Finding Hope

It is hard to be hopeful these days. Bad news just keeps rolling down. We continue to read of the spread of Coronavirus and the rising death toll. We hear of a rise in violence, suicide, and depression, and we wonder if this is just the beginning of the long-term affects of social-distancing and pandemic threats. We see the political talking heads pointing blame at one another, which only shakes our confidence and heightens our fears.

In the middle of all of this, it is the roll of the Church, of every believer, to shine as a beacon of hope in a dark and dreary world.

Hope: it’s such a small yet powerful word. 

We often use it rather casually. We may talk of a “fools hope;” like when you hope your team wins even though they’re on a 5 game losing streak. Or maybe hoping that they’ll have a better year than last year – if they even get to play (yes, I’m thinking specifically of my Royals).

Then there are things we hope for that are really an expression of deep desire. “I hope to see you soon!” a parent will write to their child, indicating that they will be working toward that goal.

So what are the things we are hoping for right now?

  • I hope to stay healthy.
  • I hope no one I know catches this virus. If they do, I hope they don’t suffer.
  • I hope to go back to work soon. I hope I still have a job.
  • I hope college will start again in the fall.
  • I hope my marriage can survive this quarantine.
  • I hope that the Church can come back together soon – and that people won’t stay home even after it is safe to assemble.

There are many things we may be hoping for today, but there is one hope to which we are called to share in Scripture. The way the world speaks about hope (wishing for something that may or may not have any guarantee of coming about) pales in comparison to what the Bible means when it speaks of hope. The Psalms make it very clear that our hope is in the Lord:

  • Psalm 39:7 “And now, O Lord, for what do I wait? My hope is in you.”
  • Psalm 62:5 “For God alone, O my soul, wait in silence, for my hope is from him.”
  • Psalm 71:14 “But I will hope continually and will praise you yet more and more.”

We put our hope in God, the one who is faithful, unchanging, and true. The Christian’s hope is established, strengthened, and encouraged in God’s Word. Christian hope is a confidence that something will come to pass because God has promised it will come to pass. Hebrews 11:1 teaches, “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen.” 

So what do we hope for?

The hope of Scripture rises above the day to day wishes and desires, and is a longing for the very presence of God Himself. Our hope goes far beyond sickness and health, poverty and riches. Our hope is to find ourselves in joyous fellowship with God through eternity. This fellowship with God is only possible because He has promised to save us, and has done so through the death and resurrection of Christ our Lord.

Ps. 119:81 says, “My soul longs for your salvation; I hope in your word.”  Our hope is in the Salvation of the Lord, His deliverance of His people from sin, from despair, from the brokenness of this world.

This is what Paul speaks of in Titus 2:13, when he writes, we are “waiting our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ.”

Our hope in this age, and in the age to come, is that we will see Jesus Christ; that we will stand with Him in the Kingdom of God, robed in His righteousness, called by His name. Our hope is that the one who ascended in glory, who now reigns over all things at the right hand of God the Father, will one day come again in glory to bring all things into submission before Him. Our hope is that this Savior, who died to atone for our sins, will also care for us unto the very end, and will not lose one of those whom the Father has given.

This is our hope, and our hope does not put us to shame (Rom 5:5). Therefore we will “rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, and constant in prayer” (Rom 12:12).  So beloved, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope” (Rom 15:13).

SDG

Yet I Will Rejoice

candle-in-dark

“Though the fig tree should not blossom, 
nor fruit be on the vines, 
the produce of the olive fail, 
and the fields yield no food, 
the flock be cut off from the fold, 
and there be no herd in the stalls, 
yet I will rejoice in the Lord,
I will take joy in the God of my salvation. 
God, the Lord, is my strength, 
he makes my feet like the deer’s; 
he makes me tread on my high places.”
(Habakkuk 3:17-19)

For the second week in a row now I write in response to tragedy.

Last week, our little town of Lennox, SD was rocked by the news of a murder/suicide, in which a young mother shot her husband, child, then took her own life.  There remains a heavy burden in our town, like a thick fog that refuses to dissipate even under the noon-day sun.  We have grieved and mourned.  We have gathered as a community to express our sorrow and our hope, but the waves of this tsunami continue to crash in upon us, and will for some time.

Early Monday morning we awoke to the news of the shooting in Las Vegas.  As I write, 59 are dead, and over 400 are wounded.  Already the politicians and talking heads are drawing lines in the sand about who’s to blame, talking about what to do, but never really helping anyone. Stories keep coming in about the terror, the heroism, and the pain of the lives lost. We cry out, as we read in Scripture, “How long, O Lord?!?”

