Friday, February 14, 2014

How Close Are You To God?

By John Stallings

And Peter followed Him afar off, even into the palace of the high priest; and sat with the servants and warmed himself at the fire. Mark 14:54

Living for God at a distance & in a half-hearted way sets us up for internal tension because all the vitality of a real walk with God oozes out of our relationship.

God doesn’t have “one style fits all” relationships, He leaves it up to us to decide what the distance we walk from Him will be. Holding God at arms length isn’t the kind of walk He wants to have with us but He won’t force a closer relationship.

A prime example of this is Peter. In 2 Peter 2:20-22 Peter tells us of the real possibility of backsliding. He described it as “a dog returning to his own vomit.” Isn’t it interesting that this comes from the inspired pen of Peter? If anyone knew first hand the reality & dangers of backsliding it was he. Peter declared that he would follow Jesus no matter what. But Jesus told him that before the cock crowed three times Peter would deny Him. To prove that could never be true of him, Peter cut off the ear of Malcus, the soldier who tried to take Jesus into custody. He took up arms for Jesus.

Peter’s story provides us with a postmortem if you will on backsliding. It’s the cautionary tale of a man’s downward spiral. Just to broad stroke the story of backsliding; -- it’s gradual, & some of the issues are pride, laziness, cowardice, worldliness & denial.

While Peter was warming himself at a fire somewhere in the city, a young girl pointed her finger at him & declared he was one of Jesus’ followers. Peter had a cussing-fit & told all who were interested that he didn’t even know who Jesus was. This behavior became a deeply humiliating failure for Peter. The main reason for his disappointment in himself was that Peter loved Jesus deeply. He was a leader. He was a son-of-thunder but during that week of Christ’s passion, with all the pain, violence, blood, gore & high drama, Peter had to face the fact that he was scared.

As the pressure on Jesus began to build, Peter followed further & further behind Him. We know that Peter later got his courage back & preached a great sermon on the Day of Pentecost. He ended up helping to write the New Testament & legend tells us he refused to die like Jesus did, but was crucified upside down.

You’ll remember that Jesus didn’t hold Peter’s denial against him. Jesus didn’t stand in rigid judgment of how close or how far Peter was from him. And later Jesus, without any harshness allowed Peter to redeem himself by declaring three times his love for Jesus.

Seems strange doesn’t it? Strange but true. What’s going to be your distance from God? You will define that distance. God leaves that up to us & loves us no matter what our choice is. It matters greatly to Him what we choose but He won’t put us in lock-down or force us, He gives us options. God desires the close walk with you & me but He will let us make that choice.

Jesus set the example of the kind of relationship He wants with us when He came to where we were. He left the ivory palaces of His heavenly home & came crashing out of timelessness into time to be born of women. He lived & moved among us & had close personal relationships with people. Even in His miracles He didn’t do things on the grand scale that the miracles of the Old Testament were done. There were no walls tumbling down or seas piling up. Jesus would find a woman with disease & heal her. Or He’d find a grieving family & bring their dead back to life. He’d sit at a well & talk to a woman & totally change her life with a conversation. He was always saying, “See, I’m available to you. You can walk close to me & have just as intimate a relationship as you want, it’s up to you.” He’s shown us the kind of relationships He wants but still He lets us decide. Jesus didn’t call His disciples in a “group call,” He personally & purposefully called them one by one.

Have you ever had a friend in your life who wanted to define how close the relationship was? Friends can sometimes be very smothering. Some friends want to be every day friends. Others want to be weekly friends. I’ve known people who wanted to be so close that if you went to a movie or went to a new restaurant without them they’d have a conniption fit & say something like “What? You went without telling me? Well I’m hurt.” They can act as if you aren’t capable of going out on the town without them. You almost have to ask permission to do something without them. This can be extremely annoying. They will try to set the boundaries of the relationship by saying, “If you’re going to be my friend, stay in touch.”

