Refined in a Furnace

August 3, 2009 in Bible - OT - Psalms, Meditations, Trials

8 Oh, bless our God, you peoples!
And make the voice of His praise to be heard,
9 Who keeps our soul among the living,
And does not allow our feet to be moved.
10 For You, O God, have tested us;
You have refined us as silver is refined.
11 You brought us into the net;
You laid affliction on our backs.
12 You have caused men to ride over our heads;
We went through fire and through water;
But You brought us out to rich fulfillment. Ps 66:8-12

When trials come our way from whom do they come? Shall we curse some blind fate? Shall we lay the blame at the feet of our enemies? Shall we scorn our own folly?

The psalmist today reminds us that trials come upon us, ultimately, from the hand of our loving and personal God – our God who loves us and desires nothing more than to see us grow and prosper.

But why does God do this thing? Why does he bring trials our way? The psalmist provides us with a couple reasons. First, God wishes to refine us as silver is refined. “For You, O God, have tested us; you have refined us as silver is refined.” There is simply no way to get the impurities out of the precious metal silver without heating it up and burning them out. And there is no way to get the sin out of our lives without trials and struggles. Without them, we become slack and lazy, coddling our sin and thinking that truly we are upright people. It is only when God brings trials upon us that we throw ourselves at Jesus feet like Jairus when his daughter lay dying, and say, “Help me Lord!”

Second, He wishes to reveal to us how great His determination to bless us is. He wants to bring us through trial to an abundant and fruitful life. “I have come,” our Lord Jesus assured His disciples, “that you might have life and have it abundantly.” And so we go through fire and water, we get caught in the net, we have affliction laid upon our backs. Why? Because God is a masochist? No – because He delights to rescue us from our afflictions and demonstrate His great power. “You brought us into the net; You laid affliction on our backs. You have caused men to ride over our heads; We went through fire and through water; But You brought us out to rich fulfillment.” God delights to bring us to a land flowing with milk and honey. But we can’t get there without going through the Red Sea.

And so what should our response be to trials that come our way? Well listen to the voice of the psalmist: “Oh, bless our God, you peoples! And make the voice of His praise to be heard, who keeps our soul among the living, and does not allow our feet to be moved.”

But what is our response instead? Is it not to grumble and complain? To curse the day we were born? To accuse our God?

Reminded of our failure to trust our Heavenly Father in the midst of our trials and hardships, let us kneel before Him and ask Him to forgive us and grant that we might be as silver refined in a furnace seven times.

Sleeping and Waking

July 21, 2009 in Bible - OT - Psalms, Meditations, Trials

Psalm 3:1-6 (NKJV)
1 A Psalm of David When He Fled from Absalom His Son. Lord, how they have increased who trouble me! Many are they who rise up against me. 2 Many are they who say of me, “There is no help for him in God.” Selah 3 But You, O Lord, are a shield for me, My glory and the One who lifts up my head. 4 I cried to the Lord with my voice, And He heard me from His holy hill. Selah 5 I lay down and slept; I awoke, for the Lord sustained me. 6 I will not be afraid of ten thousands of people Who have set themselves against me all around.

The text before us today was written by David when he was fleeing from his rebellious son Absalom. Few of us can imagine tasting the bitter fruit of a son who would become our personal enemy. The prospect is frightening and should cause us to be down on our knees, asking the Lord to spare us from such a fate.

You’ll notice that this is where we find David now – upon his knees, seeking help from God. His enemies have risen up against him – and O what a tragic set of enemies to have. David was in dire straits. Absalom had wooed the hearts of the sons of Israel away from David and managed to secure their affection for himself. He had the large army; he had the young and limber muscles; he had the loyalty of the people. David had little to nothing.

Ah, but David had the Lord. And so David comes before the Lord and seeks his assistance. My enemies have surrounded me, O Lord. Many are saying that my faith in you in the midst of this trial is folly. They are saying you won’t answer Me. And isn’t it the same for us? When we are in the midst of trial, do not our enemies – chief among them our own voices of doubt – scream to us, “There is no help for you in God!”

