January 31, 2010

To Live is Christ — means godly priorities

An older Christian man told me that putting Jesus first did not mean throwing every else out of his life. For instance, when he began to love Christ, he didn’t stop loving his wife!

Some things need to go though. Obviously sin is one of them. Jesus died to save me from sin. Hanging on to it and professing faith in a Savior is illogical.

The Bible stresses giving up other things too. In Paul’s testimony about his confidence in Christ, he said that he no longer trusted the things that were once a source of spiritual pride. That is, whatever he thought was important in his life, he realized had no value in his standing before God. 

We are those who worship God in the Spirit, rejoice in Christ Jesus, and have no confidence in the flesh, though I also might have confidence in the flesh. If anyone else thinks he may have confidence in the flesh, I more so: circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of the Hebrews; concerning the law, a Pharisee; concerning zeal, persecuting the church; concerning the righteousness which is in the law, blameless. But what things were gain to me, these I have counted loss for Christ. Yet indeed I also count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in Him . . . (having) the righteousness which is from God by faith. (Philippians 3:2–9)
A quick reading and I think that I do not trust anything else but Jesus to save me. That may be true, but I need to watch my attitude about my spiritual life. I need to be careful I don’t start thinking that my obedience makes me look special in the eyes of God (or others) and become puffed up with spiritual pride.

For Paul, his confidence could have been in his rich heritage as a Jew and his zeal for God. For me, it could be the amount of Bible knowledge God has given me, or my obedience to spiritual disciplines, or that I don’t “drink, smoke, or chew, or run around with the people that do.”

While obedience is important, my obedience is never the cause of my salvation; it is the result. Not only that, I cannot boast. It is Christ who changed my life and I’ve seldom been cooperative with the changes. Paul says it well, and I have to read this passage with my name in it . . . 

For I myself was also once foolish, disobedient, deceived, serving various sinful desires and pleasures, living in malice and envy, hateful and hating others. But when the kindness and the love of God our Savior appeared toward me, He made it clear that it was not by works of righteousness which I do, but according to His mercy He saved me, through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out on me abundantly through Jesus Christ my Savior, that having been justified by His grace I should become an heir according to the hope of eternal life. (Titus 3:3–7, my paraphrase)
How is this practical? For someone prone to spiritual pride, humility is deeply important. Pride ruins everything. I cannot claim or boast that I am humble, but I can stop claiming or boasting about everything else. 

January 30, 2010

To Live is Christ — sharing a full meal deal

Then he said to them, “Go your way, eat the fat, drink the sweet, and send portions to those for whom nothing is prepared; for this day is holy to our Lord. Do not sorrow, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” So the Levites quieted all the people, saying, “Be still, for the day is holy; do not be grieved.” And all the people went their way to eat and drink, to send portions and rejoice greatly, because they understood the words that were declared to them. (Nehemiah 8:10–12)
As I read this passage again, I imagine at the end of a Sunday sermon the pastor telling the people two things. One is that they have sinned, but they are forgiven. The other is to go home, put on a feast, and share what they have learned with their family and friends.

Ezra, the Levites, and Nehemiah told God’s people to stop mourning (for they had wept when they heard God’s Word) and start celebrating. Mourning over sin is important, but once I know, really know and believe that my sin is forgiven, my response is total joy. As God’s child, I know sorrow for sin, but I also know the power of God that transforms sorrow into gladness of heart.

Obviously, some of the people in Nehemiah’s day were not present to hear the reading of God’s Word on this occasion. Others needed to hear it, so their leaders told them to have a celebration and share with their family and friends — those for whom nothing had been prepared. The same is true in my life when I read, hear, and understand what God is saying to me. Sometimes I share what I heard with those who were also at church. This is akin to “preaching to the choir” for they also heard it. What about those who did not? What about those who couldn’t attend, or who watch my life and wonder about the things that cause me joy?

Last night we ate with two of our family members. I noticed then and have noticed in the past that sharing spiritual truth seems much easier over a meal. While they may not ask questions or show interest, those who do not know Jesus are more receptive during a shared feast. Besides, it seems easier for me. All of us are in a relaxed frame of mind simply because of the food on the table.

I also notice one more thing in this passage. Whatever it was that convicted the people of sin is not described, leaving room for just about anything. In my life, when I am convinced of sin and then assured of my salvation, that is the full meal deal and a complete message to share. It isn’t enough to tell others how glad I am that God has forgiven me. Such a statement can sound “holier than thou” but when it is prefaced with an admission of the specific sin or sins that He has forgiven, then those who hear me know that I am just like them. The forgiveness that I talk about is not exclusive.

One of my commentaries says that the Bible brings conviction and leads to repentance, but it also brings joy. The same words that wound can also heal. People can feel sorrow for sin and wallow in that sorrow for years if they do not know about Jesus. People can also work hard to be happy all the time and refuse to think about sin. An honest and complete sharing of what God is doing in my life offers hope for both situations.

There are great treasures buried in God’s Word, and as I “dig” for them, I am joyful. Sure, God points out that I am sinful and that I do foolish things, yet He also shows me that I am forgiven and holy in His sight. After studying this passage, I am encouraged to share more often with family and friends during meals together. I want them to hear what He has caused me to understand and know the same sorrow and joy that He has given me.

January 29, 2010

To Live is Christ — getting fed to fight

Early this morning I dreamed I was at a large gathering of family and friends. The older children were excited because of a man who had a large crane with a bucket on the end. He was scooping them up, one at a time, then dropping them out of the bucket and batting them through the air. The kids thought it was great fun, and the parents sat in bleacher seating, silent and appalled.

I was appalled but not silent. In my dream, I was outraged. I marched up to this man and gave him a verbal rebuke, loudly declaring that he was not only putting these young people at risk, but risking a lawsuit when the first one hit his head on a rock or was damaged in any way. I forbid him to carry on like this and ordered the children to go home with their parents. My tirade worked and the foolishness stopped.

When I work up, the dream remained vivid, but seemed to me an allegory about the forces of evil that threaten our children. To them, some it might seem like fun, but they are actually in grave danger. On top of that, parents are devastated but feel helpless to do anything about it. I know this. I’ve been there.

Today’s Scripture is still the one from Nehemiah, and it offers preventive measures that will help families combat whatever tries to lure their children into danger.

And all the people went their way to eat and drink, to send portions and rejoice greatly, because they understood the words that were declared to them. (Nehemiah 8:12)
In those days, the people of God didn’t have the complete Bible as we do, but when they heard a message and understood it, it was cause for celebration. They went home and had a feast, rejoicing because they understood the will of God. I can picture how this would affect their children. Unfortunately, I can also picture the effect on young people when their parents use Sunday mealtime to criticize the pastor’s sermon.

The other thought that came to me relates to what happened in the dream when the enemy was confronted. This is like prayer, yet speaking out is not to persuade God. He wants our families to be safe from spiritual harm. Instead, prayer is to confront and battle the enemy. It is spiritual warfare and requires spiritual armor. Ephesians six describes it. A good soldier is girded for action, wears a helmet,  breastplate, good shoes, and carries a shield and a sword. It is not passive hand-wringing or silence.

I’m not a hero. I’ve also wrung my hands and watched in horror. However, Jesus does not do that. He teaches me that when I see people in danger, I need to take action — often on my knees and sometimes with boldness.

He is also teaching me the best way to follow up after hearing and understanding God’s Word. I need to feast on it and rejoice, then share portions with others so they also know the wonder of God’s care and have a deepening desire to stay close to His table.

January 28, 2010

To Live is Christ — hungry for spiritual food

On our journey home from vacation, we listened to satellite radio, particularly a Christian broadcasting network with messages from the Bible. Several of them put great emphasis on the fact of biblical illiteracy in the church today. Scripture is available, as is access to sound preaching, but something is missing.

Again I am reading from Nehemiah. In those days, the people were spiritual starved because they did not have access to Scripture. When their sacred writings were found, read and explained to them, God’s family responded with great enthusiasm.

