Saturday, January 23, 2010

Eight of the Twelve - A very frank conversation.

It's impossible for me to remember every prayer I pray and every word I hear from God without writing it down. That's why I began to keep a prayer journal back in 2003. In it, I write my words in parenthesis to distinguish my voice from the Holy Spirit. This way, I'm able to see the flow of conversation and remember who said what. If anyone were to read how God and I interact without knowing the purpose or function of the journal, I may be accused of schizophrenia. I can especially see that during the parts where I use the words "Huh? But Lord..."

Journaling prayer isn't a modern innovation, though. Not that I'm putting my spiral notebooks on the same level, but some of the prophets record when God told them to write His words. Among them were Jeremiah, John when he received the Revelation, and Habakkuk.

As a child, I would refer to Habakkuk in Sunday school to see if the other kids knew it was in the Bible. Kind of like that old joke where the preacher opens a message with, "Please turn to the book of Hezekiah," and you laugh at the sound of onion skin paper fluttering around the room. However, in the last few months, I have seen or heard three Bible teachers refer to Habakkuk. It seems times have changed for the journaling prophet. He's at least a little more like Ferris Bueller and a little less like Anthony Michael Hall in the Breakfast Club.

Habakkuk wrote a discussion he had with God in prayer. It started as a complaint and the prophet asked God some pointed questions. After God's response, Habakkuk wrote a humble song of praise. I want to refer to C.J. Mahaney in his book Humility: True Greatness and its discussion of Habakkuk. "I believe we all need to listen intently to Habakkuk so we can emulate his example when our circumstances seem to contradict the character and promises of God. And let me assure you: At some point in your life, you will know circumstances that seem to contradict the character and promises of God, if you haven't already. At some moment in your future, life will not make sense." Mahaney then puts forth an excellent discussion on Habakkuk's transformation from pride to humility. Even though I recommend anyone to read his book, I want to focus on another aspect of this prophet. Habakkuk and God spoke candidly to each other.

I believe this also sets an example for how we can approach God when life doesn't make sense. Chapter 1 begins with Habakkuk's prayer, "Lord, how long must I cry to you without your hearing? 'Violence!' I cry to you, but you don't save. Why do you make me see wrongdoing, why do you permit oppression? Pillage and cruelty confront me, so that strife and discord prevail. Therefore the Law is not followed; justice never gets rendered, because the wicked fence in the righteous. This is why justice comes out perverted."

If this were written in my prayer journal, I may have said it like, "Lord, you told me to pray but it doesn't seem to do any good. People are still sinning wickedly around me and taking advantage of others. They're cruel and quarrelsome. They despise the Bible, the standard of truth, and choose to live their own way. But that affects me and everyone else, God. It's not fair!"

Mahaney points to Habakkuk's prideful tone in this prayer. God does address this, but I want to make note of how He does not reproach Habakkuk for asking the questions. In 1:5-6, God replies, "Look around among the nations! What you see will completely astound you! For what is going to be done in your days you will not believe, even when you are told. I am raising up the Chaldeans, that bitter and impetuous nation, who march far and wide over the earth to seize homes that are not their own." God responds in turn with Habakkuk's prayer and goes on to tell him of the coming judgment. To paraphrase, "Yep, I'm pissed about their behavior, too. That's why I'm sending the terrorists in to level the place and take it over. Their army is stronger, faster, and meaner than yours. Diplomacy doesn't matter to them. But before you accuse me of allowing evil for evil's sake, you should know that I'm going to punish them as well."

Understandably, Habakkuk doesn't like this answer. My prayer journal would have read, "Huh? But Lord... that city they're going to destroy? I live there!" So the prophet asks God to explain Himself and in 1:13 writes, "Your eyes are too pure to see evil, you cannot countenance oppression. So why do you countenance traitors? Why are you silent when evil people swallow up those more righteous than they?" This kind of sounds like back-peddling. "Lord, I know I said we were bad, but these guys are worse. This doesn't make sense to me."

This reads like a very frank conversation between people who know each other. I want Christians to understand that we can come before God with this kind of familiarity, though not necessarily with the same attitude. I've met a good deal of people who tell me they want to hear God's voice. After we talk about how to listen, they often return telling me, "I didn't hear anything." My best answer to them is, "Keep praying. Keep listening." When my dad first began learning how to listen in prayer, he said, "I'm not going anywhere until you say something to me, Lord."

