Ringing In the New Year with Ezekiel

Some Christians treat the turning of the calendars as an opportunity to take stock spiritually.  Others emphasize gratitude, setting up memorials and declaring, “Hitherto the Lord has helped us” (1 Samuel 7:12, RSV).  Looking ahead to a new year, some elaborate goals, while others fast and pray.

All of these practices have merit.  Yet one Old Testament prophet, at one new year, was led in a different direction.  God gave him a fresh vision, renewing his hope, not for the next twelvemonth but for a much longer vista:

In the twenty-fifth year of our exile, at the beginning of the year, on the tenth day of the month, in the fourteenth year after the city was conquered, on that very day, the hand of the Lord was upon me, and brought me in the visions of God into the land of Israel, and set me down upon a very high mountain, on which was a structure like a city opposite me.  When He brought me there, behold, there was a man, whose appearance was like bronze, with a line of flax and a measuring reed in his hand; and he was standing in the gateway.  And the man said to me, “Son of man, look with your eyes, and hear with your ears, and set your mind upon all that I shall show you, for you were brought here in order that I might show it to you; declare all that you see to the house of Israel.”  (Ezekiel 40:1-4, RSV)

This new year — the date was perhaps April 28, 573 B.C. by our calendar (1) — did not begin auspiciously.  Ezekiel was part of a second group of deportees, who had now lived a full quarter-century in exile in Babylon, a 900-mile journey from the city where the Lord had caused His Name to dwell. (2)  Jerusalem lay in ruins; the temple — of which the Lord had said, “I have chosen and consecrated this house that My Name may be there for ever; My eyes and My heart will be there for all time” (2 Chronicles 7:16, RSV) — was no more, the Glory departed (Ezekiel 8:3-11:23).  And the prophet’s wife, “the delight of his eyes” (24:16), had died.

No doubt Ezekiel, who even in a distant land saw visions of God, who upheld the Lord’s justice and declared His love, promising that He would gather His people (even from long death) and shepherd them once more — no doubt he could still have produced a gratitude list.  But sometimes God comes graciously to lift our eyes and set our hearts on all the goodness He has in store.

In the vision, Mount Zion has become “a very high mountain” (verse 2), “chief among the mountains” (Isaiah 2:2; Micah 4:1, NIV).  A new temple stands and, as the prophet looks on, the Glory of the Lord enters and fills it, never again to leave (Ezekiel 43:1-9).  The rebuilt city around it receives a new name, which closes the vision and the book: “The Lord Is There” (48:35).

This is a remarkably long and detailed vision, but much of it makes dull reading.  The angel with the yardstick leads the prophet through the temple buildings, and we get the dimensions of every wall and alcove.  It’s about as exciting as a building inspector’s notes, except that here we don’t even find the occasional substandard flaw.  Everything is perfect: the Lord reestablishes the covenant of holiness as separation, with daily blood sacrifices to cover sin.  The very layout of the temple, along with its regulations, is intended to instruct the people in holiness and the fear of the Lord (43:10-12).  Only, since they will never forget their exile, and the sins that provoked it, this temple is the center of a spirituality steeped in shame.  Every distance and dimension is a reminder of falling short, every perfection a shining mirror in which to see the heart that must be covered:

Son of man, describe the temple to the people of Israel, that they may be ashamed of their sins.  (43:10, NIV)

In fact, this is something of a theme in Ezekiel: the restored people of God will bear their shame (16:52, 54; 44:13), perhaps forever:

. . . that you may [earnestly] remember and be ashamed and confounded and never open your mouth again because of your shame, when I have forgiven you all that you have done, says the Lord God.  (16:63, Ampl)

Yet there is a tension, for He also says:

They will forget their shame and all the unfaithfulness they showed toward Me . . .   I will no longer hide My face from them, for I will pour out My Spirit on the house of Israel, declares the Sovereign Lord.  (39:26, 29, NIV)

One is left with the impression of an ineradicable shame, an incurable disposition toward sin, that nevertheless is swallowed up by the power of His Presence.

There are many discrepancies, both small and significant, between the temples built by Solomon, Zerubbabel, and Herod and the one seen by Ezekiel.  None is more striking than the life-giving stream that flows out from it:

The man brought me back to the entrance of the temple, and I saw water coming out from under the threshold of the temple toward the east (for the temple faced east).  The water was coming down from under the south side of the temple, south of the altar.  He then brought me out through the north gate and led me around the outside to the outer gate facing east, and the water was flowing from the south side.

As the man went eastward with a measuring line in his hand, he measured off a thousand cubits and then led me through water that was ankle-deep.  He measured off another thousand cubits and led me through water that was knee-deep.  He measured off another thousand and led me through water that was up to the waist.  He measured off another thousand, but now it was a river that I could not cross, because the water had risen and was deep enough to swim in — a river that no one could cross.  He asked me, “Son of man, do you see this?”

Then he led me back to the bank of the river.  When I arrived there, I saw a great number of trees on each side of the river.  He said to me, “This water flows toward the eastern region and goes down into the Arabah, where it enters the Sea.  When it empties into the Sea, the water there becomes fresh.  Swarms of living creatures will live wherever the river flows.  There will be large numbers of fish, because this water flows there and makes the salt water fresh; so where the river flows everything will live.  Fishermen will stand along the shore; from En Gedi to En Eglaim there will be places for spreading nets.  The fish will be of many kinds — like the fish of the Great Sea.  But the swamps and marshes will not become fresh; they will be left for salt.  Fruit trees of all kinds will grow on both banks of the river.  Their leaves will not wither, nor will their fruit fail.  Every month they will bear, because the water from the sanctuary flows to them.  Their fruit will serve for food and their leaves for healing.”  (47:1-12, NIV)

Jerusalem had no river, and none of Israel’s temples featured flowing waters, but the psalmist speaks of “a river whose streams make glad the city of God” (Psalm 46:4, RSV, NIV) and “Your river of delights . . . the fountain of life” (Psalm 36:8-9, NIV).  The Lord pours out His Spirit, His own life-giving Presence, and “where the river flows everything will live.”  Even the Dead Sea loses its salinity, confounding our expectations; just so, the Presence of the Lord will overturn the very limits established by His Law.  For in Mosaic Law, sin and uncleanness are more powerful than holiness; as the priests confirm to the prophet Haggai, a holy object consecrates only what it directly touches, while defilement continues to spread (Haggai 2:11-14).  By all the logic of the Old Testament, when Jesus touches a leper, He should be unclean and the leper unchanged.  Instead, like the potent, ever-fresh river, His touch banishes sickness and sin, while He remains pure.  Sorrow and sighing flee away (Isaiah 35:10).

