The Mercy of God in Jonah

I have been preparing to present Jonah from memory in about a week and a half.  I truly love memorizing Scripture and preparing to present it.  It forces me to slow down, think through what was written and what the author intended, and ponder how best to present the text.  It makes me think about tone of voice, attitude, and what we truly see about God, others, and ourselves in the text.  I’m not sure I would have originally thought that I would enjoy Jonah as much as I have been.  Let’s face it, many of us tend to focus more on the New Testament than we do the Old Testament.  There are good reasons to focus on the New Testament, of course; but I have been finding out what treasures we miss when we neglect the Old Testament.

Because of the study I put into memorizing, a lot of what I say here is pulled together from other authors and commentaries, I’m sure, even though I cannot remember who in particular may have contributed to my thoughts. One of the biggest ideas I have been taking away from my study and memorization of Jonah is just how merciful God truly is.  The whole point of the narrative is to contrast God’s mercy with Jonah’s condemnation.

It starts when God tells Jonah to call out against Nineveh, a city known for its cruelty and wickedness.  Jonah refuses, trying to run away from God instead.  When Jonah tries to run, God providentially causes a storm that leads to Jonah being thrown into the water.  He providentially causes a great fish to swallow Jonah, where Jonah reflects and realizes (in part) his error.  God then providentially causes the fish to vomit Jonah out, where God gives Jonah a second chance to take His message to the people of Nineveh. (Even this is a mercy of God, as He didn’t have to reach out to Jonah so much to help him see the errors of his ways.)  This time, Jonah goes and preaches, the people repent, and God withholds judgment.

I’ve heard it taught that Jonah ran because he feared the people of Nineveh, but that doesn’t seem to be the case according to Jonah himself.  We see in chapter 4 why he runs away.  Jonah explains, “That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster.” (Jonah 4:2, ESV)  Jonah ran away primarily because He knew that God was a gracious God who would show mercy to the horrible people of Nineveh!  In other words, God was merciful, but “it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry.” (4:1, ESV)

Jonah sits and waits to “see what would become of the city.” (4:5, ESV)  The way the text reads, this is no casual waiting; this seems to be an anxious expectation of the destruction that would come.  Jonah is almost excited to see the wicked people destroyed.  While he is trying to keep himself cool in a booth he makes, he is waiting for the people of Nineveh to receive the judgment of God.

We see the contrast most plainly at the end of the story, when God destroys a plant that He caused to grow quickly to provide a shade for Jonah.  Jonah is “angry enough to die” over the plant’s destruction (4:9, ESV).  God points out to Jonah the hypocrisy in this attitude.  The story ends with a statement and a question from God to Jonah:

“You pity the plant, for which you did not labor, nor did you make it grow, which came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?” (4:10-11, ESV)

The end.  That’s it.  Jonah is left with a question hanging in the air, and we, the readers/hearers, are left with the same question.  We don’t know if or how Jonah responded; we are not meant to.  We are meant, rather, to ponder the depth of the contrast.  The contrast between Jonah’s concern for a plant over the concern for so many people (and even animals).  The contrast between the gracious mercy of God and the condemning judgment and despite of Jonah for the people of Nineveh.

But we are not meant to merely think about how Jonah should have been gracious like God.  We are meant to see a bit of Jonah in ourselves, I think.

We say that God loved the world enough to send His Son.  We acknowledge that our God is a merciful and gracious God.  But what is our attitude when considering certain groups of people that we find overly wicked?  What is our view toward abortionists, or the homosexual activists who seem to be increasing pressure on those who disagree with their stance?  What is our view toward terrorists groups, such as ISIS?  What about serial rapists or murderers?  Fill in the blank with whatever person, people, or group that others tend to look down upon.  Are we more like God, who extends mercy in every possible way before judgment comes, or are we more like Jonah, acknowledging that God is gracious and merciful, but making the judgment call that certain people deserve the judgment of God rather than His offer of mercy?  I have been asking this of myself a lot as I have read and reread Jonah.  Obviously, judgment for sin is a reality, hence God’s warning to Nineveh.  But the warning itself is a sign of mercy and grace.  That is the focus of Jonah, not judgment.

