

In Psalm 43, we sort of continue right along with Psalm 42. They work well as one larger piece, pretty much sharing the refrain, “Why are your cast down, O my soul/Hope in God.” I talk about Psalm 42 a bit in the service for this coming Sunday and share a song there, but I wanted to do the same here for Psalm 43.

There is pain and anguish in both, and the Psalmist takes that to God. Why is my enemy victorious? Why am I lost in mourning? Yet such lament is always directed to God, for the psalmist always sees that God is still his hope. These two Psalms are likely written with the context of a people who led the worship of God at the temple yearning to return there, to praise God again. Whatever the solution, God will be the one to bring them back, so the call goes out, “Send out your light and your truth; let them lead me…”

It is a humble posture. To acknowledge the need to be led is to acknowledge we don’t always know the way. Even in the midst of pain and anger, anger even directed toward God, this psalmist can still humbly say, “God, you need to be the one who can deliver me.” God remains the source of hope and joy and salvation.

Give a listen to this song based on Psalm 43 by Sandra McCracken. Actually first read Psalm 43 and then you’ll really see how closely this beautiful captures the words.

Meditating on a Familiar Psalm

Frequently with this reading guide we’re trying to help you understand unfamiliar or confusing passages of Scripture, but what do we do with the familiar ones? The ones we’ve heard hundreds of times, recited aloud, even memorized?

This week we read Psalm 23, perhaps one of the most familiar passages of the Bible, certainly one of the most familiar from the Old Testament. How can we read this psalm without our hearts and minds disengaging?

Here are a few ideas:

  • Try a different translation. No, I’m not saying your favorite translation is bad. But the change may help our brains hear things in a new way. If you usually use a more modern translation, try something older. You like King James, go way in the other direction with the Message, and hear these poetic psalms differently.
  • Try listening. Many smartphone apps or websites that are for Bible reading are also equipped to help you do Bible listening. See if hearing the Word does something differently.
  • Try slowing down. With this psalm, take it one line at a time and keep yourself from jumping ahead. Just read “The Lord is my shepherd” and sit with that. What good news is in that one line? What do you think David, a shepherd, meant when he wrote it? How does it impact you to think of our God as a shepherd? Keep going through Psalm 23 slowly, line by line, and see if a verse that never stood out has something to say.

There are all sorts of techniques to help us as we read—whether the passage is familiar or new. We absolutely should pray as we do this, for the Spirit is our guide. You can journal or highlight as you go. Maybe you are a doodler and drawing in the margins will help you reflect. Grab a study Bible that will provide a few helpful notes along the way when words are foreign or the text is tricky.

But take your time so you can take it all in. Read and reread; let a verse stay with you all day. The goal is to not to break it down and dissect the Bible like a frog on a lab table, but to sit slowly and enjoy each part. Like when you eat a delicious meal, knowing its ingredients helps you recognize each one and enjoy its depth even more. Studying and meditating on God’s Word will give a richness to our understanding and help us see the depth of God’s love.

Learning to Pray

Like many protestants, growing up I placed more value on prayers that were off the cuff. To borrow more contemporary phrases, you want to be “authentic” or “organic.” Just reading someone else’s words was too “ritualistic.”

While I do think there is value in praying without a script, I’ve grown to appreciate learning from and using other’s prayers, too. Like in any relationship, you need to be both spontaneous as well as deliberate and thought out. Written prayers can help with that deliberate side, as you search and meditate on the words.

The psalms are such a rich place to do that sort of prayer. It is full of words that can not only be our prayer, but teach us to pray. That doesn’t mean we need to come away speaking King-James-style (the Bible translation, not Lebron) every time we pray. But we can learn from the content, the patterns, and the heart behind these psalms.

This week we read Psalm 19, and it ends with such a simple and beautiful prayer. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve used it, and I hope it can be a blessing as you use it to pray, as well as a model to help you learn to find our own words.

Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart
be acceptable in your sight,
O LORD, my rock and my redeemer.

Reading and rereading the Bible in light of Jesus

Van Gogh - Starry Night
Van Gogh – Starry Night

I’m no expert on the book of Psalms. Poetry is not generally what I’m grabbing off the bookshelf, but there is great beauty when I find the patience to sit and read slowly.

Today I was reading through Psalm 8 and I appreciated the thought that I am by no means the first person to read this. Rather I fall in a very long line of God’s people who have sat and read, or heard, this Psalm.

O LORD, our Lord,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!

I confess this is not a very deep insight. What really struck me though is how much the coming of Jesus casts a new light on the whole world, including this book and this psalm. There were people who unrolled the Psalms and reread these words about God’s creation.

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars, which you have set in place,
what is man that you are mindful of him,
and the son of man that you care for him?

As David continues on, it calls to mind the account in Genesis where God creates this wondrous place and places humans as the crowning piece of his creation. He made man and woman in his image and set them apart to have dominion and to rule. But now, in rereading, it calls to mind Jesus.

Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings
and crowned him with glory and honor.
You have given him dominion over the works of your hands;
you have put all things under his feet,

What was true in one way for the humans that God placed in this creation is even more true for Jesus. This perfect human who can rightfully take the place over creation, who deserves to wear the crown and receive all glory and honor! I can just imagine the author of Hebrews, who quotes this in chapter 2, sitting there with Psalm 8 and having such joy in rereading it; in seeing it almost brand new in light of Jesus.

Like I said, it isn’t a unique insight to remember that other people have read Scripture. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t helpful. I’m encouraged when I picture the saints that have gone before me, being blessed by the Psalms, just like we are today. And I’m encouraged to know that the history goes back even further, even before history, to when God already had a plan for his son to come and fulfill this and so many other passages.

What then is Apollos? What is Paul? – The role we play in ministering to others on God’s behalf

Memory Verse 1 Cor 3.6

Yesterday we focused on what was hindering the Corinthians’ understanding (their jealousy and strife) and what it led to was not only the divisions in their church, but a misunderstanding of who people like Paul and Apollos were. Paul describes their problem and then turns attention to himself, and Apollos, briefly.

What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. He who plants and he who waters are one, and each will receive his wages according to his labor. For we are God’s fellow workers. You are God’s field, God’s building.

1 Corinthians 3:5-9

What do we learn about these two in this passage? Who are they? What is their job? How should the church view them?

First, we see that they are servants. Being a servant, obviously, means that they are not masters. The Corinthians had elevated them and thought Paul and Apollos were to be played off each other as though they were rivals, but they are both servants who in fact are co-laborers, working together.

Are you a gardener? I’m sure you then know that there aren’t good ways to compete over one plant. If one plants and one waters, you can’t do so with different aims. You have the same goal. Paul is not at odds with Apollos. They both want to see growth. They are both called by God to their task. They both serve for God’s glory.

We also learn that as much as Paul or anyone labors, they do not claim credit for the work that God accomplishes. He may have planted, but just as importantly, Apollos watered, but neither compare to the growth that God achieves.

If not for God, what would happen to the seed? If not for God, would the water do any good? It is as it says in Psalm 127:

Unless the Lord builds the house,
those who build it labor in vain.

Paul is not anything but a servant of God. He is a tool God has used. All glory should pass right through him and be directed at the only one worthy. He has had the privilege of being called to this people to minister to them, as has Apollos. But Paul is telling them that God was at work then, God is at work now, and God is the one who will continuously give the growth.

Memory Verse for 1 Corinthians 3:6 for iPhone