Saturday, October 31, 2009

No Worries, Father is here

Several factors in modern life contribute to children having bio fathers, or step fathers, or not knowing a father at all. I’ve had several Christians tell me that trusting God as heavenly Father has been difficult for them because of treatment by their earthly father.

This might be one reason Jesus said, “Do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven” (Matthew 23:9), yet I’m thinking this has more to do with creation. The term “father” is often used in the Bible, but always for the man who created the child, or, in this case, the God who created us all.

After James writes about the deception of sin and offers the understanding that all goodness in life comes from God, my Father. He says,
 
Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow of turning. (James 1:17)
The term, “Father of lights” was an old Jewish reference to God as Creator. He made the sun, moon, and stars so is known as the Father of lights.

James uses this as a comparison. The celestial bodies from our vantage point do change. The sun, moon, and stars move, disappear, vary in shape and intensity, and the light they shed comes and goes.

God is not like that. He never changes. In Him there is no variation. He does not change from one condition to another or move like shadows do during the course of a day. His glory, goodness, and truth never change. His grace always shines.

First John 1:5 says, “God is light and in Him is no darkness at all.” Malachi 3:6 says, “I am the Lord, I do not change.”

Earthly fathers change. So does everything else in this world. Creation appears and decays. People are born and die. My moods change continually, as does my thinking and behavior. But God’s love and mercy never change or cease. His goodness does not vary and His desire to bless us is constant and everlasting.

Because everything changes but God, I know that Jesus Christ is God. The Bible says of Him, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Hebrews 13:8). 

All this is practical. I cannot rely on things that shift and change, especially because I don’t know what they will do next. But God tells me His plans and purposes. They are in His Word. He affirms His love over and over, with the most concrete evidence displayed at Calvary. Jesus died for me because God loved me that much!

Because God does not change, I can rely on Him as my heavenly Father. He will not abuse me. He will never abandon me. He has my eternal best interests at heart and He will take care of me as I call out to Him.

I can also rely on God the Son, Jesus Christ. He promised to never leave or forsake me. He lived a sinless life and offered that life to me. I can tap into Him, abide in Him, and never worry about being alone or being in want, for He Himself has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5).

I am secure because my Father does not change.


Painting: "Contentment" by Marion Coltman

Friday, October 30, 2009

Pretense or Pride — which is worse?

Speaking of humility, I recently told a talented woman that she was very gifted. She replied, “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow of turning” (James 1:17).

This is the verse in today’s devotional reading, and by saying that verse, this woman revealed an even greater gift; she knows that God is the source of all good things, so much so that she turns what could be an ego-boosting complement into praise.

All that God does is good. From our limited perspective, we wonder at times about events in our lives, but He is working out His perfect plan. He is also generous and gives perfect grace to His people. He cannot sin. There is no evil in Him.

Yesterday was a day of grace. I’d struggled all week with a long list of responsibilities, some with deadlines and others that were stressing me because they needed to be done and I just could not seem to finish them. However, God blessed my efforts big time yesterday. It seemed that the clock stood still and interruptions were held at bay. Now three major items have check marks beside them. By suppertime, I was excited and felt so good that I cleaned out my kitchen refrigerator — four check marks!

But I am aware of my own heart. I knew that the Lord helped me with ideas, energy, and the management of tasks and time, but it would be so easy to pat myself on the back and forget about His goodness and generous grace.

One of the cartoons in today’s comics features a grandfather telling his grandson that maybe he should not dress up like God for Halloween. When the child asks why not, the grandfather says, “I don’t think the Almighty likes it when we pretend to be Him. It’s usually politicians and doctors who are guilty of it, but I think it goes for everyone.”

Brian Crane who draws “Pickles” knows human nature. So does the author of my devotional book. He says that we cannot produce anything even close to God’s goodness and that our sinful natures can be compared to a well of stagnant water. “It is ludicrous to believe we could be satisfied by drinking from it when we can come to the fountain of Living Water Himself who gives us every good and perfect gift” (John McArthur, Truth for Today).

Yet even when God produces goodness in my life, my sinful nature is so deceptive and proud that it tries to rob Him of the glory of it. The little boy in the cartoon put on a costume that he thought looked like God so he could pretend he was God. I too easily wear the robe of righteousness that He gave me, then pridefully act as if this is my own robe, my own doing.

That woman who quoted James 1:17 so easily was both a blessing to my heart and a rebuke to my pride. Along with this verse and the cartoon, I ask myself which is worse — pretending to be God? Or behaving as if He is not the source of any goodness in my life? Or are they both the same thing?

Thursday, October 29, 2009

The bottom line of beating bad habits

Today’s average person is bombarded by attention-grabbers: movies, television, books, music, food, clothing, advertisements for goods, the Internet, Facebook, Twitter and so on. For those who are easily distracted, this plethora of external stimuli could keep us off track for years.

In fact, I remember when we first signed up for Internet service. I was afraid to go there because I know myself — I might never come home. I’m thankful that aside from a few flights of fancy looking for images of art quilts, etc., my surfing is limited and I can stay focused. Email and Facebook offer similar challenges, but these two still have me looking for a way of maximum use in limited time.

As a Christian, I must guard my mind, emotions, and will. I need to continually seek the will of God. The best way to do that is by meditating on His Word and letting His will become mine. I know that an unprotected, uncontrolled, and unyielded mind is going to be invaded by selfish desires that will result in sinful actions. Part of the task is controlling how my emotions and thoughts respond to the tempting bait that continually dangles in front of me.

Two passages of Scripture are helpful. The first is a warning and offers one step in beating temptation. The second offers me the resources in how to win this battle of the mind and heart.
 
Keep your heart with all diligence, for out of it spring the issues of life. Put away from you a deceitful mouth, and put perverse lips far from you. Let your eyes look straight ahead, and your eyelids look right before you. Ponder the path of your feet, and let all your ways be established. Do not turn to the right or the left; remove your foot from evil. (Proverbs 4:23-27)
Of course temptation is easier to avoid if I don’t go there. If I was not on Facebook, I would never waste any time with it. If I never bought a chocolate bar, I more easily could avoid eating one. If we did not have a television set, I would not watch it too much.

Yet these verses are talking more about the heart. The desires of the heart make life happen and are at the root of sin. If I want to waste time, I will find a way. If I want to indulge, I will find something, perhaps not in the pantry, but somewhere. Moving far from the temptation will not change my “I-wants.”

However, from these verses and from my own battle, I can see the need for focus. The writer of Proverbs says to think about what I do and form good habits. Stay away from the bad stuff and move on without thinking about what I might be missing. That is good advice.

For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds, casting down arguments and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ. (2 Corinthians 10:4-5)
This passage is about where my strength comes from. Avoiding sinful pleasures and indulgences is not about a steely, self-determination. Turning away from lifelong bad habits (strongholds) cannot be accomplished by sheer determination. God offers His power for these things, which makes winning the battle one that begins with humility.

I need to be humble because all selfish and sinful bad habits are a resistance to the plan and will of God. Whenever I do something that indulges me, I am shaking a clenched fist at God. If I want to overcome that indulgence, I need to bow my knee and open my hands to receive. Humility recognizes that I cannot win the battle by myself. I must be willing to cast down all my arguing with God and instead bring every thought into obedience. That makes humility the bottom line in overcoming sin and bad habits.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Why didn’t I think of this?

Deceived? Not me. I once thought that no one could pull the proverbial wool over my eyes. I was too discerning, too much a lover of truth, a person who could spot a lie in the darkest places. But I was wrong. If I was that good, I would never sin, and even though I had the audacity to claim I couldn’t be duped, my spiritual pride cannot deny that I am a sinner.

