Yesterday evening our church prayed for the people in Houston and Louisiana in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. As we prayed, the following verses came to mind:

 The floods have lifted up, O LORD,

The floods have lifted up their voice,

The floods lift up their pounding waves.


More than the sounds of many waters,

Than the mighty breakers of the sea,

The LORD on high is mighty.          Psalm 93:3-4

Now, I realize that the “flooding” in these verses is a metaphor. The Psalmist isn’t thinking about literal water; he’s thinking about enemies or trials or something. God is mightier than all those things, no matter what they are, in just the same way as he is mightier than the literal ocean.

Yet obviously that presupposes that God is mightier than the ocean waves. If the metaphor of the waves is applicable to persecution or financial troubles or hardships of other kinds, how much more is it applicable to the literal flooding caused by Harvey?

As I prayed, I thought of the incredible destructive power of a hurricane, and then of how God is mightier than all of that. It was encouraging.

* * *

Later in the evening, I was thinking about the ways of God, in that he chooses at times to allow us to be attacked by the spiritual forces of darkness (whether through temptations or trials or outright demonic activity) and other times keeps them from us. Sometimes he puts a hedge of protection around us; other times, as in the case of Job, he lets the enemy have at us. It occurred to me that perhaps sometimes he lets us be not merely attacked but flooded by the enemy, just so he can show us his power in the middle of it. In those moments, if they occur, when the attack washes over us like a wave, knocks us off our feet and leaves us no serious chance of resisting by ourselves, all we can do is to wait and look to God to deliver us. (For another picture of that kind of deliverance, consider Jonah 2.)

I was still thinking about this when we took communion. It occurred to me that whether or not we ourselves are ever exposed to this kind of flooding, Jesus was. On the cross, all the wrath of God and all the hostility of Satan washed over him like a flood, so that we could be spared from it. As a result, as the hymns say, we can be “sinners plunged beneath the flood” of his blood shed for us and we can say “my anchor holds within the veil”. (See also Hebrews 6:19).

* * *

Around midnight, a friend asked me about Ezekiel 47. In that passage, Ezekiel sees a vision  of a river of water flowing from the temple out to the sea, giving life wherever it goes. Later in John 7:37-39, Jesus speaks of the Holy Spirit as a river of living water flowing from our innermost being. He may be deliberately referring to the vision Ezekiel had and telling us that the Holy Spirit is that river.

Anyway, back in Ezekiel, this happened:

When the man went out toward the east with a line in his hand, he measured a thousand cubits, and he led me through the water, water reaching the ankles. Again he measured a thousand and led me through the water, water reaching the knees. Again he measured a thousand and led me through the water, water reaching the loins. Again he measured a thousand; and it was a river that I could not ford, for the water had risen, enough water to swim in, a river that could not be forded. He said to me, “Son of man, have you seen this?” Then he brought me back to the bank of the river. – Ezekiel 47:3-6

The point of the man’s measuring seems to be to say this: Ezekiel, you already see that the river is here. You see that it gives life. You see that it purifies. But I want you to understand how deep it goes. You can get in a certain distance, and may think that’s how deep it is. But it goes deeper. You can go still further … but it goes deeper. You could walk in until it was clear over your head, and it would still go deeper. That’s how deep the life-giving water of God goes. It never runs out, and it always goes deeper than you’ve yet experienced.

This is another kind of flooding, both holy and wonderful. The Holy Spirit generally refrains from overwhelming us with His glory, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t there and isn’t mind-blowing.

This is the awe-inspiring God we serve. The Father reigns over even the most terrifyingly powerful floods. The Son endure the flood of God’s wrath in order to become our anchor. The Spirit reveals to us only what we can bear, but behind what we experience is a flood of life and holiness and glory we cannot even imagine.

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Faith first

There’s a quiet little Scriptural principle about faith and love that encourages me. Let me see if I can explain it here in a way that makes sense.

I’ll start with my own experience today. This morning, driving into work, I was thinking about 1 John 4:7-21. It talks about God’s nature being love, and how that love is manifested to us and in us. First and foremost, God’s love is shown in the historical fact of Jesus becoming a man and dying for our sins. Second, it is shown as we let Him love others through us.

