God’s Wonderful Plan For Your Life Might Not Be Comfortable

jeremiah

Jeremiah

It’s getting to be that time of year again when high school and college seniors are graduating from their respected levels of education. It’s a time to to reflect on the past years, to look forward to the times ahead, and to take Jeremiah 29:11 completely out of context.

“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.”

– Jeremiah 29:11

I feel like I almost didn’t even need to include Jeremiah  29:11 in this passage. Modern Christianity has made it one of the most popularly quoted passages of scripture of all time. I get the appeal. This verse is a guarantee that someone up there is looking out for us. It comes with a promise of prosperity, a higher plan, and hope that all things will work out for good. The verse doesn’t ask for much of us when read by itself and it creates this image of a vague benevolent force that’s got your back.

I do believe that God does have a plan for you, and that he has given you hope and a future. I also believe that God’s amazing and wonderful plan for your life is probably not going to be the wish-fulfilling prosperity and comfortable life we tend to imagine.

For starters, let’s address the book this passage is taken from. Jeremiah was known as “The Weeping Prophet” and for a good reason. God sent Jeremiah to warn the people of Israel against the coming disaster that they were heading towards because of their abandonment of God. Jeremiah loved his people and devoted his life to winning them back to God, only to be hated, abused, and mistreated for most of his life. Jeremiah did his job by warned the people, but on this side of eternity he never received what we would call a “prosperous life.” Jeremiah put his heart and soul into his ministry, but at the end of the day he hardly saw any fruits from his labors.

martyr

The Death of an Early Christian In the Gladiator Games

He is far from the only person in the Bible to end up on the seeming short end of the stick. Jumping ahead to the New Testament church leaders, we see that Paul spent the majority of his life in prison while Peter, Andrew, Philip, Bartholomew, James, Thaddeus, and Simon would all eventually be crucified for spreading the good news of Christ. Others were burned, speared, stabbed, stoned, tortured, and left for dead due to exposure. Does that sound like a prosperous life?

I guess what I’m getting at is when we use Jeremiah 29:11 out of context we can easily stray off into a border line prosperity gospel message, and that just isn’t Biblical. God’s wonderful plan for your life, if you choose to actually pursue it, will probably not be a comfortable one. We as Christians today are so big on comfort. We don’t want to inconvenience ourselves or others with sharing the gospel because it might get awkward.

Our wondrous and prosperous life is living in the reality that our sins have been forgiven and we get the honor and privilege of sharing that good news with the rest of the world. God doesn’t promise each of us riches, comfort, earthly pleasures, a nice house, or even a loving spouse. The american dream is not exactly what Jeremiah 29:11 was talking about.

We really have only two ways we can conduct our lives. We can either live our lives for something eternal or something fading. I don’t think we truly grasp just how amazing it is to consider the fact that we have a purpose at all. The universe certainly doesn’t owe us one, and if we approach reality form the view that we were nothing more than a chemical reaction and chance, then we really don’t have a purpose. Life outside of God is an empty and meaningless endeavor.

Instead God promises us that there is a plan and a purpose behind all of this. Our lives are not without meaning and we aren’t just random accidents in a chaotic universe, we have a plan and a purpose to our lives. Not only do we have a purpose, but we are promised prosperity. Our lives may not seem like successes by worldly standards, but even the “worst” life that follows God is better than the “best” life pursing fading, empty, and pointless passions that will never leave any eternal impact.

In the book of Ecclesiastes, King Solomon mourns the pointlessness of life. He was a man who had every pleasure and desire imaginable. He was prosperous and lived in excess by almost every human standard. He had any food he desired, more money and riches than could be spent, more wives than he could ever need, and anything his heart desired… and in the end he found it all empty and useless.

“Meaningless! Meaningless!”says the Teacher.“Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.”

– Ecclesiastes 1:2

King Solomon needed a purpose. He needed a reason for everything, or else nothing he did or obtained seemed to matter.

