Known by your scars

On a recent trip to the East I had to declare all the identification marks or scars on my body during my visa application process.  It reminded me of a humorous incident when I was 17 years old.   My brother and I both applied for an engineering scholarship in the Navy which required a full medical check-up. During the check-up the Naval doctor asked me about my scar on my upper right arm, and also inquired about my hand which had been broken before.  Embarrassed I had to tell confess that the scar was caused when my brother “accidentally” stabbed my during a dish-washing washing incident. “And about the hand?” I blushed.  “Well… my brother ducked and I hit the wall instead…” (Three teenage brothers… these things happen!)

A few weeks later I found myself neatly dressed in a Naval board room, facing several officers of the selection committee.  Very intimidating for a teenager! Near the end of the interview (which I thought went quite well up this point!) the one captain – introduced as a psychologist – asked me about my relationship with my older brother (who was interviewed by this committee just before me).  “Very good!” I answered truthfully.  “Are the two of you competitive with one another? Would there be striving if both of you are selected for the training?”  “Not at all!  We are very close … really no issues between us!” I assured the captain.  He smiled knowingly and asked: “Ross, will you tell us how you got the scar on your upper right arm?  And how did you break your hand?”  I blushed… apparently the Naval doctor made very thorough notes of my medical exam.  We all had a good laugh as I retold the stories of my scars, and the day ended with both my brother and I being selected for the Naval training program.

As I previously wrote, the rings and marks of a tree reveal much of the events that literally shaped the tree.  We can discern much of the climatic and environmental events such as wet and dry seasons, forest competition, sickness or pestilence, animal damage, forest fires and even major earth quakes it lived through.  We can never see the trauma the tree encountered – only the tree’s growth response to the events.  We only see the rings and the scars – how the tree grew and healed through its encounters.  These scars latterly tell the story of life of the tree – what the tree endured and survived.

trees_response

Our scars – visible and invisible – tell a similar story.  My experience is that people want to hide and even forget their scars, being ashamed of the imperfections and afraid of the memories.  In contrast, the apostle Paul boasted about his scars[i] and listed the events which caused these scars (inside and outside) with gratitude and dignity, claiming that these scars are something to be cherished, even honoured. [ii]  Why?  How could our pain and the scars it left be something to be thankful for, something to be cherished and even paraded?  What can we learn from Paul about our scars and the trauma which caused it?

Firstly, my scars are a witness to my weaknesses, and therefore they are signs of grace.  Paul boasted in all his weaknesses[iii] because during these weaknesses and the sufferings which revealed the end of his strength, he experienced the grateful strength and intervention of God.  These traumatic events scarred Paul’s body because of violence and accidents; it scarred his soul because of betrayal and abandonment; and it scarred his spirit due to accusations and torment.  Yet these scars were cherished by Paul because each scar – visible and invisible – reminded him of God’s sustaining grace.  Without God’s grace Paul would have died, given up, or turned back from God’s call for his life.

Like the rings and marks on a tree, our scars are reminders of God’s faithful care, intervention and sustaining power during each situation that left its mark.  The scar says “If it had not been for the Lord,[iv] this would have been my end… but God carried me through and restored me!”   As such these scars bring me daily comfort that God is always with me, and can turn anything and everything I face today for my good.[v]  Whenever my strength fails, I can be sure of His strength.[vi]  When fear wants to overwhelm me, my scars remind me that stronger is He that is in me than what I may face in the world today.[vii]  I never face anything alone.[viii]

Secondly, my scars are witness to tests I have passed.  Like the marks that give character to the tree, every scar – visible or invisible – tells the story of pain that I endured, of hardship that I was not spared.  And therefore, as a believer in Christ, these scars are signs of faith that remind me that I was tested and purified as through fire. [ix]  In spite of the troubles I kept on believing that God is good and a rewarder of those who diligently serve Him[x].  Through the pain, loss, or shame I kept on trusted God, believing that he has overcome the world.[xi]  My faith was proven and found to be real because I have come to trust God’s character more than my experience.

Looking at my scars as marks of faith bring me daily confidence.  My scars remind me that nothing can separate me from God’s love, and that in every hardship I endure I am more than a conqueror through Christ who gives me strength.[xii]  In this sense each scar is an affirmation of my faith, each adding confidence in the face of adversity.

