December 31, 2010

To Live is Christ — a sinner saved by mercy

We are on holidays and listening to satellite radio in our vehicle. A talk show host on one program was ranting about the way language is being twisted and abused. He was upset at normal words being given “politically incorrect” status so that no one would be offended and worried that concern over stepping on toes will replace good communication.

That is an issue for me too. I’m also dismayed by the way false teachers and cults twist the words of the Bible to make it say what they want it to say. As if that were not bad enough, we who are Christian sometimes do it too. For instance, yesterday’s devotional reading didn’t sit well with me because of the loose way the devotional guide handled this verse:

For God has committed them all to disobedience, that He might have mercy on all. (Romans 11:32)
Instead of considering the context (it is about Jews and Gentiles), the author of the devotional applied it to individuals. He said that no matter what our background is, God has a way of putting us all in the same place so that He can show mercy on us and save us. This isn’t a bad thought, but he used the wrong verse to make his point. A better choice comes earlier in the same book of the Bible. 
Therefore by the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in His sight, for by the law is the knowledge of sin. But now the righteousness of God apart from the law is revealed, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God, through faith in Jesus Christ, to all and on all who believe. For there is no difference; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood, through faith, to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His forbearance God had passed over the sins that were previously committed, to demonstrate at the present time His righteousness, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. (Romans 3:20–26)
I now chuckle because this passage is so rich in truth that it makes many readers go, “huh?” Long words, difficult concepts, and many phrases add up to “why didn’t the Holy Spirit convey this is simpler terms?”

Instead of the New King James, here is the same passage in a modern English version.

God doesn’t accept people simply because they obey the Law. No, indeed! All the Law does is to point out our sin. Now we see how God does make us acceptable to him. The Law and the Prophets tell how we become acceptable, and it isn’t by obeying the Law of Moses. God treats everyone alike. He accepts people only because they have faith in Jesus Christ. All of us have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory. But God treats us much better than we deserve, and because of Christ Jesus, he freely accepts us and sets us free from our sins. God sent Christ to be our sacrifice. Christ offered his life’s blood, so that by faith in him we could come to God. And God did this to show that in the past he was right to be patient and forgive sinners. This also shows that God is right when he accepts people who have faith in Jesus. (Romans 3:20–26)
In the middle, it says that everyone sins, (we are all bound up in disobedience) but God treats us better than we deserve (has mercy on us). Instead of taking a verse that is about Jews and Gentiles, this passage talks about individuals — you and I — rather than groups of people.

God did not accept me because I obey His Law, because I don’t. Instead, the Law shows me that I am a sinner. I fall short of His glory, yet in mercy He sent Christ to pay my penalty. By faith, I accept Him as my substitute and God accepts me because of Jesus’ sacrifice and because of my faith in what He has done. Yet even my faith is a mercy, a gift from God that I do not earn or deserve. Ephesians 2:8-9 says it well.

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.
Salvation is a gift. Faith is also a gift. I cannot boast about anything. I am a sinner, yet I am forgiven and belong to God because God ist merciful.

This is a grand thought for the end of this year, and a good thought to begin the one to come.

December 30, 2010

To Live is Christ — set free

Today’s devotional selects an unusual verse. It appears near the end of a section in Romans where Paul deals with the question of salvation for the Jews. This section is not easy to decipher. It describes how God intends that Jews and Gentiles both experience His grace, and both in the same way. This is the immediate context. . . . 
Concerning the gospel they are enemies for your sake, but concerning the election they are beloved for the sake of the fathers. For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. For as you were once disobedient to God, yet have now obtained mercy through their disobedience, even so these also have now been disobedient, that through the mercy shown you they also may obtain mercy. For God has committed them all to disobedience, that He might have mercy on all. Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and His ways past finding out! (Romans 11:28–33)
Verse 32 was highlighted in the devotional reading. Another version says it this way, “God has bound all men over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all.” Taken out of context, this verse cannot be used as the devotional guide uses it. It first must be understood in the way Paul intended it.

I read a few commentaries after reading this verse in its context. Paul emphasizes throughout Romans that God’s purpose is to bring mercy to all. In this passage though, the “all” is not likely about every individual, but to “all” in as in both Gentiles and Jews. Earlier in Romans, Paul wrote that “Jews and Gentiles alike are all under sin” (see 3:9–20).

Further, his reference to God having “mercy on them all” is not the idea of universal salvation, but that the Lord has poured out mercy on Jews and Gentiles alike.

If there is an actual “all” people here, it is that all individuals in both groups are bound over to sin. Besides that, God has mercy on all individuals because His mercy is intended for all and is offered to all, even though not all will accept it.

The word translated “committed” them to disobedience is sometimes translated  “bound over” and literally means “to enclose, to confine, to shut up, to imprison.” Does this mean that God imprisoned the Gentiles in disobedience or caused them to sin, or made it impossible for them not to sin? I don’t think so. In the larger context of Romans, it goes back to 1:18–32 where Paul tells how God decided to “give them over” to the sinful desires of their hearts, referring to sinners who knew the truth about Him but rejected it.

As for the Jews, Paul explained earlier why they are bound in disobedience. This happened because the law, in which the Jews trusted, has only one verdict for sinners: condemnation. As one commentator puts it, this statement refers to “God’s decision to ‘confine’ people in the state that they have chosen for themselves.”

This is one more way that the Bible illustrates how God shuts up all men in their sin because all have sinned. We are trapped in the consequences of our sin with no hope of escaping through any deeds or schemes of our own doing. One verse says it like this: “By the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight” (Romans 3:20).

The spiritual law of sin and death creates these “cords that bind sinners and leave them shut up in the dungeon of death, in the very vestibule of hell” but this is not the last word. God has provided a way of escape from this dungeon, this prison of sin. It is the way of mercy, the way of grace, salvation through faith in Jesus Christ.

Even though no one is justified by works, we are not under the law of works, but under grace. This is the point of Romans 11:32, that God provides mercy to all, Jews and Gentiles alike. We have been together in the prison of our disobedience, but no one needs to stay in that prison. Jesus Christ died for our sin, was buried, and rose again the third day that we might be set free. 

Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and His ways past finding out!

December 29, 2010

To Live is Christ — tested

The last couple of days have been a test to see if I understand this verse. I know it is about church order, but for me it also has been about disorder in my head.
For God is not the author of confusion but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints. (1 Corinthians 14:33)
We planned to leave our house yesterday morning for a vacation. With Christmas and other events, I’d not had time to make coherent lists of what I planned to take. I had a few scribbled notes of things as they came to mind, but fourteen pieces of paper is not my usual method of being organized. When the time came to shut down all activity and get those suitcases filled, I found myself wandering around the house muttering.

After a few hours of this, I was beginning to feel confused, almost lost. I thought about staying home, or taking nothing and just leaving, neither going over very well with my patient husband. Finally I remember that God wasn’t in this. He is not the author of confusion.

Since God was not doing this that left me (whose mind is not normally befuddled) or my spiritual enemy. I know that Satan loves to stir the pot and create all sorts of negative thoughts, everything from anger to suicide. With both his attacks and my fears of “am I getting senile”  in mind, I took a few minutes to speak to the Lord. I said that since He had already told me this confusion was not from Him, whatever caused it needed His touch. Could You please give me peace instead?

Of course He did. As a result, I quickly made all necessary decisions and finished packing. We left yesterday morning, just as we planned.

Tomorrow I will be reading a new verse, and who knows what tests will come from that one. For now, I’m content to be blessed with a clear head and peace — both in my head and in my heart.

Clipart source

December 28, 2010

To Live is Christ — seeking His peace

We approached a restaurant with a sign on the door. The words were vague. I could not discern if the door was broken or the place was closed. One of our friends made a similar comment. His wife said, “You two are alike when it comes to being particular about using the right word in the right place.” She laughed.

Mark Twain once said, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.” I could not agree more. Confusion reigns when a word is interpreted to mean something other than what the speaker or writer intended. Consider this verse:

For God is not the author of confusion but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints. (1 Corinthians 14:33)
My devotional guide says that God is the author of peace, not complacency, and never confuse the two!

