Posts Tagged ‘Bible journaling’

“Behold, your servant has found favor”: a meditation on Genesis 19:18-22

May 2, 2019

I’ve appreciated the following words about prayer from pastor Tim Keller since I first heard them many years ago:

“God will only give you what you would have asked for if you knew everything he knows.”

Among other things, this idea helps explain “unanswered” prayer—or, more accurately, prayer that God answers by saying “no.” We simply can’t foresee the myriad consequences that would result from God’s giving us what we ask for. To say the least, each petition that God grants us would have a ripple effect through time and space that would affect many lives, including our own. We don’t know the extent to which these ripples would be helpful or harmful. God knows; we don’t. And God’s Word promises us that in all things, including our prayer life, God is working for our good (Romans 8:28).

Moreover, the Holy Spirit is praying through our prayers: “For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words” (Romans 8:26). So even when God doesn’t give us what we pray for, he will—without fail—give us what his Holy Spirit prays for. In other words, God always answers his own prayers for us—and we can be confident that what he prays for us is always for our good.

Keller is helpful here, too: I’ve heard him also preach that God always answers the “prayer underneath the prayer.” I believe this idea does justice to what both Jesus and the rest of scripture teach.

All that to say, Keller’s maxim is true, as far as it goes. But for my own sake, if not yours, Dear Reader, I would add this corollary:

God will only give you what you would have asked for if you knew everything he knows—and you had bothered to ask.

In other words, in order for God to grant us the “prayer underneath the prayer,” there has to be a prayer to begin with!

I’ve heard otherwise faithful Christians justify what amounts to a lazy prayer life by appealing to the pious-sounding idea that we want God’s will, rather than our own will, to be done: “I don’t need God to do anything for me; he’s done so much for me already.” Perhaps they don’t ask for God to do anything because, too often, they don’t believe he will! (Believe me, I’m preaching to myself, too!) This hardly accords with Jesus’ own example and teaching about prayer (one passage of which, Luke 11:5-13, I’ll be preaching on on May 26).

Just yesterday, I was journaling my way through the story of Abraham’s nephew, Lot, in Genesis 19:15-22. In this passage, the two angels who have come to rescue Lot and his family from the imminent destruction of Sodom, urge him, “Escape to the hills, lest you be swept away” (v. 17).

And Lot said to them, “Oh, no, my lords. Behold, your servant has found favor in your sight, and you have shown me great kindness in saving my life. But I cannot escape to the hills, lest the disaster overtake me and I die. Behold, this city is near enough to flee to, and it is a little one. Let me escape there—is it not a little one?—and my life will be saved!”

I was indignant when I read this: Lot’s request is bold to the point of brazenness! After all, I thought, when firefighters rescue you and your sleeping family from an inferno, you don’t also ask them to clean the soot off the carpet!

But not so fast, Brent…

Lot acknowledges that he has “found favor” in the sight of these angels (and the God on whose behalf they’re working); God and these angels have shown him “great kindness.” He isn’t exactly presuming upon God’s grace; he recognizes that the angels could tell him no.

Besides, if we follow the logic of my objection all the way through, on what basis could I ask God for anything? God has given me my life in the first place, and he sustains it at every moment. Even more, he has redeemed my life through the infinitely valuable blood of his Son Jesus. Isn’t it presumptuous of me to ask God to do anything else? Hasn’t he done enough? Am I not being ungrateful in asking?

No… As in the case of Lot and so many other Old Testament saints who are as badly flawed as I am (including David and the psalmists, who frequently ask God to show favor, to rescue, to vindicate, and to make prosperous), we Christians can rightly tell ourselves something like this: “If it’s true that someone like Lot has found favor in God’s sight, how much more true is it for me? After all, unlike Lot, through faith in Jesus and his atoning work on the cross, I am a beloved child of the Father with whom he is well pleased; I am the one ‘on whom God’s favor rests’ (Luke 2:14); I am a brother [or sister] of Jesus himself (Mark 3:34-35; John 20:17), loved by my Father exactly as much as he loves Jesus (John 17:23, 26), entitled to a full inheritance befitting a son of the Father (Luke 15:22-23; Romans 8:17; 1 Peter 1:4-5).

I have exchanged my unrighteousness for Christ’s righteousness (2 Corinthians 5:21; Philippians 3:9). The blood of Jesus cleanses me from all sin (1 John 1:7). Therefore I stand before God as holy and righteous, not because of who I am and what I’ve done, but who Christ is and what he’s done. On this basis alone, I approach the throne of grace with confidence (Hebrews 4:16) and ask my Father for what I want or need—believing that he will give me what I ask for (Mark 11:24).

(Or don’t I?)

Indeed, Jesus says that unless we become like little children, we will “never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3). One characteristic of children is that they ask their parents for things—with boldness, with importunity, with no expectation of earning it or paying it back. The relationship of parent to young child is one of utter grace!

So be like Lot! Be as righteous and God-honoring as Lot is! Ask!

