Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

Tag Archives: God

Doesn’t everybody want to change their life?

Jim walked into the small town grocery store, a bundle of tracts in his hand. He looked around, found the tract rack and saw it was almost empty. He dropped the tracts in his had on the counter and went out to his car to get more.

The clerk was reading one of the tracts when he returned. “Don’t read that!” he said. “Unless you want to change your life.”

She looked up at him, smiling. “Doesn’t everybody want to change their life?”

I’ve pondered that for a long time. I don’t think we do. We want our life to be different, but it’s other people and the circumstances of my life that need to change. I am not the problem here, my life will never change unless someone else makes some changes in the way they treat me.

It’s like banging my head against a brick wall. I get a headache, the wall is just the same, has no idea why anyone would expect it to change.

One day God says “You are the problem. You need to change.”

That’s ridiculous. I’m doing the best anyone could hope to do when he has to live and work around all these turkeys.

God persists. I begin to see little things where I might have said things differently, done things differently. But what would that really help? The turkeys are the real problem.

One day things go really badly, and I know that I caused this problem. A light goes on. “OK God, I don’t know how to get out of this mess I’ve made. Please help me.”

Nothing great happens, except I’m a little calmer, now. After a few days I realize that the turkeys don’t seem much like turkeys anymore; they’re pretty much the same as me. I even start to like them. I don’t often see them making mistakes any more but my own mistakes are becoming painfully obvious. I find myself saying “I’m sorry” quite often. I never used to do that. 

One morning I realize that I am looking forward to the day, the little interactions that I might have with all those interesting people around me. Something has changed, and it’s not them. I am different, but it is God who has made the difference in me. I didn’t have a clue where to begin.

Do you want to change the world?

So does God.

He wants to begin with you.

What the Bible is all about

The Bible is not a story about good people versus bad people. It is a story of people that were created to be good and rather chose to be bad from the very beginning. From that point on it is a story of people who have been rescued from evil and those who still need to be rescued.

God created our first parents with the power to choose to obey Him or to choose to obey the temptation offered by the serpent. He knew the risk He was taking, but He never wanted us to be puppets, obeying Him only because we had no choice.

Satan and his dark angels have been at war with God since a time before the physical world was created. The first chapter of the book of Job shows the subtle way in which Satan works and God’s willingness to allow our devotion to Him to be tested. The end of the book shows how God bestows blessings upon us when we steadfastly resist everything that Satan uses to make us mistrust and deny God.

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The Old Testament is the history of God calling people to come apart from the wickedness of the world and follow Him. It is also a demonstration of how people were unable to maintain a life of faith. Step by step God was teaching how the things in which the ungodly trust will always lead to disaster. It was a lesson that usually didn’t stick from one generation to the next. The prophet Jeremiah described it well: “O LORD, I know that the way of man is not in himself: it is not in man that walketh to direct his steps” (Jeremiah 10:23).

There arose among the Jewish people a group who believed they had full understanding of the Word of God and of how God wanted people to live. They were considered to be experts in being faithful servants of God. They were called Pharisees, a name that denoted that they were separate from the ungodly and unbelieving.

When we come to the New Testament we see Satan and his forces using every weapon at their disposal to win mankind to their side. What does God offer to draw us to His side? A man who bled and died on a Roman cross 2,000 years ago.

Doesn’t sound like much of a contest does it? But that man was Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son of God. His death on the cross laid bare the evil intentions of the forces of darkness. When Jesus spoke from the cross and said “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do,” He won a victory over Satan. Forgiveness is not in Satan’s vocabulary, not something he comprehends. Rather than moving God to obliterate mankind for ever, Jesus’ death on the cross made forgiveness available to us all.

Jesus did not stay dead, He rose to life the third day and lives today. The distinctive mark of New Testament followers of God is that the Holy Spirit is now given to every believer, not only to a few prophets and spiritual leaders. We can now have the power of God within us to identify and defeat the ruses of Satan.

