Tag Archives: deliverance

Caught Between Mercy and Need

photo-on-9-7-16-at-12-20-pm-3-1“I’ve already blown it with you, and yet I need your help. How can I ask for another favor?”

For those of us with an overdeveloped sense of responsibility, one of the hardest situations to be put in is that of needing help that we don’t feel we have the right to ask for. In a human economy, we intuitively know that relationships work on a system of give and take. And most of us prefer to remain primarily on the giving side, maintaining a healthy balance in our relational bank account so that we don’t have to worry about someday running in the red.

Call it pride, call it pragmatism, but deep down we know that there is a limit to how many times we can come back with the same empty cup asking for more, especially if our track record has little to show for improvement.

And though we know that things are different with God, somehow it’s hard to escape the same nagging sense that we have used up all our wishes. If we’d just won some spiritual victory we might feel more confident to ask for His help, but what about those long dry seasons when all we can look back and see is one failure after another? On what basis can we approach His throne and boldly make another request?

Once again, the Psalms show us the way forward. Compiled in exile by a nation of people who had blown it more times than they could recount, they give us prayers to pray in our moments of triumph and our moments of despair, our moments of life “as it should be” and our moments of “oh my goodness how can I even pray to you?”

Who can proclaim the mighty acts of the LORD or fully declare his praise? Blessed are those who act justly, who always do what is right.

Remember me, LORD, when you show favor to your people, come to my aid when you save them…
Psalm 106:2-5

Psalm 106 falls firmly in the last category. After its initial statements of thanks and praise, it jumps right into the dilemma the psalmist is facing. Who is worthy to pray before God, whether in accolades of thanks and praise or (more relevantly to the psalmist’s current exilic condition) in indebting petitions for help and deliverance?

We have sinned, even as our ancestors did; we have done wrong and acted wickedly….
Psalm 106:6

At least the Psalmist is honest enough to go back and tell the story as bad as it really was. Most of his prayer involves detailing just how horribly he and his people have responded to God’s repeated gracious interventions in past. Listing forgetfulness, ingratitude, uncontrolled urges, envy, arrogance, breach of contract, rebellion, and downright laziness on the application form hardly seems the way to win favor from a loan officer, but this is precisely the approach the psalmist takes with God. In fact, it seems to be his strategy in convincing himself that he can again ask for help and in encouraging God to give it.

Many times he delivered them, but they were bent on rebellion and they wasted away in their sin. Yet he took note of their distress when he heard their cry; for their sake he remembered his covenant and out of his great love he relented. He caused all who held them captive to show them mercy.
Psalm 106:43-46

After all, the record showed that no matter how many times (or how badly) they had blown it, God always listened to their cry for mercy. Though their performance was consistently lousy, His response was consistently gracious. That didn’t mean He hadn’t taken them through some pretty tough consequences, but it did mean that He had always relented and restored them in the end. Why would this time be any different?

Where human love runs dry from repeatedly being imposed on, God’s love endures forever.

But in addition to bolstering the psalmist’s confidence in God’s track record, praying through the history of their relationship enabled the Psalmist to remind God of what it had always been based on: God’s unfailing love, not His people’s unfailing performance. This was the leg he could stand on when all others crumbled away. This was the firm foundation on which he could base his plea for yet another miraculous intervention.

Praise the LORD.Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; his love endures forever.
Psalm 106:1

Where human love would have long before run dry from repeatedly being imposed on, God’s love endures forever. If anything, the more we draw on it, the more it replenishes. I don’t know how long it will take for this simple reality to finally permeate the way I approach Him in prayer. Perhaps the greatest obstacle to my fully believing it is my own pride, insisting that our relationship include my merit as at least part of its basis.

Save us, LORD our God, and gather us from the nations, that we may give thanks to your holy name and glory in your praise.
Psalm 106:47

But when merit fails and need overwhelms me, I am driven back to my knees as the Psalmist was. Going silent or going shallow in my prayers won’t cut it. Only a full-disclosure of my failings will clear the accounts, making space for God’s amazing grace to once again give me something to sing about.

And it never fails.

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Missing Purple

attachmentBombed out churches. Imperious monuments. Golden palaces. Now stained glass windows…

I’m finally home from a summer of travels, but I’m still processing the significance of the sights that I took in across Germany and France. So much of a people’s worldview can be discerned by what they build to last long after they are gone. These cathedrals and monuments, paintings and palaces still speak on behalf of their long-dead creators, their messages either ringing true through the centuries or being discredited by the passage of time.

Last week as I stood gazing at the medieval windows of Notre Dame, I was struck not only by what was present but by what was missing. Our guide had already pointed out the stunning imagery of the north rose window, its intricate designs all depicting scenes from the Old Testament that would later be fulfilled in the New. The effect of the light shining through the multi-colored scenes was a stunning purple, intended to communicate a sense of anticipation and forward movement.

But when I turned to look at the south rose window, the one depicting scenes from the life of Christ and the early church, I was surprised to notice that it lacked the same purple hue. The glorious fulfillment of the Old Testament was there, with the four evangelists (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) sitting on the shoulders of the four great prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel) and scenes from Christ’s miracles, death, resurrection, and enthronement. But the sense of future anticipation was missing.

