The Glory of Prepositions

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God abides in us to perfect His purposes through us. This is an interesting and a comforting thought. This God of love lives in us, stays with us, and flows through us to accomplish His desires. But we are not passive partners in this process. We have our own role to play. And this role is primarily practiced through the act of obedience.

But, if you’re like me, obedience can sometimes be a slippery thing. For years I used to flounder in frustration when reading verses like Proverbs 3:5 (Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding) or 1 Cor. 10:31 (Whatever you do, do all for the glory of God). These types of verses seemed to excel in telling me what to do but appeared to fail in explaining how. It felt as if God had wedged me between my desire to do the right thing and my ignorance of the process.

But God had done no such thing at all. In fact, when I looked at these types of verses more clearly, I realized that in every instance God had provided a hidden instruction so that my obedience could be carried out as He intended. The answer, though, came in those small connecting words we often overlook in scripture. Tiny words that race past our eyes and hide within the shadows of metaphors and expansive revelations. These are the words we imagine revolve around the center of a sentence’s solar system, while in reality, they are the stars whose gravity holds all of the other words together and maps the circuit of the ideas within.

What are they?

They are the prepositions. Words like “in” and “with” and “for.” And without them, no Christian can ever obey God.

Consider the following:

“I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” – Php. 4:13

“For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.” – Eph. 2:10

or

“Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me…apart from me you can do nothing.” – John 15:4-5

Obedience can never be done without the prepositions. In fact, it is the prepositions that empower the obedience. If we are honest, we know we cannot do what God commands us to do in our abilities alone. But when we embrace the belief that it is Christ working in and through us, we can boldly step out and proclaim, “With God we shall do valiantly; it is he who will tread down our foes.” (Ps. 108:13) This gives a whole new dimension to prayer and obedience. For once we have completed the process of following and have synced our heart and mind up to God’s so that we know His will, He command to go and do changes our requests from scavenger hunts to discover His will into requests to perform His will. We can step out in power and in confidence because it is He who is doing the work, not ourselves. Like an arrow shot from the archer’s bow, we do not set the aim or the trajectory or the target. Our objective is to only fly straight and true, piercing the bullseye according to His will.

Thus, obedience in Christ is not only praying in the name of Christ but it is also acting in the will and the power of Christ. The man who forfeits the opportunity to obey the calling of God because he is unable to accomplish the vision in his own strength is both missing and understanding the point all at the same time. He is so close to the adventure of God he teeters on the edge of understanding and faith, but he is so focused on himself that the distance between his usefulness and impotence in Christ has become immeasurable. If he would accept that God only wants him to be remembered as a useful tool and not a glorious building, then he would be able to yield himself to work in the strength and will of the Carpenter’s hand. But the one who does not empty himself of grandiose visions of glory or depressive visions of failure can only experience God’s desires for his life as an observer, not as a participant. His heart is focused too much on what he believes he can do in himself.

But God does not want us to obey within the the limitations of our abilities. He wants us to obey within the infinite realms that His prepositions provide “so as to live the rest of the time in the flesh no longer for the lusts of men, but for the will of God.” (1 Peter 4:2) For since we have been crucified with Christ, the only thing that should remain in the obedient servant is a willingness to be used and a hopeful expectation to see God do immeasurably more than we could ever ask or imagine (Eph. 3:2).

Remember, when God calls us to obedience, He calls us to future action. Sometimes that action is milliseconds in the future (will you defend your faith or deny that you know me?) and sometimes it is months or years in the future (lead my people out of Egypt and into the Promised Land). Either way, our faith must rest in God’s future grace in order to propel our obedience. Too many times we want to focus on the now because that is the one aspect on life’s timeline we can control. But God is a god of tomorrow as much as He is a god of today. Our faith need not be in what we can control now but in what God is controlling next, whether it be seconds or eons to come. If we cannot trust that God is there (in the future) as well as here (in the present) we cannot believe the calling and vision He has placed on our lives will be fulfilled. Everything will be left up to random chance. But a God who lives in the future is a god who calls us forward.

