In the Wilderness

August 23, 2019

Even believers may experience times when God feels distant. (He’s not, by the way.) But we feel a spiritual dryness. Our cup feels empty. It is our wilderness experience. Listen to the psalmist’s wilderness experience.

As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and appear before God? (Psalm 42:1–2, ESV)

He goes on to speak of his tears, and people asking him, “Where is your God?” One of the refrains in Psalm 42 is “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me?” (Psalm 42:5, 11 ESV).

What does David do to combat this spiritual wilderness?

  1. The psalmist is honest about how he feels. He is spiritually dry, and he admits it. His soul is cast down within him. He asks God, “Why have you forgotten me?” (v. 9). 
  2. The psalmist remembers his better days when he went with the throngs to the house of God with “glad shouts” and “songs of praise.” (v. 4)
  3. The psalmist remembers who God is. He remembers his hope in God (v. 5). God is his salvation (v. 5). God has “steadfast love” (v. 8). He is “the God of my life” (8). Note that there is another refrain within the psalm, “Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God” (Psalm 42:5-6a and 11. And it is this closing refrain in verse 11 that gives us the resolution of the psalm.

Why do we have these “wilderness experiences” and feel spiritual dry? I don’t know for sure, but I suspect these test our faith. The moments of dryness in my life seem to have come when I’ve been extremely busy or stressed with difficulties. The question becomes then: will I seek God? I have found that when I pray, read scripture, and worship through the dry spells my cup is eventually refilled. I must like the psalmist be honest in my prayers, remember better days, and remember who God is. Don’t be surprised by spiritual dryness in your life. Scripture warns us and aids us when we are in the wilderness.

— Russ Holden


Mind Control

August 16, 2019

I’ve often described our minds as being like a TV set with a remote control that seems to spontaneously change channels on us. The issue is our power to concentrate, and especially concentrate on good things.

Entertainment has often been a force to shorten our attention spans. Compare a movie or TV show from 50 years ago or more with today’s programming. The pace was slower in the past. Several Christian disciplines help us develop longer attention spans. Reading, especially Bible reading for a Christian, lengthens our attention span. Prayer is another practice where we are concentrating on our relationship with God, and finally, the worship assembly is another place where keeping our minds engaged with worship is important (1 Cor. 14:15). I believe these are learned behaviors that get better as we practice them. And in our practice, we may have to recall our minds to what we are doing whether reading, prayer, or worship. I’m not going to claim that stray thoughts never enter my mind while engaged in these activities, but I’ve gotten better at it over time. We have to keep “changing the channel” back to what we are focusing on. We have to fight for control of our minds.

Another disturbing problem is that our mind can go to wrong thoughts. We deal with wrong thoughts by “changing to the channel” to good thoughts. And we aid this process by not filling our minds with evil thoughts. Paul’s instructions are important.

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. (Philippians 4:8, ESV)

This is a reminder that “the unknown remote control” isn’t in charge. We are. We replace evil thoughts with noble thoughts.

Prayer also aids us in this challenge. Paul’s statement in Romans 8 is appropriate: “For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live” (Romans 8:13, ESV).

In prayer we ask God for help in controlling our thoughts and especially for ridding ourselves of evil thoughts. I think God honors this verse and helps us with our weaknesses. With God’s help we learn strategies and gain strength in controlling our thoughts and minds. Christian living involves self-discipline for moral and spiritual mind control.

— Russ Holden


How Many Circles?

July 6, 2019

I had a professor who spoke of the one-circle person and the two-circle person. He would draw a circle on the chalkboard for the one-circle person, and two circles which overlapped a bit for the two-circle person.

The one-circle person is the person who believes that nature is all there is. The single circle represents the physical universe. If you attempt to talk to the one-circle person about a miracle, for example, the resurrection of Jesus, he has ruled such things out of bounds. He will say such things cannot happen. No amount of evidence will be convincing. because he views the universe as a closed system. That’s all there is. He is a one-circle person. It is his worldview.

The two-circle person believes in the natural universe but also believes in a spiritual realm and the existence of God. Or, if not certain about God, he is at least able to grant the second circle as a possibility to be reasoned about. If you attempt to talk to the two-circle person about a miracle, for example, the resurrection Jesus, he is willing to consider the evidence.

