Monday, March 19, 2018

Not the Kind of King We Want

This Sunday marks Palm Sunday, the day when the church remembers Jesus' triumphal entry into the city of Jerusalem.  At Riverview, we mark this Sunday by singing triumphant hymns, and watching as cute preschoolers march down the center aisle, waiving palm branches and shouting "Hosanna!"  Additionally, Palm Sunday marks the beginning of Holy Week - the final week of Jesus' life - when we remember his crucifixion, death, and subsequent resurrection.

But the celebration of Palm Sunday has often confused me, and still does.  Aside from the fact that Jesus' entrance into Jerusalem fulfilled scripture (Zechariah 9.9, Psalm 118.25-26), and the fact that Israel's rightful king was entering into her capital city, I don't see much to celebrate.  If anything, the "celebration" that took place on the original Palm Sunday only served to show that Jesus is the kind of king the people don't really want.

There has been some scholarly debate recently over whether or not the crowd who cried "Hosanna!" on the day of Jesus' entry was the same crowd that cried "Crucify him!" just a week later.  John Ensor says that the two crowds were distinct, and that those who welcomed Jesus on Palm Sunday were not the same as those who called for his execution later in the week, whereas Dave Miller thinks the two groups were one in the same.

My opinion?  It doesn't really matter.  Regardless of which crowd you find yourself in - either the "Hosanna!" crowd, or the "Crucify!" crowd - when it all boils down, Jesus isn't the kind of king you want.

Obviously those in the "Crucify!" crowd didn't want Jesus to be their king.  If they did, they certainly wouldn't be calling for his execution.  But I would also argue that those who declared "Blessed is he who comes in name of the Lord!" also didn't really want Jesus to be their king.  The reason for this is that Jesus wasn't the kind of king they wanted.

The people wanted a national king - a king who would re-establish Israel as a world-power; a king who would release them from he tyrannical grip of Rome; a king who would bring them peace and prosperity; a king who would assert their dominance as an international force to be reckoned with, like in the days of king David; a king that would rule over the nations, with Israel as its head.  Israel wanted a king that would align himself with a predetermined political agenda.  That is who they thought he was, and that is what they thought he would do, and that is why they shouted, "Hosanna!  Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!"

Even Jesus' closest friends and followers - his disciples - were very confused on this issue.  They thought that Jesus' kingdom would be an earthly one - one over which they would help him rule.  This is why they asked to sit at his right and left hand when he came into his kingdom (Mark 10.37).  Presumably, when Jesus entered Jerusalem, his disciples probably thought that all they had imagined about his (supposedly earthly) kingdom was about to come true.  And even when Jesus was about to ascend into heaven after his resurrection, his disciples thought that he was still going to establish an earthly kingdom (Acts 1.6).  Put simply, the crowds who shouted "Hosanna!" - and even the disciples - didn't know what kind of king Jesus was.

But they would learn, and quickly.  Right after Jesus went into Jerusalem, he "cleansed" the temple by driving out all of the merchants and their wares, essentially condemning the corruption that had become a regular part of Jewish religious life.  To drive the point home, he declared Jerusalem spiritually bankrupt and publicly condemned its religious leaders and teachers.

"Wait a minute," the people say, "maybe this guy isn't who we thought he was..."

Jesus didn't enter Jerusalem to establish a new or continuing earthly kingdom in Israel.  He didn't come to defeat their enemies and set Israel up as a leader on the world stage.  He wasn't the kind of king they wanted.

We want a king who will do what we tell him to do, not the other way around.  Or, as my mentor Dave Wick used to say, "Most people want to serve God in an advisory capacity."  That is, we're happy to shout "Hosanna!" as long as the king does what we want him to do.  What we want is a king who thinks and does exactly like we do.  We want to be our own king.  I am the kind of king I want.

But this is not the kind of king Jesus is.  Jesus will not be forced into a political agenda; Jesus will not be subservient to your desire to obtain a prosperous life.  Instead, Jesus is the kind of king who is "the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.  For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities - all things were created through him and for him.  And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church.  He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent.  For in him the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross" (Colossians 1. 15-20).

