Wednesday, September 30, 2009

A neighbor could be anyone

What a blessing to have good neighbors. When our oldest son came with a borrowed truck to take home a piece of furniture we gave him, the neighbors didn’t recognize him or the truck. They came over immediately to make sure we were not being robbed.

Other neighbors have shown hospitality, helped with various projects, and taken care of our houseplants and shoveled snow from our driveway when we were on vacation. We share grass in the front yard with the young couple next door. No matter how hard he tries my husband never gets there first to mow that grass.

Good neighbors are easy to love and as Paul repeats the words of the Law and of Jesus Christ, he makes sure that Bible readers know this is a command from God.

For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not bear false witness,” “You shall not covet,” and if there is any other commandment, are all summed up in this saying, namely, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no harm to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law. (Romans 13:9-10)
When Jesus told the Pharisees the same thing, one of them asked, “Who is my neighbor?” He might have been trying to evade the command because the Jews thought that anyone who is a Jew was a neighbor so this didn’t apply to non-Jewish people, even if they lived next door. However, Jesus didn’t let him get away with that idea. He told the story of the good Samaritan to illustrate that a neighbor is anyone that we encounter.

Actually, this is a good question. By looking up the Greek word for neighbor, I found that it is just that; someone near or close by. The use of this word never mentions that a neighbor lives next door, but that this could be anyone that comes across my path at any time. The issue really isn’t about identifying a neighbor anyway, but about my attitude toward other people. The Bible gives this instruction:

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. (Philippians 2:3-4)
I am diligently concerned with my own interests. I take care of my possessions, keep my household in order, feed my body, guard the use of my time and energy, and take care of my health. These verses say that I’m to give that same consideration to others, not with some sort of ulterior motive or thinking that I am above them and they need my help. Instead, I’m to be there for them because the humility and love of Christ are like that. Jesus didn’t have anything else in mind but my good when He gave up His life for me. That should be my attitude when I concern myself about the good of others.

I know that this is not natural. My sinful, fleshy state would think ‘me, myself, and I’ and not add anyone else to the equation. God knows that. This is why, along with hope of an eternal future, that His salvation also gives me the resources needed to obey His commands. He says,

Now hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us. (Romans 5:5)
The love of God is available, even poured out in my heart. I’ve no excuse to not care, or to not act in love whenever I encounter someone with a need. If God has given me the ability and resources to meet that need, it doesn’t matter if the person is a ‘good’ neighbor or a total stranger. I’m to look out for and love others, period.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The law says love, the prophets say love, Jesus says love

The Pharisees wanted an argument. They majored on the laws of the Old Testament and developed hundreds of other laws to protect those laws. They were strict. They told people that God commanded no work on the Sabbath, but defined that by saying no one could light a fire and Jesus could not heal the sick on the Sabbath. Their rules created burdens that people could not carry.

Jesus upset these lawmakers so they decided to trip Him by asking which is the greatest commandment in the law. His answer is well known. He basically said the first was to love God and the second to love others. Then He said this,

On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets. (Matthew 22:40)
Loving others can easily be seen to cover all the laws and commandments, but what about Jesus’ reference to the Prophets? How do they fit into this response?

Most commentaries say that Jesus meant simply that His two points about loving are covered by the entire Old Testament. The first part is historical and contains God’s commandments. The second half contains books of prophecies. The role of God’s prophets is a key concept.

Prophets are people to whom God revealed His will and gave the special charge of preaching that will to the people. They knew the commandments and the prophets cried out for obedience to those commandments. They did this with the same spirit that Jesus demonstrated, meaning obedience must be from the heart because God’s commands were not intended as rules regarding external behavior.

One of my commentaries puts it this way: Without love, “Obedience to commandments degenerates into mere legalism.” That is, if someone really loves God, they will pursue the welfare of others, regardless of race, class, or economic condition. This is the true meaning of a neighbor. Love is not a feeling but sacrificial action on behalf of someone else.

Both the Law and the Prophets called for the kind of love described in the New Testament but the people didn’t get it or refused to obey it. Instead, they turned it into a list of do’s and don’ts which became their foundation for pleasing God.

Jesus came and upset them again, just as the prophets had before Him. They didn’t want anyone telling them that they needed their hearts changed, so they rejected as they had done with the prophets before Him, then crucified Him.

Every day, people reject Jesus for the same reason. They will do good deeds and treat people as well as they can, but Jesus raises the bar. No one wants to be told by the Law, or the Prophets, or by Jesus Christ that they fall short and need a great transformation to attain the righteousness that pleases God.

The Bible is a large and complex book, yet this is the simplicity of it. God commands us to genuinely love Him and others from the heart. The Law gives the command, but also shows me that I fall short. The Prophets cry out and expose my need to love, but also my need to do it from the heart.

Into this scene walks Jesus Christ who offers me His love to covers my shortfall and His life that pours His love into me and through me, a love that pleases God. My part is being willing to receive Him and to pass on what He gives me.

This simple truth tripped up the Pharisees. They wanted a larger role in salvation and when Jesus presented the impossibility of them saving themselves, they went beyond turning their backs and walking away. As the prophet Isaiah said, “He was led as a lamb to the slaughter.”

However, God used that slaughter for our good. He said through Isaiah, “He shall see the labor of His soul, and be satisfied. By His knowledge My righteous Servant shall justify many, for He shall bear their iniquities.”

This is love, not that I loved God, but that He loved me and gave Himself for me.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Precisely!

Yesterday someone called, introducing himself as a “voice from the past.” Until he said his name, I had no idea who he was, and for a while during the conversation, had him confused with someone else.

After I got off the phone, I realized what I’d done (didn’t affect our conversation, thank God), and found myself thinking about my mother and her confusion and memory loss. She often forgot the name of things. Once she looked out the window at a field of hay bales and because she could not recall the proper term, she called it a “wonderful field of cattle.”

For me, forgetting who is who is alarming, but because I am a word person and love precise words, I would be extremely distressed should that kind of memory loss happen to me. How terrible to use dreaded words like thingamabob and doohickey instead of the correct terms!

Greek words are more precise than English words. I’m not a Greek scholar and know only a few words, but because I love precision and detail, I have and use a few wonderful resources that help me understand parts of the New Testament that otherwise confuse my thoughts.

On occasion, I do not trust the English translation. The translators may have different word connotations than I do, or they are not as concerned about precise meanings as I am. This happened when I read this verse:

Now the purpose of the commandment is love from a pure heart, from a good conscience, and from sincere faith . . .  (1 Timothy 1:5)
Paul writes instructions to Timothy who is a young pastor. A quick read of this verse apart from its context and I might assume that he is talking about the commandments from the Old Testament, even the Ten Commandments that most people understand. But he isn’t. The first part of this verse means the aim or goal of his previous instruction. He is not talking about ten commandments or Old Testament law, but about the doctrines of Christianity.

The purpose of the older laws, as explained in the New Testament, is to show us our sinfulness and inability to keep them. As Paul says, the Law is a tutor that brings us to Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by faith (Galatians 3:24).

Yesterday’s post described how loving others fulfils the other laws from the Old Testament, but this verse from 1 Timothy explains how a person is able to love others. Paul says love comes from the heart through heeding the New Testament instructions regarding a changed life. Only a person with a pure heart, good conscience, and sincere faith can love the way the Bible tells us to love.

That sincere faith is placed in Jesus Christ alone, for only He can save me from sin. Law-keeping cannot do it because I cannot keep the law. Any efforts to do so not only reveal my inadequacies and sin, but my pride. Jesus forgave my sin and lives in my heart. He is my justification. He does in me what I cannot do myself. To say or think otherwise is sheer vanity. Truly believing He is my Savior means my faith is sincere, without hypocrisy or pretense.

