Saturday, February 28, 2009

One value of fellowship

The illustration is often used of a coal in the fire. When with others, it keeps burning, but take it out of the pile and its fire soon dims and goes out. This is an exhortation to anyone who claims to be a Christian but does not fellowship with other Christians. We need each other.

One reason for that need is that biblical love and the doing of good works is seldom automatic. Even with the very life of Christ in me, I need motivation, sometimes strong motivation. I’m an introvert and if I try to “hibernate” too long, I find my interest in serving others begins to wane. A hermit lifestyle feeds my selfish old nature. People, particularly Christians who are walking with the Lord, motivate me. I need them.

This principle is also illustrated by the many “one another” verses in the New Testament. The Lord tells us to love one another, pray for one another, and so on. The strongest exhortation to stick with it and be with other believers is this:
And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching. (Hebrews 10:24-25)
While attending church is mainly a way of expressing corporate worship, it is also God’s method of accountability. When I am with godly people, I am motivated to pull up my own socks. When I see someone struggling in their faith, I’m motivated to help them with the pulling. We need each other.

It is true that God uses others as sandpaper for my bumps and lumps. When I am with difficult people, or people who irritate me, or even people that I admire very much, I am more aware of my sinful attitudes and selfishness. To my dismay, I do and say things that I never knew were part of the way I am. I feel exposed. It is not a pleasant feeling, but this is a good thing for it gives me further reason to confess my sins to God and be cleansed. How else would I grow if I remain blind to my own failures and faults?

Those who don’t go to church or who say they can worship God by themselves might belong to Christ, but they are missing one of His provisions to become more like Him. Around others, my faith and practice is tested. If the tests reveal growth-hindering things, I can take them to Him and He will change my heart.

Sometimes I pass the tests. Maybe someone is lagging in obedience, or sagging in faith. My words and actions may stir them up, motivate them to spiritual disciplines, deeper faith, or confession of sin.

The Greek word translated “stir up” is the root for our English word “paroxysm” meaning a “convulsion.” In this context the Greek word speaks strongly about the tremendous impact I can have on other believers and they can have on me. However, this will not happen in a vacuum. We need each other.

The older I am, the more winter in Canada makes my bones ache with the cold. I tend to want to hibernate, turn off the phone and stop reading email. Yes, we get out every Sunday to church, but the closer my relationship with God becomes, the more I realize that once a week with other Christians is not enough. I need exhortation and encouragement, but I also need opportunities to consider others and how I can encourage them. Yes, we do need each other.

Friday, February 27, 2009

As slow as an amaryllis . . .


For weeks, my amaryllis has been a stalk and a bud. Every day I look for a bloom like this photo, but it isn’t there yet. Worse, I cannot force the plant to do its thing.

Sometimes I feel that way about my spiritual growth. It seems to take forever to develop consistency in spiritual disciplines and in simple obedience to God in the small things, never mind the bigger challenges. I’ve been a Christian for nearly forty years and at times feel like a babe.

I’m reading Truth for Today as a guide to give me Scripture to read each day. Most of the time God speaks to me just from the reference, but sometimes the written devotional is helpful. Today, it is about growing in likeness to Jesus Christ. The author writes:
“Spiritual growth is not some mystical achievement for a select few on a higher spiritual plane. Rather, it is simply a matter of glorifying God by confessing sin, trusting Him, bearing fruit, praising Him, obeying and proclaiming His Word, praying, and leading others to Christ. Those are the qualities every Christian needs in order to mature. When you focus on them, the Spirit of God will change you into the image of Christ, from one level of glory to the next.”
Spiritual disciplines. I’m working at several, but also the discipline of daily exercise and making my body behave. Eating properly is a spiritual discipline also. As Paul said, we need to tell our bodies what to do, not the other way around. By doing so, listening to God and obeying Him becomes easier. Yet some days I feel like that amaryllis stalk — I’m on a holding pattern and nothing is happening. For that, God offers this to me today:
And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ, till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ; that we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting, but, speaking the truth in love, may grow up in all things into Him who is the head — Christ — from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love. (Ephesians 4:11-16)
This long sentence written by the apostle Paul tells me that I must listen to the people He has gifted into my life. They work to equip me to do God’s will so that I can also build up the body of Christ. I must also aim toward full faith and a deeper knowledge of Jesus Christ. Study, don’t be carried off by some wild teaching, but be immersed in the Bible so that I am not deceived.

Perhaps the crown (or the blossom) of spiritual discipline is learning to speak the truth in love. I still tend to tip one way or the other instead of sharing what God teaches me in the same loving spirit that He uses. Paul reminds me also that each believer is part of one body. What one does affects all of us, so as I do my share, the entire body will grow and be built up.

Yet it seems to take so long. I must confess that I am as impatient with my own slow growth as I am sometimes dismayed by the lack of bloom in the lives of others. However, God urges me to keep on with the discipline and He will produce the growth.

Every day I am watching that odd, and so-far barren, stalk with a single bud at the top. It is a good reminder to me that growth is God’s doing. I can plant the bulb, water it, and place it where it gets light and the warmth from our winter sun, but it grows and blooms only because God is at work. Further, I cannot control the speed; I can only anticipate that one day it will be glorious.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Eat and Exercise

“If only . . . ”

Sentiments vary from person to person, but for me the saddest words are expressions of regret. If I were not a believer in Jesus Christ, and if He had not taught me what to do with them, my regrets would pull me into deepest despair. The words in today’s devotional guide have that potential.
And these words which I command you today shall be in your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up. (Deuteronomy 6:6-7)
It is one thing to learn and have the Word of God in my own heart, but I often regret that I was not mature enough or obedient enough to teach them to my children as I should have when they were small. I probably did it more than I can remember, but this is a big regret for me, particularly when they seem uninterested in what God has to say.

However, I’m encouraged when I think of my mother. We watched her read her Bible every day, and three out of four of her children follow her good example. The fourth one reminds me that even though parents can do what they should do, it is not always effective in the lives of our children. They still make their own choices.

God also helps me with the reminders that my walk with Christ is about daily faithfulness. He produces the results; I am simply supposed to do what He asks of me. In other words, I cannot measure my obedience by the outcome in the lives of others. After all, God is the perfect parent yet His children fall short every day. It began with those first two whom He placed in a perfect environment, cared for perfectly, and had with them a perfect fellowship, but they still did their own thing.

I’m also encouraged by the apostle Paul. He wrote about his past to the church in Philippi and said none of his accomplishments mattered, never mind his failures. The important thing was that he knew Christ and deeply desired to live in partnership with Him, sharing in His life and even in His suffering. He wanted to be mature. Then he says;
Not that I have already attained, or am already perfected; but I press on, that I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me. Brethren, I do not count myself to have apprehended; but one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead. . . . (Philippians 3:12-13)
The point is that I cannot waste my energies on regrets about the past (or rest on any laurels). God wants me to spend time in His Word every day so I can press on. I’ve long ago learned that going to church on Sunday to hear a message and then hoping that it is enough to last for the whole week is like eating dinner on Sunday and expecting it to sustain me until the following Sunday. I need to feed on the Word of God every day. How else can I grow? His food makes me healthy and strong.

I’ve also learned that when I share with others what I have learned, those lessons are more deeply embedded in my own life. I’m not sure why it works like that. Maybe it is as food: eat and exercise, eat and exercise. However God does it, when I “eat and share” I know that even if the listeners do not “get it” God still blesses me for taking the opportunities that He gives to tell others what He is teaching me.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Partnering with God

Knowing only my own thoughts, I’ve no idea what kinds of inner monologues go on inside the heads of others. Sometimes I’m thinking about a problem (worry), sometimes my thoughts are joyful, even singing. Sometimes I’m giving myself a sermon or being critical of a dumb thing I just did. Sometimes my thoughts are simply undisciplined, random and scrambled.

When my brain is not occupied with needful thoughts, God wants me to pray. He says:
Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, in everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18)
I’m often startled how liberating it is to be joyful, prayerful and thankful. Occupied with these things, my mind is free and open to hear Him speak. In that, I’m also better able to have good ideas for solving problems, even for forgiving myself, and being better organized in my brain. God, who made this noggin, also knows how it will best function.

Another thing about praying continually is that I’m more apt to hit the same notes as He hits. That is, prayer is like playing with the symphony orchestra on the radio. At first my notes do not blend in very well, but with practice, my sounds become one with the source of the music. Prayer is being open to the mind of God and learning to think the same way He thinks.

