Sunday, October 28, 2007

TorahBytes: How Prayer Works (Hayyei Sarah)

And he said, "O LORD, God of my master Abraham, please grant me success today and show steadfast love to my master Abraham. Behold, I am standing by the spring of water, and the daughters of the men of the city are coming out to draw water. Let the young woman to whom I shall say, 'Please let down your jar that I may drink,' and who shall say, 'Drink, and I will water your camels'—let her be the one whom you have appointed for your servant Isaac. By this I shall know that you have shown steadfast love to my master." Before he had finished speaking, behold, Rebekah, who was born to Bethuel the son of Milcah, the wife of Nahor, Abraham’s brother, came out with her water jar on her shoulder. (Bereshit / Genesis 24:12-15; ESV)

This week's Torah portion has an interesting example of prayer in action. Abraham assigned his servant the task of finding a wife for Isaac back in the land of Abraham's relatives. Upon arriving at his destination, Abraham's servant prayed that should the young woman he asks for a drink respond in a very particular way, then that woman would be the wife for Isaac.

The narrative tells us "Before he had finished speaking" Rebekah comes on the scene. As the story goes, she does all the things stated in the servant’s prayer.

Many have tried to figure out how prayer works. Perhaps the greatest challenge in coming to a clear understanding of this is the fact that it is to God we pray. While the people in the Bible address God in a fashion similar to petitioning a ruler - which is fitting, since God is the great King of the universe - unlike human authorities, God knows what we are going to say before we speak (see Psalm 139:4). The way Rebekah is introduced in this passage hints at God working behind the scenes even before the servant offered his prayer.

So if God already knows what we are going to say, then why do we need to pray before God does something?

As the King of the Universe, God is sovereign, which means that he is in full and total control of all that happens. That God chooses when and how to intervene in our lives is his business. Certainly it is nothing that we have control over.

Some people try to understand prayer by limiting God's omniscience (his knowing everything) and/or his sovereignty. This way of thinking leads to notions of God needing our prayers to fulfill his own desires or that we have the power to move God in ways he would not otherwise move. But limiting God in this way is not in keeping with the overall understanding of Scripture.

Those who emphasize God's omniscience and sovereignty also tend to draw unbiblical conclusions about prayer. For example, asserting that the actual purpose of prayer is to change us who pray rather than to affect circumstances, disregard the reality of the story at hand and many other accounts of prayer in the Bible. Certainly prayer has a positive spiritual effect on our lives, but this is a byproduct of prayers like these, not their purpose.

Some create complicated philosophical notions such as claiming that the sovereign God who determines the answers to our prayers also determines the prayers we pray. Not only does this turn us into robots, it makes prayer into some sort of divine ventriloquism, whereby we simply mouth words that are not actually are own. This view also disregards the accounts of prayer throughout the Bible. Prayer does not flow from our lips due to God's manipulation of us.

So why pray? Why did Abraham's servant pray? He did so, because he needed God’s help and believed that God would help him if he asked. I don't think it is any more complicated than that. Trying to understand how prayer works does nothing to help us pray. While the Scriptures reveal God and his ways to us, they don't tell us everything about the mechanics of spiritual dynamics. While it is essential to try to grasp as much as possible of what God has revealed to us, it is not helpful to try to figure out those things of which he has not given us sufficient information. How prayer works is one of those things.

That the all-powerful, sovereign, good and gracious God invites us to engage him in prayer should be sufficient to get us praying.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

TorahBytes: Adjusting Our Thinking (Va-yera)

And the LORD appeared to him (i.e. Abraham) by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the door of his tent in the heat of the day. He lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, three men were standing in front of him. (Bereshit / Genesis 18:1,2; ESV)

We picture God in many different ways. While it is popular to accept everyone's understanding of God as equally valid, he is not a matter of personal perception and interpretation. Either God exists or not. If he does, then he is who he is. just as he told Moses, "I am who I am" (Shemot / Exodus 3:14). God is exactly who and what he is, nothing more, nothing less.

