February 28, 2010

To Live is Christ — trusting the Father’s supply

The Christian practice of tithing or giving one-tenth of one’s earnings to the church is largely based on the Old Testament instructions to Israel. The only foundation for this in the New Testament is in this verse,
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone. (Matthew 23:23)
Jesus is upbraiding the religious leaders of the day for paying their tithe and neglecting their hearts. He tells them they should do first things first, but not neglect the tithe.

We could debate whether this applies to believers. The Pharisees were under the Law. Jesus had not yet died for the sins of the world and salvation by grace through faith was still a mystery. Some could say that the church is not under the same regulations as the Jews were.

However, Jesus put us all in the same category when He talked about the heart. He wants our hearts to be right toward God and toward others. When the heart is right, then generosity becomes a way of life.

Those whose faith is in the Living God know that He is the source of all things. If I have an income, it is because God has provided for me. If someone has a need and I give them part of my income, God is faithful and will continue to provide for me.

The New Testament has much to say about this attitude and about giving. One passage encourages me . . . 

Remember this: Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously. Each man should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. (2 Corinthians 9:6–7)
Giving with a cheerful heart expresses that I trust God to take care of my needs so much so that whatever I give away is not a big deal. I know that if I need it, God will give it back to me. If I don’t need it that also is reason to be glad because whatever I gave was a hindrance. Someone else needed it and far better that it goes to whom it belongs.

This ties together the thoughts from Matthew 23:23. Being able to give generously and without concern for our own needs is part of showing justice to others and being merciful. This also requires faith in the God who provides.

Sometimes I absent-mindedly put money in the offering plate as it passes. Instead, I ought to be thinking of and praying for those who will benefit from my giving. They are an important part of obeying God’s impulse to be generous.

I also ought to be thankful. Sometimes God asks me to show my heart with my wallet. He is pleased when I do it cheerfully. That pleasure is from knowing that He has provided — I not only have something to give, but the faith to do it without worrying about my own needs.

February 27, 2010

To Live is Christ — experiencing rejection

Yesterday someone reacted to the gospel message by attacking me. She is religious but does not know Jesus. Genuine Christians respond to the gospel with agreement, even those who are out of step with God at that moment. However, those who do not know Him often respond with great negativity toward both the message and the messenger.

The scribes and Pharisees reacted like that when Jesus told them the truth. They had their religious practices and when He exposed their lack of true faith, they attacked Him. One of those religious practices concerned giving a tithe or one-tenth of their income to the temple.

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone. (Matthew 23:23)
The tithe was only part of their spiritual pride. Jesus often pointed out that their lives didn’t reflect what they said they believed. Instead of examining their lives and admitting what He said was true, they attacked Him and tried to ruin His credibility. When they could not do that, they killed Him.

I can relate. The attack made on me was directed in a confused array of accusations mixed with compliments, rejection mixed with a request for friendship. My sinful flesh wants to defend myself and fight back. No way do I want to be friends with this person. The Holy Spirit says to hold back, do nothing right now, instead, “be still and know that I am God.” So far, I am being still.

My sin nature would also like to debate the issue, but I know that debate does not change the lives of other people. Only God can do that. If they will not listen to the Holy Spirit, there is no way anyone will listen to my arguments.

This morning the Holy Spirit suggests that my time and energy are better spent making sure that I have not neglected the weightier matters myself. I am not bound to the Old Testament Law, but as a Christian, I am responsible for living out the life of Christ who lives in me. That includes justice, mercy, and faith.

Justice or being just is not as easy as it sounds. God is perfectly just, yet He lets sinners live and even saves some from eternal damnation. His grace gives some evil people a long life, yet His providence allows cancer or some other awful death to young children. I know that God is just, but understanding how it works is beyond me. Obviously, His mercy is in the mix, but how does He make decisions? I don’t know.

That is the faith part and the reason I need to listen to the Holy Spirit. If God were evil, whimsical and capricious (as many seem to think) then trusting Him would be impossible. Yet He has not revealed Himself that way. His Word affirms that He knows what He is doing. Time and experience back it up. I need to pay attention and do exactly what He says, even concerning this person who attacked me.

In the bigger picture, my faith has nailed down that God is both just and merciful. I can see what He is doing, but not perfectly. His will is sometimes unclear, like a shadow behind the curtain of my limited humanity. One day that curtain will lift, but for now faith is sufficient. I can follow His leading with confidence.

On that note, to live is Christ means more than performing the externals of religious duties. It is a deep trust that God is God and that following Him is right and doing what He says will accomplish His just and merciful purposes.

Following Jesus also means that my life must become more like His each day. This transformation includes being just and merciful, but it also includes being misunderstood and even maligned. Christ knew that some who hear the gospel will reject it. Perhaps it is because their curtain is so thick that all they are able to see is darkness. 

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February 26, 2010

To Live is Christ — without showy externals

Jesus had His priorities right. Even though it is good to be generous, give to those in need, and do my part toward the ministries of the church, He puts greater value on how I treat people and what I do about my own spiritual condition and the spiritual condition of those around me.
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone. (Matthew 23:23)
Those who have money to give away find that generosity provides great satisfaction and even alleviates some of those pangs of conscience when “the world isn’t right but what can I do about it?”

Perhaps it is the North American way, but the tendency at many levels of society is to throw money at problems. From athletics to potholes in the streets, we tend to think that if we just put more cash into it, all the problems will be fixed.

However, as Jesus says, money seldom has any effect on injustice. In fact, the love of money (or power) is often at the root of it, or at least blinds and distorts the minds of people who are involved.

Jesus also puts mercy and faith at the top of the “important” list. Mercy is doing good to those who have done little or nothing to deserve it. Mercy and justice are strong relatives because justice isn’t about earning fair treatment, but making sure everyone gets fair treatment, period.

Why did Jesus include faith as a “weightier matter of the law”? It would seem that Law of God is about rules and obeying them. That is how the Pharisees saw it. They prided themselves in keeping the Law, or at least the parts they were able to keep.

Yet the Law of God was not given that God’s people would blindly or pridefully obey it. It is a Law based on faith. Did they trust that God had reasons for these laws? Some of them didn’t seem to make sense, like “Do not boil a kid in its mother’s milk.”

Also, the Law revolved around sacrifices. Anyone reading the Old Testament is appalled at the amount of blood and the frequency it was shed. Could a nation continue to make these offerings without wondering a thing or two about God? It seems to me that faith had to be a large part of their way of life and their attitude toward God’s laws.

And for the faithful, it was. God had promised a Redeemer, an ultimate sacrifice that would “take away the sin of the world” but they had little idea of who or what that meant. God wanted His people to obey Him in faith, wait for the Promise, and trust Him regarding all the laws and commandments.

But the Pharisees put their own spin on the Law of God — and Jesus told them they were neglecting faith. Because they did put their focus on doing instead of believing, they missed the most important reality. He, Jesus Christ, was the Promised final and full sacrifice, the Lamb that their faithful ancestors had looked forward to, the One that would fulfill all the promises of God. And they missed it.

They also didn’t realize that without faith their law-keeping efforts were futile. They could do some externals and look “religious” but their hearts were not right. They needed new hearts, just as God promised many years prior. 

But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put My law in their minds, and write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. (Jeremiah 31:33)
In “those days” Jesus came to change lives, to cause people to be reborn and have a new spiritual awareness. He would live in them and change them from the inside out. As Chinese martyr Watchman Nee once said, “The Lawgiver on the throne would become the Law-keeper in their hearts.”

