Success Is Not Always God’s Favor

When something happens in a Bible story, we need to stop and pray and think before concluding that this always happens. For example, just because God called Moses from a burning bush does not mean that we should always go about our lives hiding from the needs around us, until something catches on fire and we hear a booming voice.

However, when something notably doesn’t happen in the Bible, it does at least mean that this doesn’t doesn’t always happen, because in the case that Scripture reports, it didn’t. I was reminded of that this morning in our reading of Jeremiah 49 and 50. Specifically, when people succeed, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they have God’s favor. It doesn’t necessarily mean that God is happy with her or working for his good. Consider the case of Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon. Jeremiah 49 talks about his great success at others’ expense:

Concerning Kedar and the kingdoms of Hazor that Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon struck down:

Thus says the LORD:
“Rise up, advance against Kedar!
Destroy the people of the east!
Their tents and their flocks shall be taken,
their curtains and all their goods;
their camels shall be led away from them,
and men shall cry to them:
‘Terror on every side!’
flee, wander far away, dwell in the depths,
O inhabitants of Hazor!
declares the LORD.
For Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon
has made a plan against you
and formed a purpose against you.

-Jeremiah 49:28-30

Imagine what this conquest would sound like back in Babylon: Victory, success, plunder, wealth, prosperity. Many probably said, “The gods favor us.” Yet, the Bible proclaims that there is one God and that this success did not indicate God’s favor on their nation or king. In the very next chapter, judgment turns on Babylon:

How the hammer of the whole earth is cut down and broken!
How Babylon has become a horror among the nations!
I set a snare for you and you were taken, O Babylon,
and you did not know it;
you were found and caught,
because you opposed the LORD.

-Jeremiah 50:23-24

On first reading, it could seem that God is harsh in these passages; however, if you read through the passages that lead up to this in 2 Kings and the rest of Jeremiah, it’s clear that God has shown patience and is bringing justice. It could also seen that God is fickle; however, if we understand that success does not indicate God’s favor, then we will understand that God is not one way and then the other with Babylon. God may have allowed them military, political, and economic success in his mercy, wisdom, and patience, but they never walked in God’s favor, and he has only been just to the nations and true to his promises.

Even this, news of a “just” God, seems heavy and colorless, but only if we read over the last line of the last paragraph, the bright theme that glimmers through the whole Bible and sometimes flashes to a blinding brightness: God is true to his promises. We can find God’s favor and walk in it; there is a way!

Toward the scorners he is scornful,
but to the humble he gives favor.

-Proverbs 3:35

I dwell in the high and holy place,
and also with him who is of a contrite and lowly spirit,
to revive the spirit of the lowly,
and to revive the heart of the contrite.

-Isaiah 57:15

Whoever exalts himself will be humbled,
and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.

-Matthew 23:12

He has brought down the mighty from their thrones
and exalted those of humble estate

-Luke 1:52

God opposes the proud,
but gives grace to the humble.

-James 4:6

Humble yourselves before the Lord,
and he will exalt you.

-James 4:10

God opposes the proud,
but gives grace to the humble.

-1 Peter 5:5

The story of Nebuchadnezzar and the history of Babylon remind us that success–military, political, economic, or otherwise–does not necessarily indicate God’s favor. We would be foolish, as they were foolish, to look at pleasant circumstances and boast that the gods must favor us.

Yet, this does not mean that God’s favor is inaccessible to humans or elusive to those who seek it. We have something better than a historical pattern; we have the promise of God: He opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble. If we humble ourselves, seeking God in humility, we may not know what God’s favor will look like, but we do know that He welcomes such people and delights to exalt them at the proper time.

What We Can Do When Things Are Falling Apart

Things don’t have to be the worst they’ve ever been for us to legitimately feel like things are falling apart. Sure, other people have seen worse times, those whose cities were conquered or countries were swept by plague or lands were shriveled by drought. Yes, even today, there are many who suffer more than us: People trapped in Syria, refugees from Syria, those haunted by malaria or AIDS or dengue, those languishing in the world’s slums. Nonetheless, we encounter times when we really do feel like our society is headed the wrong way, out of our control, with no end in sight. We get legitimately discouraged. You might feel that way about politics or policing or racism or terrorism or fear or crime or individualism or debauchery or division in our time in place. I often do.