“Behold, I have two daughters”: a meditation on Genesis 19:8

April 27, 2019

The following reflection on Genesis 19:8 comes in part from handwritten notes in my ESV Journaling Bible, Interleaved Edition.

Genesis 19:8: “Behold, I have two daughters”: Lot proposes a wicked, callous, and cowardly solution—inexcusable even if, as some commentators believe, he were only “bluffing” (knowing, perhaps, that the men of Sodom would reject his offer). From our perch on the moral high ground, we say, “Lot should have laid down his life to save the lives of both his two visitors (who were angels in disguise) and his two daughters!”

Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.

But what about me? I’m a preacher who believes nothing less than heaven and hell are at stake in people’s decisions concerning Jesus and his gospel. I believe that hell in eternity is far worse than any hell on earth—which this scripture passage describes. Yet every day I encounter people who haven’t yet received God’s gift of salvation through Christ. Unless they change course and believe the gospel, I believe they are bound for hell.

Yet how often do I share with them God’s rescue plan through Christ? How do I even pray for opportunities to share the gospel? Do I not believe that the gospel itself has power through the Holy Spirit to effect transformation, as Paul implies in Romans 1:16?

If Paul is right in Acts 20:26-27 (“Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all, for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God.”), at what point is the blood of others on my hands? Would I sacrifice people to hell for the sake of my comfort, my respectability, my desperate desire to blend in? How could I say otherwise given my own cowardice and indifference about evangelism?

See, not only am I afraid of dying for my faith, I’m afraid of dying of embarrassment for my faith.

Holy Spirit, give me the power to change!

“Are you the King of the Jews?”: a meditation on Luke 23:1-5

April 22, 2019

Today I’m beginning a short series of meditations on Good Friday as described in Luke 23. The following reflection on Luke 23:1-5 comes, in part, from handwritten notes in my ESV Journaling Bible, Interleaved Edition.

Then the whole company of them arose and brought him before Pilate. And they began to accuse him, saying, “We found this man misleading our nation and forbidding us to give tribute to Caesar, and saying that he himself is Christ, a king.” And Pilate asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” And he answered him, “You have said so.” Then Pilate said to the chief priests and the crowds, “I find no guilt in this man.” But they were urgent, saying, “He stirs up the people, teaching throughout all Judea, from Galilee even to this place.”

Why do we sympathize with Pontius Pilate?

After all, to the credit of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling council who turned Jesus over to the Romans on Good Friday morning, they were correct to see in Jesus a threat to their very way of life. From their perspective as unbelievers, this man, Jesus, was “misleading our nation,” saying that “he himself is Christ, a king” (23:2). Granted, they misunderstood the nature of the Messiah’s kingship: he would never be king—one king among others—but the king—the King of Kings.

But at least they understood the danger that Jesus posed.

Not so Pilate: “I find no guilt in this man” (23:4).

Pilate is wrong to dismiss Jesus’ kingship so lightly. As Jesus tells his disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane the night before, “Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? (Matthew 26:53) (Twelve legions would be 72,000 angels: If these angels chose to protect Jesus from Pilate and his military might, they would have wiped the Roman Empire off the map!) Also, in his conversation with Pilate he tells him, “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been give you from above” (John 19:11). So even one of the world’s most powerful men is doing nothing more than what Jesus’ own Father wants him to do. So much for Pilate’s great power!

Pilate should have fallen on his knees and begged Jesus for mercy!

But still we sympathize with Pilate. Why?

Perhaps because his view of Jesus isn’t so different from our own. Jesus is a “king,” we may say, but he isn’t one to whom we owe absolute allegiance. This king won’t require us to change our lives or make any sacrifices. This king poses no threat to our own little “kingdom.” Jesus will be “king” over one small part of our life rather than the One to whom we owe our entire lives; the One who owns us because we were “bought with a price” (1 Corinthians 6:20).

How has my own life failed to come to terms with Jesus’ kingship?

Is Jesus someone to whom I offer everything because, after all, he’s my greatest treasure (Matthew 13:44)? Is he a King for the sake of whose honor I would be willing to die? Are Jesus and his kingdom, and his gospel, and the words that his Spirit guided the biblical authors to write down, the Rock on which I can build my life? (Matthew 7:24-27). Do I trust that this Rock will support my weight—and the weight of every other concern in my life?

Sure, like Pilate, I have “said” that Jesus is “King of the Jews” (v. 3). And like Pilate that acknowledgment too often makes little difference.

Lord Jesus, forgive me for being like Pilate, for acknowledging with my tongue that you’re the King, yet so often failing to let that truth penetrate to the core of my being. No more half-hearted devotion to you! Give me, by the power of your Spirit, the ability to surrender to you. Don’t wait for me to “want” to do it, either; you’ll be waiting forever! Or, better yet, just change what I want. Bend my will to your will. Besides, it’s not like my efforts to be “king”—to be in charge of my own life, to dictate to others, to pursue my own interests ahead of your own—have made me happy. I need you to take over. Please! Amen.

“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.