August 31, 2009

Impatience can kill you

The light turned amber just as my husband entered the intersection. At the same time, an oncoming car began making a left turn. He slammed on his brakes. So did she and when she stopped, because he had the right of way and was blocking the intersection, he drove forward. She swore at him.

This near collision and the woman’s rudeness are examples of how impatience affects people. When I am impatient, I try to go faster with whatever I am doing and almost all the time begin making mistakes. I’ve been doing the final stitching on a quilt using a longarm machine. I’ve not practiced much using this machine, but have been in a hurry to finish this quilt. However, the pattern and technique require patience and slowing down so that the curves are consistent and even. Every time I hurry up because I am impatient, my lines wave all over the place. Instead of saving time, I wind up “unsewing” which uses up more minutes than patience would have.

I’ve been impatient with God too. He can do things speedily, but sometimes He moves slowly, such as answering some of my prayers. Impatience with God is really foolish because God knows what He is doing. All I know is what I want, and how could I think that my way is better than His! Besides, there is good reason that I should be happy that God is not in a hurry.
The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. (2 Peter 3:9)
The world is full of people who are headed down that broad way that leads to destruction. Because of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, there is a way that offers eternal life, but the Bible says it is narrow and few find it. Without God’s patience, none of us would; all would perish.

The reference here is not to God’s decree, but to His desire. That is, when God ‘wills’ something, it comes to pass and if this was His decree, everyone would be saved and go to heaven when they die. But this verse is less about His power to make things happen and more about His heart. He wants people to find that narrow way that He has provided. He is not happy about all those folks on the broad way.

If God were driving a car, He would want that oncoming vehicle to make it through the intersection. He would stop so others could be free. He would prioritize the needs of others before all else. He would give even His life so others could live. In fact, He already did.

August 30, 2009

A lousy way to evaluate students

For a person who loves research, I should have enjoyed writing papers in college, but I didn’t. I thought then, and still do, that a research paper is one of the poorest ways to test a person’s ability to practice their chosen discipline.

For me, it was seminary and I was taking a degree in religious education. Facts and data? For some, yes, but for a Christian, information is useless unless it becomes part of life. Spouting off Bible verses and writing perfect doctrinal statements do not impress God or anyone else unless the person who can do it is also godly and loves Him with all their heart.

Another thing that bugged me was that college professors didn’t seem to believe in original ideas. Oh, I know that there really are few of those, but if a student saw a truth in the Bible, that was not good enough; they had to cite a dozen other people who had already discovered it. Seeing it in Scripture and receiving insight from the Holy Spirit was not enough.

This morning’s devotional reading adds a bit of insight to my annoyance. Jesus preached what we call the Sermon on the Mount, a lengthy exhortation on true Christian living. When He was finished, the Bible says:
And so it was, when Jesus had ended these sayings, that the people were astonished at His teaching, for He taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. (Matthew 7:28-29)
The people were amazed. They knew that Jesus had something that others did not. Their teachers, the scribes, usually cited other “authorities” to lend credence to their statements. In contrast, Jesus’ words were self-authenticating and He used Scripture only. I know that I am not Jesus, but it seems wiser to consider Him as my model instead of those scribes!

A couple times this week I shared with other Christians some profound truths that I had been learning. There are two ways of doing that. One is the more common, but the other sometimes happens, and when it does, the blessing is obvious. This is when the Holy Spirit takes the truth spoken and opens up something in the listener’s mind and heart.

Their understanding shows on their face. My expression is that I see “the lights come on.” In both instances, the people who were listening were not so much hearing me as they were hearing words of authority and power, words that they knew were God’s truth. They were absolutely delighted, not with me, but with the sense of knowing that “this is true and it came from God.” Seeing their delight made me feel good too.

That does not always happen. I might tell someone the exact same thing, even use the same words, but the Holy Spirit does not use it to “hit home” or touch the hearer’s heart. This is something I cannot understand and do not control. This is the difference between myself and Jesus Christ; He speaks always with that kind of power and can use what He says to change lives.

The education system is basically one of pumping students full of facts and expected them to be digested and regurgitated back in various tests and papers. A person with a good memory and reasonable skill at synthesis can pass most courses. I suppose that works, at least in most fields of study.

However, a Christian is to be a vessel for the Holy Spirit, a tool in the hand of God, a spokesperson for Jesus Christ. I’d like to see another way besides research papers (and tests, for that matter) whereby a person studying any aspect of the Christian faith could demonstrate to their mentors that they truly know and understand what they are learning. They could cite or quote the words of others, but the best source for their ideas is the Word of God and the power of the Holy Spirit to make it plain.

Yet passing the test is more than words and ideas. The proof that the subject has been mastered has to be something that demonstrates that His people are paying attention to Him, and that He is using our words to bless others.

August 29, 2009

But sand is easier on the feet . . .

I’ve a book called Born Crucified that I read about once every decade. This time I’m finding it so rich that I wonder if I even understood any of it the first time I read it. Shaking my head and somewhat astonished, I’m thinking that I must have or I would not be drawn back to this same book again and again. It is like digging for gold. I’ve not lost the sense that there are richer veins if I just keep at it.

When Jesus talked about building a strong Christian life, He illustrated by comparing this effort to building a house on a solid rock foundation. A rock base is much better than one made of sand that is without stability. He said of the wise builder:
He is like a man building a house, who dug deep and laid the foundation on the rock. And when the flood arose, the stream beat vehemently against that house, and could not shake it, for it was founded on the rock. (Luke 6:48)
I noticed this morning that this man dug deep. Digging down to rock takes work. The wise builder is willing to toil at it until he finds the solid foundation beneath the surface. This made me think about my first time I read through my favorite book. I was thrilled with its truths. The second time was a deeper dig, and now the fourth time through and I realize that most of what I’d understood the first time was still mixed with the sand in my heart. I’d not yet fully hit the rock because I hadn’t yet fully done the work.

Digging deep into the truth of God isn’t about study and learning only. It is also about living it out, applying what is learned, letting the truths sink so deeply into who I am that they become an automatic response to life, not something I need to look up again, or give great thought to; they are simply beneath and upholding all that I am and do.

Digging deep into the truth of God is also about shoveling out the sand. That shifting foundation of me, myself, and I, and always insisting on doing my own thing is called sin. Like fine sand driven by the wind, it is embedded into every part of me. The power of truth clears it out, but this also takes time and work. As God exposes the sand, I must confess it and ask Him to forgive and cleanse me. It has taken years of digging to realize that I cannot cling to that Rock on which I must stand if I allow those shifting and permeating particles of selfishness and personal choices obscure my foundation. But they keep blowing in.

Digging deeper means giving my days and hours to God, listening for His direction and not doing my own thing. It also means paying attention once the truth is found. It means being alert to the needs of others. It means sacrifice. It means working out my salvation (not working for it).

Sometimes living in sand seems much easier. However, as soon as my feet start to slip, I sense God handing me my shovel and telling me to get back to my primary task. He has no intention that I stand on anything but His solid foundation.

August 28, 2009

My sand castles don’t last long

The World Championships of Sand Sculpture Competition are open to Master Sand Sculptors only. To qualify, a person must have competed in the Master's category in Solo Competition at specific places, or as Lead Sculptor of a Master's Team on the international scene, or is an accomplished sculptor in another medium and has won awards, or has worked with a professional sand sculpture company for at least three years. These are interesting qualifications for an art that will last no longer than the next high tide!

Perhaps this is why Jesus selected the illustration of building your house on sand to explain the folly of disobeying God. He said,
But everyone who hears these sayings of Mine, and does not do them, will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand: and the rain descended, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house; and it fell. And great was its fall. (Matthew 7:26-27)
Sand particles are actually ground bits of rock or other material. Some are rounded, some are smooth, but their chief characteristic is that they do not bind together very well. Because of that, anything placed on sand doesn’t stay in place very long. The first strong wind, or just a bit more water, and the sand flies away or becomes a shapeless blob.