Thirdly, my scars are witness to a fading, fallible world.   We only get scars on earth because the rule of sin and its decaying effect is limited to this fallen world of ours.  Our scars are caused by things like violence, sickness, calamity – and these have temporal freedom here.  The driving forces that brings the pain and leave scars are often hatred, jealousy, greed, betrayal, or abuse – and these are only at work here and now.  But when Christ returns to reign there will be no more pain, no more sickness, no more calamity[xiii] – there will be no new scars in heaven.

our scars

Every scar reminds me that our world is fallen, and it stirs my longing for the day when Christ will come to make all things new.[xiv]  As such our scars are signs of hope, reminders that Christ will bring an end to sin and suffering and establish His reign of shalom. Looking at my scars in this light brings me joyful endurance, knowing that whatever I might face is today temporal; it cannot compare to the eternal glory that awaits me.[xv]

Lastly, our scars are reminders of Christ’s scars on his body.  CHRIST HAS SCARS BECAUSE WE HAVE SCARS. Moved by love the Eternal Perfect One exchanged his pain-free heaven for our pain-stricken existence.  He vicariously suffered everything mankind endures to redeem us to Himself.[xvi]  This sacrificial love left the Eternal Perfect One scarred forever – as a Lamb having been slain.[xvii]

Our scars point us to His scars, a visceral reminder that we are greatly loved.  My scars are signs of love.  He was scarred in body, soul and spirit for our healing, peace and forgiveness.[xviii]  In this – His scars – His love for us is demonstrated.[xix]  O, how He loves us!  Looking at my scars in this way stirs my gratitude and devotion to Christ.

Through what did you grow this year?   What scars did the past year leave in your body, soul and spirit?[xx]  How do you feel looking at the marks life left on you?  Like the rings and scars in a tree, we our character is shaped by our response to what life throws at us.  We too are known by our scars.  How you relate to your scars shape your reality, relationships and ultimately your destiny.

Reframing how you view your scars will realign your reality, relationships and your destiny.  Ask yourself: How do these scars remind you of God’s sustaining grace? Can you see the scars as affirmation of real faith? Do the scars stir your hope in Christ’s return? And do the scars remind you of God’s immense love?  How does all this make you feel at the prospect of another year? Comforted? Confident? Joyful?

Now you too can look at your scars and say with Paul: “We we do not lose heart. Even though our outward man is perishing, yet the inward man is being renewed day by day. These light afflictions, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory…” [xxi]

[i] Galatians 6:17.

[ii] 2 Corinthians 11:23-33, 12:8-10.

[iii] See above.

[iv] Psalm 124:1.

[v] Romans 8:28.

[vi] 2 Corinthians 12:8-10.

[vii] 1 John 4:4.

[viii] Isaiah 43:2.

[ix] 1 Peter 1:6-7.

[x] Hebrews 11:6.

[xi] John 16:33.

[xii] Romans 8:35-37.

[xiii] Revelation 21:4.

[xiv] Revelation 21:5.

[xv] 2 Corinthians 4:17.

[xvi] Revelation 5:9.

[xvii] Revelation 5:6.

[xviii] Isaiah 53:4-6.

[xix] Romans 5:8.

[xx] If you read ‘spirit’ in this sense, it is helpful to think of identity, as well as your relational ability to love, hope and trust.

[xxi] 2 Corinthians 4:16-17.

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On Spiritual Maturity : The Error of Balaam

In the book of Numbers, four chapters are devoted to the history of a prophet who had a profound impact on God’s people during their conquest of the Promised Land.  This prophet was not a Jewish man, but a seer who dwelt in Pethor: Balaam son of Beor.  In 1967 archeological evidence was discovered with the inscription of “Baalam son of Beor” prophet of “El Shaddai” – the Almighty God as he was known to the Israelites in the days of Moses.  This archeological evidence adds tremendous historic weight this account in the Bible.

Image of wall tiles inscribed by "Balaam son of Peor, Prophet of El Shaddai" found at  Tell Deir Alla, Succoth (dated to 1406/750 BC). See  www.bible.ca/archeology/
Image of wall tiles inscribed by “Balaam son of Peor, Prophet of El Shaddai” found at Tell Deir Alla, Succoth (dated to 1406/750 BC). See http://www.bible.ca/archeology/

The reason why this account of a foreign prophet speaking to ancient Israel is important to contemporary believers is highlighted by the numerous New Testament references to Balaam.  All of these references of Balaam are warnings: Peter warns the church of false prophets who “have gone astray… in the way of Balaam…” (2 Peter 2:15).  Jude warns of “ungodly people… [who] abandoned themselves for the sake of gain to Balaam’s error” (Jude 1:1, 11).  John wrote of those in the church in Pergamum “who hold to the teachings of Balaam.” (Revelations 2:14).  In each of the three texts the prophet Balaam is used as reference or type of ungodly lifestyles and doctrinal error of believers that is condemnable.  But what is this dangerous “error”, “way” or “doctrine”?

