Psalm 14 – On the Significance of God

Statue of George Washington, outside the National Gallery, Washington D.C.

Godless fools say in their hearts,
“There is no God.”
They are corrupt.
They do disgusting things.
There is no one who does good things.
The Lord looks down from heaven on Adam’s descendants
to see if there is anyone who acts wisely,
if there is anyone who seeks help from God.
Everyone has turned away.
Together they have become rotten to the core.
No one, not even one person, does good things.
Are all those troublemakers,
those who devour my people as if they were devouring food,
so ignorant that they do not call on the Lord?
There they are—panic-stricken
because God is with the person who is righteous.
They put the advice of oppressed people to shame
because the Lord is their refuge.

If only salvation for Israel would come from Zion!
When the Lord restores the fortunes of his people,
Jacob will rejoice.
Israel will be glad
. (God’s Word Translation)

George Washington, first President of the United States, in his farewell address to the nation in 1796, constructed his encouragements to the American people on the basis of virtue. 

Only a virtuous people, Washington believed, could cause the American experiment to succeed among the family of nations. Virtue, for Washington, could only occur through the twin pillars of religion and morality. He stated:

“Observe good faith and justice towards all nations; cultivate peace and harmony with all. Religion and morality enjoin this conduct; and can it be, that good policy does not equally enjoin it – It will be worthy of a free, enlightened, and at no distant period, a great nation, to give to mankind the magnanimous and too novel example of a people always guided by an exalted justice and benevolence. Who can doubt that, in the course of time and things, the fruits of such a plan would richly repay any temporary advantages which might be lost by a steady adherence to it? Can it be that Providence has not connected the permanent felicity of a nation with its virtue? The experiment, at least, is recommended by every sentiment which ennobles human nature. Alas! is it rendered impossible by its vices?”

George Washington, Farewell Address, 1796

Washington was no fool. He understood that the guiding hand of Providence [God] was necessary to the flourishing of a free and happy people. 

Indeed, the ancient psalmist would agree. When humanity is untethered from their own deep spirituality, they become worthless, heartless, cruel and can rarely do right by others. 

Whatever Washington’s true personal sensibilities were about theology, he most certainly was convinced that belief in God along with the Scripture’s moral guidance were needed for a fledgling nation. The people’s ability to recognize and engraft religion into their lives would be a must for America.

Unmooring ourselves from the moral compass within us and forsaking the Creator leads to vice – whereas enjoining God and paying attention to the divine leads to virtue. 

It is not wise to ignore the God of all creation. From the psalmist’s perspective, through daily attentiveness and devotion to the Lord, moral and ethical ways can take root and produce justice, reconciliation, and peace.

Sovereign God, you rule the nations through your wise and benevolent reign. Help me to participate with you in your grand kingdom enterprise so that I can make decisions consistent with true morality, for the sake of Jesus, in the power of your Holy Spirit. Amen.

1 Samuel 16:1-13 – Solitude of the Heart

The Lord said to Samuel, “How long will you mourn for Saul, since I have rejected him as king over Israel? Fill your horn with oil and be on your way; I am sending you to Jesse of Bethlehem. I have chosen one of his sons to be king.”

But Samuel said, “How can I go? If Saul hears about it, he will kill me.”

The Lord said, “Take a heifer with you and say, ‘I have come to sacrifice to the Lord.’ Invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will show you what to do. You are to anoint for me the one I indicate.”

Samuel did what the Lord said. When he arrived at Bethlehem, the elders of the town trembled when they met him. They asked, “Do you come in peace?”

Samuel replied, “Yes, in peace; I have come to sacrifice to the Lord. Consecrate yourselves and come to the sacrifice with me.” Then he consecrated Jesse and his sons and invited them to the sacrifice.

When they arrived, Samuel saw Eliab and thought, “Surely the Lord’s anointed stands here before the Lord.”

But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”

Then Jesse called Abinadab and had him pass in front of Samuel. But Samuel said, “The Lord has not chosen this one either.” Jesse then had Shammah pass by, but Samuel said, “Nor has the Lord chosen this one.” Jesse had seven of his sons pass before Samuel, but Samuel said to him, “The Lord has not chosen these.” So, he asked Jesse, “Are these all the sons you have?”

“There is still the youngest,” Jesse answered. “He is tending the sheep.”

Samuel said, “Send for him; we will not sit down until he arrives.”

So, he sent for him and had him brought in. He was glowing with health and had a fine appearance and handsome features.

Then the Lord said, “Rise and anoint him; this is the one.”

So, Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the presence of his brothers, and from that day on the Spirit of the Lord came powerfully upon David. Samuel then went to Ramah. (New International Version)

Loneliness is the poverty of self; solitude is the richness of self. - May Sarton

Appearances can be deceiving.

One of the best ways to see beyond mere physical sight is to engage in the spiritual practice of solitude. Solitude is not loneliness but a deliberate retreat from normal routines to be alone with the Lord.

The faith of both Samuel and David were strengthened through solitude. It prepared them for public service and made them godly. Because they had established patterns of being alone with God, they had an inward solitude even when in a crowd. That is why Samuel could have an interaction with the Lord, even when among lots of people.

Solitude is important because it is the true path to listening well.  A person whose faith has been shaped through solitude has an ability to carry on a dialogue with God while, at the same time, having a conversation with others.

Christ’s relationship with the Father was formed through solitude. Jesus was able to have simultaneous conversations with God and people since he practiced solitude on a regular basis. Jesus began his ministry with solitude (Matthew 4:1-11); made major decisions through solitude (Luke 6:12); and taught his disciples to practice solitude (Matthew 17:1-9; 26:36-46).

Solitude is necessary because engaging the world is important. Effective interaction with others requires times of retreat for solitude with God. Solitude as a spiritual discipline:

  • Gives us freedom from the need for constant noise and activity.
  • Allows God to shape our faith rather than conform to the world.
  • Liberates us from other people’s expectations for us.
  • Helps quiet internal noise and racing thoughts so we can better listen to God.
  • Provides the opportunity for reflection upon and preparation for future events.
  • Creates encouraging speech for the benefit of others.
  • Fuels a desire to keep practicing solitude because of its benefit.

Solitude taught Samuel obedience.

Samuel learned obedience through years of solitude with old Eli the priest. “Speak Lord, for I am listening” became a way of life for Samuel, as he was trained in how to listen well. 

Samuel’s greatness as the Judge of Israel did not lie in his original ideas or the initiatives he took, but in simple obedience to the commands of God. Years of obscurity and solitude as a child created the ability to hear and carry-out what the Lord told him to do.

Even Samuel, as godly as he was, could not rely on personal observations about choosing the next king of Israel. Because he had long years of practicing solitude with the Lord, Samuel was able to clearly hear divine speech and anointed the right person as king. Samuel did not trust his own judgment but relied on God’s direction.

Solitude characterizes God.

Christians serve a triune God of Father, Son, and Spirit. God has complete and perfect solitude along with focused engagement with humanity. Through spending time with God, people can simultaneously interact with divinity and humanity.

It is a bit like my wife who began her broadcasting career in radio by simulcasting the AM station in one ear of her headphones, and the FM station in the other ear. She could que a record for the FM station while, at the same time, forecasting the weather for the AM station. Her ability was born of practice and commitment to her craft.  In the same way, we have been given a vocation to engage the church and world, and the ability to have a solitude of heart while interacting with others.

God, unlike us, sees us completely, inside-and-out – which is why we are dependent upon solitude of heart so that we can make proper judgments. God urged Samuel to not look at the outward appearance because this is how wrong judgments happen.

Solitude formed David into a king.

David was on nobody’s short list to become king. He was so far out there as a candidate for the position that his own family did not even think it necessary to have him present for the sacrificial feast. It is just like God to have a way of choosing the people we think would be the least likely to do anything.

Being in the pasture day after day and night after night by himself was just the right curriculum that trained the next king. Shepherding was not a lonely affair for David. It was a rich experience of solitude which developed a solid relationship with God. Out in the field, away from all the wrong judgments of the world, David learned to discern God’s voice – a skill he carried with him the rest of his life.

Solitude is our path to spiritual maturity.

Solitude might seem unrealistic for extroverts, and only something for introverts. Yet, solitude is essential to creating a robust faith in God. The following are some steps toward the practice of solitude and allowing it to bring you into a closer walk with the Lord.

  1. Practice “little solitudes” in the day. The early morning cup of coffee or shower, the drive-time to work, the lunch break, the quiet at night when all is dark and everyone in bed are opportunities for solitude with God to reorient and redirect our lives.
  2. Find or create a quiet place designed specifically for solitude. It might be a room, a closet, or a chair. It might be outdoors. It can be anywhere that helps you be free from distraction and invites you to connect deeply with Jesus.
  3. Begin the day by spending at least 10 minutes alone with God in silence. Over time, work your way to even more minutes, even hours. I am a believer in an hour a day keeping the devil away. Eventually, take an entire day away, every few months. Consider taking a weekend or even a week away once a year.
  4. Read Holy Scripture slowly and meditatively. Listen to what the Spirit may be saying in your reading.  Keep a journal handy and write down your observations. Allow prayers to arise from what you hear from the Lord.

