Thursday, June 21, 2007

How to glorify God when questioning Him: Principles from Habakkuk

In Scripture (and in real life), we have many examples where people question God out of unbelief and thereby incur His displeasure. Yet, there are also some examples where people question God in such a way, to which He is pleased to respond. Habakkuk is a such an example for how we can express our questions to God in a way that glorifies Him.

When questioning God, acknowledge what God has revealed about Himself to be true.
Your eyes are too pure to approve evil,
And You can not look on wickedness with favor.
Why do You look with favor
On those who deal treacherously?
Why are You silent when the wicked swallow up
Those more righteous than they?
- vs. 1:13
Habakkuk was living in the midst of great wickedness and injustice, both from within Israel and from the coming Babylonians. And yet, he did not give in to the temptation of denying God's holy, just character. Nor did he give in to the temptation of denying God's sovereign control over this world. Rather, Habakkuk persevered in faith in what God had revealed about His own character to be true, even though the circumstances around him seemed to tell him otherwise. Habakkuk lived by faith in God's Word being true even though he could not perfectly understand how a holy and sovereign God could permit such evil.

Likewise, when encountering circumstances we do not understand, we must first acknowledge those truths that we do understand to be true from God's Word. When calamity strikes and everything seems to be falling apart, we must first remember that because of Christ, God is now our loving Father, who ordains all things for our good. As we continue struggling with sin in this life and become discouraged, we must first trust in the truth that Christ came to save sinners and that He promises to forgive all those who repent and come to Him in faith. When our future is unclear and a thousand questions fill our minds, we must rest in a God who knows all things and is in control of all things. Glorify God in your questioning by acknowledging what God has revealed to be true.

When questioning God, make the glory of God your highest concern.
LORD, I have heard the report about You and I fear.
O LORD, revive Your work in the midst of the years,
In the midst of the years make it known;
In wrath remember mercy. - vs. 3:2
What first initiated Habakkuk's concern wasn't just wickedness in the world in general, but particularly wickedness and injustice among the people of God (vs. 1:2-4). Israel was supposed to a special display of God's glory and kingdom in this world. Israel was supposed to be a light to the nations in the way the lived out God's law. But instead, we see that Israel became as wicked as the surrounding nations and failed in this task. For Habakkuk, this was a terrible evil and it had to be addressed by God. For God to fail to address Israel's rebellion would be for Him to deny His own Word, His own authority. At the heart of Habakkuk's plea was his concern for God to defend His Name, to vindicate His promises before the watching world.

Likewise, when we question God, we must also have God's glory as our ultimate concern. Yet, often I fear that Christians struggle with this concept because they think of God's glory in an ethereal, abstract sense. But the amazing truth that we see in Scripture is that God, in making a covenant with His people, has graciously tied His glory to our good. Therefore, when we plead our case before God, we can do so in a way that understands our welfare to be connected to His reputation, to His name. To behold the glory of God is the highest joy of the Christian. So glorify God in your questioning by making His glory your greatest concern.

When questioning God, be persistent in your prayers.
How long, O LORD, will I call for help,
And You will not hear?
I cry out to You, “Violence!”
Yet You do not save. - vs. 1:2
Habakkuk's complaint in this verse did not come on a whim. Rather, it is the fruit if a much longer period in his life when he has repeatedly seen injustice in this world and has had his heart grieved by it. He has been praying to God and questioning Him for a long period of time, and even though God has not yet answered, Habakkuk has persevered in his prayers.

This perseverance in itself is pleasing to God. Jesus reminds us of this in Luke 18 with the parable of the persistent widow. Yet as I reflect on my own life, what is striking is not the simply the challenge of persevering in prayer itself. I've often persevered in prayer over the course of years for many things: a new job, relationships, a certain problem... But what is striking is that Habakkuk has persevered in prayer over the injustice that he sees around Him... over the way God's name is being blasphemed among the nations because of the wickedness of Israel. These are the things that grieve Habakkuk's heart and consume his prayers. I don't know if I've ever had a persistent portion of my life where I was given over to such prayers. May God create in us a similar, lasting, persevering concern for eternal, rather than temporal, matters.

When questioning God, have a heart of total dependence on Him
Are You not from everlasting,
O LORD, my God, my Holy One?
We will not die. - vs. 1:12
The reason Habakkuk has so long persevered in His questioning is because God was His only hope for life. Habakkuk had built His life on the hope that the God of Israel is the one true God and that He would one day establish His Kingdom in this world and set all things to right. This was something that only God could bring about. Habakkuk had no plan B, no contingency plan, no exit strategy. If God somehow failed to keep His promises to do this, then Habakkuk would be undone. This kind of wholehearted dependence should also mark every Christian.

And so, like Habakkuk, as we watch the news, as we encounter difficulties, as we see the fallen-ness of the world around us, we must understand that our only hope is the truth of the Gospel. Namely, that God has reconciled sinners to Himself through faith in the blood of His Son. There is no plan B, no contingency plan, no exit strategy. If the Gospel is false, then we are all undone. But if the Gospel is true, then like Habakkuk, we can look forward with the eyes of faith to the day when God will indeed establish His kingdom here on earth and set all things to right. It is when we do so, that we can rejoice with Habakkuk:
Though the fig tree should not blossom
And there be no fruit on the vines,
Though the yield of the olive should fail
And the fields produce no food,
Though the flock should be cut off from the fold
And there be no cattle in the stalls,

Yet I will exult in the LORD,
I will rejoice in the God of my salvation. - vs. 3:17-18

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Five Priorities for Mercy Ministries

One of the ways churches, Christian organizations, campus ministries, etc. are trying to stay relevant today is by redirecting their outreach efforts to mercy ministries, rather than more "traditional" forms of outreach. Whether it is homeless outreach, or poverty-relief work, or raising AIDS awareness, Christians are increasingly looking to these mercy ministries as ways to engage the world about the truth of the Gospel. And without a doubt, much good has come from these efforts. These ministries have not only allowed non-Christians to see the Gospel lived out, but have also provided new venues for Christians to live out their discipleship to Christ.