And all the people went their way to eat and drink, to send portions and rejoice greatly, because they understood the words that were declared to them. (Nehemiah 8:12)
This event happened sometime between 435-445 BC, long before the Bible was completed, but they had enough of it to be able to hear God speak and be excited that they understood what He said to them. What is wrong with God’s people today?

Right now, for me the daily habit of reading the Bible is like physical food — without which I would starve! I don’t know what would happen if Bibles became illegal and were confiscated. The Word of God is my spiritual nourishment and a necessary part of life. I cannot leave it alone.

During one of those radio broadcasts, a man called in with a question. He was a Christian and knew that he should read the Bible but he didn’t like to read it and didn’t particularly feel like reading it. He wanted to know what to do.

The Bible Answer Man, Hank Hanegraaff, told him that involvement produces commitment. He said that we do not always feel like doing the right things, like going to work every day so our family is fed, but when we do the things we should do, our desire to keep on doing them increases.

My heart says yes to this. Start reading and keep reading and the next thing I know, I cannot be without it. However, I’ve found that desire needs to be guarded. 

Therefore, rid yourselves of all malice and all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander of every kind. Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation, now that you have tasted that the Lord is good. (1 Peter 2:1–3)
Jesus said I need to be like a little child. This is one way to do it — crave spiritual milk so I will grow. But malice, deceit, and the other sins listed in these verses can be appetite suppressants. I need to keep short accounts with God and my attitude right toward others.

The taste of the Lord’s goodness increases my desire for more. Listening to those radio programs was a feast. My husband and I talked for hours about what we heard and what we intend to do about it. We ate other things in the car during our long drive, but the feast that was our greatest source of joy was God’s Word explained and understood.

January 27, 2010

To live is Christ — means swapping jewels

Understanding God’s Word has been compared to mining for precious gems. Sometimes they are found lying on the surface. Sometimes they are uncovered by a few turns of a shovel. But the deepest and richest veins are found by digging deep below the surface. This means more sweat, but produces greater rewards.

I look at the assigned verse for these few days of devotional readings with that comparison in mind. It seems straightforward yet can I find more if I dig a bit deeper?

And all the people went their way to eat and drink, to send portions and rejoice greatly, because they understood the words that were declared to them. (Nehemiah 8:12)
The ideas seem fairly simple. The people had dined on the Word of God and left the meeting spiritually nourished. They celebrated their spiritual feast by having a physical one in their own homes with their families. They also sent food to others so they could celebrate with their families too.

Yesterday I saw that this was the opposite of having “roast preacher” for Sunday dinner. If my heart is open, God will speak to me regardless of the skill of the messenger. Also, understanding God’s Word is exciting. As today’s reading expresses it, any time He speaks to my heart and uses His Word to change my life, that is party time!

The next point made in the devotional guide is also important; celebrating a spiritual victory should be a family affair. To me, family here means the family of God.

Why should I share my spiritual insights with other Christians? Because life is tough and all of us so easily lose sight of the big picture. Besides that, sometimes we struggle in our mining skills, drop or lose our shovels, or get so caught up in our experiences and trials that we cannot even look for gems, never mind find them.

Another reason is that God’s family members tend to have short memories. We need to remind one another of the past blessings of God. We need constant assurance of His love and care for us. We need each other to live our Christian lives to the full.

Maybe God made us that way, but sin is certainly a big part of the reason for our neediness. I stumble easily. Doubt is often quicker than faith, fear quicker than trust.

When someone shares a spiritual insight with me, my sin might make me envious or resentful, blocking God’s blessing. However, most often their story nourishes my spirit. The Holy Spirit within me also rejoices at their discovery and I feel His joy. When that joy is shared in the family, even without the addition of food, it feels like a party!

To live is Christ
means remembering that I do not live for myself. I live for God AND for His people. When He blesses them with new insights, I need to rejoice and party with them. When He blesses me in the same way, others need to hear it. We are in this together and need one another. Burden bearing is part of it, but so also is the sharing of gems.

January 26, 2010

To live is Christ — with both ears open

Complaining is natural. Finding fault, wishing things were different, looking at the negatives, are all part of my sinful nature. I can go that way so easily, but instead, God tells me to be thankful, look for the good, and be content.

I’m learning. This year, I selected key words as well as the verse, “For me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain” from Philippians 1:21. Those words are: Thy will be done. Whenever I feel the urge to bellyache, I say those words — and mean them. So far, God has been replacing my grumbling with a better attitude.

I used to have roast preacher for Sunday dinner also. Not a good meal. Since becoming a Christian, we have moved a couple dozen times and been in many churches. Through all that, God showed me that if I wanted any spiritual nourishment from a sermon, I’d better smarten up and listen for it. Good preacher or poor preacher, He is able to speak through anyone. If my ears were tuned to His frequency, I would be fed.

Today’s devotional verse reminds me of this. The people of Israel had been in captivity and not had any sermons. For a long time, no one had read the Word of God to them nor explained what it meant. When they resettled, the priests and scribes found God’s Word and preached it to them. 

Then Nehemiah the governor, Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who were instructing the people said to them all, “This day is sacred to the Lord your God. Do not mourn or weep.” For all the people had been weeping as they listened to the words of the Law. (Nehemiah 8:9)
This response is rare. Perhaps too many of us have “heard it all before” or are preoccupied with life and do not really listen. In this case, God’s Old Testament people provide a good example of taking the Sunday message seriously. What they did afterward is a good example too. 
Then all the people went away to eat and drink, to send portions of food and to celebrate with great joy, because they now understood the words that had been made known to them. (Nehemiah 8:12)
Their spiritual feast, even though it made them weep, became a joy to their hearts. They went home to celebrate with a feast and with joy. They sent food to others and were glad because they had understood the message.

I fully appreciate this response too because I can relate to what happened to them. For sixteen years before Christ came into my life, I read the Bible every day. I could not understand it, but I thought this was what I was supposed to do. It was a ritual without meaning. After Jesus changed my heart and saved me, the Holy Spirit opened the meaning of Scripture to me. Ever since that day, the Bible has become my spiritual food and I rejoice when God helps me understand it.

This is important. There are bad preachers and poorly put together messages. However, complaining about them is folly. God spoke to His people in all sorts of ways, including through the mouth of a donkey. If I listen, He also speaks to me. To live is Christ means listening for Him, not roasting the preacher, or grumbling about anything.

January 25, 2010

To live is Christ — with every part of me

Yesterday’s experience at church challenged me and filled my heart with worship. The preacher showed how God shapes His people to serve Him. Everything about each Christian is part of His plan that we might be His servants.

He used an acrostic, SPENT, to help his listeners remember that we are uniquely equipped.

S stands for spiritual gifts. Romans 12:6 says, “Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith.” He used other verses to show that every Christian has been given at least one spiritual gift, not for ourselves, but to serve others.

P stands for passion. Using 1 Corinthians 3:5-6, he did a little skit to show how Paul and Apollos may have talked about what each considered their passion for serving. I can readily identify with the variety in God’s family concerning the desire to do things for God. Besides, the world is full of needs. No one person is able to bear the burden for all of them so “God gives us the desires of our hearts” (Psalm 37:4) in a variety of ways to cover those needs.

E is about experience. From Philippians 1:19 and other Bible verses, the preacher illustrated how God uses our experiences with Him throughout our lives to shape how we think and give us confidence in doing His will.

N is for natural talents, things we were born with like art, music, skill with numbers, athletics, even talkativeness. (See Exodus 31:2-5) These are also part of God’s plan in making me into the person He wants me to be.

T stands for temperament, my personality. He uses introverts one way, extroverts another. Am I flexible, consistent, level-headed, emotional, quiet, talkative? All of what makes me who I am is part of God’s plan. Psalm 139 is all about how God knew me before I was born, encouraging me in accepting who I am.