…singing of a future glory in heaven while trudging aimlessly here on earth.

I can’t help but feel that the purple is missing from our worldview, too. We are well trained to look back and celebrate the story of what God has done in the past, but we don’t know how to look forward and see that we are participating in the story of what He will due in the future. Without a clear vision of where our story is heading, we lack the direction and the motivation to get there.

You will arise and have compassion on Zion… The nations will fear the name of the LORD, all the kings of the earth will revere your glory. For the LORD will rebuild Zion and appear in his glory. He will respond to the prayer of the destitute; he will not despise their plea. Let this be written for a future generation, that a people not yet created may praise the LORD: “The LORD looked down from his sanctuary on high, from heaven he viewed the earth, to hear the groans of the prisoners and release those condemned to death.”
Psalm 102:13-20, 26

The psalmists and the prophets spoke out of incredibly messy situations, pointing to a future reality in which God’s kingdom would come on earth as it is in heaven. The afflicted man could cry out the depths of his soul’s current anguish and in the same breath describe the heights of God’s future deliverance. The disheartened prophet could talk about the seeming dead-end of hope while still claiming the certainty of God’s promise to make all things new.

How long, O LORD, must I call for help, but you do not listen? Or cry out to you, “Violence!” but you do not save? Why do you make me look at injustice? Why do you tolerate wrong?

“For the revelation awaits an appointed time; it speaks of the end and will not prove false. Though it linger, wait for it; it will certainly come and will not delay. …
For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea.”

Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD, I will be joyful in God my Savior.
Habakkuk 1:2-3; 2:3,14; 3:17-18

The saints of the Old Testament could endure and navigate incredibly troubling situations because they could see how their story was leading to something better. Of course that hope wasn’t always easy to hold onto. Faith never comes easy, especially when it is severely tested. But their patient endurance paid off when the Messiah finally came and made good on a lot of what God had promised.

But what about all the mess that still remains? Why don’t we see worshipping nations and prostrate kings, all declaring the glories of our God? What happened to the end of oppression and the coming of God’s compassionate, just reign? We live in a world where terrorism and sex-trafficking abound, where impaired bodies and broken hearts define our existence.

We can anticipate our role in that better-than-Eden reality, where life-giving streams and healing leaves apply to everything that’s broken in our world.

We cling to the fact that somehow Jesus’ death and resurrection is supposed to relate to all this, but how? The Old Testament holds out hope that the earth will be restored, and yet the only hope we can point to is the salvation of our souls. No wonder we segregate our lives, singing of a future glory in heaven while trudging aimlessly here on earth. Our only hope is eventual escape-by-death.

We are missing the purple.

Sing to the LORD a new song, for he has done marvelous things… Let the sea resound, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it. Let the rivers clap their hands, let the mountains sing together for joy; let them sing before the LORD, for he comes to judge the earth. He will judge the world in righteousness and the peoples with equity.
Psalm 98:1, 7-9

If what God has done in history is the full extent of the good news, then we really do have little to look forward to (and all those Old Testament promises were grossly over-stated.) But the fact is that our waiting, and His story, are far from over.

We are still anticipating the New Creation, that time when God will bring heaven and earth together in a glorious union. And we are anticipating our role in that better-than-Eden reality, where garden and city will combine in a Christ-centered utopia with life-giving streams and healing leaves that apply to everything that’s broken in our world.

And they sang a new song: “You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased men for God from every tribe and language and people and nation. You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth.”

They held harps given them by God and sang the song of Moses the servant of God and the song of the Lamb: “Great and marvelous are your deeds, Lord God Almighty. …All nations will come and worship before you, for your righteous acts have been revealed.”
Revelation 5:9; 15:2-4

Jesus told us to watch and work towards it. John warned us that it would take a great amount of patient endurance to finally reach it. But the day will come when we pick up the songs of the psalmists and prophets and sing them with a new spin: past tense.

If I were to create a stained glass window depicting the world as I see it, I’m afraid it would involve plenty of messy, unpleasant scenes. But as God grants me a developing eyesight of faith, I see a hope-filled hue of purple shining through the shades of pain.

What are the colors in your worldview window?

Closer than You Think

Jesus_ascending_to_heavenWhere is God right now, anyway?

The atheist laughs at the question; the agnostic shrugs it off as irrelevant; but the struggling Christian grasps for an answer.

Her cries of “Forsaken?!” erupt from experiences that seem to deny the presence of a loving, protecting God.

His cries of “Abandoned?!” flow from deep disappointment over the ways God has not responded to prayer, has not intervened in a seriously messed-up situation.

Does God even hear? Is heaven so far away that it takes an earthquake or a massacre to get His attention?

Blessed are those who have learned to acclaim you, who walk in the light of your presence, O LORD. …For you are their glory and strength, and by your favor you exalt our horn.

