Avoid Spiritual Amnesia

In part five of our series, Pursue: Chasing God in a Godless World, we pause to remember.  Along the way of our journeys after Jesus, problems and challenges are going to arise.  When these do, if we’re not careful, we can get so focused on dealing with them that we forget about the God who’s been helping us all along.  Keep reading to see what impact this can have and how we can avoid it.

 

Avoid Spiritual Amnesia

When was the last time you forgot something?  (And if you can’t remember, now counts.)  Forgetting things is frustrating.  For the life of me, I can’t figure out how some things stick, but others don’t.  Usually, it too often seems like the inane, unimportant things stick, while the important ones don’t.  That’s infuriating, isn’t it?  It’s infuriating for us, sure, but it’s infuriating for the people around us who were perhaps counting on us remembering them.  Guys—confession time—we do that more often than our wives do, don’t we?  I know I need to work on that all the time and I’ll bet some of you do too.

Part of the frustration, beyond the disrespect that forgetting shows to the one who was counting on us remembering, is that when we forget something it’s not like we just drop the ball.  Rather, we hand off the ball to someone else who may already have their hands full.  Forgetting something makes life more complicated because rather than building on what was before, we try and rebuild from scratch.  That always takes longer.  It ends up messier too because when you start building and there’s already parts of something else there you wind up with a structure that is weaker and less stable or else simply less aesthetically pleasing than you would otherwise have.

As frustrating as forgetting about things and appointments is, though, forgetting about people is worse.  When you forget about a person you are moving forward with life as if their own life never had any impact on you.  One of our fundamental needs as humans is to have some level of confidence that we have been able to have a positive impact on the people around us.  Exactly what that positive impact looks like varies, but our need for it does not.  To be forgotten is to be told that you have had no impact.  That leaves a wound deeper than most others we’ll face.

As we get into the second-to-last installment of our series, Pursue: Chasing God in a Godless World, this all matters because, kind of like we talked about last week, if you run long enough in pursuit of a single goal, sometimes you can forget what the goal was in the first place.  Our major focus for the previous four parts, though, has been the pursuit itself.  This has been an important series of conversations to have too, because our culture is changing.  If we are going to be consistent followers of Jesus—and if you’ve made a profession of faith why wouldn’t you want to live consistently to it?—as the culture continues to change around us, the way we go about such a journey and the kind of expectations we should have as we continue in it are not the same as they were a generation ago.

Getting our pursuit of Christ right in a cultural milieu the likes of which we are facing is going to require a few things of us.  We’ve learned these lessons with the help of King Asa of Judah, the third ruler of the divided kingdom.  His story can be found in 1 Kings 15 and, as we’ve been seeing, in 2 Chronicles 14-16.  What we learned from Asa is that we must first make sure we are heading in the right direction out of the gate.  Godliness must be our goal, but it’s one that has to encompass our whole lives.  Pursuing godliness happens both inside and out.  Sometimes, though, all our preparations for godliness seem for naught.  Sometimes we face situations that are simply beyond our ability to handle or overcome them.  We find ourselves in so far over our head that even trying to swim seems to be a waste of time.  The old line that God won’t allow us to face something we can’t handle is a dangerous canard that will leave us unprepared for the realities of chasing God in a godless world.  And in such times as these, we do what King Asa did when faced with the unimaginably huge Ethiopian army: We call on God.  When life gets overwhelming, call on God.

Calling on God can’t be the end of our journeys, though, because once He’s shown us the way through or over or around the wall standing before us, we still have to actually take it.  We still have to step out and do the right thing in spite of the difficulties we will face for it—that’s called courage.  Chasing God demands courage.  But, along the way of all this forward movement and activity, we’ve got to continually take stock of what we’re doing and where we’re going.  When we’re floating in the river of God’s grace, we can’t fight the current, we need to follow it.  That’s where we’ll find the rest we need to keep moving forward.  Rest comes when we stop fighting—when we worship God with a posture of humble surrender—and start following.

But, when all is said and done, pursuing God in a godless world requires us to stay focused.  It requires, as the recently deceased writer of The Message translation, Eugene Peterson, put it, a long obedience in the same direction.  Here’s the problem: We live in a culture of distraction.  If we can’t walk from one room to another without forgetting what it was we went in the room to get in the first place, we’ve got a real challenge on our hands here.  Yet this challenge is not new to us.  Asa set out on a long journey.  He did pretty well at the start and mostly stayed on track throughout his life and reign.  But near the end of his journey, he started to drift.  He started to drift because he forgot.  He forgot what the Lord had done and moved forward as if He hadn’t done it.

