As I think about this summer blog tour theme of “Faith Unshackled”, I have been thinking about what often shackles our faith. And sometimes, I think we have just made it too complicated. It is like we say, “It can’t be that simple!” and then start arguing doctrine, dogma, and Scripture to avoid the obvious.
I have been studying a great deal lately the greatest commandments. There are a few different versions of this in the gospels, but my favorite has become the one recorded in Mark 12. One of the scribes sees that Jesus is a legit teacher, so he asks him the big question. “Which commandment is the first of all?” In other words, what matters the most to God? Most of us know the story. Jesus says something like,
“Love God with all you have, and love your neighbor as yourself.” But in Mark’s recording, the scribe gives Jesus a robust “Amen!” “You are right he says!” Then he goes on to repeat back essentially what Jesus has already said and the scribe tacks on, “this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices”. But here is the part I love. After the scribe says this, Jesus says, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”
Wait? Loving God and loving neighbor puts us in a place where Jesus basically says, “You’re getting it now. You’re getting closer. You’re discovering the way of the kingdom”?! Can that be?!
Overwhelmingly churches (mine included) give a list of core values and beliefs that are something like, “We believe in God, we believe in the Bible, we believe in salvation, we believe in baptism” and on and on.
But for some reason, I have never seen a church say, “Our core belief is this: love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength. Then love your neighbor as yourself. Do this and you are near the kingdom of God.”
That seems a bit too simple doesn’t it? Yet, that is more important than all of the burnt offerings and sacrifices. Or, if I might contextualize and paraphrase it a bit, that is more important than all of our “right beliefs”, “sound doctrine”, etc.
Then we have Matthew 25. I have heard multiple sermons and lessons on this text and how it teaches the reality of final judgment, which by the way I affirm. However, do we ever ponder the question, “What does Jesus say puts one on the wrong side?” If we do, the answer isn’t burnt offerings, sacrifices, correct doctrine, worship service attendance, reading the Bible, understanding baptism, etc. (though those are all REALLY important to talk about and do). Rather, the answer is those that gave food and drink to the thirsty, clothed the naked, visited the prisoners, visited the sick, and welcomed the strangers. I think it would be fair to put that under the heading of “loving God and loving neighbor”.
So when I think about unshackled faith that lives for Jesus with reckless abandon, I think it is best we get back to the basics. The church has been like the football team that has come up with really great offensive and defensive schemes, but forgot to teach the basics of blocking and tackling.
My prayer is that we could continue the important discussions about doctrine, Scripture, and beliefs, but that we would not neglect the seemingly simple and most important. My prayer is that we would get back to the basics. Love the Lord your God with all of your heart, soul, mind and strength. And love your neighbor as yourself. And by the way, I don’t think you can do one without the other. Maybe the best way to love God is to get back to the basics and go love a neighbor. Maybe then the kingdom of God will come near.
Ryan Lassiter is the husband of Sarah, and father of 3 (almost 4!) beautiful children. He is also the preaching minister at the Hunter Hills Church of Christ in Prattville AL, he and his wife Sarah have also spent time as missionaries. Ryan graduated with his masters in Missional Leadership from Rochester College and his passion is helping people join God in his mission of redemption and restoration. He blogs at www.ryanlassiter.com.
John Dobbs moved to Monroe, Louisiana, just a couple of months before I moved to New York almost 10 years ago. We have stayed in touch through the years and I’m constantly encouraged by his friendship and love for Christ and His church. I hope you’ll be encouraged by his thoughts as we continue the 2017 Summer Blog Tour.
Who am I to do such a thing?
I’m not good enough.
I don’t have what it takes.
Someone else would do it better.
When you have visions of great things you’d like to do for God, are your visions followed with thoughts like those above? If so, you are not alone. Those are the kinds of statements made by some of the greatest prophets of the Old Testament, just before God used them to do incredible works. Men like Moses, Isaiah and Jeremiah were normal people of faith being unshackled to do amazing things empowered by an awesome God.
