Monday, March 31, 2008

The Blueprint

More than thirty-five years ago our family moved from the city to a farm. We bought a city house that had been taken from a lot to make way for other construction. This house was one story, old and fairly large. We found a man who would help us. He went to the city and measured the house. Then back on the farm he supervised the building of a foundation. He made it square and level, and to the measurements he had taken.

When the house arrived on a large truck bed, it hung over the sides and looked very sad. As they brought it in the driveway, the 20-foot porch across the front came loose and fell off. As the workers brought the rest of this monster into the yard, we wondered if we made a colossal mistake. However, as they moved it into position and set it on the concrete foundation, it fit perfectly—even to the very inch. When we checked out the porch, only two of its 9-10 huge windows had broken. It was gently taken from its landing place in the ditch and put where it belonged. After weeks of remodeling, the house was ready and we moved into it.

The most amazing part of this story is that our helper made and trusted his blueprint. He followed it and it worked. Any practicing engineer knows that this is not always the case. The designer really needs to know what he is doing, and the workers need to trust and follow his design.

Yesterday our pastor preached about the biblical way to build our Christian lives and the Body of Christ. One of his points was that we need to pay attention to what the Master Designer lays out before us and follow His blueprints. These are found in His book, and if we do what He says, our lives will become like the life of Christ. This seems so simple and logical.

Yet sadly, Christians can be tricked into thinking we need more than this. When Paul wrote to the church at Colosse, he warned them about false teaching. Today’s church needs that same warning. Yet even with good teaching other dangers can sneak up on us because they don’t look like a bad thing.

We can also fail to grow because of sin in our lives. Our pastor mentioned worldliness with its focus on this life only, jealousy that basically is a failure to trust God’s care for us, quarreling that comes from our desire to have our own way, and human philosophy that looks good and seems to work. For instance, some churches pick up the idea that growth can come only with marketing gimmicks, ministering to felt needs, and lots of advertising. They grow in size, but size is not necessarily godliness!

Instead, he said that the blueprints for godliness call for a solid foundation—Jesus Christ. Building on Him, we grow through using quality materials such as good teaching, sound preaching, prayer, serving others, meeting together, and working as a team. He also said that we need to build with the Building Inspector in mind, being careful how we build.

Colossians 2:4-9 offers this warning.
Now this I say lest anyone should deceive you with persuasive words. For though I am absent in the flesh, yet I am with you in spirit, rejoicing to see your good order and the steadfastness of your faith in Christ. As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in Him, rooted and built up in Him and established in the faith, as you have been taught, abounding in it with thanksgiving. Beware lest anyone cheat you through philosophy and empty deceit, according to the tradition of men, according to the basic principles of the world, and not according to Christ. For in Him dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily; and you are complete in Him, who is the head of all principality and power.
For the Body of Christ and for me, faith in Jesus is paramount. Faith is the basis of my relationship with Him, and must also be the basis of everything else that I do. I need to watch out for anything that turns me aside from the reality that Jesus is all that I need. He is my foundation and my blueprint. He is the author and the finisher of my faith, and in Him, I am complete.

Today’s reading in God is Enough says, “You have trusted Him as your dying Savior; now trust Him as your living Savior. Just as much as He came to deliver you from future punishment, He also came to deliver you from present bondage. Just as truly as He came to bear your stripes for you, He has come to live your life for you. You are as utterly powerless in the one case as in the other. You could as easily have got rid of your own sins as you could now secure for yourself practical righteousness. Christ, and Christ only, must do both for you. Your part is simply to give the thing to Him to do, and then believe that He does it.”

In light of that sermon and this reading, all I can say is, “Amen!”

Sunday, March 30, 2008

That Eternal Now

Eternity is almost impossible to define. Living in time tends to make forever seem like a longer extension of what I experience here. Yet as I read the Bible and think about the words that describe God’s experience, eternity must be more than that. My best guest is that in eternity, the things of time, including past, present and future, are all known all at the same time. That is, God who inhabits eternity is able to know the eons past, the right now, and into the future. He can see it all at once.

This is why the Bible says things like, “God raised us up with Christ and seated us with Him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:6-7).

In the mind of God, I am already “seated with Christ in the heavenly realms.” It is a done deal so these verses slip into “eternity” language. At the same time, for me that will be in “the coming ages” because I cannot see the future while I am locked in time, so these verses also use “time” language.

This is more than a mental exercise. From today’s reading in God is Enough, I understand the value of thinking with an eternal perspective. It says:
Faith must be a present faith. No faith that is exercised in the future tense amounts to anything. We may believe forever that our sins will be forgiven at some future time, and we will never find peace. We have to come to the now belief and say by a present appropriating faith, “My sins are now forgiven,” before our souls can be at rest. Similarly, no faith that looks for a future deliverance from the power of sin will ever lead a soul into the life we are describing. (Satan) delights in this future faith, for he knows it is powerless to accomplish any practical results. But he trembles and flees when the soul of the believer dares to claim a present deliverance and to reckon itself now to be free from his power.
If I thought that my deliverance from sin was going to be accomplished only after I die and step into eternity, life here would be unchanged by believing in Jesus Christ. I would live the same now as I did before I believed. What good is that?

But the Bible says, “Don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life” (Romans 6:3-4).

This is not talking about water baptism. The word baptism means “immersed” so it is about me being immersed into Christ, something that God did. He says that when Christ died, I died too. Like other eternal matters, this one is beyond my senses. I didn’t see it, realize it, and don’t remember it happening, but God says it did. Therefore I am to “know that (my) old self was crucified with Him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that (I) should no longer be (a slave) to sin” (verse 6) and “count (yourself) dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus” (verse 11).

Obviously this is a faith matter. God says it is true. Because of Jesus, my old life is dead to sin and I have a new life that is alive to God. I’m to “count” myself—other Bible versions say “reckon” myself—dead to sin and alive to God. This word is an accounting term. I cannot “see it” but I can consider that it is true, written in His account book.

Then there is the exciting part. When I start reckoning myself dead to sin, I start to see and experience it. When I consider myself dead to this temptation or that sinful response, the Holy Spirit gives me new attitudes and reactions that were never there before I knew Christ. Without any work on my part, the power is mine to overcome the power of sin, even those sins that once seemed that they would control me forever.

By doing this, it seems that my life here in time begins to blur with eternity. I can see my utter sinfulness, recognize that God has given me Jesus to overcome that sin and know victory over it all—all at the same time. That view of past, present and future is humbling, a battle, and yet at the same time also glorious.

I cannot fully imagine what it will be like to live with God in eternity. 1 Corinthians 13:12 says, “Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” Some day I will fully understand these things. The part that I know now is just enough to keep my mind stayed on Him, and He gives me great anticipation about fully experiencing forever.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Take and Open

Imagine someone purchasing one gift for each person in the whole world. The gifts are identical and desirable. Each one cost the giver a great deal but are free to those whose name is marked on the tag. Imagine those gifts lined up and the giver announces that the gifts are ready. Whoever wants their gift must simple receive it.

But the gifts are eyed with suspicion. Instead of benevolence, many think there must be something else motivating the giver, so they walk on by. Some assume this gift must have a catch to it, some hidden strings attached, so they also pass up the offer. Many think they don’t need this gift because they can manage quite well without it. Others wring their hands thinking they don’t deserve such generosity and cannot bring themselves to take it.

Writers are taught to leave out redundant adjectives, so the term “free gift” should be edited. A gift, by definition, is free so needs no modification. However, modern thinking assumes otherwise regarding gifts. From “now I own you something” to “I wonder what is expected of me,” the response to a gift is generally something about payback rather than gratitude. Gifts are exchanged, rarely one-way. Gifts are tracked so the payback can be around the same value. Sometimes gifts are expected, rather than a surprise.

When it comes to the gift of salvation, God must have anticipated that “gift” would need an explanation. Romans 5:15-19 does just that
But the gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died by the trespass of the one man, how much more did God’s grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many! Again, the gift of God is not like the result of the one man’s sin: The judgment followed one sin and brought condemnation, but the gift followed many trespasses and brought justification. For if, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ. Consequently, just as the result of one trespass was condemnation for all men, so also the result of one act of righteousness was justification that brings life for all men. For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous.
Paul describes that we were given our sinful nature because of the sin of one man, Adam. That is one gift I didn’t ask for or even pick up and take home. I’d rather not have it, but instead, it is part of who I am. God says everyone is under condemnation because of sin, and it all came from that one trespass of Adam. He disobeyed God and now we are cursed with the same predilection. “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).

