jasonbwatson

September 10, 2015

Integrity in Worship

With this post I want us to think about the matter of integrity. When I say integrity, what do you think about? If you say someone is a person of integrity, what does that mean? The dictionary defines integrity like this: “adherence to moral and ethical principles; soundness of moral character; honesty; a sound, unimpaired, or perfect condition” such as structural integrity.
I want to get even more specific, though. What does it mean to worship God with integrity? Along those lines, how do we keep familiar acts of worship meaningful–how do we make sure that we are not just going through the motions? Integrity of worship, I think, includes worshiping God sincerely and not for self-serving reasons. It means ensuring that there is not a disconnect between what we do at church and what we do away from church. It means making sure that what we profess and what we practice are consistent. It means that when we are here at church to worship God, we are here. Our minds are not elsewhere, we are not checking the clock or our watch, we are not just putting in our time. No, we are focused on worshiping God.

I would love to tell you I have this down, but I don’t. I would love to tell you that my mind is always fully engaged and focused on the hymns we are singing or the message I am hearing when I am in church, but it’s not true. I say that partially so you know that I am not telling you I have this all figured out and you need to get with it. I say it also partly to assure that if you’re thinking, “Sometimes I struggle with that,” you are not also thinking, “I really messed up. God is so disappointed in me!” We will all mess up at times. There will be moments when each of us will slip or get distracted or even, dare I say, fall asleep in church! That’s not the end of the world but it should not be something we are comfortable with, either. God wants us to prepare ourselves for worship and to commit ourselves to worship with integrity.

To consider this subject, I would like to draw your attention to Zechariah 7. I’ll wait a few minutes if you would like to read the passage.

Shall we continue? Here’s the setting: Zechariah has been ministering to the people of Judah in Jerusalem for approximately two years now when God gives him the messages that we have recorded in chapters 7 and 8. The rebuilding of the temple is half finished; there will be another two years. A delegation of men from Bethel arrive and ask the priests and the prophets whether or not they should continue some of the fasts they began during their time of Babylonian exile. In response, God asks whether they were keeping those fasts for the Lord…or for themselves. This delegation had come about 12 miles from Bethel, and their names suggest that they were born in Babylon and were given Babylonian names. Now that they are back in Israel, they want to know if they should continue to keep the fasts that they practiced during the time of captivity. They were seeking God’s will in the matter.

These men ask specifically about one of the fasts that the people had been keeping. There are others, though. The Day of Atonement was an annual fast that God clearly required of the people–you can find that in Leviticus 23:27. We also know from other Old Testament passages that God sometimes called for other fasts at specific times and for specific reasons. The fall of Jerusalem was actually remembered by four different fasts, held in the fourth, fifth, seventh and tenth months of the year. Because the temple fell in the fifth month, that fifth month fast was considered the most serious one, so these men from Bethel use it specifically as a test case to find out whether or not they need to continue with this practice. They had been keeping this fast for many years–they were in captivity for seventy years–and in their situation at this time, now that they are back in Israel, the temple is being rebuilt in Jerusalem, it seemed that perhaps it was no longer necessary.

God answers, through Zechariah, beginning in verse 5. He refers to the fast of the fifth month and the fast of the seventh month, the one that mourned the death of Gedaliah, the governor appointed by Nebuchadnezzar. But from His response, we see that God was questioning the sincerity–the integrity–of the people’s fast. Were they fasting for God or fasting for themselves, out of self-pity rather than out of repentance and sorrow? Remember, the temple was destroyed because the Israelites had not obeyed God. When they fasted, were they mourning their sin and disobedience or were they mourning the fall of the temple and the punishment of God?

