And they ate and were well filled,
for he gave them what they craved.
- Psalm 78:29
Will God answer our self-defeating prayers? Scripture seems to indicate that’s a distinct possibility.
When the Israelites complained relentlessly in the wilderness that the manna - the bread of angels - God had sent them wasn’t enough, He answered their prayers for meat. He gave them so much meat that they ate themselves sick (Numbers 11:18-20). What blessings would have awaited them - how soon and how triumphant their entry into the promised land - had they merely trusted and obeyed? We’ll never know.
What blessings await us if, instead of giving the Lord instructions on how to bless us, we simply ask Him to bless us as only He can? Could this be the game-changer we’ve been seeking, simple and unreserved trust?
Heavenly Father, how foolish we can be. While we read these verses and sanctimoniously judge in our hearts the people of Israel - people who were in much more difficult circumstances than most of us - we pass along a list of demands, just as they did. In doing so, there’s a possibility that we will miss the richest blessings that You have to offer. Forgive us our foolishness. Ignore our self-defeating prayers, and teach us to pray in a manner that pleases You and gives You free reign in our lives. Amen.
“For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.” If I believe the remedy to this is to perfect my speech, I should think again, for “A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him.”
We are condemned or acquitted on the words that come out of our mouths not so much because of what those words say, but because they serve as evidence of what’s in our hearts. And on the judgement day, I’ll either have Jesus in my heart, or I won’t.
I can test myself on this. Is Jesus in my heart? No human being speaks exclusively good or bad things, each one of us has the tendency to lift up at one moment and tear down the next; but is the love of Jesus shining through in my life? Would those acquainted with me say there is something good that shines out of me, that comes through in my words and in my deeds? If not, what to do, again, control my speech, pull up my bootstraps? Nope, that won’t work.
No human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.
- James 3:8 (emphasis mine)
Taming the tongue is beyond my capabilities. So what is the remedy?
Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!
- Romans 7:21-25
I am brought once again to the mercy of the cross. Self-control is a biblical virtue, and I ought to practice it as long as it’s within my capability to do so. But long-term change is impossible without Jesus in my life, working through the Holy Spirit.
So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.
- Galatians 5:16
Once again I must throw myself on the mercy of the cross, the mercy of Christ Jesus, and cry out:
Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
- Psalm 51:10
All praise and thanks be to God who is merciful, who is gracious, and who certainly will answer this prayer, changing us from the inside out. All we need do is ask.
“Go ahead, beg God to be merciful to you! But when you bring that kind of offering, why should he show you any favor at all?” asks the Lord of Heaven’s Armies.
“How I wish one of you would shut the Temple doors so that these worthless sacrifices could not be offered! I am not pleased with you,” says the Lord of Heaven’s Armies, “and I will not accept your offerings. But my name is honored by people of other nations from morning till night. All around the world they offer sweet incense and pure offerings in honor of my name. For my name is great among the nations,” says the Lord of Heaven’s Armies.
“But you dishonor my name with your actions. By bringing contemptible food, you are saying it’s all right to defile the Lord’s table. You say, ‘It’s too hard to serve the Lord,’ and you turn up your noses at my commands,” says the Lord of Heaven’s Armies. “Think of it! Animals that are stolen and crippled and sick are being presented as offerings! Should I accept from you such offerings as these?” asks the Lord.
“Cursed is the cheat who promises to give a fine ram from his flock but then sacrifices a defective one to the Lord. For I am a great king,” says the Lord of Heaven’s Armies, “and my name is feared among the nations!”
- Malachi 1:6-14
Let’s not get hung up on all the talk of diseased animals and sacrifices. If we think that God needed the Israelites to bring Him a certain sort of animal in a certain sort of condition, we’re missing the point. It’s not as if such sacrifices were somehow taken through a magic portal into Heaven where He used them for purposes unknown. The sacrifices offered to God were typically eaten either by the priests or by the people who offered them (depends on the circumstances).
