Tuesday, November 15, 2011

America's Religious Heritage #2

America’s Religious Heritage #2

I mentioned yesterday that America is losing awareness of its religious heritage. That is a shame, because the Christian faith has played an incredibly important part of our founding and our development as a people. Through every step of America’s progress, Christian faith has been right there, providing guidance and sustenance.

A second reason it is a shame is because our religious history is so interesting, even a bit humorous at times.

George Whitefield was a British actor who became a preacher. He followed the great British preacher, John Wesley, to Georgia where he started an orphanage. Whitefiled then returned to England to preach and raise money for the children back in Georgia. His sermons spoke of the “new birth,” emphasizing the necessity of a religious conversion. Other ministers and churches banned him, so he preached in open fields. (Liberty, Equality, Power, 106)

In 1739 Whitefield returned to America where thousands heard him preach. Preached in Philadephia, NYC, Chesapeake colonies, SC. Benjamin Franklin went out to hear him in Philadelphia, intrigued by what he heard about Whitefield’s booming voice. He was impressed, and estimated that Whitefield’s voice was so powerful an audience 30,000 could hear him. In 1740 he toured New England. Whitefield drew upon his acting skills, imitating Christ on the cross. He was so effective t hat when he shed tears for sinners, his audience wept with him. When he condemned sinners in the audience, they fell to the ground in agony.

Other preachers tried to follow Whitefield’s style. A South Carolina preacher named Hugh Bryan began preaching to his slaves. In 1742 he declared slavery a sin. He also proclaimed himself a modern Moses and tried to part the Savannah River to lead the slaves to freedom in Georgia. Unfortunately there was some kind of mishap and Moses, I mean, Hugh Bryan, almost drowned. He later confessed he had been deluded. Due to some over-the-top performances like this Evangelicalism was discredited in the south for years, but it took root among African Americans.

Another notable preacher of the 18 century was Gilbert Tennent. Gilbert practiced a “Holy Laughter,” apparently mimicking what he imagined to be the laughter of God at sinners stumbling into hell. In imitation of John the Baptist he grew his hair long and wore a long robe and sandals. He also declared himself the new John the Baptist.

James Davenport, a successor to Gilbert Tennet, would act out a wrestling scenario with Satan. Davenport would wrestle Satan back into hell. He started an outdoor school to train ministers, encouraged book burning, and once threw his pants into the fire, declaring them a mark of vanity. They may have been, but the perception of the times is they were also a mark of modesty, and the lack of them was considered immodesty. Davenport was arrested and declared insane. He later repented. (Liberty, Equality, Power, 107)

These are some of the sensational stories of our religious past, and maybe some we are not so proud of. That’s ok. I’m sure we all also have some eccentric aunts or uncles in our family tree, but we recognize they are still part of who and what we are.

Some of our early preachers may be like those aunts or uncles, but they still factor in our tree. Their attempts to preach the Gospel as they understood it at the time convicted thousands of listeners and kept America on the high moral road. We can be comfortable acknowledging them. And we can pray that God will continue to send us men and women who are equally committed to preaching the Gospel forcefully and energetically in our time.

Warren Baldwin

Friday, October 28, 2011

America's Religious Heritage #1

America’s Religious Heritage #1

Passing from the public consciousness is America’s religious heritage. That is a shame, for a couple of reasons. One, Americans should be aware that the Christian faith has played an incredibly important part of our founding and our development as a people. Through every step of America’s progress, Christian faith has been there, providing guidance and sustenance.

For example, the 1730s to1740s was a time of great revival in the Protestant world, on this side of the Atlantic and the other side as well. England, Scotland, New England, and the Mid-Atlantic colonies were all experiencing spiritual renewal.

One of the earliest revivals took place among the Dutch immigrants in New Jersey. Guiliam Bertholf, was a farmer, barrel maker, and a lay reader in his church. He felt the call and took up preaching, winning many followers to Christ. (Liberty, Equality, Power, 105)

William Tennent, Sr. was a Presbyterian minister. Seeing the need for more evangelists trained with a revival mind set, he established a school in Pennsylvania. It became known as the “Log College,” and it was dedicated to training evangelical ministers.

Evangelical in this context refers to “A style of Christian ministry that includes much zeal and enthusiasm. Evangelical ministers emphasized personal conversion and faith rather than religious ritual.” (Liberty, Equality, Power, 106). Tennent sent his trained ministers to other congregations, even other presbyteries. But, this angered the Synod, the governing body of the Presbyterian church. Most of their ministers emphasized orthodoxy, that is, correct practice and ritual, over personal conversion experience. Tennent emphasized just the opposite, causing considerable friction.

In 1740 Gilbert Tennent, William’s son, preached a sermon entitled, The Dangers of an Unconverted Ministry. Gilbert denounced those preachers who emphasize ritual over conversion and piety. He accused such preachers of leading their listeners to hell. His attack led to the church splitting, and Gilbert started his own Synod of New York.

In New England Solomon Stoddard led six revivals between 1670 and 1729. Stoddard was the grandfather of the great revival preacher, Jonathan Edwards. Edwards kicked off a revival in 1734 that electrified Connecticut. His sermon, “A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God” (1737) described a revival as an emotional response to God’s Word that brought sudden conversions to dozens of people. His most famous sermon was “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” In his “Sinners” sermon, Edwards described in vivid detail the awful destiny of the unconverted who refused to follow God. He described their fate much like that of a spider that is caught by a little boy, tied to a string and held menacingly over the flames. Such a cruel fate awaited those who refused God’s goodness and mercy.

Jonathan Edwards was reportedly near sighted and had to hold his manuscript close to his face. He couldn’t look his audience in the eye and establish rapport with them. He stood and read, with his face covered by the pages of his notes. Yet, so vivid were his descriptions and so compelling was his message, that audience members reportedly screamed and fell to the floor. Edwards sparked a religious movement that swept New England and went to other parts of the Colonies.

A great result of his work is countless numbers of people were made to reassess their lives in light of the Gospel.

Jonathan Edwards and these other early preachers in our history helped to form and shape the moral conscience of America, something we might benefit from even today.

Warren Baldwin

Friday, September 9, 2011

Producing Positive Change

Producing Positive Change

In Appreciative Inquiry Mark Lau Branson says health and dysfunction live side-by-side in every system. We want health to prevail, but it doesn’t always. Sometimes negative attitudes and behaviors overwhelm the positive, and a spirit of doubt, suspicion, and anger prevails.

Branson says it is possible for a church to get back on a more positive course, and how it is done has to do with how an organization perceives itself. It’s self-perception is it’s sense of how things are and how they are supposed to be, it’s reality. Branson mentions ten factors that influence how the members of a system create it’s sense of reality. I’ll discuss three here.

One, what we focus on becomes our reality. The standard approach to solving difficulties and to promoting growth and change in most systems is problem solving. The trouble with this approach is we focus on problems. We identify them, study them, and contemplate solutions for them. During all this time we are focusing on the problems, granting them our time and energies and thus, by default, making them the object of our focus.

This can be seen in someone in a system (business, church or family) becoming unhappy with the leadership or an activity. They talk to other members of the system about it, making it an issue for them. News of the dissatisfaction spreads through the system, eventually reaching the leadership. Management meets to discuss the dissatisfaction and related problems issuing from the original one, namely, gossip and its negative consequences, spreading discontent, loss of respect for leadership, and the rising popularity of the one who started the whole process. The focus of the entire company is now concentrated on the problem and “problem” personality, elevating the dysfunction of the organization to the level of reality.