The purpose of a fast, throughout Scripture, is to help a person have a deeper experience with God. It is to be a time of confessing, of praying, of seeking God. Those things that can easily become routine and time-consuming parts of our day, and that can perhaps cause us to be comfortable, like eating food for example, are eliminated temporarily and instead we focus on God. The Hebrew word for fast literally means “to cover the mouth” and fasting does most often refer to abstaining from food for a time. We see it referenced many times in Scripture and I think fasting has a place in the life of a Christian for a specific purpose and time. I am not convinced that it needs to be a regular practice. If you fast regularly, and you do it for the right reasons, I think that’s fine. If, however, someone fasts because they think God expects it, or because they think somehow God approves of it and it earns them favor with God, that is wrong. The motives are not pure. There is no integrity there. I also, by the way, am skeptical of someone who wants to make sure everyone knows they are fasting. There may be times when a corporate, organized fast is appropriate (i.e. Esther asking the Jews to fast and pray before she went before the king), but generally speaking I think fasting is a personal matter between an individual and God. If you are wanting everyone to know about it, it more than likely means that you are seeking some kind of approval or recognition for what you are doing. That does not come from pure motives. There is no integrity there.

God then asks the people about other practices, the eating and drinking that would accompany some of the Jewish festivals such as the feast of the Tabernacles. Were the people at those times focusing on the meaning and purpose of the festivals or were they just eating and drinking for the fun of it, enjoying the fast and the celebration and all of the pleasure of the occasion? The answer that is implied in these questions is that the people were doing these things for themselves, not for the Lord. The implication is that their worship was not sincere.

We do not have anything really that equates to these fasts and feasts in the church today. We celebrate the Lord’s supper, and that is good and I think it is biblical. And while someone certainly may do that and just be going through the motions, I do not think many people celebrate the Lord’s supper purely for themselves. I think perhaps a better comparison would be Thanksgiving. Now Thanksgiving is not commanded in the Bible, we see no specific biblical example of it, but I think the example works. Thanksgiving was originally intended to be a day of feasting but along with that a day of focusing on God and His provision for the people–of thanking Him for His blessings. How often is that really what we do not? Other than a quick prayer before the meal, how much time do we really spend on Thanksgiving thinking about God, thanking Him for what He has done? Instead, we get caught up in the food, the fellowship, the football…. Thanksgiving today, for many people, is much more about the pleasure and enjoyment they get out of it personally than it is about truly giving thanks and worshiping God. That’s what God is getting at there with what He says through Zechariah.

In verse 7 of chapter 7 God asks the people about their obedience. God is basically here saying, “I asked your ancestors the same question before I sent them into Babylonian exile.” Indeed, their ancestors were exiled primarily because they were no longer obeying God. It was obedience to God that brought peace, prosperity, joy and blessing to the people of God for a time, but once their obedience was replaced with ritual accompanied by doing whatever they wanted, God judged that. And He is telling the people here that the same thing will happen to them if they get focused on ritual.

I think there are some sincere and pious Catholics. I think there are some Catholics who are saved. But I think there are a lot of Catholics who are doing exactly what is being addressed here. I have known some of them. As long as they went to confession and went to mass–as long as, in other words, they checked the right boxes and fulfilled the right rituals–they could do whatever they wanted, live however they wanted in the in-between times. That is not worshiping God in spirit and in truth. That is not worshiping God with integrity. It is not only Catholics who do that, though. There are plenty of other folks sitting in churches on Sunday mornings thinking they are doing their duty for God and as soon as the final Amen has been said they can live however they want until the next Sunday morning.

In verses 8-10 God provides instruction on what it means, what it looks like, to express or live out the integrity He is telling the people He wants. When we examine the messages delivered by some of the earlier prophets like Amos, Hosea, Isaiah and Jeremiah we see that God wanted the people to practice what they professed. Acts of worship become empty, ritualistic and meaningless when they are not accompanied actions. This is what James emphasizes, right? Faith without deeds is dead!

