The Unreality of Religion

I found myself in the parking lot of church talking to my friend, someone I have known for thirty years.  I know he has struggles, long term struggles that he thinks disqualify him from joining a church, attending a church or even going in the door for one visit.  I will never forget what he told me that day.  “I am not good enough; all you people in church have your act together and I am not in that category.  I am just not good enough to go in there.”

I did not have the words to convince him otherwise.  He turned his back on his faith, whatever faith he had.  It is not for me to know his level of belief, only God knows that.  What I do know is that he is suffering from what J.I. Packer calls “the unreality of religion.”  He assumes that all people who go to church are “lilly white,” “pure as the driven snow,” righteous people who are truly on their way to heaven.  He believes he is nothing like those people sitting in the pews.

I found myself in his company at a later time hoping to nudge him toward going to church where I hoped he would find God in some form or fashion.  More importantly, I hoped God would help him with his problems, because all the things he was doing himself were leading to failure.  He knows I go to church and he knows I have a personal relationship with God.  I told him of one of my long-term struggles, just to let him know I am not “lilly white.”  I still go to church, sinner that I am.

The reality of religion is that all God’s children make mistakes.  They always have and they always will.  Packer cites four clear-cut examples from the Bible.  God promised Abraham a son, but God made Abraham wait awhile. Abraham got impatient (like all of us do from time to time) and he got Hagar pregnant and they had Ishmael.   God was not happy.  He did not talk to Abraham for thirteen years, but eventually Sarah had a child (God fulfilled His promise on His timeframe, not Abraham’s). 

Moses felt great empathy for his people as they endured slavery in Egypt.  He was a powerful person in the Egyptian hierarchy and could have a positive impact for his people.  Instead of waiting for God to show him the way, Moses killed an Egyptian taskmaster and found himself banished to the desert for decades.  He went from high ranking government official to lowly shepherd.

David was plagued by errors, spying on Bathsheba, seducing her, having her husband killed, neglecting his family etc.  He felt remorse for his individual sins but continued to sin, ramping up his guilt to the point that he felt distant from God.

Jonah got specific instructions from God and instead of doing God’s bidding, he ran in the opposite direction and you know…he found himself inside of a great fish.

These people were people of The Lord, but all of them made huge mistakes.

All people make mistakes, some of them huge.  Even those people sitting in the pews of the church. 

I have been an adult Sunday school teacher for many years and I taught out of a book by Jerry Bridges entitled Respectable Sins: Confronting the Sins We Tolerate.  That was one of the hardest books I have ever used in class as all of us squirmed through every chapter.  We struggled through discussions of anxiety, frustration, discontentment, unthankfulnesss, pride, selfishness, lack of self- control, anger, judgmentalism,  envy.  You get the point.

All God’s “righteous people” [teacher included] were in the same category of those who wanted to stone the woman accused of adultery.  “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.”  The crowd melted away.  The message was clear.  “Judge not, that ye be not judged.”  After that book, we knew we would have dispersed with that self-righteous crowd.

People who are looking from the outside of our churches suffer from unrealistic beliefs about religion and sometimes those inside of our churches do too.  I have tried to put on the mask of righteousness in church, realizing deep inside that it was only a mask, a veneer that covered my real penchant to sin.  Christians who give their life to God suffer from the need to be something they cannot be—sinless.  They have Bibles but they don’t meditate on the meaning of the stories of Abraham, Moses, David and Jonah.

God restored Abraham eventually; he became the founding father of the Abrahamic religions, the keeper of The Covenant.  Moses (with the help of God) developed the confidence needed to lead his people out of Egypt.  David repented of his lapses and grew close to God.  Jonah cried out to God in the belly of the whale and lived to fulfill his mission in Nineveh.  God used these men who made great mistakes.

God’s people need to realize that God can do wonderful things out of our mistakes.  Packer cites the expression “It is said that those who never make mistakes never make anything” [Packer, 252].   I have made many bad choices in my life and I have suffered agony from those choices, but as time has passed I see why I went down the wrong path.  Failure is a hard way to learn lessons but sometimes the best lessons are learned when we experience the deepest regret.  Packer writes these episodes of sinning are when we begin to know God’s grace, “we cleave to Him in a way that would never have happened otherwise” [251].

“Unreality of religion is a cursed thing.”  Unreality of religion is the curse of the kind of teaching that Packer has challenged throughout his book Knowing God.  It certainly was a curse for my friend who sat on the outside of church looking in, but it is also a curse for church-goers who sit in the pews trying to be something they will never be—sinless. 

For people who believe that church people are too good for them, get real.  Church people are people with as many burdens as those not in church.  For church people who strive to be perfect and earn their place in the pews, relax, you will never achieve that perfection.  You may become experts in covering up your sins, but the sins are still there. 

Packer writes words of advice directly to all these folks: “Is your trouble a sense of failure?  Go back to God; His restoring grace waits for you…God uses our sins and mistakes to this end.  He employs the educative discipline of failure and mistakes very frequently.”

At the end of our sinning He is there, extending His loving hands to pick us up and send us on our way, hopefully with a more realistic attitude toward religion and toward ourselves.

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Paul’s Source of Strength

Sometimes our problems exist for a reasonably short season and then they improve or go away.  Sometimes our problems last for what seems a lifetime, what I call a long-term problem.  I have had such a problem.  Over a period of approximately fifty years,  I have had what I will refer to as a “life challenge” and I have tried and tried to make it go away.  I have prayed countless prayers, I have tried psychological “tricks” or motivations, I have tried self-disclosure to support groups and the list goes on and on.  Nothing worked.  When I turned to God, I tried numerous approaches, praying many different kinds of prayers, feeling guilt and remorse, seeking forgiveness, receiving forgiveness and then returning to the same old problem.  When I was born again, I thought the trouble would go away but it did not.  I have written many times on this blog about how we can “find Jesus” but the same old troubles follow along behind us after our born again event.   That is what happened.  After giving my life to Christ, I moaned and moaned to God about why He did not take away my problem.

 He chose not to.

Until one day.

He led me to Second Corinthians Chapter Twelve.  I was very familiar with this chapter; in fact I had spent a lot of time thinking about the meaning of Apostle Paul’s words, about his “painful physical ailment which acts as Satan’s messenger to beat me and keep me from being proud.”  Paul says he prayed to God three times to take this ailment away and God’s answer was “My grace is all you need, for my power is strongest when you are weak.”  Paul then writes he is content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and difficulties “for when I am weak, then I am strong.”

I found Second Corinthians when I was in the midst of another painful time for me, bemoaning the fact that I had grown weak and indulged in my long-term “problem.”  However, this time was different.  I sensed something was changing this time.  I don’t know where that feeling came from, but I just felt that I was on the verge of taking a new road in my life.  That change began to happen when I was sitting in a pharmacy and as I was waiting for my prescription to be fille.   I looked on the floor and I saw a small slip of paper.  On that paper was 2nd Corinthians, 12: 10.

I knew this specific verse, in fact I had meditated on it many times in the past, but feeling so downtrodden at this time, I saw the words in a different way.  I was stunned.  That’s why I had suffered so long.  That’s why I could not overcome my problem.  God was using it to draw me close.

I still wanted it to go away, and for the first time in fifty years God was going to put this problem behind me.

