Friday, July 31, 2009

Hidden in my heart

We stayed three nights in the home of dear friends in the northeast of Scotland, two of which they were elsewhere. This was not the original plan. They had a long way traveling and thought the day they would be home was one day sooner so we didn’t get to visit as long as we wanted. They apologized several times for the muddle, but we had no doubt that their hearts are in the right place.

Having my heart in the right place is important to me too. Jesus said that out of the heart comes the deeds that we do and the words that we say. I make mistakes and yet if my heart is right, those good intentions (while not an excuse) tend to ease the discomfort of doing or saying the wrong thing.

God wants the heart right. Dozens of verses come to mind. Proverbs 4:23 says that I am to guard my heart for out of it flows the issues of life. Verse 4 in the same chapter says, “Let your heart retain my words; keep my commands, and live” (Proverbs 4:4).

Today’s verses are from Psalm 119. “With my whole heart I have sought You; oh, let me not wander from Your commandments! Your word I have hidden in my heart, that I might not sin against You” (Psalm 119:10-11).

Most people say this is about memorizing Bible verses and for years I’ve been told that this is extremely important. I don’t doubt it, but I struggle with rote memorization. Even with much repetition, nothing sticks. However, if I am reading Scripture and God speaks to me with verses that apply to a specific situation, then I can remember them. Perhaps that is because I have read and learned something that I really need, but whatever the reason, if I need that same verse later, it comes to mind easily.

There is another reason for knowing God’s Word. My devotional reading talks of a man who came to Christ, but worried about the garbage in his mind and how to clean it out. As I read it, I thought of Romans 12:2. “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.”

The reading says that the only way to have a transformed mind is to read, study, and meditate on the Word of God. It then quotes Colossians 3:16, “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.”

Reading, studying, meditating and memorizing is our part, but there is another important aspect of hiding His Word in our hearts. The Bible is the written Word of God, and Jesus Christ is the living Word of God. When Scripture asks the question, “Who has known the mind of the Lord that he may instruct Him?” it answers with, “But we have the mind of Christ” (1 Corinthians 2:16).

When Christ moved into my life, He gave me His life and His mind! Thinking the thoughts of Jesus are possible only because my mind is transformed. Oh, I still have the old one, but now have the choice of my own ideas or His. It says I must hide His Word in my heart and I think, Oh, because Jesus lives there, I already have!

This is no excuse to not read the Bible. If I neglect it, then my old ways of thinking and the lies of the devil can move in and run things, but with the mind of Christ, thinking God’s thoughts is a wonder and a gift of grace. Because of Him, I can meditate on whatever things are true, noble, just, pure, lovely, and of good report. As Philippians 4:8 says, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy, His presence in my heart means that I am able to think on these things.

Who is my neighbor?

July 30, 2009 (delayed post, Internet not available in Old Deer, Scotland)

When an expert in the Law asked Jesus which was the greatest commandment, he intended to trap Him, but Jesus gave a response, now familiar to many, that almost silenced him.
Jesus said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 22:37-40).
This answer should have silenced the lawyer, but he had one more question. Because of his own definition of a neighbor, perhaps he thought the answer to this question might get him off the hook, so he asked, “Who is my neighbor?”

According to the Jews, a neighbor was any member of the Hebrew race and community, their relatives. However, Jesus was not going to let this man continue to think that love was about family and kinship. He described what love is by using the story of the Good Samaritan, therefore expanding the meaning of a neighbor to any other person, irrespective of race or religion, with whom we live or chance to meet.

Aside from that, some people from this generation don’t even focus on the word neighbor. They assume that this second command is a mandate for self-love and use it in definitions for self-esteem. However, the Bible is clear that people naturally love themselves. We want the best for ourselves and will go to great ends to get it. In fact, sin could be defined as all those self-centered wants and desires for things and conditions that suit us, and our efforts to serve those desires.

Jesus is saying that I am to love others in that same way, as I love myself. I’m to want the best for them and go to great effort to make sure they have it. The words are different, but the idea is the same as the Golden Rule. I should want for everyone the same as I want for myself.

In the story of the Good Samaritan, a compassionate Samaritan takes care of a Jewish man who had been beaten and left for dead on the road. Samaritans and Jews normally hated one another, but this is not so much about loving enemies as it is about putting aside my desires to do the right thing for someone else.

The priest and Levite didn’t do that. They were in a big hurry perhaps, but whatever their reasons, they didn’t stop to help their countryman. In this story, Jesus slams them. Think of it; the leaders of the Jewish religion would not love their neighbor (neighbor even by their own definition), but a Samaritan loved the man, put aside the mutual hatred and helped him.

My devotional writer says this isn’t about stopping to help everyone who has a flat tire, or giving money to every panhandler you meet, but being sensitive to the situation. My husband is like that. We pass many situations like these, and for some of them he says, “God wants me to stop and help.”

This is about knowing the heart of God. There is a love in God that I can experience and pass on to others when I drop my selfishness. His love certainly covers everyone and every situation, but He also has a plan for every needy person. I might not be the right person to help them, but if I am paying attention and listening for His direction, He will tell me, “This one is your neighbor, love this person.”

How to love my enemies

July 29, 2009 (delayed post, no Internet available in Old Deer, Scotland)

Most would say it does not work . . . . “Love my enemies? You must be joking.” If love were only an emotion, their protests are easily understood. Who can conjure up feelings of well-being for someone who has injured you? But love, biblical love, is not feelings, but an action. Here is how it works . . .
Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath; for it is written, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,” says the Lord. Therefore “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in so doing you will heap coals of fire on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:19-21)
The first action is refusing to act in revenge. No retaliation. Instead, this is a place to exercise faith. Do I believe that God is the ultimate judge? Do I believe that the Judge of the earth will do right? If so, why retaliate? That would be interfering with what God would otherwise do! He knows the best way to deal with my sin. Who am I to deny Him the opportunity to best deal with those who sin against me?

The second action is actually doing something to meet the needs of the person who has injured me. It might be as simple as a meal or something to drink. It could be more complex, and certainly will be under a sense of reluctance. However, it is not difficult. Even a dog can do it. Smack a dog in anger because it gets in your way, and it will come and lick your hand.

Doing good to an enemy produces this “coals of fire” thing. Some think this means that my goodness will produce a sense of shame in their lives. My devotional guide backs this by saying this expression refers to an ancient Egyptian custom where a person who wanted to show public contrition would carry on his head a pan of burning coals to symbolize the burning pain of his shame and guilt.

Thinking a bit beyond that, I know that if I show love to my enemies by meeting their needs, it cannot be for any hope that they will feel shame for the way they treated me. Love does good to others but love is not using “kindness” as a weapon.

In the Old Testament “coals of fire” are not about using kindness to shame someone. Instead, this term speaks of the wrath of God. In other words, if I do good to my enemy and refuse to take any revenge or retaliate, then I am yielding to God and stepping back so that He is free to exercise His wrath in whatever way He wishes. Then doing good gets out of the way or “gives place” to His wrath.

This is entirely practical. If I respond to evil with evil (retaliation), then God must deal with my sinful God-playing. As far as my life goes, He is more concerned that I behave like Jesus Christ than He is about what my enemy has done to me. But if I obey these verses and do good to my enemy, then I have “given place to wrath” or stepped out from being His primary focus for chastening. He will then give attention to whatever my enemy has done and do what He sees best concerning them.
For to this you were called, because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that you should follow His steps: “Who committed no sin, Nor was deceit found in His mouth”; who, when He was reviled, did not revile in return; when He suffered, He did not threaten, but committed Himself to Him who judges righteously. (1 Peter 2:21-23)
As Jesus did, when someone attacks me, I can trust God for the revenge part by committing myself to the One who judges righteously and by doing good to my enemy. This is His way of overcoming evil with good.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Seeking Peace

When we were children, my sister and I invented a sign language so we could talk in front of our brothers without them knowing what we were saying. It almost always provoked them to anger. When my children were small, the daughter in the middle knew how to get her two brothers to fight with each other, then sweetly watched as they were punished for something she started.