God, here, is telling the people that He wants them to produce fruits of righteousness. Basically, God is saying the rituals, the fasts, the feasts, in and of themselves mean nothing. “I want you and I want you to live your life in a way that reflects your relationship with Me, that demonstrates that to others,” He is saying. Justice, mercy and compassion should be character traits of true followers of Christ. The widow, the orphan, the stranger and the poor are people who are vulnerable and who have no ability to repay acts of kindness. Because of that these individuals become easy prey for those who are unscrupulous. Followers of God who worship with integrity, however, do not oppress or defraud or take advantage of those who cannot defend themselves. Again, this is exactly what James says in 1:27, writing, “Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world.”

Finally, in verses 11-14, God instructs the people to learn from the past. We can learn a lot from the experiences of others, from the lives of those who have gone before us. It is not necessary for us to experience everything for ourselves in order to learn! Here, God says that “they”–the Israelites addressed by the earlier prophets before the destruction of Jerusalem and the Babylonian captivity–refused to listen to God. God gives five specific responses of the ancestors toward His commands to treat each other with truth, justice, love, compassion and fairness. What were those responses?

1. They refused to pay attention (v 11)
2. They turned a stubborn shoulder (v 11) – this pictures an oxen that will not let its owner put a yoke on its shoulders
3. They closed their ears (v 11)
4. They made their hearts like a rock (v 12) – God wants pliable, open, yielded hearts
5. They would not obey the law or the words of the prophets (vv 12 and 13)

What was the result of this? In verse 13, God says because of their hardness, their disobedience, their rebellion, when they called, He did not listen. Not until the invasion finally came did the people call out to God and by then it was too late. Even then, in fact, they called out to God primarily for physical deliverance, not out of repentance and confession.

The last sentence of verse 14 is important. No doubt there were some people among those in Judah who blamed Babylon for what had happened to Jerusalem and the surrounding land. No, God says; it was the ancestors, the unbelief and disobedience of the people that caused the downfall. Sin has consequences.

Like the people of Judah, we need to examine our worship. Are we worshiping God with sincerity? Are we worshiping Him with integrity?

August 29, 2014

Live It Out

Ravi Zacharias is, in my opinion, one of the wisest and most articulate Christian apologists on the planet. Rarely do I listen to him speak or read something that he wrote without being struck by something I want to be sure to remember and to try to apply in my own life.

Today, as I was flipping through some index cards on which I have written quotes that I find meaningful and worth reflecting on from time to time I was struck by the relationship between two consecutive cards in the stack. Maybe they have always been next to each other and it never struck me, or maybe they just ended up that way today, because some of the cards had come out of the clip in which I keep them and got rearranged. But I think that these two thoughts complement each other so well, and are such poignant reminders for all of us (and those of us who work with children specifically) that I want to share them with you.

The first is a quote from Ravi Zacharias. He says, “I have little doubt that the single greatest obstacle to the impact of the gospel has not been its inability to provide answers, but the failure on our part to live it out.” The implications of that one sentence could fill pages–could actually probably fill books. The Bible talks clearly in so many passages about the importance of living out our faith. Professed belief is questionable if it does not impact the way in which the one making the profession lives his or her life. James, of course, says that believing in God is all well and good but is, for all intents and purposes, worthless in and of itself because even the demons believe. There must also be action, an out-flowing of the change that takes place inside.

I have heard on several occasions–and I am sure you have too–a political candidate say, “My faith will not interfere with my job,” or something along those lines. While I can perhaps appreciate the point the candidate is trying to make, particularly vis-a-vis the “keep religion out of the public sphere” atmosphere that dominates America today, I always find myself thinking in response, “Then it must not be much of a faith.” If someone can profess a religious faith and also profess that he or she can execute the duties of a political office without that faith having an influence on him or her then that faith is either completely meaningless or completely compartmentalized. (Actually, that’s redundant, isn’t it? A completely compartmentalized faith would be completely meaningless…) There are few positions that involve the influence and the potential impact of a political office; if one’s faith is not influential there, where would it be influential?

To the point that Zacharias is making, many people are completely turned off by those who profess the gospel message and therefore never even give the message itself a chance. When one who professes something lives in a manner completely inconsistent with that which is being confessed such a rejection is hardly surprising. This amounts to little more than “do as I say, not as I do,” and I think we all know how effective that is(n’t).

