18. Things Beyond Choice

Meditating on the Will of God: 18:  Things Beyond Choice?

Phil 2:12,13    “continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose

In an earlier meditation we wrote, “Of course there are some things we can choose and others that are beyond our choice and we will examine this in the days to come, as well.”  Our ability to choose is closely tied to the subject of God’s will because, as we have noted a number of times, there is every appearance in both scripture and life that we have free will and the ability to choose which path to take, God’s will or not!

As an aside, let’s just consider that yet again because it is so important. There are different levels of choice. There is the simple, ordinary choosing between things or people – who to invite to a party today – “Now then, choose twelve men from the tribes of Israel, one from each tribe.” (Josh 3:12). No big issue there. But then there is choosing moral or spiritual paths and they may have deep and lasting consequences, for example,  “Now fear the LORD and serve him with all faithfulness. Throw away the gods your forefathers worshiped beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the LORD. But if serving the LORD seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your forefathers served beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.” (Josh 24:14,15) That was a matter of serious choice with serious consequences.

Now, to reiterate the point we have made a number of times before, unless these verses are pure gobbledygook, then they have to speak of real abilities to freely choose between different options and those options bring different consequences, and the Bible is full of such instances – of choices and consequences.

But what are the things that influence the way we make our choices? Are we always free to make whatever choices we like. Obviously there are restrictions. A five year old cannot go to university. Most of us cannot jump the heights of great athletes or run as fast. We cannot play wonderful music like great musicians or sing like opera singers because we are limited physically, we are the people we are. Yes, there are very obvious things that limit us as human beings. We cannot be in two places at once.  We cannot read people’s minds (well most of us can’t). Some of us are not good at maths, others are poor with languages. We have limited financial resources and so money limits what we can do sometimes. There are, in fact so many things that limit us.

So what ARE the main things that influence us. Well genetic makeup appears to have a strong influence on us but contrary to opinion often espoused in the media when a new gene is found, we are NOT bound by the things we’ve inherited from our parents. We ARE strongly disposed to act in certain manners like them but we do not have to be bound by those things; we can choose not to be.

Some things children learn from their parents such as manipulative anger, but this has taken us into the ‘nurture’ part of the ‘nature versus nurture’ discussion and without doubt many of us make choices on the basis of what we have learned as our parents have brought us up.

And then we became Christians and found that God has designed life in a certain way whereby we work best as human beings. We might not have seen it like that initially, just that we had a Bible full of “do this” and “don’t do that” things and we slowly began to realise that there was a way of life that was different from  the way we had lived it so far – and this was the will of God, what He wanted for us.

And from the moment we realised that, we had a new set of choices to make, but they really all come under the umbrella of ‘surrender to God’. If we truly surrendered our lives to God when we came to Christ, then every else is easy – or relatively easy. The first decision has been made – to go God’s way. From then on Paul’s injunction to “work out your salvation”  was about learning what God’s will was for every aspect of life and then living it.

But that is where we realise it was not so easy. We had existing relationships and we need God’s wisdom to know how to handle them in the light of His will.  We find we have prevailing attitudes and habits, things we have learned, accepted and developed over the years and, to our horror, guilt and shame, we find they are contrary to God’s will and we struggle to overcome them.  It is at that point we find the apostle Paul’s instructions to “put them to death” relevant. At that point his teaching about being alive to God becomes relevant. We need the help and power of His Holy Spirit to change, to come in line with His will.

It IS a given in the Christian life that we are to conform to HIS will and that means often overriding our will. I would like to get back at an enemy, but Jesus says pray for them and love them, and there are many such instances of our wills clashing with His. Transformation, or sanctification, is all about our lives changing to conform to His will and as we enter into that process so we face up to the things we have inherited, or the things we have learned along the way and we have to challenge them to see if they fit with His will, and if they don’t then they will have to go. For, as we have seen previously, His will is good and pleasant and perfect and that is why He wants us to conform to it, so that we may be blessed by Him.

Advertisements

2. Accountability

Meditating on the Will of God: 2:  A Matter of Accountability

Ezek 18:23  Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked? declares the Sovereign LORD. Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live?”