Sibling mini wars are only one kind of conflict that require two or more for a fight. Married couples, business partners, admin assistants, charity group executives, or any other pair or group of people have the potential for turmoil among them.

As my devotional reading for today says, a fully peaceful relationship cannot be one-sided. It takes two to strike a peace accord. Nevertheless, God says,
If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men. (Romans 12:18)
This means that I must do my part to make sure that I am doing (or stop doing) whatever is necessary to get along with others. Am I willing to give up my wants and such things as the desire to “one-up” someone, or to get even when I am wronged? This is key to obeying this verse.

Jesus knew how to do seek peace. The crowd tried to make Him a king and He managed to vanish rather than argue with them. They wanted to kill Him and He slipped from their midst rather than being in the middle of a conflict. At the end when they decided to kill Him, rather than fight back, “He committed Himself to the Father who judges righteously” and said, “Not my will, but Thine be done.”

There are some issues worth fighting for, or as a friend says, some hills worth dying on, but these must be carefully chosen. What is worth risking a relationship? I am standing firm for something God would battle for, or is this just a personal I-want?

Most situations with the potential for conflict are like that because I want something. It might be the distinction of being right or to have the last word. However, I realize that short of compromising the Word of God, I need to go to any length to build peace, even with those who want to go to war with me.

I can at least refuse to fight, but to do that I need to set aside all grudges and bitterness or any other demands for my own way or personal rights, just as Jesus did. What was His secret? I think He sought peace because He knew who He was and the truth about everything. He had nothing to prove and no axes to grind. Instead, He forgave His enemies and gave up His life so those who hated Him could be reconciled to God.

Jesus was not a pacifist; He knew when to stand up and demand righteousness, but He was also a peacemaker and never provoked others to fight, nor did He relish conflict. If anyone hated Him and was at odds with Him, it was their own sinful attitude, not that He had done anything to warrant it.

By observing Jesus, I know that seeking peace means giving up power, control, pride and my rights. This is also about refusing to insist on anything, but instead trusting God who knows all things and can make all things right.

Monday, July 27, 2009

The path is straight, it’s me that gets twisted


I feel like a pretzel. Learning how to walk the Christian walk and please God takes me one way then another until sometimes I feel turned back on myself.

For instance, when I became a Christian I talked without thinking. God had to teach me to be quiet, then after months of lessons on that, He began teaching me to speak up at His bidding instead of my own impulses. Furthermore, these are ongoing lessons.

Yesterday the Lord repeated to me that I must not think evil about others or focus on the evil in them, but now I see another pretzel lesson in the second half of this verse.
Repay no one evil for evil. Have regard for good things in the sight of all men. (Romans 12:17)
Here the English words “have regard for” come from a Greek word, pronoeo. It occurs three times in the New Testament and is translated as “provide for” and “provide” but it can also mean to perceive before, foresee, think of beforehand or to take thought for and care for a thing.

For many years I felt I had to plan everything. Then (here comes the pretzel lesson) God has been teaching me to quit making my own plans and just follow His leading, moment by moment. As I read this verse, I see that I am also supposed to plan ahead, think about what I am going to do. Arggg! Bend this way, now this way . . . !

But I know the difference between my planning in the beginning and this. It used to be that all my planning was about what I wanted and what would benefit me. Here, God is saying that I need to think ahead of time how I can do good things, planning how I can provide good for others.

Some versions say “right” or “noble” things. The word is kalos and it appears more than one hundred times. Most of them are translated into “good” yet other words are sometimes used such as better, honest, and so on. This word is about that which is beautiful, handsome, excellent, eminent, choice, surpassing, precious, useful, suitable, commendable, and admirable.

My mother used to joke that some people seem to think a good meal falls out of the cupboard. According to these words, I must not think the same thing about doing good to others. Perhaps at times a good deed could be spontaneous, but the idea here is to continually think ahead and plan for how I might provide something good for someone else.

I write this thinking that many people would not be so analytical; they would just do it. However, God is concerned about the heart. I remember a woman who was not a Christian saying, “I love to do things for others because it makes me feel so good.”

Her motives for doing things for others were mostly for herself. Mine can be also. As I read these verses and think about what God emphasizes, it seems clear to me that when I do good, God is not focusing one bit on what is in it for me — nor how I feel about it.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Repair not Repay

Some people might suppose that the Old Testament law of “an eye for an eye” allows personal revenge, but this is not the point. This law actually says that the severity of legal punishment should never exceed the severity of an offense. In other words, if someone put out another person’s eye, he could not be penalized by anything greater than the forfeiture of his own eye.

My first thought is if this were practiced it would transform our justice system. Those who steal would lose or repay whatever they had taken. Those who injure would be injured. Those who kill would die.

However, the point of today’s devotional reading is not about the authority God gave governments to avenge civil and criminal injustice. It is about God forbidding His people from taking personal vengeance. He says,
Repay no one evil for evil. Have regard for good things in the sight of all men. (Romans 12:17)
In the original Greek, this seems to put some emphasis on how I think toward others who do evil as well has how I treat them. It goes something like this: “Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.”

When someone does an evil thing, my first thoughts are often “holier than thou” rather than merciful. But I have no right or ground to stand on for doing this. That person might deserve punishment and God’s wrath, but God could choose grace; He did so for me.

As far as how I think about evil people, I need to remember that in God’s mind, all of us are sinners so He could retaliate, and for some He will, but in Christ He has chosen mercy and grace that transforms lives. For myself, He didn’t do to me as I deserve. Not only that, He gave me the mind of Christ, so how can I think anything less toward others?

This is an amazing thing about the change God works in the heart. People who are saved from their sin and are given new life have the capacity to forgive others. I think of a Christian man whose son was murdered in a school shooting, yet this man forgave the boy who did it.

This story is repeated in many lives and situations. Christian people feel the same pain and loss at the hands of evil people as others do, however God gives us the inclination to forgive rather than retaliate. We can do it because He has forgiven us, and He has forgiven us because His thoughts toward us are noble. He says,
For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, says the Lord, thoughts of peace and not of evil, to give you a future and a hope. (Jeremiah 29:11)
When someone mistreats me, I am to think about them with the mind of Christ, having the thoughts of God rather than my old inclination to retaliate. He wants me to respond with ideas about peace not evil, and ideas about how I can give that person a future, even a hope for eternity with God.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Pride

Pride is my Achilles heel. In school my marks were always high. The other kids made fun of me if I got less than 100% on pop quizzes. When I went to Bible college later in life, my GPA was the highest in the school. People tell me I am smart. Because of all this, I suppose that I must be, even have to be. Whenever I make a mistake, my first words to myself are usually, “Oh, are you ever a dummy” or something like that.

Everyone knows that pride goes before a fall. I should fall a lot more than I do. I need lots of reminding about humility. Today, God repeats yesterday’s verse to me with an emphasis on the last phrase. In the New King James version, the verse says,
Be of the same mind toward one another. Do not set your mind on high things, but associate with the humble. Do not be wise in your own opinion. (Romans 12:16)
I decided to look this up in several other versions. This is what I found:
Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited. . . . Never be conceited. . . . Make friends with nobodies; don’t be the great somebody. . . . And don’t think you know it all!
I know that I don’t know it all; that isn’t my problem. The problem is that I want to, that I think I should know everything. I think I should win every game of Trivial Pursuit, every Bible quiz, and outguess all the contestants on Jeopardy. That is pride.

These verses say the cure is associating with the humble, or with people of low position. This context points to the pride of position. Walking with those who have little status is helpful in reminding those with status that life is not about position.

For me, the people who show me that life is not about being smart are not those who are foolish or mentally challenged, but those who are wise, those who fear God and have the Holy Spirit guiding them in all areas and activities. Being wise is not about knowing things. It is about knowing God and knowing how to rely on Him for everything.

It also is about being thrown into situations where I don’t know the answers and am pushed to prayer and relying on God and others to take me through whatever difficulty I am in. It is about being lost and having to ask directions, about being unsure and having to move with uncertainty.

Humility is also being willing to experience the feelings of helplessness that ought to drive me to verses like 2 Corinthians 12:9 where God says to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness” and where I have to learn to “gladly rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.”

