I am dust and ashes. For me the world was created.

I’ve started a new book, and in the introduction, the author, Greg Ogden, quotes a Hasidic piece of advice that says you should go about with a piece of paper in each pocket, with one that reads “I am dust and ashes,” and the other, “For me the world was created.” What a fine paradox.

Let me just quote the first introductory section:

Would Jesus ask something of us that couldn’t be done?

At the center of all the biblical commands and at the very core of “everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:20), Jesus declares that we are to love God with everything we’ve got and love our neighbors in the same way that we cherish ourselves.

Really? Is this possible?

The energy behind the writing of this curriculum comes from an insight that is quite frankly embarrassing. It is embarrassing because I should know better. At first, the insight doesn’t seem very dramatic. In fact, every time I have shared this personal “revelation” with others I have been sheepishly apologetic. But here is the amazing truth: Jesus actually thinks we can become like him. Jesus actually believes that it is possible for frail and deeply flawed human beings to focus our complete affection on God and others.

The key word here for me is possible. I had unconsciously given up the possibility of actually doing what Jesus commanded. No, I had never consciously thought or said, “Jesus, I think you’re an idealistic dreamer,” or “Jesus, you can only expect so much from flawed humanity.” I was not even aware that I had dismissed Jesus’ belief in me. But what had taken over my spirit in my attempt to be authentic was a focus on where I had fallen short of Jesus’ call. In my desire to make sure that I was not deceiving myself about my capacity for sin, I had given up the upside possibility that the character of Jesus could actually take over my life.

[…]

[Jesus didn’t follow up his Great Commandments] by saying, “I know I’m asking a lot, but do the best you can. I know you’ll never fully approximate this high and lofty goal, but it’s still worth striving for.” No, I added that part myself. In my spirit I washed out the possibility that this could actually be, saying, “I know the guy dwelling in this body all too well. Not a chance that this weak and feeble individual could ever approximate Jesus’ expectation.”

Besides that he used the word “cherish” – one of my personal favourites – doesn’t the rest of this whole passage make you want to read more? A great introduction if I ever read one. Rather deft writing technique too, as his claim that this was his own embarrassing realization disarmingly invited me to have that embarrassing revelation too. Well, the title is The Essential Commandment: A Disciple’s Guide to Loving God and Others.

The Essential Commandment

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Mara: bitterness

This wrinkly thing below is bitter melon a.k.a. bitter gourd. It tastes awful. (I think so, and I’d eat almost anything digestible.) Bitter melon is actually quite good for your health.

Here’s the story:

She moved to a difference country with her family. Her husband died. Her two sons died. She had no grandchildren, and only her daughters in law were left. A troubled immigrant who had everything taken from her, with reason to bear sorrow.

She said to her daughters-in-law, “My daughters, my life is much too bitter for you to share, because the LORD’s hand has turned against me.”

When she and one daughter in law arrived back in her home province, she said to those who remembered her and greeted her, “Don’t call me Naomi. Call me Mara,” she answered, “for the Almighty has made me very bitter. I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty. Why do you call me Naomi, since the Lord has pronounced judgment on me, and the Almighty has afflicted me?” [passages from Ruth, HCSB]

——

It would seem that Naomi is a bitter woman because of her bitter life. It would seem that she has had unfortunate things happen to her, and that she is a victim of misfortune. We are, however, informed of a few things that could suggest otherwise. This happens historically in the time of judges ruling Israel, which is a time when men did whatever was right in their own eyes. There was a famine in the land of Judah, possibly a sign of judgment about the wickedness in God’s people, purposed as a wake up call. Elimelech, Naomi’s husband, moved their family to Moab, a pagan land far away from people who worshipped God, to escape the hard times. Their sons married women who did not worship God. There’s quite a bit of disobedience and lack of faith and trust amongst the family.

The deaths (and the rumour of food back in Judah) ultimately caused Naomi to return to Judah with Ruth. When Ruth ends up marrying well and bearing a son, there is no record of what Naomi says.

