Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Which kingdom?

Darkness and light are major themes in Scripture. The theme begins in Genesis with the creation of night and day, but these two are soon used as metaphors for spiritual darkness and spiritual enlightenment. Those in darkness are separated from God by sin and do not realize spiritual realities; they cannot see them. Those in the light have seen the glory of God and are responding to it in obedience and faith.

The Old Testament has many verses on this theme, including this one. It is a prophecy filled with promise for the people of God. They had become spiritually dull and were without God’s blessing. He invites them to,
Arise, shine; for your light has come! And the glory of the Lord is risen upon you. For behold, the darkness shall cover the earth, and deep darkness the people; but the Lord will arise over you, and His glory will be seen upon you. The Gentiles shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising. (Isaiah 60:1-3)
Isaiah tells the people that one day Light will shine and they will see the glory of God. This happened when Jesus came to earth. At that time, “The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and upon those who sat in the region and shadow of death Light has dawned” (Matthew 4:16).

Last night I came home late from a meeting, and not wanting to wake my husband, I went upstairs in the dark. As many times as I walk up those stairs, doing so in the dark should have been easy, but I stumbled and banged my knee on a riser. Darkness is seldom associated with success! Spiritual darkness is always associated with judgment and doom.

When Jesus came as the Light of the world, He knew that people who are in the dark would struggle with light from God. Most of them didn’t want it, but Jesus used the common idea that enlightenment came through a person’s eyes, and warned them, “The lamp of the body is the eye. If therefore your eye is good, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eye is bad (evil), your whole body will be full of darkness. If therefore the light that is in you is darkness, how great is that darkness!” (Matthew 6:22-23).

The people knew their Old Testament metaphors. Therefore, throughout the New Testament, God invites people into the light. In Ephesians 5:14, He says: “Awake, you who sleep, arise from the dead, and Christ will give you light” again associating darkness with death (separation from Him) and light with life and union with Him.

When the Lord spoke to a man named Saul on the road to Damascus, He used a blinding light to get his attention. God changed the direction of this man’s life and even changed his name. Saul became Paul, and God gave him this promise and commission:
I will deliver you from the Jewish people, as well as from the Gentiles, to whom I now send you, to open their eyes, in order to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among those who are sanctified by faith in Me.’ (Acts 26:17-18)
In these verses, darkness and light go beyond metaphor as God shows their clear relationship to evil and the dominion of Satan as opposed to open eyes, forgiven sin, and an inheritance in the kingdom of God for those who are in the light, set apart because of their faith in Christ. In this description there are no shades of grey. A person is either in the dark or in the light.

Being in the light has privilege, but also responsibility. 1 Peter 2:9 says, “But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light.”

Christians have a job to do. I am chosen and given so much, yet am also expected to proclaim the glory of God to others. How will they know about this unless someone tells them that God gives light to those in darkness?

I can almost hear someone say, “How do you know that Christianity is the right religion? How can I tell which people have the truth?”

God does offer a test using the same metaphor. While these verses are for Christians to test their own lives, Jesus gave the world permission to judge us (John 13) by this criteria. We are tested by how we care for one another.
He who says he is in the light, and hates his brother, is in darkness until now. He who loves his brother abides in the light, and there is no cause for stumbling in him. But he who hates his brother is in darkness and walks in darkness, and does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes. (1 John 2:9-11)
Again, this is black and white. I cannot walk with God or abide in Christ and at the same time have a hateful attitude toward others. One is light, the other is darkness, and each day God bids me to let my light shine walk by walking and living according to the light that He has given me.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Shame on us

Shaming or social stigmatism used to be the way a society or culture responded to wrongdoers who broke laws and transgressed moral norms. This is no longer encouraged. In fact, the newer system of thinking says equality and human rights demand that this method of punishment be replaced by something that appeal to all moral persuasions. By this new system, not only is shaming given the boot, those who think it should still be done wind up being shamed for thinking they should do it.

This is one more instance in which much of society has taken the opposite view of biblical teaching. Other examples include the current idea of marriage. The Bible says it is the union of a man and a woman and intended for life. Civil liberties and current practice overturn that biblical idea. Instead, divorce and freedom of sexual orientation are both “okay” but not only that, it is also okay to heavily criticize anyone who says both are outside of God’s will.

Christians get caught in the middle of these debates. Some denominations cannot see how the Bible applies in the modern world so they dump the Bible. Others stick to it and are called dinosaurs at best. I am certain the Bible is relevant to today’s issues, yet realize this is not a popular view. Even Christians struggle with some of it, such as verses like this . . .
For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light (for the fruit of the Spirit is in all goodness, righteousness, and truth), finding out what is acceptable to the Lord. And have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather expose them. (Ephesians 5:8-11)
The last imperative says to “expose” the sin of those who walk in darkness. That word is also translated as reprove, rebuke, convince, tell one’s fault, and convict. It is carries a suggestion of shame regarding the person convicted. Their sin is supposed to be brought to the light, exposed as sin, and their fault found and corrected. They are to be reprehended, admonished, reproved, called to account, shown their fault. Also included in this little word is the idea of demanding an explanation along with chastening and punishing.

My devotional reading uses the term “spiritual CIA” for believers who are to do all this, yet there is more to it than just the shaming of sinners and making them feel ashamed. Christians also are to walk in love, caring about others as God cares for us. Since God’s love is best expressed by Jesus Christ in His life and death on the cross for our sins, the love we show is to be like that, sacrificial and with their eternal well-being in mind.

Therefore, when someone sins and God’s people are called upon to “expose” that sin, it is not so we can look down our self-righteous noses and condemn them to current or eternal punishment. Jesus died for me that I might live, that I might have what it takes to conquer sin. His love for me includes forgiveness and mercy. He wants me to be restored to a better life.

When someone sins, these verses say they need to know that what they have done is unacceptable, both to God and humanity. Certainly the biblical idea of shame is that it leads to godly sorrow and repentance. After that, there is forgiveness and restoration. However, far too often this process is forgotten in our desire to expose sin. We fail to speak the truth in love.

As Christians err, so does the world. In the desire to “restore” offenders, the idea of shame and the need for sorrow and repentance are left out also. In making the offender’s right to restitution a priority, there is no encouragement for shame and sorrow.

By missing the steps offered in God’s Word, we wind up with a segment of the population in spiritual darkness thinking they have done the right thing, another segment upset because there is no justice, and a mass of offenders who have no idea that what they are doing is unacceptable to us — and to God.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Finding what is acceptable . . .

The night was dark and rainy. We woke to dullness and rain clouds, but just now, the sun came out. I don’t have a problem with gloomy days (and we really need rain), but I do enjoy that warm light shining through my window.

Today I’m again reading verses about light and darkness. My devotional reading illustrates the verses by saying that the shops in Damascus have no windows. If you want to buy something, you have to take it outside into the light to see its quality. This is also true of life’s choices.
For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light (for the fruit of the Spirit is in all goodness, righteousness, and truth), finding out what is acceptable to the Lord. (Ephesians 5:8-10)
When I am in spiritual darkness through disobedience, I cannot see the will of God. To find out what the Lord accepts, I must examine it in the light. Light is about truth and doing what He says. That is, if God says to do something and I do it, then He has given me light and I am walking in that light. This isn’t about understanding the reason for the command up front. I might not, but in the doing of that command I test and discover its true value.

Other passages explain that I must walk by faith, not by sight. Jesus is not here to physically show me what He wants, and neither does God always explain why His way is the better way. Instead, I am to walk by faith and do things because I trust Him, not because I am convinced that such actions makes sense. What He asks may seem odd, or strange, or even wrong, but experience shows me that I often find out what is totally right and acceptable after I walk in obedience.

As a new Christian, there were not many tests to my faith, but the older I get, the more my faith is tested. However, just like the shopper in Damascus, and just as I test God’s commands, God also takes me into light to see if I have flaws in me. He checks me out to see if I will do what He says. Will I obey simply because He gave the command? Or do I have to see the reason or the sense in it? I say I trust Him, but do I really mean what I say? It is at this point that many Christians stumble.

