But What if the Bible Doesn’t Seem to Make Sense?

Most of us want to think of ourselves as reasonable people. When need be, we can think logically and rationally about things and come to reasonable conclusions. We know at the least the basics of how to recognize fallacies in other people’s arguments and how to put our own thoughts together.

For those of us living in Western nations (and I’m guessing some other locations that have been influenced by Western ideas), the education we received in relation to logical reasoning is based in Grecian and Roman philosophies. This system of reasoning and logic laid the groundwork for our scientific method and our ideas about how to figure out if something makes sense.

When we apply our modern human reasoning to the Bible, sometimes there are things which seem odd to us. We might notice contradictions in the text. We might wonder why God would tell people to do certain things, or why He makes some of the choices He does. We might look at some of the connections New Testament writers make to the Old Testament and think their conclusions seem far-fetched. And when we look at the Bible and it doesn’t make sense, we might become frustrated with our own limitations or we could become skeptical of God’s word.

The first of those problems has a fairly simple answer: pray for wisdom and understanding. James says that if anyone asks for wisdom in faith, God will give it to them (James 1:5-6). Paul adds that if we’re off-the-mark in our views, God can reveal the truth to us (Phi. 3:14-16). When we’re in a relationship with God, He also gives us His holy spirit that Jesus said “will guide you into all truth” (John 16:13, WEB). When we’re frustrated with our own lack of knowledge or understanding, we can take those frustrations to God. He might not give us the exact answer we’re looking for right away, but He will always help those who keep asking and seeking (Luke 11:9-10).

It can also help to keep in mind the things that I’ll suggest people consider if they think God’s word doesn’t make sense. There’s a dangerous sort of arrogance in thinking there’s something wrong with God just because He doesn’t make sense to us. Similarly, there’s danger in dismissing God’s word because we’re not sure how to wrap our heads around it or we think it’s just a good book rather than His divine revelation. There’s a lot we could say on this subject, but for today’s post I want to focus on just two things we can think about if we’re struggling with the idea that things in the Bible don’t make sense.

Image of a girl reading the bible, with text from Romans 11:33 and 1 Corinthians 2:16, NET version.
Image by José Roberto Roquel from Lightstock

The Wrong System of Measurement

Suppose you come across a woodworking project, like a little birdhouse, at a resale shop. You like the way it looks so you take it home and plan to use it as a pattern for your next project. You get out your tape measure and start making notes. The roof is just shy of 7-7/8 inches long, and not quite 4-3/4 inches wide. You keep taking measurements and it gets more and more frustrating. Why didn’t the builder use nice, even, sensible numbers instead of all these not-quite-right fractions?

Then suppose you turn the tape measure around to the side with centimeters. Suddenly, the roof is exactly 20 by 12 cm. The problem wasn’t with the person making the birdhouse. The problem is you didn’t understand what system of measurement they used in the first place.

This is very similar to what happens when people approach the Bible with a cultural mindset different than the one the original writers use. The Bible is a text from the ancient Middle East. Even though we believe God is the ultimate author of the Bible, He still used people in that culture to write His word. When Jesus spoke to people of His day, He used examples and analogies they could understand. Those of us who are far removed from that original context (in terms of both time and cultural philosophies) often have a hard time figuring out the Bible. That’s not because there’s something wrong with the Bible or we’re incapable of understanding; it’s just that we need more contextualizing information.

For example, in Western culture we like having reliable rules and we think they ought to apply to everyone in the same way. If a rule is bent or broken for one person and not others, we call that “unfair” and complain about a lack of justice. If we see what looks like a rule in the Bible and then God does something different, we might think He’s unjust or that there’s some kind of hidden rule system that He’s unfairly keeping from us. But things are different in non-Western cultures where “rules apply except when the one in charge says otherwise. Westerners might consider this arbitrary; many non-Western Christians consider this grace (Richards & O’Brien, p. 174). That’s how Paul can (arguably) call Junia an apostle in Rom. 16:7 even though women don’t typically hold that office (p. 172).

That example comes from Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes–a book I highly recommend to anyone who wants to understand the Bible better. Reading the Bible with Rabbi Jesus is also a great help with that. These books are excellent “tools” for making sure you’re using the right system of measurement when interpreting God’s word. You might be able to find one or both of these books in your local library, and here are the Amazon links if you want to check them out:

God’s a Lot Smarter Than You

There’s another truth that we need to acknowledge if we want to work through parts of scripture that don’t make sense to us. God is smarter than us. And when someone is a lot smarter than you, plus they have a perfectly clear perspective on everything going on, sometimes you won’t be able to make sense of what they’re doing.

For some people, it’s easy to admit that they’re not the smartest person in the room. For others, our intellect can be a stumbling block that gets in the way of a close relationship with God. This latter one is something I can struggle with. I get prickly when someone insults my intelligence or implies that I don’t understand what I’m talking about. I rely heavily on my ability to research things thoroughly and find good answers. I preen inside when a professor complements my writing or calls me an “academic.”

