Everyone on staff had a vote to choose the meeting’s topic. You can download the notes to all three options below.
CS Lewis On Prayer
The Problem of Pain
Everyone on staff had a vote to choose the meeting’s topic. You can download the notes to all three options below.
CS Lewis On Prayer
The Problem of Pain
A friend wrote a fantastic question on a Facebook post, what follows is my response:
The LORD will keep you from all harm—he will watch over your life; the LORD will watch over your coming and going both now and forevermore. (Psalm 121:7-8)
What does the psalmist mean when they say all harm? At surface level, such a proclamation does not align with my experience of reality.
Excellent question, here are a few quick reflections.
All scripture must be understood in light of its genre, that is, the type of literature. A psalm is a poem, which is, by definition, condensed language. This scripture shouldn’t be read as if it was a scientific fact. E always equals MC squared (I’m told), but the truth of this verse isn’t found in the literal, definitive meaning.
For example, if the only way to discover the truth was in the literal interpretation of every scripture, then the following scripture would mean it’s impossible for the godly to be submerged in water (which would be cool for Christian water polo players and a bummer for Christian Navy Seals) or burned by fire (this would be cool for everyone):
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze. (Isa. 43:2)
The only time everything is literal is in something like a scientific journal or detailed law codes…and even with millions of words to describe a thing, there is still the need for interpretation. This is why we have lawyers and courts and scientists arguing with one another.
But now I’m going way off the field, talking about things I don’t know about—law and science—so let’s return to the real problem.
If we can’t understand a scripture literally, how can we ever discover the truth? This is a slippery slope, is it not? Doesn’t this mean that everyone can interpret things however they want?
Not really. While language is flexible, it still has rules. Every word has a range of meanings. For example, STRIKE could be a type of pitch in baseball (go dodgers), or it could be the act of hitting someone, or it could be a bunch of people deciding not to work. The range of meaning is narrowed by context.
Our brains are amazing, we do this all the time constantly and we usually aren’t aware of it. When we remove the context, the meaning becomes more difficult to discern. For example, when I say “lead sinks,” what am I talking about?
The fact that lead is heavier than water or about some sinks that are crafted of lead.
Understanding a word requires understanding the sentence, the paragraph, the book, etc. To understand a word, you must “hold” the entire sentence (and as much of the greater context as possible) in focus.
Discerning a truth in scripture happens in the same manner. We must “hold” at one time, many scriptures on the same subject. This is why we must rely on the scriptures as a whole, and not just a part. When you admire a diamond, you don’t just look at one side. Instead you turn the whole thing around to see the whole thing sparkle.
At this point, we could look at several scriptures about God’s protection and the pain caused by the world. But that’s for another day.
Perhaps it would be more accurate (but less poetic) for the psalmist to write, “The LORD will keep you from all the most terrible and long lasting, everlasting, harm” … because ultimately, no matter what bad things happen to us, all (the important) things will be restored. Like Job. I don’t mean exactly like Job, it may not happen on this side of eternity, but on the other side there will be no more tears and no more death. (Ok, so I guess I just broke my rule in the previous paragraph and we looked at one more scripture).
The fact that the context mentions “evermore” supports this understanding.
But let’s back up for a moment. The psalmist is assuming the reader will still employ his or her common sense. “All harm” can’t possibly mean—literally mean— “all harm.” In the spirit of the psalm, I left that ambiguous.
More important than everything I’ve just written is the following:
WHY ASK THIS QUESTION? THIS PARTICULAR QUESTION?
It is a good thing to read a scripture and have a question. Too often we read scripture and falsely believe we understand it all. We need to pay attention to the moments when we say, “wait, that’s not true.”
What exactly does the psalmist mean by all harm…and why does this bother me? What is the HOLY SPIRIT trying to do in my life through the asking of this question?
For me personally, my mom died of cancer when I was 5. According to my dad she was a “strong believer” and even “led” three nurses to a saving faith during the final months of her illness. That’s an amazing thing, a great story. But it would be silly to ignore the fact that God allowed the harm to happen to my mother. She didn’t just die without being able to read this blog post, she was in terrible pain for the last two years of her life.
The difficulties of this world are a reality, and the Bible doesn’t hide this fact. It’s very honest about them. Sin is real. Jesus suffered. We will suffer. The Bible also teaches that God is bigger than the harms we experience (and cause in others)—at the end of time, we will be protected from all lasting harm.
ONE FINAL NOTE:
I’m a hack … all of this was a quick response … if you really want to improve your ability to read the Bible better by reading from the experts, check out this CLASSIC book: “How to read the Bible for all it’s worth.”
This post isn’t about time management!
“So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the teachings we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter.” (2 Thessalonians 2:15)
Practically speaking, what could it look like to stand firm and hold fast to the things God has taught you?
My nature is to be impulsive–this has ups and downs. One downside is repeated mistakes. I knew I’ll never stop being impulsive so I needed to make sure my impulses went in the right direction. Therefore, I needed to learn to how to reflect, the art of recognize mistakes and recording my learnings. I have my dad to thank for developing this habit!
