King David and Intimacy with God

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Most Christians know that King David was a man after God’s heart (1 Sam 13:14). What did that look like?

Part of the answer lies in Psalm 139. David’s cry in last two verses is remarkable.

Search me, O God, and know my heart!
Try me and know my thoughts!
And see if there be any grievous way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting. (Psalm 139:23–24)

This is a powerful, intimate prayer. Christians would do well to pray this way.

But there’s an approach to this prayer that’s all wrong. Too many treat this prayer as self-improvement, asking God for a home inspection so you can do the patching and remodeling.

As with everything in the Bible, we need to read and pray this prayer in context.

David Knows God

David knows God, and this is evident throughout Psalm 139. What David knows about God gives him comfort, strength, and zeal. Consider what David says about God.

God has already searched and known him (v.1). David is asking God in verse 23 to do something familiar.

God knows his actions, thoughts, and words (vv.2–4). God knows David’s thoughts and his words before they’re spoken. God’s knowledge is overwhelming (v.5).

God is everywhere (v.7). David cannot escape God’s Spirit or his presence. Day or night—the darkness makes no difference to God (vv.11–12). And God is not coolly studying David; he is leading and holding David with his hand (v.10). David enjoys God’s love in addition to his knowledge and presence.

God made him (vv.13–15). God knit and intricately wove David together inside his mother. Think of the detail and care in those words!

God knows all his days (v.16). Before David’s birth, God knew not just the number of his days but the days themselves.

God shares his thoughts with David (vv.17–18). David knows that God’s thoughts are numerous, and precious.

God provides his presence (v.18). After awaking from pondering God’s thoughts, David is cheered and comforted by God’s faithful, ongoing presence.

God can slay the wicked (vv.19–22). David appeals to God’s power, authority, and justice.

The Gospel in Psalm 139

The thought of God searching us can be terrifying. Maybe you imagine a blinding, prison-yard spotlight, sweeping across the grounds, leaving nothing hidden.

But, for God’s children, this isn’t the right image. David has already been searched and known by God. Because God is merciful, God’s hand on David is “wonderful” (v.6). If a sinner calls the hand of a holy God upon him wonderful, there’s only one explanation: this hand belongs to a father, not a jailer.

David knows the evil in his heart that rises against God.

For my iniquities have gone over my head;
like a heavy burden, they are too heavy for me. (Psalm 38:4)

But, by faith, David also knows that his sin has been forgiven.

Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. (Psalm 51:7)

Because David is God’s child, the searching of God is for the purpose of discipline and holiness, not judgment and punishment.

Let’s Pray

So, let’s pray Psalm 139:23–24. But let’s pray it in context.

We’re not praying for self-improvement. Christians have given up on the idea that we can improve ourselves.

We’re not praying for purity so we can get closer to God. In the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and by the gift of faith, God has already brought us near to him! No work or repentance of our own could accomplish any more.

Let’s pray this psalm because we are beloved children of God, and his faithful love compels us to repent of all that offends him. Let’s pray because we need the knowledge of God and the work of the Holy Spirit; our self-knowledge is inadequate and incomplete and so often inaccurate.

Let’s pray this psalm because we trust God not only to show us our sin, but to “lead [us] in the way everlasting.” God won’t simply point the way down the proper path, but he’ll take our hand and walk with us.

Search me, O God, and know my heart!
Try me and know my thoughts!
And see if there be any grievous way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting. (Psalm 139:23–24)


Photo Credit: Kelly Sikkema (2016), public domain

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Six Ways to Respond to God’s Steadfast Love

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Driving the Pennsylvania Turnpike can be rough, especially when you’re tired. The hills and farms all look the same, and it’s easy to get lulled to sleep by the endless pattern of signs: speed limit, exit, service plaza; speed limit, exit, service plaza.

Many of us read Psalm 136 this way. Every verse contains the refrain “for his steadfast love endures forever.” Though you may exult in this truth in verse one, you weary of it by verse 13. Your eyes skip along to the “interesting parts,” neglecting the other half.

But there’s gold in the repetition.

