Monday, April 18, 2016

"O God" And "My God" Relationships

O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water. - Psalm 63:1 (ESV)

I remember, while serving the work of God in Mexico in 2009, being on an airplane between Mexico City and Villahermosa and having the overwhelming certainty that the plane was about to crash.  It was a reasonable conclusion.  After all, the fuselage of the plane was visibly wobbly, twisting and shaking violently as we passed through an area of great turbulence. For one who has never been in a situation like that, it is difficult to adequately explain the sensation of helpless panic.  What can you do?  You are thousands of feet above the ground and all that stands between you and eternity is the skillfulness of the pilot and the structural integrity of the aircraft.  There is absolutely nothing you can do about the situation.

Rocking along, jutting up and down and side to side, other passengers were growing increasingly alarmed.  I wasn't truly convinced of the severity and potential danger of the situation until I saw the flight attendant's face as she strapped herself into a seat.  At that point I was becoming a believer in the statement once reportedly made by Orville and Wilbur Wright's father, Bishop Milton Wright, "It is impossible for men in the future to fly like birds. Flying is reserved for the angels. Do not mention that again lest you be guilty of blasphemy."  He cautioned his sons against the notion of men being able to fly and, although his sons would eventually become the fathers of modern aviation and Bishop Wright himself would fly at the age of 81 on May 25, 1910, I was now beginning to believe that the old man's observations were quite correct with one possible modification.  Man might now be able to fly but I sure wished I hadn't decided to join them in sharing that experience.

Almost uniformly across the interior of the airplane could be heard the sound of prayer.  Some were offered to God the Father, some to the "Santisima Trinidad" and others to Mary or one of an innumerable host of Saints and Patrons of Catholicism.  But regardless of the deity to which it was offered, the experience was sufficient to draw more than one cry of "O God" from the crowd.  There was fear; fear of the known and the unknown, of what was certain and of what was supposed.  This fear would remain until the turbulence ceased, the plane settled back to normal and the roars of sudden bursts of disturbed air from outside were replaced once more by the incessant droning of jet engines.  The plane landed in Villahermosa and all was well with none of those who had survived the harrowing ordeal any the worse for wear.  What is more, the sound of mid-flight prayer was not to be heard again upon reaching the ground.  Instead all one could hear were complaints over the annoyance of having to wait on the tarmac too long, people on their cellphones fussing at family who hadn't yet arrived at the airport to give them a ride and, of course, the screaming of children who had been too long confined in too restrictive a space.

I, on the other hand, could only manage to say, "My God, thank you for getting me down from there."

"There are no atheists in foxholes."  Some sources credit this now famous quote to either a United States Military Chaplain or Soldier at the Battle of Bataan during the Second World War in 1942 while others believe it to be of a much earlier origin.  Regardless of the lack of an accurate historicity of the phrase, the meaning is clear enough: that at times of great danger, peril or need it is normative human response to seek after a power, entity or being higher than oneself for help.  This is one aspect of the "O God" relationship.

For many people, God is a crutch and little more.  There's nothing wrong with depending upon God and, in that way, relying upon Him as a "crutch" of sorts.  In fact, the very definition of faith in the New Testament sense is the act of an individual hanging their entire being (present and eternal) on the Word of God, trusting in His sovereignty and yielding to His Lordship.  But the entirety of an individual's relationship with the Lord cannot be the welfare mentality: God has stuff and I want stuff - free stuff with little to no investment or responsibility on my part.  It is the entitlement mentality: God owes me because He is God and therefore is obligated to take care of me.  It is the person who runs to God when faced with catastrophe and turns their back to Him once the storm passes by.

This is the same type of relationship that so many in the United States developed with God after the events of September 11, 2001 when 19 radical Islamic terrorists brought about the loss of 2,977 lives in New York, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C.  Many Churches across America saw a sudden increase in attendance, baptisms, etc.  Prayer meetings became popular, public prayer reappeared and a religious and spiritual awakening began - or so it appeared.  Less than two years later, country singer/songwriter Darryl Worley released a song titled "Have You Forgotten," the chorus of which says:

"Have you forgotten how it felt that day?
To see your homeland under fire and her people blown away."

The fact of the matter is that, by in large, the event had not been forgotten at all, but the strong emotional impact which had been felt by hundreds of millions of Americans was fading fast.  The knee-jerk, emotional draw toward God and the Church was also wearing thin.  How could it be that the sting of such a stifling blow to the heart of a nation could dull so quickly as to be touched without reaction?  The answer is simple: that's just human nature.

