Isaiah 1: God Wants Our Hearts

Growing up, I really struggled in my relationship with God because I thought that Christianity was all about keeping a list of rules. And God does give us commands in scripture to live by. In John 14:15, Christ says, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” Obeying Him is absolutely necessary in order to love Him, but obedience alone is not love. Chapter 1 of Isaiah gives clear evidence that God is not looking for mere outward conformity to His laws, but obedience from the heart.

The chapter begins with the Lord’s addressing His people’s sin. He compares them to rebellious children (v. 2), and marvels that though animals know their master, Israel does not know hers (v.3). He continues to describe their sin in verse 4: “Alas, sinful nation, people laden down with iniquity, offspring of evildoers, sons who act corruptly! They have abandoned the LORD, they have despised the Holy One of Israel, They have turned away from Him.”

Interestingly enough, it seems that Israel, though rebellious at heart, was still following God’s commands in regard to burnt offerings and sacrifices. And even though He had given very detailed instructions to Israel on sacrifices, He is now so frustrated with Israel’s hypocrisy that He addresses them as Sodom and Gomorrah and says,

“’What are your multiplied sacrifices to Me?’ says the LORD. ‘I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed cattle; And I take no pleasure in the blood of bulls, lambs or goats. When you come to appear before Me, Who requires of you this trampling of My courts? Bring your worthless offerings no longer, incense is an abomination to Me. New moon and Sabbath, the calling of assemblies—I cannot endure iniquity and the solemn assembly. I hate your new moon festivals and your appointed feasts, they have become a burden to Me; I am weary of bearing them. So when you spread out your hands in prayer, I will hide My eyes from you; Yes, even though you multiply prayers, I will not listen. Your hands are covered with blood,’” (vv. 11-15).

When Israel brought their sacrifices for their sins, it was an insult to the LORD because He knew their hearts. He knew that they weren’t sorry for their sins. And because of their persistent rebellion and hypocrisy, God had to judge them with destruction (vv.5-9,28-30).

But, ever merciful and ready to pardon, the LORD gives Israel the opportunity to turn from their own evil ways and embrace His righteous ways. And we get a clear picture of what He wants in His people: the kind of heart that isn’t merely concerned with externals, but knows and respects the character of God well enough to act in consideration of Him in daily life: to cease to do evil, to learn to do good, to seek justice, to reprove the ruthless, to defend the orphan, and to plead for the widow—exactly what Israel wasn’t doing (v. 23).

We are human just like the people of Israel were. It’s easy to condemn Israel for her hypocrisy, but aren’t we often guilty of the same kinds of things? We go to church, but then we live however we want. We say we love God, but then we make fun of or despise the people He created and Christ died for.

Being a Christian isn’t just going to church on Sunday. Being a Christian is about knowing God through His Word and being changed by it. It means living differently than the people of the world—keeping a clean heart, fighting for justice, standing up to those who are wronging others, defending the helpless. This is how we love God.

“Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widow in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world,” (James 1:27).

Isaiah

A month or so ago, I came to Isaiah in the normal course of reading through my Bible. Confession: in the past when I have read Isaiah, I mostly zoned out because I had this idea that since it was prophecy, I wouldn’t be able to understand most of it, anyway.

But this time through, I wanted the experience to be different. I wanted to actually pay attention to what I was reading.

So I sat down with my Bible, a pen, and a journal and started in. I took notes as I went so that I would have to pay attention, and what I quickly discovered was that Isaiah is an amazing book—amazingly beautiful because it’s mostly God sharing His heart through poetry.

As a lover of poetry, I can’t tell you how thrilled I was to discover this treasury by the Creator of poetry Himself. The whole book is rich in literary devices—imagery, parallelism, metaphors, similes, etc. But what is even more striking to me is the message of the poetry. Here in Isaiah, we find our God using poetry to express His feelings and thoughts, plans and desires. Knowing His heart is the greatest treasure.

For anyone who has ever longed to obey the greatest commandment–to love the Lord your God with all of your heart, soul, mind, and strength (Deuteronomy 6:5, Mark 12:30), Isaiah is a must-study. Why? Because in order to love God well, we have to know who He is, and Isaiah is like an open window straight into the heart of God. Being able to see who He is will first mesmerize us with His beauty and secondly motivate us to action. A great example of this is Isaiah himself who in chapter 6 sees the Lord in His glory and immediately realizes his own sinfulness and, upon forgiveness, offers himself to the Lord’s service. As we see God’s character in the book of Isaiah, we too can be moved to repentance, awe, and loving surrender.

So I have decided to share some of the “take-aways” that I found in the book of Isaiah in the coming days that they may encourage and strengthen you as they have me.

