God’s response to my need
Isaiah 6: Gone your guilt, your sins wiped out.
Isaiah’s vision of God’s holiness breaks his heart. In light of that vision any claims to righteousness are blown away. His brokenness brings him to the place of honest confession which is just what the Lord’s waiting for. Immediately, the Lord takes action to cleanse him of his sin. Since this is a vision, there’s a lot of symbolism here. We have an altar of sacrifice with fire, which speaks to us of surrender and purification. There’s Isaiah’s direct reference to his “unclean lips” which refer to, not just a tendency to say the wrong thing, but his whole life, which he sees as speaking in ways that reflect a deep level of spiritual need. The thrilling thing is how the Lord responds to Isaiah’s cry of repentance. A heavenly being touches his lips with the burning coal from the altar declaring the wonderful truth that his sin is “wiped out” and his guilt is gone. Listen, I don’t have to pull some surprising insight out of this passage. In fact, it’s surprising enough just as it is. When I realize the purity of God and see my own deep failure…when I confess it, throwing myself on the mercy God…when I do that, I place myself in the only place where the Lord can help me. I can’t forgive my own sin and I can’t purify my own life, but when I “repent and turn” he immediately does for me what I can never do for myself. There’s no better word from the Lord than “gone your guilt, your sins wiped out.”
Take Away: As I confess my need the Lord does for me what I can never do for myself.
God is God
Job 42: I babbled on about things far beyond me.
Job responds to the Almighty’s questions as a humbled man. Here he is, still sitting in the ashes. His children are still dead. His wealth is still gone. He’s still in the agony of his affliction. Job isn’t now humbly spiritual because God has fixed everything or even explained everything to him. So far as I know, Job never learns what this is all about; that it’s all a test designed to answer the question, “Does he serve God for nothing?” Job has proved the Lord’s point though. Through it all, even when he’s struggling with the issues at hand, Job maintains his righteousness and trust in God. Now, God has spoken, revealing himself to Job, challenging him to respond to his own questions. Job responds, “I babbled on about things far beyond me.” This meeting with God makes all of Job’s questions moot. God is God and, even when life is unfair and perplexing, well, God is still God. In his trial, Job tries to state his case; to explain himself to his friends. More, he tries to explain God. This suffering man now realizes that he’s been trying to deal with the details of life but has lost sight of this huge, overpowering truth: God is God. In my life, even as I struggle with circumstances that don’t fit my theology, I must, after all my babbling on about how I think things are, remember this: God is God.
Take Away: Even when I don’t understand…even when I don’t like how things are going…even then, God is God.
The difference between imperfection and unrighteousness
Job 25: Even the stars aren’t perfect in God’s eyes.
The final statement from one of Job’s three friends (although the fourth speaker, Elihu, is still to come), is a short one and it causes us to wonder if maybe Job has argued them to a standstill. However, Bildad does take us down a bit different track. He argues that only God is truly perfect, and next to him, everything else comes up short. Even the stars of the sky are lacking in God’s eyes. Since that’s true (according to Bildad) God is justified in bringing calamity on anybody, including Job. After all, we’re all less than insects when compared to God. That’s his argument, but it isn’t a very good one. Job replies that he maintains his integrity even in the midst of what he sees as an unjust trial. His argument isn’t that he’s perfect. Rather, it’s that he’s just. Job understands something that many modern Christians fail to grasp. There’s a difference between imperfection and unrighteousness. God looks, not on our performance, but on our intent. My humanity guarantees that I’ll have a sub-par performance. However, by God’s grace, I can live for God and maintain my integrity before him even in the worst of times. Samuel learned this truth before anointing David King of Israel: “Man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.” (1 Samuel 16:7) Job may be struggling with several theological concepts, but he has this one down pat.
Take Away: By the grace of the Lord it is, indeed, possible to have a pure heart in his sight.