No, our Lord’s issue here is with the condition of His people’s hearts: “Try giving gifts like that to your governor, and see how pleased he is!” (v. 8). Translation? We respect those who have been placed in authority over us, and would never insult them with haphazard and petty offerings. If I were meeting with a great political leader in my country and I had an opportunity to bring that person a gift, would I simply fish a dollar or two out of my pocket when the time comes, as we so often do when the collection plate gets passed around?
No, I’m not about to go on a tangent about tithing. Those who insist on a 10% rule are also, as far as I can tell, missing the point on this issue. Elsewhere in scripture God rejects Israel’s evidently abundant sacrifices with no mention at all of poor quality.
“The multitude of your sacrifices – what are they to me?” says the Lord. “I have more than enough of burnt offerings, of rams and the fat of fattened animals; I have no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats... wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight; stop doing wrong. Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.”
- Isaiah 1:11,16-17
Here the text's subject matter is different – in Malachi it's the quality of the sacrifices, in Isaiah it’s the nation’s character of injustice – and yet it’s the same; God detests the sacrifices of malicious, self-centered and unclean hearts no matter what those sacrifices may be. The sacrifice that He truly desires is a clean, contrite and reverent heart (Psalm 51:17, Micah 6:8, Psalm 51:10).
Malachi is addressing people who have failed to put the Lord of Heaven’s armies into His proper context, revere Him as God, Creator of the universe, Holy, Awesome, Terrible, Wonderful. Israel has ceased believing that God is God. He’s become a figurehead, a harmless overseer, an absentee landlord who is not expected to return any time soon. If they believed Him to be otherwise, would they dare insult Him? Would we?
The point for us vis-à-vis church offerings? Whatever amount you put into the collection plate, if you do so generously, cheerfully, reverently and sacrificially, you’re right.* Whatever amount you put into the collection plate, if you do so self-righteously, sparingly, irreverently or thoughtlessly, you’re wrong.
The point for us vis-à-vis everything else? Our Lord is not an idea, not a harmless benefactor, not an afterthought, not to be taken for granted. Yes, He loves us amazingly, overwhelmingly, constantly, but let’s not mistake His love for impassive tolerance. He is to be worshiped. This is not something to be taken lightly.
Heavenly Father. It's so easy for us to take our eyes off you for a moment and plunge headlong off the narrow path, forgetting who you truly are in the process. We beg you not to let this happen. Correct us before we fall, remind us of how awesome, powerful and wonderful you are. And never let us forget or neglect your profoundly tender, personal and overwhelming love. We pray in the name of your precious son, Jesus. Amen.
*This isn't to be taken as an excuse for offering trifles at church. One thing we may want to consider is whether our giving is sacrificial because we've left no margin in our lives for giving. Any reasonable percentage may be nearly impossible for me because I've secured the highest mortgage my broker said I could borrow and/or the largest car loan my bank would allow; consequently I've left so little room at the end of my budget that I can't contribute much to my church without going further into debt. If this is the case, I may not be living a biblical lifestyle; this is a problem I should take pains to address.
I wonder if I really understand that the goodness of God not only exists within me, but defines me; He is the core of who I am. He is at the center.
I know this, on some theological level, but is this central to my understanding of myself in relation to God and to the world around me? If I’m to be completely honest, I likely spend a lot more time approaching God from the standpoint of an malevolent sinner in need of penance rather than a redeemed child in need of forgiveness and a helping hand.
Of course, repentance and confession are and must be central to Christian living. A Christian must have a confessional attitude (1 John 1:9-10), but does that necessarily translate to an attitude of scorn and derision as it concerns me? More disconcerting still, do I subconsciously project this expectation onto other Christians and expect that they ought to do the same? Again, if I’m to be honest, I probably do.
What struck me this morning as I read David’s psalm is his acknowledgement of God’s work in himself as wonderful - a praise where praise is due sort of statement - which he manages without the slightest trace of conceit. If God has truly made me wonderfully, is it really virtuous of me to heap scorn on myself? On my sin, yes, but on myself? I wonder.
This morning, God’s word has compelled me to hit the pause button and reflect on an unspoken assumption that I’ve carried around with me for a long time. While I certainly don’t want to join in on the narcissistic “celebration of self” that seems to have become the world's favourite pastime, perhaps I need to be more careful not to go running off another cliff entirely. We’ve all done that now, haven’t we?
