HOW DID IT GET THAT WAY?

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Pharaoh’s heart is hardened; he refuses to let the people go.” [Exodus 7:14 (ESV)]

little blue heronThe whole matter of Pharaoh’s hardened heart and how it got so stubborn is confusing and an issue that has been debated at length by Biblical scholars. How exactly did Pharaoh’s heart get that way? Based on the verses in Exodus where God says He will make Pharaoh’s heart hard [7:3,9:12,10:20,27], some say that God deliberately hardened Pharaoh’s heart to demonstrate His power and glory. Wouldn’t that mean Pharaoh had no free will? If Pharaoh couldn’t submit to Moses’ demands, the plagues hardly seem justified. How could a just God inflict such cruel punishment on all of Egypt when He was the one who made Pharaoh so inflexible?

On the opposite end of the spectrum, citing the verses saying that Pharaoh hardened his own heart [8:15,32], other commentaries say that Pharaoh freely chose to stubbornly deny Moses and watch his people suffer. Saying that the hard heart was all Pharaoh’s doing, however, seems to contradict several other verses. The middle of the road explanations admit that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart but add that Pharaoh already was so arrogant and headstrong that God didn’t change the outcome by further hardening it. The Oxford Jewish Study Bible notes that God “does not stiffen Pharaoh’s heart initially, but only after Pharaoh has done so himself many times.”

After reading several commentaries on Hebrew grammar, I found yet another explanation. Although God-breathed, Scripture was penned by men who used the words, idioms and metaphors of the day. In Hebrew, active verbs often were used idiomatically to mean the action was allowed or predicted; verbs could be both causative and permissive. Saying God hardened Pharaoh’s heart can also mean that God allowed Pharaoh’s heart to harden. Another example of this verb use would be when Jeremiah tells God, “You have utterly deceived this people.” [Jeremiah 4:10] Jeremiah isn’t accusing God of being a liar; he’s saying that God allowed the people to be deceived (two very different things).

Instead of looking to commentaries, I finally looked to Scripture for my answer about Pharaoh’s hardened heart. In James, we find that, while God may test people, He does not tempt them. Temptation comes from Satan and we give into temptation when we’re seduced by our own desires. Pharaoh’s heart was hard because he was an evil, stubborn, and arrogant man. God may have allowed it but it wasn’t God who made him that way. Nevertheless, we could also say that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart by providing the circumstances that forced him into revealing his true colors. Had God not sent Moses, the plagues would never have happened. In the end, however, the responsibility for those plagues falls squarely on Pharaoh’s shoulders. And, in the end, the responsibility for our sins falls squarely on ours.

It is not God that blinds the eyes of men or hardens their hearts. He sends them light to correct their errors, and to lead them in safe paths; it is by the rejection of this light that the eyes are blinded and the heart hardened. … Every rejection of light hardens the heart and darkens the understanding; and thus men find it more and more difficult to distinguish between right and wrong, and they become bolder in resisting the will of God. [Ellen G. White]

Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death. [James 1:13-15 (ESV)]

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GOD NUDGES

blanket fower - tulip - golden cannaAnd after the earthquake there was a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire there was the sound of a gentle whisper. [1 Kings 19: 12 (NLT)]

God’s nudges—we all get them and, all too often, we ignore them.

Last week, one of my pastors felt an uncanny impulse to call an old friend who lives across the country. As far as she knew, all was well with her friend and, as often happens with that sort of thing, she got busy and forgot about making the call. Today, she was reminded of her failure when she received a call telling her that her friend had died suddenly over the weekend. As she shared her regret, she reminded us all to respond to God’s gentle nudges. As Elijah learned, sometimes God’s voice is in a whisper!

When asked how to know whether we’re getting a nudge from God or simply have an idea, the pastor suggested we look to the source; if it comes from our heart, it’s probably from God and if it comes from our head, it’s probably us. Nevertheless, our own feelings and desires certainly can influence our perception of the idea and, for some people, “God laid it on my heart,” is just a euphemism for, “This is something I want to do.” A friend’s ex-daughter-in-law claimed that God “laid it on her heart” to leave her husband and children for another man—proof that our hearts can be as deceitful as our thoughts. We must be cautious of attributing our feelings to God. Not every good idea is a mystical message from the Lord; sometimes it’s just an idea!

Discerning the voice of God is not always an easy task. When something is weighing heavy on our heart, perhaps we ought to weigh the message against God’s word. Every one of God’s nudges will match up with His word and none will be something Scripture forbids! Of course, the better we know His word, the easier it is to recognize His voice. Checking Scripture, however, doesn’t mean randomly opening the Bible, picking the first verse we see, and saying that is God’s specific word for us; that’s little different than using a Magic 8-Ball for decisions.