Again, I have much to learn, and perhaps the reason it takes me so long to learn it is because I proudly think that I must.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Humility

“My father-in-law once golfed a match game with Ben Hogan.”

I replied, “The closest I’ll get to Ben Hogan is that his name is on my golf clubs.”

Name-dropping is easy. I’ve done it to impress people. I’ve once had lunch with Elizabeth Elliot or we used to belong to John MacArthur’s church.

However, I’ve also learned that the “big name” authors and speakers are ordinary people too. This happened the day I met Evelyn Christenson. I’d read and studied her amazing books on prayer, then met her and discovered that she is a most ordinary person, delightful, but down-to-earth ordinary. Actually, every well-known person I’ve met is ordinary in most ways. They have incredible talents in some areas, but they lose their car keys and have their off days just like I do.

A few years after figuring this out, a person started putting me on a pedestal. I hated it. I know myself; pedestals I do not deserve or need. How foolish I am to think of myself more highly than I ought, never mind have someone else do it for me.

At the same time, God knows we need reminding about this kind of pride and self-serving. Because I tend to think my own status is raised if I can hobnob with the rich and famous or spend time around those whose talents and reputation are widespread and well-known, He says,
Be of the same mind toward one another. Do not set your mind on high things, but associate with the humble. Do not be wise in your own opinion. (Romans 12:16)
The person who wrote my devotional book says that there is no aristocracy in the church, no place for an ecclesiastical elite that deserves all the attention. He is right. We are all sinners saved by grace. Anything good that we have comes from Jesus Christ, not ourselves. If there is any glory given, it must go to Him.

Instead of prideful attention seeking, I am supposed to consider others. Jesus illustrated this by saying, “‘When you give a dinner or a supper, do not ask your friends, your brothers, your relatives, nor rich neighbors, lest they also invite you back, and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you; for you shall be repaid at the resurrection of the just’” (Luke 14:12-14).

I know that God isn’t forbidding me to invite friends and relatives to my home for a meal, nor is this really about who I invite as much as it is about my motive for inviting them. If I am selfishly thinking I will be rewarded in some way, or that I can boast about who was over for dinner, or if I can somehow impress others with my guest list, then my motives are sinful. God is asking me to be hospitable without any concern for myself. All of what I do is to be for those who need it done for them.

This devotional writer also says that the poor are more needy than the rich, which is another reason for inviting them. That may be true in a financial sense, but I’ve found that the rich and famous are needy too, but with different needs. Further, a person’s financial status or place of prominence does not mean they are in the category of people to avoid. The passage from Romans says to “associate with the humble” and the three people whose names I’ve dropped just in the last few paragraphs happen to be just that, very humble people who are not wise in their own opinion. I’ve learned a great deal from them.

My conclusion is that pride’s removal may require the discipline of being with people who have nothing to be proud of, people who are in poverty and great need and in whose presence I am moved to think more of them than of myself. However, there is also great value in being around humble people with great blessings on their life for they realize all of it came as a gift from God and not as a result of their own importance. They know how to glorify God with their blessings, and I need to know how to do that also.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Being impartial

The gospel message is plain. God offers eternal life to all who believe in Jesus Christ, repenting of their sin and turning to Him in faith. Over and over, Scripture says that no one earns or deserves this; it is by grace through faith, a gift of God to all who believe.

However, there are some tough passages that sound like a person is saved by what they do. I’m reading one of them this morning, and as I do, I recognize how important it is to consider the context when trying to understand something in the Bible, not just the context of a verse or even a chapter, but the context of the book and even the entire Bible.
But in accordance with your hardness and your impenitent heart you are treasuring up for yourself wrath in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God, who “will render to each one according to his deeds”: eternal life to those who by patient continuance in doing good seek for glory, honor, and immortality; but to those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness—indignation and wrath, tribulation and anguish, on every soul of man who does evil, of the Jew first and also of the Greek; but glory, honor, and peace to everyone who works what is good, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For there is no partiality with God. (Romans 2:5-11)
The passage is about judgment on those who do not believe. Any honest and clear-minded unbeliever who reads this might recognize that they are not “patiently continuing in doing good,” even though they might not admit that they are actually “self-seeking” and not interested in obeying the truth. (In this context, the truth is the gospel)

The part that catches my conscience today is the reference to both Jews and Greeks. In those days, the Jews considered themselves God’s people, but anyone outside of that group was not. The Greeks were pagan in Jewish minds.

Today, if there is a parallel, it could be the “religious” and those who are not, or the churched and the unchurched. In any case, whatever the separation or whoever makes it, God is saying that He has no favorites when it comes to judgment. No matter who a person is, if they have not been obedient to the truth of the gospel and are not living a life characterized by seeking righteousness, they are under His wrath. He is not partial. It does not matter if a person goes to church or not, is interested in spiritual things or not. What matters is what that person does with Jesus Christ.

This is true because in the economy of God those who “work what is good” must get that goodness which comes from Christ. If He lives in a person’s heart, His goodness makes that person righteous, not their own, and it does not matter if they are a Jew or a Greek, a man or a woman, a master or a slave, or a black or a white or a brown. God is not partial.

My devotional reading says this plainly too. It is a sin for a Christian to show favoritism to people. I am not supposed to be prejudiced for or against another person based on their position in life, their wealth or lack of it, nor their influence, popularity, or appearance. This is clearly taught elsewhere as well. While I recognize that goodness comes only from Jesus, I’m never to let that or any other things affect the way I treat people.
My brethren, do not hold the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, with partiality. For if there should come into your assembly a man with gold rings, in fine apparel, and there should also come in a poor man in filthy clothes, and you pay attention to the one wearing the fine clothes . . . have you not shown partiality among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? . . . . but if you show partiality, you commit sin, and are convicted by the law as transgressors. (James 2:1-4, 9).
God never plays favorites. I am not like God, and in this area I particularly notice it. I don’t think I have a problem with racism because I don’t often notice the color of someone’s skin, but I do have problems with prejudice concerning the way some people think and act. God has rebuked me about this on several occasions. I need to repent and obey Him.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Weeping is acceptance

If North Americans have a common god it is happiness. The mantra goes something like, “I just want to be happy” or “As long as you are happy. . . .”

A young friend was thinking a similar way about health, particularly healthy children. She notices how many times people say about babies, “As long as it is healthy. . . .” as if having a child that was not perfectly well would be a terrible disaster. For that reason, good health and certainly enough money could be called our gods too, but the real god is happiness because health and money are actually just part of what most people consider necessary to being happy.

I’m reading the same verse today as yesterday, but yesterday I left off the last part of it. The full verse says, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15).

God is a joyful God, but God also weeps with those who weep. John’s gospel tells of the death of Lazarus. Jesus went to the scene and “when Mary came where Jesus was, and saw Him, she fell down at His feet, saying to Him, ‘Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died.’” Her grief was deep, yet she knew the power that Jesus had and added to her grief was the idea of “if only.”
Therefore, when Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her weeping, He groaned in the spirit and was troubled. And He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to Him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus wept. Then the Jews said, “See how He loved him!” (John 11:32-36)
The Jews thought that Jesus wept because He had lost a good friend, but I don’t think so. He knew that He was about to raise this man from the dead. He also knew that physical death is not the end of life. He would see Lazarus again.

No, I believe that Jesus wept because Mary and her sister Martha wept. He felt their sorrow, and because He is a God of compassion, He wept with those who wept.

It happened once in my life. The details are too personal and perhaps too precious to write into a blog, but one time when my sorrow and grief were deeper than I can bear, Jesus wept with me, and left me with the absolute certainty of His love and identification with my pain. I will never forget His demonstration of compassion.

This is why we must weep with those who weep. People need to know that our god is not happiness. To tell someone to “cheer up” or any equivalent of trying to make them smile or be happy is telling them we will not accept their sorrow. Weeping with them says the opposite, that we love them and are willing to forego our own sense of well-being in order to feel their pain with them.

God does that. While He loves to bring us joy and make us feel wonderful, when we do not, He never rejects our emotions. Instead of telling us to cheer up, He lets us feel our grief and sorrow, but even more, He feels them as deeply as we do and weeps with us.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Joy needs no reasons . . .

