Growing In Godliness Blog
Ready To Listen
By David Norfleet
For anyone that has been in a relationship for very long, you know it is easier to stick your foot in your mouth than to take it out. We often or frequently need help with how to communicate with others effectively. James does so by providing inspired instruction that will help in those situations. He wrote in James 1:19, “This you know, my beloved brethren. But everyone must be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger.” If we would heed this instruction it would help in all our inter-personal relationships, but especially our relationship with God. And that seems to be James’ primary application as he points to the word of God in James 1:21, “…in humility receive the word implanted, which is able to save your souls.”
So, what does it means to be “quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger” with respect to God’s word?
To be quick to hear points to an eagerness to learn and a willingness to accept the things God has to say to us. We want instruction. We want counsel. We want wisdom from heaven. We need help. This idea is more of a disposition than an action, and it begins with humility – a recognition that we don’t have all the answers, but God does. Peter wrote in I Peter 2:2, “like newborn babies, long for the pure milk of the word, so that by it you may grow in respect to salvation.” Jesus knew of the importance of this quality in His followers so He wrote in Mark 4:24, “Take heed what you hear.”
How does being slow to speak relate to a reception of God’s word? It is generally true when you're talking or even thinking about what to say you are not listening. There is proven value in speaking less and listening more (Proverbs 10:19; 17:28), but it is critical when attending to God. In this text being slow to speak may actually mean “slowness to start speaking,” and have specific reference to ill-considered reactions to what God has said. How will we ever receive God’s instruction if we do all the talking or if we thoughtlessly react to justify ourselves, negate Scripture’s demands, or explain the Bible away? Our attitude needs to reflect the words of Samuel, “Speak, for Your servant is listening.” (I Samuel 3:9-10)
What do you do when God’s word steps on your toes? Maybe you’re reading it, or hearing it preached. It says something that you don’t like, because it confronts the way you think or live. Do you get angry and defensive, thinking, “What right does that preacher have to say that? How dare he tell me how to live!” Do you have these “flash-reactions” when your conscience is pricked? That is why it is so important to be slow to anger, as an angry spirit is not a teachable spirit. As James would write, “…the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God.” (James 1:20)
Popular author Francis Chan stated, “Whenever I read the Bible and come across something that I disagree with, I have to assume I am wrong.” He understands that the word of God and our reception of it is vital as it reveals, reproves, corrects, trains, revives us, directs us, keeps us from sin, and reveals God to us (Ephesians 3:1-4; II Timothy 3:16; Psalm 119:50, 105; Psalm 19). It is no wonder the psalmist would write, “I opened my mouth wide and panted, for I longed for your commandments.” (Psalm 119:131) If we could only get out of our own way God wants to transform us through His word, James tries to help us with that by reminding us to be quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger.
“I said in my heart, ‘Come I will test you with mirth; therefore enjoy pleasure’; but surely, this also was vanity. I said of laughter—‘Madness!’; and of mirth, ‘What does it accomplish?’ ” (Ecclesiastes 2:1, 2).
Solomon, his failed experiment with wisdom having been recounted, now tells of a similarly empty attempt to find contentment in pleasure. From the discipline of careful thought he turns first to a passionate pursuit of the sensual. He pours himself into every activity pleasing to the senses, bombarding himself with delights of the flesh. If he could not think his way to life’s purpose perhaps he could experience his way to it. But even before he relates the details of his new research he declares its results—complete and utter madness. It accomplished absolutely nothing.
“I searched in my heart how to gratify my flesh with wine, while guiding my heart with wisdom, and how to lay hold on folly, till I might see what was good for the sons of men to do under heaven all the days of their lives” (v. 3). It strikes us as strange that the Preacher should begin intentionally to experiment with “folly” but this is likely a word used in retrospect. The Hebrew verb from which its original is formed usually indicates moral and spiritual stupidity rather than just intellectual foolishness (1 Samuel 13:13; 2 Samuel 24:10), thus, “the wickedness of folly” (7:25).