However, an academic understanding of scripture isn’t how we have a relationship with God. Our spiritual temperament might lean more on logic, reason, and knowledge (as Gary Thomas discusses in “Sacred Pathways”), but intellect isn’t enough to have a relationship with God. We also need humility and love. We need to admit that no matter how much we study, we’re not going to learn everything about God because the depths of His knowledge are unfathomable. We need to humbly marvel at–and love–the God who is way smarter than us, and ask Him for help when we’re struggling to understand something in His word.

My brothers and sisters, consider it nothing but joy when you fall into all sorts of trials, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect effect, so that you will be perfect and complete, not deficient in anything. But if anyone is deficient in wisdom, he should ask God, who gives to all generously and without reprimand, and it will be given to him. But he must ask in faith without doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed around by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord, since he is a double-minded individual, unstable in all his ways.

James 1:2-8, NET

Sometimes, the “testing of our faith” is an internal struggle rather than an external trial. We might wrestle with our own doubts, questions, or fears related to God’s word. We’re not abandoned during those struggles, though. Sometimes I think we worry if our trials are doubt-related then we don’t deserve to ask for God’s help, but the truth is that He’s is eager to help everyone seeking His kingdom to understand and know Him more fully. Even the tiniest spark of faith is enough for Him work with if only we’ll come to Him and say, “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24, WEB).

Shifting Our Focus

Image of a woman studying her Bible with the blog's title text and the words "We can eagerly seek knowledge of God while also humbly admitting that we don't yet know everything (and that's okay)."
Image by MarrCreative from Lightsock

There are still parts of the Bible that don’t quite make sense to me. But I think now I’ve reached a point where I trust that God knows what He’s doing even if I don’t understand it. I can also trust that someday He’ll help me understand those things, even if that “someday” doesn’t happen in this physical life.

I can also shift my focus off trying to make sense of everything and onto following Christ’s example. When Paul and Peter say we should have Christ’s mind, they aren’t focused on knowledge so much as on peaceful relationships (Rom. 15:5), God’s wisdom inside us (1 Cor. 2), service (Phil. 2:5-7), suffering, and freedom from sin (1 Pet. 4:1-2). There are far more important things to focus on than trying to make sense of everything in the Bible or put God into neat little categories. There is great value in knowing the Bible and understanding doctrine, but that’s all secondary to knowing God.

“Don’t let the wise man glory in his wisdom.
Don’t let the mighty man glory in his might.
Don’t let the rich man glory in his riches.
But let him who glories glory in this,
that he has understanding, and knows me,
that I am Yahweh who exercises loving kindness, justice, and righteousness in the earth,
for I delight in these things,” says Yahweh.

Jeremiah 9:23-24, WEB

Paul quotes these verses at the beginning of 1 Corinthians when he’s counseling his readers not to let disputes and pride get in the way of peaceful relationships in the church or following Christ. Even the smartest among us don’t have anything to boast of when we compare ourselves to the wisdom, goodness, and glory of God. With this shift in mindset, we can pursue a closer relationship with God and eagerly learn more about Him while also humbly admitting that we don’t yet know everything (and that’s okay).

Featured image by Matt Vasquez from Lightstock

Isaiah Study: The Potter and the Clay

As we continue our study of Isaiah 40-66, I want to look at an analogy that’s also used earlier in this book and by the prophet Jeremiah. If you go back and read the first post in this Isaiah study, you’ll see one of the key themes that I wanted to study more was “God as a potter, with us as His clay.” To dig into this analogy deeply, it’s helpful to look at the other messages God gave His prophets using the same word picture.

God’s description of Himself as the Potter and us as His clay also links to some other themes we’ve looked at in this series. Because God is Incomparable and Irreplaceable, He has the power to do what He likes with His creation. Part of what He’s doing relates to The Contrast Between Righteousness and Wickedness and The Lord’s Desire for Justice. He’s working with us to shape us the way that a potter works with clay to turn it into something beautiful and useful.

Danger in Disrespecting the Potter

The first time God describes Himself as a potter in Isaiah is in chapter 29. This passage comes before the section we’ve been studying, but it’s a message to the same people and gives us important background for the theme we’re looking at today.

The Lord says,
“These people say they are loyal to me;
they say wonderful things about me,
but they are not really loyal to me.
Their worship consists of
nothing but man-made ritual.
Therefore I will again do an amazing thing for these people—
an absolutely extraordinary deed.
Wise men will have nothing to say,
the sages will have no explanations.”
Those who try to hide their plans from the Lord are as good as dead,
who do their work in secret and boast,
“Who sees us? Who knows what we’re doing?”
Your thinking is perverse!
Should the potter be regarded as clay?
Should the thing made say about its maker, “He didn’t make me”?
Or should the pottery say about the potter, “He doesn’t understand”?

Isaiah 29:13-16, NET

This passage is an indictment against people who think they know better than God. They’re arrogant. They substitute their own rituals for the type of worship God commanded and they think their plans are so clever God won’t figure them out or try to stop them. This is the same attitude that Jesus rebuked the Pharisees and experts in religious law for having when He came to earth the first time (Mark 7:2-13).

It’s a trap we can fall into as well. If God tells us to do something and we decide that something else would be better, then we’ve become disloyal to God. We’ve become like pottery telling the potter He didn’t make us and He doesn’t understand what’s best for us. It’s insane, and yet we try this all the time. We think, “Well, maybe God didn’t really mean it like that.” Or we say, “Yeah, but if He knew what my life’s like He’d make an exception.” Or maybe, “Sure He said that then, but this will work better now.” It’s is a very dangerous attitude.

