Reflections on spiritual themes (and a few other things).

Month: June 2024

Many or Few

Some of the greatest Bible stories are war stories. One of my favorites is found in 1 Samuel 13-14, when the Israelites were at war with the Philistines. 

In chapter 13, the Israelites were initially successful against the Philistines (v. 2-4). But when the Philistines summoned a massive army, the Israelites were intimidated, and Saul became indecisive (v. 5-7). The situation was further aggravated by a lack of weaponry among the Israelites (v. 19-23). 

Enter Jonathan. 

Jonathan was already responsible for the earlier victory against the Philistines (13.2-4). Here in chapter 14, he again takes initiative by taking his armor-bearer with him and sneaking into the nearby Philistine outpost (v. 1-10). The Philistines assume they’re a pair of Israelite POWs and bring them into their garrison (v. 11-12). Jonathan and his armor-bearer kill 20 Philistines in hand-to-hand combat (v. 13-14). The Lord also brought a sudden earthquake (v. 15-16) which caused some of the Philistines to flee. Saul and the remaining Israelite forces soon join the fray, and the Israelites defeat the Philistines that day (v 23).

My favorite verse in this text is 1 Samuel 14.6, “Then Jonathan said to the young man who was carrying his armor, ‘Come and let us cross over to the garrison of these uncircumcised; perhaps the LORD will work for us, for the LORD is not restrained to save by many or by few.’”

This was Jonathan’s confession of faith in the LORD. He understood something about God that’s too easily forgotten. He knew that God is always the majority. Period. God doesn’t need numbers, or large armies, or massive military hardware to win his battles. He only wants a few dedicated people. 

Today, God doesn’t need large churches, or large budgets, or PowerPoint, or websites, or social media, or apps, or impressive programs to win the cause of his kingdom. He simply wants a few dedicated people. If he chooses to use large things, that’s his business. But the Lord frequently uses small things to remind us of his wisdom, power, and ways (1 Corinthians 1.26-29).

Indeed, “The Lord is not restrained to save by many or by few.” What matters for us is that we enter the fray.

Will you?

Glory in the Ordinary

They’re calling it one of the biggest Olympic snubs of all time.

An enormously popular athlete. Record-setter. Superb skills. Has altered the game forever. Draws huge crowds. Gazillion dollar endorsements. What’s not to like?

Wait a minute! You thought I was talking about WNBA superstar Caitlin Clark! No! I’m talking about ME!

I got skills. I got game. I gotta get me some Olympic bling!

You’re right. I’m delusional. But please, read on.

I thoroughly enjoy watching the Olympics. But watching these elite athletes in action always brings me back to reality. I’m once again reminded how ordinary I am. I’ll never be known for my athletic prowess, my competitive spirit, or for overcoming huge odds to beat an archrival. I’m plain old me.

The Olympics remind us that humans are capable of some amazing feats. They’re full of compelling stories. But they’re not representative of how most of us live out our day-to-day existence. Most of us are rather dull, unathletic, and uninspiring.

But that’s OK. What matters for us is that every day we dedicate ourselves to something worthwhile. For Christians, dedication to Christ is a sufficiently Olympian task. To follow the one who was first to finish the race (Hebrews 12.1-3) is challenge enough. What’s more, the crown for which you and I compete is far greater than all the medals, endorsements, and fame that our earthly Olympics could offer: “They then do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable” (1 Corinthians 9.25b).

What’s left for us, then, is to do our work and do it well. “Whatever you do, do your work heartily, as for the Lord rather than for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the reward of the inheritance. It is the Lord Christ whom you serve” (Colossians 3.23-24). 

You don’t have to be the CEO to be successful in the workplace. You don’t need to be a Hollywood couple to have a great marriage. You don’t have to be an elite athlete to find joy in sports. You don’t need a show on Food Network to enjoy cooking and eating. You don’ t need to be a millionaire to be financially secure. You don’t have to join a monastery to be faithful to Christ.

There is glory in the ordinary.

Counting Blessings?