This day I knew God was giving me strength that I had never had before.  Deep within my being, I started saying new words to myself.  I had kept a big journal of my efforts to stop my problem and it was a record of periods of success and colossal failures.  The main thing is that it was a daily reminder of the fact that this problem existed, that it was a theme of my life, that it owned me.  I got the strong feeling that the best thing I could do that day was shred my journal, and when I did that, new thoughts kept coming up in my mind.  “David, you no long have this trouble.  You are better than this problem.”

It was a major change.  After fifty years, God took away my “long-term problem.”

I knew it was gone…

I don’t miss it.  I know it had to happen on His time, in His way.  It was not me doing this; it was Him.  I had struggled with this long enough.  It was time for God and me to close the book on this struggle.

J.I. Packer* writes that “God does not shield us from assault by the world, the flesh and the devil, nor by protecting us from burdensome and frustrating circumstances, nor yet by shielding us from troubles created by our own temperament and psychology; but rather by exposing us to those things, so as to overwhelm us with a sense of our own inadequacy, and to drive us to cling to him more closely” [250]. 

In other words 2nd Corinthians 12: 10.

So much of the Bible is God telling us that He is strong; He is a firm defense and a refuge for us in our times of trouble.  We are the weak ones, trying to find our way out of problems, but we fail to find the “right road” out of our quagmires.

We live in a culture where pride is lauded.  It is not appropriate to admit our weakness; that makes us look small in the eyes of others.  When Paul writes “keep me from being puffed up with pride,” he is saying that admitting weakness is his way to lean on God.  “God wants us to feel that our way through life is rough and perplexing, so that we may learn thankfully to lean on him” [Packer, 250].

For so many years, I feel I did not approach my problems properly.  I had a prideful attitude that I could conquer my troubles.   I had too much self-confidence, too much trust in myself.  When I turned to God, I moaned and moaned, asking for forgiveness, knowing all the time that I would return to my problem in the future.  I was not truly repentant. 

What Packer says about this is that most of us need to learn to “wait on the Lord.”

We push, we pull, we weep, we wail, we gnash our teeth and nothing happens.  When will God step in to rectify our troubles?  When He wants to, when the time is right, when we have suffered long enough. 

As we wait for resolution, we must get the most benefit we can out of the wait.  We can draw closer to God and we can have periods of unbelievable strength as long as we know where that strength comes from.  It does not come from us; it comes from Him.

Paul gives credit where credit is due: “For when I am weak, then I am strong.”

He knew where his strength comes from.

It came from God………

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His Wonderful Wonderful Grace

Recently, I have posted on “inward trials.”  J.I. Packer writes that when Christians have problems, they should rely on their faith to get them through their trouble.  Sadly, many don’t know how to apply the sacrifice that Jesus made to their life challenges.  Packer lists three themes of the Christian faith that should make all the difference: “justification by faith through the cross, new birth through the Spirit and new life in the power of Christ’s resurrection” [Packer, 244].  He says that Scripture is full of truth that will heal a person’s soul, but many Christians misapply that truth.  Misapplication can do more harm than good.  He extends the healing idea by using the metaphor of the Bible as a pharmacy.  If an ill-informed Christian drinks iodine instead of dabbing it on a wound, we all know the result.  More damage will be done than good.

What is the root cause of this misapplication?

Packer describes it this way: “Christians lose sight of grace.”

To understand this specific cause, let’s start with a solid definition of grace.  In the New Testament, grace means “God’s love in action toward people who merited the opposite of love.  Grace means moving heaven and earth to save sinners who could not lift a finger to save themselves.  Grace means God sending His only Son to the cross to descend into hell so that we guilty ones might be reconciled to God and received into heaven” [Packer 249].

Who are these people?

They are you and me.  All of humanity.

Who are these sinners who could not lift a finger?

They are you and me.  All of humanity.

Yes, we are the guilty ones and if you think you aren’t, you are proving by your attitude that you are.  We can’t help it.  We are burdened with original sin, the innate tendency that we all inherited from Adam when he failed to lead a sinless life in the Garden of Eden.  We have to have God’s help to deal with our burden of sin; we have to have His grace.

Here is the “bottom line:” every day we live, we need grace because every day we fall short of the standard set by God and His son Jesus Christ, in other words, every day we all sin.

Here is where we can lose sight of grace.

God does not expect us to “get it right” all the time.  He knows we are not capable.  Where we fail as Christians is that we assume He expects perfection and we don’t see that God’s grace can lead to growth. 

The first mistake is the Christian who professes his faith and then feels that the profession is enough.   I don’t know how to label this mistake.   It is fine to feel that your salvation is not going to be taken away.  There is security in that and we all need some sense of security.  However, there is a big assumption in this idea that God is never going to demand more of us.  We are ok the way we are and we don’t have to change.  We have achieved enough perfection.  We don’t have to do more to further God’s kingdom here on earth. 

This mistake leads into the related problem of the Christian who lives life by going through the motions.  He goes to church, he tithes, he attends Sunday school but when there is a need to step up and volunteer, don’t call this guy.  He had done his duty and that is enough.  Sometimes I feel this type of Christian is not really taking his faith seriously; he does not know that God expects more than just cursory actions.  When a need arises, God wants us to step up and live out our faith.

Maybe I do have a label for these people: Christians in name only.

They are skating their way to heaven.

They lose sight of the growth process in the doctrine of grace.  When we have what Packer calls “indwelling sin,” we are supposed to grow through grace.  Too often [as in previous posts] indwelling sin will stop a Christian in their tracks or put a Christian on the endless treadmill of life, you know sinning, regretting, asking forgiveness and then sinning again.  They don’t realize that God’s forgiveness or grace means that our daily sins are covered.  God does not want us to repeat them over and over; He wants us to know that He understands our “innate tendency.”

What is the purpose of Grace then?  It is to restore  our relationship with God.  God wants to live in fellowship with us and if we don’t understand the power of grace, we can easily feel so downtrodden by our sinful ways that we can never know God better over the time we live our lives on earth.   We begin to feel distant from Him because we are unworthy.  When Paul says in First Corinthians 15: 31 that “I face death every day–yes, just as surely as I boast about you in Christ Jesus our Lord” what does he mean? He is not referring to a literal death; he is referring to his need to die to his daily sin.  He is “resurrected” every day by God’s grace. 

Packer writes that “this is what all the work of grace aims at—an ever deeper knowledge of God and an ever-closer relationship with Him” [249-50].  Grace is God’s way of drawing us sinners closer and closer.

We all struggle with inward trials.  The point is that when they occur, our faith should help us through the trying times.  When I wrote about how some pastors oversell being born again on July 13th, it was really about how naïve “newborn” Christians think that professing their faith means a life on “easy street.”  Nothing could be further from the truth.  To borrow a cliché, the rain of life falls on the “saved” Christian and the unsaved unbeliever alike.  There is no reason to be disillusioned with a “new” faith just because hard times continue after a profession.  When I wrote about how Christians feel “substandard” when they sin on July 21st , these are Christians who don’t understand that God knows we are sinners and He does not expect us to be perfect.  He expects us to turn to Him for help when we fall short.  Due to our innate bent toward sinning, we cannot erase the permanent stain of sinning from our being.  We can’t work our way to heaven.  We have to accept our limitations.  We have to rely on God and get closer to Him.  That is how sanctification occurs; the growth of our faith and the transformation of the believer.

We grow through His wonderful grace, His wonderful wonderful grace.

