Sobriety Is More Than We Think It Is

You have to like a writer who can harvest the wisdom from Augustine, Richard John Neuhaus, and Johnny Cash all on the same page. Michael Philliber does that, and more, in his recent book,  Our Heads on Straight: Sober-mindedness — A Forgotten Christian Virtue.

What could be more relevant for such a time as this? He posits the virtue of sanctified good sense (my synonym for his “sober-mindedness”) as a biblical antidote to the pandemic of fear, suspicion, anger, and public malice in American culture today. He manages to do so without finger-pointing or sanctimony.

During my years as a pastor I had studied and taught such texts as Titus 2:12,   “(The grace of God) teaches us to say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age.” I confess that I had never applied the concept of sober-mindedness in precisely the way my friend Michael has done in this book. I can see why he calls sober-mindedness a forgotten Christian virtue.

He dives into the biblical and classical usage of the Greek word sophroneo and its family of synonyms. This leads him to the conclusion that “Paul, Peter, and the gospel writers . . . picture the Christian life as a life of sobriety.” He is careful to point out that this word should be understood broadly as self-restraint, mature judgment, reasonableness, and rationality. Throughout the book, he refers to almost every use of the word and its cognates in the New Testament.

Philliber takes the Bible seriously. From the story of Jesus’ healing of the demonized man in Mark 5, we see the evidence of the man’s recovery as he was found sitting serenely, fully clothed, and “in his right mind” (sophroneo). This contrasted with his previous rage, agitation, and social isolation.

In Paul’s writings, sober judgment is for everyone, old and young, male and female, leaders and servants (Titus 2). It is counter-cultural and evidence of spiritual maturity. It is a work of grace in believers who reject those aspects of the world that are not in harmony with God’s will and who surrender themselves to God (Romans 12:1-3).

In the chapters that follow, we are shown how sober-mindedness is a biblical Christian’s alternative response to racism, anxiety, and hostile divisions in society. Citing Jeremiah’s advice to the Jewish exiles in Babylon to “seek the peace and prosperity” of the foreign cities where they would be sent (Jeremiah 29:7), Michael calls on his readers to be so heavenly minded that they can be of some earthly good.

A highlight of the book for me was his reassuring analysis of sober-mindedness as a healthy response to conspiratorial thinking. As one who believes that irrational conspiracy theories are a danger to American society, I found Michael’s exposition of Isaiah 8:11-13 especially hopeful and calming. The prophet says, “Do not call conspiracy what this people call conspiracy nor fear what they fear.” He couples this with 2 Timothy 1: 6-7, “God did not give us a spirit of fear . . . but of self-control (a sound mind, or sophronismou).”

He admitted that he had seen in his own experience how fear spreads like a contagion. Conspiracies thrive in an atmosphere of suspicion and dread. Whether it is the fear (my words, not his) of secret cabals who want to control the world, or of terrorist networks, or of super-powerful invasion forces, or fear of religious persecution, the answer is not panic, but sober-minded trust in a sovereign God.

The closing chapter in Our Heads on Straight takes us to Isaiah 40 where we meet this sovereign God, and we are encouraged to know him personally through Jesus Christ. We are invited “to come to our right minds . . . and turn our faces up to him.” If he is indeed the sovereign who is described here, this is the most rational, wise, and proper thing to do.

Warren Wiersbe once told me that words that sizzle in the pulpit often freeze on the page. To be sure, Michael Philliber is a pulpiteer, but his writing has the warmth of personal experience and the weight of biblical wisdom. Wiersbe also told me that new books are needed for every generation. Michael is a writer for this generation and his topic resonates. You have to like a writer like that. I do. My wife and I benefit from his pulpit ministry every Lord’s Day.

Pastor Randy Faulkner

Coincidence or Providence?

Abraham sent his chief servant to his home country in Mesopotamia to find a bride for his son Isaac. Isaac was the chosen one who would be the recipient of God’s covenant promises, and would pass them on to his offspring. The choice of a bride would be vitally important.

Genesis 24 tells the story. It shows us how God works through the ordinary circumstances and events of our lives. It shows us how a man of faith like Abraham acknowledged God’s purposes and believed in God’s promises. It teaches us about prayer, in both its simplicity and its urgency.

