Thursday, April 30, 2009

Dead works exposed

The danger of blogging daily devotions is that it becomes less personal, a writing exercise, even a ritual. Instead of listening to and obeying God, I can be thinking how to best express a biblical truth.

The other problem with daily devotions, blogged or not, is that the focus is always on me and my problems instead of Christ and His solutions. I can put myself into a little box with a magnifying glass and this spiritual discipline is not doing the job He intends, but becomes a self-centered, self-indulging exercise.

The readings in the devotional guide I’m presently using are more about what God has done than they are about what I am doing or not doing. They take my mind to Jesus Christ instead of putting a huge spotlight on me. That has been showing me that I’ve enjoyed the spotlight far more than I should. Even being convicted is better (in my selfish mind) than not thinking about me at all. Yikes.

Today’s verse ends with what I need to hear, and this isn’t the first time God has used these words to stop my silly naval gazing and rituals. He says,
For if the blood of bulls and goats and the ashes of a heifer, sprinkling the unclean, sanctifies for the purifying of the flesh, how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without spot to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God? (Hebrews 9:13-14)
In the Old Testament sacrificial system called the Mosaic Law, God said sacrifices made on the Day of Atonement with the blood of bulls and goats would atone for the sins of the people. Specific uncleanness, such as being ceremonially defiled by touching a corpse, was cleansed by being sprinkled with the ashes of a heifer mixed with water. However, as the author of Hebrews says, these ceremonies purified only a person’s exterior, not their heart. Their sin was forgiven but still in them.

Complete cleansing involves the eternal Holy Spirit, God the Father, and God the Son. Sin also defiles the conscience of my inner person so this is not about needing a bath, but needing my mind and conscience cleansed. Only Christ’s death has the power to do this and only the Holy Spirit and God can apply that to my entire life.

Hebrews 9 also says the dead works of ritual in the Mosaic Law could not give life, yet as I read it, the Holy Spirit applies this to my dead rituals too. For me, they are things like reading Scripture and writing down my ideas in a routine way and without letting them change my heart.

This passage says putting faith and confidence in those old laws that have already served their purpose and are now passed away is useless. He also whispers that putting faith in my rituals is also useless. If I just want to use my devotions to indulge in naval-gazing, I am being disobedient to His intentions.

While the author of Hebrews commands his original readers, likely newly converted Jews, to free their conscience from the ritual and regulations of Mosaic Law and instead cling to Christ for cleansing, He also commands me to guard against any slide into ritual or self-effort on my part. Instead, I also must truly serve the living God and not any dead works.

Having a quiet time with God is not another item to check off my to-do list. Spending time with God is more like plugging into my power source for the day. It is getting from Him the direction I need for my attitude and actions. It is remembering continually what He has done for me and what He will keep doing. It is noting that life is not all about me, nor about doing my own thing, but about Jesus Christ and bringing Him glory by doing what He says.

It is also not about letting a good habit slide into a meaningless ritual that I can control. Instead, time with Him means presenting myself on that altar as a living sacrifice, tuned in and ready to die to myself and do whatever He asks.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Assurance from the Flood

Only a sovereign God could use historical events to depict spiritual truth. His judgment on sin and evil is shown by the battles in the Old Testament between His people and the pagan nations. His salvation is illustrated in the story of Noah, the flood and the ark. The apostle Peter writes about it.
There is also an antitype which now saves us—baptism (not the removal of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God), through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. (1 Peter 3:21)
In the days of Noah, a worldwide flood destroyed all but a few because God was judging them. In the final days, the judgment of God will also be upon everyone who are not in His ark of safety, that ark being Jesus Christ. Being in Him is like being in the ark that took Noah safely through the storm of judgment.

Baptism literally means “immersed” or “put into.” Taken in that way, the baptism Peter is talking about is not water baptism (not the removal of the filth of the flesh), but that “being put into” that gives a person a good conscience toward God. This can only be that baptism whereby God puts people into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In our union with Him, we participate in His death, burial and resurrection, and all believers are said to be “in Christ.”

Think of Noah’s ark as a tomb. The eight people in this big boat died to their world when they entered it. Then when the left the ark, they entered a new world. Peter says this experience is analogous to my experience. God put me in Christ and I died to the world I came from. He also gave me new life in the spiritual realm and the assurance that one day my body will be resurrected and live in another world.

How is this information practical for me today? The verse speaks of a good conscience toward God. Those without it have no idea of the freedom that brings. Because I am “in Christ” I know I can stand before God without condemnation. I am a sinner, but Christ paid the full penalty for my sin. I am free of the guilt that would otherwise be my condemnation and bring me into eternal judgment. I walk lightly because this is true.

Also, because Jesus died and rose again, both will be my experience. Death isn’t all that exciting — my to-do list is too long :-) — but I know that death is not the end. I will rise to eternal life and be with Christ forever. This too brings great freedom. The fear of dying is no threat and I know that this life is not all there is. Christ has taken care of all the important questions and issues.

I’m reminded of Romans 8:31-32 which asks these rhetorical questions, “What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not with Him also freely give us all things?”

In Christ my enemies are not a threat and God offers me all that I need, both for this life and the next. God’s man Noah sent out a dove to make sure it was safe to venture forth, but I don’t need to do that. My assurance is in the promises of God and the saving power of Jesus Christ.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The ark illustrates salvation

The government in the province where I live is being mocked because someone picked a photograph of a beach in England as the background for a poster promoting Alberta. Not only is Alberta landlocked, but we have jaw-dropping scenery of our own. We shake our heads and wonder what they were thinking?

Today I’m reading about Noah, a man who faced far more ridicule for his actions. In his day, no one had seen a deluge of rain nor a floating box called an ark. Not only that, Noah worked on this project for one hundred and twenty years, even though his neighbors mocked him and laughed at what seemed like total foolishness.

God didn’t laugh. 1 Peter 3:20 says that He “waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight souls, were saved through water.”

This Bible account is sometimes called a myth because other cultures have “flood” stories, but those retellings actually support the account, as do the layers of sea shells found in mountain ranges and other places where there has never been an ocean. The flood happened and it is an illustration of God’s judgment on sin and God’s power to save those who believe what He says.
God said to Noah, “The end of all flesh has come before Me, for the earth is filled with violence through them; and behold, I will destroy them with the earth. Make yourself an ark of gopherwood; make rooms in the ark, and cover it inside and outside with pitch. And this is how you shall make it: the length of the ark shall be three hundred cubits, its width fifty cubits, and its height thirty cubits. You shall make a window for the ark, and you shall finish it to a cubit from above; and set the door of the ark in its side. You shall make it with lower, second, and third decks. And behold, I Myself am bringing floodwaters on the earth, to destroy from under heaven all flesh in which is the breath of life; everything that is on the earth shall die. But I will establish My covenant with you; and you shall go into the ark—you, your sons, your wife, and your sons’ wives with you. And of every living thing of all flesh you shall bring two of every sort into the ark, to keep them alive with you; they shall be male and female. (Genesis 6:13-19)
Besides the spiritual implications of this historical event, this account has some interesting twists. One is that someone reading it realized that “pitch” had to signify oil, and because of that, oil exploration began in the middle east.

Note also the size of the boat. People have laughed that no boat could hold every species, but this craft was the size of a modern ocean liner. Further, someone did the math and discovered that this boat not only had room for all the animals and those eight people, but also the food and fresh water they would need for their time in it. (Click here for photo!)

More importantly though, Noah provides an example of what it means to trust God. Faith is never passive. It is demonstrated by a believer’s life, just as it was demonstrated by the life of Noah. He totally trusted God, so he did everything that God commanded him. Hebrews 11:7 says that, “By faith Noah, being divinely warned of things not yet seen, moved with godly fear, prepared an ark for the saving of his household, by which he condemned the world and became heir of the righteousness which is according to faith.”

God may never ask me to do something as grand as building a boat in my landlocked province, but every day brings challenges to my faith. I’m encouraged by a man who lived several thousand years ago. No matter the opposition or the difficulties that confronted him, Noah lived by faith and because of it was a condemnation to the sin around him. He also received the righteousness that God gives to those who trust Him. The bottom line is that Noah actually was saved by faith, not just a large, wooden ark.

Monday, April 27, 2009

My primary enemy vs my best Friend


Next week’s topic for my Bible class is distinguishing the difference between messages from Satan and messages from the Holy Spirit. Some are obvious because we know God would never tell me to rob a bank or tell lies, but the lines do become blurry and discernment is often needed.

