Legalism’s Knockout Blow, pt 2

[This is part two of a two-part entry. Click here for Legalism’s Knockout Blow, part 1]

Mural, St. Sulprice, Price

The Encounter: Wrestling with God

Jacob prepares for dawn’s showdown with his fraternal Grim Reaper. He splits his family into two caravans, hoping one will survive. He sends forth his bribe. He waits in solitude by a brook.

Enter an Unnamed Somebody who picks a fight with dispirited Jacob. Later, he will worship that Somebody, identifying him as God (v. 28). God comes down to wrestle Jacob.

Why would God kick a guy when he’s down? Isn’t he supposed to be loving and kind? Why would he pick on Jacob at the lowest point in his life? Is he that uncaring?

Or could it be that he’s lovingly trying to condense a lifetime of legalism into a single encounter that he might uproot it once for all?

Verse 25 makes the stupefying claim that puny, frightened Jacob prevailed against infinite, Almighty God. What’s going on? These Scriptures present an acted parable—depicting how legalism stretches its tentacles into every area of life with God.

First tentacle: the idea that we are on equal footing with God. Legalism, by nature, demotes God to our own mercenary level and imagines we can go nose-to-nose with him. Was Jacob indeed on equal footing with God? Of course not. God wrestled him the way a father wrestles his five-year old. And, like the five-year old, legalists don’t get it. Like Jacob, they imagine themselves “winners” in the eyes of God; they believe they can, by human effort, merit his approval. Continue reading

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“But God…” A Dozen Reversals of Life’s Heartaches, pt 1

david_goliath-1

One of my pastors mentors me from the grave. For inspiration, learning, and direction, I often turn to the late, great pastor, Ray Stedman (click here to learn more: Ray Stedman). Today I read this from him, and thought I’d give it a try:

If you want a wonderful experience, take your New Testament and use a concordance to look up the two little words, “but God.” See how many times human resources have been brought to an utter end; despair has gripped the heart and pessimism and gloom has settled upon a people; and there is nothing that can be done. Then see how the Spirit of God writes in luminous letters, “but God,” and the whole situation changes into victory. (Ray Stedman)

God is the Lord of Reversals. He can turn around the darkest moment, reverse the bleakest fortunes, and upend the devil’s most diabolical plan. When life falls apart, God reaches down with his mighty hand of grace to mend, to heal, to fix, to help, to win the day. Life is hard, “but God…” Here are a dozen great promises, a dozen “But Gods” to cling to in life’s toughest hours.

  1. “But as for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, in order to bring it about as it is this day, to save many people alive. (Genesis 50:20, NKJV). Though great evil came Joseph’s way, God’s hand of power never let him go. God is able to convert life’s tragedies into blessings no words can describe.
  2. And he said, “Listen, all you of Judah and you inhabitants of Jerusalem, and you, King Jehoshaphat! Thus says the LORD to you: ‘Do not be afraid nor dismayed because of this great multitude, for the battle is not yours, but God’s. (2 Chronicles 20:15, NKJV). I know, this one does not fit the mold grammatically, but how could I skip it? The great promise on the eve of battle rings true forevermore, in every struggle, every trial, every loss, and every distress: the battle is not yours, but God’s. Whatever giant you face today, go forth in the power of God; be at peace in his perfect promise.
  3. My flesh and my heart fail; But God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. (Psalms 73:26, NKJV). We come to the end of our resources, we want to quit, give up, fall into despair… but God comes in with strength from above and love that knows no bounds. He will strengthen you, uphold you, encourage you, comfort you, and fortify you for the battles ahead.
  4. The nations will rush like the rushing of many waters; But God will rebuke them and they will flee far away, And be chased like the chaff of the mountains before the wind, Like a rolling thing before the whirlwind. (Isaiah 17:13, NKJV). For all who fret over the global political scene, here is hope. Your God is greater than the mightiest nation, ruler, or king. He will work through them and in spite of them to accomplish his glorious plan. He lifts them up, and when the time comes, he brings them down. The rulers of this world may seem almighty, but your omnipotent God towers above them forever.
  5. Then he said to them, “You know how unlawful it is for a Jewish man to keep company with or go to one of another nation. But God has shown me that I should not call any man common or unclean. (Acts 10:28, NKJV). Here, God reverses Peter’s lifetime of religious bigotry and the whole kosher system of the law. The law rendered us unclean, but God, by his mercy, washed us, brought us to his banqueting table, and made us his own.
  6. “But God raised Him from the dead. (Acts 13:30, NKJV). The ultimate victory. Here is hope for life’s darkest hour, peace in life’s fiercest storm, comfort in life’s saddest moments, and faith for life’s biggest obstacles. If God can conquer death, he can conquer whatever foes assail you today.