How is this practical for me? For one thing, I can be a Pharisee. I can start thinking that it is my goodness and my obedience that make me right with God. Spiritual pride is a focus on what I can do, rather than on what God does, or even what He tells me to do. Spiritual pride avoids those specific commands that are too difficult for me to do myself. Of course spiritual pride must be abandoned if I am going to truly obey God each day.

Also, this shows me that the “pretty stuff” is easy. Giving sweet-smelling herbs is far more pleasant than stepping up to the plate to address injustice. Dropping money in the offering is easier than getting my hands dirty. Not only that, mercy requires getting off my high horse to help others, no matter what it does to my “religious” reputation. I also cannot be a Christian without faith because I cannot trust God if I am trusting me.

To live is Christ is having the attitude of Jesus. He “who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross” (Philippians 2:6–8).

Jesus could confront these religious hypocrites because He embodied what God intended in the Law, and because the only pedestal that He allowed anyone to put Him on had a cross on the top.

February 25, 2010

To Live is Christ — means honesty

Hypocrites have hobby horses. At least the hypocrites of Jesus’ day had pet issues that they rode constantly. These were the religious teachers and experts in the law along with the leaders of the Sanhedrin (their court of justice). These leaders had favorite rules and religious requirements, all external behaviors and all high on their list of things to demand of others. They also considered themselves God’s personal favorites. But Jesus said to them . . . 
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone. (Matthew 23:23)
Hypocrite was not always a bad word. It once described stage actors who held a mask in front of their face to show the attitude of the person they portrayed. This word now means a fake, someone who pretends to be what they are not. One of the Greek words in the Bible that has been translated hypocrite means “a person marred by sin” and another describes someone who is “impious.”

God does not look at the masks. The Bible says, “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 same is said of Jesus. The New Testament says that He “knew their hearts” and “knew what was in them.” With this discernment, He saw right through religious pretense. No one can fake it in front of Jesus. However, these scribes and Pharisees cared far more about outward appearances than they did about their own attitudes, or others, or even what Jesus thought of them.

We ought to care what God thinks and how we are perceived. Christians have been called hypocrites because we say we believe in Jesus Christ but our lives do not match our words. We do not “walk the talk” and therefore come into condemnation.

This is a just criticism because Jesus has given us all we need for Christian living and godliness. We have no excuse to fake godliness. Even though we often fail to measure up, instead of pretending, God wants us to confess our sin and shortcomings, then get what we need from Him, not wear a mask.

One example popped up last week. I heard a young Christian say that she “hated being at work because she had to pretend to be happy.” She did have some rough things going on in her life and no one would have condemned her faith had she been sad, yet somehow she thought a constant smile was expected so she faked it.

Other examples involve the masking of blatant sin. Professing Christians behave in questionable ways during the week, but piously go to church Sunday. They seem to have no idea that Christ died so they could resist and overcome sin.

I cannot point a finger at anyone without three pointing back at me. I’ve caught myself in church thinking “I need to look joyful” and I’ve told people “I’m fine, thank you” when I was anything but fine. Not mentioning my sins to others could make me look like I’m never guilty of anything. Isn’t that a form of hypocrisy?

To live is Christ means being honest. This is does not mean dumping my garbage on everyone, but it does mean that I do not whitewash it. Sinful pride makes me want to look better than I am. Honesty is admitting my pride and getting off any pedestals I’ve climbed or that others have put me on. The only thing honesty and hypocrisy have in common is that they begin and end with the same letters.

February 24, 2010

To Live is Christ — content to be the least

The second worse thing about playground games is being picked last. The worst thing is knowing why.

As we watch the Winter Olympics, obviously the winners are the best in their chosen sport. They have trained hard to get where they are and deserve a spot on the podium. No one would pick the slowest, sloppiest, scoreless for a gold medal. But God does.

For you are a holy people to the Lord your God; the Lord your God has chosen you to be a people for Himself, a special treasure above all the peoples on the face of the earth. The Lord did not set His love on you nor choose you because you were more in number than any other people, for you were the least of all peoples; but because the Lord loves you, and because He would keep the oath which He swore to your fathers, the Lord has brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you from the house of bondage, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt. (Deuteronomy 7:6–8)
I read through the Bible every year and these verses struck me as an excellent link to the New Testament truth about the way God chooses His people. There He says . . . 
For you see your calling, brethren, that not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called. But God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to put to shame the things which are mighty; and the base things of the world and the things which are despised God has chosen, and the things which are not, to bring to nothing the things that are, that no flesh should glory in His presence. (1 Corinthians 1:26–29)
This is as opposite to playground games and the Olympics as it can be. God is not looking for those who shine, who are “important” or the best of the best. He is looking for sinners. These are people who know that they should be picked last, or not even picked at all. And they know why.

God’s grace is amazing. He calls people who are certain that they have no right to be called. Then He tells them . . . 

But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name: who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God. (John 1:12–13)
In my mind, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit stand on that podium, but there is no silver or bronze — all of who God is gets the gold, and the applause is deafening.

Then it strikes me that not only is God the winner of winners, He invited me to be part of His team, His family. I am the least of the least, but He picked me anyway and gave me His life and the right to live with Him in eternity, to stand with Him as His chosen child. How utterly amazing!

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February 23, 2010

To Live is Christ — an incredible, unearned privilege

Today’s devotional reading asks, “Just because we have the right to become God’s children, does that mean we will?”

This is an assumption that the word “right” means the same in the Bible as it does to the ACLU or the average person who wants what he wants and demands it. However, good Bible interpretation means not taking a word out of context and putting a modern meaning on it. Notice the way it is used in this verse.

But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name: who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God. (John 1:12–13)
This is a qualified “right” that requires certain conditions. First, it is exclusive in that it is given only to those who have believed in Jesus Christ and received Him. These people have been spiritually reborn, something that God does. The verses say that this birth does not happen by human decision. God has to do it.

That is, no person can simply say they have the right to be a child of God and claim that it is so — unless they fit these conditions. No faith = no rights. Christ does not live in them (He has not been received) = no rights. No new birth = no rights.

The last one really bothers those who call themselves Christian but have not experienced this spiritual regeneration. One woman told me that “this born again business creates two classes of Christians” and thought that it was snobbish. Even though it is exclusive that new birth qualification isn’t my idea, nor the idea of the evangelical church. It is in the Bible as a requirement for having the right to be called a child of God. While salvation is open to all who come to Christ, it is always on God’s terms, not ours.

The other truth that I see in these verses is that no one who is “born again” has any reason or right to gloat about it. It was not their doing. I cannot lift myself up because Jesus lives in my heart. The Bible is clear that if my spiritual condition was left up to me, I would still be in my sins, unforgiven, and not caring at all if I pleased God or had a relationship with Him. Salvation is of God, not my own doing.

For practical living, that means humility. Sin makes me proud and vain, and I can easily put myself on a pedestal, but the truth puts me where I belong — on my face before God, eternally thankful that He is merciful to sinners such as I. No one earns or deserves to be a child of God. 

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. (Ephesians 2:8–9)
Today, Tuesday, February 23, I am rejoicing that God has mercy on me, and that because of Jesus, He gave me the incredible privilege of being in His family.