In the first of these studies we started sowing the seeds that need to flourish to give us a greater understanding of what the will of God is about. We started to consider the free will of mankind, our ability to make choices. (Of course there are some things we can choose and others that are beyond our choice and we will examine this in the days to come, as well). We mentioned along the way our verse above which, note, includes words of “the Sovereign Lord”.  Let there be no mistake, God IS sovereign, He IS the Lord; the question is all about how He exercises that sovereignty as a loving and good and perfect God. 

In that verse above, the Sovereign Lord declares His desire for men and women to repent and avoid judgment. The verses that follow, which we looked at previously, show that there are possibilities of choice, and for it to make sense there must be real, genuine possibilities of choice, the real ability to choose, otherwise when God puts options before people they will be meaningless unless the individual can genuinely make their own choice. That was true of Pharaoh who we mentioned, and it is true of us.

This concept of genuine accountability comes up more than once in Ezekiel’s ministry, but before we look at it there, really understand what we are saying here. If God says, “Choose A and you will live or choose B and you will die,” if that is not to be meaningless gobbledygook, it must mean that this individual can genuinely make their own decision. If we move into hyper Calvinism, it seems to us, those proponents of the extreme doctrine says mankind can only do what God makes them do. It is a form of determinism where there are no real choices, only set responses, but life – and the Scriptures – do not appear like that. Let’s consider what the Lord said through Ezekiel.

First of all Ezekiel taught individual accountability in chapter 18: “Suppose there is a righteous man who does what is just and right……. That man is righteous; he will surely live.” (Ezek 18:5-9) Then, “Suppose he has a violent son, who sheds blood or does any of these other things…. Will such a man live? He will not! Because he has done all these detestable things, he will surely be put to death and his blood will be on his own head.” (Ezek 18:10-13)  The point he is making and goes on and on making in that chapter is that an individual is accountable for what he or she does. They will not be accountable for what a close relative does but are answerable for their own sins.

Next, he taught about this in the context of himself being a watchman: “When I say to the wicked, `O wicked man, you will surely die,’ and you do not speak out to dissuade him from his ways, that wicked man will die for his sin, and I will hold you accountable for his blood. But if you do warn the wicked man to turn from his ways and he does not do so, he will die for his sin, but you will have saved yourself.” (Ezek 33:8,9) Put aside for a moment Ezekiel’s responsibility and we are left with something quite remarkable. Look: “When I say to the wicked, `O wicked man, you will surely die… that wicked man will die for his sin, ….. But if you do warn the wicked man to turn from his ways and he does not do so, he will die for his sin.”  In each case there is a “wicked man” who in the first case gets no warning and so dies for his sin. In the second case he is warned and fails to repent and dies. The end result is the same in both instances but what it shows us is that even when God speaks through His servants and brings warnings, the individual can still refuse that warning. There is no indication here that God imposes His will on this man. Indeed it is clear that God is trying to get him to repent. A few verses on we find that same declaration we found in chapter 18: “As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign LORD, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Why will you die, O house of Israel?” (Ezek 33:11) There it is! God doesn’t want them to die – but they do!

So, as we are considering the whole subject of the will of God, we see God’s will – His desire, at least – may be one thing, but the outcome may be contrary to His desire. We may call this His permissive will, if you like, but in each case we find two scary facts:

i) the individual has a real ability to make choices, and

ii) the Lord allows them to go with that choice and they reap its fruit. 

This is what this matter of accountability is all about. Look how Ezekiel continues this teaching from the Lord: “Therefore, son of man, say to your countrymen, `The righteousness of the righteous man will not save him when he disobeys, and the wickedness of the wicked man will not cause him to fall when he turns from it. The righteous man, if he sins, will not be allowed to live because of his former righteousness.’ If I tell the righteous man that he will surely live, but then he trusts in his righteousness and does evil, none of the righteous things he has done will be remembered; he will die for the evil he has done. And if I say to the wicked man, `You will surely die,’ but he then turns away from his sin and does what is just and right– if he gives back what he took in pledge for a loan, returns what he has stolen, follows the decrees that give life, and does no evil, he will surely live; he will not die. None of the sins he has committed will be remembered against him. He has done what is just and right; he will surely live.” (Ezek 33:12-16) We have included such a lengthy quote because of what it conveys, following straight on from the Lord’s declaration about His feelings.  What does it say? A righteous man can become unrighteous (it doesn’t mean just a single fall) and an unrighteous man can repent and become righteous. Both are answerable for their end position and one dies and the other lives. And it is all to do with their freely made choices. God doesn’t MAKE them act like they do, but He DOES hold them accountable for the choices they make. Read back through this study and see the things we have observed about His will.

