The Dark Night of the Soul

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I’ve heard various people state that most Christians, especially maturing Christians, will experience a time of trouble unlike any other, often called the “dark night of the soul.” Yes it will involve a form of suffering, which typically lasts for an extended period of time. But to understand the traditional view of the “dark night of the soul” as famously rendered by St. John of the Cross in the 16th Century, one crucial ingredient is missing.

What makes the dark night of the soul so horrific? It’s not only the suffering or the trials you go through, but during those struggles, you experience the silence of God. Even though you cry out to God, plead for a response during one of the toughest struggles of your life, it’s as if God’s not there.

Silence.

I think all of us would agree with Martin Luther, that German Protestant Reformer who boldly stood before the political and religious rulers to declare he would stand only on the Word of God, who also experienced a dark night of the soul and in the midst of it cried out, “Bless us, Lord, even curse us! But don’t remain silent!”

So what should you do if or when you are in the midst of that “dark night”? Here are a few encouragements to ponder:

  • You are not alone because as mentioned above, this has happened to many others. In fact, some great people of faith have experienced this! Marvel at the incredible people of faith on this list: the great prophets Elijah and Jeremiah, the Apostle Paul, and even Jesus as we see during his prayer at Gethsemane, and modern Christians such as Martin Luther and even Mother Teresa.
  • The silence of God does not mean the absence of God. Numerous theologians have stated this point, and it’s crucial to bear in mind. Our faith is not based on hearing God, but trusting in his Word daily.
  • And lastly, during this agonizing time, obedience is more important than ever! We have a saying at our church: “You don’t have to completely understand to completely obey.” All of the above people would testify to the truth of this statement, but an illustration may be even better. C.S. Lewis in his classic book The Screwtape Letters has the mentor demon Wormwood advising his underling about such a situation:

Be not deceived, Wormwood, our cause is never more in jeopardy than when a human, no longer desiring but still intending to do our Enemy’s will, looks round upon a universe in which every trace of him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.

If or when you find yourself in such a time, may your obedience lead and sustain you during your dark night of the soul, and then the words of 2 Corinthians 5:7 will become more true than ever – “For we walk by faith, not by sight (or sound)”.

RA

The Secret Things of God

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A few weeks ago I started teaching a summer session of my Old Testament class. One of my personal resolutions during that class is to read as much of the Old Testament to them as possible, and not just tell them about the Old Testament. This past weekend, as we were completing our study of the Torah, or the first five books of the Old Testament, I read Deuteronomy 29:29 (here it is in both the New American Standard and the Holman Christian Standard Bible):

 “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our sons forever, that we may observe all the words of this law.” (NASB)

 “The hidden things belong to the Lord our God, but the revealed things belong to us and our children forever, so that we may follow all the words of this law.” (HCSB)

I love this verse, but also marvel at it for a variety of reasons. For instance, it declares:

  • We serve an infinite, awesome God whom we approach with our limited, finite minds.
  • We will never fully understand God or all of his ways.
  • We are expected to understand and obey what has been “revealed”.

Take a moment to dwell on those statements! I don’t know about you, but I’ve stumbled over these truths and failed to comprehend them too many times to mention. For starters, I want to know the “secret things”! At times, if I’m being honest, my questions for God (“Why this? Why that?”) are more numerous than my praises!

And not only that, but I’ve also noticed another curious fact about those “secret things.” For the longest time, I used to think that as I drew closer to God and meditated on his word more and more, I expected the “secret things” of God to decrease in size, but I’ve since learned collectively it actually enlarges! Why?

But as I slow down and truly reflect on all that God has revealed to me, I’m humbled and incredibly embarrassed by what I still don’t understand and fail to obey consistently. As an example, I know 1 Corinthians 13:4-8 by heart (the famous “Love Chapter”), but I’m still not always “patient” with my loved ones, or as “kind” to them as I should be, and so on as the rest of vv.4-8 unfolds.

All of this reminds me of a comment I came across by pastor and author Pete Wilson. In his book What Keeps You Up At Night? How to Find Peace While Chasing Your Dreams, he wisely says:

“We think the more spiritually mature we are the more clarity we should have. The fact is, the more spiritually mature we are the less clarity we need.”    

 Why? Because as Deuteronomy 29:29 helps us to understand, the more mature we become and closer we draw to God, we discover how great and magnificent he truly is, and the tremendous task before us of being accountable simply for all he has already revealed! That should consume us, and not the “secret things”, for while that may enlarge as we truly comprehend how great and profound God is, so should our love and trust for God, as we marvel at how much he has already revealed and the manner in which he has loved us!