One of the biggest issues in the church today is the role of women. Discussion of that topic usually produces more heat than light because many women find themselves in situations where the biblical commands do not make sense. Rather than test them and find out their acceptability, several groups try to excise them from Scripture, or at least find reasons why these commands do not apply to them. Their faith is being tested.

These verses apply also to those who have no faith. A close relative belongs to a cult that seems dedicated to their beliefs, but they choose to obey only a few parts of the Bible that they agree with. The rest of the Bible is interpreted to suit their preferences. As a result, they have no light and no assurance about the will of God. They walk in darkness.

Hebrews 12:1 says, “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see” (Hebrews 11:1, NIV). This is a God thing. Without faith, the invisible is uncertain and assurance is absent.

The amazing part is that when God puts the life of Christ into someone, He also gives light. This is an ability to know what cannot otherwise be known. For instance, in Christ I am totally sure of my eternal life and absolutely positive of the existence and power of God. I cannot see Him, nor do I always know what He is doing, but faith enables me to walk in the light, even to trust Him when His commands do not seem to make sense.

My faith is not perfect. Sometimes I do not do what He says. I wander back into the cave where it is dark and get stuck in that darkness until I confess my disobedience and lack of faith. He then pulls me out of the darkness, gives me light, and tells me to walk in it. I’ve tested and learned, this time in a negative sense.

I’m shaking my head as I write this. It sounds so easy, and it would be except that my sinful nature (that is dead and separated from God) still rears its ugly self and tries to convince me that cave-dwelling is the better way. No to faith in God actually means Yes to faith in myself and my own ideas. Part of all this testing also involves learning that faith in me is simply unacceptable.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Overcoming old habits

I’m learning how to use a new piece of software. It is a challenge. One of the functions takes several steps and what seems like forever. Since this function is important and I need it, that part of using this software has become a tedious and almost dreaded process, but it has also become a habit.

Finally the light dawns. I discovered that this tedious function can be done another way. Instead of taking minutes, I can do it in seconds. The menu not only offers the function, but it has a shortcut that uses one keyboard stroke. I am released from the repetition and simply delighted at the freedom of it. Yet now and then, the habit kicks in. I begin those old steps and then shake myself and wonder what I am doing. This is so silly.

I thought of that when I read today’s devotional verse. It is about the challenge of living and the frustration of repeating things and feeling as if I do not know what I am doing. It is also about finally understanding how to walk with God in those matters, and learning how to overcome the pull of going back to my habit of doing those things without Him.
So Jesus said to them, “The light is among you for a little while longer. Walk while you have the light, lest darkness overtake you. The one who walks in the darkness does not know where he is going.” (John 12:35)
Instead of a relatively simple task of finally figuring out how software works, God is continually teaching me how to do things His way. Instead of fumbling through life in my own strength, He offers me a far better way. It is like being given light in a dark place.

The author of today’s reading likens that fumbling without Christ to being lost in a cave and struggling in the dark. Finally a tiny point of light is seen and the lost person gets out of the cave. The silly part would be if he decided that he liked it in the dark and turned back into the cave. That would be the same idea of me returning to my 14-step process of making that software do what I wanted it to do instead of doing it in one easy step. How foolish.

In the more important matters of how to live my Christian life, Jesus offers examples and instructions for each situation and challenge. He is my Light and He gives me light. When I finally “get it” I need to put it into practice. Otherwise, the darkness of meeting those challenges in my own strength will overtake me and I will again be back in the situation of not knowing where I am going.

This is one of my greatest challenges. I know the way out of the cave. I can find the path that gets me into light. My problem is to stay walking on in until it becomes my lifestyle. Far too often I fail to keep at it, walking confidently and obediently in the light until I am well out of the cave.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Foolish talk & empty words

Now I know why I am uncomfortable with playful banter; the Bible says it is not appropriate behavior for Christians.

This is a surprise in some ways. The passage this comes from isn’t usually translated that way. Instead, the Greek word is put into English as foolish talking, a phrase wide open to all sorts of interpretations. However, the actual word is not about humorous insults (which is easy to see as inappropriate), but refined light mockery or banter, that doesn’t seem so bad.
But fornication and all uncleanness or covetousness, let it not even be named among you, as is fitting for saints; neither filthiness, nor foolish talking, nor coarse jesting, which are not fitting, but rather giving of thanks. For this you know, that no fornicator, unclean person, nor covetous man, who is an idolater, has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience. Therefore do not be partakers with them. (Ephesians 5:3-7, italics mine)
I’ve no argument with this passage, but as I read it today it seemed that “foolish talking and coarse jesting” needed more definition. With some research, I learned some new words and a little history. For one thing, the city of Ephesus had a reputation. Its people were “well-turned” or ready at repartee, also known as “jocose” and “persiflage” and “badinage” all words meaning witty conversation. In Ephesus, this was far from being censured; in fact, the Ephesians thought such banter was a pleasant accomplishment.

The Greek word translated “coarse jesting” is eutrapelia and found nowhere else in the New Testament. The commentaries say this word implies a particular versatility which turns about and adapts itself, without regard to principle, to the shifting circumstances of the moment, and to the varying moods of those with whom it may deal. In other words, it is speaking according to the world, not according to the Spirit and principles of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Colossians 3:8 uses a different word, but it conveys the same idea that “filthy communication” and “foolish talking” are a false refinement. These words describe conversations that are seasoned with a selfish, “look at how clever I am” attitude. Christians are not to talk like that. Instead, our words are to be seasoned with grace.

In Ephesians 5, God challenges me to imitate God and love others as Christ loved me. The love of Christ is forgiving, unconditional, and self-sacrificing, not shallow, selfish, sensual, sexual, or attention-getting. Witty conversation has nothing in it that reflects the love of God.

Verse four forbids foolish talk and witty banter, but offers an alternative — giving thanks. 1 Thessalonians 5:18 says, “In everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” Today’s devotional says, “When we are thankful for everything, we step outside ourselves, because thanksgiving is directed toward God.”

My husband doesn’t like playful repartee either because in his world it is often peppered with swearing. He finds that being thankful helps him in several ways, but also has an interesting effect on the conversation around him. People either turn from their jesting and swearing and offer more thoughtful and thankful comments, or they are so annoyed that they walk away.

Today’s last lesson in word meanings says that “rather giving of thanks” is a joyful play on sounds in Greek. The word is “eucharistia” and is contrasted with “eutrapelia.” While refined “jesting” and subtle humor sometimes offend tender feelings, “giving of thanks” offers a genuine cheerfulness of spirit. For me, it is a wonderful alternative to any good feeling that comes from light banter and I need to practice thankfulness much more than I do.

One other thought; God does not forbid fun. He is the author of joy, but warns me that this empty chatter puts self on a pedestal and could offend others. Talking this way is foreign to the nature of His Son. Even though I suspect practicing thankfulness instead of witty banter could result in having labels slapped on me by those who consider such repartee is an accomplishment, I would rather be like Jesus.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Put on love

My Swedish grandmother used to say, “Too old too soon, too late smart.” I often think of her and these words, particularly when I realize that I fall short and must keep learning how to live my Christian life.

The standard is high. God tells me to be perfect as He is perfect (Matthew 5:48). He tells me to love as Christ loved (Ephesians 5:2) and give my life for the godliness of others.

I’m hearing these words again today, this time from Colossians. The passage says,
Therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, put on tender mercies, kindness, humility, meekness, longsuffering; bearing with one another, and forgiving one another, if anyone has a complaint against another; even as Christ forgave you, so you also must do. But above all these things put on love, which is the bond of perfection. And let the peace of God rule in your hearts, to which also you were called in one body; and be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord. And whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him. Wives, submit to your own husbands, as is fitting in the Lord. Husbands, love your wives and do not be bitter toward them. Children, obey your parents in all things, for this is well pleasing to the Lord. (Colossians 3:12-20)
Verse 14 is the hub of these thoughts. It says “above all these things put on love, which is the bond of perfection” using words that describe getting dressed in an upper garment that completes and puts together the rest. In other words, mercy, kindness, humility, meekness, longsuffering, bearing with one another and forgiving one another mean nothing without the love of Christ as primary motivation. I can do those things on the surface and make them look good, but with selfish reasons such as “it feels good” or “it makes me look good” or “I’m earning God’s favor” or “I cannot stand conflict.”

