Last Wednesday, I was feeling worn out and run down. Lauren suggested that it wasn't wise for me to go to services, and I reluctantly assented. That left us looking for a livestream to watch. When we saw that Adam Mullinax, one of the members at Jackson Heights, was preaching in their fall focus, we decided to tune into that, and we were not disappointed. Great job, Adam!
I thought that he had many useful things to say, but one of the most intriguing was citing Ruth as an example of being devoted to one another. Although he didn't have much time to spend dwelling on it, it sparked a number of thoughts in my mind.
For one, Ruth’s attachment to Naomi is an especially strong illustration of our attachment to one another because both are by choice. Once Ruth's husband was dead, Naomi was no longer her mother-in-law. If Ruth had chosen her earthly family, she would have gone back to her mother's house.
Instead, Ruth chose to make family out of a woman who wasn't. In earthly terms, this was a foolish choice. All sorts of horrible fates awaited women without protectors. However, Ruth made this commitment out of love, and God rewarded her for it.
The same is true for us. Nobody makes us obey the gospel. Nobody makes us associate ourselves with a particular local congregation. We also form these relationships out of choice, and when love holds us to our commitments, that finds favor with God too.
There also is much to learn from the words of Ruth's pledge to Naomi in Ruth 1:16-17. It has three main elements: a promise to go together, a promise to serve God together, and a promise to stay together.
All of these things are part of our relationship with one another too. We should not take lightly the choice to become a member of a local congregation. Instead, we should be determined to go through life together with our brothers and sisters.
This means sharing our lives with them and allowing them to share their lives with us. It means being open about our joys and our struggles and joining in the joys and struggles of others. Church is not a place where we go for a few hours each week. It is a spiritual family that we have chosen like Ruth chose Naomi.
Because of this family relationship, we serve God together. We are not consumers. We do not belong to a church for what we get out of it.
Instead, we assemble to contribute. We work to contribute. We don't rejoice when we shine; we rejoice when we have served others in the lowliest way possible and helped them to shine.
Finally, church family means that we stay together. There are limits here, of course. Placing membership is not a marriage vow!
However, neither is it a marriage of convenience. We don't stick around as long as everything is going great, only to bail at the first sign of church struggles or relationship challenges.
In Maury County, Tennessee, it's easy to bail. There are dozens of other congregations that would gladly add another family to the rolls. However, the easy choice is often not the best choice, and it isn't the best choice here.
We don't grow when we church-hop at the first whiff of trouble. Instead, we grow through humility, patience, and self-sacrifice as we stick things out with our people. All this sounds uninviting to the worldly, but the child of God will recognize it as the source of enduring joy, both in this life and in the life to come.
In both Old and New Testaments, the treatment of the story contained in Exodus 17:1-7 is uniformly negative. The original narrative of Moses really focuses not on God's miraculous provision for His people but on their grumbling. The same thing is true in Paul's reexamination of the story in 1 Corinthians 10:1-13. He lists the blessings that the Israelites received from God only to point out that they fell away regardless. He wants us to recognize that we too can fall despite our blessings.
Nonetheless, even this negative perspective contains imagery that is both beautiful and meaningful. Perhaps the most striking of these images is found in 1 Corinthians 10:4. There, he reveals that the rock from which the Israelites drank followed them, and the rock was Christ--not the rock was like Christ, but that the rock was Christ.
If this was true for the Israelites, rebellious and accursed, how much more is it true for us! The Scriptures compare Christians to the Israelites. We too spend all of our days wandering in a desolate wilderness.
There are no hotels in the wilderness. Just as the Israelites did not encounter a Holiday Inn Express that served them a tasty complimentary breakfast, we cannot expect to find one either. However, Christ did provide them with water, and we can expect the same. We are in the wilderness, yes, but He will always provide us with what we need.
Problems arose for the Israelites when they paid more attention to the wilderness than to the water, and they will arise for us when we make the same mistake. Admittedly, the wilderness is pretty awful, both for us and for them. To this day, the Sinai Peninsula is uninhabited. Nobody goes there to sunbathe and relax in the 120-degree heat! As the hymn says, this world is a wilderness of woe. Awful things can happen even to faithful Christians, as I can testify.
Nonetheless, we must not spend our days wallowing in the awful. We must resolutely seek Christ through the awful, and He is always there. Indeed, He is never so present as when the wilderness is most hostile. A spring in Middle Tennessee is still lovely; a spring in a rocky wasteland is incomparably wonderful.
I have found this to be true in my own life. These days, I don't spend much time praying for my life or my health. Instead, when I pray for myself, I am almost entirely concerned with the life of the spirit. I want to spend the rest of my days loving, serving, and encouraging others. I know that I could never accomplish this without the help of my Lord. I would be crushed by the despair of my situation instead.
However, He has helped me powerfully. During my recent clinic visit, my goal was to make everyone I encountered, even the ones who shocked me and poked me with needles, feel valuable and loved. By the grace of God, I succeeded.
At the end of my visit, the neurologist told me, “I love your spirit!” I don't think he knew how truly he spoke. His compliment does not speak well of me. It speaks well of Christ who strengthens me.