Sometimes parents can be this way with their adult children. Have you ever seen a “smothering mother?” I think they are called “helicopter parents.” They will give their kids cell phones & they expect their kid to always be checking in with them. They will say things like, “what, I’m not your mother any more? You didn’t call me. You never call. I’ll be dead soon & then you’ll be sorry.” Sometimes parents will try to keep this kind of relationship even after their offspring is married. That’s when things turn squirrelly. God won’t do this to us. He wants us to realize on our own that closer is better and closer is easier, but He won’t force it. We must decide if we want our attachment to God to be a big deal in our lives or a small deal.

In 1957, I stood at the alter of my father’s  church in Orlando Florida on a Sunday night in late August. The service was all about a few of us high school graduates who were leaving to go to college. I was leaving the next day for Southeastern Bible College in Lakeland Florida to study for my ministerial degree. But as I stood at the alter that night along with several others who were off to college, I was fighting a battle in my soul.

Up to now, my calling just amounted to young Johnny, who would preach in youth service & maybe occasionally go elsewhere to conduct a youth revival. This night was different. Now I was going to do something that would affect all of my life from now on. I was leaving the next day for Bible College & this would determine what my life’s goal would be. I was renouncing math as a major. I was renouncing music as my major. I was renouncing everything else but the ministry & that meant either pastoring, missionary work or evangelizing.

What to do, what to do? This decision would determine who I would marry & spend the rest of my life with. This decision would determine what kind of house I’d live in & the kind of car I’d drive. This decision would determine how much money I’d make & how much I’d have to someday retire on. What to do?

It was crunch time for me. I was afraid and felt guilty for being afraid. I was faced that night with the decision of just how close I wanted to be to God. After all there were options for me. Let me share a few of these options I had that night.


I didn’t have to abandon the faith, I could just straddle the fence, maybe get a business degree (Not that there’s anything wrong with that) & preach on Sundays. After all, wouldn’t it be great to be able to preach to people & not worry about them having to pay me? I could make my own living & preach on the side.

Of course I didn’t make that decision to be partially committed & as I look back I’m happy I didn’t. In all probability God won’t call on you to make the commitment I made because it was for full time Christian service. All of our walks with Him are personal.

What was I afraid of? What are many people afraid of when it comes to total commitment to Christ? Why do we so often stiff arm God? Maybe we’re afraid God might make demands on us. We might be called to do something we don’t really want to do. But God doesn’t force people to do grievous things they’re not equipped to do or not happy about the prospects of doing. Jesus said, “My yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

Another reason some are afraid to follow too closely to Jesus is they’re afraid of what people might say about them. They’re afraid people will think they’re too caught up in religion & are in danger of being a fanatic. Maybe people will think they are caught up in a Jim Jones like cult. In other words they find it hard to fully trust God. Maybe they’re afraid they’ll start writing checks with reckless abandon or start engaging in “destructive behavior.” They might even join the choir. What would happen then? They deduce that it would be safer to remain a spectator Christian & continue to keep a safe distance from God.


All the revivals of history were periods of calling men back from institutional relationships with God to personal relationships. The Luther reformation was a move back to a personal God & a personal walk with Him. Every man is a priest. You didn’t have to go through an interloper; you could go straight to God. Up until the Reformation, Bibles were chained to the church pulpits & anyone with a Bible could be thrown in jail. People were forced to have corporate relationships with God.

The charismatic renewal that happened a few years back was a move to call the individual to a closer personal walk with God. But still there are many who want a relationship with God that will keep them out of hell & not much else. They will say in essence, “Just let me be loose about this. I might come to church once a year or I might come more often.” These folk are the ones that started the joke—“The church roof might fall in when I come next time.”


I hear about these folk on a regular basis. They got “too close” to a pastor or other Christians & something happened that disillusioned them. I am tempted to say at this point “poor baby” but I’ll resist that temptation. Now they will tell anyone who asks that there are lots of hypocrites in the church. My answer to that is usually, “if there’s a hypocrite between you & God, the hypocrite is closer to God than you are.” But I’ll resist that also.

