Rejecting and Reinterpreting

“Oh be careful little eyes what you see… be careful little ears what you hear… be careful little hands what you do… be careful little feet where you go… be careful little mouth what you say… there’s a Father up above and He’s looking down in love… so be careful little eyes what you see…” 

Anyone know that song? It’s Sunday school 101, my boys used to love driving and listening to it. They would cover their eyes and ears and mouth as they sang it and yell “be CARE-ful eyes! be CARE-ful ears!”  Oh my stars how I wish we could still practice that little exercise. The song randomly popped into my head this past week and I was humming it for a good few minutes before I stopped to wonder why I was singing a kid song from years ago. I had been reading some quotes on Instagram from Rachel Held Evans new book and they had me all knotted up. The world we live in today allows for such easy sharing and spreading of ideas. This isn’t a book I would ever buy, but thanks to the glory of the internet and enthusiastic book reviewers, little pieces of it found their way to me. I don’t mind when this happens, I think we need to at least examine ideas we disagree with and know why we believe the things we do. I’ve been focused lately on the unchanging Word of God, the unchanging character of God and what that means to us living in a world that is rapidly changing. Anywho… here’s kind of the crux of her new book:

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“Spiritual maturation”… sounds excellent. “Wholeness” also sounds downright lovely. How do we become mature and whole? Her answer is apparently by downright rejecting or reinterpreting certain Biblical stories that no longer suit our cultural sensitivities. Her writings have a distaste and disdain for God’s word and character that make me question why one would even continue to give this Jesus the time of day. I’m all for critical thinking and asking the hard questions, but reinterpreting the Bible to fit your tastes is backwards. Her insistence that God’s word didn’t quite turn out the way it was meant to is blasphemous. I don’t mean to sound like an old curmudgeon, but the beauty of the Bible is that it is pure and true for all mankind, no strings attached. The obsession with divisions and differences has changed all that:

“By that I mean we’re all actually interpreting the Bible in a context. We’re all bringing our backgrounds, our gender, our socioeconomic status or race. We bring all of that to the Bible, so we’re limited in how much we can really learn from it because of that, unless we deliberately and willingly and joyfully hear what other people have to say. Somebody coming from a minority community is going to read the Bible differently than I am. 

So. Many. Buzzwords. It’s a given that we all come from different backgrounds and experiences. However, it is not correct to assume that because of those differences we all are limited in what we can “learn” from God’s word. The Bible continually reminds us that we must receive before we learn. We receive Christ as a gift. We receive wisdom and truth through the Word and through the Holy Spirit. These are not intellectual pursuits, but spiritual ones. Learning is fantastic but not until you have first received. The same surrender that is required of a servant is also required of a king. You see, her way of studying God’s Word is doomed from the start. It may be interesting to turn stories on their head and reinterpret them, but this is powerless Christianity. In trying so hard to make the Bible relevant, she’s completely neutered it. If that’s what you’re going for, by all means enjoy the study. I am of the opinion that “the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart” Hebrews 4:12.

I picture it as a river in which God is upstream from all of us. His love and truth flow downward to us all. There is no discrimination or altering of any of it. We all get washed with the same truth. It may be cold, but it’s pure. That truth is our starting point. Doing it backwards leads to confusion and obsession over the wrong things. Trying to get pure water from our little downstream inlets just doesn’t work.

This stuff is a hit with those who want to be told it’s ok to be blasé about God’s Word. It’s a fun study, but an utterly feelings-based and humanistic one. It’s the kind of thing I feel like my college-self would have been drawn to. It’s artistic and witty with a touch of intellectualism. Before we fully experience the sufficiency of God’s Word and the joy that comes from it, we are eager to find something new and exciting, but it’s akin to getting blood from a turnip. No amount of human creativity can compare to the power that lies in His word. The idea that we can just enjoy all these poems and letters and stories for the distant writings they are is very scholarly, but they put Jesus on the same level as any other historical figure.