The love described in the New Testament is exemplified in Jesus Christ who gave His very life that others might know and serve God. His love is not about me but about others. I cannot love like that unless I know Him.

God knows the importance of being loved. It is at the root of letting “the peace of God rule” in my heart. It is also the reason for Him calling me into His body, and the core of why I can be thankful (verse 15).

I find out about the love of God from His Word. No wonder He says to let it “dwell in you richly” for the more I know of His love, the more I am able to love others. Because of His love, I can have wisdom, be in on “teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in our hearts to the Lord” (verse 16).

Because of God’s love, I can respond in “whatever you do in word or deed” by doing it “in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him” (verse 17).

Lest this sound too pious and perhaps impractical, the next few verses bring it right down to where I live, where most of us live. It says, “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as is fitting in the Lord. Husbands, love your wives and do not be bitter toward them. Children, obey your parents in all things, for this is well pleasing to the Lord” (verses 18-20).

This is where the “too old too soon, too late smart” part comes in. None of these things can happen unless the love of Christ is deeply known and experienced. What wife is even interesting in submission? The word has become a nasty word, even in Christian circles. What husband has not experienced bitterness toward his wife? What children have not been rebellious toward their parents?

These impossible commands cannot be obeyed without being absolutely certain that God loves me. Otherwise, I’m unable to trust Him enough to obey them, or at least the big one that applies to me. Instead, my heart will say If I do that, it will be a disaster.

I see all around me the results of not knowing the love of God. Women reject these verses with a million reasons and reasonings. Men do too, and fail to trust the One who could give them all they need to obey them. The children of this world cannot see the love of God either. If it is missing in the commands of their parents (who do not see it), they suffer all their lives because of the uncertainty of being loved.

I hear people flippantly or even sincerely say, “All we need to do is love one another” yet if questioned, the love they are talking leans more toward tolerance and sentiment rather than the sacrificial love of Jesus. Tolerance may feel good for a time, but only the love of Christ can bind us together and bring us to perfection.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The power of His love

God’s idea of love is vastly different from the way most of us would define it. For Him, when someone sacrifices their own desires, plans, and even gives their life for someone else, that action is love. To Him, this is similar to the aroma of the offerings given in the Old Testament. That is, they smell good.

Jesus loves me. Being loved with His kind of love, unconditionally and everlasting, changes me. I can see examples of how human love changes people; a bride glows with the knowledge that she is loved; a child thrives and becomes all he can be when he knows he is loved. It is the same with the love of Christ, only deeper. In fact, it should go so deep that I am willing to lay down my life because I love others.
And walk in love, as Christ also has loved us and given Himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet-smelling aroma. (Ephesians 5:2)
The word “walk” is also translated in some Bible versions as “live a life of” because the original Greek word is talking about a life pattern. This kind of love isn’t something that happens now and then, or when someone deserves or earns it. The love of Christ never stops and has no outside reason for its existence. He loves us because that is who He is.

As my devotional reading today says, the world often defines love in terms of what it can get. Even the purest human love will be challenged under the test of getting absolutely nothing in return, but the love of God continues, even if He never gets anything in return.

Imagine what that kind of love would do to the divorce rate. Imagine what it would do to the juvenile delinquent rate. Jails would be emptied. Being loved makes a huge difference.

The love of Christ is also characterized by no dependence upon response in the negative sense. That is, He loves me regardless of the pain that I have caused Him. Romans 5:12 says,
For when we were still without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly. For scarcely for a righteous man will one die; yet perhaps for a good man someone would even dare to die. But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
In my weakness and sinful state I cannot please God, but it pleased Jesus Christ to die for me anyway, even though I would be born a sinner and hostile to Him. Good people might die for good people, but Jesus died for those who hate Him, curse Him, or just ignore Him.

This is the love that He offers as to characterize my life. He doesn’t want me to settle for the emotional love the world knows, or the ‘it makes me feel good’ love of philanthropy, or the even the purest family love that still fight over the TV remote or grandma’s possessions after she dies. The love of God is so far above anything humanly known or experienced that most Christians do not even recognize it as love when called upon to give up something for others. We don’t see sacrifice as a blessed aroma to God.

Yet love is giving up my wants to help someone else become godly. Love is obedience even when I do not agree with Him and want to do something else. Love is staying awake to pray when I would rather sleep. Love is tearing myself away from things I enjoy to do something for someone else that I don’t enjoy. Love is pouring my time and energy into meeting needs for others as God asks me.

Sacrificial love isn’t always pleasant, but I need to remember that this isn’t about me or my pleasure. For Jesus, the joy came later and that is what He is trying to teach me. Make the sacrifices, but don’t expect immediate results. As Hebrews 12:2-3 say, I am to keep “looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of (my) faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” I am to “consider Him who endured such hostility from sinners against Himself, lest (I) become weary and discouraged.”

Furthermore, I can see that loving others like this may not change anyone else. It may have no impact at all on those that I give my life for, nor will I see any results, but it will change me and those changes will please God.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Love and forgiveness

The marks of a true disciple of Christ are love and the ability to forgive. These days, biblical love is confused by a multitude of definitions for love, but the idea of forgiveness is less muddy. It means to refuse to hold the sins of another person against them.

Forgiving is not totally forgetting (Can God totally forget what we do?) nor is it being free from the pain of the injury. Instead it is simply refusing to retaliate or be angry and vindictive. Christians forgive because we know the forgiveness of Christ. He forgave me for my sin against God, and showed me what it means to forgive others for something they might do against me. The Bible is clear, if a lack of forgiveness is characteristic of my life, then I would not be a Christian.

However, an unforgiving spirit is only one thing that can hinder my walk with Jesus. The following verses are short, but they say much about how I must live.
But the end of all things is at hand; therefore be serious and watchful in your prayers. And above all things have fervent love for one another, for “love will cover a multitude of sins.” (1 Peter 4:7-8)
In my Greek lexicon, these two verses literally say, “The end of all things is near; therefore be serious and discipline yourselves for the sake of your prayers. Above all, maintain constant love for one another, for love covers a multitude of sins.”

Serious or sober-minded is the opposite of being frivolous and unthinking. I can be carefree, but not shallow in the way I think. I’m to remember that Jesus might come at any time and act accordingly. This is about self-discipline. God gives great joy but not a mindless lifestyle that “can’t be bothered” with the serious topics.

According to the lexicon version, any lack of self-discipline (even in my thoughts) will hinder my prayers. Other Scripture verifies this. I cannot sin and at the same time expect to be praying “in the will of God” or expect Him to answer my prayers.

These thoughts connect to the next verse. If I am serious and watchful, I will also be concerned about my relationships with other Christians. I’m to love them. This is not a mushy sentiment or a love based on mutual agreement. Biblical love is fervent or constant love and given by the Holy Spirit. It is never an up and down emotional thing based on circumstances or on my current needs and wants list. Love like this is important to prayer because if I’m all over the map with emotions like annoyance and even hatred, my prayers are hindered.

Last night I had trouble praying. I was struggling with negative emotions about another Christian and an unwillingness to think through why this was happening. I just wanted to go to sleep. However, God would not let me. The One who gives us sleep and gives to us in our sleep would not let me rest until I disciplined my mind to think seriously about my issues. He knew the problem was with me and that I needed to face my attitude and confess what was sinful about it. Once I did, sleep came instantly.

Today, my concerns were more about the sin of the other person. Again, God speaks from His Word and tells me to love that person; He will deal with the sin.

However, this verse from 1 Peter 4 says that love will cover a multitude of sins. What does that mean? At first, it looks like a Christian’s love atones for another Christian’s sins. But the full proverb that Peter quotes says, “Hatred stirs up strife, But love covers all sins” (Proverbs 10:12). He is not talking about atonement but relationships. If I am unforgiving and annoyed with someone, that attitude is fertile soil for sin, both in their life and mine. But if I love that person and forgive them, I am not stirring up sin (or more sin), but applying a weedkiller to its growth.

