Are Christians required to keep the Sabbath? (Part 3)

Q. Is it honoring to God for Christians who are Gentiles to keep the Sabbath? If so, how should they observe it? Or it is not required of them to observe the law in any shape or form? I had never observed the Sabbath or other laws on the understanding that as Christians, we weren’t required to do so. But a few years ago, when I was worn down from overwork, I prayed about the issue and I felt led to observe the Sabbath. (Not that I thought it would make me more righteous, or that I was trying to be.) But now that I have largely recovered from being worn down, I’d like to be able to do some of my academic research work on that day, or simple things like cooking, which I haven’t been doing. Would that be all right?

In my first post in response to this question, I described generally how the obligations of the Old Covenant, such as keeping the Sabbath, become opportunities under the New Covenant. In my next post, I talked about the reasons for the Sabbath: rest for weary bodies; worship of our Creator; and becoming part of God’s own work, which flows from His “rest.” In this post, I’d like to conclude this series by offering some suggestions for how you might keep the Sabbath practically.

The first important question is whether to keep the Sabbath as one particular day during the week or instead try to fulfill the purposes of the Sabbath on each day of the week. This will be a matter of individual guidance and conviction for each believer, but allow me to make a suggestion that may prove helpful. It seems to me that if your “work” is usually done at a particular place (for example, an office, a factory, or a shop), it’s prudent to make sure you get away from that place and get a good, solid break for at least one day every week. (Nothing wrong with a whole weekend, either.) But if your work can be done, and is done, in a variety of settings because it depends primarily on your inspiration, insights, and creativity (this would apply, for example, to writers, artists, researchers, composers, inventors, strategists, etc.), then you might repeatedly be frustrated if you tried to keep your work out of a specific day of the week. Chances are that the break you gave yourself from the usual routine would release your creative processes and you’d be flooded with ideas that you weren’t supposed to pursue that day! So think about what kind of work you do and whether it would lend itself best to “honoring one day as more sacred than others” or “honoring all days alike.”

A related question is the definition of “work.” Assuming that, for the most part, we are supposed to rest rather than work on the Sabbath, how can we know when we’re working and when we’re at rest? As I said in my second post, in general, anything that interferes with the purposes of the Sabbath should be recognized as “work,” while anything that promotes those purposes should be considered “rest.”

The Gospel of Luke reports how Jesus healed a woman who’d been disabled for eighteen years, unable to stand up straight. “He put his hands on her, and immediately she straightened up and praised God.” But the synagogue leader criticized him for doing this on the Sabbath. Jesus responded, “Should not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has kept bound for eighteen long years, be set free on the Sabbath day from what bound her?” This was one of the many times when Jesus offered an “argument from the lesser to the greater”: If it was appropriate for people to be granted rest from fatigue on the Sabbath, how much more appropriate was it for this woman to be granted freedom from her disability on the Sabbath! Or as Jesus put it on another occasion, recorded in the Gospel of Matthew, when he healed a man’s withered hand, “It is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.

Alexander Master, “Jesus Heals the Crippled Woman” (detail)

So, to use your specific example of cooking, if cooking is more for you than just getting meals on the table—if it’s a creative outlet and a source of joy and refreshment for you—then by all means, go ahead and cook, even on a day you might have set apart from “work.” It’s lawful to “do good” on that day. In the same way, if your research isn’t just a job, if it’s a way for you to use your talents to pursue something that you’re passionate about, then don’t feel that you have to shut it down for a whole day once a week—particularly not if some of your best insights occur to you on that day! But you’re on the honor system here. You’ll know in your own conscience whether you’re “pushing” to keep going when you should really be resting.

One other observation to make is that in the Old Testament, there wasn’t just a weekly Sabbath. There were also several week-long annual festivals that began and ended with days free from work. (And we can safely assume that in many cases, the entire festival was different from the usual work week; for example, during the Festival of Tabernacles, the Israelites lived in temporary shelters—kind of like going camping!) God also commanded the Israelites to give their farmland a sabbatical year every seven years. And beyond that, they were to observe a Year of Jubilee every fifty years, when all debts were cancelled and everyone returned to their ancestral property. This had the effect of freeing the rising generation from any bad financial legacy the older generation may have left, and at the same time it required each generation to make its own way in the world.