——

So the LORD’s plans at the juncture of the deaths and returning to Judah appear to be a bitter hand dealt to Naomi. However much of this was her fault is irrelevant; even if Naomi’s personal sin was not a direct cause of this entire bitter fate, Naomi is also not a mere victim. She was bitter, mara, vexed, provoked, annoyed, irritated, angry. Many years earlier, the Israelites had grumbled to Moses about the bitter water, and the LORD’s lack of provision in the desert. They were tested. They discovered that they needed to obey and trust, and not to complain. [Exodus 15:22-27]

——

At the end of Naomi’s tale, the other women in Judah say to her, “ ‘Praise the Lord, who has not left you without a family redeemer today. May his name become well known in Israel. He will renew your life and sustain you in your old age. Indeed, your daughter-in-law, who loves you and is better to you than seven sons, has given birth to him.’ Naomi took the child, placed him on her lap, and took care of him.” She has nothing to say now but does seem to treasure what God gave her eventually. Her life was bitter for a time, but hindsight is 20/20. You see things so much more clearly as you reflect and look back than while you were in the middle of it; and yet we hold on to the past as if we knew better.

In time, the Lord who is good will provide, ultimately in eternity but also somehow in the land of the living. In the meantime, we must be blind to take unsavoury situations with annoyance, irritability, anger, vexation or bitterness in our hearts. God is at work, and we must keep up with Him, being ready to change our minds, change our behaviour, and change our desires. Not easy for change-resistant breeds like us who think we know better.

Possible, Not Effortless

First, let me not yet let on what my post will say is possible, but not effortless.

Here are two verses with a similar structure. To disclaim any observant credit, it was my ESV Reformation Study Bible that pointed this out to me. First, to the garden of Eden with Eve, successfully tempted by Satan to disobey God in the matter of the fruit of the garden she was not to eat:

Genesis 3:6 – So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate.

Now to several generations after Adam and Eve’s first descendants:

Genesis 6:1-2 – When man began to multiply on the face of the land and daughters were born to them, the sons of God saw that the daughters of man were attractive. And they took as their wives any they chose.

The Hebrew word for attractive is often transcribed as ‘good’ also. Here then is a description of the pattern of sin as it first entered the earth. A human saw, desired, and acted, irregardless to God. Promptly following this description is one of God’s grief and rage at human disobedience, and the destruction he caused to happen with the flood out of sovereign and righteous anger. Through this destruction, grace and mercy is shown to Noah, who listened and obeyed. This obedience and reverence was pleasing to God and He promised not to send such destruction on the world while it remains until the final judgment.

The pattern of sin is not hard to follow. Many things I can see and access could be pleasing in short or long-ish term, and so I act upon it: a scathing remark about something that annoys me; things that fill up my day to satisfy lesser desires and obstruct more godly desires and disciplines; food gluttony; distraction and procrastination that wastes significant chunks of time such that I am in a bad mood afterwards… In the moment, I do not cast my thoughts towards being mindful of God’s grief or righteous anger. Yet it is always possible to listen and obey; it’s just not effortless.

Thus the heart and spirit in Paul’s words of 1 Corinthians 9:27.

No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize. [NIV]

But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified. [ESV]

The Tree and the Law

Blogging has come to a standstill the last while, but I’ll make a post today to break the pattern.

Deuteronomy is a tough book to get through for me, but it may be starting to grow on me. This part talks about God’s law:

The Choice of Life and Death  (Deuteronomy 30:11-20)

11 “For this commandment that I command you today tis not too hard for you, neither is it far off. 12 uIt is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will ascend to heaven for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ 13 Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will go over the sea for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ 14 But the word is very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it.