The truth of the Word convicts us of our sin and asks us to sacrifice. It frees us from habitual questioning and doubting and guides us into a place of joy and trust. We don’t check our brain at the door or stop asking questions, we simply start from a place of holiness instead of offense at the scriptures. Books like this are rebellion in its purest and sneakiest form. We aren’t called to sit in judgment of the Bible and decide for ourselves. Sliding down the path of least resistance, consuming whatever is tossed out to us is not a path to victory. Little by little, the repetition of the narrative chisels away at our foundations making us shaky and unsure. Park yourself in God’s Word. All of it. Most of these arguments can be refuted with a basic understanding of scripture. God is not a genocidal maniac and Jesus isn’t a mild-mannered pushover who wants us to be nice.

God’s stories are not harmful nor are they as complicated as they are made out to be. We don’t need to do a large-scale sociological study on them simply because they are offensive to our current ideals.

Our experiences are valid, but we are not to be defined by our sin, no matter how much attention it may get us. Start with God. Begin with Him, and let everything else fall into its proper place. True maturity and wholeness come not by picking apart God’s attributes, but by surrendering our offenses and hurts to the One who came and died for us. Freedom is found by narrowing in more and more on Jesus and His Word, so that we become an arrow pointing straight to Him.

-Leading seekers to an abiding relationship with Jesus? Yes.

-Pointing people back to themselves and wallowing in victimhood? Pass.

-Putting out a slick message that embraces rebellion and waters down the necessity of a Savior? Nope.

-Speaking honestly and sincerely about hurts while trusting God’s Word holds the balm we need to be healed? Absolutely, all day long.

“But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere.” James 3:17

God is upstream to us. That’s our starting point. Don’t let human interpretations muddy your waters and get in the way of your most sacred relationship.

Be careful little eyes what you see.

Psychological Shots

“A German philosopher many years ago said something to the effect that the more a man has in his own heart the less he will require from the outside; excessive need for support from without is proof of the bankruptcy of the inner man. The average man has no central core of moral assurance, no inner strength to place him above the need for repeated psychological shots to give him the courage to go on living. He has become a parasite on the world, drawing his life from his environment, unable to live a day apart from the stimulation which society affords him. No one with common human feeling will object to the simple pleasures of life… such things if used with discretion may be a blessing along the way. The abuse of a harmless thing is the essence of sin.” AW Tozer

This passage hit me hard today. The notion that so many souls have lost (or never found) that thing which fills the heart and makes it want to continue onward in spite of difficulty is devastating. That so many among us really do require “psychological shots” just to keep going is absolutely terrifying.

We put everything we have out there for the world to approve, and then die a little inside when they don’t. Take a shot.

We spend money that we don’t have on the latest fashions we think will satisfy us, but they don’t. Take a shot.

We travel to the far corners of the earth but it’s never far enough. Take another shot.

I am in awe of a culture that has acquired so much knowledge and information and yet is totally devoid of any wisdom or useful truth. We follow the well-beaten path to happiness only to find out it’s a dead-end. We pop the pills the commercial says will make us less depressed and we feel worse. I was talking with my boys yesterday about the importance of just being in community and helping people out. The gist of the conversation was that we are blessed when we bless others, tis better to give than receive, etc. It sounds cliché, but the truth is that until we understand we are created for more than the seeking out of our own happiness, we are doomed to a life of futile searching.

This thing that Tozer writes about, the idea of being unable to live without the constant stimulation of the world, the little ‘shots’ of temporary happiness, this frightens me. We are addicted to all the wrong things and are conditioned to crave temporary fixes. People charge ahead, taking hit after hit of their drug of choice and eventually just smack right into a wall. It’s that abuse of the harmless things and the neglect of the necessary ones that has us so desperately mixed up.

Some people obsess over work, others fixate on exercise. We have our social media accounts, our video games, our alcohol, you name it. We crave diversion and entertainment wherever we can find it, but whenever these things become our main thing, they’re going to disappoint. I was stunned when I came across this display at the bookstore the other day:

Now, to each his own in the entertainment department and I realize you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover and all that, so I looked up the synopsis for the this little gem on the left: “The sinister mystery of how a teen girl named Brooklyn became the epitome of evil in this terrifying prequel to the series MTV calls “Mean Girls meets The Exorcist.” Please note to what group of readers this is marketed towards. And we wonder why kids are so nasty, so mean, so utterly lost.