So let me leave you with this question and challenge: How will you observe the Sabbath over longer time periods? Will you make sure you get vacations every year and that they are genuine times of refreshment, restoration, and adventure? I trust that, as an academic, you’ve already had sabbatical experiences every several years that have permitted breakthroughs in your research and at the same time enabled you to step out of your regular life in a significant way so that you could return to it as a fresh person. And have you experienced a “Jubilee”? Around age 50, many people move from a traditionally defined position into a more creatively designed one that suits them personally and will allow them to use their gifts with maximum effectiveness for the rest of their careers. (This can happen within an institution they have been serving, or it may take them out of that institution into a consultancy, freelance, or similar role.)

There seems to be a biblical precedent for this type of move. God told Moses that Levites who were “twenty-five years old or more shall come to take part in the work at the tent of meeting, but at the age of fifty, they must retire from their regular service and work no longer. They may assist their brothers in performing their duties at the tent of meeting, but they themselves must not do the work.” So the more senior Levites became advisors and assistants who were not to keep doing the regular work themselves. Sounds to me as if they were then observing the Sabbath for the rest of their lives.

However, it may not not be practical or possible in many situations for our outward work to be transformed in this way. Nevertheless, we can all be transformed inwardly so that we are no longer restlessly striving for the rewards of work. Instead, may our work flow from who we are and who we are becoming, by the grace of God, so that we may truly “enter His rest” and, as God’s co-workers, cease from our labors as He ceased from His on that first Sabbath day.

Are Christians required to keep the Sabbath? (Part 2)

Q. Is it honoring to God for Christians who are Gentiles to keep the Sabbath? If so, how should they observe it? Or it is not required of them to observe the law in any shape or form? I had never observed the Sabbath or other laws on the understanding that as Christians, we weren’t required to do so. But a few years ago, when I was worn down from overwork, I prayed about the issue and I felt led to observe the Sabbath. (Not that I thought it would make me more righteous, or that I was trying to be.) But now that I have largely recovered from being worn down, I’d like to be able to do some of my academic research work on that day, or simple things like cooking, which I haven’t been doing. Would that be all right?

Based on what I wrote in response to your question in my last post, in which I explained how the obligations of the Old Covenant become opportunities under the New Covenant, you won’t be surprised to learn that I do encourage Christians to continue observing the Sabbath, as a spiritual discipline and as an opportunity to do good. So the answer to the first part of your question is yes, it is honoring to God when we keep the Sabbath in those ways. And this brings me to the second part of your question: How should we observe it?

The New Testament suggests that there are different ways a person can fulfill the purposes behind the Sabbath. One way is indeed to refrain from work on a given day of the week. The definition of “work” is very much up to the individual under the New Covenant; as with giving, it’s a matter of what you “determine in your heart.” But I’d say generally that any activity that interferes with the purposes of the Sabbath is likely “work” and should be left aside during Sabbath time. (I’ll say more shortly about what those purposes are.)

Some people choose to do no work on Saturday, the seventh day, the day God “rested” after creation and the day that was observed under the Old Covenant. Others choose Sunday, the first day, the day of Christ’s resurrection, symbolic of our entrance into new life. Both choices have good theological foundations and are time-honored practices in the community of Jesus’ followers.

However, in his letter to the Romans, Paul says that the Sabbath can also be kept as an everyday practice. When discussing two issues about which believers in his day had different convictions, Sabbath observance and eating meat that had been offered to idols, he wrote, “One person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind. Whoever regards one day as special does so to the Lord. Whoever eats meat does so to the Lord, for they give thanks to God; and whoever abstains does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God.” We can infer from this overall argument that Paul would also say that “whoever considers every day alike does so to the Lord.” So it’s also possible for a person to keep the Sabbath by looking for opportunities every day to fulfill its purposes.

And what are those purposes? One primary reason for the Sabbath is to allow weary bodies to rest and recover. The Law of Moses said, “The seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your ox, your donkey or any of your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns, so that your male and female servants may rest, as you do.” God designed for all creatures, human and animal, to have regular opportunities for their finite bodies to recover from the exertions of life.

No one who had power over another person or animal was to deny them this necessary refreshment: “Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the Lord your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day.” It’s crucial to emphasize, in our overworked culture, that this also means we must not deny our own bodies the opportunity to rest. I’m glad that you recognized this in your own case and that you have pursued this purpose of the Sabbath to the point where you feel largely recovered.