Not everyone will get the same nudge and what God lays on my heart may not be what He lays on yours. His nudge is for us alone and rarely does anyone need to know the reason for our actions. Moreover, we should never say God told us to do something merely to add credibility to what we’re doing. Finally, just because someone says God laid it on his or her heart doesn’t mean He actually did! Just as we, on occasion, can mistake our own desire for one of God’s nudges, so can others. If someone tells us that God laid it on their heart that we should join choir or donate to their cause, we must be wary of getting pressured into something that isn’t God’s plan for us. If God really wants us to do something, most likely, He’ll be the one to tell us!

If God is nudging me about something of major consequence, I pray, study His word, and do research. For the most part, however, those little God-nudges are pretty easy to identify and don’t ask much of us: cross the room to speak with someone, make a call, offer to pray with them, give a hug, ask what you can do, or invite him to church. When in doubt, as long as it’s not contrary to Scripture, I’d rather risk looking foolish than miss a God-given opportunity. Most important, when we get a God-nudge, we should respond (and the sooner the better). We certainly wouldn’t want to miss our last chance to chat with a dear friend.

Your own ears will hear him. Right behind you a voice will say, “This is the way you should go,” whether to the right or to the left. [Isaiah 30:21 (NLT)]

My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. [John 10:27 (NLT)]

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BLOOD AND GUTS

For the life of the body is in its blood. I have given you the blood on the altar to purify you, making you right with the Lord. It is the blood, given in exchange for a life, that makes purification possible. [Leviticus 17:11-12 (NLT)]

sacred daturaFor most of us, the meat we purchase arrives at the grocery store prepackaged. We’re not used to seeing animals slaughtered, skinned or butchered and, unless we’re phlebotomists, rarely see large amounts of blood. As a result, much of Leviticus makes for rather gory reading since the temple, a place of worship, also served as a ritual slaughterhouse. Perhaps it’s my vegetarian sensibilities but, when the Bible refers to the pleasing aroma of sacrifice, I wince when thinking of the stench of dried blood and burnt meat.

Biblical sacrifices go as far back as Cain and Abel but it is in Leviticus that we read of the sacrifices God required of the Israelites. The book gives complicated instructions for each of the sacrificial rituals: everything from the kind of animal offered and the draining of its blood to splashing that blood around the altar and what to do with the meat. Nowadays, these bizarre rites seem sickening and gruesome. Then again, perhaps that is exactly what they were supposed to be even back then. Watching one’s best lamb have its throat slit and seeing its blood pour out was probably as awful 3,400 years ago as it seems today. Seeing the animal’s life offered as a substitute for the sinner’s symbolized the high cost of sin and could not have been taken lightly. Moreover, as offensive as all that blood and butchering seems, think of how offended God is by our sins! Sin is far uglier and more repugnant than any abattoir.

My 21st century self has difficulty understanding why blood had to be shed in the first place and how blood—something that stains—could ever be considered cleansing. Caught up in picturing all of that blood, gore and smell, it’s easy to forget that the reason for those sacrifices was atonement. The Israelites sacrificed what was precious to them to satisfy God as atonement for their sins. A price had to be paid for mankind’s sins and, without blood, there could be no forgiveness. For God, the aroma was not that of blood and seared meat but of repentance. Those bloody offerings, however, were temporary substitutes. Even though the animal died rather than the sinner, the sacrifice had to be repeated again and again. It is those sacrifices, however, that foreshadowed the one true and everlasting sacrifice that took place on Calvary. Our sins against a holy and infinite God required a holy and infinite sacrifice: the flawless lamb, Jesus Christ. Our atonement is now found in our faith in Christ—the one perfect and final sacrifice.

