Empowered Living

Empowered by His Presence by Kevin G. Harney:  A Book Review

The question that drives Empowered by His Presence is this:  “Where can I receive strength as I seek to live another day?”  In this four-week study, Kevin Harney unpacks the stories of biblical characters and their responses to God’s presence and power within the challenges of their situations.  For example, the woman at the well is a story every Sunday School child would recognize, but, when this nameless woman is portrayed as a fellow bucket-carrier in the search for satisfaction in life, the story takes on a fresh urgency.  A powerful person has lots of buckets and access to thousands of wells — maybe even a staff of bucket-droppers who will eventually draw up something that will satisfy an empty soul.  A powerless person may decide there’s no reason to keep carrying buckets from well to well.  They’ve given up ever trying to quench the thirst of their parched soul.   The woman at the well becomes empowered by coming to Jesus, the source of living water.  She dared to take his “eternal refreshment,” and to quit dropping the bucket of her heart “down the endless wells the world offers.”

The book’s four-week format allows for a lesson for each day Monday through Friday and one lesson for the weekend.  The “Resources for Living an Empowered Life,” the Small Group Discussion Guide, DVD curriculum, and the breadth of Old and New Testament characters covered throughout the study make this a valuable resource for a home study or for use in a class room.  A church’s ministry resource library would be greatly enhanced by having a copy of Empowered by His Presence available as a reference for Sunday School teachers who want to liven up their presentation of a familiar Bible story.  With biblical literacy in decline in the church, Kevin Harney has given us an important bridge between biblical content and living an empowered life.

I received this book free from Baker Publishing Group. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 http://www.access.gpo.gov/nara/cfr/waisidx_03/16cfr255_03.html.

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Truth for the Heart

Found in Him by Elyse M. Fitzpatrick:  A Book Review Caution:  This book contains theology.  However, as you are reading, you will be so caught up with the practical impact of the incarnation and the believer’s union with Christ that you may not be aware of the weight of the truth you are absorbing.  Throughout all ten chapters of this book, God-exalting truth is tied to real-life examples, and it may change the way you read Scripture from now on,  because “the Bible isn’t primarily a rulebook, nor is it a self-help manual; it’s not about how we become better people so that we an earn blessings by working hard.  It’s all about Jesus, God made man, his life, death and resurrection.” Merry Incarnation!  Every time we sing a Christmas carol we celebrate the God-man, “veiled in flesh.”  Part One of Found in Him traces that miracle throughout Jesus’ earthly life, citing His qualifications to be Savior of the world, exploring the self-emptying sacrifice of His life and death, and celebrating the victorious resurrection — “deathless life.” Part Two goes on to consider the benefits of Christ’s work with the goal of highlighting that His presence and power in a life and “being ‘in’ Him changes everything about you and how you live your life.”  Union or oneness with Christ is a major theme in the writings of Paul (33 mentions in his letters), and the benefits deserve the capital letters Elyse uses to set them off:  redemption, death to sin, eternal life, freedom from condemnation and the law of sin and death, and the immeasurable love of God.  She explores the metaphors of temple (building), bride, and adoption to lend richness to our understanding of what it means to be one with God in Christ. Of special value in this volume are the appendices which include a selection of historical creeds, Elyse’s personal testimony, Jesus’ prayer in John 17, and a succinct table which shows the ways in which Jesus’ union with the believer through His incarnation brings specific blessings. Found in Him is an excellent study resource, while at the same time a thoughtful gift for Easter or Christmas. Disclosure:  I received this book from Crossway in exchange for an honest review.

Mind the Gap

The Puritans, apparently, were not preoccupied with self-esteem issues.  John Owen’s opening thoughts in Chapter 12 of The Mortification of Sin demonstrate the great gulf between his mind set and present-day sensibilities.  Even though it may be understood that, when compared with the God of the universe, yes, any mortal creature could be filled “at all times with self-abasement and thoughts of [one’s] own vileness,” we of the enlightened 21st century would just never say it that way.  Owen’s point, however, is that in order to make much of God, it is essential to the human heart to put ourselves in our place, comparatively.  This would include:

1.  Mindfulness of God’s majesty and our “infinite distance from Him.”

2.  Awareness of how little we really know of God.  Even Solomon laments his lack of wisdom (Proverbs 30:2-4) when it comes to the knowledge of the Holy One.  Paul’s glass through which we “see darkly” is not a telescope “to help us see things afar off.”  Quite the opposite, I’m afraid.  In fact, “all our notions of God are but childish in respect of His infinite perfections.”