God gives us a purpose, he gives us a plan, he lets us play a part in his redemptive story. He gives us a reason to live, a goal to strive for, and the guarantee that it is not all in vain. Nothing else on earth can guarantee that. There is no cause, fight, goal, or achievement apart from God that can give you the guarantee that in the end it will not be forgotten and made worthless by the ever ongoing annuls of time. Only God can give us a purpose, only God can help us truly prosper, and only God can give us something eternal.

“God cannot give us a happiness and peace apart from Himself, because it is not there. There is no such thing.”

– C.S. Lewis.

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Breakfast With Jesus

Mcr-Fishes

One of my new favorite passages in the Bible is John 21. The power of this passage was always lost on me, and I want to take a moment to thank my good friend Timothy for helping me see this passage with new eyes. His insight inspired this post.

John 21 is a passage I never really gave a lot of thought or attention to. It always seemed to me like it was a really anti-climatic ending for the Gospel writings. It is a quiet conclusion to what I would consider the greatest story ever told. The gospel accounts end with a quiet breakfast on the beach.

John says it like this:

Afterward Jesus appeared again to his disciples, by the Sea of Galilee. It happened this way: Simon Peter, Thomas (also known as Didymus), Nathanael from Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two other disciples were together. “I’m going out to fish,” Simon Peter told them, and they said, “We’ll go with you.” So they went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.

I love the disciples. I see so much of myself in them. They are just so human. Remember that Christ had been crucified, buried, risen, and had appeared to the disciples resurrected. They had witnessed the risen son of God, and what did they do?  They went fishing.

Imagine if you had experienced all the disciples had experienced. Imagine if you had spent years at Christ’s side witnessing his miracles and hearing his teachings. Imagine if you had seen him crucified and buried only to see the risen and resurrected Lord three days later…. Now imagine what it must have been like going back to work after all that.  I’d imagine it would probably take a great deal of time to process everything that these men had just gone through, so I guess fishing seemed like as good a use of time as anything.

Early in the morning, Jesus stood on the shore, but the disciples did not realize that it was Jesus.

He called out to them, “Friends, haven’t you any fish?”

“No,” they answered.

He said, “Throw your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some.” When they did, they were unable to haul the net in because of the large number of fish.

Then the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” As soon as Simon Peter heard him say, “It is the Lord,” he wrapped his outer garment around him (for he had taken it off) and jumped into the water. The other disciples followed in the boat, towing the net full of fish, for they were not far from shore, about a hundred yards. 

I love this passage. One of the guys on the boat recognizes Jesus and Peter is so overjoyed to see him that he can’t wait for the boat to reach shore. They were only about a hundred yards from the beach, but Peter decided that he was going to jump in and swim the distance rather than wait patiently on the boat to reach the shore. I’ve been very happy to see people in my life, but I don’t think I’ve ever been so happy that I would leap out of a boat to get to the shore faster.

When they landed, they saw a fire of burning coals there with fish on it, and some bread.

Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish you have just caught.”So Simon Peter climbed back into the boat and dragged the net ashore. It was full of large fish, 153, but even with so many the net was not torn. Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.”  None of the disciples dared ask him, “Who are you?” They knew it was the Lord. Jesus came, took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. This was now the third time Jesus appeared to his disciples after he was raised from the dead.

“Come have breakfast” just makes me smile. Remember that Jesus had already accomplished everything he came to this world to do. The victory had been won, the chains of sin and death were shattered, a new day had dawned. So what does Christ do? He makes breakfast.

I love the fact that we worship a God of small things as well as big things. God does not always come with pearls of lightning, rolls of thunder, and a blinding flash of light. Sometimes he just wants to chat with you on the beach over breakfast.  Christ could have been seated at the right hand of God in glory. He could have been justly worshiped and exhausted by the heavenly host!  Instead he decided that, for the time being, he’d rather visit disciples and have a quick bite to eat. That is the love Christ has for us.