The second factor is related to the first one: our language becomes our reality. Our words and speech express what we are focusing on. If our focus is on problems, our speech will give expression to our thoughts. Without intending to, without even being aware of the dynamic, our language continues to feed the perception that the overriding issue in our system is burgeoning problems. And problems continue to compound.

Leadership now feels the pressure of member dissatisfaction and growing negativism in the system. Meetings are characterized by stress over the problems and the press of needing to find solutions. Anxiety overwhelms everyone present. Without a doubt, the focus and language of this group is creating their sense of reality: problems.

Another factor is that organizations are heliotropic. Heliotropic is a botanical term referring to a plant’s inclination to grow toward the sun, it’s energy source. People in groups are the same way. They gravitate toward whoever or whatever produces heat or energy. A disgruntled member of the system who is actively promoting discontent is a definite source of energy. It doesn’t matter if the energy he is producing is negative, unproductive, unethical or even wrong. The fact that he is generating heat means he is going to get attention, and his behavior will help shape the sense of reality for the organization. Everyone, both those in his corner and those who oppose his opinions and behavior, can all become consumed by the negativism of this person.

By the time leadership can begin to address the initial complaint, a pessimistic undercurrent has permeated the whole group. Suspicions soar. Everyone becomes judgmental and edgy. Small groups develop in opposition to each other. Workers are discouraged. This is not a healthy environment. But it is the reality.

A biblical example of this problem occurring in the spiritual community can be seen in the wilderness wanderings of Israel, where complaints against God’s provisions and Mosaic leadership resulted in the rebellion led by Korah, Dothan and Abiram. By the time the festering wound of complaint became public, these men led a contingent of 250 people against Moses. (Numbers 16).

The same factors that produce a toxic atmosphere in a family, church or business where members are unhappy and critical can also produce a healthy environment. The leaders cannot allow the current negative spirit to determine the organizational reality. They must rise above the current spirit, envision something more beneficial, and use focus and language positively, allowing these heliotropic factors to produce the new sense of reality they desire.

First, the leaders must refocus the attention of the members from the negative to the positive, from dysfunction to health. This can often be accomplished by using a system called “Appreciative Inquiry,” that is, a series of questions leaders ask of members that draws out their image of when and how the organization was operating at its best. “What are your best memories of this organization? Who was involved? What did we do? How did we do it? What were the feelings and the emotions of everyone involved? Just the asking of the questions may be enough to alter the focus of the people from the negative to the positive and cause them to start imagining a more congenial working environment again.

Next, the language of the leadership must reflect the positive focus they are trying to instill. To dream of a more positive environment but continuing to use defeating speech (talking about all the things that are wrong) is counterproductive. Leaders must speak of the desired outcome as if it is a current reality.

If leaders of a church ask members about a time they remember the body functioning well, and they hear talk about mission emphasis and youth devotionals encouraging faith, they might do well to think about reviving these activities. Members who recall these past functions might even be involved in the planning and reorganizing of them. The organizational stage will be a time for continued positive recall and discussion, allowing language to continue the healthy focus. Newer and younger members also involved in the planning will ‘catch’ the rebirth of the positive feelings. Announcements can continue to use language to promote a healthy atmosphere.

The combination of focus and language will hopefully (prayerfully!) promote a heliotropic response, with people leaning toward the source of energy. If the negative energy (grumbling, complaining, criticism) is replaced with something healthier (positive recall, working together toward a common goal, wider member participation and planning), members will be drawn toward that energy, and will get caught up in that spirit.

Jesus used such focus and language to create the reality he desired for his followers. “You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world. (You are) a city on a hill. Let your light shine before men” (Matthew 5:13-16). Such powerful metaphors redirected the theological and social expectations of fishermen, tax collectors and other ordinary men to envision and actually produce a spiritual revolution. The power source they produced by their commitment to Jesus and submission to the Holy Spirit shook the earth with new hope, possibility and reality, the aftershock of which is still felt today in all of us who confess, “Jesus is Lord.”

Warren Baldwin

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Six Leadership Functions for Ministers/Church Leaders

Six Leadership Functions

According to Israel Galindo (in The Hidden Lives of Congregations), there are six leadership functions of a minister or pastor. These functions may play out differently in a church where there is a strong pastoral leader than in a congregation that has a minister serving under an eldership.

The first function is providing vision. Vision is the sense of purpose a congregation has for it’s existence and function. “Vision is a blueprint of a desired future state ... an image of that state of being and living that the congregation will work to achieve in the future” (140). Vision is developed after a congregation has a sense of its identity, meaning it knows what it believes and stands for, has a sense of values, and honors it’s past (144). When a church clearly knows who and what it is, it then has the understanding of itself to pursue it’s vision and fulfill it’s mission. Mission is what God wants all churches and Christians to pursue: preaching, teaching, and ministering to the hurts of the community. Vision is the direction of a congregation to fulfill that mission in a manner uniquely suited to its identity and make-up. Is the congregation an inner city church with a large homeless population? Then that congregation’s vision might be to focus its greatest energies and resources in ministering in Jesus’ name to that segment of the population. Is the congregation a rural or small town church with a number of teen pregnancies in it’s community, but little or no resources to assist them? Then the vision of that church might be to function in Jesus’ name by focusing attention, maternal and paternal mentoring, care and financial resources to those teenage boys and girls about to become parents. The mission of every church is to minister in Jesus’ name; the vision of each church is to decide, based upon it’s identity, nature and abilities, how to best fulfill that mission. One function of the minister is to study his congregation and community and help identify a clear and compelling vision for ministry.

Managing crisis is a second important function for a minister. Crisis is created by change that lacks purpose or focus and thus “introduces disequilibrium, uncertainty, and makes day-today life chaotic and unpredictable” (150). Changes in leadership, the perceived direction of the church, or corporate structures and functions, such as worship, can all create this disequilibrium for the members, especially if they cannot discern a purpose for it. They feel “threatened and out of control” because the personalities, processes and structures that have provided their spiritual security are gone (150). When disequilibrium or systemic anxiety hits a church, the following responses, as identified by Rabbi Edwin Friedman, can be discerned. One, reaction. Members may be scared, frustrated, angry, or nervous, all indicative of chaos. Two, blame-casting. No one immediately assumes they are responsible for the confusion, so they look to others to lay the blame on. Leaders become primary targets and, if they initiated the changes, they may be legitimate targets. Three, herding. People of like mind begin to group together, finding equilibrium and comfort in solidarity. Grouping together means there is an “us versus them” mentality and should signal to the leaders that there is a real problem in the congregational unity. Four, a demand for a quick fix. The inner turmoil caused by the chaos can become unbearable, and the sufferers demand an immediate remedy. It may be going back to an old practice, firing a staff member or insisting on the resignation of an elder or other congregational leader. At this point, the leaders can experience what Friedman calls failure of nerve. A failure of nerve is when the minster or leaders get caught up in the anxiety of the system and become part of the chaos by giving in to unrealistic demands or by participating in any of the members’ chaotic behaviors (reacting, blaming, herding or seeking a quick fix; Friedman, A Failure of Nerve, 54-55). Leaders must stay engaged and continue to function with the aim of helping to regulate the system (discussed in #3 below).

