Saturday, August 29, 2009

Everlasting Torment

Today’s verse:

And the smoke of their torment rises for ever and ever.
Revelation 14:11a (NIV)

The idea of an everlasting state of torment and remorse for those who reject God is very disturbing to me. I have been struck by this thought again recently because Josh and I have been watching testimonials of near death experiences (NDEs) on, and the descriptions of hell match a literal testimony of the Bible. When it says there will be fire and worms that don’t die, it’s not just speaking metaphorically. I lost touch with the brute reality of hell and its horror because of many academic dialogues on the topic (including philosophically-motivated alternative explanations of certain scripture passages). Now that I’m reminded of just how horrible of a place it is and that real people are going there, I’m very troubled. I really hope that we will find out that God has a plan to reconcile the people in hell to himself… because if hell really is for eternity, then I think a lot of people will be surprised.

Jesus, I pray that you will grant me a deep sense of compassion for those who don’t know you. You grieve for every soul who rejects you, and you rejoice for every soul who delights in you. I pray that you would help me to have your heart for the hurting, empty people in this world so that I will not hesitate to minister to them. Thank you, Jesus. Amen.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Spiritual Gifts

Today’s verse:

There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but the same God works all of them in all men.

Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. To one there is given through the Spirit the message of wisdom, to another the message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by that one Spirit, to another miraculous powers, to another prophecy, to another distinguishing between spirits, to another speaking in different kinds of tongues, and to still another the interpretation of tongues. All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he gives them to each one, just as he determines.
I Corinthians 12:4-11 (NIV)

I was so intrigued by the topic of spiritual gifts that I couldn’t help but return to the subject for today’s study. As I read the above passage, I gleaned three points that were new to me:
(1) Paul says that the manifestation of the Spirit is given to each one,
(2) the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good, and
(3) the Spirit gives gifts to each one as he determines.
Now you must understand, I grew up under the teaching of cessationalism (that spiritual gifts such as prophesy, speaking in tongues, and miraculous healing ceased after the authenticity of the Gospel message was established across the Roman world during the time of first-century church, after the scripture had been written in its entirety). I always had the impression that the Spirit of God didn’t manifest himself in Christians in miraculous ways anymore, and that people claiming to have had such experiences either had been subject to a hyper-emotional psychological phenomenon, demonic influence, or a bad case of self-deception or straight-out lying. I never had any reason to think otherwise, given my background beliefs and the interpretation of scripture that I had been taught, and I never encountered anyone with a testimony that caused me to question my belief that supernatural spiritual gifts were ancient news. Maybe some of you can relate to my position! Anyway, I believe that God in his providence has started to open my eyes to his power and the reality of his presence in the lives of his dedicated, obedient followers. Let me explain: over the past month or so, God has been providing me examples of testimonies where God used his Spirit to accomplish miraculous wonders to draw people into his kingdom. My husband Josh recently told me of a time when he saw someone stand up and speak in tongues, and as skeptical thoughts began to enter his mind concerning the authenticity of the event, someone else across the sanctuary stood up and began interpreting the words of the one speaking in tongues. That sounds biblical to me! Out of curiosity, I started to question God, “Why hasn’t your Spirit manifested itself in me like that?” He started to reveal many things to me that are relevant not only to the topic of spiritual gifts, but also to what it means to be obedient to God in every aspect of life.

As I was praying with the question “What do I need to do to be used in a miraculous way by your Spirit,” God whispered to me something fairly obvious but that many of us overlook. He said, “You must read and meditate on My Word.” I was surprised and convicted at the same time. I go to church every Sunday, I discuss theological issues with my husband or other academic colleagues pretty much every day, and I’m even part of a prayer group… surely I’m a good Christian! So I thought. I realized, though, that although my mind was constantly entertaining issues presented in the scriptures, and even though I had been presenting requests before God, I was lacking in my relationship with God. It was all one-sided. I hadn’t taken enough time to listen to him. How can you have a relationship with someone if you are constantly talking and rarely allow the other person to interject thoughts of their own? I felt ashamed and foolish. Why would I expect God to grant me with spiritual gifts if I only let him talk to me for about an hour or two on Sunday morning, promptly drifting away into my own little world of thoughts and experiences for the rest of the week, leaving God behind as only a spectator? After God brought my erroneous ways to light, I felt convicted to seek after him. In fact, that is exactly what prompted this daily bible study blog. As I read and meditate upon the Words God has spoken to us, I gain new insight into God that I previously lacked.

