Shout for Joy
The other evening on Shark Tank" Mark Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks, came up with a bit of advice that struck me as right on target. He said, "Never take advice from anyone who doesn't have to live with the consequences." Granted, it probably will never go down in history as one of the fifty best quotes of all time, but before you dismiss it, let's give it a moment.
Advice comes easy. Just "ask and you will receive" (to borrow a biblical phrase). Almost everyone has an answer to any question you might ask. Where is the best place to live? What should I do to stop a run-away horse? Why should I get my news from the Internet? How can I get this thing opened? It is so easy to get advice from those who will not be affected by your decision. And that, precisely, is the problem. There is something about the human specie that enables us to provide quick answers to issues that don't affect us. I know that if I have a cup of rich coffee late in the evening, it will be almost morning by the time I drop off to sleep. So, I give up late evening coffee. But if you should ask me whether YOU should have a cup at 11 PM, I might say, "It's up to you,” or, "Why not!" Why don't I exercise concern for you and ask how drinking coffee late in the evening affects you? The answer is that by nature we are hopelessly egocentric. Your reaction to coffee is not all that important to me. We came into the world that way and progress is either slow or nonexistent. Christian theology calls it "the fall.” God made us in his image – that is, that we might sustain a relationship to him. But when the primal pair decided against God's restriction at the "advice" of the Tempter, they transitioned to a condition in which they were doomed to live primarily, if not absolutely, for themselves.
Is there a remedy? Christian theology says, Yes. The gift of God's Son was a sacrifice for our sin (i.e., our egocentricity) to be received by faith so that our initial relationship might be restored. Unfortunately that process is incredibly slow. As we are gradually released from what we became by deciding to go it on our own, we are empowered by the Spirit to do such things as to remind our questioner of possible consequences. In secular terms it is “getting over yourself,” in Biblical language it is “being saved.” And I can assure you that nothing short of a transforming relationship to Jesus Christ can supply the power necessary for a successful conclusion .
Fairly early in his public ministry Jesus told his followers that when the burdens of the day seemed a bit too much they should come to him for “the rest that refreshes.” They should take on a yoke like his because it fits so well that whatever their load might be, it would seem light (Matt. 11:28-30). What is so interesting is that immediately after that, his disciples got into trouble by plucking some grain on the Sabbath and Jesus had to explain to the Pharisees that the Sabbath was made for man, not the other way around. That straight-forward bit of theology made them so angry that they began to develop a plan to take his life. It’s hard to understand why that would arouse such violent opposition, but it did.
As a result Jesus chose to leave the area and go to the more quiet shores of Lake Galilee. People knew where he went and huge crowds kept pushing in to hear him. He healed those who were sick and cast the demons out of those under their control. It was an exhausting day but that’s what God said would be the task of the one he would send to fulfill the prophecies of Isaiah.
Shortly after that Jesus was invited to the home of a Pharisee who objected to the woman who came uninvited and after anointing Jesus with precious oil, knelt and bathed his feet with her tears. That was simply too much for the Rabbi, so Jesus took the time to give him a lesson about love and forgiveness. How did Jesus go about that? Well, he could have told him in no uncertain terms to rearrange his priorities and learn how to love. But what Jesus did do was to point out that the woman had simply done what his host had forgotten to do – welcomed him with the customary kiss, cleansed his feet, and anointed his head with oil. Jesus wanted the cleric to learn an important lesson in the relationship between love and forgiveness. Obviously he was tired from the time and responsibility of dealing with the crowds and even now, in the quiet atmosphere of a home, he took the necessary time to help his guest understand an important ethical truth. Jesus didn’t follow the standard method of teaching by laying out a systematic presentation of all the facts involved. Instead, he told a story about a money-lender cancelling the debts of two men neither of whom was able to come up with the necessary cash. Since one owed more than the other, it was clear that he would be the more appreciative benefactor – the greater one’s debt the greater the appreciation for forgiveness. And Jesus looked at the woman and told her to go in peace because her faith had saved her.
My point is simple: Even though his days were filled with the responsibility of helping others he was inwardly at peace and invited his disciples to share that calm approach to the "demands" of life. Live as he lived is the secret of a quiet and effective approach to life. Jesus never had "ministerial burn out" and neither should you. His yoke fits so well that when you take it each day's load becomes lighter. The One who by nature was “gentle and humble in spirit” teaches all of us the secret of bearing up under pressure.