The index card right behind the one with the quote from Ravi Zacharias was one with this quote from Alison Thomas: “The most persuasive apologetic we can offer our children is not a series of carefully constructed verbal arguments, but a life beautifully lived close beside them.”

These two quotes are so complementary because they have the same idea at their roots. Zacharias’ point is that the gospel has the answers, but when those of us who claim it turn seekers off by the way we live our lives they will never give the gospel a chance. Thomas’ point is that coming up with the grandest instructions, arguments and rules in the world will matter little, if at all, if others–and in this case, children specifically–do not see the gospel demonstrated every day in our lives.

Neither Zacharias nor Thomas is suggesting we must be perfect–because none of us can. We will all stumble, make mistakes and “blow it” from time to time. That’s because we’re human. The frequency with which we do that should diminish over time as we grow in our relationship with the Lord but it will still happen. The question is, what do we do when that happens? Do we acknowledge it and repent? Do we apologize to those we may have hurt in the process? Or do we try to cover it up or excuse it away?

The inverse of Zacharias’ point is equally true, and is the point at which Thomas is getting. If we live a beautiful life alongside our children, one in which they see us growing, learning, struggling, messing up and handling it well, they will learn from us. They will ask questions. They will model what they have seen. The probability is high that they will embrace the faith themselves. Our words can be powerful teachers and testimonies, but only if the reinforce and echo what our actions are already teaching.

I suspect that if I were God I would not have chosen to entrust my message of love, redemption and forgiveness to the human race. Even if I had loved humans enough to offer them that, I would probably have done it in a manner that eliminated the possibility that humans could, through their own bone-headedness, become an obstacle to other humans wanting to receive or even hear my message. God, in His sovereignty, chose to give us mortals that responsibility…and what a responsibility it is! If we are going to profess a faith in Him, we better be sure to live it out.

April 14, 2014

Good Gifts

Filed under: Biblical Worldview,Spiritual Growth — jbwatson @ 7:42 pm
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I like to give gifts. It is something I enjoy in general, but when it comes to my wife and my children I tend to take particular delight in it. My wife thinks it is my love language–the one I use the most, not the one I necessarily need or prefer for myself. One of the inherent elements of giving gifts, though, is giving something that the other person desires or will appreciate. We’ve all the old adage “it’s the thought that counts,” and sure, that’s true to an extent. But if we’re honest we can all think of gifts we’ve received that we would have preferred not to receive! Sometimes those gifts came as a result of the giver being aloof or uninformed. Sometimes it is the result of an erroneous assumption. Sometimes the giver likes the item being given and assumes the recipient must also therefore like it. I can remember times as a child when various relatives would give baseball cards to my brother and me as gifts. I loved baseball cards. My brother, on the other hand, could not have cared less. In a way I liked it because he always ended up giving his cards to me, but I felt bad too, because I knew he would have preferred to receive something he actually liked.

The Bible talks about God giving us gifts. Of course the greatest gift that God ever gave was His Son. John 3:16 tells us just how great a gift that was, and if you’d like to read more about that see my post from February 14 of this year. There are many other gifts that God gives us, though. Indeed, James 1:17 tell us, “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.”

In Matthew 7 there is a familiar passage about seeking and finding. In verses 7 and 8 Jesus says, “‘Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened.'” We like those verses because, at first glance, it sounds like God will give us whatever we want. It doesn’t work that way, though. Jesus goes on to say, in the next three verses, “‘Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!'” Jesus uses examples to demonstrate that no earthly father would give dangerous or harmful gifts to his children and surely God would not either. God delights to give us those things that we ask Him for when they are within His will. This is an important qualifier. I do not give my children everything they ask me for. Sometimes I say no. I never give them things that are dangerous or harmful; I would never feed them something poisonous when they thought I was giving them something nutritious. Sometimes, though, they ask for something that I decide they do not need or something I do not think it is a good idea for them to have. God delights in giving us good gifts like wisdom, discernment, patience and more. But there are times when he says no, too.