Inappropriate words can give uncertain messages. For example, do you call a determined child stubborn? Could an outgoing girl be called a flirt? Does a person who thinks before he talks get unfairly dubbed shy, or an introvert? Precise words convey precise meaning. When it comes to interpreting Scripture, nothing could be more important than word definitions, at least in many cases.

As used in the Bible, “peace” is sometimes about the absence of conflict and war. However, peace can also be an inner calm when outer circumstances are far from it. This is sometimes called the peace of God and is described as “beyond understanding” because it makes no sense to be calm on the inside when all else is in turmoil.

Biblical peace is sometimes more like a legal term when it is used to describe what happens when a person becomes a Christian. While atonement was made for my sin at the cross when Jesus died, that forgiveness did not become personal until I made a personal commitment of faith in Christ and repentance from sin. As that happened, the wrath of God on my sin was replaced by grace, mercy and adoption into His family. My peace with God was secured. I may have had those new Christian problems with doubt, contrary emotions, and negative thoughts, but nothing changed the reality of this peace. It isn’t about emotions.

In contrast, complacency is about being smug. The dictionary says that a complacent person is marked by self-satisfaction accompanied by unawareness of actual dangers or deficiencies. That is, anyone who thinks that whatever they do is fine will be “at peace” because they see no reason to be otherwise. This could describe a sinner who thinks they do not sin, or a troublemaker who has no idea of the turmoil they cause others.

Complacency is being oblivious and having a false sense of “all is well” rather than being at peace because things are well, or because God has given an inner peace in circumstances recognized to be difficult. Complacency is not the same as peace.

The spiritual opposite of this smug satisfaction is first a conviction of sin. Those who are aware of eternal danger and are fearful of God’s wrath have moved from complacency to discontent and humility. In God’s dictionary, these are not bad words. Instead, these attitudes are vital. They move sinners toward discovering what is wrong with complacency and what is wonderful about the peace that comes from God. 

Good and upright is the Lord; therefore He teaches sinners in the way. The humble He guides in justice, and the humble He teaches His way. . . . The Lord will give strength to His people; the Lord will bless His people with peace. (Psalm 25:8–9 and Psalm 29:11)

December 27, 2010

To Live is Christ — at peace with God’s way of organizing

The Genesis account of creation says that creation was “good.” Then it describes the fall of humanity into sin and tells that the fall resulted in weeds.

Sin certainly brought many other things into life that I would rather not experience, but as I was thinking about God, creation and the word “confusion” I pictured a tangle of weeds. This verse reinforces Genesis; God did not author the disorder we call weeds. 

For God is not the author of confusion but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints. (1 Corinthians 14:33)
Of course this verse is not talking about the confusion of weeds, but the confusion that comes with conflict.  Disharmony and confusion are partners. People involved in conflict are confused about each other’s position on matters, by heightened emotions and by illogical rhetoric. God does not author that kind of confusion either.

In nature, we tend to want “order” to counter the chaos of weeds and randomness. However, in the mind of God, I’m wondering if the opposite of confusion is beauty rather than order. If nature were orderly, at least in human thinking, trees would grow in neat rows. However, God’s idea of order is not alphabetical, numerical or geometrical. While those are fine for our minds, the mind of God seems to have determined that the antithesis of confusion is beauty.

Another example comes to mind. Sometimes our church sings a piece in which the men and women each sing entirely different words. Whoever wrote this song of praise had to be guided by the Holy Spirit because the result is not disorder but beauty.

Another example is in church ministries. Often members of a congregation are all doing different things, yet the overall result is harmony rather than chaos, again illustrating that God’s opposite for disorder is different from our idea of organization.

In the verse above, He also defines order with the word “peace.” This also fits the “orderly” examples I’ve been considering. A clump of trees or a randomly mixed field of wild flowers has peaceful effect. In my mind, this is far more peaceful than our “ordered” gardens.

It works like this in the Body of Christ also. The randomness (or seemingly so) of our efforts under the direction of the Holy Spirit are almost impossible to put on a flow chart or a church structure diagram. The Lord simply does not work in ways that we can predict, chart or diagram.

For example, we are praying for unsaved family members. Just as when I prayed for the salvation of my husband, God is not letting us see the order to what He is doing. Yet at the same time, His efforts to soften hearts are not chaotic or confusing. What He does has a pattern to it, a pattern that is in perfect harmony.

Sometimes I feel confused, but knowing that God is not the author of that, I realize my confusion comes because I have forgotten that my sovereign God is conducting the events of my life. I’ve also forgotten that His ways are not my ways. I cannot “see” the order in the plan of God unless He shows it to me, but remembering that He is not the source of my confusion helps me realize an important truth. I need to quit trying to arrange things to suit my sensibilities. What makes sense to me interferes with His definition of order. God tells me over and over that I walk by faith, not by sight. When I trust Him (rather than what I can see), the world around me can be totally confused and confusing, but I am at peace.

Photo Credit

December 26, 2010

To Live is Christ — in context

Yesterday I was guilty of doing what I tell everyone not to do. I used a verse out of context because parts of it fit what I wanted to say about Christmas. Or maybe it was just one of those “good message, wrong text” errors.

Today, I woke up thinking about how the verse fits the passage where it is located. Some of the ways this passage is interpreted troubles and even angers many women, but it doesn’t need to. The gist is keeping order in church meetings.

What then, brothers? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up. If any speak in a tongue, let there be only two or at most three, and each in turn, and let someone interpret. But if there is no one to interpret, let each of them keep silent in church and speak to himself and to God. Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said. If a revelation is made to another sitting there, let the first be silent. For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all be encouraged, and the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets. For God is not a God of confusion but of peace. As in all the churches of the saints, the women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says. If there is anything they desire to learn, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church. Or was it from you that the word of God came? Or are you the only ones it has reached? If anyone thinks that he is a prophet, or spiritual, he should acknowledge that the things I am writing to you are a command of the Lord. If anyone does not recognize this, he is not recognized. (1 Corinthians 14:26–38)
Prior to Christianity, women were not allowed to learn. In fact, Jewish men daily thanked God they were not born a dog, a Gentile or a woman! However, the coming of Jesus elevated the status of women. They could now learn.

In this new situation, I can imagine the response. Suddenly women could take part in worship in ways not previously encouraged. For some, their enthusiasm overflowed any sense of decorum. They talked too much and at the wrong time, disturbing church meetings with comments and questions. Paul writes that such disorder is not from God. He wants peace, therefore the women who were doing this needed to be quiet and stop their chatter. If they needed to know anything, they should ask their questions at home.

If this interpretation is left there, then this instruction to the church has no value for today. It is a cultural issue without application. However, if that were the only interpretation criteria, soon none of the Bible would have relevance. Figuring out where to draw the line is difficult too, even confusing. I’m certain that God is not the author of that kind of disorder either.

When I read this passage, it seems to me that the culture and the situation in the church at Corinth (the most carnal and disorderly church in the New Testament) must be considered alongside the principles of God taught elsewhere in the Bible. That is, we might be able to say this passage is about a situation in that church at that time, but we cannot throw it out entirely. The passage also has much to say about the heart of God and His desire for His church.

First, all done in worship or other meetings must build up others, helping them to be more like Jesus. That alone is a tall order. However, this section is about speaking in tongues. Much of what it says is about the order and rules needed for that phenomena. Today, some church leaders say this is no longer a valid practice so disregard these verses. Others say if you don’t speak in tongues, you are not filled with the Holy Spirit and tend to disregard these verses also. That results in much disorder over this issue — and as Paul says, God is not the God of confusion. All the mayhem belongs in that “suspected behavior” category.

As for the part about women, does this forbid women from speaking in tongues? Does it forbid speaking anything that is without an attitude of submission? Are females to be like children, seen but not heard? Certainly other passages need to be considered!

Rather than polarizing this into a set of rules governing whether or not I can talk in church, I’m thinking of the principles behind this passage. Some of these believers were behaving in ways that missed the leading and intention of God. Their efforts were out of order and causing confusion. This is not godliness but selfishness. The church is supposed to encourage and give recognition to Christlike behavior, not me-centered activities.