Is that the kind of king you want?  Because that's the kind of king Jesus is, and that is what he came to do.

If we will know Jesus for who he truly is, then we will not set him up on some man-made pedestal that he was never meant to be on (as many of even his own followers did in the first century), and then become angry when he doesn't live up to our selfish expectations of him.  Jesus came to fulfill his purposes, not mine.

Palm Sunday is a time for us to know who Jesus is, in truth.  It is a time for us to submit ourselves to Jesus' kingship, rule, and reign.  It is a time to remember the kind of King he is, and to worship him in spirit and in truth.  It is a time to remember that my own rulership of the world only leads to sin and sadness, and that his way leads to life.  It is a time to submit my own will and desires to his sovereign rule.  It is a time to repent of trying to force the will of God into my own agenda.  It is a time to trust and rejoice in our good King.

Monday, March 12, 2018

What Does it Mean to Take the Bible Literally?

Living Biblically? 
Last night I watched the first two episodes of a new sitcom on CBS called "Living Biblically."  The show tells the story of a man who recently lost a best friend to death, and who also recently received news that he and his wife were expecting their first child.  As a result of these two significant life-changing experiences, he decides to make a change in his life, and that change is to take the Bible "literally," word for word, for at least the next nine months until his child is born.  As you can probably guess, his commitment to the "literal" interpretation and application of the Bible leads to (supposedly) hilarious outcomes (although I watched the first two episodes and only snickered once).

But this isn't the first iteration of the culture's attempt to take the Bible literally.  10 years ago, author A.J. Jacobs wrote the book The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible to rave reviews among secularists and Christians alike.  In the book, Jacobs describes what his life is like when he follows every command of the Bible to the letter.  And just a few years ago, Rachel Held-Evans wrote A Year of Biblical Womanhood: How a Liberated Woman Found Herself Sitting on Her Roof, Covering Her Head, and Calling Her Husband 'Master', in which Held-Evans recounts her attempts to "literally" obey every biblical command directed toward women for the period of one year.  As you might expect, both Jacobs and Held-Evans have plenty of interesting and strange stories about what it's like to follow Old Testament laws and commands in a 21st century world.

If nothing else, these cultural excursions into the realm of biblical Christianity have served to show that people are generally very confused about what it means to take the Bible "literally."  The culture believes that taking the Bible literally means following each Old Testament command to the letter, and obeying every obscure Jewish ritual and tradition.  For instance, one of the first changes the character Chip makes in his life in the show "Living Biblically" is to make sure that he only wears clothes that are made of a single type of fabric.  After all, Leviticus 19.19 says "Do not wear clothing woven of two kinds of material" (NIV).  So if we take the Bible literally, we shouldn't mix fabrics, right?

Similarly, Christians are often maligned in the culture when they insist upon the Bible as an absolute source of moral authority.  Christians are charged with inconsistency at best, and hypocrisy at worst because, after all, there are plenty of laws in the Bible about not eating shell fish, and we don't follow those.  The accusation leveled against Christians is that we pick and choose which parts of the Bible we want to take "literally."

So what does it mean to take the Bible "literally?"  According to the culture (and even to some within Christendom), it means to follow every jot and tittle of every command in the Bible, irrespective of when the command was given, why it was given, and to whom it was given.  If the Bible says it, it must be obeyed, no matter what - shell fish, fabrics, and everything else.  And that's what it means to take the Bible "literally."

Except, no.  That's not it.  Not even close.  As with almost every attempt the culture makes to determine just what it is Christians believe about a particular doctrine, this one is a resounding swing and a miss.  To take the Bible literally does not mean to follow it word for word, or to obey commandments that were given to a nomadic people group three thousand years ago as they wandered around in the wilderness.

Well then, what does it mean to take the Bible literally?