Let us learn from Jonah’s story.  Let us have pity and extend grace and mercy rather than condemnation.  After all, God’s mercy and grace was extended to us.

Book Review – “Just Like Jesus Bible Storybook” by Stephen Elkins

I requested the Just Like Jesus Bible Storybook by Stephen Elkins to review and eventually read with my children.  I love the idea of a book that focuses on pointing out the characteristics of Jesus as examples of how we should encourage our children to live their lives.  After all, part of why Jesus came was to show us the right way to live in relation to God and others.  There is a reminder in the book that “Those who say they live in God should live their lives as Jesus did.” (1 John 2:6, NLT)  As an adult, I still have to remind myself of this, so why not get my children started in thinking about it at an early age?

The book is a padded hardcover, and the illustrations throughout are both beautiful and cute.  The book looks at 40 character traits, such as being dependent, thankful, responsible, dependable, patient, obedient, and joyful.  For each section, it starts with a Bible verse using either the NLT or the  NIV, a story from the Bible (greatly shortened and retold for children), a “Jesus in Me” section (which looks at how children can apply the character trait to his or her life), a “Prayer for Today” where children can be led to ask God for help with the character trait, and a reminder of how “To be just like Jesus,” stating the character trait one more time.

I like the idea of the book and the layout of it.  There were a few issues, however, to be aware of.

First, when the Bible stories are shortened and retold, they can lose some of the original meaning and, I think, create an unclear picture in children’s minds.  For example, the character trait for working hard says this: “Jesus was always at work, even as a boy! One day, Jesus’ parents couldn’t find Him. They searched everywhere. Where was He? At work in the church!” (p. 91)  It is very important to me to represent Scripture rightly, even if we have to explain things to kids.  The story is taken from Luke 2:41-47.  To me, calling the temple the church will only create a confusion that will have to be corrected later as our children grow up.  Not a huge one, I’m sure, but I don’t want to create any confusion, if I can help it.  Also, in the biblical account, Jesus is in the temple listening to the teachers and asking them questions.  I’m pretty sure that if I leave the book’s retelling as it is (saying Jesus was “[a]t work in the church”) it will create a very different picture of what was happening in my children’s minds.

Now, to be fair, the book does tell a better version a little later, stating that when Mary and Joseph couldn’t find Jesus, “they ran back to the city. They found Jesus at church, learning about God!” (p. 111)  Also, the book is really less of a book focusing on Bible stories (despite the title) and more of a book about applying certain parts of Scripture to our children’s lives.  But I still like it when the stories match up a little more closely.

The other issue is that not all of the application sections will apply to children without being modified.  For the chapter on being dependent on God, it says, “Have you ever ridden in an airplane? You probably couldn’t see the pilot flying the plane. But you could still hear the pilot’s voice. In the same way, you can’t see God. But you can DEPEND on Him to guide you. His Word is true!” (p. 12)  My children have never ridden in an airplane, so this illustration would not make any sense to them or connect with them.  I would need to alter it to have an impact.  I found a few places where I would have to adjust the section to connect with my kids better.  If I had not read ahead to know this, I would have been caught off guard when reading the section to them.

Overall, the book is a wonderful idea, and I do want to read through it with my children.  But I will definitely focus more of my time on another Bible storybook that needs less clarifying and adjusting for my children.

Tyndale House Publishers provided me with a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

Reflection on Repeatedly Reading a Book of the Bible

 

I had posted a while back about some recommended ways of reading the Bible.  With my schedule the way it has been lately, I rarely stick with one method strictly.  If I have more time, I jump to a method that allows more reading.  If I have less time, I may just read through a few chapters or something along those lines. But I do try to stay in the word every day.

I have, however, for the first time finished reading through one book of the Bible 30 times in a relatively short time (more than a month, however).  This is the method recommended by John MacArthur (and a few others).  I read through Philippians this way.  Technically, I have probably read through the Sermon on the Mount and 1 John about that many times through my memorization, but in my mind that was a little different, although both focus on absorbing and understanding the material more than just reading for information and knowledge.