While this is gender-related in this passage, it could be only because of reasons previously given — the women were out of hand. However, I’ve been in situations where the men were speaking out of turn and confusing the issue. It seems to me that the sinful source of disorder should be addressed, not matter who is causing it. God intends that all His children are courteous, polite, considerate, and orderly. He says no disruption, rudeness, and any sort of pushy me-first attitudes.

That said, like the women then, anyone new to church worship today could be ignorant of the godly way to do things. In fact, if Paul were writing this today, he might have said something like this: 

As in all the churches of the saints, the people need to turn off their cell phones. They are not permitted to text either, but pay attention and put their hearts into worship, as the Scriptures say. If they desire to learn, listen to others or ask someone whose background qualifies them to answer. It is shameful for anyone to disrupt worship with selfish and thoughtless behavior. If you have received the Word of God recently and did not realize the need to consider others, now you know. Don’t expect that your ringing phone or ability to text will impress the people of God. Instead realize that the church is far more concerned that you humble yourself and put others first.
Others may not agree with my understanding of this passage. Some think women can preach, teach, do everything. Others think women cannot speak at all. As for me, I’m content with the jobs I’m given, terrified yet obedient when God gives me opportunities to say something, and try my best to listen and obey when He tells me to keep my mouth shut.

Is it still Christmas anywhere?

Blogger allows "scheduled" posts and about nine out of ten work. Yesterday's didn't. Instead of posting Christmas morning as it was supposed to, the thoughts about December 25 went to "draft" and I had to post them manually this morning.

Trying not to say bah, humbug... I'll be back later today.

December 25, 2010

To Live is Christ — rejoicing in His birth

Has anyone ever identified that magical feeling that many experience during Christmas? Last night we felt it during our Carols and Candles Christmas service, but I sensed it for many days prior, and without music or candles.

I’ve my own theory about the “Christmas spirit.” I think it is a greater sense of the presence of God (who is always present). It happens because more people are thinking about Him than they usually do. Since every Christmas carol offers worship to God, more words of praise are given to Him than are normally given.

Since the Bible says God occupies the praises of His people, it makes sense that as we sing, His presence becomes more tangible to us, even to others. Some say it is “magic in the air” or “the spirit of generosity.” I believe it is the Spirit of God becoming real because He is praised.

Part of this Christmas experience is a deep sense of peace. The angels promised peace on earth at the birth of Christ. God gives His peace to all who believe in Jesus. It is a peace that passes understanding, a peace that is like no other.

I know, not everyone knows peace at Christmas. There is sorrow, grief, heartache and all sorts of calamities from accidents to house fires. Why then do people say a disaster is “so much worse because it happened at Christmas”? Is it because a calamity has robbed them of that peace they have come to expect?

Today’s devotional verse isn’t about Christmas, yet it is fitting for this day. It begins with, “For God is not the author of confusion but of peace. . . .” (1 Corinthians 14:33)

How true. God is not into mayhem and disorder. While He plants wild flowers and trees willy nilly, there is a sense of loveliness and beauty in His design. We scar the soil and bring in weeds; we confuse the doings of God. He promises peace, yet His peace eludes those who ignore its source.

While singing carols in the candlelight, the world’s complexity and bedlam seemed a million years away. For one hour, we focused on the events of the birth of Jesus Christ and worshiped Him in song. As we did, God poured His peace into our hearts.

Is it magic? Maybe supernatural is a better word. The natural is the chaos of human life and our efforts to make it bigger, better, more. The supernatural is the simplicity of a baby born in a manger, growing to manhood, showing (those who cared to see) that He is God in human flesh. He was crucified for our sin, but after three days rose from the dead. This Dear One now lives forever at the right hand of the Father, interceding for those who put their trust in Him. He also prepares a place for us that we might someday join Him there and also live forever.

The children's eyes are wide with wonder. My eyes at times fill with tears of joy. Is this magic? Rapture is a better word. My heart is filled with the wonder of God humbling Himself to be born in a stable as one of us — that we who rebel against Him and create confusion and disorder might have opportunity to share eternity with Him.

There are no words. Embrace Jesus and adore Him. Herein is deep joy and the incredible peace of God, just as the angels promised.

December 24, 2010

To Live is Christ — slowly learning

My dad died eleven years ago today. I’ve not marked this day as a sad anniversary, mostly because I’ve always allowed grief whenever it came calling, no matter what day it was. However, my dad and my mother came to mind today. As I thought of them, I also thought how children are like their parents. In some cases, the good comes out but far too often the not-so-good is multiplied in the next generation.

The Old Testament talks about the sins of the fathers being visited on the children. This idea of “generational sin” has intrigued me. I’ve concluded the main reason a child becomes a “chip of the old block” or worse, is that a parent cannot teach their child how to conquer a sin tendency that they have not conquered themselves.

I’ve seen this in several situations. A foul-mouthed parent will have children who do the same, or worse. A parent who lies should never be surprised that his child lies. A stubborn mom will fight stubbornness in her child.

On the other hand, my theory could be wrong. My mother’s mother never said a bad word about anyone. My mother was like that too. If she had bad feelings, she kept them to herself. Her and dad never fought, at least that I witnessed.

My father’s father was a quiet man too, but feisty and not easy to know. He had a rough childhood, but seldom talked about it. My father was not like that. He talked. He loved people. He didn’t like laziness or dishonesty. We always knew where dad stood on an issue or a circumstance.

What got handed down to me? I’ve also been outspoken. Everyone knows how I feel about situations and people. I can be a fighter and hold a grudge for a long time with or without words. When I became a Christian as an adult, my attitudes began to change. Yet God is still changing them, going deeper.

The process reminds me of a dog we used to have. He often came home full of quills after a run-in with a porcupine. I feel like that dog must have felt when we had to tie him down to remove the offending barbs. He never barked or whined because he knew this pain was for his good, but he didn’t like it very much.

Such is the effect of the Word of God. It hurts, but at the same time, I know it is good for me. There is healing — if I stop resisting and let the Holy Spirit change my life.

Finally, all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind. Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary, bless, for to this you were called, that you may obtain a blessing. (1 Peter 3:8–9)
God gave me lots to wince over with these verses. As I read them, all I can remember are the times I had a contrary mind, was without sympathy or love, had a hard heart and was filled with pride. It seems that I picked up the negative side of the positives in my parents. I remember my mother surprising me with a rebuke when I complained about something she did, as if I knew how to do it better. Pride.

I think also about my dad’s example of “love thy neighbor” which made him so beloved in his community but didn’t wash off on me. Hard-hearted.

These memories sting, but God’s barbs are even more pointed. After almost forty years of Christ living in me, I still block Him with the sins of my childhood, the pride and lack of caring for others. I didn’t “learn” this from my parents. They tried. These verses speak even louder, and I am so slow to listen.

I’m not sure if folks in heaven can see us on earth. Likely not. When I get to heaven I want to hear “well-done” from Jesus. However, after I see Him face to face, I’d love to hear something similar from my dear mom and dad.

December 23, 2010

To Live is Christ — taking care of business

A few years ago a woman started coming to our Bible study. She was a new Christian but an angry one. She took every opportunity to speak against the people that had wronged her. If not that, she broke each moment of silence to talk about herself.

Nevertheless, she sincerely wanted to grow and be a better person. One day when alone with her, the Holy Spirit put on my heart to suggest that she would not grow as long as her focus was on herself. A long silence. Then she said, “You are right.” She took that suggestion seriously. Her life began to change in remarkable way. She is now a joyful, happy person.

I need to remember my own advice. The last part of today’s devotional reading asks, “How much do you grow in the Lord when you have vindictive or spiteful thoughts?” This comes from the middle of this passage . . . 

Finally, all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind. Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary, bless, for to this you were called, that you may obtain a blessing. (1 Peter 3:8–9)
My answer to that question? Not very much. Growth is not about filling my head with Bible knowledge. Some say that knowledge must go from my head to my heart. I say it has to go from knowing it to obeying it.

I can make excuses for getting upset with people. I’ve had some nasty things done to me. Anyone else would be angry and want to get even, or at least think unkind thoughts. Yet the Bible is clear. Vengeance and retaliation are God’s business. My business is to bless people.