Friends, we are absolutely created to enjoy life, but not at the expense of our souls. We are created to live from the inside out, not the outside in. No amount of stimulation from any outside source is ever going to satisfy that proverbial “God-shaped hole” in our souls. Our hearts can be downright deceitful at times and lead us off to follow after the wrong things (Jeremiah 17:9). We are not meant to go at it alone, not ever. It’s natural that we hunger and thirst and seek… but we have to go hard after the thing that will fill us and steady us in an unsteady world.

Some will say that following Jesus is too simplistic for todays problems. Others will find the burden of picking up ones cross and following entirely too complicated. The truth though, is that it’s the only cure for what ails us.

“Turn my eyes from looking at worthless things, and revive me in Your way.” Psalm 119:37

“Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.” —Proverbs 4:23

We can’t overcomplicate it, nor can we underestimate the power Christ has to infuse lasting joy into our sin-sick hearts. Take delight in Jesus first and foremost, and He will satisfy those deepest longings (Psalm 37:4).

Do Your Own Lifting

Been on a longer than anticipated break from writing, all the end of school/beginning of summer shenanagins had me spinning around faster than I’m used to. Wanted to jump back in by sharing a fantastic article by John MacArthur about how we discern, judge (is that a bad word now?), and rightly relate to Gods word. It is easier than ever to see the Bible as a kind of side dish, but we must remember it’s actually supposed to be the “daily bread” that sustains us. Don’t ever let anyone do the work for you… taste and see that He is good, that His words are truth and life to our very bones… we do ourselves such a disservice when we rely on secondhand spirituality.

Here’s some good words from John MacArthur:

“False teachers flourish where there is no scrutiny. That’s why so many of them set up camp in environments where there is little to no biblical discernment—where God’s Word is nothing more than a supplement to personal experience, anecdote, and embellishment.

Why do the heavy lifting of careful Bible study when one can simply “let go” and be drawn into the gravitational pull of a religious guru? Our short attention span and quick-fix culture is easily preyed upon by charismatic sideshows, feel-good philosophy, and the television hucksters of modern pseudo-Christianity.

But we are derelict in our Christian duty if we allow that to happen to us and our churches. When the apostle Paul says to “examine everything” (1 Thessalonians 5:21), he is calling on all Christians to practice careful biblical discernment in all realms of life.

That may surprise some Christians who see discernment as uniquely a pastoral responsibility. It is certainly true that pastors and elders have an even greater duty to be discerning than the average layperson. Most of the calls to discernment in the New Testament are issued to church leaders (1 Timothy 4:6-7, 13, 16; Titus 1:9). Every elder is required to be skilled in teaching truth and able to refute unsound doctrine.

As a pastor, I am constantly aware of this responsibility. Everything I read, for example, goes through a grid of discrimination in my mind. If you were to look through my library, you would instantly be able to identify which books I have read. The margins are marked. Sometimes you’ll see approving remarks and heavy underlining. Other times you’ll find question marks—or even red lines through the text. I constantly strive to separate truth from error. I read that way, I think that way, and of course I preach that way. My passion is to know the truth and proclaim it with authority. That should be the passion of every elder, because everything we teach affects the hearts and lives of those who hear us. It is an awesome responsibility. Any church leader who does not feel the burden of this duty ought to step down from leadership.

But discernment is not only the duty of pastors and elders. The same careful discernment Paul demanded of pastors and elders is also the duty of every Christian. First Thessalonians 5:21 is written to the entire church: “Examine everything carefully.”

The Greek text is by no means complex. The word “carefully” has been added by the translators to make the sense clear. If we translate the phrase literally, we find it simply says, “Examine everything.” But the idea conveyed by our word carefully is included in the Greek word translated “examine,” dokimazō. This is a familiar word in the New Testament. Elsewhere it is translated “analyze,” “test,” or “prove.” It refers to the process of testing something to reveal its genuineness, such as in the testing of precious metals. Paul is urging believers to scrutinize everything they hear to see that it is genuine, to distinguish between the true and the false, to separate the good from the evil. In other words, he wants them to examine everything critically. He is effectively saying, “Judge everything.”