15 “See, vI have set before you today life and good, death and evil. 16 If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God1 that I command you today, wby loving the Lord your God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments and his statutes and his rules,2 then you shall live and multiply, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to take possession of it. 17 But if xyour heart turns away, and you will not hear, but are drawn away to worship other gods and serve them, 18 yI declare to you today, that you shall surely perish. You shall not live long in the land that you are going over the Jordan to enter and possess. 19 I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, zblessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live, 20 loving the Lord your God, obeying his voice aand holding fast to him, for bhe is your life and length of days, that you may dwell in cthe land that the Lord swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give them.”

The essence of this is that what God expects of us is rather simple and clear. The moral principles are in the commandments He gave to Moses. Jesus confirmed them as loving “the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” (Luke 10:27). Looking at this, it appears entirely possible to do, and entirely reasonable for God to ask of us. Perhaps this is one reason why people can be reluctant to admit they haven’t fulfilled it; it seems so natural and to be expected. It is both sobering and encouraging to know that it is not hard for us. The word is near, and when we have it upon our hearts and mouths, we can do it.

Prior to the commandments given to the Israelites, God gave another relatively simple command to Adam, and thereby to Eve: do not eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, or “you shall surely die.” (Genesis 2:17) This precedent command of God was again simple and clear, and entirely reasonable for God to ask of Adam and Eve. When Eve did not have God’s word near upon her heart and mouth but listened to the cunning words of the serpent and let them nestle in her heart the desire to eat of the forbidden tree, and when Adam blindly followed suit, they both became reluctant to admit they hadn’t done what was not hard.

The human heart and its desires don’t change much.

‘Fallen believers’ or ‘never believers’?

This long section quoted from John MacArthur’s book, Slave, brought to mind the uneasy question about why there are believers who ‘walk away’ from following Christ if we are sealed with the Holy Spirit and saved for good once and for all after our profession that Jesus is Lord. Is what MacArthur says here relevant to the question? In a few words, he seems to be saying that people may not be as good as their word (of profession), and that they may talk the talk but not walk the walk. It’s true: if one is soaked in Christian community, it is not too hard to assimilate the lingo yet resist the repentance and lack the regeneration and reform. A section from pages 90-92 is quoted below:

—————————————-

As slaves to righteousness, believers are “under obligation” (Rom. 8:12; cf. 6:18) to honour God in how they live. Yet, for those who belong to Christ, the motivation to obey is far more profound than mere duty. “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments,” Jesus told His disciples (John 14:15, emphasis added); and again, “If anyone loves Me, he will keep My Word” (v.23). The apostle John echoed Christ’s words in his epistles: “For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments; and His commandments are not burdensome” (1 John 5:3); and elsewhere, “This is love, that we walk according to His commandments” (2 John 6). Genuine believers are characterized by a deep love for Christ, and that love inevitably manifests itself in obedience. [1] By contrast, those who do not love the Lord, either in what they say or by how they live, evidence the fact that they do not belong to Him. [2]

The only right response to Christ’s lordship is wholehearted submission, loving obedience, and passionate worship. Those who give verbal assent to His deity, yet live in patterns of unrepentant disobedience, betray the hypocrisy of their profession. To them, the terrifying weight of Christ’s question, “Why do you call Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say?” (Luke 6:46) directly applies. As He warned the crowds at the end of the Sermon on the Mount, after describing they dangers of hypocrisy:

Not everyone who says to Me, “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter. Many will say to Me on that day, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?” And then I will declare to them, “I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness” (Matt. 7:21-23).

Clearly, not all who claim to know the Lord actually do. Those who truly “belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (Gal. 5:24). Rather than walking in the flesh, they now “walk by the Spirit” (v. 25), being characterized by a growing desire to obey the Word of God. As Jesus told the crowds in John 8:31, ‘If you continue in My Word, then you are truly disciples of Mine.” [3] After all, “each tree is known by its own fruit” (Luke 6:44); and genuine conversion is always marked by the fruit of repentance and the fruit of the Spirit. [4] Loving obedience is the defining evidence of salvation, such that the two are inseparably linked; as the author of Hebrews explains: “He became to all those who obey Him the source of eternal salvation” (5:9). [5]