However, God offers a better gift, the gift of justification and righteousness. This gift is made available because Jesus Christ died for our sins. By His obedience, we are offered this gift that also includes forgiveness, eternal life, even everything we need for this life.

Unlike that rotten gift of a sin nature, this one is not automatically ours simple because God offers it. The key words are those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness. The gift sits there, for each person, with their name on it, but unless they take it, it remains as useless to them as an unwrapped birthday present or a parcel left in the mailbox or under the Christmas tree.

“Thanks be to God for His indescribable gift!”

Friday, March 28, 2008

Take care when defining “blessings”

Yesterday’s term, “a receptive mode” intrigues me. God is willing to give; am I willing to receive? And if I hesitate, what is behind that?

In today’s reading from God is Enough, the idea of being open to whatever God wants for me is expressed by two words, “consecration” and “abandonment.” Both mean an entire surrender to God. That is, my spirit, soul, and body are placed under His absolute control that He might do with me whatever pleases Him. In other words, like Jesus, I am saying, “Thy will be done.”

The writer of the devotional says she does not understand why so many Christians are blinded to this and seem more afraid of God’s will than of anything else in life. She adds that His perfect will means only “loving-kindnesses, tender mercies, and unspeakable blessings to our souls.”

I’m not sure this is correct. Is it true? Or is it a misconception? The Bible is clear about the possibility of false teaching. It tells how the first lies were suggested when Satan, disguised as a serpent, asked Eve, “Did God really say that?”

Behind his questions were hints that perhaps God did not want the best for Eve, and that disobedience to Him would bring her greater blessing. His lie included the notion that God didn’t love her at all, but had a personal agenda that disregarded her.

Since then, false teaching abounds. Some of it is blatant, some subtle. The New Testament says to test the spirits and see if they come from God. One way to do this is by testing the teaching with the life of Jesus Christ.

With those two things in mind, does total surrender to God mean only “loving-kindnesses, tender mercies, and unspeakable blessings” to my soul? Or can that surrender bring other things that are not so sweet and gentle?

The devotional author also says, “To a soul ignorant of God, this way of consecration may look hard; but to those who know Him, it is the happiest and most restful of lives. He is our Father, and He loves us and knows just what is best. Therefore, of course, His will is the most blessed thing that can come to us under any circumstances.”

I must ask what happened to Jesus when He totally consecrated Himself to God? Did He have the “happiest and most restful of lives” or was it more challenging? Most know the story. He came as a baby, grew up, spent three and a half years in the public eye where He was at first exalted and then rejected. In the end, even His own followers forsook Him as His enemies nailed Him to a cross. The outcome was fabulous, but some parts were anything but delightful.

Philippians 2:5-8 says that I am supposed to have the same mind as Jesus, who, even though He was “in the form of God, (He) did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross.

This is a realistic statement about abandonment to the will of God. So are several verses in Hebrews 11 that tell of God’s faithful people. Some of them, through faith, “subdued kingdoms, worked righteousness, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the violence of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, out of weakness were made strong, became valiant in battle, turned to flight the armies of the aliens. Women received their dead raised to life again.

But it goes on and says, “Others were tortured, not accepting deliverance, that they might obtain a better resurrection. Still others had trial of mockings and scourgings, yes, and of chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, were tempted, were slain with the sword. They wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, tormented— of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, in dens and caves of the earth.

I know that God can bring joy to the hearts of those in trials, even severe trials. The external person may be suffering, but inside knows peace. The devotional author could mean this, yet the wording is more like, “Trust God and your life will be perfect” rather than “Trust God and no matter what happens, you will know His goodness.”

When I entered the kingdom of God, I’m not sure of my expectations other than I thought God would be like my Dad, who basically gave me whatever I asked (as long as he could afford it). I soon learned that this was a false idea. God isn’t stingy; however, His gifts are based on what is best for me, not on my whims.

Others enter the kingdom with the idea that Christ will not let them have any more problems. That is nonsense. The worst of it is that when problems come, these people often become disillusioned and decide that being a Christian is not for them. They walk away, and for years wander in the wilderness of disappointment until they realize that God wants the best for them, and in His will, trials are included.

So don’t tell me being a Christian is the “happiest and most restful of lives.” Compared to a life controlled by sin that is so, but even those who are totally consecrated to Him and have abandoned their lives to His control find that the will of God also includes sorrow, heavy burdens, and hard work.

Romans 8:37-39 ends a list of the stuff that can happen to believers, stuff that threatens their understanding that God really does love them. The list includes tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril, even death, but then it balances those threats with this: “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.

A new Christian may not understand how they can be sustained in trials, but I will not suggest that their trials are over, only that God’s love will never stop and once they grasp the reality of that, Satan can say or do whatever he likes—he, or anyone or thing else, cannot ruin their security in Christ.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Receiving the Gift

Spiritual blindness is a frightful thing. I realized this years ago as a youth sponsor. One of the teenagers in our group brought a friend who was a member of a "Christian" cult. During the evening I asked her how a person could be saved and have eternal life. She replied, “Oh, you do it by doing good things.”

I opened my Bible and asked her to read aloud Ephesians 2:8-9. She read, “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.

I then asked, “How do these verses say that a person is saved?”

She said, “It says you can be saved by doing good things.”

Is it the simplicity that people stumble over? Receiving the gift of salvation and eternal seems too easy. This is such an important thing—do they think they must do something? That it cannot be free?

My devotional reading today from God is Enough explains that the only thing we can do is be in a receptive attitude. She adds, “This will simplify the matter greatly, and the only thing left to be considered then, will be to discover on whom God bestows this gift and how he is to receive it.”

Of course we cannot boast about it either. My son gave me a magazine subscription. I took it and I thanked him. I didn’t say, “Oh, what a good mother I must be to have earned this gift.” Neither could I boast that I was smart nor had any special skill. This was a gift, and my only boast is in the thoughtfulness and generosity of the one who gave it to me.

Everything in my salvation is a gift—in just the same way. From the day Jesus came into my life through all the days since then, all things pertaining to spiritual life and godliness are gifts from Him. God is the giver and I and the receiver. I don’t do great things to earn any of it, and even if I did, those great things would also be a gift from God. I’ve no room or reason to boast about any of it.

When Adam sinned, the “sin gene” (figuratively speaking) was passed down through all humans and into my heart also. I cannot change that basic fact. I am a sinner. Without the gift of God, that same God has every right to turn His back on me. But He did not do that.

Romans 5:17 says, “For if by the one man’s offense death reigned through the one, much more those who receive abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness will reign in life through the One, Jesus Christ.

My life of faith is neither imagination, nor wishful thinking, nor based on anything I do. God keeps me. He keeps my heart focused on Him. He gives me faith to trust Him. He gives me that inner peace that surpasses all understanding. I did not earn it and do nothing to deserve it. While many ask to receive it, I didn’t even do that. God simply gave it to me, and when He did, I experienced something like bright light, a new understanding that drove away my confusion and darkness.

I often think of that girl. She came to only one of our meetings and I quickly lost track of her. I know that apart from the Spirit of God bringing light into her heart, nothing I could do or say would convince her; in her mind she had to earn it all.

Yet I wonder if God used the truth of those verses she read that night to eventually open her heart and mind. Did she ever understand that salvation is an amazing gift from God? Did God help her see that this gift is offered to “whosoever will” receive it through Jesus Christ?

Even as I write this and think about the Scripture and my own salvation experience, I realize that God also gives us that receptive attitude. Truly, salvation is nothing we can do and all about God’s mercy and grace.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

God or gods?

For Christmas, our youngest son gave me a subscription to National Geographic Magazine. While I don’t believe their humanist, evolutionist position, I’m learning much about the world and human nature from this remarkable publication.

For instance, a recent issue had a story about Indonesia’s worship practices. Much of the population ties the gods to the many volcanoes in their islands. Even political leaders will sacrifice animals to appease these gods and hopefully ward off volcanic eruptions or other disastrous events.