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God and My Inward Trials

Inward trials…

That’s what J.I. Packer calls troubles.  That’s what he calls times when we are confused by life and our response to it and we can begin to doubt our faith in God.  That’s when we lose our peace about our lives, when things are not right.  That is not the life of a Christian is it?   Loss of peace?   Our inward trials can come from how we handle the temptations in life, when we spiral into sinning and feel distant from God.  We ask ourselves “Why did I do that?  How did I get here? and How can I overcome this impulse to do wrong?”     

Does this sound familiar?

Sadly, it does for me and I am a born again Christian who gave his life to Christ twenty-two years ago.

All of us have “inward trials.”  These times are a part of life.  Before I became a believer, I struggled to get through hard times.   After I became a believer, I struggled to get through hard times.

Before I believed, when I experienced problems in life I suffered from stress and anxiety.  There were times when I felt great fear about my life and certainly great fear about the future.  When problems came [depending on their severity], I even had times when I had depression.  I never plunged headlong into chronic depression; my depression for the most part was situational.  There were times when I was even saddened to the point of having to go for help [short term counseling and short term medication help]. 

Before I believed, I did not deal well with the temptations of life.  I was a regular “church-goer” but mostly I attended out of a sense of duty.  I listened to countless sermons that seemed addressed to someone else.  I attended countless Sunday school classes that gave me some socialization with good people but I rarely took the message of the lesson personally. 

When I fell into sin I knew I was doing something wrong.  Yet I had no idea about how to deal with it other than feeling some vague sense of guilt.  I knew about heaven and hell and of course I preferred heaven as my final destination.  Death seemed a long way off and I figured I had time to find some strength from somewhere to straighten out my life.  I sure did not feel strength coming from the church, because the teaching did not seem relevant for me.  Others seemed to be getting something out of it, or at least they were very good at faking their enthusiasm about the teaching.  I even doubted the sincerity of their “Christian” lives.  Everything was just too perfect.

Life was just unfolding for me, the church goer, but when hard times came, I struggled.

As I wrote above, before I believed in God I met my “inward trials” with stressful responses and anxious responses.  Life for me was not a continual succession of problems.  I had times when things went well and I could relax; rarely is life totally dreadful.  My life before finding God was not totally dreadful.

Twenty-two years ago I experienced something that dramatically changed my life.  Dramatic change is not something that all people can relate to.  They don’t come to Christ due to some trauma, or some colossal mistake that they make.  Sometimes God does call to us in the midst of drama.

He spoke to me in such a time.

I found myself confronted with a problem that was beyond my ability to handle.  It crushed me.  This is not an exaggeration when I say that my life could be compared to an airplane.  My “plane” was climbing higher and higher [or so I thought] and suddenly it started heading back to earth.  It was in a tailspin, a rapid out of control descent.

I was in the middle of the greatest inward trial of my life and I had nothing to help me get through it, nothing. 

I remember the morning when the problem became obvious.  I plunged headlong into a traumatic response.  Panic set it.  I knew my life was never going to be the same, but I had to do something with that day.  I had to go to the college where I was a full-time faculty member.  I had to teach class, meet with students, grade papers [all that teacher stuff I was paid to do]. 

My problem was so life altering that some would say I could justify taking some time off from my job.  My problem was so distressing that some would say I could justify anger and hatefulness.  I could have ruined lives.

God said “go to work.”

Some will read that and think how stupid.  Here we have another Bible-believing fanatic who thinks God spoke to him and in his delusion he is making a big deal out of three words that he probably just imagined he heard.  The problem is that I was not a Bible-believing anything.  I was just a guy who was meeting the inward trials of my life with stress and anxiety, not really knowing what to do.  I just worked my way through my problems with little to help me and here I was: facing the biggest problem of my life and “go to work” was a surprise.

I really felt God was telling me to carry on with my life, not upsetting a great number of people.  I did not need to unleash information that would make life harder for others.  I needed to keep my problem to myself, but I did do one thing.

For the first time in my life, I cried out for help for me to do His will.

Everyone has heard of “fox-hole prayers.”  Those are prayers that are prayed when things are at their most difficult, when you are pressed beyond your ability to handle the situation.   In desperation “the soldier” cries, help me out of this God.  Quid pro quo usually occurs because the soldier promises God that he will do better, change something that needs to be changed. 

My prayers that morning were fox hole prayers because I was in a situation that was impossibly difficult but little did I know that God would reward me the way He did for obeying His command that morning.

I did His will.  I went to work.

That morning, that traumatic morning was the beginning of my life with Christ.

Was it instantaneous?

No.

It truly was just a beginning.  I had no idea what was going to happen in my life due to this event.  I had no idea that God would put a platoon of Christians in my life to get me started down the road to know Him.  These people loved on me, empathized with me and steered me toward the Bible and toward a relationship with God.  To this point I never understood those crazy Christians who loved to talk about relationship with God.  What did that mean?

Suddenly Church was not a duty.  I wanted to go and every sermon seemed to relate to me, my problem and my spiritual growth.  I started attending a Sunday school class and those people welcomed me in their midst and as some of them heard about what I was going through, they did not judge me.  The showed me with what some would call “unconditional love.”  I sought other opportunities to learn about God, attending workshops and retreats.  I am a teacher so a big part of my experience was learning about God, not just experiencing Him.  I wanted to know more.  Eventually after attending a retreat, the power of our Savior was so strong at this retreat that I made a public declaration of my belief and upon returning home, I was drawn to a book I had never seriously read before: my Bible.  I read the New Testament like my life depended on it.  Every page held helpful information; I could not get enough.

Twenty-two years ago.

The greatest spiritual highs came from the lowest point in my life.  If I had not had to cry out to God I would have never found Him, I would have never taken Him seriously.

I have had several “inward trials” since my born again experience but those trials were met head on with some power that I have now that made all the difference.  I experience less stress and anxiety today due to my growing faith.  Trauma has occurred and will continue to occur but I have a God who helps me now to meet trauma head on.  I can tell anyone of His presence in the midst of my troubles if they care to ask and they want to listen.  His power is real.

As scripture that I read twenty-two years ago became my mantra:  “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” *

I give God total credit. 

We often hear the misquoted adage “God works in mysterious ways.”  We think it is from the Bible but it’s not. **   The closest Scripture to this sentiment I can find is in Isaiah 55:8-9, “ ‘For My thoughts are not your thoughts, Nor are your ways My ways,’ says the Lord.”  He does work in ways we don’t understand but that is ok.  He is God; I am a man, but I am more than just a man.  I am a believer in God, a child of God. 

Inward trials are a part of my life.  They are a part of everyone’s life.  When troubles come I may be a bit confused but that does not mean that I am ready to doubt the existence of God.  When I lose my peace about life, I don’t think that is a permanent problem; I turn to God in prayer and more often than not, I can get some peace to return.  When I fall prey to temptation, I can get distant from God because I am disappointed in my behavior, but I remember that I am a man who has many faults, but God loves me despite my faults.  He wants to help me work through my problems; He wants me to grow beyond where I am today.  He wants to extend His loving grace to me, a believer.

As we begin to close Chapter twenty-one of Packer’s Knowing God he pinpoints the reason that Christians have problems with inward trials. 

They lose sight of grace.

