“Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?”: a meditation on Genesis 18:22-33

April 18, 2019

The following reflection on Genesis 18:22-33 comes from the handwritten notes in my ESV Journaling Bible, Interleaved Edition.

Then Abraham drew near and said, “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city. Will you then sweep away the place and not spare it for the fifty righteous who are in it? Far be it from you to do such a thing, to put the righteous to death with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” And the Lord said, “If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will spare the whole place for their sake.”

18:32: “For the sake of ten I will not destroy it”: Undoubtedly, Abraham’s chief concern is not so much with God’s justice as a general principle as for the safety of his nephew Lot, who lives in Sodom. Surely, Abraham reasons, God won’t “sweep away the righteous with the wicked.” But exactly how confident would Abraham be in Lot’s own righteousness?

Abraham himself, you may recall, didn’t earn justification before God through his own good works but through faith: “And he believed the Lord, and he counted it as righteousness” (Genesis 15:6). Unless Lot was likewise justified (and where’s the evidence?), we should be unimpressed that Lot is relatively more righteous than the citizens of Sodom! Scripture tells us why:

“None is righteous, no, not one… no one does good, not even one” (Romans 3:10, 12).

“If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?” (Psalm 130:3)

“For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).

“For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it” (James 2:6).

In Jesus’ parable of the two debtors and its application to Simon and the prostitute (Luke 7:36-50), Jesus doesn’t deny that Simon is relatively more righteous than the woman. But it doesn’t matter: each owes a debt before God that he or she is unable to pay. The woman realizes it; Simon doesn’t. Therein lies the problem.

But maybe Abraham knows that Lot isn’t righteous. Maybe he’s counting on someone else’s righteousness to save his nephew. Otherwise, why not simply ask God—who would be unjust to “put the righteous to death with the wicked” (v. 25)—to rescue only the righteous in the city? If Lot and his family were among the righteous, then so be it. But that’s not what he asks. He asks, ultimately, if God would destroy the city for the sake of as few as ten righteous. God answers “no” before abruptly ending the conversation.

Yet we the readers might continue this thought experiment: “Suppose there were fewer than ten… Suppose, in fact, there were only one righteous person in the city? Would God destroy the city for the sake of one?”

But we Christians already know the answer to that question, don’t we?

Because, regardless whether Lot, his wife, and his two daughters were righteous, we sinners know ourselves. We know our own hearts. We know that if God were destroying cities because of the unrighteous living within it, we certainly wouldn’t be the basis on which the city is spared! Right? We would need someone else to be righteous for us!

And here’s the good news: Our Lord Jesus is that one righteous man!

He is the One on account of whose righteousness we will be saved. All we need to do is “move in with him” and “live with him.”

I can tell you how to do that!


“Why are you cast down, O my soul?”: a meditation on Psalm 42:5

April 16, 2019

The following reflection on Psalm 42:5 comes from the handwritten notes in my ESV Journaling Bible, Interleaved Edition.

Why are you cast down, O my soul,
    and why are you in turmoil within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
    my salvation

42:5: Notice the psalmist is now talking to his soul, not God. And one thing he is telling it, as in v. 4, is to remember those times in your past in which you experienced the fullness of God’s presence. If God seems absent at this moment, it is only temporary.

I’m unimpressed with well-intentioned social media memes that urge us to “move on” from the past, to get over it (as if our therapy bills don’t prove how difficult that is!), to look to the future alone. “You can’t change the past,” they tell us.

Respectfully, I disagree: While we play a role in shaping the future—by all means—the future is largely outside of our control. (Think of tourists in Paris right now who are changing their itineraries because of yesterday’s out-of-control events! A building that stood for almost a thousand years and survived two world wars, among other things!)

So, no… it’s hardly an exaggeration to say that the past is practically the only thing we can change! Not the events themselves, obviously, but our interpretation of them. We can grab hold of the promises of God’s Word, which assure us that nothing happens to us, his children through faith in his Son, except that which he causes or allows for good reasons, and always in the best interest of our souls (Rom. 8:28; James 1:2-4; 1 Peter 1:6-7)—given the freedom he grants us to disobey him and make mistakes.

