For Our Afflictions

018Jesus did a lot of healing when he was here on earth.  I can personally attest that He still does today. So when I come across the following verse, I tend to give it a mental nod and move on.  “Yup, healing, yup, prophecy fulfilled.”

That evening they brought to him many who were oppressed by demons, and he cast out the spirits with a word and healed all who were sick. This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah: “He took our illnesses and bore our diseases.”  Matthew 8:16-17 (ESV)

Today when I read that verse, however, it occurred to me that the verse it quotes in Isaiah is translated slightly differently: “Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows…”(ESV)

So why the difference?  It has to do with translating a translation – Matthew was obviously not quoting the ESV version when he quoted Isaiah.  He was translating Hebrew into Greek, which the ESV translators then translated into English.

So which one is right?

If you go back to the original Hebrew for Isaiah, you see that both are right.  The first word can be translated as grief or sickness, but it can also be translated as anxiety or even calamity.  It means all of that.  The second word means sorrow or pain; it can be mental pain or physical pain.

So He didn’t JUST take our illnesses on the cross.  He didn’t just take on our grief.  He took on our anxiety.  He took on that feeling you get when calamity strikes and you feel completely helpless.  He took on our mental anguish and our wounds from people not treating us right as well as our physical aches and pains.

If we think of this concept only in terms of physical healing, we miss the full meaning.  Likewise, if we only take the Isaiah 53:4 translation and think of it as Him taking our grief and sorrow, we’re right, but we’re only halfway there.

Because while the cross provided a way to heaven for us, we won’t need healing in heaven.  So the diseases, illnesses, grief, sorrow, anxiety and calamity He bore for us are the ones we experience RIGHT NOW, right here on earth.

And if I don’t take those issues to Him but think I’m supposed to somehow solider through on my own, I’m missing the point.  He didn’t suffer on that cross solely so that one day I won’t have to suffer when I get to heaven.

The cross provided for grace to be given every day, for every tear I shed, and every problem I encounter here on earth.

What am I holding on to right now? What weighs me down?  What is causing an ache in the pit of my stomach?  THAT’S what he bore on the cross.  It’s paid for.  I can forgive, I can let it go, I can turn it over to Him — he has ALREADY ACCOMPLISHED the answer for that.  I just have to give it to Him.

Because if He suffered on the cross to take care of it, why on earth would I think I have to solve it on my own?

Some Trust In Chariots

S7300001_r1How many times will I go back to doing things that have already proven not to be helpful before it occurs to me that perhaps I should not go back that way again? As it turns out, I am not alone in my dilemma. Around 3500 years ago, the Lord explained that very concept to the Israelites.

The King, moreover, must not acquire great numbers of horses for himself or make the people return to Egypt to get more of them, for the Lord has told you, “You are not to go back that way again.”  Deut 17:16 (NIV)

After He delivered His chosen people from Egypt, God knew that there would come a time that they would want to be ruled by a king, so that they would be like “everyone else.” He warned them that even then, in their trying to be like everyone else, they should do it in their own, special, set-aside, holy-people-of-God way.  They were not, like everyone else, to fall into the trappings of acquiring status and power symbols and treasure.  They were not to trust in the size or strength of their army, with all its horses and accompanying chariots; they were to trust in the Lord. He was their deliverance and their strength.

And above all, they were not to go back to Egypt to get these things.  Egypt had been a place of refuge, a place of provision and safety, but it had also been a place of bondage and suffering.  The Israelites had come out of Egypt with a collective mentality of slavery. It took years for the Lord to rid them of this attitude and start seeing themselves as God’s Chosen People and a force to be reckoned with among the pagan nations around them.  The last thing He wanted was for them to go back to that mentality, no matter how tempting the benefits of trading with that nation appeared.

The frustrating thing about this is that the Lord had already proven to the Israelites that they did not need the horses and chariots of the Egyptians. That army was not as mighty as people supposed.  He had swept the entire thing aside into the Red Sea, proving once and for all that even the greatest army on earth was no match for the Almighty God.  So He wasn’t asking the Israelites to do something completely crazy by not amassing a cavalry.  He was asking them to trust the One who had proven Himself mightier than the even best-equipped form of protection man could devise.  And yet even after all that, He knew human nature well enough to know that He still needed to warn the Israelites not to go that way.

