The Power of Longing

It has been years of prayer, tears, and groans. I have pleaded with the Lord for many, many hours. Finally something has broken through in his timing and my prayers. Maybe things will be different now. Whether this is the case or not, this is cause for reflection.

The incredible burden of Hannah in 1 Samuel 1 is one which any honest person, much more a Jew or Christian, can identify with. Hannah is one of the two wives of Elkanah. “YHWH kept Hannah from conceiving,” (v.6) while Elkanah’s other wife, Peninnah, has sons and daughters. This is a cause of rivalry and provokation between the two wives. While the child-laden wife “taunt[ed] her severely” (v.7), Hannah begins to weep, and, perhaps unintentionally, to fast. Nothing in all the world is able to console her: not her husband’s preference for her in affection and provision, or his attempts to soothe her.

So it has been for my heart many years. So often the counsel for such dejection is directed to kill the desire in an attempt to avoid idolatry. Idolatry is, after all, wanting and adoring anything other than God more than God. But that’s not how God, the author of this account both in history and in the recorded narrative, treats Hannah’s all-consuming desire.

Elkanah’s family was in the habit, as faithful Israelites were called, to go to the Tabernacle once a year which then was at Shiloh. After the family ate and drank in the holy town, Hannah got up, walked to the Tabernacle and began to weep and pray in anguish at door of the house of the Lord (v. 9-10).

She takes her deepest, holiest longings and obeys the principle laid out in Psalm 55:22 and 1 Peter 5:7, she casts her burden on the Lord. Listen to the anguish “Making a vow, she pleaded, ‘Lord of Armies, if you will take notice of your servant’s affliction, remember and not forget me, and give your servant a son, I will give him to the Lord all the days of his life, and his hair will never be cut'” (v.11).

She gives this burden to the Lord who by some strange work of the Holy Spirit, both comforts Hannah with the words of Eli, the High Priest, and confirms that it will be done for her. This is apparent because the inconsolable Hannah’s tears are suddenly wiped away with what is described in Proverbs 12:25 – ‘anxiety in a person’s heart weighs him down, but a good word makes them glad.’

So with the good word of God through Eli, Hannah stops weeping, conceives and makes good on her promise. What are the lessons I can learn from this passage. There are multitudes of things we can learn:

  1. Our earthly desires, even ones that crowd out all others, are not necessarily idolatry.
  2. God can use the worst burdens of our hearts to do incredible things. Samuel was by far the greatest of the judges Israel had seen and was the greatest prophet that had come since Moses, bringing the “word of the Lord” for the first time in generations.
  3. What we do with the devastating burdens and longings we possess matters. Hannah essentially gave up the right for the burden to be her own. The lack of a child was considered a sign of being cursed in that time, but for her to give the child to the Lord meant that this had transformed from a burden for Hannah’s satisfaction to something in which God’s name and glory was at stake.
  4. There is a longing which only eternity can satisfy. Many people have been cut off in the midst of their youth, with plans and dreams on the earth snuffed out. Even in this, the greatest dreams and greatest plans – were they all of them satisfied – would never treat the heart to good like the Lord intends to do for his people forever and ever. Surely if “the sufferings of this present time” (eg. dream/longing/hope crushing)
    “are not worth comparing with the glory that is going to be revealed to us” (Rom 8:18), then God’s dreams are even better than the most longing-satiated life on the earth.

So, God honors our earthly longings, doesn’t condemn us for idolatry just because they consume us with grief, but also has even better things for us were they left unsatisfied. In sum: we can’t possibly lose. Believe God, and be happy even if you must wait for fulfillment.

The people there are so open.

Those who are left of center esteem themselves open and tolerant. This was put to the test on a recent trip to a cultural capitol of the US. I visited each neighborhood in the city, talked with as many people as I could – believers and otherwise. The conclusion from this expedition is people are indeed open and quite friendly. They reject Christ, the Word of God and the gospel but they are quite open to hearing about those things if done so in a respectful and loving way. The country is pretty post-Christian and here above the rest, yet God conquered the hearts of Jews, Romans and Greeks in the First Century. There is hope yet! We must stop planning so much as we spend time praying for God’s plans, and then praying those plans until God answers. He cannot refuse us, we are His children and we have his mighty promises. Lets get to our knees.

