May 31, 2010

To Live is Christ — is not a passing fad

Last week a woman told me that when she became a Christian her relatives and friends told her that it was just a fad. She would soon “give it up” and return to her normal life. She added, “They just did not understand.”

Fads abound in every realm. Clothing styles, hair styles, popular music, architecture, best places to vacation, automobiles, movies, and even philosophies. Fads come and go. What was once popular becomes passé. Sometimes the passé becomes popular again. The human heart is fickle and satisfied only a short time.

Actually, interest in Jesus Christ can be a fad. I’ve known people who jumped on the bandwagon because their friends did or because it was the thing to do when at a Christian camp. It didn’t last because their hearts were not in it and their lives were not changed. They did not have genuine faith, only a temporary interest.

Fads are like that. They are about popularity and temporary likes and dislikes. On the other hand, salvation is about eternity. It is based on eternal truth and the reality that, never mind our likes and dislikes, we come and go — only once. In fact, life is a mere blink, at least this life here on earth.

“All flesh is as grass, and all the glory of man as the flower of the grass. The grass withers, and its flower falls away, but the word of the Lord endures forever.” Now this is the word which by the gospel was preached to you. (1 Peter 1:24–25)
Peter quotes a passage from Isaiah about the brevity of life and the longevity of God’s Word. Think of it. I speak and my words last as long as someone remembers them. I write something and depending on where those words are recorded and on whatever safeguards them, they might last longer than I do, but they are not eternal.

Yet God has no beginning or end. I cannot wrap my mind around that concept. However, I do understand that when He speaks, what He says is good for all time. His Word is powerful. He spoke the world and all of creation into existence. His Word became flesh (morphing at its finest?) and lived among us. His Word has been recorded into the all-time best-selling book, the Bible.

This Word of God is far from being a popular and passing fad. At times it has been banned and burned. It has been smuggled into countries that forbid it. In those places, one precious copy has been divided into pages, hidden and shared by those who believe it. Despite the attacks on it, the Bible remains and continues to speak the Word of God to those who read it.

When I was thirteen, I began reading the Bible every day. I did not believe it or understand it and my reading was a ritual, a duty and a habit. Sixteen years of this did not alter my life. However, one day one verse leaped off the page and forever changed me. At that moment I became keenly aware of the presence of Jesus Christ, the Living Word, and that He is God in human flesh. I don’t remember the verse, but I do remember that the Spirit of God made the identity of the Word of God emphatically clear.

The Word of the Lord endures forever, and it is by this Word that I finally heard and understood the gospel. Jesus Christ came to earth to save sinners. He died for my sin, was buried and rose again the third day. He is alive. He is real and He is eternal. After that revelation, there is no going back. Once a person knows Jesus, it is impossible to forget His person and His identity. Knowing Him is not a fad because He satisfies all the longings of the human heart and never becomes passé.

May 30, 2010

To Live is Christ — waiting before flying

As I get older, my drive has not decreased, but my energy levels often take a dip. The projects pile up because I am tired and want to just sit rather than do anything. Today’s devotional verses include this fact of life.
Since you have purified your souls in obeying the truth through the Spirit in sincere love of the brethren, love one another fervently with a pure heart, having been born again, not of corruptible seed but incorruptible, through the word of God which lives and abides forever, because “All flesh is as grass, And all the glory of man as the flower of the grass. The grass withers, And its flower falls away, but the word of the Lord endures forever.” Now this is the word which by the gospel was preached to you. (1 Peter 1:22–25)
Sometimes it helps me to grasp the gist of a passage by writing it in my own words. While this may not be a proper exegesis, this is what it says to me this morning. “Now that you are a Christian and know the cleansing power of loving others, keep it up. You have the life of Christ that comes through the Word of God. Remember that your own life will wither and fade, but the Word of God lives forever, and it is this Word that was preached to you and has changed your life.”

I feel a mild rebuke in these words. While being tired and needing sleep is often legitimate, I could use fatigue as an excuse for disobeying God. The actions needed to love others sometimes appear to be much for me and I could opt out.

Yet as I read what Peter says, the hint is there that I have been given a life that is from an incorruptible source. In other words, that catalyst for my spiritual life is God’s Word and it does not get old, not the Book and not the living Word which is Jesus Christ.

With Jesus living in me, I can claim the “rest” that He promises to the weary, but I can also claim His eternal life, which is part of the package. In fact, He is my life. Galatians 2:20 says,

I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.
Nevertheless, this does not deny fatigue. The Bible also says, 
But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us . . . therefore we do not lose heart. Even though our outward man is perishing, yet the inward man is being renewed day by day. (2 Corinthians 4: 7, 16)
When God has a task for me (and not all things that get on my to-do list necessarily fit that category), I can rely on Him to give me what I need to do that task, including wisdom, direction, and energy. If I’m overtired, could it be that some stuff I’ve been doing is not at His direction? Maybe.

To apply this, I need to make sure I’m following His leading and not taking on things that are outside His will. I also need to rely on Him for the resources to do what He gives me. I might be tired, but “Those who wait on the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint” (Isaiah 40:31).

I might need more sleep, but I might also need some lessons on waiting.

May 29, 2010

To Live is Christ — called and named

Last night a speaker at a convention talked to Christian leaders about outreach. He offered a simple strategy about being the right person with the right message and going about it in the right way with some prior planning. These are not his words, but mine.

His message and my paraphrase illustrate that there are many ways to say the same thing. Anyone who has raised children knows that sometimes this must be done in order to be heard and understood, never mind obeyed.

I read the passage that I am studying in two versions this morning, the Contemporary English Version and the New American Standard Bible. Here is what they say:

Behave like obedient children. Don’t let your lives be controlled by your desires, as they used to be. Always live as God’s holy people should, because God is the one who chose you, and he is holy. (1 Peter 1:14–15, CEV)
As obedient children, do not be conformed to the former lusts which were yours in your ignorance, but like the Holy One who called you, be holy yourselves also in all your behavior. (1 Peter 1:14–15, NASB)
The phrase that caught my attention is about God’s selection. One version calls it choosing, the other a calling. One implies being picked; the other implies the necessity of a response.

My Greek dictionary gives another slant to this word. It means to call, to call aloud, or utter in a loud voice. It can also mean to invite, or to name by name, or even to give a name to, or receive the name of, or receive as a name, or to be called, i.e., to bear a name or title (among men), or to salute one by name.

After reading that, I had the sense that these verses were telling me that God who is holy calls me or names me by a new designation. Instead of being a sinner (even though I still sin), He names me a holy person. Because I am holy and set apart by His invitation and His naming of me, I am to act like it. This is not just because of what He has made of me though; I am to be holy because He is holy.

This might seem like a lot of words. Others might hear God more clearly if He said this in a different way, but I hear this one. I’ve been given an identity and a name. I am a set apart person, identified by God as His child and called holy. I am to ignore anything from my old sinful nature that bids me follow it. Instead of that old way of life, I’m to live up to what God says I am.

I’ve had nearly forty years of practice trying to fit into this new role and new identity. Each day I’m reminded one way or another that I am not the person that I once was and that I need to cast off the old and put on the new. No matter how God says it, the marvel of it never becomes ho-hum. I’m overjoyed to be chosen, called, named, saluted, given a title, called holy. Belonging to Jesus is simply a rush.

May 28, 2010

To Live is Christ — God is in the details

Some Christians started their walk with Jesus as small children. Others, like myself, did so when we were adults. The verse that I’ve been studying manages to cover both ends of that spectrum.
Behave like obedient children. Don’t let your lives be controlled by your desires, as they used to be. Always live as God’s holy people should, because God is the one who chose you, and he is holy. (1 Peter 1:14–15)
The person who has known Christ from childhood knows what “obedient children” means. They have been there and struggled with doing what they were told — just as any other child. The difference is that Christ makes it possible to obey from the heart. The obedient children are not “standing up on the inside.” This submission to God is part of what it means to be holy, even for children.