You’ve probably seen this question on social media: “What if you woke up today with only the things you thanked God for yesterday?”

The question has two obvious purposes. First, it’s designed to help us think about the vastness of God’s blessings. We get so much from him it’s hard to enumerate. Second, it’s designed to help us thank God. If we can begin to grasp the magnitude and multitude of God’s blessings, how can we not pause and give him thanks?

Having said that, the question works only so far for two reasons. First, we’re all sinners. As sinners, even our exercises in gratitude may be tainted and limited. Because of my sins and weaknesses, I sometimes fail to see all that God’s done for me. Even when I try, I’m frustrated by my inability to enumerate and articulate his goodness toward me.

Second – and this is the most important thing – we simply CANNOT match God blessing for blessing. We CANNOT possibly keep up with all that he’s done for us. 

The most obvious reason is that God’s blessings are too numerous. A favorite hymn urges us to do the impossible anyway: “Count your blessings; name them one by one.” Not that we shouldn’t try to do it, but good luck with that! Another reason is that God often (and deliberately) blesses us in quiet ways, in ways he may not want us to fully grasp. The psalmist said, “For he gives to his beloved, even in sleep” (Psalm 127.2). In the midst of my nightly dozing, snoozing, and snoring, God is at work refilling my tank.

Behind all of this is the reality of God’s greatness. We CANNOT out-think him, outsmart him, outdo him, out-ask him. The apostle Paul said, “Now to Him who is able to do far more abundantly beyond all that we ask or think, according to the power that works within us, to Him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations forever and ever. Amen” (Ephesians 3.20-21).

So, when you wake up in the mornings, count your blessings. Give thanks. But don’t be surprised when your blessings always exceed your expectations and outpace your ability to recall them. God fully intends it that way.

Doxology

Praise God from whom all blessings flow. Praise Him, all creatures here below. Praise Him above, ye heavenly host. Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.

Thomas Ken, 1674

These lyrics are from perhaps the most ubiquitous of all English language hymns. The title is sometimes listed as its first line, “Praise God From Whom All Blessings Flow,” and sometimes as “Doxology.” 

It was written in 1674 by Thomas Ken, a bishop in the Church of England. It was apparently part of his Manual of Prayers for Winchester Scholars. According to Hymnary.org, the song has appeared in over 1200 hymnals. 

Its appeal is obvious. It’s an invitation for all sentient creatures in heaven and on earth to praise God for his innumerable blessings. This doxological hymn accomplishes this simply and effectively.

Thinking about this doxology reminded me of Paul’s doxology in Ephesians 3.20-21 (NASB95): “Now to Him who is able to do far more abundantly beyond all that we ask or think, according to the power that works within us, to Him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations forever and ever. Amen.”

Rather than discuss or analyze this text, I want to show how Paul builds upon a single idea to help us appreciate God’s resources and generosity. I’ll do this by building this doxology thought by thought. This isn’t an attempt at grammatical analysis, but rather an attempt to unfold Paul’s thinking about God’s blessings upon us.

  • He [God] is able.
  • He is able to do.
  • He is able to do what we ask.
  • He is able to do what we ask or think.
  • He is able to do all that we ask or think.
  • He is able to do beyond all that we ask or think.
  • He is able to do abundantly beyond all that we ask or think.
  • He is able to do more abundantly beyond all that we ask or think.
  • He is able to do far more abundantly beyond all that we ask or think.
  • To him who is able to do far more abundantly beyond all that we ask or think be glory.
  • To him who is able to do far more abundantly beyond all that we ask or think be glory in the church.
  • To him who is able to do far more abundantly beyond all that we ask or think be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus.
  • To him who is able to do far more abundantly beyond all that we ask or think be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations.
  • To him who is able to do far more abundantly beyond all that we ask or think be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations forever.
  • To him who is able to do far more abundantly beyond all that we ask or think be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations forever and ever.

We can’t out-ask God. We can’t out-think God. We can only be grateful and glorify him.

Amen!