Check this out with me in 2 Chronicles 16:1: “In the thirty-sixth year of the reign of Asa, Baasha king of Israel went up against Judah and built Ramah, that he might permit no one to go out or come in to Asa king of Judah.”  Now, I’m going to chase a rabbit trail for just a minute because there’s something worth talking about here.  If you’re the kind of person likes to dig into your text a bit more than most, you may discover that there’s an apparent problem with this text.  If this really happened in the 36th year of Asa’s reign, Baasha would have already been dead for 10 years.  The folks who have dedicated their life to studying the Old Testament aren’t really sure what to make of this.  The most common proposal is that along the line of transcribing the text over the centuries someone added an extra squiggle that changed 16 to 36.  In ancient Hebrew script, that was fairly easy to do.  That squiggle changes the timeline.  If this all took place in the 16th year of Asa’s reign, we don’t have any problem.  Piece of cake.

But, any skeptic worth his stuff is going to respond like this: “That’s an awfully convenient solution for which you don’t have any evidence.  You just need to admit that this is an error in your supposedly error-free Bible.  And if there’s an error here, there’s really not a good reason to trust any of it.  Face it: Your faith is in vain.”  So how do we deal with this without our faith falling apart?  We deal with it like this: While we are absolutely committed to the inerrancy of the Scriptures and are firmly convinced that is an entirely reasonable position to hold in spite of the myriad of challenges it has faced over the years, the inerrancy of the Scriptures does not serve as the foundation point of our faith in Jesus.  The Scriptures themselves don’t fill that role.  Indeed, far too many folks have had their faith trashed by passages like this one because they errantly believed their faith did rest on the inerrancy of the Bible.

Our foundation is stronger than that.  Jesus serves as the foundation point for our faith in Jesus.  Specifically, Jesus’ resurrection from the dead serves as our foundation point for our faith in Jesus.  Whether or not a copyist at some point in the long line of folks who worked feverishly for centuries to preserve this text added a squiggle that resulted in an apparent error in dating here (which, by the way, is a very reasonable solution that applies to the end of chapter 15 as well in case you were wondering) does not affect our faith at all.  Here’s why: Jesus took the Hebrew Scriptures at face value including this passage.  And if a guy predicts and pulls off His own death and resurrection, we just go with whatever He said.  Furthermore, whether or not this should be Asa’s 16th or 36th year doesn’t change the lesson to be learned here.

Whether it was in the aftermath of all the success he experienced early on in his reign, or 20 years later when he had gotten settled into a pattern, Asa was faced with the challenge of his rival to the north putting in place some military measures that were going to make life difficult in the days ahead.  And while we would rightly expect that Asa handled this challenge the same way he did the challenge of Zerah the Ethiopian, we would be mistaken in that expectation.

Look at v. 2 now: “Then Asa took silver and gold from the treasures of the house of the Lord and the king’s house and sent them to Ben-hadad of Syria, who lived in Damascus, saying, ‘There is a covenant between me and you, as there was between my father and your father.  Behold, I am sending you silver and gold.  Go, break your covenant with Baasha king of Israel, that he may withdraw from me.’”

Do you see what’s happening here?  The king of Israel was moving to isolate Jerusalem in a move that was intended to be a precursor to conquering it.  Now, again, Asa had faced down an unimaginably huge army and experienced the miraculous deliverance of God.  The king of Israel hadn’t even attacked him.  He wasn’t threatening to attack.  He was just building up a military outpost a few miles north of Jerusalem that was intended to serve as a blockade of any other Israelites planning to emigrate to Judah in light of the powerful activity of God there.  Now, that was a serious thing, but not one that was quite the existential threat as the Ethiopians had posed.  But, instead of calling on God for help just like he had done before, Asa acted as if that whole episode hadn’t happened at all.  He raided not only the royal treasuries, but the temple treasuries in order to bribe the Syrians into reneging on their already-in-place deal with the Israelites to not attack them while they focused on moving against Judah.  In other words, rather than relying on God, he took money from God to pay someone else to help deal with the problem.

And…his plan seemed to work.  Verse 4 now: “And Ben-hadad listened to King Asa and sent the commanders of his armies against the cities of Israel, and they conquered Ijon, Dan, Abel-maim, and all the store cities of Naphtali.  And when Baasha heard of it, he stopped building Ramah and let his work cease.  Then King Asa took all Judah, and they carried away the stones of Ramah and its timber, with which Baasha had been building, and with them he built Geba and Mizpah.”  In other words, Ben-hadad created a distraction that allowed Asa to run up and take the resources Baasha had been using to build an Israelite outpost and built two Judahite outposts instead.  Success, right?