And that’s what people of faith should be occupied with.

RA

A Brief Analysis of Some Myths about Temptation from James 1:13-15

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13 Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted by evil, and he himself tempts no one. 14 But each one is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desires. 15 Then when desire conceives, it gives birth to sin, and when sin is full grown, it gives birth to death. (NET)

 Here are some myths I’ve heard people say about temptation and sin in general:

  • “The Devil made me do it!”
  • “Why is God tempting me so much?”
  • “I can’t control myself! I am what I am.”
  • “It can’t be wrong because it feels so good!”

In short, all of these are false statements and enormously detrimental to your spiritual life!

In contrast, James has done a remarkable job explaining how God does “test” us with trials, trying times and even persecution, so that we can develop perseverance, or as I earlier called it “a willingness to cling to God no matter what” faith (James 1:1-12). In the process, we become “perfect” and “complete”, and consequently lacking nothing good whatsoever!

Then, using the same Greek word as he did for “test”, James begins 1:13 declaring when (not “if”) we are “tempted” from within by our desires, we should be aware of these facts, and not believe the above popular myths. Let’s examine them briefly against what Scripture says.

  • “The Devil made me do it!”
  • “Why is God tempting me so much?”

If I may, let me dispense with this first and foremost: Temptation is because of me, not God! (V. 13)

James helps us to see that obviously we don’t understand the nature of temptation when we say things like, “The Devil made me do it” or “Why is God tempting me so much?”.

As James expressed earlier in 1:3-7, God certainly does and will “test” us for the reasons previously stated. But now, in v. 13ff, James unequivocally proclaims that God does not “tempt” us or seek to “lure” us and “entice” us with evil! To make such a statement is ludicrous for one simple reason: if we as Christians have the Holy Spirit dwelling inside of us, why would God seek to tempt us with evil? As v. 13 literally says, God is “untemptable”! How could he tempt himself, and even more, why would he “lure” and “entice” his children with evil?

If we struggle with temptation, and we all do in one way or another, we need to place the blame somewhere else – not on God!

  • “I can’t control myself! I am what I am.”

So where do my temptations originate? Look in the mirror.

Our temptations come from our own desires that literally seek immediate gratification but in ungodly ways. Ironically, what makes the whole process even more exacting is that we live in a world that incessantly provokes those desires, and incites us to instantaneously fulfill them in a host of unsavory ways.

Now, many people have thought since desires can seem out of control and can bring harm, it’s best to ignore them, or suppress them. In fact, Buddhists believe, generally speaking, that desires must be extinguished and rid from the body because it is the source of all our problems. The mistake with this view is that we were made to desire: to love and be loved, to serve, to hunger, to worship, and a variety of other good desires. Since we were created to desire, and our creation was deemed “very good” (Gen. 1:31), something else must be the problem.

Consequently our challenge is not to ignore or extinguish our desires, but to learn to express them in godly ways, by the power of the Holy Spirit (see Gal. 5:16).

  • “It can’t be wrong because it feels so good!”

Unfortunately, it can be wrong and extremely detrimental to our health – both physically and spiritually. As James states in v. 15: “Then when desire conceives, it gives birth to sin, and when sin is full grown, it gives birth to death.”

As illogical as it is to blame God for the temptations that come from our own desires, notice the logic of what James says, using the language of reproduction, regarding inappropriately expressed desires: once conceived, they are the “mother” of sin, and the “grandmother” of death!

While it can’t be denied that sin brings momentary pleasure, it must be affirmed that sin will also bring momentous consequences, based on the act committed. This is why it’s so important that a believer lives not based solely on feelings but faith. And faith dictates that one way we attack temptation is not by blaming, but recognizing the role desire plays in temptation, and seeking to express them in godly ways.

Finally, may we never forget that we are not alone as we face temptations because God is always with us, ready to guide and strengthen us. And C. S. Lewis aptly, but also stunningly, summarizes the situation:

“It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.” 

Let’s be who we were created to be: desirous people yearning for our Creator and the wisdom to express our desires in the proper way.