How long, O LORD? Will you hide yourself forever? How long will your wrath burn like fire? Remember how fleeting is my life. For what futility you have created all men! …O Lord, where is your former great love?
Psalm 89:15-17, 46-49

The Psalms seem to resonate with schizophrenic prayers of people grappling with messy earthly realities in the face of a pristinely perfect heaven. At one moment they can celebrate and affirm the tangible, even visible presence of God on earth, intervening and making things right. But the next verse over, they are calling out in disillusionment, feeling like God has slammed the gates of heaven and no longer hears or cares.

“As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”
Isaiah 55:9

Sometimes the gap between heaven and earth seems infinite.

But is it really?

The great wonder of Christ’s incarnation was that, for a season, heaven came to earth. What a great relief to actually get to see God walking around with hands and feet, facial expressions and audible words! No more of this guess work, trying to figure out where God is and what He is doing—the woman about to be stoned heard Him absolve her, the father of a dead child saw Him bring her back.

Sometimes the gap between heaven
and earth seems insurmountable.

But what about when those painfully short years ended? When Christ ascended from the earth and sat down at the right hand of the Father, did the doors of heaven shut behind Him?

But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.
Acts 1:8-9

Thankfully not. Jesus blazed a path between the two realms, transversing the short distance with His physical body in tow. Rather than ditch it on the way up, he took a bit of earth along with Him as a keepsake from His visit, a memento of His return. And He left with the promise that He would soon send a bit of heaven down to earth.

When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.
Acts 2:1-4

And thankfully, Jesus didn’t keep us waiting too long. A little over a week later He made good on His promise. A package arrived from heaven, not in the tiny, earthy form of another baby, but rather resembling the sort of phenomenon we would expect when a heavenly Being lands on earth: violent winds swooping from heaven, eerie flames dancing overhead, and gloriously strange manifestations in those with whom it came in contact.

Glimpses of heaven are all around us.

As inspiring as it is to rehearse these 2,000 year-old stories, it can still feel like heaven is impossibly far away. Why don’t we get to chat with angels reassuring us that Jesus will come back the same way He left? Why can’t we see the Spirit flame spreading and alighting around us as we trudge through days of frustrated labor and nights of unconsoled tears?

“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
Matt. 28:18-20

But if we take off our “It is only real if I can see it” glasses, glimpses of heaven are all around us. Each time the fruit of the Spirit manifests itself in us, God has broken through. Love? Peace? Patience? I know those aren’t native to my fleshly self. Repentance? Faith? Transformation? I witness the miracle of His powerful intervention in the most unexpected situations. And then of course there are those jaw-dropping evidences of God at work in the world when justice is served, when healing happens, when captives are set free.

…I will go on to visions and revelations from the Lord. I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know–God knows. And I know that this man–whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows– was caught up to paradise. He heard inexpressible things, things that man is not permitted to tell.
2 Corinthians 12:1-4

Through all that, I am learning to see the very present interface between the heavenly realm and the earthly one, the one existing just above the other with constant interaction between the two. As a friend of mine recently said, it is as if a veil hangs over us, hiding the heavenly realm from our earthly eyes. Sometimes that veil gets momentarily lifted, like when Stephen was granted a glimpse of glory just before his death or when the apostles and prophets were shown the heavenly realities going on behind earthly events. And to be honest there have been times in my own life when the veil has been particularly thin or even, for a brief but breathtaking second, lifted.

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.
For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears. …Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face.
1 Corinthians 13:1, 9-12

More often than not, though, heaven remains an invisible reality, perceived only through eyes of faith. I cherish those memories of when it has been less so, replaying them in my mind when my faith wavers and my current struggles cause them to grow dim. I actively pursue the fruit of God’s Spirit and the great commission through which He is bringing heaven down to earth. And I long for the day when the clouds will roll back, allowing us to gaze with unveiled faces on the heavenly reality we have been participating in all along.

It’s a lot closer than we think.

Messy Cosmology

Photo credit to https://www.flickr.com/photos/pauls_picx/15713110422/
Photo credit to https://www.flickr.com/photos/pauls_picx/15713110422/
My teenaged daughter (an avid Marvel enthusiast) dragged me to the second Avengers film this past weekend. As she took in the clever comments and creative combat sequences, I pondered the cosmological implications of the story line. Apart from revealing my overactive analytical tendencies, the film raised my ongoing questions about my place in the broader range of cosmic beings.

In a tense argument with his fellow avengers, Tony Stark pithily pointed out that they were not merely fighting the evil within a closed system. They were up against powerful external forces that they could neither predict nor control. “We’re the Avengers, we can bust weapons dealers the whole doo-da-day, but how do we cope with something like that?”

How do we cope with living in a world where we can’t see or intelligently predict the activity of beings that are bigger and stronger than we are?

When I stop to consider the reality of the spirit beings that inhabit our cosmos, I can’t help but echo Tony Stark’s sentiment. How do we cope with living in a world where we can’t see or intelligently predict the activity of beings that are bigger and stronger than we are? Who are we in the pecking order of created beings, and what’s our role in the overall story of the world?

what is man …? You made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor. You made him ruler over the works of your hands; you put everything under his feet: all flocks and herds, and the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, all that swim the paths of the seas.
Psalm 8:2-8

In the beginning God set us up in the garden, male and female, with orders to govern and tend everything (and everyone) in it. He put plants and animals, water and earth under our feet. And though His Spirit set us above the rest of the earthly creatures, He didn’t set us over the heavenly ones.