But notice what David declares in our psalm. “But You, O Lord, are a shield for me, My glory and the One who lifts up my head. I cried to the Lord with my voice, and He heard me from His holy hill.” In the midst of the trial David takes refuge in the Lord. You Lord are a shield for me; when I lifted up my voice to You, You heard me. David turned to the Lord and trusted in Him, knowing that come what may the Lord was on His side.

And so notice the incredible peace that this trust in the Lord fostered in David’s life at the time. Here he was fleeeing from Absalom, his own son. His kingdom had been taken away; his glory diminished; his life threatened. And yet what does he say? “I lay down and slept; I awoke, for the Lord sustained me. I will not be afraid of ten thousands of people who have set themselves against me all around.” David was able – in the midst of personal and political disaster – to sleep and to awake in peace, for the Lord sustained him. Though David had little to no earthly comfort, he had the abiding presence of the Lord – and having the Lord was to have everything.

What an encouragement this text should be to us who are in the midst of personal or corporate trial. Need we lose sleep, so anxious and worried for the chain of events that we cannot keep our thoughts from racing? Or need we sleep all the time in order to forget what is before us and hide from the trials that confront us? David sets us a pattern and shows us that we need neither avoid sleep nor wallow in it – for the Lord Himself is our sustainer. If the Lord is for us, who can be against us?

Our confidence in the midst of trial is not in our circumstances. Our confidence in the midst of trial is not our own wisdom. Our confidence in trial is not in the kindness of our enemies. Our confidence in trial is not the certainty of a favorable outcome. Our confidence is in the Lord God, who sustains us, and promises to bless us – though ten thousands of people should set themselves against us round about.

And so, how are we doing? Are we trusting the Lord? When enemies rise up against us, are we despairing? Reminded of our failure to trust in the Lord when our enemies go on the attack, let us kneel and confess our sins in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, seeking the forgiveness of our Heavenly Father.

The Discipline of the Lord

May 5, 2009 in Bible - NT - Hebrews, Discipline, Meditations, Trials

“Now no chastening seems to be joyful for the present, but painful; nevertheless, afterward it yields the peaceable fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.” Hebrews 12:11

Discipline should be a lively topic in families. Fathers and mothers ought always to be reminding their children of the reasons for chastening. And as we explain these things, the text before us today should frequently be on our lips. “Now no chastening seems to be joyful for the present, but painful; nevertheless, afterward it yields the peaceable fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.”

Notice that the author of Hebrews tells us two things about discipline that we can pass on to our children but which we should also be passing on to ourselves. For first and foremost this passage concerns the way in which God trains us; only by analogy does it discuss the discipline of a father with his children. What then do we learn about discipline?

First, we learn that discipline is painful. No discipline seems enjoyable at the time it is administered. Its intention is to be painful. And so, you children out there, when your parents get out the rod or when your parents impose some consequence upon your sinful behavior – don’t expect the consequence to be enjoyable. Hebrews tells us – its intention is quite the opposite. It is intended to be painful. For it is the pain that trains us and fashions us – the pain that teaches us to avoid that pattern of behavior in the future.

Most of us parents are adept at delivering this lesson to our children. But how often do we deliver this message to ourselves? Brothers and sisters, the discipline of the Lord does not seem pleasant at the time. When the Lord puts us through some trial or when the Lord disciplines us for violating His commandments, why is it that we expect things should be jolly? He is sharpening us; disciplining us; chastening us. We expect our children to know what those things mean; so why do we have such a hard time letting it soak in to our own consciousness? No discipline is enjoyable at the moment.

But this is not the only thing we learn about discipline. While discipline is painful, it is not intended to end in pain. The ultimate goal of the Lord’s discipline, as should be the goal of parental discipline, is the cultivation of the peaceful fruit of righteousness in our lives. Our Lord promises to use discipline to make us more lovely people. He is training us. That which He purposes to create within us by means of trials and chastisement is righteousness.

But note that this righteouness is not an automatic biproduct of discipline. If we are to see the fruit of righteousness in our lives then we must, in the words of our text, be trained by the discipline. In other words, we must take the discipline to heart and learn from it. We must not harden ourselves to the discpline; must not complain that we have been treated ill; must not kick against the goads. Rather we must bow the knee before our Lord and learn the lesson.

