A Right Spirit and Clean Heart

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Create in me a clean heart, O God, 

and renew a right spirit within me. 

Cast me not away from your presence, 

and take not your Holy Spirit from me. 

(Ps 51:10-11)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

When we think of the word, “holy”, we usually think of moral purity, but another definition is: “pertaining to being dedicated or consecrated to [set apart to] the service of God” (BDAG 61). The same word for holy in Greek also means saint, as well as morally pure and separate.

Moral purity and separation are fundamental ideas in the Old Testament understanding of God, as seen in Genesis: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” (Gen 1:1) Two acts of separation occur in creation: non-being is separated from being (Gen 1:1a) and the heavens and the earth are separated from one another (Gen 1:1b). Other separations—darkness and light, morning and evening, dry land and water, male and female—follow in the creation account which God declares to be good.

Contemporary attacks on the goodness of God often start by declaring these separations arbitrary and capricious, especially as they pertain to gender. The argument goes that if these separations are arbitrary, they are also discriminatory, hence not good. Therefore, the Bible teaches discrimination and cannot be considered normative for postmodern Christians.

Good separations, often referred to today as boundaries, need to be clear and concrete. In the Ten Commandments (Exod 20), the law sets forth voluntary boundaries defining who is and is not part of the household of God. This covenant between the people of Israel and God begins with a reminder of the benefits of the covenant: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” (Exod 20:2) The point here is that you were once slaves, but I set you free—you owe me.

A Christian interpretation of this passage takes a different twist. The Apostle Paul talks about being a slave to sin (Rom 7:14). Today we talk about slaves to an addiction, being slaves to fear, or slaves to other passions. God offers us the freedom to escape such bondage, if we seek him. 

The covenantal benefits (blessings) and strictures (curses) were laid out in greater detail in Deuteronomy. Deuteronomy, which means the second book of the law, needed to repeat the covenant for a new generation because God cursed their parents (who had lived in Egypt) for their lack of faith to die in the desert (Deut 1:20–37). Here we first read about the benefits:

And if you faithfully obey the voice of the Lord your God, being careful to do all his commandments that I command you today, the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations of the earth. And all these blessings shall come upon you and overtake you, if you obey the voice of the Lord your God. Blessed shall you be in the city, and blessed shall you be in the field…. (Deut 28:1-3)

Later in parallel fashion, we read about the strictures:

But if you will not obey the voice of the Lord your God or be careful to do all his commandments and his statutes that I command you today, then all these curses shall come upon you and overtake you. Cursed shall you be in the city, and cursed shall you be in the field… (Deut 28:15–16)

These blessings and curses are cited again in Psalm 1: Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers… (Ps 1:1)

Reminding people, especially leaders, of these blessings and curses was the primary responsibility of an Old Testament prophet. Those that kept their covenantal obligations were considered righteous under the law (Phil 3:6).

If God considered Job righteous, then why did Job end up suffering? (Job 1:1)

One response to the question of suffering is that Job’s faithfulness was tested by evil circumstances (Job 1:9) and confirmed to be true (Job 42:1-7). Another response is that suffering is a consequence of foolishness (Prov 1:7). The best response is that sin brings suffering, is part of our nature, and God’s intervention is required to overcome it, as we read:

For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see for myself, and my eyes shall behold, and not another… (Job 19:25-27)

This theodicy of Job reveals God’s glory and his love for us in providing us a redeemer.

The possibility of a redeemer is prophesied by Moses (Deut 18:15) and expresses God’s forgiveness (Exod 34:7). In praying for God’s forgiveness, King David expressed most clearly God’s intervention in our moral condition, cited above in Psalm 51. David recognized that divine intervention was required for a human relationship with a holy and transcendent God. To be human means to be unholy and mortal, not holy and immortal (transcendent), like God.

Later, God intervened through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ to atone for our sin (1 Cor 15:3–10). In Christ and through the Holy Spirit, we can live in obedience to God (set free from the law) and can come before God in prayer and worship.

A Right Spirit and Clean Heart

Also see:

Preface to a Life in Tension

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Prayer for Greater Holiness

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By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Holy and Eternal Father,

We praise you for your mercy and grace through Jesus Christ, who died for our sins before we were even born.

We confess that you alone are holy.

From our mother’s womb we have tried your patience and even now come to you with blood-stained hands.

Forgive us in our rebellion against your covenant and against your son.

In the power of your Holy Spirit, cleanse our hearts and minds that we might become fit stewards of your mercy and grace to those among us who have not heard the good news or have rejected it on account of our sin and folly.