In our last column on Acts we discussed the account of Cornelius, the Roman centurion, and some friends receiving the Holy Spirit and talking in tongues. In the middle of the account we have a little word picture that illustrates so well what I believe should be happening today when believers gather to worship. In Acts 10:33 we read, “Now we are all here in the presence of God to hear everything that the Lord has given you to pass on to us.”
This verse has relevance for today’s pastor as well as churchgoer. Beginning with pastor, we note that he is to give to the people what the Lord has given to him. He is the channel through whom the congregation is spiritually nourished when they meet for worship. In biblical terminology he is the good shepherd who takes his flock to the green pasture. I’ve observed that all too often this analogy doesn’t describe what in fact is gong on in so many church services. The sermon may be helpful in a general way, but it doesn’t make us aware of God’s presence. Our verse speaks of the pastor’s role in passing on “what he has received from the Lord.” Good biblical preaching is sharing with the congregation not only what you have learned about a passage, but also what it means to you personally. Good ideas are helpful, but what is essential is for God himself to speak through you as you explain the text. I believe that authentic preaching is sacramental, that is, it puts people in genuine contact with God. The role of the preacher is to explain the text and then get out of the way.
It is God’s Spirit that brings about spiritual change. Ultimately it is the Spirit, not our feeble advice, that impacts the heart and alters the conduct. So, pastor, explain the text, then let the Spirit speak through you directly to the congregation.
And what does the picture say for those who listen? I think the major point is that when pastor and congregation gather for worship they should all experience the divine presence. A Christian worship service doesn’t consist of good people getting together and listening to a pastor share his ideas (even though they may be helpful), but of the body as a whole listening to God as he speaks to all through the message. It is not information we need, but the refreshing experience of the presence of God as he speaks to each. While we may be accustomed to different styles of “worship” it is important that we are fully aware that we are in the presence of God. We need to prepare ourselves as a congregation for the corporate experience of a visit from the One who created all of us and knows what each one needs.
As we actually experience the presence of God we won’t need a group of singers up front or the heavy beat of a drum to make it real. God is the shepherd and we are the ones who feed on what He, not necessarily the person in the pulpit, wants us to learn. It is what you might call a spiritual form of triangulation: pastor, congregation, and God. I believe that in the long run, that is what every true believer would like to experience in every service. The good news is that God is always available. Add to that a pastor who is spiritually ready to share what God has taught him and a congregation prepared to listen. As Cornelius said to Peter so long ago, “Now we are all here in the presence of God to hear everything that the Lord has given you to pass on to us.”
From time to time I’ve said that every now and then I want to reflect upon various quotations that have piqued my curiosity and do it from a Christian world-view. (Currently every third column follows through on that intention.) At this point it may be helpful to say something about that term “world-view,” since it originated in another culture. World-view is the English equivalent of the German Weltanschauung (from Welt, world, and Anschauung, perception). The World English Dictionary defines Weltanschauung as "a comprehensive view or personal philosophy of human life and the universe." It is a way of looking at the totality of human existence here on planet earth. It is our perception of reality.
When I say Christian world-view I am asserting that the Christian faith, based upon God's self-revelation in Scripture, has a specific way of looking at what is. For example, the bible teaches that God created the world and therefore we view it in a way that is different from the philosophical materialist who claims no knowledge of how matter came about, but is quite sure that nothing else exists apart from it. This is not an insignificant difference. The fact that a supernatural being exists carries the strong possibility that life here on earth carries a sense of obligation. If, on the other hand, what is, is simply a normal development in the material realm, then it would be hard to understand why I ought to do one thing instead of another. The Christian world-view holds very distinctly that a believer is under obligation to conform to the expectations of his Creator. On the other hand, if there is no creator, there is no one to please and people are free to do what they want to do.
One of the areas that exhibit the superiority of the Christian world-view is social responsibility. Fifty some years ago President Johnson launched the war on poverty. Over $16 trillion has been spent and the percentage of the population living in poverty now is roughly the same. Why is that? The Christian world-view proposes care for the widow and orphan (James 1:27) and also says, "The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat" (2 Thess. 3:10). If everyone would take that seriously, our cultural landscape would change dramatically. The need for assistance would drop and the federal bankroll would flourish.
Another area where world-view makes a difference is in ones understanding of the nature of man. Nothing explains the conflicting qualities of ego centricity and nobility as well as the Biblical teaching that man is made in the image of God (has certain qualities that reflect the nature of God) yet by a sinful choice to go it on his own (the fall in Eden) has allowed sin to control his actions. He will dive into the raging stream to save a child yet live out his days in self-centered concern for what is best for him.
