Praise Your Way Through Pain

ThanksLiving: 365 Days of Gratitude

Like Hannah, you and I must learn to worship until worship becomes our first and best response to not only the delightful, but to the devastating things in life.

Going Deep // Focus: 1 Samuel 1:10-11

Hannah was in deep anguish, crying bitterly as she prayed to the Lord. And she made this vow: “O Lord of Heaven’s Armies, if you will look upon my sorrow and answer my prayer and give me a son, then I will give him back to you. He will be yours for his entire lifetime, and as a sign that he has been dedicated to the Lord, his hair will never be cut. As she was praying to the Lord, Eli watched her. Seeing her lips moving but hearing no sound, he thought she had been drinking. “Must you come here drunk?” he demanded. “Throw away your wine” She replied, “Oh no, sir! I haven’t been drinking wine or anything stronger. But I am very discouraged, and I was pouring out my heart to the Lord. Don’t think I am a wicked woman! For I have been praying out of great anguish and sorrow.”

Nobody really understands the pain of desiring children but not being able to have any like the barren. Hannah was a childless woman in a culture where children meant everything—a woman’s worth and desirability to her husband, her bragging rights at family gatherings, the admiration of the other women at the market, her husband’s ammunition for one-upping the other guys hanging out at the city gates, as well as a whole host of other cultural notches on the belt that came with having kids. And there was one other benefit to having children that had an even more significant meaning to married couples in Israel: eternal life. You see, through posterity, the family DNA, the family name, the family’s unending future would be carried forth in perpetuity.

So in light of all that, Hannah’s grief over having no children is more than most of us could ever begin to understand—unless, of course, you have suffered the disappointment of barrenness yourself. Even her husband, Elkanah, didn’t get it:

Why are you crying, Hannah?” Elkanah would ask. “Why aren’t you eating? Why be downhearted just because you have no children? You have me—isn’t that better than having ten sons? (I Samuel 1:8, NLT)

Either he was a complete dolt and didn’t get it, or he was a complete dolt who also happened to be an insensitive brute. But Elkannah wasn’t alone in this matter: Even Hannah’s pastor didn’t fare too well in the Mr. Sensitive category. He accused her of being drunk as she silently poured out her heart to the Lord:

Seeing her lips moving but hearing no sound, Eli thought she had been drinking. “Must you come here drunk?” he demanded. “Throw away your wine!” (I Samuel 1:13-14, NLT)

Hannah was alone in her grief, and even worse, she had no hopes that things would be any different in the future, destined to a life of barrenness. So what is a misunderstood, hopeless, devastated, childless woman to do? Well, here’s what Hannah did: she worshiped.

You will notice in the story that Hannah went before the Lord year after year—she didn’t give up. She poured out her heart, time and time again—trusting that God would one day hear her. She faithfully presented herself in sacrificial worship before the Lord not only with her husband, but also with his other wife and her mean-spirited rival, Penniah (I Samuel 1:7)—she pressed into God. As difficult as her situation was, Hannah worshiped the One who had her life, including all its details, big and small, in his good hands. And finally, in timing understood only by God, he granted her request and she bore Samuel, who grew up to be the greatest of Israel’s prophets.

Hannah worshiped! That’s what you and I must learn to do, too, until worship becomes our first and best response to not only the delightful, but to the devastating things in life. If you are a childless woman whose pain and disappointment is understood only by God—worship him. He is your only hope and the One who knows his plans for your life—plans that are always good, even when you don’t particularly like them. And if you are suffering other kinds of barrenness—in your relationships, your finances, your career, your ministry, or even your walk with the One you are worshiping—offer him your worship. He knows your way, and he knows his plans for you. Jeremiah 29:10-14, one of the great promises for those who are in the midst of pain, promises,

This is what the Lord says: “You will be in Babylon for seventy years. But then I will come and do for you all the good things I have promised, and I will bring you home again. For I know the plans I have for you,” says the Lord. “They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope. In those days when you pray, I will listen. If you look for me wholeheartedly, you will find me. I will be found by you,” says the Lord. “I will end your captivity and restore your fortunes. I will gather you out of the nations where I sent you and will bring you home again to your own land.”