February 22, 2010

To Live is Christ — part of His family

Yesterday we sang a chorus that included the phrase, “all of God’s children . . .” This morning that line came to mind as I read this verse,
But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name: (John 1:12)
After doing a brief search using an electronic Bible, I’ve concluded that the terms children of God and sons of God are almost all in the New Testament. They are about the unique event or adoption (also a New Testament term) that happens when people believe in Jesus Christ. 
For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:26)
I’ve heard people say that we belong to God first by creation, and second by the new birth, yet there is a difference between something that I create and something that is born through me. My creations may show the marks of my imagination and personality, but my children bear my genetic code. They are my offspring and mine in a unique sense.

Children of God is a special right or privilege that happens to those who believe in Jesus and receive Him. The idea of receiving Christ is not just a term invented by the evangelical church. John 1:12 shows that it is biblical. Something happens to people whose faith for eternal life is placed in Jesus, but we do not do it. He comes into our lives by His Spirit and makes us different from what we were before. 

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new. (2 Corinthians 5:17)
This is called the new birth, or being born again. It involves being in Christ, which is the same has Christ being in me. Because of His indwelling presence, I am reborn, given spiritual life, made a new creature. I am different from what I was.

Is this like a split personality? I think it is, at least in one way. The new life of Christ in me makes itself know when I “walk in the Spirit” and when I obey the Lord. The old life or the flesh makes itself known when I disobey God and do my own thing. The Bible says that old nature is dead (separated from God) and I’m to consider it dead, nevertheless it still flops around like a decapitated chicken that refuses to be still.

One of the neatest things about being a child of God is the bond that I have with others who have been born into His family. While that bond can be messed up by the flesh, we still have the commonality of Christ living in us. Because of Him, there is a unity of Spirit, an instant kinship.

I like being in God’s family. Yes, we sometimes do not agree and have spats, or we fail to understand each other. However, the bond is never broken and the Lord makes our hearts care for one another in ways that bless us and draw us together.

To live is Christ
means a strong family life, often with people of other nationalities, skin color, opinions, and lifestyles. We are diverse with great contrasts, but because of Jesus, we are also united and love one another.

February 21, 2010

To Live is Christ — understanding my rights

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights contains thirty articles beginning with this one: All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

The words, “I have my rights” could be the most common human protest, at least in the western world. When I read the verses from my devotional this morning, the idea of God-given rights popped up. The United Nations drew up their decree, but what rights does a person have under God?

First the Bible word translated “rights.” It is exousia in Greek and describes an ability or a privilege. Subjectively, it is about having the force, capacity, competency, or freedom to do something. Objectively it is about mastery including being delegated influence or given authority, having jurisdiction, being free, given power. That is, the Bible defines rights much the same as everyone else. This is about freedom and power.

Today’s verses describe the primary human right that is granted by God to human beings . . . 

Yet to all who received Him (Jesus), to those who believed in His name, He gave the right to become children of God — children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God. (John 1:12–13)
I have the right (authority and ability) to become a child of God, not because of my birth, natural heritage, or the decision of my parents or anyone else. This right is given by God to those who believe in Jesus Christ. Without faith in His name, I cannot claim the right to be His child.

This is awesome. Some demand their right to the family fortune. Some demand their right to carry guns. Some demand their right to be heard. God gives the right to be included in His eternal family.

God grants other rights too. He gives kings the right to rule and husbands the right to lead their families (and the rest of us protest both privileges). He grants believers the right to be heard in that we can come before His throne anytime. He also grants us access to the power of the Holy Spirit, another tremendous and often overlooked right and privilege.

The universal declaration of human rights begins with saying all are born free and equal in dignity and rights. However, God says we are born in sin, without the dignity of His forgiveness and blessing. We have the right to be His children, but apart from that, our only privilege is that He lets us live even though our sins warrant death.

The universal declaration of human rights says we are endowed with reason and conscience, and many think that their rationale and sense of what is right is the only way to live. However, God says that even our ability to be rational is polluted by sin. Those who cling to reason very often wind up reasoning away their sin and living contrary to God because, as His Word says, their conscience does not work the way it was intended. Titus 1:15 says, “To the pure all things are pure, but to those who are defiled and unbelieving nothing is pure; but even their mind and conscience are defiled.”

The human rights decree says we should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood. This is based on the assumption of unclouded reasoning and a pure conscience. History shows that while human beings can at times shine forth traces of the image of God in which we are created, most of us think only of ourselves and what is in this for me.

To live is Christ means that my rights begin with what God gives me — the right to call myself His child. He offered that authority and privilege, not because I am special, but because He alone has the right to do whatever He pleases. I am so glad that He gave me what I do not deserve — new life, faith in Him, and a place in His family.

February 20, 2010

To Live is Christ — knowing the power of biblical confession

A website called “This is True” reports that a woman called the University of Oregon and confessed that she cheated on a final exam 34 years prior. The university decided not to revoke her professional therapist’s degree. Instead, she had to write an essay on the importance of academic integrity and how “corrosive” dishonesty can be.

Yesterday, Tiger Woods publically confessed his sins. His reasons for doing so are debatable, and speculation abounds about his sincerity. In the meantime, he has gone back into therapy for his “addiction” to sex.

An adage claims that “confession is good for the soul” and at least one dictionary says that confession makes you feel better. Perhaps that is what Tiger Woods had in mind, but whatever his reasons, I know that his confession was not the same as the one the Bible talks about.

Confess your trespasses to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much. (James 5:16)

For godly sorrow produces repentance leading to salvation, not to be regretted; but the sorrow of the world produces death. (2 Corinthians 7:10)

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)
These verses give godly confession a place in the healing process, both physical and spiritual. This works several ways.

First, some sicknesses are directly related to guilt over sin. Godly confession deals with the guilt because genuine godly confession secures its removal. Healing can then happen.

Second, God sometimes uses sickness to chasten His people for sin. In that case He still tells us to come clean with what we have done, not only to remove the guilt but to secure spiritual healing. Such godly confession leads to eternal life for the unsaved, and nurtures that life once it is obtained. The sorrow of the world has no such power.

Beyond that, Christian confession is also about restoring relationships. God hates sin and whenever I sin, there is a rift in our relationship. It is not that He cuts me off totally because Jesus died for my sins (all of them) and I have redemption in His name. This rift happens because sin messes me up. I don’t want to pray and my focus has turned away from Him. When I sin, God does not move away, but I do.

It is similar to when I do wrong to anyone else. They stop trusting me, are not comfortable in my presence, and feel offended. While God is not the same as we are over hurt feelings, He cares when we sin. After all, the reason Christ died is so we can have victory over sin. Why keep sinning? This is a rejection of the wonderful gift He offers.

The biggest difference with Christian confession is that we are “saying the same thing” or agreeing with God about our sin. We want His forgiveness and cleansing, and we want no cloud over our relationship, but we also know that sin is totally beyond our control. Confession includes the admission that I cannot conquer this and that I need God’s solution for sin. I need Jesus. Experience teaches Christians that “trying harder” does not work.

The adage says that confession is “good for the soul” but the Bible warns about a worldly sorrow for sin, a sorrow that “I got caught” and confessing just to feel better and get off the hook. On the other hand, godly sorrow produces repentance (turning from sin to God) and after that, life-changing results.

Godly sorrow means God is involved. As I confess, He gives me whatever is needed to overcome the sin. Writing an essay or going into therapy might have some value and my own efforts might even clear the air between me and those I have sinned against, but they have no value toward true victory over sin. Instead, godly sorrow and biblical confession secure and restore my relationship with God — and He does the saving.