Because of Jesus, I can have a clear conscience too. Sin is forgiven, all sin for all time. If I sin, or more likely when I sin today, it has already been forgiven. All sin can do now is interfere with my day-to-day walk with Him. To keep that uninterrupted and intimate, New Testament instruction says:

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)
By doing this, my conscience can be kept clear. I don’t need to beat myself up every time I do something wrong. Only a proud person does that because in them is the idea that they should not make mistakes. Humility knows better, and the New Testament says so; I am a sinner.

When faith is sincere and my conscience is clear, then my heart is not muddied up with things like excuses, pretense, guilt, selfish motives, and whatever else would keep that genuine love of Christ bottled up inside instead of flowing out to others.

Jesus is in me. He will make Himself known. I just have to get out and stay out of His way.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Love covers a multitude of sins

Yesterday’s writers conference offered several opportunities to be jealous and feel sorry for myself by comparing my lot in life with others. Yet this time these temptations lost their appeal because those others are incredible people. I had to love them, and love drives away the negatives.

As many cliches as there are about love and how it makes the world go around, the most important saying is this: The key to obeying the law of God is love. But it must be biblically defined. Modern versions of what love means ruins this concept.

For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not bear false witness,” “You shall not covet,” and if there is any other commandment, are all summed up in this saying, namely, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no harm to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law. (Romans 13:9-10)
As my devotional reading says for today, when I love others, I will automatically obey the law. I will not commit adultery if I love someone. That’s because love doesn’t defile others or rob their purity — lust and selfishness do that.

Love not only excludes adultery, but also murder, stealing, lying, and jealousy. If I love someone, my love makes useless the command about killing. I don’t need to be reminded not to murder someone I love. I also will not lie to them. Lies are harmful and love does not hurt people.

If I love someone, I won’t steal from that person either. I don’t need to be told not to steal, nor do I need to be told not to envy them or want what they have for myself.

Love does not replace the laws of God. Those laws are literally written in stone. But love fulfills those laws because by love I can obey what God says. However, if I try to live by the ‘do not’s’ of the law, I wind up breaking it. There is no human will power strong enough to say no to every sinful desire.

That means being able to love depends on Jesus Christ. Because He lives in me, I have Him as my resource for love. He is the one who makes it possible to be faithful in marriage, content with what I have, truthful when I speak, and joyful when someone has what I do not have. Without Him, and without the power of love, I shudder because I know my sinful self and what I’m capable of doing to harm other people.

I’m thankful that God forgives my failings. My desire today is that He fills my heart with His Spirit and His love, and that He keeps me from temptation and delivers me from evil. I need His help to love others and to obey Him so that my life brings Him glory.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Love doesn’t always feel good

Much of the writing done by the Apostle Paul would not get past a copy editor. The content is absolutely wonderful, but his structure is difficult to understand, and his sentences are way too long.

Yesterday and today I’m at a writer’s conference and while the focus is seldom on grammar, just being there made me notice that the Scripture reading for today (verse 19) is part of a section with two sentences (8-12 and 14-19), each with more than 100 words! The latter one says,

For this reason I bow my knees to the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, from whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named, that He would grant you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with might through His Spirit in the inner man, that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the width and length and depth and height — to know the love of Christ which passes knowledge; that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. (Ephesians 3:14-19)
Regardless of his long sentences, Paul writes marvelous truth for those who belong to Jesus. This passage is at the heart of Christian living. It essentially says that knowing the love of Jesus and having His Spirit living within me is the only way to love others as God loves me. Unless I know the love of Christ, I cannot begin to comprehend how to love others.

The devotional reading has a list of ways to show the love of Christ. It includes things like mend a quarrel, call a friend you haven’t seen for a long time, tell someone you know well how much he or she means to you, express thanks to others throughout the day, and send a check to someone who has a need.

As I read it, I thought that I’ve done many of those things recently, but the odd thing is that I’ve had very little of the emotions a person expects to go with showing love. Instead, my mind was occupied with what God was telling me to do and with what the other person needed. This might be part of what Paul meant when he wrote, “to know the love of Christ which passes knowledge.”

I do understand that Christ loves me far more than I can comprehend. However, the nature of His love is not the same as my normal interpretation of love. Even though I say otherwise, I tend to think that if I am loving someone, I will have feelings regarding that person. Today I’m wondering if Christ had great feelings of affection for us when He was committing His greatest act of love? When He was dying on the cross, did He enjoy the emotions I associate with love? I don’t think so.

Exploring the topic of love always points me to believing that love really is action and a choice, not so much about emotions and feelings. If it were otherwise, I now realize how easy it is to slip into doing the actions of loving others because it makes me feel good. That gives those actions a selfish and unloving motivation which would make me unloving and a hypocrite.

This is helpful for me today. I’m with a group of people that are dear to me. I’m doing the right things, encouraging them, not focused on me, and as near as I can am obeying the Lord. However, I have no emotions and am even fighting negative emotions. I don’t want to be there. The temptation is to just leave and come home as I’m bombarded with thoughts like, “Why am I here?” related to “What’s in this for me?” along with counter thoughts such as, “This is not about you.”

Love is a sacrificial act. This is the first time God has asked me to sacrifice the ‘feel good’ part of loving others and just do it. I’m arguing with Him by thinking that love is produced by the Holy Spirit and He also produces joy. Where is the joy? And He says back to me that if the reason I’m willing to love others is simply for the joy I get out of it, then I’m being selfish and not loving others at all, at least not with the love of Christ.

Again, I hear God saying, “Suck it up, girl. This is not about you.”

Friday, September 25, 2009

Drawing from a deep well


The women’s ministry in our church has a ‘sister’ program. We are paired and develop a deeper relationship with one other woman. My ‘sister’ and I had lunch together yesterday. It was a delightful time of sharing, laughing, and enjoying one another’s company.

Christians have a great responsibility to love others. Yesterday was easy, but at times and with some people, this is a challenge. My devotional reading says we fulfill it by understanding our resource, the Holy Spirit. While that is true, I find that I must also deal with the part of me that doesn’t want to do it.

The New Testament is filled with commands to love one another. Jesus said that next to loving God with all our hearts, loving our neighbors is the second greatest commandment. When we do it, the results are wonderful. When we don’t, the consequences are often dire. Lack of love is avoidable.

Now that you have purified yourselves by obeying the truth so that you have sincere love for your brothers, love one another deeply, from the heart. For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God. (1 Peter 1:22-23)
Notice that Peter says I am to purify myself by obedience. Love is not a feeling, or at least might not start out that way. When I am with other people and God tells me things like, “Look out for the interest of others” and “love is not self-seeking” then my primary concern is to obey Him. The reason being is that there are people I don’t find all that interesting, and times when my own sense of need is strong. If loving others means being interested in them and not talking all the time about myself, then I’m going to struggle.

However, God says do it. Doing it is obedience. According to Peter, obedience purifies me. And if I am reading these verses correctly, and others like them, then when my heart is purified by obedience, the love of God will be there. It will be sincere and pour out of my heart, not with my feelings as the source, but with the Holy Spirit as the source.

Peter also adds mention of the new birth, regeneration, in ths context. God, through the power of His Word, has made me a new creation. He has put new life in me, and that life is imperishable and enduring, just as His Word is imperishable and enduring. I can love others in a sustaining and everlasting manner. I just have to get self out of the way.

Before meeting my ‘sister’ for lunch, I was thinking about myself. I’m very busy with my part of preparation for a writer’s conference. I’m teaching a distance learning course. My prayer list is long and some needs are heartbreaking. Also, my husband’s three month blood tests came by fax that morning. His white cell and lymph count (the ones to watch with CLL) are slowly rising, reminding us that we are all terminal. Some days I don’t want to be reminded.

