Courage!

ThanksLiving: 365 Days of Gratitude

It is precisely out of the darkest of times when someone steps forward to attempt the heroic that the courage of one lifts the hearts of the many. Courage! Every age, including this one, needs men and women of courage who will be sold out to certain convictions that drive them to act, not because they believe they will walk away with their lives, but because it is the right thing to do. That is courage, and in itself, it is victory.

Going Deep // Focus: 1 Samuel 11:11-13

But when the people of Jabesh-gilead heard what the Philistines had done to Saul, all their mighty warriors traveled through the night to Beth-shan and took the bodies of Saul and his sons down from the wall. They brought them to Jabesh, where they burned the bodies. Then they took their bones and buried them beneath the tamarisk tree at Jabesh, and they fasted for seven days.

Courage! Nelson Mandela, a man of remarkable courage himself, wrote, “I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.” Perhaps Mandela was describing the brave warriors of Jabesh-gilead.

We don’t know their names. We don’t know anything about them really. But the one thing we do know is what will cause them to admired as men for the ages: they were courageous. Risking all that they possessed—their homes, their families, their very lives—to invade the much larger and more powerful Philistine territory, they put their sacred honor on the line to honor God. They mustered the courage to rescue the abused bodies of King Saul and his sons, marching through the night straight into the enemy-occupied city of Beth-shan and through whatever resistance the Philistine guard may have mounted. Once they had retrieved them, they gave King Saul, Jonathan and the other brothers a proper burial. Moreover, they secured a moral victory in an otherwise dark time for the nation of Israel.

There is not much to cheer in 1 Samuel 31, just this courageous act. Israel is at a low ebb, and the prospects for brighter days is exceedingly dim. There has been no coronation of David as Israel’s new king yet—in fact, that is several years off. Furthermore, at this point, as far as anyone might know, David has sided with the Philistines. This is a dark time indeed for God’s people. But that is what makes what the warriors of Jabesh-gilead did so much more spectacular. It is precisely out of the darkest of times when someone steps forward to attempt the heroic that the courage of one lifts the hearts of the many.

Courage! Every age, including this one, needs men and women of courage. I want to be one, how about you? But where does it come from? Like the men of Jabesh-Gilead, it arise from three intertwined sources:

  1. Principle: They were sold out to certain convictions that drove them to act. N.D. Wilson wrote, “Sometimes standing against evil is more important than defeating it. The greatest heroes stand because it is right to do so, not because they believe they will walk away with their lives. Such selfless courage is a victory in itself.” It was the right thing to do, so they did it.
  2. Compassion: They cared deeply for what had been done to the people of Israel; they cared out of deep loyalty the royal family, and they cared deeply about the reputation of God. As Lao Tzu said, “From caring comes courage.”
  3. Anger: They were mad. They were morally offended. Their sense of godly pride had been challenged, and they had to respond. Much of the sacrifice to achieve a worthy cause comes from righteous indignation, and the men of Jabesh-gilead were that, fighting mad. Eric Hoffer rightly observed, “Anger is the prelude to courage.”

Courage! To paraphrase from Cicero, people of faith must be people of courage—unassailable principle, deep concern, and righteous indignation. May that be true of you and me.

Going Deeper With God: What is causing you to shrink back in fear? In the face of fear, step forth and do what is right. That is called courage, and not many people exhibit it.

Find Strength in the Lord

ThanksLiving: 365 Days of Gratitude

If you are in a jam and no one is around to encourage you, strengthen yourself in the Lord. Assess your situation, ask God for wisdom and strength, be obedient in the ordinary requirements of the day, and express gratitude. That is called trust, and it catalyzes the strength of the Lord.

Going Deep // Focus: 1 Samuel 30:3-6

When David and his men reached Ziklag, they found it destroyed by fire and their wives and sons and daughters taken captive. So David and his men wept aloud until they had no strength left to weep. David’s two wives had been captured—Ahinoam of Jezreel and Abigail, the widow of Nabal of Carmel. David was greatly distressed because the men were talking of stoning him; each one was bitter in spirit because of his sons and daughters. But David found strength in the Lord his God.