Thirdly, ministers exercise leadership by staying connected. This is especially critical during periods of conflict and upheaval. The best response of the leadership is to remain differentiated from (calm and above the chaos of) the members while at the same time staying connected to (visiting with and listening closely to) them (152). The calmness of the leaders allows the members to know leadership is still in place, and remaining emotionally engaged and connected with them helps regulate the anxiety. The tendency of leaders to “hunker down and fly under the radar”(151) during crisis and conflict to avoid attacks opens the door for greater systemic dysfunction and for others to vie for positions of power and influence. It is my experience that some people intentionally incite conflict in a family, business or church to disorient the leadership and open the way for the initiator to step in and begin to function as the leader, as invariably happens if the existing leadership is disengaged from the members of the system. Not all conflict is started purposely by someone to wrest control for himself; it is often the result of changes leadership tries to make for the health of the congregation, or changes that are inevitable, such as the aging or passing of older leaders. Whatever the cause of the crisis and chaos, effective visionary leadership means the minister (and elders) remain engaged. Leaders must understand that “effectiveness depends more on relationships (with the members) than on official status or in the office they hold” (152). Remaining connected means listening to the members to understand their perspectives, showing concern, and challenging them to responsible behavior (152).
Fourthly, ministers function as the resident theologian of the congregation. Without a strong orientation to scripture and what it teaches for the life of Christians and the church, many members will base decisions and actions on expediency. It is particularly important during times of crisis for theology (biblical teaching) to inform peoples’ viewpoints and behavior, since during chaotic times people are more prone to act out of intense emotions than reasoned and biblical thinking. Congregational peace can be sacrificed to a desire by competing sides to win. To challenge leaders to thinking more theologically, Galindo asks them how theology informs their decisions. He finds that even many ministers make church decisions based more on expediency than theology. One role of the resident theologian is to help people fit their story into God’s story. How does the life of the congregation and individual members fit into God’s ongoing story of redemption for his people? Most people don’t think in those terms: it is the theologian’s job to train them to. All of our lives must be interpreted in light of the Gospel and God’s claim upon us. Ministers continue the ancient biblical narrative into the life of the congregation by use of: 1) speech (terms for our redemption and relationship); 2) themes (key ideas, doctrines and dreams); 3) conflict (helping the congregation interpret and process fears, tensions and challenges); 4) rituals (worship, meals, and a sense of belonging) and 5) issues and stories of belonging (what it means to be part of this community) (156).

A fifth function of ministers or leaders is management. Some understand leadership to be relational (connected to and leading people) and others for leadership to be the management of an organization (“through process, procedures, organization, and the control of resources,” 158). Both approaches are actually necessary. To be a successful leader/manager, a minister must understand the congregation’s purpose, and have a vision to achieve it’s mission. In smaller churches, leadership/management is more relational than administrative. “Relationship management means being attuned to people’s emotions, and practicing influence with a purpose in order to move people in the right direction” (159). This requires being emotionally connected to and involved with the congregation.

The sixth and final leadership function according to Galindo is influence. More critical than any skill or ability is for the church leader to earn the trust of the congregation and thus be able to exercise influence. Leadership means influencing others in a way that “believers will trust and respond to the Head of the church for themselves, in order to accomplish the Lord’s purposes for God’s people in the world” (Galindo, 160; Stevens and Collins, The Equipping Pastor, 109). Influence in Christian circles is not charisma, manipulation or personal power; it is the proper exercise of positional and personal leadership within the church. If one is granted a position of leadership within the body (minister, elder, deacon, teacher, etc.), he or she has a degree of positional leadership. Personal leadership is relational: “influence is the result of the leaders ability to stay connected in significant relationships with the members” (160). The aim and direction of the minister’s leadership is to influence the people to live out God’s claim on their lives, submitting to his will, obeying, and engaging in mission to lost and needy souls.

These six leadership functions identified by Israel Galindo are a huge challenge for today’s minister or elders. Most of today’s ministers were trained to work within the church culture, meeting the needs of the members. Because of changing church and cultural circumstances, many churches today are in serious decline, and congregations are anxious about their church dying. It is imperative that ministers, elders, and other church leaders realize that ministry within the church is never to be an end in itself, but it is to prepare the people to engage the world with the Gospel (Eph. 2:10; 4:11-13). Leaders must exercise their influence to lead members out of the comfort and safety of the closed church environment out into the world where ministry must be done today. Kennon L. Callahan wrote, “The day of the churched culture is over. The day of the mission field has come” (Effective Church Leadership, 13). Galindo’s six points can help ministers and elders navigate the changes that will be necessary to posture the church for the future, by moving it from an inward to an outward focus.

Warren Baldwin
August 31, 2011

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Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Three-Legged Stool of Spiritual Growth

Three-Legged Stool of a Spiritual Life

You’ll never sit on a three-legged stool that wobbles. If the legs are disproportionate lengths you may sit a little sideways, but you will still sit securely. A four-legged stool might wobble on you, though, because if one leg is short, it won’t touch the floor until you lean that way. Then, as you shift your weight and the stool leans with you, you may fall right off the seat. A three-legged stool is more secure because all three legs will reach the floor.

A vibrant spiritual life rests on a three-legged stool of spiritual disciplines. Roy Oswald and Barry Johnson describe such a stool in their book, Managing Polarities in Congregations: Eight Keys for Thriving Faith Communities. A healthy spiritual life needs an environment that encourages people to pursue faith through asking questions about God, encountering people of compassion who manifest the fruit of the spirit in their lives, and who are taught about submission and obedience to Jesus (55-56). In such an environment, such a church, people can practice the three-legged stool disciplines and grow in the grace and mercy of the savior.

The first leg of the stool is home rituals. Such rituals would include praying in various occasions, such as at meals, for family and friends who are sick, and in private. They would also include observing seasonal religious dates, such as Christmas, and being free to discuss biblical issues around the dinner table. Such discussions would not be negative, as in criticizing the theological views of other people at church, but would be positive discussions of biblical texts, possible interpretations, and applying God’s truths to our lives.

The second leg is membership and active participation in a small group. The function of the small group is to study and discuss biblical issues, pray, and share faith stories. Faith stories are simply the experiences of people that have impacted their faith and their life journey in someway. They may share about the death of a loved one and the hole they still feel in their life; an abusive situation that leaves them suspicious and distrustful of everyone; or a school teacher that loved them through that difficult time and planted the seeds of faith that are just now beginning to sprout, and has them in this small group. Members of this group will need to be open, loving and non-judgmental to give the seeker plenty of room to question, experience love, and grow.

Corporate worship is the third leg of a healthy spiritual life. People of all ages, theological perspectives and faith development will be able to function together in a church if they can “come together to worship God, united in their common offering of praise and thanksgiving” (57). Participation in the Lord’s Supper is the chief symbol of their unity together. (Discussion of these three legs is found on page 57).

Too often churches rely on only the third leg, corporate worship, to develop the faith and spiritual vitality of young Christians. That is only one-third of what a new believer needs to root him in deeply. Some of them may attend Bible classes, but if the function of the class is primarily to teach and not share faith stories, younger Christians may not feel comfortable being vulnerable about their past. Or, if they do share sensitive and embarrassing episodes from their history, members of the class who may not be as open and accepting might offer judgment in response to what is shared rather than the affirmation and support the new Christian so desperately needs. Or, if the class discussion turns heated, sensitive new members may decline to attend in the future. I saw a newly baptized Christian quit church after attending his first Bible class, a class where a heated discussion erupted over a question of church management of money. “If that is what following Christ is about, I don’t need it,” he said as he walked away, never to return.