Before I got out of my car in the parking lot, I asked the Lord to help me love my ‘sister’ in whatever way He wanted. He encouraged me to share some of those burdens in a way that was not focused on me. He also used her to encourage me, and gave me things to say that encouraged her. Neither one was self-centered — because God was in the middle of it.

Today, I’m praising Him. My devotional reading says, “Love given is inevitably returned.” For this I am thankful. The burdens are still there, but Christian shared love and fellowship make them seem a lot lighter because the reservoir of God’s love is inexhaustible.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

What shall I wear today?


Every morning I go into my closet and make a decision. What will I put on? Of course, the decision depends on the day. Will I be hoeing weeds? Do I have an appointment? Will friends be coming for supper?

This morning, God reminds me that I’ve another choice about what I will put on. In the following verses, the Greek word is literally ‘to sink or plunge into a garment.’ In other words, I’m to jump right in, not casually put them on, but do it with intention and enthusiasm.

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. (Colossians 3:12-14)
To obey these verses means making a conscious choice to be tenderly merciful, kind, humble, meek, patient, forgiving and loving toward others. That Greek word, to plunge in, might cause some to say that this means ‘falling in love’ but no one falls into the other virtues. Each one of them, including love, is a choice.

Because Christ lives in me, I can choose to be patient. I’ve noticed this time and again while driving in heavy traffic. If someone cuts me off, or won’t let me into the lane, or is going too slow or too fast, Christ offers me His attitude instead of mine — patience. The choice is easy because impatience changes nothing and only raises my blood pressure.

Being merciful and kind require the same choice. For many people, it is easier to become angry, or simply ignore those who need kindness, but a Christian can choose these virtues.

Humility is a bit tougher. I struggle with pride. I want to do well and make a good impression. I don’t want to look bad, but humility is not about putting myself down or looking bad. It is more about not thinking of me at all. This decision is more difficult, but not impossible. Because of Jesus, I can focus on others.

Choosing love is not impossible either. I can do that, particularly in the big things. If someone is hurting or in need, I can put aside ‘me’ and care for them. It’s the little things that reveal my propensity for selfishness. 


For instance, in my love is tested when my spouse puts the tea pot away in the wrong place and I search for ten minutes trying to find it. It is tested when the telephone rings and I am in the middle of something (as if I’m never in the middle of something). It is tested when I invite family and they are too busy to come.

Most of the time, making the choice to love (or not) is a habit. I’m thinking that the habit of selecting something to wear each morning could be a good reminder to select the virtues that I will also plunge myself into for the day. These verses have just become a poster to hang in my closet! 


Photo credit

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Hoarding is unnecessary

My strongest childhood influence regarding money was a thrifty father with Scottish blood in his veins and almost comical methods of making every penny count. Now I am being influenced by my heavenly Father who says that He will supply all my needs. If I believe Him, then when someone needs something that I have, I can give it to them because God will take care of me.

Sounds easy. It is not, and I am often tested. I tend to hang on rather than release, to use caution rather than slavish generosity. I want to help people, but old habits of being thrifty die hard.

Today’s verse is about love. The words used to describe God’s giving of it are important.

Now hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us. (Romans 5:5)
Those words “poured out in” are sometimes translated “shed abroad” but literally they say “poured forth” or even “poured through.” However it comes out in English, the love of God is made available, copiously diffused, a total overflow — so that I have more than enough to share with others.

Theoretically, this sets me free from any anxiety about being loved by others. I should not have to worry if I am honored, respected, considered, or cared about. In practice, the theory is good, but the learning is difficult, perhaps because the need is so basic.

However, this verse about love offers a principle that also applies to money, forgiveness, any good blessing from God. The question becomes, “Will I trust Him?” He says that He will meet all my needs. Do I believe Him?

That is so practical. Trusting God for all things sets the human heart free from anxiety. Jesus even said, “Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For after all these things the Gentiles seek. For your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you” (Matthew 6:31-33).

My part is trust. I’m also to set my sights on those things that are pertinent to the kingdom of God, such as spiritual maturity, behaving as a righteous person, thinking and talking like Jesus Christ. When I do seek those things, Jesus says that I can enjoy God’s provision for every other need, even to the point that whatever He gives, I can give it away because His supply is endless.

This promise from Matthew brings me back to the one in Romans. If I am seeking God’s righteousness, I will be seeking to be a loving person and guess what? He is the source of that too. No matter if my ‘love tank’ is low or a shelf is bare, trusting God means that neither will stay that way. If He sees that I need it, He will fill it, and if I see that someone else needs it, I can give it away knowing that God will fill it up again simply because He said He would.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Sorting socks

Yesterday, I was sorting and folding socks when a prayer came. “Lord, I’m doing this for You. It has always been for You.”

I smiled, remembering back more than thirty-five years ago. One day, I was feeling sorry for myself. The children were small, the farm house was large, and there was a lot of work on my shoulders. My husband worked away during the week and was exhausted when he came home. I did my chores without much recognition or motivation. During that time, the Lord taught me something simple: “Do it for me.”

I’m just getting into a very busy week. Yesterday’s spontaneous prayer and this morning’s devotional are timely reminders of the motivation that makes even ordinary tasks meaningful. The verse says:

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)
This verse is about ‘agape’ love, sacrificial actions that are for someone else’s well-being, particularly their eternal well-being, but it does extend to the little things, like folding socks.

However, behind the action is a motivation. On a human level, I could be motivated by my husband’s appreciation. Do other wives regularly hear, “Thank you for clean socks”? I do. Or I could do it for the satisfaction of a drawer filled with clean socks and another item checked off my to-do list. Or I could do it because I like to do laundry (not).

Those motivations are fine, but they come and go because those rewards come and go. Besides, they are all about me. Doing the socks and doing any other routine tasks for the Lord as an offering and a sacrifice (when I’d rather be doing other things) is permanent and lasting. He is always pleased with me and always smiles at the tiniest things.

My devotional reading defines love in action and gives Scripture to back up the definitions.  It says that love teaches the truth to others, and ministers to their needs, and sets an example by serving others and stimulating them to grow. Love covers other people’s faults and forgives. Love endures the problems and idiosyncrasies of others and sacrifices on their behalf. Love offers spiritual truth, help, and concern to those in need and is the heart of Christian living.

For me, agape love is all those things, but it is also like the love of Jesus who died for me. His motivation was doing what He did as “an offering and a sacrifice to God.” I am important to Him, but He did it to please and obey His Father.

With His help, I can love like He does. When I do, my focus and motivations are in Him and from Him. Because of that, He fills me with great joy and that Jesus kind of joy makes even folding socks a delightful thing.

Monday, September 21, 2009

What’s in it for me?

Someone made an appeal to us partly on the idea of “this is what is in it for you.” While the “product” has its merits, this sales tactic turns me off. As I said then, and feel strongly now, I have spent all my Christian life fighting that motivation. Looking for what I can get out of it, no matter how noble the project seems, makes it selfish.

Today’s verse is short and simple:

Owe no one anything except to love one another, for he who loves another has fulfilled the law. (Romans 13:8)
The Bible uses a Greek word for love with a definition far different from the modern uses of this word. When God says I’m to love others, that means doing what is the eternal best for them. This almost always involves total self-denial on my part. When I mix in “what’s in it for me” love becomes blurry.

This love is a priority for Christian fellowship and the credibility of our witness to the world. Jesus said, “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).  Paul added, “Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all, especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Galatians 6:10).

Christian love is a selfless love, often a challenge but not impossible because God gives me the Holy Spirit who enables a pure love. Peter put it this way, “Since you have purified your souls in obeying the truth through the Spirit in sincere love of the brethren, love one another fervently with a pure heart” (1 Peter 1:22).