We may experience a healthy kind of regret and shame over events in our past, which are fruits of true repentance, but we don’t stop at regret and shame: We go one step further. We tell ourselves (and pray) something like this: “Gracious Lord, if it took that mistake, that failure, that setback, that heartbreak, that disappointment, that suffering, that sin, to bring me to this place of greater love for you, greater trust in you, greater dependence on you, then I thank you for these events in the past![1] They have made me into this person that I am today—and the person I am becoming in the future.

“If anything had happened differently, I would be someone else. But you want me to be the person I am today—not because I’m perfect right now but because I’m one day closer to becoming that person you are making me into! After all, you did not create me once, when I was born, or even twice, when I was born-again through faith in your Son.

“Rather, you are ‘creating’ me through everything that happens to me—good, bad, or indifferent.

“So I will be grateful. Indeed, along with the apostle Paul, I will give thanks, not in spite of everything, but for everything (Eph. 5:20)—because everything that happens to me has been sifted through your redemptive, providential hand.”

“Why are you cast down, O my soul?”

That’s an excellent question!

1. Please note: I’m not for a moment implying that we should “go on sinning so that grace may abound” (Rom. 6:1). Rather, I’m saying that God “factors in” our sinful choices and uses their often harmful consequences for our good. Consider the younger son in the parable of Luke 15: Would he have been better off had he never left home, squandered his father’s wealth, and brought himself to utter ruin? Of course not! He was saved through the experience! Apart from it—had he stayed home—he would have remained as lost as his older brother—even if he were outwardly obedient to his father.


Allow me to reintroduce myself…

April 15, 2019

Good news! At the end of June I’m being appointed as the senior pastor of Taccoa First United Methodist Church. Also, beginning May 1, I’m serving for several weeks as interim pastor at Lavonia UMC. If my blog stats are any indication, more than a few new people are interested in learning about me.

With that in mind, I’d like to re-post the following from June of last year… Enjoy!

Last week was an emotionally heavy week, for several reasons. I’ll talk about one of those reasons in today’s post.

I’m an itinerant United Methodist pastor, and this year it was my turn to move. I said goodbye to beloved brothers and sisters in Christ—and friends—to whom I’ve given much of my life over these past five years. After I preached my farewell sermon, on Acts 20:17-27, the church presented the following video tribute as a parting gift to me. It’s the best gift anyone has ever given me!

In addition to heartfelt tributes from many of my parishioners, two of my heroes in the faith—genuine heroes—contributed to the video: N.T. Wright and Paul Zahl.

As longtime readers of the blog may guess, Wright, more than any living person, is responsible for what I’ve called my “evangelical re-conversion,” an experience that began around the time I started this blog in 2009 (even if it took another year or so to complete).

Wright, a retired bishop of Durham in the Church of England, is a world-renowned New Testament scholar—not to mention, for what it’s worth, the most famous. How many Bible scholars, after all, were able to match wits with Stephen Colbert on his old Comedy Central show, for instance?

But it was Wright’s massive book The Resurrection of the Son of God that turned my life around. Here was Wright, an evangelical who has spent his long career within the world of mainline, critical scholarship—a world in which I was immersed for three years in seminary—offering an energetic defense of the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ, along with the scriptures that bear witness to it. His writing gave me a greater confidence in the authority of scripture at a time in my life when I needed it. He also helped me understand how seamlessly the gospel fits within the story of Israel and the Old Testament.

His writing affirmed for me classic doctrines of faith that were minimized or neglected in seminary—such as penal substitutionary atonement, Final Judgment and hell, a literal Second Coming, and the infallibility of scripture—if not without much nuance and qualification. But Wright’s qualifications never come from a place of skepticism about the reliability of scripture, only his effort to be more faithful to it. How can I not respect that?