I believe it is one of the tasks of faith to name the shackles that bind us and keep us from the things we would like to do for God. In naming them, we identify the reality and pry apart the grip they have on our lives. What is keeping you from doing something for God that you have dreamed of but never taken steps toward?
EXCUSES If you are like me you get defensive when someone identifies your perfectly good reasons as ‘excuses’. We need to be honest with ourselves. Are we making up excuses so that we do not have to experience the potential of failure as we try to do something great for God?
I don’t know how to speak because I’m only a child. – Jeremiah 1:6
SHAME Maybe we think that if we try – and fail – in service to God that this is somehow a terrible thing. Jeremiah preached for forty years without a single recorded positive response to his messages. He struggled, but he didn’t quit trying.
I’m a man with unclean lips, and I live among a people with unclean lips. – Isaiah 6:5
SIN The biggest shackle of all. We feel unqualified because we wrestle with sin – and maybe one ‘besetting sin’ – that just won’t go away. As we attempt to glorify God in our lives how easy it would be for someone to point out our flaws. They could paint us as a hypocrite. Sin takes feelings of shame and rationalizing excuses and forms a weapon that destroys our hearts.
Who am I … What am I supposed to say? – Exodus 4:11,13
I encourage us all today to stop letting our shackles keep us from an exciting journey of faith. Yes, we need to name our shackles and identify them as weapons – weapons our enemy is using to diminish our work for God.
No weapon fashioned against you will succeed, and you may condemn every tongue that disputes with you. This is the heritage of the Lord’s servants, whose righteousness comes from me, says the Lord. – Isaiah 54:17
Read again the powerful armor God has provided every Christian to withstand the weapons of the enemy in Ephesians 6:10-18. Remind yourself of the power of the cross and the assurance of the resurrection to defeat sin and give you new life. Ultimately everything we do for God is not controlled by our hands. He uses us in ways we couldn’t have guessed. His surprises keep us attentive as we walk by faith. We will begin to notice that we are not, by our efforts, directing God’s work. When we walk by faith we are falling into His works in such a way that the old excuses, shame, and sin are remnants of the shackled life that is now free.
Be mindful that no one does this perfectly. Don’t ever let a failure keep you from taking the next step with God. He’s never used anyone who wasn’t a failure in some respect or another. Remember that you do not have to see the end of the story, you just need to walk in the story.
We live by faith and not by sight. – 2 Corinthians 5:7
John Dobbs is the minister of the Forsythe Church of Christ in Monroe, Louisiana (http://facoc.org). You can find him on Facebook, Twitter (@johndobbs, @facoc) and Instagram (@bigpoppa1130). Weekly sermons can be heard at http://forsythechurch.podbean.com/ (or on Forsythe’s podcast on iTunes). Even with all of that social media, there’s a special place in his heart for his blog located at http://johndobbs.com. Happily married to Maggy for 30 years with two children and two grandchildren.
Psalm 8 and Psalm 121 both open by recognizing God as Creator. In Psalm 8 the author considers the majesty of the night sky, the moon and stars. In Psalm 121 the psalmist gazes at the mountain tops and praises God as the Maker of heaven and earth.
The psalms then diverge as they consider a human response to the power, majesty and beauty of God.
The author of Psalm 8 focuses upon humility. “God, since you you created the great heavenly bodies, why do you even think about us? We’re so small and insignificant.” The author describes the relationship between God and humanity in terms of power and authority. The remainder of the psalm continues in this vein as the writer compares humans to angels and animals before closing by praising God once more.
This perspective of our relationship with God contains merit. It promotes the virtues of humility and reverence before God. It can remind us that God has given humanity the responsibility of overseeing and caring for creation. God is the Creator and we are its stewards.
Yet there are risks if we depend upon Psalm 8 as our primary prism for relating to God. God’s great power and authority can overwhelm us. Our humility and reverence for God contains the potential that we come to see God as distant and unapproachable. God is maintaining the universe and He’s entrusted us to maintain our piece of earth. He’ll do His thing and He expects us to do ours. Who are we to bother God?