A sermon like this is hard for a person my age. I have been a Christian for a long time, yet have regrets and things I wish I could do over. Also, some of the examples in the sermon made me feel as if I was too old to be involved in anything major. This message was a big challenge.

Yet it was also encouraging because the words never made anyone feel left out or unimportant. Each believer is part of what God is doing, from parking attendants to those who clean up after coffee is served. I don’t have to write a hundred books or disciple dozens of new Christians. I just have to do what God asks me to do, and realize that He has shaped me to do it. This means accepting who I am, what I have gone through so far, and even accepting that He is using the mistakes that I’ve made as part of His construction process.

This is directly related to the verse that again is given for today’s devotional reading. God has equipped me so that I might be able to . . .  

Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. (Galatians 6:2)
I’m not able to bear all the burdens of everyone, but there will always be a few areas where I can be of service because of the way God has SPENT time, effort, and the power of His Holy Spirit shaping my life.

The most fascinating part of this message was not just that it builds confidence regarding obedience, but it left both my husband and me in awe of God. As the words sunk into our hearts, we thought of all the permutations and combinations of those five areas in individual lives, then multiplied that by the millions who follow Christ. What an amazing God — He uniquely equips every single person to be part of His plan for this world.

For me, the practical part is very simple. To live is Christ means accepting that He has SPENT so much, including the life of His Son, to make me what I am. All I need to do is let Him direct the use of it in service to Him.

January 24, 2010

To live is Christ — bearing burdens in more ways than one

For the past few days, God has shown me the importance of humility and prayer in bearing the burdens of others. Again, He points me to the same verse . . .  
Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. (Galatians 6:2)
God put the thought into my head that prayer is vital because I need to be connected to Him if I am to be of any use to others. But, prayer is not enough. In the matter of bearing burdens, He expects me to put shoe leather to my prayers. He reminds me of another passage in the Bible . . .  
If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,” but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit? Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. (James 2:15–17)
The current situation in Haiti is a good example. Prayer is needed, yet if that is all that anyone did, the results would be ludicrous. All the faith in the world does not move rubble, carry the injured to safety, or bring in supplies of food and water.

What prayer does do is clarify. If I spend even five minutes with God concerning the needs of others, He often reveals to me more about their need that I initially realized. He also shows me His will in the matter and gives me ideas of what I might do that is helpful.

To live is Christ means prayer, but also, at the initiative God gives, it means getting off my knees and doing something.

(Note: Following up from yesterday’s post, the day spent with that person who intimidated me was entirely God-blessed. I’m certain that my attitude had more to do with the problem than her attitudes. I’m also certain that God is the Giver of grace, the only One who can change my heart!)

January 23, 2010

To Live is Christ — requires stooping

I’m antsy about today. We are meeting relatives at an event, then eating dinner with them. One of them has an attitude that is like a few other people I know and I struggle with my response to that attitude.

This person is not a Christian but thinks she is. Her faith is based on her “good works” and she is very sure of herself. While I know that salvation is by grace through faith and not about good works (Ephesians 2:8-9), when I am with people who think like she does, I feel like I have to prove something.

Today’s Scripture is the same as yesterday, but speaks to me in a different way. I read it in several versions and this one speaks to my concerns today . . .  

Stoop down and reach out to those who are oppressed. Share their burdens, and so complete Christ’s law. (Galatians 6:2, The Message)
This verse reminds me that spending quality time with this person is not about me. I need not “look good” but instead do good. The only way to do that is by not allowing her attitude to produce the urge to get on my high horse. Instead, I need to stoop.

Personal pride is never a help to anyone. If her pride makes me feel like I have to prove myself, how then will my pride affect her and others? Humility is a choice, and pride needs to be confessed. I have to admit that I want to look good. That little word “stoop” is a good kick to my inflated ego.

I also need to remember that this person, and others like her, have been oppressed. They may not know it, but they are carrying the heavy burden of trying to establish their own righteousness. This cannot be done. If I feel antsy about trying to establish myself, and I have Jesus Christ to be my righteousness, how does a person feel who has no support from God? Perhaps God is trying to show me through my own anxiety how she feels on the inside — behind that bold external appearance?

Instead of making this a competition, the law of Christ is based upon love, grace, and mercy. It is not about me, but it does require me to be there for those who are too confused or even too full of themselves to follow Christ. I know this is the right way, but just thinking about it makes me fear that I cannot do this. I don’t know how and need help. I need to stoop.

By God’s providence, my annual practice of reading through the Bible took me to this passage this morning. I hear the Lord saying the same things to me as He said to Moses. This is my paraphrase . . .  

Then Elsie said to the Lord, “See, You say to me, ‘Bear her burden.’ But You have not let me know if the Spirit will go with me. You have said that You know me by name, and that I have also found grace in Your sight. Therefore, I pray if I have found grace in Your sight, show me now Your way, that I may know You and that I may find grace in Your sight. . . .”
 And the Lord replied, “My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest. . . . I will also do this thing that you have spoken; for you have found grace in My sight, and I know you by name.” (Exodus 33:12–17)
For me, today to live is Christ means forgetting about what I feel like around a self-righteous person. It also means remembering that she is bearing a burden that is too heavy for any human being. She may not admit it or want it lifted, but that is not my responsibility. I first need to understand that hidden under that pompous attitude, she is carrying a burden — and I can carry that burden to the Lord in prayer for her.

January 22, 2010

To Live is Christ — means knowing which burdens to carry

Politicians are plunged into hot water when the press takes something they said out of context that makes them look like idiots. Observers must back up and see the entire block of what was said before the person who said it is off the hook. If someone did that to my speech or writing, I would be enraged.

I wish it worked like that with Bible interpretation. Far too many false doctrines have been formed and perpetuated because someone lifted a line from the Bible and disregarded the words before and after it.

This morning’s devotional again is from Galatians 6, but this time I am thinking of the context to understand what it means to bear someone’s burdens. We tend to think this means burdens like grief, loss, financial reverses, and other trials, but is that all that Paul meant?

Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness, considering yourself lest you also be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. For if anyone thinks himself to be something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself. But let each one examine his own work, and then he will have rejoicing in himself alone, and not in another. For each one shall bear his own load. (Galatians 6:1–5)
As I read it, it seemed that verses 2-5 are an explanation of verse one. Paul is telling the church that individuals need to look out for others, but in doing so they must not forget that they themselves are vulnerable. Broadly speaking, obeying these words would put a stop to both individualism and meddling in the affairs of others.

Suppose a Christian tips over and falls into a habit of gambling and is in a casino every other night. When another Christian (who is walking with Christ) hears about it, he is upset and even angry. He knows the power of such temptation for he is a reformed gambler. Can that man help the one in the casino? Yes, if he goes in the spirit of gentleness (this word could also be translated meekness), realizing the danger not only to the first man but to himself. He could be in the same mess, so cannot act “holier than thou” with the first man. He needs to consider his own vulnerability and be meek on the inside and gentle on the outside.

He also needs to bear the burdens of the first man. This is anything the first man considers a heavy weight. It could be whatever pushed him into this in the first place, or a fear of financial loss, or strained relationships at home, or the loss of respect from other Christians. The burden-bearer must feel those concerns and pray for this man in ways that the man cannot or will not pray for himself, including confessing his sins and asking God for forgiveness. This is what Christ is doing, so “to live is Christ” means doing the same thing. (See yesterday’s post.)

At the same time, this second man must avoid spiritual pride. Yes, he is helping someone who is in trouble, but that does not make him anything special. It is as Jesus says . . .  

So likewise you, when you have done all those things which you are commanded, say, ‘We are unprofitable servants. We have done what was our duty to do.’ (Luke 17:10)
Instead, the second man is to examine whether or not he is being obedient to God. Is he doing this because he is angry with the man? Or because God says so? From my own experience, I know that by doing what Jesus commands, I “have rejoicing in myself alone” and don’t need anything else (like retaliation or “I told you so”) to give me a sense of satisfaction. Nor do I have to compare myself to any other person to be glad about what I am doing.