So I love Wright and owe him a debt of gratitude. God used him to make me a more faithful follower of Jesus today—which is to say, a happier, more joy-filled person. And here he is, from his home near St. Andrews in Scotland, congratulating me on my new appointment!

My other hero of faith in the video is Paul Zahl, a retired Episcopal minister and theologian. For the past four years, the Very Rev. Dr. Zahl has been “living in my head” through his preaching, his writing, and (especially) his podcasts. More than anything, Zahl helped me fall in love with Jesus again. (As you hear in the video, this has been a theme of my recent preaching—not a coincidence.) He did so by enabling me to reconnect with a part of myself I lost too many years ago: that gawky 15-year-old who once wore the cover off his 1984 NIV Study Bible. “To find God,” Zahl said—paraphrasing Meister Eckhart—“you have to go back to where you lost him.” Or, put another way, to make sense of your life, you have to go back to that point in time—for me, around age 19 or 20—at which life stopped making sense. Truer words! And his reflections on those words in one of his podcasts—drawing on both Citizen Kane and the great Burton Cummings of the Guess Who—changed my life! Only Zahl could say, without irony, that if you want to understand what God’s love is like, “You need to listen to more Journey.” Indeed!

That these two men—who’ve helped shape me into the pastor and person that I am today—were part of this tribute moved me deeply!

And for good measure, because of my abiding and long-suffering affection for my alma mater, Georgia Tech, and my beloved Yellow Jackets, head basketball coach Josh Pastner offers his well-wishes.

(Special thanks to my friend and brother Matthew Chitwood for reaching out to all these people and putting this video together.)


“The Lord has prevented me”: a meditation on Genesis 16:2

April 11, 2019

The following reflection on Genesis 16:2 comes from handwritten notes in my ESV Journaling Bible, Interleaved Edition.

And Sarai said to Abram, “Behold now, the Lord has prevented me from bearing children. Go in to my servant; it may be that I shall obtain children by her.” And Abram listened to the voice of Sarai.

16:2: “The Lord has prevented me”: Sarai’s view of God’s sovereignty is correct: her inability to have children is a purposeful part of God’s plan for her life.[1] What she should have said, however, is not “the Lord has prevented me,” but “the Lord has prevented me so far.” After all, on what basis can she presume to believe that too much time had passed for God to keep his promise and fulfill his plan? It will take a miracle, regardless—whether Sarai conceives a child today or ten years from now.

Nevertheless, instead of waiting on the Lord, she takes matters into her own hands.

And here’s the problem: Up to this point in the story, God has made his will known to Abram by speaking directly to him. Surely if God wanted Abram to take Hagar as a secondary wife by whom God would fulfill his promises, God would have revealed that to him.[2] Besides, since when is it our job to “help God out,” or “improve God’s plan,” or “speed up God’s timing”—especially when doing so masks a lack of trust in God?

Not that I’m one to judge. I’m the biggest hypocrite! I like taking matters into my own hands. I like feeling in control. I like depending on myself.

By contrast, waiting on God, surrendering to God, depending on God alone—it makes me feel deeply insecure.

I would much rather know, regardless what God does or doesn’t do for me, that I have options. Like Sarai: “I’ll wait on God to help me for a certain amount of time, but if he doesn’t come through in the way that I expect, I’ll always have a ‘Plan B’ to fall back on.” How comforting! Hagar was Sarai’s Plan B.

What about me? Do I have a Plan B?

At this moment, for instance, for reasons of which you may be aware, the future looks far less secure than it used to look for United Methodist pastors. “Will I still have a career if this or that other ‘worst case scenario’ happens?” One anxious family member said, “At least you have that engineering degree to fall back on.”

Ugh! No! Don’t tell me that!

I know he meant well. And I’d be lying if I said the thought didn’t cross my mind, too—along with this troubling thought: “I’ve forgotten all engineering knowledge. I have nothing and no one to fall back on if this career doesn’t work out. I have no Plan B.”

