Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

Tag Archives: God

Uncharted Seas

Everything is changing and we must change with the times or be left behind. Nothing we knew yesterday will be of any value to us tomorrow. But tomorrow will be better than today and the day after that even better. This is the age of progress.

But where is this progress taking us? Hush! It is heresy to even talk of a destination. There is none, only endless change. And all change is for the better. Any thought that things might not be getting better dare not be uttered. That too is heresy.

Things that used to be accepted as self-evident reality have been swept away. Things like gender and procreation for example. Gender is now changed, manipulated at will. We are getting beyond even the dystopian vision of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.

As if being adrift in this restless sea of modernity was not enough, I hear some Christians quoting Hegel: “The only thing we learn from history is that we do not learn from history.” Do they not understand how profoundly anti-Christian such a statement is?

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Image by Elias Sch. from Pixabay

In the turbulent waters of change there are no reference points to tell us where we are or in which direction we are moving. We have to look outside of the waters of change to find stable landmarks to orient ourselves in the journey of life.

All of the Bible is history. “For whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the scriptures might have hope” Romans 15:4. “Now all these things happened unto them for ensamples: and they are written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the world are come” 1 Corinthians 10:11. “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.

The Bible is honest to God history, history that tells us that others have travelled through this life before us with a destination in mind, that God inspired them to believe that there was a destination and then guided them step by step through life to find that destination. This is history that we desperately need to read and learn from.

“But now they [we] desire a better country, that is, an heavenly: wherefore God is not ashamed to be called their [our] God: for he hath prepared for them [usd] a city” Hebrews 11:16. “For here have we no continuing city, but we seek one to come” Hebrews 13:14.

We cannot see that city, but we have the Bible to show us the way. In addition there are the ancient landmarks set by our spiritual forefathers through their faith and experiences and their statements of faith.

Truth still stands, impervious to every attempt to deny it, dilute it, twist it, destroy it or pretend it never existed. Truth is not the popular choice, but if we look closely we will see that the impetuous waters of change destroy everything end everyone afloat on its surface.

Sins of omission?

James 4:17: “Therefore to him that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is sin.”

The last clause of this verse is written in the passive voice which leads some presumptuous readers of the Bible to take it to mean that there are sins of omission which are much less serious than sins of commission.

“There’s nothing happening here folks, nothing to be alarmed about.”

But there is something happening and we should be alarmed. When we neglect to do what we know we should do, we have made a choice. That choice is rebellion against God, and it is a sin. It is just as serious a sin as any other choice we make that we know to be contrary to the will of God.

French Bibles cast this verse in the active voice: “He then sins, who knows what is good and does not do it.”

Adam Clarke says: “As if he had said: After this warning none of you can plead ignorance; if, therefore, any of you shall be found to act their ungodly part, not acknowledging the Divine providence, the uncertainty of life, and the necessity of standing every moment prepared to meet God – as you will have the greater sin, you will infallibly get the greater punishment. This may be applied to all who know better than they act. He who does not the Master’s will because he does not know it, will be beaten with few stripes; but he who knows it and does not do it, shall be beaten with many; Luke 12:47-48.”

May we not take false comfort from a mistaken reading of one verse. Remember that God is keeping account of every decision we make. May we live accordingly.

Adam Clarke says it well: “That man walks most safely who has the least confidence in himself. True magnanimity keeps God continually in view. He appoints it its work, and furnishes discretion and power; and its chief excellence consists in being a resolute worker together with him. Pride ever sinks where humility swims; for that man who abases himself God will exalt. To know that we are dependent creatures is well; to feel it, and to act suitably, is still better.”

She never gives up

Saturday afternoon Bianca Andreescu won the U.S. Open women’s tennis tournament. She is 19 and the first Canadian ever to win a grand slam tennis tournament.

A comment made by one of her opponents has stuck in my mind: “She never gives up.” In several matches she seemed to be faltering, on the verge of being defeated. Then Ms. Andreescu would re-focus, buckle down and do what she needed to do to win the match.

The New Testament writers, especially the apostle Paul, often drew analogies from the popular sports of their day. Here, in abbreviated form, is the way Adam Clarke explained the last four verses of the ninth chapter of 1 Corinthians:

They which run in a race run all – The apostle alludes to the athletic exercises in the games celebrated every fifth year on the isthmus which joins the Peloponnesus, or Morea, to the main land; and were thence termed the Isthmian games. The exercises were running, wrestling, boxing, throwing the discus, etc.; to the three first of these the apostle especially alludes.