That being said, the load or burden of obedience is my own load. Regardless of what others do, this is my burden. No one can bear it for me or obey for me.

The first man, the one stuck in the casino, is also responsible for his own obedience. However, because he is “overtaken” or caught in sin, he needs help to untangle himself. This is part of Body life for Christians. We bear one another’s burdens, knowing we cannot bear them ourselves, but also reminding ourselves that Jesus bore them in a greater sense when He died on the cross to remove our burden of sin for all eternity.

January 21, 2010

To Live is Christ — carrying burdens

A Christian man became so overwhelmed in grief when his wife died that he could not pray. He told the men from his church who came to visit him that he was not sure that he even could believe in God any longer.

The men put their arms around him and told him, “That’s okay. We will believe for you. We will pray and confess for you.” And they did, continually, and returned to visit him several times a week. After several months, he told them they didn’t have to pray for him anymore because now he would like to pray with them.

We heard this story in last Sunday’s sermon. It affected me greatly. This is a true example of what it means to bear one another’s burdens.

Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. (Galatians 6:2)
There are people on my prayer list who tell me that they do not believe in God. I can believe and pray for them until they do believe. I can confess their sins and ask forgiveness for them. I can pray for them until they are able to pray for themselves and even after that.

This is what Jesus does. The Bible is clear about His role as my Savior from sin by His death on the cross. He interceded for me by sacrificing Himself in my place. However, I still sin and He continues to intercede for me in prayer.

Therefore He is also able to save to the uttermost those who come to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them. (Hebrews 7:25)
I need that prayer now. I can confess my sin myself, but am not aware of every sin, but He is. He knows all about me, and knows when I need prayer. One day His intercessory prayers will not be necessary. I will step into my eternal reward and be totally free of sin. Until then, I need His intercession.

The word means to plead on another’s behalf. Some cannot or do not pray because they do not believe, or they think they do not need God. But Jesus prays for them, bearing their burden of sin on the cross and bearing their burden of unbelief and lack of connection to God in prayer. 

For me, to live is Christ includes bearing the burdens of others. One way I can do this is by praying for them until they are set free from whatever heavy loads they carry, the burden of sin included.

January 20, 2010

To Live is Christ — means throwing out the trash

A cartoon shows a man crying out to God. In the first panel he says, “God, why do you allow so much injustice in the world?”

In the next panel, God replies, “I might ask you the same question.”

Integrity is more than merely being honest about the negatives (and positives) that people cannot see. It is also about being acceptable to God, not just on the outside but also in my heart. In the Old Testament, the Lord said to Samuel, 

Do not look at his appearance or at his physical stature, because I have refused him. For the Lord does not see as man sees; for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart. (1 Samuel 16:7)
The Hebrew word translated “refused” is used several dozen times in the Bible. It is also translated as despised, rejected, and abhorred. It is one thing that God can look into my heart, but quite another what He finds there.

One of the questions in my devotional guide asks, “Have you ever thought you were pleasing God, only to discover that you were fooling yourself?”

As I thought about it, I recalled when I was a new Christian and gave a matter to God, asking Him to deal with it. At the time, I thought it was the right thing to do, but it didn’t turn out well and I’ve lived with painful consequences since then.

This question made me realize that I was asking God to do something that the Bible clearly states is my responsibility. Of course I would need His help to do it, but what I called “faith” He calls disobedience.

I was like the man in the cartoon. I was also fooling myself. My heart wanted results, but I could not admit my sense of inadequacy to do the task, nor did I ask God to help me with it. Instead, I passed the whole thing up to Him and asked Him to do it. That is not faith, no matter what it looks like on the outside.

When God looks at my heart, He refuses, rejects, despises, and even abhors the sin and self-centeredness that He sees. Integrity is about being willing to look at myself with His measuring tools, agree with His assessment of what I see there, then do something about it. To live is Christ means being honest about the junk that God refuses, then getting rid of all the trash and doing what He says.

Clip art credit

January 19, 2010

To Live is Christ — means that internals and externals match

Good manners are measured by what you do when you think no one is looking. I don’t know who said it, but I like the description. It is about integrity, about being who I am all the time, not to impress people or to appear better than I am.
But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look at his appearance or at his physical stature, because I have refused him. For the Lord does not see as man sees; for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” (1 Samuel 16:7)
At Christmas, some parents tell their children that Santa sees who is naughty or nice. Obviously they are hoping the child will be nice and thereby profit by their good behavior.

Some parents even tell their children that God knows what they do even if no one else can see them. Sometimes this is used as a threat, and if a child hears it often enough and takes it to heart, that child might reach adulthood immobilized by a misconception of God’s attitude toward them.

Psalm 139 tells me that God knows when I sit down or stand up, which seems a no brainer, but He also knows what I am going to do or say before I do it. Of course I agree with the psalmist that such knowledge is too wonderful for me.

The idea of an all-knowing God could be threatening. If I didn’t know that God also loves me and will forgive even my sinful thoughts, then I might cower in fear that He will be angry at me all the time. While the Bible says to fear God, He doesn’t want me to be afraid of Him in that way.

Instead, I’ve found that God wants my awe, but He also wants me to simply be honest with Him and with everyone else. Our word for that is integrity.

Integrity is illustrated in the book of Job. Although he complained (he did have a rough go of it) and had a huge pity party, God says he never lost his integrity. This puzzled me until I realized that Job was an honest man. If he felt crappy and was angry at God, he said so. He had no put-on spirituality or pious pretense in his life.

For me that means that true spirituality is also like good manners — my spiritual life could be measured by what I am thinking, saying and doing, even when no one is noticing. It is being totally transparent before God too. There is no point in a false pious demeanor in front of One who can see right through me anyway.

January 18, 2010

To Live is Christ — means looking beyond appearances

Our vacation spot in AZ has us thinking we would like to return next year. We found an online site that lists rentals by owners. Each ad has full information with photos. We lined up two condos to view and had a peek yesterday.

The first one looked good in the ad. The price was affordable and the pictures appealing. When we got there, it was a huge disappointment. After, I went back online and looked at the photos. They made me think a little differently about the verse I’ve been reading.

But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look at his appearance or at his physical stature, because I have refused him. For the Lord does not see as man sees; for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” (1 Samuel 16:7)
Obviously this is a warning about misjudging human beings by their appearance. However, people are not the only things I can misjudge by how they look.

A child’s book (I cannot remember the title) depicts temptation as a bright and appealing light that floats in front of the child and leads her into a cave. Then the light goes out and the child is trapped in the darkness. How many temptations are like that? They look good to begin with but they lead into spiritual darkness and even physical danger.

Human value systems can be the same. We heard a sermon two weeks ago about the “greatest problem in the American church today.” The preacher said it was the rugged individualism of the American dream — gone wrong. This ideal began by a bold desire to make a better world, to adventure forth and improve the lives of all, but it has become a self-centered, me-ism that is only interested in independently improving the lot of me, myself, and I.

For many, this value system looks perfect and they are caught in it. It is not what it appears. The Bible defines sin as doing our own thing, doing whatever pleases us without regard for God’s values or the needs of others. God sees the heart of the matter, but people can easily miss that in the name of independence and the American dream.

To live is Christ makes me think about the values of the Lord Jesus. He did not get caught in contemporary thinking even though He was involved in the lives of those around Him. He knew the heart of God and saw there what is really important. Some of those values are in what we call the Beatitudes.

Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who hunger now, for you shall be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh. Blessed are you when men hate you, and when they exclude you, and revile you, and cast out your name as evil, for the Son of Man’s sake. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy! (Luke 6:20–22)
To many, the outward appearance of these values is totally insane. Who can possibly consider poverty, hunger, weeping, and persecution as good things and be joyful about them? But Jesus, who sees the heart of God, knows a deeper purpose. The Father’s intention is not to make people miserable, but to bring us into a kingdom that not only makes sense of the negatives in this life, but gives them purpose to shape our lives and deal with our sinful self-centeredness.