After several verses about the purpose of trials and the nature of sin and it being the result of saying yes to temptation, James writes this as a warning:

Do not be deceived, my beloved brethren. (James 1:16)
James knew, as all Christians know, that Jesus died for our sins, forgives them, cleanses our hearts as we confess them, and gives us the power of the Holy Spirit to overcome sin. But we still sin and one reason that we do is because sin or some aspect of sin deceives us. If it were not possible and true, then the Bible would not have to say it.

Instead of letting sin deceive me, I need to figure out what is going on and stop it, but too often I feel that way after the fact, and then make wholehearted decisions when it is too late. A simple illustration is the food one (see yesterday’s post). Seeing food is not the sin, nor is wanting to eat a sin. The problem is wanting to eat when I am not hungry and do not need food. So I do it, then say something useless like, “I’m never going to do that again.”

Psychologists say there are lots of reasons for overeating. These include loneliness, repressed anger, sadness, and a host of other things. I notice that when I am really tired, I want to eat, or if I am cold, I want to eat. Whatever the reason, it seems a good idea to deal with the motivating cause. That is, if I’m tired, go to bed. If I’m cold, grab a sweater, and so on. Yet today’s devotional reading offers this more important point: instead of trying to deal with sin at the point of behavior, deal with it at the point of desire!

In practical terms, most people confess bad behavior as sin, but it is better to get to the root of it and confess bad attitudes. The attitude produces the behavior and if the attitude changes, then there is no fruit from it. It is the same for sinful desires. If the “I-wants” are making me do things I should not, confess the desires for what they are.

This works for both before and after the fact. I can confess to selfishness after I sin, but before selfish indulgence pushes me to the frig (or whatever place they take me), I can deactivate these desires before they combine with my weak will and become actions.

For me, this is simple with the “big” sins. I know that if I am angry with a person or if I hate someone, those emotions can easily turn into destructive behavior. I’ve learned that I must confess my attitude long before I let it become an action that hurts people.

As James points out, I must watch that I’m not deceived. Normal desires like eating also can become excessive or indulgent I-wants that turn into sin. If I expose those desires to the bait, whether it is a second helping of cake (or sounding off at someone who offends me), I will find myself doing the wrong thing. Instead of trying to avoid the bait, I need to deal with the desires, particularly those that go from normal to excessive.

I know that sinful desires are put to death only one way — by taking them to the Cross. John wrote, “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).

He is totally right. Jesus gives victory over sin by forgiveness and cleansing. I cannot save myself. I cannot stop myself from reaching for the wrong things because I cannot stop myself from wanting the wrong things. God wants me to chop the problem off at the root by confessing those desires (before they become actions) and let Him take them out of my heart. This is a simple solution and yet one that eluded me — for one simple reason — I let myself be deceived.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Trick or Treat

When selfish desires hook up with temptation, a baby of doom is born. That baby is called “Sin” and when it fully grows up, it wears a black robe and hood, and carries a sickle. Oh, I know Halloween is coming, but this is no horror movie in costume. It is reality.
But each one is tempted when he is drawn away by his own desires and enticed. Then, when desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, brings forth death. (James 1:14-15)
In simple, more common illustration, say I have a craving for munchies (and I often do). I go to the store and see them on the shelf. I can resist at that point, thanks to the grace of God. However, if I buy them, all is not lost. I could have a few and that would not be a problem, again thanks to the grace of God. However, if I give in and eat them for days and then weeks and years, the over-eating is the sin, and the heart attack from clogged arteries or the stroke from high blood pressure is the measure of fully grown sin, the grown-up baby of death.

It works the same way with sinful attitudes like envy or hate. Eventually, if not spurned and starved, these things become monsters that destroy. If they do not actually kill me (people die from loneliness, never mind excessive anger), they will destroy relationships and put me totally out of touch with God. If those sins were not already forgiven, they would land me on the other side of grace where there is eternal punishment.

I note that death is more than physical. In several places in the Bible, the word “separation” makes a good substitute. Sin separates people from God and from His blessings. That is spiritual death. If that baby is not checked, not confessed, not forgiven, and not covered with the blood of Christ, it will grow until there is no hope and the separation, a.k.a. death, is for eternity.

Every October about this time I am thinking what I would wear if we did decided to go to a costume party. Much of what I see in ads and Halloween promotion is related to death or spiritual darkness. Is there a costume that depicts life and spiritual light? What can I put on that shows the other side of this horror called sin and death? The Bible offers several suggestions:

•    But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to fulfill its lusts. (Romans 13:14)
•     . . . put on the new man which was created according to God, in true righteousness and holiness. (Ephesians 4:24)
•    Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. (Ephesians 6:11)
•    Therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, put on tender mercies, kindness, humility, meekness, longsuffering . . .  (Colossians 3:12)
•    But above all these things put on love, which is the bond of perfection. (Colossians 3:14)
I need to remember that this ‘costume’ is more than an external garment. All these things are about the heart, the inner person. I cannot merely look like this on the outside (even if that was possible), but must be like this on the inside.

We seldom do much to “celebrate” Halloween. This holiday may have started out with a better spiritual focus, but all that seems to be lost. However, I am thankful to God that Jesus lives in me. Because of Him, I have His power to resist temptation. Whether temptation lurks in my head or come disguised as something else, the new life that Jesus gives is able to  conquer all enticements. He works in me to put to death my selfish desires so sin cannot hook up with me.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Temptation starts in the stomach, not with the food

We had a Mexican potluck for my hubby’s birthday this year. Our son made burritos and fish tacos. Our daughter made taco salad. I made chicken enchiladas. Everyone contributed other goodies. We drooled as someone took a picture of the table, then dived in as if we had been starving. Everyone ate too much.

My devotions have been about temptation. This morning I’m thinking that the temptation to eat too much never happens when the menu is full of things that I don’t like. This is backed up by today’s reading from James.

But each one is tempted when he is drawn away by his own desires and enticed. (James 1:14)
Hunger is one thing, but this tendency to overeat seems to me a sinful desire. After all, gluttony is suggested as one of the seven deadly sins in the late 6th century by Pope Gregory the Great. Besides that, overeating seems so common in North America that it could almost be listed as a pastime.
 

For curiosity’s sake, I looked up that list of seven. Here they are, in no particular order.
Pride - an excessive belief in my own qualities and abilities that keeps me from recognizing of the grace of God.
Envy - wanting what others have, their traits, status, abilities, or circumstances.
Gluttony - that inordinate desire to consume more than I need, and it could be more than food!
Lust - an inordinate craving for the pleasures of the body.
Anger - resentment toward others, fury instead of love.
Greed - like gluttony, wanting material wealth or gain and ignoring the realm of the spiritual.
Sloth - avoiding physical or spiritual work.
While the Bible doesn’t list some sins worse than others, I could make a list of my own “deadly sins” that seem to be most difficult to conquer, but all of them are like this list; they start with me — not the things that tempt me.

As I think about the verse in James that says temptation comes from my own desires, it seems that if I did not have those desires, temptation would be less of a problem. If I didn’t love Nanaimo Bars, I wouldn’t eat them. If I didn’t love books, I wouldn’t break my budget buying them. If I didn’t value my own ideas, I’d not get feisty with those who challenge me.

James tells how to be complete, how to be in a state where I do not want anything because I am satisfied. He also explains how God works to bring me to that place. He says,

My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience. But let patience have its perfect work, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing. (James 1:2-4)
A patient person is never anxious about having it now. That means if God is using trials to test my faith and produce this wonderful and mature quality of enduring patience, things will not tempt me as they once did because my “I-wants” will be in check. I can trust God to provide what I need. He may not do it “right now” but patience is willing to wait, because patience gives the sense of being complete, not wanting anything. It rids me of that anxiety about my own wants and needs.