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Image by jacqueline macou from Pixabay

But one receiveth the prize? – The apostle places the Christian race in contrast to the Isthmian games; in them, only one received the prize, though all ran; in this, if all run, all will receive the prize; therefore he says, So run that ye may obtain. Be as much in earnest to get to heaven as others are to gain their prize; and, although only one of them can win, all of you may obtain.

Is temperate in all things – All those who contended in these exercises went through a long state and series of painful preparations. To this exact discipline Epictetus refers, cap. 35:“Do you wish to gain the prize at the Olympic games? – Consider the requisite preparations and the consequences: you must observe a strict regimen; must live on food which you dislike; you must abstain from all delicacies; must exercise yourself at the necessary and prescribed times both in heat and in cold; you must drink nothing cooling; take no wine as formerly; in a word, you must put yourself under the directions of a pugilist, as you would under those of a physician, and afterwards enter the lists. Here you may get your arm broken, your foot put out of joint, be obliged to swallow mouthfuls of dust, to receive many stripes, and after all be conquered.” Thus we find that these suffered much hardships in order to conquer, and yet were uncertain of the victory.

They do it to obtain a corruptible crown – The crown won by the victor in the Olympian games was made of the wild olive; in the Pythian games of laurel; in the Nemean games of parsley; and in the Isthmian games of the pine. These were all corruptible, for they began to wither as soon as they were separated from the trees, or plucked out of the earth. In opposition to these, the apostle says, he contended for an incorruptible crown, the heavenly inheritance. He sought not worldly honour; but that honour which comes from God.

I therefore so run, not as uncertainly – In the foot-course in those games, how many soever ran, only one could have the prize, however strenuously they might exert themselves; therefore, all ran uncertainly; but it was different in the Christian course, if every one ran as he ought, each would receive the prize.

Not as one that beateth the air – Pugilists were said to beat the air when they had to contend with a nimble adversary, who, by running from side to side, stooping, and various contortions of the body, eluded the blows of his antagonist; who spent his strength on the air, frequently missing his aim, and sometimes overturning himself in attempting to hit his adversary, when this, by his agility, had been able to elude the blow. We have an example of this in Virgil’s account of the boxing match between Entellus and Dares, so well told Aeneid. v., ver. 426, etc., and which will give us a proper view of the subject to which the apostle alludes: viz. boxing at the Isthmian games.

To such a combat as this the apostle most manifestly alludes: and in the above description the reader will see the full force and meaning of the words, So fight I, not as one that beateth the air – I have a real and a deadly foe; and as I fight not only for my honour but for my life, I aim every blow well, and do execution with each.

But I keep under my body, etc. – This is an allusion, not only to boxers, but also to wrestlers in the same games, as we learn from the word υʽπωπιαζω, which signifies to hit in the eyes; and δουλαγωγω, which signifies to trip, and give the antagonist a fall, and then keep him down when he was down, and having obliged him to acknowledge himself conquered, make him a slave. The apostle considers his body as an enemy with which he must contend; he must mortify it by self-denial, abstinence, and severe labour; it must be the slave of his soul, and not the soul the slave of the body, which in all unregenerate men is the case.

Lest – having preached to others – The word which we translate having preached, refers to the office of the herald at these games, whose business it was to proclaim the conditions of the games, display the prizes, exhort the combatants, excite the emulation of those who were to contend, declare the terms of each contest, pronounce the name of the victors, and put the crown on their heads.

Should be a castaway – The word signifies such a person as judges of the games reject as not having deserved the prize. So Paul himself might be rejected by the great Judge; and to prevent this, he ran, he contended, he denied himself, and brought his body into subjection to his spirit, and had his spirit governed by the Spirit of God. Had this heavenly man lived in our days, he would by a certain class of people have been deemed a legalist; a people who widely differ from the practice of the apostle, for they are conformed to the world, and they feed themselves without fear.

God loves messed up people

Adam and Eve disobeyed God. Abram was ready to sacrifice his wife to the lusts of powerful men to save his own skin. Jacob gained his brother’s birthright by dubious means, and with his mother’s connivance. David had way too many wives. These were the kind of people God used to accomplish His plans here on earth. A disagreement arose between Paul and Barnabas so that they could not work together. Both died as martyrs for the cause of Christ.

