IT’S NOT OURS TO KEEP

When the poor and needy search for water and there is none, and their tongues are parched from thirst, then I, the Lord, will answer them. I, the God of Israel, will never abandon them. I will open up rivers for them on the high plateaus. I will give them fountains of water in the valleys. I will fill the desert with pools of water. Rivers fed by springs will flow across the parched ground. [Isaiah 41:17-18 (NLT)]

giant swallowtail butterflyYesterday, I wrote of God’s provision, yet I can’t help but wonder. If God promises His divine provision, why are there still people in need?

There was to be no permanent poverty in Israel. In the Old Testament, we find complex laws and social practices that were meant to ensure that no one lived in need. To eliminate food scarcity, every third year there was to be a special tithe of crops for the Levites and those at risk like foreigners, widows and orphans. The Israelites were to leave the edges of their fields unharvested and anything dropped during the harvest ungathered; this portion could be gleaned by the poor. There were laws against exploiting the vulnerable through usury or by demanding unreasonable collateral. Every seventh year was to be a Sabbath year when loans were forgiven and Hebrew slaves were released from servitude. The land would lay fallow and any produce that grew by itself was free to all. Additionally, in the Year of Jubilee, celebrated every fifty years, economic disparity was further minimized by returning all real estate (whether sold, mortgaged or leased) to its original owner.

The poor in the Bible were not much different than today’s poverty-stricken: the people without land or the economic, legal, or political resources to be self-sustaining. A diverse group of the marginalized, they were day laborers, subsistence farmers, indentured slaves, beggars, prostitutes, widows, resident aliens, the disabled and infirm. God’s vision wasn’t a welfare state but rather one that allowed families to have the opportunity to provide for themselves. The Sabbath and Jubilee years were a fresh start for those who found themselves in poverty. Unfortunately, the reproachful words of the prophets to Judah and Israel tell us that God’s laws were not obeyed.

The story is told of two businessmen. Like me, the first was troubled by the abject poverty that exists in the world today and wondered about God’s promise of provision. He said, “Someday, I hope to ask God why He allows poverty, famine, and injustice when He could do something about it.” The other man replied, “I’m afraid that God might ask me that very same question.”

Perhaps God has fulfilled His promise to provide by filling our wells with blessings. The problem is that we haven’t done our part by passing along His provision. Instead of letting His gifts flow through us to others, we’ve plugged the pipeline and are keeping His gifts for ourselves. We’ve been freed from the Old Testament laws but we haven’t been freed from the obligation to love our neighbors. Could we be holding the provision that God has promised? Could we be the answer to someone’s prayer? For those of us with water in our wells, perhaps it’s time turn on the faucet and let His blessings flow.

We are not cisterns made for hoarding, we are channels made for sharing. [Billy Graham]

We know what real love is because Jesus gave up his life for us. So we also ought to give up our lives for our brothers and sisters. If someone has enough money to live well and sees a brother or sister in need but shows no compassion—how can God’s love be in that person? Dear children, let’s not merely say that we love each other; let us show the truth by our actions. [1 John 3:16-18 (NLT)]

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FREE TO BE…

I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the Lord do all these things. [Isaiah 45:7 (KJV)]

sunflowerWow! Now there’s a troubling verse. God creates evil? Since evil is anything that contradicts God’s holy nature, it’s hard to understand how that could happen. Even other translations like the NLT’s, “I send good times and bad times,” the ESV’s, “I make well-being and create calamity,” and the NIV’s, “I bring prosperity and create disaster,” don’t make this verse sound much better. How do we reconcile a God who is good, a God who is love, with a God who says he creates evil?

There’s certainly no mention of God creating evil in Genesis. We are told that He created the world and everything in it, that man was made in His own image, and when God was finished, He looked over everything and saw that it was good. This is where we again see the flexible nature of Hebrew verbs in Scripture. As discussed yesterday, many verbs such as create, harden, send, blind, or deceive are used in a permissive sense as well as a causative one. As a result, we frequently find God represented as doing something when, in actuality, He is only permitting it or predicting that it will be done. Reading it that way, God didn’t create evil but He does allow it. Nevertheless, how can a righteous, just, and loving God even allow evil?

Our being made in God’s image means that, like Him, we have intelligence, reason and the ability to make conscious choices. Personal volition means that we have a choice as to whether or not we love and obey God. When God gave us the ability to choose, He also gave us the responsibility to choose well. Adam and Eve didn’t choose wisely when they ate the forbidden fruit and we’re not much better. While we can choose obedience over rebellion or love over hate, we also can choose deception instead of truth or vindictiveness rather than forgiveness. Because God allows us to choose, we can abandon good for evil as easily as we can close our eyes to His light, shut our ears to His truth, and harden our hearts to His love. C.S. Lewis pointed out that “If a thing is free to be good it’s free to be bad. And free will is what made evil possible.”

Knowing we’d mess up by the third chapter in Genesis, why did our omniscient God allow us freedom to go against His will? Yet, if He compelled us to be obedient, wouldn’t He be more a puppet master than a God of love? Without freedom of choice, would we be unique individuals, made in His image, or marionettes moving only when He pulled the strings? A relationship must be voluntary to be authentic and love must be freely given to be genuine. God didn’t create evil but He did create a people who can rebel and turn from righteousness and it is that rebellion that creates evil.

I don’t understand it completely; someday, I will. I do know that our good and loving God has a good reason for allowing evil to exist. I also know that God can use evil for our good and His glory; after all, from man’s rejection and murder of His only Son, came our salvation!