Now, back to the topic of spiritual gifts. Paul says that the Spirit manifests himself in each one for the common good (or encouragement, perhaps) of believers. Perhaps he was referring only to the church of Corinth—or maybe to the church of that day—but it is not clear to me that his vision is so restrictive. My instinct is to assume that he is speaking to all believers, so unless I find another reason to doubt this assumption, that’s what I’ll go with. Anyway, he goes on to list several ways in which the Spirit chooses to manifest himself, even ordering them by their greatness. As I read the entire passage of I Corinthians 12, I notice that Paul makes an analogy between the community of believers and the parts of a human body. There are parts that are common, but their work is essential. There are parts that are considered less honorable, but they are treated with special honor. It seems that the point of this analogy is to convey that every part of the body of Christ has a purpose and is essential to the function of the body, so we should value every member regardless of their function. However, at the end of the section, it appears as though he encourages them to desire the greater gifts! Is this contradictory? I don’t think so. My impression is that God gives greater responsibility to those who are responsible with what he has already given; thus, it is an honor to have greater gifts, since it shows that we are very responsible people! I am convinced that responsibility is not the only factor, though, but obedience, depth of relationship with God, and God’s sovereign plan determine whether a believer receives supernatural gifts from the Spirit (and to what degree they receive them).

In conclusion, I see no harm in seeking to deepen my relationship with God in order to prepare my heart for the possibility of receiving a supernatural gift from the Holy Spirit. Perhaps spiritual gifts of this sort are no longer given to believers in this day and age, but if there is even the slightest chance that they are (or can be), then I want to be in a position to receive such gifts for the common good. Thus, I will continue to seek the presence of the Lord and empty my heart of worldly or selfish desires so that the Spirit of God will have a pure and spacious temple to live in and minister from, if he so wishes.

Dear Lord, I invite your presence into my dwelling place and into my heart. I am waiting in silence. Speak, Lord, and I will hear your voice. Guide me in your truth, and draw me close to you. Amen.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Perfect Peace

Today’s verse:

You will keep in perfect peace him whose mind is steadfast, because he trusts in you.
Isaiah 26:3 (NIV)

I thought that I would check the verse of the day again on as I was finding a verse to meditate on today, and sure enough, the topic is very relevant to my recent thoughts and struggles. Isaiah says that if a person has a steadfast mind, which Isaiah connects to trusting in God, then God will give him perfect peace. I was curious to see what the definition of steadfast is according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, so I looked it up online, and here’s what it says:

Main Entry: stead•fast

1 a : firmly fixed in place : immovable b : not subject to change
2 : firm in belief, determination, or adherence : loyal

synonyms: see faithful

In light of this definition, perhaps we can put Isaiah’s claim like this: If a person has a faithful, determined mind that firmly trusts in God, then God will give him peace. I think that we can, from the context, conclude that the peace God will give is peace of mind, not necessarily peace in the midst of war or quarrels.

So, what is the significance of this peace of mind that God will give the one who trusts in Him? The first thing I think of is the absence of worry. Isn’t it easy to worry about any and everything under the sun? And don’t we usually worry about things that are out of our control (finances, safety, the impression others get of us, etc.)? If we trust in God, the one who is in control of the entire universe, then we will have a sense of peace because there is nothing that is out of his control. We know that he has our best interest in mind, even things get rough. If our loving and almighty Creator is on our side, then who in heaven or on earth (or what forces of nature) could harm us? As Paul says in Philippians 1:21 (NIV), “For me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.” Only someone with a lot of faith can say something like that! If we trust in God, he promises us a place in his beautiful city of paradise—a city permeated with his presence, where his deep love for his people is as tangible as an embrace. Even if evil forces try to claim victory over us by stealing away our earthly bodies, their effort is in vain because Christ conquered death when he arose from the grave to be seated at the right hand of God the Father! We who trust in God will have everlasting life with him because of the work Jesus accomplished through the humiliation and suffering he endured on the cross. If we know that death of our corrupt, diseased, aging bodies ushers us into a new life filled with love, youth, joy, creativity, excitement, and reunion with the One who loves us most, then even the threat of death will not cause us to worry! The problem is that we usually don’t fully understand what God has promised for us when we trust in him, and we find our trust wavering like blades of grass swaying in the wind. I know that’s true for me. I truly believe that the more intimate we are with God, the more we will understand his nature, his sincerity, and his deep love for us. When we understand his nature, and when we experience his presence in our lives, only then can we appreciate all that he has done for us and all that he has in store for us as his followers. Only then can we fully trust him, or even have the ability to trust him. I long for that depth of trust and relationship, and I hope you do as well.

