You and I in Psalm 106

Israel.

Throughout the Old Testament, the nation of Israel is reamed for failing to worship God the way they were supposed to. Sometimes they forgot. Sometimes they remembered but refused.

You and I are just the latest models of Israel. We may wear better clothes and have superior technology – more bells and whistles, if you will – but underneath we’re the same old thing – prone to wander, prone to run.

So when we read about Israel’s shenanigans in the Old Testament, we can sub our names in the text for some pretty powerful Bible reading.

Take Psalm 106, for example.

It starts out innocently enough:

1 Praise the Lord.

Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;
his love endures forever.

2 Who can proclaim the mighty acts of the Lord
or fully declare his praise?
3 Blessed are those who act justly,
who always do what is right.

4 Remember me, Lord, when you show favor to your people,
come to my aid when you save them,
5 that I may enjoy the prosperity of your chosen ones,
that I may share in the joy of your nation
and join your inheritance in giving praise.

But then it takes a turn for the worse:

6 We have sinned, even as our ancestors did;
we have done wrong and acted wickedly.

We who? We Israel. We you and me. WE have sinned and done wrong and acted wickedly. We can all probably rattle off at least 5 ways today we have sinned.

7 When our ancestors were in Egypt,
they gave no thought to your miracles;
they did not remember your many kindnesses,
and they rebelled by the sea, the Red Sea.

This is our story, too. We faintly remember God doing something cool in our pasts… years ago… what was it? We can’t recall… Instead, we rehearse the ways we think He could be doing better by us these days. We feel the indignation stirring up distrust in our hearts.

8 Yet he saved them for his name’s sake,
to make his mighty power known.
9 He rebuked the Red Sea, and it dried up;
he led them through the depths as through a desert.
10 He saved them from the hand of the foe;
from the hand of the enemy he redeemed them.
11 The waters covered their adversaries;
not one of them survived.
12 Then they believed his promises
and sang his praise.

There was a time He saved us. All of us followers of Christ can point to a time or a season in which our initial salvation occurred. He saved us for His name’s sake, and His mighty power was made known. And we believed His promises. We sang His praise… at least for a little while…

13 But they soon forgot what he had done
and did not wait for his plan to unfold.

My lungs choke on this verse. My spirit surges with adrenaline. I know only disaster will come of this for the Israelites… for me. I want to scream, “NO! Don’t forget! Wait for Him!” as if I could spare them – me – from the disaster that necessarily follows such carelessness.

14 In the desert they gave in to their craving;
in the wilderness they put God to the test.
15 So he gave them what they asked for,
but sent a wasting disease among them.

Their flesh won. My flesh wins. When we choose to sin, we’re daring God to discipline us. We call His mercy-bluff time after time, becoming increasingly brazen, “How far will You let me go? Surely I can get away with this ‘little’ sin…” He may let us have whatever we’re craving… but not without consequence. Visible or invisible, the wasting disease always follows on the heels of our choosing sin.

16 In the camp they grew envious of Moses
and of Aaron, who was consecrated to the Lord.
17 The earth opened up and swallowed Dathan;
it buried the company of Abiram.
18 Fire blazed among their followers;
a flame consumed the wicked.
19 At Horeb they made a calf
and worshiped an idol cast from metal.
20 They exchanged their glorious God
for an image of a bull, which eats grass.
21 They forgot the God who saved them,
who had done great things in Egypt,
22 miracles in the land of Ham
and awesome deeds by the Red Sea.
23 So he said he would destroy them—
had not Moses, his chosen one,
stood in the breach before him
to keep his wrath from destroying them.

Envy. Destruction. Consumption. Idolatry. Spiritual amnesia. The Lord’s ire. Nothing good follows our giving into our cravings. God said He would destroy us – you and me – had not Jesus, His chosen One, stood in the breach to keep God’s wrath from destroying us…

I still can’t understand that kind of love. I believe in it… but I don’t comprehend it. And despite having been ransomed in the grandest of fashions through Christ’s death and resurrection, on this side of that incalculable forgiveness, my reaction is often no better than the Israelite’s reaction to Moses’ saving them:

24 Then they despised the pleasant land;
they did not believe his promise.
25 They grumbled in their tents
and did not obey the Lord.