Sometimes blessing others means telling them the truth in love, which motivated my suggestion to that new Christian. Sometimes blessing is keeping my mouth shut. Regardless of how it is expressed or shown to others, a blessing comes from a sympathetic and loving heart. It is tenderness coupled with humility. Whatever I say to others comes from “been there, done that” humility, besides a deep desire that they prosper, move forward and know Christ better.

Some people narrow the meaning of blessing. For them, it is feel-good situations and/or money. They like the Bible verses that promise a blessing to generous people, interpreting these to mean that God wants them rich. While money is not evil in itself, the love of it is the root of all kinds of evil (1 Timothy 6:10). So also is love of self, ease, power and control. Evil has many motivations and definitions.

Likewise, blessing has many descriptions, all opposite to the words that describe evil or sin. Stuff like retaliation, spite, pride, a contrary or harsh spirit, lack of affection, hardness of heart, name-calling, and selfishness cannot produce words or actions of blessing.

Not only that, things like this are a barricade. They stop the love of God from flowing to me and through me, and keep me from becoming more like Jesus. God wants every part of me clean and prepared to take care of the business He has given me. I cannot grow if I hang on to even a hint of stinky thinking.

December 22, 2010

To Live is Christ — passing on His love

Is it possible to treat everyone the same? Maybe, but the Lord knows that the treatment I receive from Christians who are walking with God will be different from those who are not. I will also be treated differently by unbelievers. Some are apathetic and walk right by. Others are antagonistic and look for a fight. Regardless, I’m supposed to bless all of them, no matter what they do to me.
Finally, all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind. Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary, bless, for to this you were called, that you may obtain a blessing. (1 Peter 3:8–9)
For Christians, like-mindedness is the goal. This is not thinking the same, but having a big heart concerning our differences. I must be sympathetic toward those who need sympathy, and love everyone because everyone needs love.

I’m not to harden my heart toward other people either, no matter what they do. I think of what would have happened had God hardened His heart toward me. I’m no better than others, and certainly no more deserving of his grace. Humility comes easy when I remember what I once was, and what I would be without Christ.

No matter what other Christians do, I must remember that we are never enemies. Our enemy is the “accuser” who slanders us before God and puts similar thoughts in our heads. Nothing serves Satan’s purposes better than to pit Christians against each other.

Then there are people in the world who hate Christianity, but they are not our enemies either. The Bible says their minds have been blinded by the real enemy. For that reason, I’m not to return their animosity or get into name-calling or arguments with them.

I felt like it this week. A letter to the editor in our newspaper told of a woman who was horrified that her child happened to see a nativity scene. Another woman is pushing for schools without religion, particularly Christianity. These stories made my emotions rise.

However, instead of writing a letter or even grumbling in my mind, I decided to pray for these people. Do they not realize what happens to a nation who abandons God? Even those who do not know the Bible can see what pushing God out has done in countries like Russia and North Korea.

Yet the Bible says that the “god of this world has blinded their minds.” What could be worse? They do not know that they do not know. Blind people need a blessing, not retaliation. They need the Light of the World to shine into their hearts, not a tongue-lashing. They need to see the goodness that God can produce in a sinner’s heart, not an argument from the “religious right” nor a loudly proclaimed judgment shoved down their throat.

I try to put myself in the shoes of a spiritually blind person. It is impossible, but I can remember the way I was before God saved me. Indifferent at best, proud and filled with self-centeredness to the point of being obnoxious at worst. I also remember the Christians. Those I knew were kind. They included me. They never yelled at my excuses or made fun of my ignorance. Not one of them ever made me think that being a Christian was a terrible idea.

Giving the love of God to others might be a challenge if those others are evil, mouthy, or mocking me. Nevertheless, the same love God gives me is not only for other believers, but for those who do not know Him or even have a desire to know Him. His is an unconditional love, not earned, not deserved, but demonstrated by Jesus Christ in sacrifice and in incredible kindness and grace. To this I am also called.

December 21, 2010

To Live is Christ — Do Unto Others . . .

Those of us who like straight talk can be a pain to those who mince words, veil intentions, or hide behind platitudes. However, as painful as straight talk can be, I’m glad that the Bible has many passages and verses that are like an arrow. Nothing could be plainer that this translation from The Message. 
Summing up: Be agreeable, be sympathetic, be loving, be compassionate, be humble. That goes for all of you, no exceptions. No retaliation. No sharp-tongued sarcasm. Instead, bless—that’s your job, to bless. You’ll be a blessing and also get a blessing. (1 Peter 3:8–9, The Message)
My role as a Christian and child of God is to bless others. The word “bless” can mean “cause to prosper, make happy, or speak well of.” It refers to the kind of treatment everyone wants from others. I am delighted with those who help me in my efforts to do well. I am overjoyed with those who are concerned for my happiness and say good things about me. I’m to do the same, just as said in the famous Golden Rule.
And just as you want men to do to you, you also do to them likewise. But if you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. (Luke 6:31–33)
Loving lovely people is relatively easy. As Jesus says here, anyone can do it. However, Peter wasn’t talking about loving nice people. These verses, in a more literal translation, say:
Finally, all of you be of one mind, having compassion for one another; love as brothers, be tenderhearted, be courteous; not returning evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary blessing, knowing that you were called to this, that you may inherit a blessing. (1 Peter 3:8–9)
Nice people are not into “evil and reviling.” Nevertheless, God’s Word says to be loving, compassionate and tenderhearted toward them, and at the very least, be courteous. When those who are bent on being malicious mistreat me, I’m to bless them . . . cause them to prosper, make them happy, and speak well of them.

Just in case anyone thinks that being a Christian is easy. . . .

December 20, 2010

To Live is Christ — in the cycle of love

The epistles from Peter were written to the churches “of the Dispersion.” These were Christians who had to leave home and live elsewhere because of persecution. This still happens in our world, but most people in North America know little of persecution, never mind being displaced because of their faith.

I try to imagine people hating and mistreating me for believing in Jesus. I try to imagine this being so severe that the only way to survive is leave town. Such events seem impossible, yet I can easily predict how I would feel if this happened to me. I would be upset, angry, and in a fighting mood. 

Finally, all of you be of one mind, having compassion for one another; love as brothers, be tenderhearted, be courteous; not returning evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary blessing, knowing that you were called to this, that you may inherit a blessing. For “He who would love life and see good days, let him refrain his tongue from evil, and his lips from speaking deceit. Let him turn away from evil and do good; let him seek peace and pursue it. For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous, and His ears are open to their prayers; but the face of the Lord is against those who do evil.” (1 Peter 3:8–12)
The Lord calls for a far different response than the reaction most people would have to mistreatment. He first says to stick together. These displaced believers under the pressure of persecution could easily turn on each other, but He tells them (through Peter) to be united and love each other. That same attitude must then flow outward to others.

The way this passage is worded shows a principle: if Christians cannot love each other, they will not be able to withstand those who do evil, never mind return blessing for it. My strength to love others comes from God. If, as God’s child, I cut that flow of love off and refuse to love His family, there is none available for the rest of the human race, including those who dislike me because I believe in Jesus. No wonder 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)
The love of God has a flow pattern. It goes from Him to me and to all who believe. Then it flows out from each of us to one another. This is our testimony. Love shows the rest of the world that we belong to God. Without it, there is no testimony.

John wrote about this too, only from a slightly different perspective. He said that anyone who claims to love God must show it, or it is not real. 

If someone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen? (1 John 4:20)
Love for God is demonstrated by loving other believers, and loving other believers is totally necessary to the ability to love everyone else. If that cycle or flow of love is cut off, my power to be compassionate, tenderhearted, even polite, is cut off. I cannot bless others. I cannot control my tongue. I will not seek peace nor do good. My prayers will not be heard. Those around me will not experience the love of God.

When Christians cannot get along, do we realize the terrible price of not loving each other?

