05/5/16

In defense of the Electoral College

I actually first published this to my old blog back in 2007, which explains the references to Hillary Clinton as “New York’s junior senator.” The question still arises today. Defending the Electoral College is an issue that ought to cut across party lines. This is not about politics, but polity. This is important. Please take time to consider the argument in favor of the Electoral College’s existence.

 

The President of the United States of America. Every four years one person is chosen to occupy the highest office in the land. The choice is made by the nation’s citizens. On the second Tuesday of November, Americans in every state go to the ballot box and mark their preferences. After turning in their ballot cards, they grin proudly and place a sticker that says “I voted” on their shirts. Lying in bed that night, these Americans can feel satisfaction knowing that their voice will be heard. After all, it will be the vote of the American people that determines who will be the next President—sort of.

The Electoral College was born in the minds of the founding fathers as they penned the Constitution of the United States. Though it has been around since the United States became united, its mechanics remain a mystery to a large portion of nation’s population. The process is not as intricate and complex as many suspect. To become the President, a candidate must receive a majority of the states’ Electoral College votes. Today that number is two hundred seventy.

The number of votes for each state is equal to the number of seats that state has in Congress, which includes both the House of Representatives and the Senate. Just as the creation of the two tier legislative branch was a compromise between large and small states, the Electoral College is also a device which helps balance the power between heavily and sparsely populated states. In the Senate all states are equally represented with two senators. In the House, the number of representative each state has is based upon population.  Thus, the number of votes a state has in the Electoral College is the combination of the equality of all states and the various numbers of individual voices in each separate state (see the United States’ Constitution).

The Electoral College votes take the form of delegates, real human beings chosen to go to Washington D.C., appear before Congress, and declare themselves for a particular candidate. The Constitution sets the date for this meeting of Electors and Congress more than a month after election Tuesday. The Constitution gives the power to choose a state’s slate of Electors to the state legislative branch. “Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors. . .” (US Constitution, Article II, Section I, Clause 2). Though it does have unlimited, binding control of the process, usually the popular vote within the state will determine the slate of Electors endorsed by the legislature. All but two states—Maine and Nebraska—have adopted the “unit rule” regarding their Electoral College votes.  The unit rule locks all of a state’s votes together so they cannot be divided among candidates. Thus, if a candidate wins the nation’s largest electoral prize, California, he gets all its fifty-four votes—regardless of the margin of victory (Forbes, 26).

The Electoral College system has been called “archaic,” “elitist,” and “unnecessary” since modern voting machinery made results practically instant and accurate. With nearly every Presidential election, there comes talk about the Electoral College and whether it continues to have a place in our government. Many wonder why the United States should not just do away with the electoral system and elect the President based solely upon popular vote. This discussion has even taken place formally in Congress. In 1960, Kennedy narrowly beat Nixon in the popular vote, 49.7 percent to 49.5 percent. Nixon won more states (Nixon 26, Kennedy 24), but Kennedy won bigger states and went on to win the electoral balloting, 303 to 219. The suggestions about dumping the Electoral College began. In 1968, Nixon defeated Hubert Humphrey with a popular vote margin of less than one percent. The possibility of a modern-day popular vote winner being denied the presidency became such a concern that the House of Representatives approved a constitutional amendment to abolish the Electoral College. The bill had broad support in the Senate as well. Though debate stretched on for a decade, it never got the two-thirds majority needed to pass a constitutional amendment (Hively, 79).

The debate got heated again after the 2000 election of George W. Bush over Al Gore. And it has been sparked again. People are questioning both the necessity and the fairness of the Electoral College. Many, including New York’s junior Senator and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, have spoken out against the electoral system designed by the founding fathers. The odds of such an amendment ever getting the necessary two-thirds majority is extremely slim because of senators from less populous states who would surely oppose the move. If, by chance, an amendment was approved, the Electoral College cast away, and the President was to be elected by direct popular vote, a real tragedy would have occurred. The Electoral College is important to ensure the power of individual votes, the best possible representation of the whole nation, and the protection of minorities (racial, religious, ideological, etc.).

The trademark of our democracy is the governing power of the people’s voice. Votes, the voice of the people, have far more weight and importance in the Electoral College system than they would in a direct election by popular vote. The power of a vote is the probability of that one vote turning a national election. The higher the probability, the more power each voter has. Individual voting power is higher when funneled through districts—such as states—than when pooled in one large, direct election (Hively, 81). It is more likely, therefore, that one person’s vote will determine the outcome in his or her state and that state turning the outcome of the Electoral College than that person’s vote determining the outcome of a direct national election.

Some would argue that this makes some votes more important than others. These people might point out how in 2000 a five hundred vote lead in Florida mattered more than a three hundred thousand vote lead nationwide. The votes in Florida mattered more than those anywhere else. They do not appear equal. Mere equality of votes, however, is not of the highest importance. Rather, the idea is to give every voter the largest equal share of national voting power possible. This is an important distinction. Here is a classic example of basic equal voting power:  under a tyranny, everyone’s power is equal to zero (Hively, 77). Clearly, equality alone is not enough. In a democracy, individuals become less vulnerable to tyranny as their voting power increases. That power is enhanced by the Electoral College’s ability to make a vote more likely to determine an election’s outcome.

The chief architect of our nation’s Electoral College system was James Madison. Realizing the dangerous possibility of a dominating bloc of citizens banded together as a massed power, Madison wanted to protect each citizen of the democracy against such tyranny. As Madison explained in The Federalist Papers (Number X), “a well-constructed Union” must, above all else, “break and control the violence of faction,” especially “the superior force of an. . .overbearing majority.” In any direct democracy, minorities are threatened by the majorities’ power. Without an electoral system, a candidate has every incentive to court only the votes of the largest bloc—the Serbs in Yugoslavia, for example. If a Serbian party were to win a national election, minorities would have no means of ever having their rights and needs represented; forty-nine percent will never beat fifty-one percent. Knowing this, the majority can do as it pleases without any fear of ever losing control. But, with an electoral system which funnels votes through districts, no one can become president without winning a large number of districts or “states”—say, two of the following three: Serbia, Bosnia, and Croatia. Candidates, therefore, have need to woo non-Serbian voters as well as Serbians. This protects the minorities from extremists.