Dear Jesus, thank you for shedding your blood, for enduring shame, and experiencing utter forsakenness on our behalf. Lord, only you could suffer an unjust death but emerge from the grave victorious! Only you could crush the serpent’s head, and only you could reconcile us before God the Father. I pray that you would give us the wisdom and understanding to know your voice, just as sheep know the voice of their shepherd and thus are not led astray. I lay my worries and fears at your feet, Lord Jesus. Help me to fully trust in you. Amen.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Why not me?

Today’s verse:

Just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.
Romans 12:4-5 (NIV)

Josh and I have been watching a show called “It’s Supernatural,” hosted by Sid Roth ( The show consists of a weekly interview with someone through whom God has worked in miraculous ways (or who has witnessed the supernatural acts of God). A supernatural gift that comes up frequently is that of healing. For instance, someone with a failing kidney, after being surrounded by the prayer of righteous people and the presence of God, not only experiences a healed kidney, but also received an entirely new kidney where one was previously missing! There are many other documented miraculous examples. This got me thinking, “Why doesn’t God use me like all these people on Sid Roth’s show to heal someone miraculously?” Interestingly, the next day, I came across the above verses under “verse of the day” on the home page of Paul points out that God has given us different natural abilities, and we should use these abilities to edify one another. We shouldn’t become jealous of someone who has a different set of gifts than we do! He makes the analogy of a body. The eyes, hands, and feet all have different essential roles. I wouldn’t want my eyes to do the tasks set out for my feet! In the same way, we all work together in different ways for a single purpose—to spread the news of the kingdom of God to the world.

It seems to me that there are also supernatural gifts that God gives to people over and above their natural gifts. For example, it seems that things like miraculous healing, seeing the future, and having insight into people you’ve never met are not ordinary things that people are just born with. Also, it seems that gifts from the Spirit, like those talked about in I Corinthians 12, are imparted directly by the Spirit of God and are not related to our natural gifts in any way. However, Paul also says that there are many gifts of the Spirit and that not everyone will have the same gifts given to them. I will have to do a further study of this passage in I Corinthians in order to fully appreciate all that Paul was instructing regarding spiritual gifts, but for now, the message I am getting is that we should be content with what God has given us because he’s given it to us to benefit everyone around us.

My conclusion for today is perhaps more of a segue to future study: God has given us each different gifts so that we can function effectively together with unity of purpose. We fill specific, important roles within the group that others cannot fill, and we should not be jealous of others who operate under different roles. As far as what gifts he has given to us—whether they be solely our natural talents or also Spirit-imparted (even supernatural) talents—I have heard many dissenting opinions, so I must do further study of my own to come to a conclusion. Whatever the truth may be about spiritual gifts, I know this much: we are uniquely designed by God to carry out specific purposes in life, and he loves us all in a very special and personal way.

God of many wonders, thank you for interacting with your creation throughout the course of history. In ages past you displayed your glorious presence with supernatural signs and wonders through your prophets and through nature itself. Even with the visible evidence of your presence, though, your people were fickle of heart, betraying you for gods made by their own hands. How foolish we are, oh Lord! Please forgive us for lacking wisdom and understanding. In this age, you have chosen to make your presence hidden to the eye, and only those who seek you are given eyes to see! We are looking forward to the day when your presence will be visible to all people once again! A wave is coming: at first it appears small, but its tremendous power is revealed as it draws near to the shore. The abiding of your presence with us is near, and as it draws closer your miraculous works will be made known! I desire your presence, Lord. Too long have your people been separated from you. Use me as a tool for your coming glory, so that I may reveal the good news of your kingdom to all who will hear. We look forward to the revelation of your glory, and we worship you now as you reign over all the earth. Amen.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Developing good character

Today’s verse:

A man's wisdom gives him patience; it is to his glory to overlook an offense.
Proverbs 19:11 (NIV)

I remembered from past Bible study that patience is a fruit of the Spirit, so it is something that believers should demonstrate. Just as with everything else, though, patience needs practice… or so I thought. Then I started pondering how it could be that a believer could constantly struggle with patience over years, and I realized that perhaps something more is needed than practice. I came across this verse, and I came to a new understanding of how it is that believers can develop certain character traits that God desires of them. It is through wisdom that we become more like God, and as we become more like God, we start to display godly attributes.