I began praying that I would show enough love to my students today that it would be a witness of God’s love for them, but as I thought about it, that seemed to assume that my own personal acts of love were somehow more important than the gospel itself. I decided the focus of my prayers shouldn’t be that people would be impressed by my love, but that they would be impressed by His.

Sure enough, just after my first class, I failed in a small but definite way to demonstrate love to one of my students. I tried to get past my own embarrassment and dismay to remember that it’s far more important that students see the love of God demonstrated in the gospel, than that they be impressed by me.

An hour later, in a time of worship and Bible study, several Christians confirmed this (without knowing it) by reminding me of the importance of simply remembering how much God loves me.

1 John 4:7-8 says,

Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love.

Verses 11-12 say,

Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has seen God at any time; if we love one another, God abides in us, and His love is perfected in us.

Clearly, we are told to love one another, and that doing so displays the nature of God to others.

But right in between those two verses, we have these:

By this the love of God was manifested in us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world so that we might live through Him. In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.

In other words: Love others, and expect that to help them see God. But the most important thing isn’t what you do; it’s what God has done for you.

That brings me to the quiet little principle I promised at the beginning.

Scripture refers to faith and love as all-important elements of the Christian life, but they are important in different ways. Faith is where we must always start. Love is where we must always end up.

  • 2 Peter 1:5-8 describes Christian growth as a process which begins with faith and leads step by step to love.
  • 1 Timothy 1:5 says the goal of Christian teaching is love which springs from a sincere faith.
  • Galatians 5:6 says that the Christian life is characterized by faith working through love. In context, the point is that it must start from faith rather than self-effort. Faith sets to work and keeps working until it has worked its way all the way to love.

1 John makes the same point, but it describes faith specifically as faith in God’s love. In receiving the gospel,

… we have come to know and have believed the love which God has for us. (1 John 4:16.)

This is where all our love starts:

We love, because He first loved us. (1 John 4:19.)

Ephesians 3:14-19 is similar:

For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, … that He would grant you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with power through His Spirit in the inner man, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; and that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled up to all the fullness of God.

Paul prays for believers to have the faith to see God’s love for them.

So the quiet little principle is this: Faith first, then love. Receive first, then give. Trust first, then obey. My first response to God, even before I give anything to him in ministry, is to receive what He gives me in the gospel. That way I’ll have all I need to give to others, and the focus will be on God’s grace, rather than on my obedience.

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Leviticus 2

My quiet time today [back when I wrote this] was from Leviticus 2:

“Now when anyone presents a grain offering as an offering to the LORD, his offering shall be of fine flour, and he shall pour oil on it and put frankincense on it. He shall then bring it to Aaron’s sons the priests; and shall take from it his handful of its fine flour and of its oil with all of its frankincense. And the priest shall offer it up in smoke as its memorial portion on the altar, an offering by fire of a soothing aroma to the LORD …”

It reminded me of something very simple: that I can do my work each day in a way that brings pleasure to God.

I know that God’s forgiveness and cleansing is a permanent thing, that we have been given the righteousness of Christ, and that nothing we can do can make God love us either more or less. But I also know that, just as the actions I take and the thoughts I think can grieve the Holy Spirit, so they can please Him.

In the Old Testament, God trained the Israelites to see him as taking pleasure in their sacrifices, using the imagery of a sweet-smelling smoke rising into the sky. In the same way, as we live by faith and abide in Christ, offering our daily works to God as a kind of worship (Romans 12:1), we can know that it brings him pleasure.

It’s not that he needs our work, but that he is glad to see the fruit of his own work in us.

It’s not because he is our Lord and we are his faithful servants, but because he is our Father and we are his beloved children.

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When we can’t quite say what is bothering us

Recently for my quiet time I read Daniel 2. In that story, Nebuchadnezzar had a dream which disturbed him, and asked the wise men to interpret it. When they asked him what the dream was, he refused to tell them, asking them to say both what the dream was and what the interpretation was. He apparently wanted to be sure they weren’t just making something up. When they couldn’t (and when they mouthed off to him for asking them to) he decided to kill all the wise men, including Daniel.

Daniel and his friends prayed that God would show mercy and give them the answer to the king’s request. That night he had a vision in which God showed him the answer. He praised God, saying

“Wisdom and power belong to him …

It is He who reveals the profound and hidden things;

He knows what is in the darkness,

And the light dwells with Him.”

