Friday, October 31, 2008

Seeking Meekness

Meek is not a popular word. It brings to mind a cowering soul that is afraid of her own shadow; a doormat, if not a dormouse, that allows everyone to walk all over her. But this is not biblical meekness.

Today I’m reading Zephaniah 2. It is a call to God’s people for repentance. They are warned of impending judgment and the only way to escape it is by turning from their sin to God seeking forgiveness.

He also tells those who do follow Him that they must continue. Verse 3 says, “Seek the Lord, all you meek of the earth, who have upheld His justice. Seek righteousness, seek humility. It may be that you will be hidden in the day of the Lord’s anger.

If meekness were of the doormat type, then the meek could never uphold the justice of the Lord. For one thing, those who are trembling and fearful simply cannot take the steps necessary to stop powerful or greedy people from abusing those who are weak and needy.

A clue to the real meaning of meek is in the phrase, “Seek righteousness, seek humility.” A meek person is not doing their own thing nor promoting or protecting themselves. Instead, if I am meek, I will not worry about my own needs, but be focused on the will of God.

I’ve heard several other definitions. One is “strength under control” — like a powerful horse that is tamed and guided by a small bit in its mouth. Nelson’s Bible Dictionary says it is “an attitude of humility toward God and gentleness toward people, springing from a recognition that God is in control.”

Weakness and meekness may look similar, but they are not the same. Weakness is due to negative circumstances, such as lack of strength or lack of courage, but meekness is a choice. It is “strength and courage under control, coupled with kindness.”

Moses was meek; Jesus was meek. God values meekness. He says in 1 Peter that Jesus, “when He was reviled, did not revile in return; when He suffered, He did not threaten, but committed Himself to Him who judges righteously. . . .” Jesus went to the cross trusting God in that horrible situation and for the outcome. Because He was meek, I have eternal life!

A few verses later, women are told not to focus on outward beauty, but on “the hidden person of the heart, with the incorruptible beauty of a meek and quiet spirit, which is very precious in the sight of God” (1 Peter 3:4).

The author of my devotional book says that meekness is discovered when I recognize and confess the opposite. That is, I need to know when I am not meek to figure out what it is like to be meek.

The opposite is human pride, the sense of “I can” and boasting, but it is also more than that. It is any sense of self-righteousness, and that “false fire” that I might mistake for the light and fire of God’s Spirit! His justice is not established by human zeal.

Therefore, whenever I feel an excited temper, anger, strife, envy, and jealousy in my heart, or contend for my own views in my own spirit with rash and unbecoming words rather than for the glory of God, I am not meek. However, when I realize that these things are contrary to the spirit of the gospel and the gentleness of Jesus Christ, then I begin to get a grasp of meekness.

Further, I learn this through events that provoke me. As my readings say, a husband can be very meek while his wife and children are doing everything to please him, but where is his meekness when they thwart and provoke him? It goes both ways. I can be very meek when things go my way, but how do I react when they do not?

As I read this morning, I realize how much the “knowledge of the disease makes me desire the remedy.” Meekness is that inner contentment that listens to the Holy Spirit and only rises up if God says so.

Jesus said “Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30).

That light burden has meekness written all over it. Besides being a rest for my soul, being gentle (also translated meek) is a blessing that keeps me close to Him, yoked with Him, working beside Him.

Zephaniah 2:3 says that meekness protects me from the judgment of God, yet David said, “You have also given me the shield of Your salvation; Your gentleness (meekness) has made me great” (2 Samuel 22:36).

I think David’s words go even farther. Besides being a shield that protects me from God’s anger over my pride and sinful self, meekness has the potential to make me into a far better person.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

He took my place

Harper’s magazine once carried a story about a woman with a good job who decided the only way to write a credible story about people living on the edge of poverty was to go there. She spent considerable time working a minimum wage job, living in the only place she could afford, and experiencing all that a poor person experiences. She didn’t steal or cheat to make things better for herself, but I’m sure she was tempted.

As I listen to political candidates who have more than enough personal income talk about what they will do for low-income people, I wonder if this woman ran for office would she wind up with the most votes?

Condolences and encouragement also come with more credibility from a person who has “been there” and knows what I am experiencing. Putting the shoe on the other foot, I hardly know what to say to someone whose loss or trauma is beyond the scope of my experiences. Shared experiences form bonds like nothing else can.

God knew this. When He devised a plan for our salvation, it had to include a mediator that had been there, One who knew what life is like for us who sin and are condemned by God because of it. This Savior must be able to relate to ordinary people who are tempted and who face the many other trials of living in this world. At the same time, He must not have any sin of His own lest He fall into the same condemnation as everyone else.

Toward the end of a passage that speaks of Jesus sharing in flesh and blood, Hebrews 2:17 says, “Therefore, in all things He had to be made like His brethren, that He might be a merciful and faithful High Priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people.

Jesus had to be like us. He could not appear from heaven as a knight in shining armor with the power to slash sin out of our lives. He could not come as an angel or any other entity, for if He had done that, we would surely say, “But you don’t know what it is like to be a human. You have no idea how hard it is to resist all this temptation.”

Jesus was like us. Hebrews 4:15 says, “For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin.” He knows exactly what we struggle with. The only difference is that He refused to give in, and it was that difference that qualified Him to stand in our place before God and take our punishment.

Propitiation is a seldom used word with a meaning that focuses on God rather than us or the action Jesus took to save us. This word is about “the removal of wrath by the offering of a gift,” which is not a popular thought even among theologians.

The trend today is that “God is love” and no one wants to consider His anger. However, the Bible says He is “angry with the wicked every day” (Psalm 7:11). While a “gentle and mild” Jesus is more popular, that same Jesus also stormed into the temple with a whip and turned over the tables of the money changers. God still hates sin.

Propitiation is about the atoning death of Jesus on the cross through which He paid the penalty demanded by God because of my sin, thus setting me free from sin and death. The word means “appeasement” and expresses the idea that Jesus died to pay the price for my sin, a price demanded by a holy God. Jesus was free of sin Himself, yet He took all my sins upon Himself and redeemed me from the penalty of death that my sins demanded.

As I think about it, Jesus came to be like me and experience all that I experience, temptations for sure, but also hunger, fatigue, loneliness, being misunderstood, and so on. He didn’t stop there; He also went beyond that to experience something that should happen to me — the wrath of God over my sin — but because He did that, I will never have to experience it.

After more than thirty-five years of knowing this truth, the reality of what Jesus has done for me still brings tears of joy to my eyes and deep gratitude to my heart.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

I am rich

In the early seventies when I met Jesus, I was living on a farm that my first husband had signed over to me rather than pay support after our divorce. It was a good deal in the long run, but on the short term, those were lean days.

My children remember eating a lot of macaroni and cheese, not the boxed kind (it was too expensive); I made it from scratch. Each week my parents went to the city for groceries. I gave them my list and the pitiful amount of money that I could afford. They respected my efforts, but added a few extra items out of their pocket.

One year I bought a hunting licence. I didn’t hunt or even have a gun, but my neighbor did, and I knew about a leaking granary where a herd of deer had lunch every day. That winter, we had grain-fed venison in our freezer. The rest of the time, it was pretty much a hand to mouth life.

After Christ came into my life, I was still poor. I remarried, and my new husband was in debt. We used cardboard boxes for night tables and stayed thin because we didn’t have enough food to become fat. All things stayed lean for several years.

Then my husband met Christ. We were living in California at the time, and fortunate enough to attend Grace Community Church and sit under the teaching of John MacArthur. My husband learned about tithing and in faith began to give 10 percent of his gross wages. Logically, it makes no sense to give away money when you don’t have enough, but that is when the raises started. Each time my husband increased his giving, his employer raised his salary. This was in the early 80s.

Now, nearly thirty years later, we find ourselves financially blessed and easily able to share what we have. We got rid of those cardboard boxes a long time ago. In fact, we gave away their replacements (and the rest of the bedroom furniture that went with them) to our grandson last year. Our freezer is full and every day we thank God for taking care of us with such abundance.

I know that this is not always the way. Some Christians in some parts of the world do not have two cars and a nice home. Some Christians live in fear for their lives as well. I also know that Satan tempted Jesus with the “things of the world” so my heart is in constant danger of being swept away by the “cares and riches of this world.” Money can ruin loyalty to the Lord

Would I be happy with less? I’ve thought about that as I pack up boxes of things that we no longer use or need so they can be given to someone who does need them. My answer is yes. Back in those days of having almost nothing, the joy of the Lord was in my heart. He gives happiness. Possessions might do that for a time, but it never lasts. The excitement of “new” quickly fades. The joy of Jesus is always with me.