1. Starting Thoughts

Meditating on the Will of God: 1:  Starting Thoughts

Col 1:1   Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God

We start a new series but one that is not delineated by following a set pattern as we usually do, working through a paragraph or chapter or book. The very phrase ‘the will of God’ has produced books and discussion galore and so now, I propose to simply throw a stone on the lake and watch the ripples. We’ll start from one random point and see where our meanderings take us.

How easily we read words of Scripture and pass them by with such little thought! How much we take for granted the words we read, thinking we understand them. Before we have got to the end of this first verse of Paul’s to the Colossians, we have one of these times – “by the will of God”.  Paul says he is an apostle “by the will of God”.  What does that actually mean?

For a start it must mean that he is an apostle because God wanted him to be one. The moment we say that we find ourselves with the question, “Why?”  Is it, as some would say, that He takes us as a piece of clay and like a Potter forms us into what He wants us to be? Yes, I am aware that that is the picture that the Lord Himself brings to Jeremiah: “Then the word of the LORD came to me: “O house of Israel, can I not do with you as this potter does?” declares the LORD. “Like clay in the hand of the potter, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel.” (Jer 18:5,6) Indeed we find Isaiah declaring, “Yet, O LORD, you are our Father. We are the clay, you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand.” (Isa 64:8). It is clear in both those sets of verses that God moulds us and reshapes us, but is that all there is to it?

We need to go back to the Lord’s word to Jeremiah in the Potter’s house and follow through, seeing what He went on to say:

  • “If at any time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be uprooted, torn down and destroyed, and if that nation I warned repents of its evil, then I will relent and not inflict on it the disaster I had planned.
  • And if at another time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be built up and planted, and if it does evil in my sight and does not obey me, then I will reconsider the good I had intended to do for it.” (Jer 18:7-10)

Now this is quite strange at first sight because here we have two instances of nations or kingdoms making choices, deciding how they will respond. In the first instance the Lord declares His intentions (His will?) and then the nation repents, so the Lord steps back and does not bring the judgment He spoke of. That is exactly what we see in the story of Jonah going to Nineveh and Nineveh repenting and the Lord ‘relenting’ and not destroying them.  In the second instance above, we find a nation that God is intending to bless and build up, but they turn away from Him, and so He reconsiders.

In both cases we have a) God stating His intentions, b) the nation choosing a course of action (the former to repent, the latter to turn away) and c) God reconsidering His course of action in respect of them.  Now this is the ‘moulding of the clay’, surely, that the Lord is talking about, the interaction between God and man that brings about change.  

So we come back to our original question: why did the Lord choose Paul?  Did God choose Paul because He knew He could MAKE Paul do what He wanted him to do, or did He choose Him because He knew how He could mould him in the years to come?

In each of these questions we are gently treading around that tricky area that has so often brought divisions among Christians, considerations about the sovereignty of God. If we may briefly mention him in passing – for he needs a study to himself – the Pharaoh confronted by Moses is an illustration of a man who God could not mould into a pliable, conforming believer (yes, there is a lot more to the story and we’ll look at it separately), but in fact when you look at every person in the Bible who rejected God and died for it, we see people who God did NOT make conform to Himself. God’s intent is always for a person’s salvation but Scripture, we suggest, is very clear that it is a matter of an individual’s free will, their ability to choose the path they take.

God’s intention is always clear: “Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked? declares the Sovereign LORD. Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live?” (Ezek 18:23) Now you could possibly, from that verse, suggest that God goes on to MAKE the sinner repent, but the verse that follows challenges that sort of ‘sovereignty’: “But if a righteous man turns from his righteousness and commits sin and does the same detestable things the wicked man does, will he live? None of the righteous things he has done will be remembered. Because of the unfaithfulness he is guilty of and because of the sins he has committed, he will die.” (Ezek 18:24) To suggest that God MAKES a righteous man turn and become a sinner denigrates God and all the Biblical descriptions of Him, that He is love, He is good, He is righteous, and so on.

