Saturday, January 31, 2009

The Gospel Truth

The “gospel truth” is a common expression used to affirm that whatever is being said is as true as true can be; it should be accepted and promoted as infallible truth. Yet in my black and white mind, truth is truth; there are no degrees of it as implied by this expression.

This morning’s verse is “So, as much as is in me, I am ready to preach the gospel to you who are in Rome also” (Romans 1:15). Paul writes this to the church in Rome and to us, revealing his wholehearted commitment to share the gospel of Jesus Christ with anyone and everyone. However, as Paul found out, and as all Christians discover, many people might easily believe something called “the gospel truth” but will not believe the truth of the gospel.

My dictionary says that the gospel is the message concerning Christ, the kingdom of God, and salvation. That hardly begins to give the entire description. In fact, it takes all sixty-six books of the Bible to declare it.

The best I can say is that the gospel is God’s message to us of His grace. God the Son came to earth as a man, still fully God but also fully man. He lived and ministered for three years, doing good and healing the sick, giving much evidence that He was no mere man. Then He was crucified, buried, and after three days rose from the dead, all this to atone for our sin and redeem sinners from their bondage to sin through faith in Him. This faith puts believers into the family of God and the kingdom of God. We are saved from the penalty of sin, are being saved from the power of sin, and have His assurance of full deliverance from it in heaven. Those who believe in Christ are indwelt by Him and have His life — eternal life.

The gospel can scarcely be put in few words, yet combined with the power of the Holy Spirit to open the eyes and hearts of those in bondage to sin, the gospel is the power of God to save sinners. It reveals the very heart of God and His saving grace. It also reveals that mankind is lost in sin and without the gospel doomed to life here and life forever without God, separated from Him by sin.

I understand why the gospel offends. No one wants to be told they are sinful and unacceptable to God. No one wants to hear that they cannot do anything to please God or save themselves. We all need Jesus, but a proud heart resists needing anyone or anything, never mind a Jewish carpenter who, in their mind, is only a common cuss word.

I also understand why the gospel is the power of God, mostly because it saved me. I have been delivered from sin, not that I never sin but that God no longer holds that against me. He put my sin on Christ and I am forgiven. I sit here and marvel at the “gospel truth” and the reality of that freedom. I am free to worship and love the Lord God, not because of anything I have done but because Jesus saved me.

And I also understand why Paul was ready to give his life for the gospel. He too knew its saving power, but he also knew that no matter how many people rejected his message, or even persecuted him for delivering it, he was safe in the care of God and unconcerned. No matter what happened to him, his eternity was guaranteed — and that also is the gospel truth.

Friday, January 30, 2009

God’s love is not choosy

Using a devotional guide for my quiet time forces me to think in ways I might otherwise avoid. Today’s simple verse did just that. It is Paul writing, “I am a debtor both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to wise and to unwise” (Romans 1:14).

The Greeks were cultured and refined; the barbarians rough and uncivilized. However, Paul didn’t make a distinction between them. God had done so much for him that he felt obliged to take the Gospel to everyone, no matter their so-called value as people or their status in the eyes of the world.

The author of Truth for Today illustrates by asking what a person should do if they saw a house on fire with a family inside and unaware of their dire situation. Would anyone stand on the curb and wonder if they’re worth saving? Not likely. If I know someone is in need and I have the information that can save them, I am obligated to do so.

I could argue that not everyone is so obviously needy, either to me or to themselves. Many appear to have their lives in order, while others are certain they know it all, even when they don’t. Some people are more interesting to talk to; some are more interested in what I might say. Many with spiritual needs think that they are just fine as is, so are not interested in the information that can save them. Aside from those realities, and to be totally honest, there are a few people that I find obnoxious and would rather not share anything with them.

This short statement by Paul convicts me about all this. He was obligated by his debt to God and did not make distinctions concerning who was worthy or not or even who was interested or not. He didn’t have the prejudices that he had grown up with (Jews hated Gentiles), but instead allowed the love of God to motivate him. He ministered to everyone.

The author of my devotional is a preacher who studies hours each day in preparation for information-packed Sunday messages. He says that sometimes the Scripture passages are so exhilarating that he can hardly wait to get to Sunday, but other times he battles priorities that crowd his study time, and his ministry doesn’t seem so exciting. He must fight his way through those times because “I know I have a debt to God.”

Instead of avoiding or turning away from those that I would rather not talk to, I need to be motivated by that same debt. I might not feel like it, but caring about others isn’t about me. How selfish and narrow-minded to think that I can pick and choose. I’ve not learned anything about love and being a servant of the Lord if I do that. If I cannot “feel like it” as I should, the least I can do is remember that I am in debt to God for all that He has done for me. Even though I cannot ever actually pay off that debt, the least I can do is love others the way that He loves me.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

The fruit of my labor

My father was a farmer. It was natural that the family benefit from his crop, whether it was grain or livestock. We drank milk from our cows, ate vegetables from our garden and meat from our herds. I thought of my dad when I read today’s devotional verses.
No one engaged in warfare entangles himself with the affairs of this life, that he may please him who enlisted him as a soldier. And also if anyone competes in athletics, he is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules. The hardworking farmer must be first to partake of the crops. Consider what I say, and may the Lord give you understanding in all things. (2 Timothy 2:4-7)
Paul is writing about the attitudes and motivations of spiritual leaders and uses three metaphors. The first is that spiritual leaders must focus on what God gave them to do. Like a soldier, they cannot dabble in outside concerns. Their work involves a spiritual battle and they must focus to win that war.

My father did not go to battle in WWII but he did teach us that we should do as we were told, a value that carried into our employment years and spiritual lives. This is a lifetime war. As a Christian, I’m still fighting the battle between listening to God and being tempted by the pull of the world around me, even though I know that everything in this world will no longer exist or be necessary in eternity. It isn’t only leaders who are in that war, but all servants of Christ.

The second metaphor is about the importance of doing God’s work in God’s way. Every four years we see Olympic athletes perform according to the rules. One infraction could mean a loss of their standing, even the loss of a medal. They are very careful to obey every regulation in their sport.

This is important for me too. God lays out His plan. I cannot do things my way and risk losing a place of ministry on His team. I’ve tried that — much to my regret. Even though He restores His wayward servants, learning the lesson of total obedience comes with regrets — besides seeming like a huge waste of time.

The farmer illustrates the reward of serving God. As my devotional writer says, a pastor can be tempted to do what he does for prestige, acceptance, or money, but one who serves with his whole heart will be content only with spiritual fruit.

This means that the love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control (Galatians 5:22-23) given by the Holy Spirit to those who deny self and obey God is its own reward. What a wonderful truth!

People think that prestige, acceptance, or money will make them happy, so the world offers happiness when things go right, when I am popular, elevated, well-paid and so on. However, the Holy Spirit offers joy with or without those things. The joy of the Lord produces a stability and strength known only to those who experience its outpouring.

It is the same with each of these characteristics described in Galatians 5. When I love others, and am kind and patient with them, when I am at peace and joyful in my heart regardless of circumstances, when I can be good, gentle and faithful, and when I have that God-given self-control, there is nothing more to want; I am totally content. There will be rewards in heaven, but this is my here-and-now reward!

My father did not become a Christian until late in his life, yet the Lord used farming to teach him many things. I’m sure that when the Holy Spirit finally took up residence in his heart, he had an understanding from those farming lessons that he may otherwise have not known.

For me, the lesson and reminder today is to be happy with the fruit. The other stuff will come and go, but the Holy Spirit and His blessings are mine forever.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Another way to show love

When our children were small, one of them developed whooping cough from the immunization shot. He would cough until he was not getting enough air, turn blue, pass out, then breathe. With so much coughing, his little rib cage became misshapen. Finally, the doctor suggested steam. We had a bathroom that was tiled floor to ceiling, so I filled the tub with hot water and sat in there with him.

In a few days, he began to recover and survived this ordeal. He has been healthy and strong ever since. As for me, that sick spell involved an entire month in which I never slept longer than two hours at a time. At the time, I wasn’t thinking about myself. I was concerned only about my children and this child, and how I could take care of that little boy and get him well again.

This morning I’m reading in 1 Thessalonians and reminded of what those long days and nights were like, and that this is what the love of God is like also:
But we were gentle among you, just as a nursing mother cherishes her own children. So, affectionately longing for you, we were well pleased to impart to you not only the gospel of God, but also our own lives, because you had become dear to us. For you remember, brethren, our labor and toil; for laboring night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you, we preached to you the gospel of God. (1 Thessalonians 2:7-9)
Paul was what is now called a bi-vocational pastor. The congregation at Thessalonica may have been able to support him, but he didn’t want to burden them. Instead, he had another job; he was a tent-maker as well as their spiritual leader. He put his own comfort aside so that they didn’t need to worry about his needs as well as their own.