This morning’s reading reminds me of the blessedness of God’s care, not that He promises abundance, but when a person’s heart is right with Him, He gives us contentment. Psalm 37:16 says, “A little that a righteous man has is better than the riches of many wicked.” I agree. I’ve been happy with little. It isn’t the stuff that makes me happy; it is the Giver.

Not only that, stuff does not last. Those first night tables that we were finally able to afford are no longer ours. Other things have worn out, or become obsolete. Things can be stolen, or ruined by one thing or another. The riches of this world fly away.

But I notice a promise from God a couple of verses later. Psalm 37:18 says, “The Lord knows the days of the upright, and their inheritance shall be forever.

This inheritance is not physical property or bankable bucks. It is eternal life, and includes the promise that all my needs will be most gloriously met. With Jesus, there will be no more sorrow, pain or tears.

There will also be no more ads and flyers, consumer surveys, bills to pay, cars to upkeep, or furniture to dust. I won’t have to rent a carpet steamer or haul the vacuum cleaner up and down stairs. I also will not need to stack anything in a corner because the bookshelf is too full.

The “little” that I have here is just that; little compared to the riches of glory. The things that I have here will fade, rust, pass on to someone else, but the inheritance I receive — because Jesus died — will always be mine. For this, I am most thankful.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Amazing Grace

Last week a Christian woman offered to help with an outreach ministry. Her offer was generous, and totally unexpected. When I thanked her, she said, “Doing this seems the most natural thing to do. This is why I am here.”

When I read today’s devotional from Ears from Harvested Sheaves, I thought of her and what she did, and how she illustrates the grace of God.

Today’s verses are from Exodus. God tells Moses to take His people from Sinai where they received His commandments, and lead them to the land He has promised them. Moses responded, “If I have found grace in Your sight, show me now Your way, that I may know You and that I may find grace in Your sight.
And He said, “My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” Then he said to Him, “If Your Presence does not go with us, do not bring us up from here. For how then will it be known that Your people and I have found grace in Your sight, except You go with us? So we shall be separate, Your people and I, from all the people who are upon the face of the earth.” (Exodus 33:14-16)
I’d never thought about this in these terms, but the reading points out that grace is always “found.” I know that it is not earned, merited, or worked into, but the term “found” is a good one. It is like the New Testament parable Jesus told about a man who found treasure hid in a field. As the author of my reading explains, this man was not thinking about the treasure, but just ploughing this field with no idea that there was “gold beneath the clods.”

Suddenly, and without expecting it, the man discovered treasure. Jesus said that for joy, he went and sold all he had so he could buy that field.

This is how grace is found. It came to me suddenly, unexpectedly, like a treasure which I had no previous concept of until it appeared. No one could have prepared me, or told me to look, or even described the way to find it, but when grace came into my heart, I found that I had a treasure worth all that I owned and more. What joy!

The song, Amazing Grace, has two lines about this discovery. One is, “I once was lost but now am found” in the sense that grace found me. The second line is, “How precious did that grace appear, the hour I first believed.”

Grace appears. It is discovered treasure, not an hour-by-hour earned reward. Part of the joy and even the value of it is the surprise by which it is found, and the marvelous realization that when I found it, I realized that God had found me.

Monday, October 27, 2008

God loves me even when I stray

In Christian circles, the term backslider refers to people who have confessed faith in Jesus Christ and begun their walk with God, but have turned away, no longer going to church and appearing to be uninterested in serving the Lord as they once did.

The reasons (or excuses) are many. For some, life becomes too busy and in deciding their priorities, God gets moved to the bottom of the list. For others, someone in the church has done something they did not expect, want or appreciate so they angrily stay away. Some get mad at God because they think life is not fair. Some are lured away by false teachers. Whatever the reason, God is zealous toward them and wants them to return to the faith He gave them.

The most notable example in the Bible is the nation of Israel. Their biggest problem was idolatry, not a surprise because the world around them was steeped in idol worship. To remain faithful to God in such a setting was simply more than they could do.

Yet God held them accountable to do it, sent prophet after prophet to warn them, and finally allowed a nation worse than they were to conquer them and take them into captivity. After seventy years in Babylon, Israel stopped their idol worship and turned back to their faith. (In fact, their faith was so strong that it lasted four hundreds years, or at least a half dozen generations, from the last Old Testament prophet until Jesus was born.)

I cannot condemn backsliders. I know the challenges of staying the course and remaining zealous for the Lord who saved me. I also know the sinfulness of my heart and how easy it is to turn to my own ways, doing whatever pleases me and ignoring God.

The amazing part of this is that God is patient with backsliders. He warns, challenges, and works to restore those who fall away, even though our sin makes Him both sad and angry. As a Father who loves His children, He says:
For I will not contend forever, nor will I always be angry; for the spirit would fail before Me, and the souls which I have made. For the iniquity of his covetousness I was angry and struck him; I hid and was angry, and he went on backsliding in the way of his heart. I have seen his ways, and will heal him; I will also lead him, and restore comforts to him and to his mourners. “I create the fruit of the lips: Peace, peace to him who is far off and to him who is near,” Says the Lord, “And I will heal him” (Isaiah 57:16-19).
As I read these verses, I’m struck with one phrase, “I will . . . restore comforts to him and to his mourners.” This is a revelation of the heart of God. He is not jealous just for His own sake (even though He is entirely worthy of our devotion and worship), but cares deeply about His people. He knows that when we love and obey Him, we are at our best in that all that we do, and also our lives have meaning, purpose and significance. It is in living as we were created to live that we find our truest joy — and God wants that for His children.

The other part of this phrase encourages me. I’m not turned away from God (even though I have at times), but do feel as if I am one of those who mourn over those who are backslidden. Because His great heart is both sorrowful and angry when His people foolishly stray, and because His Spirit lives in me, I suppose that some of what I feel are His feelings transferred to my heart. I know His desire for restoration, and I know His sorrow and frustration. Because I’m sad and even mourn the loss (albeit temporary) of His children’s devotion, God’s great heart considers my grief and promises to comfort me too.

In realizing how God thinks and how much He loves His people, I am both humbled and revived with increasing desire to love and serve Him forever.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Faith is good, but faith in what?

While living in a smaller city, I participated in a house-to-house survey. We were asking people if they should die that day and stood before God and He asked them, “Why should I let you into my heaven?” what would they say?

Most people claimed that they lived good lives and thought that would be sufficient. While this falls short of the biblical answer, I was not surprised to hear it. Because sin is essentially turning from God and doing our own thing, trying to earn heaven by our goodness is a predictable response.

However, one person said something that I’d not heard before. She said she would go to heaven “because of my faith.” We asked further. She explained that she believed she would be there, and her belief was her grounds for eternal life. She did not mention Jesus Christ or His death on the cross. When asked what would happen if she stopped believing, she said she would not be able to go to heaven. In other words, her faith was the virtue that she depended on for eternal life. She wasn’t interested in what Jesus had done for her.

“My faith will save me” sounded good and took me a few days to sort out what she had told us. The Bible says faith by itself isn’t enough; we must also demonstrate our faith by what we do. Yet that wasn’t the explanation that made sense of her claim. Finally, after study and prayer, I began to realize that faith by itself cannot exist. Faith must have an object, something that is believed in and relied upon. In this woman’s case, her faith was in her faith.

I thought of her this morning when I read this verse: “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful” (Hebrews 10:23).

God wants people to believe, but the sentence cannot end there. The blank to fill in is “to believe in _________” What does He want me to pin my hopes on? Obviously, in this verse hope is in a promise that God has made and in the fact that He is faithful to keep His promises.

Faith always has an object, a something that is grounds for its existence. Is it faith in a religious organization? In spiritual leaders? In a denomination or a creed? A more important question is asking if those things give anyone an entrance to eternal life.

Another object of faith could be the Scripture. Are we saved by faith in the Bible? I read another passage this morning where Jesus said, “You search the Scriptures, for in them you think you have eternal life; and these are they which testify of Me. But you are not willing to come to Me that you may have life” (John 5:39-40).

It struck me that even though we find out about Jesus through reading Scripture and we know about eternal life and need the Word of life to inform and sustain faith, it is Jesus that gives life and our faith must be in Him, not just in the Bible, or His teachings, or the creeds, or even in His promises.

Apart from Jesus, all these things are just words and dogma. He is the grounds for and the object of Christian faith. Without Him, there would be no heaven, no eternal life, nothing for me to hope or believe in, no matter how much faith I could muster.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

I am known . . .

At a writer’s conference in Grand Rapids, MI, author Walter Wangerin Jr. described standing on a cliff in Alaska as an eagle flew near him. At that moment, the eagle turned and looked him straight in the eye. He described the sense of connection, almost as if the eagle knew him, and as our goose bumps rose, he went on to describe the importance of knowing that we are known, that someone knows and understands us, and that God who loves us also looks at us with the eye of an eagle.