Paddling around in the shallow end of the pool
Job 19: Why do you insist on putting me down, using my troubles as a stick to beat me?
I think I can safely pick up speed in my journey through Job because the themes are now pretty well established. Job insists on his integrity and stubbornly holds to his faith even though he feels God is treating him unfairly. His friends have become his accusers. Ever though they can’t point to a single act of unrighteousness in his life, they point to his terrible afflictions as proof that there has to be unrighteousness. Job characterizes this as their using his “troubles as a stick to beat me.” By now we’re supposed to understand that the suffering has come to Job precisely because he is righteous. It’s this righteousness that sets this chain of events in motion in the first place. The question being answered is “does Job serve God out of love and commitment or is it because of the good things he gets out of it?” Is human righteousness a part of some kind of business arraignment between man and God or is there something deeper going on? Of course, all this is beyond Job’s friends and is beyond Job himself. His friends are so overwhelmed by the terrible scene of suffering before them that they can’t see anything else. I think we’re all in danger of living at that level. We like the easy way out, the conventional wisdom, and cling to easily held beliefs. Sooner or later, God will challenge such an approach to life, taking us deeper even, if necessary, over our groans of protest.
Take Away: Easily held beliefs are often the hardest ones to let go.
Is it about what I’m getting out of it?
Job 1: So do you think Job does all that out of the sheer goodness of his heart?
While the audience Satan has with the Almighty is challenging from a theological viewpoint, I think it, and this question in particular, is the absolute key to the whole book. We tend to think that the book of Job focuses in undeserved suffering and how Job responds to it, but even more basic is the issue here. The Lord points out Job’s righteousness to Satan, says that Job is his friend, and is an outstanding servant. Satan, that old accuser, replies that the only reason Job lives right and loves God is for what he gets out of it. Certainly, God has blessed Job, delighting in bringing good things into his life. Is Job a righteous man simply because it’s good business, the smart thing to do, or is he righteous because he loves the Lord and chooses to serve him? What if Job wasn’t getting anything out of his service of God? What if, instead of blessings, curses are brought to his life? Will Job then turn his back on God and curse him? While the issue of undeserved suffering is a basic one I think this issue is even more basic. Why do I serve the Lord? Is it to escape hell and go to heaven? Is it so I won’t be plagued with guilt over my sin? What if all the “perks” are removed? Again, this is about as basic a question as there is.
Take Away: Why do you serve the Lord?
Seeking a righteous response
1Kings 2: The final verdict is God’s peace.
On his death bed David reminds Solomon of some unfinished issues that need attention. Solomon’s response is to execute some people. This isn’t pleasant devotional reading but there’s at least an insight into why David sets this agenda for his son. When Joab’s executed we’re reminded that he’s killed some innocent people. Then we read, “Responsibility for their murders is forever fixed on Joab and his descendants; but for David and his descendants, his family and kingdom, the final verdict is God’s peace.” We see that these executions aren’t for revenge but rather are for justice. David believes that if the crimes committed by these people are left without response that he and his descendants will be responsible in part for what happened. The concept here can only be carried so far and it’s important to remember that Solomon isn’t acting here as a vigilante. He’s acting in the capacity of king, head of the government. But let’s step away from the specific of executions and also lay aside the role of the government here. When I do that I’m still reminded that if I stand by while some wrong is done, declaring, “It’s none of my business” I become a part of that wrong. That’s true not only for government but for individual citizens as well.
Take Away: Sometimes doing nothing makes us as guilty in the eyes of the Lord as if we have done something.
Genesis 6: God was sorry that he had made the human race in the first place; it broke his heart.