Habakkuk says something similar in 2:1. "I will stand at my watchpost; I will station myself on the rampart. I will look to see what He will say through me and what I will answer when I am reproved." He went somewhere by himself and waited quietly until God answered his questions. The rest of chapter 2 chronicles God's answer.

I'm not suggesting we treat God casually. These frank conversations aren't meant to diminish God's glory and majesty. We are, in fact, to respond in praise like Habakkuk in chapter 3. And like Habakkuk, our relationship with God should cause us to thank Him for Jesus. It's through Jesus' death and resurrection we are able enjoy this kind of intimacy. For Habakkuk, he knew God wouldn't completely destroy His people because of Jesus. In 1:12, the prophet said confidently, "My God, my holy one, we will not die." God had promised over and over to bring Messiah, Jesus, through the Jews. In 3:13, Habakkuk's song repeats this confidence and reminds the listener of God's plan for salvation. "You come out to save your people, to save your anointed one (Hebrew: Messiah); you crush the head of the house of the wicked (a reference to the prophecy in Genesis 3:15), uncovering its foundation all the way to the neck."

If I were to let you read my journals, you would see that my frank conversations with God haven't led me to show Him contempt. When He answers me, my love for Him grows because I understand more of His character and promises. I argue with Him less these days and, I'm happy to say, praise Him more.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Seven of the Twelve - Nahum and a question of evil.

I have so many stories and songs that could serve as metaphors in Nahum. I could talk about the first time I saw my dad yell at my brothers. I was eating a PB&J in my highchair. When my large, bearded father began shouting, I froze with the sandwich halfway in front of my gaping mouth. I wondered for a second, "Is he going to kill them?" He told my brothers to go outside and they booked out the door. Dad sighed and put his face in his hands. I sat completely still, sandwich and all, just in case he turned his fury on me. After a moment, he looked up at me and saw my face. "Oh. Sorry, buddy. Did I scare you?" Yes Dad, you did.

There was the time some friends and I tricked a body-builder into letting us duct tape him to a chair. It didn't last. When he realized that we weren't rehearsing a skit about "binding the strongman" for youth camp, he flexed his whole body at once and the tape seemed to melt off of him. Watching that display of power scared me enough to think, "He might actually kill me." My friends and I survived because one roll of tape still held his ankle to the chair. God is merciful.

I was also going to try applying the lyrics of Warren G's Regulate but I think we have enough to work with here.

Reading Nahum, you might think your dad was about to kill your brothers. Or at least the neighbor kids since the prophecy concerns Nineveh in Assyria. I mean, all of the prophets know how to write doom and gloom passages, but listen to this. Speaking to Nineveh, Nahum writes in 3:5-6, "'I am against you,' says the Lord of Hosts. 'I will uncover your skirts on your face; I will show the nations your private parts and the kingdoms your shame. I will pelt you with disgusting filth, disgrace you and make a spectacle of you.'" After reading this last month, I turned to my girlfriend and asked, "How exactly did they interpret this in the Illustrated Children's Bible?"

You might file Nahum 3:5-6 under "verses we don't mention in conversation". The Bible has a few of those. Leviticus, Ecclesiastes, certain parts of Song of Solomon that can't call allegory. That sort of thing. Still, it's in the Bible for a reason. So what is God trying to say?

Nahum stated some foundational points in chapter 1. "The Lord is a jealous and vengeful God. The Lord avenges; He knows how to be angry. The Lord takes vengeance on His foes and stores up wrath for His enemies. The Lord is slow to anger, but great in power; and He does not leave the guilty unpunished." Then later in 1:7, "The Lord is good, a stronghold in times of trouble; He takes care of those who take refuge in Him."

God is good, but He knows how to be angry. This is the same, unchanging God who inspired Paul to instruct people not to sin in their anger. Anger in itself isn't sin. Why? Because God gets angry. When it agrees with God, who is perfectly good with no evil in Him, then it isn't sin. It's not always easy to think of it that way, though, because we often attempt to hold God to our faulty and incomplete standards. We compare Him to ourselves and end up with a fuzzy Xerox copy of what anger should look like.

