Summary: We do not receive the Spirit just by saying "No" to a list of prohibited actions. We receive him by saying yes to the call of God, and yes to the commands of God

Life sometimes really does seem a lot like a shell game. It moves faster than you can keep track of and what you reach for is often disappointingly empty. For many people life feels just plain random, a big gamble but at least it's not rigged against you. But sometimes life may feel like a cruel con game, as if you're playing with a stacked deck, with the "in-the-know" folks raking in the chips while the hapless tourists are getting fleeced everywhere they turn. As the Psalmist says,

"...I was envious of the arrogant; I saw the prosperity of the wicked....They are not in trouble as others are; they are not plagued like other people. Therefore pride is their necklace; violence covers them like a garment... hey scoff and speak with malice; loftily they threaten oppression. They set their mouths against heaven, and their tongues range over the earth. Therefore the people turn and praise them, and find no fault in them. And they say, 'How can God know? Is there knowledge in the Most High?' Such are the wicked; always at ease, they increase in riches." [Ps 73:3-10]

We've all read the Psalms that promise prosperity to the righteous, and we've all heard the laments of those whose righteousness has not been rewarded. Most of us have cried out with the prophet Habakkuk, "O LORD, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you "Violence!" and you will not save?" [Ha 1:2]

One of the things that you will see as you study the Scriptures is that God keeps stretching out his time line. Remember that Abraham was promised land and descendants. God waited to give them Isaac until Sarah was so old that the very idea of her getting pregnant made them laugh out loud. He waited another 400 years - the Egyptian captivity - until Abraham's great-great-grandchildren came into the Promised Land. Isaiah first preached of a Messiah some 800 years before the birth of Jesus, and as you know we have been awaiting the second coming for almost 2000 years. God's time is not ours. So if when we read these promises we expect immediate fulfillment of our wishes, we will be disappointed. We may, in fact, live rough and die poor. But that's not the last word. God's horizon lies beyond what we can see right now. But standing on Paul's shoulders we can get enough of a glimpse to know it's there.

God's values aren't ours, either. The health-and-wealth movement in American Christianity promises everything from business success to miraculous healing, as if God were more interested in our outsides than our insides. But think about it for a minute. If material possessions were actually good for us, would Jesus have said, "it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God." [Mt 19:24]?

Part of the reason God has designed things so that we struggle and strive in the present is to prepare us for heaven later, for us to develop spiritual and moral muscle, as it were. And he spends a great deal of time trying to convince his wayward, greedy people that they should see it in that light, too. James makes that clear when he says, "My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing." [Js 1:2] As someone else once said, God's purpose isn't to make us happy, but to make us holy. And that - whether we can see it from where we now stand or not - is what will bring us to the lasting joy that is our heritage in Christ.

Now, another thing that people often think is that God is a great big spoilsport. I thought it was the famous Baltimore writer H. L. Mencken who defined a Puritan as someone who was afraid that someone, somewhere, was having fun, but I was unable to track it down, but I'm sure you know people who think like that. Don't do this, don't do that. Don't swear, don't drink, don't party, and the Scottish Presbyterians even went so far as to teach that laughing on Sunday was an offense against God. Now, we've thankfully grown out of that particular bit of nonsense, understanding that laughter is one of God's great gifts and that He intends us to enjoy God, creation and one another. But is there perhaps some little corner in your heart that secretly wonders if it God hasn't maybe drawn the lines too narrow, and that he - and we - should perhaps loosen up a little? What harm, after all, in just having a little nibble at a forbidden fruit?

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