Another plus about prayer is that when God answers it, I know it. The goodness of God is never seen as a coincidence and He commits no random acts. Prayer also removes any sense that God is absent. Some people believe God created the world then stands back and is not involved in what happens. People who pray know that is not true.

Prayer is being involved in the work of God as well. When a person shares an answer to prayer and I had not prayed but this is the first I’d heard about the need, I can still praise God for the answer. However, it is different when I’ve been I’ve been part of the “music.” The sense of being involved in the work of God is unlike anything else and as a result my praise is richer and heartfelt.

God knows human needs, and one of them is a deep desire to feel as if we matter, that our lives are significant. He gives that to me by asking me to talk to Him. As I do, and as He shows me what is on His heart, I feel as if I am involved in His work. Can there be any greater calling than to be a partner in the agenda of Almighty God?

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Why pray?

Every Christian knows that prayer often seems like hit and miss. I am comforted somewhat by the reality that God always answers; it is either Yes, No, or Wait, but my impatience isn’t always happy about it. Is there a secret to seeing more prayers answered? Or am I rolling dice?

Prayer is a mystery anyway. Why would the Creator God ask us to talk to Him about our needs when He has already promised to take care of them? Why should we pray when He is sovereign and is working out His plan for this world? Most of the things I ask God for are things that He wants more than I do, so why do I need to ask Him? I know that I cannot talk Him into doing anything He will not do, and if He is already going to do it, why do I need to ask Him to do it?

Today I read these verses from 1 John: “Now this is the confidence that we have in Him, that if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us. And if we know that He hears us, whatever we ask, we know that we have the petitions that we have asked of Him” (1 John 5:14-15).

My first thought is prompted by that word “confidence” which says a great deal about why I pray. Life is a complex and sometimes terrifying thing. When I take my questions and complexities to God, those frowns and fears began to relax because I know He is listening. Modern psychotherapy methods might be based on this principle. We need to voice our concerns and be heard. Otherwise they bottle up inside and grow, turning us into a troubled mess. Besides, this is Almighty God that I talk to, and His is not passively listening, but actively ready to do what I ask.

Another important phrase in these verses is, “according to His will.” This holds the promise of actually learning and knowing the mind of God! That is staggering. I know what I want all too well. I can sometimes figure out what my husband wants, or my family, or friends want, but to know what God wants is an incredible thought.

The will of God isn’t just the obvious that I can deduce from His promises and commands. I know He wants me to worship Him, to have no other gods. I know that I am not supposed to kill people or steal their possessions. I know I am supposed to be kind and joyful and good to my neighbors. His Word tells me all this and more, so praying according to His will is helped by knowing what His book says, yet there are situations in life that do not have a chapter and verse.

For instance, in these days of financial downturn, do I shuffle my investments? Or do I wait and see if they will recover? Do I “trust God” and spend as if there are no problems? Or do I use the common sense He gave me and sit on my money? What is the will of God in these things? And how do I find out what He wants?

Another phrase catches my attention, “we know that He hears us.” This implies that I must say something. Sometimes we “have not because we ask not” and wonder at His silence. That is not the best plan. He will hear, but I need to give Him something to hear. He wants me to talk to Him. Even that invitation is a marvel. God asks me to talk to Him! Wow!

Last week before I went to bed one night, I offered two requests. I’m doing an oral presentation in May and wanted to know what to say about myself at the beginning, and how to integrate two parts of the material that I am supposed to present. God answered, this time in a way He has never done before. He gave me a dream.

I was on the platform before a microphone. I spoke the beginning of my presentation and started into the rest of it, then I woke up. I grabbed a notebook and wrote what I had dreamed, totally amazed at the clarity of the dream and how it made perfect sense (which is often not the case with my dreams).

Both requests were answered and I’m still amazed. This is as close as He has ever come to “leaving a note on my night table” and I am convinced that I can depend on Him to help me with the remaining preparation needed for this task. I already knew it was His will that I do this thing, and although I’m still wondering about other things in my life, in this particular challenge God has proven to me that I can ask according to His will and He will hear and answer my requests.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Glory to God

Yesterday I heard two remarkable testimonies. The first was in our church where a retiring missionary outlined his thirty-five years of experiencing God’s faithfulness as he was moved from place to place and constantly given different hats to wear. He testified of God’s power to enable him no matter the drastic changes in his life or the demands of the work he was doing.

The other one was Bruce Olson at Missions Fest 2009 in our city. I’m suddenly overwhelmed with a sense of inadequacy to write about the things he said and the awesome power of God in his life. When still a teen, he wanted to reach out to a certain people group in South America, a tribe that was resisting anyone that came near them and any change to their way of life. No missionary organization would support him, so he went alone and wandered in the jungle for months until he found them. Actually, they found him, shot him with their long arrows and took him captive.

This tribe was headed toward extinction. They were called cannibals. Their language was so complex that no one could understand them. They killed anyone that threatened them and the odds were overwhelmingly against change. But they did not kill Olson. God began to use this young man and the results are legend. (Some of his stories are at the link above.)

In 1973, he wrote the story, now titled Bruchko. I read it about ten years ago and wept at the amazing things God did in this man’s life and in the lives of the people in that so-called primitive tribe. Yesterday we heard more of God’s amazing work and I’m numb with what was said. We know God can do anything yet rarely experience anything like the experiences of Olson and this small Colombian tribe, now respected worldwide.

This morning, my devotional guide directs me to think about why God answers prayer. He certainly answered the requests of the first missionary, and those of Bruce Olson. He often answers my prayers, even in ways that are astounding. The verses given are part of the why:
And whatever you ask in My name, that I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask anything in My name, I will do it. (John 14:13-14)
When Olson was finished speaking, the audience didn’t know what to do. Normally a speaker delivers stories of God’s grace in somewhat of a dramatic manner and the listeners feel like applauding at least their delivery, but this man didn’t make us feel like that. He left no sense of “Wow, what a man” but a total sense of “Wow, what a God!”

Applause seems an inadequate response to the glory of God. What do you do when He puts His servant into the hands of rebel guerrillas who tie him to a tree for months, then decide to bring him into their camp where he teaches them to read and write and leads them to faith in Jesus Christ? What do you do when God sends a mockingbird, noted for mimicking what they hear, to his servant who is deathly ill, and has that bird sing a song of salvation and resurrection in the tonal language of a people group whom he has also taught to read and write and follow Jesus? (Read this story at the above link.)

We applauded God, but I felt like falling on my face. My prayers are often too selfish, and too often I take bits of glory for myself, but yesterday I realized what I want to be when I grow up. I want to trust God much more, and I want to be just a little bit like these two faithful missionaries who both know what it means to glorify Him.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

That first love

A new Christian said she was having a bad time because she felt as if God had “spit her out” and was gone. She was reading her Bible and praying, yet this feeling of being abandoned would not leave her.

I thought of that old illustration of a train with three cars: facts, faith and feelings. If the facts or truth of the Bible is the engine, faith must follow and feelings will fall into line. However, if feelings are allowed to pull the train, they will lead it all over the place and often off the track.

I told my friend to focus on the truth. As she reads Scripture, she will come across verses that tell her God loves her, that He will never leave or forsake her. She needs to say these facts out loud and think about them. Her feelings are lying to her and she must keep the truth of God’s promises in focus. Her emotions will settle down if she puts them at the back of the train.

That same day, I was in discussion with another person about the rebuke of Jesus to the church at Ephesus. They were doing a lot of good things, but He told them, “Nevertheless I have this against you, that you have left your first love.” (Revelation 2:4)

Our discussion was about the meaning of leaving that first love. The other person compared it to the emotional high in the beginning of marriage where two people are so “in love” that they never think of much else. Later, that emotional fervor begins to wane, and she thought that is what it means to leave our first love. She thought that this church had done that with Jesus and were just serving Him in a mindless, habitual way rather than with the fervor they had when they began their relationship with Him.

I didn’t say it, but in the back of my mind I am thinking that if getting back to our first love means having our emotions at that romantic pitch, none of us will ever stay in a place where that kind of “first love” is pulling the train. For one thing, we don’t have the energy. For another, the emotional high of a “new love” is not necessarily based on anything solid. Even in marriage, this adoration and physical attraction settles down into a more stable, deeper love that depends on commitment and character, etc., rather than feelings.