While pondering this, for a few moments I thought that the way to solve overeating might be to always select and cook the foods that I don’t like, but that isn’t what the Lord wants. He wants to teach me to be satisfied with ‘enough’ and feel no need for too much, regardless of what is on the table before me.

This is practical. Since temptation begins within and is not about that table full of good food, and since it is about me and what I want, then I don’t need make-over my menu. Instead, I need to take my desires to God and let Him do the make-over. He is totally able to change my I- wants into patient endurance.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Grow up!

Ed Bulkley, PhD. , says in his book Why Christians Can’t Trust Psychology, that some of the characteristics of childishness are an unwillingness to accept change, pouting or crying at disappointment, a preoccupation with self, a tendency to lie, shirking of responsibility, shifting of blame, demanding instant gratification, throwing temper tantrums, and a host of other symptoms that coincide with the labels of psychological disorders, such as “infantile regression.”

He goes on to say that psychology often blames parents for the adults that do not “outgrow” these things, and gives those adults reason to believe that they can blame their parents and are permanently stuck with this behavior.

In contrast, the Apostle Paul wrote, “When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things” (1 Corinthians 13:11).

I look through the list and easily can list the above “childish” behaviors as characteristics of my sinful nature. The Bible leads me to the conclusion that these are not psychological problems that flow out of childhood issues, but matters of the sinful human heart.

For instance, blame-shifting began in the garden of Eden. God asked Adam if he’d eaten from the tree He had commanded them not to eat, and Adam replied, “The woman whom You gave to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I ate” (Genesis 3:12)

Adam was an adult. His parent had never mistreated him. There was no child abuse. His environment was perfect. Yet after he disobeyed God, he hid, lied, and blamed both Eve and God (who gave her to him) for his behavior.

It still happens. I’ve heard people blame everything and everyone for their sins. The devil gets it most often, but God is blamed too. They say if their life situation was different (and who is sovereign over life’s situations?) then they would never have been tempted nor would they have sinned.

The New Testament is clear about the source of temptation and sin. It is not God. James wrote:

Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am tempted by God”; for God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does He Himself tempt anyone. (James 1:13)
God controls all things, but unless it is yielded to Him, the sinful human heart is in charge of its own responses to temptation. I can decide all by myself whether to sin or not. Satan appeals to us with lies and the world appeals to us with all sorts of promises, but no one can blame God for temptation or falling into it.

Rereading what Bulkley said, I have to rewrite it like this: the characteristics of my sinfulness are an unwillingness to let God change me, pouting when I don’t get my way, preoccupation with self, a tendency to avoid the truth, shirking my responsibilities, blame-shifting, insisting on instant gratification, getting annoyed at everyone and everything, and a host of other me-me-me symptoms that coincide with the labels for sin that are clearly spelled out in the Word of God.

There is no human cure. Growing older does not change the sinful heart. The only way out of this “infantile regression” is to admit that I have a sinful heart and admit what I do wrong. Only then will the One who is called Counselor forgive me, cleanse my heart, and enable me to put away my sinful nonsense.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Staying in the trials

The line is fine between trials and temptations. The first serves as a test of my faith and an opportunity for God to show me His faithfulness. The second is sin bidding me to enter in and forget about God and His power to deliver me from it.

I had a dream last night that started out as a temptation. In my dream, my old self had little struggle against it and who knows what I might have done in that dream, but I woke up. Immediately those thoughts changed from temptation to a trial or test. I weighed them against the Word of God and faith helped me give my mind to other things.

Everyone faces temptation. Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 10:13, “No temptation has overtaken you except such as is common to man. . . .” Every person, Christian or not, faces things that bid them to sin. How we deal with that temptation makes the difference.

I suppose some who do not have faith can say no to some sins because they see the lack of personal profit in them, but as a Christian, my reason for turning away is different. I have been forgiven. Why grieve the God who died to save me? Why ruin the good things He has done in my life?

My power to resist is different too. Paul finished that verse in Corinthians with, “. . . but God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make the way of escape, that you may be able to bear it.”

God helps me say no to sin. As I think about temptation, every one that I can remember is based on a lie or lies. God’s way of escape is truth. Most temptations also have an element of temporary pleasure in them. God’s way of escape is thinking with an eternal perspective. One example is Moses.

By faith Moses, when he became of age, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, choosing rather to suffer affliction with the people of God than to enjoy the passing pleasures of sin, esteeming the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures in Egypt; for he looked to the reward. (Hebrews 11:24-26)
Moses could have had the wealth and position of being the leader over a great nation. Instead he stayed on the trial side of the line and picked suffering with His people. He fixed his mind on the eternal reward of remaining faithful to God and that was his way of escape.

In a life filled with trials big and small, my faith is constantly tested. That line of temptation becomes visible whenever I decide the trial is too hard and I want out before God takes me out. At that point, that line, opportunities to sin will pop up. Certain this is why Jesus taught His disciples to pray and included this request. It is to be part of my prayer pattern too.

And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one. For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen. (Matthew 6:13)
Does God lead me into sin? Certainly not. But He does allow the trials of life that test my faith and uses them to make me stronger, better equipped to resist sin and to endure.

Temptations are also a test, but they are the sinful response to trials and on the other side of the line. Instead of offering a way to pass the test, they present a strong pull toward sin. For that reason, Jesus says I must ask Him to keep me from crossing the line.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Eternal things

This fall’s weather seems to have a twisted sense of humor. Where I live, we had record-breaking warm temperatures one week, up to 34° C, but less than two weeks later parts of our province dropped to - 28° C. The green leaves froze on the trees and even though we are back to norms of about 10° during the day, those leaves have not turned gold. If they were green when the cold snap came, they remain that way, freeze-dried on the branches.

God’s author’s of Scripture use nature’s phenomena to illustrate spiritual realities. James writes of trials that God uses to show us the most important things in life. For instance, trusting God will last, but trusting money will not. For one thing, money does not last. For another, neither do we. 

For no sooner has the sun risen with a burning heat than it withers the grass; its flower falls, and its beautiful appearance perishes. So the rich man also will fade away in his pursuits. (James 1:11)
When I die, all the stuff that I have might be left behind, or it could as Jesus said, be subject to moth or rust or thieves and vanish before I die. Either way, our relationship will end. My dependency on my computer will no longer have any value. The comforts of home and the usefulness of my stuff will be meaningless. James wants me to remember that, and instead rely on that which has eternal value. 