The person who is saved as an adult knows what life “controlled by your desires” means. We have been there, but instead of struggling with it, we were ignorant of our motivations — at least until Christ came and revealed our sinful selfishness to us. Then began the struggle. Our knowledge of what it means to behave in godly ways comes later in life, but for me and for the person who became a believer at five or six years old, the command is the same. We are both to live as God’s holy people should live.

Holiness sounds like pie in the sky. Is it even possible? God must think so because He does not ask us to do more than we are able — in the power of the Holy Spirit. As I understand it, holiness is being different from what I once was. It is being like Jesus. To do that, Jesus must be in control of my life (that is the obedience part) and I must forsake all my own desires.

Holiness could be an extremely pious life, but Jesus lived and walked among us as an ordinary man in many ways. He ate with sinners. He went to weddings. He cried at a grave side. He cared about those who suffered. His own brothers thought He was insane. No one ever accused Him of being overtly pious or what we might call “holier than thou.” He was simply good, and did the will of God with all His heart.

According to this verse, holiness begins at the decision making level. Each day I am faced with choices. When I choose my desires, I forsake holiness. When I obey God, I embrace holiness. This might involve actions so ordinary that no one realizes the inner choice that I made.

At the same time, whatever I decide to do in the name of Jesus and at His bidding will have eternal importance. I might not see or understand what that is, but in the plan of God, my choice to abandon sin and be holy is part of what He is doing. Because He considers them important, this adds excitement to even the small things of life.

May 27, 2010

To Live is Christ — remembering He is the Savior

Today’s devotional reading asks, “Have you ever wanted to take time off from being obedient to God?”

If this question means giving up godly attitudes and disciplines such as diligence and perseverance, then it happens nearly every day when I am tired or my chores are tedious or even boring. I slack off and put my feet up when I know I should keep going.

If the question is about time off from obeying specific commands such as, “submit to those in authority over you” then I’m guilty every time I drive even one km an hour over the speed limit, or get annoyed because I have to pay taxes or yield at a stoplight.

Yet this question seems to go beyond these times of temptation to a general attitude of just stopping, just deciding not to do anything God asks, more of a total vacation. That happened to me once.

I had been battling a particular sin for a long time. It was a sin of attitude, not action so not very discernable to others. Nevertheless, it was keeping me from growing in Christlikeness, and preventing my life from fruitful service. Although I knew these things and was trying to stop thinking the way I’d been thinking, at the same time I didn’t grasp the real problem — I really didn’t want to give up my bad attitude. Today’s verse may have been in my radar, but I didn’t heed it. I wanted to be holy, but I didn’t want to be holy. 

Behave like obedient children. Don’t let your lives be controlled by your desires, as they used to be. Always live as God’s holy people should, because God is the one who chose you, and he is holy. (1 Peter 1:14–15)
Instead, I decided that my only solution was to stop being a Christian. That notion went totally against my theology. I was convinced then, and still am, that a person who has been born again, regenerated and placed in the family of God, cannot be ‘unborn’ and walk away. Christ lives in me. I cannot shove Him out.

However, at that time, I wanted to quit. Being a Christian was too difficult. This battle had worn me out. I was fed up. There seemed no answers and no way out except to cease. I remember feeling very black and very much in darkness, still not realizing the reasons why I could not win this battle, but I made my decision.

That same day, I walked past a bookcase and one of my books was lying on top. I picked it up to put it away, but paused and flipped it open. My eyes fell on a verse of Scripture and with that verse, I felt like God smacked me on the side of the head and turned me around. It said,

How much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without spot to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God? (Hebrews 9:14)
I suppose that God could have used any verse, but this one offered me two truths that I needed to hear. One was that all the times I had defiled my own conscience with this bad attitude did not mean I was hopelessly ruined. The blood of Christ cleanses sin, large and small, many or few. Compared to the fact that His blood covers the sin of the world, the sin of all time, what is my sin? It is nothing for Him to forgive and cleanse, nothing at all in His sight. I felt ashamed and humbled.

The second truth was that my battle was wheel-spinning, a waste of time and effort for nothing more than a dead work. This attitude that I could not let go of had no eternal value. It was worthless to God and worthless to me, a dead work, the product of my old, sinful nature. It was useless and fit for fire. Why hang on to something so foolishly vain and empty?

In that hour when I had decided I could not be Christian any longer, God grabbed hold of me and gave me victory. He showed me the folly of my sin, the futility of my “I wants” and then showed me once again that I am not my own Savior — He is. I cannot defeat sin and the sooner I admit it, the better.

I learned so much that day. For one thing, God showed me that my admission of helplessness does not have to be so drastic. I don’t need to give up and quit walking with Him; I just need to give up and quit trying to save myself.

May 26, 2010

To Live is Christ — forsake uselessness, but keep busy

After the basics of food, shelter and so on, most people want to have a meaningful life. For me that means being useful. As a Christian, one thing I dread is God putting me on a shelf and not giving me anything to do. It does not matter that the world offers more options than anyone can count. What matters to me is that God includes me in His work.

One reason that I feel that way is that He has shown me that most of life’s activities have little influence on anything important, and no eternal value. The older I get, the less I want to spin my wheels with things that do not matter. However, deciding what things do matter can be a challenge. Peter offers this:

Behave like obedient children. Don’t let your lives be controlled by your desires, as they used to be. Always live as God’s holy people should, because God is the one who chose you, and he is holy. That’s why the Scriptures say, “I am the holy God, and you must be holy too.” You say that God is your Father, but God doesn’t have favorites! He judges all people by what they do. So you must honor God while you live as strangers here on earth. You were rescued from the useless way of life that you learned from your ancestors. But you know that you were not rescued by such things as silver or gold that don’t last forever. You were rescued by the precious blood of Christ, that spotless and innocent lamb. (1 Peter 1:14–19, CEV)
The first clue in deciding what is useful is that uselessness and sinful desires are partners. Christ died for the sinful things that I do. If I continue in them, I am adding to the list of what crucified Him. I’m also chalking up a lot of nothing for eternity. Because His blood takes away sin, sin will not enter eternity with me. It is useless. That means obedience is useful.

Peter also says that the life I learned from my human ancestors is also useless, at least all that I was taught that is not biblical has no eternal value. My parents gave me a good work ethic, yet hard work on the wrong projects for the wrong reasons does not have any lasting value. God encourages me to be diligent and steadfast in obedience, yet those traits are to be applied to the things He asks me to do, not just anything. Otherwise, what I do will be useless.

Third, Peter says that silver and gold do not last forever. Everyone knows that, even the people who die with their money stuffed in their casket. I cannot take money and stuff with me. My observation is that most people live as if they can. For so many, money and the desire for material gain is a huge motivation for countless useless activities, although money in itself is not evil. Paul wrote to Timothy:

But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. People who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs. (1 Timothy 6:6–10)
If I put my focus on personal and financial gain, I am falling into that useless way of life from which Christ died to save me. Such motivations and actions are useless for eternity. It isn’t that poverty is useful but that I have an eternal perspective on material things. They will not last.

What then is useful? Peter says holiness and honoring God. Paul says godliness with contentment. Contentment seems passive, yet striving to live a holy life is far from it. Jesus was the holiest person to ever walk this earth, and although He became tired and slept, there is not much in the Bible about Him being idle.

Honoring God is also hard work. I’m continually battling my sinful desire to get honor for myself. Many don’t like it when God is honored so I also battle a desire to please people instead of giving God the glory that is due Him. Honoring God also means abandoning anything that dishonors Him.

In other words, even without any special assignments such as teaching a Bible class or taking care of a needy person or praying, or any other Holy Spirit-motivated task, if I erase the “useless” from my ledger and replace it with “godly living” there is no end of things to keep me busy.

May 25, 2010

To Live is Christ — taking baby steps

Yesterday I had the privilege of visiting my four great-grandchildren. I know that I’m too young to be a great-grandmother. Nevertheless, two of my grandchildren have little ones of their own. It was nice to see them.