Forgiveness is ultimately a demonstration of love. When I truly forgive someone, I will not speak to others about what they have done, nor will I attack them or try to make them retract whatever was said, or manipulate them so they will make up for what they did. The love and forgiveness of Jesus Christ is not like that. He does not flay us with our sin or demand payback. Instead, He took the fall for us. He paid my penalty and flung my sin into the sea of His perfect forgiveness. Furthermore, His love is never based on what I do, but on who He is.

My love for others and forgiveness for their sin against me must also to be that way, unconditional and demonstrated as He demonstrated it — by sacrifice. When I do that, my prayers are heard and sin cannot mess up my relationships with others in the Body of Christ.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Be wary of assumptions

The sinfulness and rebellion in the human heart should not surprise me, but sometimes I am surprised. I’m surprised when I resist God, and seems to forget what He has declared true about me. I am surprised when others who declare themselves followers of Christ on one hand, on the other will say “No” to His Word and do whatever they can do to get around the commands and instructions of Scripture.

I’ve two books on my desk, thick and heavy books, that respond to a type of Scripture interpretation that makes an assumption going in that skews everything that comes out. This error is evidence of rebellion against the teaching God gives about Himself, never mind rebellion against the distressing news His Word gives us about ourselves. This type of interpretation goes as far back as Eden where Satan disguised himself and said to Eve, “Did God really say that?”

I cannot decide what made Eve fall for it and doubt God. At that time, sin had not entered the world; she was innocent yet could be deceived, something like a little child is innocent and can be led astray. Now, after that happened sin is in the human heart. We can more easily be led from what God says about Himself into the error of following what we would like God to say, not only about Himself but about ourselves. This is a tragedy. Nonetheless, it happens to Christians. We can make assumptions about God and the Bible, and some of them are false.

For instance, if I assume God to be totally loving and accepting and never angry about sin, this will not only affect how I read the Bible (with blinders on), but how I behave. If I assume that God is angry with sinners all the time, I will read the Bible wearing the same blinders only with a different view of God and a corresponding different response to Him and His Word.

What is it about assumptions that makes them so dangerous? Aside from blinders, an assumption can be just one more expression of my sin nature that is determined to go its own way (Isaiah 53:6). I want something to be so; therefore, regardless of what God or anyone else says this is how I will see it. My assumption is stronger and more real, at least in my mind.

While daily devotions based on a verse or two can fuel a poor understanding because these verses are dropped on the page out of their context, sometimes focusing on one section at a time gives great clarity. I find that today with these verses:
But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up together, and made us sit together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, that in the ages to come He might show the exceeding riches of His grace in His kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. (Ephesians 2:4-7)
The Gospel as expressed here is a great leveler of those using different interpretations. Using words like “us” and “we” Paul never excludes anyone. All of us were dead in sin and even though not everyone has been made alive in Christ, all of those who are given new life are raised up in that life, spiritually seated in heavenly places with Christ Jesus, and will eventually experience the full riches of what our salvation gives us.

This is grace. We come in with our assumptions, prejudices, false ideas, and a heart full of “I will do this my way” yet in the end, He will bring us to a “together” experience that transcends our deadness. He will overcome every selfish notion and assumption Satan uses to pull and tug us from the truth that is in Christ.

Satan used assumptions and doubt to dupe Eve into taking that which was forbidden. That was thousands of years ago, but his methods haven’t changed a bit. However, because of His rich mercy and great love with which He loved us, Christ has defeated Satan. The enemy’s manipulation may work for a time, but his time is short, and the end of our struggles to understand is not in our struggling but in Jesus. The end of all assuming, Scripture twisting and manipulating is also in Jesus. It is as He said in John 8:31-32, 36, “If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed. And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free. . . . Therefore if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed.”

The key is abiding in His Word and letting Him break down our barricades of resistance and human reasoning. Eventually the power of the truth will free all of God’s people from Satan’s lies and our own susceptibility to fall for them.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Being like God

When an actor or actress must play the part of a person who is or was real, they study that person with great diligence. They learn to imitate their walk, gestures, manners and speech, but to do this, they must spend hours, days, weeks in that person’s life or watching films of them. They need to know everything they can so their portrayal is believable.

In the New Testament, the disciples began the task of sharing the Gospel with their world. Peter and John healed a man and gained an audience. Acts 4:8 says that Peter spoke to them, filled with the Holy Spirit. Verse 13 says, “Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated and untrained men, they marveled. And they realized that they had been with Jesus.”

In this case, the giveaway was their boldness, and Peter’s eloquence in the face of his lack of education. How could a fisherman speak with such power and godly authority? They realized these men had spent time with Jesus. This was the only explanation for their behavior.

My verses today are not about acting a part, but they are about studying my subject and being like Him. Peter and John acted like Jesus because they had been with Him. They knew His life inside out, and even though they often misunderstood Him and were often confused when Jesus was still on earth, their exposure, and the power of the Holy Spirit, was enough to make them believable.

God wants me to show the world what He is like, and to do that, I need to do the same. As today’s verses say, I need to imitate God.
Therefore be imitators of God as dear children. And walk in love, as Christ also has loved us and given Himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet-smelling aroma. (Ephesians 5:1-2)
The challenge is followed by description, and since I cannot see God, my example is the life of Christ. He physically demonstrated that God is love and that love involves self-sacrifice. This is not glamorous, far from it. It could be up front and noticeable, but it could also mean dropping what I am doing to hold a ladder for my husband, or taking time out to call a grandchild, or giving up my plans to share a cup of tea with a neighbor. It could also go as far as dying for someone, because Jesus said, “Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends” (John 15:13).

John understood His words. He later wrote, “By this we know love, because He laid down His life for us. And we also ought to lay down our lives for the brethren” (1 John 3:16).

Imitating God is not glamorous nor is it grandiose. To show them how to love one another, Jesus took off His outer garments, wrapped Himself in a towel, and washed the dirty feet of His disciples.

Anyone who gets the notion that they are God, from the crazies depicted in the media to the New Age folks who throw their arms in the air and say they are God, thinks being God means power over everyone else and freedom to do whatever they wish. Their error is that they have not studied the One who came to show us what God is like, nor have they realized to be like Him they must be filled with the Holy Spirit. They also do not realize that if they could actually pull it off, it might cost them their lives.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

My Bucket List

Last night I read an excellent article about how to live my Christian life. It used a movie for its illustration, “The Bucket List.” I’ve not seen it, but the article describes two men are dying of cancer. They make a list of all they want to do before they “kick the bucket” and then proceed to do those things.

After I turned out the lights, I thought about my own “I want to do this before I die” list. I really don’t have one, just some vague thoughts floating around in my head. One of them is to get rid of the excess stuff in my house so my kids don’t have to do it.

This morning I was thinking about the value making a Bucket List. Instead of never being quite sure of what to do next, I’d have a list. My life might feel a bit more in control. However, the Holy Spirit began to nudge me with another thought. Instead of controlling my own life, am I not supposed to let Him do it? I also thought of a verse that says, “In his heart a man plans his course, but the Lord determines his steps” (Proverbs 16:9). I can make plans, but the outcome belongs to the Lord.

Unlike the movie, my life is to be totally God-centered in that I seek His will rather than my own. He often directs quite plainly and I know exactly what He wants from me. Yet there seems to be days filled with what some would call discretionary time, time that I’m not hearing from Him. What do I fill that time with?

If I put all my “like-to-do” stuff on a list, I might die before the list is done, never mind the items. While I actually do put my obligations and responsibilities on a list, even that one seems too heavy. I’d like to know God’s list for me, but how do I find it?

I know the answer. Even before reading where my devotional guide sends me today, I know that God is more interested in my character than my actions. He knows, and I know too, that what I do always flows out of who I am, out of my character. Today’s verse says exactly that.
I am the Lord who brought you up out of Egypt to be your God; therefore be holy, because I am holy. (Leviticus 11:45)
These words were spoken to a people who had been in literal bondage as slaves, but also speak to anyone who has been in bondage to sin. Holiness isn’t about a pious and sanctimonious attitude; it is about being separate from sin. It is about turning my back on the old way of life and following the new heart that God has given me. Now I belong to God and He tells me to act like it.

This verse is repeated in the New Testament in a different context, but it says the same thing. Leave the old life behind, “But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: ‘Be holy, because I am holy’” (1 Peter 1:15-16).