Most of the time, loving others with the same Holy Spirit in their lives is relatively easy, but God does not stop there. Jesus also said:

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. (Matthew 5:43-45)
Every time I read that God reminds me that the love He wants demonstrated in my life is an impossibility because He uses the same Greek word for loving fellow believers as loving enemies. That tells me that I cannot do this myself. Just as I cannot love enemies, neither can I love anyone else without His input, His Spirit to produce this love in me. When He does that, then I’m not thinking about what I will get back.

The odd thing though is that this kind of love does gives back, not necessarily from the person loved, but from God. Rewards seem unlikely up front or going into a loving action, at least for me. I’ve more of a sense of losing, not gaining. It might be time, energy, or money, but love feels like a sacrifice too. Part of me resists and wants to protect myself and my resources and saying yes is difficult. However, once it is done, I am usually blessed in some way.

In contrast, human sales techniques promise specific results up front. They say if I give, then I will get . . . with the rewards spelled out. God doesn’t make such offers. He is my Lord and King. He commands obedience without any coercion about specific rewards that I will get out of it. He just asks that I be selfless and love others. He also tells me to trust Him; He will take care of my needs and wants.

This is faith. Giving up control of my wants in order to take care of someone else without any promise of what is in it for me requires trust. I must be certain that God knows what He is doing. I might not see any reward other than the satisfaction of obedience.

The bottom line is that rewards and results are up to God. More often than not, when I do what He says, He surprises me with unpredictable and unforeseen results, but I cannot obey Him with any assumptions other than He is God and knows what is best.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

It does not get easier

“That was my evil twin,” she explained. Other people would call it by different names, but when a normally pleasant person does something mean or unkind, the Bible calls this the action of our sinful flesh.

This term “flesh” is used in the New Testament to describe the sinful nature that is in the human heart, a dead thing (dead in the sense of being separated from God) that still tries to rule my life and the lives of all who believe. We are in good company; the apostle Paul fought the same battle.

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 7:22-25)
Sometimes Christians say this is a battle between the head and the heart. This assumes that what I think in my mind is the bad side and what I feel in my heart is from God, but Paul does not use those terms. He says that the mind is included in my new nature; the flesh is something else, a deeper thing than mere thoughts.

The best I can come up with is that the flesh is more about motivation. Am I doing this for me, to glorify and indulge me, or am I doing it at God’s bidding? Am I motivated by whatever looks good, feels good, strokes my pride, or am I motivated by the Holy Spirit?

Whatever the correct terms, Christians are in a battle. I am called to obey God and my new nature wants to do that, but the flesh has other ideas. As Paul said, thank God for Jesus Christ and for the Holy Spirit who is there to enable me to do the will of God.

Yet Paul does not sugar-coat this battle. He says in verse 23, “I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind.” He calls it correctly; this internal struggle is a war.

On one side is the sin principle, which is part of the human condition. Every Christian fights with it and knows the war between sinful desires and the other side, our new creation that delights in the law of God. Some say that the longer we fight the battle, the easier it will be to win. That may be true, but for me, yielding to the Holy Spirit seems to make the flesh more cunning and the temptations more subtle.

Paul offers advice about this war in many passages of the New Testament. The one that helps me the most is this:

Walk in the Spirit, and you shall not fulfill the lust of the flesh. For the flesh lusts against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; and these are contrary to one another, so that you do not do the things that you wish. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. (Galatians 5:16-18)
From it, I am aware of two things. One is that this conflict will happen. If there is no conflict, I would have to doubt that I am a Christian and wonder if I’ve given in to the flesh and not realized it.

The other is that the Holy Spirit frees me from trying to win this by adhering to laws and rules. Do this and don’t do that are not the way to win. Such weapons are from the flesh and making such choices are governed by my “I wants” and not the Holy Spirit.

Instead, I win when I follow the leading of the Holy Spirit. Sometimes His leading seems rational and clearly the best choice, but more often than not the flesh conflicts by arguing that God’s way cannot be the best, that my ideas are good, that doing what I want would produce more pleasing results, blah, blah, blah.

No, it really doesn’t get easier to win. Jesus fought and won for thirty-three years or so, yet in His last battle He sweat drops of blood as He resisted and said, “Not my will, but thine be done.”

But the battles are shorter. And when the Spirit wins and the flesh loses, the spoils are sweeter. I am more able to keep looking at Jesus. Remembering what He has done builds my desire to yield to the Spirit. As Paul said, I thank God for because He makes listening to the flesh less and less appealing.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

I have no excuses

Anyone with teenagers knows that merely telling someone to do something has no bearing on whether or not they will do it. I can hardly berate young people though, because I am no different. The speed signs declare the law about how fast I must go. Do I always obey them? Good health rules say that I should not overindulge in certain foods. Do I always obey those laws? My own conscience will even whisper, “Don’t” but I do.

God commands spiritual laws governing life and death. Disobedience means judgment and eternal separation from Him. Does anyone fully obey His laws? I know that I don’t.

God knows it too. He could rescind His laws, but that would make Him unrighteous. I don’t think much of our government when it goes easy on lawbreakers. How could I worship a God who simply patted violators on the head and told them to motor on?

However, if God didn’t do something drastic, His law would put everyone into eternal damnation because everyone sins. So, in grace and mercy, He figured out another way that is righteous and just, but also merciful to sinners.

For what the law could not do in that it was weak through the flesh, God did by sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, on account of sin: He condemned sin in the flesh, that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. (Romans 8:3-4)
These verses say that even though God’s law pronounces judgment on sin, this law cannot do anything about sin itself. It has no power to put sin to death in a person’s life, and even provokes sin.

Yet God accomplished what the law could not do by sending Jesus. He came in the likeness of sinful flesh in that He, as God, took on our human nature, a nature that was susceptible to temptation, but even as Jesus was tempted, He never gave in. He never sinned.

Jesus perfectly fulfilled the law, and because I believe in Jesus, I have gained the righteous standard of the law, not by keeping it, but because Christ lives in me. He is my righteousness. Not only that, because of Him, I am able to walk according to the Spirit.

This is so amazing that I need to restate it. The law of God has an odd effect on people, on me too. It seems to irritate and provoke my sinful nature into rebellion, just like many people step on the gas when they see speed limit signs. This is what it means to be weak in the flesh. My sinful nature is corrupt, and that tendency to want my own way is too strong to be influenced by mere commands, even by threats.

The amazing thing about Jesus coming is that He came only in the likeness of my sinful condition. He took my nature just as it is, compassed with infirmities and having nothing to distinguish Him as a human being from me or any other human being. What a delight to think that sin isn’t even a property of pure humanity. Jesus was perfectly human except that He was without sin. I don’t need sin to be human, and I cannot say “I’m only human” as an excuse.

To be restored to being “perfectly human” took an act of God who alone can remove sin. The law cannot do it; it only aggravates my sinfulness and shows me how deeply sinful I am. I’m also aware that sin is not from God and not what He originally intended in creating human beings.

God’s solution to my sinfulness is not excuses but substitution. Jesus died in my place for my sin, yet He also lives in my heart to attain the righteousness of the Law for me. As Chinese Christian Watchman Nee once said, “The Lawgiver on the throne has become the Lawkeeper in my heart.”

Walking in the Spirit is about the bent of one’s life, whether I’m moving in the direction of godliness or the other way. The flesh would have me in continual rebellion, but the Spirit can move me toward God in obedience.

Before Christ came into my life, sin was ever present and I had no choice. Now I do, and as I concluded once already this week, when I sin, I have no excuses.

Friday, September 18, 2009

I like being a cookie

When I was in Bible college, I observed that some of the young people seemed to be there against their will. Their parents delivered them to this school with the hope that the Bible college experience would mold them into upstanding citizens.