Solomon speaks specifically here of gratifying himself with wine. Does he mean to refer to drunkenness (Proverbs 20:1; 23:29, 30; 31:4, 5) or simply to the delights of good and nourishing but non-intoxicating food (Ecclesiastes 9:7, 8)? And is the folly here in immoral excesses or in trying to turn otherwise innocent pleasures (delectable food, pleasing clothing, lovely music, 2:8b) into the whole purpose of life? The Preacher seems very intent on telling us that his experiment with pleasure never led him to mindless excess (“while guiding my heart with wisdom”). Perhaps, practically, it does not matter. Whether one dives headfirst into pleasure or tastes its delights with respectable prudence, neither will bring any ultimate satisfaction. The former may cause more momentary havoc but both will end in emptiness of heart.
This is an important warning for a generation intent on living in a continuous party, entertaining itself into stupefaction. All too soon the endless banqueting grows stale and the laughter dies or becomes hollow (7:6). The pursuit of pleasure is necessarily flawed by its essential selfishness and devaluation of others. It becomes increasingly addictive increasingly unsatisfying. This is not to disparage innocent fun but building our lives on it is to mindlessly and endlessly relive some sophomoric stage of life.
Solomon refers later in this section (v. 8b) to another sensual delight to which he gave himself, “the delights of the sons of men”(NKJ) or as it may be better translated “the pleasures of men—many concubines” (NAS). This may be a case of understatement for the king actually had 700 wives and 300 concubines (1 Kings 11:3). One wonders how in his relatively short lifetime he ever managed to hold even a brief conversation with each of them! His proverbs suggest that they must have given him as much pain as pleasure (Proverbs 21:9, 19; 27:15) and they became the primary reason for his apostasy from God (1 Kings 11:4). Marriage is truly a blessing from God (9:9) but not even a wonderful marriage can bear the load of being life’s ultimate purpose! It is evident in this age of serial polygamy that some are still seeking to find transcendent happiness in marriage, running from one partner to the next. None of them will ever approach the level of Solomon’s experiment and like him they too will fail. We ought to be wise enough to learn from the other fellow’s experience.
But not all pleasure is sensual. “I made my works great, I built myself houses, and planted myself vineyards. I made myself gardens and orchards, and I planted all kinds of fruit trees in them” (2:4, 5). Failing to find life’s meaning in physical gratifications Solomon turns to more substantial and useful pleasures, the creating of great palaces and delightful gardens, the multiplication of great herds and flocks and the accumulation of great wealth. The purpose of all this frenetic building was to somehow bring a sense of fulfillment and peace and compared to his plunge into sensuality it was certainly a step up. Solomon did find pleasure in the midst of his work (2:10) but when it was done and he reflected on its ultimate significance he concluded that it, too, was meaningless (2:11).
Solomon with his virtually limitless resources had restricted himself from no desired pleasure or pursuit (2:10) and it worked to make him surpassingly great among men (2:9). Yet for all his achievements he concluded with an emptiness perhaps even greater than that with which he began. It was destined to fail from the beginning because he was searching in the wrong places and always for the wrong reason—for himself(2:4–6, 8). Life is not made of pleasures and palaces.
 Earnhart, P. (1999). Mining the Scriptures: Of Pleasures and Palaces. Christianity Magazine, 16(3/4), 35.
Something Too Precious Not To Share
By Tom Rose
What things are precious to us? They are generally objects: a favorite dress, sweater or perhaps a wedding gown; an old pair of sneakers or perhaps a baby’s first shoes; a special locket, pin, or ring; maybe a record, scrapbook or a special book or Bible possibly with a flower in it; certificates, trophies and plaques; collections of coins, stamps or rocks; books, letters, newspaper clippings, and of course, the pictures.
Mentally take yourself up in the attic and let me join you as you open the boxes, open the trunks. As I watch the way you handle and linger over the contents, and listen to you tell your memories about their meaning, and watch your facial expressions, I’ll tell which ones are precious to you.
This sentiment was expressed by Amy Grant in her song, “Heirlooms.”