As tough as it may be to offer your worship to the Lord when things aren’t going your way, it’s the best and only thing that will set your heart right. Brennan Manning writes in his great little book, Ruthless Trust,

To be grateful for an unanswered prayer, to give thanks in a state of interior desolation, to trust in the love of God in the face of the marvels, cruel circumstances, obscenities, and commonplaces of life is to whisper a doxology in darkness.

Hannah worshiped the Lord. May that be true of you, too!

Going Deeper With God: Today, whether you are in a delightful place, or wrestling with disappointment—even if you are in a pace of devastation—offer God your heart in worship. The saints of old would tell you that is the very best therapy.

Songology

ThanksLiving: 365 Days of Gratitude

The music of the faith is meant to teach us theology—songology, we might call it. Not so much systematically, but for sure, artistically, emotionally, and viscerally. Church music should be evaluated by this and this alone: what does it teach us about God and our relationship to him. If it doesn’t teach doctrine, inspire trust and lead us to obedience, then no matter how lovely the lyrics or moving the melody, perhaps the best thing we could do with it is to toss it in the “we’re done with it” bin.

Going Deep // Focus: Deuteronomy 32:4,9

Moses recited this entire song publicly to the assembly of Israel: I will proclaim the name of the Lord; how glorious is our God! He is the Rock; his deeds are perfect. Everything he does is just and fair. He is a faithful God who does no wrong; how just and upright he is! …For the people of Israel belong to the Lord; Jacob is his special possession.

I love church songs—hymns, simple choruses of the faith and modern worship music. But I’m a little bit weird; I don’t just love the music, it’s the lyrics that move me—or not. When a song skill teaches good theology, I’m a fan! Let’s call it songology. I think that is what the music of the faith is meant to do: teach us theology—not so much systematically, but artistically, emotionally and viscerally. If it doesn’t, no matter how lovely the lyrics and moving the melody, I am okay with tossing it into the “we’re done with it” bin. Don’t worry; it won’t be lonely. There is a great multitude of other church songs there.

Moses wrote a song for the Israelites toward the very end of his days as their leader. He was about to “go the way of all the earth.” That is code for, “I’m about to die.” He was passing the baton of leadership to Joshua, and in his final words to Israel—which went on for several chapters—he was rehearsing their history with God over the past forty years. His last will and testament was at times charming, profound, moving and tender, but then it would take a turn into deadly seriousness: Moses was not pulling his punches with their characteristic whiny and rebellious nature. He was also letting loose on what he feared most: that they would wander from God and end up in full on spiritual rebellion in the future, probably sooner than later, knowing them. Fearing that, he warned them in no uncertain terms of what the consequences would be for their unfaithfulness to God.

To put the exclamation mark on his words, he wrote this song that comprises Deuteronomy 32. The song is not just a happy little ditty from their happy old granddaddy. No, much of the song is a foreboding alert—again, he is putting into writing that which will stand as a prophetic testimony against them when they have sunk into rebellion and are experiencing the nasty consequences.

You can listen to the song for yourself. Make sure you read the entire score because while it is often harsh, it reminds us of some very important theology—the doctrine of God that should be heard again in our generation and passed on to the next. But for time’s sake, let me just mention a few bits and pieces of this songology that stuck out to me:

  • The Doctrine of God: He is our strength, just and fair, perfect in all his ways and utterly righteous. This is especially critical to grasp as you read of the punishment he will unleash on the persistently rebellious. If you read only the imprecatory portions of God’s warning, you will think of him only as an angry Deity. He is not at all. And he would be none of the things God should be if he didn’t do what he warned he would do.

He is the Rock; his deeds are perfect. Everything he does is just and fair. He is a faithful God who does no wrong; how just and upright he is! (Deuteronomy 32:4)

  • The Reality of Sin: Sin is not simply a mistake, nor is it merely satisfying our preferences. Sin is not God’s children exercising their freedom; it is full on rebellion against the just and righteous Creator. In fact, to persistently live in rebellion against God should call into question the legitimacy of their spiritual heritage.