James addresses that issue, as well. James 4:3 says, “You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.” When we ask God for things that are purely selfish desires He does not give those to us. I would love to have a Porsche, but I am not going to get one anytime soon if I ask God for one because I do not need one. It would not be practical for one thing–I could not even fit my whole family in it unless I got one of the four-door Porsches (which still just seems wrong to me). It would not be cost effective. I do not need one. If I had one it would spend most of the time sitting in the garage; asking God for a Porsche would be purely the result of yielding to my own passions and fleshly desires.

As disappointing as it may be sometimes to receive gifts we do not really want–like my brother receiving baseball cards–or not receiving gifts we really do want–like a Porsche, perhaps–we can take comfort in knowing that God gives us good gifts. He gives us what we need, when we need it. His ways are perfect.

February 13, 2014

Beware Appearances (Part 2)

Yesterday I looked at the danger of focusing on image enhancement at the church level, a concern raised by John MacArthur in a February Tabletalk article and by Sophia Lee in a December WORLD article. Today I want to address the danger of focusing on image at the personal level.

MacArthur writes, “Worst of all, this attitude is pervasive at the individual level. Far too many Christians live as if a pretense of righteousness were as good as the real thing.”

He goes on to point out that this was the major error of the Pharisees. So true is this, in fact, that the very words “Pharisee” or “pharisaical” are now used to describe someone who is far more concerned with the external than the internal. Dictionary.com defines “pharisaical” this way: “practicing or advocating strict observance of external forms and ceremonies of religion or conduct without regard to the spirit; self-righteous; hypocritical.” Hypocrite is probably one of the most common synonyms for Pharisee in any contemporary vernacular. Not exactly anything to aspire to!

The Pharisees’ problem was that they had mastered the art of making, interpreting, creatively bending and then living by the rules. So hung up on rules were they that they greatly added to the Ten Commandments God gave Moses and generated lists of hundreds of rules. So hung up on rules were they that they condemned Jesus for healing someone on the Sabbath, condemned His disciples for grinding grain on the Sabbath when they plucked a few heads of grain with their hands while walking through a field. So hung up on rules were the Pharisees that they completely missed–indeed even denied–that Jesus was the Messiah because He did not fit their idea of what/who the Messiah should/would be.

MacArthur writes, “The Pharisees’ teaching placed so much emphasis on external appearances that it was commonly believed that evil thoughts were not really sinful as long as they did not become acts. The Pharisees and their followers became utterly preoccupied with appearing righteous.” Jesus, of course, turned that manner of thinking on its head, making clear that hating someone or lusting after someone is no different than murder or adultery. In other words, thoughts matter just as much as actions! No wonder the Pharisees hated Jesus; He challenged their entire religious system and made clear that all their rule-keeping was for naught.

Few, if any, of us have the same fastidious attention to countless rules that the Pharisees did. That does not mean at all, though, that we are not just as hung up on external appearances. How comfortable we can get carrying our Bibles to church every Sunday and bowing our heads before every meal, deluding ourselves into thinking that surely means we’re doing pretty good. God doesn’t look at that stuff, though; He is far more concerned with our hearts. He made it clear way back when Samuel was anointing a king for Israel that man looks at appearances but God looks at the heart.

What we do matters; do not take anything I am saying here to mean otherwise. James, of course, makes it crystal clear that our faith must be demonstrated by our works. But faith must precede works. The Pharisees saw no need for faith; works was their means to salvation. So we should carry our Bibles and go to church on Sunday, we should tithe and give offerings, we should show love and mercy in our interactions with others, but all of those things must flow out of a heart transformed by the realization that none of that will get us to heaven or earn us anything. We must also grasp that none of those things negate any “secret” sins of the heart and mind. No one else may see or no about them but God does, and He cares about them. They matter to Him.