Rahab helped the Israelite spies get safely out of Jericho, the Bible calls her a prostitute. Ruth got under the covers with Boaz out in the harvest field. Bathsheba had a one night stand with King David and he arranged the death of her husband in consequence. These are the three women mentioned in the genealogy of Jesus in the gospel of Matthew.

God blesses and works with people who are deeply flawed. There are no other kind of people for Him to work with. If we think we are better, we put ourselves in the category of the Pharisees who trusted in themselves that they were righteous. Jesus called them white washed sepulchres – pure and clean on the outside, but full of dead men’s bones and filth inside.

I am not better than the people I have already named, or all the other messed up people described in the Bible. I have repented, I have been forgiven, but I am still a messed up person who messes up far too often when I am trying to do good. But I don’t hear God screaming at me every time I make a mistake “You idiot! You made a mess of things again!” He tells me that it was good that I tried and that He wants me to keep on trying.

The accusations come from another source, the accuser of the brethren. If I listen to him I won’t have the courage to try to do anything good again.

The Bible tells us we need to be perfect. Some people have devised a doctrine whereby they believe they have had a second touch from the Lord, a second work of grace, and now they don’t sin anymore. I’ve met people like that. They didn’t seem like the kind of people I’d want to go to if I was troubled.

The perfection the Bible speaks of is maturity. Perfect means complete, not flawless. Biblical perfection is taking responsibility for what we do. When I do something bad, it was not Tommy, or Suzy, or the devil, who made me do it. I did it all by myself and I need to own up to it.

When David numbered the people and God gave him a choice of punishments to be visited upon the people, he responded “I have sinned, but what have these sheep done?” That is maturity, or perfection. That is why David was a man after God’s own heart.

Isaiah said “I am a man of unclean lips and I dwell among a people of unclean lips.”  I often mess up and hurt other people by the things I say and do. Other people often hurt me by the things they say and do. That’s life. That’s why Jesus instructed us to pray that God would forgive us as we forgive others. Forgiveness can’t just be between me and God. I need to forgive others for every careless word and deed they do.

All unrighteousness is sin. But not all is deliberate, not in the things we do or in the things others do. We are messed up, every one of us, and God loves each one of us. Let’s just forgive and move on.

Jesus told the Pharisees that the prostitutes and publicans would find it easier to enter the kingdom of heaven than they would. We may look at the people who are leading honest and orderly lives and think they are the ideal mission prospects. In all likelihood they are quite content with the results of their own efforts and don’t see any need to repent and trust in the blood of Jesus. A few will, just as some of the Pharisees did.

But we should not expect converts to present themselves to us in neat, gift-wrapped packages. Most often their lives, their feelings and their ideas about themselves, and about God and Christianity, will be in turmoil. These are the ones who know that things are  not right, that they need help. The challenges they present do not have easy answers. Let’s remember that God loves messed up people. After all, He has accepted us. All we need to do is listen to them and listen to God. He is the one who has the answers, we don’t.

Anchored in the rock

My father’s parents came from St. Lawrence County in upstate New York. They were dairy farmers because the soil there could not support any other kind of agriculture. That area is part of the Canadian shield, where the solid bedrock is often exposed, and never far below the surface. This is the kind of soil Jesus called stony ground in the parable of the sower.

The fields have six inches of topsoil above the bedrock. This permits the growing of grass for pasture and hay, and of cereal crops for silage. Because there is no depth of soil, those cereal crops would dry up before they reached maturity. There is no possibility of grain harvest, but it worked for producing cattle feed for the dairy farmers.

Yet there are trees there, rooted in the solid rock outcropping. Seeds drifted in long ago, were caught in the rough surface of the rock and germinated in the spring rains. The tiny root tendrils insinuated themselves into fissures in the rock that are almost invisible to the human eye. Nourished by summer rains and sunshine and whatever organic material collected in those crevices, the trees grew. The tendrils grew larger, widening and deepening the fissures. Fall leaves and other organic material collected beneath the trees; eventually there were large trees, solidly anchored in the rock and drawing their nourishment from it.

Does the Bible seem hard to understand, almost impenetrable? Take a lesson from those trees growing out of the rock. Read the Bible, the whole Bible. Don’t expect to understand it all the first time you read it. But little tendrils of understanding will grow. As you persevere, they will grow and more will develop. If you are sincerely reading to become acquainted with God and His plan for your life, the evidence of those roots will become increasingly visible in your life.