More and more I am feeling a deep hunger to know the heart of God. Things like children dying from cancer and thousands dying in earthquakes make no sense, have no purpose, at least outwardly. Yet the Bible says that God is sovereign and in control. His plans are not our plans; His thoughts are not our thoughts. We see only the outward and become confused and doubtful. Jesus sees His Father’s heart and that vision gave Him the courage to say, “Not my will, but Thine be done” and go to the cross. This seemed to make no sense to His disciples at the time, but it became their redemption and mine.

I know that I can be fooled by appearances. People and many other things are not always what they seem. Instead, of letting the externals affect my responses and choices, I want to seek the heart of God.

January 17, 2010

To Live is Christ — because He sees me

In the movie, Avatar, the blue people say, “I see you” meaning that they see inside the hearts of others. No one can fool them because they are experts in detecting a lack of integrity. As one reviewer called it, this movie is spiritual fantasy.

In another movie we watched on television last night, this was not the case. The main character was totally duped by her husband. He was a criminal without any integrity. Even when she discovered evidence that convinced her, he told her that he was really working undercover for the State department. She believed him again and nearly lost her life. While each movie was only a fictional story, the second one was more credible. No matter the color of a person’s skin, blue included, there is only One who totally knows the human heart. 

But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look at his appearance or at his physical stature, because I have refused him. For the Lord does not see as man sees; for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” (1 Samuel 16:7)
A discerning person might have a better understanding of someone else’s heart than the average person, but who can really know the heart of someone else? I’ve been fooled, as I’m sure everyone else has been. Only God can see through all deception. Only God can see inside my heart and know my thoughts and desires. Only God knows the good and evil thoughts that cross my mind, and only God knows what I will say before I say it.

What is the practical side of this? I’m thinking that God always cautions His people against being swayed by appearances. Good looks do not always equal good character. A charming personality can be deceitful. I need to be perceptive and not easily duped.

This is personal also. God can see inside me. He alone knows me. I cannot play with sin, even in my head. It is just as the psalmist says,

O Lord, You have searched me and known me. You know my sitting down and my rising up; You understand my thought afar off. You comprehend my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways. For there is not a word on my tongue, but behold, O Lord, You know it altogether. You have hedged me behind and before, and laid Your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high, I cannot attain it. (Psalm 139:1–6)
Not only does God know my deepest thoughts and my words before I speak them, He knows me better than I know myself. He knows my motivations and why I do what I do. He knows how to best guide and direct me, but also how to comfort me when I hurt and how to encourage me when I am discouraged.  When I think about this, I am in awe. As the psalmist says, such knowledge is too wonderful for me.

To live is Christ
is about trusting the One who sees me and knows me. Obviously He is in a far better position to guide my decisions, make sense of my life, supply what I need, and help me live with total integrity.

January 16, 2010

To Live is Christ — a full-time occupation

Curious because this movie was used to illustrate a point in last Sunday’s sermon, we went to see Avatar last night. The technology to produce it is amazing. The storyline was another matter.

As a student of the Bible, I see things from a spiritual perspective. I’m continually trying to figure out what God would say about things, including television shows and commercials and all other aspects of modern life. From observation and reading His Word, I see spiritual parallels in all sorts of places, including movies.

Biblically, human beings are either believers or not. However, the likeness of God (in which all people are created) can show up in everyone, even criminals. In the same vein, even godly people can demonstrate the marring of sin in their behavior. This can be confusing to casual observation, yet there is a consistency in the spiritual realm. Evil eventually shows itself to be what it is. Godliness will also make itself known. As the Bible says, godliness lasts for eternity and evil will fail and be judged.

All that being said, the plot line of Avatar did not make any sense. While the blue people seemed to be the good guys in the film, their beliefs were anti-God and a form of pantheism mixed with elements from many other pagan beliefs. Historically and theologically, these beliefs do not produce lasting goodness.

The movie realistically depicted human beings as both “good” and greedy. The greedy people were routed and destroyed in the end of the movie. As for the “good” people, their “goodness” was a reflection of the image of God in which they were created, but it was far from godliness that shows up in genuine believers. Not only that, in the end these “good” people  transferred to the other side and became part of the world belonging to the blue people — who, biblically, were outside of the will of God also. The concept of good and evil was not only confused but incongruous and didn’t ring spiritually authentic. I left the movie feeling disoriented, like I’d been in another world that does not exist.

This morning I read this passage again and thought about others who do not know God. How must they feel when they read things like this in the Bible? The passage says,

Thus says the Lord of hosts: “I will punish Amalek for what he did to Israel, how he ambushed him on the way when he came up from Egypt. Now go and attack Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and do not spare them. But kill both man and woman, infant and nursing child, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.” (1 Samuel 15:2–3)
King Saul was told to destroy his enemies, even the women and babies and animals. Does that make sense? It doesn’t, unless it is seen as a literal demonstration of the spiritual battle against sin. To win that battle, I need to attack and destroy every last thing that sustains my problems with sin. This means staying away from temptations on the outside and putting to death sinful attitudes in my heart. For full and total victory, I must remove all that sustains my sinfulness.

This is not as simple as it sounds. My devotional reading asks about examples of things that nourish sin in my life. What do I keep or hold on to that prevents me from having full victory over sin?

I already thought about my so-called rights. Such a notion is folly. Rights are actually privileges and responsibilities. I have no right to hold grudges, retaliate against those who hurt me, or refuse forgiveness. God commands the opposite of these things.

Wanting my own way or thinking that my own way is best has to be my biggest stumbling block. These attitudes close my ears to God and keep me from obedience. They also foster further sin as I leap ahead and actually do what I think is best rather than obeying what God says.

Another obstacle is laziness. Being an obedient Christian is hard work. This is not a life of ease. God is good and blesses me with peace, joy, and so much more, but there is work to be done. I cannot sit back with a good book and avoid sin. Such indolence fosters me-ism and self-centeredness.

There are more, but after watching that movie, another thing that could prevent me from full victory over sin is lack of effort to be discerning. Just enjoy the movie. Forget the implications. Forget what God thinks. Forget what the Bible says. It is just a movie. This attitude is deadly and would harm my spiritual life more than I’d care to imagine.

To live is Christ means being on the ball, being alert, listening to the Holy Spirit and paying attention so the enemy of my soul does not get the best of me.

To live is Christ is full-time employment. 

For an interesting review of Avatar, click here.

January 15, 2010

To Live is Christ — and letting go of sin

Old Testament King Saul was told to destroy the nation’s enemy, Amalek. 
Thus says the Lord of hosts, I will punish Amalek for what he did to Israel, how he set himself against him on the way while he was coming up from Egypt. Now go and strike Amalek and utterly destroy all that he has, and do not spare him. (1 Samuel 15: 2–3a)
Saul took on Amalek but didn’t completely destroy this enemy. Because of his disobedience, God took the crown from him and gave it to David.

King Saul was not the only one who disobeyed God by taking forbidden plunder. Much earlier when Joshua let the people into the land God promised them, they had a great victory at Jericho, but were defeated at Ai, the next city. When Joshua asked God for the reason, God told him it was that one of his men, Achan, had kept some of the plunder for himself. This man and his sin kept the entire army from winning a battle. (See Joshua 7)

These two and other examples show the seriousness of incomplete obedience and of taking souvenirs. For Saul it meant loss of position. For Achan, it meant the loss of his life and that of his family, as well as causing defeat to an entire army and more loss of life.

The lesson here is not that God will defeat and destroy me if I don’t obey Him. If that were true, I would not be breathing. The lesson is that disobedience and partial obedience (which is also disobedience) has consequences both in my life and the lives of others. While God is merciful and forgives His people, sin is serious. I cannot assume that I can do whatever I please and it will not matter.

