Double-edged Sword

Unless we are experiencing the hurt of facing every deception about ourselves, we have hindered the work of the Word of God in our lives. –Oswald Chambers, The Piercing Question

For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. Hebrews 4:12 (NIV)

Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way (idolatrous tendency) in me, and lead me in the way everlasting. Psalm 139:23-24 (NIV)

Captured

During a bible study at the jail I mentioned to a woman that we are all the same in God’s eyes, for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. She responded, “Yeah, we just got caught.”

“No man’s really any good till he knows how bad he is, or might be; till he’s realised exactly how much right he has to all this snobbery, and sneering, and talking about ‘criminals,’ as if they were apes in a forest ten thousand miles away; … till he’s squeezed out of his soul the last drop of the oil of the Pharisees; till his only hope is somehow or other to have captured one criminal, and kept him safe and sane under his own hat.” Father Brown in G.K. Chesterton’s The Secret of Father Brown, 1927

The above quote reminded me of a conversation I had with a woman at the jail recently. During a bible study I mentioned that we are all the same in God’s eyes, for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. She responded, “Yeah, we just got caught.”

Funny, but true. Jesus made it clear who the criminals are.

“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.” Matthew 5:21-22 (NIV)

But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. Matthew 5:27 (NIV)

In our natural selves we are all caught. Caught in the act. We are all criminals. But Jesus came to capture us in our captivity to sin. He told Peter, “Do not fear, from now on you will be catching men” (Luke 5:10). That word translated “catching” is zogreo (ζωγρέω) and literally means to capture or take alive. At its very root is the Greek word ago (ἄγω ) which means “to lead by accompanying to (or into) a place.” “To take alive” sounds fearful, but his heart is always mercy and love. He captures us to lead us to that place of salvation and peace.

When he ascended to the heights, he led a crowd of captives (he led captivity captive), and he gave gifts to his people. Ephesians 4:8 (NLT)

He led captivity captive. He captured the captives – we who are captured by our sin, slaves to the enemy of our souls. Yes, it’s true we are all criminals that need to be captured, but Father Brown was wrong about one thing. We can’t do it ourselves. There is only One who can. There is only One who can keep us “safe and sane under our own hats.” Jesus – who was considered a criminal, though he never sinned outwardly or inwardly. He loved us and allowed himself to be captured and executed that we might be captured and set free as new creatures. We must surrender, wave the white flag, and let the Lover of our souls lead us away.

Lord, let me be in that crowd of captives. Captured by your grace.

A thousand times I’ve failed
Still your mercy remains
Should I stumble again
Still I’m caught in your grace

From the Inside Out by Joel Houston

Turn thou us unto thee, O Lord, and we shall be turned; renew (repair, make new) our days as of old.  Lamentations 5:21 (KJV)

Can plunder be taken from warriors, or captives rescued from the fierce? But this is what the LORD says: “Yes, captives will be taken from warriors, and plunder retrieved from the fierce; I will contend with those who contend with you, and your children I will save. Isaiah 49:24-25 (NIV)

For it is by grace [God’s remarkable compassion and favor drawing you to Christ] that you have been saved [actually delivered from judgment and given eternal life] through faith. And this [salvation] is not of yourselves [not through your own effort], but it is the [undeserved, gracious] gift of God. Ephesians 2:8 (Amplified Bible)

For more on being caught in his wonderful love read Imprisoned

Photo by Jack Bair copyright 2019

Accepting God Accepting Me

Maybe part of returning to God is discovering who he is, his character and unfailing love. And once you know that – not what the world thinks or what you are afraid he is – but who he really is, his true character and identity, then you also know who you really are.

Return to your fortress, O prisoners of hope. Zechariah 9:12a (NIV)

In our last Bible study at the jail we looked at the above verse. One of the sweet ladies commented that to her, “returning to the fortress” meant coming back to who God meant her to be. “Accepting God accepting me” is how she put it.

At first, I didn’t get it. Doesn’t “return to your fortress” mean returning to God? But I think she was on to something. Maybe part of returning to God is discovering who he is, his character and unfailing love. And once you know that – not what the world thinks or what you are afraid he is – but who he really is, his true character and identity, then you also know who you really are. Who you were meant to be. The loving Father loving you, his beloved child. The good Shepherd caring for you his little lamb. The hen who gathers her little chicks under her wings. Is this what Jesus meant when he said, “I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it” (Mark 10:15 NIV)?