Here is a short list of some things that do not wither or fade away.
•    God Himself. The eternal God is your refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms. (Deuteronomy 33:27)
•    God’s Word. The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God stands forever. (Isaiah 40:8)
•    God’s rule. The Lord shall reign forever and ever. (Exodus 15:18)
•    Sustenance in God’s Kingdom. Along the bank of the river, on this side and that, will grow all kinds of trees used for food; their leaves will not wither, and their fruit will not fail. They will bear fruit every month, because their water flows from the sanctuary. Their fruit will be for food, and their leaves for medicine. (Ezekiel 47:12)
•    Souls that trust Jesus. Most assuredly, I say to you, he who believes in Me has everlasting life. (John 6:47)
•    Souls that do not trust Jesus. These shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power. (2 Thessalonians 1:9)
•    God’s work. I know that whatever God does, it shall be forever. Nothing can be added to it, and nothing taken from it. God does it, that men should fear before Him. (Ecclesiastes 3:14)
•    God’s mercy. Oh, give thanks to the Lord, for He is good! For His mercy endures forever. (Psalm 136:1)

There are more verses and many repeat these same things. The last one also uses the images of nature. Today, this is the one I will think of as I look out my window at the freeze-dried trees that were stopped cold in their tracks. Although that will also happen to me someday, it will not be the end because I am a servant of Jesus and because He is the author of Life. Revelation 22:1-5 says,

And he showed me a pure river of water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding from the throne of God and of the Lamb. In the middle of its street, and on either side of the river, was the tree of life, which bore twelve fruits, each tree yielding its fruit every month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. And there shall be no more curse, but the throne of God and of the Lamb shall be in it, and His servants shall serve Him. They shall see His face, and His name shall be on their foreheads. There shall be no night there: They need no lamp nor light of the sun, for the Lord God gives them light. And they shall reign forever and ever.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

The greatest contentment

In the late sixties I had two children, a farm with a garden, and for a few months, less than $10 a week to spend on groceries. I don’t remember envying people with money. I do remember the kindness of those who slipped care packages into my pantry and the neighbor who bought me a hunting license and the venison to go with it.

Those days are long gone, but that experience made a lasting impression. I learned that God takes care of His people, and that happiness is not found in having money or things. I also learned that people can survive on garden veggies plus macaroni and cheese!

My devotional reading is again in James. He writes about the purpose of trials and how they produce the fruit of patient endurance in Christians. He says to ask God for wisdom, not doubting that He cares and will give it, and not relying on my own ideas. He also hints that I should not rely on money.

Let the lowly brother glory in his exaltation, but the rich in his humiliation, because as a flower of the field he will pass away. For no sooner has the sun risen with a burning heat than it withers the grass; its flower falls, and its beautiful appearance perishes. So the rich man also will fade away in his pursuits. (James 1:9-11)
Some think that the “rich” is a wealthy brother in Christ. Others say it is merely a rich person whom Christians might envy, and that a poor Christian can console himself that all meet the same fate (death) and that great leveler of humanity will show that riches do not make any difference when it comes to eternal matters.

The words indicate that the rich can “glory . . . in his humiliation” which seems to indicate that he is a believer and that both the rich and the poor have the same thing in which to glory — they both need God because both will die, and money has nothing to do with that fact.

When I was without, I learned that God cares for me. Now that situation has moved toward the other end of things, the lessons remain in my heart. I’m thinking that if someone was born into money, they would need to experience a humbling process to learn the same lesson —  that true contentment is about God’s grace and not material possessions.

As today’s reading says, trials humble everyone to the same level of dependency on God because money cannot buy anyone out of anything but economic problems. If I lost a child or my husband, it would not matter how much money I have. Cash cannot help in a trial like that, nor in many other difficulties.

There are lessons in life, whether poor or rich, that God uses to teach His people to humbly recognize that He is our source and resource. Without Him, money might produce a life of outward ease, but I know from experience that the greater contentment comes through knowing that He loves and cares for me.


Painting: "Contentment" by Marion Coltman

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

True riches

Sophie Tucker supposedly said, “I've been rich and I’ve been poor — and believe me, rich is better.”

I’ve been poor and, compared to those days of pennies rather than dollars, I am much better off financially. But is “better” a good description of the differences between the two? The person who has always been poor might think riches are better, but in all honesty, I’m thinking that having more money might be described as “easier” rather than “better.”

James writes about trials and how a person can rejoice in them because God uses them as tests of faith to reveal faith and produce maturity, particularly patient endurance. Struggling without enough money is a test of faith, but I know now that having money is also a test.

Let the lowly brother glory in his exaltation, but the rich in his humiliation, because as a flower of the field he will pass away. For no sooner has the sun risen with a burning heat than it withers the grass; its flower falls, and its beautiful appearance perishes. So the rich man also will fade away in his pursuits. (James 1:9-11)
As if being told to rejoice in trials wasn’t extreme, James says here that a poor man is actually experiencing exaltation. Trials are God at work, and if a Christian realizes this, they also can rejoice in the trial of poverty.

Right away I feel guilty writing those words. I am content and not poor. How can I say that poverty is something positive? Particularly from my perspective? The liberation theologists would burn me at the stake for such an idea. But here it is. The Bible says that lowly people (in this context, it means poor folks) can glory in their exaltation.

How is poverty an exaltation? One of my commentaries explains that the poor believer can glory (“count it all joy” in v. 2) in the fact that God has exalted him by allowing him to experience difficult circumstances, for these will only perfect his character and faith (v. 4). In God’s eternal perspective, character and faith are far more valuable than money. They last forever, but money is a temporary thing, here today and gone tomorrow. In other words, the poor man might be poor in this temporary existence, but in the kingdom of God, he who has passed the tests of faith is a rich person!

Solomon, considered the wisest of men, wrote things like: “He who loves silver will not be satisfied with silver; nor he who loves abundance, with increase” and “When goods increase, they increase who eat them; so what profit have the owners except to see them with their eyes?” and “The sleep of a laboring man is sweet, whether he eats little or much; but the abundance of the rich will not permit him to sleep” and “Riches kept for their owner to his hurt. But those riches perish through misfortune . . . and as he came from his mother’s womb, naked shall he return.” (Ecclesiastes 5:10-15)

In most cases, a rich person finds it difficult to trust the Lord, not himself or his money, even though both cannot give him eternal life. Yet because riches are so fleeting, a wealthy believer can glory in are the trials that bring him low, trials that teach that life is short and that his pursuits will fade away. His glory is having an eternal view of things rather than making money his idol.

Today’s to-do list is long and I’m thankful for my “helpers” so I don’t need to find firewood to cook, or weave a broom from straw to sweep the floor, or grind up berries for ink to write a letter. Relatively speaking, I am wealthy with these helpers that money can buy.

However, I can look back on those days of poverty and be thankful for the lessons learned about trusting God. He took care of me and filled me with joy and a sense of purpose. Now, on those rare days when the computer crashes, or the power is off, or the Internet connection goes wonky, I can glory in the reminder of my true wealth. It isn’t in money or things but in Jesus. He has given me the riches of faith, eternal life, and even those trials that develop lasting endurance.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Faith or doubt? Both depend on their object!

Today brings two new projects. One is preparation for next Sunday’s class. I’ve not looked at the material yet, and don’t know what the content will be. I only have a template for laying out the material. Right now, I’ve no idea how this will challenge me.

The other project is a publication. I’ve a template since I produced the same magazine last fall. I have photos and sketchy write ups that go with them. It is my job to put everything together so it makes sense and looks good. This is a challenge and I’ve been procrastinating. My ‘boss’ is looking for a draft, if not today, soon. I am feeling very inadequate for this job.

God reminds me of what He said to the Apostle Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.”

Paul’s responded, “Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ’s sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:9-10).

This weak/strong thing can be confusing, like flipping back and forth on a teeter-totter. On one hand, I feel the weakness (and don’t like it), yet I am told that others see God’s strength. On the other had, I know it is good to feel weak. If I was confident in my own abilities, I would not be trusting God.

This same idea is expressed in a different way by James. Today’s verses say this:

If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all liberally and without reproach, and it will be given to him. But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for he who doubts is like a wave of the sea driven and tossed by the wind. For let not that man suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways. (James 1:5-8)
Similar to feeling weak and needing God’s strength, an odd thing happens in my heart when I am at the end of my own resources and ask God for wisdom. I feel that I have no answers, or that what I need is impossible for me, and at the same time deep inside of me I know that He will give me what I need and it will seem easy. While this seems to be having “two souls” (see yesterday’s post), it is a good thing, not the negative double-mindedness that James is talking about.