This morning, my devotional guide offers me the story of the first deception. The devil came to Eve in the form of a serpent and convinced her to take the only thing God had forbidden to her and Adam. After she ate the fruit and gave some to him, God came to them and told them how life would change because of their sin.

God also spoke to the serpent, condemning it to crawl in the dust, but His condemnation went beyond the snake to the evil entity that had taken its form. To Satan, God said,
I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her Seed; He shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise His heel. (Genesis 3:15).
A careful study of the entire Bible shows that the seed of Satan refers are all those who follow his lies and are false teachers. The Seed of the woman is a term used for Jesus Christ, God in human flesh, born of a woman. He came to defeat sin and Satan’s power to deceive and destroy.

Satan did “bruise His heel” in the sense that his scheme took Jesus to the cross. Little did he realize (because he is in darkness) that this was part of God’s plan. By dying on the cross, Jesus took humanity’s penalty for sin. Not only that, He rose from the dead and destroyed the power of Satan.
Inasmuch then as the children have partaken of flesh and blood, He Himself likewise shared in the same, that through death He might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and release those who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage. (Hebrews 2:14-15)
Satan’s big thing is convincing people that God does not want the best for them; therefore, they should not do anything He says. He used this deception on Eve and it worked. However, the Bible always holds Adam accountable for this because Eve “was deceived” but Adam ate the forbidden fruit with his eyes wide open. He chose to enter into sin with Eve rather than obey God.

Since then, the world is in a spiritual war. Many are blind to the forces of evil whose goal is their allegiance. Those of us who are aware of this battle know that our victory has been secured by the One who “bruised Satan’s head” and robbed him of the power of death. Because Jesus lives, I will live also. I no longer fear death.

Yet even though I have eternal life and Satan cannot take that from me, he can deceive me if I am not alert. He pesters me with lies and temptations in his attempts to stop me from trusting God. He works hard trying to lead me into sin. That is why I am thankful for promises like Romans 16:20, “And the God of peace will crush Satan under your feet shortly.”

Before Jesus came, Satan tried to destroy the Messianic line by destroying God’s people. He tried to slaughter the infant Jesus and later attempted to corrupt Him with temptation. He also instigated mobs to kill Him and tried to make sure Jesus didn’t come out of the tomb. Even though he wanted Jesus to die, that death became his defeat.

I’m aware that the curse on Satan also involved the woman. Does it extend to all women? Do we have a special need to be on guard because that enmity extends from Eve to us? I’m not sure of the answer to that, but I suspect that this week will be filled with spiritual battles as I prepare to take some pot shots at the one who would like to see me and the women in my study group following our sinful nature instead of the Holy Spirit. I also expect that my enemy will lose, not because I am a great spiritual warrior, but because my friend Jesus has already crushed the power out of him.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Preaching as proclamation

Yesterday, we attended a funeral. It was not as sad as it was uplifting. Those who shared stories from the life of the woman who had died also declared her faith and described how faith in Christ that means victory over sin and death. Even though few would have called it preaching, by definition, those eulogies were preached.

In Bible days, the word for preaching meant to make a proclamation or announce a triumph. As my devotional reading says, in ancient times “a herald would precede generals and kings in the celebration of military victories, announcing to all the victories that were won in battle.” In one sense, this is what happened at the funeral. It was announced that because of Jesus, this woman had won her battles.

There is a phrase in a verse in 1 Peter that is difficult to understand. However, with that definition of preaching as proclamation in mind, the meaning becomes clearer:
For Christ also suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive by the Spirit, by whom also He went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly were disobedient. . . . (1 Peter 3:18-20)
While there are several interpretations of what “preached to the spirits in prison” means, one makes the most sense. This verse is not about Jesus preaching the gospel in hell to those who had died without faith, but about Him announcing His triumph to all who were against Him.

Some assume the “spirits in prison” are departed and unsaved humans and that Jesus went to tell them about His death and resurrection, but this preaching is not about winning souls. The Bible clearly offers no support for any second chance after death. In fact, Hebrews 9:27 says, “It is appointed for men to die once, but after this the judgment.”

Instead, this preaching is in the sense of proclamation, of declaring victory. This is Jesus announcing that He had won the battle. He defeated the enemy, a corporate enemy of sin, death, hell, demons, and Satan. The declaration could have been made to the unsaved dead, or to lost and rebellious spiritual beings, or both. That is not the point. The focus is on Jesus who was put to death, is now alive, and has conquered death and every other thing that resists Him.

How is this practical for me today? First, just those two words “Jesus Wins” have a huge impact on my joy barometer. I can say that I serve a living Savior, and say it with great confidence and hope. Nothing can defeat Jesus Christ.

Second, I am delighted for the woman who died, and for her family. She is with Jesus. As one person who “preached” yesterday said, if we could get a small glimpse of where she is now, we would not sorrow but be extremely glad.

Third, every day brings challenges, some large, some small, but no matter what they are, the big ones are taken care of because Jesus defeated them. Sin, death, hell and all my spiritual enemies cannot harm me. I know that I will live forever, that sin cannot destroy me, and that the liar cannot defeat me.

I also know that I am a winner. True winning is not about prizes, a job, trophies, or defeating all the competition, or winning the lottery, or even winning arguments. Life is about following the One who defeated my worse fears and conquered everything that resists grace and goodness. As the King goes into glory with the spoils of war, I am following Him. I am both the spoil of His war and a soldier who shares in His victory.

What more can I say? He is my commanding officer and no matter what battles still face me, the proclamation has been made — they have already been won.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

One word changes eternity

Little words can make a big difference. As Mark Twain said, “The difference between the almost right word & the right word is really a large matter — it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”

Today’s verse from two translations reads (italics mine):
For Christ also suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive by the Spirit. (1 Peter 3:18, NKJV)
For Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, so that He might bring us to God, having been put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit. (NASV)
The KJV version is okay. It is true; Jesus was made alive by the power of the Holy Spirit. He died and rose again because the power of God brought Him back to life.

However, the NASV is the more accurate translation and it implies far more. This translation makes a specific reference to Jesus’ spirit — rather than the Holy Spirit, and contrasts what happened to the flesh (or body) of Jesus with what happened to His spirit. His spirit was alive but His flesh was dead.

If “made alive in the spirit” meant Christ’s physical resurrection, it would have to say something like, “He was put to death in the flesh but made alive in the flesh.” However, the resurrection was a spiritual and physical occurrence. Therefore, the point of using “in the spirit” is that although Christ was physically dead, His spirit was still alive.

This is important. There is no way He could have ministered to “the spirits in prison” as stated in the next verse if His spirit was also dead. Whoever that term points to, ministry to them requires life.

As I read this, I thought about the human spirit too, and what the Bible says about it. The person who does not know God is said to be spiritually dead, a statement about death that refers to being separated from God and without response to spiritual things. The Bible also says that those who believe in Jesus Christ have been regenerated and made alive in their spirit, meaning that separation no longer exists and they are able to know and understand the things of God. In other words, the spirit is the part of us that connects to God. Without life in the spirit, there is no connection, no communication and no relationship.

My understanding is that my spirit is all about spiritual sensitivity. My conscience, as it pertains to things of God and the highest moral values, operates through my spirit. Also, when I pray, the words may be formed in my mind and come out of my physical mouth, but there is an involvement of the Holy Spirit speaking in me and through me via my spirit.

None of these things happened before Christ came into my life. My spirit was dead in sin, but He, through the eternal life of His Spirit, gave me new life that never ends. This life did not die when He died physically, and it will not die when I die physically.

He died for my sins, and at the same time He was also alive in the spirit so that I could be made alive in my spirit and be brought to God by the power of His never-ending life. This is so awesome and wonderful that my words do not compare to the thrill and gratitude that fills my heart over this one little word.

Friday, April 24, 2009

There is a time to be silent and a time to speak . . .

The pastor visited a member of his congregation who was in jail because he had not paid the fine on several hundred parking tickets. During his visit, he told the man to do the church a favor and not tell anyone that he was a Christian.

