My refuge and strength

Last week, my pastor asked whether any of us had ever played the game jenga. He showed us photos of a couple of buildings that resemble a stack of jenga blocks; it is amazing that they haven’t toppled over. Like an unstable stack of blocks, sometimes it doesn’t take much to unbalance us. The stresses of life can wear you down and make you feel exhausted, depleted, overwhelmed. When life gets overwhelming, what do you do? Where do you go for help?

Pastor Brad said that faith and anxiety occupy the same space in our heads. He spoke about the coping mechanisms people use to deal with stress and anxiety. Many of us cope with stress in unhealthy ways – losing our temper, withdrawing from other people, or by eating or drinking or shopping to excess.

When you have faith, you can turn to God for help. A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing; Our helper He, amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing.

I lift up my eyes to the hills– where does my help come from? My help comes from the LORD, the Maker of heaven and earth.

Psalm 121:1

The scripture for the sermon was Psalm 46, one of the most familiar psalms. It begins, “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble.” When I get really stressed, I wake up in the night and worry about things. I call on God in the darkness. I call on God when I am afraid. I call on God when I am overwhelmed and don’t know what to do. I call on God when I need courage. He comforts me. He builds me up. He gives me hope. He gives me peace. God is my refuge and strength.

I especially like Psalm 46:10. When you start to feel anxious, be still. Stop trying so hard to solve your own problems. Know that God is God. He’s got this. Put your trust in Him.

He says, “Be still, and know that I am God;
    I will be exalted among the nations,
    I will be exalted in the earth.”

Psalm 46:10

Pastor Brad ended the sermon with Psalm 131:2.

But I have calmed and quieted myself,
    I am like a weaned child with its mother;
    like a weaned child I am content.

Psalm 131:2

Like a weaned child, David was content. He was able to calm and quiet himself because he put his hope in the Lord.

When the stresses of life are overwhelming, what should you do? Wean yourself from the coping mechanisms of the world. They don’t work. Don’t be anxious about anything. Instead, call out to God. Let Him be your refuge and your strength.

Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Philippians 4:6-7

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God cares, do I?

The last lesson of the truth project was by far the best. In most of the other lessons, Dr. Tackett outlined a divisive cosmic battle between those on the side of God’s truth and those who believe the “pernicious lies” of the world. The Truth Project approaches truth from a religious right, Us versus Them worldview. In this lesson, titled “Community & Involvement: God Cares, Do I?” Tackett finally got to a central truth of Christianity – God commanded us to love one another.

The central premise of the lesson is that because God cares about the needs of the people, we need to care about others as well. When Jesus was asked, which is the greatest commandment, he responded, “‘Love the Lord your God with all of your heart and with all of your soul and with all of your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’

The Heart of God

Here, at last, The Truth Project zeroed in on the heart of God. Though God is exalted above all others, He especially has a heart for the needy and the lowly. God cares about those who are considered the least among us.

Though the Lord is exalted, he looks kindly on the lowly;
    though lofty, he sees them from afar.

Psalm 138:6

We learn about the heart of God when we look at Jesus. Anyone who has seen Jesus, has seen the Father (John 14:4-9). Jesus was gentle and humble. He did not use his equality with God as something to use for his own advantage. Instead, he took the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.

“Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. “Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. “For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.”

Matthew 11:28-30

Seeing others as God sees them

Tackett said that we should see others as God sees them and recognize that we all have eternal significance. He quoted C.S. Lewis, who wrote, “There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal.” Everyday, we interact with people who are full of incredible potential. We should take each other seriously and remember that we are all on a journey of eternal spiritual significance.

In this lesson, I finally saw what was missing in the other lessons – love. It was moving to see the tears in Tackett’s eyes when he spoke about God’s love for ordinary people. I wish that The Truth Project had made the love of God the central theme and not just the last word.

My Critique of The Truth Project

One of the discussion questions asked, “do you have any closing comments about our twelve weeks together and the ground we have covered?” I’m glad they asked. While The Truth Project includes a lot of scriptural content, for me that did not make up for the errors in their teaching.

Either/Or, Us versus Them Thinking

The purpose of The Truth Project is to contrast the truth claims of God with the lies of the world. In lesson one, Dr. Tackett presented a list of supposedly opposite words that illustrated his binary thinking about the battle for truth: Unity vs. division. Diversity vs. unification. Roles vs. jealousy. Responsibility vs. blame. Authority vs. rebellion. Delegation vs. tyranny. Freedom vs. bondage.