But they have acted corruptly toward him; when they act so perversely, are they really his children? They are a deceitful and twisted generation. (Deuteronomy 32:5)

  • The Rule of God: Perhaps forgetting that God is our Father, our Maker, and the One who established us on the planet is the fundamental reason we sin against God. If we kept in mind that our lives are not our own, we would never ask, “what do I want?” but “what does my Owner desire from me?” God has supreme right and authority of rulership over us.

Isn’t he your Father who created you? Has he not made you and established you? … He established the boundaries of the peoples according to the number in his heavenly court. For the people of Israel belong to the Lord; Jacob is his special possession. (Deuteronomy 32:6, 8-9)

  • The Sovereignty of God: God’s self-existence, his supreme authority, his authorship of salvation, his Fatherhood over all mankind are not just lofty doctrine that only the theologians grasp and appreciate; this is practical and meaningful theology for our everyday lives. Theology serves as a continual reminder that we must never allow the goodness of life to lull us into independence from the very One who gives us our life, supplies our every breath, and deserves our moment-by-moment loyalty.

But Israel soon became fat and unruly; the people grew heavy, plump, and stuffed! Then they abandoned the God who had made them; they made light of the Rock of their salvation. …You neglected the Rock who had fathered you; you forgot the God who had given you birth. (Deuteronomy 32:15,18)

  • The Praiseworthiness of God: the obvious implication of all this theology is that our response of worship, now and as the ceaseless activity of our lives, is only right and fitting. The sovereign, life-giving, just, fair and righteous God alone is worthy to be praised.

I myself am he! There is no other god but me! I am the one who kills and gives life; I am the one who wounds and heals; no one can be rescued from my powerful hand! …Rejoice with him, you heavens, and let all of God’s angels worship him. Rejoice with his people, you Gentiles, and let all the angels be strengthened in him. (Deuteronomy 32:15,18)

Yep, there’s good songology in Moses’ hymn. And while we don’t know if the music that accompanied it was moving, if the band was hot, if he had backup singers and dancers (which I kind of doubt) or if it hit the Billboard Top Ten Chart, we do know that the words of the song were literally inspired by the Holy Spirit for our benefit. In fact, Moses himself said as post-commentary on the song,

These instructions are not empty words—they are your life! By obeying them you will enjoy a long life in the land you will occupy when you cross the Jordan River. (Deuteronomy 32:47)

If that is literally true—which it is, by the way—then we had better start singing.

Going Deeper With God: Take a few minutes today and pour over this song. Then pull out your own bits and pieces of the theology contained in it. Write it down, and add your own commentary. It will be a meaningful exercise in worship.

It’s Time To Reject Any Other Definition Of Love But This

ThanksLiving: 365 Days of Gratitude

The Bible makes it plain that the chief expression of love is obedience to God’s commands. Let me say it again: love is obedience. What does love look like? It looks like obeying God. Jesus, who wrote the book on authentic love—both in written form and on the pages of his life, said “If you love me, show it by doing what I’ve told you.” (John 14:15, MSG)

Going Deep // Focus: Deuteronomy 11:22

Be careful to obey all these commands I am giving you. Show love to the Lord your God by walking in his ways and holding tightly to him.

Are you, like me, sick and tired of the world’s definition of love and hate? When I say “the world,” I am referring to anything and anyone that stands in opposition to God as he has revealed himself and his ways in his Word. That would include our godless culture in general along with specific people both great and small within our culture who, intentional or not, promote a godless philosophy of life. And, I hate to admit, “the world” at times even includes you and me because of the worldly passions within our own sinful flesh.

The world has corrupted the true and authentic definition of love, as well as hate, beyond recognition. Hate has become anything that rubs against the fur of what the world embraces. For instance, if you now call sin what it is, sin, you are marginalized and mocked as an intolerant, dangerous, bigoted hater. You are hate personified! But let’s set aside hate and simply talk about love. The world has really messed that one up, too!

