No More Waiting!

We’ve just come through the annual turn from waiting to celebrating: Last night marked the end of Advent, the season of anticipation and waiting–and this morning we awoke to Christmas! What a wonderful day it has been for us–different, to be sure, but still wonderful. We “made merry” in honor of the birth of Jesus with various family members and exchanged greetings with many friends near and far throughout the day.

Just as Advent is much longer–four weeks–than Christmas’s single day (or 12 if you follow one particular tradition), so it was historically. The people of God waited centuries, through all sorts of twists and turns of events, longing for Messiah even as hints and prophecies about him slowly accumulated. And then, on one special day, he came. Nothing would ever be the same throughout the world. Human history is still divided between the time before he came and the years since!

In the same way, our anticipation of his return (or second advent), has continued for two millennia. As a kid before Christmas, December always seemed to drag on forever. I think we Christians can feel the same about waiting for Jesus to return. I longed for presents and being out of school when I was a kid looking to Christmas. As believers, we long for the gift of his presence and the multi-faceted joys of seeing sin defeated and all of the terrible stuff going on now brought to a blessed conclusion.

Once again, Christmas has come. Anticipation came to an end. And even if the Lord chooses not to return this Christmas for the second time, the assurance that he came the first time after such a long wait should help us realize that one day our hopes will be fulfilled. So let the end of Advent be an encouragement to remember that all of our waiting will also come to an end, and for the believer, it will be infinitely more glorious than the best Christmas we could experience. Unlike Christmas celebrations that come to an end, the second advent will be a never-ending celebration with the Savior. For someone who loves Christmas (and don’t we all?), that is incredibly good news.

Merry Christmas!

“Love is…”

Figuring Out the Fourth Theme of Advent

As we come to the fourth week of Advent, the most commonly followed tradtions make “love” the theme. That’s not too surprising, but it does create a bit of a problem. As Matt Chandler said in a recent sermon, in our culture “love” is a word like that garbage drawer in your kitchen–if you don’t know what it is or where it should go, it goes there. That’s how we treat “love.” We love our spouses, our children, our dog, a favorite movie, and In-n-Out burgers (that’s my thought, not his). Because we apply the word so broadly, we don’t really have a meaning we can hang on to, other than “fondness for.” Is that enough? Certainly it is for a burger, but probably not for my wife!

Christians are to love God with everything they are. We are to love one another, our neighbor, and our enemies. Interestingly enough, the word the NT writers use most often in these cases in one you’ve heard of–agape. It wasn’t the most commonly used word for love at the time, but it became a Christian identifier. And that word, alone among the other words for “love” is associated with three concepts.

The first is doing. This is not primarily a feeling, although it certainly can involve them. It is a love that acts. To love people is to act on their behalf. When I love my neighbor, I am ready and willing to do those things that are for his good.

The second, related concept is sacrifice–love like this is giving love. The actions of this love are often costly–when I give of my time, or attention, or resources to one I love, those quantities are no longer mine to spend.

The third concept is choice. We can have feeling for a person that can ebb and flow. But with agape, a choice is made to love another through those emotional and situational ups and downs. Sometimes we don’t understand how that choice is made in the lives of others–we may say, “how did she wind up loving him?” But she did, and she does.

Love is active, love is sacrificial, and love flows from a decision. That is the heart of the Advent story. Those that God set out to redeem (his choice), he has acted to save, and done so at great cost.

“This is love. Not that we love God, but that he loved us, and gave his son to be the propitiation for our sins.” 1 John 4:10

“We love because he first loved us.” 1 John 4:19

“For 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.” John 3:16

The story of Advent is the revelation, through incarnation, of what love is, coming from the One who is the only one who defines love–God is love. How loving is God? The Father has chosen to love those who are not inherently lovable, sent his one and only Son to be their Savior, and to pour out the wrath those he loves deserve upon that one Son. The Son’s love is also on display, setting aside his glory and coming to be born in Bethlehem, limiting the exercise of his attributes to be one of us, and dying for us. The Spirit, whose fruit in our lives is love, led Jesus throughout his life, and empowered the resurrection and is sent into us as the very presence of God to make us like Jesus.

Advent is God’s gift of love being delivered to us!