“Up in the attic…down on my knees,
Lifetimes of boxes…timeless to me;
Letters and photographs…yellowed with years,
Some bringing laughter…some bringing tears;
Time never changes…the memories, the faces,
Of loved ones…who bring to me…All that I come from,
And all that I live for, And all that I’m going to be…
My precious family is more than an heirloom to me.”
Isn’t that the sentiment we hear survivors of a house fire or natural disaster tell us after their devastating loss? “Well, even thought we lost everything, at least no one lost their life.” I believe that is what this song is suggesting. In this life people, and our relationships with one another, are more valuable than “things.”
However, there is something of even greater worth to consider – one’s soul.
In our everyday lives, do we ever think of our spiritual (i.e. non-material) life as being precious to us? The apostle Peter in explaining how Jesus redeemed His believers from a life of sin, sets up another contrast of values by saying,
“…Knowing that you were not redeemed with corruptible things like silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ.” (I Peter 1:18-19)
The price of our freedom was not perishable possessions, it was the life-blood of the Son of God, a far more costly gift than any amount of earthly treasure. I Cor. 6:19-20 emphasizes this point by noting,
“You are not your own, for you have been bought at a price.”
In the second verse of this song, we find the writer is telling us that spiritual and eternal concerns are truly more important than earthly matters.
“Wise men and shepherds…down on their knees,
Bringing their treasures…to lay at His feet;
Who was this wonder…Baby yet King,
Living and dying…He gave life to me.
Time never changes…the memory, the moment,
Of loved ones…who bring to me…All that I come from,
And all that I live for, And all that I’m going to be…
My precious Savior is more than an heirloom to me.”
The Puritan Thomas Watson thoughtfully observed, “Great was the work of creation, but greater the work of redemption; it cost more to redeem us than to make us – in the one there was but the speaking of a Word, in the other the shedding of Christ’s own blood.” That thought gives the word precious a whole new meaning.
Perhaps, however, this song has yet a deeper meaning. Do we view our faith and our salvation as just another “heirloom” to be left in the “attic” of our minds? Looking honestly at our daily actions, do we rather than sharing with others our love for the Lord, just keep our memories from the past to ourselves? When was the last time we spoke of the events of our own baptism or that of our friend or relative? How often do we speak of the ideas expressed at a Gospel meeting, or mention to someone the words of a prayer or hymn at the funeral of a loved one? When was the last time we talked with a friend about what the Bible says it takes to inherit eternal life? Do we ever treat Jesus as just another object along life’s pathway?
Let me share with you some recent research to highlight the importance of these questions. Larry Alex Taunton is the Executive Director of Fixed Point Foundation, a non-profit dedicated to the public defense of the Christian faith. Over the past two years, he launched a nationwide campaign to interview groups of college students who belong to the atheist equivalent of Campus Crusade (e.g. Secular Student Alliances and Freethought Societies). The rules were simple: “Tell us your journey to unbelief.” From several hundred subjects, a composite sketch of the American college-aged atheists began to emerge, and it would challenge our assumptions about this demographic. Most of the participants had not chosen their worldview from ideologically neutral positions, but in reaction to Christianity. These students had heard plenty of messages encouraging: “social justice,” community involvement, and “being good,” but they seldom saw the relationship between that message, Jesus Christ, and the Bible. They were serious-minded, but often concluded that church services were largely shallow, harmless, and ultimately irrelevant. Although, students would often begin by telling the researcher they had become atheists for exclusively rational reasons, the results of their testimonies made it clear that, for most, this was a deeply emotional transition as well. Finally, and perhaps most poignant, they showed a deep respect for those teachers and ministers who took the Bible seriously. Two responses give insight into their thinking.
Phil was once the president of his church’s youth group. He loved his church when they weren’t just going through the motions. He recalled Jim, one of his Bible teachers, did not dodge the tough chapters or difficult questions. Although he didn’t always have satisfying answers or answers at all, he didn’t run away from the questions either. The way he taught the Bible made me feel smart. During my junior year in high school, the church in an effort to attract more young people, wanted Jim to teach less and play more. Difference of opinion over this new strategy led to Jim’s dismissal. He was replaced by Savannah, and attractive twenty-something who, according to Phil “Didn’t know a thing about the Bible.” The church got what it wanted: the youth group grew. But it lost Phil.
