Friday, June 25, 2010

Beating the Rat Race (Part Five)

Another command to be still appears in a somewhat unexpected place in Scripture, in Ruth 3. The scene recorded here may seem somewhat less intense than the frightful situations that faced Moses at the Red Sea and Jehoshaphat in the Wilderness of Jeruel, where in both cases the people involved were commanded to "stand still and see the salvation of the LORD" (Exodus 14:13; II Chronicles 20:17). However, despite Boaz' many kindnesses toward her, Ruth was likely a bundle of nerves and anxieties when she presented herself to him at his threshing floor that evening—she might as well have been facing an advancing army!

We are familiar with the story of Ruth. She and her mother-in-law, Naomi, return from Moab after losing their husbands. Still a young woman, Ruth wants to be married again, especially because of the security and sufficiency that a husband would bring to her and Naomi. She happens to glean in the field of Boaz, and he generously helps her, giving her special privileges and a great deal of grain.

Being a responsible mother-in-law, Naomi designs a scheme to get Boaz to marry Ruth. She instructs Ruth in what to do, and the young woman follows them precisely. Boaz is a good man, and perhaps, too, very predictable. He does exactly what Naomi had figured he would do. He responds to Ruth's request to "take your maidservant under your wing" (Ruth 3:9) in this way:

"And now, my daughter, do not fear. I will do for you all that you request, for all the people of my town know that you are a virtuous woman. Now it is true that I am a close relative; however, there is a relative closer than I. . . . But if he does not want to perform the duty for you, then I will perform the duty for you, as the LORD lives! Lie down until morning." So she lay at his feet until morning, and she arose before one could recognize another. . . . Also he said, "Bring the shawl that is on you and hold it." And when she held it, he measured six ephahs of barley, and laid it on her. Then she went into the city. When she came to her mother-in-law, . . . she told her all that the man had done for her. . . . Then [Naomi] said, "Sit still, my daughter, until you know how the matter will turn out; for the man will not rest until he has concluded the matter this day." (Ruth 3:11-16, 18)
What sort of emotions do about-to-be-betrothed couples exhibit? Certainly "excitement" just begins to describe the emotions going through a bride-to-be's mind. Ruth was probably in turns ecstatic, nervous, relieved, and uncertain. Remember that she was a Moabitess in Israel. She had likely considered her chances of finding a husband to be slim to none.

Nor should we discount the fact that Boaz had given her six ephahs of barley. We fail to realize just how generous a gift this was. If nothing else, it meant that she and Naomi would not go hungry for quite a while, as six ephahs equates to three bushels or 132 liters of grain—it was a wonder that she could carry so much home! It also amounted to a small bit of wealth because not only could they eat it, they could also sell it.

Even so, the barley was probably not the primary reason for her excitement. All atwitter, she spilled out her story to Naomi, tripping over her words in her giddiness, pacing the floor, grabbing her mother-in-law's hands and hugging her, imagining everything that could go wrong, and despairing that it would. And Naomi, being older and wiser—and surely tired from a long night of waiting—says, "Ruth, just sit still and see how all this turns out."

To get the lesson from this charming story, we must recall that Boaz is a type of Jesus Christ, and Ruth represents the newly called individual. Boaz, here, is redeeming Ruth, just as Christ redeems us from the death penalty that falls on us when we sin. Not only that, like Christ, Boaz was preparing his bride, as it were, smoothing the road for himself to take her as his wife.

In addition, Naomi is a type of the church, the one responsible for instructing this young woman who was just beginning to have a relationship with Boaz. Her advice, to sit still and see how her redemption would work out, is just as timely today for all Christians, new and old. Our God is going to redeem us, but we are often ignorant or blind to the way He is going about it. If we will simply sit still, be patient, and let events run their course without trying to interfere in them, we will soon learn how God works and build faith in Him. Only when we are still and focused on seeing God at work can we see His intimate involvement in our affairs.