I am redeemed. Blessed in every sense of the word. And I still find a way to despise the pleasant land. I treat the cross with contempt when I take matters into my own hands and disobey God. I’m not thankful enough for His blessings. I don’t trust His words. And I choose to go my own way.

26 So he swore to them with uplifted hand
that he would make them fall in the wilderness,
27 make their descendants fall among the nations
and scatter them throughout the lands.

28 They yoked themselves to the Baal of Peor
and ate sacrifices offered to lifeless gods;
29 they aroused the Lord’s anger by their wicked deeds,
and a plague broke out among them.

Israel yoked themselves to their idols… no one forced them into idolatry. They chose to attach themselves like dumb animals to other gods. I chain myself to God-substitutes too. They may not be carved idols, but I give them my heart before I give my heart to the Lord all the same…

30 But Phinehas stood up and intervened,
and the plague was checked.
31 This was credited to him as righteousness
for endless generations to come.

And Jesus intercedes for me once again, reminding the Lord that the plagues I earn have already been endured by Jesus Himself on my behalf.

32 By the waters of Meribah they angered the Lord,
and trouble came to Moses because of them;
33 for they rebelled against the Spirit of God,
and rash words came from Moses’ lips.

34 They did not destroy the peoples
as the Lord had commanded them,
35 but they mingled with the nations
and adopted their customs.
36 They worshiped their idols,
which became a snare to them.
37 They sacrificed their sons
and their daughters to false gods.
38 They shed innocent blood,
the blood of their sons and daughters,
whom they sacrificed to the idols of Canaan,
and the land was desecrated by their blood.
39 They defiled themselves by what they did;
by their deeds they prostituted themselves.

Round and round the sin pattern goes with Israel. On and on the cycle whirls with me. Sin, salvation, sin, salvation. When will it stop?

40 Therefore the Lord was angry with his people
and abhorred his inheritance.
41 He gave them into the hands of the nations,
and their foes ruled over them.
42 Their enemies oppressed them
and subjected them to their power.
43 Many times he delivered them,
but they were bent on rebellion
and they wasted away in their sin.

God allows consequences for our wrong choices. We experience pain as a natural result of not worshiping the One we were created to worship. You’d think pain would teach us… but we can’t seem to keep our eyes fixed on Him. We’re bent on rebellion, drawn to it like a moth to a flame. And we waste away in our sin.

44 Yet he took note of their distress
when he heard their cry;
45 for their sake he remembered his covenant
and out of his great love he relented.
46 He caused all who held them captive
to show them mercy.

Grace. That God would even listen to our cries after all we’ve put Him through. And why? For our sakes. He relents and shows love and has mercy on us not to make Him feel better but to benefit us. Oh, what love!

47 Save us, Lord our God,
and gather us from the nations,
that we may give thanks to your holy name
and glory in your praise.

He saves. He saves us from ourselves, from the Enemy of our souls, from every threat. And our response must be to give thanks and to glory in His praise – to relish in who He is. Worship.

48 Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel,

from everlasting to everlasting.

Let all the people say, “Amen!”

Praise the Lord.

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The Problem with Comfort Objects

God wants more for us than we want for ourselves.

Which is awesome and terrifying all at the same time.

Our hearts are so broken and bent toward sin that if someone were to ask us what we want in life, our list would be pretty self-centered. My list contains things like happiness, fulfillment, healthy family and friends. I want to grow old with my first husband, and I want my kids to thrive.

These things might seem benign on the surface, but I know the real motives underneath – I want to avoid pain and maximize pleasure.

And so do you.

But God wants more for us than a good time. He wants us to live lives that matter. Comfy, cozy lives don’t accomplish much. Self-preservation seems right, and it is natural, but it misses the heart of God (Proverbs 16:25).

We’re all here for 2 reasons: to know God and to make Him known (Exodus 9:15-16). But our pursuit of pain-free living often prevents us from knowing God (and, thus, making Him known).

How?

Because we find things that feel good and provide comfort, and we latch on to them for dear life, refusing to let them go.

