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The Purpose of Problems

November 4th, 2018

Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. (2 Corinthians 12:7)

A serendipitous event last week brought a scripture to my attention. The event was a water leak that happened in the men’s washroom above my office at the church. Most of the damage is repairable, but it did leak down on some of my personal books I have amassed over the years. Before you ask, let me say that it was clean water – the first question in my mind! – and that things just got wet. We say that a good mind is like a sponge, that soaks up the knowledge of books. But I have learned that books can be like sponges as well, and they can absorb a great deal of water!

I have downsized my library several times over the years, and there are still some books that I need to re-read more often. Like friends, the older ones are the better ones for many reasons – perhaps only for the fact that they resonate with something within us that harkens back to a younger time in our lives, times when life was newer and we were too.

But this hidden blessing, that resulted in some of my books getting absolutely drenched, also did something good. In the clean up I looked through a few of these old literary friends this weekend that I probably would have let sit on my shelf for a much longer time. And, again, like old friends they held forgotten wisdom. Many, if not most, are out of print how, so the titles are unimportant, but they reminded me of truths that I had not thought of lately.

One of these authors, writing on dealing with problems, reminded me that one of the reasons that God allows problems in life is that they keep us humble, they keep us real, they keep us from becoming arrogant and proud. That is exactly the thought that Paul shared above – that God had blessed him with great spiritual experiences, but to prevent him from becoming conceited God had also entrusted to him a “thorn in the flesh,” a nameless physical malady that kept him humble and dependent on God.

We do not know what this thorn was – the speculations have been endless, from some recurring malarial fever, to arthritis, to some eye problem (which scriptures seem to hint at – see Galatians 4:13-15, 6:11 – perhaps a physical weakness due to his stoning at Lystra where he was presumed to be dead – see Acts 14:19-20). Some of the more cynical around us have supposed that it was his wife – but the scriptures are not clear about whether he was married at all and most seem to think that he was not. But, even if an eye problem was the most likely, this thorn has been left unnamed so that Christians through the centuries could identify with him on this principle.

We all seem to have something that God gives us to keep us humble, to keep us real. God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble (James 4:6), and we do not want the Almighty to be opposed to us. So we ought to embrace these weaknesses which we all have with a little more understanding. The slightest amount of success in life can turn us to very annoying egomaniacs – annoying to ourselves as much as to everyone else. God’s grace is sufficient for us, and He will give us the grace to bear up under the challenge, the grace to smile in pain, through the tears, through the disappointments, and even to laugh at ourselves.

So my soaked books were not completely ruined and brought enduring truths to my attention – another problem that helped me spiritually. Better a wet book that is read than a dry one that sits on a shelf.

To parlay this analogy one step further, I remember a quotation from when I was a teenager: “You are the only ‘Bible’ that some will read.”  We could go a step further, that you and I are the only books that some will read, so we should also not spend all of our lives on “the shelf of life.” We need to get down and open our pages or share our thoughts and lives with others so that we can bless them with whatever means we have at our disposal.

So share the hope of God that is found in the midst of limitations and problems. Anything that keeps us humble and real is a good thing for our spiritual lives.

Daily Devotions, Dealing with Difficulties

On Dogs, Pearls, and Pigs

October 26th, 2018

Do not give dogs what is holy; do not throw your pearls before swine. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and then turn and tear you to pieces. (Matthew 7:6 Berean Study Bible)

In His teachings about not judging others, Christ places a proviso – that having a non-judgmental spirit toward others cannot be a backdoor entry into indiscretion. He does not leave us the option to simply say, “Well, since I am not to judge others, then I suppose I am not responsible to identify anything specifically as truth or falsehood, or any action as moral or immoral.” Christ does not leave us with that excuse.

If we did try and claim it – and many I know do take this approach, that in being non-judgmental they accept everything as being equally true – then even this command not to judge is meaningless. To be tolerant, gracious, patient, and self-effacing does not require us to be incapable of identifying truth from falsehood.

The best way to understand this command is to return to Christ’s teachings in the start of His Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes. There we see the attitudes He is instructing His followers to adopt: admission of personal poverty of spirit, mourning for sin, meekness before God, hungering and thirsting for God’s righteousness, mercifulness toward others, purity of heart (in the sense of receiving God’s forgiveness), seeking to make peace between people and God and between people and other people, and even helping people achieve personal peace within themselves. This non-judgmental attitude toward others is simply these attitudes working themselves out in application.

“Dogs” were both considered indiscreet in their appetites and in their morals. Jews did not commonly have dogs as household pets, rather they were considered as scavengers. They could attach themselves with loyalty to some pack, or to some people, but there was no ability in their own soul to ascertain truth. The title seemed appropriate for the Gentile world as a whole, that though they could behave with decency in some circumstances, they did not have an understanding of God, or of truth, or of proper morality.

The Greeks and Romans that had conquered Israel and controlled Palestine in those years, would be an example of this. Though impressive in some of their philosophies, creative artistically and powerful militarily, they also had peppered the known world with brothels, and promoted the immoral rites of worship of some gods and goddesses. They could not be made partners in forming some new mix of religions.

“Swine” or “pigs” were unclean animals to the Jews, and they were likewise indiscreet in their appetites. They stood for those who cannot distinguish between right and wrong, good and evil, or truth and falsehood.

“Pearls” were the nuggets of truth that could change a person’s direction in life, that could bring repentance, conversion, grace and forgiveness, and a new hope. A “pearl” might also be a rebuke – given in the right way, of course, given by someone who had in repentance and meekness let God remove the beam from his own eye, and came to another in utter humility and with a desire to only help.

Proverbs says:

Whoever corrects a scoffer gets himself abuse,
and he who reproves a wicked man incurs injury.
Do not reprove a scoffer, or he will hate you;
reprove a wise man, and he will love you.
Give instruction to a wise man, and he will be still wiser;
teach a righteous man, and he will increase in learning.
The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom,
and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight. (Proverbs 9:7-10 ESV)

Followers of Christ should be compassionate toward all, and loving toward all. We should proclaim the gospel to the whole world and to any one who will listen. But there is also the time and place when we should pull back from those who would take the message and corrupt it, who would twist it and use it as some excuse to persecute Christians.

This prophecy was fulfilled in the early church, for the Gentile world accused Christians of things such as cannibalism, on the basis of the observance of Communion. Christ’s words, “This is my body, take eat,” were misrepresented and rumours were spread to create fear and disgust among the population for the Christian faith. And many other Christian teachings in our day are being twisted and misrepresented – child discipline, marriage and family, and abortion and homosexuality – and the church is being painted in the colour of intolerance, rather than compassionate concern for what is right.

So, in conclusion, we should know where we stand and should show discretion and wisdom in who we speak with, and how we speak with them. Love and compassion should be modelled with patience and kindness toward others, yet we should not backdown from the truth. And we should be very careful of those who seek to join the unbelieving world and create some new religious paradigm. We must stand on the Word of God and on the gospel of Jesus Christ.

 

Daily Devotions