This idea of being stamped into a mold is behind the Greek words in the last phrase of today’s verse. It says,

But God be thanked that though you were slaves of sin, yet you obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine to which you were delivered. (Romans 6:17)
From this, my mind forms a picture of sinners moving in an assembly line toward Jesus. They go in bad and come out all looking the same, as if what Jesus does for them is like a giant cookie cutter turning out identical cookies.

However, that is not the right image. When Jesus Christ changes a person, they become more like Him, but we do not look or act the same as each other. Being a Christian does not mean losing your personality. It does mean losing your sin.

The author of my devotional reading explains how that works. When someone is stamped into the “Christian” mold, they are given “a heartfelt desire to obey God.”

This is not an “I should” or a “you must” kind of desire. While we can fall into obedience as a sense of duty, what God intends is obedience from the heart. Obedience becomes an appealing word.

Since Christ came into my life, obedience is my deepest desire. I want to obey God, not because I am afraid of Him, or afraid of hell, but because I love Him and trust Him. I know that He has delivered me from the power of sin, and even though I sometimes fall back under its influence, that deliverance is a wonderful thing. Obedience is a wonderful thing too. Through it, I learn the power and wisdom of God. He gives commands because He knows what is good for me.

Christians often say that every person obeys something or someone. The Bible says we obey either God or sin. We are not as free as we’d like to think. There is no middle ground. When I do what I want, that “doing my own thing” is sin. Isaiah 53:6 says that, “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned, every one, to his own way; and the Lord has laid on Him (Jesus Christ) the iniquity of us all.”

Romans 6 and other passages are black and white about this; I am either doing the will of God or obeying sin, but my mind is often shades of gray. I don’t always know what side of the fence I am standing on, or if what I am doing is from “my own way” or from the Holy Spirit. Sometimes the only way I can tell is by realizing that I have tipped over into sin and lost that love, peace, and patience that come from the Holy Spirit.

Part of the problem of these gray areas is that if I get too busy with self-examination, my motivations shift easily into self-absorption and then into self-indulgence, and that is sin.

Instead of looking at me, I’m to look at the Author and Finisher of my faith, the Lord Jesus Christ. Instead of being delighted in my own things, I am to delight myself in God. These may sound easy to some, difficult to others. All I know is that I have been delivered from slavery to sin and have a new Master and a new way to live. When I obey Him from the heart, life is incredible and my focus is not on me. I feel free, no longer in bondage.

But when I don’t obey Him, I’m back to obeying sin. I hate the shackles and feeling like a slave. The only positive about such failure and foolishness is that it humbles me and helps me remember all over again that I am not able, and sometimes not even willing, to save myself. Jesus is my Savior and as today’s verse says, God be thanked!

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Be like my Father

People have told me that I look like my mother. I’m okay with that, but I really hope someday someone will tell me that I am also a bit like my father.

My dad was a creative, open-hearted individual who worked hard and enjoyed leisure. He liked most people, but because of his strong work ethic, he had little patience with slackers. He loved to tease and be teased and was well-liked by all his friends.

I have another Father. Even before my earthly father passed away and left me an orphan, my heavenly Father adopted me as His child. He invites me to love Him, bring my problems to Him, and consider Him the source of all that I need. He even asks that I become like Him. Jesus described how to do that.

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. (Matthew 5:44-45)
As great as my own dad was, this is a higher standard. My heavenly Father actually wants me to want the very best for those who wish the worst on me. There is no room for dislike, saying bad things, or going beyond words to any type of vengeance, retaliation, or bad treatment toward anyone. Instead, I’m to want the best for all and be good to everyone, no exclusions.

I’m not sure if I have enemies. Whatever anyone does against me is not visible. However, the past couple of days I’ve come across those who hate or scorn Christianity, or Jesus Christ, or the lofty biblical principles that I believe. My response, at least in my heart, is not love. I feel animosity and even anger toward some of those people. Does that make them my enemies too?

Brethren, join in following my example, and note those who so walk, as you have us for a pattern. For many walk, of whom I have told you often, and now tell you even weeping, that they are the enemies of the cross of Christ: whose end is destruction, whose god is their belly, and whose glory is in their shame — who set their mind on earthly things. (Philippians 3:17-19)
These verses could justify thinking that I should hate those who hate Christ, but Paul talked about them with weeping! His heart reflected the heart of God who “demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. . . . For if when we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life” (Romans 5:8, 10).

Because of sin, every person is an enemy of God, yet God sent Jesus to die for every person. His heart is open to His enemies. This open heart is what He wants for me.

In Luke 6:35-36, Jesus says it again: “But love your enemies, do good, and lend, hoping for nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High. For He is kind to the unthankful and evil. Therefore be merciful, just as your Father also is merciful”

I’ve been unthankful, even without mercy, yet God demonstrated His love and mercy for me by making me His child and continues to show it by His great patience. Besides the example He sets, He gives me all that I need to think and act like Him. I have no excuses.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

No boasting

School yard team selection means someone has to be picked first and someone will be last. The child who is picked last assumes that no one likes him and feels shame and embarrassment.

But what if he was never picked at all? What if the one making the selections said that the team was complete and left the last child standing there, totally unwanted? I cannot imagine the pain of such rejection.

Today’s devotional reading is about the team selections that God makes. In Deuteronomy 7:7-8, Moses says this to the Jews:

The Lord did not set His love on you or choose you because you were more in number than any other people, for you were the least of all peoples; but because the Lord loves you, and because He would keep the oath which He swore to your fathers, the Lord has brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you from the house of bondage, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt.
This people group was small and insignificant as far as nations go. They had nothing of merit to offer God, but He picked them and called them His chosen people. He did not make His selection because of who they were — but because of who He is.

It is hard to live with that. I imagine the first one picked for the team on the playground. That child struts as he steps behind the team leader. His every move expresses pride in that he was picked. He might be a good athlete, or popular for other reasons, but whatever made him a first choice also causes his vanity levels to rise.

This happens to those who have no merit as well. After being chosen, the Jews eventually thought of themselves as special, even deserving to be God’s people, no matter how often God reminded them they were nothing, and even no matter how often they failed to live up to His standards.

It happens to Christians too. First of all, I know that I was not selected for God’s team because of any personal merit. The Bible says,

He (God) chose us in Him (Christ) before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before Him . . .  (Ephesians 1:4)
His choice was based on His own will and purpose. It had nothing to do with me. While I am thankful that I was chosen from before the foundations of the world and thankful that I didn’t have to merit such a choice, spiritual pride still creeps in.

How easy to think that God must have seen something special in me. Otherwise, why would He pick me over some others? This is bad theology. Not only that, pride is sinful. The sting of guilt when I lift my head above anyone else tells me so, as does the clear teaching of Scripture.

I was not saved so that I could be proud of myself. Ephesians 2:8-9 says, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.”

The only pride is Jesus. Paul mentioned boasting many times. He would boast about the godliness of other Christians, and even boast of what God was doing through his ministry, but he also wrote, “God forbid that I should boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (Galatians 6:14).

Pride in God is good, but pride in personal merit is foolish. Even though God picked me, I need to watch out for pridefully thinking that I had anything to do with His choice. James 4:16 says it straight, “But now you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil.”

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

I’ve been drafted

Becoming a Christian is something like being drafted or conscripted into the army. Probably the biggest difference is that God’s army has no draft dodgers.

Instead of drafted or conscripted, the Bible uses the term “called” for those God draws to Himself. While human choice plays a part, I’ve known people who were “called” and responded without much choice in the matter. One of them told me that when God called her to move to the front of the tent and receive Christ (it happened in a church camp), she resisted so much that she grabbed the chair in front of her and almost tipped the man off who sat on it. She had no intention of going, but the call was stronger than her resistance.