First, it means to believe that God wrote the Bible.
Taking the Bible literally means believing that it is actually inspired by God, and that the Bible contains God's message to human beings.  The Bible is a revelation of God's character and nature (who he is and what he is like), and a message to human beings as to how we are to respond God's revelation of himself.  What does he want from us?  How are we to act towards him?  Can we live in relationship with him?  And if so, how?  God himself tells us these things in the Bible.  Did you catch that?  God himself tells us these things in the Bible.  The Bible was written by God - the Creator of the universe.  If we are believing that the Creator of the universe communicated with us personally, we will be far less likely to treat the Bible flippantly or in some silly manner.  The first step to taking the Bible literally is to believe the Creator of the universe wants to communicate with you, and he has done so through his word contained within the Bible.

Second, it means to receive what God has said in context.
The Bible wasn't written to you and I - it was written for you and I.  Over 70% of the Bible (the Old Testament) was written to the ancient Israelites who lived 3000 years ago in and around the nation of Israel as shepherds and farmers.  Thus, the commands were given to them in their specific time, geographic location, cultural context, etc.  It would be (and is) ridiculous to try to "literally" apply commands given to nomadic shepherds 3000 years ago to our modern day lives.

Put simply, there are a myriad of differences between us and the people to whom the Bible was written (time, culture, language, political, geographical, covenantal, etc.).  It would be ludicrous to not recognize these differences as we seek to understand and apply the Bible in our lives today.  However, this is exactly what A.J. Jacobs, Rachel Held-Evans, and the producers of "Living Biblically" are doing when they universally apply commands given to a specific people, in a specific geographic location, in a specific culture, etc. to our present circumstances.  It's no wonder that several Old Testament laws seem foreign to me: I'm not a wilderness-wandering shepherd living in 3000 B.C.

In order to take the Bible literally, we must understand it in its historical and grammatical context.  This means that in order to understand what God told his people, we first have to understand them: their history, their culture, their language, their socio-political circumstances, etc.  God's commands to them will only make sense to us if we know who they were, how they thought, how they lived, etc.

This does not mean, however that because I am not a wilderness-wandering ancient Israelite that the Old Testament is obsolete or irrelevant to me as a 21st century American.  Far from it!  Remember, the whole Bible shows us God's character and nature.  So although I don't apply the Old Testament purity and cleanliness laws (such as the laws regarding fabrics, shellfish, etc.), those laws tell me about a holy and righteous God who desires to live in relationship with his people.  I don't apply the laws literally, but I apply the principles communicated by the laws when understood in context, literally.

Also, we need to realize that the Bible contains different genres of literature.  This means that different parts of the Bible function differently from others.  For example, history books tell an historical story.  Poetry books contain poetry.  You wouldn't read a poetry book to learn history, nor a history book to learn poetry.  So then, we have to take the Bible "literally" according to the rules of interpreting literature.

Case Study: Exodus 21.28-29
Let's use an example to see how we can apply Old Testament commands literally.  Exodus 21.28-29 says, "When an ox gores a man or a woman to death, the ox shall be stoned, and its flesh shall not be eaten, but the owner of the ox shall not be liable.  But if the ox has been accustomed to gore in the past, and its owner has been warned but has not kept it in, and it kills a man or a woman, the ox shall be stoned, and its owner also shall be put to death."

This law was given to a vagabond nation of wanderers about 3500 years ago.  These people kept livestock as a regular part of everyday life, so God gave them rules and laws that would bring order to their society and help them to live in relationship with him.  Then how can I - a 21st century urban American who does not own livestock - apply this command "literally?"  By knowing the history of the people to whom the law was given, and the genre and grammar of the literature in which it was communicated.

According to our culture, in order to apply this command literally, I'd have to go out and buy some oxen and then make sure to keep them penned up securely.  But to do so would be just as ridiculous as wearing clothes of the same material or swearing off shellfish.  Instead, I can literally apply the principles of this command by interpreting what it is saying.  For instance, from this command we learn at least three things about God: 1) Human life is valuable to God.  God does not desire that men and women be killed by animals.  2) Personal responsibility is important to God.  God expects people to act responsibly so as to minimize any potential threat to others or to the community.  3) Justice is important to God.  In each scenario, punishment is meted out to fit the crime.