“For too long we’ve primarily associated repentance with someone pointing a finger at us and saying, ‘Behave!’ Here’s how I see it. Repentance is the hand of Jesus reaching out to us with the invitation to, ‘Become.’ Becoming begins with beholding God as he truly is (i.e. like Jesus). When a person catches a glimpse of the true and living God and they begin to really believe, they also begin to believe in the possibility of their life becoming far more than they ever imagined before.” J.D. Walt[1]

Concentrating on behaving can turn us into finger-pointing hypocrites. Concentrating on becoming, or being, makes us beloved children with our eyes turned adoringly to our Father. “That’s my Dad! I want to be just like Him.” And Jesus showed us how to do that. We can only truly become who we were always meant to be under the shadow of his wings, abiding in the Vine, following the Shepherd in his flock, with the Father’s loving, guiding hand upon our heads.

As J.D. Walt goes on to say, “Anyone who has walked more than a mile or two down this road knows that behavior has a way of taking care of itself when the Holy Spirit empowered process of becoming takes root.”

Yes. Accepting God accepting me. Return to your fortress, oh prisoner of hope!

 

[1] Taken from Don’t “Behave.” Become by J.D. Walt https://www.seedbed.com/step-19-dont-behave-become/?mc_cid=ad45fa3de2&mc_eid=27234cb1e3

Thank you to Ian Livesey for the photo of the lamb on Flickr.

Dig and Dig Deep

It takes digging deep to get down to the Rock and build on His strength, in order to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. Trying to love in our own strength is like building on the wave and tide-eroded sands, ever-changing with our emotions, moods, and circumstances.

I will show you what he is like who comes to me and hears my words and puts them into practice. He is like a man building a house, who dug down deep and laid the foundation on rock. When the flood came, the torrent struck that house but could not shake it, because it was well built. Luke 6:48 (NIV) 

 Two Greek words are used in the verse to describe how this person dug. The first word is skapto (σκάπτω), which simply means to dig. The second word is bathuno (βαθύνω), which means to dig deep, or deepen. Therefore, the Greek actually reads that he dug and dug deep, or deepened [the hole] until he got down to the rock. I think Jesus is saying that in order to put the Word into practice we have go farther than a few inches below the surface, the easy, softer stuff, and down into the hard, undisturbed, unplowed, full-of-gravel part. Anyone who has ever tried to hand-dig a new garden bed knows what I mean. Sod and rocks and tree roots need to be removed. You would have to dig through all of that and then dig very deep to get down to the bedrock. 

As an aside, the verb bathuno comes from bathus, an adjective that means “profound,” “deep,” and, interestingly, “very early.” Bathus is the word used in Luke 24:1, “On the first day of the week, very early (bathus) in the morning, the women took the spices they had prepared and went to the tomb.” As in the digging deep picture, two words are used here to emphasize how early it was. It reads that they came at early dawn – very early. John says it was still dark (John 20:1). Mark 16:2 uses a word that means it was greatly or exceedingly, exceedingly beyond measure, sore early (maybe Mark was not a morning person?). The women didn’t just come at dawn, they came very early, they went deep, and, consequently, they received the message from the angel, and saw Jesus (Matthew 28:9, Mark 16:9). 

Back to digging. The root word of both bathuno and bathus is baino, the Greek word that means “to walk.” What does digging have to do with walking? In Luke 6:48 Jesus says the man “laid (tithemi) the foundation (themelios) on rock.” Tithemi and themelios are the same words that are used in 1 John 3:16 and 1 Corinthians 3:11. 

This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid (tithemi) down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers. 1 John 3:16 (NIV) 

 For no-one can lay (tithemi) any foundation (themelios) other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. 1 Corinthians 3:11 (NIV) 

Jesus Christ, and his life laid down in love for the salvation of the world, is the foundation, and no other can be laid. He is also the Rock upon which this foundation is laid. We have to dig deep to lay this foundation in our lives, but if we do, the promise is that we will not be shaken. We will not fall when the storms come. It takes digging deep to get down to the Rock and build on His strength, in order to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. Trying to love in our own strength is like building on the wave and tide-eroded sands, ever-changing with our emotions, moods, and circumstances. Doubt creeps in, and rightly so, when we are standing on our own shifting, sinking strength. 