The Johnstown Flood of 1889 resulted in the loss of 2,209 Pennsylvanian lives.  How many across America today, 127 years later, are still moved to tears by that event?  Or what about the 1,021 who died when the PS General Slocum sank in the East River near New York City in 1904?  Do we still feel the pain of that event?  What about more recent history?  Are people still flocking into Churches because of the May 1995 tornado outbreak where 279 tornadoes caused $5 billion in damage over a 21 day period?  Or the even more horrifying April 2011 tornado outbreak where 363 tornadoes touched down in less than 96 hours causing $11 billion in damage and taking the lives of 324 people?  No.  There is still a localized sting to many of these events but, by in large, people have yielded to nature, healed and moved on.  Unfortunately, the same can be said for their spiritual sensitivities.

"O God" is a prayer anyone can pray.  It's a prayer that requires no commitment, no dedication, no investment and no personal responsibility.  It's the prayer that a man prays after he's been thrown in a prison cell - "O God, get me out of this and I promise I'll serve you."  Then, when paroled, he goes back to the mire he came out of and works his way back to jail.  It's the prayer that a woman prays after surviving a beating at the hand of an uncommitted lover - "O God, protect me this time and I'll do anything You say."  Then, when the boyfriend leaves her alone, she finds another make-believe "husband" and continues living out her sinfulness in the sight of the same "O God" she lied to.  It's the relationship that says, "God, you do for me and I'll do what I can for you but don't expect too much out of me.  I'm only human, you know?"  It's a fantasy, a fable - a mythological self-deception where the human entity really believes they've accomplished something to put them on good terms with the Almighty.  It's called "lying to yourself," and people do it every hour of every day.

"O God" relationships are built upon emotion, selfishness, fear or ignorance, none of which are terms which the Lord desires to exist in a covenant with Him.  Sadly, even self-described Christians often approach God within the context of an "O God" relationship.  I say "sadly" because if there is any individual who should know that the Lord Jesus Christ came to establish a personal, intimate, pure, singular relationship between humanity and Deity it is the Christian.

This article began with the first verse of the 63rd Psalm, the author of which was David.  Commentators often place the time of the writing of this Psalm to David's flight from Saul but this seems very unlikely since David is referred to as already being King in verse 11.  It is far more likely that these words were written at a much more bitter time in David's life - his escape after being deposed by his son, Absalom.  For those not familiar with the story, a division came between David and Absalom resulting in an extended separation.  Finally, Absalom plotted against his father and, by turning the hearts of Israel against David, was able to set himself up as King resulting in his father's flight into the wilderness and across the Jordan River.  Unquestionably, this would be a perfect time for an "O God" type prayer which, as we read, is how David introduced this Psalm.

But he didn't stop there.

There was more between David and his God than the "O God" style relationship.  David was a man of great faults and failures.  More importantly, he was a man of repentance who appreciated and honored the justice of the Almighty.  Even when his infant son died as the manifestation of God's judgment against his adultery with Bathsheba and murder of her husband Uriah, David's reaction was to extol the God who had judged him.  After all, God was the righteous one in this case while David was blessed to have escaped with only the loss of an innocent child into the hands of a loving God.  In fact, whenever David did what was displeasing in the eyes of God, he was quick to repent and do his utmost to return to the favor of the God who had taken him from the sheepfold to the throne of the Kingdom of Israel.

David was a worshiper.  He sang of his God and to his God with lyrics and melodies which are still used thousands of years later.  Alone with the stars as the chandeliers in the great open-air cathedral of the ancient Judean hillsides, the sound of a youthful voice could be heard carried upon the gentle breezes to the accompaniment of a primitive harp.  David would carry on this tradition throughout his life.  He acknowledged that God was the only reason he was King, that the Kingdom was God's and not his own, and that his responsibility as King was oversight of God's people and stewardship of God's domain.  He loved God's Law and studied it as ardently as any layman of his day.  For David there was no question about it - God was HIS God.

Psalm 63:1-8 (ESV)
1 O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you; 

my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, 
as in a dry and weary land where there is no water. 
2 So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary, 
beholding your power and glory.
3 Because your steadfast love is better than life, 
my lips will praise you.
4 So I will bless you as long as I live; 
in your name I will lift up my hands.
5 My soul will be satisfied as with fat and rich food, 
and my mouth will praise you with joyful lips,
6 when I remember you upon my bed, 
and meditate on you in the watches of the night;
7 for you have been my help, 
and in the shadow of your wings I will sing for joy.
8 My soul clings to you; your right hand upholds me.