December 19, 2010

To Live is Christ — in harmony

The first line in today’s devotional reading says, “God wants you to get along with grumpy people.” My first thought was, what if I’m the grumpy one? But of course the verses for this reading cover that . . . 
Finally, all of you be of one mind, having compassion for one another; love as brothers, be tenderhearted, be courteous; not returning evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary blessing, knowing that you were called to this, that you may inherit a blessing. (1 Peter 3:8–9)
Before these verses, Peter gave specific direction to women who are married to disobedient husbands. He also tells husbands to honor their wives and live in such a way that their prayers are not hindered. Then he gives these instructions to everyone who believes in Jesus Christ.

Being of one mind does not mean cookie-cutter Christians. These verses are about larger attitudes rather than thinking the same way about everything. The rest of passage describes people who have compassion for one another. Their love is like the love in a family where spats sometimes occur but where brothers and sisters have a deeper loyalty, one that disagreements cannot change.

It means having a soft heart that forgives easily. It also means being polite, not rude. It tells me that if another Christian does something that hurts me, I do not get even. Instead, I do what I can to bless them.

For some who grew up in a loving family like I did, these commands should be easier to obey than for those who did not. However, our sinful human nature makes this a challenge for me and for everyone. Apart from the power of the Holy Spirit, my flesh wants to be right, to get even when hurt, to resist authority, and to do the opposite of all these things. I cannot obey these commands without the work of God and the new nature that Christ gives His people. When push comes to shove, I will shove back unless I am abiding in Christ and relying on Him.

One other important thought comes to mind. This is not mere surface behavior. There are “nice” people who are kind and loving as part of their persona, but when confronted or pressured by “grumpy” people, they usually turn away and avoid them. God asks more of His children than our normal temperament. He asks us to be like Jesus regardless of what our nature is, and that is the challenge. 

Today I will be with those brothers and sisters. This reminds me that the Lord wants unity and love as these verses describe. Will it be easy? Or a challenge? Either way, I can do it only by His grace.

December 18, 2010

To Live is Christ — being helped so I can help others

The Bible is clear that I am not to make any judgment or condemnation on the sins of others when I am guilty of the same thing. This means no finger-pointing concerning their failures when I’m also guilty of the same kind of failure. But it also says that those who are spiritual need to restore those caught in sin (Galatians 6:1). To do that, I need to recognize and make judgment calls about those who are caught in sin. This verse adds the qualifier that I must first consider myself lest I am also tempted, the same as today’s devotional verse.
Hypocrite! First remove the plank from your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye. (Matthew 7:5)
Removing the “plank” from my own eye means seeing, acknowledging and confessing my own sin. Sin cannot be removed by trying harder. Only the Spirit of God can cleanse the human heart. 
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)
Suppose my sin is gossip. I’d excused it or never noticed it, but after awhile, the gossip of others starts to bother me. I am feeling judgmental toward those who do it. Then to my shame, I realize that I do it too. As with any sin, my first reaction might be annoyance at myself and an effort to stop. It doesn’t work.

I must take this sin (and all sin) to God, confessing it for what it is. He may take me deeper, showing me that the real reason I do this is to make myself look better than others, or some such thing. After confession, He forgives me because Christ died for that sin. Jesus Christ is God’s only basis for forgiveness, as is His shed blood is His only basis for cleansing or removing sin.

I also might need to confess this sin to other people, but once this is done, I am starting in a fresh place. However, removing the plank is one thing; keeping it out is another. After I’ve been forgiven, suppose I am with a group of people who begin gossiping. At this point, I have a choice. I can go along with what they are doing, get angry at them for doing it, or ask the Holy Spirit to help me. He desires my deliverance from this sin even more than I do. He might give me a word of rebuke for others, or have me simply walk away and find someone else to talk to without gossiping.

The verse from Matthew goes farther. It says that once my sin is taken care of, then I can see clearly to remove it from others. Of course, I am not literally able to do that. Again, only God can remove sin. However, His work of removing it begins with recognition and conviction. All of us first need to realize we are sinning, whether it is gossip or something else. Then we need to have a sense of guilt before God for that sin. God might ask me to talk to someone about their sin, even a sin that was once mine too.

There is no “speck removal” formula. This is something that requires being in tune with God and having my own life clean. He might ask me to share my struggle with my plank. He might have a different way for me to help someone else. However, if my heart is free from the same sin and the eye-blurring guilt of it, I will have clearer vision. I will know what it is like because I’ve been there myself. I will also have greater compassion and be able to speak with kindness and understanding.

Jesus never sinned, but the Bible does say that He was tempted so that He could aid those who are also tempted (Hebrews 2:18). In a similar way, those of us who struggle and overcome a sin are given the command to help those still caught in it. Judging is never to be a finger-pointing, “me vs. others” thing. It is always to be a gracious “I’ve been there, I can help you — we are in this together” ministry.

December 17, 2010

To Live is Christ — without layers

Every discipline has its verbal terminology. Our doctors use $500 words that describe medical conditions. Most of us need a translator when reading a legal document because legalese is as confusing as a foreign language.

Christianity has its terminology too. As a writer, I’m aware that the use of Christian terms without definitions will make eyes glaze over. There are passages in the Bible that sometimes do that to me.

Besides the complications of biblical words, some passages become so familiar that my eyes scan them, but I don’t read them with much comprehension. I assume that I know what they say. For that reason, I sometimes look at contemporary English paraphrases. Their translation may not be as accurate as some Bible versions, but the fresh approach often has a way of smacking me on the side of the head.

Don’t pick on people, jump on their failures, criticize their faults — unless, of course, you want the same treatment. That critical spirit has a way of boomeranging. It’s easy to see a smudge on your neighbor’s face and be oblivious to the ugly sneer on your own. Do you have the nerve to say, ‘Let me wash your face for you,’ when your own face is distorted by contempt? It’s this whole traveling road-show mentality all over again, playing a holier-than-thou part instead of just living your part. Wipe that ugly sneer off your own face, and you might be fit to offer a washcloth to your neighbor. (Matthew 7:1–5, The Message)
Ouch. For me, this hits home. Its description of a smudge compared to an ugly sneer vividly reminds me that what I think is merely a smudge in my own life can look quite different to others, and more pointedly, to God.

The other part is that description of “holier-than-thou” as role-playing. It is role-playing. No one is holier than anyone else. The godliness anyone has is from Christ and not available apart from Him. To act as if I have an edge over others, or even think that way, is pretense. I’m putting on a face. As translated in other versions, this is hypocrisy — since “putting on a face” is the way to define this word.

Last night I talked with someone about the way we use layers to protect ourselves. We pretend to be what we are not for fear that we will not be accepted. Being critical of the faults of others is a layer or defense mechanism. It says, “Don’t look at me, look at them. See how bad they are. Don’t see how bad I am.”

Besides the meanness of that, this attitude is also a lie against the Gospel. The Gospel says that I am accepted in the beloved. Christ died for me. There is nothing that I did or can do to earn or deserve that, but there is also nothing I can do to change or erase that. His grace is freely given and nothing can separate me from His love.

In Him, I don’t need layers. I don’t need the layer of finger-pointing the faults of someone else so people will not see mine. God loves me. He is using all things to transform me into the image of His Son. What people think of me may have some importance, but putting on a layer to manipulate their opinions reveals that I have forgotten the words, promises and grace of the One whose opinion matters the most.

December 16, 2010

To Live is Christ — expressing outrage at sin

To be like Christ first means that He lives in me and I have His life. It also means that I know what He is like. Otherwise I might be surprised at the ideas and emotions He gives me. If I’m not aware of what Christ is capable of, I could choose to disobey Him.

A few years ago at a girl’s (under 16) soccer game, a man cheering for the opposite team sat on our side of the field near the bleachers. A few little girls were playing with their dolls about ten feet from him. This man was cursing and using foul language in every statement he uttered. The soccer families were appalled. One of them said, “Someone ought to do something.”

Christ in me said, You do it. Out loud, I said, “I will” and to my own astonishment, stood up, climbed down the bleachers, went over to the man, and gave him a sound rebuke. He argued at first and made a mocking gesture as I walked away, but he was silent for the remainder of the game.

Had I not read of Jesus cleansing the temple, I would never think Jesus, meek and mild, would have been behind this move, but I also know myself. I would never have done that without Him.