Churches can’t make anyone participate in these three activities, but they can teach about the importance of faithful involvement. They can also offer basic training in home devotionals and small group leadership. The goal of this three-legged stool is to encourage the faith and growth of everyone in the orbit of the church, from the seeker just beginning to explore faith, to the mature Christian still seeking to grow in the grace and favor of God.

Warren Baldwin

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Wives Who Bless the Fountain

Wives Who Bless the Fountain
Should your springs overflow in the streets, your streams of water in the public squares? Let them be your alone, never to be shared with strangers. May your fountain be blessed, and may you rejoice in the wife of your youth. Proverbs 5:16-18

While these verses speaks primarily to husbands, there are implications for wives as well. For example, even though a husband may be unfaithful, the wife doesn’t have to be. This passage acknowledges that if a husband doesn’t avail himself of the thirst quenching water he has at home (a satisfying sexual relationship with his wife), he may seek it elsewhere. When he does so, he leaves his wife emotionally starved and unsatisfied. Solomon acknowledges that some women in this situation may become springs that overflow in the streets; that is, they seek love and romance else where.

But, they don’t have to. They shouldn’t. Since Proverbs is addressed primarily to young men, most of the moral instructions are directed to male temptations: the lure of attractive women, voluptuous kisses and sensuous perfume (cf. Prov. 7:10-18). But Proverbs is concerned about developing wisdom and a moral consciousness in everyone, male and female. Proverbs warns against the wiles of the immoral woman who draws men from the moral path (chapters 2, 5,6,7) and who seeks pleasure in stolen water (a likely metaphor for immoral sexual behavior). But it also honors the moral woman for building a healthy home (14:1). Also, the Wise Wife of Proverbs 31 is extolled for the selfless attention she showers upon her husband and children, something she likely would not do if her energies were spent upon a secret lover.

Photo from Amy Free Photography

While Proverbs enjoins moral behavior for the male, it clearly assumes it for the female as well. So, if a husband is unfaithful, seeking sources of sensual refreshment from a woman other than his wife, that doesn’t mean the wife has to do the same. She can exercise her moral fiber and rededicate her efforts to do all she can to preserve her home.

A wife has tremendous power to nurture refreshment in the home to help prevent it from deteriorating to the point of either partner seeking affection elsewhere. She can use initiative and creativity to ensure that the springs and fountain of the home continually attract the attention of her husband.

Proverbs 7 presents us with a sexually aggressive married woman who, unfortunately, is unfaithful to her husband, and is directing her energy toward an unsuspecting young male visiting the big city. She spots the aimlessly wandering boy and accosts all of his senses with her feminine appeal. She wears alluring apparel (v.10), envelops him in a passionate embrace, kisses him energetically (v.13), speaks temptingly (v.14-18), and perfumes her private chamber (and likely herself, v.17). Everything she does inflames the young man’s mind and body! Yet, everything she does is so wrong because she is not married to this young man. Her drive and ambition is completely misdirected because such affection is meant for her husband.

Why the woman acts this way Proverbs doesn’t say. It just warns young men to avoid such volatile, moral situations. God gives men five senses to experience pleasure. When all five of them are under sensual attack at one time, it will be difficult for even the strongest, most centered of men to resist for long. The immediate response in a family-oriented man must be to just run!

But let’s look at Proverbs 7 from another perspective. What makes the woman of Proverbs 7 so dangerous to a man? The fact that she is offering what every male craves: a healthy, inviting, and energetic romantic encounter. And while the approach of the Proverbs 7 woman is so wrong when exercised outside of her marriage, it is so right when directed toward her husband.

Tell me, what man wouldn’t double time it home if he knew ready to embrace him was the love of his life acting out Proverbs 7 toward him!? Wives, the greatest weapon your husband has in his arsenal to ward off the overtures of the seductress is you. At least occasionally, show him the same level of excitement and interest that the immoral woman may have already tempted him with earlier in the day.

Jobs, demands of the home, and caring for energetic kids often leaves a wife and mom so exhausted she simply doesn’t have the strength to give an energetic and sensuous greeting to her husband. It’s unfair to expect her to. At least all of the time. There are years when the children are little when romance seems to take a back burner. While that is understandable and sometimes unavoidable, it is also very dangerous. The sizzle in a marriage may falter and die, but the need for love, acceptance, embrace, and sex does not. And if a husband and wife don’t find them in each other, they become easy pickings for any aggressor on the prowl. Don’t let exhaustion give room to a Proverbs 7 woman claiming what is yours. And, yes, while all the adultery chapters in Proverbs hold the man accountable for his moral offenses, even when he is under assault by an aggressive woman, a loving wife who is equally aggressive at home can do so much to assure the faithfulness of her man.

Wives, be the spark plug sometimes. Your romantic aggression means more to your husband than he will ever tell you, largely because men don’t like to talk about their feelings. But if you notice your husband smiling more, being kind and gracious in the home, telling you to go shopping while he watches the kids, and taking out the trash without being asked, you’ll know why. Your initiation of a sexual encounter will make your husband feel valued, proud (in a healthy sense), wanted, and deeply, deeply thankful to you. Conversely, never initiating can leave your guy feeling bruised in his self-esteem, unwanted, and hurt. Pride will keep him from saying, “I’m hurt,” so he will likely mask his bruise in anger, speaking and acting in ways that will hurt you back. Eventually, he may even begin to withdraw from you.

Men want to know that their wives do more than tolerate their advances; they want to know that they are wanted, sexual needs and all. You can communicate that by occasionally being the aggressor. If you don’t, the Proverbs 7 woman is ready to.

Don’t leave sensual allurement for your husband to women who shouldn’t be offering it. Your husband picked you because you were the most beautiful and alluring of women to him. He loved you. You are the one he wants to knock his socks off, and if you do, the Proverbs 7 woman doesn’t stand a chance.

God wants a husband’s fountain to be blessed. That means you share in that blessing. You are that blessing! Keep the cistern cool and refreshing, and you guarantee where he will be coming to drink.

Warren Baldwin

Thursday, July 28, 2011

How To Preach Proverbs: One Sentence Proverbs #1

How To Preach Proverbs
One Sentence Proverb Sermons

The one-sentence proverbs from chapters 10:1 to 29:27 offer challenges to preaching because of their brevity and succinctness. They seem to lack sufficient material from which to develop a full length lesson. But, there are a couple of approaches to these proverbs that make them valuable material for sermons.

Behind every proverb is a story, and the single-statement is simply a summation of a drama lived out in real life. For example, the Sage provides the background story to the numerous sluggard proverbs. In 24:30-34 he describes an experience of observing the unattended farm of the sluggard. Weeds had overtaken the crops and the protective wall was crumbling. The Sage wrote, “I applied my heart to what I observed and learned a lesson from what I saw: A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest - and poverty will come on you like a bandit, and scarcity like an armed man” (vv.32-34). This brief statement of financial and social doom for the lazy man is a summation statement of a larger story that the wise man has studied with keen observation.

Photo Compliments of Jennifer Blair Photography

The approach of the Sage is to study the attitudes and behaviors of people and the eventual outcomes of their actions. He pays attention to cause and effect, noting how certain actions produce discernible results. He then summarizes what he observes in brief, tightly worded phrases that capture the essence of what he has observed and reflected upon. The result is a compact statement encapsulating a vital truth distilled from a much larger and complicated drama. The proverbs thus provoke our thinking, luring us into their story, and challenging us to imagine their application in the drama of our own lives.