And so, children, how are you responding to the discipline of the Lord through your parents? Are you bowing the knee? Are you acknowledging the authorities that God has placed over you and submitting yourself to them? Does discipline produce in you the peaceful fruit of righteousness? Or is it instead producing resentment, bitterness, gloom, or depression? And what of us adults? How are we responding to the discipline of the Lord? Does discipline produce in us the peaceful fruit of righteousness? Or does it instead produce resentment, bitterness, complaining, grumbling, depression?

As we come into our Father’s presence this morning let us kneel and confess that we have not received His discipline as we ought.

The Compassion and Mercy of the Lord

September 22, 2008 in Bible - NT - James, Meditations, Sovereignty of God, Trials

James 5:10-11 (NKJV)10 My brethren, take the prophets, who spoke in the name of the Lord, as an example of suffering and patience. 11 Indeed we count them blessed who endure. You have heard of the perseverance of Job and seen the end intended by the Lord—that the Lord is very compassionate and merciful.

When you think of the compassion and mercy of our Lord, what comes to mind? Perhaps occasions, like in our sermon text this morning, when Jesus stoops down and heals those in pain and anguish? Perhaps occasions when God, despite Israel’s great sin, sends one deliverer after another to rescue them from the predicament that they have gotten themselves into? When we think of God’s compassion and mercy, these are the types of scenarios that come to mind. And appropriately so.

But today, James points us to another evidence of God’s compassion and mercy, an evidence that we would be unlikely to see. What is this evidence? The evidence that James cites is the suffering endured by God’s prophets throughout the Old Testament.

Think, for instance, of Jeremiah who is called the weeping prophet – called to bear witness to a people under judgment, his message rejected and refused, he himself thrown into a pit, left for dead, forced to witness the destruction of Jerusalem and dying in exile in Egypt. Take all of this as evidence, James tells us, of the compassion and mercy of the Lord. Think of Ezekiel, taken into exile into Babylon, told to make a fool of himself before his friends, forced to lie on his side for so many days, to play with tinker toys and army men in the city streets as a grown man, forbidden to weep when his wife died. Take all of this, James tells us, as evidence of the compassion and mercy of the Lord. Think of Job, robbed of his family, robbed of his wealth, robbed of his health, lectured by his friends. Take all of this as evidence, James tells us, of the compassion and mercy of the Lord.

Suffering and hardship as evidence of the compassion and mercy of the Lord? What is this? What is James talking about? Evidence of His power, maybe. Evidence of His inscrutable wisdom, perhaps. Evidence of His mysteriousness, certainly. But evidence of His compassion and mercy? Yes – but in order to see it, we must also see something else. We must see what it is that God is really about in the course of our lives – the end toward which He is aiming.

You see, if God is all about making us happy, carefree, and successful then suffering is not a sign of God’s compassion – it is a sign only of His discipline and disfavor. But suffering, James tells us, is a sign of His compassion. Therefore, God is not all about making us happy, carefree, and successful. Rather, His purpose is to make us men and women and children of faith; men and women and children who trust Him, rely upon Him, cling to Him, and obey Him no matter what the cost. This is what God is about. And if this is what He is about and if suffering creates us into these kind of people, then truly suffering is a sign of God’s compassion and mercy, is it not? For by suffering God trains us in patience and endurance. And these are the very things James highlights.

So what of us? Have we considered that the sufferings through which God is making us pass right now, and that the sufferings through which He shall have us pass in the future, are evidences of God’s compassion and mercy? Or have we instead looked upon them in unbelief, seeing them as evidence of how screwed up the world really is, or how rotten we must be, or how little purpose there is in the world?

Reminded of our failure to look upon suffering as a sign of God’s compassion and mercy, let us kneel and confess our sin to Him.

Trials and Temptations

February 2, 2008 in Bible - NT - James, Meditations, Trials

James 1:12-18 (NKJV)12 Blessed is the man who endures temptation; for when he has been approved, he will receive the crown of life which the Lord has promised to those who love Him. 13 Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am tempted by God”; for God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does He Himself tempt anyone. 14 But each one is tempted when he is drawn away by his own desires and enticed. 15 Then, when desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, brings forth death. 16 Do not be deceived, my beloved brethren. 17 Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow of turning. 18 Of His own will He brought us forth by the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of His creatures.