I often have thoughts or fears that disturb me. Sometimes they are even mysterious and deep and subconsciously powerful, like the king’s dream seems to have been.  It has been a great encouragement to me across the years that God is so wise that he can understand and reveal these profound and hidden things.

But sometimes I feel disturbed, stirred up, agitated, and do not even know why. I have the sense of having an urgent question, but don’t even know what the question is!

The great thing is that even that is not too mysterious for God. If he could give Daniel not only the interpretation of the dream but the knowledge of the dream itself, how much more can he reveal to me what is bothering me, along with its answer! After all, I at least have my question within me somewhere, however ill-defined it may be: Daniel didn’t even personally experience the dream that so disturbed Nebuchadnezzar, and yet God was able to reveal to him everything he needed to know.

In Genesis 40:8, Joseph said, “Do not interpretations belong to God?” It is up to God to tell me how to make sense of the riddles in story of my life. In Daniel 2, we learn than even the riddles themselves belong to God. Not only can God answer all my questions, he can also teach me what the questions should be. (Compare Romans 8:26 and Psalm 77:2-6.)

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Seeking God’s blessing

I wrote this a couple of weeks ago.

The sermon today was on John 6:26-36.

Jesus miraculously fed the crowd.
  Spiritual “anointing”
Recently when I taught, God spoke to people through me in an evident way. I love that. But today, in Sunday School, everything I planned went wrong.
They looked for him again because they wanted more.   Me: Lord, I’m so frustrated at how Sunday School went. How can I worship you this morning, when I am angry and discouraged about Sunday School?
Jesus answered them and said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you seek Me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate of the loaves and were filled.   Jesus: Why are you seeking me? What did you learn when I anointed your teaching? Did you learn that I am the source of fruitfulness and meaning? Did you learn that it is worth seeking me above all? Or is it only that you loved the experience of knowing I was doing something supernatural through you?
  Me: (sputtering) Well … well … I know that you give meaning in an eternal sense, but I also wanted things to go well this morning. When it didn’t, that messed up my joy. Maybe it shouldn’t have, but it just did.
Do not work for the food which perishes,   Jesus: Think about it, Kevin. After an “anointed experience”, the joy fades for you in a day or two. How often will you need your anointing fix?
but for the food which endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you, for on Him the Father, God, has set His seal.” Your joy can be more permanent than that. I know you like to see me at work through you, but, you know, I’m still at work even when I don’t use you. Your joy in what I am doing doesn’t have to fade whenever it isn’t happening through you.
Therefore they said to Him, “What shall we do, so that we may work the works of God?”   Me: OK. So how can I  have that joy now? What do I need to do?
Jesus answered and said to them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He has sent.”   Jesus: Just let go and trust me. You don’t need to be personally successful.
So they said to Him, “What then do You do for a sign, so that we may see, and believe You? What work do You perform?   Me: But how can I trust you to be meaning and fruitfulness for me if you aren’t going to keep giving me experiences like that?
Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘HE GAVE THEM BREAD OUT OF HEAVEN TO EAT.’” After all, that’s how it works with other people! They have all these stories about how you make them fruitful! As long as they obey, and surrender to you, then you reach people through them. As long as they have faith, you show up.
Jesus then said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, it is not Moses who has given you the bread out of heaven, but it is My Father who gives you the true bread out of heaven.   Jesus: You miss the point. It was never their experiences of anointing and fruitfulness that mattered. It was always just a matter of God being in it.
For the bread of God is that which comes down out of heaven, and gives life to the world.” What is “anointing” after all? Isn’t it the Holy Spirit’s presence and work? That’s all that was every really important. The anointing isn’t an experience, it’s a Person.
Then they said to Him, “Lord, always give us this bread.”   Me: OK, then give that to me.
Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; he who comes to Me will not hunger, and he who believes in Me will never thirst.   Jesus: You know what to do. Just keep abiding in Me.
But I said to you that you have seen Me, and yet do not believe.” The reason you are struggling is because you aren’t responding in faith right now. (Ouch!)



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Praying for our nation

My quiet time verses yesterday morning were the concluding paragraph of 2 Chronicles.