The world’s definition of love is a sloppy, squishy, anything goes kind of feeling of affection. It is ever-changing, here today and gone tomorrow, this one minute, that the next, a sensation that rises and falls with one’s current emotional state. Love is whatever satisfies me and gives me pleasure. It is a patently selfish worldview that “loves” to the degree that love is requited. It is a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately state of mind. And it is flat out wrong, counterproductive and even dangerous.

Ask a thousand different people for their concept of love and you will most likely get a thousand different depictions, but unless God’s Word informs those depictions of love, they will be wrong 100% of the time. The Bible makes it plain that the chief expression of love is obedience to God’s commands. Let me say it again: love is obedience. What does love look like? It looks like obeying God. Jesus, who wrote the book on authentic love—both in written form and on the pages of his life, said “If you love me, show it by doing what I’ve told you.” (John 14:15, MSG)

In an age where love is a very squishy concept, God still clearly demands that those who claim to follow him demonstrate their love not just in language, but in action. It is love that is not just a noun, it is a verb. A noun needs a verb as well as an object to tell the full story, and so does love. What love is cannot be told without showing what love does. And what love does is incomplete without the person to whom it is done.  The Apostle Paul taught that in 1 Corinthians 13, the great love chapter, when he wrote, “love is…” Then he defines what “love is” by demonstrating what love does: It acts. It works. It affects. It produces an outcome.

Jesus clearly states that the outcome of love for God is obedience: The one who loves him will obey his commandments. If they accept his demands, they will prove it by obedience to those requirements, thus authenticating their love for him. They will do what he says. Jesus can’t be any clearer than that: love for God has conditions—it obeys.

Now to be sure, authentic, Biblically defined love doesn’t obey to be love; it obeys because it is love. That is very clear when you look to the source of love, the Being who defines what love is by demonstrating what love does. God is love. His love is an unconditional, sacrificial, proactive love that seeks out unworthy objects to love. It is a holy and righteous love; it is a tough love; it is an unchanging love. It is this love that is the essence of God’s being; it is energy of what God does. It is the outcome of where God has been and is. God is love—not just love the noun, but love the verb. Love does!

Your love for God, and mine, if it is to be true, is not just love the noun, but love the verb; and verb is spelled o-b-e-y! Your love for God does for God. It obeys. It does what he says. Not to earn more of his love, but to express love in response to what you can never earn. That is the condition of true love: it loves through unrelenting and unconditional obedience.

If anyone defines love other than in that way, reject it. It might be well intentioned, but it is totally misguided. Rather, embrace obedience to God—that is love!

Going Deeper With God: God desires your wholehearted love today. And the best way you can express that is by obeying him. So where is he calling you to obey?

Get Rid Of Your Gods—There Is Only One!

ThanksLiving: 365 Days of Gratitude

It is true that if the Israelites, and by extension, you and I, honored this first commandment—worship only God–then we would need none of the other nine commandments. We would never lie, never hurt our neighbor, always be faithful to our spouse, never lust, cuss, gripe or sin in any other way. Get this one right and you will be righteous.

Going Deep // Focus: Deuteronomy 5:6-7

I am the Lord your God, who rescued you from the land of Egypt, the place of your slavery., You must not have any other god but me.

Deuteronomy is Moses’ leadership swan song. He is about to go the way of all the earth; his impossible mission is accomplished and God is going to take him to his final reward. He has left a leadership legacy that has not been matched in human history up to this moment. I doubt anyone will ever surpass the feat of spiritual, military, social and organizational leadership that Moses pulled off.

What Moses accomplished, however, as incredible as it might have been, was nothing compared to what God pulled off. Think about it: The Lord rescued two million Israelites out of slavery in Egypt through the ten plagues and the Red Sea crossing—in the Top Ten of All Time Great Miracles, you would agree. He guided his people through forty years in the barren wasteland of the Sinai Desert, keeping them fed, watered, clothed, protected and loved. He formed a rebellious, complaining, sin-prone, dull and disorganized people into his own holy nation—the only people still a nation from that ancient time until this very day. So if you think Moses was impressive, wait til you get a load of God! He outdid himself with Israel!