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him.
Colossians 2:15-16

As much as our Enlightened assumptions and humanist culture may deny it, we are neither the center of the universe nor the top of the evolutionary chain. We were created lower than the angels, under the rule of spirit beings who were created by God for His good purpose. Call them angels, call them gods—whatever they are, they, like us, stand accountable to God for the way they govern and tend what He entrusted to them.

God presides in the great assembly; he gives judgment among the “gods”:
“How long will you defend the unjust and show partiality to the wicked? Defend the cause of the weak and fatherless; maintain the rights of the poor and oppressed…
“I said, ‘You are “gods”; you are all sons of the Most High.’ But you will die like mere men; you will fall like every other ruler.”
Psalm 82:1-7

So far, they, like us, have done a pretty lousy job of performing their assigned role. Far from upholding justice and promoting peace on earth, many of these spirit rulers have used their position to pervert, oppress, and extort the peoples of the earth. And we thought the mess on earth was all our doing! But what goes on unseen by us has been keenly observed by God.

As adopted sons of God, we have been radically repositioned in the cosmos.

In response to the cries of His saints and in keeping with His own heroic justice, God came down to deliver humanity from bondage to these spiritual tyrants. No wonder the demons worried about what Jesus was going to do with them. They were the stewards who had been caught mistreating His servants, and He was the master who had come to judge them.

It is not to angels that he has subjected the world to come, about which we are speaking.
Yet at present we do not see everything subject to him. But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death…
Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death–that is, the devil– and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. For surely it is not angels he helps, but Abraham’s descendants.
Hebrews 2:5, 8-10, 14-16

The puzzling bit of the story, though, was why God showed up wearing human flesh. He didn’t have to become one of us to rescue us. But what no one had anticipated was what God would do with His unruly world. He hadn’t come simply to reestablish the cosmological status quo. He had come to mess it up.

In the new order of things, humans would no longer be stuck beneath the heavenly beings, completely vulnerable to their oppressive whims and dependent on their arbitration between heaven and earth. Instead we are being made one with His Son, raised from death but also raised in status.

And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus…
…far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every title that can be given, not only in the present age but also in the one to come.
Ephesians 2:6; 1:21

As adopted sons of God, we have been radically repositioned in the cosmos. We are being given a seat along with our older Brother at the very top of the command chain, above all those powerful creatures that He had originally placed over us.

For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand.
Ephesians 6:12-13

Although our mortal bodies still dwell on earth, engaged in that age-old wrestling match with the powerful spirit forces that seek to enslave us, our heavenly status is sealed. We are the children Jesus came to raise up to glory. We are being groomed to become co-regents with Christ, reigning with Him over a new heaven and earth. This is the hope to which we raise our eyes, the ground on which we are called to stand.

Now that’s epic. Even Marvel couldn’t come up with a cosmic story ending this good.

Inhabiting No Mans’ Land

attachment-e1430302595774I’m caught in an evangelistic no man’s land.

I will exalt you, my God the King…
Your kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and your dominion endures through all generations…
Psalm 145:1-2,13

On one side of me I see my glorious King, risen and reigning over heaven and earth. I see multitudes of saints and angels around His throne, caught up in the ecstasy of white-hot worship. And I feel myself drawn into their number, ready to abandon all inhibition and join in their joyous, unfettered proclamation of Jesus as King.

One generation will commend your works to another; they will tell of your mighty acts. ..They will tell of the power of your awesome works, and I will proclaim your great deeds. They will celebrate your abundant goodness and joyfully sing of your righteousness.
Psalm 145:3-7

But then I look in the other direction. There I see sidewalks full of regular folks, going about their everyday business with little or no reference to this supposed King. Where is He when their paycheck runs short or their partner walks out? What mighty deeds or miraculous intervention can they speak of? Life is hard and, in their estimation, the only one looking out for them is Number 1.

The LORD watches over all who love him, but all the wicked he will destroy.
Psalm 145:20

When I look at the proclamation of God as King through these eyes, it suddenly loses its luster. It begins to sound like a taunt instead of a tender. Aren’t His benefits only available to those who are already members of the club? Isn’t He the God who threatens to destroy those outside the club, the “wicked”? I can see how the good news that I so desperately want to proclaim would come across as slightly less than appealing.

And this is how I find myself stuck, marooned between two radically different perspectives. In this no man’s land I fall silent, relegating my worship to my private life and proclaiming God’s goodness only within the confines of the clubhouse.

