Give Me Understanding

Wisdom is the principal thing, the most important thing: wisdom and understanding. (Pr 4:7)

Five times in the Bible someone asks God directly: give me understanding; each time it’s the same person, all in the same chapter, Psalm 119, a singularity in itself on multiple levels.

Give me understanding, and I shall keep thy law; yea, I shall observe it with my whole heart. (34) The psalmist is committed to obeying God fully and passionately, without reservation or reluctance, in every possible way. Obedience is the foundation of faith in prayer (1Jn 3:22); there’s no hope for an audience in God apart from obedience. (Ps 66:18)

Thy hands have made me and fashioned me: give me understanding, that I may learn thy commandments. (73) The psalmist, admitting God is his personal Creator and Designer, worthy of all worship and obedience, asks for understanding so he may learn God’s laws. Though He has God’s commands plainly written out, he doesn’t presume to understand fully and completely the nuances and proper applications of God’s commands, and asks for this enlightenment that he may please and honor God in rightly obeying them.

am thy servant; give me understanding, that I may know thy testimonies. (125) The psalmist, testifying that he is God’s servant, committed to obeying Him in every respect, asks for understanding that he might fully know and fathom God testimonies, God’s witness of reality as revealed in His laws.

The righteousness of thy testimonies is everlasting: give me understanding, and I shall live. (144) The Psalmist admits that the rightness and holiness of God’s testimonies is eternal, and asks for help to understand them so his life might be complete, as if there’s no life worth living apart from knowing and keeping the commandments of God. (77)

Let my cry come near before thee, O Lord: give me understanding according to thy word. (169) The Psalmist finally cries out to God for understanding, appealing to His promise to give to those who seek Him out earnestly, an open door to those who knock with a committed heart. (Mt 7:7-8)

Seeking understanding without an intent to obey is pointless (155); those who don’t choose the fear of God will never find true wisdom and understanding, regardless how hard they try. (Pr 1:28-29) To rightly know anything we must start here, reverencing God and seeking to obey Him. (Pr 1:7) If anyone will do as God wills, they’ll understand (Jn 7:17); the rest deceive themselves (Ja 1:22), ever learning, yet never able to come to the knowledge of the truth. (2Ti 3:7)

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A Matter of Wrong

Our innate response to sin is telling; we understand the concept of right and wrong, and we understand justice — that wrongdoing must be punished appropriately. (Ac 18:14) This instinct reveals the gospel through deductive reasoning.

If someone has wronged us:

  1. Then we acknowledge a moral standard. This standard is revealed in our instinct to find fault with others whether they agree with us or not; we impose an expectation of right behavior which is independent of human opinion.
  2. Then there must be a moral law Giver Who created this moral standard. Nature can’t create such a standard (since it’s metaphysical, spiritual), and Man can’t create it (since it’s independent of Man’s opinion). Therefore God created it (there are no other options).
  3. Then God will hold us accountable for violating this moral standard. A moral standard presumes a divine evaluation of human behavior, as well as a divine reaction for our obeying or violating this standard: a moral standard is meaningless otherwise.
  4. Then God has openly revealed this moral standard to Man. It is unjust for God to hold us accountable for violating His moral standard if we have no way of knowing what His standard is. We may think we know it apart from divine revelation, but this is effectively indistinguishable from making it up as we go, since our sense of goodness is impaired and compromised by selfishness. (De 4:6)
  5. Then this standard is Mosaic Law. Torah is credibly claimed to be revealed by God to Man through Israel, His chosen people; there is no other remotely credible claim here. (Is 8:20) One may argue that Israel could conceivably have created Torah on their own, but once we deduce that God has openly revealed His Law to Man, Torah is our only viable option.
  6. Then we have all violated this standard. We have not loved God with all our heart, soul and might (De 6:5), nor have we loved our neighbors as ourselves. (Le 19:18) We are all guilty of breaking God’s Law (Ro 3:19), and we’re without excuse. (Ro 1:20)
  7. So, in the same way we require just punishment for those who wrong us, God must justly punish our sin against Himself. Our instinct for justice generates anger instinctively; we’re created in His image, so we should expect this in God (Ro 2:8-9), but in a perfect way: there will be ultimate justice for God. (Ro 2:2)
  8. Yet the punishment we deserve is infinite: we can never pay it in full. Since our sin against God is entirely unjustified, offending One Who is perfectly holy, infinitely worthy of obedience and worship (Re 14:11) we’re all in a desperate case, with no alibi or escape, and there’s nothing we can do about this unless God mercifully intervenes on our behalf.
  9. So, we need a Savior to deliver us, not only from the punishment we deserve, but also from our very nature which deserves it. Seeing our need, God has kindly provided us just such a Savior (Mt 1:21), offering to deliver us not only from the punishment we deserve, but also from our very nature which deserves it. (Tit 2:14)

We can know all this by carefully observing ourselves and others. So, how shall we escape the wrath of God if we neglect so great salvation? (He 2:3) If we think this through as we should, we will see our need, repent and run to God for deliverance. (Ac 16:29-30)

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The Law of Jehovah

When someone is challenging us on our moral beliefs, accusing us of hatred, racism, xenophobia, homophobia, gynophobia and/or whatever, I find it helpful to pause for a moment and ask them to explain their moral standard.