We picture Ezekiel standing amid his measurements, scratching his head and wondering, Lord, how can this be?  Hasn’t God Himself said that our sin and shame must be reckoned up and remembered forever?  Yes, it is all counted, before our eyes — and then canceled and set aside:

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city.  On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month.  And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.  No longer will there be any curse.  (Revelation 22:1-3, NIV)

God practices immersion learning.  Zeke is being set up, and he never quite realizes it.  He walks all around and through grace, gathers its dimensions incrementally, and knows nothing about it until he’s engulfed.  Look at him, solemnly led along by the Angel of Measurement: ankle-deep, knee-deep, waist-deep, splash!  And he’s in over his head, baptized, floundering in the immeasurable, hearing the angel asking, Do you get it?

Six centuries later, Paul writes:

And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge — that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.  (Ephesians 3:17-19, NIV; Ampl “wholly filled and flooded with God Himself!”)

A river grows deeper only as tributaries feed into it, or as it runs through narrow channels. The river Ezekiel enters, the river of God, is fed by no other sources, and is spreading out.  The water rises, as it flows, because God does more than start it.  He sustains, feeds, and indwells the life-giving river. (3)

Corrie ten Boom said that we can never use our imaginations too strongly in thinking about heaven or things to come, (4) because “no eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love Him.  But God has revealed it to us by His Spirit” (1 Corinthians 2:9-10, NIV; Isaiah 64:4) — and He revealed it, by His Spirit, to Ezekiel.

Sometimes life seems like a railroad track, straight and fixed.  When we look back, we see it stretching afar, the iron rails of our forced march, our banishment.  With hunch-shouldered heaviness, we turn and face forward, expecting more of the same.

Our past may be a long exile, our hopes in ruins, our delight more than a decade dead.  Our shame may appear inexpungible, and never more so than when we contemplate a holy God.  But a new year need not spell mere continuation.  The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ has a way of surpassing all measuring sticks, even the ones He has furnished.  When He chooses, He comes in power.  There is no deadness or uncleanness that His life cannot purify and make fruitful.  We cannot fathom His love, and yet it can fill us and flow out of us.  Even now, He calls us and carries us toward a future we cannot imagine, though we know its name: The Lord Is There.

 

(1) Mark Hillmer, note on Ezekiel 40:1, in Kenneth Barker, ed., The NIV Study Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1985), 1283.

(2) Edwin Yamauchi and Ronald Youngblood, note on Ezra 7:7-9, in NIV Study Bible, 684.

(3) This sense of the Divine Presence, rather than the movement of heavenly bodies, also underlies the picture of the path of the righteous shining “brighter and brighter” as they walk with God (Proverbs 4:18, RSV; compare 2 Corinthians 3:18).  The philosophers Descartes and Malebranche argued that, since a cause must be greater than its effect, it is not enough to say that an object exists because it existed a moment ago; the greater cause must be the sustaining will of God, choosing to keep it in being.  Thus God is ever active, willing, sustaining, perhaps augmenting.  Jonathan Edwards drew on this idea in his misunderstood and vilified 1741 sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” arguing that only the forbearing will of God preserves the life of the wicked.  See Sermons and Discourses, 1739-1742 (Works of Jonathan Edwards Online Vol. 22), ed. Harry S. Stout and Nathan O. Hatch with Kyle P. Farley (New Haven: Yale, 1957, 2003), 404-18; available at http://edwards.yale.edu/research/browse.

(4) Pamela Rosewell Moore, The Five Silent Years of Corrie ten Boom (Grand Rapids, MI.: Zondervan-HarperCollins, 1986), 132.

Advertisements

To Heal the Land

On patriotic holidays such as July Fourth, I always intend to pray for my country.  I also mean to pray for Israel, for the many nations experiencing great suffering, for Christian missionary work throughout the world, and for the return of Jesus to establish His righteous Kingdom.

But I usually don’t get very far with such prayers.  Over the years, I have lamented my laziness, and decided that others have more of a calling to intercession than I do.  But now I think there is also another reason at work.  Resolute and persevering intercession seems to be at war with gratitude and worship.  Even in heaven, the voices of the souls of the martyrs, calling “How long . . . ?” from under the altar (Revelation 6:9-10), seem to us to clash with the just-concluded anthem of “blessing, and honor, and glory, and power” (5:13, KJV) — even though, since “every creature” joined in that chorus, the martyrs apparently offer both protest and praise.  In the same way, the watchmen posted by the Lord on Jerusalem’s walls, calling on Him day and night, giving themselves and Him no rest till He establish the city and the kingdom (Isaiah 62:6-7), come across as unbalanced, as severe and fierce, though, as heralds of the rejoicing Bridegroom (verse 5), they roar in hope.

God is so kind that He helps us with such dilemmas, teaching us in many different ways.  He gives us His great and precious promises, but His Word also presents accounts and examples of people believing these promises, living by them, and claiming them in prayer.

There is one promise in particular that Christians often think of on patriotic occasions, but we don’t always remember the context.  David desired to build a Temple for the Lord in Jerusalem, and made many preparations for it.  His son Solomon spent seven years building it, and all Israel gathered for seven days just to dedicate it.  Some time after this, the Lord appears to Solomon at night and makes this promise:

I have heard your prayer and have chosen this place for Myself as a Temple for sacrifices.

When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command locusts to devour the land or send a plague among My people, if My people, who are called by My name, will humble themselves and pray and seek My face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land.  Now My eyes will be open and My ears attentive to the prayers offered in this place.  I have chosen and consecrated this Temple so that My name may be there forever.  My eyes and My heart will always be there.  (2 Chronicles 7:12-16, NIV)

This promise is made at the height of the Kingdom of Israel’s glory.  Its territorial boundaries were greater than at any other time, with safety and “peace on all sides” (1 Kings 4:24-25); we also read, “King Solomon was greater in riches and wisdom than all the other kings of the earth” (10:23, NIV).  This was Israel’s golden age.

Now we move ahead about 420 years, and we find one person who enters into this promise.  The times are very different: because of sin, the Lord has torn Israel in two, handed them over to their enemies; the Temple is destroyed, Jerusalem lies in ruins, and the people are in exile.  It seems to some as if all the promises of God have failed.  But a man named Daniel is reading his Bible and trying to understand.

. . . I, Daniel, understood from the Scriptures, according to the word of the Lord given to Jeremiah the prophet, that the desolation of Jerusalem would last seventy years.  (Daniel 9:2, NIV)

He’s thinking that the time should be about up, and yet there’s no sign of a restoration.

So I turned to the Lord God and pleaded with Him in prayer and petition, in fasting, and in sackcloth and ashes.  (9:3, NIV)

Remember what the Lord said to Solomon: “if My people . . . will humble themselves and pray and seek My face and turn from their wicked ways . . .”

I prayed to the Lord my God and confessed:

“O Lord, the great and awesome God, who keeps His covenant of love with all who love Him and obey His commands, we have sinned and done wrong.  We have been wicked and have rebelled; we have turned away from Your commands and laws.  We have not listened to Your servants the prophets, who spoke in Your name to our kings, our princes and our fathers, and to all the people of the land.