It was also interesting to observe their personalities. One is less than two weeks old, but obviously male and alert to his surroundings. The oldest is three with a large vocabulary, and hugs everyone. The two in the middle are both blonde and blue eyed, but not at all alike. One is contented and methodical, a real thinker. The other is a sharp-eyed and smiling imp. I enjoyed watching them interact with mom and dad, sometimes testing their limits and always learning obedience.

Today’s devotional verse is about obedience at a different level. It is for children, but the children of God — who can be adults. These children are those transformed by His Spirit and called to be like Jesus. 

As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance. But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do. (1 Peter 1:14–15)
Because of our sin nature, no one has to teach any of us how to be bad. Children already know how to disobey and misbehave. Instead they must be taught obedience. This is a challenge for parents and important for the child’s safety and growth.

For the child of God, learning obedience is vital to keep us safe too. It is also part of our spiritual growth, since our destiny is to be like our Savior. He was obedient and so must we be obedient. However, for us the leaving aside sin and doing as God says is one thing; being called to holiness lifts the bar.

I’ve never found a good definition of holy. Some say it simply means “other than” in that God is higher and more than we can imagine or describe. He is unlimited love and goodness, totally and completely without sin, light that has no darkness. My dictionary says that holy is moral and spiritual excellence. That means that He is calling me to a very high standard.

When I think of holiness as excellence in all things moral and spiritual, I know that I fall short. Without the Spirit of God living in me, and without the imputed character and holiness of Jesus Christ, there is no hope.

When I think of unlimited love and goodness, and those other high degrees of measuring God, I also feel small and inadequate. Who can be like God? Only with God living in me, only with Christ giving me His nature, only with God seeing me through that filter, then there is a sense of it, but this holiness is not mine. Holiness truly belongs to God alone.

When I think of holiness as “other than” or being better than what I was before He saved me, then I can see myself (only because of Christ) as on the bottom rung of a very tall ladder. If I compare myself with those evil desires that I had before Christ came into my life, I know that He has changed me. When I look back, there has been change and progress, a glimmer of hope. However, when I look at the goal, the target described in this verse, I cannot imagine it. How can God ask such a thing?

Yet He asks it, which implies that perhaps holiness is possible. I know that I will not be like Jesus until I see Him face to face, but this verse says that I can do better, that I can climb up a rung or two. Refusing sin and insisting on God’s high standards for my life are hard enough to muster, but the Holy Spirit is at work, urging more.

Besides His outreached hand, I’m amazed that God assumes this is possible. I’m to stop looking at myself. I’m not to give up simply because His target seems completely out of reach. He wants me to press on — like a little one learning to walk. Like a dad with a little one, He holds out His hand and urges me to take the next step forward.

May 24, 2010

To Live is Christ — with constant diligence

Yesterday’s message from the pulpit was a simple one. The pastor used 1 Peter 2:1-3 to remind us how we should grow in the new life God has given us.
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)
His three points spoke to me. The first is that I need to put away sin. I’ve been a Christian for almost forty years, and by now one might think this is a baby step that I’ve already made, but sin is a deeply entrenched human condition. Yes, Jesus died for it, and I am forgiven. Its penalty is taken care of, but its presence must be overcome. Salvation begins with forgiveness but it continues with a fight.

This list of sins is not comprehensive, but close. Malice is any kind of evil; deceit is hiding truth. Hypocrisy is holding a double-standard and having a lack of integrity. Envy is wanting what others have, and slander is backbiting, speaking evil about others behind their backs. As I listened to these descriptions, the Holy Spirit reminded me of violations, perhaps small in the eyes of some, but God does not measure sin by degree. I’m either innocent or guilty — and growth is hindered by guilt.

The second point was about my innermost desires. A person who is born again, or given new life through faith in Jesus Christ is like a baby, and babies crave milk, usually every few hours. In this case, the milk referred to is the Word of God. Am I like that with the Bible? Do I crave it as my necessary food? I know that I love to read it, but yesterday I thought about all the time that I feed on other stuff — that which does nothing for my spiritual growth and might even hinder it. Even though I don’t sit in front of the TV every night, the OFF button on the television set did come to mind. So did my computer.

The third point was about tasting the goodness of God. After so many years of believing in Christ, the goodness of God is like a feast. The pastor said that far too many Christians walk around as if God is dealing them blows. They have sad faces, are grumpy and complaining, and generally consider many of their life experiences a bit of a raw deal.

Early in my Christian life God showed me that He uses all things for my good, all things to transform me into the image of His Son (Romans 8:28-29). Because of that, I’ve learned that there is purpose in the tough times. This helps me with acceptance of trials and with looking for what God wants from me in them.

But I still complain. I complain about my duties. I complain about interruptions and trivia. I get annoyed when my plans are thwarted. I’ve tried to practice self-sacrifice, but at my control. When someone else needs something and I am busy . . . well, I grumble.

This phrase, “taste and see” reminded me that even in these “little” annoyances, God is still good. I’m to taste that goodness instead of letting my selfishness control my responses. I also need to remember that Satan’s original lie hinted that God really didn’t want good for His people. He still uses that lie to mess up the lives of millions. God is good. I’m to taste that truth, even feast on it every day, especially when tempted with those small annoyances.

This morning’s devotional reading is also from 1 Peter. It puts an exclamation mark on the sermon, first by reminding me that I’m still a child and not a grownup. I need the three points of that sermon, no matter how long I’ve been walking with Jesus. 

As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance. But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do. (1 Peter 1:14–15)
Sometimes I joke that I don’t know what I want to be when I grow up, but I do know. I want to be like Jesus. To get there, I need the Word of God as my guide book. I also need to put away all sin, knowing this is a lifetime task. When I think I have arrived, a good drink of spiritual milk will show me that I still need to grow. God’s Word also reminds me of the goodness of God and His holiness, the target for my life.

To live is Christ means constant diligence. Sin’s presence will vanish when I step into glory, but for now, I must battle it. I cannot do that without the Word of God and without continual awareness of God’s goodness. He has given me everything necessary to prevent my spiritual life from becoming stagnant, but I’m still a babe and I still need to desire growth and keep growing.

May 23, 2010

To Live is Christ — and impossible without Him

Biblical love is described as sacrificing what self wants to do what presently and eternally benefits someone else. That is how God loves us. This love goes beyond that of a mother who sacrifices her sleep to nurse a crying child, or a father who gives up a day at work to take his son fishing. This is eternal and holy God taking on humanity and sacrificing Himself so we might have His eternal life.

Love is on my mind. Last night we watched Celine Dion singing love songs. Her powerful voice and the words of the songs demonstrated the passion of human love, but even though emotions are involved, the love of God is not about emotions. The “passion” of Christ as He gave His life, in love, for the world involved deep agony, not the heady thrill of being in love.

The Bible word for this love is agape. The Greek language has another word, eros, for the love Dion sings about, and still another for the love of family. Today’s devotional verse uses agape, the love of God. 

And we have known and believed the love that God has for us. God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God in him. (1 John 4:16)
These verses are about the way God surrounds me with His love, but one statement in the reading makes me think about my love for Him. Do I give up what I want to eternally benefit Him? Does my love bring Him glory because I put my interests and desires aside that His name and His eternal kingdom might prosper?

A few weeks ago my Sunday class looked at other verses in 1 John that tell us, “Do not love the world, nor the things of the world.” It goes on to describe these loves as the desire for that which coddles the flesh, lines the pockets, and builds the ego, characteristics of our me-first generation. One person asked which word for love was used in this command.

I was surprised that it was “agape” — yet it makes sense. God does not want me to make sacrifices to gain those things. Those kinds of sacrifices are self-serving, not even close to the sacrifice of Jesus Christ made for me.

This agape love can be practiced in small ways. Laying down my life can include a literal sacrifice.  However, it can also include giving someone else the last coin in my purse so they can go to the mission field, or spending an hour in intercessory prayer for someone who does not know Christ.

