Archive for April 2008

God’s Comfort Zone

April 26, 2008

Like a bird that strays from its nest

is a man who strays from his home (Prov. 27.8).

That word “home” grabs our attention. The Hebrew word (maqôm) means literally “a place to stand.” Michael W. Smith has a song about finding “my place in this world.” That’s the idea. In this proverb, “home” is the “place” God has appointed for me – where my work is done, where my relationships are nurtured, where my gifts are used, where my role is clear, where I have a job to do, responsibilities to fulfill, needs to meet, where my affections should be set. This “place” includes home and family, of course, but work as well, and friends, and church, and ministry, and everything else that goes into everyday living. This “home,” you might say, is “God’s comfort zone.”

Nowadays, of course, the “comfort zone” is almost the worst possible place you can be. The culture – Christian gurus tell us constantly to “get out of the comfort zone” – I’ve urged it myself a few times. And with some good reason, for faithfulness often demands discomfort. Jesus said, “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (Matt. 10.37).

But we must never confuse willing obedience with willful desertion. God calls us to suffer, not run away. In fact, staying in “God’s comfort zone” is often precisely what takes us out of ours! In a paradoxical way, the most radical, cutting edge, against-the-grain, out-of-the-box thing in the world, is very often the simple selfless act of staying where God has put you. The prophet Jeremiah understood that perfectly. He desperately wanted to leave his “place” for another: “Oh that I had in the desert a travelers’ lodging place, that I might leave my people and go away from them!” (Jer. 9.2). But we remember him today because he did not. Even though staying meant suffering, Jeremiah could testify before God, “I have not run away from being your shepherd” (Jer. 17.16).

As hard as it might be to stay, it will always be worse to stray, for those who leave their place leave God’s protection. Like the “bird that strays from its nest,” they become easy prey for the vultures of darkness. Jeremiah knew that, too. In an odd twist, the prophet who longed to run away later implored the remnant of Judah (during the Babylonian captivity) to stay in Judah where God had put them rather than seek safety in Egypt. “Do not fear the king of Babylon,” he pleaded, for God has promised,

I am with you, to save you and to deliver you from his hand. . . . But if you say, ‘we will not remain in this land,’ disobeying the voice of the Lord your God . . . then hear the word of the Lord, O remnant of Judah . . . If you set your faces to enter Egypt and go to live there, then the sword that you fear will overtake you there in the land of Egypt, and the famine of which you are afraid shall follow close after you to Egypt, and there you shall die (42.11-16).

Let me ask some hard questions (I have asked them myself, that’s how I know they’re hard!). Are you tempted to leave “God’s comfort zone?” If so, what evidence do you have that it is God leading you away from that place to another? What is your “king of Babylon today?” What is your “Egypt?” And why do you thinking of leaving in the first place? Is it hard? Is there opposition? Are you bored? Or miffed? Or ambitious? Are you feeling sorry for yourself? Is it wanderlust? Or impatience? Or worldliness? We  need to ask, because “the grass is always greener . . .” You are loved.

Your Pastor,

Richard Wells

Faithfulness Is Hard

April 18, 2008

Many a man proclaims his own steadfast love,

but a faithful man who can find? (Prov. 20.6)

To paraphrase a familiar phrase, “faithfulness is next to godliness.”  For among His many glorious attributes, God is, above all, faithful-He “will always do what He has said and will always do what He has promised” (Grudem, Systematic Theology, p. 195).  It was to this attribute that Moses called special attention as he recounted God’s dealings with Israel in bringing them out of Egypt to the border of the Promised Land: “I will proclaim the name of the Lord; ascribe greatness to our God! ‘The Rock, His way is perfect, for all His ways are justice.  A God of faithfulness and without iniquity” (Dt. 32.3, 4).    The faithfulness of God is like bedrock supporting everything else in Scripture.  So when we act faithfully, we show ourselves, like Jesus, to be true children of God: “Therefore, holy brothers, you who share in a heavenly calling, consider Jesus, the Apostle and Lord of our confession, Who was faithful to Him who appointed Him” (Heb. 3.1, 2a).

But faithfulness is hard-that’s the point of this proverb.  Making promises is easy; but keeping them will try us severely.  “O Lord,” David wanted to know, “who shall sojourn in Your tent?” That is, who will have intimacy with God?  “He who walks blamelessly and does what is right,” comes the answer, “and speaks the truth in his heart,” even to the point that he “swears to his own hurt and does not change” (Ps. 15.1, 2, 4).  This uncomfortable truth explains the language of the traditional marriage ceremony (from the 1790 Book of Common Prayer), which reminds the couple that marriage is an “honourable estate, instituted by God” and “therefore is not by any to be entered into unadvisedly or lightly, but reverently, discreetly, advisedly, soberly, and in the fear of God.”  Then they must pledge their faithfulness “for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health . . . till death do us part.”  Romance is easy; faithfulness is hard – and therefore, Solomon says, faithfulness is also rare.

This proverb hits us where we live.  For one thing, it equips us with a healthy skepticism.  We must not expect people not to be people!  Don’t assume too much, too soon.  Be prepared to be let down.  And be gracious when it happens.  Remember how Jesus handled Peter?  Peter “proclaimed his love” (“I am ready to go with You both to prison and to death”); but Jesus knew he would fail (faithfulness is hard), and even before the denials He prepared for Peter’s restoration: “when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers” (Lk. 22.31-34).