But there are other purposes for the Sabbath as well. As an admission of our creaturely finiteness, it is also supposed to be an act of humility and worship, in acknowledgment of God’s infinite greatness. And so it’s appropriate that communities of believers that observe a given day as the Sabbath also tend to hold worship services on that same day. One inference is that anyone who keeps the Sabbath as an everyday spiritual discipline should look for opportunities each day to express humble and grateful worship.

The book of Hebrews, however, suggests another very intriguing purpose of the Sabbath. Its author writes, “There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God; for all who enter God’s rest also cease from their works, just as God did from his.” This means, for one thing, that we cease from trying to be righteous before God through our works and instead rely in faith on what Jesus has done for us. In light of this, it’s certainly appropriate that you haven’t been keeping the Sabbath itself to try to become more righteous before God.

But there’s a lot more going on here. The Gospel of John relates how, one Sabbath day, Jesus healed a man who couldn’t walk. When the Jewish leaders criticized him for doing this, he replied, “My Father is always working, and so am I.” In my study guide to John, I explain what Jesus meant by this:

The Jews of his day already accepted that God had to be at work sometimes on the Sabbath. They believed, for example, that God actively sent rain, and it often rained on the Sabbath. But human work was forbidden. Jesus explained, however, that the work he was doing was not his own, but the Father’s: “The Son can do nothing by himself; he can only do what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does.” This is actually a good description of Jesus’ “glory”: his intimate relationship with the Father and his sensitivity to the work that the Father wanted to do through him at any given moment. The point is that followers of Jesus can have this same kind of relationship with the Father and be actively involved in God’s own work on every single day of the week.

Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, “Christ healing the Paralytic at the Pool of Bethesda” (1667-70), The National Gallery, London

In other words, if the Sabbath is a time when we refrain from our own work, that only means that it’s the ideal time for us to take our part in God’s work, which He is always doing. This is the idea of “co-operation” that’s a leading theme of the Gospel of John: God operates and we operate with Him, discerning where and how He is acting and joining in. This understanding of the Sabbath clearly calls for us to approach it as a sacred time that’s not limited to one day of the week, even though we may still “consider one day more sacred than another” as we seek to fulfill other Sabbath purposes.

But there’s a paradox here, which the author of Hebrews notes: We are called to join with God in his work, “and yet his works have been finished since the creation of the world.” After all, Scripture says, “On the seventh day God rested from all his works.” Jewish interpreters were fascinated to note that while Scripture marks the ending of the first six days of creation with a repeated formula about mornings and evenings, no ending is specified for the seventh day. So God’s “rest” has continued from then until the present. In effect, it’s still the seventh day of creation, and God is still resting. So how can He be working?

The solution to this paradox is offered in the specific instructions for the Sabbath in the book of Exodus, which say, “For six days work is to be done, but the seventh day is a day of sabbath rest, holy to the Lord. . . . For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, and on the seventh day he rested and was refreshed.”

In what way could an infinitely powerful God be refreshed, if by definition He could never get tired in the first place? Many interpreters consider the “refreshment” of God to be, in effect, the “aaah” feeling He got when He surveyed “all that He had made” and saw that it was “very good.” While God first got this overview at the end of the sixth day, He devoted the entire next day to contemplating and admiring the beauty of the entire finished creation.

And apparently that day extends right down to the present. This means that God’s “work” flows from his unending seventh-day “rest,” that is, from his view of the finished creation as very good. This means that God has never acted out of desperation to try frantically to fix something that has apparently gone wrong with the world He made. I’ve discussed in other posts on this blog how God built freedom into the creation, and with it the possibility that people might choose things that were contrary to His  purposes. But God has known from the start that this is something He can accommodate within His original plans, as He takes an active part to bring the creation to its intended fulfillment. (As I write in another post, for example, “God is able to work through the free choices, both good and bad, of moral agents to accomplish His purposes.”)

So God’s actions flow from his Sabbath rest, his confident assurance, informed by his survey of the finished creation, that all of His purposes will be accomplished and that the beautiful world of creatures He made will ultimately fulfill its intended purpose. We are to lay aside our own work and join in His work with that same confident assurance, in our case based on faith in Him, informed by our understanding of His works from creation down to the present. This is what it means, in the deepest sense, to keep the Sabbath.