The Word Came…to the Sasak

A Missionary Tale for Advent Joy

It’s the third week of Advent, and “joy” has been its traditional theme. So, I thought I would share a story that not only brought joy to our hearts, but speaks of the joy of the Lord becoming available to a people with the arrival of his Word. I first shared this last year in a note, but want more of you to hear it. So, here you go!

Last summer, Kathy and I visited the Museum of the Bible during our sabbatical stop in the Washington, D.C. area. It was well worth the day spent there. We saw all sorts of displays and records of the transmission of God’s Word to people. But an unexpected joy was the discovery of a room filled with translations of the Bible. As impressive as it was, there was one translation that stood out for us. It was the Sasak New Testament, produced on the island of Lombok in Indonesia. And we felt incredible joy to see it there.

Why?

Because from 1990 to 2005, we were eyewitnesses to the process that led to this translation’s completion and printing in 2007. The Sasak live on the island of Lombok, in Indonesia, and number at 3.5 million people. They are, in the latest report only .001% Evangelical–99.99% are Muslim. That translates to less than 400 known believers, even though gospel outreach has gone on most recently since the late 20th century. But that is up from the less than 50 believers in 1991 when I first visited the island.

I was traveling with a missionary worker sent by our church who, along with his wife and two other couples were seeking to begin a work there, in partnership with some Indonesian believers. Other than Indonesian literature (Indonesian is a trade language spoken throughout the country, but not the “heart language” of most people living away from the major population centers), there were only portions of scripture that had ever been translated into Sasak and they were not readily available.

Over the years I made five more trips to Lombok (three with Kathy) where we visited our workers and their teams. These teams continued to change as persecution and efforts that failed to take root kept removing some, even as others arrived. Workers would often arrive brimming with hope but leaving discouraged. Some would change fields. Others came home to do something else. Still others, through various attacks (some physical) found themselves having to leave due to government pressure. None of the workers in place when I started visiting were there when we last came to the island.

We remember the first major team working on the translation. They did so in secret, and were very fearful of discovery by the Muslim authorities. But they were continuing and showed us their work. Their leader, Anna, was tenacious, but shortly after our visit, she perished when her gas stove exploded and her burns were beyond medical help. Losing Anna was devastating to our friends (it would not be the only death they experienced) and seemed to be something that might end this project.

At that time, persecution had broken out throughout the island. Christians’ homes were targeted and were burned. As mobs arrived, they would drag all the family’s possessions into the street and burn them, even as they ransacked the house. Sometimes they left the house standing because it was a rental owned by a Muslim. As we drove the streets, we would see places where the asphalt had buckled, and this was how we would know that a Christian had lived in a house on that street. The main victims were from other ethnic groups (including our team of workers) who live on the island and are identified as Christians, since so few Sasak are believers. The persecution and then Anna’s death seemed like it might shut the work down again.

But in 2004, our last visit to Lombok, we were welcomed by the translation team (they had a new leader and had been joined by others). Where a few years ago their demeanors had demonstrated their fear in their faces, now they were smiling, happy, and excited at what God had done in enabling them to complete their drafts.

Most amazing of all, one of the U.S. workers there told an amazing story about the checking of the translation. It seems that they needed Sasak speakers to read the draft and then translate it back into Indonesian to see if they had gotten the translation right. But native speakers were Muslims, and there was no certainty how they would respond. This worker had befriended a Muslim Sasak man who was very interested in knowing more about Jesus, and after much prayer the worker approached the Sasak man and asked him if he would be willing to do this work. What happened next was miraculous.

The Sasak man told the worker, “I had a dream and in it I was told that I would soon learn my life’s purpose. And now you have asked this of me. This must be what I have been born to do.” And he did.

Later, another Sasak man was asked to help in making Sasak corrections, and eventually these men were able to talk together about the Scriptures.

Most amazing of all, the first man was so moved by what he read (he was reading Romans), that, without the worker’s permission (this could be dangerous), he started having his neighbors over to read it to them and talk about it–a Muslim Sasak leading a Bible study in Romans! Through this a number of people became believers and a house church began.

In fact, a number of house churches began. Meanwhile, the translation of the New Testament went to the Indonesian Bible Society for further refinement and preparation for publication, which finally was completed in 2007 (there still is no complete Bible in the language).

Seeing this volume in the ranks of all these translations was such a joy and brought back so many memories of the faithful workers we knew who over those years sought to bring Sasak people the knowledge of the gospel. There are still workers (precious few) who are there continuing that work, but now they have the New Testament as their key tool!