Typically someone will be quick to push back against that command citing Matthew 7:1: “Judge not, that you be not judged.” As if that somehow rules out any kind of critical or analytical appraisal of what others believe. Was Jesus forbidding Christians from judging what is taught in His name?

Obviously not. The spiritual discernment Paul calls for is different from the judgmental attitude Jesus forbade. In Matthew 7, Jesus went on to say,

For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, “Let me take the speck out of your eye,” when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye. (Matthew 7:2–5)

What Jesus condemned was the hypocritical judgment of those who held others to a higher standard than they themselves were willing to live by. He was certainly not suggesting that all judgment is forbidden. In fact, Jesus indicated that taking a speck out of your brother’s eye is the right thing to do—if you first get the log out of your own eye.

Elsewhere in Scripture, we are forbidden to judge others’ motives or attitudes. We are not able to discern “the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12). That is a divine prerogative. Only God can judge the heart, because only God can see it (1 Samuel 16:7). He alone knows the secrets of the heart (Psalm 44:21). He alone can weigh the motives (Proverbs 16:2). And He alone “will judge the secrets of men through Christ Jesus” (Romans 2:16). That is not our role. “Therefore do not go on passing judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart” (1 Corinthians 4:5).

What is forbidden is hypocritical judging and judging others’ thoughts and motives. But other forms of judgment are explicitly commanded. Throughout Scripture the people of God are urged to judge between truth and error, right and wrong, good and evil. Jesus said, “Judge with righteous judgment” (John 7:24). Paul wrote to the Corinthian believers, “I speak as to wise men; you judge what I say” (1 Corinthians 10:15). Clearly, God requires us to be discriminating when it comes to matters of sound doctrine.

We are also supposed to judge one another with regard to overt acts of sin. Paul wrote, “Do you not judge those who are within the church? But those who are outside, God judges. ‘Remove the wicked man from among yourselves’” (1 Corinthians 5:12–13). That speaks of the same process of discipline outlined by Jesus Himself in Matthew 18:15-20.

At least one other kind of judgment is expressly required of every believer. We must examine and judge our own selves: “If we judged ourselves rightly, we would not be judged” (1 Corinthians 11:31). This calls for a careful searching and judging of our own hearts. Paul called for this self-examination every time we partake of the Lord’s Supper (1 Corinthians 11:28). All other righteous forms of judgment depend on this honest self-examination. That is what Jesus meant when He said, “First take the log out of your own eye” (Luke 6:42).

Clearly, then, the command in 1 Thessalonians 5:21 to “examine everything,” in no way contradicts the biblical prohibition against being judgmental. The discernment called for here is doctrinal discernment. The conjunction at the beginning of this verse—“but examine everything”—ties it to the “prophecies” mentioned in verse 20. But this command would certainly include any message that claimed to carry divine approval or authority.

The unusually gullible Thessalonians seemed to have a problem in this regard. Like many today, they were eager to believe whatever was preached in the name of Christ. They were undiscriminating. That’s why Paul addresses this continual lack of discernment in both of his Thessalonian epistles. There is evidence in the first epistle, for example, that someone had confused the Thessalonians about the return of Christ. They were going through a time of severe persecution, and apparently some of them thought they had missed the Second Coming. In chapter 3 we learn that Paul had sent Timothy from Athens specifically to strengthen and encourage them in their faith (1 Thessalonians 3:2). They were unaccountably confused about why they were being persecuted. Paul had to remind them, “You yourselves know that we have been destined for this. For indeed when we were with you, we kept telling you in advance that we were going to suffer affliction” (1 Thessalonians 3:3-4).

Evidently someone had also taught them that believers who died before the Second Coming of Christ would miss that event entirely. They were in serious confusion. Chapters 4–5 contain Paul’s efforts to correct that confusion. He tells them that the dead in Christ will rise and be caught up with the living (1 Thessalonians 4:16-17). And he assures them that although that day will come like a thief in the night (1 Thessalonians 5:2), they need not fear being caught off guard (1 Thessalonians 5:3-6).