That story dismayed me when I first heard it, but many times I feel just as unqualified to share my faith as that man in jail. I know that my life could be a better example of what it means to follow Christ. I thought of this when reading these verses today:
But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts, and always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you, with meekness and fear; having a good conscience, that when they defame you as evildoers, those who revile your good conduct in Christ may be ashamed. (1 Peter 3:15-16)
Before a Christian opens their mouth in defense of their faith, several other things are supposed to be true. That is, I need to earn the right to tell others about Jesus.

Sanctify the Lord God in my heart. I wrote about this last week. It means that God is set apart in my heart and mind. He is in first place and I am to think of Him continually, always considering His ways and His commands to me. When He occupies the throne of my life, my conversation will be more apt to reflect His priority and supremacy.

The hope that is in me. This assumes I’m not one of those sour-faced, gloomy Christians that only thinks about the negatives. Ouch. Sometimes I do. Others are optimists by nature and our Christian hope makes them more so, but I tend to be pessimistic and need the Holy Spirit’s enthusiasm and His help to keep my mind on the promises of God. Otherwise I will see the worst, the dark clouds, instead of the best and the silver lining that God has created for me. I know He keeps His promises; I know my hope is certain, and a sure thing. Having His positive attitude toward life and the future will also affect the way that I talk.

Meekness. This is strength under control, a lack of feistiness. I know who God is and what He can do so I have no need to retaliate or even get anxious over real or perceived threats. When I remember the sovereignty of God (how can I forget that?) and rely on His promises, my heart is calm and that assurance is reflected in the way I communicate with others.

Fear. This is about being in awe of God, but also being in awe to the point that I pay attention. God is not a sunset to be enjoyed, but a consuming fire to be respected and obeyed. He could destroy me in a blink. If He says “Speak up” then I must open my mouth. If He says “Be quiet” then I must do as He says. Yes, He loves me and I love Him, but His plan for humanity includes my obedience. I need to fit in with that plan, not take the silly stance of “it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than permission.” There is too much at stake to fiddle around. For instance, how I respond to God could make a difference in where others will spend eternity.

Have a good conscience. Last week a woman in my class said that she was “born guilty” and went on to describe her extremely tender conscience. She feels responsible for nearly everything that goes wrong. On the other hand, the world is full of people that refuse to take responsibility for anything and have seared their conscience; they refuse to feel guilt. God has the answer to both. His Spirit shows us our sin. We are to agree with Him (confess) and He will forgive us and remove the guilt. He will also separate true guilt from false (which needs faith, not confession) and sharpen the conscience of those who have grown dull. Just ask Him.

For me, having a good conscience means keeping short accounts. As soon as I am aware that something is wrong (guilt, like pain, is one gauge), then take it to the Lord. He is my Savior; I cannot fix it myself. When I live in this state of instant bookkeeping, God more easily gets my attention. When He asks me to speak up (or shut up), I am more apt to hear Him and do what He says.

Be ready to speak. For a long time, I used to practice in my mind what I should say to people, but God never put me in situations where what I practiced would be appropriate. Then I read the verses about trusting God to give me the words rather than plan beforehand. That worked well, except that He didn’t seem to ask me to say anything and I grew quite comfortable about being quiet. Something was not working. This verse says to be ready to speak and I wasn’t. Now I’m working on it. When I am with people, even Christian friends, I’m trying to have one ear open to them and the other open to the Holy Spirit.

Being ready means just that, listening to God. If He says “Speak up” then He will also let me know what to say. Not only that, if my heart is tuned in, He will also give me the attitude that He wants me to have. Should people mock the Christian faith, I’ve no power to make them feel ashamed of doing that (meekness), but these verses point out that if I do what God asks, He can touch their hearts.

Defending my faith is not about sticking up for what I believe; it is about sharing the hope that I have in such a way that others want it too. It is about giving them reason to open their hearts to God. At first this might mean a sense of shame in their hearts, but He will never leave them with that for very long because He blesses those who seek Him.

As for me, I’m to be a living example of how to do that, how to get from shame to blessing and hope — without being afraid to tell others what He wants them to hear.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Dragged into the Kingdom

Ellen wasn’t interested in God or Jesus Christ. Her sister was the spiritual person in the family. One summer, the sister attended a Christian camp for adults. On the last day of camp, she arranged that Ellen would drive to the campground and pick her up.

Ellen arrived early and found herself in the meeting tent. The speaker was giving his final message to the campers. Ellen didn’t have much choice, so she listened. At the end of the message, he invited those who wished to repent of their sins and be saved to come forward. Ellen had no intention of doing that.

However, she began to feel a strong compulsion to leave her seat. She grabbed the back of the chair in front of her. The compulsion grew stronger. She laughs telling the story. “I nearly pulled that chair — and the poor man sitting in it — with me. I had to go to the front. God was calling me and it was totally impossible to resist.”

Not everyone who comes into the kingdom has an experience like Ellen’s, but what happened to her vividly illustrates what Jesus said to those who questioned Him.
“No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up at the last day. It is written in the prophets, ‘And they shall all be taught by God.’ Therefore everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to Me” (John 6:44-45).
The word “draw” literally means dragged. Ellen said that it felt like God physically grabbed and pulled her to the platform at that tent meeting. She tried to resist by gripping the chair, but His power was stronger than her resistance. She had heard about Him and now He was asking her to come and drawing her to obedience.

Some might think God is a bully for doing something like that, but God isn’t being mean. He is motivated by kindness. From the Old Testament, one of my favorite verses about His love shows that love moves Him to draw or drag people from sin to Himself.
The Lord has appeared of old to me, saying: “Yes, I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore with lovingkindness I have drawn you” (Jeremiah 31:3).
God loves people. He sent Jesus to die for people. Yet sin makes us dull of hearing and bent on our own ways. I know that apart from the drawing power of God, I would never have been interested in being saved from my sin or in what He could do for me.

Now I know that even before salvation, God cared for me and guided me. At that time I had no idea of His love. I’d been deathly ill in childhood and my mother prayed for me life. I didn’t know about this or that God had answered her prayers until much later. Like the people of God in the Old Testament, I was oblivious to His loving care.
“I taught Ephraim to walk, taking them by their arms; but they did not know that I healed them. I drew them with gentle cords, with bands of love, and I was to them as those who take the yoke from their neck. I stooped and fed them” (Hosea 11:3-4).
In love, God takes care of people. He provides food for our tables, healing for our sicknesses, and grace for each day, yet most of us are oblivious to His kindness. It is only when His bands of love drag us, like Ellen, to the foot of the cross that we begin to see the great love and mercy of God. And if anyone resists, like Ellen resisted, they will also begin to see that the love of God can also be accompanied by irresistible power. When He wants to save someone, He knows how to make it happen.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Safe into the harbor


Tug boats did not exist in the second century A.D. Instead, when larger ships could not enter the harbor because of extreme weather, smaller boats were sent ahead. These smaller boats carried the anchor through the breakers inside the harbor and dropped it there, securing the larger ship which would then follow. These boats were called forerunners. Without them, the ships would not make it to the safety of the harbor, but instead be victims of the storm.

Today, Forerunner is a fitting brand name for GPS system. However, I also found this picture of a “Bristol Channel Cutter Forerunner” which doesn’t carry an anchor into the harbor but does take up the idea of going ahead, being the first, assuming that others will follow.

Christians also have a forerunner. We, like the large ships wish to be in a safe place, but we cannot get there on our own. Our sins are too great. The writer of Hebrews speaks of the promises we have of being in the presence of God, then he says,
This hope we have as an anchor of the soul, both sure and steadfast, and which enters the Presence behind the veil, where the forerunner has entered for us, even Jesus, having become High Priest forever. . . . (Hebrews 6:19-20)
In these verses, Jesus is described as the One who went before us. He is like a runner boat that has taken our anchor into port and secured it there. The harbor is our safe haven where we are secure in the presence of the Lord.

As my forerunner, Jesus has made possible my entrance into the presence of God and eternal safety. Peter describes how He did it:
For Christ also suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive by the Spirit. (1 Peter 3:18)
When Jesus died on the cross, He took my penalty for sin. Then He rose from the dead and lives forever. He has already brought me into the holy place of God’s presence, yet one day I will sail from this life into that great harbor and be with Him forever.

The Greek verb translated as “He might bring” describes the purpose of what Jesus did. This verb was often used when someone was being introduced and the noun form of that word refers to the one making the introduction. During the time Christ was on earth, officials in the ancient courts controlled access to the king. When these officials were convinced of a person’s right of access, they would then introduce that person into the king’s presence.