Those who are unfamiliar with God’s ways generally find them offensive and troublesome. They may come after us in fear, resentment and/or hatred for disagreeing with their claims; they may feel condemned, offended and even harmed by our mere unwillingness to approve their manner of life. Even if we’re personally very kind toward them and pose no direct harm, our mere lack of agreement may be deeply threatening to them.

But it seems to me that few have taken the time to ask themselves how and why they’re so convinced they’re right: they have no explicit moral standard to reference, and I expect most have neglected to give this the attention it deserves.

This is likely the root cause behind their defensiveness: when all we have to support our behavior is blind emotion, feeling intimidated is perfectly natural when we’re challenged. Pointing this out can be extremely powerful and disarming in the midst of heated conversation.

For example, when a transgender male (thinking he’s female) accosts us for not referring to him as “she”, we may simply ask, “Can you please tell me what your moral standard is? How do you decide what’s right and wrong?”

Clearly, these folk have a VERY strong sense of morality, but they’re evidently making it up as they go. Their feelings are so powerful that questioning and challenging their emotions is unthinkable.

Yet if we can engage them in civil dialogue, we might be able to point out that simply because we happen to want something to be true doesn’t make it so. They would likely agree with this (else, they should concede that all other opinions are as valid as theirs).

Then, observe with them that they’re already instinctively acting this way; in rejecting our feelings and treating our opinions as invalid, they’re claiming the existence of a universal moral standard, independent of human opinion, which we should all obey. They can’t intelligently disagree with this; no one can.

Since they’re already doing this right in front of us, acting as if they’re passionately following a universal moral standard, ask them to explain this standard so you can study and understand it. Ask them where it came from and who revealed it.

Point out that any universal moral standard, being independent of any and all human opinion, must by definition be a divine standard, revealed to Man by God Himself: Nature cannot create such a standard. Ask them what evidence they have that their moral standard is inspired by God.

The point is this: those decrying hate may hate Jehovah’s standard and trash it all day long, but without an explicit, divinely inspired moral standard, they’re being fundamentally inconsistent. No one can live as if there’s no universal moral standard: we can’t just make it up as we go; it’s not how we’re designed. Doing so creates emotional imbalance, intellectual dishonesty and personal instability.

The law of Jehovah, His perfect standard (Ps 19:7), is the only one which has any remotely credible claim to being divinely revealed (De 4:6-8), and it’s right. (Ps 19:8) Asking those who hate it to tell us about theirs might be a good first step forward in helping them see.

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They Became Vain

There are consequences to how we respond to God, a series of resulting states inevitably play out in us as we react to Him. There’s a right way, an appropriate and proper response to God; any other is inappropriate and dangerous.

We may glorify God as God, recognizing Him as supreme authority and worthy of all obedience and worship, thanking Him for creating us (Ps 139:14), for giving us life, consciousness and purpose, for giving us His Law (Ps 119:164), and above all, for being as He is. (Ps 63:3)

Or we may choose otherwise and become unimpressed, dismissive, unthankful, demanding and resentful. (Ro 1:21a) This reaction exposes us as children of the devil, for this is exactly what the devil does. (Jn 8:44) It is all from pride, a claim that we know better than God, a demand that He treat us as we wish.

In choosing this way, we turn from all that is good, right and holy; by default we are left to lies, darkness and corruption.