…The LORD is faithful to all his promises and loving toward all he has made. The LORD upholds all those who fall and lifts up all who are bowed down. The eyes of all look to you, and you give them their food at the proper time. You open your hand and satisfy the desires of every living thing.
Psalm 145:13-16

But when I go back to the bold, unapologetic claims of my spiritual predecessors in the Psalms, I realize that I have missed something. Those outside the “holy club” may feel like God has done nothing for them, but that doesn’t mean He hasn’t. Their very existence is testimony to His proactive love. When they were oblivious to their own existence, He formed them in their mother’s womb. When they felt vulnerable and alone, He was watching over their every step. Even though they haven’t looked to Him for food, He has repeatedly handed them both their bodies’ needs and their hearts’ desires.

The LORD is righteous in all his ways and loving toward all he has made. The LORD is near to all who call on him, to all who call on him in truth.
Psalm 145:17-18

The point is that God doesn’t just take care of the people who are in His club. He actively relates to every person He has made, showering them with daily expressions of His love whether or not they return the favor. Even better, He promises to get more involved in their lives if they will turn around and ask for it.

I’m not stuck in the gap;
I’ve been called to stand in the gap.

I confess that I too often stand helplessly in the space between these two camps, wondering why God doesn’t do more to make Himself known to those who live apart from Him. How can they know to turn around and call out to Him if they don’t even know that He is there and that He cares?

The LORD is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and rich in love. The LORD is good to all; he has compassion on all he has made.
Psalm 145:8-9

And then I realize the ridiculousness of my self-imposed predicament. I’m not stuck in the gap; I’ve been called to stand in the gap. I wonder at God’s seeming apathy towards the suffering of the world while blindly neglecting my role in bringing the news of His deliverance. I’m the one who doesn’t adequately care. I’ve been trying to pass the world off as God’s problem when all along He keeps calling me to be part of the solution.

All you have made will praise you, O LORD; your saints will extol you. They will tell of the glory of your kingdom and speak of your might, so that all men may know of your mighty acts and the glorious splendor of your kingdom.
Psalm 145:10-12

My role is to take His praise to the streets, not in a rubbing-it-in-your-face sort of way but with all the boldness and compassion of one who has been sent with a life-altering report. My awareness of people’s perspective should not neutralize my message. Rather it should compel me to raise their awareness of God’s reality.

No man’s land is the place where the prophets lived, the expanse that Jesus bridged, the gap that we are now called to fill.

I guess it’s not such a bad place to inhabit, after all.

The Singing Exorcist

images

Our first October back in the US brought great consternation to my children: skeletons dangling in our neighbors’ front yard, images of witches and evil spirits plastered on storefronts, and little shrines filled with plastic symbols of death, demons, and sorcery set up on reception desks and public entry ways of homes, businesses, and schools. My children kept turning to me in shock, searching for an explanation.

Idols, shrines, and spirit worship were an integral part of the world they had grown up in. They understood the reality of the spirit beings that those “cute” little symbols were representing. And our recent encounters with overt demonic attack in South Asia had left us all shaken and hypersensitive to the presence of the spirit realm. Our impulse was to look away as we walked past, to avoid eye contact with evil lest we invite further attention.

Our careful avoidance of the spirit realm
betrays our underlying fear.

This is the same posture I notice in many Western Christians when the topic of spiritual warfare is raised. Furtive glances. Lowered voices. Subject changes that switch to more “edifying” thoughts. Excuses that the Bible doesn’t give much attention to it and neither should we. But our careful avoidance of the topic betrays our underlying fear.

So what is an appropriate posture for Christians when confronted with evil?

Whenever the spirit from God came upon Saul, David would take his harp and play. Then relief would come to Saul; he would feel better, and the evil spirit would leave him.
1 Samuel 16:23

A theologian-friend once pointed out to me that young David was the first exorcist we meet in the Bible. Called in to play his harp for the demon-possessed Saul, David was brought face-to-face with unmitigated evil on a daily basis. But rather than hide in terror or play around as if these ghosts were merely a figment of Saul’s superstitious imagination, David confronted them with singing.

O LORD, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens. From the lips of children and infants you have ordained praise because of your enemies, to silence the foe and the avenger.
Psalm 8:1-2

He sang songs of praise to God’s superior power and glory, songs of thanks for His love and protection. He sang songs of petition for God to stop the evil oppressors and songs of triumph celebrating God’s victories, past and future.

And when that child played and sang, the evil spirit tormenting Saul shut up and left.

When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers…, what is man that you are mindful of him…? You made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor.
Psalm 8:3-5

David thumbed his nose in the face of demons, not because he underestimated their power, not because he overestimated his, but because He rightly understood God’s. God’s exalted position over all of creation provided the basis for David’s humble confidence in confronting spirit powers.

For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves…. He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him.
Colossians 1:13-16

David recognized what we too easily forget. God created and rules over spirit beings just as He does over all human beings. They are the work of His hands, seen and known by Him even if they are scary and alien to us. And we as Christians no longer live as captives to their dark purposes. Yes their power is real and they are at large wreaking havoc in our world, but we have no cause for fear.

For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, and you have been given fullness in Christ, who is the head over every power and authority.
And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.
Colossians 2:9-10, 15

Jesus has already taken them on and unmasked their charade for all to see. Their knowledge is limited. Their power is restricted. And best of all, their days are numbered.