Now in the first year of Cyrus king of Persia — in order to fulfill the word of the LORD by the mouth of Jeremiah — the LORD stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia, so that he sent a proclamation throughout his kingdom, and also[put it] in writing, saying, Thus says Cyrus king of Persia, ‘The LORD, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and He has appointed me to build Him a house in Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Whoever there is among you of all His people, may the LORD his God be with him, and let him go up!'”  (2 Chronicles 36:22-23).

First, some background. The books of 1 and 2 Chronicles tell of the rise and fall of the nation of Israel. In the last chapter, just before these verses, the nation of Israel was wiped out, its leaders were killed, its capital was burned down, and the temple was destroyed. The chapter makes it really clear that all this was not because God had failed them but because He was judging them.

These two verses hold out a sliver of hope for Israel. It’s the end of the book, but not the end of the story. It shows that God still has some measure of mercy for Israel. Who knows whether He may restore them more fully in the future?

It’s really important that Cyrus acknowledges that all His power, including that over Israel, comes from “the LORD”. When the word LORD is capitalized that way, it means that it is a translation of the Hebrew word Yahweh. In other words, Cyrus is calling Israel’s God “the God of heaven” and giving Him credit for his power.

As I read these verses, it reminded me of the general discouragement that a lot of conservative Christians are feeling about our nation these days. Most of my Christian friends these days feel as though they are under a constant barrage from secularism in politics and in the culture.  I agree with them about this general sense of being under attack. It’s a hard world in which to live as a Christian.

(I don’t think Christians have a monopoly on persecution. I think it’s also a hard world for atheists and gay rights activists and feminists and all sorts of groups that feel like they are battling the status quo. There’s more than enough hostility to go around. More on that some other time, perhaps.)

Anyway, today is the National Day of Prayer. The verses above remind me that even in hostile territory God is in charge. They remind me that even in the middle of judgment God can show a measure of mercy and restoration. They remind me that even leaders who worship other gods can be led to show favor to Yahweh’s people. It encourages me to know that today a lot of us will be crying out to God together for our nation.

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“the One who lifts my head”

A few days after wondering about this, I spent some time in Psalm 3, which says,

You, O Lord, are a shield about me.
My glory and the One who lifts my head. (Ps 3:3)

The first statement in this verse, “You are a shield about me” is about objective security. Whether we feel afraid or not, we have the promise of God that He is our protector. I think “You … are the One who lifts my head” is about subjective security, about feeling secure. God not only protects us, He encourages us (i.e., puts courage in us).

When God protects us, whether we know it or not, He is a shield about us. When He protects us and tells us so, then He is the One who lifts our heads (by His promises). When He gives us supernatural peace that overrides our fears, that is also an example of His being the One who lifts our heads (directly). The Psalm doesn’t prove by itself that He ever gives us peace directly like that because it actually doesn’t say anything at all about how God lifts our heads. Still, when He does, I somehow like having this imagery to think about it with.

The Psalm points to the fact it is part of God’s character to lift us up when we are down. 2 Corinthians 7:6 simply says, “But God, who comforts the depressed, comforted us …”

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“Sometimes God calms His child …”

On a recent Sunday evening our church’s children’s musical had a song with these words in it by Scott Krippayne:

Sometimes He calms the storm
With a whispered peace be still
He can settle any sea
But it doesn’t mean He will
Sometimes He holds us close
And lets the wind and waves go wild
Sometimes He calms the storm 
And other times He calms His child 

I found myself wondering about the difference between “Sometimes He calms His child” and “Sometimes He reminds of us His promises and expects us to calm ourselves.”

There are two things that can change: the circumstances or the fear. There are two parties who can be responsible for the change: God or us.

So when I find myself afraid in troubling circumstances, I suppose there are four possibilities:

  • I pray, and God changes the circumstances.
  • I pray, and God challenges me to make choices that will change the circumstances.
  • I pray and God takes my fear away.
  • I pray and God challenges me to make the choice to stop being afraid.

I realize that things aren’t quite so cut and dried. Probably all four cases occur mixed together sometimes. This list is just a way for me to arrange my thoughts about the matter.