Twenty-two years ago I did not even understand grace.  I do today and I am thankful that I know what it means.  In the next post, we will explore what happens to all believers who lose sight of grace.  For me, grace is all about growth in faith, growth in belief, for we are bound to fall short in life.

We may do things to hurt our relationship with God, but He wants to have a relationship with us anyway.  He does that through His grace. 

Certain expressions make an impression on us and as I recall my past, I recall an expression that has meant so much to me, an expression of growth: “I am not where I should be but I am sure better than where I used to be.” 

I want to continue to grow, continue to learn more about God, continue to strengthen my relationship with Him.

Part of that growth is how God and I handle my inward trials.

*Philippians 4:13

**from William Cowper’s poem “Light Shining out of Darkness”

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The Inward Trial of Sinning

One of the most common misconceptions about becoming a Christian is that when you give your life to Christ, you no longer have fun.  Another equally perplexing misconception is that when you have frustrations in your faith it is because you have “substandard Christianity.”

The first misconception is often voiced by the unbeliever, the person who is looking at Christian faith “from the outside.”  The second misconception is voiced by the believer who is going through struggles and they really don’t know what to do about their problems.

Both are horribly wrong.

Most of us have highlights in life, times when we are extremely happy and life seems to be going right.  I can point to a few highlights, my marriage, the birth of my son, getting hired for an exciting job, completion of a degree, but none of these compare to the time in my life when I discovered I was a child of God, that God was my Savior and the death of His Son had wiped away all of my sins.  Fun?  Maybe that is the wrong word.  Maybe the word is joy, joy in the knowledge that I was beginning to live the life I was intended to live, a life for Jesus Christ.  I became His servant.  The burden of my sin-filled life was lifted.

But baby Christians are naïve creatures.  They act like they are dead to sin from the point when they are born again, but nothing could be more untrue.  Sin is still alive in the world and it is very powerful, maybe more powerful since the baby Christian is trying to avoid it.  Unbelievers are continuing on in their profligate lives right in front of the new Christian and the fun times they are having can be awfully tempting.  “I can have a few drinks and be ok.”  “I remember taking that drug; it sure relaxed me and I am sure feeling pressure now (maybe I can just try a little).”  “Oh who cares if I look at those naked people on my computer; I like the way it excites me and everybody is doing it.”

The urge to sin is not dead.  When you dedicate your life to Christ, old sinful habits don’t go away like turning off a light bulb.  Those habits are strong and they must be dealt with.  Packer* writes that this inward trial is a struggle but too many young Christians don’t label it as a struggle; they label it as a defeat.  They are plunged into a miserable life because of their guilt.

I have been there as well as many of you.  I don’t want to sin but the opportunity to do so always presents itself.  Maybe a common activity of life serves as a trigger.  When the activity occurs, the human brain goes immediately to the sinful activity and maybe I think it will be fun, no big deal.  I will just do it this once.  I do the sin and soon after I begin to feel the guilt.  “Why did I do that?”  “What was I thinking?” “Now I feel awful.”  In my case, I have trouble talking to God when I sin.  “Why would He want to talk to me?”  “Here I am asking for forgiveness again, for the same sin I have done for years”.  “How many times can I ask Him to forgive me?”  “Why won’t He take this sin away?”

We are not talking about people who once believed and they have fallen away from God.  Those people are apostates; they have renounced their faith and they may be cheerful in their lives [at least on the surface].  The truly miserable person is the “backslider;” they wonder where the joy went, the blessed feelings they once had when they truly met God.

The “backslider” can get on what Packer calls a “treadmill life,” a constant cycle of sin, misery, eventual forgiveness and then sin again.  “Why can’t I get that old excitement back, when I was free from sin?”  I often think of this as going round and round a mountain.  I desire to climb closer to the top, but I can’t go higher due to my sinning nature.  I just keep going round and round.  Maybe Packer’s imagery of the old Chinese habit of binding girl’s feet will serve to help us understand.  This practice was cruel, but it got the desired results.  The small foot represented the height of female refinement in China but it arrested physical development of the child’s foot.  God does not want to bind us with a lifestyle that inhibits spiritual development any more than He would want us to bind our feet in order to shape them into a ridiculously small shoe.  A life in Christ is about freedom.  It is about growth.

It is also about strength.  What happens when a Christian is confronted with powerful sins and goes through the process of confession and acceptance of forgiveness?  The Christian can grow.  They realize that evil is a part of life and it has to be dealt with.  When problems occur, God does not want us to return to our babe like state when we were young Christians.  He wants us to learn to deal with sin.  He wants us to grow in Christ.  He wants us to become adults.    Packer writes that God is not pleased with a “childish, grinning, irresponsible, self-absorbed breed of evangelical adults.”  Neither is He pleased with Christians who suffer from “morbid introspection, hysteria, mental breakdown and loss of faith.”  Like God did to Job, He “exposes Christians to strong attacks from the world, the flesh and devil, so that their powers of resistance might grow greater and their character as people of God can become stronger” [Packer, 248].

Struggles with sinning are a part of life but there is such a thing as victory over sin.  However, it is not instant victory, nor is it easy.  In my opinion, common human will-power will not rid a person of a persistent sin.  External rewards can only motivate a person so far.  Psychological techniques can help but they won’t do it alone.  In my opinion, it is God who will push a person higher up on that mountain.  It is God who will do it when He wants and how He wants.  Praying for a cessation of temptation and resultant sinning may be of use, but when it is God’s will for you to triumph over a particular sin, it will happen. 

What is the Christian to do until they are “dead to sin” [Romans 6:1].  Packer writes “when problems and temptations come [he must learn the habit] of handing them over to Christ to deal with for him.  If he does this (it is affirmed) he will find himself once more, in the theological as well as the metaphorical sense, on top of the world.”  To put this in common terms, know you will sin because you are human.  [Being born again does not rid you of your humanity].  When you do fall, pick yourself up, dust yourself off and move forward in Christ. 

The fact that you are miserable from your sinning is not unusual.  You want to return to God’s good graces.  Choosing to stay miserable is not a good option because God does not want His believers to live lives of painful frustration.  Choosing to renounce your faith is not a good option; turning your back on God and delighting in sin will get you nowhere. 

We all have this inward trial and with patience and perseverance, this trial will eventually lead to victory, not defeat.    

Oh! for a closer walk with God,

     A calm and heavenly frame;

A light to shine upon the road

     That leads me to the Lamb!

Where is the blessedness I knew

     When first I saw the Lord?

Where is the soul-refreshing view

     Of Jesus and his word?

What peaceful hours I once enjoyed!

     How sweet their memory still!

But they have left an aching void,

     The world can never fill.

Return, O holy Dove, return!

     Sweet the messenger of rest!

I hate the sins that made thee mourn

     And drove thee from my breast.**

*J.I. Packer  Knowing God

**From William Cowper’s Hymn  “Walking with God”

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“Glorify God Every Way”

Sometimes in life, one has to pause…

Some of you are aware that on Friday, July 17, J.I. Packer passed away. I will not post my thoughts on his book Knowing God today. I will share words from Leland Ryken who has written a biography of Packer. This material is from Christianity Today accessed on 7/20/20. My comments will continue tomorrow [7/21/20].

Leland Ryken obituary for J.I. Packer

“James Innell Packer, better known to many as J. I. Packer, was one of the most famous and influential evangelical leaders of our time. He died Friday, July 17, at age 93.