That is what Jesus does for me. In fact, He even said, “No one comes to the Father except through Me” (John 14:6). He secured my right of access by dying for my sins, and He is my forerunner who leads me into the Father’s presence and eventually into my eternal home.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

My problem, God’s solution

The child refused to sit down in the back seat of the car. After repeated “Sit down” orders, the parent pulled over and stopped, got out and plunked the child onto the seat and fastened the seat belt. As the car began moving again, the child said, “So okay, you win. But I’m standing up on the inside.”

Who hasn’t heard the story? Who hasn’t had the attitude? I might be going through the motions of being polite, while inside my head I’m screaming in protest. Or I’m outwardly patient with traffic in my actions, but my attitude is anything but patient.

It is this problem that the life of Jesus Christ addresses. Knowing the human condition that we are rebels at heart, God sent His Son to give us the inner life we need. He knew that I could fake some of what He calls for — patience, kindness, good will, but exterior goodness is not what pleases Him. He wants obedience from the heart and I have to be honest about this; I cannot do it by myself.

The Law of God explains the externals, even hints at the internals, yet no one has ever kept it perfectly (except Jesus Christ). We are told not to kill and if we can avoid the act, who can avoid the thought? Or at least the hatred or anger that precedes it? Jesus makes it clear that the heart is the true measure of law-keeping.
You have heard that it was said to those of old, “You shall not murder, and whoever murders will be in danger of the judgment.” But I say to you that whoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment. (Matthew 5:21-22)
God’s answer to our problem is a new heart, a change, a regeneration whereby our old nature is crucified and replaced by a new one. He offers us the very life of Jesus Christ. When we have it, by faith, then, as Christian Watchman Nee once said, “The Lawgiver on the throne becomes the Law keeper in our hearts.”

Over and over Paul also wrote about this need, God’s solution, and my responsibility to yield to that new life:
For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has made me free from the law of sin and death. For what the law could not do in that it was weak through the flesh, God did by sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, on account of sin: He condemned sin in the flesh, that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. (Romans 8:2-4)
In traffic, I can choose patience in an external way where I don’t ram my car into the fellow who cut me off, but when I choose to walk according to the Spirit, I’m more apt to not even notice that someone cut me off, and certainly will not think to ‘get even’ or be tense up about it.

Years ago at Christmas time in a grocery store the lineup at the till and the bustle around us made me comment on the pressures of shopping this time of the year. My daughter, who was about seventeen at the time, said, “But mom, we don’t have to hurry on the inside.”

She cannot remember saying this, but I’ve never forgotten it. Because of Jesus, His people can have the integrity of being the same on the inside as they appear on the outside. Because of Jesus, we are set free from the Law of sin and death, which is a wonder in itself, but because of Jesus, we are also able to live by the law of the Spirit who has given us new heart and a new life.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Unjust suffering

Christians suffer. Sam’s mother is dying, slowly, while he stays beside her bed. Jen’s husband is mentally ill, sometimes violent and continually driven by some inner motivation to run away, or steal things, or harm those who care for him. May’s husband is angry with her all the time, will not permit her to attend the church of her choice, and instead drags her all over the city to a different one each week. AH is persecuted for his faith by his relatives, his life threatened because he believes in Jesus Christ.

Years ago, one of our relatives said to us, “I admire you so much because you still keep going after all you have been through.” To this day, we have no idea what she was talking about, but in her mind the events of our lives had been difficult and we had suffered.

Because we are in the care of a holy and sovereign God, it is easy to think that we should never suffer, at least not unjustly. What father would allow that to his child? A good father would punish misbehavior, but wouldn’t a good father protect his precious children from pain and harm?

God is my good Father, yet the spiritual realm works differently than the physical. In this world, unjust suffering makes no sense. We are not to inflict it and even God tells us to do our best to insure it does not happen. However, in the spiritual world, it not only happens, but suffering can have great purpose.

This is seen in Jesus Christ. The Bible says that He “also suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive by the Spirit” (1 Peter 3:18).

While few people would even allow an innocent to die for the guilty, God sent His Son who was perfectly just to die for the unjust. Pilate said, “I find no guilt in this man” (Luke 23:4), a true statement. The charges against Him were fabricated, the witnesses bribed, and the conviction illegal. The whole event was a farce, humanly speaking.

Yet God planned it. He sent His Son to die for us and Jesus was victorious through all of the injustice He suffered. It wasn’t only that He beat death, but because He suffered, sinners are brought to God!

Some of my Christian friends are suffering in situations they did not plan and that are not a result of their own doing. They may not see or understand the purpose of their suffering either. Yet even though we know we will never suffer as substitutes or redeemers, deep within our spiritual hearts, we also know that God can use our Christlike response to unjust suffering in the same way that He used the suffering of His Son. People might see it and be drawn to God because of it.

I’ve been watching the people I’ve described. Sam could go about his life; his mother is in a coma. She doesn’t know he is there so he could check out. Jen could put her husband in an institution as many think she should. Her husband doesn’t seem to care that she is giving her life to care for him, so why do it? May could divorce her husband so she can live as she pleases. AH could deny his faith and relieve the pressure on himself. Yet I know that none of these things are going to happen.

For one thing, these people are experiencing a grace from God that onlookers may not see. When the Lord asks us to suffer for His sake, He also provides what is needed so we can do it. That need might be inner peace, or a deep strength, or love that knows no limits. Whatever it is, the Christ who lives within us can help His people endure to the point that we don’t realize or care about the suffering; we are mostly aware of the grace.

Also, we may or may not understand that we endure what He endured so that we can point others to Him, but we do understand that He is near and that He is all we need.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Thinking His thoughts

“The biggest problem people have today is that they measure everything by their emotions.”

This was said to me yesterday at the writers’ conference by a young man whose life used to be a roller coaster of emotions. Now he says, “Christians must learn to base their lives on objective truth.”

Included in this discussion is how people determine what is good. Most people measure goodness by whether or not something makes them happy or comfortable. If it feels good, it must be from God, but if not, it cannot be part of God’s plan.

Of course, this includes suffering. It used to be that only non-believing people would say, “If God is good, why is there so much suffering in the world?” However, I’ve heard some Christians ask the same thing. I’ve done it myself, in so many words.

Yet suffering is inevitable, like death and taxes. It is not only certain, it is included in the plan of God. Peter wrote, “For it is better, if it is the will of God, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil.” (1 Peter 3:17)

God uses suffering. It might be a teaching tool, or chastening. As His children, we learn far more from our mistakes than we think. Besides suffering for making mistakes, Jesus, who made no mistakes, still suffered. Why should I be different?

Actually, I’ve experienced both. That is, I’ve often suffered because I did wrong and I’ve suffered a few times for doing something good. I can affirm that Peter is right; it is better to suffer for doing good. The pain is still there, but it is not as severe because I’m also feeling pain for the person who wronged me. When I get what I deserve, all the pain is my own.

Either way, God can use the struggles of pain and sadness. While he was trying to figure out the purpose of life, Solomon wrote, “Sorrow is better than laughter, for by a sad countenance the heart is made better. The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.” (Ecclesiastes 7:3-4)

Some might say this man took things far too seriously, but his philosophy fits with what I’ve also learned. I don’t pay much attention to God when I’m feeling good, life is comfortable, and nothing pinches. I don’t learn much about Him and His grace either. Yet when I am sad, particularly about sin in the world and sin in me, my heart is open to what God has to say. When I mourn for the losses and mistakes in my life, my heart is teachable.

The paradox in all of this is that sorrow and laughter and close cousins. The people who refuse to be sad very soon have problems with feeling joy. It is not good to shut down a negative emotion for it turns off the spigot for all of them. We can “be angry” but are also told, “Be angry and sin not.

Yet when it comes to emotions, I’m learning to pay more attention to what I am thinking rather than what I am feeling. Emotions are connected to and flow out of the thoughts in my head. If those thoughts are God’s thoughts, then my emotions will match what He feels about my situation. I know that if I hate sin, then I will feel sad when I (or someone else) sins because God hates sin and is sorry when we sin. This is true for the events of life too. If something breaks God’s heart, I will feel that sorrow.

Yet God is not always doom and gloom. He is a happy God who tells us to rejoice in Him. When I think the way He thinks, I’m usually lifted out of sorrow. For instance, when my father died, most of our friends expressed “sorrow for your loss.” However, one young friend bounced up to me and said, “I know this is supposed to be a sad thing, but I am so happy for your dad!”