Behold the Promise of God’s Love

This psalm is a masterpiece, painting God’s work through history with the brushstrokes of his love.

The psalmist begins by highlighting God’s goodness and his supreme position above other gods (vv. 1–3). The next six verses describe God’s work as creator; he made the heavens, spread out the earth, and created the sun, moon, and stars (vv. 4–9).

Beginning in verse 10, the psalmist writes of the pivotal deliverance from Egypt. The psalm slows down, crediting God with each step along the way—the Passover, the Red Sea, and the defeat of Pharaoh (vv. 10–16).

In their journey through the wilderness, God gave his people victory over nations who opposed them. In verses 17–22, the psalmist rehearses God’s military might and his provision of land. This stanza connects God’s promise-keeping love (see God’s covenant with Abraham in Genesis 12:7 and 17:8) to his commitment to fight for his people.

The psalm closes with a summary: God remembered, rescued, and provides for his people (vv. 23–25), so we should thank him.

Sing the Refrain of God’s Love

Through all 26 verses, the refrain is the same: “for his steadfast love endures forever.” Behind God’s creative work, his saving work, his fighting work, his providing work—through all the high drama, God’s love is the explanation.

And God’s love is not reserved for the mountain tops. His steadfast love is revealed in the valley of the wilderness years (v. 16) and the mundanity of mealtimes (v. 25).

God’s steadfast love is behind and underneath everything he does. None of his characteristics or actions can be separated from his love. We can easily affirm this integration when considering the exodus or promised land, but it applies equally to God’s justice and wrath (see vv. 15, 17–20). From top to bottom, God is love.

Grasp the Steadfastness of God’s Love

If the biblical authors highlight and underline their writing by repetition, we should pay careful attention to this refrain. It appears in each and every verse—26 times in all.

For his steadfast love endures forever.

Notice the whopping three references to time in this refrain. God’s love is steadfast. His love endures. His love endures forever.

It’s hard for finite humans to digest that word, forever. Everything we see, do, or know comes to an end. What is true for food and clothing we also witness in our emotions. We’d like to claim that our love (for a spouse, for a parent, for a child) is steadfast, but we know better. In anger or impatience, apathy or bitterness, we withhold our love from those most dear to us.

How different God’s love is from ours! His love is steadfast, never diminishing in volume, never weakening in strength, never retreating, never tainted. Though we may feel alone or unloved, reality is different—his love endures forever.

We struggle to digest this truth; we’re prone to dismiss or forget God’s love. In times of suffering, loss, or deep sadness, we often resist with our heart what we know with our mind. Like the psalmist, we need to repeat this truth as often as possible: God’s steadfast love endures forever.

Personalize the Beauty of God’s Love

Here are two ways to internalize God’s love.

Put the psalm on repeat. Read Psalm 136 every morning and evening for a month. (Read every word, careful not to skip the repeated line!) Listen to it on your phone or tablet. Like the woodpecker, a persistent tapping in the same spot sometimes yields a breakthrough.

Write your own version of this psalm. Take up a journal, recount God’s work in your life, and end each line or paragraph the same way: “For his steadfast love endures forever.”

Consider the Cost of God’s Steadfast Love

God’s love for his people reached a crescendo in the incarnation. He aimed to redeem his people, and he had to deal with their sin, once and for all. In his steadfast love, God sent his Son. For his love is a pursuing, costly love.

God demonstrated his abiding, enduring love in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. When Jesus was “made sin for us” on the cross, the Father withdrew his protective love for a time. The Father’s love for his people was manifest in wrath toward sin, and the Son was crushed for our iniquities. Jesus knew the Father’s full fury; he experienced the absence of God’s love so we would know it forever.

Give Thanks for God’s Steadfast Love

Why does the steadfast love of God matter? How does it change us?

One clear application comes out of this psalm: Give thanks. This is the only exhortation in the entire psalm, and it appears four times (vv. 1, 2, 3, 26). In fact, all of the descriptions of God, including the refrain about his love, are given as fuel for thanksgiving.

