Wednesday, February 28, 2007

His Joy - my privilege

Today’s reading could be God is saying Amen to what I wrote yesterday. It is from Philippians 4, “Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I will say, rejoice!”

The joy of the Lord is produced by the Spirit of the Lord. It does not depend on circumstances, but is His delight, His over-flowing joy. God is a happy God, and because He lives in my heart, I am capable of experiencing His emotions of joy.

What makes God so happy?

John Piper wrote a marvelous book called The Pleasures of God. In it, he describes God as being delighted in Himself. Lest that sound narcissistic, think about it. God is perfect, without sin, flaw, short-comings in any way. He is the only perfect being. To delight in anything less is nonsense.

I know a little of what that means. When I obey Him and know that I’ve done something right and good, I’m pleased. I’m pleased with God, and I’m sure that pleasure comes from the Holy Spirit who lives in me, but at the same time it is a sort of pleasure with myself. I’m being what I was created to be and it feels good.

Besides that, God is exactly who He is. There is no pretense or pretension. He is all that any being can be and more. There is no darkness in Him, no evil, no lies, no imperfections. If I was like that, I’d be happy with myself too.

When I think about Him and the glory of Him, even as I write these words, the sense of His joy bubbles up in me. Rejoicing in Him is as simple as turning my thoughts away from everything else and just thinking about who He is, what He does, the beauty of Him.

God let’s me see Him—another reason to be joyful! People who don’t know Him cannot see Him, or fathom the grandeur that is in Him. He must reveal it, but He does not make Himself inaccessible. As Scripture says, He can be seen in creation; “The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament shows His handiwork” (Psalm 19). Doesn’t the beauty in the natural world tug our hearts into a smile?

He can also be seen in His Word, the entire Bible being a revelation of who He is and what He has done, both in history and in those who believe in Him and those who do not. He says that “Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God.” If we read it, our eyes are opened to who He is, what He is like.

The plainest revelation is in Jesus, “who (is) the brightness of His glory and the express image of His person . . . .” Jesus is the Word of God made flesh, the very expression of God in a human body. All I need to do is look at the person of Jesus Christ and I rejoice.

I see God in others too, but not always, and not in everyone. He is visible in those who know Him and who allow Him to fill them with Himself (instead of selfishness, self-rule and sin). He reveals His glory in His people, a glory that isn’t seen nearly as often as it should be or could be, but nonetheless is there, waiting for us to let Him have the preeminence.

One way I can do that is by rejoicing in Him, just letting His joy be seen and heard for what it is, the fruit of His Spirit and the strength of my life. This is a good way to begin today.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Radiant faces

Our friend, Janice, said that before she became a Christian she knew who was and who wasn’t because the Christians had shiny faces!

Not to discount her experience, we both know now that shining faces don’t always mean someone is filled with the Spirit of the Lord. It can be good make-up, the effects of alcohol, the glisten of tears, or whatever, but a truly joyful Christian should have that joy obvious on their countenance.

David, in Psalm 34, describes the faith experience and shiny faces. He says, “I sought the Lord, and He heard me, and delivered me from all my fears. They looked to Him and were radiant, and their faces were not ashamed. This poor man cried out, and the Lord heard him, and saved him out of all his troubles.”

Sometimes I’ve tried to make my face shine. The author of my devotional book points out that is silly. If I want to read in the dark, I don’t work on the light bulb to get it glowing; I go to the source of power and flip the switch.

It is the same with joy. It isn’t produced by introspection, sweat, or any subjective effort, nor does it come when life is rosy and all things are in order (as if that ever happens). Joy is a fruit of the Spirit, and it bubbles up from within when my focus is on its source, the Lord God, the Holy Spirit and my Savior, Jesus Christ. David said, “I sought the Lord . . . “ not, “I tried to be joyful.”

It is not difficult today to be joyful because of circumstances. There are dramatic changes in our household. Yet my joy is still in the Lord, because as this poor woman cries out to Him, and as others who care help in that cry, the Lord hears us. He delivers us from fearful things. He saves us from trouble; and He produces the shine.

In this wonderful sense of being rescued from fears and oppression, and in seeing our prayers answered, I know who is responsible. My joy is in Him.

Monday, February 26, 2007

One giant step. . .

Yesterday, God released our granddaughter from emotional bondage. It was a very powerful experience. After church, Bob and I met with our youth pastor and a friend who wrote his thesis on the powers of evil. They prayed for us and for our family. Their prayers were powerful and on target. One of them suggested we say to our grandchild that she needs Jesus.

When our daughter brought her home (she stays with her mom most weekends), our daughter started the conversation but put all the onus on our her child; she had to pull up her socks, change her ways, fix her attitude, and so on. The more I listened, the more I realized that she is not able to do that, that she had lost all hope in everything, most of all in herself. I can’t recall every word, but I remember saying to her, “You need Jesus.”

She said, “I don’t believe that,” but it was more a statement than a rebellion.

We talked more. Finally I said what I’ve wanted to say for months. I wanted to tell her my take on what was happening to her. I told her she had experienced some bad things as a little child, was too young to deal with them then, and still not able when she grew up. The pain of all that was too much for her so she turned it off. She also refused to get angry, and because she could not reconcile the hurt, she became numb. She shut down all the negative emotions, but by doing that, she inadvertently shut down the positive ones too. She had lost all ability to be happy. At that point, she totally fell apart and clung to me, sobbing and sobbing and sobbing. Her chains fell off.

She is not there yet. She still needs to know Jesus, but the sense of evil oppression has gone. We explained to her that there is a spiritual enemy who wants to destroy her, and in her numbness, has filled her head with lies and thoughts of suicide. She cannot fight that alone. She needs truth and she needs light in her life. Again, she needs Jesus.

We didn’t push. We know that Jesus has to make the first move. We told her she cannot believe on her own, that it is a gift from God. All she can do is cooperate when she senses He is calling her to Himself.

For most of that time, our daughter was pushing self-effort. At one point I wanted to silence her, but just kept praying. When our grandchild’s tears started to flow, our daughter was quiet. After things settled a bit, she asked for a minute alone with her child. We don’t know what was said, but we could hear them crying and laughing together. We hoped it was good, had a twinge of fear that they were laughing at us (yikes), and felt like we’d been hit by a train, but the train was smiling.

After our daughter left, our granddaughter talked to us, watched TV with us, and was obviously changed from that person who had been silent, sullen, and mean-spirited. We know this is only the beginning, but it is a beginning. God hears and answers prayer.

My reading today is from Ephesians 1, “And He (God) put all things under His (Jesus) feet, and gave Him to be head over all things to the church, which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all.”

Jesus is the boss. All thing includes “all principality (rule, authority) and power and might and dominion, and every name that is named . . .” Our granddaughter and her mother don’t need pills, psychobabble, therapy, self-effort, or a hard kick in the pants; they need Jesus. They need to submit to Him as their head, because only Jesus, as the head of all things, can give both of them victory over all things. Jesus is the fullness of God, the One who can fill in all those places in our lives that are dark, blank, without meaning and without hope.

We keep praying. She can now cry and laugh, but she still needs Jesus.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Praying and missing the answer

A few days ago I was thinking about how odd God’s faith is, and how we believe totally that He can do what we ask, yet the answer seems so impossible that part of me (no doubt my old sin nature) simply says, “Nonsense.”

That happened when Peter was put in prison. The story is in Acts 12. The church was in constant, earnest prayer and knew God could rescue him. He did. An angel opened the dungeon door, Peter’s chains fell off, and he walked out of the prison gate “that opened to them of its own accord.”

Peter then went to the house where the church was gathered in prayer for him and knocked at the door. A girl named Rhoda came to answer. Then, “when she recognized Peter’s voice, because of her gladness she did not open the gate, but ran in and announced that Peter stood before the gate.”

At that, those inside said she had to be “beside herself” or that this must be “his angel” (a Jewish superstition that each person has a guardian angel that can appear like the person). They were praying, no doubt believing in the power of God, but when the answer actually happened, Peter had to keep knocking before someone finally opened the door. When they saw him, “they were astonished.”

Most of us chuckle at this story, but it holds a valuable truth that should not be taken lightly. When I pray, God does answer, but I often do not recognize the answer, and sometimes I don’t even remember my prayer request.