Incredibly, shortly after this, Paul had to write a second epistle, again assuring the Thessalonians that they had not missed some great event on the prophetic calendar. Someone, it seems, had sent them a counterfeit epistle claiming to be from Paul and suggesting that the day of the Lord had come already. They should not have been duped by such a ploy because Paul had written so plainly in his first epistle. He wrote them again:

Now we request you, brethren, with regard to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our gathering together to Him, that you be not quickly shaken from your composure or be disturbed either by a spirit or a message or a letter as if from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord has come. Let no one in any way deceive you. (2 Thessalonians 2:1-3)

There was no excuse for their chronic gullibility.

Why were they so vulnerable to false teaching? Surely it was because they lacked biblical discernment. The Thessalonians did not examine everything in light of God’s Word. If they had, they would not have been so easily hoodwinked. And that is why Paul urged them to “examine everything.”

Article “Judge Everything” from Grace To You ministries

Garbage In… Garbage Out

Happy weekend friends! This is meant to be encouraging, so bear with me. See those words up there?👆🏻They popped up no less than three times in my various little social feeds the other day, and kept poking at me, like a little pebble in my shoe. Now I’m not going to get all crazy, I understand these things are meant to help people, but can I just say… this really annoyed me.

I am aware that in certain circles words like this flow like honey, and are received with gladness. The self-help crowds are a funny bunch, they absolve themselves from taking responsibility for their troubles while simultaneously placing some pretty heavy burdens on themselves to fix those very same troubles. Do you see it? “It’s not your fault you’re in this hole… but it’s up to you to dig yourself out.” How empowering.

Before I go further, let me clarify: Awful things happen to everyone at some point that are out of our control, as a result of sin or just living in a fallen world. It’s part of being alive. It’s just that ever since we as a society decided “anything goes” we don’t seem to be able to deal with the consequences very well. The pendulum has swung so very far in the direction of “it’s not your fault” that we have lost any sense of true sin or our need to be rescued from it.

I saw this commercial one day on tv and nearly choked on my coffee:

This was no joke, it was an ad for a law firm explaining that if you were prescribed a certain medication for depression and developed a gambling habit that wrecked your life they can clear that all up for you. It’s not your fault!

To avoid getting into the weeds here, I just would like to ask: does it necessarily matter who is at fault? Sometimes it does I suppose. When you find yourself hurt and lost and in a hole, does it really matter who put you there? I think of the woman caught in adultery in John chapter 8. Jesus didn’t condemn her, but He did tell her to stop walking in darkness and sin no more. It was the same for the Samaritan woman at the well, He called her out for living with a man who was not her husband and offered her something better. Like a fine surgeon, Jesus focused on the problem at hand and dealt with it. No need for emotional craziness about who did what and how… He addressed the problem and offered a way out.

I find this incredibly refreshing. For those who choose to feel victimized and condemned all the time I would say you are not meeting the real Jesus, but the enemy himself. Jesus came not to condemn, but to convict and free us from the chains of our sin. The wound may not be your fault, but what a dangerous door that attitude opens up. Literally:

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This is on a door at some university… the door to a cry closet. You guys… this is real life. “Its not your fault.” Notice the hashtag option as well, very key. Go advertise this, because of course, that will help. The wound is not your fault. Imagine a doctor telling a gunshot victim “well, this isn’t your fault, so… go on home and think on that.” No, we go to a doctor for help and healing, regardless if our wound is our fault or not.

Which brings me to the second part of our happy mantra: your healing is your responsibility. Honestly, is there anything sadder than the idea that we have to go figure out our own healing?

“Surely He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; Yet we esteemed Him stricken, smitten by god and afflicted. But He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities… and by His stripes we are healed.” Isaiah: 53:4

…”casting all your care upon Him, for He cares for you.” (1 Peter 5:7)

The world tells suggests to hashtag our issues, medicate our troubles, and blame them on everyone else. Jesus laid down His life that we may be free of the chains of sin. John 8:32 tells us it’s the truth that makes us free, but only the truth we know… it isn’t a system to be deciphered, but a living person and power to be experienced.