Instantly my thoughts were taken from my discomfort to my dad’s joy. He is with Jesus. How could I be so selfish to feel sorry for myself when God had taken him from pain to paradise? Every time I think of him, I think of that spontaneous expression of God’s thoughts and my grief over the loss is replaced by joy — from my Father — for my father.

Emotions, like pain, are symptoms of what needs attention. Yet if I try to live by them and make decisions by them, my life gets very complicated and muddled. Romans 12:2 tells me that I am far better off to “not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. . . .

My challenge is avoiding the trap of measuring everything by my emotions and instead measuring everything by what God says.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Pay Attention

When God speaks, do I hear Him? Or am I off somewhere doing my own thing? And if I am not paying attention, will He speak again? As we used to say on the farm, will my dull ears force Him to chew His cabbage twice? Or will He look for someone else who is a better listener and is ready to respond?

Today I am in Calgary, Alberta at a writer’s conference. So far I’ve heard much that helps me with a presentation that I’m making at the end of May. However, this devotional today (from a different resource than usual) is a challenge to pay attention. One line says, “We are so busy telling God where we would like to go. . . ” implying that by applying what I’m hearing to a future thing, I could miss what He is asking of me right now. When He speaks, it might not be for plans already made, even though He gave me those plans. At this conference, He might ask me to do a new thing. I need to listen carefully and be willing to say yes.

The verse is familiar. Moses is out in the desert. He fled Egypt because he had killed a man and it had been discovered. Since then, he had wandered many years. Where were his thoughts? Did he think God might have forgotten him? He got his answer one day when he spotted a bush that was burning but not consumed.
So when the Lord saw that he turned aside to look, God called to him from the midst of the bush and said, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” (Exodus 3:4)
This is rather amazing, not just that God called from the middle of a bush but that Moses, after all these years, could respond, “Here I am.”

He was hearing God, paying attention, and this suggests that he was listening for Him all along. He was not busy with his own plans or in despair thinking God had dumped him in that place and would never speak again.

The Bible doesn’t say, but Moses may have had daily quiet times with God. He may have asked forgiveness for his rash sin in Egypt. He must have known God heard him and forgave him because this verse shows he was not running from God. Whatever had transpired between them, Moses was in a spiritual place where he was ready when God called, not like Adam who hid himself after sinning against his Maker.

The devotional reading says that God can call to me at any time, and His call can involve any duty, large or small. So easily I assume that God will keep me doing the same things all the time, but He might ask me to do a new thing, or change direction in some way. He could also encourage me to stay the course and be faithful with present challenges.

In any case, whatever He wants, the important thing is that I am ready, my sins confessed, my heart open to His voice and my lips able to say, “Here I am, right here, right now, listening to You.”

Friday, April 17, 2009

Going low to get high

It feels a bit like being right, like I have won a prize or bested an adversary, but there the resemblance ends. God’s way of giving me a high is by first taking me down.

As a Christian, I’ve discovered that the lowest low is sin. When I disobey God, I feel terrible. At first it took something big, but now even a bad attitude that no one else knows about will bring me into an emotional slump. I don’t like being there, but the human way of proving myself right will not work. In fact, that sort of effort just makes matters worse.

Instead, the Bible tells me that if I want to be on top of things, I need to keep my conscience clear. 1 Peter 3:16 says, “Having a good conscience, that when they defame you as evildoers, those who revile your good conduct in Christ may be ashamed.”

This verse is in a section that instructs Christians what to do when mistreated, falsely accused, and put down, certainly the very times when I most feel like fighting back or being right. However, it doesn’t tell me to fight, not even for my rights. Instead, it says to have a good conscience. How so?

Comparing that to being right or having won, I usually feel good when I get the better of someone who puts me down, yet this is a precarious stance. As all winners know, very little time passes and someone else steps up to take the podium. The sense of being right or of winning feels good, but pride and gloating are fleeting.

In contrast, when my conscience is clear, I’ve nothing to be proud of, neither can I gloat nor boast. Instead, a good conscience is the result of humility and confessing sin. It is knowing that I am prone to selfishness and pride and that my sinful nature is always sneaking up on me and preventing me from living under the lordship of Jesus Christ.

A good conscience means that I am aware and continually remembering that this lovely sensation is possible only because Christ died for me and my sins are forgiven. It does not mean that I am a sinless, top-of-the heap winner, but that I am a loser living by grace. As Peter says, when I live with a good conscience and am falsely accused or abused, those who do it will eventually fall to the condemnation of their own conscience. They cannot stay on their pedestal for very long.

Even so, I’ve known people who spend most of their waking moments striving to be right, to be the best, to keep on top of things. I’ve had those tendencies myself. It is the “feeling” that we go for, the sense of freedom and power up there on that pedestal. Even if it is momentary, we want it. The fear of losing it is the only spoiler.

Having a good conscience is like that, only better. Being free from guilt is amazing. Only Jesus can do that in my heart and after several years of experiencing this wonderful freedom, He continues to teach me more about it. For instance, in the beginning that fear of losing it was my best incentive to quickly confess any sin that threatened it, but now I’ve found that this high place is like that because it is the place where I am close to God. When I am in full communion with Him, there is no greater joy.

When I sin, it seems like God turns His back, but I’ve learned that He doesn’t move away; I’m the one who turned my back. Confession and repentance clear my conscience and turn me around. He removes that burden of guilt, and takes away that sense of being wrong.

Best of all, the sense of His presence, of being near Him is strong and a blessing. After years of repeating this up/down experiences of a clear conscience/stumble into sin thing and learning the value of it, He has taught me that winning in the human sense of having my pride elevated is nothing compared to the deeper satisfaction of knowing that He is pleased with me. This is not because I’ve never failed, but because He has impressed upon my heart the great value of having very short accounts with Him.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Odd weapons for spiritual battles

Meek and gentle isn’t just about being nice; it is God’s way to defeat the enemy. Even though I’ve said that God works in mysterious ways and that His ways are not my ways, do I really believe that? Meek and gentle are not my weapons of choice, but today’s devotional reading spells it out:
But avoid foolish and ignorant disputes, knowing that they generate strife. And a servant of the Lord must not quarrel but be gentle to all, able to teach, patient, in humility correcting those who are in opposition, if God perhaps will grant them repentance, so that they may know the truth, and that they may come to their senses and escape the snare of the devil, having been taken captive by him to do his will. (2 Timothy 2:23-26)
People who oppose God are not the enemy. The enemy is the one who has snared them and taken them prisoner to do his bidding. Deceived people are unaware of the truth about God and most of them do not know that they are actually serving Satan. The Bible is quite clear that any who are opposed to God cannot be convinced by argument, pushy impatience, or even a brash confidence. This is not the way of God, even though many Christians, including me, have tried it.

These verses are also instruction for helping believers who are ensnared by false teaching. They need to repent (turn from their sin and error to right thinking and truth). They need to think soberly, soundly. Only by coming to their senses and thinking the way God thinks, can anyone escape the devil’s trap.

Two other passages come to mind. One is from the Old Testament when the people of God were attempting to rebuild their temple. Some compare the temple to the Christian life or to the gospel message. Whether or not that is a good application, there is a principle in these verses. The prophet Zechariah spoke to God about the rebuilding process and this is what God said:
So he answered and said to me: “This is the word of the Lord to Zerubbabel: ‘Not by might nor by power, but by My Spirit,’ says the Lord of hosts.” (Zechariah 4:6)
God is not into force. His Spirit can do amazing things, including softening hard hearts and changing a person’s thinking. Whenever someone is opposed to God, I need to remember that. I cannot ‘make’ them think differently.

A New Testament passage is more direct. Overlooking the ancient city of Corinth was a hill 1,857 feet high. On top of it was a fortress. Paul used that imagery as an illustration of the spiritual warfare he waged. He said,
For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds, casting down arguments and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ. (2 Corinthians 10:3-5)
Paul describes how he destroys strongholds, casts down lies and brings all inner arguments, thoughts, and plans into obedience. He made sure that any opposing ideas and rationalizations were put out of his heart and that all his perceptions and intentions were obedient to his Lord and Savior.

Paul knew, and I know it too, that my actions reveal my thoughts. I must not cling to thoughts that fail to conform to the life and teachings of Jesus Christ. Like Paul, I cannot walk according to the flesh or my worldly desires. I must conquer my old sin nature through the power of the Holy Spirit.