Now as Moses, in his final act, recounts those mighty acts of God along with God’s requirements for his people to remain his chosen, holy nation, he reminds them of God’s top ten laws—what we call the Ten Commandments. This is the second time Moses has publically preached them, and right at the top of the top ten, not only literally but strategically, is rule number one:

I am God! You exist only because of my mighty acts. Now you must worship, serve and obey none other than me.

It is true that if the Israelites, and by extension, you and I, honored this first commandment that we would need none of the others. We would never lie, never hurt our neighbor, always be faithful to our spouse, never lust, gripe, swear or sin in any other way. Get this one right and you will be righteous. But we don’t. We violate this one early and often.

How so? Whenever we put what we want ahead of what God demands, we sin. And by that we are worshipping ourselves rather than only him. And the big three violations of that throughout history, including today, including your history and mine, is our push for indefatigable quest for money, our insatiable lust for sexual pleasure and our unquenchable thirst for power. Yep, independence from our dependence on his daily provision (money), satisfying our desire for pleasure outside of his game rules (sex outside of marriage) and desire for power, control and recognition (the desire for fame, even fifteen minutes of it) are clearly violations of the basic rule: thou shalt have no other gods before me.

If we were truly intelligent beings, we would stop and ask ourselves how our unstoppable thirst for money, sex and power are working out for us. We would look at the wreckage of those who have crashed and burned in the ditch of wealth, or more accurately, the insatiable love of it. We would see the ruined lives of those who have lost everything for the momentary pleasure of an illicit sexual encounter. We would stop, drop and roll when we look at too many cautionary tales of the self-immolation of those who couldn’t handle flame of fame—pastors, politicians, athletes, celebrities who lost it all, or took their own lives—because they were not built to handle worship. No one is.

Whenever we give ourselves in word, thought or deed to something other than God, we have broken all the rules by breaking the first one. And it won’t work out very well. It never does.

That’s the dark side, but there is a bright side incomparably brighter than the false light of sin when we put and keep God first in our lives: provision, pleasure and power in the purest form imaginable. God fully satisfies, his blessings never fades and our worship of him alone produces eternal fruit that is always in season.

Now when Moses delivered the Ten Commandments, the people responded the way all people who have been rescued by God should. They said to Moses, “come and tell us everything he tells you, and we will listen and obey.” (Deuteronomy 5:27) Then Moses, literally speaking for God, responded to them

The Lord heard the request you made to me. And he said, “I have heard what the people said to you, and they are right. Oh, that they would always have hearts like this, that they might fear me and obey all my commands! If they did, they and their descendants would prosper forever.” (Deuteronomy 5:28-29)

Sin calls us to put other gods before the One who alone is God and worthy of our worship. Those gods—money, sex and power—promise pleasure but only and always deliver untold pain. The Living God promises unlimited provision, holy pleasure and eternal significance—prosperity forever! And this God never breaks a promise.

Your God says to you, “I am God, your God, who brought you out of bondage, bought you out of sin. So no other gods, only me!”

Going Deeper With God: Money, sex and power…by pursuing these are you putting you before God? That is worshiping other gods. So repent and return to the God who alone deserves your worship.

The Best Part of Me

ThanksLiving: 365 Days of Gratitude

The tithe—the first fruits, the first part, the firstborn, your first love—is what God wants from us. Not just in the legalistic sense, that is, as prescribed in Biblical law, but as the loving and organic response of our lives. That is the worship God not only demands as our Creator and Ruler, but deserves as our loving Heavenly Father.

Going Deep // Focus: Numbers 3:40-41

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Now count all the firstborn sons in Israel who are one month old or older, and make a list of their names. The Levites must be reserved for me as substitutes for the firstborn sons of Israel; I am the Lord. And the Levites’ livestock must be reserved for me as substitutes for the firstborn livestock of the whole nation of Israel.”

The tithe—the first fruits, the first part, the firstborn, your first love—is what God wants from you and me. Not just in the legalistic sense, that is, as prescribed in Biblical law, but as the loving and organic response of our life. That is our worship. God wants us to recognize him, honor him and obey him through the enthusiastic offering of our tithe—and I am not talking just about money, but the first and best part of us, whatever that is. God not only demands it—and why shouldn’t he, he created us, chose us and has called us into mission for him—but God deserves it for those very same reasons.