The story also said that even though science tells them otherwise (and missionaries also), and even though many areas of this country are modernized, this belief is persistent. They sleep with their heads toward the nearest volcano, and bury their dead in that same position. Their gods control everything they do.

Christians have been accused of the same superstitions. We are said to believe in a God who controls not only the weather but all aspects of our lives. We say He makes sense of our lives and helps us through difficulties. We are also said to dismiss science and hold on to old myths that have long been proven false.

In contrast, while I read this article, I never felt more remote from a belief system nor more unable to understand why even the educated people in that country would believe in ogres and spirits who dwell in volcanoes, and would offer prayers and sacrifices to these so-called entities.

Nevertheless, I can see how Christianity would look to those on the outside. Our God is also invisible. We also say He is in charge of the weather. We pray to Him about anything and everything, and give our very lives to Him as living sacrifices. Sadly, some Christians also have an unhealthy dose of foolish superstition mixed in with their faith, making us even more perplexing in the eyes of others.

However, the differences between the beliefs of these islanders and Christianity are obvious to me and probably to most other Christians. For one thing, we do not offer goats and other sacrifices to try to control what our God does, or make attempts to appease Him. God is sovereign, and while He invites us to pray, we know that He makes all decisions and does so according to His will. We also know His will is pleasing, even perfect, and that He has our best interests at heart.

We know we have no need to appease Him. Instead of a god who is capricious and threatening, our God loves us and proved it by sending His Son as the atoning and final sacrifice for sin. In the beginning, He did ask for the blood of bulls and goats because “without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness of sin” but when Christ came, that sacrificial system became obsolete. Now, as the Bible affirms, “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?” (Romans 8:31-32).

That passage goes on to say that “nothing can separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” We are not sitting on the edge of a basin of fire wondering when He will next erupt and rain judgment and death down on us. We do not have to toss Him goats or anything else, hoping He will change His mind. Instead, we know that He poured out His wrath against sin on His Son who bore our sin for us. We are free, but not only that, we are in a Father-child relationship with a God who loves and cares for us, without threats and unconditionally.

In contrast, that article in NGM described a people who live in fear, but the children of God, through faith in Jesus Christ, need never fear. 2 Timothy 1:7 affirms that, “God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind.” Because we have peace with God through Christ, we are not afraid. We can lay our head down at night pointed in any direction without anxiety that if we fail in some way to please Him, He will blow up. Instead, we know that, “If anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. And He Himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world” (1 John 2:1-2). God is not out to get us, but to help us and care for us.

I see that the biggest differences between the Christian faith and the beliefs of these island people are first, the object of our faith, then second, the results. Our God is not bent on destruction and demanding frantic efforts to appease Him. Those who put their faith in Him are not fearful and wary of what He will do next. We know He is for us, not against us. He proved it 2000 years ago, and continues to prove it. Even if we fail to ask Him or thank Him, He takes care of us, provides all our needs, and promises us eternity with Him.

My devotional reading today was not related to this topic, but the Scripture quoted in it does describe the results in the lives of those who believe in Jesus Christ. Notice also how the end contrasts those who do not believe but are ensnared by sin and superstition. It is from 2 Timothy 2:21-26:
Therefore if anyone cleanses himself from the latter (referring to dishonorable deeds), he will be a vessel for honor, sanctified and useful for the Master, prepared for every good work. Flee also youthful lusts; but pursue righteousness, faith, love, peace with those who call on the Lord out of a pure heart. But avoid foolish and ignorant disputes, knowing that they generate strife. And a servant of the Lord must not quarrel but be gentle to all, able to teach, patient, in humility correcting those who are in opposition, if God perhaps will grant them repentance, so that they may know the truth, and that they may come to their senses and escape the snare of the devil, having been taken captive by him to do his will.
Neither science nor Christianity would say volcanos control lives as the Indonesians claim, but Christianity does recognize the spirit world. We would say that if there are evil spirits in the volcanoes of Indonesia, they are servants of Satan who have captured and bound the people into a system of fear and superstition from which the blood of goats cannot set them free.

Only Jesus can do that.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Fitting like a glove

Christians know that God works using us, but we have a hard time explaining it. Today’s reading in God is Enough is about us trusting and God doing the work. The writer offers a question that some might ask: “In one breath you tell us to do nothing but trust, and in the next you tell us to do impossible things. How can you reconcile such contradictory statements?”

I’ve used a glove to illustrate the answer. God is the hand and I am the glove. I’m supposed to be pliable and willing to let Him work through me. People might see only the glove, but the motivating force behind what I’m doing is God. As I yield to Him, I could do amazing things.

The author of this devotional book uses a saw in a carpenter’s shop. People see it cutting wood and say, “Oh, that is a sharp saw; look how it easily slices that log.” Or they might say, “See how easily that carpenter cuts the log” depending on their perspective.

The Bible says, “Do not present your members as instruments of unrighteousness to sin, but present yourselves to God as being alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God” (Romans 6:13). In other words, don’t let any other hand govern the glove; don’t let any other carpenter wield the saw. I’m only the instrument and whatever I do, it must be because of the power of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Both these illustrations use inanimate objects. Maybe we unconsciously selected them because Jesus said, “Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in Me. I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing” (John 15:4-5).

A glove is useless without a hand. A saw only rusts if left to itself. However, God also knows that Christians can live without trusting Him, can act motivated by forces other than His Spirit. That is why He says we must not present ourselves as instruments of unrighteousness to sin or let sin rule our lives. The glove, the saw, belongs to Him.

As I yield myself and my abilities as instruments of righteousness to God, I will experience Him working in me to will and to do of His good pleasure (Philippians 2:13). Whatever He asks of me may not be prominent by human standards, yet I will know His grace and mercy.

To be yielded to Him is my desire, and perhaps be able to say, with Paul, “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me was not in vain; but I labored more abundantly . . . yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me.” (1 Corinthians 15:10).

Monday, March 24, 2008

Perfection and Growth


One of my children often expressed “I wish I was grown up.” He had ambitions limited by his age and size and thought that being an adult would fix everything. While I understood his desire for perfection, I knew maturity does not happen by wishing.

Growing takes time. Besides, why not be happy with each stage of growth? A new mother can say, “My baby is perfect” and this claim is not based on the child’s maturity. Besides, most mothers are not eager to see their children be instant adults. Rather, we want them to be all they can be at their current age and stage of life.

I need to remember that every time I think about verses like Matthew 5:48, “Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect.

Whatever God is doing, that work is “perfect” in whatever stage it is in. A baby is one example. So is a petunia or a rose. As the first shoot comes out of the ground, it is perfect. That shoot grows and gains height and strength, and is still perfect. It produces a bud, then flowers and is also perfect. At each stage of growth, any plant is where it ought to be. We might say that the plant is perfect when each leaf and flower has reached maturity, but in the mind of God, and any good botanist, perfection is just that—being what it should be right now.

When I was a new Christian, I knew I had much growing to do. I was self-focused, impatient, and in a hurry. I didn’t like James 1:2-4. “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.

Maturity and patience have a price tag, and for me the “trials of many kinds” were not worth the results of being “mature and complete” but “lacking anything” was my idea of being imperfect, and in my self-focus, I wanted to be the perfect Christian. It seemed a terrible dilemma until I realized I was not in control of my growth or the trials that I faced.

Today’s reading from God is Enough says the obvious, “The maturity of a Christian experience cannot be reached in a moment, but is the result of the work of God’s Holy Spirit, who, by His energizing and transforming power, causes us to grow up into Christ in all things.”

This author also uses the baby illustration, that a baby may be all that a baby can be and therefore perfectly please its mother, yet it is very far from being what that mother hopes for in that child’s complete maturity. She adds that “God’s works are perfect in every stage of their growth.”

This helps me with my own impatience. Instead of being anxious that the bud of perseverance is not exactly in full bloom, I can be happy that there is at least a bud, and even if this was absent, my growth still is exactly where God wants it.