To be hurt by a good man or woman undoubtedly gives us an eternal excuse to stay away from God & His church. After all, we now have to ability to point to the church & say—“Well one of the most spiritual among God’s people did me wrong. A man who stands in the pulpit & preaches hurt me personally so I have the perfect excuse not to get too close & return to religion.”

Let’s go back to Malcus, the man whose ear was cut off by Peter. Apocryphal writings tell us that Malcus in later years became a part of the Christian church. What? Do you mean to say that Malcus, the man who was brutalized & deformed by Peter’s sword later became a believer? Obviously that’s true. Wow! Malcus had the best reason to doubt & deny the Lordship of Jesus than any man ever had. One of Jesus’ closest men actually hurt him. He actually cut off his ear. Never mind the “small detail” that Jesus put Malcus’ ear back on & healed him. He now had a personal reason to testify to the "dangers of Christianity." Malcus was willing to allow Jesus to heal him that day. He could have pushed Jesus away & taken that severed ear, had it bronzed & shown it to folk for the rest of his life as exhibit A-"that Jesus crowd can really hurt a fellow." Alas, there are still some who refuse to be healed because their wounds are too precious to them.

Speaking of being hurt by Christians or hurt in the service of the lord, let me tell you about a very dedicated lady who was hurt in the service of God. While she & her preacher husband were conducting gospel tent revivals, her seven year old daughter took sick & died in a small backwater town. This woman was a truly committed person, but when she lost her daughter she got angry with God. She vowed that she would never darken a church door till the day she died.

She let her husband go on alone in his tent ministry although he was hurt just as much as she was at the loss of their beautiful little girl. One day a year later, this lady had to break her vow to never enter a church again, to attend the funeral of a beloved friend. As the funeral service progressed, the minister told the story of a mother sheep who refused to cross a raging stream. The Shepard needed her to join the rest of the flock so they could travel to lush green grass to feed on but the mother sheep was frightened & wouldn’t budge.

The Shepard in desperation finally got an idea. He took the sheep’s little fold & carried it across the stream & stood it on the bank on the other side. When the mother saw her baby on the other side of the stream she was finally persuaded to brave the troubled waters to join her baby. This bitter lady was smitten in her heart by the illustration. God brought it home to her that even though she couldn’t understand it all she now had a reason to endure any hardship because if she did, she had the eternal hope of someday seeing her baby girl again.

That day this lady was forced to define the distance between herself & God. Thankfully she chose to rededicate herself to her Lord, & humbly & closely follow Him the best she knew how, trusting that her remaining two small children would follow her example. I’m glad she did because that lady was my mother. From that day forward she guided my sister & me, encouraging us in spite of all the unanswered questions of life to covet a close walk with the Lord.

I am grateful that even though I’ve made many mistakes in my life there has always been a force pulling me toward God; an inner hunger that won’t let me be content without Him.

Have you considered the distance between you & God lately?



Saturday, February 8, 2014


By John Stallings

The first grey streaks of dawn appeared & the fugitive knew he must move on.

He traveled light because he was on the run. As he swung his backpack on, his mind wondered back over the last months. It felt as if he’d been running all his life. He knew every back road, every village, every cave, every gully, every place a man could hide for a few hours. Such was his life lately.

There were good days & bad days. He didn’t have to concern himself with eating breakfast because there was nothing to eat. As first light appeared- down the dusty winding road he went; a road that seemed to lead nowhere in particular.

The tattered traveler came to the top of a hill & surveyed the valley below. There sat a small village, rather non-descript; just a few buildings with a large tent in the middle. Hopefully the fugitive might find some food for his empty stomach in this little backwater town.

The village he is viewing is called Nob. Eighty-five priests of God live here & it’s also home to High Priest Ahimelech & home to the tabernacle.

The fugitive has run out of options. He didn’t really want to come to this place but as detectives say, he “had a tail.” Someone was tracking him & he had no choice but to stop in this village & try to get help. He has the street- cred to know “you play the hand you’re dealt.”

Though the fugitive basically had a good character, in his present state of affairs he’d lie or do just about anything to stay alive.

This story begins in 1 Samuel 21.

