Free at Last

In the years leading up to the Civil War, many opponents of slavery rallied together in hopes of ending servitude and segregation once and for all.  According to the History channel, these individuals, known as abolitionists, were committed to “the immediate emancipation of all slaves” regardless of the cost.  Men and women like William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, and Harriet Tubman took incredible risks in order to encourage and support slaves while fighting for their liberation.

Borrowing terminology reminiscent of this period in our nation’s history, John Starke said, “Idols are slave traders disguised as abolitionists.”  This provocative imagery isn’t meant to downplay the plight of the oppressed, but instead to emphasize the severity of idolatry.

An idol is anyone or anything we expect to be and do what only God is and does and thus treat as only God should be treated.  People, passions, pursuits, and pleasures all become idols when we look to them to provide ultimate meaning and total satisfaction.  God warns against idolatry throughout the Bible with the most explicit instance topping the list of the Ten Commandments: “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3).

In addition to being an affront to God, idolatry harms those who practice it.  The reason for this is simple: idols always fail to deliver what they promise.  The prophet Isaiah asserted, “All who fashion idols are nothing, and the things they delight in do not profit” (Isaiah 44:9).  Instead of providing joy, purpose, satisfaction, and value, idols eventually leave us with a sense of despair, aimlessness, emptiness, and worthlessness.  Our futile idol worship perpetuates feelings of insignificance because “those who make [idols] become like them” (Psalm 115:8).

Since, like Starke claims, idols entice us with freedom before duping us into bondage, it’s important we make every effort to avoid deception.  By removing our idols’ disguises, we recognize them as imposters and can act accordingly.  Idols, like posing abolitionists, may say, “I’m here to guarantee your freedom,” but knowing their true identity allows us to respond emphatically, “No, you’re not!”

Sadly, many of us have bought into idolatry’s fraudulent claims again and again.  Because we’ll often do anything or go anywhere if it might mean temporary satisfaction, we’re always susceptible to idolatry’s pull.

Recognizing our idols as counterfeit gods is necessary but insufficient in avoiding future bondage.  As – if not more – important than our ability to spot pretenders is our capacity to identify the real thing.  Our idols’ promises are fulfilled, not by them, but by our true Liberator.

The question is, will we recognize the One who came to set us free?

Anxiety’s Antidote

When I was in college, a friend and I combatted finals week stress in an unconventional way.  Instead of pursuing the peace of mind that accompanies preparedness, we essentially blew off studying altogether and spent our time eating out and wandering through the mall.  We must have been totally overwhelmed because neither of us is the type to relieve anxiety by shirking responsibility.

More often than not, I attempt to quell stress by maintaining a sense of control.  I want life to unfold according to a smooth, scheduled, self-made plan.  I do my best to resist the unknown, and I’d rather not be in a situation that requires me to trust.

I was confronted with the futility of striving after control when working through a devotional for an upcoming mission trip.  A section of the devotional highlighted Matthew 11:28-30, a well-known passage in which Jesus summons the weary and burdened to come to Him for rest.  After reading the verses, I responded to the prompt, “What has wearied or burdened your life?”

Can you guess my answer?

“Trying to be in control.”

Notice the irony.  The desire for control makes the alluring but deceptive claim that anxiety will be alleviated as long as I’m in charge.  If only I know what’s around the next turn, then I’ll be able to relax.  If I can just make sure my circumstances are preferable, then I’ll finally rest.  The problem is that no matter how persistently I wrestle for it, control isn’t up for grabs.

The notion that control is attainable is delusional, and worse is the belief that I would be a better god than God.  Isn’t that the bottom line, after all?  My mouth says, “He’s got the whole world in His hands,” but my life is spent bartering for a portion of it to hold onto myself.  It’s an exhausting proposition.

When Peter instructed his readers to humble themselves by casting their anxieties on God, he shed light on the connection between humility and trust (1 Peter 5:6-7).  The psalmist’s assertion that “our God is in the heavens; He does all that He pleases” works in tandem with Peter’s declaration that “He cares” for us to assure our hearts of both God’s sovereignty and His goodness (Psalm 115:3; 1 Peter 5:7).

Too often we seek relief from stress by trying to rule over our own pretend kingdoms, a practice which quickly breeds more worry.  We can’t micromanage our burdens away, but we can offload them at the feet of the One who offers rest in exchange.  In other words, because our God is both sovereign and good, the antidote to anxiety isn’t tightening our grasp, but opening our hands.  

Scotty Smith was right when he said, “Nothing will make you more sane than to see the occupied throne of heaven.”  It’s only as we remember Who reigns over the world that we receive the peace of mind we need to live by faith in it.