I know that seeds grow better if I don’t dig them up to see if they are growing. Why can’t I get through my head that a constant self-examination to see how I am doing is just as counterproductive? God produces the growth. He does it through His Word (so I need to keep reading) and through exercising my faith (keep obeying) and through the experiences of life. I’m to simply take each as it comes, paying attention to what He is saying about it, and let Him do the work of making me grow up.

In the meantime, or at least during the process, I can raise my leaves up to the Son and enjoy His rays and His rain, knowing that He is satisfied. As long as I am trusting Him, loving Him, obeying Him, then I’m okay right where I am.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

His was no mere mind

First I greet all who come here: He is risen! We have a living Savior, one who walks with us in this dark and sinful world. Celebrate this day with joyful hearts.
Yesterday I wrote about human thinking vs. godly thinking, and it is still on my mind. While the Bible is so clear on the differences, it seems far too easy for Christians, myself included, to think like the world thinks instead of thinking with the mind of Christ.

Scripture comes at this from different angles. Some places it says we must walk in the Spirit and not in the flesh. Others say put off the old nature and put on the new. Galatians 5 describes and contrasts the sinful deeds of the flesh with the fruit of the Holy Spirit.

The passage that caught my attention this morning is 1 Corinthians 3:1-4. It says, “Brothers, I could not address you as spiritual but as worldly—mere infants in Christ. I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready. You are still worldly. For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere men? For when one says, ‘I follow Paul,’ and another, ‘I follow Apollos,’ are you not mere men?

The term “mere” says it all. Worldly human thinking compared to thinking with the mind of Christ is “mere,” nothing more than worldly thinking, and the slightest or least way to think. Anyone can be a mere human being, but only a child of God can rise above that—yet not because children of God have better brains. It is only because we have Christ and therefore have His mind.

It sounds so simple. Who wouldn’t want to get their minds up there, with God’s? But it isn’t as simple as it sounds. This passage describes the ease with which we slip into mere human thoughts.

First, every time I am jealous, I’m thinking mere human thoughts. My sinful nature puts me at the center of things, and if I perceive someone else has more, bigger, better than I do, I want it for me, for after all, don’t I deserve that? This can carry into my spiritual life. I can envy those who know their Bible better, who seem more prayerful, and so on. But godly thinking rejoices at the successes of others and is never envious.

Not only that, whenever I name-drop or boast in any way about the Christian teachers I have had, I’m acting like a mere human. My sinful nature will use anything to impress others, even spirituality. Godliness is humble, more concerned about others, never trying to put itself on a pedestal, and certainly does not use other people to make itself look good.

Even though mere human thinking seems more elevated in comparison, God says it is not, that the attitude of lowering myself is godly and pleases Him. That takes a lot of mind-renewal to accept and even more to live it out.

Also, every time I quarrel, I am thinking mere human thoughts. Quarreling is about asserting myself, getting my own way, being right and making sure everyone knows about it. It can be as subtle as remarks of one-upmanship or as blatant as retorting in loud resistance and anger. It is self-defense, far from Christlike, and merely human.

Jesus, while fully human, did not think like a mere human. This showed up to the greatest degree when He went to the Cross. 1 Peter 2:21-24 says in part, “Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that you should follow His steps: Who committed no sin, nor was deceit found in His mouth; who, when He was reviled, did not revile in return; when He suffered, He did not threaten, but committed Himself to Him who judges righteously; who Himself bore our sins in His own body on the tree, that we, having died to sins, might live for righteousness.

I try to imagine Jesus with mere human thoughts and quickly realize that had He thought like most people think, He would have argued with those who arrested Him and fought with all His might to avoid the Cross. He would have called those legions of angels to rescue Him, and by doing that, my sins would not be atoned for; I could never be righteous.

Those people who think Jesus was merely a good teacher, or a prophet, need to stand at the foot of the cross and think again. Mere men, even good men, even good teachers or prophets, do not say “Father, forgive them” about those who drive in the nails. Mere men do not think about the thieves hanging on either side. Mere men do not go quietly to their death when they know they are totally innocent.

It is little wonder that the world, filled with mere human minds, thinks that the Cross is foolishness. To human thinking, it makes no sense at all that God came to earth as a perfect man and then died for the sins of all human beings. Of course, by stumbling at that reality, the human mind becomes totally closed to the next reality—that Jesus did not stay dead. He rose from the grave and lives forever, an awesome and glorious thing that is far beyond the comprehension of mere minds.

Today I’m thinking about the power of God that raised His Son from the dead, but I’m also thinking of the power of God to change hearts and to renew minds. There are no words to express the joy in my heart for what Jesus has done, and for the wonder that He gave me His life, mind included.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Renewal

Our morning newspaper featured a few “Easter” articles, mostly the secular version with chocolate and eggs and bunnies. Some focused on the message of renewal, but the writers demonstrated little, if any, idea of what God can do in that department.

This morning’s devotional reading in God is Enough tells of the power of God and describes how “we trust and He works.” The writer also quotes one of my favorite verses, Romans 12:2. It says, “And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.

I know a few people who would love to have their mind renewed. One person told me last week that she hates the way her mind works and would love to think differently. However, she felt powerless to change herself. She wanted advice, so I told her that God can do it. She was skeptical because in her view, God doesn’t exist so having Him do anything seemed impossible.

Christians know that God can do the impossible. Besides, if our minds could not be renewed, He would not have had Paul write about it in this letter to the church in Rome. Instead, this verse actually commands God’s people to be transformed, to have our minds renewed. In my mind, if He commands it, a renewed mind it is not even an option.

Of course being renewed means thinking in a new way. God wants me to think like He thinks, not like those in the world (who do not know Him). Other than crawling inside His head, how is this possible? 1 Corinthian 2:16 asks that question, “For who has known the mind of the Lord that he may instruct Him?

The rest of the verse answers that question: “But we have the mind of Christ.

Of course this is the only way. I cannot get into God’s head, but He can get into mine. When He opened my eyes to my sin and need of His forgiveness, and when Jesus came to live in my heart, He brought His mind along with Him. Because He lives in me, I have the mind of Jesus, so thinking like God is possible. The bigger problem is being willing, and then actually doing it.

Why would I not want to? Well, that wonderful verse from Romans 12 tells me that a renewed mind means I will no longer be conformed to the world, and that challenges my willingness. I will not think like other people and, aside from misunderstanding me most of the time, they might not appreciate that. I could find myself lonely and even ostracized by those who once were my friends. Do I want that?

The verse also give the upside of this argument. With a renewed mind, I will be able to test the will of God and find out that it is good, acceptable, even perfect. Without His mind, that discovery is unlikely, even impossible.

So mind renewal sounds like a good thing, but after some trial and error, I realize that this does not involve the usual human ways of learning new stuff. God does not put me through strenuous hours of memorizing foreign ideas or trying to study how He thinks. Neither does He endorse the brainwashing techniques used by some of the so-called “Christian” cults. Instead, He simply asks two things: read and believe His Word and then, in faith, do what it says.

My part is to read, trust and obey. God’s part is the real work. He uses His Word to change me, not only the way I act but also the way I think. He introduces new ideas, sometimes ideas that seem strange, partly because they are new and mostly because my mind has been affected by sin and doesn’t want to accept His thoughts. Yet somehow He manages to change me.

For one thing, I recognize that if my rational brain or that part of me that thinks as the world thinks rules my thoughts, then I’ll miss the will of God. But if I let the mind of Christ rule, then I’ll hear what He says, believe it, then act accordingly. The stickler is that old habits are hard to break.

On Easter Saturday, I can’t help but think what the disciples were going through about two thousand years ago. Jesus had told them that He would die and rise again but their brains could not fathom how that could be possible. Then He did die and they scattered. What was that day after His death like for them? Would God come through? They were certain He would not so when Jesus appeared to them alive, they were astonished. Worldly thinking.

Yet, by this they realized that He would keep His promises, that He would always follow through, always. Godly thinking.

They became men who were willing to risk their lives for Jesus. They learned that He isn’t like others—He does what He says He will do. Just the same, that Saturday must have been for them like I feel in those days between taking impossible situations to Him in prayer and seeing that prayer answered.

A renewed mind tells me that my feelings don’t change what God is doing. My doubts don’t change the fact that God never fails to keep His promises. Renewal is about God doing amazing things—from the simple; I plant tulips, God makes them grow—to the more complex; I offer prayers, God answers them.