Unless the Lord builds the house,
the builders labor in vain.
Unless the Lord watches over the city,
the guards stand watch in vain.
- Psalm 127:1
I suspect you would never intend this, but this is what happens. When you attempt to live by your own religious plans and projects, you are cut off from Christ, you fall out of grace. Meanwhile we expectantly wait for a satisfying relationship with the Spirit. For in Christ, neither our most conscientious religion nor disregard of religion amounts to anything. What matters is something far more interior: faith expressed in love.
- Galatians 5:4-6 (The Message)
There is a critical difference between practicing obedience to the Lord Jesus Christ and embarking on self-centered religious expeditions. The former comes from a place of worship: namely worship of the Triune God and a profound recognition of His sovereign right to rule our lives. The second also comes from a place of worship, albeit a different sort altogether. This is the worship of an idol that we hope to become, an image of a self-styled, successful religionist: someone who is able to bend the ear of other Christians and lead them in grand and impressive projects.
We must be ever vigilant to ensure we’re on the right side of this problem.
How? Good question. Ego is a tempting mistress. Vanity is ruthless and persistent, eager to lead us down false and fruitless paths; and she is not above using the appearance of virtue to do so. Search your heart; can you count the number of times you’ve used religious or moralistic rationalizations to justify egocentric conduct? I can’t. There are far too many to count.
So how? How can we ensure we’re being obedient to righteousness, rather than enslaved to moralistic vanity? Why, the Cross of course. The Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ gives us the power to confess our sin anew every single day – as many times as we encounter it – invite the Holy Spirit to come into our lives and plead with Him to continue His beautiful work: reconstructing our hearts.
This is why Christ commanded us to remain firmly attached to Him at all times:
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.”
- John 15:1-4
In my next post, I’ll discuss how critical a role the Church plays in our connection to Jesus. For now, suffice it to say we do well to resist the temptation to practice an idolatry of the ideal self, and to empty ourselves before Christ so the Holy Spirit may fill the void.
Heavenly Father, how tyrannized we are by our own egos! We long to put ourselves aside and invite you in, so that we may be remade, and that we may gladly follow in your footsteps, the footsteps of a loving but uncompromising servant. We can’t do this without your grace, and without your loving hand firmly in our lives. We invite you in and ask you to continue this worthwhile work, in Jesus’ name, Amen.
We are not Gnostics; the path to salvation is God’s amazing grace, not man’s amazing knowledge.
With that being said, to neglect God’s word when we have the choice to do otherwise is profoundly foolish – tantamount to a starving man refusing to eat a buffet that sits before him. In an age where we are consistently and willfully subjected to misleading information (typically in an effort to get us to buy one product or another), it is critical that those of us who are able to steep themselves in the Word do so.
This is all the more critical in a church that is brimming over with ear-tickling false teachers who stand to make a fortune telling us what we so desperately want to hear: that the way we’re living our lives is perfectly fine, that the God of the bible is intimately concerned not so much with our service, but with our satisfaction.
“Name it and claim it!”. “Live your dreams!”. While not all of us have the luxury of formal training in hermeneutics and biblical Greek, a careful, personal study of God’s word - combined with the accountability that fellow Christians and a Godly pastor can provide - ought to guard us well against such damning and witless heresies, and further protect us from a world that is determined to drown us in an ocean of lies.
So much in one small verse. He is our dwelling place.
What is your house to you? Surely it's protection, warmth, provision. It's where you eat, sleep, commune with your family; it's where you relax. It's where you conduct a considerable amount of your day's work. It's your storehouse, where you keep everything you need tightly under lock and key. It's where you keep everything from your daily bread to your most treasured possessions.
It's where you raise your children. It's where you share intimacies with your spouse. It's where you experience your greatest heartaches and your most profound joys.
Is this who God is to me? Have I made Him my dwelling place, or have I turned Him into a spare room that I drop in on from time to time?
Colin McComb lives in Edson, Alberta with his wife, Gail, and their three lovely children.