Those who study the Bible and read passages like the one that follows, wonder about the place of righteous indignation? Is it real? Or do we use that as an excuse to disobey this biblical command?

Judge not, that you be not judged. (Matthew 7:1)
Unfortunately, most who know this part of the Bible stop at the end of this verse, usually wagging their finger. They have heard someone call sin as they see it and the only thing they can think of is, “We are not supposed to judge others.” This is true, but there is more to this passage.
For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye. (Matthew 7:2–5)
This command to not judge means that I am not supposed to point my finger at someone else who has the same problem that I have. I’m not to criticize a lazy person when I am lazy. I am not to accuse someone of being thoughtless when I am thoughtless. It isn’t wrong to call sin what it is, but it is wrong to announcing the sin of others as if I am better than they are and without that same sin. It is judging to condemn and put them down.

The idea of judging sin to condemn is not like Jesus. He judges sin so that it can be confessed and corrected. He judges sin for the purpose of forgiveness and redemption. Huge difference. When read carefully, this commandment is more about seeing and fixing problems than it is about keeping my mouth shut when I see someone sinning.

However, there is more to this passage. What about guys in lawn chairs at soccer games who have filthy mouths and no interest at all in being righteous? Am I supposed to judge them? Am I supposed to ignore them? If I do speak up, am I then supposed to try to take the “speck out of their eye”?

First, these verses talk about “a brother” and in biblical terms, that usually means another Christian. Since Christians very rarely, if ever, use language like that, and since I am one of those, this passage does not apply. It isn’t about fixing my life first before I address the problem in the man with the mouth. He obviously had no desire to be righteous.

The next verse is likely more appropriate. It might even be the reason Jesus didn’t give me anything to say to him about the spiritual implications of his speech. I appealed to his example around small children, the fact that team supporters were required to sit on their team’s side of the field, and that if he wanted to encourage his team, his word choices were not doing it. Anything more would have been a waste of my words because Jesus also said, “Do not give dogs what is holy, and do not throw your pearls before pigs, lest they trample them underfoot and turn to attack you.” (Matthew 7:6)

Strong words. I cannot label anyone a dog or a pig, but in this case, this man labeled himself. In my forty years of being a Christian, this is the only time that I was aware of being indignant without personal reasons. From this, I learned two things. One is that Jesus is fully capable of expressing His attitude toward the sin of others through His people. I’m far too cowardly to have done what I did by myself.

The other is that righteous indignation is probably a rare thing. This could be true because most of us don’t know what to do with it, or perhaps we simply mislabel it because we don’t recognize it. Sadly, judging others when I should keep my mouth shut and deal with my own stuff is far more common.

December 15, 2010

To Live is Christ — needing to see clearly

My devotional reading focuses on a verse from Matthew about judging others. It says: “You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.” (Matthew 7:5)

Yesterday’s time studying this verse raised two questions. The first was this: can I teach from my mistakes? In other words, if the log is out of my eye, does my initial error disqualify me from helping those who struggle with specks?

The second was this: can I teach in an area where my experience is limited? Is this lack in me actually a “log” or is it more like “one person cannot do everything”?

This morning the Lord answered both of them by directing me to the same narrative about judging and logs in my eye, this time in Luke. 

A disciple is not above his teacher, but everyone when he is fully trained will be like his teacher. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Brother, let me take out the speck that is in your eye,’ when you yourself do not see the log that is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take out the speck that is in your brother’s eye. (Luke 6:40–42)
Yes, I can teach from my mistakes, but only teach what I did right. That is, if I recognized my sin and confessed that to God with a repentant heart, I can teach others about confession and repentance. I can encourage them that no matter what mistakes they have made, God is merciful.
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)
The second answer is that even if a teacher has limited experience in something like evangelism, or giving, or serving or whatever ministry others need to learn, they will still learn something. They may not grow beyond the teacher, but at least will grow. My devotional reading says, “You can only lead others as close to God as you are at the moment.” Jesus says that “full training” will bring others to the place where their teacher is, and if that is closer to God than they were before being taught, why not?

The important part of all of this is to keep my own life right with God. If I’m blinded by a sin, it will prevent me from helping anyone who is also blinded by sin, the same one or otherwise. I need continual encouragement to recognize and confess my sins to God. Sadly, that recognition often comes by first seeing the sin in the life of someone else.

December 14, 2010

To Live is Christ — with questions

No matter what I want someone to do, I’d like them to first have some training and experience in that field. My doctor has eight years of medical school and several years practicing medicine. I’d not take my physical problems to the grocer or the driving instructor, no more than I’d expect the doctor to be an expert in coffee, tea or produce, traffic rules or parallel parking.

God knows this. No one wants the person who struggles with lying to help them learn to tell the truth. No one wants those who explode in anger to tell them how to control their temper. Learn it first, then teach it. 

You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye. (Matthew 7:5)
From growing orchids to being organized, advice is better received from the people who not only know how to do it, but are actually doing it. Earn the right to help others by living right yourself.

My curiosity and thirst for information means that my head is full of stuff that does not automatically translate into practice. I know the right way to garden, but my yard isn’t going to win prizes. I know the right way to sew a man’s shirt, but my hubby gets his in the mens’ wear department. I also know how to deal with sin, but I’m far from perfect.

I suppose a goal of “be perfect at it before you teach it” is also not practical. In fact, it is impossible. My doctor is not House (who isn’t perfect either), but continually works at being more knowledgeable and more able to help others. My grocer doesn’t know what Kimchee is, or didn’t until I told him.

Jesus’ words about the log in the eye are not about perfection, but about continual attention to my own shortcomings. He’s put me in the ministry of teaching others. I’m not a perfect teacher nor does He expect that. He simply expects me to take care of the sin in my life as it surfaces. I cannot tell others how to overcome their sin issues if I’m not working on my own.

This raises two questions for me for which I don’t have answers. One is this: can I teach from my mistakes? Example: if I didn’t do something the way God wants it done, repented and learned from that mistake, can I now teach others the right way to do it? I cannot go back and redo this to make “doing it right” a part of my experience. The log is out of my eye, but does that qualify me to help those who struggle with specks?

The second question: can I teach in an area where my experience is limited? Example: If my class needs to know good principles of evangelism and I have the knowledge but limited experience, can I teach them how to do it? In this situation, I may have more experience than most of the class, but feel this is not a prominent or well-used skill in my own life. Can I still teach a class on evangelism? Is this lack in me actually a “log” or is it more like “one person cannot do everything”?

I’m sure that the Lord will answer my questions, but if anyone has biblical direction for these two examples, comments are invited.

December 13, 2010

To Live is Christ — using discernment wisely

Criticism of Christianity almost always uses the word “hypocrite.” This term comes from a word used for actors or pretenders. Those who use the word to describe Christians know that something is wrong. Even genuine believers cannot fake godliness.

Years ago I saw a video by a woman who wrote a book on evangelism. In the video, she said, “When I try to act like Jesus, all people see is me. But when I am just myself, for some strange reason, they say they see Jesus.”

Being a Christian means that Jesus lives in my heart. He is part of my life. If I try to run my life without Him, I stifle His work. If I get out of the way, He can do what needs to be done. He can even be seen in me.

I cannot try to cover up my sin. When I do that, I am faking it. If my cover-up takes the form of accusing others of the same thing that is even worse. Pretending I’m good where I’m not good is hypocrisy, but turning attention on others with the same problem is also hypocrisy. Jesus said so . . . 

You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye. (Matthew 7:5)
I’m aware that some Christians have more problems with finger-pointing than others because of their spiritual gifting. A spiritual gift is a particular motivation for some aspect of spiritual life. For instance, a giver likes to see material needs met. A teacher wants people to know things and think biblically. A leader wants people organized and the church making progress.

One of my gifts is called prophecy but a better word is discernment. It comes with a desire for spiritual truth and growth in others. Along with that desire is a high standard. I’m always aiming for greater likeness to Jesus in myself and in others. This is fine, but if that desire becomes self-centered or not powered by the Holy Spirit, then I start getting picky.

I’ve known others with the same spiritual gift. These are the quality control people in the church. Sometimes they are not very well liked. The gift is so focused on what should be right that those who have it forget to be nice. It is to this that Jesus speaks, but not just the need to be nice. We must also, as my devotional reading says, remove our blindfold before practicing optometry.