The fugitive is David & he’s being hotly pursued by King Saul.
David went to Nob, to Ahimelech the priest. Ahimelech trembled when he met him & asked, “Why are you alone? Why is no one with you?”

Now David is going to tell a whopper of a lie. He says to Ahimelech, “The king [Saul] charged me with a certain matter & said to me, -- “No one is to know anything about your mission & your instructions.”—Some might say David didn’t place all his cards on the table. The cold hard truth--It was a lie.

David was running from Saul, not conducting a secret mission for him. He must have sounded convincing because Ahimelech bought it without question. But it was still a lie. David lied because he was between a rock & a hard place. Saul was trying to kill him. After so long on the road a man gets desperate & he says whatever he has to say to stay alive. David never meant to hurt anyone with his fabrication. Oh- but he did.


It’s interesting to read Revelation 21:8, describing the people that will be in the lake of fire. It speaks of all the heinous sins of mankind & liars are included.

However the only place “all” is used is “all liars.” I think the reason for that is -- we seem to accept the fact that all murderers & all fornicators & all thieves etc. who haven’t been forgiven will be in hell. But we tend to think in the case of lying, -- a “little white lie” slips past God’s radar & doesn’t register with Him. But nothing could be further from the truth. The Bible emphasizes “all liars” so we’ll understand all lies are considered sin.

David is telling “little white lies.” A small boy was asked to describe what a lie was & he said; “A lie is an abomination unto the Lord, but an ever present help in time of need.”

But the plot thickens now because someone else was in Nob that day. This someone knows who David is & knows David is telling a lie. His name was Doeg the Edomite. He was Saul’s head shepherd, one of Saul’s hired guns. He saw David & David saw him. And he saw Ahimelech give several loaves of consecrated tabernacle bread to David. We’ll hear from Doeg again.

Just before David leaves town he says, “Oh, by the way, you don’t happen to have a sword handy do you? I left mine back at home” Now David makes an attempt at putting himself into “Oscar’s best actor” contention “ by adding, -“……Because the King’s business is urgent.” When we tell one lie we usually have to tell another one to prop it up.

Ahimelech replied, “The sword of Goliath whom you killed as a boy in the Valley of Elah is here; it’s wrapped in a cloth behind the ephod. If you want it, take it; there is no sword but that one.” David said,

"There is none like it; give it to me.” [1 Samuel 21:9]

David, what’s gotten into you? First you lie then you lie again. Now you’ve taken the sword of Goliath, the giant you defeated-- to fight your battles. David, have you lost your mind? Where is God in all this? When you were just a shepherd boy you faced Goliath & all you needed was one stone from your sling. Now are you going to use the weapon of the man you killed with a rock?

Yes, in a sense, David has lost his mind. Another old saying goes, -- “Honesty is the best policy but insanity is the best defense.” If you cut a man off from his friends & family & put him in the wilderness, it does strange things to him. The constant pressure pulls at him until it wears him down. Things he swore he’d never do now don’t seem so bad.

Up to this point in his life David had done everything right. He has been the absolute model of faith, obedience, courage, integrity & devotion to God & to his king. But he is still a very young man who is living a long way from his family & home because he’s a fugitive on the run from King Saul. David needed some stability in his life but for the time being that had gone.


A humble shepherd boy had been promoted to a captain over a thousand in Saul’s army & he had all the popularity that came with that. David had leaned on the support of people but now in this trying hour that support had been dismantled.

David had the support of his wife Michal. He also had the support of Saul’s son Jonathan who loved him more than his own father. Then David had the support of the prophet Samuel who’d taught him about sacrifice, service & worship. Samuel was a significant support to David during his early years.

It’s wonderful to have supports, props & crutches in our lives to help us make it. Praise God if He’s been gracious to you & given you an adequate support network in your life.


Think of it. Think of all David had lost & how far he’d slipped to now be a desert dweller, begging for sustenance. David had been the greatest battlefield hero his nation had ever known & now he was a fugitive from justice.