The love of God is like that. It means when I love others I will put my own comfort and convenience aside for their sake. It is giving of myself to the point that I’m not even thinking about myself. Instead, the needs of others take priority and if I can meet those needs, I will do so, recognizing that it will cost me something, but not concerned about that cost to myself.

In this culture, the prevailing attitude is “me first.” I see it as a driver on the streets, a shopper in the stores, and in almost all areas of life out there. These days, people maneuver their vehicles around town without signaling their turns, cutting in on other drivers, and shoving their way into line. Some act as if they are the only people on the road. As my daughter says, the problem with people is that everyone is thinking only about themselves.

Yet I cannot do anything about other people (except complain, which is a waste of energy). I can only deal with my own self, or at least confess my selfishness and ask God to help me be considerate toward others.

Actually, God wants me to be more than considerate. I’m to live in His love which shows up much like what Paul did in Thessalonica. I’m also to be willing to care about others to the point that I will give of myself, concerned that I not be a burden to them but only a support and encouragement.

This is one more way to demonstrate the love of God that He sheds abroad in my heart through faith in Jesus Christ.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

More than one way to show love

Spiritual gifts have a great deal to do with how a Christian will show love. From the list of seven such gifts in Romans 12, I see seven ways that I could be motivated to let people know that God cares about them and that I care also.

The gifts in this passage are prophecy, serving, teaching, exhorting, giving, administration, and showing mercy. After years of studying them, my conclusion is that all Christians have all seven, but each believer is motivated by the same one or two gifts most of the time. These are our dominant spiritual gifts.

I’ve also noticed that the people with a dominant prophetic gift (sometimes called perceivers) are mostly concerned with another person’s spiritual health. The servers want to meet practical needs. The teachers want people to think right, and so on. That means, when a server wants to show love, they will bring a need person a meal, fix their lawn mower, drive them to an appointment, etc. A giver will want to pay their bills and an administrator will offer to help with time management or organizational issues. A teacher is most apt to bring them a book.

Sometimes this is a struggle for me. By taking gift tests and watching how God uses me, my top gifts are tied between teacher and perceiver. I’m the person who wants spiritual wholeness and right thinking, and tend to do a lot of research to find out both. If someone is sick, or suffering a loss, I’m awkward and struggle with showing compassion. I can more easily wash their dishes or plant their garden, but when it comes to emotional encouragement, I tend to assume that if they are right with God and are thinking biblically, they will feel better. This isn’t necessarily the best way to show love to someone with a broken leg.

I usually don’t try to guess the motivating gifts of others, but I do encourage other Christians to take the tests for themselves. However, knowing about gifts and how they work tends to give me a better understanding of how other people think. It also validates my own thinking, especially when I feel like a fish out of water. These gifts make me aware that all Christians are needed, and in life’s situations, some are more equipped than others, depending on the nature of those situations. None of us can do it all.

Paul’s letter to the Romans begins with a statement about his desire to visit them. He says, “For I long to see you, that I may impart to you some spiritual gift, so that you may be established — that is, that I may be encouraged together with you by the mutual faith both of you and me” (Romans 1:11-12).

In this passage, “impart” is better translated “share” because it is the Holy Spirit who gives the gifts, not Paul. He simply wanted to share with them from his giftedness so that they might benefit, and out of that, they would share with him. In that mutual sharing, he would also be blessed.

I understand this longing. When God uses my gifts, people are built up in their faith. When people are built up, I am too. It like watching someone unwrap a gift; the delight is a blessing to both the recipient and the giver.

Not only that, using my spiritual gifts is an act of love. It is the love of God and from Him, and it always costs me something (agape love is like that). The key is that no gift can be imitated or faked. I cannot serve on the outside and grumble on the inside. I cannot show compassion when I really want to rebuke someone for whining. Showing the love of God means relying on the Holy Spirit for it.

While I struggle in situations where I feel helpless (I need to know that I cannot do everything), I’m also learning that if a book isn’t the right way to show love, just being there or giving a hug often conveys the right message.

Monday, January 26, 2009

It sounds so simple . . .

The love of Christ is not the same as even the strongest human love. He described it Himself when He prayed and said this about us, “I have loved them as You have loved Me” (John 17:23). Jesus loves us as God loves Him, which has to be the purest and strongest love.

Not only that, His love is totally selfless; we may not give much back, but still loves us. His love also has nothing to do with our worth; He loves us because it is His nature to love.

When Paul wrote to the church at Corinth, the people were having trouble staying on track. Much of what they did was fleshy or carnal (selfish), yet he said to them, “I will very gladly spend and be spent for your souls; though the more abundantly I love you, the less I am loved” (2 Corinthians 12:15). This is the love of Christ.

Even though Paul was working and praying continually for spiritual growth in the lives of the people in this church, they didn’t seem to appreciate him. They were gifted, yet divided. They fought over who had the best gifts, who was following the best leader, and disagreed about a host of other things. If I had been there, I would likely have taken pot shots at some of them and complained about the rest.

Not Paul. His ministry toward them was for them, not for himself. He didn’t do it for what he could get out of it. Again, this is the love of Christ.

I particularly appreciate what the author of my devotional has to say about this verse. I’ve met this man and sat under the power of his preaching. I’ve also observed the way people in his church reserve front row seats to hear what he has to say and witnessed his humility. I see it again in what he wrote:
There have been times in my ministry as a pastor that I’ve wondered if anyone is listening to what I’m teaching. Do people really appreciate me or the teaching of the Word? It’s easy to fall into that kind of woe–is–me complex.
I understand this. When I first read this verse (and I remember it clearly), it offered me encouragement and direction. It told me that this is how I must feel. Even if those that I cared for did not respond, or were not thankful, I still must love and care for them. To me, this was wonderful and set me free from being worried about responses.

Yet when I read it today, I am convicted. Perhaps I’ve fallen into a trap that the devotional reading describes, that of looking at what I do as something I get, rather than something I give, but regardless of the cause, I find myself complaining rather than being thankful. Too often I feel fearful about acceptance rather than gladly doing as God asks without concern for the results.

Paul says that even if the people hated him, he would still love them. That means living a life filled with the Holy Spirit who can shed abroad in my heart the love of Christ. This love does not depend on responses. It is here for me, as close as that first step needed to get it flowing.

The Bible is clear that I need to confess my sin and be forgiven and cleansed (1 John 1:9). Then I must quit making excuses, quit complaining, and simply make choices that deny myself and do good things for others.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Teaching not preaching

Preaching, according to Harpers’s Bible Dictionary, is a term that carries within it both mode and content, and the word means ‘to herald’ or ‘to make an authoritative proclamation.’ According to the same dictionary, teaching is the process and content of instruction. Preaching is telling; teaching is instructing.

I still am not sure of the difference, but know it when I hear it. I’ve heard preachers who were teaching, and I’ve heard teachers who were preaching.

The reason this is important to me is that God wants me to teach. Besides that, some passages in the Bible are about preaching, and I want to know the difference so I am not preaching in my teaching!

Today’s devotional brings me to a passage that uses the word preaching, but I’m trying to relate to it and apply it to my life. It says:
For if I preach the gospel, I have nothing to boast of, for necessity is laid upon me; yes, woe is me if I do not preach the gospel! For if I do this willingly, I have a reward; but if against my will, I have been entrusted with a stewardship. What is my reward then? That when I preach the gospel, I may present the gospel of Christ without charge, that I may not abuse my authority in the gospel. For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win the more. (1 Corinthians 9:16-19)
Paul was truly a herald of good news. He took the gospel to most of the known world, and was not only qualified to make that authoritative proclamation, but directly commanded to do so by Jesus Christ. He did it willingly, not for personal gain (woe to those who preach for money or fame), but that he might win souls to Christ so they could share in the blessings of being saved for eternity.

As a Christian teacher, my role seems to be to instruct Christians in living out the new life they have in Christ. I’m not announcing anything or making proclamations. Instead, I’ve a calling to “teach them everything that God has taught me” so my tone and method are not the same as a preacher.

Out of this passage, the principle for me seems to be about motivation rather than content or method. Why teach? Isn’t it so people will learn and grow? Isn’t it so they will be blessed by walking with Christ?

In Jesus’ day, the teachers were the scribes and Pharisees. Jesus was constantly on their case for doing what they did for power and other kinds of personal gain. They liked the respect and homage of the people. They liked lording it over those who were less educated, to the point that James later wrote “Be not many teachers. . . .” Too many of them were abusing their position and not realizing the depth of their responsibilities. Instead, they were supposed to gather information so they could share it as servants of the people.