But I would like, in my final post in this series, to offer some specific suggestions for how you can work a Sabbath observance into your life that will fulfill all of its purposes, from this most lofty one to the practical necessity of bodily rest.

Are Christians required to keep the Sabbath? (Part 1)

Q. Is it honoring to God for Christians who are Gentiles to keep the Sabbath? If so, how should they observe it? Or it is not required of them to observe the law in any shape or form? I had never observed the Sabbath or other laws on the understanding that as Christians, we weren’t required to do so. But a few years ago, when I was worn down from overwork, I prayed about the issue and I felt led to observe the Sabbath. (Not that I thought it would make me more righteous, or that I was trying to be.) But now that I have largely recovered from being worn down, I’d like to be able to do some of my academic research work on that day, or simple things like cooking, which I haven’t been doing. Would that be all right?

My answer your question will have three parts. In this post, I’ll talk about the general difference between the obligations of the Old Covenant and the opportunities of the New Covenant. In my next post, I’ll apply those biblical and theological observations specifically to Sabbath observance. And in my final post, I’ll offer some practical suggestions in response to your concerns.

I was reading just the other day in 2 Chronicles about how Abijah, the king of Judah, warned Jereboam, the king of Israel, that he shouldn’t try to attack him, because God wouldn’t be with him. Abijah said:

“You are indeed a vast army and have with you the golden calves that Jeroboam made to be your gods. But didn’t you drive out the priests of the Lord, the sons of Aaron, and the Levites, and make priests of your own as the peoples of other lands do? Whoever comes to consecrate himself with a young bull and seven rams may become a priest of what are not gods. As for us, the Lord is our God, and we have not forsaken him. The priests who serve the Lord are sons of Aaron, and the Levites assist them. Every morning and evening they present burnt offerings and fragrant incense to the Lord. They set out the bread on the ceremonially clean table and light the lamps on the gold lampstand every evening. We are observing the requirements of the Lord our God.”

On this basis, Abijah argued, Jereboam couldn’t hope to defeat Judah—and he was right. Jereboam lost the battle. But I was struck by the way that faithfulness to the Lord was defined at this time as scrupulously following the specific commandments God had given, not just for who could be priests, but even for how the bread should be set out on the table in the temple.

An artist’s rendition of the showbread on the golden table in the temple.

Now it wasn’t thought that these observances, in and of themselves, would have some specific effect. Rather, following God’s commandments accurately and carefully was an expression of the people’s loyalty, obedience, and devotion. God was their Lord and Master, and it was their duty as faithful servants to carry out his wishes to the letter. But it was their devotion that really mattered, not the specific arrangements.

We get evidence of this distinction later in 2 Chronicles itself. The book records how, during the reign of Hezekiah, the king and the people realized that they needed to start celebrating Passover once again in order to be faithful to the Lord’s instructions. They were supposed to have done this in the first month of the year, but by the time they realized this, it was too late for them to organize a celebration in that month. So they decided to celebrate Passover in the second month instead. This was not following God’s commandments to the letter, but “the plan seemed right both to the king and to the whole assembly.” It’s better for a person to have a heart that seeks to obey, even if they can’t do so exactly, than for a person not to try to obey at all.

And once the celebration got going, “although most of the many people who came from Ephraim, Manasseh, Issachar and Zebulun had not purified themselves, yet they ate the Passover, contrary to what was written. But Hezekiah prayed for them, saying, ‘May the Lord, who is good, pardon everyone who sets their heart on seeking God—the Lord, the God of their ancestors—even if they are not clean according to the rules of the sanctuary.'” And the Lord accepted Hezekiah’s prayer.

So even within the Old Covenant itself, there’s a movement from an emphasis on a scrupulous observance of specific commandments to an emphasis on a person’s heart genuinely seeking God. Jesus took that developing emphasis and made it explicit in his teaching. In terms of the food laws, for example, he said that it wasn’t what went into a person (what they ate) that made them unclean, but what came out of them, because “from the inside, from your heart, come the evil ideas that lead you to do immoral things.” To give another example, the Law of Moses was very specific that the people of the Old Covenant were to worship the Lord in only one place, Jerusalem. But when a Samaritan woman asked Jesus whether she should worship in Jerusalem or on the mountain where her ancestors had always worshiped, he replied, “A time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem . . . a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks.” So once again it’s the devotion of the heart, not the letter of the law, that matters.