God still has a word for us in these times. In fact, you could say God especially has a word for us in these times, because so many of the people He used to write Scripture wrote in these kinds of circumstances. Take Peter, for example. He says:

Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed.

-1 Peter 4:12-13

Right before this, to these beloved brothers and sisters in this fiery trial, he describes what we can do even though things are falling apart:

The end of all things is at hand; therefore be self-controlled and sober-minded for the sake of your prayers. Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins. Show hospitality to one another without grumbling. As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace: whoever speaks, as one who speaks oracles of God; whoever serves, as one who serves by the strength that God supplies—in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ. To him belong glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.

-1 Peter 4:7-11

Above all,” he says, “keep loving one another earnestly.” Love is going to cover over a multitude of sins: The sins we’ve committed, the sins we’ve suffered, the sins we’re yet to see. Above all, earnestly love one another, and it’s going to make a difference, even in the middle of all this.

Helpfully, he describes the kinds of actions this “love” could entail: Show hospitality, presumably to those in need and those the world expects you to separate yourself from and those you in fact have separated yourself from. If you’re a talker, use godly words to build others up. If you’re one of those people who is always ready to serve, tap into God’s power and serve like the world has never seen. Even if these things don’t describe you, it seems that some other Spirit-enabled trait that Peter hasn’t picked as an example would describe you, because “each has received a gift.” Therefore, “use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace.”

Above all, keep loving one another earnestly. This will not only cover over a multitude of sins; in a community that loves one another this way, God will be glorified in everything through Jesus Christ. To him belong glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.

There’s Only One Temple and We Are It

What I mean is that each one of you says, “I follow Paul,” or “I follow Apollos,” or “I follow Cephas,” or “I follow Christ.” Is Christ divided?

-1 Corinthians 1:12-13 (ESV)

Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?

-1 Corinthians 3:16 (ESV)

I’ve enjoyed reading N.T. Wright’s Christian Origins and the Question of God series because Wright regularly looks at texts, including biblical texts, and asks, in a very focused and thorough way, setting aside what we’ve always assumed this to mean, what does this mean? That question is rarer than it should be in theology and biblical studies. One recent instance struck me: Wright’s case that Paul’s image of the temple in 1 Corinthians is a weighty argument for Church unity.

God is one; God has one temple; we are that temple; therefore we should be one (and we should be God’s). Here’s how Wright puts it:

…the point is this: there is one building, one Temple, one place where the living God has chosen to live. It consists, now, of all those who belong to the Messiah, all those who are indwelt by his spirit. God has planted that Temple in Corinth, as he has in city after city. The appeal for unity is based on nothing less than the Messiah himself, who in turn gains his being, his meaning, from the one God: “So don’t let anyone boast about mere human beings. For everything belongs to you, whether it’s Paul or Apollos or Cephas, whether it’s the world or life or death, whether it’s the present or the future–everything belongs to you! And you belong to the Messiah; and the Messiah belongs to God.”

-N.T. Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, p.392, including a quote from 1 Corinthians 3:21-23

There’s only one temple, and we are it. That’s a bold (almost brash) claim, but it seems to be the bold-almost-brash claim that Paul (and, boldly-and-brashly again: The Spirit) is making. If you find it too brash, you can conclude it’s not true. However, if it is true, we have no choice but to conclude that we are responsible to seriously pursue unity.

How might we pursue unity? By examining our hearts for the things that divide us, and also by searching our world for those from whom we are divided. Encountering one another won’t mean instant unity, agreement, or even enjoyment, but it will be a first step in pursuing the unity for which we are responsible.

The pursuit of unity will stir up the Church, yes. It will bring to the surface unpresentable realities among us and in each of us. Yet, we are witnesses to Christ. We could show the world that Christ’s people try to pass themselves off as perfect like everyone else, but better to show that we’re willing to change by the grace of God. We could show the world that for Christ’s people, unity is not worth the effort, awkwardness, and confusion, but better to show that it’s our joy for God’s joy. We could show the world that Christ’s people are divided because God is divided or God is at a loss or God is a figment of our imaginations, but God is not, God is not, and God is not–better to show the world that we are trying to be one because our God is one, because He has made us one, and because He is forming us into one temple in which His Spirit dwells.

Not At Peace With Death

Death is a throbbing silence, an offensive vacuum from which we cannot look away. Is he really gone? Will we really go, too?