So give thanks to God for who he is. He is the Creator, Savior, Conqueror, and Provider that Israel needed then and that we need now. Thank God for all the ways his steadfast love has rung out in history and in your life. Don’t hesitate to include the routine aspects of your day; from the miraculous Red Sea crossing to God’s provision of food, everything flows from his love.

And as you give thanks to God, remind yourself and everyone around you about his love. It is steadfast, and it endures forever.

This post originally appeared at Unlocking the Bible.


Photo Credit: Ben Schumin, Creative Commons License

The Trinity Makes All the Difference

What is God like? It’s hard to imagine a more important question.

Different faiths answer this question differently. Is God the same as nature? Is God found inside every person? Is God one, all-powerful, and distant?

At the heart of Christianity stands a triune God.

For what makes Christianity absolutely distinct is the identity of our God. Which God we worship: that is the article of faith that stands before all others. The bedrock of our faith is nothing less than God himself, and every aspect of the gospel—creation, revelation, salvation—is only Christian insofar as it is the creation, revelation, and salvation of this God, the triune God. (Delighting in the Trinity, pp.15,16)

In reading Delighting in the Trinity by Michael Reeves, I saw how vital God’s nature is to Christianity. It affects everything! If we begin elsewhere, we simply do not end up with biblical Christianity.

The Path to the Trinity

Most cultural discussions about God begin with (or assume) the foundation of God as creator. But is this the best starting place? Is God’s primary identity his role as Creator?

Michael Reeves says no.

First of all, if God’s very identity is to be The Creator, The Ruler, then he needs a creation to rule in order to be who he is. For all his cosmic power, then, this God turns out to be pitifully weak: he needs us. (Reeves, p.19)

Reeves goes on to show that the salvation a primarily-Creator God can offer is unsatisfying and, ultimately, self-contradictory. He writes that our relationship with such a god is similar to our relationship to the police.

If, as never happens, some fine cop were to catch me speeding and so breaking the rules, I would be punished; if, as never happens, he failed to spot me or I managed to shake him off after an exciting car chase, I would be relieved. But in neither case would I love him. And even if, like God, he chose to let me off the hook for my law-breaking, I still would not love him. I might feel grateful, and that gratitude might be deep, but that is not at all the same thing as love. And so it is with the divine policeman: if salvation simply means him letting me off and counting me as a law-abiding citizen, then gratitude (not love) is all I have. In other words, I can never really love the God who is essentially just The Ruler. And that, ironically, means I can never keep the greatest command: to love the Lord my God. (Reeves, p.20)

An alternative way to think about God is simply this: Jesus Christ, the Son of God. The fact that Jesus is a Son means that he has a Father. “That is who God has revealed himself to be: not first and foremost Creator or Ruler, but Father.” (Reeves, p.21)

This starting place is not merely philosophical, it is Jesus’s own stance. In John 17:24 Jesus says that the Father loved him (Jesus) before the foundation of the world. Before there was any created matter, with nothing to rule, God was a Father loving his Son.

The biblical faith is a Trinitarian faith, and the biblical calls to faith are thoroughly Trinitarian .

John wrote his gospel, he tells us, so “that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31). But even that most basic call to believe in the Son of God is an invitation to a Trinitarian faith. Jesus is described as the Son of God. God is his Father. And he is the Christ, the one anointed with the Spirit. When you start with the Jesus of the Bible, it is a triune God that you get. (Reeves, p.37)

Creation

reevesI’m late to the party on Delighting in the Trinity. The book was published in 2012 and appeared on several best-of lists that year. But the truths in this book are timeless, and Reeves writes with such clarity, cheer, and care that this was easily the best book I read in 2016. My socks, as they say, were knocked clear off.

Throughout the book, Reeves contrasts the Trinity with a single-person god. More than just a philosophical exercise, this strategy shows just how different the God of the Bible is and how dramatically his trinitarian nature affects everything.

Take creation—would a single-person god create?