Why tell this story now, in Advent? Well, the Sasak people have been waiting in spiritual darkness for even longer than the people waiting for Jesus’ birth. Finally, the light is dawning and the Word made flesh has given them his written word. Let the story of the Sasak, and the reminder that there are still well over a billion people still waiting for that message in their language, give this season of “waiting” even greater significance.

Peace in a Pandemic

As we move through Advent, the second candle and second week carry the theme of “Peace.” But this Advent is not a peaceful time for most of us, in many different and troubling ways.

The personal and family burdens so many people carry in this season of pandemic are different from person to person but equally weighty. Many have struggled in the loneliness of quarantines and isolation. Suicides and overdoses are up, and you don’t have to be in those extreme situations to understand the impact of loneliness on people.

Many others have experienced economic losses or the closing of businesses. A recent video posted by a restaurant owner showing her closed outdoor space next to a newly opened, “government-approved” outdoor exception to the rules was jarring. She and her employees would be out of work, but another business more favored by officials could function without hindrance. You can be on either side of the “shutdown” issue and still admit that lots of suffering and financial loss has taken place.

Some (including me) have had friends or relatives go into the hospital to endure their treatment (of coronavirus or other illnesses) without a single visitor, or worse, ended their earthly sojourn alone. And health professionals have dealt with conditions unlike any in their careers, leading to both exhaustion and deep frustration.

Circumstances have large numbers on edge and critical of those who don’t see matters the way they do. Even in the church of Jesus, there has been division in many congregations. I’m no longer pastoring a church, but my heart goes out to church leaders who find themselves trying to lead well while facing scrutiny and criticism from church members at both ends of the pandemic spectrum. Navigating uncertain times and circumstances has some believers ready to denounce fellow believers or church leaders for not doing the “right” thing–as if we know what that is.

Of course, there’s little peace in our political moment, either. I won’t even pretend to understand some of what I’m seeing and hearing as conspiracy theories fly around social media (which is about as “un-social” as it could be).

Shouldn’t Christians be different? Of course we should be, and we are the only ones who can be. You see, everyone else looks at the chaos and can only ask themselves questions that have no answers in their belief systems–or answers that they cannot live with.

But Advent reminds us that God has a plan that he is bringing toward a victorious conclusion. In Isaiah 9:6-7, the famous “unto us a child is born” passage, the prophet reveals that the coming Messiah will be the one who rules everything there is (“the government will be upon his shoulders”). He will be the one who gives miraculously inspired guidance in his words (“wonderful counselor”). His power is God’s (“the mighty God”). His care for his own is that of a father toward his children (“everlasting Father”–I heard a sermon Sunday that reminded me that Jesus even said he would not leave us as orphans).

And in this week of Advent, I’d remind you that God’s plan promised (and has given) us the One whose very existence in all these other roles is characterized by peace (“prince of peace”). This peace begins with his saving work, reconciling us to his father through death on the cross. We are at peace with God. And we can receive the peace of God. No condemnation is before us, only blessing.

That peace means we know who is in control, and it’s not a virus, government officials, medical minds, or “the science.” It is King Jesus. His words–found in his Word–give us the counsel we need to know how to behave and how to face hardship in this world. And they tell us that our future is not a disease-ridden world, but a remade heavens and earth where everything works just as it was meant to be.

Can we be sure of this? Yes, as the passage concludes with the assertion–“the zeal of the LORD of armies will accomplish this.” I don’t think there is any greater certainty that something will happen, or in this case has begun to happen already, than this statement.

Brothers and sisters, let’s believe what God’s promise has established, and face these days in a way that shows by our behavior that we know all this to be true. Who knows whether your peaceful demeanor and words will be what draws someone to ask how you can be calm in such a time? So, be at peace!

“Hoping So” or “Hoping In?”

Two different uses of “hope” that mark two different kinds of people

Week One of Advent, the Candle of Hope

(As we begin the Advent Season today, I thought I would share some thoughts I’ve written over the past years about this very special season. I hope they will be a help to you.)

As we begin our first week in Advent and think about “hope” as it relates to the promised coming of a Savior, I’m reminded that we use this word in very different ways.