The two-circle person also believes the universe usually operates by physical causes and effects. Miracles are not claimed to explain everything. They do not necessarily resort to a God of the gaps. Miracles would be viewed as something rare, that is why they are by definition wondrous. But the two-circle person doesn’t rule them out of bounds by definition. He is open to the possibility that God can intervene in this world and do something instantaneously that cannot be explained by natural causes and effects.

The one-circle person sometimes thinks that his one circle worldview is to be identified with the scientific enterprise. But the two-circle person can do science as well. In fact, science grew up in the midst of two-circle thinkers — the Christian west. The two-circle person believes that this universe is orderly and understandable, because the Creator made us with senses and minds that correspond to that reality and lead us to true knowledge about the world around us.

The one-circle person will sometimes unknowingly borrow from the two-circle person. He will talk about the pursuit of truth and moral values and even meaning, failing to realize that those things to have substance must come from the other circle — the circle he denies.

Some one-circle people will even wistfully talk about the Christ of faith even though they believe Jesus of Nazareth is moldering in the grave. Their one-circle life doesn’t allow for a resurrection, no matter the witnesses, no matter the prophecies, and no matter the tremendous transformations that occurred.

I’m a two-circle person. I’ve not ruled the evidence as out of bounds. In your life, how many circles?


Do It In the Right Order!

June 28, 2019

Two women who didn’t know one another began to converse as a way of passing the time. The conversation began to narrow down to the one woman’s son and the other woman’s daughter. Both children faced the same problem. Each had a sex partner although they were not married. Pregnancy had come to both couples, and difficult questions came to the two couples with the pregnancy. Did the couple have what it takes for a long-term commitment? Did they have what it takes to raise a child?

Neither couple was certain that they had what it takes for a long- term commitment and child rearing. The woman with the son wondered whether she would have a grandchild that she rarely if ever would see. The woman with the daughter confided that her daughter and the father of her child were seeing a counselor, but they admitted that it was difficult.

Society has advocated moral relativism — no moral absolutes, and certainly no moral rules about sexuality. It has promoted certain lies. Sex has no consequences. You should start to have sex when you are emotionally ready for it, but only you know when that is. And our sexuality is not something we can control.

God’s plan is different. It recognizes that sex does have consequences. The proper place for sex is in marriage (Hebrews 13:4), so Christians are taught that they can control lust and sexual behavior (Matthew 5:27-30, 1 Thessalonians 4:1-8).

Waiting for sex means that you can develop job skills to support yourself and a family. Developing job skills might include college, apprenticeships, and trade schools. You find someone to marry. With marriage we ask the hard questions first of whether this is someone I could have a long-term relationship with or can I imagine raising a child with this person. These are deeper questions that whether I find them sexually attractive or fun on a date.

Marriage has the birth of children within view. The announcement of a pregnancy is usually a source of joy and not a crisis as to whether this relationship will continue.

God’s way has an order to it: job skills, marriage, sexuality, and if blessed with them, children. You are less likely to end up in poverty if you do it in this order. Your life is likely to have greater stability. But most important of all, it honors God when you do it in the right order.


The Death of Christ

June 21, 2019

“For the wages of sin is death…” (Romans 6:23) Physical death is the consequence of sin entering the world. Because of sin we are also spiritually “dead in the trespasses and sins” (Ephesians 2:1) outside of Christ. And if left uncorrected, this leads to eternal separation from God, what Revelation calls “the second death” (Revelation 21:8).

Someone may ask, “Why can’t God just forgive us? Why should anyone die on account of sin, including Jesus?”

In explaining the meaning of the death of Christ, Paul states: “It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Romans 3:26, ESV). God’s own character is at stake in this business of forgiveness.

Suppose a defendant has a trial before a judge. All the evidence points to the defendant being a criminal worthy of punishment, but the judge lets him off. We would not consider such a judge to be just. We would question his character.

In the same way, God’s own justice demanded a substitute, a sacrifice. Paul uses three key terms in his explanation of the death of Christ (Romans 3:21-26): justified, redemption, and propitiation (the NIV’s “sacrifice of atonement”).

Propitiation is a sacrifice that averts wrath. Such a sacrifice satisfies the laws demands. It also involves substitution. The substitute takes our place and receives the wages of sin in our behalf.

Redemption is the payment of a price to set someone free. The debt owed is the wages of sin, which would lead to our eternal punishment. In the death of Christ, he paid our debt.