The author of Psalm 121 takes a different tack. When he looks at the mountaintops and the sky beyond them he too praises God as Creator. However, the next words out of his mouth don’t dwell upon the distance between God and humanity. This psalmist regards creation as emphasising how qualified the Creator is to help his creation.
The Creator will help, not just in big ways, but in smaller troubles we face also. As he lists God’s care for humanity be begins with the line, “He will not let your foot slip“. Of course he can protect you from lions, he can smooth over that workplace conflict, and he can strengthen your marriage, but he’ll also not let your foot slip. In the face of grandeur, God cares about us scraping a knee, spraining an ankle, breaking a hip, or falling off a cliff. “He will not let your foot slip”
Of course, the very premise that we need to call out for help assumes that we will encounter troubles in our lives. This psalm doesn’t guarantee a trouble-free life. It teaches us that God is always with us. He who watches over you will not slumber.
This psalm reminds us that none of our problems and worries are too small for a great God.
Psalm 8 contains an important lesson about God. Humility and reverence before God need to be part of our faith. But we shouldn’t camp out in Psalm 8 as though it’s the end of the story. Our faith needs to grow to a place where we look at the majesty of God and praise Him because he cares about us. In all our relative weakness, He loves us, individually.
After preaching on this topic, I heard this song on the radio as I drove home immediately afterwards. I think it’s a great summary and I’m sure the artists had psalms like these in mind when they wrote it.
I hear many Christians declaring that we need to “Keep Christ in Christmas” because “He’s the Reason for the Season“. Yet, this year, when Christmas fell on Sunday, many churches chose to emphasise their Saturday Christmas Eve Service and some went so far as to cancel their Sunday morning service so that their members could spend time with family.
This state of affairs highlights a reality that many people recognise, but have trouble explaining. There are two distinct holidays both called Christmas.
One holiday places family front and center and close behind is materialism and credit card debt. This holiday has many cultural and family traditions relating to which movies we watch in December, which music we play, and which food we eat. It’s not a bad holiday, in fact, it’s a great experience and an important part of our children’s formative years. It’s warm, it’s rustic and comforting, and hopefully it’s full of love.
So many songs promote this Christmas celebration from, I’ll Be Home for Christmas to Winter Wonderland and Jingle Bells. The romance of Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire seems comforting no matter if you live in Florida or Australia and never see snow, or eat chestnuts for Christmas.
Likewise, the list of Christmas moves is extensive. Here’s a list of 50 with The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe being as religious as it gets. From classics including A Christmas Carol, and It’s a Wonderful Life to modern classics such as Elf, and Home Alone many families have their own movie play list at this time of year.
The other holiday is a Christian celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ. It’s a celebration of God becoming human: the Incarnation. The Incarnation is also a story of love. A story of God’s love toward us. In John 3:16-17 Jesus himself described what happened at his birth. “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”
The Christian celebration requires worship. It has its own set of sacred carols, but not so many movies. The Christian holiday has also been romanticised. It focuses upon the cute scenes of a baby in a manger surrounded by shepherds and animals. If that’s the totality of the Christian story then it’s no wonder so many have bought into an alternative narrative.
From a Christian perspective the Incarnation of Jesus should prompt people to contemplate questions about the Trinity and the nature of the Godhead. We should ponder the relationship between God and humanity. The miraculous advent of Jesus gives a greater depth of meaning to subsequent events surrounding his death and resurrection.
Additionally, the Biblical account of Jesus birth provokes us to consider complex social topics including the relationship between Christ and political powers, the tragedy of violence, and the plight of refugees. We also contemplate the titles given Jesus and how he is “God with us”, the “Prince of Peace”, and “Saviour”. None of these discussions have cute answers.
Because both of these holidays, the secular and the Christian, are each called Christmas and because they overlap and many people celebrate both… it’s easy to mistake one for the other.