Click here for part two. If this blessed you, please use the share buttons below to share on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media. Thanks. 

How has God reversed your hardship? Has a bad situation turned into something good for you? Share in the comments your own “but God” story… 

Word! (Chapter 7 from Four Letter Words)

Most people are bothered by those passages of Scripture they do not understand, but the passages that bother me are those I do understand.

Attributed to Mark Twain2

TOUCHY IDEAS

1. The Bible is the inspired Word of God.

2. The Bible is God’s only and final Word, in its own class, above all other religious literature.

3. The theology and ethics of the Bible transcend time and culture and are as applicable today as when originally written.

4. No other book has improved society or benefited mankind as much as the Bible.

TOUCHY SCRIPTURES

1. So Moses came and called for the elders of the people, and laid before them all these words which the LORD commanded him. (Exodus 19:7).

2. I have not departed from the commandment of His lips; I have treasured the words of His mouth More than my necessary food. (Job 23:12).

3. The Holy Spirit spoke rightly through Isaiah the prophet to our fathers. (Acts 28:25).

4. All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:16,17).

5. For prophecy never came by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit. (2 Peter 1:21).

6. Behold, I am coming quickly! Blessed is he who keeps the words of the prophecy of this book. (Revelation 22:7).

 * * * * *

EVIDENCE, VERDICTS, AND MAKING THE CASE

I’ll never forget the first time I opened Evidence that Demands a Verdict. First published in 1972, the book rocketed to best-seller status. Josh McDowell blew my high-school mind with his flawless logic and undeniable evidence for Christianity. He spoke my language. His book assembled massive amounts of data to support the Bible as God’s Word and Jesus as God’s Son. When I read his book, I felt excited. It was like an encyclopedia of unbeatable arguments for Christianity.

Surely my skeptical friends would be convinced. I was right; they were wrong. God rules! That’s how I felt, at least.

To my young mind, McDowell proved beyond doubt that no other religious book compares with the Bible in terms of the number and quality of ancient copies. He laid out proof of Christ’s resurrection that would stand in any court. He contrasted the Bible’s historical accuracy with the inaccuracies of other religious works. McDowell made the case. He put forth evidence that demanded a verdict.

I thought any rational reader would be convinced.

I was wrong.

For most people, the jury is still out on the Bible. I don’t know if it’s postmodern cynicism toward truth, or our inborn allergy to accountability. Maybe it’s a sincere disagreement with the facts, but the evidence that looks so conclusive to me is blatantly inconclusive for a whole lot of my friends.

But for me, there is something about the Bible that sets it in a class by itself. Unfortunately, I can’t prove it like a scientist can prove that a virus causes the flu. It’s hard to subject the Bible’s claims to empirical or rational verification.

So I won’t try. You can find hundreds of excellent websites and books that make the case for the Bible from logic, evidence, and history (you can find links on the Four Letter Words website). I’m all for that, and I’m convinced. But in this chapter, I’d like to take a different approach.

I’d like to look at the Bible’s beauty and love.

WHOSE GOD IS LOVE?

In the history of world religion, it is Christianity alone—drawing from its roots in Judaism—that demolished preconceptions by offering a God of boundless love. If you erase the Bible from history, good luck finding an all-loving deity.