The words “called” and “calling” are used throughout the New Testament. One of them is in the verse that guides my life:

And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose. (Romans 8:28)
“The called” are those who have experienced the sovereign, regenerating work of God in their hearts and been brought to new life in Christ. Without this, no one can rightly call themselves a Christian. As verse 29 says, each believer is chosen and redeemed by God and securely predestined as His children. The goal for a called person is to be conformed to the image of Jesus Christ.

My faith is essential to that calling, but God had to initiate the process. His calling preceded my choice, but also made that choice possible and effective. John 6:65 says that, “No one can come to Me [Christ] unless it has been granted to him by My Father.”

This call happened once. I am now in God’s army. However, it also continues. I am aware of Him calling me every day. He motivates me to “press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:14). This does not mean that I work toward being His child, but like a drafted soldier, I am daily called to learn better ways of acting like one.

My current challenge is listening. I’m like a soldier who takes orders only from his superior officer and do only as my Lord commands me. Yet I also realize that calling is not about careers or occupations. As a well-known fiction writer once said, my calling is not about what I choose to do with my life, but that I love God and take orders from Him. She said, “Today you might be called to write, but tomorrow He may ask you to do something else.

A soldier is a soldier, but a Christian can be asked to wear many hats. Not only that, learning to listen to Jesus is also unlike the experience of a soldier. He hears the loud barking orders of his sergeant, but the Lord speaks softly and gives gentle nudges. He does not insist that I jump when He shouts. Instead, if I refuse His prompting, He stands back and lets me find out by the consequences that I should have listened.

Monday, September 14, 2009

I thought that I loved God . . .

“If you love me, you would . . . ” How would I fill in the blanks? Maybe I would say, “If you love me, you would care about the things I care about” or “You would listen to what I say” or “You would pay attention to my needs.”

What would God say? How does He ask me to express my love for Him? Jesus told His disciples, “If you love me, keep my commandments” (John 14:15), but I know that I can do that out of duty, or to impress others, not necessarily because I love God.

Paul wrote a lengthy description of love in 1 Corinthians 13, mostly saying what love is not. Part of that passage says,

Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. (1 Corinthians 13:4-7)
I try to apply that to loving God and most of it seems more suitable to loving people, not that this excludes God, but do I need to be told not to be envious of Him? Or rude toward Him? Or to think no evil of Him?

My devotional reading offers another passage about loving God. At first glance, it seems to apply more to loving people. I also notice that these verses put more emphasis on intellect and integrity than emotions. 

And this I pray, that your love may abound still more and more in knowledge and all discernment, that you may approve the things that are excellent, that you may be sincere and without offense till the day of Christ, being filled with the fruits of righteousness which are by Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God. (Philippians 1:9-11)
The love described here is based on what I know about God. It is discerning and perceptive rather than grounded in feelings or enthusiasm. It is sincere and never has to pretend, but also flows out of a non-offensive life. That is, if I love God, I will be obeying Him, but the last part of the passage shows that this is more than duty or obligation.

The obedience that Jesus calls for in John 14:15 is one that flows out of a life that is filled with the Holy Spirit. When I am filled with Him (instead of myself), then what I do will be characterized by His fruit: “love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23)

Because none of these things come from me but from Jesus Christ, they glorify God. That means that love for God will demonstrate far more concern for His glory than my own interests. What He is and what He wants should be at the center of the way I think, what I talk about, and how I live.

I started out writing this thinking that I love God, but as I put down the last few words, I realize that I fall short often and in many ways. I have some confessing to do.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

First things first

Jonathon Edwards says that God is most glorified when His people are most delighted in Him. The theology behind this is that God alone is worthy of our greatest delight. He knows it, and when we know it, we cannot help but obey the greatest commandment.

This commandment is repeated throughout Scripture. In the New Testament, Jesus was approached by a scribe who wanted to know which commandment was the most important. In those days, they decided that the laws God had given needed to be “protected” from misinterpretation and abuse, so they wrote hundreds of other laws. This scribe may have been confused by all that, or perhaps he was trying to stump Jesus. Regardless of his motives, Jesus answered with this:

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. This is the first commandment. (Mark 12:30)
I’m trying to picture what that kind of love looks like. We use ‘love’ for other desires and even inanimate objects. People ‘love’ pizza and roses and new lawn furniture, but this isn’t about that kind of love. It is about a relationship, an affection of the soul.

Other words are used to express feelings for God, such as fear. This is appropriate (in the sense of awe and respect) but this emotional response has limits and puts me somewhat at a distance from Him.

Trust, hope, and other words also express what goes on in my heart when I am rightly related to God, yet there is some sense of self associated with these words. By hoping in Him and trusting Him, I am thinking also of my own well-being. If that becomes my only reason for trusting God, then it is quite selfish.

But love is not like that. This word covers every other emotion and response. It carries a sense of being spontaneous in wanting to please God. Love for Him motivates loyalty and obedience. It is a personal word. It is about loving someone else and is the most unselfish of all affections. When people are ‘in love’ they focus on the one they love, thinking of little else. This other person occupies their minds and most of their energy. Love for God should be like that, only more so.

When parents love a child, they will sacrifice time, energy, and resources to do what they think best for that child. They will protect and guard them, adore them and even when the child needs discipline, that love remains deep in their hearts. Love for God is like that too, even though God is the one who disciplines and protects.

Jesus used various words to describe how I should love God with all my powers. It should be a sincere love, fervent and intense, intelligent and not blind or ignorant of Him, and energetic. That is, I should love Him with all my ability and with the whole energy of my being.

As I think about this, I realize that even loving God can turn into a selfish motive. When I am loving God, I cannot be fearful, hateful, joyless, or harsh. Love puts me in a pleasant and pleasing state. I am nicer to be around, fully interested in spiritual matters, but also in the lives of others (for that is what the love of God is like). Frankly put, all of that feels good.

But here is the rub. As soon as I turn my focus from loving God with all that I am to thinking more about how that feels, I have stopped giving Him all my affections. To love God excludes this self-focus. This fits totally with Jesus’ words about the way being narrow. It does not take much to fall away from obedience to this first and greatest commandment. When I take my eyes off Him and put them on myself, for whatever reason, I have stepped off that narrow way.

Today I’m nervous about beginning to teach again at Family Bible School in our church. My attention has been on all sorts of ‘what ifs’ and all sorts of fears. When I asked God to speak to me this morning, He gave me this verse and plainly puts these thoughts in my mind: “This is not about you. Turn your attention and affection where it belongs. You cannot obey the command to love others, teach or do anything well unless you first love Me with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. Do it. I will help you.”

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Where is God when people suffer?

One of the big questions asks, “If there is a God, why does He allow suffering?” As a very young person, I watched a television show where one of the panelists constantly asked this question. I knew that he had the wrong idea, but was at a loss to explain why.

No doubt carefully reasoned answers will never satisfy those who ask this question, not because the answers are faulty, but because the one who asks begins with an ‘if’ or some other phrase revealing that they do not know God or what He is like.

I’ve wondered if these same skeptics also wrestle with sin and human responsibility for suffering, or do they blame God for this tool? I suppose He could stop people from doing things that cause suffering, but would that mean everyone must die? Perhaps a better question could be addressed to people. It would be, “If you care about those who suffer, why do you let it happen?”

God created a world that He called “very good” but soon after creation, human beings choose to disobey God and sin entered our very good world. Every human heart since then has this propensity to disobey God. We do our own thing, and in the process, suffering happens. To remove suffering, God has to remove sin.

The great good news of the Gospel is that Jesus Christ paid our penalty for sin and when invited, will come and live in our hearts. He changes people and gives those who believe in Him an ability to say no to sin and yes to Him.