In the back of my mind I’m thinking a few months ago I asked the Lord to help me be more humbly dependent upon Him. This is a dangerous prayer, and I knew that at the time, but when the events of our lives started their drastic turn, I didn’t connect the dots.

My husband was diagnosed with CLL, a chronic form of blood cancer. Our granddaughter came to live with us and after six months of ‘she has this’ or ‘she has that’ the bottom line is that she is demonically oppressed, filled with hatred for those who love her the most, and doing things that cannot be explained by any other reasons.

The leukemia makes us realize that we can only live ‘one day at a time.’ The oppression verifies that apart from Christ, we are absolutely helpless. He can deliver us from all of this, but then there is my prayer request.

God wants me to at least be more like Rhoda and less like the folks inside the house. I must recognize the answer to my prayers, and be overcome with joy, even if I’m not too quick to open the door and welcome this answer into my life.

God’s response to my request isn’t what I expected (I’m not sure what I expected), but it is as real an answer as Peter standing at the door. To bring me to a greater spiritual maturity, God sent me two whopping trials, and He expects me to respond with the same joy as Rhoda.

He says so in James 1: “Count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience. But let patience have its perfect work, that you may be mature and complete, lacking nothing.”

My answer came knocking, then pushed the door down and walked into my life. I’ve felt invaded, not joyful, but realize that this is His answer nonetheless, and while I cannot be gleeful over the difficulties this is causing others in my life, God says it is possible to be glad that He is doing exactly what I asked.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

He never makes me say “uh?”

Everyone who has children knows what it is like to take them somewhere and hear them repeat, “Are we there yet?” We think they are impatient, but mostly they just lack any sense of distance, time passing, and something to do while they wait.

Sometimes I’m a bit like that with God. I pray for understanding or direction, and He is silent. I want Him to talk to me, to give me words to say, or help with a decision, or give insight into how to handle a problem, but He is quiet.

Silence from children can be a relief, but the silence of God is usually perplexing and often distressing. When other people won’t talk to me or answer my questions, I think they are angry with me or being rude. I know that is not true of God, but what is He doing? Why is He so quiet?

My reading today gives me one reason. In John 16, Jesus says to His disciples, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. However, when He, the Spirit of truth, has come, He will guide you into all truth; for He will not speak on His own authority, but whatever He hears He will speak; and He will tell you things to come. He will glorify Me, for He will take of what is Mine and declare it to you.”

In these words, Jesus told them several things. One is that the Holy Spirit would tell them what they needed to know. Secondly, they could recognize Him because His words would be from the Father, and they would glorify the Son. In other words, the Spirit will not draw attention to Himself. Third, they didn’t know all the truth yet (no one does), but He would guide them into all truth.

Obviously He did all those things, and as the Holy Spirit revealed truth to them, they wrote it down and it is in our hands as Holy Scripture. But what strikes me is that, at that point in their spiritual journey, they could not bear the many things He wanted to tell them. They were not ready for it.

When my children were pre-school age, I never would have sat them down and given them a lesson in general accounting, or ancient history, or trigonometry. They simply would not understand what I said and the entire effort would be a waste of time. Not only that, I could create a stumbling block to their interest in learning, maybe even in their trust of me to help them with more relevant issues in life. Lessons must suit the students.

It’s a humbling thought to realize that Jesus knows me, and my needs and abilities better than I know myself. He also knows what I need to know for today and for the future. When I come with questions, like a good teacher, He will answer them when I need the answer. He loves me too much to dump trig on me when all I need is two plus two.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Don't even put the ox before the cart . . .

2 Samuel has a story that has always troubled me. David and his men have defeated the Philistines and retaken the Ark of God that belongs in their place of worship. As they bring it to Jerusalem with great celebration, the oxen carrying this precious cargo stumble. A man named Uzzah puts out his hand to steady it, and with great anger God strikes him dead.

Uzzah’s action seems so innocent. Who wouldn’t have done the same thing? However, the Laws governing the service in the tabernacle say that the sons of Kohath are supposed to carry its furnishings, including the Ark, and “they shall not touch any holy thing lest they die.”

My study Bible says that this command about touching was to preserve the sense of God’s holiness and the importance of spiritual preparation before coming into His presence. No one should ever approach God lightly or without an understanding of His power and majesty.

My devotional book goes farther back in the story. After sympathizing with those of us who are troubled by this account, the author points out that David was not to transport the Ark on a cart in the first place. While it seemed okay, it was David’s idea, not God’s. God had appointed people to do the job, but David substituted an ox cart.

This writer goes on to say that God can take care of His own business, but too often we step in to arrange things and do things that we should wait for God to arrange or do. Or we move ahead with our grand ideas without Him asking us to do anything. We think we are doing His work, but it is our version, not His.

Jesus said, "Apart from Me, you can do nothing." My ideas, no matter how spiritual they seem, will not bear fruit. Instead my impetuousness could bring disaster.

This is a difficult lesson. It is one thing to learn not to do overtly sinful things, but going my own way in serving God is also sinful; He is not directing my actions.

The Bible says, “David was afraid of the LORD that day and said, ‘How can the ark of the LORD ever come to me?’”

At this point David couldn’t see a way that the Ark could ever be brought home. It seems logical that he should simply go find some Kohathites, but he didn’t think of that at the time. I can relate to this too, in fact, today it hits me where I am.

I thought of a solution to a huge problem with a family member. I came to my Bible this morning with the prayer, “Lord, if this is not your idea, make it very plain.” In this reading, He made it plain. I would be trying this with an ox cart, but more than that, He makes it clear that I am not prepared to carry out my plan, and that any attempt without adequate preparation would be disastrous.

David left the Ark with a nearby family. In a few months he went to get it. The text says, “when those bearing the Ark of the Lord had gone six paces. . . .” David got it right. No ox cart; some people were carrying it as God commanded.

The text doesn’t say what happened to David during that waiting time, but if my experiences with God are any indication, in some way God prepared him for the task that He wanted him to do. This time, no one died and God blessed David for his obedience.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

I can't fly like a butterfly

I wrote something yesterday that is incorrect. I said that I need to quit tying to control what God does (it is like trying to hold a butterfly without crushing it) and let the Holy Spirit be in control. However, I can no more make my hands let go of the butterfly than fly like one.

Paul knew it. He wrote in Romans 7 about the struggle between his new spiritual nature that is united with Christ and produces righteousness, and his old, sinful nature that is bent on its own way and if it gets it, produces death.

The apostle asks, “O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” Paul recognized that as long as he was in his mortal body he would face conflict between the Holy Spirit and this indwelling sin principle. However, he also knew that he could not win this battle in his own strength.

He calls this sin principle the “body of death.” I heard that in those days, sometimes a murderer was punished by tying the corpse of his victim on his back until it rotted to nothing. I can’t verify this gruesome practice, but the image it provides explains Paul’s words and brings them into sharp focus. When I sin, the results of that sin are strapped to me like a dead man, its stench permeating and affecting everything I do. I too cry out, “Who will deliver me from this body of death?”

The answer is in verse 25: “I thank God—through Jesus Christ our Lord!"

Notice, he did not say, “I’m thankful that I’m set free from sin.” Nor did he say, “I am so glad that I’ve figured out how to get rid of this.” He knew who saved him and he thanked the right person. Jesus Christ gets the glory.

By myself, in my own strength, I cannot even get out of God’s way, never mind do His work. I cannot save myself. He does it. Without His intervention, I will not only attempt to control Him, but will thwart His efforts to deliver me.

Jesus saved me from the penalty of sin; death and eternal damnation no longer have any power over me. But I am still being delivered from the power of sin. That power is not some external entity that hovers over me with threats and temptations—it is that sinful principle, that body of death tied to my back, that stench of my old nature that goes with me wherever I go. My only hope for deliverance is through Jesus Christ. I cannot do it myself.

So again, I thank God that the one who rescues me from myself and my sin is not me. It is Jesus, my Savior and Lord.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Yielding control

Obeying God sometimes feels like trying to cup a butterfly in my hands without damaging its wings. Obedience is a beautiful thing, but my human sinfulness, even when I don’t want it to, frustrates His efforts and even my desire to preserve that beauty.

Paul said it well in Romans 7: “For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am carnal, sold under sin.”