He is a god who secures the outcome in the power of His might. He is a creating god, ensuring the chaos of today is ordered into the fulfilled promises of tomorrow. A god of the future is a trustworthy god. An unsurprised god. A victorious god. And an unchanging god. He has no need for variance because as a god of the future, He has no need to react.  He is always out in front of us, creating, planning, coordinating, and inviting exactly the right person(s) to accomplish His purposes, of which we are a part. As an elected member of this future god’s tribe, our job is not to worry about today (for He has planned this day and its events from long ago) nor is it to ask about the what-ifs of tomorrow (for He has already arranged those outcomes as well). Our job is to boldly follow this god into the future He has designed and to exchange our anxiety for security. When we work in Him and with Him and for Him we no longer need to question what will happen. We only need to seek the when.

In this way our obedience demonstrates that “we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and preserve their souls.” (Heb. 10:39) For we know that whether our obedience leads to another event that fulfills God’s plans or a death that glorifies His name, we will always be stepping into the future with God.

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Reflections on Psalm 145

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The one who extols and blesses and praises God’s name continuously is the one who maintains a high view of the holy standard God exemplifies in both His words and His actions. This helps a person remember that there is a standard above himself, an unflinching and unbreakable law that calls one to a higher code of conduct than anything we could imagine. Keeping God’s holiness constantly in view helps us remember that we are not the first cause to our morality, nor are we the end of the argument (i.e., the last person to whom we are accountable) for our choices. There is someone superior to us who holds us to a higher standard than we have ever held ourselves. Praise reinforces this knowledge and provides the kernel of submission we require to live a life rooted in the stability of this truth. To be a person full of integrity, whose actions and words align.

The continuous practice of praise allows us to conform our lives to God’s will and provides security even in the darkest times of life, for the truth of God does not change. His words and deeds are continuously consistent (He does not change like shifting shadows). Therefore, in verse 18 this is why it says, “The LORD is near to all who call on him, to all who call on him in truth.” God is not nearby, like a player waiting to be called off the bench to enter the game.

God is near.

He is personal.

His words are hidden in our heart so that we might not sin against him. Those words define us. They construct our habits and thoughts. They provide a path of righteousness to walk in for His name’s sake. And when our actions and deeds match the holy standard of His actions and deeds it gives our prayers gravitas because this alignment is what it means to “call on Him in truth.” It is speaking out of an integrity and a righteousness that He has designed in us, based out of His perfect character, not out of an identity that our broken pathologies have defined. When we see God as superior and continually exalt and extol His name above all other names (especially our own), we then understand our position in relation to Him. We can respect and revere and love Him as we ought. And as a result, God fulfills the desire of those who fear Him and preserves those who love Him (v. 19-20). Not so that we may benefit materially, but so that our lives may proclaim the goodness of His name and be an eternal echo of that old hymn that says:

Oh, come to the Father, through Jesus the Son,

And give Him the glory; great things He hath done.

EXTRA! EXTRA!

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For over a year I have been writing the blog “Living in the Tent.” Initially, I tailored my blog to express how to live a Christian life, both from a theological perspective and a relationship perspective. As a Christian marriage therapist, I felt this would be a great way to blend both of my passions into one expression.

However, as I began to review this blog last month I realized that the majority of my posts on here were more of a devotional nature and less about relationships. I still enjoy writing about how to manage one’s marriage successfully, but I have to recognize that this blog is no longer able to sustain a dual focus. Therefore, I have decided to do the only thing that anyone with a passion for writing, loving God, and helping couples can do…I’m starting a second blog!

This blog will remain intact and continue to deliver the devotional posts that you have been reading. However, my new blog will take up the mantle of providing relationship advice for couples. As anyone can tell you, a wedding is one thing but a marriage is a whole other animal. That is why I decided to create After the Aisle. If any of you are interested in my new blog and the relationship advice that I will be giving there, please click here and check it out. I hope you enjoy it!