But that’s beside the point: Following Jesus means that I shouldn’t have a Plan B! Either I’m all in for Jesus or I’m not!

Either Jesus is going to be my rock, my fortress, and my refuge (Psalm 31:3-4), or he’s not. He’s going to “supply every need of [mine] according to the riches of his glory” (Phil. 4:19), or he’s not. He’s telling the truth when he says that “all these things will be added to [me]” (Matt. 6:33), or—make no mistake—I am “of all people most to be pitied” (1 Cor. 15:19), and I have wasted my life.

But as his disciple, I’m supposed to be willing to bet my life that Jesus is telling the truth!

Am I betting my life? Or am I the Rich Young Ruler? “I’ll trust you, Lord, with 90 percent of my life. Ninety percent! That’s a lot! Just let me have 10 percent for myself.”

If so, be sure of this: Jesus has been and will continue disciplining me until I surrender that ten percent. Maybe that’s what “sanctification” is.

It hurts. But it’s good for me. So thank you, Jesus.

Footnotes:

1. One of those purposes, as with the blind man in John 9:3, is likely that “the works of God might be displayed” in her. Regardless, Christians who deny God’s meticulous providence over events in the world will hardly find evidence for their view in this particular scripture.

2. Not to mention the potential sinfulness of doing so: God’s intention for marriage, as revealed in Genesis 2:24, is one man and one woman only in a lifelong monogamous relationship.


“To your offspring I give this land”: a meditation on Genesis 15:18

April 10, 2019

The following reflection on Genesis 15:18 comes from the handwritten notes in my ESV Journaling Bible, Interleaved Edition.

On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, “To your offspring I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates…”

15:18: “I give this land”: Or “I have given this land” (NASB; see footnote in ESV). In other words, there’s a sense in which God has already accomplished what he promises to do in the present. God is already in the future, after all, so there’s no doubt how his promise to Abram will turn out.

Do you see how encouraging this is?

When God says that something will happen, we can be confident that it will happen this way—indeed, from God’s perspective it already has happened. When he makes this promise to Abram, he has already done everything necessary to ensure that Abram’s descendants have received the land; because God is already in the future, seeing that his promise is fulfilled and waiting for Abram to arrive there himself.

By contrast, when I want to assure someone that I will fulfill a promise, I might say, “Don’t give it a second thought. It’s done!” But it’s not done. In fact, I could drop dead before I fulfill the promise, no matter how sincerely I give my word.

Needless to say, God’s word isn’t like mine: when God says, “I will do,” he always means, “I have done.”

Consider how this applies to the glorious promise of Romans 8:28: “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”

This means that the blessing that awaits us, on the other side of whatever trial we happen to be going through at this moment, is as certain as the stars in the sky (v. 5).


Suffering is no obstacle to joy; it is the necessary means

February 26, 2019

The following are lightly edited notes on Genesis 3:16 from my ESV Journaling Bible, Interleaved Edition.

3:16: “I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing”: The occasion for greatest joy in life—the birth of a child—will now be accompanied by pain and suffering. This is emblematic of life in this fallen world. Joy is impossible to achieve apart from suffering.

Why do I so often forget this?

See, I usually consider suffering an obstacle to joy, rather than its necessary means. Suffering, I believe, disrupts the plans that I’ve made to achieve joy—as if my plans would have succeeded in the first place! But God’s plans for our joy will always succeed, provided we trust him.

But it won’t come easily—because “strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life” (Matthew 7:14 KJV).

The very next sentence points to the reason: “Your desire shall be contrary to your husband, but he shall rule over you.” As a result of sin, the relationship between man and woman, husband and wife, is no longer what God intends. The human being to whom we are closest and with whom we have greatest incentive to live in harmony will often strive against us.

And if this is true of our spouse, a flesh-and-blood person whom we can see, touch, and talk to, how much more true is it of our God? “Your desire will be contrary” to our Creator as well, as a necessary consequence of sin.

