No, God isn’t on Your Side (At Least not Unequivocally)

There are mostly two kinds of people in this world: the kind that think God is always for them and the kind that think God is always against them. I’ve met very few inbetweeners.

But the thing is it’s only the inbetweeners – those who don’t think God is for them or against them – who are holding a biblical belief.

Early on in Joshua’s tenure as Israel’s head honcho, the Lord/an angel/the pre-incarnate Christ appears to Joshua in the form of a man to give him instructions on how to conquer Jericho.

At first Joshua doesn’t seem to recognize this man is no ordinary man. Joshua approaches him and asks, “Are you for us or for our enemies?” (Joshua 5:13). Joshua realizes this man is not an Israelite. But some foreigners supported Israel, living among them and fighting with them in all their battles. So Joshua wants to know: is this guy on Israel’s side or Jericho’s side?

The man replied, “Neither…but as commander of the army of the Lord I have now come,” (Joshua 5:14).

This revelation clues Joshua into the fact that this man is supernatural, sent by God to speak to him. Immediately, “Joshua fell face down to the ground in reverence, and asked him, ‘What message does my Lord have for his servant?'” (Joshua 5:15).

That word “neither” was most unexpected to me. How can God not be for Israel and against her enemies always? Israel is His chosen nation! He’s giving her leaders step by step directions on how to violently conquer and destroy every single breathing human being in every single nation in her path. What does He mean “neither”?!

There are two possibilities I can think of.

One is perhaps all God is trying to communicate here is that the man before Joshua is not human, like he had assumed. He’s not an Israelite or a sympathetic foreigner, and he’s not from Jericho. He’s neither. End of story.

The other possibility is God is communicating that and more, the “more” being that God doesn’t choose sides, at least not unequivocally. 

I know, I don’t like it anymore than you do. I want to believe God is cheering me on in every single thing I do, turning to the angels from time to time to say, “Do you see her?! That’s my daughter! Isn’t she wonderful?!”

Perhaps He does do that on occasion. But I guarantee you He doesn’t do that all the time.

In fact, there are times He must surely say to Himself what I often say to my daughters, “Oh, no, ma’am! That is not acceptable behavior.” And then He doles out some discipline to let His hard-headed daughter know He is not at all for her when she insists on sinning.

This is the case with Israel.

Yes, the Israelites are God’s chosen nation. Yes, He empowers them to win quite a few battles and to take possession of a choice expanse of land.

But when the Israelites choose to do wrong, God is quick to drop His support. He disciplines them and allows them to suffer all kinds of terrible consequences as a result of their disobedience, sometimes even causing the tragic results.

A couple of examples:

  • He is lightning quick to thoroughly punish the Israelites when they get impatient with how long Moses and God’s powwow takes on Mount Sinai. They decide 40 days is a ridiculous amount of time to wait, so they make a golden calf and worship a hunk of shiny metal instead. And God is anything but for them, instructing Moses to kill the idol worshippers, some 3,000 Israelites, and sending a plague on the rest of nation (Exodus 32).
  • God doesn’t hesitate to punish the Israelites with a 40 year death sentence in the wilderness because they don’t trust Him enough to enter the Promised Land when He tells them to. Because of their lack of faith, God tells them to go somewhere else instead. Upon hearing this consequence, the Israelites try to renege on their choice to disobey and agree to go to the Promised Land the next day. Moses tries to talk them out of it, but they erroneously believe disobeying God’s command to go somewhere else in an effort to obey His initial command to go to the Promised Land will be acceptable. On the contrary, He lets them know it isn’t by allowing the Amalekites to destroy many of them and sending a plague on many more (Numbers 14).

I could go on. In fact, most of the Old Testament attests to the fact that God doesn’t unequivocally endorse anyone, not even those who are supposedly especially tight with Him. God doesn’t jump on our team or another team. He does not proclaim unconditional loyalty to humans.

Why not? Especially this side of the cross, shouldn’t He always be in our corner if we are Christians?

Not only is that logically impossible (think of how many times you and another Christ-follower were on different sides of an issue – how could God be “for” both of you at the same time?), but God knows how fickle people are, even believers. He knows how we can worship Him with all our hearts one minute and be nose-deep in sin the next. Is it any wonder He won’t support us or anyone else unequivocally?

The reality is God doesn’t pick sides; we do. 

God has a team; Satan has a team. Humans decide which team to be on, sometimes jumping back and forth at a nauseating pace.