The Pharisees knew the Word of God and endeavoured to be obedient in the minutest details. It would seem that they should have been the first to recognize Jesus as the long-promised Messiah. But their status as experts blinded them to the truth. Jesus told them: “Verily I say unto you, That the publicans and the harlots go into the kingdom of God before you” (Matthew 21:31).

It is still that way. Experts find it very difficult to be a Christian. They are too busy looking at how other people are doing everything wrong. Those who admit that they have been dishonest and immoral find they are welcome to come to Jesus. God wants sons and daughters who will trust Him in every aspect of their life. He wants to be obedient so He can lead us in a safe way and in the end bring us to be with Him in heaven.

The great lesson of the Bible is not just that through the blood of Jesus we can be forgiven, come away from the evil that is in the world and one day have a home in heaven. The part that we tend to miss, because we so much want to be experts, is that this is only possible on God’s terms, which we can only know by holding to His hand every step of the way.

Two sisters

Two sisters from a dysfunctional home. Both married at 15, now in their sixties. Let’s call them Kathleen and Karen to keep things straight.

Kathleen’s husband was prone to drunken rages and she bore the brunt of those rages. She finally left, feeling her life was in danger, and took their children with her. She was divorced at 21, lived with several other men, had one more child.

One of those men sexually abused her daughter. The daughter died of cancer at the age of sixteen, her oldest brother came to the funeral handcuffed to a police officer. All the boys had scrapes with the law. None of them ever married, but all have children. Kathleen is unable to have any contact with the children of one of her sons. Neither is he.

Kathleen has lived on welfare most of her life. Her life is a shambles, yet she talks freely of how God has sustained her and occasionally goes to church. She feels she has done the best she could under the circumstances. Her only friends are people in the same circumstances as she is, or worse.

Karen is still married; her husband has provided well for them. They have two daughters, both happily married. Not long ago Karen was diagnosed with lung cancer. Her daughters and sons-in-law rallied around, providing rides to all her appointments and supporting her in every way. She is cancer free, now, but her husband is undergoing cancer treatment. Once again the family is there for them.

Karen never talks about God, but somewhere she got the idea that her life could be different from the life of her parents. Kathleen seemingly never did.

We wonder what made the difference. Could it be the three years that Karen spent in the home of her aunt and uncle before she started school? That wasn’t perhaps the best of homes, but it was light years better than her parents home. The acceptance she felt from her husband’s family must have helped, too.

Still, it is one thing to see that your life can be better than the life of the family you grew up in, It is quite another thing to make that difference happen. Karen was determined, she did what she could to make it happen.

We look at people like Kathleen and say “Don’t they know any better?” I don’t believe they do. I’m sure they have an inkling that things should be different, they wish things could be different, but they have no support, no one to turn to, if they would want to change. What are we to do?

Telling them about faith in the saving power of Jesus Christ is an important part of the answer. But is faith enough? Let’s paraphrase James:

“If a neighbour be forsaken, and destitute of love and affection, and one of you say unto them, depart in peace, be ye encouraged and filled with love; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to emotional wholeness; what doth it profit? Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone.” (Adapted from James 2:15-17).

How well do you know God?

How well do you know your neighbour? Perhaps you think you know quite a lot about him, but do you really know him? Do you know what makes him tick, what things motivate him, what things give him joy or sorrow? Do you know what he’d like to tell you about how you could be a better neighbour?

How well do you know God? Perhaps you read the Bible and pray every day. Do you hear God speaking when you do that, or is it just something a good Christian is supposed to do? Do you hear God telling you what He’d like to make of your life? Do you hear Him telling you about things He really wishes you would do differently?

When you read the Bible, are you just wandering to and fro, picking the prettiest flowers, the shiniest stones? Do you ever wonder why some people seem to find so much more? Or do people sometimes tell you something they say they found in the Bible and it just don’t seem right, but you don’t know how to find out for yourself?

Let’s start from square one: the goal of reading the Bible is not to learn nice stories about God; it is not to learn about the future: it is not to discover a set of rules to guide our life; it is not to equip ourselves to argue or debate with others. The only purpose for reading the Bible is to get to know its author and to know what He wants us to do here and now in this time and place in which we live.