Michael, a political science major at Dartmouth, told us that he was drawn to Christians that unashamedly embraced Biblical teaching. He added, “I can’t consider a Christian a good, moral person if he isn’t trying to convert me.”
As surprising as it may seem, this sentiment is not as unusual among non-believers as one might think. It finds resonance in the comments of Penn Jillette, the atheist illusionist and comedian. He says, “I don’t respect people who don’t proselytize. I don’t respect that at all. If you believe that there’s a heaven and hell, and people could be going to hell or not getting eternal life or whatever, and you think that it’s not really worth telling them because it would make it socially awkward…How much do you have to hate somebody to believe that everlasting life is possible and not tell them that?
In summary, three points clearly stand out from a thoughtful study of the scriptures coupled with a reflection of the above research.* First, most young atheists come out of churches whose mission and message is vague. Second, one must never confuse a desire for people to accept the gospel, with creating a gospel that is acceptable to people. And third, Christianity, when taken seriously, compels its adherents to engage the world, not retreat from it (Mk 16:15-16).
*Taunton, Larry Alex “Listening to Young Atheists: Lessons for a Stronger Christianity,” The Atlantic, June 3, 2013.
Making a Name For Yourself
By Paul Earnhart
“I charge thee in the sight of God, who giveth life to all things, and of Christ Jesus, who before Pontius Pilate witnessed the good confession…”
The Roman Empire had thousands of provincial officials in the course of the 500 years it ruled the Mediterranean world. Few enough are even known by name, and only one is remembered – Pontius Pilate. Though there is information about this provincial governor in both Josephus (Antiquities, XVIII, iii, 1-3; Wars, II, ix, 2-4) and Philo (Legatio ad Gaium), the largest portion of our knowledge of him comes out of the New Testament gospels.
The interesting thing about Pilate is that, hung up in an obscure district of the Empire, he seems to have been an ordinary man out to make his mark in the world. He was a middle class Roman with ambition for better things.
Pilate had nothing but contempt for the troublesome people of his district and when they presented him with a virtual ultimatum for the execution of a prisoner they brought to him, he balked. In addition to his stubborn resistance to being manipulated, there remained in him some residual sense of justice. The governor’s examination of the prisoner persuaded him that the charges were empty, based on religious differences, even jealousy (Matthew 27:18), rather than criminal activity. Pilate may have been in many ways a brutal, insensitive man. When his seizure of the sacred (corban) treasury in Jerusalem caused a public clamor, he sent his soldiers to mingle with the crowd in civilian clothes and beat to death the instigators (Luke 13:3). But the case of Jesus was outrageous.
The problem was that the Jews were stubbornly insistent. Their threat to report him to Caesar as guilty of harboring anti-government agents was disquieting (John 19:12). Though a bit laughable from the one who murdered the apostle James, Philo quotes Heord Agrippa I as saying that the Jews “exasperated Pilate to the greatest possible degree, as he feared lest they might go on an embassy to the Emperor, and might impeach him with respect to other particulars of his government – his corruptions, his acts of insolence, his rapine…his cruelty and his continual murders…” (Legatio ad Gaium, 38).
Prudence would have directed Pilate to protect his office and give the Jews their pound of flesh. But there was the prisoner’s disquieting claim to be the Son of God which the Jews, in exasperation, had finally blurted out to him (John 19:7); and his own wife’s urgent warning to leave this “righteous man” alone (Matthew 27:19). Pilate was a man caught between justice and ambition, between his conscience and his career.
If Jesus was a criminal, He should have been summarily executed. If He was innocent, as Pilate confessed, He should have been immediately freed. But the governor did neither. Instead, he tried to escape his dilemma by compromise – a proffered deal, the brutal beating of an admittedly innocent prisoner – yet, nothing worked. He had to choose. He could send Jesus to the cross and save his career plans, but how could he take responsibility for condemning to death a man whom he, himself, had pronounced innocent?