When Abraham’s servant arrived at his destination in Haran, he prayed for success in his mission. At the site of the town well, he asked God for a sign. Would the girl whom God would choose be willing to provide water for his entire herd of camels when he asked for a drink of water for himself?

Among the young women coming to the well that evening was beautiful Rebekah with her water jar upon her shoulder. He noticed her immediately. Was it a mere coincidence that she was the granddaughter of Abraham’s brother Nahor?

When he, a weary traveler, asked the girl for a drink of water, she responded with unusual grace. “‘Drink, my lord,’ she said and quickly lowered the jar to her hands and gave him a drink” (Genesis 24:18).

“After she had given him a drink, she said, ‘I’ll draw water for your camels, too, until they have had enough to drink.’ So she quickly emptied her jar into the trough, ran back to the well to draw more water, and drew enough for all his camels” (Genesis 24:19-20).

I have read that a thirsty camel can drink over 32 gallons of water at one time! We can only imagine the labor involved in watering ten camels. The man was watching her carefully the whole time as she went about this task. Was this a coincidence, or was God showing him the person who should be the bride for Isaac?

He then offered her gifts of gold and he asked about her family. She told him who her father and grandparents were. He then ventured to ask if they would provide him shelter for the night. She responded in the affirmative. Coincidence? The servant of Abraham did not think so. He bowed in worship and praised the Lord “who has not abandoned his kindness and faithfulness to my master. As for me, the Lord has led me on the journey to the house of my master’s relatives” (Genesis 24:27).

The gifts of gold he gave Rebekah prepared  a welcome from Laban, Rebekah’s brother. “A gift opens the way for the giver” (Proverbs 18:16). Laban escorted Abraham’s servant to the very household which he had sought. They offered him elaborate Middle Eastern hospitality. This was surely more than mere coincidence. It shows us the operation of divine providence in the lives of God’s people.

Millard Erickson has written, “Providence in certain ways is central to the conduct of the Christian life. It means that we are able to live in the assurance that God is present and active in our lives. We are in his care and can therefore face the future confidently, knowing that things are not happening merely by chance. We can pray, knowing that God hears and acts upon our prayers. We can face danger, knowing that he is not unaware and uninvolved.”

Abraham’s servant declined to eat the feast the family provided until he had told his story in it’s entirety. He told how the Lord had blessed Abraham and his family. He recounted how Abraham had sent him to find a bride for Isaac from among his own people. He told about his prayer for guidance and how Rebekah had matched exactly the person for whom he had prayed. This was more than coincidence. This was the providence of God!

Laban, Rebekah’s brother, and her father Bethuel agreed saying, “This is from the Lord; we can say nothing to you one way or the other. Here is Rebekah; take her and go, and let her become the wife of your master’s son, as the Lord has directed” (Genesis 24:51). Rebekah also agreed. The next day when they asked her if she was willing to go immediately to be the wife of Isaac, her answer was clear and direct, “I will go.”

The Bible does not describe the details of the journey back to Canaan. It does give us the tender scene when Rebekah met Isaac and became his wife. “He loved her,” the scripture says.

Joyce Baldwin wrote, “Thus each found love and security in the other, and they shared the deep undergirding of the knowledge that the Lord God of Abraham had brought them together. If they were ever tempted to doubt that, they could recall the marvelous providence that took Abraham’s servant straight to Rebekah, and the prayer and praise that surrounded the whole venture, all of which betokened the unmistakable guidance of God.”

Pastor Randy Faulkner

Praying for Guidance

At a family mealtime the father offered a prayer of blessing for the food as usual. In pious language he thanked the Lord for all his bountiful provisions. But when he started eating he grumbled and complained about the food and the way it was prepared.

His teenage daughter interrupted. “Dad,” she began, “Do you think God heard your prayer?”

“Certainly,” he replied confidently.

“And did he hear it when you complained about the food just now?” She asked.

“Why of course!” he bellowed.

“Then which of the two statements did God believe?” The embarrassed flush on his cheeks revealed that her discerning questions hit a nerve. Too often our prayers are empty rhetoric, mere religious platitudes, off the tops of our heads not from the bottom of our hearts.

Do we pray beyond our own personal concerns and interests? I heard of a young lady who said to herself, “Today, I am not going to pray for myself. I am just going to pray for others.”

So she prayed, “Please, Lord, give my mother a handsome son-in-law!”