Here are nine major religious perspectives and their core concept of god:

Buddhism

Buddhists do not proclaim a god of love, because Buddhists do not proclaim any god at all. According to BuddhaNet, a major online resource,

“There is no almighty God in Buddhism. There is no one to hand out rewards or punishments on a supposedly [sic] Judgement [sic] Day. Buddhism is strictly not a religion in the context of being a faith and worship owing allegiance to a supernatural being.”3

Buddhists, like Hindus and others, believe in karma, a soulless force that makes sure the bad guys get what’s coming to them—either in this life or the next life, or the next life after that. No doubt, Buddhists can be extremely loving people. But, if you need a God of Love, look elsewhere.

Islam

The one God, Allah, is bigger than, and outside of, creation. Though we can know his will, we cannot know him personally. Muslims do not normally speak of a relationship with Allah. Even when they speak of God’s mercy, it is usually set in the context of justice rather than relationship. One Islamic scholar states, “God does not reveal Himself to anyone.”4 Instead, he reveals his will, and we’re stuck with it. No one can question kismet—the unbending will of Allah. The God of Islam leads with authority, not love.

Hinduism

I struck up a conversation with a gas station attendant in Los Angeles. A calendar hung on the wall behind him with a drawing of a man in a golden suit. I asked the attendant about the picture, figuring it was a politician or celebrity. He answered, “Oh, that is god.” The calendar displayed a different god for each month. Scholars debate how to classify Hinduism. By offering a menu of thousands of gods, it is polytheistic. By claiming that ultimately all things dissolve into oneness—including the gods—it is pantheistic. By suggesting that all gods are aspects of a single Supreme Being, it resembles monotheism. Hindus are comfortable in all three camps. The main gods of Hinduism form a kind of trinity: Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. “They are respectively the creator, preserver and destroyer of the universe.”5 Each one has a female partner-god or consort. Though some of the gods may love their people—especially Devi, the Mother-Warrior goddess—Hinduism offers no all-supreme god of boundless love.

Animism

Animists find spirits lurking behind all things, including people, animals, plants, rocks, streams, trees, and thunderstorms. When the spirits are angry, worshippers appease them through rituals, spells and sacrifice. In the past, this has included human sacrifice. The spirits of animism do not love mankind in any special sense. Most animists resonate more with fear than with love.

Deism

There is a Supreme Being who created the universe and no longer interferes with its operations. Deists threw out any idea of miracles or supernatural influence in the world. Thomas Jefferson stitched together his own Bible by literally using scissors to cut out Scriptures he judged miraculous and therefore unworthy of Jesus. He claimed the true history and sayings of Jesus shined out from the false ones, “like diamonds on a dung heap.” He left the dung heap in the dung heap, and pasted up a 48-page Bible. It told the story of Jesus from his birth (minus angels and a virginal mother) to his burial (minus a resurrection).6 Deism offers an emotionally icy God of High I.Q. who watches from a distance, like a father who left behind a pile of money, and then abandoned his family.

Atheism

There is no god of love because there is no god. Would it annoy you if I pointed out again that ideas have consequences? Strip mankind of its Creator God of Love, and the most heinous crimes become not only thinkable, but actual. It is estimated that communism – in the service of atheism – has slaughtered more humans than any other system ever devised. Death by Government author, R. J. Rummel, estimates that communism in the Soviet Union, China, and Cambodia, killed (or let die) over 110,000,000 people—almost three times the number of humans who died in all the world’s wars during the twentieth century.7

Before you accuse me of breaking the needle on the “moron-meter,” I’m not painting every atheist as a genocidal maniac. One of my good friends is an atheist, and he’s a good-hearted, thoughtful, fun-loving guy. But how can you subtract God’s love from the core of the cosmos, and expect the world’s rulers to curb their lust for power? Why should they?