With his own blood—not the blood of goats and calves—he entered the Most Holy Place once for all time and secured our redemption forever. Under the old system, the blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer could cleanse people’s bodies from ceremonial impurity. Just think how much more the blood of Christ will purify our consciences from sinful deeds so that we can worship the living God. For by the power of the eternal Spirit, Christ offered himself to God as a perfect sacrifice for our sins. [Hebrews 9:12-14 (NLT)]

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SEIZE THE DAY

Even so, I have noticed one thing, at least, that is good. It is good for people to eat, drink, and enjoy their work under the sun during the short life God has given them, and to accept their lot in life. And it is a good thing to receive wealth from God and the good health to enjoy it. To enjoy your work and accept your lot in life—this is indeed a gift from God. [Ecclesiastes 5:18-19 (NLT)]

great egretFrom the viewing platform at the marsh, I watched a Cooper’s hawk soar high in the sky. When I turned to leave, I looked down and saw several white egret feathers on the ground below. Whether it was the hawk, a raccoon, or some other predator, the park had one less egret in the pond. Those beautiful white feathers were a stark reminder of how precarious life is, not just for wild birds, but for us all. I was reminded of Ecclesiastes: “For people and animals share the same fate—both breathe and both must die.” [3:19]

Beginning with the words, “Everything is meaningless,” much of Ecclesiastes expresses disappointment, discontent, and a cynical world-weariness. The world is a fallen place where life is unfair: good happens to the bad and bad befalls the good. The future is unknown and filled with uncertainties and satisfaction is not guaranteed. We can strive for a goal and never reach it or attain the goal and discover it wasn’t worth the effort. The pursuit of pleasure, possessions, wealth, achievements, wisdom, or power comes to nothing. As disheartening as the author’s words are, I’m not sure we can really argue with them. Life is capricious and frequently makes no sense and the same destiny—death—awaits both the righteous and wicked. Sadly, sometimes, our efforts really do feel like an exercise in futility.

Yet, hidden in those sobering verses are nuggets of beauty and comfort. Just because life is hard and its meaning is hard to find doesn’t mean life is meaningless. Granted, some seasons of life are perplexing, challenging, or downright unpleasant but, as much as we wish we could control or understand them, they are beyond human control and understanding. The seasons of life are not in our hands but God’s. Rather than knowledge and comprehension of His plan, however, God gives us sort of a consolation prize: the ability to find enjoyment in life. While we can’t control the seasons, we can accept and find contentment in them.

Those feathers on the ground were a reminder to live life with gusto—to accept and enjoy whatever we’ve been given—to seize the day! Yet, Ecclesiastes is not an “eat, drink, and be merry because tomorrow you die!” promotion of hedonism. Woven throughout its verses is one more theme—that of fearing God. We can’t find the meaning to life apart from God and we certainly can’t live life on our own terms. The enjoyment of life neither permits us to disobey God not does it exempt us from His law. Telling us to enjoy life, Ecclesiastes also tells us to fear (i.e., obey, revere, love, serve, honor and worship) God while doing so!

Yet God has made everything beautiful for its own time. He has planted eternity in the human heart, but even so, people cannot see the whole scope of God’s work from beginning to end. So I concluded there is nothing better than to be happy and enjoy ourselves as long as we can. [Ecclesiastes 3:12 (NLT)]

That’s the whole story. Here now is my final conclusion: Fear God and obey his commands, for this is everyone’s duty. Go will judge us for everything we do, including every secret thing, whether good or bad. [Ecclesiastes 12:13 (NLT)]

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ONLY HE CAN MAKE A TREE FROG

For ever since the world was created, people have seen the earth and sky. Through everything God made, they can clearly see his invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature. So they have no excuse for not knowing God. [Romans 1:20 (NLT)]

A friend sent a link to some of the most beautiful landscapes in the world; you’ve probably gotten a similar one and been amazed by photos of the northern lights in Iceland, the red and orange pillars of Bryce Canyon, or the Glowworm caves in New Zealand. Awestruck by God’s amazing creation, I thought of how He makes Himself known through all that He’s made. Unfortunately, we tend to hear God better when He shouts with the exceptional and impressive than when He whispers with the small and familiar. obedient plant (false dragonhead) - green tree frogWe’re sure to notice God in the Grand Canyon, the multitude of stars in the night sky, or when watching two million wildebeest, zebra and gazelles migrate through the Serengeti. We sense Him in extraordinary or exotic things like the peacock’s splendid tail, Devil’s Tower, or spectacular sunsets and sunrises. But do we notice Him in the commonplace and unremarkable?

Yesterday, I watched, spellbound, as several bees visited the flowers I was photographing. A bee would enter one of the purple tubular blossoms and disappear as it inched its way deep into the corolla to gather pollen and nectar. After backing out, it would move on to another bloom. A perfect fit, it was as if bee and flower had been designed for one another (and they were). The flowers’ scent attracted the bees and, while the bees gathered food for their hive, they pollinated the plants. What was happening in these ordinary flowers growing wild by the road was truly extraordinary!