David had also lost his popularity, his people & his pride & was now relegated to a distant memory. He’d been removed from the public eye. People assumed Saul would be successful in his attempts to take David’s life. Every person upon whom David had leaned in his life was taken away.

I suppose the lowest place a man can come to is the place where he loses his pride. Now that all David had to cling to had been stripped away.

David’s lies were acts of fear but taking Goliath’s sword was an act of desperation. First there’s fear, then there is a lie, then desperation, but the worst is yet to come.

Fear drove David to lie to Ahimelech. Fear drove him to take Goliath’s sword. Now fear drives him to do the strangest thing he has ever done.


Gath? Haven’t we heard that name somewhere? Yes, we have. Gath is in Philistine territory. That means it’s not in Israel’ it’s foreign to David. But wait; Gath is also the hometown of Goliath, enemy territory. Why would David do something like this?

It’s hard to know but we can imagine he was thinking, --no one would ever look for him there. -- So now David’s in Gath with Goliath’s people. The man of God is hiding in the enemy’s camp. It was an outright act of spiritual treason. God’s people were to have nothing to do with the Philistines. They were to be separated from the surrounding nations. But David looked around & said, “This looks like the quickest way out.”

The greatest temptation when we’re in trouble is to take the quickest way out. You & I can write this next principle down; -- when in trouble, the quickest way out is almost always wrong.” When we go over to the world’s side & compromise our convictions, disaster is soon to follow.


Once David realizes he’s been seen & recognized, he plunges headlong into an act of madness. He feared what might happen to him so he –“pretended to be insane in their presence; & while he was in their hands he acted like a madman, making marks on the doors of the gate & letting saliva run down his beard. 1 Sam. 21:13

Have you ever seen someone put on a crazy act? But then you realized if they were sick enough to be that convincing, they in actuality had a “screw loose.” IMHO, you can’t play-act like someone who’s “lost it” without having some level of emotional disturbance, at least for the moment. Keep in mind this is the man who won the greatest military victory in Israel’s’ history, the victory over Goliath & the Philistines, Israel’s arch enemy.

David’s compromise [ostensibly play acting] didn’t work. All it got him was thrown out of Gath. Now he’s back on his own& back on the road. First there is fear, then the lie, then desperation, then compromise & now humiliation.


Still on the run, David comes to a place called the Cave of Adullam. Chapter 22:1 tells us that his family went to meet him there. Now he’s back in Israel. David has basically reached bottom & is on his way back. Then we’re told that “all those who were in distress or in debt or discontented gathered around him & he became their leader.”

About four hundred men were now with David. The exiled king & his rag-tag army. Every crook & troublemaker came out to join him. David was now the captain of crooks & the duke of deadbeats. As David grew spiritually, these men began to grow & they would one day become his mighty men. In later years his greatest warriors would come from this motley crew.


As David changes, his men change. Some parents tell their children --“Don’t do as I do-- do as I say do.” But you & I know that’s never what actually happens. The reality is, in the end our children will do what we do. All David has to do to change these 400 hoodlums huddling in this cave with him is to start doing right & they’ll follow suit.

The story should be over but it’s not. There are a few loose ends dangling that need to be tied up. Whatever happened to Doeg the Edomite & Ahimelech?

Let’s return to the village of Nob for a moment. Things are quiet, too quiet. There’s not a sound in that little village of priests. There never was much noise but now all you hear is the wind whistling through the bushes. It’s deathly quiet & overhead the vultures are circling. In the hot sun dismembered bodies lie on the ground. They’ve been hacked to death in some kind of execution. Eighty-five priests are dead along with their families. A whole village has been wiped out.


Doeg the Edomite told Saul that he had seen Ahimelech give the sacred bread to David. Keep in mind; Ahimelech believed David’s lie that he was on a mission for King Saul. He’d acted out of patriotism but Saul called him out & accused him of treason for aiding & abetting David, a fugitive. Abimelech had no way of knowing David had told him a lie but he will now pay with his life. When Saul ordered the priests killed, his own soldiers wouldn’t do it because the priests were servants of the Lord.