A house built on the sand symbolizes a life built on an unstable foundation. Like moist sand, it might look good and seem firm, but add some wind or a little too much water and the foundation blows or slips away leaving the builder’s life in chaos. I’ve had a few such major storms in my life and the horrible sense of being washed up that goes with it.

Lately I’d been struggling with a very small storm. A certain issue came up and I was not happy with my reaction to it. I knew I’d “leaned” the wrong way into that storm, but wasn’t sure what to do now. Something seemed wrong or incomplete, but I didn’t know what it was.

I kept asking God for an explanation. Silence. Why? If He didn’t want me to change anything, why did I feel so off balance, like something had been taken from under me and my footing was gone? Perplexed and upset, I kept asking for specifics so I could understand and repent and change, or do whatever else He might want me to do.

On the way to lunch with a friend, I turned on the local Christian radio station and heard a speaker talking about Paul’s behavior in the book of Acts. He was on a ship headed to Rome when they hit a storm. Paul’s reactions were far more noble than the others on the ship. He remained level-headed and thoughtful, whereas the others were concerned only about their own survival. Toward the end of the message, the speaker said that storms do not change our nature; they simply bring out who we really are.

That was the answer to my question. My small storm brought out a response in me that revealed a much larger problem. Instead of doing something about that relatively unimportant issue, God wanted me to deal with who I am and how I think on a much broader level. I was both relieved and dismayed. From this small storm, I could see that the foundation for many things that I do is just a pile of sand.

Today’s devotional reading says, “Don’t be like the one who superficially and carelessly chooses a section of the world’s sand to build his hope.” That sand can be “self-will, self-sufficiency, self-righteousness, self-purpose, or self-fulfillment.” In other words, me, myself, and I, a foundation that is all about what I want and not what God wants.

I’m thankful that the Lord sent only a small wave to wash the sand out from under me, not a huge wave of total havoc. I’m also thankful that He provides much stronger support. No matter how pretty or appealing or familiar the sand looks, He knows I am far better with the Rock beneath my feet. The only way my life can withstand the storms, large or small is with Jesus because He is able to support me.

August 27, 2009

Avoid getting washed out

We lived not too far from Topanga Canyon. Every year the floods came. Every year some houses were washed down the canyon. Every year, these houses were replaced with more houses.

I’m not a rocket scientist, but that doesn’t make much sense. Why not pick higher ground? Other spots are as scenic, or as remote, or whatever it is these house builders are looking for. Why risk having everything wiped out, not just once, but every year?

I should talk. This bit of Scripture reminds me of the floods of Topanga Canyon, but it isn’t talking about that kind of flood. It is talking about my kind of senselessness. How many times have I sinned the same sin? How many times have I insisted on my way only to find one more time that my way isn’t profitable? I don’t listen to experience very well either. No wonder Jesus said,
Therefore whoever hears these sayings of Mine, and does them, I will liken him to a wise man who built his house on the rock: and the rain descended, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house; and it did not fall, for it was founded on the rock. (Matthew 7:24-25)
The house founded on the rock represents a life of obedience to the Word of God. It’s being more concerned about righteousness than form or public opinion. It’s being genuine rather than a hypocrite. It seeks God’s righteousness rather than self-righteousness.

This kind of life sets aside pride and this stubborn determination to have my own way. I know that when I obey God, I will be humble and do what He wants. I know I will give more attention to others than myself. I will also be alert to sin and keep short accounts with God. When my life is in the right place, when troubles come I’ve no backlog to clear. Instead, I am instantly able to turn to the One who can give me wisdom and the ability to face those troubles squarely. I will not fall.

Even if I have done something wrong, if following Jesus is my heart’s desire, instead of rebuilding in the same place after He forgives me, I get up and move to where God wants me to be – on solid ground based on His Word.

Total obedience is the ideal, the solid rock. I’m not there, and I’m no better than the builders in Topanga when I make mistakes and keep making them, time after time, year after year. What am I looking for? God promises a life that will withstand anything. All I need to do is build it based on the blueprints.

August 26, 2009

Standing on a Rock

The first time I saw the giant waves on the north side of Maui, I was standing on a large rock. At first, the waves didn’t appear large, but their sound gave them away. Roaring like a freight train, they rushed toward me, thirty and forty feet high just before crashing into the shore. Had I been on the sand below, I would have perished, but even as my heart pounded, I knew that on that rock I was safe.

Jesus said, “Therefore whoever hears these sayings of Mine, and does them, I will liken him to a wise man who built his house on the rock. . . .” (Matthew 7:24).

He was not talking about a literal rock like those on the beach at Maui. The context and language used shows that the rock He referred to is God’s Word. Building on it means that I read, pay attention, and obey what the Bible says. The rest of this passage promises that when I do that, the storms of life will not ruin me.

Today’s devotional makes a parallel to another passage in which the meaning has been a source of contention. After Peter confessed, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God,” Jesus said to him, “ . . . flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father who is in heaven. And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church” (Matthew 16:16-18).

In these verses, Jesus’ word for “rock” is the same one He used in Matthew 7:24, petra. While Peter’s name also comes from a similar Greek word (petros), the way Jesus uses “rock” here points more toward the Word of God being the foundation for His living and enduring church as well as the foundation for a solid Christian life. A living thing seems unlikely to be based on a man who has died. It makes more sense that in both places, this “rock” is the Word of God, because it is living and endures forever.

When I think about the eternal quality of what God has recorded for us, it makes total sense to me that I should read, study, listen to and obey the Bible. This is the bedrock of God’s revelation. It is His mind, His truth. Other books, languages, ideas and philosophies come and go, but the Bible is still the best-selling book in the world. It has survived countless attacks and criticisms, but the best test of all is using it as a foundation for life, then finding out that big waves and massive trials cannot shake me or my faith in its Author!

August 25, 2009

Faith without works means I’m dead?

Yesterday I was writing a piece about Bible study and stressed the importance of being teachable. This morning, I asked the Lord to teach me, to speak to me, to give me something that I need to hear. He did, and what I am hearing is a profound challenge.

All my Christian life I’ve been taught that Paul wrote about salvation by faith alone to those who tried to justify themselves before God with good works. However, James wrote about the need for good works to those who abused Paul’s teaching. James stressed that faith was not genuine without good works because they proved that a person is actually saved. Today, I am challenged to see this differently. First of all, the focus is on this verse:
What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him? (James 2:14)
I’ve understood it this way: What good is it if someone claims to be a believer but there is no evidence in his life. Can that kind of ‘faith’ save him? In other words, faith will produce good works, so they are inseparable. The faith saves a person, and the works prove it.

However, two of my commentaries suggest a different approach. The first one says that James was trying to “combat the Jewish tendency (transplanted into their Christianity) to substitute a lifeless, inoperative acquaintance with the letter of the law, for change of heart to practical holiness, as if justification could be thereby attained.”

In other words, the original readers of James were Jews who had been converted to Christ. Their problem was that they brought into their belief in Jesus the old tendencies of their past where they rested on their Jewishness rather than doing what God wanted them to do.

Note this, James was not writing to unsaved Jewish people. He wrote to “my brethren” and “to the twelve tribes scattered abroad” (James 1:1) who were Jews that believed in Jesus and were being persecuted. His words about faith and works were to people who were already saved, and not a recipe for salvation to those outside the kingdom of God.

The second commentary backs this up. Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Commentary says this, adding even more challenges to my prior thinking.
Some claim the faith mentioned in this passage is not genuine faith that produces eternal life. But James addresses this section to believers (“my brethren” in v. 14), that is, people who have exercised genuine faith. The issue in this paragraph is not true faith versus false faith; it is faith that is alone, meaning without works (v. 17) versus faith that is accompanied by works. “Saved” (Greek sozo ) is used five times in James (and) each time it refers to the saving of the temporal life, not saving from the penalty of sin (see 5:15). In this context James is referring to being “saved” from the judgment without mercy at the judgment seat of Christ (v. 13) and possibly the saving of one’s life from physical death (1:21). Works are actions that follow the “royal law” of love (vv. 8, 15, 16). James is implying in this verse that faith in Christ will demonstrate itself in love for others . . .
If I interpret James this way, then other ideas come into play. For instance, God saves people then leaves us here on earth to be His witnesses. We are to tell others about Jesus Christ and our lives are to be evidence of His glory. But what if we don’t?