 When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?”

“Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.”

Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.”

Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”

He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”

Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.”

The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”

Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.”

Jesus said, “Feed my sheep. Very truly I tell you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then he said to him, “Follow me!”

This is yet another passage where I completely missed the point for a long time. Why does Jesus ask Peter three times if he loves him?  Because Peter has denied Christ three times just a few days ago. Jesus was reconciling Peter.  Imagine the shame that Peter must have felt after he had denied Christ and acted so cowardly during Christ’s time of need. In spite of his overwhelming joy at seeing the risen Lord, I have no doubt that Peter was still deeply ashamed of himself and his cowardice. This was Christ telling Peter that all was forgiven. He was telling Peter that he was not concerned with the past sins. Peter had temporarily given up on Christ, but Christ had never given up on Peter. God had not forgotten him, and Christ was still going to use Peter to do great things.

Peter turned and saw that the disciple whom Jesus loved was following them. (This was the one who had leaned back against Jesus at the supper and had said, “Lord, who is going to betray you?”) When Peter saw him, he asked, “Lord, what about him?”

Jesus answered, “If I want him to remain alive until I return,what is that to you? You must follow me.” Because of this, the rumor spread among the believers that this disciple would not die. But Jesus did not say that he would not die; he only said, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you?”

This is the disciple who testifies to these things and who wrote them down. We know that his testimony is true.

Of course Peter is still Peter, and in true Peter fashion he almost misses the point entirely. Luckily for Peter, and us, Christ is patient and makes his point absolutely clear. Jesus had a job for Peter, and he has a job for us as well. He calls us to follow him, and tend to his sheep.

Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.

I’m Really Going To Miss That Ragamuffin: A Tribute To Brennan Manning

imagesSo in the rush and fuss of life I nearly missed the news that Brennan Manning passed away on Friday. I guess I can’t say I was caught off guard by this since Brennan was 79 years old and in deteriorating health, still I cant help but be deeply moved by his passing. I hesitate as I write this, because I know I’ll never be able to write anything that will capture what I want to say about this man. In my life, Brennan Manning is a giant among men.

I struggle to think of any teacher who was more influential and impacting in my Christian walk than Brennan Manning was. His relentless focus on the love of God really helped me to understand just how Good the God we worship is. The way Brennan Manning was able to stay optimistic and loving even during tales of his child abuse and alcohol addiction always managed to shake me to my core. Brennan had no illusions to the fact that he was a broken man who really needed grace. He was passionate and he spoke with a gentle authority. If you ever read any of his books, listened to his sermons, or engaged him in a conversation about God he made sure that you understood before all was said in done that God loves you no matter who you are and what you have done.

Brennan had a little saying he always used that I have adopted and used many times in my ministry.

Let yourself be loved by God, as you are, not as you should be… because you’ll never be as you should be.”

– Brennan Manning

He knew that we were all sinners and in desperate need of grace, but he never stopped there. He never left people squirming in the realization of their brokenness. Manning, in ways much more eloquently than I could hope to master, never failed to let you know that while we were all “ragamuffins,” God still loved us and that gave each and every one of us immense value.

Manning stressed grace and mercy over and over to the point that some people got sick of it, but in spite of what anyone else thought Manning could never get enough of the love of God. Brennan Manning had this raw sort of brutal love about him that I wish to emulate to those I minister to. He was never soft on sin, but he was never stingy on Grace either. Manning knew how to call a spade a spade and love that spade regardless. I’ve rarely ever come across a man who could so reflect the love of God as Manning did.