While the rest of his writing makes it clear that sin no longer totally controls those who belong to Christ, sin still has power in my flesh, the human “I-will-do-it-myself” part of me. Unless God is at work, and unless I am yielded to Him, I will sin. But even when both things are happening, the contamination of sin is such that it tries to ruin the work of God and my willingness to cooperate with His work.

This verse shows that the law of God has nothing wrong with it; it is spiritual. Yet, when I try to obey it (apart from Christ), it reveals how much is wrong with me. My devotional book gives an excellent illustration. Suppose I have a clumsy servant. As long as I never ask him to do anything, his clumsiness is hidden. But if I give a command, he gets up and begins knocking over things, stumbling, breaking dishes, and so on. The commands were okay, but the servant is all wrong. He cannot do what I ask without ruining it.

We are sinners by nature, but unless God asks us to do something, we don’t realize it. When it happens, as Paul writes in Romans 7, “sin through the commandment becomes exceedingly sinful.” It is by the law that I know how far short I fall, how much I miss the high standard of God’s holiness.

The purpose of the law of God for unbelievers is that they will know they fall short and need a Savior, but it is also the law’s purpose for me. I am saved from sin’s penalty, but to be saved from its power, I also need Jesus. I cannot conquer sin, nor can I obey the law of God if I try to do it myself. Nor can I do it if I try to direct the main player, the Holy Spirit. I must let Him do with me as He wishes, not control Him. If I interfere, the beauty of obedience is hidden.

My hands, my fleshy, sinful nature cannot wrap themselves around the butterfly. The Spirit of God is at work to produce obedience in me. The only way that can happen without me wreaking it is if I quit trying to control His movements and let go, let the Spirit take flight, and live for God—not according to my will, but His.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Another amazing gift from an amazing God!

Faith is such an odd thing. Sometimes I struggle to believe, and need to continually remind myself that God is able, but often faith just happens. Like a sudden insight, I just know that a will happen, or is true.

When I came to my Bible this morning, I’m thinking about our granddaughter and how impossible her situation. The problems are so enormous and seem to have no answers. Great sadness filled my mind and I bowed my head again and asked for help, help for this day and help for her.

Then God took me back to Joshua 14 where Caleb is described as still having full strength at eighty years of age. On that basis this man asked God, “Now therefore, give me this mountain of which the LORD spoke in that day; for you heard in that day how the Anakim were there, and that the cities were great and fortified. It may be that the LORD will be with me, and I shall be able to drive them out as the LORD said.”

These words echoed my thoughts, “Lord, the land is full of giants; but give me this mountain.” I don’t feel like I have the strength of Caleb, but nonetheless, a difficult challenge faces us too, and I want to conquer this mountain and its enormous giants, and find rest from this battle for our dear grandchild.

Then I read the verses after that. “Hebron therefore became the inheritance of Caleb the son of Jephunneh the Kenizzite to this day, because he wholly followed the LORD God of Israel. . . . Then the land had rest from war.”

As I read them, something happened in my mind, like a light going on. Suddenly, and without any effort or self-talk on my part, I definitely believe that the mountain that seems so overwhelming today will one day be overcome, and instead of fears and fatigue, there will be rest from this battle. I know I must obey Him, yet also know He will give the victory. It does not depend on me.

The Bible constantly tells us to believe in God, but it also says faith is “not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.” In one unexpected instant, He gave this gift to me concerning my mountain. One second I’m anxious and not sure; the next second I know.

As I read the passage again, I noticed that Caleb said, “it may be that the Lord will be with me . . .” and smiled. Even though faith just knows a thing is true, there is that sense of holding it lightly, not presuming that God will do a thing, realizing I could be wrong, realizing that my mountain is still huge, yet inside, deeply knowing that He will do it.

In fact, faith usually carries with it the sense that it has already been done. The mountain could loom large and threatening for a long time, and the battle is not over yet, but in my heart, faith already gives me rest. God, You are amazing—and totally faithful, but Your faith certainly is an odd thing.

Monday, February 19, 2007

And sometimes He gives me a party!

Every time I read the story of the prodigal son who returned home, humble of heart and willing to be a servant rather than a son, I think of the surprise he must have felt. He’d planned ahead what to say, and meant every word: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight, and am no longer worthy to be called your son.”

But when he got there and meekly admitted his guilt, his father said, “Bring out the best robe and put
it on him, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet. And bring the fatted calf here and kill it, and let us eat and be merry, for this my son was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.”

The son did not expect that. In fact, it had not entered his head. All he could think of was his guilt. All he could hope for was mercy and a little kindness. Instead, his father threw a party.

I wonder how many times I’ve come to God in the opposite way. My own father was told that I would die before reaching adulthood, so my parents spoiled me. They gave all the attention and time they could afford, so when I became a Christian, I
thought God would do the same. My surprise was not quite the same as the prodigal son’s lesson about God.

Instead, I had to learn the difference between presumption and faith. When I presumed God would do something, He didn’t. He wasn’t being mean to me, but trying to show me that I needed to trust Him to do the best thing, not presume He was my indulging Father who did whatever I asked.

Those were tough lessons. I had to find out that I don’t know best, that my ideas of
how to run my life and the lives of others are selfish at best and destructive at worst. However, after learning those things “in a far country” as the prodigal did, and experiencing the “famine in that land” as he did, and coming to my senses as he did, I began thinking how badly I was messing up my life and how badly I needed the wisdom of my Father.

In a way, the next lesson was more difficult. I’d learned to stop presuming on God, but then had to learn how to trust Him, to ask for things in prayer believing that He
would answer me. That meant a long spell of uncertainty. Would He listen? Would He say yes? It also meant learning to ask with the intention that God be honored in the answer, rather than I would be satisfied.

Now, when I ask God’s help or intervention in anything, I’m always surprised when He answers, even when I believe that He will. My believing is no longer presuming, but faith that He is a God who cares about me and will respond as He sees fit.

The story of the prodigal also reminds me there is a difference between presumption and believing He will respond. It has a lot to do with the attitude in which I ask. The prodigal’s story begins with him asking for his inheritance, assuming he would get it. He did, but it led to great disaster. Later, he learned he did not deserve even the least of his father’s mercies, yet he went home and humbly asked, this time for forgiveness. He got it—plus a surprise party.

Two lines reveal the heart of God concerning these things. One says, “But when he came to himself . . . .“ This tells me that I am my true self when I realize that a sinful, selfish, self-controlled life is folly; I belong at home with my Father.

The second is: “ . . . this my son was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.” From this I realize that when I presume that God will do whatever I want, I am dead and lost to the marvel of His great love and forgiveness. However, when I repent of my sin and turn my heart toward home, then I experience life and a true sense of belonging, and sometimes a party!



Sunday, February 18, 2007

Free indeed

An old song has a line that laments that freedom is when you “have nothing left to lose.” I can’t recall much of the rest of it, but that idea of freedom seems to be about having no responsibilities.

Christian freedom isn’t like that. Oh, some think it is. Because Christ died for my sin and everything I’ve ever done or ever will do is forgiven, I can do what I want. Not. The way I live affects the way I live. It affects others too, but if I go totally self-indulgent and do whatever I want, there is no greater emptiness. I’m in bondage to me.

Jesus said, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” The Jews responded that they had never been in bondage to anyone, thinking He meant servitude, but Jesus explained, “Whoever commits sin is a slave of sin.”

He is right. We are slaves of whatever we serve and sin is an awful taskmaster. Isaiah wrote, “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned, every one, to his own way . . . .” In turning to our own way, we move away from God and wind up slaves, unable to make any other choices but selfish ones.

But Isaiah was not finished. He was writing about a future Messiah and adds, “ . . . And the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.”

When Jesus bore my penalty for sin, He set me free from that awful tyranny of self. He also set me free from the tyranny of the idea that I could earn my salvation. Whether by keeping the impossible Old Testament law, or by “being good” I was beating my head against a rock. Being saved from sin means being free from the bondage of trying to do it myself. He is the Savior; I am not.

Jesus also works to deliver me from the power of sin. Now that I am forgiven, He wants me delivered from that self-centered, do-my-own-thing way of life. His Word has this to say about it: “For you, brethren, have been called to liberty; only do not use liberty as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.”

Some might think that sounds like another ‘law’ or rule for living, another bondage. In fact, some Christians I know speak of love as a ‘must’ and a duty. For them, it is as if God demands all personal desires sacrificed and replaced by an obligation to care for everyone else.