Draw us to yourself today across the gaps that separate us that we might have new life in you, this day, and forever more.

In Jesus’ precious name, Amen.

Prayer for Greater Holiness

Also see:

Believer’s Prayer

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Be Holy For I am Holy

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Honored are the pure in heart, 

for they shall see God. 

(Matt 5:8)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

God is holy; we are not. Our tension with God a menudo starts with guilt over this holiness gap. This gap, which is more of a chasm, points to our need for Christ, who is our bridge to our Holy God, being both hoy and divine.

The Greek word for pure means: “to be free from moral guilt, pure, free from sin.” (BDAG 3814.3c) The expression pure in heart appears only in Matthew 5:8 in the New Testament but occurs in the Old Testament:

Who shall ascend the hill of the LORD? And who shall stand in his holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not lift up his soul to what is false and does not swear deceitfully. (Ps 24:3–4)

This Psalm tells us how to worship in the temple in Jerusalem. In view is the holiness code of Leviticus where God admonishes us many times to “be holy, for I am holy” (Lev 11:44).

The expression, “pure in heart”, is incomplete in the English translation. The Hebrew word for heart means “inner man, mind, will, heart.”` (BDB 4761) that includes emotions but also things not included in the English. For example, immediately following the Hebrew prayer, the Shema (Deut 6:4), we are commanded—”You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” (Deut 6:5)—that emphasizes the unity of heart, soul, and might through repetition (Benner 1998, 22). Jesus repeats this reference in Matthew 22:36–40 where he commands us to love both God and neighbor.

The Sixth Beatitude’s promise of seeing God, if we remain pure, is also a promise of forgiveness (Ps 51:10–12), salvation (Job 19:26–27), and the opportunity of ministry. Seeing God figures prominently in the call stories of Moses (Exod 3:6), Isaiah (Isa 6:5), and Ezekiel (Ezek 1:28) whose experience parallels that of Paul (Acts 9:3, 22:6, and 26:13). Paul is blinded by the light of heaven—an allusion both to God and to the call of the Prophet Ezekiel (Ezek 2:1). As unholy and mortal beings, seeing God blinds us and threatens our very existence.

The promise of seeing God is also a promise of restoration of the relationship with God, seen first in the Garden of Eden (Gen 3:8-9). It also anticipates heaven, as prophesied in the last chapter of the Book of Revelation:

No longer will there be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. (Rev 22:3-4)

Holiness is the mark of God, not only on our foreheads, but also on our souls, as we read in Genesis:

Now Abimelech had not approached her. So he said, Lord, will you kill an innocent people? Did he not himself say to me, She is my sister’? And she herself said, He is my brother. In the integrity of my heart and the innocence of my hands I have done this. Then God said to him in the dream, Yes, I know that you have done this in the integrity of your heart, and it was I who kept you from sinning against me. Therefore I did not let you touch her. (Gen 20:4-6)

Abimelech speaks directly with God who works in his heart to keep him from sinning even though he is a gentile and not a believer.

Seeing Jesus, a “friend of . . . sinners”, value and teach about holiness is indeed ironic, as we read:

For John the Baptist has come eating no bread and drinking no wine, and you say, He has a demon. The Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners! Yet wisdom is justified by all her children. (Luke 7:33–35)

Still,  the Sixth Beatitude anticipates our conversion and commissioning, much like that of the Apostles:

As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you. And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, Receive the Holy Spirit. (John 20:21–22).

The call of an Apostle clearly required a purity of heart which the Holy Spirit brought within their reach.

References

Bauer, Walter (BDAG). 2000. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. 3rd ed. ed. de Frederick W. Danker. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. <BibleWorks. v.9.>.

Benner, David G. 1998. Care of Souls: Revisioning Christian Nurture and Counsel. Grand Rapids: Baker Books.

Brown-Driver-Briggs-Gesenius (BDB). 1905. Hebrew-English Lexicon, unabridged.

Be Holy For I am Holy

Also see:

Preface to a Life in Tension

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Prayer of Praise

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By Stephen W. Hiemstra

God of all mercy and grace,

We praise you for creating the heaven and the earth, all that is, that was, and that will ever be; all things seen and unseen.

We look upon your creation, smile, and praise your name.

We praise you for the example of your son, our savior, Jesus Christ—who in life served others, who in death atoned for our sin, and who in rising from the dead granted us the hope of eternal life.

We see your son’s example and feel your love for us.

We praise you for your Holy Spirit, who draws us to you, grants every good gift, and provides all things.

We look upon your Holy Spirit’s power in the world and break out in praise.

May your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven, today and every day, with us and through us.