When I read, trust and obey, even with a mind that is never quite as renewed as I want it to be, the results always amaze me. Just as He rose from the dead, just as He answers prayer, just as He gives me a new way to think—He is amazing, always amazing.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Good Friday

The days we celebrate the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ are not the same each year. That means my devotional reading today is not about Easter. It didn’t give any Scripture either, so I turned to My Utmost for His Highest. The reading for today is about crucifixion—Jesus’ and mine.

Galatians 2:20 says, “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.

Oswald Chambers says, “The imperative need spiritually is to sign the death-warrant of the disposition of sin, to turn all emotional impressions and intellectual beliefs into a moral verdict against the disposition of sin.”

He points out that this verse does not say ‘I have determined to imitate Jesus Christ,’ or, ‘I will endeavor to follow Him,’ but, ‘I have been identified with Him in His death.’

As I’ve been thinking for the past few weeks, this reality is seldom taught in today’s church. Part of the reason is the power of the almighty I. Our sin nature is so determined to be involved, to have a part, to claim its right to itself. However, this free committal of self to God by death gives the Holy Spirit the chance to impart in me the life of Jesus Christ.

The verse also says, “ . . . nevertheless I live. . . .” I’m still here, but as Chambers says, “the mainspring, the ruling disposition, is radically altered. The same human body remains, but the old satanic right to myself is destroyed.”

This is why Christians call this day “good” Friday. When Jesus died, it was for our sin. In taking that upon Himself, He also took sin’s awful penalty and the wrath of God killed Him. By Jesus’ great act of obedience, I am set free from the penalty of sin.

When Jesus died, we also died. God placed me in Him and what happened to Jesus also happened to me. By that great act, I am set free from the power of sin—not by imitating Him, not by following Him, but by dying with Him.

The verse ends with, “And the life which I now live in the flesh . . . .” As Chambers says, this is not the life that I long to live, or pray that I will live, but the life I now live. At this life is “by the faith of the Son of God.”

This faith is not my faith in Jesus Christ, but the faith that the Son of God has imparted to me—“the faith of the Son of God.” This distinction is as important to victory as is my death. This faith is not faith in faith, or me struggling to believe. It is a faith that comes out of the inner core of my being, a faith that supercedes my efforts because it is not my faith but His.

At the cross, I was put “in Christ” and He died. When I believed, Christ was put in me—Christ and all that He is and does. Now I live—all because He said, “Not my will but thine be done” and was obedient even unto death.

This Friday, and every other Friday, and every other day, can carry the label “good”—all because of Jesus.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Another one of life’s seesaws

Socrates or Plato, not one knows for sure, once said, “The unexamined life is not worth living . . . .” I thought of this last week after a conversation with a person who said she was obsessing about her own mental and emotional condition. While Socrates or Plato may have had some wisdom, it seems obvious that there can be too much of a good thing.

However, I used to obsess about my spiritual condition, and sometimes still do. Most of that is caused by one of two things. Either I’ve not confessed and abandoned some sin in my life (known or not yet known), or I am doubting where I stand with God and my obsession reveals a terrible lack of faith.

Actually, there’s only a couple of places in the Bible that tell me to examine myself. One of them is 2 Corinthians 13:5. “Examine yourselves as to whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Do you not know yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless indeed you are disqualified.

God wants me to make sure that I believe in Jesus Christ and that He lives in my heart and I have a personal relationship with Him. Knowing that for certain is not an issue now, but when I was a new Christian, doubt and poor performance on my part sometimes made me forget what God had done in my life.

Another exhortation to examine myself is in 1 Corinthians 11:27-29 concerning instructions about taking Communion. It says, “Therefore whoever eats this bread or drinks this cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord. But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For he who eats and drinks in an unworthy manner eats and drinks judgment to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body.

Simply put, I’m not to participate in the Lord’s Supper if I have unconfessed sin to deal with. God is not asking for perfection, but integrity. I cannot willfully or knowingly sin and then ‘honor’ Him by remembering the broken body and shed blood of His Son. This is hypocrisy.

Over the years, I’ve come to realize that self-examination can be simply self-centeredness. The human heart can find all sorts of ways to justify this sinful focus on me, me, me. In God is Enough, the author points out how God is not pleased when we obsess in self-examination and make ourselves miserable about what we find, as if being constantly upset about our terrible sinfulness will please Him.

This was happening in Israel during the time of Isaiah. God asked those who were fasting and afflicting themselves, “Is it a fast that I have chosen, a day for a man to afflict his soul? Is it to bow down his head like a bulrush, and to spread out sackcloth and ashes? Would you call this a fast, and an acceptable day to the Lord?” (Isaiah 58:5)

The devotional writer says that instead of putting attention on ourselves by fasting (or by obsessing about our sinful condition), God “calls on us, as He did on them, to forget our own miserable selves and to go to work to lessen the miseries of others.”
Is this not the fast that I have chosen: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, to let the oppressed go free, and that you break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and that you bring to your house the poor who are cast out; when you see the naked, that you cover him, and not hide yourself from your own flesh? Then your light shall break forth like the morning, your healing shall spring forth speedily, and your righteousness shall go before you; the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry, and He will say, “Here I am” (Isaiah 58:6-9).
My mother used to say that no one can be truly happy unless they are serving others. She may have had these verses in mind. Any kind of self-absorbed thinking usually winds up putting me in the dumps. God never encourages this extreme.

Besides all this, self-absorbed thinking often contains the element of comparing myself with others. If the other person is less (in my opinion) I gloat (sin), but if they are more (in my opinion), I whine and feel threatened (also sin).

Just getting my mind off me and helping others does wonders. Galatians 6:2-5 says, “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. If anyone thinks he is something when he is nothing, he deceives himself. Each one should test (examine) his own actions. Then he can take pride in himself, without comparing himself to somebody else, for each one should carry his own load.

When I read these verses, I hear: Help others—this is what Jesus wants from you. If you think you are a hot-shot, remember what you are like without Me—you are nothing. Such arrogance is self-deception. Look at what you are doing? Am I blessing it? If I am, be proud of that, and stop comparing yourself with others. I’ve given each person their own burdens to carry. If they cannot do it, you are to help them; otherwise, pay attention to what you are doing. Are you being obedient to me? That is the only self-examining that matters.

Jesus always amazes me at His ability logically deal with my nonsense. Certainly I need to pay attention to my own life and my spiritual condition, but when I get too wound up in it, He points me to the needs of others and tells me to get away from the mirror and do what I can to take care them.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Easter Preparations

“Are you ready for Easter?”

Last night, a woman asked me this question. I hear similar questions at Christmas, New Years, and before a vacation trip, and I am never certain of the best way to answer them.

Some people prepare for events with special food, decorations, and a guest list. Some prepare for a trip by packing two weeks ahead of time and make long, detailed decisions about everything they are taking and everything they plan on doing or seeing on their vacation. My husband and I do neither.

When we travel, we pack the night before. While living out of a suitcase is a must on vacation, I’ve no intention of doing it before I go. We know what we need to take, and just toss it in. I can’t recall ever forgetting anything important by leaving our preparations until the last day. Besides, my life is far too busy to spend two weeks of it packing.

When we prepare for a holiday event, I mentally choose a menu, might even write it down, and certainly buy the ingredients ahead of time. However, I do the same for most meals. We do put up decorations for Christmas and sometimes for birthday celebrations, but our focus is not on the decor or the food.

Perhaps that is why I’m so puzzled by the question. I really don’t understand what the person is asking. It seems that they are talking about externals, about the “ceremony” of celebration. I suppose that is very important to them.

I don’t condemn ceremony. Ceremony and festivities can be meaningful. The Bible is full of celebrations. In fact, “In the Old Testament, feasts and festivals were occasions of joy. They were times for thanking God for blessings and granting relief to the poor and oppressed. They were often accompanied by singing, instrumental music, dancing, elaborate meals, and sacrifices. Depending on the nature and the requirements of the occasion, they were celebrated either at a sanctuary or at a person’s home” (Harper’s Bible Dictionary).