Owen goes on to explain this lack of understanding.

“We know so little of God because it is God who is thus to be known; i.e. He who hath described Himself to us very much by this, that we cannot know Him.”  These words make me smile with their delightful circularity, and remind me of the words of Andree Seu-Peterson:  “All reasoning is circular at the fundamental level; e.g. ‘God does not exist because the universe evolved from nothing.'”  Given that, it is heartening to remember, as Owen knew, that “we Christians have the better circle.”

There is a danger inherent in pushing to describe God out of our limited understanding, and it is this:  we “make an idol to ourselves, and so . . .  worship a God of our own making and not the God who made us.  We may as well and as lawfully hew him out of wood or stone as form Him a being in our minds.”  The distance between who we are and who God is seems to dictate that we will know God better by what He does than by what He is — “by His doing us good than by His essential goodness.”  I can’t help but see our fallen-ness in this, for even in our attempts to gaze upon the myriad perfections of God, we struggle to avoid seeing them in relation to ourselves.   Thanks be to God that in our best moments of spiritual lucidity, “to believe and admire is all that we attain to.”

4.  “We know little of God because it is faith alone whereby here we know him. . . Faith is all the argument we have of ‘things not seen.'”It is though faith that we receive the “light of the gospel whereby now God is revealed” and, consequently, are given quite enough knowledge of God “to love Him more than we do, to delight in Him and serve Him, believe Him, obey Him, put our trust in Him above all that we have hitherto attained.”  The believer cannot use lack of knowledge as an excuse for sin, and John Owen fends off any possible complaints with the wisdom that if we “used our talents well, we might have been trusted with more.”  Furthermore, the point of gospel revelation is not to “unveil God’s essential glory,” but to be a foundation for our faith.  We learn to depend on the indwelling Spirit to reveal the Father.

God’s greatness, His unfathomable other-ness, is intended to “fill the soul with a holy and awful fear of Him, so as to keep it in a frame unsuited to the thriving or flourishing of any lust whatever.”  I am reminded of Elisabeth Elliot’s words (another great saint who was not preoccupied with the matter of self-esteem):  “Until we live perfectly, which will not happen on this fallen planet, we must fear.  Until perfect love casts it out, fear is a salutary thing.  Fear saves us.”    She knew whereof she spoke, and her words came from Moses:

“The fear of God will be with you to keep you from sinning, ”  (Exodus 20:20)

 

 

Just One Thing: Story Arc

I have a tendency to get stuck in time.  It was true when I was single; it has been true of my days as a parent; it is true when my back flares up or when I am sick.  I believe — falsely — that whatever is going on at the moment is insurmountable and eternal.  The sleepless haze of new motherhood, the sleepless haze of eleven o’clock teen curfews, whatever the obstacle, my default reaction seems to be obtuse tunnel vision.

This was not the case with Nehemiah.   When he learned that the walls around Jerusalem were, once again, demolished, he reacted emotionally (“I sat down and wept, and mourned for many days . . ” 1:4), but then he began decisive action.  He was able to act effectively because he understood his present situation (and that of Jerusalem) in light of the bigger story arc which encompasses all the lesser stories of the Bible:  God redeeming his people and restoring His world.  In her excellent book Women of the Word, Jen Wilkin refers to this as the metanarrative: “the comprehensive explanation or guiding theme that illumines all other themes in a text.  A metanarrative is essentially a story about stories, encompassing and explaining the ‘little stories’ it overarches.”