It has always been the people who were small in their own eyes who accomplished the most for God. Noah spent 100 years building a huge boat. Do we understand how ridiculous that was? Water falling from the sky – that had never happened in the entire history of the world. Yet here was this old guy saying that God was going to send rain to wash the world of all the sin that was happening. I imagine the people scoffed at his foolish words and actions.

Finally the boat was built and stocked with food for all the people and creatures that would ride out the flood. Just more foolishness. Then the animals started coming to the ark. I suppose those who saw thought it strange, but what did it prove? Noah did not exclude anyone from coming into the ark to be saved, but finally God shut the door. And the deluge came. We know a lot about this foolish old man who built the ark, and nothing at all about those who perished in the flood, however great they may have been in their own eyes.

King Saul started out small in his own eyes, but the romance of being king soon began to grow on him. He didn’t come to a good end, either. It is still that way – those who develop a sense of how important and needful they are for the work of God, cease to be useful to God.

The vitality, the purity and the growth of the kingdom of God depends on the vitality, the purity and the growth in faith and obedience of each individual member of the kingdom. “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16). Let’s read it all, chapter by chapter, book by book, the whole Bible, over and over. Let’s read it in bite-sized pieces so that we can grasp what is happening; let’s read the whole story in sequence so that we can grasp the context and see the larger picture.

Let’s read it prayerfully, asking God to reveal to us step by step what He wants us to see, what we need to see for this particular moment and place in time. As we do so, we will develop an acquaintanceship and a relationship with God that grows deeper all the time. He will reprove us, instruct us and encourage us, as long as we are obedient in each small step of the way.

Let the oppressed go free

 How can any nation pretend to fast or worship God at all, or dare to profess that they believe in the existence of such a Being, while they carry on the slave trade, and traffic in the souls, blood, and bodies, of men! O ye most flagitious of knaves, and worst of hypocrites, cast off at once the mask of religion; and deepen not your endless perdition by professing the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, while ye continue in this traffic!

–Adam Clarke’s commentary on Isaiah 58:6

Sometimes a light surprises

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Image by Piet van de Wiel from Pixabay

Sometimes a light surprises
The Christian while he sings;
It is the Lord who rises
With healing in His wings:
When comforts are declining,
He grants the soul again
A season of clear shining,
To clear it after rain.

In holy contemplation,
We sweetly then pursue
The theme of God’s salvation,
And find it ever new:
Set free from present sorrow,
We cheerfully can say,
Let the unknown tomorrow
Bring with it what it nay.

It can bring with it nothing,
But He will bring us through;
Who gives the lilies clothing,
Will clothe His people too:
Beneath the spreading heavens,
No creature but is fed;
And He who feeds the ravens,
Will give His children bread.

Though vine nor fig-tree neither,
Their wonted fruit should bear,
Though all the fields should wither,
Nor flocks, nor herds be there;
Yet God the same abiding,
His praise shall trill my voice,
For while in Him confiding,
I cannot but rejoice.

-William Cowper

Mixed up about the Gibeonites

God had miraculously led the children of Israel through Jordan and to victory over Jericho and Ai. Before them now were the mountains; the nations in those mountains greatly outnumbered the Israelites and they were men of war. These were the people who had so frightened their fathers forty years earlier; the challenge before them was formidable.

Up in their mountain stronghold, the people of Gibeon had gotten the message that God planned to give this land to the Israelites and they believed that He could and would do it. They also knew that God had forbade the Israelites to make any covenant with the people of the land. So they hit upon a ruse, sending a delegation pretending to come from a far country and wanting to make a league of peace between their people and the people of God.

Of course it was deception, and yes, Joshua and the elders of Israel were tricked into doing what God had told them not to do. And yet, what was the result? Bible story lessons make this a great issue. But what evidence can they point to of God’s displeasure?

The kings of the Amorites called out their armies to attack Gibeon in order to prevent the Israelites from gaining a foothold in the mountains. God told Joshua to go to the defence of the Gibeonites and promised to deliver the attacking armies into his hands. He rained hailstones that killed more of the Amorites than Joshua’s army, He made the sun stand still in the sky until the victory was complete. Over the next few days Joshua and the Israelites attacked and vanquished all the Amorite cities. Far from punishing the Gibeonites, God had used them as the key to the conquest of the whole southern half of the promised land.