Jesus died to save me from the penalty and power of sin. Trying harder does not work and never will. My only claim for forgiveness and cleansing is never how sorry I am or how much I want to change. It is always and only the amazing grace of God and the power of His blood.

February 19, 2010

To Live is Christ — because He does the saving

A sign reads, “A funny thing happens when you don’t pray.” A large, nearly empty space beside it says one word in small print: “nothing.”

Prayer is a powerful thing, so powerful that Christians are aware when prayer happens. On Sunday I told someone that I was praying for her. She said, “I can tell that people are praying.” In contrast, there are days when it seems like no one prays.

Today’s verse talks about prayer in connection with confessing sins. In this context, the sins have resulted in chastening by illness. 

Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective. (James 5:16)
Sin can make Christians sick. Even apart from the idea of chastening, simple stress can make a person sick, never mind the stress of unconfessed sin and the resulting guilt. Add God to the equation. He has the power to allow all sorts of physical ramifications. The bottom line is that it does not pay to be silent about sin. He wants us to confess the sin (sometimes to another Christian) so He can heal us, setting us free the guilt that is harmful to both body and soul.

God does the healing, not the other person or their prayer, yet prayer is part of it. This is mysterious. Some say God will not act unless we pray, but that makes us controllers of God, so I’m not fully comfortable with that idea. Besides, I’ve prayed for some things for years and nothing has happened (except that I’ve become more patient).

Prayer is a mystery. All we know is that God tells us to do it and when we obey, we are blessed. Our relationship with Him deepens, and sometimes we see amazing results. For example . . . 

Be anxious for nothing; but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God. Philippians 4:6
Praying makes worry fly out the window. I look at worry as a form of trying to control things, so when I give those things to God, I am yielding to Him. When I do that, verse seven describes the amazing results, “. . . and the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:7)

Besides peace of mind, those prayers of confession described in James 5 play a part in something even more astounding. They are the key to a changed life.

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)
I’ve loved this verse for many years. It is the secret to Christian growth and victory over sin. I first discovered it as a new believer. I was screaming at my children and trying to stop, but having no results. I saw this verse and confessed my impatience and bad attitudes to Him. A few weeks later, I noticed that I was no longer screaming at my children. That simply stopped.

When I confess sin, I know God forgives me. That alone is a wonderful thing because the guilt is taken away. However, even more wonderful is the power of God to somehow remove the sin, washing it right out of my heart so that I don’t do it any longer.

This isn’t a magical formula though. The confession must be sincere and even desperate in the sense that I don’t ever want to commit that sin again. God has shown me many times how I can have a love-hate relationship with my bad habits.

Besides that, confession needs to get at the root of things. In the case of yelling at my kids, it was pure selfishness. I wanted my own way all the time and was annoyed with them for interrupting it. God showed me that my motive for raising my children needed to be wanting the best for them for their sake, not for my peace of mind.

All of my Christian life has been affected by this principle of confessing sin, always to God and sometimes to others that I’ve offended. Without it, there is no forgiveness, no healing, no change of life.

Jesus didn’t sin, but He takes sin seriously and He wants me to do the same. He also wants me to realize that confession does not mean “I’ll try harder” but “You are the Savior and I need saving.”

February 18, 2010

To Live is Christ — taking sin seriously

My sister tells me of a time when she confessed something about herself in a Bible study group. The response was, “Oh no, not you. You don’t do that.” She was appalled, and I understand why. If anyone, even God, said that to me when I confessed a sin, I would be appalled too. 
Confess your trespasses to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much. (James 5:16)
Of the “one another’s” in Scripture, maybe this one is the most important. Confession of sin to God is a vital part of salvation, but also important toward cleansing and growth. 1 John 1:9, a favorite verse, says, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

God is the only one who can forgive and cleanse sin regarding my spiritual life and standing before Him. That said, sometimes I also need to admit my wrongs to those whom I’ve injured. If they will not accept my confession, I’ve put the ball in their court, but there will always be a rift between us. Confession and forgiveness are part of what it takes to maintain unity and love in the family of God.

When it comes to spiritual encouragement, there is nothing like a good friend. For me that means someone who takes confession of sin seriously. This is a vital matter. When I do it, I don’t want to hear that what I did wasn’t that bad, or that it is okay because everyone does it. Jesus never says those things to me. Instead, He does as the verses say — He assures me of forgiveness and prays for me. That is important for my spiritual health, and that is what I hope from my Christian friends.

This goes both ways. To be a good friend and a helpful Christian sister to others in the family of God, I need to do the same when someone confesses sin to me. I need to tell them that I forgive them, but more important, that God forgives them too. I need to say that forgiveness is based on the sacrifice of Jesus Christ for sin, and affirm them of it. I also need to remind them that by His cleansing power, He removes that sin from their lives.

Part of this is remembering that each of us will sin again. Sometime we do the same thing many times before our confession gets right to the root of the problem, but God is faithful. Because He forgives, cleanses, and heals, our lives are changed.

To live is Christ means that I will take sin seriously, mine and that of others, and by doing so, open the way for God’s grace and power to make our lives more like His.

February 17, 2010

To Live is Christ — accepting life’s limitations

Some say there is physical healing in the atonement. That is, that when Christ died for our sins we are given spiritual healing but also no longer have to be sick. Under this teaching, the reasons why Christians get sick get complicated. Mostly it boils down to a “lack of faith” or failure to claim their healing.

Those who believe this point to verses like the one featured in my devotional reading today. It says,

Confess your trespasses to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much. (James 5:16)
I’ve been taught to be wary of any teaching pulled from single verses and study the context. The surrounding verses say . . . 
Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Confess your trespasses to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much. Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed earnestly that it would not rain; and it did not rain on the land for three years and six months. And he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain, and the earth produced its fruit. (James 5:14–18)
Is this passage about healing? Or is it about the power of prayer? Is it about every Christian having the right to physical health? Or is it more about humility and faith?

A few years ago I heard a sermon titled, “Why does God allow sickness?” The pastor used Scripture to show that Christians can be sick and gave four reasons why. I don’t recall the order they were given, but here they are.

First, God wants believers to keep short accounts with Him. If we sin and refuse to confess our sin and then act as if there is nothing wrong, He may allow sickness or even death. 1 Corinthians 11:29-30 describes Christians participating in communion without any concern for their sin.

For he who eats and drinks in an unworthy manner eats and drinks judgment to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body. For this reason many are weak and sick among you, and many sleep.
The second reason is that God sometimes uses sickness to show His incredible sustaining power. The story of Job illustrates how Satan challenged God about this man. He said that Job would not have faith if his life wasn’t so rosy. God allowed Satan to strike Job’s family and his health. In the process, Job never stopped trusting God even in his suffering. I’ve met several people who are like Job. Their faith is much stronger than mine, but their bodies are afflicted.

The third reason for illness is that God can use it to reveal His power. When the disciples asked what sins a man or his parents had done that caused him to be born blind, Jesus told them, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but that the works of God should be revealed in him” (John 9:3). Then Jesus healed the blind man. I also know many people who have been healed without any explanation except that God did it.

Fourth, Christians sometimes get sick because this is the way God takes them home. Their time on earth is over and their bodies are worn out. They become ill and die. Otherwise, what are the options? Accidents? I’d rather have a stroke or a heart attack than be hit by a truck.

