Monday, December 5, 2016

Self has a tough time with self-discipline

Last week a friend of ours had a medical episode. All indications are that he will need to change a few things in his lifestyle. This will include a healthier diet, more exercise, and less self-indulgence. Those changes will require discipline until they become habit.

I know what that is like. Every time I see a dessert table, I am reminded that too much sugar and too many fats will add pounds and put strain on my heart. When my weight is at or under a certain point, I’ve energy to do things, but any gain zaps me and all I want to do is sleep.

The Apostle Paul had deeper reasons for self-disciple. He compares himself to an athlete rather than a person with heart or health problems . . .

Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified. (1 Corinthians 9:25–27)

Serving the Lord as Paul did requires the power of the Holy Spirit. However, it also requires the power of a healthy body. This man travelled many miles on foot to take care of the Christians in each church. He also suffered much physical and mental abuse from those who opposed him. Even though he had a “thorn in the flesh” (the Bible does not fully define it), Paul was no wimp.

Chambers says that “God has made us to have government over all the temple of the Holy Spirit, over imaginations and affections.” While we are responsible to keep our minds and our bodies clear from any sort of pollution, it helps me a great deal to remember that my body is the temple of the Lord. That is, because He lives in me and is with me to provide the self-disciple I need, I can do as He asks regarding this self-governing. Yet I must never think this is ‘my’ power; all biblical self-discipline is a fruit of the Holy Spirit and not something that I can produce . . . 

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another. (Galatians 5:22–26)

I like this passage. It tells me if those things are missing, then I am trying to live the Christian life by myself. Instead of that, I need to be filled with God’s Spirit. Then I can function as He wants. I can say NO to rich desserts and self-indulgence, yes to exercise and good habits.

Keeping in step with the Spirit also means that I will not be conceited and boast about my self-control as if it were mine. Also, I will not challenge others or be in competition with them in any way, nor will I envy anyone, even those who have perfected this discipline and practice it far better than I do.

Chambers often separates God’s work from his work for God. I cannot do that for several reasons. The main reason is that I do not want to even come close to glorifying my efforts. I know that apart from the power of the Lord Jesus Christ, I can do nothing. 

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Winning this war

An old hymn says something like, “This world is not my home; I’m just passing through . . . .” Perhaps that is the underlying reason why Chambers says life without war is impossible. We who live with Jesus Christ in our hearts are not at home in this place and therefore antagonism is constantly present.

After Adam and Eve fell into sin, humanity has struggled with relationships, work, the weather, illness, and a host of other things that seem determined to destroy us. This world has wonder and beauty, but also horror and ugliness and many things that pull us away from God.

The human heart is antagonistic too, or at least has a war within it. We are capable of inventing great things, blessing and encouraging one another, being strong and courageous, but also capable of hate, fighting, destruction, harm and death, weakness and fear.

Sin is at the root of that antagonism as the world tempts, the flesh yields, and the devil mocks our tendency to give in to his lies. As Chambers says, at the foundation of physical, mental, moral, and spiritual life is antagonism.

Jesus knows all about it. He experienced the war and He told His disciples as He tells me: “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)

In the battle to live my Christian life, staying in love with Jesus and relying on Him for all things is part of the war. It seems it should be easy given the beauty of the Savior, but there is a constant struggle to resist the lure of the world, the sinful desires of the flesh, and those lies of the enemy.

Jesus also knows all about that. He inspired letters to His churches, commending them but also admonishing them in those areas where they were losing ground. In part of one of those letters, He said:

I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance, and how you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false. I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name’s sake, and you have not grown weary. But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent. Yet this you have: you hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God. (Revelation 2:2–7)

The church at Ephesus, and other churches and individuals since then, needed these words. They were at war just as I am at war. With trying to do good, work hard, hate evil, test false teachers, and not getting weary in the process, I can get so caught up in doing my duty that I forget that I am doing this because I love Jesus and He loves me. How can that happen? I might forget that this life is a battle ground because the war itself tends to sidetrack, to blur the reasons for the fight or even that it is happening.

Another part of it is forgetting why I must fight this war. Jesus says that those who overcome will eat from the tree of life, that tree that Adam and Eve were given free access to, but instead choose to eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, plunging the human race into sin.

Jesus is my tree of life. Relying on Him is life itself, He is the only way to overcome this antagonism that comes at me every day. Knowledge seems helpful and important but that is part of the antagonism that nags at me and draws me away from my first love, the Lord Jesus Christ and His saving power. Knowing what to do does not help me overcome the world and all that I battle — it is Jesus.