To help us remember that we owe him the best part, and to give us a sacred process for acknowledging as much, God established the dedication of the firstborn as that tithe at the time of the proto-Passover in Exodus 13:2-3, 11-12, 14,

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Dedicate to me every firstborn among the Israelites. The first offspring to be born, of both humans and animals, belongs to me.” So Moses said to the people, “This is a day to remember forever—the day you left Egypt, the place of your slavery. Today the Lord has brought you out by the power of his mighty hand. …This is what you must do when the Lord fulfills the promise he swore to you and to your ancestors. When he gives you the land where the Canaanites now live, you must present all firstborn sons and firstborn male animals to the Lord, for they belong to him. …And in the future, your children will ask you, ‘What does all this mean?’ Then you will tell them, ‘With the power of his mighty hand, the Lord brought us out of Egypt, the place of our slavery.’”

The firstborn of the families of the Exodus belonged to the Lord to remind the entire nation that God had miraculously saved them from slavery. He brought them out of Egypt not only as a demonstration of his mighty power, which they were to never forget, but he had displayed that power to save them because he loved them and had sovereignly chose them to be he very own people, a nation set apart as his own. And they were to never forget that as well.

The firstborn of the Israelites’ animals were to be offered as a sacrifice to the Lord, but the firstborn sons of the Israelites were not to be killed, they were to be redeemed by the dedication of the Levites to the Lord’s service in tabernacle worship as a sacred substitute. Here in Numbers 3, two years into their journey from Egypt to Canaan, this substitution was worshipfully and ceremonially made: the Levites for the firstborn of the other eleven tribes.

So what does that mean for you today? Most importantly, reading this account is to remind you of the greatest substitution of all: the sacrifice of God’s only begotten Son, Jesus, who was offered up as a sacrifice to God for your sins. You deserved death because of your sins—we all did; but Jesus died on the cross in our place. He was our substitute. Furthermore, the substitution of the Levites for the firstborn of the Israelites not only foreshadowed God’s mighty power displayed at the cross, it foreshadowed the reason he redeemed you from your enslavement to sin: because he loved you immeasurably and had sovereignly chose you to be his very own, part of a nation set apart as his own holy people.

That is why God still calls us to make an offering of the best of us—the first fruits, the first part, our first love—as a way to recognize that he substituted Jesus as an offering for us. That’s called the tithe, which is to be paid not just in a legal sense, although there are perfectly good reasons to observe that through a formal process, but as the loving and organic response of our life. God wants us to recognize him, honor him and obey him through the enthusiastic offering of the first and best part of you and me, whatever that is.

God not only demands the best part—and why shouldn’t he, he created you, chose you and has called you into mission for him—but God deserves it for those very same reasons.

Going Deeper With God: Find a creative way to offer your tithe this week—the first part of your income, the best part of something you have produced, the first tenth of your time, talent and energy.

Beware of the God

ThanksLiving: 365 Days of Gratitude

God is anything but tame, and following him is anything but safe! It is a risky adventure, this journey of faith. Of course, total surrender to God will lead to incomparable success, significance and satisfaction, both in this life and in the one to come, yet there is a dimension to God that the Israelites came to understand through their wilderness experience that we don’t fully understand in our day: God’s faithful love cannot be separated from his fierce holiness.

Going Deep // Focus: Numbers 1:53

The Levites will camp around the Tabernacle of the Covenant to protect the community of Israel from the Lord’s anger. The Levites are responsible to stand guard around the Tabernacle.

God is anything but tame, and following him is anything but safe! Of course, following him in ruthless faith and loving obedience brings incomparable success, significance and satisfaction, both in this life and in the one to come. Total surrender to God will lead us to the pearl of great price—no doubt about it. Yet there is a dimension to God that the Israelites came to understand through their wilderness experience that we don’t fully understand in our experience: God’s faithful love cannot be separated from his fierce holiness.