I turned again this week to the book of the prophet Habakkuk.  Habakkuk is a very different book than the other OT prophets.  He never speaks to the people the word of the Lord.  Instead, his book is made up of his questions to God.  Judah had become an absolute mess, morally, spiritually, and politically.  But God’s response was even more troubling. God was bringing the Babylonians to punish Judah for their idolatry.  Perplexed by God’s will, Habakkuk cried out, “How long, O Lord?”  That question, while filled with despair, is also a question of faith.  The prophet saw destruction all around, and he knew that God had promised to be with his people and deliver them.  How could that promise come true when everything around was falling apart?

Through the dialogue of Habakkuk’s book, the prophet learns that God is still in control, that God sits in judgment over all nations and people, and that through it all, “the righteous shall live by faith” (Hab 2:4).

This is why the passage given above is so powerful.  At the end of his book, Habakkuk proclaims his faith in the sovereign God.  His listing of disasters, from the failing figs, olives, and fields, and the loss of the herds, reveals just how bad things were.  No food on the shelves, no harvest coming in.  Those things that you sort of take for granted; they’re all gone.

Maybe we’d write it differently today.  We might say, “Though the batteries won’t charge, and the wifi is down, the cupboards are empty and the credit cards maxed out, though violence takes us and scatters us to the wind…”

How did Habakkuk respond to such loss?  How can we?

Habakkuk says, “Yet I will rejoice!”  You can almost see him there, gritting his teeth, eyes full of tears, hands shaking as he writes.  “Yet I will rejoice!”  He does not rejoice in this disaster, as some blackhearted fiend.  He does not rejoice in retribution.  He rejoices in the Lord.  He knows that God, the Lord, is his salvation and strength.  He knows that those who trust in the Lord “will be like Mount Zion… which cannot be moved, but abides forever” (Psalm 125:1).

Like the prophet, we are taught by God’s Word to rejoice.  Paul teaches the church in Philippi, “rejoice in the Lord always, again I say rejoice” (Phil 4:4).  With trust in the Lord comes joy, not in the circumstances, but in the presence of the Lord himself.  He is with you, not just in times of peace, but in the midst of sorrow and loss as well.

We are to say with Habakkuk, “Yet I will rejoice!”  Rejoicing is sometimes done with tear stained cheeks.  Joy is most needed when we are broken, and joy can fill, and mend, the broken heart.

When all else has failed and left you, when the fragile illusion of peace and security have been shattered, hold fast to your faith in the God of salvation, the God who has delivered and ransomed you in Jesus Christ our Lord.  Our God is in the heavens, and He has established His king in Zion, and his name is Jesus.

Hold fast to your faith; not because it is fleeting, but so that your joy won’t be.  The troubles and sorrows of this world crash upon us like the billows of the sea, but Christ stands firm and will not be moved.  Faith in Him is our anchor in the storm.  Cling to the One who has saved your soul, for he will never let you go.

And knowing that He holds you in the palm of his hand, you will find joy!

SDG

Hold Fast…

“Hold Fast to What is Good…”
(Rom 12:9)

There are days when we have more questions than answers; more doubts than assurances.

  • Wondering why the wicked prosper and the righteous struggle through the day.
  • Wondering how God will provide when there’s more month than money.
  • Wondering if that prayer for healing, for peace, for assurance will ever be answered.
  • Wondering what meaning could possibly be found in the midst of this trial and suffering.

Questions and doubts like these have the potential to rob us of our comfort and peace in believing.  We struggle in that “dark night of the soul,” grasping to something, anything, that will bring us through.

This is why the Spirit teaches us to “Hold fast to what is good” (Rom 12:9).  Like a survivor of a shipwreck who clings to the life preserver, we must hold fast to that which is certain to bring us through to salvation. This term “hold fast” is the same term that Scripture uses in describing marriage, “He shall leave his father and mother, and hold fast to his wife” (Gen 2:24).  It’s not simply a desperate grasping at straws, hoping to find something to hold on to, but rather it is coming back to the assurance that comes with God’s covenant promise.  Hold fast, rest in, the goodness of the promise.

So, briefly, what is this good to which we are to hold fast in the midst of our doubts and troubles?  Let me offer three “goods” that Scripture calls us to hold on to.

Hold fast to the truth.