The nation’s Electoral College has worked beautifully to convert one large national election into fifty-one (the fifty states plus the District of Columbia) smaller elections in which individual voters have more clout. The Madisonian system, by requiring candidates to win states on the way to winning the nation, has forced majorities to win the consent of minorities. In the 2000 election, citizens who lived in big cities were a slight majority compared to citizens in rural areas. Though Gore was ahead of Bush by 300,000 votes nationwide, Bush won 2,432,456 square miles of land and Gore only won 575,184 square miles. The vast majority of the land in which Gore triumphed is highly urban areas (Overberg). Without the Electoral College, voters in rural areas would have no real influence on Presidential elections. However, under the current system, candidates need to represent ideas that appeal to the whole nation to win.  They must have an ideology that does not represent only that of the numerical, geographically-restrictive majority. Candidates must represent the diversity of the nation.

Advocates for direct election of the President complain that a candidate who wins the Electoral College vote but not the popular vote will have no real mandate to govern, and that he will not be the legitimate choice of the people. Such people simply do not like the rules as they are laid out. These activists should consider the “legitimacy argument” in terms of baseball. In the World Series, a team must win four games in the seven game series. The 1960 World Series was a major battle between the New York Yankees and the Pittsburgh Pirates. Over the course of all the games, the Yankees scored more than twice as many total runs as the Pirates, 55 to 27. Yet the Yankees lost the series, four games to three. No one walked away saying it was unfair. Those are the rules. That’s how the game is played. Similarly, the rules in the Constitution of the United States, the document which embodies the freedoms of Americans, states that the President is selected by the outcome of the Electoral College vote. Just as the Pirates, who scored less runs but won more games, were the legitimate winner of the World Series in 1960, a candidate who gets less individual votes but wins more states’ electoral votes would be the legitimate winner of the presidential election.

Though misunderstood by many Americans, the Electoral College is a tool designed by the founding fathers to ensure the peaceful unity of the democracy. Unlike a direct popular election, the Electoral College maximizes the power of each individual’s vote. This electoral system also prevents even the slightest majority from taking hold of control and mistreating the valid minority. If a candidate wants to win, he must court the votes of many states; this leads to the election of the candidate who best represents the diversity across the nation. The Electoral College works to see that every President is truly the leader of a united United States.

 

Works Cited

Forbes, Steve.  “Underrated Unifier.”  Forbes.  16 Dec. 1996: 26.
Hively, Will.  “Math Against Tyranny.”  Discovery Nov. 1996: 74-84.
Madison, James.  The Federalist Papers.  1798.
Overberg, Paul.  “Latest Vote, County by County.” USA Today.  20 Nov. 2000      <http://www.usatoday.com/news/vote2000/cbc/map.htm>United States Constitution

03/10/16

I Blame Pastors: How Pansy Preaching Gave Us Trump

Nine months ago I was certain that Donald Trump’s campaign for President would be another media stunt designed to bolster the brand of the reality TV star. While I remain convinced that was the present front-runner’s original intent, his run for the GOP nomination has been anything but a flash in the pan. The more appropriate metaphor would be a wildfire. I find some solace in knowing that I was not alone, not by a long shot, in underestimating Trump’s staying power.

But now the destructive blaze has consumed nearly the entire South, save Texas and Oklahoma. (I’ve never been more proud to be a Texan than when we slapped down The Donald.) How did this happen? How did the Trump wildfire spread through a region of the country traditionally known as the Bible Belt?

Consider the facts. Here’s a man who presents a long history of moral, uh, problems and inconsistencies. To name just a few: mob connections, exploiting foreign workers, entrapping foreign women, defrauding individuals under the guise of education, degrading women and the handicapped, using vulgarities with bravado, hesitating to disavow the KKK, repeating racially inflammatory “history” that he knows isn’t even true, threatening the press’s First Amendment freedoms, and praising fascist leaders like Putin and Mussolini. And then when he’s caught in his lies, he lies and lies and lies and lies about lying. Oh, and he has  denied ever asking God for forgiveness because he’s not sure that he’s done anything to warrant a need for it.

But he won the Bible belt. So I ask again, how did this happen?

Well, I place a good bit of the blame squarely in the lap of pastors. Those who ascend the pulpit Sunday after Sunday have a responsibility to declare the whole counsel of God. That task has largely been neglected in many churches over the past couple of generations. Instead, most evangelical churches today have adopted the consumerism of our culture rather than challenge it. We have tried to take the culture’s winning trends and co-opt them for Christ. Populism has infected the pulpit. Rather than letting the Bible shape pulpit strategy—say, by letting Paul dictate the way we preach Romans or Moses determine knew the best way to teach the history of Abraham—we turn to pop culture and cleverly craft series like “Extreme Makeover: Church Edition” or “Fifty Shades of Grace.” Lord, have mercy.

I’ll be blunt. Rather than a bold prophetic voice declaring the truth of the Bible—all of it, verse by verse—many sermons are glib, pansy whimpers of cultural accommodation more concerned about leaving the consumer warm and comfortable than exalting the glory of God in Christ. The results have been tragic and manifold, but I am going to mention just three that have given us The Donald as a serious contender for the most powerful political office in the world.

First, Christians have not been taught God’s Word. They don’t know very much truth. They think they do, but they do not. It’s clear, as research confirms year after year, that basic historic doctrines of the faith have been sidelined for pat, pseudo-biblical motivational affirmations. Theology is considered passé, cold, even harmful. But without knowing the theological underpinnings of the gospel, Christians have no discernment. Subtle falsehood tastes acrid only when we’ve experienced the sweetness of deep truth again and again.

Second, pastors have enmeshed patriotism and discipleship. Don’t misunderstand me. I am patriotic, love my country, believe Christians should be involved in politics, support the military, and pray with all sincerity, “God, bless America!” But we have too often made an idol of our country. The United States is not the Bible’s shining city on a hill; the Church is. Our nation is not the world’s hope; Jesus Christ is. While churches should express gratitude to God for our country and the freedoms we enjoy, we should not displace worshiping the risen Christ with red, white, and blue fanfare on July 4th each year. In many ways, great and small, pastors have elevated patriotism as a form of Christian faithfulness, often to the point that partisan positions overshadow biblical principles. Far too many evangelicals have been indirectly taught that if it isn’t Republican, it must not be Christian.

Third, Christians have been conditioned by flimsy, vapid Sunday messages to perk up for pseudo-biblical sound bites, crafty wordplays and trite phrases. These sound good, even moral, but are mere puffs of air, easily deflated with the slightest weight of biblical reasoning. A steady diet of jelly beans does not help one acquire a taste for fresh veggies. As evidence, I would point you to the standard Facebook feed, in which a myriad of well-meaning Christians post memes of baptized fortune cookie phraseology. Add a God reference and put an angel or a cross in the background, and bit of pop psychology or new age wisdom will amass thousands of likes and shares by Christians who should know better.