Then there were the two Sunday school boys who somehow got to talking about their families’ prayers. “Do your parents have a morning prayer with you?” one asked the other.

“No. We have prayers before bed. We’re not afraid in the daytime.”

Whatever the prompting, our heavenly Father invites us to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17) in all circumstances. This assumes that God is always listening and wants to hear from us. President Abraham Lincoln is reported to have said, “I have often been driven to my knees by the overwhelming conviction that I had nowhere else to go.”

I think that is how the chief servant of Abraham felt when he was given the assignment of going to Mesopotamia to find a bride for Isaac. The story is recorded in Genesis 24. He must have felt the weight of the responsibility that was being laid on him. So he prayed. He prayed with sincere faith in God. He prayed with humble dependence and desperate urgency.

May we pray for the success of our ventures and responsibilities? The Bible says we can, and we should. “Commit to the Lord whatever you do, and he will establish your plans” (Proverbs 16:3).

“Trust in the Lord with all your heart and do not lean on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him and he will make your paths straight” (Proverbs 3:5-6).

That is what Abraham’s servant did. When he arrived at the town of Nahor in the north country, he parked his ten-camel caravan near the town well and prayed, “Lord God of my master Abraham, make me successful today and show kindness to my master Abraham. See, I am standing beside this spring and the daughters of the townspeople are coming out to draw water. May it be when I say to a young woman, ‘Please let down your jar that I may have a drink,’ and she says ‘Drink, and I’ll water your camels too’ — let her be the one you have chosen for your servant Isaac. By this I will know that you have shown kindness to my master” (Genesis 24:12-14).

You have probably noticed the same things I see in this prayer. He believed God saw him in his present circumstances. God sees you and me, too. He knows all about the problems we are facing.

He prayed specifically and boldly. We may do the same thing. James 4:2 reminds us, “You do not have because you do not ask God.” So ask!

The servant asked God for a sign that would be clear and unmistakable. Any young woman who would volunteer to provide enough water for ten thirsty camels to drink would be unusually helpful and kind-hearted, not to mention hard-working!

Then the text says, “Before he had finished praying, Rebekah came out with her jar upon her shoulder” (Genesis 24:15). Here is another principle to guide us in our praying. “Your Father knows what you need before you ask him,” Jesus said (Matthew 6:8). The prophet Isaiah tells us the Lord says, “Before they call I will answer; while they are still speaking I will hear” (Isaiah 65:24).

The servant’s prayer was artless and unadorned. It was from the heart. It acknowledged God’s special purpose for Abraham and Isaac. It was a prayer for guidance in carrying out a responsibility that the servant knew would be consequential. He knew that all of this was to accomplish the plan of God.

God heard. God answered. Rebekah’s actions matched exactly his request for a sign. It is no wonder that with gratitude he “bowed down and worshipped the Lord,” and praised the God of Abraham (Genesis 24:48)!

Pastor Randy Faulkner

Faith and Culture

Abraham is an example to us of what it means to live by faith. John Wesley expressed it thus: “Faith, mighty faith, the promise sees and looks to God alone; laughs at impossibilities and cries, ‘It shall be done!'”

“Abraham believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness” (Romans 4:3, Genesis 15:6). His faith was on display amidst the customs and cultures of the ancient Near East.

He believed the word of God which had assured him that his descendants would come through Isaac his beloved son. When it was time for Isaac to marry, Genesis 24 says that Abraham directed his chief servant to find a bride for his son from among his kinfolk in the region of Haran in Northern Mesopotamia. He did not want Isaac to marry a woman from the idol-worshipping Canaanites. Nor did he want his son to stray from the Promised Land in search of a wife.

This separatism was an early example of a principle that is repeated throughout the Bible. Believers should not be “unequally yoked” (2 Corinthians 6:14-17) with unbelievers, but are to marry “only in the Lord” (1 Corinthians 7:39). This expression of singular faith in the living God was to be the unifying factor in Israelite families. They were to be a distinctive people, separate from the pagan cultures around them “holy unto the Lord.”

So the aged Abraham called his servant to come near and to place his hand under his thigh, to affirm a solemn oath in God’s name that he would carry out this sacred task. (Later Jacob would employ the same ritual to secure the pledge from Joseph that he would be buried in the Promised Land and not in Egypt; Genesis 47:29). This gesture, mysterious to us, was associated with procreation and the family line, and invoked a most serious commitment.