In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Prayer of Praise

Also see:

Believer’s Prayer

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Jesus Models Image Ethics

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So Jesus said to them, Truly, truly, I say to you, 

the Son can do nothing of his own accord, 

but only what he sees the Father doing. 

For whatever the Father does,

 that the Son does likewise. 

(John 5:19)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

The creation account in Genesis offers an ethical framework that Jesus employs repeatedly in his teaching, as in Genesis:

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. (Gen 1:27)

Because we are created in the image of God, our behavior should likewise follow God’s behavior—a kind of image ethic. For example, when God blesses us, we should bless others (Gen 12:3). This behavioral pattern is simple—God does A, we do A; God does B, we do B—and this pattern appears several places in Jesus’ teachings, such as in the Lord’s Prayer where we read:

Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. (Matt 6:10)

The phrase “on earth as it is in heaven” models this pattern while the phrase—“and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matt 6:12)—reverses the pattern because we know God’s will.

In discussing forgiveness, Jesus pauses to repeat himself, for emphasis:

For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. (Matt 6:14-15)

In six simple verses (Matt 6:10–15), Jesus reverses this pattern (we do A, God does A; we do B, God does B) four times when God’s will is well known (God is merciful so he obviously forgives), as when God’s character traits inform us.

Accordingly, an important application of this pattern is to reflect and anticipate all of God character traits:

The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulnes. (Exod 34:6)

If God is merciful, then we are merciful; if God is gracious, we are gracious . . . Among the fruits of the Spirit, the Apostle Paul lists:

love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. (Gal 5:22–23)

Almost all of God’s character traits are found on this list, albeit kindness only hints at mercy.

Do you want a blessing? Be a blessing! (Gen 12:2)

Simple. Clean. Convicting. Jesus loves image ethics.

Jesus Models Image Ethics

Also see:

Preface to a Life in Tension

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Prayer of Confession and Blessing

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By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Merciful Father, Beloved Son, Ever-present Spirit,

We praise you, Lord, for your mercy, grace, patience, love, and faithfulness; for healing us of our afflictions, for forgiving our sin, and for your presence in our life; for in you we find faith, hope, and love, as nowhere else.

We confess that you alone are God, yet we make idols of machines, institutions, and our own pet theories. We have not followed the example of your son, Jesus Christ, and have set our own desires above our families, friends, and even your church. Forgive our sin; overlook our transgressions; and heal us of our iniquity—that we might be whole again and restored to your presence.

We give thanks for the many blessings that you have freely given us: our families, our health, our work, and even life itself.

We ask you now to bless us that we might bless others. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Prayer of Confession and Blessing

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Believer’s Prayer

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Mercy as a Path to Salvation

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Go and learn what this means, I desire mercy, and not sacrifice. 

For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners. (Matt 9:13)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Asking for mercy and offering mercy both evoke tension with God because we prefer not to shine a light on our own sin or the sin of others. In dealing with our own sin, Jesus cites the same verse from the Prophet Hosea twice after the Fifth Beatitude (Matt 9:13, 12:7): For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings. (Hos 6:6) Pagan worship attempts to manipulate the gods with sacrifices, which today can take the form of offerings, overt righteousness, prayers, church attendance, or XYZ actions done, not out of thanksgiving, but out of a desire to manipulate God.

An important lesson on mercy shows up the story of the Good Samaritan when a lawyer asks Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29). After telling the story, Jesus asks,“Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” (Luke 10:36), substituting the question—“who proved to be a neighbor”—for the lawyer’s question—“who is my neighbor”—and eliciting the lawyer’s response—“The one who showed him mercy.” (Luke 10:37) Notice how the story started out talking about neighborly love, but ended up talking about mercy? By turning a direct object (neighbor) into a verb (to be a neighbor) Jesus redirects the lawyer’s question from who can be excluded as a neighbor to how we can become a better neighbor.

Mercy is a fitting focus of the story of the Good Samaritan because Jews hated Samaritans. The Samaritan had to overcome prejudice (show mercy) in order to show love to the man left for dead. In the same way, we experience God’s love through his mercy, as in this verse: The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness. (Exod 34:6) Notice that this verse includes both mercy and love, but mercy comes first.

James concludes much the same from God’s attributes when he observes: For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment. (Jas 2:13) Here James has restated Jesus’ Beatitude in the negative—it is a curse to be judged without mercy. Judgment requires truth, which—like love—follows mercy on the list of God’s attributes.

The link between judgment and mercy points us back to the atoning work of Christ, as the Apostle Peter observed:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. (1 Pet 1:3-5)

The path to salvation through Christ is by way of his mercy.