Since we’re imaginative creatures with an instinct for meaning, purpose and morality, we inevitably invent empty, twisted, ridiculous notions about ourselves and God (Ro 1:21b), making up our own moral standard, thinking we know better. Yet our unwillingness to return to God compels us to embrace utter foolishness and inconsistency. (Ro 1:22)

And the more we embrace foolish concepts about ourselves and God, the more we deviate from God’s way, the more corrupt and depraved and broken our life choices become, such that we begin to dishonor ourselves and each other. (24)

And the more we embrace such foolishness, the more corrupt and depraved our emotions and affections become. (25) The pattern continues to spiral downward, unless God intervenes and restrains us, until our very ability to think and reason becomes corrupt and broken. (28)

Unless we repent, turn around and seek after God, responding to Him appropriately, we eventually fill ourselves up with our own devices (Pr 1:31), pushing out the light and relishing darkness (Jn 3:19), resulting in empty, pointless, vain existence; we thus become prisoners of Satan, taken captive by him at his will. (2Ti 2:24-26)

This journey, the way of unthankfulness, is both dangerous and unnecessary; we may respond to injustice and suffering in this world power and passion without becoming passive, bitter, arrogant or resentful. While we’re not to promote wickedness in any way, or be thankful for wickedness itself (Mk 3:5), we may be confident in the fact that God intends to glorify Himself in all He allows in our lives (Ro 8:28), and for this we should always be thankful. (Ep 5:20)

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Foolish Questions

We’re commanded to avoid foolish questions (Tit 3:9); so, not all questions are good. To understand the difference between foolish questions and wise questions (Ep 5:16), we ask: What kinds of questions are foolish? This particular question isn’t foolish; it’s wisdom.

The context is profitability (Tit 3:9b), implying a way to measure and evaluate questions. Is the question profitable? depends on what we value. To ask meaningful questions we must have a proper motive and direction to orient our asking.

So, when we’re considering a question, a good question to ask is: Why the question? What’s the goal, or objective, in asking?

Is the atheist seeking to destroy another’s faith or value system? Or distracting from the soul-wound they’ve been using to justify their hatred and dismissal of God? Or searching out an explanation to resolve what seems insurmountable inconsistency, extreme lack of credibility hiding behind the façade of religion?

Is the church-goer showing off, looking for respect, to be valued for their knowledge of scripture? Are they looking to generate controversy and cause divisions and offenses? (Ro 16:17) Or looking to avoid responsibility by casting doubt on instructions and raising up controversy? Or trying to learn and understand, so they can rightly order their thoughts and actions?

Is the biblical scholar ever asking, ever learning, yet never able to come to the knowledge of the truth? (2Ti 3:7) Are we content with theological exercises and pontifications, ducking relational responsibility, ignoring sins of the heart? Are we content piling up knowledge, without regard to the poor (Ga 2:10), the fatherless, orphan and widow?

Or are we asking so we can deliver ourselves from the bondage of our lies (2Ti 2:25-26), freeing ourselves to serve more effectively, more joyfully and fruitfully, equipping ourselves unto love and good works? (Tit 3:14)

If we’re after God and His kingdom (Mt 6:33), if we fear God and want to please Him (Pr 1:7), our questions should bring us closer to God, into more alignment with Him, more obedience to Him, more love for Him.

Jesus asked a lot of questions; we can learn from watching Him. He was always pointing others to the kingdom of God. His questions penetrated hearts and exposed motives, helping us see our need for Him and pointing us toward a more perfect knowledge of His Way.

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They Chew the Cud

God often gives us commands without explaining why; He doesn’t owe us an explanation. Obeying Him simply because He says so is likely the highest form of respect and love. (1Jn 5:3)

Even so, many ask why we keep certain laws for which they see no good reason; such as dietary laws. Since I also like to understand why God’s laws are good I try to provide some reason in addition to, “God says so.”

I see an indication from the dietary detail that we shouldn’t eat carnivores or scavengers, and have often cited this as a possibility; it is the kind of food generally discouraged by cardiologists and other health professionals. However, recently, when asked why we don’t eat horses, I found a more interesting and inciteful explanation: efficiency.

Horses are unclean because they don’t have a split hoof and because they don’t chew the cud. However, horse flesh is quite nutritious, it’s less fatty than beef, and they’re vegetarian, so why aren’t they on the menu?

As it turns out, animals which chew their cud are more efficient at turning food sources into nutrition for humans; they’re a more economical source of food: they consume less nutritious food themselves and produce a better meal for us. So, cultures who eat beef will tend to prosper and thrive more than those who eat horses.

God has a good reason for every one of His laws; they’re holy, just and good because He is. (Ro 7:12)

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All Things Are Lawful

The concept of sin, violation of moral law, is a complex matter. It’s often unclear whether some act or thought is sinful, or to what degree it’s sin.

And there are statements in Scripture which might lead one to reason that God’s definition of sin has changed over time, and even that sin no longer exists, such as, “all things are lawful for me.” (1Co 10:23) This means something, and it’s evidently very important.

The statement, by itself, could mean several different things. It could mean, for example, that God’s Law no longer applies to the author, or to certain people, or to everyone, in which case there’s no more moral law and therefore no more sin. Yet this begs asking what lawful means; in order for something to be in accordance with the law it seems there must, in fact, be a law with which to be aligned. And this we all know, that there is still a moral law, and we reveal this when others wrong us. We cannot live otherwise.