One who argues with his Creator is in grave danger,
one who is like a mere shard among the other shards on the ground!
The clay should not say to the potter,
“What in the world are you doing?
Your work lacks skill!”
Danger awaits one who says to his father,
“What in the world are you fathering?”
and to his mother,
“What in the world are you bringing forth?”
This is what the Lord says,
the Holy One of Israel, the one who formed him,
concerning things to come:
“How dare you question me about my children!
How dare you tell me what to do with the work of my own hands!
I made the earth;
I created the people who live on it.
It was me—my hands stretched out the sky.
I give orders to all the heavenly lights.

Isaiah 45:9-12, NET

I quoted this chapter early on my Isiah study as well, in the post titled “God is Incomparable and Irreplaceable.” Here, God says, “I am Yahweh, and there is no one else. Besides me, there is no God” (Is. 45:5, WEB). He’s the Creator who made human beings, invited us into covenant relationship with Him, and makes plans that will surely come to fruition. He’s not a human who makes mistakes, or tells lies, or says they’ll do something then can’t follow through. And even though He loves us deeply, there is danger in disrespecting and underestimating Him. As His creation, we need to respect the Creator and remember how we fit into the universe.

God’s Right to Shape the World

Isaiah isn’t the only Bible writer to use a pottery analogy. During Jeremiah’s ministry, God sent him to watch a potter working. Jeremiah went to the potter’s house as instructed and watched as the clay the potter worked with became misshaped, so the potter reworked it into a different type of vessel. As Jeremiah looked on, God spoke to him.

Then Yahweh’s word came to me, saying, “House of Israel, can’t I do with you as this potter?” says Yahweh. “Behold, as the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, house of Israel. At the instant I speak concerning a nation, and concerning a kingdom, to pluck up and to break down and to destroy it; if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from their evil, I will repent of the evil that I thought to do to them. At the instant I speak concerning a nation, and concerning a kingdom, to build and to plant it; if they do that which is evil in my sight, that they not obey my voice, then I will repent of the good with which I said I would benefit them.”

Jeremiah 18:5-10, WEB

God has the absolute right to dispense His justice according to His righteousness. If you remember the article from a couple weeks ago, “Isaiah Study: The Lord’s Desire for Justice,” then you’ll recall that God’s justice involves His governing authority, His desire to make things right in the world, His law, and His offer of salvation. Like a potter has the authority to turn clay into a simple bowl, a practical cup, or an elaborate vase, so does God have the authority to shape the future. We have free will, yes, but the choices we make are contextualized by God’s decisions about how the world works.

You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who has ever resisted his will?” But who indeed are you—a mere human being—to talk back to God? Does what is molded say to the molder, “Why have you made me like this? Has the potter no right to make from the same lump of clay one vessel for special use and another for ordinary use?

Romans 9:19-21, NET (bold italics a quotation from Isa 29:1645:9)

The context for this statement is Paul explaining how Israel and the Gentiles fit into the New Covenant (Rom. 9-11). Though we’re not getting into that topic today, the statement is one we’d do well to ponder. God’s authority does not negate our own free will nor excuse us from our responsibility to live in accordance with His law. If we ever feel like He’s not being fair or He did something wrong, the problem lies in our limited perception.

When you think about it, it’s the height of arrogance to think that just because we don’t understand what God’s doing that He’s wrong to do it. While it’s often challenging to trust God with the future, it’s something we need to do for our own sanity if nothing else. “One who quarrels with his Maker, like a pot among the pots of the earth” is not going to have peace (Is. 45:9, TLV).

Walking in the Potter’s Ways

God doesn’t ask anything unreasonable or mysterious from us. It’s just that our human reasoning and arrogance get in the way of us accepting His sovereignty and trusting Him with our futures. Even as I write this, a small part of me bristles at the idea of someone else telling me, “Here’s how the world works, so here’s how you should live your life.” Mostly, though, knowing that God’s expectations are clear is a relief.

He has told you, O man, what is good,
and what the Lord really wants from you:
He wants you to carry out justice, to love faithfulness,
and to live obediently before your God.

Micah 6:8, NET

It’s kind of weird–usually I find it comforting to know God’s in control and that He shows me how to live a good life, yet there are still times part of me wants to go my own way. Paul talked about a similar struggle in Romans; our “fleshy” human desires conflict with the spirit-filled life we’re called to live (Rom. 7:1-8:4). That pull between flesh and spirit–between our “old man” and the new work God’s doing in us –is something every Christian battles. We can win this fight with God’s help, though, and “the righteous requirement of the law may be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (Rom. 8:4, NET). Then, we’ll be working with the Potter instead of resisting His work.

You meet him who rejoices and does righteousness,
    those who remember you in your ways.
Behold, you were angry, and we sinned.
    We have been in sin for a long time.
    Shall we be saved?
For we have all become like one who is unclean,
    and all our righteousness is like a polluted garment.
We all fade like a leaf;
    and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.
There is no one who calls on your name,
    who stirs himself up to take hold of you;
for you have hidden your face from us,
    and have consumed us by means of our iniquities.