I’m thinking this goes deeper. When God saved me, He gave me new life, the life of Christ who, by His Spirit, lives in me. That new life manifests itself by producing attitudes and characteristics that are not from me, but from Him. The New Testament calls them “the fruit of the Spirit” and the first one listed is love.

In other words, yes, I am free to do what I want to do, but because of Jesus, my wants are changed. His Spirit produces in me a desire to stop sinful self-indulgence and serve others. This is not a ‘duty’ imposed by a rule, but a freedom that flows out of my heart, out of that new life, His life.

Yesterday I spent the entire day serving others. I made brunch for a work crew, painted doors and door frames, up and down ladders, and so on. My body aches and my feet are impossibly sore. A couple times during the day I thought, I really don’t like the physical part of doing this, but I did enjoy the giving part. Freedom is abandoning the desire of the flesh (sit down and put my feet up), and yielding to the Lord—this time, by serving others.

I guess Christ’s freedom is a bit like that old song. He wants me to have nothing left to lose: nothing left of selfishness, nothing left of personal rights, nothing left of ‘poor-me’ thinking, nothing left of insisting on my own way. Instead, He wants me to experience the freedom of being totally abandoned to thinking His thoughts, doing His will, and serving Him. I’ve already figured out one key reason why that is true freedom—serving Him makes me a slave to the only Taskmaster who is not a tyrant!

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Winning our battle

I’m still thinking about the past, present and future aspects of salvation, and am blessed by this reading for today: “Now it is God who makes both us and you stand firm in Christ. He anointed us, set his seal of ownership on us, and put his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.”

God saved me from the penalty of sin through faith in Christ (and that faith is also His gift), and makes me stand firm in Christ. Every day He is at work to deliver me from the power of sin so that it no longer governs what I do. He is Lord, not sin.

He also put the Holy Spirit in my heart as a deposit, or down-payment that guarantees I will be delivered eventually from the presence of sin.

But what about those people who make a profession of faith and then sit there? They don’t seem to grow in Christ-likeness or have any longing for that second and third deliverance, but are more interested in the pleasures of this life and this world. Everyone knows people like that. I have some in my family.

This questions plagues me. I look for God’s response. Why are these people seemingly unchanged? If their faith is genuine and they have been delivered from sin’s penalty, why is God not at work in them?

I get several answers from the Lord. Sometimes He repeats His words to Peter when he questioned Him about the destiny of another disciple; “That’s not your business; you follow Me.”

God also points to the verses that say, “But in a great house there are not only vessels of gold and silver, but also of wood and clay, some for honor and some for dishonor.” The Lord is the potter and can do whatever He wants with His clay. I’m not in charge here.

A third thing that He says to me is that I need to be patient and trust Him; He isn’t finished yet. While He says, “If anyone cleanses himself . . . he will be a vessel for honor, sanctified and useful for the Master, prepared for every good work,” Paul also wrote that he was “confident of this very thing, that He who has begun a good work in you will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ.”

Clearly there is a human responsibility in this battle against the power of sin. However, I know that when I am unwilling to fight, God can work in my life to make me willing. Paul also wrote, “Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure.”

This partnership in battle is a concept difficult to learn. Some people try to conquer their sin and bad habits without realizing they cannot do it by themselves. Apart from Christ, we can do nothing. When ‘nothing’ works out, instead of humbly going to their Commander in Chief for help, they conclude that being a Christian is not working, go AWOL and drop from the war.

Personally, I’ve a great burden for side-lined soldiers. I feel pain when they are judged as fakes or worse, and simply written off. Those of us on the battlefield against sin suffer when one or more of our army is hurting, lame, and out of action. Yet far too often we are so engaged in our own battle, or in other things, that we forget our responsibility to bind up the wounded and restore those who have gone astray.

That verse that says “it is God who makes both us and you stand firm in Christ” pulls me into partnership with Him in that too. He tells me that part of my battle is not merely for me. Everyone in His army is like I am; helpless. None of us can be saved from the power of sin by ourselves. We need the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, but we also need one another.

Friday, February 16, 2007

He is my Priest in dry ground

Several hymns use the idea of “crossing Jordan” to represent believers dying and entering heaven. I’m reading Joshua and the description of this action, and for the Israelites, going into Canaan could hardly be anything similar to entering eternal bliss.

Instead, this action was the beginning of a new phase of obedience. They would be involved in battle as they fought to claim all that God promised them. It was the end of a life lived by their human effort and in rebellion, and the beginning of a life of faith and obedience. It was not a picture of entering eternal glory, not yet.

Most commentaries focus on how the crossing happened. The Bible says the Jordan was flooding at the time, but upstream about 15 miles the flow stopped—just when the priests put their feet in the water—and then the Israelites crossed over on dry land. The commentaries explain that a landslide may have stopped the water, since this happened on other occasions. Odd that here and in other Old Testament instances, the water stopped and the riverbed was dry—exactly when God’s people needed to cross.

At that point, the Jordan River was almost 1300 below sea level and close to flowing into the Dead Sea. It was wider than this photo, fairly shallow, but muddy and filled with silt and minerals. I can imagine a landslide, but I cannot imagine, even in the heat of that area, that this riverbed could dry up that quickly.

Aside from that, the verse that catches my attention says, “Then the priests who bore the ark of the covenant of the Lord stood firm on dry ground in the midst of the Jordan; and all Israel crossed over on dry ground, until all the people had crossed completely over the Jordan.”

Other passages in the Bible about dry ground describe barren, difficult places, even calls them places that God creates for those who disobey. One passage also describes Jesus as being like a “root growing out of dry ground.” That gives me an image of incredible life happening in a place that it normally would not happen, a tough and uncomfortable place.

The Bible also shows how priests represented God to the people and the people to God. Since Jesus came, He is God’s High priest, our access to the Father and the One who intercedes for us before the Father’s throne.

If this event in the Old Testament is depicting what happens to God’s people in the New Testament, and if it is about God calling us into a new phase of obedience, then the priests going first and standing on the dry ground makes perfect sense.

Jesus goes before me into every phase of the life that He calls me to live. He has ‘been there, done that’ in the truest and most encouraging sense. The battles that God calls me into are trials that will help me become the person He wants me to be, the person He promises that I will become. But to enter into my “promised land” I must go through some barren places. I must fight what seems like impossible battles.

Jesus stands there in the barren places, my Priest. He will not move until I am safely on the other side.

My devotional book takes this thought one step farther and reminds me that I too am a priest of God. I intercede for others and bear witness to them of God’s grace and faithfulness. In my journey and battles for all that He promises me, He may call me to stand in barren places too, watching and caring for others until they are also safe on the other side.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

It's a good thing He's the Savior, not me!

Long ago, a preacher evaluated his sermons by three criteria: Does it humble sinners? Does it exalt Jesus Christ? Does it promote godliness?

Since reading about him, I’ve adopted his criteria for not only my Bible classes but my theology. However, this was challenged a few weeks ago. Someone told me that salvation is not secure but can be lost, and to keep it, believers must be without sin in their lives when they die or they will not go to heaven.

Of course every Christian is responsible to obey God, and we cannot assume that being saved means we can do what we feel like, yet that person’s view of salvation has flaws. It cannot explain some plain teaching in Scripture, nor does it pass the above 3-fold test.

Humility is realizing that I can do nothing to merit the favor of God or to earn my own salvation. Ephesians 2 makes that plain: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.”

In my theology, salvation has a past, present and future aspect. That means I have been saved, I am being saved, I will be saved. God, in Christ, gave me eternal life and saved me from the penalty of sin. I am forgiven and have eternal life; this is past tense (and if life is eternal, by definition, it cannot end). My penalty was paid at the Cross. It is finished!

When God gave me the faith to believe that, and when Jesus entered my heart, His life became my life. “He who has the Son has life.” Right now, that life continually saves from the power of sin. This is an ongoing work of Christ who lives in me.

Yes, I need to obey Him, and sometimes do not, but that eternal life in the person of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit never leaves me or forsakes me. He is my life, and even though I may not always yield to Him, He is saving me.

He also will save me. A day will come when I step into eternity and will be free from the presence of sin. That is the promise of God to all who belong to Him, to those who have been saved from sin’s penalty and are being saved from its power.

