M. W. Bassford
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.
Proverbs 10:7 reads, “The memory of the righteous is blessed, But the name of the wicked will rot.” It neatly sums up what is left of my earthly aspirations. My life is so reduced that the usual distractions don't matter much to me anymore, but my reputation has become even more important.
This is particularly true with respect to my children. Without the direct intervention of God, I will not live long enough to shepherd them to adulthood. I will only be able to help them through their memories and the memories of others. I want them to remember a father who loved God, loved others, and died with faith and courage. For decades to come, I want them to encounter people who will speak well of me.
However, every earthly desire brings with it earthly vulnerability, and this is no exception. I can control what my children see of me, but I can't control what they think of me. It may be that in adulthood, they decide that I was misguided or even actively harmful in the things I proclaimed.
My influence over those outside of my household is even less. Faithful commitment to God does not protect me from distortion and slander. I have been vilified because I adhere to the Bible’s teaching about the role of women in the church and the practice of homosexuality. Some have not hesitated to accuse me of being bigoted and hateful, even though I detect no animosity toward anyone in myself.
Additionally, God holds me responsible for speaking hard truths not only to outsiders but also to His own. The prophets primarily called Israel and Judah to repentance, not the nations. If I only say the things that I know will be popular and well received by other Christians, I join the ranks of the false prophets.
This does not require outright false teaching (though it often leads to such), merely a diplomatic silence about sin inside the camp. Indeed, as long as I confine my condemnations to the people who won't be reading them, I will gain a reputation for “telling it like it is”. The Pharisees had such a reputation, I believe.
Conversely, if I follow those who are scorned and vilified even by God's people, I will find myself in good company. Of course, this begins with the Lord Himself. He was perfect. He literally never did a single thing wrong. However, rather than winning a good reputation for Himself in the Jewish nation, He was rejected and murdered.
Much the same thing happened to the apostle Paul. Even though he served God as faithfully as he knew how, he aroused such hatred among his countrymen that they followed him around, sometimes for hundreds of miles, to slander him further. When the Romans finally killed him, I would imagine that the majority reaction ranged from relief to joy.
Loyalty to God does not ensure a blessed memory on earth. Sometimes it ensures the opposite. However, even if everyone on earth scorns my name, that loyalty guarantees that He will not. If God remembers, it doesn't matter if everyone else forgets.
The Lord of Hosts will be your own,
Your husband and Redeemer too;
As to a wife cast off and scorned,
The Lord your God has called to you:
“I left you lonely for a time
And in My anger hid My face,
But I will gather you to Me
With everlasting love and grace.”
“For as in Noah's days I swore
To never flood the earth again,
So I have sworn to cease My wrath,
And I will not rebuke your sin.”
“Although the mountains may depart,
Although the ancient hills may quake,
My love will not depart from you;
My pledge of peace will never shake.”