These are not the expressed actions of an uncommitted man nor of an individual who has not accepted his personal responsibility of serving the Lord wholeheartedly and without reservation.  It's one thing to say these words; it's another thing to live them.  David lived them.  Anyone with a "My God" relationship lives these words.

The "My God" relationship goes beyond viewing God as only a source and recognizes Him as a Being desiring fellowship and communion with His creation.  This is the underlying message of the Incarnation.  Jesus Christ came into the world.  God was manifested in the flesh.  God was in Christ reconciling the world unto Himself.  This was the mission of Christ on earth - that mankind might know God rather than just knowing about Him.  The express image of the person of God is found in Jesus Christ and that walked among men that they might know a veil of cloth between the Holy Place and the Most Holy Place would no longer conceal the Almighty from His people.  He would now live in them or, it should be said, such would be His desire.

The first eight verses of Psalm 63 represent eight aspects of the "My God" relationship:
  • Desire for the Person of God - verse 1
  • Pursuit of the Presence of God - verse 2
  • Honoring the Love of God - verse 3
  • Praising the Name of God - verse 4
  • Satisfaction with the Provision of God - verse 5
  • Consistent remembrance of God - verse 6 
  • Trusting in the Power of God - verse 7
  • Following intensely after the Will of God - verse 8

Psalm 63:9-11 (ESV)
9 But those who seek to destroy my life
shall go down into the depths of the earth;
10 they shall be given over to the power of the sword;
they shall be a portion for jackals.
11 But the king shall rejoice in God;
all who swear by him shall exult,
for the mouths of liars will be stopped.

The benefits of the "My God" relationship are seen in the final three verses:

  • Protection from and destruction of enemies and destroyers - verses 9-10
  • Perpetual rejoicing in the Lord - verse 11
  • The personal benefit of the victory of truth over lies and liars - verse 11

The "O God" relationship carries no benefit.  In the end, the "O God" individuals will fall with the enemies and destroyers.  Their false vows, perpetual self-deceptions, willful ignorance of God's plan for covenant with mankind and blatant flaunting thereof will lay them silent along with all those who speak lies.  Most tragically, eternity holds no rejoicing for the "O God" individual.  The presence of God will allude them beyond the grave as will happiness, peace and joy.  Yet there is only one thing keeping an individual who is in an "O God" relationship from transitioning into the full blessing and joy of a "My God" relationship.  That one thing can been seen by that individual in a mirror.  And making that transition - a complete commitment to Christ according to His Word - brings a spectacular response from God.  Never again must He look over you mournfully saying, "O child!"  From then on He can rejoice over you and name you, "My child."     

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Whatever Happened To Conversion?

Saul On The Road To Damascus
"Repent ye therefore, and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out, when the times of refreshing shall come from the presence of the Lord." - Acts 3:19 (KJV)

The conversion of Saul of Tarsus is the most prominently featured and thoroughly detailed of any individual in the New Testament.  More is known of Saul's past and his life after being Born Again than that of any other character.  And while there is no real need to go into an in-depth review of his life at this point, it is very important to note that Saul (who would become Paul) had a very definite conversion experience which began on the Road to Damascus and was brought to fruition under the personal ministry of Ananias in Acts 9:17-18.

Saul was not an uneducated or intellectually backward individual.  Having studied at the feet of one of the foremost Doctors of Judaism of his day, Saul was well versed in the Torah, the Mishna as well as the oral traditions and dogmas of the elders which had not only been passed down through generations but were now held as equal to the commandments of God. He was apparently multilingual as well as being somewhat savvy of the various cultures of the regions around the Holy Land (see Acts 22:1-3).  Saul of Tarsus was a very religious man.  His zeal for Judaism was sufficient that murdering heretics, namely Christians, in God's name was, to him, a Divinely sanctioned act of justifiable homicide (see Acts 8:1, 23:6, Philippians 3:4-6).  To Christians living in first century Palestine, Saul of Tarsus was a terrorist the likes of which would not be seen again until the Catholic Crusades and the modern resurrection of Islamic extremism.

Saul's conversion began when God manifested Himself in a most special way.  While traveling on another mission to persecute and imprison Christians, Saul was struck to the ground by a blinding light and a thunderous voice.  It was Jesus Christ; the very one Saul was persecuting.  Saul had been chosen by God, in spite of the violent persecution of the Body of Christ at his hand, to be a Messenger of God; a special Emissary who would carry the Gospel to the Gentiles.  The Lord Jesus told Saul to go to Damascus and there one would come and tell him what he must do (see Acts 9:1-8).  Saul made the journey without benefit of sight.  His blindness to the Truth of Christ was now coupled with the horrible darkness of physical blindness.