Here, double-mindedness is about a person’s attitude toward God. Will He? Or won’t He? Can He? Or can’t He? Double-mindedness doubts both God’s ability and His willingness to help. Having two souls means that part of me wants to trust God, but I am still trusting myself.

On the other hand, faith says God can and faith knows that He is on my side. Faith isn’t about me or what I can do; it is all about God. In these verses, the doubt is also not about me, but all about God.

James compares doubt in God to a billowing, restless sea, moving back and forth with its endless tides, never able to settle. A double-minded person never has that inner sense that God will give him anything. There is no certainty, only accusing doubt.

My sense of inadequacy in this small trial of a deadline and the stress of producing is clearly “lack of confidence” in me. If I told others of my struggle, most of them would say, “Oh, you can do it. You’ve done it before. Just have confidence in yourself.”

However, in the kingdom of God, having no confidence in myself is a good thing. When I doubt me, I will go to God and receive what I need. However, if I doubt God then I am left with trusting only myself. As I read James’ words, I am certain that lack of confidence in myself is not only a good thing, but fertile ground for receiving wisdom.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Creativity - from the Source

“I was blocked. The professor asked the class to come up with a metaphor for curriculum and my mind was not working. Finally, I asked God to remove the block. He did, and the answer was so amazing.”

My friend proved for herself what James says about asking for wisdom. As she talked, I thought about His rich simplicity. God’s answers are never bizarre, but ideas that perfectly fit the situation for which we need them. He is true wise and our source for wisdom.

There is a prerequisite though. We generally do not simply ask for wisdom about each and every situation and continually receive God’s wonderful and deep responses. We first need to be at that place where we acknowledge that our own wisdom bin is empty. Most of us don’t want to go there! That is why the Bible says,

If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all liberally and without reproach, and it will be given to him. But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for he who doubts is like a wave of the sea driven and tossed by the wind. For let not that man suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways. (James 1:5-8)
The Greek words used here describe a person that has “two souls.” On one hand, he trusts God and knows that God is wise and wants to help him. On the other, he has a few ideas in the back of his mind to solve his own problem, plan B as it were. This says to me that I need to be at the bottom of the barrel if I am going to expect an answer to my prayers for wisdom. Those prayers must be out of deep felt needs rather than mere asking. I’m not talking to a genie in a bottle.

My devotional reading says that unwavering faith simply believes that God is a sovereign, loving God who will supply everything needed for understanding the trial and being able to endure it. The writer adds that whatever the trial is, I can believe that God allowed it for His purpose and my spiritual maturity. As a Christian, I know that nothing happens randomly.

In the case of my friend, the trial of blocked creativity showed her once again that God is the original Creator. His mind is incredible. He created the universe by speaking it into existence. He knows the exact solution for every problem and question.

I will not share His answer to her, that wonderful metaphor for curriculum. Someday others might have the same question, and in the wisdom of God the answer might be different. He offers unique solutions to each of us and as we go to Him for them, we can identify with His disciples in Mark 7:37. The Bible says that they were “astonished beyond measure, saying, ‘He has done all things well. . . .'”

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Wisdom is not what you know but Who you Know

Talking last night with my brother, the inevitable came up, politics. He has strong opinions based on what he knows. I challenged his information (my mistake), but after going round and round, we came to a mutual conclusion — only the Lord can sort out the mess that the world is in.

Yesterday had me thinking about wisdom. That conversation has me thinking about information. Today’s devotional is again about wisdom. I’m wondering how much is the wisdom of God based on knowing everything there is to know? Can I be wise apart from learning His Word and His ways? Does wisdom depend on behavior?

For the Lord gives wisdom; from His mouth come knowledge and understanding; He stores up sound wisdom for the upright; He is a shield to those who walk uprightly; He guards the paths of justice, and preserves the way of His saints. Then you will understand righteousness and justice, equity and every good path. (Proverbs 2:6-9)
Today’s reading offers only the first phrase of this passage, but the rest of it answers my questions. Wisdom, or the ability to appropriately use knowledge, comes from the Lord and it is tied very closely to the knowledge and understanding that comes from His mouth, His Word. He shields His people and guards our way so that we can understand His will and how to live righteously in this world. Life and wisdom are from Him. On the other hand, the verses before these say that I also have a part in receiving His wisdom:
My son, if you receive my words, and treasure my commands within you, so that you incline your ear to wisdom, and apply your heart to understanding; yes, if you cry out for discernment, and lift up your voice for understanding, if you seek her as silver, and search for her as for hidden treasures; then you will understand the fear of the Lord, and find the knowledge of God. (Proverbs 2:1-5)
Even though God says we need to look for this treasure, I’ve known people who say that they get along just fine without God or His wisdom. They think themselves wise, or they point to highly educated people who are ‘successful’ without God. Their value system is for this life only. It is based on human ideas of what is important, and in the New Testament, this is called “the wisdom of the world.”

I’m still not satisfied with what I’ve read. I keep thinking of something else, that the wisdom of God is not about a mass of knowledge or even about using the Word of God to guide my life. It goes deeper. Proverbs personifies it in feminine terms, hinting that it is about a Person. The New Testament clarifies that this is true:

For you see your calling, brethren, that not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called. But God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise. . . . to bring to nothing the things that are, that no flesh should glory in His presence. But of Him you are in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God—and righteousness and sanctification and redemption — that, as it is written, “He who glories, let him glory in the Lord.” (1 Corinthians 1:26-31)
When I think I am smart, I can get into arguments about politics with my brother. However, when he is walking in the Spirit, he is calm about the world’s turmoil for he is trusting the One who is sovereign. When I am walking in the Spirit, I too am at peace about what the government is doing. Both of us know that Jesus is in charge, not just over the things we see and know and understand, but over all things. We don’t to memorize the whole Bible, or have deep theological insights, or know everything there is to know to be wise. We just need Jesus; He is our wisdom.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

The Greater Gift

A wonderful Jewish prayer goes something like this, “Let me not have need of the gifts of men, whose gifts are few, but their upbraidings manifold; but give me out of Thy large and full hand.”

When in trouble, most people ask help or advice from other people. While God can use others to counsel me, He is teaching me to go to Him first. He is the only one who can guarantee perfect counsel. He is wise and the source of true wisdom. The Bible rightly says,

If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all liberally and without reproach, and it will be given to him. (James 1:5)
Today’s devotional reading reminds me that biblical wisdom is not philosophical speculation. It is knowing and putting into practice the absolutes of God’s will. This wisdom  has particular characteristics. Later in his epistle, James describes what wisdom is and what it is not.
Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show by good conduct that his works are done in the meekness of wisdom. But if you have bitter envy and self-seeking in your hearts, do not boast and lie against the truth. This wisdom does not descend from above, but is earthly, sensual, demonic. For where envy and self-seeking exist, confusion and every evil thing are there. But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality and without hypocrisy. Now the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace. (James 3:13-18)
If I seek counsel and the advice I am given promotes selfishness in me, it is not wise advice. If I ask God for wisdom and remain selfish, filled with envy, am boastful or resist the truth, or am creating a ruckus, then I’ve not received the wisdom that I asked for.

God’s wisdom is not mixed with human greed or selfishness. It never comes up with schemes to put me above others, nor does it encourage any kind of sin in any way. It isn’t agitated or harsh, nor is true wisdom stubborn. In fact, divine wisdom results in right conduct in all of life’s matters.

Asking for wisdom is a command to pray. In its context, asking for wisdom is related to the trials of life. I’ve learned that all uncomfortable and unasked for events and situations are intended to drive me to greater dependency on God. They make me realize that I have no sufficient resources of my own. God is my source and resource. Wisdom comes from Him.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Need versus Call

Sometimes I do things because no one else will step up, or because they need to be done, or because the person doing them is struggling without the necessary skills, or because I like a challenge. Those are all the wrong reasons.