In the same way, it seems that every time the Lord sets me free from something in my past, some bad attitude or wrong conception or downright entanglement with sin, after the initial glory of freedom wears off, there will come a point where a situation arises that tempts me to fall back into old habits or thought patterns. That difficult person in my life will do that thing again that always hurts me.  That financial situation that was almost resolved will suddenly have a set-back. That promotion I thought was imminent will once again be put aside. Or maybe a combination of traffic, cranky kids and sleep deprivation will align perfectly so that I have A Really Bad Day.

Like the Israelites, when I am faced with these situations, I can chose to not fall back on what I did before.  I can choose not to go down that road, but instead to trust the Lord and let him show me a new road.

And like the Israelites, that old road that is tempting me, that old thought pattern or entrenched groove of bad reaction, that stupid, self-destructive habit, really was not the best way to go about life anyway.  In the immortal words of Dr. Phil, “How’s that workin’ for ya?” And therein lies the problem, and the reason that the Lord had to deliver me from that in the first place.  It wasn’t working for me.  It was making me miserable.  It was a cold, dark cave of insanely repeating the same action and expecting a different result.

But that road is so easy to follow.  It is so easy to go back that way again. It feels comfortable to me. In a cold, dank, dreary, miserable way.

I have come to the conclusion that I need a sign post, or preferably a road block, at the entrance to that road.  I need to mentally construct that across that path.  A big, neon sign that says “You are not to go back that way again.”  And then maybe another one, pointing in the opposite direction, that says, “See, the former things have taken place, and new things I declare; before they spring into being I announce them to you.” Isaiah 42:9 (NIV)

At any rate, I need to keep reminding myself of the truth.  That I have a choice in the way I react.  That my misery is not inevitable. And that God has a far, far better way if I will only stop in my tracks and turn to Him instead.

Promises and Plans

Just when we think we understand God’s plan for our lives, He sometimes takes us the opposite way than we would expect.

“The fire and wood are here,” Isaac said, “but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” Gen. 22:8 (NIV)

“Now there was a famine in the land… The Lord appeared to Isaac and said, “Do not go down to Egypt; live in the land where I tell you to live.” Gen. 26:1-2 (NIV)

The Lord had promised an heir to Abraham and had miraculously brought it to pass.  But He made it clear that even though Isaac was a key figure in His plan, and even though he was the long-awaited fulfillment of a promise, it still was not all about Isaac. Flying in the face of logic, which would dictate that the precious promised one should be protected at all costs, the Lord asked Abraham to sacrifice him. When Abraham, in faith, went through the steps of doing so, right up to the last second, the Lord stopped him and reiterated His promise to bless the world through his offspring.

Fast-forward to the time when Isaac was an adult, married with children — the seed of the promise and the carrying out of God’s plan. Once again, logic would dictate protecting them and providing for them in whatever way was practical.  But when famine came to the land, the Lord instructed Isaac not to take the prudent course of taking refuge in Egypt, but to stay in the land where He had told them to live. When Isaac obeyed, He again reiterated the promise of blessing through the offspring.

Abraham and Isaac both seemed to understand an important concept here — it was important to keep listening to the Lord even after He had delivered on His promise, and even after He had set His plan in motion. When He promises us something, and especially when that promise or that plan involves a period of waiting, our faith can be built by the process as we learn to trust Him.  However, if the focus of that faith shifts off the Lord and onto the promise, or the plan, then we can be in danger of going astray after its completion.

This is usually right at the point where we think we are “safe.” The long-awaited answer to prayer is delivered, or the wheels finally begin to turn on the new ministry or venture, and things appear to be just as they should be. This is not the time to get complacent, though. Just as Abraham needed to understand that he could not hold on to the son for which he waited such a long time, and just as Isaac needed to understand that his safety lay in obedience to the Lord and not necessarily in what he thought was the best course of action, we need to understand that the important thing in our lives is our relationship to the Lord, not the circumstances we have so longed for.

It’s never about the promise or the plan; it’s always about the Promiser and the Planner.