J. I. Packer was born in a village outside of Gloucester, England, on July 22, 1926. He came from humble stock, being born into a family that he called lower middle class. The religious climate at home and church was that of nominal Anglicanism rather than evangelical belief in Christ as Savior (something that Packer was not taught in his home church).

Packer’s life-changing childhood experience came at the age of seven when he was chased out of the schoolyard by a bully onto the busy London Road in Gloucester, where he was struck by a bread van and sustained a serious head injury. He carried a visible dent in the side of his head for the rest of his life. Nevertheless, Packer was uncomplaining and accepting of what providence brought into his life from childhood on.

Much more important than Packer’s accident was his conversion to Christ, which happened within two weeks of his matriculation as an undergraduate at Oxford University. Packer committed his life to Christ on October 22, 1944, while attending an evangelistic service sponsored by the campus InterVarsity chapter.

Although Packer was a serious student pursuing a classics degree, the heartbeat of his life at Oxford was spiritual. It was at Oxford that Packer first heard lectures from C. S. Lewis, and though they were never personally acquainted, Lewis would exert a powerful influence on Packer’s life and work. When Packer left Oxford with his doctorate on Richard Baxter in 1952, he did not immediately begin his academic career but spent a three-year term as a parish minister in suburban Birmingham.

Packer had a varied professional life. He spent the first half of his career in England before moving to Canada for the second half. In England, Packer held various teaching posts at theological colleges in Bristol, during which he had a decade-long interlude as warden (director) of Latimer House in Oxford, a clearinghouse for evangelical interests in the Church of England. In that role, Packer was one of the three most influential evangelical leaders in England (along with John Stott and Martyn Lloyd-Jones). Packer’s move to Regent College in Vancouver in 1979 shocked the evangelical world but enlarged Packer’s influence for the rest of his life.

Although Packer was a humble man who repudiated the success ethic, his life nonetheless reads like a success story. His first book, Fundamentalism and the Word of God (published in 1958) sold 20,000 copies in its first year and has consistently been in print since. In 2005, Time magazine named Packer one of the 25 most influential evangelicals.

When Christianity Today conducted a survey to determine the top 50 books that have shaped evangelicals, Packer’s book Knowing God came in fifth. His fame and influence were not something that he set out to accomplish. He steadfastly refused to cultivate a following. Instead, he made his mark with his typewriter (which he used to compose his articles and books throughout his life).

James Packer has had a considerable influence in America because he has written and said what evangelicals have most needed to hear.

J. I. Packer filled so many roles that we can accurately think of him as having had multiple careers. He earned his livelihood by teaching and was known to those who were his students as a professor. But the world at large knows Packer as an author and speaker.

Packer’s fame as a speaker rivaled his stature as an author. In both spheres, his generosity was unsurpassed. No audience or venue was too small to elicit Packer’s best effort. His publishing career was a case study in accepting virtually every request that was made of him. His signature book, Knowing God (which has sold a million and a half copies), began as a series of bimonthly articles requested by the editor of a small evangelical magazine. His first book, Fundamentalism and the Word of God, began as a talk to a group of students (the publisher requested a pamphlet but Packer wrote a book). Perhaps no one in history has written more endorsements and prefaces to the books of others than Packer did.

In both his publishing and speaking, Packer was famous as a Puritan scholar, but he was also a dedicated churchman who said that his teaching was primarily aimed at the education of future ministers, and he spent countless hours serving on church committees. For a quarter of a century, Packer’s involvement with Christianity Today gave him a platform as an essayist who frequently turned to topics of cultural critique. Packer had a career as a controversialist (by necessity rather than choice, he confided to me). Despite this range, Packer consistently self-identified as a theologian, which we can therefore regard as his primary vocation.

When we speak of the legacy left by a deceased person, we think misleadingly in terms of a speculative posthumous legacy that is impossible to predict. J. I. Packer’s primary legacy is the influence he held over events in Christendom and over people’s lives during his lifetime. That is his indisputable legacy, and I will highlight what I believe to be the most important ways in which Packer affected the direction of Christianity during his life.

Packer’s first book was a defense of the authority of the Bible, and this became both a lifelong passion and one of Packer’s most significant contributions to the evangelical church. Packer had an extraordinarily strong commitment to the view that the words of the Bible are the very words of God. He championed the out-of-vogue doctrine of the inerrancy of Scripture. He published books on the reliability of the Bible. He served as general editor of the English Standard Version of the Bible, calling that project the greatest achievement of his life.

J. I. Packer gave evangelicals a place to stand in regard to the authority of the Bible. Personally, no Packer legacy has been more important to me than this one, starting from the moment I pulled a paperback copy of Fundamentalism and the Word of God off a bookshelf in a Christian bookstore in my hometown as a college student.

The way in which Packer became a spokesman for conservative evangelicals in the face of liberalizing trends and assaults is another important contribution that he made during his lifetime. When Packer looked back with satisfaction on his decade of leadership with the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy, he spoke of “holding the line” for inerrancy. That metaphor applies to multiple causes to which Packer devoted his best efforts. Packer helped to hold the conservative evangelical line on numerous theological issues, such as the nature of Scripture and its interpretation, women’s roles in the church, and the church’s position regarding homosexuality. He was a traditionalist who looked to the past for truth. In Knowing God, he quoted Jeremiah 6:16, with its image of the “ancient paths … where the good way is,” claiming that his book was a call to follow those old paths.

Another unifying theme in Packer’s life was his elevation of the common person, and this, too, is part of his legacy. Packer never lost the common touch that he absorbed in his upbringing, and the same spirit was fostered by his identity as a latter-day Puritan. Although Packer could write specialized scholarship with the best, his calling was to write mid-level scholarship for the layperson. He was utterly devoid of careerism. The title of a Festschrift published in his honor got it exactly right: Doing Theology for the People of God.

When Alister McGrath labeled Packer a theologizer rather than a theologian, Packer experienced it as “quite a discovery” that led him to conclude that he was “an adult catechist,” dedicated to the systematic teaching of doctrine for the ordinary Christian. Packer was not as pained as some scholars have been by never having completed or published his systematic theology because he regarded his informal theological writings for the layperson to be his calling.

Another part of Packer’s legacy during his lifetime was his exemplary Christian character that served as a model and inspiration to those who knew him. His godliness was apparent at every moment, and his presence was a benediction on people who spent time with him. His words were words of wisdom. He was hardworking, but at the same time generous with his time. Like the Puritans he loved, Packer believed that the Christian faith is based on clear thinking while at the same time engaging the heart. Packer spoke with precision in the best British manner but he also exuded spiritual warmth. For those fortunate enough to have met him, we immediately experienced Packer as a kindred spirit in the faith and a fellow traveler of the Way. The authentic spiritual note was apparent.

Packer’s writings show what mattered most to him, and what he also thought the church must value most. Part of Packer’s legacy was thus helping Christians set the right agenda and concern themselves with the right things. Packer’s list of priorities included the Bible, the church, correct theology, holiness in life, and vocation. The reason Packer wrote on such a broad array of subjects is not only that he had an active and capacious mind but also that he was concerned that Christians think correctly on all subjects that relate to life. Packer had a passion for truth in every sphere.