Reading through the historic account of Balaam’s dealings with Israel (Numbers 22:1-25:10, 31:8,16), one has to acknowledge his absolute commitment to relay only what God says: “Though Balak were to give me his house full of silver and gold, I could not go beyond the command of the LORD my God to do less or more” (22:18).  Throughout these three chapters he maintains this stance, repeating his commitment to speak only the words of God another five times (22:38;  23:8, 12, 26; 24:13).  In the end, Balaam’s loyalty to prophesy in truth as God revealed cost him his wages which Balak promised (24:11).  Thus Balaam is an accurate prophet, true to delivering God’s message, not yielding to pressure or bribe to speak falsely.

So why the negative connotations with Balaam?  Numbers 25 records a shameful time in Israel’s travels as they camped on the Eastern side of the Jordan river and started living like the Moabite people.  Swaying under the power of cultural seduction to sexual immorality and idol worship, the Israelites came under the wrath of God through as a plague that killed 24’000 Israelites (Numbers 25:1-9).  This moral decay is attributed to Balaam (Numbers 31:16).  Although he was extremely gifted and graced by God to hear and speak accurately the pure words of God, he himself was an immoral man whose way of life was corrupted with sin (“way of Balaam” 2 Peter 2:15; ““error” Jude 1: 11) and his teachings deceptive (Numbers 31:16).  His lifestyle and teachings were not to be followed, admired or trusted.  In fact, Balaam was executed along with the Midianites under the wrath of God (Numbers 31:8).

The first talking ass - Balaam's donkey!
The first talking ass – Balaam’s donkey!

Although his prophesies is shown to be infallible in the text, the author of Numbers includes the humorous account of his journey on the donkey to Balak (Numbers 22:21-38), which is very deliberately inserted to humble this “great prophet”.  For instance, Balaam the great prophet is hired to subdue Israel with words, but he cannot even subdue his donkey with a stick.  He claims to see visions (24:4,17) but can’s see what the donkey sees on three occasions (22:32).  He claims that his prophetic speech is from God (22:38; 23:5, 12, 16), yet the donkey silences him as its mouth is also opened by God (22:28).  Balaam claims to posess knowledge “from the Most High” (24:16) was beaten in verbal exchange with a stupid donkey (22:30) and then has to admit to the angel “I did not know [what the donkey knows]” (22:34).  Although Balaam is on his way to slay a whole nation with his words he has to draw a sword to kill the donkey (22:29); while lamenting lamenting that he had no sword to slay the animal, the donkey sees the drawn sword in the hands of the angel (22:23) right in front of him.  This irony is meant as a lesson in humility – that the great prophet, like any donkey, can see and speak only what God shows him, and that he simply is graced to serve in the purposes of God.  Secondly, this account shows that although the prophet speaks graceful words by God’s Spirit, he is more beastly than his donkey: where the beast is kind to move his master Balaam out of harm’s way three times, the master is beastly in beating the faithful, kind-hearted, willing animal without considering the motive.

Godliness and our culture

Although Balaam had the ability to speak God’s words accurately, he had lead a whole nation astray.  His life serves as a warning that accurate spiritual discernment without holy living (from a godly character) is dangerous.  What was this ungodliness?  Balaam’s error (2 Peter 2:15) or Balaam’s way (Jude 1:11) simply refers to his lifestyle of cultural acceptance.  Although being a gifted prophet Balaam lived as the Midianites did, and that lead to the corruption of God’s holy people as they followed his “way” and “erred” in his footsteps.  His love for sensual pleasure made him prone towards greed, sexual immorality and cultural festivity surrounding the worship of other gods, plus his independence lead to rebellion.  (See 2 Peter 2:2-14; Jude 1:1, 6-11; Psalm 106:28; Revelation 2:14).

no_rules
The doctrine of Balaam: everything goes! No consequences!