How to Enjoy Valentine’s Day when You’re Single

Valentine’s Day can be difficult for those of us who are single, but as children of the God who is love, it doesn’t have to be. Here are a few tips to help you have a good Valentine’s Day this year:

1. Reject feelings that are not true.

As we are confronted with our lack of romance on Valentine’s Day, the temptation to discontentment is strong. Desiring love and marriage is not wrong in and of itself. In fact, God created marriage—it’s a good thing. The problem comes when we begin to feel like we have to have romantic love or we can’t be happy. That’s discontentment. And it’s a sin— first, because it’s ungrateful and demanding in light of who we are compared to God, and, second, because we are told in Philippians 4 to rejoice in the Lord always (Keep in mind that Paul was in prison when he penned those words.).

Even though we may feel like there is no alternative to discontentment, we don’t have to be discontent. Christ has set us free from sin (Romans 6). We don’t have to wallow in self-pity over our relationship status. We are free to rejoice in the Lord.

2. Delight in God’s love.

We are small, sinful people. Yet the great Creator of the universe loves us. In the greatest mystery the world has ever known, God has given Himself for us and to us. It’s not just that He does good to us in spite of our sinful ugliness: He actually wants us. He wants to dwell with us, dreaming and working together, enjoying good things together, walking through hard times together, and, ultimately, living happily ever after together. His is a love that goes deeper and further than we can even begin to imagine. And if we are Christ’s, that love is ours. When we are tempted to be unhappy on Valentine’s Day, let’s take the opportunity to rejoice in God’s amazing love for us.

3. Choose love.

The world’s version of love is all about self: what/who will make me happy? For all of us single girls at Valentine’s Day, it might look like daydreaming about the cute guy with the flowers. Or maybe locking ourselves away from the world for a day to avoid the harsh confrontation of our lonely existence. Or maybe doing something fun to prove to ourselves that we don’t need anyone else. Or possibly a night with a chick flick and a box of chocolate and tissues to mourn our solitude. But real love is not about us. Jesus set the example: “We know love by this, that He laid down His life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren,” (1 John 3:16). Instead of focusing on all the woes of singleness this Valentine’s Day, let’s think about others.

Rejoice with those who rejoice.

Be happy for your friend with the chocolate from the “most handsome, kind, amazing, loving husband in the world.” God has blessed her with that gift. She’s not attacking your relationship status. She’s just enjoying hers. You can be happy for her. 🙂

Be thoughtful and kind.

You don’t have to have a boyfriend to be thoughtful. (Surprise, surprise.) Everyone needs to be reminded that they are loved and appreciated sometimes. Use Valentine’s Day as an opportunity to do so. Consider people you know who may be having an especially difficult day because of circumstances–maybe they have lost their spouse or gone through a painful break-up. Write them a note or send them a text just to let them know you’re thinking about them. Think about the people you love. You can make Valentine cards or bake cookies for friends and family. Encourage other singles in the love of Christ. It’s hard to be unhappy when you’re trying to make other people happy.

4. Appreciate Romance.

You don’t have to have romance to be able to appreciate it just like you don’t have to have musical ability to appreciate good music. The very fact that God created romance and marriage makes it beautiful. When you see married people showing their love to each other, resist the temptation to feel depressed because you’ve been left out. Instead, be in awe of the God who designed something so beautiful to illustrate the glorious relationship of Christ and His church.

5. Thank God for your singleness.

Yes, I’m serious. 🙂 We can be thankful for our singleness because it is a gift. It might be a gift more like socks than the dollhouse that we asked for when we were kids, but it is still a gift from a good Father who knows what we need far better than we do.  “The Lord is righteous in all His ways and kind in all His deeds,” (Ps. 145:17).

6. Show the world that God is awesome.

Everyone has to live life without something. It might be gluten. It might be an arm or a leg. It might be eyesight. It might be a spouse. How do we respond to what we can’t have? Do we let it destroy our happiness? There are many things in life that we can’t control, but we can control how we respond to those things. Our attitude about our singleness communicates something to the world. By God’s grace, let’s communicate that our God is amazing in His goodness and kindness to us and that we lack nothing in comparison to the riches that we have in Him.

Fear and the Christian

It was a quiet Sunday afternoon in my dorm. Many of the other girls from my dorm—including all three of my roommates—were at a fine arts event on campus. I was lying on my bunk bed, suffering from a cold. That’s when I heard the noise. To this day, I’m not exactly sure what the noise was—maybe doors or drawers slamming—but to me (in my alone and sick condition) it could mean only one thing: Someone was going down the hall and systematically shooting everyone she came in contact with. It would be nothing for a woman to walk unnoticed in the front doors of the dorm with a gun hidden somewhere on her person, hide out in a custodial closet until the opportune time, and then seize the moment (and the trigger) and kill us all. When the noise didn’t stop, I made myself get out of bed to hide behind the dresses in my closet, hoping no stray bullets would find me there. Eventually, I realized that my roommates would be returning soon, and it would be kind of embarrassing if they found me in the closet (in the unlikely event that my theory were false). So I mustered up what little courage I had, armed myself with a coffee mug (hey, it could hurt someone if you hit them with it), and ventured out into the hall and down to the lobby: no crazy gunwomen or strewn bodies anywhere. Whew.

