Light to Live By

"The unfolding of your words gives light ..." (Psalm 119:130a)

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Concluding Punctuation’s Point

“I will question you …” (Job 38:3a; 40:7; 42:4)

“Jesus said to them, ‘I will ask you one question …'” (Mark 11:29)

Periods are boundary markers. They limit, mark off, define. Periods are specks, scattered indiscriminately and profusely across the landscape of our conversations to guide us on our way. Periods are plentiful, profuse, prolific–with a gestation of mere seconds before one spawns a fresh litter of statements, assertions and observations. Periods are too commonplace to arrest anyone’s attention. Periods can become self-centered–too quick to assert what one thinks he knows. Periods at one and the same time both define and bore.

Explanation points on the other hand are tall, elegant and demanding. Exclamation points are brash, bold and boisterous.  They are found far less frequently than the common period, but in this way they serve their purpose–to arouse interest, to demand attention, to scream “Here! Look at me!” Yet the exclamation point’s power diminishes with its proliferation. Not everything can be urgent and ultimate. Not everything can be equally worthy of immediate attention.

Then there is the question mark–that lonely, bent figure, humbled under the weight of its query. What is this? Is a question mark a period risen up in protest in the face of assertions and declarations shouted loudly and presumed upon universally? Or is it an exclamation point that has gone off prematurely and now wilted under the weight of what was once giddy excitement and bravado? Or is the question mark a humble, bowing invitation to leave off our boastful assertions and our loud exclamations and to enter into real communication, genuine relationship?

The period is too nondescript to demand attention. The exclamation point is too gaudy for long term serious consideration. The question mark, however, is where real conversation begins. The question mark is the place where communication is birthed.

Preaching Reality

When George Whitfield was asked for the reason behind his impassioned preaching he gave this reply.

“I’ll tell you a story. The Archbishop of Canterbury in the year 1675 was acquainted with Mr. Butterton the [actor]. One day the Archbishop . . . said to Butterton . . . ‘pray inform me Mr. Butterton, what is the reason you actors on stage can affect your congregations with speaking of things imaginary, as if they were real, while we in church speak of things real, which our congregations only receive as if they were imaginary?’ ‘Why my Lord,’ says Butterton, ‘the reason is very plain. We actors on stage speak of things imaginary, as if they were real and you in the pulpit speak of things real as if they were imaginary.’”

“Therefore,” added Whitefield, ‘I will bawl [cry aloud], I will not be a velvet-mouthed preacher.” (Harry S. Stout, The Divine Dramatist: George Whitfield and the Rise of Modern Evangelicalism, 239–240)

Those Inner Conversations

More than once Moses warned the new generation poised to enter the Promised Land: “Do not say in your heart …” (Deuteronomy 9:4a).

God is concerned over the self-talk of His people. It is what we “say in [our] heart” that is of consequence.

It is worth pointing out the obvious—God knows we talk to ourselves! These inner conversations are of constant occurrence. In fact, they can’t be turned off, only redirected. And that only by the grace of God. We see this warning repeatedly throughout the Old Testament. There are a number of ways to go wrong in talking to yourself.

1) The danger of self-congratulation.Do not say in your heart, after the LORD your God has thrust them out before you, ‘It is because of my righteousness that the LORD has brought me in to possess this land,’ whereas it is because of the wickedness of these nations that the LORD is driving them out before you.” (Deuteronomy 9:4; cf. 8:17)

The Israelites faced a danger from the seductions of the peoples of the land. Of this God constantly warned them (see, for example, the disaster at Peor, Numb. 25:1-9). But the ideas of others, as dangerous as they were, were not the only or even primary danger facing the Israelites. It was the conversations going on within their own hearts that made them especially vulnerable.

It is when we begin talking to ourselves about ourselves and our circumstances that we are in the most danger of going astray.

We all have this kind of self-talk going on within our hearts all the time. We see and experience and try to understand—but are prone to interpret and talk to ourselves in self-affirming ways (“because of my righteousness”). This stream of thought forms a jet stream that powerfully circles planet self, threatening to pull everything else into its flow.

What we fail to see is that God sometimes blesses one (in this case, Israel) because he is disciplining another (here, the Canaanites). We must talk and walk humbly. The reasons “why” our lives are as they are is much bigger than our performance before God.

2) We may err in our inner conversations by self-exaltation. We may not elevate others or our accomplishments over God, but we may elevate our very selves: “Now therefore hear this, you lover of pleasures, who sit securely, who say in your heart, ‘I am, and there is no one besides me; I shall not sit as a widow or know the loss of children’ (Isaiah 47:8). “I am” – that name has already been taken (Exodus 3:14); its Owner says He’s not sharing (Isaiah 42:8).

Self-exaltation was literally the problem of the Edomites. They dwelt in the physically lofty heights of a God-given land. They thought their elevated position made them untouchable. Thus they were warned: “The pride of your heart has deceived you, you who live in the clefts of the rock, in your lofty dwelling, who say in your heart, ‘Who will bring me down to the ground?’” (Obadiah 1:3).

God did with the Edomites what he does with all who exalt themselves within their own hearts: “he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts” (Luke 1:51).

3) We go astray when we engage in self-dependence. The self-talk can also lead us stray in the opposite direction: “If you say in your heart, ‘These nations are greater than I. How can I dispossess them?’” (Deuteronomy 7:17). Instead of elevating ourselves and denigrating others, we may overly exalt them in our eyes—making them even bigger than God. And with God out of the picture all we have left to depend upon is ourselves. That leads to fear, paralysis and despair.