The Lord challenged me this week to make a list of everything that I do that helps or encourages others. The idea is that if the Lord is in it, then my strength will come from Him. When I have finished the task, I might be tired, but He will give me joy. On the other hand, if the Lord is not in it, then I will feel drained and unhappy.

I realize that I can choose to grumble about hard work, but this isn’t about complaining after the fact. It is about going into something because the Lord led me into it, called me to the task. I’ve already listed some of the other options, most of which are a perceived need on my part rather than a call from Him to do it.

I made my list. I’m a busy person, too busy, so I know some things should not be on that list. Then I gave it to my husband and told him to mark those items that result in fruit in my life (like love, joy, peace) and mark those that result in me being withered up and unfruitful.

I also realize that I might do things that produce fruit in others, not merely in me. A simple phone call or letter, or taking time to help someone could give them joy because God is in it and helped me, but He had the other person’s need in mind. This isn’t about that either. People do have needs and I must care about them and be open to God leading me to help, even if it costs me something, but this need versus call is more about motivations. The idea is that if the Lord leads me into something, He will give me what I need to do it. I will not be burned out and drained because the fruit of righteousness (obeying God) is peace and joy.

My husband marked the list. Without looking at what he marked, I did the same. He put an X beside three things. I put an X beside four. Two of those were the same items. We discussed it and concluded that the Lord was not in either one when I started them, and I am not blessed in the doing of them, even when I pray and ask for His help. Perhaps I’m taking the place of someone who is better equipped for those two tasks? I’m not sure of the reason, but it is time to take action and back off.

This is not easy, at least for one of them. Dropping it means someone else needs to pick it up, and in my estimation, there is no one. How can I drop it without letting people down? How can I say ‘I quit’ without finding a replacement? Then I read today’s devotional verse.

For we walk by faith, not by sight. (2 Corinthians 5:7)
Jesus once said to His disciple, “Thomas, because you have seen Me, you have believed. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:29).

This is the same idea. I cannot see Jesus yet believe. I cannot see a replacement or an answer to my dilemma, but God is calling me to live by faith. This means I can leave these two items out of my schedule and trust Him to fill the space with someone else. I went into them with the wrong reason for doing so — response to a need. I need to bow out with the right reason for doing so — obedience to God’s call.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

I get to trade it in for a new one

My maternal grandfather became a Christian late in life. He was also blind from diabetes. When he died, my mother was comforted when she realized that, “Now Dad can see!”

The Bible promises new bodies and I’m sure that includes perfect vision. I don’t know anyone who would not like having a new bod. My waistline could be smaller. My hair could be thicker. I’d like firmer skin under my chin. The list goes on and I try to take care of myself, but no matter what I do, as they say, after fifty, gravity takes over.

I’m encouraged by my mom’s realization about Grampa. When she thought about what was happening to his body, she was near rejoicing, even in her grief. Her hope came from verses like these:

The creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groans and labors with birth pangs together until now. Not only that, but we also who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, eagerly waiting for the adoption, the redemption of our body. For we were saved in this hope . . . (Romans 8:21-24)
Sin brought corruption. Without it, everyone would be strong and healthy forever. Sin resulted in thorns and thistles, but also sickness and aging with its aches, pains, and problems. As my husband constantly says, everyone is terminal. The Bible affirms that “The wages of sin is death” but the same verse also adds, “but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23).

So God gives this hope. Salvation through faith in Jesus Christ gives eternal life, but also a taste of this life in the one that I now live. He heals my sicknesses or prevents them altogether. He also gives daily strength, not just to aging me, but to everyone. The Bible says,

He gives power to the weak, and to those who have no might He increases strength. Even the youths shall faint and be weary, and the young men shall utterly fall, but those who wait on the Lord Shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint. (Isaiah 40:29-31)
While God doesn’t promise to reverse the aging process, He keeps me going, and even gives self-control as a fruit of the Spirit. This means I do not have to overeat or indulge myself in destructive habits that make aging even worse by adding illness and other complications. He also gives motivation to be productive and do things that keep me active and feeling as if life has purpose.

Sure, I’d like a new body right now, but knowing that will happen later does help me be content with the things I cannot change about this one. Exercise is good. Eating well is good. Getting enough sleep and so on is also good. But even better is having contentment now because of hope in the promises of God — who has better things for the future.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Melting the Wax

In Bible days, pottery sold in the marketplace had to be held up to the sun to be tested. Unscrupulous potters would fill the flaws in their wares with wax, but that wax could be seen in sunlight. Smart buyers would not put up with fake quality.

God isn’t interested in fake quality either. The word used for testing pottery is also used by James as he tells Christians how to respond to trials. He says these trials are tests to see if our faith is genuine.

My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience. (James 1:2-3)
When my life is held up to difficulties and trials, I can trust God or not. The nature of faith in Jesus Christ is like that — a choice. God offers me the gift of faith so I can trust Him for eternal life, but also so I can recognize that He is sovereign and controls the events of my life, even the difficult events. Will I choose to trust Him in those?

The nature of faith is that it isn’t about me. Faith is knowing about God and who He is. When my life is held up to the light, God wants me to let that light expose and repair my flaws.

To help me understand how this works, James points to Job as the Bible’s example of testing and perseverance, as well as the Old Testament prophets.

My brethren, take the prophets, who spoke in the name of the Lord, as an example of suffering and patience. Indeed we count them blessed who endure. You have heard of the perseverance of Job and seen the end intended by the Lord — that the Lord is very compassionate and merciful. (James 5:10-11)
Job hung on to faith because he knew that God is compassionate and merciful. In fact, testing by trials is less about me than it is about God because the tests ultimately prove His faithfulness.

One of the first trials related to my faith was financial. I needed $100 to pay for a propane tank rental. I didn’t have it. I cannot remember praying, but I likely did. Before the bill came due, I received an order in the mail for an animal portrait (I used to paint), with the money paid in advance. That had never happened before or since, and I have no idea how that person knew about me. The cheque was $110, just enough extra to buy a canvas and for shipping.

From this test, I discovered that God is faithful. He wanted me to know that and used a trial to prove it. Ever since then, all tests prove the same thing. He will not let me down. Therefore, in complete confidence, I can be patient.

Tests by trials prove that God is faithful, that my faith is genuine, but they also produce patient endurance. James says it in the above verses, and so does the Apostle Paul in Romans, “And not only that, but we also glory in tribulations, knowing that tribulation produces perseverance” (Romans 5:3).

After learning that God is faithful, I can choose patience in heavy traffic, in line ups, or other very ordinary patient-testing situations. I know that God controls all things. If I am late or detoured, He has good reasons. Patience is knowing this and being okay with it.

These tests might also reveal some fakes. People complain that Christians are hypocrites, sort of like pottery pieces with wax covering up flaws. They see through that and will not buy such a message.

However, if a hypocrite does have genuine faith, God will not let them be hypocrites forever. He too will hold them up to the light and test what they are made of, only He uses trials. As their faith is tested, the genuine Christian will experience a striping away of all the wax. Instead of faking it, God uses the test to create in His people patient endurance and a character that is honest and genuine.


Photo from "Vase is Valuable Despite Flaw"

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Held up but not held back

A ninety-two-year-old woman got in her car in a parking lot after doing some shopping. A man jumped into the passenger seat and told her that unless she gave him her money, he would kill her. After saying no several times, she finally said to him, “If you kill me, I will go to heaven, but when you die, you will go to hell.”