Dorothy Sayers, a brilliant writer and Christian thinker, mournfully remarked of our dangerous tendency to downgrade the fierceness of God:

The people who hanged Christ never, to do them justice, accused him of being a bore—on the contrary, they thought him too dynamic to be safe. It has been left for later generations to muffle up that shattering personality and surround him with an atmosphere of tedium. We have very efficiently pared the claws of the Lion of Judah, certified him “meek and mild,” and recommended him as a fitting household pet for pale curates and pious old ladies. To those who knew him, however, he in no way suggests a milk-and-water person; they objected to him as a dangerous firebrand. True, he was tender to the unfortunate, patient with honest inquirers, and humble before heaven; but he insulted respectable clergymen by calling them hypocrites. He referred to King Herod as “that fox”; he went to parties in disreputable company and was looked upon as a “gluttonous man and a winebibber, a friend of publicans and sinners”; he assaulted indignant tradesmen and threw them and their belongings out of the temple; he drove a coach-and-horses through a number of sacrosanct and hoary regulations; he cured diseases by any means that came handy with a shocking casualness in the matter of other people’s pigs and property; he showed no proper deference for wealth or social position; when confronted with neat dialectical traps, he displayed a paradoxical humor that affronted serious-minded people, and he retorted by asking disagreeably searching questions that could not be answered by rule of thumb.”

Neither God the Father nor God the Son nor God the Holy Spirit can be de-clawed, tamed or even contained! No matter how people may try, he is still fierce in holiness, he is still the Lion of Judah, he is still the Spirit who convicts of judgment and calls to repentance.

As the Israelites broke camp in the wilderness to follow their leader Moses to the land of promise, what God had been instructing them about at the foot of Mt. Sinai now needed to be lived out in their daily journey of faith. They needed to be reminded that God’s fierce holiness was not just a theology; it was a reality. That is why the tents of the Levites, the keepers of the Presence of the Lord, were to be arranged in a way that encircled the tabernacle, the house of his holy presence, as a protective hedge.

But protection from what? The fierce holiness of the Lord is what. They had been sternly warned that treating the holy as common would lead to an outbreak of God’s wrath in the camp, so this camping arrangement was actually a measure of God’s preserving grace. The enduring lesson here is that the presence of God is both blessing and cursing in the camp of God’s people. It is a blessing for those who treat his holiness with a sense of awe; it is a cursing for those who do not cultivate respect for his glorious presence.

The last verse of this opening chapter, Numbers 1:54, says that in light of the gracious reminder provided in this camping arrangement, “the Israelites did everything just as the Lord had commanded Moses.” They obeyed—at least from the start. But in the later chapters, their initial respect for the Lord’s fierce presence turned to apathy, and they failed to maintain a sense of the utter holiness of God. And in Old Testament story after Old Testament story, we are reminded that the blessing of his presence can turn to a curse when his people disregard his fierce holiness.

Is there any positive take-away from this sobering devotional? Yes! God wants us to live in holy fear—fear that comes from a mature knowledge of God’s fierce holiness and a healthy respect for his right to lovingly rule our lives. This fear of the Lord is healthy, whether conscious or subconscious, because it promotes an attitude of belief in, love for and complete trust of God. It is that kind of fear that is the best motive for living in awareness of his fierce holiness, and it is the surest path to the blessings God longs to shower upon us.

So beware of the God, it will lead to unimaginable favor on the risky adventure of following after him!

Going Deeper With God: Do you reverence God in holy fear, or have you tried to “declaw” your Lion of Judah? If you are guilty of trying to tame the Lord, then bow before him now and offer him a repentant heart.

Your Other Gods

ThanksLiving: 365 Days of Gratitude

Do we worship other gods today? Could we be unknowingly guilty of idolatry? You bet! As Martin Luther said, “Whatever your heart clings to and confides in, that is really your God, your functional savior.”

Going Deep // Focus: Leviticus 17:7

The people must no longer be unfaithful to the Lord by offering sacrifices to the goat idols. This is a permanent law for them, to be observed from generation to generation.

Goat demons—weird, huh! The translation I have used calls them “goat idols”, but in some versions you will see a footnote that says an alternative reading is “demons.” There is a possibility that this refers to the satyrs—an creepy mythical creature found in several ancient cultures that was half goat and half human. Every time I see a photo of a satyr I sense something demonic about it. You probably do, too.