World-views are not provable. They lie outside reason's domain. But there are ways to convince the responsible person that some ways of thinking about life are better than others. For instance, the theologian/philosopher John Edward Carnell used to say that one set of presuppositions is preferable to another if they provide better answers to two questions: (1) are they are inwardly consistent, and (2) do they provide a better understanding of life as one experiences it. On that a basis, I am confident that the biblical approach to understanding mankind (specifically, why we do what we do) is far superior to all competing views.
This morning I started reading at chapter eleven in the gospel harmony, Jesus, In His Own Words, and got no further than, “Inspired by the Holy Spirit, I prayed, ‘I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that although you have hidden these truths from the wise and discerning, you have made them known to the childlike” (p. 83, Luke 10:21). Two things hit me:
First was the translation, “Inspired with joy by the Holy Spirit, I prayed . . . “ What’s that! The Holy Spirit inspired Jesus with great joy! So I checked the Greek text and the crucial phrase reads en to pneumatic to hagio (“in/by the Spirit the Holy One”). Checking other translations, I found that most have something like “filled with joy by the Holy Spirit.” So what I had done was to have made the clause active and understood “filled” in the sense of “inspired.” In any case, it provided a wonderful insight into Jesus and his relationship to the other two members of the trinity. God the Spirit inspired God the Son to thank God the Father for revealing to the childlike those truths that were hidden from “those who think themselves wise” (NLT).
So often Jesus is portrayed as a rather somber person. He is kind and compassionate, but his load is heavy, the rabbis don‘t like him, and his life ends in an early death. Okay, all of may be true, but don’t overlook the fact that on this occasion – and I bet that it was repeated many times ¬– he was “inspired with joy by the Holy Spirit!” When the joy of God floods over the soul there is nothing quite like it this side of paradise. And the remarkable thing is that we mortals can share with Jesus that same experience of joy that is heaven itself.
Then I reflected on the interesting fact that God had decided that there were some truths that the “wise and discerning” wouldn’t be able to handle so he revealed them to the childlike. Now there’s an anomaly. Study hard, learn Greek and Hebrew, earn your PhD and there are still truths that are beyond your competence. No, yet another degree won’t help because no matter how much a person might know, God has hidden certain truths beyond our ability to discern. That’s too bad. But wait, the text says that God does reveal them “to the childlike.” Something else has entered the picture. There are certain conditions that determine one’s ability to understand. Apparently, those who think that clear thinking and unrelenting persistence will provide insight are misguided. God has decided to reveal these truths only to the childlike. So our own condition makes a difference. Spiritual truth withholds itself from those whose minds may be active but whose hearts are not open to it.
Spiritual insights into life are not available to those who are not ready to allow God to bring real change into their life. His thoughts are not something you can learn by parsing, but only by exposing your soul to change. The childlike do not calculate the cost/benefit ratio of change, but just open themselves to God and are joyful for whatever he wants to do. How different are the ways of God from the self-centered schemes of fallen man! And beyond that, the ways of God bring a joy to the childlike that simply cannot be described or suppressed.
That day when Peter showed up in Caesarea at the request of Cornelius was extremely important in that it marked the opening of God’s work in history to the gentile world. You will remember that Cornelius had asked Peter to come and tell them what God had revealed to him. On the previous day an angel had appeared to Peter and revealed to him that God intended the good news of salvation to be for all who believed, not just the Jews. The message was simple and clear.
1. The Jews had Jesus crucified (v. 39)
2. God raised him from the dead (v. 40)
3. Those who believe are forgiven (v. 43)
This is the most concise summary of redemption to be found in scripture. It follows the sequence of every good novel – first, a problem, then a hero, then a solution. In our case the problem was sin, the hero, Jesus, and the solution, salvation by faith. Let’s think together about this simple, yet profound, series of events that lies at the heart the Christian faith.
The problem has is origin in what man did, is solved by what God did, and concludes by telling us what we are to do. I love the “lucid clarity” of Peter’s presentation. Man stepped away from God by questioning what God had to say; God steps back into the story by providing the answer for man’s predicament; and in the history of mankind, everyone who accepts by faith what Christ has done on their behalf steps back into fellowship with God. And that is the gospel, the “good news” that although we are by nature sinners, the death of Christ on the cross paid the debt of our sin making it possible for us to be forgiven and return to the relationship intended by God from the beginning.