We are waiting for our connecting flight from Heathrow in London to Edinburgh in Scotland. I have a few minutes to be still and pay attention to what God wants me to think about and do today.

It is an unselfish thing, according to my devotional reading. He simply wants me to be joyful when others are joyful.

The verse is, “Rejoice with those who rejoice” (Romans 12:15). On the surface, this seems a command to be people-centered, to forget about myself so that when others are happy about something, I can be happy with them. However, I think this goes deeper than that.

I just started reading a book about the passion of God for His glory. It says something that I have been thinking about for a long time; that God is a joyful God and takes great delight in giving us His joy. Our problem is that we are terribly preoccupied by trying to be happy without His help.

Once I thought if I had a big house I would be happy. For many people, that big house could be a fancy car or a solid marriage or a trip around the world. The dreams and wishes come and go, but whatever we want, it is seldom God. Oh, I want Him too, but how long it has taken me to realize that He is all I need.

Move the clock ahead a few hours. (My time in Heathrow was cut short because someone announced that the departure gate for our flight changed and we had to hike 10-12 minutes to another one.) We are in a quaint little cottage in Perth. It is lightly but steadily raining. The flowers are in full bloom. Everything is green and lovely and very, very wet.

I’ve been thinking all afternoon about the joy of God. As I do, He seems to be delighted that I am because He is flooding me with it. Our hosts are joyful too. I just noticed that they have filled the bookshelf in our suite with Christian books. The reason for their joy is almost certainly because they know the God who gives joy. They have it, and it is easy to be joyful with them.

This is what this verse means. Oh, it could be that I should be happy when a friend wins a prize or accomplishes something remarkable, but “rejoice with those who rejoice” is about sharing the joy of Jesus with others who have His joy. This is a joy that doesn’t need a reason. It is just here in our hearts. God is with us and when we share in His joy, He is glorified because we are demonstrating what He is like.

God needs no reasons for joy because this is part of who He is. Circumstances can’t mess with His joy because He knows all about everything and what He is going to do about all of it. He knows the end from the beginning. He knows that ultimately, Jesus wins, and I know it too. It would take a lot more than a damp day in Scotland to rob me of His joy, and even of the delight in being able to share it with others.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Love for hate

Jesus said, “But I say to you who hear: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, and pray for those who spitefully use you” (Luke 6:27-28).

Paul said, “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse” (Romans 12:14).
Why does God tell me to do that? Why does God want me to resist hating others, to not retaliate when someone harms me and even go beyond self-defense and actually bless them?

Jesus did it. While He condemned their sin and called them hypocrites, as His enemies nailed Him to the cross He said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do” (Luke 23:34).

Stephen, a young Christian man did it when he was killed by those who hated his words about Jesus and their sin. As they stoned Him, “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.’” (Acts 7:59-60).

While the Old Testament clearly establishes that God hates sin and has power to deal with sinners, Psalm 2 and other passages also say that He is not threatened by those who mock Him. He knows what to do with them and knows the end of those who think they will win by cursing Him and persecuting His people.

Yet I am still amazed and even mystified by the heart of God. He asks me to love my enemies because that is what He does. These are the words of Jesus.
But I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. If anyone wants to sue you and take away your tunic, let him have your cloak also. And whoever compels you to go one mile, go with him two. Give to him who asks you, and from him who wants to borrow from you do not turn away. You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brethren only, what do you do more than others? Do not even the tax collectors do so? Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect. (Matthew 5:39-48)
In North America, human rights laws and enforcement isn’t that popular for a few reasons, but it does protect the people of God from being harmed by physical persecution. It is unlikely that anyone will stone a Christian to death for preaching the gospel.

However, God’s people around the world are not so fortunate. I’ve heard that as many as several hundred a day die because others do not like the fact of their Christian claim to love and follow Jesus Christ. Why anyone would hate us for loving Jesus is both bewildering and incredible, but even more amazing is that God asks us to be like Him by loving and blessing those who do it.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Hospitality

The first time we lived in California in the early ‘80s I felt invisible. No one, bank tellers, clerks, waiters, people that I interacted with, looked me in the eye. It wasn’t until we found a good church and met dozens of Christian people that others gave me a sense of welcome.

Today’s devotional passage is the same one as the past few days, this time concentrating on the last phrase. It is about making people feel welcome.
Be kindly affectionate to one another with brotherly love, in honor giving preference to one another; not lagging in diligence, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord; rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation, continuing steadfastly in prayer; distributing to the needs of the saints, given to hospitality. (Romans 12:10-13)
As usual, I checked out the Greek words. “Given” is almost the same as our English “driven.” It means to follow hard after something. Hospitality is from two Greek words: philo meaning to be a friend or lover of, and xenos meaning strangers.

It is relatively easy to show hospitality to friends and family, people that I already care about and those with common interests. It is generally easy to be hospitable to other Christians, although even though we tend to gravitate toward people our age, or with shared hobbies and so on. Having a passion for hospitality to strangers is not as easy.

I can make excuses. I’m more of an introvert than an extrovert. I find small talk difficult unless the other person takes the lead. I’ve always been a bit of a loner. I am not well equipped in my gifts and by experience to spend time with people that I do not know. I’m too busy. Blah, blah, blah.

God isn’t interested in my excuses. I’m a good cook. We have a big house. He has blessed us with many resources. My husband is a good host and conversationalist. I am not very obedient in this command. Every human being is interesting, has a story or a heartache, and needs to feel welcome. I don’t like feeling invisible and should never be guilty of doing this to someone else. I’ve no reason to embrace the rest of Romans 12:10-13 and ignore the last few words.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Ultimate ownership


A familiar word heard in any place where children play is “mine.” The idea of claiming possessions begins early! However, the Bible says I do not own anything. Instead, I am a steward or manager of whatever He has blessed me with. Part of that stewardship is taking good care of it; another part is sharing what I have with others who have needs.
Be kindly affectionate to one another with brotherly love, in honor giving preference to one another; not lagging in diligence, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord; rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation, continuing steadfastly in prayer; distributing to the needs of the saints, given to hospitality. (Romans 12:10-13)
This is the same passage from previous days, this time with the emphasis on “distributing to the needs of the saints.” In the Bible, the word “saint” simply means “holy” or set apart by God and for God. It is not about people with a halo, nor is it a title reserved for a certain few who are particularly pious. The designation of a saint is not conferred by church leaders because the Bible is clear that everyone who believes in Jesus Christ is a saint, from the greatest to the least.

Giving to the needs of the saints was immediately evident in the actions of Christians in the early church. Right after Jesus ascended and as believers met together, they “continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers . . . [and] all who believed were together, and had all things in common” (Acts 2:42, 44).

In other words, they didn’t consider anything they owned as their own, yet each believer still controlled the use of what they had been intrusted with. In one situation where a man claimed to give the entire sum, he was found to have lied because he only gave part.

Peter said to him, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and keep back part of the price of the land for yourself? While it remained, was it not your own? And after it was sold, was it not in your own control? Why have you conceived this thing in your heart? You have not lied to men but to God” (Acts 5:3-4).

This man was not condemned for only giving part of what he had, but for lying about it. He may have lied to look good in the eyes of others, but his pride and greed became tools in the hands of Satan and he paid a terrible price for his sin.

For me, the point is that no matter what I have, God is the owner. He can do with it as He pleases. I’m thinking of one summer many years ago. We had a lovely vegetable garden in the back yard, but the weather constantly brought severe hail storms all around us. I was frantic about my garden until I finally realized that the garden was not mine. I prayed, “God, this is Your garden. If You want to send a hail storm and ruin it that is Your right. I do not own it.”

My anxiety disappeared. The garden made it through that summer. We even had 6-7 foot tomato plants with hundreds of tomatoes, and a great crop of other vegetables. I gave away baskets filled with it! I know that God could have chosen otherwise regarding the hail, but that one incident comes back to mind every time I get anxious about something happening to my stuff.

Thieves can break in and steal. Weather can ruin possessions. Appliances can stop working. All sorts of things can happen, but the Lord reminds me not to worry. These were His things before He gave them to my care, and ultimately, He is in charge of what happens to them. My mind is set free from worrying about the “stuff” in our lives, as long as I remember that none of it is really mine anyway.

