Good things to Good People?

fonzThis is a several part series on the question of how God treats good and bad people. Someone recently said to me that they wondered why good things were not happening in life, even though he had been a good person. Here is the first question:

Should good things happen for good people?

You may have heard the expression that God will give an answer, but it might be Yes, No or Later.

Yes. There is a general principal that good things follow natural choices. This is a matter of making wise choices.  For example, wearing your seat belt gives you a better chance to survive an accident.  So choosing to be honest, decent, fair, thoughtful and just should have good consequences.

Beyond that there is a personal principle, by this I refer to the promises of God to bless and reward.  For example, Deuteronomy 6:5, “…be careful to obey so that it may go well with you…”  This is the idea that the Lord actively rewards (or punishes) behavior, beyond the natural consequences of our choices.

No. However, there is also a recognition that “…time and chance happen to all…” as it says in Ecclesiastes 9:11.  That is to say, stuff happens that does not make sense to us.  These appear to be “chance” or “bad luck.”  We believe with our faith that God is in control, but we often see with our eyes things that do not fit what we think to be true.

This is a major point of the book of Job.  Job suffered great calamities and he did not know why they happened.  His friends said that since God rewards and punishes us for our actions, that Job must have done something unjust or offensive. They were wrong.  Their explanation was too simple and legalistic.  We learn from their example that we can not always know why bad things happen to good people, or good things happen to bad people.  God’s ways are mysterious to us.

Later.  Some of the care and reward from God is in the present.  In the Lord’s Prayer, we pray “Give us this day our daily bread.”  The idea is that each day we are given what we need to get along.  Some of them come during our lives but we have to wait.  One example of that is the father of our faith, Abraham.  He was promised a land and descendants as numerous as the stars.  However, he did not own any of the promised land, except for a piece of land to bury his wife Rachel.  He did not have a son until he was nearly 100 years of age.  The the promises were true, but slow in coming.

Some of the rewards and punishments are reserved for the future.  There is a Hall of Fame for Faith in Hebrews 11.  We find some of the great people of the Bible listed there, such as Noah, Abraham, Joseph and Moses.  We also find un-named martyrs, who did not receive anything in this life:

36 Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. 37 They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated—38 of whom the world was not worthy—wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.

39 And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised…

What we have as believers is Faith: That is a certainty about the character of God and the promises of God.  But Faith is not only what we see, it is most often what we can not see.

Homework: If this makes you anxious, let me suggest a prescription.  Take Psalm 23 three times a day with thought and prayer.  Read or say it slowly, phrase by phrase as a meditation and or a prayer in the morning, around noon and at night.

The Lord is my shepherd;
I shall not want.
He makes me to lie down in green pastures;
He leads me beside the still waters.
He restores my soul;
He leads me in the paths of righteousness
For His name’s sake.

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil;
For You are with me;
Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.

You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
You anoint my head with oil;
My cup runs over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
All the days of my life;
And I will dwell in the house of the Lord
Forever.

 

 

 

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Transformation

scribe.2 This is from a talk given to a chaplains group.

Romans 12:2:  Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.

Since no one has used this verse, I thought I would!  The verse talks about transformation through the life of the mind.  Or maybe it is better to say the new life of the mind.  For this verse follows the previous which references the mercies of God.  We are not talking the power of positive thinking, or a mental exercise, but how God goes about making us over into the image of Christ.

I’d to talk about this with a few stories of how words can be transformative.

In high school I was not in the popular group, we called them “soshes”.  I was not in the smoker group, the shop guys or the jocks.  I was in a group of guys who ate lunch together every day at the same table in the cafeteria.  We did not really do anything all that well except to insult each other. This is a rather common form of male humor.  The point of which is not to be left without a response but to answer every sharp word-strike with a counter blow.  I was pretty good at this.

All this time I was coming to terms with my faith.  It was when I was a junior in high school that I prayed the prayer. I was at a Christian conference in Seattle, and while walking through he hallways of the basketball arena, I tried to imagined a conversation with Jesus.  The thing that struck me was that I had nothing to say – Nothing at all.   Something was wrong.  The speaker gave an invitation to receive Christ.  I took the chance.

Shortly after that I was reading in the book of Proverbs.  I came to this verse Proverbs 10:11:

The mouth of the righteous is a fountain of life,
but the mouth of the wicked conceals violence

Bam!  The verse, more or less, reached out and slapped me across the face.