In this light, the obligations of the Old Covenant are transformed into opportunities under the New Covenant. Tithing provides a good example of this. Under the Old Covenant, the people were required to give a tithe (that is, 10%) of their crops and other income to the Lord. But the New Testament never speaks of tithing as a requirement. Rather, it says things such as, “Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” (Another way to put this is, “Don’t give if you wish you could keep it; don’t give if you feel you have to. God loves those who give because they want to give.”)

So the emphasis in giving is on the desire of the heart to honor and obey God. This doesn’t mean, however, that Christians shouldn’t tithe. Tithing is actually a very good spiritual discipline for us to adopt. A spiritual discipline is a structure that we build into our lives to make sure that we actually do what we want to do in our hearts. So by keeping track of our giving, and making sure that it’s at least 10% (after all, those who give because they want to can reasonably be expected to give at least as much as those who give because it’s a requirement), we structure our lives in such a way that our good intentions are actually fulfilled.

When we do carry out the desire of our heart to express our devotion to God in tangible ways, then we take advantage of an opportunity to do good. In the conclusion to the passage about the “cheerful giver,” Paul explains, “This service that you perform [i.e., your giving] is not only supplying the needs of the Lord’s people, it is also overflowing in many expressions of thanks to God.”

Perhaps you can already see the implications of all this for Sabbath observance, but I’ll talk about those in my next post.

Was Jesus angry when he turned the tables of the money changers at his Father’s house?

Q. Was Jesus angry when he turned the tables of the money changers at his Father’s house?

Rembrandt, “Christ driving the money-changers from the Temple,” 1626

I believe that Jesus was angry—very angry—at the money changers and merchants for turning his Father’s house into a “den of robbers.” That’s why he drove them out of the Temple—according to John, by making and using a whip of cords! John also records that when Jesus’ disciples saw what he was doing, they thought of the Scripture that says, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” “Consumed by zeal” is another way of saying “angry.”

But I don’t believe that Jesus was in an uncontrollable rage. That would have been a sin, and Jesus did not sin.

The Bible says, “Be angry, but do not sin.” This helps us recognize that anger is simply an emotion; it’s what we do with our anger that makes it either sinful or not sinful.

Anger can actually be a positive and constructive force. Because it’s an emotion that fills us with energy, anger can be a great motivator. We can “get good and mad at ourselves” and find the motivation to succeed at something that has defeated us so far or complete a project we’re tired of seeing half-finished. Anger can also motivate us to establish proper boundaries in our lives and to confront injustice. I think that’s what was going on in Jesus’ case: The money changers and merchants were exploiting poor people who wanted to come into the house of God to worship, and Jesus got mad enough to take action against them. (I don’t think he explained to them quietly and gently, “It is written, My house will be called a house of prayer, but you are making it a den of robbers”!)

But we have to be careful, because anger can also be a very destructive force. If we don’t control it (if we “lose our temper”), all that energy can be released in the verbal, emotional, and even physical abuse of others. This is something that the Bible warns against strongly and repeatedly. James warns, for example, that “human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires” (meaning out-of-control anger). One of the many proverbs on the subject says that “fools give full vent to their rage, but the wise bring calm in the end.” Psalm 39 says, “Let go of anger and leave rage behind! Don’t get upset—it will only lead to evil.” And so forth.

Followers of Jesus look to him as their example, and I think that in the case of driving the money changers and the merchants out of the temple, Jesus sets us a good example to follow of being angry but not sinning. Let’s get mad enough about the things that are wrong in our world to do something about them, but let’s not give in to rage and become destructive ourselves.

How can I show my friends that I’m not a wacko just because I’m a Christian?

Q. How do we handle the tension that comes from being truly and deeply different as Christians while simultaneously wanting to reach a culture that ​is​ ​easily put off by “strange” religious behavior and especially ​of​​ being “converted” to ​something​? ​Since religious believers are often portrayed as complete wackos, it would seem that showing people how normal most of us are would be a good step. But it makes me wonder how far is too far when it comes to trying to appear “normal.” ​

To what degree one should bring up faith or try to steer conversations in that direction in personal relationships? Is it more important to focus on living such an attractive life that people inevitably “want what we have” and ask us about our faith? Or is that even realistic?