Family is important. God wants us to live within loving families. Traditions, myths, songs, and movies encourage people and provide shared experiences and values. But for Christians, Christmas first and foremost is about reminding ourselves that God loves us immeasurably. Sometimes family reminds us of this truth. Sometimes family causes us to question this truth.
And sometimes, the secular holiday pulls us away from our Christian celebration. For some of us having the picture perfect Christmas dinner, or ensuring the children have time to open their gifts and play with them, take a higher priority than worshiping our Saviour.
I’m not writing this post to beat anyone up, but to emphasise how easy it is to lose focus on the miracle of the Word becoming Flesh. We don’t keep Christ in Christmas because we say “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays”. We keep Christ in Christmas by allowing ourselves to dwell upon the Power, Wisdom, Humility and Love found in that manger. We keep Christ in Christmas through worship. And we keep Christ in Christmas by keeping our lives centered upon God and reflecting God to others, because the birth of Christ makes a difference in our lives.
One of my favorite stories in the Bible revolves around the largely unknown disciple of Jesus: Cleopas. (You can read his story in Luke 24.)
Cleopas was a disciple of Jesus who had traveled to Jerusalem for the Passover. While in Jerusalem he witnessed the crucifixion of his hero. His dreams of joining the Messiah in restoring Israel to glory lay shattered at the foot of the cross.
He stayed in Jerusalem a few days. He gathered with the other disciples and no doubt they exchanged laments at the death of their Messiah.
He listened with amazement when the women returned from the tomb and said they’d found it empty. He pondered the message of the angels who told the women that Jesus was alive. But after John and Peter went to the tomb and came back empty handed, Cleopas gave up.
Confused. Disoriented. Stunned…
Cleopas left his dream. He left the other disciples. He left Jerusalem and returned to the ordinary routines of daily life.
“He had hoped that Jesus was the one who was going to redeem Israel.” Had hoped. But not any more. Now he knew better. As Cleopas trudged the 7 miles back to Emmaus he was wiser for the experience. Everyone knows dead people don’t come alive again. Not prophets. And definitely not Messiah’s. In fact, the Messiah wasn’t even supposed to die!
Whatever those angels were talking about, he didn’t know, but he had work to do. He’d spent enough time following a whisp of a dream, now he needed to make up for all those wasted days he’d spent following Jesus around the countryside.
Subsequent events, such as meeting the resurrected Jesus and sharing a meal with him, proved Cleopas’ despondency misplaced.
As we consider the disparity between Cleopas’ perspective of recent events and the reality of those events we notice how his reaction was largely determined by his initial expectations. Cleopas held a rigid, brittle understanding of how God would work through the Messiah. When events didn’t roll out the way he expected, he gave up. He didn’t even wait around to consider the significance of the empty tomb or the angel’s message. He knew how God would work, and it wasn’t like this.
It’s easy to criticise Cleopas for placing God in a box of his own construction. Yet, we all have boxes of various shapes and sizes in which we place God. Usually, it’s easier to see other people’s boxes, so we often don’t notice our own.
Anytime we speak on behalf of God describing what He can’t, won’t, doesn’t, wouldn’t, couldn’t, will, or must do, we add another plank to our own God Box. I’m not suggesting that we simply invent statements about God. We usually have Scripture and good reasons to see God as we do. But Cleopas had Scriptures and and good reasons for his view of the Messiah… He was wrong, and sometimes we are also.
I’m not necessarily using the term “God Box” in a negative way. My goal is simply for us to recognise that everyone constructs a unique view of God. This recognition should cultivate a spirit of humility when we make absolute statements that reflect our own God Box.
Let me provide some examples of planks in a God Box:
- God doesn’t hear the prayers of unbelievers.
- God won’t save someone from the consequences of their own stupidity.
- God doesn’t care about human politics.
- God can’t get me out of this mess.
- The Holy Spirit can’t inhabit an unbaptized body.
- God doesn’t perform miracles today.