The truth is, not everything is black or white. Not everything is knowable. Diverse communities can be unified by common values. While submitting to authority is generally a desirable thing, when those in authority abuse their power, rebellion may be necessary.

I couldn’t help but notice that there are words in Tackett’s list that are not opposites. When he suggests that “roles” are the antithesis of “jealousy” and “responsibility” is the antithesis of “blame,” he seems to be attributing motives to people he does not know. In doing so, he does not acknowledge the complexity and diversity of human thoughts and behavior.

The Truth Project leaves no room for a both/and worldview. You either believe like Dr. Tackett or he claims that you believe lies. One of the best examples of this was the lesson on science in which Tackett made his case against evolution. The study guides says that “fallen man ignores the plain evidence of objective scientific inquiry and promotes the atheistic philosophy of evolutionary theory primarily because he is determined to do as he pleases without answering to a higher authority.” Here again, Dr. Tackett ascribes bad motives to people he does not know. Many Christians simultaneously believe that God is the Creator and believe scientific evidence.

Comparing human institutions to the Holy Trinity

In several of the lessons, Tackett spoke about social institutions that he believes reflect the divine design of God – the family, the church, the government, labor, community, and the relationship between man and God. For example, Tackett believes that families were designed by God to be triune in nature. He equates the relationships and roles of husband, wife and children to the Father, Son and Spirit, based in part on Ephesians 5:22-33, which says that wives should submit to their husbands.

I take issue with The Truth Project’s claims about the divine design of social institutions because it glosses over the sinful nature of man and the fact that God gave mankind the freedom to exercise dominion over our world. Where are the biblical examples of social institutions that reflect God’s perfect unified nature?

The Bible teaches that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). All individuals fall short of the glory of God. All families fall short of the glory of God. All governments fall short of the glory of God. All churches fall short of the glory of God.

Thinking Christians can fix the world

Finally, The Truth Project promotes the idea that if Christians just take a stand against the lies of the world, we can fix it. Tackett says that if believers want our government to be based on biblical principles, we must carry on the “experiment” of our Christian forefathers.

In The Truth Project’s worldview, I see legalism at work – the belief that we can earn salvation by obeying God’s commandments and that keeping God’s laws is an end in itself. Legalists sometimes err by making up their own rules and pretending that they are God’s.

The legalist focuses only on obeying bare rules, destroying the broader context of God’s love and redemption in which He gave His law in the first place.

3 Types of Legalism, from R.C. Sproul

Even if all families consisted of a husband, wife and children, even if the only form of government on this planet was theocratic, even if all secular schools were banished from the earth and the ten commandments were prominently posted where everyone could read them, people would still lie and cheat and steal and murder and commit adultery. And even those who outwardly appear to be righteous, law abiding citizens would still have hearts that are not right with God.

The truth is only God can transform people. God changes people from the inside out. God changes hearts.

What did I get out of The Truth Project? Not what Focus on the Family would hope, I’m sure. I choose to not look at the world as a battleground. I believe that God wants me to see the world as He see it – with grace-filled eyes.

See to it that no one falls short of the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many.

Hebrew 12:15

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Created to work

My small group finished The Truth Project several weeks ago. The next to the last lesson was titled Labor: Created to Create. In this lesson, Dr. Tackett argued that negative attitudes towards work are at odds with a scriptural worldview. Work is not a curse but is rooted in the very nature of God, the Creator.

I have disagreed with Dr. Tackett on a lot of issues but I can’t argue with him about the value of labor. Human beings were designed to work. He is correct in saying that the wealth produced by labor meets the physical needs of mankind. If you can find work that not only meets your physical needs, but also fits your God-given talents and abilities, you are blessed.

In lesson seven (Sociology: The Divine Imprint), Tackett identified six social systems or “spheres” that he believes reflect the triune nature of God. Just as I thought it was a stretch when Tackett claimed that God imprinted his triune nature on the family or the state, I see no basis for his claim that labor, as a social institution, reflects the three-in-one nature of God. Once again, Tackett drew a circle to represent a social system and wrote the names of three members of that system – God, employers and employees – inside the circle. He noted that there is a superior/subordinate relationship between employer and employee, similar to God the Father and Jesus the Son. That’s it.

Seven Economic Principles

Putting aside my disagreement with Tackett on the divine design of labor, I think he made valid points with what he calls economic principles. Whether you are an employer or an employee, the principles Tackett laid out are worth reflecting on. All things belong to God. We are stewards of God’s goods. Our skills and abilities are gifts from God. We are to love God and not money. Because God has been generous in entrusting us with everything we have, we should be compassionate and generous towards those who are in need.