The Story is about God and His Kingdom, not us and ours. God is not for humans; God is for God. Are we?

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True and False Disciples

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” – Jesus

As I read Matthew 7 this morning, this verse caught my eye. Actually, the heading above this verse that the NIV publishing people added caught my eye. It read “True and False Disciples”.

I found this concept interesting. We frequently hear about true and false prophets and teachers – in fact, Jesus has just been talking about false prophets the verse before – but I don’t know that I’ve ever heard the phrase “true and false disciples”.

A “false” anything is never good. Whenever we read about “false” people in the Bible, they are masquerading as something true and pure, usually purposefully (though not always) conniving to trick people into believing they are the real deal.

Can “disciples” do that? Can people pretend to be Christ followers but not really be believers? And, if so, are those who are “false disciples” always aware they are faking it, or do some of them genuinely believe they are biblical Christians?

The “false disciples” in this verse and the next are characterized as being people who a) believe Jesus exists, b) revere Him in some way, c) do supernatural things, like drive out demons and perform miracles, “in His name”, meaning they d) believe they are doing things that honor Him or, at the very least, require His lending them His authority and power (Matthew 7:21-22).

Why in the world, then, would Jesus reject these people, indicating in no uncertain terms that they are not true followers of Christ (Matthew 7:23)?

Jesus tells us why he would reject these people (and anyone else) back up in verse 21: they did not do the will of His Father in heaven.

How did they not?! They did all kinds of Christiany things. How can Jesus say they weren’t doing the Father’s will, and why does that have bearing on their salvation if we are saved by grace through faith and not by works (Ephesians 2:8-9)?

Jesus doesn’t spell out exactly what they weren’t doing, but we can deduct that what they were doing was not enough to a) earn their salvation, b) make them authentic Christ followers, and c) put them in God’s will.

In essence these people thought they were doing what God wanted them to do, but, somehow, they were not obeying Him.

Given that their external actions looked good, perhaps the problem of their disobedience was internal: their hearts weren’t in their actions. They were doing these “good things” for the wrong reasons, the primary of which was to earn a spot in heaven.

Earning our salvation is not God’s will. I know this because it can’t be done. There is no one righteous, not one (Romans 3:10). Jesus rejected these people because they didn’t have faith in Him to save them. They were trying to do it themselves.

If that’s not you, that’s great. If you know you are saved not because you do anything right (let alone everything) but because you believe sinless Jesus died on the cross for your sins, taking the punishment you deserve, giving you the reward He deserved, and the Father agreed to not hold you eternally accountable for your sins because you believe these things, that’s wonderful.

But don’t miss that verse 21 still has a strong word for us who have our salvation theology ducks in a row.

Jesus says of us kind of people, us “true disciples”, that we do the will of the Father.

Obedience – ACTING according to His will as it is laid out in scripture – is the sign of true, saving faith. Obedience doesn’t earn salvation, but it is the mark of the one who has been saved. Obedience is the proof in the pudding, if you will.

“Belief” that is not followed by obedience was never belief in the first place. This is true in all areas of our lives: we only do that which we believe.

For instance, I can say I believe eating a healthy diet and exercising regularly is best for my body. But I don’t do anything to act in accordance with that idea. In fact, I do the opposite. I eat junk and sit 15 of the 16 hours I am awake every single day.

Why? Because I am not truly convinced I ought to do otherwise. My twisted logic, my actual belief, is that making the food and exercise choices I make is somehow better than making the choices I don’t make. Yes, I will intellectually agree that I believe my body would be better off if I made healthy choices. But when the rubber meets the road and I have to make decisions, my “belief” is betrayed by my opposite actions. My true belief, whether I am conscious of it or not, is that unhealthy choices are better in some way than healthy choices.

We always act in accordance with our actual beliefs.

If you want to know what a man believes about anything, then, including God, watch what he does. If he runs in the opposite direction of the things espoused in scripture, no matter what he tells you or himself (we are super good at fooling ourselves), he is not a Christ-follower. If he does his best to pursue what God tells him to do in scripture, he is a Christ-follower.

Action is evidence of belief, for better or for worse.

What do your actions say about what you truly believe?

(Side note: you might argue that if we looked at the actions of the “false disciples”, we would say they are believers, doing things Jesus commanded His disciples to do. But if you observe them just a little while longer, you hear them appeal to Jesus that they should be received by Him because of their actions – not on account of their faith – a blatant violation of scripture. Their true beliefs come out in their actions – they are doing good things to earn salvation – and then verbally when they are informed their actions aren’t going to save them.)