I’ve had that same “I am known” experience reading Gabor Maté’s book, Scattered Minds and realizing that he was writing about me. He described things I’d never articulated or even understood until he put my inner life into words. I felt released, unburdened, and relieved to realize that someone knew about my mental struggles with attention deficit issues.

Yet God does this for me all the time, almost every day for every part of my life. When I read His Word, He speaks to me and tells me things about myself, many of which I would never otherwise know. The Bible describes itself as having this ability:
For the word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart. And there is no creature hidden from His sight, but all things are naked and open to the eyes of Him to whom we must give account. (Hebrews 4:12-13)

One of Job’s comforters, Elihu, knew this was true. He said, “For His eyes are on the ways of man, And He sees all his steps. There is no darkness nor shadow of death where the workers of iniquity may hide themselves” (Job 34:21-22).

The average person who does not know God through faith in Jesus Christ is unaware of this. They do not realize that God’s eyes see right through all pretense to examine every motive and desire. Because they don’t know about the eye of the Eagle, they assume that outward performance will suffice. That is, if they “live a good life” they will pass muster on judgment day. Worse, they go through life not knowing the God who understands them totally.

Christians know better. We know that God isn’t interested in what we do on the outside as much as He cares about the heart. In His mind, if a “good” deed is motivated by selfish interest, it is a bad deed. Yet more than that, we know that God knows us. This is a precious thing, and the reason why the psalmist wrote:
O Lord, You have searched me and known me. You know my sitting down and my rising up; You understand my thought afar off. You comprehend my path and my lying down, And are acquainted with all my ways. For there is not a word on my tongue, But behold, O Lord, You know it altogether. You have hedged me behind and before, And laid Your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; It is high, I cannot attain it. (Psalm 139:1-6)
This is also why Paul called himself the worst of sinners. On the outside, he may have looked like a good man, and he certainly appeared to be the finest example of a Christian after he met Jesus, yet he knew his own heart. God’s light had opened his eyes and he could see his own heart the way God saw it.

My devotional reading today says that when a Christian is so enlightened and carries this inner conviction that the eye of God reads every thought, then every inward twinge of pride and self-righteousness, every rebellion and discontent, all peevishness and fretfulness, all lust and wantonness. The eye of God not only reads and marks it all, but also condemns it all by His righteous law, and because He is so pure, hates and abhors it all.

Christians, above all people, know that we are sinners before God. We know that our sin is deeper and worse than anyone else can see or know. We are aware that even though others may have sinned more deeply and grossly regarding outward acts, no one could have sinned inwardly more disgustingly and continually than we have sinned. Because of this, we hate our sin as God hates it.

Job came to this conclusion too. At the end of his great trial, he met with God and his eyes were opened by the eye of the Eagle. He then said, “I have heard of You by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees You. Therefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:5-6).

When God turns on His light, I can see Him, but I can also see myself. As bad as that often is, I prefer the Light and His eyes. I want to be known and I want Him to know me. I never want to be in darkness again.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Rescued from the body of death

Today’s devotional reading brings me back to Romans 7:24, “O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?

As I read this verse, I remembered my own time of feeling like that, as if my sin was clinging to me like a leech and sucking the life out of me.

Tradition says that Paul may have had a more disgusting image in mind when he wrote this. Apparently an ancient tribe near Tarsus (where Paul was born) tied the corpse of a murder victim to its murderer. As the corpse decayed, the decay spread to infect and execute the murderer. How awful, yet do I see sin as vividly destructive as that? I should.

The reading says it well, so I’ll share it (slightly edited). My thoughts are the same.
If the Holy Spirit has implanted that cry in my soul, “O wretched man that I am!” then the next words will follow as a necessary consequence — “Who shall deliver me from the body of this death?”

Where shall I look for deliverance? From what quarter can it come? Shall I look to the law? O no! That curses and condemns me, because I am continually breaking it. Can I look to friends? They may pity and sympathize, but they cannot remove the body of sin and death; it is too fast linked for them to remove. Shall I go to ministers of truth? I may hear what they say with approval, but there is something more needed to remove this chilling embrace of the body of sin and death. Shall I look to the Scriptures? They contain the remedy, but I want that remedy to be applied. “Who then shall deliver me?” What refuge can I look to? Whither can I go, or whither shall I turn? From what quarter can help or deliverance come?

See the embarrassment! View the perplexity of a convicted soul—looking here and looking there; turning to the right hand and turning to the left. Yet from one quarter only can the deliverance come.
The author goes on, adding that when Paul was brought to this low spot where he anxiously turned his eyes to every quarter to see where his deliverance could come—God blessed his soul with a view of His precious Son. The Holy Spirit worked in his heart that living faith, giving him the gift and ability to see Jesus as Savior and Lord.

While being in such a desperate state has no charm or appeal, it is a wonderful thing to realize that Jesus is the answer to my deepest spiritual needs.

Medical update: The gift of eight hours sleep does wonders. Thank You, Lord, for rest.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

I’m my own worst enemy

Even though Paul wrote that a Christian’s battle is “not against flesh and blood” some days it seems like it. I don’t mean the flesh and blood of other people; I’m talking about my own.

My enemies are “the world, the flesh, and the devil” not always in that order. The devil with his lies appeals to my flesh with its desires and these conflict with the Holy Spirit speaking to my spirit about obedience. Stir in the circumstances in my world, and the war begins.

Today’s temptation is a pity party; turn inward and feel sorry for myself. My face is swollen, black and blue, and hard as a stone. It hurts only a little yet I’m having trouble thinking about anything else. I’m not to neglect it (ice, heat, antibiotics, rest, etc.) yet the Holy Spirit isn’t about to sanction a full-blown, poor-me day.

This doesn’t seem like a big deal. What’s wrong with curling up in a ball and indulging myself? Not a great deal unless the prayers I would otherwise pray today don’t get prayed. Not a great deal unless this is a pattern of life that the Lord would like changed.

I once had an art teacher who went out winter and summer to paint landscapes. After showing a painting he’d done outside at minus 40 degrees, we wondered why he bothered. He said, “If I let the weather keep me from painting, pretty soon I will never go out to paint.”

His words echo back now and then because they apply to all my procrastination. If I let my mood keep my from cleaning the house, pretty soon I will never clean it. It I let my seeming lack of imagination keep me from creating, pretty soon I will never create. If I let my aches and pains keep me from serving others or even praying for them, pretty soon I will never serve or even pray.

Paul also struggled with this flesh vs. spirit thing. He wrote about it in Romans 7:
I find then a law, that evil is present with me, the one who wills to do good. For I delight in the law of God according to the inward man. But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members. O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? I thank God—through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, with the mind I myself serve the law of God, but with the flesh the law of sin. (Romans 7:21-25)
For some, the answer might be to pretend that this conflict is not there. “Oh, I’m fine. I can do everything, no problem.” Paul didn’t do that. He acknowledged that his flesh had other ideas than what God wanted. He realized that this was the condition of being a Christian still on earth; we are stuck with this old nature and since it still wants to run the show, we need to battle it with the power God gives us. This power is found in Jesus Christ, my Lord. He will give me what I need to live for Him, no matter what is going on in my life.

This power can only come through confession, not “trying harder” or “pulling up my socks” or acting as if there is no problem. Jesus says He will forgive and cleanse me (1 John 1:9). Forgiveness for selfish indulgence is wonderful as it removes that sense of guilt, but cleansing is no less amazing. God not only washes my sin from His records, but opens my life for the power of Christ. Instead of my sinful flesh being in control, I can face each day in the power of the Holy Spirit.

What will that mean this day, in a practical sense? It will mean that I can be genuinely thankful for what is going on in my life (healing, for one thing), and that I can consider others. I may not have the energy or physical strength yet to do any physical service for others, but I can pray for them, maybe even get on the telephone and call a few to encourage them.

As Paul says, in my flesh “dwells no good thing” but I don’t have to live in the bondage of my flesh. Because of Jesus, I can serve the Lord.

Medical update (which I wrote before the above): The stiffness and a dull pain prevented a good night’s sleep. I should have taken one of those big pink pills before retiring. The swelling is hard as a rock today, quite uncomfortable and distracting.
Later addition: However, as the Lord leads me, because of His love and grace, I don’t need to have a pity-party to replace my usual time of prayer.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Name it and claim it?

When I became a Christian, I thought that God would be something like my dad. I had been a sick child and my parents were told I would not live beyond sixteen, so my dad gave me most of what I wanted. Of course I soon discovered that God is not like that. While He supplies everything I need, He is not a genie in a bottle or my personal servant.

That experience makes me sensitive to the fact that many people come to God with expectations, and their desires are often so strong that they read them into every promise in the Bible. They assume God is there to grant them all their wishes and fulfill all their hopes. Some even say that if you are not getting what you want, it is because you don’t have enough faith, or because Satan has you bound. Many subscribe to what is called a “name it and claim it” philosophy, but this is not faith in God as the wise and sovereign Lord of their lives, but a ‘faith’ that wants God to be their personal servant.

