Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Let Perseverance Finish

Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. (James 1.2-3)

Virtue Heightens Visibility

The book of Job gets off to a rip-roaring start. There’s a lovely, bucolic prologue, in which we see Job, his wife, and 10 children living prosperous, faithful lives. They celebrate birthdays with great feasts and, on the outside chance someone’s said or done something amiss during the festivities, Job makes a sacrifice on his family’s behalf. Then we cut to Heaven, where angels report their activities. Satan—a former angel who knows the drill—gets in line. God asks, “Where have you been?” Satan answers, “I’ve been roaming around, looking for trouble.” (No surprise there.) Reading between the lines, God hears: “I’ve been bullying your people—picking on easy targets.” With that, He challenges the Adversary to pick on someone stronger. “Have you considered my servant Job?” he asks. (Job 1.8) Satan, like all bullies, makes sarcastic excuses. “Job honors You because You protect him. If You didn’t, he’d be no different than the rest.” (v9-11) So God decides to test Satan. “I’ll lift Job’s protection. Let’s see what you’ve got.”

We’re witnessing the birth of the Job Probability—a correlation between honoring God and being tried. As believers, we remain mindful our commitment and faith will be tested. Once we get that, we can view our tests as tests, not punishments, failures, or indicators of God’s absence. That’s an overarching theme in Job: virtue heightens visibility. Being a humble man, he’s unaware he’s chosen for this test because he’s done no wrong. Yet confidence his troubles aren’t judgments enables him to turn his thoughts from why he’s being tested to what he will gain from it. In chapter 23, he says not finding a reason for his turmoil confirms his faith in God’s goodness: “He knows the way I take; when he has tested me, I will come forth as gold.” (v10)

This consummately virtuous man has presence of mind to trust he’ll come through his test all the more virtuous. When he does, his visibility increases to the point the earliest writer to record Scripture tells his story. The man whose friends insist God forgot him is ultimately lionized as the Bible’s epitome of persevering faith. Of course, the story ends just as it should. Job’s trust is honored with all he lost restored to him. He’s privileged to intercede on his friends’ behalf when God condemns their ignorance and doubt. That’s the secret tucked inside the Job Probability. The costs exacted by our tests are always repaid, allowing us to do for others what they wouldn’t do for us.

A Glaring Contradiction

To doubters, the Job Probability sounds completely nuts. If the degree to which we’re tested is directly proportional to our faith and commitment, why believe and persevere at all? What they don’t factor into the equation are the rewards tied to the outcome. David sounds this note repeatedly in Psalm 34: “I sought the LORD, and he answered me; he delivered me from all my fears.” (v4) “Taste and see that the LORD is good; blessed is the one who takes refuge in him.” (v8) “The lions grow weak and hungry, but those who seek the LORD lack no good thing.” (v10) “The righteous person may have many troubles, but the LORD delivers him from them all.” (v19) These truths are embedded in the Job Probability. Blessings, provision, and freedom from fear are joys it promises. They will not fail—provided we do not fail to trust and persevere until they come. God’s purpose for tests is always good. Patience to endure them is what He requires to make His goodness known. And since the whole equation operates on a counterintuitive principle, it should come as no shock to unearth a glaring contradiction in the process.

No one breaks this down better than James: “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever your face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance,” he writes in the opening passage of his letter. “Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” The pivotal phrase leaps out: Let perseverance finish its work. Our faith is tested to teach us we outlast crises, topple barriers, and defeat foes by relying on patience we don’t have to build patience we need. How is that even possible? There’s no earthly reason why that would work. But that’s the point, isn’t it? Our trials are designed to liberate us from logic, leading to unnatural conclusions that open our hearts and minds to God’s ways. When, like Job, we can find no rational cause for our struggles, we conclude they’re tests. Questioning why hardships happen to us is moot. We focus on what happens to us in hardship. By faith, we perceive God’s purpose for tests. He knows where we are and how to bring forth our gold. Completing the lesson—letting perseverance finish—is how we pass the test and reap its rewards.

God’s Faith in Us

A central feature of Job’s story many ignore is he isn’t a Jew. He resides in Uz, a region eventually called Edom, homeland of a Semitic tribe that revered God on par with other deities. Religious and cultural clashes caused the Jews to hold Job’s people in contempt. Israel’s first king, Saul, declared war on Edom, and David subjected its citizens to Jewish rule. Yet despite deeply instilled prejudice against his ethnicity, Job becomes the Jewish Bible’s paragon of faith, patience, and virtue. We who are marginalized and rejected possess the same potential. Impatience for hateful, unjust barriers to fall is understandable. But patience in our all of our trials expresses our faith in God’s faith in us. He knows the way we take. When He has tested us, we will shine like gold. Virtue heightens visibility. Let perseverance finish its work.