One of my favorite passages from the preliminary statements of the Book of Church Order in the PCA (I know, that phrase scores high on the geek scale), is this:

“That truth is in order to goodness; and a great touchstone of truth, its tendency to promote holiness; according to our Savior’s rule, “by their fruits ye shall know them.” And that no opinion can be either more pernicious or more absurd than that which brings truth and falsehood upon a level, and represents it as of no consequence what a man’s opinions are. On the contrary, we are persuaded that there is an inseparable connection between faith and practice, truth and duty. Otherwise it would be of no consequence either to discover truth or to embrace it.”

Can we not say that we live in a day when truth and falsehood are presented as equal? When we are unable to say which bathroom a person ought to use without being labeled a “hate-monger,” and a Harvard law professor tells his students that Evangelical Christians should be treated like Nazi criminals; I’d say its time for us to hold fast to the truth.

Where do we find that truth?  In the word of God.  Jesus said that those who are the good soil are those who, “hearing the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patience” (Luke 8:15).  Paul says we are to “hold fast to the word of life (Philippians 2:16). 1 Thessalonians 5:21 teaches us to test everything and hold fast to the truth. When someone comes along claiming to know the truth, test it against the Word of God. When troubles come and cause you to doubt, test them against the Word of God.  Hold fast to the truth of God’s Word.

Hold fast to hope.

Not only are we to hold on to the truth, but we must remain in that truth with hopefulness.  Holding fast to truth without hope can result in a rather dour and pessimistic outlook on life.  But faith is both truth and hopefulness.  I remember reading somewhere that Biblical hope is not an uncertain desire, it is a confident expectation.  When we are established in the truth of God’s Word, and rest in His promises, we have a confident expectation that His Word and His promise are true and will be fulfilled.

This is what Hebrews 10:23 teaches, “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful.”  So hold fast to the hopeful expectation of God’s goodness and mercy, for this hope “does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Romans 5:5).

Hold fast to Christ.

Ultimately, the truth and the hope to which we must hold fast is found in Jesus Christ.  In Him alone is the truth, and in Him alone is the fulfillment of every promise of God. Christ is the Word of God incarnate, the living embodiment of God’s truth. He is God’s “Yes” and “Amen,” the faithful and true witness.  He is the “hope of the world” (Matt. 12:21), and in Him “will the Gentiles put their hope” (Rom 5:12).

In the midst of the doubts and questions, the troubles and the fears, hold fast to that which is good; hold fast to Christ.

SDG

Guilt is Not A Fruit of the Spirit

With my whole heart I seek you; let me not wander from your commandments!
I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you.
(Psalm 119:10–11)

“The road to godliness is one of discipline, and discipline doesn’t come naturally to most.”
Bill Hull, Choose the Life

One of the great goals of the Christian life is that we are to be “conformed to the image of God’s Son” (Rom 8:29), that we would “in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work” (Eph 4:15), to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” 2 Peter 3:18.  This growth in the likeness of Christ is only possible by the inward working power of God’s Holy Spirit, but the Spirit uses and supplies many spiritual graces, helps for our life of faith and maturity in Christ.

These graces, or Spiritual Disciplines, are vast.  We have the opportunity to come together as a congregation for worship and prayer. We have the signs of grace in the sacraments to aid us in our walk with the Lord. We are all literate people, and have the advantage of mass-produced copies of God’s word: every home has multiple copies of the Bible, and now you can have the Scriptures on your Smart-Phone, tablet, and mp3 player. There are endless opportunities for service, prayer, giving.  All of these are gifts given from God as disciplines intended to help you mature in your faith and understanding, as you grow in love for God and one another, and are transformed in the likeness of Christ.

The road to godliness is one of discipline, using the means of grace that have been given for our growth and strength.  We are to daily take up our cross, to die unto ourselves and to live unto Christ. The problem is, like diet and exercise, for most of us, discipline does not come naturally.  We want to be like Christ, and we love the idea of worshipping regularly, of reading the Bible daily, of serving more readily. But when it comes to actually doing it, the demands of work and family come crashing in. I’d go and visit my neighbor, but I don’t know what to say, and my favorite TV show is about to come on, so maybe tomorrow…

We have good intentions when it comes to Spiritual Discipline, but the implementation is difficult.  Add to that the fact that our enemy doesn’t want you to be disciplined and to grow in grace.  Satan would rather have you “spiritually soft” and undisciplined, stewing in the regrets of unfulfilled commitments, struggling with the doubts of despairs of an undisciplined heart and mind.