But now, Yahweh, you are our Father.
    We are the clay and you our potter.
    We all are the work of your hand.
Don’t be furious, Yahweh.
    Don’t remember iniquity forever.
Look and see, we beg you,
    we are all your people.

Isaiah 64:5-9, WEB

This is the final section of Isaiah that talks about God as a Potter. Here, Isaiah shows the right way for us to respond to God as He works with, molds, and shapes us. We need to remember, as God does, that we’re made of clay and dust (Job 10:9; Ps. 103:14). No matter how much we might think of ourselves, we’re still little compared to God. We don’t know the future and our ideas about what should happen aren’t always right. We need to trust our Creator to work things out for the best and to work with us to make us our best. If we’ve done something that “misshapes” us in God’s hands, we can still choose to come back to Him for loving correction. He’ll meet those who seek righteousness where they are and then keep working with us to shape us into something beautiful.

Featured image by Inbetween from Lightstock

What Does “I Lift Up My Soul” Mean?

Have you ever been curious about the phrase, “I lift up my soul”? It’s something I’ve heard so much by this point in my life as a Christian that I don’t really think about it anymore. There’s even a “To Thee I Lift My Soul” song in our church hymnal. After hearing, reading, and singing it so often, I just assume I know what it means.

Then I read the first couple verses of Psalm 25 again this past Tuesday, and I started wondering. Is “I lift up my soul” just a poetic phrase for prayer–directing your soul up to God? Or might it be something else; like perhaps David saying he’s lifting up his soul like an offering? Maybe the meaning isn’t as clear as I thought. At the very least, I suspect there’s more here to learn.

Image of a woman with her hands raised to heaven, with text from Psalm 25:1-2, CJB version: "I lift my inner being to you, Adonai; I trust you, my God. Don’t let me be disgraced, don’t let my enemies gloat over me.”
Image by Ruby-Rose from Lightstock

Trusting With The Soul

We find the phrase “I lift up my soul” in three psalms where the writers talk about lifting up their souls to God. Let’s take a look at those verses:

To you, Yahweh, I lift up my soul.
My God, I have trusted in you.
Don’t let me be shamed.
Don’t let my enemies triumph over me.

Psalm 25:1-2, WEB

Preserve my soul, for I am godly.
    You, my God, save your servant who trusts in you.
Be merciful to me, Lord,
    for I call to you all day long.
Bring joy to the soul of your servant,
    for to you, Lord, do I lift up my soul.

Psalm 86:2-4, WEB

Cause me to hear your loving kindness in the morning,
for I trust in you.
Cause me to know the way in which I should walk,
for I lift up my soul to you.

Psalm 143:8, WEB

These psalms are all prayers directed at God asking Him for something. They’re also about trust; every one of these psalms mentions it when they’re talking about lifting up the soul. This makes sense since there isn’t much point in prayer if you don’t trust God enough to think He might answer.

As I read these psalms, I see a deeper level of trust than just the basic thinking God might be paying attention. There’s a hopeful expectation here and a certainty that God can and will respond. This type of trusting prayer involves the direction and dedication of the soul (naphesh in Hebrew, which means a breathing, living being). You don’t point your soul toward someone who doesn’t care or lift up your life to them if you don’t think they’ll help. We need trust if we’re going to have a “lift up the soul” type of relationship with God.

Image of a man walking in the woods reading a Bible, with text from Psalm 86:2-4, TLV version: “Watch over my soul, for I am godly. You are my God—save Your servant who trusts in You.
Be gracious to me, my Lord, for to You I cry all day. Gladden the soul of Your servant, for to You, my Lord, I lift up my soul.”
Image by HarveyMade from Lightstock

A Longing Soul

The NET translators opt for a less poetic and more literal phrase when translating “lift up my soul.” In this version, Psalm 25:1 reads, “O Lord, I come before you in prayer.” A footnote on that verse says, “To ‘lift up’ one’s ‘life’ to the Lord means to express one’s trust in him through prayer.” The translators opt for the “prayer” meaning in this verse, though they also see nuances in the Hebrew that they discuss in another footnote.

Hebrew words often have multiple meanings. The word “lift up” is nasa, and it’s no exception to this rule. The basic meaning is to lift, carry, or take. The phrase can gain slightly different meanings depending on context. In the Psalms, for example, it’s used figuratively rather than of literally picking up and carrying an object.

In a footnote on Psalm 143:8, the NET translators say, “The Hebrew expression נָאָשׂ נֶפֶשׁ (naʾas nefesh, ‘to lift up [one’s] life’) means ‘to desire; to long for.'” From this perspective, nasa seems synonymous with the longing soul spoken of in other psalms and songs where the writers want to be close with God more than anything else (Psalm 63:1; 84:1-2; 130:6).

Yes, in the way of your judgments, Yahweh, we have waited for you.
    Your name and your renown are the desire of our soul.
With my soul I have desired you in the night.
    Yes, with my spirit within me I will seek you earnestly;
    for when your judgments are in the earth, the inhabitants of the world learn righteousness.

