Monday, July 30, 2012

TorahBytes: When To Stop Praying (Va-Ethannan)

And I pleaded with the Lord at that time, saying, "O Lord God, you have only begun to show your servant your greatness and your mighty hand. For what god is there in heaven or on earth who can do such works and mighty acts as yours? Please let me go over and see the good land beyond the Jordan, that good hill country and Lebanon." But the Lord was angry with me because of you and would not listen to me. And the Lord said to me, "Enough from you; do not speak to me of this matter again." (Deuteronomy 3:23-26; ESV)

Prayer is amazing! On one hand it is straightforward in that it is simply talking to God. On the other hand, there are aspects of prayer that are not that straightforward. Not that it need be too complicated; it's that some people turn it into some sort of formula that they guarantee will work as expected as long as you follow the directions. Others make prayer a spiritual exercise designed to nurture our souls, with no real communication aspect, which is really the only aspect of prayer to which the Bible refers.

The complexity of prayer has nothing to do with its mechanics, it's that it is a truly relational activity and as a relational activity, it is not predictable. God as God is both free and able to respond to prayer however he wishes. While he is kind and compassionate, he will not be manipulated by anyone. Whatever he does, he does what is in his best interests. It's not that he is selfish; it's that since he is perfectly good, his best interests are best for everyone - something many are slow to accept. Also, because he is God, he is able to deal with everyone perfectly at the same time. As finite humans, we cannot comprehend how God could legitimately interact with billions of people simultaneously while ensuring his righteous aims will be met. But he is God, and he is good at what he does.

Our hesitancy to accept how relational prayer really is can prevent us from freely and confidently addressing God as we can and should. False notions of spirituality may tell us that if we pray at all, then we should simply state our purpose and leave it at that. The problem with this kind of piety is that it doesn't reflect the Bible's understanding of God and prayer. Yeshua's encouragement to pray and not give up (see Luke 18:1-8) is a wonderful way to describe the kind of earnestness in prayer that we see throughout the Bible. The picture of prayer painted for us in the Bible is far more like that of a child's expectancy of a loving parent than the false humility of adults who rarely ask for anything from anyone.

That brings us to the question then, how do we know when to stop praying about something. Of course you are free to stop whenever you wish. Perhaps God has answered your prayer or your take on the situation has changed, which also might be due to God answering your prayer. But when a request that you have laid before God over and over again is still an issue for you, is there a time when you should stop praying? Yes there is. When God says so. As we saw last week, Moses had a really hard time with God's decision not to let him enter the Promised Land. Yet that did not stop him from pleading with God to change his mind. Moses experienced firsthand how God could take a stand on something, yet change course due to prayer (see Shemot /Exodus 32:11-14). Why not in this case?

Yet in this case, God not only said "No," but also that Moses should not speak to him at all regarding this matter ever again. Centuries later, Paul would experience something similar. He had been earnestly asking God to remove some sort of problem he was having. Like Moses, but in different words, God said, "No," and made clear to him what he needed to do (see 2 Corinthians 12:7-10).

So how do we know when to stop praying? When God says so. Until then, don't stop.

Monday, July 23, 2012

TorahBytes: Blame Shifting (Devarim)

Even with me the Lord was angry on your account and said, "You also shall not go in there." (Devarim / Deuteronomy 1:37; ESV)

In the first few chapters of this fifth book of the Torah, Moses recounts aspects of Israel's journey in the wilderness from when they left Mt. Sinai 38 years earlier. He reminds them how the previous generation, of which many of them were young people at the time, failed to enter the Promised Land due to their lack of faith in God. Moses then refers to himself and how God had also forbid him from entering the Land. But what he says about that doesn't jive with the original account of the incident. The Torah's description of what happened makes it clear that it was Moses' own attitudes and actions that disqualified him from entering the Land (see Bemidbar / Numbers 20:2-13). But here Moses is blaming the people for what happened, making it sound as if God's anger toward him was because of them. And this is only one of three times Moses tells the story this way (see Devarim / Deuteronomy 3:26; 4:21).