For me, there is one more reason to exclude this healing in the atonement idea. Jesus died to give me victory over sin, but I will fight sin all my life. If His death includes victory over physical ailments and that I should never be sick, why then isn’t my victory over sin also complete? If both are in the atonement, why is one an ongoing battle and the other supposedly no longer an issue?

There is lots more to say about this, some of which is in this post.   However, I’m going to leave it here and think more about other aspects of this verse. If God has a plan for me that includes sickness, I accept His choices. If not, I rejoice in Him also. He knows the way that I take, and how to get me there. When He is finished, regardless of what processes or means that He uses, I will be sinless and have a perfect body. Better yet, I will be like Jesus.

February 16, 2010

To Live is Christ — loved and cared for

Even though God is not like us, He reveals Himself as a person, a male person. I’ve no problem with that. Genderless would be awkward and difficult to relate to, and female is not biblical. However, sometimes God’s actions are like the actions of a loving mother. The Bible says . . . 
The Lord will command His lovingkindness in the daytime; and His song will be with me in the night, a prayer to the God of my life. (Psalm 42:8)
As I read these words this morning, I thought about a mother who loves and cuddles her little baby during the day and softly sings her to sleep at night. Her attitude and thoughts are like a prayer that continually goes up to God for her child. This is how God treats His people, how He treats me.

My devotional asks several questions. One is how do I feel when I am aware that God’s love is directing me? At first I tried to think of how I feel when a friend or family member gives me loving directions. I’m glad people care, but also realize how rare it is for anyone to do this. Personal motives so easily entangle themselves in human advice.

God is not like that. His desire is that my life is the best it can be. When He gives directions, He has only my best in mind. Jeremiah 29:11 says, “For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, says the Lord, thoughts of peace and not of evil, to give you a future and a hope.”

Another question says, “How do you respond to the God of your life? Do you sing? Offer prayers of thanksgiving and praise?”

I reread the verse and don’t see any part of it being about me. It is God who commands lovingkindness, and God who gives songs in the night. Each activity is from God, not me. Even the prayer offered to Him is also something that He provides.

Again, this is like a mother who hovers over her infant who cannot pray. She prays for the child, saying words that the child cannot say. This is like God who offers up prayer from within me, prayer that comes from His heart concerning me.

This is not a weird idea. Romans 8:26 says the same thing. “Likewise the Spirit also helps in our weaknesses. For we do not know what we should pray for as we ought, but the Spirit Himself makes intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered.”

For most of yesterday, I was not feeling well due to an allergy reaction. I didn’t pray much until I went to bed and even then felt out of touch with God. My prayers seemed hollow, as if I didn’t know what to say and my heart was not in it.

However, I woke up this morning with a praise song in my heart. How did that happen? Psalm 42:8 explains it. God loved me all day (even when I didn’t feel great) and His song was with me in the night. When I could not pray, the Spirit prayed for me. Like a loving mother, He never abandoned me, even when I felt out of touch with Him.

To live is Christ means experiencing the love of God in remarkable tenderness and care, a love that does not depend on what I do or how I feel. This love is much like my father’s love, but sometimes God seems more like my mother.

February 15, 2010

To Live is Christ — means never being in denial

Our church adult Sunday School classes have joined to view and discuss a series of videos on how to be peacemakers. Yesterday’s topic was forgiveness.

I’ve always thought of myself as a forgiving person. For one thing, being angry takes too much energy! Aside from that, I know how much I have been forgiven so cannot get too heated about the things others do, yet I was convicted yesterday.

The speaker said that there are four components of forgiveness. All of them are decisions, not a feeling or emotions. First is deciding to not dwell on the offense. That means no mulling it over in my mind. The second is determining not to bring it up to the offender ever again. The third is not talking to others about it, and the fourth is deciding that this offense will not stand between me and the other person, that whatever relationship we had before will not be affected.

In the process of peacemaking, the offender needs to be aware that they have done wrong and the person who was offended is supposed to go to them and talk to them first, not anyone else. What got me yesterday was realizing that I had been offended, was angry, and was talking about it, totally oblivious that I needed to do any of these things because I missed seeing this as an offense/forgiveness issue. Duh!

God opened my eyes as I thought about that third component of forgiveness. I wasn’t dwelling on what had been done (that takes too much energy), nor had I brought it up to those who annoyed me, but I’d been telling my husband about what they had done, not once but several times. Suddenly I realized that I was offended and needed to quit my griping and take a different kind of action.

The video series talks about up-front decisions too. Before I take action, I need to ask myself if I have done the same thing? Am I guilty in some way that first needs to be brought to the Lord? Then I need to ask if this is something that is worth being upset over, or can I simply let it go?

The speaker illustrates with big issues, but also small ones. The person who cuts me off in traffic could leave me annoyed or angry for the rest of the day. Of course I cannot chase him down for a confrontation, even though some do. (It’s called road-rage.)

Yet these small things that should be let go can build up in the human heart. I’ve known people that are angry all the time. Everything bothers them because they have not let go of anything. In noticing these irritated folks, I am aware that I can easily be like they are, boiling all the time over the small stuff.

Today’s devotional reading asks the question, “When the day is done, do you ever take inventory of the ways God has blessed you?” The verse is . . . 

The Lord will command His lovingkindness in the daytime, and in the night His song shall be with me — a prayer to the God of my life. (Psalm 42:8)
About a year ago, I decided to begin what I call a gratitude journal. Before I go to sleep at night, I write in the things of the day for which I am thankful. This helps keep me in a good frame of mind, yet I realized yesterday that being thankful for ABC does not eradicate the annoyance I feel with XYZ. I cannot cover up my irritation with gratitude.

In other words, if I have been irritated and bellyaching about something someone has done, I cannot be thankful for my daily bread or anything else and expect my heart to be right. My anger needs to be acknowledged and dealt with, not tossed in a bag and hid under the bed for the night. That baggage simply pops out the next morning and ties its noisy self around my neck.

To live is Christ means being honest with myself about the things that bug me. While Jesus had no sin to confess, He also did not let His anger against sin be bottled up. In some cases, He took it to the offenders and confronted them, but for the most part, He bore it on His own shoulders. Eventually, the weight of sin crucified Him, but in doing what He did about sin, He made peace with God possible for us.

Jesus is the ultimate peacemaker. From the lesson yesterday, the verse today, and from His lovingkindness, I have much to consider about how way I respond to the annoying things of life.

February 14, 2010

To Live is Christ — knowing I am loved

I’m glad that we can express love every day, not just Valentine’s Day, yet having a special day is a good reminder to say the words and show others that we love them.

It is also good to be reminded of the love of God. It seems to me that Satan’s favorite lie is “God doesn’t love you.” Because human beings are so bent on being worthy or doing something to earn it, even the slightest failure on our part makes us think that God no longer loves us.

Human love might be like that. If an object of our affection begins acting like a jerk, falling out of love could easily happen. But God’s love is not like that. It does not depend on what we do, but on who He is.

Romans 5:8 says, “God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

1 John 4:10 adds, “In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation (atoning sacrifice) for our sins.”

Even as a Christian who knows these things, sometimes circumstances make me think that God does not love me. When the enemy of my soul whispers those negative thoughts in my head, the Bible tells me how to answer his lie:

What, then, shall I say in response to this? If God is for me, who can be against me? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give me all things? Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who is he that condemns? Christ Jesus, who died — more than that, who was raised to life — is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for me. Who shall separate me from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written: “For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.”No, in all these things I am more than a conqueror through Him who loved me. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate me from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus my Lord. (Romans 8:31–39, my personalized paraphrase)
It has been said that actions speak louder than words. The action of God taking on a human form and dying for my sin speaks loudly. He demonstrated His love, not merely speaking it, but proving it. After all, what does “I love you” on a Valentine or candy heart mean if there are no actions to back it up?