(Note: this is called idolatry. I know, I know, too harsh. But true.)

We are born doing this. As newborns, we literally latch on to our mother’s, for nourishment, yes, but any mother can tell you, her baby hangs around well past meal time, suckling solely for the comfort. As we grow, this pattern of behavior continues, it just manifests differently.

When all our energy is focused on our comfort objects, we don’t have much time (or room in our hearts) to draw nearer to God. Problem.

But draw nearer we must. It’s the only way we can be fulfilled for any length of time, and it’s the only way we can fulfill our life purposes – to know Him and make Him known.

So God, lovingly, gently, and Fatherly-y (like a Father?), beckons us to find our comfort in Him.

Naturally, that doesn’t typically go over well with us. Our entire lives have been spent seeking and holding on to comfort objects that weren’t Him. To put them into their proper places – lower places than the Lord – is foreign and scary and hard and scary.

But He wants better for us than we want for ourselves. So He continues to encourage the process of loosening our grips on our chosen comforts that we might find our hands free to grab onto Him, the Ultimate Comfort.

I have a feeling the sooner we I cooperate, the better it will be for all involved.

How about you?

Why Does God Discipline Us?

In my post The Longest Time Out Ever, I let Jeremiah show us how God exercised His right to severely discipline the Israelites.

Jeremiah makes a good case as to God being just in disciplining. He is holy. We are not. He tells us to obey. We don’t. Therefore, it is fair for Him to discipline us.

But that doesn’t explain why He disciplines us. Just because He can doesn’t mean He must. When He occasionally doesn’t discipline us even though we deserve it, we call that mercy. But if He never disciplines us when we deserve it, we call that terrible parenting. We will not grow. We’ll remain immature Christians, failing to impact the world with the love and truth of Jesus.

Surely, God disciplines us for the sake of His reputation – He can’t have no one take Him seriously because He never follows through with His punishments. And He can’t have people thinking He is okay with sin, undermining His holiness.

But the primary reason God disciplines us is for our benefit.

And our good buddy, Jeremiah, speaks to that as well.

God banishes the Israelites to Babylon for 70 years on account of their gross sin and unwillingness to repent. During that time, the Israelites begin to get it. They start to grasp the gravity of their idolatry. They weep. They repent. They seek forgiveness.

Discipline accomplishes its initial purpose. The Israelites feel the weight of their sin.

But that’s not the end all be all of repentance.

When their hearts turn from their sin and toward Him, God promises to, “…gather [the Israelites] from all the lands where I banish them in my furious anger and great wrath; I will bring them back to [Jerusalem] and let them live in safety. They will be my people, and I will be their God. I will give them singleness of heart and action, so that they will always fear me for their own good and the good of their children after them. I will make an everlasting covenant with them: I will never stop doing good to them, and I will inspire them to fear me, so that they will never turn away from me. I will rejoice in doing them good and will assuredly plant them in this land with all my heart and soul,” (Jeremiah 32:37-41).

We see here the underlying purpose of discipline.

Yes, God wants us to stop doing sinful things. But much more so, He wants us to always live in close emotional proximity to Him. He wants our hearts! He wants our love. He wants us to trust Him. He wants relationship with us. He wants to be the single focus of our hearts.

No matter what He is disciplining you over, this is why He is disciplining you. He wants your heart. Give it to Him.

How to Receive God’s Mercy

Yesterday we looked at Jeremiah 2 and saw ourselves in Israel’s rebellion. Like the Israelites, sometimes we choose to abandon God and go find substitute gods. We stop trusting the Lord and trust ourselves instead. We lose our awe of the Lord; we harden our hearts; we refuse to call sin sin.

We leave God with every right to abandon us. We have not loved Him well. In some cases, we have not loved Him at all. He has given us everything we have, including our lives themselves… but our twisted hearts have chosen to dishonor Him. We’ve opted to do things our way instead, loving ourselves and others more than God.

The Lord would be totally justified to wash His hands of Israel and of us forever.

But He doesn’t.

Instead, He says, “Return, faithless Israel…I will frown on you no longer, for I am merciful…I will not be angry forever,” (Jeremiah 3:12).