From a Blessing to a Curse

It has happened to all of us.

We’ve taken a gift from the Lord, and the next thing we know, it’s mysteriously transformed from a blessing to a curse. We’re left scratching our heads, asking ourselves, “HOW DID THAT HAPPEN?!”

It happened to the Israelites, too, and we just might figure out how this kind of thing happens to us by examining their story.

It was a month after the Israelites had been set free from Egypt. They were trudging through the desert, unsure of their future. Noticing their supplies dwindling, they began to complain about their food supply, worrying they wouldn’t have enough to get them to the Promised Land… whenever that would be. After a chat with the Almighty, Moses told the Israelites God had heard their complaints and He was going to miraculously provide quail that evening and bread the next morning (Exodus 16).

Of course, both provisions came to pass, just as Moses had told the people they would.

The first day the Israelites gathered their manna, Moses told them they were not to keep any leftover manna until morning. But, understandably, some did. “However, some of them paid no attention to Moses; they kept part of it until morning, but it was full of maggots and began to smell. So Moses was angry with them,” (Exodus 16:20).

That bread rotted faster than any bread in the history of the world, and their miraculous gift from the Lord went from a blessing to a curse.

The question for them – and, thus, the question for us – is why did the blessing spoil? 

The Israelites were in the middle of nowhere, worried about where their next meal was coming from. They were insecure and anxious. Then, when the provision came, they stock piled it out of fear and distrust that the Lord would actually provide for them again.

So, to recap, we have worry, insecurity, anxiety, fear, and distrust all in play here. But the glue that held them all together – the true cause of their blessing rotting in their hands – was what they chose to do with those emotions. Because they felt this way, they chose to act disobediently. And, ultimately, it was the disobedience to God’s command not to keep the manna that led to the instant demise of their blessing. 

What would have happened if the Israelites had felt the full weight of their worry, insecurity, anxiety, fear, and distrust but had chosen to trust God anyway and obey Him? Well, they wouldn’t have woken up to rotten bread. If they had chosen to use their emotions as motivation to trust the Lord with their blessing more, to depend on Him to meet their needs more, they would have avoided the curse of a maggot infested kitchen.

There are more analogies in this story we don’t have the space to explore, so let’s just apply this one.

Disobedience transforms our blessings into curses. When we choose to let our fear move us to take matters into our own hands, to move from a place of trusting God with our blessings to distrusting God with them, we’re well on our way to destroying them completely.

I Want to See You Be Brave

There’s something they don’t tell you about this Christianity thing when you sign up.

I’m not saying it would be a deal-breaker if you knew about it on the front end, but I am saying we’d think longer and harder about declaring Christ to be not just our Savior but also our LORD – our Master, our Ruler, the One from Whom we will take our orders forevermore – if a seasoned believer took the time to share the secret only they can know while they were sharing the Gospel with us.

When we meet Christ for the first time, when we realize He is what we’ve been looking for our whole lives and that we need Him more than we’d ever known, we tend to focus on the benefits we will receive if we accept Him. Namely, Heaven.

And that’s definitely not something to gloss over. Heaven is a huge deal, and Christ’s getting us in is something we should thankfully reflect on regularly. It should soak into our bones and spur us on to unashamed devotion and obedience to Him.

But what most of us miss when we accept Christ is that we are choosing a hard road.

What’s so hard about a free pass to Heaven?

It’s not free.

And I don’t mean that in the it-cost-Christ-everything kind of way most people say it.

I mean that in the it-will-cost-US-everything kind of way.

John said it like this, “We know that we have come to know [Jesus] if we obey his commands. The man who says, ‘I know him,’ but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in him… Whoever claims to live in him must walk as Jesus did,” (1 John 2:3, 4, 6).

Calm down there, John, buddy. Alls I want is a get-out-of-hell-free card.

And that’s all most of us think we’re getting when we choose to believe in Jesus.

But we get so much more! You’ve heard it said Christianity isn’t a religion, it’s a relationship, and as much as I hate tired catch phrases, it expresses the truth that there is give and take with Jesus if you want to call yourself “Christian”.

Jesus gave His life for us, and we are to give ours for Him. Not on a cross, hopefully, but in daily obedience to what He says.

Which is fine and dandy until He starts asking us to do some things we don’t want to do.

And that day will come. And it will be H-A-R-D. Which is why no one includes that on their tracts.

The truth? If you want to follow Christ, you have to be brave.