I cannot tell others to pray more if I’m slack myself. I cannot get uptight about worldliness if I’m caught in it myself. I cannot complain about laziness in spiritual disciplines, or any other fault that I see, if I have the same fault and am not doing anything about it.

Not only that, using discernment for finger-pointing ruins my communication with God. Oswald Chambers says it perfectly:

When we discern that people are not going on spiritually and allow the discernment to turn to criticism, we block our way to God. God never gives us discernment in order that we may criticize, but that we may intercede. (My Utmost for His Highest, November 23)
Talking about the specks in the eyes of others is harmful, and often reveals that I have the same problem myself. Seeing the flaws in others and blabbing about it is not even close to what God wants. He wants me to pray to Him concerning what I see. After all, He is the only one that can forgive sin and transform lives. My blabbing does nothing but harm. 

December 12, 2010

To Live is Christ — helping fellow travelers

Finger-pointing is easy. I’ve done it for various reasons. Foremost is the selfish notion that if others look bad, then I will look better, forgetting that putting down someone else makes me look bad too.

Sometimes it’s revenge. The other person has hurt me and I’m going to get even by taking a swat at them. This doesn’t work either.

Another motivation is frustration because whatever is wrong with them is interfering with a personal agenda or even progress in church growth. Regardless of the reasons, I’ve forgotten that I’m to help people grow and get on board, not critically judge them.

My devotional guide takes me to these verses to study this week. I sense conviction and soul-searching lies ahead . . . 

Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye. (Matthew 7:1–5)
The word “judge” here is judge/condemn, not judge/discern/evaluate. It is a critical determination that isn’t thinking about fixing the problem, only pointing it out to God or others, and using it to put that person lower than I am (on some sort of scale that I’ve independently determined). As soon as I do it, I come under the same sort of condemnation.

God is not my servant. He may give me discernment into the failings of others OR I could be imagining things. Either way, it is not my place to pronounce a verdict and expect Him to jump right to it. Instead, when I do that, He becomes intently interested in fixing MY problem, not the problems of those I criticize.

The first thing is checking in the mirror. As my mother says, when I point a finger, I must not forget that there are three pointing back at me. Am I seeing something in others that is true about me? Does their so-called shortcoming irk me because I don’t like it in myself? Is what I see in them God’s way of convicting me about the same problem in my own life?

The point isn’t that I’m to stay away from discerning and helping others with difficulties. The point is that I avoid doing it with condemnation in mind. I need to check my own life first. Christians are supposed to help one another get back on track when we stumble — being careful we don’t trip and fall ourselves. 

Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. (Galatians 6:1)
All of us walk the same road, face the same temptations, struggle with similar sins and our selfish natures. None of us can do this alone. We need to help each other with the right attitude.

Being critical isn’t helpful. Instead, it is like throwing more stumbling blocks in the path of others who have tripped and fallen — without realizing that I’ve also tripped and am down on my face alongside them.

December 11, 2010

To Live is Christ — learning His Word

Today’s devotional reading asks this question: Do you know God’s Word well enough to combat problems head-on, or do you retreat and look it up?

I’d have to say, “sometimes” to both, and for two reasons. The obvious reason is that only Jesus knows the Word of God well enough to say, “It is written . . .” for any situation or confrontation. He wrote it. I may have read the Bible through every year for many years, but am often tripped up. I either don’t know what God says on a matter or cannot find or remember it.

The other reason is that problems are not predictable. An old song says, “If I knew you were coming, I’d have baked a cake. . . .” If I knew what was coming next, I could be prepared for it. Maybe, but more likely not.

Preparing for trouble is something like rehearsing a conversation before you have it. I’ve done that enough times to realize it doesn’t ever turn out the way I rehearsed. Life’s problems are the same. No matter how prepared I think I am, some things catch me off guard and I’m just not ready.

The verse for today fits this line of thinking. Whatever else anyone calls those unexpected events of life, the psalmist called them afflictions.

It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I might learn your statutes. The law of your mouth is better to me than thousands of gold and silver pieces. (Psalm 119:71–72)
Being upset and uncertain, but knowing God has guidance and some answers helps me ‘retreat and look it up’ — if not immediately, then eventually. It seems to me that God made life like that and human beings like that. We learn by struggle, get stronger by struggle. In the difficulties, we find, remember, and more deeply take to heart, the solutions.

In 1989, I went back to school, this time Bible college. I quickly noticed that most of the younger students were there to have fun, attend as few classes as they could, learn the material, pass the exams, and find a spouse. For most of them, their afflictions were yet to come. Some of what they “learned” would need to be relearned.

For me, some of that learning had already happened. I’d been in ministry, been hounded by Satan, been swatted about by life’s events. I knew why I needed to study and know those lessons. The exams handed out by the professors were one thing, but the exams handed out by life are far more challenging.

Besides, during those few years in Bible school, more trials happened. These were far worse than anything prior. What better place could I be than immersed in Scripture and surrounded by people who cared? In all of it, the affliction and the learning, God taught me the incredible worth of His ways. I didn’t like them at the time, but what riches I have gained!

The prayer at the end of today’s reading says, “Thanks Lord, for caring enough to turn my worst into Your best.” This is what God does because He knows what best works for His children.

All I can add to that is, Amen!

December 10, 2010

To Live is Christ — considering the options

This week’s devotional reading is titled “Our Only Option.” Thinking about the verse again reminds me of a story. I’ve told it before, but it fits so well that it must be repeated.

A man fell off a cliff. On the way down he grabbed a tree branch. For several minutes he calls out, “Help. Is there anyone up there, anyone?”

Finally a voice said, “This is God. I’m here. I will help you — but first you have to let go of the branch.”

After a long pause, the man said, “Help, is there anyone else up there?”
Affliction is supposed to remind us that God is our best option, but how many options can I come up with before going to Him? I can be quick to my own resources. Even when those run out, I might look for human help or mechanical help or some other kind of help even though I know that this going-my-own-way is the essence of sin. 
All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way. (Isaiah 53:6)
After threshing about, I finally realize that clinging to my branch will not get me out of my trouble. I also realize that even if I haven’t fallen off a cliff, trusting God is always the best choice. The wisest man in the world, King Solomon, wrote these words: 
Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths. Be not wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord, and turn away from evil. It will be healing to your flesh and refreshment to your bones. (Proverbs 3:5–8)
I’m not sure why affliction seems to work better than mere lessons. It likely has to do with that sin nature. Even a child will try to get away with mischief until something sharper than mother’s tongue inflicts some pain. If it isn’t a swat on the bottom, it might be the principal’s office at school or the bars at the local jail. Solomon also wrote this: 
Because the sentence against an evil deed is not executed speedily, the heart of the children of man is fully set to do evil. (Ecclesiastes 8:11)
He had learned that delayed consequences for sin do not stop sinners — just as delayed punishment gives children greater freedom to misbehave.

This same wise man also wrote, “Sorrow is better than laughter, for by sadness of face the heart is made glad.” (Ecclesiastes 7:3) No doubt he was thinking of the sorrow of affliction, self-inflicted or otherwise.

Being in trouble rarely puts a smile on my face. Yet two things have taught me the folly of hanging on to my branch. One is that sometimes God gives me great peace of heart before the affliction hits. Because of that, I am so certain that He is involved that I can more easily keep my mind on Him and stay at peace.

The other is that after the trial is over and I take time to think about it, I realize how much He has taught me in the trial, particularly about His faithfulness. The lessons learned put value on the affliction. Why bother asking for anyone else to help when I have Him? 

It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I might learn your statutes. The law of your mouth is better to me than thousands of gold and silver pieces. (Psalm 119:71–72)
Clip art credit

December 9, 2010

To Live is Christ — where bad can produce good

"Sir, What is the secret of your success?" a reporter asked a successful business man.
"Two words."
"And, sir, what are they?"
"Good decisions."
"And how do you make good decisions?"
"One word."
"And sir, what is that?"
"And how do you get experience?"
"Two words."
"And, sir, what are they?"
"Bad decisions."

