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The Continual Blessing of God

“And it came to pass that Abraham was old, toward the end of his days, and Yahweh had continually blessed Abraham in everything.”

(Genesis 24:1)


What a wonderful way in which for a life to be marked: “And Yahweh had blessed Abraham in all things…” How often we feel as if God has withheld the blessings we desire; yet if we look at life in this fashion, we miss the point that is being made here at the end of Abraham’s life. By human standards, there is no question that God had withheld the blessings that Abraham desired. Abraham had to wait until he was very old to see children and never saw his grandchildren. He never had an estate or a piece of property in the promised land that God had promised him, save for a plot of ground into which he buried his wife, Sarah. And, he had to leave behind his kinsmen when he traveled from Ur to Canaan to be in the land that God had promised him. He never established even a city after his own name and after his death his family would continue to be wanderers and eventually become refugees (and later slaves) in Egypt.

Yet, when we remove ourselves from the earthly way of measuring things and look to heavenly blessings, we see a different picture. God walked with Abraham. In fact, the Bible remembers Abraham as being called “the friend of God” (James 2:23). Abraham got to witness and participate in mighty miracles, from the routing of armies to the humbling of kings. God provided for his every need, gave him the wealth of the nations, and even preserved his nephew from the judgment that rained down upon Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham received the covenant of God and the promise to make his children like the stars of the sky and the sands of the seashore is still being fulfilled today as more and more people come to faith in Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior (Galatians 3:29). There is but one people of God (those who come to him in faith) and we all partake of the inheritance that God gave to Abraham.

Ultimately, God blessed Abraham with his presence. The promises would be partially fulfilled in Abraham’s life though the fullness of the promise was to come, but the greatest and most wonderful of all blessings is found in his presence with Abraham. How nearsighted we often become when we only think of God’s blessings in terms of our personal comfort. God blesses us first and foremost with himself and that makes us blessed by God in all things. Anything else that God may bring into our life and experience is secondary to this great truth. Thus, when God gives to Aaron the great benediction to be pronounced on the lives of his people, these are the words that he is to say:

May Yahweh bless you and may he keep you;

May Yahweh make his face to shine like a light upon you and may he be gracious to you;

May Yahweh turn his countenance (his presence) toward you and bring you peace.

(Numbers 6:24-26)

Notice, the language is all about God’s presence with you and covering for you. There is not one word about worldly riches or comforts mentioned. Funny how quickly we can mix that up.


So what makes a friend a friend? And when I speak of friends, I am not thinking of those we might casually refer to in that way, but those with whom you have a close and enduring bond — a bond that is strengthened, not weakened by trials and difficulties and with whom love is the only right word to describe the affection that you have for one another. When I was a teenager and in my early twenties, I used to describe this kind of friend as one who you would trust with your car, your girlfriend, and your credit card. Now that I am older, I would describe such a person as the kind of person that I am content simply being with in life together…you know, the kind of person that it doesn’t really matter if you are doing something in particular, but simply being together is enough. It is the kind of person with whom you can disagree and it doesn’t really matter because your relationship is not established on points of common opinion, but instead is built on life together.

It is the kind of relationship that Sherlock Holmes is portrayed as having with John Watson; the mysteries that Doyle wrote about simply provided the backdrop; what made the stories was the relationship between these two men — these two friends. While this is the kind of friendship we ought to have with our spouses, it is often not limited to our spouses. It is the kind of friendship we ought to have with our families, though families often fall short and it is typically not limited to family relationships. And, this is the relationship we ought to strive for with other Christians, though such relationships are often had outside of the church. And, it is a relationship that typically is built over time, while going through the ups and especially through the downs of life together. If our lives are described as part of the tapestry of history, these friends would be the strands that not only are intertwined with our own but also whose color so blends with ours that at a glance, the two threads almost appear to be one.

I have been doing my devotions of late in the scripture passages that deal with the life of Abraham. And what strikes me as remarkable is that despite the messiness of his life and despite his failures and sins, Abraham is not only called the father of the faithful (Romans 4:11-12,16; Galatians 3:7), but Abraham is also called “Friend of God” (Isaiah 41:8; James 2:23). Scripture tells us that God spoke to Moses face to face as one speaks with a friend (Exodus 33:11; Deuteronomy 34:10) and Jesus says to his disciples at the last supper, “I have called you friends” (John 15:15), but it is Abraham that history has marked off as the one having such a relationship with God that he is called “friend of God.”