In my own life, this notion at first seemed a childish idea of God. Many children adopt it, sometimes unconsciously, since their father is the human in their life with the most power and authority. However, as I grew in my faith and in my knowledge of God and of myself, I realized that thinking this way was just another way to be selfish. My dad didn’t always let me have my own way, or let me do my own thing, but if I could get God to do what I wanted, I would retain control of my life. Who then is the god in this arrangement?

This is not to say God is a meanie and will never give me anything that I desire. It simply means that I do not pull His strings. Israel is an example. That nation was God’s choice to bring His truth to the world. However, they were not obedient to Him, so He sent them into captivity where they learned some valuable lessons. He also sent a prophet to tell them what would happen to them after that experience:
For thus says the Lord: After seventy years are completed at Babylon, I will visit you and perform My good word toward you, and cause you to return to this place. For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, says the Lord, thoughts of peace and not of evil, to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon Me and go and pray to Me, and I will listen to you. And you will seek Me and find Me, when you search for Me with all your heart. I will be found by you, says the Lord, and I will bring you back from your captivity; I will gather you from all the nations and from all the places where I have driven you, says the Lord, and I will bring you to the place from which I cause you to be carried away captive (Jeremiah 29:10-14).
God’s greatest desire for His people is not plush comfort, but freedom from the bondage of sin and rebellion. He knows what is best for me; He created me. He also knows how to produce in me a desire to love and follow Him. Sometimes that requires hardship for me, but in the end, I will not only call on Him and find Him, but I will enjoy Him and enter into that abundant life that Jesus promised.

In other words, God works in my life to produce obedience with a Christlike attitude, and this is a priority over riches, comfort, even health. While not every poor or sick person is being disciplined by the Lord, that cannot be ruled out. Neither can anyone postulate that God wants all of us wealthy and healthy. We will be that—in heaven, but this is not heaven.

In fact, if I were never sick, never in pain, never in trouble, totally exempt from trials, then I would have reason to be greatly concerned. The Bible says:
“My son, do not despise the chastening of the Lord, Nor be discouraged when you are rebuked by Him; For whom the Lord loves He chastens, And scourges every son whom He receives. If you endure chastening, God deals with you as with sons; for what son is there whom a father does not chasten? But if you are without chastening, of which all have become partakers, then you are illegitimate and not sons” (Hebrews 12:5-8).
On the other side of the coin, consider Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. Satan promised the Lord everything in this world if He would just worship and follow him. When I want everything in this life, and think that God somehow owes me or will give it to me, who am I really following? Scarey thought.

Medical update: At bedtime last night the colors began to appear. This morning the side of my face is swollen and in various shades of green and black. Still very little pain though, for which I am thankful.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

All things are mine

Anyone who believes in a sovereign God eventually has to come to the realization that this affects them personally. It means that He controls everything that happens to me, and that He is able to supply all my needs.

In 1 Corinthians, Paul writes to a church that is in conflict over several things. One of their issues is boasting about the leader they follow. One says Paul, one says Apollos, and the ‘extremely pious’ claim, “I follow Christ.” They think this is wise, but Paul rebukes them for their foolishness.
Let no one deceive himself. If anyone among you seems to be wise in this age, let him become a fool that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God. For it is written, “He catches the wise in their own craftiness” and again, “The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise, that they are futile.” Therefore let no one boast in men. For all things are yours (1 Corinthians 3:18-21).
My study Bible says, “All believers share equally in God’s most important and valuable provisions and glories; human boasting, therefore, is ludicrous as well as sinful.”

In other words, because I belong to a sovereign God, no Christian is richer (or poorer) than I am. A person’s task or prominence in God’s kingdom or Christ’s church does not matter. If I need something (not just according to my mind but in the mind of God), He provides it. If I don’t need something, including catastrophe or pain or trials, then He prevents it. My devotional reading sums it up so well that I’m copying it here, slightly edited and made personal:
Whatever there is in heaven or in earth that can be for my spiritual good, all is mine because I am an heir of God and a joint-heir with Christ. The silver and the gold and the cattle upon a thousand hills are all Christ’s because all power is given to Him in heaven and in earth. Whatever my temporal wants may be, He can supply them, because He is king on earth as well as in heaven. Whatever enemies I might have, He is able to defeat them; whatever evils may press upon me, He is able to subdue them; whatever sorrows surround me, He is able to console me under them. Everything in time, in eternity, in this world and in the world to come, is all available to me because I am an heir of God and a joint-heir with Christ.
What a good thought for today, and for every day!

Medical update: People are praying for me and God is answering. First of all, the stitches and swelling and “after surgery” booklet say I should be having severe pain, but so far all I have is some swelling. Also, my body knows that the infection is gone. With that battle over, the rest of me feels surprisingly good. Thank You, Jesus.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Listening

Last night I peeked at today’s devotional verse to give me something to think about this morning. I had to be up and leave the house too early for my usual routine. The verse seemed appropriate for what I was about to experience.

Hosea 2:14 says, “Therefore, behold, I will allure her, will bring her into the wilderness, and speak comfort to her.

In the Bible, wilderness can be about escaping from enemies, or it can be about God taking me somewhere where I am alone so He can speak to my heart. In my case, perhaps my wilderness was going to be in that dental surgeon’s chair and I certainly wanted God to speak comfort to me; however, such an interpretation would take the verse entirely out of context.

Hosea is a prophet from God who is speaking to a rebellious nation. He tells them the words of God and God’s intentions toward them. For these rebels, the wilderness was a place where He could get their attention and correct their behavior.

As scary as that sounds, for them and for me, this verse does say something about God. Even in correcting His people, God speaks comfort. He also speaks to the heart.

The author of my devotional says, “Men may speak to the ear, and they can do no more, but God speaks to the heart, for it is there that His voice alone is heard.”

He goes on to explain that all religion first and last lies in the human heart. I could have my head filled with good, even godly ideas, but my heart could be destitute of grace. Yet because I am a vessel of God’s Mercy, I have “believed with the heart unto righteousness” and I can hear the voice of God speaking to my heart. What a wonderful gift!

The devotional author adds that it is in the wilderness where I can learn the deep necessity that God should speak to my heart. In ordinary life, busyness and distractions, even serving the Lord, can keep me from hearing Him speak even though I want Him to talk to me and speak those words that reach my heart. I know that if He takes me away from those distractions to a place where there is no friend, no help, no worldly comfort, then I am more apt to hear Him.

When a Christian is separated from the world by trials and afflictions or experiencing an onslaught of temptations, God is at work showing us that nothing but His voice speaking with power will give any solid ground for rest or peace. It may be painful, but it is profitable because such experiences teach us to look to the Lord and the Lord alone.

This morning I felt as if He carried me through my surgery. I had a bridge removed, a tooth pulled, a massive infection cleaned from under it, extensive bone grafts, and two implants inserted into my jaw, all in about an hour. The freezing is just starting to come out.

Will the pain that I feel coming be a wilderness experience? Maybe. But even if it is, I am counting on God. If He takes me into the wilderness, He will also bring me out, yet while I am there, He promises to speak comfort to me.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Spiritual war is not Christians fighting each other

Character is from the heart, not an external thing. I’ve heard said that who I am is measured by what I am like when no one is looking. Because I am a Christian, who I am is certainly measured by what I am like with other Christians.

Most of the New Testament is about living the Christian life in community. While it tells me how I should behave with my unsaved neighbors, the assumption is, if I get it right with the family of God, I will be okay in every other area.

Even as I write that I’m thinking, But isn’t it easy to fake it at church? I’ve known people whose demeanor and behavior, to all appearances, seemed great, but their lives were filled with sinful secrets. That seems backwards, yet the key is that for Christians, those things never stay secrets. They become known, are a total embarrassment to the church, and put off a lot of people who might otherwise be interested in following Jesus. God will not lest us away with hiding our sins.

This illustrates the importance of integrity and being honest with one another. It also illustrates that Christians are just as susceptible to sin and hypocrisy as anyone else, maybe more so. We have the power of God on our side and any time that our spiritual enemy, Satan, can get us to act like idiots, he strikes a blow against our credibility and the reputation of our Savior.

In a passage that points out that our foe is not “flesh and blood” but “principalities, powers, rulers of the darkness of this age, and spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places,” I’m told to take up the armor of God so I can stand against whatever these spiritual enemies throw at me. Because I’m reading this today, Sunday, I’m thinking of how Satan tries to ruin my experience of corporate worship and fellowship with His people by getting me to drop my armor just because I’m going to church.