So how do we carry on in the meantime, aware that the serpent is contained but still has fangs?

We can afford to be neither flippant nor fearful.

Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes.
Ephesians 6:11

The powers of darkness are present and active, and we are called to be vigilant and proactive in resisting them. To play around with demonic symbols and magical games is as smart as toying with a venomous cobra. But to avert our eyes and pretend like they aren’t there doesn’t make them go away. If anything, it gives them permission to carry on their work unhindered.

Christ’s exalted position over all of creation emboldens us to humbly confront the spirit powers.

We have a role to play in freeing our world from demonic rule. It involves neither violent aggression nor cowardly hiding, but rather a bold faith in the victory Christ has already won.

Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God.
Colossians 3:15-16

So we join in with the singing exorcist. We sing songs of praise to our triumphant King. We speak words of truth, proclaiming His victory over our demonic foes and rebuking their false claims on those He has delivered. And we tune our hearts to the grateful chorus of the redeemed, fixing our gaze on the One holding the basket as we sing down the serpent.

Beheaded Children?–When the Imprecatory Psalms Are Suddenly Relevant

My children and I just looked at internet photographs of an Iraqi child’s beheaded body. Why would we expose ourselves to such horror? Because it is really happening. Because to carry on as if it were not happening would be to perpetuate the crime. Because even the ground cries out for us to acknowledge and respond to the shedding of innocent blood.

“Do I ask God to forgive them or do I ask Him to damn them?”

But having stared such atrocity in the face, what do we do with our newfound awareness? My son comes back into the kitchen teary–eyed, asking me what he can do about it. Send money to a charity? Write a letter to a politician? Our profound sense of horror is slowly replaced by a deep sense of helplessness. When faced with the reality of such unspeakable evil in our world, evil that at this moment is overpowering people no different than we, how do we even begin to pray?

“Lord, have mercy” runs through my mind again and again as I scroll through the footage of severed heads and gunned-down bodies. But what about the gunmen in the pictures, gloating over their fallen victims? My son asks the question that I am already thinking:

“Do I ask God to forgive them or do I ask Him to damn them?”

How can I think of mercy for those butchers while the aftermath of their carnage stares me in the face? They aren’t sorry. They plaster the evidence of their brutality all over the internet, boasting in their conquests, delighting in the devastation they have caused.

By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion. There on the poplars we hung our harps, for there our captors asked us for songs, our tormentors demanded songs of joy; they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
Psalm 137:1-3

All of a sudden the imprecatory psalms start making a lot more sense to me. No wonder they cry out for God to remember the atrocity these victims have endured. No wonder they recount to Him just how horrific it was. And no wonder they demand His judgment on the perpetrators.

How can we sing the songs of the LORD while in a foreign land? If I forget you, O Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its skill. May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you, if I do not consider Jerusalem my highest joy.
Psalm 137:4-6

How can we sing happy praise songs while our brothers and sisters are being slaughtered or running for their lives to different lands? If we forget their anguish, we may as well forget our own souls. There is a rightness to remembering, to allowing unresolved atrocity to interrupt the peaceful humdrum of our otherwise undisturbed lives. It is an expression of our true humanity, a reflection of God’s image within us that says, “This is not O.K.”

Remember, O LORD, what the Edomites did on the day Jerusalem fell. “Tear it down,” they cried, “tear it down to its foundations!”
Psalm 137:7

But we can’t just leave it at that. Awareness without action makes our souls sick. So we take our angst to the street, pounding on God’s door until He does something about it. “Remember what they did! Look at how bad it was! Take action, O God. You are the Judge of the world. Come down and make this right.”

O Daughter of Babylon, doomed to destruction, happy is he who repays you for what you have done to us–he who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks.
Psalm 137:8-9

But what exactly do we want Him to do? Decapitate their children, too? Repay them blow-for-blow for all the crimes they have committed? That doesn’t seem very Christian of us. Nor does shrugging off genocide as if it isn’t really a big deal. There must be some way to turn the other cheek while holding on to justice.

God will intervene in a way that compromises neither His justice nor His mercy.

The solution to that is beyond me. Thankfully, it is not up to me to arbitrate divine action. This is one of those moments when I am relieved not to be God, because I can’t be impartial. I can vent my unreserved outrage and my vindictive anger to Him, trusting His ability to act as both righteous Judge and merciful Savior. He can find a way to extend mercy while upholding justice. I think of the way He dealt with Saul, one of the original Christian killers.

So I repeat my prayer, “Lord, have mercy. Bring them down to their knees in repentance.”

But lurking underneath that hopeful request is the dark reminder that not all sinners repent. We cheer when the penitent Peters get re-instated, but we also breathe a deep sigh of relief when the hard-hearted Judases finally get what they deserve.

“One way or another, Lord, bring them down.”

My youngest daughter breaks into my reverie with a solution that resonates with my heart, if not my head.

“What if all the Christians in the world just made their own army and marched into Iraq to beat off those bad guys?”

I chuckle, wishing the world were that simple.

