Deeper Hope:

An Abiding Virtue

This book explores the meaning -- and application -- of Christian Hope. It takes the fuzzy concept of Hope and reveals it in everyday settings



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Hearing God's Word

For the longest time I have been intrigued by the question, what does it mean to hear from God? God willingly speaks to his children, yet there is no guarantee that I will hear him. If I do hear him, how can I be sure I will hear all he has in mind? How can I be sure I will understand Him? Hearing from God requires humility. When the unfathomable Creator of the universe speaks to a finite creature like me, I should approach his words with reverence.

Take the passage in Matthew 16: 13 – 28, for example. (Go ahead and take a moment to read it) Jesus had taken his disciples beyond the borders of Israel and asked them some penetrating questions. By the end of the conversation, God had spoken, but the effort to understand was just beginning. I’d like to suggest three key verses from this passage if we want to understand how God speaks.

Revelation: “Jesus replied, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven.” (v 17) Some kinds of knowledge come only through revelation. Peter had been on the road with Jesus for some time. He had seen Jesus do incredible things, heard Jesus teach with authority, and even participated with Jesus in miraculous events. Even though Peter had such a wealth of experience, his knowledge of Jesus’ identity was revealed by to him God. I wonder how often I lean on my own understanding: there’s no doubt I can learn from my experiences or grow from the times God has used me in ministry. Some things, however—some very important things—must come from God. Let’s not be tempted by thinking, “well we have the Bible now, that’s how God speaks today.” Be careful! The religious leaders of Jesus’ day thought the same thing. Jesus had strong words for them, and if we have ears to hear, strong words for us as well: “You have your heads in your Bibles constantly because you think you'll find eternal life there. But you miss the forest for the trees. These Scriptures are all about me!” (John 5:39 The Message) I’m grateful for the scripture but I need to keep in mind that the scripture points to God. It’s possible to read the Bible for an hour and never hear God’s voice.

Explanation: “From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.” (v 21) Revelation is not enough: we need help understanding what we have heard. Can you imagine the response of the disciples after Jesus confirmed he was the Messiah? Their excitement and anticipation must have filled them with expectation. The challenge before Jesus was directing their energy toward God’s intention instead of their own ideas about the coming of the Anointed One. In the century before Jesus several “Messiahs” had put themselves forward to the people of Israel. Even prominent rabbis had endorsed these Deliverers. Both Israel and Rome were on the watch for a new “King of the Jews.” The true King of Kings had a profoundly different sense of divine mission. How many times have I taken the revelation God has given me and run off with my own ideas about what comes next? And “what came next” was shocking to the disciples!

Decision: “Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.’” (v 24) Who knew that following the Christ would mean taking up the walk of a condemned man? The phrase “take up your cross” has been softened by the centuries. Many 21st century Christians consider any inconvenience to be “my cross to bear.” The men who heard Jesus that day in Caesarea Philippi knew exactly what “cross-talk” was all about. Our modern-day equivalent might be summed up in the phrase currently used on death row, “Dead man walking.” Jesus was trying to indicate not only the manner of his death, but their destiny as well. Having received revelation from God and explanation from Jesus, the disciples still had a decision to make. God had not spoken to them “FYI,” God had spoken in order to draw them into the action!

I have tried to imagine the roller coaster of emotions the disciples experienced in a matter of minutes: revelation concerning Jesus’ identity, explanation from Jesus himself regarding the true role of the Messiah, and chillingly, the realization that Jesus was calling them to follow him.

Whenever we hear the voice of God there is something more than revelation. He has a purpose when he speaks, and we must choose whether we will fill our ears or let his word fill our lives.

