How to please the Lord 101

How to please the Lord 101: Love God, love people. There is nothing complicated about what God wants his children to do. He says it over and over in every book of the Bible. Jesus himself summed up the commandments in two sentences: Love the Lord your God will your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22:37-39).

What does it look like to love the Lord with everything you have? It looks like loving others. It looks like true judgments, showing kindness, and offering mercy. Zechariah says it in chapter 7, verse 9. Micah says it in chapter 6 verse 8. Paul wrote in Romans 12 that believers should outdo one another in showing honor, and how else do we do that but by true judgement, kindness, and mercy?

To the Galatians, Paul wrote “through love serve one another.” To the Ephesians he instructed believers to bear with one another. To the Thessalonians he admonished the fellowship to increase and abound in love for one another because that is what they had been taught.

The author of Hebrews and Peter and John all emphasized the importance of loving one another the same way that the Father loves us.

James wrote that faith without works is dead. It might be equally said that loving God without loving others is הֶבֶל (hebel), a vapor, nonsense, or foolishness, what King Solomon called “Vanity of vanities.” Love for God isn’t real unless it is demonstrated by loving one another through justice, kindness, mercy, and humility.

Love isn’t complicated, but it isn’t easy, either. We are human. We have annoying habits. We have strongly held differences of opinion. We interpret Scripture differently. Our experiences vary, our cultures conflict, and our expectations of how things should be often sit in opposition. In the US, the differences between us have been amplified in 2020 and 2021 by a pandemic (and how people should respond to it), racial strife (and how government should mitigate it), and disasters, both nature and human-caused. Human nature lashes out and social media makes it convenient to insist on being right instead of being unified. We must carefully consider not only what we say, but how we say it. Love is quick to listen. Love pursues goodness and truth. Love judges the self truly so that each one might be humble. In humility we act out our love for God by showing kindness and mercy to our brothers and sisters, just as the Lord commanded.

But God shows His love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

Romans 5:8

If God demonstrated His love for us by sending His only Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins, how much more ought we demonstrate our love for God by loving one another in right judgements, showing mercy, and being kind?

Do Justly, Love Mercy, Walk Humbly

Malachi 3; Amos 5; Micah 6-7; Philippians 3

There’s an old song that keeps playing in my head today. The words I recall are these:

This world is not my home; I'm just a-passin' through.
 My treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue.
 The angels beckon me from heaven's open door.
 And I can't feel at home in this world anymore. 

The events of the last several weeks that culminated in the events of January 6, 2021 just confirm to me that I don’t belong to this world. I knew there would be a time when many people calling themselves “Christians” would turn away from the gospel of Jesus and the love of God; evidently that time is now. I am horrified by the events at the US Capitol on Wednesday. Ironically, Wednesday was also Epiphany, a day set aside by liturgical traditions to remember the Magi and to ponder the baptism of Jesus by John. It was at the baptism that John introduced Jesus as the Son of God (John 1:19-34). Epiphany, a sudden illumination of something. Epiphany, the recognition of Jesus as fully God and fully man. The wonder of the Incarnation, now a man beginning his public ministry. How far the Church has fallen from the wonder of God’s mercy and grace for us. How devastating is that fall!

The Church in the US and much of the West is broken. It has been broken by teachers and pastors who sought recognition and fame. It has been broken by church attendees who stay for the music, but leave as soon as the teaching gets serious. Cultural Christianity (churchianity) focuses on blessings instead of trials and boasting instead of truth. The Church in the US, for the most part, has moved away from worshipping the righteous and holy God who created all things and holds all things together, replacing the Father with a national identity and the human leaders they elect.

28 Tweets About Trump's Rioters In The Capitol Building
Tasos Katopodis / Getty Images Retrieved from Buzzfeed

Whether or not people believe that the 2016 or 2020 elections resulted in fraudulent officials is irrelevant. The kind of violence exhibited on January 6 was illegal, seditious, and wrong on every level. Those who hung up the name of Jesus in the process defiled his holy name. Amos wrote that God’s people must seek good, and not evil, especially when they live in a country that thrives on the titillation of wickedness. “Hate evil and love good,” he wrote. “Establish justice in the gate.” Amos goes on to describe how the Lord looks upon self-indulgent and proud people who claim they have “rights” because of their affiliation with God. The Lord abhors that pride. Amos spoke for the Lord saying, “I hate, I despise your festivals and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies…Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen.” Displays of nationalism and religiosity do not honor the Lord. He is not the God of the United States of America. He is the Lord of ALL creation. To honor the Lord means His followers pursue justice rolling down like the waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. God’s righteousness, not self-righteousness. The actions of people on January 6 revealed the utter wickedness that dwells within all people. They pursued a path that would vindicate their self-righteousness and the false gospel of nationalism. They put a political figure in the place of the Lord.