Psalm 46 is a beautiful song. It is so full of hope and faith that our hymnal contains four different songs adapted from it. It is well worth quoting in full:

God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, even though the earth be removed, and though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea; though its waters roar and be troubled, though the mountains shake with its swelling. Selah. There is a river whose streams shall make glad the city of God, the holy place of the tabernacle of the Most High. God is in the midst of her, she shall not be moved; God shall help her, just at the break of dawn. The nations raged, the kingdoms were moved; He uttered His voice, the earth melted. The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah. Come, behold the works of the LORD, who has made desolations in the earth. He makes wars cease to the end of the earth; He breaks the bow and cuts the spear in two; He burns the chariot in the fire. Be still and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth! The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah. (Psalm 46:1-11)
At first glance, "Be still and know that I am God" may seem to mean the same as "Be still and see the salvation of the LORD," but it does not. This new command should lead us to another conclusion: that when we are still, we are enabled to know God. In true stillness, we are not distracted by other things—the noises, interruptions, trials, tumults, and catastrophes that frequently intrude into our lives. We can pursue the one, true object of life: to know God.

Distractions, whether major or minor, not only get in the way, but worse, tend to drive us away from God. We often think that troubles drive us toward God, but in reality, they are often so distracting that we are apt to become absorbed in the trial and not in God, who is busy working matters out for our salvation. As James 3:18 says, "Now the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace." In other words, we are more likely to grow spiritually—not in times of trial, conflict, turmoil, and disruption—but when we have found a peaceful environment, a still place, where we can come to know God. Only in peace do we have the time and the space to take stock and work on improving ourselves and our relationship with Him.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Beating the Rat Race (Part Four)

Numbers 9 contains another incident in which the command to be still plays a noteworthy part. On this occasion, Moses uses these words to some of the men of Israel who had a serious question about taking the Passover. God had told the children of Israel that they needed to keep the Passover at its appointed time, on the fourteenth day of Abib/Nisan. The Passover lamb was to be eaten at twilight, and the participants were to observe the ritual according to the instructions that God had given in Exodus 12.

However, while trekking through the wilderness at the beginning of the second year of their journey, certain men had become defiled by contact with a human corpse, so that they could not keep the Passover on Abib/Nisan 14. They presented themselves before Moses and Aaron that day and complained: "We became defiled by a human corpse. Why are we kept from presenting the offering of the LORD at its appointed time among the children of Israel?" (Numbers 9:6-7).

This account reads rather plainly, but because of what Moses says in response, we come to understand that these men were not just excited—they were probably close to terror! We can imagine that they came rushing up to him, greatly agitated, saying, "Moses, why can't we take the Passover, even though we touched the body of a dead man?"In all likelihood, they thought that, by missing the Passover, they were facing the death penalty! As Moses verifies a few verses later, if an otherwise undefiled person "ceases to keep the Passover, that same person shall be cut off from among his people, because he did not bring the offering of the LORD at its appointed time; that man shall bear his sin" (Numbers 9:13). Misunderstanding this statute, the men cry, "We are as good as dead!"

Notice Moses' reply to them: "Stand still, that I may hear what the LORD will command concerning you" (Numbers 9:8). Then God spoke to Moses, giving him the instructions that we now know as those for taking the second Passover. If one is defiled, on a journey, or sick, he may take the Passover one month later, on the fourteenth day of the second month, and satisfy his obligation to God.

For us, the lesson in Numbers 9 is that Moses needed and asked for stillness—both in movement and in speech—so that he and afterward they could hear God's instruction. We cannot hear God speak when we are distracted by other things. Moses knew that to hear God, one has to give Him full attention, and that is best done when one is still. The best place, the best time, the best environment to hear what God is trying to tell us is one of peace and quiet.

A similar incident that illustrates the need to be still occurred when the children of Israel found themselves boxed in by mountains on two sides and, on the third and fourth sides, trapped between the armed forces of Egypt and the waters of the Red Sea. Actually, God had led them exactly to this spot, first to "gain honor over Pharaoh and over all his army, that the Egyptians may know that I am the LORD" (Exodus 14:2-4), as well as to test the Israelites, to see if they would trust Him.

The next few verses relate that Pharaoh assembled the cream of his army and pursued the fleeing Israelites to this very spot. "And when Pharaoh drew near, the children of Israel lifted their eyes, and behold, the Egyptians marched after them. So they were very afraid, and the children of Israel cried out to the LORD" (Exodus 14:10). The Israelites were, at this point, very far from being still. Knowing that they were no match against these elite troops, they were certain that they and all their children would be slaughtered—or at least rounded up and sent back to cruel slavery in Goshen. Convinced of their imminent demise, they turned on Moses:

Because there were no graves in Egypt, have you taken us away to die in the wilderness? Why have you so dealt with us, to bring us up out of Egypt? Is this not the word that we told you in Egypt, saying, "Let us alone that we may serve the Egyptians?" For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than that we should die in the wilderness. (Exodus 14:11-12)
Moses, however, was too good a leader and too righteous a man to falter even under these urgent and dire circumstances. He appealed for calm: "Do not be afraid. Stand still, and see the salvation of the LORD, which He will accomplish for you today. For the Egyptians whom you see today, you shall see again no more forever. The LORD will fight for you, and you shall hold your peace" (Exodus 14:13-14).