Now the kings of the north, Hittites, Perezites, Jebusites and the rest of the Amorites and Hivites, gathered together to prepare an attack on the Israelites. Joshua and the army marched north to attack the gathered armies and once again God gave them a decisive history. Now they were masters of the whole land. They had not destroyed all the people of the land, but there were no longer any mighty armies to stand against them.

As we read the whole story, the inescapable conclusion is that God blessed the Israelites for accepting the Gibeonites. Yes, they came with a deceitful story, yet they did it because they recognized the greatness of God. They submitted willingly to the conditions laid upon them by the elders of Israel, knowing that the alternative was death. Joshua 11:19 says: “There was not a city that made peace with the children of Israel, save the Hivites the inhabitants of Gibeon: all other they took in battle.”

We can natter on if we wish about the wickedness of the Gibeonite deceit and the wickedness of the people of God in falling for their treachery. But we won’t find anything in the Word of God to back us up.

It is true that God did instruct the people in Deuteronomy 20:17 : “But thou shalt utterly destroy them; namely, the Hittites, and the Amorites, the Canaanites, and the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites; as the LORD thy God hath commanded thee.” Are we blaming God for not sticking to His word even when one group of those people willingly submitted to Him? God later told Jeremiah: “At what instant I shall speak concerning a nation, and concerning a kingdom, to pluck up, and to pull down, and to destroy it; if that nation, against whom I have pronounced, turn from their evil, I will repent of the evil that I thought to do unto them” (Jeremiah 18:7-8).

The story of the Gibeonites is a vivid portrayal of the redemption that God offers to all mankind when we accept His judgement on our sins. It is a story of God’s providential care of His people in leading them to victory and of his mercy to the heathen in drawing them to find salvation with His people.

The Gibeonites did not become slaves to the Israelites. Read the story carefully, they became slaves of the Levites for the service of the tabernacle. There was mercy even in this. Their work was menial, but it was for the service of God and it protected them from oppression and mistreatment. It is likely that the Gibeonites are included among the people later called Nethinims.

There came a time when King Saul thought he would do God a service by wiping out the Gibeonites. Because of this God sent a three year famine in Israel in the time of King David. The famine ceased when seven of Sauls grandsons were hung. I don’t read this as revenge. This was the most effective means of getting the message out to all Israel that the slaying of the Gibeonites was entirely Saul’s idea and contrary to the will of God. Nowadays Twitter may be quicker, but often not much kinder.

Let’s not be like Saul and condemn the Gibeonites for their deception. The real story here is a group of Gentiles forsaking their gods to seek refuge with Israel and their God. Perhaps their methods were questionable, but the Bible account leads us to believe the sincerity of their desire to fully submit to the Almighty God.

Oral history of God’s works

In the beginning, people’s memories were better than they are today. Somebody once asked Albert Einstein for his phone number. He went for the phone book to look it up. Incredulous, his colleague asked “You don’t remember your own phone number?” “No. Why should I memorize something I can look up in a book?”

There were no books, no alphabet, no means of written information sharing at the beginning of time. So people gathered around their campfires in the evening and the storyteller would tell them their history. Storytellers had a prodigious memory, but so did the people who listened. If the story teller didn’t tell the story right, his listeners were sure to notice.

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This type of oral history is still found in non-literate societies, and is considered just as accurate as written history, possible even more so due to its collaborative nature. The book of Genesis was first oral history of this kind.

Various peoples developed pictographic styles of writing that used stylized shapes to depict people, animals, places and happenings. There was a limit to how much information could be conveyed in such a manner.

Historians say that the Sumerians began to develop something approaching a phonetic alphabet which was later adopted and refined by the Hebrews. There is a missing link in this theory. The Sumerians never did go on to develop a phonetic alphabet and there is no evidence the Hebrews ever experiment with earlier forms of symbols that developed into a phonetic alphabet. But we are told that 50 days after leaving Egypt, Moses came down the mountain with tablets of stone in his hands. On these tablets, God Himself had inscribed what we now call the Ten Commandments, in a phonetic alphabet.