- God wouldn’t send a dream to someone today.
- God won’t condemn you for that.
These restrictive statements may be true (or not), but even if they are, they create a framework for God to fit inside. But God is always bigger than any box we create. And Scripture frequently describes God creating exceptions to principles we regard as rules. It’s not that God is capricious, but he sees a bigger picture than we can hope to see.
Perhaps more surprising is that we can also build our God Box out of permissive statements:
- God will answer your prayer.
- God will heal you.
- God has defeated death.
- God wants what’s best for you.
- God understands our weaknesses.
- God wants everyone to be saved.
- God cares more about the heart than rigid obedience.
- God’s grace always wins out over justice.
These lists could go on and on.
When we make statements like these about God we begin to define Him. They represent our efforts to fit a limitless God inside our very limited minds.
Thus we need humility in (at least) two places:
- We need humility to allow God to act outside our understanding of Him. God has the freedom and authority to create his own exceptions to our rules.
- We need humility to accept that others’ God Boxes may be correct in places ours aren’t.
To Cleopas’ credit, when the risen Messiah revealed himself Cleopas didn’t argue. He didn’t hang his head in shame. He excitedly ran back to Jerusalem to celebrate his errors (God’s good news) with his friends. May we have the humility to acknowledge our errors when we discover them. And may the construction material of our God Box more closely resemble rubber than cast iron, giving it the flexibility to stretch and adjust as our view of God matures throughout life.
– The True God who inhabits sacred space
is a father to the fatherless, a defender of widows.
He makes a home for those who are alone.
He frees the prisoners and leads them to prosper.
Yet those who rebel against Him live in the barren land without His blessings and prosperity. Psalm 68:5-6 (VOICE)
I’ve been preaching a series of sermons seeking to identify the heart of God. Who is God at his core? What are the values God holds most dearly?
In Psalm 68:5 God identifies himself as “Father to the fatherless”. The name “Father” is often attributed to God throughout Scripture. While it’s true that he is the Father, or Originator, of all humanity, God makes the point that the name is more than a description of origin. He is Father because it’s a role he willfully adopts.
Throughout history children are a footnote. They hold no power or influence. Those without parents have no natural defenders. Those without fathers struggle to find the provisions needed for life. Yet God describes Himself as “Father to the fatherless”. Father to the weakest, to the marginal, to the overlooked and under loved. God is Father.
All followers of Christ should attest to the goodness of God our Father. All of us were fatherless before Christ signed the adoption papers with his blood, called us his brothers (Hebrews 2:11), and through the Holy Spirit welcomed us into the family of God.
If the Spirit of God is leading you, then take comfort in knowing you are His children. You see, you have not received a spirit that returns you to slavery, so you have nothing to fear. The Spirit you have received adopts you and welcomes you into God’s own family. That’s why we call out to Him, “Abba! Father!” as we would address a loving daddy. Romans 8:14-15 (VOICE)
How close is fatherhood and adoption to God’s heart? According to James 1:27 “Real, true religion from God the Father’s perspective is about caring for the orphans and widows who suffer needlessly and resisting the evil influence of the world.” So how does the church reflect this aspect of our God?
Here’s a list I’ve compiled a short list of children’s homes and family services affiliated with various Churches of Christ both in the US and around the world. And the good news if you want to practice “Real, true religion…” is that they all accept donations! You can read a good overview of Church of Christ children’s homes HERE. (You can find a longer list HERE, but I have not verified the links.)
