When God Holds You Back

Being held back hardly has a positive connotation.  Think of being held back in school, or some person or circumstance holding back your potential.  In such terms, it certainly doesn’t seem as though holding us back is something that God would do, but I’m convinced he does.  Rather than allowing us to rush headfirst into a situation that will harm us, God does many things that seem painful and restrictive from a limited perspective. However, on closer examination and reflection, those things might be God’s way of either preventing us from harm or setting us up for a situation that will be even better than the one we are facing.

Numbers 22-24 records how a king named Balak hired a prophet named Balaam to curse the people of Israel.  Unfortunately (?), Balaam had enough respect for God to not say something that he hadn’t been commanded to say.  When the prophet was unable to do what the king required of him, Balak had this response:

I said, ‘I will certainly honor you,’ but the LORD has held you back from honor.” – Numbers 24:11

Balaam’s response is classic for Christians, especially those with a word ministry.  In a nutshell, he says “I told you already.  It doesn’t matter how much you pay me; I’m only going to say what God tells me.”

As I read that, it occurs to me that the human response to Balaam’s sentiment is to think that God is holding him back.  He could have “a house full of silver and gold” – if only God would let him say what Balak wants him to.

It would certainly be easy for a Christian to think that way.  The teachings of Jesus simply forbid Christians from behaving the way that the world does, which means that Christians are held back from a lot of the things.

We’re held back from pursuing wealth at any cost.  We’re held back from giving in to every sexual desire that crosses our minds.  We’re held back from addictive pursuits.  We’re held back from hateful thoughts, bitter words, and vengeful actions.  In fact, we’re held back from many things that the world looks at and screams “go for it!” and pursues at every opportunity.

If we’re not careful, we could begin to imagine that we are being held back from great opportunities, rather than grasping the truth that we are being held back from the edge of a cliff.

God loves us with an incredible love, and when he does hold us back, it is always for our good.


Is Social Media Addictive?

True Story:

There are still people out there wondering if social media is addictive. I’d say that if you can’t even sign off while SWAT members are aiming guns at your blockaded hotel room, that qualifies.

Read the whole story here.

There Are No Ordinary Disciples

The Sermon on the Mount, found in Matthew 5-7, is probably the most profound and challenging teaching the world has ever known. You can read it out loud in about 4 or 5 minutes, but the goal of every Christian should be to live it out loud for a lifetime. John R.W. Stott summed it up well:

The Sermon on the Mount is probably the best-known part of the teaching of Jesus, though arguably it is the least understood, and certainly it is the least obeyed.

As I reflect on it, I think the reason that there is such a challenge to consistently live out the principles Jesus lays down is that the standard presented in the Sermon on the Mount is just so different.  Radically, drastically, life-changeingly different.  The Lord is not pulling any punches.  He makes it clear that if you are going to be a disciple, your behavior will be unalterably distinctive from others that are not disciples, or who merely pretend to be.

The difference does not come from a deliberate attempt to stand at odds with those around us – indeed Jesus makes clear that we are to be “salt” and “light” to the world.  This certainly implies difference, but the reason for that difference is not inherent in our neighbors.  It stems from a desire to align ourselves with the holiness of God.  Difference comes not from our rejection of the world, but the world’s rejection of the God we choose to follow.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus calls for a difference in his disciples in every way that matters.  They have a different standard of happiness than the materialism of those around them, a different dedication to righteousness than that offered by the rationalizations of the pseudo-religious, a different motivation and audience for personal and public piety, a different source of trust than physical wealth, a different method of evaluation of themselves and others…

Disciples – people who follow Jesus – can’t help but be unusual, atypical, and out of the ordinary.  Not in flashy, obnoxious, and arrogant ways.  Not because of slogans and signposts, bumper stickers and branded tees.  They are different because the quality of their lives, as seen in their actions and reactions and interactions, is so obviously at odds with everything the world has to offer.  There are no ordinary disciples because discipleship, the way Jesus pictured and presented it, is anything but ordinary.

Disciples are different.

SEAM – What’s up with the genealogies?

I was ready for this one. Sort of.

Ezra’s been asking a lot of questions about the various genealogies lately, in both the Old and New Testament. Some of them are pretty standard – for example, why the differences between Matthew’s record and Luke’s… and such like. I’m certainly no expert, but I’ve thought about those ones enough to give a competent answer.

Recently, though, he asked a question that I was sort of ready for, but not really. One reason I was ready for it was because I had “asked” it myself years ago, when I first became a Christian. I say “asked” because really I figured it out (so I thought) and shared my profound wisdom with a preacher friend of mine. The frozen expression on his face suggested to me that maybe I had some more thinking to do. I’ll tell you just a little bit about what my answer was then, but only so that I can tell you what I just told Ezra. After I tell you the question.

“Dad, why did God choose Judah in Jesus’ genealogy?”