But they don’t know better. Why not? Their pastors have trained them to respond to one-liners, to not have to focus for too long, to not have to do the hard work of applying a thoroughly Christian worldview in nuanced ways to the world’s complex problems. The pulpit is a place of teaching, and that teaching comes not only in the content but methodology. Pastors are to teach people how to think biblically. So even if a pastor is saying right things, if he rushes to application without showing people how he arrived there from the text of the Bible, he neglects a formative step toward shaping Christian minds.

So what do we get when we have a generation of church-goers who have very little biblical discernment; confusion on the roles of politics, patriotism, and partisanship; and a conditioned positive response to churchy thumbnails? We get an opening for an opportunist with a populist message to hijack the conservative movement with empty and often foolish words and phrases: Make America great again! We’re going to build a wall, and Mexico is going to pay for it! We don’t win anymore, but trust me, we are going to start winning again!

“Never mind appealing to abuse of executive power. Forget racist overtones. Ignore issues of character, integrity, godliness. Let me watch a YouTube video and wear my ball cap and watch the flames burn it all down. And if you question my candidate, try to bring up his sketchy past, talk about the Constitution and limited government, or reveal his inconsistencies, I have a “Judge not, lest you be judged” meme for you.”

Pastors may not have lit the match to ignite the Trump wildfire, but we did prepared the kindling by not washing the Church with the water of the Word from our pulpits week by week.

06/24/15

Love in Deed and Truth: A Funeral Sermon for John Hall

Two years ago today, I officiated the funeral service of John Hall. Despite his absence, Mr. Hall’s service to the Barbers Hill community continues through the legacy he left behind. In his honor, I’m posting the text of the sermon I shared on this day in 2013.

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At the age of 22, without any formal ministerial training or experience or theological education, I became the pastor of Mont Belvieu’s First Baptist Church, and the pastor of John and Francis Hall. It was a strange reality, to be the pastor of people who I’d been raised to love and respect so much. But the support of the congregation, and specifically of people like the Halls, has helped me to endure these last nine years.

Shortly after being installed as the pastor of the church, John Hall came to my office to give me some advice. That he would be willing to give “advice” is no shock to any who knew him. He offered some lessons in leadership, probably that he learned as a principle (for example, I should remind people to “be nice, be nice”), and he shared some thoughts from the perspective of a layman and church member. These included this helpful bit of information: “Jake,” he said. “You need be done by twelve o’clock, because at 11:55, people stop listening.”

Mr. Hall offered me a lot of advice actually. He was liberal with giving his opinion (O, how he would hate that I just called him liberal!). I’ve heard him laude the virtues of ROTH IRAs, for example, many, many times. I’ve been coached on how to read the Wall Street Journal. And—this one always got me—he was one of the chief critics of my clothes on Sunday mornings. Nearly every week on his way out of church he would let me know whether the colors of my tie, shirt, and suit were well coordinated. I always found this funny because of Mr. Hall’s own choice of attire, not so much on Sundays but during the week. I would run into him at the post office frequently, and he would have on brown work boots with white tube socks, sweat pants tucked into the socks, and a ragged Barbers Hill t-shirt. “Does your wife know you left the house like this,” I’d ask. “What?” he say, flashing his trademark toothy half-grin-smirk.

Some funerals are easy and difficult in all the right ways. This is such a funeral. This is an easy funeral because of the wealth of the legacy that John Hall has left for us. In his lifetime, he and his wife truly helped to shape our community for the better, as educators, workers, worshipers, and neighbors. This is an easy funeral because there is no difficulty to be had in searching for honoring memories to celebrate this life. Yet this is a hard funeral, and—as I said—hard in all the right ways: it is difficult to say goodbye to people who we love, admire, and respect. Mr. Hall is certainly such a man. So I take comfort, and I hope that you do to, in the fact that the Bible does not tell us that we cannot grieve at the loss of our loved ones. Instead we are exhorted to grieve as those who have hope in Christ, knowing we will see them again in a world made new.

On the night Mr. Hall passed away, I was at the hospital with his girls (as he called his three daughters), and we were talking about him and verses that reminded them of their dad. First John 3:18 was shared: “Little children, let us not love in word or in talk but in deed and in truth.” I agree that a more suitable verse could not be found for John Hall.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus instructed his disciples on the discipline of giving by saying this:

Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven. Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. (Matthew 6:1–4)

John and Francis Hall (I cannot honor the life of Mr. Hall without speaking of Mrs. Hall) modeled Christian giving. The first football season that I served as pastor, Mr. Hall came to my office at the church and sat down opposite me at my desk. He pulled out a stack of blue tickets and said, “Give me a number.” The blank look on my face tipped him off that I didn’t know what he was talking about. “I’m supporting my favorite charity,” he said. They were tickets to Homecoming Scholarship Association BBQ dinner. I said, “Oh, thank you! Um, I guess I’ll take two.”

He grinned. I’d misunderstood. He said, “Not just for you. How about…?” He began to name people in the congregation and community, many who struggle financially, others who he thought just deserved to be treated. As he named the families, he counted out the tickets in a stack before me. This became a yearly occurrence up until his health declined recently.

He and Francis would get it in their minds that the church had a need. He would come to me inquiring about what the cost of this or that might be, and then slightly more than that amount would show up in the church’s coffers. Mr. Hall would enter our office and hand his credit card to Rusty, our student pastor, and tell him to go take the van for an oil change, have it serviced, or have new tires put on it. And then there were the honey baked hams and turkeys. Whenever there was a death in our church, the Halls brought the ham. Mr. Hall used me as an intermediary with families who were facing hard times. Never wanting to be known, going out of his way to avoid the credit, he gave me cash and instructions, and would never mention the errand again.

I’m certain I was privy to only a fraction of the Halls’ generosity, but I personally saw them spend a small fortune on hams, BBQ dinners, oil changes, and anonymous gifts to families in need. He and Francis sounded no trumpet in the streets when they gave. But their Father in heaven, who sees all that is done in secret, took note, and I believe that today he is enjoying his reward.

First John 3:18 is certainly fitting to describe Mr. Hall’s faith. The paragraph begins in 3:16, two verses earlier:

By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth. (1 John 3:16-18)

Good works don’t get us into heaven. Mr. Hall, and especially Mrs. Hall, will scold me on the day when I see them again in glory if I don’t make that very clear. Mr. Hall’s generosity was not rooted in his desire to earn God’s love in life. I believe it was rooted in an overflow of God’s love already in his life. If you felt Mr. Hall’s generous love, then you felt the love of God through him.