This well known quote about decision making has no name tied to it, but I wonder if that man was a Bible reader. He reflects the same wisdom as the verses I have been reading.

It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I might learn your statutes. The law of your mouth is better to me than thousands of gold and silver pieces. (Psalm 119:71–72)
While afflictions are not always from making bad decisions, a bad decision almost always makes me feel afflicted. This Hebrew word carries the idea of looking down or browbeating. It has also been translated as: humbled, forced, exercised, troubled and weakened. Sounds like the results of a bad decision to me.

Other associated words include being occupied, busied with, oppressed, bowed down, put down, become low, depressed, downcast, stooped and humiliated. None of these are pleasant experiences, yet whatever meaning the psalmist had in mind, he valued that some negative things had happened to him because through them, He was sent to Scripture and there he learned positive things.

However, when I was a new Christian, the idea of finding answers to my afflictions from the Bible was overwhelming. Where does a person look? The problems were big, but that book is bigger. I didn’t know where to begin.

Years of reading has helped me. So have other believers with more experience. One of my favorite resources is a little book by the late Selwyn Hughes called Your Personal Encourager. His 40 chapter titles include, “When God seems far away,” “When one thing comes after another,” and “When weighed down by stress.”

Another book, Overcoming Negative Thoughts, by Vera Wurtz, has 32 chapters with similar titles. Like Hughes book, this one also has Scripture that gives answers to perplexing problems and emotional meltdowns that happen during distressful times.

Whether affliction is something that happens to me, or something I bring on myself because of bad decisions, the Lord offers principles from His Word that bless me and teach me. As the psalmist says, His Word is better to me than finding a gold mine or winning a lottery.

December 8, 2010

To Live is Christ — learning to be teachable

One definition of insanity, or at least foolishness, is doing the same thing over and over, thinking it will work the next time. How sad when lessons are never learned.

As a teacher I am delighted with teachable people. My heart becomes heavy when someone thinks they know everything even though they struggle with life and will not listen to sound advice. I’m certain that God feels the same. He included this testimony in His Word. 

It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I might learn your statutes. The law of your mouth is better to me than thousands of gold and silver pieces. (Psalm 119:71–72)
No matter what life hands me or however God deals with me, He has graced me far better than I deserve. He oversees my life with love and for my good. My life verses have been these: 
And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. (Romans 8:28–29)
His design is to restore me to the image of Jesus Christ, and He uses ALL things to do it, even affliction as the psalmist says and as repeated in Romans.

As I look back, I can see God’s hand in the afflictions. At the time, I didn’t think that I needed to be so treated, but He knew. Affliction has taught me that my knowledge needed to be tempered with judgment and patience. Trials teach me to persevere, to hold fast to God even when it seems He has loosed His hold on me. I’m still not rejoicing during trials, but am able to be thankful that God uses them for my good.

Oddly enough, the easier life is, the easier I stray from Him. Faith and obedience grow when I’m pushed by trouble. Ease fills me with the pleasures of this life. God knows that I could be drawn away by the world, its wealth, and the things money can buy, but affliction makes all of that senseless.

He teaches me that there is no security in money. It flies away, making and keeping no promises. With trials, I am focused. With leisure and the “good” life, I am lazy and careless.

Affliction also gives me a heart for others who struggle. However, the good times tend to fill me with disdain for those less fortunate. I easily forget that all comes from God and begin to think too highly of myself.

Affliction forces me to be teachable. God strikes the “know it all” in me. It dries up in struggles, particularly those that seem to have no explanation. By these I learn that the principles of God, though difficult and often a mystery, are important and profitable. God uses them to show me that His wisdom is a wonder. He also shows me that He will take me through even the most difficult trial without harm and instead bless me because of them.

December 7, 2010

To Live is Christ — growing in trials

A few months ago a forty-something said that it must get easier to be a Christian as you get older. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry or give him a swat on the side of the head. Then, last Sunday, a young believer told me that growing in Christ is like skateboarding uphill — as soon as you stop you slide backwards. She got it right and I wanted to give her a big hug.

Not only is that true, the older I get, the more intense the battles and the steeper the hill. I suppose if I quit seeking God and desiring to obey Him, life might get easier, but I never did like going downhill backwards. Besides, my troubles could happen anyway, and if they did and I was going backwards, how would I ever deal with them? Without the Lord’s help, what else would be reliable? That is too wild a ride for me.

My mother used to say, “Well, if we didn’t need it, we would not be getting it.” She knew about the sovereign wisdom of God and who controls trials. The psalmist goes a step farther by expressing the value he found in difficulties. He said,

It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I might learn your statutes. The law of your mouth is better to me than thousands of gold and silver pieces. (Psalm 119:71–72)
Some of life’s most difficult challenges are in God’s classroom where He teaches me His principles. In affliction, I learn the ways of God and how they apply to my life. I also learn His faithfulness and how to rely on Him. Without the trials I would be ignorant of spiritual truth and miss out on seeing God’s power.

James has something to say about trials too. He sees the good in them also.

Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. (James 1:2–4)
As I get older, the challenges of life teach me that God is faithful and can deliver me. I need to trust Him and stick it out. The patience He gives is a mark of maturity and something not learned or developed unless it is put to the test. Steadfastness is the same. Who can become persistent and persevering unless there are situations that require it?

However, both the psalmist and James show me that I have more learning ahead of me. I hesitate at feeling joy about afflictions and seeing how they are good for me. While I know in my heart that this is true, part of me still wishes that it wasn’t!

December 6, 2010

To Live is Christ — bearing the weak

My devotional guide directs one more time to Romans 15 so I can take a closer look. I’ve interpreted the verse by itself. Looking at the context is important.

Paul has been talking about Christians who are weak in the faith and struggle with whether or not they can eat food sacrificed to idols. Today, some might consider this a form of legalism.

Legalism is living by rules. Do this. Don’t do that. While the Bible has many commands that I must obey, some turn church traditions into “rules” and then harp at the rest of us to obey them. It could be about what to wear to church, whether or not to go to movies, and other things not mentioned in Scripture.

By saying I am to please such a person “for his good, to build him up” limits my response. Neighbor-pleasing is not absolute. I don’t need to defer to the whims and wishes of others. Rather, the context shows that Paul is talking about pleasing others in areas where their conscience is threatened by weak faith. Pleasing the weak “for his good” means “for his spiritual profit or spiritual advantage.” It means doing what is necessary to help a weak believer maintain a clear conscience in these areas.

Paul considers himself strong in faith. He says, “I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself” yet adds, “but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean. For if your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love.” He added that if eating meat made someone stumble into sin, he would not eat meat.

Nevertheless, walking in love includes trying to lead the weak out of unnecessary rule-keeping. Love does not allow the weak to control the church. If someone says that going to hockey games is sinful (and it could be for them), everyone in the church cannot be “forbidden” to attend a hockey game. This would put everyone at the level of the weak believers. Spiritual life and growth would cease — which is what happens when we try to live by rules instead of walking in faith by grace.

Paul is more concerned that we treat one another with love and respect than we agree on the “rules.” He advises that we “pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.” He also says to those who are comfortable without such rules that they keep that “between yourself and God.”

My natural tendency toward those caught up in legalism is to try and talk some sense into them because the kingdom of God is about grace and His righteousness, not rule-keeping. I can see that their focus on these rules keeps them from Christian maturity. However, Paul says this:

We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up. For Christ did not please himself, but as it is written, “The reproaches of those who reproached you fell on me.” (Romans 15:1–3)
The Old Testament verse quoted here points toward Jesus. The “you” is God and the “me” bearing all the insults heaped on God is Jesus Christ. Because He bore those insults, I am to have the same attitude. Bearing what seems to me an insult to the grace of God and the intent of the Gospel is behaving more like Jesus than I would be by rebuking believers who are weak in faith.

Instead of doing what would please me, I am supposed to care about pleasing others. I know they cannot please God by their rule-keeping. However, I need to think of ways to build their faith, not challenge their weak conscience.

Again, the commands of God, including this one in Romans 15:2, are not easy. They go against my human response and require me to seek the face of God and His wisdom for each circumstance of life.