The battle against evil is won only by using the right weapons. While the armor includes the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the shield of faith and so on, there is only one offensive weapon and one way to use it. Paul writes,
And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God; praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, being watchful to this end with all perseverance and supplication for all the saints. . . . (Ephesians 6:17-18)
I’ve been years trying to learn how to pray using Scripture and even more years realizing that I must. When thoughts come to my head that are part of what the Bible calls Satan’s “devices” or “schemes” the only way to drive them away is with God’s thoughts from His Word. When Jesus was tempted in the wilderness (Matthew 4), each time He answered His foe with Scripture.

For me, the idea isn’t that I hear an evil suggestion and start yelling out verses. Rather, the way to use this weapon is described in these verses from Ephesians 6. When I pray, in fact when all Christians pray, we pray using the Word of God. I also note another thing; our priority in prayer is for one another.

Doing this would put an end to all church fights. How can anyone be at odds with the people they are persistently praying for with “all prayer and supplication”? It would keep our focus on our true battle. Instead of petty arguments about all sorts of stuff, we would have our priorities in line with the will of God.

I’m not sure why God is giving me this morning, but I am sure that when I go to church I need to be filled with the Spirit just as much as I need to be filled with Him when I go anywhere else. While we love and accept one another and can be honest and struggle with our foibles together, this is not an excuse to let the Liar loose in my heart, thoughts or lips.

I cannot help but compare 1 Peter 5:8 which says, “Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour” and Galatians 5:13-16 which has an interesting parallel: “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. . . . But if you bite and devour one another, beware lest you be consumed by one another! I say then: Walk in the Spirit, and you shall not fulfill the lust of the flesh.

I’ve no intention of devouring anyone, but for some reason that I may never be aware of, today I particularly need to put on my armor and pray for my church family.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Walking as Friends

Amos is called a minor prophet, not because his words are less important but because his book is shorter. God called him from his farming to speak to Israel of His condemnation of their sinful lives and warn them of judgment.

In Amos 3:3, He asks a thought-provoking question, “Can two walk together, unless they are agreed?

Today’s devotional reading brought out some ideas about this short verse. It reminded me of when I loved the world and when worldly things were part of my comfort zone. After Christ came into my life, I began to realize that God and I disagreed about that value system. He began to show me the world is filled with evil. I began to see that some of what I thought was good is an abomination in His sight.

As I started to see the widespread sin that is under God’s curse, I realized how much I had loved some of those things and began to feel uncomfortable. If God denounced them, how could I favor them? That would mean He and I disagreed. I didn’t want that.

Now I know that if I am to agree with God, I must have God’s thoughts in my heart, God’s ways in my life. I must love the things He loves, some of which are far outside my comfort zone. Since God does not change, and since being changed into the image of His Son is my privilege and destiny, then my mind must undergo a transformation.

We have friends who live in east Asia. When they first went there, the language and culture were puzzles. The people of that area did not think the same way as they did, and they quickly learned that if they wanted to become friends with any of them, they needed to understand their thinking. After many years, they are still learning.

In the same way, thinking God’s thoughts is not an easy matter. His ideas are so opposite most of mine. He even says in Isaiah 55:8, “For My thoughts are not your thoughts, Nor are your ways My ways.” This is something that does not come naturally nor easily!

Romans 12:2 says, “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.

Since God wants my mind renewed and this renewal is part of His transformation process, to be like Jesus I must think like Jesus thinks. As Amos says, I cannot walk with Him if I do not agree with Him.

What does it mean to be friends, to walk together? Some might say it is enjoying a unity and harmony of thought, a communion that never allows differences to ruin the relationship. It is a fellowship of mutual love and trust, and a deep friendship.

As God works on renewing my mind, I am more in harmony with His thoughts and more aware of His presence. I also am more certain that He hears my prayers and more able to experience Him speaking with me.

How is this possible? Part of the answer is that God set up a mercy-seat where I can meet with Him. As He enlightens me to see His truth and touches my heart to feel His power, He also draws my affections to love the same things He loves.

This place of meeting is sprinkled with blood. It contains (but also hides from view) the broken tables of the law. Instead of working at keeping rules that I cannot keep anyway, I’m there because Jesus is my Redeemer, my access to this Holy place—the throne of God. He meets me there in mercy and grace. He helps me pour out my soul before Him, tell Him my troubles, trials, and temptations. Often He graciously relieves my burdens with a precious promise, or a portion of His sacred truth. He encourages me to believe in Jesus and to continue to hope in His mercy.

I don’t call myself a friend of God because I’ve too often not acted like it, but I can say God is my friend. He has never failed me. His path is sure, and when His grace keeps me walking on that path in harmony with Him, then I experience the ultimate friendship.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Patient Endurance

For anyone who thinks being a Christian is a walk in the park, Willmington's Book of Bible Lists gives twenty-five reasons why Christians suffer and backs up each reason with at least one Scripture reference. God promises us heaven where there will be no more sorrow and pain, but this is not heaven yet!

The first item on the list is that we need patient endurance, and the only way to get it is through suffering. The writer of Hebrews talks about this in chapter 10. His readers had already experienced “a great struggle with sufferings” that included “the plundering of your goods” but they were in danger of giving it up and drawing back into their traditional religious ways. This is why they were told:
For you have need of endurance, so that after you have done the will of God, you may receive the promise: “For yet a little while, and He who is coming will come and will not tarry. . . .” (Hebrews 10:36-37).
My devotional says that the Lord sends me afflictions that He may give me the grace of patience to bear them, yet I have such a rebellious heart. I know my own perverse, easily irritated self-will. I know that my temper is easily stirred up, and my minds roused by the slightest things. I have so little patience under the trials that God sees fit to lay upon me, yet He uses these very trials to make me aware of my need. It is also in these trials that He shows me that patient endurance is not a fruit of my own nature.

Patient endurance comes from a humble heart. There is no greater need in my life. I need patience toward God when He thwarts my schemes and desires, and patience when instead of showing me why He is doing it, seems to hide behind a wall that my faith and prayers cannot get through.

I need patience with others in the world, in my family, and with other Christians. I need patience when people say things that slash at my ideas, wound my feelings, poke at my temper, and stir me with feelings of revenge.

Sometimes the word trials bring to mind illness, loss, and big events, but these peevish things are trials too. The good thing is that in them, God grants endurance. I’ve seen His hand and know the mercy of being given patience when in my old nature I would have blown up and retaliated.

The example is Jesus, “who, when he was reviled, reviled not again; when he suffered, he threatened not, but committed himself to Him that judgeth righteously” (1 Peter 2:23). Because Jesus lives in His people, and because the Father knows what He is doing, when He tells us to endure, we can.

There is one more reason that endurance is possible. Hebrews 10:37 reminds me that Jesus is going to return. When He does, how do I want Him to find me? Pulling back because “I just can’t take anymore,” or trusting His promises and doing His will with patient endurance?

Today, I choose option number two and will try to remember that patience means that I also don’t grumble about those peevish things God calls me to endure.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Scripture’s Value

Last week an odd thing happened. In a Bible study, one person told of an encounter with a strange doctrine. As she explained how those who believe this teaching extrapolate it from a certain passage of Scripture, I thought of the entire context of that passage. Jesus does clarify what He says—if you keep reading. I wondered if this teaching would even exist if those who formulated it had read all of the passage.

As I listened to the woman in that study explain what this other group believed, I said, “Nonsense” which was a judgment of their teaching based on the biblical context. She turned to me and said, “Yes, but when people hear our doctrine of . . . they say ‘nonsense’ too.”

I was surprised that she thought that was even a comparison. I was also surprised that she didn’t remember that our criterion is the Word of God, not our opinion. It doesn’t matter what I think, or she thinks, or teachers of false doctrine think. What matters is what God’s Word says. If God says something is true, it’s true. If He says it is nonsense, it is nonsense.

In a book called Reckless Faith: When the Church Loses its Will to Discern, author John MacArthur says:
True discernment requires diligent study of the Scriptures. None of the other steps is sufficient apart from this. No one can be truly discerning apart from mastery of the Word of God. All the desire in the world cannot make you discerning if you don’t study Scripture. Prayer for discernment is not enough. Obedience alone will not suffice. Good role models won’t do it either. Even the Holy Spirit will not give you discernment apart from His Word. If you really want to be discerning, you must diligently study the Word of God. God’s Word is where you will learn the principles for discernment. It is there you will learn the truth. Only there can you follow the path of maturity.
Old Testament prophet Jeremiah knew this. His task was to call God’s straying people to repentance, but was fearful that he would be judged and exiled along with them. In defending himself to God, he said, “Your words were found, and I ate them, and Your word was to me the joy and rejoicing of my heart; for I am called by Your name, O Lord God of hosts.

As God’s man, he devoured the Word of God. How else would he know the will of God? How else could he discern true from false, devotion from perversion?

