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.

Monday, January 8, 2018

Why Jesus Meant to Be Confusing

In the things that he said, Jesus was often cryptic and mysterious, as though he were telling riddles that his audience had to discern in order to understand what he was saying.  In Luke 8 his disciples ask him about the meaning of a particular parable he told and he says to them in verse 10: "To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of God, but for others they are in parables, so that 'seeing they may not see, and hearing they may not understand.'"

This statement is shocking on its face.  It seems to imply that God is deliberately hiding knowledge through parables from certain people.  In fact, that's what Jesus not only implies but declares outright in Matthew 11.25: " have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children."  But why?  Why would God want to hide life-giving information from people?  Is God vindictive and just plain mean?

Rather than God acting unjustly, there are actually numerous reasons why God would only grant understanding to some and not others, and none of them has to do with God wanting certain people to be condemned.  Indeed, God's desire is that all should come to repentance and faith (2 Peter 3.9).  So it is not accurate to say that God is purposely hiding the truth from anyone because he is vindictive or unjust.  Rather, the fact that the truth is hidden to some people tells us more about ourselves than it does about God.  That being said, there are several practical reasons why "the secrets of the kingdom of God" are given to some but not to others.  They include, but are not limited to, the following.

1. Jesus hid the truth for practical reasons.  Throughout the gospels there is what is known as the "Messianic Secret."  This refers to those times when Jesus healed people but told them not to tell anyone that it was him that healed them.  The reason Jesus did this was to control the timing of the events that would lead to his death.  Being the sovereign God of the universe, Jesus controlled even the timing of his own death.  He knew that if word spread too quickly and too far about what he was doing, it would hurry along the process that would lead to his arrest and execution.  So in some cases he insisted on secrecy.  The same could be said of his teachings: Jesus' ultimate message was that he was the Son of God, come to save all those who would believe from the punishment of sin and to bring them back to God.  The sooner that message got out, the sooner the religious leaders would get angry and call for his life.  So in one sense, we could say that Jesus veiled the content of his teaching with parables because he was working on a predetermined time table.

2. Jesus hid the truth because he wasn't going to be anyone's clown.  Another common aspect of Jesus' ministry is that he refused to be a clown.  There were many people who came to him only to see or hear what he would do or say next.  In other words, Jesus' ministry was attention-grabbing and provocative, and many people followed him just to see what miraculous thing he would do next, or what provocative statement he would make that would anger the establishment.  Jesus knew of this tendency, however, and so he refused to perform like a trained animal.  In some instances, he refused to perform miracles because he knew the people regarded him as a sideshow act.  So it makes sense that Jesus would mask his message in parables so as to not be regarded merely as a provocative communicator.  The things he said internalization and deep thought.  Parables don't make good one-liners or soundbites.

3. Jesus hid the truth because he knew that some people don't want to hear the truth.  This, again, is a very practical reason for Jesus veiling the truth of his teaching: why give people the truth when they refuse to hear it?  The notion that some people don't want to hear the truth is a common refrain throughout scripture.  When God commissioned Isaiah to be a prophet, he told Isaiah to go and preach to the people even though God already knew they wouldn't listen (Isaiah 6.9-10).  Jesus' teaching ministry, on the other hand, was veiled in parables so that those who sought understanding would find it, and those who did not, wouldn't.

4. Jesus hid the truth because some people won't believe the truth even if they hear it.  This reason is similar to number three above, but differs in that some people seem open to the truth but refuse to ever acknowledge it or act on it.  This is made evident in Matthew 11 when Jesus cries out in woe against unrepentant cities.  In these particular cities, the works of God had been performed marvelously and miraculously, right out in the open for everyone to see.  But rather than respond to these miraculous works, the people just ignored them and went on about their business, making their ultimate condemnation even more just.  The same is true of Jesus' teaching.  Jesus, knowing that even if these people knew the truth of his words that they wouldn't act on it, hid the truth from them.

5. Jesus hid the truth because understanding comes from a place of humility.  God has a track record of hiding things from the wise and proud and revealing it to the simple.  People can't figure out God on their own, no matter how hard they try.  And if they think all of their knowledge and wisdom will be enough to help them reach God, they're sorely mistaken.  God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble (James 4.6).  If you think you've got it all figured out, it's actually proof that you don't.  For this reason, Jesus taught the truth in parables that could be discerned by the humble, but which confounded the wise.

6. Jesus hid the truth because understanding is given to those who want to understand.  In 1 Corinthians 1, Paul says that "Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom..."  The Jews of Jesus' day didn't want to understand the truth that Jesus was teaching - they just wanted to see signs.  And Greeks, Paul says, want wisdom more than truth.  In other words, neither Jews nor Greeks were too interested in understanding the truth.  They had already determined what they wanted, and none of it had to do with Jesus.  But for those who do want to understand the mysteries of God, God is gracious and is willing to give them understanding.  Paul also says that "to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God.  For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men."  Those who want to see Jesus will find him.  Those who want to know the truth will be given understanding.  Jesus differentiated those who wanted truth and those who wanted something else by veiling his teaching in parables.

7. Jesus hid the truth because understanding comes from God, not from human effort.  Finally, we simply have to come to the somewhat difficult realization that God grants understanding to those whom he will.  In God's sovereign wisdom, he has granted understanding to some and not to others.  So then, regardless of how much they try to puzzle out the truth of Jesus' teaching, they never will, because it has not been granted to them.  This is why some of the smartest biblical scholars in the world are not Christians.  They have monumental intellectual capabilities, but the mysteries of the kingdom of God cannot be discerned naturally, they must be known spiritually.  In this sense, then, when Jesus spoke the truth of God, those to whom God had granted understanding understood, and those to whom God had not granted understanding, were left in confusion.

Regardless of why Jesus was sometimes confusing in his message during his ministry, rather than the reality that Jesus was sometimes intentionally confusing leading us to accuse God of some sort of injustice, it should instead cause us to seek understanding.  It should cause us to ask God to show us the mysteries of his kingdom, and to give us the knowledge we need to be saved.  It should inspire us to study God deeply, to know him, and to rely on him for all wisdom and knowledge.