I’ve known Christians who genuinely believed, but insisted on hanging on to a blatant and obvious sin. Their lives were not fulfilling their purpose as believers and they died, suddenly. While I don’t know for sure, it seemed as if God took their physical lives in the way this commentary suggests, rather then leaving them here as a terrible example of what it means to be His children.

A less tentative thought is a definition of dead. James says in 2:17, “Faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” In the Bible, dead means separation. A spiritual dead person can be physically alive but is separated from God by sin. A physically dead person is separated from their body, but present (in spirit) with the Lord. So what kind of “dead” is James talking about?

Could he be saying that faith without works describes the life of a person who believes that Jesus died for their sin, has been born again, but because they are not responding to God (perhaps because of some pet sin, or they are just not obedient) they are thus disconnected from Him? Does dead mean that these people do not have fellowship with God and that their lives are ‘lifeless’ in the sense that the life of Christ who lives in them cannot be seen?

Whatever James means, it is a warning to me. If Jesus lives in me, then I am to step aside from all my own wants and desires and let Him be seen. I am to pay attention to what He says to me and obey Him. Otherwise, the faith that I have is separated from the evidence that shows it, and that faith is useless. If I know the Savior yet live in sin, I might as well be in heaven as mucking about here on earth.

August 24, 2009

Bad-Good Deeds

An Old Testament verse often comes to mind. It is from Isaiah 64 and says, “But we are all like an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are like filthy rags. . . .” (vs. 6). Isaiah included himself, a man of God, in this confession. His words beg the question — how can a good man do what appears to be righteous deeds, then confess that they are “unclean” and “filthy.” What does he know about himself that others cannot see?

The same concept pops up in the New Testament. Jesus is explaining that not all who say, “Lord, Lord” to Him are genuine believers. He then illustrates these people with this:
Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!’ (Matthew 7:22-23)
Jesus knew something about these people that others could not see. They did what appeared to be good things, but He condemned them. However, unlike Isaiah, they didn’t seem to be aware that anything was wrong.

This reminds me how a person can be well meaning yet disconnected from God and from doing His will. It can happen to prophets who speak His Word and to lay people who are involved in Christian service. My reading today offers three suggestions to help me avoid becoming disconnected and winding up in the same condemnation.

First, I need to watch out that I am not preoccupied with being religiously busy. That is, I should not focus on attending, listening, singing, or otherwise being busy with “church stuff” that makes me look like I’m serving God when I never spend time with Him to find out what He wants. I must never merely do all the “nice Christian things” and consider that is my “ministry.”

Another danger, particularly as I get older, is reliance on the past. I was baptized way back then, attended and taught Sunday school for years, belonged to various churches as we moved around North American, and now have an extensive spiritual resume. None of that means that I am right with God right now. Walking with Jesus is a moment by moment thing and I cannot rest on my resume.

The third danger is one I particularly need to guard against — gleaning spiritual knowledge for its own sake. I love to study and have an intense interest in theology, but this is useless if I am not applying what I learn to my life. God’s goal is that I become more like Jesus Christ. I do that by gazing into His glory AND by being obedient to His Word. The Bible says that “knowledge puffs up” — a polite way of saying that I need to avoid having a fat head.

Besides all that, Christians can fake it. We know the words. We know the activities. We can go through the motions and even appear successful. But God looks at the heart. He knows a bad-good deed when He sees one. Even though His death covers such sin, we are in a shaky place. It is, of course, worse for those who do not believe in Him. He will condemn all their “goodness” because He knows their heart, and dismiss them from His presence.

As for those of us who believe, and whose sins are covered by His blood, we still need to beware. Like Isaiah, I need to recognize that in God’s sight bad-good deeds lack integrity and make me a hypocrite, and, like Isaiah, I need to confess such activity for what it is, unclean, filthy rags.

August 23, 2009

“Spiritual” self-centeredness

This human and sinful affliction of being self-centered can go to incredible extremes. One Christian writer said that we can be so focused on me, me, me, that our spiritual lives consist mostly of “spiritual navel-gazing” meaning a continual self-examination to see how we are doing as Christians.

I’m guilty. I’ve caught myself wondering if I look joyful, or if I am doing this or that right, or if this or that attitude or virtue is in my life. When I catch myself at it, I realize how far that is from the way God wants me to be.

The above-mentioned writer pointed out that there are only two places in Scripture that tell Christians to examine themselves and it isn’t about attitude or behavior nor checking to see how I appear to others. These commands are found in the letters Paul wrote to the Corinthians.
Examine yourselves as to whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Do you not know yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you? —unless indeed you are disqualified. But I trust that you will know that we are not disqualified. Now I pray to God that you do no evil, not that we should appear approved, but that you should do what is honorable, though we may seem disqualified. (2 Corinthians 13:5-7)
In context, some of the Christians at Corinth were challenging Paul’s apostleship and whether or not he spoke for Christ. He turned the tables on them and told them to take a hard look at themselves. If they doubted what he was telling them, maybe it was because they were not saved. After all, those who belong to Christ will recognize His words to them, no matter who says them.

This would apply to me if I have stopped listening to the Lord (or never started). Jesus lives in me. I know it for many reasons, one of which is that I hear Him speak through the pages of Scripture and through other Christians.

However, some people pray the sinner’s prayer dozens of times. They are not sure that they are saved or if Jesus lives in them. Is that because they do not hear or believe His promise? Or is it because He actually is not in them? This is an important self-examination. However, once I’ve affirmed that Jesus lives in me, then I don’t need to keep asking. He promises never to leave or forsake those who belong to Him. If I believe Him, I will believe that.

The second Scripture that suggests self-examination is in the context of taking communion, or sharing in the Lord’s table.
For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death till He comes. Therefore whoever eats this bread or drinks this cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord. But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For he who eats and drinks in an unworthy manner eats and drinks judgment to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body. For this reason many are weak and sick among you, and many sleep (are dead). For if we would judge ourselves, we would not be judged. But when we are judged, we are chastened by the Lord, that we may not be condemned with the world. (1 Corinthians 11:26-32)
Interpretations differ about what “unworthy manner” means. The church that I attend puts an emphasis on making sure all known sin is confessed. Others look at the context and consider that unworthy could mean excluding either the cup or the bread. Still others think that this is about the slack attitude the Corinthians had toward this church ordinance and they needed to stop being so indifferent to its significance.

I’ve known folks who were so sensitive about their sin that they never felt worthy of participating in communion. They felt they had to be perfect or they were disqualified. This seems to me like spiritual navel-gazing. The focus is on me, not Christ.

I’ve also known folks who passed the cup and the bread in a “we do this every week” rote manner without even thinking about what they are doing. It seems to me they should do some self-examination.

As for me, I know that I am not perfect and will not be “worthy” this side of heaven, but if that is all I think about, my focus is still self-centered. Instead, God wants me in tune with the Holy Spirit and letting Him tell me when I am in error (and when I do well). I’m not the best judge of that anyway! Spiritual navel-gazing is simply a waste of energy and most likely sinful too.

When we have communion in our church, I need to think about what Christ has done for me; His blood was shed for my sin and His body broken for me. He is my Lord and Savior. This is about Jesus, and from what I’m reading, if I am thinking about Him and my focus is on Him, there is no need for self-examination.

August 22, 2009

True and False Assurance

Which is worse; to be wrong and think you are right? Or to be right and fear that you are wrong?

Either place is shaky, and I’ve been in both. After several days of study concerning false teaching and reading what Jesus has to say about it, it must be better to be right and have some doubts. At least then I am willing to check things out. But if I am wrong and convinced otherwise, pride will keep me from examining what I believe.
Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!’ (Matthew 7:21-23)
This is one of the high standards in the Bible for discerning whether or not I am saved and belong to Jesus. It warns against self-deception regarding salvation and deception about living the Christian life. Perhaps the gravest sin is pride because when I think I am right based on nothing but the desire to be right all the time my life gets totally messed up.

