Isaiah 45:15 "Truly, you are a God who hides himself, O God of Israel, the Savior."
This verse startled me as I was reading through Isaiah recently. Why does he speak of God Hiding Himself?
But I remember other verses that speak of things being hidden.
Deut 29:29 "The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the revealed things belong to us and to our children forever, to observe all the words of this law."
A good text to remind us that God doesn't answer all our questions.
Rom 11:33 "O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! "
2 Cor 4:18 "because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal."
Col 3:3 "For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God"
Its not just God that is hidden, we are too.
Of course, Isaiah is right, God hides Himself, for otherwise faith would not be possible or necessary.
Heb 11:1 Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen.
After writing about praying for Iraq, I started wondering if I wasn't too humanistic in my praying. The focus of my prayers, I was thinking, should be on God being glorified. So I shouldn't just pray for Iraq to have a good government just because I have pity on the ordinary Iraqis.
Reflecting more though, this may indeed be good theology, but I don't stop to worry that my prayers for myself, my family and my friends are "humanistic" rather than "God centered". I just pray that the distress will end. So if I am willing to pray for the Iraqi people that their distress will end, I am at least one step above a purely selfish prayer. And I think in my relationship with God, God does not necessarily despise my selfish prayers for myself, He urges me to mention my needs to Him. It becomes a problem if I only mention my needs, and then never pray about anything else.
But I think there is validity in the point that our prayers should focus on glorifying God. So is there glory to God given if Iraq has a good government and becomes a peaceful country? I think so, all good gifts come from the Father above, and all government that strives to be honest and do the right thing, is somehow exhibiting God's goodness. And a peaceful government in a peaceful country would normally allow more freedom for the Gospel to be proclaimed and for the church to grow in Iraq.
I remember in the days before the war began, thinking and praying one day. I began thinking that if it came to war, I was pretty confident the US military would overcome Saddam Hussein's forces. But then, what would happen? What Iraq really needed, I thought, was a new government that would be good. And how was that possible without God's help?
So I began to pray for the new government of Iraq. And I still continue to do so, that God will bring the right people into the government, people who will be just, not clinging to their own power, who will have wisdom to do what is best.
Now its coming up to the third anniversary of the war. My impression is from blogs I read that the conditions in Iraq are a lot better than our main stream media tells us, but I still believe there are many problems. As one pundit said, conditions in Iraq are horribly violent and insecure, and better than they have ever been since Saddam took power. Reason to keep praying.
I wonder why our evangelical churches don't encourage more prayer for Iraq and for the government. Or maybe I'm just not aware of the ones that do. I was appreciative of a small country church nearby who had on their message board for one week "Pray for the Iraqi people".
Sunday night, January 21, 2006, I was surprised by the extent of the disappointment I felt when the Carolina Panthers lost to the Seattle Seahawks in the NFC championship game. The reasons for my feeling surprised were 1) as only a recent immigrant to the Carolinas, I didn't think my emotional interest in the team was that great, 2) I had thought from the beginning of the playoffs that Carolina would not advance to the Superbowl, because they had had their flat days during the regular season (the loss to Chicago, and the loss to Dallas being the most recent ones).
That night after the game I had security duty at my work, which involved two hours of driving around and checking locked doors, a situation which kept me awake, but required almost no mental concentration, so I had lots of time to think about the game, without allowing me to either go to bed or distract myself on the computer.
As I faced my disappointment, I thought of offering it to God and seeking His comfort. This at first sounded silly, because 1) real intellectuals do not, in their Olympian detachment from the cares and sorrows of ordinary mortals, let trivial events like football games affect their mood, 2) I most certainly wasn't going to be bothered about the game after more than a day or so. But I went ahead, acknowledging to God that at that moment I felt quite disappointed, also acknowledging that it might well be trivial on my part to feel so disappointed about this, but that I trusted when He said that He desired intimacy with me, that this gave me privilege and obligation, to bring these things to him.
I still was tempted to think this wasn't rather silly. I thought of the verse "In all things God works together for good for those who love Him and are called according to his purpose", and the scornful side of my mind thought, "So you really think years from now when you get to heaven, God will show you some great blessing that you received because the Panthers lost the NFC championship in 2006?" The faithful side of my mind responded that this wasn't necessarily what the verse stated.
True to my skeptical prediction, my feelings of disappointment didn't last after Monday, perhaps not even after Monday morning. But the odd thing, (for maybe the faithful side of my mind didn't even have enough faith), is that now I do see a definite blessing out of this. As I look back on that night, I feel a comforting assurance that I did the right thing in presenting my disappointment about the game to God, so it becomes a fresh lesson that God cares about the small details of our lives just as He cares about the big events.
Easter is only a few weeks away, now we're in Lent. I am convinced the story of Peter denying Christ, the way we usually tell it and retell it, is wrong.
Here is a succinct version of the conventional story: "Peter was characteristically sure of himself, when in fact he would not at this time lay down his life for Jesus. Exactly the opposite would be true."
But I think this conventional story is incomplete, if not erroneous. It moves directly from Peter's words in John 13:37 to the story of Peter denying Christ three times. But it skips over the fact that in the Garden, Peter drew his sword and began to defend Jesus against his arrestors. Peter had a sword, only one other disciple had a sword (Luke 22:38), and he was defending Jesus against a group of armed guards. What seems clear to me, at that moment in the Garden, Peter was doing all he could do to keep his word. If events had followed their natural course, Peter would either have laid down his life for Jesus in the garden, or he would have been arrested with Jesus and crucified with him.