It could also mean that every thing which isn’t explicitly forbidden by God is lawful: since being contrary to God’s Law isn’t a thing for one who fears God.

The first rule of interpretation in scripture (hermeneutics) is to respect context: first the local, immediate context of the surrounding verses, then the chapter or book of the Bible containing the text, and ultimately the whole of Scripture.

In this case, the context is about eating food dedicated to idols. (19-21) The entire context is about how this is not expressly forbidden by God (1Co 8:4); dedicating food to an idol changes nothing about the food itself: it doesn’t make the food unfit to eat.

However, as the context bears out, though it may be lawful to eat food sacrificed to idols, it may not be expedient; in other words, it may not be suitable for achieving a godly purpose. If others are tempted to go against their conscience through lawful behavior, then this behavior is harmful and violates the higher law of love, even though it’s not unlawful in itself.

This second way of interpreting the text is consistent with the whole of scripture, whereas the first is not only explicitly contrary to scripture, it’s self-deception, missing the truth altogether. (1Jn 1:8)

If we’re picking and choosing texts out of context to support our position, we’re very likely heading for destruction. (2Pe 3:16) If all scripture is given by inspiration (2Ti 3:16), any interpretation must be consistent with the entire Scripture. To find the truth we must rightly divide the Word of Truth and not handle God’s Word deceitfully. (2Co 4:2)

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Wherefore Therefore?

In memory work, at times I find myself struggling to recall the correct word in a context which might contain either one of two very similar sounding words, and also very similarly defined words.

For example, does it say wherefore or therefore? Both words relate to explaining the cause of something, providing a reason, but not in exactly the same way. Perhaps there’s a way to help by noting more carefully the nuance between these two words.

If the context is a question, the correct word is always wherefore. Therefore clearly doesn’t belong. For example, “Wherefore then serveth the law? It was added because of transgressions, till the seed should come to whom the promise was made; and it was ordained by angels in the hand of a mediator.” (Ga 3:19) Therefore won’t work here.

There happens to be a text in Acts which uses both words and the context clearly distinguishes the meanings: “Some therefore cried one thing, and some another: for the assembly was confused; and the more part knew not wherefore they were come together.” (Ac 19:32) Both words relate to explaining why, yet in different ways. The therefore could be “for this reason,” but this  wouldn’t work for wherefore, which is more of a “for what reason”. Wherefore seems to be more related to uncertainty than explaining a known cause.

So, what shall we do with this one? “Wherefore, if God so clothe the grass of the field, which to day is, and to morrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith? Therefore take no thought, saying, What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink? or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed?” (Mt 6:30-31) The wherefore is drawing a conclusion based on what has been stated, as and so, while therefore is, again, drawing an inference based on facts:  for this reason.

This suggests that there may be a hint in where the word is placed in flow of the logic: wherefore is often referencing a point just made, something already stated or which occurred in the past, where and so is explaining which is why in light of it (Ga 3:23-24); whereas therefore is often placed before the reasoning or explanation, preceding it in the logic and pointing forward to it. (Ro 2:1)

These thoughts may be somewhat helpful in sorting out the meaning of a text and recalling it more accurately, or useful in employing the nuances of such words to try to more reliably understand the flow of logic in the text.

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Repent and Believe

John the Baptist prepared the way for Christ by preaching repentance (Mk 1:4); Christ Himself preached the same (Mk 1:14-15) and so did His disciples. (Mk 6:12) Repent: this is Christ’s first call.

To repent is to change your mind, to start thinking differently, and the context here is sin (Mk 2:17), which is breaking God’s Law. (1Jn 3:4) God is introducing Himself by saying, Change your mind about breaking My Law.

This isn’t quite the same as, stop sinning; no one can totally stop sinning and live perfectly. (1Jn 1:8) It’s more like … stop sinning on purpose, deliberately, intentionally; stop thinking it’s OK to sin, that God doesn’t mind.

