Preachers love to quote God’s statement in Malachi “I hate divorce,” shaming those who end up in divorce court. But after reading Jeremiah, I now know why God hates divorce: He knows its heartache firsthand.
God said He was Lord and Husband to Israel. After giving them the best, He thought in return they’d call him “My Father” and would not turn away from following Him. His bride, however, in her adultery, “polluted and defiled the land” and “I, the Lord, put faithless Israel away and given her a bill of divorcement.” He gave Israel opportunity after opportunity to repent and return to Him, but eventually God divorced her!
Some divorces do not fall under biblical guidelines, but God said it was permissible if there was an unfaithful spouse. He knows what that feels like.
I wish I could sketch Jeremiah’s word pictures. With strong imagery, he describes the marriage relationship between God and Israel. He betrothed her in Egypt, married her at Sinai, and gave her fruitful land as a wedding gift. But Israel spurned her Lover’s gift as well as her Lover.
God is appalled, horrified sad, and rightly angry. He’s never seen anything like it. “Has a nation ever changed its gods (even though they are not gods),” He said. They have committed two evils: 1) “They have forsaken Me, the fountain of living waters,” and 2) “They have hewn for themselves broken cisterns that can’t hold water.” What an amazing visual! He gave them something more special than the warm springs at Yankari Game Reserve, and they are playing in empty rain barrels with holes in them.
And then Jeremiah uses more visuals:
I broke your bond and yoke to free you, but you shattered and snapped the bonds with Me.
I planted you, a choice vine, wholly of pure seed. But you turned into degenerate shoots of wild vine.
You wash yourself with much soap, yet your guilt and iniquity are still on you. You’re spotted, dirty and stained.
You’re like a female camel or donkey in heat! (Lots of lovers).
The images go on and on. It strikes me that God experienced pain, rejection, and abandonment long before Jesus experienced it on earth.
Jeremiah is preaching to God’s lover who forsook Him. This is Israel’s story. What is mine?
Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations. Jeremiah 1:5 (NIV)
Jeremiah was a Preacher’s Kid (his father was a priest), and God spoke directly to him. Pretty heady stuff when you do big things for God . . . until you realize it is God’s doing all along. God may choose (Moses, David, Samson, Jonah, or me), but we have a choice how we’ll respond (argument, submission, courage, rebellion).
What excuses do I make for not following God’s command? She’s too hard to love; he won’t listen; I can’t because; I don’t know how; I don’t have time; I don’t have the money. . .
Fear of the people’s response was Jeremiah’s driving objection. God’s answer? “Don’t be afraid because I AM with you.”
Then God touched his mouth and said, “Behold I have put My words in your mouth.” How cool is that! This book is Jeremiah’s story, his testimony. God will not respond to everyone the same way. He’s too creative for that. But we can glean principles from Jeremiah’s life like: the antidote to fear is experiencing God’s presence.
I have a long list of worries I need to shed NOW! The word responsibility is a balloon banner over my head with strings attached to each of my concerns. With hands cramping from their tight grip, occasionally one string escapes my grasp, and I scramble to grab it without letting go of the others. If I let them all go, does this mean I’m not a responsible person?
But near burnout, I wish I could let them all go. I want to be a kid again where I’m free to explore, and my meals miraculously appear on the table, and play is my most serious activity.
Suddenly the wind catches the balloons, and up, up, up, into the air I go. But now I’m in trouble if let go. My muscles are burning. I want off this ride!
“Look up,” says Jesus. I see He’s holding the responsibility banner, and I’m on a puppet stage. He’s responsible for the “responsible.” That takes the pressure off decision-making, but I’m still not satisfied. He created me with free will, and I don’t want to be a puppet. I don’t want His job as director of the play, nor can I be in the audience. What am I supposed to do?
“Let go of the strings,” He says. Willing to surrender at last, I unclench my fists and drop my arms. I do not fall. I do not collapse. I let go of worry and make life-giving choices.
As I study the passages in the Word about the Holy Spirit, I wonder where the balance is between study and experience. My Bible training was all academic: interpretation, dissection, exegesis. If I only have the written Word and no Holy Spirit inside to interpret them, I simply have a collection of symbols on a page, lifeless and meaningless. But if I didn’t have the written Word, how would I know what my experience meant? But Jesus IS the Word—the Living Word. He brings the symbols to life and gives them meaning. I need both.