The Bible tells us that genuine love for others is rooted in God’s love for us. God’s love—real love—is most clearly seen in the sacrificial giving of Jesus’ life for us: “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us.” The good news of Jesus Christ is that while we were sinners, Christ died for us. He died the death we owe for our sin so that we don’t have to suffer that death. He satisfied God’s wrath and won our salvation. He laid down his life for us, a sacrifice in our place.

And if we have believed that, trusted that, experienced that, then we should reflexively (will reflexively!) imitate such love. “He laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers.” The Apostle John then asks, “If anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?” No, Mr. Hall did not love in mere words and talk, but in deeds and in truth.

I’d like to say something to the family, and especially the grandchildren: You have inherited a great legacy of quiet service to your follow man. God has blessed you in your grandparents with an honorable example of godly giving. Communities need such individuals, people who act in ways large and small for the good of others. We need people to dream big ideas and create scholarship associations. We need people to notice small needs and quietly do what we can to better another’s life.

Really, I suppose this example has been left not just for the family, but for all of us who were given the grace of friendship with John and Francis Hall. They are now a part of that great cloud of witnesses whose legacies encourage us to finish this race on earth well. And I am certain that they would have me go one level deeper. John would tell me to be brief, and so I will.

The very next verse, 1 John 3:19, continues this way:

By this we shall know that we are of the truth and reassure our heart before him; for whenever our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and he knows everything.

You see, we’ll never give so much that our hearts are totally satisfied in our own righteousness. In fact, if we are giving in order to prove or earn our righteousness before God, we’re going about it completely backwards. Our hearts condemn us at times. God’s given us a conscience, and it tells us when we do wrong. God, who knows everything, knows our hearts and is great than our hearts.

Whenever we face the death of a friend or loved one, we must consider our own death, as well. One day we will breathe our last, just as Mr. Hall did. Are you ready for that day? Is your heart? Does it rest in confidence or condemn with fear? The Apostle John tells us in the next verse (3:22) that we can have confidence before God if “we keep his commandments and do what pleases him.” That sounds overwhelming: all his commandments? how do we please him?

He immediately tells us next in 3:23: “And this is his commandment, that we believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us.”

It’s really that simple. Not necessarily easy, but simple.  To merely give for others is to love “in deed,” but we must also love “in truth,” the Word says. The truth in the Bible is the gospel, the good news of Jesus, who himself is “the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” Trust in the work of Jesus Christ on the cross: he died in the place of sinners, rose again defeating death and sin, and gives life to all who turn away from self-will and trust in him. Believe in him and love one another, and your heart will have confidence on the day that you face your Father in heaven, who sees what is done in secret. Believe in Jesus’ death and follow his example, and then you love not with words or talk, but in deed and in truth.

Mr. Hall was always reluctant to take official positions of leadership in our church. In fact, he turned down every committee position offered to him during my tenure as pastor. That just goes to show that some people don’t need positions to lead. With his powerful example of faithfulness and kindness, John Hall has led many to better live their faith. His pastor is no exception, and for that I am thankful.

11/11/14

How is weakness a good thing?

This article originally appeared in Hometown Journey Magazine.

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Question: I heard a Christian say that God loves our weakness. How is weakness a good thing?

Poor Gideon. Who can blame him for hiding at the bottom of a winepress? Life in Israel was scary. The Midianites could attack at any moment (Judges 6:11). A streak of bad circumstances had Gideon and others wondering if God had abandoned them (6:13). Where was the miracle-working God of the Exodus now?

It must have been bad to be thrashing wheat in a winepress. The process was supposed to be conducted outside in a field. The wheat would be crush and thrown up into the air, where the heavier, usable kernels would fall back down and the lighter, unusable chaff would be blown away. Can imagine the process down inside a winepress? A cloud of dust and chaff would hang right there with the wheat kernels. Sounds like an exercise in futility.

So why did the Angel of the Lord appear to Gideon? By all accounts, he was cowardly, faithless, and self-loathing. He was in a winepress threshing wheat. What did the Lord see in him?

Nothing.

I don’t mean that he had no potential, no brains, no seed of trust in God. I just mean that when the Lord looked at Gideon, he saw an empty vessel. He saw a person who, with some guidance, would carry out the Lord’s plan. And the Lord’s plan actually depicted this spiritual truth.

We can read of how Gideon defeated the Midianites in 7:16-25. Gideon and his tiny army of three hundred each had a trumpet and an empty jar. Inside the empty jars they would place torches. In the dead of night, they surrounded the Midianite army. When the signal was given, the Israelites blew their trumpets, shouted a battle cry, and smashed their empty jars to reveal the light inside. When the Midianites heard and saw the surprise attack, they began to flee and actually turned their swords on one another in the confusion.

What a creative way to win a battle! The desired effect came about when those jars were smashed so that the light hidden inside could shine out. Can you see the headline? “Cracked Pots Win Battle!”

I’m reminded of a passage that Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 4. After describing the beauty of Christ’s salvation as “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (4:6), he writes, “But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us” (4:7).

Just like those jars held by Gideon’s army, every Christian has the treasured light of Christ inside. Isn’t it interesting that God uses jars of clay? Not fine china, not golden goblets, not silver vases. Paul tells us he does this so that it is clear that the power belongs to God, not to us.

This is what was accomplished in the victory over the Midianites. If the Israelites had used their swords and armor, they would have taken credit. But only God could have brought about the victory they enjoyed. The empty jars gave God the glory.

And Paul says that Christians are to be jars of clay that hold Christ’s light. He continues: “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies” (2 Corinthians 4:8-10).

The experiences in life that put pressure on us, challenge us, and chip away at our finish are all part of God’s plans. The cracks in the pot let the light shine out. We die with Christ so that we can live with him. We lose our lives for his sake, and we find eternal life instead.

Paul got very personal later in this letter and shared about his struggle with his thorn in the flesh. Three times he pleaded with the Lord to take away this big crack in his pot. Finally, he heard the Lord tell him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9).

Then Paul writes, “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:9-10).

Our weaknesses prepare us to be vessels for God’s strength. Our cracks become the channels for his light to shine out into this world. Our hardships become platforms for his victory. For the glory of God, we are to boast in our weaknesses. For the sake of Christ, we should embrace our identity as cracked pots, jars of clay, and stop trying to be fine china or gold-plated dinnerware.

Gideon’s time down there in that winepress threshing wheat, fearing the Midianites, loathing himself, and getting chaff in his eyes was preparation. Those experiences broke down his pride to make him ready to humbly obey the Lord.

We should view our challenges and hardships the same way. God our Potter is forming the clay in his hands, carefully placing each little crack in our lives exactly where he wants it. In his time—if we let him—he’ll shine the light of his grace through our weakness into the world.