The reading for this idea says that the Christian life is summed up in being mimics, or imitators, of God, because Jesus said, “Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).

In this verse, “perfect” means complete or mature. I’m not a little child that cannot reach to dad’s next footstep; God has given me all that I need to walk with Him. This is to be my focus. As the verse from Proverbs says, I can make my plans, but He will direct my steps.

Making a to-do list requires time, concentration and almost impossible priority decisions. I would be forever sorting and reassessing. Even the thought of making such a list is almost overwhelming.

On the other hand, walking with God requires only two things: faith and obedience. This is all that He asks of me and this is my very short Bucket List.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Wholehearted commitment

Yesterday a dear friend told me about another young woman who has learned to talk with God about everything. Large or small, for her all matters and decisions are prayer concerns.

I was impressed. No one does that unless they have realized two things: first, that in their own weakness and inability they will fail to make the best choices, and second, that God’s thoughts are not our thoughts. No matter how good our intentions, His will is always superior and worth seeking.

This morning’s devotional reading is about having my life dedicated to Him. The verse says,
And whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him. (Colossians 3:17)
Doing something in the name of another means doing it as the other person’s representative. This is not about my will, ideas, or wishes. It is about doing the will of God, and like this young woman has learned, that means going to Him and finding out what His will is.

I’ve heard people despair over this, moaning, “Oh, if I just knew the will of God on this . . .” as if He is hiding it from them. That isn’t the picture I get from my experience, or from Scripture. The Bible says,
The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but those things which are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law. (Deuteronomy 29:29)
God will reveal even His secrets. He wants me to obey Him, and how can I do it if I don’t know what He is asking me to do?

For me, the perplexity of not knowing His will is tied up with my attitude. If I have my mind made up about what I want to do and am looking for God’s rubber stamp on it, then He may keep me in the dark. If I have already decided or assumed what He wants, I’m also not ready to obey Him.

God knows my heart. He also knows if I am ready to do what He says, yet this goes two ways. I need to obey what I already know before He gives me more information. I need to do the work (or spiritual disciplines) of turning from the world’s ideas (and mine), and spend time in His Word getting my mind renewed. Otherwise, how will I recognize the will of God when it is revealed to me?
Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God — this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. (Romans 12:1-2, NIV)
The previously mentioned young woman reveals her commitment to doing the will of God by holding off all decisions and actions until He clearly shows her what He wants. This is the secret of doing “all in the name of the Lord Jesus” and just another example of what I want to be when I grow up.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Forgiveness

The preacher was talking about forgiveness, and I was sitting there thinking, But you have no idea what just happened to me. I could never forgive that person.

But God would not leave me alone. The hurt was deep, the sin against me was terrible, but I had to forgive, not to remove the pain because that does not happen; nor to reward any repentance of the other person because there was no change of heart; nor to make that other person change or feel more guilty because that is retaliation. Forgiveness is none of those things.

At that time, I knew the definition of forgiveness. It means to “choose not to hold a person’s sin against them.” This definition excludes how I feel. It rises above any deserving action from the other person. It disregards the pain and memories that come and go. It is a choice and that choice must remain firm.

I also understood something about God’s forgiveness. He forgives because Jesus died for our sins, my sins, that person’s sins, whether or not we acknowledge them or Him. I also understood that even if I do not ask for forgiveness, it is in the heart of God to offer it — no matter what.

What I didn’t understand at that time was why God would do that. What puts forgiveness in the mind of a pure and holy God who has every right to be angry at our sin? If we do nothing to earn or deserve it (and we don’t), why would He do it. Then I found this verse . . .
I, even I, am He who blots out your transgressions for My own sake; and I will not remember your sins. (Isaiah 43:25, italics mine)
God’s character is such that He hates sin, but He loves sinners. This is something like raising children. I know the conflict in my heart when one of my children does something wrong. I love them, but I hate what they have done and know the harm to them from their own actions.

This is the heart of our Father God. He sees the sin of His children, and that sin must be punished. To do so would cry contrary to all that is just, yet we still live and breathe. This is because that other child, the one and only Son, stepped up to the executioner’s place and offered Himself in our place.

God did this for us, yet not just for us; He did it for His own sake. He did it to satisfy His holiness and at the same time preserve His created people. He says,
For I knew that you would deal very treacherously, and were called a transgressor from the womb. For My name’s sake I will defer My anger, and for My praise I will restrain it from you, so that I do not cut you off. Behold, I have refined you, but not as silver; I have tested you in the furnace of affliction. For My own sake, for My own sake, I will do it; For how should My name be profaned? And I will not give My glory to another. (Isaiah 48:8-11)
Reading these verses broke my hard resolve twenty-some years ago. Now, reading them again (and many times since), I am filled with awe at God all over again. Today’s devotional verse adds another note about forgiveness. It says,
And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you. (Ephesians 4:32)
When God asks me to forgive, He wants kindness, tenderheartedness, and that same attitude that He has. He forgave me because Christ died for my sin, not only what I have done, but all sin, even the sin I’ve not yet committed. His forgiveness is in His heart because that is who He is. He asks of me to be the same, to continue to have a forgiving heart regardless of the sins or what they do or will do, because that is who I am, changed and given a new life, and I can do it in the same way He does it — because of Jesus.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

His grief is for my sake

When my mother died, grief visited often and often unexpectedly. Grief is not pleasant. It comes like an unwelcome visitor demanding my total attention. I soon learned that I must open the door and allow myself to feel that deep sorrow. Otherwise, if I put grief off, it came back with greater intensity the next time.

Today’s verse is about grief, not mine, but God’s. It is near the end of the passage I’ve been reading for the past few days. This passage tells me that I am not to lie, but tell the truth; to be angry and not sin; to not steal, but work with my hands so I may have something to give the needy; and to speak no useless words, but words that edify others. Then it gives the reason;
And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. (Ephesians 4:30)
The grief of the Holy Spirit is similar to human grief after someone dies in that He also feels loss. He knows “what might have been” had I obeyed God and grieves over the loss of that joyful obedience. His grief is pure and overwhelming.

Not only that, when I disobey God, I should not wonder at my feelings of great sorrow. Because the Holy Spirit lives in me and is closer to my heart than anyone or anything, I feel sad when I sin because I am feeling His sadness.

The Spirit also knows that the worst way to deal with grief is to put it off. He wants me to open the door and allow myself to feel His sorrow. This is not the same as a “sorry I got caught” response, but a sorrow over sin that honors God and acknowledges my guilt. 2 Corinthians 7:10 says,
For godly sorrow produces repentance leading to salvation, not to be regretted; but the sorrow of the world produces death.
The next verse describes this godly sorrow. It produces a particular diligence and a strong desire to clear myself with God, to make things right. This godly sorrow also is accompanied by a sense of indignation over sin, a fear or awe of God’s holiness, and a vehement desire with deep zeal to seek the vindication that only Christ can give.

Such sorrow is not at all like the grief I used to have before I became a Christian. Back then when I made a mistake, I became upset because I didn’t want others to think ill of me. I made excuses, rationalized, and did anything and everything to avoid admitting that I was wrong.

Even though Ephesians 4:30 is about grieving the Holy Spirit, He does not feel this for just Himself. When I make Him grieve, His sorrow is for the glory of Jesus Christ as well as my spiritual well-being. He always has God’s glory and my best interests at heart.

While I cannot imagine grief being totally without any trace of self-pity or concern for my own emotional state, the Holy Spirit in His perfection loves me so much that He feels sad when I fall short — for my sake. He wants me to walk with Him, to live in harmony with the will of God, and experience His love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23). I lose out when I sin.

I’m also thinking that in His perfection, God does not have negative emotions. His sorrow is also for me. That is, He allows Himself that feeling only because I need to feel it. I need to know the loss and the absence of His joy and the horror of disobeying Him. Otherwise I would sin and not care at all about what I had done — unless of course I got caught.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Imparting grace

It takes very little to build up someone else. A few weeks ago I spotted someone sitting alone in a room full of people and went over for a chat. I asked her about her work and picked up on what she enjoyed about it. My husband says that person came alive with delight. How hard was that?

I’ve not done any surveys but would not be surprised if most people go days, even weeks, without hearing something that makes them feel good about themselves and their lives. In the past few months I’ve noticed that a kind word, or anything that says “I am thinking about you” brings a big smile to an otherwise gloomy face.