When I say, “I hope so,” I’m usually expressing a wish or perhaps an uncertainty about what is coming. I want it to happen, but I’m not sure it will happen. So I “hope” it will.

But the hope we talk about with the coming of Jesus and the salvation he has provided have nothing to do with an uncertain wish. It is the expression of confidence about the future, based on the believability or certainty of the object.

As a great example, my hope in Christ is not that “I hope he will save me,” because I know that he saves the one who believes on him and calls upon his name (Acts 16:31, Romans 10:13). I know that he knows me and will never let me go (John 10:27-30). He will save me. My hope is the assurance that, as good or bad as the present may look, as powerful as evil may seem, and as final as death presents itself to be, Jesus has promised me a future beyond them all. It is with him, in a place he is preparing, and it involves not only the gracious forgiveness of my sins, but the removal of any effects of sin that were a result of the Fall. It involves resurrection from this dying (and someday dead) body into a glorified, immortal body. It includes final victory over all God’s enemies, the ability to stand before God’s throne and be justified then (as I am now), and to enter into an eternally glorious existence in a totally remade New Heaven and Earth. This hope is what I receive in Christ.

A “hope so” faith isn’t really faith at all, is it? What we are offered in Jesus is a hope–a promise–of much more than I deserve, could imagine, or ever obtain on my own. Place your faith in the Savior of the world, and you no longer have to have a “hope so” approach to your future!

George Mueller, Prayer, and the Will of God

As one of the greatest prayer warriors of his generation, George Mueller’s legacy of prayer is well established. His prayer journals are filled with years’ worth of requests and specific answers from God. The story of his establishing orphan homes that cared for thousands over decades by faith and without ever appealing for aid other than in prayer is well known.

What may be less known is how he determined whether something was the will of God, and therefore, worth devoting himself to prayer. Whether it was the decision to build the original orphan home in the first place, or to take up missionary journeys later in life, everything was to be brought before the Lord before proceeding. This came through clearly in a lengthy biography of Mueller by A. T. Pierson (and I mean lengthy—I think I know more about Mueller than I thought possible, but don’t regret that at all).

Mueller looked at situations and needs with a conviction that God wanted to make known his will and demonstrate his faithfulness. He was convinced that God wanted to be seen by his people as able to meet every need. So, Mueller wouldn’t even tell people what his personal or ministry needs were, preferring to let God provide by moving in the hearts of his people.

I offer here his six steps for knowing the will of God in decisions, large or small (whether it is something to pray for or something to do). This version is taken from a shorter pamphlet, An Hour with George Mueller, edited by A. Sims. I’ve edited it slightly for readability.

  1. Seek to get the heart to a state where it has no will of its own (90% of the battle).
  2. Do not leave the result to simple “impression.” This makes one liable to “great delusions.”
  3. Seek the will of the Spirit of God through the Word of God—they must be combined. “If I look to the Spirit alone without the Word I lay myself open to great delusions also. If the Holy Ghost guides us at all, He will do it according to the Scriptures and never contrary to them.
  4. Take providential circumstances into account, as they often indicate God’s will along with Word and Spirit.
  5. Ask God to reveal his will aright (to bring clarity).
  6. As you do this, you come to a deliberate judgment according to the best of one’s ability and knowledge—and if the mind is thus at peace, and continues so after two or three more petitions, proceed accordingly.

Now, these may seem like simple steps, and some might argue that they are too simple. But I’ve had to ask myself if their simplicity might be their genius. Surrender, resisting simple impressions, studying the Word in submission to the Spirit, considering circumstances, asking for clarity, and seeing a judgment form that can be brought before the Lord—these seem biblical, don’t they? And to be honest, Mueller’s track record in prayer is exemplary—certainly better than mine! If you have never tried step number one, you will find it more difficult than you can imagine to surrender your own interest in some matters to the greater interest of the glory of Jesus in this world.

This material is all the more pertinent to me as I’ve recently completed an extended time of seeking to know God’s direction for our future ministry, and these steps were incredibly important. I commend them to you!

Changes Coming

No, I’m not announcing any new directions in our lives (although we are in the midst of a month’s worth of prayer and fasting for direction). Many of you have told us you are praying with us—thank you!

Instead, this site will be changing and expanding soon. I hope to have more resources available here. I’m excited about the potential changes. Be watching for them.

Until then, please be patient with the lack of new posts. Writing is taking a back seat to listening right now. We hope to have more to share shortly! And I have a post or two that may make it here before then.