Yet He speaks it too. He says, “I have loved you with an everlasting love” (Jeremiah 31:3) and His Word is filled with many other declarations of His love. Not only that, His Spirit affirms His Word as He leads and guides me through life and fills me with songs of praise.

By day the Lord directs his love, at night his song is with me — a prayer to the God of my life. (Psalm 42:8)
We send cards, say those loving words, eat chocolate, and express love to spouse, family, and friends. I’m happy for those relationships, yet I’m happier still that Jesus made the decision to be my Valentine and I never need to wonder if He still loves me.

February 13, 2010

To Live is Christ — overflowing with joy

As a Canadian, we watched the opening ceremonies of the 2010 Winter Olympics with national pride. Vancouver’s Olympic team did a great job.

This year, I felt more connected to the athletes, not because I’ve taken up a sport but because of the looks on their faces when they paraded into the venue. Last summer, I was in a parade also. It was at the Gathering in Scotland where clan members marched High Street from Holyrood Park to Edinburgh Castle. Thousands lined the streets cheering for everyone, especially their own clan as it passed.

There was an incredible feel about this. It was not personal; not one of those people knew my name. It was bigger than that, a sense of belonging and togetherness. We were family, tied together by more than a name. I will never forget how I felt that day.

As I watched the faces of the athletes, I knew how they felt, even felt how they felt. For some, the Olympics might be personal, but for most, there is a bigger picture, that sense of representing something more than yourself. Few could resist being swept away by the largeness of what was happening.

This morning I’m still thinking about that, and as I read the verse for today, I’m warmed in my heart again. This verse is personal, but also not personal. It is about God and me, but it is more about the largeness of God and how He gives deep delight to the hearts of His people. 

The Lord will command His lovingkindness in the daytime, and in the night His song shall be with me — a prayer to the God of my life. (Psalm 42:8)
If I needed a parade every day to keep my heart overflowing with joy, I would be a sad person most of the time. However, I am not sad because my source of joy is God and His lovingkindness. He takes care of me. Yes, there are difficult times, but that joy is like an artesian spring; it bubbles up no matter what happens.

For example, sometimes I wake in the morning and my mind is full of a hymn or a praise chorus. My heart is singing. How does that happen? There is no time to think about it, to decide that I am going to sing. The melody and the words are just there, bubbling up and overflowing.

The joy of the Olympics may have a more lasting effect than other happy occasions because it is bigger than mere competition and medals. It is based on values and ideals that are larger than individuals and larger than even the event itself.

Yet the joy of the Lord lasts even longer — but for the same reasons. It is bigger than good times and winning battles because it is based on the Lord Jesus Christ, the One who is grander than anything that can happen. I cannot help but be swept away by the largeness of my God and Savior. My joy lasts because He lives in my heart and it is His joy, not my circumstances and often not even my choice.

Photo source

February 12, 2010

To Live is Christ — making others a priority

Some might envy a person who is self-employed or who does not need to work outside the home, but there is one disadvantage to being my own boss. Picking priorities and determining what to do next is not always easy.

The opening phrase of this verse gives me much to think about when I decide what to put on my to-do list, and why I am doing it. 

Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself. (Philippians 2:3)
If I am living my life before God, then it matters what I do, even when no one else is involved, even when no one else knows. Like the old saying — good manners are what you do when no one is looking — and godly living isn’t about impressing people. God knows and cares how I discipline myself every moment of the day.

That said, selfish ambition and conceit could easily govern my choices. I could spend the day zealously involved in whatever gives me pleasure (like an art project or even loafing) instead of taking care of my responsibilities as a homemaker or wife. Why bother cooking supper if we can afford take-out? Why bother with cleaning sinks or folding laundry? Does anyone really care?

I’ve known people who put their hobbies above their home and family. They did well in their hobby but lost out in those other areas. The Word of God says too much about home and family to sanction this neglect, even though for me, being a homemaker can be tedious and boring.

I’m glad that self-discipline is a fruit of the Holy Spirit (see Galatians 5). I know that without the help of the Lord, I would never wash windows or do the dusting. He is that still small voice that tells me to turn off the television and get to work. He is that inner urging that motivates me to call a grandson or write a cousin when my other choices are more about doing my own thing. He keeps me moving when I want to sit, and slows me down when I get overly zealous over some trivia or other.

To live is Christ
means thinking about the long-term value, even the eternal value, of the choices that I make. Jesus had only three and a half years of ministry, but He changed the world because He choose to say, “Not my will but Thine be done.”

Again, I have a long way to do to be like Him.

February 11, 2010

To Live is Christ — no thought of self

My devotional reading asks, “What does this Scripture tell us to do in order to avoid the trap of selfishness and conceit?” The Scripture is . . . 
Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself. (Philippians 2:3)
The context of this verse points to Jesus as the example of how to obey it. The context says . . . 
Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. (Philippians 2:5–7)
Why is this important to me avoiding the trap of selfishness and conceit? It is all about that phrase “let each esteem others better than himself.”

Jesus is the example, but how could He esteem anyone better than He is? He is sinless and always obeys His heavenly Father; no one is better. I’ve concluded that “better” must mean something else than superior, such as more important.

A Greek dictionary says otherwise. This word is translated one time as higher, once as better and once as excellency. It is also translated once as pass and once as supreme. The dictionary says that it means: to have or hold over one; to stand out, rise above, overtop; to be above, be superior in rank, authority, power; the prominent men, rulers; to excel, to be superior, better than, to surpass.

That didn’t help me much. How can Jesus do that? Again, I looked at the verses about Jesus. They describe what He does as a result of His attitude toward others.

Jesus was in the form of God and equal with God, but He never used His equality with God as an opportunity for self-exaltation. Instead, He abased Himself. The Bible says He “emptied” Himself, yet this is not about emptying Himself of the fulness of His Godhead, or of His being on an equality with God. He did not stop being God the Son.

Instead, this was about the FORM that He took. He took on the form of a servant, and by that addition, He emptied Himself of His outward self-manifesting glory as God. That means that Jesus never showed off who He was. Everything He did was in service to people and obedience to His Father.

Not “looking on His own things” means that even though He existed in the form of God and esteemed it no robbery to be on an equality with God, He still did not cling to that and use it to build His reputation.

Besides that, being on an equality with God is not identical with existing in the form of God. The latter is about the external characteristics, majesty, and beauty of the Godhead — and it was this which “He emptied Himself of” to assume “the form of a servant.” Being equal with God was His being, or His nature. He always existed in a state of equality with God because both the Father and the Son have the same essence. So the idea of emptying Himself is more about how He lived while on earth.

This is heady stuff, but it is also practical. It says that I do not stop being who I am to obey verse 3. Considering others “better than” myself isn’t about who I am, or about becoming a doormat or any less of a person. It is about them and their importance. It is about esteeming their needs superior to mine. It is about putting them above my own ambitions. It means that I drop all conceit and pride that would keep me from thinking that way.

In other words, it doesn’t matter if I am richer, smarter, more privileged, or whatever, because to live is Christ means forgetting all those measurements and being “kindly affectionate to one another with brotherly love, in honor giving preference to one another” (Romans 12:10).