Sin is offensive to God, and willful, intentional sin angers Him. (He 10:26-27) Choosing sin is choosing darkness (Jn 3:19), choosing the lie; and God is light (1Jn 1:5); God is Truth. (Jn 14:6) Walk in the light. Pursue the truth. Do your best to obey God’s Law, all of it, as well as you can, and keep asking Him for help where you’re still failing to keep it perfectly. It’s the only way to be in relationship with God. (1Jn 1:6-7)

Christ follows this call to repentance with a call to believe the gospel, the good news that the kingdom of God is open to us. He doesn’t start with this message; that would be like the King giving us directions to His home while we’re still defying Him and running away; it doesn’t even make sense. Before giving us directions to help us find the Way, we must be seeking Him. (He 11:6)

Those who aren’t trying to obey God don’t know Him (1Jn 3:6); those who intend to continue offending Him have alienated themselves from salvation itself. (Ps 119:155)

Salvation isn’t so much about deliverance from Hell as it is the offer of a new nature that’s inclined to obey God’s Law (He 8:10), freeing us from the power and dominion of sin so we can fellowship with Him. (Ro 6:22) Repentance is God’s gift (1Ti 2:25), opening the door to salvation, enabling us to turn from death to life. (Ac 11:18)

This may explain why Christ replied to the rich young ruler the way He did (Mk 10:17-19); it was an invitation to take God’s Law seriously. The Law is our teacher to bring us to Christ (Ga 3:24); until we earnestly submit to this divine teacher and learn from Him we won’t find Christ.

To profess Christ yet not do what He says (Lk 6:46) is to deceive ourselves (Ja 1:22), miss Heaven altogether (Mt 7:21), and store up eternal wrath for ourselves. (Ro 2:8-9)

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Full of Sores

Until very recently, I’ve been troubled by the idea of arbitrary suffering; not persecution, but the agony which falls upon many of us for no apparent reason. It was perhaps my greatest fear, that some day I’d be abandoned to suffer pointlessly and alone.

God’s promise to care for me (1Pe 5:7) wasn’t actually helping much; He does, in fact, let some of His children suffer unspeakable things for prolonged periods, not for any obvious wrong-doing, like Lazarus: immobile, full of sores, exposed, vulnerable and dependent, begging for scraps until his very last day. (Lk 16:19-21) This was a mystery and a worry, until I heard Maybel’s story.

Maybel, an elderly, ailing woman with no family or friends, suffered for over a quarter century, wasting away in a convalescent home. Blind, mostly deaf, ravaged by painful stomach and back issues, debilitating headaches, disfigured by facial cancer, constantly drooling, surrounded day and night with unbearable stench and shrieks of the insane, she spent her days strapped in a wheelchair – her only human contact from overworked nursing staff, who considered her the most daunting to care for of all their patients due to the horror of her appearance.

She was discovered quite accidentally by a seminary student back in the mid-70’s, as he offered her a flower and wished her a Happy Mother’s Day, not expecting much of a response. She held up the flower to smell it, thanked him for his kindness, and promptly asked if she could give it away to someone who could enjoy its beauty, since she was blind. He wheeled her over to another patient, and she offered it up saying, “Here, this is from Jesus.”

As he wheeled Maybel back to her room and learned more of her story, it became clear that this was no ordinary woman. Over the course of the next three years they become friends. He often read scripture to her, pausing to let her continue quoting from memory. They’d sing the old hymns; she knew them all by heart and would pause to explain how much a certain phrase or verse meant to her. He took notes from their conversations as she encouraged, challenged and comforted him, ministering to him and praying for him. She never complained, always cheerful, thoughtful, kind and joyful.

One Sunday afternoon during final exams, overwhelmed with distraction and worry, unable to keep his mind in focus, he wondered what Maybel thought about, lying in bed or strapped to her wheelchair, as the seconds ticked by, day after day, year after year … decade after decade. When he asked her she said, “I think about my Jesus. I think about how good he’s been to me. He’s been awfully good to me in my life, you know … I’m one of those kind who’s mostly satisfied … Lots of folks wouldn’t care much for what I think. Lots of folks would think I’m kind of old-fashioned. But I don’t care. I’d rather have Jesus. He’s all the world to me.” She then began to sing an old hymn …

Jesus is all the world to me,
My life, my joy, my all.
He is my strength from day to day,
Without him I would fall.
When I am sad, to him I go,
No other one can cheer me so.
When I am sad he makes me glad.
He’s my friend.

Mabel was an overcomer, remaining thankful, cheerful and joyful through the most unspeakable afflictions. God worked in the midst of what appeared to be arbitrary and pointless suffering to glorify Himself and His mighty power through the frailest and ugliest of us. Maybel was a broken woman in every earthly sense, but she was powerful (Ep 1:19-20), a Spartan on the spiritual battlefield until she went home to glory.

It turns out my greatest fear wasn’t being left alone, or suffering, in itself. I was afraid I’d never be able to glorify God in such a state. (1Pe 1:7) After hearing what God did in Maybel, I’m no longer afraid; she’s living proof that we can suffer with God, in God, and for God no matter what the trial. (Ro 8:35-37)

I will overcome, I already have, because greater is He that is in me, than he that is in the world. (1Jn 4:4)

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