Mercy as a Path to Salvation

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Preface to a Life in Tension

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Sanctification Prayer

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By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Merciful God,

I praise you for the gift of your law and your provision of grace through Jesus Christ that we might approach you in prayer.

You are the God of mercy and grace, who is slow to anger, abounding in love, and faithful.

There is none like you; may I ever model myself on your immutable character remembering your law, being ever-mindful of your grace, and enjoying the support of your church.

May I be quick to share your mercy, grace, and love with those around me in thought, word, and deed through the power of the Holy Spirit, and in Jesus’ name, Amen.

Sanctification Praye

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Believer’s Prayer

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God’s Core Values

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The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, 

slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, 

(Exod 34:6)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Immediately following the giving of the Ten Commandments, God proclaims his attributes to Moses, much like a herald might introduce the titles and accomplishments of an important dignitary. Scripture underscores the importance of these attributes by repeating them, almost word for word, in Psalm 86:15 and Psalm 103:8, Joel 2:13, and Jonah 4:2. In the parallel context of the giving of the Law (Deut 4:31), only mercy is cited, underscoring its primacy in the Jewish understanding of God’s character.

The emphasis on mercy and the de-emphasis on faithfulness (or truth) in Exodus 34:6 suggests that God is soft-hearted. The passage mentions mercy, gracious, slow to anger (or long nostrilled), abounding in love (hesed), and faithfulness (emeth). Hesed love in the Hebrew is best translated as covenantal love because of the context here as God just delivered the Ten Commandments to Moses. Emethis often translated as faithfulness, but it also means truth. When Apostle John describes Jesus as full of grace and truth (John 1:14), he is making a claim of divinity with reference to Exodus 34:6.

Psalm 86 repeats each of the five words of Exodus 34 in the same order. Psalm 103 repeats the first four words, but drops faithfulness. Joel 2 repeats the first five words, but substitutes “relents over disaster” for faithfulness. Jonah 4 likewise substitutes “relents over disaster” for faithfulness but swaps grace and mercy. The emphasis on mercy and the de-emphasis on faithfulness in God’s attributes is important because they provide guidance on how to interpret law especially when conflicts arise or when a new context requires interpretation.

The primacy of mercy in the Jewish understanding of God’s character figures prominently in the story of the Prophet Jonah. Jonah refused God’s call to preach repentance to the sinful people of Nineveh (a city whose ruins lie cross the Tigris river from Mosul, Iraq; Nahum 1:1). Rather than answer God’s call, Jonah boarded a ship going the opposite direction (Jonah 1:2–3). After being caught in a storm, thrown overboard, and rescued by a whale, Jonah reluctantly responded to God’s call, traveled to Nineveh, and preached repentance to the Ninevites. When the Ninevites responded to his preaching, turned from their sin, and begged God to forgive them (Jonah 3:9-10), God relented from destroying the city.

Showing mercy to Nineveh seemed unjust to Jonah and it made him angry because Nineveh was the hometown of Sennacherib, king of Assyria who conquered Judah and made King Hezekiah his vassal (Isa 36-37), so Jonah:

prayed to the LORD and said, O LORD, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster. (Jonah 4:2)

Jonah knew God’s attributes (citing Exod 34:6) and did not want to give the hated Ninevites the opportunity to repent and have God forgive them, as he knew God would.

Mercy is first among God’s attributes because as human beings we are born in sin and must acknowledge our sin before we feel any need for God. Our need is like that of a young man who, not liking the newly elected president, leaves the country, and tears up his passport; without being issued a new passport, he cannot return home. In our case, our passport into the kingdom of God is his mercy, without which we cannot experience God’s other attributes.

God’s Core Value

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Preface to a Life in Tension

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Prayer for Compassion and Mercy

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By Stephen W. Hiemstra

God of All Compassion and Mercy,

Forgive me, Lord, for the sins of my youth when I fell short of the plans you had for me. When in your great compassion you were kind to me and patient, teaching me your law and demonstrating your grace.

Forgive me, Lord, for the transgressions of my youth when I disobeyed your law when in your mercy you looked the other way and disregarded my attitude, teaching me forbearance and gentle persuasion.

Forgive me, Lord, for the iniquity of my youth when I failed to help those around me.

When in your everlasting love you sent your son to die for me, atoning for my sin, my transgressions, and my iniquity so that I might grow to be a man mindful of compassion, mercy, and love that were modeled for me all the days of my life.

In Jesus’ precious name, Amen.

Prayer for Compassion and Mercy

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Believer’s Prayer

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