Taking that a step farther, I am also free to give it away. Sometimes He asks me to part with something that I really like or enjoy. At that point, I have to remember that He gave it to me in the first place, or allowed me to have it, so if I really need it, He is perfectly capable of providing another one.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Plugged in

I don’t know what is more amazing, how much energy I had yesterday or how much my joints hurt this morning! One thing is certain; the more I prayed committing the work I was doing to the Lord, the more He filled me with enthusiasm for what I was doing, even going up and down the ladder to edge in along the ceiling (I’m challenged by heights, even low ones) or painting inside a small, very warm bathroom with a lot of edges that could not be taped.

My verses are the same again today as yesterday, only this time with an emphasis on a different phrase, “continuing steadfastly in prayer.”
Be kindly affectionate to one another with brotherly love, in honor giving preference to one another; not lagging in diligence, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord; rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation, continuing steadfastly in prayer; distributing to the needs of the saints, given to hospitality. (Romans 12:10-13)
Prayer is the connection to God and God is my resource. Apart from Him, even those human qualities of kindly affection and brotherly love will come and go. Apart from Him, I know I will be inconsistent in giving preference to others, particularly when there is nothing in it for me. He is my diligence and enthusiasm, my joy and hope, and certainly my source of patience. Without Him I can do nothing. However, to stay connected and have those inner resources, I must pray.

Prayer can be a natural as breathing, but sometimes it is hard work. I’m easily distracted and today, I might easily fall asleep. Other days my to-do list is so long that it takes much determination to first pray. If I have a period where it seems there are no answers, I feel like giving up.

My attitude toward God is also important. I need the qualities in these verses toward Him as well as toward other Christians. I cannot pray as easily if my heart lacks affection for the One to whom I pray. Love and gratitude make prayer easier.

He must also come first in my life because my prayers become filled with gimme, gimme when I do not give preference to Him in praise and yielding to His will. Diligence, fervency of spirit, hope and patience have a great deal to do with how I am relating to Him. If my heart is humble and trusting, these things just happen. If not, they fly out the window.

Despite wanting a long soak in Epsom salt water, my first priority this morning is prayer. After I’m finished, I’ll no doubt pray again in the tub and throughout the day because I want to continue steadfastly in prayer. More than that, I want to, and need to, stay connected.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Motivation makes a difference

Going up and down a ladder for a few hours makes my body sore, but I’m going to go back at it today. Our daughter bought a new condo which didn’t need new paint, but according to her taste it needs a new color.

After a long day of putting that new color on some of her walls, a small voice asked me this morning, Why are you doing this? While I love my daughter and that could be enough motivation, I’ve learned to follow another motivation that sustains me longer and certainly keeps me from complaining. It is found in yesterday’s Bible verses.
Be kindly affectionate to one another with brotherly love, in honor giving preference to one another; not lagging in diligence, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord; rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation, continuing steadfastly in prayer; distributing to the needs of the saints, given to hospitality, willing to paint an entire condo. (Romans 12:10-13, italics obviously mine!)
Years ago, when my children were small and my husband was working far away and only able to be home on the weekends, I found the task of being both mom and dad very difficult. Not only that, we lived on a farm and some of my outside chores were challenging. I prayed for help with all of this, and the Lord simply said, “Do it for me.”

It was a new idea, but this put a spring in my step. The work seemed easier and I was more aware of His presence as I did it. I can remember my husband thanking me for something and for the first time thinking, I did it for you, but I really did it for Jesus.

Since those early days, God has shown my why this motivation means greater energy and enthusiasm. It is because no one can truly serve the Lord in their own strength. As I do anything for Him, I also must rely on Him as my resource. It is as Paul wrote . . .
To this end I also labor, striving according to His working which works in me mightily. (Colossians 1:29)
Sometimes people question how I can “do so much” and this is the only answer. Every morning begins with the Word of God and prayer. I have a rough plan for the day, but more than the plan is the full intention to do or meet whatever comes my way in the power of God. If I rely on myself, I will do what I feel like doing, the interruptions will be annoying or distracting, the less-than-fun chores will be avoided, and I will simply refuse to do the tough stuff. Instead, by giving all of the list to the Lord and doing it for Him, I’ve learned that in His strength I can do the difficult things first, usually far more quickly than expected, and have plenty of time left for what is more enjoyable.

Another benefit from this is that He gives me the ability to enjoy the work instead of dreading it, even those tough chores. Also, should my body ache at the end of it, I’ve found that because it was done for Jesus, my usual complaining is replaced by a thankful spirit.

Following Jesus is amazing. He has made such an astounding difference in everything I do, including both ordinary chores and those challenging chores that I don’t like much. This week I’m rejoicing that He is also here for me in the task of painting a condo.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

I love my job

Job descriptions are important. Without them, I can only imagine the chaos in a work place if some people were doing only the work that appeals to them, others were coming along and redoing the same tasks, and vast areas were being neglected.

Job descriptions for paid positions are vital, but they are also important for volunteer organizations. While bringing my “style” into an unpaid job could have some value, doing my own thing without giving attention to the others causes confusion and ensures that I do not meet their expectations or get the job done.

My local church also has certain positions with job descriptions. Many of these descriptions are not written, but because the Bible is so clear about how we are supposed to behave, much of what we do or how we do it is included in Scripture.

For instance, my assigned task is to facilitate a Bible study class. I’m to show up at 9:30 every Sunday with prepared study material and lead the class through it. Nothing is given to show me how to do that, but the Bible gives the fuller job description. One passage says this:
Be kindly affectionate to one another with brotherly love, in honor giving preference to one another; not lagging in diligence, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord; rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation, continuing steadfastly in prayer; distributing to the needs of the saints, given to hospitality. (Romans 12:10-13)
I am supposed to care about the women in my class and put their needs ahead of my own. I’m to be diligent in research, preparation, and teaching, but also persevere in loving them. I need to remember that in serving them, I am serving the Lord. I’m to be joyful as I hope for fruit in their lives, patient when trials come (and they do), continually praying for all of them, meeting their needs whenever I can, and welcoming them into my life.

I left out one phrase that the Lord is nudging me as a point of focus: fervent in spirit. This speaks about having an enthusiastic attitude, being excited about what I do.

Last night in a television advertisement for a job placement service, I heard several “actors” say, “I love my job.” As I listened, I tried to remember the last time I heard anyone in real life say this. Many people complain about work and dislike their job.

The job might not be the whole problem. I notice that little things like not getting enough sleep can destroy my enthusiasm for just about anything. Lack of clear instruction (a good job description) can make me hesitant rather than fervent in spirit. Working without encouragement or praise will dull my edge, and little or no visible results from my work often make me feel like giving up.

In my spiritual service to God, I know that enthusiasm requires the Holy Spirit. If I am filled with me, my energy will not last, but His help includes resolve, persistence, and a zeal that is deep and ongoing. Not only that, if my job description is not clear, He knows what I am supposed to do and will guide me along the way.

I’ve struggled with all sorts of things the past few days. One of them has been too many jobs and each one with demands for excellence, precision, and a deadline. I’ve been up too late most nights and tired. Last night I turned off my alarm and managed to sleep a bit longer than normal. Sleep helps, but so do the promises of God.

The Lord reminds me that even though I cannot see the results of my labor, He can. He says, “Do not grow weary while doing good, for in due season we shall reap if we do not lose heart” (Galatians 6:9) and with that urges me to pay attention to my job description, be fervent in spirit and enjoy what I am doing.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Get with it; it will be worth it

More and more, the yards in our neighborhood are looking neglected. Dozens of reasons come to mind, from family illness to plain laziness, but one thing is certain: weeds flourish when the gardener does not show up.

The same has been said of evil. It too will flourish when good people do nothing. Yet as much as the mess our world is in (perhaps reflected in unkept gardens), I can think of dozens of reasons why I am not showing up. I argue everything from I’m poorly equipped to I am too old. I could say that God hasn’t given me any direct orders, or that I don’t know where to start.