At first I tried to figure out how Moses' version of what happened could simply be another aspect of the story. I didn't want to consider that Moses could be blame shifting. That didn't fit with my understanding of him. But then I came upon another reference to this same incident near the end of Moses' life when God allowed Moses to see the Promised Land from afar. In this case, we see God's perspective, which is different from Moses' own. God's perspective is the same as the original description earlier in the Torah. The reason God gives for not allowing Moses to enter the Promised Land is

because you broke faith with me in the midst of the people of Israel at the waters of Meribah-kadesh, in the wilderness of Zin, and because you did not treat me as holy in the midst of the people of Israel. For you shall see the land before you, but you shall not go there, into the land that I am giving to the people of Israel. (Devarim / Deuteronomy 32:51, 52; ESV)

While Moses' mishandling of the situation didn't happen in a vacuum, God clearly states that it was his fault. Who could blame Moses from expressing himself in anger as he did? He was frustrated due to the ongoing grumbling and negative attitudes of the people and reacted by failing to honor God appropriately. But while the people created the situation in which Moses did wrong, it was Moses and not the people who was responsible for the wrong he did.

Then why did Moses blame shift? I think we have a case here of honest reporting on Moses' part. He was struggling with bitterness. He knew God's take on the situation but continued to blame the people for his inappropriate behavior anyway.

I don't know about you, but this sure speaks to me. I could blame and have blamed others for all sorts of issues in my life. It's so easy to excuse my misgivings based on my difficult circumstances. But the better I know God and his Word, the more I discover that not only do I have no right to blame others for my issues, but also God has used my difficulties to work out his goodness in my life. The very things that I tend to be bitter about are the tools God has used to build me up as his child. It is only when I stop blame shifting that I can properly take responsibility for my actions and learn the lessons God wants me to learn.

As we realize how much like us Moses really was, the better we will be able to relate to him and be better equipped to know God as he did as well.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

TorahBytes: Profit (Mattot)

But my people have changed their glory for that which does not profit. (Jeremiah 2:11; ESV)

In business we often talk about "the bottom line" - a reference to the final monetary result of something. People often want to know whether or not in the end they will make or lose money. Unless a profit is earned in the long term, the project should be scrapped. The way Jeremiah uses the term is not exactly the same as this, because obviously he is not primarily referring to monetary or material gain. He is using the word "profit" to speak of benefits as in whether or not a certain course of action will result in positive benefits to the people doing them. His statement expresses his bewilderment at his people. Why would anyone pursue a course of action that would not profit them in any way? Yet that is exactly what his people were doing.

What makes his observation that much more bewildering is that they turned from that which would have resulted in a profitable life and gave it up in exchange for that which would not be profitable. It's one thing when a business is on a profitable course and due to unforeseen circumstances experiences a downturn. It's another when everything is going well and the business owners make intentional choices to undermine their business. But this is exactly what Jeremiah's people were doing with regard to life. And this is what so many of us are doing with our lives today.

Cultures that have a biblical heritage need to especially hear Jeremiah's words. Through the Bible we have been given access to a profitable way of life. God, through his written word, has revealed how we can live lives of great benefit, not only for ourselves but for all those around us. Far greater than business profit, we have the opportunity to benefit our generation in every way and yet we instead undermine ourselves and others by giving up on God's ways for lifestyle choices that don't profit.

All around us are voices telling us how to live: how to spend our time, how to present ourselves to others physically and emotionally, what to fill our minds with, who our friends should be, what our standards should be, how to spend our money, what constitutes a legitimate education and career, the value of marriage and children, and so on and so on.

But then there's God's voice, heard primarily through the Scriptures. Through his revelation he has given us all we need to live a profitable life. Why trade the lasting benefits of biblical godly living for the cheap, destructive, wasteful, deceit of what the world has to offer?