Today’s reading says that one of the causes of self-deception is incorrectly understanding of what the Bible teaches about assurance. While it says we can “know” that we are saved, many people are deceived by the idea that all they have to do is pray the sinner’s prayer and after that, never doubt their salvation again.

I know many people in church and out of church who think that they are saved because they did what they were told and consider that prayer their “fire insurance.” Some of them, like these who approached Jesus, even seem to be zealous for God and if not miracles, they do perform good things.

So how can anyone be sure? If I prophesy in the name of Jesus, cast out demons, and do wonders in His name, and He says that is not good evidence, how can I know that I am saved?

As my reading says, salvation is not certified apart from “the convicting work of the Holy Spirit and the future evidence of spiritual fruit accompanied by obedience to God’s Word (John 8:31). Only God can give a person real assurance of salvation, by the Spirit working through His Word (see Romans 8:14–16).”

Some of this is too subjective for most people and I know that spiritual assurance can be a deception. Like others, I sometimes wonder why there are so many false teachers and so many on the “broad way to destruction” who seem to be doing good things in His name? Yet in these verses, Jesus says that they have missed the will of God. He tells them to leave. This flies contrary to most ideas about true and false Christianity.

Again, how can I know that what I believe is true? One way is being careful when I read passages such as this that I do not to interpret it out of context. Jesus has been explaining the law to the people. From this and other passages, I know that the law of God and the Word of God are superior to any miracles. Deuteronomy 13 says that even when something amazing happens, if it does not line up with the Word of God, the false teacher responsible for it is to be executed!

The key for assurance of salvation is not doing miracles, but doing the will of God. What is His will? In John 6:40, Jesus said, “And this is the will of Him who sent Me, that everyone who sees the Son and believes in Him may have everlasting life; and I will raise him up at the last day.”

The Bible is clear that God wants us to do good things, but before we can, Jesus said in verse 29 of John 6, “This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He sent.” Faith comes first, then out of that flow deeds done that comply with the will of God.

Salvation is all about what I do with Jesus. It is about trusting Him, not myself, my “faith” or my church affiliation. It isn’t even about trusting my ability to interpret Scripture or trusting the feelings of assurance that I have about being right with God. If I believe in, listen to, and follow Jesus, then I am doing the will of God, regardless of how I feel.

Jesus also said, “I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). Without Him, I can do nothing. I certainly cannot save myself. No matter how many doubts might run through my mind, or how many times I or other people question what I believe, trusting Jesus for eternal life is the one criterion that answers everything, not because I say so, but because He does.

August 21, 2009

No Light

A friend thinks and says she is a Christian, yet her words and actions do not match. This week I had opportunity to share with her some of the most basic Christian teachings, so basic that a young child who knows Christ would understand and receive them. I was given a polite brush-off.

This morning’s devotional reading is about just that. Paul writes to a young pastor and tells him that he needs to preach the Word of God and convince, rebuke and exhort his congregation with all longsuffering because,
The time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine. . . . But you be watchful in all things. (2 Timothy 4:3, 5)
Doing a quick count, I know at least a dozen people who fall into this category. They are churchgoers and “good” people, but they deny the fundamentals of the faith and in some cases are annoyed by solid biblical teaching.

The prophet Isaiah says that to recognize such teaching, pay attention to what the person says. He wrote, “To the law and to the testimony! If they do not speak according to this word, it is because there is no light in them” (Isaiah 8:20). That is, false creeds fail when examined under Scripture’s divine light and the person who speaks them cannot speak truth because God has not given them the ability or light to see it.

What I notice is that these dozen or so people never say anything about entering the kingdom of God through the new birth and through Christ’s narrow gate. They do not talk about walking on His narrow way. They will talk about loving God and humanity, but their definition of love is all about benevolent feelings and nothing close to the sacrificial love described in Scripture.

Also, false teaching always bases salvation and favor with God on human effort. They ignore the depth and danger of sin and stress instead that all humans are “basically good” so there is no need for repentance, forgiveness, and submission to Christ. After all, doesn’t God love everyone? They do not understand the concept of judgment, nor the need of Christ’s death on the cross, nor the necessity of believing in Him.

I once thought that if I just told them what the Bible says, they would see their error and turn to Christ. How naive. Sin is so rooted in the human heart that the Bible says,
There is none righteous, no, not one; there is none who understands; there is none who seeks after God. They have all turned aside; they have together become unprofitable; there is none who does good, no, not one. . . . There is no fear of God before their eyes. (Romans 3:10-12,18)
I read this and weep. I know that it applies to my friends, but I also know that apart from the grace of God it applies to me too. I have learned that my question should never be “Why doesn’t God save them?” but instead I wonder why God saved anyone?

August 20, 2009

Changed mind = changed life

Repentance is more than feeling sorry for something that I’ve done. I could be feeling sorry because I got caught, or because of unpleasant consequences from my actions. Those feelings might be legitimate, but they are not repentance.

The Bible word used for repentance means a change of mind. These days, that is often a frivolous statement that means very little, but God is clear about the fact that what goes on in our mind comes out in our actions. A true change of mind means a change of life.

With that, biblical repentance is turning away from sin, and to turn away from it leaves only one place to go, toward God who is sinless. This isn’t about emotion, although great emotion might accompany it. Instead, repentance is a decision, an action of choice.

When John the Baptist was calling people back to God, he said to the multitudes that came out to be baptized by him, “Brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Therefore bear fruits worthy of repentance, and do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I say to you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones” (Luke 3:7-8).

Evidently some thought that their Jewish heritage was enough to satisfy God. They were Jews and that would save them from God’s wrath. Today, the equivalent is claiming a Christian family background, or church attendance, or even a “religious” life, but God isn’t impressed by those things either. As John said, He is looking for a changed life, not any claim of belonging nor some religious affiliation, nor even of being a good person.

Sometimes I’ve looked at someone and said that they would make a good Christian, but that is a false idea. God isn’t impressed by what we are. Otherwise, Jesus would not have had to die. I came to God with nothing, for that is how He sees me. The Bible says,
For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.
The exciting thing isn’t what I can do, but what God will do for me once that gift is mine. Verse 10 says,
For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them. (Ephesians 2:8-10)
Salvation is a gift from God, and the proof of having it is a changed life, also a gift of God. I cannot bring anything to Him, not my parentage, nor heritage, nor goodness. Those things might be nice, but they cannot save anyone. It happens by grace through faith; both are His gifts. After that, the proof is good works that come from a mind and heart that He has changed.

These are true good works, the kind that are not selfishly motivated and done to impress people. They happen only through the help of Christ. Philippians 1 tells how Paul prayed for the Christians at Philippi that “you may approve the things that are excellent, that you may be sincere and without offense till the day of Christ, being filled with the fruits of righteousness which are by Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God” (Philippians 1:10-11).

The fruit or good works in their lives happened only because of Jesus. Jesus Himself said, “I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing” (John 15:5), and I know that is true.

All this being said, God has been teaching me that repentance is something I can choose. I may feel strongly sorry or have no emotions at all over whatever sin I want to turn from. Emotions are not the issue. And even though I cannot make new life happen, all I need to do is bring my sin and inability to change to Him. 1 John 1:9 is true; when I confess, “He is faithful and just to forgive my sin and cleanse me from all unrighteousness.”

I’ve often told people that this is the most important truth regarding Christian living. So many Christians strive very hard to change their lives. They try and try and try, only to fail repeatedly. Our lives change only by coming to God empty-handed, the same way we did for salvation. He, not me, is the Savior — from beginning to end, and through and through.

August 19, 2009

Listening and doing

A quiet time every day with God is important. It starts me off with worship and thanksgiving instead of worrying about myself and others. As I read His Word and talk to Him in prayer, He moves me to think about His will for me. This settles the focus and direction of my day.

