Commonsense Christianity

Commonsense Christianity

The Discipline of God

posted by Carolyn Henderson

Discipline is an ambiguous word, easily misunderstood because its two major applications are so at variance with one another.

In a good sense, discipline is what athletes do — training their bodies to achieve top performance through practice, hard work, persistence, attention to diet and daily living habits — in short, they demand much of themselves without approaching punishment. Anyone who chooses to do something well — fine art painting, knitting, gardening, cooking — disciplines themselves in such a way to achieve top performance.

Discipline is a lifestyle, on a daily basis pushing ourselves to be better, stronger, wiser, more perseverant. Photo credit Steve Henderson Fine Art

Discipline is a lifestyle, on a daily basis pushing ourselves to be better, stronger, wiser, more perseverant. Photo credit Steve Henderson Fine Art

In a bad sense, discipline involves hitting, striking, slapping, whipping, beating — something we associate wicked masters doing to slaves, or creepy reprobates inflicting upon dogs — and the ultimate goal is punishment as opposed to growth. This is not a diatribe upon spanking versus not spanking, so much as it is an observance that discipline — when its primary goal is punishment and/or humiliation — doesn’t work. The bad behavior may be arrested, but the person hit by the same hand that caresses experiences — logically — a sense of confusion, and fear. Is that hand good? Or is it bad?

Spare the Rod . . .

Like any Christian who has spent time in a fundamentalist establishment setting, I’m well aware of verses like Proverbs 13:24 —

“He who spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is careful to discipline him,” and I have overheard more information than I would like about leather strops versus wooden spoons. Verses like these, however — which seem to contradict the loving, merciful, and wise judging nature of God — may be interpreted in various ways. There is enough evidence that the “rod” — which in the beloved Psalm 23 (“The Lord is my shepherd”) isn’t used to beat the sheep — is figurative, and that’s fine by me.

Proverbs 3:11 tells us,

“My son, do not despise the Lord’s discipline and do not resent his rebuke, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, as a father the son he delights in.”

A Different Kind of Fear of God

For many Christians, the word “despise” in the above verse could be replaced with “abjectly fear,” and when one’s idea of discipline involves the energetic application of a belt or a switch, it’s understandable that one would be afraid, very afraid, of being beaten by God.

Child of Eden inspirational original oil painting of little girl with green hat in garden with radishes by Steve Henderson

Children are fragile, and correcting them must be done wisely. So it is with God, toward His children. Child of Eden, original oil painting by Steve Henderson; licensed print at Framed Canvas Art, iCanvasART, and Vision Art Galleries.

When one looks at discipline in the light of definition A, above, however, one can deal with this: no father needs or wants lazy, complacent, disobedient, careless children, and the best solution when one experiences behavior like this is not to immediately pull out a stick. A wise father can find a more creative — and effective — means of disciplining a child to be a better person, in the same way that a good athlete pushes himself, hard, but not to the point of injury.

Because many Christians are focused on the concept of sin, sin, and more sin, any time they falter or fail, they automatically consider themselves wicked and evil, fully deserving of the very worst that God could inflict. But let’s look at a definition of evil, again from Proverbs, which describes wicked men,

Real Evil 

“whose words are perverse, who leave the straight paths to walk in dark ways, who delight in doing wrong and rejoice in the perverseness of evil, whose paths are crooked, and who are devious in their ways.” (Proverbs 2:12-14)

This is evil in its top form — men, and women, working behind the scenes, using their money and influence to ruin the lives of others while they stay quietly in the background, amassing more wealth and power. They. Hurt. Innocents.

And yet, when we pursue a line of thought that is envious and bitter, or we take a sip of wine when we think we shouldn’t, or we honestly hurt another person by a careless word — we are not at such a level of evil that we deserve the wrath awaiting those who traffic in pure, unadulterated hate, their lives ruled by their worship of the prince of darkness, as opposed to the Prince of Peace.

But we think that’s what we’re going to get.

Retracting the Claws

Is it any wonder that people — Christians and non-Christians — have difficulty understanding, and embracing, the deep, holy, pure, beautiful, unconditional love of God when, at any time, they are afraid of being kicked by Him?

Last night we watched a nature show about polar bears, and it showed a 600-pound mother bear cradling — with those massive, scary paws — her 20-ounce (that’s the size of a bottle of soda) newborn. I was in awe at how gently this powerful giant nurtured the fragility of innocence.