I did say that Jesus Himself interpreted our love for Him by our obedience. He said, “He who has My commandments and keeps them, it is he who loves Me. And he who loves Me will be loved by My Father, and I will love him and manifest Myself to him.” (John 14:21)

I agreed with her that it is possible to go through the motions of living the Christian life without being motivated by a love for Christ. That is, we can go to church to keep on the good side of the pastor, or teach Sunday school because no one else wants the job, or visit the sick neighbor because we want to get out of the house. None of these reasons are prompted by our relationship with Jesus. Even though no one would necessarily know why we did them, He would know, and if I were doing any of these things for any of these reasons, He could say of me that I’d left my first love.

Jesus told the church at Ephesus to remember from where they had fallen and repent and do the first works. That is, remember what it was like to listen to His voice and do what He asked of them. Then turn from their routine (the kindest word I can think of) and go back to that close walk with Him. While emotions will be involved, this really hasn’t much to do with feelings; it is about obeying Him because we love Him.

Even if going back to that first love was about getting all excited all over again, can anyone really make that happen? The only way I know how to be restored to my love relationship with Jesus is by getting on my knees and confessing that I’ve been doing my own thing (even doing my own thing in serving Him). I must ask Him to forgive me, fill me with His Spirit, and help me start listening again.

By listening for His voice and by acting only as He directs, my heart will be tuned to His heart. As that happens, I’m very likely to experience joy, even excitement — because living that way is an adventure. I might even feel like a newlywed all over again like I did as a new Christian, but the only way to get there is by putting the truth in the front of the train. The thrill of being in love might be exciting and wonderful, but those emotions can be empty and not produce that steady obedience that Jesus says is the way to express our love for Him.

The bottom line is the love of Christ for me. His ultimate expression of it was a trip to Calvary in obedience to His Father. The evening before the crucifixion, He was in the Garden of Olives sweating blood and saying, “Not my will, but Thine be done.” Had Jesus used His emotions to measure His love for God, that great act of love would never have happened.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Praise from the heart

One summer day I was out front tending my rock garden. A neighbor a few doors down the street spoke up and offered praise on the beauty of the flowers. Without any thought, I lifted my hand up in the air and wordlessly transferred the praise to God. Even though this woman is not a Christian, she lit up in a broad smile. We both know who makes the flowers grow.

This morning I’m reading Psalm 50. It depicts God as the righteous judge over His people, and describes true worship and the hypocrisy that some had committed. They were guilty of ritualism and rebellion and about half of this psalm is a warning from Him about their neglect and sin. The last two verses are about praise:
“Now consider this, you who forget God, lest I tear you in pieces and there be none to deliver: whoever offers praise glorifies Me; and to him who orders his conduct aright I will show the salvation of God.” (Psalm 50:22-23)
While praising God can be described as reciting His attributes, repeating what He has done, and giving thanks to Him for who He is and His grace toward us, I know from personal experience that even this can be done as ritual, almost mindlessly. I’ve sometimes found myself saying the words and thinking about something else, or telling someone of His goodness with a deadness and lack of appreciation in my own heart.

Praise is certainly doing the outward things, yet when I say the words or sing the songs, praise is more about what is happening on the inside. God sees my heart. He knows when His people are “faking it” and He knows when I am going through the motions.

As I think about this, praise isn’t too far away. I can sense that swelling up inside of an overwhelming delight in God, an impossible-to-contain joy in who He is, an excitement about what He does. It is not form or ritual, nor can it be scripted (although reading the Psalms helps to give it scaffolding).

However, there are days when this bubbling up praise is not there. I’ve had days when my heart is heavy with sorrow, when life is difficult, when it seems like God is absent or not doing anything. At these times I need that scaffolding of the praise in the Bible to help me lift up praise, but I also need a certain discipline, the discipline of sacrifice. I can offer God praise even when I don’t feel like it.

The Bible mentions this sacrifice in several places. Psalm 27:6 says, “And now my head shall be lifted up above my enemies all around me; therefore I will offer sacrifices of joy in His tabernacle; I will sing, yes, I will sing praises to the Lord.”

Hebrews 13:5 is my favorite. It comes after an exhortation to bear the reproaches of Christ during those times when being a Christian is not easy. It says, “Therefore by Him let us continually offer the sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of our lips, giving thanks to His name.

Praise pleases God and He is worthy of our praise, even when I don’t feel like it. Yet God is not selfishly bound up with needing it (like I can be or like many people are). Instead, He turns around and uses our praise to lift us up! When I praise God, my thoughts are turned from my woes to His love. I can push my concerns aside as I praise Him for His power and His ability to use those concerns for good.

No matter what is going on in my life, praise from the heart makes me remember once again that God is God. He cares for me and is able to answer all needs and work in all situations. If I didn’t feel the joy of who He is to begin with, sacrificial praise brings that overwhelming joy to my heart and causes me to acknowledge once again that God is utterly amazing!

Praise the Lord! For it is good to sing praises to our God; for it is pleasant, and praise is beautiful. (Psalm 147:1) Praise the Lord!

Friday, February 20, 2009

Two kinds of spiritual fruit


Jesus illustrates my need to abide in Him by comparing it with the need of a branch to abide in the vine. As the branch draws its life from the vine, He is my source and resource, my very life also. I wrote yesterday about the fruit that comes from such a branch. It can be typical of its old nature (selfish and fleshy) or typical of the life of Christ. His fruit makes me like Him.

Today, God reminds me that Christ not only produces spiritual fruit in me, but He produces two kinds of fruit: action fruit and attitude fruit.

So which comes first? Do I act because of my attitudes, or do my actions produce my attitudes? A friend says sometimes you have to do the right thing and the right attitudes will follow. I’m more inclined to want my attitude right in the first place lest what I do is hypocrisy.

Our “which comes first” debate could go on forever, but on one thing we do agree; spiritual fruit includes both. God produces attitudes and actions that I would not otherwise have or do because of His presence in my life. Notice the combination of both of these in Paul’s prayers for the Christians at Colosse.
For this reason we also, since the day we heard it, do not cease to pray for you, and to ask that you may be filled with the knowledge of His will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding; that you may walk worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing Him, being fruitful in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God; strengthened with all might, according to His glorious power, for all patience and longsuffering with joy; giving thanks to the Father who has qualified us to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in the light. (Colossians 1:9-12)
He prays they will have full knowledge of the will of God (no one can think right or do right without it) along with wisdom and understanding so they can live right. Philippians 1:11 says, “Being filled with the fruits of righteousness which are by Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.” Doing right is the same as righteousness, and this is spiritual fruit that glorifies God.

Paul also prays for the Colossians to live by God’s power. This power will produce in them the attitudes of patience, endurance, joy and thankfulness. When those are present, what they do is pleasing to God. It is also pleasant for us, that is, we enjoy our actions because of His attitudes.

Today’s devotional reading describes action fruit that includes giving, leading others to Christ, and expressing thanks to God. These and other actions are Christian virtues exemplified in our lives.

The attitude fruit is listed in Galatians 5:22-23, “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.

Both action and attitudes come from God, but how do I get them? I don’t believe I can “act my way” into them, but must be filled with the Holy Spirit in order to think right and live right. Galatians 5:25 says, “If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit.

Many times over the past few weeks I’ve heard said that being filled with the Holy Spirit is a choice. I need to yield control of my life to God. I need to turn from whatever my flesh or self-centeredness might want and say YES to God. When I do that, His Spirit will permeate my life and produce the proper fruit, both attitudes and actions.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

My part as a tree branch

If a branch from a pear tree was grafted to a peach tree, it would still produce pears. If an apple branch was grafted to an apricot, the rest of the tree would bear apricots, but that branch would only produce apples.

Not being a horticulturist, I’m not sure about the success of any of these grafts, but I do know that just because a branch can draw sap from the main tree, that does not mean its character will change. An apple or pear branch will not become or produce anything else but apples or a pears.

Not so with God’s branches. When He grabs hold of a person and grafts them into Himself, He first gives that person His life. That is, the branch takes on the nature of the main tree. More than drawing sustenance, Christians are given the very life of Jesus Christ. The Bible says, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new” (2 Corinthians 5:17).

Yet that new life is a very dependent life. I am a new creation, but still need to rely on the main tree as my source. I think about this every day, particularly this year as my verse for the year is the one in today’s devotional reading.
I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing. (John 15:5)
This verse is not about being grafted in; that has already happened. It is about bearing fruit, about producing that which can only come from the vine. However, the odd part about this type of grafting is that the branch that has the life of Christ is able to produce fruit from that life but also from the former life that it had before it was given God’s life. This becomes a challenge as well as a command to stick close to the vine and draw life from Him.

