Friday, November 26, 2010

Wisdom for the Young (Part Five)

How does a young person seek God? Some people, having grown up in certain evangelical circles, have an overly sentimental opinion of how an individual should come to God. Many Protestant churches have fostered the idea that a person must come before the altar at the front of the church and "give his heart to the Lord." This kind of emotional, altar-call conversion, many believe, is the quintessence of how seeking God works. The sad thing is that, biblically, it is not the way it works.

Seeking God is a personal, private matter between God and the individual, but the result of the person's quest will be publicly manifested in the way he lives. That is, his conduct will change, and people will notice. He will, as John the Baptist preached, "bear fruits worthy of repentance" (Matthew 3:8).

At the outset, we must realize that seeking God actually does not begin with us. God must initiate a relationship through His calling, as John 6:44 says. A person may sincerely think he is looking for God, but He will not be found by anyone unless He first extends an invitation to salvation and opens the mind to His truth. However, children of church members already have a relationship with God, as they have been sanctified—set apart or made holy—by their parent(s) relationship(s) with Him (see I Corinthians 7:14). They have a kind of "automatic calling," a unique opportunity to seek God in their youth.

Once a person clears this initial stage, what should happen? In Isaiah 51:1-2, 7, God says:

Listen to Me, you who follow after righteousness, you who seek the LORD: Look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the hole of the pit from which you were dug. Look to Abraham your father, and to Sarah who bore you; for I called him alone, and blessed him and increased him. . . . Listen to Me, you who know righteousness, you people in whose heart is My law. . . .
This passage provides a short outline of what seeking God is and how we should go about doing it. In the first verse, God speaks to "you who seek the LORD," which parallels the phrase immediately before it, "you who follow after righteousness." Parallel phrases like this often define one another. Thus, one who seeks God pursues righteousness. In other words, a person who wants a relationship with Him will do what He says. When an individual practices godly living, he is seeking the Lord.

God follows this with some advice: "Look to the rock from which you were hewn," which has a double meaning. In the Bible, the Rock is often a symbol of Jesus Christ (see I Corinthians 10:4), so a major way that we learn how to seek righteousness is by learning and following the example of Christ. The second meaning, emphasized here, comes out in His mention of Abraham and Sarah in verse 2. He counsels us to examine the lives of our righteous spiritual forebears to see how they followed God and lived out their faith.

Later, in Isaiah 51:7, He speaks to those who have put His law in their hearts. This occurs when a person studies God's Word and burns the truth that he finds there into his character by putting it to use in the circumstances of his life. This verse contains another parallelism in which He equates knowing righteousness (that is, understanding godly conduct) with having His law written in the heart. These things are possible only within a deepening relationship with God.

Isaiah 55 contains, as the New King James Version styles it, "An Invitation to Abundant Life":

Ho! Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat. Yes, come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend money for what is not bread, and your wages for what does not satisfy? Listen carefully to Me, and eat what is good, and let your soul delight itself in abundance. Incline your ear, and come to Me. Hear, and your soul shall live; and I will make an everlasting covenant with you—the sure mercies of David. . . . Seek the LORD while He may be found, call upon Him while He is near. Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the LORD, and He will have mercy on him; and to our God, for He will abundantly pardon. (Isaiah 55:1-3, 6-7)
Once we begin following God, these are the next steps to take. Seeking the Lord requires more than just listening and learning. He says that we must call upon Him in prayer, so that we can get to know Him. We need to confess our sins to Him, so that we can seek forgiveness. We are also required to repent, that is, turn from our sins and turn toward His good and right way.

Notice that He says, "Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts." God targets the sin in us on two levels: our "way"—our exterior conduct and behavior—and our "thoughts"—our interior attitudes and motivations. Both must be examined and purified. God says that, if we do this, He will have abundant mercy, and the relationship will leap forward.
Zephaniah 2:1-3 adds a sense of urgency to seeking a relationship with God:

Gather yourselves together, . . . O undesirable nation, before the decree is issued, or the day passes like chaff, . . . before the day of the LORD'S anger comes upon you! Seek the LORD, all you meek of the earth, who have upheld His justice. Seek righteousness, seek humility. It may be that you will be hidden in the day of the LORD'S anger.
God advises, "Seek Me now! Don't delay! You don't know how much time you have left!" We believe that Christ's return is fast approaching, but we cannot say exactly when, and we certainly do not know when we will draw our last breath. Thus, God tells us not to procrastinate when it comes to having a relationship with Him. Seek Him now, before the dark days come.

