Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The Swimming Lessons of Faith

Over three years ago, I began a blog series on the most neglected entry in the Ten Commandments: “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy” (see Exod. 20:8-11). Seven months and forty posts later, the series still hadn’t covered all the Scriptural material dealing with the Sabbath. Nevertheless, I had been duly affected by my study, and our family’s Sunday habits evolved into something more refreshing, restful, and relaxing than we could have ever dreamed.

Imagine a poor landowner accidentally breaking open an oil reserve on his property. That is how we felt in our pursuit of the Sabbath—like God had a main conduit of blessing just beneath the surface and we found ourselves positioned to receive from its abundance. Our relationships with God and each other experienced an increase in joy and affection.

Of course, it can be easy for our souls to turn habits and practices—even divinely ordained ones—into rote and bland traditions. Three years after my blog series, it can sometimes be a struggle to remember why we’re treating Sunday different from the other days of the week. We need God’s grace in order to keep our Scripturally-inspired traditions from becoming legalistic or mundane pursuits.

One means of such grace came to me recently in the form of an article in Christianity Today entitled “The Sabbath Swimming Lesson,” by Susan Wunderink. The article makes excellent use of a swimming lesson as an analogy for the Sabbath rest. I highly recommend reading it.

This article is a reminder to me of one the central ideas behind the Sabbath rest: following God is a matter of trust. Like all truly good pursuits, the life of faith is hard. Scripture even calls it a fight (see 1 Tim. 6:12 and 2 Tim. 4:7). Our flesh may look at the ways of God with jaw-dropping incredulity, and it can often be a fight to believe in His promises. But as countless Christians throughout the ages have experienced, the promises of God are precious and magnificent (2 Pet. 1:4).

May we all continue to find greater rest and joy and peace as we press on to know the Lord with greater intimacy. May we embrace His promises and commands with increasing delight. May we seek to benefit from the numerous swimming lessons of faith that He provides for us.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Real Change You Can Believe In

It has been said that the only thing constant in life is change. Nothing stays the same, except for the fact that everything keeps changing. For the Christian, the truth is much more comforting.

Finishing the topic we began last week, here is what Scripture has to say about God and change.

The one thing in life I need to stay the same is God—and He never changes.

“God is not a man, that He should lie, nor a son of man, that He should repent. Has He said, and will He not do? Or has He spoken, and will He not make it good?” (Num. 23:19).

Of old You laid the foundation of the earth, and the heavens are the work of Your hands. They will perish, but You will endure; yes, they will all grow old like a garment; like a cloak You will change them, and they will be changed. But You are the same, and Your years will have no end” (Ps. 102:25-27).

“For I am the LORD, I do not change; therefore you are not consumed, O sons of Jacob” (Mal. 3:6).

“Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation [change] or shadow of turning” (Jas. 1:17).

“Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and into eternity” (Heb. 13:8, literal translation).

The unchanging God is the one who makes it possible for us to experience true and lasting change.

And I will make an everlasting covenant with them, that I will not turn away from doing them good; but I will put My fear in their hearts so that they will not depart from Me” (Jer. 32:40).

 “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will take the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will keep My judgments and do them” (Ezek. 36:26-27).

And the Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved” (Acts 2:47).

When they heard these things they became silent; and they glorified God, saying, ‘Then God has also granted to the Gentiles repentance to life’” (Acts 11:18).

“For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God” (Eph. 2:8).

We most clearly see God’s constancy and our hope for change in one place—the cross of Christ. We are forever loved by the unchanging God through the substitutionary sacrifice of His only begotten Son. To use John Wesley’s paraphrase of Malachi 3:6, God says, “I have an unchangeable hatred to sin: and my long suffering also changeth not.” How can this be? How can God continually hate sin and yet continually show mercy to sinners? Because “God set [Christ Jesus] forth as a propitiation by His blood . . . that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Rom. 3:25-26). 

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

The More Things Change…

Humans are in a constant state of change. These changes can be good or bad. The best kind of change we can experience is what Scripture calls repentance. In fact, the word “repent” in the New Testament is often a translation of the Greek word metanoeo, meaning, “to change one’s mind.” When we align ourselves more closely to God’s ways, experiencing a change of heart, belief, and action, it is a great change indeed. Conversely, a refusal to change is drastically dangerous.

The following is a Scripture-heavy meditation on what God has to say about humans and change.

Apart from grace, mankind does not demonstrate the good kind of change—i.e., repentance—because of a stiff-necked refusal to forsake sin.

“God will hear, and afflict them, even He who abides from of old. Selah. Because they do not change, therefore they do not fear God” (Ps. 55:19).

O LORD, are not Your eyes on the truth? You have stricken them, but they have not grieved; You have consumed them, but they have refused to receive correction. They have made their faces harder than rock; they have refused to return” (Jer. 5:3).

Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard its spots? Neither can you do good who are accustomed to doing evil” (Jer. 13:23, NIV).

“Though you grind a fool in a mortar with a pestle along with crushed grain, yet his foolishness will not depart from him” (Pr. 27:22).

“Then the fifth angel poured out his bowl on the throne of the beast, and his kingdom became full of darkness; and they gnawed their tongues because of the pain. They blasphemed the God of heaven because of their pains and their sores, and did not repent of their deeds” (Rev. 16:10-11).