I realized that my mouth was a fountain of insults, not of life.  So things started to change for my last year of high school. I discovered that I had been friends with these guys for years but did not know anything about them – one guy wanted to go into social work, another wanted to be a radio announcer.  When I quit insulting them I came to see them as pretty interesting guys

The next year I was at the U of Washington and involved with Inter Varsity.  At a conference we were supposed to use a paper bag to talk about what is the difference between what is on the inside and the outside.   From years of insults  I had learned to keep anything very important tucked deeply inside.  As I recall the speaker was making a point from the Sermon on the Mount.  The beatitude which says: Matthew 5:8

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.

The idea here is not so much spotlessness, but that the out ward and the inward correspond.  Blessed are those who are truly who they are on the inside and outside, who do not pretend to be something. This verse was added to the one before.

The book of James that has a lot to say about the tongue.

When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal. Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go. Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.

All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures are being tamed and have been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.

The tongue has power, would I use mine for good or evil?

Now that I work along truck drivers and construction workers, I see the pattern of communication that I was very much a part of back in high school.   I hope that by a few well spoken words, some of that also might be transformed.

A few years ago I began to get interested in Wisdom Literature in the Bible – these are books such as Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Job as well as certain literary forms such as parables and proverbs.  I came across the passage in Proverbs 6 that talks about adultery.  It dies not quote the 7th commandment.  It paints a work picture: Pv 6:27

Can a man scoop fire into his lap
without his clothes being burned?

Wisdom Literature is like the music of revelation in another key signature. It does not work so much from commands, but with comparisons.  It observes and puts things side by side for us to notice. The interesting thing is that it can get to some places where the Ten Commandments might not be well received – such as Progressive Madison.  These words tell us that playing around sexually is playing with fire.  These are a lot like James’ point that words themselves are playing with fire.

I believe in the transformative power of words.  Not a flood of them.  Not the same words for every audience.  But in terms of another proverbs, words that are well crafted to the situation:  Proverbs 25:11

A word fitly spoken
is like apples of gold in a setting of silver.

In our work we often only get a few words to share. I believe that these can be transformative, because I believe in the power of the word.

Episodic Proverbs and a Cup of Coffee

coffee.pour

The one liner proverbs in life and from the Bible seem to lie dormant until a situation brings them to life.  I thought of this while studying some proverbs on how to listen and how to speak regarding the news.

This week there is a kerfuffle about Starbucks red cups.  someone somewhere declared that Starbucks made war on Christmas.  Now this is clicking all over social media.  In a week or a month this will pass.  No one will remember except that some religious folk are prone to goofiness.

Let me suggest this: read and think before you click, like, forward, paste and otherwise multiply this sort of thing.  Here is a proverb that applies:

The one who states his case first seems right,
    until the other comes and examines him. 

Proverbs 18:17

The news reader should always check the source, and even listen to another point of view. If you only listen to the news you agree with, don’t you wonder if you are getting the truth?  Listen to who who don’t agree and you may get a better sense of the issue.

About 20 years ago, a man become famous in my city by suggesting that a building burning down was God’s judgment on a particular kind of behavior that was associated with that location.  This kind of overstatement occurs around social issues and political campaigns.  It was an overstatement; who can tell us the mind of God in a situation?

In  a political year some prosper by division – their guiding proverb is “divide and conquer.”  Others simply don’t care if their claims are true or helpful.  A biblical proverb that applies here is:

Scoffers set a city aflame,
    but the wise turn away wrath.

Proverbs 29:8

As a teenager my clan rejoiced in well placed insults.  That continued until I read this proverb which jumped out of the book and slapped my upside the head:

The mouth of the righteous is a fountain of life,
    but the mouth of the wicked conceals violence.

Proverbs 10:11

Violence seems strong.  Words are not supposed to hurt, like sticks and stones.  Yet words can do violence to a community, to good will, to the chance of getting a hearing in the larger public, to friendships, to reputations and to friendships.  The righteous produce words that give life, like a fountain of fresh water.

fountain

Scholars Compass – Wisdom Literature

306px-Wisdom_-_Google_Art_Project-191x300 I recently posted three pieces in an online devotional called Scholars Compass, which is part of the Emerging Scholars Network with IVCF.

Post 1 – How I Discovered Wisdom Literature

Post 2 – How I Fell in Love with the Library

Post 3 – How Wisdom Calls Out in the Streets

Proverbs 3:5-6 – A Fresh Look

scenes 040.smThis is one of the Favorite Verses I am preaching on this summer.

5 Trust in the Lord with all your heart,
and do not lean on your own understanding.
In all your ways acknowledge him,
and he will make straight your paths.

 

Heart – the whole inner person is in view – not just sentiment as in English.  Compare to two other verses in context. Among the range of meaning is:  inner man, mind, will, heart, understanding, conscience, soul (Step Bible).