Later, when the cubs were older, one received a cuff from mom, enough to knock it over and get the message across, but decidedly and definitely not the full force of what mom’s mitts could do. The full force would kill.

The reason we do not have to be afraid of the Lord’s discipline is because, like a truly wise and loving Father, He uses the best means of getting our attention, and teaching us in the way we should go. Discipline is not always pleasant — ask any knitter if they enjoy pulling out rows and rows of stitches because they made a mistake five inches back and tried to ignore it — but its result is a stronger, wiser person.

God does not give us cancer. He does not send tornadoes on top of our house. He does not make us lose our job. He does not inflict random, appalling pain upon us that mirrors what men do to one another — but within our circumstances of pain, He speaks, corrects, leads, urges, encourages, and gives us a firm push in the direction we should go.

We do not have to be afraid of Him.

Thank You

Thank you for joining me at Commonsense Christianity, where I encourage Christians to ask questions — of each other, of the evening news, of God — and not accept answers that don’t satisfy. Too easily, we shrug our shoulders and say, “That doesn’t make sense and it doesn’t seem fair or right, but, oh well, ‘God’s ways are not our ways.'”

No, they’re not. They’re better. When they seem worse, then maybe they’re not God’s ways.

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Yes or No: Does God Hear Our Prayers?

posted by Carolyn Henderson

We’ve all had days when we wish that we were back in bed, before we even climb out of it. Not long ago, I faced a situation — not a major one, but not so minor that it wouldn’t add its weight of stress — that looked like it would be either A) very bad or B) not particularly good.

Ocean Breeze inspirational oil painting of woman onocean beach at sunset with dress and fabric by Steve Henderson

Standing, sitting, kneeling, driving — we pray at all times and in all places, and God hears them all. Ocean Breeze, original oil painting by Steve Henderson. Licensed print at Great Big Canvas, iCanvasART, and Framed Canvas Art.

As I sat in the car, I prayed: “God. Get me through the next several hours. I’m tired; I have no strength, energy, wisdom, or creativity, and I really can’t add much more to my plate right now.”

And then it was time to enter the lion’s den.

Hours later, I emerged, not necessarily whistling — because I can’t whistle — but relieved, grateful, and even cheerful. Earlier in the car, when I was faced with the options of A or B, I had forgotten that God usually has an Option C. It’s the one that unfolds when we can’t see beyond this or that, and it happens so consistently, I wonder why I persist in seeing life as either/or.

The Big, Big Prayer

That night, as I was praying, I thanked God for this unexpected Option C before I turned to some serious meditation and prayer about a long-term request that means a whole, whole lot to me, but just. doesn’t. progress. I don’t sweat tears, but I do ache with a desire for something that is so deep, so unyielding, and so absolutely impossible that sheer logic says that I should give it up, but I can’t.

I’ve offered it up, but He never takes it back. Enough happens — small, incremental things — that I keep walking, but some days, I wonder if this trail will ever reach its destination. Before I die, that is.

As I was praying, the question popped into my mind:

“John’s baptism — was it from heaven, or from men?”

Wow. That’s really random.

Putting Jesus on the Spot

The query stems from Mark 11:27-34 (parallel verses in Luke 20:1-8 and Matthew 21:23-27) in which the chief priests, the teachers of the law, and the elders demand of Jesus,

Peace inspirational original oil painting of canoe on Wallowa Lake near mountains by Steve Henderson

When we ask for help from heaven, and help comes, do we believe that heaven heard, and answered? What about when the answer is different than what we’re hoping for? Peace, original oil painting by Steve Henderson; licensed print at Framed Canvas Art and Vision Art Galleries.

“‘By what authority are you doing these things?’ they asked. ‘And who gave you authority to do this?'”

Since the passage immediately preceding has to do with clearing the temple, it’s highly likely that the Jewish leaders are referring to this, as well as to Jesus’s controversial teaching within that temple. Anytime you block moneymakers from raking in their profits, they get upset, but I couldn’t see how Jesus’s interaction with dishonest, disingenuous, insecure, crafty, clever, and scheming men who were using religion to fund their aspirations and ambition had anything to do with my long-term desire that just won’t go away.

“‘John’s baptism — was it from heaven, or from men? Tell me!’

“They discussed it among themselves and said, ‘If we say, “From heaven,” he will ask, “Then why didn’t you believe him?” But if we say, “from men . . . 