Out Of Our Depth

English: Ocean waves

English: Ocean waves (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Standing in church today, singing along with the congregation, I suddenly glanced around and watched the those around me, belting out, with all their hearts and souls, the words from the song “Oceans” by Hillsong:

Spirit lead me where my trust is without borders
Let me walk upon the waters
Wherever You would call me
Take me deeper than my feet could ever wander
And my faith will be made stronger
In the presence of my Savior

It was a moment of corporate devotion, and since I personally knew a lot of those around me, I knew that they absolutely meant every word they were singing.  They weren’t just singing along.  Their body language, their fervor, and the way they live their lives outside of the church service all tell me that this song was echoing a cry of their heart.  It has been the cry of my own heart for years, and being able to sing it in the company of others who felt the same way brought tears to my eyes.

But oh, how I wanted to get up on the mic and offer them a warning.  “Brothers, sisters, are you counting the cost?  Because you may well get what you are asking for here.”

Not that I would suggest for a moment that someone should not pray this prayer.  I think more prayers should be this challenging, this fervent, this heart-surrendering.  No, I am all for the singing and praying of verses like this. I have spent most of my life doing so.

But when we do pray something like this, it is important to count the cost.   If we have not counted the cost, then when the Lord answers our prayer, and leads us “deeper than our feet would ever wander,” we run the risk of missing the strengthening of our faith.

Because it is relatively easy, when surrounded by fellow saints and caught up in worship, to cry out to the Lord, ‘Yes, Lord! Send me! Call me! Bring it on! Let my faith in You be strengthened!”   Certainly, it can still be a struggle, but let’s assume for the moment that we have reached the point where we are hungry for more than just social Christianity, more than just Church attendance, more than just a declaration of belief.  We are ready to be challenged, knowing that we could be going so much deeper in our understanding, our service and our devotion to Christ.

This is a good thing.  This is a very, very good thing.

But here’s the warning: This FIRST step is not the LAST step. It’s just the first one.  And each subsequent step is just as, if not more, challenging than the one before.

I say this not to discourage anyone from taking that first step, or praying that prayer.  I say this because of all the times I have pleaded with the Lord to take me deeper, only to find myself moaning about circumstances that are trying my faith a little while down the road.

Remember, we prayed that we would be led “deeper than our feet would ever wander.” Think about that for a minute.  That implies that we are asking the Lord to take us to places WE DO NOT NATURALLY WANT TO GO. Because if we wanted to go there, we would eventually wander there of our own accord.

Where is it you do not, absolutely DO NOT want to go?  Strained relationships with loved ones? Sickness in the family? A career or ministry opportunity where you feel totally out of your depth? Financial disaster? Natural disaster?  Think about how hard it would be to be there, in the place you do not want to go, and understand that you just asked the Lord to take you to a place that involves similar not-wanting-to-be-there-ness.

Please understand, I am not saying that if you sing this song, God will strike you down with sickness or make you lose your job or send a hurricane your way.  That would be ludicrous, for many reasons. What I’m saying is, wherever it is the Lord leads you, it will take you outside of your comfort zone, stretch you, show you the areas in which you need to grow, and try your faith to make it stronger.  In all of that, you will most likely come to a point where you FEEL the way any of those situations I listed earlier would make you feel, because, well, He will be leading you somewhere you wouldn’t have chosen to go, and we tend to avoid situations that make us feel that way.

So when you get to that point, if you have not counted the cost and were not expecting it, your first reaction will most likely be to switch to a different song.  Something like, “Rescue me…”  Something along the lines of, “This is all messed up and I want out of it now and I’m sure there’s a Bible verse somewhere that says You have to make it stop.” At that point, you will most likely have completely forgotten that you are right where you asked the Lord to lead you, poised on the brink of going deeper, of having your faith made stronger.

If, however, you have counted the cost, if you have your eyes on Christ rather than the situation, then you will be “in the presence of your Savior.”  In the midst of the most angst-ridden day of your life, you can still be in the presence of your Savior, resting in Him, abiding in Him, trusting in Him. And THAT is where you will suddenly realize you went deeper, and that you hardly recognize your faith, because it has become so strong you no longer worry about the situation, its outcome or your level of stress. You will be reaching out to others from the middle of your need, comforting people with the comfort with which you have been comforted, and hearing things like, “Oh, you’re such a strong person, I could never handle that…”

So sing this song.  Do sing it.  But then don’t forget about it.

And when things start to get uncomfortable, come back and sing it again; it will take on a whole new meaning.

