Something new in Scripture

Scripture startles us when words we've read dozens of times before take on new meaning. Sometimes its "I never realized it said THAT before!". Other times it is "wait, THAT'S really what it says? I've misunderstood all these years."

I've had one of these experiences this week. It began on Saturday, when several different people wrote about the truism that God won't call us to something we cannot handle. The conclusion was this is wrong, God calls people to things they cannot handle all the time. He wants to show us he can handle things we cannot handle on our own. After all, doesn't Scripture say we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us?

But Monday morning, I thought again about that idea. Does that really mean I could become a missionary pilot or a brain surgeon because Christ empowers me? No, I thought, the scope of the promise probably is not that large. Yes God could supernaturally give me the ability of a pilot or a brain surgeon, but he probably won't, and it is not a lack of faith on my part to expect that he won't.

Then I thought of looking up that verse. Where does it say I can do all things through Christ? I found it in Philippians 4:13. But when I looked at the passage, I wondered if I'd been taking it out of context. In verse 11 and 12 Paul is talking about contentment. "I have learned the secret of being content in every and any situation."  I thought it would have been more coherent for Paul to have said in verse 13 "I can endure all things" rather than "I can do all things."  Then I noticed the Good News Translation says something like this: "I have the strength to face all conditions." This fits the context better.

Then I looked at the Greek. I am not much of a Greek scholar, but I have a Greek version on my computer that lets me look up words in a lexicon. It turns out that the Greek behind "I can do all things" has only one verb, and the lexicons define it mostly as "to be able." You cannot say in English, "I am able all things" but that seems like what Paul actually said in Greek. I also noticed this morning as I wrote this up that the latest NIV version (the 2011 revision) says "I can do all this," not "I can do everything." So I'm concluding the version I've known all these years, "I can do all things" is inaccurate. Paul actually means "whatever happens to me, I can be content."

Does this mean I should go back to believing God won't call me to something I cannot handle? I don't think so. There are lots of stories about God doing surprising things when people ask for help. Jesus fed multitudes from a few loaves and a few fishes. God gave a victory in battle to a king who sent the praise choir ahead of the army. But God also gives surprising contentment in hard circumstances that are not instantly removed. Joseph did not despair in the Egyptian prison, Jeremiah and Ezekiel faithfully proclaimed God's word, and never saw a significant response from most of their audience.

Praying honestly like a child

Last month I read a good book on prayer, A Praying Life by Paul Miller. One of the things he said is we should come to God like a little child, and say exactly what is on our minds. Often we don't do that because we think we need to pray "correctly." He also says prayer is often the last bastion of legalism. But if we don't pray what is really on our hearts, then the real us does not meet the real God.

If Paul Miller is right that prayer is relating to God like a child, telling him exactly what we feel and think, where then is the place for public prayer? How can we present to God the secrets of our hearts in the same room with several others, some of whom may be good friends, but some are merely acquaintances? Are fellow Christians mere acquaintances? Are we not brothers and sisters? Yet in our present condition, where it is hard enough to tell God honestly what is on our hearts, when it is hard to tell our spouses and dearest friends absolutely everything, is it not realistic to feel that adding the presence of brothers and sisters that we do not know well is going to increase the difficulty of being honest before God? I’d say that group prayer with people we have not yet learned to be close with is the last bastion of the last bastion of legalism, the last place to keep saying what people expect us to say instead of what’s really on our hearts.

But public prayers and praises obviously have their place. The Psalms were written to be performed in the Temple. Psalm 22 is a personal heart cry to God, but it was written as a choral piece. “To the Choirmaster” the beginning says, “according to the Dove of the Dawn”. How many times do you think the choir had to rehearse David’s heart cry to God before they got it right? Maybe Dove of the Dawn was one of those hard tunes with lots of sharps and flats and key changes in the middle.

What could happen if we in groups bared our hearts before God, as David did? One wouldn’t have to reveal confidential details. We know little of why David felt abandoned when he wrote Psalm 22, he just says he felt abandoned.

Maybe we think we ought to model “proper” prayer, prayer that is positive and uplifting, not negative. But what is more proper and more uplifting than the confidence of knowing we can lay our hearts bare before God, telling him exactly what we feel, for he already knows it anyway even when we don’t tell him. If “Proper” prayer becomes laying the hearts we think we should have before God, rather than the hearts we have, it is a deception.

Apart from me you can do nothing

I've thought how when Scripture says "every" or "all", or similarly when it says "never" or "nothing", it is often a challenge to consider what it actually means. When Jesus says in John 15 that we must abide in him because apart from him we can do nothing, what does the "nothing" mean?

Does it mean that anyone who isn't in Christ is a paraplegic, unable to move? Obviously not. But that is the most apparent plain meaning of "apart from me you can do nothing" that comes to mind.

If we look at the context, he is talking about bearing spiritual fruit. "No branch can bear fruit by itself ... Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me."

Here is my attempt at stating what it means. "Apart from me, your life will just not work right. Your triumphs will be too empty, your defeats too upsetting, and your abilities to endure and persevere will not get you to the end of your messy situations."

Ezekiel's vision explained

At church we're starting a Bible study in the book of Ezekiel. We discussed chapter 1 last night, where Ezekiel describes his vision of the four beings with four faces, and God seated upon the throne above them. Before we started, I asked our pastor if he was going to explain what the four faces (man, lion, ox, and eagle) meant. He laughed, but in the end he did. He showed how so often in chapter 1 Ezekiel used the phrases "looked like," "something like," or "the appearance like." He said this showed how Ezekiel was seeing something he didn't have words to describe really. He had to make analogies and comparisons. And ultimately, that is the real explanation -- when Ezekiel saw the glory of the presence of God, it was literally indescribable. He had to use a variety of analogies and comparisons to try to capture it. "It was kind of like this, and at the same time like this." We don't understand, but that is the point. The fullness of God is something we cannot understand, at least not in this life.

Another thing that impressed me was the complexity of the vision. Most of the description has to do with the four beings, which I assume are archangels. God is the one seated on the throne, the brilliant figure like glowing metal or like light. Why did Ezekiel spend more time describing the archangels than God? Another aspect of asserting the reality of God's presence is indescribable, I'm sure. But also, it shows that God's vision or presence is more complicated than we often give credit for. The four archangels are there, not because God needs their help to move his throne around, but because he graciously has given them a role to play in participating with and enjoying his glory. The glory of the presence of God is not God in splendid isolation because no one else can compare with Him, but God surrounded by a worshipping community. God the One and Only, yes. But God the One and Only who brings His creation into community and graciously gives them roles in celebrating who He is.

Ezekiel Chapter 1

Permanent vs momentary grace

The other day I was reminded of Jeremiah 2:13:
“My people have committed two sins:

I think much of the dynamic of the spiritual life is we long for and seek permanent good conditions; a cistern so full of water that we can never drain it dry. But God wants to train us to trust him for momentary good conditions, to see that he is a spring that never runs dry. We often ask God to give us a whole and full cistern, but he wants us to learn he is the ever faithful spring, the constant giver of ever new moments of grace.