RA

Bragging and Lessons on Life and Sin, Part 2

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Bragging and Lessons on Life and Sin (Pt. 2)

As we conclude this brief study in James 4, let’s recap what James has previous said (and if you missed my former post, click here). First, please read the passage again:

13 Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” 14 Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. 15 Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.” 16 As it is, you boast in your arrogant schemes. All such boasting is evil. 17 If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them. (NIV)

As he wraps this chapter up, James is speaking to Christian businessmen who have compartmentalized their faith. In other words they were presumptuously making plans for tomorrow, and even a year in advance, in order to have profitable businesses, without any regard for God whatsoever, and in the midst of it all, boasting about their successes. A shameful yet accurate summary of this can be seen in v. 16: “but now you boast in your arrogances . . .” This piercing indictment demonstrates these Christian men were glorying in their own greatness, and James appropriately concludes in v. 16 that all such boasting is evil.

Consequently, after James first reminds the people that Jesus is Lord – over all (see previous blog), he then proceeds to remind them of two more indispensable truths.

Second, in the grand scheme of things, life is short and of little consequence! (V. 14)

 In many ways, in vv. 13-14, James could be restating Proverbs 27:1 – “Do not boast about tomorrow, because you do not know what a day may bring.” (NIV). But James goes further with v. 14. He reminds the businessmen that life, especially a life that fails to acknowledge God, is fleeting, and ultimately inconsequential.

In v. 14, James declares, “You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.” In the original language this rare word for “mist” can also mean “vapor” or “smoke”, therefore the image should be of something that is fleeting and yes, as a whole, of no consequence: here for one moment, and gone the next.

Yet observe that James isn’t reprimanding the people, but simply reminding them of a fact they were failing to heed: although they were bragging about all there great achievements, in reality, all their trifling successes were nothing compared to the actions of an eternal God on a mission to save humanity for eternity!

And, as a corollary, what makes life “consequential”? It’s true that running a profitable business can be good, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with planning and devoting time to that, but better as a Christian businessman is not to be presumptuous and arrogant but to involve Jesus in your plans and business, and give all glory to him for the successes.

Furthermore, as to what is truly consequential, Jesus taught to seek the things of his kingdom and his righteousness, or in the context of this passage – the good (see Matthew 6:33). While life may be fleeting, it is in pursuing these two noble goals, that it will be of substantial consequence as eternity is changed.

Third, sin is both the wrong you do, and the good you don’t do! (V. 17)

This might be one of the most ignored verses in all of Scripture. To begin, read this enigmatic verse one more time:

“ If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them.”

What a bold conclusion to James’ discussion! In essence he reiterates, “Now that you know, do it!” But let’s further investigate this telling verse. There are three points to discern in this verse:

  • If you know (the truth, or in this context the good to do) then go and do it!

This is obvious when you see this sentence in the original language because the first word is “to the one knowing”. In short, James asserts once you know something, then you should go and do it!

  • We are meant to do good acts and/or works!

I love how Paul expresses this later in Ephesians 2:10:

“For we are His creation, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared ahead of time so that we should walk in them.” (HCSB)

Notice what this verse, as well as James 4:17, does not say: “For you were created to not do this, not do that, not say this, not say that . . .”

Often, it seems Christians think Christianity is nothing but “don’t do this” and “don’t do that.” As Paul and James remind us, true Christianity is unequivocally concerned with being free to do the good we were created to do! Anything less is not Christianity but legalism!

  • If you fail to do the good you know, it’s sin

Behold the logic: once you know, you’re expected to go and do the good you know. If you don’t, then you’re held accountable, and since you failed to do the good you know, logic dictates that it is sin.

Another way to express this is in The Book of Common Prayers. It beautifully summarizes this thought:

“Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against thee in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.”

As stated in the previous point, we have to stop thinking that sin is only the wrong we do; it’s also the good we fail to do!

What a way to close Chapter four! If I may, let me leave you with two thoughts to pray about and to dwell on as you go through your day:

  • Do I truly understand Christianity has liberated me to do good (works), rather than hindering me with a list of things I can’t do?
  • Is there a good I know I need to do today?

To God be the glory!

RA

What Does It Mean to be “Fit” to Follow?

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Jesus never called anyone to be a “Christian”. He called people to be a “disciple”.

Why? A disciple is a “learner,” and to learn from Jesus you must be with him, and follow him as you obey him.

And what did that call to follow him look like? What were the expectations when Jesus called a person to “Follow me”?