These days, many people assume that because the Bible is old, it is not relevant, or they realize it is relevant but don’t like what it says. Some will pick out the parts they think are “important” and not bother with the rest of it. Yet in Acts 20:27, Paul said, “For I have not shunned to declare to you the whole counsel of God.

Obviously Paul thought it was important to preach, study, and read all of Scripture. He knew that false teachers could pick and choose words out of context and make them say whatever they wanted, leading gullible people away from the truth and into error. In most cases, such error has eternal results.

It’s a big book and a seemingly difficult task. Not everyone is able to spend hours in study. Just writing these things makes me feel convicted that I don’t study the Bible as much as I should. It is like a fine banquet; once I get started, I don’t want to stop.

Those who don’t know where to start struggle with this too. For them, I suggest that at least they read the Bible through once a year. Take the number of pages and divide them by 365, which usually works out to 3.5 to 4.5 pages a day. Use two bookmarks, moving them to mark where you leave off and where you need to read to next.

Reading the Bible in a year takes about 10-15 minutes a day and after years of doing this, I can say with Jeremiah that the Word of God is the joy and rejoicing of my heart.

I can also say that after all this, that intellect or IQ has nothing to do with understanding the Scriptures or applying them to my life. The Holy Spirit does this as I read, and He has taught me that it is impossible, even foolish to try and evaluate doctrine with human reasoning. The times that I try it, I often hear His still, small voice whispering to me and saying, “Nonsense.”

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Lose it or use it

Loss means different things to different people. Last night within walking distance of where I live, several homes burned to the ground. Owners also lost their vehicles and other nearby houses were damaged. Loss of things.

A girl who lived in a town north of here was murdered a few weeks ago. Her family lost their daughter. Last weekend, several traffic accidents took the lives of several people; more families are grieving over loss of loved ones.

Every day we are hearing of people who have suffered great losses in the stock market, sometimes millions of dollars. My own RRSPs are not looking good either. While I’m glad that God’s care is my security, financial loss is huge for thousands of people.

This morning’s newspaper tells of the failure of a new study that hoped make improvements for Alzheimer patients. My mother, when diagnosed with this dementia, was at first angry. After a few hours, she calmed down and said, “I’ve lived a good life. There are lots worse things that could happen to me than losing my memory.” Daily, people like her suffer that same loss.

I’ve lost everything from clothes pins to car keys, but found them again. Some losses are not permanent, but many are. Some losses are even a choice. My devotional verses today are about making that choice.

The Apostle Paul was once a zealous Pharisee, a legalistic fundamentalist of the Jewish faith. He belonged to one of the elite and loyal tribes of Israel and was zealous about the righteousness. However, God saw in him something else. He was a proud man who did not understand true righteousness. When confronted on his way to kill Christians, Paul’s heart was laid bare and he realized that he was lost and needed salvation found only through faith in Jesus Christ.

In Philippians 3, Paul writes of those things that he once thought were valuable to him and his reputation as a worshiper of the true God. He said that they were “gain” to him, but now he considered them “loss for Christ.” He used accounting terminology to describe the spiritual transaction that had taken place. He had taken his Jewish religious credentials from the profit column of his life and moved them to the debit side. Verses 8-10 say:
Yet indeed I also count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having my own righteousness, which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith; that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death . . . .
When I read this, I think of all the things in my life that tend to make me proud, or that I tend to rely on. I know that God is asking me to move them to the other side of the ledger, to suffer the loss, just as Paul did. At first I am reluctant, but am more willing as I realize the loss is for my good and His glory. In these verses, I also see that the loss of my “credentials” (religious or otherwise) makes way for a gain.

The gain is knowing Christ. Hanging on to prideful things, like my own abilities or skills, stand in the way from relying on the gifts and strengths that He supplies. Hanging on to what I think keeps me from knowing His mind on things. I don’t need to be a rocket scientist or a topnotch theologian to see the value of moving my stuff to the other side of the ledger.

This also has another side to it that I never thought about until this morning. The saying, “Use it or lose it” is true, but in the case of doing my own thing, the opposite is also true. If I don’t deny myself and consider my way inferior compared to the ways of the Lord, then I will rely on my own way. Instead of using the excellence that Christ supplies, I will be using the rubbish that comes out of my own pride.

This seems a no-brainer, but the matter is not decided by my understanding or perception. It isn’t even settled by an emotional act of my will. It is by grace that Jesus saves me, and keeping the columns of my ledger in the correct order certainly must also be by grace.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

What is worship?

If asked, many Christians would say that singing praises and hymns is their time of worship. Most would add prayers that thank and praise God. Is that enough?

Years ago I heard a sermon series by John MacArthur on worship. It was so convicting that for a short time I wondered if I was even a Christian. Today’s devotional verses remind me of that sermon.

Actually, it wasn’t just the verses but comparing them in two versions. I generally use the NKJV, but the NIV is a dynamic translation that is based on the oldest manuscripts. There are similarities but one big difference in these two versions. The NKJV says, “Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom which cannot be shaken, let us have grace, by which we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear. For our God is a consuming fire.

The NIV says, “Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our ‘God is a consuming fire.’

My search found that the Greek word translated serve in one version and worship in the other is from a word that means “a hired menial” and is used 21 times in the New Testament. It is translated as “serve” or “worship” or “do the service” or “worshiper” and means “to serve for hire” or “to serve, minister to, either to the gods or men” and is used alike of slaves and freemen. It can also mean “to render religious service or homage, to worship” or “to perform sacred services, to offer gifts, to worship God in the observance of the rites instituted for worship” and “to officiate, to discharge the sacred office.”

In other words, worship and service are the same thing. Whatever I worship, I must also serve, and whatever I serve could also be the object of my worship.

Someone told me that we worship that which we think about the most. Another says that those who think too highly of themselves are usually self-serving. Like MacArthur’s series of sermons, these thoughts are very convicting.

The reading today (from Ears from Harvested Sheaves) tells me to not forget the first part of these verses. It again has two different translations. One says, “Let us be thankful” and the other says “Let us have grace.” Again I go to my study tools to find out that it literally says “Let us have grace” which fits better with the rest of the verse which tells me that it is by grace that I can serve God. While thankfulness is important, it does not enable me; grace does.

The author of this reading says, “Grace is the very foundation of the kingdom which cannot be moved. It is all of grace, from first to last. By grace we are saved; by grace we are called; by grace we are what we are.”

To worship and serve God, even to be thankful, I need grace. Grace is God’s blessing. Grace is His gift to me of Jesus Christ. Grace is seeing Jesus as He is and being changed by what I see into His image. Without grace, I worship and serve myself.

I started this reading worried and anxious because I know that I neither worship or serve God as He deserves. I fall short. Yet realizing I fall short does not mean that I should try harder. It means that I should confess my failures, be forgiven and cleansed, and let God, by grace, do His work in my life. Trying to do it myself is self-serving; letting Him do it is worship.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Thirteen Things

Today is Thanksgiving Day in Canada. We had our family dinner on Saturday because that worked better for some, but I woke up this morning thinking again about the importance of being thankful.

Thankfulness acknowledges that God is good, that He is the source of all goodness, and that He is generous toward me. It also helps me realize what life would be like apart from His grace and loving provision.

Romans 1:21-22 vividly describe what happens to people who reject the obvious concerning creation; it implies a Creator. These verses say, “. . . although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools. . . .

I know God, not just that He is by seeing Him as Creator, but that He is my God and I have a personal relationship with Him through His Son. But I’m not much different from the pagans in some ways, because even though I know Him and love Him, I don’t always show it. If I am disobedient, resist and deny His sovereign care in my life, thankfulness is the first thing to go. When I am not thankful, I have also forgotten that I deserve His wrath, not His mercy. How foolish. Over and over He has been merciful to me and deserves my praise as well as my thankfulness.

Today’s devotional reading is from 2 Timothy 1. The focus is on verse 9, but Paul writes long sentences and verse 9 is a phrase from a longer thought. I can think of much to be thankful for just from this passage. It says:
. . . . Share with me in the sufferings for the gospel according to the power of God, who has saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace which was given to us in Christ Jesus before time began, but has now been revealed by the appearing of our Savior Jesus Christ. . . .
1. I thank God for others who share with me in the challenges of being a Christian. The fellowship in God’s family is a huge strength and support as we pray for and care for one another.

2. I’m thankful for the “suffering for the gospel” that Paul invites me to share with Him. Jesus said that those who hate Him would hate His followers also. The ridicule Christians get for being children of God are part of our certainty that others realize we are walking with Him. We don’t invite it, but we can be thankful that they notice we love Him.

3. I’m also thankful that anything I suffer is according to the power of God. No matter what happens to me, it must go through His filter. If He has a purpose for even the most negative stuff, He will let it happen and even use it for my good. I’ve great assurance that His wisdom is trustworthy.