            There are those who would seek to take the apostle Paul’s stance and say, “Who are you, O man,  to question God?” (Rom 9:19-) and we will consider that in days to come, but we are not challenging God’s sovereignty, we are challenging those who would abuse (quite inadvertently) the descriptions of God that we have already mentioned. It is more a question of understanding language and that should always be a part of Bible study. We would also go on to say that it is all about ‘knowing’ and we will justify this in the days to come.

            God knew all about Paul, He knew everything there was to know about him, including his potential, including the way he would act and react in the face of the circumstances before him, and He knew what He could do with him and what He could achieve through him, despite his faults and failings, and all this without violating his free will, his ability, as a human being made in the image of God, to make choices.

            And if that was true of Paul, it is surely true of you and me. If at some point we surrendered our lives to Jesus, now we are ‘in the process’ where God is leading and  we follow. He expresses His will and we have the ability to choose or reject it. Rejecting it means we come to a standstill; receiving it means we move on in the blessing of God and achieve all the things He has on His heart for us. This is what this is all about; these are the sorts of things we will consider more fully in these studies.

25. Hold On

Meditations in 1 John : 25 : Hold On

1 John  2:24,25   See that what you have heard from the beginning remains in you. If it does, you also will remain in the Son and in the Father. And this is what he promised us–even eternal life.

Remember the context: John is encouraging the believers to resist the deception of lies and distorted teaching that was arising in the first century. He has reminded them that they have the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth, who has both anointed them and indwelt them, and He will help them remain in the truth. But the fact is that we as individual believers still have free will and we can make choices and we can choose how we will live. We can choose to be Christ-like in attitude, in word and in action. We can choose to obey God’s commands. Choice still plays a large part in our lives. We can choose to pray – or not. We can choose to read the Bible – or not. We can choose to go to church – or not. We can choose to worship – or not. We can choose to be a witness – or not. Oh yes, at every turn the choices are ours and God will not force us. It is a mystery why one person chooses to be all out for God and another chooses to be half-hearted (yes, we even choose that.)

The New Testament is full of instructions that require us to make a response. Again and again we see such instructions and we should imagine them having the word ‘You’ in front of them. For example, “(You) Be joyful always; (you) pray continually; (you) give thanks in all circumstances.” (1 Thess 5:18) That would remind us that such instructions are written to us individually and individually we need to respond to them.

Thus now, we find John giving such an instruction that we might render, “(You) See that what you have heard from the beginning remains in you.”  Another way of putting that might be to say, hang on to all you have heard of the Gospel and of the apostolic teaching, and make sure it genuinely remains the expression of the active outworking of your lives.

This sounds such a simple exhortation, yet it is such a fundamental and important one.  To the church at Ephesus, the first of the seven churches in Revelation 2 & 3, Jesus declared, “You have forsaken your first love.” (Rev 2:4) They were no longer what they once were. This happens because we change our thinking. The word ceases to be alive to us as it once was. We no longer hold to the truths we were taught as young Christians and are more laid back in our appreciation of them. In such ways we fail to hang on and ensure we hold to what we “have heard from the beginning,” so that no longer does it remain in us in the same way. It is so easy, as we see the passing of years, to let this happen. It is a vital call that John brings here, one that we all need to heed. So, let’s ask the question: are we ensuring that what we have heard from the beginning still remains in us? Is it alive and as vibrant as it was when we first received it?

John then says something which is seriously challenging: “If it does, you also will remain in the Son and in the Father.”  The implication is that if we don’t hold on to the truth we don’t remain “in the Son and in the Father.”  Put aside arguments about whether or not you can lose your salvation, is it possible for you and me to lose contact with Jesus and with the Father, and thus cease to commune with them?  I believe the answer is undoubtedly yes. How many people that you come across, started out so strongly and were wonderful examples of all-out-for-God committed Christians, yet as the years passed, times with God early in the morning got squeezed out with the busyness of life and awareness of the Lord’s presence faded? I am not pronouncing on your eternal destiny but I am asking about the reality of our daily walk with the Lord?  Is it still like it once was? The most terrible of the indictments of the seven churches of Asia Minor, was that of Laodicea: “I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other!” (Rev 3:15)

Half-heartedness is the greatest bane that can settle on the Church. It is so easy to let it settle on you in this materialistic age, in this age that is so busy and active. It is so easy to let it settle when we start getting jaded with modern church life that so often lacks reality. How easy it is to become cynical and then we step back and instead of letting our feelings stir us to challenge the church and the world, we let them neutralize us and we become ineffective, church life becomes repetitiously boring, and the world is untouched by us.