There are other cultural features in the story showing that God works through established norms of human custom, as long as they are not violations of his moral law. These include the use of a caravan of camels, expensive gifts for the family of the bride, a public well where the women of the town came to draw water, and an elaborate welcome feast offered to the servant by the family of Abraham’s brother Nahor.

The story does not describe the 400 mile journey from Abraham’s home in Canaan to Aram Naharaim (“Aram of the two rivers,” the Tigris and the Euphrates). The trip must have taken several weeks. The faith of Abraham was carried forward in the faithfulness of his loyal servant. It demonstrates to us how God meets us in our own cultural situations and invites us to trust and obey as Abraham did.

Joyce Baldwin described this beautifully. “(Abraham) was encouraged to believe that the same Lord who had led him, spoken to him, and sworn on oath to give him descendants, would send his angel before his servant. The servant, however, might not share Abraham’s conviction, so Abraham assured him that he would not be held liable if he came back empty-handed. The solemn oath indicated how deadly serious Abraham was in all he asked of his retainer; on the success of this enterprise depended the separateness of the people of God, a necessary condition for developing a counter-culture that would reflect their walk with God.”

Pastor Randy Faulkner

God has a Purpose

Abraham knew that God had a special purpose for his son Isaac. He had been miraculously born to Abraham and Sarah in their old age. The Lord had said that his covenant promises would be fulfilled through Isaac. When the Lord had tested Abraham’s faith by telling him to sacrifice Isaac, he was pleased with Abraham’s obedient response and he kept him from following through with the sacrifice. Isaac was spared when the Lord provided a male sheep as a substitutionary offering. Even though Abraham had other children, Isaac was considered to be the “only” son, the beloved son, the son of promise.

It is not surprising, then, that when the time came for Isaac to marry, the aged patriarch Abraham wanted to do all he could to insure that a suitable bride could be found for his son. Isaac’s bride would be the mother of Abraham’s descendants who would occupy the promised land. In one of the most beautiful stories in the Old Testament, Abraham assigned to his personal servant the task of locating a bride for Isaac and bringing her to him (Genesis 24:1-67).

This story has important lessons for us about God’s purpose, and his providential care in accomplishing his purpose. That is why I want to explore it here in a few installments, beginning today.

Genesis 24 opens with the statement that “Abraham was now very old and the Lord had blessed him in every way.” This makes me think of all the ways the Lord has blessed me throughout my life. How about you? Let’s remember to thank him regularly for his protection, provision, for his guidance and care.

God had blessed Abraham with a beautiful wife, Sarah, with great wealth, with a beloved son, Isaac, and with a reputation among his neighbors as a “mighty prince.”

Abraham summoned his chief servant, the one who was in charge of his household. The servant was given the commission to find a bride for Isaac, Abraham’s heir. Derek Kidner points out that he is an attractive person because of “his quiet good sense, his piety and faith, his devotion to his employer, and his firmness in seeing the matter through.”

As he instructed his servant, Abraham asked him to swear in the name of God that he would fulfill the charge. What he said gives us an idea of his view of God (Genesis 24:3). He is the Lord, Yahweh, the God of the covenant, who keeps his promises. The Lord is the God of heaven. He is the ruler of the glorious invisible realm of heaven, reigning in power over the universe.

He is also the God of earth, who takes an interest in the concerns of all his people, guiding and providing. He spoke words of assurance and faith to his servant. “The Lord, the God of heaven, who brought me out of my father’s household and out of my native land and who spoke to me and promised me on oath, saying, ‘To your offspring I will give this land’ — he will send his angel before you” (Genesis 24:7).

Here are a few thoughts in response to this. God has a purpose for our lives and he wants us to cooperate with his purpose. The New Testament gives us plenty of guidance about God’s purpose, what he wants us to know about him and how he wants us to live for him.

Our lives have significance and value. We matter to God. As we shall learn from this important story, God is willing to  hear our prayers and arrange circumstances so that our lives may accomplish his purpose. Abraham trusted the promise of God for his son Isaac. We may trust him too.

God is both the sovereign ruler of heaven, and the Lord of earth. He is both transcendent and immanent, distant and near. Worship and obedience are the correct responses to such a God.

Pastor Randy Faulkner