I suppose it would be possible to serve others with a self-serving and superior attitude, thinking I am over them in some way, even just because I am helping them. Jesus never did that. In fact, I don’t think He thinks about Himself at all. He loves us so much that nothing is more important to Him than doing whatever we need so we can have God’s very best. That is all that is on His mind.

Oh my, I have a long way to go to be like Him.

February 10, 2010

To Live is Christ — without Him I’m helpless

God reminded me this morning why I need to spend some time with Him before I get into the rest of my day. I turned on my computer and had two messages pop up. One was a list of solutions to problems I’ve had with some software, essentially a reminder to get all my updates. The other was a Vista update urging several downloads. This happens often and I always take time to install them, even though I’d rather get to my study (I use an online Bible and devotional guide).

I suppose there are people who ignore the updates. After a while, their programs would either stop working or become erratic. Taking time to get the latest drivers or whatever is needed becomes vital.

It is the same with reading the Word of God each day. I don’t know what demands will be made of me today. I might not see that I am developing bad habits or becoming selfish in my thinking. I need God’s continual reminders and updates to keep my life going the way it should.

Today, I read the same passage as yesterday, one that is always needed because I so easily drift to doing what I want and neglecting what others need. Part of it says . . . 

Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself. (Philippians 2:3)
Selfish ambition is doing whatever I do for my own gain only. God does not condemn the enjoyment of work or ministry, but if that is my sole reason, then my motivations have become sinful. They need more than an update!

As for conceit, this is what Paul had in mind when he wrote Romans 12:3, “For I say, through the grace given to me, to everyone who is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think soberly, as God has dealt to each one a measure of faith.

I can know my strengths, yet I must acknowledge that they are gifts from God. I can know my talents and abilities, but I also must remember their source. Sober thinking is thinking soundly with a moderate estimate of who I am and what is true about me. I cannot lord it over anyone.

Last night I was at a writer’s meeting. As I listened to some of the elderly people in attendance and the simplicity of what they were writing, God reminded me of a young friend from twenty years ago. He was taking a BA degree at the time. Now he has a Masters and a doctorate and teaches in a university. He writes books that are so deep that I can scarcely understand the introductions. He reminds me that intellect and abilities are relevant. Don’t look down on others. Sober thinking knows that no matter how smart or talented I think I am, there are others who are much smarter.

To live is Christ is not a competition. Instead, God wants me to value every person. Besides, the university professor needs the Holy Spirit to influence the lives of his circle of friends just as much as I need the Holy Spirit to encourage those around me. With God, there are no hierarchies in any field or discipline. All of us are helpless to accomplish His will without His help.

Paul was a great man, yet he learned to “glory in his infirmities” because it was in humility that he depended upon God to give him what he needed. Every day, I need the same thing and the same reminders. As John 15:5 says, without Christ, I can do nothing.

February 9, 2010

To Live is Christ — interested in others

If I had to pick one passage from the New Testament that describes what it means “to live is Christ” it would have to be this one:
If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus. . . . (Philippians 2:1–5)
If my relationship with Christ means anything, then it ought to show up in my relationships with others. A professed faith in Jesus means nothing without visible evidence.

This evidence is briefly described in these verses, yet books could be written (and have) about the way these characteristics should be demonstrated — or not. As given here, the big barriers to being like Jesus are selfish ambition and vain conceit or more simply, wanting what I want because I think I am better than I am, and certainly more deserving than other people. This is playground childishness, yet I know from experience that growing up spiritually isn’t as easy or as common as growing up physically.

The evidences for maturity include tenderness and compassion that flow out of humility. I cannot be tenderhearted or even feel compassion toward others if my heart is proud and filled with my personal agenda. I need humility. The best definition for it is not that I think that I a terrible person, but that I don’t think about myself at all. This is the attitude that Jesus has.

Looking to the interests of others does not mean I neglect things like breakfast and brushing my teeth. As these verses say, “you should look not only to your own interests” leaving room for the necessities of life. However, the more important thing is the need and interests of others. This is not a meddling, nosy attitude, but one of genuinely caring, being involved, being quick to see if a person is joyful (so I can rejoice with them) or weeping so I can come alongside and give them support.

I get tested on this every single day. From phone calls to email requests, to all sorts of communication vehicles, I am exposed to the interests of others. Sometimes their interests conflict with mine, or are boring to me, yet Christ would care about those things, and He wants me to do the same.

For instance, I have a friend that talks about nothing else except her hobby. Even if my interest was there, the topic gets old after a while. Selfishness prods me to want to discuss other things. To live is Christ bids me to listen and be genuinely interested in what she cares about.

This is a daily challenge, but there is a fringe benefit. Because I know Jesus is like this, I can talk to Him about anything and be certain that He not only hears me but cares about the things I care about. There is no detail of my life that He will dismiss because it is trivial or boring.

I’ll be spending a few days in this passage, and even though it is a favorite and one I have memorized, I have a feeling that the Holy Spirit has many more great truths to give me from these verses.

February 8, 2010

To Live is Christ — appreciating others

My mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, but she retained her sense of humor along with memories of childhood events and things of the past.

One day I told her that I could not remember the past as well as she did. I was worried that if I lost my memory in the same way as she did, I’d be in trouble. I wouldn’t remember the past and couldn’t remember yesterday — my mind would be a blank. She laughed and laughed.

Memories can be a blessing or a bane. If I think about sad events, I can become sad all over again. God instructs me to examine those things in light of His purposes, and that often turns sorrow to joy.

Remembering people needs to be responded to from a biblical perspective as well. For some, it is easiest to remember all the good stuff. I tend to go to the other end of the spectrum. That is why Paul’s example is so important. He said . . . 

I thank my God upon every remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine making request for you all with joy, for your fellowship in the gospel from the first day until now, (Philippians 1:3–5)
This is a spiritual discipline. As God brings people to mind, and as I go through the names of those on my prayer list, I tend to ask God to forgive them, or to help them, or give them wisdom. I notice that being thankful doesn’t come automatically. I need to make a conscious effort to do it.

However, to live is Christ means being thankful for those who are in the family of God with me. We have so much in common, mainly Christ, but also our goals for our own lives and hopes for the lives of others. We may differ on minors, but the gospel unites us and that alone is an amazing grace.

Besides the reasons for being thankful, just doing it makes me appreciate people. Thankfulness also produces joy in my heart and fills me with gratitude to God for bringing others to mind and then asking me to pray for them.

February 7, 2010

To Live is Christ — thankful for fellowship

One of the lines on the birthday card my husband gave me this year says, “I love that I can talk to you about the Lord and know that you’ll understand.”

This warms my heart because it was not always so, not the understanding part, but the part about talking to me about the Lord. I became a Christian nearly ten years before he did. While that was long ago, I recall the struggles of being what the Bible calls unequally yoked.

This passage that I’m studying is a good reminder of how to pray for my husband. We have shared our faith in Christ since he became a Christian on January 20, 1980.

I thank my God upon every remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine making request for you all with joy, for your fellowship in the gospel from the first day until now. (Philippians 1:3–5)
Fellowship means “mutual participation in a person and a way of life.” My husband and I share in knowing Jesus Christ and in wanting to live the Christian life. That does not mean perfection. (I wish.) We have both made colossal mistakes, disobeyed God, hurt one another, have habits that annoy each other, and yet people still say to us that there is so much love and laughter in our home.