10/10/14

Ask Pastor Jake: Why Do Christians Read the Old Testament?

The following article was first published in Hometown Journey Magazine.

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Q: Why do Christians read the Old Testament?

When Paul sought to remind the believers in Corinth of the basics of the gospel, he summarized the good news by saying, “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:3-4).

Paul stressed that the gospel message was “in accordance with the Scriptures.” When the New Testament writers refer to the Scriptures, they are speaking of the Hebrew Bible, our Old Testament. Paul insists that the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection was testified to in the Old Testament.

Jesus makes the same point when he appeared after his resurrection. First, while on the road to Emmaus, he encountered two men who were stirred up by the rumors of the crucified Jesus being raised to life. Jesus said to them, “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” (Luke 24:25-26). Then we read in the very next verse: “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (25:27).

Later in the passage, when Jesus appears to his disciples, he said to them, “Everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled” (24:44).  Then in verse 45, “he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures,” and concludes by summarizing the gospel of his death and resurrection (24:46-49).

Jesus understood that the whole Bible is about him. The Jews of Jesus’ day divided the Old Testament into three sections: the Pentateuch (the first five books of our Bibles), the Prophets (which included what we consider the historical books), and then the Psalms (which would include all the wisdom literature, like Proverbs and Job). So by referring to these three sections in 24:44, he is essentially claiming that the entire Old Testament is written about him.

Jesus had earlier in his life said this same thing to the Pharisees. In John 5:39-40, he said, “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me.”

In the introduction to his letter to the Romans, Paul wrote of “the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures, concerning his Son…” (Romans 1:1-3) Peter understood the Bible in the same way. He wrote, “Concerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied about the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired carefully inquiring what person or time the Spirit of Christ in them was indicating when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories” (1 Peter 1:10-11). In other words, the Holy Spirit inspired the authors of Scripture to write about the gospel.

It is instructive for us to consider that one of the first things Jesus did with his disciples between his resurrection and ascension was go through the Bible, teaching them how to read it as foretelling the gospel story. Luke says this is what it means to “understand the Scriptures” (24:45).

Is this how you read the Bible? Do you see the gospel message on every page? The story of Jesus is a thread that makes its way through every passage in every book of the Bible.

In Genesis 3, Adam disobeys the Lord and deserves death. He unsuccessfully attempts to cover himself and hide from God. But God, in his mercy, kills an animal and covers him with the skin of the innocent sacrifice. That’s Jesus.

In Genesis 6-8, the world is filled with wickedness and deserves judgment. God warns Noah, commands him to build an ark, and tells him when to get in. While wrath in the form of rain sweeps away sinful man, Noah and his family are safe inside the ark. Similarly, we are safe from God’s wrath only in Christ.

In Genesis 15, Abraham “believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness” (Genesis 15:6). Paul said in Romans 4 that those words were written for us, so that we would understand that Abraham was saved because he believed God’s promise. That promise was fulfilled in Jesus. Abraham was saved by grace through faith in Jesus, just as we are.

In Genesis 22, Abraham is commanded to offer Isaac to God as a sacrifice. Abraham was willing to obey even though he didn’t understand why. Imagine the horror of that image: Isaac, the beloved son, bound on the altar beneath his father, who had his knife raised and ready to strike. Yet God stepped in and provided the sacrifice at the last moment. The true Sacrifice, Jesus, would require God the Father to do exactly what he rescued Abraham from doing: killing his own son.

I could go on and on. Every story in the Bible is about Jesus. From Moses to David to Elijah to Jonah, Jesus is the real main character. When we start reading the Bible like this, we start to understand it at a level far deeper than before. We find that the Scriptures are not just a practical guide to living, but they are a revelation of God himself. From start to finish, they introduce us to the God who reveals himself most fully in Jesus Christ.

This is how Jesus read the Bible. It’s how he taught his disciples to read the Bible. We should do the same.

08/20/14

An Apology for and Defense of My ALS Ice Bucket Challenge

Sorry, not sorry.

I typically coach individuals and couples to practice making apologies without attaching any defense or explanation of their behavior. Even if “Joe” believes he has a really good reason for what he said, sharing that reason along with his apology to “Jane” will severely limit the apology’s effectiveness.

But man-made rules, like this one, always have exceptions. I’m claiming this to be one of those exceptions. I took the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, and I feel I need to make an apology and offer a defense for my participation.

The Apology

ALS (also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease) is a terrible, progressive disease affecting the motor neurons from the brain through the spinal cords and to the muscles of the body. Those afflicted with ALS lose control of their muscles, and many eventually are completely paralyzed. The progression of the disease leads to death.

Raising awareness of this disease is a noble and worthy endeavor. We should pray for a cure and look for ways to support and encourage those suffering from ALS. That said, the ALS Association conducts research using stem cells, both adult and embryonic.

I’m pro-life. And I’m pro-life of the variety that many would label “extreme.” What I mean is that I don’t believe abortion is moral or ethical, and I do believe that it should be illegal. I do not believe in exceptions in cases of rape or incest. I believe that human life is sacred, and I believe it begins at conceptions. And for these reasons, and because it involves the destruction of a human embryo, I am morally opposed to embryonic stem cell research. (Click here to learn more about embryonic stem cell research.)

I want to apologize for taking taking the Ice Bucket Challenge without researching ALSA and their research, which I cannot do in good conscience. I was caught up in a moment of getting to pair fun with a good cause. Thankfully, before making a monetary donation, I heard about this organization that supports those with ALS without destroying human life.

The thought of me contributing to the destruction of human life makes me sick. And especially as a leader of the church, I have a responsibility to be clear on these matters. For any ambiguity and uncertainty on the matter, I apology and hope I’ve made myself clear.

The Defense

(Just a note: I actually think the graphic here is funny! I have friends who posted it on Facebook. I’m not talking about you!)

What I am not sorry for is participating in an admittedly faddish and fun way of raising awareness about Lou Gehrig’s Disease. I’ve been really discouraged by seeing some Christians on Facebook be so snooty and stuck up about it.

I’ve seen many charges: “You’re wasting water!”; “Other illnesses, like Alzheimer’s or diabetes, affect many more people than ALS does!”; or, most irritating to me, “Where’s the gospel in that?”

If you’re complaining about a buckets of water being wasted, I hope that you turn off the facet while brushing your teeth, limit your showers to 3 minutes, and don’t flush after doing number one.