This plucky woman then shared the gospel with the man, who began to cry. He said he needed to go home and pray about this. She told him that he didn’t need to go home because he could pray anywhere. She gave him the only money she had, $10, and he left.

After seeing this story on YouTube, I wondered if I would have the same response to danger. Would being in such a pickle bring out of me the truth that is so dear to me the rest of the time?

It did for the apostle Paul. He had been arrested and was in prison in Rome. He wrote to the church at Philippi and said this,

I want you to know, brethren, that the things which happened to me have actually turned out for the furtherance of the gospel, so that it has become evident to the whole palace guard, and to all the rest, that my chains are in Christ. (Philippians 1:12-13)
Paul considered himself a prisoner of the Lord, held captive by the gospel and the grace of God. No one could lock up a freed sinner. He might have been confined to one location, but that did not stop him from sharing with others the same truth that lady shared in the parking lot with her attacker. Jesus saves sinners, and unless a person avails themselves of His offer of eternal life, they are bound for eternal destruction.

It is a powerful message. It reduced a gun-carrying would-be robber to tears. It also changed the lives of people who lived and worked in the royal palace in Rome. Paul ended his letter with this:

All the saints greet you, but especially those who are of Caesar’s household. (Philippians 4:22)
Being confined and threatened can be viewed as a fearful and terrible calamity, or it can be seen as an opportunity to tell others about Jesus. I may never go to jail or be accosted by a thug, but if it happens, I’ve at least two examples of how to conduct myself in such situations!

Monday, October 12, 2009

Don’t worry, be sad

Sorrow is better than laughter? As a normal human being, I want to be happy, not sad. Why would the Bible say this?

The rest of the verse explains it a little, “Sorrow is better than laughter, for by a sad countenance the heart is made better” (Ecclesiastes 7:3).

Because the Bible is about the sinful state of humanity and our need for repentance and salvation, obviously this relates to being sorry about sin. Without that, there is no hope for the heart to experience a joy that is beyond mere happiness, a joy that knows sin is forgiven and I am accepted by God.

Our pastor preached from Nehemiah 8 yesterday. Part of this chapter says that “the joy of the Lord is your strength.” Pastor pointed out that before that joy was theirs, the people listened to the Word of God and were weeping. He said that their sorrow was “the garden where joy grows.” In other words, without the soil of sorrow, repentance cannot spring up, and without repentance, no one can experience the fruit — which is the joy of the Lord.

I’m starting to think that God wants me to firmly understand this truth because today’s verse from my devotional reading says the same thing in another way. 

Now no chastening seems to be joyful for the present, but painful; nevertheless, afterward it yields the peaceable fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it. (Hebrews 12:11)
The world around me is involved in the pursuit of happiness. I used to be involved in the same pursuit, or at least in trying to reach that goal by their methods. These methods include having more of this, better that, impressing people, achieving, and so on. Not that there is anything particularly wrong with owning things or achievements, but there is another joy that lasts longer and far exceeds the happiness found in material possessions or worldly achievements. It is the joy of knowing that I am walking with God.

Jesus talked about the kingdom of heaven as having so much value that it was like a man who sought expensive pearls. When he found “one pearl of great price” he sold all that he had to buy it (Matthew 13:45). I can remember times when I knew that I had disobeyed God and needed to regain that precious fellowship. To me, being in right relationship with Him was worth more than anything that I might gain by sin. This is a pearl of great price.

Deep and settled joy from Jesus has great value, but a value unknown to those who have never experienced it. For many, the sorrow of guilt and the hurdle of confessing and repenting from their sin is a high and difficult barrier. It blocks any idea of joy to the point that it seems far easier to rationalize, make excuses, or just deny guilt, hoping it will go away and they can be happy again.

The medical profession says a large percentage of illness is rooted in denied guilt, yet the person in denial will not see or does not want to see the connection. For them, the notion of sorrow being better than laughter is nonsense and a topic to be avoided at all costs, even the cost of their physical health and eternal well-being.

The book of Hebrews says that Jesus endured the cross, bearing the shame of guilt for our sins. He did it “for the joy set before Him” because He knew that saying yes to that sorrow led to the eternal joy of accomplishing the will of God.

That same joy of the Lord is given to all who will allow themselves to be sad about their sin. When I take my shame to the One who forgives all sin, He grants me the righteousness of Jesus Christ — including with the ever-present joy that He gives.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Safety net

When construction began on the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, no safety devices were used. Sources say that workers feared falling to their deaths. Later in the project, a $100,000 net was put in place and more than 10 workers fell into it without harm. An interesting effect from being assured of their safety is that 25 percent more work was accomplished.

Sometimes people ask me how I can get so much work done. At first, I didn’t have an answer. I wondered even why they asked because it seems to me that I coast more than I work. However, as I look back on that question in relation to my spiritual life, I can see that being totally sure that I belong to God and that He takes care of me makes a difference in many things. One of them is that less time is wasted worrying about His approval. Another is that when my faith is tested, He always comes through to answer all challenges. Doubt and worry cease to rob me of time and energy. In this regard, James says,
Blessed is the man who endures temptation (tests); for when he has been approved (passes the tests), he will receive the crown of life which the Lord has promised to those who love Him. (James 1:12)
The promise of eternal life is solid and sets me in a place of certainty. My eternity is a done deal, totally settled. Because Jesus died for my sins and gave me faith and new life in Him, I will go to heaven when I die, living forever with my Lord and King.

Right now, the life that I have is both temporal and eternal. One will die, the other will not and cannot. As I wait for the day when I possess eternal life in its fullness, I’m already affected by it. For one thing, my heart is at rest concerning the big questions of life. I can press on with whatever is on my plate without being anxious about the present or the future. As Paul wrote, “There is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give to me on that Day, and not to me only but also to all who have loved His appearing” (2 Timothy 4:8).

I know that the work I do does not earn this assurance, no more than the work done by the men on the bridge bought them a safety net. Someone else provided their assurance just as Jesus Christ has provided mine. I’m trying to do the tasks He gives me with excellence, but if I slip and make a mistake, He will catch me. When the tests come and the way seems too difficult or even threatens my well-being, I can keep on because I know He is there and will not let me down. Passing the tests becomes a simple matter of remembering my safety net.

Enduring those tests does not earn eternal life either, but the fact that I can endure us proof that I already have it. For those who love and have a genuine faith in Him, He gives great joy in both life and work because He has put that safety net in place.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

On my mind

The Jewish people ate at their Passover celebration wearing a loose outer robe girded up about the waist with a belt, as prepared for a journey. The belt gathered the garment close to the body, reducing any impediment to their movements. In the New Testament, this image is used to describe how Christians must also be girded and ready for action.

This readiness is for the return of Christ as implied when He said, “Let your waist be girded and your lamps burning; and you yourselves be like men who wait for their master, when he will return from the wedding, that when he comes and knocks they may open to him immediately” (Luke 12:35-36).

However, Paul uses this image in Ephesians when he describes spiritual warfare and the ‘garments’ Christians must wear to be ready for battle and victorious over spiritual enemies.

Stand therefore, having girded your waist with truth, having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and having shod your feet with the preparation of the gospel of peace; above all, taking the shield of faith with which you will be able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked one. (Ephesians 6:14-16)
Another passage expressly points out that believers must have their minds (mental powers) collected and always ready for holiness. It says, 
Therefore gird up the loins of your mind, be sober, and rest your hope fully upon the grace that is to be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ; as obedient children, not conforming yourselves to the former lusts, as in your ignorance; but as He who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, because it is written, “Be holy, for I am holy.” (1 Peter 1:13-16)
I’ve read this passage many times and still wonder if this is talking about readiness for the return of Christ? Or is this about those many times that Christ reveals Himself to me throughout life here. Or does it mean both?