"For thus says the LORD to the house of Israel: ‘Seek Me and live'" (Amos 5:4). God is not really speaking about physical life, but about the abundant life and eternal life. In verses 14-15, He commands: "Seek good and not evil, that you may live. So the LORD God of hosts will be with you, as you have spoken. Hate evil, love good; establish justice in the gate. It may be that the LORD God of hosts will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph."

The church is the remnant that God has called out of this world to follow Him and live, so that He can continue to be gracious to us all the way to the Kingdom of God. And He wants, not just young people, but everyone in the church to seek Him and live. The youth, however, have a golden opportunity to say with the psalmist, "O God, You have taught me from my youth; and to this day I declare Your wondrous works" (Psalm 71:17).

Friday, November 12, 2010

Wisdom for the Young (Part Four)

Proverbs 15:21 makes an interesting comment on the subject of foolishness: "Folly is joy to him who is destitute of discernment, but a man of understanding walks uprightly." Solomon suggests that we tend to fool ourselves when our main goal is to have fun. We think having fun by doing foolish things brings us joy, but the wise know that folly cannot bring joy. It is oxymoronic, a contradiction of terms. We only think that because we have trained our minds to equate "having fun" and "feeling pleasure," which we confuse with joy. Pleasure and joy are not absolutely synonymous because true joy—the kind of joy that is a fruit of God's Spirit (Galatians 5:22) and that God wants us to have to abundance (Romans 15:13)—is a product of goodness.

This idea is expressed in the proverb's second half: "a man of understanding walks uprightly." Those who truly understand what life is all about live a godly life, and they receive the joy that the undiscerning madly seek through foolish pleasure. Recall that Proverbs 29:18 cautions that, without vision or revelation, people "cast off restraint." This proverb is saying a similar thing. Without discernment of what is good and right, we tend to pursue folly and reap the bitterness it eventually produces.

When young, we often lack the wisdom to be able to distinguish mere foolish fun from real joy. Sometimes such wisdom has to come with age and experience—the hard knocks that result from bad decisions. However, if a person can grasp the difference while young, it will save a whole lot of misunderstanding and misery.

If a young person takes the time to consider the consequences (Deuteronomy 32:29), and if he is honest, it will began to dawn on him or her that the "wild life" hurts. Doing foolish, careless, or rebellious things causes trouble. For one, when caught and the hammer comes down in the form of restriction or even imprisonment, it impinges on freedom. At other times, depending on the type of foolishness, a youth may have to pay a heavy financial penalty in fines or compensation. Young women sometimes have to "pay" with a trashed reputation or an unwanted pregnancy—and both sexes pay with sexual diseases. College-bound kids sometimes have to forfeit scholarships and even admission when their transgressions come to light, often ruining career possibilities forever. These painful lessons should teach that sin does not pay. Doing the wrong things will bring down some form of penalty.

Conversely, people who have not lived foolishly have little to no baggage and few regrets. They can talk openly about their past without deceit or embarrassment. They do not have to carry their indiscretions around with them like a black mountain chained across their shoulders. The godly pleasures that they learned to appreciate are not tainted by guilt. Among their peers, they demonstrate sterling examples of virtuous conduct, and in time, they also provide them to their children. Spiritually, when God calls them into His Family, they have far less to overcome, and to them, God's way of life is familiar and a joy to practice.

Unfortunately, too many young people tend to think of God and His way as something for old folks. In fact, they think of God as old—He has existed forever—and that He does not really identify with the young. When they read the Bible, which is itself two thousand years old, they sense that the patriarchs, prophets, and apostles are old and not very hip.