 What does it mean to “dig deep?” For me, it means not just to surface-read the Bible and check off a box that I did it. Rather, it means to study it and then ask the Author what it means for my life, how he wants me to put it into practice and walk it. 

Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do. James 1:23-25 (NIV) 

 Digging deep is hard. Hard ground, rocks and (bitter) roots make it even harder. Hardness of heart, unforgiveness, bitterness, jealousy, wrong-thinking, self-centeredness, pride, idolatries, unthankfulness, anger at God must be dug and pulled out. Maybe some structures will need to be demolished (see Sawdust). But the more you do that, the more you walk out what you are learning, the softer the ground gets, the easier to dig, and, along the way, the more the good seed from the Word can put down roots and produce fruit. Persevere, keep digging deep, get down to the Rock. He is the firm foundation. You will not be disappointed.  

Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children; and walk in love, just as Christ also loved you and gave Himself up for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God as a fragrant aroma. Ephesians 5:1-2 (NASB)

 Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life. 1 Timothy 6:18-19 (NIV) 

So this is what the Sovereign LORD says: “See, I lay a stone in Zion, a tested stone, a precious cornerstone for a sure foundation; the one who trusts will never be dismayed.” Isaiah 28:16 (NIV

 

Image is in the Public Domain

Fragile

In all my over six decades I have never once regretted love, I have never been sorry I was kind, I have never wished I hadn’t been so merciful. But I consistently bitterly regret lashing out in anger, crabbiness, rudeness – worthless words.

A voice says, “Cry out.” And I said, “What shall I cry?” “All men are like grass, and all their glory (checed) is like the flowers of the field. Isaiah 40:6 (NIV)

For the LORD is good and his love (checed) endures forever; his faithfulness continues through all generations. Psalm 100:5 (NIV)

The same Hebrew word, checed  חֵסֵד –, is used in both these verses. Checed means goodness, loving- or merciful kindness, mercy. It is often translated “unfailing love” or “loyal love.” I like how the Message Bible translates it:

A voice says, “Shout!” I said, “What shall I shout?” “These people are nothing but grass, their love (checed) fragile as wildflowers.”

Love as fragile as wildflowers. Isaiah goes on in verse 8, “The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God stands forever.” Our love withers and falls, but Psalm 100 promises that God’s goodness, lovingkindness, and mercy endure forever, or is forever, everlasting, evermore, perpetual, continuous, eternal, of unending future, from the beginning of the world to the vanishing point. This is proclaimed over 40 times in the Bible, 26 times just in Psalm 136. “His love (checed) endures forever!” Ours withers fast when things get hot and dry.

I have been meditating on how fragile we are. Not just physically, though our lives are very fragile and over too soon. The tiniest things can end it – a mutant cell, a virus. But also, how fragile is our “goodness” and “kindness.” Have you ever been praising God in the car, full of love toward your fellow man, and then someone pulls in front of you or you hit a big pothole, and all that checed evaporates in some not-very-nice words and thoughts? Have you ever come home from doing a “good deed,” feeling pretty good about yourself, only to snap at a family member? You don’t have to answer that. I have too many times. My checed is fragile as wildflowers.

I recently came home from delivering a meal and visiting a sickbed only to take my fatigue and sadness out in a rude email complaining of what I (mistakenly) thought was a flaw in a product I received in the mail.

I was surprised at myself, though I shouldn’t have been. I thought I had learned this lesson. In all my over six decades I have never once regretted love, I have never been sorry I was kind, I have never wished I hadn’t been so merciful. But I consistently bitterly regret lashing out in anger, crabbiness, rudeness – worthless words. One good thing came out of it though: I got to fine tune my well-used apologizing skills. The apology was mercifully accepted. That is one way we can express checed – by forgiving the fragile, withering failings of others.