The difference is that third Person. Jesus makes thankfulness possible, even after arguing over a difference of opinion. Jesus puts it on our hearts to pray for one another. Jesus gives us joy that we know Him and that we can share who He is and how He thinks and behaves in our life together.

Frankly, without Jesus, I don’t know how people can stay married. The fact is, many of them don’t. Even Christian marriages fall apart. Yet Jesus is glue. Fellowship together in Him is glue. When I’m upset or annoyed with something concerning my spouse, the Lord has this way of melting the ice and putting His right thinking into my head so I can remember rightly, be truly thankful, and have joy in my heart for the fellowship of sharing my Christian life with someone who loves Him too.

February 6, 2010

To Live is Christ — trusting Him to save and keep me

Fellowship means “two fellows in the same ship” — the simple definition. A more complete one is “mutual participation in a person and a way of life.” Fellowship centers on Jesus and fellowship in the gospel is sharing the work of telling others about Him. 
I thank my God upon every remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine making request for you all with joy, for your fellowship in the gospel from the first day until now. (Philippians 1:3–5)
Regarding this verse, my devotional reading asks the convicting question: Have you been faithful to the gospel since the first day you heard it?

At first I thought that must be asking if I have been faithful to share the gospel all the time. If it does, then I cannot say that I have been faithful to the gospel.

However, being faithful to the gospel could mean the same as being faithful to my spouse. It is not about the sharing of this good news, but about believing in it and not straying off into some other doctrine. Then I have been faithful.

Believing the gospel is fundamental to the Christian faith. Jesus died to save me from my sin. I am forgiven because God put my sin on Christ and He paid my penalty. Since I first believed these things, I’ve never stopped trusting Jesus and His sacrifice on the cross for me.

There have been times I’ve tried to be righteous in my own strength, or tried to do Christian service apart from relying on the Holy Spirit. That could be considered lack of faithfulness to the gospel, but for me, it was just naive and done without awareness. The beauty of being a Christian is that the Holy Spirit doesn’t leave His people in the dark for very long. He constantly shows me where I am doubting and when I am disobedient.

Questions like this one from the devotional tend to imply that the Christian life is all about me and what I do. That misses an important reality — this isn’t about me. Jesus saved me and keeps on saving me. My Christian life would fall apart totally if it depended on me or my faithfulness. Instead, it depends on the Lord. I would not stand for one second apart from Him. He is the one who keeps me from straying and from looking for other things to trust besides Christ and the gospel.

When I trust in Christ, I am at peace. He fills me with joy and confidence. When I start looking in the mirror at my “faithfulness” I begin to fret and am tempted to either dismiss my failures or try harder. The Bible tells me to keep looking at Jesus, the author and finisher of my faith (Hebrews 12:2).

Instead of trying harder concerning my failures, Jesus wants me to just confess them. When I admit them, He then forgives me. Then He gives the courage and strength to move on. Being faithful to the gospel can only happen because Jesus is faithful to be my Savior.

February 5, 2010

To Live is Christ — without baggage

Today’s verses fill me with mixed emotions. I’m sad because I cannot pray this exact same prayer that Paul prayed. 
I thank my God upon every remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine making request for you all with joy, for your fellowship in the gospel from the first day until now. (Philippians 1:3–5)
I lived on a farm that “first day” when Christ came into my life, and attended church in a nearby small town. I had several Christian friends and studied the Bible each week with several women. Since then, I have moved 14 or more times. I have lost contact with some of those people. A few have gone to be with the Lord.

Continual fellowship with the same people throughout my Christian life has not been possible. I’ve lived in several places in Alberta, one each in Saskatchewan, Alaska and Illinois, and two in California. In all that, we have attended several churches and met many people.

Keeping up with all of them has not been possible. This week I did talk to a Christian I’ve known for more than thirty years, but I’ve not seen her face to face for more than twelve years. We live too far apart, but I still pray for her every week. For me, prayer is the only connection with many Christian friends I’ve met and had fellowship with over the years.

Relocating often has pluses but other minuses. On one occasion we were at a Bible study in a city where we had just moved. The hostess introduced us to another couple and said, “Don’t get to know them too well though. They are going to be moving soon.”

It hurt, but it describes what happened to us many times. We made friends then left. Some we still have contact with, and some we still hold up in prayer, but the connection has been broken with most.

These are sad thoughts, but Paul does say he prays with joy and I can do that too. As names and faces come to mind, my heart delights in good memories. I’m thankful for all the Christian brothers and sisters that we have known since the “first day” and can still speak to God about them with joy.

How is this practical? I never thought about it until today, but we left none of those places we lived with hard feelings or anything to regret. If we went back (and we sometimes do), there are no grudges or bridges that need burning. God is good. We have moved, but we have moved without baggage, and that is also something that gives me joy and makes me thankful to God.

February 4, 2010

To Live is Christ — pressing on

My sister gave me a cute birthday card yesterday. It shows an old cowboy on his horse on an impossibly narrow way, a trail that winds high on the side of a vertical cliff. The caption says, “That’s just the thing about birthdays . . . there’s no turning back!”

Maybe that is what I was thinking this morning when I read this question: “If your relationship with Christ became less, would you notice?”

At first I thought this was a dumb question. It seems to me that when Jesus reveals Himself to me, there is no turning back. I’ve seen Him and He has changed me. What He has done cannot be undone.

This makes me wonder about those people we call “backsliders.” I’m thinking, is that really a biblical description of those who seem to follow Christ and then turn back?

Paul describes his own life in the following passage, yet I also see here some clues about my question . . . 

I 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. . . . I do not count myself to have apprehended; but one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Therefore let us, as many as are mature, have this mind; and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal even this to you. Nevertheless, to the degree that we have already attained, let us walk by the same rule, let us be of the same mind. (Philippians 3:8–16)
The New Testament speaks about people who are babies in their faith. It also talks about “young men” and mature believers. Surprisingly, it never mentions backsliders. Instead, this is an Old Testament term applied to the nation of Israel when they continually turned away from the laws of God. It is not used to describe Christians.

Instead, being a Christian is an organic thing, like a tree. God gives new life and that life is nourished by Him through spiritual disciplines (reading His Word, prayer, worship, fellowship, etc.), but if a believer does not do those things, they do not grow. The tree remains alive, but it is stunted.

At first, new believers are filled with the sense of their new life, but that is not to be confused with maturity. Like a tree, they need to grow. Some of that growth comes from weathering storms and unexpected challenges. During tough times, some may become discouraged and stop their spiritual disciplines. They do not die, but in the eyes of others may appear to have turned back.

To these, Paul encourages to press on (and I should too). Other passages say to “look forward” or “be diligent.” Peter wrote, “May the God of all grace, who called us though His eternal glory by Christ Jesus, after you have suffered a while, perfect, establish, strength, and settle you” (1 Peter 5:10). Troubles are not the end of the Christian life; they one of the ways God uses to make us more like Jesus.

I know a few who seemed to have started the Christian life but fell away. I have no idea if they actually are “alive in Christ” or if their start was a false one, but I do know that the Spirit of Christ is relentless in His life-giving power. If life is there, it is still there through trials and difficulties. Those who seem to have turned back have not died to spiritual things, but have stopped taking nourishment. Eventually the Spirit within will nourish them and have them moving again along that narrow way. 

Copyright image by Equine Addicts