That doesn’t mean that we always make the right choices, and besides that, those who do not believe in Jesus continue to choose whatever pleases them. Therefore, even with the possibility of having personal sin removed, sin still ruins our world. Until Jesus returns, until God restores and creates a new heaven and a new earth, suffering will be part of it. This is not God’s fault; it is ours.

Suffering’s source is often from the common pain, hardship, disease, and conflict in the world, all the results of sin’s corruption, but suffering can also be from my own particular foolishness and disobedience. Yet I am glad for that kind of suffering. I could not love and bless a God who let me sin without consequences.

The amazing thing is that those consequences do not stump God. His grace can turn all suffering into a powerful agent for good and for change. Suffering can teach lessons; when I burn my fingers, I learn to not touch the hot stove. Suffering can produce compassion; I loved my mother even more when she struggled with Alzheimer’s. Suffering can humble a proud heart; making mistakes that cause pain have knocked much arrogance out of my life. I agree with Paul who wrote:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort those who are in any trouble, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. (2 Corinthians 1:3-4)
Even though God uses suffering as a means to discipline and teach me, He also uses it to show me His great compassion and comfort. He draws me closer to Him and encourages me of His love and care. In suffering, I learn and experience a greater depth of the amazing grace of God.

Not only that, He does it so I might be like He is for others who suffer. Suffering in itself is not a good thing, but God, who uses all things for the good of those who love Him (Romans 8:28-29), uses suffering to bless His people in a way that the “good life” could never offer.

Those who doubt God existence or that He is good because of suffering have missed the entire point. The grace of God can be found in our human predicaments, but only if we drop that priority of ‘me first’ that puts personal comfort at the top of the list.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Can evil be good?

When Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery, they thought only of themselves and how angry this upstart made them with his dreams and visions of his own future glory. They didn’t think of the anguish it would cause their father Jacob over the loss of his favored son. They didn’t think of his mother who would certainly grieve the rest of her days. They were totally selfish in their actions, and God calls that selfishness evil.

They had no idea of the power of God either. In an outcome that surprised them all, God used Joseph. He put him into a place of power in Egypt, and when famine came and people were dying for lack of food, Joseph was the one who saved his entire family.

When the brothers realized that this Egyptian leader was their brother, they were terrified. They knew he could destroy them. Yet the power of God had also transformed Joseph’s life. Instead of an arrogant revenge, Joseph offered forgiveness and compassion. He said to them, 

But as for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, in order to bring it about as it is this day, to save many people alive. (Genesis 50:20)
Today’s world is filled with unfair and evil actions and reactions. Christians are not in a bubble; these things affect us too. Sometimes members of the body of Christ, in a reversion to being governed by that old nature, commit some of those evil things. We hurt one another and the people around us with our disobedience and selfishness.

In my heart I know that I cannot do good without the power of God enabling me. The Holy Spirit is the source of godly attitudes and actions. The fruit of the Spirit includes love, patience, gentleness and self-control. Without Him, I’m as selfish as Joseph’s brothers.

But when I sin, I cannot say that the Spirit left me and I could not help what I did. This is a mystery. My Christian life depends on God, but it also involves the choices that I make. At times I’ve felt helpless to make the right decisions and unable to depend on the God that I love, but I still cannot blame Him if I act in helplessness and wind up doing something foolish.

Nor can I claim that it doesn’t matter, that God can still use my sin for good. He does use my mistakes to teach me lessons, but going into sin and committing with that presumptuous attitude will result in the most difficult lessons of all.

James 4:17 winds up a section on the folly of assuming that God will bless me even when I do whatever I please with these words, “Therefore, to him who knows to do good and does not do it, to him it is sin.”

Evil is never good. The wages or the result of sin is always death. It may be physical (should I persist), but it certainly will be a separation or loss of some kind. Because of God’s promises to “save to the uttermost” I will come out of it, hopefully wiser and more humble, but I will miss any rewards that might have been mine had I obeyed Him in the first place, and the people around me will also miss out on those benefits.

No one can rewrite history. I cannot ‘what if’ regarding Joseph and his brothers. God could have used another way to rescue them from the famine, but the story stands. The brothers didn’t make much of a mark, but Joseph, who obeyed God throughout his ordeal became one of the Old Testament heros, an example of what God can do when others abuse one of His children.

Joseph is an example for me of what to do when life seems unfair. I can trust God with everything, even to use evil for good. However, I cannot ever say that evil is good. Only God can pull His good purposes out of it, and He makes all the decisions of what and how to do it.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

A good reason to get out more

Introverts find increased strength in being alone; extroverts are energized by being with people. Sometimes I am both, but for the most part I like being by myself.

Perhaps this is a learned preference. Childhood illness forced long hours alone as I worked on school lessons by correspondence (grades three through six) and amused myself in other ways. We lived on a farm and although my parents were nearby, they had many other things to do, so I learned to be content without a lot of attention.

This morning as I read these verses, I wondered how introverts can better obey what they say.

And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching. (Hebrews 10:24-25)
Obviously, God wants His children to minister to one another, but the author of Hebrews uses an interesting word. In English, consider is thinking carefully about something. In Greek, the emphasis is on a careful diligence to do so.

The attitude of Christians toward each other is an important aspect of our faith, both in belief and practice. God says we are members of His body, and every part depends on the other parts. What I do or do not do, how I feel and talk, all have an effect on the entire body.

This is why Paul opened his letter to the Roman believers by telling them he was eager to visit them not only to minister to them, but to be ministered to by them. “ . . . that I may be encouraged together with you by the mutual faith both of you and me” (Romans 1:12).

As an introvert, I do give a lot of thought to other Christians. Some of that translates into prayer. When one of them tells me about themselves, I remember it and pray for them regarding whatever it was. When we are together on Sunday at church or at other events, my mind is usually occupied by what I see and hear regarding their needs and lives so I can pray for them.

As good as it is to be a person of prayer, this activity tends to encourage my preference to be alone, while the verses from Hebrews challenge it. To really encourage others to do good works certainly requires prayer, yet being face-to-face plays an important role.

This is both easy and difficult. Weeks ago our pastor singled out a young woman during his sermon and called her a woman of virtue (can’t recall the exact words). Afterwards, I bumped into her in the foyer and told her that I already thought that about her. She was touched and threw her arms around me with a thank-you hug. That was easy.

In another situation, another woman was tipped over and spent weeks continually talking about herself and her own needs. After considering her and what was going on in her life, and praying for weeks about her, God motivated me to say something about the perils of such a self-focus. I did, and after a long conversation, she realized that she would never grow if she stayed on her current path. She began considering others and her life began to change. That was difficult.

For me, it is easier to pray in my closet than get out there in places where I might have to “stir up love and good works” yet as my devotional reading says, as a follower of Christ I should feel both an obligation and a joy to encourage other believers.

Besides the fact that being alone makes the battle with selfishness more intense, considering others stirs every believer to be more like Jesus. When every part is growing, together the whole body of Christ becomes a truer and more intense reflection of His glory.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Guard the Cup

Being filled with the Holy Spirit can be compared to a cup being filled with water. As long as the cup remains upright, it fills, then overflows and the water spills all over anything around it. But if the cup tips, then the water cannot enter it and overflow until it is standing up again.

Every time I sin, my cup tips over. When I confess my sin, I am upright again and can receive the living water. I was told by the person who offered this illustration that this tipping/upright cycle will be the repeating process throughout life; the best I can aim for is not staying tipped over for very long.