Sometimes God shakes me to wake me up. Sometimes He offers gentle nudges. Sometimes He is very understanding. This morning He directed me to these verses:
Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might; for there is no work or device or knowledge or wisdom in the grave where you are going. (Ecclesiastes 9:10)

“I (Jesus) must work the works of Him who sent Me while it is day; the night is coming when no one can work”
(John 9:4).

And whatever you do, do it heartily, as to the Lord and not to men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the reward of the inheritance; for you serve the Lord Christ.
(Colossians 3:23-24)
I could live another twenty-five years, but there is no guarantee of that, nor do I know what my health will be like. Instead of fretting about the future though, God wants me to concentrate on the present and enthusiastically do whatever He puts in front of me. I can busy up my to-do list with my own stuff or I can listen to His voice and quit making excuses.

Today He is encouraging me. I need to listen. Today He gently reminds me that when I die, all opportunities to serve Him here on earth are over. I need to listen and obey. His promise of a reward for being obedient and serving Him with enthusiasm was also in my reading today:
For God is not unjust to forget your work and labor of love which you have shown toward His name, in that you have ministered to the saints, and do minister. (Hebrews 6:10)

Monday, July 13, 2009

The zeal of Love

According to a report made a few years ago, the production of assembly line workers tends to drop to the lowest denominator. That is, whoever works the poorest and slowest eventually sets the pace. Another report said that this happens in our national postal service as well. This could be true in a lot of situations where people work together.

I once read a book with the subtitle, “It Takes So Little to be Above Average.” At the time, I was terribly ambitious and wanted everyone else to have the same zeal for doing things as I did. As the years go by, I now notice how I can take for granted certain Christian duties. Of course I’m to love other believers and be joyful. Of course I’m to be patient in difficulties and always pray. Yet I don’t have the same zeal for meeting these things head on as I used to. Instead, I’ve slipped into that mentality that does only as much as seems to be expected.

The truth is, most people have such low expectations that “average” has become the new high. In a little booklet on prayer, the author says that Christian standards have fallen to such a low that when an average Christian comes along (average by biblical standards), everyone lauds that person as super-spiritual.

I’d be the last person to understand why this happens. In my own life, zeal is difficult to maintain unless I’m around others with a good dose of it, yet God does not allow any excuses. The Bible is filled with admonitions to be zealous.
Be kindly affectionate to one another with brotherly love, in honor giving preference to one another; not lagging in diligence, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord; rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation, continuing steadfastly in prayer. (Romans 12:10-12)
“Don’t lag in diligence; be fervent in spirit . . . continuing steadfastly. . . .” Where does this zeal come from? Some might say youth, or getting enough sleep, or temperament, or being able to focus, but the Lord has to be the author of zeal. I never had it at all until He came into my life.

If the reports are right, zeal to serve the Lord is not the average person’s driving force, however. Instead, it is more like, “what’s in it for me?” and if there is little or no reward, then most people do just enough to get by, or to be acceptable, or to have something to claim that will pacify a guilty conscience.

I miss being zealous. I miss the energy of my youth and the fire I once had to walk with God. Admittedly, some of that was misplaced and misused, but a zest for God is like new love, being in love. It is a good thing.

Revelation 2 contains words to the church in Ephesus about their spiritual condition. To them the Lord says, “I know your works, your labor, your patience, and that you cannot bear those who are evil. And you have tested those who say they are apostles and are not, and have found them liars; and you have persevered and have patience, and have labored for My name’s sake and have not become weary. Nevertheless I have this against you, that you have left your first love. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent and do the first works, or else I will come to you quickly and remove your lampstand from its place—unless you repent.” (Revelation 2:2-5).

These people had the perseverance and patience and did not get tired of serving God, but something was missing. It was that zest for Jesus, that desire to serve Him that was driven by a deep love for Him.

Each day when I get out of bed in the morning and make decisions about the activities of the day, I want those decisions and activities to flow out of my love for God, not out of necessity or what’s in it for me. This love is not the passion of infatuation, nor the blind exuberance of puppy love, but a deep and consistent desire to do all that I do alongside the One that says He will never leave me or forsake me, and who zealously loves me.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Christ is the target

“The Bible presents the ideal, but it never happens here in this life,” according to a young woman. She figures that because the standard is so high, some difficult passages of Scripture can be ignored on that basis and that we have to wait for heaven to experience perfection.

I’ve been thinking about her reasoning. I could say that aiming at a bull’s eye and missing it is better than not aiming at all, but I don’t think that is the best answer. Sin is defined as “missing the mark” which is about shooting an arrow that fall short of the target. Deciding that we will always fall short is the same as saying that sin will always win — so why bother fighting it? This is not what the Bible says.

Not only that, in my experience, sin does not always win. My attempts to be godly will always need improvement, but choosing obedience over sin is a victory. What I do may have flaws, but obedience is always different from sin.

I’m not sure if this has anything to do with today’s devotional reading, but because it is so much on my mind, I needed to write it down. The verse today is about honoring other Christians.
Be kindly affectionate to one another with brotherly love, in honor giving preference to one another. (Romans 12:10)
The original words say something like this: “Love one another with mutual affection, outdo one another in showing honor.” Yesterday I learned that the words used here for love and affection refer to family love and brotherly love. These are descriptive of the attitudes of caring family members toward one another and this caring is often natural and easy to do.

The last part of the verse, “outdo one another in showing honor,” brings a chuckle as I think of a friendly family competition to see who can do it best. “You can sit here.” “No, you sit here. You are more important” and so on. However, I’m sure this is not what the Bible has in mind.

My devotional reading gives an example. It says that we often flatter others in the hope of having the compliment returned or to gain favor with them, but instead, we are supposed to express real appreciation, respect, and love without having any personal gain or interest in mind. There is a sacrificial aspect to giving honor.

Those who are devoted to brotherly love will give preference to others in genuine humility without “thinking of themselves more highly than they ought to think” (see Romans 12:3) because this is a characteristic of Jesus Christ who lives in them. The idea of “giving preference” is what Jesus did when He went to the cross for us. In His mind and heart, we are more important than He is. Because of this attitude, He was willing to die so we could live.
Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself. Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others. Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus . . . (Philippians 2:3-5)
It is not difficult to “let this mind be in” me. Scripture says that because I believe in Jesus, I have the mind of Christ! How amazing!

Obviously God wants His mind to be the source of my thinking. From His mind came ideas like: “The sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 15:56-57). It was also from His mind that I am told “we are more than conquerors” and that my faith “overcomes the world.”

The young woman infers that if we cannot be perfect, what is the point? But she errs. The New Testament is filled with verses about conquering sin. Obedience does not mean perfection, but it does mean that Christians do not have to keep sinning and falling short. Besides, Christ lives in us and He is our perfection. We will never be perfect without Him and we cannot have any victory over sin without Him. The truth is that when we obey, even if it is only occasionally and our efforts seem feeble, because of Jesus we can hit the bull’s eye.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Affection for the hard-to-love?

I’ve heard Christians say, “I love that person, but I don’t like them.” They are talking about agape love, which is an act of the will, a love that seeks the best for another and often at a personal cost.

But this statement isn’t biblical. Christian love isn’t just about self-sacrifice (which could be done without emotion); it is also about affection. Many passages say something like the words in this one:
Be kindly affectionate to one another with brotherly love, in honor giving preference to one another. (Romans 12:10)
The word translated “brotherly love” in this verse is not agape but “philadelphia” which is the normal affection that any person can have for another person.

Actually, there are at least four Greek words for love and two of them are used in this verse. The highest form is agape, that self-sacrificial love involving a choice made to seek the best for another. This is the love that took Jesus to the cross, and the word used in verse 9, “Let love be without hypocrisy.” It is a special love that Christ gives me and expects from me.

The second word for love is philos. It has many forms including philadelphia which is in this verse. It means an “affectionate regard” for someone, and is often translated brotherly love.

A third word is philostorgos which means “family affection” and this one is also in this verse. It means to be “kindly affectionate” and refers to the family aspect of being a child of God. We love one another because we have the same Father and are spiritual brothers and sisters.