Viewing culture with Acts 17 glasses.

I was watching an older film called Gattaca (1997) tonight. I was relishing some aspects of the film which resonate deeply within me, specifically the power of good human longings and the tendency within God to exalt the lowly. However, despite some overt Judeo-Christian themes, the film is cast within the behavior that the Western world has come to expect in films made in its image: swearing, blasphemy, fornication, idolatry.

I’ve wrestled with the question of whether to enjoy such films within the light of the gospel and biblical truth (when they contain them) over against the stains of unrighteousness and ungodliness. This is what I’ve learned.

While Jude is clear that we should hate even the garment stained by the flesh, and David said he would put nothing polluted before his eyes, Acts 17 in provides a framework for intake of non-Christian art and entertainment in order to be faithful.

In Acts 17, Paul is left in the notorious city of Athens. The envy of the ancient world when it came to its culture, the city in Paul’s day had be allowed to retain much of its identity even under Roman rule. Paul however, is not impressed, so much as he is afflicted with a holy grief. This city of great cultural attainment in Art, Literature, and Philosophy had its culture married to the pagan mythological religion of the Greeks. After engaging with people in the synagogues, and marketplaces, Paul is brought to the Areopagus, where he gives a grand defense of he gospel and thereby teaches us how to engage with, for lack of a better way of saying this, pagan art.

In his defense, Paul capitalizes on an effort by the Athenians to safeguard against offending unknown dieties in their altar “to an unknown God” (v. 23). By arguing the “unknown” deity honored by an altar in the city is the God Paul proclaims, Paul has no reservations about appropriating this monument as a means of preaching the gospel of the true God. Paul identifies the unknown God as the self-revealing, transcendent creator who exists everywhere and gives life to all creatures. This God is immanent, not needing anything from men, unlike the capricious gods of the Greeks. This God has made “every nation” and determined when and where they would live (v. 26). All this is done by God with the expectation that the nations will somehow understand the message sent by the Holy Spirit in providence and creation.

Just as Paul began by appropriating Athenian religion to serve the gospel, he proceeds to appropriate the Greek philosopher-poet Epimenides to do the same. Paul quotes, “In him, we live and move and have our being” (v. 28). This line was originally addressed by a character in Epimenides’ poem to the ruler god Zeus, not Yahweh. Commenting on this poem Paul states this is the fulfillment of God’s intention that the nations whom he made would “feel their way toward him and find him” (v. 27). This, Paul says, is evidence that Yahweh “is actually not far from each one of us” (v. 27). Thus, the Spirit is at work in Epimenides’ writing of a pagan poem about Zeus. Paul continues with another citation from the poet Aratus which shows the case of Epimenides is not an isolated occurrence.

The Spirit could not inspire the poem addressed to Zeus as the bible does to Yahweh without contradicting himself and lying. There has to be an element of Spirit speaking through secondary causes. As with both the altar to the unknown God and Paul’s citation of the poets and philosophers, the Spirit’s providence throughout culture must lay down cultural customs and redemptive artifacts as evidence of the Triune God. The declaration of the heavens (Ps 19:1) and the display of God’s attributes (Romans 1:20) must leave cultures littered with natural revelation latent for the divine commentary of revealed Scripture. This is a work of the Spirit: to testify to the heart the vestiges of one’s culture are fulfilled in Christ.

Thus, I am able to, with reservation, watch films with an eye for what the Spirit is doing through secondary causes in people in rebellion against him. If Paul could quote pagan poetry as evidence of the true Creator, and we don’t believe Paul is being unfaithful with the text but is demonstrating the Spirit’s operation, then it’s ok to embrace elements of common grace in films!

God is at work in pagan men, even as they rage against our God. The image of God in people who want to ignore God is like a lion in a poorly constructed cage – it will get out.

An Optimistic Theology

I have yet to read it, but the premise is provoking.

Iain Murray’s A Puritan Hope documents the Puritan hope of worldwide gospel transformation under the umbrella eschatology (last things) of post-millennialism. The reason I find it provoking is because a brother from my local church keeps bringing it up: one’s theology can affect how much you believe God for. I just read a book in which the author makes a passing remark about optimism. In this quote I think is reflected this reality of our theology dictating what you believe God for.