When I read the verse in my devotional book this morning, I remembered my ‘stinkin’ thinkin’ of the past few days and how impossible it seemed to get rid of that bad attitude. Try as I might, godly thoughts eluded me. My cup was tipped over and the source of all goodness could not be poured in.
Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy — meditate on these things. (Philippians 4:8)
Even a cursory examination of the things that I think about makes it clear that obedience to this command is possible only through the filling of the Holy Spirit. I cannot do it without Him. When I am tipped over, regardless of the reason, the Liar is easily able to dupe me with anything but the truth. His thoughts might have an element of reality to them, but they certainly are not noble or just or pure or lovely.

But when my cup is right side up, I wake up singing praises. Good thoughts are easy and natural. I’m thankful for the very things I grumbled about when I was tipped over, and see the good and lovely side of things that seemed to elude me only a short time prior.

Proverbs 4:23 says, “Keep (or guard) your heart with all diligence, for out of it spring the issues of life.” When good thinking is poured in by the Holy Spirit and my heart is full of the fruit of His thoughts, then whatever I am doing also becomes true, noble, just, pure, even lovely, virtuous and praiseworthy. My life is far more apt to receive a good report from others and certainly from God. I am far more pleased with it too.

God is good. He wants His people to enjoy goodness, even in our minds. He gives the Holy Spirit so that we might obey Him with joy. Sin really doesn’t make any sense, at least it doesn’t to a cup that is right side up.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Just ducky

In a rerun of NCIS, “Ducky” the medical examiner is angry because one of his peers made the wrong call. A man had been murdered but the other doctor missed it and the body wound up as a “donation” to science. He stormed to the other doctor’s office only to find out that the doctor was not only overloaded with work, but also a woman, and a very pretty one besides. His demeanor softened, his heart melted, and the planned chewing-out did not happen.

Ducky’s change of heart amused me, yet it popped to mind this morning as something like God’s compassion when I miss the target. After struggling all weekend and failing many times to have a godly attitude, I expected a chewing-out this morning. Instead, this is what the Word of God says to me —
Through the Lord’s mercies we are not consumed, because His compassions fail not. They are new every morning; great is Your faithfulness. (Lamentations 3:22-23)
Last week listening to the radio, I heard a pastor say that each day is like a new start. We tend to beat ourselves up for our failures, yet God is not into that. He sees my follies and knows my weaknesses; I am a sinful human being. Yet instead of focusing on that, in great mercy and compassion He looks at me and sees Jesus Christ. He hears the confessions in my heart and His demeanor softens. The expected chewing-out does not happen.

My devotional guide reminds me that the goodness of God’s faithfulness to believers is apparent, because even when we are unfaithful to Him, He remains faithful to us. The fact is, if I could save myself, I would. But then I would not know the marvel of such mercy, such undeserved grace and kindness.

Micah knew it too. He said, “Who is a God like You, pardoning iniquity and passing over the transgression of the remnant of His heritage? He does not retain His anger forever, because He delights in mercy” (Micah 7:18).

Scripture invites me to bring my needy self to Him. The psalmist penned these hopeful words from God, “He shall call upon Me, and I will answer him; I will be with him in trouble; I will deliver him and honor him” (Psalm 91:15).

Today, I had not yet called, but He is still with me. His deliverance is not a swift boot (in my mind appropriate), but a gentle mercy, a kindness and my reaction to it shows me how much better God knows me than I know myself. When He looked at me today, I thought He would have correction in mind. Yet (similar to Ducky), He saw something else. Instead of sinful me, He saw the blood of His Son and heard His intercession on my behalf. Because of Jesus, God meets me with mercy, kindness, and compassion.

There are other similarities between this and the NCIS story, but the main one is that the person who made the error was forgiven. The difference is that she didn’t realize she had made a mistake so her gratitude at not being chewed-out was minimal. On the other hand, I am well aware that I have not behaved as I should, and this response from God simply melts my heart.

Monday, September 7, 2009

My rebellious heart

I’ve sympathy with those I’ve told to obey God even when His commands seem difficult or do not make sense. Occasionally I get a taste of my own medicine. Now He is asking me to do something that does not sit well and I am digging in my heels.

His timing is totally amazing. I’ve realized that He can orchestrate my life to put me into a place of listening because He knows the verses selected for each day from the book I am reading. He knows how to bring out whatever part of me needs to hear these words —
This also comes from the Lord of hosts, Who is wonderful in counsel and excellent in guidance. (Isaiah 28:29)
Digging in my heels over anything regarding God is total folly. He is the Lord of hosts, which suggests that hosts have discovered the wonders of His counsel and the delight of following His excellent instructions. And I’m going to be the one person versus hosts that will prove God is wrong? Who do I think I am?

When I pray for others, I often ask God to give them wisdom and understanding that they might know what to do. I already know what to do, so I don’t need these prayers; I need a willing heart. Yet as I read them again, maybe I do need exactly what they say.

The apostle Paul asked God to grant to believers in Ephesus and everywhere “the spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of Him” (Ephesians 1:17). He expressed similar sentiments in his letter to the Colossians. “We . . . do not cease to pray for you, and to ask that you may be filled with the knowledge of His will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding” (Colossians 1:9).

In these prayers, Paul isn’t talking about knowing God’s will, but knowing God. Merely knowing what He wants isn’t enough, as I am finding out. It boils down to a simple question; who do I trust? Is it myself and my limited understanding? Or is it God who knows everything? Is it me, blinded by my I wants? Or is it God who sees when I am blind?

These are silly questions now I’ve written them in black and white and while I still don’t feel like doing what He asks, I’ve now run out of excuses.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

I’m thankful God is slow

When I hear people cussing and taking the Lord’s name in vain, I sometimes wonder why He doesn’t send a bolt of lightning and strike them dead, but after yesterday I’m glad that He does not do that.

I was grouchy all day, not swearing but with the crabby attitude that goes with it. It was raining, so my husband’s golf game was cancelled and my plans were changed. Instead of a long time in prayer, we rushed out the door and my attitude headed downhill. I need that prayer time, but instead of taking it later, I managed only a few snatches of confession later on when I finally got fed up with myself.

Today’s verses are about the patience of God and His attitude toward His enemies. After reading them, I am glad. Even though I act like a spoiled and selfish brat now and then, I am still His child and not His adversary.
God is jealous, and the Lord avenges; the Lord avenges and is furious. The Lord will take vengeance on His adversaries, and He reserves wrath for His enemies; the Lord is slow to anger and great in power, and will not at all acquit the wicked. (Nahum 1:2-3)
See the part in the middle? He is slow to anger. A memory verse comes to mind. “The Lord, the Lord God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abounding in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, by no means clearing the guilty. . . .” (Exodus 34:6-7).

God’s wrath on sin is certain. He demonstrated His attitude toward sin when He sent His only Son to the cross to die for it. Every sin that I ever committed or ever will commit has been laid on Jesus and the penalty paid. I have accepted that great act of God for my salvation and the forgiveness made available by His sacrifice is mine. Yesterday’s bad attitudes are forgiven (even though I’m still annoyed with myself).

For those who say “no” to Jesus, there remains no sacrifice for sin. Their guilt is by no means cleared. He will avenge His adversaries and the wrath that has been reserved will be poured out. God has the power to deal with all who reject His offer of salvation and eternal life. If they do not want their sin forgiven, it won’t be, but God is slow and the Bible explains why.
The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance. (2 Peter 3:9)
God is not willing to send a bolt of lightning. Rather than punish sin, which He has every right to do, He wants repentance, a turning from sin to Him. He even helps me do that. His question to me this morning is,
Do you despise the riches of His goodness, forbearance, and longsuffering, not knowing that the goodness of God leads you to repentance? (Romans 2:4)
Despite the crabby attitude and unthankful spirit of yesterday, I consider His goodness precious and am particularly thankful that He is forbearing and longsuffering. I’m also glad that this morning’s rain has no thunder and lightning with it.