Life is filled with many either/or decisions that involve “doing this” for me or “doing that” for someone else. Sometimes those decisions need prayer. What is eternally best may not be obvious. Simple choices, like giving that last piece of pie to someone else when I really wanted it, or helping a neighbor with her garden when my own needs weeding, do not seem to involve eternity. Yet my decision could have less to do with their eternal best and be more about me behaving like Jesus.

To live is Christ is about abiding in the love of God and choosing to let that love be part of who I am. It is a daily thing with moment-by-moment opportunities. It requires discernment and selflessness. Without Jesus, it is totally impossible.

May 22, 2010

To Live is Christ — secure in the love of God

Joy, a young woman who reads this journal, posted a video on her own blog. She wanted to explain the love of God to her viewers. I’ve been thinking about what she said and the difficulty of her task. The love of God is a rich and deep reality, yet many have no idea of this vastness. How can it be explained, particularly to someone who has not experienced it?
And we have known and believed the love that God has for us. God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God in him. (1 John 4:16)
This devotional verse gives one clue; knowing the love of God goes hand in hand with believing that He does love us. This is important because of the first lie that Satan told humanity. He made a subtle suggestion to Eve by telling her to eat the forbidden fruit. When she replied that God said not to eat it, Satan’s hook was basically, “But God really does not want the best for you.” In other words, “God does not love you.” Once that thought captivated her, she was putty in the devil’s hands.

Every time that I stop believing that God loves me, I am in trouble. For one thing, I assume (without even giving it any rational thought) that my ideas are better than His and that I am better able to look after my own interests. Things go downhill from that point.

Abiding in the love of God requires remembering that He didn’t merely say the words either. He proved His love by sending Jesus. Romans 5:8 says, “God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

Later, Romans asks this, “What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not with Him also freely give us all things?” (Romans 8:31–32)

The love of God is not about subjective feelings, although I sometimes feel totally embraced by His love. Rather, it is about His actions on our behalf. Jesus did not have to come and die for me. It was a choice made by grace, the choice of a merciful God who cared enough to suffer and die that I might be forgiven and live forever with Him.

Essentially, verses 31-32 say that if God would do that much for me, whatever else I might need or want is a given. He takes care of me. I feel often like God’s “spoiled brat” because His care is so amazing. Although He wants obedience and chastens me when I refuse, He also gives far more than I deserve, even more than I ask for or imagine.

The love of someone else can be measured by what they say and do, but it can also be measured by who they are. Some people are more “loving” than others. Yet God is the ultimate in that department. His love is who He is. Love, this self-sacrificing, wanting the best for others, kind of love is His very nature and character. As 1 John says several times, God is love.

If His love depended on my deservedness or me being lovable, I would not experience the love of God. The standard is the sinless life of Jesus Christ and I fall short, far short. In fact, that is what the word “sinner means.” In ancient archery competitions, if an arrow fell to the ground before reaching the target, the crowd would pronounce “sinner” in response. The fact of Christ dying for sinners is the greatest evidence, proof and description of the love of God.

Thank you, Joy, for encouraging me to think about these things!

May 21, 2010

To Live is Christ — focused on revealed truth

My dad once thought that if a moon bow (rainbow at night) ever appeared, that was a sign that the world would end. Then, when the children were small, my family saw a moon bow. The world is still here, more than twenty years later.

My tiny notion about the world ending is that God would bring judgment soon after human beings created a life form. This has apparently happened; it was the headline in this morning’s newspaper. Will the world end soon? My notion could be like my dad’s and be mere speculation. However, the “increasing knowledge” plus earthquakes and other phenomena predicted in Scripture add to the idea that Jesus will return soon. Things could drastically change in the near future.

Even if this down cycle passes, even if the world recovers from its climate changes, economic spirals, and odd weather patterns, I’m turning my heart to the constants. What God reveals as truth is always true. No matter what happens outside my window, I do not have to worry, panic, or even speculate.

Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God. And we have known and believed the love that God has for us. God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God in him. (1 John 4:15–16)
These two verses are part of my anchor. I know and have confessed that Jesus is the Son of God. God abides or lives in me and I am firmly secured in Him. I know and have experienced His love. I believe in His love even during those periods of life when it seems that I am not experiencing it. The love of God is who God is, so abiding in that love keeps me secure in Him, no matter what is going on in the world.

Whenever Jesus returns, the love of God keeps His people ready for it. We get whacked about by all sorts of events, downturns, adversities, and other negative situations, but none of this spells the end, because — for those who abide in Christ — there is no end.

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May 20, 2010

To Live is Christ — abiding in Him and He in me

The Apostle John wrote his first epistle (letter) to Christians who were threatened by false teaching. These new ideas were the beginnings of Gnosticism, upsetting Christians and making them feel uncertain about their relationship with God.

John assures his readers that they can know who they are, both objectively and subjectively. Christ died for our sins; that is a fact. If we acknowledge our sin and confess it to Him, then that is a good indication that we are genuine Christians. Other people seldom acknowledge sin, and even if they do, they will not accept Christ is their Savior.

Another test is our attitude toward one another. If we enjoy Christian fellowship, then that is also a good indication that we are genuine. False teachers have little regard for the children of God and while they might fake it for a time, their true intent eventually shows up or, as John says, they do not stick around.

They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us; but they went out that they might be made manifest, that none of them were of us. (1 John 2:19)
Another test is the abiding presence of God. This is very subjective, but nonetheless real. John describes it this way:
Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God. And we have known and believed the love that God has for us. God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God in him. (1 John 4:15–16)
I’ve written about this before. A strong connection exists between obeying God and loving others. However, the kind of love described in the Bible is not possible unless the Spirit of God lives within a person. No one can love others like Jesus loves others unless Jesus abides within. No one can experience or show forth the love of God without abiding in God and God in Him. No one can experience the abiding presence of God unless they confess the true identity of His Son. Therefore, genuine faith is linked to love and to the abiding presence of God.

False teachers today can be quite gushy about love as they define it. I’ve met those who think that all people are good and that everyone should be equally treated. It sounds good, yet I’ve not seen it put into practice by those who proclaim it. For instance, they become quite hostile against anyone who expresses a different view of that innate goodness of humanity.

In John’s day, the false teachers focused more on their somewhat complex philosophy. They looked down on anyone with simple faith in Christ and offered arguments against every major truth about His person and what He did. They said their esoteric knowledge was most important and the only redemption for the human spirit.

Wisely, John didn’t argue with them, but he did assure these Christians that they were on the right track. They confessed Christ as God’s Son, believed in the love of God and lived that love and faith in their daily lives.

Gnosticism came and went. Other false teachings have also come and gone. Where truth is, so also are lies and opposition. However, one day the source of those lies will experience the sentence given him when Jesus died and conquered death. At that time, God will separate the false from the true and take His people into His eternal home to abide with Him forever.

May 19, 2010

To Live is Christ — He does it all

There is an important correlation between guilt and love. According to the Bible, love is always the outward expression of obedience to God. That is, if I want to truly love others, then I must do what God says. His instructions will direct me into the right actions that express love as He defines it.

On the other side of this coin, guilt is the result of disobeying God. When I fail to do what He says, although I might not recognize exactly what I’ve done in disobedience, I am guilty. I usually feel guilty too, but feel it or not, guilt is present. Putting the two together, failure to love others produces guilt. Today’s verse, in its context, says the same thing. . . .

By this we know love, because He laid down His life for us. And we also ought to lay down our lives for the brethren. But whoever has this world’s goods, and sees his brother in need, and shuts up his heart from him, how does the love of God abide in him? My little children, let us not love in word or in tongue, but in deed and in truth. And by this we know that we are of the truth, and shall assure our hearts before Him. For if our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and knows all things. Beloved, if our heart does not condemn us, we have confidence toward God. (1 John 3:16–21)
As I read this, it seems to say that God promises assurance that I belong to the truth (to Him) because of evidence in my life of love for others. However, there will be times when I feel like I’ve not done all that I should. Then my heart will incriminate and condemn me. Then John says I must remember that God is greater than my heart and knows everything.