There is no evidence of a phonetic alphabet anywhere before this moment that forever altered human history. The second commandment says: “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth: thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God.” How could this ever have been communicated in pictographic writing that consisted of images of creatures?

Up to this moment, the people had always wanted to see God as being like some creature that they were familiar with. Now God was telling them He was not anything like that, nor anything else they had ever seen. The Almighty, invisible God wanted His people to stop trying to imagine what He looked like and rather think of Him as the embodiment of qualities like righteousness, mercy and love.
This was the beginning of abstract thinking, the ability to grasp that the invisible God was always near to His children and to consider the consequences of their actions and the actions of others.

The Hebrew alphabet consisted of 22 letters, all consonants. It was written from right to left and had no punctuation. The fast letters were Alef, Bet, Gimel, Dalet. Many years later diacritical marks were added to indicate vowel sounds.

The Greeks took this alphabet and added vowels. The first letters in the Greek alphabet are Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta. The Romans adopted the Greek alphabet and provided the letter shapes we use today. The word alphabet comes from the first two letters: Alef-Bet in Hebrew, or Alpha-Beta in Greek.

Moses now had the tools to provide God’s people with a written history, beginning with the creation and following the lineage of those who were faithful to God, from Adam to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. He continued to write the history of the exodus and the giving of the law. The first five books of the Bible were written by Moses and are called the Law.

There is one book in the Bible that seems to be outside the history of God’s chosen people. This is the book of Job. It is quite possible that this was oral history that Moses heard told and retold during the years he was shepherd for his Midianite father-in-law.

Job is from the land of Uz, an area in the kingdom of Edom, the possession of the descendents of Esau, the brother of Jacob and Abraham’s grandson. Eliphaz is from Teman, also in Edom. Bildad the Shuhite would be a descendant of Schua, Abraham’s son by Keturah. He would have been from an area close to Edom. Zophar was a Naamathite, indicating descent from Naamah, a son of Esau. Elihu, son of Barachel the Buzite appears later. Buz was a son of Nahor, Abraham’s brother. Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law was a Midianite. Median was another son of Abraham and Keturah.

All the people mentioned are descendents of Abraham or his brother and inhabited an area east and south of the Dead Sea. Moses would have led his flocks in this area, often meeting the people of this heritage at oases. I am surmising that the story of Job became familiar to him and God told him to put it in writing for the instruction of His people. I don’t know this, but this seems the most logical route for it to have become part of our Bible. Except for the first two chapters and the last ten verses, the book of Job is a poem. An epic poem that stuck in the mind and taught eternal truths.

Abraham our father

The apostle Paul tells us that Abraham is the father of all who believe (Romans 4:11-16). If we want to talk about faith then, discovering who Abram was, and what he did, seems a logical starting point. We first encounter him in Genesis 11, still named Abram, one of the three sons of Terah.

The family lived in Ur of the Chaldees. For many years the only Ur known to Bible scholars was the large city located south of the mouth of the Euphrates on the Persian Gulf. The difficulty is that this Ur was Sumerian, not Chaldean. More research has led to the discovery of references to a smaller Ur, far to the northwest, between the Tigris and Euphrates. This was in Chaldean territory and was no doubt referred to as Ur of the Chaldees to distinguish it from the larger Sumerian city.

The Bible does not tell us the circumstances of God’s call to Terah to leave Ur and go to Canaan. Perhaps we can take from references in the Bible that God spoke to Abram and all his father’s family went with him. Genesis 11:41 tells us that Terah and his family left Ur to go to Canaan, but stopped at Haran. This may have been halfway or less. By this time Terah’s son Haran had died, but Haran’s son Lot accompanied his grandfather and his uncles Abram and Nahor.