I assume that those of us who accept the inspiration of the Scriptures would allow the Bible to form our understanding of God. I assume that whenever there is a clash between what we read in the Scriptures and our own ideas, we would quickly adjust our thinking. But apparently this does not happen often. We might say that we believe the Bible, but time and time again we prefer to preserve our traditions over and above the truth. Our commitment to ourselves and our affiliations take precedence over our commitment to the Bible.

But who are we fooling? The truth is the truth. God is God. If who he is is not based on our perceptions, but upon who he actually is, then we should be glad to adjust our thinking as needed. That doesn't mean that we should be constantly changing our understanding of God to prove how open and flexible we are. We should take our understanding of him more seriously than that. But if that understanding is not based on the Scriptures, then it has no basis, and we should adjust accordingly.

The week's Torah portion gives us a special glimpse of God that may challenge some of our thinking about him. The portion begins with our being told "The LORD appeared to Abraham" (18:1), but then we read that when he looked up he saw "three men" (18:2). After conversing with them for a while suddenly it is God who is speaking to Abraham (compare 18:9 with 18:10). When the men leave to go to the city of Sodom, we read "Abraham still stood before the LORD" (18:22).

The story continues, "The two angels came to Sodom in the evening..." (19:1). This is the only time they are called "angels." Every other time they are called "men" (19:5,8,10,12,16). The word "angel" in Hebrew means "messenger". It is possible therefore that these "messengers" are not heavenly beings, but simply human messengers. On the other hand the way we are introduced to them at the beginning of chapter 18 suggests that all three of them had heavenly origins.

Whatever the true identity of the two individuals that went on to Sodom, it is clear that the individual who stayed with Abraham was God himself. This means that God came to Abraham that day in human form.

God came to Abraham in human form. This is not the only time in the Hebrew Scriptures that he does so. Jacob wrestled with God (Bereshit / Genesis 32:22-32); He revealed himself in human form to Samson's parents (Shoftim / Judges 13); and we read in the Torah that Moses saw God's form (Numbers / Bemidbar 12:8).

This is not to say that God in his fullness exists in human form, but it does show us that he doesn't have a problem coming to people that way. Since the Torah attests to this, then we should not find it offensive - as it is to some people - that in the Messiah God came to us in human form.

Believing in Yeshua as the Messiah may take some major adjustments in our thinking, but they are adjustments based on the truth of Scripture.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

TorahBytes: The God of Abraham (Lekh Lekha)

And he believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness. (Bereshit / Genesis 15:6; ESV)

The story of Abraham is a story of faith. In him we find a man willing to leave the familiar in order to follow the directives of God. He was willing to spend his senior years in a foreign and potentially hostile environment without any support or encouragement outside his own family, because God told him to.

For Abraham this was not a religious exercise. It was simply life - a life lived not based on tradition, for he had next to no precedent for what he was doing; a life not based on material success, for while he was promised blessing, there was no guarantee of riches or fame; a life not based on comfort and pleasure, for he would live the rest of his days as a nomad; but a life based on keeping in step with the unseen God of the universe.

Abraham's faith in God laid a foundation for all who would come after him, who would be willing to be just like him - free from the supposed control of the expectations of society; free from religious dictates that neither serve God nor truly benefit others, free from a materialistic world view that is blind to the liberating perspective of heaven; and free to fulfill the good pleasure of God, who yearns to reestablish right relationship with his beloved creatures.

And it is this "right relationship with God" that Abraham models for us. Unlike the complex system devised much later on by his own descendents, Abraham demonstrates for us what it takes to truly know God in the way that God desires for us. Abraham's intimate relationship with God was not due to ritualistic activities or good works. It was his trust (The words faith, belief, and trust are all derived the same Hebrew word) that enabled him to know God the way he did.

His faith in God found practical expression in how he lived and the things he did, but it was that simple trust in God that made him the friend of God that he was. It was his trust in God that enabled him to risk everything and venture into the unknown. It was his trust in God that became our model of what true spirituality really is.