Isaiah 26:8-9, WEB

This also makes me think of King Solomon’s prayer at the temple dedication. He asked that God would hear His wayward people’s prayers if they “return to you with all their heart and being … and direct their prayers to you” (1 Kings 8:48, NET). Similarly, Samuel urged Ancient Israel, “direct your hearts to Yahweh, and serve him only” (1 Sam. 7:3, WEB). Paul does much the same thing in one of his letters, praying, “may the Lord direct your hearts toward the love of God and the endurance of Christ” (2 Thes. 3:5, NET).

The desires of our souls and the directions of our hearts show God what matters to us. When things are right between us, our prayers show that He matters to us. Lifting up our longing souls to Him demonstrates that He’s our hearts’ desire.

Image of a woman worshiping with hand raised and a smile on her face, with text from Psalm 143:8, TLV version: “Make me hear Your lovingkindness in the morning,
for in You I trust. Show me the way I should go, for to You I lift up my soul.”
Image by Pearl from Lightstock

Other Things We Could Lift Up

Trusting God with our lives and showing our desire for Him in our prayers is a very good thing. There are also negative things that we could lift our souls to, but shouldn’t. In Psalm 24:4, the writer says that only someone “who has not lifted up his soul to falsehood” can dwell with God. In Hosea 4:8, God charges His people will wickedness when they “set their heart on their iniquity” (“set their heart” is the same phrase in Hebrew as “lift their soul”). We can choose whether we aim our souls in the right direction or turn them toward evil.

The Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (TWOT) lists three categories of meaning for nasa. The first is a literal or figurative lifting up, which we’ve already looked at. The second is “bearing the guilt or punishment of sin” (entry 1421). There are several Bible verses that say the soul/person who sins will bear/lift/carry their iniquity for that transgression. Here are two examples:

“If anyone (naphesh) sins, doing any of the things which Yahweh has commanded not to be done, though he didn’t know it, he is still guilty, and shall bear (nasa) his iniquity. He shall bring a ram without defect from of the flock, according to your estimation, for a trespass offering, to the priest; and the priest shall make atonement for him concerning the thing in which he sinned and didn’t know it, and he will be forgiven.

Leviticus 5:17-18

The soul (naphesh) who sins, he shall die. The son shall not bear (nasa) the iniquity of the father, neither shall the father bear (nasa) the iniquity of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be on him, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be on him.

Ezekiel 18:20, WEB

When we sin, we’re carrying that like something we’ve lifted up and put on our shoulders. We don’t bear the iniquity of someone else, but we are responsible for the things that we do as a living, breathing naphesh. This would be a big problem for us if we had to keep carrying all our sins, but God provides a solution.

Carrying Away Our Sins

Image of a woman looking up at the sky with the blog's title text and the words "As people who've had Jesus lift away our sins, we can lift up our souls and lives to Him trusting that God will continue to hear and deliver us."
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The third category of meanings for nasa describes the solution to the problem of us bearing the load of our gilt and sin. If you’re carrying something, someone else can come in, lift that burden, and carry it away. That’s what Jesus does with our sins. Because of His sacrifice, “Sin can be forgiven and forgotten, because it is taken up and carried away” (TWOT entry 1421).

Yet it pleased Yahweh to bruise him.
    He has caused him to suffer.
When you make his soul (naphesh) an offering for sin,
    he will see his offspring.
He will prolong his days
    and Yahweh’s pleasure will prosper in his hand.
After the suffering of his soul (naphesh),
    he will see the light and be satisfied.
My righteous servant will justify many by the knowledge of himself;
    and he will bear (nasa) their iniquities.
Therefore I will give him a portion with the great.
    He will divide the plunder with the strong;
because he poured out his soul to death
    and was counted with the transgressors;
yet he bore the sins of many
    and made intercession for the transgressors.

Isaiah 53:10-12, WEB

There are so many verses that speak of Jesus taking away our sins, washing away our sins, and removing sin from us (for example, John 1:29; Rom. 11:26-27; Heb. 9:25-26; 1 John 3:5). Our souls were weighed down with sin, but He lifts that burden off our shoulders. We don’t have to carry our guilt anymore. We get to do something else with our souls now.

The psalmists wrote centuries before Jesus’s sacrifice but (judging by the Messianic psalms he wrote) we know at least David had an idea of the incredible deliverance God promised. These writers also had the Old Covenant sacrifices pointing toward the Messiah’s ultimate sacrifice that would take away sin once and for all. They knew less about God’s plan for redemption than we do today, yet they were still so filled with trust and confidence in God that they lifted up their souls to Him.

How much more should we lift our souls to God now that we’ve been freed from carrying around the burden of sin? Lightened and rescued by Jesus’s sacrifice, we lift our hands, hearts, and souls to God with joy and thanksgiving, confident in His goodness and faithfulness.

For there is one God and one intermediary between God and humanity, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself as a ransom for all, revealing God’s purpose at his appointed time. … So I want the men in every place to pray, lifting up holy hands without anger or dispute.

1 Timothy 2:5-6, 8, NET

Featured image by Temi Coker from Lightstock

Song Recommendation: “Lift” by Sue Samuel

Combating Doubt with Faith, Hope, and Love

I’ve been thinking about the topic of “double-minded” again. The phrase only appears two or three times in the Bible (depending on the translation), but I wrote a whole post on it a few months ago and this month it’s the topic for my church’s scripture writing group (click here to download a copy for yourself). As I write out these scriptures each day, other scriptures keep coming to mind related to how we can avoid being double-minded and instead be whole-hearted for God.