I found pros and cons to this method, although really, I suppose, there are more pros than cons in my mind.

The first pro, of course, is familiarity with the text.  Sometimes when I am reading through the Bible in larger chunks, my mind tends to forget more than I remember of what I read.  Reading a book (or part of a book) repeatedly allowed me to slow down, focus on the specifics more, and begin to really grasp the overall flow and connection of the text.  While I have not memorized Philippians (although that is still my next goal), I am very familiar with what is in the book now and have memorized certain phrases and parts of it.  I can connect to all the parts much better, and have a basic outline in my mind of the text.

Another pro, and one that builds off of the previous one, is that I am less likely to misunderstand the contextual meaning of part of the book.  We all have verses from different books that we love, and while it is not wrong to memorize standalone verses, we have to be careful that we don’t change their original meaning by divorcing them from the surrounding context.  This focus on context doesn’t limit the meaning of a text or rob it of meaning.  In reality, it expands on the meaning by helping us better understand what was originally intended rather than putting meaning into it that is alien to the author’s original thoughts.

Since I was becoming more familiar with the text and was understanding it contextually, I also begin to carry it with me in my mind and meditate on it more.  Because I was not reading large and various portions at one time, I could focus my thoughts more, allowing the word of God to work in me more deeply and dwell in me more richly.  This allowed the text to take root as I stored it in my heart, and it began to come back to mind at the Spirit’s prompting when I needed it most.  This allows the word to challenge, convict, and change me.  This is, after all, the real intention of our reading of the word anyway, isn’t it?  Aren’t we reading for transformation rather than merely for information (as D. L. Moody said, I believe)?  What better way than focusing on one portion of Scripture until we begin to master it (or rather it begins to master us)?

Now, there are some cons, I think.  One is that it is easier for my mind to wander if I am not careful while using this method.  Reading a portion repeatedly begins to make me feel a little too comfortable with the text, so I have to be very active to keep my mind from wandering as I am reading, thinking that I have already read that portion enough.  I have learned to overcome this in some ways from my memorization of Scripture, since the process is very similar.  I have been able to train my mind to focus on familiar text more, but it still requires effort on occasion.

Another con is that I wasn’t reading widely since I was reading deeply.  So where I might have covered a lot more Scripture in the time it took to read Philippians 30 times, I didn’t.  This leads me to feel like I am missing out on something, as there is a lot more Scripture I am not reading.  This is a trade off, I suppose.  Breadth or depth.  If I have time to read a few chapters straight through with the repeated reading of a book, that would solve the problem.  But there is that time issue again.  While this is a con in some ways, if I go back to what I said above, perhaps it isn’t so bad not to be reading as widely.  Again, the goal is not reading for the sake of reading; the goal is to know God’s word so I can be transformed, and that requires time and familiarity.

One last con is that to stick with this plan long term (if I follow MacArthur’s plan strictly) would mean I really don’t come back to Philippians for about 2 to 3 years.  I can always read through it again whenever I wish, of course, but that just delays working through other books when I do that, unless I have extra time one day.  Granted, this con is a small one, but it is still real.

Ideally, I would love to read a portion of the New Testament repetitively, a few chapters of the Old Testament straight through each day, and a psalm and proverb every day, but that usually doesn’t work well on week nights.  I have actually found myself wondering, however, if reading a book repeatedly if that is all I have time for may be the best option?

I am considering following the same process with Matthew’s gospel next.  If I do, I have to decide whether I will read chapters 1 through 7 for 30 days first, then move on to 8 through 14, and so on, or if it would be better to do 7 chapters each day through the book and start over every 4 days.  Either way, it will take 4 months to read through the gospel of Matthew 30 times that way, if I don’t miss a day.  Still, the idea of being as familiar with a gospel as I am now with Philippians is exciting.  Perhaps it will work.

If you have never tried reading this way, I would encourage you to pick a small yet powerful book of the New Testament (like Philippians, 1 John, or Colossians) and give it a try.  If you do, let me know what you think!