I understand how difficult it can be to wholeheartedly embrace biblical living when the pressure to conform to the ways of the world is so strong. But we need to see this for what it is. A vivid illustration of this is my recent experience participating in a small prolife demonstration. The aggressive reactions of some people to our graphic portrayal of what abortion does to unborn children vividly showed how our society has exchanged the true profit of the gift of children for a misguided concept of freedom and fulfillment. When a society embraces the notion that our purpose on earth is to satisfy our personal pleasures, then the responsibility of having children must be avoided at all costs. Little do we know how much we are undermining our very existence through our self-focused choices.

Trading the biblical call to serve God for our personal pleasure is not confined to the abortion issue. Selfish individualism may be the highest value in much of the world today. The carrot of self-gratification is leading our generation, supposed God followers included, down a most destructive path.

Jeremiah reminds us that it doesn't have to be that way. The reason why he confronted the people of his day as he did was not to mock them, but to help them. We don't need to allow the destructive forces and deceptive promises of the world to control our lives any longer. As we turn back to God and his ways, we can live the profitable lives he designed us to live.

Sunday, July 08, 2012

TorahBytes: God's Wrath (Pinhas)

And the Lord said to Moses, "Phinehas the son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the priest, has turned back my wrath from the people of Israel, in that he was jealous with my jealousy among them, so that I did not consume the people of Israel in my jealousy." (Bemidbar / Numbers 25:10-11; ESV)

Recently I was leading a group in worship to God and chose a song that I hadn't done in many years. The lyrics are based on this verse in the prophet Habakkuk:

Lord, I have heard of your fame; I stand in awe of your deeds, O Lord. Renew them in our day, - in our time make them known; - in wrath remember mercy. (Habakkuk 3:2)

Habakkuk lived in a difficult and confusing time in the history of Israel (of which there have been many!). This prayer expresses his cry that, in the midst of hardship, God would show mercy. Hardship isn't really the best word, however. Certainly Habakkuk didn't see the nation's troubles as simply the mechanical consequences of bad behavior, but rather the word he uses is "wrath."

The concept of wrath in the Bible conveys a highly destructive fiery emotion. How it works is vividly portrayed in this week's Torah portion. Twenty-four thousand people died due to a plague that occurred in response to Israel's gross immorality and spiritual unfaithfulness. It took a drastic and violent act on the part of a person by the name of Pinhas (English: Phinehas) to turn back God's wrath.

I cannot claim to understand how God's wrath works. It does seem that at times it is a part of God's general reaction to human rebellion against him and other times it is very specifically aimed at individuals and communities. But one of the instructive things from the situations of Pinhas and Habakkuk is that finding oneself suffering under the effects of God's wrath is not an automatic statement of judgment upon that individual. As God's wrath is expressed in our midst, people who are not direct objects of wrath may be equally affected.

Many are uncomfortable with the idea that God might act out with great destructive anger, let alone that the innocent may also be affected by it, but this is what we encounter in the Torah portion. This story reflects the overall reality of life as the Bible sees it: full of goodness, full of evil, yet held together by God's sustaining power and love. If it wasn't for God's love, the world would have been destroyed by his wrath a long time ago. Our unwillingness to accept that God could be both loving and wrathful is far more about our inability to accept life's reality, than an honest commitment to philosophical or theological integrity.

Neither Pinhas nor Habakkuk had a philosophical or theological problem with the concept of God's wrath, but neither were they resigned to it. God's wrath is rarely the final and permanent state of a situation. Both Pinhas and Habakkuk did something about it. For Pinhas it meant an act of righteous indignation; for Habakkuk it meant prayer for mercy. In both cases these men believed that greater than God's wrath was his love and mercy.

I wonder how many terrible situations we find ourselves in where God is calling us to look to him, so that his goodness would break through. Believers in the God of the Bible are not to be fatalists. Just because things are the way they are do not mean they have to stay that way. Once we understand that we are not victims of impersonal forces, but people in the midst of a struggle of cosmic proportions, one in which God is in charge from beginning to end, we no longer have to blindly accept our circumstances. Instead we can be instrumental in rescuing people from God's wrath.