What I am most interested in is how often the third case arises. I struggle with irrational but strong fear fairly regularly. I know that there have been times in the past when God simply overrode my emotions and took the fear away. (His doing that was even an important part of my getting saved, but that’s a story for another day.) I wonder how common that kind of thing is.

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Tithing as a prayer

We’ve been looking at these verses in Sunday School:

Honor the LORD from your wealth
And from the first of all your produce;
So your barns will be filled with plenty
And your vats will overflow with new wine. (Proverbs 3:9-10)

Apparently there’s a connection between whether we tithe (or, at least, give something off the top to God) and financial abundance.

I was raised to tithe regularly, and Kate and I have done so all our lives together, but we haven’t always had full barns, so to speak. I still remember when I was in grad school and we couldn’t afford to get a new light bulb when one burned out, so we just kept moving the working light bulbs from room to room as necessary. We’ve always somehow gotten by, though, and compared to the people in the Old Testament times I suppose anyone in the US is living in luxury.

But God seems to be putting this verse on my heart these days, so I’m trying to understand what to do with it.

Does it mean we need to give more? Of course we could be more generous (which of us couldn’t?), but I’m not aware of any sin on our part as far as that’s concerned, and I don’t think that’s the point God wants me to get from these verses.

Does it mean God is promising to bless us financially in some new way? Certainly, we’ve been more financially strapped than usual recently, due to several unexpected hospital bills and automotive problems. I don’t see anything in these verses to suggest that God is going to provide differently going forward than he has in the past, though. I don’t think he’s promising anything like that.

Rather, I think he wants me to simply become aware of the connection between our giving and his provision — not in pride, nor in guilt, but simply aware. As part of this I’ve started trying something simple. It used to be that, whenever I put our tithe into the offering plate at church, I would say silently to God, “This is for you, as an act of worship”. Yesterday as I placed the tithe into the plate I said silently to God, “This tithe is my prayer to you, that you would take care of us financially.”

I’ve never thought of tithing as a prayer before. It’s sort of cool, whether or not our financial situation changes in any noticeable way.

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Disappointment with God

As I write this post, I’ve just finished reading Exodus 5 for my quiet time. It’s one of my favorite chapters. Moses has finally accepted his calling to confront Pharaoh on God’s behalf. It was a gutsy decision on his part. He didn’t really know at first if he could trust God to do it. After finally stirring himself up to take this risk because God asks him to, he and Aaron go to talk to Pharaoh and what happens? Everything gets worse. Not only does Pharaoh not let Israel go, he actually increases their labor. The Israelites angrily tell Moses,

May the LORD look upon you and judge you, for you have made us odious in Pharaoh’s sight and in the sight of his servants, to put a sword in their hand to kill us.

Moses goes back to God and asks plaintively

O Lord, why have You brought harm to this people? Why did You ever send me? Ever since I came to Pharaoh to speak in Your name, he has done harm to this people, and You have not delivered Your people at all.

I always find this poignant. Especially that final line: … and You have not delivered Your people at all. 

Tonight I was thinking how easy it is for us to feel let down by God when we have made some effort to obey or trust Him, and things haven’t gone as we expected.

Based on what I think was the leading of the Holy Spirit, I spent some time mentally retracing my decisions and desires over the last few months. I made a short list of about 10 things in my life I feel the same way as Moses about. Then I went through each one and prayed Moses’ prayer back to God for my own situation.

I don’t think the point was that God wanted me to rehearse complaining to Him. Instead, I think it made me more aware of my tendency toward self-pity. Also, oddly, I felt as though God was drawing closer to me through the exercise.

Moses was wrong, of course, in thinking God had let him down, just as I am wrong when I feel let down by God. God was still going to deliver His people; He just hadn’t delivered them yet. The battle between Jehovah and Pharaoh was only beginning. Our timetable and God’s are very different.

I sensed God reconfirming His desire that I pour out my heart to Him. I ended my quiet time by laying before Him once again a specific request I’d had, one I’d felt disappointed in up until then.

Then I remembered the verses at the end of the Psalm we looked at yesterday in Sunday School:

Unless I had believed that I would see the goodness of the LORD in the land of the living … !
Wait for the LORD;
Be strong and let your heart take courage;
Yes, wait for the LORD. (Ps 27:13-14)

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