Last summer the Lord clearly told me to take a break from teaching. At the time, I thought I was tired and needed it. Then the Ladies Ministry in our church decided to do a video series for the women on Sunday morning, apart from knowing my decision. That was a good thing, putting all the women in the same classroom. When the video series is over, I’m expected to teach again.

For the past few weeks, I’m hearing those words from James and feeling the weight of them. I’m seeing how good teaching can be powerful but also resisted. I’m also far more aware of the responsibility than ever before. I must collect and give them truth, and help them use it wisely.

Perhaps I’m also aware that I am now more prone to be compared to the teacher in the video, more apt to be challenged, and more apt to feel as Paul did about rewards. It feels good to be appreciated as a teacher, but God could take me into a time of testing where my motive has to be pure, not mixed with any sense of personal gain for doing what He asks me to do. Teaching is what I am supposed to do, but right now, my knees are shaking.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Thankfulness includes people

For the past few weeks I’ve been keeping a gratitude journal. Each night I write (in point form) those things for which I am thankful. After reading the devotional verses and thoughts from Truth for Today this morning, I’m afraid to go back and look at my journal entries.

The reading didn’t outright say it, but I have the distinct impression that whatever a person is thankful for says much about the condition of their spirit before God.

Here is the Scripture passage for today:
I thank my God upon every remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine making request for you all with joy, for your fellowship in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this very thing, that He who has begun a good work in you will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ; just as it is right for me to think this of you all, because I have you in my heart, inasmuch as both in my chains and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel, you all are partakers with me of grace. (Philippians 1:3-7)
Paul was thankful for the people he worked with, had fellowship with, including those he knew had made only an initial commitment to Jesus Christ. He was also thankful for those who prayed for him, and for all who were members of the family of God by grace. There is no mention here, or elsewhere in the Bible, that he ever thanked God for good food, a nice home, or any material things. Paul was thankful for what lasts forever, including the grace of God and the souls of people. I’m not sure my list has the same priorities.

The reading today convicts me too. I’ve rewritten it in a personalized way, which is how God speaks to me using these words.
A thankful heart is essential for true spiritual service. If I am trying to serve the Lord without gratitude in my heart for what He’s done for me, then I am serving in the flesh with improper motives. When I am thankful, I realize that God has a cause for everything that happens, so I will not grumble. But if I am serving externally, legalistically, or ritualistically I will not find very many things to appreciate because I am not grateful for the things God has already done for me.

Do I have a thankful heart? Am I overwhelmed with thanksgiving for what God has done? If I am, then I will be free from bitterness or resentment toward God or anyone else.

I have much to be thankful for, but I am aware that the devil often tempts me by saying, “You deserve better than that. . . .” When he does, I must make sure that I remember how much God has done, including putting me into His family who also serve Him and making them part of my life and ministry.
I know that God wants me to be thankful for the temporary stuff too, but my list needs to reflect what I know about eternity. If my focus is only on the here and now, it could mean that I’m becoming self-indulgent about the blessings and need to get my priorities back in line with His.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Tested

This past week I’ve begun writing Bible study material for my next teaching session with the ladies in our church. Each time I do this, I am tested on my subject matter. I’ve selected the topic of discernment and in the last two days I’ve had specific tests in that regard.

The first one was a bit odd. Someone sent me some information I’d not heard before. Whenever that happens, and if it seems relevant to my life, I check it out. I discovered that some of it was skewed a bit, so I let the sender know. The reaction was defensive. This information came from an educated, trusted person, therefore it must be true.

I shook my head in wonder. Education doesn’t always protect me from being wrong. Being trustworthy doesn’t innoculate me against error. Everyone makes mistakes. It is wise to be sure about important matters.

In this situation, I knew I needed discernment about the information, but that wasn’t my biggest problem. I was deeply frustrated and felt that my frustration was in error. Why this reaction? I not only wondered why this person, and others, do not check their sources, but also wondered why I was so annoyed that they didn’t.

I first thought that I was concerned that others can get themselves in trouble by being naive. However, that was not a bad attitude and shouldn’t make me feel as I did. Then I went through the usual stuff, like “too many people cause all kinds of harm by spreading rumors that are not true” and “I don’t have time to check out information; the person who sent it should have done it” and so on. Those responses might be true even if they are more selfish, yet I was still rankled and didn’t understand why I felt so “tipped over” and turned inward.

My husband supplied the answer. He said that the sender was trying to be helpful and my response said “you are no help.” I’d done okay with saying the truth, but I had not spoken it in love.

Bingo. My focus was (and usually is) mostly on the truth and I never thought at all about how I presented it. This is a pattern in my life and God is drawing my attention to it. My devotional verse for today offered further conviction, but also a good first step to be more Christlike with how I treat people. It says:
First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for you all, that your faith is spoken of throughout the whole world. (Romans 1:8)
Not only do I focus more on truth and less on love, but so often fail to be thankful for other believers and their faith in Jesus Christ. God wants me to appreciate folks and their good intentions, not swat at them when their efforts fall short of being personally helpful.

While still feeling like a dummy over that one, the phone rang this morning. My son called to say a friend of his was deeply concerned that his sister might be into a cult. He told me the name of the group she was involved with but I had never heard of it. We both went online and found that almost all the links were positive. However, one site was not. It reported information about the origins and methods of various groups and didn’t have much good to say about this one. In fact, the first red flag said this organization had a legal staff that brought lawsuits against anyone who reported anything negative about them. Whew!

As we weighed the information we were reading, we both recognized the need for discernment. He spotted other concerns and we agreed that, while this organization did not call themselves a religion, they do have many characteristics that identify them as “messengers of Satan disguising themselves as angels of light” (see 2 Corinthians 11:14), and no characteristics that identified them as God-fearing people of faith.

I said that this girl likely had a deep need, and this group used that as a hook. She would find some help and understanding, but not the long-term solutions that she needed. Those can only come from the Eternal One who died and gave Himself for us. He agreed. He also told me that he had quickly spotted the error in another group (similar but more well-known) but missed it in this one, until now.

My son thanked me, but we both know that it is the Holy Spirit who discerns the truth. God gives His people insight into what is from Him and what is not. He will also give my son words to say to his worried friend.

After these two tests, I am more convinced than ever that I need the Holy Spirit to help me in every way. I need Him not only to discern what is true and what is false in the world of philosophies and cults and all sorts of information, but to open my eyes to my own failures and shortcomings that I might be the person God wants me to be.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

All for You

Worship is more than singing hymns and verbally adoring God. A sermon series of eight messages on this topic shows me that my idea of worship is very limited. In fact, that series deeply convicts me. Not only do I fall short in this area, but parts of the sermon make me question my faith. If I love God as I claim, I ought to show it much more than I do. Being a Christian means that worship is not merely about Sunday but about every part of life.

When Jesus came, He blasted the religious system of His day. Worship had become a list of rules rather than a way of life from the heart. Instead of loving and serving God, the leaders were more interested in power and impressing people. Jesus plainly told them that this was sin.

When the church was formed, Paul points to the heart of worship also. He wrote: “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God” (Romans 12:1-2).

Worship involves the entire person, and all the time. Worship is giving myself to Him entirely. He is not interested in my old self though, but the self He wants is that cleaned up, holy and new creation that has been washed by the blood of Christ. I cannot serve God with my sinful old nature (the flesh). He wants service from the alive part of me, the new life that I have in Christ, not the old dead me that just wants to serve myself.

Yet dead as it is, that old nature pops up all the time, or tries to, even in ‘worship’ services. I am at church and singing. A notion runs through my head that I would appear more pious if I raised my hands, or shut my eyes. I asked a pastor once about this. He told me that birds may fly over my head, but I don’t have to let them build a nest in my hair. The Holy Spirit shows me where that bird comes from and that I must shoo it away. Worship is about God, not about me.

Worship is also thinking like God thinks, not letting my mind be conformed to the way the world understands and views things. That is not easy. The world appeals to the flesh in every television commercial, store display and advertisement. The world appeals to the flesh by chanting “I demand my rights” and “You deserve the best.” Sometimes subtle, sometimes blatant, the world is a powerful pull.

People I know also push and pull on my mind. My peers sometimes seem to be drawing me away from God, wanting me to go along with them in the latest craze, or fad, or idea. I am continually tempted by things that will supposedly make me look good in the eyes of my peers, or be accepted by them, yet the Holy Spirit shows me these things are not part of the will of God.