“Lord, You are righteous, but this day we are covered with shame — the men of Judah and people of Jerusalem and all Israel, both near and far, in all the countries where You have scattered us because of our unfaithfulness to You.  O Lord, we and our kings, our princes and our fathers are covered with shame because we have sinned against You.  The Lord our God is merciful and forgiving, even though we have rebelled against Him; we have not obeyed the Lord our God or kept the laws He gave us through His servants the prophets.  All Israel has transgressed Your law and turned away, refusing to obey You.

“Therefore the curses and sworn judgments written in the Law of Moses, the servant of God, have been poured out on us, because we have sinned against You.  You have fulfilled the words spoken against us and against our rulers by bringing upon us great disaster.  Under the whole heaven nothing has ever been done like what has been done to Jerusalem.  Just as it is written in the Law of Moses, all this disaster has come upon us, yet we have not sought the favor of the Lord our God by turning from our sins and giving attention to Your truth.  The Lord did not hesitate to bring the disaster upon us, for the Lord our God is righteous in everything He does; yet we have not obeyed Him.

“Now, O Lord our God, who brought Your people out of Egypt with a mighty hand and who made for Yourself a name that endures to this day, we have sinned, we have done wrong.  O Lord, in keeping with all Your righteous acts, turn away Your anger and Your wrath from Jerusalem, Your city, Your holy hill.  Our sins and the iniquities of our fathers have made Jerusalem and Your people an object of scorn to all those around us.

“Now, our God, hear the prayers and petitions of Your servant.  For Your sake, O Lord, look with favor on Your desolate sanctuary.  Give ear, O God, and hear; open Your eyes and see the desolation of the city that bears Your name.  We do not make requests of You because we are righteous, but because of Your great mercy.  O Lord, listen!  O Lord, forgive!  O Lord, hear and act!  For Your sake, O my God, do not delay, because Your city and Your people bear Your name.” (9:4-19)

This is a remarkable prayer.  Notice, first, that Daniel fully identifies with Israel.  If anyone among the exiles could have called himself “special,” it was Daniel: he had been chosen as a young man, trained in all the wisdom of the Babylonians; he had lived many decades in or near the king’s palace.  But from the first, when he insisted on a diet of vegetables and water, he allied himself with the Israelites, a displaced people, living as refugees.

Moreover, Daniel doesn’t say that a previous generation sinned — or “those people.”  He keeps saying “we.”  There is utter humility here — no excuses, no boasts.  Partly because of this, as he prays, his faith rises up; he reminds himself of what he genuinely believes about the character of God: “You are righteous . . . merciful and forgiving . . . righteous in everything [You] do . . . great in mercy.”

The outcome of this prayer is astounding.  While Daniel is still speaking, the angel Gabriel shows up to instruct him (9:21).  Within two years the first return begins, and the rebuilding of the Temple. (1)  More enduringly, the Lord reveals to Daniel and to us that He has a plan “to put an end to sin, to atone for wickedness, to bring in everlasting righteousness,” and He announces the coming Anointed Ruler (9:24-25, NIV).  In other words, when Daniel prays, the Lord in some measure reveals Jesus to his heart.

It can seem out of balance to pray like this; it’s as if Daniel has joined the ranks of the martyrs and the watchmen.  Normally, we want and need to enumerate our blessings and give thanks to God, and praise Him for who He is.  Daniel knew this; in an earlier chapter, he is described as praying, “giving thanks to his God” three times a day (6:10, NIV).  But sometimes God calls intercessors to focus their attention on the glass half empty, to groan and travail over sin and its consequences.  And yet Daniel isn’t moved to pray because things are “so bad,” because of a plague or a drought.  Rather, it’s a promise from God, stirring his hope, that prompts him to cry out for restoration.  Remember, he has just been reading the words of his contemporary Jeremiah:

This is what the Lord says: “When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill My gracious promise to bring you back to this place.  For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.  Then you will call upon Me and come and pray to Me, and I will listen to you.  You will seek Me and find Me when you seek Me with all your heart.  I will be found by you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back from captivity.  I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have banished you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back to the place from which I carried you into exile.”  (Jeremiah 29:10-14, NIV)

Daniel doesn’t turn from thanksgiving to intercession because conditions are so awful, but because God is so good and His purposes so marvelous.  The prayer of faith that honors God doesn’t spring from a desperate, bargaining fear but from clear-eyed hope in a gracious Lord.  And it is a people filled with wonder, practiced in the discipline of giving thanks, who are best equipped to take up the calling (be it long or short) of unrelenting intercession.  We give Him no rest because of the joy set before us.

Let us then pray for our nation, and for the world, not because we have no other hope but because we have been given such an astonishing hope.  We are able to humble ourselves, and to acknowledge the extent of our depravity, as we stand in the light of His glorious plans.  This holiday, let’s pray not because we see desolation — wars and refugees, famines and epidemics, injustice, poverty, trauma, ruination — but looking toward the unseen, grasping hold of some great Biblical promise of national and global healing.  If we spend time in His presence, taste His goodness, consider His plans, we will invite His coming.

Father, we pray:

  • That You will establish, guide, and bless “all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness,” and that You will raise up people in every place “to lift up holy hands in prayer” (1 Timothy 2:2, 8, NIV), for, though we are now citizens of the heavenly realms and of God’s Israel (Philippians 3:20; Ephesians 2:6, 12, 19), still, so long as we are “strangers and exiles on the earth” (Hebrews 11:13, RSV; 1 Peter 2:11), we seek the peace and prosperity of the places to which You carry us (Jeremiah 29:7);
  • That You will open doors in every land for the message of the gospel (Colossians 4:3), “that the message of the Lord may spread rapidly and be honored” (2 Thessalonians 3:1, NIV), and that as Lord of the harvest You will send out workers into the field (Luke 10:2);
  • That believers “may be delivered from wicked and evil men” (2 Thessalonians 3:2, NIV), that You will protect them from the evil one (John 17:15), and that we may all be one in Christ (John 17:21-23), increasing and abounding in love and in faith (1 Thessalonians 3:12; 2 Thessalonians 1:3).
  • We pray for the peace of Jerusalem (Psalm 122:6), that You will establish Jerusalem and make her the praise of the earth (Isaiah 62:7), and that all Israel may be saved (Romans 10:1; 11:26).
  • And we groan with all creation for the return of Jesus, liberation from sin, and “the glorious freedom of the children of God” (Romans 8:21, NIV), when “we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is” (1 John 3:2, NIV), and when “the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea” (Habakkuk 2:14, NIV; Isaiah 11:9) and every knee will bow “and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:10-11, NIV).  Come, Lord Jesus (Revelation 22:20; 1 Corinthians 16:22).