My quiet time with God is also occasion to confess sin and be renewed, and a time to cast my cares on Him. My daily load is weighty enough without carrying burdens that do not belong to me.

The readings of these past few days have focused on false teachers. While I know that I must be alert to negative outside influences, I need to remember the positive of being true to God’s Word also. I can be wary of others, but must not neglect my own obligation to be true.

Jesus said the way to tell a false teacher is by their life. He said, “A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit” (Matthew 7:18).

One line in my reading today says that a fruit tree may be beautiful and decorative and offer refreshing shade, but its main purpose is to bear fruit. If I claim to be speaking truth from God, my words will be judged by how I live that truth in my own life. Plainly, I must ‘walk the talk.’

Because false prophets can deceive even genuine Christians, then even genuine Christians can become careless about the Word of God and indifferent toward prayer and His Word. Prayer is hard work, not a few quick “God bless so-and-so . . .” words. Spending time in the Bible is just that, spending time. Everyone is busy and it can be easy to skip devotions now and then, easy to step onto that slippery slope of not bothering with these spiritual disciplines.

Some days I am tempted. The to-do list is exceptionally long, or we are on holidays, or I need to be some place early in the morning, or the phone rings, or the doorbell. The list of interruptions and sources of temptation is long and varied. Would the world end if I missed my quiet time with God? Would my spiritual life shrivel up and die?

Jesus’ example of a fruit tree is good. To produce, trees need the right care. They need good soil, water, sunshine and fertilizer. We have a tree in the back that is supposed to produce small berries that are good for pies. It flowers. It looks good and smells nice, but the berries are few and far between. I don’t know what is missing in the life of that tree, but I do know that if I do not spend time with God each day, my life would be just as fruitless as that tree.

There are hundreds of commands in the Word of God and a fruitful person should be obeying them as far as possible. There are not enough hours in the day for one person to evangelize the world, teach other believers, feed the poor, take care of widows and orphans, pastor and shepherd God’s people, give time and money to those in need, counsel the hurting, and so on, but each person has to pay attention to the part God wants them to do. If I am not listening, I will miss my part. Daily devotions are one way to get into the habit of listening.

Yet even a well-fed tree can be fruitless. Listening is good; obedience must follow. When I listen, I stop planning what I want to do and discover God leading me into areas that I do not expect, even producing fruit that is a surprise. Yesterday He asked me to comfort someone who is hurting. I didn’t expect that. Today He has already asked me to speak to someone who has been deceived by false teaching. While I’ve prayed about what to do with her, I didn’t expect that either. When I plan my own days, I miss out on such things.

Life with Jesus Christ is an adventure, even a treasure hunt, but each day must begin with my Map and words with my Leader. Otherwise I might miss the wonderful things that He has planned for me. Besides that, daily reading and thinking about what I have read is the best protection against the dangers of false teachers, and the danger of becoming one.

August 18, 2009

Tested and True

An acquaintance sent me an email with a brightly colored attachment. It was “The Sayings of. . . .” a well-known, self-proclaimed prophet. I glanced at it and pressed the ‘delete’ key.

My devotional book seems stuck on false prophets right now. I’ve thought that they are not a problem, but the ‘To:’ line in that email was filled with names. Will those people know that this person is teaching anti-biblical stuff? The person that sent it claims to be a Christian. Obviously she doesn’t have any idea that what she is promoting falls into the category of what Jesus calls “bad fruit.”
Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes from thornbushes or figs from thistles? Even so, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Therefore by their fruits you will know them. (Matthew 7:15-20)
The early church was particularly vulnerable. They had the Old Testament, but the New Testament was still in the form of letters being circulated to each congregation. They didn’t have the full book of God’s guidelines as we do today. Still, they needed to watch out for false prophets.

As happens today, some people seized on Christianity as a way to make money. The early churches were wary of those who made excessive appeals for money. Paul, who preached the truth, was content with basic support and set a good example. He even engaged in part-time tent-making to provide his own needs. As for his ministry, he wrote, “For we are not, as so many, peddling the word of God; but as of sincerity, but as from God, we speak in the sight of God in Christ” (2 Corinthians 2:17).

In those days, the church was also wary of those who hung around too long. In other words, a true prophet didn’t wear out his welcome. His ministry and mission were more important so he kept moving. Those with false teaching were more interested in serving themselves and staying where the gravy flowed.

Then as now, those who taught the truth also lived it. While false teachers can mask their inner lives and fool others, they often teach one thing and practice another. I know a man that teaches anger management, but he himself easily flies into a rage. He does not have the Spirit of God so he cannot practice what he preaches.

Because Jesus lived what He taught and because He was totally selfless, Jesus could say, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No man comes to the Father except through Me” (John 14:6). He is the true prophet, and only those who teach what He taught and strive to live as He lived have a message I want to hear. No one else measures up.

August 17, 2009

When Cults come Calling

What do you do when people from a cult knock on your door? Some rudely tell them to go away. Others politely say they are not interested, or they buy whatever pamphlet they are selling and quickly close the door. Some engage in what usually winds up as an argument.

One of my relatives belongs to a cult. He seems to genuinely care about needy people and seems to mean well. When I read today’s devotional verse, I wondered how this applied to him.
Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. (Matthew 7:15)
A ferocious wolf is either hungry or threatened. Either way, it is far more concerned about its own self than it is about others. I know that members of this particular cult are told that they must sell a certain number of pamphlets each week to stay in good standing. They are trained in techniques of salesmanship that are designed to soften the hearts of those who will open their doors. They also must go out. It is not an option.

They are also taught that being rejected is a good thing. This is “persecution” and earns them favor. So regardless of the response they get, they have it worked out for their own benefit. It isn’t about serving Jesus Christ, nor is it about the eternal souls of those behind the door. For cult members, it is about doing what they are told so they will retain their place in the organization to which they belong. Any deviation in their beliefs or behavior puts them out.

Knowing these things makes a difference when anyone knocks on my door. They seldom do though. I’ve discovered that they use detailed city maps. Whenever they encounter a person who is truly following Jesus Christ and has a Spirit-filled word to say about their faith, that house is given an X on the map. They are told that such people are “tools of Satan” and must be totally avoided.

The reading for today gives good advice when encountering anyone who has been duped by false teachers. It points to Jude where Christians are warned against false prophets. Verse 21 tells me, “Keep yourselves in the love of God.”

This is a good reminder. I get angry at them and want to jump all over their ideas. But whatever I say will not be effective if I am sinful about it. I must depend on Jesus and have His attitude and guidance. The Bible gives me several good options, but even then I would pick the wrong one if I didn’t listen to Him.

Jude 22 says, “Be merciful to those who doubt,” and reminds me of two women who came to my door. One was obviously the trainer while the other, an older woman, was being taught how to peddle their wares. I soon discovered that the older woman had no assurance of God’s love for her. She expressed a desire to “know for sure” and I offered her a few verses that say those who trust in Jesus can know. However, the other woman grabbed her arm and pulled her away. She could not get herself and this doubting trainee off of my step fast enough.

Verse 23 says, “But others save (or try to save), pulling them out of the fire, hating even the garment defiled by the flesh.” That is, some are already in deep trouble with God because they have been so defiled by their fleshy, sinful nature. If possible, I’m to pull them away from that and rescue them — before it is too late.

Some see a third response in these verses. It is a charge to confront false teachers and their followers and convict them of their sin. This means depending on the Lord to know what to say and how to say it. It also means that if I enter into dialog with them, I must be careful to avoid the influence of their unscriptural ideas.

For me, I really must listen to the Holy Spirit. Sometimes I will talk to those who knock on my door, as the Spirit leads me. But I know the power of the enemy and realize that what I say must be Spirit-driven. Otherwise, it makes no difference. In fact, they may take the truth I give them back to their own meetings and figure out a way to use it so they will appear to be “genuine Christians” even though they do not believe a word of what I said.