People often ask me, “Are you hopeful?” And the answer is yes, I am hopeful. I am not optimistic. Christians have no right to be optimistic, but at the same time we have no right not to be hopeful. Optimism is a belief that things are finally going to end up happy. Hope, on the other hand, means that we know the Lord God of all creation, who sits in the heavens and rules over all the peoples of the earth. We know His grace. We know His mercy. We know His holiness, His character, and His love. Above all, we know His son, and thus we live in hope.

The sum of his statement is that God is worth hoping in because he is good, but things are not going to end well and we have no warrant to expect good things. Here we have a lesson.

While the apocalyptic literature of Scripture does seem pretty dismal in its outlook, but there is also much ground for hope (as a ‘redwood’-like group of biblical Christians – the Puritans – seemed to believe).

5 Grounds to be Optimistic

1. Glory everywhere: Habakkuk 2:14

For the earth will be filled
    with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord
   as the waters cover the sea.

This passage comes in the midst of God’s announcement of judgment on the nations to Habakkuk. It almost is a bit of a tease verse. It’s positted between accounts of judgment. We should expect an age of universal Christian knowledge.

2. Everyone nation hears: Matthew 24:14

And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.

The Greek here is ‘ethnos’ (ἔθνεσιν) which Strong’s defines as ‘the nations (as distinct from Israel).’ This is usually understood as all the people groups, rather than political nation states by interpreters. There is an immediate connection between the end, and the nations hearing. That’s not happened yet. We have a right to expect the nations to hear and for this following promise to be fulfilled:

3. Every nation believes: Revelation 3:9-10

After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice:

“Salvation belongs to our God,
who sits on the throne,
and to the Lamb.”

Notice “every nation” in verse 9. We have a right to believe God for every nation will to one day be gathered with the church of all ages to worship God our Father and the Lamb.

4. Correlation between faith and God’s actions in the Gospels

Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.

Mark 11:24

And whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith.

Matthew 21:22

Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son.

John 14:13

If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.

John 15:7

You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you.

John 15:16

…whatever you ask of the Father in my name, he will give it to you…

John 16:23

See also James 1:5-6, James 1:17, 1 John 3:22, and 1 John 5:14. Ultimately when we don’t expect a happy ending to this age, it’s not because we “have no right” it’s because we don’t believe God and his faithfulness to his promises.

5. Faithfulness

In Luke 18 we have this frightening statement by Jesus: “Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” (v. 8). I encourage you to look at the context. Immediately preceding this verse is the parable of the persistent widow.

Brothers and sisters, don’t you want to be the kind of person Jesus can say “well done good and faithful servant” (Matt 25:21). Is the word, as it’s usually understood, restricted to doing your duty? Strong’s Greek Concordance also gives the definition of a person who is “believing” and “of believing the faith God imparts.” Do you just want to be faithful a little? How about you pray and believe God for much! Believe him for the world. Pray for worldwide revival!

Conclusion

Brothers and sisters, we have an infinite God! A God who commands us to pray “your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt 6:10). What does that even mean!? On earth as it is in heaven? What could it mean but the above promises: the knowledge of God’s glory everywhere, the nations hearing the good news of the Lamb’s sacrifice, the nations believing upon the gospel, God’s promise to honor him for what we believe him for and our desire to be spent (not merely in activity) by faith! Lastly, do you think that if you just believe God wants to damn the world and so you’re just going to build your barns, share the gospel here and there that you’ve been faithful? Don’t be satisfied with what you have. You have the God of all power and glory’s ear. Pray him into action and don’t stop until the world belongs to him in every sense of the word and that foe the devil is chained for all time.

Let’s believe God. Amen.

Exulting in creativity

The man with no friend but his theological books is in a tragic state. There is such a wonder to be known in creation and creativity in the world. It was said that Martyn Lloyd-Jones could often escape a rut in sermon preparation by listening to Mozart. How often do you have your heart ravished by the Imago Dei exalting Christ by using their creativity to the fullest?

Lately for me this has been jazz music. John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme has been such a joy to listen to again and again.