Single-person gods, having spent eternity alone, are inevitably self-centered beings, and so it becomes hard to see why they would ever cause anything else to exist. Wouldn’t the existence of a universe be an irritating distraction for the god whose greatest pleasure is looking in a mirror? Creating just looks like a deeply unnatural thing for such a god to do. And if such gods do create, they always seem to do so out of an essential neediness or desire to use what they create merely for their own self-gratification. (Reeves, p.41)

Following Karl Barth, Reeves explains why creating is natural for the Christian God.

Since God the Father has eternally loved his Son, it is entirely characteristic of him to turn and create others that he might also love them. Now Barth is absolutely not saying that God the Son was created or is in any way less than fully God. It is that the Father has always enjoyed loving another, and so the act of creation by which he creates others to love seems utterly appropriate for him. (42)

Reeves explains that the fellowship and love within the Trinity overflows in creation. Our God is not primarily aloof and alone, but he enjoys loving, blessing, and declaring creation “good.”

Salvation

The triune nature of God also makes sense of our sin and salvation.

The nature of the triune God makes all the difference in the world to understanding what went wrong when Adam and Eve fell. It means something happened deeper than rule-breaking and misbehavior: we perverted love and rejected him, the one who made us to love and be loved by him. (Reeves, p.68)

If God is trinitarian and made us in his image, then “we are created to delight in harmonious relationship, to love God, to love each other.” (Reeves, p.65) Our sin is fundamentally a lack of love or a turning of our love.

So, why did Jesus come? Why did God want to restore relationship with us?

Without the cross, we could never have imagined the depth and seriousness of what it means to say that God is love. […] Jesus’ self-giving love is entirely unconstrained and free. It comes, not from any necessity, but entirely out of who he is, the glory of his Father. Through the cross we see a God who delights to give himself. […][T]he Father sent his son to make himself known—meaning not that he wanted simply to download some information about himself, but that the love the Father eternally had for the Son might be in those who believe in him, and that we might enjoy the Son as the Father always has. (Reeves, p.69)

This underlines the uniqueness of the trinitarian nature of God.

Here, then, is a salvation no single-person God would offer even if they wanted to: the Father so delights in his eternal love for the Son that he desires to share it with all who will believe. Ultimately, the Father sent the Son because the Father so loved the Son—and wanted to share that love and fellowship. His love for the world is the overflow of his almighty love for his Son. (Reeves, p.69–70)

The result of the salvation Jesus accomplished is therefore also trinitarian.

The Father so loves that he desires to catch us up into that loving fellowship he enjoys with the Son. And that means I can know God as he truly is: as Father. In fact, I can know the Father as my Father. (Reeves, p.71)

Clearly the salvation of this God is better even than forgiveness, and certainly more secure. Other gods might offer forgiveness, but this God welcomes and embraces us as his children, never to send us away. (For children do not get disowned for being naughty.) (Reeves, p.76)

How would salvation look different with a single-person God?

If God was not a Father, he could never give us the right to be his children. If he did not enjoy eternal fellowship with his Son, one has to wonder if he would have any fellowship to share with us, or if he would even know what fellowship looks like. […] If the Son himself had never been close to the Father, how could he bring us close? (Reeves, p.77)

Everything Else

The triune nature of God affects everything: creation, salvation, and so much more. Here’s just a sample.

Because God is triune, the church is a family.

But the triune God’s delight in family still stands. And so the Father sends the Son, not only to reconcile us to himself, but to reconcile us to each other in order that the world might be a place of harmony, reflecting their harmony. […] The Spirit wins male and female, black and white, Jew and Gentile all to the same uniting love of God which spills over into a heartfelt love of one another. He unites us to the Son so that together we cry “Abba” and begin to know each other truly as brothers and sisters. For the new humanity is a new family; it is the spreading family of the Father. (Reeves, p.103)

Because God is triune, missions are about the nature of God.

For it is not, then, that God lounges back in heaven, simply phoning in his order that we get on with evangelism so that he might get more servants. If that were the case, evangelism would take a lot of self-motivation—and you can always tell when the church thinks like that, for that’s when evangelism gets left to the more adrenaline-stoked salespeople/professionals. But the reality is so different. The truth is that God is already on mission: in love, the Father has sent his Son and his Spirit. It is the outworking of his very nature. (Reeves, p.105)

Reeves goes on to show how the biblical picture of God informs many of the words we use about God, like holiness, wrath, and glory.