In Matthew 7, Jesus told His disciples, “Do not give what is holy to the dogs; nor cast your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you in pieces” (Matthew 7:6). I cannot call these people by those names, because my relative is one of them, but I need to listen to Jesus. If someone is so deeply hooked by false teaching that they are total enemies of the Gospel, then I must simply close the door.

In all this I remember this: when people come to my door with false teaching, they are souls for whom Christ died. They also may have a relative who is a genuine Christian and who prays daily for their salvation. I must depend on Jesus for the best response because what I do could be part of His plan for their eternal destiny.

August 16, 2009

Truth Testing

In those beginning days of using email and the Internet, like everyone else I panicked when that first “virus warning” landed in my mailbox. I sent it to everyone, just like most people do. However, a more experienced friend pointed out that almost all of these warnings are hoaxes.

This friend also showed me how to discern true from false. I could go to the websites of those who know and see what the experts have to say about each message. Since then, I’ve disregarded most of these “warnings” and discouraged others from passing false information. Instead, they should first test it.

Jesus said the same thing about spiritual truth and warned about those who pass along false information.
Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes from thornbushes or figs from thistles? (Matthew 7:15-16)
My devotional reading points out that a false teacher isn’t going to identify himself as such. Instead, they claim to be from God and that they speak for Him. Jeremiah 5:31 says, “The prophets prophesy falsely, and the priests rule by their own power; and My people love to have it so.”

In those days as well as today, false teachers can be difficult to identify. Today, they usually appear to be nice people with pleasant and positive attitudes. They know how to talk and act like Christians and seem very sincere. They also seem happy and well adjusted. As far as judging them by their attitude, that is not easy.

They cannot be judged by the size of their following either. Many false teachers have thousands and even millions of followers. While Jesus did say that many are on that broad way that leads to destruction, there is a tendency to ask how so many people could be wrong. They even do good things that seem right. Just as the Bible mentions, some who prophesy, or cast out demons, or do miracles in Jesus’ Name. People must have wondered then as they do today, “What is greater evidence of authority than these things?”

During the time written of in Matthew, Christ was interpreting the Old Testament law for the people. He made it clear that the Word of God is superior to any miracle. Even the early Scriptures said that if a sign or prediction actually did come to pass, if the message is not according to the Word of God it was to be rejected and false teachers were to be executed (See Deuteronomy 13).

When Jesus offered these words in Matthew 7, the people also must have wondered how to tell the difference between true and false. To help them, Jesus told of two houses. One was built on the sand and the other on the rocks. The key difference between them was not their external appearance, but how they stood up when tested.

Just like the houses, the scribes and Pharisees seemed to be as righteous as those who put their faith in Jesus, but the difference was in their foundations and in how they passed the tests.

As I think about this, the best way to identify a false prophet is by testing what they teach. Some may never mention basic doctrines such as Christ’s deity and His sacrificial and substitutionary atonement. Some will not agree about the sinfulness of humanity, or that unbelievers’ are destined for eternal separation from God in hell. Yet whenever they say anything about spiritual matters, it must be carefully examined.

The Bible talks about the Bereans who “were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true” (Acts 17:11).

This is what God wants Christians to do. We need to discern true from false. We should check out what they say, and even check out what other Christians say. The Bereans may not have been suspicious of Paul but that they realized how easily the human heart can be duped. They also knew that the only way to know for sure whether someone is passing on truth is by checking it out with the expert on truth, the Word of God.

August 15, 2009

Testing Truth

How do you know what you know is true? I’ve often answered this huge philosophical question with subjective reasons, but realized that deception is just as convincing as truth. Whenever I’ve believed a lie, I’ve thought it was true. Otherwise, I would not have believed it.

So I dropped that, and now my way of testing for truth is twofold: consider the source, and consider how it lines up with Jesus Christ.

This test works for all of life because Jesus is the center of my life, not just my religious leader. He governs and helps me with relationships, work, making decisions of all kinds, and is even involved in my recreation. Because He is truth embodied, I trust Him totally. When I hear anything new, I am learning to ask myself how this new thing, whatever it is, compares to the life, teaching, and purposes of Jesus Christ. Does it fit with who He is and what He stands for? Will this promote Christlikeness in my life? Or will it draw me away from Him?

In the realm of spiritual truth, Jesus warned there would be false teachers. While He promises to keep His people from total deception, He tells us to be on guard.
For false christs and false prophets will rise and show signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect. (Mark 13:22)
As my reading today says, false prophets have been around since the beginning of redemptive history. One of the early books in the Old Testament also warns God’s people about them.
If there arises among you a prophet or a dreamer of dreams, and he gives you a sign or a wonder, and the sign or the wonder comes to pass, of which he spoke to you, saying, ‘Let us go after other gods’—which you have not known — ‘and let us serve them,’ you shall not listen to the words of that prophet or that dreamer of dreams, for the Lord your God is testing you to know whether you love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul. (Deuteronomy 13:1-3)
Obviously these false prophets are subtle and their deception finds ears. If we were not so easily led astray, the Bible would not have to warn us and Jesus would never have said, “Take heed that no one deceives you. For many will come in My name . . . and will deceive many” (Matthew 24:4-5).

They still exist today. They come by twos to my door, well-meaning and earnest, but their teaching does not match up with His teaching. Their source is human reasoning and self-centered desires, not the Word of God. They show up in other realms, some less subtle yet most often in religious garb. We see them depicted in television shows, often as the nutty ones who use their “faith” as motivation for horrid crimes.

Jesus said that we would also know false teachers by their fruit, yet sometimes that fruit is not revealed for a long time, or we are not sure what we are looking for. I’ve known Christians who measure true and false by how “nice” the bearer is, not by the content of what they say. This is dangerous and something Jesus never practiced.

I know that false teachers and prophets enjoy popularity simply because many people do not want to hear the truth. I also know that the truth can hurt. Jesus takes me to task for my sinful selfishness. If I hold tightly to my I-wants, it hurts when He pries my fingers loose.

Yet Jesus also said, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:32). Being wary of false teaching is part of being a free person, of knowing victory over sin, and victory over lies and deception. It takes diligent study in the written Word of God, and determination to listen to and follow the Living Word of God, but because truth and freedom walk hand in hand, I do not want false prophets or deception to hang around.

August 14, 2009

No hint of pride allowed

Jesus is a black and white person. I’m not talking about skin-color. He is dogmatic and spells out truth in definite terms. His descriptions of spiritual realities are never wishy-washy or vague and people are either saved for eternity or they are not. However, statements like this are not an excuse to consider myself superior. Jesus said,
Enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it. Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it. (Matthew 7:13-14)
Years ago I talked about my faith with a Jewish man. He said, “How arrogant of you to think that you can know you are right with God.”

At first, I defended my belief; the Bible does say that a person can know for sure that they are forgiven and have eternal life. Now I realize that it wasn’t my claim to eternal life that upset him as much as it was my arrogance. Back then, I would use verses like the ones above to justify my attitude that this life is made up of “us” and “them” and that I belonged to the right group.

Spiritual growth means learning to read and interpret statements like this in their context. Jesus was talking to a group of people who looked down on their noses at outsiders. They were spiritual elitists who needed His warnings about judging others. While He did acknowledge that there are two groups, He never gave either of them permission to abuse or malign the other. Instead He told them to ask God for help with the godly way to behave, and offered His people what we now call the Golden Rule.

After telling them to treat others as they wanted to be treated, Jesus made this statement about the narrow gate. If I read it right, this is an admonition to those who are hung up on judging others and are not obeying that Rule. Instead, they abuse “outsiders” and are very likely on the same path. That is, such behavior indicates that both those who unjustly judge and those they judge are on the broad way. This way could also be called the way of “everybody does it” and that prideful attitude leads to destruction.

The narrow way is not about acting superior, or putting people down. Jesus says that few people who have that attitude can find the narrow gate that leads to life. For the proud, this way is too confining, too difficult, because it is about humility. It is about realizing that I have done nothing, zero, nada, zip, to earn or deserve the blessings of God. I cannot be arrogant.