Down through history a countless number of people have been drawn back into a loving relationship with God by believing what the bible teaches about their sin and what God did about it. But note: To believe is not merely to accept that something is intellectually valid, but to embrace it in a way that allows God to transform how we live out our life. Belief is unreserved commitment to God of all we are. Now that takes power! And the gospel is, as Paul puts it, ”the power of God unto salvation” (Rom. 1:16). No one is every argued into salvation. Logic is pitifully weak when it comes to spiritual matters. To bring a sinner back to God requires a power infinitely greater than reason at its best. And isn’t it just like God to provide the power necessary for the sinner to escape the consequence of his own sin!
The return to God that we call salvation has its necessary consequences. Every time you drive your car into a telegraph pole, you get the same result. Every act has what might be called a predetermined result, whether good or bad. Believing the gospel creates the setting for what will necessarily follow and that is eternal life with its responsibility to share with others the “good news” that has changed yours. The gospel is “good” because it provides an eternal relationship with God and he is the epitome of all goodness: it is “news” because we didn’t know it before and once accepted it leads to a brand new kind of life
What are we saying when we refer to a judge as "the Honorable So and So?” The very title "Honorable" expresses our recognition that we live in a moral world where the concept of right and wrong is accepted. One dictionary defines honor as "strict conformity to what is considered morally right.”
But where do moral system come from? Is it custom that decided that one thing is right and another wrong? Is theft wrong simply because it has always been considered wrong? If social practice determined morality, we'd be living in a world where morality would be accidental. In some social groups stealing would be right and in others wrong because that's the way it had always been.
Somehow this is not a satisfactory answer. I believe the vast majority of people would agree that moral responsibility requires something beyond custom, some outside force, some absolute. One thing is for sure and that is that our sense of "oughtness" didn't create itself. The Christian faith holds that God is the source of our responsibility to do what is right and not do what is wrong. So, for Christians to live honorable lifes requires that they conform to what God has declared morally right. Anything else is dishonorable.
The theological expression, the righteousness of God, is often thought of in a sort of abstract way, but the truth is that it is a description of the One who always does what is right. A judge is given the title "Honorable" because it is his responsibility to decide if honor can be ascribed (or not) to a given act. God is honorable because it is his very nature. His requirements are an expression of who he is.
It is interesting that this basic Judeo-Christian precept finds expression in the Greek classical period. Socrates said, "The greatest way to live with honor in this world is to be what we pretend to be.” Honor is the correlation between what a person says and does. To live in an honorable way is essentially to be in life, what we claim to be. It's the old "walk-the-talk” challenge. As always, contemporary public life continues to demonstrate that, whatever the problem, failure is always someone else's fault. What a dramatic change if those in power would accept the responsibility for what they do. To be honorable one must act in honorable ways. The universal tendency to pretend we are someone different than we really are (the one who didn't do it, say it, think it, is responsible for it) is dishonorable and ought to be designated as such. Transparency is widely recognized as a virtue in our system of governance, but if it exists in theory only it is worthless, and, in fact, dishonorable
Psalm 84 is often remembered for its first line, “How lovely is your dwelling place.” The psalmist pictures a long journey, often through difficult times, but it will end up where God has established his permanent dwelling. The deep longing of the psalmist to be with God resonates throughout the psalm. Even the birds are welcome in his house and it is there that they raise their young – a beautiful picture of God’s concern for his own.
I have always been interested in the way God engineers the events of life for his own purpose. Each occurrence by itself may have no particular significance, but combined with others it reveals God at work in our life for a specific purpose. The story of Peter's vision in Acts 10 is a good example.
Peter had gone up on the roof of the house to pray. In time he became hungry, and while he was waiting he “fell into a trance” (v. 10). A large sheet loaded with various kinds of “animals, reptiles, and wild birds” was lowered to earth and a voice said, "Get up, Peter; kill and eat." Peter was shocked! He had never eaten anything that was ceremonially impure or unclean. The voice responded, “Don’t call anything impure that God has made clean.” Apparently Peter was a slow learner because the same thing happened two more times.
While he was trying to make sense out of this, some of the men sent by Cornelius came to his house. Peter came down from the roof and asked the visitors why they had come. They answered, “A holy angel appeared to Cornelius and he sent us to learn from you whatever you have to say”. The very next day Peter returned with the men to Joppa. In the verses that follow (vv. 23b-48) we see Peter, a conscientious Jew, learning a strategically important lesson – He learned that God has no favorites, but "accepts from every nation those who fear him and do what is right" (v. 35). Due to the 2000 year history of the Christian faith that may not seem strange to us, but it certainly did to a first century Jew. Acceptance by God was no longer a matter of country or race – redemptive grace was extended to all.