We try to avoid thinking about death, but it often buts its way into life. My grandpa died this month, and his death has forced the questions on me. A funeral, the death of a public figure, a grave illness, a near-death experience may have pressed them on you.

Not only that, when humanity’s professional thinkers–that is, philosophers–think about life, they often end up focusing on death. For example, Paul Achtemeier summarizes Heidegger’s thoughts on the subject this way:

The realization of his death as an individual, alone, confronts the self with a moment of self-transparency: he sees himself as finite, and is faced with the choice of accepting that fact, and thus acknowledging himself as he truly is, or forgetting that fact by reimbursing himself in ‘them,’ in forgetfulness of his true self.

-Paul Achtemeier paraphrasing Heidegger in An Introduction to the New Hermeneutic, p.38

Does death really define life? Do we forget our true selves unless we remember that we’re dying? In light of the gospel of Jesus Christ, yes and no. Yes, what we think about death is central. Yet, “no,” because when we look toward death, we see our “living hope.” Peter tells his congregations, scattered across the land:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.

-1 Peter 1:3-5

The secret is not to master “thinking about death” by learning to look our own death in the eye and be at peace with it. The secret is that Jesus Christ has mastered death by dying and rising again. We are not at peace with death; we are in the ranks of the King who was at war with it. We are in the ranks of Him who defeated it. We are in the ranks of Him who is about to wipe away ever mark of its dominion.

Perhaps life was about what we thought about death, but we have now been born again into a living hope, in which life is about what Jesus Christ has done about death. When we look at death, we see, just beyond that dim silence, the riches of the great mercy of God, knowing that Jesus Christ who ascended to heaven will soon return from there with our imperishable, undefiled, and unfading inheritance, ready to be revealed in the last time: Resurrection, resurrection bodies, and a resurrection life like His.

Nothing In Us Is Off-Limits For God

I dislike personality tests. I know, I’m treading on some thin ice with some of you; you may never read the blog again if I say something mean about Myers/Briggs. Nonetheless, every time I take a personality test, I think two things from the get-go: First, it’s just going to tell me what I just told it. Second, it’s just going to tell me that I’m a Bull Elephant or A-Positive or whatever color or herb or Pokemon means “You have a dominating personality. You get stuff done, but you should be nicer.”

However, several years ago, I took a personality test that started that way but ended on a different note. I grumbled through the first 50 minutes or so, but this being a personality test for seminary, it ended with a Bible verse that the test-designers thought people like me should keep in mind. I could shrug off the packet-writers, but this was Scripture, so I tried to stop, slow down, and give it a real read. Here’s the passage to which they sent me:

But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace

-James 3:17-18

That convicted me. Thus began a multi-year project to change what I had heretofore simply considered “my personality.”

I don’t know if you’ve seen a change in me. I don’t think about the verse every day or even most days. If I’ve made any changes that align with this passage, most may not spring from reflection on this passage: Marriage, ministry, moving, mentors, and more have taught me little pieces of what James is commending here. In all these ways, calling this a “project” of mine might be overreaching.

Yet, I am happily God’s project, and here’s what this passage reminds me each time I come across it: Nothing in us is off-limits for God. Nothing is too big, too basic, too personal, or too ingrained for God to change if a change is in order. Some parts of our personalities are different from one another simply for the delightfulness of difference, and I believe these differences will endure (grow?), into the ages of ages. Yet, other traits that we harbor under “personality” are ripe for the transforming power of the wisdom from above.  If this frightens us, it should also inspire us, because we know the model after which God is shaping us: “Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.”

Nothing in us is off-limits for God.

The air was growing brighter and brighter about us; as if something had set it on fire. Each breath I drew let into me new terror, joy, overpowering sweetness. I was pierced through and through with the arrow of it. I was being unmade. I was no one. But that’s little to say; rather, Psyche herself was, in a manner, no one. I loved her as I would once have thought it impossible to love, would have died any death for her. And yet, it was not, not now, she that really counted. Or if she counted (and oh, gloriously she did) it was for another’s sake. The earth and stars and sun, all that was or will be, existed for his sake. And he was coming. The most dreadful, the most beautiful, the only dread and beauty there is, was coming.