Jesus said woe to those who abandon the first love of our salvation. Without Him, the lampstand that makes me a light in this world is removed, truth is covered in darkness, and until I repent, the antagonism wins. BUT, Jesus also said, “Take heart; I have overcome the world.”

Saturday, December 3, 2016

The medium is the message

Several years ago I met a woman whose life was a mess. Her husband had left her and her children were out of control. She was selling bits and pieces of her home so she could buy groceries. She accepted what help I could give her, yet was independent as much as she was dependent.

At that time, we were in a church that trained people how to present the gospel. I was applauded for doing a good job of it, and that gave me confidence to tell my friend about Jesus. It happened in a telephone conversation. I totally flubbed it and felt like an idiot when I got off the phone. A few days later, she told me that she had decided to follow Jesus. She figured she was a good person, but realized no one, including herself, met the standard of God. She needed the saving power of Jesus Christ.

Since then, this passage of Scripture has become precious to me:

And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God. (1 Corinthians 2:1–5)

Chambers says that if I substitute a clear explanation of salvation to take the place of confidence in the power of God in the Gospel, I will actually hinder people from faith in Jesus Christ. It is only when I rely on the certainty of God’s redemptive power that He creates new life in those who hear His gospel message.

Not only that if my faith is in my ability or in my experiences then when I fail or my experiences become negative, my faith is shaken. But if my faith is in Jesus Christ and His Almighty power, then nothing will upset me. This is because my ‘power’ is unreliable and uncertain, but the power of God cannot be shaken.

This is an eternal security; I am secure because God is the same yesterday, today, and forever. Being bound up in Him instead of myself means that I cannot be moved. It also means that the message of His saving power is not about me, nor is it necessarily about how well I present it.

That said, this is not an excuse to be a bumbling idiot. Presenting the gospel is not about being persuasive, but it is about being a living demonstration of what God can do with a yielded life. Since He is not the author of confusion, what I say should have some resemblance of clarity BUT I cannot depend on my ability to be clear. It is God who uses His truth to change the human heart. I cannot do that, no matter how clearly I spell out the wonderful story of Jesus.

A Canadian named Marshall McLuhan purports that in good communication, “the medium is the message.” He meant that “the form of a medium embeds itself in any message it would transmit or convey, creating a symbiotic relationship by which the medium influences how the message is perceived.” In the case of the gospel, he is truly unto something — but this is only true when the medium is not me or my ability. Instead it must be the power of the Holy Spirit, not the power of any human tongue!

Friday, December 2, 2016

Perfection and Perspective

It takes a long while to learn what having an “eternal perspective” means, never mind actually having it. Today’s devotional reading is about “Christian perfection” which seems difficult to grasp, but as I read the fragment of the verse in its context, the Lord began uniting those two concepts in my mind. Paul writes . . .

“Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 3:8–14)

What is the prize of the upward call? If I read just this verse or even the one before it, I would not be too sure what Paul is talking about. I’ve interpreted the ‘prize’ is to be with Jesus and perhaps have had other ideas, but reading this passage, and even the verses not included above, it seems that the prize is being with Jesus in heaven after being resurrected from the dead.

My Bible tells me that “attain” in verse 11 can also mean “arrive” and Paul says he isn’t there yet. Of course he isn’t. When he wrote this, he was still on earth; he had not yet arrived in heaven.

He also says that he isn’t “already perfect” either, but presses on to make this his own because Christ Jesus made him His own. What does it mean to be “perfect” which is the goal or prize for which Paul strived? He says “those who are mature” (verse 15) should think this way, so it isn’t maturity. From this context, it seems the prize is being resurrected and with Jesus; that is perfection, and he isn’t there yet, but that is his goal.

I’m thinking about my goals. I want to finish well, but finish what? A project? Some lifelong ambition? If that is my target, then my mind and energy is wrapped up in that goal. But if my goal is eternal life with Jesus (a sure thing, by the way) then my mind and energies will be focused on something entirely different than any earthly target or ambition. It will be set on and straining forward to what lies ahead, to what is guaranteed to lie ahead. There are no guarantees for anything else, but this one is based on the promises of God.

Chambers considers the meaning of perfection as a goal for this life, a oneness with God which certainly extends into eternity, but says, “Christian perfection is the perfection of a relationship to God which shows itself amid the irrelevancies of human life.” Then he adds that we are called to live in perfect relation to God so that our lives produce a longing after God in others, not make me a specimen in His show-room but “getting me to the place where He can use me.”