This might seem optional only for those with discretionary time – but it is no more optional than planting in the Spring to get a harvest in the Fall. Such fruit results in the slaying of giants….

**Above photo by Rakicevic Nenad on Pexels.com

Deuteronomy 11:1-17 – Knowing Our Boundaries

Love the Lord your God and follow his instruction, his regulations, his case laws, and his commandments always. And know right now what your children haven’t known or yet witnessed:

  • The Lord your God’s discipline, his power, his mighty hand and outstretched arm.
  • The signs and the acts that he performed in the heart of Egyptian territory, against Egypt’s King Pharaoh and all his land.
  • What God did to the Egyptian army, to its horses and chariots—how he made the water of the Reed Sea flow over their heads when they chased after you, but the Lord destroyed them, and that’s how things stand right now.
  • What the Lord did for you in the desert, until you arrived at this place.
  • And what he did to Dathan and Abiram, the descendants of Eliab the Reubenite, when the ground opened its mouth and swallowed them, their families, their tents, and every living thing they possessed in the presence of all Israel.

Your own eyes witnessed each of these powerful acts the Lord performed. So, keep every part of the commandment that I am giving you today so that you stay strong to enter and take possession of the land that you are crossing over to possess, and so that you might prolong your life on the fertile land that the Lord swore to your ancestors to give to them and their descendants—a land full of milk and honey.

The land you are about to enter and possess is not like the land of Egypt, where you came from, where you sowed your seed and irrigated it by hand like a vegetable garden. No, the land you are entering to possess is a land of hills and valleys, where your drinking water will be rain from heaven. It’s a land that the Lord cares for: The Lord’s eyes are on it constantly from the first of the year until the very end of the year.

Now, if you completely obey God’s commandments that I am giving you right now, by loving the Lord your God and by serving him with all your heart and all your being, then he will provide rain for your land at the right time—early rain and late rain—so you can stock up your grain, wine, and oil. He will also make your fields lush for your livestock, and you will eat and be satisfied. But watch yourselves! Otherwise, your heart might be led astray so you stray away, serving other gods and worshipping them. Then the Lord’s anger would burn against you. He will close the sky up tight. There won’t be any rain, and the ground won’t yield any of its crops. You will quickly disappear off the wonderful land the Lord is giving to you. (Common English Bible)

“Boundaries define us. They define what is me and what is not me. A boundary shows me where I end and someone else begins, leading me to a sense of ownership. Knowing what I am to own and take responsibility for gives me freedom. Taking responsibility for my life opens up many different options. Boundaries help us keep the good in and the bad out.”

Henry Cloud

God has boundaries. The Lord doesn’t just flit about doing whatever seems alright for the moment. No, God is firmly secure as the divine Being. God has a deliberate will and way. The Creator God is not okay with created humanity having no boundaries. Since we are people created in God’s image, we are to reflect that image in all things, including having the established boundary of taking charge of our own spiritual lives and obeying the Lord in all things.

God has opened the way of redemption for wayward people. It came first in the incredible event of the exodus from Egypt, then in the culmination of our freedom through the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ. 

Therefore, God expects us to live into this opportunity without blaming divine action or inaction for our problems, as if fault lies outside of us. Just because God stands up to people and does not cave into their demands and their whining does not make the Lord mean or unjust – it simply means God doesn’t need the props or accolades of people. God is secure enough to not be dependent on humans.

Divine expectations are quite clear on where the boundary lines fall: Love. Yes, indeed, it comes down to love. Love the Lord your God and always hold tightly to the law with its statutes, rules, and commandments. There is no fudge factor to that statement, scratching our heads wondering what we ought to be doing. If we obey God, we will discover life as it ought to be lived – free from all the machinations of the world’s brokenness and insecurity – and yet securely confined within godly boundaries. 

God can exhort people to be strong and take the land. That’s because the Lord made it possible for them to do so by acting in history. Therefore, God expects us to respond in obedience to the boundary lines established so that we will flourish and grow as people in a new land.

There is a big divine pasture for us to enjoy and thrive within. Yes, there is a fence around it, marking the boundary of where we can go. It is there for our benefit and protection, and not to simply keep us in line. Longing for the green grass on the other side of the fence is to be unaware of the vast beauty and foliage all around us.