Along the same lines, to what degree should Christians emphasize that they are “just normal people” and not “crazy cult followers”? For example, say that after work some coworkers invite you to go to a local bar for some drinks. Obviously some personal judgement is called for (how shady is this bar?), but would it be a better approach to go with the “hey, I want these people to know that Christians are normal too” approach and go grab a drink, or would it be better to make a point of emphasizing that as a Christian you don’t really feel comfortable drinking at a bar (and thereby potentially get tuned out by them in the future)?

Your question is very pertinent to the contemporary cultural and religious landscape. I recently saw a college chaplain quoted to this effect: “Given their distrust of authorities and institutions, millennials are seeking out extended experiences and real, authentic spiritual relationships before they will commit to a world view or ideology.”

In other words, nobody these days is going to be “converted” to a faith or religion simply because somebody talks to them about it. They will need to watch your experiences over a period of time first and come to some judgment about whether they agree God is in these experiences as you say. They will also need to validate the genuine quality of your relationships with them and with others. So this is not a matter of a brief “gospel presentation” over lunch or on a bus. It’s a matter of living out your life with credibility and authenticity over time, with people watching.

The practical questions you ask suggest some very good illustrations of this. If you go into a conversation with somebody not really wanting to talk about what they want to talk about, but instead looking for a chance to bring up your faith, that’s fake. Don’t do that. On the other hand, if faith would come up naturally, but you don’t mention it because you think your friend might consider you a “wacko,” that’s also fake. You’re not being yourself.

For example, suppose on a Monday somebody at work asks, “So what did you do this weekend?” If, among other things, you went to church, there’s nothing wrong with mentioning that, and even describing something interesting or inspiring that happened there. (And then you ask, “And what did you do this weekend?”)

As for going to a bar with co-workers, for me personally the question really would be, “How shady is this bar?” If the place is basically a restaurant that happens to serve beer, I wouldn’t have a problem with going there and hanging out with people from work. (Hopefully they have a good selection of draft beers on tap!) On the other hand, if the place is a near-criminal enterprise, a haven of immoral, illegal, and exploitive activities, I’d tell my co-workers, “I’d love to grab a drink with you, but I find that place kind of sketchy. Could we go to such-and-such a place instead?”

(I recognize that whether to drink alcohol at all is one of those questions about which Christians each need to develop their own convictions and be “fully convinced in their own minds.” But even if you abstain from liquor, you could still go out with your friends and order a non-alcoholic drink. If anyone asks or seems like they’re wondering, you can just explain naturally, “I don’t drink alcohol.” Many people abstain for lots of different reasons and these days it should be “no big deal.” However, if you’re a recovering alcoholic and being in a bar would be too great a temptation, then it wouldn’t be wise to go. Additionally, if the whole purpose of the outing is not to be with friends, but to get drunk, then that’s not something it would be valuable to be a part of.)

Let me stress, however, that the point of going out for a drink with co-workers is not to demonstrate to them that Christians are normal people and not crazy cult followers. The point is to go out for a drink with co-workers. In other words, your intentions need to be sincere and authentic. You can’t have a “hidden agenda.” Otherwise, you’re not really demonstrating a quality of life that others might recognize and want to find out more about.

And this brings me to your final specific question: Yes, I do think it’s realistic to believe and expect that modeling the new life God is creating inside you will make that same life attractive to others. One of my favorite stories in the gospels is about Zaccheus. To say that everybody in Jericho wanted him to repent would be an understatement. As a tax collector, he was collaborating with the Romans and enriching himself by extorting money from everyone else. All Jesus said to him was, “I want to have dinner with you.” But at that dinner, Zacchaeus stood up and said, “Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.” He knew Jesus was extending an unconditional welcome to him, he wanted to accept that welcome (he’d already braved a crowd that was likely hostile just to see Jesus), but he also recognized that a life change came with accepting the welcome.

I think these are actually exciting times for us to live in. We can speak about our faith without worrying about offending people, so long as we do so freely, openly, and naturally, because these days people are supposed to accept and respect where other people are coming from. But we also need to recognize that it’s the quality of our lives and relationships that will ultimately make that faith credible to others. And that’s a good challenge for us to embrace. As Jesus said, people have to recognize us as his followers by the fruits of our lives.