  1. All things belong to God.
  2. God appointed man to be a creative steward of his goods with ownership rights.
  3. Theft and coveting of another’s goods is wrong.
  4. Skills and abilities to work come from God.
  5. Work is profitable, good and to be pursued; laziness is not.
  6. Love God and not your goods.
  7. Be compassionate and generous with your goods to those in need.

Prideful people boast about their accomplishments and forget what God has done for them. Greedy people pursue more and more wealth and power, never satisfied with what they have. Envious people compare themselves to others and covet what others have. Selfishness and indifference stop those who have plenty from sharing with those in need.

Created to ________________

The subtitle of the lesson, “Created to Create” gives me pause. Tackett said that our creativity is a mirror-image of the creativity of God. God is Creator and since we were created in his image, we were created to be creators, right? Many people are creative. Artists and inventors come to mind. But what if I’m not really creative? What if the kind of work I was created to do does not require creativity? Creativity in my profession (accounting) is actually frowned upon.

We were created to fill in the blank, to contribute to our families and communities. We were created to do all sorts of things. Nursing, teaching, preaching, caring for children, repairing, cleaning, installing, delivering, building, farming, managing, researching, investigating, judging, defending, advising, serving, etc. Whether our jobs are creative and exciting or mundane and routine, the work we do matters.

Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.

Colossians 3: 23-24

Tackett said that labor is designed to be so fulfilling that “the Lord deemed it necessary” to command us to take a Sabbath. I don’t think Tackett appreciates how difficult and unrewarding some jobs are. Not everyone has a job that is “a source of joy so fulfilling and wonderful” that they have to be commanded to stop working. When people in our culture speak negatively about working, it isn’t necessarily because they are against working per se. Perhaps they have a bad manager. Perhaps they have difficult coworkers. Maybe they are overworked and underpaid.

When I think about what I do for a living and about the work that others do (whether paid or unpaid), I am grateful that God designed each us with unique talents and abilities and personalities. I am grateful for work because not everyone who wants to work is able to work. I am grateful that other people have the desire to do the kinds of work that I do not want to do and that others have the skills and aptitudes I lack.

Joy in Heaven

To turn my attention away from the messed up kingdoms of this world, I have been trying to focus on the glorious kingdom of God. The Parables of the Mustard Seed and the Yeast illustrate that the kingdom of God will grow exponentially from a very small beginning. The Parable of the Growing Seed shows that God is actively working behind the scenes to grow his kingdom. What is the message of the Parables of the Hidden Treasure and of the Pearl Merchant?

The pair of parables seem to share a similar theme: the kingdom of heaven is so valuable, the person who finds it will give up everything in this world to keep it. If you see yourself as the man finding a treasure in a field or as the merchant finding a precious pearl, this is a logical conclusion.

Parable of the Hidden Treasure. The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field.

Parable of the Pearl Merchant. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it.

Matthew 13:44-45

When I searched for commentary on parables about the kingdom of God, I found a series of sermons on the Bible Tools website. Richard T. Ritenbaugh points out that when Jesus used the word “man” in a parable, the man was usually Jesus. In explaining his parables, Jesus said (Matthew 13:37-38), “The One who sows the good seed is the Son of Man. The field is the world…”

Jesus, the Son of Man, found a treasure in the world and when he found it, he hid it again, then sold everything he had and bought it. In light of John 3:16, this interpretation makes much more sense to me. The truth is, even if I sold everything I have, I could never afford to purchase my salvation. It was Jesus who gave up everything he had to buy the treasure he found. For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16).

Who or what is the treasure? For the meaning of the word “treasure,” Ritenbaugh turned to the Old Testament. In Exodus 19:5, God said: “Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession.” Psalm 135:4 says, “For the Lord has chosen Jacob to be his own, Israel to be his treasured possession.” In the book of Malachi, God’s treasure was the faithful remnant who feared him and honored his name.

Then those who feared the Lord talked with each other, and the Lord listened and heard. A scroll of remembrance was written in his presence concerning those who feared the Lord and honored his name. “On the day when I act,” says the Lord Almighty, “they will be my treasured possession. I will spare them, just as a father has compassion and spares his son who serves him.

Malachi 3:16-17

In the New Testament, Peter referred to people who have been called into God’s wonderful light as God’s special possession. We have been adopted into his family. We are the treasure in the field, so precious that God sent his only Son to save us.