3:1   My son, do not forget my teaching,
    but let your heart keep my commandments

3:3  Let not steadfast love and faithfulness forsake you;
    bind them around your neck;
    write them on the tablet of your heart

Understanding – one of the meanings of this word is the capacity to understanding.  If you read it as “information” it can sound as if one should not know anything. but the Wisdom theme of Proverbs is very much about learning wisdom and discernment. We are not, in the words of Psalm 32, to be like a pack mule that needs constant external direction by a bit in our teeth, but we are to be instructed so we can make wise decisions. (Psalm 32:8-9).  If we accept the word as “capacity to understand” it speaks of not finding our wisdom only from ourselves.

Notice that Heart and Understanding are somewhat parallel words on the inner person.

I have summarized this line of thought:

 Trust with your heart; Don’t trust in your heart.

That is, the object of trust and direction is the Lord, not the inner life.

All – With all of your heart (v. 5) and in all of your ways (v.6) live by faith.  There is no room here for holding back a reserve of non-trust.  That is, the verses does not permit us to think that one part of our life is spiritual and the other is going along to get along in life.  We are to live a categorically faithful life, not life of categories.

Path/Way – Two words are used for path, both can be literal or metaphorical.  “In all your paths acknowledge him” this word for path is “derek” which is used over 700 times in the OT.  “and he will made straight your paths” this word for path is “orak” which is used about 70 times.  The idea of a path or way is commonly used in Wisdom literature, the prophets and in Deuteronomy to talk metaphorically about the course or direction of your life in a moral and spiritual sense.

Smooth/Straight – the translations divide evenly on translating this word.  Smooth suggests straight in a vertical dimension, and similar to Isaiah 40 on making a smooth path.  This is the path that is easy.  Straight suggests straingt in a horizontal direction and fits with the frequent command that one turns neither to the left or to the right. This is the path that is true.

I wonder if this “straightening” of our path is a rescue operation:

 “So you find your way in life hard?  Are you lost?  Is it because you are divided in your faith and selective in your willingness to be instructed?  Trust him fully and he will remove the potholes and direct you out of your lost condition.”

 see Isaiah 40:3-5; Psalm 1; James 1:2-8; Matthew 5:8; Deuteronomy 6

 

Law or Legalism?

scribe.2There is some question of how the Biblical texts on redemption of property and levirate marriage fits the situation with Ruth – it is Naomi’s property to be restored and her family line to be perpetuated, but that goes through Ruth.

Here is a background quote that gives perspective.

“…one must recall the nature of biblical legal materials. Against popular impression, they do not offer a comprehensive instruction which covers every imaginable case. Rather, they constitute instructions about sample or crucial topics from which inferences about all other cases are to be drawn.  Their goal s is more to inculcate Israel’s fundamental value system in its people than to provide handy legal references for judicial bodies.  Thus, attempts to align the customs in Ruth precisely with the details of three frequently cited texts (Gen 38; Lev 25:25-34; Dt. 25:5-10) are unnecessary and ill-advised.  On the contrary the value of such texts exceeds their simple, procedural details; rather, they are mirrors of Israel’s treasured values.  With reference to Ruth, they reflect how strongly Israel valued the survival of families through descendants and family ownership of ancestral property.”

Robert L Hubbard, Jr, The Book of Ruth (NICOT), Eerdmans, 1988

I was recently part of a discussion on divorce and remarriage.  A very strict legal reading of the NT texts might suggest prohibiting any remarriage and limiting divorce to only infidelity and abandonment.  but are the NT “laws” to be read in that way, or are they case-law and expressions of values by which we should decide in particular cases what is to be done.  In ministry one encounters many situations what require wisdom beyond a close reading of the rules.

A theme in Ruth is “hesed” a Hebrew word that means faith, often in the sense of faithfulness. God’s faithfulness to his people whom he has chosen.  Boaz’s and Ruth’s faithfulness expressed in their actions and commitments.

Wisdom Literature – bibliography

scribe.2I am posting this in response to a Face Book conversation about Proverbs.  I find Wisdom Literature to be scripture in another key signature, it tends to be observational, not doctrinal in the strict sense, inviting to outsiders  sometimes borrows from outsiders.  We can fall into making it kid stuff, or simplistic rules and regulations   It is best to realize that a proverb, “mashal” in Hebrew, means to lay one thing next to another and see what can be learned.  It is writing to help us notice, think and consider all things but most importantly the “fear of the Lord” before we act.

There are a number of posts on FRESH READ tagged with Wisdom.

Bibliographic Notes on Wisdom Literature