In this same period of time the Lord spoke to a Christian in Damascus named Ananias who was told to go to a specific house on a specific street where he would find Saul of Tarsus whom God had chosen for a special work (see Acts 9:10-16).  One can only imagine the trepidation which filled Ananias' heart and mind.  Saul's reputation was well known in the Christian communities of Judea.  Now, for reasons known only to God, Ananias was being ordered by the Holy Spirit to minister to an individual who would think little of killing him as a heretic.  If Ananias betrayed any timidity or fearfulness upon approaching the now blind Saul we are not so informed in the Scriptures.  What we do know is how Ananias ministered to him, conveying a message from God that his eyes were to be opened and that he was to be baptized.

We do not know how surprised Ananias might have felt when Saul consented not only to the laying on of hands for his blindness to be healed but also to being baptized in the name of the very one he had hated so vehemently only a few days prior; the Lord Jesus Christ.  But that is exactly what happened.  Saul of Tarsus was being born again.  He would be filled with the baptism of the Holy Spirit and given a new life, a new name and a new eternity.  This is the beginning of the story of Paul the Apostle.

It should be noted that Saul's conversion was really that: CONVERSION.  To be converted, as the phrase is used in the commandment given in Acts 3:19, is almost synonymous in concept as the commandment given by the Apostle Peter on the Day of Pentecost in Acts 2:38: REPENT.  Or, in other words, "change your heart and mind, turning away from your sinfulness and the lordship you claim over your own life and toward God submitting to His authority as your Lord."  To be converted means to "return" or "turn back" with the implication being a complete and definitive turn away from all else while turning unto the Lord.  The concepts of conversion and repentance are intertwined and absolutely essential for one to become a Christian.

Why then would we cheat someone out of the experience of true conversion by rushing them past sincere repentance?  But that is exactly what is done far too often.  The emphasis on genuine repentance is eliminated and overwhelmed by the desire to see an individual baptized in water and speaking in tongues.  The concept of a "Christian initiation ceremony" now stands where conversion once stood as the absolute standard of an individual being born again.  But there is a great difference between a convert and an initiate.  Almost anyone can be convinced, coerced or otherwise brought into the waters of baptism in the name of Jesus Christ.  But water baptism is NOT where the conversion experience begins.  If we are not careful we will adopt an attitude about the new birth that not only does not bring about individual redemption but makes the Church little more than a fraternal organization with a set of rituals to be followed, phrases to be remembered and a 10% monthly membership fee.

When we look at the conversion of Saul we see that the first event is a violent confrontation with the person of Christ.  The Lord Jesus appeared to Saul who fell to the ground and was rebuked by the voice in the light.  "Why are you persecuting me?  How long will you kick against this?" (see Acts 9:4-5).  There was a moment of decision when Saul was confronted by Christ.  The essentiality and impact of this event is reflected in Paul's later writings.  The central theme of Paul's Gospel was to preach Christ (see 1 Corinthians 1:23).  This is no wonder since it had been the Apostolic pattern all along.  Before the Apostle Peter ever mentioned water baptism or the promise of the baptism of the Holy Spirit to the 3,000 gathered on the Day of Pentecost after the initial outpouring of the Spirit on the 120 he preached Christ and did so in a most confrontational way (see Acts 2:22-36).

Peter presented Christ to the Jews as the one they crucified.  He confronted them with the reality that Jesus of Nazareth was both Lord and Christ.  His Deity and humanity were affirmed as well as His Messiahship and role as the only Savior thus leaving the people who heard the message with a choice.  It is no different from what Christ had done to His own Disciples when He asked them, "Who do you say that I am?"  The Apostle Paul made it very clear that his message to the lost was not that of water baptism but of the person of Christ (see 1 Corinthians 1:17).  That is not to say that Paul did not teach the essentiality of water baptism in the name of Jesus Christ.  One need only read Acts 19:1-6 to know that is not the case. But, rather, that he recognized the fundamental importance of the initial personal confrontation with Christ and that inevitable moment of decision where all men must answer for who they believe Jesus of Nazareth to be.

Everyone needs that moment of conflict with Christ.  Jesus Christ was and is a polarizing character who said of Himself, "I came to cause division" (see Matthew 10:34-39).  Part of that division comes in the way of dividing an individual from the world and, more intimately, from their own sinfulness.  Christ came to call sinners to repentance.  It is the express will of God that all men everywhere repent.  Without repentance there is no conversion and without conversion there is no Christian, no redemption, no salvation and no eternal life.  Yes, we absolutely must stand in agreement with the Apostles in declaring water baptism in the name of Jesus Christ and the baptism of the Holy Spirit as absolutely essential elements of the new birth but it must not be at the expense of the doctrine of repentance.