Nations rise and nations fall. Institutions are built up and torn down. There will come a day when the US will fall, just as every empire has fallen. But the people of God are not to be part of that destruction. We are to seek peace. We are to pray for the welfare of where we live (Jeremiah 29:4-14), not listening to those who seek to deceive. God is abundantly clear about what is good: doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with the Lord. None of the humility, kindness, nor justice were on display by the people who called themselves Christians while they broke into the Capitol, wreaking havoc in their violence. Make no mistake, these people were not acting in the will of God and God was not glorified. In fact, Malachi wrote that people like those who use the name of Jesus and the idea of Christian the way they did on January 6 weary the Lord with their words. They say that doing evil is doing good and that God is too slow in enacting justice. These claims illustrate just how self-serving these people are. They worship a nation, a Constitution, and institution, not the Living Lord.

The Lord will refine His Church. The pandemic has revealed those who used church as a social gathering place by closing the physical doors. The ugliness of the campaigns of 2020 revealed just how deep the corruption of ethical behavior has become. The riots of summer 2020 demonstrated the inadequacy of church teaching, especially with the notion of the prosperity gospel or the social gospel that infiltrated many churches. The refining has begun. The heat has been turned up, and unless there is general repentance and lamentation of the Church’s failure to teach the Word to the people, things will continue to get more difficult. All the dross must be burned away in order for those of us who seek Jesus first to fully reflect Him in all that we do and say.

In the end, however, this world, this country, this national institution is just a place of passing as we journey to our eternal home. For those who fear the Lord, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing. We will look to the Lord, waiting for the God of our salvation. He hears us. He is our light. His love is steadfast.

And that song? It has an interesting story that I’ll share another day. For now, enjoy one of the first recordings of it by the composer, Jessie May Hill:

This World is Not my Home. Jessie May Hill (May, 1927)
Philippians 3:  17 Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us. 18 For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. 19 Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things. 20 But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ21 who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.

This I call to mind

Lamentations 3

When times are hard, even the faithful suffer. As long as we are in this world, whatever disasters strike, from pandemics to wars to natural catastrophes, we can expect to endure along with all of humanity. The prophet in Lamentations (presumably Jeremiah) described his own suffering with the people under the Lord’s judgement. He broke down his suffering into four realms:
1. Suffering is physical (v.4)
2. Suffering is psychological (v.7)
3. Suffering is emotional (v.15)
4. Suffering is spiritual (v. 18)

Physical suffering

Jeremiah wrote about his physical suffering first, describing the effects of hunger, disease, and broken bones on his body. For us, pain is the easiest form of suffering to understand because we all experience it. We may not remember the pain of being born or the scrapes, bumps, and bruises that come with childhood, but we do remember our most recent experience with pain, whether it be an occasional headache or a chronic condition. For those who survived the Babylonian attacks on Jerusalem, physical pain began with hunger and for most, continued in slavery. Enduring physical pain is exhausting and demoralizing. Today, physical pain may be reduced by medication, but its debilitating effects may still cause us to question God’s purpose for our lives.

Psychological suffering

Isolation causes psychological suffering. The worldwide COVID-19 pandemic served as a reminder to every person on the planet that we are created for community. A video chat cannot replace companionship. Loneliness has long term physical repercussions, including sleep changes, altered metabolism, and even neurocognitive effects (Ellis, 2020). Jeremiah described his isolation as impenetrable walls and heavy chains with no way of escape.

Emotional suffering

Emotions affect the way we perceive the world. It’s how we are wired as humans. We feel deeply. Emotions allow us to connect to each other with empathy and love and authenticity. But our emotions can also make us feel things that aren’t real. When times are hard, we tend to follow our emotions and feelings rather than reason and logic. The prophet here felt his suffering was God laying in wait to pounce on him like a bear or a lion does its prey. He felt torn to pieces, taunted by others and cowering in ashes. The recent protests in the US revealed the emotions of many of my Black brothers and sisters who feel much as Jeremiah did: they feel tormented, ridiculed, unheard, and without value. The suffering is real and is runs deep.