So what should a loving God do about it?

This quote from C.S. Lewis in The Problem of Pain is fitting:

When Christianity says that God loves man, it means that God loves man: not that He has some ‘disinterested’, because really indifferent, concern for our welfare, but that, in awful and surprising truth, we are the objects of His love. You asked for a loving God: you have one. The great spirit you so lightly invoked, the ‘lord of the terrible aspect’, is present: not a senile benevolence that drowsily wishes you to be happy in your own way, not the cold philanthropy of a conscientious magistrate, nor the care of a host who feels responsible for the comfort of his guests, but the consuming fire Himself, the Love that made the worlds, persistent as the artists’s love for his work and despotic as a man’s love for a dog, provident and venerable as a father’s love for a child, jealous, inexorable, exacting as love between sexes. How this should be, I do not know: it passes reason to explain why any creatures, not to say creatures such as we, should have a value so prodigious in their Creator’s eyes. It is certainly a burden of glory not only beyond our deserts but also, except in rare moments of grace, beyond our desiring.[1]

To say the least, God is not a “host who feels responsible for the comfort of his guests.” He loves us enough to hurt us, or be willing that we suffer hurt, if it means our ultimate happiness.

1. C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: HarperOne, 1940; 1966), 39-40.


More Instagram-sized video highlights of my trip to the Holy Land

February 26, 2019

I’m still working on these videos of my recent trip. Here are a few more. The Day 4 video includes narration. Enjoy!


No one hurts me more than I hurt myself

February 23, 2019

The following are lightly edited notes on Genesis 3:12-13 from my ESV Journaling Bible, Interlinear Edition.

3:12: “The woman whom you gave to be with me”: Regardless of extenuating circumstances, we must take responsibility for our role in sin—for our contribution to it. The man blames God first, then the woman. The woman blames the serpent. Yet there’s always a sufficient amount of guilt for which we are responsible.

As I consider my frustration over ways in which I perceive that I’ve been mistreated in life, like Adam and Eve I want to prove myself righteous: I want to avoid blame; I want to to justify myself. My pride—my ego—is a genuinely destructive sin. And my anger is a related sin: I’m angry because I don’t perceive that I’m getting what I deserve.

Honestly… I’ve said this before, but it’s true: I go very easy on myself when it comes to the sins of pride and anger; yet I’m guilt-ridden when it comes to other, lesser sins. But if an alien from outer space were able to read my thoughts and observe my behavior for a few days, he would surely conclude that pride and anger were, by far, my biggest, most harmful sins—to myself and others. Why do I so often fail to see it this way?

Instead of falling on my knees and begging God for mercy—and thanking him that he hasn’t punished me worse for my sinful pride—I burn with anger, thinking, “This person, or those people, or this organization, or this institution of which I’m part, has badly mistreated me!” Yet no one has done anything worse to me than I’ve done to myself through pride and anger!

No one has ever hurt me worse than I’ve hurt myself! Full stop.

“This woman whom you gave to be with me…”

Oh, please, Adam! It’s not the woman, and it’s not God: it’s you! It’s how you responded to this particular test. You failed.

And you also failed, Brent. After all, your hero, the apostle Paul, was facing death at every turn—whippings, beatings with rods, imprisonments, hunger, shipwrecks, nakedness, not to mention the worst kind of slander from his enemies (which, in my experience, hurt worse than any sticks and stones)—yet he could say things like, “This happened so that we wouldn’t rely on ourselves but God” (2 Corinthians 1:9), and “We rejoice in our sufferings because of all these good things that God is doing through them” (Romans 5:3-5), and “I give thanks always and for everything” (Ephesians 5:20), and “I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content” (Philippians 4:11).

By contrast, at the first sign of adversity, I say, “Poor, poor pitiful me!”

My point is, I have more than enough sin for which I can take responsibility. Let me never say again—alongside Adam—”This person, or these people, or these circumstances are to blame. No… I’m to blame for how I respond to this person, or these people, or these circumstances.