These verses also allude to spiritual warfare. In fighting the lies of Satan, I cannot rely on human methods. Debate, argument and reasoning do not work. My weapon is prayer and my fighting resource is God. He alone knows the human heart and He alone knows how to change a person. The Holy Spirit can melt all resistance and bring all thoughts captive so a person’s only desire is to follow Jesus. I cannot do it.

The point of all this is that not only am I unable, but that He does not do this the way I would do it. He uses techniques and strategies that are beyond my ability. As Ephesians 3:20-21 says, He is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that works in us, and He does it so that He is glorified in the church by Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever.

In spiritual battles, my biggest responsibility and biggest challenge is to trust and obey Him — even when He calls for methods that don’t seem to make sense.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

A Convicting Dream

It was a most unlikely dream. My oldest son is at a men’s soccer team lunch. He is asked to pray for the food and in his prayer, he shares the gospel. One of the players responds and experiences salvation. Our son asks our next-door neighbor to disciple this new Christian. He already knows him, so says that is not a problem. I wake up.

The dream is unlikely because our oldest son is not into sports of any kind. Besides that, soccer teams are at the bottom of the list for saying table prayers, and our next-door neighbor is not a Christian (yet). But the dream did set me up for the devotional reading today. It says,
But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts, and always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you, with meekness and fear. (1 Peter 3:15)
Most people have experienced that “I should have said . . .” regret after a conversation. This verse is telling me that if God is set apart, or put in first place in my heart, I will be more apt to talk about Him and know what to say when given opportunity to share what I believe.

This isn’t about being annoying or shoving my beliefs down the throats of others. It isn’t about “in your face” God-talk that pushes people away. It is about having a reverence for God and respect for those who are interested in Him, and being willing to tell them about my faith.

My husband encountered this last week. He’d been in touch with a cousin who lives on the other side of the world. I’m not sure of their conversation, but the cousin said, “I wish I had your faith.” While not a question, this sounds like someone wanting to know a reason for the hope that my husband displays.

When this happens to me, I’m too often thinking about other things rather than the reasons why I believe and have hope. The questions or comments blind-side me and by the time I think of what I should say, the conversation has gone somewhere else.

The last phrase is also part of my problem. Meekness and fear are about my attitudes toward my own abilities and toward the God whom I serve. Being meek is not a weakness. It is gentleness, a quiet and submissive spirit that trusts God for everything. It is the opposite of feisty, self-defending and controlling. If I am not meek, then I am thinking about myself, my rights, my ideas, etc., and not at all ready to share my faith and tell someone how I depend on God.

Fear is about total awe and respect for the power of God. While that attitude is easy to slip into with very little effort, it does require that I think about Him. If I’m talking to someone else and thinking about me, mine, or even them and their words only, God is not likely to be part of what I say.

In my dream, most men my son’s age (mid forties) at a soccer team lunch would be thinking how a prayer in Jesus’ name would rile some of the muscular men around the table. Most would be fearful of the responses if they told these tough guys that they are sinners who need a Savior.

However, this son is normally outspoken about what he believes. His willingness to speak up sometimes gets him in hot water. When in high school, he was kicked out for a short time because he stood up for what the Bible says about a certain issue. I’m not nearly so courageous and could take a page out of his book.

That is probably why he was in the dream — and not me.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

First place in my heart

“Sanctify” sounds so sanctimonious, so religious, so long-robed and pious, but it is a simple word with a simple meaning. The definition is “to set apart.”

The Oxford dictionary says that sanctify also means to make holy or consecrate, words with slightly different shades of meaning. Holy is “other than” and a word that describes God, so I cannot actually “make” anything holy unless it already is. Consecrate is more like sanctify in the sense of setting apart, but tips toward “dedication” or giving myself over to God.

1 Peter 3:15 begins with, “Sanctify the Lord God in your hearts . . .” which is a highly practical discipline for Christians, practical but not easy.

The author of my devotional guide says that it means I must exalt Christ as the object of my love and loyalty, recognizing His perfection, magnifying His glory and praising His greatness. I must also submit myself to God’s will, even if that sometimes involves suffering. He adds that if I live that way, I will “adorn the doctrine of God our Savior in all things” (Titus 2:10).

I agree, yet to me this verse goes deeper. It involves setting God apart in my heart — putting Him into the centre of my thoughts. I cannot exalt or magnify Him unless I am thinking about Him. Praise and obedience happen only when my mind is tuned that way, when my heart is occupied with the Lord and I am paying attention to Him.

This is not easy. I could use all sorts of excuses for it not happening. I am easily distracted (attention deficit). I have lots to do. Things interrupt me. However, God never asks of me things that are totally impossible and obviously, He wants this to happen.

The Bible gives much instruction about what goes on in my heart. It tells me to “Trust in the Lord with all my heart, and lean not on my own understanding; in all my ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct my paths” (Proverbs 3:5-6).

It also says, “Keep your heart with all diligence, for out of it spring the issues of life” (Proverbs 4:23). Jesus adds this thought, “For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matthew 12:34). He also says, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8).

Paul also tells me about governing my thought life. I cannot do what he says either, unless I also am first thinking about God, but good thoughts do produce good things . . .
Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy—meditate on these things. The things which you learned and received and heard and saw in me, these do, and the God of peace will be with you. (Philippians 4:8-9)
What I think about affects my emotions, but also my conversation. If I think all day about my family that is what I will talk about. If I think most of the time about my hobbies, or the work I do, or negative thoughts about injustice or hurt feelings, these are the topics I will bring up in conversations. However, if I think of the wonder of the Lord Jesus Christ and the glory of God, then I will not only talk about Him, but be quicker to listen to Him and obey what He asks.

As a Christian, I know I need to be committed to honoring Christ. It is far easier and more spontaneous when I practice first the simple yet challenging discipline of keeping the middle of my heart open for Him.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Groundless fear

While fear of public speaking is touted as up at the top of the list of common fears, some surveys say otherwise. One questionnaire said only 10% put it at number 1 or 2, 20% put it in the top ten, and 70% said it was not even on their list.

While looking for this information, I found another list of the top psychological fears. It included common responses to those fears, such as the fear of rejection which, according to this source, causes a person to reject others first, be depressed and suffer from self-pity.

Also on this list were the fears of abandonment, ridicule, loneliness, success, and failure, each with their resulting behaviors which were varying combinations of fight or flight as a way to cope with the fear.

In the Bible, the people of God are continually told to not be afraid. The list mostly includes physical enemies and other threats to safety and well-being. One such admonition came during the days of the prophet Isaiah. Ahaz, king of Judah, faced a crisis. The Assyrian army threatened invasion. Ahaz refused an alliance with the kings of Israel and Syria against Assyria, so they also threatened to invade Judah. Then Ahaz allied with Assyria to protect himself against the threat from the two other nations. Isaiah warned Ahaz against that alliance, but also told him not to fear.
“Do not say, ‘A conspiracy,’ concerning all that this people call a conspiracy, nor be afraid of their threats, nor be troubled. The Lord of hosts, Him you shall hallow; let Him be your fear, and let Him be your dread.” (Isaiah 8:12-13)
All this makes me sit back and think about what I fear. After a long weekend of driving and sitting, one of my fears is boredom and inactivity. That might seem silly, but my mind hates being in neutral and I dread being useless. I struggle in bland situations without anything to stimulate my thinking. I am a doodler. I prefer talk shows to music. I buy books, borrow books, fill my shelves with reading material from almost every genre, just so my mind has something to do. My body is not far behind. I keep busy and am seldom bored, by choice.

On one leg of the driving this weekend, my husband and I talked about this. At one point I said that for most of my Christian life I’ve feared that God would put me on the shelf and I would be of no service to Him. I can have a measure of control over occupying my mind, but I cannot control God. Being able to serve Him is entirely in His hands.

Reviewing this morning, I realize that many things people fear can be controlled. If someone is terrified of public speaking, they can say no to such opportunities. Even some of the psychological fears can be overcome by naming them and tackling them head on.

However, some threats are out of our control. We cannot stop death, no matter how many face lifts, cosmetics and other things we try. Yet the fear of death can be conquered by faith in Jesus Christ. He beat death and offers eternal life to all who trust Him. I might fear the process of dying, but not death. I know where I am going.