“(They feared the people, for everyone held that John was really a prophet.)” (Mark 11:30-32)

Yes? or No?

The question is essentially this: is it from God, or not? Make a choice.

In my own situation, it looked like this:

I started my day out troubled, and before I entered the lion’s den I prayed. I emerged relieved, because my prayer was answered.

So, that answer to prayer: was it from God? Or was it just a coincidence?

If it was from God, and He heard and answered my prayer, then why do I doubt that He hears, or cares about, my primary, aching prayer?

If it wasn’t from God, then why did I bother praying in the first place?

Poor Sherlock Holmes . . .

Too often, it is easy to discount an answer to prayer because it looks logical, and we tell ourselves — afterward — that of course it worked out okay, because that’s the way that makes sense. We forget, however, that prior to the solution, when we were walking blind, we saw no acceptable answer. It reminds me of the Sherlock Holmes stories, in which listeners are amazed at Holmes’ ability to deduce the facts, until he tells them how he got them.

“Oh,” we comment. “Is that all?”

Revelation 8:3-4 tells us that the prayers of the saints are as incense before God: “The smoke of the incense, together with the prayers of the saints, went up before God from the angel’s hand.”

Psalm 141:2 says, “May my prayer be set before you like incense; may the lifting up of my hands be like the evening sacrifice.”

Incense is not something that can be easily ignored: it is strong, pungent, and very much present in the room. We can be confident that, when we pray, God hears us, and His eyes “are on the righteous, and his ears are attentive to their cry.” (Psalm 34:15)

Earlier in this essay I mentioned Option A or Option B, and how we frequently forget that, within any situation, God works through Option C or D, but when it comes to whether God is real or not, or whether He hears us cry or not, we’re back to Option A or B:

Does God hear us, or not?

The baptism of John — was it from heaven, or from men?

While the religious leaders refused to answer, I have an idea that they knew, perfectly well, that the solution was Option A. But their hearts were too hard to admit it.

I don’t want to be like these people.

Thank You

Thank you for joining me at Commonsense Christianity where, every day, I am learning more about God’s grace: He doesn’t expect me to lie about my feelings — to myself or Him — He wants me to put them before Him so that He can teach me, lead me, and show me the true depth of His love.

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Christians: Let’s Admit That We Don’t Know It All

posted by Carolyn Henderson

I have to be in a certain mood to read the book of Proverbs, which consists, primarily, of pithy — yet wise, and true — statements in couplet form. Part of me always thinks, “Most of these were written by Solomon, who, although he was the wisest man in all history, managed to make some really foolish marital, spiritual, and financial decisions.”

Lonesome Barn inspirational original watercolor painting of clouds over grassy meadow near barn by Steve Henderson

Who makes the clouds, and the rain, the sunlight, the wind, and the animals that graze in the grass? He’s the One who knows it all. Lonesome Barn, original watercolor by Steve Henderson, sold. Licensed open edition print at Framed Canvas Art

But that’s the beauty of the Bible — it never leaves us in the dark as to Who is all wise, all good, and all knowing, and the very foibles of a righteous man are a lesson in themselves:

“Stop trusting in man, who has but a breath in his nostrils. Of what account is he?” (Isaiah 2:22)

Good, But Not Perfect

Solomon, David, Joseph, Daniel, Moses, Abraham, Elijah, Peter, John, Paul — these were all good, righteous men whose words and actions were used by God, but we are never permitted the illusion that they aspired to be, or even could ever manage to be, equal to God themselves. God graciously shows us their imperfections, and if we stopped being so hard on ourselves, we would realize that this same grace extends to us: we will make mistakes — phenomenally dumb ones — we will err, we will sin, we will fall — but into the arms of a perfect, merciful, loving God.

Speaking of that perfect, merciful, loving God, Proverbs 30 is not written by Solomon by by Agur, son of Jakeh of Massa, which the helpful notes in my Bible associate — through the place name Massa — with the Ishmaelite people. In other words, not only is Agur not Solomon, he is highly likely also not an offspring of Isaac, but of the “other” son.

God’s Wisdom Is Everywhere

By the standards that too many of us Christians easily fall into, we can easily misconceive that what Agur has to say is of little value, because — so we reason — he’s not a Child of the Promise, and thereby can have no wisdom. (Admit it: have you ever thought, or said, “He’s not a Christian, so he can’t speak truth, not real truth”?) But . . . Agur’s words are in Proverbs, which gives them the weight of Scripture.