This process of putting down roots into the Word of God that are unseen to others will produce fruit that is visible. This is a lifelong process that anchors us to the eternal truth. Jesus said “Heaven (the visible heavens) and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away,” Matthew 24:35; Mark 13:31; Luke 21:33.

The things I believe

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Image by Heidi B from Pixabay

I believe in the God revealed in the Bible. The great and terrible Almighty and Eternal Creator of all things, who hates all unrighteousness. I believe that He is at the same time loving, merciful and compassionate, a father for the fatherless. He knows everything about us and wants us to know Him and be with Him for eternity.

I believe the Bible as it is written. It was written by many different men over several thousand years, yet the more I read it the more I see that there was one mind guiding it every step of the way, the mind of the Holy Spirit. I believe the Bible interprets itself, providing we read it all. Each time we read it a little more of God’s great design opens up before our eyes. We cannot discover that design by reading little bits here and there, or by looking for some external key to unlock its mysteries. That is a way that leads to deception.

I believe in the church revealed in the New Testament. I believe that it was God’s plan from the beginning to draw all those who put their trust in Him into one body, with Jesus Christ as both the foundation and the head. God is calling all mankind, but only those who are born again and led of the Holy Spirit may become members of His church. The church described in the New Testament cannot be an amorphous confusion of disembodied body parts, or living stones scattered here and there. The picture given by the New Testament is of a living, functioning and coordinated body or temple.

I believe that Jesus’ call to go into all the world and make disciples of all nations is still being obeyed. The door is yet open for those who are willing to consecrate their lives to Jesus, not only as Saviour, but as Lord of their lives.

I believe the time is short; judgment is coming.

What do you want to be when you grow up?

When I was growing up in the 1950’s, the older generation had scraped and scrabbled to survive the depression and they wanted their children to have a better life. The key to that was to get a good education so you could be someone who could make a living without working hard. Maybe that wasn’t what they intended to say, but that was what we heard. That gave rise to the question so often posed to us: “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

The question implied that there was no dignity in hard work; we should to be something better than our parents had been. That meant that our parents didn’t have what it would take to guide us into being the people we should be. We would need to turn to professional help.

Some time after high school, I had a visit with a guidance counsellor. He gave me a massive aptitude test to take home. The test comprised at least 200 multiple-choice questions. The questions were on card stock, with holes punched beside each of the four answers. You used a pencil to make a circle on the answer paper below and then use the key to interpret your responses.

I did the test once, and the result showed a strong interest and aptitude for accounting. I mused on that, realizing that this choice had been in the back of my mind as I did the test. I wondered what would happen if I did the test again, thinking of how I might answer the questions if I was interested in becoming an engineer.

I created a handwritten set of answer sheets, photocopiers didn’t exist back then, and went through the test again. Lo-and-behold the answer key told me I had a definite aptitude for engineering and should pursue a career in that field. I sat back and mused on the disparate results, concluding that if it was so easy to play games with the test, it wasn’t worth very much.

Some years later I became intrigued with Mensa. They limit membership to people with IQ’s in the top 2% of the population, with the grandiose notion that people with high IQ’s have what it takes to make the world a better place. I requested a preliminary test. It came in the mail; I completed it and mailed it back. Soon there came an invitation to do a full IQ test. Thus I arrived one morning at the University of Regina and found my way to a classroom where a dozen others were waiting to do the same test.

I believe there was a three-hour time limit and after we did the test, we all went home. A few weeks later a letter  came in the mail telling me I had scored 151, placing me in the top 1% of the population. Enclosed was a membership application and a request to write a brief profile. I filled them out, wrote a cheque for the membership dues.

In due time I received a booklet with the profiles of all Canadian members of Mensa. I discovered that most of these people supposed themselves to be much too intelligent to believe in God. Yet, they were ready to believe in all kinds of occult manifestations, mystical experiences, extraterrestrials and other nebulous and irrational spiritual theories. I lost interest right there. I didn’t have the self-confidence that would allow me to dismiss God.

Still, I took another IQ test a year or two later and came up with a score of 155. So what do those test scores reveal about me? Probably just that I am good at doing that kind of test. I don’t know if there is any practical application beyond that.

So here I am, 60 years past the age of 17, thinking maybe now I’m grown up enough to say I want to be a writer.

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).

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