All this to say that being a godly person who is devoted to serve God and Him alone is, in itself, worship. Doing His will from the heart, giving it my all, loving Him more than the praises of people, renewing my mind in His Word, discerning what is from God and what is not, seeking eternal good rather than temporary benefits, all of these things are included in what it means to worship the true and living God.

How is this practical? I’m tired today. I need discernment to know if resting my body is His idea or I just want to pamper myself. One would be worship, the other self-indulgence.

I’ve a long to-do list today. What comes first? What is most important to the Lord? Or do I go down that list and select what most appeals to me? One is worship, the other self-indulgence.

Questions like these are actually worship too, because they acknowledge that God is God. I should ask Him about everything, and He is pleased when I do. By asking, I am affirming that He has the right, the power, and the wisdom to govern my life.

When I get together with other Christians on a Sunday morning, we bring with us our worship experiences of the week. The richer my time with Him today, in what seems like the mundane things of life (really, nothing is mundane if Jesus is here), the richer will be that time of corporate worship. If I can worship God as I wash dishes, clean the house, answer the telephone, write email, prepare lesson material, and so on, then standing or kneeling before Him with dozens more who love Him will be even sweeter.

God, help me keep my heart right and my focus on You all of this day. Help me to know Your will as I give all of myself and all of my tasks to You. Help me also to think Your thoughts and be sensitive to Your Spirit as You lead me through whatever You put before me today. Amen.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Get my heart right

Is there such a thing as a “bad” good deed? Or a “good” bad deed? Can I mess up and actually mean well? Can I do what looks good to others, but it is sin in my heart?

I am sure this is true, at least in some cases and for several reasons. One of them is that, “For the Lord does not see as man sees; for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7). In the mind of God, whatever comes from the heart determines the “goodness” or “badness” of my actions. This judgment is based on what He knows, not what other people see or think.

Jesus said something similar in Luke 6:45, “A good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth good; and an evil man out of the evil treasure of his heart brings forth evil. For out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.”
God knows my heart. He expects what is in there will come out. That is, because Jesus is there, He expects to see evidence in my life. However, if I’m angry, or sad, or jealous in my heart, no doubt that will come out also.

But life is not always that straightforward. What if I do something that strikes others as wrong? I’m not talking about actual wrong, like murder, adultery, even speeding in a school zone. It’s more like when I offer my opinion, or do some type of service and others think that I am saying or doing the wrong thing. It happens.

Jesus is a strong example of this. He “went about doing good” and “never sinned” yet was criticized by many, even called demonic by some. He did good as God measures good, but much of it was misinterpreted and called “bad” by others.

On the other side of the coin, those same people did what looked “good” in their own eyes. They were religious, gave alms to the poor, prayed on the street corners, and seemed devoted to God. Yet Jesus told them they were a “brood of vipers.” He knew that their hearts were not right, that it was all show and no spirit.

Today’s devotional verse says, “For God is my witness, whom I serve with my spirit in the gospel of His Son, that without ceasing I make mention of you always in my prayers” (Romans 1:9).

The author thinks that this usage of “spirit” is the same as when we say someone does something with a great deal of effort, like a football team who plays with great spirit. Maybe. But it could also mean that the innermost part of Paul (who wrote that verse) is the source of his service and prayer. He is not doing it to look good on the outside, nor is he doing it out of a sense of duty or obligation. Instead, the inner man, the redeemed man who is filled with the Spirit of Jesus Christ is in control of his life. That part of him that connects with God and is deeply aware of right and wrong, that part where faith begins, is his motivation.

I’m convicted by this. Sometimes the Holy Spirit moves my spirit to talk and act, but sometimes I just do what is expected and am not fully engaged in it from the heart. Instead, my actions are motivated by my fleshy and sinful self.

If Paul was motivated in that way, this verse would not say what it does. For instance, people seldom pray for others without ceasing unless God moves them in their prayers. Paul was moved by God. He did not serve in the flesh; yet sometimes I do. God is my witness. He knows, and I know from observation and personal experience, that I might appear to be doing good, but my heart is not in it.

This is an example of a “bad” good deed. It might fool some people, but when I do it, I know it and so does God.

From this, I hear His word to me today: “Whatever you do, do it heartily, as to the Lord and not to men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the reward of the inheritance; for you serve the Lord Christ. But he who does wrong will be repaid for what he has done, and there is no partiality” (Colossians 3:23-25).

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

God’s motivations

A former neighbor was highly involved in community service. She told me that she “loved helping people because it makes me feel so good.”

Truly selfless actions are rare. We want ourselves to look good, and if that doesn’t seem to motivate our actions, it usually pops into play when a camera shows up. We want to be liked by others, which also comes into play as soon as someone criticizes what we do. For most, this is their way of life. For me, I’ve spent years seeking my own glory, not knowing that there is another way to live.

Today’s devotional reading starts out with, “Many people think the main reason God saves people is so that He can keep them out of hell, or so that they can experience His love or lead happy lives. But all those reasons are secondary.”

He goes on to say that God saves for His own glory and uses this verse: “For all things are for your sakes, that grace, having spread through the many, may cause thanksgiving to abound to the glory of God” (2 Corinthians 4:15), but he didn’t quote the first part of it!

This statement and that verse make me think. Why did God save me? If He did it for me, then the me-centered answer is that He saved me because He loves me and wanted me to be His child. This is true, yet I know that the love of God isn’t about my merit. Sinners are hardly loveable and only the most narcissistic person could think that was true.

Instead, God loves me because of who He is. It is His nature to love, to want the best for, to be patient and kind toward those He created. The Bible is clear that His love is not about me. From His perspective, God is motivated to save people because He loves us. However, from my perspective that amazing sacrificial love is a wonder and it glorifies Him.

The Bible says that God does not think the same way I do. This makes me wonder if when He thinks about doing good toward us, is He doing that to glorify Himself? Does that mean saving us for His own glory is the same as selfish me doing things for my glory?

John Piper wrote a book about the delights of God. He alone is worthy of glory and He can be joyful in Himself, needing nothing or no one to make Him any happier or more satisfied than He already is. As a human being, that is a lofty concept that most people cannot grasp. We want glory but don’t deserve it; God enjoys glory because He alone is worthy of it.

Yet there is another angle to this. I think God saves people for our sakes, just as today’s verse says. He does it for you and me, for our eternal well-being, for our present standing before Him. His salvation is selfless; He spared no cost that it might happen. This isn’t a human, “look at me” effort, but done with our need and blessing in mind.

However, because of this great selflessness and sacrificial act, He is glorified. No one else is like that. No one gives up everything that others, even who are enemies, might gain everything. This makes my salvation a glory for God. Not that He was seeking it, but because He was concerned for others, not Himself.

This is difficult to apply. I know that I am to be selfless. The mystery is that if I am focused entirely on the well-being of someone else, I am seldom aware of myself. My own needs are far from my mind and any thoughts of glory for me do not exist.

During those times (which should happen more often) I might say and do things that people thank me for and I’ve no clue what they are talking about. As this verse says, at that point it is God who needs to be thanked, not me. Salvation may be for my sake, but because He alone is worthy, any glory that comes out of it must be for His sake.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Trust & obey, there is no other way . . .

A letter consists of a greeting or a salutation such as “Dear Friend” then the body of the letter, then a closing at the end. The books of the New Testament are letters, most of which contain these elements.

I’ve posted before how the greetings in Paul’s letters are filled with doctrinal truth. Today I see the same in one of his benedictions or closing remarks. Romans 16:25-27 says:
Now to Him who is able to establish you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery kept secret since the world began but now made manifest, and by the prophetic Scriptures made known to all nations, according to the commandment of the everlasting God, for obedience to the faith — to God, alone wise, be glory through Jesus Christ forever. Amen.
I’m trying to rewrite this in simpler English. He is telling his readers that glory belongs to God through Jesus Christ. He says this wise God will build them up in their faith according to the good news he has written to them and aligned with the preaching they have heard about Jesus Christ. He says they heard all this because the mystery of the gospel was hidden but is now revealed, and because the truth in Scripture is now opened up to them. This all happened because God commanded it in order that they might believe and obey Him.

My devotional writer picks out verse 26 to make his point. He says that it’s not faith plus obedience that equals salvation, but obedient faith that equals salvation. He says that true faith is verified every time God is obeyed.

I agree. Jesus is Creator and Lord; He demands obedience. If I trust Him, I will obey. If I don’t, I will not. Faith and obedience are partners. One cannot exist without the other. I cannot say I trust Him and then not do what He says. There is no real faith without obedience.

In Romans 1:8, Paul wrote, “I thank my God through Jesus Christ for you all, that your faith is spoken of throughout the whole world.” Later, in Romans 16:19, he explains how people knew about their faith (which is intangible by itself, as if it could exist by itself), “Your obedience has become known to all.”