Because the Trinity affects everything, there’s more to ponder. For example, how does the Trinity affect apologetics? Reeves argues that:

It is crucially important, then, that Christians be clear and specific about which God we believe in. We must not be heard to believe in just any “God,” but in this God. Today that seems especially vital. (Reeves, p.112)

How should we talk about God with unbelievers? Should we introduce the Trinity right away, or should we establish some common ground first?

This is a short book, and so it cannot and should not cover everything. But it covers so much, so well. The glorious, loving truth of the triune nature of God will probably take a lifetime (and then some) to unpack, but I’m glad I’ve started the journey. If you’d like to begin a similar hike, I can’t recommend Delighting in the Trinity more highly.


Disclosure: the links to Amazon.com in this blog post are affiliate links, meaning that I get a small percentage of any purchase you make on Amazon if you make that purchase after clicking through this link.

Photo Credit: InterVarsity Press

The Default Posture of Love

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It was a delightfully ordinary morning. I was well-rested, blessed by the routines of both the previous evening and the present day. I was enjoying the silence and stillness. Then my children awoke.

Though this happens every day, something was different. I was immediately on edge, listening critically to their conversation and actions. I felt like a coiled spring, ready to bounce upstairs to correct, scold, or yell at the slightest provocation.

Default Positions

We all know a bit about defaults. A default is a position assumed automatically without active choice. We’ve all accidentally subscribed to an email newsletter (or fifty) because we didn’t uncheck the proper box.

On this particular morning, my default position toward my children was one of suspicion and anger. Before they said or did anything, I took on an adversarial stance; I assumed they would soon need correction or discipline. I’m convicted as I remember this attitude, because it’s simply not the way a Christian should think about his kids.

A False View of God

Christian fathers have a weighty task. Whenever they interact with their children, they speak about God’s fatherhood. Like it or not, kids will learn what God is like as a father (in part) by watching, playing with, and listening to their dad.

In my posture toward my children, I was promoting a false view of God.

The culture at large thinks of God as a scold, a grade-school nun eager to draw blood from knuckles with a ruler. The clear, Scriptural evidences of God’s holiness and judgment are used to paint God as perpetually angry, just waiting for us to sin so he can strike. He may be merciful, but only as a last-second shield from his wrath.

These conceptions of God do not square with the biblical picture, especially for Christians.

The True View of God

If you are a Christian, God loves you (1 John 4:10). Your faith is an evidence of his love. He cannot love you any more, and he cannot love you any less. Full stop.

There is not a drop of his wrath remaining toward you (Rom 8:1). Every last ounce was wrung out on Jesus in your place (Rom 5:6–11). Because he is just, God is not waiting for you to fall. (Though he will pick you up when you do.)

Of course, God disciplines us as a loving father (Heb 12:3–11). But God’s discipline comes as needed, in just the right measure and at just the right time. It is never extraneous or excessive; it is never vengeful or disproportionate. His discipline is perfect and perfectly loving.

In short, God’s posture toward us is one of love.

A Godly Vision of Fatherhood

Perhaps the application for parents is clear. Our default posture toward our children must be one of love and peace. We should rejoice at the God-given relationship we have. Friends come and go, but these will be our children forever. Instead of suspicion and anger, my resting state with my children must be warmth and joy, especially if I am to teach them about God.

This posture doesn’t excuse sin or disobedience. In fact, it provides the biblical context for addressing disobedience.

I can love because I am loved. I can help because I have been helped. I can forgive because I have been forgiven. I can correct, guide, and instruct because my Father does the same for me.

For yourself, and for your children, this makes all the difference in the world.


Photo Credit: anonymous (2016), public domain

Heaven is a Person

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I drive over the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and take a deep breath. My shoulders loosen and I feel just a bit lighter. The salty air and sea gulls usher me into this familiar, wonderful place.