John has something more to add: “And this is what he promised us–even eternal life.”   When the true life is flowing in us it is eternal life, it is the very life of Jesus, of his Holy Spirit, and that life brings life and activity that is not merely following rules or performing rituals, it is responding to the prompting and energizing of the Spirit within. This goes with the thoughts about communing with the Son and the Father. When we commune with them, we are open to them and the Spirit is able to energize, guide and direct us. THAT is life.

38. Enemies of God

Meditations in James: 38 : Enemies of God?

Jas 4:4     You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world is hatred toward God? Anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God.

Observing people taking sides is not a pleasant thing  because it is divisive, yet we accept division in society at the many different levels. At its basic level, politics is all about how is the best way to run a country, what sort of rules, what sort of laws, how to look after people. The problem is there are so many different ways, and so different ideas have, in the past century or so, created different political parties and we are encouraged every few years to vote in favour of one party and against the others. There is this natural taking of sides that takes place. In the whole realm of football, people take sides, and support one team as against all the others. It is a taking sides that demands fierce loyalty so often. Wherever there are options and alternatives and competition for one or the other, there is taking sides.

The tone of James’ letter sometimes suggests that he has heard things about the church scattered far and wide, and some of the things he has heard upset him.  The whole issue of favouritism in church was obviously one such thing. Now he speaks with a passion about the church that he has been hearing about, that sides with the world.  Now we have commented previously that when the Bible uses the world ‘world’ it can mean the physical planet on which we live, the people who live on it, or the attitudes of godless and unrighteous mankind. It is the latter meaning that he uses here.

Probably the classic passage about ‘the world’ comes in 1 John 2: Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For everything in the world–the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes and the boasting of what he has and does–comes not from the Father but from the world.” (1 Jn 2:15,16). There the world’s ‘life approach’ is defined.  First, cravings of sinful man.  It is a world that is motivated and driven by sensual desires, living according to self-centred desires, regardless of what they are. Second, lust of his eyes desire stirred on by visual impact. This is what the whole advertising industry is about. Make you ‘see’ something and then want it, because of those unrestrained desires already there that just need stirring on. Third, boasting of what he has and does, pride that exalts self. To summarise: the world means self-centred living according to desires, that are inflamed by what you can see and which go to building up the ego to exalt the individual.

How is this hatred toward God? First it is self-centred and godless.  Second it is purely materialistic – and thus godless. Third it exalts self to the exclusion of God  – and is therefore godless. In every way the ‘way of the world’ is a godless mentality, and by godless we mean it excludes or ignores or rejects God.  No wonder James says that Anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God. This is another case of taking sides, because there are opposites to choose and if you choose one you will be hostile to the other. If you accept a mentality that is, in reality, self-centred, materialistic and self-exalting, you cannot call yourself a child of God, because all of these expressions are in opposition to God.

Perhaps the classic instance in the Scripture of this choice came through Joshua to the people of Israel near the end of his life: if serving the LORD seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your forefathers served beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.” (Josh 24:15)  Look, he was saying, if you want you can go and serve the idols that our primitive forefathers served, but me and my family will serve the Lord.  There was a clear choice you did one or the other.  The choice is exactly the same today.  You either serve the idols of materialism, or of self-centred human endeavour, or of scientific endeavour or whatever other godless expression of modern life that you can find, or you will trust and serve the Lord.  The reality of that choice comes when you see who or what it is that you rely upon. That is why James finds it so important to think about talking to God.  Talking to God is perhaps the clearest sign of relying upon Him.

A New Testament parallel is, perhaps when Jesus had been saying difficult things:From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him. “You do not want to leave too, do you?” Jesus asked the Twelve. Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” (Jn 6:66-69) Some of those who had been with Jesus now drifted away. They couldn’t cope with or understand some of the things he was saying. For Peter, there was no question. Jesus was the Messiah and was the one bringing answers and eternal life. There was no competition as far as he was concerned. That conclusion meant he gave up all rights to his life and went and followed Jesus wherever he led. I once asked a group what they would like their epitaph on their gravestone to be. One answered, “She followed the Lord wherever he said to go.” May that be true of each one of us who call ourselves Christians!