Sure, more people have other diseases, but that doesn’t lessen the suffering of people with Lou Gehrig’s Disease. I pray that raising awareness will inspire more people to join in research efforts, and perhaps some pro-lifers will learn about the ALSA’s research and decide to do their own research that doesn’t include embryonic stem cell destruction.

What really ticks me off is the charge that it is wrong to participate because “there’s no gospel in that.” God cares about this world, all of it. He loves his creation, all of it. When God looked over all he made, he delighted in it and called it “good” (Gen. 1). This is a God who cares about the grass of the field and the smallest sparrow (Matt. 6). And he hears the groaning of a creation in bondage to sin (Rom. 8). ALS, and every other sickness, is the result of sin in this world, an echo of the Fall, a manifestation of the severe consequences of rejecting God and his glory.

Jesus died to purchase the New Covenant, which includes the redemption of this world. One day he will come again and make all things new, and ALS and Alzheimer’s and diabetes and every other devastating illness will be destroyed forever, along with death, and Christ will reign as ever-living King of kings.

Jesus cares about people, body and soul. When he walked this earth, he was condemned for having too much fun as he loved people. Jesus said, “The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’” (Matthew 11:19). Those Pharisees couldn’t stand all the fun Jesus was having with those “sinners.”

When Christians look down on people for having good, clean fun, they aren’t being Christlike. The Bible tells us, “A joyful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones” (Proverbs 17:22). It’s good to have fun, to laugh.

So for laughing at people, and being laughed at, in an effort to raise awareness of something that affect myriad lives, I am not sorry. In case you haven’t seen it, enjoy…

My Ice Bucket Challenge!

 

08/9/14

Get In Your Bible: What is Biblical Meditation?

This is the third and final post in a series on interacting with God’s Word. You can read the first post here, and you can read the second post (on Bible study) by clicking here.

 

Biblical meditation is the active use of the mind, heart, and imagination to understand and know God by means of his Word, his world, his works, and his ways. Let’s use the parts of this definition to briefly consider the spiritual discipline of meditation.

First, biblical meditation is active. Unlike many of the meditation practices of eastern religions, biblical meditation is a discipline which requires our engagement. You have to actually use your mind to contemplate and reflect upon God’s truth.

Second, biblical meditation uses the mind, heart, and imagination. You have to study, think, process, reflect, feel, trust, conceive, and conceptualize God’s truth. Meditating should engage our entire being in the process of beholding God.

Third, biblical meditation is for the purpose of understanding and knowing God. Many people think meditation is for their mental and emotional health—to help them deal with stress or manage anxiety. Others praise it for having other health benefits. While it is entirely possible and even probable that consistent meditation is good for one’s health, that is not the main reason for meditation. The main reason to meditate is to behold our God, to know him and understand him and love him more.

And fourth, biblical meditation makes use of specific means for knowing and understanding God. Means of grace are specific ways God has told us that he channels his blessings to his people. The Bible commands us to meditate on God’s Word (the Bible), God’s world (creation), God’s works (his providential care), and God’s ways (his character). The Bible is the key to all of these. The Bible teaches us how to unlock the book of creation to see the majesty of the Creator, how to recognize God’s providence in our lives, and discern the ways of God that reflect his character as being loving, just, holy, righteous, omniscient, mighty, compassionate, merciful, etc.

Basic Biblical Meditation

Many of us have no idea where to start meditating. Here are some very simple suggestions for starting the process in our own devotional time with the Lord:

1. Chose a small section (one or two verses) from the passage you have most recently studied. Often one or two verses, or sometimes something as small as one phrase from a verse, will grab our attention as we read through a passage. Pay attention to those words. They typically serve as fertile ground for meditation.

If nothing jumps off the page at you, try to find a verse that sums up the whole passage and use it for your meditation.

2. Write out by hand the section on which you will be meditating in your journal, considering how every word adds to its meaning.The purpose here is to slow down your mind so that you think very deliberately and intentionally about the verses. One of the most effective ways of doing this is by repeating the verse over and over, emphasizing a different word or phrase each time. For example:

  • Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” (Matt. 5:8)
  • “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”
  • “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”
  • “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”
  • “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”
  • “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”
  • “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”
  • “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”

Placing the emphasis on different words and phrases helps us to discover greater meaning in the verse. Like looking through a diamond from its many facets, approaching God’s Word from various angles helps us better see the brilliance of his glory.

As you go through this process, write down what comes to your mind. Using the example above, I might record after emphasizing “in heart” something like, “God is not impressed with mere outward purity, but sees into my heart.”

3. Use your own words to rewrite the verse or phrase.Make a real effort not to use the same words from the verse but come up with your own paraphrase. If you’ve chosen a long verse or set of verses, try to write it as succinctly as possible. If, on the other hand, you’ve chosen a very short verse or phrase, amplify it into something with more length. The point is to engage the truth of the verse with your mind and heart.

So, continuing the example of Matthew 5:8 used above, I may rewrite it like this: “Those whose innermost being is singularly focused on the righteousness of God will receive the great reward of actually beholding him face to face.”

Prayer-Based Meditation

One of the best ways to meditate on a passage of Scripture is to pray through it. I recommend that you use this journal to write out your prayers to God. Just write your prayer in the form of a letter.

The best way to begin learning how to do this is in the Book of Psalms. Many of the psalms are prayers, so praying them isn’t too difficult. You can work your way through a psalm, verse by verse, using each section or phrase to prompt your own prayer life.

One practice that has been helpful to me is referred to as the “Psalm of the Day” system. This method allows you to make your way through the whole Book of Psalms over time. Basically, you use the date to come up with a set of psalms from which you will chose one to pray through that day.

For example, I’m writing this on the 8th. So Psalm 8 is one of five psalms of the day. I add 30 to 8 to get the other four. So today’s psalms are: 8, 38, 68, 98,  and 128. On the 31st of the month, there’s only one psalm: Psalm 119 (the longest chapter in the Bible).

Once you have the psalms of the day, quickly (very quickly!) scan through them all and choose one. It could be one that seems to speak to your place in life, or it could be one that is particularly meaningful to you. Then begin praying through that psalm while writing out your prayer. Be specific, don’t be afraid to wander a bit, but then come back to the passage and continue your prayer.

Some people stumble when they get to those passages in the psalms that talk about God smiting enemies and trampling the wicked. While there may be people who you ask God to protect you from, there are certainly spiritual “enemies” from whom we all need God’s deliverance.

Any Scripture can become a prayer, but Psalms are easiest. Next, try Paul’s letters. Narratives are more difficult, but possible with some imagination.

08/8/14

What Kameron Skinner Taught Me

This article was originally published by Hometown Journey Magazine.