Even with this seemingly Godly sense of love and mercy that Manning carried about himself he never came off as anything more than a man who was tragically human. I was tempted to say that Manning was not ashamed of his sin, but that would be a lie. Manning was deeply ashamed of his flaws and failures, he simply didn’t try to hide them the way most people do. He was the type of man who owned up to his mistakes and tried to turn them around into a powerful testimony. Manning knew that he was not the only person ever to suffer from addiction, anger, selfishness, pettiness, and cruel desires, and he made a conscious choice to be honest about his sin.  He never tried to paint himself as a holy person, and he wanted it known by everyone that he was a sinner saved by the grace and love of God. Manning was the type of real ministers that only come around every once in a blue moon. He’s the type of minister that I wish I could be, and hope to be.

My heart is greatly pained at the thought of such a great man leaving us, but my spirit leaps with joy knowing that Brennan will have all of eternity to bask in the unending and unfiltered love of God that he so deeply sought after in life.

To God be the Glory.

 

Which Version Of The Bible Is Best?

The other day the question was brought up during a lecture as to what was the best English translation of the Bible. The professor being questioned is one of the most learned men I have ever had the pleasure of knowing. His grasp of the Hebrew and Greek language is astounding, especially to someone like me who managed to barely avoid flunking out of Greek 101 by the skin of my teeth. I was pretty confident that the professor was going to say the ESV, since multiple sources had told me it was the most direct translation. To my surprise, his response was not that simple.

“What do you mean when you say best?” asked the professor.

The inquiring student was a little thrown off by this, to him (and myself) it seems as if this would have been an easy question to answer for someone with such a firm understanding of the Greek and Hebrew languages.

“I mean, which one translation do you think is the most accurate,” replied the student.

“Do you mean to say which is the most accurate translation from Greek to English, or do you mean which translation most accurately conveys the meaning of the original Greek?” was the reply question the professor gave.

We never got a definite answer from the professor. I know what version of the English Bible he uses (NASV) but I also know that he regularly points out ways in which the translation could have been better.

I guess what I’m saying is that language is very interesting in that I can say virtually the same thing in English and another language, but that does not mean that it is going to translate over with the exact same meaning. Language encapsulates much more than just words that mean things, it subtly holds ideas and aspects of culture within.

For example, if I were to say someone is “frugal” or “economical” you would probably assume that this person is good at managing money. If I were to say that the same person is “cheap” or “miserly” you would probably picture someone greedy, selfish, and money obsessed. On a technical level there is really no difference in someone who is “frugal” and one who is “cheap” but to someone fluent in English there are very different connotations. There are hundreds of examples in English of words that mean the same thing, and yet they don’t.

There’s also a myriad of idioms and figures of speech that a direct translation could not capture. If I were to directly translate the phrase “by the skin of my teeth” that I used in the first paragraph into Chinese it would make no sense. In the same way if I were to say a Chinese saying like 三人成虎 (Three men make a tiger) you would have no idea what I was talking about. 

In the same way we have to be careful when we read scriptures that we aren’t too literal in our translating. An easy example that usually doesn’t trip up anyone is Psalm 91:4 which reads:

“He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart.”

I don’t think there are any Christian doctrines out there that would take this verse and argue that God is some kind of giant bird in the sky. Most people understand this verse for what it is, but that can’t be said for all passages.

The Bible is more of a library than a single book, and as a result it’s important to remember that not every passage should be read the same way. We can’t read the Apocalyptic literature of Revelation the same way we read the Gospel account of Luke. We can’t read the legal code of Leviticus in the same vein as the Didactic poem of Job.

Meaning and truth are a lot more nuanced than simply translating Greek and Hebrew directly into English. With the Bible we have been entrusted with a massive library of narratives, holiness codes, historical documentation, philosophy, poetry, prophecy, apocalyptic prose, gospel messages, and letter writings. The authors that composed these books were not all writing with the end goal of being read by 21st century english speakers, and we have to remember than in our studies. The Bible is an amazing collection of works, all of which seek to reveal something about God and the nature of man, and it must be treated as such.