Not a particularly difficult question, but it threw me for a second. See back when I knew it all, I had asked and answered this very question (side note: **AMAZING** how much that little boy is like me, even to this day) with detailed explanations about the sins of the brothers and the relative righteousness of Judah in comparison.

No. No, no, no.

The answer to the question, at least in principle, is found in a passage that mentions neither Jesus nor Judah directly.  But it does touch on genealogies… in a way.

In Romans 9:6-13, Paul is just getting warmed up on an extended (and, to be honest, difficult) argument to the Jews to help them understand that the blessings they enjoyed under the law were intended to bring them to the point of faith in the Messiah, and in no way exempted them from believing in Jesus or elevated them above believing Gentiles. In this specific section, the apostle argues that the Jews owe their blessings not to any merit on their own part, but to the sovereignty of God.  Specifically:

  1. The Jews derive their blessings from the promises made by God to Abraham.  But everyone descended from Abraham is not intended as the recipient (and more importantly, the vehicle) of blessing.  Thus Paul notes that the Jews are descended from Abraham’s son Isaac, (not Ishmael, it’s implied) – as a result of God’s sovereign choice (9:6-7).
  2. The point is hammered even harder by the example of Jacob.  The physical lineage and spiritual blessing of Abraham continues through Isaac and then his son Jacob – as opposed to Esau.  This is especially important because, as Paul himself states, the promise was made concerning Jacob “before the twins were born or had done anything good or bad – in order that God’s purpose in election might stand” (9:10-13).

So what does this have to do with Judah?

Well, in explaining this fairly important section of Jesus’ genealogy to the Jews, Paul has given us a solid principle on which to understand other parts of it.  Quite simply, God used whomever he wanted to in order to bring Jesus into the world, because it was his right to do so.  Just as he made the choice between Isaac and Ishmael, and between Jacob and Esau… indeed just as he chose Abraham himself, for no discernible reason… he chose Judah in the midst of 11 other brothers that he could have selected.  We may think we know why this or that person was selected at a particular juncture – but ultimately, the only real answer anybody can give is that God. Is. Sovereign.

Now, saying God is sovereign doesn’t mean that he is arbitrary.  He knows what his reasons are, and if he chooses to reveal them – great.  But if not, then the knowledge of his sovereignty needs to be enough to satisfy our curiosity.

And, saying that God is sovereign doesn’t mean that he is capricious.  The choices under consideration are not, as some people think, to save and condemn people before they have done (or not done) anything to deserve it.  No, the choice is to use certain people and nations as a vehicle to bless others, specifically by bringing Jesus into the world.

So, in a nutshell, that’s what I told Ezra:  God chose Judah for the genealogy because that’s what he wanted to do.  Not because Judah deserved it, or was better than his brothers, or anything like that.  But simply because God made a choice.

I think that answer has come a ways from how I approached it 10 years ago, and in another 10, who knows if I’d still say the same thing. How would you have answered the same question?

Grace and an Empty Tank

When Bridget and I traveled to El Paso last week, we decided to rent a car for the drive rather than take our own.  I guess you could call that mistake number one.

Not that there was anything wrong with renting a car, necessarily… but I’ve done so much driving in my own car that I sort of have a feel for certain things – like how far I can get on a tank of gas.  Not so with a rental.

There were a couple of non-critical things like that.  Things that on their own wouldn’t be a big deal, but taken together added up to an unnecessarily stressful situation. For example, it was a hot day on the road, so we had the air conditioning on the entire way.  Mistake number two.

Things were fine from Lubbock to Carlsbad, NM.  Stopped for a quick bite at Micky D’s… with the car running.  And the air conditioning on. (Mistake number 3… you get the point.)

By my reckoning we were leaving Carlsbad with a half tank of gas, and we were about halfway to our destination.  So when I saw the sign that said “Last gas 130 miles” I was like “meh”.

Now for some reason, the second half of the trip went a lot slower than the first half.  Combine that with the fact that the second half of the gas went a lot faster than the first half, and you see where this is going.  As we drove past a sign that said “El Paso 67 miles”, the tank was pretty much on empty.  And I had to tell my darling wife, who thus far had simply trusted that I had the whole driving thing in hand, that we might not make it.  She took it well… better than I had any right to expect.

So we cut the A/C, slow our speed, and pray.  Fervently and continually.  All the while, I’m calculating each mile that passes by, and how far I’ll have to walk to get gas.  The car is getting hotter.  We’re splitting our time between staring at the road, staring at the gas gauge, and staring at the phone, which has no service. (Honestly, what good is Roadside Assistance in the foothills of the Guadalupe Mountains, where you have no service? ) I’m trying to crack jokes about that Seinfeld episode where Kramer tries to see how far he can go on an empty tank.  Bridget is not amused.

This goes on for about a half hour… around every bend in the road, we’re hoping to see the outskirts of El Paso.  Finally, we see a service station up ahead.  Recognizing that the first gas going into town is most likely going to be sorta expensive, I half seriously suggest to B that maybe we should ride it out and look for something cheaper.  This suggestion is flatly rejected.