I’ve also found that taking that first step of faith in Jesus Christ is the precursor to overcoming other fears. As the Bible says, “The Lord is on my side; I will not fear. What can man do to me?” (Psalm 118:6)

I trust that God cares for me and He can control what happens to me. Yet faith in the sovereignty of God means that God can do what He wants to me, and I cannot predict or control that. I know that this Lion of Judah is a good God, but as the critter says in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, He is not a tame Lion. I do not manage Him.

Does that make my fear of being useless an irrational fear? John Piper points to 1 Corinthians 15:58, “Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your labor is not in vain in the Lord.”

His point is that no matter how little I might value my ministry and work for the Lord, God uses it. It is not in vain. The implication is that no matter the fear, keep on doing what seems the thing to do. Seek out needy people to help. They are not far away. Seek out those in darkness who need light. They are not far away either. Seek out ways that I can be helpful. It might be the work of prayer only, but as this verse says that work is not in vain.

Like public speaking, I can see a choice here. If I want to stop being useful to God, all I need to do is stop obeying Him. It might seem like He has stopped giving me work to do, but reality says otherwise. It is never God who gives up on me. He will use anything and everything that I do for His purposes.

Because the needs are always there, the challenges of serving Him are always there too. They might seem difficult, unappealing, or downright frightening, but being useless is my choice, not His. I’ve far more reason to fear Him if I refuse the challenges than I have reason to fear that He will stop offering them.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Trusting, no matter what


Yesterday, I thought about the family who befriended a hitchhiker who intended to kill them and take their car. He changed his mind because they were good to him. Today I’m thinking what might have happened had he not taken that attitude.

Jesus is the perfect example who shows me that good people are not always treated well. Good people sometimes suffer and even die, no matter how well they treat others and sometimes because they are good people. The reference yesterday was 1 Peter 3:13. Today I’m reading the next few verses.
But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you are blessed. “And do not be afraid of their threats, nor be troubled.” But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts, and always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you, with meekness and fear. (1 Peter 3:14-15)
In a worst case scenario, the hitchhiker remains hardhearted. He pulls his gun, orders the driver to take them to a remote place, shoots the family and takes their car. They might be without fear at his threats and untroubled by what is happening, but I cannot imagine it, neither can I imagine the young man having any interest in whatever hope they might display.

Does this mean Christian people could never face danger or threats such as this with an amazing lack of fear? Stephen, one of the first martyrs in the church, did. He preached to his kinsmen but they didn’t like what he said.
When they heard these things they were cut to the heart, and they gnashed at him with their teeth. But he, being full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God, and said, “Look! I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” Then they cried out with a loud voice, stopped their ears, and ran at him with one accord; and they cast him out of the city and stoned him. . . . as he was calling on God and saying, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he knelt down and cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not charge them with this sin.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep. (Acts 7:54-60)
I’ve read of others who faced death with the same hope. Some were burned at the stake, others abused and mistreated in terrible ways, yet Christ was set first in their heart and He gave them what they needed to die the same way He died, without fear.

Friday we thought about Jesus’ death. Many other days my mind goes there, both in gratitude and wonder, and often with tears. Today we celebrate His resurrection, even though I’m still mindful of His death, remembering that He suffered without fearing their threats. He also took the wrath of God for my sin, not for any wrong doing on His part. He will always stand before His father in innocence and without fear.

This is my defense. This is the hope that is in me. Jesus died for me and rose again. Because He did that, I know that this life is not all there is, but I also know that my sins are forgiven. Salvation isn’t about earning or deserving it; any goodness I have is there because Jesus lives in me.

Not only that, whether I die by the hands of a hitchhiker with a gun, or in my sleep, or get hit by a truck, I know where I am going and that the Son of Man will open the heavens for me. I also know that He can give me whatever I need when that day comes.

He is risen! He is risen indeed!

Follow what is good

4/11/2009

Helen (not her real name) can’t say anything nice
about anyone, and if she does happen to let a compliment slip, her tone remains angry or annoyed. She seems to be upset with the entire human race — except one. Helen has an elderly friend who receives soft compliments. This older woman is Helen’s opposite who “always has nice things to say about people” and if she talks about a person who is doing terrible things, she will say something like, “he is in a bit of trouble.”

When Helen speaks of her elderly friend, her tone and countenance change. Obviously the older woman has made a huge impression.

This morning’s devotional reading asks the rhetorical question, “Who is he who will harm you if you become followers of what is good?” (1 Peter 3:13)

The “good” people, by God’s standards, are gracious, unselfish, kind and thoughtful, much like Helen’s elderly friend. While the godly person can suffer persecution, the norm is as described in this verse; good people are usually treated well.

My sister’s in-laws tell an amazing story of picking up a hitchhiker somewhere in the USA when they were on holidays. That young man was at first sullen and uncommunicative, but as they chatted and talked about the things a farming family enjoys, he warmed up. They bought him a meal and eventually dropped him somewhere along the way.

When they arrived home, a letter came from their hitchhiking friend. He told them that he wanted to apologize. He had planned to kill them and take their car, but because they were so good to him and such nice people, he couldn’t do it. He said if they didn’t believe him, to check the space between the seat and seat back in their car. They did. They found his gun.

For this family, goodness was not an act. They were well-meaning people doing what they would normally do and their goodness softened a very hard heart.

I’d like to be more like that. Sometimes, it seems that doing good is a choice, rather than a natural thing. I am in situations where I feel like complaining, or cutting someone with words, or walking away and letting them deal with their problems all by themselves. At those times, I could follow my sinful bent, or I could, as Peter says, choose to follow what is good.

I could do it for the wrong reasons, though. Following after goodness could make a big difference in the way people treat me, or even talk about me, but I know that as a follower of Jesus Christ, that is never the godly motive. Like the family who unknowingly picked up a potential killer, God wants me to just be a good person and do good things, regardless of anything I might get out of it, even oblivious to any evil intentions. Like Jesus, true goodness is caring about others and trusting my heavenly Father to take care of me.

Friday, April 10, 2009

High Stakes

Life is not a game but a war to be waged.

Yesterday I was reminded of the power of my enemy. Satan does not come at me with full frontal attacks. He sneaks in, gets me distracted and anxious. Many times I am not even aware that there is a battle, never mind that I might be losing it. Without my Bible, I would join the many who are in the dark yet think life is normal.

Even as I try to list my areas of vulnerability, I realize that if I knew what they were, I would not be so vulnerable. Without my Savior who protects me, I would join the many who are totally defeated yet think that life is normal.

Of course the devil wants me to dishonor God and instead honor him. That is one reason he whispers (or shouts) his many lies. However, there is another reason he wants me to sin. If those who love the Lord are caught up in evil, then we and the Gospel we share has lost credibility before them. Instead, we must fight Satan and sin.
Beloved, I beg you as sojourners and pilgrims, abstain from fleshly lusts which war against the soul, having your conduct honorable among the Gentiles, that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may, by your good works which they observe, glorify God in the day of visitation. (1 Peter 2:11-12)
My first defense is along the lines that I’ve been thinking about during the past few days; I do not belong here. God has spiritually seated me in heavenly places in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 2:6) and my stay here is temporary. I serve my true country and King as an ambassador and like an earthly ambassador, I have diplomatic immunity. The evil “laws” or lifestyles of this world have no power over me. I do not have to become engaged in sinful behavior.

Yet even if I was able to pull that off, like Jesus, I still will be accused of doing evil. He did no wrong yet the people of His day hated Him so much that they crucified Him. People can and will do the same to anyone who lives a godly life.

However, these verses from 1 Peter offer an alternative. People who do not like a righteous person “may” (not a guarantee, but may) see the good that a Christian does and glorify God “in the day of visitation.”

Some think this day of visitation means the time of judgment. I have another idea, perhaps influenced by my personal experience, but there was a day in my life when I was “visited” by God. He paid a call, actually brought a call to me, inviting me to join His family and be part of His kingdom. It was impossible to refuse. I’d experienced the kindness of His people and seen their good works.

I believe that every person receives such a visit. What will they do when He comes to them? After reading these verses again, I wonder what might have happened on that “day of visitation” in my life if the Christians around me had been caught up in “fleshly lusts” and dishonorable conduct. Instead of glorifying God, where might I be?