In the text before us today James makes an important distinction. The distinction that he makes is between trial and temptation. Having just discussed the subject of trials – the importance of counting them all joy and the necessity of seeking wisdom from God in how to do this – James goes on to address the topic of temptation.

The first thing that James does is help us understand the promise of God. To the man or woman who endures temptation, the Lord will give the crown of life which He has promised to those who love Him. The Lord promises to reward tangibly those who cling to Him in the midst of temptation and say no to Satan’s allurements.

Notice, then, that obeying God out of an awareness of what He promises to do for us is not wrong. Sometimes ethicists will speak as though the only pure form of obedience is obedience for obedience sake. There can be no thought of the reward that comes at the end otherwise the obedience is tainted. But James has no such compunction. He freely holds before us the reward – remember, he says, if you endure, God promises to bless you beyond measure – promises to crown you with life and glory and honor. Keep that before you. True pleasure comes not as a consequence of giving in to temptation but of resisting it.

What then is the difference between trials and temptations? Trials are the hard providences that we encounter throughout our lives. Sometimes these trials come upon us through no fault of our own – destructive weather, crop failure, certain forms of sickness, abuse at the hands of wicked men; other times they come as a consequence of our own sin or folly – jail time, certain types of diseases, crashing the car after driving 90 around a corner. Trials are the hard providences that we face. As such, they come ultimately from the hand of God.

Distinct from trials are temptations. Temptations are enticements to do wrong by promise of pleasure or gain. Frequently the temptation to do wrong arises in the context of a hard providence and so James wants to make sure that folks don’t ascribe these enticements to do wrong to God Himself. While God does in His providence send trials our way to test and approve His people, He does not tempt us to evil. Where do temptations come from? They come from within, out of the heart. We are corrupt and tainted. When we are tempted, whether it be in the midst of trials or in the midst of smooth sailing, such temptations derive their power not from anything outside us but from our own corruption.

What then should we do when we find ourselves in the midst of temptation? First, look to the promise. Remember God’s promise to bless us if we endure through this battle. Second, ask for strength from God Himself. We pray in the Lord’s Prayer, “lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil,” for while the Lord is not the one who tempts us, He is the one who can rescue us from our sin. “For every good and perfect gift comes down from above, from the Father of lights.” Third, resist the temptation. It is no surprise that the temptation has come – the world, the flesh, and the devil are all conspiring to bring down the people of God. In tennis, we do no marvel when our opponent hits the ball onto our side of the court. But when the ball comes, what are we to do? Are we to catch the ball and admire its furry texture and bounce? No. We are to hit the ball back over the net. And so the last thing we must do is resist. And what promise do we have? Resist the devil and he will flee from you.

Reminded that we have failed often to remember the promises of God in the midst of temptation and have transgressed against our Lord, let us kneel and ask His forgiveness.

Wisdom in our Trials

February 2, 2008 in Bible - NT - James, Meditations, Trials

James 1:5-8 (NKJV)5 If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all liberally and without reproach, and it will be given to him. 6 But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for he who doubts is like a wave of the sea driven and tossed by the wind. 7 For let not that man suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; 8 he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.

Last week we noted that James lays before us the truth of God with no mealy mouth flattery. James cuts to the chase and tells it like it is. You want to know what to do with trials, James asks? Let me tell you – rejoice in them, for through them our Lord is training us into the kind of men and women he wants us to be.

In the text today James takes up the matter of wisdom. But let us remember context. James has just told us to do something incredibly counterintuitive – to rejoice in our trials. To support us in this determination, James now encourages us to seek wisdom from God in how to do this very thing – seek wisdom from God in how to rejoice in the midst of trials.

It is important to note this context because the passage before us is one of the more abused texts in the book of James. Mormons, for instance, tell us that Joseph Smith was endeavoring to decide which of the various denominations around him to join when god himself appeared to Joseph and announced that he was to join none of them. However, note that what Joseph was seeking was not wisdom but knowledge – knowledge which he should have acquired by studying the Word of God and then applying it to the situation of the day. The promise that James makes here is one of wisdom in the midst of trial – how can I possibly count it all joy? Ask of God.