They might have talked about their faith and people heard the talk, but it was living out their faith in obedience that made them well known. Again, these two go together. As the hymn says, “Trust and obey, there is no other way. . . .”

As the devotional writer also says, faith that excludes obedience won’t save anyone. It is the way that “seems right” talked about in Proverbs, the way that leads to destruction. (Also see Matthew 7:13–14). It is that, “Sure, I believe in God” faith that ignores His commands. This is not saving faith.

While I would normally apply this to unsaved people who have a false assurance of being eternally okay because they say they believe in God. They think that is enough. However, Christians need to be careful in this regard too. Can we claim to follow Christ yet at times act as if His commands do not matter? What kind of faith is that?

Recently I was in a roomful of Christians who were vocal in their determination to do their own thing in a particular area of life. They tossed out some clear commands in the Bible because they didn’t like the way those commands were drawn to their attention. This has deeply grieved my spirit. By their disobedience, they are saying they really do not trust Him, at least to guide their behavior in that area of life.

I’m also burdened for my own faith. I cannot say anything to them unless I am also ‘practicing what I preach’ and being obedient to the faith that I have. I claim that I trust Jesus to save my soul for eternity. I also say that I trust Him to guide me day by day, but true saving faith means that I cannot pick and choose what I obey. If God says it, then faith means that I do it because I believe that He is “God alone wise” and the Lord of my life.

As I reread this, I realized that faith also means that I can trust God to establish not only my own faith, but the faith and obedience of these others who are resisting Him. He is both their Savior and mine and knows how to bring us out of our sinful selves and into the freedom of obedience to the truth.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

“Do you work?”

Today’s culture tends to look down on women without a career, and full-time mothers are not included. However, this was the decision in our home. My husband has a good job and I stayed home to raise our children. So people ask, “Do you work?”

In the beginning, I never knew what to say, but felt somewhat defensive. The tone of the question seemed to indicate that if I didn’t, I wasn’t worth much. The question really bothered me.

Since those early days, I have learned the value of staying home to raise a family. Children need the presence of their parents. But I still get asked, sometimes in past tense. I feel no need to defend myself now, but still want to smack people for assuming that every woman goes to work outside the home. With that attitude, and depending on who offered the question, I’ve given various answers from, “You bet I do” to “No, I’m a kept woman.”

That is far too flippant. I should tell people that, by the grace of God, I was privileged to be at home when my family most needed me. I am also privileged to have much to keep me busy now, even though some have exclaimed, “How do you keep from being bored?” Boredom is seldom part of my life because my heavenly Father has plenty of work for anyone willing to jump in and do it.

Another reason that I should not be flippant is found in the verses that I read this morning. If I am obeying God, everything that I do is an incredible honor and my attitude should match the privilege of serving the Holy One who created me. The verses say:
I, therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you to walk worthy of the calling with which you were called, with all lowliness and gentleness, with longsuffering, bearing with one another in love, endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. (Ephesians 4:1-3)
As a child of God, I am called to love and serve Him. There is no higher calling, no more important employment. Scripture affirms how the things that I do in obedience to God will have a lasting impact and produce eternal results.

What employers can offer that? They may promise interesting or exciting work, fulfillment for each employee, good benefits and a large pay cheque, but none of them can say what I do in their employ will forever make a difference. Unless I give my heart and my efforts to God in wherever I am doing, it is merely a job.

That being said, I need to rethink how I respond to people who are curious about what I do or did. Instead of defending myself in my answer, I should be praising God. He allowed me to raise three children who are involved in the marketplace. I’ll never know what would have happened had they been left in the care of baby sitters or daycare, but our kids work hard, and are not moochers or bums or in jail. For that, I am thankful and I need to say so.

I also need to remember that those verses tell me to walk worthy of my calling as a Christian. That means I should be humble and patient, thinking more about others than myself. If I want to have a positive impact for God and eternity, that leaves out being a smart aleck.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Self-control with purpose

About 65% of Americans need to lose weight. Most of them know it and would like to whittle off some pounds, but anyone who tries knows that losing weight is easier to resolve than to actually make happen.

The Bible hasn’t much to say about exercise (it “profits but a little”), which was not necessary to a culture that walked everywhere and where most people did manual labor to earn a living. It does say much about excess and gluttony though. Controlling my appetite is important, not just for keeping myself at a healthy weight. It has spiritual implications.

We once attended the church where the author of my devotional book, Truth for Today, is the pastor. In a sermon about self-control, he said to start small. You might not be up to keeping your whole house clean but start with your desk. The point of his message was that self-control in one area of life had an impact in all areas.

This week I heard a man on a Christian radio program who was also a pastor. He had allowed his appetite too much freedom and wound up quite overweight. Rather than continue that way, he felt that his excesses were a poor testimony to the power of Christ, so he lost the weight. He had lots to say about the significance this was having on both his health and his credibility as a messenger of the Gospel.

The apostle Paul knew that this was so. He likened the Christian life to a race where the prize is a “Well done” and a rewarding crown at the end. He didn’t mean we earned eternal life but that we did have a responsibility before God to live as people who were doing His will and His work. He said:
Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may obtain it. And everyone who competes for the prize is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a perishable crown, but we for an imperishable crown. Therefore I run thus: not with uncertainty. Thus I fight: not as one who beats the air. But I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified. (1 Corinthians 9:24-27)
The older King James version uses these words: “But I buffet my body and bring it into subjection. . . .” A man once said this is buf-fet, not buffet (silent t). (It is funnier with sound; the first is the buffeting that means beating against, the other the word for eating at a smorg.)

In other words, watching what I eat will have an effect on the way I run my race. God can uses people who exercise self-discipline at the table in ways that He cannot use people who continually indulge their appetite. It is about self-control vs. selfish indulgence, and that control shows up in not only what I eat but in other areas of life.

This year, a friend and I covenanted together to not spend money for excess. For example, if we are making a quilt and need fabric for the back and cannot make do with pieces from our stash, then we can buy a new piece, but the idea is to work with what we have. We also covenanted together to lose weight.

These two disciplines may seem miles apart, but they are not. Both involve self-control over indulgence. Instead of that piece of pie, eat some fruit, or nothing. Instead of that ‘must have’ book, we walk out of the store, or better yet, stay out of the store in the first place.

We are holding one another accountable. We both passed on a big sale at the local fabric shop. We are both thinking creatively about what we already have. I’m not sure of her results, but I’ve lost (and kept off) a couple pounds according to my goal for this month.

Being accountable to someone is a good idea. When I’m tempted by food, or fabric, or anything else, I think of her face (she smiles a lot) and want to keep her smiling. Yet both of us know that it is really the Lord that we want to please. According to these verses, disciplining ourselves will do that, but also will make us better equipped to serve Him. Both of us also know that without His help and His Spirit, we would never think of doing this, or want to, never mind have any success at it.

By putting up this post, I guess I’m making myself accountable to whoever might be reading it. This covenant is for 2009 and will make it a very interesting year!

Friday, January 16, 2009

Responding to Grace

Dr. Donald Grey Barnhouse said, “Love that gives upward is worship; love that goes outward is affection; love that stoops is grace.”

I’ve heard all sorts of definitions for grace. Some say what it is not: “Grace is not a blue-eyed blond.” Some are misnomers, such as using the term “saying grace” for the giving of thanks at mealtime. Most define biblical grace as God giving us love that we do not deserve, or God’s unmerited favor toward sinners. Some use the acronym “God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense.”

My favored definition is that grace is a revelation from God about Jesus Christ that changes our lives. We are blind to the spiritual realm and to the nature and work of Christ unless God opens our eyes. Grace is seeing who He is and becoming like Him because God reveals Him. This is a gracious work of God in otherwise unsaveable human lives.

However it is defined, God is not stingy with grace. In a section of Romans, Paul emphasizes that sin entered the human race with Adam and the law of God was given to reveal how much sin has affected us.
Moreover the law entered that the offense might abound. But where sin abounded, grace abounded much more, so that as sin reigned in death, even so grace might reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. (Romans 5:20-21)
One of my commentaries points out that throughout all this section “the offense” (four times repeated besides here) has one definite meaning, namely, “the one first offense of Adam.” The writer of this commentary says this is its meaning in these verses also. He says, “All our multitudinous breaches of the law are nothing but that one first offense, lodged mysteriously in the bosom of every child of Adam as an offending principal, and multiplying itself into myriads of particular offenses in the life of each.”

In other words, Adam’s disobedience (Eve too) put the tendency to sin and that desire to disobey God and do our own thing into the entire human race. That one act of disobedience in the first couple was converted into a “vital and virulent principle of disobedience” in every member of the human family. This result is clearly seen in the fact there is not one person who never sins. We all fall short of God’s intention for us.