 

Why can’t I feel God’s presence in my life?

Q. Does God leave people even if they’re trying to be a good Christian, if they make mistakes but confess them afterwards and truly seek forgiveness? I personally do not feel anything of God in my life, but I try and try every day. I read the Bible and go to church every Sunday. I feel empty and have felt that way for a long time. I have forgiven people who’ve wounded me deeply. But my joy is gone. What’s going on?

Thank you for your question. I sympathize deeply with your situation. I can’t speak to it as knowledgeably as I’d like without knowing the specifics, but let me share some thoughts based on my 20 years’ experience as a pastor and my lifelong study of the Bible.

I can assure you that you’re not alone in your situation. I’ve counseled many other people who seemingly were doing everything they should (pursuing spiritual disciplines such as Bible reading and worship, asking and granting forgiveness, etc.) but somehow didn’t feel God’s presence or the joy of the Lord.

First, to answer your opening question directly, no, God never abandons a person who’s earnestly and sincerely seeking him. We do hear in the Bible about God withdrawing his presence from an individual or community, but this is always the last step in a long process of God trying to bring them back from unfaithfulness to obedience. This does not happen to people who are already seeking God. David recognized after his grave sins against Bathsheba and Uriah that he had put himself in danger of this, so he pleaded desperately, “Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me.” The prophet Nathan assured him, “The Lord has taken away your sin.”

The book of Hebrews in the New Testament, speaking to people who are earnestly following God like you, reminds us, “God has said, ‘Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.’ So we say with confidence, ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid.'”

So if God has not left you—and I feel confident assuring you of that, on biblical grounds—then, as you ask, “What’s going on?” Why don’t you feel God’s presence, if he really is present in your life, and why don’t you feel the joy that usually accompanies obedience, since you’re faithfully doing things such as asking and granting forgiveness, which require sincere willingness?

Let me suggest a couple of possibilities, which is the most I can do without knowing the particulars of your situation.

One possibility is that you might not be using the spiritual disciplines that are best for you, or not using the spiritual disciplines generally in the right way. As a rule, it’s good for us to build some structure into our lives to make sure that we invest in our relationship with God as we want to. For example, if our desire is to give regularly and appropriately to God’s work, then the discipline of tithing (giving 10% of our income) is a good way to make sure that happens.

However, the disciplines we often stress as the key to a close relationship with God—Bible reading, prayer, and church attendance—are actually only three of some three dozen disciplines that Jesus’ followers have honored and practiced over the centuries. Not every discipline works equally well for each person, and the ones that work for you can change at different points in your life.

I suspect that there are actually some disciplines you’re already practicing, without recognizing them as such, that would more effectively help you draw close to God than the ones you’re pursuing deliberately right now. For example, theologians have long spoken of the “two books” of God, Scripture and nature. Psalm 19 seems to speak of these two books because it begins by saying, “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge.” But in its second half, the psalm talks about how “the law of the Lord is perfect, refreshing the soul; the statutes of the Lord are trustworthy, making wise the simple.” Two books, nature and Scripture.

You may be one of those people who appreciates and learns about God when you are out in his creation; you might just not be recognizing this as just as valid a spiritual discipline as Bible study or church attendance. Or maybe that’s not one of the disciplines that does it for you, but some others might. I’d encourage you to read a book or books about the various spiritual disciplines in order to recognize the ones that will most effectively help you draw close to God. The most comprehensive discussion I know is in Adele Calhoun’s Spiritual Disciplines Handbook. You might start there, and once you identify some approaches that seem promising, investigate them further in books that discuss them in more detail.

But I also said you might be pursuing the disciplines in the wrong way. You said, “I try and try every day.” The effort is admirable, but I’d encourage you to see the spiritual disciplines as “means of grace,” that is, doors that we open in our lives for the grace of God, which is already waiting just outside, looking for a way to get in. In other words, God sends his grace to us first; we just need to open a door for it. Jeff van Vonderen discusses this distinction in his book Tired of Trying to Measure Up, which, he says, “is written for Christians who live under a deeply ingrained code of expectations and rules that shame them and drain them of spiritual strength.” If that rings any bells for you, I’d recommend you have a look at his book, or another one on the same theme.