God has every reason to be angry with Assyria. First off, they named the country after their patron deity, a demon named Assur (or Ashur). Their king performed the duties of Assur's high priest. This was no casual religion. King Sennacherib wrote of following Ashur's commands in battle. Second, they were the ones who overtook the northern kingdom of Israel, blended in with the population, and brought their gods with them. This is how God-fearing Israelites became idol-worshiping Samaritans. Micah condemned the Assyrian city of Lakhish for transmitting these pagan elements to God's people. Third, they were ruthless with the cities they conquered. Some accounts talk about brutal rape, gouging out eyes of men so they could tell of Assyria's mercilessness, and maiming men in horrific ways until they died. Pastor Craig Brown of City Church once told of an Assyrian torture where a man would have the flesh on his back peeled off by a metal rake.

This nation existed for something around 1,400 years. We're talking centuries upon centuries of horrors. I think that's why Nahum felt it necessary to remind Nineveh the Lord is slow to anger but wouldn't let them go unpunished. "You guys had well over a millennium and a visit from Jonah. Don't say God didn't warn you."

Remember in the midst of this that God is still good. While the imagery in Nahum spells disaster for Nineveh, it comforts God's people. Nahum 1:15 says, "Look! On the mountain are the feet of him who brings good news, proclaiming peace. Keep your festivals, Judah, fulfill your vows; For the wicked one will never pass through you again; he has been completely destroyed." The book closes with the people celebrating Assyria's downfall in 3:19. Speaking again to Assyria, "Your wound cannot be healed. Your injury is fatal. Everyone hearing the news about you claps his hands in joy over you. For who has not been overwhelmed by your relentless cruelty?"

Another passage of the Bible speaks of God's people celebrating their enemies coming to justice. Revelation speaks of a time when God will punish his enemies. The tone of Revelation 18:20 resembles that of Nahum 3:19. "Rejoice over her, O heaven, and you saints and apostles and prophets, because God has pronounced judgment for you against her (Babylon)."And in Revelation 19, John describes Jesus' return to punish Satan and his followers. Jesus has a sword, blood-soaked clothes, and is proclaimed as King of Kings and Lord of Lords. An angel calls all the birds of the earth to feast on the flesh of those Jesus slays. This, again, is not from the Illustrated Children's Bible.

This is, however, God's justice. Isaiah 9:7 prophesies of Jesus establishing His kingdom on earth saying, "Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David's throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the LORD Almighty will accomplish this" (emphasis mine). It might be hard for us to think of this slaughter as justice but the Bible clearly calls it just that.

I had a conversation about theology with a friend of mine recently. He brought up the topic of predestination, which always makes for light discussion. During our talk, he said he used to struggle understanding how evil could exist if nothing in existence didn't come from God's hand. My voice lowered as I asked, "Don't you think that's duelist thinking?" He laughed and said, "I'm not agreeing with the idea. I'm only saying I have a hard time understanding evil. When I die and come into God's presence, all of the tumblers will fall into place and I'll finally see what is truly good and understand what is truly evil."

I walked away from that conversation still unsure if my friend believed God was both good and evil, a ying-yang creator. Something of what he said made sense, though. I believe the Bible is a perfectly true revelation of God and His character. The Bible tells me that God is good. Anything good comes from God. The Bible tells me that there is no evil, no darkness, in God. He hates evil. But I only know of God's goodness and His aversion to evil because of what He has told me in the Bible. My emotions might have at one time told me that Nineveh's destruction sounds awful, that God's command to Saul to kill every Amalekite was as wicked as any other genocide, that any hard act of God is an act of cruelty. But these are just emotional reactions not necessarily based on my standard of truth in the Bible.

All of this has caused me to wonder about God's command to Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden. He told them not to eat of the tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Was it simply an arbitrary command? Like, "let's see if they can keep this one rule"? Was it because God didn't want them to have knowledge of evil so they could prance around the garden in ignorant bliss? I'm beginning to think (and I might change my mind on this as I continue to learn) that God gave this command because finite humans couldn't understand the full context of God's perfect goodness. And if evil is that which is contrary to God and His character, one would need to fully understand what is good to know evil as its full antithesis. When we make decisions between what we think of as good and evil based on our own understanding, isn't that a recipe for failure? This strengthens my conviction that I need God the Holy Spirit to guide me into all truth.

I believe Nahum knew this while writing about private parts and feces getting tossed in someone's nose. His trust lay in God's revealed character. I needed to know that my dad loved my brothers. I later found out the body-builder was actually a pretty gentle guy. Now when I read the doomy parts of books like Nahum, I am reminded of God's goodness and this causes me to love Him more.