When we take this command literally, we don't go out and buy oxen and make sure to put up a sturdy fence around them, because this command was not given to us.  Instead, we interpret the command, and apply the principles the command teaches to our lives literally.  This means that we literally love and value life because God does; it means that we literally take responsibility for our actions for the betterment of ourselves and our communities; it means that we literally work and advocate for justice in our society.  If we do these things, we will have obeyed the command to keep our rambunctious ox penned up, literally.

*Note: for a great guide to how to read and apply the Bible literally in the ways briefly mentioned here, check out the book Grasping God's Word by Duvall and Hays.  

Monday, March 5, 2018

Fighting Spiritual Laziness

This summer my family will be going to the North American Baptist Triennial Conference in Edmonton, Alberta Canada.  It's a journey of more than 1,200 miles, and we're beginning to look into transportation options and costs.  Like most people, I find the process of shopping for and booking travel accommodations to be a tedious and frustrating process.  It's a pain to have to shop airlines, schedule departure and arrival dates, arrange rental cars, and everything else.  In light of this frustration, I've decided that my family will travel to Canada this summer by bike.  After all, each of us has a bike hanging on the wall in the garage.  We won't have to navigate airline websites and arrange for rental cars if we all ride our bikes.  All we have to do is take them off the wall and get going.

Obviously the above isn't true.  We aren't going to ride our bikes to Canada this summer.  But this is a great analogy for how Christians often treat their walk with Jesus: we neglect a source of immense power (an airplane) because it takes a little work to use it (booking travel), in favor of a more readily available, albeit much less powerful, way of doing things (a bike).

God has guaranteed that all those who belong to him will live in the power he provides through his Holy Spirit.  The Bible says that the one who is in us is greater than the one that is in the world, and that by his power, we can overcome (1 John 4.4).  Paul says that we are "more than conquerors through him who loved us (Romans 8.37).  The power of Christ has overcome the world (John 16.33), and Christians have access to that very same power.

If all of that is true, then why do I so often feel like a spiritual loser?  Why do I so often feel spiritually beaten down, like a failure?  Why do I find it so hard to forgive?  Why is it such a challenge for me to love and honor my spouse?  Why do I so easily lose my patience with my children?  Shouldn't the power of God help me gain victory in those areas?

Yes, it can and it should.  But it doesn't.

Why not?  One of the primary reasons is that we are spiritually lazy.  There is an ocean of divine power at our fingertips that Christians are able to access, but most of the time we don't put in the necessary time and effort to access it and gain the victory that we desire.  We would rather just take the bike off the wall than go through the hassle of booking a flight on an airplane, even though we know full well that the airplane is more efficient and effective at meeting our needs.

In Mark 9, Jesus' disciples find themselves in an embarrassing situation: a father approaches them and asks them to heal his son who has been possessed by an unclean spirit.  But try as they might, they are not able to exorcize the demon.  This is awkward, because just a short time ago Jesus had given them authority over all demons (Luke 9.1).  So then, why couldn't they drive out this demon?  That's the question they want answered, so they ask Jesus, and his response is revealing: "This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer" (Mark 9.29).

The disciples did have the power and authority to drive out this demon, but they failed to access the power.  They opted for the bike instead of the airplane.  Jesus says that this kind of demon could only be drive out by prayer, the implication being that the disciples weren't praying.  Well, why weren't they praying?  I'm suggesting to you it's because they were spiritually lazy.  Prayer takes time, effort, and intentionality, and for some reason the disciples didn't put that time and effort and intentionality into their dealing with this demon.

Access to God's power takes time.  It takes effort.  It takes intentionality.  Do you have a besetting sin that you struggle with, and you just can't seem to gain victory over it?  Do you find it difficult to forgive?  Do you find it hard to love and honor your spouse, or to be patient with your children?  How much time have you spent in prayer about it?  How much time have you spent studying the Bible about it?  How much time have you spent talking to others about it and asking them for support and accountability?