4. I’m thankful that I am saved, saved from the penalty of sin, being saved from the power of sin, and one day saved from its presence. This is huge and so is my gratitude.

5. I’m thankful that God called me, that I was not drawn in by a church or a creed or even the faith of my parents. This is a personal call. He said to me, “Come, Elsie” and I came.

6. I’m also thankful that my salvation and relationship with God does not depend on what I do. If it did, neither would happen. I flub up all the time and could not possibly earn or deserve His magnificent grace. None of His goodness depends on my performance and I’m grateful, big time.

7. I’m thankful that my life is now part of His purpose. Even though I cannot always figure out what He is doing, there is a Master Plan and I am part of it. That is exciting, especially when He gives me little glimpses of why He asked me to be part of His family.

8. I’m thankful that my calling and His grace toward me was planned in Christ long before I was born, before the world was created, even before time. Wow, this is a huge thought; I was in the mind of God before He did anything else. Thank You!

9. I’m also thankful that He revealed Jesus to me. One day I woke up blind to who Jesus is, and went to bed that night knowing without a doubt that He is God in the flesh. The only way that happens is by the powerful eye-opening work of the Holy Spirit. For that I am most thankful.

10. Jesus was revealed to the world too, not just me. I’m part of a much bigger thing, one person in a host of many who know and love Jesus, and who are thankful for Him just as I am.

11. I’m thankful for personal things too, things not in this verse but in my life, like good health. Despite a few little things annoying me right now, my doctor jokes that I’m a “boring” patient.

12. I’m thankful for answered prayer and could write a book about how God has blessed me in that department.

13. I’m also thankful for joy. Being happy is a rare commodity in a greedy, unsatisfied and unthankful culture that looks for happiness in all the wrong places. God has taught me that my sense of well-being is not in things, prestige or achievement. It is in Him, and because I have Him, I have all that I need.

Thank You, Jesus.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Longing for the Second Coming

Every time the world seems to be falling apart, Christians start talking about the Second Coming. It happened during WWI and WWII. It is happening again now that stock markets all over the planet are careening and crashing. Because the Bible talks about difficult times, many assume that when they start happening, this is it; Jesus is going to return soon.

Self-styled prophets have also predicted when they think Jesus will return. Dates have come and gone, to the point that mockers laugh and people use “slow as the second coming” to describe tardiness. Even many Christians become skeptical when they hear the latest date-setting. We know that Jesus said only the Father knows when He will send His Son back to earth.

Paul wrote two letters to the church in Thessalonica that are mostly about the return of Christ. The believers in this church seemed to have thought it already happened and they missed it. While this seems silly to me now, I have to remember that they only had the Old Testament and maybe a few letters from Paul. The New Testament was not yet compiled so they were pulled this way and that by rumors and speculation.

In any case, Paul wanted to set them straight, so he told them God’s thoughts on when Jesus would return. What he had to say is instructive for the church today. In 1 Thessalonians 5:2-10, he wrote:
For you yourselves know perfectly that the day of the Lord so comes as a thief in the night. For when they say, “Peace and safety!” then sudden destruction comes upon them, as labor pains upon a pregnant woman. And they shall not escape. But you, brethren, are not in darkness, so that this Day should overtake you as a thief. You are all sons of light and sons of the day. We are not of the night nor of darkness. Therefore let us not sleep, as others do, but let us watch and be sober. For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk are drunk at night. But let us who are of the day be sober, putting on the breastplate of faith and love, and as a helmet the hope of salvation. For God did not appoint us to wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, that whether we wake or sleep, we should live together with Him.
While the Second Coming will be a shock to those who do not know Him, Paul assures these Christians that they are not in darkness (spiritual darkness produced by sin). This applies to the modern church too. If we are walking with Christ and paying attention to Him, we will not be totally shocked when He comes. However, our focus isn’t supposed to be trying to figure out the date or time, but that we are serious, trusting, loving, hopeful people. This is a far greater witness than “doom and gloom” predictions, particularly when they don’t happen.

I know that Jesus will come one day. It could be soon, but I don’t think the signs are all in place yet. Whether He speeds up events that signal His return, or He slows things down (and restores financial stability), I know that I am His child and that I have eternal life. So do others who know Him.

This assurance is perhaps the best explanation for date-setting. Christians know and love Jesus. While we are eager for the end of this mess and the end of evil, we can easily fall into predicting it will be soon be over, not just because we want it to be, but because we are longing to see Jesus. We yearn for that first glimpse of His face and we are eager to begin the rest of our lives together with Him.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Thanksgiving and Forgiveness

God’s children are marked by their love for one another. Jesus said so, and even gave the world the right to judge us if we don’t. This is an odd sort of love in that it is not about emotions or personal preferences. If I am walking in the Spirit and not according to my sinful nature, I will deeply care about the well-being of my bothers and sisters in Christ, and will sacrifice myself for them. It is a love that I don’t have apart from Jesus.

In fact, love was the first change that I noticed when Jesus came into my life. Before that I knew that I didn’t like anyone very much and even though I wanted to, I couldn’t change that. Yet Jesus did it for me. His arrival brought with Him is love for His people, and as He became my new life, I changed.

This love is not mushy sentimentality, nor is it always easy. God’s people have diverse gifts and backgrounds. We struggle with sin and sometimes act as if we don’t have the love of God in us. Nevertheless, we do have an amazing capacity to love each other without any of the prerequisites required by non-Christians. This love comes from God and is foreign to anyone who does not have Christ in their life.

I’ve family coming over today for Thanksgiving. Some of them do not know Jesus. As much as family can care for family that is all I can expect. Yet lately I’ve noticed a subtle antagonism toward me, as if their ‘family love’ is being faked and they really don’t like me at all.

Of course I’m bothered by it. I prayed about it yesterday and this morning as I sat down to my devotional reading. As usual, God addressed my concern. He put me in a passage for today from 1 John, and this is what I read:
Do not marvel, my brethren, if the world hates you. We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love the brethren. He who does not love his brother abides in death (1 John 3:13-14).
Family ties and blood aside, the Bible calls those who do not know Jesus ‘the world’ and says that they will hate those who belong to Him. In Matthew 10:34-39, Jesus predicted this would happen regardless of family relationships:
Do not think that I came to bring peace on earth. I did not come to bring peace but a sword. For I have come to ‘set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law’; and ‘a man’s enemies will be those of his own household.’ He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me. He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for My sake will find it.
I’m always dismayed by these verses, but John says not to marvel or be surprised. The real surprise would be if those who reject Jesus accepted His followers. That is not going to happen.

What am I supposed to do about it? For one thing, I can be thankful that I know I have “passed from death to life” since I pass this love test. I can also be thankful that it is evident enough in my life that some of my family knows it and reacts. One of them has faked affection for years, but now is at least being honest. I’d rather see integrity (and be hated) than see niceness and hypocrisy.

Jesus says not to make those relationships a priority over my relationship with Him. As difficult as it is, I must not compromise what He asks of me. While I won’t ‘shove my faith’ down anyone’s throat, I cannot pretend that I don’t have any faith either. He promises that if I lose my life in Him, I will find and experience the riches of true life, eternal life. One of those riches is enjoying love in the family of God. I have another family that cares from me, no strings attached. I can also enjoy fellowship with Jesus in a deeper way because He knows exactly what it feels like to be rejected by His own and offers me His ability to say, “Father, forgive them. They don’t know what they are doing.

Friday, October 10, 2008

My solid place

The landscaper who revamped our backyard is coming over today with his invoice. He spent money and time using rainbow rock to make yard care easier for us. It looks good. Landscaping is one use for rock.

Another is how rock occurs in nature; it is a solid place to stand and difficult to break apart or penetrate. When the kids play ‘rock, paper, scissors,’ rock is the winner. Even if paper could cover it up, everyone knows what even a small stone actually could do to a piece of paper!

My verse today is about a rock. It is a figurative way to describe Jesus Christ, referred to in song and Scripture as the Rock of my salvation. Someday I’m going to do a thematic Bible study and see the ways the word rock is used. Today I read only one of more than a hundred references that use it. Psalm 61:2 says:
From the end of the earth I will cry to You, when my heart is overwhelmed; lead me to the rock that is higher than I.
Jesus is a rock in the sense of being a solid and safe place to stand spiritually. He gives me a higher view too, a perspective on life that is beyond my imagination. He helps me see what God sees and how He is at work in this world. When life becomes too much for me and I’m feeling unstable and unsure, my Rock settles me and helps me know that He is taking care of me and in charge of the difficulties that challenge me.

In a discussion of what hell might be like (as if I really want to know), someone said it is all that Jesus is not. In other words, Jesus said, “I am the Light of the world” so being separated from Him forever means eternal darkness. Hell is not a party!