Today’s verse is the same one as yesterday, this time focusing on the last part. It says,
Let no corrupt word proceed out of your mouth, but what is good for necessary edification, that it may impart grace to the hearers. (Ephesians 4:29)
Grace is one of those words that most people understand its meaning, but are hard-pressed to write a definition. Some make an acrostic, “God’s riches at Christ’s expense,” or say that it means His goodness to us. I found a definition that sounds a bit technical for such a lovely word, but it enlightens me. Grace is God’s revelation of Christ to my heart, done in such a way that I am changed to be more like Him.

Whoa, does that add implications to Ephesians 4:29! God is saying that my mouth, my words, need to reveal Jesus, but not only reveal Him but do it in such a way that the person who hears is built up to become more like Him. This is a tall order.

The author of today’s reading says that when he was growing up, if he said to his mother something like, “Do you know what So-and-so did?” she would respond, “Is that necessary to know?”

That wise response highlights what part of this verse says about this way of speaking. If I am going to say gracious words, they will be words that are good for “necessary” edification. These words will fit the needs of that other person. Again, a tall order.

Being able to do this presupposes that I’m paying attention and actually recognize needs, even the deeper, unspoken needs. It also presupposes that I’m open and willing to meet those needs, particularly with what I say. This cannot be done unless my mouth is under the control of the Holy Spirit, because I haven’t a clue otherwise. Only God knows what is going on in the heart of someone else, and only God can give exactly the right words to built up that heart.

When my father died, people offered condolences that sometimes pinched rather than comforted. Most of the time, their words added to my grief. Then one morning at church, a young woman came running up to me in her typical zest for life and said, “I know that this is a sad occasion and I should be sad for you, but (and she literally bounced) I am so happy for your dad!”

Her words brought instant joy to my heart. What a perfect example of “necessary edification” and grace! My mind went from “poor me” to imagining my dad enjoying the delight of being with Jesus and living eternally with Him.

She cannot remember saying this to me. That is often true for someone who speaks Holy Spirit words. They come out spontaneously without planning or premeditation from a heart that is filled with Him.

From this and from His constant training in my life, I am learning that the secret of saying words that are necessary, edifying and impart grace to the hearers, is to simply focus on them in the conversation, and stay close to the Source in my heart.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Useless Talk

Small talk is difficult for me. Because of a childhood illness, I blamed this on spending so much time alone in recovery that I wasn’t properly socialized, but lately I’m beginning to wonder. Part of that difficulty could be related to this verse:
Let no corrupt word proceed out of your mouth . . . (Ephesians 4:29)
My devotional reading says this is about off-color jokes, profanity, dirty stories, or crude speech. Of course that is correct. Christians should not have a potty mouth just as we are not to gossip or slander others. This is not my problem.

However, the word “corrupt” can also mean “harmful, unwholesome, offensive” or even “corrupted by one and no longer fit for use, worn out, of poor quality, bad, unfit for use, worthless.”

This adds a great deal of connotation, and while I realize that Paul may not have had all these in mind, that description rules out everything from worn-out figures of speech to idle chatter that has no purpose at all. I’m thinking of the usual “Nice weather” comments made in passing or the “How are you?” greeting that isn’t really a question, or a multitude of other meaningless words.

Not only that, as my father used to say, God gave us one mouth and two ears for a reason. In a discussion during Bible class yesterday, the women agreed that talking and learning seldom coexist. In other words, I need to be quiet in my heart and with my mouth if I want to learn anything. Meaningless words block my hearing.

There are times that talking through (or writing) all sides of a problem or perplexing issue helps me understand it, but once I do, it is time to be quiet and think about it, not keep talking.

With that in mind, it is time to get off the computer. I’m not in the habit of rotten or crude language, but I do need to meditate about how I can make my words more useful.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Purpose for hard work

When people ask me, “What do you do?” I know that they have assumed I have a job outside the home and want to know where I work. At first, the assumption annoyed me and I felt that I had to justify going against the grain by staying home and raising my children.

After the brood left the nest, I became less defensive. When the census taker asked, “Do you work?” I replied, “You bet I do,” and she apologized. I’ve also told a few people that I am a “kept woman” which often gets a chuckle, but more often a raised eyebrow. Sometimes the response is envy.

I’ve heard the line about making my contribution to society and am happy to say that I’ve three children who are making a contribution to the working world that I could never have made had I went to work and left them with a sitter. If my value to society were weighed by their reputation for the work they do, or the effort they give, or the money they make, then I could point to them and say, “This is what I do.” In that sense, staying home was a good plan.

Yet part of today’s devotional verse convicts me. The verse says, “Let him who stole steal no longer, but rather let him labor, working with his hands what is good, that he may have something to give him who has need” (Ephesians 4:28).

I’ve never stolen anything, so it is not that. I’m convicted by the working hard part. While people think that I do a lot of things, and my husband says that I work hard, I know that deep in my own heart there is a tendency to be lazy. I exercise every day but would rather not. My volunteer work often puts dread in my heart. Many times I just want to veg in front of the television, or read a book, or play computer games, or just do nothing.

While technically not stealing, this desire to abuse the time God gave me is a bit like robbery. He asks me to work hard and I don’t want to. Actually, the word in the verse refers to hard, manual work and I avoid it. Work makes my muscles sore and as I get older, hard work is less and less appealing.

The convicting part is deepened by the reason God wants this hard work. He wants me to work hard so that I will have enough to give to those in need. Aside from the kept woman joke, I’ve made a little money writing and gladly given good portions of it, but I know if I were less lazy, I could do far more for others than I’ve done.

At my age, I get funds from the federal coffers as a pension. It is easy for me to spend that money on myself, even though (again as a kept woman), I don’t need the extra money. God is generous to me, but not so I can buy more stuff that I do not need.

That is the other convicting part. A line from today’s reading says, “The worldly approach to wealth is to hoard what we acquire.” I have too much stuff. It seems the more we haul off to the Goodwill store, the more there is. The New Testament principle is to work hard at “good work” that is “useful” — not “fulfilling” nor for my own needs and purposes, but for the needs of others.

I walked by a garage sale yesterday and lingered for a moment. Then I asked the seller if he had a gadget or something that would keep people from buying more stuff, because that is what I really need. He laughed, but I think my question made him as uncomfortable as the thought of it made me.

I’m at retirement age, and probably couldn’t get a job if I tried, but by thinning out the excess stuff, and by being frugal regarding what I buy for me, I know that the money I do have could be invested far more effectively than letting it pile up interest in the bank.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Anger without sin

Most anger, even mild irritation, is a response to thwarted plans. In a church seminar on anger, the pastor who said this also explained that most anger is sinful because it is all about me. I don’t like what someone does because it messes up what I want.

Yet Jesus got angry. He dumped over the tables of the money changers and tossed them out of the temple. He angrily called the Pharisees hypocrites and a brood of vipers. Since the Bible says He is sinless, His anger was not sinful. This could be very confusing, except for a couple of verses in Ephesians.
Be angry, and do not sin: do not let the sun go down on your wrath, nor give place to the devil. (Ephesians 4:26-27)
The anger that is not sinful is sometimes called righteous indignation. This is an angry response to sin and injustice. It is the anger that God feels and a justified outrage. Since Jesus lives in me, at times I can expect to feel His emotions, including anger.

I often am angry when I read the newspaper or watch television news and become aware of horrible things people do to other people. Seniors robbed. Children beaten and killed. Everyone knows the headlines and, if we are sensitive to our emotions, can be overcome with distress. It is this distress that these verses are talking about.

While it is a good idea to deal with ordinary human anger before the sun sets, the context isn’t about the anger that I feel when someone messes up my plans. This admonition is for righteous indignation, the rage felt when someone messes with the will of God. He says that I need to take care of that wrath before I go to bed at night.

The first way is by prayer. As I talk with God about unjust world and local events, I am giving my concerns to Him. During such conversations, He may take them from me, or He could ask me to do something about it. How many shelters, orphanages, group homes, rehab centers, and so on exist because someone took their rage over human suffering to God and He gave them a job to do in His name?