Children’s Homes in the US
- Alabama – Cullman: Childhaven
- Colorado – Longmont: Mountain States Children’s Home
- Florida – Mount Dora: Mount Dora Children’s Home
- Georgia – Valdosta: Raintree Village
- Indiana – Valparaiso: Shults-Lewis Child & Family Services
- Kentucky – Bowling Green: Potter Children’s Home
- Louisiana – Bossier City: Bossier KIDS
- New Mexico
- New York – Long Island: Timothy Hill Children’s Ranch
- Ohio – Pleasant Plain: Mid-Western Children’s Home
- South Carolina – Duncan: Southeastern Children’s Home
- Tennessee – Spring Hill (also other locations) – Tennessee Children’s Home
Adoption & Foster Care Agencies Supported by Churches of Christ
International Child Sponsorship and Orphanages
- Christian Relief Fund
- Hope for Haiti’s Children
- Orphan’s Lifeline
- Tanzania – Neema House
- Zambia – Kerin’s Kids
This list isn’t close to exhaustive, but indicative of the variety of ways Churches of Christ seek to serve God by loving the fatherless.
The instruction “Walk in the way of the LORD” sounds like some solid Christian advice. This past Sunday I recommended it to our 2016 high school and college grad’s. However, I suspect that a quick survey of what it means to walk in the way of the LORD would produce a broad array of answers.
- The Way of the LORD leads through the cross.
- The Way of the LORD is narrow.
- The Way of the LORD refers to the church.
- The Way of the LORD means obeying His commands.
- The Way of the LORD requires following the Shepherd.
- The Way of the LORD is easy and light.
- The Way of the LORD demands sacrifice.
In various measures these are all correct.
Most Christians are probably unaware that God himself provides a definition of this term.
In Genesis 18:19 Yahweh describes why he chose Abraham: “I have chosen him, that he may charge his children and his household after him to keep the way of the LORD by doing righteousness and justice.” (NRSV)
How can Abraham (and us) keep “the way of the LORD”?
“By doing righteousness and justice.”
I’ve never heard it defined that way. Okay, so I’ve never been asked to define “the way of the Lord”. It’s not a concept that all Christians know. Consider some of the other guiding principles Christians regularly recite:
- The Golden Rule – Do unto others as you’d like them to do to you.
- The Greatest Command – Love the Lord your God with your whole being.
- The Second Command – Love your neighbor as yourself.
- The Fruit of the Spirit – Love, joy peace, patience, kindness….
- John 3:16 – God so loved the world…
- The Beatitudes
- The Lord’s Prayer
Perhaps you have other personal favorites, but “The Way of the LORD” isn’t on any list that I know.
Most churches I know also use a variety of items to measure the spiritual health of their members:
- Volunteering / ministry involvement
- Bible knowledge
- Friendship with leaders
- Absence of glaring sins and problems
I’ve never heard a church leader (including myself) describe someone as spiritually mature because they embody righteousness and justice.
I know many people have more detailed and accurate definitions of what God means by “righteousness and justice”, but here’s my working definition to start the conversation:
If we want to keep the Way of the Lord we’ll care for the vulnerable around us. We’ll look for the oppressed. We’ll care for those who are bit different from everyone else. We’ll reach out to those who struggle with life. We’ll stand up for those who aren’t treated fairly and aren’t given the opportunities they deserve. Righteousness isn’t limited to our personal innocence or purity. It means doing the right thing, the just thing, for others.
Who are the vulnerable and oppressed in your community? How is your life involved with theirs? Are you living righteousness and justice? Are you walking in the Way of the LORD?
If you’re polite, you’ll say “God bless you” when someone sneezes.
If you’re from the Southern latitudes of the United States you’ll bless people’s souls as they’re in the process of embarrassing themselves.
If you’re an outgoing Christian you might end a conversation saying, “Have a blessed day”.
If you attend a church service near you, you’ll likely hear the word “blessed” about 27 times, with a particular concentration as the offering plate is about to be passed.
We use the word “bless” in a wide variety of settings with quite a larger range of meaning. Despite the common usage, if you’re like me you struggle to articulate the biblical meaning of the word.
As we begin this quest to understand the biblical concept of blessing, it’s worth noting that the Bible begins and ends with God blessing his children. Genesis 1:27 tells us that God created mankind. Once created the very next thing God did was to bless the people he created. Then in Revelation 22:14 God blesses his children who maintain their faith throughout their lives.