Jesus says that without Him I can do nothing. Most of the time this is taken to mean that He is speaking in eternal terms. In other words, whatever I do apart from Him has no eternal value. However, my understanding of the sovereignty of God goes so far as to say apart from Him, I could not draw another breath. He is in total charge. No matter what I do, it is because He either permits it or promotes it.

For me, sometimes I struggle figuring out which is which. Two options may present themselves. Neither seems evil. I want to do one but not the other. Is it God pointing me in that direction so that I might bear fruit, or do I just want to go there for personal reasons?

Knowing that isn’t as important as knowing that whatever choice is made, in that choice I am responsible for abiding in Him, staying close and obeying Him. He wants me filled with His Spirit and trusting Him no matter what I am doing.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Walking by faith

Growing up with a Scottish father might be the reason that I don’t turn on lights unless I really need to see. Instead, I will get up in the night to open a window or use the bathroom without any light. I know where things are and even in the darkest nights, I’ve seldom crashed into anything.

But I don’t do this when we are on holidays, at least not until we have been in the same bedroom for several days and I know the layout. Instead, I pack a small night light in my suitcase.

Walking by faith, not sight, is something like knowing where things are in the dark. As I walk through life, I know that Jesus is with me. After nearly forty years of walking with Him, He has proven His presence. However, I still cannot see Him. There is a day coming when I will, but until then, in a sense, I am absent from the Lord.

In 2 Corinthians 5, Paul writes about death. He uses terms like “our earthly house,” calling it “this tent” and when that is destroyed, we will have “a building” or “a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.” Of course those who know the Lord earnestly desire to be in this “habitation from heaven” on that day when our mortality is swallowed up by eternal life.

Paul knows we cannot see Jesus now, but God prepares us for that day by giving us the Holy Spirit as a down payment or a “guarantee” of the life to come (See 2 Corinthians 5:1-5). Until then, I am “at home in this body” and in a sense, I am in the dark because I cannot see Jesus.
So we are always confident, knowing that while we are at home in the body we are absent from the Lord. For we walk by faith, not by sight. We are confident, yes, well pleased rather to be absent from the body and to be present with the Lord. (2 Corinthians 5:6-8)
In this context, the phrase of verse seven (that is called parenthetical by one commentary), takes on a slightly different meaning than I’ve always thought. It isn’t about seeing what God can do (as in yesterday’s post), but about seeing Jesus, about knowing that He is with me. I can see other things, but not this One who is physically absent yet spiritually present. Faith is believing that He is here with me, just as He promised. As the next verse says, believing that He is here makes a difference in how I live. “Therefore we make it our aim, whether present or absent, to be well pleasing to Him” (2 Corinthians 5:9)

Way back in Exodus when the children of God came to the edge of the promised land, they sent in twelve spies to check it out. Ten came back and said they felt like grasshoppers in a land of giants. Those ten were walking by sight and terrified by what they saw. Life can be like that for me too. I’m in the dark and might stub my toe, or worse.

However, the other two spies, Joshua and Caleb had faith. They knew that God was on their side and promised to be with them. While the other ten didn’t think God could handle the circumstances, or that they had to do it themselves, these two knew that God was there and that He is bigger than any situation. Their courage to go on was based on the presence of God, and this demonstrates what it means to walk by faith.

Before Jesus physically left the earth and when men could still see Him in His resurrected body, Thomas doubted because he had not yet had yet had that privilege. Finally he did see Jesus and Jesus said to him, “Thomas, because you have seen Me, you have believed. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:29).

I am one of those so blessed.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

There is faith, and then there is faith . . .

Abraham is called the father of faith, yet when God promised to give him and his wife a son and it wasn’t happening, he slept with Sarah’s maid so it would. How can he be called a man of faith? It seems that he did not trust God, at least in that instance.

Is faith a robotic condition where the heart says, “Yes, God” to everything, without any struggle? Can a Christian say he believes, but fail to act like it?

Of course. This is the struggle between flesh and spirit. I’ve had times in my life where what I believe in my heart and what I was doing in my emotions didn’t match up. God promises that he will take care of my needs, including finances. I believe the verse that says, “God shall supply all your need according to His riches” (Philippians 4:19), yet I have been anxious when financial troubles came my way. If I believe God, why does that happen?

My devotional reading today says that professing to believe what God has said is much easier than really trusting Him. Other Christians might say our faith can be firm in our heads but has not reached our hearts. When I think I believe God, but act as if I don’t when the tests come, I wonder what kind of faith I have. Is it real? Or am I just telling myself that I believe?

Abraham eventually got to the heart of things. He realized that “helping God” didn’t work, and that is an important lesson. If I ask God for anything, I must wait for Him to provide the answer. Unless He asks me to do something, I need to keep my mitts out of it.

Abraham learned that and as a result, his faith became solidified. The Bible says, “He did not waver at the promise of God through unbelief, but was strengthened in faith, giving glory to God, and being fully convinced that what He had promised He was also able to perform. And therefore ‘it was accounted to him for righteousness’” (Romans 4:20-22).

God is faithful as Abraham believed. He saw the proof of it when Isaac was born.

Perhaps the key to this faith from the heart is in that little phrase “giving glory to God.” In my flesh, I want to be able to say, “Look what I did.” When I fully trust God, I cannot say that. If I keep out of it and He provides all that I need, I must give Him the glory. I cannot share in any of it because I had nothing to do with the provision.

God also asks me to walk by faith, not by sight. My faith should be based on who He is, not on what I can see. At the same time, He also knows my frailties and knows that sometimes I need to “see” His faithfulness. He is so gracious! For instance, as He faithfully provides my financial needs, my anxiety about that is replaced with confidence. He has proven His promise and I do not need to worry.

The proper response to that provision is another matter. It is too easy to say “I trust God and do not worry” as if I had anything to do with it. This is the flesh again, trying to jump in and take some glory. However, the only correct response is, “Gods takes care of me and lifts my burdens, even the burden of worry. I am safe in His hands as He teaches me to trust Him with all my heart.”

Monday, February 16, 2009

I cannot save myself

Today’s devotional continues in its emphasis on the importance of confessing sin. It points to a verse that is often used to explain why God does not answer our prayers. The verse puts the blame on unconfessed sin, sin that is harbored in the heart and is prized in some way. This is sin that I am not willing to abandon.

As I read this verse, I know that there will never be a time this side of heaven where my life is totally free from sin. I know enough about my old nature to realize that it is full of iniquity and constantly coming up with ways to glorify myself and do things my own way instead of God’s way. With that in mind, reading this well-known verse in context is a comfort. It says:
If I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear. But certainly God has heard me; He has attended to the voice of my prayer. Blessed be God, Who has not turned away my prayer, nor His mercy from me! (Psalm 66:18-20)
Perhaps the psalmist shared my dilemma. He knew that his life, in a practical sense, will never be free of sin until he is with God in glory. Besides that, how can a person know if they are cherishing sin in their life anyway? Just when we think we have confessed it all, something happens and sin pops up out of nowhere. It seems as if the well of yuck will never run dry and sin is ever present, ready to express itself. Confessing every last bit seems impossible because there seems to be no end of those bits.

If having sin that is harbored is the criterion for communication with God, I’d be afraid that He never hears my prayers. That is why verses 19-20 are important. I do the best I can by being willing to let it go, but if I miss something, God is merciful; He hears me and knows my heart. He answers prayer because of who He is, not because of what I am.

I’m often comforted by another psalm. This one tells me that I’m not alone in failing to understand or perceive all that needs confession. If I wonder about missing something, this is a good place to go. It says:
Who can understand his errors? Cleanse me from secret faults. Keep back Your servant also from presumptuous sins; let them not have dominion over me. Then I shall be blameless, and I shall be innocent of great transgression. Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord, my strength and my Redeemer. (Psalm 19:12-14)
Only God can understand the depths of this sin that lurks waiting for opportunity to express itself. Only God can give me the right thoughts, attitudes and words. Of course there are presumptuous sins that I am aware of, but when those secret ones catch me off guard, I know there is much in me of which I am not aware. This knowledge nags at me and make me wonder if God will ever hear me.

Yet again, as the psalmist says, only God can take care of these hidden things. He can cleanse the secret sins, the stuff that I don’t know is there until it jumps out to bite me.