J. I. Packer was also a man of paradoxes. He was a lifelong, devoted Anglican, but he moved with equal ease among the nonconformist wing of evangelicalism and was perhaps most influential in Reformed circles. He was quintessentially British but lived half of his adult life in Canada, and in an additional twist, the sphere of his greatest influence was the United States. Packer became one of the most famous evangelicals of his day, but he never held a prestigious post at a major university and never filled a high-visibility pulpit on a permanent basis. He was a mild man with a peaceable disposition, but he consistently found himself at the center of controversy and was often maligned.

If we ask how a quiet person who minded his own business became so famous and influential, the answer is that Packer’s publishing was the vehicle by which his ideas were disseminated. His life therefore stands as a tribute to the power of the written and published word. On the strength of his writings, Packer became a widely known speaker as well. In both writing and speaking, his content was always thoughtful, logically packaged, clear, and substantial, and he routinely overestimated the amount of time he had available to present the extensive amount of material he had prepared.

Packer himself ascribed the fame and success that he achieved to divine providence, and it is obvious that this is the case. He did not set out to be famous. He simply did the task that was placed before him and left the outcome to God. Speaking to teenagers in a living room was as likely an assignment for him as addressing a packed auditorium. J. I. Packer was above all serviceable to the kingdom and its King.

His ministry concluded in 2016, when he became unable to read, travel, or speak publicly due to going blind from macular degeneration.

When asked late in life what his final words to the church might be, Packer replied, “I think I can boil it down to four words: Glorify Christ every way.” That can serve as an epitaph for what Packer did in his lifetime and what he is doing now.”

Leland Ryken is Emeritus Professor of English at Wheaton College, where he taught for half a century. He has written a biography of J. I. Packer, titled J. I. Packer: An Evangelical Life.

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Those Inward Trials*

I don’t know how many times I have done this.

I wake up on Sunday morning and I have serious problems, normal human problems.  Maybe I am sore-boned and tired.  I don’t want to go anywhere, much less to church.  Maybe I have a personal problem.  I have done something I am not proud of and I can’t shake off the sin residue.  Maybe I am distracted by the news of the day.  Some personage has done something that angers me and I carry that irritation into my day of worship.  These vague references are used to illustrate my normal life, my life in Christ.  My life (to use a cliché) is not a bowl of cherries.

I am beset with “inward trials.”

My trials don’t sound that bad, but for some, the challenges of life can be downright debilitating.  Yet we are promised that as we are made right with Jesus we will have a new birth in the Spirit with a new life in the power of Jesus’s resurrection.  How could we be having these problems?  How could we be having these struggles?

“I am a Christian now.”

“My life should be much better.”

Hold on says Packer, the reason we have these unrealistic expectations is that we don’t do a good job with what he calls our “evangelical ministry.”  That is a major problem that can lead to good people falling away from a relationship with God.

Let’s explore what he calls the “misapplication” of Scripture in this situation. 

When justification occurs, normal Christian living should be a “bed of roses.”  “Everything in the garden is lovely all the time, and problems no longer exist—or, if they come, they have only to be taken to the throne of grace, and they will melt away at once.  This is to suggest that the world, the flesh and the devil will give us no serious trouble once we are Christians; nor will our circumstances and personal relationships ever be a problem to us; nor will we ever be a problem to ourselves” [Packer, 245].

If we oversell being born again, eventually the new Christian will experience bitter disillusionment.

Why does this happen?

Preachers or well-intentioned Christians want to bring new people to God.  That’s our call, to evangelize the world; Mark 16: 15 says “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation.”  That means tell people about God and His Son Jesus Christ.  “The preacher wants to win his hearers to Christ; therefore he glamorizes the Christian life, makes it sound as happy and carefree as he can, in order to allure them” [245].  We will experience the wonderful forgiveness of all our sins and we will have peace.  Our conscience will no longer bother us as we fellowship with God our Father.  We now have the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and those sins that used to master us are a problem no more.  God gives us the power over sin.  He also furnishes guidance, self-fulfillment and improved personal relationships.  In short, we are going to have our “hearts desire” in life.

This is what we get when we give our life to Christ.

Long-term Christians or mature Christians listen to this message and take it “with a grain of salt.”  They have been through the peaks and the valleys.  They know life has its challenges and for the most part it is a steady effort to move ahead toward a more righteous life.  They have experienced their new birth and they have left their old problems behind, but they know that longstanding problems don’t disappear overnight.  Serious temptations are still there and they can reappear and sometimes even intensify.  God does not promise that their lives will be easier; sometimes life gets even more difficult. 

Mature Christians know that their faith may be tested.  As daily problems occur, daily dying to sin is a part of life.  War with satan is never over.  It is endless.  Life if not a constant walk in God’s light.  There are times when it seems that we walk in darkness. 

This is a key time in the new Christian’s life.  Maybe overselling has occurred and a trouble-free life has been promised but Packer writes “Inadequacy and imperfection pile up on him (the new Christian), that he must have lapsed from normal. ‘Something’s gone wrong,” he will say, ‘it isn’t working any more!’  And his question will be, how can it be made to ‘work’ again?”

What is the purpose of all of this? 

How can God allow this to happen?  He has control of everything in life; there must be some purpose for this common problem.

Here is the short term answer.  God truly is there for us when we give Him our lives.  He is a source of joy, He is our Guide, He is a powerful advocate, but He does not take away life’s hardships.  God wants us to grow strong in our faith and life challenges us to do just that.  As we meet our problems head on with God,  we are able to persevere in our faith; we can bear more.  Packer says we are able to operate in a “tougher school.”  He exposes us to as much pressure as we can bear, not more than we can bear but just enough.  1 Corinthians 10:13  says “No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; He will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, He will also provide a way out so that you can endure it.”

Through the challenges of life, He builds our character, He strengthens our faith and He prepares us to help others.  “Thus He crystallizes our sense of values. Thus He glorifies Himself in our lives, making His strength perfect in our weakness” [246].

The evangelical ministry is essential to the maintenance and growth of Christianity in the world today, yet to get it wrong is to endanger the young Christian’s life.   To overemphasize the good and ignore the bad is cruel.  Misapplication of Scripture about beginning a new life in Christ can result in people falling away from God and maybe worse, telling the tale of His inadequacy. 

If we scale down the problems of sin and the problems of life after the born-again experience we are losing touch with the overarching purpose of our Lord and Savior. 

He is there for us.

In the good times.

In the bad times.

All the time.

*the title of chapter 21 of J.I. Packer’s Knowing God

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His Everlasting Arms are Beneath Us…

Giving a helping hand.

In recent posts, I think I have established that J.I. Packer believes God is our Guide.  Chapter Twenty of Knowing God makes a strong case “to know” God is to recognize one of His characteristics is He is our guide in life.

That’s good because most of us need guidance.  Some of us are willing to admit it, but some won’t.  Packer refers to those self-directed individuals as people who drive their cars into a bog.  They don’t listen to God’s guidance.  Maybe they feel they don’t need it.  Anyway, they have missed the road.  To take this further, sometimes Christians not only miss the road, they stand by and watch their cars sink in the bog and vanish.  Packer writes “the damage would be done and that would be that.” 

Really?

We are just supposed to suffer the consequences and move on in life?  “The damage would be done and that would be that” sounds just like the reaction one might have over spilled milk.  It is spilled and I can’t put it back in the glass.  I now must just go get a roll of towels, clean it up and forget it.

Sometimes life does not work like that.  When we “get off the road” so to speak, we can really commit grievous errors.  Some actions are terribly hard to fix.  Some actions cause extreme regret.  Some actions result in sinful feelings…the list goes on and on.   My point is, we don’t just say “oh well” and move on.