Being able to maintain a whole-hearted level of commitment is very important for us. We don’t want to be “like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed around by the wind … a double-minded individual unstable in all his ways” (James 1:6, 8, NET). Doubt like that has no place in a faithful life. But saying we need to have faith without doubting and really living that way are two different things. What is it that can keep us from being tossed around like this by turmoil, questions, and fear?

Fixed on Jesus

The double-minded person is described as “tossed around” and “unstable.” You could say they are wavering between two ways of being and thinking: faith and doubt. So that means we need to find something unwavering to hold on to if we’re going to avoid being trapped in this sort of mindset.

we must get rid of every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and run with endurance the race set out for us, keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.

Hebrews 12:1-2, NET

Jesus endured the cross without wavering, and He’s now sitting at God’s right hand advocating for us (Heb. 12:2; Rom. 8:34). He isn’t going to leave us on our own, and that gives us confidence. We can come to God the Father through Jesus at any time from anywhere with anything we need to talk about.

Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the fresh and living way that he inaugurated for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a sincere heart in the assurance that faith brings

Hebrews 10:19-22, NET

Holding on to Jesus is the first step in combatting doubts and fears that would make us double-minded, unstable people. Faith is where our journeys as Christians start, and if we feel ourselves wavering then we need to go back to that foundation and focus on Jesus. He’s where our confidence to keep enduring comes from.

Anchored in Hope

Continuing to read in Hebrews 10, the author adds another layer to how we can hold fast to Jesus: “And let us hold unwaveringly to the hope that we confess, for the one who made the promise is trustworthy” (Heb. 10:23, NET). Being double-minded makes us wavering; hope in Jesus is something we can hold on to unwaveringly. For Christians, hope isn’t a nebulous possibility. It is a sure and certain thing.

so that we who have found refuge in him may find strong encouragement to hold fast to the hope set before us through two unchangeable things, since it is impossible for God to lie. We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, sure and steadfast

Hebrews 6:18-19, NET

We have faith in God, He proves Himself faithful, and that gives use a solid foundation for hope. If we can hold on to faith and hope, then we have an anchor to keep us from being tossed around like a wave on the sea. We have a way to combat double-mindedness as we keep moving forward in faith and hope.

Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself to have attained this. Instead I am single-minded: Forgetting the things that are behind and reaching out for the things that are ahead, with this goal in mind, I strive toward the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Therefore let those of us who are “perfect” embrace this point of view. If you think otherwise, God will reveal to you the error of your ways.

Philippians 3:13-15, NET

And the Greatest is Love

Faith and hope are commonly paired in scripture (Rom. 5:2; Gal. 5:5; Col. 1:23; 1 Thes. 1:3; Heb. 11:1; 1 Pet. 1:21). They’re also spoken of alongside love as something we ought to put on (1 Thes. 5:8). Indeed, Paul tells us “faith, hope, and love” are what endure and remain, and of the three “the greatest is love” (1 Cor. 13:13, NET). It would make sense, then, that love would also play a vital role in keeping us whole-heartedly focused on God.

One of the scribes came, and heard them questioning together, and knowing that he had answered them well, asked him, “Which commandment is the greatest of all?”

Jesus answered, “The greatest is, ‘Hear, Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one: you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ This is the first commandment. The second is like this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”

Mark 12:28-31, WEB

Loving God wholly–with all the focus of our hearts, souls, and minds–leaves no room for being double-minded. Being whole-hearted for our God, who “is love” helps us become love as well (1 John 3:10; 4:7-12; 5:2). That transformation toward being like God changes our minds as well as our actions.

The Spirit God gives us (a gift we commemorate tomorrow on Pentecost) is a spirit “of power and of love and of a sound mind” (1 Tim. 1:7, NKJV). Modern Bibles often translate sophonismos (G4995) as “self-control” or “self-discipline,” but it also means “soundness of mind.” The root words refer to someone who is “sane” or restored to their senses (Thayer’s dictionary, G4994 and G4998). If we want to avoid being double minded, we need to have faith in God, trust Him and hope in His word, and be filled with His spirit of love. That’s what will make our minds “single” as we follow Paul’s example of continuing to press on toward the wonderful future God promises us.

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The Lord’s Wonderful Faithfulness Toward Us

We often talk about our faith–faith toward God, faith in His promises, faith that He really does exist and that He really is God. In addition to that, the Bible frequently talks about God’s faith toward us. He is described as “faithful” in all His dealings with humanity, and it’s often in the context of praise.

I’ve noticed myself thanking God for His faithfulness in many of my prayers lately. I love the reassurance of knowing God is faithful. We can anchor our hope in that truth, knowing He won’t fail us. He’s constant, reliable, and committed. His faithfulness is a fact that doesn’t change, but sometimes we can lose sight of or forget about it, which lets doubts and worries get a foothold in our lives. The crazier life gets, the more we need to remember the faithfulness of God in order to stay confidently grounded in our faith through the storms of life.