There are several steps I have found helpful in using the sentence proverbs for sermons or classes. Even if we don’t know the original context for a proverbial statement, we can catch the essence of it and imagine situations where it would apply. The steps are as follows:

1) Read, reflect and pray upon a particular proverb. Look for key words or ideas in the sentence being repeated in surrounding verses. Does this verse fit into a larger theme? What seems to be the main idea? What does it say about attitudes, behavior or life?

2) Think of an Old Testament story that illustrates the truth of the proverb you are studying. Since there is a story behind every proverb, find one that seems to flesh out the truth of a particular proverb.

3) Think of a New Testament text or story that illustrates this truth as well. Many times a statement of Jesus or situation in his life complements the proverb.

4) Finally, think of a situation in your own life that exemplifies the message or statement you are studying. Ideally, you will spend enough time reflecting upon a proverb that you will think of situations in your own life where it applies. You may think of an instance in where you lived up to the expectation of the proverb, or you may think of a situation where you didn’t. In either case, your own life experience validates the truth you are studying.

Here is an example of how a sermon may be developed from a one-sentence proverb. I’ll use Proverbs 11:24: “One man gives freely, yet gains even more; another withholds unduly, but comes to poverty.”

1) Study, reflection, prayer, and larger context.
This verse is part of a larger theme in the book about generosity and selfishness. Following verses discuss generosity, hoarding (selfishness), goodwill (the result of a generous spirit), and trusting in riches. This one verse opens up a wide array of possibilities for a sermon, and even at this early stage it is apparent that you will have to think about how to narrow the scope of the lesson.

2) An Old Testament story.
Possibilities could include Moses, who gave up life in the palace with its accompanying wealth to live among the impoverished Israelites. He did not give material things, but gave his very life to his people, and what he gained was not physical possessions or wealth, but much spiritual treasure (Exodus 2:11ff; Hebrews 11:24-28).

Think also of Boaz. He graciously allowed the less fortunate to glean his fields after the initial harvest (as the law stipulated). He gave freely and God blessed him not only with an abundant harvest, but with a wife, Ruth (Ruth).

These are two stories that exemplify the positive aspect of Proverbs 11:24. Negative examples can be considered, too. During David’s sojourn in the wilderness he requested aid from a local farmer. Instead of providing aid the farmer, Nabal, offered insults, and almost lost his life when David came after him in anger. Only the intervention of his wife Abigail spared him. But, even that was very short lived as he died shortly after. Nabal withheld and came to a fate worse than poverty (1 Samuel 25).

3) A New Testament story.
Numerous stories from Jesus’ life and ministry would fit here. Think of the two brothers fighting over an inheritance (Luke 12:13ff), the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19ff), and the rich young ruler (Luke 18:18ff). These stories all contain negative considerations of what it is to withhold blessings from others. Considered positively, think of Zacchaeus. As a tax collector Zacchaeus earned his living by overcharging the citizens in his territory. Tax collectors were thought of as little more than legitimized thieves. They were hated by the people because of their abuse of power and how they amassed their fortunes by taking from others. But after his encounter with Jesus, Zacchaeus opened up his tight fist and began to share, pledging to make proper recompense for overcharging, and giving half of his possessions to the poor. This man overcame his tendency to withhold and began to give freely. What did he receive for his change of heart? Jesus said of him, “Today salvation has come to this house ...”

4) Personal story.
I remember my parents offering help to people on numerous occasions: to motorists stranded in the country; to an injured friend; to neighbors needing help repairing their homes. Sometimes what was freely given was money; at other times it was time and labor. I have seen my parents gain from their generosity. It may not have been money, but appreciation and friendship.

In Proverbs, the man or woman who withholds is considered selfish and greedy. They do not receive God’s approval, and will not be blessed for their behavior. God likes the righteous spirit of generosity and mercy. These are the attitudes and dispositions we want to pass on to our children, and Proverbs 11:24 was written to help us do that.

Warren Baldwin

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Worship in the Temple

Worship in the Temple

When the Babylonians destroyed the temple in Jerusalem the Hebrew people were devastated. The Psalmist describes his reaction to this horrible event:

“They (the Babylonians) behaved like men wielding axes to cut through a thicket of trees. They smashed all the carved paneling with their axes and hatchets. They burned your (God’s) sanctuary to the ground; they defiled the dwelling place of your Name ... They burned every place where God was worshiped in the land.” (Psalm 74:6-8).

Israel was horrified because the temple is where God dwelled among his people. With the temple gone, would God’s presence ever be felt in the land again? This was a legitimate fear for the people. The Psalmist continued: “We are given no miraculous signs; no prophets are left, and none of us knows how long this will be.” (V.9). Apparently he wondered.

The temple was central to Israel’s relationship with God and to it’s own identity as a people. God was present in his temple. So long as the temple stood, the Israelites knew God was dwelling in their midst, and they felt free from harm. What would life be like if the temple was destroyed?

From later OT writings we know that even without a building God could still, and did, commune with his people. But from the perspective of an ancient Hebrew, the temple was central.

- A faithful Israelite wanted to live righteously so he could commune with God in the temple: “Lord, who may dwell in our sanctuary? Who may live on your holy hill? He whose walk is blameless and who does what is righteous.” (Psalm 15:1-2)

- The heart of a faithful Israelite yearned for communion with God in this special building. “How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord Almighty! My soul yearns, even faints for the courts of the Lord; my heart and my flesh cry out for the living God ... I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of the wicked.” (Psalm 84:1-2; 10)

- The Israelites who lived in communion with God and worshiped him felt secure in His protective care. “Those who trust in the Lord are like Mount Zion, which cannot be shaken but endures forever. As the mountains surround Jerusalem, so the Lord surrounds his people both now and forevermore.” (Psalms 125:1-2)

Worship in the temple provided ancient Hebrews a sense of the transcendence of God. “In the temple, instead of want they found surfeit; instead of abandonment, care; instead of pollution, purity, instead of victimization, justice, instead of threat, security; instead of vulnerability, inviolability; instead of change, fixity; and instead of temporality, eternity.” (Madigan and Levenson, Resurrection, 93-94).

After the Babylonian destruction and exile, Israel did return to the land and were allowed to rebuild the temple. God was again present.

Christians don’t have a central building, an earthly structure, where God’s presence is located. Instead, God dwells in and among his people (1 Cor. 3:16 & 6:19). God dwells in his church, in you and me. God communes in and with us.

Can we bring that same zeal the Israelites had for their building to the church? Here, in the midst of other believers, we find abundance, care, purity, justice, security and eternity. We find these blessings not because of the perfection and faithfulness of other believers. We find it because God is perfect and faithful. “How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord Almighty!”

Warren Baldwin

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Tongues of Silver


The tongue of the righteous is choice silver, but the heart of the wicked is of little value. Proverbs 10:20

Miners, speculators, investors and even brides have always prized gold and silver. These precious metals are rare, usable and maintain their value. They are also beautiful when refined and used in art and jewelry.

Gold and silver have been cherished since ancient times. Kings and queens used them to decorate thrones and crowns. In the early days of our country, people sold everything they owned to venture out west, risking their wealth and their health to find strands of gold and silver in the earth. Today, young men and women symbolize their love for each other shiny bands of gold and other jewelry made of silver. Gold and silver is valuable and precious.