Strong Comforter

One of the names for the Holy Spirit is “the Comforter.” The name comes from the Greek word, parakletos, which speaks of being “called alongside” with the purpose of help. From this idea of assistance, we’ve moved to a word that sounds more like a “sympathizer,” or a warm blanket–like what we would put on our beds in the cold months of winter. That’s not exactly the same as help or assistance, is it? 

Now don’t get me wrong. God wants to encourage and shelter and console his people in this life. But if the Holy Spirit is just a warm fuzzy presence saying “there, there,” I’m not sure that really helps.

But that is not what the title “Comforter” means. As R. C. Sproul noted as he taught and wrote on this subject, when parakletos was being translated into English back in the 1600s, they wanted to use a word that meant “to come along side with needed strength or aid.” They chose the word “comforter” because, back then, it meant that. It was from two Latin words, cum, which means “with” and fortis which means “strength” (the musical term “forte” is from this word). The emphasis is not on feeling better, but on being provided needed strength or help. In fact, the ESV uses “Helper” instead of “Comforter” for this very reason. Languages evolve over time, and with the word “Comforter” we went from powerful aid to a down quilt.

Interestingly, the same Greek term (parakletos), when used of Jesus in 1 John 2, is translated “Advocate,” a term used for a lawyer–that is certainly one form of aid we can understand.

So, when you think about the Holy Spirit, don’t think of a spiritual “warm blanket.” Instead, consider him to be the person of the Trinity who gives you, by his presence with you, all the strength and power you need for godliness.

Where Do Christians Go When They Die?

The question of what happens after we die is a vital one for all people, since we will all die. It is a question I often receive when someone has a loved one who is about to die, and when that person has no known faith it is a very sobering question. But even for Christians there are questions.

In our extended family, it is very real and personal right now, because my dear father-in-law, Harold, breathed his last on this earth last week. We will be laying his body in a grave next week in Montana. And it is very important for us to know, where, exactly, is he? Not just the body, but the spirit that animated his body and was “him” for the 86 years people knew him here on earth. Is he still in that body somehow, asleep?

You may think that’s a strange idea, but if you were Seventh Day Adventist, you would believe this teaching, called “soul sleep.” And since I have lived and served in two communities where Adventist-related health systems ran hospitals and schools, it is a question I’ve heard numerous times that came as those institutions reflected their founders’ Adventist faith and teaching. In such situations, and frankly in any context, we shouldn’t be surprised that some of our neighbors and co-workers might hold such an idea.

The view is based on a straightforward acceptance of the passages in the Bible that speak of death as sleep, especially for believers. In the OT, kings who died were said to have “slept with their fathers.” Jesus said Lazarus was “asleep” when he was actually dead in John 11. In Acts 7:60, Stephen’s death is referred to as falling asleep. And Paul often refers to death as sleep – see examples in 1 Corinthians 11:30 (the Greek text says “sleep,” although many modern language versions say “have died”), 15:51; 1 Thessalonians 4:13.

Is this correct? Have we misunderstood the Bible?

I don’t think so, but before I go further, let me remind us all that while this is an issue of right interpretation, it is not an issue that would keep someone from Heaven. In short, while I believe that “soul sleep” is an incorrect understanding, it is not heresy that denies essential truth of our faith. Such believers may be wrong, but are not heretics.

Adventists teach that Christ is currently evaluating all people, from Adam onward, determining who will be raised to the resurrection of life, and who will not. Final judgment is completely future–awaiting Christ’s return after he finishes this evaluative judgment in heaven. Therefore, they teach that no one can be in the presence of Christ yet, because that will only be revealed in the last day.

Here is how I would answer this teaching – knowing that more could be said, but this should suffice.

1. The Bible in many places speaks of death as a time of transition from one state of conscious existence to another–for example, the story of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16 has 2 men dying and becoming aware afterwards–Lazarus in “the bosom of Abraham” (the name given by Jewish people to the Paradise where the righteous dead await resurrection) and the rich man in “Hades”–a place of torment and flame. In the OT, both Enoch and Elijah go to God’s presence without dying–an exception, but still a troubling case for the soul sleep view. Moses and Elijah were alive and well when they appeared with Jesus on the mount of Transfiguration. And Jesus told the thief on the cross “Truly I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” The word “today” modifies the second half of the phrase (“you will be with me”), not the first (“Truly I say to you”), as Adventists try to explain.