A Few Thoughts on Work, God’s Original Intent, and the Abundant Life

I’m sorry I have not posted as frequently lately.  Things have been hectic and crazy.  Work is keeping us very busy with teaching, planning, grading, meetings, talking with parents, and so on.  Even when we leave work, work seems to follow us.  I guess it’s the life of a teacher.  Actually, it’s the life of most of us when it comes to our jobs.

I want to head off this post by stating clearly that not much of what I am saying here is original.  I am indebted to authors like Randy Alcorn, Tim Keller, Ted Dekker, and others for much of what follows.

I also want to state clearly that I do like my job.  This is not a rant against my job in particular in any way.  I have a great principal, wonderful coworkers (more like family), and a very fulfilling role as I try to pour into the lives of my students.  This is not a veiled attack on what I do.  Rather, it is an exploration of something common to all of us, I believe.

Contrary to what many think, work is not a result of the fall.  Work preceded the fall.  Genesis 2:15 tells us, “The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it.” (ESV)  Work was part of God’s original good design.  We were created to work, to create (as sub-creators imitating the original Creator), to continue God’s ordering of the world.

The fall did not introduce work into the world; the fall made work difficult and trying (see Genesis 3:17-19).  In those verses, we see the introduction of pain, thorns and thistles, and sweat.  Where the original intention of work was to be a blessing and fulfilling for Adam and Eve, it would now be a struggle.  It would still be beneficial, as it yielded food for them, but it would be beneficial through the frustrations.

That is where we are today.  Work is beneficial.  It still allows us to sub-create.  It still lets us use our gifts and talents.  It still provides our means by which we eat and have shelter.  And while many of us may not deal with real thorns and thistles or sweat at work in our air conditioned buildings, we still understand the concept of pain and toil and stress and frustration.

We often work for the weekends (the days of rest) or the holidays (holy-days?).  We look forward to the times when we can enjoy God and family and friends.  We may still do work on those days, but it’s often the work and hobbies we want to do; the work we enjoy doing all the time.  Again, that is not to say that we hate our current jobs, but we do dislike the stress and strain that goes with them.  So we do those things that are less stressful to us on our down time.

Interestingly, and possibly without realizing it, we are living in small ways every week what we are to eventually live in all eternity.  We are going to enter into an eternal rest with God, where God “will wipe away every tear from [our] eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:4, ESV)  I believe, with Alcorn, that we will still work in Heaven.  It is an active place.  There will be things to do in God’s kingdom as we serve Him for all eternity.  But it will not be stressful.  It will be specially matched to our longings, desires, and capabilities.

We will no longer have issues with coworkers or customers or bosses.  We will no longer be looking at a clock, exhausted from a hard day’s work, longing for the time when we can go home and kick our feet up and rest.  We will no longer struggle with the greener-grass issue, wondering how life might have been different if we had picked a different career.

We will be content for all eternity.  We will love every aspect of our assignments, working joyfully alongside others who also have been freed from any remnants of sin and the fall.  We will have the best boss we could ever ask for, God Himself (and we know that the best boss on Earth now cannot compare with Him).  We will never again struggle with the frustration of being discontent, wondering if our work truly is making a difference.

There is a reason that we are to live in hope of eternity.  We are to wait expectantly for Christ’s return (or for the day we fall asleep in this life, only to awake to life unending with Christ).  We are to long for Christ and Heaven.

Even so, we also have another promise.  Christ promised in John 10:10 that He came that we might have abundant life now.  We are supposed to have an easy yoke and light burden now, as we follow Him in this life (see Matthew 11:29-30).  When we think of eternal life, we tend to think primarily of living forever in Heaven.  That is true insofar as it goes.  But it is an eternal kind of life that begins the moment we turn to Christ to follow Him and continues into Heaven after we die.  It doesn’t wait until then to start.

Let’s do two things to help ourselves as we work in this world now.  First, let’s live in the abundance of life we have through the Spirit’s dwelling in us and leading us to become more like Christ now.  Second, let’s look to the hope of a future when all remnants of the fall are done away with for good, when the foretastes of Heaven we experience on Earth now reach their fulfillment in eternity, never to be disrupted again.  And let’s apply all of this to our work as we serve our King.