When I was just getting started in my spiritual journey, I developed the practice of summarizing the things I learned into a single sentence. I’ve been collecting these summaries for 20 years (along with some of my favorite scriptures), and I read them 2 or 3 times a week. Some of these lessons were painful to learn and I don’t want to re-learn them!
So, I’ll ask again: what could it look like for you to stand firm and hold fast?
==== UPDATE ====
In response to Jeff’s request below:
early morning devotions — this is edited slightly, because some stuff would take too long to explain …
Relationships suffer when there is a breakdown in communication. If you feel far from God, when was the last time you heard him speak? Maybe you need to push through one of the following roadblocks that keep a person from hearing God speak:
The Psalmist begins with a grand picture: “The heavens declare the glory of God, the skies proclaim the work of his hands.” (Psalm 19:1) We are often too preoccupied to look up. We may spend all of our time looking ahead to the next thing and we’re too busy to look up. Sometimes we spend our time looking downward at our own concerns and we’re too selfish to look up. There is so much more to life than our personal pursuits or problems! God is working everywhere, speaking to us always, we only need to stop and pay attention.
God’s Word is like an instruction manual, telling us everything we need to be successful in life—how to live according to God’s design. The Bible is also like a love letter, moving us toward a deeper understanding and relationship of God. The Psalmist reveals the benefits of God’s word: it brings rest, spiritual growth, joy, and vision. Have you ever wanted to see things more clearly? The answer is God’s Word. It’s no wonder that the writer says the Bible is more valuable than gold and sweeter than honey. We can’t hear everything God has to say to us if we don’t spend time in God’s word.
The Psalmist begins powerfully and ends personally: “May these words of my mouth and this meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.” (Psalm 19:14)
We may be moved to speechless awe when we contemplate the breathless beauty of creation, but if we are not submitted to God, it matters not. We may know the Bible inside and out, but if we are not submitted to God, we are missing the point. The heavens reveal knowledge so that we might change our thoughts so that they are pleasing to God. We are not called to serve others or ourselves, but to be fully submitted to God.
This weekend I am preaching on Psalm 19, “How to hear God speak.” Due to Pastor Ron’s memorial, we are canceling services on Saturday night (this week only). Join us at 9am or 11am on Sunday morning. Go to www.newlifepismo.com for more information.
It’s finally finished:
Click here to download: PSALMS-personal Bible Study (PDF)
Over the past few weeks, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about loss and grief. I’ve also spent a lot of time in the Psalms. What follows are some of the salient points from my personal journey as I attempt to live well in the wake of loss:
When one of his friends died, Jesus wept. As I see it, I think he cried because he saw the pain others were experiencing. I don’t think Jesus was personally feeling the loss because he was about to heal Lazarus of his death problem. Wether I’m right or not, it’s clear that Jesus expressed himself.
Additionally, the Psalms stand tall as a powerful testament of unflinching expression of grief and loss and confusion and fear. God loves us in our limitations and meets us in the place of despair.
We don’t need to burry it. This may delay things for a while, but it’ll only come back up. The longer we let it linger, the larger it becomes.
Reflect on it.
Animals lack freedom beyond their instincts. We act based on our instincts too, but we can develop self awareness. Animals don’t have this option.
We can choose to think and feel about our thoughts and feelings. We can’t change everything about ourselves or about our situations, but we can choose the most important things. We choose what we love and hate and what drives us and the direction we are headed. You may really love your cat, but he can’t do these things (but dogs probably can).
If you get a splinter lodged into one of your fingers, you don’t wallow in pain and say, “something hurts somewhere!” That’s silly. You grab the finger, identify the splinter’s precise location, pull it out, and make a note to avoid doing whatever it was that led to getting injured (Sometimes I skip that last step just to keep my life more exciting).
Pain in the heart is so much more difficult to find!
Begin by asking, “Why is the loss such a big deal?” I’m NOT saying the pain SHOULD NOT be a big deal, only that we need to go beneath the surface and learn the WHY. What are all the reasons why the pain is so painful?
Uncovering the layers of the WHY will be difficult. The human heart may have four chambers, but it has infinite rooms filled with conflicting ideas, emotions, and motivations.
The next question may feel like throwing salt into the wound, but we are not of those who shirk back! In the long run, the bliss of ignorance is much more harmful than the bite of understanding. So, without further preamble, here it is, I tried to prepare you: “What’s unhealthy about your grief?”
Ultimately, all loss carries an element of selfishness. Somewhere in the kernel of grief is at least a hint of entitlement.
Entitlement undermines what we believe about God.
Most of us understand this aspect of grief. The only way we’ll truly move through the grief is to give ourselves permission to be entitled. Temporary permission.
The truly difficult part, the task that requires a LION’S SHARE of courage, is to move this understanding from the abstract to the concrete. The general feeling of loss to the intensely personal and specific reason why. We need to move from, “everyone would hurt in this situation” to “I am hurting because ….”