And notice the promise that James makes in connection with this conditional statement – if you ask of God in the midst of your trials for wisdom in how to count it all joy – guess what? – God will give it. Why? Because He is the kind of God who gives liberally and without reproach. He delights to lead and guide His people through the valley of the shadow of death – and so encourages us to seek His face in the midst of the valley.

But there are a couple conditions laid down by James for us. First, we must seek the wisdom – God doesn’t give to him who does not ask. And so, bang on the door like the importunate widow; seek out the judge; ask Him for wisdom. Second, we must seek the wisdom in faith. There is no easier time to doubt the promises of God than when we are in the midst of trials. But there is no time when it is as important to do so. And so James, in his blunt manner once again, tells us not to doubt – because if we doubt then we’re like a wave of the sea driven and tossed by the wind – moving up and down and around and lacking the stability that comes from building on the rock, Christ. God is free with His wisdom. He liberally bestows it on those who ask. But to those who aren’t really asking; who, when they receive God’s answer through His Word by His Spirit, question whether His answer is really relevant; to those who doubt, in other words, there is no promise that they will receive anything being double minded and unstable.

Reminded of the promise of God – that He will supply wisdom in our times of deepest need and distress – let us kneel before Him and confess that we have failed to seek this kind of wisdom from Him.

Count It All Joy

February 2, 2008 in Bible - NT - James, Meditations, Trials

James 1:2-4 (NKJV)2 My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials, 3 knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience. 4 But let patience have its perfect work, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing.

We begin this morning a series of exhortations from the book of James. The author of the book was James, the half-brother of Jesus. His book has been called the New Testament version of Proverbs – full of pithy directives and foundational principles for practical Christian living. James is well known for confronting issues without blinking. Whenver I imagine James, I picture him as a type of John the Baptist – saying it like it is with no mealy-mouthed flattery.

The text we read this morning illustrates James’ straight forwardness well. James hits one of the most sensitive topics in Christian living – trials. Visit the bookstores and you’ll see numerous books devoted to the topic of trials. Why do bad things happen to good people? Can God be Trusted in our Trials? How To Let God Solve Your Problems: 12 Keys For Finding Clear Guidance In Life’s Trials. The subject of trials is a hot one.

What wisdom then does James have for us? What are we to do with our trials? First, he declares, we are to count it all joy when we fall into various trials. “Count it all joy, James?” we find ourselves asking. My son just broke both his arms – count it all joy? My car just broke down – count it all joy? I can’t find a job – count it all joy? Our marriage is struggling – count it all joy? My work load is heavy – count it all joy? I’m lonely – count it all joy? I told you that James doesn’t pull any punches – that’s right, he says, with his garment of camel’s hair and leather belt about his waist, count it all joy.

But how, we ask? How call it all joy? That’s just not possible. Why should we look upon trials with joy? James doesn’t keep us in suspense – he is, after all, a straight shooting sort of fellow. Count it all joy, he says, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience. For some weeks now we have been meditating on the call to wait upon the Lord. James shows us the practical consequence of this teaching – waiting on the Lord requires patience; the more we have to wait the more patient we must become; the more patient we become the more we grow in virtue and holiness – and so what better response than joy? Count it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter trials because these very trials are the things that God uses to make you into the type of person He wants you to be.

But James reminds us in the next breath that there are different kinds of patience. There is the first type of patience – which sits in the waiting room bobbing the knee, tapping the finger, pacing the floor – yeah, I’m being patient, can’t you tell? This kind of patience will never do – why? Because, James tells us, patience is not an end in itself – it is a means to an end. It is a means to personal growth – growth of character. God trains us in the school of trials so that we will grow in patience and thereby grow in faith – being perfect and complete, trusting in God’s goodness so much that we are able to rejoice in trials, not just grin and bear them.

So how are we doing? Are we counting our trials all joy? Are we remembering that our Lord’s purpose in this life is not first and foremost to make us happy but to make us holy? This is certainly not a lesson that our culture reinforces. Whenever a trial arises the pundits are sure to issue their wisdom – you deserve better; that’s just not fair; someone should pass a law; the government should fix that. We do not handle trials well. And the reason why is that we don’t trust in the Triune God, the God who does all things well and uses even the bitter cups we drink to make us holy. And so let us kneel and confess that we have failed to count it all joy to endure the trials that God in His providence brings our way.