What kind of God is this that loves the undeserving? How can anyone, much less the GOD OF EVERYTHING, extend this kind of mercy to the very people that have abandoned Him?

My brain cannot process this love. It makes no sense to humans. We don’t practice this kind of love, so we’ve never experienced it. It cannot be real. There must be some kind of catch. The verse says “return”… but that can’t be all one has to do to receive God’s mercy.

God goes on to say, “Only acknowledge your guilt–you have rebelled against the LORD your God, you have scattered your favors to foreign gods under every spreading tree, and have not obeyed me,” (Jeremiah 3:13).

Jeremiah 2 gives us the two-step plan to commit idolatry.

  1. Abandon God
  2. Find God Substitute

And Jeremiah 3 gives us the two-step plan to receive God’s mercy.

  1. Return to God
  2. Acknowledge Your Guilt

Simple. But not easy.

Oh, how my pride flares up at that second step! I know I have sinned, but I refuse to admit it. God knows I have sinned, but I still refuse to admit it.  WHY?

I am not the only one who struggles with step two. Many people will never accept Jesus’ gift of salvation because they staunchly refuse to acknowledge their guilt – their need of such a gift.

I’m sure a psych major could confirm there are several reasons why we dig in our heels when it comes to acknowledging guilt. Some of us have egos the size of China, and we are actually unwilling to believe we can do wrong. Some of us have the self-esteem of Eeyore, and we are afraid people won’t love us or value us if we admit we did something bad. Those of us who are particularly depraved oscillate between these two extremes.

But if we get hung up on “acknowledge your guilt”, we miss God’s heart in all of this.

Hear what God is saying.

“Return, faithless people…I will choose you…I will give you shepherds after my own heart, who will lead you with knowledge and understanding…No longer will [you] follow the stubbornness of [your] evil hearts…How gladly would I treat you like sons and give you a desirable land, the most beautiful inheritance of any nation…Return, faithless people; I will cure you of backsliding,” (Jeremiah 3:14, 15, 17, 19, 22).

Look past “acknowledge your guilt” and see the mercy and love God offers us! I want Him to choose me. I want knowledge and understanding. I want to stop following my stubborn heart. I want the blessings He has for me. And I want to be cured of my backsliding!

When we begin to understand the richness that can be ours, acknowledging guilt doesn’t seem so terrible. And when we start to realize, “Surely the [idolatrous] commotion on the hills and mountains is a deception; surely in the LORD our God is the salvation of Israel,” the less we want our own idols (Jeremiah 3:23).

Whatever idol you are choosing – yourself, another person, another thing – it is a DECEPTION. Salvation is in the Lord. Return to God. Acknowledge your guilt. And feel His mercy and love wash over you afresh. He will frown on you no longer. He is merciful.

How to Commit Idolatry

One thing I love about the Bible is that it’s about me.

And we all know how much I love me.

I’m my favorite subject.

I was reading Jeremiah 2 and 3 yesterday and saw myself in nearly every verse. That’s really bad news if you know anything about Jeremiah 2. But it’s really good news if you know anything about Jeremiah 3.

I’m coming out of a season of pure rebellion against the Lord. No, I didn’t shave my head, renounce Jesus, and join a hippie commune. But, in my heart, I told the Lord He could keep His way of doing things to Himself; I wanted to do things my way.

That’s basically what God is accusing Israel of in Jeremiah 2. Their rebellion might look worse than mine because they were outwardly worshiping idols. But, don’t be fooled. I was inwardly worshiping myself by continually choosing my way over God’s way.

The Lord says to Israel, “What fault did your fathers find in me, that they strayed so far from me? They followed worthless idols and became worthless themselves,” (Jeremiah 2:5).

Do you hear the sadness in the Father’s voice? The disappointment. The hurt. My soul stung as I read this verse, confirming the truth of the statement that following worthless idols makes us worthless. I’ve experienced that in my rebellion. God didn’t love me any less or value me any less, but I was of no value to the Kingdom, unable to do my part in furthering the Kingdom while my heart was turned away from the Lord.