I wonder why God chose to use words to communicate with us. Why not comic-book pictures? Or is the world itself and its experience a visual? A picture would not be reproducible in certain countries or eras. But words endure, can be passed down through the generations. Can be heard. But for those who are visual . . . I guess God gives each of us the visuals in our minds that meet our needs the best. But then, so do words.
A 2023 Update. After praying with people for the past 22 years, I’ve come to realize how important both words and visuals are. Clients will say, “I know the truth in my head, but I don’t feel it in my heart.” What they are describing is left-brain (words, logic) vs. right-brain (pictures, emotion). Our experience comes first, followed by interpretation of the event. When I read Scripture, I’m engaging my left brain. When the Holy Spirit speaks directly to my heart (emotions), I experience the truth and it gets correctly interpreted.
What does one do with all the stories of horror and sadness in the news? It it’s not war, it’s an Asian tsunami, a Florida hurricane, or tornadoes in Indiana on the heels of earthquakes in Pakistan. Murder, rape, and evil. The needs are overwhelming. And then there are the spiritual needs of a lost world. How do I balance getting information and processing it without emotional overload or feeling blasé? If it’s someone else’s problem, I shrug and say, “That’s interesting, but glad it doesn’t affect me.” But if it’s MY child that dies in the disaster, it’s suddenly too close to home.
I wonder what makes people rush to help. Some feel called and become trained to respond to disasters. Is there something wrong with me that I don’t feel the tug to “do something, anything” or is it merely an absence of triggers? I don’t want to be jerked around by emotionalism or false guilt that weighs on me like a shroud. My resources are limited. It’s impossible to give to every cause—and there are so many good ones!
I’m standing at the edge of a pit watching Stephen being stoned. I cannot prevent his demise. If I try to rush to his aid, I’ll perish as well—the mob is too large for one person to control. What I can do is search for the one or two people who are hesitant, who don’t really want to be there. Who can I persuade to walk away and listen to God? I cannot respond to all the disasters and needs in the world, but I can minister to the few on my path.
On a side note, I’ve noticed an interesting phenomenon: when people offer aid for a disaster, those who have not been treated in like kind are sometimes jealous. For example, after 9-11, victims from another terrorist bombing lamented that America didn’t send dollars to generously help THEM. When Hurricane Katrina struck Mississippi, and people in my city reached out to help the displaced citizens, locals who needed the same kind of care and concern felt ignored. What makes us respond to a disaster with an outpouring of generosity, but we don’t reach out to meet the routine needs of our community?
My mother had great compassion for sick people. It made her a good nurse. One day we witnessed a motorcycle accident in front of us. Watching my mother’s concern and compassion mixed itself in my heart with worry—like an emotional bow string triangulated between the boy, my mother, and me.
Am I willing for the music to stop? For the vibration in my soul to cease? Will I become emotionless, calloused, if I give up the strings?
“No, the song will only become sweeter,” says Jesus. And so, I unloose the worry string, tie a balloon on the end, and release it skyward. My focus now shifts to meeting others’ needs instead of mine.
A 2023 Update. I glanced at the news of the recent earthquake in Turkey, said a quick prayer for the victims and rescuers, and moved on to the ministry in front of me, focusing on what I could do, rather than on what I couldn’t.
Once there was a Pharisee who happened upon a man lying on the Jericho Road—all beaten up, with gushing wounds and ragged clothes. And the Pharisee paused and argued with himself, but God won out. The Pharisee took off his own cloak and gently covered the man. He gave him sips of water and then with the rest washed the dirt from the wounds. And while Jesus stitched up the gaping holes, the Pharisee held the instruments. Jesus lifted the man onto a donkey, because the Pharisee was not strong enough to do so. And the Pharisee accompanied them to the inn where he stayed to assist Jesus. And when the beaten man became well, he confessed he was a wealthy prince, and he rewarded the Pharisee handsomely. And the Pharisee was glad that he’d listened to the voice of God instead of her (I mean his) own self-righteousness.
A 2023 Update. I confess I am a recovering Pharisee. I’m not there yet, but I’m further down the road in my journey toward grace.