Oceans (Where Feet May Fail)
by Matt Crocker, Joel Houston and Salomon Lighthelm

You call me out upon the waters
The great unknown where feet may fail
And there I find You in the mystery
In oceans deep
My faith will stand

And I will call upon Your name
And keep my eyes above the waves
When oceans rise
My soul will rest in Your embrace
For I am Yours and You are mine

Your grace abounds in deepest waters
Your sovereign hand
Will be my guide
Where feet may fail and fear surrounds me
You’ve never failed and You won’t start now

So I will call upon Your name
And keep my eyes above the waves
When oceans rise
My soul will rest in Your embrace
For I am Yours and You are mine

Spirit lead me where my trust is without borders
Let me walk upon the waters
Wherever You would call me
Take me deeper than my feet could ever wander
And my faith will be made stronger
In the presence of my Savior

I will call upon Your Name
Keep my eyes above the waves
My soul will rest in Your embrace
I am Yours and You are mine

©2012 Hillsong Music Publishing
CCLI #: 6428767

The Not So Great Debate

Argue

Argue (Photo credit: fixedgear)

I have recently become a tutor for Classical Conversations, a homeschooling curriculum/ community.  For those of you familiar with CC, I’m directing Challenge II.  For those of you not familiar, it boils down to me meeting with eight 14-16 year olds once a week for six 6 hours and having conversations about a variety of subjects they are learning at home.  And by conversations, I mean, since this is my first year, struggling with myself to not lecture while simultaneously trying to encourage the students to dialogue with the class, and since the class is 3/4 male, about something other than sports.  And since I have the Most Awesome group of Challenge II students in existence, we succeed a lot of the time.

We went over a chart the other day that spells out the difference between debate and dialogue, taken from the book Socratic Circles by Matt Copeland, which he in turn took from a Social Studies textbook published by Saskatchewan Education. It details the fact that while debate is about winning, dialogue is about finding common ground. Debate is oppositional, while dialogue is collaborative.  In debate, one listens to the other side in order to find flaws and counter arguments.  In dialogue, one listens to the other side in order to understand, find meaning and find agreement.  Debate affirms a person’s own point of view; dialogue enlarges and possibly changes a participant’s point of view.  And the list goes on. After we had gone over the chart, the students spent the rest of the day calling each other out on it: “Wait, is this dialogue going on here or is it debate?  Because it sounds like some DEBATE is going on here…”

I think it would behoove many of us to study this chart. Go ahead, click on the link. It will take you to a pdf; the chart is on pages 5-6.  Print it out.  Stick it on your refrigerator. Because I think we could all use a reminder of the difference between debate and dialogue, and I think we could all benefit if we aimed at the dialogue before the debate.

The thing is, I find myself avoiding posting many overtly Christian statuses on Facebook, not because I’m ashamed of the gospel, but because I cringe at what some of my well-meaning but deluded Christian friends may do in the comments section. It seems to me that far too many who claim to be following Christ are operating under the mistaken assumption that it’s a club sport.  It’s all about being on the winning team.  We are right and you are wrong.  We win and you lose. This works great if you are actually playing a club sport — the teamwork, the camaraderie, the sense of belonging, the chants and cheers and slogans. Awesome, if you’re trying to win at soccer.

Horrific if you are trying to display the love of God to a hurting world.

Because somehow, coming from a debate mindset makes it acceptable to name-call, to be rude to people you haven’t even met.  It causes you to lower yourself to the level of someone who may be spouting negativity simply because they are hurting so very, very badly, which means they have an excuse… but what is yours? It blurs the lines between religion, politics and what-my-daddy-told-me, while having nothing to do with what the Bible actually says.  A disagreement about a favorite candidate/political issue/social arena somehow gets taken as an attack on the “Christian’s” personal relationship with God. And I do mean those quotation marks around the word Christian, because there is nothing about following Christ that has anything to do with this kind of behavior.

Religion should never look like a team sport. This is what gives the word “religion” a bad name.  This is why many Christians avoid using it, and even avoid using the label “Christian.”  And yet the Bible does talk about religion. It says,

“If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless.” James 1:26 (ESV)

The Greek word for “religious” here is thrēskos, which means,

  1. fearing or worshiping God

  2. to tremble

    1. trembling, fearful (Lexicon, BlueLetterBible.com)

Not much about debating in that definition.   A lot about keeping in mind Who is listening to your every word (and reading your emails).