My devotional reading says that victory is incomplete until all that sustains the problem is removed. It is laughable to think that my problems with sin are external and can be simply avoided by running away or removed by putting them out of sight. This would be like the billboard advertising a certain Christian school. It said, “25 miles from the nearest sin!”

Instead, my biggest problem is my own sinful heart. As I prayed yesterday about this, one of the “souvenirs” that came to mind was that I had held on to my “right” to not forgive someone. Really? How can I claim to have the right to do anything that God forbids? Why withhold something that Jesus Christ died to save me from? Why refuse freedom from the bondage of this or any sin?

The devotional reading asks some thought-provoking questions, such as, “Does God want us to remove all obstacles that prevent us from living victoriously?” Of course He does and in commanding obedience, He isn’t being mean or trying to mess up my life. 

What does the Lord your God require of you, but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all His ways and to love Him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments of the Lord and His statutes which I command you today for your good? (Deuteronomy 10:12–13, italics mine)
Sin runs deep. Even though I know God wants me to obey for my good, and I know that disobedience always hurts me and often hurts others, I still struggle with wanting my own way and with doing my own thing. I also know that this is the very reason that Jesus came, and this is why I need Him.

January 14, 2010

To Live is Christ — take no souvenirs

The battles in the Old Testament were real people fighting real enemies. God told His people to oust the pagans from the land that He gave them and to protect themselves against their godless ways by destroying them.

I’ve heard the question: How can God be so mean and violent? How could He tell His people to slaughter not only armies, but even women and children? Two answers come to mind.

First, because of His holiness and the dreadfulness of sin, there is no reason God should allow anyone to live. He should destroy us all. However, He chose a nation through whom He would send a redeemer. For the Jewish nation to be the vehicle He desired, they needed to follow Him and keep themselves from idolatry. The Old Testament stories depict the history of how God revealed Himself to Israel and how they struggled to obey Him and fight against all that threatened their spiritual identity. They were not to marry with, mingle with, nor worship like their pagan neighbors.

Second, the Old Testament stories are also illustrative of Christian living. When I was saved, God showed me that the sinful habits in my life must be conquered. Like those OT battles, I also battle the enemies that threaten my spiritual life. If I am going to win those battles, I must obey God and be diligent. My efforts against sin are instructed by those OT stories.

One story begins in early Jewish history and ends in 1 Samuel. It is about a pagan nation that attacked Israel just as they were escaping bondage in Egypt (a picture of bondage to sin). God told them to destroy this nation.

Remember what Amalek did to you on the way as you were coming out of Egypt, how he met you on the way and attacked your rear ranks, all the stragglers at your rear, when you were tired and weary; and he did not fear God. Therefore it shall be, when the Lord your God has given you rest from your enemies all around, in the land which the Lord your God is giving you to possess as an inheritance, that you will blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven. You shall not forget. (Deuteronomy 25:17–19)
Later when Israel entered their land, they asked for a king and wound up with Saul. To him, God said. . . . 
Thus says the Lord of hosts, I will punish Amalek for what he did to Israel, how he set himself against him on the way while he was coming up from Egypt. Now go and strike Amalek and utterly destroy all that he has, and do not spare him. (1 Samuel 15: 2–3a NASB)
Essentially, Saul was supposed to wipe out Amalek: all the men, women, and children and all possessions. Later verses confirm this, but also confirm that Saul failed to do it. He kept some of the “best” goods and did not kill their king. As a result, Saul lost his position as king and became a disgrace.

From this story, my devotional says when I win a spiritual victory over sin, I need to remember this principle. “In other words . . . take no souvenirs.”

One positive encouragement is that God will lead me in victory. Whenever I win a battle over sin and temptation, that victory is sufficient because if I do as He says and destroy that ‘enemy’ then I will be done with it.

The instruction about taking no souvenirs could mean no keepsakes or reminders, nothing that even looks good or seems harmless. Do not leave so much as a seed to sprout from the defeated enemy.

Suppose a married man has an affair and decides to stop this sin. Is he going to have complete victory if he keeps a photo of his mistress in his wallet? Suppose a thief decides to stop stealing. Is he going to win over his sin if he hoards away all that he has stolen and goes to look at his stash every day?

God wants me to be as ruthless about my sin as He wanted Saul to be ruthless with Amalek. He wants every remnant of my sin ousted from my life and utterly destroyed.

Jesus was sinless and didn’t have to battle sin the way I do. Instead, He bore the penalty of my sin and came to live in me so I can defeat sin by obedience. Each time I give in to temptation, I am laying sin on Jesus. Each time I obey God, I am joining Jesus in victory over sin.

Being like Jesus will not happen totally until I step into eternity, but as long as I am here, living for Christ means hating sin and battling against it, taking no plunder and keeping no souvenirs.

January 13, 2010

To Live is Christ — includes suffering

Before I return to my devotional guide, I’m taking one more look at the context of this year’s focus verse. My goal and God’s goal for me is to become more like Jesus Christ. To reach that goal (or any goal) means having a clear picture of what the goal looks like. What can I expect to look like if I am like Jesus? The Bible spells it out.
For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain. . . . For to you it has been granted on behalf of Christ, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake, having the same conflict which you saw in me and now hear is in me. (Philippians 1:21, 29–30)
This passage says that living for Christ includes suffering. This is not about getting sick or suffering from a catastrophe like a fire or a car accident. As Paul says, it is suffering for Jesus’ sake, even suffering the same way Paul suffered.
But even after we had suffered before and were spitefully treated at Philippi, as you know, we were bold in our God to speak to you the gospel of God in much conflict. (1 Thessalonians 2:2)
Paul preached the gospel with great boldness and as a result, some people did not like what he was saying. No one enjoys being told that they are sinners in need of a Savior. Because Paul was living for Christ, he worked hard, was whipped, put in prison, and left for dead. He was given forty stripes minus one five times, beaten with rods three times, pelted with stones, shipwrecked three times, and spent a night and a day in deep water. He traveled often, was in peril in the ocean, in danger because of robbers, his own countrymen, and the Gentiles, and in danger in the city, in the wilderness, and among false brethren. He suffered from exhaustion, sleeplessness, hunger and thirst, being cold and without clothes. Besides all this, he had a daily deep concern for all the churches. He felt weak, and burned with indignation at the godless behavior of others. (See 2 Corinthians 11:23–29)

To live for Christ could mean all of this, because Paul also wrote, “Yes, and all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution” (2 Timothy 3:12).

Gulp. I cannot be like Peter who boldly said he would follow Jesus even to death, but had no idea of his own weakness and wound up denying Him three times. I know myself and perceive a great deal of cowardice. To be like Jesus will take the powerful working of the Holy Spirit. Otherwise, at least at this point, I will back out and refuse to open my mouth concerning the Gospel lest I suffer because of it.

One thing that encourages me is that the Lord is faithful in His dealings with me. He will not give me a challenge without also giving me the wherewithal to rise to it. First is being able to open my mouth at every opportunity. Second is being able to persist with obedience even if it results in suffering.

January 12, 2010

To Live is Christ — yet I still must confess my sin

Yesterday’s struggle is no more. It was not that I yielded up my will. All I did was confess my sinful attitude, and God does what He always does. He changed my heart.
If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:8–9)
Many times I have behaved as if I were the Savior. I became aware of sin and tried really hard to overcome it, but that does not work. For one thing, it misses a step. Without confession, there is no forgiveness. God will not help me overcome unless I acknowledge to Him (and agree with Him) what I have done.

In confession, I cannot merely mouth the words. I’m also to think the way He thinks about sin. One clue about that is in Jeremiah . . .  

Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard its spots? Then may you also do good who are accustomed to do evil. (Jeremiah 13:23)
No human being can save themselves. Even those who possess eternal life and have Jesus Christ living in them still need the power of God to do overcome temptation and sin. When I violate the will of God, He will give me that power, but I first have to confess (say the same thing) as He does about whatever I have done.

I also have to admit my helplessness. Part of trying to fix things on my own is a form of God-playing, and that is quite the opposite of faith and salvation by grace. I am not God.