So what does Agur say?

“I am the most ignorant of men; I do not have a man’s understanding. I have not learned wisdom, nor have I knowledge of the Holy One.” (Proverbs 30:1-3)

So far, Agur is playing right into our traditional, yet misdirected belief, in that, as a “heathen,” he rightfully admits that he knows nothing of God. How could he, we insist, given that he is not of God’s chosen people?

Humility Instead of Pride

But in the next few lines, Agur shows that, not only does he know much of God, he knows more than those of us who believe ourselves chosen (whether we’re Old Testament Jews or New Testament Christians) — do, because his humility in admitting that he doesn’t know everything about the One who IS everything — is something we Christians frequently lack:

Three Horses inspirational original oil painting of mountains and meadow by Steve Henderson

God, who gave strength to the horse, knows and understands all things. He is our teacher. Three horses, original oil painting by Steve Henderson

“Who has gone up to heaven and come down? Who has gathered up the wind in the hollow of his hands? Who has wrapped up the waters in his cloak? Who has established all the ends of the earth? What is his name, and the name of his son? Tell me if you know!” (Proverbs 30:4)

These words effectively echo God’s in His conversation (monologue, actually) with Job in chapters 38-41, in which God puts forth all sorts of rhetorical questions of one who — like all of us humans — doubted the wisdom of God’s actions. It soon becomes very obvious that,

1) We don’t know when the mountain goats give birth (39:1)

2) We didn’t give the horse his strength (39:19)

3) The eagle does not soar at our command (39:27)

4) We can’t trap the behemoth and pierce his nose (40:24)

and on, and on, and on, until we can only answer, like Job,

“I know that you can do all things; no plan of yours can be thwarted . . . surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know.” (42:3)

Those Willing to Be Taught, Learn

This is effectively what Agur, the Ishmaelite who fully admits his ignorance in front of the One who has established all the ends of the earth, is saying, and we would be wise to follow his example.

As Christians, we too easily stumble into the trap of believing that

1) We shouldn’t ever sin, fall, doubt, or snap impatiently at someone

2) We should understand all Scripture

and

3) We should have answers to every question, because, after all, if the Holy Spirit lives in us, we must show evidence of that spiritual life, mustn’t we?

But as the apostle Paul reminds us in 2 Corinthians 4:7,

“We have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.”

And despite having this treasure,

“We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body.” (8-10)

It is easy to misconstrue that we are good and knowledgeable and sinless and perfect when we are not: we belong to the One Who is. And He Who is is continually working upon us doesn’t get it all done at one time — our moment of conversion, say — but rather, “will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 1:6)

It’s much easier for Him to work on us when we are humble, meek, aware of our shortcomings and not in denial that they exist.

As Christians, we don’t know everything, but unfortunately we feel the obligation to do so. Let us learn from Agur, a wise man of God, who starts from this premise of humility:

“I am the most ignorant of men . . . I have not learned wisdom, nor do I have knowledge of the Holy One.”

Only a truly wise man can make an admission like that.

Thank You

Thank you for joining me at Commonsense Christianity where I encourage you to search, diligently, for grace. You cannot err in this, because when you search for God’s mercy, you do so because you realize that you need it so much.

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Negative Thoughts: Deny the Lie

posted by Carolyn Henderson

A good lie is 95 percent true — that’s what makes it good.

After all, if it’s too obviously false, like,

The first lie, which remains a very good, believable one, still fools us today. Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden by Wenzel Peter.

The first lie, which remains a very good, believable one, still fools us today. Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden by Wenzel Peter.

“Negative thoughts have a magnetic force that causes them to glow and pulsate. Attracted by the light, people gravitate toward the thoughts, physically run into them, and get migraine headaches,” then people rightly say,

Bosh.

But if we alter the statement, subtly, we get,

“Negative thoughts are bad, and when you think or express them, you will frequently experience the very thing you’re afraid of.”

Have you heard that one, or a variation of it, before? And do you believe it?

“Don’t Say It!”

I ran into a woman the other day who does. We were part of a conversation in which a very brave person expressed, honestly, buck naked feelings, along the lines of,

“I am depressed, sad, and discouraged. We have prayed a long time for relief, but nothing happens, and sometimes I wonder if God hears us.”