2. The Bible says we are “away from the Lord while in this body, but to be absent from the body is to be “present with the Lord”–2 Corinthians 5:6-8. Clearly being “away” doesn’t mean we are separated from God, but we are not in his presence.

3. Paul says in Philippians 1:23 that death is going to be with Christ, which is far better than living in this world. It is not falling asleep, which is a part of living here, but fully aware existence in Jesus’ presence, which is superior to any nap!

4. Those who are “asleep” in Jesus–i.e., they died as believers, are those that are said to be with Jesus at the final trumpet–see 1 Thessalonians 4:14. Why would the dead need to be brought with Jesus, by God, to the final trumpet and resurrection from the dead? If they are asleep in the grave, they don’t need to be brought anywhere. See also Revelation 19:6-14 to see believers are with Jesus when he returns in final judgment.

5. “Sleep” as a euphemism for death is not just limited to the Bible in history. Other cultures used the same terminology without believing that the person was no longer consciously existing. People prefer softer terms for hard things, and we use many euphemisms for death, “passed away,” “went to the Great Beyond,” “entered into rest” and so on as less jarring ways of saying, “he died.” Because “rest” is a reward for believers, and death is most like sleep to the observer, it is not surprising the term would be used.

I believe that this is not only the correct understanding (and one that Christians have generally and universally held for 2,000 years), but it offers a much more concrete hope to believers as we face the deaths of loved ones who are Christians, and contemplate our own mortality. Falling asleep for decades, centuries, or millennia isn’t awful, but it certainly doesn’t rise to the “far better” level when compared to living here.

One more thing: even after we die and go to be with Jesus, everything isn’t complete. We have more to look forward to. Our spirits are with Jesus, but they are awaiting reunion with a new body–the resurrection body, that we receive when Christ returns to the earth (see 1 Corinthians 15:12-58, especially from verse 35 onward, for more about this). In his presence God sustains our spiritual existence in a way that is real and where we are clearly “us.” But we are not completed yet, since the final resurrection is still coming. Paul writes about this in 2 Corinthians 5. He says

  1. Our current body is like a tent for our spirits, which will be replaced by a “building” from God–permanent as opposed to a tent (5:1-2)
  2. We long for that heavenly dwelling–that “building” that is our resurrection body (5:2)
  3. That “building” will deal with a “nakedness” (5:3). This would seem to be our spirits lacking what they are used to–a body in which to dwell.
  4. Getting from our current body to the permanent one is something to desire, but requires putting off the first to receive the second. We don’t just want to put off this body, but eventually to have the perfect one (5:4-5)
  5. When we are at home in this body (living here and now) we are “away from the Lord”–we aren’t in his presence (5:6).
  6. Because we know what is coming, we have the courage to face death because it brings the better life closer to completion, even if it means laying aside this body (5:7-8)

To summarize, we shouldn’t think of death as the point when everything is completed for the Christian. Instead, we should see it as the point when the victory over sin and death is possessed by us as we do not remain in the grave but go to be with the Lord in this “intermediate state” (a fancy word for saying we are in between the death of our natural bodies and the resurrection where we get our new, perfect, eternal bodies). All believers are there, rejoicing in the presence of Jesus, praising God as we discover life without sin’s presence, enjoying blessed reunions, and waiting for the cue to come where Jesus says, “It’s time. Let’s go!” And then all those “last days” events and prophecies come to pass, tribulation and resurrection, Christ’s reign on earth, final judgment, new heavens and earth, and forever! There is so much still ahead even after this life, we can’t even begin to know all that God has for us!

So, when I lead us in prayer at the graveside for my father-in-law, and then lower that body into the grave, we will do so knowing that the real “him” is not there, but with Jesus. He is not asleep but totally aware of who he is and where he is–in the presence of the Lord, and in the company of all the redeemed who have gone before him–including my mother-in-law, Beverly. He is one incredibly happy saint whose daily life is only getting better.

“Praise” Coaching–Part 6: Satisfied

“Bless the Lord O my soul, and forget not all his benefits…who satisfies you with good so that your youth is renewed like the eagles.”

God is good, all the time. All the time, God is good.