At one of our jail Bible studies, a sweet, struggling inmate said something that hit home for me. “We have to mess up so we know where our strength comes from.”  Indeed. The strength to love, or to forgive, does not come from me. My beautiful wildflowers wither much too fast. But, hallelujah! His love never fails!

Lord forgive me for my worthless, unloving words. Help me remember my love is fragile. Help me to abide in you, dwelling in your presence always. Love others through me with your unfailing, forever-and-ever checed. You are my strength.

Finally (hereafter, for the future, henceforth, from now on), be strong (receive strength, be strengthened, increase in strength, be empowered) in the Lord and in the strength (great power, force, dominion) of His might (ability, power, strength). Ephesians 6:10 (NASB)

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in Your sight, O LORD, my strength (my Rock) and my Redeemer. Psalm 19:14 (NKJV)

Photo copyright 2018 Derek Bair

Worthless Words

It seems shocking to read Jeremiah call God unfaithful and deceitful, but isn’t that what we do every time we utter pessimistic, fatalistic, cynical, and despairing words? “What’s the use?” “Nobody cares?” “It’s hopeless!” and even worse, things like “I hate my life” “I wish I were dead!”

Why is my pain unending and my wound grievous and incurable? Will you be to me like a deceptive brook, like a spring that fails? Therefore this is what the LORD says: “If you repent, I will restore you that you may serve me; if you utter worthy, not worthless, words, you will be my spokesman.” Jeremiah 15:18-19

 

For many brutal years Jeremiah was faithful to deliver the Word of God burning in his heart (Jeremiah 20:9). But here he gives in to despair and basically accuses God of being unfaithful and a liar. Earlier in this book (Jeremiah 2:13) God called Himself “the spring of living water.” Here Jeremiah calls God “a deceptive brook,” “a spring that fails.” The word translated “deceptive” means deceitful, treacherous, deception, lie, deceptive, disappointing. Like a mirage in the desert that you run to, but there is no water. Or a spring that is not reliable, not something you can count on, not faithful.

To be fair, Jeremiah was given a very tough mission by God. Called to prophesy things no one wanted to hear, he was persecuted and vilified. And he had to do it all alone, as he was commanded not to marry (Jeremiah 16:2). In verse 15:10 he expresses his wish that he had never been born: “Alas, my mother, that you gave me birth, a man with whom the whole land strives and contends!” He is called the “weeping prophet.”¹

It is so very easy to let negative, “worthless words” come out of our mouths in the midst of hard times – or even minor irritations. It is a particular weakness of mine which I struggle against. And God has, and is, using this verse to help me. It seems shocking to read Jeremiah call God unfaithful and deceitful, but isn’t that what we do every time we utter pessimistic, fatalistic, cynical, and despairing words? “What’s the use?” “Nobody cares!” “It’s hopeless!” and even worse, things like “I hate my life” “I wish I were dead!” What is the truth? That God has a good plan and purpose for your life (Jeremiah 29:11, Isaiah 55:8-11, Romans 8:28), that He disciplines us in order to make us holy so we can be near Him (Hebrews 12:5-6), that He cares deeply for us (1 Peter 5:7, Zephaniah 3:17), that all things are possible with God (Matthew 19:26, Philippians 4:13), and that He is always with us through everything (Psalm 73:23, Matthew 28:20).

God responds to Jeremiah by telling him that he must repent and utter worthy, not worthless words, and let God restore him – and so must I. But, God is not saying it in a harsh, judgmental way. If we look at the Hebrew words we see that they tell a familiar story of God’s mercy and unfailing love.

The Hebrew word translated “worthy” in this verse is yaqar (יָקָר), which means valuable, costly, precious, and rare. It also refers to honor, glory, and reputation. Worthy words, then, are precious, valuable, costly like treasure. They reflect on the glory, honor, and reputation of our God. In contrast, the Hebrew word translated “worthless” is zalal (זָלַל) which means shake, tremble, quake – which is what we feel like in these situations, that our world is being shaken. But also, zalal means to be worthless, vile, to make light of, to squander, to be loose morally, a glutton, a prodigal. So uttering worthless words are like the prodigal son squandering the precious inheritance given him by the father and sullying the father’s reputation – The Name and The Word made flesh. One of my sweet sisters put it this way: “God has given our words power in the spiritual realm and we speak our reality in much the same way He spoke ours into being. When we don’t use them to speak truth we are truly squandering that opportunity to speak into our lives and honor God.”