Today, Christians do not celebrate those Old Testament feasts. Instead, as described in the New Testament, many of them take on new meaning. For instance, Jesus observed Jewish feasts yet He transformed Passover for his followers into a ritual remembrance of his death (1 Corinthians 11:24) that we call the Lord’s Supper or Communion.

Aside from that, there are few regulations about feasts or fasts or festivals. Any observed by Christians have grown out of traditions around of the life and practices of Jesus and the experiences of the church. For example, we observe Christmas to celebrate Jesus’ birth. Some denominations celebrated Epiphany, related to the appearance of the Magi, and Lent as a remembrance of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. Ascension Day remembers His ascent into heaven, and Pentecost celebrates the gift of the Holy Spirit. Because the cardinal event of the Christian faith, the resurrection of Jesus, occurred on a Sunday, right from the beginning Christians gathered together on that day to worship and celebrate, rather than the Sabbath, which was Saturday. (See Acts 20:7, etc.).

Regardless of denominational preferences, Easter is the most important date on the Christian calendar. While we celebrate communion more often at His command to “do this in remembrance” of Him, Easter is grand time of rejoicing that He died for our sins, then rose from the grave to conquer death. Without the reality of what Jesus has done, our faith is nothing. Easter is our celebration of the key element in what we believe.

For me, being ready for Easter obviously is far more spiritual than it is physical. I could put up decorations, but have no idea what Easter decorations look like. Baskets, eggs and bunnies? For Christians, those things do not represent anything about Easter. I could prepare some sort of traditional food. The same woman who asked if I was ready also asked if I will be serving turkey or ham. I could, mainly because the stores have them in stock and on sale, but this year we will likely have salmon. For me, the food is not particularly about Easter either.

As I ponder this question about being ready, I think of the instructions Paul gives in 1 Corinthians 11:28-32 for the Lord’s supper or communion. It says:
But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For he who eats and drinks in an unworthy manner eats and drinks judgment to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body. For this reason many are weak and sick among you, and many sleep. For if we would judge ourselves, we would not be judged. But when we are judged, we are chastened by the Lord, that we may not be condemned with the world.
Here, the idea of preparation is not about the meal but the heart. Before I remember the death of Jesus Christ for my sin and participate in communion, I am supposed to examine my heart and my life. Is there unconfessed sin in me? Do I need to bring anything to God for forgiveness and cleansing? If so, I’m not to participate in the meal unless that is done.

The Bible says that those who try to celebrate Jesus’ death and His sacrifice for their sin without confessing and repenting of sin are not in a place of celebration, but of judgment. In fact, in the case of the church at Corinth, He had brought weakness, illness and even death to some who had not obeyed this prerequisite for communion.

In light of these verses, the way to be ready for Easter is by keeping short accounts with God. This is certainly not a once-a-year thing, but something I must do every day, and sometimes often each day. It doesn’t matter to me if my house looks like “Easter” (whatever that means), or that the food is perfect and fitting the occasion. What does matter is that my heart is right with God.

The best part is that because of Easter being right with God is totally possible. That being the case, and thanks to Jesus Christ, right now I am ready for Easter.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Death > Life > Eternal Rewards

My latest book purchase is titled Respectable Sins. The back of the book asks why Christians can be stern about most things God calls sin, yet excuse behaviors like jealousy, anger, pride and unthankfulness. It suggests that in Christian circles, some sins have become socially acceptable.

I’ve not read this book, but I expect when I do that I will be convicted by it. I struggle with simple selfishness. When I make plans, I don’t like interruptions or unexpected situations where I have to alter what I want to do and do something else instead. I like having my own way, and self-denial is a constant challenge, but I do know that such denial pleases God.

That book title reminds me of the absence in Christian teaching concerning this self-denial thing. Who preaches or writes about the idea of “reckoning ourselves to be dead indeed unto sin” (Romans 6:11)? Yet the Bible says clearly that because we are in Christ, we are “alive to God” and are supposed to live accordingly. Sadly, many Christians have no idea what this death to self, alive to God principle means, never mind how to live it out. It is simply not taught.

These words from Romans are just another way of expressing that we must “take up our cross and deny ourselves” (Matthew 16:24). God’s Word teaches that we have died in Christ and are to reckon or consider ourselves dead to those sinful things that once attracted us. With new life in Christ, we are also made alive to God. Romans 6:12-14 says:
Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body, that you should obey it in its lusts. And do not present your members as instruments of unrighteousness to sin, but present yourselves to God as being alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God. For sin shall not have dominion over you, for you are not under law but under grace.
These verses seem clear: if I want to conquer sin, then I need to consider my sin nature as a dead, unresponsive thing, and focus on that which is alive and from the Lord.

My reading today in God is Enough suggests one way to do it. We can look at this “I,” of whom we are so fond, as a stranger in whom we take no interest. We can say, “I do not know you” and refuse to be interested in anything that comes from, or is suggested by, that old self.

The Bible also adds what I call the ‘replacement’ principle. It is not enough to say no to sin. As Romans 6 says, I need to also say yes to God. By doing that, there is no space or time for the old nature to rule. If I am occupied with the will of God, I don’t have any inclination, energy, or reason to follow that dead stranger.

Another aspect of this is recognizing how subtle sin can be. For instance, I can be motivated by spiritual pride to “deny myself and do what God wants” because this will make me “spiritual” but this is a false and selfish “obedience” that does not please God. Living for Him is just that—living for Him, not for whatever I can get out of it.

If I put my righteousness on a pedestal as if I had something to do with it, and look down on those who are not so adept at saying no to their old nature—that attitude makes me also guilty. Self wants to rule, works hard at it, in fact. Considering this very active part of me as a dead thing is not easy. It can be done only by constantly considering that it is already done. I died with Jesus at the Cross—in Christ, I am alive, but not I; it is Christ who lives in me (Galatians 2:20).

Part of how God encourages this thinking is that He rewards those who live by it. Obedience may be frightening, difficult, even painful, but at the same time, it brings a peace and joy that do not depend on circumstances and cannot be taken away. Obedience also brings that sense of knowing that what I did pleases God; it was the right thing. I may not see any immediate results, but being dead to sin and alive to God has eternal consequences.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Jesus is the measure of truth

Christians should delight in doing God’s will and if consecrated to Him, my heart should never begrudge obedience, but something has been bothering me about the way my devotional book, God is Enough, has been emphasizing this emotional connection to what it means to be dead to sin and alive to God. Today’s reading brings out what I think is an error in the author’s thinking.

The reading says, “Dying and death are definite words and can only mean that that which is said to be “crucified,” and is therefore called dead, must be in a condition spiritually analogous to what death is physically, that is, without life or feeling or capacity to suffer. Therefore, the doing of God’s will cannot cause suffering, for the part of the being that dislikes God’s will and shrinks from doing it, is dead. Only that part is alive that loves God’s will and delights to do it.”

I’ve been taught to measure all teachings by the Person of Jesus Christ. If that teaching fits His words and life, then it is true. If not, then I need to avoid it. In this case, I question the idea that a truly spiritual person will never suffer as they willingly obey God.

When Jesus was in the Garden of Gethsemane, He struggled as I will never struggle. Doing the will of God meant that He would suffer and die, and as He contemplated this, so great was His anguish that He sweat blood. He was never unwilling, and even said, “Father, if it is Your will, take this cup away from Me; nevertheless, not my will, but Yours, be done” (Luke 22:42), yet the suffering didn’t stop with His declaration of devotion and obedience. For Jesus, doing the will of God at Calvary didn’t seem delightful.

Hebrews 5 describes what He was going through. It says that “in the days of His flesh, when He had offered up prayers and supplications with vehement cries and tears to Him who was able to save Him from death, and was heard because of His godly fear, though He was a Son, yet He learned obedience by the things which He suffered.

When I read that, I wonder what it would mean if Jesus had gone to the cross without any capacity to feel the horror of it? What if He was so detached from what was happening to Him that He didn’t even noticed any pain during this great obedience? What if Jesus had been physically and emotionally dead to suffering as this devotional reading describes?

I cannot fathom that. Would such ability to obey God without feeling any pain not say that God’s wrath on sin, even though it meant death for Jesus, was not such a big deal? Would it say that Jesus was not fully human?