4) We err when we talk ourselves into self-justification. The people of Jeremiah’s day denied their hardships arose from their responsibility: “And if you say in your heart, ‘Why have these things come upon me?’ it is for the greatness of your iniquity that your skirts are lifted up and you suffer violence” (Jeremiah 13:22). Ultimately, denial of responsibility is a denial of hope.

But not all self-talk is bad-talk. The Bible depicts the power of telling yourself the truth.

Take, for example, David as he prays Psalm 62. He begins his prayer so positively and confidently: “For God alone my soul waits in silence; from him comes my salvation” (v.1).

But, as so often is the case, things get difficult. Our confidence wanes. Our faith wavers. Our prayers change. By the middle of the psalm David is still praying. In fact he is still on the same theme with which he opened, but he has transitioned from talking to God, to coaching himself: “For God alone, O my soul, wait in silence, for my hope is from him” (v.5).

This telling-yourself-the-truth kind of self-talk is the application of faith to a wavering, struggling heart. We talk to ourselves this way because deep down we believe Jesus was right: “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31b-32a).

We talk to ourselves as a hold out for Jesus’ rescue, Jesus’ deliverance, Jesus’ promised freedom.

When we keep this up God’s blessings of freedom become increasingly real in our lives. Perhaps we even come to the place, as Isaiah predicted the people of Israel would, where we have to start talking to ourselves about the compounding, stockpiling grace He is pouring into our lives: “The children of your bereavement will yet say in your ears: ‘The place is too narrow for me; make room for me to dwell in.’ Then you will say in your heart: ‘Who has borne me these? I was bereaved and barren, exiled and put away, but who has brought up these? Behold, I was left alone; from where have these come?’” (Isaiah 49:20).

Don’t stop talking to yourself. Just start telling yourself the truth. And then keep it up. Those with ears to hear might hear the sound of heaven’s applause. Those with eyes to see might detect life, freedom and grace standing just off in the distance, rising with a smile on their faces as the conversation begins.

Strength and Courage

Four times in Joshua chapter one Joshua is told, “Be strong and courageous” (1:6, 7, 9, 18). This follows up on his being told this twice previously (Deut. 31:7, 23). Joshua was given this command directly by God Himself (Deut. 31:23; Josh. 1:6, 7), by Moses (Deut. 31:7), and by the people he was to lead (Josh. 1:18). Not only was the leader, Joshua, given this command, the people themselves were as well (Deut. 31:6). Both leader and people are commanded by God to “Be strong and courageous.” This command would continue to be echoed down through his leadership of these people (Josh. 10:25) and at critical times in the life of the nation after them (1 Chron. 22:13; 28:20; 2 Chron. 32:7).

This same command comes down us today and with the same weight of divine demand behind it. What does it mean for us to “Be strong and courageous”?

On the face of it the command “Be strong” is not only not encouraging, but almost a mocking, taunting, demeaning imperative. What is required of us is more than is within us. The challenges that stand before us are bigger than what we can gather up from within ourselves. In the face of challenges so daunting and a personal condition so depraved, the command to “Be strong” is not only futile, but mean-spirited … unless, of course the command is accompanied by a promise. And in this case, that is exactly what we have. Accompanying this command is the thrice-given promise of God’s abiding presence (Joshua 1:5, 9, 17).

Thus, to live out the command to “Be strong” is to live out of an alien power. We must come into the experience of something more than what we can reach down and do with additional effort.

In New Testament terms this means living in the fullness of the Holy Spirit’s personal presence and power. We are not left the option of assessing our options and choosing our way based upon what is within us or what we are able to do by the power of redoubled efforts. We are to “Be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might” (Eph. 6:10). If we rely upon our own ingenuity, our own wisdom, our own strength, we will achieve only what is humanly possible. But if we truly come into a fresh experience of the infilling of God’s Spirit, there won’t be enough time to tell the stories of what He will do through us.

Similarly, to be commanded “Be … courageous” is, without divine enablement, a mocking of our naturally fearful state. By itself it amounts to little more than whistling in the dark. But with the promise of His presence and the provision of His Holy Spirit, being courageous is simply living out an alien purpose. No longer are we able to make our choices out of fear, comfort or passivity. Timidity, discomfort and a shrinking spirit must give way—not to something from within ourselves, not from some dredged up daring, but from the knowledge that we have been given a divine task and resourced with divine presence and power … and so we simply step forward, confronting fear, comfort, passivity, timidity and that shrinking spirit and simply do what God calls us to do.

We are “strong and courageous” as we intentionally view our lives (and the circumstances and people and relationship that fill them) as under a purpose that is not dredged up from within us, but which is laid down upon us from above … and when we choose to live for that purpose (rather than our own desires/wishes/whims) by the strength of God’s indwelling presence within us.

So hear it from God. Hear it from me. Hear it from one another. Hear it again and again and again, until it becomes the drumbeat by which you march through life: “Be strong and courageous”!

God of Grace. God of Promises.

Here is 2 Peter 1:3-4: “His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire.” (ESV)

Here is my paraphrase of the same: “Our Savior of infinite, divine power has graced us with everything with regard to possessing and living out eternal life even now in this present world. This grace has come and continues to flow to us through the channel of a growing, deeply personal and experiential knowledge of our Father, who issued His call to relationship with Himself by the display of His most magnificent glory in this salvation in Christ. It was in the exercise of this most magnificent glory in Christ that our Father graced us with promises of value beyond compare, so that as we take them up and act upon them in faith we might become partners with Him in the display of this glory in this world and that we might escape the process of dissolution that is at work in the world through the strong desires that operate in everyone.”

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