Notes:

1) 1 Cor. 8:3; Eph. 6:24; 1 Peter 1:8; cf. Mark 12:30; John 21:15-17; 1 John 2:3

2) 1 Cor. 16:22; cf. John 8:42; Rom. 8:9

3) Cf. John 6:66-69; Matt 24:13; Col. 1:22-23; 1 Tim. 4:16; Heb. 3:14; 10:38-39; 1 John 2:19

4) Luke 3:8; Gal. 5:22-23

5) Cf. John 3:36; Rom. 1:5; 6:16; 15:18; 16:19, 26; 1 Peter 1:2, 22

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You search much deeper within…

Here’s a question I wondered. (Still a little taken by it)

Why did God almost smite Jerusalem because David wanted to count his army?
[ref 1 Chronicles 21]

Counting your army is not an evil and dastardly deed.

With David, the issue of this particular order must then be the motivation behind it. Thinking back, the Lord gave him victory after victory even while he was friendless and running for his life. If he fears not having enough men, he has fallen far in trusting the Lord. Be that as it may, it doesn’t sound like Israel is in danger right before this happens because the narrative still shows David on a roll of victory. The alternative is that David is just feeling a little smug about his army and would like to know exactly how many men he commands.

The text in this immediate section does not make it explicit what the reason is: we only see David’s commander Joab being repulsed by the order, David then confessing that he has sinned greatly by this, and God giving David some extremely tough ultimatums. However, later in 1 Chronicles when David addresses his heir, Solomon, he says something that signals the heart-issue as an accurate interpretation:

And you, Solomon my son, know the God of your father and serve him with a whole heart and with a willing mind, for the Lord searches all hearts and understands every plan and thought. If you seek him, he will be found by you, but if you forsake him, he will cast you off forever. – 1 Chronicles 28:9 (ESV)

I cannot help but see David giving this section of advice from past experience! He learned the hard way about acting out a plan that was hatched from thoughts and motivations evil in the Lord’s sight. Self-centered in pride or in fear.

Other scriptures like the famous Romans 12:1-2 make it clear too that a person’s way of thinking (our mind, a part of which actually is the ‘heart’ we commonly refer to) must not be shaped by the world’s ways but be transformed to God’s will.

With that, I feel like I want to type out David’s Prayer word by word (as opposed to copy+pasting it) from 1 Chronicles 29:10-18 (NIV)

… Praise be to you, O LORD,
God of our father Israel,
from everlasting to everlasting.
Yours, O LORD, is the greatness and the power and the glory and the majesty and the splendor,
for everything in heaven and earth is yours.
Yours, O LORD, is the kingdom;
you are exalted as head over all.
Wealth and honour come from you;
you are the ruler of all things.
In your hands are strength and power
to exalt and give strength to all.
Now, our God, we give you thanks, and praise your glorious name.

But who am I, and who are my people, that we should be able to give as generously as this? Everything comes from you, and we have given you only what comes from your hand. We are aliens and strangers in your sight as were all our forefathers. Our days on earth are like a shadow, without hope. O LORD our God, as for all this abundance that we have provided for building you a temple for your Holy Name, it comes from your hand, and all of it belongs to you. I know, my God, that you test the heart and are pleased with integrity. All these things have I given willingly and with honest intent. And now I have seen with joy how willingly your people who are here have given to you. O LORD, God of our fathers Abraham, Isaac and Israel, keep this desire in the hearts of your people forever, and keep their hearts loyal to you.

[Note: The title of this post is a quote from the song ‘The Heart of Worship’ in case you wondered why it was so familiar.]

Urgency and Patience

Here is a thought: not sure what the train was that inspired it, but it’s probably something to do with purpose/meaning, and I was also reading Exodus. Here goes.

Urgency and patience.

That is the difference between how you make choices and how you sit in expectation of results (perhaps from those choices).

Urgency to please God and ‘wait on him’ in obedience.

Patience in waiting for God’s plan to unravel and play out.