These messages aren’t the end of the world, (although I think a cry closet at a university just might be). Taken in large quantities over and over again they slowly erode the living Words of God and cause our thinking to shift away from Jesus and onto self. Friends, we aren’t alone, and we don’t have to dig ourselves out. Sometimes it is our fault, but we have a savior that doesn’t pound that guilt into the ground. He asks us to turn from doing things our way and surrender to His way.

There was a song we used to sing to the kids when they were little, and it rings true for all of us: “Be careful little eyes what you see… be careful little ears what you hear…” Not all messages are helpful and some very sweet-sounding words are all sugar. Don’t make a steady diet out of short lived memes, but feast on Gods words, the bread of life, the living water and see how satisfying they can be.

Cheap Fruit

“There are two remarkable things about the vine. There is not a plant of which spirit can be so abundantly distilled as the vine. And there is not a plant that so soon runs into wild wood, that hinders its fruit, and therefore needs the most merciless pruning. I look out of my window on large vineyards. The chief care of the vinedresser is the pruning. You may have a trellis vine rooting so deep in good soil that it needs neither digging, nor fertilizing nor watering, but pruning it cannot dispense with, if it is to bear good fruit. Some trees need occasional pruning; others bear perfect fruit without any; the vine must have it. The more vigorous the growth has been, the greater the need for the pruning. And why? Because it would consume too much of the sap to fill all the long shoots of last year’s growth. The sap must be saved up and used for fruit alone.” Andrew Murray

I think most of my life I misunderstood the verses in John 15 about pruning. I remember thinking pruning was some kind of punishment or part-random/part-divine hacking away of something I held dear to make me a better Christian. It’s a wonderful thing to understand that our Vinedresser is not random, in fact He is most caring and thoughtful in how He prunes us branches.

The whole point of pruning is that we are able to bear more fruit (v.2). For those that have some, He wants more. For those with much fruit, He desires there to be fruit in abundance. We may become comfortable with our very long branches and beautiful green leaves, but Jesus knows these are not the things we need. Last years growth may have been amazing, but we need to be cut back to allow the new to come. What a convicting thought that those big branches we grow and hold on to only suck up all the energy we need for new fruit. They spread the vine too thin to grow anything worthwhile.

I think it’s difficult for us sometimes to understand that what Jesus wants to get out of us is fruit in great abundance. We are worried about how we look, how leafy we are compared to some other vine and things totally unrelated to His goal for us. The thought of being cut back to almost nothing makes us cringe. Nobody wants to be small and virtually naked like that. Once new growth begins though, the sky is the limit. Come harvest time, that naked little vine becomes the greatest treasure because it yields much fruit.

This is a passage I come back to time and time again because it reminds me that I never need to fear this process or the Vinedresser. We are “already clean because of His word” (v.15) and therefore have no need to worry about His intentions toward us. We aren’t being chastised when we are cut back, we are actually being cared for and loved. It’s difficult for us to let go of all that extra stuff, but the Vinedresser demands it. It’s such an amazing analogy that the vine can produce the finest wine but at the same time go completely wild if not tended to properly.

We will go wild if not cut back. Our sap will be wasted on leaves instead of fruit. Jesus wants us to have deep roots in Him that get stronger with each season.

“There have always been a smaller number of God’s people who have sought to serve Him with their whole hearts, whereas the majority have been content with a very small measure of the knowledge of His grace and will. And what is the difference between this smaller inner circle and the many who do not seek admission to it?  We find it in the words ‘much fruit’. With many Christians the thought of personal safety remains to the end the one aim of their religion. The honest longing for much fruit does not trouble them. We need not judge others. But we see in God’s word everywhere two classes of disciples. Let there be no hesitation as to where we take our place.” The True Vine

The promises for us in John 15 are widespread and quite incredible. He simply asks that we give ourselves over to being a branch. As we allow the Vinedresser to do His work, as we submit to the seasons of growth and rest, we become fruitful just the way He intended. The world needs disciples who are ready to go all in and bear ‘much fruit’. We’ve become too content with small, cheap fruit. It’s like settling for Asti Spumante when you could be having Dom Perignon. Champagne is my love language, so let me just say that’s a very large difference. Don’t settle for less. Let Jesus take away everything that is making you grow wild and leafy… let Him cut you back so in time you can produce good and lasting fruit.