David found out something about human nature, if he didn’t know it before this: the very men who flocked to his leadership now were ready to stone him when the tide was turned against them. Not everyone who loves you and follows your leadership will love you and follow your leadership when times get tough and sacrifice is required. Not everyone will stand loyally by your side when you make a mistake, especially if the mistake personally affects them.

When David’s small army went off on a raid, their camp was attacked and destroyed, and worse, their families had been carried off as captives. The men would have expected that their wives and children would be treated in the most brutal fashion. Understandably, David’s men were emotional.

What was David’s response to this desperate situation? He went to God. What did he do with God to get his strength? Who knows. For sure, he would have poured out his heart to God. Probably he recounted God’s call and His promises to David that he would rule over the people of Israel. Perhaps he recounted the many times God had delivered him, thus reminding himself of God’s unfailing love. Whatever David did with God, he was able to find strength in the Lord his God.

What a contrast to David’s response when he first moved to Ziklag (the scene of the Amalekite raid and the sources of David’s men’s misery). We are told in the text that he moved there because “David kept thinking to himself…” that Saul would eventually find him and kill him. (I Samuel 27:1). Once again he is in a tight squeeze, but this time he goes to God.

Even godly leaders can fall into the trap of humanistic thinking, or they can strengthen themselves in the Lord. In life and in leadership, that is a skill we need to develop. When the chips are down, and others are not there to lift us up, we must find ways to strengthen ourselves in the Lord. In his book, Keep in Step with the Spirit, theologian J.I. Packer gives a step-by-step guide for this very thing:

First, as one who wants to do all the good you can, you observe what tasks, opportunities, and responsibilities face you. Second, you pray for help in these, acknowledging that without Christ you can do nothing—nothing fruitful, that is (John 15:5). Third, you go to work with a good will and a high heart, expecting to be helped as you asked to be. Fourth, you thank God for help given, ask pardon for your own failures en route, and request more help for the next task. . . . holiness is hard working holiness, based on endless repetitions of this sequence.

Assess, pray, obey, thank—then trust that God is at work in your difficult circumstances, because he is. John Newton said,

Faith upholds a Christian under all trials, by assuring him that every painful dispensation is under the direction of his Lord; that chastisements are a token of His love; that the season, measure, and continuance of his sufferings, are appointed by Infinite Wisdom, and designed to work for his everlasting good; and that grace and strength shall be afforded him, according to his need.

How do you strengthen yourself in the Lord? The bottom line is that you offer old fashioned trust in the One who works things out for his glory and your good.

Going Deeper With God: If you are in a jam and no one is around to encourage you, strengthen yourself in the Lord. Assess your situation, ask God for wisdom and strength, be obedient in the ordinary requirements of the day, and express gratitude. That is called trust, and it catalyzes the strength of the Lord.

They’ll Be Uncomfortable With You

ThanksLiving: 365 Days of Gratitude

There will be times—should be times—when those who are hostile to God are uncomfortable with us. Now we should not go out of our way to provoke their discomfort, as some do, but in the normal course of events, our faith will lead us into awkward places with unbelievers. Once in a while, if not a lot, our faith ought to lead us into a bit of trouble.

Going Deep // Focus: 1 Samuel 29:6-7

So Achish, king of the Philistines, finally summoned David and said to him, “I swear by the Lord that you have been a trustworthy ally. I think you should go with me into battle, for I’ve never found a single flaw in you from the day you arrived until today. But the other Philistine rulers won’t hear of it. Please don’t upset them, but go back quietly.”

For some time, David and his men had been living among the Philistines, Israel’s arch-enemy. He had fled to Gath, the Philistine capital, to escape his own king, Saul, who was insanely jealous of David and was hell bent on killing him. Whether or not David should have put himself, his men and their families, along with the reputation of God at risk to live among God’s enemies is debatable. Be that as it may, he was among the Philistine when war broke out with Israel.

David was now in an awkward position: Fight for Achish, who had given him refuge, and go against Saul and the Israelites, or pretend to be with the Philistines but then turn on them in the midst of the battle to win back his status with Saul. We don’t know what he would have done, although I would like it to have been the latter. We will never know, because as they were getting ready to march out to battle, the Philistine commanders revolted and demanded that King Achish send David packing. They feared that indeed, David and his men would turn on them in the battle. So under protest, David and his men went home and sat out the fight.