Let’s read Luke 9:57-62 to find our answer:

57 As they were going along the road, someone said to Him, “I will follow You wherever You go.” 58 And Jesus said to him, “The foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head.” 59 And He said to another, “Follow Me.” But he said, “Lord, permit me first to go and bury my father.” 60 But He said to him, “Allow the dead to bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim everywhere the kingdom of God.” 61 Another also said, “I will follow You, Lord; but first permit me to say good-bye to those at home.” 62 But Jesus said to him, “No one, after putting his hand to the plow and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.” (NASB)

Upon initially reading this passage, many typically respond with a comment such as, “Man, Jesus is harsh!” But that response alone reveals the influence of culture and letting others tell us about Jesus and what it means to follow him, instead of letting the Bible and the life and teachings of Jesus himself influence and define that call.

Honestly, Jesus isn’t being harsh, but truthful. Instead of deceiving us, or playing on our emotions, as some do today, Jesus is describing what it takes to be an effective follower of his.

And what does he say?

First, based on verses 57-58, a disciple realizes the call of Jesus is not a call to comfort but a call to sacrifice!

Why?

Animals such as foxes and birds naturally have a place to rest, which brings a measure of security and protection.

A disciple of Jesus is not promised this.

Why?

It’s not that you can’t have comforts, or even nice things, but you’re not here for those nice things! The comforts of life can distract us and consume an exorbitant amount of our time as we seek to gain more and more of them.

A disciple of Jesus has another purpose for being here.

Second, based on verses 59-60, a disciple realizes the call of Jesus is not a call to cultural obligations and religious rules, but a call to proclaim the Good News of Jesus!

In Judaism, a son had a crucial responsibility to fulfill his obligations when his father passed away. It was such a sacred obligation that the son was exempt from all other responsibilities to the Torah (the Law) until that was complete.

Is Jesus saying those responsibilities don’t exist anymore? No. All Jesus is stating is as crucial as that task is, the son now has a more pressing responsibility: “[G]o and proclaim everywhere the kingdom of God.”

In other words, as important as a funeral was with celebrating and explaining the significance of the life of the deceased, now a disciple is to go about celebrating and explaining (that’s what “proclaim” means) to all who will listen what the reign of Jesus is like.

Consequently, this potential disciple discovered you can’t let cultural dictates or even religious rules supersede the call of God.

Lastly, based on verses 61-62, a disciple realizes the call of Jesus is not a call to make Jesus a priority, but a call to make Jesus the priority of your life!

Undoubtedly, relationships are an important part of life, if not the most important part. But again, Jesus has something to teach us about relationships.

Jesus declares it’s not that we can’t have relationships and fulfill our responsibilities, but in comparison to our relationship with Jesus, all other relationships are subordinate, or to be blunt, it’s as if they don’t exist!

And to close, Jesus gives a beautiful picture of what’s he’s asking of each disciple, using imagery everyone would have been familiar with back then – a farmer plowing his land. Israel could be a rocky land, and to plow a field, it took one hand on the plow, one hand guiding the animal, and continuously looking forward to get those lines straight.

Total dedication, not looking back but forward, and guided by one Master is the picture.

Only that kind of person is “fit” or “well-placed”, and truly “useable” in the kingdom of God.

We don’t know what happened to these three individuals, but it’s unlikely that they followed Jesus. The first person probably was unwilling to renounce the comforts and securities of this life. The second and third individuals came to Jesus with a “but first” request. After Jesus’ discussion, we know a “but first” request is never “fit” for kingdom life.

What’s your response?

Here’s what I believe the challenge is: don’t just be a Christian who is satisfied with their ticket to heaven and attending church as a spectator sport, but be a disciple: one who is willing to go on an adventure with our Lord, putting nothing before Him.

Let’s stop trying to redefine the nature of the call, and just start obeying.

That’s what a disciple does.

RA

The Almighty God: A Brief Study of Ephesians 3:20-21

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Now to him who by the power that is working within us is able to do far beyond all that we ask or think, to him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.” (NET)

I love this passage of Scripture, but it also disturbs me, or maybe I should say greatly concerns me.

Here’s why.

Paul has just concluded his prayer to God for the Ephesians, asking specifically for a variety of things (as recorded in Ephesians 3:14-19, which is a bountiful study within itself!), and then he closes that prayer with this “hymn of praise” or as it’s commonly called a doxology.