Quoting one verse or phrase out of context in the Scriptures can sometimes result in bad theology or advice. When I hear the Apostle Paul say, Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, I might conclude I should never disobey government. Further, Paul says if you oppose government, you bring condemnation on yourself, but even more so, you’ll be opposing God.
Yet the early apostles, when forbidden to preach the gospel, said, “We must obey God, rather than men.” And God honored Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego when they defied King Nebuchadnezzar. Same with Daniel and King Darius. Apparently it’s okay to practice civil disobedience if it conflicts with God’s law.
In context, I think Paul was saying “Do what’s right.” There’s nothing morally wrong with paying your taxes and obeying the speed limits and not shoplifting. You don’t want to be slapped in jail for selling cocaine. The government forbids it. But if the government opposes assembling together as believers, then disobedience is legit—just be prepared to pay the consequences if caught.
A 2023 Update. This question is getting stickier as we wrestle with moral conflicts over sexual orientation and government mandates. Over what conviction are you willing to lose your job, or even die for?
Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. 2 Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. 3 For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. 4 For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience. 6 This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. 7 Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor. (Romans 13:1-7 NIV)
We who are alive and remain till the coming of the Lord will not precede those who have fallen asleep
If you stop here, it makes sense. Obviously, the dead arrive before or ahead of the living.
But if this happens “in the twinkling of an eye,” how can one really “precede” the other?
The Lord returns with a shout and a trumpet and the dead in Christ will rise first.
First before whom?
Before the living?
What will rise? Their bodies? Aren’t their spirits already risen?
Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord IN THE AIR, and thus we’ll always be with the Lord.
If this passage, along with I Cor. 15 were the only teaching on eschatology, I’d be convinced of a post-tribulation rapture.
And why the word asleep instead of dead? From earthly perspective, death is final. From heavenly perspective, we’ve just begun to live! On earth, we’re body/soul/spirit. In heaven (or wherever the holding place is for spirits separated from their bodies) there’s only spirit. Or is our soul there too? After the resurrection of the dead, there will be a reunion of the body and the spirit/soul.
I find it fruitless to discuss this subject with those who have already made up their minds about their position on eschatology, but I’m willing to listen to a fellow struggler.
2023 Update. I don’t think it’s wrong to wrestle with eschatology Scriptures and search out wisdom and understanding, but I object to those who pick an interpretation, dogmatically defend it, and shun those who differ in their conclusions. I think we’ll all be a little surprised at how things shake down in the future.
I’ve been working through how to recognize the difference between God’s standard and men’s standard of conduct. For example, I came out of a system that taught it was a sin for a woman to wear pants, and though I threw that false belief out years ago, I wonder about wearing skimpy clothing. A judgmental attitude (which I’m prone to have) is a self-righteous attitude about how others conduct themselves—usually because I don’t do it myself. And often the item or “sin” in question reflects a tradition of man rather than breaking a direct command of Scripture. Discernment, on the other hand, involves understanding the intent of a command in Scripture and applying it to myself.
One’s choice of dress falls on a continuum: from a Middle Eastern burka all the way to public nudity. What’s modest for one culture may be immoral for another.* I’m sure my upbringing in an African village impacts my confusion. Does God’s Word dictate standards of dress, or does God look only on the heart? (I can dress like a Puritan and not have a pure heart.) The other end of the continuum is harder for me to gauge. At what point does my dress choice cross into sin? Can the discussion focus on the amount of material, or should the focus be 100% on the heart?
Or what about my media viewing choices? Is there a point at which what I watch becomes sin? Or is it all about the condition of the heart? I cannot judge another’s motives, but personally, I’d prefer wholesome rather than on-the-edge. Better to hug the mountain side than the cliff side in these gray areas.
*Funny story from Stormy Omartian’s book The Power of the Praying Woman. Seems an offended missionary decided he should supply the topless natives with t-shirts. The next day the ladies showed up at church proudly wearing their new garb—with holes cut out for their breasts (so they could nurse of course). Made perfect sense to me!
2023 Update. I must have worked through these questions sufficiently as I have no emotion today when the subject comes up. I know now that I am not responsible for anyone’s heart but my own, and I can trust God to convict me when needed and guide me into all truth.