Spiritual suffering

The worst possible kind of suffering is suspecting that God has abandoned us. Jesus himself dreaded being separated from the Father, even asking whether there was another way to make atonement for our sins in order that we might be reconciled to God (Matthew 26:36-46). Jeremiah’s soul was bereft of peace to the point where he had forgotten what happiness felt like. This deep spiritual suffering leaves us hopeless and, if not resolved, can have dire consequences. Spiritual suffering is hell.

God makes a way where there is no way

After 20 verses painting a picture of his suffering, the prophet comes to his purpose in writing: BUT THIS I CALL TO MIND (v.21). Those are powerful words.

BUT THIS. There is an end to suffering. There is more than the current crisis. There is something greater at work.

I CALL. It is not a new revelation. We can access the greater lesson. We can call on the Lord; he has redeemed us and called us by name (Isaiah 43).

TO MIND. Suffering is real, make no mistake. But what Jeremiah wrote is a reminder to all of us that we do not have to focus on our suffering. God has given us minds that we can train to endure the physical, psychological, and emotional strains on our lives, especially in bad times.

What exactly did Jeremiah call to mind?

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases (Lamentations 3, v.22). Never. Even in the chaos of devastation, the Lord is good to the souls who seek him (v.25). His mercies are new EVERY day (v. 22). Hope comes when we recognize that every solace we may need is available to us (v. 24). His compassion and steadfast love means He will not cast us off forever; He is with us (v. 31-33).

In the meantime, our response is to examine our own ways and thoughts to root out anything that separates us from the Father (Lamentations 3:40-42; Psalm 139: 23-24), lifting up hearts and hands in repentance and lament. The Lord will come near when we call on His name (Lamentations 3:57) and let us see that He is with us and for us, even in the middle of the mess.

It reminds me of the William Dawson (1937) song, “Ain’a That Good News.” Suffering is part of living in this world, but there’s “a Savior in-a that kingdom” whose compassion will redeem us!

Ain’a that good news William Dawson, 1937. Tuskegee Institute Choir

Lamentations 2

Lamentations 2 and Proverbs 21, 25

” Every way of a man is right in his own eyes, but the Lord weighs the heart. To do righteousness and justice is more acceptable to the Lord than sacrifice” (Proverbs 21:2-3).

“The Lord has done what He purposed; He has carried out His word” ( Lamentations 2:17).

God made clear His expectations for his people through Moses (Leviticus and Deuteronomy). At the top of the list was keep the Name of the Lord holy by not worshipping idols. Other expectations were to ensure justice for everyone, from the lowest slave to the king. Everyone was to be held accountable to the Law. God was also clear about the end result of disobedience: utter destruction. Generations after Moses, after multiple rescues and second chances, God followed through by letting His holy wrath pour out like fire (Lamentations 2:4), laying waste to the city like an enemy (v. 5).

Jerusalem was prosperous and beautiful, a princess among nations, but she turned from the Lord and took satisfaction in her wealth and idols, listening to the words of false and deceptive teachers and kings. Finally, God did what He told them He would do if they persisted in sin (Lamentations 2:17; Leviticus 26; Deuteronomy 28; Jeremiah 51).

God is the true and just sanctifier (Leviticus 22:31-33) who sees the violence of the wicked among his people, and He will sweep them away (Proverbs 21:7). False teachers who did not call out sin for what it was led people away from the Lord. They still do. And the people of Jerusalem learned that trusting treacherous teachers is dangerous. The same is true today. The Church in the US has largely been lazy, calling people to God not because they need to repent over sin, but to join with social movements or prosperity doctrines that make people feel happy.

Jerusalem had to be utterly and corporately destroyed for God to get their attention. The US is crumbling by corruption from within, and as always, the devastation is corporate, not individual. Why is there evil in the world? Because people choose themselves over the Lord.

The Lord knows our hearts.

Interlude for Thursday

Proverbs 21

The US in in the third month of COVID19 limitations and fear. It is also in the 7th day of protests that began with the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer and expanded to race relations and systemic injustices in general. In the last few years, and increasingly faster, we are witnessing the consequences of people doing what is right in their own eyes (Judges 21:25). At the moment, there seems to be little hope for deliverance from both natural and man-made catastrophes.