Photo compliments of Karli Bonnie Photography

Drawing on the beauty, usefulness and value of these commodities, Proverbs compares them to something else of great value: wisdom. In Proverbs 2:4 says we should look for wisdom as a miner looks for silver and treasure. The English word "look" really doesn’t convey the idea of how intense this search for silver, treasure and wisdom is supposed to be. The idea is that something is missing and you seek in earnest for it, striving with emotional intensity (Bruce Waltke, The Book of Proverbs, NICOT, 1:222).

I remember my aunt losing the diamond out of her wedding ring. I was just a kid and was confused by the frantic search all the adults in the family were making looking for that little stone. I asked my mom, "What’s the big deal? It’s just a little rock, right?" Sure! I learned what intensity was that weekend! I have a friend who lost his wedding ring, and years later his wife is still angry at him for it. There is a lot of emotion tied in him those little emblems of gold, silver and precious stone. We feel deep loss if they go missing. That, the Sage says, is what we ought to feel in our search for wisdom. Earnestness. Intensity. Loss if we don’t find it.

With this discussion in mind, think of Proverbs 10:20 again: The tongue of the righteous is choice silver, but the heart of the wicked is of little value.

This verse appears in the midst of an extended discussion about wise and foolish tongues. Wise speech comes from the mouth of the righteous and is a fountain of life (10:11). While a fool is busy chattering away a wise man is busy storing up knowledge (10:14). The wise know how to hold their tongues, not speaking when it is inappropriate and not speaking to much (10:19). When the wise man does speak his words are worth listening to. The righteous speak words that are wise and fit the occasion (10:31,32), so their speech brings nourishment (10:21).

Foolish speech emanates from a heart that is not devoted to acquiring wisdom. The one who speaks foolishly stirs up hatred and violence against others and ultimately against himself (10:11) One way a foolish person stirs up hatred is in the lies he tells and the slander he spreads (10:18). The foolish mouth also stirs up anger because it simply talks too much and has no value or substance. Two times the Sage says "a chattering fool comes to ruin" (10:9,10). The fool speaks of things that are wicked and disgusting (10:31,32).

In the middle of this discussion is the comment about the tongue of the righteous being choice silver. The imagery of rarity, usefulness and value are applied to the speech of the righteous person. The speech of the wise is rare because there is not enough of it. It is useful because it encourages and transforms lives. It maintains its value because it imparts life. Such speech is choice silver, having been refined to produce purity. "The dross of evil intentions and effects" has been removed from the wise man's heart and thus his mouth (Waltke, 1:471), revealing one more important reason wise speech is so critically important. It honors God's social order by promoting wholesome life for individuals and the community.

The power of wholesome words to uphold God's order and impart life can be heard in the words of Jesus, "Neither do I condemn you, go now and leave your life of sin" (John 8:11). Taken to heart, those words could perform to heal the shame of this woman and restore refreshment to her life. May our words do the same.

Warren Baldwin

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

When God Acts #5: When Job Suffered


Job 3:1-5

Job. What a man he was (1:1-5). Can you imagine such a life? Seven sons and three daughters who actually enjoy being together! Over 10,000 animals on his ranch. A large number of servants. And to be called, "The greatest man among all the people of the East." What purity of heart: every morning he prayed for his children’s forgiveness just incase they had cursed God in their hearts. Could you imagine a better life? Could you imagine anything bad happening to a man like this?

Suffering knows no favorites. If you know anything about this story, you already know what I am saying. The fact that one is leading such a good life and has been so blessed by God is in no way a guarantee that one’s life will continue in such an idyllic state. In fact, the fact of one having such a good life may well be what invites trouble. Not only was God watching Job, but Satan was too. Satan accused Job to God. That is appropriate for Satan, for his name means, "the accuser." 1:9-11, "Does Job fear God for nothing? Have you not put a hedge around him and his household and everything he has? You have blessed the work of his hands, so that his flocks and herds are spread throughout the land. But stretch out your hand and strike everything he has, and he will surely curse you to your face."

The accuser.

That is such an appropriate name for him. Had Job sinned in any big way to invite trouble? Had he harmed anyone? Had he cursed God in his heart? No. Then why not just leave him alone? Because that is not the way of Satan. When there are not discernible sins in a person’s life for Satan to make accusation to God against, Satan will manufacture them. And his accusation against Job was, "Do you think Job is serving you for nothing? He is serving you because you have blessed him so. Take away those blessing and you’ll hear this man curse you to your face."

We may have a hard time with what happens next. God gives Satan permission to wreck havoc in Job’s life. And Satan spare’s no time or fury in his mission. Job’s livestock - over 10,000 head - were stolen or killed. His servants were put to death my invading enemies. Job’s children were enjoying a dinner together when they were killed in a horrible accident Job’s response? 1:20 - tore his clothes, shaved his head, fell to the ground and he worshiped. V.21 - "May the name of the Lord be praised." What a testimony to purity of heart. .22 - "In all this, Job did not sin by charging God with wrongdoing."

The next time Satan appeared before God, God upheld the integrity of Job. 2:3. Blameless! But Satan wouldn’t leave matters alone. V.4 - "Skin for skin!"

In other words, let me inflict his body with pain, and you’ll see a different response!" Again God said, "Go ahead, he is in your hands. Just spare his life." V.6. At that, Satan struck Job with painful sores from his head to his feet. Job felt so much pain and misery that he scraped at the sores with broken pottery to relieve the pressure.

And perhaps the greatest test to his integrity came next, from his own wife. 2:9 - "Curse God and die." More painful than that may have been her calling into question his integrity: "Are you still holding on to your integrity?" In other words, "Do you still hold to your innocence? Your good standing before God? Come off of it!! Nobody with good standing before God has to suffer like this!!" But still Job kept his heart. "In all this, Job did not sin in what he said." 2:10.

What do you do when you suffer, and you don’t think you deserve it? What do you do for friends who suffer, but they don’t deserve it? How do you maintain your own integrity or support a friend? Job had 3 friends come to see him. When they saw the wreck of his life, they didn’t know what to do! So they sat in silence. For seven days. 2:13. And sometimes that is the best thing to do! Sit in silence. When Job’s friends began to speak, they didn’t encourage their friend. Instead, they only made his burden greater.

Job is actually the one who broke the silence, though. In Job 3 he breaks the silence with a rather dim statement about the condition of his own life: 3:1-4. He follows this with 5 questions. Five questions that begin with the word, "Why?" (3:11, 12, 16, 20, 23.)

In other words, Job asks, "God, why have you let me live? Why didn’t you allow me to die as a baby? Why did you give me a mother to receive me and nurse me? Why didn’t you give me a grave, and spare me the light of day? Why must I experience this misery called life? Job’s questioning doesn’t end here, but continues to the end of the book.

Now is when Job’s friends begin to speak up. But they do not speak words of encouragement. Instead, they speak words that tear at Job’s heart. 4:2-5 - You had advice for others. But how are things for you now? Don’t you love such kind words of sympathy when you need them? 4:7-8 - If you have trouble, it is because you deserve it. The friend Eliphaz is verbalizing a belief many people have - if you are suffering, it is because you somehow deserve it.

How many sincere Christian parents have received these kind of comments from other Christians when one of their children stumbled? Probably you better than the rest of us can appreciate the pain and confusion in Job’s heart.