How can we account for this? Is there a biblical explanation for this ability for creation, music, and creativity in general to exult in our God? Yes. Yes. Yes.

God is beautiful, all human efforts toward and achievement of beauty reflect the Creator. Even creativity not exercised explicitly for the glory of God still are utilizing his gifts of intellect, aesthetics, and affection. So the man in tune with the Holy Spirit will be able to not just enjoy a beautiful song for it’s own, his own, or even someone else’s sake. He is able to consciously enjoy it for God’s sake, as an extension of his gifts in common grace, and worship in the hearing.

If you’re not doing this – explicitly worshipping – when you encounter beauty, (that is enjoying it consciously for God) then shame on you! Further, your joy is incomplete. To enjoy in God’s sight, for his sake, competes the pleasure of the enjoyment. As an aside if you can’t do that, you should turn off whatever music, movies, radio, podcast, book, etc… Because whatever doesn’t proceed from faith is sin.

I ground all this on Romans 1.

For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. – Romans 1:21

Our enjoyment of gifts becomes an extension of knowing God. When we encounter common grace (glory), we should recognize: ‘God! I recognize God at work!’ and worship.

The only alternative is idolotry. So stop being an idoloter. Enjoy everything you can, and do it for God. Amen.

The true power of our heroes

If they were great at all, they were great because of how little there was of them and how much of God was in them.

This comes to mind because of a quote I just read in Spurgeon’s Lectures to My Students. It’s an oft cited quote and it’s used to emphasize the greatness of Spurgeon the man.

I once counted eight sets of thoughts which were going on in my brain simultaneously, or at least within the space of the same second. I was preaching the gospel with all my might, but could not help feeling for a lady who was evidently about to faint, and also looking out for our brother who opens the windows that he might give us more air. I was thinking of that illustration which I had omitted under the first head, casting the form of the second division, wondering if A felt my rebuke, and praying that B might get comfort from the consoling observation, and at the same time praising God for my own personal enjoyment of the truth I was proclaiming.

Lectures (series #2, 232).

The abominable thing about this is that Spurgeon would’ve run out like Paul and Barnabas into the Lystrian crowd. Rather than hearing that and saying the “gods have come down” we should note Spurgeon is writing this in a chapter titled The Holy Spirit in Connection with Our Ministry. See the explanation Spurgeon gives for this phenomena: “the sacred Spirit can multiply our mental states, and make us many times the men we are by nature.” (233).

May the Lord humble those who skew this aspect of Spurgeon and all our holy heroes. This section comes under a section on the anointing oil.

The reason we don’t have more Spurgeons is not because we don’t have more geniuses, or great orators, or gifted men with this thing or that thing. It’s because the memory has been lost from Reformed consciousness.

It’s like the line from the Lord of the Rings film, “some things which should not have been forgotten were lost.”

If we are to mythologize our heroes, let us not do so for their gifts, formidable as they were, let us rather do so for their godwardness. Elijah was a man like us brothers. He prayed. God answered. Rain fell.

Make it your aim to pray down the rain upon your mouth, heart and mind, and Spurgeon will be proud – whatever your gifts.

Glory Hermeneutics

This semester has been extremely formative for me as a man preparing to enter the pastorate. I’ve been taking an into preaching class with one of the preaching professors whose style is that of one who understands the glory of God.

In this class, there is much discussion about this technique and that technique, this principle, and that principle. There are these things to do and those to avoid. Much of this has not sat well with my soul. Finally this past Thursday it all paid off. He talked about the hermeneutic of glory.

Here’s the key: when you study a passage, look for the glory. When you prepare a passage, make it your aim to be ravished by the glory of it. When you are praying for your people, pray they will see the passage’s glory. When you preach, preach the glory of the passage. If you do so, they will do one thing. It is the one thing required of every sermon. It is the only need from any exposition: instantaneous worship.

It is so freeing. If you can make them worship, it doesn’t matter which illustrations you used, what applications you have labored toward. If they leave in humble adoration of the living God, having met with him that morning, evening or whenever – the sermon succeeds. Glory.

I’m writing a book on the glory of God. I will definitely incorporate what I’ve learned.