For we already have everything we need – if we possess the awareness and the gratitude to see it.

Great God Almighty, I choose today to obey you in all things out of the grace given to me because of Jesus Christ.  I want to please you in all I say and do, so that you will be seen as the glorious and exalted king of the universe.  Help me to live up to my standing in Christ in the power of the Spirit as I step into your world with the keys of the kingdom.  Amen.

Hebrews 9:23-28 – Once for All

Ethiopian Orthodox Church icon of Christ’s crucifixion

It was necessary for the sketches of the heavenly things to be purified with these rites, but the heavenly things themselves need better sacrifices than these. For Christ did not enter a sanctuary made by human hands, a mere copy of the true one, but he entered heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf. Nor was it to offer himself again and again, as the high priest enters the Holy Place year after year with blood that is not his own; for then he would have had to suffer again and again since the foundation of the world.

But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the age to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself. And just as it is appointed for mortals to die once, and after that the judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin, but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him. (NRSV)

Once for all. Those few words are some of the most gruesome and beautiful in the entirety of Holy Scripture.  The sacrifices of bulls and goats in the Old Testament had its place. Yet, those were mere shadows pointing to the reality of the Messiah – the one whose sacrifice is so potent as to do away with sacrifice forever.

The cross of Christ was the once for all sacrifice that has settled the sin issue forever.

This is the heart of New Testament good news. Forgiveness of sins comes through the sheer grace of God in Christ. Through faith, we have the privilege of entering new life. Jesus has paved the way for eternal life, everlasting salvation, and complete remission of sins.

If it has not yet become self-apparent as to why Christ’s once for all sacrifice is such a game changer, then let’s perceive the cross from this angle: guilt is done away with, forever. Do you believe your life would change forever if you never had guilt hanging over your head?  What if all your past indiscretions, unhealthy life decisions, failures to speak or act when needed, overt things done which you cannot take back, or even the little things said or done in anger or hate were all washed away, forever?

Just as Jesus was nailed to a cruel cross, so guilt and shame was nailed there – once for all. There are three options of dealing with a guilty conscience when it happens…

Rationalize

First, you can rationalize it away, as if you have no responsibility or no culpability. One simply ignores their conscience. This is a one-way path to hardness of heart. Whenever we sin in speech or in action, and do not acknowledge it as our fault, then there is a little piece of us which hardens. The next time it happens, it’s a bit easier to respond with callousness. If you’ve ever encountered someone who seems utterly unfeeling to your situation, then there has likely been a pattern in that person’s life of keeping distance from pain. It only leads to hardness of heart.

Punish

A second way of facing guilt is just the opposite of rationalization. It is to punish and beat yourself for your faults and sins. Heaping abuse on ourselves for our sins takes two different tracks with either: discouragement, defeat, and depression resulting in inaction; or, working like crazy to try and earn God’s favor with hyper-activity. Both ways are a kind of self-imposed penance to try and atone for one’s sins or failures.

Confess

Fortunately, there is a better way to face and deal with our guilt. When there is true guilt for things done or undone, said, or unsaid, we must confess it, repent of it, and believe God has taken care of it. Unlike dealing with guilt in unhealthy ways resulting in callousness, discouragement, and hyperactivity, the path of confession and repentance allows the person to have a clear conscience, resulting in freedom. Christ’s once for all sacrifice is completely able to clear the conscience of the worshiper so that they may live into the grace and freedom of an enjoyable daily life. 

Nothing needs to hang over the believer’s head because Jesus Christ, the pioneer of our salvation, has accomplished deliverance from and forgiveness of sin, once and for all. Jesus didn’t just put a nice-looking veneer over sin; he took care of it, thoroughly and completely. Jesus didn’t whitewash things so that we looked okay; the salvation he offers is permanent.

The cross which held Christ’s naked and tortured body exposed the true violence and injustice of sin. The cross revealed what kind of world we have and what kind of God we have: a world of gross unfairness and sin, and, a God of extreme sacrificial love and grace.

What I believe this world, including you and me, need more than anything else is forgiveness – not a cheap sentimental forgiving, but a real forgiveness which lasts forever.

To justify or to judge is God’s business. Our business is to believe in the once-for-all sacrifice of Jesus that brings permanent and lasting forgiveness; and, to share that life-giving message with others so that they, too, might experience deliverance from sin and its horrible effects.

“For he delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” (Colossians 1:13-14, NIV)

May you know the freedom and joy today which comes from knowing Christ as Savior.