Justified is a law court term, the rendering of a favorable verdict. The charges are dropped against us in Christ, not because we are innocent, but because the demands of the law have been satisfied by our substitute. The debt we owe has been paid.

Humanity has a sin problem. If uncorrected, it leads to eternal separation from God. It even posed a problem for God: how to remain just and yet forgive. These problems find their solution in the death of Christ.


Striving for the Ideal Father

June 14, 2019

Our society gives mixed messages on fatherhood. The American Psychological Association in an article called “Deconstructing the Essential Father” asserts that fathers do not make a “unique and essential contribution to child development.” Their purpose is to influence public policy by legitimizing a variety of family structures—unmarried parents, gay parents, and single moms.

Yet the empirical evidence supports a conclusion that God’s plan for a family is really best. 70% of juvenile delinquents come from fatherless homes. Sixty percent of rapists and 72% of adolescent murderers come from homes where they have not known or lived with their fathers. Even the mother-child bond is weakened by an absent father.

In the midst of so much brokenness, we need to capture a vision of the ideal father and strive towards it.

God wants fathers to be leaders in their homes. Paul taught “…the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ also is the head of the church” (Ephesians 5:23, NASB). No doubt Paul’s teaching in Ephesians 5 was counter cultural to the first century with his emphasis on a husband’s sacrificial love for his wife. Yet it is also counter cultural to feminism and political correctness. The leadership Paul taught is not tyrannical, but the servant leadership that is taught elsewhere in the New Testament (cf. Matthew 20:25-28). It is a call to sacrificial love and spiritual leadership. Too frequently wives have no spiritual support from their husbands.

God wants fathers to love their wives. Although men often like to point to the words “Wives, be subject to your own husbands” (Eph. 5:22, NASB), Paul wrote more to husbands in this section of Ephesians than to wives. The constant refrain is “love” (the word is used 6 times in Eph. 5:25-33). Love your wives as Christ loves the church—that is sacrificially. Love your wives as you do your own bodies. Love your wives as yourself, which echoes the second greatest commandment “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18, Matthew 22:39, NASB). Our culture emphasizes the feelings of love. I suspect that if we followed the New Testament’s emphasis on the deeds of love (cf. 1 Corinthians 13:4-7) we would have less trouble maintaining the feelings of love.

God wants fathers to instruct and discipline their children. Paul wrote, “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4, NASB). We will need to know the instruction of the Lord before we can pass it along to the next generation. Teaching and discipline require involvement and time. God has given us a responsibility that we must not shirk.

Few of us would feel like the ideal father, and regrettably, some boys may have to learn to be fathers without ever experiencing as a son what a father should be. But the only answer for the brokenness of our culture is to strive for God’s ideal.


It’s Not About Balance Scales

June 7, 2019

The judgement of the dead in the presence of Osiris

Behind my desk is a framed papyrus depicting a scene from ancient Egyptian religion. My son gave it to me from his trip to Egypt. The scene depicts the judgement of Osiris. Near the center of the picture is a balance scale. The balance scale has two pans or bowls suspended at an equal distance from a fulcrum. Weighing with such a scale might entail putting weights on one pan while the item being weighed on the other. Or two things might be compared. The heavier object’s pan will go down, and the lighter object’s pan will go up. In this judgment scene the deceased soul must weigh lighter than a feather. If it does, this person enters paradise. If not, the soul is eaten by the god Amenti who has a crocodile head. But it is not just ancient Egyptians who have a balance scale in their view of judgment.

I think many Americans think in terms of a balance scale. If my good deeds outweigh my bad deeds, then everything will be good with God, and this good person will enter heaven. Unfortunately, this isn’t the Bible’s teaching.

Paul writes from Romans 1:18 to 3:20 explaining that both Jews and Gentiles are sinners: “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23, ESV). Paul makes clear that no one can be justified by law keeping since all of us sin. And the standard is not good deeds outweighing bad deeds, but for law keeping to work, it requires perfection before a holy God. It requires sinlessness on our part.

In Romans 4 Paul also makes this clear with the contrast between wages and gift. If we could present sinlessness to God as our wages, we would have something to boast about before God according to Paul. But none of us can claim that. The alternative is gift. It is what Jesus has done for us by dying on the cross that will save us, and that means listening and following Jesus.

The gospel needs to be shared. The person who is thinking in terms of good deeds outweighing bad deeds hasn’t come to terms with the Bible’s message. It’s not about balance scales.