Faithfulness in His Work

God’s faithfulness has been part of all His dealings from the beginning. One psalmist wrote, “All his work is done in faithfulness” (Ps. 33:4, WEB). Those works include creation, His dealings with people, the covenants He made, and the promises He gives us for a good future.

Yahweh, you are my God. I will exalt you! I will praise your name, for you have done wonderful things, things planned long ago, in complete faithfulness and truth.

Isaiah 25:1, WEB

From our more limited perspective, it might sometimes seem as if the world and its history are random, chaotic, and miserable. But since the very beginning, God has been working on (and doing) wonderful things. He shares details about that work with us in the Bible, and invites us to be part of the continuing work today.

For I am sure of this very thing, that the one who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus.

Philippians 1:6, NET

Paul doesn’t use the word “faithfulness” in this verse, but that’s the concept He’s talking about. God will always be who He says He is, and He will do what He says He will do. That’s what makes Paul’s confidence possible. And because God’s faithfulness is unchanging, we can also have the same confidence today that Paul had nearly 2,000 years ago. God started a good work in us when He called us into His family, and He’s not going to give up on us.

Faithfulness in His Life and Death

Paul speaks more directly about God’s faithfulness in Romans, where he connects it with righteousness and Jesus’s sacrifice. In this letter, Paul is talking about the role of the Law for New Covenant believers and the transition from keeping the letter of the Law under the Old Covenant to keeping the spirit of the Law under the New Covenant.

Today, under the New Covenant, Paul writes that the “righteousness of God” has been revealed “apart from the law” to those who had been under the law (the Jewish people and ancient Israel) as well as to “the whole world” (Rom. 3:19-21). This happens “through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ for all who believe” (Rom. 3:22).

God publicly displayed him at his death as the mercy seat accessible through faith. This was to demonstrate his righteousness, because God in his forbearance had passed over the sins previously committed. This was also to demonstrate his righteousness in the present time, so that he would be just and the justifier of the one who lives because of Jesus’ faithfulness.

Romans 3:25-26, NET

God’s faithfulness finds its ultimate expression in Jesus Christ, who faithfully held up His part of the covenants He made with people and died to make a new, better covenant possible. We live because of Jesus’s faithfulness, and we can trust that the Father (who was willing to give up His Son for us) and the Son (who was willing to give up His life for us) will remain faithful into the future as well.

Faithfulness in Relation to Us

After reaching this point in our study of faithfulness, it’s no wonder that the psalms are filled with praise for God’s wonderful faith toward us. What can be more amazing than the Creator Lord of the Universe committing Himself to you, and me, and every believer? We ought to be in awe of His faithfulness and of the incredible love at its core.

Enter his gates with thanksgiving,
and his courts with praise.
Give him thanks.
Praise his name.
For the Lord is good.
His loyal love endures,
and he is faithful through all generations.

Psalm 100:4-5, NET

I will give you thanks before the nations, O Lord.
I will sing praises to you before foreigners.
For your loyal love extends beyond the sky,
and your faithfulness reaches the clouds.

Psalm 108:3-4, NET

These Psalmists could praise the Lord’s faithfulness like this even before Jesus came as the Messiah. How much more cause do we have now to sing praise, knowing what we know today and being recipients of His grace? We have such incredible proof of God’s faithfulness recorded in scripture, both in the stories of faithful believers and in the reality of Jesus’s sacrifice.

Many of us (perhaps all of us reading this) have also all been on the receiving end of His faithfulness. Accepting Jesus’s sacrifice on our behalf lets us participate in one of the most significant proofs of God’s faithfulness, and if you’re like me you also have an abundance of other examples of God’s faithfulness showing up in your life. Today, I invite you to join me in meditating on the Lord’s faithfulness toward you and the proofs of His ongoing faithfulness in scripture. Though other parts of our lives might seem unstable, unreliable, or unpredictable God is faithful. We can trust Him to be exactly who He says He is, do exactly what He says He’ll do, and never give up on the work He has begun inside us.

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The Rightness of Trusting God’s Will Even When It’s Scary

One of the most astonishing statements in all of scripture was made on Passover evening nearly 2000 years ago, on the night in which Jesus was betrayed. Knowing exactly what was about to happen, Jesus still prayed “not my will but yours be done” (Matt. 26:36-46; Luke 22:39-46). This is the ultimate example of meekness–power submitted to the will of God. Jesus could have asked His Father for “more than twelve legions of angels” to free Him from the arresting mob if He’d wanted to(Matt. 26:51-45). Instead, He said, “Father, if this cup cannot be taken away from me unless I drink it, your will must be done” (Matt. 26:42).

Scripture describes Jesus as being “anguished and distressed” and feeling “deeply grieved” in His soul. Emotionally, that sounds like just about as bad as it can get for a human being. Yet even in such a dire situation, He prayed for God’s will to be done. I suspect He even prayed that in part because of the dire situation, using His conviction that God can be trusted and that His will is best to carry Him through what lay ahead.

For us today, who’ve committed to following Jesus’s example, “Your will be done” should also be our prayer during times of testing and trouble (as well as in good times). That’s not always easy to say, though. We might even be afraid or reluctant to pray for God’s will to be done, especially when the future seems uncertain. It comes down to an issue of trust and perspective.