So, what marked Abraham’s relationship in this way? Certainly this was God’s design, but what can we learn about this friendship that can be applied to our relationships with each other and to our relationship with God? The first thing that we should note is that while God was always faithful on “his end” of the friendship, Abraham was not. Yet, Abraham’s failures did not compromise the friendship he had with God. We should secondly note that their friendship was not defined by the destination or by the promise. Abraham spent nearly his entire relationship with God as a wanderer in the land of Canaan and Egypt. He knew that God had promised him the land, but he also knew that it would be distant ancestors that would actually inherit the promise after spending more than 400 years in Egypt (Genesis 15:13-14). Abraham would die long before the promise was fulfilled. In fact, Abraham received the initial call from God to leave the land of Ur prior to receiving the promise that God would make his descendants a great nation (Acts 7:2-4). It would only be in connection with the call to leave Haran after his father’s death, that the covenantal promise was given (Genesis 12:1-3). We might suggest that the friendship was strengthened by the covenant and promise of God, but clearly it did not begin with these things.

If I were to speculate, I think that it would also be safe to say that Abraham’s relationship was also not based on common likes and dislikes or on common experiences. Certainly Abraham disliked many of the things that God dislikes and it is true that God enters into our experiences as we are in relationship with him, but this still seems to be a superficial place to ground our understanding of this very special friendship. There is no questions that these things, whether experiences or the covenant, were part of the maturing of this friendship (at least on Abraham’s side), but they do not seem to be the essence of the relationship.

I would suggest that the essence of the friendship that Abraham had with God was not in knowing where they were going or how they would get there, but in knowing that they were going in that direction together. And I think that this principle applies to our friendships with other humans as well. We began not by asking about Abraham’s relationship with God, but with the question of what makes a friend a friend — or, what distinguishes the deep and genuine friendships from the casual (and often superficial) friendships that we have. The answer is that those deep friendships are built not so much upon what we do, but upon doing it together — even when we are not doing anything in particular.

God could have taken Abraham on a trek that extended across the breadth of Africa or into the mountains of Tibet and it would not have mattered so long as they were making the trip together. Sherlock Holmes, apart from John Watson, was depressed and bored with life, even to the extent of experimenting with mainlining cocaine to free him from his boredom. It was Watson who kept Holmes grounded, focused, and (in most cases) clean from his drug use. It was nothing Watson did, it was Watson’s mere presence. Husbands and wives often do many romantic things as they are building their relationship, but ultimately there comes a point (because life otherwise gets in the way and struggles arise), where they are forced to realize that what really matters is not so much those romantic episodes, but that they are living life together, facing trials together, hurting together, and loving together.

Moses said to God that what made God’s people distinct from all of the other nations of the earth was his presence with them (Exodus 33:16). That indeed is true of the church in a corporate sense and of Christians in a personal sense, but that is also true of friendship as well. What makes your friendship with me genuine friendship is your presence with me and vice-versa. The deepest friendships are marked by presence — a presence that is needed, desired, and even yearned for — and as a result of that common presence, our stories become so intertwined together that from a distance they almost seem to be one and inseparable.

Playing Dominoes in Ukraine

I spent about half an hour the other day playing a game of two-on-two Dominoes with several of my Ukrainian students. The game was the basic game that I had played as a child, though it has been many years since I had played, and it was fairly easy to follow the progression even though neither my opponents nor my partner and I spoke the same language.

Though my gaming partner and I did lose our little tournament, it began to get me thinking about the nature of cross-cultural ministry on two levels. First, how often we go to great lengths to put on an expensive program or elaborate activities to help us bridge the language barriers when often one of the most significant ways we can bridge that gap is by our simple presence in their lives. That which proved meaningful to my three students was not so much that I was able to play a game that they liked or that I could be competitive with them (then again, my partner and I did lose the game, so I am not sure just how well I did at playing) but it was simply that I was willing to spend time interacting with them on a very basic level outside of the classroom.

Such was the case even when I was teaching students in America where no (or almost no!) language barrier was present. It was not the things that I normally did in the classroom that endeared my students to me and it was not my lectures that they will remember for years to come (as much as I would like that to be the case!). Instead, it was the time that I spent with my students outside of the classroom, living life together, sitting down to arm-wrestle, or working together on a project. It wasn’t even always about the quality of the interaction, but it was the willingness to interact that made the impact.

The second thing that I got to thinking about was in terms of the nature of what “cross-cultural” means. Typically we think of cross-cultural as going somewhere else in the world and bridging a language-barrier. Such activities are essential in working out the Great Commission and I have enjoyed the privilege of being able to do so in a small way myself here in eastern-Europe. Yet one need not travel 5,000 miles away from home to find a cross-cultural context. In seminary, I spent several years doing inner-city homeless ministry — a culture that was very different than the rural middle-class context in which I was raised. Sometimes cross-cultural simply even means sitting down with your grand-kids and listening to their favorite music or sharing a favorite movie of your own with them. You may find out that cross-cultural contexts are as close as your neighbor’s back yard or even your own home.