 

Q: Why does God break us and allow bad stuff to happen?

On July 15, just a few weeks ago, lives were forever changed. I was just about to sit down at the long table in the conference room of our church building when I received the phone call. I told our staff that we wouldn’t be able to meet and asked them to pray. Moments later I left the building, unsure of exactly what I would be find when I reached my destination.

That was the day that Kameron Skinner, 15 years old, was in a car accident with her boyfriend, Aaron, and his mom, Nicol. Kameron and Nicol both lost their lives as a result of that accident. Aaron is broken and banged up, but—praise God—he is okay. This past April marked ten years that I’ve served our church as pastor, and this was the first time I’d been faced with a tragedy so sudden, so jarring.

Many times over those first few days I found myself in total disbelief.

Even now I can’t believe I’m writing this article.

Kameron, along with her sister Shelbie and her parents, David and Terry Beck, have been attending my church for ten years. In fact, their first Sunday to worship with us was my first Sunday serving as pastor. I had the privilege of baptizing them all and seeing each one of them grow into devoted disciples of the Lord Jesus.

Kameron was a faithful church attender, and at least over the last year or so I don’t think it was just because her parents made her come. She was always extremely attentive as I preached. I rarely saw her face because she was looking down taking copious notes. After the accident, her parents let me see some of the sermon notes she kept in one of her Bibles. Amazing stuff. You can tell what is important to someone by what they choose to write down when taking notes. Judging from what Kameron chose to write down, I feel very confident in saying that this young woman got it.

By “it” I mean the gospel: the good news that God has loved us through his Son, Jesus Christ, sending him to take our place as sinners, to bear the holy wrath of God for our sins, to pay the price for sin fully in our place, and to rise from the grave as the One who has defeated sin and death. The gospel promises that if we turn away from our sin and trust in what Jesus has done for us, his great work on the cross is applied to us and we are spiritually raised with him: forgiven, made new, indwelt by the Holy Spirit, sealed for eternity with God in heaven.

The gospel comes with many implications. One of them is laid out by the Apostle Paul as a rhetorical question in Romans 8:32, “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” In other words, if God was willing to give his only begotten Son for us, we should be confident that he will not withhold any other good thing from us, for nothing is as precious as the gift he gave in his Son!

That’s easy to say when life is good. But what about on July 15? Was that promise true on that day? When God takes someone who radiates such joy and who is loved so much by so many, can we believe then “that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28)?

I admit it is a hard question. I wrestled with it (still am, if I’m honest). I was wrestling with it the day it happened, sobbing and without any words to offer her hurting family. And then I got to read her sermon notes.

On June 15, exactly one month earlier, I was out of town for my ten year college reunion and my friend, Thomas Cheevers, filled the pulpit for me during our church’s Sunday worship service. He preached a sermon entitled “There is Hope” from Mark 5:21–43. It was three points long, and his last point printed in the bulletin that day read, “When all appears lost, Christ remains.” Under those words, in the white space left for notes, Kameron wrote the following:

God breaks us and lets bad stuff happen for a reason(s).

  1. There’s still sin in our world.
  2. To draw you closer to him.
  3. To strengthen your faith.
  4. God will always get your through it.

God doesn’t follow our expectations.

When I read those words, I wept again, this time tears of joyful hope.

Sin is still in our world. Listen, I’m not saying that Kameron’s death is at all a result of her own personal sin. That’s not the case. But the whole reason why suffering and death exists at all is because this world is sin-sick. Romans 8 tells us that all creation is groaning in bondage to sin, waiting for the day when it will be finally and fully set free from this captivity. In the mean time, these tragedies remind us that we’re not home yet. Kameron is at home. She is with her Savior and Lord. I have to remember that I’m the one away from the home God has prepared for his children.

I was closer to God on July 15 than I was on July 14. I found myself singing, “I need Thee! O, I need Thee! Every hour I need Thee!” and meaning those words in a way I had not felt in some time. I prayed more. I surrendered more. I asked for more. I felt my need for my heavenly Father in a way that I hadn’t in some time. And he showed up.

My faith was strengthened even as it was faltering. Did you know that sometimes even pastors doubt their faith? It’s true; we do. But even as my mind searched for answers to that hard question—“Why?”—in my heart my faith was being strengthened. God did this largely through my church family. They prayed for me, and I felt those prayers. They sent me texts and emails quoting the promises of God. They came together and pulled off a logistical miracle coordinating Kameron’s visitation and funeral service at our church. And beyond our church family, our community lent support. God shows his love powerfully through his people. As I watched people haul chairs and scrub carpet and run wires and bake casseroles and shed tears and lift up prayers and run errands just to have the chance to show one small act of love for Kameron and her family, I felt the warmth of God’s blazing love.

God is getting us all through it, because that’s what a faithful God does. My prayers are especially now with the families of Kameron and Nicol. Our job is now to be tools in the Master’s hand, to be channels of his grace, to offer them our prayers and our devotion, to comfort them with our love. And together we will walk with them through this valley of the shadow of death.

“God doesn’t follow our expectations.” That’s what Kameron wrote. And in this truth we have hope. I would have never expected God to so quickly, so abruptly allow a sweet young lady on fire for him to be taken from this world. Of course, I’d also never expect him give up his Son on a cross to save a wretch like me. I pray that this amazing grace will carry all who grieve today, tomorrow, and forever.

 ______________________________________

In lieu of usual remembrances, the families of Kameron Skinner and Nicol Campise have requested contributions may made to First Baptist Church Mont Belvieu, designated for the “Kameron Skinner Fund,” which will support students to attend Super Summer Camp who would otherwise be unable to go. One can give online by clicking here or by mailing contributions to First Baptist Church Mont Belvieu, P. O. Box 1167, Mont Belvieu, TX 77580.

 

07/14/14

Get In Your Bible: What Is Bible Study?

This is the second post in a series on interacting with God’s Word. Read part one here.

Many people talk about doing “Bible study.” What exactly does that mean? Why is it important? And how is that connected to the practice of meditation?

Good meditation (the subject of a future post) requires biblical knowledge. The more Bible we know, the more effective we will be in meditating. The truths of the Bible act as the building blocks from which we construct our meditation. Knowing the Old Testament helps us understand the New Testament, and vice versa. We can understand James better if we know Paul. Likewise, knowing Peter from the Gospels allows us to gain more as we reading his letters.

Bible study takes time and effort, but you can do it! You don’t have to know the biblical languages or complete history of the Ancient Near East. With a little intentionality and a few basic tools, the Spirit of God will teach you his Word.