Today will bring new challenges, but His message to me is always the same. He is the Savior and I am the sinner. As long as I keep that straight, I can move on and have His grace to do whatever He asks. He also grants the ability to rejoice in His will.

Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all His benefits. He forgives all my iniquities. He heals all my diseases, He redeems my life from destruction. He crowns me with lovingkindness and tender mercies. He satisfies my mouth with good things, so that my youth is renewed like the eagle’s . . . Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me. (My paraphrase based mostly on Psalm 103:2–5)

January 11, 2010

To Live is Christ — means not my will . . .

Almost certainly these verses begin to pinch. Yesterday we drove around the Sonora valley and again wound up looking at vacation properties. At first it was fun, but after awhile, instead of wanting to do whatever my husband thought was best, I began to think about my wants. Spending lots of time in the desert isn’t on the list.

This is directly opposite to the attitude Paul had as he was thinking of his choices. He was in jail and facing who knows what. He considered that he might be condemned to death, yet he also knew that prayers were going up for his release. He wrote to those who prayed for him . . .   

For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain. But if I live on in the flesh, this will mean fruit from my labor; yet what I shall choose I cannot tell. For I am hard-pressed between the two, having a desire to depart and be with Christ, which is far better. Nevertheless to remain in the flesh is more needful for you. (Philippians 1:21–24)
Paul was more concerned to do what was best for others than he was about having the best for himself. He knew that these folks at Philippi still needed him, and if he died, they would not be as well off as if he lived. Heaven tugged at him, but the needs of others was also important.

For me, going home and staying home sounds good (home could also be that one reserved for me in heaven), but staying here means being willing to do what is needful for others. That includes my husband, who needs to plan for retirement and figure out what he wants to do with the rest of his life. With CLL that may not be a long time, but we don’t know.

A warmer winter appeals to him, and I’ve been enjoying it too, but yesterday for some reason, living in two places lost its appeal. I became frustrated, irritated, and even  homesick.

Did Paul feel like that at times as he sat in his confinement? Was he ever fed up with always being there for others and just wanted to go “home” and be with Jesus?

These verses say that he was hard-pressed between the two. That word has many meanings. The one I most identify with is that he felt like he was in a cattle squeeze and could not move. Conflicting emotions and desires pressed him so he felt immobilized. He knew he could not make the more appealing choice of being with Christ, which he said was “far better” because, in this case, it would have been selfish to turn away from the needs of those others who received this letter from him.

With this, God has diagnosed my attitude. I don’t want to make the choice for others but for me. However, knowing what is going on in my heart does not change my attitude or resolve the conflict that I feel. The only way out of this is surrender, not to the wishes of others (my husband has not made up his mind yet anyway), but to the will of God.

Jesus said, “Not my will but Thine be done” because He knew that the will of God is always best, even though it was going to take Him to a horrible death. I might not know yet what the will of God involves (I will likely not be crucified), but I do know that I will have no peace until I can say the same thing as Jesus said, not just because I want out of this cattle squeeze, but because I really mean it.

Photo: Townsend's Livestock Equipment

January 10, 2010

To Live is Christ — means hanging around the right people

When we lived in California, our daughter picked up the valley-girl accent. When we lived in the Chicago area, our son had a friend from Brooklyn and picked up that Bronx sound. If you hang around someone long enough, you pick up something of their personality, even their appearance.

The more I read this passage each day, the more I want to know how to be like Jesus, but I also am starting to want to know the Apostle Paul much better, and hope that some of his qualities will rub off on me.

Christ will be magnified in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain. But if I live on in the flesh, this will mean fruit from my labor; yet what I shall choose I cannot tell. For I am hard-pressed between the two, having a desire to depart and be with Christ, which is far better. Nevertheless to remain in the flesh is more needful for you. (Philippians 1:20–24)
Not only was Paul certain that Christ would be glorified by him whether he lived or died, he was also certain that if he lived, his life would be fruitful. In fact, he was so certain about it that he could compare his future fruitfulness with going to heaven to be with Jesus — and not be sure which was the best choice!

I’ve a little booklet (at home, and we are on vacation, so I cannot give the exact title or author) that talks about spirituality as an organic thing. Like a seed, the life of Jesus Christ is planted in His people and it will grow, even must grow. Feed and nourish it, and growth will be more obvious, but because His life is an eternal and everlasting life, nothing can stop it from making itself known.

In other words, those who belong to Christ will magnify Him in their body. The problem with many of us is that we think, “Who? Me?” because we know how unworthy and weak we are. Yet Paul did not focus on himself. He knew the power of God and the power of everlasting life and that certainty made him a bold and positive person.

Of course I want to be like Jesus, yet being like Paul is also a worthy ambition!

January 9, 2010

To Live is Christ — and that includes boldness

It may be true that fools rush in where angels fear to tread, but I am positive that being in the will of God makes me very bold.

One incident comes to mind. We were at a soccer game. The teams were girls under 16 and both sides had several fans sitting in bleachers on opposite sides of the field, an informal rule in our city to keep the fans from being mouthy toward each other.

After the game started, a man showed up with his lawn chair and plunked himself down on our side of the field close to where three little girls were playing with their dolls. He was rooting for the other team, which was fine, but his choice of words soon became foul and blasphemous. The parents and other fans in our seating area became quite upset, and were saying things like, “Someone should do something.”

Without any hesitation, I said that I would do it. I got up, walked over to the man, and had a little chat with him. I was calm and polite. He was barely civil, challenging me to repeat the words I accused him of saying, and basically growling at me.

I was in the right and I knew God wanted me to do this. I calmly told him that he either needed to clean up his mouth, or move to the other side of the field where he belonged. I returned to my seat.

The man didn’t move. Perhaps he’d already found out that his team supporters didn’t like his language either, but he also never said another word and left the game before it ended. Whenever I read verses from the Bible that mention boldness, I think about that incident.

For I know that this will turn out for my deliverance through your prayer and the supply of the Spirit of Jesus Christ, according to my earnest expectation and hope that in nothing I shall be ashamed, but with all boldness, as always, so now also Christ will be magnified in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain. . . . (Philippians 1:19–21)
That day I realized that this was the Holy Spirit showing me what His boldness is like. I am normally a big coward when it comes to anything like that, but getting up from my seat and challenging that man was easy. I was not afraid nor did I start to shake after I sat down. That is a God-thing, not like me at all.

In the past, God has used similar methods to teach me what it is like to rely on Him. I get one big demonstration that just happens. No prayer involved, no wondering what will happen, no premeditation. It just happens. From these unexpected events, I have learned that when I need something from God, like His peace, or His joy in trials, it will be there. I’ve also learned that if I need boldness, He will give it to me.

To live is Christ means that I can count on Him to give me courage when obedience calls for courage, boldness when obedience calls for boldness, and no matter what, if my heart is right and my attitudes are the same as His, then I never have to worry about being embarrassed or ashamed.

January 8, 2010

To Live is Christ — and being interdependent

A fresh update to my Bible software revealed this morning that I am going too fast through the devotional resource that I’d decided to use this year. I am ahead six days!

Instead of forging on, it seems a good idea to review the context of my theme verse for the year, Philippians 1:21. The verses before it give good instruction.

For I know that this will turn out for my deliverance through your prayer and the supply of the Spirit of Jesus Christ, according to my earnest expectation and hope that in nothing I shall be ashamed, but with all boldness, as always, so now also Christ will be magnified in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, to live is Christ. . . . (Philippians 1:19–21)
Paul was in prison and counting on God to deliver him, either by life or death. What I noted here is that he was depending on the prayers of God’s people and the supply of the Holy Spirit. He had an earnest expectation and hope, but this was not a feeling or part of his wish list. It was based on the solid support of those two other resources.

Too often, I underestimate the power of prayer. Sometimes the answers seem slow in coming, or they are so different from what I expected that I miss them. Much of the time I simply forget that I’d prayed.