I grew up on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. I love the water and the wide-open spaces; I love the farmland and country roads; I love all the sights and tastes and smells.

Heaven is a Place

You probably have your own favorite place like this. Maybe it’s the first house you remember, your college town, or the backyard where you began to raise your family.

As Christians, we read that heaven will be more than cotton-ball clouds, pearly gates, and harps, and it strikes a deep cord within us. Heaven will be tangible, not ethereal. And what’s more, heaven won’t just be our last place, but surely it must be the best place. All our attachment to places on this earth must be shadows of our longings for heaven.

When we learn that heaven is a place, questions are natural. What will it look like? What will we do? What will we eat?

On these matters, God isn’t silent. The last two chapters of Revelation give us some descriptions, and there are heavenly glimpses and images elsewhere in Scripture. But we end up with far more questions than answers, and we wonder: Why doesn’t God give us more information about the place—the city—where we’ll be spending eternity?

It’s Not About the Place

We read this after the very first mention of the new Jerusalem in Revelation 21.

And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:3–4)

This is primary—God will dwell with man. He will be our God and we will be his people. In other words: Heaven isn’t about the place, it’s about the Person.

God has given us some information about heaven, but consider how much more he has told us about himself! The Bible is stuffed with truths and stories about God’s character, his demands, and his grace. When we complain that we don’t know much about heaven, we’re missing the point. God has told us gobs about the most important feature of heaven—himself.

The reality of a new earth and a new body is mind-blowing; I don’t want to minimize this. But the most important—indeed, the most glorious, joyous, and rewarding fact about heaven is that God is there. With our new eyes, we will see him face to face. With no more curse, we will enjoy him in new and fulfilling ways we cannot imagine.

Long for heaven. Stretch for it. Gather everyone you can.

Heaven will be breathtaking, because God is there.


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Photo Credit: Dan Fador (2013), public domain

What My Daughter Taught Me About Heaven

“Daddy, can I be with you?”

This question goo-ifies my heart. What sort of monster could say “no?”

Father Holding Daughter's HandOne of my daughters has an affectionate streak, and she often expresses this by spending time with people she loves. She doesn’t need to play a game or focus on a task, she just wants to be nearby. The other day she wanted to “be with me” but I needed to cut the grass. So she spent about 20 minutes happily trailing six feet behind me as I pushed the mower.

I don’t have an exclusive claim on my daughter’s affections. She loves to be with her mother, her sister, and even some other friends (adults and children) in her life. What’s surprising to me is how frankly and starkly she expresses this desire. She simply wants to be with the people she loves. Boy, do I have a lot to learn from her.

What is the Best Thing About Heaven?

You’ve heard that heaven will be good, right? You may be able to make a list of the awesome things about heaven without stopping any time soon. New earth, new bodies, no pain, no more curse, eternal life, and on and on. But this list has a God-sized hole. Not only is God the best thing about heaven, he is the center and focus of heaven and being with him will be the greatest delight in heaven. This is the highest and best end of Jesus’ saving work.

For Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, so that he might bring us to God, having been put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit. (1 Peter 3:18, NASB, emphasis mine)

We were separated by our sin, unable to approach God on our own. So Jesus died that we could be with God.

We rightly long for all of the secondary blessings of heaven. After several hours of work in the yard, I especially yearn for the absence of the curse. But the absolutely best part about heaven is that we will be with God, our creator, provider, savior, king and friend. We will “see him as he is” (1 John 3:2, ESV), and this will be the cause of indescribable, unending joy.

Is this your longing? Pray that it might be so.


Note: If you detect echoes of John Piper’s book God is the Gospel in this post, you have a keen eye. That book struck me like a swift, cool breeze on a fall day. Refreshing, bracing, and a bit uncomfortable (in a good way).


Disclosure: the link to Amazon.com in this blog post is an affiliate link, meaning that I get a small percentage of any purchase you make on Amazon if you make that purchase after clicking through this link.

Photo Credit: Spirit-Fire, Creative Commons License