How much of God’s  metanarrative of creation-fall-redemption-restoration did Nehemiah comprehend as he fasted and prayed for guidance in Shushan?  Enough to turn God’s promises to the Israelites into a trajectory of prayer that lasted around 16 weeks (from the Hebrew calendar’s month of Chislev to the month of Nisan).  Enough to interpret his present problem in light of the bigger problem.  Although Nehemiah was a Jew, he was, in all probability, born in Persia and had lived his days in the shadow of King Artaxerxe’s citadel.  His display of grief over the destruction of Jerusalem would not have been because he had fond boyhood memories of Israel’s kingdom days, but, instead, because he had tender heart toward God’s agenda.  The promise of God to restore the nation of Israel (Jeremiah 25:11,2; 29:10-14) was being thwarted once again.  The building project had been halted because of the political ax-grinding of evil men.

Hearing of this crisis in Jerusalem, Nehemiah chose to risk his safe position as the king’s trusted servant (1:11)and to leave the comfort of the palace in Shushan for a thousand mile journey and a new life in a war-zone.  Like Joseph and Esther before him, he recognized that he was in his present position for “such a time as this.”  Because he had interpreted events in light of the main theme, he would have realized that the walls around Jerusalem were necessary in order for there to be a distinct people of God.  It is doubtful that he would have known that God had an individual in mind, an individual who would be raised as a Jew so that he could become the ultimate Priest and King over Israel.  The restoration of Jerusalem as a political entity was just part of the great story arc (metanarrative) which would climax with the coming of Messiah.

With this in mind, I am challenged to interpret my own circumstances in light of a bigger picture.  What presents itself to me minute by minute is rarely my deepest, truest need.  Recognizing that God has complete freedom to do his big-picture plan, we can join Nehemiah in his God-centered prayer.

“Lord God of heaven, O great and awesome God, You who keep Your covenant and mercy with those who love You and observe Your commandments, lease let Your ear be attentive and Your eyes open, that You may hear the prayer of Your servant which I pray before You now, day and night . . .”

And so, the real story begins.

(For further study, refer to Kelly Minter’s Nehemiah study guide, Kathy Keller’s address to the Gospel Coalition conference 2014 . . . or join us at Spruce Head Community Church for my Sunday School class on the book of Nehemiah!)

Invitation into Relationship

The Answer to Our Cry by Rick McKinley:  A Book Review

Everyone is looking for freedom.  Most of us are looking in all the wrong places with the idea that freedom involves getting what we want.  The Answer to Our Cry is not a series of steps, but a spotlight on the truth that true freedom is the ability to:

1.  Live fully — As an author, Rick McKinley has a unique voice:  casual, pastoral, with a touch of urgency.  He calls his readers away from the awkwardness of standing around at the junior high dance and into the self-forgetfulness of David’s dance when the ark of God returns to Jerusalem.  Moving away from self-centered living is a move toward fruitfulness.

2.  Love boldly — As the father of a special-needs child, Rick McKinley has seen first-hand the heartbreak of feeling unloved.  He reminds his readers that we are already the beloved of God as His children, and this is not a status based on our competence or our merit.  Based on this safe foundation, we move beyond the safety of “nice” and into the grace of loving like Jesus, because we see His face in “the thirsty, the naked, the sick, and the imprisoned.”  The result of this kind of love is the courage “to work where things are not the way they should be,” thereby effecting change and justice.

3.  Fear nothing — As a pastor, Rick McKinley has a high view of God as One who can be trusted in the hard places of life.  The freedom of trusting changes the desert from a place of fear “to a place where God is meeting me in His love.”  Letting go of the need to control and to fix everything opens the hands to receive freedom.

From this kind of love, boldness and others-centered living comes a “persuasive life,” free of guilt, compelled by love, and, therefore, imaginative, grounded in Truth, and completely new:

So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view.  Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer.  Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come.  The old has gone, the new is here! (I Cor. 5:16,17)

I received this book free from Baker Publishing Group. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 http://www.access.gpo.gov/nara/cfr/waisidx_03/16cfr255_03.html.

Directions

If John Owen’s book, The Mortification of Sin, seems theoretical and heavily theological, Chapters 9, 10 and 11 turn the tide by putting in the believer’s tool-belt practical and efficient tools for carrying out Romans 8:13 ( . . . by the Spirit, put to death the deeds of the body).  He refers to his advice for killing sin as “directions.”  First, in Chapter 9 he urged us to consider the danger signs that mark particular sins as being more resilient.