This particular doxology is essentially a celebration that God is a God of power – Almighty! Here are some or its rugged truths to heed:

  • In verse 20 alone, Paul uses three terms to describe God’s power: He is “able” or maybe better to say “powerful” to do according to the “power”, which is “working” (and means “presently exerting energy”) in us now!
  • This powerful God can do “far beyond “ or a better translation is “exceedingly in excess” of what we could ever “ask or think of”. That word “far beyond” is a word created by Paul to be a “super-superlative” attempting to describe all that God is capable of doing. Another intriguing translation of this word and phrase is by the NASB: “far more abundantly beyond what we could ask or imagine.”
  • God chooses to accomplish these immeasurable feats “according to the power presently working in us”.
  • Since God blesses us in this incredible manner, all the glory belongs to Him.

What is the proper response to such a description of our God? Obviously with praise and adoration for a God who is so described, but for me, it also raises troubling and piercing questions as I wrestle to understand and apply these truths to my life.

According to this passage:

  • Powerlessness should never be a trait of a Christian. Never!
  • We do not ask or dream big enough for God – He desires and is able to do so much more!
  • The power of God is experienced in proportion to the power already at work in us! Notice this is the only limitation on God’s power, other than what is accomplished and done must be according to His will!
  • Have we ever been guilty of robbing God of His due glory?

Do you see what I mean? I once heard a sermon on this passage, and the messenger said this: “This passage describes the potential of every Christian.”

I haven’t come close to achieving my potential yet. Have you?

As I read and study this passage, I confess:

  • There are a multitude of times I feel powerless.
  • I rarely ask God for great things anymore, oftentimes because I’m mired in the muck of today’s challenges, but also because at times I get frustrated by the unanswered prayers from all the previous yesterdays.
  • I know God is working “in” me, but am I hindering him from the powerful work He really wants to do “in” me?
  • And lastly, I have taken credit for things I know only God could’ve done.

Consequently, this is truly a passage that brings a response of awe from me as I reflect on the greatness and power of our God, but now do you see why this passage also greatly concerns me?

Maybe, especially during this week – holy week – instead of wallowing in the past and being greatly concerned, it’s time to remain rooted in God’s love, be filled with His Spirit (see v. 14-19 for this and more!) and begin to live again knowing that:

  • He is able (powerfully able!);
  • Start asking for the impossible from an able God;
  • Live in a manner knowing truly the only limitation is God’s will!

And then maybe we could truly marvel as the power of God works through us.

And most of all, since all power is His, be ready to give all glory to Him.

Are you ready? I sure am. Amen!

RA

Counter Culture and the Gospel

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“Consequently, we must be careful across the church not to minimize the magnitude of what it means to follow Christ . . . The gospel is a call for everyone of us to die – to die to sin and to die to self – and to live with unshakable trust in Christ, choosing to follow his Word even when it brings us into clear confrontation with out culture.”

David Platt Counter Culture, p. 180

I recently read David Platt’s new book Counter Culture. Platt, former pastor of the mega church The Hills at Brook Hills in Birmingham, Alabama, and New York Times bestselling author of Radical: Taking Back Your Faith From The American Dream, is now the head of the International Mission Board for the Southern Baptist Convention. Counter Culture is an extraordinary book especially within the cultural milieu the church currently is in. His book is a passionate call to rouse a dormant church in the midst of a culture desperately in need of the gospel, urging for faithfulness to that call regardless of the costs.

In the book he discusses nearly all of the contentious issues of the day, not simply by quoting Scripture, but also showing the rationale and ultimately the compassion of the Christian position. At one point near the end, he references Galatians 2:20:

“I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (NIV)

In this passage, he reminds Christians that a past action (“I have been crucified with Christ) brings a new identity (“I now live by faith”). But with this new identity comes a call that at times the Church seems to minimize, or lessen in severity in a feeble attempt to attract more people to the gospel. That is where the opening quote comes from (please read it again!).

Succinctly, in my view, Platt reminds all Christians that:

  • To minimize the call of the gospel is to distort the gospel;
  • The call of Christ is unmistakable – come and die, so that you can truly live!
  • Obeying this call will bring us into confrontation with culture at large!

Allow me to close by raising a few questions based on these three points:

  • How have you seen the church attempt to minimize the call of Christ?
  • If the call of Christ is unmistakable, and it truly is “come and die”, have you?
  • Why are we so fearful of clashing with a culture that admittedly doesn’t know God?

I pray you’ll wrestle with these questions today as they challenge you to evaluate your call from God, and as soon as you can get Platt’s book, and feast on it!

RA