When even one person humbles himself or herself, prays, seeks God’s face, and turns from wickedness, He begins to heal the land.  So we ask for “a spirit of grace and supplication” (Zechariah 12:10, NIV).

 

(1) Here I am following the dates proposed by The NIV Study Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1985): Solomon’s Temple dedicated in 958 B.C., Daniel’s prayer in 539-38, and the return under Sheshbazzar and the commencement of Temple construction in 537-36 (see pages 482, 485, 1313, 674).  Note that 1 Kings 9:1-2 and 2 Chronicles 7:11 suggest that the Lord’s promise to Solomon was made some years after the Temple dedication, when the royal palace was also completed; NIV Study Bible (489) dates this at 946 B.C. or later.

 

Advent

Year by year, I try to prepare my heart for the coming of the Christ. As I grow older, I notice two changes. The obstacles and distractions seem to grow more formidable; at the same time, my practice becomes simpler. There are readings, music, prayers, church gatherings. But the one essential lies outside all these. I need to sit awhile where I can see a baby.

No doubt of it: I am a romantic. Babies are hard work, bottomless wells of need. I can never quite overlook the frazzled, exhausted mother or father, the frantic grandparent, the neglected sibling. If babies perpetuate us, they also bring us pretty quickly to the end of ourselves.

But babies are also beautiful, glorious. Even if I am on a crowded airplane, craving sleep, dismayed to hear a baby’s cries, I smile if I can glimpse its face, or hand, or foot. Here is life straight from the Father’s hand, life that is all potential, all promise. Something softens in me, and relaxes into wonder.

If truth be told, I am afraid of babies. All my inadequacies surface: I will drop them, wake them, scare them, fail them. I joke that I can never hold a baby without spilling some, out one end or another. Fortunately, proud parents ignore my protests and thrust their child into my arms — and I am transfixed. As I hold this little being and watch the act of breathing, I feel my own heart rise and fall. As C.S. Lewis says, most of us have to be dragged kicking and screaming into the kingdom of heaven.

Afterwards, I always think of Immanuel, God with us. Not like corrupt and pagan gods, assuming a human disguise for the sake of an afternoon’s dalliance. No; in earnest He became flesh, turned into one of us. So much so that He was tiny, needy, helpless. Weaker than a toddler. Dependent on His parents. So much so that for many months He had no words.

Most years, December finds me discouraged. I will have been struggling with problems that to me seem both big and important. I will have prayed and read and waited to hear the voice of God, only to stumble on, in the dark, in a resounding silence. My flickering faith will be the proverbial smoldering wick, lightless, on the point of going out. I will feel forsaken.

But Immanuel is the God who comes too close for words. Beneath the prickly radar of intelligence, He arrives with the insistence of present, utter helplessness. Not bothering to address ears grown too dull to hear, He shares our darkness, our hunger, our exposure, our heartbeat, our flesh.

He comes. And we have only to open our arms.

For to you is born this day in the town of David a Savior, Who is Christ, the Messiah, the Lord! And this will be a sign for you [by which you will recognize Him]: you will find after searching, a Baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. (Luke 2:11-12, Amplified)

. . . open wide your hearts also. (2 Corinthians 6:13, NIV)

Merry Christmas.

Stand

Every so often, I meet with an exhortation to “advance the Kingdom” or “take back the land.” There is a Biblical foundation for this idea in the conquests of Joshua and David. And the example of Caleb — at the age of 85, driving the Canaanites out of Hebron (Joshua 14:6-14; Judges 1:20) — shows that it’s not just a young person’s dream.

But for every reference to mounting an attack, there seem to be two or three that speak of standing — or, better, standing firm. (We also see cases in which it is right to run away,(1) but that is another matter.)

Standing Firm

This struck me recently as I read the famous passage about putting on the whole armor of God. As Paul explains it, we are not suiting up in order to attack the forces of spiritual darkness and take over cities for Christ. Rather,

Put on God’s whole armor [the armor of a heavy-armed soldier which God supplies], that you may be able successfully to stand up against [all] the strategies and the deceits of the devil. For we are not wrestling with flesh and blood [contending only with physical opponents], but against the despotisms, against the powers, against [the master spirits who are] the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spirit forces of wickedness in the heavenly (supernatural) sphere. Therefore put on God’s complete armor, that you may be able to resist and stand your ground on the evil day [of danger], and, having done all [the crisis demands], to stand [firmly in your place]. Stand therefore [hold your ground], . . . (Ephesians 6:11-14, Amplified; emphasis added)

The habits, the Christian disciplines, involved in putting on God’s armor make us “strong in the Lord” (verse 10) so that, when (not if) the day of evil comes, the time when we are attacked and severely tried, we may stand our ground. The image is one of purely defensive warfare. At the same time, one of the reasons we are called “more than conquerors” (Romans 8:37) is surely that what we have gained in Christ can never be lost to a counterattack, requiring reconquest. We can rejoice that we stand in grace through Christ, by faith (Romans 5:2).(2)

We have “taken our stand” on the Gospel and its truths (1 Corinthians 15:1). So to the Galatians, who dream of adding Law to grace, Paul says, “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand fast therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1, RSV; emphasis added).

Standing is linked with ideas and images of steadiness, steadfastness, stability, and being established. After assuring us at length that our Christian hope is sure — that Christ has been raised, and our bodies too shall be taken up into life — Paul concludes, “Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:58, RSV; emphasis added; see also Colossians 1:23). Because we stand in hope, we can resist discouragement.

The Steadfast God

We are able to stand only because we have been created in the image of a God who stands fast and stands over. At the Red Sea, the pillar of cloud “stood behind” the Israelites, screening them from Egypt’s army through a long night (Exodus 14:19-20; compare Numbers 14:14). The Lord has established His faithfulness (Psalm 89:2), His throne (Psalm 93:2), and the earth (Psalm 119:90); and He alone can establish us. The Hebrew word aman can mean to stand fast, to be established, and to believe, and these are all related. Abraham believes God (Genesis 15:16), and later it can be said that the Lord found his heart faithful (Nehemiah 9:8). Through young Samuel comes the promise, “I will raise up for Myself a faithful (aman) priest, . . . I will firmly establish (aman) his house” (1 Samuel 2:35, NIV). Isaiah warns, “If you will not believe (aman), surely you shall not be established (aman)” (Isaiah 7:9, KJV; compare 2 Chronicles 20:20).

In a way, it sounds good when Eliphaz solemnly declares that the Lord places no trust (aman) in anyone, even the angels (Job 4:18; 15:15). What a high view of His holiness! But this is an instance of Eliphaz failing to speak what is right about Him (Job 42:8). For the truth is far more glorious: He makes us trustworthy. “Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To his own master he stands or falls. And he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand” (Romans 14:4). When we are weak, He stands by us, strengthening us so that we can stand (Acts 23:11; 2 Timothy 4:17).