This adds further assurance. The implication is that my heart and my conscience are not the final standards of whether or not I belong to God. False guilt is one thing, but the more common reality is that I cannot and am not always able to love everyone. I fall short and feel guilty, but the ultimate basis of my relationship to God and my confidence with Him, is not my own steadfastness. Jesus has given me eternal life. When I fail, no matter how badly, God’s power keeps me from the onslaught of my own conscience. I do not need to fear, even if my heart condemns, because God is greater — He knows who belongs to Him.

There is a check and balance in this. Guilt reminds me that I need to obey God and keep short accounts with Him. However, God reminds me that even when I am guilty, my salvation does not depend on my obedience. I am saved because Jesus died for my sins, not because of what I do (or do not do).

Loving others is part of what it means to be a Christian, but that does not save me. Jesus does that saving work. Actually, Jesus living in me does the loving too. All I can lay claim to is that I often fail to let Him do His job.

May 18, 2010

To Live is Christ — ultimate lover

Romance novels are popular, but not with me. That tension of “does he (or she) love me, or not” isn’t as interesting to me as a who-done-it plot. I already know how to discern love. Discerning a culprit isn’t as simple!

Sorting out love, at least objectively from the pages of a story, is relatively easy. If my personal emotions are not clouding or confusing the issue, I know that love is not about words. Does the lover show it in actions?

Actually, Jesus gives the ultimate expression of love. This is stated in the context of my devotional verse for today.

By this we know love, because He laid down His life for us. And we also ought to lay down our lives for the brethren. But whoever has this world’s goods, and sees his brother in need, and shuts up his heart from him, how does the love of God abide in him? My little children, let us not love in word or in tongue, but in deed and in truth. And by this we know that we are of the truth, and shall assure our hearts before Him. (1 John 3:16–19)
Jesus proved that He loves us by giving His life for us, literally. While that literalness might not be called for in my lifetime, He still expects me to be willing to offer sacrificial love for those He places in my path. If someone is needy and I can supply that need, love will do it. Real love will cost me something and real love means laying down that something, whatever it is.

Loving self-sacrifice can mean giving just about anything. A moment of time on a busy day is just as much a sacrifice as a hundred dollars from a dwindling bank account. Giving up what I want or think I need is an act of love.

Not that love in action is unpleasant. Even non-Christian people know that doing things for others can make us feel good. However, the Bible isn’t talking about that as a motivation. If I only ‘love’ others because there is something in it for me, then I’m not loving them at all.

That self-focus is more like the ‘love’ depicted in most romance novels and in movies and television. It is generally a “feel-good, I love what she/he does for me” kind of emotion. The Bible calls for a love that goes far beyond that.

If asked to make a list of the things people have done to show me that they love me, the life and death of Jesus Christ would be first. However, there are others that stand out in my mind. When I was near-death as a child, in the middle of the night one of them was always in the big chair beside my bed, awake, watching me. The hospital was 25 miles from our farm home and I had three siblings. Being there was a sacrifice.

I remember a hand-crafted gift from a person who was too busy to have done this during normal hours. It must have been created after dark when the giver should have been sleeping. Not only was the gift perfect for me and a total surprise, that was a sacrifice.

Once, during a time in my life when I needed it, someone spent hours and days with me, asking questions and listening. That too was a sacrifice. I’ve had people spend money or time or energy to help me with projects or problems. These too are sacrifices.

Giving up something to free me so I can give to others is how Jesus defines love. It is putting their needs, sometimes even their wants, ahead of my own. It is getting up in the night to comfort a child who had a nightmare, but it is also reaching out to a panhandler who is far less loveable, but just as needy.

The kind of love that the Bible asks of those who are Christian is not possible without the input of the Lord Jesus Christ who lives in us. Without Him, I can love when it suits me, when it is easy, or even when situations call for it. Yet I cannot do this for my enemies, those who are offensive or offend me, or the people who simply are unlovable or do not, in my opinion, deserve it.

Jesus never let any of those things stop Him. In His perspective of what is lovable, everyone falls short. Our sin makes us ugly and unclean, yet, “God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).

To live is Christ by this definition means that I must rely on Him totally, and remember that I have a long way to go before His image is perfectly formed in me.

May 17, 2010

To Live is Christ — always a child

No one wants to be called childish, but I love how the Apostle John calls Christians his little children.
My little children, let us not love in word or in tongue, but in deed and in truth. (1 John 3:18)
Childhood memories include those times of feeling uncertain about what to do and relying on my parents to lead and instruct me. For a child that is a normal part of growing up and learning to make decisions. For a Christian, it is also normal, but it never stops.

With the new life of Christ living in me, many times I am uncertain if the strange or unusual thought that comes into my mind is mere fancy or from Him. Of course, His Word is the final say, but I don’t always have a Bible in my hand, or time to check out what it says regarding a particular course of action.

Besides, the Bible does not give particulars for every situation. Young people would like God’s written Word to tell them the person they should marry, what career choice is the best, and so on. Sometimes I want the Lord to speak loudly about my daily schedule or who to visit when or what I should say to a hurting person.

Instead of spelling out all the answers, God does offer principles. The one above is about matching what I do with what I say, and vice versa. This particular verse puts emphasis on doing. Other verses put emphasis on speaking. In any given situation, the child of God may not know for sure which is called for. Do I act? Do I speak? Do I keep quiet and not move at all?

Yesterday as I prepared to leave the family I have been visiting the past few days, the thought came that I should tell my cousin that I love him. This sounds easy and normal, but he is a retired chemical engineer, more than ninety years old, and seems guarded about feelings and personal things. Was this thought from Jesus?

I decided on the spot that it was. I know myself too, and if it were up to me, I’d have considered a hug enough. However, as I hugged and said goodbye, I told him that I loved him. He was startled, but repeated the words back to me. After I left and began driving back to Canada, I had the sharp impression that was the biggest reason God had me drive all that way in the first place.

The soldiers’ slogan, “Ours is not to reason why. . . .” is also the Christian’s slogan. God puts ideas in our hearts or a course of action on our path. He may ask for words or deeds or a combination. Sometimes we understand, but often we do not. Obedience isn’t about understanding; it is about faith in God’s wisdom.

My devotional reading says what we do reveals who we are. Following the voice of God even when it seems odd, or without reason, or goes against the grain of our human nature reveals that we trust Him and that we belong to Him. It reveals that we are His children.

Because of that, if anyone wants to say that I am like a child, as long as this is what they have in mind then I am quite happy to be one.

May 16, 2010

To Live is Christ — walking the talk

My cousins met me in a plaza in downtown Salem, Oregon. The location is a peace project that was built with input from their friends, a couple that came with them. They showed me a concrete wall adorned with a few dozen plaques. These contained quotes and peace slogans etched in metal. As I read the quotes and listened to them talk about these words, I wondered about the value of this project.

The same day, the newspaper cartoons had a strip about a couple of singles spending time with a married couple. The children were misbehaving and the singles told their parents to simply tell them to stop it. They walked away mystified that words didn’t work.

Even though it seemed obvious to me, the peace project people seemed equally oblivious to the power of human selfishness. Children want what they want when they want it. Mother and father can be patient (or not) with their screaming, sibling squabbles and mischief, but every parent soon learns the folly of simply telling them to be nice to each other and cease all their unrealistic demands. Words might have some impact, but they do not change a child’s heart or their wants.

I read the plaques in silence. Some of them had Scripture, but out of context and meaningless. They did not include the parts of the Bible that say the heart is deceitful and needs new life from God. None of them hinted that wickedness is part of the human condition. I mentioned that some people are not interested in being peaceful, but want what they want and do not care if others suffer. No one responded.