One of the real hard problems for Job in all of this is HE KNOWS HE IS INNOCENT. I don’t mean he doesn’t have any sin, but that he has no discernible sin that justifies the intensity of the suffering he is enduring. I think 6:29 is a key verse in Job. Mark it in your Bibles. "My integrity is at stake." Inside, Job knows he has lived for God. He is not receiving this pain in his life because God is punishing him for sin. As a result, Job can not suffer in silence. And that leads to another one of the GREAT verses in Job that you ought to highlight and memorize: 7:11.

Only 3 times in the Heb. OT do the terms complain and bitter appear in the same verse. And all three are in Job. (7:11; 10:1; 23:2). Because Job does believe he is innocent is one more reason he is having such a hard time. So he asks some more "why" questions: 7:20, 21. Why pick me out to terrorize? If I have done something so wrong, why not just forgive me?


It is hard to cover Job in one lesson. Maybe I’ll do a series on him one day. For today though, let’s jump to the end of the book, chapter 41. God is speaking now. He says to Job and his friends: 41:1-10. "Can you control the forces of nature? The wild beasts? No, you can’t. But they are not problems for me, I made them."

Job responded to God’s speech in 42:3. "God, you are bigger than me. I just couldn’t see the whole picture. I’m sorry." Then 42:6. Repent. That is a good word. Here, it probably doesn’t mean, "Turn from sin," but instead, "I humble myself before you and I am comforted. I no longer lament."

What does he mean, "I no longer lament?" What does lament mean? It means to cry. To cry out. To say, "Therefore I will not keep silent ..." Job is saying, "The time of my crying is over. I am comforted now. Thank you God."

Let me make a comment about one of Job’s "why" questions: 3:23 - "Why has God hedged my life in?" Job was right - his life was hedged in. But Job was wrong about one thing. Job thought God hedged his life in so that he would suffer. "For sighing comes to me instead of food; my groans pour out like water." (V.24)

What Job didn’t realize is that God hedged him in to protect him! In 1:10, Satan accuses God of hedging Job in so that he would be blessed! I don’t want to oversimplify this, but I do need to make this point: When life seems to tumble in and things see so bad in our lives, think of the hedge.

The hedge - the protective wall God puts around his children so that it isn’t any worse than it is. No matter how bad it seems, how much worse could it be if God’s protective hand wasn’t over you?

Three things Job did in the face of unbelievable suffering:

1) He cried. He lamented. He cried out to God. "Why God? Why?"

2) He trusted God.

3) He received comfort.

Finally. We can do that, too. Just remember, God is always in control, and God is always bigger than our problems. "Thank you God."

Warren Baldwin

(Many of the ideas for this series come from the book Yet Will I Trust Him by John Mark Hicks)

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Suffering: Redemption


Sad, and hurtful things are the bane of our existence. Why do they happen to us? Or to people we love? Sometimes it may be because of punishment (as in Amos 4). It may be to get people’s attention and turn them back to God (Deut. 4:30). Sometimes it may be because God wants to discipline us (Hebrews 12:5b-9). God tests his servants (Gen. 22:1) to see what is in their hearts (Gen. 22:12).

Sometimes, act of God that result in suffering may be for REDEMPTION.

Some think that every act of God is for the redemption of people. Even when it results in suffering and death, God hopes that will turn people back to him (Deut. 4:30). As Amos 4 showed, it doesn’t always work as God hopes! In Amos the people suffered, but they didn’t turn back to him.

But, sometimes suffering does cause the response God wants (Psalm 119:67, 71; 76:10).

There are times, however, when God acts in ways that are especially for redemption. "God’s redemptive acts are those moments when God acts to remove suffering, to overcome evil, and to destroy death. Those are the moments when God rescues, delivers, and restores his people." (J.M. Hicks, Yet Will I Trust Him, p.138-39). We think of the cross, and rightly so, as God’s great redemptive act.

But the OT is also filled with stories of God acting redemptively to save his people: Calling Abraham; Sending Joseph into Egypt; Delivering Israel from Egypt; Raising up judges to conquer enemies of Israel; Sending of prophets; Returning Judah from captivity.

The OT is a history of redemption. But, two redemptive events stick out as particularly significant. Both of these events provide the context in which Israel interprets God’s redemptive work in their lives.

Exodus 3:7-10 says God heard the cries of his people and he redeemed them from bondage. This would fulfill a promise God made earlier, back when the Israelites under slavery were told they had to gather their own straw. At that time the Lord spoke to Moses and reassured him (Exodus 6:6-7). God revealed himself so that his people could know him.

What is the purpose of dating? To have fun? Get to know people? Yes. Ultimately, dating is about getting to know someone you will marry. Dating is about marriage. Dating doesn’t start out with commitment, but it ends with it. How do we know when we find "the right" person that we want to marry and trust that they want to marry us? By what we reveal about ourselves. Our thoughts, values, goals. Ideas about family. Unfortunately, too many young people think dating is about concealing. We want to conceal the parts of ourselves we feel insecure about. We may feel we are unattractive, dumb, clumsy. So we hide those parts of ourselves as best we can. The truth is, dating is an opportunity to reveal who we are with the ultimate view of finding the person who loves us for what we are and wants us in marriage.

The Exodus - God dating Israel
I know this may sound like a stretch, but to God the Exodus was like an opportunity for him to "date" Israel. An opportunity for him to reveal himself in the hopes that Israel would accept him and love him.

What did God reveal about himself? His power over nature. Think of the plagues. His power over people. Think of how Pharaoh finally gave in to God. Why did God do all this? Exodus 10:1,2 - So that he could reveal himself to his children. Why do we take pictures and put them in albums? So years from now our children can show our pictures to our grandchildren and say, "We are going to go see Grandma and Grandpa. Do you remember them? Here, let me show you their picture." God said, "Years from now, show your children the photo album. Tell them of the good things I did for them so that they could be free." God wants his children to know and love him. And the Exodus shows a side of God that his children could love.

God blessed his children with life in the promised land. It was a land flowing with milk and honey. A land free, for the most part, of hostile enemies. Crime was low. Wealth abounded.

But what often happens in times of plenty like that? In times of ease? The people forgot God. And when they forgot God, they sinned. They sinned in abundance. Their punishment was to be conquered by foreign enemies. The northern kingdom was conquered by Assyria and the southern kingdom by Babylon. Also, thousands of Israelites were taken into captivity in Babylon to live as slaves (Jer. 30:15.).

And that didn’t make God happy. As much as they deserved their punishment, it grieved God. In Jer. 30:18 God promises to restore their fortunes because he love them with an everlasting love (31:3). Jer. 31:20 says God yearns for them. The idea of ‘yearning’ is God still wants fellowship with these stubborn, rebellious people.
So God enacts a bold plan. He will bring his people home. They are miles away in a foreign land. They are working as slaves. They do not have the freedom to just get up and return home. But, that is not a problem for God. God works in the heart of Cyrus, King of Persia. After Cyrus defeated Babylon, he told the Jewish people, "Ok, you can go home now. Go back to your lands." And they did.

And this is just as God wanted (Jeremiah 33:11b-16). My favorite verse in all this is Jer. 31:5 - they will plant fruit trees that will bear them fruit. Why would God be so kind to such a rebellious people? (Jer. 31:18-20). These were HIS people.

"God punished Israel, but in his compassion he redeemed a remnant. The remnant sought God in their exile, and God responded to their prayer. God will be found by those who seek him (Isaiah 55:6). Redemption flows out of God’s great love whereby he seeks to share his communion with his people. God yearns for a people and he acts in the world to create a people for himself." (Hicks, p.148).