It is in Christ — in faith and sufferings like His — that we stand firm (Philippians 4:1). Therefore, we stand together: we “stand firm in one spirit, with one mind . . .” (Philippians 1:27, RSV). We stand by faith (2 Corinthians 1:24; Romans 11:20), and this can be precarious: “Therefore let any one who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Corinthians 10:12, RSV). By grace we can be steadfast and resist the devil (1 Peter 5:9); we can even “strengthen and establish” one another (Luke 22:32, Amplified).

Among these texts, one is a personal favorite. During a difficult period, fearful of missing God’s direction, I was dismayed by the apostle’s summary stating that he had written “encouraging you and testifying that this is the true grace of God. Stand fast in it” (1 Peter 5:12, NIV; emphasis added). Which “this” did he mean? This what? Then it struck me: THIS. All this, the totality of the circumstances in which I’ve been placed. Stand fast, and trust. “And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace . . . [will] establish and ground you securely, and strengthen (and settle) you” (1 Peter 5:10, Amplified).

Eleazar and Shammah

What does it look like to take a stand? Two of David’s Mighty Men provide helpful portraits:

Next to him was Eleazar son of Dodai the Ahohite. As one of the three mighty men, he was with David when they taunted the Philistines gathered at Pas Dammim for battle. Then the men of Israel retreated, but he stood his ground and struck down the Philistines till his hand grew tired and froze to the sword. The Lord brought about a great victory that day. The troops returned to Eleazar, but only to strip the dead.

Next to him was Shammah son of Agee the Hararite. When the Philistines banded together at a place where there was a field full of lentils, Israel’s troops fled from them. But Shammah took his stand in the middle of the field. He defended it and struck the Philistines down, and the Lord brought about a great victory. (2 Samuel 23:9-12, NIV; emphasis added)

To begin with Shammah, allow me to make a scientific observation: Lentils! Really? My wife sometimes makes lentil soup, and I turn up my nose at it, or gently inquire whether anyone has yet discovered the antidote. Were I in Shammah’s place, I would hand over the field, purely as a matter of strategy, hoping that those nasty beans would make the Philistines as sick and disgusted as they have made me. I’ll be down the street, defending the barbecue joint.

The point is, Shammah’s decision isn’t rational. The lentil field isn’t a military vantage point. It’s not even his land. One might risk death to defend one’s own farm; failing that, one might take one’s stand in the gates of Jerusalem, the city chosen by the Lord as a place for His Name to dwell; better yet, one might cede the city gates, and draw one’s line at the Temple. But Shammah chooses an arbitrary plot of ground. Something rises up in him, a sense that enough is enough.

This isn’t simply anger. People who have been given a gift of faith, and have made a stand, sometimes say afterwards that they got mad at the devil. I have never found this to be productive; rather, as James 1:20 warns, “the anger of man does not work the righteousness of God” (RSV). Neither is it stubbornness, for Shammah is not trying to prove a point, and it’s not himself that he is asserting. The Spirit of God stirs up in him a settled determination. He will not quit, give up, or run away.

Turning to Eleazar, we see what such a decision can cost, even if one lives: “his hand . . . froze to the sword.” The Hebrew is dabaq, “cleaved,” the same word used of a husband and wife cleaving and becoming one (Genesis 2:24).(3) Elsewhere in the Old Testament, the verb is used of people holding tight to God (Deuteronomy 10:20; 11:22; 13:4; 30:20; Joshua 22:5; 23:8; 2 Kings 18:6) or to others — Shechem to Dinah (Genesis 34:31), Ruth to Naomi (Ruth 1:14), the men of Judah to David (2 Samuel 20:2), Solomon to foreign women (1 Kings 11:2), one good friend to another (Proverbs 18:24); it also describes an unnatural attachment of sin to our hands (Deuteronomy 13:17; Job 31:7) or of disease to our bodies (Deuteronomy 28:60; 2 Kings 5:27; Deuteronomy 28:21). Affliction causes one’s soul to cleave to the dust (Psalm 119:25).

Eleazar’s hand fuses or freezes. Perhaps oil or warm water will soften it, restoring suppleness; perhaps he makes a full recovery. Or he may be permanently disabled and disfigured. At the very least, making a stand has probably ruined him for certain other pursuits. You won’t find him playing the piano or working the loom.

The stands we take may ruin us for other things. When Jacob wrestled with the angel, his hip was put out of joint, but he held on, declaring, “I will not let you go unless you bless me” (Genesis 32:26, NIV). I think it was Jim Goll who said that Jacob failed to recognize that he had already been blessed, because up to that point in his life he had always run away when things got difficult. From this night forward, he limped (Genesis 32:31), but he also stood.

First and foremost, we are called to stand in prayer. The Lord looks for people to “build up the wall and stand before Me in the gap on behalf of the land” (Ezekiel 22:30, NIV; emphasis added). The watchers on the wall are to call on the Lord day and night, giving themselves and Him no rest, “till He establishes Jerusalem and makes her the praise of the earth” (Isaiah 62:6-7, NIV; emphasis added). Abraham, Moses, and Aaron stood in the breach to intercede (Genesis 18:22; Psalm 106:23; Numbers 16:48; compare Exodus 17:9), and Habakkuk took his stand on a tower, watching till the Lord should answer (Habakkuk 2:1).

What would it mean if we took this calling seriously? What if we were ruined for anything else, if our hands froze to the sword, if we became the prayer?

It begins with a settled determination, the declaration of God Himself that the Philistines have wrought enough destruction, and that the tide must be turned. We stand in the foolishness of a field of trampled lentils, steadfast and immovable, in faith and hope and a fierce joy.

(1) See, for example, Matthew 2:13-15; 10:23; 2 Corinthians 11:33; 1 Timothy 6:11; 2 Timothy 2:22.
(2) In his classic discussion of Ephesians, Sit, Walk, Stand (1957, 4th ed. 1962; Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House, 1977), Watchman Nee says well, “We do not try to gain ground; we merely stand on the ground which the Lord Jesus has gained for us, and resolutely refuse to be moved from it” (67). But I think Nee earlier (42-45) goes too far in insisting that we never attack, never fight for victory. Even though it is the Lord who fights for us, sometimes we are called to “stand” by marching forward (2 Chronicles 20:13-21; Exodus 14:13-15). Nee is commenting on Ephesians, yet right in 6:19-20 Paul speaks of his work as an ambassador: marching out, invading enemy territory, not as a warrior but as one proclaiming the peace that has been made.
(3) Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1984, 1996), Old Testament section, 37, notes that the modern Hebrew word for “glue” derives from dabaq.

Can We Forget God?

Before her death, I watched my mother grope through the fog of Alzheimer’s. She lost names and concepts, aspects of present awareness, and whole stretches of past experience. She was still herself, although more subdued, more querulous, and more childlike; she retained the ability to recognize family members. Had she lived longer, much more might have slipped away.