Leaving The Bitter Barn

“Do not call me Naomi (i.e., pleasant or sweet), call me Mara (i.e., bitter), for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me. I went away full, and the Lord has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi, when the Lord has afflicted me (i.e., testified against me) and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me?” Ruth 1:20-21

The story of Ruth and Naomi is a fascinating look into the human heart and our differing responses to hardship and tragedy. It’s a fascinating look at how some blame God, some have pity-parties and some just forge on ahead. The redemptive thread weaves itself through the whole thing, and the ending is more moving than a Saturday Hallmark love story.

This was the time of the Judges, Israel had arrived in their promised land, but failed to follow through on the conquest. Joshua was gone and they did not yet have a king. We are told “everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25) and it was a time of compromise and confusion amongst the people. They were warned repeatedly to stop following idols and continually refused the instructions of the Lord. It’s no surprise then, that the book of Ruth opens with Naomi and her family  wandering into enemy territory in search of relief from a drought. We are told they remain in Moab about ten years, long enough for Naomi’s sons to take Moabite wives and begin a new life.

In an unfortunate turn of events, Naomi loses her husband and both sons. She is left in a foreign country with only her daughters-in-law. Naomi pleads with them to leave her, for she is old and convinced the Lords hand is against her (Ruth 1:14). While the first daughter-in-law leaves, we are told Ruth clung to Naomi and refused to go. This agitated Naomi so much apparently that when she saw how determined Ruth was to remain with her she “stopped speaking to her” (v.18). This makes me chuckle. Ruth is determined to remain faithful to her mother-in-law, to the point where she will uproot herself and move to a foreign land.

Their return to Bethlehem should be a somewhat happy time, we are told it’s the beginning of the harvest and that the entire city was excited to see Naomi coming home (v 19). Clearly, she was no insignificant woman if years later so many people were gathering to welcome her home. When they inquired after her though, saying “is this Naomi?” her response is nothing short of depressing: “Do not call me Naomi; call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me” (v. 20).

She up and changed her name from “delightful” to “bitter”. It’s understandable, to some extent, the woman is returning from her exile childless and husbandless, and she has a firm belief that God has orchestrated all of this. I don’t think its a black and white issue, but probably a mix of many factors. Israel as a whole had been living in disobedience and there were consequences to those choices. Famine was one of them. What Naomi couldn’t see past was that the daughter-in-law she tried to shoo away was going to be a huge part of her story, which (contrary to what she believed) was not over just yet.

Naomi and her family were forced out of their homeland by a drought. They sought refuge in a foreign land with foreign people. It’s easy to point and say they never should have left or married into a pagan culture in the first place. Sin has far reaching consequences, though doesn’t it? The famine was a natural consequence of Israel’s disobedience which the people brought on themselves. Naomi’s initial response to cry ‘woe is me’ is understandable, but not helpful. I love how Ruth sticks by her regardless of Naomi’s pleas to basically leave her for dead. Sometimes, we can’t see the forest for the trees and we need someone by our side to listen and say “no… I’m not leaving you, we are going to get through this.”

Instead of arguing whether God intended or even initiated these events, I think it’s more helpful to look at the bigger picture: when circumstances go wildly off the rails, the God of the universe isn’t for one single second fretting about how to fix it. He wove the story of Ruth and Naomi so masterfully, we cannot help but be in awe of His desire to redeem and restore what we have knotted up and seemingly wrecked.

I feel so incredibly sad for Naomi and her circumstances, but her spiral into a pity-party is a warning to us. Fainting onto the couch and calling ourselves ‘bitter’ is not helpful. God was for her the entire time, regardless of what may have happened to her, she just refused to see it. Thankfully she had a Ruth by her side who refused to let her go down like that. We need people like this in our lives who stubbornly stand by us no matter our level of crazy, and we also need to be the friend who stands strong when someone is crumbling.