The truth is that there is no hope without the Lord Almighty to save us. Proverbs 21:2 says, ” Every way of a man is right in his own eyes, but the Lord weighs the heart.” Verse 7 adds, “The violence of the wicked will sweep them away, because they refuse to do what is just.” We see this in the world around us; the US is only a small part of global injustice, where humans harm others for power, control, and wealth.

We who call ourselves believers know that the only true power belongs to Almighty God. He knows the hearts and motives of each of us. His desire is for us to be people of righteousness and His justice. We look to Him, because “no wisdom, no understanding, no counsel can avail against the Lord” (Proverbs 21:30). As we seek and pursue peace, we know that the ultimate victory belongs to the Lord (Proverbs 21:31).

Our prayer today may be “Lord God Almighty, Jehovah Adonai, go before us and behind us so that we walk with confidence that You alone are wholly just and You alone are mighty to save. Let me be a source of your wisdom today so that Your mighty hand can work through me.”

an interlude for prayer

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort,who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. – 2 Corinthians 1:3-4

The Lord is with his own in this time. When humanity is at its worst, God’s compassion offers comfort to the afflicted. We who call ourselves believers must embody the Comforter, standing for what is right and embracing those who have been wronged.

Let this be our prayer: Lord, make me a person who is active in providing comfort to my brothers and sisters in Christ. Let those who are afflicted feel safe in my presence. Thank you, Father, for being Jehovah Shammah. Amen.

an interlude

This is not a black square. I listened to one of my Black sisters who said it made her uncomfortable. I know, too, that it is a symbol, so I do not have an argument with anyone who chooses to #blackouttuesday. For me, however, I choose to stand with my Black brothers and sisters as together we appeal to Jehovah Rapha, the God who heals, for His mercy, His grace, and His will.

The words in this image are a song from my childhood about Jehovah Rapha as the One who turns the bitter water sweet and heals both body and soul. I have interspersed the repeated lyrics with the promises of Psalm 147: He heals the brokenhearted; He binds up their wounds; He gathers the outcasts; He lifts up the humble; He makes peace in your borders; He declares His Word.

More than anything, racial reconciliation requires repentance that allows the Almighty to heal us. Let our prayer today be this: Lord, make me a person who brings your healing to a broken person today. Let my words be your balm and let my actions demonstrate Your love as I listen and learn. Thank you, Jesus, for being Jehovah Rapha.
Amen.

Lamentations

I have been broken by the events of 2020, and I feel like I need to take a short break from Psalm 119 to examine the most profound lament of the Old Testament in light of the current Church and culture in the US.

Illuminated Scripture Journal cover. Crossway, 2001

I did some background reading on Bible.org, BibleScripture.net and in the Tony Evans Bible Commentary. Context is always king when it comes to any kind of literary analysis, and especially so for Bible study. As I am writing this, many cities in the US are reacting to an alarming number of murders of black people by racist white men. The most recent, and the one that set cities ablaze was the videotaped murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. The officer knelt on Floyd’s neck for several minutes, and only stopped when the man was unresponsive. It was cruel and violent and vile behavior. What made it even worse is that the officer was looking for someone else, someone who was accused of forgery.

This kind of behavior by anyone is evil, but law enforcement officers are supposed to be held to a higher standard. Most officers are good men and women, committed to protecting communities and the individuals who live there. Sadly, only a few power-hungry individuals (both legal and judicial) can ruin the relationship between police officers and the people they serve. Several recent officer involved deaths have not be prosecuted or investigated properly, and in Georgia, Ahmaud Arbury was stalked and murdered by a white father-son duo who claimed Arbury looked like someone who had been burglarizing their neighborhood (he was not a suspect, nor is there any evidence he had anything to do with any misbehavior). The last time I checked, laying in wait and ambushing a jogger is intent. Vigilantism is illegal, along with being immoral, yet until a video surfaced of the murder, neither men had been charged.

These events, and others like them, are leading the US toward destruction, and we are witnesses to it. The undercurrent of sin as acceptable behavior will not be long tolerated by a holy God. When believers justify the actions of murderers or rationalize the injustices that are continually revealed, they participate in the sin that will result in the chaos and rage that cities like Minneapolis are living in this week.