Burning Bibles and Boring Sermons

“He’s not a very good preacher.”  “I didn’t get anything out of that sermon.”  “Those points of application weren’t relevant.”  If words like these haven’t actually come out of your mouth after church, you’ve likely heard them from someone else or thought them yourself.  Although sometimes our concerns are valid, we are often sidetracked by personal preferences, and if we aren’t careful, our critiques will inhibit us from responding appropriately to the truth.

We aren’t the only ones who struggle with hearing and receiving the Word of God.  A theme in the book of Jeremiah is the failure of God’s people to pay attention to His Word and act accordingly.  For example, Jeremiah 35:17 says, “I have spoken to [Judah] and they have not listened, I have called to them and they have not answered.”  Elsewhere God explains, “They did not pay attention to my words…that I persistently sent to you by my servants the prophets” (Jeremiah 29:19).  Similar accusations were made repeatedly throughout Jeremiah’s ministry.

For better or for worse, the Judeans’ response to God’s Word was often a direct reflection of their kings’ willingness or refusal to heed it.  When Josiah became king as an eight-year-old, the Book of the Law – likely a portion of Deuteronomy – was nowhere to be found.  Providing a detailed account of Josiah’s time as king, 2 Chronicles says that in the middle of his reign, the temple was under construction, and this lost section of God’s Word was rediscovered.  A messenger read the scroll’s contents to the king, who then “tore his clothes” as a sign of grief, recognizing that Judah’s ancestors had “not kept the word of the Lord, to do according to all that is written in this book” (2 Chronicles 34:19, 21).  Josiah’s response to a difficult truth was admirable.  In fact, because his heart was tender and he humbled himself before the Word of God, he was spared from seeing the disaster God would later bring on Judah (34:27-28).  With his expanded understanding of God’s Word, Josiah continued to lead the nation in extensive religious reforms until his death.

Josiah’s son, Jehoiakim, had a different attitude toward Scripture than his father.  Jeremiah was directed to record God’s Word of judgment against Judah so that when they realized the consequences of their sin they would repent and be forgiven (Jeremiah 36:2-3).  When the words were read to King Jehoiakim, he cut the scroll into pieces and threw them into the fire he was using to heat his house.  Jeremiah pinpointed the contrasting responses of Josiah and Jehoiakim when he wrote, “Yet neither the king nor any of his servants who heard all these words was afraid, nor did they tear their garments” (36:24).  The king’s outright rejection of God’s Word prevented him from experiencing the grace and mercy God longed to extend.

I hope it’s safe to assume none of us have ever ripped and burned our Bibles, but that doesn’t necessarily mean our hearts are tender and humble.  While Jehoiakim’s actions were extreme, they are a powerful reminder that ignoring Scripture has negative repercussions and inhibits us from receiving all that God offers.

Our dismissal of God’s Word is often much more subtle, and in my personal experience, happens when I focus more on the messenger than the message.  When I don’t like a preacher’s style, I am prone to tune out altogether.  When a sermon comes from a difficult part of the Bible, I often write it off as boring or irrelevant.  When a speaker’s point is especially convicting, I try to forget what I heard.  In these situations, my attitude is no better than that of the Judeans who were notorious for persecuting the prophets and consistently “did not listen or incline their ear” to the truth (44:5).

We should be astounded that the One who “upholds the universe by the word of his power” has chosen to make Himself known through Scripture (Hebrews 1:3).  When His Word is opened – whether in personal study or corporate worship – we should be on the edges of our seats to hear from Him.  If He spoke through a donkey, He can certainly use other unlikely messengers – even ones who stumble over their words or who aren’t the most charismatic communicators (Numbers 22:28).  Regardless of whose mouth is moving, as long as the truth of the Bible is being proclaimed, God is the One speaking.  Thus, the question isn’t if God will speak, it’s whether we’ll pay attention to what He’s said.

No Turning Back

Our brains have a funny way of distorting past memories in light of present situations.  Sometimes we look back on a period of life through romanticized lenses, remembering days gone by as better than they actually were.  Usually this is a reaction to particular challenges we face here and now.

This phenomenon isn’t new.  Near the end of the divided kingdom era of biblical history, the nation of Judah’s fate looked grim.  Like their northern counterpart Israel, Judah would be overrun by a foreign army, and the people would be taken into captivity.  As the threat of Judah’s demise grew increasingly imminent, God spoke through the prophet Jeremiah, warning the people to stay put with the assurance that He would deliver them from the Babylonians.  The plan couldn’t be simpler – stay where you are, and trust Me to do what you can’t do.