This sets us up for God’d next work.
Every loss—wether they are unjust or not—creates for us an opportunity to trust God more. This doesn’t mean we should take a stoic approach, seeking to live a life with as few connections as possible. We need to love others deeply, but we need to remember that one of God’s names is Jealous. He wants our hearts un-dividedly devoted to him. He is constantly working to draw us into greater dependence on him.
Pursue more comfort from God than anything else.
Healthy diversions can clear our minds and grant perspective. I hear this is why some people go hiking. For me, I find a slightly less comfortable position on the couch. Diversion creates space for some comfort.
Friends are important! Great Friends can bring Great Comfort. Biblical fellowship bears one another’s burdens, and we ought to be better at caring for one another.
However, these are lesser comforts. We worship the God of comfort. He has provided the Holy Spirit—the Comforter—because his power is the only remedy for our broken.
When we are caught up in the throes of grief, it’s irrational to think we can find joy in Christ. Nevertheless, it is there. God’s promises are independent of our predicaments. There is always a reason for hope, we need to posture our hearts before God to receive it.
We don’t need to manufacture it, it won’t last. The World’s evil is greater than our ability to ignore it. We don’t need to pretend we are happy. Others will see right through it, and all it does is create more relational distance from them.
Instead, we must look to Christ for the peace that transcends understanding.
Remember that experiences equip you for future impact.
When the time is right, you’ll be able to pass on the comfort you’ve received. God comforts us, and out of the overflow of his work, we will comfort others. God won’t waste a hurt. The good work he does in you will soon become a good work he does through you. The idea of passing it on doesn’t matter very much in the middle of the storm, but it is a true promise from God that can serve as a lighthouse in the dark.
Return to your rest, my soul,
for the Lord has been good to you.
I LOVE the Psalms, but…I didn’t always love them.
To be honest: when I was a younger Christian, I thought the Psalms were a waste of space. Harsh And horrible thinking, I know. How could a person claim to love scripture (which I did), but not like the largest book in the Bible? Theologically, this amounts to believing that God didn’t know what he was doing when the Holy Spirit inspired the Psalms. Older Christians would often speak of the Psalms with a special reverence, and for the longest time, I just didn’t get what all the hype was about.
My shame runs even deeper—even after I had read through the entire book of Psalms a few times, I still wasn’t convinced of their importance. Two or three times a year, I’d get a strong impression that I needed to read/study/pray some of the Psalms. Occasionally, I’d ignore this desire, and I ended up with some pretty fruitless quiet times…so it was with reluctance that I would return to the Psalms, and God would bless my time with him—but my heart was still too hard to love the Psalms like other believers do.
Over time, this changed. There wasn’t a single moment where God changed my entire attitude over night. I wish there was, it would make for a better story! Instead, for me, it was a gradual process where I began to develop a deep love and appreciation for the Psalms.
The Psalms stand as one of the most unique books among the collection of already unique books that make up the Bible. It’s the biggest book, by far. It’s quoted more than any other book of the Bible. Although I couldn’t prove it, I bet it’s the most read.
I think the most interesting thing about this book is its dual nature. The Psalms are holy Scripture, and this means it’s God’s Word to people. As songs and prayer they are also our words to God. When you or I read from the Psalms, we are simultaneously listening to God and speaking to him. Weird, I know. The very idea of hearing and speaking at the same time calls for reflection.
If you struggle with your prayer life (I should probably write WHEN you struggle), the Psalms are a great place to turn. Praying the Psalms back to God can be an amazing experience. I often meet people who say, “I don’t know how to pray or what to say.” The solution is the psalms. There are many things in the psalms that are confusing, but human experience is universal. We all feel moments of triumph and moments of pain. We are thankful and joyful and ready to glorify God. And we also feel lonely, unappreciated, and overwhelmed. The Psalms express all of these things—and more.
The book of Psalms is a book about knowing God… talking to him honestly and authentically, listening to him, searching to find out what he’s really like. It’s a book that documents the journeys of different God-seekers by letting us in on their conversations with the Creator. Through their prayers and songs we can follow the well-worn paths they traveled as they discovered greater intimacy with the Father.
A survey of the book of Matthew yielded the following reflections. But first, a few notes. (a) Reading Matthew’s gospel in two sittings showed me things I wouldn’t have seen if I was reading smaller sections. Both kinds of readings–small parts and large parts– are needed for a healthy spiritual life. (b) I read with the intention of discerning the leadership principles of Jesus. Leadership is nothing more (nor less) than influence. Every believer has influence in some arena, therefore every believer is a leader. These principles are a discernment of what it means to influence others. (c) I don’t presume to think that this list is complete or absolute! I imagine spending ten years with just Matthew would not be enough to uncover all of the teachings. (d) I did my best to remove the redundancies and clean up the confusing comments, all while keeping each one as short as possible. If you see something unclear or redundant, make a note in the comments below.