So which version of the Bible is the best? I don’t really know if I’m qualified to say. I’m a NIV fan myself because it tends to be a good balance between “word for word” and “thought for thought” translations. If you are curious about what version of the Bible might work best for you I found this nifty graph that might help you out:

bible-transchrt-js

God knows you. Come as you are.

self-deception

It can be difficult and frightening to truly examine your heart and soul.

Great courage is required to look at your own reflection and see yourself for who you truly are. Not for who you hope to be, or who you make yourself out to be, or who you wish you were, or who you convince other people you are, but rather who you truly are at your core. Unbiased. Unfiltered. Unedited.

It takes bravery and strength to look yourself in the soul and see every aspect of you. It takes a strong will not to casually justify yourself by saying “I’m only human”  or  “nobody’s perfect” as if that could excuse any wrong. It takes courage to examine your life without any self bias or bending the standard so you look better in comparison to everyone else. To look all your faults, failures, sins, and weaknesses and see them for what they are, that takes real bravery.

It takes bravery because, if we are honest, no one really wants to face up to the person at their core. We want to present our best and gloss over our worst. We want to be judged on a low standard where everyone passes. We want to convince ourselves that the easy road we so often take still gives us room to be a “good person.” We don’t want to face the fact that we spend much more time in sin or apathy than we do actually pursuing goodness or holiness.

One way I like to explain this to people is by asking them to picture their entire life as a movie. When I say this, I’m not talking about your life being presented in some uplifting heavily edited film that captures you in the best light as the conquering inspirational hero. I’m talking about a film that shows every single sin, thought, action, inaction, every deed good or evil, and all the motivations behind everything you’ve ever said, thought, or done. I’m talking about a completely unbiased film that captured every aspect of you. For most people I’d venture to say that this is a scary concept.

Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed.

– John 3:20

No one would ever want that film shown because no one wants their true self exposed to the world. We’re afraid and we prefer the favorable lie. We don’t want other people knowing the things we think, or the decisions we make when we know no one is looking. We don’t want to own up to the truth that a lot of the good things we do are just here to give us some self-serving sense of satisfaction or as a means for us to justify our desire to come off as a good person. We would hate that.

Here’s the thing though, God has seen your film.  God knows every thought, action, inaction, and deed you have ever done. He knows what was done out of pure and loving motivations, what was done out of selfish vain conceit,  and what was not done because you just didn’t care enough to do something about it. He knows every cruel thing you’ve ever done, every moment you passed on an opportunity to do good, and every time you did good so others could see or so you could brag about it later. God knows you better than you know yourself, and what’s even more incredible about all of this is the fact that he loves you regardless.

While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ. Nothing can separate us from the love of God. The scriptures are clear about this. God loves us even though we can be completely unloveable.

Really take some time to ponder the Prodigal’s Son parable. Think about the patient father who, when he sees his arrogant, defiled, and filthy son hobbling back to beg for forgiveness, runs to embrace him and welcomes him home before he can even utter an apology.

11 Jesus continued: “There was a man who had two sons. 12 The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them.

13 “Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. 14 After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. 16 He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.

17 “When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! 18 I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’ 20 So he got up and went to his father.

“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.

21 “The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’

22 “But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. 24 For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.

25 “Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. 27 ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’

28 “The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. 29 But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends.30 But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’

31 “‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’”

– Luke 15:11-32

We don’t worship a God who waits for us to get clean before he embraces us, we worship a God who runs to us and loves us in all of our filth and failures. He doesn’t wait for us to make the long journey back to him, he runs out to meet us as soon as we are ready to come home. Nothing compares to the love of God.

images

The Prodigal Father and Son

This is one of the things that I find most beautiful bout Christianity. We don’t worship a God who expects us to become righteous in order to come to him, he wants us to come to him so that he can make us righteous. God is a God of second chances, new beginnings, and fresh starts. His mercies are new every morning and his desire is that his children would come home.

I can’t stress enough the simple and profound truth that no matter who you are, what you have done, where you are coming from, or how broken you feel you are, God still loves you and is patiently waiting for you to come home.