The salvation of God humbles me. I don’t deserve it, can’t earn it, and definitely cannot keep it apart from His great power at work in me. Even saying just that about the work of Jesus Christ exalts Him—yet I know that, apart from the power of the Holy Spirit, I’d never exalt Jesus. I’d take the credit for everything He does. I might even say that it is me that is responsible to worship, serve and obey Him, but I know that without Him, none of that would happen. My obedience totally depends on Him.

Some might say my view of this eternal security in salvation would promote carelessness not godliness. They say such thinking means I will do anything I want, but perhaps they don’t recognize the power of the indwelling Christ. While my pride hates to admit it, I’ve tried to walk away, to do my own thing, to ignore the One who gave Himself for me. It doesn’t work. He won’t let me.

When Jesus Christ became my Savior, He began a work in me that He promised to finish. At times I might be kicking and screaming in resistance, but He never gives up in His saving work. He’s already dealt with the penalty of sin, but isn’t finished saving me from the power of sin and knows how to make me both willing and able to cooperate (Philippians 2:13).

Yes, it is possible to resist Him and do our own thing, refusing His efforts to restore us. I’ve known a few who did. They were taken quickly from this world, and I believe this was not as punishment (their penalty for sin is already paid) but to rescue them permanently from the power of sin, a power that they refused to overcome using the weapons God gave them.

1 Peter 1 says: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His abundant mercy has begotten us again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance incorruptible and undefiled and that does not fade away, reserved in heaven for you, who are kept by the power of God through faith for salvation. . . .”

Peter goes on to say that God’s people rejoice in this salvation even though we are, if need be, grieved by various trials. These trials are testing and proving the genuineness of our faith so that we will praise, honor, and glorify Jesus Christ whom we love. He says this is an inexpressible joy because God’s people know we are “receiving the end of your faith—the salvation of your souls.”

Today I am joyfully remembering that even faith is a gift from God and rejoicing that He is the Savior. I am the sinner who for now is struggling with trials, but I am saved by grace—by His loving power that is using those trials to change my life. His Word and His Spirit totally assure me that He, combined with the faith He gave me, will overpower my sinful ways and bring me to that perfect inheritance that He has reserved in heaven for me.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Do it for Me. . .

This morning I caught a glimpse of a public television segment about the way the stars are lined up for romance this Valentines day. I wondered if that was what God had in mind when He planned their route!

He does line up things, I am sure of that. This week, I’m studying ‘patient endurance’ for my ladies Bible class. I am also in a trial that requires patient endurance, and yesterday life confronted me with another trial demanding the same thing. This latest one is far more difficult; the biblical response is beyond me. I’ve no desire, motive or reason for being ‘longsuffering’ for this other person, other than I know that is what God wants.

However, God lined up one more thing—my devotional reading for today. It is one line from Matthew 26, “But when Jesus was aware of it, He said to them, ‘Why do you trouble the woman? For she has done a good work for Me.’”

Jesus was eating a meal when a woman (Mary, the sister of Lazarus and Martha) broke a costly alabaster flask filled with expensive oil and poured it on His head. Initiated by Judas, the disciples were indignant and complained that the oil should have been sold and the money given to the poor. To them, what she had done was a waste of resources.

I feel the same thing about the ‘longsuffering’ required of me. What good will it do? I’m a results-oriented person. However, even though God is teaching me to ‘do the right thing regardless of the results,’ I am protesting under this latest ‘opportunity to do the right thing.’

To the disciples, Jesus said that the poor were always there, and that they could always find things to do for them, but Mary did what she did for Him, to anoint Him for His burial.

My devotional book points out that when the other women went to Jesus’ tomb to anoint Him, He was gone. Mary was the only one who anointed Him; the others were too late. Jesus said, “Wherever this gospel is preached in the whole world, what this woman has done will also be told as a memorial to her.” Her act of obedience had long-range effects.

This is grace. He knew the sacrifice Mary made; that oil was worth at least one year’s wages. He knew she would suffer criticism from His disciples, yet her reward remains.

To me Jesus says, “There are always opportunities to do things that bring visible results. I’m asking you to trust Me on this one, and like Mary, do it for Me.”

This also is grace. He offers me a reason, a strong motivation to be longsuffering towards this other person. He knows I cannot endure without any hope of reward. So He lined things up so I can see that He is simply asking me to do it for Him.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

It's all about motive


My grandmother used to say, “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” The Bible version of her good advice is more proactive: “Speak the truth in love.”

At times, speaking the truth is easy. I can ‘preach’ at someone without effort, but instead of changing their lives, words delivered in a dogmatic or even brutal fashion are taken with offense.

At times, speaking in love is easy, but I excuse sin for fear of losing the relationship, thus giving the other person a sense no matter what they do, I don’t care. Practicing love without truth is hypocrisy; I do care.

Love is not sentiment or selfish, and truth is not blunt or without feeling. God combines them both; He hugs and rebukes at the same time. He wants me to be like Him.

This morning I read from Matthew 18 how the church is to deal with a believer who sins. First, one person goes to them about it. If the sinning church member does not confess and repent, then two or three go. If that person still refuses to deal with their sin, the matter is told to the entire congregation. If the sinning member still rejects these attempts at correction, then that person is to be treated the same as an unbeliever.

Some react strongly to this passage saying what right does the church have to mess with the lives of its people? But that is what this passage is about—Jesus gives His church authority to deal with sin in its midst. This is the meaning of verse 18. “Assuredly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

Scornful people might resist this, but Jesus says that the censures of the church are confirmed in the court of heaven. No one can appeal to God if His judgment is already been given against them by His representatives on earth. Of course whatever the church does concerning sin, forgiveness and rebuke, it must follow God’s principles. Heaven is in harmony with church decisions only as they are based on the clear instruction in God’s Word.

Rebuke for sin in any congregation is an important part of a healthy, alive church. If one part of my body is dirty, the other parts wash it. While Jesus wants individual parts clean, He also cares that the whole Body is pure. Sometimes we need to help one another, but we must do it in love, not with a wire brush.

This also requires humility. I have no right to take a scrub brush to someone else’s sin if I don’t recognize and deal with my own. Nor do I have any right to speak to sinners as though I have my act together. This is not about sitting on a pedestal and shaking my finger. It is about going to another person and taking their hand, drawing them back into fellowship.

When a church disciplines a member, it is actually examining and disciplining itself. Church discipline is not about a group of ‘Christian policemen’ throwing their weight around. Rather, it means God is exercising His authority in and through His people to restore one of His erring children.

This is why verses 18 to 20 talk about authority, prayer, and fellowship. We cannot discipline others if we ourselves are not disciplined, or if we have not agreed in prayer about the matter. We get our word ‘symphony’ from the Greek word for ‘agree.’ The idea of church discipline is to bring harmony out of discord with a united effort to keep our lives as clean as possible.

That being said, I notice that most Christians, myself included, are much better at rebuking, or at least talking down the sins of outsiders who are not in the church and are not Christians. Sometimes we do it to their face, but mostly not. I’ve done it to make myself appear ‘holier than thou’ and that is in itself a prideful sin.

Matthew 18 is about believers and does not refer to people without Christ. While their sin is damaging to them and others, without Jesus, they have no power to conquer it. They first need to know about His love for them and how He will forgive all their sin. Our message for them is that they can belong to His family, not that they need to be restored to fellowship.

My Gran’s words come back to me. If I cannot bring good news to sinners (believers or otherwise), then I need to be careful that any ‘bad news’ that I share is spoken from a heart filled with love. While I don’t always agree that ‘it is better to be nice than right,’ Jesus clearly challenges me that being right by itself will not be produce the results I’m looking for. Unless I love others, I’d better keep my mouth shut.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Giving orders is not the same as asking. . .

Last week challenged me. What do I do when someone else is silent, refuses to talk to me, treats me as if I am not there? I racked my brain with ‘what have I done’ and came up with nothing. It was not about me; it was about her.

Yesterday we figured it out. Some things, unimportant things (most ‘things’ are unimportant) are missing from our house. Guilt cuts communication. The guilty person will not talk, and even though we continue to be nice, that it simply raises the guilt level and lowers that communication level even more.

I don’t know what to do with that. Confrontation will certainly bring denial. We already told her to ‘help herself’ and write the empties on the grocery list. So why sneak things? Why hide what obviously is okay to have? But some of it should not be taken, such as gifts that belong to us. I don’t understand this behavior, but I do understand what guilt does to communication. When I sin, I don’t want to talk to the person I’ve sinned against, and this includes God.