How often my heart protests such confinement. I want to boast, to be somebody, to be noticed and recognized. But, as my Jewish friend noted, even when I am trying to glorify God, if that attitude is present, it will present itself and by it, everything I say or do will be ruined.

August 13, 2009

Do unto others . . .

Are children the only ones who wish for a genie in a bottle who would grant all their wishes? Or am I the only adult that wishes it was possible?

When I read today’s Scripture, I started to think how much these two verses make God sound like a genie in a bottle, a mighty person who makes our every wish His command.
Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened. (Matthew 7:7-8)
Anyone who has ever prayed knows that no one can tell God what to do and He does it. He is not our slave. But why then did Jesus say these words? Has this given false hope to some who, after asking, seeking and knocking without answers, went away discouraged?

This morning’s newspaper tells of a Christian family on vacation. Their church prayed for them before they left, asking God for a safe journey. The father and daughter were killed in what seems like an unexplainable accident. The mother was asleep and is still alive, but she does not know why their car went through the highway median into the path of a truck. The church spokesperson said that they not only have to deal with this tragedy, but with the question of why God did not answer their prayers.

I relate. I’ve prayed hundreds, maybe thousands of prayers that have not been answered yet. God is either saying No, or Wait. I am sometimes confused as well. Most of my prayers seem to be clearly requests that are in the realm of His revealed will. That is, I am certain He wants the same thing, such as the salvation of souls or a holy and pleasing life for myself and other believers. Yet those souls are still lost and most of us continually struggle with sin.

I know God is not a cosmic genie, nor is He the slave and I am the master. God is God. Part of being a Christian is realizing that this is so. He does what He does and, whether we understand it or not, He has every right and all wisdom to rule the world and our lives in whatever way He knows best.

These verses from Matthew are not a blank check for us to fill in with all those things we want, or cannot find, or wish were opened up to us. Instead, they need to be understood in their context.

In previous verses, Jesus was talking about how Christians can polarize their responses to people who are antagonistic toward Him and toward our faith. He told us not to judge them (we are just as guilty of sin), but also not to treat them as if they were buddies and offer them God’s good news if they are going to reject it anyway.

When I hear these commands, I seriously wonder how I am supposed to respond to people like this. Then Jesus says “ask, seek and knock.” This encouragement about prayer is for me when I am in a situation with another person who stands against what I believe and what the Bible says. In that situation, if I ask God for wisdom, I will receive it. If I seek words to say or correct responses, He will give them to me. If I want doors opened in the form of opportunities to treat this person with Christian love, He will open those doors.

In other words, instead of judging them for their lack of faith or their sins, and instead of trying to overlook what they do and “cast my pearls” only to have them rejected, I am to pray, asking, seeking, knocking. Prayer is the Christian response rather than the polar extremes of rejection and blind acceptance. Jesus then sums it up with the familiar words of verse 12, in the words we have come to call the Golden Rule.
Therefore, whatever you want men to do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets. (Matthew 7:12)
I want intolerant people who despise Christianity to treat me with respect, not harshly judge me, or worse, treat me as if I am the same as they are. While I know they will not pray for me (because most do not believe God answers prayer), Jesus assures me that my response must be prayer for them and for myself, so I can obey this wonderful rule from the bottom of my heart. It is this kind of praying that He promises will always receive a YES answer.

August 12, 2009

Counting the Cost

Very few parts of the world have as many cultural Christians as North America. Here, a great percentage claim to be Christians (because their parents were?) yet have no idea what it means to follow Jesus Christ. It might sound like a good thing, but may also be a false assurance of their actual standing with God.

Becoming a Christian is easy, but following Jesus is not easy, nor is it a trivial matter. This is a lifestyle of self-denial in the most ordinary things. Jesus calls me to abide in Him and rely on His power at all times. I must be willing to forsake my own way for His, even when doing so is an inconvenience to say the least, and even when I don’t fully understand why He wants it that way. I must also accept that following Him could result in being misunderstood, persecuted and ridiculed. It goes even farther. Jesus said,
If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and his own life also, he cannot be My disciple. And whoever does not bear his cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple. For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not sit down first and count the cost, whether he has enough to finish it — lest, after he has laid the foundation, and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish.’ Or what king, going to make war against another king, does not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand? Or else, while the other is still a great way off, he sends a delegation and asks conditions of peace. So likewise, whoever of you does not forsake all that he has cannot be My disciple. “Salt is good; but if the salt has lost its flavor, how shall it be seasoned? It is neither fit for the land nor for the dunghill, but men throw it out. He who has ears to hear, let him hear! (Luke 14:26-35)
These are strong words. Sometimes Christians soften that “hate” with talk about priorities, that Jesus must come before family, but following Jesus isn’t putting Him at the top of a priority list, but making Him the center of everything. Some of my family think that my faith is foolish, yet dare I value their opinion more than His?

I didn’t do anything to earn or deserve salvation or eternal life, but this life involves becoming like Jesus. It means dropping what I want and engaging in a battle against enemies totally opposed to that happening. Without absolute surrender of self the contest is hopeless.

Yet on the other side of this warning about the cost of discipleship, Jesus promises joy. He says His joy does not depend on circumstances. No matter what kind of trials I face or what people do to me, His joy comes from a well that never runs dry. It bubbles up and sustains me in those trials. It is a joy that no one can take from me (John 16:22).

This world can be a tough place to live, even for those without faith. However, Jesus says, “Be of good cheer, I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). Because of Him, I can follow Him. It isn’t about my power or strength because His strength is perfected in weakness. It isn’t about the amount of faith I have either, for faith like a mustard seed can move mountains. It is about Jesus, and when He is at the center of my life, the tough stuff can be conquered.

August 11, 2009

Jesus lightens the load!

When our children were small, we had a black Labrador dog named Pepper. Our daughter really wanted a horse, but she loved Pepper and he filled in until she could get a pony. She rigged harness from binder twine and had the dog pull her wagon and act like a horse.

Pepper loved it. He patiently stood while she hitched him up and never once resisted her make-believe. I’ve seen other dogs who would resist such demands, even bite anyone who tried it, but not this one.

Pepper no doubt had a good disposition, but I’m sure that the attitude of our daughter had some bearing on his delight to serve her. She loved that dog and was gentle and kind to it, talking and encouraging with her voice and helping him do the job she wanted. I’m sure Pepper knew that he was precious to her. I thought of him and her attitude when I read these verses this morning.
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)
Jesus invites those who carry heavy loads to come to Him. He can make the load seem like nothing. In fact, the New Testament language here indicates that the burden is a full load of freight, but the second word describing His load is only the paper invoice.

My life is filled with what could look like burdens. I’m responsible for enough tasks that people often say, “How do you get so much done?” or “What a lot of work . . . I don’t have the patience.” However, I’ve noticed when it comes to Bible study preparation or teaching Sunday school or anything directly involved with church ministry, my Christian friends never say that. I’m wondering if this is because they know the difference between heavy burdens and doing things with Christ beside me in the same yoke?

My ‘verse for the year’ is John 15:5, “I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). After years of being a Christian, I still need reminders of the importance of abiding in Him, of obeying Him and doing His work His way. It is the same as doing as He asks instead of taking on too much. It is taking on His yoke instead of a large load that is too much for me.

I’ve also learned that it applies to everything on my list: work in my home, designing and updating web pages, my responsibilities in a writer’s group, all art projects, and teaching both at church and in quilting classes. Apart from Christ, everything on that list is difficult or takes a long time, or becomes tedious or boring. He makes everything easier and lighter, and that is the secret.

When I am relying on Him and abiding in Him, the task is joyful. He gives me a new attitude, and like Pepper, I can gladly be a workhorse, if that is what He wants me to do. Because of Jesus, my to-do list is merely a piece of paper and each task feels like paper is all that I am carrying. He makes the difference between a full load and an invoice.

August 10, 2009

A narrow way?

A West Indian man chose Islam over Christianity because to him Islam “is a noble, broad path with room for a man and his sins on it. The way of Christ is too narrow.”