I have a confession: I struggle with people who choose to wallow in their circumstances instead of getting up and joining God. I want to be a friend like Ruth, but sometimes I feel like that other daughter-in-law who headed for the hills. It can suck the life out of you if you let it, which is neither Biblical nor helpful. I love Ruth’s relentlessness with Naomi, her refusal to let any of the negativity affect her. She had something inside her that understood the bigger picture, and I want to be able to point people to that.

What should keep us going then when we or someone in our life just want to throw in the towel and dwell in the bitter barn? The closing verses of the book of Ruth are my answer:

“The women said to Naomi: “Praise be to the Lord, who this day has not left you without a guardian-redeemer. May he become famous throughout Israel!He will renew your life and sustain you in your old age. For your daughter-in-law, who loves you and who is better to you than seven sons, has given him birth.” Then Naomi took the child in her arms and cared for him.The women living there said, “Naomi has a son!” And they named him Obed. He was the father of Jesse, the father of David.” Ruth 4:14-17

Can you even believe the beauty in this? The townspeople are gathered around Naomi marveling at how blessed and redeemed she now is. She is holding her grandson, who will be in direct lineage to the Savior Himself. It’s almost too much to take in. The focus isn’t even on faithful Ruth, the focus at the end of the book is on Naomi, who is restored. What a beautiful thing that her little pity-party was interrupted by a true friend. Bitterness has turned to beauty and the beginnings of an even bigger story have just begun to unfold.

God can weave redemption where there was disobedience. May we know when we need to stubbornly cling to people who have given up. May we likewise never, ever rename ourselves ‘bitter’ as a result of our own painful circumstances, but look to the God who knows how to weave redemption into everything.

That’s Not How This Works

Photo courtesy: Pinterest

There’s a funny car insurance commercial floating around where an elderly woman is proudly posting her photos “to her wall” but instead of Facebook, she’s just pinning them to her actual wall. Her friend comes in and tells her she’s doing it wrong by proclaiming “that’s not how this works… that’s not how any of this works…” to which the little old lady announces “I unfriend you!”

The other day, Pinterest “recommended” this picture to me under the category of “Bible study”. It took me a minute to understand what was happening, but basically you take a sharpie to your Bible and black out whatever words don’t “stand out” while leaving blank the words that do. What you are left with is what every college refrigerator looked like circa 1990-something with that magnetic poetry trend: random words you throw together to make a sentence.

Apparently this is a big youth group activity now, it’s artsy or edgy or something. I’m such a Debbie Downer, I know… but I have to refer back to my elderly commercial friend and say “that’s not how this works..”

Friends, we can’t turn Gods word into our own personal à la carte buffet, taking what we want and leaving the rest. It’s not easy, I admit, we all have our own lens through which we see God and our world, but it is vitally important we take the whole Bible as relevant and useful.

I get it, it’s just an encouraging exercise for teens or people less boring than myself. I sit with my Bible and I highlight like it’s going out of style, but I don’t black out to create my own truths. Big difference. There’s an odd little article over at HuffPo about how we should actually be cherry-picking from our religious texts because no way can all those things passed down from our ancestors still be relevant.

The biggest issue here is not so much in the creation of little artsy activities as much as it is in the general ignorance and disregard we have towards the Bible. We partake of the milk parts and not the meaty ones. Instead of being our daily bread and sustenance, we snack on some of it once in awhile and wonder why we are starving.

Here’s the point: if we treat Gods word as some silly play thing, we shouldn’t be surprised when confusion becomes our new normal, or even when its encouraged. His word is sufficient, it is complete, and it doesn’t need tweaking.

We are a distracted people… myself included. Good things can derail us if we aren’t careful. We get so obsessed with the doing part that we can miss the being with Jesus part entirely.

Friends, please don’t water down or limit the words He wants to speak to you. The whole book, all the verses, easy, difficult and in between. Let the hard ones drive you further into study, believe me, God can handle our questions. Don’t skew His message into something weird. If you want to make some things up, get some of those fridge magnets – if they are still trendy.