God goes on to charge Israel: “My people have committed two sins: They have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water,” (Jeremiah 2:13).

The first sin is forsaking God, abandoning Him. We, too, put God on the shelf when circumstances don’t seem favorable. When obeying God – submitting to what He asks us to do – doesn’t feel like it’s in our best interest, we tell Him, “No,” forsaking Him.

That’s bad enough.

But that’s not all.

We are made to worship, and if we refuse to worship God, we instinctively search out something or someone else to worship. We dig our own cisterns, looking for alternate water. In other words, we go find idols who suit our fancies, the second sin.

  1. Abandon God
  2. Find God Substitute

Yes, I have done this. Recently. The Bible is about me.

God appeals to Israel – to all of us. “Consider then and realize how evil and bitter it is for you when you forsake the LORD your God and have no awe of me,” (Jeremiah 2:19).

There comes a point when the rebellious realize their cisterns are broken, their idols don’t satisfy. Indeed, they can’t satisfy. Not fully. Reprecussions from our idolatrous choices begin to show themselves. Our relationship with God is strained. Our relationships with others are breaking. Our days become dark, joyless, evil, and bitter.  And, slowly, we begin to understand it’s because we have no awe of the Lord anymore. We haven’t respected Him or trusted Him. We’ve lost our healthy fear of Him and are no longer motivated by love for Him. We’ve done this.

I’ve done this.

As I read the words, “…you forsake the LORD your God and have no awe of me,” my soul cried out, “Lord! May it never be!” And He whispered, “Kelly… it already was.”

My soul ached. He was right. Just a couple months ago. It already was. I had no awe of the Lord.

Even in the midst of the rebellion, God had tried to warn me of the path I was on. But, like the Israelites, I said, “‘I am not defiled; I have not run after [idols],” even though I knew I had (Jeremiah 2:23). I thought if I didn’t admit my sin was sin, it wouldn’t actually be sin. I could still pretend it was acceptable.

But, finally, Israel and I could no longer deny our sin.  We both exclaimed, “It’s no use! I love foreign gods, and I must go after them,” (Jeremiah 2:25). We made excuses. True, the pull of sin can be strong. We can feel unable to resist temptations.

But we are not powerless! We have the very power that raised Christ from the dead IN US (Romans 8:11). The power of God can help us resist the “foreign gods” we love, but we have to want to resist.

The Bible is about me. And it’s about you, too. Where are you in this story? Are you acting like Israel right now? Stop and feel the weight of your rebellion. Be broken by it.

And then take heart, Jeremiah 3 is coming.

 

 

Should We Love with All Our Hearts?

Don’t worry, I’m not gonna gush about Mumford and Sons in this post.  Because I did that last month, and you people will only put up with so much of that nonsense.

But.

I am gonna share some thoughts their lyrics are responsible for causing me to think.

The song is called White Blank Page, and, as near as I can tell, it’s a song about love gone awry.  And part of the chorus says, “Tell me now, where was my fault in loving you with my whole heart?”

Interesting question.

Upon first hearing, my heart identified, saying, “Yeah!  Loving someone wholeheartedly is NEVER wrong!  And anyone who thinks so is stupid!”  I’m pretty mature that way.

But upon further ruminating, that line of thinking sank like a rock in Lake Bitter.  Because there are all kinds of “bad” love.

Some examples:

  • if you are married and you develop romantic love for someone besides your spouse (Adultery)
  • if you love something or someone more than you love God (Idolatry)
  • if you love something too much (Addiction)
  • if you love something inherently bad or evil (Psychosis)
  • if you love yourself more than others (Narcissism)

Maybe I’m over-analyzing here.  If the song is written to a spouse, the singer ought to love his wife with his whole heart, right?

The beginning of an oft quoted Bible verse says, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart…” (Deuteronomy 6:5; Luke 10:27).

It’s telling that nowhere in the Bible are we commanded to love anything else wholeheartedly.  Not our spouses, our kids, ourselves, our hobbies, our jobs, nor our passions.  Just God.