This makes me sigh. If being “perfect” is equated with usefulness, how can that be measured? Do I compare my “perfection” against evangelists like Billy Graham, or authors with hundreds of books, or professors who teach in seminaries, and so on. Is this what Chambers intended? I don’t think so.

Being at one with God is not measured in what others can see and count. It is having my mind and heart so in tune with God that His will is my will. I’m willing to be on the front lines or in a prayer closet, whatever He desires. Oneness with Him is about attitude, about camaraderie. It is about being together with Him on what He is doing, but also how He is thinking. It is described as Paul said in another passage:

“If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.” (Colossians 3:1–4)

These verses are similar to those from Philippians in that I am to put away earthly thoughts and press on, with my mind on eternal matters. Reading both passages is a hint — is Christian perfection about having an eternal perspective? Perhaps. I know for certain that the more I think about things above, the closer that prize seems — the one I will receive when I walk from this life into that one.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Choosing new life over the old life

An acorn contains an oak tree. If planted, an oak tree is what comes forth. Sin is something like that. It exists as perhaps a small thing, at least in a child who seems so innocent until growth happens. The seed of sin shoots up in that charming wee life and that little person begins to say NO, to resist authority, to want its own way, to act out attitudes that make parents wonder where that comes from.

Most of the time, environment is blamed. Sometimes heredity is seen as sin’s source, but the reality is that sin started in the heart, came with birth and as life grows, sin persists as the nature of human beings. It might grow into a tree that looks nice, but it is still there with its fruit popping up now and then and for some much more frequently.

James says that sin is has nasty characteristic because it is describe in the singular. That is, when the Bible talks about our root problem, it uses the word ‘sin’ rather than ‘sins.’ Sin shows up like the fruit on a tree, but the root of that fruit is within the tree itself, just as the root of my sins is my sin. If there are one or many, no matter — all come from the same sin-bent root.

If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well. But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it. (James 2:8–10)

That is another nasty truth about sin; no matter how good I appear or how well I behave, one sin reveals that I am a sinful person. One transgression marks me as guilty because sin is not measured by how many times I sin, but by the fact that sin’s source is there within, producing its fruit and revealing itself.

This truth puts me in the same category as everyone else. We are all sinners, from the cherubs in the bassinet to the snipers in ISIS. While that seems a bit unfair, Chambers rightly says that the moral law of God does not bend. It is “eternally and abidingly the same . . . absolute for all time and eternity.”

Not only that, any who do not realize this truth may feel as if they are alive, but actually they are dead in sin and separated from God. The Bible calls this spiritual death. However, when anyone is given the life of Christ, then sin is seen for what it is. As Paul said, “I was alive without the law once: but when the commandment came, sin revived, and I died.”

The Spirit of God convicts me of sin and at first, I felt totally helpless and hopeless. At that point, the Cross of Jesus Christ meant nothing to me and it seemed as if I would bear the weight of my guilt forever, “sold under sin” and condemned. But then the Lord Jesus Christ walked into my life, He changed everything. He forgave my sin (and still does) and gave me eyes to see what His life, death and resurrection accomplished. I could never obey God in absolute perfection, but I am forgiven because of the perfections of Christ.

Consider that oak tree. An oak does not bear anything more than acorns, but for illustrative purpose, it could bear something other than the fruit of its nature if it were given a new nature. That is what faith in Jesus does. He gives me a new life and in Him I can bear the fruit of the Holy Spirit.

The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. (Galatians 5:22–24)

This fruit is not about moral law-keeping. No one can keep those laws. As Jesus said, “But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Matthew 5:28) He talked about hate in the same way. If I hate someone, I am as guilty of murder as if I had done the deed. That means one bad thought and I’m guilty of breaking God’s moral law.

Even as God ‘grows me to maturity’ the battle against sin seems to intensify. Sins themselves might be are less obvious, even hidden in the crop of fruit produced by the Holy Spirit, but the devil knows, and I know too, that as long as I live, that acorn will continue to influence the tree. This is not an excuse. It is more like a process of learning how to draw all of life from that which Christ has put in me, rather than letting the nature of the acorn tell me how to live.

As Chambers says, on one hand I wish He would make me obey Him; on another I wish He would leave me alone. Yet as the desire for His will increases, that acorn compulsion decreases. When I choose to obey Him, then “with all His almighty power, He will tax the remotest star and the last grain of sand” to assist me.