Confession is vital. His Spirit and His chastening help me do it, as does that sense of guilt which is like pain, warning me that something is wrong. Guilt (before or after sin’s activity) is God’s signal to confront sin and acknowledge it to God so He can cleanse it and help me forsake it.

Thinking about these things today makes me thankful all over again that I have a Savior who can save me. If I had to do it myself, I would certainly fail.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Spiritual sitting ducks


Idleness is not a good idea. A former pastor told of a time in college when he was on the football team. He’d been benched for some reason (injury?) and was not playing with the team. At first he cheered for them just as any team member would do, but over time noticed himself becoming critical of the team. Soon he was criticizing the coach too. He said he eventually found himself hoping the other team would win.

Spiritual inactivity is not a good idea either. Taking time off from teaching a Bible class was God’s idea, and I did need a rest. However, I found myself being tested and needing to watch that I didn’t fall into criticizing the team hard at work in my church. I also have had to watch myself in areas that I never realized were problems. My mother used to say that the devil found work for idle hands. I know what she means. When I’m not “pressing on” he keeps offering me stuff to do that would only mess with my life.

I’ll be teaching again in the later part of March, and also have been asked to do a major presentation at our district convention. Both involve preparation and study, and this has taken me off that bench, yet I still feel a bit “out of it” as if I need a spiritual tune-up of some kind. Friday and yesterday helped. We had a ladies retreat at our church with a vibrant missionary speaker. Her work and life story inspired and encouraged everyone.

Today’s devotional reading is something like yesterday’s in that the focus is on my need to confess my sins and on God’s power to clean up my life. The verse is:
Create in me a clean heart, O God, And renew a steadfast spirit within me. (Psalm 51:10)
This are David’s words. He had been idle too. His men were at war but he was at home in his palace. One night he stood on the roof top and saw a beautiful woman taking a bath. The rest of the story is briefly outlined in Friday’s post.

After this, David repented. The word “repent” is not about feeling sorry as much as it is about turning from something to something else. For me, it could be about simply getting off the bench and back into action, but here it is about forsaking sin and embracing the Lord. Without repentance, God cannot forgive or cleanse my life.

This verse is significant in another way. The verb translated “create” is the same one used in Genesis 1:1 and refers to what only God can do. David asked that his heart be made new, that he be restored and made steadfast in his determination to remain a “man after God’s own heart.” God is the only source of such a renewal. No one can make that happen, just God.

The devotional reading repeats that a true confession of sin includes repentance. I’ve sometimes held back on confession because I was not ready to let go of a sin. It is fairly common for young Christians to tell the Lord we are sorry for a particular sin that we commit, even thank Him for already forgiving it, but that is all. No change happens because repentance is missing.

I’ve realized that I need to hate my sin as much as God hates it. I have to see that it is destructive to me and to my relationship with Him. He has shown me that I must also desire His presence, desire also an open and clear communication with Him that is not clouded by anything that displeases Him. I have to want to be on the team, not critical of anything my Coach is doing, or the other players, and certainly not hoping for sin to score any points.

It has been nice to have a rest. Preparing lesson material and teaching takes much time and energy. Serving the Lord in this way also involves spiritual warfare as the enemy does not want me to be effective or others to learn.

However, too much time out is also dangerous. Spiritual muscles can atrophy. My heart can get lazy and my skills can become dull. I’ve found staying “in shape” while not in action much more difficult than it is when God gave me plenty to do.

Not only that, I’ve seen that this ‘vacation’ has had far more purpose than I expected at the beginning. I am more aware of the dangers of not being involved. Serving the Lord can make us targets, but as my dad used to say, it is harder to hit a moving target. When someone is a Christian and not serving the Lord, they are simply sitting ducks.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

The best verse . . .

Learning the secret of a victorious Christian life is never “try harder” but when I became a believer in Jesus Christ, I thought that was the way to do it. My first “brick wall” came when I became aware that I screamed at my children. I wanted to stop and tried with all my might. After months of effort with no success, I prayed and told God that I didn’t like what I was doing. It was sinful, but I couldn’t seem to stop. After that prayer, I gave up trying. In a few weeks, I noticed that I wasn’t doing it anymore.

That was the first lesson. I’ve had many concerning the failure of “try harder” and am convinced I’ve spiritual Alzheimer’s! I seem to need to learn it over and over. Yet, I also am convinced that if I only had one verse by which to live my Christian life, I would pick this one:
If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:9)
God does what I cannot do. The forgiveness part is wonderful and takes the weight of sin away, but the cleansing is amazing. When I acknowledge my sin, He does something in my attitude or changes the way I think. Actually, I’m not sure how it works. I just know that the things that I hate, but couldn’t seem to stop, begin to go away.

As today’s devotional reading says, confession of sin doesn’t take place only at salvation. It continues, as faith continues, throughout my life. Being willing to confess sin is part of the pattern of life that characterizes every Christian. Yes, this pattern also includes love, separation from the world, instruction by the Holy Spirit and a host of other things, but if I am not loving, or doing anything that is outside His will, trying harder will not make it happen. Confession is the key. As soon as I tell God that I have done the wrong thing, or failed to do the right thing, He gets to work.

Of course there are varying degrees of confession. Sometimes I confess just the incident. That is, if I spoke harshly, I confessed that (to both God and the person on the receiving end). However, speaking harshly or other sinful actions are often symptoms. Under them are deeper motivations such as lack of love, selfishness, a mean spirit, and so on. I’m thinking that is why I find myself doing the same thing again — it is because I never made as full a confession as I should and fail to get to the root of it.

However, trying harder will not work. It serves only to make me a fake. If I’ve a bad attitude and determine to button my lip, that attitude comes out eventually. If I am not interested in people and try to feign interest, my yawn (at the least) will betray me. God wants me to tell Him that I am not in the right frame of mind, or that I am not loving others, or whatever it is, and then ask Him to forgive and cleanse me. He will fill me with the Holy Spirit who freely gives His fruit of love, joy, peace, etc. to those who need it.

Actually, on second thought, there is one place in the Christian life for trying harder. I need to try harder to see and confess my sin, to keep short accounts with God. This favorite verse is my constant reminder that for me to be like Jesus, I must remember that I could not save myself from the penalty of sin nor can I save myself from its power. He is the Savior, and my efforts are useless without Him doing the work.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Stay close to His heart

Her husband was at war. The king summoned her to his bedroom. She went, whether willingly or out of fear we are not told. She became pregnant. The king arranged to have her husband moved to the front lines of battle where he was killed, then the king married her.

A modern movie? No, it is a story from the life of King David of Israel, whom God calls a man after His own heart. What? After doing this terrible thing, how can that be?

David was no god, but a man. The Bible clearly teaches that all men are sinners, and this story shows that David was no different in that respect. He gave in to selfishness and made the wrong choices.

Years ago a pastor told me, “Everyone makes mistakes. It is what you do with your mistakes that make a difference.” This is where David showed that his heart was God’s. Even though David chooses sin, he also hates sin and confesses it to God. It took him awhile to deal with it before God, (am I any different?) but eventually he said this:
For I acknowledge my transgressions, and my sin is always before me. Against You, You only, have I sinned, and done this evil in Your sight — that You may be found just when You speak, and blameless when You judge (Psalm 51:3-4).
David could not make things right with this woman’s husband; it was too late for that. We are not told if he asked the forgiveness of this new wife, but the child she bore died and David “comforted his wife.” Whatever her reasons, she stayed with him and bore him another son, the heir who became the next king.

To be a person after God’s heart isn’t about being perfect, for no one is perfect. However, it is about thinking the same way as God thinks about my sin. The devotional reading today is so true. I rewrite it here to make it personal.
If I want to have a decreasing frequency of sin in my life and an increasing amount of spiritual growth, I must acknowledge my responsibility. I cannot blame my circumstances, my husband, my friends or family, other Christians, the people I work with or who work for me, or my pastor. I cannot even blame the devil. My sin is my fault. While the world’s system can contribute to the problem, sin ultimately occurs as an act of the will—and I am responsible for it.
He goes on to say that one of the best examples of someone who learned how to take responsibility was the prodigal son. When he returned home to his loving father, he said, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight, and am no longer worthy to be called your son” (Luke 15:21). He was even willing to be treated as a humble laborer because he knew he didn’t deserve anything (v. 19).

Having this right attitude toward sin, confessing it, and dropping all excuses and pride is the only appropriate response when I mess up and make sinful choices, and the only response that can expect the forgiveness and cleansing that God promises. How amazing!