The parents of these youth frequently came into the church in middle age, which is ancient to a youngster. And, it is true, a quick glance seems to show that the church has a disproportionate number of senior citizens to young people. To top it off, most of the ministry in the scattered churches of God these days is ageing too. The church, then, as a whole, tends to appear old all over. It is no wonder that some young people think that God's way is for when a person's hair turns gray, and no sooner!

With this perspective, it is easy to imagine that young people fail to see the relevance of God's way for them today. How does it affect them in high school or college? What does it have to do with iPods, texting, dating, their first job, video games, Algebra II, a dismal economy, pop music, or the twelve-year-old rattletrap in the driveway?

However, this is a mistaken view. God's way—righteousness—is for young people too!

For starters, a young person might be surprised to learn just how many people that appear in the Bible did some of their greatest deeds for God when they were mere youths. One could even make a good case that God prefers to call people when they are young. Youth has many advantages that God can employ to His glory. Energy, strength, zeal, idealism, resilience, courage, and a boldness to go where angels fear to tread—these are things that God can use!

Perhaps the only advantage that an older person has over a youth is experience, since the aged have been over the rocky road of life and know where the potholes are. One might think that, unlike the young, older people have wisdom too. They should, but a youth can have it too. Anyone who follows God's Word has wisdom, regardless of age! A youth can read the Bible with ten-year-old eyes, and if he does what it says, he is wise. Wisdom can direct the actions of anyone who performs what God wants him to do.

So, with whom did God work in the Bible? Consider this list: Joseph was seventeen or so when God began working with him, and he refused Potiphar's wife just a few years later. He was only thirty when the Pharaoh made him Prime Minister of Egypt! Samson was a young man when he became a judge in Israel, and God used him mightily to throw off the Philistine yoke.

We should not forget Samuel! He was just a little kid when Hannah dedicated him to God, and soon thereafter God prophesied through him. Not long thereafter, when no one else in Israel would stand up to the giant Goliath, a faithful seventeen-year-old named David volunteered and said, "I'll do it because he is blaspheming the Lord."

Many others did wonderful things for God as young people: Ruth, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Daniel (and his three friends), and Esther. As far as we know, all of Christ's disciples were fairly young men when they were called, as was Paul. Mark and Timothy were youths too. Many scholars believe Mary was in her mid-teens when the angel appeared to her and told her that she would bear the Son of God. And let us not forget that John the Baptist and our Savior Jesus Christ completed their ministries while still in their prime. God likes to work with young people!

Even today, God wants to work with the young, just as He worked with these heroes of faith. They answered His call without thought of what their peers thought of them. Do you have the courage to do that?

Friday, November 5, 2010

Wisdom for the Young (Part Three)

Ecclesiastes 2 records what Solomon experienced when he was a young man in the prime of his wealth and power. Because God inspired this narrative to be included in His Word, we can conclude that Solomon went through this for us so that we do not have to repeat it in our own lives—there is no need for us to keep reinventing the wheel. Solomon already lived the wild side, considered it deeply over the years, and reported on it. If we will just listen to what he says, we can avoid all kinds of heartache.

The king of Israel writes in Ecclesiastes 2:1, "I said in my heart, ‘Come now, I will test you with mirth; therefore enjoy pleasure'; but surely, this also was vanity." He gives us his conclusion immediately, so that, if this is all we read, we know the lesson of his attempt to satisfy himself through enjoyment. He describes it as "vanity," as being like grasping for the wind (see Ecclesiastes 1:17). It was futile, useless, unprofitable. In the end, it left him with nothing. He was empty, with nothing to show for his time or expended energy.

He continues in Ecclesiastes 2:2, "I said of laughter—‘Madness!' and of mirth, ‘What does it accomplish?'" The "high life" that so many young people think is so cool and worthwhile Solomon calls "madness"! Pursuing pleasure for pleasure's sake is insanity, mental illness! After he came to his senses, he looked around him and realized he had accomplished nothing. It was a total waste of precious time!