That brings up a relevant question for you and me: Is there a time when those who are far from God ought to be uncomfortable with us because of our closeness to God? Should our loyalty to God rub them the wrong way at times? Ought not the stances we take for the ways of the Lord put us in an awkward position with the unbeliever ever so often?

Of course, we have to thread the needle here. Jesus, after all, was accused of being a friend of sinners. There was something about him that drew those who were utterly lost to his heart; he had something they didn’t, but desperately wanted. He didn’t go out of his way to condemn them or serve as a source of constant irritation when he was among them.

Yet he did call sinners to leave their lives of sin to follow him. He did call them to sell all they possessed in order to sell out for him. He did get killed, after all, because the dark cannot abide the light. And the man who knew Jesus as well as anyone, who walked more closely to him than any other human, John the Beloved, did sternly warn us, “ Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him.” (1 John 2:15). James, the Lord’s flesh and blood brother, said, “Don’t you know that friendship with the world means enmity against God? Therefore, anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God.” (James 4:4)

The point is, there will be times—should be times—when those who are hostile to God (whether they are conscious of their hatred or not) are uncomfortable with us. Now we should not go out of our way to provoke their discomfort—there are some believers who do just that, who wrongly think that it is their Christian duty to be irritating—but in the normal course of events, our faith will lead us into awkward places with the world. Every once in awhile, if not a lot, our faith ought to lead us into a bit of trouble.

Yes, we are in the world, but not of it. So if you find yourself rubbing the non-Christian the wrong way for the right reasons, congratulations! You are in good company.

Going Deeper With God: Don’t go out of your way to be a pain in the neck with people of the world. Just make sure you are humbly and graciously living out your faith, and then let the chips fall where they may.

A Cautionary Tale

ThanksLiving: 365 Days of Gratitude

Saul could have had it all—and so can you. But it requires a heart after God. That is what he was looking for in Saul, and ultimately found in David. What does that mean, a heart after God? Perfection? Sinlessness? Inherent loveliness? No, it simply means that from a humble heart you offer to God ruthless trust, sincere obedience and a willingness to come clean when you blow it.

Going Deep // Focus: 1 Samuel 28:4-8

The Philistines set up their camp at Shunem, and Saul gathered all the army of Israel and camped at Gilboa. When Saul saw the vast Philistine army, he became frantic with fear. He asked the Lord what he should do, but the Lord refused to answer him, either by dreams or by sacred lots or by the prophets. Saul then said to his advisers, “Find a woman who is a medium, so I can go and ask her what to do.” His advisers replied, “There is a medium at Endor.” So Saul disguised himself by wearing ordinary clothing instead of his royal robes. Then he went to the woman’s home at night, accompanied by two of his men. “I have to talk to a man who has died,” he said. “Will you call up his spirit for me?

In my mind, Saul is the most enigmatic figure in the Bible—his great start but disastrous finish will baffle me until the day I die. One of the last places we see Saul alive is I Samuel 28 where he is so desperate for spiritual guidance in his train-wreck of a life that he actually visits a witch in the village of Endor.

Contrast that with one of the first times we meet Saul, and Samuel has anointed him as king: “Samuel said to all the people, ‘Do you see the man the LORD has chosen? There is no one like him among all the people.’” (1 Samuel 10:24) That description is unusual in Scripture as if to acknowledge that out of all the people God could have chosen, he intentionally choose Saul.

Obviously something went terrible wrong between 1 Samuel 10 and 1 Samuel 28. In fact, some scholars suggest that between Saul’s anointing and Samuel’s first rebuke of Saul in chapter 13 for his failure to follow God’s word may only have been a couple of years into his reign.

Not only enigmatic, Saul is also one of the saddest characters in scripture. Had Saul just wholeheartedly obeyed God as David did, he could have the same enormous promises that the Lord made to David:

Samuel said. “You have acted foolishly; you have not kept the command the LORD your God gave you; if you had, he would have established your kingdom over Israel for all time. But now your kingdom will not endure; the LORD has sought out a man after his own heart and appointed him leader of his people, because you have not kept the LORD’s command.” (1 Samuel 13:13-14)

“The Lord would have established your kingdom over Israel for all time.” Those are powerful words in light of the promise of an everlasting kingdom that God made and has fulfilled through David. What might have been had Saul just wholehearted obeyed! “What might have been” have to be the saddest words in the human language!