Lamentations is the heart cry of a witness to the destruction of Jerusalem under Nebuchadnezzar. The burning of the city was devastating, and the destruction was complete. The historical account is recorded in 2 Chronicles 36, and Jeremiah’s protection from it in Jeremiah 39. Chuck Swindoll preached a series on Lamentations in 1980, and his background work is stellar. I recommend starting with his words here. It is interesting to listen to Swindoll’s application points in 1980 and to think about where we are now. It’s more evidence that the Word of God is timeless.

The Heart of the Matter
Most of us have never been involved in a mop-up scene after a battle or following a calamity. But those who have can testify that it is one of the most painful and pathetic experiences a human can endure. The ravages of war and the consequences of disaster are usually beyond belief or description. Few are those who can capture the tragic scene in words. Jeremiah was one of the few. His brief, biting journal of what he saw and felt following the fall of his beloved nation is contained in this short book. It is one of the most vivid reminders in all the Bible of that verse in Galatians: “Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, this he will also reap” (6:7).
And so will a city. And so will a nation.

Swindoll, C. (1980) God’s Masterwork, Volume Three Poets, Prophets, and Promises—A survey of Job–Daniel Lamentations: A Prophet’s Broken Heart A Survey of Lamentations. Charles R. Swindoll, Inc.

As believers, we must join the lament for the sins of our country and our churches. We must lead the way for repentance. As Tony Evans (2019) wrote, “When God is your biggest problem, He is also your only hope” (p. 721). We, as the Church, must lead the way to racial reconciliation by demonstrating the love of Jesus in all its facets: care, compassion, speaking truth, serving one another, and standing with all our brothers and sisters against injustice and evil.

Steadfast to the end

James 5:1-11


Throughout this letter, James wrote about the lure of materialism and the danger of believing that success was God’s reward. At the end of chapter 4, James called out those who claimed their success was a measure of God’s pleasure, saying they boasted in arrogance. James continued his condemnation of that arrogance, being clear that the material makings of success in this world would decay and be the source of ultimate destruction. The arrogant will destroy themselves by putting their faith in material gain.

James then reminded his readers that the characteristics of godly people are patience and steadfastness. He reminded his readers of the prophets like Habakkuk, Nahum, Micah, Amos, and Joel, all of whom asked God, “How long will we suffer?” God’s reply was inevitably, “Wait and see.” The kingdoms the prophets spoke against have long since turned to dust. The kingdom of this current age, with its faith in secularism and humanism will also turn to dust.

Our responsibility is to focus on building relationships, not quarreling or grumbling. We look forward to the fulfillment of God’s promises, while remembering that the mercy and compassion we found in Jesus is still being extended to all the world (Matthew 23- 25; John 3). While we wait in steadfast expectation, we should spend our time, not worrying about the future, but in establishing our hearts in the trustworthiness of God’s promises (Psalm 1; Habakkuk 3; Joel 2; Nahum 1; Zephaniah 3:17).

Nineveh: the Sequel

Nahum chapter 1.


It seems like every blockbuster movie or popular novel tries to create a sequel that matches the drama and characters of the original. Most of the time, the sequel falls flat. Either the original writers don’t return or there’s some formula that they try to squeeze the story into or they just run out of ideas. Now and then, however, there is a sequel that not only maintains the energy of the original, but adds to the initial storyline in a meaningful way.

The Assyrian Empire at its height

The prophet Nahum was responsible for the sequel to Jonah. The setting is the same, Nineveh. The characters have changed, from Sennacherib who called for repentance to Ashurbamipal, who reigned over Assyria at the height of power. The conflict is also the same: defiant and evil people running into the omnipotent God.

Jonah may have been upset at the Ninevites repentance, but God relented on destruction for that entire generation and the one that followed. However, by the time Nahum preached, the Ninevites had returned to their old ways with a vengeance. They were more cruel, more violent, and more evil than ever before, and God said, “Enough.” This time there is no offer of repentance. There is only the promise of utter destruction, which history verifies. God made a complete end to Assyria as a world power.

In the middle of Nahum’s description of Assyria’s utter destruction, he offers comfort to those who take refuge in God. His name means “consolation” and he lives that name even in the middle of catastrophe.
The Lord is slow to anger and great in power. The Lord is good. The Lord is a stronghold in the day of trouble. The Lord knows those who take refuge in Him. The Lord brings good news and peace. We can trust Him I the middle of the chaos. That is good news, indeed!


Thanks to @drtonyevans and @insightforlivingministries for their publications that helped establish context for Nahum