Fear is something that every one of us will face in our life time. Sometimes it is irrational and fueled by an over-active imagination like my dorm experience, and sometimes it is based on something very real. Whatever the cause, God does not want His people to be ruled by fear.

What is fear?

According to Merriam-Webster, fear is “an unpleasant often strong emotion caused by anticipation or awareness of danger.” Like most things in life, fear can be good, or it can be bad.

A little fear can be a very good thing. We need to be aware of the dangers around us and exercise appropriate caution. This is why we look both ways before crossing the street. We know cars could be coming, and we want to avoid being hit by them.

Fear becomes a bad thing when it keeps us from serving God and enjoying the life He’s given us. It may be appropriate to not want to unnecessarily offend someone, but if that concern keeps us from telling the truth when it is needed, that is ungodly fear. It may be appropriate to try to avoid breaking bones, but if we let the fear of broken bones keep us from ever playing sports or trying new things, we will miss many of the good blessings God designed to be a part of our lives.

Why is ungodly fear such a big deal?

1. It says something false about God.

Our lives are always saying something. It’s easy to know the truth about God and to talk about it and to really think we believe it, but what are our actions and attitudes saying? Often the two do not match up. (James deals with this problem extensively in his epistle. Check it out for yourself here.)

When we allow fear to consume us or keep us from good, what are we—by our lives—actually saying about God? Fear communicates that God may not actually be in control. He may not be good. He may not be wise enough to know best how to handle this situation. As “good” Christians, we would never say those things with our mouths. But how often do our lives communicate exactly those things? Uncontrolled fear is wrong because, instead of exalting and magnifying the wonderful power and character of God, it expresses to the world that we aren’t really sure if He’s trustworthy.

2. It sets safety up as an idol in our lives.

Fear sets our safety (physical, emotional, etc.) up as the final authority in decision-making and gives God second place. We will obey God insofar as He does not ask anything of us that would jeopardize our safety, but if He asks more of us, He has crossed the line, and we should not be expected to comply. Uncontrolled fear is wrong because it gives authority to an earthly ideal rather than to the gracious God who redeemed us and owns us.

3. It enslaves us and deprives us of the beautiful life God wants to give us.

God is a kind master. He wants to bless us with joyful, beautiful, adventurous lives, found in following Him. But when we allow fear to be god in our lives, it is a tyrant. It kills all joy and peace and robs us of the awesome beauty of seeing God’s power, wisdom, and kindness at work in our lives.

How can we stop being afraid?

In order to get rid of fear, we have to replace it with something else—the opposite of fear: faith. How do we do that?

1. Know our God.

Just last week in Sunday School, my pastor said something that really encouraged me. He said that it really doesn’t matter how big or how small your faith is. What matters is the object of your faith. We have an amazing, powerful, gracious God: He is able to do impossible things and wise enough to do the best things. But we have to know that. And in order to know that, we have to spend time with Him regularly, reading His Word to find out who He is.

2. Go to Him with our fears.

As a kid, I used to have nightmares, and I’d wake up in the dark, afraid, but as soon as I went to my parents’ room, I wasn’t afraid anymore because I was with the two people I knew loved me most and would keep me safe. The same can be true for us as Christians. The Lord knows that we are human. He knows that we will be afraid sometimes. And He cares about us. That’s why He tells us in I Peter 5:7 to cast all our anxiety on Him. When we are scared, God wants us to go straight to Him. He is our Father who loves us more than anyone else and is wise and able to do what is best.

3. Accept whatever happens (beyond our control) as from our loving Father.

When we believe that God is good and wise and in control, we don’t have to be afraid of what might happen. We know that whatever does happen will be what God knew would be best. It may be hard. It may be unpleasant. It may be excruciating even. But it will be best. God will use whatever happens in our lives for good. And through it all, we have the comfort of knowing that our loving Father is with us all the way.

 

Prayer: Father, we are small, broken people. We so easily lose sight of You and Your greatness. We doubt your goodness and wisdom. But we don’t want to. Help us to remember You in the face of uncertain futures. Give us the grace to choose You over our desire for comfort and safety. Enable us to magnify Your name by living in faith, not fear. You are able. Change us by Your grace.

Living Fully Where God Puts Us

 

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Amy Carmichael wrote, “If by doing some work which the undiscerning consider ‘not spiritual work’ I can best help others, and I inwardly rebel, thinking it is the spiritual for which I crave, when in truth it is the interesting and exciting, then I know nothing of Calvary love.”