Many of us have loved ones who struggle with dementia, brain injury, or other intellectual disabilities. It is often difficult to gauge what they remember or understand. Among other things, if we are believers, we can’t help wondering about their grasp of the gospel.

It is probably good for us to wonder, since our faith is both less and more intellectual than we often think. Alone among the world’s major religions, Christianity is not essentially a book to read or a rule to follow, but a Person to know, and He seeks us out, whatever our capacities. And yet He usually comes speaking, and His words are life (John 6:63). In Jesus’ Parable of the Sower, the seed is the word of God (Luke 11:11), and the good ground receives and retains it. His teachings, promises, and commandments are our guide and our protection: “I have hidden Your word in my heart that I might not sin against You” (Psalm 119:11). What happens, then, when we cannot remember and reflect on these words?

The Storehouse of Memory

In the Bible, human memory is described as a treasury or a storehouse. God’s Wisdom promises to fill the treasuries of those who love her, particularly with riches of insight and understanding (Proverbs 8:21; 2:1-4). But this is not an inert deposit: the servant who buries his talent in the ground is condemned (Matthew 25:25-27). Nor are these truths simply for show: King Hezekiah is wrong to give the Babylonians a tour of his storehouses (2 Kings 20:12-18). These are supplies to be distributed (Nehemiah 13:12-13), like a daily food allowance (Luke 12:42). God’s words are to be kept in our hearts and ready on our lips (Proverbs 22:17-18). For when we don’t remember, we rebel (Psalm 106:7, 13).

There is an intellectual component to our participation in filling the storehouse. Ecclesiastes 12:9-10 says that the human teacher of wisdom “set in order many proverbs,” stated in “just the right words.” Similarly, modern cognitive psychology suggests that we remember best information that we have “chunked” or organized.

Yet, Biblically, remembering is never merely an intellectual process. Faith (“the fear of the Lord”) is the key to the treasury (Isaiah 33:6). Our memory may be jogged by a blue tassel worn for this purpose (Numbers 15:39), by the crowing of a rooster (Matthew 26:74-75), or by bread and wine. Habits may help, as, for Israel, the annual round of sabbaths and festivals reenacted the mighty acts of God.

Forgetting God and His words is not just loss of information or thinking about something else; it is allowing other experiences to crowd out the memory and the awareness of His steadfast love. The prophets say that Israel “forgets” the Lord when she chases idols, acting like an unfaithful spouse (Hosea 2:13; Jeremiah 23:27). There is a visual dimension, an “out of sight, out of mind” quality: “You have forgotten Me and thrust Me behind your back” (Ezekiel 23:35). Senses are dulled (2 Peter 1:9) and minds are confused, disoriented: “My people have been lost sheep; . . . They wandered over mountain and hill and forgot their own resting place” in God (Jeremiah 50:6). This forgetting is not a matter of intellectual decay or disability but of moral corruption.

And this raises the hope that remembering, too, may have a moral or spiritual dimension.

A Thousand Tongues

I have had occasion to reflect on this. In 2010, my wife underwent surgery to remove a brain tumor. The operation went well, but that night there was bleeding in the brain; she suffered a stroke, and went into a coma. Four days later, she awoke with severe aphasia. Initially she wasn’t speaking any intelligible words at all, and she didn’t understand what others said. She didn’t recognize her sisters or me; mostly, she looked agitated and afraid.

My faith seemed weak and inadequate, my prayers ineffective. Mostly out of desperation, I booted up her laptop and played Christian songs. I hoped that familiar music might at least be reassuring to her.

All at once, she began singing a different tune. I rushed to mute the computer, and listened. What she could produce for lyrics sounded like “Waa waa,” but the melody was unmistakable. I had been playing contemporary worship songs, but she was singing an old hymn, not on the laptop:

O for a thousand tongues to sing
My great Redeemer’s praise!
The glories of my God and King,
The triumphs of His grace. . . .

Charles Wesley’s words were remarkably appropriate for someone who had lost her language. Lacking even one tongue to voice her pain and fear, my wife longed for a thousand in order to praise her God. And we did, right there in neurological intensive care. She smiled, and conducted with the arm she could move. And I saw that she was still a worshiper of God.

How much did she remember in that hour? I don’t know, because she doesn’t remember the event at all. Her stroke was severe enough to be classified as a traumatic brain injury, and she still has trouble finding the right words. Her recollections of the initial recovery period are pretty fuzzy.

But I can’t help thinking that the hours she spent in worship through the years deposited treasures in her storehouse. Even damage to the brain couldn’t take these away, for she had “sown to the spirit” (Galatians 6:8), not merely to the intellect. She had no words to call on His name, and yet He quickened a memory.

Perhaps this is not the precise experience of every believer, but one way, or another, we each can say, “When I awake, I am still with You” (Psalm 139:18).

How We Remember God

As a young Christian, I kept searching for some new teaching that would settle me, organize me, turn me at last into a good disciple. Then I was struck by the wisdom of Samuel Johnson’s observation (Rambler 21): “Men more frequently require to be reminded than informed.” I didn’t need to scale new mountains, but to return to the manger, the Cross, and the empty tomb.

The Bible devotes considerable space to reminding. Paul says he’s written “as if to remind” his readers of some basic truths (Romans 15:15). Peter calls both of his letters “reminders to stimulate you to wholesome thinking,” and promises to continue issuing reminders as long as he lives (2 Peter 3:1-2; 1:12-15). John writes, “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” (1 John 2:24). Part of the Holy Spirit’s work in us is to bring Jesus’ words to our remembrance (John 14:26).

We need constant reminders because the great truths of the faith are too big for our minds (the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Person of Christ), too terrible for our flesh (sin, God’s wrath, hell, the Cross), and too good to be true (grace, forgiveness, the Father’s love, our hope). These truths are elusive; they slip away from us. “We must pay more careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away” (Hebrews 2:1). “Stop listening to instruction . . . and you will stray” (Proverbs 19:27). In Jesus’ words, “Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him” (Matthew 25:29).

But to remember is much more than an intellectual review of topics.

The Remembering God

Although God promises never to forget His people (Isaiah 49:15), the Bible indicates that there are specific occasions when He remembers them. This remembering is never simply a matter of well-wishing or thinking fond thoughts. Rather, when God remembers someone, He acts on their behalf. “God remembered Noah” (Genesis 8:1) — and sent a wind so that the waters would recede and the ark would come to rest. “God remembered Rachel” (Genesis 30:22) — and opened her womb, taking away her disgrace and bringing Joseph into the world. The God who remembers His people and His promises softens judgment with mercy and delivers from bondage (Psalm 106:45-46; 105:42-43), so that one of the great prayers is simply, “Remember me, O Lord” (Psalm 106:4-5).