I think about what God does with me when I’m in that ‘I won’t talk to you’ mode. He waits. He knows that the guilt I feel will become uncomfortable, but even more, that the separation from Him will be more than I can bear. He also knows that I know that He is waiting for me to bring the thing to Him in confession. He knows I know about His forgiveness.

She doesn’t know that about God. Am I supposed to show her? The missing stuff is not the issue; the mixed up heart of a guilty person is a big issue.

Today I look for answers and I’m directed to Isaiah 45:11. My devotional uses the English Revised Version and quotes it: “Concerning the work of my hands, command ye me.” The author concludes from that verse that God has limited Himself to our free will. He could do whatever He wants and move us like pawns on a board, but instead gives us the great responsibility of choice and wants us to tell Him what to do.

My flesh would love that power. Yet something is not ringing true. Yes, Jesus limited Himself by adding humanity to His deity when He came here, but I don’t buy this explanation of God limiting Himself to my choices. What does that make me? And what does that make the person who needs the work of God to change their life? If God’s work is limited to our choices, I know apart from Him I would always choose sin—and He could not do anything with me.

And after reading several versions, I found several that have a totally opposite take on what this verse says. For instance, from the English Standard Version, “Ask me of things to come; will you command me concerning my children and the work of my hands?”

The NIV and other versions take the same approach, and this seems to fit in the context. The chapter is God telling His people about His power. He forms light and creates darkness, brings prosperity and creates disaster. He says, “Woe to him who quarrels with his Maker . . . Does the clay say to the potter, ‘What are you making? . . . Concerning things to come, do you question me about my children, or give me orders about the work of my hands?”

This is a rhetorical question. God has the future planned and who are we to command Him differently! We don’t have the power to change the world, to direct the traffic of its people. We cannot change the way others act or how they think. Only God can do that.

My question to God today was “Do I confront this person? Or do I leave her in Your hands?” At first glance, the answer to it depends on the version I am reading. One tells me to tell God what to do, to take charge, maybe even help Him do it. The other says, “Who do you think you are to meddle in the work of God?”

Last week I read three criteria used by a pastor to help him evaluate his sermons. Those three help me decide which direction to take with my question. He asked, “Does it humble sinners? Exalt the Savior? Promote godliness?”

I cannot humble anyone else by confrontation or otherwise, but I am humbled when I admit that this. Changing another person is utterly beyond me. I cannot manipulate or produce change. Only Jesus can, and thinking that way also exalts Him.

As for promoting godliness, again, I can’t make that happen in her, but the fruit of the Spirit includes patient endurance. I can allow God to produce that in me. Taking charge, even trying to get God to push the issue, is not patience nor is it what Isaiah is saying. He is warning me that prayer is okay, but I’m never to think that I can tell God what to do, nor usurp His role as He works in another person’s heart.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

He makes all things beautiful in His time. . .

Some days I think there is no hope for some people. They are so oblivious to God, to the love of Christ, and to all things spiritual. For them, darkness seems so dark, and their lives so sad.

Close to home, I watch one particular member of our family do things that derail herself. She makes choices that put her into dark moods and depression. She will not listen to anyone, and maybe cannot listen. I cry out to God and wonder if He is listening, if He is going to do anything for her. I sometimes wonder if she is beyond even His help.

Every time I think that way, God comes back with something like, “I have this under control.” This morning I cried to Him again, and lest I think that His usual response is only my wishful thinking, this time He gives me an amazing example from His Word.

In Revelation 5, God shows the Apostle John a vision of the glory of heaven and of future events. He shows John His throne room and the risen Christ, the Lamb of God who is “worthy to receive power and riches and wisdom, and strength and honor and glory and blessing.”

As John sees this, he also hears the praises of a multitude, “And every creature which is in heaven and on the earth and under the earth and such as are in the sea, and all that are in them, I heard saying: ‘Blessing and honor and glory and power be to Him who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb, forever and ever!’”

He heard every creature, all of them, every living thing. God will make His glory known to every creature! How could I think He is unable to open the blind eyes of one person on my prayer list!

Philippians 2 says the same thing as Revelation 5. There Paul first refers to the great sacrifice of Christ as He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death on the cross. Then he says, “Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

Every knee, every tongue. No one is missing. If, at the end of time, God can bring everyone to acknowledge who He is and who Jesus is, then He can open the eyes of one person to do that same thing—whenever He wants.

My problem is wanting it now, but He just smiles and says, “Wait, wait for My time; it will be the right time.”

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Pefection in old age

“When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to Abram and said to him, ‘I am Almighty God; walk before Me and be blameless’” (Genesis 17:1)

As I watch seniors (those older than I am) in their walk with God, it appears that some of them ‘retire’ at some point. They drift away from an active faith and settle into an unhappy gripe about old age, lack of hair, teeth, and mobility, and yearn for the good old days. This bothers me. It is part of the reason for my goal to become a “sweet little old lady” (meaning someone who happily trusts the Lord and is a blessing to everyone).

Maybe I’ve been too hard on them. Someday, particularly if I reach ninety-nine years, I might have aching joints, no hair or teeth, and lots of reasons to just quit. I might even wish my life would soon be over so I could get out of this present discomfort and enjoy the ‘no more pain and sorrow’ of eternity. While I don’t want to be like that, I do understand how it happens.

In contrast, Abram, at ninety-nine, was being challenged to walk with God blamelessly. This man, who had been promised a son, was no April colt. His wife was past the age of child-bearing, and yet that son was not yet born. They were old, not nearly as strong as they had been in their youth, yet God asked Abram to keep going, to be mature, to walk perfectly.

While I first thought about the maturity that should come with age, my devotional book reminded me of the perfection that is found in weakness, even the physical weakness that goes with being ninety-nine. Abram was asked to stay close to God, not because he had matured, but because he was now weak and totally unable to do anything in his own strength. Someone once told me that is exactly the place where God wants all of us, regardless of our age.

So God keeps rounding out my definition of ‘sweet little old lady.’ This time the emphasis is on ‘little’ at least in the sense of ‘little’ in power and ability. As God says in 2 Corinthians 12, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.”

At this point in my life, this is an encouragement. I’ve learned that lesson many times. I know that when I am confident that “I can do it”—whatever I do will not be in the power of the Lord or have lasting significance. I’m learning, like Paul, to “boast in my infirmities” for it is then “that the power of Christ may rest upon me . . . For when I am weak, then I am strong.”

Right now, my joints ache only a little, my hair and teeth are still intact, and I do have some ambitions, but none of those things are important. The world might retire people at certain ages, but the story of Abram shows me that God doesn’t have the same retirement plan. He will not put me out to pasture if I want to stay in the harness, unless of course I insist on pulling the load all by myself. I know the reality of being strong in weakness, and trust that the weakness of growing older will not diminish my capacity to serve God. He supplies the strength, and with Abram, I want to walk before Him and be blameless, not lose interest and just quit.

Friday, February 9, 2007

A vision, not just a gift!

The popular definition for the grace of God goes something like this: “God’s riches at Christ’s expense,” or “the unmerited favor of God.” Marvelous thoughts; however, the actual meaning of the word ‘grace’ is even more exciting.

My reading today is in John 1, a favorite passage from a favorite book. It is about God’s Word, Jesus Christ, becoming flesh and living among us. Verse 17 says, “For the law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.”

God revealed to Moses how His people should live through His Law. By these commandments, we realize the holy demands of a holy God and find that God wants a standard of heart and life that is completely beyond our normal. In fact, His Law is so far beyond what we are and how we live that any honest person who tries to obey His commands must soon admit that they cannot.

The truth of the matter is that for anyone to keep God’s Law, we need a big change in how we think and act, because pleasing ourselves is our main motivation, not pleasing God. This where grace comes in.

Grace, fully defined, is “a revelation from God that changes us.” This grace begins with the appearing of Himself in human flesh, an appearing that is so radical and startling that anyone who really sees Jesus Christ for who He is can never be the same. Jesus Himself changes us by grace and grace is the ingredient that makes it possible to please God. This awesome Lawgiver on the throne stepped into time and space and became the perfect Law-keeper. When He revealed Himself to me, He moved into my life and changed it, becoming the Law-keeper in my heart.