God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” ~ Genesis 1:28
Blessing is not a cultural embellishment of socially defined politeness. Human life begins with a blessing from Creator God.
We all understand that blessing is a good thing. (If you have time to kill, search for #blessed on Twitter and you’ll find a wide variety of blessings.) I suspect most people hear the word blessing and substitute thoughts such as: ‘Good luck’, ‘Live long and prosper’, ‘be happy’, and ‘be successful’. In fact, in the Beatitudes (Matthew 5), one of the most familiar blessing passages in the Bible, quite a few Bible translations replace the usual opening of each line “Blessed are…” with “Happy are…”.
While happiness,health and prosperity are common elements of blessing, God has something much greater in mind when he blesses us.
I started contemplating the concept of blessing after reading a chapter in Harold Shank’s book Listening to His Heartbeat. As he provides his definition, Shank first cites Westermann’s What Does the Old Testament Say About God,
“Blessing is a quiet, continuous, flowing and unnoticed working of God which cannot be captured in moments or dates.”
Shank himself provides this summary (113),
Blessing is a theological way of describing all the provision, all the good, all the grace, all the mercy, all the love, all that God does for humanity. Blessing is being valued, worthwhile, and accepted.
Later Shank compares blessing and oxygen as he suggests that “Blessing is to the soul what air is to the body. Without blessing and air, life comes to a halt.” (114)
I don’t feel that I have any profound observations to add to these definitions. I guess I’d summarise this concept by emphasising that when God blesses his people he communicates to us that his heart’s desire is for us to experience his goodness. Not necessarily as we define goodness, but on his terms.
Theologically, when we say “God bless you” we say something like “may you experience and appreciate the presence and goodness of God in your life.” This perspective moves the focus of the blessing away from material accumulation to relationship with God.
In Genesis 1 God creates man and woman and immediately, as they wake and grow in awareness of the surroundings. As they breathe, see colors and shapes, feel temperatures and textures. As they’re filled with wonder, and just before they can contemplate fear, God blesses them. God tells them that from the depths of his heart he longs for them to experience and appreciate his presence and goodness, his love and his grace.
He blessed them… and his heart longs just as strongly for you.
I find that Laura Story’s song Blessings powerfully redirects our understanding of the concept away from “stuff” and toward God’s heart. In this video she speaks of some of her personal background to the song before performing it. I pray it will uplift you today.
Back in the days when telephones were wired to walls, I had a cousin who would refuse to answer the telephone during dinner. He prioritised spending time with his family. He gave them the gift of his presence. Not just his physical presence, but his mental and emotional presence. For that time each day his wife and son knew that they were his #1 priority.
As mobile phones have proliferated the gift of conscious presence has become a scarcer commodity. You know a video strikes a chord when it has 50 million views on YouTube:
God has always valued this gift and throughout Scripture regularly promises his people the blessing of his presence. In Listening to His Heartbeat Harold Shank describes this gift as the “Divine With”. God promises to be with his people.
We see the precious nature of the “Divine With” in the first chapters of the Bible. God was with Adam and Eve in the Garden, but sin resulted in them leaving the Garden of Eden. Although they leave the Garden, there’s no indication that God left them to their own devices at that point. That comes down in Genesis 4:16. After Cain kills Abel we’re told that, “Cain went out from the Lord’s presence and lived in the land of Nod, east of Eden.” The ultimate punishment for murder was to leave the presence of God.
In the new testament the “Divine With” gathers greater momentum. Matthew 1:23 introduces Jesus with the name Immanuel, meaning “God with us”.
As Jesus prepares to die in John 14:16 he promises, “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever – the Spirit of truth.”
Immediately prior to his ascension Jesus reassures his disciples saying, “surely I am with you always , to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20)
Even the last words of Scripture in Revelation 22:21 contain the idea of presence, “The grace of the Lord Jesus be with God’s people. Amen.”
This promise continually reminds us that when we sit down at the table with God, we’re his #1 priority. When we’re driving our car, when we’re at school or work, when we’re tired, angry, sad, lonely… God is with us and at that moment we’re his #1 priority.