-Orual in C.S. Lewis’ Till We Have Faces, p.307

We Need Godly Bankers

To those who don’t work in financial services, banking can seem like conjuring money out of thin air: Bankers, advisors, agents, and brokers seem to just stare at numbers, type them into spreadsheets, add them, subtract them, rename them, and somehow grow them. I imagine that those in the field, with a little bit of effort, can convince themselves, too, that the making money is just like waving a wand, but the truth is, the money comes from somewhere. Actually, it comes from someone. Sometimes the money comes from someone to whom the bank has provided a valuable service. Sometimes the money comes from someone of whom the bank has taken advantage. People who manage money wield enormous, hidden power in our society, to build up and to tear down.

This is why we need godly bankers (and CFAs and CFPs, and so on and so forth).

Are there passages in the Bible about banking? Yes and no. There are certainly passages about loaning money, which is to financial services what ingredients are to the food industry. For example, one passage in Deuteronomy says:

When you make your neighbor a loan of any sort, you shall not go into his house to collect his pledge. You shall stand outside, and the man to whom you make the loan shall bring the pledge out to you. And if he is a poor man, you shall not sleep in his pledge. You shall restore to him the pledge as the sun sets, that he may sleep in his cloak and bless you. And it shall be righteousness for you before the Lord your God.

-Deuteronomy 24:10-13

Now, before hastily turning this into posters and mailing it to all the business schools of America, we should stop and recognize that this is a simpler statement for a simpler time. The loans here seem to be loans to neighbors. The loans couldn’t do as much good (i.e., finance a factory) or as much bad (i.e., ruin a factory-worth of employees). At the same time, these loans were more complex: Friendship, physical proximity, kinship, national identity, and theocracy all enriched what a contract alone tries to do today. It was a different time.

Yet, here’s what the passage may still say today: Don’t embarrass the person to whom you’re lending. Don’t cripple her. Care for him, because this loan is starting and ending before God.

Most of all, this passage declares that financial matters matter to God. God is not oblivious to the enormous power that money managers wield, for good or for evil. Neither should we be. Neither should pastors be. Neither–certainly–should Christian bankers be.

Bankers, we need you. We need your “righteousness before the Lord your God,” not despite your work, not just at your work, but through your work. Yes, the power over money is the power to ruin lives, but it’s also the power to provide great help, to launch great endeavors, to offer fresh starts, to promote wise planning, to equip future generations, to enable generosity, to run an economy in which people can flourish. We need godly bankers, which might mean we need you.

If You Want To Flourish, Grow Roots

Thus says the Lord:
“Cursed is the man who trusts in man
and makes flesh his strength,
whose heart turns away from the Lord.
He is like a shrub in the desert,
and shall not see any good come.
He shall dwell in the parched places of the wilderness,
in an uninhabited salt land.

“Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord,
whose trust is the Lord.
He is like a tree planted by water,
that sends out its roots by the stream,
and does not fear when heat comes,
for its leaves remain green,
and is not anxious in the year of drought,
for it does not cease to bear fruit.”

-Jeremiah 17:5-8

In this passage, YHWH says there are two types of people. The first is like a shrub in the desert: He’s surviving, but there’s never enough to flourish. Despite what he’s been told, life just stays dry. Why? Because he “trusts in man.” He’s waiting for admiration to make him whole. He’s waiting for wealth to make him happy. He’s waiting for status to make him satisfied. Wholeness, happiness, satisfaction–these things never come, at least in no greater measure than water in the desert.

The second person is “like a tree planted by water, that sends out its roots by the stream, and does not fear when heat comes, for its leaves remain green, and is not anxious in the year of drought, for it does not cease to bear fruit.” This person, too, sees desert-like seasons. Things “above ground” can (and often do) get pretty dry for him. Yet, he has sent out his roots to the stream. What does this mean? It means he trusts in the Lord.

Do you want to flourish? I do. We’ll need to recognize that we can’t control the weather. Heat will come. Drought will come. Perhaps it’s bearing down on you today, but there is a stream that flows bright and clear with all you need. There is a stream that can keep your leaves green, help you to bear fruit, help you flourish, even when everything above ground seems dry: The Lord. To drink this living water, we can put down roots: Trust in Him.

Flourishing doesn’t mean faking leaves or forcing fruit: Plastering on a smile or rattling off platitudes or grumblingly doing good turns while inside we’re just dry. If we wish to flourish, we need to put down roots to the stream that gives life. Whether there’s a drought or a thunderstorm above the surface today, we can grow roots down to the stream that does not run dry. We can grow trust in God through prayer, Scripture, fellowship, worship, generosity, service, that we might be:

…like a tree planted by water,
that sends out its roots by the stream,
and does not fear when heat comes,
for its leaves remain green,
and is not anxious in the year of drought,
for it does not cease to bear fruit.