So too for all of us in our own personal wildernesses. The desert is miserable. Many of us have decades more in which we must endure it. However, the living water that springs up from our Lord is all we need to sustain us.
Lukewarmness among the people of God is hardly a new problem. Malachi warned against apathy explicitly, and signs of apathy are evident as far back as the Exodus. Unsurprisingly, preachers today also often warn their hearers about the dangers of indifference.
I read one such warning recently, and it led me to consider my own heart. I searched for signs of lukewarmness, and I found none. I still have plenty of spiritual problems, but lack of emotional commitment to God is not on the list. I am blessed to be a member of a congregation with good preaching and good singing, but even if the preaching were amateurish and the singing cringeworthy, I would be determined to assemble faithfully for as long as I was physically capable of so doing.
My motivation is simple just as my life is simple. Thanks to ALS, I have no options remaining but to trust in Jesus. He is the branch that can keep me from going over the cliff. Without Him, I am utterly ruined and hopeless.
These are familiar sentiments. We sing many hymns about our need for Christ and our helplessness without Him. The problem is that while we give intellectual assent to these concepts, we don't really get them. I know I didn't before my diagnosis. It's the difference between the abstract acknowledgement that seatbelts save lives and the realization that your seatbelt just kept you from being launched into the path of an oncoming eighteen-wheeler.
Such abstraction provides fertile soil for the growth of indifference. The less we gut-get our absolute need for Jesus, the more likely we are to be apathetic in our worship and service.
I was pretty impressed with myself for figuring this out until I realized that the apostle John had gotten there 2000 years before I did. In Revelation 3:18, he rebukes the Laodiceans, “For you say, 'I'm rich; I have become wealthy and need nothing,' and you don't realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind, and naked.” Their lukewarmness started with their conviction of self-sufficiency.
Too often, spiritual apathy leads us to expect less of ourselves and demand more from others. On the one hand, it excuses our sporadic attendance (especially at Bible class), tolerance of sin, and halfhearted worship and service. On the other, it leads us to find fault in the contributions of others.
We would attend more, if only the preaching were more interesting. We would have an easier time worshiping if only the song leader chose our favorites. We would associate more with Christians instead of the worldly friends who are dragging us off to destruction if only the Christians made a special effort to include us. All this is to say nothing of how much better things would be if only the elders listened to us!
Thoughts like these are not an excuse for complaining or bad behavior. Instead, they are an urgent call to examine our own hearts. We do not fuss over details when we are rock-solid convinced that Christ is all that stands between us and eternal damnation. When we've had a massive heart attack and are on the way to the ER in an ambulance, we do not grumble that the paramedic has bad breath!
Instead, we start griping when we believe that we are in control and the other is dependent on us. We have no problem sending back an overcooked steak at a restaurant because we know the manager is afraid of losing our business, so he will accommodate us. He needs us more than we need him.
So too with a lukewarm, exacting attitude toward the things of God. The assembly is not a product, and Christians are not consumers. It is not the job of the elders, the worship leaders, or our brethren to cater to our every whim, to make sure that everything is just so before we deign to become emotionally involved. We are wretched supplicants before the throne of the great King, and we need to act like it.
If we find Christianity tiresome, we have no one to blame but ourselves. The issue is not that some Christians need God more than others; it is that some acknowledge that need more than others. The cure for the disease is not everybody else getting their act together; it is time spent in meditation and prayer about our desperate need for Christ and how much He has done for us. When we recognize the magnitude of our debt to Him, the imperfection of others can neither stifle our devotion nor prevent us from expressing it.
We don't often think of it this way, but one of the most significant moments in the Pentateuch occurs in Exodus 16:2. By this point in time, the Israelites have seen one of the most impressive displays of God's power in the entire Bible. He has rescued them from Egypt, brought them safely through the Red Sea, and destroyed Pharaoh's army when he attempted to follow them. Now, God is leading them to the bountiful land He promised to their fathers.
Nonetheless, they complain. Even though they have watched God destroy countless thousands on their behalf, they express regret that God did not destroy them too because their situation is so, so bad. We have seen similar behavior from them before, but this time, they prove themselves unchanged by an experience that Paul compares to baptism in one Corinthians 10:2.
In fact, they won't ever change. On its own, this incident seems insignificant. God even reacts to their complaining by giving them the food they ask for. It sounds like everything is fine, right?
Everything is not fine. Through their complaining, the Israelites have started down the slippery slope to disaster. The same spirit that leads them to grumble also will lead them to rebel when God tells them to go up and claim the land. They will grumble about God's choice of Moses to be their leader, His decree that priests must come from the tribe of Levi, and, in the height of irony, the delicious manna that He gave them in response to their grumbling about lack of food!
In time, this exhausts even the patience of God. He decrees that none of the complainers will enter the land. Every time they grumble thereafter, He kills off another few thousand. By the end, of the more than 600,000 men who began the journey, only two survive to complete it. In the Bible, the people of God are frequently a wretched lot, but rarely do they behave so shamefully as this.