Mankind naturally demonstrates the bad kind of change—i.e., being unstable, tossed and turned by variable feelings and cravings.

They made a calf in Horeb, and worshiped the molded image. Thus they changed their glory into the image of an ox that eats grass. They forgot God their Savior, who had done great things in Egypt” (Ps. 106:19-21).

“Has a nation changed its gods, which are not gods? But My people have changed their Glory for what does not profit” (Jer. 2:11).

Professing to be wise, they became fools, and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like corruptible man—and birds and four-footed animals and creeping things” (Rom. 1:22, 23).

“…he who doubts is like a wave of the sea driven and tossed by the wind….he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways” (Jas. 1:6, 8).

What we need—on even a daily basis—is a change of heart (i.e., repentance).

“When our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, said ‘Repent’ [Mt. 4:17], He called for the entire life of believers to be one of repentance” (Martin Luther, 95 Theses).

“‘Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, every one according to his ways,’ says the Lord GOD. ‘Repent, and turn from all your transgressions, so that iniquity will not be your ruin’” (Ezek. 18:30).

“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15).

“Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent and do the first works, or else I will come to you quickly and remove your lampstand from its place—unless you repent” (Rev. 2:5).

“As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten. Therefore be zealous and repent” (Rev. 3:19).

A change of heart often requires a change of circumstances.

Trials & Sufferings
“Let his heart be changed from that of a man, let him be given the heart of a beast, and let seven times pass over him” (Dan. 4:16).

The Rebuke of a Friend
“Take heed to yourselves. If your brother sins against you, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him” (Luke 17:3).

Being Preached the Word
“And he said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if one goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ But he said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one rise from the dead’” (Luke 16:30, 31).

Next week, we will look at our hope for real and lasting change: the changeless Savior of the world.

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

Marriage: the Intimacy and the Ecstasy

Let’s continue our blog series on Paradise Lost by looking at Book 4.

With a mixture of nostalgia (remembering the glories of his heavenly state) and wounded pride (his refusal to seek repentance), Satan experiences inner turmoil on his way to Earth. With his first exposure to Adam and Eve, Satan is struck with both wonder and disgust at their perfections and pleasures. Their utterly happy state fills him with envy and hatred. Overhearing Adam and Eve’s conversation, he learns that the tree of knowledge of good and evil is forbidden to them. Meanwhile, Uriel, who has quickly discerned the deceit of Satan’s earlier inquiry, warns Gabriel that an evil spirit is making his way to Earth. Gabriel appoints two angels to guard Adam and Eve from any attempts made on their safety. In the evening, these angels come upon Satan, now disguised as a frog, whispering tempting dreams into Eve’s ear. Satan is forcefully brought to Gabriel; the two verbally spar before Satan flies out of Paradise.

Book 4 introduces us to the absolute perfection of God’s creation. Milton does a stellar job of taking us into a world that none of us has ever experienced: one of complete purity and pleasure, without even a hint of shame or corruption. All is as it should be, and it is gloriously beautiful to behold.

Nothing stands out as wonderfully as the sinless relationship between Adam and Eve. Their conjugal harmony and the sweetness of their conversation are a delight to observe. Adam’s first address to Eve exhibits radiant affection: “Sole partner and sole part of all these joys, Dearer thyself than all” (lines 411-412). And skipping ahead to lines 18-19 of Book 5, we read Adam’s call for Eve to awake from slumber: “My fairest, my espoused, my latest found, Heaven’s last best gift, my ever new delight.” Yes, theirs is the marriage relationship we all long for—perfectly intimate in every way.

At the first sight of all this beauty, grace, and pleasure, Satan is left speechless. When he recovers from the initial shock, his first two words summarize his response: “Oh hell!” (line 358). Satan looks on their conjugal attraction and pure kisses with disapproval, envy, and jealousy. He disgustingly proclaims, “Sight hateful, sight tormenting!” (line 505).

Contrary to what the world may say today, it is Satan—not God—who hates the physical, emotional, and spiritual pleasure of sex. It is God who planned for married couples to enjoy “endearing smiles” (line 337), “youthful dalliance” (line 338), and to be “linked in happy nuptial league” (line 339). It is Satan’s hatred of sex, says Milton, that led him to instigate the manmade practice of celibacy for clergy (see lines 742-749).

Furthermore, in order to reduce mankind’s pleasure in sex, Satan aims to pervert and dilute it. He seeks as much as possible to keep all those who might lawfully enjoy sex to abstain from it, and to get all those who cannot lawfully enjoy sex to experiment with it. To the degree that these things happen, to that degree mankind’s enjoyment of the goodness of sex is lessened.

Marriage is a blessed union, the pinnacle of all human relationships:

Hail wedded love, mysterious law, true source
Of human offspring, sole propriety
In Paradise of all things common else. . . .
Perpetual fountain of domestic sweets,
Whose bed is undefiled and chaste pronounced,
Present, or past, as saints and patriarchs used.
(lines 750-752, 760-762)

The marriage relationship far outweighs the satisfaction of “the bought smile / Of harlots, loveless, joyless, unendeared” (lines 765-766). It exceeds the joys of “Mixed dance, or wanton masque, or midnight ball” (line 768). The genuine pursuit of marital romance yields a reward that is unmatched by any other romance this world can offer.