What happened here is very interesting. The Israelites were terrified, knowing that this professional army of Pharaoh would shortly slaughter them. Not being an army but just a mass of former slaves, Israel had no visible means of defense. They may have had a few swords among them, having just spoiled the Egyptians, but being slaves by profession, they did not know how to use them. They could see no way out of the situation; they were going to die there by the waterside.

After forty years of experience learning the psychology of sheep—and thus people, in many respects— Moses knew what he had to do. He told them to calm down, to be still, and not to let fear paralyze them. Why? So that the Israelites could "see the salvation of the LORD," the deliverance that God would bring to them. If they were riled, agitated, and fearful, they would miss it. They would be so busy agonizing over their cruel fate that they would either ignore or be distracted from recognizing God's work on their behalf.

Notice that he brackets his command to stand still with another one: "You shall hold your peace."Being still is the first step, which needs to be followed by shutting up. Nervous or restless movement and incessant, woe-is-me murmuring are counterproductive, useless wastes of energy and breath. God wants us to focus on good, positive approaches to solving our predicaments—and the most sure and constructive solution is to trust God to provide a way of escape (I Corinthians 10:13).

We sometimes become so wrapped up in our trials that we fail to see God's hand in working out our deliverance from them. An agitated state of mind makes us blind to what God is doing because, essentially, it is very selfish, centered on our situation, our fears, and ourselves. The best thing we can do is to stand still—to relax, to return to a state of calm and reason—and try to observe the salvation that God is working out in our lives.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Beating the Rat Race (Part Three)

I Samuel 12 is instructive on the subject of finding a still, quiet place in a hectic world. It recounts a major event in the history of Israel, and as we will see, the prophet Samuel twice advises the Israelites to be still so that they could think deeply about the course they were taking. We would be wise to take his advice before making any major change of direction in life.

In I Samuel 8, the people had gathered to demand that Samuel give them a king just as all the other nations had. Besides being a prophet, Samuel was also Israel's judge at the time, and being old, he had turned most of his duties over to his two sons, Joel and Abijah. However, unlike the incorruptible Samuel, their services went to the highest bidders. Even so, Samuel was quite distressed when Israel asked for a king because he understood that their request was a thinly veiled rejection of God (I Samuel 8:7). He also knew that a king would eventually accrue to himself the nation's wealth and power and essentially enslave the populace. Nevertheless, God told Samuel to comply with their request.

Shortly thereafter, Samuel anointed Saul, a Benjamite, as king, and I Samuel 12 records Samuel's address to the people on this occasion. However, not long before this, the Ammonites had attacked the people of Jabesh Gilead and put the city under siege. The two sides had agreed to a seven-day truce so that the people of the city could decide what they were going to do. They had hurriedly sent a note to Saul, saying, "Come help us. We are in distress."

Saul had slaughtered a yoke of oxen and sent the cut pieces to the tribes of Israel, threatening to slaughter them if they failed to help him rescue the folk of Jabesh Gilead. So the men of Israel had mustered for battle and annihilated the Ammonites. It was a resounding victory for Saul and the Israelites. In this exalted mood, the nation had gathered for Saul's coronation.

Then Saul was officially installed as king "before the LORD" (I Samuel 11:15), and afterward, Samuel rose to speak. He begins his address by reminding them that he had done as they had asked in crowning a king over them and that, in all his many years in office, he had never stolen from them, taken a bribe, or oppressed any of them. They acknowledge that he had treated them properly. He had dealt straightforwardly and honestly with them throughout his entire life.

This is an interesting introduction because it leads to what he says next. In doing so, he had established his credentials as trustworthy and truthful, so what he was about to say was worth listening to. He is about to make them aware of something vitally important.