But here’s one more thought. It’s also possible that your feeling of spiritual dryness is actually a sign of growth and strength. Many people reach a place where their experience of God has outstripped their beliefs about God. When this happens, people can often have doubts. They need to realize that they no longer believe in the God they once knew simply because now they know God better. A person in such a situation can also feel as if God is absent, but this is only because they can no longer feel close to the kind of God they don’t believe in any more.

This doesn’t mean that they don’t believe in God at all, or that God is truly absent. They just need to recognize that the God they now understand better is waiting there to meet them in their new place of maturity and wisdom. This is actually a process that can be repeated over and over again in our lives, because as finite creatures we are always learning more about the infinite God we love and serve.

It’s a bit like the process that takes place in a healthy marriage. As a pastor I often explained, in premarital counseling or wedding sermons, that marriage is “the process of getting to know the same person over and over again for the rest of your life.” Married couples can hit a “dry patch” and discover that they need to relate to one another differently, and start doing different kinds of things together, to get that spark back because they’ve both grown and changed. This is a healthy and inevitable process, and the same thing needs to happen in our relationship with God. (Although we’re the ones who’ve grown and changed, not God!)

I hope these reflections are helpful to you, and I certainly wish you every blessing from God as you pursue the close relationship with him that you desire.

 

Does the principle of healing the “land” in 2 Chronicles now apply to our sphere of influence?

Q. Does the principle of “healing their land” in 2 Chronicles now apply to our sphere of influence rather than to a plot of ground? Since Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever, can we still say it applies to all Christians who humble themselves, pray, seek Him, and turn from their wicked ways?

Sometimes when that passage in 2 Chronicles is quoted these days, “my people, who are called by my name” are equated with contemporary Christians, and “their land” is equated with the nation-state that a particular group of Christians is living in at a given time. I think we need to be careful about that. The passage actually expresses God’s reply to Solomon’s prayer at the dedication of the temple about something very specific.

Solomon prayed: “When the heavens are shut up and there is no rain because your people have sinned against you, and when they pray toward this place and give praise to your name and turn from their sin because you have afflicted them, then hear from heaven and forgive the sin of your servants, your people Israel. Teach them the right way to live, and send rain on the land you gave your people for an inheritance.” Solomon then prayed the same thing about “famine or plague, blight or mildew, locusts or grasshoppers.”

God appeared to him after the temple dedication ceremonies and promised in reply: “When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command locusts to devour the land or send a plague among my people, if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.”

So this promise has to do with giving the land, the literal “plot of ground” on which the people of ancient Israel were living, relief from what we today would consider “natural disasters.” In the theocracy period, these were to be taken as prompts for the Israelites to examine themselves for any disloyalty or disobedience to their covenant God.

So I don’t think we can make a direct application of the promise to ourselves today. However, I think there is an important indirect application, along the lines you suggest. I think there are many indications in the Bible that the people of God, even in the current phase of redemptive history when they are the multinational community of believers in Jesus, can and should have a positive and preserving influence on the society around them.

We see this, for example, in Jesus’ parables about the mustard seed and leaven. While I think these have a legitimate application to the work of God within an individual’s heart and life, I believe they also describe the effects of the presence of the “kingdom of God” on its surroundings. (I understand the kingdom of God to be that community of people within which God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven, that is, without resistance.) I think these effects actually extend to the physical environment, but that is not the only or even the primary place where they are felt. Primarily, the presence of the kingdom of God influences human relationships, making them more wholesome, healthy, and harmonious.

I think other Scriptures point to this same thing. For example, there’s a statement in Psalm 84 that those “in whose heart are the highways to Zion” pass through the dry valley and turn it into a place of springs. (I’m interpreting this symbolically, but I don’t think the psalm itself is making a literal statement in any event.)

I would include the passage in 2 Chronicles together with these others and conclude that there is an indirect promise in the Bible that repentant, obedient believers will have a positive impact, individually and especially corporately, on their “sphere of influence.” (To use your well-chosen phrase—I think that’s the right thing to envision.)

Something to which we can all aspire in this new year!

"When those in whose hearts are the highway to Zion pass through the desert, they turn it into a place of springs." (Photo credit: Digital Aesthetica, Flikr_0413)
“When those in whose hearts are the highway to Zion pass through the desert, they turn it into a place of springs.” (Photo credit: Digital Aesthetica, Flikr_0413)