Through interning at the Bible camp where I am now, I have learned that camp ministry is a combination of “spiritual work” and ordinary tasks—an abundance of them—such as cleaning, preparing food, planning, setting up for activities, etc. I generally enjoy this sort of work, but recently found myself disillusioned. Having studied counseling in college, I missed engaging with people, sharing Scripture, and pointing them to Christ on a daily basis. And the familiar lie resurfaced: Ordinary work is less important to God than ministry.

So I began to scheme about what more “spiritual” job God might want me to do with my life after my internship. Sitting in church one Sunday, I realized something: Jesus only spent 3 ½ years of his earthly life in full-time ministry. The other 30 years He spent doing ordinary things. And He was God—the only One who could have perfectly ministered God’s Word 24/7. Maybe my restlessness had less to do with calling and more to do with discontentment.

The real test of our humility and love for God lies in the task before us. Do we tackle that pile of dishes with a grateful heart? Or do we sigh and think of the ways we’d rather serve Him? If we can’t wash a few dishes for the Lord, it’s doubtful that we can do anything else for Him.

Whatever task lies before you, be encouraged. You don’t have to be the next Amy Carmichael or Elisabeth Elliot to walk worthy of the Lord. Just follow Christ’s example. Live completely where you are. Take the trash out. Cook for people. Play with kids. Go to work every day with a smile. Build relationships. Share Christ with the people in your life today. Maybe someday you’ll be a missionary or Christian speaker. Or maybe you’ll always do something unknown and ordinary. Either way, a life of submission is more precious to God than great feats.

 

Remember, childcare workers: Jesus suffered the little children to come unto him.

Remember, cooks, waitresses, moms: Jesus fed the multitudes.

Remember, doctors and nurses: Jesus healed the sick.

Remember, maids and all you doers-of-laundry: Jesus folded His grave clothes. (This is my mom’s favorite argument for bed-making.)

Remember, construction workers: Jesus was a carpenter.

Remember, caregivers: Jesus washed people’s feet.

 

“Hence, as a better writer has said, our imitation of God in this life …. must be an imitation of God incarnate: our model is the Jesus, not only of Calvary, but of the workshop, the roads, the crowds, the clamorous demands and surly oppositions, the lack of all peace and privacy, the interruptions. For this, so strangely unlike anything we
can attribute to the Divine life in itself, is apparently not only like, but is, the Divine life operating under human conditions.” -C. S. Lewis

Manasseh and our Merciful God

Second Chronicles 33 recounts the story of Manasseh, one of the kings of Judah who reigned shortly before the Babylonian captivity. He was a very bad king. Verse 2 says, “He did evil in the sight of the LORD according to the abominations of the nations whom the LORD had dispossessed before the sons of Israel.” The chapter goes on to list his numerous sins: he built high places and altars to idols, worshiped the hosts of heaven (even building altars to them in the Temple of God), participated in child sacrifices, practiced witchcraft, put an idol in the Temple, led his people into greater sin than the godless people who lived in the land before them, and ignored God altogether.

God allowed Manasseh to be captured by the king of Assyria and hauled away to Babylon, and that is where Manasseh’s story takes an incredible turn. This man who had blatantly disregarded God and His ways humbled himself before the Lord and cried out to Him. And the Lord heard him. Verse 13 says, “When he [Manasseh] prayed to Him [the LORD], He was moved by His entreaty and heard his supplication and brought him again to Jerusalem to his kingdom. Then Manasseh knew that the LORD was God.”

When Manasseh arrived back in Jerusalem, he was a changed man. He removed the altars to idols that he had made, set up the altar of the LORD, sacrificed peace and thank offerings, and ordered his people to serve the Lord.

What can we learn from Manasseh’s life?

Our God is merciful.

The story of Manasseh gives us hope because it shows us that God is ready and willing to forgive no matter what we’ve done. If we humble ourselves before Him like Manasseh did, acknowledging that He is right and we were wrong, He will have compassion on us and forgive us.

Our God is powerful.

If I knew someone as blatantly against God as Manasseh was, that person would be the last person I would ever expect to repent and turn to the Lord. But Manasseh’s story contradicts human logic. Our God was able to humble the most unlikely of souls and radically transform his life. And He can do the same for the people around us today-wayward loved ones, antagonistic co-workers, ungodly leaders, our worst enemies. The Lord’s power to humble and change Manasseh should give us the courage to pray boldly for these people.

We have a choice.

When the Lord brought the king of Assyria to take Manasseh captive, Manasseh had a choice. He could have chosen to continue ignoring the Lord and living his own way. But he didn’t. He chose to humble himself before God. Sometimes the Lord has to put difficult circumstances in our lives because we have forgotten or ignored Him. When we face that distress, we have a choice. We can continue on our own path of destruction or we can humble ourselves and turn toward the Lord. When we choose to humble ourselves that is when God can do amazing things in our lives.