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Unexpected rewards of discipline

Black and white people like myself will say you cannot be partly pregnant; you are or you are not. It is the same with sin. Small or large, when I sin, I am a sinner.

A friend argues that often we must select between two choices, neither of which is sin. For instance, she says she can read a book or play with her son. No one would call either of these choices sinful activities. I agree on that, but God looks at the heart. What does He think?

I used to say that I could do my housework to avoid reading my Bible, and I could read my Bible to avoid doing my housework. Is this mere preference? Or is the Holy Spirit speaking about one thing and my contrary human nature wanting something else?

Years ago at a conference, I sat at the same lunch table as former missionary, author and Christian speaker, Elizabeth Elliot. Someone asked her how she managed her time. She said, “Do the next thing. You always know what it is.”

As I endeavor to walk with Christ, my conscience becomes sharper and more aware of the next thing. I’m also increasingly aware of how my fleshy, sinful nature resists what the Spirit is telling me. Yesterday, the next thing was prayer, and I wanted to work on a project. The next thing was to do the dishes, and I wanted to eat chocolate. Sometimes the next thing wins, but when it doesn’t, I am the loser for it. God knows how to govern and direct my life.

That being said, when two choices come up, neither of them sinful, I believe God has a preference, even a reason for His preference. If I am paying attention, I will know which choice He wants. I will also be aware that my flesh will resist in some way. Paul wrote:
Walk in the Spirit, and you shall not fulfill the lust of the flesh. For the flesh lusts against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; and these are contrary to one another, so that you do not do the things that you wish. (Galatians 5:16-17)
This brings me to the verse in today’s devotions. It says, “Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us” (Hebrews 12:1).

I’m thinking about those words, “lay aside every weight” along with my experiences over the last few weeks. I’m trying to “do the next think” in regard to my eating habits. I want to drop some weight this year, and so far have lost about 1/4 of my goal. Dropping this weight is easier than keeping it off. I have learned that listening to the Spirit’s voice is really important. He says that I need to get up and move, but my contrary flesh tells me that I need some munchies. He tells me to lay aside this weight (literally) because it is a snare to my spiritual life, and I didn’t realize it until I started paying attention.

As I say no to the flesh in this one area of life, I’m noticing that it is much easier in other areas, some of which I never realized were even a problem. In other words, eating properly and denying the weight of my “I wants” relative to the pantry, is making me spiritually sharper, more aware of the Lord. I’m also talking to God more spontaneously and am more easily full of worship and joy. Of course, I also feel better and have more energy. This is directly related to Paul’s testimony in 1 Corinthians 9:27, “But I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified.”

Paul knew that seemingly normal activities like eating could muddle his relationship with the Lord, even render useless his value in God’s service. The weight in Hebrews 12:1 means anything that hinders progress in my spiritual life. It might not be overt sin. It might simply be having an extra slice of toast when I know I should not. This weight of doing what I feel like instead of paying attention is supposed to be laid aside. Few would call many of those choices sin, but I know better.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Understanding Success

Only one verse in the Bible uses the word “success.” It is near the beginning of Joshua:
This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate in it day and night, that you may observe to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success. (Joshua 1:8)
I’ve often read that verse and interpreted it the same way everyone would; prosperity and success are about the good life. However, as much as God wants to bless His people in all ways, I’m thinking success in His value system is not the same as most might think.

My devotional reading today starts off with this paragraph. “American society is breeding a generation of Christians who primarily want to be successful. Seldom do they have a humble attitude of service. They are unwilling to make sacrifices for the cause of Christ because they have been taught, whether verbally or not, that Christians should be rich, famous, successful, and popular.”

The Christian leaders that appear on television or have mega-churches are prominent, well-dressed, have nice homes and cars, and are well paid. In the eyes of the world, they appear to be “in it for the money” even if they are not. I know one pastor who fits that description, yet he is a humble man, not at all concerned with the things of this life. God has blessed him with material prosperity, but he has been far more successful in the things that are high in God’s value system.

In the mind of God, success is whatever advances His kingdom. For individual believers, success is becoming like Jesus. That might seem glamorous, yet Jesus poured out His life to serve others and to secure salvation for sinners. The Bible is filled with commands to God’s people about sacrificial service and this is not about being rich, famous, popular, or enjoying the good life associated with the word “success.”

Paul knew what it meant. He said, “Yes, and if I am being poured out as a drink offering on the sacrifice and service of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with you all. For the same reason you also be glad and rejoice with me” (Philippians 2:17-18).

When I read this, I thought of the times that serving God has worn me out, but I wasn’t feeling sorry for myself, just glad that I could do what He had asked. The downer is that too many times other Christians have felt sorry for me, for my fatigue. They suggested that I “don’t work so hard” or that I take care of myself. As Paul said, I wanted them to be glad with me that I’d been given the opportunity to serve the Lord, to be poured out for the sake of others, not to worry about me.

In the mind of God, the “good life” might be a fringe benefit, but it also could be a liability and distract me from what is eternal. Instead, success is laying aside concern for myself and pouring my energies into serving Him.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

A double standard?

When I was in high school, I got picked on for getting good marks and picked on when I missed a question in a ten-point pop quiz. Although that is not the same as persecution, this is the only illustration in my personal experience that comes even close to describing what it is like to suffer for doing well.

As a Christian, I know it is possible to be ridiculed and even physically persecuted because I believe in Jesus Christ. It happens to thousands of people around the world. Some say as many as four hundred believers die each day because of their faith.

However Christianity is sometimes picked on because some Christians make mistakes. A large example is the Crusades. This horrible event is still cited by those who ridicule Christianity.

In today’s world, even ordinary folks who name the name of Christ and make mistakes have become special targets. Those who resist Christ will not acknowledge that the goodness in Christians comes from Jesus, but instead say Jesus is to blame for our mistakes, or at least our “religion” is at fault.

No one would blame the AMA if one of their members runs a red light. No one would blame any students if their home room teacher was caught shoplifting. At the same time, I cannot credit the AMA for my good driving record, or take a bow if any of my teachers are model citizens. Yet somehow this logic does not apply to the Christian life.

Peter must have known that this would happen. He wrote:
If you are reproached for the name of Christ, blessed are you, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. On their part He is blasphemed, but on your part He is glorified. But let none of you suffer as a murderer, a thief, an evildoer, or as a busybody in other people’s matters. Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in this matter. (1 Peter 4:14-16)
Peter and Jesus both said that suffering for my faith is an honor. People who blaspheme Christ would not see it that way, but on my part, God is pleased if I am living like Him. At the same time, I might be a pain in the conscience of those around me. They could discern the purity of Jesus and feel conviction, but instead of acknowledging this, they might blame me for making them uncomfortable.

On the other hand (and Peter makes this clear), I’m not supposed to be a pain in the neck. My life is not to be filled with sin, which includes the biggies like murder and theft, but also ordinary stuff like not minding my own business. (Did you know that was a sin?). For those things, outsiders can blame me and have every reason to do so. This is not a reproach because I am a Christian, but an accusation against me for not living up to the faith that I claim has saved me from sin.

My peers didn’t like it when I achieved in school. Most of them knew they should study harder and apply their skills with more diligence. Anyone who did well made them feel guilty. At the same time, if I didn’t do as well as they thought I should, I also became a target. Whether or not I could have worked harder is beside the point. It was their expectations that became the standard. While it was woe to me if I hit that mark, they did respect it. The woe to me if I didn’t was their expression of disappointment. (Being a good student is tough.)

The non-Christian world expects Christians to live according to what we claim to believe. If we do, they usually don’t like it and feel convicted, but if we don’t measure up, they are angry. If what we claim is true, then our actions must follow or it looks like what we claim is false.

This tells me that whether it appears so or not, those who are so quick to reproach a Christian for any reason are perhaps deep down hoping or realizing that we have found the answers to what they are also seeking. While their human sinfulness hates the truth, their inner soul longs it to be so and is upset when we fail to live it out.

Monday, February 9, 2009

God knows our hearts

My oldest son called at 7:30 in the morning the day after my birthday. His work didn’t allow time to call the day before. Our youngest bid on dinner as a United Way donation and won it, but it was the same evening as our birthday party, so he called me, but could not join us. I had two birthday meals with our daughter, all this to say I know that all three love me, even though their expression of it was different. In this case, the intent of the heart is more important than what they actually did.