In the context, holy living is definitely the goal. To live a holy life, God asks me to guard my mind. I cannot be obedient to Him if my head is full of stuff other than the grace of God and my own need to pay attention to what He says. I know this is important. Jonathan Edwards says that “God is most glorified when His people are most delighted in Him.” I know that when I am totally delighted in God, not only is my mind work at its optimum, it is impossible to sin.

How can I guard my mind? The passage in Ephesians is one clue. It says that the belt that girds is the belt of truth. My mind needs to think truth, think things that are true and honest. If that sounds easy, nearly forty years of experience in this battle say that it is far from it.

The easier part is the robe that is held by the belt. It is not my robe, but that robe or covering of righteousness given to me by Jesus Christ and held in place by truth. The symbolism is a reality for all who believe in Him because He makes it real. The book of Revelation talks about those who believe clothed in robes made white because they have been dipped in His cleansing blood, vivid images that remind me that any goodness that I have is from Him.

Thoughts like these are what God gives so that I might delight in Him. When my mind is occupied with the realities of what Jesus has done, then my heart is filled with joy.

Some have called this a form of brainwashing. That’s funny, because the Bible says we have brains that need a good bath. Romans 1:21 says that even those who know God exists (by seeing Him in creation) will not glorify Him as God, nor are they thankful, but they “became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened.”

In a discussion about ritual washing, Jesus said, “Out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies. These are the things which defile a man, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile a man.” (Matthew 15:19-20)

Romans 12:2 says it clearly, “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 Bible says that our minds can be sewers, but they can also be transformed. It is possible to think godly thoughts. Paul says this:

Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy—meditate on these things. The things which you learned and received and heard and saw in me, these do, and the God of peace will be with you. (Philippians 4:8-9)
Right thinking is a well-spring. While Jesus said that out of the human heart proceeds evil thoughts, when that heart is renewed then godly thinking can flow.

I am to be occupied with truth, girding up my mind with noble and pure thinking. It really isn’t important whether this is for a revelation of Christ during the course of my days here, or the revelation of Christ at His second coming, or the revelation I see when I go from this life to the next. What is important is that I am ready to go and ready to do whatever He asks of me because He is already on my mind.

Friday, October 9, 2009

He never gives up

When I read verses about enduring trials in life, I cannot help but think of one aunt who said to us, “You guys have been through so much” and I didn’t know what she was talking about. Yes, we had trials that she didn’t know about, but even the ‘trials’ she had observed seemed like nothing. This is evidence of God’s grace.

Others would have more to say about trials. Missionary Bruce Olsen is one who suffered unbelievable tests of his faith and yet God used those circumstances in incredible ways. Other missionaries have similar stories and all would also attest to God’s grace in their lives. However, few of us homebodies know what it is like to be tested to the point of blood or loss of life.

My tests are different from physical danger and the dark spiritual battles that missionaries face. For me, some are difficult situations that challenge what I believe, but most of them are far more subtle. Will I continue to follow Jesus when life is good? When I don’t have any challenges? When time seems free to choose what I will do?

The homebody still has to govern their thoughts and keep them from going off into sinful pleasures. I must also govern my tongue. Answering the phone is a small thing, yet God expects me to speak with grace to telemarketers as well as anyone else who calls. I also am tested to see if I will be like Jesus in my relationships with family and friends.

For me, most of these tests and tests concerning my faith do not include painful situations. Instead, they are things like years of praying for someone and not seeing any results, or doing the things God asks me without experiencing much reward or appreciation. Faithfulness in the small things can seem just as trying as faithful in the crunch times.

Blessed is the man who endures temptation (means testing in this context); for when he has been approved, he will receive the crown of life which the Lord has promised to those who love Him. (James 1:12)
Endurance is about patiently and triumphantly sticking with it. This could be a matter of passive or painful survival, but the outcome is victory, not giving up on faith God. The test proves that the survivor is a genuine believer.

I know of folks who used to attend church, professed Christ as their Savior, and even were baptized, yet when trouble came into their lives, they vanished. The trouble that tested them could have been a big thing, perhaps a broken relationship, but not always. I know one who stayed away when people in the church looked down their noses at his smoking habit.

Regardless of the test, it convinced these people that Christianity either was too difficult, or didn’t work. I pray that God will bring them back, but those prayers are still ongoing.

I cannot condemn these people. One of my tests also brought me to the brink of walking away from God and all that I believed. But He wouldn’t let me go. He called me to endure the test and gave me great strength to overcome the strong temptation to quit and walk away. This event convinced me even more that Jesus is the Savior and I am not. For that reason, I cannot blame others who walk away. If it were not for Jesus, all of us would, so I pray instead of pointing my finger at backsliders.

I understand that any lack of endurance begins with a small choice that puts a person on a slippery slope. The test always presses me to quit, but if I do, even in just a small way, that doubt and attitude of walking away grows like the size of a snowball rolling downhill. It takes grace to get it stopped.

Every day, believers experience times of testing, both big and small. We are blessed when we endure because in the long run, after many successes and failures, we find out that God is faithful. We might have to hit bottom and fragment in a million pieces, but He will never give up His task of putting us back together and bringing us to Himself.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Endurance pays

During the early 90s I experienced an exceedingly difficult trial. When it was over, I realized I had survived the worst and that nothing could ever harm me now. Perhaps that is what James meant when he ended his discourse on trials by saying, “Blessed is the man who endures temptation [trials]” (James 1:12).

My devotional reading in Truth for Today says, “People who successfully endure trials and overcome temptation are truly happy. James is not saying that happiness comes in freedom from trials but in victory over them. There is a big difference. It’s not the shallow joy of the spectator who never experienced conflict; it’s the exuberance of the participant who fought and won.”

Victory is more than exuberance about winning. It is also the blessing of realizing that God is true and with me in all trials, and the blessing of a changed life. Just like Job, I thought I knew God when I went into that trial, but after it was over, my knowledge of God and His power and love had increased beyond my imagination.

James thought about Job too. He later wrote in his book, 

My brethren, take the prophets, who spoke in the name of the Lord, as an example of suffering and patience. Indeed we count them blessed who endure. You have heard of the perseverance of Job and seen the end intended by the Lord — that the Lord is very compassionate and merciful. (James 5:10-11)
At first, making it through a trial doesn’t seem like a blessing, more of a relief. Yet hindsight and honesty help me recognize how God has changed my life and sometimes the lives of those around me during my trials. When they are over, I am more equipped to deal with the tough things, and more confident in Him. I’m less fearful of life handing me lemons because I know that God makes great lemon pie.

At the same time, Job was plainly not the picture of patience during his trials. He complained and struggled, asking lots of questions. Yet Job did not lose faith or his integrity. He was an honest man, griping because he was so miserable, yet insisting he would “come forth as gold” after this trial was over. He did, and so did God.

The biggest trial in my daily life right now is having my dance card full, as my husband would say. I’ve too many responsibilities and not enough hours in the day. I’m teaching a Bible study called Making the Most of Your Resources and realize I’m being tested on what I am teaching. In the process of these pressures, just like the events of almost twenty years ago, God has my ultimate good in mind. He wants me to also come forth as gold.

Instead of complaining that the days are not long enough, I need to count even this work load as a joyful thing because God promises blessing after I persevere and endure. I must listen and pay attention to Him.

While this seems a smaller battle, even an ongoing life battle, He will teach me new things and change my life. My part is joyfully relying on Him in faithful endurance.