Monday's Meditation An Invitation to Experience

“Anything we read in the scripture is an invitation for us to experience.” ~Bill Johnson, Bethel Church
Now there’s something to think about on a Monday. How do we come to the Bible? Are we looking for information about God, or an encounter with God? When we say the book is inspired, do we mean that the Holy Spirit breathed upon those who wrote it, or do we mean that the Holy Spirit wants to breathe on those who read it now? Correct answer: “Both.”
I was sitting around the office Friday with a friend, talking about reading the Bible for the first time. Do you remember what that was like for you? Do you remember thinking, “Man, that’s crazy! I wonder if that stuff could happen to me?” As we talked about our first encounters with God’s word, my friend commented, “I think we have to be trained not to believe the stuff we read.”
This was John Wimber’s experience (Wimber was the founder of the Vineyard movement). In his testimony he describes how God delivered him from a self-centered life of drugs and alcohol. He describes how the Bible was fresh and alive. Then he tells the story of going to church and seeing the distance between Christianity described in the New Testament and Christianity in the modern church. So Wimber cornered the pastor one day and asked, “When do we get to do the stuff?”
“What stuff?” the pastor asked.
“You know, the stuff in the Bible. When do we get to heal the sick and all the other stuff I read about?" The pastor explained to John that “stuff” like that doesn’t happen any more—at least not to normal Christians.
And so began the process of training a new convert into not believing, or experiencing, the stuff in the Bible. So for a new Monday, consider: what have I read in the scripture that's an invitation for me to experience? How would that change my life?

There was a man who had two sons

Jesus had a strange way of answering criticism. He told stories. In fact, he told stories in response to many situations. When a lawyer wanted to debate the meaning of a single word, “neighbor,” Jesus answered with a story (Luke 10: 25 – 37). When he wanted to open our minds toward God’s Kingdom, he told stories (Matthew 13). And when he faced criticism, he told the story we call “The Prodigal Son.”

He didn’t give the story that name. He just told it. What a strange way to answer criticism (Luke 15:2). He simply talked about lost sheep, lost coins, and lost children. Could you imagine a politician or a pastor faced with criticism today? “The charges against me have not been proven!” one might say. Another might respond, “I won’t dignify that accusation with a response.” But what modern figure, when faced with an attack, would respond: “The was a man who had two sons.” You can read it in Luke 15: 11 – 32.

I don’t particularly like the name, “The Prodigal Son.” The story could just as easily carry the father’s name. Or we could take our cue from Jesus’ first line: it’s the story of a father and two sons. I’ve been thinking lately about both sons. They had so much in common. Perhaps more than you think. Families are funny. Two boys can grow up in the same house, eat the same good, go to the same schools, have the same parents and still turn out so differently. And yet when others look at the family from the outside they will notice first the similarities. Take these two young men.

The “prodigal son” is infamous. He wished his father dead, and said so! The fool was soon parted from his money (was it ever really his money?). Finally, with his back to the pigpen, he devised a humble return to the family farm, even if it was only as a hired hand.

Of course, the father would have none of it. He was watching for his boy all along. He wouldn’t even listen to the elaborate “deal” the younger son proposed. The father celebrated his return and invited everyone to do the same. This much we know.

The older brother is not as famous, but he’s gotten his share of recognition over the centuries as well. He wasn’t happy about the return of his brother. He used the father’s extravagance as fuel for criticism of his Dad.

Like many families today, both boys would be surprised to hear what others saw they had in common. I’d like to point out some of the family resemblance if I may:

Both sons failed to grasp their identity: the younger son rejected his role as a son. He tried to “hire on” when he returned, which means he still didn’t see himself as the father’s son. But neither did the older brother. He said to his father “all these years I slaved for you.” (verse 29) Apparently he saw his role as a slave, not a son. Whether this slavery resulted from the expectations of his culture or a poor relationship with the father, we can only guess. Both sons had the unspeakable privilege a blood-bond, but neither could grasp their identity.

Both sons separated themselves from the father: the younger son famously flew the coup, but he older brother was left in the outer darkness beyond the house, hearing only the faint music of celebration in the father’s house. Both did so by their own choice, and both missed out on abundance, feasting, and joy.

Both sons experienced the father’s loving pursuit: while the younger brother was still a long way off the father dropped everything and ran to him. Never was a boy so willingly captured. The older brother saw the silhouette of someone coming out from the house. It was the father, looking for a missing son. He was the kind of father who never forgot either of his boys, even when the party was in full swing. The father would go to nearly any length to welcome them both.

Both sons got to hear the father’s view of their relationship: the younger son was not allowed to demote himself to hired hand. He was a son, and he would always remain so. The older brother got to hear these exquisite words, “My son, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours.” Apparently the father never thought in terms of “inheritance.” He had always viewed everything as belonging to his boys.

If I had the chance to change popular perception of the parable, I would rename it “The Father’s Love.” There is no identity apart from the Father. Separation from the Father means darkness for all who choose to distance themselves. The Father’s love breaks every barrier. And finally, the Father’s heart determines who we are even if we don’t have it quite right.