“Oh, He doesn’t, when you feel like that!” she chirped. “When you don’t have enough faith, He is not obligated to answer your prayers.”

This singularly uncomforting, and distinctly misguided, sentence sounds as if it could be true, because we’ve all been around gloomy, depressing, battery drainers who never think things will ever turn out right, and they generally don’t (quite frankly, these drainers wouldn’t recognize a good result if it slapped them in the face), but like that good lie, it incorporates enough truth to fool, and enough lie to damage.

Prosperity Babble

Thanks to multiple generations of prosperity preachers, advocating a dogma of Speaking Truth into Existence, we attribute a power to words that belongs to God alone:

“God created the world through His words!” advocates proclaim, claim, declare, and aver. “So also can we.”

This clever, and effective, rephrasing of one of the oldest lies, told by a master in Genesis 3:4:

“‘You will not surely die,’ the serpent said to the woman, ‘For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil,'”

fools many, even mature Christians.

While seasoned believers readily identify, recognize, and refute the words of people who sell books promising others that they can get rich if they only speak the right words, the lie runs deep, and its insidious tentacles have reached, subtly yet firmly, into the sanctuaries of too many churches, and into the minds of too many Christians who would have no problem telling an obvious prosperity preacher to click off.

He Doesn’t Reject Us

“If you express doubt in God’s ability,” they muse, “then maybe He does turn His back on us.”

Fortunately, for Peter in his one and only recorded attempt to walk on water, “Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. ‘You of little faith,’ he said, ‘why did you doubt?'” (Matthew 14:31)

Catching the Breeze inspirational original oil painting of woman walking on beach by ocean sea by Steve Henderson

While we may not walk on water, we do walk with God — in prayer, in hope, in faith, and in expressing our lack of faith. Catching the Breeze, original oil painting by Steve Henderson, sold. Licensed prints at Great Big Canvas, Vision Art Galleries, iCanvasART, and Framed Canvas Art.

Another time, Jesus calmed the storm when the disciples begged him to save them, because they feared they were about to drown:

“He replied, ‘You of little faith, why are you so afraid?’ Then he got up and rebuked the winds and the waves, and it was completely calm.” (Matthew 8:26)

My favorite involves the father of the demon possessed boy,  who in Mark 9:22 blurts out, ‘”But if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.’

‘”If you can?’ said Jesus. ‘Everything is possible for him who believes.'”

Over, and over, and over again Jesus points out a lack of faith, but never rejects the person expressing it. And, most importantly, the words of the people asking for His help — whether they are full of faith or full of doubt — do. not. cause. the. miracle.

Jesus alone manifests the miracle, at His desire, and His overwhelming attitude toward humble, hurting, hapless sheep is one of compassion and care.

No Fear

Why then are we so afraid to express our very deepest thoughts to Him?

Because, on a regular basis, when we express just the tip of those thoughts to human beings, we are rebuked for our lack of faith, as if our inadequacy, or adequacy, in this area locks or unlocks God’s power.

“God is offended by our lack of faith,” we’re told.

But is He?

“For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgement of God rather than burnt offerings,” God says in Hosea 6:6, giving the idea that it’s more of who we are, as opposed to what we do — or speak — that matters.

“The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise,” Psalm 51:17 says. I don’t know if you’ve ever had a broken spirit, but I can assure you that, when you do, your overall emotional state of being is not positive.

“Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may life you up in due time,” 1 Peter 5:6 advises. “Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.”

Part of casting your anxiety on God is expressing to Him what it involves, and describing your fears, hurts, and sorrows — in prayer — will involve a certain degree of what we call negativity.

God is not offended, nor surprised, by the deep, roiling, dark, panicky, distressed thoughts that surge through us as we struggle through each day’s challenges. Sometimes, when the water is pouring into the boat, and it looks like we will drown, Jesus appears to be asleep.

If He did not condemn the disciples when they shouted,

“Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?” (Mark 4:8), why do we think He will reject us when we say,

“God. I’m tired. I’m discouraged. And I don’t possibly see how you can get me out of this situation”?

If you’re at the point that you no longer want to express your hurt in front of people, because they scold you so much, then by all means, don’t.

But never stop expressing your deepest, most fragile thoughts, to God.

Thank You

Thank you for joining me at Commonsense Christianity, where I encourage all believers to be honest with God. It’s the first step toward our being honest toward one another.

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