Jesus also said “I am the Bread of life.” That indicates that hell is eternal hunger, never feeling satisfied, literally and in other ways. Jesus is love; eternity apart from Him is being without love.

From this psalm and other places that say Jesus is the rock, then hell would have no solid place to stand, literally and figuratively. I cannot imagine feeling as if I were falling for all eternity, nor can I imagine not being sure of anything, not having a solid sense of anything. It would be a terrible emptiness and uncertainty.

Some people say hell is what a person makes of life here. If that is so, then those who do not have the Rock as a solid place to stand have only illusions and uncertainties holding them up. Jesus talked of hell as a literal place though, and after thinking about all that He is and all that I would not have if I were going to hell, I’m even more grateful that He took my punishment for sin and gave me eternal life.

Some days it feels like my feet stand on quicksand and I am overwhelmed by all sorts of things. However, the reality is that I can call on my God and He will lead me back to the certainty that Jesus is my Rock. On Him is my strong foundation where I will abide forever.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Quit Complaining

Did Jesus ever have a cold? Did He stub His toes or trip over something on the path as He walked? He is my example and I sometimes wonder how He managed ordinary irritants.

This week I’m plagued with a virus in my ears (yes, the first doctor missed it, the second saw the inflammation). I’m sometimes dizzy, but mostly have a sense of fullness through my sinuses into my ears, and a throbbing pain that shoots from the hinge of my jaw up the side of my head. Did Jesus ever experience anything like this?

My devotional book takes me today to Hebrews 12:1-2 which says, “Let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.

The simple answer to my question isn’t whether He had minor issues to deal with or not, but how He handled the big issue of being falsely accused and put on a cross, one of the most cruel forms of death. It says that He endured.

A Greek lexicon tells me that this word endure could also be translated take patiently, tarry behind, abide, patient, suffer, remain, tarry behind, not recede or flee, preserve: under misfortunes and trials, bear bravely and calmly (ill treatments).

After reading that, I’ve not much to say. He endured the Cross and every sort of ill treatment that was inflicted on Him. He probably never had an ear ache, but even if He did, He would not be grumbling about it. I get the point.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Face to Face

We used to attend a church where the pastor gave a verse for the year to each member of the congregation. That set a habit in my life. I not only select one for myself, but give each child and grandchild their personal verse for the year.

This year, my verse is Psalm 27:8, “When You said, “Seek My face,” my heart said to You, “Your face, Lord, I will seek.

This verse became even more meaningful to me after earlier this year reading a book about the importance of eye contact to a developing child. If a small child has that face-to-face, eye-to-eye connection with its parents, particularly the mother, the child is more apt to be happier and healthier. Children who miss this are far more prone to everything from emotional disorders to ADD (attention deficient) problems.

When I read the book, I realized that I was ADD. I also realized that even though I was loved and cared for, my mother seldom looked me in the eye. I’m sure it was because of issues of her own, but it had an effect on me and my ability to form and maintain relationships.

Today I looked again at Psalm 27: and read the next two verses, “Do not hide Your face from me; do not turn Your servant away in anger; You have been my help; do not leave me nor forsake me, O God of my salvation. When my father and my mother forsake me, then the Lord will take care of me.

It seems to me that I can read that as, “Even if my parents hide their face from me, You my God will look me right in the eye and give me that nurturing connection so needed to help me grow and develop as Your child.”

God knows we need that special intimacy that is signified by unwavering eye contact. Those with ADD often have problems with this, as do others who have missed it during their infancy and childhood.

Today’s devotional reading is based on another verse in the Psalms, 119:176. It says, “I have gone astray like a lost sheep; seek Your servant, for I do not forget Your commandments.

My commentary says that though a wanderer from God, a truly pious person will always desire to be drawn back to Him. I know that is true. I might mess up, neglect obedience, and wander away for a time, but I never forget the commandments that He has taught me.

The commentary also says that lost means being utterly helpless to recover myself. Not only was I lost as a sinner before Christ came into my life, but even after that experience, I am not able to recover myself when I fall into disobedience. I know that I must look to God for restoration because I cannot save myself.

The devotional reading adds another reality, “If the Lord did not seek us, we should never seek the Lord” and I picture the helpless feeling of a child who can never catch the eye of its mother. The mother must seek the child because the child cannot make it happen.

If I could gaze into the face of the Lord without looking away, I would never stray, yet I cannot keep that gaze. For one thing, the awe of God is too much for me. My emotions cannot bear a sustained look at the reality of His glory.

Another thing that stops me is that His holiness exposes my sinfulness. In the light of His perfection, I see my sins and flaws most clearly and the closer I move to Him, the worse I feel about myself. In that human (and sinful) desire to protect myself, I turn away.

In the book I mentioned earlier, the author explains that when a baby and mother have that special eye contact, the baby becomes highly excited and must look away. However, the little one’s eyes will soon turn back to seek its mother’s eyes. But, and this is significant, if the mother turns away her gaze while the baby is looking into her eyes, the child becomes agitated and distressed.

When I read that, and read these verses, I realize why the psalmist asked God to “seek Your servant.” I can seek His face, but unless He seeks mine, all my searching does not satisfy that deep longing in my heart for intimacy with God.

Now when I read my verse for the year, I can renew my whisper of gratitude. I will seek His face, but I am so grateful that He never takes His eyes off mine.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Simple obedience isn’t always simple

The apostle Paul wrote powerful letters. Each one ends with a benediction that goes far beyond “yours truly” and is packed with amazing truth and amazing challenges. The verse in my devotional this morning is one example. 2 Corinthians 13:11 says, “Finally, brethren, farewell. Become complete. Be of good comfort, be of one mind, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you.

As I read and reread this verse, I can see how difficult obedience to God would be if I had to do it all by myself. For instance, the first sentence seems simple enough, but Farewell is translated from a Greek word that also means rejoice and it is translated that way in some Bible versions. Reading it as rejoice makes it a command—something like the song, “Don’t worry, be happy.” However, the biblical idea of rejoicing isn’t a mindless, forget all your troubles, empty-headed kind of happiness. It is a joy that bubbles up even during great trials (James 1:2-4 even says to “count it all joy when you fall into various trials . . . ”) This joy is evidence of Christian maturity. Try making that happen by myself? No way!

In 2 Corinthians this command is close to the next command, be complete, which makes me think this is what Paul intended in this benediction to this letter. He was telling the church at Corinth to rejoice and be complete, mature, perfect in the sense that they were developing Christlike character and virtue. Obeying these simple commands is no easy task. It takes a lifetime to learn trust to the extent that trials do not erase joy but actually produce it because I’ve learned that God is at work in that trial to make me complete.

Be of good comfort isn’t easy either. Last week’s murder of Emily Stauffer, daughter of a pastor in a sister church in our province, filled me with sorrow. I didn’t know her and yet was deeply affected, even wondering if I was feeling God’s grief over such a horrible event. Comfort comes, but every Christian knows that true comfort is from God. Even if people say and do kind things for those who are grieving, I know that I cannot produce it or make it come to me. God is the author of comfort.

Be of one mind might be the most difficult. In my church there are people from many backgrounds, nationalities, cultures and languages. We have an ESL class with students from Latin America and various parts of Asia. Our congregation includes senior executives and people who are currently unemployed. We have babies, children, teens, young adults, young married couples with and without children, widows, widowers, and a few who are more than eighty. How can this diverse group of people be of one mind?

God allows differences of opinion on many things but when He comes to live in a person’s heart, He brings with Him certain foundational truths. These are the things that God commands us to be of one mind about, but this unity goes beyond doctrine. We are to be of one mind in the sense that we are all listening to and obeying the same Spirit. If He is telling us the direction our church should take, it will be the same message to each person, so being of one mind can only happen if each person is listening to the Holy Spirit. This is a most amazing experience. It happens in our worship, in our business meetings, in our decision-making. God can produce unity in diversity. I could never make that happen.

Live in peace. Here is another impossible command. This means getting along even if I don’t agree with someone. It also means having peace in my heart, not being annoyed, irked, uptight, or feeling anything that is not peaceful. Of course I cannot make this happen. I’m not a vegetable and I do have responses to events and people. When someone does something that doesn’t seem right to me, or that hurts others, that peace is supposed to rule how I react. I’m not to respond to life’s events and difficulties with wrangling, arguing, grumbling or complaining. While God might ask me to do something about evil, and may give me a sense of how He feels about injustice, His peace is supposed to prevail in my heart.

That is the key; it is His peace, not mine or the world’s variety of peace. It is also His unified thinking, His mind, His comfort, His rejoicing, His power to make complete. This life is not my own. Not only have I been “bought with a price” but I cannot live it in my own strength either. I need Jesus, even to obey a simple benediction.