This is not to negate the power of words. Salesmen and preachers both know that well-crafted words can affect human behavior. Nevertheless, there is more to peace than telling people to be kind. The sinfulness of man cannot be changed without an act of God. It is as written in the Old Testament . . . 

So they come to you as people do, they sit before you as My people, and they hear your words, but they do not do them; for with their mouth they show much love, but their hearts pursue their own gain. (Ezekiel 33:31)
Jesus came, lived, died and rose again so people could be forgiven. Yet there is more. We need new hearts. The old sinful self, even forgiven, will keep on sinning, keep on serving itself. Unless God uses His Word to change a person from the inside out, words are just words.

As I read the plaques, I had another question on my heart. What was being done by these people to produce peace? Was this just a statement without any action along with it?  This morning’s devotional verse echoes my thoughts and speaks to me.

My little children, let us not love in word or in tongue, but in deed and in truth. (1 John 3:18)
I want to speak to my cousins about eternal matters. I know that they need to hear the Gospel, to hear about the love of God and His grace to forgive sin and offer us eternal life. But will words be enough? Will God give me any words? Or just words? Or will He ask me to do something that will speak louder than words?

The Bible says that faith comes by hearing the Word of God (Romans 10:17), yet when God spoke, He also become one of us, providing loaves and fishes, giving healing touches, and taking sin’s rap by dying on the cross. His words are powerful, yet He never spoke without taking whatever actions was necessary to prove that He means what He says.

May 15, 2010

To Live is Christ, making friends — and making enemies

For the past few days I’ve been thinking about the life that enhances or honors the Gospel. As I read the previous days verses in their larger context, the thought came to mind that being a Christian is not about being a “nice little Jesus person” who never offends anyone. Living like Jesus can go to the other extreme as far as the impression I make on others.
Only let your conduct be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of your affairs, that you stand fast in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel, and not in any way terrified by your adversaries, which is to them a proof of perdition, but to you of salvation, and that from God. 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 1:27–30)
To live is Christ will sometimes get me in hot water. It did Him. I’ve nor reason to expect or even hope for anything different. Jesus told people the truth. He did it because He loved them, even died for them because He loved them. I’m to have that same attitude of mind and same willingness to do as He did.

Being what God wants is not about who wins, or who gets the last word, or even being sweet as candy to everyone. It goes much deeper than popularity. Christians will make enemies. Paul even said that those who live godly lives will suffer persecution (2 Timothy 3:12).

Jesus did. This man who is God was bringing the world eternal life — no small matter — but they didn’t like what He said about their sin. They didn’t agree or want to admit that personal sin was the only barricade preventing them from having this life. They thought their heritage, their “goodness” and their history made them favorites of God. He told them otherwise, and for that reason they wanted to kill Him.

To live is Christ will mean creating enemies. Yes, I could make a good impression as a nice little Jesus person, but when God gives me any opportunities to speak the truth, speaking it with great love and in an attitude of sacrifice will not stop the truth from offending people.

Today I am with family who don’t know Jesus. One thinks she does; the rest are in darkness. Will God ask me to say anything? Will my conduct, including my speech, be worthy of the gospel of Christ? I pray it will be, regardless of the reception and regardless of any negative response.

May 14, 2010

To Live is Christ — proving my faith

The way that I live is a reflection of what I believe. If someone told me that I have little intelligence and no creativity, my faith (or not) in their words would determine several goals and activities of life. Besides, just by looking at the way I live, others could tell the strength of my convictions.
Meanwhile, live in such a way that you are a credit to the Message of Christ. Let nothing in your conduct hang on whether I come or not. Your conduct must be the same whether I show up to see things for myself or hear of it from a distance. Stand united, singular in vision, contending for people’s trust in the Message, the good news, not flinching or dodging in the slightest before the opposition. Your courage and unity will show them what they’re up against: defeat for them, victory for you—and both because of God. (Philippians 1:27–28, The Message)
Unity with other Christians and fearlessly contending for the Gospel are mentioned here, but I can think of several other connections between what I believe and how I behave.

For instance, I believe that I have eternal life. How would that be reflected if I continually feared death? I believe that God works everything together for my good, that I might become more like Jesus. I believe that He uses affliction to build my spiritual life. How would those beliefs be reflected if I struggled with difficult circumstances and fought for comfort and an easy life without trials? What would annoyance at everything that didn’t go my way I say about my faith?

I believe God is good and loves me. How could anyone know that if I did not praise Him and enjoy what He does in my life? I believe that God is sovereign and nothing is impossible for Him. How could anyone know that if I tried to manipulate all matters of life or seldom prayed for God’s help?

James wrote that faith without works is dead. He didn’t mean that I earn my salvation by what I do. That is clearly opposite to what the Bible teaches. Instead, he was echoing the ideas that are on my heart. If I say that I believe in Jesus Christ, then my life ought to show it. James said things like, “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?” (James 2:15–16).

James expects action from those who claim to know Jesus.  That means in all of life. When I wake up in the morning, my plans for the day ought to be a reflection of my faith. When I go to bed at night, I ought to be able to look back on the day and rejoice in God’s care. I also ought to be thankful that He gives me what I need to live as a credit to the truth He teaches me. If not, then I must question whether or not I genuinely believe Him.

One other thought from these verses: Paul told the church at Philippi to live for Christ whether he was there or not. I remember a quote that said, “Good manners are what you do when no one is looking.” It is the same for faith. I’m on a bit of a holiday, and as my daughter-in-law said, I get to make all the decisions. I could spend my time doing my own thing and no one would know — except Jesus. If I really believe in Him, then it should not matter who is looking. My faith is reflected in what I do — regardless of who sees or knows about it.

May 13, 2010

To Live is Christ — choosing my battles

This morning I realized that my hotel offers a senior’s rate but I had not asked for it. (It’s nice to not be assumed a senior, but I am Scottish!) So this morning I went to the desk and asked. It is 10% off, but then he said I would not get the free breakfast ($4.99) and by paying for breakfast, I’d only save five cents. I did the math, but said nothing. As I had my toast and juice, I plotted my protest. Then I came back to my room and read this: 
Only let your conduct be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of your affairs, that you stand fast in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel, and not in any way terrified by your adversaries, which is to them a proof of perdition, but to you of salvation, and that from God. (Philippians 1:27–28)
The first few words are not only about unity in the church and striving for the Gospel. They are also about practical living. The man at the desk could have ripped me off a few dollars, but in the same situation would Jesus demand justice? I doubt it. He might see the bigger picture, but He also knows that in the end, God evens things out. He is my Defender, the One who goes to bat for me. If I need justice, I don’t need to grab it by the throat. He will get it for me.

Besides, whatever I might gain by making demands usually turns out to be someone's loss. Jesus isn’t into the gain and loss game, or the “I’m right and you are wrong” game either. So instead of making an issue out of a few dollars and about being perceived as someone who cannot add, I’m paying my bill and driving on.

May 12, 2010

To Live is Christ — prayerfully dependent

These frustrating words, “I didn’t mean to do it,” often get me riled. Nevertheless, my Christian experience knows the contradiction between what I know I should say and do and what pops out instead. I want to live for Christ, but my sinful nature also wants to rule.
Only let your conduct be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of your affairs, that you stand fast in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel, and not in any way terrified by your adversaries, which is to them a proof of perdition, but to you of salvation, and that from God. (Philippians 1:27–28)
These are important words. The reason I want to live for Christ is not just that I please and honor Him, but that my life is a witness to others who do not believe the Gospel and even oppose it.

Today’s reading offers tidbits of suggestions on having worthy conduct. It says things like: honor God in the way you live; live the gospel; be the Bible; love as Christ would love; have the compassion of Christ; secret Christianity brings no one to Christ; be a constant advertisement for God’s love; let your actions toward others be hugs from God; and say only things God would say. I know those things. It is the doing of them that becomes a problem. I relate to Paul’s words:

For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) nothing good dwells; for to will is present with me, but how to perform what is good I do not find. For the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practice. Now if I do what I will not to do, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me. (Romans 7:18–20)
This spiritual battle is overcome only by the grace of God. He gives strength in weakness and power to live for Him. Because of His Spirit, I can resist temptation and be steadfast and unafraid.