The family lived in Haran until Terah died. Then God again spoke to Abram, telling him to leave and go to Canaan, promising him “in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed” (Genesis 12:3). Lot and his family accompanied Abram, but Nahor remained in Haran. When Abram and Lot arrived in Canaan, God appeared to Abram again and said “Unto thy seed will I give this land” (verse 7). Abram was already an old man, and he had no children, yet he believed the promise.

Abram and Lot lived close to each other until their flocks increased so there wasn’t enough pasture for both. Abram gave Lot the choice of where he wanted to go with his flocks. He chose the plains near Sodom where there was abundant pasture and water, leaving the mountains for Abram.

Abram continued to trust God and prosper. His herdsmen dug a well and their Canaanite neighbours filled it with rocks. He didn’t protest, just moved further away and dug another well, with the same result. Finally he found a place where he could dig a well for his flocks without opposition from his neighbours.

A picture emerges of Abram as a man who often has encounters with God and fully trusts His promises. He is a man of peace, avoiding quarrels with his family and his neighbours. Lot was not as trusting, seeking an assurance of prosperity for his flocks. His choice had disastrous consequences for his family and he barely escaped with his life when God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah.

There are spiritual parallels in the lives of Terah and his family. God calls them to depart from wickedness and travel to a land that He promised to them. Nahor is content to go halfway. Abram and Lot get to the promised land, but Lot does not fully trust God to provide for him and reaps the consequences. Abram believes the promises of God and trusts that God will make them happen in His own way, in His own time. This faith echoes through all the subsequent pages of the Bible.

Why am I still here?

It amazed us when Aggie greeted us by name. This was only the second time we had visited her and at our first meeting she had already passed her 100th birthday.

Aggie was an amazing lady all round. She did not need hearing aids; she had glasses, but still read a regular print Bible. She walked with a cane, but that was more for insurance than for need of support. Every Sunday someone picked her up to take her to church.

It had piqued our interest when we read in the newspaper about the 100th birthday of this lady whose last name was the same as my wife’s maiden name. Since she lived in a nursing home in a town not too far away, we looked her up. We never found out if there was any family connection, but that didn’t seem all that important when we got to know her.

She posed the question I have used as a title for this post. What purpose did God have in preserving her life? Her children lived far away. But a grandson had moved back to teach at the school right beside the nursing home. Aggie loved to watch the children. Why aren’t all nursing homes built beside schools?

We thought it was enough that Aggie was a little candle in a place full of shadows. She loved God, loved her neighbours, was thankful and cheerful. I want to be like that if I live so long.

Years later, we met a man over 100, a distant relative of mine this time. He lived in an apartment beside the nursing home where my mother spent the last year of her life.

Jacob still had a driver’s license and drove to his country church every Sunday. Except in winter, for, he said, “If I were to have an accident on the snow and ice, they would take my license away.”

This 100-year-old man loved to take nursing home residents for walks around the beautifully landscaped grounds, pushing their wheelchairs. He had outlived his wife and two of his children, but wasted no time feeling sorry for himself. He still had something left to give.

Perhaps I am thinking this way because I had another injection in my eye yesterday, to counteract the effects of macular degeneration. The eye specialist is often a little surprised that I can detect the effects so soon, when the scans of my retina show only the beginning of a slight swelling.

I suppose it might take me longer to notice if I spent most of my time watching TV. But I don’t have a TV; to pass my life being entertained doesn’t sound like much of a life. I am a reader, writer and bookkeeper; when a line of type, or a column of numbers, develops waves I call my eye doctor.

It is ten and a half years since I first noticed this happening and the doctor first stuck a needle in my eye to inject a couple drops of a special medication. It has worked for me so I can still drive and work with words and numbers.

But, if the macular degeneration had begun a few years earlier no medicine would have been available. The timing was right; I am blessed and so are so many others. The question that comes to me is not so much why, as, what am I supposed to be doing with the extra time that the injections have given me to use my vision? The answer seems to be that now is the time to write.

I have thought of myself as a would-be writer since my school days and have always written in free moments. There has been more time in the last few years and I have applied myself to learning and honing my writing skills. Perhaps it is time to stop thinking of myself as a would-be writer and get with it.

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