The truth is, no person can do what Jesus does. No person is capable of being sinless or perfect. We need a new nature, a new ‘normal’ to live by, and Jesus Christ is that, by grace.

He says, “By grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.”

Even thought the Bible says no one can, if I could keep the Law, I would boast. That would put me above the judgments and pronouncements of God. What a vain thought, one that smacks of the rebellion of the angel who became Satan.

Instead of such vanity, God gave me one incredible revealing of Jesus. In Him I saw the only One who can do it. In Him, I saw, and keep seeing, the impossible and awful truth about myself, and also the answer to that awful and impossible. He is my salvation, my deliverance from the wrath of God, my hope to live as I ought.

And He does it by grace—a revelation that changes me, a revelation that motivates a deep and daily hunger to see more of Him.

Thursday, February 8, 2007

A worthy goal . . .

After talking to a few people about my goal ‘to become a sweet little old lady’ I realize this means different things to different people. Besides the teasing of my brother, who said after a long pause, “You better get on that” then laughed loudly as only he can, each response made me realize that my goal needs clarification.

My ‘sweet little old lady’ models are few. None were blue-haired, sitting-in-the-corner-knitting types. They didn’t gossip. They were not meddlers, nor were they oblivious to the ways of their current culture. These were wise women who each had a spark, a quality of life obviously unrelated to their age or temperament.

The first is my original mentor who was so filled with the Holy Spirit that when her husband died, she comforted everyone else, and shared that her grief was mostly “just feeling sorry for myself.” She walked with Jesus and everyone knew it.

The second is a missionary who had nine children. Despite her busy and challenging life, she was always joyful and continually thankful, a delight to be around. Her attitude to life could be explained only by her relationship with the Lord.

The third was the wife of our pastor in another city. She was a wise and mostly serious person, dignified, always calm, and yet quick to see the funny side of things. She was my ‘even keel’ example of how to live when life became chaotic, an example of someone who deeply trusts the Lord no matter what.

While these three had little in common otherwise, their sweet personalities flowed from the same source and their lives stood on the same foundation. They walked with God. I was reminded of all three when I read these verses in Hebrews 9:

“But Christ came as High Priest of the good things to come, with the greater and more perfect tabernacle not made with hands, that is, not of this creation. Not with the blood of goats and calves, but with His own blood He entered the Most Holy Place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption. For if the blood of bulls and goats and the ashes of a heifer, sprinkling the unclean, sanctifies for the purifying of the flesh, how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without spot to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?”

This is about the perfect sacrifice of Jesus Christ compared to the temporary sacrifices made in the Old Testament before He came to earth. It explains that those sacrifices, made in faith, had to be repeated, but His sacrifice is good for eternity. Not only that, instead of merely making a sinner clean until the next sin, His shed blood secures a greater cleansing than the blood from animals, a cleansing that lasts for eternity.

It is the last phrase that turned my mind to goals. For me, being a sweet little old lady means being a person who abandons “dead works to serve the living God.” Dead works might look good to others, but if they come from the flesh and are produced without the power of the Holy Spirit, they are worthless in the sight of God and have no eternal value.

In contrast, serving God means giving all that I am to Him, just as Jesus did, and allowing Him to work in my life and through my life to serve God. I have been set free from sin for that purpose, and this is what shapes my goal.

My mentors had different ways of doing things, but the Holy Spirit constantly motivated each of them. Nothing they did could be described as “dead works.” The Holy Spirit’s love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control was obvious in their lives. In that, they were sweet (like candy), easy to enjoy and universally appealing.

Being like that is a worthy goal, but my brother is right; I’m not there yet, and better get on it!

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Don't worry, be peace-filled

The last few times my to-do list was checked off ahead of normal, some sort of calamity happened to eat up the extra time gained. I’m ahead of things today, and as I sat down with my Bible, I felt a bit of apprehension. What now? What will happen this week?

Things have been going well—marvelous birthday party, great time with family as I gave some of them their “verse for the year” (a tradition God started me doing a few years ago), and for once I am not feeling totally overwhelmed with responsibility.

But I tend to look on the dark side. Our daughter has a flu virus and has been home from work for nearly a week. I’m a bit worried. Isn’t that what mothers do? She is really sick.

The reading today is familiar since I’m teaching the topic in my Sunday class. It is from John 14: “Peace I leave with you, My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.”

In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word ‘salom’ or ‘shalom’ was used as a greeting or a goodbye that wishes the recipient well-being and prosperity. For God’s people then, peace was external, a lack of conflict. It didn’t have the idea of an internal calm, an inner rest.

In the New Testament, these external meanings are still attached, but the meaning of peace goes deeper by adding two new ideas: peace with God and the peace of God.

Peace with God is for those who have been reconciled to Him through faith in Jesus Christ. Their sins are forgiven and they possess eternal life all because Jesus bore God’s wrath against sin and died on the cross for it. He secured our peace with God.

The peace of God is given to those who belong to Him as a guard for our inner thoughts. Philippians 4:6-7 says, “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God; and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.”

Don’t worry. Talk to God about the things that scare me, and don’t forget to be thankful. Thankful about what? Thankful that He is in control, that He hears my concerns and can change or do whatever He wants with anything that bothers me, that He is active in my daughter’s life and is taking care of her, that He is answering my prayers.

And that peace is incredible. My Bible says it “surpasses all understanding.” Some versions say it exceeds, transcends, goes beyond anything we can understand. I agree. I’ve had occasions when I should have been fearful or highly emotional, anything but at peace, and God has given me His incredible peace without me even asking for it.

Without a doubt, this peace is from Him. It is a sense of His care, power and control—erasing all fear and filling me with hope and confidence. This peace passes understanding because it is there even when the problems don’t go away; it is peace in the middle of them. Sometimes it happens without asking for it, and sometimes, as these verses from Philippians say, I have to pray about my problems before the worries are lifted and replaced with peace.

The world’s peace, of which there is precious little, depends on externals, on lack of conflict and all being rosy. Life isn’t like that, but it doesn’t matter. With God in control of life, and with knowing He is good and wants the eternal best for each of us, I can pray about my worries, stop ‘letting my heart be troubled’ and remember that Jesus also said, “In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.”

Tuesday, February 6, 2007

"I AM who I AM. . ."

Every now and then Jesus takes me back to that afternoon almost forty years ago when He introduced Himself to me. I was searching for “what happens to the energy of me when I die” in response to my dad’s oft repeated physics lesson. He said that energy is neither created or destroyed, just changed to another form.

In looking for what form I might become, I was reading a book on reincarnation, wondering if that was it. The author of that book used a verse of Scripture, but I don’t remember what verse it was. I’d been reading the Bible also, without comprehension, so the significance of the verse didn’t matter at that point. All that mattered was how God used it.

When I read the Bible verse, the light in my living room changed, became softer yet brighter. At that moment, I knew that Jesus was God in the flesh, and that He had come to earth to die for my sin. In that revelation of Himself, I also knew that I was forgiven. From then, my life was changed.

Today I’m reading about the arrest of Jesus in Gethsemane prior to His ‘trial’ and crucifixion. Judas and a detachment of soldiers approached him, and when He asked who they were seeking, “Jesus said to them, ‘I am He.’

While many modern translations of the Bible no longer bother with italics, they are often revealing. The King James version uses them to show that some words were not in the original text. In many cases, they are implied. In some cases, their omission is significant. This is one of those cases.

Jesus actually said, “I am.” In the mind of the Jews, this meant one thing; He was claiming deity. Back in the Old Testament when God encountered Moses at the burning bush and told him to deliver His people from bondage, He said to tell them, “The God of your fathers has sent me to you” and added that they would ask His name, so He told him, “I AM WHO I AM . . . Thus you shall say to the children of Israel, ‘I AM has sent me to you.”

This name became so sacred in the minds of the Jewish people that it was not spoken or written. The consonants from this Hebrew word are YHWH. Combined with the vowels from Adonai (which means Master or Lord), gave rise to the name “Jehovah” in English. In many Bibles, the word LORD is used for the Hebrew word YHWH, the word that shows the self-existence and eternal nature of God.

Jesus used it several times about Himself. This enraged the Jews and is the reason they wanted to kill Him. It is also the reason for the reaction of the soldiers who came to arrest Him. “Now when He said to them, ‘I am He,’ they drew back and fell to the ground.”