When God tells Jeremiah to repent, the word is shuwb ( שׁוּב), to return, turn back, go again home, bring back, restore, refresh, repair. The word is used twice in a row – if you shuwb, then I will shuwb. I believe God is saying to Jeremiah, “if you turn back – start to go home, as the prodigal son did in the parable – then I will run out to greet you and bring you back home and restore you to your rightful place as my son, and you will again be my spokesman, or be as my mouth.” He is saying the same to you and me. When we are overwhelmed in hopelessness and despair, uttering “worthless words,” he will bring us back, restore, refresh, and repair us if we turn to Him. And, oh how I need to be repaired!

Let me remember that Jesus is the spring of Living Water that never runs dry, that never fails, never disappoints. May true and life-giving, light-giving words come from my mouth. Let me proclaim the Truth, the Word, no matter what the situation or hardship. Help me to keep my eyes fixed on the Son shining above the storm.

So he returned home to his father. And while he was still a long distance away, his father saw him coming. Filled with love and compassion, he ran to his son, embraced him, and kissed him. Luke 15:20 (NLT)

… in order that they may know the mystery of God, namely, Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. Colossians 2:2-3

See, I lay a stone in Zion, a tested stone, a precious (yaqar) cornerstone for a sure foundation; the one who trusts will never be dismayed. Isaiah 28:16

 

[1] “Jeremiah”, New Bible Dictionary, Second Edition, Tyndale Press, Wheaton, IL 1987.

Image in the Public Domain from Wikimedia Commons: detail from Return of the Prodigal Son 1667-1670 Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, Oil on canvas, 236 x 262 cm, National Gallery of Art, Washington

 

Hostile combatants two

Wrestling with the Word implies making an adjustment – changing our thinking and doing to match Jesus’ commandments. It is not a one-time event, but a continual, daily effort.

You must be ready (adjusted, prepared) all the time, for the Son of Man will come when least expected. (Luke 12:40 NLT)

Wrestling with the Word implies making an adjustment – changing our thinking and doing to match Jesus’ commandments. It is not a one-time event, but a continual, daily effort. David said, “I have set (shavah) the Lord continually before me; Because He is at my right hand, I will not be shaken” (Psalm 16:8 NASB). Shavah (ָׁש ָׁוה) means to level, to agree with, resemble¹ (I always think of a carpenter’s level, with the bubble in it, between me and the Word). This implies changing myself – by attitudes, thinking, words and deeds – to line up with the Word, and the Psalm says this is a continual, constant, daily effort.

The Parable of the Sower is told in Matthew 13:19-23, Mark 4:14-20, and Luke 8:11-15. In each, Jesus essentially tells the same story – until the last sentence, which describes the fruitful hearer of the Word. In Matthew 13:23 this hearer understands or wrestles with the word he has heard, in Mark 4:20 he accepts (admits, delights in, receives) the word, and in Luke 8:15 he retains (holds fast, keeps from getting away, keeps in memory) the word and by perseverance (hupomone) produces a good crop. The word translated “retains” is the Greek word katechó (κατέχω). It also means to “check a ship’s headway i.e. to hold or head the ship”², to keep it on course. Hebrews says, “We must pay more careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away” (Hebrews 2:1 NIV). This retaining the Word, keeping the course, holding the ship from drifting away implies constant effort. It is only possible by “keeping the Lord continually before me” or “fixing our eyes on Jesus.” The key to this perseverance, or hupomone, is hidden in the Greek word itself. But, more on that next time.

Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. (James 4:1 NIV)

“Go back?” he thought. “No good at all! Go sideways? Impossible! Go forward? Only thing to do! On we go!” So up he got, and trotted along with his little sword held in front of him and one hand feeling the wall, and his heart all of a patter and a pitter.” Tolkien, The Hobbit (chapter 5)

Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrews 12:1-2 NASB)

¹ Brown-Driver-Briggs http://biblehub.com/hebrew/7737.htm
² Thayer’s and Smith’s Bible Dictionary