Usually I don’t respond well. Forgive me, God.

Here are a couple of songs that are on point:


How history’s first temptation relates to us

February 19, 2019

With some light editing, I wrote the following reflection on Genesis 3:5 in my ESV Journaling Bible, Interleaved Edition.

3:5: “For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil”: It’s as if Satan were saying, “What God is asking of you is both unfair—because why should you deprive yourself of this delicious fruit?—and not in your best interest. And it isn’t even ignorance or naiveté on God’s part—as if that wouldn’t be bad enough! No, God knows that he’s harming you.”

In other words, Satan is attacking God’s character!

At this point, Eve should have said to herself, if not to Satan, “No, it can’t be that! God loves me and wouldn’t harm me or work against me. I must misunderstand the command if it leads me to this demonic conclusion. God is only good. If he’s issued the command it must be for my good. Regardless—and this is most important—who do I think I am in relation to God that I should second-guess him? How could I possibly know what he knows? Therefore I’m going to trust him, even though I don’t understand him.”

Satan tempts us in a similar way today: to believe that God’s Word (as revealed in scripture) is unfair, unwise, or harmful; to think that we “know better” than what he’s told us. And our skepticism about the goodness of God’s Word, we reason, is based on what we think it reveals about God’s character. “If the doctrine of hell is true, for instance—as scripture seems to teach—then that would make God less than loving”—as we understand love. If hell exists, something would be wrong with God; he would possess a character defect.

Of course we’re too pious to believe that. But now we don’t have to! We have recourse to a different idea! We can instead believe that a particular scripture is wrong, that it doesn’t reflect God’s true character or will, that the human authors who wrote it down got it wrong.

One reasonable alternative—that God is infinitely wiser than we are, so we shouldn’t be surprised that we don’t always understand his ways, especially since he tells us in Isaiah 55:8 that “my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways”—apparently doesn’t cross our minds.

And neither does this: Why couldn’t an all-powerful and all-good God ensure that his written Word is telling the truth?


What the Wailing Wall represents for me

February 19, 2019

Two days ago I was at the Wailing Wall, that portion of the western wall of the Temple in Jerusalem where millions of pilgrims go each year. Some friends asked me to pray for them there. By all means, my prayers for them in Atlanta would be equally effective, but I obliged. I took this photo to prove it. (I obscured the prayer and their names.)

Above and over the Wailing Wall is the Temple Mount on which the Temple once stood. The Romans destroyed the Temple in A.D. 70. Today, there’s a Muslim shrine called the Dome of the Rock in that location.

Besides praying for my friends, as I was touching the wall and praying, I had this thought: This wall exists because of my sins. This massive building was built in the first place because of my sins (and the sins of everyone else, of course). And as I peer up to the top of the wall and imagine the Temple, the Holy Place, and the Holy of Holies—the small room of the Temple where the Holy Spirit dwelt, into which only one person, the high priest, was allowed to enter, and then only once a year—I think, I could never scale this wall to reach God on the other side.

This wall represents the barrier that my own sin placed between me and God. “If you, O LORD, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?” (Psalm 130:3)

Indeed, ultra-orthodox Jews won’t even walk on the Temple Mount above (unlike Gentiles like me who will do so later today), for fear of treading on the place where the Holy of Holies once stood. For them, this wall is literally as close as they can get to God.

And so it would be for me—not only a sinner but a Gentile sinner, a double outsider.

But God’s Son Jesus did everything necessary for me, not only to enter the Holy of Holies, but to have the Holy Spirit living within me! When Christ died, the thick curtain separating the Holy of Holies from the rest of the Temple was torn from top to bottom. Through faith in Christ, nothing needs to separate us from God! This means my sins are forgiven; I am sanctified; I am made perfectly righteous, not with my own righteousness but with the righteousness of Christ! “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21).

Thank you, Jesus!

My view looking up the wall. Apart from Christ I could never reach God.