But if I do not talk to God and instead nurse the rage, the devil finds fertile ground to jump in and get me to do his bidding instead of whatever the Lord might want me to do, or not do. Not only that, I’ve noticed more and more that I cannot easily hear God speak when I am angry. It is during my anger that I am vulnerable to Satan’s lies.

As I look at these verses, they almost sound like a command; “Be angry . . .” in the sense that righteous indignation should never be shut down in the name of “staying calm” because such emotion has a divine purpose. It is okay to be angry about sin and injustice, yet whenever I feel it, I need to pay close attention. My emotions may be a signal from the Lord that He is about to send me into a place or situation to do something about those things that make Him angry also.

Friday, June 12, 2009

The power of truth

Truth is the highest virtue, at least in my estimation.

The most painful things that have ever happened to me involve lies. Nothing hurts my heart more deeply than to be lied to, and nothing separates me from others more than falsehood.

When someone lies to me and I realize it, I am like a terrier after a rabbit, digging until I get to the bottom of the lie or better, until the truth comes out. This is because several good friendships and some family relationships have been strained by lies, but it is also because lying is an affront to Jesus, the One who said, “I am . . . the truth” (John 14:6).

A wise person said that the relationship between truth and holiness is similar to that between light and vision; light cannot create an eye or give a blind eye vision, but it is essential to seeing. Wherever light penetrates, it dissipates darkness and brings everything into view. In a similar manner, truth cannot regenerate or impart spiritual life, but it is essential to the practice of holiness. Wherever truth penetrates, it dissipates error and reveals everything for what it really is.

This is why Paul affirmed the need for truth. He wrote about behaving as a Christian and the importance of putting off the old ways. He said, “Put on the new man which was created according to God, in true righteousness and holiness” and because this new person is united to Christ, the consequences of that union will show up. So he added,
Therefore, putting away lying, let each one of you speak truth with his neighbor, for we are members of one another. (Ephesians 4:25)
This speaks to individual Christian conduct, but is really for all of us together. Paul’s reason is that we belong to each other. The body of Christ is built up with truth and by “speaking the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15) to accomplish that growth. Lies will tear apart our unity and ruin our progress in holy living.

Some people do not like the “do not’s” of the Christian life because they assume these will “ruin all my fun.” This is not so. In particular, this “do not” forbids one of the most destructive and sinful practices in our world. Lying began in Eden when the devil (called the “father of lies” by Jesus) convinced Eve to disobey God. Because of his deception and the human actions that followed, sin entered the world. From that point on, lies have torn apart lives, even whole cultures and nations. In the New Testament, the first sin judged in the church was a lie.

Going back to this “do not” verse, notice that it begins with “therefore” which is a “so then.” Paul is showing there is a logical relationship between Bible theory and Christian practice. If I have new life in Christ, I will not lie, but I will replace falsehood with truth.

Truth is the cement that holds the Body of Christ together. Because we are united and being built up together into one body, what each person does affects the others. For instance, if I lie because I think someone is not competent to handle the truth, I destroy any honest and intimate association I might have with them.

I’m totally with God on this: falsehood divides, and even though the truth hurts at times, truth and Jesus cannot be separated. Both are powerful to change lies and unite people.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Slander’s destructive power

Years ago, a retired Air Force colonel with a distinguished combat record and who did postwar work involving top security clearance was accused of shoplifting a 63¢ can of Danish bacon. A municipal court found him innocent, but the slander of this false accusation changed this man. He lost his enthusiasm for life, became depressed and died of a heart condition. Later, another court awarded his family more than $100,000 because they were convinced his death was caused by a broken heart.

Slander is a nasty word. In the Bible, it comes from “diabolos” a Greek word used also for the devil. Slander can ruin lives, careers, families and Christian ministry. No wonder it is included in the ten commandments.

You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. (Exodus 20:16)
My devotional reading says that a Christian should never say anything false, including the most familiar lie of saying something that isn’t true, but also saying things with exaggeration, cheating in school, business, work, or on your taxes, betraying a confidence, flattery, making excuses, and remaining silent when the truth should be spoken.

However, this ninth commandment is specifically about bearing false witness against another person. God gave it to protect the reputation of people from libel, but this law also pointed to the Israelite system of justice. In their law, a person’s guilt or innocence was based on testimony by faithful witnesses. Of course false witnesses would undermine justice. Thus, being obedient to this command is not only about lying but about justice.

Gossip is a different word. It means idle or foolish talk. It could be truthful stories about the follies of others and those are often as harmful as slander. In my opinion, most gossip is a way of trying to make oneself look good at the expense of others.

Slander is more deliberate, always false and intends to harm the other person in some way. Jesus said that slander is a product of the heart, which means I could think slanderous thoughts without saying the words. That is why Paul wrote:
Let all bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, and evil speaking (slander) be put away from you, with all malice. And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you. (Ephesians 4:31-32)
He started with attitudes that lead to actions and said to “let” them be removed, suggesting that their removal cannot be done without outside help. Of course that help comes from the Lord through obedience to this verse:
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 will take from my heart any bitterness, wrath, anger and malice that would otherwise result in clamor and slander, but only if I humble myself and confess that they are in my heart. For this amazing provision, made possible only by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ for my sin, I am truly thankful.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Being tested

Today’s devotional verse tells me to “put on” the new person that God created in me in holiness and true righteousness. However, the holiness that God calls for is more than a pious, outward demeanor and true righteousness is more than doing good things. These things cannot be “put on” in the same sense that some would “put on” a good show of doing the right thing.

Today, I’ve the perfect example of what I’m trying to say. Occasionally I have a dream that has always leaves me in a sinful attitude when I wake up. In the past, I’ve confessed my bad attitude to the Lord. At these times, and whenever I am thinking angry, sad, or any kind of negative or sinful thoughts, I pray these words: “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 19:14). God is always faithful and rids me of my responses so I can go on with my day.

However, the last time I had that dream, I went farther than that. I asked God to dig deeply into my heart and show me what was there to cause me to respond to that dream (and its variations) with that attitude. Other verses come to mind for this prayer . . .
Search me, O God, and know my heart; try me, and know my anxieties; and see if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting. (Psalm 139:23-24)
For the rest of that morning (a few months ago), God did show me the root of my problem with this dream. At first it seemed disconnected but after much digging, His Spirit and the Bible made me realize that I had a few things to confess. I did, and then repented (changed my mind) and asked the Lord to change the way I had been thinking. He did.

But last night, I had the dream again. Only this time, I woke up with no response at all. It was odd. I thought about the dream for several minutes. My thoughts remained objective and without any reaction at all. I was startled. I also realized that God had done what I asked. He changed my heart on this matter, and then proved it to me with a test. I passed.

All this says that holiness and true righteousness is more than externals. No one knows about those dreams of mine, and I could easily fake an appropriated attitude after having one, like “I got up on the wrong side of the bed this morning.” But God looks at the heart. When He says “put on the new man” He means to be thoroughly living my life in the power of the Holy Spirit and in the responses of the newness of life given to me in Christ Jesus.

The context of today’s verse also shows that, only with a different example. After I read Ephesians 4:24, I noticed that it is followed by “therefore” . . .
Put on the new man which was created according to God, in true righteousness and holiness. Therefore, putting away lying, “Let each one of you speak truth with his neighbor,” for we are members of one another. “Be angry, and do not sin”: do not let the sun go down on your wrath, nor give place to the devil. (Ephesians 4:24-27)
There are many ways that Paul tells Christians to behave in the power of their new life in Christ. In this case, “putting on” could be a bad choice of words for today’s culture. People so easily “put on” a certain face for certain occasions in order to look good on the surface. In these verses, God is talking about far more than externals.

Putting on the new man, or living by the power of Christ in the new life He gave me is not something that I do once, but something I must do every day, even every minute of every day. It is learning to see that my sinful responses and attitudes have deep roots. I can confess each incident of sin, but until I am willing to go deeper, I will keep doing those surface things.

Going deeper is hard work and often painful or humiliating. It requires total honesty and being vulnerable. It also requires the Word of God. 2 Timothy 3:16 says, “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness.”