But has God not intervened in similar ways in the past? It may be that He will use our political lobbying and social awareness raising to change the outcome of this crisis. It may be that He will bring deliverance to His people through international military action, as He did in response to the Holocaust.

And though I don’t know what the Judge will do, I know what we can do. We can join in the lament for our Iraqi kin. We can beg Him to change the hearts of their oppressors. And we can swamp Him with petitions through fasting and prayer, asking Him to send in an army to protect His people.

Who knows? It could be the kind that comes marching through the treetops.

When God Doesn’t Show Up on Time

If you are the defender of the oppressed, then where are you now?

“Because of the oppression of the weak and the groaning of the needy, I will now arise,” says the LORD. “I will protect them from those who malign them.”
And the words of the LORD are flawless, like silver refined in a furnace of clay, purified seven times.
Psalm 12:5-6

I love that you are a God who cares about each of your creatures, who takes special notice of the ones whom others belittle and degrade. I love how you commit yourself to the abused, to listen to them and stick close by their side. I believe your promises to protect the vulnerable and rescue the victim. So what are you going to do about these 200 abducted girls in Nigeria?

Why, O LORD, do you stand far off ? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble? In his arrogance the wicked man hunts down the weak, who are caught in the schemes he devises.
He lies in wait near the villages; from ambush he murders the innocent, watching in secret for his victims. …His victims are crushed, they collapse; they fall under his strength. He says to himself, “God has forgotten; he covers his face and never sees.”
Psalm 10:1-2, 8-11

Why do you hang back and not take action? Why do you allow evil men to use their power to terrorize, brutalize, and take advantage of women and children? Because of your inactivity, they think that they can get away with this. Because of your silence, they act like you don’t notice their ruthless methods or care about their devastated victims.

“Lord,” Martha said to Jesus, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.”
John 11:21-22

Like the sisters at Lazarus’ graveside and the disciples in the storm-tossed boat, we cry out the question that burns on all our hearts: Lord, where were you? If you would have been here, this wouldn’t have happened! If you would have shown up sooner, we wouldn’t be in this mess. Don’t you care that these girl’s lives are being destroyed?

The disciples woke him and said to him, “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?”
He got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves, “Quiet! Be still!” Then the wind died down and it was completely calm. He said to his disciples, “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?”
Mark 4:38-40

And as you did in reply to them, you gently call us to a greater level of faith. You bring us face-to-face with the impossibility of our circumstances: the overpowering force of renegade seas, the irreversible damage of death, the life-altering trauma of kidnapping, captivity, and violent, sexual assault. As we stare into the hopelessness, you call us to hope. As we weather our worst storms, you ask us if we trust you.

Your intervention is not a matter of if, but when.

I am tempted to withhold my trust until you prove yourself faithful, to doubt you until you come through for these girls. But you don’t afford me that luxury. You won’t let me off the hook of true faith. You leave me no choice but to either walk away from you in disbelief, or to turn towards you in desperate expectation.

I believe. Help my unbelief.

Arise, LORD! Lift up your hand, O God. Do not forget the helpless. Why does the wicked man revile God? Why does he say to himself, “He won’t call me to account”? But you, O God, do see trouble and grief; you consider it to take it in hand. The victim commits (herself) to you; you are the helper of the fatherless. Break the arm of the wicked and evil man; call him to account for his wickedness that would not be found out.
Psalm 10:12-15

I’m asking you to intervene on their behalf, because I believe you are who you say you are. You are the God who sees what is happening to them, who feels what is being done to their bodies, who weeps over what is being done to their souls. You are the God who calls evil men to account, who snatches their victims out of their hands and breaks their regime of terror.

The LORD is King for ever and ever; the nations will perish from his land. You hear, O LORD, the desire of the afflicted; you encourage them, and you listen to their cry, defending the fatherless and the oppressed, in order that man, who is of the earth, may terrify no more.
Psalm 10:16-18

So come on! Do your God-thing! Tame the sea. Raise the dead. Rescue these girls! Send in your ambassadors to fight for them. Go yourself and protect them. Hold them close under the shadow of your wings, that they may experience your peace in the midst of trauma, your safety in the midst of danger, your love in the midst of abuse. Show their captors what you do when people think they can treat your cherished image-bearers however they like. Show all the others like them that you don’t tolerate terror and abuse.

You might not handle things according to our expectations or show up according to our timetable, but you will act. We believe that you are strong enough and that you care enough. We believe that you can turn this hell into a haven, this crisis into a miracle. We watch to see what you will do for these girls, trusting that your intervention is not a matter of if, but when.

We take you at your word. Prove us right.

Delivered!

“I think that God is telling me to go back.” My heart sank as I listened to my friend talk about returning to life with her abusive husband. She had endured so much at his hands that the thought of her going back into that situation made me feel sick. Surely it wasn’t God’s voice she was hearing. It must be the voice of her own damaged identity telling her that she wasn’t worth any better, convincing her that God would be more pleased with her if she sacrificed herself to “help” her husband. But despite my stated concerns and strong conviction that she had every biblical right to leave, she remained unshakably certain. This was what God was asking her to do.