Of course the new nature in Christ desires to please God and is not interesting in shrinking back from the hard stuff, but to go so far as to say that doing the hard stuff will be a delightful thing does not fit with the life of Christ, nor with His death.

Hebrews 12 says that I am to look at Jesus, “the author and finisher of my faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame.” If obedience was delightful, why use the word endure?

The next few verses say, “Consider Him who endured such hostility from sinners against Himself, lest you become weary and discouraged in your souls. You have not yet resisted to bloodshed, striving against sin.

None of that sounds to me like a walk in the park, not for Jesus and not for me. If the writer is trying to say that only the old sinful nature will suffer and struggle with obeying the will of God, then Jesus had a sinful nature. That cannot be true.

Instead, the new nature that He gave me (that is like His glorious nature), is not emotionally dead. Jesus felt emotion in His sacrificial obedience, therefore such feelings are entirely possible for me.

Besides, if obedience was so delightful and always felt so wonderful (as the devotional suggests), why then do Christians, myself included, sometimes shrink from it? I may not sweat blood, and I know that after I obey, good things will come out of it, but I can still feel the struggle of it, just as Jesus did. I cannot agree that obedience is always delightful, because Jesus sweat blood. I cannot agree that my old nature is in control every time I do not jump up and down in wild delight at the commands of God.

Beware of teaching that says to be a Christian means that as long as you gladly obey the will of God, you will not experience negatives, emotional or otherwise. This is simply not true.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Growing Up

Today’s reading in God is Enough ends with, “There are a great many Christians who look at the Christian life as I, in my childish ignorance, looked at adult life; they think religion means to give up the things they love and to do the things they hate. They call this “taking up the cross” and actually think God enjoys their grudging service.”

Along with this author, this has not been my experience either, even though God’s commands sometimes bring a big sigh from my heart. This relationship with Him is the same as falling in love. How could I hate doing things for someone that I love deeply and totally? No matter what my beloved asks of me, I might sigh at times, but if I truly love Him I will be eager and quick to do His bidding.

I’ve found it interesting that Jesus’ first miracle was turning water into wine at a wedding. While some struggle with the wine drinking thing and focus on trying to make that wine fit with their no drinking practice, I see this as Jesus announcing an important truth. He is showing me that with Him in my life I can expect joy and celebration, certainly not a life of drudging or grudging service.

In Psalm 40:8, David says, “I delight to do Your will, O my God, and Your law is within my heart.” If the law of God in his heart gave David a desire, even a delight to do God’s will, how much more should having Jesus Christ in my heart make me love serving God, not hate it or think it was hard and not much fun?

While delighting to do His will is a reality, not everything God asks is easy. I suppose my best illustration is quilt making. Some involve simple patterns that are easy to construct and easy to apply finishing touches. Others are a huge challenge and have taken me years to complete. Yet regardless of the difficulty level or length of time required, I’ve enjoyed each one. I love making quilts. Serving God is supposed to be like that, not drudgery.

The analogy in the reading is interesting too. As a child, I did think I would never cease enjoying my play. However, growing up brought change. I can still play, but I do things that I would never be interested in or capable of as a child. When I became a Christian, I knew that my life had changed, yet at that time had no idea at that time how much more He would change me. As 1 Corinthians 13:11 says, “When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a (mature person), I put away childish things.

In a relationship with Christ, desires and affections change, or they ought to. Because He lives in me, I should be content to do things that I once may have considered foolish or a waste of effort. He challenges me every day. Sometimes spiritual disciplines are often just that, disciplines, but this relationship is more like an adventure, and should never be drudgery or a reason to complain.

The devotional reading also says that because Jesus was dead to everything that was contrary to His Father’s will, He also delighted to do His will. His affections were set on just that; He came to do His Father’s will. He asks me to do the same thing. “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me(Matthew 16:24)

By doing that, I’m yielding all that childhood stuff, those things that belonged to a past life that I no longer live. Because of Him, why would I even be interested? He has produced a change and a growth.

That little girl who was once oblivious to the kingdom of her Father now knows a whole new way of living. He supplies all that I need, including the joy of obeying Him, and simply asks that I walk with Him in this new place—and grow up.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Bug or Butterfly?

Before I opened my Bible this morning, a retired woman, new to the faith and without much to do, called and asked if I wanted to come over and play a board game with her. I was supposed to go to an all-day meeting today, and it was cancelled. A fresh snowfall hides a lot of ice on the streets, so I’m glad for that cancellation. Besides, my husband just came home from a week away, and we were both glad for a good excuse to forget the usual Saturday errands, stay home and be together for the first weekend in a long while.

I’m still a bit astonished at the call. I don’t know this woman other than she took a quilt class from me. She is a bit slow mentally and found sewing too difficult, so I finished her quilt for her. She has been grateful, but other than those conversations and greetings when I see her, we haven’t had any connection.

My husband says she is probably lonely. I am not very good at sustained small talk, but am a whiz at this game. Would I be able to slow down my play (if necessary) and make the experience a good one for her? As I think about all of this, I’m wondering what God wants. Does she have problems? Is this an opportunity? Or a distraction for my already long list of responsibilities?

Instead of getting all tangled up in ‘what-ifs’ I called someone who is discipling this woman and who also knows me well. She said this lady has a large support group besides their mentoring relationships. She also reminded me to check my priorities. Not all opportunities are from the Lord. Not all needs (or wants) are my responsibility to fill.

As I tried to process this perplexing request, I realize I tend to want to ‘fix’ everything that I become aware of instead of waiting on the Lord. I have to remember that I am not the Messiah, and cannot deal with every issue. I sometimes get myself into trouble or overload simply by saying yes when I really should back off.

Today’s reading in God is Enough is about the desire of the flesh to dominate our lives and try to control everything, even try to be ‘spiritual’ and look good in front of others. That is what I see in me. However, Romans 8:7-8 says, “The carnal mind is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, nor indeed can be. So then, those who are in the flesh cannot please God.

The reading explains that those who are “in the flesh” are not people living in a body, because everyone does that. By the “flesh” or “carnal mind” the Scripture means the sinful nature in humans, that part of my nature that wants all the attention and to do all the stuff. This is that part of me that is dead to God and spiritual things, and only new life in Christ can bring me to spiritual life. Since I have that new life, I’m supposed to consider the old nature as a dead and useless thing.

The devotional author compares it to a caterpillar that dies in order to become a butterfly. Just as the caterpillar cannot live the butterfly life, so also the “flesh,” or carnal nature in us cannot live the spiritual life. I understand the difference, but this morning’s request confused me. What was going on?

The second woman that I talked to clarified it for me. She said, “You know when the Spirit is speaking to you.”

She was reminding me that I know which is the butterfly and which is the caterpillar. As she talked, I realized how my old nature wants to do it all, get all the glory, be the fixer and the center of attention. When that call came to go play a game, my old nature responded, putting the caterpillar into conflict with itself. If I said no, I might miss out on doing some great thing (?), but if I said yes, I might have a very boring day. I, meaning my old nature, didn’t know what to do.

However, as I yielded all that to God, I began to hear His Spirit speaking to me, telling me that He can take care of this lady—I need to take care of what He has already put before me today. This isn’t about whether or not I will go and play a game with whoever asks me—this is about whether or not I will listen to Him and not my creepy, crawly caterpillar.

This was also a strong reminder that in my flesh I cannot make spiritual decisions or live my spiritual life; I need to be in the Spirit all the time, even on a snowy Saturday morning, so if the phone rings, or any other curves get thrown at me, I immediately know what God wants from me—without humming and hawing and having a wrestling match with a great big bug.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Dying to be Alive

Self-sacrifice is not a popular idea, except perhaps in the sense of it being used to gain attention. In contrast, true self-sacrifice is rare. Many Christians, who should understand and practice self-denial, seldom hear it mentioned from the pulpit or read about it in popular Christian ‘how-to’ books.

Early in my Christian life I read Born Crucified by L. E. Maxwell. That book had a huge effect on my thinking, as did the books of Watchman Nee. Both talk about the fact that “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me” (Galatians 2:20).