Enigmatic and instructive, Saul is also one of the most instructive characters in the Bible. His downfall is a cautionary tale for the rest of us. Let all who pass by Saul pause and reflect on their own life. In fact, Saul’s tragic end brings to mind I Corinthians 10:11-12,

These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the fulfillment of the ages has come. So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!

Saul is an example to us. Paul says, “Look, if you think that can’t happen to you, let me give you a heads up: yes it can!” If you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall! Now that might be a little unnerving, but in hindsight, the wrong turns in Saul’s life are pretty obvious:

  • Saul tolerated subtle sin. He made excuses, he justified wrong actions, and he presumed God would excuse his “little” indiscretions.
  • Saul tolerated distance from God. He did everything else but repent to find relief from the misery in his life brought on by disobedience.
  • Saul tolerated poisoned relationships: With his spiritual mentor Samuel—he disobeyed. With his loving son Jonathan—he threw spears. With his loyal protégé David—he tried to murder him. Each of these men tried their best to restore relationship with Saul, but the hard-hearted king refused to make changes.

Saul could have had it all—and so can you. But that requires a heart after God. That is what God was looking for in Saul, and ultimately found in David. What does that mean, a heart after God? Perfection? Sinlessness? Inherent loveliness? No, it simply means that out of a humble heart you offer to God ruthless trust, sincere obedience and a willingness to come clean when you blow it.

And that is something I can definitely give to God—and you can too!

Going Deeper With God: Like me, you are far from perfect. That is okay, since Jesus was perfect for you. Take a moment to come before God with sincere gratitude for his grace that covers your flaws.

A Good Idea or God’s Idea

ThanksLiving: 365 Days of Gratitude

To ensure that your choice is not merely a good idea, but God’s idea, run it through the five-fold filter of prayer, the Word, the alignment of circumstance, the inner prompting of the Holy Spirit, and the witness of the church. Learn to do that in matters great and small and you will not only avoid the sin of presumption, you will develop the all-important life-skill of wise decision making.

Going Deep // Focus: 1 Samuel 27:1

But David kept thinking to himself, “Someday Saul is going to get me. The best thing I can do is escape to the Philistines. Then Saul will stop hunting for me in Israelite territory, and I will finally be safe.”

Notice that the text says, “David kept thinking to himself” rather than “God spoke to David.” Now to be certain, the writer offers no overt judgment against David’s actions in this story. He simply explains what David did; he neither denounces nor defends it. But it seems certain that David is trying to help God out a little by making this decision to live among Israel’s arch-enemy, the Philistines.

Of course, David is getting one over on the Philistines. While he tells the Philistine king that he is raiding the Israelites—misleading the king into believing that David is burning all his bridges with Israel—he is actually raiding villages subject to the king. And the king never finds out because David and his men lay waste to those villages and kill all the witnesses. Such is the brutality of the ancient world.

Since he is inflicting great damage surreptitiously on Israel’s enemies, it would be easy to justify David’s actions. But again, we find no indication that this is what the Lord led David to do. And herein lies the danger of faith versus presumption. Faith is to hear from God and act in obedience; presumption is to act upon the assumption of God’s blessing without directly hearing from him. David had become weary of being relentlessly hunted by King Saul’s forces. He was living as a fugitive, hiding in caves, separated from all that he knew. Perhaps his decision to live among the Philistines was influenced by depression, or anger, or fear. That would be understandable. And for all of the above reasons, it seemed like a good idea.

But was it God’s idea?

In matters great and small, the possibility always exists that the decision is either a good idea or God’s idea. If it is God’s idea, it is a good idea. But if it is a good idea without it being God’s idea, and we jump on the opportunity, we have fallen into the sin of presumption. The sin of presumption is to believe that something is true without having any proof, in this case, to presume that God has spoken or sanctioned a thing when he has not.

That was the sin of King Saul (1 Samuel 13:7-14)—and he did that with increasingly frequency as he drifted from full devotion to God.