It's easy for us to sneer at their bad behavior. However, it should call us to examine ourselves instead. In the style of Romans 2, we must ask whether, as we condemn the grumbling and complaining of others, we ourselves grumble and complain.
Do we, for instance, complain about the elders whom God has given charge over us? How about the preachers who faithfully present the word to us? What about the spouses that God has given us? What about the jobs that we can use to provide for ourselves and our families?
This is far from a complete list. Satan tries to get us to complain about a nearly infinite list of things. Many of these things are gifts from God, but somehow, we don't think they're good enough for us.
Because complaining is so common, we often treat it as a minor spiritual problem. However, the example of the Israelites shows that it is anything but. I'm not the judge of anybody, but I suspect that when Christ returns, more than one Christian will learn to their dismay that their practice of the sin of grumbling has led them to lose their souls. We cannot be faithful Christians and habitual complainers at the same time.
Instead, let us be people who are thankful, humble, and patient. If we suffer from the failings of others, how much more do we ourselves fail! If earthly life is imperfect, how much more should we look to the joys of the life to come with eager anticipation! As with the Israelites, God has given us all we need. In all things, let us seek and glorify Him.
I’m a simple man. I believe that the Bible is the inspired word of God and that it is sufficient to equip us for every good work. My favorite hymn is “Give Me the Bible”. Consequently, whenever I encounter a problem that afflicts the soul, I presume that the solution lies in learning and following the whole counsel of God.
This also leads me to raise an eyebrow when I see brethren coming up with extra- Biblical cures for spiritual ailments. The phenomenon occurs in several different areas, but it is perhaps most prominent in brotherhood teaching on marriage and family. Though marriage counseling based on secular wisdom varies greatly in quality, all of it pales in comparison to the word of God. If Christians want to treat such counseling as a side dish, fine, but they must not mistake it for the main course.
That main course consists of all Biblical teaching about human relationships. Too often, we behave as though the only texts about marriage are the ones that mention marriage: Ephesians 5:22-33, 1 Peter 3:1-7, and the like. Indeed, this apparent paucity of Scriptural material becomes justification for the use of material from elsewhere. We can't just go on preaching the same three marriage sermons, can we?
For those with eyes to see, the list of relevant passages is far longer. In fact, thousands of verses of Biblical ethics apply with greatest force in our marriages. If we can't seem to manage treating our spouses in a Christlike way, it calls into question the sincerity of our godliness in every other area of our lives. James would ask us if the same spring can send forth both sweet and bitter water. A bad marriage is a fundamental and potentially soul-destroying problem for at least one spouse.
Sadly, Christians in difficult marriages commonly use this truth as an opportunity to pin all the blame on the other spouse. I suspect that most of the time, brethren go to marriage counseling because they want to get their partner fixed. Almost always, they try DIY counseling and berate their husband or wife for perceived failings.
This is exactly backwards and dangerous besides. Christ does not call us to control others. He calls us to submit to His control.
He also warns us in Luke 6:37-38 that according to our standard of measure, it will be measured to us. We are on notice, then, that if we harshly judge our spouses, God will treat us the same way, only more so. Thus, unless we are James’ hypothetical perfect person, able to bridle both our tongues and our bodies, our desire to improve our marriages amounts to the familiar call to improve ourselves.
At this, thousands of voices cry out in outrage, “But what about them???” What about them, indeed? Conveniently, the Bible gives us instructions for how to handle a spouse who is not merely engaged in questionable behavior but is clearly and actively sinning. They appear in 1 Peter 3:1.
The way for a wife to win over a disobedient husband is by submission and godly living, all without a critical word being spoken. It is the way, not an occasional break from a campaign of nagging. Neither does this text exist to provide moral cover for a well-I-tried-that refusal to obey in the present and future. The passage addresses women specifically, but it is excellent advice for men as well.
Along similar lines, consider the relevance of Philippians 2:14 to marriage. It is one of the shocking verses in the Bible. Surely when Paul says, “Do all things without grumbling or disputing,” he is using hyperbole! He doesn't actually mean for us to do that!
It is not hyperbole. It is a commandment, and its edge is sharp. If you want a better marriage, you know what you can do? Don't dispute with your spouse. If they invite you to a fight, decline the invitation. Don't grumble to your spouse. Don't grumble about your spouse. If you obey, your marriage will be better, if only because it will contain less shouting.
There are many, many other passages with equally sharp edges that concern our marriages too. They are not easy to follow. In fact, they are quite difficult, which is why many Christians do not honor them. It is, alas, much easier to complain that our husband or wife is toxic, narcissistic, and gaslighting us.
Additionally, even if we do what is right, our godliness is not guaranteed to win over our spouse. Some Christians are married to people with hearts like rock. They will stubbornly pursue evil all the days of their lives to their ultimate destruction. If so, nothing we can do will change them.
We do not imitate Christ because it is effective in influencing others, though it is more effective than anything else. We imitate Him because it is right. Even if godliness does not lead to a better marriage, it invariably leads to glorifying God. When we are tested in our marriages, may He help us to steadfastly seek Him regardless!