In I Samuel 12:6, he says, "It is the LORD who raised up Moses and Aaron, and who brought your fathers up from the land of Egypt." Perhaps this seems self-evident, but he is still setting the stage for his main point, making sure that they understood that God was behind everything that had ever happened in the history of Israel—certainly, He had orchestrated her most seminal events. God had called and trained Moses and Aaron for their work in freeing Israel from Egyptian bondage, and in a way, Samuel alludes to the fact that God had raised him up, too, as judge and prophet. In other words, he has the full backing of God.

Then he gives them a piece of advice: "Now therefore, stand still, that I may reason with you before the LORD concerning all the righteous acts of the LORD, which He did to you and your fathers" (I Samuel 12:7). They had just crowned their first king, and they were very excited, caught up in the festivities. They had also just won a huge victory over one of their enemies, and they were aglow with jubilation and a feeling of invincibility. Being united under a king made this a new age for the land of Israel—these were exciting times! But Samuel says, "Everyone, be quiet. Calm down and let me reason with you."

Then he reiterates what God had done for them in bringing them out of Egypt and in the wilderness. After they entered the land, they had trouble with oppressive foreigners, and God had raised up judges to give them victories and shake off the oppression. Yet, free and prosperous, Israel had soon forgotten God, committed idolatry, and once again became enslaved. God had delivered them by the hand of a new judge, and this pattern of prosperity, apostasy, oppression, and deliverance repeated itself many times. The history of Israel was one of God's blessing and mercy and their perfidy and rebellion, which God countered by punishing them. This pattern, Samuel warns, would continue even though they now had a king:

Now therefore, here is the king whom you have chosen and whom you have desired. And take note, the LORD has set a king over you. If you fear the LORD and serve Him and obey His voice, and do not rebel against the commandment of the LORD, then both you and the king who reigns over you will continue following the LORD your God. However, if you do not obey the voice of the LORD, but rebel against the commandment of the LORD, then the hand of the LORD will be against you, as it was against your fathers. (I Samuel 12:13-15)
Then, the prophet repeats his advice for them to stand still, this time to "see this great thing which the LORD will do before your eyes" (verse 16). Samuel calls for God to send thunder and rain. What makes this storm miraculous is that Saul's coronation took place during the wheat harvest in late spring—around Pentecost—when the dry season had already begun. Thunderstorms in May or early June were unheard of, but "the LORD sent thunder and rain that day; and all the people greatly feared the LORD and Samuel" (I Samuel 12:18).

This miracle showed the people that God backed Samuel's every word. His was a true saying from a trustworthy prophet of God. If they would listen to reason, then they could take instruction from his address and use it to their benefit. If they would remain faithful to God, then the monarchy that they had asked for could work, just as it had worked under the righteous judges. However, if they failed to listen, then this system was no better than the last one, and they would once again be oppressed, enslaved, and scattered.

Notice the Israelites' reaction: "And all the people said to Samuel, ‘Pray for your servants to the LORD your God, that we may not die; for we have added to all our sins the evil of asking a king for ourselves'" (I Samuel 12:19). Once they stood still, they began to realize what they had done, and God's added "ka-boom" from heaven drove the point home.

Samuel's warning was tremendously serious, and the Israelites needed to be still to perceive just how far they had strayed from understanding and doing God's will. In their previous agitated, excited state, they could not truly listen to him, and they certainly could not see godly reason. The same holds true for us in these tumultuous times. If we really want to know what God is trying to tell us, we need to calm down, be still, and listen intently to His Word.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Beating the Rat Race (Part Two)

Our society runs at a frantic pace. Being so enmeshed in it, we often find it difficult to carve out time and space to gear down, to decompress, to relax our weary minds and bodies. A solution from God's Word is to "be still" (Psalm 4:4), a behavior directly contrary to the hustle and bustle that characterizes this age.

Being still concerns two primary areas of human activity: movement and speech. When we are still, however, we are physically at rest. Being immobile, our bodies have a chance to relax, and our minds can take a breather from the taxing stresses that modern life imposes.

Some people's wiring makes it hard for them to be still; they find it relaxing to do something mentally undemanding—like walking, pulling weeds, mowing the lawn, or chopping wood. Doing such mechanical things helps take the mind off the pressing tensions of life in this world, and when the mind is in a relaxed state, helpful ideas for resolving problems and conflicts sometimes effervesce into our conscious minds. While these activities qualify as "being still" because they produce little stress, the best way to be still is literally to be still.