Today’s reading in God is Enough fits in with this by scorning the popular interpretation of “cross-bearing.” While most people think it means to put up with some trial or difficulty, the author writes, “To crucify means to put to death, not to keep alive in misery. But so obscure has the subject become to the children of God, that a great many feel as if they are crucifying self when they are simply seating self on a pinnacle and tormenting it and making it miserable. They will undergo the most painful self-sacrifice and call it taking up the cross.”

Jesus did say we were supposed to do that. “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it. For what profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?” (Matthew 16:24-26).

In context it seems obvious that cross-bearing is not about unwillingly bearing a heavy burden. Jesus makes it quite clear that it is about dying to self, even literally dying, for His sake.

Other passages further clarify cross-bearing. Romans 6:5-8 says, “For if we have been united together in the likeness of His death, certainly we also shall be in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old man was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin. For he who has died has been freed from sin. Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him. . . .”

Maxwell and Nee both pointed out that the true cross consists in counting the flesh, or the “old man” as an utterly worthless thing, fit only to be put to death. This includes all the characteristics and desires of my sinful nature, both those blatant and those more subtle.

In other words, following Jesus means dying to everything that comes from that old nature. The Bible lists many “works of the flesh” and includes all expressions of pride, selfish ambition, envy, hatred, and contention. It even includes gossip and complaining, and certainly those displays of martyrdom that put self on a pedestal with “look at how much I am suffering.”

All I can think of after writing this is that I have a lot of dying to do, yet even that is not quite biblical. Galatians 2:20 says I have been crucified with Christ, and Romans 6:6 that my old nature was crucified with Him.

This dying is a done deal. When Christ died, God had put me in Him and I died too. When He rose from the dead, that new life became available to me by faith. All that remains is that I reckon myself dead to sin and alive to God, then act like it.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Food for Today

In my estimation, the book of Judges is the best description of human nature in the Bible. It tells how God’s people disobeyed Him, He allowed the consequences, they cried out to Him, He rescued them, but they soon were disobedient and the cycle repeated itself.

Logically, this makes little sense. Most people learn something from their mistakes, even if they repeat the same error a few times, but these people didn’t learn much at all. I’ve read this book with frustration, but now it just makes me sad.

I’m sad because I know the cycles too. Last week I had a problem and couldn’t figure out what I should do. I asked the Lord for help. During the course of the day, I happened to reread a piece of my own devotional writing from twenty years ago and discovered Scripture and the answer to my current problem! I was delighted, but perplexed that I’d not remembered what I’d already learned.

God gave me a fairly good memory for details. I’m good with crosswords and trivia games, and can remember household tips, computer tricks, and all sorts of other things. But when it comes to remembering spiritual truth, I seem as dense as a person can be. I know the tricks for remembering: review it, obey it, teach it to someone else, but when I need it, more often than not I have to go digging all over again.

Part of the reason for this lies in the New Testament account of Jesus fasting in the wilderness, being hungry, and then being tempted. Satan said to Him, “If You are the Son of God, command that these stones become bread.

Jesus replied, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God’” (Matthew 4:4).

I’ve studied this passage and one thing I do remember is the distinct meaning of “word” as it appears in Jesus’ answer. Normally, the New Testament uses “logos” which is loaded with meaning. The dictionary says logos is “the divine wisdom manifest in the creation, government, and redemption of the world and often identified with the second person of the Trinity” and gives as a secondary meaning, “reason that in ancient Greek philosophy is the controlling principle in the universe.” The Bible writers were inspired to use this Greek word to tell readers that Jesus is that controlling principle.

However, Jesus didn’t use logos when He replied to Satan’s taunt. He used another word, rhema. The Bible dictionary I use says it is “that which is or has been uttered by the living voice, a thing spoken” but another source says it means, “a word spoken for the need of the moment.”

I’ve also seen rhema compared to the manna in the wilderness that had to be gathered each day because it would not be edible the next day. In that Old Testament situation, God was teaching His people to rely on Him daily, never taking His supply for granted. Rhema speaks of my need to go to God every day for sustenance for my spiritual life. I cannot live by bread (physical sustenance) alone, but have a spirit that must be nourished from the Word of God, and must have something to give me what I need to meet the challenges of each day.

Twenty years ago, a word from the Lord nourished me. Last week, He fed me the same word, but not from my memory. He wanted me to ask Him for help and seek Him all over again, not draw it from a filing cabinet like a pat answer or a memorized motto.

Another reason I needed to hear that word again is found in several other verses. Jude 5 says, “But I want to remind you, though you once knew this. . . .” 2 Thessalonians 2:5 says, “Do you not remember that when I was still with you I told you these things?” 2 Peter 2:12-15 says, “I will not be negligent to remind you always of these things, though you know and are established in the present truth. Yes, I think it is right . . . to stir you up by reminding you . . . Moreover I will be careful to ensure that you always have a reminder of these things after my decease.

I get the message. Forgetfulness is not necessarily a symptom of old age or dementia. The people of God forget even those things that we were told, that we once knew, and even those truths in which we are firmly established. I am going to forget. I am probably going to forget that I will forget. God needs to remind me over and over. Such is the nature of being a sinful human being whose mind is in constant need of renewal (Romans 12:2).

This is my rhema for today, a bit of a bitter morsel, yet God offers it as food to chew on and think about today because He knows I need it in my diet and that something may come up today that this word will nourish.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

It’s a Control Thing

Last night a family member and I talked about grief. What bothered her is the fact that grief cannot be controlled. That is, a person cannot invite it in at a convenient time. Instead, grief comes to visit whenever it wishes. Any attempt to control it by not opening the door simply results in it coming the next time with greater force. To beat grief, one has to let it in and experience it. As that happens, it loses its power each time it returns.

A big part of this is the control thing. It is human nature to want to be in charge, to protect ourselves from harm and choose only those things that we think will make us safe and keep us happy. For some, this works fairly well. They go through life seemingly without needing any outside help other than their chosen network of resources.

This perplexes me only a little. As a Christian who often hears people say, “That’s fine for you but lots of people are quite happy without faith,” I know that this life is not all there is. A person might be happy and do well, but the day will come when they will leave this ‘happy’ place and stand before God. The question then will be, “What did you do with my Son?” Christianity is about eternity too, maybe even eternity first of all.

It is with eternity in mind that I’m trying to live my life. I also try to keep in mind that I can be derailed by my propensity to want to be in control of everything, to choose my own way, to select those things that I think will make me happy. This is where God says to me that I must trust Him with those choices, and let Him determine what is best for me. He clearly tells me, “Do not quench the Spirit” (1 Thessalonians 5:19). If I throw cold water on His instructions and guidance, I will regret it.

Today’s reading in God is Enough is about those choices I’ve been making regarding my possessions—which to toss and which to keep. It suggests that having stuff is not the issue, but who controls the stuff? Then it says, “The most unsafe person in the universe to have charge of my things is myself; and never do I possess them so firmly as when I have transferred them into the hands of God. Never am I so sure of my money as when I have transferred it out of my unsafe pockets into the safe custody of a trustworthy bank; and the same thing is true as regards the abandonment of all I possess into the custody of God.”

I agree that having things is not a sin, but letting them dictate my life is. While I am cleaning house, I need to pay attention to the still small voice of the Lord. I have some things that haven’t been used in years still sitting on a shelf. I feel no freedom to toss then or give them away. Is this the Holy Spirit telling me to wait? It seems so, and I’ve no idea why. Perhaps down the road He will ask me to do something with it?

I can see that having stuff and cleaning house can also be a control thing. Who is in charge of what goes and what stays? Will I let the Holy Spirit tell me what to do with it? Or will I determine what is best? Will I trust that He knows more about me and the future than I do? Or will I decide that my reasoning is as reliable as His omniscience? Out of habit, I’ve chosen my own way, but the reliability of that way is starting to be revealed; I’ve far too much stuff.

In every area of life, the Holy Spirit is a bit like grief—I cannot predict His visits. I never know when He will drop-in and tell me to change direction or do this or stop doing that. This week He has been after me about cluttered spaces. Who knows what He will point out next? All I know is that I must pay attention, not try to quench Him or silence Him.

The big difference between His visits and grief, is that part about yielding. If I yield to the Lord, His little knock at my door does not weaken with the next visit. Instead, as I open the door and do what He says, the next time He becomes stronger and easier to hear.