The repetition of this promise throughout the centuries reassures us that God’s longing to spend time with us emerges from deep within God’s heart. God’s presence provides me with tremendous comfort. As I write this blog I can pause and talk to God knowing here’s right here listening to me. I value his presence.
It’s tempting to end this post right here: warm and fuzzy. But as I revel in God’s presence I also appreciate that I share the same responsibility.
Job’s friends frequently serve as an example of people practicing presence. Job 2:13 tells us that “they sat on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights. No one said a word to him, because they saw how great his suffering was.”
As God’s presence comforts us, we have the opportunity to encourage others with our presence.
In Matthew 28 Jesus makes his promise to be with his disciples in the context of telling them to go throughout the world meeting and speaking to people. In other words, as you give the world the gift of your presence and share the promise of God’s presence with others, I’ll be with you.
That, is the gift of presence.
When I read a book more often than not I start placing myself inside the story. I begin to consider how I would react in that situation. Have I ever experienced something like this? Does the author describe my experience or something different? What if I’d responded differently to that person? Could I win where this character loses? Do I have abilities or training that would provide me a alternate outcome?
When I enter the story in this way, it’s almost always as the protagonist, the hero. What would I do if I was Superman? Would I fight Batman? What are the other options?
We like being the heroes and stories give us that opportunity. Stories provide the opportunity to rewrite our lives with a better ending.
This is why we worry about kids that always want to be Lex Luthor on the playground. Who wants to lose all the time? Is he scheming up ways to become a better villain? Is there brooding darkness in his heart?
Since the Bible contains many stories we often find ourselves going through the same process. The run of the mill Sunday School questions encourage this thought process as teachers ask, “What would you have done if you were Judas?” “What do you think Samson was thinking?” “If you were Jesus, how would you have answered this question?”
When we read the story of Joseph, we naturally relate to him. When we struggle with life for no apparent reason, we tell ourselves “God has something better for me just around the corner like He did for Joseph.” If we make tough decisions because of our faith convictions we remind ourselves that “Like Joseph, God will reward me for this decision.”
We convince ourselves that if we embody the faith of Joseph we’ll end up as the 2nd in command of the most powerful nation on earth, like Joseph did. Because, in the story we are Joseph.
But what if we’re wrong?
I know. It’s incomprehensible. But just imagine with me for a moment.
What if the character that represents us in the story is Benjamin? Or his brother Zebulun? What if there are only a few people in history that God treats like Joseph? What if most people are like Benjamin?
Joseph, his father and his brothers talk about Benjamin extensively, but Benjamin never says a word. He’s key to the story, but doesn’t actually do anything. Joseph protects him (along with his brothers) and provides food and a new land for his family. All Benjamin is required to do to accomplish God’s greater purpose is to marry and have children so that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob can become a great nation.
If we’re Joseph our motto might be “God wants me to do great things for Him.”
Benjamin might say, “God wants me to be faithful for Him.”
Joseph summarises his life (50:20) saying “God’s using me to save many lives.”
Benjamin might say, “God’s using me to provide for my family.”
More of us will have lives like Benjamin than Joseph. God loves us. God guides and protects us. God died for us. God simply longs for us to go through life faithfully honoring Him.
Jacob and his eleven sons needed Joseph. The people of Egypt and surrounding nations needed Joseph. Pharaoh needed Joseph. But Joseph needed his brothers. God needed all twelve of Jacob’s sons to fulfill his plan for the redemption of humanity. Joseph just lived in a brighter spotlight than Benjamin.
When we’re in a pit. When we’re falsely accused. When life’s tough. God hasn’t forgotten us. But God doesn’t necessarily have a greater responsibility in store for us. Sometimes His blessing is to give us the strength to get through the hardship in a way that maintains our faith and brings honor to God.
Are you okay being Benjamin?
“He who is faithful in a very little thing is faithful also in much.” Luke 16:10a