If you haven't done any of these things, then don't expect to tap into divine power to help your areas of weakness.  Spiritual laziness inhibits our access to God's power to transform our hearts, minds, and lives.  Just like the disciples power over demons was directly connected to their willingness to spend intentional time in prayer, so is our power to see transformation in our lives connected to our willingness to spend intentional time in prayer, study, fellowship, and host of other resources God has given us to tap into his power.

And if you don't feel up to the task, that's alright.  Neither did the disciples, and neither did most of the people Jesus came into contact with.  Jesus is eager to help those who want to experience the power of God in their lives.  He is eager to lend a hand to those who are spiritually lazy.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Questions and Answers

From time to time, something I say during a sermon generates questions from the congregation.  This week's sermon produced several questions that I'd like to answer in this blog post.  You can hear the sermon on Luke 9.1-9 here.

What is the "kingdom of God"?  
Throughout the gospels Jesus refers to the kingdom of God several times (more than 100 times, in fact).  And in Luke 9.2 Jesus sends his 12 apostles out specifically to "declare the kingdom of God."  Bible scholars have pondered the exact nature of what the kingdom of God actually refers to, and there are many nuanced interpretations that remain today.  As I see it, the kingdom of God represents the new reality brought forth by Jesus through his life, death, and resurrection.  Jesus came to destroy the works father devil that first began in the Garden of Eden, when Adam and Eve fell into sin.  He came to redeem people from the effects of living in that fallen world, and to usher in a new reality of atonement, forgiveness, and righteousness.  Thus, when the 12 are sent out to "declare the kingdom of God," they are telling people that the destruction brought about by sin will be/has been remedied by the entrance of the Messiah onto the scene.  Jesus has come, and he will right the wrongs caused by sin and build a new kingdom of righteousness.

This kingdom is partially realized when we put our trust in Christ.  When we are saved from the consequences of sin and enter into the eternal life that God has prepared for those who trust in Christ, we become partakers (citizens) of this new kingdom.  We no longer live in a world where the eternal effects of sin are hanging over our head.  Instead, we live in a kingdom that is ruled by the righteousness of God in Christ, and we look forward to the full realization of that kingdom in this world when Jesus comes back.  Until then, Jesus builds his kingdom in the hearts and lives of those who will be his subjects.

Can we be witnesses for Jesus by how we live?
Yes.  The Bible clearly teaches that there is a marked difference between those who are living in the kingdom of God and those who are living outside of it (see Matthew 5.1-12, for example).  And when the world sees us living as citizens of the kingdom of God, they take notice.  They realize that we are different (Matthew 5.13-16).  Moreover, 1 Peter 3 says that wives are to win over their unbelieving husbands through their godly behavior.  So according to these scriptures and many more, we can be faithful, obedient witnesses for Jesus by exhibiting godly behaviors, actions, and attitudes for the rest of the world to see.

But it is important to note that this is only one part of our witness and/or testimony about the truth of the gospel.  The New Testament also clearly and explicitly says that faith comes by hearing, not by seeing.  In order for the message of the gospel to be communicated, it must be spoken.  After all, it would be difficult to "live out" the reality of the kingdom of God described above.  What kind of actions would you perform to communicate that the Messiah has come to rescue fallen sinners?  In order to communicate this message, we must speak.  The fruit of transformed lives and hearts bears witness to the truth of the gospel, but it does not explain the gospel.  In order to declare the gospel, we must speak.

The disciples worked powerful miracles when they preached the gospel.  Why don't we see those same kinds of miracles today?  
Luke 9.1 says that when Jesus sent the 12 out to declare the kingdom of God, he also gave them "power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases."  The reason the disciples had this power was not to wow the crowds with their abilities or to perform magic tricks for entertainment purposes, but to act as signs about the truth of their message.  Remember, they were sent to "declare the kingdom of God" - this new reality that was being ushered into the world through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  The proof of this new reality was that the disciples had authority over demons and the power to heal diseases.  Jesus didn't give the disciples power for the sake of them being able to do cool miracles, but for the sake of authenticating their verbal message.