The most important part of Bible study is understanding its purpose. A lot of people approach the Bible as an instruction manual for life; they expect it to give them answers for their most immediate felt needs. While the Bible does give us great instruction on how to live, that’s not the Bible’s primary purpose.

The Bible is first and foremost a Book about God. It reveals our Creator, his holiness and righteousness, our rebellion against him, and his plan to bring us back to himself through Jesus Christ. When you study the Bible, the most important purpose is to know more about the God who has loved us through Jesus.

Basic Bible Study

Many of us have no idea how to start studying the Bible in greater depth. Here are some very simple suggestions for starting the process on our own:

1.    Work your way through a book of the Bible.

Sometimes we are tempted to randomly open our Bibles and trust that the Holy Spirit will guide us to the passages we need to hear. Sometimes this works. However, God gave us the whole Bible, which is a collection of whole letters and not a potpourri of inspirational sayings. To really understand a passage, we need to understand it in its context. Reading whole books allows this to happen.

If you don’t know where to start, ask your Sunday School teacher or pastor for a suggestion. I often recommend people begin with the Gospel of John, followed by the 1 John. If you’re experiencing many trials, read 1 Peter. If you’re struggling with living out the Christian life practically, start with James. For a letter of encouragement, try Philippians.

2.    Commit to a block of time, not an amount of reading.

Don’t force yourself to read a whole chapter a day. That might be too much. Instead, commit yourself to spending a certain amount of time reading. It may be ten minutes at first; that’s okay. Start there. Stick with it, and you’ll want more.

3.    Begin and continue in prayer.

Start your time with prayer. Ask God to open the eyes of your heart to see his truth in the text. Trust that the Holy Spirit will illuminate God’s Word for you. Continue to pray as you read. If you have trouble understanding some verses, ask God to teach you by his Spirit.

4.    Look for the author’s original meaning.

Ask some probing questions of the text to find out what the author was trying to say. The writers of the Bible had specific messages. Here are some basic questions to help understand the author’s intent:

  • Who is writing this passage?
  • To whom is this passage written?
  • What is he telling them?
  • Why is he saying this to them?

A good study Bible can help answer these questions. I recommend the ESV Study Bible, which has an introduction to each book of the Bible and helpful notes on each passage.

5.    Ask what the passage teaches about God, and then ask what the passage teaches about us.

John Calvin begins his great work The Institutes of Christian Religion by arguing that true wisdom is made up of knowledge of God and knowledge of ourselves, and that these two are mutually connected. We cannot know God apart from a knowledge of ourselves, and we cannot know ourselves apart from knowledge of God.

After you have done the work to discern the author’s original message to his audience, start looking for the truth about God revealed in the passage. The Bible is God’s revelation of himself to us, so every page teaches us who he is. Next, in light of what the passage says about God, ask what it says about us as human beings. Here are some questions to help get you started:

  • How is God present in this passage?
  • What is God doing in this passage? Is he showing power, issuing a command, rebuking sin, etc.?
  • What does this passage reveal about God’s character? Is he holy, just, merciful, compassionate, faithful, etc?
  • How does this passage relate to the gospel of Jesus? How does it relate to the cross?
  • How is God different than man in this passage?
  • What does this passage say about the relationship between God and man?
  • How is God’s judgment present in this passage?
  • How is God’s grace present in this passage?

6.    Ask the Holy Spirit to show you how the passage applies to your own life.This step is very important, but it must come last. You shouldn’t start applying a passage to your life until you’ve done the work to understand what it objectively means and what it teaches about God. This will only be fruitful if you commit to specificity; the more specific in your application, the more likely it will stick.

Here are some questions to help you think about how the passage may apply to your life:

  • Do I live like I believe what this passage teaches about God? If so, how? If not, how?
  • Does this passage reveal sin in my life? Am I doing something I shouldn’t? Am I not doing something I should?
  • How does this passage point me to the gospel?
  • Is there some change to make in my life in light of this passage?

In the next post of this series, we will consider the practice of biblical meditation.


07/11/14

Get In Your Bible: The Importance of Words

Words matter.

Think about it. Words are very important, especially the words of the One who reigns over all. The Bible tells us that “the universe was created by the word of God” (Heb. 11:3).  We also know that Jesus  “upholds the universe by the word of his power” (Heb. 1:3), sustaining creation’s being even now.

When God started a new people for himself through Abraham, he called to him: “Go from your country…” (Gen. 12:1).  God spoke to him with words. And when he called his people out of Egypt and appeared to Moses on Mount Sinai, God gave ten laws on two tablets. We refer to these as the Ten Commandments, but in the Hebrew, they are literally called the Ten Words (Exod. 34:28; Deut. 10:4).

The psalmists and the prophets hold up the importance of God’s Word. “You have exalted above all things your name and your word!” (Ps. 138:2) “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever” (Is. 40:8).

Jesus withstood the devil’s temptation by proclaiming that “man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matt. 4:4). Jesus himself is the very Word of God, through whom all things were made (John 1:1).

Paul says that “faith comes by hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Rom. 10:17).  He instructs believers to “let the word of Christ dwell in you richly” (Col. 3:16). Teaching about how God saves us, James writes, “Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth” (James 1:18). Peter says that we “have been born again…through the living and abiding word of God” (1 Pet. 1:23).

One of the most powerful verses about God’s Word is Hebrews 4:12, “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.”

The Blessing of Words

If you want to know what God is like, you don’t have to wonder. No guesswork is necessary. God revealed himself in his Word, both the incarnate Word of Jesus Christ and the written Word of the Bible.

Consider what a gift it is that the God of creation actually speaks to us using words: meaningful, understandable, definite, definable words. He certainly didn’t have to reveal himself to us at all, much less in a way that is so specific and accessible.  But he did. He gave us his Word, and with it we can know him more. As we know him more, we understand better the world we live in and how we fit into it.

God Words and Our Words

Our words don’t create worlds, like God’s do. Our words don’t sustain existence or call forth new creation. But our words do express our thoughts and feelings. Our words reveal the state of our minds and thoughts.

We can use our words to reinforce God’s words and works. We can write down reflections on what God has said. We can pray the Scripture for ourselves and others. We can record thoughts that come to us as we hear God’s Word preached.

We all need a place where our hearts meet with God’s heart: where words are exchanged, love grows strong, fears are stilled, awe is stirred. Over the next couple of weeks, I will be posting some ways we can interact with God’s Word by using our own words. I’ll write about journaling, praying Scripture, biblical meditation, and a few other practices that have helped me to “receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls” (James 1:21).

May God “establish your heart in every good work and word” (2 Thess. 2:17).