But where sin abounded, grace abounded much more! No matter how terrible and how often someone sins, their lives are not beyond the reach of grace. God is able to save anyone. Moses was a murderer. David was both an adulterer and murderer. Paul was on his way to Damascus to order the death of Christians when the grace of God stopped him. I was reading a book about false religion when grace stopped me.

Barnhouse makes a good definition. Grace certainly is the love of God stooping to meet the need of sinners. It is humbling and good for my heart to be reminded that I do not deserve this grace wherein I stand — so firmly assured of my salvation. Of course my response must be love sent back to Him in worship, and love sent out to others with affection and service, even stooping if need be, so that my life might demonstrate the wonder and reality of His grace.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Falling short

In a movie about the ancient Roman Empire, archers were shooting at targets. I was a bit surprised to hear the words used when the arrows fell short. The crowd called out, “Sinner, sinner” as the arrows missed the target and hit the ground.

This same image comes up in Romans 3 where Paul describes the failure of human beings to be what God intended. It says, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” This simply means no one hits God’s target.

I’ve described the same truth by asking people to imagine everyone lining up on the west coast of North America and attempting to swim to Hawaii. I would get a few yards. Some might swim a few miles. Others would drown immediately. The point is, none of us would make it; we all fall short.

The problem most of us have with the concept of righteousness is that we compare ourselves with other people. Compared to Hitler or most jailbirds, I think I’m really good. Sure, some do much better, but it is fairly easy to find others who fall much shorter from the target than I do.

The other thing we tend to do is measure ourselves by what we don’t do. Years ago in a junior church session I used this verse to describe the human predicament. One little girl looked at me with wide eyes and said, “But I’ve never murdered anyone.”

As a Christian adult, when I do that, it is called self-righteousness and no one likes it, particularly God. If I do anything well, or don’t do those bad things, it has nothing to do with how good I am. If there is anything good in me, it is there because of the grace of God.

The next phrase of that sentence in Romans 3 says “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:23-24).

This is part of a wordy paragraph that goes on to say two times that God is demonstrating His righteousness. Again, what He does by grace through redemption is about Him, not about me or anything that I do. This is repeated throughout the New Testament. Ephesians 2:8-9 says it most clearly:
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.
This grace that brings salvation is made available to all people, no matter how far they fall from the target or how close they may seem to hit it. It is offered completely apart from anything anyone could possibly do to receive God’s favor, remembering that nothing we do is sufficient. Salvation is by grace, by the unmerited favor of God. In His mercy and lovingkindness, He offers it as gift to all, and all we need to do is receive it by believing in Jesus Christ.

I entered the kingdom of God only by the grace of God. As my reading today says, there is no place for self-congratulations and any human achievement or merit is out of the question. As I focus on these gospel thoughts, He fills my heart with joy and assurance. The gospel is indeed good news for sinners!

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

There’s more than one way to be sick

Whenever I get ill, which doesn’t happen often, I realize that I am a lousy servant. Yesterday and this morning I’m a bit light-headed and weak. This is typical; we call it our annual “brush” with the flu.

A few years ago, my husband made the announcement that our family did not get the flu. After that, neither ourselves nor our children had any large battles with this illness, even when it was “going around.” The last time I recall having anything major was the year we cared for my parents, 1995. As caregivers, we had to get flu shots (for the first time) and both of us got the flu that year. Other than that, each flu season we have a day or two of mild symptoms where it seems the flu hits us, but without much force.

That happened to me yesterday, but far worse than being dizzy and not wanting to eat is the conviction that I feel about being a lousy servant. Last night my husband served me. I enjoyed it, but at the same time felt guilty. When I need to do the same thing and serve others, I’m not so gracious and willing. I’m a lousy servant. I’m always thinking that I have other things to do, or wishing the needy person would get better so I could get on with it. That is so selfish.

Of course my devotional reading for today adds to the pinch. It says this:
Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. (Philippians 2:5-7)
Jesus is God in human flesh and humanly speaking has every right to lord it over us. He didn’t do that but instead became a bondservant or bond slave, doing exactly what His Father told Him. With the attitude of a slave, He eventually died for every person, paying the penalty for sin of even those who hated Him.

Yikes. Like Jesus, my husband hovers over me with tender care, makes me something to eat, brings me whatever I ask for, and is quick to appear when I call. His face shows none of the impatience that I often feel when I need to do the same thing for him or anyone else.

To make matters worse, I always tell people that being sick or out of commission for a few days is a good opportunity to find out more of what God wants us to know. Instead of being busy and not as quick to hear, illness makes us quiet and more apt to listen.

So guess what? Today He tells me to take a large helping of my own prescription and listen up. I am selfish when I feel sick, but just as bad when I am well. This ‘illness’ is far worse than the flu, mild or severe.

Whether my husband gets his brush with the flu or not, I need to confess my selfishness and let the Lord fill me up with a large dose of His way of thinking. Apart from the mind of Christ, I might feel just fine physically, but without Him, I am actually much sicker than I think.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The “timeless” test

Even as a little boy, my husband was ambitious. While younger than any of the other boys doing the job, he had a paper route. Before he was seventeen, he worked in a retail store, had charge accounts, and managed his own money. As a teenager, he made a ten-year plan for his life.

However, his mother was both perplexed and pessimistic by his ambition. She used to tell him that he wasn’t born with a silver spoon in his mouth and often predicted he would wind up working in the brick factory for the rest of his life. For years after we were married, she never knew what he did for a living because she never asked and he didn’t offer. After being manager of the construction division of an engineering company for a long time, she finally found out that her assumptions were wrong; he wasn’t on the end of a shovel doing manual labor (even though that is also an important job).

In her mind, as in others, success is often measured by rank and status in the marketplace or the size of a person’s bank account. Christians fight that value system because we know that such things do not last. We need our daily bread, but there is much that we do not need. More and more I realize that much of my ‘stuff’ is simply a space-wasting burden. If I am not using it, surely someone else can, but it takes deliberate action to do something about it.

One thought helps me: I am not an owner but a manager. The things that are in my possession are on loan from the Lord. When I die, they will not go with me. There will be a ‘next owner’ (or the trash), so I am to be a good steward, not with a tight fist.

This morning I read a few verses in John where Jesus talks about true values and His ownership of things. He said:
For He whom God has sent speaks the words of God, for God does not give the Spirit by measure. The Father loves the Son, and has given all things into His hand (John 3:34-35).
First, Jesus had the fullness of the Holy Spirit. I’ve been thinking about the joy that the Holy Spirit gives and how it produces contentment. If I had the fullness that Jesus has, I’d never be in want. I’d be satisfied and filled with trust in my heavenly Father, just as Jesus was. I would not worry about daily bread or struggle about having or not having stuff.

Yet Jesus also said that His Father gave all things into His hands. In context, this seems to be about spiritual matters and the souls of human beings, but other Scripture speaks of Jesus being the ultimate owner of everything, pointing again to the fact that what I have is merely on loan. He could take it back anytime, but while I have it, I’m expected to use it wisely.

As I keep reading, the next verse adds more. It says, “He who believes in the Son has everlasting life; and he who does not believe the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him” (John 3:36).

In another place, John wrote that “He who has the Son has life . . .” (1 John 5:12). Because of Jesus, I am complete (Colossians 2:10). He supplies all my needs (Philippians 4:19), and in Him all things are mine (1 Corinthians 3:21). Putting that together, my greatest possession is Jesus Christ. In Him, I have all that I need and I have eternal life!

How then should I deal with the stuff that God has allowed me to have? The pattern is Jesus, and as I learn of Him and let Him live His life through me, it becomes easier to forget about laying up treasures on earth. True treasure consists of anything that can go from this life into the next, including Christlike character and the souls of family and friends. The rest of it simply does not pass that test.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Joy and Treasure

When I was young, I used to hide my treasures in a ‘fort’ of sorts in the trees of our farm yard. With the branches bent over and siblings that didn’t care if I wandered off to hide in the bushes, I felt that my trinkets were safe in this place. These were small things, important only to me, like a Jack in the Box® prize, or a photo of my grandmother, or a used movie ticket. I had a rain proof box and buried it under the moss and leaves.

When a few years older, I hid paper money in my books. Sometimes I forgot what I’d done, and later read the book only to be surprised and delighted to find a one or a five-dollar bill. These were my childhood treasures.

Now my treasures are of a different sort. They are the riches God provides for those who love His Son. These treasures are infinite, with much more value than trinkets or money. In fact, Jesus said, “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and hid; and for joy over it goes and sells all that he has, and buys that field” (Matthew 13:44).