I can look back and laugh, and I think that even while it happened we were handling it pretty well.  Neither of us lost our temper, or started to snipe at each other.  Looking back, I have so many lessons that come to mind.  (Bridget reeled off at least 3 while we were filling up the tank.)  But I am struck most of all in this scenario by the illustration and practical application of grace.

Most people think of grace in relation to salvation and justification.  As Paul said in Ephesians 2:5 and 8, “by grace you are saved”.  This speaks of what God does in bringing sinners into relationship with him when they don’t deserve it.  Grace is often defined as “unmerited favor” – nobody deserves to be on God’s good side, because He is perfect, and we are so far less than that.  So when he offers us relationship with him, it is completely undeserved.  His favor is unmerited, yet he offers it freely, and those that accept it by believing and obeying God’s Son, Jesus, are the recipients of grace.  It truly is amazing.

Yet grace is not just for those that are not saved.  God’s favor, if anything, is poured out even more abundantly on those that have entered into relationship with him. Hebrews 4:16 says,

“Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”

God’s grace is a continual source of help for those that call on him, those that have accepted his offer of relationship and have the right to approach his throne.  This grace is there “in time of need”.  When we are running on empty, physically or spiritually, we are in a time of need.  The good news from the throne of God is that there is grace to help us in those times.  Grace carries us along when we think we have everything under control.  Grace dispatches the dangers surrounding us, of which we are blissfully unaware.  Grace reminds us of our Source and Strength when the difficulties of life are allowed to assail us.  Grace drives us away from our attitudes of self-sufficiency and back to reliance on God.  And grace – amazing grace! – like that empty tank of gas on an uninhabited stretch of highway in West Texas… Grace takes us so much farther than we ever have any right to expect or reason to hope.

Full tank of gas – $60.  Grace – priceless.

Why You Like Video Games

What a great gift!

Well, school is out, and I suddenly have a lot of time on my hands.  More accurately, I have a lot less school work to fill up the time that I do have.  The next few weeks won’t be filled up with studying for exams, writing essays, and reading assigned books – but they will still be filled up.  In fact, I’ll probably be doing a lot of the the same activities as I had been during school… just not for school.  I’ll still be doing a lot of studying – more for personal growth and upcoming preaching appointments, though.  I’ll still be doing a lot of reading – though I’ll have a bit more time to read broadly, rather than assigned texts.  And I’ll still be doing a lot of writing – for this blog, hopefully.

But I’m also looking forward to doing some things that I simply haven’t had any time for while in school.  Like playing video games. Prior to this week, I ignored my poor PS3 so much it must have been getting some kind of complex.  But with a little bit of breathing room, I’m happy to wile away an hour or two with a controller in hand.

Video games are pretty intense at times and fairly mindless at others.  So I find my mind going quite a bit as I’m playing.  One of the things I’ve reflected on is that video games are fairly ubiquitous, at least among men.  I didn’t bother with statistics, but I suspect that it is rare to find males in the adolescent, teenage, or young adult brackets without at least a PS3, an X-Box, or a Wii – and often more than one.  Even as you get older, I suspect it continues.  I’m over 30, and I know most of my cohort still get down with gaming systems.  If you’re willing to extend the definition of “video game”, the demographic probably increases dramatically.  With the plethora of handheld and mobile devices, and the proliferation of apps, you can now play video games consisting of everything from alien space invaders to all out war between birds and pigs.  Even older folks like a little bit of Minesweeper or Solitaire on the computer.

Why this popularity?  Several reasons, I suppose.  We’re now several generations into video games, and tech companies continue to market to each generation as they get older – gaming is not just for kids, if it ever was.  Plus, tech is everywhere.  I recently saw a commercial that suggested by 2020 we’d average 7 mobile devices for every man, woman, and child on the planet.

There is one reason for the popularity of gaming that I think is important to consider: video games are easy.  They’re meant to give just the right level of challenge and achievement to keep you interested.  And really, I think this is where video games can become dangerous.  You see, as much as we need recreation and enjoyment and fun, the “accomplishment” of video games – and other pastimes – can often be gained so cheaply in relation to real, meaningful activity that we jettison true life for virtual reality.  We sit and play games for hours.  In that way, the cheap accomplishment of games can become similar to the cheap sexual gratification of pornography.  It is accessible, manageable, and above all, easy.

But at the end of the day… it doesn’t mean anything.

Nothing wrong with games (unlike pornography), but just as God created us with a desire for genuine relationship and mutual affection, we were also made for real accomplishment.  Real challenges to overcome.  Real work to finish.  Real goals to achieve. Real heights to attain.

I think video games are here to stay, which means that those of us that choose to engage in them need to be on guard.  Recreation is one thing, but we shouldn’t allow anything to steal time from redemptive activities with genuine, meaningful, real results.