Jesus told the story to a critic. I wonder if the critic heard the invitation to join the party?

Monday's Meditation: Daydreaming on the Expressway

I have a recurrent daydream about the greatness of God. When I am driving on an expressway I watch the endless stream of cars going the other direction. They flash by in an instant. In each car is another person, perhaps two—perhaps an entire family.

I try to imagine who these people are. Each one has a life, just as I do. Each car contains someone going somewhere. Each person has a history, a story, and a destiny before them. In a moment, I am overwhelmed by the vast numbers of people in the city, and my mind cannot grasp the fullness of each life that flashes past me. But God can.

I am confident that God knows me and cares about me. He not only knows the circumstances of my life, he knows my thoughts and wants to dialogue with me every moment of my day. As I’m driving, I think, “How can God know each person? How can he keep track of it all?” In fact, he cares about each one, he loves them; he’s not just “keeping track of” them.

Sometimes we unconsciously think God is just like us, only bigger and better. As I watch the endless stream of cars going the other way and try to think of every person I realize that God isn’t just a bigger version of me, he is something—some One—completely other than me. The vast numbers of people in my city, my state, my country, worldwide only demonstrate his greatness. He knows and cares for every one of them.

Do you want to be overwhelmed by God’s greatness? Consider that God not only cares for you, but about every person alive or who has every lived. How much does he care? “Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don't be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.” (Luke 12: 7)

Five Passages I find Hard to Believe

One night I had this discussion with some people I respect: is there anything in the Bible that you find difficult to believe? It was a get-real conversation. Kind of like the guy who begged Jesus to heal his son: he said to Jesus, “But if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us." "'If you can'?" said Jesus. "Everything is possible for him who believes." Immediately the boy's father exclaimed, "I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!" (Mark 9: 22 – 24)

Honestly, I’m not sure I would trust someone who said they cold wrap their mind around everything revealed in the Bible. So “un-follow” this blog if you must, but I’m going to put my weakness on display. God is way bigger than my intellect, and to prove my point, I present five passages I find difficult to believe.

1 AND 2). “God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.” (Hebrews 11:40) After describing incredible heroes of faith, the writer of Hebrews concludes the chapter with two astonishing nuggets. God has planned something better for us. I’d kill to have the faith of any one of these people, but apparently there’s more, and it’s better, and it’s for us. AND only together with us would they be made perfect. Are you kidding me? Something is lacking in the experiences of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, and well, the whole list—and they are looking to us for the fulfillment of their experiences. No wonder there is a great cloud of witnesses looking on. They are counting on us! Like the guy said, I believe, but help me in my unbelief.

3). “His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms.” (Ephesians 3:10) To begin with, I have no clear idea who the “rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms" are. I suppose when the Almighty wants to chill at a celestial Starbucks (think Job, chapter 1), these are the guys he hangs with. That’s strange enough, but while they are waiting for the java to cool down and God wants to put his multifaceted wisdom on display, he says, “Hey, take a look at the church.” Are you kidding me? I love my local church, but it hardly reaches the level of manifesting all of God’s wisdom.

4). “I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.” (John 14:12) OK, I know Jesus is going to chide me later, but for right now, holy cow! First of all, Jesus uses really strong language. When he opens up with “I tell the truth” it means, “read my lips, I’m not kidding.” Second, it’s in the singular: “anyone” and “he.” My favorite cop-out on this verse used to be that it was the aggregate works of all believers in all times but there’s no way you can read it like that. He means me, and then he means you. Since I’m being honest (and it’s the last time you’ll ever read this blog) I’ll admit I’d settle for just doing the stuff he did.

5). “His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature and escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires.” (2 Peter 1: 3 – 4) The reason I have so much trouble with these two verses is that they lay so much responsibility at my feet. He’s given us everything we need. Well then, go get ‘em. It’s a one-two punch: Peter also says that through God's promises we may participate in the divine nature. What do you think the "divine nature" is? I don’t know, but it’s got to be good!

BONUS ROUND: This one isn’t mine, but it’s too good to leave out. My friend has trouble with Judges 15: 4, “So he went out and caught three hundred foxes and tied them tail to tail in pairs.” It’s from one of the Samson stories, and it stretches one of my good friends. “300 foxes?!?” he said. "Do you know how hard it is to catch just one of those critters?"

How about you? Care to share any passages that stretch your faith?