James teaches us to rely on patience we don’t have to build patience we need. Job teaches us letting perseverance finish its work expresses our faith in God’s faith in us.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Keep Building

“You expected much, but see, it turned out to be little. What you brought home, I blew away. Why?” declares the LORD Almighty. “Because of my house, which remains a ruin, while each of you is busy with your own house.” (Haggai 1.9)

12 Angry Men

Our obsession with organization cheats us sometimes. This is certainly the case with the Minor Prophets—12 short books at the back of the Old Testament. The grouping and placement of these books are unfortunate; brevity and discontinuity make them feel more like appendices than vital components of the canon. All told, these prophets span centuries in Israel’s history. And because each of them speaks to his time, lack of context cripples our interest. How can we relate to what God says through them if the text doesn’t amply identify whom He’s speaking to, what He’s talking about, and why it needs to be said? As a rule, the Minor Prophets require homework.

But our second challenge with them is tougher, as a surface reading of the Minor Prophets depicts 12 angry men. To a one, their messages confront sinful societies—usually Israel, but also other nations and cities—and predict harsh judgment if they don’t repent. Without background research into what they address, their prophecies easily sound like harangues: you’ve messed up and if you don’t straighten up, you’ll be sorry. Although seven of 12 end with pledges of restoration, not knowing the urgency behind their messages plays up the gloom and doom. Haggai is a great example of how a little investigation goes a long way with the Minor Prophets. A handful of context, found in the book of Ezra, harvests a bounty of beauty.

Tough and Tentative Times

Ezra informs us Haggai is given the unenviable task of shepherding the Jews through tough and tentative times. He (and his colleague, Zechariah) shows up after the Babylonian captivity ends. Over 40,000 Jewish hostages—many of them born in exile—stream into a country decimated and shell-shocked from seven decades of foreign occupation. Actually, the land is still occupied, taken over by the Persians, who recently conquered Babylonia and acquired Judah (Israel’s southern counterpart) in the process. The Persians prove far more benevolent, appointing a Jewish governor to oversee Judah’s reconstruction. Rebuilding the Jerusalem Temple the Babylonians destroyed becomes the recovery’s centerpiece. But the endeavor is politically fraught. A faction of leaders dismisses the idea as unfeasible and impractical. Local Samaritans—who consider themselves “the lost Hebrew tribe”—offer to help. When they’re declined, they fuel suspicions the Jews’ solidarity around the Temple project may escalate into an uprising against Persia. New Temple construction is suspended.

This grieves many, particularly the returned hostages who’ve assumed the lion’s share of the work. But fear of a Persian backlash as bad or worse than the Babylonian siege convinces the majority to wait. Meanwhile, there’s more than enough work to get the country up and running. Attending to that makes political and common sense. The problem is it’s not what God wants. Judah enters a period of wheel spinning. It replants its farms; they don’t yield profitable harvests. It rebuilds its cities; they don’t prosper. It restores its homes; their residents don’t flourish. Submitting to fear wrought by attempts to frustrate their unified purpose—building a new house where God can reside among them—leads to frustrations on every front. They don’t see this, though, until God raises Haggai to explain it. “'You expected much, but see, it turned out to be little. What you brought home, I blew away. Why?' declares the LORD Almighty. 'Because of my house, which remains a ruin, while each of you is busy with your own house.'” (Haggai 1.9) Judah heeds the prophet and throws its energy into completing the Temple. Once the foundation is laid, Haggai returns with a new word from God: “From this day on I will bless you.” (Haggai 2.19)

Honoring Our Pledge

We pray a prayer—many of us, daily: “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Each time we say it, whether or not we consciously realize it, we tell God, “What You desire matters most. What You want done is what I want to do.” As long as there are no conflicts and interferences to make us afraid, we have no problem honoring our pledge. But too often, when opposition arises, we fall into the same trap that snared Judah. Past losses cause us to fear future ones. We stop building God’s place in our lives to wait for the controversy to settle. In the meantime, we find plenty to do in other areas of our lives—ground to cultivate, enterprises to pursue, and personal matters to address. When our efforts yield dismal results, we’re even more frustrated and disillusioned.

The work God calls us to do must be done without delay. No matter what or who tries to impede our progress, we keep building. And as we build God’s residence in us, we remember that Jesus tells us to anticipate costs associated with what we’re building. In Luke 14.28-30—after stressing true discipleship requires willingness to lose everything, including our loved ones and our lives—He says: “Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Won’t you first sit down and estimate the cost to see if you have enough money to complete it? For if you lay the foundation and are not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule you, saying, ‘This person began to build and wasn’t able to finish.’”

Abandoned, unfinished construction holds no value for anyone. It’s a sad monument to wasted investment and space. When we honor our pledge and build God’s home in us at all costs, we have no cause to fear. What we’re afraid of losing or not achieving will be taken care of. “Seek first [God’s] kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” Jesus promises in Matthew 6.33. Once the foundation is laid, God says, “From this day on I will bless you.” Put God’s will first. Don’t delay. Don’t quit. Keep building.

Abandoned, unfinished construction holds no value for anyone. That’s why we keep building God’s residence in us at all costs.