Monday, July 02, 2012

TorahBytes: Blessed Is Blessed (Balak)

God said to Balaam, "You shall not go with them. You shall not curse the people, for they are blessed." (Bemidbar / Numbers 22:12: ESV)

Intimidated by the Israelites, a king by the name of Balak hired Balaam, a sorcerer, to curse them. We don't know if Balaam expected to actually encounter the true Master of the Universe, but he did. As quoted, God's word to Balaam was clear, "You shall not go with them. You shall not curse the people, for they are blessed." What comes of this is complicated, but instructive, as Balak persists in his hiring of Balaam (see What I want to look at this week is what God says about the people of Israel, which is the controlling factor in this story.

God clearly told Balaam not to curse Israel, since they were blessed. That Israel was blessed was already established by God, rooted in his original promise to Abraham: "And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing" (Bereshit / Genesis 12:2; ESV). The blessing of God upon Israel was unconditional, for it was not based on anything they did or would do, but simply upon his promise to Abraham. That the blessing is also eternal is eloquently stated in the eleventh chapter of the New Covenant letter to the Romans: "For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable" (Romans 11:29; ESV).

To be blessed by God is to be filled with life. For Israel, at the very least, this means its survival is ensured. Whatever difficulties they may encounter, they will survive and thrive as a nation. Even God's disciplinary punishment will result for good in the long term. When Balak's scheme to curse them failed Balaam used sexual immorality to harm them. Yet they were not defeated (see Bemidbar / Numbers 25:1-3 and 31:16).

To be cursed is to have life removed; it's a death sentence. A cursed nation will eventually cease to exist. This is what Balak was hoping for when he hired Balaam. He believed that an effective pronouncement of cursing upon Israel would make them vulnerable to not only attack, but to defeat and extermination. He wasn't the first to desire such a thing for Israel and wasn't the last. But like those before and after, they could not be cursed, since God had blessed them.

What then does God's blessing of Israel mean in today's world? Some people, even those who adhere to the Bible, claim that Israel's relationship to God was for ancient times only. If that is true, so much for the New Covenant statement quoted earlier and the abundance of promises to Abraham's descendants through Isaac and Jacob. Others purport that the Israel of promise was some sort of spiritual entity not to be confused with the physical nation whose history is central to the whole Bible. This view disregards that the very promises which foretell salvation for both Israel and the nations were given to physical Israel during some its most difficult periods. It was to a troubled and often-time wayward Israel that the blessing of Abraham was confirmed over and over again. The other end of the spectrum sees God's blessing upon Israel as justifying every aspect of the existence of the modern State of Israel. The problem with this view is that it never meant that before. So why should it mean that now?

If the Scripture indeed teaches that God's blessing of Israel is unconditional and eternal, which I believe it does, then what should it mean for us today? It should mean to us what it meant to Balak and Balaam many years ago. Israel is blessed. Don't curse them. Don't align yourself with any scheme to undermine, harm, or destroy them. For such schemes will fail and you will find yourself at odds with God's plans and purposes; something to which God doesn't take kindly.

At the same time, however, God's blessing upon Israel doesn't justify every policy of the Israeli government just as it doesn't justify every action of every single Jewish person. What it means is that God is committed to Israel's welfare and therefore so should we be too. That may include disagreeing on policy or actions, but how that disagreement is expressed should be controlled by the high standard of love and concern for all people God calls us all to.

One more thing. Accepting God's continued blessing on Israel in no implies that we are to curse Israel's enemies. Far from it! The very nature of God demands that we treat all people fairly with love, mercy, and justice. Those who seek Israel or the Jewish people's demise need to be patiently and graciously shown that this is not God's will or in their best interest. As God said to Balaam, "You shall not curse the people, for they are blessed."