The doctrine of Balaam (Revelation 2:14) teaches that God’s people are chosen, holy and saved in God’s eternal covenant and therefore nothing can change that reality – not even their lifestyle.  So by his example and by his teachings the great prophet Balaam deceived God’s people into a lifestyle of sexual immorality and the worship of Baal of Peor.  As a result, many died under the wrath of God, never reaching the Promised Land (Jude 1:5).  Still today Balaam’s dualism (distinguishing spiritual holiness from moral life) is taught in many places (associated with Gnosticism in the early church and extreme grace teachings).  Apart from formal teaching, the way of Balaam is engrained in our spiritual DNA by the example of our contemporary church culture where Sundays is God’s day, and the rest of the week we live good lives, but find pleasure and security as the rest of society does.

Balaam is not the only example of this fallacy in Scripture.  Samson, the mighty deliverer of Israel was like him: a man empowered by the Spirit of God to lead and deliver Israel, yet always seduced and enticed by his worldly passions and made ineffective. (Judges 14-16)  Giving in to the seduction of sensual sins enslaves God’s people and brings shame to his Name.

In contrast to Balaam and Samson, Daniel and his friends stand out as examples of godliness amidst a crooked world.  Daniel chapter three records how Nebuchadnezzar set up a golden image that everyone in his kingdom had to bow down to whenever the music played. The image was not an image of a particular god, but rather represented the religious culture of the day.  Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refused to bow down to the image, and was persevered by God in the fire.  Their refusal to succumb to the cultural pressure in faithfulness to the One True God stands as an example to every believer in our present-day materialistic, promiscuous culture feeling pressures us to conform.

How do we respond?

Considering the the error of Balaam, I find three ways to respond to this in pursuit of spiritual maturity.

  1. Review your definition of “Spiritual Maturity”

The reference to Balaam in Peter’s second epistle pertains to false prophets among the first readers, thus spiritually gifted leaders. This is worth mentioning.  Peter appeals to his readers to note the ungodly fruit of these spiritually gifted ministers, and therefore not following their example of sensuality and rebellion.  Peter looked at the character and behavior of these gifted leaders and was not easily mesmerized by their prophetic ability.  After all, Jesus taught him that a person is “known by [his] fruit” (Matthew 12:33).

Peter needed to write this to the growing young church, since the charismatic gift of prophets is very appealing to especially young believers.  And the display of spiritual gifts is easily taken as signs of spiritual maturity. It is the will of God that we grow up (Ephesians 4:11ff), but how do you define maturity? That is why these warnings by Jesus and his apostles are so strong and clear.  So re-evaluate your view of spiritual maturity: Who do you admire?  Who do you want to follow after?  Consider their character – are they known by their love? What can you learn from their marriage and family relationships, their work ethic and how they manage money?

Take stock of your life spiritually.
Take stock of your life spiritually.
  1. Take stock of your own life.

In Jude and Revelations the warning to individuals walking in the error or teachings of Balaam is merely to wrong belief of individuals in their congregations of those in their midst.  Balaam is the image of a spiritually gifted man with the lust of sensual pleasures that are lead by his passions through this life like waves thrown around by their earthly desires (Jude 1:12-14).  Take an honest view of your life your own life, with special reference to you your passions and desires.  Are you leaving it unchecked?  What are you doing about it?  And who are you accountable to about it?

  1. Grow in godliness.

Our aim remains to be conformed to the image of Christ Jesus and to help form others into that image (Romans 8:29; Colossians 2:28-29).  Be purposeful about it.  How have you grown in godliness in the last year, and in which area do you need to grow now?  Are you growing in the will of God?  What does the Lord say, and what will you do to grow in that area of Christ-likeness.  Again, and who knows about that?

While closing with growth in Christ-likeness, remember these words of Paul: “Continue to work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, giving you the desire and ability for his good pleasure.” (Philippians 2:12-13)  Continue, don’t stagnate in your pursuit of Christ-likeness.  Work it out yourself, don’t expect it to automatic or someone else’s job.  As you grow in Christ-likeness you also will grow to emulate the Christ – the Anointed One (Acts 10:38).  Earnestly desire spiritual gifts but let the motive be love (1 Corinthians 12:31).

And work with God – it is he that works in you, leading your through your desires and gracing your with the power needed to grow in Christ-likeness.  Don’t stop!  Work joyfully with the grace God gives.