Repent and be baptized (see Acts 2:38).  Repent and be converted (see Acts 3:19).  Repent or you shall all likewise perish (see Luke 13:3-5).  In none of these examples do we see a script asking people if they want to go to heaven and, when they say yes, rushing them to a swimming pool and "baptizing" them.  Taking someone to the water of baptism too quickly is a spiritual crime against that person.  If an individual is not truly repentant the waters of baptism hold no efficacy for them.  They're participating in an initiation ceremony and being deceived into believing that everything is alright.  Furthermore, declaring for that individual that they have received the baptism of the Holy Spirit because their teeth chattered, they stumbled over their words in excitement or because they had a sudden, 3 second ecstatic utterance is not only nonsensical but it is heretical.  The Bible clearly teaches speaking in tongues when an individual receives the baptism of the Holy Spirit (see Acts 2:1-4, 10:44-46, 19:6).  It also teaches that if any man is in Christ he is a new creature; old things pass away and all things become new (see 2 Corinthians 5:17).  No amount of hyper-emotionalism at the hands of an overanxious charismatic will produce that, but a proper beginning with sincere repentance will.

For Saul of Tarsus the process of conversion was a pattern which every individual must follow.  First, there was a moment of confrontation with the person of Christ.  During that confrontation Saul was called away from his present way of life and given the option of following Christ.  His answer to this opportunity for salvation came in the form of traveling as a blind man with the help of guides to the exact place God told him to go.  It would be appropriate to note at this point that Saul was not converted on the road to Damascus.  His conversion experience began there but most certainly did not come to fruition at that point.  He was commanded to go to Damascus and wait for a man to come and tell him what he must do and thereby confirming what the Holy Spirit would later inspire the Apostle Paul to write inasmuch as God has chosen the foolishness of preaching to save Believers (see 1 Corinthians 1:21).

Saul began his journey of repentance there in the dirt on the road to Damascus.  Rising from that place, he would travel on into the city and there, in the house of Judas, Saul sat praying and fasting for three days.  Godly sorrow had started to work in his heart.  Repentance.  Conversion.  A new creature was forming in the old shell of a man called Saul.  His heart was prepared so that when Ananias declared the Word of God to him a definitive response was possible.  God had explained to Ananias what had happened to Saul already as is evidenced by the except of the conversation that is provided for us.  Leaning on this confrontation with Christ and building upon it as the foundation for spiritual progress, Ananias was able to go from there and declare what Saul's next steps had to be if he was to truly follow Jesus Christ.

Are we truly preaching the Gospel using the Apostolic method?  If so, we must begin with Christ.  Preaching Christ as the confrontational figure that He is while placing the decision about His nature and person firmly in the hand of the individual hearing the Word is the Apostolic method.  If they are pricked in their hearts, convicted of their sins and have determined to turn from their sinful lives then we must push forward and explain to them the response to the Gospel that God ordained.  This is how conversion takes place.  No "5 minute scripts" to follow.  No pushing for an "emotional knee-jerk reactions."  No "high pressure" sales pitch.  Christ is preached, the Spirit convicts and confronts, the individual yields and is taught the appropriate response.  And while it is true that it does not take years and years for an individual to repent, sincere repentance produced by godly sorrow must take place or else nothing else done thereafter has any meaning, purpose or efficacy.

Whatever happened to conversion?  It occurred over and over in the Scriptures and is the Apostolic pattern and method we must follow in order to truly obey the Great Commission of going into the world, preaching the Gospel and making Disciples of all (see Matthew 28:18-20, Mark 16:15-16).

PREACHING CHRIST:  Tell the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ so that men are confronted by His person and must make a decision in regard to His Messiahship and Lordship (Acts 2:22-36, Acts 8:5, Acts 10:36-43 Acts 19:4).

MAKING A DECISION:  Conviction, godly sorrow, begins to work in the heart of the individual and they make a decision in regard to Christ (Acts 2:37, Acts 8:12, Acts 10:44, 19:5).

LEADING TO THE RESPONSE:  Repentance, water baptism in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins and the baptism of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38-39, Acts 8:12, 15-17, Acts 10:44-48, Acts 19:5-6).  

Whatever happened to conversion?  God still desires to convert the lives of men and women all over the world, to forgive their sins and fill them with His Spirit that they might have a new life (see Romans 6:3-4).  Are you among those who are yet to be truly converted?  Take the first step today.

"Repent ye therefore, and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out, when the times of refreshing shall come from the presence of the Lord." - Acts 3:19 (KJV)