I must confess that when people in various gatherings would want to shout this as a “call and response,” I wasn’t a fan. It seemed too trite. And it was especially inappropriate when some well-meaning person would try to get people to say it in a moment of sadness or crisis. It was a truth that didn’t help in the moment, at least as it was being promoted.

I still feel that way about the call and response, but if we take the phrase out of that setting and context and give it its theological meaning, it reflects something profound and comforting, and in Psalm 103, hopeful.

God is good. His goodness is not a “gradation” of positive, like “good,” or “better,” or “best.” It isn’t a lesser positive, like being “good” but not “great.”

His is an absolute good–everything he does is good–positive, without any mixture of evil. And he always does “good” because his nature is wholly good. That is the contrast that exists; God is totally “good”–and is the only one who is.

Sadly, because we are not wholly good, we don’t always do good things. Even worse, we can’t always see the good in what God does, and we don’t always desire the good that we should.

This “benefit” that we are remembering here has to do with the work he is (and must be) doing in us to make us more and more what he designed us to be. In a real sense, this final blessing summarizes all he is continually doing, including the previous blessings. He is pouring out goodness upon us, helping us see it, and causing us to be able to embrace it for the good it really is–making it satisfying to us.

“If only I had… [fill in the blank].” If you can fill it in at all, there is a sense in which there is some level of dissatisfaction in your life–something is lacking that would make things better with its arrival.

Now, of course this life has lacks and losses that we will feel–sometimes intensely. Right now my life feels a few of them. They don’t feel good, but more telling, they don’t seem to be “good” poured out upon me, but only loss.

But my God is the infinite God in every way. And he is good–absolutely. That means that, from his perspective the current pains and losses–along with all the blessings I am experiencing at the same time–are the necessary means to bring his good for me into my life.

And so, when I don’t see something he has brought to me as good, that doesn’t mean it isn’t ultimately good even if it is a truly bad circumstance and even if it involves evil being done to us (we covered this ground earlier in the blog in talking about Joseph’s experience and that it takes time to get to this point). Faith in God’s lovingkindness (discussed in the last post) means the ultimate result of all that comes my way as God’s child is achieving good.

That reassurance, along with the recognition that may come sooner of the more obvious blessings of the Lord, leads to satisfaction. Mick Jagger couldn’t “get no satisfaction” in the old classic, but we can. I can look at what I have and say, “God, you have decided that what I need is to have what I have in this moment.” And when hard things come our way, we can ask God to give us the faith to believe that this will yield good in us. I don’t know how long it took him to arrive at this kind of heart attitude, but I love Matthew Henry’s observation in his diary when he was robbed. He wrote this prayer:

“I thank Thee first because I was never robbed before; second, because although they took my purse they did not take my life; third, because although they took my all, it was not much; and fourth because it was I who was robbed, and not I who robbed.”

Now there is an attitude that allows for satisfaction in God’s goodness!

But note that this satisfaction brings us to a concluding statement that captures the result of having received and then remembered these benefits. Remembering these benefits refreshes us and allows us to be strengthened: “so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s” This idea of renewed strength, like when you were younger, is another familiar theme in Scripture. Isaiah’s famous statement in chapter 40 expands on it:

“…but they who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint (Isaiah 40:31).”

“Soaring with the eagles” is a picturesque way to refer to real success in life, and we still refer to “feeling like a kid again when excessively happy. Moses and Caleb were examples of men that God kept strong into old age. This idea is one that speaks of renewal that is powerful.

Obviously, it can be physical. There are times when our ability to receive and rejoice in God’s goodness to us makes us feel more energetic. But it can also be mental, or attitudinal. I cannot tell you the number of times that I have been blessed by older people whose rejoicing in God’s goodness has them excited, looking ahead, and encouraging others.

And it can be eternal. I don’t know if those who die after long illness in their 90s hope to open their eyes in the presence of the Lord in the final resurrection and find a golden walker waiting for them for all eternity. Don’t get me wrong–I’ll take heaven in any condition I find myself, but if sin is undone in the resurrection, then our new, glorified bodies will be at the peak of perfection for us. Since we are recognizable, we will be the perfect us. It will be a case of perfect and final renewal of our “youthful” strength.

We have incredible blessing from our Lord that never run out. But I’m thankful for this section of Psalm 103 that reminds me of those benefits I should never forget and can be the foundation for continuing praise.