Another word, eros, is the root word for erotic. It is about that physical ardor and sexual emotion that many people think is the only kind of love. This word does not occur in the New Testament.

Even though the idea of being willing to sacrifice myself for someone I don’t really like is not a biblical idea, it happens. Some people are difficult to care about. Yet I’m seeing that God wants me to do more than choose agape; He wants me to feel affection.

Over the years, God has taught me some lessons about this. I’ve discovered that even the unlovable people I know have some characteristic or even a quirk that is endearing. For instance, one of my aunts was always hypercritical, but when she was finished raking someone (who was usually absent) over the coals, she would get this funny little grin out of the corner of her mouth. She almost looked embarrassed at what she was doing and this little smile seemed to soften her in some way.

This facial expression has become my endearing and enduring memory of her. I cannot remember the negatives, when I think of her, only that grin. Because of it I feel affection, even though she was not an easy person to care about.

I wonder if God does the same with me. I am a big pain at times, and even though I’m sure that His love for me is secure and eternal, I must stretch His affection.

However, Zephaniah 3:17 says, “The Lord your God in your midst, the Mighty One, will save; He will rejoice over you with gladness, He will quiet you with His love, He will rejoice over you with singing.”

The more I know Him, the more I realize that when He look at me He does not get annoyed at my quirks. Instead, He rejoices over me with singing. That sounds like affection. He might be “focusing on that which is endearing” but He also looks at me and sees Jesus.

I’ve lots to learn, both about love and affection!

Friday, July 10, 2009

Stuck on Him

The lyrics of an Elvis Presley song ran through my thoughts this morning, “I’m gonna stick like glue, stick because I’m stuck on you. . . .” That oldie came to mind when I read today’s devotional verse. It says:
Let love be without hypocrisy. Abhor what is evil. Cling to what is good. (Romans 12:9)
The reason for the song is that the word “cling” in this verse comes from kolla, a Greek word that means “glue.” It is also translated as “join (one’s) self” or “be joined” or “keep company.” It means to glue together, cement, or join firmly together.

In Presley’s song, the glue idea is obviously about the romantic feeling of a lover who always wants to be with the one he loves. In the Bible, this is about always wanting to be with things that are good, not evil. Such an association seems a given, but as I look at the world around me, a huge percentage of the population seems drawn to things other than what is good.

We went to a street performers festival last week. One of the performers asked the crowd to select one of three options. The choices were two feats of juggling and the third was described as “something almost illegal.” Knowing what they would pick was a no-brainer. Both adults and children cheered for the third option. No one wanted either of the other two choices.

Why the attraction of evil? God’s Word says it is rooted in our sin nature. As Job wrote, “For affliction does not come from the dust, nor does trouble spring from the ground; yet man is born to trouble, as the sparks fly upward.” (Job 5:6-7) We are born with the propensity to sin.

I know my own bent and my struggles of turning away from the bad stuff. I could say it is a curiosity but I know better. My sinful self is my problem when temptation comes and I find myself interested.

Jesus is my only hope of beating sin, but He expects me to cooperate in the battle. As His child and one who serves Him, He wants me to hate evil and be glued to everything good, right and worthy. Obviously, I need discernment in evaluating what to reject and what to cling to. This is stated clearly in another passage from the New Testament.
Test all things; hold fast what is good. Abstain from every form of evil. (1 Thessalonians 5:21-22)
I’m helped by Scripture which shows me the difference, but sometimes I’m stubborn and have to learn by experience. This is never a pleasant way to find out, but it happens. From these verses, an even better way seems to be selecting and focusing on the good things, being glued so tightly to them that there is no room in my life for evil.

Today I must remember the words of the Lord I’ve been hearing all week. My to-do list is long, yet I cannot let it get me riled and frustrated; that is not the way God works. Also, sacrificial love is more important than the list, so if a need arises I must be prepared to drop my agenda and follow the Lord’s leading, even if it means nothing on that list gets accomplished. At the same time, I need to be diligent in my work, not procrastinating and making excuses or keeping busy with other things that are not important.

God meets me in daily life. He asks me to hate evil and cling to Jesus who is the ultimate “good” in my life. As I do, He will show me each step to take and give me the joy of serving Him.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

The root of legalism

Many people, including Christians, prefer a list of rules for outward behavior rather than paying attention to the attitudes and motivations of the heart. It is easier to say, “No movies” than deal with an inner lust for watching sinful behavior (on screen or on television). It is easier to say, “Don’t beat my wife” than it is to deal with a seething anger that becomes a passive-aggressive neglect. It is easier to find some sort of determination to look good than it is to deal with a sinful heart. It is easier to be a hypocrite than go for the radical cure offered by Jesus Christ.

My devotions today are again about good and evil. God tells me that I must, “Test all things; hold fast what is good. Abstain from every form of evil” (1 Thessalonians 5:21-22).

The word for evil is the same as yesterday’s verses. It can mean anything from that which is purely wicked, to hard labor or fatigue that tests faith which is not at all the way God does His work.

However, these verses use a different word for good. Yesterday’s word, agathos, is about that which has a good constitution or nature, is useful and perhaps gives opportunity for learning from experience. It is about the pleasant, agreeable, joyful, happy, excellent, distinguished, upright, and honorable things of life.

This word is kalos and is also translated as good, but sometimes as“better” or “honest” or “meet” (fitting). It means beautiful, handsome, excellent, eminent, choice, surpassing, precious, useful, suitable, commendable, admirable. It is about being beautiful to look at, excellent in its nature and characteristics, and therefore well adapted to its ends. It describes that which is genuine, approved and precious. Sometimes it speaks of people and their position as in competent and able, or noble. Kalos means beautiful by reason of purity of heart and life, praiseworthy, morally good, noble and honorable. It refers to good things that affect the mind agreeably, or in a comforting and confirming way.

These descriptions remind me of the folks who think that God does not want anyone to have any fun. One young girl told me she was interested in Jesus but was afraid of church rules that told her she could not dance or go to movies. I tried to explain that following Christ was not about rules, but a changed heart. She didn’t understand.

A changed heart means hating evil, all kinds of evil. I abhor the obvious wicked actions like child molestation and stealing, but after my study yesterday, now know why I also hate getting in a flap and being stressed out by my work. God hates those things too. He wants me to choose good, both agathos and kalos with their slight differences in meaning.

Sometimes good is obvious, just like evil is obvious, but sometimes in the economy and wisdom of God, good is hidden behind frustrating and difficult experiences. These are occasions where God wants me to learn something and if I give in to evil (such as resentment, anger or complaining) I will miss that opportunity.

In contrast, no one can dabble with sin and avoid falling into it, but temptation is only the bait. The real problem is the human heart. If I am enticed by some sort of evil, simply staying away from temptation does not fix the gunk in my heart. God’s way of curing it is through confession, forgiveness and cleansing (1 John 1:9), but He also asks me to replace the enticement by pursuing good and clinging to it.

Of course I need to “delight in the law of the Lord” and “meditate on it day and night” (Psalm 1:2), but in fleeing my sinful desires, I also need to “pursue righteousness, faith, love, peace with those who call on the Lord out of a pure heart” (2 Timothy 2:22).

The heart is the issue, but the heart once cleansed needs to go after the good and avoid the evil. Sometimes I don’t like doing the godly thing, but instead of doing it when my heart is not in it (rules and hypocrisy), I need to confess the problem of my heart also, not just my actions. God wants to change me right at the core. Letting Him do that is often painful and always humbling, but it strikes at the root of legalism and solves the problem of hypocrisy which goes with it.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Evil has many faces . . .

If love has many definitions, so does evil. For some, evil is anything that threatens their comfort zone or their freedom to do whatever they please. Because of this, the definitions of both good and evil become confused. That is why Isaiah wrote, “Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil; who put darkness for light, and light for darkness; who put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter!” (Isaiah 5:20)

Biblically, evil also has many definitions, but it defines evil from God’s perspective, not our comfort. It shows that evil is anything that opposes or sets itself against God and the goodness of His character. Here are only a few verses about evil vs. good.

“Let love be without hypocrisy. Abhor what is evil. Cling to what is good” (Romans 12:9). God is always sincere, never pretending to be what He is not. I’m to hate hypocrisy and cling to sincerity.