That is where we begin to realize that not only is God our Guide, but He is also our Sovereign and He has the ability to extend His grace to us.  Packer writes “Thank God…our God is a God who not merely restores, but takes up our mistakes and follies into His plan for us and brings good out of them” [241].  Maybe that is the meaning of Romans 8:28 “And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose.”   God can take a man-caused disaster and make all things right again.

Sadly, we have to admit that it is probably human nature to not take God’s advice but someone insisting on doing “it” their way is not the end of the world.   God knows that this pattern of behavior is part of man’s makeup and He has known it from the very beginning.   Some would argue that “original sin” came from Adam and Eve “doing it their way” in the Garden, ignoring God’s admonition that they must not partake of the fruit on that tree of knowledge of good and evil.  Adam and Eve listened to Satan and ate the apple anyway.

Packer says “Guidance, like all God’s acts of blessing under the covenant of grace, is a sovereign act.  Not merely does God will to guide us in the sense of showing us His way, that we may tread it; He wills also to guide us in the more fundamental sense of ensuring that, whatever happens, whatever mistakes we make, we shall come safely home.”  To extend his opening metaphor further, the car is pulled from the bog, it is made right and we will eventually drive it back home. 

Straying off the path, slipping off the road [however you want to refer to us making errors] is going to occur and we need to know that God’s everlasting arms are beneath us.  He promises to catch us, rescue us and restore us. 

Here is the “bottom line.”

God is not going to let us ruin our souls.

But before we go too far, let’s not get egocentric.  He is not doing this for our security.  He is doing it for His glory. 

People like to see “comeback stories.”  Imagine the powerful message that it sends when nonbelievers see a Christian fail.  It is such a colossal failure that it seems impossible to recover.  No normal person could ever come back from such dire circumstances.  Yet they do.  Not only does God intervene to help them, but He restores them.  In the long-view of their life, we see that this was part of His plan all along.

It is the story of Job, the story of Joseph, the story of King David, the story of Paul’s life, and the story of Peter’s denial of Christ. 

It is the story of anyone who is used by God to accomplish what could not ordinarily be accomplished by just human effort.

Driving the car into the bog is not a life-ending error; it may be part of God’s plan. 

It is what happens when we get out of the bog that matters.  We carry on with life.  We drive it back home and when someone asks how all this came about, we humbly respond…

“It was God…

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No Turning Back, No Turning Back

Knowing what to do and how to do it is a problem for everyone [believer or nonbeliever].  I have had times in my life when I was so confused that I just wanted someone, anyone  to give me a direction.  Please lay out a plan for me.   I know I want to do something  but what comes first?  How can I accomplish a goal? What is the first step, the second step…any step?

I bet you have times like that too.

I have been around “driven” people but even they get off their target from time to time.

For the Christian, feeling a lack of guidance can be a serious problem. 

Why would I say that; why is it so serious for Christians to be confused about what to do?

Here it is:

We are promised by God that He will guide us, all of us, all of the time.

All we have to do is follow His lead.

In previous posts,  I have written about inward promptings from sources outside of God’s word and how people need to rely on the Bible for guidance.*  I  have written about God’s help with what Packer calls “vocational choices” and how we can fail to listen to those choices [six pitfalls].**

Now it is time to address another concern, another “perplexity” that can cause us to be confused about  God’s guidance.

It is time to take action toward accomplishing a goal and we have prayed about what to do, we have waited patiently for God to give some direction.  We feel He has given us a positive sign and we are heading toward our goal, what Packer calls “setting off along the road which God seems to indicate.”

Then problems occur, difficult problems, problems which cause us to doubt God.

Let’s take some examples that Packer cites from the Bible as times when God puts problems “in the roadway.” 

God guided Israel from Egypt into a long journey that was fraught with trouble.  There was the Red Sea crossing.  There were frustrating days without food and water in the desert.  There were battles with the tribes of Amalek, lack of passage from King Sihon, and battles with the Amorite King Og.  The Israelite people grumbled and wondered about the wisdom of God’s guidance.

Packer cites Jesus taking His disciples out on the Sea of Galilee two times in bad weather.  Jesus commanded the weather but they probably wondered about His guidance.  Why did He put them in danger?

The apostle Paul followed the urging of the Holy Spirit even though he knew he was headed for problems.  In Acts, he says to the Ephesian elders “I am going to Jerusalem, bound in the Spirit, not knowing what shall befall me there; except that the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and afflictions await me” [20: 23-23].  He was of course a man of great faith but there were bound to be moments of doubt about God’s guidance and maybe self-doubts.  Do I really want to go to prison?  Do I really want to be afflicted?

What are some common problems that make a person doubt God’s guidance?

First, there is isolation.  It takes fortitude to follow God sometimes.  I have found that Christians can be confronted with isolation as they try to do God’s will but His will is very different from commonly accepted practices in society.  I hate to use the terms but detractors can use damaging words  behind our backs like “holier than thou” to get a Christian back into the mainstream of “the world.”  I have found that people don’t want to feel guilty about their behavior and someone who does right by God may cause that conviction in others.  Isolation is hard to deal with as a believer follows God’s urging and loses contact with friends and even family.

Sometimes it is even worse treatment.  Isolation is bad enough but open criticism may even be worse.  It is more transparent than isolation but direct words of criticism can really be hurtful.  You know how others feel and they are not happy.  Their criticisms may even make you doubt that you are doing the right thing.  Here is a good example.  I had a family member criticize me for wanting to go to church.  They said I was neglecting the family by doing so.  I should not be so dedicated to worshipping God.   From my point of view, I did not feel like I was neglecting anyone or anything.   I did not appreciate being criticized, having to make a choice between my church family and my relatives.

Practical frustrations can also be major reasons for doubt.   Packer cites a dramatic case of Elisabeth Elliot, who was a widow of a missionary.  She felt called to travel to Ecuador to work on translating the Bible for an Ecuadorian tribe.  Practical frustrations got in the way.  She had a helper who not only spoke Spanish but was also a Christian.  That was the only way she could accomplish her goals for translation and existing in the country.  Within a month, this man was murdered.  She continued trying to work on her translating, compiling an impressive file of translated Scripture.  Her file was stolen.  She had no copy.  She made a valiant effort to do the work but she had to stop.  Too many practical frustrations…

Why do people who begin their work for God have to suffer through isolation?  Why do people who begin their work for God have to deal with openly critical words from others?  Why do people who begin their work for God have practical frustrations that can stop them dead in their tracks?

I don’t know…

Elizabeth Elliot did not know either.  She said in her book Eternity “If you are thinking that you know the will of God for your life and you are anxious to do that, you are probably in for a rude awakening because nobody knows the will of God for their entire life” [18].

Perhaps problems can strengthen our faith, strengthen our will to do God’s work.  Perhaps problems can cause us to doubt God and He wants us to deal with that doubt.  Perhaps God only wanted us to go so far and then He wanted us to stop and go no further.  Maybe someone else will come along and finish the work.  

None of us knows the answer but after we receive His guidance, the pathway is not always clear toward accomplishing God’s work.

Here is what Packer says about this dilemma:  “God’s guidance, which brings us out of darkness into light, will also bring us out of light into darkness” [241].