Book Review – “Abolishing Abortion” by Rev. Frank Pavone

One topic I have been wanting to read more about lately is the topic of abortion.  I have been interested especially in finding good information regarding how to help end abortion and save the lives being lost in the practice.  Interestingly, I was accidentally providentially sent a copy of Abolishing Abortion: How You Can Play a Part in Ending the Greatest Evil of Our Day by Rev. Frank Pavone (published by Thomas Nelson) from Book Look Bloggers.

While many books on abortion focus mainly on the scriptural reasons we should end abortion or on providing moral and ethical arguments against it, Pavone’s book, while including those topics, focuses more on the political aspect of what needs to be done.

The book starts by explaining how we must take the abortion discussion into the public square.  In doing so, Pavone tackles the question of separation of Church and state, arguing that in reality both Church and state have a common goal: the protection of the right to live for all humans, with no exceptions.  He goes on to argue that it is “Time for Repentance,” meaning that those of us who believe that all human life should be protected need to repent for not doing whatever we can to help bring an end to abortion.  As Pavone continues through the book, he offers insight into how churches can stand up for the rights of the unborn politically in light of the threats of losing tax-exempt status.  I found this chapter especially enlightening, as I hear much about the tax-exempt status of churches without necessarily understanding how this started and what all is involved.  Suffice it to say that churches really are not in nearly as much danger of losing that status as they have been led to believe.  In reality, the laws regarding that issue seem to be so vague that to enforce them would be nearly impossible, unless I am misunderstanding Pavone.  Chapters 7 and 8 seemed to be the hardest to get through for me, as Pavone focuses specifically on Roman Catholic issues regarding the topic (he writes the whole book from a Catholic perspective).

I really found the most interesting parts of the book starting in chapter 9, “Collision Course.”  In asking the question “What is the difference between killing a child just before birth or right afterward?” Pavone makes this statement:

“There is no way out of this question for the abortion industry or for any of us.  Kermit Gosnell and other late-term abortionists put the ideological approval of the practice of abortion on a collision course with the normal, human antipathy toward gruesome violence.  To break the impasse over abortion, we must compel the collision with all its pain, with all its attendant friction, collateral damage, and anxiety. In fact, we need to increase the speed and force of that collision.  Although collision is inevitable, our human nature does everything it can to postpone the moment of impact, and more damage is done in the meantime.” (p. 157-158)

On one hand, we all know that murdering humans is wrong.  On the other hand, abortionists and pro-choice advocates are forced to try to deny that innate understanding in some way to continue to support their stance.  Our job, according to Pavone, is to continue to increase the pressure to acknowledge the gruesome fact that abortion is taking human life.  Whether it is through pictures, through reason and logic, or any other means (still in a loving way), we must take a stand and continue to increase the tension in this area until the question of what abortion is doing can no longer be avoided, dodged, or reasoned away.

Pavone explains in the next chapter that we are really advocating for the care of both mother and child in fighting against abortion.  He explains:

“We need to convince the unconvinced that to be pro-life is to be pro-woman. The difference between ‘pro-life’ and ‘pro-choice’ is not that pro-lifers love the baby and pro-choicers love the woman.  The difference is that the pro-choice message says you can separate the two, and the pro-life message says you cannot. Our opponents criticize us as ‘fetus-lovers’ who are insensitive to women and indifferent to children.  But one cannot, and pro-lifers do not, love the child without loving the mother.  Abortion defenders claim they are loving women, even as they admit they are killing their children.  But one cannot love the woman without loving the child.  Nor can one harm the child without harming the mother.” (p. 183-184)

It is not either/or but both/and.  Protect and look out for women and children.

Chapter 11, the last chapter, is really one of the most important.  Its title is “A Foundation of Love,” and that truly must be the true foundation of the pro-life movement.  Pavone states, “Love is the foundation and inescapable condition of everything the pro-life movement does, whether that activity is perceived as ‘loving’ or ‘harsh.'” (p. 195)  Pavone continues on to explain:

“Abortion is the exact opposite of love.  Love says, ‘I sacrifice myself for the good of the other person.’ Abortion says, ‘I sacrifice the other person for the good of myself.’ And isn’t it amazing that the very same words used by the culture of death to justify abortion are the words used by our Lord to proclaim life and salvation and love: ‘This is My body!’