Pilate sought refuge in confusion. The issue was complex. How could any mere man be expected to settle such troublesome questions? “What is truth?” (John 13:38). And then, at last, when he could not save his job and justice too, he protected his job and shifted blame for his knowing perversion of justice to the Jews. “I am innocent of this man’s blood,” he said, as he symbolically washed his hands, “It is your responsibility” (Matthew 27:24, NIV).
The real irony of Pilate’s story is that he was a man seeking a name for himself. For him, Jesus was a minor, if troublesome, inconvenience on his road to fame and fortune. And yet Pontius Pilate is remembered in history, not because of his own great achievements, but because of his brief encounter with Jesus of Nazareth.
It is easy to see and to jump on the moral cowardice and grave miscalculations of a Pontius Pilate. But how do we differ from him? How often do we sell out moral principle, and the Son of God, just to work out our own carnal ambitions? Every man and woman who turns aside his duty to God, to family, and to others, just to hold on to some worldly dream in no way differs from the governor of Judea. We can plead that we tried almost everything to escape being untrue to what was right, but so did Pilate. We can plead confusion, that the issue is not clear, that it is disputed by good people, but so did Pilate. We can blame our moral and spiritual lapse on the wickedness of others, but so did Pilate.
What is the lesson in all this? That in trying to make a name for ourselves we can easily wind up like Nabal, with the name of a fool. Worldly ambition can easily blind men to real value. Otherwise, Pilate would have known that Jesus was not his problem, but his salvation.
How do Christians interact with those who do not know Christ? That question has occupied the minds of God’s people throughout the ages. God in providing an answer to that question has filled the Bible with numerous word-pictures to help us understand our role in spreading the gospel.
One of the pictures that can be drawn from is that we are meant to be ambassadors for Christ. The apostle Paul used those very words in II Corinthians 5:20. In that verse he says “Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were making an appeal through us; we beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” But an important question is who is the “we” in the text? I suppose it could be the apostles, or it could be a “royal-we” where the apostle is making reference to himself, but it seems in the context to extend to any who act on behalf of Christ and carry His message. That is exactly what an ambassador is - one who is sent as a representative of a sovereign power to a foreign land who then reflects that ruler’s official platform. What is the message of the king we represent? Paul tells us in II Corinthians 5:19 it is reconciliation! So, how are we to act in this foreign land that is this world? We are to represent the king and carry His desire for the world to reunited with their Creator – we are meant to be ambassadors.
There are a host of other illustrations we could examine (priests, fishers of men, light, salt), but I want to look an image that can be found in Ephesians 3:2, “if indeed you have heard of the stewardship of God’s grace which was given to me for you”. (NASB) When we think of a steward, we think of one of who is given charge of something that belongs to another. That is exactly how Paul saw himself, the grace that belonged to God was entrusted to him to give to others.
In the NKJV translation another English word used in lieu of stewardship and that is the word dispensation. That is one who is engaged in the action of dispensing God’s grace. It might put you in mind of a dispenser – a container that feeds out that which it contains. I think that is a wonderful image to consider as we think about evangelism or how to interact with the world. To truly be a dispenser two things must be true:
- You must be filled with that which you are to dispense. In the context of Ephesians 3 we are to be full of the grace of God, and if we have Christ, we have the grace of God. John wrote in 1:16 “For His fullness we have all received, and grace upon grace.” Paul wrote in Ephesians 1:6-8 “to the praise of the glory of His grace, which He freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace which He lavished on us. In all wisdom and insight”.
- It is that very grace we are to dispense. Paul wrote concerning himself this very idea in Ephesians 3.8-9, “ To me, the very least of all saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unfathomable riches of Christ, and make all know what is the administration of the mystery which for ages has been hidden in God who created all things”.
How to interact with the world? Allowing God’s grace to fill us and then flow us to others! As Paul wrote, “Let your speech always be with grace, as though seasoned with salt, so that you will know how you should respond to each person.”