It is my belief that we don't see these kinds of miracles accompanying the declaration of the gospel today because we don't need to see them - we've seen them already.  The authenticating signs and wonders performed by the apostles prove to us - just as much as it did to the people who saw them - that the new reality of the kingdom of God in the hearts and lives of people who follow Jesus is actual, and that it is true.  To require additional signs and wonders on top of the ones already given to us as proof seems to me to be redundant.

That being said, the power of God is still evident in his word when it is declared and shared.  It brings the power of conviction, repentance, faith, obedience, and a host of other actions that are simply impossible for sinful human beings to perform.  We cannot respond to the truth of God's word without his power to strengthen us to turn from sin and believe.  We cannot obey God's word without the power of his Holy Spirit to empower our obedience.  We cannot join God in his mission to declare his kingdom without his power to energize our efforts and strengthen us to care for those who are perishing.  God's word today brings with it no less power than it did in the first century.  That power just doesn't manifest itself in signs and wonders anymore.

Do we need to ask for God's power, or do we have it automatically?
All those who are trusting in Christ are empowered by the Holy Spirit to accomplish whatever it is that God has called them to do.  This power is given to us at the time of our conversion.  The Holy Spirit empowers us to combat sin in our lives, obey God's word, venture into ministry endeavors, and a host of other activities.

As believers, this power is available to us on demand.  It does not require a special prayer or incantation in order for it to be accessed.  It is not forced upon us, however.  For example, although Christians have the power to battle against sin and temptation in our lives, there are many times when we neglect to access this power, and instead give into sinful temptations.  When this happens, it is not that we do not have the power to resist temptation, but rather that we have neglected to use it.  We are not slaves to our sinful nature, and we do not have to obey it.  We have power over it, and a free will to refuse its enticing demands.  This ability only exists because of the power of God.  Yet, there are many times when we choose to not exercise or take advantage of this God-given power, because we still struggle against our flesh.

Monday, January 22, 2018

The Glory of God in a 38-7 Loss

Like most Vikings fans, last night I watched our hopes of Super Bowl glory fade away into a familiar void of despair.  It's happened so often in my lifetime that it has become a familiar feeling: the Vikings will do well during the regular season, and then dash themselves against the rocks in the playoffs.  Even my son, at the tender age of 10, chose to play Minecraft on the computer rather than watch the game because, according to him, "They're just going to lose."  Such is life as a Minnesota sports fan (actually, if you're looking for a bandwagon to jump onto, check out the Timberwolves, who are having a great season).

Last week's "Minneapolis Miracle" that led to a spectacular first-round win against the Saints was the stuff of legends.  I was pleasantly surprised by the commentary of several Vikings players last week who, after the improbable win, gave glory to God: "It's probably going to go down as the third best moment of my life," Case Keenum said, "behind giving my life to Jesus Christ and marrying my wife."  Keenum preceded that sentiment with a huge smile and said, "God is SO good!"

The first words out of Stefon Diggs' mouth were "Glory to God, because without him, nothing is possible, and I wouldn't be here."  I was glad to hear Keenum, Diggs, and several other players glorify God for what he has done in their lives.

But...there's a problem when we conflate God with professional sports, and that problem is when you get blown out by the Philadelphia Eagles 38-7 a week later.

After the "Minneapolis Miracle" took place, and after hearing from players like Keenum and Diggs, I couldn't help but wonder what the Christian players on the Saints team were thinking: were they giving glory to God after just losing what was possibly the biggest game of their lives?  Were they giving glory to God after their almost certain victory was snatched from their hands in a matter of mere seconds?  I doubt it.  There probably weren't very many "All glory to God!" exclamations in the Saints locker room.  I don't know for sure, but I would guess that the same was true of the Vikings locker room after yesterday's blowout loss.  Case Keenum and Stefon Diggs probably weren't thanking God for all that he had done for them.