Quick Thoughts: Delight Yourself in the Lord

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Trust in the Lord, and do good;
    dwell in the land and befriend faithfulness.[b]
Delight yourself in the Lord,
    and he will give you the desires of your heart. (Psalm 37:3-4)

 

If you have been in church or around the Bible for any season, this verse has probably popped out at you at some point. On the surface, it sounds like a man-centered verse. It almost has the nasal ring of a carnival ringmaster crying out to the crowd, “Step right up! Step right up! Get the desires of your heart today! Do you want money? A promotion? A better marriage? You can have anything your heart desires! Just delight yourself in the Lord and you can have it all!”

Of course, this interpretation of the verse is all poppycock. It is not about me getting a new car or having my team win the World Series or, on  a more serious note, having an addiction suddenly removed from me.

Rather, the focus of the verse is about getting the desires of your heart correct. To begin with, the Bible tells us that “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9) And it continually instructs us to cleanse our hearts, to lay aside selfishness, worry, and “the sin that so easily entangles.” Pursuing the desires of a sick heart is not the goal of a holy God. He wants to correct the desires first and then fulfill the desires of the new heart.

But how do we do that?

Well, think of yourself as an iPhone and God as your iTunes account. You have some of the songs on your iTunes already added to your phone, but not all of them. For what you have, it works…mostly. But it is not a good copy of the master version on your desktop. If you want your phone to have everything that resides on your master version, the only way to get them is to sync your phone up to the computer. So, you plug in your USB to your phone and to the computer, and voila! You now have your songs. This is similar to what God is telling us to do in verses 3 and 4 here. When the psalmist writes, “Trust in the Lord, and do good; dwell in the land and befriend faithfulness,” he is telling us to “sync” our heart with God’s. That the way to get the Master’s version to overwrite our current heart is to:

  1. Trust in the Lord (not in yourself.) Remember, trusting in yourself got you into this mess. Trusting yourself won’t get you out of it.
  2. Do good. – This means to do the right and ethical thing according to God’s law/standards. We like to think that we are a law unto ourselves (“Well, that may be true for you, but not for me.”) But when we live according to God’s standards, a change begins to occur in us that transcends even the rule of self.
  3. Dwell in the land – Don’t just vacation in God’s land. Live there. He has reserved a specific place for our hearts to live and if we will make it our residence, we will find the fruit is sweeter and the victories are sure.
  4. Befriend faithfulness – Another way of translating this, is “feed on faithfulness.” Let faithfulness be your nourishment.  The safe pasture that strengthens your whole being.  Don’t be flaky or wishy-washy. Stand firm. Be strong and courageous. But be faithful to what/whom? Faithfulness to God and His ways. Do  not waver from His principles, but allow it to guide your decisions and the way you interact with others.

Thus, when he says, “Delight yourself in the Lord” in verse 4, he is merely summarizing the four points listed above. In this light, the words “And he will give you the desires of your heart” become not a prescriptive statement, such as “if you do A, you will get B.” Rather, it becomes a descriptive statement, such as “when you do A, you will have B.” The focus, then, is not on the getting but on the becoming. It is about God changing your desires to mirror His own, so that now, together, you and He can pursue the same desires.

Sync your heart up to God’s. Trust in Him. Do good. Dwell in the land. Feed on faithfulness. Then your desires will be like His. And you will have the desires of your heart.

Iniquity, Trespasses, and Sin

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A week ago my pastor sent out a church-wide email to follow up on some key points from his sermon. I found the points helpful (since I couldn’t write fast enough to keep up with his definitions) and thought-provoking. Below is a copy of the email followed by a few thoughts of my own. I hope you find this helpful in your personal walk with Christ.