Well, by all accounts so far, it is.  As far as Asa knew, things were good.  I mean, sure, he hadn’t called on God for help, but this wasn’t a big deal like the Ethiopians had been.  And besides, God’s busy running the world.  He doesn’t need to be bothered for every little problem that pops up along the journey, does He?  Asa just handled this one himself.  And, the results speak for themselves, don’t they?  But you see, when we forget about God and move forward as if He wasn’t there, we set ourselves up for trouble.

God sent a prophet named Hanani to clue Asa in on just what he had done.  Verse 7: “At that time Hanani the seer came to Asa king of Judah and said to him, ‘Because you relied on the king of Syria, and did not rely on the Lord your God, the army of the king of Syria has escaped you.  Were not the Ethiopians and the Libyans a huge army with very many chariots and horsemen?  Yet because you relied on the Lord, he gave them into your hand.  For the eyes of the Lord run to and fro throughout the whole earth, to give strong support to those whose heart is blameless toward him.  You have done foolishly in this, for from now on you will have wars.’”

Now, maybe your first reaction to that is something along the lines of, “Ouch!  That’s kind of harsh.”  I understand that reaction.  God kind of gives him a lecture here.  Why all the judgment for one little thing?  Well, for starters, because this wasn’t one little thing.  This was a big deal.  You see, just like the faithful example of one person can affect a lot of people, the faithless example of one person can as well.  The leaders of Judah knew about Asa’s dramatic and successful reliance on the Lord in the face of the Ethiopians.  The impact of that on the nation’s spiritual climate was huge.  But here, facing odds that weren’t nearly as bad, Asa didn’t give the Lord a second thought.  This said something to the nation.  It said that while God was good for the tough stuff, we don’t really need Him for the smaller issues.  Well, that message said something about God.  It said that He was too busy or else too self-absorbed to be bothered by the small things; that He didn’t care about them.  Yet nothing escapes the care or attention of our God.  He’s numbered the hairs on our head.  He cares about what happens to us no matter how small a deal it may seem to be.

More directly to the point, though, look again at what Hanani said.  Was there any judgment or condemnation here?  No, there wasn’t.  What did God actually say?  He essentially says, “Because you did this on your own and didn’t bother asking me for help, you’re going to get what your actions are able to obtain.  Listen: I would have helped you defeat both the Israelites and the Syrians.  But you didn’t ask.  Now, you haven’t really dealt with the Israelites in any long-term fashion, and you’ve let the Syrians think that you’re too weak to have dealt with them on your own making you a target for their future aggressions.  Good work there, Champ.”  This isn’t an angry God blasting away at a disobedient peon, this is a disappointed father walking his foolish son through the probable consequences of his actions.  And what was it that brought on these consequences?  The son forgot about his father.  He forgot what his father had said.  He forgot what his father had done.

Now, think about this for a minute.  How could Asa have forgotten about everything God had done before?  I mean, something like his defeat of the Ethiopians should have been seared in his brain forever.  I still remember when I made the winning free throws against the best team in the league for my fifth-grade basketball team.  Now, those were the only points I made all season, but I’m not going to forget them.  Asa’s spiritual and military victories were way more consequential than that.  Well, the odds are good he hadn’t literally forgotten about the experience.  But, by his actions here, he does seem to have forgotten who the impetus for it was.

You see, we are single-minded people.  We allow whatever challenge is currently before us to flood our field of vision so thoroughly that we can’t see anything else.  You can demonstrate how this works with your thumb.  Close one eye and hold your thumb up.  If you pick something sufficiently far away—use my head for a lack of something else—you can put your thumb over it and not be able to see it at all.  That’s how we deal with many problems in life.  We have a great tendency to deal with the situation before us on its own merits and not in light of what came before it or any other relevant factors.  And the real challenge here is that to a certain extent, we can get away with that.  Life is not like learning math.  When you learn math, everything builds on what came before.  If you forget the first thing, you really can’t go on to the next thing.  Life doesn’t necessarily work like that.  If we forget the first thing, we can still go on.  In fact, we have to go on because life doesn’t stop to wait for us while we work it back out.  But if we forget, our way won’t be as easy as it might be otherwise.

If we’re going to stay on track in our pursuit of God in a godless world—and I know this sounds almost silly to say—we can’t forget about Him.  More than that, we can’t forget about what He’s done.  We can’t forget about the ways He’s been faithful.  That faithfulness can define our path if we’ll let it.  It can keep us from drifting off into the weeds of life.  If we’re going to chase God in a godless world, we can’t forget God’s faithfulness.  Don’t forget God’s faithfulness.