Unfortunately, things didn’t go according to plan.  It’s likely numerous factors contributed to the people’s decision to reject God’s Word – factors such as the counterintuitive nature of the command, their pattern of selective obedience, a natural fear of the foreboding enemy, and a warped memory of their nation’s history.

Instead of remaining in Judah and trusting God to work on their behalf, the people decided to make a lengthy journey to Egypt, believing it would provide peace and prosperity.  Although escaping from their present reality would’ve been appealing, it seems as if Judah had forgotten a critical part of the past.

God’s people had been slaves in Egypt for several hundred years before He freed them in dramatic fashion.  In keeping with His promise to Abraham, He later gave them their own land in which they could thrive as an independent nation.  But after centuries of ignoring God’s Word, judgment was on the way.  Still, God was willing to postpone judgment if only they would trust and obey.  Ironically, instead of waiting for deliverance, the Judeans went back to the place of former captivity.  As the ESV Study Bible notes, they “reversed salvation history by returning to Egypt.”  Judah’s foolishness is striking, but don’t we do the same thing?

Peter wrote that God called us “out of darkness into His marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9).  Paul said that we have been liberated from bondage to sin and are now “slaves of God,” a relationship which produces sanctification and eternal life (Romans 6:22).  Sadly, though, we sometimes mimic the folly of our Judean predecessors.  Like them, we misremember the pain of the past, and in our quest for relief in the present, we default to what we used to know.  It’s like we walk back into the courtroom searching for the handcuffs that were removed when God declared us guiltless once and for all.  We exchange light for darkness and freedom for bondage.

The Judeans forfeited their front row seat to what would’ve been another miraculous rescue.  Instead, the destiny they thought they could avoid met them decisively in Egypt.  When their allies fell to the Babylonians, Judah didn’t stand a chance.  Captivity in Babylon was in their near future.  By trying to find freedom on their own terms, the Judeans ended up ensnared.  The security and peace they craved were available, but not apart from the obedience of faith.

No matter how desperate our situations appear, we serve a God who is both willing and able to work for His glory and our good.  The difficulties are opportunities to bank everything on God’s power and faithfulness, not invitations to make it on our own.  When life becomes more than we can handle, we either trust God to do what we can’t, or we default to what’s familiar – no matter how destructive.  The Judeans made their choice, but today we can make ours.  Will we revert to self-sufficiency and end up in bondage?  Or will we walk by faith – even on the hard days – without turning back?

Stay in Your Lane

This morning I had to drive an hour from Bluefield for an appointment, and several times during the trip I caught myself drifting into the lane beside me.  I realized that when I’m driving down busy interstates, I often pay a dangerous amount of attention to the drivers beside me.  Being attentive to my surroundings is necessary, but it’s entirely possible to be so aware of what’s going on beside me that I don’t notice what’s happening right in front of me.

The problem is worst when I’m next to a large truck on windy sections of I-77 or when I drive through a tunnel.  When a truck seems uncomfortably close, my hands tighten around the steering wheel and my eyes lock on the lane line.  What starts out as a simple observation turns into an obsession as my peripheral vision strains to make sure I’ll avoid a collision.  Ironically, though, my steering starts to follow my vision, and I’m the one who ends up veering toward the truck.  Either that or I have to slam on my brakes because I was too distracted to notice the driver ahead of me.

My driving habits caused me to think about a similar tendency off the road.  The writer of Hebrews said we should “run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 12:1-2).  I’m called to stay the course, put one foot in front of the other, and keep my eyes on Jesus.

Too often, though, I try to run the race with my eyes on the people next to me.  I become so aware of their gifts, their callings, and their spheres of influence that I blind myself from seeing the One who goes before me.  I can’t fix my eyes on Him if I’m constantly looking at them.

Like on the road, attentiveness in life is important.  As we take note of those around us, we should cheer them on and be grateful for camaraderie along the course.  But if our observations turn into obsessions, celebration quickly becomes coveting and we view our companions as competitors.

The alternative is to heed the exhortation to run while “looking to Jesus.”  Christine Caine hit the nail on the head when she wrote:

The inability to celebrate what God is doing in and through someone else simply reveals a profound sense of fear, insecurity, and lack of trust in a big, gracious, faithful, and loving God.  If you are in your lane running your race and another person is in their lane running their race, then there is no possible way that the success of one can diminish the effectiveness of another.  It is God who calls us, and He is good, and He does good.

My experience on the road this morning reminded me that in life, our feet follow our eyes.  We move toward what we behold.  If we gaze on those around us, a collision is imminent; but if we fix our eyes on Jesus, we’ll recognize the incomparable joy of running with them toward Him.