God was not throwing her under the bus for the sake of her abusers; He was asking her to walk with Him on a dangerous path that would ultimately lead to her freedom.

I wanted to keep trying to talk her out of it, to claim that God would never send someone back into such a harmful situation, but who was I to say what God was or was not asking of her? Had He not met Hagar running away and told her to go back to her abusive mistress? And yet along with that terrifying directive He had also given her assurances of His ongoing presence and care for her. He was not throwing her under the bus for the sake of her abusers; He was asking her to walk with Him on a dangerous path that would ultimately lead to her good.

Then the angel of the LORD told her, “Go back to your mistress and submit to her.” The angel added, “I will so increase your descendants that they will be too numerous to count.” The angel of the LORD also said to her: “You are now with child and you will have a son. You shall name him Ishmael, for the LORD has heard of your misery.
Genesis 16:9-11

Hagar believed God. She reached out and took His hand as He led her back to Abraham and Sarah. She submitted to them and served them for at least another fifteen years. She gave birth to the child they had forced on her, and gave him the special name God had given her in advance. Ishmael became her constant reminder that “God hears,” that God was watching over her and she was not alone. But God was not content to leave her in that precarious situation. He was at work to bring about her deliverance in a way she never would have chosen.

But Sarah saw that the son whom Hagar the Egyptian had borne to Abraham was mocking, and she said to Abraham, “Get rid of that slave woman and her son, for that slave woman’s son will never share in the inheritance with my son Isaac.” Genesis 21:9-10

The day came when Hagar’s worst nightmare came true. Jealous for her little Isaac to be Abraham’s only delight and heir, Sarah insisted that Abraham divorce Hagar. Never mind Hagar’s rights as a concubine, never mind the fate of a homeless woman and child wandering alone in the desert. Sarah just wanted them gone, erased from her family picture.

The matter distressed Abraham greatly because it concerned his son. But God said to him, “Do not be so distressed about the boy and your maidservant. Listen to whatever Sarah tells you… Early the next morning Abraham took some food and a skin of water and gave them to Hagar. He set them on her shoulders and then sent her off with the boy.
Genesis 21:11-14

Abraham was not so quick to reach the same conclusion. He felt trapped between honoring his wife and doing right by her maid, his concubine. But God intervened and nudged him in the direction of going along with his wife’s wishes. He got up early the next morning, packed Hagar up with enough provisions to get her started on her journey, and sent her off with nothing to her name but her son.

Devastated. Where could she go for food and housing? Abraham’s home had not exactly been a paradise for her, but at least there she and her child had steady provision and secure shelter. What would become of her precious child without a father? Maybe theirs had not been an ideal family situation, but at least before Ishmael had the identity and hope of an inheritance as Abraham’s son. To whom did she now belong? Hagar was riddled with fears. She had never made her own decisions. How could a life-long slave suddenly start being the master of her own life? She would not have chosen to walk away like this, but now it had been forced on her.

She went on her way and wandered in the desert of Beersheba. When the water in the skin was gone, she put the boy under one of the bushes. Then she went off and sat down nearby, about a bowshot away, for she thought, “I cannot watch the boy die.” And as she sat there nearby, she began to sob.
Genesis 21:14-16

Scorching sun. Empty water bottle. Crying child. Panicking mother. Where was that cool refreshing stream this time? Where was the God who had met her there and promised a great future for her son?

God heard the boy crying, and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, “What is the matter, Hagar? Do not be afraid; God has heard the boy crying as he lies there. Lift the boy up and take him by the hand, for I will make him into a great nation.” Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. So she went and filled the skin with water and gave the boy a drink. God was with the boy as he grew up. He lived in the desert and became an archer.
Genesis 21:17-20

God was right there, just as He had been all along. He had given her this child and He had every plan to make sure that she was able to keep him. He had brought her safely through the fire of living in an abusive home, and now He had intervened to deliver her from it. She was not leaving as a runaway slave; she had been sent off as a free woman. She was not leaving alone; she had the future security and the current dignity of being the mother of a son, one whom everyone now recognized as the legitimate son of a well-reputed man.

This time when God addressed her, He did so by her own name. He acknowledged her identity as no longer the handmaiden of Sarah, but as Hagar, her own person. This was her independence day, and He was here to share it with her. Through her He would protect and provide for the child. Through her He would raise him up to become a mighty man. And through her He would establish a great nation.

The way God took care of Hagar gave me confidence to support my friend in her decision. I prayerfully held my breath to see what He would do for His trusting, devoted daughter. Many terrifying twists and turns later, she phoned me with the devastating news that her husband was divorcing her. The dreaded day finally came, and I sat praying in the attorney’s office waiting room as she signed the final papers. But my mourning turned to rejoicing as the realization dawned: this was her independence day. God had seen her misery and had intervened on her behalf. He was delivering her from the bonds of an abusive marriage, and He Himself would be her nurturing husband, a wise, tender father to her children. Together we wept and worshiped, mourned the past and celebrated the future. God’s goodness had prevailed. At last, she was free.