Jesus does speak to loving others quite a bit, but never with all our heart.  In fact, in the second portion of Luke 10:27, Jesus tells us to “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

This may just be my low self-esteem talking, but who in the world loves himself with his whole heart?  Not me!  There is plenty about me that I dislike.  And, by interacting with a lot of different women each week, I know I am not alone.  I can’t speak for you men, but I am willing to bet there are very, very few people in the world who love themselves wholeheartedly, and rightfully so.  We broken, sinful humans are full of way too much crap to love ourselves wholeheartedly, and the ones who do probably need their heads examined.

(Note: loving well/unconditionally is not the same as loving wholeheartedly.  We should love ourselves and others well/unconditionally.)

All that to say, apparently, Marcus Mumford was in the wrong to love a woman with his whole heart.  According to the Bible, that depth of love should be reserved for the Lord.  When we find ourselves feeling that we love something with our whole hearts, we are teetering on the edge of idolatry, if we haven’t already jumped in with both feet.

But because I love Marcus Mumford (not wholeheartedly, of course), I’ll go ahead and defend his use of the phrase “whole heart” with the following interpretation: “Tell me now, where was my fault in loving you as I love myself?”

It doesn’t rhyme, but its biblical.  So.  Win.

Does God Care HOW We Worship Him?

image via westmainbaptist.com
image via westmainbaptist.com

There is a popular idea out there that it doesn’t matter how you choose to worship, as long as you are sincere.  Within this idea is an unspoken conclusion that, somehow, no matter which religion turns out to be right, the god(s) of that religion will honor the valiant efforts of those who believed falsely, as long as they believed with passion and commitment.

(Why a god would reward wrong is beyond me.)

It is true that God cares about the heart.  He is deeply concerned with our motivations, our intentions, and our emotions, especially in worship (Deuteronomy 10:12).

But is God also concerned with the way we worship?  Sure, we need to be sincere, but does the how also matter?

Well, the Old Testament has two entire books – Leviticus and Deuteronomy – dedicated to laying out the means by which Israel was to worship God.  God is painstakingly specific and is serious about the Israelites worshiping Him in just the right way.

Why?

To distinguish the Israelites from the idolators around them (Deuteronomy 12:31).

God wanted the surrounding nations to know that the Israelites were not worshiping just any ole god – they were worshiping the One True God.

But there came a time in Israel’s history when they lost sight of the prescribed ways they were to worship.  Frankly, they just weren’t important to them anymore.

And, as a result, “…everyone did as he saw fit,” (Judges 17:6).

Even Israel’s first king, Saul, decided it’d be okay to come worship God however he wanted to.

In 1 Samuel 15 we read that God commanded Saul to totally destroy the Amalekites and everything that belongs to them (1 Samuel 15:3-4).  But Saul says to himself, “I will kill everyone except the king, and I will kill every animal except the best ones, and then I will sacrifice those best animals to the Lord!  God loves animal sacrifices; surely, He will pleased with me!” (1 Samuel 15:15).

What is Saul doing?  He is justifying disobedience.  He is worshiping God the way he wants to, not the way God told him to.  And he is mistaken that God doesn’t care about how people worship.

As a result, Saul loses the kingdom (1 Samuel 15:23).

And Saul is not the only Israelite to ever lose sight of the importance of the proper way to worship God.

In Numbers 3:4 two of Aaron’s sons – ordained priests – “…fell dead before the Lord when they made an offering with unauthorized fire before him…”

Aaron’s sons knew what the Law said.  They knew the proper way to approach the Lord.  That was their job.  But they made the same mistake Saul did – the same mistake you and I make – and decided to worship on their own terms.  And they paid for that choice with their lives.

What does this mean for us Christians?

God is the same today as He was in Old Testament times.  God cares how we worship Him.  He cares that we call Him Jesus and not any other name (Acts 4:12).  He cares that we believe He is the only God (1 Timothy 2:5; 1 Corinthians 8:4).  He cares that we worship Him only and not any other “gods” (Luke 4:8).  He cares that we worship in truth – not falsehoods – no matter how sincere we might be (John 4:24).

It simply isn’t true that we can worship any god in any way and earn eternal salvation on account of our sincerity.  God has a certain way He wants us to worship, and only that way will do.