My devotional reading laments that too many professing Christians today don’t see the issue as clearly as this Muslim man and fail to understand or accept Jesus’ definition of the narrow way. They don’t see it as a “difficult or demanding way” and “a life of self-denial and intense effort.”

I’ve mixed thoughts as I read this. I do understand that this gate refers to how a person can have eternal life and that the gate is narrow. According to Jesus, it is limited to one way and one gate. For this, Christians are said to be “narrow-minded” but our idea of salvation does not come from our own perspective or desire to be exclusive, but from Jesus who said things like this:
Enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it. Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it. (Matthew 7:13-14)
The broad way (or the broad-minded way) includes every other idea about religion and spiritual matters, including the effort to earn or deserve God’s favor, getting stuck in a religious system of rules that supposedly please God, or even the idea that there is no heaven or afterlife. Jesus lumps everything else but Himself into the broad way when He says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.” (John 14:6)

This is not a new teaching. For instance, Proverbs 14:12 hints at it with, “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death.”

This narrow gate to God is offensive because it also says we are sinners, cannot save ourselves, and that Jesus died in our place. To be saved, we have to accept those things, admit that they are true, and put our faith in Him, not in anything we can do. It also says the broad way has only one result — eternal condemnation and separation from God.

However, this verse and today’s reading imply that the narrow way also means that the walk of a Christian is restricted and difficult, making demands that are not pleasant and require intense effort. Here is where I have mixed feelings. In one sense, this is true, but in another sense it is not.

Once through the gate, walking with Jesus does ask that I stay there. I cannot go back to my old sinful ways and prosper or have a spiritual fruitful life, but must rely on Jesus for everything. He is the boss and I must do everything He says. That is demanding, yet as I walk with Jesus, it seems that my life has expanded and my sense of freedom is enlarged. How can that be?

Perhaps Jesus talked about the narrow way and the narrow gate to deter triflers. He didn’t want anyone to buy in without counting the cost and then later bail out because they didn’t want this self-denial stuff of the narrow way. That makes sense. Start and stop Christians are a poor testimony of His saving power. He wanted people to be certain that they cannot do this on their own. Salvation is about letting Jesus take charge of my life and knowing that I cannot live the Christian life apart from Him. Trusting Him totally means that I must be fully aware that the way of faith is simply too difficult, too narrow to trust myself and my own ideas.

However, Jesus also said, “I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly” (John 10:10). That means that after going through the narrow gate I must stay on the narrow way and when I do, my life is richer and fuller than I ever thought possible.

I understand the reasoning of those who choose that broad way that allows sin. I also understand that up front all they can see is a narrow gate. Oh that they could just step through it and see the wonder and the freedom that is on the path on the other side.

August 9, 2009

Living by Faith

This illustration is a cliché, yet still a good illustration. If someone told me my house was on fire, but I could not see or smell the evidence, then my actions would depend on whether or not I believed that person. Without any evidence, my trust in them would be based on whether he always told the truth and whether his life matched his words. If I believed him, of course I would get out of my house.

James wrote a letter to the early church warning them that if their faith was real, it would result in a changed life. They would act differently based on what they believed.
If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,” but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit? Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. (James 2:15-17)
His illustration is a bit odd. There are many people who do not have faith in Jesus Christ and still take care of the needy around them. How can this action then be an evidence of faith?

My quick answer is that James gave more illustrations. He reminded them about Abraham who took his son up a mountain and prepared to sacrifice him because God told him to, and even though it was a test and God stopped him, Abraham didn’t know that. He did it because he believed God.

James also told about a woman who risked her life to protect God’s people. She trusted God and knew that doing right was more important than being worried about her own skin.

Faith in Jesus Christ is more than fire insurance regarding eternity. In fact, that kind of faith might not pass this works-evidence test. Instead, faith is trusting all of life (not just the end of life) to Jesus because I believe He is God in human flesh who died for my sins and rose from the dead. He has credentials. What He says is true. I can base not only my death, but also my life on Him.

James’ illustration about the care of the needy leaves out something that other parts of the Bible fill in — motivation. I don’t know the motivations of pagan philanthropists, but from what Jesus said in Matthew, they do it to be “seen of men” rather than to please God.

Besides that, most of the generosity I see outside the church is from people who have lots of money to give away. Yet James doesn’t qualify his illustration. While God never expects me to give away what is not mine to give, He does ask me to give whatever I have — trusting Him to supply my need. That is the difference. A rich person checks his bank account before opening his wallet, but a person of faith looks up to God who filled that wallet in the first place. Genuine faith knows that He is the source of all we need and He will take care of us. He can fill that purse again.

Using the illustrations James gives, faith is real when God’s people do what He says even though His commands seem strange or immensely sacrificial. Faith is real when we put the lives of His people before our own. And faith is real when He looks at the heart as we empty our purse to supply the needs of someone else and sees the strong conviction that we don’t have to worry about ourselves and our own needs because He will take care of us.

Faith is a gift, but not a gift without substance. It is not “blind” or based on feelings or hunches. Romans 10:17 says faith comes by hearing the Word of God. The more I listen to Him speaking to me, the more I know about who He is and what He has done, and the more I trust Him. It is only natural that trusting Him means acting like it.

August 8, 2009

The view from the inside

On the outside, rural homes in Scotland
and many in the cities look like this photograph. Obviously many are not this old, but the shape, stone structure and a chimney on each end are typical. However, if I didn’t know it already, these homes teach me to never judge by the exterior.

On the inside, many of these rustic looking buildings are modern with every convenience. We stayed in one with contemporary decor, large rooms, and a Jacuzzi tub right out of the most recent catalog. Others are more like their old stone exterior with appliances and fixtures at least seventy-five years old and big chips in the walls.

The difference between the outside and the inside reminds me of the kingdom of God. From an outside view, I had a totally different impression than I do now. Back then, it appeared confining, rigid and not very practical or appealing. From the outside I could not see how delighted I would be if I went inside, nor how much God would change my life once He brought me through the door.

Jesus knew all this. When He walked this earth, He tried to explain His kingdom in parables, but even His disciples couldn’t see it because they were on the outside. For this reason, His message remained relatively simple. He invited them to come inside using these words:
Now after John was put in prison, Jesus came to Galilee, preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.” (Mark 1:14-15)
Those who heard Him struggled with this invitation. Maybe they tripped over the same things that bothered me. For instance, I didn’t have a clue about repentance. Jesus might as well have told a bird to be a Cocker Spaniel or a mouse to be a mountain as to say that I must repent and believe. I had no interest in doing that, and even when I became more interested, this command made no sense to me. Had He said, “Stop doing bad things and start doing good things” I would have understood, but even then, I knew that I could not do it. Leopards do not change their spots and sinners cannot stop sinning, at least without a major intervention.

Jesus intervened. He who called Himself the Way and the Door took me inside, turning me from sin to God. In here, I can see more clearly. I know now that repentance and believing are something I could not do myself. Jesus did something to me; He changed the way that I think about sin. What I once loved and chased after, I now hate and try to avoid.

Further, what I once could not understand much less believe or put my faith in, I now believe with all my heart and stake my life on it. Most important, I also know that these things happened after Jesus came into my life and gave me faith and a new heart. I could not do it, but He could.

I also realize that Jesus was telling religious people what kingdom life was like. His statement was a command about entering, but it was even more a description of the inside: kingdom people have repented and believed the gospel. From that description did they know where there stood spiritually? Did they know they had not yet entered?

Now that I am in the kingdom, I understand that no matter what religion a person belongs to, or what good deeds that they might do, without repentance and faith in Jesus Christ they are still on the outside. Out there, sin blinded my minds to spiritual realities making it impossible to have a true perspective of His kingdom or kingdom life, but on the inside is an amazing privilege. Spiritual sight is a gift from God. It looks so different in here.

Christ’s invitation still stands. The kingdom is near for He is never far away. He continues to seek and to save anyone who needs to repent and believe.