Ruin Pubs (a poem)

“Ruin pubs are

Places where you

Drink in a tub”

They said to me

I see them as

Places where fresh

Color comes back

Christmas lights glow

Fiddles strike up

Laughter returns

And the Spirit says,

“Behold, I am making all things new”

Faith for Good Times and Bad

By faith, we can see and accomplish great things in God. Consider the happy testimony of Hebrews 11, the great recounting of faith, “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen”:

And what more shall I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets—who through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, were made strong out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received back their dead by resurrection.

-Hebrews 11:32-35

But here the paragraph takes a turn, toward other things–other great things–that people have accomplished in faith that we might never wish to see:

Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated—of whom the world was not worthy—wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.

-Hebrews 11:35-38

The amazing thing is, the author of Hebrews goes right from the first things to the last things without any sort of pause. He consider them all great things that God has accomplished through people who believed in Him. And so they are. Sometimes faith in good times may make a lot happen; sometimes faith in bad times makes it, but through the kinds of trials that would leave the faithless person in a lot worse shape. Both are impressive; both are miraculous. Both come from the same faith in the same God.

This means, first of all, that we can practice faith in whatever circumstances we find ourselves, for whatever circumstances may come around the bend. So times are good: Attempt great things by faith in God. So times are bad: Attest to the God who can get you through even this. The God of all love, power, and wisdom has what it takes for whatever comes next, and so can we: Faith in Him.

Second, this should shape how we think of others and their faith. It’s easy to think better of ourselves when it looks like we’re doing better because our circumstances have been easy. That haughtiness tends to be cruelly mistaken. Through faith, some saved thousands. Through faith, some were abandoned by their spouses and did not abandon God. Through faith, some left their families for the mission field. Through faith, some cared for their families through sickness and senility. Through faith, some gave millions. Through faith, some lived on nothing. Through faith, some raised godly families. Through faith, some rejoiced in singleness. Through faith, some lost children, and did not curse God.

And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect. Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.

-Hebrews 11:39-12:2

The Law’s Not Bad

When reading the New Testament, it’s easy to associate negative feelings with “the Law.” We often label it harsh, misguided, or at least boring. The book of Hebrews emphasizes the ways that Jesus surpassed the old setup that the Law prescribed, and here, of all places, the Law can initially appear like a bad thing. For example, consider these verses from Hebrews 10:

When he said above, “You have neither desired nor taken pleasure in sacrifices and offerings and burnt offerings and sin offerings” (these are offered according to the law), then he added, “Behold, I have come to do your will.” He does away with the first in order to establish the second. And by that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.

-Hebrews 10:8-10

In the verses “above,” the author of Hebrews has just loosely quoted three verses from Psalm 40. By quoting from this ancient text, he suggests it should come as no surprise that the old sacrifices were insufficient, that we needed Christ.

However, we should be hesitate to say that the Law was simply bad. The author of Hebrews starts the section by calling the Law “a shadow of the good things to come”–yes, just a shadow, “but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities [that] can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered every year, make perfect those who draw near”–but a shadow nonetheless.

Moreover, when he wants to explain what to make of the Law and the Messiah (that is, Jesus “Christ“), he quotes Psalms, part of that very Old Testament we must be careful not to dismiss. In fact, he puts the words of the ancient psalm on the lips of Christ himself:

Consequently, when Christ came into the world, he said,

“Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired,
but a body have you prepared for me;
in burnt offerings and sin offerings
you have taken no pleasure.
Then I said, ‘Behold, I have come to do your will, O God,
as it is written of me in the scroll of the book.’ ”

-Hebrews 10:5-7, referencing Psalm 40:6-8

Though the author of Hebrews does highlight the inadequacy of the Law, a slow, thoughtful reading suggests that he would not have us think of the Law as “bad.” Rather, he would have us think of the Law as exactly what he calls it: “a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities.” The Law is not bad because the Law-giver is unwaveringly good. “These realities” were already in the mind of the Law-giver, and now they have appeared in Jesus Christ.

then he added, “Behold, I have come to do your will.” He does away with the first in order to establish the second. And by that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.

-Hebrews 10:9-10