I am raising two little girls who are terrified of animals. They both scream and cry and climb me like a tree if they see a dog… the size of a tea cup… 100 yards away… on a leash. They have broken into hysterics upon seeing a dog WHILE WE WERE IN THE CAR. If we go to someone’s house, they choke up and make me go ahead of them to ask the people if they have a dog and if they have put it away. We can’t go for walks or ride bikes in our neighborhood because a dog – what if we see one?!

We have regular conversations, then, about courage and bravery and what that means. And I always underscore something for my daughters.

Bravery is not the absence of fear; it’s the willingness to do what is right even when you are scared out of your mind. 

We cannot wait until we no longer feel afraid to act; we’ll never act.

My daughters cannot wait until the Lord supernaturally removes their fear of animals to go outside. Not to mention, there is something to be said for having a healthy fear of dogs they don’t know.

So it is with us. We cannot wait until the Lord takes away our fears of doing whatever it is He is asking us to do that makes us want to refuse to obey. We’d never get around to the obeying part. Which, thanks to our blunt friend, John, we know we must.

The Christian life is only for the brave. 

I want to see you be brave.

The Key to Greater Intimacy with God

Do you wish God would talk to you more often? I mean really speak to you, Spirit to spirit, communicating clearly with you even though it may be inaudible to the human ear?

Are you tired of never knowing what God wants you to do? Are you bored with the Bible and often think to yourself (and occasionally complain out loud) that you don’t “get anything” out of reading it?

Jesus tells us how we can change all that.

In one plain verse in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus gives us the key to greater intimacy with God.

In the beginning of chapter 4, Jesus used a farming parable to explain to a crowd of people the different types of responses people have to the Word of God (Mark 4:1-9). Later, when they were alone, the 12 disciples asked Jesus to explain what the parable meant (Mark 4:10-23). In verse 13 Jesus asked the disciples, “Don’t you understand this parable?”

I think it is safe to assume Jesus may have been feeling frustrated and/or disappointed with the twelve men who should have understood Jesus better than anyone. Yet, they consistently demonstrated they didn’t

And I wonder, “Lord, are You frustrated and disappointed with me when I fail to understand you, after all these years of being with You?”

And then I quickly add, “Don’t answer that.”

He dissected the parable for the slow disciples, and then Jesus gave them a piece of advice we’d do well to heed ourselves. 

“Consider carefully what you hear… With the measure you use, it will be measured to you—and even more,” (Mark 4:24).

In other words, “Pay attention to what I say… If you apply it, I will tell you more.”

In other other words, “The key to ever-growing intimacy with Me is to, first, know My Word, and to, second, act in accordance with My Word.”

Could it be that we struggle to hear God and “get things” out of our Bible reading because God knows we won’t obey when He speaks to us? If our track record is one of hearing the Lord and then promptly ignoring Him, why would He waste His energy on continuing to try to communicate with us?

It’s only by His grace that He doesn’t completely clam up and leave us out to dry. No, He continues to be open to communicating with us despite ourselves. But, according to Jesus Himself, God is only as chatty as we are obedient.

If you want deeper intimacy with God, show Him by doing the things you already know He wants you to do, and more intimacy will follow.

Instructions for Life

There is a rule of thumb for how we ought to live. It’s pretty simple, straight-forward. And I found it in Genesis 4 the other day.

God is speaking with Cain after he offers a sacrifice to God Cain knew would be inadequate.

If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must master it. (Genesis 4:7)

Cain is pouting. He is very angry, and his face is downcast, the Bible says twice (Genesis 4:5-6). Cain is mad God didn’t accept his paltry offering.

God comes to Cain and essentially says, “Why are you upset? Do what is right – follow the rules of offering I have established – and you will be blessed.”  

If I were God, I would’ve been less merciful and responded like this, “Look, buddy! You may not like the system I have set up, but it is what it is. You don’t have power to change it. You don’t have perspective to see why it is best for you. And you don’t have a choice – you ARE in it. My system says obey and be accepted; disobey and be destroyed by sin.”

Cain chooses anger. He chooses disillusionment. He chooses joylessness. He chooses rebelliousness. He chooses to not do what is right, and sin masters him instead of the other way around. He chooses to be enslaved by his sinful desire to NOT offer God the sacrifices He orders (and of which He is worthy, by the way).

Instead of responding to God’s second chance and offering the appropriate sacrifice (what grace that our Lord offers us second chances!), Cain chooses to act out his anger and kill his God-obeying brother.