Even though the Bible says, “Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor have entered into the heart of man the things which God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Corinthians 2:9), God does give me a taste of those riches while here on earth.

The past few days I’ve been overwhelmed with joy. This is not like human happiness where everything goes right, or I win or achieve something, or have had a ‘good’ day. It is a gift from God, a fruit of His Spirit that comes upon His people regardless of what is happening. The joy of Jesus is a treasure and a blessing. It gives me a zest for life too. However, there are more jewels in His treasure box. Ephesians 1:3 says:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ . . .
The next few verses list some of these blessings, not all, yet these pile up like jewels in Paul’s long sentences with many phrases. I can almost hear his voice rapidly saying the words much as an excited child would describe their treasures, but of course these have far more import. Here they are, not necessarily in the order they are given:
  • God loves me
  • He chose me in Christ before the foundation of the world
  • He chose me so I can be holy and without blame before Him
  • He determined beforehand to adopt me as His child
  • All this is “according to the good pleasure of His will” so that the glory of His grace is praised
  • I am accepted in Jesus, His Beloved Son
  • I trusted Him after hearing the word of truth, the gospel of my salvation
  • I am redeemed the blood of Christ, the price paid to free me from slavery to sin
  • My sins are forgiven
  • He doles out grace toward me with great wisdom
  • He makes known to me the mystery of His will
  • He works all things (in my life here) according to His will — so I will praise Him
  • He determined that one day I will be gathered together in one with all others in Christ, both those in heaven and those on earth
  • He is pleased to do all this for me!
  • I have an inheritance in heaven of eternal life with Him
  • I am sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise, who is like a down payment that guarantees my inheritance until it is accomplished.
There is more, but today, this is more than my mind can take in and if this lovely joy I am experiencing needs a reason, certainly this is it!

Sunday, January 11, 2009

This is no plastic tablecloth

A salesman came to my door with a plastic tablecloth in a plastic bag. He held out the bag and told me he was giving it away, no strings attached. I looked at the ‘gift’ and told him that I was not interested. He said, “But it is free.”

I said that I didn’t need another plastic tablecloth, free or not. He was pushy. He even became angry. Not to be intimidated, I insisted that I didn’t need his free gift and closed the door.

I never did find out what he was actually selling. While I’m immediately turned off by those fake, “How are you” questions, I’m also immediately suspicious when a salesperson avoids saying why they are at my door. Is all that preamble supposed to make me curious? Or are they ashamed of their product?

Credentials are important too. Sometimes the salesman at the door wears a name badge like those issued by companies so workers can go through their security and gain entrance to their workplace. I’m never impressed with that either. It takes more than a verbal claim and a strong sales pitch to convince me. Besides being a “tough sell,” I know enough about computer graphics to realize that anyone can make a convincing badge.

In the spiritual realm, the ‘toughest sells’ are the virgin birth of Jesus Christ, His miracles, and the declaration that He rose from the dead. The Bible focuses most on the last event, the resurrection and often declares it.

The Greek word “declared” is the root of our English word for “horizon.” It means “to distinguish” just like the horizon is a clear demarcation line between the sky and the earth. I wrote yesterday how my subjective experience was a proof to me that Jesus is alive and is God in human flesh, yet that experience is not universal, nor will it convince anyone else, particularly after I am dead and gone. The real proof is in this declaration. At the very beginning of Paul’s letter to the church in Rome, he said God promised the good news . . .
“. . . concerning His Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who was born of the seed of David according to the flesh, and declared to be the Son of God with power according to the Spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead.” (Romans 1:3-4)
Jesus was declared as God’s Son coming in human flesh, yet distinguished as more than mere human by the power of the Holy Spirit and by the fact that He rose from the dead. This was the testing point, and is the crux of Christianity. Paul would later write:
But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ is not risen. And if Christ is not risen, then our preaching is empty and your faith is also empty. (1 Corinthians 15:13-14)
This then makes the resurrection also a testing point for our faith. Certain cults who claim to follow and exalt Jesus Christ fail on this point. They refuse the idea that Jesus rose from the dead and say He was either changed to some other form, or never actually died, even that He deceived His disciples in some way.

So then the test for Jesus being God is the resurrection, but the test for people who claim to believe and follow Him is also the resurrection. Christians are convinced and acknowledge that He died and rose again.

This blog is called ‘Practical Faith’ because I’m that kind of person. If I don’t need a plastic tablecloth, it matters not that it is free. My mantra is that a bargain is a bargain only if I need it. But I need Jesus. I need One who gives forgiveness for my sin and removal of my guilt. I need One who can change and cleanse my bad habits and make me a new person. I need His assurance of grace and of my eternal destiny.

I’ve often said, “Don’t give me a sales pitch. I will investigate myself, and if I need it, I will buy it. No one has to sell it to me.” Jesus knows what I am like, so He didn’t give me a sales pitch nor did He send any of His people to pressure me. Instead, He had me reading the Bible and let me do whatever I wanted. One day I realized that ‘doing what I wanted’ was totally messing up my life. I also realized that I needed help. With that door open, He simply walked into my heart and became the most incredible — and practical — free gift anyone could every receive.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

How do I know He is real?

Does anyone doubt the existence of historical figures like George Washington, Plato, or King Tut? Evidence abounds concerning them and much has been written about them. Yet when it comes to Jesus Christ, I’ve heard people say that He was not a real person, and that the Bible is fiction.

Today’s devotional reading gives four other records concerning Jesus. For instance, a Roman historian named Tacitus wrote that the founder of the Christian religion, Jesus Christ, was put to death by Pontius Pilate in the reign of the Roman Emperor Tiberius (Annals 15.44, dated about A.D. 114). A letter from Pliny the Younger to the Emperor Trajan is about Christ and Christians (Letters 10.96-97).

The more well-known Jewish historian, Josephus, wrote a short biographical note on Jesus in A.D. 90. He said, “Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call Him a man, for He was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as received the truth with pleasure. He drew over to Him both many of the Jews and many of the Gentiles. He was Christ” (Antiquities 18.63). The Jewish Talmud also refers to Jesus of Nazareth.

Further, when evidence is given in a court case, eyewitnesses are important even if their testimonies differ on the details, yet the eyewitness evidence in Scripture for Jesus, given with incredible unity from many who saw Him, is tossed out as not credible. I find this very interesting.

How do I know that Jesus is real? In one way, something like I know that other historical figures were real; I believe the eyewitnesses and their written accounts. Yet in the case of Jesus, there is something that is subjective, something that happens to people who not only believe He existed but put their faith in Him for salvation from sin and eternal life. We have the testimony, as it were, that He does for us what He said He would do, even two thousand years after His appearance on earth; Jesus Christ changes our lives.

For me, this was instant and is still happening. I’ve written before about my attitude toward others in my pre-Christian life. I didn’t know much about God and really didn’t like people. Then one fall day, Jesus Christ came into my life. I can still remember sitting on my front step in the sunshine and realizing that my attitude toward people had suddenly changed. It was a marvel to me, no effort on my part, but there it was. Of course that change is ongoing and being polished by the Holy Spirit, yet it was God doing the impossible and proving to me that Jesus is real. 1 John 4:8-9 says:
He who does not love does not know God, for God is love. In this the love of God was manifested toward us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through Him.
Since then, and often with some reluctance on my part, God works to reveal my need to change, not only my attitudes, but also the way I talk and act. Before Christ, I would try for self-improvement with selfish reasons. Now the old nature, my sin nature, resists change, but the new nature God has given me, that life of Christ, is a real and actual force that cannot be denied. My destiny is change and growth; He is transforming me into the image of this real Person who was sent by God into the world so that all this could happen to me. He came that I might live.

Change is a continual process. I’m nearly 67 years old, and after more than 35 years of knowing Jesus, one might think there is a limit to the need for it, but not so. He keeps showing me where I am sinful, selfish, and not like Him. He also keeps pouring out His love and grace that I might be changed.

The historical records are interesting. The Scriptures are essential (the Word of God is very powerful to change lives; it is the Bread of life), yet it is those changes that put the butter on my bread. God daily verifies to me that without any doubt, Jesus Christ is a real person.

Friday, January 9, 2009

From Genesis to Revelation

One of our neighbors has the ability to put the latest story of her life into any conversation, no matter the topic. She uses something in the discussion as a jumping off point to take the topic in a different direction. This amusing ability reveals what is dominant in her mind.

In a similar but less annoying manner, the Apostle Paul also reveals what is dominant in his mind. He inserted doctrinal truth into everything he said. He was so tuned in to what God was doing and had done, that it filled everything he wrote, even the “greetings” at the beginnings of his epistles (letters) and the closings at the ends.