‘This is my body,’ some say. ‘I will do what I want, even if it means destroying the child.’ ‘This is My body,’ Jesus said, ‘given for you.’ (See Luke 22.)” (p. 197)

The above struck me as being very hard-hitting and very true.  Abortion truly is the opposite of love, but I would add so is ignoring it and staying silent out of fear.  If we love everyone, including the unborn, the time to stay silent is long past.

Pavone is very clear throughout that we are not to attack, demean, or look down upon those who have had abortions.  We are to love them, to assure them of forgiveness in Christ, and to reach out to them to help them as much as possible.  This book is in no way a cold-hearted, holier-than-thou attack on anyone.  It is birthed out of a love for humanity, even at the earliest stages of life.

Overall, Abolishing Abortion was a great read.  I couldn’t really associate much with the parts dealing with Catholicism and the pro-life position, but the majority of the book at the beginning and end were well worth the time invested.  It truly helped open my eyes to how vocal I need to be out of love for women and children.  I would encourage everyone to read this book and let it embolden them to take a stand for those who truly cannot take a stand for themselves.  Love demands it.

You can purchase the book from Amazon here or from Thomas Nelson here.

Note: I received this book free from Book Look Bloggers in exchange for an honest review.  

Adjusting Our Focus To Live in Peace

This last week has been rough.  There has been a lot going on.  Long days.  A lot of frustration.  I’m sure I’m not alone.  Many, I think, feel that there is more going on than they can keep up with and handle.  And it tends to get to most of us; at least it does to me.  I get snappy and short-tempered.  I get moody and almost depressed.  I get overwhelmed, and it shows.

I needed a reminder for myself about how my stance should be as a Christian.  I hope it helps others, too.

Psalm 46:10 says to “Be still, and know that I am God” (ESV).  The context is God establishing Himself as ruler over the earth.  Sometimes, we just need to realize that God is in control, regardless of how things appear, and learn to cease . . . to be still.  That is very hard for me to do, but it is commanded, so I need to learn to do it, by God’s grace.

Once we learn to focus on God, we are promised that God “keep[s] him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on [Him], because he trusts in [Him]” (Isaiah 26:3, ESV).  If we are right with God (see Romans 5:1), and if we keep ourselves focused on Him, He will keep us in perfect peace.  We see Christ give the promise to His disciples in John 14:27: “‘Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid'” (ESV).  We are promised peace.  It is a fruit of the Spirit (see Galatians 5:22).  As we focus more on God and less on our circumstances and issues, God will increase the peace in our lives.

I don’t mean for this to sound like some form of “name-it-and-claim-it” belief, as if we can make troubles vanish by speaking them out of existence and speaking good things in their place.  I mean the promise of God that we can have peace in the midst of our trials rather than having to wait for the trials to be taken away.

When we focus on God, reminding ourselves that He is in total control and that He dwells with us through His Spirit, we can learn to live in peace because we don’t have to do everything.  This should be a major relief to us.  We are not God, and we don’t have to try to be.  We serve a God who is in control of everything and who loves us and works for our overall good in eternity, regardless of current circumstances.

This is why David could write, “In peace I will both lie down and sleep; for you alone, O LORD, make me dwell in safety” (Psalm 4:8, ESV).  Rather than staying awake all night, fearful of circumstances around him, David could rest securely in the sovereignty of God, knowing that God looks after him.  I am the type of person who often struggles to fall asleep because my mind won’t stop racing.  I need to commit this verse to memory until it becomes a part of who I am and impacts every aspect of my life.

I am preaching to myself here.  I am not writing from the perspective of someone who is walking in this way perfectly.  Not even close!  But I have to learn to take the word of God seriously.  If God tells me that I can have peace by staying focused on Him, then I need to submit to His word rather than justifying my disobedience by walking in stress and frustration.

My prayer is that God, by His grace and through His Spirit, will enable me to take these words to heart and to live them in my life.  I pray that God’s peace will surround everyone who reads this as well.

Shalom!  Grace and peace to you in the name of Jesus!