By choosing rebellion, Cain didn’t get out of the system. He didn’t improve his quality of life – he was kicked out of the protection of community and had to start his family in desolation. His offspring were the first in scripture to practice polygamy (Genesis 4:19) and followed in Cain’s footsteps of murdering (Genesis 4:23). In summary, no good came of Cain’s submission to sin. In fact, a lot of bad came of it.

You and I are in the same system. Even if we don’t believe it. Even if we don’t want it to be true. The fact is, if we do what is right, we will be accepted. And if we do not do what is right, sin will try to master us, enslave us to our desires instead of God’s Word.

Make no mistake – we will be slaves to one thing or another, to sin or to the Lord. Sin is the worst kind of master, abusing people, destroying people, ruining relationships and families. God, on the other hand, blesses those who serve Him. God so handsomely rewards His slaves that they never want to leave His plantation. In fact, He sets them free, and they stay. They know there is no better place.

I think of my children. We have rules in our home. If they do what is right and obey those rules, it goes well with them. If they choose to not to what is right and disobey those rules, they receive undesirable consequences. It’s a simple system. It doesn’t really matter how they feel about our system or if they even think our system is real. All that matters is how they respond to the rules. That’s all they can control.

And it’s all we can control in our lives. Choose well.

What’s Oil Got to Do with It?

Truth be told, I’m not comfortable with the whole idea of anointing people with oil. It’s a mysterious, wacky religious right practice that I just don’t understand.

It’s not a practice I’m very familiar with, having grown up with no religious upbringing in suburban America. And, frankly, my intellectual pride screams at the top if its lungs how ridiculous the person is who believes a dab of household oil can bless or heal someone.

Still, I’ve had a handful of experiences with anointing in my short Christian life. My children were both dabbed as babies when we dedicated them to the Lord. But I’m not sure why. I think it is a symbol of bestowing blessing on the child, but I’m not certain.

I’ve been anointed myself by a pastor when asking for healing of stubborn headaches.

To be sure, this practice is odd in our culture. And I’m not sure I’ll ever be entirely comfortable with it. But those to whom the Bible was initially written were completely comfortable with the concept.

The first mention of anointing with oil was when Aaron and his sons were installed as the first priests of Israel. Exodus 28:41 says, “…anoint and ordain them. Consecrate them so they may serve me as priests.”

To consecrate was to make holy – to set apart for the Lord.

I suppose that’s what we were doing with our girls on their dedication days.

Throughout the Old Testament, priests, altars, the tabernacle, and leaders were anointed in this fashion, as a symbol of their desire to purely serve the Lord.

The New Testament seems to use anointing in a different manner.

In Mark 6, the twelve disciples are sent out to do the same kinds of things they’ve seen Jesus do. “They drove out many demons and anointed many sick people with oil and healed them,” (Mark 6:13).

James also uses this concept of anointing in relation to health. He says, “Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well,” (James 5:14-15).

I don’t know why oil is a big deal to God. I don’t know why He tells us to use oil to show holy intent or to invite divine healing. But He does. There are a lot of things about God I don’t get.

But that doesn’t excuse me from obeying Him.

Awhile back I told you about my daughter, Allie, and her on-going mystery back pain. Since then, she has met with a pediatric orthopedist who was perplexed and ordered an MRI. I was told after the fact that all the doctors were really worried, suspecting the worst.

But, praise God, the MRI was negative. We examined more urine samples and tested her blood for at least 10 different things. All is normal. She was sent to a pediatric rheumatologist in September who diagnosed her with discitis – a super rare inflammation of a disc between her vertebrae. She prescribed anti-inflammatories to alleviate discomfort. It didn’t help, so she prescribed a different one. It didn’t help either.

The prognosis is Allie will just have to grow out of the condition, which could take weeks or months. She’s been in pain for 6+ months. As she sobbed in my arms for over an hour on Wednesday, James 5 came to mind. It was time to give this wacky religious right practice of anointing a shot.

I took Allie to my favorite pastor’s house, a house she has spent much time at playing with his grand children, and, unbeknownst to Allie, we prayed over her. The pastor snuck a dab of oil on her head, and she smiled ear to ear. Then four of us prayed for healing and wisdom while Allie meandered around the house, playing and swindling a friend out of her fruit snacks with her sweet smile.

Allie was ok the rest of the day. This morning she cried a few minutes in pain. It remains to be seen if/how/when healing will come.

But obedience to the scriptures happened yesterday. And I know that pleases God’s heart.