Beyond pointing out that the universal nature of Christ’s work on the cross, the text shows us again how God brings together the disparate events in our lives to fulfill his own purposes. Cornelius had a vision and sent men to Joppa to look a man named Peter. Peter had a vision teaching that God’s saving action was for all and went back to Caesarea. It all worked out according to the divine plan.
I am sure that there are times in everyone’s life when God takes
a series of events and arranges them in a way that fulfills his purpose. Here’s an example: I know a man (Call him man A) who experienced the following sequence of events in his life:
Having just arrived at a theological seminary, man A saw a note inviting new students to a party on Friday evening. He decided to go.
Another new student (man B) happened to go to the same party.
For some reason, man A was playing a piano at the party and B heard him.
Man B was going to audition for the choir master position in that same church the following Sunday so he decided to ask A to go with him.
Man A accepted so B called his host and asked if he could bring A with him.
While waiting for dinner, man A saw a picture on the piano of a lovely young lady with two children.
The host explained that the picture was of the wife and children of his deceased son. During the following week he decided to have another Sunday dinner a week or so later and invite man A again. That way A could meet the host’s daughter-in-law and children.
Man A and the young lady really enjoyed that next time together (luscious dinner and a long walk around Balboa Island), and six months later were married in the host’s house, followed by a honeymoon on his yacht, and financial help for the next 5 years of graduate school both here and abroad.
Recently, Clarence and I had great time together reliving that early experience and reviewing our 66 years of friendship, he as a pastor, I as an educator.
Conclusion? God is at work in every detail of our life – good or bad, wise or unwise. He uses them all to create a new portrait of what he desires in and through us. Someone said that each of us is a portrait that takes a lifetime to paint and no two are the same. Each of us is genuinely unique. Trust God, the master artist, and don’t hide his brushes because he’s still got work to do on each of us. When it’s done he will come for all his “portraits” to take them home. What a beautiful gallery of messed up sinners who needed the artistic touch of the master artist.
When I read Ernest Hemingway's conjecture that "Happiness in intelligent people is the rarest thing I know,” my immediate reaction was to scan my own group of friends. It didn't seem to pan out. Over the years I have gathered a circle of friends that includes relatively well-known leaders in various segments of society as well as a Guatemalan peasant unknown outside of his own family. I did not find a sliding scale of happiness rising from some level of misery for the wealthy to contentment for those who possessed less. What’s more, I didn’t find the opposite either.
In the process, I had to ask myself the obvious question: What is happiness? Obviously it is important because along with life and liberty, the Declaration of Independence tells us that the pursuit of happiness is an inalienable right. At that point I decided to check with the authorities. I discovered that this issue has been under discussion for as far back as we have written records. Sometime before 289 BCE (traditional date for his death) the Confucian thinker Mencius, taught that joy in life comes as a result of practicing the great virtues. In Buddhism ultimate happiness is the reward for overcoming craving. In the thirteenth century Thomas Aquinas, the Italian philosopher and theologian, taught that happiness was the result of contemplating the divine which would then inform the intellect as it directed one's life.
More recently, Sonja Lyubomirsky, a professor in psychology at UC Riverside, has concluded that 50% of happiness is genetically determined, 10% relates to the circumstances of life, and 40 % is subject to self-control. If this is true, and I believe it is, it suggests that we have a very good chance for happiness by simply choosing it and taking the appropriate steps. But this seems to run contrary to Hemingway's observation that happiness is a rare trait among intelligent people. Could it be that "intelligent" and "wise" are not the same? It may be that for the average person the former term means something like having a detailed knowledge of an area and the latter as expressing how that knowledge may be applied to life. This would explain why Hemingway's "intelligent" people are not necessarily happy and why a "wise'' person is far more apt to be happy.
While happiness may be difficult to define, it is not difficult to recognize. And in a broad sense, everyone knows what it means to be happy and it doesn't make a lot of difference whether it is defined hedonistically as the result of seeking pleasant experiences and avoiding the unpleasant, or in the classic Greek sense (the eudemonic tradition) as the result of living life in a full and deeply satisfying way. As once again I scan my own friends, the accumulation of wealth has little or nothing to do with the degree of their happiness. For me, and those I'm pleased to name as friends, happiness has come as a result of knowing God in a personal way through the redemptive work of Christ on the cross. On a practical level the pleasure of each day is, to a significant extent, determined by how this relationship with God is allowed to control both our thoughts and our actions.
Robert H Mounce