My impression had always been that if we are lacking in a certain spiritual fruit (or godly characteristic), that we simply need to pray for it, and God will graciously bestow it to us… just like that. However, upon reflection, it appears that perhaps we need to go through a process of trusting in God—having a relationship with him and understanding his will—before we can truly develop godly character. I did a word search to see if I could find if there was something preceding wisdom, just like wisdom precedes patience. I found that Job and David both tell us where wisdom comes from:

And [God] said to man, 'The fear of the Lord—that is wisdom, and to shun evil is understanding.'
Job 28:28 (NIV)

The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom; all who follow his precepts have good understanding.
Psalm 111:10 (NIV)

So it all comes down to fearing God. What does that mean? I’m pretty sure it means that we need to treat God with proper reverence and respect, not taking him for granted. I think that Christians (or anyone who believes in God) too often forget that God is a powerful, awesome Creator of the Universe who knows everything there is to know and sees everything that goes on under the sun. That’s pretty amazing. Yet, we often forget that he even exists, let alone is watching everything we do and aware of every thought that crosses our mind. The leaders and prophets mentioned in the Bible fell flat on their faces when in the presence of God. What does that mean for us? Are we experiencing the presence of God, or has his presence been shielded by other things in our lives that take priority? I am somewhat disturbed at what the true answer could be for this question.

Anyway, getting back to the topic, I think that there is a relationship here that I didn’t quite see before:The cycle is self-fueling: the deeper our relationship with God, the more we understand his character and realize the amount of reverence and respect that is due him, which causes us to fear him more, which brings about wisdom in us. Godly character is a natural product of this cycle. Can we ask for God’s help anywhere in this process? Yes, we can, but I think we need to know what to ask for in order to see substantial change in our lives. James gives us a clue as to what to ask for in the cycle:

If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him.
James 1:5 (NIV)

Notice that James assures us that God will give us wisdom if we ask for it. He assures us! That means, if we ask God for wisdom—believing that he will do as he promised—then we will get wisdom! Wisdom then fuels the cycle, drawing us into a deeper relationship with God, resulting in us developing a more godly character. There is a process involved in developing character! God will help us, yes, but we have to persevere through the cycle to see the results.
God has given us the ability to choose for ourselves what to pursue—how wonderful if we were to choose to pursue a relationship with him! God is listening and waiting for us to acknowledge him. If he is so powerful, then why does he have to wait? Couldn’t he just force everyone to bow before him and worship him? Yes, he could… but he won’t force us to worship him because he wants us to seek a relationship with him. Building a meaningful relationship is not a one-sided endeavor! However, if we do choose to seek after him, he will grant us wisdom to find him! He yearns for our companionship, yet he patiently waits. How amazing is the compassion of our God.

In conclusion, I will note that we can make one final adjustment to the cycle leading to godly character:

God is the source of our wisdom. If we ask it of him, he will graciously give it to us. Once we attain wisdom, we will have a desire to deepen our relationship with God, which will in turn cause us to recognize his vast majesty. Our reverent fear of the Creator of All in turn seeds wisdom. Our character will develop in the process. Thus, if we want to develop a godly character (for example, if we want to become more patient), then we must do three things:
(1) we must ask God to grant us wisdom,
(2) we must seek to develop our relationship with God, and
(3) we must give God the respect he deserves.
I believe that this is the way in which God intended for us to develop character. The closer we are to God, the more we will reflect his nature. This is the lesson I have learned through this study.

Oh Lord, please grant me your wisdom so that I may seek you in the midst of worldly distractions. You have blessed us with so many things, Lord—please grant me the wisdom to seek you first, not to make idols out of money, possessions, my spouse, or my self-image. Thank you for your patience with me. Please give me wisdom so that my heart may desire an intimate relationship with you. Your wisdom is what I need to develop my character so that I may accurately reflect the radiance of your holiness and love to those who don’t know you. You are greater than all of creation, you are beyond our comprehension, and you alone deserve worship and praise. Thank you for loving us so much that you sent your son Jesus to live among us—then be betrayed by us to death—so that he could conquer death and sin once and for all! I love you, Lord. Amen.