Ultimately, God’s yearning for a people finds fulfillment in the events we read about in the NT. But that story comes later.

For now, remember this about suffering:
Sometimes we suffer because God is punishing us.
Sometimes we suffer because God is disciplining us. Making us stronger.
And sometimes we suffer because God is working redemptively in our lives. Ultimately, God wants all of us back home in fellowship with him.

Years ago, when I was a kid, I heard a preacher tell a story about when he was a teenager. He was rebellious. He yelled at his parents, slipped cigarettes into his room, smoked and in other ways was disruptive in the family. He left home in anger. He took what money he had and went a long way from home. And like the prodigal son of Luke 15, this boy ran out of money and friends. He had no food, no home, and no money. So he called his dad collect. Dad paid for the call and the boy poured our his heart. "I’m sorry Dad. I realize now how wrong I was. I was rude and disrespectful. I broke the rules of the home. And I’m so sorry. Will you and mom forgive me." The Dad cried. The Mom cried. "Of course we forgive you son. You are our boy and we love. And you have a home here waiting for you."

"Oh thanks, Dad. Could you send me the money for a bus ticket Dad?"

"Of course not, son. You got yourself in this mess because of being selfish and undisciplined. Now, learn some discipline. Get a job, save your money, and buy your bus ticket home. And we’ll be here for you."

I know a lot of us might think that Dad was pretty cruel to his own son. Wouldn’t even buy him a ticket home. Let him stay a couple of months far, far from home, all alone and broken-hearted. Did the dad make the right decision? Well, the man I heard tell the story was the son, all grown up, matured and disciplined. And he said he learned more from his time in captivity than he ever would have learned if dad had wired him the money.

Time in captivity may be for punishment. It may be for discipline. But ultimately it is for redemption. God wants you home. He wanted the Israelites home. It took some suffering to get their attention, but they left captivity to be with the Father. And God wants you home. You may be in the captivity of sin, or in the captivity of suffering. But you can come home to the fellowship of a father who is waiting for you to call.

(Many of the ideas for this series come from the book Yet Will I Trust Him by John Mark Hicks)

Sunday, February 13, 2011

When God Acts #3: Discipline


Why do people suffer? Especially innocent people? Why do children have to die in war? Why do babies get HIV and fetal alcohol syndrome through no fault of their own?

We can never satisfactorily answer all such questions. Even if we accept that WE LIVE IN A FALLEN WORLD, a world that is not as God intended it to be, we still wonder sometimes, "Why?"

As horrible as suffering can be, God has a way of using it for his purposes. Sometimes God uses suffering to punish the wicked, a retributive action. They are getting their "just desserts." God also uses suffering as punishment for the purpose of deterrence - to warn people, to turn them from sin. God has two other purposes for suffering - REDEMPTION, which we will look at in another article, and DISCIPLINE.

Suffering has a way of refining, training and educating a person, especially a believer. Through the process of suffering, especially suffering as discipline, we can learn to love the Lord more and depend upon his grace and his resources. There are basically two forms that suffering for discipline can take.

"God has always tested his people." Abraham is one example. In Gen. 22:1 the Bible says, "God tested Abraham." Some versions read, "God tempted Abraham." The Hebrew word here, ns, means "test, try, prove, tempt, put to the test." It is incorrect to think of it in terms of "entice to do wrong." (TWOT, p.581). The idea of "God tempting would not fit with Matt. 4:3, where the devil is the tempter, and James 1:13-15, where it says God does not tempt people to do wrong. But God can and does test people.

God tested Abraham by commanding him to sacrifice his only son (Heb. 11:17-19). Would Abraham love his son more than God? Would Abraham, like Adam and Eve, choose to go his own way and do his own thing? Abraham was put to the test. And I can’t imagine what kind of emotional agony it must have been for a dad to lead his son to the place of sacrifice, knowing it was his own son that was the offering. When my children ask me a question of a spiritual nature I get a funny feeling inside. These are my offspring, my children that I want to see in heaven, and they are asking me a question! I have to answer it right! These are my children at stake!

And Abraham had a lot at stake - his son. And more than that, his direction. Where would Abraham’s heart lead him? In the way of the Father, or self? When Abraham chose God over son and self, here is the commendation the Father gave him: "I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld your son from me, your only son." Gen. 22:12.

God frequently tested the children of Israel. Exodus 15:25 - God tested them in Marah with bitter water. Exodus 16:4 - God tested them with mana. He would give them plenty, but would they trust God and take only what they needed? Or would they prove to be selfish and lack faith, taking more than necessary?

One reason for God testing people is to learn their hearts. Deuteronomy 8:2 says God led the Israelites in the desert for 40 years to "humble you and to test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands." The reason for this is explained in v.5 - "Know ... that as a man disciplines his son, so the Lord your God disciplines you."

Wandering in the desert was also punishment. Punitive punishment. People died the in the desert for their sins. The would never see the promised land. But for their children who also wondered in the dry, dusty climate, hoping for rest, it was not punishment. It was a testing.

Is there suffering in your life? What may God be trying to tell you? Is he trying to discipline you? Discipline from a loving Father has the aim of testing our hearts. Do we truly want communion with the Father? Who do we love the most, God, or self? Testing, suffering bears that out.

Sometimes God is trying to teach us something through our suffering. Hebrews 12 is the classic passage about suffering as a means of "learning." Eight times in verses 5-11 some form of the word "discipline" is used.

What is the nature of the suffering or discipline in Hebrews that chapter 12 is referring to? Persecution. In Heb. 10:32-34 the writer calls upon these Christians to remember an earlier persecution they suffered - they were publicly insulted and persecuted. They were thrown in prison and had their possessions stolen by the state. But they didn’t lose their faith! Now, another contest of suffering is upon them (12:4). There is more persecution. Will they stay strong? Faithful? The writer wants them to know that this suffering is not because of punishment! It is for discipline. (12:5b-9).

The word for punish literally means, "to flog." Many of God’s followers have been literally "flogged." Jesus and his disciples were. Some of the witness in chapter 11 had been (see 11:36). Some of the current readers might be! But it is important for them to realize that this "flogging" or suffering is not a retributive punishment. It is a form of discipline to motivate the sufferers to reach higher levels of maturity. (12:10-11).

What good does God intend by this discipline? That we share in his holiness. That the "training" we experience from suffering produces righteous and peace. "God uses suffering and pain to produce a fruit whose purpose is communion with him." (Hicks, Yet, p.137). Suffering teaches us discipline.

But one more thing it teaches us ... Joy and perseverance. (James 1:2-3). And the great reward for persevering under trial (testing, suffering)? James 1:12 says it is the crown of life!

"The crown of life is worth the trials, and God disciplines us with that goal in mind. God acts, sometimes by inflicting pain, even floggings, to train and prepare us to share his holiness. God intends good even when it seems painful and senseless to us." (Hicks, Yet, p.138).

Is there suffering in your life and you wonder why? We all do. Please, when suffering comes into your life, don’t let it break you or discourage you. I know that is easy to say in a time free from suffering. But try to hold on. Remember, one way God uses suffering is to teach us to be stronger and more like him.

If suffering is in your life right now ... suffering of any kind ... take it to the cross. One way we all suffer is from the contamination of sin. And Jesus stands ready to clean that up as soon as we have suffered enough and are ready to come to him for cleansing.

(Many of the ideas for this series come from the book Yet Will I Trust Him by John Mark Hicks)

Warren Baldwin