Paul didn’t forget. He knew that when God’s people pray, the answers come. One notable time for me was the time I walked into church and there was a human barricade in the foyer. I was told that one of our members had experienced a massive heart attack.

I went into the sanctuary. It was filled with people, mostly regulars, but also some visitors who had never been in our church before. Everyone was praying, everyone. I sat and prayed too.

It turned out that one of the visitors was an EMT, with us for the first time. He went to work on the man on the floor, without equipment, until the ambulance came. Our friend did recover, even though medical personnel said that he shouldn’t have. I’m sure that this was because of the power of “prayer and the supply of the Holy Spirit.”

These two are inseparable resources. If I pray and the Spirit is not at work, all my words will not change anything. The bigger mystery is that God chooses to work through the prayers of His people in the first place. He does not need us, but for some reason, this is the way it is.

To live is Christ means that I pray depending on the Holy Spirit, but also that I share my needs with Christian brothers and sisters and ask them to pray for me. In this, there is no room for pride or self-sufficiency. We need each other and we need the Holy Spirit. Living for Christ is about this wonderful three-way interdependency.

January 7, 2010

To Live is Christ — means no worries, no wants

My father, who was a farmer, used to say, “I plant the seeds and God makes them grow.”

This working arrangement with God was an expression of simple faith, an attitude that is almost odd in a world that largely assumes prosperity is about personal effort and a bit of luck. However, the Bible says otherwise.

The Lord your God will make the labor of your hands abundantly successful and multiply your children, the offspring of your cattle, and the produce of your soil. For the Lord your God will once more rejoice over you to make you prosperous just as he rejoiced over your ancestors,  if you obey the Lord your God and keep his commandments and statutes that are written in this scroll of the law. But you must turn to him with your whole mind and being. (Deuteronomy 30:9–10, NET)
God does control the outcome of whatever His people put their efforts toward, yet there is a sense of human control in that our success hinges on our obedience. When I do what God tells me, then He will bless the work of my hands.

A simple example is in giving. When my husband first became a Christian, he heard about tithing and decided to give a portion of his income to the Lord. We didn’t have much at the time so this decision involved both faith and sacrifice. However, God is faithful. When we obey Him, He blesses us. Every time that my husband decided to give a bit more, soon after that he received a raise in pay at work. He didn’t base his giving on a desire for that outcome, but over the years we have seen the truth of: “You cannot out-give God.”

These verses are not a mini-manual on how to be prosperous though. They are about obedience. The concept of obedience connected to prosperity is repeated many times in the Bible. One passage comes to mind:

Therefore I say to you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink; nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air, for they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? Which of you by worrying can add one cubit to his stature? So why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; and yet I say to you that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. Now if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is, and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will He not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For after all these things the Gentiles seek. For your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about its own things. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble. (Matthew 6:25–34, italics mine)
By seeking God first, not riches, I am promised all that I need and then some. I need not worry about food or clothing or any other necessity of life. God knows what I need and tells me that worry is not only completely unnecessary, but it also reveals a lack of faith.

Besides, when I trust God for my needs, my mind is set free to focus on things that do require attention. I can be more creative, productive, and certainly better able to think about and tend to the needs of others.

My dad was thrifty in many things, but he had a big heart and would help others without any qualms. He didn’t talk about his faith as much as he lived it, and God blessed him and our family because of his simple obedience.

I’m a penny-pincher too, but I have also learned that when I do what the Lord says, and stop worrying, He takes care of me and I am never in want.

January 6, 2010

To Live is Christ — means conforming to God’s will

As an observer of people, the most common trait that I see is an insatiable “I want what I want when I want it” attitude. From the driver of a car who thinks every other car and driver is in his way, to a woman in a wheel chair barking at people to move out of her way, “me first and me now” generally describes human nature.

The passage that I am reading says otherwise about God. The clue is in two words repeated in these verses.
The Lord your God will make you abound in all the work of your hand, in the fruit of your body, in the increase of your livestock, and in the produce of your land for good. For the Lord will again rejoice over you for good as He rejoiced over your fathers, if you obey the voice of the Lord your God, to keep His commandments and His statutes which are written in this Book of the Law, and if you turn to the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul. (Deuteronomy 30:9–10)
God does things for good, and this word has a rich meaning. One of my commentaries says that ‘good’ in Scripture is not an abstract quality, nor is it a secular human ideal. Instead, ‘good’ first and foremost describes what God is; He is good. Then it describes what He creates, commands, does and gives. Finally, good is used to say what He approves in the lives of His people.

The Bible does not give this attribute to God in terms of a prior concept of goodness. Rather, they contemplated the supreme glory of His  perfections and applied to Him this ordinary word to acknowledge His worth. This application gives ‘good’ a greater depth of meaning in that ‘good’ is defined in terms of God, not vice versa.

When it comes to us, people are ‘good’ only as we conform to the will of God. The biblical opposite of good is evil, thus ‘good’ is a moral term.

How is this practical? Big time. I want the things that I do to be useful, helpful, important, valuable, but if they do not conform to the will of God, they are not good, but the opposite. While this opposite can be measured in varying degrees, evil is evil. Doing things outside of the will of God means that I could am harming myself and others.

Yesterday, I was thinking how total commitment to God yields unlimited results. Today I am thinking that total success is not about pleasing myself, nor even others necessarily, but about doing the will of God and pleasing Him. Then He will bless what I do for good and rejoice over me for good. How cool is that!

January 5, 2010

To Live is Christ — means obedience, then abundance

Frank Lloyd Wright’s designs intrigue me. His introduced artistic style to buildings and his architectural accomplishments are legend, something like 1,000 designs in his lifetime, with more than half of them constructed. These included offices, churches, schools, sky scrapers, hotels, and museums. Besides that, he wrote 20 books, and designed furniture and stained glass. Evidence of his way of seeing shows up in the work of his many students and in architectural design since he died in 1959.

From what I understand, Wright was not a godly man. Others who do not know God have had prolific lives also, and many became what the world would call successful. As I think about these people, I wonder how God measures abundant living.

The Lord your God will make you abound in all the work of your hand, in the fruit of your body, in the increase of your livestock, and in the produce of your land for good. For the Lord will again rejoice over you for good as He rejoiced over your fathers, if you obey the voice of the Lord your God, to keep His commandments and His statutes which are written in this Book of the Law, and if you turn to the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul. (Deuteronomy 30:9–10)
My devotional reading points out that God is a God of abundance. In creation, can we count the stars? Can we estimate the grains of sand on each beach? It is said that no two snowflakes are alike. Certainly people, billions of them, have unique DNA and fingerprints. Our appearances, circumstances, and lifestyles differ, yet Jesus said, “But the very hairs of your head are all numbered” (Matthew 10:30).

Like a human artist, God has intimate knowledge of each creation. He knows His creative results and His Word verifies that He wants each of us being to have a life of abundance and joy. This is mirrored in human artists who want their creative efforts to be known and enjoyed, to have a valued place in the rest of the world.

The interesting part of this is that He promises His people to not only experience a prolific output in the works of their hands, but it will be “for good” and that He will rejoice over it. Who does not want that kind of success?

Yet there is a condition. Verse 10 says, “. . . if you obey the voice of the Lord your God, to keep His commandments and His statutes which are written in this Book of the Law, and if you turn to the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul.”

Why can a person like Frank Lloyd Wright be prolific apart from God, but God makes obedience a condition for success in the life of a Christian?

I can think of many reasons, but the first one is that I so easily put myself on a pedestal when I have even a small success. I take the glory and puff up in pride. That is not how to honor and obey God. God wants me to be abundant with the work of my hands, but He also wants me to escape the snare of sin, including pride, vain glory, and self-centeredness. He alone is worthy of glory, not me.

To live for Christ means that I may also enjoy abundant life and a far greater success than I can imagine, yet this hinges on my willingness to obey from the heart all that He says.