God’s grandeur is revealed in the giant trees of the redwood forest but His attention to detail is found in the one billion bacteria that live in just one gram of the forest’s soil. His greatness is made known in the 1,600 miles of the Great Barrier Reef but also in the 1,500 species of fish, 5,000 species of mollusks, 17 species of sea snakes and 6 species of turtles living there. We see our ingenious Creator in the enormous African elephant but also in the oxpeckers and cattle egrets that ride on its back and in the lice, ticks and parasites living on the elephant that are eaten by those birds. God’s artistry is revealed in the 28,000 species of orchids and but also in His amazing design of the wasps, bees, flies, moths, ants and gnats that pollinate them.

God teaches us, speaks to us, and provides for us through his creation. Let’s not fail to see His marvelous work in the everyday and mundane: wasps building a nest, mushrooms appearing on the lawn after a rain, maple leaves turning red in autumn, raindrops glistening on a flower petal, or a squirrel gathering nuts. You may remember the first line of Joyce Kilmer’s poem Trees: “I think that I shall never see A poem lovely as a tree.” The last line reads: “Poems are made by fools like me, But only God can make a tree.” Only God can make a tree, but He’s also the only one who can make the lichens and fungi living on its bark, the small tree frog hiding in its leaves, and the sparrow nesting in its branches.

Praise God, from whom all blessings flow!

Nature is the living, visible garment of God. [Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe]

All things bright and beautiful, All creatures, great and small, All things wise and wonderful, The Lord God made them all. [Cecil Francis Alexander]

O Lord, what a variety of things you have made! In wisdom you have made them all. The earth is full of your creatures. … I will sing to the Lord as long as I live. I will praise my God to my last breath! May all my thoughts be pleasing to him, for I rejoice in the Lord. [Psalm 104:24,33-34 (NLT)]

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LETTING GO

gulf fritillary - Monarch butterfliesBut blessed is the man who trusts me, God, the woman who sticks with God. They’re like trees replanted in Eden, putting down roots near the rivers — Never a worry through the hottest of summers, never dropping a leaf, Serene and calm through droughts, bearing fresh fruit every season. [Jeremiah 17:7-8 (MSG)]

This morning, in a symbolic gesture of turning my worries over to God, I added a name to the “God box” that sits on my desk. Yesterday, I received a photo of my grand proudly holding a bowl of pasta with the text, “I have yet to set off the fire alarm with my cooking.” As I looked at her beautiful smile, I prayed, “Dear God, please let setting off that smoke alarm be the worst thing that happens to her this year!” She just started her freshman year of college, in a large city, in a foreign country, 5,500 miles from home. I know that drinking and drugs are pervasive on all college campuses and, having been a freshman once upon a time, I know how many foolish mistakes can be made when free from parental supervision. Yet, even if every decision my grand makes is a wise one, I know the statistics: with a more than a 20% chance of being sexually assaulted in her college years, she’s most vulnerable to attack her freshman year. Since the day my son left his daughter at her apartment, my concerns have weighed heavily on my heart. Nevertheless, I know that all the worry in the world can’t protect her from harm. Accepting that all I can do is give my concerns to God, I put her name in my box.

“Let go and let God!” is a favorite phrase in recovery but that doesn’t mean we let the troubles of this world run over us like a steamroller. When there’s a fire, we don’t stand idly by and say, “Let go and let God!” With God’s direction, we reach for a hose and do what is within our control. Letting go and letting God is refusing to worry about fires that haven’t started (and might never start) and recognizing when a fire isn’t ours to extinguish. It is, however, more than putting a name on a slip of paper and placing it in a wooden box. It’s surrendering the outcome we desire and letting God manifest His will for the outcome He wants. It’s releasing our concerns and fears to Him and trusting His plan for the lives of those we love.

I can’t protect my grand from poor decisions or the violence and sorrow that comes from living in a fallen world. But, by putting her name in that box, I’ve acknowledged that my job description as grandmother does not include running the world; I’ve relinquished that role to the One whose job it is! I will continue offering prayers on her behalf but those prayers will no longer be ones of fear, anxiety, or apprehension. They will be ones of faith and trust because I know that God loves her even more than I do.

You find no difficulty in trusting the Lord with the management of the universe and all the outward creation, and can your case be any more complex or difficult than these, that you need to be anxious or troubled about His management of it? [Hannah Whitall Smith]

Don’t fret or worry. Instead of worrying, pray. Let petitions and praises shape your worries into prayers, letting God know your concerns. Before you know it, a sense of God’s wholeness, everything coming together for good, will come and settle you down. It’s wonderful what happens when Christ displaces worry at the center of your life. [Philippians 4:6-7 (MSG)]

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