What is interesting is that the Greek word for “religion” at the end of the verse is not the same word, but a derivative: threskeia.  It has a slightly different connotation:

  1. religious worship

    1. esp. external, that which consists of ceremonies

      1. religious discipline, religion (Lexicon, BlueLetterBible.com)

     

A "What Would Jesus Do?" (WWJD) bracelet

A “What Would Jesus Do?” (WWJD) bracelet (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So what James is saying here is that if you think you are a God-fearing, God-worshiping Christian, but do not bridle your tongue, then you are deceiving yourself, and your external show of Christianity is worthless. Scrape the “Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven” bumper sticker off the back of your car. Put away the WWJD bracelet. It’s worth absolutely nothing.  You might as well just go to a ballgame on Sunday.

The verse doesn’t just deal with the concept of religion, however; there is actually something about debating in that verse.  It’s pretty clear. Bridle your tongue, i.e.  DON’T DO IT!!

And by debate, here, I mean lashing out and trying to prove that your idea is better than someone else’s idea.  Not that you shouldn’t participate in a formal debate about any issue regarding religion, Christ or anything else.  Because in a formal debate, there are rules, structures and guidelines designed to eliminate our tendency to degenerate into name-calling.  Being able to explain clearly why you believe a certain way about any given topic is a good skill to develop, and a true, formal debate is a good way to develop it.

Facebook, however, and likewise the comment sections on blogs and articles, is not the arena for a formal debate.  Those avenues are excellent places, on the other hand, to practice dialogue.  Can you disagree with someone in a dialogue?  Certainly.  But you do it respectfully.  Can you contradict someone in a dialogue?  Again, of course, but you do it out of a desire to reach a better understanding of what they are saying  rather than to shut them down.  Will everyone else respond to you with the same courtesy?  Probably not. But we have to start somewhere.  And at least we won’t be deceiving ourselves.

And possibly, if we are truly dialoguing, we will communicate to the other person that we value him or her as an individual, rather than attacking him or her as a representative of this or that belief system.  We may even, by listening carefully, with respect and honor, learn something new, something that causes us to rethink our propensity towards jerking our spiritual “knees” every time we hear a certain word or phrase that someone once told us was an awful, awful sin and therefore scary.

Not that sin isn’t scary. It messes people up.  It derails lives. It entices, sells a bag of goods that is nothing like what it was purported to be, and then condemns the person for holding that bag. But sin does not extend to the person. Sin does not become the definition of the person.  The person may be a “sinner,” i.e. someone who sins, but he or she is still a much-loved and desired creation, made by an Almighty God, who valued that person so much He sent His only Son to die in that person’s place. Who desires that none should perish (2 Peter 3:9) and quite possibly is trying to reach out to that person through us, if He can just get us to get over our list of Buzz Words That Are Evil and bridle our tongues long enough to communicate love.

The Bible has something else to say about religion.  In fact, it’s in the very next verse in the book of James:

“Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.” James 1:27 (ESV)

Again, the word threskeia is used for “religion.” So he’s saying half of your outward form of worship, the thing you display to those around you, rather than your scintillating intellect, rather than your ability to spout memorized arguments, catch phrases of apologetics or slogans you collected off bumper stickers, is to take care of people who need your help.  The other half is to simply keep yourself unstained from the world.  Note it doesn’t say, ‘better than the world” or “insulated by a bubble of Christianliness from the world.” Just unstained.  Let the world’s standards of judgment, attack and one-upmanship roll right off your back.

I think if we all worked a little harder on rising above on the inside while reaching out on the outside, we would find ourselves needing the tools of dialogue far more than we need the tools of debate.

Besides, in a post-Christian, relativistic culture, winning an argument means very little.  Even if you do disprove their belief, your opponent is just as likely to shrug and say, “Whatever, man, I’m still going to believe this,” as he or she is to say, “Forsooth!  At last I see the error of mine ways!” Showing understanding, honor, respect and love to someone, however, goes much further. You may be the only kind words that person has come across that day.

Which is probably why Jesus tended to answer his critics with questions.  He could have silenced every last one of them with his superior understanding of spiritual matters, but He chose not to.  Those of us who claim to be Christ-followers, should, indeed, follow Him in this.