My devotional reading today also says that if I want to live correctly (and I do), I must expose myself to the Word of God. It is only God who can show me the sin that so easily tips me over. And it is only God who can expose the lies of Satan who tries to lure me into sin at my points of vulnerability and weakness, and even more so at the places where I think I am strong.

This dream caught me off guard; I was not expecting another test. Yet I am thankful. Because of His work in my heart, this time I passed it.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Climbing the Learning Curve, Part Two

In theology circles, argument is made whether Paul wrote the last part of Romans 7 describing himself as a Christian, or this was his struggle as a non-Christian. Because of the record in Acts that said he was persecuting Christians before he met Christ, I’m of the opinion that he wrote this after he was saved. He didn’t seem to struggle with sin before that.

After a few sentences about his fight with himself over not being able to do what he knew was right, yet doing sinful things that he didn’t want to do instead, he said,
But now, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me. For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) nothing good dwells; for to will is present with me, but how to perform what is good I do not find. For the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practice. Now if I do what I will not to do, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me. I find then a law, that evil is present with me, the one who wills to do good. For I delight in the law of God according to the inward man. But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members. O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? I thank God—through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, with the mind I myself serve the law of God, but with the flesh the law of sin. (Romans 7:17-25)
My other reason for thinking he was a Christian when he wrote this is that every Christian I know has the same struggle. I know in my mind what God wants from me, and in my mind I want to do it, but my body will not cooperate. Sometimes my mind will not either. That is why Paul also wrote:
Be renewed in the spirit of your mind. (Ephesians 4:23)
The Bible tells me that when I become a Christian, God gave me a new mind, the mind of Christ. However, I’m not automatically able to think His thoughts. While I immediately experienced many new attitudes, I often faced life’s challenges by habitually turning to my old patterns and got into trouble because of it.

Since then, I know that learning to think like Jesus means learning to know what He is thinking. It also means being able to recognize which thoughts are from Him. Over the past years of being His child, I’ve been rebuilding my mind and trying to fill it with good stuff. The Word of God is always the starting place.

The Bible offers so much on mind renewal and advice on how to think in certain situations. It also offers direction on how to think when nothing much is happening. For instance,
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. (Philippians 4:8)
Meditation is not easy for a mind that is continually looking for new information. This is a trait of my spiritual gift, and sometimes annoying. I once took a book to an NHL game, not because the game is boring (I like hockey) but because it didn’t give me enough to think about. Of course the razzing I got ensured that I never did it again, but this illustrates my struggle. I seldom review the past, which might be a good thing in my case. Instead, I forge ahead without learning much from my mistakes.

Yesterday I considered how my eyes and body are tired in the evenings. At that point, my mind often shifts into neutral too, but the only way to accommodate a neutral mind is by going to sleep or by watching television. (Isn’t that the truth!) This happens when it is too early to go to bed, but my eyes are not up to reading or doing close work. I can watch television and even engage my mind, but thinking while watching TV is hard work so I don’t. This is not a good thing; there isn’t much on the tube that falls into the noble, just, pure, lovely categories. So I’m stuck puttering about and start feeling hungry.

I am asking God to show me why I want to eat when I am full from supper. Today He offers this clue: my mind is never tired and if I try to treat it like it is by watching television or otherwise, it protests. For some reason as yet unclear, it starts sending me “feed me” messages, but instead of realizing this is the voice of a bored mind and feeding it, I head for the frig.

I need another solution for this overactive mind, and while I have lots of ideas, I need to wait for God to give me the solution He has in His mind. In the meantime, I’m still reading Scripture and still working hard to practice the art of thinking about what I’ve read.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Another learning curve

After supper I feel full but want to munch. This is not a good idea, yet my common sense is not working. I know what the doctors, nutritionists and psychologists say (never mind my tape measure), and that is not working either. Like good intentions, determination fails me too. Most Christians would tell me this is a matter of choice, but that isn’t working either. Too often, I don’t seem to be able to make the right decisions, even though I know what they are.

As is wrestle with this, I’ve asked God for self-control (which is given by the Holy Spirit), yet this is usually after I’ve eaten that bowl of buttered popcorn that I didn’t need. I’ve asked my husband to help me, but he gets up very early for work, so is often asleep before this odd hunger hits. I try to be ambitious and do something productive, but am often “too tired to start something and not tired enough to go to bed.”

Is this a physical thing or a spiritual battle? This morning I sat down and asked God to give me what I need to hear. This is where He took me.
That is not the way you learned Christ! For surely you have heard about him and were taught in him, as truth is in Jesus. You were taught to put away your former way of life, your old self, corrupt and deluded by its lusts, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to clothe yourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. (Ephesians 4:20-24)
Being like Jesus would never mean self-indulgence, nor would it mean making excuses for myself. I know that I’m to put away the behavior of my old self and put on the new self. What strikes me this morning is that phrase between those actions. It says to “be renewed in the spirit of your minds.

Taking a look at that, I found the following thoughts about putting on the new nature. In Colossians 3:2, the Bible says, “set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.” Then in 1 Peter 1:13, it tells me, “Prepare your minds for action; be self-controlled; set your hope fully on the grace to be given you when Jesus Christ is revealed.

Where was my mind yesterday? Actually, almost all of it was focused on the Lord. We had an incredible day filled with rich blessings from God. The ladies class that I lead had a good time in a tough passage. Also, I’d found a basic Bible study written in English and Chinese. I gave it to a new Christian who recently moved to Canada and is trying to learn both English and the Bible. She was thrilled and so was I.

We had a super lunch and visit with a family that we care about, then a great afternoon catching up with the chores that multiply when you go on vacation. It was a joy-filled day. Then I blew it. Instead of going to bed because I was tired, I hit the pantry and the on-button of the television. Not a good idea.

As I read these verses, I could see that God wants me to have my mind renewed. This battle and effort to be like Jesus begins in the way that I think, and there is something in my thinking that is messing up my choices.

One of my books says that I need to commit myself to the process of mind renewal, and when I do, “the result is similar to what God promised Israel.” He said to them, “I will put my laws in their minds and write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people” (Hebrews 8:10).

The only solution to selfish indulgence is always what the Lord gives me, not my own efforts. Jesus gave me the Holy Spirit and He will fill me with Himself. The results are things like love, joy, patience, peace and self-control. I have His mind and need to think with it.

I’m not sure what my thinking is at the end of the day when I am tired and winding down. Maybe I start assuming that I do not need to be filled with the Spirit any longer. The day is done, the demands are over, and now I can be in charge and do what I want. I know that kind of thinking is the root of sin. Isaiah 53:6 says, “All we like sheep have gone astray; We have turned, every one, to his own way . . .” My own way is not working and never has. I need Jesus.

This verse adds, “the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.” Jesus bore my sin. Every time that I do something to indulge my old nature, I am adding more sin to what He took upon Himself on the cross. That makes me shudder, and remembering it should help me make better choices.

My devotional reading from Truth for Today is also helpful. It talks about having my mind under the control of Jesus and about how I need to think:
As Christians, we are no longer controlled by a self-centered mind; we learn from Christ. Christ thinks for us, acts through us, loves through us, feels through us, and serves through us. The lives we live are not ours but are Christ living in us (Galatians 2:20). Philippians 2:5 says, “Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus.” An unsaved person walks in the vanity of his own mind, but a saved person walks according to the mind of Christ.
God has a plan for the universe, and as long as Christ is working in us, He’s working out a part of that plan through us. Paul noted that He “is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that works in us” (Ephesians 3:20). Every day should be a fantastic adventure for us because we’re in the middle of God’s unfolding plan for the ages.
Almost all of yesterday was an adventure. His plan was obvious and we enjoyed watching what He is doing. Sliding away from that is more than annoying. I need His self-control all day.

The author of my devotional reading once said that self-control, while a fruit of the Spirit, can be practiced. He suggested beginning with little things, like keeping my desk clean, because faithfulness in the little things builds faithfulness in more important matters. My husband often refuses something that is perfectly okay to have, just to practice self-control.

Both of these examples are speaking to me along with all the verses that I’ve read. God is saying I need to renew my mind regarding those hunger pangs after supper, but He is also suggesting a couple of other areas where I can practice self-control: email and exercise. Because He is always ready to come to my rescue, I’ve a strong suspicion that I’m about to go on another adventure.