God Knows Best

I often think about the spiritual implications of my struggles with anxiety. If I give in to catastrophizing and fear, what does that say about my level of (mis)trust in God? Connecting that idea to today’s post, it seems that whether or not we want to pray, “Your will be done,” is often tied-in to all those fears and worries. Is God really good all the time? Does He care enough to make this situation work out for me? What if praying for His will means I don’t get what I want or need?

I think we need to reject shaming people (including ourselves) for weaknesses and fears, and rather encourage each other to keep choosing trust and faith over and over again. Anxieties are “afflictions, not sins” (to quote C.S. Lewis), though they can lead us into sin if we let them. Overcoming fear is an ongoing process and it involves conscious choice, including the choice to trust that God knows what He’s doing.

We know that we should pray for God’s will to be done, but we’re often afraid to. Why? Because we do not trust that His will is best for us. We think His agenda and ours are by nature at odds with one another.

Because of our corruption, they may in fact be at odds. But if we could see the whole picture, we would understand that it is our own will that falls short of fulfilling our well-being, not His.

CHRIS TIEGREEN, 365 POCKET DEVOTIONS, DAY 114

It’s often easy to pray, “May your kingdom come, may your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:10, NET). When it’s less personal, sometimes it’s easier to wrap our minds around the idea that God changing things and making them better is a good thing (especially when it’s becoming more and more clear how much suffering and corruption is in the world). But it’s often harder to pray, “May your will be done (not mine)” in very personal situations that affect us immediately and directly (especially if we have a preferred outcome in mind). And yet that’s exactly what Jesus did, and what His disciples do.

His Good Plans Will Come to Pass

Paul’s a great example of one of Jesus’s disciples who submitted his own will and plans for his life to God. He started out by persecuting those who believed in Jesus the Messiah, then completely changed his life in response to God making His will known. That cost Paul greatly in terms of physical things, but also blessed him richly in terms of spiritual things.

I’m pretty sure I’ve written before about Paul’s view on trials–“that our present sufferings cannot even be compared to the coming glory that will be revealed to us” (Rom. 8:18, NET). It might not seem at first as if he’s talking about God’s will here, but he is. Going back to Romans 7:14-21, we find Paul describing the struggle between his unspiritual self and the spiritual law of God–his will versus God’s will. Next, Romans 8:1-17 talks about the leading of God’s spirit and Him saving us from sin, which is something He desires/wills for all people (1 Tim. 2:4; 2 Pet. 3:9). Then, Paul describes a struggle in creation, which was not willingly “subjected to futility … in hope,” but as part of God’s will for adopting children into His family (Rom. 8:19-26).

And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes on behalf of the saints according to God’s will. And we know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose …. What then shall we say about these things? If God is for us, who can be against us?

Romans 8:27-28, 31, NET

God has a plan. It’s a good plan. And because He’s the all-powerful Creator and Sustainer of the universe, His good plans for each of us and the whole of creation will come to pass. When we keep this in mind, there’s no need for us to fearfully grasp for control or to worry and fret about the future (Matt. 6:25-34).

We Follow in Christ’s Footsteps

I recently started reading C.S. Lewis’s collection of passages from George MacDonald’s writings. One of the quotes which caught my eye says that because God “is against sin,” sometimes it also feels as if He is against the things that we want, strive for, and dream about. Which might actually be the case, if we’re still living lives influenced by sin, but God is never against us. When God is against someone’s sinful desires,” He is altogether and always for them” (Unspoken Sermons, First Series, The Consuming Fire). God is for us, and sometimes that means showing us that the things we want aren’t good for us. MacDonald also said that God’s “wrath will consume what they call themselves so that the selves God made shall appear” (same source). Coming to the Light isn’t always a comfortable process, but it is always good for us.

What these quotes make me think of is the fact that because God’s will and His love always work for good in the end, sometimes the immediate result of submitting to His will is painful, as it was for Jesus. Jesus knew, though, that His suffering was part of God’s plan to bring about good for the whole world, and things happened exactly as the Father purposed (Acts 4:27-28). Jesus prayed for God’s will knowing with absolute certainty “that the Father had handed all things over to him, and that he had come from God and was going back to God” (John 13:3, NET). We also know that He focused on “the joy set out for him” when “he endured the cross, disregarding its shame,” and that He “has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb. 12: 2, NET). Following His example, we can also pray for God’s will to be done knowing that God has good things in store for us and for the entire world.

Thinking about Jesus’s trust in His Father also adds another layer to how we can understand the verse, “Endure your suffering as discipline; God is treating you as sons” (Heb. 12:7, NET). Jesus did not need to be disciplined in order to correct bad behavior (since He never sinned), but He certainly suffered. Scripture is clear that following in His footsteps will involve suffering (sometimes from the world, sometimes as an attack from spiritual evil, and sometimes as part of God’s refining process that’s meant to strengthen us and help us grow). When we suffer, we know that we’re not going through anything that Jesus wasn’t willing to go through as well; God is not treating us any differently than He did His only begotten son. We also know that we can look forward to the same goal that Jesus focused on–the goal of eternal life together with God, as a family. We can also pray “your will be done” knowing that God is faithful, that He knows what He’s doing, and that He will work things out for good in the end.

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