That might not be very reassuring, but it is part of living as a Christian.  There will be times of great glory for God and there will be times when we walk in the “valley of the shadow of death.”

This last expression that Packer leaves us with is laden with all kinds of symbolism but maybe it is the best answer we will ever receive about this dilemma.

“It is the way of the cross” [241]…

Lyrics from “I Have Decided to Follow Jesus”

I have decided to follow Jesus

No turning back, no turning back.

The world before, the cross before me

No turning back, no turning back.

Tho’ none go with me, still I will follow

No turning back, no turning back.

*”God’s Help on Our Journey” June 14, 2020 St.JohnStudies.com

**”God’s Guidance: Packer’s Six Pitfalls” June 21, 2020 St.JohnStudies.com

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God’s Guidance: Packer’s Six Pitfalls

From the hymn  “Guide Me O Thou Great Jehovah” some of the lyrics say:

“Guide me, O Thou great Jehovah,

Pilgrim through this barren land.

I am weak, but Thou art mighty;

Hold me with Thy powerful hand.”

J.I. Packer writes that we need a guide in this world, someone to help us with our choices.  He refers to those choices as “vocational choices” but what does he mean?  Here are some examples.  When contemplating marriage, the big question is should I marry or not?  Another example is joining a church.  Should  I join a particular church or not?  Regarding work: should I take one job over another?  Regarding living situations: should I live in one location as opposed to somewhere else?

I have been very fortunate to have had very wise men and women to help me over the years and one of the most important pieces of advice I ever received from someone happened in 1998.  I will never forget it.  I had just accepted Jesus Christ as my Savior and this man told me “life is all about choices.”  That statement sounds infantile, but I needed to hear that at that time.  Previous to 1998, I had gone through a horrible period in my life and I was beginning to see some hope through beginning my belief in God.  Anyone who goes through justification will tell you that you are made right with God when you profess your belief and all things truly become new.  After all, it says in 2 Corinthians 5:17 “Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away;  behold, all things have become new.”  All may become new but anyone who has been born again will tell you that old problems will not immediately go away; they will reappear and choices must be made about whether to revert to ingrained habitual responses or to try to respond to problems in a more Christlike manner.

I needed my mentor’s guidance.  I was a “baby” Christian and I had no idea what my future would hold.

I accepted the guidance and to this day, I remember it and I try to live it…every day.

Why won’t people accept guidance from God?  We may know we need it, but we go our own way anyhow.  Packer writes that even though a Christian may have right ideas about God’s guidance, it is “easy to go wrong.”  We are frail human beings; he calls our human nature “regenerate.”  “The Spirit can be quenched, and we can all too easily behave in a way which stops this guidance from getting through.”

He comments on six major pitfalls.

First is the “unwillingness to think.”  Deuteronomy 32: 29 says “O that they were wise…that they would consider.”  This is God’s call for us to think.  God gives us many gifts, one of which is a rational brain and He intends us to use it.  In the thinking process, God can and will work to shape us through our thoughts.  Packer lists a couple of problems that interfere with man’s thinking:  false piety [putting on a show to garner the favor with others], “super-supernaturalism of an unhealthy and pernicious sort that demands inward impressions that have no rational basis” [Knowing God, 237].  We all have feelings and feelings are not bad.  In fact, emotions can be very effective in spurring us creatively, motivating us to tackle projects and helping us to experience the joy of life.   However, there are times when we need to think and there are times when it is ok to feel.  Be willing to seriously consider matters  when life calls us to do so.  Feelings cannot rule all day long.

Related to thinking in the moment is the skill of thinking ahead.   Present-centeredness is a useful skill and it helps us to enjoy life in the immediate.   Of course, none of us can predict the future and most of us worry too much about what the future holds,  but choices have consequences and those consequences are in the future.  Thinking people realize this, that they need to “think ahead” from time to time.  Packer says God can guide us in the short-term and in the long-term.  “Think ahead is part of the Divine rule of life no less than of the human rule of the road.  Often we can see what is wise and right (and what is foolish and wrong) only as we dwell on its long-term issues” [327].

“The way of a fool seems right to him, but a wise man listens to advice” [Proverbs, 12: 15].  Too often people can become so narrow-minded that they don’t want to hear what others think about their actions.  There are people in this world who know the Bible, they are wise about human nature and they have Godly gifts which can be passed along to us in the form of advice.  It is smart to listen to people who can help us with their words.  Packer says to spurn the advice of wise counselors is a sign of conceit and immaturity and it is a major pitfall in receiving God’s guidance given to us through people.

However, some words of advice coming from others can be harmful.  As we can make errors in not accepting good advice, we can make grievous errors accepting advice that is grounded in “ego-boosting, escapist [words], self-indulging or self-aggrandizing [words]” [238].  We all need to feel good about ourselves, but some people prey on others by words of flattery, words that are not grounded in reality.   It is important to reflect on advice when it elicits feelings and not thought.  Packer says “we need to ask ourselves why we ‘feel’ a particular course to be right, and to make ourselves give reasons” [328].  Psalms 139: 23-24 says “Search me, O God, and know my heart: try me and know my thoughts: And see if there be any wicked way in me.”  It is wise to distrust the motives or others in matters of flattery and it is wise to distrust ourselves in matters of receiving flattery.

Packer says the fifth pitfall is the influence of others who have “personal magnetism.”   Hero worship is what he is discussing.  Too often we can be directed by well-meaning people who have a desire to be the center of attention.  They don’t care so much for us and the guidance we need as they care for the power of being admired as guidance-givers.  People who need to be guided by God can be deluded by others with personal magnetism.  “Even when a gifted and magnetic person is aware of the danger and tries to avoid it, he is not always able to stop Christian people from treating him as an angel or a prophet, construing his words as guidance for themselves and blindly following his lead” [328].  This blind following is not the way to be guided by God.  Outstanding people are not always wrong, but they are not always right either.

The final pitfall is something that has tripped me up repeatedly over the years.  I work hard to avoid this problem but it rears its ugly head at the most inopportune times.  It is called “unwillingness to wait.”  We know God has good plans for us, but God delivers his plan at His speed, in His circumstances.  He gives good advice but His guidance comes when He is ready to give it.  We are an impatient and “stiff-necked.”  People want what we want to know yesterday, not some obscure time in the future.  I am reading Psalms now and a constant phrase I am encountering is “wait on the Lord.”  God is never in a much hurry as we are.  He may want to guide us but He wants that guidance to come one step at a time.   We want the complete picture all at once.   It is much better for me [maybe you?] to learn to wait for God rather than to be guided by impatience and act prematurely. 

As I reflect back on my life I can pinpoint times when I made choices that had a major impact on my life.  Some of the most important choices I have made are those where I consulted God, either directly or God working through His advisors. 

As I reflect back on my life I do think of my mentor who pulled me aside and said “life is all about choices.”  I also think of the times when I asked God for guidance and I recall a poem written by Robert Frost that I would rank up there as one of my favorites.  It is a stretch to defend the poem as God inspired, but to me it has always had great meaning and it is about choices and their implications; The Road Not Taken:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,

And sorry I could not travel both

And be one traveler, long I stood

And looked down one as far as I could

To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,

And having perhaps the better claim,

Because it was grassy and wanted wear;

Though as for that the passing there

Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay

In leaves no step had trodden black.

Oh, I kept the first for another day!

Yet knowing how way leads on to way,

I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

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