If a thing is free to be good it is also free to be bad. And free will is what has made evil possible. Why, then, did God give them free will? Because free will, though it makes evil possible, is also the only thing that makes possible any love or goodness or joy worth having. [C. S. Lewis]

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved. … And this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. [John 3:16-17,19 (KJV)]

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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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LET MY PEOPLE GO!

But when Pharaoh saw that relief had come, he became stubborn. He refused to listen to Moses and Aaron, just as the Lord had predicted. … “This is the finger of God!” the magicians exclaimed to Pharaoh. But Pharaoh’s heart remained hard. He wouldn’t listen to them, just as the Lord had predicted. … But Pharaoh again became stubborn and refused to let the people go. [Exodus 8:15,19,32 (NLT)] 

frogThe Book of Exodus tells of the many times Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh with the Lord’s message that Pharaoh should let the Israelites leave Egypt. Pharaoh, unwilling to see his slave labor depart, demanded miracle upon miracle to prove that the Israelites’ God had sent them. The series of plagues that followed was the ultimate “smack-down” between God and all of the Egypt’s gods. The waters of Egypt were fouled with blood, frogs covered the land, and dust became an infestation of gnats. Even though Pharaoh’s magicians conceded to Moses, the headstrong ruler refused to believe the marvels before him. The Israelites remained unaffected by these calamities and Moses could both start and stop every plague but Pharaoh remained intractable and unconvinced.

More afflictions were visited on the people of Egypt: swarms of flies, diseased livestock, boils on people and animals, and a devastating hail storm that was followed by swarms of locusts. Yet, Pharaoh refused to budge. The ninth plague, three days of darkness, should have been enough to convince anyone that the Israelite’s God meant business. Nevertheless, no matter what sort of punishment rained down on the Egyptians, Pharaoh stood his ground. He would concede only long enough for Moses to end each affliction and then change his mind once the plague was lifted. It was not until the final plague, the death of every first-born creature which included his son, that Pharaoh relented. Even then, he recklessly sent his soldiers after the fleeing Israelites only to have the entire army destroyed.

What distorted sense of pride kept Pharaoh from admitting he was wrong? How arrogant he was to think foiling the God of the Israelites took precedence over the welfare of his people. Pharaoh’s hardened heart resulted in Egypt enduring terrible affliction and loss. I wonder; do we ever barge ahead, ignoring the consequences, simply because we are more concerned with being victors than right? Like Pharaoh, are we ever so arrogant and uncompromising that we’re unwilling to accept the possibility that we could be wrong? Do we ever harden our hearts to the truth? Do we ever harden our hearts to God?

Your ancestors refused to listen to this message. They stubbornly turned away and put their fingers in their ears to keep from hearing. They made their hearts as hard as stone, so they could not hear the instructions or the messages that the Lord of Heaven’s Armies had sent them by his Spirit through the earlier prophets. [Zechariah 7:11-12 (NLT)]

For the hearts of these people are hardened, and their ears cannot hear, and they have closed their eyes—so their eyes cannot see, and their ears cannot hear, and their hearts cannot understand, and they cannot turn to me and let me heal them. [Matthew 13:15 (NLT)]

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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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ON A SLIDING SCALE

Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. [2 Corinthians 9:7 (ESV)]

Every man shall give as he is able, according to the blessing of the Lord your God that he has given you. [Deuteronomy 16:17 (ESV)]

mourning dovesIn the midst of all the tedious and repetitive regulations regarding sacrificial offerings in Leviticus, we find evidence of God’s love and mercy. For several sacrifices, a distinction was made between offering requirements for the wealthy and the poor. Called korban oleh v’yored, it was a sliding scale for sacrifice based on a person’s economic position. In Luke’s gospel, for example, we learn that Mary and Joseph brought two birds as their sacrifice after Jesus’ birth. Had the family been wealthier, they would have brought a one-year old lamb and a pigeon or dove and, had they been poorer, they would have brought only two quarts of choice flour.

The purpose of those sacrificial rituals in Leviticus was to strengthen man’s relationship with God, not to impoverish him. Our sacrifices are to be offered lovingly, humbly, obediently, joyfully, and willingly; that can’t be done if we can’t afford what we’re offering. When a Florida church embarked on a massive building program several years ago, the pastor asked the members to prayerfully reach deep into their pockets to pay for the new sanctuary. He then reminded them that the amount given would vary considerably among his parishioners. For one elderly woman, an extra twenty-five cents a week would constitute as great a sacrifice as a $25,000 check from a retired CEO. Each was asked to give only as he or she was able. This ancient sliding scale of sacrifice tells us that the pleasing aroma of sacrifice has nothing to do with the size of the sacrifice but rather with the heart that accompanies it.

The Magi arrived in regal robes and offered expensive gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to Jesus. There wasn’t a little drummer boy at the nativity but, had there been, the child playing his best “Pa rum pum pum pum” would have been as valuable a gift as those lavish ones. God in His grace does not discriminate against the poor or the rich. Moreover, let us never forget that, even more than our sacrifices, God wants our love and obedience.

You can always give without loving, but you can never love without giving. [Amy Carmichael]

Has the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to listen than the fat of rams. [1 Samuel 15:22 (ESV)]

And to love him with all the heart and with all the understanding and with all the strength, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself, is much more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices. [Mark 12:33 (ESV)]

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