Thus, he decided to do an experiment, using his life as a laboratory, to see if various pursuits would bring him lasting satisfaction and well-being. In verses 3-10, he lists all the activities he pursued with his wealth and power, and they cover the gamut of human experience:

I searched in my heart how to gratify my flesh with wine, while guiding my heart with wisdom, and how to lay hold on folly, till I might see what was good for the sons of men to do under heaven all the days of their lives. I made my works great, I built myself houses, and planted myself vineyards. I made myself gardens and orchards, and I planted all kinds of fruit trees in them. I made myself water pools from which to water the growing trees of the grove. I acquired male and female servants, and had servants born in my house. Yes, I had greater possessions of herds and flocks than all who were in Jerusalem before me. I also gathered for myself silver and gold and the special treasures of kings and of the provinces. I acquired male and female singers, the delights of the sons of men, and musical instruments of all kinds.

So I became great and excelled more than all who were before me in Jerusalem. Also my wisdom remained with me. Whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them. I did not withhold my heart from any pleasure, for my heart rejoiced in all my labor; and this was my reward from all my labor. (Ecclesiastes 2:3-10)
He lived life to the hilt! He drank gallons of wine and partied until the cows came home. He did many foolish things. He spent money profligately on whatever came to mind. He planned, engineered, built, gardened, raised livestock, bought and sold, and acquired rare and novel items. Enjoying good music as his father did, he found the best singers and musicians and brought them to Jerusalem to perform for him. We know he collected wives and concubines by the hundreds! He lived life to the full, and there was no one to restrain him in his pursuit of any desire of his heart.

In verse 11, however, he takes a hard, cold look at where all his unrestrained living and frenzied labor had led him: "Then I looked on all the works that my hands had done and on the labor in which I had toiled; and indeed all was vanity and grasping for the wind. There was no profit under the sun" (Ecclesiastes 2:11).

Even having all of the best of everything and being considered "great" by everyone near and far, when he looked at these accomplishments objectively, he found it all to be futile and useless. In the end, what had he gained? What advantages did he have in the things that really matter? It is as if he stood on a high place in Jerusalem and gazed on all the buildings he had built, all the gardens he had made, and all the unusual and excellent things he had collected, and concluded, shaking his head, "Whoop-dee-do! These things mean absolutely nothing."

Notice that Solomon reports that his wisdom remained with him while he was conducting his experiment in materialistic living. God must have worked this out so that he could convey his conclusions to us. Otherwise, it is difficult to understand how he could have done all of these things and retained his wisdom. God had given Solomon his understanding (I Kings 3:5-14), and He left it with him all of his life, no matter what Solomon did.

Grimly, Solomon repeats his conclusion in verse 17, "Therefore I hated life because the work that was done under the sun was distressing to me, for all is vanity and grasping for the wind." Everything he did produced only sorrow. Life is pointless, he says, for all that he did achieved nothing. He was back to square one. Nothing had changed!

Why? The answer is simple: Everything he had accomplished was useless because he had done it without God. It is God who makes a difference in life; He puts real meaning into pleasure, work, accomplishment, growth, and beauty. If He is absent, these things become essentially worthless and will perish in due time. In Ecclesiastes 2:24-26, he comes to this conclusion and gives some advice:

Nothing is better for a man than that he should eat and drink, and that his soul should enjoy good in his labor. This also, I saw, was from the hand of God. For who can eat, or who can have enjoyment, [without Him, margin]? For God gives wisdom and knowledge and joy to a man who is good in His sight; but to the sinner He gives the work of gathering and collecting, that he may give to him who is good before God. This also is vanity and grasping for the wind.

A person who lives uprightly, who tries to do what is right and good, will have wisdom and knowledge and will experience true joy in life—well-being that is enjoyable and lasting—not just ephemeral pleasures that must be renewed with something more edgy to feel the same thrill. The sinner, however, will merely labor in futility, and instead of enjoying the fruits of his labors, see the righteous benefit from them.

Therefore, the only satisfying way of life is one lived under the guiding hand of God. Any other way of life is useless and unproductive. Those who truly understand what life is all about will live a godly life. If we can grasp this truth while we are young, it will save us a whole lot of wasted time and grief.