When Jesus was on the Cross, one of the thieves crucified with Him said, “Jesus, remember me when You come into Your kingdom” (Luke 23:42). He wasn’t asking for a pious thought or a moment of silence. Somehow he had faith to believe that the wretched man dying beside him was the Son of God, the divinely appointed King, and he begged, “Show mercy to me, cover me with Your royal favor, pardon my offenses.” Jesus understood, and in His agony replied, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with Me in paradise.” It was as if He said, “I am a King already; I do remember you now; and you are safe in Me.” Jesus remembered, and He acted.

Created in God’s image, we also are made to act when we remember. Paul wrote to the Thessalonians and to Timothy that he “continually” and “constantly” remembered them, and, every time he thought of them, he prayed for them. He literally remembered them in prayer (1 Thessalonians 1:2-3; 2 Timothy 1:3).

In a ruined city, surrounded by the corpses of his countrymen, Jeremiah or one of his contemporaries writes, “I remember my affliction and my wandering, the bitterness and the gall. I well remember them, and my soul is downcast within me.” But he stops; he turns; by faith he summons a different, distant memory: “Yet this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for His compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is Your faithfulness” (Lamentations 3:19-23). Remembering the character of God, he hopes in Him, and resolves to wait on Him.

In Remembrance of Him

When we come to the Lord’s table, Jesus tells us, “Do this in remembrance of Me” (Luke 22:19; 1 Corinthians 11:24-25). We can think devout thoughts, eat and drink, and go away unchanged. But this is not Biblical remembrance. We can grieve, yet again, over our sins, but Hebrews 10:3 says that one of the flaws of the Old Testament sacrifices, which had to be repeated over and over, was that they served only as a “reminder of sins.” Jesus’ greater sacrifice, and His resurrection, should remind us of grace and power and hope.

To remember is to act: we sit again in the upper room, we stand once more at the Cross; we submit to our place in Jesus’ body, and we receive His cup of suffering. Paul urged Timothy to “remember Jesus Christ” and, in doing so, draw strength to endure (2 Timothy 2:8, 1, 10-12). We act by confessing our sins (1 John 1:9) and then receiving “power through His Spirit in [our] inner being” (Ephesians 3:16) so that we break with those sins and, “in Christ,” overcome them. We act by bending low, in His image, to take up our cross once more (Luke 9:23).

Yet we do not merely act in Jesus’ name. He has warned us that many who call Him “Lord” and do great deeds in His name will not enter the kingdom; He will say to them, “I never knew you” (Matthew 7:21-23). It’s not that He has forgotten them; they were never in His memory. He remembers those who obey Him by believing and by acting in His love (John 6:29; Matthew 25:31-46).

“Remember me with favor, O my God” (Nehemiah 13:31).

The Sin I’d Never Commit

My wife is recovering from a stroke. It is a good and hopeful process, but the path is pocked with frustrations. One of the smaller ones is that I get accused of things.

A medication causes my wife’s skin to bruise easily, and a visual problem results in frequent collisions with furniture. A social worker, well-meaning if overzealous, saw marks on her arms and jumped to the conclusion that I must be hitting her. Neither her denials nor mine were accepted. Instead, I was told that, if the bruises continued, I would go to jail.

Despite better things to do and much to be thankful for, I wasted some energy in sputtering indignation and resentment. And then I very nearly lived up to the labels placed on me.

A stroke can strip away layers of self-restraint. Doctors speak of “disinhibition,” but sometimes it is more like a child’s tantrum. On one particularly bad day, when a scene went on and on, something snapped in me. I grabbed my wife’s wrists and yelled “Stop it!” several times. She was terrified.

How does one come back from such an ugly, sinful outburst? I tried to justify myself, but the rationalizations sounded lame even to my ears. So I confessed my sin to God and to my pastor. I apologized to my wife. I tried to retreat more quickly when tempers flared. And, eventually, I read a statement by a godly man.

Capable of Violence

Jean Vanier is a Canadian Catholic who has devoted his life to serving, and learning from, people with severe intellectual disabilities. He founded the first L’Arche (“The Ark”) community in France in 1964; today there are 145 in 40 countries (see http://www.larche.org/discover/larche-since-its-creation/).

In Befriending the Stranger (2010), Vanier describes Lucien, a man unable to speak. Disoriented and afraid when he was brought to L’Arche, he resorted to constant screaming. A calming touch or gentle words served only to increase his anguish. Listening, Vanier writes, “I could sense anger, violence, and even hatred rising up within me. I would have been capable of hurting him to keep him quiet.”

At this time, Vanier had been living in the communities for 15 years. He might have concluded that he wasn’t cut out for it. Instead, with profound insight, he suggests that our brothers and sisters who have severe disabilities become our teachers by revealing to us “our inner limits and brokenness,” so that we may live together in a more honest dependence on the God who is our loving Father.

Understandably, we want to set any fence we can between ourselves and sin. But our best resolve and the full force of our disapproval are flimsy barricades. As Paul says, “Therefore let any one who thinks that he stands” — who says, “Oh, I would never behave like that” (Living Bible) — “take heed lest he fall” (1 Corinthians 10:12). The Message adds, “Forget about self-confidence; it’s useless. Cultivate God-confidence.”

Consider Peter’s vows to stand by Jesus even if it meant death (Matthew 26:33, 35). Before morning, he denied his Lord three times.

Certainly we can make progress. Peter lived to write about the possibility of never falling (2 Peter 1:10). Paul changed from a merciless and violent man (Galatians 1:13; Acts 9:1) to behaving as gently as a mother with young children (1 Thessalonians 2:7). But we can’t dare to be smug, or to entertain the thought that we’ve arrived (Philippians 3:12-16).

The Power of Defenselessness

In Luke 18:9-14, the self-righteous man is sincere in thanking God that he hasn’t stolen money or committed adultery. He is saying, in effect, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” Yet he is not justified in God’s sight; he is really exalting himself, not magnifying grace. In contrast, God hears the flagrant sinner who has the humility to plead only the divine mercy.

The first man in this parable excuses himself by focusing on “especially bad” sins. Some sins may be worse than others, but God’s rating scale isn’t necessarily the same as ours. David is punished less severely for adultery and murder than for the arrogance of numbering his troops (2 Samuel 12:10-14; 24:13-15).

In this life, we never get beyond the position of the second man, confessing our sins (1 John 1:8-10), clutching a holy dread of sinning (Jude 23; 1 Corinthians 9:27; Romans 11:20; 1 Peter 1:17).

When I was accused, I was quick to defend myself. I thought that I was maintaining my integrity and my Christian witness. What if, at least in private, I had seen an opportunity for self-examination, a fresh revelation of my heart, and a deeper confession? “Come to terms quickly with your accuser,” says Jesus (Matthew 5:25). We “come to terms” not through bluster and bravado, but by confessing honestly and pleading the cleansing blood of Jesus.