Because they tend to be similar and familiar, I sometimes skip or scan the first few lines of these letters. However, I should pay more attention. For instance, in his letter to the church at Rome, Paul has a great deal to say in just one sentence. Consider this:
Paul, a bondservant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, separated to the gospel of God which He promised before through His prophets in the Holy Scriptures, concerning His Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who was born of the seed of David according to the flesh, and declared to be the Son of God with power according to the Spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead. (Romans 1:1-4)
Paul says much here, but after a few rereads and still getting lost in these ten or so phrases, I checked a few other Bible versions to see if another translation might make this easier to understand. The New Century Version helps. The letter begins . . .
From Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus. God called me to be an apostle and chose me to tell the Good News. God promised this Good News long ago through his prophets, as it is written in the Holy Scriptures. The Good News is about God’s Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. As a man, he was born from the family of David. But through the Spirit of holiness he was declared to be God’s Son with great power by rising from the dead. (Romans 1:1-4)
It starts out saying that the letter is from Paul. Then he identifies who he is (an apostle chosen by God to share the gospel) and uses that identification to explain that what the gospel is and that it is good news but not ‘new’ news. In fact, Jesus is rooted in history as David’s Son. However, He is also identified as God’s Son when He rose from the dead.

My devotional picks up on the ‘old news’ aspect of this introduction and says that the life of Christ is more than a New Testament story. Not only is He David’s Son from a human perspective, but He is revealed from Genesis onward. In fact, after Jesus rose from the dead and was walking with two of His disciples, Luke 24:27 says, “And beginning at Moses and all the Prophets, He expounded to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself.”

I find this fascinating. If I am alert to the Holy Spirit as I read through the Bible, He will show me shadows and depictions of Jesus Christ on every page.

For instance, this morning I read the story of God asking Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac. Then, at the last minute, God provided a substitute so that Isaac did not die. While this was a test of Abraham’s faith, it also points to the gospel truth that God provides a substitute for me. Jesus died for my sin so that I will not die (be separated from God) for eternity.

The writer of Hebrews (could also be Paul, note the same long sentence filled with doctrinal truth) began that epistle with these words:
God, who at various times and in various ways spoke in time past to the fathers by the prophets, has in these last days spoken to us by His Son, whom He has appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the worlds; who being the brightness of His glory and the express image of His person, and upholding all things by the word of His power, when He had by Himself purged our sins, sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become so much better than the angels, as He has by inheritance obtained a more excellent name than they. (Hebrews 1:1-4)
God revealed Himself in various ways in the past, but the ultimate and final revelation is Jesus Christ. He is the Heir, the Creator, the brightness of God’s glory, His image, all powerful, and He is also my Redeemer.

The Bible is all about Jesus. It begins with God’s Word (Jesus) creating the world and all that is in it, and with how sin began — the reason Jesus needed to come to earth. He was promised in Genesis and the story ends with the final revelation of Jesus Christ in the book of Revelation.

I’ve read the Bible for pleasure, for instruction, for help with my life, and now, more and more, am reading to discover and better know Him, my Savior and Lord.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Love who?

When I read Matthew 5:44-48 this morning, my first thought was, I don’t have any enemies, at least not personal enemies. Many oppose what I believe, but they are enemies of the gospel, not me personally.

However, after checking the dictionary, I am reminded that an enemy doesn’t have to be someone waiting around the corner with a weapon and I’m the target. It can be a person who is antagonistic toward me, who would like to overthrow, overcome, or confound me. Anyone who is hostile in any way is my enemy.

At first I thought this isn’t about who is right and who is wrong, but after rereading it, Jesus definitely puts people into two categories. This is what He said:
But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brethren only, what do you do more than others? Do not even the tax collectors do so? Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect. (Matthew 5:44-48)
In our society, most people do not curse others except if they are cut off in traffic and that is not personal. Further, persecution is considered a “hate crime” so it doesn’t happen much where I live. I’m not aware of currently being viciously hated, but have been at times in the past. I’ve also been “used.” None of this is pleasant.

I may never experience all of these tests, but if I do, Jesus is clear about the way that I should respond; I’m supposed to be like my Father. God’s ‘common grace’ extends to all, even to those considered ‘evil’ and unjust. Everyone experiences the blessings of life. In other words, He does not handpick the recipients of sunshine and rain.

Hate is a strong word, but biblically it can range from seething rage to self-focused indifference. In the examples Jesus gives, hate is akin to playing favorites with my generosity and avoiding people I don’t want to talk to. My Father is not like that.

I also note that Jesus was talking to religious people who loved their friends and the people who agreed with them, but had no love at all for those who opposed them, either religiously or politically. They hated sinners, tax collectors, the Romans, anyone other than those in their circle. Jesus said even sinners could do that. Those who claim to follow God should rise above that kind of behavior.

The last line, verse 48, has been called the straw that breaks a law-keepers back. No one can be perfect like God. One commentary says that God cannot lower His standard either, or He would compromise His own perfection of righteousness. Instead, Christ meets this standard on our behalf.

Another commentary says that as one of His disciples, I am therefore to be perfect — or complete, which doesn’t mean “degrees of excellence, but the kind of excellence which was to distinguish His disciples and characterize His kingdom.” I’m not sure I understand what that means.

This commentator also suggests that such perfection is future because Jesus refers to my “Father which is in heaven.” He is my Divine Model but I cannot be totally like Him until I am with Him and my redemption is complete.

Both commentaries seem true to me. I cannot be perfect, but one day I will. In the meantime, this standard is set for me, and in Christ, I can love my enemies. It may not be as perfectly as God does, but can be far more than what I am doing. Loving others is always a matter of obedience (certainly not feelings) anyway, because the word used here is “agape” — the love that is about who God is (and who I am), not about the deservedness (or not) of those loved. This love is action that supports and encourages someone’s eternal well-being.

Yet agape love also includes the simple things, like saying hello and being polite, and being as kind and generous to those who oppose me as I am to those who agree with me. Instead of being quick to turn away from those who are not my favorites, and quick to be annoyed with anyone who doesn’t like my view of things, I need to stop that nonsense and let Christ enable me to follow the lead of my Father.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

I need an Editor

According to today’s entry in Truth for Today, one governmental study to regulate the price of cabbage ran more than 26,000 words. It reminds me of my grandfather’s terse comment when we didn’t listen and asked him to repeat something. He said that he didn’t like to “chew his cabbage twice.” That document must have contained a lot of cabbage chewing!

Along with this the author points out how God can summarize vital truth in a few words. In Matthew 22:37-39, Jesus offers the two greatest commandments in forty words, distilling the original ten written in less than three hundred words; “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

When I write anything, email or essay, short story or long, the result is often wordy. Editing is much harder work than plunking down the words. Making the piece concise and to the point takes skill and effort. Many writers struggle with this part of the process.

The Bible seems wordy in places too. However, we are commanded not to add anything to it, or remove a single word (Deuteronomy 4:2; 12:32; Proverbs 30:6; Jeremiah 26:2; Revelation 21:18-19). This is God’s message to us, His revelation of Himself. While I might not value the repetition of genealogies, some stories, and passages from the psalms, God has purpose in doing so, if only for emphasis.

A more important issue for me is not whether God “chews His cabbage twice” but that I pay attention, if not the first time I hear it, at least the second time. He says:
And so we have the prophetic word confirmed, which you do well to heed as a light that shines in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts; knowing this first, that no prophecy of Scripture is of any private interpretation, for prophecy never came by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit. (2 Peter 1:19-21)
The Bible authors did not write their own thoughts or under their own steam. I think of the process like a hand in a glove with the writers as the glove and the Spirit of God as the hand. When He motivated their hearts and minds, they wrote what He wanted to say. Their own style was preserved (even a glove leaves fingerprints), yet the thoughts and words are from God.

Besides listening, God should get the glory when I obey, but these verses tell me that I will also “do well” by following the light that He gives me. During the thirty-five plus years of being a Christian, I’ve discovered truth that illuminates my errors and ignorance, truth that changes the way I think and act. Unfortunately, many times God has had to repeat and repeat what He says. In my sinfulness I either don’t hear Him the first time, or am too busy doing my own thing and not paying attention. His goal is to transform me into the image of His Son. To become like Jesus, I need to heed His Word.

This is practical. Every day brings the challenges of priorities. A long to-do list, unexpected interruptions and opportunities, requests from others, and so on, make demands on my time and energy. No matter how much I would like to say or do, words and actions are limited by a 24-hour day. If my life is going to be like the life of Christ, I need to learn much more about editing, and who better to learn from than the Master!