Second, Chapter 10 exhorted the believer to “get a clear sense of the guilt, dangers and evil of sin” and to let our hearts tremble in response.

In Chapter 11, Owen forges ahead with directions 3-7 which begin with darkness and guilt, but move through the murky gray and into the marvelous light of decisive Spirit-led action.

Third, “load your conscience with guilt.”  Although this sounds contrary to Romans 8:1, Owen clears up any notion of a contradiction with this:  “Charge your conscience with that guilt which appears in it for the rectitude and holiness of the law.”  This is not condemnation, but reality therapy, and if this was necessary in Owen’s day, how much more do 21st century believers need to line up our wavery consciences against the straight line of the law?  He recommends a conversation with our conscience in which we inform ourselves that we cannot produce evidence of freedom from sin and condemnation if there is unmortified sin in our lives.  Warning:  The Law has a case against you!

This prescribed conversation with the conscience is the law’s “proper work”; i.e. “to discover sin in the guilt of it, to awaken and humble the soul for it, to be a glass to represent sin in its colors.”  This conscience-training work of the law should have the end result of “persuad[ing] your conscience to hearken diligently to what the Law speaks about your corruption.”

Like King David, we need to learn the language of lament when it comes to our sin.  “My iniquity is ever before me!”  Is this an Old Testament only concept?  Not according to Owen who says, “To mortify sin, tie your conscience to the law.”  We are to “bring our lust to the gospel, not for relief, but for further conviction of guilt.”  How can we bear to “trample His grace” when God has provided so great a salvation?  Consider this piercing inquiry:  “Was my soul washed that room might be made for new defilements?”

Having laid out these Big Picture Truths of justification and redemption, Owen moves on to list the “particulars” of:

(1) “God’s infinite patience and forbearance toward you;”  (Am I really asking God to forgive this sin again?  Really?)

(2) “Restored communion with God;”  (Oh, Lord, thank you that my sin is removed as far as the east is from the west!)

(3) “All God’s gracious dealings.”  (Forgiven sin, healed diseases, redemption from destruction, loving kindness, tender mercies, satisfaction — Psalm 103 is a cornucopia of God’s gifts.)

With these spread before our hearts, Owen reiterates his beginning exhortation to “load your conscience with the guilt of your corruption,” not because there is no hope, but because of this shining reality:

“If your conscience can alleviate the guilt of sin, the soul will never vigorously attempt its mortification.”

Fourth, having “loaded up” the conscience with guilt, “get a constant longing, breathing after deliverance from the power of it.”  This longing, expressed best by Paul in Romans 7, will make the heart watchful for all “opportunities of advantage against the enemy.”  One never arrives at a final destination called “holiness”:

Suffer not thy heart one moment to be content with thy present frame and condition.”

This “deliverance” that Owen mentions must be none other than forgiveness.  “The only sin that can be defeated by the Spirit is a forgiven sin,” according to John Piper.  This is our path out of guilt and into life in Christ.

Fifth, if you find that you are subject to a sin that is “rooted in your nature”; i.e. “heightened by your constitution,” this is not an excuse to go on sinning.  Gregarious types do not get a free pass to gossip or offend people with their jabbering tongues, and, likewise, introverts cannot selfishly stare at their phones instead of  drawing out or investing in other people.  For these besetting sins, Owen prescribes the means of grace designed to bring the body “into subjection,” (I Corinthians 9:27).   While fasting, prayer, silence and other spiritual disciplines are given to “cut short the natural appetite,” Owen cautions about their becoming an end in themselves.  They will not produce mortification of sin apart from the work of the Spirit of God.  For more on the spiritual disciplines, Nathan Foster has written a delightful follow up to his father’s classic work.  My review is available here:  https://michelemorin.wordpress.com/2014/11/07/going-saint/

Sixth, Owen’s words  can be summed up in two imperatives:  Watch!  (Mark 13:37)  Take heed!  (Luke 21:32)

He likens this caution to physical conditions or allergies that are set off by the wrong kind of food or seasonal air quality and conditions.  The degree of caution exercised to avoid these pitfalls should be applied to our own personal sin triggers.