But come on now, is this really such a big deal?  After all, when Asa paid off the Syrians instead of calling on God, they did what he paid them to do and he was able to deal with the problem before him.  Think about it, though: What happens when we forget God’s faithfulness?  Well, if we forget that God has been faithful, we’re likely to move forward as if He hasn’t been.  That’s exactly what Asa did here.  He moved forward to deal with the challenge presented by the Israelites to the north as if there was no God and everything relied on him.  You see, if God hasn’t been faithful, then the outcome of whatever it is depends on us and whatever we can accomplish with our own strength.

The problem, as Asa and later kings of Judah would discover, is that our own strength isn’t very strong.  If our strength isn’t enough, we’ll look to bulk up our strength with whatever other strength we can find, regardless of the source of that strength and the price it may require of us down the road.  That leads us into dangerous waters.  Asa apparently wasn’t going to be able to deal with the build up of Ramah on his own.  The armies of Judah weren’t strong enough to overcome the armies of Israel.  If they had been, he wouldn’t have paid off the Syrians.  But, he did.  And in doing so, the Syrians learned something important: The Judahites don’t have sufficient forces to defeat the Israelites.  If we do…then we can defeat Judah as well.  Now, Judah had a target on its back.  Syria was a mercenary nation.  They were willing to do whatever the highest bidder paid them to do.  Or, on the other end of things, they were willing to not do whatever the highest bidder paid them to not do.  If somebody came back and paid them more to attack Judah than Judah had paid them to attack Israel, guess what they were going to do.  What a mess!  All because Asa didn’t remember the faithfulness of God.  We can’t forget God’s faithfulness.  Don’t forget God’s faithfulness.

Okay, but how?  How do we keep from forgetting?  How do we stay focused on the bigger picture?  How do we keep our eyes open, so our vision doesn’t get flooded with only the problems we are facing?  I think there are two really powerful ways to meet this challenge of chasing God in a godless world.  The first is to put in place spiritual markers.  When God has done something for us, when He has demonstrated His faithfulness in our lives in some powerful way, we need to mark that.  Multiple times in their history God had the people of Israel build a monument to something He had done.  When Joshua and the people crossed the Jordan on dry ground, they got 12 stones out of the river and built a monument on the other side.  This monument was to remind the people what God had done for them.  Every time they saw it, it was going to help them think about His faithfulness.

What are some of the things God has done in your life?  What are some of the places He’s been faithful to you?  What are you doing to remember those?  How are you marking them in your life?  It could be a picture of a particularly memorable time that you have displayed somewhere noticeable in your home.  You could plant a tree to mark some occasion that will be a constant reminder as it grows.  Perhaps you could wear a piece of jewelry each day—like, say, a wedding ring—that will be a physical reminder you take with you everywhere you go.  Or, it could be something more active than that.  The bottom line is: Don’t forget God’s faithfulness.

Speaking of something more active, the other powerful way to help you remember is to put in place some kind of a celebration to mark some occasion of God’s faithfulness in your past.  Thinking back to that Thanksgiving episode of This Is Us from season 1, what made their family tradition so sacred to them was not simply that they were celebrating the holiday together.  Rather, the nature of their celebration marked a dramatic time when their family had drawn together to become stronger as a family than they had been before.  For the people of Israel, the Passover wasn’t put in place simply so they had a holiday as a nation.  It was to be an intentional act of remembering the faithfulness of God in the past in order to encourage them to remain faithful in the present.  Even today the whole liturgy of the Passover is a catechism designed to teach children to put their faith in the God who was so faithful to them in the past.

So think about it: How has God been faithful to you in the past and what are you doing to intentionally remember and celebrate it?  What kinds of rituals and routines do you have in your family?  I’ll share one we have with you.  Every Sunday morning, we have cinnamon rolls for breakfast.  The sides may vary, but the cinnamon rolls are the staple.  It’s a simple thing, but it’s the thing we do before coming to church.  We celebrate in the small and sometimes even in the chaos our family being together just before we celebrate being together with our faith family.  I suspect many of you have experienced God’s faithfulness in dramatic ways.  How are you celebrating those times?  The fact is: We get more of what we celebrate.  If we celebrate God’s faithfulness, we’ll likely put ourselves in a place to experience more of it.  More than that, we’ll put ourselves in a place to remember it so that we can move forward in our journeys after Jesus in light of it.

Don’t forget God’s faithfulness.  He’s been faithful in the past—not just to you, but to everyone who’s called on Him—and His character doesn’t change.  Don’t forget God’s faithfulness.  There’s no reason to try and rebuild what already exists and you and I aren’t up to the task of life on our own anyway.  Don’t forget God’s faithfulness.  It may seem inconsequential in the short term, but the long-term consequences of acting entirely on our own are never good.  Don’t forget God’s faithfulness.  Stay on the journey that leads to life.

 

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