In putting this all together, I am reminded both of Jonah and of Jesus’ ministry to the Samaritans and others outside of the Jewish context. The Syrophoenician woman, for example, came to Jesus shortly after he had spent time in her non-Jewish town. Jonah, of course, did not want to go proclaim the Gospel to the Ninevites, but God sent him the hard way. The sermon that Jonah finally preached was terse at best and he fled the city hoping to see a mighty display of fireworks. Yet God moved even through Jonah’s half-hearted message. The very fact that God had sent them his prophet must have (at least initially) made an impact on the people and caused them to take notice. Jesus’ response to the Syrophoenician woman was that it was not yet time for the pet dogs to receive their meal; hardly a cordial greeting, but his mere presence in her community told her that he would be willing to help and the desperation she felt for her daughter’s need drove her to be undaunted by this initial rebuke. Even in Samaria, Jesus’ interactions are warm, but brief, yet the impact is profound.

Ukraine may be a long way to come simply to play a game of Dominoes, but no distance is too far to go for the opportunity to share the Gospel and to help develop disciples. Even so, you likely do not need to travel very far to cross a cultural barrier. My encouragement is to look for those opportunities, find a chance to simply be present in the life of your neighbor (even in the Good Samaritan sense) and build a relationship with him or her, for it is out of that relationship that you will have a chance to share the Gospel. Who knows, were Jesus to have come for the first time in this world today — a world of running water in homes and water-fountains in public places — I wonder how he might have engaged the Samaritan woman at the Well…it might have even been through a game of Dominoes.

Do Not Send Me Away from Your Presence: Psalm 51 (part 12)

“Do not send me away from your presence,

and your Holy Spirit—do not take him from me.”

(Psalm 51:13 {Psalm 51:11 in English Bibles})


In this verse, David returns to a chiastic structure.  The verses that have gone before have been largely arranged in a simple parallel structure and this change is designed to add emphasis.  And the emphasis that David is making strikes at the very heart of the human condition:  sin has driven us out of relationship with God.  In the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve walked in communion with God; sin changed that.  Because of sin, man and woman were driven out of paradise and out of the relationship that would make even the most hellish place a paradise to be in—they were driven out of their intimate and personal relationship with God in his presence, and all of the struggles and difficulties we face in our fallen nature when we seek to commune with God all have roots back to this origin.

How could a Holy God remain in communion with those who rebelled in sin?  Indeed, sin must be punished, and the wrath of an infinite, Holy God was the only punishment suitable to the crime.  Beloved, facing someone’s anger is one thing—it is rarely a pleasant thing to do, but it is something we have all done and will likely do again—this kind of anger can be weathered.  But righteous anger is something altogether different—especially when we are in the wrong.  Facing the righteous wrath of a man who has been wronged is a heavy thing to deal with and is grievous to endure.  But what about the righteous anger of an infinite God who is perfect in his holiness and perfect in his righteousness?  No man could stand.  We would be utterly lost—even the best and most noble human being—we would be forever consigned to the fires of hell; and, in doing so, God would be vindicated.

Yet, in God’s unfathomable richness and mercy, he chose to redeem a people for himself.  Sin had to be dealt with, but rather than putting a burden that could not be borne upon men, he allowed his Son to become flesh and to bear that penalty on behalf of those who would cling to him in faith as their substitute, mediator, and paraclete.  Indeed, this is the demonstration of the infinite love of God, that he would give his only begotten son to die and bear the penalty of sin for those whom he would call in faith, that whosoever would believe in him would not perish but have eternal life and those who would reject the offering made by Christ would be forever consigned to their reasonable fate, paying the penalty for their sin in eternal condemnation (John 3:16-21).  There is no other way and no other path to the paradise of God but through Christ.  Adam and Eve lost access to it and Christ has shed his blood to offer it back to humanity once again—what good news that is to a dark and dying world!

Thus, in Christ, communion is restored through the work of the Holy Spirit, and David, recognizing the great blessing connected with God’s presence before him, clung to that above all else.  Though his sin may have caused him to deserve to be forever cast out of God’s presence, the work of Christ allows the prayer offered in faith to be heard and answered.  And though God may remove our sense of assurance for a time as a means of disciplining his children, he will not leave or forsake us because he has called us his own and adopted us as sons and daughters in Christ.  God paid too dear a price to abandon those for whom his Son died.  Thus, David pleads that God not remove from him the closeness and presence of communion that they had enjoyed, and indeed, how this should guide our own prayers of repentance, recognizing that God will not let his people be forever lost, but recognizing how essential that it is that we remain in daily—moment by moment—communion with God.  Loved ones, cling to this promise, and cling to Christ.

O love that will not let me go,

I rest my weary soul in thee;

I give thee back the life I owe,

That in thine ocean depths its flow

May richer, fuller be.

-George Matheson