What else can anyone do in the presence of the Lord God but fall to the ground! Oh yes, they ‘recovered’ and arrested Him, no doubt denying what He had revealed, just as everyone else had denied Him, but I know one thing about that revelation. Once it happens, it becomes a fact in the mind that cannot really be denied. Judas knew, and that is why he hung himself. We have no record of what happened to those soldiers, but they knew it too; Jesus is God.

The same thing happened to Paul. He was on his way to Damascus to kill Christians when Jesus appeared and revealed His identity to him. When Paul later told King Agrippa in Acts 26 of this encounter, he said, “I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision . . . .”

Once Jesus reveals who He is, those who know it cannot shake it. We must do something, and what we do determines our eternal destiny. Either the I AM becomes our Lord and Master—or He becomes our Judge, forever.

Monday, February 5, 2007

This is my freedom

After my Saturday birthday party, I feel different. It isn’t about the milestone or aging. It is about my place in the world. After receiving so many expressions of love, encouragement, and even appreciation for what I do and who I am, I’m both humbled and deeply moved. It is as if God is verifying to me a significance that I’d not realized.

Oh yea, this could go to my head, but right now all I can think is that I’ve done nothing to earn or deserve this. These people at the party were such a blessing, and in my mind, they are each the guest of honor for doing and saying what they did. Their kindnesses make me realize how important being kind is, and how vital to tell others what they mean to me. And don’t wait until an ‘occasion’ to do it.

My devotional book verifies to me a similar thought. Abraham told his wife (who was barren) to tell a particular king that he was her brother, knowing custom would keep this king from harming him. The king put Sarah into his harem, but God told him in a dream what was going on, and said “Yes, I know that you did this in the integrity of your heart. For I also withheld you from sinning against Me; therefore I did not let you touch her.”

The king approached Abraham with a strong rebuke. Abraham told him that Sarah really was his half-sister and confessed he lied to protect himself. The king gave Sarah back to Abraham along with livestock and silver. “Then Abraham prayed to God, and God healed Abimelech, his wife and his slave girls so they could have children again, for the LORD had closed up every womb in Abimelech’s household because of Abraham’s wife Sarah.”

As I wondered how this applied to me, my devotional book explained that it showed the strength of Abraham’s spiritual life in that he could ask God to give children to others when his prayer for his own wife remained unanswered. The book suggested Abraham had a deep fear of losing Sarah, and something happened in this incident to show him the total care of God for himself and his wife. In his confession, he was released from that fear and able to truly and honestly bless others.

Before Saturday, I don’t think I’d have understood this reading, but I do now. Something in me, perhaps because of past rejections, has always feared rejection. The party was sort of a surprise, but what I knew would happen, I feared. I couldn’t imagine people giving me a party. Then when they did, and when they were so kind to me, I realized those fears were groundless. God had given me a place in their hearts and was taking care of me. And like Abraham, I’ve been released from a bondage.

This is so profound. Writing about it almost makes it trivial, at least with my writing skills. How can I express it? All I know is that I more deeply desire others to know what I am even more convinced of—that in Christ, we are absolutely and totally loved and accepted, and that in the body of Christ we need to deeply and passionately affirm that love of God to one another. This is our good news, and this is our freedom.

Sunday, February 4, 2007

Love and a cracked pot

I planned my speech. My youngest son told me I’d have to make one yesterday “after opening the gifts.”

It was my birthday party. My husband took me to a restaurant for lunch and when we came home, our children were there, had decorated the house with balloons and streamers, made munchies, and were laughing together—a gift that they always bring to our house.

Soon others arrived, more family, friends, and we ate and laughed, and had cake and laughed, and then they put me in a cosy chair and started plunking gifts in front of me. It wasn’t long before I knew that they expected a “speech” and with so many years under my belt, you’d think I’d know what to say. But my mind went blank. I couldn’t remember all those good words I’d thought of earlier. I opened my mouth and thanked them and talked. I remember thinking that I wanted God to be glorified; that He got me this far and I am so thankful to Him. I said something about that, and how much I love my family and friends, but very shortly after speaking, couldn’t remember what I’d said. My husband told me I was gracious, glorified the Lord, and he was touched. Other than that, I can’t remember a thing.

I do remember the responses on everyone’s faces, especially one. He always reacts negatively toward all things spiritual, but as I mentioned my gratitude to God, I glanced his way. He looked, well, the only word I can think of is ‘charmed,’ as if God was blessing his heart. Later, I’m thinking, How can that happen when I am speechless (rarely happens) and so deeply touched by what everyone did for me that I can’t even put three words together?

Sometimes I need a reminder that I’m just an earthen vessel. The treasure of Christ living in me is the precious thing, and if others are going to see what’s inside, this clay pot needs to be cracked and even full of holes. In other words, if I polish and perfect what I do, He, who is the only perfect one, is hidden and people praise me instead.

This morning, God reminded me again that He isn’t interested in any ability to make a fancy speech. 1 Corinthians 1 says: “For you see your calling, brethren, that not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called. But God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to put to shame the things which are mighty; and the base things of the world and the things which are despised God has chosen, and the things which are not, to bring to nothing the things that are, that no flesh should glory in His presence.”

My family and friends blessed me yesterday beyond words. Their love was neither sentimental or mushy, but thoughtful and from the heart. It changed me. I feel entirely like a humbled, foolish, weak, base nothing, yet oddly and completely content with that. God wants each of us to be at zero before He can use us. I know perfection isn’t important to Him. He looks for cracked and broken vessels that will let His light shine out through the transparency of being unable.

Besides that, through my family and friends who just “love me anyway,” He reminds me again that He is like that. Goof-ups and failures aside, a speechless cracked clay pot not only can have a far greater impact for Jesus Christ than one that has no flaws, but it also has a beloved place in His heart.

Saturday, February 3, 2007

Everlasting love

In the garden of Eden, where all was right and every need met, Satan convinced Eve that God did not really love her and want the best for her. By believing this lie, Eve along with Adam committed the first sin.

It is no wonder that we, who live in an imperfect world, question the love of God during trials. If a sinless person in a perfect world could fall for that lie, what can stop us from doing the sa
me?

Israel fell for it, many times. In the last Old Testament book, Malachi, God challenges His people. “‘I have loved you,’ says the Lord. ‘Yet you say, “In what way have You loved us?” ‘Was not Esau Jacob’s brother?’ says the Lord. ‘Yet Jacob I have loved; but Esau I have hated . . . .’”

The language here is not about emotion, but about God’s choice of one family line over the other for a covenant relationship with Himself. Yet even though He selected Israel to be His people, they continually expressed doubt about His love and constantly challenged it.

God was just as persistent in expressing His love by reminding them of His choice of them. As my study Bible comments, “No one should conclude that God does not love His people because He afflicted them, but rather He loves them because He elected them.”

I’m not a big-picture person. I hone in on details, like close-ups, and have trouble grasping a larger perspective. It is easier writing short stories than novels, and I’d rather sit at the bottom of a mountain loo
king at the wild flowers than be at the top looking at the view.

But being a Christian means learning to keep the big picture in mind, having an eternal perspective. If my life could be put on a line, the line never ends and the time I spend here is but a small blip. I have an eternity of perfection to look forward to.

As Paul says in 2 Corinthians, “Even though our outward man is perishing, yet the inward man is being renewed day by day. For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory, while we do not look at the things which are see
n, but at the things which are not seen. For the things which are seen are temporary, but the things which are not seen are eternal.”

Keeping that eternal perspective is vital, particularly as the “light afflictions” here on earth start to tip towards the heavy side. For me, the best way to keep that perspective is by thinking about the gospel and being constantly thankful that the love of God has been fully expressed in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ—and by remembering that God picked me. He had no reason to chose me to be His child; He just did.

I keep going back to Romans 8, a constant affirmation of God’s purposes for my life. He declares that He uses all things, even the rough stuff, for my good (to make me more like Jesus), and ends the chapter with these wonderful words:

“If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not with Him also freely give us all things? Who shall bring a charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is he who condemns? It is Christ who died, and furthermore is also risen, who is even at the right hand of God, who als
o makes intercession for us.

“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written: ‘For Your sake we are killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep for the slaughter.’

“Yet in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us. For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Amen.