This is motivation to live in such a way that honors the Lord, and to resist all the junk that the devil throws at me and uses to tempt me to sin. We Christians are not perfect, but by paying attention and doing what the Lord asks of us, we “may” influence someone else, first for His glory, but also for their eternity.
NOTE: Tomorrow’s post will probably appear on Sunday, April 12 as I will be away from my computer and not sure if I can borrow the use of one from our relatives. Have a blessed Easter!

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Sitting higher and lighter

Occasionally I wish I knew the future. If I did, would I worry less? Plan better? Perhaps, but God, in His infinite wisdom, tells me only a little of what I can expect for me personally. He tells me much more of what will happen on a global scale.

However, the book of Revelation, where most future prophecies are written, is difficult to both read and interpret. Various possibilities have been debated for hundreds of years. One thing is obvious; it describes a great cosmic battle between God and His people and the enemy, Satan. As powerful as this enemy is, there is also one thing certain about the result; Jesus wins!

I wasn’t aware of the stresses I was feeling this morning over a busy day ahead, a weekend of travel, events to attend, and lots on my to-do list. However, as soon as I read this passage of Scripture, I felt lighter. The burdens of the day are nothing compared to the glory to come. John, the writer of Revelation, says:
Then I heard a loud voice saying in heaven, “Now salvation, and strength, and the kingdom of our God, and the power of His Christ have come, for the accuser of our brethren, who accused them before our God day and night, has been cast down. And they overcame him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, and they did not love their lives to the death. Therefore rejoice, O heavens, and you who dwell in them! Woe to the inhabitants of the earth and the sea! For the devil has come down to you, having great wrath, because he knows that he has a short time.” (Revelation 12:10-12)
I feel lighter because the one who continually tries to defeat me with accusations and lies is cast down and is himself defeated. It happened when Jesus shed His blood on the cross and paid the penalty for all sin for all time. No matter what I do or do not do, when Satan points his finger at me before God, Jesus smiles and says, “I’ve got that covered.”

I feel lighter because I also have something to do with Satan’s defeat. Every time that I give testimony to the wonder of God’s grace and my salvation, he is overcome. Every time I suffer temptation but refuse to sin, he is overcome. Should I die for my faith rather than sin, he is overcome.

Whether the last part of this verse talks about the present time or the future, the Bible says that I am already seated at the right hand of Christ in heavenly places (Ephesians 2:6) and heaven is my home. For that reason, I can consider myself a part of “Rejoice, O heavens, and you who dwell in them” rather than being one those woeful “inhabitants of the earth and the sea” who are suffering or will suffer under the wrath of the devil. My position is secure. Even though I may experience some of the whiplash from his evil wrath, I am safe; my status is “brethren” and “overcomer” and “seated in heavenly places.”

Also, whether Revelation is about now or the future, I am lighter because my enemy’s time is short. Soon this evil fiend will be tossed into the bottomless pit while I will be lifted to eternal glory and forever be in the kingdom of God with Jesus Christ — who overcame death so I could have life.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

My Shepherd — my Sacrifice


My parents owned a grain farm, then moved and lived in a mixed farming area. By then I was married and we owned a mixed farm nearby. Cattle are the norm in that area, but one season we bought a few sheep. Never again. To say it nicely, sheep are difficult to deal with.

In his book, A Shepherd looks at Psalm 23, published by Zondervan in 1970, shepherd Phillip Keller draws wonderful parallels between the work of raising sheep to the way the Lord Jesus Christ takes care of His people. He also shows how we are like sheep. Sheep easily scatter and wander off. They are prone to predators as well as injury and disease. They need help finding food and water, and are scared of everything.

I read the book a long time ago, yet still shiver a bit when I remember the smell and the seemingly empty heads of those critters. Without a lot of care, I’m sure they would starve, walk obliviously into danger and be eaten by wolves, or simply die of fright.

The Bible uses this image of sheep and our Shepherd in several places. Initially, the most important verse in my mind is the one that defines sin.
All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned, every one, to his own way; and the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all. (Isaiah 53:6)
I used to think sin was the big stuff, like murder and stealing, but this verse and others show me that sin is just doing my own thing, ignoring God and ignoring His commands. It is thinking my own thoughts, saying my own words, and doing whatever pleases me. I am like a silly sheep.

Most of that seems innocent enough, yet eventually my selfishness got me into trouble. Even though I am far more aggressive than the average sheep, I hadn’t killed anyone, but Jesus said even wanting to makes me guilty. I hadn’t stolen anything either, but the Bible makes it clear that coveting what others have is as bad. However, I did do things that I knew were wrong and the Holy Spirit began convicting me that I was a sinner, even though I would not have used that word to describe me. Instead, I called myself a colossal failure. I cried much and lost all confidence in my ability to do anything right.

At that low point, the Shepherd walked in. Jesus brought light and life and started to care for me. As the Bible says, I was “like sheep going astray, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.” (1 Peter 2:25)

Keller’s book pointed out that Jesus is the patient and loving shepherd. He saw me going off track and took me into His fold. He said, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd gives His life for the sheep.” (John 10:11)

Jesus did do that. He died for my sin so I don’t have to. Yet the startling truth of His death is that Scripture does not picture a Shepherd on a cross as these verses might suggest, but a lamb, the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world! (John 1:29)

In becoming a lamb, He also became one of us. He is not totally like us in that He didn’t sin, but like us (and like a lamb) in our vulnerability. Right after the verse where Isaiah defines sin, he writes:
He was oppressed and He was afflicted, yet He opened not His mouth; He was led as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so He opened not His mouth. (Isaiah 53:7)
The last thing I would have done to take care of my flock of stupid sheep would be to become one of them. While they might understand me better, even a cute lamb is not so cute in reality. But Jesus did that. He became one of us, a lamb, even a sacrificial lamb. Then He allowed Himself to be led to the cross where He silently offered His life for mine.

Easter is next weekend. Commercialism has made it a time of chocolate, eggs, rabbits, and cute little stuffed lambs. How sad, but at least when I see the lambs I can be reminded of the Lamb who was my sacrifice and is now my Shepherd.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Eating my pie

Christianity has been accused as a pie-in-the sky religion that has no practical purpose. The title of this blog declares my opposition to that view. What I am reading this morning from Romans backs it up. Paul has been talking about the grace of God that forgives all sin. Then he asks and answers a rhetorical question:
What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound? Certainly not! How shall we who died to sin live any longer in it? Or do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. For if we have been united together in the likeness of His death, certainly we also shall be in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old man was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin. (Romans 6:1-6)
Yes, Jesus Christ died so I could go to heaven. He died so I could be free from guilt and fear and live in peace. He also died so I could experience His love and be in His family. However, the greatest reason for His death was to transform my life, to make a saint out of a sinner. That is extremely practical.

This passage is easier to understand if the words about ‘baptism’ are replaced. This term tends to bear the connotation of the rite of water baptism, but that is not what this is about. Instead, baptism here means to be “put into Him” like a piece of paper is put into an envelope.

Someone explained it to me like this. The offspring of Abraham were “in Abraham’s loins” before they were born. He carried their genetic makeup and the sperm that would create them, so in that sense, they were ‘in him.’

In a similar way, God puts those who believe in Jesus Christ into Him so that all that happens to Jesus also happens to us. When He died on the cross, I died. When He rose from the dead, I also rose to newness of life. This became a reality when I was united to Him by grace through faith. My old nature was crucified with Him, and with Him, I have new life.

The practical part is that I no longer need to be a slave to sin. Some might say I wasn’t a bad person before I became a Christian, but they cannot measure my thoughts, words and actions the way God measures me. Everything I did (and still do apart from Jesus) was about me, to better me, to make me look good, to protect my comfort and reputation. Anything that looked good on the outside was prompted by selfish motives on the inside.

With Christ living in my heart, there are now options. I can choose whom I will serve: my old self or the risen Christ. By choosing Him, I must abandon self-serving. Some can claim to serve Jesus and retain selfish motives, but that doesn’t work because they are still serving sin. Serving Christ means totally abandoning all of that and doing everything at His bidding.

This makes faith in Christ highly practical. I know the direction I was headed before He came into my life, and I know that He changed my direction. I also know many people personally whose lives are transformed. They have stopped serving sin and become a blessing to their family, friends, and society. Moreover, they are now pleasing God.

Christianity does offer pie-in-the-sky rewards, but faith gives far more than promises for the future. When I obey Jesus Christ, I get to enjoy a big slice of that pie right here and now!