Friends, the purpose of taking on Spiritual Disciplines like daily reading scripture, prayer, fasting, service, etc, is not to make you feel guilty about the times when you neglect the spiritual disciplines.  The purpose is to make you more like Christ, to lead you away from reliance upon yourself – your own wisdom, strength, and even tenacity – and turn ever more to the perfect wisdom, the perfect strength, the perfect faithfulness of God.

Rest assured, the disciplines are hard work, they take time, and we will all, at one point or another, fail in our efforts to be disciples.  The original 12 disciples often failed in their discipleship. But the point was, they kept following.  When many would be followers of Jesus left Him because of some very difficult teaching, He turned to the 12 and said, “Will you leave me too?” Peter replied, “Where else shall we go to find the words of life?”

If you made a plan to read a chapter of the Bible every day, and then one day wake up and realize it’s been a week since you’ve last read, don’t be overcome by guilt and shame and just give up altogether. Turn to Jesus, admit your lack of discipline, then pick up and read. Seek His grace today. Sit at His feet and learn from His word.

If you want to grow in prayer but struggle to pray, then plead with God would put a passion for prayer in your heart. The desire to pray is a prayer in and of itself. Don’t despair that you cannot go more than two minutes in prayer without your mind wandering. Pray through the wanderings, then come back to prayer in praise.

I will say it again: Guilt is not a fruit of the Spirit. Discouragement is never the product of close communion with Christ.  Do not despair if you are not where you want to be.  Keep putting yourself in the place where growth will occur. Stop dwelling on the things you haven’t done, or you struggle to maintain some self-imposed standard. Rest in the grace of God, trust in His steadfast love, keep running back to the nail-pierced hands of Christ who died for your disbelief and rose for your righteousness.

SDG

Pass the Chocolate

“Is this not the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness,
to undo the straps of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?”
(Isa 58:6 ESV)

This being Ash Wednesday, the beginning the Lenten season, everybody’s talking about what they’re going to give up as an act of discipline.  Some have turned off social media, some will try to quit smoking, others have promised, somewhat humorously, to stop shoveling snow.

If taken seriously, the practice of forsaking those vices that tempt and try your soul is a commendable thing, especially if it leads to a permanent victory over a besetting sin.  However, to merely give something up that is not inherently bad, depriving yourself of a God-given pleasure, to somehow feel “closer to God” for 40 days, only to take it back up again in the end seems… how do I say this… NUTS!

I don’t think this is a Biblical teaching.  It may be rooted in tradition, but at the heart of it, the notion of a Lenten Fast to demonstrate devotion and discipline smacks of works righteousness, declaring, “Hey God, I gave up caffeine for 40 days, just for you.  Aren’t you proud of me? I may have been a terrible grouch, but didn’t I prove to you my spiritual fortitude?”  Now where’s that jewel in my crown?  Have you ever stopped to ask how many people are actually drawn to the Gospel of Jesus Christ because you gave up wearing polyester pant suits for 7 weeks?  Did anyone even notice?

Now, if I haven’t totally offended you and you’re still reading, here’s my suggestion: Rather than give up some trivial pleasure this Lent, fast from something that doesn’t belong in the Christian life anyway, something that you, the Church, and your community would be better off without for good.  Here are a few suggestions:

Complaining – Nothing has ever really been gained by a grumbling and complaining spirit.  Yes, yes, the squeaky wheel  gets the oil, but it also eventually gets replaced.  Look through the history of Scripture, never once did God commend the complaining spirit.  Complaining about your lot in life, at its heart, is really telling God that you know better how your life should be going, that you have a better plan.  Complaining, if we take the Israelites in the wilderness as our example, is always looking back at what’s happened in the past, always looking down at what’s happening right now, but never looking forward to what God has promised, to what God is doing.  I will not say that God cannot use a complaining spirit, but when He does, it usually isn’t a good thing.  Stop complaining.  Remember, God is using the very things you are complaining about to work transformation in your life – it has a holy purpose.  Give up complaining for 40 days, you, and everyone else around you, will be better for it.