It is more likely that what God had in mind here, and I say that reverently, because who can truly know the mind of the Lord, was an idol in the shape of a goat. The surrounding nations likely had such man-made idols, much like the bull and calf idols that the Egyptians famously worshiped. We are told that later on in the Israelite’s history, when the nation spit between Judah and Israel, the split-off king Jeroboam, “appointed his own priests to serve at the pagan shrines, where they worshiped the goat and calf idols he had made.”

You might be thinking, who would ever abandon their worship of the Lord to worship goat idols? Apparently, God’s people did! Notice the first part of that verse: The people must no longer be unfaithful to the Lord by offering sacrifices to goat idols.” (Italics mine) It is quite likely that when the Israelites were in Egypt, living in the land of Goshen, they adopted some of the worship practices of their neighbors who sacrificed to goat, bull, calf or satyr idols. The New King James version renders it in an even more serious, accusatory way:

“They shall no more offer their sacrifices to demons, after whom they have played the harlot.”

Unfaithfulness in any form is a sin, repugnant to God. Adultery is a serious sin, a blow to the marriage covenant between God, husband and wife, and destructive to the human family. Spiritual adultery, pardon my French—whoring around—is certain to invite the wrath of God. That is why, in no uncertain terms, he is laying down the prohibition to offer sacrifices only in the central location that he chooses in the land they will soon possess—first in the tabernacle; later in the permanent temple that was built in Jerusalem.

Spiritual harlotry was a deadly serious sin. So a statute forever instituted here is not merely a regulation about slaughtering animals for sacrifice, it was a built-in guard rail that would keep them from being lured to idolatry. You see, once they arrive in Canaan, they would be scattered through the land, some living a hundred miles or more away from the central place of worship. Rather than making the arduous trip to the tabernacle/temple, they might be tempted to slaughter their animal and offer it to God in their own backyard. But the temptation would always become to offer that sacrifice to a local idol, since that is usual the drift. To keep their worship pure and monotheistic, God therefore built in a prohibition against offering sacrifices anywhere other than in the central place of worship and only offering it through the mediation of the priests.

Now what does that have to do with you? A lot! You drift, too. So do I. That is the gravitational pull of our sinful nature. Yes, we have been redeemed, but we are also in the process of being redeemed. That means our sin nature, while being diminished by the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit, won’t be completely annihilated until we are finally and fully in the Lord’s presence. So that sin nature will find ways to cooperate with the devil in order to distract us from our unadulterated worship of the one true God—perhaps not with goal idols and satyrs, but with attractions, dependencies and loyalties to things that complete with God for throne space in our lives.

Have you allowed that in your past? Of course you have. And that is why you will drift in the present, if you are not careful (“you must no longer be unfaithful to the Lord”). And that is why you must realize that God alone must call the shots as to how we are to worship him (“a statute permanent law”). Maybe that is why, in spite of the current trend otherwise, the New Testament church was committed to coming together for regular worship in a central place (Hebrews 10:24-25) and following certain procedures in their corporate worship (see various teachings in the New Testament—1 Corinthians 12, 1 & 2 Timothy, Titus, etc.) Divine rules, contrary to popular belief, are not restrictive, they are protective.

“Playing the harlot” in our worship is a clear and harsh accusation, and perhaps it is even offensive that I would suggest that of you (which I am not, by the way. I’m simply calling for self-evaluation). But I think playing the harlot is more often than not a very subtle slide into worship that is more about our convenience and preferences than it is about maintaining a deliberate and faithful effort to offer worship to God in the way he has prescribed.

Who, or what, is your functional savior? Listen, there is only one God, and he has demanded that we have no other gods before him. All I am saying is, let’s make sure we don’t!

Going Deeper With God: Has your worship in any way become more about what you want than what God desires? The drift to self-centered worship is subtle in our world, so ask the Holy Spirit to give you a Divine check-up. Then make the necessary adjustments in your worship practices. God will not share your loyalty with another.