I am trying to meditate more on Jesus, standing silent. Accused of many things before Pilate and Herod, He “made no reply, not even to a single charge” (Matthew 27:14).

Jesus could have said, accurately, that He had never claimed any authority that wasn’t rightfully His. He never lied; He never stole. But you and I couldn’t say this. And because Jesus was already bearing our sins, or because He refused to distance Himself from us, He kept silent. He stood there, completely defenseless.

In some movies, the actor playing Jesus looks proud during this scene — as if He won’t deign to answer. But it had to be painful for One so innocent and so sensitive to be associated with evil. He bore the stinging shame for us, allowing our sins to be like a gag on His mouth.

If I had been the only sinner, and He had taken my place, He still would have had to stand silent. I am capable of any sin; I am not better than others; apart from Jesus, I can make no claim of heart innocence. Only as I embrace these truths can I live and walk “in Christ.”

The Value of Futility

“You will be unsuccessful in everything you do” (Deuteronomy 28:29, NIV). This is an apt description of some of us. We have a history of failed relationships, unfulfilling work, abandoned dreams, moral and spiritual defeat. With Job, we can say, “I have been allotted months of futility” (Job7:3); “when I hoped for good, evil came” (30:26).

Yet the Bible says of the righteous man, “Whatever he does prospers” (Psalm 1:3). The verdict “unsuccessful in everything” is part of a long passage describing the curses that come upon those who disobey God. Similarly, a sketch of people who “earn wages, only to put them in a purse with holes in it” (Haggai 1:6) applies to those who fail to put God first and give to His work.

Why is it, then, that some of us who love Jesus lead lives characterized by frustration and futility? Does a failure to prosper always indicate that we are walking in disobedience?

Futility’s Many Levels

Taken as a whole, the Bible may be black and white about moral standards but it is faithful to the complexity of human experience. And so statements that the wicked “will sow wheat but reap thorns; they will wear themselves out but gain nothing” (Jeremiah 12:13) do not exhaust its teachings on futility. The poor, simply because they are poor and in a fallen world, also see their plans frustrated (Psalm 14:6).

In fact, God has subjected the entire creation to frustration and futility (Romans 8:20-22). The Lord Almighty has determined that our labor goes for nothing (Habakkuk 2:13). This is a universal experience, above all because we all must die (Ecclesiastes 2:15-16). “For what futility You have created all men! What man can . . . save himself from the power of the grave?” (Psalm 89:47-48).

In this setting, believers, no less than the most disobedient, are tempted to conclude, “It is futile to serve God” (Malachi 3:14); “Surely in vain I have kept my heart pure” (Psalm 73:13); “I have spent my strength in vain and for nothing” (Isaiah 49:4). We are tested precisely in this regard. The patriarchs spent their lives wandering (Hebrews 11:8-9). Job lost everything and felt, “. . . my days have no meaning” (Job7:16). David was a fugitive, wondering if his integrity was “useless” (1 Samuel 25:21). Several of the prophets were commissioned specifically to speak to people who wouldn’t listen (Isaiah 6:9-10; Ezekiel 2:3-5). Jeremiah recorded one set of prophecies only to have them burned, and another set only to be told to sink it in a river (Jeremiah 36; 45; 51:60-64).

God Himself — whose every word accomplishes its purpose (Isaiah 55:10) — at times expresses frustration. “In vain I punished your people; they did not respond to correction” (Jeremiah 2:30; 6:29). He looks in vain for the righteous (Isaiah 59:15-16; Ezekiel 22:30). Jesus weeps over Jerusalem: “how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing!” (Luke 13:34; Isaiah 65:2)

Futility and Hope

God grieves (Genesis 6:6; Isaiah 53:3), yet He does not succumb to despair. Rather, in a wonderful paradox, it is “in hope” that He has subjected creation to futility — hope in the glory that will be revealed when we have despaired of our flesh and put it to death (Romans 8:18-21). He frustrates human wisdom and striving in order that “the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord” (Habakkuk 2:14; 1 Corinthians 1:19).

There is a suspense about our lives. We groan with creation, and grieve with God and neighbors. Like farmers, we sow our seeds of effort and obedience, but may wait a long time for any indication of fruit. Yet because “we live by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7; 4:18; Romans 8:24), we continue to hope for a harvest and to trust that our work is not in vain. Sometimes, like Habakkuk (3:17-18), we must resolve to rejoice even in the absence of any prosperity.

We see this tension in Paul. At times he worries that he has wasted his efforts and labored for nothing with some converts (Galatians 4:11; Philippians 2:16) — that he, or they, might thwart or nullify the grace of God, receiving it in vain (Galatians 2:21; 2 Corinthians 6:1). At other times, he is confident that godliness is profitable (1 Timothy 4:8) and labor fruitful (Philippians 1:22), that our work “in the Lord” is never in vain (1 Corinthians 15:58; Galatians 6:9-10; 2 Peter 1:5-8).

If Paul’s confidence occasionally wavers, it’s because he is “hard pressed on every side, . . . perplexed, . . . persecuted, . . . struck down, . . . We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus” (2 Corinthians 4:8-10). He compares himself to a broken jar (verse 7). Our English word futile comes from a Latin term meaning leaky or easily poured out. Paul lives with precisely this frustrating inability to retain and accumulate. Yet he refuses to “lose heart” (verses 1, 16) because, by the grace of God, what leaks out of him is “the glory of God in the face of Christ” (verse 6).

Paul also reminds us that, no matter who we are, our real work is other people. His converts are his joy and crown (1 Thessalonians 2:19-20; Philippians 4:1), his boast (2 Corinthians 1:14), the result of his work (1 Corinthians 9:1). If they frustrate him and cause him anxiety, still they are in his heart for life or death (2 Corinthians 7:3): that is, he is so identified with them that his own salvation is bound up with theirs. For their sake, he is willing, not only to leak, but to be “poured out like a drink offering” (Philippians 2:17; 2 Timothy 4:6).

We are not apostles, but on this point we are not so very different. Wittingly or unwittingly, we all sow into the lives of those around us. People watch us. Some may even be “won over without words” by our behavior (1 Peter 3:1). When we die, they may present evidence of our good works (Acts 9:39).

I sometimes wish that we could retire the phrase “full-time Christian service.” Of course we should honor our leaders, but every believer is a full-time servant of Jesus and of our neighbors. Paul makes this clear when he tells even slaves — who had little freedom to choose how they spent their time — that they are “serving the Lord, not men” (Ephesians 6:7; Colossians 3:23). In truth, we are all slaves marching in a procession that honors Christ (1 Corinthians 4:9).

So failure shouldn’t surprise or overwhelm us. I am not called to realize my artistic vision, but to be a vessel shaped by the finger of God. I may never inherit the promises in this life, but I can die still living by faith (Hebrews 11:13). I may never prosper, but I can sow abundantly. I may never proclaim, but I can leak.