But these new ministry efforts have not come without challenges to the Christian faith, particularly to the message of the Gospel. One reason this is so is because these mercy ministries are often so evidently good to the watching world. Any observing non-Christian will likely consider a church's effort to care for the homeless a good, admirable thing to do. And yet, if we are to be faithful to Scripture, we know that the Christian understanding of what is good and admirable is to be very different from what a non-Christian considers good and admirable. Moreover, we know that the Gospel is far more than receivng a meal, or a handout, or free health care. The Gospel is about sinners under the wrath of God being reconciled to God through the death of His Son. How can church seek to engage in mercy ministries without compromising the Gospel? Allow me to suggest five priorities that we need to maintain, if we are to do mercy ministries in a distinctively Christian way:

- Maintain the priority of the Gospel

"1CO 15:3 For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. 6 After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep."

A popular saying these days is, "Preach the Gospel at all times. If necessary use words." I can appreciate the call for Christians to live a life consistent with the Gospel at all times. However, I could not disagree more with the premise of this statement. The Gospel cannot be preached without words. The Good News is ultimately not a lifestyle, but it is news. It is a message rooted in historical events involving specifically, the life and death of a Jesus Christ, and more broadly, God's redemptive work throughout human history. But this is not just any message, but this is an extremely offensive message to the world. It speaks of a perfect, holy God, Who has placed demands on every area of our lives. It speaks of our utter sinfulness, God's eternal wrath against our sin, and our utter inability to save ourselves. It speaks of the bloody death of the Son of God who died in our place for our sins. It speaks of the need to continually turn away from sin, trust in Christ, and live under His lordship. As we seek to show mercy to the poor and oppressed, we must be careful to understand that the Gospel is only proclaimed when this message is proclaimed.

- Maintain the priority of evangelism

"RO 10:14 How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?"

If the Gospel is a message, then it is no wonder that the means God has appointed for salvation of sinners is the preaching of the Gospel. It is through the hearing of the Gospel that God chooses to work in the human heart to produce repentance and faith. In other words, apart from the preaching of the Gospel, no one will hear the Gospel. And if they do not hear, they will not believe in God. And if they do not believe, they will not call on God for help. Therefore, as churches look to engage in mercy ministries, they must maintain the priority of evangelism. To feed a person a meal but do nothing to care for his soul, is ultimately to fail to love that person. Does this mean we have to verbally speak the Gospel every single time we do an act of mercy? I don't think so. But I do think that it means that we must always be deliberately moving towards a proclamation of the Gospel in every act of mercy. Mercy ministries ultimately exist to commend our proclamation of the Gospel. John Piper puts it well when he describes his church's goal in mercy ministries: "We seek to alleviate all suffering, especially eternal suffering".

- Maintain the priority of the spiritual

"2COR 4:18 So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal."

One of the things that stands out in all of Paul's exhortations is not simply the emphasis to do good to others, but more specifically, to do spiritual good to others. As Christians, we are ultimately to be more concerned for a person's spiritual needs than his temporal needs. We do this because we know that God is the greatest joy in the universe. Therefore, the greatest, most loving good that we could do to another person is to bring them closer to God, to help them enjoy God more. This is ultimately how Christ has loved us and this is how we must love others, if we are to imitate His love. As we seek to do good to other people, we must remember that doing physical good is only temporary, but doing spiirtual good to others is of eternal value.

- Maintain the priority of the Church

"GAL 6:Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers."

As Christians, we have a greater responsibility to other Christians. We see this modeled in the New Testament church, where believers gave sacrificially to care not just for any poor, but particularly those within her walls. Why are we called to show particular love to the body of Christ? Because the unique love that Christ's disciples show to each other is the church's distinctive witness to the Gospel. Many secular organizations can engage in mercy ministries. But only the church can engage in the kind of Spirit-wrought, Christ-like love for those within her covenant community. The church's unique testimony to the Gospel exists nowhere else in the world, except in the church. This love produces a unity within the body of Christ that trascends all human boundaries (Gal. 3:28). This unity displays to the world the truth of the Gospel and God's coming judgment for all those who reject it (Phil. 1:27-28). This love shows to the world that our unity comes not from ourselves, but from Christ (John 13:34-35). Again and again, the "one another" commands throughout the New Testament remind us of the priority of our relationship with other Christians. And again and again, we see in the New Testament that the way Christians love and care for one another is the church's testimony to the truth of the Gospel. Therefore, even as we seek to commend the Gospel in serving all people, let us be especially vigilant to preserve this unique testimony by growing in our love for one another.

- Maintain the priority of Christ

"MT 26:11 The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me."

Many today are quick to point to Jesus' compassion for the poor and oppressed, and there is no doubt that Jesus did indeed show special concern for the suffering. However, to paint Christ simply as one who taught us to care for the poor and do good to others, is a far too shallow picture of him. When we dig deeper in the Gospels, we find that Christ did not primarily come to feed the poor and heal the sick, but came first and foremost, to ransom sinners through His life, death and resurrection. When we dig deeper, we find that we cannot come to Christ with our notions of what is good and right, but rather he calls us to die to ourselves and follow Him. When we dig deeper, we find that Christ's greatest passion was not the good of man, but the glory of God. Therefore, as churches pursue mercy ministries, they must do so in a uniquely Christ-like way. That is to say, they must do so in a way that seeks to proclaim the truth of the Gospel, to call people to true discipleship, and to bring glory to God in all things.