This is true in serving the Lord also. While some commands are universal in their obedience, He gives His people great freedom in our expression of devotion to Him. Some will fast on Fridays; others will feast in celebration of His provision. Some will quit their job if asked to work on Sunday; others will stay at the job and find a place to worship on Saturday evening. Some will venerate certain days; others will not.

Perhaps the Christians at Rome argued about these matters or were judging one another because Paul’s letter to them included a section that my Bible titles, “the law of liberty,” In part, it says:
He who observes the day, observes it to the Lord; and he who does not observe the day, to the Lord he does not observe it. He who eats, eats to the Lord, for he gives God thanks; and he who does not eat, to the Lord he does not eat, and gives God thanks. For none of us lives to himself, and no one dies to himself. For if we live, we live to the Lord; and if we die, we die to the Lord. Therefore, whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s. (Romans 14:6-8)
Obviously the Lord is concerned about my motives. Certainly I’m to obey Him in actions, but He wants my reasons for obedience wrapped up in the understanding that I belong to Him and everything I do is for Him. If another Christian is doing something that seems opposite in some way, then I need to remember this. My opinion of their actions isn’t as important as their reasons for what they do. God is looking at the heart.

Even then, there are times when I am not sure about what I am doing. It isn’t sin, but does it please the Lord? These verses may say that I should dedicate my life and service to Him, yet sometimes those doubts make me falter. For that, another passage comes to mind, this time from 1 John.
My little children, let us not love in word or in tongue, but in deed and in truth. And by this we know that we are of the truth, and shall assure our hearts before Him. For if our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and knows all things. (1 John 3:18-20)
Even though I did the best I could, that uncertainty still happens. As my commentary says, my heart condemns me in that I recognize that I do not measure up to His standard of love. I may even feel insecure in approaching Him. Yet even though my conscience cannot seem to acknowledge if my deeds were done in the power of the Holy Spirit, God knows. And He is superior to my heart. Unlike my conscience, God takes everything into account, including Christ’s atoning work for me.

God is more compassionate and understanding toward me than I sometimes am toward myself. For that same reason, Paul says be care about judging the actions of other Christians. I don’t know their heart. God does and they belong to Him just as I do, therefore I must leave all analysis to Him.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Is it possible to avoid sinners?

Our daughter’s birthday is three days after mine so we usually celebrate together. I took her for lunch on Friday, and last night the family went to a small restaurant for a bigger birthday party. She picked the place because some friends of hers were the evening’s entertainment. We enjoyed good guitar music and Paul’s original songs, a combination of “acoustic folk, roots and blues” with “well-thought out lyrics, solid vocals, and occasional blues harp accompaniment.”

Other than a few people at our table, likely there were no Christians in the place, but I didn’t feel uncomfortable. I didn’t hear any blasphemy or see anything that blatantly dishonored God. Certainly last night’s experience gave me pause when I read the devotional for today. Its focus was from Revelation 2 where Jesus is speaking to the church at Ephesus:
“I know your works, your labor, your patience, and that you cannot bear those who are evil. And you have tested those who say they are apostles and are not, and have found them liars. . . .” (Revelation 2:2)
The author of the devotional takes up the phrase “you cannot bear those who are evil” and writes that those who love Jesus “should be so consumed with God’s glory that we hurt when He is dishonored.” He also quotes Psalm 69:9, “Because zeal for Your house has eaten me up, And the reproaches of those who reproach You have fallen on me.”

When I read it, I thought about the word “evil” and realized that there are degrees of it. Normally I see things in black and white, and certainly God has two categories for people: those who know and love Him and those who do not. However, out of the sinners who know or do not know God, there is a wide range of capacity for good and for evil.

Even Christians can behave in evil ways, acting the same as those who do not know God. The Bible is filled with strong warnings, rebukes and exhortations to the people of God who act as if they are atheists. I thought of one incidence where Paul writes to a church about their need to avoid evil people. However, what he says is remarkable, even a surprise:
I wrote to you in my epistle not to keep company with sexually immoral people. Yet I certainly did not mean with the sexually immoral people of this world, or with the covetous, or extortioners, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. But now I have written to you not to keep company with anyone named a brother, who is sexually immoral, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or an extortioner — not even to eat with such a person. (1 Corinthians 5:9-11)
He could have told them to stay away from unsaved people who drink beer and sing songs about human events, but he didn’t do that. Instead he tells them to stay away from Christians who do sinful things (that seems far worse).

In other words, “fun” that does not dishonor God’s name, even though it isn’t honoring Him either, isn’t the concern that Paul had. He says it is not possible to avoid being around sinners. What he is more concerned with is that Christians tolerate sinful activities among themselves. We are supposed to honor Jesus Christ because He is our Lord and Savior, our Giver of eternal life, our source of all good things, not live like everyone else. Our lives are to be different from the ordinary.

My husband and I are never sure what others think of us when we are in public places. He always gives thanks for the food. Last night, anyone within earshot heard him honor God. We welcomed two people to the empty chairs at our table as the restaurant filled to capacity. (It turned out that we knew one of them, and both are Christians.) The singer gave our daughter and me pleasant but low-key birthday greetings. We left the place without feeling “contaminated” because there were no lewd jokes, loud swearing, or rude behaviors.

Jesus ate and drank with sinners and was criticized for it. Whoever found fault with Him didn’t know their Bible very well; it is impossible to eat and drink with anyone who is not a sinner! Jesus also refused to spend much time with the self-righteous or those who called themselves God’s people yet acted worse than the people they looked down at for being “publicans and sinners.”

All this tells me that God is far more concerned with the sin of His people than the sin of those who do not know Him. In Christ, I have the capacity to say no to sin, and whenever I don’t, I am dishonoring Him. Those who do not know Christ do not have that capacity, and most of them have no idea it is available. That is why Jesus spent time with sinners; His presence opened many eyes and made sinners desire what He could give them.

It is our hope and desire that Jesus may have given us just a small role in doing the same thing at this birthday party where we celebrated His goodness in the midst of a group of people who do not know Him.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Eating, drinking, and idols

I had 2500 pictures of Elvis Presley when I was a teenager. No doubt I idolized this singer, as did many others, yet idolatry today isn’t always as easy to discern as it was in Bible times. Back then, the idol worshipers had temples and statues and offered sacrifices to their idols. Today, if an idol can be described as something exalted or depended upon or venerated beyond reason, then it could be anything from entertainers to politicians to hard cash.

When the New Testament was written, one activity in idol worship was the offering of meat to an idol. Of course the idol could not consume the meat, so the worshipers did. If they invited their friends, everyone was served this meat that had been offered to idols.

Christians were not sure what to do about that. Do they eat it; or not? Paul wrote the church at Corinth and told them that idols were nothing. The real issue was the demonic forces at work in the lives of those involved. Eating the meat didn’t mean anything in the spiritual lives of Christians as long as they didn’t get tangled up in the demonic side of things. However, even though they were free to eat the meat, they needed to be careful. Their actions were supposed to edify themselves and others, and they were supposed to glorify God in all that they did. He said to them:
Eat whatever is sold in the meat market, asking no questions for conscience’ sake; for “the earth is the Lord’s, and all its fullness.” If any of those who do not believe invites you to dinner, and you desire to go, eat whatever is set before you, asking no question for conscience’ sake. But if anyone says to you, “This was offered to idols,” do not eat it for the sake of the one who told you, and for conscience’ sake; for “the earth is the Lord’s, and all its fullness.” “Conscience,” I say, not your own, but that of the other. For why is my liberty judged by another man’s conscience? But if I partake with thanks, why am I evil spoken of for the food over which I give thanks? Therefore, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. (1 Corinthians 10:25-31)
When it comes to today’s idolatry, does this have any application? Suppose my neighbor spends half a year offering his hard work to earn enough to purchase a new hot tub. This hot tub is his dream and clearly an object of veneration (at least until it breaks down). He invites us over to soak in the tub. Do we go? Paul says go, as long as he isn’t flaunting the thing as an object of worship.

I cannot imagine anyone saying, “This hot tub is my god” but it could happen. More likely in cases like this, the person who does not worship God has no idea that they are worshiping something.

This is likely different for those who put movie stars, hockey players, politicians, and other ‘celebrities’ on a pedestal. They might even say, “My idol is. . . .” just as I did about Elvis. Then what? Could I freely go to a dinner that raised anyone to idol status? Could I eat with those who worshiped that person as their idol?