“Consider what ways, what companies, what opportunities, what studies, what businesses, what conditions, have at any time given, or do usually give, advantages to thy distempers, and set thyself heedfully against them all.”

Here is the truth:  “He that dares to dally with occasions of sin will dare to sin.”

Seventh, and most powerfully, declare war.  Do not cede any ground to sin.  Citing James 1:14,15, Owen uses powerful imagery to describe the slippery slope of one toe over the line:

“If it have allowance for one step, it will take another.”

“It is like water in a channel — if it once break out, it will have its course.  Its not acting is easier to be compassed than its bounding.”

Sin would have nothing less than all of its victim, and Owen is adamant that his reader should not be deceived.  “Do not say, ‘Thus far it shall go, and no farther.'”   The vilest of sins had their beginnings in a thought.

Conclusion:

Yes, you are guilty.  All the squirm-worthy, heart-hardening sins in your portfolio are attesting to your unworthiness before a holy God.  However, because of the gospel, you can look this truth squarely in the face and let the anguish of it turn your heart toward the only solution.  Allow God’s love to breathe fire into your soul for making war on everything that is the opposite of God’s love.  This exertion of the will in declaring war on sin is as much a part of the gospel as the verdict of “No Condemnation” rendered in Romans 8:1, and both are ours only because of the great victory that Jesus has won on the cross.

For further reading, these are links to my summaries and ponderings on Chapters 9 and 10 of The Mortification of Sin:

https://michelemorin.wordpress.com/2014/10/28/danger-signs/

https://michelemorin.wordpress.com/2014/11/06/getting-a-clear-sense-a-letter-to-a-much-loved-child/

The Edges of His Ways

Not a Chance — God, Science, and the Revolt against Reason by R.C. Sproul and Keith Mathison:  A Book Review

R.C. Sproul has not written a small-minded, fear-mongering diatribe against science.  His purpose in Not a Chance is to point out the precipitous slide into fiction that occurs when the brilliant minds that discover and describe the unseen workings of God’s creation attempt to make a side step into the realm of philosophy.

Typically, the debate about origins revolves around the controversy of how the universe bridged the gap between “nothing” and “something.”  Intelligent design advocates argue from Scripture that God spoke everything into being.  The burden of coming up with matter (or energy) of any kind with no Prime Mover places the atheist in contradiction with the laws of his own scientific method:

(1) ex nihil, nihil fit  — “out of nothing, nothing comes”;

(2) the law of noncontradiction  — for something to, essentially, create itself, it must be and not be at the same time;

(3) the impossibility of the contrary — if A is, non-A cannot also be at the same time and in the same relationship.

Sproul’s argument necessitates the clarification of the complexities of speech, causality, what it means to know, and what it means to be.  He includes in this section a most helpful description of essence and persona as they relate to the doctrines of Trinity and Incarnation.

Since it seemed to R.C. Sproul that chance has been, over time, ascribed the dignity of causality in scientific musings, he invited Keith Mathison to close this updated edition of the book with a final dialectic chapter addressing scientific and philosophical arguments which have come to light in the ten years since the initial publication of Not a Chance.  Even if the reader is, like me, a died-in-the-wool creationist and impatient with all the verbal gymnastics of those who would strain logic in order to strain-out a Creator, there is food for the soul and for the mind in Not a Chance.  Most of the science discussed in the book had not found its way into the average high school physics class thirty years ago, and there is much to be gained from reading Sproul’s history of quantum theory and his descriptions of dark matter, virtual particles, and the working hypothesis of dark energy.  Not a Chance presents strong and compelling arguments which should be of interest to the atheist who wishes to be intellectually  honest and to do his homework.  Of equal value, it is a reminder to the Christian that, in all our arguments and speculations about God and His creative work, we are only approaching the “edges of His ways.”

I received this book free from Baker Publishing Group. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 http://www.access.gpo.gov/nara/cfr/waisidx_03/16cfr255_03.html.