But Doeg was an Edomite, a foreigner & a lackey for Saul & priests meant nothing to him. So the whole village was wiped out. Only one man lived to tell the story & his name was Abiather. Somehow he found David & told him what happened at Nob. David’s reaction in 1 Sam. 22:22 is, ---That day when Doeg the Edomite was there I knew he would be sure to tell Saul. I am responsible for the death of your father’s whole family.

David thought he could get away with the lies & the charade but he couldn’t & didn’t. He knew Doeg was there & he knew he’d tell Saul but he was so wrapped up in himself & his own problems that he acted out of self-interest & didn’t level with Abimeleck.

Who killed the priests of Nob? Who is really responsible for the tragedy? Not Doeg, not Saul- but David. David’s hands were dripping with the blood of the innocent people of Nob.


First there is selfishness, then fear, then desperation, then compromise, then humiliation & finally disaster. The saddest part of the story is that David never intended for things to end up like this. Not in a million years. He lied to get food & it seemed justifiable at the time. Most of us would have done the same thing.

If David had stopped to think, if he’d even dreamed of such a thing he’d never have told the lie. But he didn’t think. He didn’t dream, he just lied.


Numbers 32: 23 says, -- Be sure your sin will find you out. Galatians 6:7 says…….a man reaps what he sows. The chickens always come home to roost & the skeletons always eventually come out of the closet.

This story is so powerful because many of us are like David. We cut corners morally & ethically, we make excuses for our small sins & under pressure we do things we shouldn’t do. All the while we’re like fugitives, running, hiding always looking over our shoulder, hoping against hope we won’t get caught today.


But even though David committed such horrendous sins he’s still God’s man & God is going to use him. This brings up the question; couldn’t God have supplied David’s need for food so that he didn’t have to bother Ahimelech in the first place? The answer is yes.

Why did God allow David to disobey knowing that a whole village would be wiped out in the process? It’s not possible for us to fully understand God’s ways but this much we know; God allowed this so that David would humble himself & realize that left to himself he’d ruin his own life. Sadly this is a case of severe mercy because a city was destroyed in order for the lesson to be learned.

As we’ve already said, we can lean on many things in this world. Some people lean on a pill, some on a needle & some on a bottle. What are you leaning on today?
Are you leaning on a spiritual spouse who prays for you? Are you leaning on people or things more than you trust in the Lord?

Is your support system keeping you from looking to God for the real support you need? Every plank in my support system can fail but God will never fail me.

God is famous for dismantling men’s support systems & the process is painful, but it helps us to learn to lean on Him-- & Him alone.

When at last David got back on his own turf, resting safely in the cave of Adullum, reflecting on the events in Gath, he wrote Psalm 34. If you check, you’ll see the inscription at the top of the chapter--“When David feigned madness before Abimelech.”

There in the cave of Adullam God restored David to his spiritual roots. In Adullam David wrote Psalm 34, one of the classic descriptions of true spirituality;

I will bless the Lord at all times;
His praise shall continually be in my mouth.
My soul shall make its boast in the Lord;
The humble shall hear it & rejoice.
O magnify the Lord with me,
And let us exalt His name together.

Then David refers to the specific events of his deliverance;

I sought the Lord & He answered me,
And delivered me from all my fears.
They looked to Him & were radiant,
And their faces shall never be ashamed.
THIS POOR MAN cried & the Lord heard him,
And saved him out of all his troubles.
The angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear Him,
And rescues them.

This brings me to the final point in this story: When we sin, someone is going to have to pay the price. In this case an entire village of innocent people paid the price.

The one overarching quality David possessed that made him a –Man after God’s own heart- was his willingness to repent. Saul on the other hand didn’t seem to ever be able to do it. The javelin he threw at David started the manhunt that lasted nearly ten years. But in a sense, that javelin never stopped traveling & years later it found Saul & pierced his heart on Mount Gilboa.

The good news of the gospel is that God specializes in forgiving sinners.

Whenever we’re ready to turn for home, our  Heavenly Father will meet us on the way.