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Thanking God for the thorns

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Topic Scripture: Matthew 7:24-27

There is a group which monitors “top idiots of the year.” Here are some of their honorees, all of them true stories.

A woman called the poison control center to report that her daughter had eaten some ants. The physician told her not to worry. The mother then mentioned that she had made her daughter eat ant poison to kill the ants in her stomach. The doctor changed his mind.

A man waited in line to rob a Bank of America, with a stickup note written on the bank’s deposit slip. The line was going too slowly, so he crossed the street and gave the note to a teller at Wells Fargo. She told him she couldn’t accept his stickup note because it was written on Bank of America’s note, and that he would have to go back there. So he did. Meanwhile, she called the police, and they arrested the man in line.

A man held up a corner grocery, demanding money and a bottle of Scotch. The clerk told the robber he didn’t believe he was 21, and couldn’t give him the liquor. The robber showed the clerk his driver’s license to prove his age. The clerk called the information to the police, who arrested the man two hours later.

And yet another would-be robber walked into a Burger King in Michigan, early one morning. The clerk said he couldn’t open the cash register without a food order. The robber ordered onion rings, but the clerk said they weren’t available for breakfast. The man, frustrated, walked away.

We are fallen people, living in a fallen world. Jesus warned us: “In this world you will have tribulation” (John 16.33). Some of our trials are our fault; some are not. But problems are part of life. The question is not whether rain will come, floods will rise, winds will rage. The question is whether we will still be standing after they do.

There’s only one way to withstand the inevitable storms of life. We’d best know what it is, for the rain is going to fall. Maybe today.

Build on the word of God

Jesus begins: “Everyone who hears these words of mine” (v. 24a). No exceptions, no qualifications. Every person among us can qualify. Each can hear the words of God.

But then we must “put them into practice.” Many do not.

The Lord warned the prophet Ezekiel: “My people come to you…and sit before you to listen to your words, but they do not put them into practice. With their mouths they express devotion, but their hearts are greedy for unjust gain. Indeed, to them you are nothing more than one who sings love songs with a beautiful voice and plays an instrument well, for they hear your words but do not put them into practice” (Ezekiel 33:31-32). It’s one thing to hear the word on Sunday, but another to obey it on Monday.

James adds: “Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like” (James 1:23-24).

Every time you and I look into the mirror, which is the word of God, something about our lives should change. Conviction of sin, direction of life, leadership from the Spirit—there should always be life-transformation for hearing from the Lord of the universe. When did the word of God last change your life?

When we seek God’s word for our problems and decisions, and do what it says, we are “like a wise man who built his house on the rock” (v. 24b). “The rock” refers to a strata, not just a specific stone. In the limestone country of Galilee, when a builder digs down through the topsoil and sand, he will always find such a level of solid stone. It was common to dig down to this level, and build the house’s foundation on it.

Now “the rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house” (v. 25a). Rain bombarded the roof, streams flooded the flooring, winds pounded the walls. Every part of the house was assaulted. But “it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock” (v. 25b).

Proverbs 10:25 says, “When the storm has swept by, the wicked are gone, but the righteous stand firm forever.” Because our foundation is solid.

Dr. Earl Palmer has pastored a church in California for more than 30 years. In his excellent commentary on the Sermon on the Mount he writes:

“I live in earthquake country. And the church I serve in Berkeley, California, is next to the campus of the University of California which sits astride the Hayward fault, itself connected to the gigantic San Andreas Fault that stretches from Mexico to Alaska and directly under the city of San Francisco.

“Earthquake specialists have pointed up several important facts about home construction in earthquake terrain: A wood structure is ideally suited for the stresses of horizontal land movement, which is the terror of an earthquake, provided that the wood structure is bolted to its foundation…The non-bolted home moves a few inches away from its foundation, [causing] the collapse of the structure…A safe house is that house which relates as much of the house as possible to its foundation. It not only rests upon a rock; it is built into the rock.”

Dr. Palmer adds that the strategy behind the Golden Gate Bridge is similar: its two great towers are deeply imbedded into the rock foundation beneath the sea. As he says, “the bridge is totally preoccupied with its foundation. That is its secret!” (The Enormous Exception, 144-5).

Refuse every other foundation

We have another option: “everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand” (v. 26).

The “foolish” (moronic) man hears exactly the same words. He has access to the same revelation of God’s holy truth. He knows the same biblical revelation.