Now as it relates to you and me, it is very unlikely that we will hear a direct and audible voice from God in the decisions of our lives. Obviously, God gave us a rational brain and the ability to think logically, and he expects us to partner with him in making good and godly choices. The question then, is how do we make God-pleasing decisions; how do we resist the pull of a good idea in favor of obedience to God’s idea? Here is a path:

  1. Inquire of the Lord. Simple as that: ask God what he thinks. Pray—and make sure you are not just throwing up the Hail Mary prayers when you are in a jam and need a quick answer. Pray consistently and your decision-making acuity will increase exponentially.
  2. Align your prayers with God’s Word. God does speak today, but it is just that he does so mostly through the Bible. As you are consistently in the Word, you will be amazed how much it keeps your praying tethered to God’s Will.
  3. Watch circumstances. Is it obvious that the Lord is aligning events to be favorable to the decision you are facing? Look for where God is working and join him there.
  4. Listen to the inner promptings of the Holy Spirit. After all, Jesus did promise us that the Counselor would be not only with us, but in us, to lead us in ways that please the Lord.
  5. Involve the community of Christ. God has given you Christian friends and mentors in the Body of Christ, the church, to help you discern the Lord’s will. Ask them to pray with you and listen to their wise counsel.

These are five filters, if you will, that God has blessed and calls you to run all of your decisions through. All five are integrated; don’t just rely on one exclusively. Learn to process your choices, great and small, through these five filters until the process becomes second nature to you.

Do that—it’s a good idea that will lead you to embrace God’s idea in all matters.

Going Deeper With God: Facing a decision today? Practice running that decision through those five filters. I am pretty certain you will begin to see God’s idea in the process.

Beware of Scriptural Manipulators

ThanksLiving: 365 Days of Gratitude

People can use the Bible to justify pretty much anything they want to do, but that doesn’t mean what they want to do is biblical. Be wary of those people; they are scriptural manipulators. Know the whole counsel of God’s Word, continually invite the Holy Spirit to guide you into divine truth, stay accountable to a faith community for your biblical interpretations, and never try to squeeze what God ultimately wants to do in your life into your methodology and timing.

Going Deep // Focus: 1 Samuel 26:8-11

Abishai said to David “Today God has delivered your enemy into your hands. Now let me pin King Saul to the ground with one thrust of my spear; I won’t need to strike him twice.” David responded to Abishai “Don’t destroy him! Who can lay a hand on the LORD’s anointed and be guiltless? As surely as the LORD lives, the LORD himself will strike him; either his time will come and he will die, or he will go into battle and perish. But the LORD forbid that I should lay a hand on the LORD’s anointed.”

You can justify pretty much anything you want to do from the Bible, but that doesn’t mean what you want to do is scripturally justifiable. People do it all the time, and they are dead wrong. Time always proves it.

And the scary thing is, all kinds of well-intentioned people will line up to give you the green light in such matters. They’ll quote scripture, point out how circumstances have aligned in just the right way, and convince you of just how reasonable and right a certain course of action might be. But the problem is, God is not in the thing you want to do. And to go ahead with your plan will move you out from under the blessing of God, at best, and at worst, lead to disaster down the road.

God’s people do this all the time. They convince themselves that what they want to do is God’s will when it is not, and get any number of well-wishers to justify their plans when those plans are not God’s plans. That is why we see so many believers divorcing their spouse, going into business with an unbeliever, investing Kingdom resources in uncertain adventures, and moving forward with any number of good and godly sounding actions when, in fact, those plans are nothing more than their own will being done.

David was discerning enough to spot this kind of spiritual justification when it came up. What his confidant, Abishai, suggested seemed as right as rain on its face, but David knew that no matter how many spiritually sounding justifications could make it seem like the obvious thing to do, it would never have passed the scriptural smell test, it would have violated the inner voice of the Spirit, and it would have rushed God’s sovereign timing for resolving this issue and bringing his perfect plan for David’s life to pass.

Be wary of spiritual justifiers, and likewise, be on alert for scriptural manipulators. Know the whole counsel of God’s Word, continually invite the Holy Spirit to guide you into divine truth, stay accountable to a faith community for your biblical interpretations, and never try to squeeze what God ultimately wants to do in your life into your methodology and timing.That, my friends, never turns out well.