That's the problem when we associate God's activity in our lives with only the good things that happen: we begin to see God as someone who is only active in our lives when life is going well.  Too often we think that God rewards us with good things in life, or that our life will be free from difficulty or painful football losses.  We forget that God is sovereign over all things - the wins and the losses.  God is not in the business of handing out football wins to those who give him the most glory.  The reality is that all glory goes to God whether you win or lose.

Have you ever prayed a prayer that goes like this? "God, if you (fill in the blank), then I will (fill in the blank)."  For some reason we are tempted to try to strike deals with God in order to get what we want, or to think that our good behavior will somehow garner his reward of a smooth, prosperous life.  But then, when things go wrong, we are also tempted to blame God, and we can't possibly see how he could be glorified in our disappointments and failures.

The reality is that the Bible never guarantees that true faith in God will lead to a pain-free life.  We live in a fallen world where suffering is unavoidable.  Sometimes the righteous suffer and the wicked prosper - that's just the way it is.  But not only is that the way it is, that is the way God has ordained to bring the most glory to himself.  It sounds counterintuitive, but that's what the Bible tells us: that God can even use our disappointments, failures, and suffering to bring about his good purposes for us.

Nobody knew this truth better than Joseph (Genesis 37-50).  Time after time, Joseph does the right thing and follows God, and as a reward he gets thrown into a pit, sold into slavery, and thrown into prison.  At every turn, Joseph does the right thing, yet God allows bad things to happen to him.  Compare that to how we often think that if we do the right thing, then good things will happen to us.  But that's simply not always the way it works in God's plan.  God is big enough and strong enough to even use our disappointments and failures and times of difficulty to accomplish his purposes.

Too many Christians have the false idea that if God is with us, then nothing bad will happen.  We have a tendency to think that God is with us during the good times, but not during the bad.  He's with us when we win the football game, but not when we lose.  We think of Bible verses like Romans 8.31 that say, "If God is for us, who can be against us?" as if they promise us a life without adversity.  But we leave out the verses that say we might experience suffering, famine, nakedness, peril, and many other obstacles (Romans 5.35-39).

We are tempted in the tough moments to question if God is with us, but the Bible assures us that he never leaves nor forsakes his people (Joshua 1.9, Deuteronomy 31.6, Hebrews 13.5).  Our hope is not in a God who keeps bad things from happening to us, but in a God who is with us in life and death, and who sees to it that nothing separates us from his love in Christ Jesus (Romans 8.38-39).  No suffering, no disappointment, no failures in our personal lives can remove us from the reach of his grace or disrupt his eternal plan.

Imagine for a moment that you are one of Jesus' disciples, standing at the foot of the cross.  All of your hopes and dreams are nailed up there on that cross.  There's absolutely no way that you could ever imagine something good coming from having your Savior nailed to a cross.  But that was not God's plan.  God's plan was to use the horror of the cross for good, and so he did.  In order to rise from the dead, Jesus had to die; in order for him to be exalted, he had to be brought low; in order for him to be vindicated, he had to suffer.

The difference-maker is that we know that God is sovereign over all aspects of our lives - even failure, disappointment, and suffering.  And God promises that he will use all things to carry out his plans and purposes, even those things that are very painful in the moment.  Your sadness and disappointment and pain are not in vain; they are not meaningless; God can and will use them to carry out his plan.

Let's face it: disappointments and failures are coming in your life.  Don't fall for a fake Christianity that says that God is not in those times, or that he can't or won't use them for your good.  You have a Savior who suffered before he lifted up, who died before he rose.  And he said that those who follow him would suffer like him.  But even in the midst of that disappointment and pain, we can rejoice because we know that God uses all things for his glory and our good.

So even if something hard happens in our lives, we can say with confidence and sincerity, "All glory to God!" because we know that he will use this difficult thing for exactly that purpose.  And not only that, but we have the promise from scripture that God will use difficult times for our good - to shape us more into the image of Jesus.