Human beings have been removed from the Garden but they take their sin with them. Immediately, grace begins to flow, an unending river of good will toward these broken creatures. Sadly, the response is to reject the grace and push the Grace-Giver away. The crowning achievement of all God made has degenerated into a self-absorbed, God-ignoring shadow of what might have been. This “free-will” business isn’t working out and like radical surgery is sometimes needed to battle cancer, the Lord makes the painful decision to prune away all the foulness so that humanity will get another chance. For centuries the number of people who chose to respond to God’s grace has dwindled. Now, one righteousness man is left. If humanity is to be saved, it’ll be through him. The focus of the universe is on righteous Noah. We won’t see everything depending on just one man again until the Lord unleashes the eternal solution to the fallen condition of humanity. That will involve a willingness, not to build an ark, but to go to a cross.
Take away: The story of Noah is more about humanity getting a second chance than it is about judgment.
When God’s had enough
Revelation 18: The Strong God who judges her has had enough.
The actual God has had enough. It takes a lot to arrive at this place. A lot of God’s grace has to be rejected. A lot of his patience has to be wasted. As we’re reminded by the writer of Hebrews, “It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” All heaven cheers this act of Judgment, not because of vengeance, but because of righteousness. For a righteous, pure, holy God to be who he is, ultimately, the end of all that is unrighteous, impure, and unholy must come. It’s not as though there haven’t been opportunities to turn around. I can say with confidence that there’s been at least 2000 years. At some point the patience of God will be exhausted. I want to be standing on the right side of things when God has “had enough.”
Take Away: For the Lord to be righteous, pure, and holy, sooner or later all that is unrighteous, impure, and unholy must be defeated.
Galatians 3: Anyone who tries to live by his own effort, independent of God, is doomed to failure.
It’s astounding to read the writings of this once exemplary Pharisee as he takes on the failure of rule keeping. Paul was, at one time, a Pharisee’s Pharisee. He was cheered for his dedication to a thousand-and-one rules; zealous for that way of life to the point that he hunted down and imprisoned any who threatened it. Now, years later, he’s making a lawyerly case against that approach, urging his friends at Galatia back from the brink of yielding to a “Jesus-and” approach to God. When a past Pharisee says rule keeping dooms a person to spiritual failure I’m wise to listen. Paul says the key to spiritual life isn’t trying harder, rather it’s trusting God more. He says this secret has always been out there, hidden in plain view. After all father Abraham is counted as righteous, not because he’s so good at always doing just what God wants (in fact, he’s notoriously bad at it) but rather because he trusts God. Rather than creating a human powered way to God the rules prove to me once and for all that that approach will never work. I’m left in a hopeless condition unless a superior way is made available to me. And that’s exactly what happens. Jesus, the Son of God, accepts my failure as his own. What rule keeping can’t do, he does. The door to righteousness is opened wide. To surrender to a “Jesus and” approach is to take a step backward to a failed system. My hope is firmly fixed on “Jesus only.”
Take Away: There’s no other way to God than through faith in Jesus.
Faith or works?
Galatians 1: I can’t believe your fickleness.
The Apostle wastes no time getting to his purpose in writing. He states his credentials, reminding his readers that he is “God-commissioned” and then challenges their recent move away from grace and to Law. This, he says, is no small thing. Rather it’s a pivot away from Christ; a rejection of his message of mercy and life transformation. During his time in their province, Paul laid a foundation of faith for them. He avoided “rule talk” and concentrated on “freedom talk.” He knows all about rules and regulations. In fact, in earlier days he was the champion of both. The biggest fans of such things cheered him on, making him their hero. After meeting Jesus, though, Paul rejected all that. Then, as a messenger for Christ, he set out to tell the Good News and in the telling he carefully avoided binding people up with the things that had bound him the first part of his life. Now he hears that many are embracing the old, failed approach and he’s writing to put a stop to it. In his mind one must decide between seeking righteousness by faith or righteousness by works. The first is achieved only in Christ. The second, well, the second is never achieved and bound for failure before it starts. As I begin reading Galatians right off I’m plunged into a discussion about one of the primary concerns of human beings across the ages: just what must I do to be righteous in the eyes of God?
Take Away: Righteousness can never be found in keeping rules.