But he does not put these words into practice. He does not stop to ask God’s word for guidance before his decisions. He chooses behavior which contradicts God’s word and will. He pays deference to the word on Sunday, but ignores it on Monday.

He “built his house on sand.”

The “sand” here is not a beach or sand pit as we might imagine it, but loose topsoil and rocks lying above the underlying strata of solid rock. The most common place to find such soil was in a dry riverbed.

During the dry season, the region went for months without a drop of water. So a man builds his house, moves into it, and all is well. Until the first storm. Then the same rains which bombarded the wise man’s roof, fall on his; the same streams which flooded the wise man’s flooring, rise against his; the same winds which pounded the wise man’s walls, assault his. But the fool’s house has no foundation. No underlying rock. No place to stand.

And so the house “fell with a great crash.” “Mega” crash, in the Greek. The crash which is coming to every life not built on obedience to the word of God.

How do people build on sand today?

Some make this tragic decision with regard to salvation. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the theologian who returned to his native Germany to fight Hitler and paid for his commitment and courage with his life, wrote one of the great classics of Christian literature, a study of Jesus’ teachings called The Cost of Discipleship. He begins: “Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our Church. We are fighting today for costly grace.”

What does he mean? “Cheap grace means grace as a doctrine, a principle, a system…An intellectual assent…is held to be of itself sufficient to secure remission of sins.” So long as we believe that the Bible is true, Jesus is the Son of God and Savior and Lord, that’s enough. No life-transforming personal relationship is needed.

As a result, “Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”

On the other hand, “Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock. Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life” (pp. 45-7, emphasis his).

If your salvation is resting on intellectual acceptance of the truths of Christianity, you’re building on sand. Only when Jesus is your Lord, your Master, your King and Boss and God, are you standing on the rock. When the storms come, we’ll all know which foundation is yours.

Lost people build their salvation on the sand. And some saved people build their lives next door to them, on the same sand of self-sufficiency. We who follow Christ are tempted to compartmentalize our lives. To build one room on Christ and one on the world, our friends, our resources, ourselves. Or to stand on the rock part of the time and the sand the rest of the time.

Is there a room in your house which is disobedient to the revealed word of God? When last did you consult that word before your decisions, your actions, the day before you? When last did the word of God change your behavior?

Jesus was a master carpenter. He knew that appearances are deceiving. The roof, walls, and flooring can look excellent in workmanship. It takes a rainstorm to reveal the leaks, the cracks, the faults.

What do the storms of life tell you about your soul? Do hard times frustrate you? Discourage or depress you? Do they cause you to turn from God in anger? Or do they draw you closer to your Lord, make you more dependent on him, reveal more of his love and truth through your life to others?

To discover the quality of a grape, crush it. To find out what’s inside a bottle, shake it. To learn the nature of a tea bag, drop it in hot water.

Conclusion

Walt Disney was right: difficulties make some men bitter, and others better. If you’ll live in constant, consistent obedience to the word of God, it will be the latter for you.

A West African believer from an unreached people was recently released after being kidnapped and tortured for days. Because he continually witnessed to his faith in Christ through the ordeal, four of his captors trusted in Jesus as their Lord. They said, “No one could endure what he did for something that wasn’t true.”

Our own Verdell Davis, no stranger to suffering, has written an excellent book titled Riches Stored in Secret Places. Here she quotes James Means: “The very fire that blackens my horizons warms my soul. The darkness that oppresses my mind sharpens my vision. The flood that overwhelms my heart quenches my thirst. The thorns that penetrate my flesh strengthen my spirit. The grave that buries my desires deepens my devotion. Man’s failure to comprehend this intention of God is one of life’s true calamities” (p. 15).

George Matheson was born to privilege. At the University of Glasgow he graduated first in classics, logic, and philosophy. His prospects for academic success were brilliant.

Then, in his 20th year of life, he became totally blind. He followed God’s call to ministry anyway. Across many years of faithfulness, he pastored some of Scotland’s finest and largest churches, wrote books of philosophical theology which are still read and cited today, was theologian to Queen Victoria, received numerous honorary doctorates, filled the most prestigious lectureships in the land, and was a fellow of the Royal Society.

This prayer by Dr. Matheson convicted me this week. Let’s make it ours:

My God, I have never thanked thee for my thorn.

I have thanked thee a thousand times for my roses,

But never once for my thorn.

Teach me the glory of my cross,

Teach me the value of my thorn.

Show me that I have climbed to thee by the path of my pain.

Show me that my tears have made my rainbows.

Amen.