But Jesus does something completely unexpected. He stops Peter from fighting, and heals the man Peter had wounded. And I think Peter would have to be a rare individual to not feel disappointed and outraged by Jesus doing this. He had nerved himself to keep his word, to go down fighting rather than let Jesus be arrested, and Jesus stops the fight, and heals the enemy. And then He meekly allows Himself to be arrested.
So why later that night, did Peter deny knowing Christ? I don't know. Maybe his soul was bitter, that he had begun to lay down his life for Jesus and Jesus didn't want it. Maybe he was partly being honest, maybe he said outwardly the words "I don't know that man" because inwardly he was thinking "I've served this man for three years, and still I don't have the faintest idea what He is really up to?"
The conventional story is right about one thing. When Peter said he would lay down his life for Jesus, it was a rash promise. But it was not rash because Peter didn't resolve to keep it, he did. It was rash because Peter really should have known Jesus was going to be arrested, rather than resolve to prevent it. Jesus had said he would be arrested, handed over to the Gentiles and crucified, but Peter ignored that when he made his promise.
And how often do we find ourselves bitter, confused or afraid when we resolve to do something for God, and God makes it evident He doesn't want that? Its happened to me several times.
What exactly is new about the New Covenant? I think most evangelicals would answer with two points: One, what is new is that we don't need to make animal sacrifices anymore, Christ is our eternal sacrifice for sin, who offered Himself once for all time. Two, what is new is that the Gentiles are now included in the Covenant once given to Abraham. At least, this is how I think I would have answered the question two years or so ago.
But in the last couple of years, I've been meditating on the passage in Jeremiah that outlines the New Covenant, Jeremiah 31:31-34. (An easy reference to remember, we just have to remember one number for both chapter and verse of the starting point, Jeremiah 31:31).
"'The time is coming,' declares the LORD, 'when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah. 32 It will not be like the covenant I made with their forefathers when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them, ' declares the LORD. 33 'This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time,' declares the LORD. 'I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. 34 No longer will a man teach his neighbor, or a man his brother, saying, 'Know the LORD,' because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,' declares the LORD. 'For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.' " Jeremiah 31:31-34 (NIV).
I notice that while the two points I listed above are both Scriptural, neither of them are mentioned by Jeremiah in this passage. What I think Jeremiah tells us is new about the New Covenant, is first that the people won't break this one. That is in verse 32, the new covenant won't be like the old one, because the people broke the old one. But how can God make a new covenant that we cannot break? Don't we still have free will?
That is Jeremiah's second point, the law will be written on our hearts, meaning God will so change our natures that by our free will, we will choose to keep the covenant. And verse 34 is a radical departure as well. I imagine in Jeremiah's time it was assumed that the priests and Levites knew the Lord much better than the non-Levites, because they performed the sacrifices, they served in the temple. But God through Jeremiah asserts in the New Covenant there won't be a specialized class of believers who are closer to the Lord than the masses.
I've come to suspect that many times in our thinking, we imagine the New Covenant much more like the Old Covenant than how Jeremiah portrays it. We see that there are standards of behavior in Scripture that we ought to obey, but yet we subtly believe it is all up to us to obey them. How many exhortations do we hear in church that go like this:
God's people need to be doing X (whether evangelism, tithing, supporting missionaries, or anything else), we aren't doing nearly enough X, therefore let us repent. I think a true New Covenant exhortation would go like this: God's people need to be doing X, we aren't doing nearly enough X, therefore let us repent and ask God to change our hearts so we will do X.
I love forgiveness stories. Stories where people who were implacable enemies learn to forgive each other, lay their past hatred bitterness down. The recent movie "End of the Spear" is another good one, where the son of a murdered missionary comes to accept and love one of his father's murderers. I imagine I like forgiveness stories because each one replays the heart of the gospel, Christ's love overcoming the hearts of his enemies so that they can be accepted into his kingdom.
In my mind the classic forgiveness story (outside of Scripture) is the life of Robert E. Lee. After surrendering to Grant at Appomattox, Lee wondered for some months what to do with the rest of his life, and eventually accepted the position of President of Washington College in Lexington Virginia. A couple of years later, Grant was President of the US, and one of Lee's students made some critical comments about Grant in public. Lee called the student into his office and reportedly said "Sir, if you do not retract your criticism of the President of the United States, either you or I will leave this university." I could easily imagine myself in Lee's position saying something like "You think you hate Ulysses Grant! How do think I feel. I had to surrender to him!"
Another great forgiveness story from the Civil War. The Confederate general Joseph Johnston died because he insisted on being a pallbearer at General Sherman's funeral on a cold rainy day in New York, and caught pneumonia. When his friends tried to dissuade him from helping carry Sherman's casket because of the weather, he reportedly said "I must. He would have done the same for me." To me, Sherman seems like the one Union General that the Southerners would have felt the most bitterness towards, but Joseph Johnston didn't feel that way.
Recently, I had a new thought about forgiveness stories. Tuesday I attended a seminar by Bob Sjogren, of UnveilinGlory (www.unveilinglory.org), who stressed how all throughout Scripture God reveals his desire to reach all people groups with His truth, it isn't just a new doctrine introduced by Jesus in Matthew 28. And he said one reason for this is that God is glorified whenever two people of different viewpoints come together in Christian unity, so the greatest glory is the crowd from every nation, tribe, people and language mentioned in Rev 7:9. And certainly part of that great glory that God receives in eternity, is the perhaps infinite number of forgiveness stories, of all of redeemed humanity coming together and accepting their brothers and sisters, forgiving and forgetting the human factors that divided them on earth.