Comparing – Connected to the idea of complaining is that of comparing.  We like to compare ourselves to others all the time.  We compare ourselves to those who are less fortunate and say, “Well, at least I’m not that bad.” We compare ourselves to those who seem to have everything and say, “When is it going to be my turn?”  Constantly comparing yourself to others to demonstrate your righteousness will get you nowhere with God.  Constantly comparing yourself to others to make excuses for yourself doesn’t have any standing before God either.  Stop comparing yourself to others, and comfort yourself in the knowledge that God has put you where you are, given you the gifts that you have, and is working his grace within you now, that you might grow in the likeness of Christ.  If you must compare yourself to anyone, compare yourself with Him – then cry out to him for mercy and grace.

Bitterness – Nothing hinders the Gospel, nothing quenches the Spirit, nothing obscures the witness quite like a bitter and unforgiving Spirit.  “God is love,” we say.  “I’ve been forgiven,” we celebrate.  “But it will be a cold day in you-know-where before I forgive him…”  I love the phrase “nursing a grudge” because that’s exactly what it is; you are keeping that grudge, that bitterness, that hostility alive, feeding it and nurturing it so that it is always there.  Rather than fostering love, forgiveness, and peace, a bitter and hostile spirit leads to division, animosity, and tearing one another down.  If you have been forgiven, you will forgive.  If you are unwilling to forgive, have you really been forgiven?  This Lent, try fasting from bitterness, and feasting on forgiveness.

Despair – Now by this I don’t mean grief.  There are certainly occasions where grief is appropriate, especially when grieving over the death of a loved one.  By despair I mean that hopeless, pessimistic burden that comes when we forget the Gospel message.  When we look at our sin, our guilt, our shame, and we say, Well, I’ve certainly done it this time.  God surely can’t, won’t, forgive me now.  This despair comes when we turn our eyes from God, from His love for us in Christ, from the earth-shattering power of the Cross and the Empty Tomb, from the wonder-working power of His Spirit in us.  This despair comes when we stop listening to His promises, stop dwelling in His Word, stop fellowshipping with His Church.  We despair when we forget who He is, who He has called us to be, and who we truly are in Christ.  Give up this unhealthy, unfaithful, un-gospel despair, and rejoice in the fact that He has called you His child – and so you are!

So there you have it, just a few suggestions; feel free to add your own ideas in the comments below.  May this Lenten Season be a time when you can cast off every weight and sin which clings so closely, and run with perseverance the race set before you, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith.

Above the Clouds

“Arise, shine, for your light has come,
and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you.”

(Isaiah 60:1)

I know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that somewhere out there, high above the clouds, the sun is shining in all its glory.  It doesn’t take a great deal of faith to make such a claim.  But it does take a great deal of faith to remember such a basic truth on a day like this.  The sun hasn’t been seen here in the last three days, and the forecast for the next week is perpetually stuck on “mostly cloudy.”  The world is grey, gloomy, and wet.

If only I could fly.  If you’ve ever had to fly in the middle of winter, you know the image that I have in mind right now.  The whole world is overcast and shadowed in cloud, but like the first spring flower breaking through the last winter snow, your plane emerges from the clouds as it ascends to its cruising altitude and the cabin of the plane is filled with a welcome and wondrous light.

I know that if I could climb high enough I’d see the sun again, bask in its warmth, revel in its light; but alas, this earth-bound misfit, no matter the effort, is unable to rise above and pierce the veil.  The harder I try, the thicker the clouds seem to get.  If I cannot rise to the light, must I remain in darkness forever?

No, because I know that there is a light that is greater than the sun that has come to cheer our downcast hearts and darkened minds.  There is the light of God, shining from the glory of his Son, that has come to us.

While I could give an exhaustive list, here’s just a glimpse of our proof:

  • Psalm 118:27 “The Lord is God, and he has made his light to shine upon us.”
  • Matthew 4:16 “The people dwelling in darkness have seen a great light, and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death, on them a light has shined.”
  • John 1:4-5 “In him was life, and the life was the light of men.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”
  • Revelation 21:23 “And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb.”

The apostle Paul writes in Ephesians 5:8, “At one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light.”  There are necessary moral implications to this verse, yes; we are to do that which is pleasing to God.  More can, and should, be said about that later.  But for now there is first this great message of hope: No matter how thick the darkness that surrounds you, you live by faith in the light of Christ. You are walking, living, basking in His light.

The common “Altar Call” parlance would have you come to the light, but while the invitation is no doubt sincere, such a journey is unnecessary.  His light has already come to you.  Jesus said, “I have come into the world as light, so that whoever believes in me may not remain in darkness” (John 12:46).  Friends, lift your head from the land of darkness, and look to the light.  “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you” (Isaiah 60:1).

SDG