Prayer helps. I sense the difference when people are praying for me. This is called spiritual warfare. Paul wrote about such spiritual battles and made it clear that our enemies are not flesh and blood (those who oppose the gospel) but evil spirits in heavenly realms. He wrote about the spiritual armor that God gives His people and said that the battle is prayer. We fight by, 

Praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, being watchful to this end with all perseverance and supplication for all the saints. . . .
Then he adds his prayer request. This is also my prayer request, particularly in the next few days as I will be with those who need Jesus.
. . . and for me, that utterance may be given to me, that I may open my mouth boldly to make known the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains; that in it I may speak boldly, as I ought to speak. (Ephesians 6:18–20)
I want to speak the truth for “faith comes by hearing,” but I also want to demonstrate conduct that is worthy. For both, I need to be filled with the Spirit of God and overflowing with the love of Christ and the grace of God. I ask for prayer to this end.

May 11, 2010

To Live is Christ — worthy of the gospel

Today’s reading is about behavior that adorns the Gospel. My first thoughts include actions of Christian love, kindness, doing good for others, being like Jesus, and so on. The verses for today give me even more ideas.
Only let your conduct be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of your affairs, that you stand fast in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel, and not in any way terrified by your adversaries, which is to them a proof of perdition, but to you of salvation, and that from God. (Philippians 1:27–28)
In Paul’s mind, the gospel is demonstrated by qualities are in my life whether anyone is watching or not. He points to unity among believers, contending together for the truth of the gospel, and doing so without fear. These qualities are not supposed to be put on or faked because someone is looking. They are supposed to be just there all the time, deeply embedded in our lives.

Unity, next to love, might be the most frequent command in the New Testament for Christians. This isn’t about a robot-like sameness where everyone thinks exactly the same thing (which is true of some cults), but together standing firm on what constitutes genuine saving faith. As Christians, we might disagree on many things, but if we are genuine, we will agree on how a person is saved. It is not by our works of righteousness, but by His mercy!

Contending together for the faith is a mutual effort to make this good news known. It is also about standing together against all who oppose the gospel. Again, we may not agree on all points of faith and practice, but Christians are to be ready to fight to the death for the truth: Jesus was crucified to save sinners and rose again the third day. He offers eternal life to all who trust in Him.

Fearlessness as a behavior worthy of the gospel surprised me at first. Yet as I think about it, this makes sense. If I really believe the Good News about Jesus Christ and salvation (and I do), then what would I fear? Can anyone harm me? After all, even death means life! The Bible clearly states why I have nothing to fear from even the strongest opponents of the gospel.

What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not with Him also freely give us all things? Who shall bring a charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is he who condemns? It is Christ who died, and furthermore is also risen, who is even at the right hand of God, who also makes intercession for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written: “For Your sake we are killed all day long; We are accounted as sheep for the slaughter.” Yet in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us. For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:31–39)
Marked by unity and standing together for our faith, Christians can be fearless. What we believe is from God Himself, the One who stands with us and for us. He is our strength and defense.

I can walk worthy, not because I am worthy, but because He has done all these things.

May 10, 2010

To Live is Christ — obedience even if blindfolded

Today’s devotional reading asks a lot of questions about me and what I think God would say I put Him as a reference on my resume. Those questions seem to contradict the verse that prompted them. 
For not he who commends himself is approved, but whom the Lord commends. (2 Corinthians 10:18)
Self-evaluation has some importance. I need to see when I have sinned so that I know when to confess my sin. I need to understand my spiritual gifts so I know where I fit in the ministry of our church. I need to know my abilities so that I avoid things too great for me, and know my fears and how I procrastinate so I will move out at the command of God without letting those things stop me.

However, this verse essentially says that patting myself on the back is futile and evaluating what I do is also folly. I’ve said things I thought were powerful, but those words had no effect on anything but my ego. I’ve said things in weakness and trembling, and was later informed that those were life-changing words for someone that heard them. How can I evaluate me?

Can anyone really know what God will do with a life that belongs to Him? Who am I to understand how He works? I’m supposed to obey Him. Whatever He asks of me may not seem as if it has any value at all, yet even when it does, He might not let me see the results or that value.

I’m a goal-oriented person. I like to see fruit from my efforts. Flailing away in the dark is not for me, but God doesn’t have to give His servants eyes to see the plan behind His commands or the reason He gives them.

Faith is about trusting Him when I can see and when I cannot. To live is Christ means that I obey my heavenly Father when I sense He is with me and using me, but also when He seems far away and I have no clue why He asked me to do this or that. Obedience is not about reasons or results, but about knowing that He knows what He is doing. 

Photo credit

May 9, 2010

To Live is Christ — letting God shape my life

In Bible times, there was no banking system like ours. They did not have paper money either. Their metal money was heated until liquid and poured into molds. When the coins were cooled, the uneven edges were smoothed off. Because the coins were soft, unscrupulous people shaved them closely. They might look okay, but they did not have full value. Cities like Athens had many laws to stop this practice. However, some honest money changers refused these counterfeit coins. They put only genuine full weighted money into circulation. These people were called “dokimos” or “approved,” the word used in the verse that I’m studying. 
For not he who commends himself is approved, but whom the Lord commends. (2 Corinthians 10:18)
“Commend” in this verse is a different Greek word. In our vernacular, it means to present, or to consist, or to put together. With that knowledge, if I were paraphrasing this verse, I would say, “The self-made person who tries to put his act together does not have the integrity as those whom the Lord puts together.”

The Message translates it this way: “What you say about yourself means nothing in God’s work. It’s what God says about you that makes the difference.”

That version makes the evaluation more of a verbal recognition rather than describing how a person might evaluate themselves (shaving off just enough to make him still look good?) compared to God’s evaluation that concerns being honest and a person of integrity.

Several other verses talk about being approved by God. He approves those who handle His Word with care and diligent study, using truth “directly and correctly” as the Holy Spirit teaches. As Paul says, I am supposed to:

Be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth. (2 Timothy 2:15)
When I am diligent and exert myself to use the Bible the way I should, God is pleased.

He also says, “Blessed is the man who endures temptation; for when he has been approved, he will receive the crown of life which the Lord has promised to those who love Him” (James 1:12).

This verse connects the ability to calmly resist temptation with a love for God. The verb indicates that enduring such tests with that love as a motivation will result in becoming a person that God approves. He wants me to have integrity, to never “shave the coin” to make myself look good, or have an unfair advantage, or be dishonest.

At first reading, I thought 2 Corinthians 10:18 was about getting God to say “Well done” but it goes beyond that. It is about letting God work in my life. It is having Him mold and shape me into the person He wants me to be without trying to cut corners or fool anyone. It is about integrity that comes through constant testing.

As James wrote, it is also about a reward. God shows His approval with the crown of life. Of course this is not earned as if I were doing the work. Instead, God does the work of making of me what He wants, then rewards me! At first this seems unfair, but it is not. When He is done with me, I am crowned with a life that fully like Jesus Christ. I may get the reward, but God gets the glory — all of it.

May 8, 2010

To Live is Christ — giving Him the glory

This has been a busy week. I will be taking a week’s vacation soon and want everything done ahead so nothing is piled up when I get back. Because I’m leaving the middle of the week, three Bible study sessions must be prepared for Sunday’s ladies’ class; one for tomorrow, one for next week so my replacement has material to teach, and one for the week after so I don’t have to squeeze it in after I get home.

Yesterday, I prayed for God’s help as I worked on the first two. He astonished me. They went together so easily that I was filled with wonder and even wept. I’ve been preparing Bible studies for years; this was abnormal and incredibly joyful. Only God could have made that happen.