Paul doesn’t talk about this kind of idolatry, but he does say that whatever I do, eating, drinking, or anything else, should be done to glorify God. If that is the desire of my heart, then I will know what to do should I be invited to something like that. The God of my heart will guide me in each situation.

According to some interpretations of biblical prophecies, one day a person called the Antichrist will rise up to rule on a global scale. This person will be idolized, even to a god-status. Should that be a correct interpretation (and not symbolic as others think), then my attitude and actions toward idols will be tested as never before, and this time passing the test is far more important than wondering about hot tubs or celebrity dinners. Paul’s words to practice ways of glorifying God in all that I do now will better equip me to stand against any greater test in the future.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Heart + Mouth + Life

Last year a dear friend was taken to the hospital. He had been ill and the end was soon, but he had not yet made his peace with God.

My husband felt the urging of the Spirit to go quickly. He obeyed and went to our friend’s bedside. He told him about Jesus and how he could be sure of heaven when he died. This man agreed about his need, then prayed asking God to forgive his sins. He died within a day or two after that.

His wife, who still has not made her peace with God, told us that just before her husband died, he told her that he had put his faith in Christ. Our hearts rejoiced because “saying so” is such an important verification for our salvation. This comes from Romans 10:
If you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes unto righteousness, and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation. (Romans 10:9-10)
Believing in my heart is more than just acknowledging that God exists and Jesus was a real person. Even the demons believe that! (James 2:19) Instead it is a deep conviction about the truths in the Bible, particularly that Jesus is God the Son who came to earth and died on the cross for my sins, was buried, and then rose from the dead on the third day. Without the resurrection, there is no salvation. As Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians:
And if Christ is not risen, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins! Then also those who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men the most pitiable. (1 Corinthians 15:17-19)
But saying it is also important. Confessing means to “say the same thing” or be in agreement with God, confirming verbally that I believe in what God says. When He says I have sinned, confessing my sin means that I agree. When He says Jesus died and rose again, confessing Christ means that I agree. When He says Jesus is Lord, saying so means I submit to His lordship.

Putting words to it is not a magical thing; just saying those words do not make it true. If that were so, I could say I have a Porsche and then go find one in my driveway. However, saying the words that God says is important. There are several reasons.

The first is that declaring a truth affirms it to my own doubting heart. Confession is sort of like prayer; I can pray silently, but when I pray aloud, I seem to have a greater sense of knowing I am heard. Verbal confession gives me a strong affirmation of what I believe.

Declaring a truth aloud also has the same effect on others; they know where I stand if I tell them out loud. Our friend’s wife knows that her husband trusted Christ for his salvation and eternal life. We do too, and for us that is a great comfort and assurance that we will see him again.

One more thing that confession may do is that the enemy is always trying to make me believe something other than what God says. The more vocal I am in my agreement with God, the less susceptible I am to Satan’s lies and his attempts to stonewall my Christian testimony. Even when I am alone and struggling, it seems that the issues become clearer when I say aloud the truth of Scripture and what I believe.

The heart, the mouth, and the life are closely connected. Jesus said that whatever a person believes in their heart will come out in their life. That means that if anyone really does believe in their heart that Jesus is Lord and rose from the dead, saying it will be easy and living it will also be part of the equation.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Producing fruit

The crab apple in our farm yard was overgrown and unproductive so we decided to prune it. We removed all dead branches. Then we removed those that rubbed on other branches or were otherwise in odd places. We also trimmed a few more of those inner branches so “a bird could fly through it” and then we waited.

The first year wasn’t hopeful, but the second spring brought a dazzling display of flowers. By fall, we had lots of crab apples. The tree was again producing fruit.

John 15 is one of my favorite passages. My verse for this year is from this chapter. Today, I am again reading it, and being reminded once again the purpose of fruitfulness. “By this My Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit; so you will be My disciples” (John 15:8).

Like the crab apple, no one would know what kind of person I am if I didn’t bear the fruit of the Holy Spirit. This identifies me as a branch, a disciple of Christ. However, that is not the main reason He produces love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control through me. The Spirit does it so that the invisible God is seen and glorified.

When I am around a fruit-producing Christian, I sense the presence of the Lord. My heart is warmed, delighted and encouraged. The fruit of the Spirit is often elevated as grand traits that are part of the human ability to be good, but when properly described and biblically understood, there is no way I could be like this apart from the Holy Spirit.

For instance, the love here is not human affection or a do-good love. It is agape, that love that is unconditional and given apart from any deservedness or reward. Agape can love enemies and persevere long after it is appreciated.

Another for instance is self-control. This is not a bite the bullet kind of determination but the sinful and selfish self under the control of the Holy Spirit so that the person who is bearing fruit is almost unaware that they are doing it because they are not thinking about themselves at all.

The first part of John 15 says that those who bear fruit will be pruned so they will bear more. That means God will use the events of life and the power of His Word to lop off the selfishness that is in me. He cannot be glorified as He deserves if I have any desire to have some of that glory for myself.

This chapter says that this kind of fruit only happens when God’s people abide in Him and obey Him. I need to stay close to Jesus and focus on Him. I need to listen to Him and rely on Him for everything that I do and say. This is a spiritual discipline and a necessity, but He is faithful. When I abide, He produces that fruit that is so important.

John 15 also says that the fruit of an abiding Christian will last forever. It has eternal value and gives significance to my life, even though I am merely the bucket that carries it where God wants it used.

Most of all, and more important than all, the fruit produced by a branch that abides in the vine is fruit that shows others what God is like, and by doing that, it glorifies God.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Spiritual growth

A maker of quilts writes this in her blog, “I learned one thing, never try to quilt in the ditch without using my ruler.”

From this statement, I know that she is not a bad driver who does her quilting off the road somewhere, nor is she a beginner who needs a ruler to draw a straight line. This person is an experienced and knowledgeable quilter.

“In the ditch” is a term that describes quilting stitches that are on the seam lines between quilt patches. The need for a ruler to do it refers to those who use a longarm quilting machine, a huge and expensive piece of equipment most beginners would not know about or even consider. The person who wrote that line not only knows the “lingo” but has at least some skill in using an industrial quilting machine.

Learning how to quilt is a bit like learning how to live as a Christian. In the beginning, I was just delighted with it all. I purchased my first book because I loved the pictures of the quilts in it. As I grew in my ability, I began to realize that first book was for experienced quilters, not a beginner. I also learned that quilting isn’t as easy as regular sewing. Challenges and making mistakes have taught me much.

Today’s verse is about growing as a Christian, which also involves both knowledge and practice. It hints that there are beginners, intermediates, and experienced people who follow Christ, just as there are beginners and those more experienced in quilting. The verse says:
I write to you, fathers, Because you have known Him who is from the beginning. I write to you, young men, because you have overcome the wicked one. I write to you, little children, because you have known the Father. (1 John 2:13)
The author of Truth for Today says that his experience has taught him about the different levels of spiritual growth described in this verse and its context. As a spiritual babe, he too was taken up in the euphoria of knowing God, but he didn’t know much theology, just as I was taken up in the excitement of learning how to quilt without realizing what I was getting into.

He also says that at that time he was easily influenced by anyone’s teaching, but later, as he learned the Word of God, false doctrine no longer deceived him, but made him angry. I cannot find a parallel to that in quilting, but I also came to a place in my Christian life where I realized not everyone was sincere or telling me things that came from the Bible. I felt the same anger at false teaching and wanted to correct it whenever I heard it.

This author also says that now he has grown in his knowledge of the Bible his greater desire is to know God more intimately. He calls this the final level of growth, where spiritual “fathers” not only know the Bible, but also know deeply the God who wrote it.

I agree, and this is where the parallel with quilting falls away. Somewhere in the past few years my desire to collect information, compare teachings, and solidify my theology has taken second place to better knowing God. I used to worry about getting things biblical, using the best methods, having the right words — and I know those things are still important — but now I’m more drawn to God Himself. He guides me and shows me what to say and do. I simply need to be near Him, listening to Him, talking to Him.

In today’s verse, the experience of the “little children” and the “fathers” sounds much the same. Both “know” Him. I can see how that works too. I’ve come back to that same sense of wonder that I had as a new Christian, the wonder of knowing God. However, now I have a foundation of learned theology (including how to overcome the wicked one) behind and beneath that awe, making it much deeper, less based on my feelings and lighthearted emotions (my emotions are richer and deeper now) and more grounded in the amazing truth of who He is — my Father and my God.