Here is the much better approach; it’s the one found in the sage advice of Proverbs 3:5-8,

Trust God from the bottom of your heart; don’t try to figure out everything on your own.
Listen for God’s voice in everything you do, everywhere you go; he’s the one who will keep you on track.
Don’t assume that you know it all. Run to God! Run from evil!
Your body will glow with health, your very bones will vibrate with life!

Going Deeper With God: Memorize Proverbs 3:5-8 today. Then quote early and often everyday this week.

Let Cooler Heads Prevail

ThanksLiving: 365 Days of Gratitude

God created us with a high capacity for passion, and that’s a wonderful thing. Much of the good that has been accomplished in the world began in passion. But while passion is a powerful spring, it’s a horrible regulator, and when it’s untempered, can do much harm. So how do you temper your passion? Internal and external controls—develop the fruit of self-control, but also give cool-headed friends access to the kill switch of your passion for those moments when your self-control get wobbly.

Going Deep // Focus: 1 Samuel 25:10-13

“Who is this fellow David?” Nabal sneered to the young men. “Who does this son of Jesse think he is? There are lots of servants these days who run away from their masters. Should I take my bread and my water and my meat that I’ve slaughtered for my shearers and give it to a band of outlaws who come from who knows where?” So David’s young men returned and told him what Nabal had said. “Get your swords!” was David’s reply as he strapped on his own. Then 400 men started off with David to kill Nabal.

David heart was on fire with passion for God—he was characteristically a man after God’s own heart. But at times, David’s heart was on fire with passion for other things, too. That got David into trouble on more than one occasion. 1 Samuel 25 is one of those occasions.

Nabal, a man whose name meant “fool,” foolishly refused to share provision with David and his men. David had politely requested it, and it would have been customary for Nabal to graciously grant such a request since David’s small army had afforded Nabal and his ranching operation protection from thieves and marauders that harassed the locals. Not only did Nabal refuse, he insulted David to the men who had made the request. When they reported back to David what this fool had said, David’s knee-jerk response was, “strap ‘em on boys, we going to make Nabal pay up—with his life.”

Now it just so happened that this brutish man, Nabal, had a lovely and wise wife, Abigail. Sensing the looming disaster, she skillfully intervenes—intercedes really—with David and averts the death of her husband and destruction of all that he owned. However, when Nabal found out what his wife had done, rather than react with gratitude, he went into such a rage that he had a stroke or a heart attack, or something really bad, and died!

Among the many streams of life application from which we might drink in this story, the one I want to call to you attention is David’s unregulated passion. Let it stand as a warning to us that when we let anger rule our emotions, we are in danger of allowing it to ruin our lives. Anger almost ruined David’s life on this occasion—had he followed through on it, he would have been guilty of murder.

It was Ralph Waldo Emerson who said that passion is a powerful spring, but a bad regulator. It will get you motivated, but don’t depend on it to manage you. David’s passion got away from him—he let it regulate his emotions—and it led him to the brink of doing something really dumb.

Which, by the way, I think, is why we love David so much—he was so thoroughly human. In David, we don’t get the polished ideal to which we aspire but never attain, we get a rough-edged reality in a meandering journey of spiritual transformation. And we can relate to a guy like that. You’ve got to love a guy who’s capable of unmitigated dumbness. But you certainly don’t want to follow his dumb ways. In this moment, David was full of passion but empty of God—in an instant, he’s become a fool. He was on the verge of becoming Saul.

And that is where Abigail comes in. She steps in and puts David in touch again with the beauty of God as David had done for Saul in the cave (1 Samuel 24:16-21). Through Abigail, David realized who he was, he recognized what he was about to do, and he remembered what his life was destined for. Thankfully, on that day, cooler heads prevailed.

God created us with a high capacity for passion, and that is a wonderful thing. Much of the good that has been accomplished in the world began in passion. But, as Emerson noted, while passion is a powerful spring, it is a horrible regulator, and when it is untempered, can do much harm. How do we temper our passion? Internal and external controls—we must develop the fruit of self-control internally then empower cool-headed friends externally and give them access to the kill switch of passion.

Make sure to cultivate a cool head. But on the occasion when emotions get the best of you and you shift into hothead, make sure you check in with your Abigail.
Without exception and at all times, let cooler heads prevail.

Going Deeper With God: Who is your “Abigail?” Believe, you need one, and so do I!