We tend to think of being still just in terms of movement, but it also includes ceasing to talk—stilling our and others' lips—as an excess of speech is both wearisome and stressful. We do not often consider how much effort is required to participate in a serious conversation; it can be exhausting. Most people find it demanding to listen closely to another while considering an appropriate response. If we are honest with ourselves, we tend to give short shrift to one or the other—usually we fail to listen closely. Being still works best in the absence of talk.

This applies to all sounds or noises. Some people find listening to music to be relaxing, while others find it off-putting. Studies have shown that even pleasant music becomes mentally distracting after a short while, as its helpful effect lasts only for a limited time. If we really want to create an atmosphere of peace, the best thing to do is to find a place of utter quiet.

The object, then, of being still is to find a space, a time, and an environment free of distraction, interruption, and noise. If we have trouble finding such a pleasant environment, we can call upon God to help us discover one. David writes famously in Psalm 23:1-2: "The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me to lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside the still waters." Notice, first, that as our Shepherd, Christ takes the initiative to lead us to still places. Leading us "beside the still waters" ranks among His highest priorities, along with providing for our needs and giving us rest and security. He wants us to have ready access to still places for our well-being and growth.

Second, this psalm is written from the viewpoint of a sheep. What about "still waters" would a sheep consider a blessing? Literally, "still waters" refers to ponds, lakes, or slow-moving rivers or streams—any body of fresh water that does not rush. Because they are very skittish creatures, sheep will refuse to drink from rushing waters. A rushing brook will frighten and agitate them. They prefer a placid, still environment, which is the kind of environment that a good shepherd will provide for his sheep. Peaceful waters make for contented sheep.

Having found a quiet, still place where we are at peace, however, we are only halfway to our destination of being still. What do we do when we arrive there? Just because we have found this environment does not mean that we have completed this assignment from God to be still.

Many of the Eastern systems that advocate this kind of relaxation—yoga, transcendental meditation, Buddhism, Hinduism, etc.—encourage practitioners to empty their minds once they find this peaceful, relaxed state. However, the godly way of being still requires only that we rid our minds of the aspects of this present world that fog the way we think, particularly those influences that Satan broadcasts (Ephesians 2:2-3; Romans 13:12). When we are still, God does not want us to be mindless, which will only open us to demonic persuasion (Matthew 12:43-45).

Instead, God wants us to meditate on wholesome thoughts and godly attitudes (Philippians 4:8; I Timothy 6:11)—to condition our minds to think as He does. We think best when we are free of Satan's influence, which clogs our minds with attitudes that inspire hurt, mistrust, conflict, and pride, ramping up stress and inner turmoil. God wants us to take the time to be still and think about right and good things, which generate positive emotions and peace.

The story of Job provides a clear illustration of how being still works. Early in his trial, after all of the calamities that had befallen him, Job is joined by three friends, ostensibly to comfort him in his grief and pain. When Job finally speaks, he maintains that he is righteous before God; he can think of nothing he had left undone of all that God requires. His friends, however, are just as convinced that Job had sinned, that he had not recognized something sinful in his life. They persist in contending that he is a sinful man and needs to do something to appease God, but after hearing Job adamantly justify himself, they give up. Once they do, a young man named Elihu, who had been listening to their arguments, apologizes for his youth yet says he can no longer contain himself—he has to give his opinion. And so he begins to answer Job.

What he says in Job 37:14 is part of his conclusion: "Listen to this, O Job; stand still and consider the wondrous works of God." Elihu is trying to get Job, first of all, to see God, and then to consider his personal problems from God's perspective. Job's justifications were based on his looking at his own works and all that he had done. He was so full of argument and agitated, frustrated and full of questions, because he was fixated on himself. Elihu urges him to turn his viewpoint away from himself so that he couldsee the true crux of the problem.

Elihu's advice is, "Job, be still and consider what God has done." He suggests finding a place of peace and quiet and then meditating on the wondrous works of God—in nature, in the heavens, in man, in His people, and in His plan. Look, Elihu says, at what God is doing! In other words, he recommends that Job compare himself and his pitiful good works to God and the utterly magnificent works that He does every day. Interestingly, when God speaks to Job beginning in Job 38, He tells him essentially the same thing.

Once we can see ourselves in comparison to our great God, we will be in the proper attitude to receive instruction, correction, direction, or whatever God wants us to have. So, when we enter a still place, to achieve the proper frame of mind, we must turn our minds from the mundane and consider God and what He has done.