It was ten years ago this week, according to the Jewish calendar, that I too ventured into the unknown. The Internet was coming into common use. I found myself with a desire to share the truths of Scripture with those who may not otherwise be exposed to them. So I wrote my first TorahBytes message. It was a message called Being a Blessing based on this same Torah portion. I cannot say that I envisioned myself still doing this ten years later, but I am so grateful to God for his help and encouragement week by week. I am grateful to my wife, who has proofed and critiqued almost every single message. Encouragement has often come through TorahBytes readers and listeners. It has almost become predictable that when I have most doubted that I should continue, that I would receive a meaningful note encouraging me to keep on.

I am not trying to say that my embarking on TorahBytes ten years ago makes me an Abraham. But it is Abraham's example that urges me to respond to God's prompting in my heart and step into the unknown without requiring guaranties of success. It is because of Abraham's example that I can know that God's blessing is more important than anything. Whatever I do, as I trust in God, he will guide me. The outcome I can leave with him.

Just as I didn't know ten years ago all that would transpire until this day, so I don't know what the next ten years will bring. Like Abraham, I don't know how God will direct me hereon in, but I am confident that he will. That's what knowing the God of Abraham is all about.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

TorahBytes: Does the Bible Embarrass You? (No'ah)

And Noah and his sons and his wife and his sons’ wives with him went into the ark to escape the waters of the flood. (Bereshit / Genesis 7:7)

Besides being the undisputed best selling book of all time, no writing has ever had the kind of impact the Bible has. All over the world people from almost every language and culture have been changed for the better by this book. No other book has brought the kind of comfort, consolation, correction, inspiration, and direction the Bible has.

Yet for many the Bible is viewed as a relic of medieval times, when people understood life in religious, rather than scientific terms. Today we think we know better. The scientific mind is a so-called enlightened mind that has rid itself of sentimental and superstitious concepts that have kept the masses under the thumb of religious leaders.

Of course those who believe that the Bible is actually the Word of God don't share this criticism. The believer accepts the Bible as a treasure of timeless principles. While expressed in an ancient context, the teachings of Scripture remain true for all people of all cultures in every generation.

But what about the details? It seems to be that believers and unbelievers alike often share the same reaction to the stories of the Bible. It is one thing to embrace concepts like God, love, and forgiveness. It is another thing to boldly assert the validity of stories such as Noah's Ark, Jonah and the Big Fish, and Daniel in the Lion's Den. We may say we believe in miracles, but do we really? I think one of the reasons why we tend not to expect God to act supernaturally today is that we don't fully accept the reality of miracles at all. This is also why we hesitate to confidently stand up for the Bible's view of creation. We have more respect for the assertions of scientific research than we do for biblical inspiration.

When it comes right down to it, the Bible embarrasses us. The Bible asserts certain things that sound very strange to most people. Many of its teachings appear out of step with most of today's societies. Adhering to the details of the Bible strikes a strange discord in the contemporary ear. That strangeness reverberates in our own hearts, causing us to be intimidated. So instead of confidently standing on the testimony of Scripture, we mold it according to the world's preferences.

I am aware that there have been and still are interpretations of certain Bible passages that need to be adjusted as we gain further insight into them. But what I am referring to here is how we allow the opinions of others to erode our confidence in the Bible when we should know better.

How excited would you be if we finally had tangible proof of the existence of Noah's Ark? I wonder if the degree of that excitement is equal to the degree of uncertainty we have over the validity of what the Bible asserts. While I would hope that such a discovery would impact nonbelievers, should not believers already be convinced of the validity of the story whether or not we ever find it?

If you don't yet believe that the Bible is the Word of God, nothing in this message will convince you. But for those who do believe, what do you really think of the Bible's details? Do they embarrass you? I mentioned earlier that there is a tendency to adhere to the Bible's concepts, while denying the details. But in reality it is the Bible's details that carry the substance of its concepts. Once we undermine the details, we will also lose touch with its concepts.