Promises and circumstances in conflict

Don't we need to pay close attention both to God's promises and to our circumstances? God gave us the promises so we can cling to them in faith. He allowed our circumstances so that we might learn to cling to the promises.

Tension between promises and circumstances runs throughout Scripture. God promised Abraham that he'd be the father of a great nation. Yet he had a long wait until Isaac was born. David was anointed as king by Samuel, but he had many years of running from Saul. Habakkuk cried out to God because the kingdom was corrupt, and God's response was to bring on the Babylonians.

But our tendency is to do away with the tension by ignoring or disbelieving the promises or our circumstances.

We may disbelieve the promises. If the promises were really true, I wouldn't be in the mess I'm in. Therefore the promises can't be true.

We may ignore our circumstances. Maybe if I ignore the mess, it will go away? Maybe I'm supposed to pretend everything is OK?  Or maybe there is some secret to making the promises really work -- a special prayer, a different church, a new doctrine, something to turn on the magic wonder working power so all major problems go away and I won't be bugged by them.

But suppose God wants us to understand he is with us in precisely these circumstances he's given us? Yes they are messy and painful, and a superficial look at the promises suggests they shouldn't have happened. But look at the people of faith in Scripture, did they not have to wait many years, and even then not see the promises fully fulfilled?

How should we pray?

Our prayer meetings usually become lists of people in crisis. People who have lost loved ones, people in the hospital near death, or other crises. I was wondering how this fits with how Jesus told us to pray. What does he tell us to pray for? "Father, give us what we need today. Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who've sinned against us." 

I'm wondering, when I go to prayer meeting and say "Let's remember Joe in the hospital," and don't mention that I'm feeling grumpy about stuff at work; or don't admit I focus on entertaining myself much more than I do on being like Jesus in my world, am I missing the point? Am I thinking we only need God in the crises, not in the everyday messes? That I'm managing my life OK, it's only Joe that needs help?

Or am I thinking that God has only a limited ability or desire to answer prayers, and Joe's cancer is a higher priority than my messes? Scripture does tell us to bear one another's burdens, so putting Joe's burden ahead of mine is probably a good thing. But if I never mention my burden, maybe that isn't a good thing. Because prayer is not a lottery with only a few winners.

Compassion for others worse off than ourselves is a good thing. But the airline safety talk always says to put your own oxygen mask on before helping someone else. If you pass out trying to help someone else you haven't helped them. Is prayer like that? If we don't bring our own needs and life before God, we can't really help others? I think that could be the case. I think we need a balance of praying for ourselves and praying for others.

Pleading for the world

Abraham pleaded for Sodom, "Far be it from you to kill the righteous with the wicked. Will not the judge of all the earth do right?"

I think, in light of Jesus, one can cry "Shall not the Savior of the world show mercy?"

God, rescue the victims from this murderous world. Deliver the murderers from their desire to murder, from their twisted perception that murder is necessary and good.

Truth like a river

I'm thinking of the old song "I've got a river of life flowing out of me. Makes the lame to walk and the blind to see. Opens prison doors sets the captives free." That is a pretty radical statement. It comes out of Scripture: the river of life flowing out is from John 7:38, and the healings and opening prison doors comes from Isaiah 61 .

But when I sing that song, it doesn't feel radical. Those words have become too familiar. The situations where I remember singing it were lighthearted in tone, a fun tune without thinking about the words. Like one might sing "I've been working on the railroad." You know you don't work on the railroad, you have no ambition to work on the railroad and no guilt for not wanting to work on the railroad, and perhaps don't even know anyone named Dinah, but the song is a fun song to sing.

I remember years ago a worship leader making the surprising statement that we shouldn't sing Christian songs if we just wanted to have fun singing and be a bit silly. We should sing songs like "I've been working on the railroad." When we sing songs about God, it should be because we really mean them. Now I might push back on that statement some today, because I think our relationships with God should involve all our lives, even the lighthearted silly moments (which are not sinful to have). But I think there is a danger in enjoying Christian songs or sayings because they're familiar, without thinking about what they mean.

John 7:38 and Isaiah 61:2 reveal a surprising, startling, awesome truth. Out of me, in me, comes the Spirit of God, who does bring healing and liberty. I'm thinking of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's riveting line: "Bless you prison for being in my life." I'm thinking of healings and resurrections, some which come here and now, some of which we wait for, and our here and now is transformed by the faith to wait, if we accept it.

The Bible in 40 days

In early Lent,  I read about a challenge to read through the entire Bible in the 40 days of Lent. The notion intrigued me, so I took it on. My Bible has 1220 pages of text,  so that meant just over 30 pages a day.

It often felt like I was going too fast. I read over many familiar and beloved passages without even noticing them. I may not do this again.  But I did notice a few things doing this:

1) It reinforced the conclusion I'd come to that waiting is part of God's promises. Thinking about the centuries between Abraham and Moses, then between Moses and David, then from David and Solomon to the exile, then to the time of Christ, seems to suggest a pattern. God proceeds slowly to work out his plan. Wondering why the plan takes so long is a common concern. It certainly isn't that God needs to rest between  major events, or needs a long time to prepare all the details. And it doesn't seem like progress is linear either. When "now is the time," God can act quite quickly. But I think, as unpopular as the idea is in our American culture, the default experience of faith is waiting -- knowing God has acted in the past, knowing he will act sometime in the future.

2) I got a new respect for the Books of Chronicles. I had an attitude in my heart that these two books were less complete and more biased than Samuel/Kings. One sign of bias I felt; Chronicles omits the whole scandal of David and Bathsheba (except for one hint in 1 Ch 20:1). But as I skimmed through Chronicles, I did notice the story of David's census bringing a plague on the people (1 Chr 21). That too was a scandal, David's disobedience bringing judgment on the nation, perhaps a greater scandal. And Samuel/Kings doesn't cover it.  So these two accounts of David's life complement each other.

3) How short the New Testament is. I've known for years that the New Testament isn't really half of the Bible, much less than half. But going by the page count, it isn't even a quarter. (1220-950 = 270 pages, one  quarter of 1220 pages is 305).

4) That the New Testament brings a major shift in emphasis. The Old Testament is predominately about the nation of Israel, about the patriarchs, then Moses, then the judges, kings and prophets. God does deal with individuals, but the central thrust is about the nation. Then in the Gospels, the focus is on Jesus reaching out to individuals, and forming disciples to reach out to other individuals. The individuals are supposed to form a community, so I wouldn't say it is individualistic. But I think there is a shift of emphasis.

5) There are many more miracles in the Gospels than there are in any part of the Old Testament.

One surprising difficulty. I had expected that 31 or 32 pages of Leviticus or Deuteronomy would feel like tough slogging. But the hardest book to go through 31 pages at a sitting was Proverbs.

Margaret Feinberg, who apparently launched the challenge, talks about what she learned here.