Wicca

Wicca is an animist religion, and like animism, believes in the spirits of trees and rocks and birds. Through spells, incantations, and rituals, Wiccans hope to persuade these spirits to play nice. Wiccans can exhibit great love for others; I have a couple of ex-Wiccans in my church, and they are kind-hearted people. But while they were in Wicca, no one ever offered them a God of love.

Gnosticism

This ancient philosophy/religion is on the rise, thanks to movies and books like The DaVinci Code.  It comes in many flavors and gloms onto a lot of religions: Gnostic Christianity, Gnostic Judaism, Gnostic Islam (the ‘g’ is silent). It’s basically a shape-shifter, except for a few core beliefs: Gnostics taught that matter was evil (your body), and spirit was good (your soul, all the invisible stuff). Since god is good, he has nothing to do with humans made of matter, like us. So he didn’t create us, and doesn’t relate to us. Instead, he spun off legions of mini-gods, called emanations or demi-urges, who spun off their own mini-gods, who eventually spun off mankind.

In essence, the Gnostic god distanced himself from filthy humans by creating myriads of go-betweens, like clerks in a government office, whose main job is to shield the boss from rabble like us. Can you feel the love?

Ancient Pantheons 

A pantheon is a roster of gods, and the ancient world offered loads of them. Egyptian, Greek, Roman, and Norse pantheons listed literally hundreds of gods. None of the big ones—Ra, Zeus, Jupiter, or Odin—could ever be mistaken as a god of love. Yes, there was love and an occasional spasm of kind-heartedness from them. But it never dawned on ancient people that an Almighty Creator God loved them and had their best interests at heart.

* * * * *

I attended three colleges and flipped through five majors to finally get a bachelor’s degree. During my stint at the University of Illinois (Chicago), I was one of a handful of “Classics” majors. We studied Greek and Roman languages, literature, and culture. I took my first classes in ancient Greek with a Jesuit priest named Father Tracy. Good stuff.

But I don’t remember ever hearing about any deity’s love in any of my classes. Credit Jesus and his people for first injecting a loving God into the theological bloodstream.

GOD IS…

The Apostle John detonated a religious explosion when he wrote, “God is love” (1 John 4:8). He actually wrote it twice (v. 16). No other religion ever made love the heartbeat of God.

Christians own “God is love.”

We might not have always radiated his ideal standards, but we’ve never budged from this mother of all religious premises. We don’t simply say God has love, or that God shows love, or that God—after he’s been fed enough sacrifices—is loving. No. We say, God is love. Followers of Jesus brought that message to the world. Like the original, original, Original Pancake House, there are many copies, but only one original.

That original, found in John’s first Epistle, only echoes a thousand whispers of biblical teaching. John didn’t invent this truth; he only summarized it from all that Scripture already said.

He supremely learned it from Jesus. Jesus taught,

“Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends” (John 15:13) and, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16).

Does love prove the superiority of the Bible? Only if a loving God is important to you. Otherwise, it makes no difference.

THE MAIN THING

The love of God is the main theme of the whole Bible. The different authors of the Bible’s sixty-six books, hold up God’s love like a diamond, and make it sparkle from a million angles.

  • Moses highlighted this love as part of God’s abiding marriage covenant with his people. If God was jealous, it was only because the people he loved went after other lovers.
  • David composed songs about God’s love—friend to friend, and man to God. For David, God wasn’t just “the Big Guy up there,” he was closer than a brother, and more gentle than a shepherd.
  • The Prophets painted God’s love as a portrait of a mother nursing her child, or a lover wooing his beloved. “The LORD has appeared of old to me, saying: ‘Yes, I have loved you with an everlasting love; Therefore with lovingkindness I have drawn you’” (Jeremiah 31:3).
  • The Gospels depict God’s love as a fire burning in Jesus’ heart. Sometimes it was warm and tender: when Jesus ate fish with his disciples, when he turned water to wine, and when he healed lepers and embraced society’s outcasts. Other times…

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You’ve been reading an excerpt from FOUR LETTER WORDS: Conversations on Faith’s Beauty and Logic, by Bill Giovannetti.  © Copyright 2011, All Rights Reserved.

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