This proverb also convicts us.  How many times do we ourselves “proclaim our love” with glib promises, superficial affection, or hypocritical niceness that makes us look good?  But, in the words of Macbeth, no one can be “loyal and neutral in a moment.”  Faithfulness requires us to act-not for ourselves, but for someone else.  That’s hard.  But “the Lord preserves the faithful” (Ps. 31.23).  You are loved.

Your Pastor,

Richard Wells

The Midas Touch

April 11, 2008

The righteous hates falsehood, but the wicked brings shame and disgrace (Prov. 13.5).

According to Greek mythology, as a reward for a kindness, the god Bacchus granted King Midas a wish. As every schoolboy knows, Midas wished for the power to turn everything he touched into gold. Even though the story of Midas turned tragic, the expression, “Midas touch,” lives on as a symbol of unfailing success.

If we may put it this way, the Scripture often describes righteousness as a God-kind of “Midas touch.” In the very first Psalm, for example, David speaks of the man who hates unrighteousness, and whose “delight is in the law of the Lord.” That man “is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. And then this: In all that he does, he prospers” (Ps. 1.3). Some of the old rabbis applied these verses by saying, “even the idle talk of a good man ought to be regarded.” A righteous man, they might say, turns twigs into bullion. The words of David hark back, in turn, to a promise God made to Joshua: “This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success” (Josh. 1.8). In the New Testament, Paul encourages Timothy with a similar thought: “while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way” (1 Tim. 4.8).

In the compressed language of the proverbs, Solomon makes the same point, but in negative terms. Solomon contrasts the righteous and the wicked-in a rather odd way actually-by contrasting the root of the righteous (“hates falsehood”) with the fruit of the wicked (“brings shame and disgrace”). The language is compressed, as we said, so let’s try to unpack it.

First, if the fruit of the wicked is “shame and disgrace,” the fruit of the righteous must be something like beauty and joy. But rather than stress the “Midas touch” of righteousness, Solomon stresses the “uglification” of sin (to borrow from Alice in Wonderland)-the “Midas touch” in reverse, turning everything it touches to ashes and soot. You see, there is no such thing as a “victimless crime,” or a “private sin.” Every sin we commit affects somebody for ill. (A sobering exercise is to pick a bad habit you have and consider seriously and honestly how it impacts other people!)

Second, if the root of the righteous is to “hate falsehood,” the root of the wicked must be to love (or accept or make use of) falsehood. But here Solomon speaks of believers – reminding us that doing good begins in the heart. In other words, he confronts the pharisaic spirit of doing good things “to be seen by others” (Matt. 6.1-5). Christians should certainly do good everywhere (the “Midas touch”); that’s one mark of genuine Christian faith (1 Jn. 2.29). But Christians are not just “do-gooders.” We do good, not by well-practiced hypocrisy, but by hating sin and loving righteousness. You are loved.

Your Pastor,

Richard Wells

Slothfulness

April 3, 2008

A little sleep, a little slumber,
a little folding of the hands to rest,
and poverty will come upon you like a robber,
and want like an armed man. (Prov. 6.10, 11)

My first professor in Hebrew knew first hand how easily we give in to laziness-what the older generation called “slothfulness.” One day in class, encouraging us to work on our qal, niphal, and hiphil forms every day, he made a confession. “Some mornings,” he said, recalling seminary days, “I would lie there in bed thinking, ‘just another ten minutes, then I’ll get up and get to work.'” But ten minutes turned into an hour; and then, he said, “when I finally did get up, I would start reading something else” (since almost anything would be more interesting than Hebrew grammar!). And then, since he wasn’t prepared, he would rationalize, “Well, it won’t hurt to miss class just this once-I can just study here at home.” Class time comes and goes, it’s afternoon, he still hasn’t opened his textbook, and now he begins to think to himself, “Okay, this day is blown anyway, I might as well go play some basketball.”

Perhaps at some point my professor took to heart these words of Solomon-he did, after all, master Hebrew, and he went on to become an excellent professor. But his confession sticks with me to this day. If he could so easily neglect the work that he loved, what temptations must lurk inside my own heart to put off things difficult, dull, or otherwise unpleasant? In this little proverb, God has strong words for my heart.

Take note with me of three particulars. The first is that slothfulness is deceptive. We deceive ourselves and we deceive those who count on us to do our duty. We say, just “a little slumber,” implying that we are just about to act. But we don’t. The “little while” almost always becomes a long while, or “never.”

Second, slothfulness is progressive. Nobody ever says, “my mission is to waste my life through indolence.” No, we waste our lives in bite-sized pieces. To take just one example, in their 1990 book, Television and the Quality of Life, researchers Robert Kubey and Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi demonstrated experimentally that television dulls our senses and robs our zest for life (the clinical term is “couch potato”). The more television a person watches, the more a person wants . . . to watch television (or surf the web, or play video games, etc., etc.), or just do nothing. Slothfulness feeds on itself.

Third, slothfulness is shortsighted. Solomon describes the consequences of indolence as coming suddenly, unexpectedly, and irresistibly. The sluggard never sees what’s coming and he’s unprepared when it does. So, here’s a suggestion-turn Solomon’s warning into a vision. Chrysostom, the famous bishop of Constantinople (d. AD 407), urged us to think this way: “Is idleness sweet? Then consider what comes out of it in the end. . . . let us not look at the beginning of things, but let us also see where they end up.”

Please pray for our teaching mission in the Philippines this week. You are loved.

Your Pastor,

Richard Wells