As I read these verses this morning, I thought of yesterday, but also of all the times that things went well but regrettably, I took the credit for it.

But “he who glories, let him glory in the Lord.” For not he who commends himself is approved, but whom the Lord commends. (2 Corinthians 10:17–18)
Commending myself for what God has done is exceedingly arrogant. My devotional reading rightly says that when I boast, I need God the most. He is with the humble and contrite. I know that a proud person cannot expect God’s help. 
Thus says the Lord: “Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom, let not the mighty man glory in his might, nor let the rich man glory in his riches; but let him who glories glory in this, that he understands and knows Me, that I am the Lord, exercising lovingkindness, judgment, and righteousness in the earth. For in these I delight,” says the Lord. (Jeremiah 9:23–24)
This does not deny wisdom, might, nor riches. It just puts things in priority. Knowing and experiencing the Lord is far greater than being smart, or strong, or wealthy. Having Him in my life is worth far more than any other thing. This should be my greatest glory.

The verses in Corinthians clearly say that praising myself does not put God’s stamp of approval on me. Instead, He decides my worth and the worth of what I do. As I read, I wonder about “whom the Lord commends” and how does that happen? Is it that inner sense that God is pleased? Does He shout with a booming voice from the sky like He did when Jesus was baptized ("This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.")?

One way is through the praise of others. Proverbs 27:2 says, “Let another man praise you, and not your own mouth; a stranger, and not your own lips” yet even in that there is the danger of flattery. Human praise can be a disguise for manipulation and not always about God’s approval.

The verses from Jeremiah actually say what God approves. It is what He does, and clearly He approves when others do the same. That is, He approves of lovingkindness shown to others. He is pleased when I exercise godly judgment and am a righteous person. If I let the Holy Spirit fill me and direct me into that which is characteristic of Jesus Christ, God approves.

However, this goes sour if I am continually examining myself and looking for glory. For one thing, what do I know? I’ve taught classes I thought were good and no one said a word. I’ve taught others that seemed a disaster to me, yet people thanked God for what He gave them from that class. I have to conclude that the wisest thing is obedience. Then leave the results and the approval with Him. 

For I know of nothing against myself, yet I am not justified by this; but He who judges me is the Lord. Therefore judge nothing before the time, until the Lord comes, who will both bring to light the hidden things of darkness and reveal the counsels of the hearts. Then each one’s praise will come from God. (1 Corinthians 4:4–5)
In the meantime, I praise Him for being my source and resource, for helping me when I call on Him. He continually does exceedingly above all I can ask or imagine – to Him be the glory!

Art credit (also a great post about praise!)

May 7, 2010

To Live is Christ — who is fully God and fully man

When the New Testament was written, the Gnostics were still on the horizon, but some of their ideas were germinating in the minds of skeptics. They thought that spirit was totally pure and untouched by sin, but flesh was corrupt and evil. Therefore, Jesus who was sinless could not have been flesh, only an illusion of a person.

This separation of spirit from flesh was a lie that attacked the church later in great force, but Jesus knew it was coming. He affirmed His deity and His humanity many times. This translation well expresses one of those instances.

I am the Bread—living Bread!—who came down out of heaven. Anyone who eats this Bread will live—and forever! The Bread that I present to the world so that it can eat and live is myself, this flesh-and-blood self. (John 6:51, The Message)
Only God can offer eternal life. Only a real human being can talk about his “flesh and blood self.” While this is a most difficult concept to explain, everyone who has accepted His invitation knows that it is true. Jesus is God in human flesh, a perfect man but also deity.

Many comparisons have been made. For instance, a man can have children and be a father.  However, he also has a father so he is a son. However, this speaks of titles and function only. Jesus is more than that. His very essence is both God and man.

Christians know that God is one God not three, yet He exists in three distinct persons. I cannot explain how that is. After “eating the bread” of eternal life, I simply know that it is true. The best I can say is that this is a revealed thing, a truth that only God can impart to the human mind. Reason and explanations will not do it. Sinners need that Bread, yet sinners cannot reach out and take it. God must intervene or everyone is doomed, no matter what we think about Jesus.

That truth came home this week. We have a Jewish friend who is dying. All his life he has denied Christ and refused to talk about spiritual matters. We have been praying for him, knowing that only a revelation from God could change his hardened heart. On one level, I’ve had little hope, yet something kept whispering into my mind that nothing is impossible with God, and that it would be “just like Him” to change this stubborn man’s destiny.

This week, God gave my husband opportunity to speak to this man about Christ. More important, He also gave our friend a receptive attitude. When DH told him that Jesus is the Messiah and that he needed Him to forgive his sin and give him eternal life, our friend said three times, “I believe that you are right.”

Only God can make such things happen. He can open blind eyes, soften hard hearts, and give truth to those who have resisted it with firm determination. A person may hunger for living bread, even want to live forever, but sin keeps all of us from saying yes. Only God can change that and bring us to His banquet table with “I believe that You are right” on our lips.

As I continue to pray for our friend and for many people whose opinion of Jesus is that He was not real, not God, or not even human, I know that the Bread of life has been placed before them. “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son. . . .”

I also know that this Son who is God and man, and Bread, is not passive. He does not leave participation in eternal life up to a stubborn heart or a helpless soul, because no matter how hungry that soul is, sin will always say no to God. Instead, this Living Bread who is both God and man knows exactly how to get from only an offer on a platter to a reality in our minds and heart.

May 6, 2010

To Live is Christ — my Bread for Life

When God became flesh and walked this earth, He could have compared Himself with diamonds or other precious stones. Instead, He used the basics of life, familiar to every person: bread and water.

We can survive with bread and water. The idea spells hope for the destitute and those without any other resource. At the same time, knowing this humbles the wealthy. What good is money or position or possessions without the basics, food and water?

The bread in Jesus’ days was different from the bread eaten by most people in North America these days. Back then, most bread was made from starter dough like sour dough. It needed fresh flour and water to keep it alive. As long as it was alive, it could sustain life. This is like Jesus in that He is life, eternal life.

Their bread needed to “die” in the oven before it could be of use to them. Jesus, the Bread of Life, was put to death on a cross, which we needed before our sins could be forgiven and we could receive His life. But unlike bread, He didn’t stay dead. He rose to live forever, offering us Himself and His eternal life.

Several times He used bread to symbolize that offer. The symbolism is used in several ways. 

But He answered and said, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.’” (Matthew 4:4)
I am the living bread which came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread that I shall give is My flesh, which I shall give for the life of the world. (John 6:51)
And Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. He who comes to Me shall never hunger, and he who believes in Me shall never thirst.” (John 6:35)
Jesus is the living Word of God that speaks to me about my needs. He shows me that bread may sustain my physical life, but I need Him, the bread of life, for spiritual life. He is also the Bread of life that I need every day for spiritual sustenance, even every moment of the day. As I rely on Him, I am fed — not just sustaining spiritual truth, but that deep and lasting contentment, a sense of satisfaction that nothing else can give me.
And He took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is My body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of Me.” (Luke 22:19)
Not only is He my Bread of Life, but each time we celebrate communion or the breaking of Bread in our church, I am reminded of what Jesus did when He offered Himself as a sacrifice for my sin. His body was broken for His Body, the church, that we might have forgiveness and eternal life. We eat that bread with thankful hearts just as we received Jesus Christ with great gratitude. This church ordinance reminds me that He is my life, my sustenance, the Word that refreshes, instructs, rebukes, disciplines and teaches, the Bread that keeps me from spiritual starvation and empty discontent. His brokenness reminds me of my brokenness. As part of His Body, I too am broken, humbled and pliable in His hands.

Jesus is also my life. Without Him, I would be doomed to eternal death and separated from God forever. Yet with Him I have life everlasting and a never-ending, satisfying feast. He compared Himself to bread so I could understand all this. In the simplicity of the comparison, I also see that a loaf of bread, or even diamonds, could not come close to describing the wonder of who Jesus is or what He has done.