 

Follow up from Sunday sermon…
Beloved,

Sometimes when I preach I get going and it’s hard to write down everything you want to write down.  I’m actually trying to get better at my pace but the Bible excites me so sometimes I get carried away.  This past Sunday I was talking about the difference between iniquity, transgression and sin and some of you have asked about those descriptions so I thought I’d send them out with a little more unpacking around each one.

As I said on Sunday, when the Bible refers to iniquity, transgression and sin these are not three different words for the same thing.  Each one refers to a specific posture of the heart towards sin.  Here is some more granularity around what was shared on Sunday.

1. iniquity– this refers to a more deeply rooted posture of the heart, has to do with premeditated choice, iniquity continuing in sin without repentance.  Iniquity left unchecked leads to a state of willful sin with no fear of God.  Iniquity is bending or twisting of the law of God in our hearts and heads long before it expresses itself in our hands.

2. transgression– refers to presumptuous sin, the choice to intentionally disobey; willful trespassing.  Examples of this are when we run a stop sign or red light or blatantly disregard an authority.  We didn’t plan on it before hand but in the moment we “just did it.”

3. sin– literally means “to miss the mark,” doing wrong against God or a person, also includes failing to do what you know is right.  Some people refer to sins of commission and sins of omission.  Sins of commission are things that we’ve done that were wrong while sins of omission are not doing the right things we should have done.

Knowing the difference helps inform the way we pray for ourselves and those we love.  It also reminds us to honestly assess what is deep in our hearts.

Thanks for thinking and for asking,

Neil

 

 

This was an interesting distinction for me, especially since the day after this email I read this verse:

I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not cover my iniquity; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,” and you forgave the iniquity of my sin.

Psalm 32:5 (ESV)

Entering the above definitions helped clarify what David was trying to say. Rewritten it may sound more like this (definitions placed in brackets and bolded):

I acknowedge [the way I had missed the mark] to you, and I did not cover [the way I had willfully twisted the law of God in my heart]; I said, “I will confess my [willful and intentional choices to disobey] to the Lord,” and you forgave [the deeply rooted posture of my heart that causes me to fail in doing what’s right.] 

Looking at the verse in this way, I began to realize how much Christ had forgiven me for on the cross. His sacrifice did not merely cover poor behaviors or inappropriate choices. Rather, he forgave me for posturing my heart towards Him in such a way that I twisted the truth of His law to fit my needs. All of the ways I explained to myself or others that it was okay for me to do a certain behavior or make a specific choice because this was a “special situation” or “extenuating circumstance.” How I rationalized that God’s love excused my willful disobedience, or how I insisted that even though I may have missed the mark, I didn’t miss it by that much. After all, I’m only human. Right?

This type of forgiveness is on a whole different level than merely excusing bad behavior. This forgiveness helps us examine the deep things beneath the flower and the soil that give our dark hearts life and the power to pull it up by the root. It is not enough to modify what we do. We have tried that throughout the years and every time our willpower has failed. This forgiveness gives us the power to do this specifically because it is NOT our power. It comes from God, the One who spoke and created order out of chaos. When Christ forgives, He transforms the entire man, beginning with the nature of the heart and rippling outward into actionable steps that make sense to the new mind and heart. He does not just set our feet in the right direction and hopes we make right choices thereafter. He changes us. He works on us. He directs us.

 

Iniquity, trespasses, and sin. They are not the same thing. But the blood of Christ covers them all and empowers us to live as an authentic testimony to the world of the change forgiveness can bring.

Dear Teenager…

with-great-power-comes-great-responsibility-spider-manYou’ve probably heard it all your life. Your parents say it. Your teachers say it. Heck, even your coaches may say it. You’ve heard it so many times, you’re probably sick of it, and even though you think you know what it means, I’m betting that you don’t.

So, as you transition from adolescence to adulthood, I’m going to give you what no one ever gave me, but everyone expected me to understand. Continue reading