In MacArthur’s words, the central lesson underscored by Jesus was this: “External appearance is not what matters most.” Let us not forget that.

November 21, 2012

In all circumstances

Filed under: Biblical Worldview — jbwatson @ 7:40 pm
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Tomorrow we Americans will celebrate Thanksgiving. This is a great holiday…perhaps by favorite, though it would be a tight race with Christmas. I love Thanksgiving for the food, of course, but I love the time of fellowship with family and friends, and I particularly appreciate the reminder to pause, reflect on all that I have to be thankful for, and give thanks to God. If you’re at all like me, you probably take your many blessings for granted sometimes, forgetting to give thanks.

As Thanksgiving has approached this year I have been particularly reminded of the importance to give thanks in everything, not just in the things that seem pleasant or desired at the time. I suspect I am not the only one who struggles to do this.

The apostle Paul wrote to the church in Thessalonica, “give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (I Thessalonians 5:18). This is undoubtedly the ultimate verse on this subject, but it is not the only one. James even specifies that which is most difficult to give thanks for in the moment when he writes, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds” (James 1:2).

Paul, of course, had experienced plenty of “circumstances” in which it would have been very difficult, humanly speaking, to give thanks. Beatings, imprisonment, stoning, shipwreck… These are not the ingredients for a thankful spirit! Yet Paul had learned that God was still in control in those situations, and He was still working through them for His glory. James was writing to the first century Christians that had scattered because of persecution; surely their initial thought had not been to “count it joy.”

When the sun is shining–but its not too hot or humid; when there is still plenty of money in the checkbook after all the bills are paid; when everyone is healthy and smiling; when our favorite team is winning; when ________ (fill in the blank with something that makes you happy)…in those times it is easy to give thanks. So easy, in fact, that I think we sometimes do it cavalierly. It’s easy to give thanks for our food when we have plenty more in the pantry or the refrigerator, or, even if we do not, can easily go to the grocery store or a restaurant to get exactly what we want. I have to wonder, though, whether thanks that comes so easily–so automatically–really means much.

I am not suggesting that the words “thank you” are meaningless; they are not. Actually, I cannot think of many words that have greater meaning. But the way in which the words are said has a great impact on their significance. There are other words like that…”love” and “sorry” come to mind immediately. We trivialize them if we use them carelessly.

Back to my original point, then, sincere thanks given in the midst of circumstances that, on their face, do not seem thanks-worthy is a profoundly powerful thing. I can think of several situations that I have heard about in recent months that do not seem like reasons to give thanks, but upon further contemplation, there is always something for which to be thankful. And while thanks offered in hindsight is meaningful, how much more meaningful is thanks given “in the moment.”

Perhaps one of the greatest examples of a situation that seems lousy at best but turned out to be wonderful was shared with me in recent months. A friend of mine was bucked off of a horse, into a fence. He is a big, strong guy, but it was obvious that he was hurting. He was taken to the hospital, and tests were run. The only immediate damage was a broken rib. Still, not much to be thankful for really. However, in the course of running tests to make sure all the internal organs were alright, it was discovered that there was a cyst on his kidney. This led to more tests, of course, and eventually surgery to remove the cyst. Subsequent tests confirmed that the cyst was indeed cancerous. Yet, because it was discovered so early, it was able to be completely removed and the likelihood of any recurrence is only 4%. The doctors said that if another few years had gone by there would have been absolutely nothing they could have done for him. Amazing how all of a sudden getting bucked off of that horse turned into one of the most thanks-worthy events of his life!

I would never suggest that every one of life’s events will have ramifications that are that consequential. I am not even suggesting that we will always be able to decipher the good in every circumstance. What I do know, though, is that Paul did not say that we are to give thanks in every circumstance for which we can identify a silver lining. James did not say to count it all joy when we meet trials and see the value in them for our own improvement. Nope…there was no qualifier in either instance. The bottom line is simple: give thanks, count it joy…in all circumstances.

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