“The fear of the Lord is to hate evil; pride and arrogance and the evil way and the perverse mouth I hate” (Proverbs 8:13). Like God, I am also to hate these things and instead cling to humility and a pure attitude.

“A perverse heart shall depart from me; I will know no evil” (Psalm 101:4). Perverse means froward, devious, contrary to what God wants. Like David who wrote this psalm, I must stay away from perverseness and instead have a pure heart that is free from evil.

However, the Greek word for evil surprises me. It is translated as “evil” 51 times, “wicked” 10 times, “wicked one” six times, “evil things” twice, and in miscellaneous ways seven times. Some of these usages show that the word is about wickedness and moral corruption, worthlessness, or having serious faults that make a thing without value. It can also refer to guilt as the result of sin, or jealousy, envy, stinginess, evil spirits, and crimes that are legally chargeable. It can also mean bad, of a bad nature or condition including the physical conditions of disease or blindness, but also the ethical sense of wickedness. In Matthew 6:13 where Christ says, “Deliver us from Evil,” the word is in the nominative case which usually denotes a title in Greek. Therefore, Christ is probably referring to Satan.

Here is the surprise part. This Greek word can mean “to be full of labors, annoyances, hardships; to be pressed and harassed by labors; to bring toil, annoyance and peril.” It can refer to a time of threat to my Christian faith and steadfastness, or anything that causes pain and trouble. Two of this word’s synonyms refer to the prominence or force related to the effort of work, and one of them refers to the resulting fatigue.

This makes me think. I know the Bible is not calling work evil, at least not the normal idea of work. What Scripture calls evil might be best seen by contrasting the above descriptions with the word used for “good.” This is agathos, a primary word mostly translated as good, and sometimes as “well” or “beneficial.” It is a descriptive word of things that have a good constitution or nature, are useful, salutary (give an opportunity for learning from experience), pleasant, agreeable, joyful, happy, excellent, distinguished, upright, and honorable.

There is a manner of doing work that is like that, a labor that might produce sweat, but it is good, not evil. However, there is another manner of doing work that is filled with anxiety and stress. It is fretful work that takes my mind off God. Instead of working in faith and with the joy that He gives, I am upset and pressured by doing it.

I cannot imagine God working in that second manner. He knows what He is doing and knows that He has the resources needed to do it. For Him, work is good and the result is good. He said so several times in the creation account in Genesis. He takes joy in what He does. He is not grumbling or impatient when the results are slow in coming. Work gives Him no harassment.

When I read the verse from Romans 12 about loving good and hating evil, I first thought, “Of course I hate evil,” but after taking a closer look, I realize my idea of evil was the obvious wicked stuff. After looking deeper, I now realize that being pressured and harassed by my to-do list is also part of what He commands me to abhor — because He calls that evil too. I need to do my work, but I need to cling to that which is good by tackling my list with God’s way of working, and abhor that attitude that makes good hard work an evil thing.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Love is more than a feeling

Love means different things to different people. The emotionally-driven say love is a feeling. Those who are volitionally determined say love is a choice. The intellectual will say love is a way of thinking. In some respects, all are correct, yet biblical love is more than that.

Everyone knows John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” In this verse, love is the Father giving the Son, and the Son giving His life. Love is giving all, giving sacrificially. It is not about what the lover wants, but what the object of that love needs.

This describes the heart of God, but the Bible is clear that God expects His people to love like that too. He says so in 1 John.
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. But whoever has this world’s goods, and sees his brother in need, and shuts up his heart from him, how does the love of God abide in him? My little children, let us not love in word or in tongue, but in deed and in truth. (1 John 3:16-18)
Love’s actions might seem to last only a short time, but the self-sacrificing motivation behind them is an abiding quality. Love is forever the way that God is, and for those who know Him, this love will also abide forever. Love is eternal and considered the greatest virtue. 1 Corinthians 13:13 says, “And now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love.”

No wonder love is first on the list of fruit produced in Christians by the Holy Spirit. It is out of love that the rest of these characteristics flow.
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Against such there is no law. And those who are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. (Galatians 5:22-24)
I notice again how this list shows that love and even the other qualities described have an element of sacrifice to them. In order to be filled with the Holy Spirit and have this fruit in my life, I need to crucify or put to death all my old fleshy and sinful desires. Love cannot abide with selfishness, greed, worry (a form of control), impatience and so on. For love to have a free rein, I must give up whatever I think is best and allow the Holy Spirit to fill me.

Filled with the Holy Spirit is my preferred place to be, yet it is also a commandment from Jesus Christ that I must obey. He says, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35).

In this command, Jesus reveals another important quality of love. It is the way people will know that I am a Christian. If I am selfish and cling to my own way, plans, things, stuff and whatever else is mine instead of willingly giving and sacrificing myself for others, then people have every right to question my claim to be a Christian. Jesus gave them that right.

Not only that, I should question my claim myself. 1 John 3:14 says, “We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love the brethren. He who does not love his brother abides in death.”

Like self-discipline, this kind of love can be developed and nurtured in small steps. How many times a day am I faced with an opportunity to insist on my way or to yield to the needs of others? It happens on the freeway, in shopping centers, when the phone rings, and even while I am making supper. God is making me increasingly aware that love is a choice.

He also shows me that it is a state of mind, a humility that accepts the idea that my way is not reliable and not to be leaned upon (as Proverbs 3:5 says). I need to think thoughts that promote the choice to love.

Love is also an emotion, howbeit a fickle one. I sometimes feel like loving/giving and sometimes feel the joy of it, but I cannot count on that. God’s reward for love cannot always be a deep sense of personal satisfaction or that warm fuzzy feeling either, or it would become self-centered.

Instead, the reward of love is knowing that I have obeyed Christ and pleased Him. Love shows others who I am, but more importantly, who He is and what He is like. Because He always loves me and because He gave Himself for me, I must consider love is, more than anything else, a practical thing, and then express it to others — for their sake and for His glory.

Monday, July 6, 2009

A small act of love

When I became a Christian, the first change I noticed in myself was a different attitude toward people, particularly other Christians. I felt drawn to them and cared about them. From that time on, even when we don’t see eye to eye on things, I still feel the same way. This is unlike what I was like before I knew Christ.

Since those early days I’ve realized that this is the mark of being a Christian. The Bible says if I claim to believe in Jesus but do not love others who make the same claim, then I would be mistaken about my so-called faith. This is because new life in Christ brings with it that same love Christ has for His people. No love = no Christ = no faith.
No one has seen God at any time. If we love one another, God abides in us, and His love has been perfected in us. By this we know that we abide in Him, and He in us, because He has given us of His Spirit. And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent the Son as Savior of the world. Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God. And we have known and believed the love that God has for us. God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God in him. (1 John 4:12-16)
I’ve often thought of myself as a fighter, not a lover. That is why love amazes me and I know it is a remarkable gift from the Holy Spirit. Sometimes He gives it in large doses for great needs, but often He helps me love others in smaller yet important events. This morning the phone rang before I had breakfast or was dressed. In my mind it had to be a salesman, but it was my brother. He inherited our dad’s sometimes annoying habit of calling early, when most people are just getting up.

However, I’ve been praying for some good Christian conversation. At the same time, I’ve been thinking how loving others can mean personal sacrifice. Before the call came, I had plans, but as soon as I heard his voice, I made the choice to give up my plans and talk as long as he wanted to talk. That could be risky, but for an hour, we talked mostly about what God is doing and what we are trusting Him to do. It was a great conversation.

Christian love is sometimes that easy. On other occasions it is more difficult, but as the above verses say, this love is available to us because we are trusting Jesus Christ as our Savior and Lord. He gives it to us because He has given us the Holy Spirit who produces that love in us, a love that self-sacrificing and so important. It binds Christians together, even when we don’t agree. It creates bonds stronger than kinship and more vital than personal plans.

Love is the most important thing. Jesus said, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:37-39).

My to-do list is now feeling the pinch, but my heart is blessed because God tested my ability to love (albeit a small test) and answered my prayer for fellowship at the same time.