But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

1 Peter 2:9-10

The parable of the hidden treasure says that when the man found the hidden treasure, he hid it again. I never thought about what it means to be hidden in this context. Those chosen by God were hidden in the world. And when Jesus found them, he hid them again?

Ritenbaugh explains his theory about what it means to be hidden in the world. Those who are chosen by God were hidden in the world because before we believed, we were just like everyone else. We looked and acted just like everyone else. How did Jesus hide us once he made us his treasure? He sent us right back into the world. After we are redeemed, we are still hidden in the world, but in a different way.

To explain the concept of being in the world but set apart, Ritenbaugh pointed to the prayer of Jesus in John 17. Jesus said that his disciples are in this world but they are not of us world, just as he is not of this world.

Our Lord and Savior, finding the treasure of His elect in the world, conceals and protects them against all the depredations of the enemy. Remember, we’re hidden. That’s the protection part. And with His own life’s blood, He redeemed us with joy. That’s the lesson of this parable.

Richard T. Ritenbaugh

The pair of parables remind me of the Story of the Lost Son (Luke 15:11-31). When the younger son ran off and squandered everything on wild living, he came back to his father to humbly ask for forgiveness. Instead of being angry and treating him as he deserved, the father treated him like a treasured possession. He celebrated. He was joyful!

Each of the parables about the kingdom of God conveys a powerful message and each message generates an emotional response in me. Hope. Faith. Joy. The parable of the hidden treasure brings me joy because it shows how precious we are to God. There is joy in heaven when those who were lost are found. Jesus is overjoyed whenever he finds a treasured person in this broken, messed up world. We are valuable to him, like precious pearls.

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Return of the Prodigal Son, by Rembrandt. Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22353933

The Mystery of the Growing Seed

Jesus said, “the kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” He also said, “the kingdom of God does not come with your careful observation.” You can’t point to it and say, “here it is” or “there it is.” In the gospel of Mark, Jesus explained what the kingdom of God is like by comparing it to a growing seed.

The Parable of the Growing Seed.

This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground. Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how. All by itself the soil produces grain—first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head. As soon as the grain is ripe, he puts the sickle to it, because the harvest has come.

Mark 4:26-29

The parable of the growing seed is found only in the gospel of Mark. It follows the parable of the soils, the one in which a farmer sows seed by scattering it on the ground. As in the parable of the soils, the seed represents the word of God.

Who sows the seed? Those who teach, preach, and otherwise share the word of God with others. The apostle Paul said that those who believe are assigned a task by God. Some plant the seed, some water it. Neither the one who sows the seed nor the one who waters it has a role in making the seed grow. The one who sows does not even know whether the seed will take root.

What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe—as the Lord has assigned to each his task. I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow.

1 Corinthians 3:5-7

The parable of the sower hints at the mysterious ways God works in the hearts of those who hear his word. The sower does not cause the seed to grow. The one who waters does not make the seed grow. Only God can make the seed grow. Only God can change hearts.

The word of God contains everything a person needs for eternal life. But sometimes the word falls on deaf ears. Oftentimes the distractions and temptations of the world keep the seed from taking root. As a sower of the seed, I don’t know what words will get through to a person who has hardened his or her heart to God. Fortunately, God does.

God does not waste his words. His word will not return to Him empty. His word will achieve the purpose for which he sent it.

As the rain and the snow
    come down from heaven,
and do not return to it
    without watering the earth
and making it bud and flourish,
    so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater,
so is my word that goes out from my mouth:
    It will not return to me empty,
but will accomplish what I desire
    and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.

Isaiah 55:10-11

This parable gives me hope for unsaved loved ones. It gives me hope for a world that is hungry for the Good News. The kingdom of God is near. God is actively working to build his kingdom. No matter what we do, the seed sprouts and grows. We can trust that God will accomplish what he desires at the right time.

In the parable, I see myself as a sower of the seed, trusting that God will make his word grow. But I also see myself in the parable as one who heard the word and believed. Like a sunflower that turns its face towards the sun, I am drawn to God, the giver of life. The kingdom of God is within me.

You, God, are my God,
    earnestly I seek you;
I thirst for you,
    my whole being longs for you,
in a dry and parched land
    where there is no water.

Psalm 63:1

Praise the Lord, O my soul, all my inmost being praise his holy name!

Once, on being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, “The coming of the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is in your midst.”

Luke 17:20-21

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